There was rumbling in the Northern skies. Though the sound’s source was rendered invisible by a thick wall of nimbostratus, anypony with half a wit to their name could guess where it emanated from.
Two earth mares, one red-orange, the other green, stared up at the ominous clouds as a strong gust of wind rushed past. A fury of flapping wings and stomping hooves could be heard overhead. They both clutched to their few scraps of clothing until the din had waned.
And then, something completely unexpected: The skies in the distance began to clear, slowly at first, then with fervor. How long had it been since anypony had seen that particular, far off patch of blue? What did it mean if now they could?
Cautiously, the orange mare turned to the green and blinked. “You see that, Miss Beryl?”
“Mmh. That I do, Miss Blossom,” the green replied. Her gaze was still on the horizon. “‘Twas over Edinbridle, I believe.”
Begonia Blossom cocked a brow, and adjusted her straw hat. The brim’s shadow hid the dark circles about her eyes. “A question, Miss Beryl,” she said, leaning in. “What are your thoughts on the earth ponies of those Northern lands?”
Beryl cut her eyes at the other mare, and forced down a grin. “The traitors, you mean.”
Begonia shifted about uncomfortably, clicking her tongue against her teeth. “Right, right, deary, but what do ye’ glean from ‘em? From their ruminations? Do you suppose there might be something to it all? Earth ponies deciding things for themselves?”
There was an odd tinge in Begonia’s voice. One could assume that she had already made up her mind about the entire matter.
The grin Beryl had been stowing escaped her. Somehow, it managed to be both polite and mischievous at the same time. “Miss Blossom,” she murmured, letting her gaze fall to the ground. “I do believe this conversation to be inappropriate, all things considered.” She motioned behind her to Goldenstalks manor, a dark and jagged smudge jutting out of the ground in the distance. “Perhaps it might be wiser to continue with our previous order of business.”
Begonia passed the servant mare one of her most unimpressed smirks. “Order of business,” she said, rearing up onto her hind legs, and leaning upon the fence that cut a line between them. “As you wish, my dear. The Duchess is absolutely mad. How's that for appropriate conversation?”
The country mare fell back down to all fours fiddling with the edges of her hat. It was clear her mood had deteriorated. “It is enough that nearly all of my posy blossoms are plucked. Now, I hear that Our Lady wishes that I tend to her garden for midday? Exactly what sort of miracle is Her Grace expecting?”
“Mother, I can see cake! They're going to eat cake! Please, may we go?” cried a little blue colt as he raced along the fence toward his perturbed parent. He watched on as servants beyond the Goldenstalks fields moved various pieces of furniture and refreshment to and fro from the estate garden.
“Quiet, dear. Mummy’s talking,” the gardener mare said. She reeled about to address Beryl once again. “I'm worked to the bone as is!”
“I can assure you that you shall be handsomely compensated for your trouble, Miss,” Beryl said, raising a hoof in mock surrender.
“Well, it doesn't bloody matter how much ye’ pay me to complete an impossible task, now does it?” Begonia retorted.
“Peat, not now!” she bellowed. Turning about one more time, she leaned in so close to Beryl that now the servant could easily make out the weariness plaguing her face. “Miss Beryl, you understand don’t you?”
“Unfortunately, I do not, Miss Blossom,” Beryl said, huffing a strand of mane out of her eye. “The nature of flower rearing is not a particular forte of mine. However, Her Grace wishes only for a temporary patch, and not large like the others. Not for show. And, of course, you shall be granted privilege to Her Grace’s potion cabinet to aid in your efforts.” A pause. “Er… you do know how to utilize potions for plant rearing, I presume?”
This news seemed to settle the gardener. “In a pinch,” she sniffed. Her nose crinkled. “The entire potion cabinet, you say?”
“S’right, Miss Blossom. Whatever it is you might require to grow the blooms she has requested,” Beryl hummed. She leaned in close to whisper, “And I’m certain that Her Grace would not mind if, oh say, a love potion or two went missing in the fray. These little accidents are bound to happen amidst a rush, after all.”
Begonia worked her jaw. Clearing her throat, she turned tail, and flicked the bushy mass into Beryl’s face. “Fine,” she chirped. “But I still expect full payment up front.”
Her pretentiousness fell away upon hearing the distinct sound of jingling coins within burlap. Spinning about, she found Beryl dangling a near-bursting pouch from her teeth.
Tossing the sack at Bea’s hooves, the maidservant shot her a smug grin. “And that's just the first half,” she lilted.
Not too proud to pounce upon the satchel, Bea inspected its contents whilst glancing up at Beryl’s grin. The servant pony seemed fresh, calm, not worried in the slightest as to the affairs of the world around her.
Bea huffed. Satisfied with the amount within the pouch, she pulled a bit from within, and tossed it Peat Moss’ way. “Peat, dear, go buy some sweets for you and your sister,” she said.
The colt was halfway to the roadside before his mother had finished giving the command.
Beryl, confused by Begonia’s hostility, pulled her shawl tighter about herself, and took a step back in the direction of the mansion. “Well, if that is everything…” she wavered.
“Look at you. Face as fresh as a field daisy after a spring rain,” Bea grumbled, rubbing at her tired eyes. “Faces like that hard to come by anymore out where I'm from.”
“Are they?” Beryl asked. Another step backward. “Well, I wouldn't know anything about—”
“‘Course you wouldn't,” Bea interrupted. “Rumor has it that nopony on the estate gets the bad dreams.” She paused. “Is it true?”
“I…” Beryl hesitated for a moment, wrestling with herself over what to say.
“Living under the roof of His and Her Grace is quite useful to an earth pony in such times. Is it why you do not mention those who revolt? Are you afraid to live like the rest of us?” Begonia inquired.
At last, Beryl turned, and quickly march off toward the mansion. “I’m sure I don’t know what it is you're talking about,” she huffed.
“Don't you? Think yourself better off for working the estate, do ye’?” Bea bellowed after her. “Think you can just ignore what's happening to our lot on the outside, and it will all go away?”
Beryl continued on without faltering. The country mare’s attempt at shaming her was proving futile. “I have considered them. I consider them to be quite misguided,” the maidservant shouted. “And everypony is having those dreams. Not only commoners.”
Bea gawked. “Commoners?” Slowly, a laugh grew in her chest until it echoed loud through the manor fields. “‘Tis a fine day. A fine day indeed when an earth pony forgets where she came from!” She leaned upon the gate. Its wood creaked under her weight. “You think that fancy dish rag your mistress gifted you for clothing gives you a bit of clout?”
Realizing the error in her wording, Beryl spun about. “You misunderstand me, Miss Blossom. I would never imply that—”
“Where do you hail from, mare? I can smell the sand behind those ruddy ears!” the country mare said, pounding upon the fence post. Her exclamations grew louder when she saw Beryl’s fur begin to bristle. “Haysford? Billet, is it?”
“The shores of Whinnysor, and proud of it!” Beryl finally shouted, stomping a hoof into the grass.
“Ah! Seafaring blood!” Begonia mused, glad to have goaded a response out of the servant. “And tell me, how does a filly who stinks of seaweed come into the company of one such as the Duchess?”
Having finally had enough, Beryl marched her way back toward the fence post. She made sure to jut a hoof directly into Begonia’s face when she arrived. “That isn't any of your business, is it?” she growled, a vindictive spark in her eyes. “All that matters now is that I am on this side of the fence, and you are not.”
This quip momentarily silenced the gardener into a seething simmer. Beryl smiled at the sight of Bea huffing steam. “So, if you are finished with your futile attempt at pulling sympathy and penance from me, Miss Blossom…” The defiant look in the maidservant’s eye, surprisingly, melted into one of understanding, “perhaps you might simply tell me what more it is that you want, and I shall see what I can do.”
Bea stammered, not quite sure how to meet the other mare’s words playing the part of an acquaintance. Her head snapped about at the sound of little hooves racing closer.
“Muvver, look!” Peat squealed, making his way back up from the road with two satchels hanging from his teeth. “He grve me two ‘stead o’ one!”
Begonia’s steely visage melted at the sight of her little son.
Beryl gulped, also noticing the shadowy circles that haloed the young colt’s eyes.
