5 Months, 17 Days
He had the building surrounded. I'd barricaded myself in but he had managed to break through my defence. Attempting to conceal myself had made no difference; he was looking for me and would stop at nothing to catch me. I looked around the room for some way of escaping or some elaborate piece of furniture that I could hide behind or underneath, but there was no hope for that. Being utterly vulnerable was the worst part about it; I could not even arm myself with a weapon. I heard a hoof hammering against the door and lowered my head in submission. There was no escaping this time. Light flooded into the room, blocked out in fragments only by a figure standing in the doorway. I caught sight of him from the corner of my eye and shielded my gaze with a hoof. He saw me and remained on the spot for a second, cautiously observing my reaction. Only when he judged that it was safe to approach did he begin his advance, quick hooves driving him towards me.
"Well look who we have here, then!" the voice spoke. He was a messenger for a higher power. I consigned myself to my fate and stared up at him with fearful eyes.
"Gazette. It's been a while."
"Well, you're a hard pony to track down nowadays!"
He took a seat opposite me, perching himself and looking around the café. "Do you come here often?" he asked. "The place looks like a graveyard. Where are the waitresses?"
"I come here to think," I explained, and Gazette chuckled, pointing a hoof towards my head. "That was always your biggest problem. You think too much."
He noticed that I was drinking from a coffee mug. He sniffed the aroma and realised that it was still hot. "May I?" he asked, and despite my obvious disdain I found myself pushing my mug towards him. He took a sip and pulled a face. "-This coffee tastes like a rat's ass. Is it imported or something?" He pushed the mug of coffee back towards my side of the table. "Luckily this meeting won't take a particularly long time. I imagine that it will be a quick transaction and then we can both get on with our days."
"Explain your terms."
"You aren't one to waste time, are you?" Gazette smiled, lifting a briefcase onto the table that had been saddled upon his back. He fumbled with a little dial on the case and entered a few digits to crack the lock. He proceeded to press both hooves against two little clasps either side of the case. It sprang open, although I couldn't see what was inside due to the lid remaining in the way of my vision.
"I'll do most of the talking here," Gazette said. "You just need to sit there and nod your head. Can you do that for me?"
I hated submissively nodding my head, but I found myself doing it anyway. "I can try."
"Good. A lack of objection is always a good thing in business. I'd hate to have to try and haggle with you. Well, that's a lie; you would hate having to haggle with me. I am the Haggle King."
"Just explain to me the situation, Gazette."
Gazette shuffled in his seat, having not quite found the comfortable spot yet. "You seem to think that the news will be bad," he acknowledged. "On the contrary, the news is very good and could see us both nicely for the foreseeable future."
"What do you mean?"
With a confident hoof he turned the case around. Inside were neatly stacked columns of golden bits, held in place by clasps within the briefcase. I couldn't deduce how much was there from a quick glance, but Gazette was more than happy to spell it out to me.
"-Ten thousand," he said. "That's the deal that I want to pass on to you."
I looked at the money. My eyes were wide with admiration. I had scarcely seen that many bits in one place before; most of the large amounts of cash that I had ever seen were in the form of cheques. Gazette noticed my interest and smiled, beaming from ear to ear. "I knew that that would attract your attention, you money-grabbing bastard. You've always been one to seize a good opportunity. I guess that's why we're friends, huh?"
"I guess so," I found myself saying, reaching a hoof towards the golden trove. Unfortunately, Gazette noticed my interest and pressed a hoof down on the lid, closing the case with a sudden click. "-I think that I should explain what's going on here first. I'd hate for you to misunderstand the situation, old friend."
His tone was unusual. I sat back in my chair.
"Let me explain how things work in this circuit," Gazette said, finally catching a waiter leaving the kitchen and quickly ordering a drink of his own. "-We find these ponies," he continued, "and we make it our duty to...shed light upon them. Your girl, Rarity, was a fine catch indeed. Already she's made us some large stacks of money and caught the attention of some very important ponies. And that's where this little box of treasures comes from." He tapped the top of the suitcase with his hoof temptingly.
"Manehattan is a glorious city," he said. "And in this city there are two great powers at work. One is called Mr. Cross and the other, Mr. Orange. These guys are the whole deal: they run businesses and hire thousands of workers and have more money than they know how to spend. First things first: do either of those names ring a bell?"
