Dimming sunlight shone in her eyes. Fragrant grasses tickled her sides, and only then did Adagio recall where she was. She stretched her sore legs out as far as they could manage, then nestled in closer to the warm, furry mass lying by her side. It breathed steadily.
Her eyes fluttered open to greet the sight of the sun setting over a distant, grassy knoll. From where she lay upon the edges of the Sardhoof, she wondered if it was possible for such a vision to somehow become mundane.
Legend had it that the alicorns had been the first to raise the sun and moon. Of course, legend had it that the alicorns were the first to do everything. Still, when unicorn-kind had finally gotten around to the task, for some reason, they figured such a glorious occurrence might have required more pomp, more pageantry...and more platforms so one's hooves didn't dirty, more hats or shawls to keep either cool or warm depending on the atmospheric circumstances, and more cucumber sandwiches—naturally. Adagio supposed that it was just unicorn-kind’s way, constantly asking oneself: “How could I improve upon that which is perfect?” and then actually attempting to do so.
Looking at the beauty of it all from the green of a more natural realm, these innate habits seemed unnecessary, silly even. Adagio couldn't help but wonder if earth ponies who witnessed such a thing as sunsets and moonrises every day of their lives ever grew tired of them. After all, they would never have to know the drollness of being called away by lottery to stand upon some ceremonial balcony for an hour, one’s horn aglow in tandem with five randomly selected others. They would never have to learn of the risks, as Upright’s father had six years ago.
Choosing the cheerier path, the noblemare allowed memories of her day to wash over her: watching him train Whetstone, his prodigy of a squire; racing through his field that stretched out to the west of Goldenstalks manor, singing refrain after beautiful refrain just to see him smile. Her grin grew wide when she felt him stir by her side. On this early twilight, at least, she wouldn't have to feel as if another one of her days had been wasted amongst soulless rules and decadence.
Sighing with content, she lifted her head, and allowed it to rest upon her companion’s.
“Wake up, you. The sun is bidding us farewell,” she cooed, jostling the slumbering lump. She received only a rattling groan in return.
“Your obsessive squire shall surely cry mischief if you are not present to tend to his training,” she murmured into a stark white ear. It flicked itself, shooing her away.
“Mrghph… run rrrghf… laps,” the barely stirring thing grumbled.
“Upright returns this evening. If we do not make haste toward the manor, he shall surely realize...”
“Splendid. We shall throw a grand party. Have a biiig cake,” the jostled white stallion yawned as he turned to lay upon his other side. His eyes never opened.
Adagio huffed, stomping a hoof into the soft grass. The mare then made a big to-do about rolling, tossing, and turning to rise. A bushel of apples that had been sitting before them quaked and tumbled out of their neat pile.
“Very well, then I shall leave. I've more important things to do anyway.”
At once, the stallion shot up.
“Oh, no you do not!” he bellowed, trapping her tail beneath his hoof.
The tug urged Adagio to turn and pass him a sly grin.
“Success,” she chuckled. “Lighthoof, you are so very predictable.”
Prance grimaced, his deep purple eyes still glistening from slumber. Bowing forward to stretch out his back, he shook the heaviest dregs of his afternoon nap from his head, and then rolled his way closer toward the mare. Nipping with his teeth upon her tail, he dragged her back to where she belonged: beside him.
“You know the routine. You aren’t going anywhere until you do it,” he chuckled, resting his forelegs about her middle.
The mare let loose a loud sigh.
“No. Not again, Prance. Please,” she groaned.
“Well, that is most certainly fine with me,” he chirped. “I am perfectly content to lay here beside you until evening, if you would fancy it more.”
“No, no, no. I absolutely cannot.”
“Why not?” the knight inquired, passing her an incredulous look with a single, piercing eye.
“I simply cannot. Not right this instant. My heart isn't in the proper place,” the noblemare clucked, sounding even more tired. “It would only prove stale.”
“I certainly wouldn't mind,” Prance pressed. “I should think ‘stale’ might be allowable under the present circumstances.”
Adagio studied him hesitantly. Finding it impossible to resist the disappointed pout on his face, she sighed and tucked in closer.
“Very well,” she moaned, nuzzling her head into the crook between his chin and chest. “A stale one it is.”
Prance, looking rather proud of himself, smiled when he heard her inhale deeply.
A blossom blooms and stays but shortly.
Swiftly doth its petals fall.
Better to spy the mo—
“No, not that one,” the stallion murmured. “You've been singing that since we were foals. Choose another.”
“Alriiight,” the mare giggled whilst his warm breath tickled the place beneath her chin. “Let me see…”
Be still, be still, ye unsettled mind,
When dark becomes the day.
Those yonder wide and worrisome hills,
Shall recede, shall make w—
“Why are you so very enthralled with that song as of late, Gio? I hear you singing it every chance you’re given,” Prance interrupted again.
“Well, I wouldn't know, Lighthoof! I suppose the tune is simply close to my heart,” Adagio sighed, shrugging her shoulders. She blinked whilst staring thoughtfully up through the sparse canopy of the woods. “Do you not fancy it any longer?”
“‘Course I fancy it,” Prance chuckled as if the question were a ludicrous one. “Which one of your songs is anything less than captivating? And who might think it so? I would enjoy meeting that pony.”
“Even still, choose another. I don’t wish to hear that one either.”
Adagio huffed loudly, and turned to face the stallion.
“I’ve explained to you that I must desire to sing before my song could actually… actually…” She trailed off, not knowing how to finish the thought. “Why do you not scamper off to that little, smiling, blue thing that you cherish so? I am quite certain she would be more than pleased to sing whatever it is you'd like in exchange for a gold bit or two.”
“Sonata sings for me at no charge,” Prance quipped, jutting out his tongue. “Besides, she keeps humming the same tune you do.”
“And which tune would that be?” Adagio inquired, now curious.
“The song you sang only a moment ago, about the moon, and Luna, and whatnot,” the stallion yawned. “She must have heard it during one of her visits. Hasn't quite figured all of the words, however. It is more irritating than it is lovely, I'm afraid.”
With his eyes still closed, Prance didn't notice the shaken expression Adagio was now wearing. Not once had the noblemare ever performed the song anywhere the public was allowed. How, then, was it possible that that blue farm filly could partially sing an already established melody to an already existing tune that she had never before heard? Much less, a song that had been spawned from Adagio’s own mind?
“S… surely you’ve absent-mindedly sung the tune in her presence after you have listened to me,” she posed.
“Me? Singing? There is enough chaos in the kingdom as it is.”
Taking a few more moments to ponder that which would probably never amount to any sense, Adagio then shook the matter from her mind. Clicking her tongue against her teeth, she passed her companion a weary look.
“Do you or do you not desire a song, knight?”
“I most certainly do!” Prance exclaimed. “Only… not that particular one.”