The country mare turned again to face the servant. Her mettle had all but fallen away leaving nothing but weariness and worry in its wake. “Rumor has it that your estate ponies do not have the bad dreams,” she repeated sternly. Her lip trembled. “Is it true?”
Beryl took a deep breath. “Yes. ‘Tis true,” she said, her gaze falling to the ground.
“The Duke and Duchess,” Begonia continued, “they hoard the secret to peace of mind, and do not share it with the masses who toil on their behalf.”
“That is a lie!” Beryl huffed, her eyes wide. “Goldenstalks is a natural sanctuary. There is no spell or potion to aid us in that regard. If there was, His and Her Grace would never allow the ponies of the Sardhoof to continue their suffering. Our Lord and Lady are good ponies. This I know in my heart.”
Begonia scrutinized the servant mare. Again, her tongue clicked against her teeth. “You sound very sure of yourself,” she said. “Your master and mistress are not your friends, you delusional little thing. How very sad it is that you cannot see that the day they betray you, too, swiftly approaches.”
Beryl stared at her for a moment, lost in thought. She entertained the idea of retorting angrily before concluding that there was truly no point in arguing with the mare. Sighing, she passed both mother and child a warm smile. “A place to rest up and perhaps a bit of dessert as well. How does that sound to you?” she offered. “Her Grace has grown quite fond of your talents, Begonia. It would be a shame if the beauty of your flowers were to suffer for want of something so very basic and well deserved.”
Begonia hesitated, caught off guard by this small show of kindness. “Alright. I shall try for midday today,” she coughed, attempting to hide the sudden blush in her cheeks with the brim of her hat. Her eyes darted about when the succeeding silence became too awkward. “I… I understand the peonies, and the hyacinths, but may I ask... why evening primrose? On such short notice? It has such a plain blossom, and they do only bloom at twilight. If I am able to make them bloom at all before noon, I can assure you that the petals shan't last the day.”
Beryl shrugged, running a hoof across the end of her braid. There was a twitch in her brow before she shook a few bad inklings away. Certainly, there was no time for worrying. “Her Grace can have strange tastes at times. Perhaps she favors the primrose’s shade or its scent.” She smiled thoughtfully to herself. “I shall be sure to ask her.” Her gaze trailed down toward Peat Moss who was already halfway through one of the satchels of biscuits. “And I shall personally see to your piece of cake as well, little master.”
“Chancellor… Grub… Rooter!”
“No! Pop, you are poking fun at me again, aren’t you? That couldn't possibly be his name!”
“Indeed, I am not! Those charlatans not only wish to elect their own leader, but would also be satisfied with following the orders of a filthy ball of grime called... ugh… Grub! By Bullion, the pony probably collects infectious vermin for a living!”
“Dreadful!” Parasol, a stately, cream clay-colored unicorn exclaimed. She pressed a hoof to her chest, nearly teetering from her sitting cushion. “Celestia, I think I shall faint.”
Popinjay, a foppish, royal blue earth stallion, flipped one of his long white curls and sighed. “All mad, them. I truly believe it. How could one ever expect to maintain civilized society if ponies are given the freedom to simply choose their leaders? How could one ensure that they would be of the proper stock? Why, we might as well live like barbarians amongst elusive elements, just like the… flying ones.”
Parasol mumbled something about Luna and somepony rolling in a grave.
Remembering his tea, Popinjay pulled his cup closer so that he might bend down to take a sip. It seemed they were both blithely unaware of the weary look they were receiving from their third tablemate, the golden Duchess.
“Spirits bless those poor, wretched souls,” Parasol said. She absent-mindedly levitated her earth companion’s cup toward his lips the way a mother might feed her foal. “You shouldn't mock them, Pop. They are blinded by ignorance. We mustn’t mock the poor and uneducated.”
Adagio gazed upon them both, her face blank, but her insides roiling with despise. These two were fortunate that she had more important matters to tend to today. Otherwise, she might have chosen to outwardly express her disfavor.
“Your Grace? The tea you have requested,” a black and white splotched servant announced from the Duchess’ rear, pulling her from her ireful thoughts. After filling her cup, he placed the pristine, porcelain pot down upon the white tablecloth in front of her, and straightened out his back. “Will there be anything else?”
“N...no, Patchwork. That should be all for now, thank you,” Adagio said, now far too preoccupied with staring down into the murky liquid.
The surprised expressions on the faces of her noble “companions” went wholly unnoticed until Patchwork skittered away.
“You never cease to amaze me, Adagio,” Parasol said, leaning over the table. “Always so generous to her servants, wouldn't you say so?” She passed a glance Popinjay’s way.
“It would seem that Her Grace is cultivating a heart for charity,” the stallion snickered, gliding a manicured hoof down his finely groomed cheek. He moved to pull the sugar dish closer to himself.
Parasol levitated some into his cup instead. “Oh, you mustn’t do that, Popinjay. Collecting things with your teeth is so very common. Now, I've told you before, simply tell me what it is that you want, and I shall retrieve it for you.”
“Parri, you are too good to me,” the stallion yawned, never even bothering to look at her.
The sarcasm leaking from each of his words broke Adagio out of her short-lived, tea-driven trance. It took all of her might not to shoot the both of her table mates a grimace. As far as she was concerned, the rather dizzy Duchess Parasol Pride and her opportunistic, hanger-on of a companion, Popinjay, deserved each other. Both vacuous—though Parasol’s disposition was considerably sweeter than her mean-spirited friend’s—the pair seemed determined to reflect into Adagio’s face all that she continued to dislike about her position in life. Still, there was no avoiding them. Parasol was a peer, after all.
“Civility is not charity, Mister Popinjay,” Adagio clucked, levitating the table sugar closer to herself. “It costs a pony nothing to show gratitude to those that would serve her well.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Popinjay moaned. He bowed his head whilst passing Parasol a wink that she had not the wits to decipher. “And what, may I ask, has dear Patch...work served you? Is it tasty?” The stallion gasped. “Is it expensive?”
He reached out with a foreleg—much to Parasol’s dismay—intent on drawing Adagio’s pot closer to himself. The Duchess Goldenstalks started up at once to snatch it away. Both Parasol and Popinjay gawked.
“Mister Popinjay, I would advise you to remember your manners in my presence!” the golden unicorn squawked. Her hoof shook as she manually forced down the lid of the pot.
“Well!” the stallion gasped, trying and failing to hide his loss of nerve. “My apologies, Your Grace, for forgetting myself. It shan’t happen again.”
“I should hope not!” Adagio huffed, lifting her cup toward her lips out of habit before she remembered what it contained. It wasn't long before she was, again, staring into its depths.
“Oh, he didn't mean anything by it, Adagio. I'm sure of it. Popinjay is only a bit excited to be here. Isn't that right, Pop?” Parasol said, her sleepy eyes blinking rapidly. She adjusted the disingenuously provincial wreath of daisies that sat upon her blonde-maned crown, then directed her magic downward to raise her cup toward her lips. “Now, let us forget all of these dreadful things, and enjoy each others’ company, shall we? Your garden parties are always to die for, Adagio.”
She wasn’t wrong. Ever since her ascension to Duchess, Adagio’s garden parties had become a far more frequent and lavish occurrence. However, despite the fragrant, sun spackled beauty into which she would dash her guests about every two weeks or so, the Lady Goldenstalks dared not reveal to anypony besides Beryl and Moonstone the true nature of these events.
It had been over a month since Upright had taken on a Duchy, and over a month since Adagio and Sir Lighthoof had been able to visit with one another in the way they used to before the Duke had set his flying hounds upon her. Even now, the Duchess knew that if she were to pay close enough attention, she might spy out of the corner of her eye a swift movement among the tall grasses or a quick shadow passing overhead that would surely appear to have no source if only she still cared enough to look up.
These parties of hers were some of the few chances she was allowed to see her beloved knight, to dance with him the way they used to, to sit and speak with him despite their being unable to express much more beyond formal pleasantries. “Sir Lighthoof,” she would greet him, hoping that he heard the sorrowful regret in the words. “Your Grace,” he would reply, his offers of freedom hanging heavier in the air around them with each passing meeting. Even now, from across the garden’s clearing all packed with pastries and white linen frocks, she could see him staring holes into her from where he anxiously stood guard beside a mostly untouched refreshment table.