I had perhaps heard mention of their names in passing, but I did not have a substantial enough knowledge of them to appear informed. "I don't recall either name," I replied, requiring more information.
"Well that's unfortunate," Gazette replied. "Allow me to elaborate. Mr. Cross doesn't actually live in Manehattan but he's one of those big entrepreneur-mogul types. I could tell you all sorts of stories about him and his personal life boy, could I tell you some stories but that's for a different article on a different day. The point is that this guy is an opportunist who wants to make some mad cash. And he's already spotted your girl Rarity and met her."
"He has?" I had never heard mention of this 'Mr. Cross' fellow. I liked to think that Rarity considered me a good friend and associate; why she had kept this information from me was a mystery.
"-Oh yeah, lots!" Gazette resumed. "Talk about your forward-thinking guy! He's got hooves in so many pies he could open a bakery."
I did not care for Gazette's jokes; I needed to know more about what this pony had been doing with Rarity.
"Gazette, what do you know about his relationship to Rarity?"
"Nothing that I'm at liberty to say."
"Don't start getting all moral with me," I responded. "Just who is this Mr. Cross to her?"
Gazette seemed hesitant. "-It's nothing, buddy," he attempted to reason. "I just think he's got a thing for her, you know? She's an attractive girl. I myself have given it more than just a passing thought. And I'll be damned if you haven't."
"I am purely professional," I retorted, finding that my heart was thumping in my chest. "What makes you think that he's got a thing for her?"
"It's just little things," he conceded, sighing. "I hear he's been treating her to all sorts of fancy things, giving her tickets to operas and shit."
"Operas?" I queried.
"Yeah, let me just check something," Gazette replied, whipping a familiar notepad out of his breast pocket, although now there were fewer clean pages left. "They were seen together on the...well...a little over two months ago, anyway. At some symphony thing."
"The Symphony of Seven Paladins?"
"Yeah, that shit," Gazette said. "I always thought those musical things were a WOFT, you know?"
"Waste of Fucking Time."
"I happen to want to see that musical," I said, but Gazette shrugged the comment off, clearly interested in returning to business. Still, I was not satisfied. "Tell me...what else has this Cross guy done to Rarity?"
"I'm not his personal secretary!" Gazette replied, his voice sounding more alive than ever. "Why not ask her? You guys are shacking up right now, aren't you?"
That was not true. "We are doing no such thing," I explained. "Your insinuations are foolish and without evidence."
"Whatever man," he replied. "I ain't judging. I don't even care what you do. Being part of a love triangle sounds about as attractive to me as old Red Rose's grandma. Remember her? Damn, she was a troll."
"Gazette!" I shouted, gaining the attention of the other patrons few as they were within the café. I cleared my throat and lowered my tone, which soon brought them back to whatever they were doing. "Can you give me any information about this Cross pony? It's very important that I know as much as possible." I had never met this Mr. Cross, to my knowledge, and it wasn't as if I wished to invade every facet of Rarity's life. I merely wished to know what his interest was in her, and if it was for the best to remain in contact with him. Gazette sighed once more and flicked through his notepad, shaking his head as he glanced through the pages. Eventually his eyes settled on a particular page and he let out a little gasp. "Oh, yeah! So that Mr. Cross guy has this symbol thing. He signs all of his letters with it and stuff. It's like, a family trademark or something. Here's an image of it that I jotted down about a month ago."
He pushed the notepad towards me. I glanced it over and recognised the symbol upon it. It was an insignia that I had seen on several instances before, and in retrospect I would have considered the additional impact that this revelation had. However, my mind instantly jumped to Rarity's birthday card-letter thing a while back, which had been signed by the very same symbol. It was the card that had contained the two tickets to the Symphony. I was certain that it was the same symbol, which would suggest that Mr. Cross had been in Rarity's life for longer than I had known. I began to wonder just how many of her business meetings had been with this pony who clearly wanted to take advantage of her. Gazette waving a hoof in my face tugged me back to the present situation.
"Um...so can I put the notepad away and get back to business now?" he queried, and as frustrated as I was, I nodded.