She’d had enough. Letting off another exasperated huff, the noblemare attempted to sit up and squirm away from the stallion’s forelegs.
“Alright, Lighthoof. If you are determined to forever be unsatisfied, then I really must be going.”
“What? Why?” the stallion exclaimed, jolting upward. “Do you no longer enjoy my company?”
“I do. Of course, I do. However, I cannot remain where he cannot account for my whereabouts, I'm afraid. Our marital bond does depend on it,” Adagio chirped, beginning toward her silk frock which had been discarded a few steps away into the grass.
There was yet another sudden tug upon her tail, this time more forceful and unforgiving. Turning about, she caught sight of simmering purple.
“Our bond?” Prance inquired through clenched teeth. His voice had gone grim.
Adagio defiantly wrenched her tail away from him.
“Yes, Lighthoof. Our.” She then hurried to wriggle into her frock, now floating about in a pink ruby stream of magic. “Curse these things. They are absolutely impossible to get into without a servant’s aid. Even with magic!”
“I wasn’t aware that your desire to spend time with the Earl had again grown so very strong,” Prance grumbled, sitting up in the grass.
“Where is that Beryl when one requires her assistance?” Adagio rambled on, her entire head completely shrouded in light blue silk.
Appearing spiteful, the stallion lazily nudged a displaced apple with one of his hooves.
“One might make the mistake of assuming otherwise, the way we carry on...”
“How dare you, Sir!” Adagio crowed, her puffy head finally popping through the neck of her robe. “I shan't tolerate such rudeness!”
“Perhaps, this is all simply a misunderstanding…” the stallion continued, ignoring her protestations.
“Lighthoof!” she gasped.
“What with your brand new family on the way, ey?”
The stallion knew immediately that he had made a grave mistake when he witnessed the broken expression that inched its way across the mare’s face. Slowly, the Lady turned about, and slipped into her gilded shoes.
“Yes, well, in that matter, I suppose you needn’t worry just yet, Sir Lighthoof,” the noblemare sighed, trying and failing to sound as if she cared little about the matter. “As of this particular moment, there is to be no ‘family’.”
Of course, Adagio knew that there was no other way for the knight to feel besides gladdened by the news. Thus, she refused to set her heart on receiving anything more sympathetic than his silence.
“A… Adagio,” the stallion began, his voice quavering unsurely. “I…”
“Oh, please. Don't you dare act as if you are apologetic. I know you could never be,” the mare droned, passing him a frown.
Prance released an enormous sigh of relief.
“Oh, good then. My face felt as if it would surely split into two.”
Adagio shot him a deeper grimace.
“I only speak earnestly!” the stallion bleated with a shrug. “I believed you favored that quality in me!”
Stabbing him with a lingering glare, the mare stomped her way across his path in the direction of Goldenstalks Manor, a sizeable smudge of gray stone in the distance.
“You know, sometimes I am inclined to believe that you are as frigid as he is.”
“Gio, one moment. I… I apologize,” Prance insisted, realizing too late that his barrage of tongue-in-cheek humor had gone less than appreciated. Still, the mare did not halt. Upon seeing her turn away toward the open fields, the stallion leapt up, and raced to block her path. “Stop, I said!”
“Out of my way, jester,” Adagio exclaimed, levitating him somewhere off to the side with a beam of magic.
“Oy! Stop doing that! I've told you before that I hate it when you do that! An earth pony’s hooves are intended to remain firmly planted upon the earth, blast you!”
Adagio couldn't help but chortle as she watched the startled knight flailing about within a halo of light before hitting the ground with a dull ‘thud’.
“Oh, dear. Have I upset you?” she gibed, pressing a hoof to her lips. “Well, I suppose that makes us even.”
Tossing a stray curl over her shoulder, the golden mare huffed proudly to herself, and again, began her long walk toward home.
“Just one moment! You have yet to sample the apples!” he called out to her, still struggling to turn himself right side up.
“I've had apples before, thank you very much. The estate grows them,” Adagio sighed, flicking her tail at him as she went along her way. “I'm afraid there’s nothing particularly special I've noted about them. To be quite honest, I do prefer them in the form of a fine cider instead.”
“I meant apples grown by ponies who enjoy growing them, ponies whose calling it is to grow them,” Prance pressed, trotting up behind her. “Not the dreadful lot some horde of servants are forced to tend for their Lord.”
“Oh, really? And what is the difference?” the mare yawned boredly.
“Why… the difference is that these apples contain magic! Are you not aware of this? I assumed everypony knew.”
Her ears perked up at the mention of magic. Her legs stalled. In hindsight, she should have known that the knight might take advantage of her race’s inclination toward wizardry and enchantment if it meant he could spend one extra moment with her.
“Magic, you say? What sort of magic?” she scoffed, never admitting that she was, in fact, a bit curious. “And don't you dare get onto any of that silly, rustic ‘earth pony euphemism’ twaddle. It shan’t sway me, I can assure you.”
She received no reply. After a few steps more, her curiosity won the upper hoof. Turning about, she was met with the type of smug grin that only Lighthoof’s face could wear.
“I suppose you must taste one to find out, mustn’t you?” he tittered, turning away confidently to head back toward their resting place. She hesitated behind him for a moment… but only for a moment.
Biting into the fruit was an ethereal experience. Adagio hummed to herself with delight as the shiny, red orb’s sweet juice dribbled down her chin. For once, she didn't care if any stains ruined her fine clothing.
At once, the sky seemed to open up above her, the air became crisper, more fragrant, the colors of the wood and wildflowers more rich, the song of the late afternoon birds more beautiful. If the very essence of nature could be caught up into the tastebuds, it would surely be delivered by way of this single, extraordinary fruit.
Perhaps the astonishment on her face was a bit too apparent. Prance could manage only a snort as he watched her gorge upon the thing. Then after she had finished the first, she drew three more to her side.
“I take it you like them, then,” the stallion chortled, shaking his head.
“Mrph… ish… extr’ordinary!” she mumbled, nearly choking upon her mouthful.
“Well, there is plenty more. Do be careful not to suffocate before you’ve had a chance to try them,” he continued, waiting patiently for the mare to force her bite down.
“Where on earth did you happen upon such exquisite food, Lighthoof? I must know!” Adagio stammered, her eyes wide with wonder. “I must have these all of the time!”
“At market, of course. All of the farmers and gardeners sell their wares there,” Prance shrugged, looking rather nonchalant about the entire thing.
“And… and all of their food is similar to this?” the mare continued.
“Similar... to... what?” the stallion chirped mischievously, his grin growing wider.
“Similar to… similar to…” Adagio murmured, searching for the correct word, “to magic!”
The knight threw his head back, laughing loudly. Adagio failed to catch the humor in this. She was currently far too lost in the revelation of all that had eluded her for her entire life. This entire time, she had been swallowing down fare tended solely upon noble grounds. There, they had been heavily scrutinized by an ignorant unicorn populous that knew very little about such matters as food cultivation, and distrusted anypony else who claimed to know more.
