Trouble was brewing.
Suri could see it in the way her master carried herself through the streets of Ponyville. Yes, she was holding her head high and her face was neutral. But her tail flicked at invisible flies, her ears twitched at every mutter, greeting and sideways glance from the crowds. Yes, Suri had seen this before. Resentment and anger were squirming under Adagio’s skin. Anger that had a good chance to be unleashed upon the next pony to cross her.
She jumped. “Yes, m’lady?”
“Remind me later to look into Miss Glimmer. No pony is so self-assured around their superiors unless they have some backing.”
Unless it's you and Count Fancy Pants of course, Suri thought. But what she said was, “Of course, m’lady.”
“Starlight had mentioned catering.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement, telling Suri exactly what she needed to pay attention to at the moment. She quickly rummaged through the collection of notes and documents, parsing through Starlight’s sloppy penmanship.
“According to these, the pony in charge of the catering is a Sonata Dusk. Owner of the Southern Breeze restaurant.”
Iron Will glanced skyward, noting the sun’s position. “Getting towards midday,” he said. It was a casual observation, but one that was punctuated by a loud rumble from his stomach. “And those who fast, wind up dead last!”
Adagio stopped, glancing back at her bodyguard. “Your stomach is a never ending pit.”
“These muscles don’t maintain themselves!” Will said, flexing both arms to emphasize his point.
Despite the anger that Suri could still read in her body language, Adagio snorted, biting back a round of laughter. “Well...I suppose that getting lunch while we talk to Miss Dusk isn’t out of the question. Let’s go find her.”
Suri sighed in relief. Food would help. Food always helped.
- - - -
It had taken Adagio asking a random pony in the streets to find the location of Sonata’s restaurant. The Southern Breeze was almost completely on the opposite side of town from Starlight’s tower, near the towering walls that faced the Everfree Forest. It was situated down a little side street off the main promenade of the city- conveniently devoid of ducks or ponies engaged in the fondling thereof- and was in a word, quaint.
A single story building it, like most of Ponyville's structures, was made of wood. Unlike the others though, this one had been painted. The roof was a pale, sky blue, while the walls had been given a simple coat of whitewash. Though somepony had then come along with the pale blue again to trace some swirly, looping patterns that Adagio imagined were supposed to be breezes.
Despite the paint, the building still managed to look rough around the edges. The paint itself was chipped and flaking in a few places, leaving the exposed wood weathered and beaten. The little porch that framed the front doors was scuffed and cracked from the hooves the had trod it. All in all, it was a working pony’s restaurant. The kind of place farmers and traders would congregate at after a long day’s labor.
Aromatic scent of cooking wafted through two sets of partially open windows, stirring fond memories of the repast from her ennoblement ceremony two nights before. These scents had a different profile though. The ever so slight tingle in her nostrils told Adagio that the food served here used a bit more spice than some of the other establishments she had dined at in her life.
“No time to wait, let’s fill our plates!” Will declared, striding right past Adagio, proper protocol forgotten.
Adagio didn’t bother reprimanding Will for that. The smell of food had gotten her own stomach growling at the thought of an early lunch, so she followed after, her mind contemplating the nature of the cuisine waiting inside.
The restaurant’s interior walls had been left devoid of whitewash, but not the breeze patterns. They ran along the walls and ceiling, radiating outwards from an open doorway on the far side of the main dining room from the entrance. Glowing stones hung from short chandeliers, adding to the natural light creeping its way in through the partially open windows.
There were only a few ponies filling the tables at the moment, lunch having not truly arrived yet. So it was only a matter of moments before a waitress swooped down on them. As the pony was a pegasus, it was a quite literal swooping at that, as she had propelled herself across the room with a beat of her wings.
“Hellooooo! Welcome to the Southern Breeze! I’m Sour Sweet. How can I help you today?” she asked. The pony’s coat was the pale gold of ripe wheat and her straight, pony tail mane was the color of an equally pale rose (save for the one greenish-blue stripe) an observation that made Adagio even more hungry. Even her cutie-mark seemed to be getting in on it being a paired lemon and lime.
“Your finest table for myself and my colleagues,” Adagio answered, waving her medallion at the server. “And I wish to speak with Sonata Dusk as soon as possible.”
