• Published 19th Mar 2016
  • 5,442 Views, 186 Comments

Carousel - Thornquill

There is a part of Ponyville’s past its citizens forgot, a part that was left to rot... until Rarity encounters a dark power in Old Town Hall.

  • ...

Chapter 2 - Old Town Hall

As the weeks went by, winter came to Ponyville in force. Even on the rare sunny days, the temperature never rose high enough to melt much of the snow that blanketed the ground. Drifts rose slowly but surely as plowers worked daily to keep the roads relatively passable. Rarity never went out without high, heavy boots and a long coat to protect herself from the muddy slush, but that was the extent to which she allowed the weather to hinder her. She visited the library, Town Hall, the more well-to-do of the town’s merchants, and had even gotten an informational interview with Filthy Rich. Though she kept her inquiries generic, rumors always moved fast in small towns, and she had already begun to receive pointed inquires in the marketplace about whether she was thinking of starting a business in Ponyville.

She deflected the increasing curiosity, but the truth was that her heart was now almost completely set on it. Running her own fashion line had been a distant, almost-mythical goal for her—something that happened after years of climbing industry ladders, not barely out of University. The more she researched, however, the less insane it seemed. To her surprise, her father in particular had been especially enthusiastic about the idea from the moment she had first hinted at it over dinner.

“You know, Rarity, setting up shop by yourself was the only way it was done back in my dad’s day,” he had said cheerily. “I remember how confused he was when I wanted to pack up and join a sports journalism firm in Manehatten. He thought I ought to stay here and take over the Ponyville Express. I still wonder every now and then what would’ve been different if I had gone that way instead.”

“Well, we wouldn’t have met, for starters,” her mother had called from the kitchen, a teasing edge to her voice.

“And that’s the one thing I’d never change,” her father replied firmly. “But seriously, marshmallow, there’s no pony in Equestria who can hold a candle to your talent, and if you decide you want to go it alone, we’ll be behind you one hundred percent.” He mussed her mane at that point, and as she fought him off, she had laughed in a genuine manner for the first time in what felt like months.

After that, time had become something of a blur. Her desk was piled with notes and letters, the most recent being quotes from the bank and a few other prominent parties. She had firmly ruled out building a brand-new establishment. There was simply no way she could afford it, even with the surprisingly generous grants for incoming businesses available through Town Hall. Purchasing a location and re-purposing it, however, was surprisingly within her resources.

And so, with a wealth of optimistic, though by no means definite information, a bright but cold winter morning found her making her way through the frozen sludge to the local realty office. Located at the northern end of town, the office was a low, broad cottage that had, like so many businesses in town, probably been converted from a dedicated home into a combined office space and apartment. There were flyers taped to the front windows that displayed grainy photographs of homes for sale in town, and all but one were stamped with “offer pending” in red ink. Rarity couldn’t help but wonder if her endeavors might be shut down merely by a lack of available real estate, but she pushed the thought aside before squaring her shoulders and heading inside.

The first things that greeted her were the tinny tolls of a cluster of bells hung above the door, followed immediately after by strains of classical music distorted by the fuzzy whispers, gentle pops, and faint metallic echo of a gramophone. The second was the smell; as soon as the door opened, a warm breeze was sucked out into the cold past Rarity, carrying currents of cinnamon and cloves in such concentrations that they stung her nose. The third, which assailed Rarity’s senses just as she began to notice the rich, warm patterns of upholstery on the dark wood furniture, was a bright pink Earth Pony who, presumably in the excitement of having somepony enter the office, had cleared the reception desk in one spring and yanked Rarity inside with a hoofshake that would rattle Celestia herself.

“Hi there!” the pony chirped in a high-pitched voice that reminded Rarity unpleasantly of Sweetie Belle. “Welcome to Mortgage Realty, your one-stop-shop for all your property needs!”

“Er... hello,” Rarity said, finally extracting her hoof from the pony’s two-hoofed grasp. She had the vague sense she’d seen this mare somewhere once before, but couldn’t quite place it. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, miss...?”