“‘Tis as if I can truly feel the earth. As if I could see the hooves that made this! As if I could see their face!” the mare gasped. “It is… it is... And you say every earth pony can make such wondrous things? With their hooves alone?”
“If it is in that pony’s true calling to do so, then yes,” Prance stated, smiling warmly. “Not all magics are flashy and loud, though I do realize how very much your kind enjoys such gaudiness.”
Amongst all of these new realizations, something could no longer sit quite right in Adagio’s mind. It was unsettling, pondering upon the lives of those she had rarely been inclined to notice. The Goldenstalks household was filled to the brim with servants, a few of them unicorns, but the vast majority of them earth ponies. Did all of these ponies have a true calling? Of course, they did; every and any pony who had developed their mark had a calling, and yet so many of them spent their days doing exactly the same humdrum nonsense. Were places like Goldenstalks Manor a trap for them? Was she, as a noble, standing in the way of countless dreams by accepting their labors, day in, day out? Surely, everypony’s calling could not have been but to serve her.
Her mind fell upon Beryl, her faithful, lifelong maidservant who never asked too many questions, never seemed to grow angry or weary in her presence, and never retorted to any of the many offenses Adagio had so callously and carelessly thrown her way over the years. The mare had been the very one to pull her from the sea when they were but fillies, and this was to be her repayment? Serving a selfish, power lusting lady for the rest of her days? What might the earth mare’s true calling have been had she not been subjugated by her own strict and rigid society? What beautiful things might she have created? The very thought made Adagio’s heart ache.
“Lighthoof, how… How can they bear it?” She stammered, motioning her head in the direction of the manor. “All of them, I mean. Spending their lives doing that which they do not wish to?”
At first, the knight seemed a bit confused by this question. Gradually, he came to understand, and nodded his head as if having recalled something long forgotten.
“Well… they simply bear it, I suppose. What else is there to do?”
The answer didn't seem sufficient. It wasn't enough. Still, it wasn't as if she could figure a solution to such a deep-rooted problem. It wasn't as if anypony were daft enough to rebel against the unicorn king himself for their right to contentment and true purpose.
Adagio’s eyes began to water as, slowly, her knees gave way, and she sank to the ground. How terribly unfair this world was to them all. But how much more painful it all seemed when one took the time to hope, and wish, and pray for something better. Perhaps, like Prance had implied, it was more efficient to try not to think on it at all.
Seeing her distress, the stallion saddled up next to her in the grass, and pulled her into a warm embrace.
“Come now, Gio. Cheer up, won’t you?” he urged, lifting her chin with his hoof so that he might stare into her pretty eyes.
“How could I possibly do such a thing when nopony in the world seems free to follow their heart? Not even I!”
A gasp, and then stillness. She had said too much.
Prance sat still beside her. It was clear by his silence that the stallion was now pondering something to himself as well. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of holding his breath, he spoke.
“Everypony is free to do as they please. Alas, few realize it, and many more simply ignore it, fearing that it might actually be the truth,” he began, his voice very calm. “Freedom is a choice, Gio. Yours included. All you need do is decide upon what brings you joy, and do it no matter the consequence.”
She couldn't bear to reply. Her eyes were set down toward the grass.
“There shall always be rain and stormy weather, Gio. Might as well get soaked doing what you love, ey?” he chuckled softly, sighing into her mane. A long silence, full of all the voices and visions of nature, dragged on. In that silence, there was something, a feeling passing between them both. It was too big, too honest to decipher outright.
“I wonder what it is like, to live as those earth ponies do,” Adagio mused absentmindedly, looking out toward the fading sun. “To live surrounded by a world that you can actually see, and feel, and taste. A real world.”
Prance was silent for only a moment more. His face had gone all rigid, his eyes glassy, as if he were looking into a future no one else could see.
“Come away with me, Gio,” he sighed as if the notion had been obvious. Ironically, once it was said, it did in fact seem like the most obvious solution in the world to them both.
For a moment, Adagio smiled, thinking his words a joke. When her smile was not returned, it quickly melted into a stunned gawk.
“You cannot say such things. We shouldn't even think it,” she choked, her throat going dry. All of a sudden, her own world full of jewels and wizardry, rules and punishments, came crashing back down around her. “W… we shouldn't be here like this, together! What in Bullion’s name am I doing?”
The golden mare leapt to her hooves, looking completely panicked.
“Only that which brings you happiness,” Prance replied gently, wanting to keep her calm.
“That which brings me—” Adagio bleated. “Do you have even the slightest inkling of what would happen if he were to ever discover…”
Prance shrugged and shot her that same grin.
“Rain and stormy weather would be my wager,” he chirped, flicking his tail about.
Adagio, now frustrated, bore down upon her forehooves. Her horn glimmered the slightest shade of ruby.
“It is not a joke, Lighthoof.”
Prance’s smile fell. He now appeared offended, bruised.
“Do you realize what would happen to us? To you?” the mare continued on.
The stallion rose to his legs, and advanced upon her, not caring that she shrank at the sight of him.
“I don’t care,” he replied, his voice’s calm facade masking his rage. “I don't care because I love you more than I could ever fear him or anypony else.”
He stubbornly plopped down to his haunches.
The air went still, nearly unbreathable. Adagio’s legs, having gone weak again, collapsed from under her, sending her crashing to the ground. She could think of nothing to say.
“Say that you don't love me, Gio,” the stallion pressed, his Violet eyes burning. “Tell me that you wish to live that kind of life forever… with him.”
Prance’s demand hung heavily in the air, urging Adagio to panic, to forgo reason for sensation and emotion. She had nearly moved to reply in his favor, to spit out how much affection she held for him, until cold reality again yanked her backward by its sturdy leash. The mare was obliged to think objectively once more. Feeling unsettled within herself, she sighed after much pondering.
“Come. Sit with me,” she requested. Prance didn't move, far too agitated and upset by her hesitancy. “Please, Lighthoof.”
At last, after much hesitation, he made his way over, and sat down at her side. The unsettled rumble in his chest set her on edge. Still, there was nothing to be done but answer truthfully.
“Of course, I desire this life,” she began. At these words, Prance leapt to his hooves, and took a furious step toward his large, stone home, a short distance away. “Please! Lighthoof, please allow me to finish!”
The stallion froze in his steps, shook the excess rage away, and rounded back toward her. This time, when he again sat down, he did not look her way.
“I desire this life, and I also wish to stay beside you,” she finished. Noting the perplexed look on the knight’s face, she opted to continue. “There has always been something about the world that seemed both harsh and cruel to me. I have never possessed the capability of adapting to it as its subject; only its master. I find that my hooves detest labor though its fruits I truly admire. I yearn for comfort and predictability though I find the natural world and its mysteries enthralling beyond measure. I desire leisure simply because it is not toil, and yet a missed childhood spent running and playing in the sun shall forever prove one of my greatest regrets. I desire power that would make it impossible for anypony to curse me with such wondrous things as these, things that I both love and despise. I am a selfish pony, Lighthoof. This is truth. Now, tell me, how might I have all these things in the ways that I desire?”