Sour Sweet’s eyes flicked to Iron Will, her smile faltering for a moment. “Of course! Right this way m’lady. I’m sure that Sonata will be happy to speak with you,” she said, leading the way to the largest table in the dining room. But then her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Assuming she isn’t too busy with her apprentice!”
Adagio, Will and Suri exchanged a confused stare, but took a seat at the circular table. The bouncy smile was back on Sour Sweet’s muzzle.
“Today, we have a spicy vegetable soup with cornbread muffin side, bean durums, goat cheese stuffed green peppers and fresh baked bread. We don’t have any other specials, so don’t ask! Oh! And plenty of cider from Sweet Apple Acres, when they can get off their flanks to deliver it!”
Before Adagio could order, Iron Will dropped a bag of bits on the table. Sour Sweet jumped at the rattle of coins against hard wood, her eyes going wide. Adagio rolled hers, ignoring the stares from the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. As much as a guard paying for their meal while on duty was an impropriety, it was one that Adagio couldn’t bring herself to stop. Food was one of the few things Will spent his hard earned bodyguard pay on and he had been doing it since she was a foal. Always buying her sweets and snacks when her parents were out of town.
“Bring us some of it all, a few rounds of cider and send out Sonata. Please,” Will rumbled, idly motioning a finger towards the kitchen.
Sour Sweet didn’t argue, instead cantering her way through the maze of tables and disappearing into the kitchens. A moment later, Adagio barely made out another mare’s voice over the returning chatter of the other patrons.
Again, Adagio found herself wondering about a pony in this town. That question seemed more one a foal would ask, rather than the head of catering for a festival event. Sighing, she closed her eyes and flicked her ears back, purposefully shutting out the world around her for a few blissful moments.
No matter what she’s like, I have to play nice, she thought almost mantra like. Who knows what crazy rules she thinks I’ve passed. Besides, having a local restaurant owner and the appointed caterer for a civic celebration on my side should help fix some of Fancy Pants’ damage.
She wasn’t exactly sure how long she sat there, ignoring all the ponies around her, but it was clearly long enough for their food to arrive, judging by the soft (yet cheerful) voice that addressed her.
“Your highness? You wanted to talk with me?”
“M’lady is the proper term of address for a baroness,” Adagio answered, opening her eyes. “Save ‘your highness’ for the queen when she visits.”
Sonata Dusk was an earth pony and currently had a full tray of food balanced atop her head. A simple music note imposed over a heart stood out from her extremely pale blue-white coat. Her mane and tail were two different shades of blue, the darker of those formed into three long stripes. A white apron with a large front pocket was tied around her chest. She dipped her head in a bow, carefully sliding the tray onto the table as she went in a surprising display of grace. Sour Sweet quickly added a few flagons of cider to complete the impressive looking repast.
“I’m super happy that you decided to visit my restaurant, m’lady! ” Sonata said, in her extremely bouncy tone. “Are you passing through? Or visiting somepony?”
“....I’m here to take control of my barony and—”
Sonata squeaked. It was a strangled, fearful thing. Not unlike the cry a squirrel would make if it was stepped on.
“Please don’t take away my spices! I didn’t mean to handle a salmon in any bad way!”
“...What?” Adagio blinked.
“...I...I cook fish here sometimes. Some ponies like them,” Sonata muttered, nervously rubbing her hooves together. “I didn’t know it was super illegal, I swear-”
“Stop,” Adagio said, already tired of the rambling. “Those laws were a mistake and will be dealt with soon enough. I’m not here to take your spices or your restaurant.”
Adagio sighed. “Yes...for ‘realisies’.”
“Then...what did you want to talk to me about?”
Adagio motioned to an empty spot around the table, as she floated a bowl of the soup and a hunk of bread over to herself. Will and Suri were already eagerly tearing into their own meals, which was a good sign for the quality of the food.
Ripping her bread in half, Adagio dunked one half in her soup. “Sit. I want you to walk me through your plans for catering this year's Remembrance Festival.”
She popped the half into her mouth blinking at the sudden rush of heat that flooded her tongue. It seemed that Sour Sweet hadn’t been underselling the spicy nature of the soup. But it wasn’t too hot either. It burned just the right way, with a sharp kick at the front to help bring out the flavor of the vegetables.
