• Published 17th Jul 2012
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A Canterlot Morning - GrassAndClouds2

Octavia and Fleur talk about politics

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The musical mare

Octavia liked the mornings.

There was something musical about them, she thought, and not just the songs of the birds or the last few sighs of Canterlot castle before it went to sleep for the day. Those were lovely on their own, of course, but there was something more that tied it all together – the sun, silent though it was. As it rose, its light gradually slipped over the castle ramparts and began to bathe the courtyards and hallways in light. The morning dew and fog evaporated into nothingness as the sun struck them, leaving behind clean, pure fields and walls, ready for whatever the day had to throw at them. Everything seemed fresh and new. Like a blank piece of staff paper, the possibilities were limitless.

Whenever Octavia stayed overnight in the castle – and that was happening more and more, lately, as the number of late-night concerts she gave to the nobles kept growing – she made it a point to watch the sunrise from one of the towers, with a nice cup of tea and perhaps a light scone. She partook of few physical pleasures, having sacrificed most of them for the sake of her craft, but this was one that she allowed herself. These mornings often inspired her, even, giving her ideas for her next compositions and putting her in the mood to practice some of her more joyous, hopeful works.

The cellist drained the last of her tea and watched as the Canterlot streets continued to come alive. Though the Court was nocturnal, much of the rest of Canterlot still worked by the sun, and she could see the residents beginning to open their windows and perform their morning chores. From somewhere close by, she heard the hoofsteps and shouts of marching ponies, the Royal Guard out for their morning drills. More distantly, the Early Express tooted its horn as it began its journey to the furthest reaches of Equestria. Near and far, the sounds of the city were that of a town waking up for a brand new day.

Octavia smiled, savoring those sounds. She heard them all with a clarity and precision that, she knew, few ponies could match. Thirty thousand hours of cello practice, of listening training, of relentless effort, to sharpen her ears to the point where she could hear even the faintest deviation of a note from the intended frequency. That she could hear other sounds too was a nice bonus, one that she took great pleasure in. It was a reward, Octavia liked to think, for her hard work and discipline.

The gray-coated mare smiled as she rose from her seat. It was a beautiful day, she had just heard a beautiful morning, and now she had four hours all to herself where she could further refine her talents and master her craft. The mare shut the window and trotted over to the music stand and her cello. Nopony would disturb her as long as she practiced; the floor, ceiling, and interior walls of the room had been perfectly soundproofed, and she had verified this herself – not even she could hear anything inside the room from outside, or vice versa. The outer wall wasn’t soundproofed (that would have required treating the external surface, and as she was near the top of a tower, that wouldn’t have been safe), but unless somepony was hanging onto the wall, that wouldn’t matter. She would be free to experiment and improve without having to worry about some pasesrby pony hearing a mistake.

It wasn’t like her practice room at home, she thought. As much as she’d tried, she hadn’t been able to soundproof it perfectly, and while her neighbors were perfectly kind, she hated the thought of them hearing her mistakes or incomplete compositions. But one thing Greengrass had promised her when she signed on with him was a practice room, and—


And just like that, her good mood vanished.

Clenching her teeth just slightly, Octavia picked up her cello and carefully balanced it. Greengrass wasn’t important, and the more she could just forget about him when she practiced and performed, the better. There was only the music, transformed by her skill and her instrument from notes on a page into gloriously beautiful sounds. This particular warm-up piece was a light, happy ditty, not without its complexities but still simple enough that she could play it without much thought. She picked up her bow, took her cleansing breath, focused on the cheerful, upbeat energy in the piece, and began to play.

Five minutes later, when she was done, she had to admit that it hadn’t gone well.

She got all the notes, right, of course, and the gross details – dynamics, tempo, phrasing. It would have been acceptable for most private parties, or many concert halls. Even many of the nobles would have liked it. But Octavia knew better, and she was too honest with herself to pretend that it was a good performance. That spark, the happy core of the piece, wasn’t coming through. The tones were just a bit too muted, the phrasing a shade too constricted, and as a result, the music just didn’t meet her standards.

