“Congratulations, Adagio! Alas, a foal! How overjoyed you must be!”
“Yes. Very much so,” Adagio tittered to the two teenaged ponies before her, one a young mare and the other a stallion. “The Duke and I are most fortunate, and I am most content.”
She took a moment to sip from a small goblet of cider that otherwise floated overhead in a beam of her magic. Her eyes cut across the ballroom’s crowd, and in that moment, a few things became clear to her: Firstly, only an hour into the post-ceremonial festivities, and Moonstone was already blitzed. Presently, she was stumbling about the center of the ballroom, hanging onto the shoulders of Lighthoof whilst trying to escape the conversation of one of her little nieces, a daughter of Violet’s. The white knight, somehow looking both amused and mortified at the same time, was attempting to drag her out toward the garden, probably for some fresh air. All along the way, his eyes locked with Adagio’s.
Don't you dare forget me, she imagined him saying. We have unfinished business to discuss.
“We’re so very embarrassed. Had we known, we would have definitely thought of a more fitting gift!” the teenage mare, Vista Vision, blabbered on to her distracted aunt. “Victor insisted on pearls as if you might not have had enough of those already. I told him that ponies with such superior tastes as ours couldn't be bothered with trinkets like that.”
The two never noticed Adagio rolling her eyes at them, far too busy with passing each other spiteful glances.
“I would have gotten you something in silk, and a lovely pink cotton… like the shade of my mane!” the vain young mare clucked with a flip of her long locks.
After passing her a disingenuous grin, this time Adagio’s eyes drifted toward one roiling corner of the ballroom where her sister Violet stood amongst her other five chattering, stomping, merrymaking children; Lord Vision had left her to the timberwolves, as usual. The distressed mare’s snow white mane had again fallen out of place whilst the gang of adolescents pulled and tugged at her gown. Her pearly pink eyes bore themselves into Adagio with fury from clear across the room, and her head strained in the direction of the refreshments table. The mare was angry, but what else was new? More importantly, she was trying to direct her attention toward something.
Glancing over toward the table, the newly made Duchess caught an eyeful of the most disturbing of scenes. ‘Round the refreshments, and floating about Upright where he stood boredly conversing with some old stiff coat, were a small collection of servants, one particularly bored-looking guard who stood a comfortable distance away with his eyes trained upon the food, a few scholarly youths intent on eavesdropping on conversations which were not their own, and lastly, a buxom collection of young and eligible noblemares. All of them were gorgeous, their teeth were pearly white. The Duchess could tell, of course, since they were all trying their damndest to gain the Duke’s attentions by laughing as loud as possible in response to commentary everypony knew for a fact wasn’t funny in the slightest.
Adagio scoffed, raised a brow, and took another sip from her cup. This all was to be expected she supposed.
Good luck, you throne-hungry harpies. You'd better your chances with the likes of Upright if you sewed an antique map of the Everfree and two gold bits to your hems.
Her eyes shifted back toward Violet who, upon seeing her sister’s lack of reaction, became even more incensed.
“Reinforcements!” she silently mouthed in Adagio’s direction. “Take care of it!”
Then again… perhaps Upright was worth a second look this evening. After all, this new surge of opportunistic ponies that, expectedly, all congregated themselves around Dukes such as he certainly weren’t ever something to ignore.
Her temperature began to rise. Just as she was urging herself to relax, she witnessed one rather bold and lovely pink earth mare clear her throat, and saddle up next to the Duke’s side. Naturally, she earned herself one of his most confounded of icy glares. Alas, this mare seemed more than determined.
Adagio’s goblet nearly tumbled from her magic.
And just who does that strutting innuendo think she is, exactly?
“A… Adagio? Are you alright? You look… sickly suddenly,” Vista mentioned somewhere amongst the background din the Duchess was currently ignoring.
“Do expectant mothers do that at times?” Victor muttered to his sister below his breath. “Turn all purple in the face that way, I mean.”
This statement quickly earned him a discreet kick in the hind quarters.
“Shut up, you idiot,” Vista growled, urging him to be silent. “You're upsetting her.”
The Duchess didn't hear this either. She watched on amidst a livid heat as the pink mare slowly leaned in toward Upright, beckoning him closer with one perfectly dainty hoof so that she might whisper something into his ear.
Adagio’s goblet went clattering onto a silver tray carried by a passing servant. The Vision siblings both gasped in shock at the sound.
“Y-your Grace?” Vista called out to the Duchess as she stomped away, blinded and deafened by fury. Coughing out her pardons as she shoved past finely dressed pony after pony, Adagio kept her sights locked on that stupid, gorgeous pink mare, and her stupid, stupid deep pink mane which, if all went according to plan, would go unraveling to the floor amongst bursts of ruby-hued magic in mere moments. If she happened to be feeling generous by the time she reached the dessert trays, perhaps she might decide against lighting the mare’s dresses aflame as well.
To be honest, in her rush, she couldn’t decipher what the source of her anger actually was. Perhaps it was the threat of being deposed. Then again, maybe it was the ridiculous amount of audacity it took for anypony to believe themselves her equal in beauty, brains, or talent. Surely, it couldn’t be that she was jealous. As things stood, there was hardly any quality of note within the Duke to be jealous for.
His face was now doing that thing it did when he felt caught off guard. Was that a tinge of red she could now see in his cheeks? No, she had to have been imagining things.
Oh, two sisters save me. He's stuttering.
The pink mare was now attempting to draw the Duke away from the table toward one of the many sizeable doors lining the ballroom. Adagio had never before explored the winding hallways beyond Canterlot castle’s ballroom doors. Yet, considering the numerous tales of suspiciously hasty weddings or lengthy vacations in the country that followed these cider and sweet-fueled castle soirees, one could make a decent guess about the types of things that took place in that “dark and shadowy” beyond.
A few more steps until she could reach out and touch him. Adagio felt her horn beginning to glow…
No you don’t, you silly little—
A strong foreleg caught her about the middle, hooked her into a tight embrace, and dragged her back out into the ballroom fray. She gasped, wondering who might dare to act so boldly toward her. When her gaze sank into a deep, purple pair of eyes, the shock quickly fell away.
“Is it true?” Prance murmured as he held her, cautiously feigning a slow step. The look in his eye was dark, brooding, furious.
“Lighthoof, now is not the time.” Adagio’s eyes darted toward the Duke as she saw him hesitantly pulling away from the pink mare. Naturally, the lovely earth pony playfully protested, and as they both turned, for just a moment, their eyes trained themselves upon Adagio and Lighthoof. The Duke’s expression as he looked at Prance’s sorrowful face was a confused one. The pink mare by his side worriedly leaned in to whisper something to him as she looked Adagio over. This time, the Duke’s expression calmed into a calculating one, as if something had just occurred to him.
“You're being reckless, Lighthoof. Release me! He can see us!”
“What reason do I have to care any longer? Has he not already won?” the white stallion pressed, sounding as if he wished Adagio would choke on his sarcasm.
Still staring off toward the Duke, she witnessed the beautiful creature by his side mouth something else to him. Whatever it was, it must have been quite convincing, because only a few moments later, they both disappeared through the farthest door of the ballroom.
“I must leave!” she protested, trying to tug her hoof out of the crook of Prance’s foreleg.
“No, Adagio! You tell me right now!” the white stallion persisted. “Is it true? Are you...”
“Lighthoof, please. You are putting us both in very grave danger,” she pleaded, choosing to relax into his grip and force a fake smile so as not to draw suspicion. “I will speak with you later on in the evening. I swear it. Just give me a few moments…”
From the refreshments table, she could now very clearly see her sister, Violet, peering at her from behind a hefty goblet of cider. There was something toxic in the purple mare’s gaze, something unquestionably spiteful.