The Duchess passed him a weak smile, bobbing her cup in his direction. Prance turned away from her. He worked his jaw, suddenly appearing very sick. Adagio couldn't blame him.
The time in between their meetings felt long, increasingly torturous. Moments spent in one another’s company were fleeting. Adagio had become listless in the in-between. Thus, she resolved herself to finding appropriate and necessary distractions. In that first month, she had poured herself so very much into her garden, her parties, and cooling her husband’s suspicions with ever-waning sweetness, and she did it so thoroughly that the other great lie she had been telling the world was almost foolishly forgotten.
It was Beryl who, casually, had first taught her about such things as evening primrose. At the time, Adagio remembered feeling a twinge of disgust direct itself onto her maidservant, despite the plant being mentioned absent-mindedly and only in passing, and despite it merely being her effort to make a helpful statement. While most ponies outwardly lambasted such unsavory mares business as being evidence of a heartless villain, the truth of the matter was that such knowledge was secretly valued by many. When the time was appropriate for it, nopony ever needed an explanation as to why.
Now, staring down into the murky liquid in her cup, Adagio couldn’t help but snort at the irony of her predicament. For all intents and purposes, there was no reason to subject herself to such physical punishment. Yet she knew that if her cover up was to be successful, it would also have to be thorough. A terrible fall or rotten stew was out of the question. Whichever pony happened to be in the vicinity when this took place would surely be blamed. To Tartarus with what her sister, Violet, had suggested. Adagio had not the coldness to willingly send an innocent to suffer for her own mistakes. Thus, something of her own doing was required. Considering that, if evening primrose was not in her blood stream when the estate physician next examined her, the ruse would surely be uncovered.
Naturally, she had taken care of the other details in her scheme as well. In what would seem yet another act of betrayal, she had requested that Beryl order the rearing of a list of blossoms, evening primrose included, into a far place in the garden where no pony might think ill of them. Then, whilst that grumpy country gardener had gone off for a late breakfast, Adagio had taken a quick walk through the patches. Pretending to be wholly unaware of the primrose’s nature, she had plucked a few petals from each patch to be used as tea. Then, after using her magic to dry them, she had crushed the lot, and passed it off to the kitchen staff as hyacinth and pansy meant only for her consumption. Simple enough.
The first bit of her party had been arguably enjoyable, all over-cooled cakes, barely wilted roses, and light talk with an increasingly distraught Lighthoof. Then, much too soon, the sun had begun its decline, and at last, Adagio knew it was time.
Oh well, she thought to herself, finally raising her cup to her lips. Surely, at some point I've done something wicked enough to warrant this punishment. Perhaps the Spirits might consider a few of my debts repaid.
Unceremoniously, she gulped the liquid down. It was bitter without sugar, but she supposed that perhaps she deserved that, too. Shaking away the tingle crawling up her back, she quickly poured herself another cup, downed it, and continued on until the entire pot was emptied.
Looking oddly at peace, she dropped the container down onto the table, and looked up at her stunned tablemates. Their gawking faces had gone somewhat hazy around the edges. Warmth overtook her cheeks.
“Your Grace was quite thirsty!” Popinjay coughed, trying to hide his snickering.
“‘Tis truly a shame, Mister Popinjay, that I should never have the pleasure of witnessing you sample such a tea,” she quipped, chuckling at her own cleverness as she watched the stallion’s entire face go red. The warmth was now spreading down through her chest, into her legs, up her back. She began to sway as a tickle grew in her stomach.
“Adagio, dear, are you feeling alright?” Parasol inquired. “I must say, your eyes do appear a bit… glassy.”
She could feel the sick gestating in her stomach. The sound of Parasol’s voice instantly became intolerable. The sheen of the gaudy world around her fell away. “Oh, Parasol, do shut up,” she grumbled, teetering too far, and accidentally flipping her emptied teapot onto the ground. It shattered to bits, drawing the attentions of everypony in the nearby vicinity, Prance included.
“W… w-w… what?” the Duchess Pride squawked in disbelief, unable to fathom that anypony might speak to her so rudely.
Seeing this commotion as reason to rush to her side, Prance quickly headed Adagio’s way. “Your Grace?” he murmured as he crouched down beside her, bracing her shivering back with a sturdy foreleg. “What is the matter?”
All he received in response was a dizzy smile.
“Oh, Lighthoof! So glad you've decided to join us,” Adagio said. Her head lolled forward for just a moment before she popped up straight once again. “I'm perfectly well. I suppose the tea was just a bit too strong.” She passed a meaningful glare Prance’s way, one which he deciphered as being mischievous.
The knight’s brow furrowed with quiet suspicions as he stared down at the brown and off yellow dregs now soaking into the ground. “Your Gr… What...” he stammered.
“The Duchess is unwell!” Parasol whined, tugging at her pale mane with her hooves. She glared vindictively at Adagio. “She is saying things that she does not mean! Do something, soldier!”
“Your….voice is so very... irritating,” Adagio slurred in between hiccups, again reeling upon the palomino mare. At last, she gave one final heave. Her raspberry eyes shot open wide, and her cheeks puffed out to resemble a chipmunk’s. Casually, politely even, she turned her head to the side, bent over, and retched onto the garden’s flatstone. Then, keeling back, she passed out into Prance’s grasp.
“Adagio!” the knight cried, forgetting the formalities of her address.
The air was filled with gasps, shocked chattering, and crashing porcelain as the entire gathering rose to its hooves. A few of the estate’s servants, Beryl included, rushed forward to help upon witnessing this chaos.
“Her Grace is ill!”
“Celestia, help us. The tea is poisoned!”
“This is surely earth pony treachery! Back, you scoundrels!”
“Somepony fetch the physician! Quickly!”
“Your Grace!” Beryl screeched, pushing past guest after guest to crouch at her mistress’ side. “Your Grace, are you alright?”
“It was her tea,” Prance said, attempting to keep the calm in his voice. “Can you decipher it, Beryl?”
The servant mare, ignoring the growing cries that she not be allowed to touch the Duchess for fear of treachery, pushed her long braid back, and bent over to stare at the tea dregs upon the ground. “I-I do not know, Sire. I am not knowledgeable in flowers. I don't think I can—”
“Beryl! Try harder!” Prance commanded, briefly losing his patience.
Nodding her head obediently, the maidservant bent down low to peer at the spilled bits of herb. “Yellow flowers. Pansy perhaps. I cannot be certain! I-it's been boiled, and… M-maybe that gardener mare would—”
“Gardener?” Prance cut in, now irate. “Which gardener is that? What is her name?”
“It was... Oh, dirt!” Beryl cried, still studying the swill. “She was reddish, almost. Had a young son with her! Be… Be…”
“Begonia…?” Prance breathed, now utterly confused. “Begonia Blossom?”
“Y-yes!” Beryl exclaimed. “The Duchess always allows her to manage the flowers for her garden parties. She…” The maidservant’s words finally trailed off when she sniffed the dregs from the Duchess’ broken teapot. She gasped quietly. Her body went stiff as realization descended upon her. When again she rose, her gaze brushed briefly over her mistress’ green, hyacinth-shaped pin before drifting over to Lighthoof.
When Prance looked upon the maidservant, her fur was bristled, and her pupils had shrunk to the size of dots. He watched on as she waved a few more servants to her aid.
“Quickly! Quickly, now! Up! Get her to the manor! Fetch the doctor!”
The trial was painful as Adagio knew it would be. The worst part? She was constrained to insist on spending it alone. Despite Beryl’s dedication to her, the only ponies the Duchess could allow to know about her own body's ineptitude were her sisters, ponies who truly understood the severity of her predicament. Unfortunately, neither of them had been in attendance to the party, nor had she heard from the pair in quite a long time. If she had not been running herself ragged with worry and sickness over the past month, perhaps she might have taken the opportunity to fret after their well being instead.
Of course, like most horrible things, eventually the throes of her illness and pain subsided. By this time, the sun was kissing the horizon, and the evening glories had begun to bloom. After her body had settled down into a far more tolerable heavy sweat, the Duchess called from her bed for Beryl to enter her chamber.