Sonata squeaked again, but with a much happier tone this time. “Oh! Okay!” She was suddenly off like a shot, disappearing back into her kitchen. There was the sound of metal clanging against metal as pots and pans were presumably shoved aside. Then, almost as fast as she left, she was trotting back, a large sheet of paper gripped in her mouth.
Nudging a few of the plates and mugs aside with her nose, Sonata spread it out on the table before them. It was a map of a town square, one that Adagio recognized from her foalhood as Ponyville’s largest, built around the actual town hall, rather than Starlight’s personal tower of delusion.
She almost hadn’t been able to recognize it though, for all the things covering it. There were the usual- though very sloppy- ink scribbles that probably pointed out where tables, stages and booths were going to be placed for the festivities. But there were also stains in multiple shades of reds and oranges. The remains of spices and sauces that had splattered their way onto its surface.
“Tell me what I’m looking at,’ Adagio said. “This is so stained I can barely read it.”
“Oh! Those aren’t stains! ….Not all of them at least. Most of them are food samples. So I can remember which restaurant is going where.”
It was an impressively normal delivery of an idea that made such a complete lack of sense.
Gods help me, Adagio thought as Sonata plowed ahead.
“So, all of the food tables are going to be set up against town hall. It has a big fireplace inside that we can use to cook any extra stuff if we need it,” Sonata began to ramble, her explanation quickly gaining steam as she waved her hooves over the map. “That way the craft booths can take the outer ring like mayor Starlight wanted! And I got every restaurant in town and most of the farms involved! Everypony in town will eat like a queen...or a baroness,” she said, giggling at her own joke.
Adagio looked over the map again. Perhaps Sonata wasn’t as foolish as she first appeared. The plans made sense and the location would have enough space for a great deal of ponies.
“What about other parts of town? Not everypony in Ponyville will be able to fit in town square.”
“There are other stations set up near some of the other restaurants in town. Everypony will be able to wander around and sample what they want.”
“And the menu?”
Sonata waved a hoof at the food before them. “Mostly stuff like this. I do soups and wraps and breads. The other restaurants do their own things.”
Adagio sighed. As much as she hated to admit it, it seemed that Starlight and her ponies had competently arranged this part as least. “Thank you Sonata. That will be all.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure that I want more soup!” Iron Will exclaimed, shoving an empty bowl towards her. “And durums and peppers…. In fact, just bring us another round of everything.”
Sonata’s eyes lit up, the thoughts of the coming bill most likely running through her head. But Adagio’s mind was already seizing upon an idea. One that would let her extract a little bit of personal gain from this situation.
“Actually Sonata, I would like to have a better grip on everything you’ll be serving. Could you perhaps make us some samples of your other dishes? I need to have a firm understanding of your menu.”
“Sure!” Sonata said. “I’ll whip up some samples in two shakes of a pony’s tail!”
With that, Sonata vanished back into her kitchen. Sour Sweet glanced between the door and Adagio before giving a sheepish grin and scurrying off to tend to her other customers.
“So...umm…who are we going to talk to next? I mean, what’s the plan?” Suri asked, fumbling over her words.
“The rangers,” Adagio said after a moment or two of thought. “They’re known even in Canterlot and I’d like to see if they live up to their reputation.”
“They’d have to, wouldn’t they? I mean... the Everfree Forest is cursed... right?”
The cursed nature of the Everfree was one of those stories that never went away. Not fully, at least. As much as Chrysalis and Sombra discouraged the court from engaging in rumor mongering about the place, that never stopped anypony.
The Everfree captured pony souls. There was a town of undead ponies living somewhere in its depths. Its various monsters were building their own nation under its boughs. Lumberjacks who dared to try and harvest its wood soon were turned into trees themselves. Those were just a fraction of the insane ramblings she had heard during Canterlot courts. While Adagio suspected that many of them were exaggerated, she was also well aware that there was probably some kernel of truth in most of them.
For example, the monster nation rumor came from the fact the Everfree had its own race living in it- the caprataurs. They were supposed to be related to minotaurs, but the information surrounding them was so muddled that Adagio had no clue what was fact and what was fiction.