"I don't know much about Mr. Cross," Gazette said, perhaps in an attempt to provide me with closure. "I don't care about the emotional tug-of-war that might be going on there or if they're screwing each other or whatever. I'm just the guy who puts the word out on the street, you hearing me?"
I was hearing him. And although he had implied that they had perhaps been engaging one another in perverse behaviour, I would have been kicking a dead tree to have asked him for any more information: clearly, he knew only what he had told me. I did my best to push images of Rarity and this non-identified pony out of my head in my mind, I envisioned a large stallion with flowing golden locks and nodded for him to continue.
"Mr. Cross isn't even important in this transaction. This money that I have right here....you see it?" he tapped the case again. "This has nothing to do with Mr. Cross. On the contrary, this is Mr. Orange's kind gesture."
"Who is this Mr. Orange?"
"He's another big-shot. A textile manufacturer mainly. He's one of the biggest in Equestria. Him and his wife are in on it together. He's a more honourable guy than Mr. Cross, that's for sure."
"Has he ever met Rarity?"
"Nope, not yet," Gazette responded, and I was inclined to believe him. Although there was a chance that he had only responded as he had to avoid another full-frontal assault of questions from me, it seemed more likely that he was being genuine. After all, how many famous ponies could Rarity have met this early into her career, especially given the amount of time that she had been spending fraternising with this Mr. Cross? I made a mental note to learn more of Mr. Orange at a later date; for now I was just glad that he hadn't attempted to sneak his way into Rarity's personal life.
"He likes her, though," Gazette said. "-Her dresses, I mean."
"Has he seen them in the Rococo Report?"
"Not exactly," he responded, and I raised an eyebrow. The briefcase caught my attention again.
"-Why exactly do you have this money, Gazette?" I asked bluntly. The journalist rubbed the back of his head with a hoof.
"Now don't freak out," he said, "but that day that you gave me the dresses a few months back, I didn't end up taking them all to the office. A few of them I passed on to Mr. Orange. I thought he might appreciate looking at them."
I found myself growing angry. "Why the hell did you do that, Gazette?" I shouted. "I did not give you permission to hand out Rarity's dresses to random ponies! I specifically asked you to print an article about her! That was it."
The waiter approached the table out of nowhere and left a mug of something in front of Gazette. He thanked the waiter calmly and took a sip from the drink, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on my own. "You know, that's not exactly true," Gazette said after a few moments, his voice irritatingly calm and matter-of-fact, as if he had the perfect rebuttal. He pulled his notepad out once again and flipped back to the first page. I realised soon after that his meeting with me months ago when we had first discussed Rarity's future had been the start of a fresh notepad. He scanned the page and settled a hoof upon a particular line, which he began to repeat:
"And he said in response, blah blah blah...I've been keeping a close eye on her for the past month, assessing her work and coming to some form of conclusion about whether or not it is good enough for mainstream, wide-scale distribution. Those were your exact words."
I had no sufficient response.
"-You made it clear to me," Gazette continued, "that you were interested in speaking to this girl because you wanted to assess her work and see if it was good enough for mainstream distribution. So I am well within my right to contact distributors."
"-Did you aid in her meeting Mr. Cross?"
"Yes, I helped arrange her first meeting with Mr. Cross," Gazette responded angrily. "Of course I did. He was one of my first go-to guys. And I also contacted Mr. Orange, because, like it or not, that's how ponies get their work out there. They get professional guys like me to show their shit to the big-leagues." He was now sitting forwards in his chair, demonstrating an aggressive side that I had never witnessed before. "Why do you even care?" he accused. "You were just there to help her get on her way, weren't you? So what is the big problem now that she's meeting these ponies? Mission accomplished: now you can get back on with your life."
Truth be told, had I taken his advice, I don't know what life I would return to. Prior to the few months that I had already spent with Rarity, I didn't remember much, only that I had been drifting without any noteworthy purpose. My eyes once again caught the briefcase of money.
"What is this? What exactly are you doing with this money and what are you trying to buy?"
"Finally!" Gazette admonished. "Business-talk! That's all I wanted from this discussion in the first place. You wanna know why I have this money? I'm a close associate of Mr. Orange. He gave me the money because he thought that I would be the best pony for the job in trying to convince you to take it."
"What am I taking it for? Discovering Rarity?"