The maidservant who, expectedly, had been standing vigil at her mistress’ door, rushed in, frantic to aid in whichever way possible. “Have you been drinking the water? Here, let me help you out of that robe! Lands, Mum, why is your window shut?”
“Beryl, please come here,” the Duchess rasped, waving the earth pony over from the now opened window. Indeed, the fresh air seemed to renew her just a bit more.
Beryl, looking terrified, slowly made her way toward the bedside. She did not wait for permission to speak. “Y… Your Grace?” she began, her eyes the size of dinner plates. “Tell me. H… how could this have happened? Please tell me that this was a mistake… a horrible mistake.”
The pain in the earth mare’s eyes stabbed at Adagio. Still, there was no turning back now. “Yes. It was an accident,” she mumbled through perspiration and heaving breaths. “Forgive me, Beryl. I thought they were pansies.”
“Don't you lie to me, Miss,” the maidservant hissed through fresh tears, her head shaking from side to side. She reached forward to press her hooves against her mistress’ shoulders. “Don't you lie! You requested that I bring on that gardener to plant those primroses this morning! You planned all of this!”
The earth mare began to descend into panic and anger in a way Adagio had never before witnessed. Perhaps it was brought on by her own natural inclination toward self preservation. She knew well what could happen if the Duchess were to blame her for this debacle.
Adagio, rightfully, felt ashamed of herself. However, caught in her lie by a lesser pony, and quite cross for it, her learned response was only to retaliate. When Beryl shook her frantically, she reached out at once, and shoved her back onto the ground. “Beryl! You forget yourself!” The words both stung and soothed her. She hated what she was implying, and yet, it felt good to lash out at something weaker than herself.
Shocked and stunned, Beryl teetered backward. Her legs gave way and, soon, she fell down to her belly. She cleared her throat, and wiped her tears away. “P...pardon me, Your Grace,” she said, bowing her head.
Obliged to lie there looking pitiful, she sighed out her frustrations, and passed the Duchess an expression of concern. “And… and what of the foal?” she squeaked.
The best Adagio could manage under such duress was to give her maidservant a spiteful glower. Reaching down toward her collar, the Duchess, at last, relieved herself of the burden of that accursed, green pin. Unceremoniously, she tossed it across the room for a heartbroken Beryl to collect. “Call upon Silver Slate, and then deliver that unto His Grace,” she sniffed, straightening the mess that was her mane. “Do not linger there in his presence, Beryl. Return to me as quickly as you can.”
Under dictate of Duke Upright Goldenstalks of the Sardhoof, Goldenstalks manor was a relatively calm—even if tense—place. His father, though expectedly regal and rather old fashioned, had since his youth possessed a somewhat lackadaisical nature that reassured his household he, too, was of ponykind. On the other hoof, his only son, Upright, though beloved by his parents, had always seemed off, rather strange in his youngest days. Still, though completely self aware to the point of self exclusion and ever too serious for his age, the odd, bookish colt had somehow managed to grow up into a powerhouse of a royal peer. Efficient, hardworking, and dedicated, Upright had become one of the most respected leaders in the kingdom. Enough so that everypony else deemed his talents vast enough to outweigh his one, great fault: his austerity.
The stallion wasn't known for his kindness or sociability. Nor was he outwardly passionate about anything besides his work. But if there was ever a pony who could know that he did, indeed, possess a warm and beating heart somewhere beneath that cold exterior, it would be his wife, Adagio Dazzle.
On a rudimentary level, Upright was an excellent husband; to this the Duchess could attest. He provided for her, he defended her, he even made means to spoil her. The only thing in which he was lacking, and in which Adagio found herself wanting, was for a show of his love.
She had known ponies similar to this, creatures who were only able to show affection through material means. Occasionally, she even got it into her head to suspect that her husband was exactly like them. And then, every time she would come dangerously close to giving up hope, something would spark. Perhaps, those ice blue eyes would soften as they silently passed one another in the corridor. Sometimes, when he touched her in that stiff way of his, his hoof lingered, and she could feel the living warmth of him. She watched on often as he wrestled with his own tongue to say words that his brain was inclined to dissuade him from. These tiny moments of transparency were brief, but still enough for her to know that more was possible, and that without a doubt, the Duke was merely unwilling to meet her halfway.
Herein lay the crux of their problem.
Adagio despised being underestimated and subjugated. She hated being owned and maintained like a fancy piece of clothing, rather than being cherished. Upright, however, was a stallion very adept at maintaining and owning things. It should have come as no surprise, then, that he might grow frighteningly neurotic when his possessions or plans, Adagio and their baby included amongst them, came under threat of either new ownership or dictation.
The evening she returned the Duke’s pin, Adagio could not predict what would happen, but she did know that it would be wise to hunker down.
The sun had nearly set on the estate, and the guests had all gone away, retired off into town where their lavish homes or rented rooms awaited them. The hallways were emptied of life, save for the occasional maid pattering quickly toward some small chamber of refuge. There was a ticking in the air, not unlike a clock counting its way toward something dreadful. Many supposed that perhaps the sound might have magically emanated from the Duke’s own seething brain as it brooded alone in the dark of his study.
When the first crash echoed through the manor halls, nopony was shocked. Those who were daring enough to investigate afterward would discover a once pristine vase of golden flowers sitting crushed and ruined in the mud, having been dashed through the study window.
Sparks of orange as bright as day flashed from the room and down the hallways. Walls trembled. A howl shot like an arrow through the air. Gildings were flayed from their mouldings upon the ceiling. A door could be heard flying from its hinges in a blast of magic. It crashed into wreckage and splintered against some unfortunate wall.
“Who is responsible?”
Bodies rushed to and fro to get out of sight lest they pay dearly for simply breathing. Hushed whispers swelled until every corridor hissed and moaned.
Adagio lay in her chamber, listening. On her left side, slowly sifting through a set of vials with his magical aura, was the estate’s fossil of a physician, Silver Slate. On her right stood Beryl, one hoof resting upon her mistress’, the other tangled tightly into the sheets. The earth mare’s ears twitched restlessly. Her tail flicked itself back and forth as she gazed off into some hidden part of her own mind.
Adagio’s eyes remained closed as she was far too busy concentrating on keeping her stomach from turning. Praying, in her naivete, that Upright’s rampage would soon pass, she hadn't the energy to note Beryl’s expression growing darker, more tense with each boom and crash.
“Who is responsible?” the echoes rang through the estate. “Beryl!” he bellowed.
The earth mare flinched at the sound of her name. Adagio, feeling this reaction underhoof, stroked the green fur of her maidservant’s foreleg. Perhaps the manor might not make it through the night unscathed, but as long as nopony was hurt, the Duchess figured that everything would be alright… eventually.
“The evening primrose has done its work, Your Grace. That much is certain,” old Silver Slate groaned. His crude spectacles were almost shaken from his nose by a sudden blow that rocked the manor. Weakly, he adjusted them with a glow of magic.
Beryl shook her head. “This is my doing. I am a fool.”
“Beryl,” Adagio sighed, rubbing her aching temple. “That is enough.”
With resolve, the maidservant leaned forward toward her mistress. “Your Grace, this is madness. It must end.”
“Beryl, you are to stay by my side as I have instructed,” Adagio said, wincing with fatigue.
“But, Your Grace, somepony shall surely be injured if—”
“Beryl, I have spoken!” The Duchess shouted, pounding a hoof into her bed. She reclined back into her cushions after giving a great, sickly cough.
The maidservant bowed her head in submission.
Seeing this, Adagio turned away, confident that the earth mare would not protest again. “Am I still whole?” she asked Silver Slate. “Shall I ever...”
“Beryl, stop, now,” a voice identical to Adagio’s echoed within the servant mare’s skull. Beryl’s head shot up. Her eyes darted about the room until they landed upon her mistress. Out of the corner of her eye, the Duchess was passing her a knowing look. “Do not worry yourself over this matter any longer.”
More raging from the beyond. The sound of the Duke’s hoofsteps were becoming erratic as they lumbered through the hallways back toward his study. His howls grew more furious.
Adagio’s lips continued speaking out loud whilst the voice in her mind trained itself upon her servant.