She shrugged. “We’ll see what the rangers have to say about it. They’ve probably spent enough time in that forest to see every bit of strangeness it can spit out.”
Before Suri could respond to that, Sonata was back with a full and heavy tray. It took her a little work to find room on the already crowded table. Most of it was familiar looking enough fare, save for a plate near the edge, full of folded bread, stuffed with vegetables.
“What, are those?” Adagio asked.
Sonata bowed again. “Just something I’ve been experimenting with, m’lady. Food easy to hold and eat at the same time. I’m thinking about calling them...foldies!”
Adagio blinked at the bizarre food items, but picked one up with her magic all the same. While stuffed almost to bursting, the folded bread shell was keeping the contents restrained. She took a large bite, finding herself quickly rewarded with a burst of flavor and the snap of lightly cooked vegetables. It seemed that as mad as she acted, Sonata was nothing if not a good chef.
“So! With all these plates and the drinks, the total bill comes to sixty five bits,” Sonata chirped. “Which would be a big bill for most of my usual customers, but that’s probably nothing to a noble like you.”
Truthfully, Adagio could have covered the bill even if Will wasn’t already planning to. She wasn’t that broke. But part of her chafed at the situation all the same. After all this was her territory and Sonata was her subject. If she dug up the right loopholes, Adagio could probably demand the whole restaurant from Sonata and still be entirely within her rights. But Chrysalis and Sombra wouldn’t approve of such a naked abuse of noble power and that just wouldn’t do when she was supposed to be showing them her potential. Yet, as Will began to count out the cost of the bill, her mind seized upon an idea.
“Actually, since we are tasting this food for the festival, shouldn’t our meal be covered?”
Will paused half way through counting, while Sonata's chipper demeanor fell away. It returned just as quickly, but in that moment, Adagio could see both disappointment and indecision in her eyes.
“Of course, if you can’t, I understand. But then there will be the question of the salmon…”
“Sure,” Sonata blurted out, the cheerful attitude coming back with a hint of mania this time. “Enjoy!”
“Hold on,” Will said, holding up a hand to interrupt her flight back to the kitchen. Sonata stared as he counted out the full amount of the bill and then a little more. “You’ve been such a good host. Take this with my compliment.”
With a sweep of his mighty hand, Will scooped the mass of gold into Sonata’s apron pocket. She made kind of a strangled, squeaking sound before she was able to find her voice again. “Why?”
Iron Will took one of her hooves in his hand. “Because, a mare as skilled at the pans as you, deserves bits for her hard work,” he said, before gently kissing her fetlock.
Sonata immediately burst into a round of foal like giggles, a blush managing to creep through her blue coat. “O-oh! Thank you! Well….enjoy!” Then she turned and ran back into the kitchen.
“Corny,” Suri said, with a roll of her eyes. “All of your pick up lines are corny.”
“Maybe. But it made her feel better, didn’t it?” Will said, shooting Adagio an angry glare.
Adagio ignored him, burying her muzzle into a mug of cider, her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
- - - -
A warm breeze cut across Ponyville’s shimmering fields of grain and vegetables, before ruffling Adagio’s mane as she walked along. The day remained glorious, with the sun shining overhead and the small smattering of clouds through the otherwise clear blue sky. It was almost perfectly picturesque in its serenity.
That just annoyed Adagio all the more. It was like the world was saying that she didn’t need to be here. But this was her barony! If she couldn’t even arrange a stupid festival, how was she ever going to prove to all the naysayers that she deserved her rank and power! And Starlight Glimmer. That mare was upto something, she just knew it. The mayor had effectively been running Ponyville as her own private fiefdom while she was locked out of controlling her own land. Of course Starlight wouldn’t just hand that control back over!
“One problem at a time,” Adagio muttered under her breath.
After walking for a bit longer, they cleared the the farmland and approached the lodge of the Everfree Rangers. They were close to the forest itself here, its dark boughs a greenish blob on the horizon. The lodge was built on a small hillock, the Great Western Road lazily coiling past it, on its way to the Everfree.