I realize, Violet! One moment!
“The garden, Adagio. One hour,” Prance hissed, not even bothering to force a friendly smile of his own. “If you do not show, I shall be sure to collect assignment and make haste back to Greenwaters this very evening.”
Adagio froze, her eyes locked with his. She looked wounded and momentarily void of all other cares.
“Why do you threaten me this way?” she chuckled without smiling. “Lighthoof, tell me you do not mean it.”
“I grow weary of these games, Gio. It is time for you to decide what path your life shall take. Otherwise, you are only torturing us all, the Duke included,” the stallion groaned as he took a step away from her.
“Lighthoof, you are mad,” Adagio hissed, leaning in close. “I’ve told you many times before that I could never... It is a foolish and foalish dream, this plan of yours. Get it out of your head!”
The stallion said nothing at first. Instead, he passed her a wistful glare whilst turning to leave.
He was stopped by the gentle tug of magic upon his tail. Turning about to catch the golden mare’s eye, his gaze softened when he noticed an indescribable look of pain plastered across her face. Nothing was said between them for a moment. Eventually, Adagio bowed her head, and gulped down the lump stuck in her throat.
“I swear it. One hour,” she squeaked.
“From the looks of it, your ‘infallible’ marriage may require some immediate rescuing, but not the sort that any knight could provide, I fear,” he spat. “Run along now. Go salvage whatever is left of it.”
Gazing toward the floor in shame, she listened to these words and then to his hooves as they walked away across the marble tiles.
It took a moment to compose herself. Soon, the music started up again, washing her away amongst a sea of swirling gowns and laughing faces. Blindly making her way toward the door where the Duke and his “friend” had disappeared, she pushed her way through into the darkness, and gratefully allowed all thoughts of her sisters, her mother, the growing conflicts across the kingdom, and even Prance to fade from her mind.
Leaning up against a wall, shrouded in shadow, she bowed her head, and took a few deep breaths.
At what point had moments made of inner peace and quiet power become foreign to her? She was a Duchess, was she not? This was all that she had ever wanted as a child, and yet now she felt more than ever as if she was being swept away by stormy winds like some common nopony. None of this was the way things were supposed to be, but if only she could put a hoof on who was to blame. Who was it that had brought such havoc down upon her? Had it been her mother? The Duke? Lighthoof? Had it all been her own doing?
“Feh. Ridiculous,” she muttered to herself in the dark.
Crouching down against the towering stone, Adagio fought off the sensation of her insides cracking and falling apart. Refusing to fall prey to the demands of everypony save for herself, she decided that it was time that she acted like what she wished to be. Her ruby berry eyes pierced the darkness as she stood up tall.
I want love, and comfort, and control of myself… I want might, and power, and I want freedom…
By Bullion, these thoughts reeked of the essence of Moonstone.
I want… I want…
The image of something beautiful, and blue, and fresh flashed across her mind’s eye. The thought of the sea alone was renewing, though she didn’t understand why. It filled her with a new sense of power, and the fire built up inside of her belly once again. Though still weak and somewhat fearful, her backbone managed to straighten itself out.
I want that pink pony’s tail for a kitchen mop.
Without considering the consequences, she turned ‘round to face the long, dark hallway before her. It was lined with multiple doors: sparse chambers, probably meant for sick or ailing guests to rest off their various vices.
Making her way down the length of the dark corridor, and forcing her mind into a blank state, Adagio passed from door to door using a small bit of her magic to enhance her hearing so that she might detect the Duke’s voice if he so happened to speak. It took a few minutes, but from behind the twelfth door, she finally heard it. It being his laugh.
To anypony else, it would seem ludicrous to think that something as mundane as a laugh might breed anger and suspicion, but nopony else knew the Duke like she did. Upright never laughed, and when he did, it was usually at the supposition of the wit he gleaned in one of his boring books. For anypony living—a mare much less—to bring him enough joy in a single moment to inspire such a reaction was something that required immediate investigation.
Gathering her robes neatly about her, Adagio stood tall before the doorway. Strangely enough, she allowed her magic to fade so that any sound from within the chamber could no longer be amplified. What did this action mean? Did it mean she was afraid of confirming exactly what she suspected of them? No matter. The problem was going to be solved right now.
She raised her hoof to knock upon the door, and brought it forward. It froze only an inch away from the wood. The silence of the mostly emptied hallway prodded at her. The sound of her own heartbeat was hot in her ears. Something tickled at the corners of her eyes.
What is the matter with you?
She moved her hoof to knock once again, and once again it froze before completing its task.
Are you afraid of that manipulative, dull…
She heard a mare’s giggle from inside of the room. Something wet streaked down her cheek. Quickly, she blinked the rest away. Her head began to pulse, and the beating inside of her skull became like a crash. Slowly, she sank down to the floor into a heap of tears.
Are you afraid? You, Adagio Dazzle? What could he possibly do to you?
Now she was blatantly lying to herself. The falling tears created a dark, wet spot upon the front of her robes.
What could he possibly do? What could he… What will he do if I dare...
Her eyelids drooped, her mind sank into a deep darkness. Those cruel sounds of laughter echoed on in the dark. With one flash of magic, she deafened herself to them and waited in complete silence.
When the door finally unlocked about forty minutes later, the widening slit of inner light revealed a weary, golden lady standing proudly in the hallway. Her head was lifted, her ruby eyes swollen and red with evidence of hard crying.
The face that met hers was a lone, pink one, so beautiful and fresh and new. Adagio said nothing to her at first. Her eyes scanned the mare from bottom to top, studying the design of her clothing, the style of her mane, the intricate messages relayed by her jewels.
Upon catching sight of the newly made Duchess in the doorway, the pink earth pony’s soft and sweet green eyes went wide. A gasp escaped her, and her already flushed face went completely red. Her lips stammered for words. Before she could even begin her silly length of excuses, Adagio was already grimacing.
“Oh, my apologies, Your Grace!” the mare giggled as she performed a low curtsy. Her eyes glistened. They were filled with stars, and Adagio could only imagine which stallion had put them there. “Please, allow me to congratula—”
The loud, sickening sound of a hoof against flesh resounded off of the walls. Just as the pink mare’s words were cut short, a very clear hoofprint had been embedded into the side of her face. There was a sound of frantic rushing and hoofsteps from within the room, and in just a moment more, the Duke’s astonished face appeared in the doorway.
“Ada?” he gasped, blinking with disbelief at what he was witnessing. The Duchess’ gaze slipped toward him only once. Her eyes burned with a fury so unlike anything the stallion had ever seen that even he recoiled in shock. When the pink mare whimpered and touched her hoof to her cheek, the Duchess’ sights again fell on her.
The stupefied pony took a few deep breaths in an attempt to compose herself in spite of her shame. Her green eyes darted about as her mind churned and wrestled for clarity.
“Forgive me, Your Grace… I...I’m afraid I do not underst—”
There was a flash of a ruby red hue. It haloed itself about the earth mare’s head, and at once, her thick bundle of beautifully pinned pink mane came tumbling down about her into a disheveled mess.
“Ada!” the Duke hissed from behind the poor mare, his own horn sparking. “What in Tartarus’ name—”
More flashes of ruby, and then the sharp sounds of shredded silk and lace followed. Adagio’s eyes threatened to water again as she tore the mare’s fine robes and jewels apart piece by piece. The humiliated thing, stunned completely stiff, eyes wide with shock, could do nothing but stare off into the darkness, willing her lungs to gasp for air they no longer wished to breathe.