"Bullshit. He wouldn't give away ten-thousand bits for that. I have done this pony no favours, so drop the act, Gazette. What are you giving me this money for? If anything, Rarity should receive it. Do you want me to give it to her?"
"No!" Gazette responded quickly. "If Mr. Orange wanted to give money to Rarity he could do so easily enough. He has her address and everything."
"How does he have her address, Gazette?"
"A journalist has to make his business somehow," he replied. "Judge me all you want my conscience is clear. But returning to the money at hand: Mr. Orange is a business-pony. He understands respect for his fellow business-ponies. And, in light of that, although he hasn't specifically told me what to do with the money, I've made an independent decision to use it to...relieve you of your duties."
"What does that even mean?" I asked viciously.
"Well, I've been keeping a few checks on you and Rarity, and by the sounds of it you're getting quite close to that girl. Mr. Orange wants Rarity to remain as professional as possible. Hell, Mr. Cross wants the same. And of course, I need that to happen as well. I need all the publicity about Rarity to be good if I'm going to get a cut in Mr. Orange's upcoming enterprise. So that means that she should avoid any external distractions. It would be good for business."
"Say what you mean, Gazette," I demanded, slamming my hoof down on the table, causing his mug of tea to almost tumble over.
"The money is an attempt to buy you off," he said. "Look, at the end of the day, you've done everything that you needed to do for Rarity. The powers that be have decided that she's going to be a star. And to be a star, she needs to live and act a certain way and associate with the right sort of ponies. You understand what I'm saying, right?"
"...So you're telling me that the money is for me to leave Ponyville?"
"Bingo," Gazette said. "Mr. Orange has acknowledged your involvement in all of this and I've made a note of your...possession of Rarity, if we can use such a term."
Possession? Rarity was more than just an item to be distributed amongst these greedy devils. She had a heart and an intelligent mind, and was the greatest pony that I had met and spent time with.
"Mr. Orange is respectful," Gazette continued, his words sounding more like white noise with every syllable. "He doesn't want to take a commodity from you without giving you something in return. Once Rarity moves to Manehattan, everything will run a lot more smoothly and-"
I stood up and turned my back on Gazette. For a second I waited, his words passing me by without impression. I scanned the room for anything that I could use as a weapon: furniture or objects. Anything would work. My eyes settled on a metallic serving tray that had been left on a nearby table. I took a step towards it and lowered my head, picking it up in my teeth. Before I really knew what I was doing, I swung my head around, the tray crashing against the back of Gazette's skull. He fell to the ground, both agony and surprise dominating him, as I towered above, bringing the tray down against him repeatedly.
"Rarity is not a fucking possession!" I shouted. "She's not moving to Manehattan and I'm not going to be bought!"
In one great movement I swept the briefcase from the table with a hoof, watching it clatter over Gazette's sprawling form. He did his best to gather himself up, staring at me with blood-shot, enraged eyes.
"Say what you want, you psycho!" he howled, pointing a hoof around the café. "Everypony here has just seen that!"
I didn't care what they would do. If they found a law enforcer, I would serve my time just to watch that idiotic streak of unwavering confidence disappear from Gazette's face.
"Did this Mr. Orange guy tell you to do this, Gazette?" I growled.
"No...not exactly!" he panted. "He just gave me the money and told me to use it to convince Rarity to move to Manehattan, you know? So I thought-"
"-You thought that getting me out of the picture would give her less incentive to stay in Ponyville?"
He rubbed his face down with a hoof. "Yeah...that was the plan, anyway. I mean, when we spoke like, three months ago, you were perfectly cool with this just being about business. What the hell happened to you?"
I lowered my head in shame. "From now on, stay away from Rarity," I found myself saying to the pony that I would have once called friend. "She will make her own choices about who she does business with. But you..." I pointed my hoof towards him indignantly. "-Neither you nor the Manehattan media will make contact again. Do you hear me?"
He lifted his briefcase onto his back and straightened out of his suit. His notepad had fallen to the ground, but before I could confiscate it he had already noticed and placed it clumsily back into his pocket. "Loud and clear, jackass," he said, grunting from a pained limb. I took one last glance around the café there weren't too many witnesses and hurried quickly towards the door.