Prance remained silent as he mulled her words over.
“Well… you don't,” he stated finally. “There is no such life. No matter which path anypony may choose, disappointment shall surely find us all eventually. The best we can do is try to ensure that our own unhappiness is not of our own doing, and does not befall us because we are afraid.”
He gazed at her, all deflated.
“As I said before, Gio: choose. Choose what it is that you desire most, and just see.”
There was something roiling inside of Adagio. It grew quickly, and soon she found herself brooding, angered by the notion that she be required to make such a difficult decision. Her eyes were aflame when she peered at him.
“I defy that. I want it all,” she hissed, much to Prance's surprise. The heat consumed her. Suddenly, she was seeing red. “I defy anything that stands in the way of my having all that I desire. Why can’t I? If I could have the power, then I could also have whatever it is I please!”
The stallion edged back, not quite sure what to make of this reaction.
“My home, my comforts… you!” she croaked, her voice breaking. The sound of her own despair deflated her until she was sobbing beside him in a tired, little heap. “Why can I not remain here and have you as well? Why must I choose when… when I am so frightened and hungry for both?”
Her tears were stalled when soft fur nuzzled her cheek. The knight rested his head upon her back.
“You must choose so that you might become your true self, Gio. Your many trappings and treasures are not who you truly are. They are only the fears that you have piled up all about you. You are not selfish, and you most certainly are not cruel.”
“Is that right, Lighthoof?” she sniffed, her pride returning. “Then who am I, since you know so very well? Enlighten me, that I might have a glimpse at this selfless mare.”
“Do you not remember her?” the stallion chuckled, leaning in closer. “The little filly who chided me about her robes, and then proceeded to ruin them whilst vanquishing me in a competition of ball kicking?”
The tiniest smile—a ridiculing one, albeit—cracked Adagio’s lips.
“Whipped the tail off of you, I did,” she sniffed again.
“Do you not also remember the young mare who dreamt of dancing in the town square? The mare who soiled her hooves picking wildflowers for her mane though the Lady of the house would scold her? The mare who sang her entire soul to the King’s court no matter the consequence? The caring mare who cleaned and dressed my wounds after I’d spent the entire day in training? The mare of infinite patience who—”
“Caring? Patience?” Adagio snorted. “I threw double distilled cider on your bruises, and demanded that you to stop crying like a little colt.”
Prance chuckled, though his smile faltered.
“Ye’ bandaged me as well, if I am recalling it correctly, but that is beside the point. The point is that nopony else cared to do even that much,” he murmured, nudging her in the side. “Not even father. He told me to shut it and be a stallion.”
“Is that true? Sir Race said that?” Adagio inquired, slightly astonished. “Bullion, you were but a colt.”
“I was,” Prance sighed, looking off dreamily into the darkening sky. “And yet, I could see you. I still see you... and your heart, despite your claims that it does not exist. That mare is not gone away from you. She is merely hiding, methinks, attempting to protect herself from hurt or harm.”
There was a beat of silence.
“That is why I refuse to be satisfied with the way things are. Though she has had to wear this silly mask all her life, she chose to show me, of all ponies, who she truly was. For that I am grateful. For that, loving her cannot be helped. ‘Tis shameful that you might never understand how very beautiful that mare is. ‘Tis a shame the world may never truly see that mare whilst she leads the life that she does, whilst she resides beneath his roof, his rule.”
The evening had settled in around them. The only light upon the earth emanated from the glow of Prance’s nearby home, and the distant glimmer that was Goldenstalks manor. Adagio sat still, enveloped by the warmth of him as she willed her brain to work, to decide, to force her to say something. Instead, she leaned down, took another bite of an apple, and watched as the sights and sounds of night opened up to her for the very first time.
“I must return,” she eventually murmured, sounding unenthusiastic about it. “Swear that I shall see you here when I come again tomorrow. Swear to me that you shall wait. Allow me some time to… to ponder upon it.”
Prance passed her a faltering smile, noting that the mare had never returned his confession of love.
“I shall remain here, My Lady,” he sighed, looking up toward the stars. “On the morrow, and the next day, and the next.”
His smile turned mischievous. The sight of it was comforting to the mare.
“And on the morrow, we shall see who beats the hooves off of whom in our race across the field.”
Adagio giggled. Forgetting herself, she nuzzled her nose against his.
“You'd better pray for Celestia’s grace now that I've discovered how swift I can be without this accursed frock,” she laughed. The sound was silenced when Prance leaned in to kiss her.
For a moment, she didn't realize what had taken place, only that it felt like fire, and unlike anything she had felt before. Then, upon regaining her senses, she wrenched her head away from him. The look in her eye was startled, terrified.
“You are far too bold, Sir,” she gasped, covering her mouth with a trembling hoof. “You mustn’t ever do such a thing again. If the Earl were to find out...”
“Ah, to Tartarus with him,” Prance snarled, advancing again to press his lips against hers. He pulled her close, holding her there until she managed again to shove him away.
“Lighthoof, please,” she whimpered.
It was so very curious, this feeling. Suddenly, she found that all the strength in her limbs had drained away as a sweet haze traveled up from her hooves all the way to the top of her head. Shoving the stallion away seemed dishonest, irrational, maddeningly silly; nothing in her wanted to be anywhere else but close to him. She could smell the wonderful, earthy scent of him when he kissed her again and again, and deemed it better, more invigorating than the most magic-filled apple. Driven downward, she opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by green on all sides, and of course, her beloved’s purple eyes, like stars up above.
“I cannot,” she groaned, feeling more at war with herself than ever before in her life. She closed her eyes, and turned her head away. Perhaps when they again opened she’d be safe in her dreary bed, beside her dreary husband, inside of her dreary manor, living her dreary life.
“Where is she? That mare I once knew?” the knight whispered, breathing in the scent of the fur upon her belly. “Tell me... What would she say?”
She heard him hold his breath. The air went still around them as if the entire evening were waiting for her reply. Eventually, she worked up the courage to face him again, to stare into those eyes she had come to adore. Sighing out all of the conflict in her heart, she parted her trembling lips to speak. For a moment, she hesitated… but only for a moment.
“I love you.”
Her hooves stumbled clumsily through the lamplit, velvet-lined hallway as she made the trek toward her chambers. She resembled a frightening spectre, and went along as if invisible to the startled servants who watched her pass. Her face was flushed. One moment, she caught herself giggling in euphoria, the next, crying tears of despair. The sweet nectar of everything wondrous that she had only just discovered still clung heavily to her lips. Flower petals fell like pink snowflakes from her curls, leaving a telling trail in her wake.