When all was said and done, and the pink earth mare stood before her in tatters, Adagio took in a deep rattling breath. Her mind was reeling. She didn’t know what she might say next, and didn’t care if she regretted it for all the pain this pony had caused her in only a few moments.
“Bow,” she commanded, her red eyes sparking.
The distressed lady, mouth hanging open in a silent wail, quickly fell prostrate before the golden one. Her forelegs opened wide into a supplication for mercy.
“F… for whatever I have d-done to offend you so deeply, Your Grace, I b-beg your forgiveness,” the trembling pony squawked. Her voice was drawn hoarse and ragged. “I-I am but a humble subject of the king and all of his peers. I...I beg your mercy. I beg your mercy. I beg your mer—”
“Shut your mouth, you filth!” Adagio barked, magic flashing about her. “Beg for my mercy as I scorch your fur from its hide!”
The poor thing was weeping so terribly now that she began to choke upon her words. Adagio’s grimace only grew deeper. She didn’t know whether she felt sorrow for the disheveled creature or just more disgust.
“What for?” she pressed.
“W… what?” the pink mare stammered.
“Why do you beg for my mercy? What is it that you have done?”
“I… I swear I do not know, Your Grace! I only—”
“Confess, you little—”
“Ada! That is enough!” Upright bellowed, stomping his hoof down upon the stone. The sound of it echoed off of the corridor walls.
The mighty pair towered over the whimpering heap. Their eyes were both filled with rage, and burned with words that they dared not say in front of the likes of gentry or the servants now scattered about the shadowed hallway. Every last one of the onlookers watched on in horror.
A beat of silence passed between the pair.
“Miss Themis,” the stallion finally beckoned to the pink mare, his voice dangerously calm, his eyes never wavering from his wife’s, “you must forgive the Duchess. Her Grace is, understandably, out of sorts this evening. You may take your leave. We shall call upon you at a later time.”
It took less than a second for the ruined mare to gather as many of her tatters and scattered jewels up as she could manage. Without another word, she then disappeared down into the darkness of the corridor.
Once she was gone, the stallion stepped aside, feigning courtesy to allow Adagio entrance into the chamber. Raising her chin, the golden unicorn walked through the threshold. She waited patiently as the door slowly closed behind her with a soft ‘click’.
Taking whatever spare moment she had to find her evidence, the Duchess quickly scanned the room, and discovered, to her surprise, that everything was in order. Not a thing was out of place save for an opened and half finished bottle of cider sitting upon a nearby table. It was joined by two near emptied goblets, and what appeared to be a letter whose seal had very recently been broken.
“How dare you shame yourself in this way?” the Duke hissed.
Studying him, Adagio noted that even his uniform remained as crisp and pristine as ever.
“Curious, indeed,” she murmured, narrowing her eyes at him. “Who was that mare, Upright?”
“I am your Lord, and you shall acknowledge me as such!” he bellowed so loudly that the golden mare flinched. “It isn’t your place to question anything that I wish to do or any creature that I wish to associate myself with!”
Realizing that he had lost his composure, the stallion bore down upon his shaking forehooves, and forced in a deep breath.
“That mare’s father is a chief magistrate. Since my father’s mishap, they have been keeping correspondence. Themis was simply delivering unto me his news. Ada, What is the matter with you?” he groaned, trying and failing to feign fresh calm. “You will go to her apartments on the morrow, apologize, and compensate her for that which you have destroyed.”
“I… don’t… care about any of that, Up-right,” Adagio growled, her horn sparking. “I want you to tell me now… Is she the one who has caught your eye? When did it happen?”
“When did...” Upright repeated in confusion. It took a moment, but slowly the nature of this accusation dawned upon him. When it did, the stallion’s blue eyes shot open wide. A choking noise escaped his throat as he shook the Duchess’ words out of his ears.
“You’re mad,” he chortled, the humor in the sound completely lost.
“Was it here?”
“Nowhere, you delusional filly.”
“Am I delusional?” Adagio muttered, her voice wavering. Though the corners of her eyes began to itch, she refused herself the comfort of more tears in this moment. “And what of that bumbling blue filly from the farmlands? The one who is always smiling and singing about dirt and cake, and begging for bits. Why do you continue giving them to her? Tell me!”
The Duke blinked. He had finally had enough.
“Ada, I shan’t tolerate anymore of these ridiculous accusations.”
“I want to know!” the mare screamed, rearing up onto her hind legs. Her horn beamed so bright that for a moment, it cloaked the room in a reddish pink. When her front hooves crashed back down onto the ground, one of the goblets upon the table went tumbling onto its side and rolling toward the edge.
Upright remained unmoved as the Duchess menacingly pointed her horn in his direction. Needing to appear as the perfect image of a perfect Duke, as usual, the stallion cocked a brow.
“I daresay, Ada, that your own inadequacies have finally begun to render you far too paranoid. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect these tremendous accusations couldn't possibly be fueled by paranoia alone. Is there perhaps… something you wish to tell me?”
Again, something struck her in the chest. That prodding, searching expression was spreading across the stallion’s face again. There was a rhythmic sound in the room, a small tapping. It nagged at her, grew louder, more irritating. When she looked again, a steady drip of golden drops was falling from the tumbled goblet into a puddle upon the stones.
Her muscles relaxed as she ceded that perhaps the Duke was correct. The guilty always spoke first, did they not? And had she not been the first to throw accusations of infidelity at him all whilst Sir Lighthoof awaited her in the—
She froze. Her tongue went dry. She had forgotten all about Lighthoof, and surely an hour had long passed by now. Yet, the thought of him in this moment of burgeoning guilt made her feel sick to her stomach. Once again, the Duke had been right about her. She was the one who was not fulfilling her duties, and she was the one who chose to torture herself for it by thinking that he might betray her in the same way she had done him.
So, why was she still so furious?
Adagio walked herself over to one of the cushions by the table, lowered herself into a seated position, and turned toward the unraveled letter upon the table. Collecting it up into her magic, she scanned the thing.
Something something the elder Lord… unfortunate accident… sun raising ceremony something… befitting compensation…
She sighed loudly, and closed her eyes. The letter floated back down onto the table where it quickly soaked up the spilled cider.
“My Lord… Permit me to ask something of you, and swear to me that you will tell me the tru—”
A goldenrod hoof was raised to halt her speaking. She obeyed, and waited for the Duke to take a seat across from her. With his magic, he pulled down two fresh goblets from atop the nearby, roaring fireplace, filled them both, and shifted one her way. Adagio recoiled in disgust.
“No. I shan't drink from that tainted swill,” she muttered.
It took a moment for the Duke to begin speaking.
“If I were to say I have never, would you believe it?” he inquired calmly.
Adagio thought about it, and only ended up more cross after concluding that the stallion knew her very well.
“No,” she sighed, shaking her curls. “Only because you have led me to believe—”
“Very well. If I were to confess to such a thing, what good would it do you?” he asked her next. There was an odd look in his eye, as if he were enjoying breaking her down this way.
“I would know the truth,” Adagio pressed, leaning forward. Her horn sparked as her temper waxed hot.
“Well, My Lady, it would seem that you are intent on believing that which you wish to believe, whether it is factual or not. But tell me, what good is a difficult truth when one hasn’t the power to change any of it?” the goldenrod stallion retorted.
Here they went again, around in the same old circle. Adagio sighed heavily, and lowered her head in exhaustion.
“Upright, not this again. Please.”
Surprisingly, this worked to momentarily silence the Lord. Even without looking at him, Adagio could tell that he was thinking hard about something.
“You may ask again.”
Her head shot up.
“What did you say?”
“I said you may pose your question again, Ada,” the stallion urged. “I will do as you request, and speak truthfully and earnestly.”
