I fear I am, at last, losing my mind. Far worse still, I believe I deserve such punishment for what I've done to Beryl, for how I've failed Violet, and for we two…
Certainly, by now you are aware of the entire ghastly ordeal if the Duke is as efficient as he leads everypony to believe. I realize you no longer possess the freedom to wander far, but I do hope you have wisely gone away into town or the countryside. Perhaps it is best to remain there, just until tempers are cooled.
Remember, watch the skies.
Rolling the off-white leaf with her magic, Adagio laid the letter onto the desk, pulled a bit of string from its drawer, and bound the scroll. The walls groaned, startling her into attention. Her eyes darted about briefly before she decided to snuff the lamplight out. She levitated the scroll into the air. In one burst of light, the letter was gone.
Rising to her hooves, she rubbed at her tired eyes, and made her way toward her bower door. Standing before it, she could hear a voice leaking in from the solar. Who could it have possibly been? Strangers weren’t allowed so close to her private chambers, after all.
For a moment, she cared enough about her reputation to attempt to straighten her mane and gown. Then she heard it—the tittering and whining of foals.
“Spirits,” she gasped, her legs trembling. Forgetting her appearance, she fumbled with the lock. Yanking the door open, she stumbled past a maidservant standing nearby—one she did not recognize—and fell onto the floor of her solar. Only the silhouettes of her company were visible against the room’s dim, rose red walls. Her eyes strained to focus on the worn and huddled group. Her brain separated the greater mass into its proper sizes and shapes.
Two tiny twins, Vidi and Vici, one a colt and the other a filly, nestled close upon the floor beneath a warm blanket. Vorant, a rather stocky colt of about fourteen years, lay close by with a protective foreleg gripping the younglings. His eyes were open, but half-lidded—Adagio couldn't decipher whether this was from fatigue or sadness. Sprawled across a large cushion, next to a pile of abandoned books, was Verbena. She was slightly younger than the adolescent colt, and wore a deep set grimace although her eyes were closed. Her back rose and sank in a slow rhythm as she slumbered. Finally, upon another cushion, watching over the young ones, sat two teenage mares. They were embracing one another so tightly that if it weren't for their differing mane colors, one would not be able to tell where one of them ended and the other began. Their eyes were red, swollen, and haloed in a hue darker than the rest of their fur. Velvet, the slightly younger mare, was resting her head in the crook of her sister’s neck. Her body wracked itself with broken-hearted sobs. The lovely Vista held her close, running a comforting hoof down her back, then up, then down again. Her cheeks were wet. She sniffled to herself. Her gaze was unfocused, staring far away into some haunting nightmare.
Upon hearing Adagio stumble and fall into the room, Vista stirred. Her shoulders hunched and stretched when she recognized the familiar face. Even so, she remained silent.
The maidservant, in a panic, helped Adagio off of the floor. The Duchess’ gaze never wavered away from her eldest niece. Vista wore a similarly scrutinizing expression.
Adagio dusted off her nightgown, and cautiously leaned in toward the maidservant. “Beryl,” she began, forgetting that her long-time companion was no longer present, “how much time has passed since their arrival?”
“They arrived to the manor very early this morning, Mum, dragging their hooves all the way,” the attendant said. “Poor things. T’was a bit chilly evening last, too.”
Adagio started at the unexpected tone of the servant’s voice. She stared at the earth mare’s face, studying her whilst reminding herself—for the thousandth time—why Beryl was not present.
The servant kept her gaze directed toward the floor, not proud enough to address the fact that Adagio hadn’t a clue who she was. “Watched ‘em for hours, I did,” the maidservant continued. “They never spoke a word. Barely got a wink of sleep. I wonder why they come so late.”
The earth mare was silenced by the Duchess’ stern glare. Covering her talkative mouth with a hoof, the maidservant took a step backward, and tasked herself with trying to look like a piece of furniture.
Adagio’s gaze again turned to meet her eldest niece. The younger mare’s eyes seemed to say: Approach if you dare share my burden. The Duchess did so without any hesitation.
When she stood before her nieces, she took a deep breath, sighed it out, then lowered herself down to gather them both into her embrace.
Velvet began to cry harder. Vista held her closer.
The mares felt limp to the touch, as if they’d had the wind knocked out of them. Closing her eyes, Adagio breathed in the smell of Vista’s mane, trying, with no luck, to remember something, anything happy. She heard Vista sigh into her shoulder, and knew the younger mare was also searching for some small peace of mind.
“Where is she?” Adagio quavered. Silence passed between them for a long time.
“The west wing,” Vista croaked. She barely sounded like a thing that should possess the ability to talk. “Mother went in to speak with the Duke as soon as we arrived. I imagine she is still there.”
The west wing was, by tradition, a Lord’s wing. It was where Upright’s offices and drawing rooms were located, and ultimately, where he chose to spend most of his time. Any chamber of leisure located therein was sure to be stiff, cold, and simply uncomfortable. Adagio imagined that her sister, having just lost her husband and eldest son, had understandably felt naked, too vulnerable. She was a Lady without a Lord now, a Duchess with no Duchy, and a noble with no home. There was surely a bounty upon her head and those of her children. Perhaps remaining close to Upright was all that she could think of to feel safe. Whatever the reason might have been, Adagio was certain that her sister’s decision had not been a passive one, nor had it been a coincidence.
Knocking upon a door was an unfamiliar sensation, but in this case, Adagio thought it the wisest thing to do. Violet’s chamber door creaked open gently. The bewildered little blue servant filly standing behind it curtsied at once, and stepped aside to allow the Duchess through.
“Leave us,” Adagio bid the child.
The little filly curtsied again. She then hurried from the room, closing the door behind her.
In the low lamplight, something stirred inside of a curtained canopy. A dim, silver glow emanated from within. Adagio found its hue familiar. The shadowed lump beneath the blankets appeared odd, a bit too large. Her eyes were taking their time adjusting from the stark daylight shining out in the corridor. Hooves clacked upon wood. The sound was a lonely one.
