• Published 17th Jul 2012
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A Canterlot Morning - GrassAndClouds2

Octavia and Fleur talk about politics

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The mysterious mare

“Do you always travel via exterior wall?” asked Octavia, unsure of how to begin the conversation.

The mare chuckled. She was clad from horn to hoof in that same fabric that concealed her face. It rippled, catching the light and throwing it back at the cellist, making it very difficult for her to look directly at the newcomer. Octavia could see a horn and could tell that the pony was female, but that was about it.

The masked mare didn’t answer the question. She just said, “If you don’t mind me saying so, that piece you just played sounded particularly inspired. And it was technically brilliant too – it sounded like you’d been polishing it for weeks. Remarkable improvistory technique.”

“Why do you think it was improvised?”

“There were a few places that you would have refined more, had you rehearsed this piece. That first time when the middle and high voices met, for instance – if you were playing that for an audience, that part would have been more gradual. The complex melodies began so quickly that it wasn’t clear, at first, that the two voices hadn’t ‘met’ in some time. If you performed that piece after some more practice, I think you would usually wait about thirty seconds more before increasing the complexity.”

It was a surprisingly accurate criticism. This mare seemed unusually knowledgeable about music. “You seem to know a lot about my music.”

“Your music is worth it.” The mare trotted closer to Octavia. “And this particular piece – incredibly complex rhythms and melodies, yet the basic ideas were remarkably clear. The protagonist’s rise, her flourishing, her temptation… the interplay between the lower and middle voices was brilliant… then her corruption. She meets the higher voice, she wavers in her conviction, but in the end she falls.”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. Even among the nobles of the city, many of whom had music training (if only for appearances), it was rare to find somepony who grasped her so well.

“I think the ending was my favorite part. The high voice not only resists being corrupted, but her melody reinforces what remains of the middle voice to build her back up and redeem her.”

Oh. So she doesn’t understand me after all. “I may need to revise the ending, then. No redemption of any kind was intended. The piece was intended to be a tragedy.”

She couldn’t say how, but the mare looked disappointed, somehow. “I thought you believed that honesty was the most important virtue in music. The ending was perfect, Octavia, and you know it. If you changed it to alter the message, you would be performing a lie.”

“Then you misunder… wait.” Octavia’s eyes narrowed. “How did you know that about me? Who are you?”

“You might be able to persuade yourself in your thought,” continued the mare, “But you’re too honest of a musician to lie in your work. Your final melody was not the lament of a prisoner or the cries of a wreck, but a direct callback to the beginning, when the middle voice was just starting out and had not yet fallen. Those last few notes were the basis for the first melody in that work. If you extended the piece for another minute, it would come full circle.”

“Who are you?” repeated Octavia.

“A friend. A friend who is aware of what happened between you and Lyra Heartstrings, and who wishes to help you mend your relationship.”

Octavia’s smile was bitter. So that’s her game. “I see. You promise me that I can make up for my mistake if I sign on with you or your superior and leave my current patron. I am not interested.”

The mare laughed. Octavia had never heard anything quite like it, it was a light and tinkling sound, almost bird-like. “Is that who you think I am? A political recruiter?”

“Yes. I know of no other way you could know what transpired, nor any other reason why you would be interested in this matter.”

She turned to leave, but the mare somehow got around her – she was amazingly fast – and stepped between her and the door. “I am interested,” she said, quietly, “Because, I am on the Court – you are correct in that – and you’re an Equestrian pony. That means that I am supposed to look out for you. That is the purpose of the Court.”

“There are innumerable ponies in Equestria. Do you scale all of their houses?”

The mare laughed again. “No. But you’ve been harmed by the Court, and so – even though I had nothing to do with it – it is partially our responsibility to help remedy that harm.”

No. Octavia still had her pride and some semblance of integrity, and she could not let that statement pass unchallenged. “On the rare occasions when I have erred during a performance,” she said, her voice calm and strong, “There is always a cadre of ponies who swarm me afterwards to tell me that the mistake was not my fault. It was due to a defect in my cello, or an overly humid environment, or a piece of spoiled fruit I ate the night before. I have never accepted this as an excuse. I alone am responsible for my performances. Other factors may make my job more difficult, but it is my job to overcome them and perform correctly regardless.”

The cellist took a breath. “It is the same here. Nopony has harmed me. I did what I did willingly, and I will not blame another for my act. Any subsequent harm was self-inflicted. If your concern here is genuinely remedying some injury done to me by the Court, you may consider your task discharged.

The look the mare gave her was gentle. “Isn’t that a rather high standard? Could any pony blame you if some horrible disaster hurt your performance, or some incredible pressure—“

“I do not ask other ponies. I am my own critic. If I didn’t have high standards, I would have no right to perform.” She frowned. “A musician who stands before a crowd implicitly promises to play something worthy of their time. Something so remarkable that no other task those ponies could be performing would be as beneficial as listening to that performance. If I could only play well in a clean, perfectly controlled environment, I could never hold up my end of that bargain when I took the stage.”

The mare tilted her head. “I see. You take your job very seriously.”

“Yes. So, if you’re here to convince me that I am an innocent victim who has done nothing wrong, or—“

“Oh no, Octavia. I respect you too much to lie to you like that.” The mare began to approach the door. “You took a step down the wrong path. I’d just like to help you understand that you can get back to the right one. Why don’t we have some tea and talk about it?”

“I have to practice—“

“This won’t take long. And it’s very important.” The mare’s voice grew more serious. “Lyra needs your help, Octavia.”

“I cannot help her.”

“That is very unfortunate.” And the mare’s voice became harsher still. “Because without you, it is likely that she will be hurt. We both know what your patron wants with her, and what he will do when he learns he can’t have her.”

