"They're selling well?" Farleigh asked eagerly. "What else does the letter say?"
"Nothing much," I replied. "Just that Mr. Orange will be requiring more dresses from you soon."
Farleigh was grinning as she tucked into her sandwich. I had learned that her favourite type of sandwich had a filling exclusively of dandelions. She had quite the appetite for such a young mare, and she managed to get through three before she finally licked the crumbs from her lips, pushing her plate towards me and hinting that she had finished.
"You can wash it up," I said, and she paused for a moment, perhaps thinking to refuse. She obviously understood that objecting wasn't fair, however, as she did as she was told, running hot water onto the plate and then drying it off with a towel. When finished, she sat opposite me, scooping Artemis back up into her lap.
"Oh, there is one more thing that the letter says," I added. She cocked her head dubiously to the side and I continued: "I'm going to be visiting one of Mr. Orange's factories later today. He wants me to see how production is coming along."
"Where is the factory?" Farleigh inquired.
"The outskirts of Manehattan," I replied. "I understand that you don't want to go anywhere near Manehattan, though, and so I'm sure that's why Mr. Orange didn't invite you as well."
She seemed to be disappointed, surprisingly. "Can I tag along?" she asked hopefully. "I made the dresses; I should be able to see what happened to them. I still don't really understand how this business thing is working."
The letter had given me an additional instruction that I read all too late: not to show it to Farleigh, as Mr. Orange had explained that, now that she had proven to be a success, he couldn't let her return to her family. And, as both Mr. Orange and myself now knew, Farleigh's father was in Manehattan. Bringing her along and that close to her father could cause some issues. However, she had entered the room while I had been opening the letter, and I had been unable to keep her from wanting to know all about its contents. And, in addition, I did believe that Farleigh had a point: she had more claim to the product than I did. Furthermore, Mr. Orange had mentioned in the letter that we would be greeted by an associate of his rather than himself: if that was the case, then perhaps taking Farleigh along wouldn't be a problem after all.
"Can I come?" she asked. "Please?"
"If I said no, what would you do?" I asked, half-jokingly.
"I'd sit around all day, really bored," she shrugged. "Maybe I'd go for a walk around town with Artemis."
Alarm bells began to ring in my head. Her face was still on newspapers as a missing mare, and the authorities were still looking for her. She had no idea about any of that, because I'd found ways to keep her inside the boutique for the majority of the time that she had been staying with me. However, allowing her to walk around town alone was a recipe for disaster: it would only take one pony to recognise her and then everything would come out. Using that logic, I reasoned that taking her with me might not be the worst idea: as long as she was with me, I could make sure that she remained unrecognised.
We would be getting picked up by a private carriage, according to the letter, which would allow for us to escape public eyes that would be on other modes of transport, such as trains. I could see more advantages in taking her with me than leaving her behind, and so I cast her a smile, explained that she could come, and then asked her to dress herself.
She had, in between making dresses for Mr. Orange, made a couple for herself. They were far less elaborate but had a quaint charm of their own, and it meant that I didn't have to raise suspicion by purchasing clothes for a young mare. She skipped from the room her limp had now healed, it seemed in order to get dressed upstairs in her room. I had to refer to the room she was sleeping in as 'her' room now, rather than the 'spare' room, as she had been sleeping in there for a week. I found her presence to be oddly comforting, despite her invasion of my private retreat. As I waited for her my eyes settled upon Artemis, who had been placed on the table by Farleigh before she had rushed off upstairs. The small plush was watching me, as usual, but saying nothing. She only spoke to Farleigh, it seemed.
I turned the plush toy away from me, finding her to be unsettling, and then finished the sandwich that I had started before opening the letter. I figured that I had some time to prepare, and I was right: after getting changed into a suit it took almost two hours for the carriage to arrive. It didn't appear to be anything fancy it was little more than a wagon and I didn't recognise the two stallions who were pulling it as I observed them from the window. I opened the door to leave the boutique, calling for Farleigh to follow. She had been sitting in the kitchen with me while we had been waiting, and so she appeared behind me quickly. She was more excited about this trip than I was, and I wasn't entirely sure why.