“Adagio, dear, is that you?” a voice called. It did not belong to Violet, but was nonetheless familiar. It was a mare’s voice, aged and regal.
The sound of it startled Adagio before everything came together in her head. “M...Mother?” she replied.
The soft, silver glow of light brightened. “Come closer, child.”
It was instinctive that her mother’s voice should make Adagio want to do the complete opposite. Still, she urged herself forward, feeling more and more horrible with every step until, at last, she stood beside the bed.
The same magical aura drew back the curtain to reveal her mother within. The older mare was dressed for the day, sewn and buttoned into her robes as if she were attending court and not her grieving daughter’s bedside. One of her hooves stroked ceaselessly against a curled and shaking lump of white mane, purple fur, and thick blanket. Her other hoof bid Adagio forward.
Adagio moved to step through the canopy, but was stopped midway. “No, Adagio. Not this minute,” the Baroness pressed, casting a telepathy spell to relay her message. The silver glow emanating from her horn cast its light upon Violet. The forlorn unicorn lay huddled nearby her mother.
Obediently standing away, Adagio leaned forward to take a better look at her sister. The Duchess Vision's usually regal pink eyes had been zapped of their vigor, and now gaped wide and hollow into some invisible void. Her face appeared gaunt. Tiny scrapes and scratches marred her once pristine fur. Her long, snow white mane flowed freely as it did during simpler times of her youth. Back then her tresses tumbled about her in gentle, milky waves. In adulthood, they sat upon her crown and shoulders as snow sits upon a mountain's grand facade. But now, in the midsts of her despair, the mass only looked deflated and sad, unruly and drained of all life. Adagio’s beautiful sister, once proud and confident, now seemed withered and small where she lay cloaked beneath the wilted length.
Starry’s silver magic enveloped her daughter’s body. Adagio thought the glow to be a protective gesture until she recognized it as an active spell. “What are you casting, Mother?” she asked the aged lady.
“Rejuvenation,” the Baroness said. “She has been transporting herself and the children past wood, glade, and glen since fleeing Edinbridle. They dared not risk going straight by hoof or carriage.” Starry’s expression grew distraught as she stroked Violet’s mane. “Fortunately, her eldest daughters were able-bodied and skilled enough to cast the spell for themselves. The younglings, however, were enchanted the entire way. She very nearly drained her own magic.”
Adagio’s stomach lurched. Six years she had lived to bear witness to the woes of a unicorn drained of its vitality. She could not imagine her own sister suffering in the same fashion as the Duke's father.
Shaking her head to free it from these thoughts, Adagio then forced her gaze away from her sister, unable to bear the sight of her. Soon, a soft, raspberry glow mingled with silver. “Mother, take your rest. I shall remain here with her,” she said through her spell work.
Echoing crackles knocked about the enchanted pathway between their minds. Starry lifted a hoof to wave her daughter’s comment off. “Do not overextend yourself, Adagio. Rejuvenation is a fickle spell. Moonstone shall arrive shortly. She will see to the rest of it.” A pause as the older unicorn’s gaze traveled down toward Adagio’s collar. “You have removed your pin.”
Leave it to her mother to always stick to her interests concerning noblemares’ matters. “Oh, Mother. I am perfectly capable of tending to my own—”
“This, I understand,” Starry interrupted again, her eyes still trained upon Adagio’s collar. “But I think it would be wise if I should stay.”
Adagio’s brow furrowed. Something wasn’t right. “What is it? What is the matter?” she asked, leaning forward.
Starry hesitated, then sighed. Her stray hoof ran across the bed's velvet blanket. “My daughters. My most beloved things in the entire world… and yet, so very naive,” she murmured. The sound of her voice curled about gently inside of their heads, even whilst Starry began to frown. “There was a way to help Edinbridle, Adagio. There was a way. For all I've done to secure your position in life, I would have hoped that you might turn out wiser, more cunning than this.”
In the succeeding silence, Adagio straightened out her back, glad to look down upon her mother for once. “Mother, how could you?” she hissed. She watched Starry wince as the sound burned in her brain. “How could you say such a thing to me? Violet is my sister. I have tried my best to help her. Truly, I have. You know the Duke never listens!”
“You are too defiant. You are far too headstrong in his presence,” the elder mare replied, glancing off toward some far corner. “Had you submitted to him earlier on in the marriage, I cannot believe that you would still be having this trouble with him now when having his ear is so very crucial.”
Adagio gawked. Her ruby eyes bulged. “Submitted to him?” she squeaked, her ethereal voice filled with indignation. “What more could I have done, Mother? The Duke has the power over my life. He knows this as well as I do. When he bids me to be silent, mustn’t I obey?” Adagio’s temper was rising. “When he bids me to enter or leave his presence, mustn’t my hooves walk where he directs them?” Her horn was beginning to spark. The spell work was coming undone. Small echoes of words escaped out from the walls of her mind and into the thick air of the chamber.
“Young lady!” Starry bellowed, recasting the faltering telepathy spell. Her horn flashed brightly. “How dare you speak to me this way? After all I have done for you? For all three of you?”
Adagio scoffed, shaking her head. “Oh, Mother. I am no longer a filly. Let us stop telling these silly fillyish tales. There is no need for you to pretend that everything you have done, everything you have given us, was not solely an investment in yourself.”
Starry rose to her hooves to face her daughter. The Rejuvenation spell she cast over Violet was momentarily forgotten. Her eyes were on fire. “What do you say to me, filly?” she hissed. “I tire of your insolence. This havoc is wrought with your selfishness and your selfishness alone! It is wrought with your childish dreams of a life and a world that does not exist!”
Adagio scoffed at the irony of her mother’s words. Hadn't she recently told Upright something similar?
The elder mare thought to herself again. “Stay away from Moonstone until you have come to your senses, young lady. I shan’t have you influencing her with anymore of these ridiculous notions.”