She studied him for a moment, quite unbelieving. Raising her nose, she huffed.
“Swear it on your estate.”
“I swear it on my estate,” he said without any hesitation whatsoever.
This was a bit surprising. Upright wasn't one to carelessly toss his words about when it came to his family or their property. He claimed he would tell the truth, but in that moment Adagio still asked herself whether it was at all possible to believe him. Ideally, a lie would cost the stallion his inheritance, as was stated, but in reality his promise meant nothing. He would lose nothing for lying to her, and there was no way for her to completely suppose the truth concerning this “matter”.
Then, was there any point in posing such a question to him at all? Such an opportunity could most certainly be put to much better use.
Adagio’s jaw unhinged, on the brink of words. Her eyes bore into his.
“W… why is it that you do not send reinforcements to Edinbridle? Is it… is it because your mother is an earth pony? Do you not wish for Sardhoof earth ponies to be injured? Or is it because Vision despises earth ponies, and you wish to spite him?”
The Duke looked a bit surprised. For just a moment, he appeared almost proud of her resolve to speak on this topic above all else. That look of pride quickly faded as he cleared his throat.
“No. Commoners are dispensable as soldiers, no matter their race. That is the unspoken contract they have signed to be granted the freedom to sustain themselves upon my land. And quite frankly, I do not care what Vision may think or do with his lands or his idiotic mouth,” the Duke sighed, raising his goblet to his lips. “My concern is for what is mine. That is all, and the truth is, Ada, that what is mine cannot withstand the pressures of a pegasi onslaught. Their warriors are vicious. You have seen what they have done to the nobles who come to Vision’s aid. By Bullion, nearly all of the northern kingdom is descending into cold, revolt, and madness. Would you have us added to that list? It is only a blessing that the King is wise enough to stay out of the matter for the time being.”
“To his own detriment,” Adagio interjected.
“You know nothing about the minds of Kings,” Upright quipped, swirling his goblet in a beam of magic. “I believe he is biding his time.”
“The north…” the Duchess pondered to herself, tapping at her chin. “Well, what of the Crystal Kingdom? Couldn’t the king request its aid? He has done so to squash skirmishes in the past, has he not?”
Now Upright appeared quite stunned. The pleasant look about his face transformed into a true, albeit small, smile. His body language relaxed ever so slightly, and he leaned forward toward her. Needless to say, this physical show of interest put Adagio on edge.
“The crystal ponies have never dealt in warfare, only love and affection. You should already know that,” the Duke posed, looking as if the entire conversation hinged on what the mare might say next. “The only fighter of note in that kingdom is the Princess, and her crystal heart is not a permanent balm for strife, not unless we wish to join her ever-widening territories, which I wouldn’t particularly fancy.”
“Perhaps you are suggesting that they all trek down to Edinbridle to deliver unto Vision and Debon Air a volley of affectionate embraces and pretty flowers.”
“And why not?” Adagio quipped with a shrug and a sly smile. “Vision appears to be in great need of every hug and blossom he can acquire. Did you see the looks he received this afternoon? No wonder the poor thing departed for home promptly afterward.”
Her heart leapt to hear the sudden sound of the Duke chuckling. Afraid to halt the momentum of the conversation with any foolish or riling remark, she thought to herself again. She wanted to say something of use now, something that would encourage him to perhaps see her as a formidable mind, maybe even an equal. Her thoughts immediately fell upon Moonstone and her tales from earlier on that day.
“What if there was an agreeable pegasus warrior? A commander, perhaps, that was willing to discuss matters?” she inquired, her smile fading.
The Duke scoffed.
“Ludicrous,” he spat, rolling his eyes. “There is no such a thing. A commander is made a commander for their prowess with viciousness. No commander would rather speak than fight.”
Adagio’s lips tightened as something buzzed in her brain. There was an opportunity hidden here somewhere, an opportunity to get everything she currently wanted out of the Duke. But what, exactly, should she say? How could she ensure that he would not simply write her off? Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she finally raised her own goblet toward her lips. Staring intently at the stallion’s face, she shook her head.
“I beg to differ,” she murmured before taking a sip.
It took a moment, but Upright eventually caught on. His eyes went wide, and his goblet nearly went clattering down onto the table.
“Ada…” he coughed. “Do you know a commander? Have you spoken with one?”
She said nothing at first, enjoying the drawing out of the pregnant silence. For once, it was Upright who looked to be on edge. The mare lowered her goblet back onto the table, and looked her husband in the eyes, trying her best not to smile victoriously.
“Tell me, Upright, my love, have you indeed been faithful to me?” she inquired, her voice curling like a songbird’s. She gulped when his entire expression darkened and folded into itself. It would seem that brief glimmer of affection had dissipated.
A heavy silence passed between them both. The Duke was grinding his teeth behind his lips again, clearly resentful of her cleverness. Still, Adagio wondered how much that resentment did or did not overpower his desire to find a solution to whatever threatened the kingdom.
“Yes, Ada.” He seemed to choke on the words. “I have. Upon my estate, that is the truth. I have no time for anything else save that which is required of me.”
Adagio did not feel anything within her heart shift or change upon hearing these words. She frowned with disappointment. It was now Upright’s turn to look smug.
“What is the matter, my love?” he cooed. “Do you find my reply insufficient? Are you still worried? I couldn't imagine why.”
In that moment, Adagio knew that the avenue for all conversation had been closed. She gulped down another bout of screaming and cursing, choosing to stand up tall and take a deep breath instead. Perhaps there was still time to…
“About the commander—”
“No, Ada, I've heard enough from you concerning such matters, I think,” the Duke stopped her, quickly finishing off the contents of his goblet, and standing as well. “But now, I would like to ask you a question of my own.”
Adagio’s eyes went wide. It took a few seconds to regain control of her face.
“Will you answer truthfully, Lady Duchess?” Upright inquired, rounding about her like a wolf poised to pounce.
“Of course!” she laughed, suddenly sounding as if she had raced a mile. “Ask it.”
“Have you been faithful to me?”
The question caught her off guard, and in a moment, she felt her under robes all go damp with sweat. Though she forced her mannerisms calm, the golden mare could not fight off the flush now overtaking her cheeks. Had this inquiry been inspired by something the Duke had seen between herself and Lighthoof?
Blast. She was taking too long to reply.
Please, if nothing else, Adagio, do not falter now.
“Yes. Always, My Lord. I swear it upon all that I love and hold dear,” she lied, gazing straight ahead, perhaps into oblivion. Her pounding heart counted off the seconds it took for the Duke to stop studying her face, searching for lies. Whatever it was he saw there, he did not say. Only a moment more, and he settled away from her, turning to exit the room.
“I will see you in the ballroom, Ada. We have yet to share a dance, and we shan’t deprive the other guests of a sight so befitting this momentous occasion, correct?” His tone was flat. The sound of it tugged at her brain to pay attention, but she was far too exhausted to heed her own good advice. Fatigue had taken hold, and want for a bit of relief now consumed her. Unfortunately, Lighthoof was more than likely gone, Moonstone was probably laying unconscious somewhere in the garden amongst a host of feathered barbarians, and there was no ocean or sea for miles. That left only one avenue open in her quest for peace of mind.
Taking a deep breath, Adagio squared her shoulders, and passed the Duke as defiant a glare as she could muster.
“Yes, My Lord, but first, I wish to give thanks to the king and his subjects in my own way.”
It took only a moment for Upright to decipher what she meant. He shook his head.
“No, I don't think so, Ada. Not tonight, and most certainly not if His Majesty has not requested this.”
The golden mare’s head drooped low.