"What am I supposed to do with all of this money?" Gazette shouted after me, but I would not dignify him with another second of my time.
1 Month, 14 Days
I was taking a little trip to Trottingham. Well, not Trottingham, really, but the general area. There was a particularly noticeable building on the outskirts of Trottingham that I was going to pay a visit. I guess my reasoning was that I had become sick and tired of all of the lies. There were too many for me to count. I had so utterly lost count that I struggled now to even remember what was a lie and what was truthful. I had been lying a lot to Rarity recently: I knew that much. Being unable to work at the moment, we had a lot more time to talk to one another, and thus a lot more time to resent one another. She grew bored of my presence easily now and often pushed me out of the room whenever my small-talk became too irritating. I could hardly blame her for that; it was just as irritating for me to attempt to come up with things to speak about with her. Perhaps if she made the effort to approach a topic once in a while we would get on a lot better. But then, what did Rarity possibly have to tell me? Lying on a rusty bed for days on end did not make for riveting conversation.
Perhaps she could tell me more about the doctor that she was so fond of. He was that stallion from Manehattan; just as my luck would have it, he had gained a transfer to the hospice shortly after Rarity had been moved there. I don't know if he had woken up one morning with the intention of stalking Rarity, but like every other idiotic stallion that had ever laid eyes upon her, he just wanted a piece of her. Well I'd gotten there first and placed my flag; she was conquered territory and he was a minor, invading nation that would soon be destroyed. My pathological inability to remember his name was proof that he was utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. My focus was now on making Rarity as happy and comfortable as possible.
Well, not my focus at that exact moment, because, as I say, I was on a train heading towards a very specific destination. Looking back on it, I guess I did not have just cause for doing what I intended to do, but then again, I didn't really see the need for just cause when I had abandoned most of my usual inhibitions and restraints. Looking after Rarity, I had a lot of time to think, and when I returned home at night I spent most of my nights at the boutique and returned to the hospice early in the morning I had a lot of time to read when repeatedly unable to sleep. Amongst reading over art books, I had located and read over Rarity's birthday letter. I had it in my pocket whilst on the train, although I had already committed it to memory:
"To my dearest Rarity,
I know that you told me not to concern myself, but I simply could not live with myself without providing you with a gift on your birthday. I remember that in passing you mentioned during a discussion recently that you wished to see the upcoming performance of the Symphony of Seven Paladins at the Royal Canterlot Hall, but that acquiring tickets was especially difficult. It just so happens that I have come into the possession of two tickets myself, and I was wondering if you would be kind enough to go with me? It would be a frightful bore without you.
Have a wonderful birthday~"
I had established that the sender of the letter had been none other than Mr. Cross. Having recognised the insignia written at the bottom of the letter, I had approached Rarity on the matter not too long ago and she had explained that it was indeed Mr. Cross who had taken her to see the Symphony for the first time, and that around that time she had spent a lot of time with him. We had had a chance to discuss my initial meeting with Mr. Cross on the train many months ago whilst heading to Manehattan to pick up a present for Rarity, and the mare that was with him at the time. Based on my descriptions and the name Clemency Rarity did not seem to at all know about this pony. It certainly wasn't his wife, despite the fact that he had called her by that name. His wife's name was Florence, and I had met her briefly after attending the Symphony with Rarity months ago. It was definitely a different pony. And whilst I wouldn't normally concern myself with such things, Mr. Cross had in the last couple of months became a nuisance that had to be stopped.
He wasn't the sort of pony that could take 'no' for an answer, and, after finding out that Rarity had been working for Mr. Orange, he was none too pleased. At first there had been letters, which I had disposed of accordingly. A couple landed in Rarity's hooves, but they were so indignant that she hoofed those into the bin herself. My solution to the predicament had at first jokingly been to smash the windows of The Glass House, and Rarity had laughed at this gesture, perhaps not understanding how serious I was. Anyway, Mr. Cross had eventually moved from letters to other means of disgracing Rarity; it was his opinion that if she would not work for him, he would do his best to make sure that her reputation be ruined. Mr. Orange had taken his own measures to try and stop this, but things had turned suitably sour in Manehattan regarding Rarity.