No… Yes… NO, NO, NO!…
She smiled to herself, though her cheeks were streaked and shiny. Shaking her head, she attempted in vain to fight off torturous memories. Teetering and tottering, eventually she managed to flounder through the manor’s empty solar and into her bower where she knew Beryl would be awaiting her.
When the two mares’ eyes met, they met with complete understanding. Beryl was biting down upon two swathes of fabric that, a moment to prior, she had intended to show her mistress. Now, she simply stood there staring, her bottom lip trembling with worry. When the weeping Countess rushed forward and fell into her embrace, she held her close, gently brushing the petals from her frazzled locks.
“Please, My Lady. Please don't cry,” the maidservant whimpered, holding the golden mare closer.
“Beryl,” Adagio lamented, “my oldest friend, who gave unto me my entire life. I must beg your forgiveness.” Her weary eyes stared down at the earth mare’s cutie mark as if seeing it for the very first time. It depicted a heart-shaped key encrusted with a beautiful rainbow colored set of gemstones.
“W… what for, Mum? Tell me what has happened,” Beryl stammered in shock, her eyes now tearing as well. It was as if she could already see the truth in her mistress’ eyes.
“I’ve betrayed your gift. I've done something unforgivable,” the Countess croaked, her lips stretching into the most genuine smile she had worn in years, “and I’m not sorry.”
And then she laughed and laughed.
“One sea green silk robe—stitched by my personal tailor, of course—and one case of morganite,” the Duchess tittered. “Forgive my not providing emeralds, my dear, but I imagined that these might look all the lovelier against that beautiful fur of yours.”
Adagio stood stark still as a house servant bumbled about her, delivering these precious gifts unto the sheepish pink earth mare now in her line of sight. The mare bowed low whilst gazing shamedly at the floor, then bit her lip hard as if willing her mouth to open.
“My sincerest thanks, Your Grace. I am most humbled by your generosity,” Themis squeaked, afraid to move an inch, or look anywhere in the vicinity of Adagio’s face.
“Nonsense,” Adagio sighed. “This isn't generosity. It is penance! I have done you a great wrong, Miss Themis, and I do intend to compensate you well for your suffering—Oh! Nearly slipped my mind!”
Motioning toward yet another servant standing to her rear, the Duchess urged her forward so that she might plop a large, heavy satchel upon a nearby table. She then lumbered away, rubbing at her back.
“Seven hundred bits,” the unicorn mare stated plainly, nodding her head. When she looked again, Themis had lifted her gaze from the floor. The earth mare’s mouth hung open.
“Y…Your Grace, this is far too much. It is enough that you should be burdened with entering my unworthy home!” she stammered, directing a hoof toward the gigantic and quite lavish flat around her. “I cannot accept all of this.”
“Of course you can,” Adagio chirped, putting on a very fake smile, and waving the matter away with a hoof. “You must! I wouldn't have it any other way.”
With that, the noblemare hitched up her hems, adjusted her mane, and turned to leave, in quite a rush to escape Themis’ presence.
“And do call upon me should you require any other form of assistance. I am obliged to be of service to you.”
Quite literally, this was the truth. It was bad enough that she was made to suffer the embarrassment of facing Themis alone—a feeling that was mutual, apparently—but for Upright to prolong the torture by forcing her to show favor to the mare only seemed cruel. They were not friends. After their evening at the ball, how could they ever be?
“Oh, please allow me to escort you to your carriage, Your Grace. It is the least that I can do,” Themis gasped, bounding forward to draw the door open for the Duchess.
Seeing that the mare was determined to dote upon her, Adagio sighed, rolled her eyes, and nodded her head. No use arguing. It would only prolong the dreadful occasion.
Stepping out into the courtyard, the noblemare proceeded toward her carriage. Upon spotting her mistress, Beryl, who had been standing anxiously by the buggy’s side, darted toward her at once. They met in the space between the carriage and the apartment building’s grand steps.
“Your Grace!” the maidservant panted. “I’ve something to show you!”
It was only then that Adagio spotted the ornately carved wooden box sitting atop the mare’s back.
“You've received a gift!”
“A gift?” Adagio inquired, using her magic to hoist the box before her for inspection. “It is a bit late, isn't it? Who is it from?”
Beryl raised her forelegs to direct her mistress’ attention to a distant point beyond the gates and across the wide, cobblestone road. In that direction stood a sizeable mansion, not too large, unlike her own home, but big enough to assume its inhabitants at least gentry, lower nobility at best.
Taking a few steps past the carriage and toward the gate, Adagio could make out the sprawling yard in front of the home, a rather uncharacteristic amount of green for a large, Canterlot-based dwelling. In the yard, growing thick, and perfectly tamed, were blossoms and all other manner of small shrubberies alike.
The mansion itself ascended for three stories before it tapered off flat at the top where one, large, yellow flag was planted. Upon this flag was a rather ornate depiction of a four leaf clover and a pair of initials too ornate to decipher outright.
“Interesting,” the noblemare hummed, scanning the odd structure. “What did they say their names were? Did they seem mannerly?”
“Forgive me, Your Grace, but I never met them,” Beryl murmured. “Their housemare approached me, and told me that the family of the house wished to pay their respects. When I pressed her for more information, she simply said that they were a wealthy couple, somewhat new to town, and very much private.”
The Duchess hummed to herself as she opened the box—at a bit of a distance—and peered unmoved into the fine vessel. It was filled to the brim with lovely, rainbow shimmered pieces of ebony-colored stone.
“Black opal!” she gasped. However, her astonishment by this discovery quickly fell away in lieu of suspicion. “Curious, indeed. I've never before received such a gift.”
Intent on delving until she got to the bottom of this little mystery, Adagio utilized her magic to momentarily enhance her sight. Then, stepping forward, she peered into the windows of the mansion, now on the hunt for clues to the couple’s identity.
“I've met them, Your Grace,” Themis piped up bashfully. “They are not very young or fresh, but they are kind, quite generous.”
“Or very eager to enter into the good graces of the rich and powerful,” Adagio posed, working her jaw.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Your Grace,” Themis giggled. “They are very… how do you say? Down to earth? The wife, she loves to bake, and she and her husband both tend to that gorgeous yard completely on their own!”
“Do pipe down, Miss Themis. I’m trying to concentrate,” Adagio sighed, silencing the already jittery mare for good. Thus far she hadn't managed to catch much through the windows. A maid here, a housecolt there. Still, she did not give up. Her curiosity was only piqued by the absence of this supposedly kind-hearted couple with the strange home.
It was in the last panel that she saw them: a pair of finely dressed earth ponies—which made sense—not young, but not far too old either. They sat a ways back from the dim window facing one another, laughing and contentedly gazing into each other's eyes. There was something both charming and beautiful about such a sight, knowing that riches and time didn't necessarily have to spell doom for love.