Beryl shivered. Her expression seemed to beg for the ability to reply to her mistress in kind without Silver Slate hearing. Adagio nodded her head in understanding even whilst her mouth still addressed the aged physician. “Send your thoughts to me with focused intent. I shall hear them,” the Duchess said inside of the servant mare’s head.
Beryl nodded. Her lips drew in tight. “Please, Your Grace. Something must be done. I am so very confused and afraid.”
Adagio sighed out loud. Silver Slate could still detect nothing amiss.
“Beryl, I am weak and weary. This spell is troublesome. I shall confess, but heed my warning, you must take this secret with you to your grave.”
A pause. Beryl’s eyes had gone wide with terror.
“There is no foal. There never was, and I fear there never shall be,” Adagio said. Their eyes bore into one another’s.
“What? Do you mean to say, that this entire time…” Beryl replied. Her initial thought trailed off when Adagio nodded.
“The Duke is the type to drive himself mad over want of an heir. If he were to ever discover that I could not…”
Beryl had set herself to thinking, mulling the past four years over in her head. Her brow finally furrowed with anger. “So. I was correct, then. Your Grace, what have you done? Surely, an innocent shall suffer for your lie!”
She received no response. “Do you not care for them at all?” she pressed.
The Duchess turned away.
Beryl leaned forward, bearing down upon her mistress’ hoof. “Why do you not simply confess to the Duke? He loves you. I can see it in him. I am certain he would understand if—”
Adagio’s eyes popped open wide. They burned with rage. “No!” The internal shout banged off the walls of Beryl’s skull. “You naive, little fool! Nopony is going to tell the Duke anything! And nopony shall be harmed if you do as I say!” A fearful waver had entered the Duchess’ ethereal voice.
Silver Slate prattled on. “I cannot decipher a reason as to why this might hinder or endanger any future attempts,” the frail physician hummed, too old to note anything odd about their close-knit gathering of three. “However, you certainly should wait before trying again, Your Grace. One month at minimum, lest you do yourself permanent harm.”
Beryl was now trembling furiously as she listened to the Duke carry on beyond the threshold, calling the names of any and every servant who he could recall. “I trusted you, Your Grace. I figured you to be far greater than all of these petty things,” she said. Now, her ethereal voice was wavering as well. “I tolerated, even aided in your associations with Sir Lighthoof because I thought I understood your melancholy. I did it because I never thought to imagine that you might so freely put my life in danger. How could you use the information I have entrusted to you to the detriment of every servant of your estate? How could you?”
Adagio scoffed out loud.
“‘Petty’, sayeth she,” the Duchess’ ethereal voice crowed. She turned her face away. “If only you knew better.”
Beryl’s fur stood on end. “He will have somepony’s life for this. You know it as well as I do. Why do you not simply confess?” She received no reply. “With all due respect, Your Grace, you have been married only four years! You are young and fresh still, with all the time in the world to—”
“I shall hear no more on it, Beryl!” the Duchess bellowed. Her horn sparked, nearly calling Silver Slate’s attention away from his own, self indulgent rambling. “It is done. You shall remain silent on all of these matters. Do you understand?” Adjusting her sheets in a tizzy, she turned away for the final time.
Beryl trembled with indignation. Her fur bristled. The booming and crashing continued on. Finally, huffing with resolve, the maidservant spun away, and without another word, raced for the door. She nearly toppled old Silver Slate over as she went.
“Beryl, return to me this instant!” the Duchess hissed, sitting up in bed as she watched the mare fly from the room and disappear into the corridor’s darkness. Realizing the maidservant’s intent, dread descended upon Adagio. Wasting no time, she mustered up some strength, and forced herself up onto her hooves. There was a terrible trembling in her limbs, and a sallow coloring about her eyes.
“Your Grace, you must rest!” Silver Slate urged, shuffling toward her as she skittered for the door.
“Quiet, old stallion,” the Duchess hissed, setting her sights upon the darkness beyond.
The moon shone brightly into the wreckage of Upright’s study. What the noble stallion had not destroyed had been scattered around in the evening breeze blowing through the shattered and gaping window. The sound of tempered breath mingled with the wind. A stone paperweight carved in the image of a leaf was collected up into an orange aura, and dashed itself to bits against the doorway. The threshold opened just a moment after.
In stepped Beryl. Gently shutting the door behind herself, she pulled her embroidered shawl neatly about her shoulders. Clearing her throat, she attempted to gather the Duke’s attention away from where his muzzle was currently buried somewhere behind his scuffed and scratched oakwood desk. “Y-Your Grace, please. That is quite enough,” she said, crouching low to the ground.
In the darkness, a goldenrod head popped up to stare at her. The Duke’s usually impeccable mane had fallen out of place. His uniform was disheveled, torn in some places if one were to study it closely enough. The way his eyes bore into the mare, gaping and bewildered, made him appear deranged. “You've come!” he stated, rushing about the desk to stand before the maidservant. “Quickly, tell me what it was that you saw. Who was it that fed Her Grace that poison?”
An orange haze of magic shot from his horn. It desperately wriggled and writhed, trying to snatch at Beryl’s fur. The mare dodged out of the way just in time to be caught by the shawl. The worn, embroidered length ripped away from her neck and sailed across the room. “Your Grace!” she gasped, backing toward a nearby corner.
Fortunately, the offended look she was wearing proved enough to settle the stallion’s nerves for the time being. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of Upright’s mind, the knowledge that he was being watched and judged proved enough to return him to his senses. Clearing his throat, but making no effort to fix his clothing or mane, the Duke lowered himself to his haunches. His back straightened out, and soon he looked something of his noble self again. “Right. Tell me all that you know, Beryl,” he repeated, calmly this time, “so that the traitor among us might be rooted from his hiding place.”
Beryl, gulping down a rising sense of terror, shook her head, and lowered her gaze to the floor. Nearly all her life, she had served as Lady Adagio’s protector. Despite what she knew in her heart about Sir Lighthoof and the evening primrose, she no more desired to betray her mistress’ confidence than she wished to cut off her own limb. “Your Grace, I can assure you, there is nothing to tell,” she said. “The yellow of evening primrose is a very common bloom color. Most likely, it was mistaken for pansy or dandelion.”
The Duke’s left eye twitched.
“Dandelion or…” He scoffed, taking a step toward her. The sound of his hoof upon wood made the mare shrink. Shadows splashed across his increasingly maddened face. “I never wondered what the plants were mistaken for, Beryl. I want a name. Was it Patchwork?”
Beryl hesitated. The danger she detected lurking in his words set her on edge. “C-couldn't be, Your Grace. P-Patchwork is a butler, nothing more. He isn't specialized in knowing about that sort of thing.” Her cheeks grew hot. She prayed the guilt plastered across her face wasn't apparent in the dark.
“Ah, yes,” the Duke said, nodding his head. “Lila, then. It must be Lila. She has the motive, after all.”
Beryl recalled the estate’s longtime resident floriculturist. Lila had been a fixture at Goldenstalks manor ever since she and Adagio were but fillies. The maidservant had not forgotten the tale Lila had told of the first day she had ever met the future Duchess. Beryl remembered the pink mare displaying her bruises and repeating to her the humiliations that awaited any servant who might dare to anger a noble, especially a Goldenstalks. Even Upright’s father, as reasonable as he may have seemed at any other time, did not hesitate to dispense upon her, a commoner, punishments reserved especially for those deemed incompetent, and thus unwittingly treacherous.
Lila's story was told as a warning when Beryl was very young. Thinking on it all again, in that moment the maidservant could not deny how very similar those words had been to the warnings Begonia had given her earlier that day:
Your master and mistress are not your friends, you delusional little thing...
Shaking her head free of these harrowing thoughts, Beryl met the Duke’s gaze again. “Lila. No. Never,” she breathed, eyes wide. “Lila is gentle, rendered completely docile since our youth, Your Grace. She barely speaks. She wouldn’t dare.”
“Wouldn’t she?” Upright pressed, raising a brow. It was clear that he was growing impatient. “And how are you so very sure of this?”
The mare gulped as she sensed the sharp spears of Upright’s rage threatening to turn upon her next. “B-because Lila was not one to rear evening primrose,” Beryl replied, trying without success to stave off her trembling. “Those flowers were only just put into the ground this morning, Your Grace.”