I don't know what had compelled him to do such a thing, but Mr. Cross had decided to write terrible things about Rarity, none of which could be true. Of course, he hadn't risked his own reputation in order to create sensationalist news; he had recruited one of the best bullshitters in the business. I had been utterly appalled when I had read Gazette's name at the bottom of the article regarding Rarity. Having been under the impression that he was working for Mr. Orange mere months ago, I had no idea why he had joined Mr. Cross' side, but I did know that this article was a terrible concoction of some of the worst lies in history. Not only did they incriminate Rarity, but they were also there to disgrace Mr. Orange. I had the article with me as well; I had not left home unprepared. In an attempt to make the trip go faster, I pulled the article out and scanned it. There had been more than one article, but I believe that this had been the first one published and the most ludicrous:
"Falling Star: Secrets and Lies"
It was named as such because Rarity was, in Gazette's mind, a star who had fallen from grace. How amusing.
"Everyone knows her as Rarity, and over the past six or seven months she has been dazzling us with her dresses and designs. Some were naming her the next best thing, whilst others claimed that she invented a brand new form of modelling. But Miss Rarity is no more prodigal than I myself; a mere imposter to a throne that should be reserved for greater artists.".
There was only one mention of me in the article, and I scanned to find it. It was brief but present all the same:
"How can a pony that is supposed to represent the up-market world of the elite be such a thing when behind the scenes she lives in Ponyville with a ridiculous obsessive who she screws on the side?"
His language was hurtful and demonising. But that was not the only reference to non-existent love-making within the passage.
"The most hilarious thing about the business partnership between Mr. Orange and Rarity is that they are clearly having an affair. Whilst both remain tight-lipped, an inside source suggests that Mrs. Orange has left her husband in the wake of this adulterous revelation.". This was, of course, a lie: Mrs. Orange had left Mr. Orange, as far as I had gathered, due to a business disagreement. Rarity did not come into the equation; all she did was make lovely dresses to make the world smile.
The most hurtful part of the article, even more-so than the elaborate sex-life that Rarity did not possibly lead, came later into the passage:
"I write this article without any bias or personal judgement. A source that I have contacted about his recent business with Miss Rarity, none other than renowned business hot-shot, Mr. Friesian Cross, had this to say: "I did not know that Miss Rarity had it in her, and yet I saw all of the tell-tale signs. She had an affair with Mr. Orange because she thought that it would benefit her business. And hats off to the young lady, because it certainly did; right now her dresses are selling across Equestria like hot-cakes. Unfortunately, the daft mare does not seem to realise that her dresses are being branded as the mark of the whore; already, stocks and shares in Mr. Orange's business are, according to up-to-date statistics, falling immeasurably. I wish her the best of luck in sleeping her way to the top.".
I found it difficult to put into words quite how furious I was upon first reading Mr. Cross' comment in Gazette's article. I could not believe that an old friend of mine would publish such a thing, and that a stallion that was supposed to be kind towards Rarity would say such lies. The alleged affair had broken out just over a week ago, and I had not the heart to tell Rarity about the lies that the outside world were saying about her. Even Mr. Orange had stopped sending letters and had not been to the boutique since the news had leaked; no doubt he wished to avoid giving her the heart-ache that lies can spread.
The train eventually arrived at the platform and I disembarked. This area was familiar to me from quite a long time ago, but it had been a while since I had been here. Something had been plaguing my mind for a while now; something that I had forgotten for months but now had the chance and incentive to resolve. I whistled for a stagecoach and one approached within seconds.
"To the Morgans Estate," I said, and they seemed only momentarily hesitant. I gave them directions at any rate, as the Morgans Estate was hardly a place that many ponies went to. It had been isolated for quite some time now, through my own actions, and I dreaded to think what cobwebs would await me upon returning. I had always despised spiders. They say that spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them, but to me I will never be able to put a hoof anywhere near a spider.
Some time passed and we arrived at the gates. They were still as I had left them. "Pardon, sir," one of the ponies pulling the coach said. "Mrs. Morgans has been deceased for some time. Folk don't live there no more."