“Knowing that her life is her own is far from a ridiculous notion,” Adagio said. The defiant smile she wore grew wider. “What shall the alternative give her? A life like Violet’s?” She directed her chin toward her older sister. “Is that at all better?”
“Your sister suffers for your inaction and your lack of charity and conviction!” Starry bellowed.
“Violet was suffering long before this war, Mother! How can you be so blind?” Adagio retorted. “To have forced a mare like that to marry a pony like Duke Vision was truly a sin! Anypony could have told you; you had only to ask them. If I was old enough to know better, I would have told you myself! Look at what the marriage has done to her! Do you desire this for us all?”
Starry audibly gasped. The sound carried through the air. “You shan’t speak ill of the recently deceased, Miss,” she hissed. “And I desire that my daughters should uphold the name of Glow as the dictate of their duty requires of them! I desire that they act wisely, speak softly, and bend the world with cunning as any true lady should be able to.”
“You mean submit themselves as slaves to ponies who, perhaps one day, might fancy hearing about their troubles,” Adagio shot, turning about to make for the door. She was enraged, and could not tolerate anymore of her mother’s delusions.
“‘Tis better than being branded the harlot of Sardhoof!” Starry screeched out loud, having finally lost her temper. The words echoed off of the stone walls. “Do you not hear what it is the servants say about you? My goodness, do you and your husband never read their minds for clarity at all? The words of those commoners spread to places like the king’s court! Even now the nobles are talking. Horrid rumors. Adagio, I tell you these things because I, too, was young once. I, too, was foolish. I do not wish to see you live a life of suffering.”
Adagio froze. A fresh, more jarring silence stretched on between them. Her body trembled as she turned about to face her mother. There was now a crack in her once defiant smile. “And why should a pony whose life is her own care for what others might say about it?” she asked out loud. Her voice wavered as Starry approached her. The closer her mother got, the more Adagio could make out the daggers in the older mare’s eyes. “Maybe I prefer that they say such things about me.”
Starry was nearly upon her now.
Adagio’s voice grew louder. “Perhaps I am starting to favor the notion that the Duke might one day be rid of me. At least then I would truly be fre—”
A ‘SLAP’ resounded against the chamber walls. Adagio winced as a sting spread across the left side of her face. Her watering eyes gazed off into the corner, stunned. Being the sharp-tongued, quick-witted mare she was, she promptly caught her senses, and forced a wry laugh. She knew the sound would bite into her mother’s terrible hide.
“I’ve lost the foal. That is why my pin is gone,” she spat. Her eyes were set ablaze. A vindictive grin spread across her lips. She delighted in the sight of her mother gasping for words.
“Why do you smile about it, Adagio?” Starry inquired, her voice shaking. “Why do you smile?” As if by its own accord, her hoof rose to strike her daughter again.
Adagio’s horn glowed ruby, and soon, so did her mother’s foreleg. The Duchess shoved the older mare back and watched as her hooves skid across the stones.
Starry’s legs gave one great quake before she collapsed onto her haunches. Her eyes glossed over as she gazed at her daughter. Her lips parted and trembled. She hesitated, then took a deep breath. “Adagio… You didn’t… plan…” The elder mare’s words trailed away. It seemed she already knew the answer to the question she could not ask. “Perhaps I should have had you carried straight away back to that beach where that servant mare found you.” It was clear that the mare was heartbroken, and that she didn't mean a word of what she was saying.
“Perhaps you should have,” Adagio said coldly, turning to make her way toward the door. “Perhaps the bottom of the sea was where I belonged. Truly, I begin to wonder why it ever chose to spit me up into this wretched life at all.”
The two mares never thought to wonder how this spectacle might have looked to their sole audience. Perhaps they'd figured Violet had been rendered far too catatonic to care. Both of them gasped when they heard her sit up in bed.
Violet’s mane had now grown so long that it would drag along the ground were she to stand. It fell about her in disheveled waves. The one pink eye that glared out from beneath her locks bore straight into Adagio. “Mother? Leave us,” she said. Her voice was hoarse, its coldness terrifying. “I wish to speak with my sister, alone.”
Starry, stunned by Violet’s outburst, fought for words. “I… I… Violet, you are very weak still. I do not think it wise to—”
“Mother, please,” the wilted mare groaned, tugging anxiously upon her blanket.
The baroness’ lips drew in tight. She looked worriedly from one daughter to the next, and then stood up. “I shall be taking the children into the Sardhoof. I am certain that Moonstone shall arrive momentarily. Be on your best behaviour… please.” Turning about, she then headed toward the door, leaving her two daughters in a torturous silence.
Violet said nothing, only stared and stared. Her stabbing, pink eye bore into Adagio’s psyche so efficiently that the golden unicorn felt her gaze being forced toward the floor.
Taking a deep breath, Adagio moved forward. She found that she could only manage one step before her courage failed her.
“You may approach, Adagio,” Violet bid her in a monotone. Whatever emotions the withered unicorn was feeling, her speech masked them well.
Adagio obeyed. Without wasting another moment she hurried to her sister’s side, and then stood there gazing down at the sheets.
“You may sit,” Violet added. With her magic depleted, she reached out with a hoof to draw back the curtain.
Again, Adagio obeyed. Gently, she lowered herself onto the cushions, and slid toward the bed’s center. Only then did she allow her gaze to trail upward to meet her elder sister’s. She imagined her actions might have betrayed whatever sense of guilt she had been feeling about all that had happened in Edinbridle. Some part of her hoped that Violet would notice this guilt so that she might have some satisfaction amidst her despair.
Violet, instead, settled back into her pillows, and braced herself against the bed's headboard. She closed her eyes, and sighed out her aches. “Be a dear and cast the Rejuvenation, won’t you Gio?” Her words were weak, pleading.
“O… of course!” Adagio replied with a nod. In an instant, her horn had begun to glow, and in another instant the glow had surrounded her sister’s body.