“Pinkie Pie, but you can just call me Pinkie!” she replied in the same chipper tone. “And you’re Rarity! I’m surprised you don’t remember me. I chipped in to help with your mom’s foal shower for your little sister, so of course I remember you!”

“Uh...” Rarity couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever be around this mare and not remember her. She had made only a token appearance at the foal shower though, so she thought perhaps she had simply missed speaking to Pinkie.

“Now, you’re here because you need a super terrific new store for your incredible new dress shop!”

“I... wait, how do you know about—”

“Pfff, don’t be silly, everypony in Ponyville knows you’re going to be opening an awesome store for dresses and suits and all kinds of fancy-shmancy ‘haute couture’,” Pinkie Pie explained in a staccato barrage, confidently and primly murdering the pronunciation of haute couture into something that sounded more like “hawt coucher.”

“Pinkie? Did somepony come in?” another voice with a slight Canterlot accent called from the other room.

“Yes ma’am!” Pinkie called back. “We have a prospect!”

“Now, really, Miss Pie,” Rarity sputtered. “I’m just here to—”

“Oh, lovely! Be a dear and offer our guest some tea or coffee, won’t you? I won’t be but a minute.”

“Sure thing! Want any tea, Rarity?” Pinkie asked, snapping her bright blue eyes back to Rarity. “I just made the most dee-licious spicy chai. It’s the perfect thing for these chilly, pre-holiday gloomy days!”

“Er, yes, actually, that would be lovely,” Rarity said. “Thank...” Before Rarity could finish, Pinkie was out of the room and disappearing down a hallway with a few bounds that brushed her enormous frizz of a mane against the ceiling. “...you.”

Rarity glanced around, taking full stock of the room for the first time. Finding a heavy tray for keeping outdoor shoes by the door, she shed her filthy boots and left them to dry before walking farther into the room. Although the outside looked like a fairly typical country cottage, the interior had been remodeled and furnished in an old-fashioned Canterlotian style. The stone walls had been paneled over with dark wood polished to a golden gloss, overstuffed furniture was upholstered in pale greens and golds, and a fire burned bright and hot in a slightly incongruous white stone hearth. Although it was charming, the sudden heat and crowded nature of the room made her feel a touch suffocated, and the heavy odor of winter spices wasn’t helping. Even the music, which she now recognized as Hayctor Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, sounded slow and stifled in the thick, hot air.

“Ah, hello, hello!” the owner of the other voice said, trotting out of what was probably her main office and closing the door behind her. “Sounds like my receptionist already welcomed you, but welcome anyway! Minimum Mortgage, pleased to meet you.” She was a middle-aged Earth Pony with a steel-gray coat and a mane and tail of dusty blue, which age had streaked with vibrant silver. She wore severe-looking octagonal spectacles with gray wire frames, but the smile beneath them was so mild and kind, she looked like she could be somepony’s favorite grandmother—though aside from the graying hair, she didn’t appear very old.

“Rarity. Pleased to meet you as well, Miss Mortgage,” she said, intending to shake the other’s hoof gently, but instead finding her ankle wrapped in a firm hold and shaken with vigor.

“Oh no, for Celestia’s sake, just Minny will do,” she replied, rolling her eyes and laughing. “Otherwise we’ll be here all day.”

“Would you like the tea in the office?” Pinkie asked, emerging from the hallway and carrying on her back what appeared to be a complete silver tea service that would have been at home in a noble’s drawing room several centuries ago.

“That would be lovely, Pinkie. Please, Rarity, come in and warm yourself up. Then you can tell me what we can do for you. Pinkie, would you be so kind as to take our guest’s coat and scarf? Hang them on the rack by the door, there’s a good girl.”

“Yes ma’am!” Pinkie chirped, and Rarity gratefully allowed herself to be relieved of her garments, which had already become stifling. Although the office was furnished in much the same way as the reception area, Rarity was pleased to note that there was no additional fireplace.

“Can I get you anything else, dear?” Minny asked, sitting at her desk and busying herself with the tea service. The way she said “dear” reminded Rarity of her mother. “I’m sure there are some fresh pastries out there; Pinkie’s always bringing in some kind of little treat to share throughout the day. I swear, I’ve gained ten pounds since she started here.”