"Thank you for the ride," I responded, hopping off the back of the coach and waiting outside the gate until the cart pulled away behind a mass of trees. The area surrounding the estate had always been overgrown, but now it had become excessively wild with flora. I turned to the gate, stepping in thick weeds as I did, pulling the latch across. I had not worried about locking the gate, for if anypony broke into the Morgans Estate while I was absent, I had pretty much given them permission to take anything that I had not already taken with me. The path to the door had been ruined by the growth of plants and ugly pale flowers. The fountain on the outside of the manor had rusted over. How long had it been since I was last here?
I attempted to open the door but it was understandably, and, quite unsurprisingly, still locked. I looked down at the weak slab of stone just in front of the door and lifted it with a hoof; the key was waiting there, exactly where I had left it. I fumbled with it into the lock and forced my way into the house. The door was partially blocked by a large stack of letters more than a hundred, I wagered that had been posted during my absence. Leaving the door open to let some light and air into the stuffy, ancient home, I picked up one of the slips of paper from the top of the pile. It was just a random leaflet about nothing in particular, but it was dated more than a year ago. Thankfully, ponies had finally given up trying to send stuff to this home: it didn't often get read whilst I was here; in my absence, there was even less chance of it being opened.
I dropped the leaflet and walked through into the vast dining area. I drifted by the long wooden table into the kitchen, and then around into the study room. From there I fumbled with a golden doorknob and entered the library. It was all exactly as I had left it, only greyer. I opened up the windows and lifted the blinds in as many rooms as I cared to venture through. I did not bother going upstairs, as it always scared me when I was younger to venture up there alone and, as infantile as it may now seem, I was still a little afraid that something ghastly would be lurking up there waiting for me. I returned to the letters and fumbled through them, starting at the bottom of the pile this time. My hoof touched a mottled-brown envelope with a very particular insignia on the back of it. I knew that I recognised that symbol; it had been familiar months ago at Rarity's party, and it was even more familiar now that it was right before me. I pulled out Rarity's birthday letter and put the little insignias up against each other; they were identical, distinguishable only by the fading of the ink in the older of the two. I opened the letter and began to read it. The handwriting was noticeably similar to that in Rarity's birthday message:
"To the owner of the property,
Mrs. Morgans passed away and you have now inherited this property. Congratulations. This is not the first letter that I have sent asking for your response and yet none have been answered. Forgive my rudeness, but if you are reading these letters then your ignorance is outstanding. You are currently in the possession of one of the most sought-after properties in the county of Trottingham. It serves no great purpose to you, other than being a large home, but to me it is a part of heritage and must be preserved. I am willing to purchase this home from you for the tidy sum of one-hundred and fifty-thousand bits.". The letter went on in such a way. I dug a little deeper and found several other letters all written by Friesian Cross. Some were addressed to my Aunt, and, upon realising that she had passed away, had changed their focus to address me, the subsequent owner of the home. I vaguely recalled reading letters like these when I had first inherited the home, although back then they had not concerned me. But it was clear now that the same stallion that had been torturing Rarity of late had also done the same to my Aunt. No doubt her death had been caused by this monster. He had to pay.
I closed up the manor, leaving the key in its rightful place beneath the slab, and left the area, heading back towards the town. In retrospect I should have asked the stagecoach to wait for me but I had overestimated how much time I would be spending there. I had envisioned that all sorts of nostalgia would overtake me, but instead I just felt infuriated and desired revenge against Mr. Cross for everything that he put ponies dear to me through. His list of offences was growing by the day. I recalled that Mr. Cross had properties all over Equestria, but that he did not primarily live in Manehattan despite spending much of his time there. The only other major location around these parts with quick train-access to Manehattan was Trottingham. If Mr. Cross lived here, he would be getting his just desserts sooner than he would think.
I located an information centre by use of stagecoach carriers once more, and this time asked that they remain whilst I went inside. The mare behind the desk was beautiful and gave me a lot of information; I guess she served her purpose well by being both informative and good to look at whilst she provided said knowledge. I had asked about a Mr. Friesian Cross and if he lived around these parts; by adopting my most regal accent I managed to convince her that I was a distant cousin. By naming his wife Florence I sealed the deal, and she managed to locate for me where his home was. It was a relatively small manor in comparison to the luxurious homes that he owned in Manehattan, but I guess it wasn't unusual to want a quaint and cosy place to sleep. I had not quite formulated my plan yet, but I knew that it involved going to Mr. Cross' home.