The cellist looked out the window in a vain attempt to recapture her good mood, but she knew it was futile and almost immediately chided herself for her weakness before turning away. She had never before needed to worry about her emotional state before a performance; calm and taciturn by nature, she could easily connect with whatever emotion was needed for a particular piece. But lately, she was finding that harder – especially for happy and light works.

Octavia, unlike many of her colleagues, did not believe that a musician should attempt to put herself in a mood congruent with whatever music she was about to play. She had tried it, on recommendation from her teachers, but it had always felt fake, and so had the resultant music. She could make herself happy by visualizing a beautiful morning, or a perfect performance for Luna, but that was never the precise shade of ‘happy’ inherent in the piece. It might be close, but for her close was never close enough, and the resulting mismatch between her own emotions and those of the music always dragged down her performances. She could hear the incongruity, even if nopony else could.

Rather, she tried to connect with whatever emotion was already there, in the music. Her own mood, she figured, was not relevant. So long as she could feel the sadness in “The Lament of Dalimare,” or the sheer joy in “Triumph over Tirek,” what did it matter if she herself was happy or sad? It was the music that was important, not her, and by now she had perfected her ability to forget herself and immerse herself in the music, to demonstrate whatever emotion had been inscribed there by the composer without letting her own feelings leak into it. Were her performances influenced by her personal style? Yes… but in deliberate ways, particular phrasings that she chose for specific reasons, or carefully controlled improvised sections to reinforce certain themes. Nothing so frivolous as ‘being sad that day.’

Or at least, that was how she used to be able to perform. But lately, she was finding it harder and harder to look past herself and play happier works. It was like there was a wall there, preventing her from connecting with them.

Octavia shook her head and hefted her bow again. She knew why she was having trouble connecting with happy pieces, and it didn’t matter. She would work through it. Octavia Philharmonica was a musician, not some pathetic whiner who would throw down her bow whenever she was not in the right ‘mood’ to play. She would fight past this blockage and be all the stronger. There was no use wallowing in self-pity or remaining in this state for one moment longer; unless she was going to channel her angst into some new composition or improvised performance, she --

She froze for a moment, then shifted her stance slightly, one more appropriate for a longer piece. Maybe that will help, she thought. To ‘play it out’. Maybe then I can move past this… this lapse and get back to my usual training regime.

And so she began to play a tone poem.

The introduction was bright and strong, outwardly simple in its purity, yet with enough subtleties to denote a sort of elegance and refinement. The Hero, thought Octavia, distantly, with whatever fraction of her mind was unoccupied with synthesizing and performing the piece. Hard-working and honorable. Virtuous. Noble, even. And the music gained in complexity, layering back upon itself as if to demonstrate the ‘hero’ character’s advancement and progression. From a young idealist to a skilled craftsmare, the music progressed in a clean warm manner.

She began to play in the lowest reaches of the cello – most ponies couldn’t play two voices at once on the instrument, but Octavia had the skill – to add in the second character. The lower ‘voice’ started by simply filling in a few holes that the middle voice couldn’t quite reach, but gradually took on more and more until it was constantly assisting the middle tones, hitting whatever notes they couldn’t and allowing them to sing in more and more intricate patterns.

But then the Helper threatens to leave. The Hero is frightened. The lower voice began to miss at odd intervals, forcing the middle notes to leap around and race to plug in the missing gaps. The music sounded extraordinary – intricate melodies that seemed almost to jump off of the cello as they switched between the battling voices – but Octavia ignored this. Her mind was on the performance; praise could come later.

At last, the Hero weakens. She will do what the Helper demands. The lower voice rose a bit in triumph, the middle falling in meek acceptance – but then they played together again, two allies at peace, with no enmity between them. The music resumed the heights it had reached earlier, the middle voice weaving melodies, the lower one reinforcing, setting a beat, and performing all the useful tasks that the middle one needed to shine.