We left the boutique and approached the carriage. The door opened and inside was a mildly familiar pony: the stocky individual who had visited me weeks ago and had 'convinced' me to work for Mr. Orange. He was the only stallion inside the carriage, sitting on one side of the bench. He instructed me to sit opposite him, but as I moved he caught a glimpse of Farleigh behind me.
"The boss said not to bring the girl," he said bluntly.
I looked back to Farleigh.
"She won't cause any problems," I said. "I think it's safer if we bring her with us."
"Ponies are still looking for her in Ponyville, and I'm running out of ways to keep her inside while we wait for more dress orders," I explained quietly. The stallion looked over my shoulder, down to the girl, and then sighed, giving a conclusive nod.
"You can come, Farleigh," I said, and she obviously enjoyed being included, as she eagerly reached a hoof out to me so that I could help her into the carriage. She sat on the same side as me, curling up behind her mane. She was nervous in the presence of this bulky stallion, and I could hardly blame her: I didn't trust him, and his deep, drawling voice put us both in a state of unease. We sat in silence as the carriage set off and we began our trip; the stallion was saying nothing, and neither of us fancied speaking out of line.
It wasn't until he lit up a pipe and began smoking out of the window that Farleigh made a noise: she coughed and spluttered in an overly-dramatic fashion, as if she was making a point about his smoking habits. The stallion narrowed his eyes and sat forwards, glaring at Farleigh with a confrontational frown and smoke still clinging to his breath.
"Have you got something to say?" the stallion growled.
"No, sir," she said timidly, shaking her head. "I just hate smoke."
He took a deep inhale of his pipe and then held it out the window, tipping it upside down and allowing the tobacco to fall on the roadside. He then slipped it back into his jacket pocket. He said nothing, but Farleigh was a lot happier now that smoke wasn't being blown into her face. I had decided to leave my own smoking apparatus and tobacco at home, since Farleigh had spoken to me about her dislike for it.
I took to looking out the window, although our surroundings were unfamiliar. We had crossed some sort of bridge in the carriage and were now travelling through a woodland area beside a stream on a dusty old road. It was there that the carriage stopped and the drivers took a five minute break, relieving themselves in the bushes and regaining their strength. I took the opportunity to get some fresh air alongside Farleigh, who was the first to get out and stretch her legs. Mr. Orange's employee followed, maintaining a slight distance but always keeping his eyes focused entirely on the both of us. He took his pipe out and started smoking it again, now that we were out of the confines of the carriage.
I caught up with Farleigh she had approached the river - and watched as she drank from it gracefully. I did the same, and found that the river flowed with particularly refreshing water: it was a lot purer than the water in the lakes around Ponyville. Farleigh gulped several mouthfuls and then lifted her head back, stretching out her hooves and sitting back on the grass for a minute or two.
"Who is the big guy?" she asked me. "Do you know him?"
"Not really," I replied through gulps of the river water. "He seems to just carry out Mr. Orange's tasks when Mr. Orange himself isn't around."
"Do you even know his name?" she asked, looking back over her shoulder to see him standing a little way off, still as a statue, watching the both of us.
"I wouldn't even be able to guess," I said.
She looked back over to him: he was wearing a long suit that covered most of his features, which gave little hint as to what his name might be. Even his cutie mark was covered.
"I have seen his cutie mark," I remembered, pulling back from the river and sitting beside her. "It's three little stick things with flames coming off of them."
"Three sticks? That sounds a bit like that symbol on the door of the boutique, only the one on the door isn't on fire," she thought out-loud, and I nodded. Whatever his cutie mark and those symbols meant, I wanted no part in it. She looked back to him but I urged her to do otherwise; I could see his annoyance growing each time that she glanced in his direction.
We were summoned back to the carriage when the drivers had rested. Mr. Orange's stallion instructed us to board first. He climbed in after, taking the same seat as before and slamming the door shut. The carriage began to move again, and conversation fell quiet, at least until Farleigh plucked up the guts to ask the stallion something that had been bothering her.
"What's your name?" she asked. "We were wondering."
The gruff stallion remained expressionless. "You shouldn't ask questions that don't require an answer," he replied in a dull manner.
"But what if we need to speak with you?" Farleigh asked. "By what name should we address you?"