Its design was based on the hunting lodges popular with Heartlands nobility. Four stone buildings built connecting each other to form three sides of a rectangle around a central courtyard, with the last side being a sturdy stone wall. But where a normal hunting lodge would be built with an eye in mind for comfort, this one was built with a eye in mind for defense.
This wall was higher, standing at a good ten feet tall and a few feet thick. It had also been expanded to wrap around the entirety of the compound, effectively doubling the thickness of the other building’s foundations. Four tall towers- one at each corner- had been built into the wall itself, effectively turning the hunting lodge into a mini castle. A heavy pair of double oaken doors provided the only (visible) entry to the complex. A pair of carved, wooden wings were set over that door, painted black like those of a raven or crow.
Adagio paused in the middle of the road, twisting to look at her attendants. “Everypony be on your best behavior in there. The minute we cross that threshold, we’re technically not in my barony anymore.”
“How?” Suri asked, frowning in puzzlement. “I don’t remember us ever handing over a chunk of land like this.”
“The Everfree Rangers are autonomous. They act like a knighthood, each lodge given a small plot of land of their own, and generous stipends from the throne in exchange for patrolling the forest. Their chapter master is equal in power to a viscount,” Adagio frowned. It took a few moments of mentally sifting through her collection of knowledge and courtly trivia to recall what she could about the Ponyville lodge. “The Ebon Wing Lodge is the oldest of them, I believe.”
Iron Will squinted at the towers, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand. “I can see some ponies moving around up there. They’re definitely watching us.”
“Then let us go and introduce ourselves,” Adagio said, striding towards the gates.
As she, Suri and Will approached, she too could begin to see ponies stationed on the towers. Their eyes tracked her as she drew ever closer to the gates, while they balanced crossbows in their hooves. Very heavy looking ones at that. When she was a few feet away from the doors however, one of them came swooping down from their perches.
The pegasus mare landed directly between Adagio and the gates, keeping the tip of her weapon pointed at the ground. She was lean and strong, trim muscle coiled under an aquamarine colored coat, ready to spring into action. Her amber and golden mane was swept back, presumably by the wind, while her orange eyes were probing. A sturdy looking set of brigandine barding completed the look stating that she was on duty.
“Present yourself,” she said, blunt and to the point.
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle,” Adagio said, quickly flashing her medallion. That introduction still sounded so good to her ears. “I’m here to speak with your lodge master about the forest. The Remembrance Festival-”
“Isn’t this a bit redundant? Mayor Glimmer already sent one of her ponies over to ask about the same thing.”
“Be that as it may, I’d like to check on things myself.”
The mare sniffed, rubbing the side of her snout. “What about your friends there?”
“My servant and bodyguard. They are with me.”
“Hmmph. Well it's no fur off my coat. Come on.”
The pony neatly turned on her hooves and launched herself back over the wall. There was a loud clank sound as the doors were unbolted on the other side, and one of the doors was pulled open. Adagio’s guide waved a hoof for them to follow as she set across the open courtyard towards one of the far buildings.
There had been a few other rangers doing some stretching exercises when Adagio first stepped through the gate. But as she, Suri and Will crossed the courtyard, they neatly fell into step behind Will. Adagio raised an eyebrow, but said nothing at the moment. It didn’t mean anything...yet. But something to keep an eye on.
As they drew closer to the central building, Adagio could make out a pair of silhouettes in one of the ground floor windows. It was a mare and a stallion, the former sitting, the latter standing. The stallion was also gesticulating as he talked, waving a hoof at something that Adagio couldn’t see. Following her guide into the building, Adagio found herself in what was clearly an office.
The office had a stern feel to it. Maps of the Everfree Forest covered the whole of one wall, many of them marked with red ink. A set of brigandine armor, colored a deep blue with a single yellow stripe running down each leg, was on a stand in the corner. The one variation from the sterile, military layout of the room was the large raven standing on a perch next to said armor. It peered imperiously at Adagio for a moment, before beginning to preen. Unfortunately, she had also walked into the tail end of an argument.
“...if you don’t clear the road, we won’t have any visitors from the Lunar Kingdom!” a white on white stallion exclaimed. He shuffled from hoof to hoof, clearly agitated.