A pregnant silence passed between the two. Realization slowly descended upon the Duke. “That gardener!” he hissed, his maddened eyes darting about. “The one with two foals, yes? Where is she now?”
“Your Grace...” Beryl wavered.
“Guards!” the Duke bellowed.
“Your Grace! I can assure you it was not her doing!” Beryl sputtered as the Duke took yet another step toward her, then another. “She has labored for the estate on many occasions with no prior problem. There is no reason she should be unhappy with Her Grace.”
“Then she is unhappy with the state of the Duchy! With me! That is motive enough!” Upright quipped. “Guards!” he cried again.
Heavy hoofsteps could be heard making their way toward the study. A moment later, two armor-clad earth stallions rumbled into the room. “Your Grace!” they shouted. With a salute, they raised their heads in tandem, and awaited further orders.
“Find that gardener who tends to Her Grace’s gatherings,” Upright commanded them. “She resides off in the countryside. Red of color. Has two young foals. Bring all three of them to me. She shall pay an equal price for that which she has taken from me.”
“Yes, Sire!” the guards bellowed, turning about at once, and rushing from the room.
“By Celestia, no!” Beryl squawked in horror upon realizing the Duke’s dark intention. “Your Grace, please! This was all just a terrible, terrible mistake!”
To her shock, Beryl felt her neck strain as she was suddenly yanked upward by her braid. Struggling to raise her head, she soon discovered that the length had been wrapped in a hot, orange glow. Her words were stifled by shooting pain as she found herself eye-to-eye with the Duke.
“A mistake?” he hissed, rattling her about by the mane. “Beryl, I do believe you know more than you are letting on. Explain yourself, mare.”
She breathed through the stinging now spreading across her entire head. Her vision blurred as tears welled up within them. Her forelegs flailed about in a pointless attempt to break free until, at last, she surrendered to all of these sensations, and braced forward upon the Duke’s chest in defeat. “I must… must confess,” she stammered, blinking past agony.
“Confess to what, Beryl?” Upright growled, drawing her body away from him. Her back hit the wall. “You have lived by Her Grace’s side since your youth. You are her most trusted servant, one to never be suspected. Tell me, mare, was this your doing?”
Beryl could smell the growing heat of Upright’s magic singeing the end of her braid. “Must tell you,” she continued on, her eyes squeezing shut, “the… the Duchess… she...”
“Yes?” Upright prodded.
“She has been—”
The study door slammed open to reveal a trembling, sweat-laden lady standing in the corridor. Ignoring the shocking scene before her, Adagio took a few slow steps forward. “Beryl. There you are. I was worried after you, you foolish filly,” she croaked, forcing a grin that appeared more threatening than pleased. Her eyes drifted onto Upright. “My Love, why do you not release her?”
“Return to your chambers at once, Ada,” the Duke said, his gaze never wavering away from the servant mare. “You are unwell, and Beryl and I were speaking privately.”
“Nonsense,” Adagio scoffed, scuttling her way further into the study. “Whatever Beryl feels obliged to say, may be said in my presence. Isn’t that right, Beryl?” She passed the mare a grim glare.
“She knows who it was that fed you that poison,” the Duke said, tightening his aura’s grip upon the poor mare’s mane.
Adagio flinched at the sight of her beloved maidservant struggling to break free. She willed herself calm. “Ridiculous. This was simply all a mistake,” she sighed. “I pulled those petals thinking them pansies.”
“No!” Upright protested. “This mare has revealed to me that the poison was reared only this morning. Whoever did such a thing intended for this to happen!”
Adagio faltered as she realized she had arrived too late; Beryl had already revealed too much. Her eyes blinked rapidly as her mind raced. Body aches wracked her. The smile faded from her lips. “What did you say?” the Duchess breathed, looking upon the servant mare. Her eyes were filled with sorrow.
“Oh, Beryl,” an ethereal voice again resounded within the maidservant’s skull. “What have you done?”
“Tell him, Your Grace,” Beryl replied through the magical bridge strung up between their minds. “The Duke has intentions most foul. Th… that country mare’s children…They... Innocents shall suffer! Tell him or I shall!”
“I cannot allow that to happen,” Adagio said.
Beryl’s eyes bore into her mistress’, full of regret and sorrow. She braced forward upon the Duke again. Those same soft eyes were now full of purpose. “My Lord, the Duchess is—”
A flash of raspberry light lit up the room, and at once, Beryl found herself lying upon the floor. A stinging sensation ripped through her side. Before she could make sense of what had happened, Adagio was upon her, ripping and tearing at her head, her mane. Beryl’s ears detected frantic screaming, ferocious accusations of betrayal. Her mind, however, swam with apologies and supplications.
“Beryl, do not interfere. I, too, lament for those few innocents, but you do not understand what shall happen if all is revealed to the Duke. Harm shall surely come to us all. I beg you, my friend...”
“Who was it? Speak! Who has done this to me?” Adagio cried out loud. “Tell him it was the gardener... or Lila,” she pleaded on through the spell magic.
Poor Beryl could do nothing but repeat Begonia Blossom’s warning over and over in her head as she fended off the Duchess’ blows: Your master and mistress are not your friends, you delusional little thing. How very sad it is that you cannot see that the day they betray you, too, swiftly approaches.
Heartbroken, the maidservant shot her gaze toward the Duke. “It was…” she began.
“Beryl, I beg of you,” Adagio’s lament rang on within the servant mare’s brain.
“It was I!” Beryl screamed at last. “It was I who told the gardener to rear the primrose! It was I who led Her Grace to the blossoms for her tea! I do confess it!”
The room fell into a sickening silence save for Beryl’s tempered breath. Her eyes darted about wildly, and her forelegs blocked her body from any more impending blows. Just as she had begun to trust that she was safe, a golden hoof struck her hard across the face.
“Bitch!” Adagio screamed. Her eyes teared as they stared down at her, full of regret.
Beryl was filled with righteous indignation. Her gaze had gone dark and daring. “There it is. Now, tell him. Will you not tell him for my sake?” she prodded Adagio’s mind.
Upright stepped forward, cloaked in furious silence. The blue of his eyes smoldered in the dark. For a moment, he seemed lost in his rage. His horn glowed bright, and his head had begun to bow in Beryl’s direction to strike before, thankfully, he remembered himself. “Guards!” he howled, his horn dimming. Again, hoofsteps resounded down the corridor.
“Spirits, Beryl…” Adagio lamented. “Do you still not understand? Your bravery and strength are qualities which I do not possess.” Slowly, the Duchess stood up, and backed away to her husband’s side. “I cannot confess. I am sorry.”
Beryl’s hardened expression melted into one of terror as, finally, she realized the extent of her mistress’ betrayal. A moment later, another triad of estate soldiers burst into the room, saluted, and awaited command.
Both of the nobles’ shadows cast themselves over the battered servant mare, blocking out all moonlight.
Upright inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes with resolve. “Beryl, you were entrusted with Her Grace’s safety, and have betrayed that trust many times over. This brand of treachery is beyond my ability to pardon. Nor can I, in good faith, ever again entrust you with the safety of any peer of His Royal Highness.” The stallion’s gaze fell to the floor. “Take her. You know what to do,” he commanded his guard. He then turned toward the open window to save Beryl the indignity of his gaze.
At once, all three of the guards were upon the struggling mare who, rightfully, began to scream for her very life. “Mercy!” she cried, digging her hooves into the scuffed wood flooring as she was dragged across the room. Her supplications seemed directed toward the Duke; yet, her eyes remained planted firmly upon her distressed mistress. “Save me! Save me, I beg of you!”
She was silenced into a coughing fit by a strike to the gut.
“Stop that racket!” one of the soldiers barked, helping his partner to hoist the spent mare across the third’s back. “His Grace has heard enough out of you!” After a final salute, all three stallions turned and headed through the door.
Adagio trembled. The sound of her own broken-hearted weeping echoed off of the study walls.
“Please,” Beryl begged one last time. Her foreleg reached out in the direction of her mistress.
“Wait! Stop!” the Duchess cried at last, rushing forward to halt the guards.