“No, thank you,” Rarity said, sitting in one of the large, overstuffed chairs opposite her. “Your assistant is certainly energetic.”

“That’s an understatement,” Minny said with a smile that conveyed a kind of ongoing, amused shock more than anything. “She’s a lifesaver though. When I hired her eight months ago, I was two months behind on paperwork and had no filing system to speak of. That’s my weakness, shamefully—never could quite get organized. Four weeks in, she had everything caught up and built me a new filing system from scratch.” She passed an ornate, bone-white porcelain cup and saucer to Rarity. “Now then, what’s brought you to us today?”

“Well, I’ve been doing some research, interviewing local merchants, and the like,” Rarity said, gently stirring a cube of sugar into the tea. “I’ve been exploring the possibility of getting my professional start here in Ponyville, and the next step is to see what might be available in terms of shop space now or in the future.” She paused, taking a sip of the tea. The sugar hadn’t taken the bitter edge off the spice, but no trace of a grimace crossed her face, “Though, judging by the flyers in the window, I may not be in for much luck. I know it’s a small town, but...”

She fell silent as Minny waved the comments off, steam rising from her scalding tea and obscuring her eyes behind fogged glasses. “Oh, those are residential properties. I doubt you’d be interested in them. They’re all on the outskirts of town and nowhere near the market. But there are options, particularly in terms of undeveloped land. Might I ask what type of business you’re looking to start? Strictly confidential, of course.”

Rarity hesitated for just a moment, then replied, “A fashion outlet.” She set her cup down and looked directly into Minny’s eyes. “Retail for fine, modern, made-to-order and custom-fitted designs. I’ll be developing all of the new lines and managing production myself, so I need a showroom, dressing rooms, space for a workshop... and it wouldn’t be amiss if I could live there, instead of at my parents’ home in the west end,” she finished. She watched Minny’s eyes for any sign of scorn, amusement, or mockery. She had watched the expressions of everypony she’d spoken to for such indications of judgment. She wasn’t sure why she kept expecting it, even feared seeing it. Minny, for her part, showed only intrigue.

“The difficulty is,” Rarity continued, “I really don’t have the funds to build everything from scratch. I was hoping for something like the shops surrounding the marketplace that have the flats above the store...” she trailed off when she noticed Minny pursing her lips.

“None of those are for sale or let, I’m afraid. All the businesses there are quite well-established. However...” she tapped her hoof on the desk, a gleam coming into her eye. “How’s your budget for renovation?”

“Well...” Rarity said slowly. “All I have are rough estimates. I really couldn’t say for sure, though I’ve been budgeting to re-purpose and redecorate the interior of anything I might find.”

“Oh thank heavens, I love it when I get somepony who thinks ahead,” Minny sighed happily, and stood to walk over to one of the wooden filing cabinets along the wall. “You and I are going to get along famously. With that said, I’m afraid if you’re not in the market for undeveloped land, we might have a hard time of it. But, if you’re willing to look just a teensy bit out of the box,” she glanced and Rarity and smiled conspiratorially, “I think I might have just the thing to interest you.” She dug through rows of manila folders, then pulled one out triumphantly. “Aha! Here she is. Have a look.”

Rarity took the offered folder and pulled out the contents. She stopped, however, when she saw the first photograph. In a town like Ponyville, there weren’t exactly many unfamiliar buildings, but even a newcomer would have been likely to recognize the building shown.

“Old Town Hall?” She asked. The photo was older than the ones posted on the window outside and had surely been taken with poorer equipment. The camera looked at the building straight-on, like someone had been photographing a specimen instead of a house they wanted to showcase and sell. A glance at the documents within soon made sense of that anomaly—all were labeled not with Minny’s branding, but the official seals of various offices of the City of Ponyville.

The building itself was an ugly, rotund thing, distinctly different in every sense from the architecture and decoration of most of Ponyville. It was set apart from most of the homes surrounding it, left almost alone at the very edge of the south end of town. In all her time in Ponyville, Rarity had never once seen it in use or heard anypony talk about it. Growing up, she always had the idea it should be the subject of idiotic dares and stories from her fellow schoolponies, but like the adults, foals seemed content to pretend it simply didn’t exist. It was like an old, dilapidated shed in somepony’s backyard—an eyesore, but completely uninteresting and without use. She couldn’t remember the last time she had given it a second thought.