A smile barely cracked the Duchess’ lips as she watched them talk over their tea, but almost as quickly, her brow furrowed when she witnessed them both look up as if somepony else had entered the room. Her heart leapt when she discovered who it was: a young colt, rosey-cheeked, with fur the same tone as theirs, though she couldn't quite make out the exact shade. Adagio’s smile grew bright as she watched the lady of the house giggle at the sight of what was surely her playful little son. She picked him up into her lap, and passed him a biscuit from the table. Hugging him close, she began to rock him back and forth, singing some unheard tune into his ear.
Gradually, Adagio allowed her magic to fade. Her eyes were glistening as she sniffed away a warm sensation she had not felt in so long.
That couple—Why couldn't she and the Duke be more like them? They were kind, trusting, close, communicative, and full of love for one another, something she and the Duke most certainly were not. What was their secret? How did they manage to remain so bonded? Was the reason because they didn't seem driven for grandeur or glory like the other nobles she knew? What happened, she wondered, when ponies stopped caring so completely for their possessions, and just a little more for one another?
After a bit of pondering and staring, Adagio finally swiped some moisture away from her eye, and turned to approach her buggy.
“Come along, everypony. We shan’t keep His Grace waiting,” she tittered to the guards who drew the carriage.
“Your Grace!” the four stallions trumpeted with a strong salute.
Bracing onto Beryl’s foreleg, Adagio stepped up into the buggy. “And do remind me to pen a thank you letter to… to whoever those ponies are.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Beryl agreed.
The maidservant turned to curtsy for Themis only to find the pink mare already bowed low to the ground.
“It has been an honor, Your Grace,” she chirped, passing that same, beautiful smile Adagio’s way.
In light of the happy couple she had just witnessed, the Duchess couldn't help but remain in her pleasant mood.
“Trust that I shall surely call upon you again, Miss Themis. Do take care.”
With that, Beryl closed the carriage’s door, and they were off.
The ride back to Greenwaters was silent and rather tense. Leave it to Upright to ruin the pleasant mood of any situation.
The entire time, he sat across from Adagio, silently levitating from a collection of scrolls sorted neatly into a pile by his side. He seemed stoic, deep in thought, and somewhat upset. His quill worked tirelessly as sparks escaped from his horn. No sooner had a document been written or signed did it then bind itself, disappearing off to its intended recipient in a flash of bright orange. Those letters not intended for mailing would fall into a stack on the stallion’s opposite side.
Despite her husband’s usual, tireless work ethic, his mannerisms this evening still put Adagio on edge considering all that had transpired the day before. Straightening her hyacinth pin, she leaned over the side of the carriage to pass Beryl an unsure look—one the earth mare returned in kind. She then turned toward the Duke.
“My Lord, are you neither hungry nor thirsty? We two have been riding for an entire half day and you have yet to—”
“Not right this minute, Ada. I'm in the middle of something,” the stallion grumbled, his eyes never wavering from the page.
The Duchess thought to herself for a moment, then took another deep breath.
“Themis’ new neighbors sent us a gift.” Quickly, she lifted the wooden box sitting in her lap, and opened it for the Duke to inspect. “Black opal! Isn’t it curious?”
“Quite,” the stallion replied, never once looking up. Another letter rolled itself tight, and disappeared in a burst of light.
Adagio raised a brow, hesitating with herself. Gradually, she closed the box of jewels.
“What is it that has you so preoccupied, My Lord, if you don't mind my asking?”
“To be quite honest, Ada, I do,” the stallion huffed, dipping his quill back into its levitated inkwell. “None of it concerns you after all.”
“Well, actually, that is a bit of an untruth. Some of it does concern you.”
Adagio and Beryl again passed each other nervous glances.
“I… it does!” the Duchess nearly choked. “And in which way does it concern me, My Lord?”
“Oh, you needn't worry yourself with such things at the moment,” the stallion hummed. It was then that, for the first time since their ride began, he looked up, and passed her that same prodding smile he had given her the evening prior. “You shall know soon enough.”
The stallion then returned to his work as if nothing odd had taken place at all.
Adagio heard her maidservant stumble a step where she trotted beside the carriage. The Duchess’ head felt light. Increasingly, fear and paranoia were beginning to take hold of her. A slight tremble worked its way up from her tail, and traveled into her back.
Upon seeing her distress, Beryl cleared her throat to draw her mistress’ attention. When she had gotten it, she gestured for the noblemare to keep her chin up. Yet both of their expressions were frightened and regretful, relaying secrets which they could not speak aloud.
They reached Goldenstalks manor on the afternoon of the following day, all of them achey, crumpled, and weary. Upon exiting the carriage as it pulled up to the manor entrance, Upright was met by Spitshine, a servant of his household. Without hesitation, the earth stallion rushed toward him appearing somewhat uneasy.
“I take it they have arrived?” the Duke inquired, looking the nervous brown stallion over.
Spitshine nodded frantically.
“Y...yes, Your Grace. They are awaiting you in the parlour,” he stammered, seemingly wrestling with himself over the matter of whether to continue speaking. “F…forgive me, but please hurry, Your Grace. The two of them frighten me very much! The big one seems strong and quick to anger. He may break something...something expensive, and I just dusted that room this afternoon!”
The Duke rolled his eyes at the irritating sound of the servant pony’s whining. Sighing heavily to himself, he turned to face Adagio who was now stepping from the carriage, looking every last bit apprehensive.
“Of whom does he speak, My Lord?” she inquired, unable to hide the coldness in her tone. “Are we receiving guests? Already?”
“I'm afraid I must be off, Ada,” the stallion sighed, ignoring her questions. “If you would be so kind as to join me in the parlour after you are settled, there is somepony that I would very much like for you to meet.”
With that, he turned and walked away briskly, Spitshine skipping along behind him. When they were gone, Adagio turned to Beryl, a wary look upon her face. The maidservant, determined to complete whatever task her mistress might ask of her next, set her jaw and stood up straight.
“Beryl? Investigate,” the Duchess commanded. Without another word, the earth mare nodded, and quickly raced off into the manor.
By the time she had washed and dressed, Adagio felt more tired than when she had arrived. Glancing herself over in the mirror, she quickly adjusted her hems, her mane, and of course, that infernal green pin upon her collar before exiting the chamber.
The hall beyond the parlour door was uncharacteristically quiet for this time of day. The Duchess supposed that perhaps Upright, busy with his oh so very important guests, had not wished to be disturbed by servants bustling to and fro in the corridor. Perhaps he had frightened them all off.
From a few steps away, she could see that the room’s door had been left ajar. Daylight poured from it and into the hall. Another step, and now she could barely make out voices, one of them clearly female, the other male, but neither of them familiar. In fact, upon first listen, they both sounded uncharacteristically grim for anypony that she might have been acquainted with.