One thing. One single thing was all she had left to bring her happiness on a day that should have been filled with nothing but. Naturally, the Duke was so very hasty in his attempt to snatch it away. She was tired, and of course there was no use in arguing with him. Thus, she simply chose not to argue at all.
“I am at your beckon call, My Lord. You may command me as you please,” she replied calmly, rising to walk past him and through the door, “except in this matter. For, no noble, not even the King, My Lord, has the power to dissuade a pony from the innate gifts of their mark.”
She waited for that stubborn, tight-lipped look to stretch across his face before exiting into the dark corridor. An hour and a half had passed them by.
For all of her efforts marching around in this endless battle of cunning and secrecy with Upright and Lighthoof, in the end, it had all equaled out to the same thing: She had lied to them both.
Her hooves dragged as she entered into the light of the crowded ballroom, and stumbled her way toward the nearest cider-toting servant. She avoided the gazes of everypony she knew as she went by, especially Violet. The day’s theme—subjugation—had made itself absolutely clear to her. Indeed, there was nothing left to do now but drink… and one more thing…
There was still one area in which nopony could possibly compete with her, one way in which she could be the force of power that she wished to be. Amongst all of these smiling faces, the golden mare now felt determined to mold the evening into something more empathetic to her troubles. She refused to suffer alone.
Faceless figures swirled about her as she made her way toward the bottom most step of the raised platform where the King and Queen reclined. Tossing her emptied goblet somewhere off to the side, she gave both of the confused royals a low bow, and then turned to face the crowd, not worried in the slightest that they might stop her. A few of the savvy halted their dancing at once to turn and face her. A rush of murmuring encompassed the room as eyes moved her way, pair by pair. The greenhorns in the crowd did not cease their merrimaking until urged to by the others.
Closing her eyes, she allowed waves of emotion to wash over her. For, whilst her world and the ponies in it did often prove callous and greedy, in this particular moment, in this space, she knew that her feelings were now the only ones that mattered.
A profound sadness took hold of her and budded as she contemplated the day. It blossomed and grew thorns as she looked again upon the spoiled and sybaritic hoard before her. Was this really what she had wanted to become after all? One of these rotten things? And if so, how very sad that was indeed.
The thorns inside of her grew longer, pierced her, and burned in the spot between her chest and neck. Something beautiful cracked open inside of her brain and swelled. Suddenly, all of her frustrations came pouring out into one, definitively gorgeous sound.
Gilded bird in a gilded cage.
Does she figure herself fortunate,
And oh supremely grand?
Knows not hunger nor wind nor rain,
A jewel set in a golden band.
The air seemed to thicken, the lights appeared to dim even though nothing had changed at all. One by one, bodies turned and began to sway in time to the Duchess’ somber melody. Adagio smirked as the irony in her words was lost on the decadent congregation. Some part of her had wished that it wouldn't be, but she still wasn’t surprised that it was. What was one to expect from a room full of ponies glad to be held prisoner by their own riches?
Give me your song, pretty one.
Night and day,
Day into night,
Her chorus expanded to pack the room as well as every heart. When all heads had filled themselves to the brim with her intoxicating melody, they turned toward one another, and began to dance. Even the royal musicians, eyelids heavy in their daze, were compelled to pick up their instruments and play as if they had known the song all their lives.
Painted bird in a rusting cage,
Why ever would you suffer a freedom,
Filled with toil and woe?
It’s here you are safe and here you shall know,
A life of bells and beauty.
They all moved, twirling round and round as if in a trance from which they might never wake. Looking out upon them all, Adagio spied the seven Vision children and their mother, her own mother and father, the entire Goldenstalks clan save for the sickly elder Lord, and the servants going around like nothing else in the world mattered. Even the king and queen had slumped down into their thrones in a euphoric stupor. In the Duchess’ opinion, they were all now made perfect mockeries of themselves.
The only ponies missing from the fray were Lighthoof, Moonstone, and not surprisingly, Upright. As usual, he had taken this opportunity to show her how very little he cared for her gift of music by stepping away into the garden. Pity. Surely, their marriage would get along a bit more smoothly had he chosen to indulge himself in her voice every now and then.
Give me your song, oh, pretty one.
Night and day,
Day into night,
Oh, foolish lark,
Adagio smiled. She still couldn't put her hoof on why her songs seemed to hold such a sway over other ponies, but at this age, after years of using her voice, it was a fact difficult to ignore. Considering her mark, it wasn't far fetched to suppose that this was her special talent at work. However, every time she looked upon the abnormally powerful effects of her song, she couldn't help but suppose that the reasoning behind these abilities was something far greater.
The music rolled on.
Satisfied with herself for the time being, she raised another goblet, and moved to step off of the platform. The melody of her song continued to hang heavy in the air as the court musicians continued to play. Its rhythm rolled about inside of her chest, making the odd mark beneath her robes itch. Hopefully, all those in attendance would continue to dance and leave her be for as long as the sensation lasted. Perhaps now was a good time to retire to her chambers.
A flash of golden light in the middle of the ballroom floor halted her thoughts, and suddenly she felt the warmth of her song draining away in a manner she had never felt before. Something in her spirit was offended at the sensation of this foreign and overbearing power. The fur upon her back raised, and a primal sense of caution consumed her. She recognized this feeling from earlier on in the day.
Before she could turn to see what the source of the light was, she heard the grumblings of a mass of shaken ponies waking from their trance. Those grumblings turned into gasps as through the swiftly parting crowd, two ethereal forms—one white as a cloud and one dark as midnight—made their way to the center of the floor, sat, and waited. It took only a moment for Adagio to realize that they were waiting for her.
The room was under a different kind of magic now. Even the unicorn king himself dared not interfere with the wishes and whims of the ancients. Clearing his throat to catch Adagio’s attention, he urged the golden mare onward.
Curtsying obediently, the Duchess put down her goblet, inhaled some courage, and made her way toward the two alicorn sisters. All eyes were on her as she stood before them. Nopony else dared get so close.
The two were not yet fully grown, both appearing to be teenagers, and Adagio found it odd that she was the one who need look down upon them. The one she recognized as Celestia was nearly as tall as she was, and a pretty looking thing that appeared incapable of wearing anything except for her white gossamer gown and an impish smile. Her younger sister, Luna, was a tad shorter, and for all her deceptive youth, was as serious as the grave.
At once, Adagio became aware of the many curious eyes upon them. She had never before met alicorns. Not many did. Even spying one from a distance was already a sign of immense good fortune. However, she was still a Duchess and the peer to a king. These two were not. Still, everypony present could feel by the sheer amount of magic radiating off of them that perhaps they were something greater.
Her knees bent hesitantly again and again as she tried to figure if she should bow to them or they to her. She performed this motion many times until her cheeks began to go red. As if recognizing her dilemma, the two sisters, in tandem, shook out their wings to full widths, and gracefully lowered themselves to the floor. The entire room went silent and breathless. Even Adagio felt her heart skip a beat.
When the alicorns rose again, they said nothing. Celestia’s pink eyes bore into her, slowly moved to the hyacinth pin upon her collar, trailed downward toward her flat underbelly, and then back up to knowingly meet her gaze. That mischievous grin brightened.
“Play on, please!” the white alicorn begged the court musicians who made haste to oblige her. The music was booming and beautiful, though no one dared dance at a time like this. Ignoring them all, the elder alicorn began to sway. Luna, clearly not fond of such pastimes, retreated a few steps backward. She still watched them both from a distance.
“I'm afraid my sister isn't one for dancing, but I've always wanted to try it with a partner,” Celestia chirped, twirling about in place. The childlike timbre had yet to leave her voice. “I've been practicing, you see. For almost thirty years now.”
“Y-you have!” Adagio coughed, not knowing what else to say.