“Is this a joke?” Rarity asked, raising her eyebrows at Minny.

“Well, I know it’s not much to look at right now,” the realtor explained, picking up her tea again. “But I think if you give it a look, you’ll find it’s exactly what you’re hoping for.”

* * *

Minny quickly took Rarity’s lack of enthusiasm as a sign that unflattering photographs and her word alone were not going to hold Rarity’s attention for long, so she wasted no time in persuading Rarity to accompany her to see it directly. Since Rarity had already committed her day to checking out the possibilities, she assented. She was happy for any reason to escape the sweltering warmth of Minny’s office.

“It’s actually one of the oldest buildings in town,” Minny explained as they trotted down the slushy street toward the south end. “But maybe you already knew that. The only buildings still standing that were here before it are the Apple Farm and Barnyard Bargains. The town outgrew the old hall at some point, so they moved everything to a new, bigger facility that became the Town Hall we know today. I really can’t blame them; you could probably fit the old one inside the new and still have filing space. But they modeled the new hall after this one as an homage, and I’m sure you’ll notice the elements of Gilded Age architecture present in both. And there she is!”

Minny pointed as they turned a corner in the marketplace, looking down a long, straight lane that led right to the edge of town, terminating at the doorstep of the Old Town Hall. It loomed over the marketplace even at that distance, more like the dark mouth of a tunnel than a physical building. The circular walls were built of some kind of dark, unpainted wood, stained almost black in some places by years of only basic upkeep. The grimy glass of the severe, square windows flanking the door reflected no light and opened into even darker depths behind the gloomy walls.

A circular roof of blackened, splitting shingles swept upwards to the walls of the second level, a turret whose smaller rectangular windows swept a watchful, almost sinister gaze over the entire town. It was capped with another conical roof whose sagging overhang was supported by square, dark, wooden pillars that surrounding the upper windows. The roof itself swept up to a crown that repeated the tiered, pillared pattern of the lower levels. The building had probably been considered ornate when it was built. Now, it was a shallow imitation of the opulent, almost cake-like tiered towers that had defined the Gilded Age more than eighty years ago. Any charm it may have had was worn away long ago.

“As you can see, it’s really not that far from the business district,” Minny said, leading Rarity down the road towards the old hall. “Just a few blocks. And with it commanding the view of this entire street, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble letting ponies know you’re here.”

“It’s certainly... noticeable,” Rarity said grimly. “I can’t imagine why another business hasn’t snapped this one up.”

“It wasn’t allowed,” Minny said, possibly missing Rarity’s sarcasm. “It’s been in the care of the town government for decades. It was only last year that I and the solicitor’s office were notified it was being declared bona vacantia. That’s fancy-talk for ‘well-and-truly abandoned,’ dear.”

“It was left unclaimed?” Rarity asked.

“Precisely. After the city government offices moved, a few businesses came and went before it was left unoccupied. I haven’t bothered looking into the circumstances. They only told me that in thirty years, nopony’s stepped forward to claim any right to it, and that opens it up for auction. If you’re curious, I’m sure I can look into the details for you.”

“Hmm,” Rarity hummed noncommittally. They reached the end of the road, and the hall now seemed taller than Rarity had ever remembered noticing before. Even with only two levels, it was certainly one of the tallest buildings in Ponyville with those exaggerated roofs, and the spire was probably visible from almost anywhere in town. Is it really so much a part of the local landscape that none of us notice such a dark, ugly thing stabbing up into the sky anymore? One eyebrow raised in obvious skepticism, she instead asked, “And what makes you inclined to think that this place would suit my needs?”

“Well, let’s just take a look and see,” Minny said, fishing a monstrous bulk of jangling keys from her coat and stepping up to the door. Like the windows, it was square and seemed taller than most doors around town, and it had a dark glass window framed just above a comfortable level. Minny took an obscenely long time sorting through the keys, and Rarity was starting to shiver by the time she finally found a large, chunky key and fitted it into the lock. She had to fight with it a little, but finally the lock ground open and released the door. To Rarity’s surprise, it opened with only a short, almost warm groan of protest, and Minny led her into the dark interior.