The stagecoach appeared reluctant to take me, but they drove me as far as they wished to go before complaining that it was private land. By the sounds of their fearful voices, one would believe that Mr. Cross ruled Trottingham with an iron hoof, which was, of course, impossible. His manor entered my view after a little while of walking; it was slightly more difficult to find than it perhaps would have been, as the sun was beginning to go down and I was never very good at navigating in the dark. At several points I tripped and landed in the dirt, but I gathered myself back up and continued. His home had a gate like the Morgans Estate, but this one was locked with a large padlock. I tapped it with a hoof, but it wasn't about to spring open without some form of key. I looked around the outer wall of the manor and soon located a tree that hugged the stone barricade. I managed to gain a footing in the branches and somehow pulled myself up and over the wall. For a King hauled up in his fortress, he sure wasn't very good at resisting invasion.
I dropped down on Mr. Cross' side of the wall, approaching his home. A couple of lights were on within, most likely illuminated by candlelight alone, but I reasoned that either ponies were still awake or that they had fallen asleep recently. I took a deep breath and approached the front door. I knew that it would be locked without even trying to open it, and, after attempting to uproot the stone slab immediately in front of the door, I reasoned that he wasn't hiding a key under there. I guess I was just crazy that day, but I didn't feel like returning to Rarity without something to show for my day. She was probably wondering where I was. If I ever found the courage to tell her what I did that night, she would be incredibly surprised by my behaviour.
There were some little statues nearby. I couldn't make out through the darkness what they were exactly, but they appeared to be pony-shaped and about the size of a stuffed animal. Only, they were made out of thick stone. I lifted one in my hooves clumsily and located a nearby ground-level window. Crashing through would be unwise if it would wake up the ponies within. Then again, I had no other option right now. I hurled the statue at the window and the glass shattered like an infant falling through thin ice at a frozen lake. I gritted my teeth and forced myself against the wall of the manor, holding my breath and closing my eyes tightly. I expected to be found out. There was no way that those within could not have heard the noise. I even picked up another statue, just in case Mr. Cross showed up for me to whack over the head.
But time passed and no pony came to investigate. I wondered if anypony was even home, but the lights from within proved that it was currently occupied. Perhaps Mr. Cross was a heavy sleeper? I approached the window again and used a hoof to cave in further parts of the wounded glass. Smashing Mr. Cross' property was just as fun as I had envisioned. Being careful not to cut myself, I pulled my weight through the gap in the side of the house and fell into Mr. Cross' domain. Shards of glass cut into my hooves, but the wounds were minor and I was soon able to walk out of them and brush away any remnants of glass that had dug into my body. The room was dark, but I could see a candle and managed to successfully light it with a little pot of attached oil. I balanced the candle on my back and looked around the room. It was just a typical study room. I approached the door and opened it slightly, peeking through the gap. The main hallway was lit by candles on the walls, although it was only a dim light and I couldn't imagine that any pony was around if they hadn't heard the window smashing. I made my way out into the hall and looked to the right; a large door was there, which was clearly the front door. Approaching it, I unbuckled the locks from within. There was every chance that I would need to make a quick getaway from this place.
Mr. Cross' home was undoubtedly beautiful, but before heading up the marble staircase to his bedroom I could not resist having a look around his home. I searched the downstairs and located a living room with a lit fireplace, although the burning of the logs was starting to die down. He was a brave pony indeed, leaving a fire on into the night. He had, however, put up a metallic guard in front of it, to at least prevent spitting embers from burning his home down. I located a wine cabinet and poured myself a quick drink. I then proceeded to leave the drink on the cabinet and instead took the entire bottle with me over to the fireplace. I sat in front of it in order to warm myself upon a comfortable armchair, perching with my legs hanging over the edge. I watched the dancing flames as they ate away at the last few logs. The fireplace hissed as I pulled out Friesian's villainous article, tearing it up into neat strands and throwing them into the flames. They blackened and crisped off almost instantly. I swigged the bottle and observed his birthday letter to Rarity for a moment longer, although it was soon on the fire as well, the thick, tar-like ink leaking into the squealing fire as his words melted away.
"You aren't going to hurt again with your lies," I said to myself as the fire died down. "Your time is up."