Violet winced as the spell hit her, but soon nestled into its comforting sensation.
Only when Adagio thought her sister was again settled did she attempt to speak. “Vee,” she groaned, “I… I do not know what to say.”
Violet said nothing. A small crease appeared on her brow.
Adagio lowered her gaze when she noticed the slight change in her sister's expression. “I tried, Vee. Truly I did.” Adagio’s mind was increasingly drawing a blank. Even she no longer knew whether or not she was telling the truth. “Forgive me. I am so very—”
“Gio,” Violet croaked, cutting her off, “this is what I wished to address. I know Mother, and I know what it is she makes you feel about… about all of this havoc.” The wilted mare gathered her mane up neatly and pulled it to one side so that she might face her sister with some coherency. “Do not listen to her, Adagio. You are not to blame for any of it. This… this all was of my husband’s and my doing. As much as I had grown to love him, I can no longer continue to delude myself about what he… what we had become.”
Adagio grimaced at her words. “No, Violet. You are nothing like what Vision was. You are kind, and forgiving, and wise, and understanding!”
Violet only stared. “Is that what you truly believe, Adagio?” she asked. Her voice remained just as dead as her expression. “Do you believe that I am kind and forgiving, and that my husband alone brought this upon us all?”
“Yes! Yes, with all of my heart! I do believe it!” Adagio said without hesitation. Her voice wavered and cracked. She reached forward to touch her sister’s foreleg.
And Violet stared. No emotion. Her piercing eyes scanned Adagio from top to bottom and then to top again.
Adagio sensed that there was something being said to her in that silence. Yet, amidst her distress, she could not decipher what this message could be. Not caring to wait until she could figure the unspoken words, she lunged forward and gathered her older sister into an embrace. There was a beat in which neither of them moved. Adagio felt a pair of weak forelegs wrap around her middle.
“It is I that now brings war to your doorstep, Sister,” Violet murmured. Her hoof pressed into Adagio’s back.
The golden mare pulled away. The shock that Violet’s words inflicted clouded their true meaning. “W...what?” Adagio stammered.
“There is nowhere else to flee. I no longer know who is friend or foe. I cannot return to father. You know the legions stalk his estate. Many of those nobles who once smiled in my face would just as soon gift me to those pegasi in exchange for protection. It is only our kinship in marriage that shames the Duke into allowing me to stay,” Violet whimpered. “Edinbridle is fallen, overrun with earth traitors who would side with the invaders from the sky. Now, they search for me. They will stop at nothing to have me, and to have my children paraded through the streets of my city in shackles and enchanted rings. Please understand, Adagio, that nopony, not even your husband would fight for us. And how could he? Look at what has happened to any noble who has come to our aid.”
Adagio could hardly bear her sister’s words. The pain was too great. “Violet…” she choked.
“And so…” the older mare continued softly, “I have decided to surrender myself.”
“Violet!” Adagio shouted, shaking her sister at the shoulders. “What are you saying? No! Never!”
“Listen to me, Adagio!” Violet bellowed. Her eyes were sharp, focused, completely coherent. “My story is already ended. My husband and eldest son are dead. I am nothing now if not for whatever parts of me live on in my family.”
“That is not true, Violet,” Adagio hissed, trembling with indignation. “Edinbridle is one of the largest seats of power in the land, and it is yours now. You are Duchess. By Bullion, pull yourself together and act like one!”
“I cannot lose my children, and I cannot lose you!” Violet wailed frantically. “I couldn’t bear to continue living if it were to happen.”
Guilt continued to wrack Adagio. Her head swept from side to side. Her mind was unwilling to accept what her sister was saying. “No, Violet. I shan’t allow it.”
“Then you condemn us all, innocent and guilty alike,” Violet said. “Adagio, everypony in the kingdom knows that we are kin. The horde is on Sardhoof’s doorstep even now, just as they are on father’s. They will burn all of these lands to ashes, and scatter it all with their wings. They will destroy my sons when they get hold of them. And my daughters…” Violet’s head shook violently. “No. It is not within me as a mother to allow such a thing. You can hide the children, Adagio. Mother will take them into the Sardhoof. Vista and Velvet hold no claims to power, and the others are too young to pose a threat. In time the pegasi will forget. Their tempers will cool. But if I remain alive as heiress to an occupied Duchy, they will not stop until they have me. I must surrender. I cannot fathom what other choice there is to make.”
“Stop it, Violet! Stop acting as if we are powerless!” Adagio bellowed, weary of the horrible images that flashed before her eyes. “We shall fight! That is what we shall do!”
Violet seemed confused, but more surprisingly, vindicated. She was silent for a moment. Her sunken eyes were now opened wide. “Adagio, I thought you said you had not the power, nor could you sway your Lord. How could it be any different now?”
“Because I love you. Because I was wrong, and I was a fool, and I had not the grace to understand what might happen. But now I see, Violet, and I shall not let him have peace until he sends troops to the borders. Not you, but soldiers! And we will fight them!” Again, Adagio pressed her hooves into her sister’s shoulders. She hadn’t the clarity to decipher the blank look that Violet now gave her.
“You shall fight. Now,” Violet murmured.
Adagio nodded her head, thinking these words spawned from her sister’s sense of relief. “And you shall remain here under our protection as long as we may fight. I shall see to it.”
Violet glanced down at the rumpled sheets spread out between them. “Your fresh conviction melts my heart, Sister,” she said. “But, I am afraid I have already spoken with the Duke earlier this morning.”
“What he told you no longer applies,” Adagio pressed. “I shall convince him. I swear it.”
Violet’s gaze remained stoic as Adagio pulled her in close one more time. The weary and wilted mare reached up and drew her younger sister against her. “I am so very sorry for all the havoc that I bring upon you, Adagio.”
Upright’s study door glowed in raspberry, then swung open to smash into the already scuffed wall. In the doorway stood an enraged golden lady, a somewhat befitting sight to those within.