“I don't know many court dances. To be quite honest, I'm much more fond of country steps,” the white alicorn giggled, skipping a circle around the Duchess. “Still, I think I know enough for a Quadrille. Would you dance with me?”
Though the loose and casual mannerisms of the alicorn seemed rather undignified to everypony present, the smile upon the white mare’s face was infectious and eventually put the room more at ease. The Duchess, however, remained tense. She sighed out a nervous laugh of her own, and graciously nodded her head.
“My younger sister loves those country dances. It is only a shame that she has tuckered herself out before being allowed the privilege of meeting you.”
“She does?” Celestia gasped, her smile going far too bright for dignified company. “Then I’ll be sure to call upon her some other time. My sister only likes to read and frown, so I never have a proper partner.”
Celestia turned toward Luna to jut out her tongue. Almost as if expecting this, the dark mare returned the offense in kind, rolled her eyes, and looked away. Immediately, Adagio’s mind fell upon her husband whose mannerisms resembled the younger alicorn’s quite a bit.
“Not one partner you say?” the golden mare asked.
“Not many fancy a dance with a pony like me, as you could probably imagine,” Celestia grumbled. She narrowed her eyes in Adagio’s direction.
“I can empathize with you, I think,” the Duchess tittered. She then turned about to face the court musicians, and raised her foreleg high. “A Quadrille!”
As the two slowly rounded about each other, all worries for the improperness of such a sight fell out of Adagio’s mind. Yet something about these alicorns still filled her with a sense of apprehension. A part of her felt threatened and bare in front of the two. She didn't know what it was that they saw within her, but she did know that they were absolutely intent on being nosey about it. These strange, timeless creatures, hiding behind the faces of mere fillies, were yet another thing to be closely watched.
“I'm nearly a century old, in case you were hesitant to ask,” Celestia murmured as if reading the Duchess’ mind. “Luna is only eighty-five, and yet takes herself so very seriously.”
The alicorn kicked up the hem of her pure white robe, and spun about to round in the other direction. Adagio matched her movements step-for-step.
“F-forgive my lack of understanding, Celestia,” she stammered, unsmiling. “This is my first time meeting an alicorn. Your kind is very difficult for me to comprehend.”
“Mm. The Queen has informed us that others might feel this way. And then she stuffed us both behind that dreadfully hot screen in her Grand Hall,” Celestia tittered, flipping her flowing mane over one shoulder.
“Great Hall,” Adagio corrected sheepishly.
“Oh. Pardon me,” the alicorn giggled. “Regardless, I do stress that you needn’t feel worried by our presence. Alicorns are still very much present in this world as they have always been; just not in the spaces of ponies like you. Most of our kind choose to remain on the far—”
Luna cleared her throat loudly in an obvious attempt to gain her sister’s attention. Celestia’s head whipped about to look, and when she did, the younger alicorn passed her a strained glare. The white mare giggled, pressing a hoof to her lips.
“Pardon, once again,” she laughed. “My sister is inclined to believe that we mustn’t speak too much about our kind with… well… you know.”
Another twirl, and then the white alicorn leaned in to whisper something.
“But between you and me, I've realized that everypony already knows the alicorns reside near the peak of the mountain’s far side. Literally, they teach fillies that sort of thing in school along with grossly exaggerated lessons on alicorn biology, of course. I'm quite certain that I don’t plan on feasting upon foals every thousand years to upkeep my looks. Yet everypony keeps staring at the both of us as if… well...” She shrugged and laughed, moving away to give herself more room to dance. “Besides, we two aren't the only strange things to happen to this kingdom as of late. We aren’t even the only strange ones in attendance at the ball this evening.”
The alicorn passed the Duchess a knowing wink. Adagio could feel an impending explanation coming on—not to mention, the alicorn’s smile grew even brighter—so she chose to wait. Sure enough, a few moments later…
“The bad dreams have a source, you realize,” Celestia stated as she swayed. “All of the warring as well.”
It took a moment for Adagio to realize what it was she was talking about.
“Do they? Is it perverted magic like everypony says? Do you know how to stop it?”
“Not quite,” the white mare went on, humming merrily to herself in between her words. “Tell me, My Lady, do you believe in spirits?”
The question caught the Duchess off guard.
“Yes, I… Well, I… Errm… I suppose I do.” She thought to herself for a moment. “Is… is that not what you are?”
Celestia burst out into a bright and hearty laughter.
“Spirits, no,” she chortled. Her reply was left at that, leaving Adagio feeling embarrassed for having asked her the question at all.
The dance went on in silence for a moment, Adagio not knowing what more she might possibly speak about with the likes of a creature such as this. After a while, Celestia huffed and passed the golden mare a wide grin.
“When shall you tell your husband that there is to be no foal?”
For the first time that evening, Adagio’s steps faltered. If it wasn’t for Celestia catching her with a single, powerful wing, she would have fallen straight onto her face.
“N...n… How do you know that?” the Duchess stuttered.
The alicorn did not reply, choosing instead to twirl in place.
“You know it is only going to get worse for you the longer you wait. You wouldn’t want to bring such disharmony upon your household, would you?” the white mare giggled as if completely detached from understanding the severity of her words. “Shall we tell him together?”
Adagio said nothing. For a moment she stood still, studying the mischievous creature before her with disdain. That feeling of apprehension was quickly turning into spite.
“Now I understand why I felt so very inclined to dislike you,” the Duchess huffed, refusing to move another inch. She turned her head away in a show of disfavor. “I don’t wish to dance with you any longer.”
“Oh, come now Lady of Sardhoof. Don't be that way,” Celestia bleated, rounding about her again. “There is still so much left for us to discuss.”
“Is there?” Adagio tittered, inspecting a pristine hoof.
“There is, indeed,” Celestia chuckled. “Don't you care to speak on our shared visions?”
“No,” the Duchess blurted instinctively. Then, she decided to actually ponder the question. Those images of night, and crashing, and screaming were blood-curdling to say the least. It would be a lie to say that she didn't wish to know what it all meant—and she had already done enough lying to last her an eternity.
“Y… yes. What do they mean?”
She stood there, anxiously shifting her weight from leg to leg, awaiting the alicorn's response.
“I'll be damned if I know,” Celestia sang mischievously as she twirled. “What I do glean is that we are meant to be aware of one another. Our story together is not finished after tonight, My Lady, and I sense it shan’t be for quite some time. Would you happen to know why this is?”
“Me? Why would I know such a thing?” Adagio crowed, pressing a hoof against her chest. The volume of her voice caught the attention of the onlooking crowd who then began to murmur.
“You had better dance and keep quiet, My Lady,” she suggested. “Wouldn't want to raise any suspicions about the nature of our conversation, would you?”
The Duchess grimaced. This alicorn was certainly past getting on her nerves. Immortal or no, she refused to be spoken to in such a way. Inhaling some calm and stepping out with one hoof, she continued the motions to their dance.
“I don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about. I cannot wield magics like yours. Nopony can. If there is some connection between us, only an alicorn would be powerful enough to—”
“On the contrary, My Lady,” Celestia interrupted, directing a hoof toward Adagio’s chest, right above the hidden spot where her birthmark sat. “You wield something far more powerful than any unicorn I have met before. I sense that you know this. You simply will not admit it.”
For a second time, Adagio was stunned into stillness.
“Your song—What is the magic behind it, I can only imagine?” the alicorn inquired, her dancing slowing down to a sway. Apparently, she had finally gotten around to the topic which she so desired to discuss.
“Th… there is no magic in my song save for the magic that any pony's special talent might contain,” Adagio stammered, truly confused.