“I wish I could tell you it would be like stepping into another time,” Minny said. “But I’m afraid that over the years, almost everything that was left inside was auctioned to antique dealers to cover the cost of looking after it. But I have had it inspected, and I can assure you that the town did a fair job of keeping everything in good condition.” Huge protective linens fell to the floor with thin, squealing rustles of protest as Minny pulled them away from the curtains they protected. As she drew the monstrously thick curtains back from the looming windows, gray light fought its way into the room and brought the majority of the first floor into view. Somehow, the high, vaulted ceiling was left undisturbed in total darkness.

Even with the sickly light, there was not much to see. The huge, featureless room took up most of the ground level and was almost entirely empty. There were piles of linen that had probably protected long-gone furniture piled in various places, an ancient, scarred desk against one wall, a few chairs that Rarity wouldn’t trust to hold up their own weight much longer, and one long piece of furniture still draped in white that, by the look of it, might be an old-fashioned chaise lounge.

“There’s a staircase through the nook just back there, and also the door leading to the kitchen,” Minny explained, stepping farther into the room. The floor was carpeted, but it was covered in so much dust that Rarity had to look in her own footsteps to see the color. It was a horrendous mess of red, gold, and blue, laid in ornate fleur-de-lis patterns that had, in decades past, perhaps resembled tasteful design. “After the offices moved, one of the subsequent owners remodeled it and installed all of the necessary fixtures for comfortable living. The ice box is gone, but I think you’ll find they made those old ovens and stoves to last. So that’s one item off your wish list. And just look at this spacious main room!” She turned in a wide circle, looking into the dark reaches like a filly moving into her first big house. “I don’t know much about clothing stores, but I bet you could find a way to turn this into a wonderful showroom.”

It has the necessary space, at least there’s no doubt of that. Rarity looked around the dust-and-detritus-riddled space and tried to see something in it. For a moment, all she could see was the decay, the filth, and the ugly woodwork. Then her eyes narrowed as she thought. It was almost like sizing up a client. Colors, shapes, space... what’s interior decorating but dressing up an old building? Draw out its best features and hide the rest. Balance aesthetics with practicality.

Details started fading into place before her eyes, almost as if they were being painted onto the empty space in front of her. Pale ponnequin models laden with dresses would line the front walls; racks of designs would be ready for perusal by customers circling the room; there could be a raised dais with batteries of mirrors for custom fittings. To the left, artfully arranged curtains could cordon off stations for makeup and jewelry. Another set of hangings and she would have luxurious fitting rooms ready for her most discerning future clients. Colors flashed in her mind, and she tried every one of them on the walls, just like choosing a dress from a rack. Reds, golds, blues, no no no, too garish... green, heavens no, not with these walls... light and airy’s the way. We’d need to make everything feel open.

She shook her head, and the vision drained away. “I can’t believe it, but... it has potential...” she said slowly. “You said there’s a kitchen? What about a bedroom and workshop?”

“Right this way,” Minny said, her smile widening as she headed to a dark stairway hidden in the far wall. “It all depends on your preferences. There is a basement, but it was probably intended for storage, so it isn’t all that spacious. However, the upper floor is very roomy, and with some work, you could divide it up into several quite useable rooms. Though, I hear artistic types sometimes fancy the studio approach. You could certainly save cost that way.”

They went up the stairway into a short, narrow hall. There was a closet on one side and what Minny said was a luxurious, if slightly small, bathroom on the other. The bedroom door faced them at the end of the hall.

“Watch your step,” Minny warned. “I probably should have brought a light. There are windows in the room, and you’ll notice light fixtures have been placed quite conveniently throughout.” She gestured to a sconce in the hall. It was an ornately worked metal fitting with a frosted glass cover and a little valve barely visible just beneath. “By the way, those are original pieces from the period, dear. Thankfully, it never became necessary to start gutting the place. I’m afraid they are the old type, just simple flame jets really. But it’s very simple and cheap to swap out the jets with incandescent gas mantles, just like you’d find in any modern home.”