Adagio scanned the once wrecked room. The servants of the household had already begun the repairs. Scuffs were covered with smears of sap to be buffed and masked later on. The wood that could not be salvaged had already been pulled up and removed. Torn curtains had been taken down, and damaged books had been carted off to be restored. It was surprising how airy the chamber seemed without the majority of the Duke’s stuffy trinkets and boring tomes cluttering the place.
The Duchess huffed to herself when her eyes fell upon the three ponies occupying the study; two of them she deemed as having no business being there at all. She watched as they lounged about in the corner, their mouths gorged with fruit from the estate orchard and cider from the estate cellars. What they did not enjoy—which was quite a bit—they crudely spat into the air, and blew out of the broken window with lazy wings. Their pinning eyes honed in upon her, unimpressed with her dramatic entry.
“Morning, lovely,” Silent Wing chuckled, rolling a peach pit about in his cheek. “You look a bit worse for wear. Get a bit of bad news, did you?”
Echo lay beside him swatting her tail about, and chuckling with glee. “Find yourself in a bit of a jam?” she tittered, working her way through a platter of strawberries.
Adagio turned away from them both in disgust. Her ire had been reserved for the lone figure brooding in the shaded patch behind a once pristine oakwood desk. “Your Grace,” she stated firmly, sounding more confident than she had in years. “I would appreciate it if you would tell your minions to take their leave. I wish to speak with you about our guest.”
Upon entering the room, Adagio hadn’t the time to consider that something might have been terribly amiss. Now, looking upon the seething Duke, she could see it clearly. His silence was deafening and purposeful. His cold, reddened eyes were trained down upon something unseen in the front drawer of his desk. The eyes gradually set their sights upon her. His brow quivered. The corner of his mouth trembled. For a moment, Adagio couldn't tell whether he might laugh or cry.
Her brow furrowed as she attempted to decipher what the Duke was feeling. Studying his mercenaries, she realized that all three of them were aware of something they were not revealing to her. Naturally, she was set on discovering it, however if living in the house of Goldenstalks had taught Adagio anything, it was the necessity of being tactical about everything. “We should retire to your chamber, Your Grace. I can see that you have not slept,” she said.
There was only silence save for the pegasus duo’s snickering and crude whistling
Adagio bit her lip anxiously, but pushed on. “I realize that we have been cast into a rather precarious predicament, Your Grace, but you must maintain clarity if you are to govern as you should.”
Upright said nothing. His dim eyes bore into her with an expression that seemed somewhat familiar. It took a moment for Adagio to realize that she had seen that exact look upon Violet’s face a few moments prior. It was a look of defeat, a look one wore when denial and self delusion were no longer options.
Adagio, not one to be the target of any ridicule, stole herself, puffed up her chest, and lifted her head. “If there is something that you wish to say, I would beg Your Grace to please do so. The land is in turmoil, and there are things to discuss.”
Adagio listened to the sound of Upright’s desk drawer slowly closing. She heard something small rolling around within it. The entire time, he never looked away from her. And then, just like the automaton she had accused him of being, he arched a brow and smirked in his typical fashion. The change was so sudden that it was startling. Still, Adagio forced her hooves to remain planted to their spots.
“You are correct, Ada,” Upright said. At first, his voice sounded as if he had gone his entire life without a drink of water. He cleared his throat. “And what is it that you would suggest?”
Silence again cloaked the room. Three pairs of eyes watched her hungrily. Something was definitely amiss.
“The war, Your Grace. We must… we must…” Adagio’s eyes darted between the two mercenaries and her husband. “Your Grace, do you truly think it wise to hold council with pegasi at a time like this?”
Two pairs of wings ruffled to attention.
“Don't you two have other matters to attend to?” Adagio asked.
The pair smiled.
“As a matter of fact, Princess, we’ve only recently completed a very important task,” Silent chuckled. “You could say we’re now taking our well earned rest.”
Adagio smirked at them, quite weary of their antics. She turned to face her husband. “Your Grace, how do you know that they shan’t fly straightaway to tell a commander that—”
“He doesn't know, honestly,” Echo said, running a hoof along the length of her mane. Her expression had gone quite serious. “However, despite what you might think of us, Mare Goldenstalks, you must at least concede that a soldier is nothing if not for their word, their honor.”
Adagio scoffed. “You must be joking. Honor? You two? Do you even know what that means?”
Now the pair was frowning.
“You are truly beginning to irritate me, Pretty,” Silent Wing growled. His green eyes seethed.
“Out, you two scoundrels! Begone!” Adagio spat, flashing her horn in warning.
Threatened into attention by the flair of magic, both pegasi got to their hooves, their meals forgotten.
“That is enough, Ada,” Upright cut in. “They shan’t leave.”
“What?” Adagio breathed. “Your Grace, their presence is a conflict of interest. They are the enemy! Their commanders will—”
“Flower, whilst you very well might be educated in the ways of earth dwellers, I am afraid I must inform you that you are blithely misguided on the ways of our kind,” Echo groaned, rolling her eyes. “We are not beholden to any commander.”
“Though I do miss my time in the youth ranks,” Silent added, gazing off dreamily. “Good old days, those were.”
“Shut it,” Echo chided before turning again to face Adagio. “Commanders are only as powerful as the ponies who might believe in them. Trust me, Pretty, we’ve seen many a leader fall from grace for lack of honor and dignity.” She smiled coyly. “It would seem that you simple earth-dwellers are beginning to realize our truths all on your own. Why should we fly back to the legions to help that which needs no aid?”
Adagio bristled. “Foolishness. Am I to believe that you would ever choose to side with a unicorn whilst we war with pegasi?”
“Don't matter to us,” Silent said, feeling comfortable enough to roll back onto his cushion. “We fight for whoever’s paying.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Adagio growled.