"Believe me, kid," he replied, "the only time that we'll ever be talking is if I need to tell you something. Not the other way around."
Upon that note Farleigh fell silent again, curling up to the best of her ability. Another hour or so passed with only idle conversation uttered, and then the stallion spoke:
"We're almost there. When we arrive, don't say a word unless you're asked to. Whatever you do, don't mention the kid's name to anyone."
He had been speaking to me, but Farleigh nodded as well. From the window I could see a large grey building up ahead surrounded by mottled-green marshland. We were in the middle of nowhere, as far as I could tell. The letter had said that we'd be in the Manehattan outskirts, but this sort of terrain seemed different to any sort of Manehattan that I knew. The Manehattan I was familiar with was the awful city that I hated; these desolate wetlands weren't so bad.
The carriage eventually arrived at a metal gate, where the drivers explained who we were to a couple of dead-eyed guards. One approached the carriage and stuck his head through the window, counting us. He seemed confused but the drivers obviously had some way of convincing him that we were the right carriage, as we passed through with relative ease and settled against a wall where we were ordered to disembark. I was the first off, and then I helped Farleigh down. Our 'friend' followed, acknowledging a guard nearby. Farleigh stayed close to me, looking around in all directions: now that we were surrounded by stone walls, the factory suddenly seemed far less idyllic to us both.
"This way," Mr. Orange's thug said, leading us towards a door that took us into the factory. Inside I could see no guards, and the ones waiting outside hadn't followed us in, which was good. The stallion was walking quickly and Farleigh was struggling to keep up. I slowed my pacing down more to her level, so that she didn't get scared about being left behind. This annoyed the stallion, who had to wait every now and then for us to catch up. Eventually the winding corridors opened out into an enormous centre of production, where, down below, rows of workers were sitting at sewing machines and stitching fabric furiously.
I looked over the railing and Farleigh peered through the middle, not being tall enough to safely look over the top. Below she noticed that the workers were making dresses that looked surprisingly like the brown one that she had made. She nudged me with her back leg, pointing down. "Those are my dresses," she said. "I'm sure of it."
"Perhaps you could explain to us exactly what happens here?" I asked Mr. Orange's henchman. "I'm sure that Farleigh wants to know." In truth, so did I.
"Dresses that you make at your fancy boutique get sent here," he said. "We take that design and get all of these seamstresses to copy it. Then we sell them in cities across Equestria."
"Which cities?" I asked.
"Manehattan, right now," he replied, "but soon, all of them. Canterlot is next."
I knew little about Canterlot, having spent only brief periods of time there. It was the city of the elite in a way that even Manehattan could not rival. Property there was hugely expensive and most residents were related to nobility in at least some minor way. They were not as fickle with their fashion as Manehattan, I imagined, but they were obviously rich and therefore would only wear what was regarded to be in good taste. It was a difficult market to enter, and I was amazed that Farleigh's dresses were regarded as good enough for the high-end of the market. She was so young and inexperienced, and certainly no rival to my Rarity.
"There's a little legal matter," the stallion said. "It's regarding the name on the dresses." He was talking to Farleigh then, who looked up at him with obvious interest.
"They're not going to have your name on them," he said to Farleigh, "but you'll be given some of the proceeds."
"How much?" I interjected.
"Three per cent of the net-worth for every dress," he said. "Five when the girl agrees to the next stage."
"What's the next stage?" I said, moving in front of Farleigh instinctively to put a wedge between him and her.
"I'll talk to you alone," he said to me. Farleigh looked up pleadingly, but if he was only going to speak with me, I had to agree. I looked down to Farleigh and asked her to stand at the other end of the walkway above the factory floor below. She was reluctant, but I assured her that everything would be fine. Despite her best efforts to listen in, she trusted me, and she walked away from us far enough for him to speak with me in private.
"The girl wasn't meant to come today, but I guess it doesn't make any difference in the long-run," the stallion sighed, satisfied that Farleigh couldn't hear. "My employer wants her to work in this factory. He's seen what she can do and he's happy to go ahead, so it makes no sense in her working in a dried-up place like Ponyville. It's more direct if she works here."
"It's a long way to travel from Ponyville every day," I said, to which he laughed and shook his head.