The Helper slowly died away, and the third voice – at the upper reaches of the cello – came in. The middle and high voices bounced off each other, testing as the middle raced upwards and the upper descended – but in a light, teasing way, the manner of two old friends who were so close that they could challenge each other without any risk of hatred or fear. And, indeed, after a few moments, the two began to build on each other. But unlike with the Helper from before, the Hero and her Friend didn’t have a ‘leader’ and a ‘backer’ between them. They both sounded beautifully, casting melodies and harmonies into the early morning air, taking turns in front or sharing the spotlight. They completed each other, each much stronger with the other voice than it could possibly be alone.

But – after a few minutes of this – trouble arose. The middle voice grew in prominence, racing to outperform and defeat the high voice. The high voice at first was almost swept away, hanging on by a few notes in the upper reaches that could do no more than deflect the vanguards of the middle voice’s harmonies. Victory for the ‘Hero’ seemed certain. One could almost hear echoes of the Helper, though his notes were not in evidence, from the melodies woven by the Hero.

It is not to be. The Friend realizes at last what she must do, and because she is still true to herself – honest and pure – she sweeps aside the Hero. The high voice began to grow, slowly at first, but faster and faster, until it was the Hero who was barely hanging on. And this was no longer a sweet tune, but a vengeful rampage. The Hero’s melodies were shattered or thrust aside by the unstoppable force of the Friend, who drove down the cello in a whirlwind of sharp, pointed harmonies and a single melodic line that marched onwards unstoppably and left no room to escape. The middle voice collapsed, and the Friend’s melodies were the only ones heard.

In the end, Octavia played a few melodies of the Friend – now mournful, but still undaunted and unbroken, a mare who still had the integrity to face the world. The Helper was there too, much the same as before; none of this had hurt him in any way. But the Hero… well, the final melody was limping and sad. There was still beauty there, and of course skill, but it was clear that the Hero voice had lost something very important. The piece ended on a few final notes that trailed off, as if following whatever it was the Hero had discarded.

Octavia collapsed on her stool when she was done, emotionally drained. She realized, to her slight surprise, that she’d spent almost an hour playing. That was a lot longer than she’d planned, but she felt like she’d accomplished something. She felt refreshed and clean. That is proof that I am still honest in my music, if in nothing else, she thought. Whatever I said to Lyra, whatever my other depraved and traitorous acts, the integrity of my music is not compromised. I suppose that is something.

She did not often wonder whether or not Lyra would forgive her for her betrayal. In a certain sense, it didn’t matter. She judged herself by her own standards, nopony else’s, and by those standards, she’d committed a foul and traitorous act, no matter how often the Duke said that ‘everypony did it.’ But sometimes, in her more wistful moments, she did find herself wishing that Lyra would write her and tell her that it was alright; that she understood; that she was forgiven. That they could again be friends.

And then she caught herself and cast those thoughts out. If Lyra wrote that, it would be a lie. It was not acceptable what she had done, and she deserved no forgiveness. On top of that, now she apparently wanted Lyra to lie in order to make her feel better – another crime on top of the first. So Octavia forced herself not to think of such things. She had failed, she was not worthy of being Lyra’s friend, and that was all there was to it. But at least she could appreciate that failure and see it honestly, even to the point of demonstrating it in her music. Moreover, even though her piece was critiquing her, she hadn’t let that stop her from playing her best. There was a kind of honesty in that.

Still, I don’t think I’ll play that one in public, she thought, with a small smile. In terms of technical skill, it was extraordinary, and there definitely was beauty there, but it was still a very dark and depressing piece. Like a painting of some horrible tragedy, it was an excellent portrayal of something that nopony would want to see. The kind of music they would play when sentencing some famous war hero or legend, after having uncovered some horrible scandal. Not suitable for the dinner parties and ceremonies I play at.