“Is it? You don't seem to have the same complaints when pegasi fight on behalf of your cowardly king, do ye’? Thank your lucky stars that your bits are worth something to the sky soldiers. Because Bullion’s honor leaves so much to be desired,” Echo sighed, silencing Adagio for good. “War is sloppy, my Pretty. Any child of the legion knows that. An opponent is an opponent. It matters not what race they were born of. All that matters is their willingness to die courageously.”
“For the ones who await us with wreaths of gold,” the both of them recited in tandem, their eyes gone glassy with pride.
The white mare retook her seat, and bent over to again nibble at her meal. She shrugged. “I'd salute an honorable unicorn if it were possible for such a thing to exist.” She sat up to wink flirtatiously in Upright’s direction. “No offense, Sir.”
By this point, Upright’s face had decisively lowered itself onto the surface of his desk. It was clear he was sifting through the final dregs of his composure.
Acknowledging this, Adagio decided there was little if any time to waste, especially arguing with pegasi. “War, Your Grace. You shall never relinquish the Duchess of Edinbridle unless I, too, go with her. Either you give us both to the invaders or we fight.”
“Ooh! Well, this just got so much more interesting,” Silent Wing sneered, bobbing about upon his back.
Adagio grit her teeth and steadied her nerve as the Duke lifted his head. “And if you dare try to keep me separated from my sister whilst you give her up, I swear I will find a way to break free and go after h—”
“Very well,” Upright replied curtly.
Adagio paused. “W… what?”
“I said very well, Ada. I will gather whatever soldiers my land has to offer. Sardhoof and Buckston will fight,” Upright said. The imperviousness stuck to his brow gave his aura a dangerous quality.
Adagio could not shake the crushing sense that, once again, she had missed something. “Y… yes. And it must be done as swiftly as possible. Two days if not sooner.”
His jaw still set, Upright levitated the pen from his inkwell, and pulled a fresh leaf of paper from his ever mountainous stack. “If it is to be done, then the finest stallions shall be required to recruit and lead an offense.”
In light of her husband’s sudden show of agreeability, Adagio dared not miss her rare opportunity to be heard. “Splendid! And whom does Your Grace have in mind?”
“Stones Throw. He is not quite fresh as a daisy, but he is strong, and knows Sardhoof Forest well. That is very important,” Upright responded immediately, passing an inclusionary glance Silent and Echo’s way. “He resides on the southern edge of the Sardhoof. You will have to fly far.”
“Ayyye,” the two pegasi groaned, rolling their eyes.
Adagio nodded, finding this suggestion agreeable.
“Obsidian,” Upright suggested next, quickly jotting the name down. “Excellent spy according to father. You two shan’t find his home. Go to that pub in town, and ask a few of the patrons for him, perhaps the barmares. Eventually, he shall find you, and hopefully at my gates to save time.”
Silent Wing grinned as he heard the pub mentioned. “Why don't you fetch Mister Stones, Hummy, dear? I wouldn't mind recruiting this Obsidian fellow alone. Pub’s no place for a lady, after all.”
Echo passed him a withering grimace. “If I discover that you've spent all of our earnings on drink and tail again, I swear I shall—”
“I am a gentlestallion, Love. Haven't a clue what you're on about,” the dark stallion coughed, shrugging off his blatant guilt. Unable to meet his companion's gaze, he turned to pass Upright a smile instead. “Anypony else, Princey?”
“Dragon’s Blood Jasper. You will find him at his home near the quarry,” Upright stated, his eyes never having left the page. Increasingly, the Duke seemed lost in his thoughts, suddenly obsessed with accomplishing the task of hurrying into war. “He is a unicorn, and thus neither exceptionally strong nor swift… He likes fire, however. A great deal of fire.”
Echo’s brow arched with intrigue. “That one is mine.”
“I would think it wise if you were to bring a raincloud with you,” the Duke added.
Adagio was at a loss. So surreal was the moment and her place in it that she could barely believe she wasn't, in fact, dreaming. There Upright sat within his dark enclave, prattling increasingly garbled names and commands to himself, excited and willing to enter a war he had been avoiding for months. The mercenaries had already stopped listening to him. Echo Hum and her companion—two would-be turncoats—sat a short distance away beside the shattered window. Surrounding them was their ruin of food. Echo audaciously chose that moment to preen her wings amongst her spoils. Adagio had never known a pegasus to do such a thing in public, amongst strangers no less. Silent Wing rolled about beside her looking far too bored for it to have possibly been the first time he'd witnessed his partner teething at her feathers that way. Through the window, Adagio could just make out the tiny spec of a silver carriage now making its way down the estate’s main path. In it, something was flashing a signal in bright green. Moonstone had finally arrived. On the horizon, far beyond the town and country in the distance, clouds were forming. Thick and gray, they lurched forward in silence and stopped as if forced ‘round some invisible wall. They halted just where the eastern border of the domain would be.
Adagio’s head began to reel. Upright’s voice continued to ramble in the background. She heard his hoof tapping rhythmically upon wood. A perfect, snow white feather floated to the ground, and was crudely snatched up into Silent Wing’s teeth to serve as a toothpick. And Echo sighed at him. And flashes in green haloed the window. And why was Moonstone flashing her horn?
As the silver carriage approached below, Adagio’s mind began to quake. A familiar magical sensation buzzed through her brain.
The telepathy spell hit her like a dart. She could hear Moonstone’s voice in sputters and clicks. The mare was too far away, and the conjuration too weak for clarity.
“Do not… She… Betrayal!”
And the sun shone down outside, surrounded by a ring of thick gray. If it weren’t for the manor sitting atop a large hill, she doubted the impending invasion would have been noticeable at all. The ring of gray made the sky look like one enormous, burning eye inset in blue. Adagio could feel the eye staring through her, searing into every lie, every plot, every scheme, and every dark secret she dared keep to herself. She felt her stomach lurch. Everything about this moment felt wrong.
“What is this?” the Duchess croaked at last. Her eyes blinked rapidly just in case the action should wake her up from this dream. “You three… you are doing something, and… I cannot understand it.” She turned to look at Upright who was still speaking. “What are you hiding from me?”