"-Nah, she wouldn't be living in Ponyville. She'd be living here, at the factory. She'd wake, work and then sleep. Then the next day, she'd do it again."
"I don't think that she'll agree to that," I said coldly.
"My employer has explained to me that the girl never wants to go home. She'll do anything to avoid it. She's just a kid, so she'll do whatever the adults tell her to. If we say she either works here or we take her back to her home, she'll stay with us."
I didn't feel comfortable at all in giving Farleigh over to them. Under my supervision at Carousel Boutique she could at least work without fear and intimidation: here she would be alone, save for the faceless drones below and dangerous stallions such as this one.
"I wouldn't be so sure," I said, glancing over to Farleigh, who was leaning against the railing and humming a song to herself in a bored fashion. "I've spoken to her a lot recently, and I think she does want to go home soon. Mr. Orange's information seems to be a bit out of date."
"My employer told me," he replied, "that if we ran into any difficulties, I should explain to you that, should Farleigh stay here at the factory, you would no longer be obligated under his contract to continue working for him."
"You're saying that if Farleigh comes to work at the factory, I'd be free from all of this?"
"Listen," the stallion instructed. "Your contract to my employer began because he was promised a dress-maker who ended up producing no dresses. You were tasked with finding him another one. He has one now, so there's nothing else that he needs from you. You could even continue living at your boutique."
"I thought that Mr. Orange wanted to turn the boutique into a centre of production?"
"He's seeing a bigger picture now," he replied. "Convince the girl to stay at the factory and you can forget all about this. We were going to give you some time to do it, but as the girl is here, you can tell her now."
"Not now," I said boldly, speaking without really thinking, which caused him to grimace. "-I think I should tell her back at the boutique. If you were willing to wait anyway, can you give us a couple of days? It'll take some convincing to get her to agree to this."
"Two days?" he asked, and I nodded. He contemplated briefly and then agreed, holding his strong hoof out for me to shake. I did with obvious trepidation, although I had at least bought some time. Explaining this to Farleigh would be incredibly difficult. She must have noticed our hoof-shake, for she looked over to us and mouthed something to me about returning. I nodded and she approached.
"What did you discuss?" she asked. "What's the next stage that I have to agree to, or whatever?"
"I'll tell you when we get back home," I whispered. She needed to know, and I could see in her eyes that she was terrified that her future was being decided without her input. But she was a smart girl, and she knew better than to press the matter while we were there at the factory; I had said that I would explain back at the boutique, and she knew me to be a pony of my word.
We had seen all that we needed to see, and we were taken out of the factory and back to the carriage shortly after, where we were ordered into the same seats as before. The stallion went with us again, in order to keep a close eye on us during the return journey. We stopped for a short break again on the trip back, although it was not for the drivers; Farleigh needed to use the bathroom, and, after thinking about it, I did as well. We left the carriage and the stallion followed, although we walked off in different directions. Usually he would have asked us to stay together so that he could keep an eye on us, although for obvious reasons he couldn't ask the same of us then.
I looked back over my shoulder as Farleigh disappeared into a shrubby mass of bushes and foliage. A large part of me wanted her to run away and get out of that place, but it wasn't possible to communicate that to her, and I believed that she would be put into greater risk on an unfamiliar road in the middle of the evening. Soon it would be nightfall, and so running away wasn't a good idea. I passed water and then returned to the carriage, where the stallion was waiting with his pipe in his mouth again. Farleigh took a little longer to return; she had walked out further, perhaps more worried about being discovered than I had been.
When she eventually returned I climbed onto the carriage and helped her up. We sat in our usual spots and the stallion took his position opposite us both once more. The carriage set off moving again, and Farleigh shivered a little, cold from the approaching evening air.
"Are you cold?" I asked, and she nodded slowly. Instinctively I removed my jacket and placed it over her; it was large enough for her to use it as a blanket, and she thanked me with a gracious smile.
"But won't you be cold now?" she asked, and I shrugged: I had more body fat than she did, and so the cold was less of a concern to me.
She fell asleep shortly after being wrapped in my jacket, her head resting against my side. I lifted a hoof to allow her to bury her head in a little deeper, but I held myself back from stroking her soft, golden mane. He watched but said nothing, which prompted me to speak instead.