She drank from her water bottle and rose. She felt a lot better now, and was feeling up to trying that warm-up piece again. She felt confident that she could play it correctly now, and then maybe she could move on to her real pieces. She had a new sonata for the wedding of Vicereine Puissance’s cousin that she had to finish, and she was scheduled to play for one of Fancy Pant’s charity balls later in the week. She’d need to practice the core piece of that performance, the Sonata Grande and the Valse Brilliante

She heard the faintest noise from the direction of the window.

Most ponies would have disregarded it. After all, it sounded like a hoofstep, and it was obviously impossible for a pony to be walking on the outside of the tower – set aside that the walls were vertical and almost sheer, Octavia was high above the rest of Canterlot, and any climbing pony would certainly be badly hurt if they fell. This logic gave even Octavia a moment of pause. But her ears were among the sharpest in the country, and she very rarely made mistakes. If she heard some interloper, they were there.

Is it an obsessed fan who wanted to hear me practicing? No, more likely it’s a political spy, thought Octavia, frowning, as she went over to the window and opened it. Who would have thought that being a Court cellist would lead to so much intrigue? Well, it’s my own fault for getting involved with it.

Octavia looked out the window, and then carefully examined the tower wall, but didn’t see anything. The wall appeared to be perfectly empty. So either she really was hearing things, in which case she had a very serious problem, or whoever was spying on her was invisible… which was also a serious problem. She did know some techniques to find invisible or illusioned ponies, mostly by playing a note and listening for oddities in the echoes, but they didn’t work outside, where there was nothing to echo against. What could she do now?

She heard another faint sound; something padded scraping on stone.

She turned so that she was looking straight up the tower, at least as much as she could, and squinted. Was there something vaguely hazy above her? She couldn’t tell – her eyes were no better than an average pony’s, and she couldn’t see through illusions – but she was absolutely confident that the sound had come from this direction.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

There was definitely a sound in response to that, a rustle of fabric on stone. Like whoever it was had been spooked and was gripping the wall a bit more tightly.

“I can hear you,” said Octavia. “If you want to listen to my performances, purchase a ticket. I am—“

The space above her shimmered, and suddenly, she could see a pony head looking at her. It was covered in a mask with colors rippling across it; some kind of unicorn weave, probably. All she could see beneath the mask were the eyes, two bright, curious orbs.

“Oh!” said the floating head. “I’m sorry. I know it was terribly rude of me to eavesdrop.” The voice also sounded familiar, -- a female voice, light, musical, and refined -- but Octavia couldn’t place it. It was distorted in some way, just enough to mask its owner. “But I was just passing by and I heard your music, and it was so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but stop to listen.”

“I wasn’t aware that burglars enjoyed the Grasshopper Sonata,” managed Octavia. Calm. Stay calm. That’s not really a talking head. The rest of her body is still invisible, that’s all. I don’t know if she’s a spy or a burglar or some complete lunatic, but I will not be afraid. I am Octavia Philharmonica and I will not be scared by some deranged mountaineer-groupie. I will take a moment to regain control of myself, and then I will call the guards.

“That first piece? Oh, no, I meant the one you just did. The three-voice tone poem. It was incredibly moving.”

Octavia blinked, her plans to call others forgotten. Spy, or burglar, or whatever, apparently they knew a little something about music theory. That was… unexpected.

“It’s not at all like your usual works,” continued the head. “And I'm not a burglar. Would you like me to come in? It must be uncomfortable for you, craning your neck like that.”

You’re the one hanging off a castle wall, thought Octavia. But she wasn’t sure what else to do, and despite herself, she was curious. So she nodded her head. “I suppose.”

The head vanished, but Octavia heard faint hoofsteps and scratching sounds approaching her position. She pulled herself back into the room, and a moment later, she heard a quiet clonking sound as the invisible mare swung in and dropped to her hooves.

If this is a spy, it’s a very unusual one, she thought.

And then the invisibility spell vanished, and Octavia could see who she was talking to.