“Oh, don't be so modest, Adagio Dazzle,” Celestia pressed. Her mischievous smile had all gone away, and for the first time Adagio could sense the power, age, and wisdom sitting behind those deceptively young eyes. “I know there is something to your song, and so do you. Your magic, whatever it may be, has something to do with my sister and me. The only reason we trek so very far from home is to learn more of our many strong inclinations and visions. This is why we have come all this way to see you, after all. Surely, you’d agree that we have a right to know what this all means.”
For the Duchess, her own suspicions about the nature of her voice had now practically been confirmed by these two ethereals. Still, that didn't make understanding her gift any easier. ‘Sing and watch them all dance whenever you please’ was the general rule on it. If it extended beyond that, Adagio had no clue about it. What she did know, however, was that she refused to be intimidated into responding about it out of fear.
“Y...you seem tense, Celestia. Quite forward all of a sudden,” the golden mare stammered, trying to muster up some courage. “Might you feel that there is some reason to fear me?”
Celestia’s eyes went wide, and she recoiled ever so slightly. As if having heard it all, Luna passed the back of her sister’s head a nervous, tight-lipped look.
“O-of course not,” the elder alicorn stuttered. Now it was she who was speaking loudly and fumbling about her hooves. “What a preposterous thing to say. What should we two have to fear from the likes of you? Nothing at all!”
Adagio’s face broke out into a grin. It was made clear that nopony had ever dared to speak to the alicorn in such a tone. She was obviously not used to replying to such bold accusations.
“I should think that you are correct, what with your being far older and wiser than I,” the Duchess sighed with finality. “There is nothing you should fear from me.”
By this time, the both of them had stopped their dancing. Celestia's jovial mannerisms had now gone all rigid and grim. Her facade had fallen away to reveal something resembling a petulant teenager, scorned.
“If you will excuse me,” Adagio murmured, taking a step backward. “I do believe the Duke is awaiting me in the garden.”
She curtsied low so that no pony who witnessed it might say that she had been disrespectful to the alicorns.
“It has been an honor,” she tittered, feeling proud of herself.
“Y… yes,” Celestia replied as Luna approached to stand beside her. “Likewise.”
The two of them did not even wait for Adagio to turn and walk away before they began to chatter into each other's ears. Their horns sparked in the dim light as whatever they could not say out loud was transferred by way of magic.
Too tired to care, and set on leaving them to their worries, the Duchess turned away, only to feel a tug of magic upon the back of her robes soon after. Turning about, she spotted Luna, the more serene and solemn of the sisters, staring at her.
“OUR SISTER IS—” the dark mare began at the very top of her lungs before Celestia hoofed her in the ribs. The younger alicorn cleared her throat and tried again.
“Our sister is of a more frivolous and coddling nature than We, oh, Adagio Dazzle,” she declared, ignoring her older sibling’s whinny of disapproval. “Thus, allow Us to state things plainly so that thou mightst not misconstrue them. An affront to Us or Our ancient land shall not be tolerated, and ne’er shall it go unpunished. Our kind doth teach that there is a balance to all of nature and a rhythm to all of time. Any creature that giveth reason to believe they are a threat to this balance must be dealt with.”
That hot feeling of unexplained anger began to well up in the center of Adagio’s chest again. She still couldn't put her hoof on why the two sisters brought such emotion out of her, but Luna’s tone of voice certainly wasn’t helping.
“We have heard many great sorrows calling to Us in warning. We believe it to be works of a being with dark magic, pony or otherwise, intentional or no, and are searching for its source. Thy spirit has called us here. Hence, We shall ask thee one final time, Adagio Dazzle: What is the true nature of thy voice?”
The fur upon her back was bristling again. Adagio felt her legs shiver with incredulity, and still could not understand why. Her eyes cut into the sisters, sharp and filled with hatred. For some reason, she was now seeing red.
“This place,” the Duchess hissed so low, the voice didn't seem like her own. “This place is a terrible place.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. Celestia peered on from behind.
“Of what place dost thou speak? This castle?” the dark mare inquired. “Then why dost thou not simply leave—”
“I could never have guessed that such worship of suffering might exist,” the Duchess interrupted. “Had I known, then I wouldn’t have ever chosen to...”
Adagio’s pulse was drumming in her ears. The patch upon her chest was burning like fire. The music bouncing off the walls of the ballroom agitated her. It suddenly seemed crude and simplistic.
“Wouldn’t have chosen to what?” Luna pressed, taking a step forward.
The closer either of them got to her, the more offended Adagio’s spirit became.
“This place deserves its endless sorrows for what it is doing to me. I want you to remember that I have said this.”
“And why is that? Who art thou, Adagio Dazzle?” Luna pressed, her horn now glowing blue in wait.
Something escaped from the pit of Adagio’s stomach: a growling, too low for anypony else to hear. She passed a beaming smile the two sisters’ way.
“Oh, wouldn't you like to know?” she lilted.
All around them, the crowd, though not able to hear the conversation, could now easily see that the interaction between the three mares had gone awry. The Duchess’ body language was fierce, on the verge of becoming something quite disastrous to behold. Luckily, having just then walked back into the room after sensing the absence of Adagio’s music in the air, the Duke Goldenstalks managed to catch sight of this impending debacle. He stepped forward out of the crowd, built up momentum, and was nearly upon her in an instant.
“Savor the sweetness of this time...” the Duchess began to sing just in time for Upright’s hoof to come down firmly upon her shoulder. With his touch, she snapped out of her trance. She spun about in a daze until her eyes met his.
“Ada? What is the matter? You look… sickly,” he muttered, studying her face.
She didn't know what was the matter. One moment she was there, exchanging disingenuous words with two revered alicorns, and the next, she was… gone? Or at least unaware of her words. All she could remember of it was the intense heat, the anger she felt toward such beings of light as this, and still she could not decipher why.
“My Lord, I feel faint,” she croaked, leaning upon his chest. “I need a bit of air.”
“Of course,” he muttered, his face void of all emotion. Bowing his head respectfully toward the two sisters, he then directed Adagio toward the double doors that led out into the garden.
The music in the room calmed down to a low, unsure tremor as the alicorns watched them both leave in silence. Looks of pure suspicion and wonder were plastered upon their faces.
“Ah. Now I understand,” Celestia murmured under her breath as her eyes pierced into Upright. She glanced at her sister and her sister at her.
“Come, Luna,” she implored. “Let us retire. I believe we’ve done all we can do here.”
“But sister!” the dark mare exclaimed. “Didst thou not hear what—”
“I understand, Luna,” the elder mare replied. “However, I feel that is all we shall receive from the likes of her. Let us take our leave.”
The older alicorn turned to depart without another word. Silently, the surrounding crowd split down the middle to make way for her. Luna, still quite anxious, took an unsettled last look toward the departing Duke and Duchess, and then turned to catch up.
When they had all departed, the music played on. Into the night it went as if its rhythms might never cease. The entire strange rendezvous between the Duchess and the alicorns was soon forgotten. Amongst a haze of silk and cider, thoughts of them were relegated to memory to be used as later fodder for gossip.
The evening was cool. This could have been for a number of reasons, specifically: the rising conflicts to the north and east of the kingdom’s seat spreading the chill of hatred into Canterlot, an act of vindictiveness on the part of the pegasi against the ponies in attendance at the ball, or maybe simply because autumn was on its way. For all that could be said about those sky dwelling ponies, one could never suppose that they weren't dedicated to the tasks at hoof. War or no, their weather duties continued on.
Eyes of a different sort were upon them now, mostly the pegasi and a few servants out for a quick break from the ball. However, and strangely enough, the entire night remained silent. Adagio supposed that maybe pegasus kind wasn’t much for frivolous conversation. Upright would probably fit right in if he had felt inclined to associate with them.