She opened the door and led Rarity into the second level. “Just a moment dear, let me get these windows and give us some light.” She crossed to the opposite wall where one huge window and a few smaller ones dominated the wall. When lit, the second floor was almost as barren as the first, and it somehow managed to stay even darker with the windows open. Square pillars circled the room, holding arched, angular beams beneath the conical roof, which receded away into total darkness above them. From somewhere in that cavernous shadow, an ornate chandelier hung on a chain, the other end of which was fastened into place on the wall beside the door to allow it to be easily lowered and lit.

It was certainly roomy, Rarity couldn’t deny that. The circular room had space for a desk five times the size of the one at home, shelves for fabric, storage for accessories, mirrors, and...

She turned and saw the only other piece of furniture that had survived the various auctions throughout the years: an enormous, princess-sized, four-poster bed made of solid, dark wood with little decorative accents in gold filigree and a rich, purple canopy and quilt. Minny was standing beside it, smiling at Rarity’s gaping expression.

“Something told me you’d like this little bonus,” she said. “While not original, it’s definitely from the same period, probably an inheritance from a wealthier family. I know at least one dealer’s been eyeing this piece like a hawk for it to finally end up on the auction block. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to disappoint her, but I would at least replace the mattress with something a touch newer.”

Rarity nodded vigorously. She couldn’t imagine what kind of craftsmanship had gone into a mattress decades ago, but she suspected a lot more metal would have been put in than was reasonable. She was about to speculate on this out loud when she heard a sharp, metallic clack from downstairs, and the short groan of a door opening echoed up the staircase.

“Did you hear that?” Rarity asked. Minny tilted her head in confusion. “...I think somepony else is in here; I just heard the door downstairs.” She glanced toward the dark hallway and the stairs falling away into blackness beyond. Her ears were arched forward, grasping for hints of noise from below. She couldn’t be sure, but in her mind, she questioned whether there wasn’t just the faintest repetitive thump of hooves treading across the old carpet, heading towards the stairs, looking for the ones who had disturbed the coverings over the windows and let in the light.

“Oh, I bet it’s the basement door,” Minny grumbled, breaking Rarity’s intense scrutiny and trotting towards the hall. “I’ll have a look just to be sure somepony hasn’t gotten curious about us, but lots of city workers over the years have reported coming by to inspect things and finding it hanging open. It’s either gotten warped with age or the latch is sticky. I can’t believe they never bothered fix it. Luckily for you, dear, it should be an easy repair if it bothers you.”

* * *

Rarity allowed Minny to show her the rest of the place with guarded enthusiasm. The bathroom Minny had said was small was twice the size of the one she currently shared with her mother, father, and Sweetie Belle, and it was filled with fixtures she had only seen in illustrations of historic nobleponies’ homes. A bit inefficient, to be sure, but she had nearly swooned with giddy delight at the sight of the elaborately fashioned, solid copper tub. The kitchen, which doubled as the washroom, was equally antiquated, but since she doubted she would ever do any elaborate cooking, it would probably serve her well enough.

As Minny had cautioned, the basement wouldn’t be good for much other than storage. The ceiling was so low she could feel her mane brush against it, and aside from the unfortunately empty wine racks that lined one wall, there was nothing else down there but stacks of old paintings and some lumber piled against the walls. With the amount of space that could be used for work on the upper level, however, it was no loss.

As she left, she sized up the exterior exactly as she had the showroom. As ghastly as it was, it wasn’t impossible that with a little paint—or a lot of it—and some simple remodeling, she could make it something that would draw ponies’ attention and wonder again. In fact, she thought, I bet I could make it a crown jewel of the town, a fixture of elegant beauty that demands adoration.

But there was still so much to think about, and she had forced herself to tell Minny as much when they parted ways. Minny didn’t push the matter, which Rarity was grateful for. Yet one more piece of the puzzle had turned out to be a lot more promising than she had dared to hope it would be. It was looking more and more like opening her very own boutique was a real possibility.

I suppose it might be safe to have a little fun and think of a name for it, she mused. What harm could there be in that?