The brilliant gold coated, oranged maned pegasus sitting behind a desk seemed unimpressed. Her glare back across the table was as stern as her office, but the battered look to her enhanced it to downright disdainful. Heavy scars covered most of her body, with a diagonal cut across her right eye, a ragged chunk missing out of the same ear and a particularly vicious one cutting across her left front leg being the most prominent. The map of healed wounds said it all. This mare had seen her fair share of combat. Even her mane and tail had a wild, constantly disheveled look.
“Double Diamond,” she growled, voice raspy and hard as nails. “I have received no word of any visiting caravans from Luna’s realm. Nor do I see the value in clearing the path in the off chance some might just happen to show up! The caprataurs have been restless as of late.”
“Excuse me Diamond,” the mare interrupted, looking towards Adagio. “Lightning Dust, who is this?” And then her eyes flicked up to Iron Will and her lips twisted into a sneer. “And tell me what that walking carpet is doing in my lodge!”
Anger surged through Adagio, but she bit it back for now. Lightning Dust saluted. “Baroness Adagio Dazzle mam. She’s here to speak with you about the festival. And the two-leg is her bodyguard.”
The mare’s violet eyes fixed on Adagio, burning with anger. “You have a damn ‘taur for a bodyguard? Are you completely off your royal-”
She didn’t get a chance to finish. Adagio’s horn blazed with magic and she sung. It was a simple, sharp note, cutting across the pegasus. And like a blade, it cut off the pony’s words, hexing her with silence. Adagio ignored the clicks of the crossbows all around her, the panicked whinny of Double Diamond and the warning growl from Iron Will. She fixed the target of her wrath with an angry glare.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I don’t care who you are, or how autonomous you are. But you will not speak to my bodyguard like that. Iron Will has protected my house for decades and is above reproach. If you insult him, or any servant of mine, like that again, you will understand just how unfortunate a mistake that is. Do we understand each other?”
A heavy hand clapped across her withers. “Don’t mind her Adagio,” Will said.” Pretty sure I could take the pipsqueak if I needed to.”
Adagio let the spell end. Spitfire's wings flared in challenge, her face twisting into a furious scowl.
“Threatening me? Because you better be absolutely sure you want this political fight on your hooves, baroness.”
“You’re the one who threw tribest insults at my bodyguard. Very unbecoming of somepony who's supposed to be in a place of power in The Heartlands. So, I’d suggest that you bite your tongue."
The lodge leader glared back across the table. “Fine, m’lady. What can I do for you?”
“I am here to speak with you about the festival Miss..?”
“Spitfire. Baroness, I am not sending my ponies into that forest to clear a damn road right now. We’ll let the monster activity die down some, then we’ll do it.”
“Is Double Diamond correct about visitors?”
“Technically. But most of what we get from the Lunar Kingdom are trade caravans. I don’t even think they celebrate this festival over there. And the Everfree’s trees shifting around isn’t new. Sometimes they do it, thanks to the magic in that place. This is hardly an emergency.”
Spitfire might have had a point, as the Everfree was her domain of expertise. But she had also managed to get right under Adagio’s coat with her attitude. “Well, that might be the case, but The Heartlands were built in the principles of harmony. We must be welcoming to our fellow kingdoms!” she proclaimed, pressing a hoof to her chest. “I may not be able to order you to do anything, but I would strongly suggest that you do. After all, Queen Chrysalis will be coming to this festival. I’d hate to tell her that you weren’t living up to those standards.”
Spitfire's smile was strained. “I’m sure I could tell her some things myself.”
“Oh, don’t be so grumpy. It’s not like I’m throwing you out there alone. I have some of my own guard in town. They and Iron Will can easily help you clear the road.”
Spitfire blinked. “What?”
Adagio smiled, letting her comment sink in. “Will? You’d be happy to help wouldn’t you?”
Iron Will chuckled, cracking his knuckles eagerly. “Clear a path? Those trees will feel my wrath! And I will out clear you, little pegasus.”
“So, is there anything else we need to discuss?” Adagio asked.
“No,” Spitfire said firmly. “Now, kindly get out of my lodge before I have you thrown out!”
With her point made, Adagio made for the gates. There was only a little more to do and she’d have this festival completely wrapped up.