“I have no influence over him, and no power to shield her from his grasp.”

“There will come a time when Lyra will depend on you.” The mare opened the door. “If you want to be able to help her, come with me.”

Slowly, as if hypnotized, Octavia followed.

The tea was very good. Octavia had never tasted anything quite like it. It was sweet without being cloying, and strong but not overpowering.

“It’s my special blend,” said the mare. She still hadn’t removed her bodysuit. In fact, it had turned invisible again when they’d left the practice room, and Octavia had been forced to follow the mare by her hoofsteps. She had only made it visible again once they entered a small, secluded door into a cozy, living-room like area with no hitns as to who owned it. “My mother made it when I was young.”

“It is good,” said Octavia. “By the way, you still haven’t told me who you are.”

The mare shrugged. “Does my name matter? I’m trying to help you.”

“My patron said the same thing. And he has, in many ways. My agent can scarcely keep up with the bookings, and even Viceroys and Vicereines desire my services.”

“Octavia, please. I know you aren’t happy with obtaining your success in this way.”

Octavia bowed her head and said nothing for a long moment. Then, “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to help Lyra when she needs it. Which means, I want you to acknowledge that you can.”

“I had that opportunity before, and you know the course I took.” Octavia shook her head. “Like you said earlier, I value honesty. I will not pretend that I have more integrity than I demonstrated—“

“So take a different course next time!” The mare rose. “Octavia, have you wondered why your patron selected you? You are a spectacular musician, but there are more than one of those in Canterlot.”

“Because I was Lyra Heartstrings’ friend and mentor, and so could influence her the most.”

“Why has he retained you, then?”

“I have access to every noble who commissions a performance from me. Also, I can identify ponies by ear, not just by sight, and so am… useful… when he wants to identify a disguised pony.”

The second part of that seemed to surprise the mare. “By their hoof patterns, I suppose.”

“Yes, by their gaits. According to my patron, most of the ponies in the castle with illusion magic only change how they look, not how they sound.” She snorted. “Even Fancy Pants, who I understand is supposed to have substantial magical talent, makes the same mistake. He was in disguise at that big social last month – pretending to be a pegasus servant, apparently he planned to surprise his marefriend Fleur de Lis – but I heard him walk by and, without seeing him or knowing that he meant to keep his presence a secret, greeted him by name. My patron was… impressed. He said that I am very unusual in being able to hear that well.”

“And how does he know you will use that hearing – or, for that matter, your acces to other nobles -- to help him?” The mare approached Octavia. “He knew how critical you are of yourself. He knew that, once he manipulated you into thinking that you couldn’t resist him, that you would sell out, you would never permit yourself to think otherwise. That you would forever work for him because you couldn’t forgive yourself that one error and allow yourself to think that you could resist him.”

“I…” Octavia hesitated. She had never told anypony what she was about to say. “You act as if I never tried to fight him before, as if he swindled me or took me by surprise. That was not the case. It had been obvious for days that he was going to try to recruit me. He sent me messages, he attended my concerts, he even ‘arranged’ for me to play at a prestigious charity ball – one of Fancy Pants’ large parties – and then leaked that he had done it. I had no desire to work for him; I wanted, of course, to rise based on my own talent. I laughed to myself for a week about how foolish he was, trying to buy me, and imagined myself excoriating him and sending him home empty-hoofed when he finally approached me. I was as prepared as I could be. It didn’t matter.”

“What, exactly, did he offer you?”

“He had me meet him in his office in the castle. He told me that, if I helped him with a few small favors, he could ensure that I was playing for members of the Court day and night if I chose. Any orchestra in the country would beg to have me. And if I didn’t, he would end my career, and see to it that I could not find work anywhere. And all I could see was myself as an old crone with a dusty instrument that hadn’t been played for an audience in fifty years. I saw myself, prevented from doing the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life.” She bowed her head. “I accepted his terms. And I know I would accept them again.”

“Would you? Knowing what they’ve cost you?”

Octavia hesitated.

“If he approached Lyra with the same terms, what would you tell her?”

“To reject him,” said Octavia, immediately.

The mare raised an eyebrow knowingly.

“But…” Octavia blushed. “No.Lyra has more to fall back on, and her character is superior in that—“

“Be honest with yourself,” the mare interrupted. “Please. Consider that you’re better than you give yourself credit for.”

Octavia hesitated for a long moment before shaking her head. “I am only as good a musician as I am,” she said, “Because I do not forgive myself any error—“

“Yes. That is your weakness. Greengrass is exploiting it,” said the mare. “When you have a weakness in your technique, you correct it. This is no different. If you want to be a great musician and a true friend, you need to be able to forgive yourself.”

“And suppose I take your advice, inform Lyra that I will aid her, try again, and fail?”

The mare chuckled. “Do you hide from difficult tasks due to fear of failure, Octavia? Do you shy away from challenging pieces? Is that what a true musician does?”

Octavia didn’t answer. Instead, the cellist finished her tea and rose. She was feeling, quite strongly, that she needed to escape the room, lest the mare start to sway her. “I… I will think about what you said. I really must return to my music now. Thank you for the tea.”

“You’re welcome. If you want to speak again, just stick a piece of parchment outside your practice room window. I will find you.”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. “Do you climb that tower every day?”

“Yes. I find it a particularly exhilarating form of exercise.”

“And the guards don’t mind?”

“Dodging them is half the fun!” The mare laughed, and it was bright and joyous – it sounded almost like Greengrass’s laugh, but more wholesome, somehow. “But if you wish, I won’t climb that tower while you’re practicing. I play music myself, a little, and I know it can be irritating to be eavesdropped on while practicing.”

“I would appreciate that, thank you.”

Octavia exited the room, and began the long trot back to the tower.