"So, is this you done for the night?" I asked. "Going home to a nice, warm bed and a loving family?"
The stallion chuckled, taking out his pipe and lighting it up. I wanted to tell him not to, but Farleigh was asleep anyway, and I didn't expect him to respect my wishes as he had hers: I was less valuable to his employer's business plan than Farleigh. The stallion puffed away at the mouth-piece and filled the carriage with smoke, although some of it did manage to escape out of the window.
"Do you really want to know what I'll be doing after this?" he drawled. I nodded hesitantly and he continued, smiling slightly: "-I have to visit a whore-house in Manehattan and chop the ear off of a stallion who has been a pain in my employer's ass for longer than he should have been. The slippery little bastard has been hard to track, but we got him now. And then, after disposing of the ear, I have to go down to the docks of the city and intercept a boat shipment at three in the morning. None of those ponies will be seeing their families again, or going home to the nice, warm bed you mentioned."
It was difficult to ascertain if he was speaking of his work with pride or reluctance. It was clear, however, that he viewed his job as just that: a job. I had no doubt that this pony was a trained killer, and suddenly I was very conscious of saying anything that might offend him. It was hard to get a reading on him; his appearance was intimidating but not entirely threatening, but at the same time there was that inherent fear that he was capable of anything. It's those types that you really have to watch out for. I gulped, wondering how to respond to him. Luckily for me, I didn't have to.
"Let me give you some advice," he said quite suddenly. "Get out of all of this while you can. I don't know what you're planning on telling the girl, but it would be in your best interest to get her to work for my employer at the factory. Then everything will be kept nice and tidy, and it'll make my job a whole lot easier. And you'd be able to forget all of it ever happened."
"Don't do anything stupid," he added, sitting back and finishing the last of the tobacco in his pipe. I reflected on his words and spent the rest of the journey in relative silence, keeping Farleigh close. We arrived back in Ponyville during the early night. I nudged Farleigh to wake her up. It took her a moment to realise where she was, but upon noticing that she had been leaning against me, she quickly pulled herself up and sat away from me, clearly embarrassed.
"Was your sleep sufficient?" I asked.
"It was okay," she replied, looking out of the window and noticing where we were. "That was a quick journey," she said, and I smiled. She realised that I had given her my jacket for warmth and she thanked me, remaining in it until we were back at the boutique, where she hoofed it over to me.
Farleigh was the first to leave the carriage. I went to follow, but felt the stallion's hoof on my shoulder. "-As I said, don't do anything stupid," he repeated, and then let me go. My hooves touched the ground and I hurried Farleigh and myself over to the door, where I let us in with the key. The carriage didn't wait around; by the time we had opened the door they were already riding away.
Inside Farleigh switched on the lights and then entered the kitchen. I heard her greet Artemis and then the sound of cupboards being opened and closed. "Do we have any dandelions left?" she called through to me. I folded my jacket over the desk and then entered the kitchen. She was standing on a chair in order to reach the top cupboard. I tutted and helped her down, telling her that I would prepare her some food. She smiled but insisted on being independent, and so we reached a compromise: she would cut the bread and I would locate the plates and central ingredients. She made us both sandwiches, and we carried them over to the table, where we sat opposite one another.
A part of me hoped that she wouldn't ask about what had been discussed at the factory, but I knew Farleigh, and she wasn't in any way forgetful, especially not about things of such great importance. "-So, what were you guys talking about at the factory?" she asked. "I don't like that place."
I sighed. "Tell me, Farleigh," I found the words to say. "What do you want to do? If you had the choice, where would you be right now?"
"Well, honestly," she said, "I think I'd go home. I know that I said a lot of...stuff...about what happened with my father, but everything you said about him loving me, and about how I'm not guilty...I've been thinking about it and I think you're right. I was just blaming myself...but now I'm ready to stop doing that."
"Were you thinking of actually going home?" I asked, and she gave a little nod.
"Before I have to make any more dresses," she said anxiously. "Like, maybe...tomorrow?"
"You want to go home tomorrow?" I asked, my heart beginning to pound.