The Duke’s speech stopped abruptly. His eyes rose from his page. They were still red and exhausted. “Of course somepony must take up the charge,” he said, ignoring the Duchess’ inquiry. “Wouldn't you say so?”
Adagio remained silent.
“Somepony dependable, who is able to meet the invaders at the border. The others would join him soon after, of course.”
Adagio’s brow creased. Silent and Echo’s eyes pinned and flashed, honing in upon her face as if waiting to see how she would react to the punchline of some grand joke.
“Lighthoof is the obvious choice, wouldn't you say so, Ada?” Upright finished. He pushed the words through his teeth lest his forced smile faltered.
Adagio blinked. The room was silent, but she could hear Moonstone’s muffled voice calling from somewhere in the great hall below. She shook her head. “L… Lighthoof? You'd send him to...” she breathed. Her hoof took an involuntary step backward.
The Duke shot to his hooves when he saw her retreat. “Naturally,” he said. He rounded about the desk, and made his way toward the door to shut it. Moonstone’s far away shouting was quickly silenced. “The Lighthoofs have defended the Goldenstalks for two generations. He is the obvious choice, yes?”
“I…” The Duchess forced a very fake laugh. “Of course, Your Grace, but do you truly think it wise to leave the estate unattended? If anything, Lighthoof belongs here upon manor grounds.”
“Do you not wish to protect the life of your sister?” Upright inquired. His eyes were beginning to take on a wild glint.
Adagio huffed. “Of course I do, but—”
“But not at the expense of somepony that you care for,” Upright finished. “No, you wouldn't dare be found at fault for the suffering of a pony who mattered to you, would you?”
Adagio retreated. The pegasi were laughing.
“Like Beryl, perhaps?” the Duke shot. “You couldn't do anything that might cause her to suffer needlessly, could you?”
“And what about me, Ada? Could you allow me to suffer needlessly?” the Duke asked. He said nothing else, choosing instead to await her reply.
Adagio stammered. Her eyes darted between the Duke and his mercenaries, repeatedly.
Her gaze locked with Echo’s. The winged mare huffed, and shot the Duchess something of a pitying smile. “Give it up, Flower. Can you still not see?” she cooed. “He knows.”
Dread descended upon Adagio. Her stomach dropped like a rock. Her head shot about so that she might look at her husband.
The Duke stood before the doorway looking far too calm and composed for somepony in his position. His jaw was set. His head was held high. He looked down upon Adagio as one would a child. “‘I swear it upon all that I love and hold dear’. Is that not what you told me that evening at Canterlot Palace, Adagio Dazzle?” he asked her. “The evening I gifted to you my mother’s pin, the pin you wore without shame? The very evening you accused me of betraying you in the way you have betrayed me?”
Adagio stood her ground, not for lack of fear, but because she could no longer feel her legs. Her heart was pounding in her ears again. These sensations weren’t new ones. Time and again she had found herself feeling these things, and yet this instance was unlike any other that had come before it.
“Answer me!” the unicorn stallion bellowed. His hoof came down upon the scuffed wood flooring like thunder. His horn sparked and crackled like lightning. Even the feathered pair in the corner retreated further into shadow. An angry, full grown unicorn was certainly no laughing matter.
Adagio Dazzle—cunning but not cunning enough, powerful but not powerful enough, and caught at last in her scheming and lying by one far more sly than she. It was only there in that moment that she realized: so great was Upright’s power, so precise his foresight that even in all of his scheming, he had never once lied to her. He wielded a far more powerful weapon in that skull of his. How could she have ever been foolish enough to think she might evade him forever?
Caught in yet another moment of shame, the Duchess Goldenstalks did, of course, what she had been trained to do all of her life when shamed—turn attentions away from herself.
“I did say it. ‘Twas a lie. And now you shall tell me how you have come to know of it,” she said, her head held high. She turned her gaze upon the two pegasi in the corner. They were warily eyeing the window, perhaps wondering if soon they might have to make a dash for it. “You there. How did you discover it?”
“Betray… you…” Moonstone’s voice crackled and hissed in the Duchess’ skull as if in response to her question. Her younger sister had managed to cast a Telepathy spell again.
Upright replied before the pegasi could speak. “Perhaps you might learn a lesson from their kind after all, Ada. Never betray a pony who once was entrusted with your secrets.”
A lump caught in Adagio’s throat. “Beryl,” she croaked.
“We had quite a grand time with that one,” Silent Wing chuckled, rolling up onto his haunches. “Didn't get a wink of sleep, not that there's much of it to be had what with that sleeping terror.”
“What do you mean?” Adagio choked, a horrible thought occurring to her. She turned to face her husband. “What does he mean? What have you done to Beryl? She wasn't to be hurt! You said she would not be hurt!”
Upright took one step toward her. His horn was glowing brightly. “You’ve betrayed me, Adagio. You’ve made a fool of me. You and Lighthoof, both! You swore on all that you held dear that you were faithful even whilst you… You allowed me to believe that we had lost...” Upright’s speech faltered. He bit his lip until he had again managed to compose himself. “Why would you do this, Ada? Did you ever love me at all?”
The question stung Adagio to her core. She scoffed with disbelief. How could the Duke have been perceptive enough to catch her in her lies, and still so blind as to never have deciphered why she would lie in the first place? She took a deep breath. At least in this matter she could afford him the truth.
“How dare you ask me a question like that, Upright?” she breathed. Her brow trembled. “After all that I have done to form myself into something that you might love as much as you cherish your silly books and rules? Of course I loved you.” Her horn sparked, sending a spray of books flying from their shelves. “And look at what I have become for all of my efforts! As much as you might hate me now, Upright, it could never compare to how much I hate myself for becoming this! A liar, a betrayer, and yes, a fool! All for want of your affection!” She stomped her hoof, and bowed her head. “This place, this life was my dream! You were my dream you cold, horrible, silly, silly stallion! And instead of speaking with me, you commanded me. Instead of loving me, you maintained me. Instead of showing me your whole mind and heart, and allowing me to show you mine, you instead demanded that I ‘fulfil my duties’. And now you dare stand there and ask me of love? How could love ever grow here when you have done everything in your power to draw it out like a weed? As if you found the very notion of love laughable? How could you possibly be surprised that this has happened?”