Thinking little of this, she approached the door without hesitation, and moved to turn into the room.
Suddenly, a loud hacking noise echoed off of the walls, followed by the distinct sound of splattering liquid. Adagio froze to her spot just beyond the entrance.
“Whot is this swill? It tastes like dirt!” the male voice bellowed. A familiar ruffling noise that Adagio couldn't quite place followed this exclamation.
“I believe it to be tea,” the female voice replied calmly—almost coldly. She received an unpleasant grunt in response.
“Well, it's right disgustin’!” the unknown stallion retorted.
“Please, can we return to the matter at hoof?” an irritated voice, clearly the Duke’s, bid them both. “I've traveled very far today, and would very much like to complete our conversation as quickly as possible.”
Another grunt from the mysterious guests.
“Well, idonno! Can we complete this ‘ere conversation? One would think a fine chap such as y’self could afford to part with a bit of cider upon receiving such very important guests!” the male voice bleated, his tone full of sarcasm. It made Adagio smile to imagine Upright on the receiving end of it. Just who were these two amazing ponies, anyway?
“Would you control him, Miss? Or shall I?” Upright growled, imploring the mare to do something.
“I'd like to see you try it, ol’ frilly fetlocks!” the male stranger bellowed. “Should be good for a bit of a laugh!”
Adagio stifled a laugh of her own out in the corridor.
“He does as he pleases,” the mystery mare clarified in her grim fashion. “Or if there is a problem, we could both leave now, and save you the trouble.”
A heavy silence ensued as Adagio imagined it might after such bold commentary. She heard the tapping of a hoof upon wood, followed by a heavy sigh.
“Beryl? Fetch the cider,” the Duke murmured.
“At once, Your Grace,” a familiar voice replied gently. The sounds of purposeful hoofsteps could be heard making their way across the floor.
“Yea, Beryl, my flower! Do hurry along now, and fetch the cid—OW!”
“Leave the maidservant be,” the grim mare commanded.
Again, Beryl’s hoofsteps made their way toward the door, faster this time. As she approached, Adagio could hear her frantic breath. Turning the corner, the earth mare barreled headlong into her mistress. By some miracle, the both of them managed not to make a sound.
“Are you alright?” the Duchess silently mouthed to the startled mare, stroking at her mane. Beryl nodded, forcing her mistress back, away from the threshold.
“My Lady,” she mouthed in return. “Stay away!”
Leaving no room for a reply, the frantic maidservant then initiated a haphazard game of charades, miming half-formed thoughts and indecipherable messages.
“Slowly, Beryl. Slowly,” Adagio bid her.
Attempting to calm herself, Beryl took a deep breath. This time, she very purposefully raised her forelegs, and began flailing them about like a pony whose tail had just caught fire. Upon seeing the confused look on her mistress’ face, she leaned in close, and mouthed something unintelligible, something that looked like...
“Pigsty sanctuaries?” Adagio inquired.
Beryl shook her head, and prepared to try again. However, the sound of the mysterious stallion piping up in conversation and the mysterious mare groaning to herself with piquing interest, was enough to frighten the poor thing away.
Ever adamant, Adagio did not budge. She was intent on discovering exactly who these two strangers were with as little consequence to herself as possible.
“Shall we continue?” Upright sighed.
Adagio could hear the shuffling of a few pages.
“Now then, what did you say your talents were?”
“As my name implies, I am capable of utilizing sound and its movement to decipher the location of anything bigger than... say… a large rat,” the female voice replied. There was a pause. “Even still, if I am in an enclosed space, I could probably find the rat, as well.”
Adagio heard that strange ruffling sound again.
“Naturally, my abilities do require that I work alongside a partner who knows how to make themselves discreet. He is the stealthiest pony you shall ever know, despite his mouth. No target has ever managed to see him coming.”
Adagio, now rather unnerved, rubbed her hooves together as she listened to her husband grunt.
“None of them?” the Duke inquired.
“Out of one hundred, none,” the female finished. “In summation, I can find anything, and he can catch anything. For what you have brought us on to do, we should prove more than efficient.”
“We also do audits,” the mystery stallion added. One could practically hear the proud grin in his voice. His partner, apparently not as enthused, sighed loudly.
“Bit borin’ of a job, if I do say so myself, Prince Charmin’,” the mare’s partner continued on. “I ain’t anypony’s wetnurse, if you catch my meanin’. Boh, a’least you’re decent enough to pay us well.”
“Oh, I wouldn't call it boring just yet, my friend. Who knows. This Duchess could be full of surprises,” the mystery mare chuckled.
Adagio could now hear her shuffling about on her seat.
“By the way, Sir, are you aware that somepony has been lurking outside of that doorway for the past fifteen minutes?”
“What?” the Duke exclaimed.
Adagio gasped when she heard him rise out of his seat. She retreated backward, but not fast enough to avoid being surrounded by a paralyzing glow of orange magic. It collected her up into the air, and promptly delivered her into the chamber where, to her dismay, she finally met face to face with the Duke’s two guests: a stark white pegasus mare, mane and eyes all a striking silver, and a dark grey pegasus stallion, eyes a poisonous, glistening green. The both of them were clad in a shiny, metallic black.
At last, Adagio understood what it was that Beryl had mouthed to her in the corridor: pegasus mercenaries.
The both of them grinned brightly at her as the pupils of their eyes did that horrible thing predators of the air did when they wished to get a better gander at something in the distance.
“Well, well!” the pegasus stallion lilted, his wings shuffling with excitement. The white mare said nothing, choosing instead to brood as the glow around Adagio’s body dimmed then disappeared.
“Ada, why the jewel are you sitting in the dark?” the Duke chided her, ignoring the pegasi. “Do you not realize how impolite it is to keep our guests waiting?”
“I… I was simply…” the Duchess stammered, her eyes darting about, “adjusting my robes!”
The pegasus stallion snorted at these words, passing her a cheeky grin. His mare partner smiled. Adagio was almost certain that the two could tell that she was lying. Still, mustering up some courage, she straightened her back out, and lifted her horn high.
“My Lord, what exactly are these two… creatures doing in our home?”
The smiles fell away from the winged pair’s faces in an instant. Their feathers ruffled and stood on edge as they eyed her menacingly. Before the Duke could reply, the dark stallion made a big to-do about rising from his sitting cushion to approach her.
“Supposin’ that enormous forehead blemish o’ yours grants you the right to judge others, ey?” he growled, rounding about the Duchess. “And what say you if I call your kind ever sour-faced and tight in the hind quarters, with all of your smelly rules and robes?”
If the insult had not been meant for her, Adagio might have laughed at the distorted, puckered expression the pegasus was now making.
“A pain in my wing,” the large stallion growled, hunkering down low to meet the Duchess at eye level, “all of you Thorns.”