Upright’s ear twitched at the sound of his wife’s voice crossing his orders. He spun about to stare. “Stop?” he asked. “What the jewel for?”
“What… what she means to me can no sooner be forgotten as could her betrayal,” Adagio breathed. “She has wronged me in a way that I cannot forgive, and yet still, my heart weeps for her.”
“Ada, you mustn’t let your emotions control you in this way. You are still unwell. Return to your chamber,” the Duke said, on the verge of turning away once again.
“I shall not!” Adagio protested, stunning him into silence. Again, she turned toward the doorway where Beryl had mustered up enough coherence to look upon her. “I cannot forgive what the earth mare has done to me, but perhaps a small mercy is still possible, a mercy on behalf of all that she once meant to me.”
A beat of silence cloaked the room.
“And what do you suggest, Ada?” the Duke inquired. He spoke in a monotone. Any expression upon his face was hidden by evening shadow.
“The pit,” Adagio wavered, trying to keep up her facade of resolve. “Take her to the pit. Do not harm her, but allow her to live out the rest of her days in the dank and darkness.” The Duchess unsuccessfully attempted to gulp down the overflow of regrets now caught in her throat. “I wish to never see her again.”
Her lip trembled. “Sweet Beryl,” she lamented to her servant through the spellcasted pathway. “Forgive me. I have not the mettle to see you perish.”
Beryl’s gaze grew scornful. “Any of my sufferings to come shall be your fault!” she replied, attempting to wriggle herself from the guardstallion’s back. She was rendered still and silent by his two partners. “If your father, the good Baron, could see what it is you have become, he would be ashamed! What is it that you believe you are doing, Adagio?”
The Duchess was stunned to hear the maidservant address her as an equal. Then again, she had to concede that in this of all moments, it was warranted. Smiling so faintly that no one besides the two of them could detect it, Adagio said, “Foolish filly.” She sniffed away the last of her tears. “I am saving your life.”
They only had time for one last, painful parting glance before the Duke then stepped forward. With a wave of his hoof, he beckoned the guards out. “Very well. Away with her,” he said.
Upright did not turn again to face his wife until the soldiers’ heavy hoofsteps could no longer be heard in the corridor. When at last he did, he gave her a pointed look. Clearing his throat, he conjured up some magic to pull together two torn sitting cushions, a once toppled table, and a nearby bottle of cider that had rolled from under his desk. Fetching two glasses from some dark cabinet, he presented a hoof to Adagio, bidding her to sit.
Finding this suspicious, the Duchess did not comply. Instead, she watched on as the Duke took a seat without her, uncorked the bottle of cider, and poured himself a glass. The sip he took was drawn out. His glazed eyes lingered in some far corner as he pondered to himself.
It wasn't difficult for somepony who knew Upright to determine the mood of his thoughts, especially if that somepony happened to be his wife. It was clear to Adagio that the stallion was still brooding inside of one of his more dangerous auras, and at that particular moment, she decided she had not the energy remaining to entertain any of them. Turning about to face the door, she took a step forward, praying that she might be able to walk away unnoticed and unbothered.
She should have known better.
“Shall I pose the question or shall you offer the answer, then?” the Duke’s voice inquired from behind her.
Adagio frowned. Her foreleg froze in the air, midstep. “Your Grace, I am weary. Speak your mind plainly.” She could almost feel his icy glare boring into her back.
“Very well,” he stated. “What was it that you said to her?”
The Duchess’ heart skipped a beat. She warded off the tremor that threatened to wrack her entire body. “Upright,” she sighed, “I haven't the slightest idea what it is you are talking about.” She turned to face him, feigning righteousness. “It has been a dreadfully long day, and now I wish to retreat to my bower. You may join me if it pleases you, and if you are quite finished destroying all of your—”
“Do you take me for a fool, Adagio?” the Duke asked. Strangely enough, the calm in his voice proved more frightening than any alternative.
Adagio, caught off guard yet again, forced some indignation onto her face. “I do not take you for a fool, Your Grace,” she chirped defiantly. “I take you for a pony who has driven himself half mad for want of a perfect and obedient world!” Boldly, she took a step toward him, even as he rose off of his seat in shocked fury.
She was indeed sick, exhausted, heartbroken, and had just condemned her oldest friend to an existence of darkness and shame—all because of him. At long last, the time had come to confront the Duke’s troubled mind, and attempt to lay it to rest, whether that might require more lying or just a little bit of something else. A flame began to lick the spot between her chest and neck as fresh anger grew. It was a strangely familiar sensation.
“That world in which everything goes according to your plan does not exist, Upright! It never has! Even if it did, this could not grant you the freedom to burn it all down for its unwillingness to bow to you!” Again, she was trembling. Again, her head reeled as the uncontrollable fire began to take hold of her mind.
“Just who do you think you are speaking to?” Upright hissed. The magic upon his horn emanated so powerfully that its aura sparked and hissed. His eyes no longer burned solely in blue. Somewhere in their cores were now two small suns.
The sight of him only poked at Adagio’s temper. As her self control waned, her horn began to glow in raspberry. “A wind-up automaton! A block of ice!” she cried. With her last shriek, she felt the grip on her temper fade, and suddenly the world flashed in red. Something inside of her chest began to waver and hum.
“A fool who, for his simplicity, shall pay a heavy price.”
Something had changed about her voice, but in the midsts of her rage she couldn’t decipher what. The walls echoed following a crack of orange lightning. Something hot burned its way so near to her hooves that smoke and ash rose up from the wood flooring just beyond them. That deep vibration within her core faltered making way for a more familiar sense of fear.
What the jewel was she doing? Had she completely lost her mind raging against Upright in this way?
Stop, Adagio. Have you gone mad? she bid herself until, at last, she regained her wits. She stood there exhausted and aching just before the study’s door, staring with terror into the Duke’s blazing eyes. “U… Upright...” she gasped.
The gleaming noblestallion stood frozen to his spot, more than willing to allow her the freedom to grovel. “Go on,” he bid her.
“I… Forgive me,” she finished. Bewildered and confused by her own boldness, she could manage nothing more than a low, off-kilter bow. She imagined that anypony who might have happened to gaze upon her at that particular moment would have judged her to be completely transparent. If the Duke would have chosen that minute to strike her down where she stood, even she would have had to admit that he would be correct in doing so.
Considering this, she turned about, and headed toward the door.
“‘Tell him, Your Grace. Tell him, or I shall’,” Upright said, mimicking Beryl’s tone. The glint and gleam of his enchanted aura faded away to nothing. He waited for the Duchess to face him once again, and smiled when she looked as if she might be sick. “That is what I heard within your telepathy spell. What is it that Beryl figured you should tell me?”
Adagio could no longer think straight to respond, too busy warding off the crushing urge to flee. “T-telepathy spell? And what telepathy spell would that be?” she stammered. Even her tone of voice betrayed her failing nerve. “I casted no spell, Your Grace. Perhaps the mare’s guilt was too strong. Perhaps she had rendered herself delusional.”
Another pause as the Duke inhaled deeply. Then, as if absolutely nothing spectacular had just taken place, he turned about, casually headed back toward the table, and took his seat. His hoof tapped against the wood surface. “The skies to the north grew clear this morning,” he said, oddly.
Adagio's brow furrowed as she wondered where this was going. “Y… yes, they did,” she replied. She was too proud to acknowledge what amount of selfishness it required to not have wondered after her sister and Edinbridle when she had seen it happen. “And what of—”
“Edinbridle has fallen. Vision is dead,” the Duke stated plainly.
For perhaps the fifth time that evening, Adagio's heart stopped. Her lips fumbled about for words as, increasingly, her mind drew a blank to spare her any further torment. “M...my sister…” she muttered. “Is my sister… Is she…”
“Your sister and six of her children have fled the Duchy,” Upright replied, refilling his glass of cider. “Her eldest son, Victor, remained to defend the land, and unfortunately, also perished. I was not to tell you any of this until the Duchess Vision’s whereabouts were confirmed. However, I thought that on this matter, your right to know outweighed the wishes of even the King, himself.”
Vindictively, Upright took another sip from his cup and gazed off through the open window. “You did have a right to know, Adagio,” he said, this time more so to himself. “And I, at least, can manage a bit of honesty on your behalf. It is a shame that you cannot do the same.”