They stood before one another in silence. Adagio's face had gone red with weeping and rage. Looking into his eyes again she forced herself to remember a time when she had adored that hue of blue. She forced herself to remember a time when all she wanted for was his warm embrace. Her heart pulsed painfully. “I've given you my answer. All I ask in return is that you tell me now, Upright. Say that you love me. For once in this horrible mockery we call our marriage, just give me that one small pleasure. Won’t you?”
For the first time in perhaps all of the years they had known each other, it was Upright who could not meet her gaze. He stared down toward the floor in shame, mulling over in his mind the many lost years he and Adagio had wasted.
The Duchess remained steadfast. Her lips drew in tight. Even in that moment, whilst she was most unworthy of forgiveness or love, she begged those words of him. She demanded them. By Bullion, he owed her.
Upright’s eyes opened and closed, and then repeated the action. His tempered breath calmed itself. He lifted his head proudly, and like always, wiped all emotion from his face. Instead of responding to Adagio, he trained his attentions upon the pegasus duo standing to her rear.
The Duchess' head bowed in defeat. She knew what was coming, or rather what wasn't coming.
“After you have recruited the others, I want you to find Sir Prance Lighthoof, and bring him here to the estate,” Upright commanded the pegasi.
Silent Wing scratched at his head with one stray wing. “Err, here's a question: What if none o’ them ponies what you're talking about want to fight in your little war?” he asked. “Climate is right for dissent, after all.”
“I doubt that knight would be very willing,” Echo sneered, cocking a brow yet again.
Upright growled, his patience now depleted. “If they refuse their Lord, then you shall put them in chains, rings, whatever you have, and bring them to me! If they curse the monarchy or otherwise prove themselves traitors, get rid of them. They have no place on my land!” His horn flashed, startling the two mercenaries into attention. “Just make certain that you retrieve Prance Lighthoof alive!”
“Alright, Princey!” Silent Wing exclaimed, only to receive yet another flash of Upright’s horn in response. Catching himself, the pegasus stallion straightened out his back and squared his jaw. “I mean, Princey Sir! We'll get it done.”
“Chains and rings? For that many ponies? Ponies with talent?” Echo added. “That would surely prove far too much weight. We wouldn't be able to fly… Not unless we recruited some help, that is.”
“Do what you must,” Upright replied with a wave of his hoof.
Adagio reeled. A familiar ringing sound drowned out everything that was being said around her. It was only now that she realized its toll had been a warning, one she had always managed to misinterpret.
She watched Upright point, and scream, and rage, hearing none of it. She watched the two pegasi sit up straighter with every flash of the Duke’s horn until they were practically saluting. She was no longer able to decipher the twisted tale she had become part of. So, instead she simply bore down upon her forelegs.
Three pairs of eyes watched as her horn began to glow.
There was a snap of both ruby and orange light. The two mingled together. It happened so quickly that it was impossible to distinguish which spark had come first.
Adagio’s body buzzed as she was caught in her escape, mid-teleportation. Her insides burned and blinked. Upright’s magical halo surrounded her. His entire being gleamed, and the two suns in his eyes burst like novas. Whilst the pegasi wisely took this opportunity to make a quick exit, Upright’s burning aura spread through oakwood, through walls, through stone, past the gardens beyond the window, past the great grasses, and toward the edge of the Sardhoof. Gazing out of the window, Adagio could see the glow growing bigger until at last it had surrounded the entire estate in an enormous, shimmering dome. One more flash, and the dome disappeared, leaving falling sparks in its wake. Adagio’s heart sank when she understood what it was the Duke had done.
“Nopony shall leave this estate lest I allow it,” the noblestallion hissed. Raising his head high once more, he bellowed for his guards.
In they came a moment later: three armored, stallions, large and menacing. They saluted at once, and awaited their orders.
“See Her Grace to her chambers. Keep her there, including during her meals. She is not to leave unless absolutely necessary, and most certainly not without accompaniment. Under no circumstances is she to speak with her sister.”
“The Duchess Vision, Sir?” one of the soldiers inquired.
“Both of them. The Duchess of Edinbridle as well as that merry, meddling drunkard of an heiress. In fact, you shall keep the three of them completely separated from each other at all costs. Do you understand?”
“Your Grace!” the three guards bellowed before moving forward to form an escort circle about the Duchess. Her fair frame was quickly lost in their shadow.
Adagio peered daggers into her husband’s eyes. It would seem that tonight was, indeed, a night of firsts. For the first time in her life, that icy blue could not unnerve her. She understood that all of her fears lay in the notion that she might one day be discovered and labeled a fraud. Now that day had come, and here she was, still standing.
Something old and tightly knotted unwound itself within her chest. She inhaled deeply and felt her muscles relax in a way they never had before. “I shan't allow you to hurt him, Upright,” she said, even as the guard led her away. “Bellow and bluster as you may, I swear we shall find a way to escape you.”
Adagio rushed past her solar—now void of children—and into her bower. Once there, she scrambled to her writing desk, and wrenched out fresh ink and paper. Outside of her window, in the beyond, the sky crackled and flashed in orange.
Every few minutes, another flash. The Duke was up to wicked work.
The Duchess remained frantic as she bore down upon the sheet of paper. She lifted the quill into her magic.
Though rushed, the script still came beautifully:
‘You are in danger! It has to be tonight! I shall wait for you by the fountain.’
With one twirl of her horn, the paper rolled into the air. It bound itself with a bit of string, and was gone in a sudden flash of light.