At the mention of that horrid word, Adagio gasped. Instinctively, her hoof cocked backward, then swung forward, its full brunt aimed at the pegasus’ jaw. Before she could land the strike, however, a spark of orange collected about the horrid stallion’s neck, and hoisted him high into the air.
The pegasus choked and gagged as, slowly, the orange glow surrounding his head turned him about to face the Duke. Fire was now raging in the unicorn stallion’s eyes. He said nothing at first, waiting until he was composed enough to speak rationally.
“I warned you, did I not?” he hissed.
The ensnared pegasus, now looking to his partner for aid, only received a weary shrug for his trouble.
“He did warn you,” the white mare sighed boredly.
“Speak to Her Grace in that manner ever again, and I shall be sure to make an earth pony out of you,” the Duke growled. A nearby window magically opened itself up wide somewhere to his right. “Am I making myself clear?”
The dark stallion nodded obediently, desperate for air.
“Very good,” Upright finished. Then, without any hesitation, he tossed the stallion headlong through the opened window. Its panels slammed themselves shut behind him.
Echo laughed with satisfaction at the apparently cruel fate of her partner. Then, as if a switch had been flipped somewhere in the depths of her dark mind, her expression grew grim once more.
“Well, now I'm bored,” she sighed. Rising to her hooves, she turned to face the Duke. “If there is nothing else, then I think I shall take my leave as well. I suppose you can forget the cider.”
“Just one moment, Miss Hum,” the Duke coughed. Rising to his hooves as well, he passed the mare a disingenuous smile. “Since you currently find yourself unimpeded by any prior engagements, I trust that you shall be able to explain our arrangements to Her Grace. Am I correct in saying so?”
Echo said nothing, staring at him for what seemed to be an eternity before rolling her silver eyes.
“Very… well...” she growled through her teeth, turning to eye the Duchess.
“Good. Well, if that is everything, then I think I shall retire for the day,” the Duke finished before rounding past Adagio who still remained startled and silent in the center of the floor. “Ada, you can trust Miss Hum to inform you of everything that you should know.”
Passing her another one of his knowing smiles, he nodded his head, and silently exited the chamber, leaving Adagio and Echo in the middle of what appeared to be a heated staring contest.
Not one for such useless—and bloodless—forms of competition, Echo was the first to speak.
“Your husband…he is very possessive of his toys, isn’t he?” she chuckled, flipping her mane over one shoulder. She received only a disgusted grimace in return.
Sitting up straight, the pegasus spread her snow white wings.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Echo Hum, and my partner’s name is...well, was Silent Wing. We two are—”
“I know who and what you are,” Adagio spat. “What I have yet to understand is why you are here.”
Echo smiled. Stepping forward, she began to circle the Duchess much like her partner did, humming to herself with interest as she studied the mare.
“Between us fillies, let me just say that I understand your frustrations quite well. I've experienced similar problems, if you could believe it.”
“Is that right?” Adagio sighed, unimpressed. “And what might those have been?”
“Why, rueing your life, of course. Hating all of the barriers in your way as well as the ponies who put them there to control you,” Echo replied coldly, her dilating and contracting pupils working over every inch of the Duchess. “I solved my problem eventually, of course, and now am free to live the life of my choosing.”
“I… How?” was all she could manage. “How did you solve this problem? What did you do?”
Rounding to Adagio’s front, Echo lowered herself to her haunches. Something disturbing and deadly lay within her silver gaze.
“The only thing that was to be done. I solved my problem, by removing my problem. Simple.” She smiled when she noticed the noblemare’s growing discomfort. “Thus, believe me when I say that I find it a shame that we could not be on the same side of things in this, our little ‘arrangement’.”
“And what arrangement is that?” Adagio pressed boldly. “Miss Hum, I do believe you are hesitating.”
The pegasus mare chuckled to herself. Her wings fluttered eagerly. By this time, Silent Wing had managed to make his way back up to the parlour window looking a bit bruised and worse for wear. He now hovered beyond it, tapping upon the glass to draw his partner’s attention. Echo, condemning him to the boring task of waiting, turned to face the Duchess once more.
“On the contrary, Lady Adagio. I was instructed to inform you only of that which is required for you to know.” The white mare’s ear twitched as she rose to stand. Her feathers ruffled as she peered beyond the doorway. “And all that is required for you to know is that my partner and I have never cared much for socializing…”
Rushed hoofsteps approached the door.
“But trust that we relish watching.” The white mare’s eyes descended downward to Adagio’s neckline where her hyacinth pin was displayed. “Congratulations, by the way.”
Suddenly, Beryl came barreling in, a half-spilled pitcher of cider hanging from her mouth. Startled, Adagio spun about to face her.
“Shrry! Shrry!” the earth mare bleated, skidding to a stop before her mistress. “Was prndemonium drwn in the—”
She looked about the otherwise empty room, and spit the pitcher out onto the floor.
“Thistle. Am I too late?”
Exasperated, Adagio turned again to face Echo only to find the mare and her companion both gone. The only evidence of them left were the swinging panels of the now gaping window.
Tall grasses licked at her legs as she ran past the garden. Fields flashed in raspberry as she transported herself along the way, trying to pick up more speed. The atmosphere felt too thick to breathe. The sound of her own racing heartbeat pounded in her ears as she raced toward Lighthoof’s house. Considering the notices that Upright had sent off during their ride from Canterlot, Adagio could only assume that the knight had long received his reason to linger upon estate grounds. Fortunately for her, she was correct.
When she found him, the earth stallion was sitting out front of his home, angrily sharpening his blade. An unsealed scroll sat crumpled by his side.
Upon seeing the mare approach, he shot up, snatched up the scroll in his teeth, and made his way toward her. They met on the edge of his yard where he spat the unraveled notice onto the ground at her hooves.
“What in Tartarus is this?” he bellowed. “The King releases me completely to his care! No questions, no complaints!”
Her legs were trembling, her head bowed as she tried in vain to catch her breath.
“You did this, didn’t you?” Prance hissed. “You did this to keep me here!”
Somewhere in the dark beyond of the Sardhoof, a branch crackled. Leaves rustled, and then went still. Her heart ached and her stomach dropped at the noise. There was no knowing. There was no telling, not with those two flying wretches. Thus, there need be no turning back now. What she did, she did for Lighthoof’s own good.
“Him,” the Duchess heaved, straightening her shoulders at last. She lifted her head to peer into those beloved violet eyes.
The stallion went silent. Edging backward ever so slightly, he shot her a curious look.
“What?” he inquired.
A gust of wind passed overhead. The Sardhoof’s canopy hissed, and then simmered into silence. Shadowy shapes that could be mistaken for all they were not peered at her through the darkness.
It had to be done now.
“I’ve made my choice, and I choose him. I choose Upright,” Adagio stated, her eyes never wavering, her voice never shaking. “Lighthoof, we shan’t ever meet this way again.”