"I was going to stay a bit longer, but seeing that factory today...I hated it," she said, shaking her head sadly. "I just...I don't want any of this. He said my name won't even be on the dresses...and my father always told me that claiming that you're someone that you're not is fraud. I don't trust that stallion: I think this is against the law...and it's dangerous, too!"
I don't know why I thought to tell her then what had been said. I almost wanted to give her even more reason to hate Mr. Orange's enterprise. It was a bad idea, but I was caught up in the moment. "He said he wants you to go and work at the factory and live there," I explained. "There's no point keeping that from you. Those are the cards that are on the table."
"I can't do that!" she said defiantly. "I don't want to work at that factory!"
"I understand your reservations, Farleigh," I said, "but if you don't, I think that there's a good chance that they might hurt the both of us."
"They wouldn't do that!" she said, appalled by my words. "That's against the law!"
"They don't follow the law," I sighed. "When you were sleeping the stallion told me that tonight alone he's going to be mutilating and killing ponies for Mr. Orange. These aren't ponies who we can just refuse."
"My father can protect us," she said quickly. "If I go to my father then he will have Mr. Orange arrested."
"I think your father has enough legal problems of his own right now," I said, to which Farleigh looked flustered.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "What's wrong with my father?"
I sighed, leaning closer to her. "It's been in the newspapers, but I didn't think I should tell you," I said. "He's a suspect in your disappearance."
"Why wouldn't you tell me that?" she shouted. "I can tell everyone that he has nothing to do with it!"
"Because then they'll think I'm involved!" I retorted. "I don't need police attention any more than he does!"
I had made a mistake in telling Farleigh about her father. I should have remained quiet about the entire thing; I could have lied about what had been said at the factory. Instead, honesty had put Farleigh in a position where she now actively wished to return to her father, which was the worst eventuality that could have come from this interaction.
"I'd say that you're innocent, and that I ran away by my own free will," she said. She continued to talk about things that she might say to get us out of this mess, using her father as a shield against any sort of negative backlash that could arise from Mr. Orange's revenge for turning against him, but I didn't believe that we would be as immune as she did. Her father hated me, if he even remembered me, and I despised him for things that he had done; what's more, I didn't want to make an enemy out Mr. Orange and his lackey. I already knew that together they were capable of orchestrating all manner of crimes.
"Listen, Farleigh," I said loudly, cutting her off. She fell silent, although she was itching to continue speaking.
"You have to keep working," I said. "If you go, then it will be my fault for failing to convince you to work at the factory. They would punish me, and then they would come after you and your father. If you work, we're both safe."
"I know that you hate it," I replied. "I had no idea that things would come to this, but now that we're in this situation we have to make the best of it. If you work for them, we might have time to come up with a better plan. As long as they don't get suspicious, we'll be fine."
"When...did they want me to move to the factory?" she said, on the verge of disbelief but at least slightly contemplating my words.
"They gave us two days, starting tomorrow," I said.
"So what do we do until then?" she asked. "Just sit here and pretend that we don't know the danger that we're in? We could use these two days to meet my father and explain what's going on. We could get the police to leave him alone and instead set them on Mr. Orange, and-"
"-And then he'd come after us," I said. "Farleigh, please...I'm begging you. Will you, for now, just continue to work for Mr. Orange? Please?"
"I gave you a bed when you needed one. When you needed my help, I was willing to give it. Now that I need your help, won't you do the same for me? As long as you work, even just for a while, everything will be fine and they won't suspect a thing."
"But what about my father?" she whined.
"Until evidence comes up to suggest that you're hurt, he'll be okay," I said. "He's a suspect, but there's no proof to incriminate him. Let's not give the police any reason to think that you are hurt by pissing off the wrong ponies, right?"
"Right..." she said, closing her eyes. She obviously had a hundred thoughts rushing through her mind, and I couldn't blame her. I wasn't sure if she would at all respect my plea, and I began to contemplate my next course of action should she persist in seeing her father and avoiding working at the factory. However, before I had to resort to thinking of restraining her, I heard her next words clearly, uttered through exhausted lips: "Okay, I see what you're saying."
"So you'll work at the factory?"
"If I have to," she said, "but only if we spend the next two days finding a way out of all of this. We need a plan."
She wasn't wrong there.