Adagio's mind was spent. The sound of the world faded, and in its place grew a high pitched ringing that she couldn't help but imagine as the concentrated wailing of all the poor souls whose lives she had ruined—from Beryl, to Lila, to Lighthoof, to her sister, and her children. Everything before her eyes became a blur. Without saying a word, she turned about, and stumbled hoof over hoof toward the door. It seemed more and more that in every way, she had proven herself a disappointment, a liar, and a mare not to be trusted by those closest to her. Yet, even after acknowledging all of this to herself, she was still too fearful to tell the truth, to be honest and courageous and dependable for once in her life.
I am selfish and a coward. It is I who deserves that pit.
The darkness of the corridor stretched out before her. Quickly enough, she found herself wishing it would transform into a large, carnivorous mouth, one that, ideally, would swallow her whole. Closing her eyes, she stepped forward into the corridor, and soon disappeared around the bend.
The Duke, as usual, studied her every movement as he watched her go.
All was still. He sat there in the dark, brooding. Adagio had been gone just a few moments, and in light of this, Upright had decided that it might be pleasant enough to drink just one more glass of cider alone, then another, and another. After he was through, he casually turned his head to face the gaping window, and peered out onto the waxing moon. “I know you’re there,” he muttered into the darkness. The silence stretched on. His brow creased. “Enter now, and you may have what’s left of the drink.”
At once, there was a rumbling beyond the window, then the distinct sound of clacking hooves upon stone.
“Just a moment, you idiot! My tail is caught in your belt!” an irate, female voice hissed from beyond the sill.
“Apologies, Hummy, Love,” a stallion’s voice replied. “You know I can't refuse a complimentary drink.”
“Stop calling me thaAA—”
In through the window and onto the study’s ceiling walked an all too casual-looking Silent Wing. Dangling by her tail, which was currently caught in the stallion’s dagger-laden belt, was a mortified Echo Hum.
“‘Ello, Prince Charmin’!” Silent greeted the Duke, peering down at the half emptied bottle directly below his head. “Is all this for me, then?” His wings ruffled themselves. His hooves clattered joyfully upon the ceiling. “You must forgive our snooping. This town tends to get a bit boring. Must find some way to entertain ourselves when we’re quiescent, and well...” He shrugged. “You lot are an absolute cache of entertainment. In’t that right, Hummy?”
Echo, who in the meantime had been bouncing about wildly by the tail, came dangerously close to smacking her forehead directly into the Duke's frowning maw.
The Duke massaged his aching temples, and leaned away from the mare’s swinging body. “Anything yet?” he asked, ignoring Silent words.
“No,” the pair replied in tandem.
“At least not anyfing interesting,” Silent said.
“Soon, though. I'm quite sure of it,” Echo added, shoving her swinging mane out of her face. “A mare knows when another mare is trying far too desperately to keep a secret, and that one is keeping many.” She crossed her forelegs, and rested a hoof upon her chin. “There is certainly something elusive going on between her and that knight.”
“Oh, g’day to yooou, Sir Lighthoof. And how doth the morning find ye’? Oh, very weeell, M’lady, Graciousness, Mum. Not too hot nor cold, wouldn’t you agreee?” Silent tittered, mocking noble pomp before rolling his emerald eyes. “Those two have definitely gone at it behind a bramble bush or three, and not in the elusive way. More furious-like, I'd wager.”
“Neither of them make haste to confess it, I'm afraid,” Echo finished with a sigh. It took a moment for her to decipher the bruised and tortured aura that had befallen the Duke upon hearing their words. Her gaze softened, and she pressed a hoof against her breastplate. “Oh, dear. You love her still, don't you? How nauseatingly romantic!” She reached out to tap the Duke encouragingly upon his cheek. Instead, her body’s constant swinging forced her hoof directly into his muzzle. “Right. Buck up, then! You are a Duke, are you not? Plenty more like her to be had, is what I say!”
“Idunno, Hummy. Did you get a gander at those eyes whilst she was scolding ‘im?” Silent posed, trotting about the ceiling in a circle. “That mare, something ain’t right about her. Roiling up a nimbus worth of bloody lunacy, if you ask me.”
“Well, nopony did ask you, did they?” Echo quipped, her dangling body again coming to rest before the Duke’s nose.
Upright studied the ridiculous spectacle before him as both pegasi passed each other petulant frowns. Trading in foul suspicions for his own inner refuge of stoic dignity, he took a deep breath, and raised a brow in the mare’s direction. Ice blue promptly bore into cold silver. When all was said and done, it was Echo’s face alone that had turned a slight tinge of red.
“Well, it is hardly polite to stare,” she deadpanned, turning her head away. Snatching one of the blades from her hilt with her teeth, she propelled herself upward to slice away the trapped tip of her tail. Like a swan, she floated down to stand beside the Duke whilst dusting her black armor off. “Was there something else that you wanted from us? Otherwise, we shall be on our way.”
Silent landed at her side with a loud ‘THUD’. Licking his lips, he snatched up the opened cider bottle with one large, eager wing.
“Actually, there is,” the Duke replied, grimacing in the winged stallion's direction.
“It'll cost ye’ extra,” the two pegasi said in tandem, one nursing at his drink like a newborn foal, the other taking a step away from the first in disgust.
“And do try to make it somewhat entertaining,” Silent added.
Upright rolled his eyes. Again, he gazed beyond the study window. “There are a few small tasks I would like for you to complete. On their way to the countryside, as we speak, are two of my personal guard. I want you to stop them before they reach their destination.”
Like second nature, the noble managed to magically draw a blank sheet, a quill, and a miraculously untoppled inkwell from somewhere amongst his study’s wreckage. Levitating the objects onto the wooden surface before him, he then began to write. “Show them this, and bid them to return,” he said, raising the first leaf to Echo’s face. After a few moments, he flipped over onto the second. “Then I want you to fetch that maidservant away from her imprisonment down below. The rest of your orders are written clearly, I should think.”
Echo leaned in close. Her avian eyes pinned and flashed as she focused intently upon the words hovering before her nose. Silent Wing sat up behind her to take a look for himself. A strange clicking sound escaped their throats as, more and more, they were drawn into the document's words. By the end of the letter, two pairs of grand wings stood at attention. Devious smiles were exchanged.
“Got to admit, Princey, we had you pegged for a bit of a bore,” Silent chuckled, leaning back onto his wings to finish the dregs from his bottle. “Didn’t think you had it in you, quite frankly.”
Echo rounded about the Duke, grinning. Her tail licked across the noble stallion’s back.“Speak for yourself. I knew he couldn't be that great of a disappointment.” A pause. “Though it wouldn't hurt to hear you call for your dirty doings out loud.”
Flicking her tail about the Duke’s face, the white pegasus then headed for the gaping window. “Such a sweet, little earth mare, too. I believe I might have actually found something to enjoy in this forsaken lump of dirt you call a town.” She turned to face her partner, who was currently attempting to lick cider dregs from dry glass. “Come along then, Wing. Let us make haste before somepony else takes first crack at her.”
Standing in the moonlight’s cast, the mare’s unfurled ivory wings sparkled and shone as they prepared for flight. Before taking off, she turned to face the Duke one last time. “Just to be absolutely clear, exactly how much fun are we permitted to have with her?” she inquired.
Silent Wing licked the cider from his lips, and nodded his head, also eager to know the answer. “No refunds for missin’ limbs, there, Princey.”
Put off by the pair’s delight in their own depravity, the Duke sneered, and turned his gaze away. “No permanent damage to her body,” he replied.
The mercenaries’ expressions decayed into half frowns.
“Otherwise, do with her as you please. Just make sure that she earnestly reveals to you everything that she hides from me,” the Duke finished.
The pair’s grins revived themselves. “And then some, Princey. You can be certain of that,” Silent chuckled, spreading his dark wings, and following his partner through the window.
Feathers caught the evening breeze. Two shadows briefly disturbed the moonlight, and disappeared off into the night. As the Duke watched them go, his eyes naturally drifted downward, and far out into Goldenstalks’ fields. There sat a lonely knight’s cozy, stone house.