The fresh chill running through her bones only upset her more as she walked by the Duke’s side. Her eyes darted about anxiously, and the single sliver of hope left within her wished that somewhere amongst the brush, she’d catch her beloved white knight’s wisp of fur and brown mane. Of course, they were nowhere to be found.
“I shouldn't have gone away for so long a time. I should have been beside you as you approached the sisters,” the Duke stated plainly.
“N...no, no. That is alright,” Adagio began, sounding half distracted. “I find them both rather irritating, actually. It was good that you appeared just as you did to draw me away.”
Upright hummed thoughtfully to himself.
“I see,” he replied. “And what lofty topic of conversation was it that you required drawing from?”
Adagio faltered for a moment, suddenly remembering the politely put accusations the two alicorns had thrown her way. Were they something she should reveal to the Duke? Surely, there would be no harm in it considering the ridiculous nature of all that they had said.
“Oh… oh, well, it was silly, really,” she laughed, shaking her head as if to convince herself that she was right. “They only went on about my singing, claiming that it wasn’t normal, and rambling on about some ridiculous daydream they continue to have. None of it made a bit of sense.”
Things were quiet for a while save for Adagio’s forced laugh. The Duke was thinking again.
“I see,” was all that he muttered before walking on in silence.
The pressure was beginning to build again. The Duchess’ eyes continued to dart about, her heart still hopeful for Lighthoof’s presence even though her head knew better.
“Who is it that you are searching for? Is this pony the one who has made you so upset?” the Duke inquired gently, trying not to disturb the peace of the evening.
Adagio bristled and forced another laugh.
“Oh! N… no one, My Lord. I noticed that my sister and a few others went missing from the fray, and only wondered where they might have—”
“Ah, yes. I saw her being toted away by Lighthoof,” the stallion sighed. “Does she always act that way at these sort of events?”
This time, Adagio’s chuckle was genuine.
“Not always, but quite often. But a noblemare is permitted her share of fine cider, is she not?”
A grumbling sound escaped from the depths of Upright’s chest.
“This I have not forgotten. The mare nearly drank us out of house and home at our wedding reception.” There was an almost joking quality to the stallion’s voice, though his expression remained as stoic as ever.
Adagio again forced a chuckle in the dark. Was this his attempt at trying to make her feel better?
The sound of ruffling pegasus feathers cut into the quiet every now and then. Something about it all made the Duchess’ heart heavy as they both came upon a stone platform to the side of the garden path. Taking a seat, she hesitated to tell Upright that, at the moment, she wished he would leave her alone. The guilt she carried from her lying and dishonesty made her feel sick, and Lighthoof’s face wasn't before her to be used as a balm.
Upright remained standing. The Duchess never even noticed that he was studying her, even as her eyes darted about one last time.
“You shan’t find Lighthoof here. He is gone away,” the goldenrod stallion stated plainly, turning to look off into the night in order to spare himself the surprised look upon his wife’s face.
“O...oh! Has he?” Adagio stammered, trying—and failing—to sound nonchalant about the matter. She slapped a hoof against her forehead.
Adagio, you grand fool.
There was a pause in the conversation, almost as if the Duke were calculating something in his head.
“Yes. A servant has informed me that he has decided to make haste back to Greenwaters, although I do not understand why. He never rejects an opportunity to make good use of a royal ball, after all.” A pause. “You two were dancing. He appeared upset. Did he say anything to you?”
As if predicting her reaction, the stallion's neck snapped about so that he might look at the Duchess’ face precisely at the moment she felt her entire head go red and hot.
More studying, more searching, more calculating.
“That silly stallion is always on his ridiculous quest to outdo his father,” she croaked, waving a hoof at the Duke and forcing a laugh. “I believe he said he was going to request assignment from the king.”
Upright’s entire body shifted around so that he might face her.
“Really? I couldn’t imagine why such a ‘quest,’ as you put it, might be what has rendered him so terribly cross.”
Adagio gulped down the lump now forming in her throat.
“I'm quite certain it is nothing to worry yourself with, My Lord.” Her voice had now gone all hoarse. “Why, only today, he was up to his typically dreadful jokes, was he not?”
“No,” the stallion stated plainly, squaring his shoulders. The silence spread out for a long while this time. “I realize it might not look it, but I do pay very close attention to the company that I choose to keep. I have known Lighthoof all of my life, Ada, and he was most certainly out of sorts this afternoon. I did suspect something was amiss for quite some time now, and this confirms it.”
“Very well,” Adagio huffed, not wanting to protest so much as to appear suspicious. Her tail had begun to flick nervously back and forth. She did not think to stop until the Duke’s eyes began to study that movement as well. “And what does My Lord make of these observations?”
She nearly fainted away when the stallion’s eyes narrowed, their pupils trained upon her. For a moment, it seemed as if his mouth were opening to sling furious accusations her way. She braced herself.
Oh, Celestia… Wait a moment. I don't like her.
“I am not quite certain as of yet,” he tittered calmly, spinning about to again face the garden. He didn’t notice the gigantic exhalation of relief the Duchess released behind his back. “And yet, it does disturb me greatly. I suppose I shall need to speak with him.”
“That is impossible, My Lord,” Adagio muttered, hiding her panic. “He shall be away on assignment. I suggest you simply let it be.”
“Nonsense. Who is to say that his assignment shan’t keep him very close to his home? These are very dangerous times, after all,” the stallion clucked in his typical way. “All I need do is speak with His Majesty, if time permits.”
And then Upright cracked a smile. It was wide and mischievous, but not in a way that would lead Adagio to believe that she was in on a shared joke. On the contrary, something in his eyes made her feel as if the joke was on her.
“You would appreciate his company, and knowing that he is, more or less, safe wouldn't you, Ada?” the Duke continued on. His smile didn't fade.
Adagio felt on the brink of penitent tears. Her lips sealed themselves tight lest they begin confessing. A long silence passed between them before she realized that remaining quiet only made her appear more suspicious.
“We have all been very good companions since foalhood,” she murmured, looking down toward the pebbles on the garden’s path. “You needn't feel bashful for stating plainly that you would appreciate his company as well.”
Without any hesitation, Adagio then stood and turned to leave. The pressure of the conversation had taken its toll, and she was certain that she wouldn't be able to manage another second of it without accidentally implicating herself of some horrible deed.
“I must bid you good evening, My Lord,” she sighed, performing a short curtsy. “I have yet to take a meal, and I’m afraid that presently, I am filled to the brim with cider.”
The Duchess passed him one of her best forced smiles, glad to be rid of him, especially if he was intent on continuing to act like... well... him. She took one step toward the castle before feeling the tug of magic upon her tail.
“Ada, one moment, please,” the Duke murmured.
Spinning about, Adagio caught Upright’s gaze now directed downward to her collar. Hopes of a little bit of mercy and affection were again dashed when she followed the trail his eyes made down to her hyacinth pin. The thing had somehow come loose during the course of the evening.
“Straighten that, won’t you?” he commanded her. “We, indeed, shall be homebound on the morrow, but that doesn't mean I can accept your treating it that way. It is a rare gift that has been afforded you. You should cherish it.”
Adagio’s mind was spouting curses she could no longer comprehend. She realized the inflection in the Duke’s words meant something, but couldn't bring herself to care. Passing the stallion a rueful glare, she hastened to reattach the awful pin with her magic, and then backed away. Spinning about, she marched back off toward the castle alone, intent on heading straight to bed. If fate was in the slightest bit kind, Upright would not join her for at least a few more hours. Still, she never saw the Duke’s icy glare as it followed her the entire way up the path.