"Still it's time that grows in my brain.
Still it's time that calls me here.
Still I scream the time it takes.
Still I cringe from time's strokes.
Still I groan from time's loves.
But still I'll try for time perhaps."
Trains recall memories of similar times. I was on a train, the first in a while, although I was, thankfully, avoiding the tracks to Manehattan. This train was bound for Canterlot. I had not walked the ivory streets of Canterlot for many years, although I assumed that they would, unlike Manehattan, at least look the same as when I had last gazed upon them. Manehattan was too liberal in its development, and too radical in its pursuit of change. Canterlot, I hoped, would be nostalgic and indebted to the past; and, rather than wishing to keep up with the times, would instead actively attempt to keep its ancient structure in-tact.
The ponies surrounding me upon the train were all typical of Canterlot, and thus I could relate to them in a way that I could not with the residents of Manehattan and Ponyville. Whereas Manehattanites were audacious in their smug superiority, and Ponyvillians were uncouth, even when they bothered to dress, Canterlot ponies carried themselves with a respectable gravity. They were academics and scholars; mostly unicorns, I might add, and gifted in the arts of sophistication and independence. Their stoicism was closely related to that of Trottingham, and I could see many resemblances between the two cultures. Both Canterlot and Trottingham birthed reserved and contemplative individuals, which was why I had found it easy in my younger years to drift between the two.
I had spent some time living in Canterlot during my youth, although it remains a chapter of my life that I refuse to add detail to. Suffice to say that I did not spend a particularly long time there, although it should be noted that I did not leave because of any great contention with the society surrounding me; instead, moving to Trottingham was wholly pragmatic, and so I did not fear travelling to Canterlot out of a concern for what I may encounter there. Instead, my reservations hung upon two factors: the first being that Rarity had made many business trips to Canterlot, including some with Mr. Cross; and secondly, that I was travelling there that day with my own business-related intentions.
Farleigh and I had been given two days to find a way out of a rather sordid mess we had gotten ourselves into. Mr. Orange wished for her to work at a factory near Manehattan pumping out dresses for him like a well-oiled machine, all in the name of Rarity. I found the concept alone to be unnerving, and I couldn't work out where my ethical objections ended and my emotional objections began. However, with little choice but to comply until an exit strategy had been formed, I had set about thinking of ways to rid both Farleigh and myself of this difficult situation.
I had, due to my own enterprising and a fortunate turn of events, found that business ponies in Canterlot had been interested in what was going on regarding Mr. Orange and myself. They had asked to meet with me in order to discuss Mr. Orange's business ventures, and although I was hardly qualified to comment on the machinations of his entire empire, I could, at least, deliver a reasonable account of what my own involvement was, and how I wished for our dealings to be resolved swiftly.
I had taken them up on their offer. Farleigh had been left at the boutique, as I was still under instructions to keep her away from ponies who might put Mr. Orange's hold over her at risk. I feared for my own safety, and thus I could not allow for her to return to her father until my own business obligations with Mr. Orange had concluded. After that, I could think of a way of getting her out of the factory.
It was the early afternoon of our second and last day, and I had instructed Farleigh to remain at the boutique for the duration of my trip to Canterlot. She had wanted to accompany me, being naturally curious and anxious about what would be discussed, but I had assured her that I would do everything within my power to save her from what Mr. Orange had planned for her. My word, it appeared, was enough to silence her questioning, and, when I had left her, she had been sitting quietly in the kitchen, doodling onto a sheet of paper.
The train pulled into a station, and I found myself in front of a top hat-wearing stallion, who bowed courteously and allowed me to leave before him. I thanked him, appreciating the gesture, and then checked the directions that I had received. I was to be finding an establishment called 'Dans Le Noir', situated somewhere within the city of Canterlot. Thankfully, Canterlot was a wonderfully simple city to navigate thanks to an abundance of signs and a highly choreographed system of roads, and it didn't take a long time for me to reach my destination.
It appeared to be some sort of restaurant hidden upon a small alcove of a street that snaked off from the main road. The sign was a smooth blue colour with white lettering, and it was instantly eye-catching. I entered through a black walnut door, where I was approached by a waiter, who asked if I was eating alone.
"No," I said. "I'm here to meet with a Mr. Dorimant."
"One moment, sir," the waiter replied, leaving his post and disappearing behind a wooden screen a few metres away. I stood there, scanning the clientèle of the establishment. It was semi-busy and the food portions appeared to be smaller than the norm, although Canterlot cuisine was all about the flavours rather than the size: quality over quantity, indeed.
The waiter returned and escorted me to the other side of the restaurant, where several stallions were sitting at a table. I couldn't initially identify any of them by name, although it didn't take long for Mr. Dorimant to introduce himself: he was the one with the thick brown coat and the wild, black mane, although the suit that he wore was oddly tidy in comparison to his unkempt hair. Around his neck hung a medallion with what appeared to be a stag on the end. I imagined it to be some sort of decorative Canterlot fashion accessory, and I thought little more upon it after the initial interest wore off. He invited me to take a seat.
"Mr. Dorimant," I said. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"You as well," he said, and I noticed that he had the distinctive accent of a typical fashion-designer. "Shall we get straight to business?" he inquired.
"Yes," I replied.
"What do you know of Mr. Orange of Manehattan?"
"Let's just make sure we're talking about the same Mr. Orange," I said. "The big dress-maker?"
"That's him," he nodded.
"I find him to be the sort of pony who makes it very difficult to know where you stand with him," I said earnestly. "What about you?"
"I'm obligated to remain professional, but if I was allowed to use my tongue to speak my mind, I would say that he is a thief, a liar and a criminal. Does that offend you?"
"You've said nothing that I didn't already suspect," I said anxiously.
"I believe that we can help each other," he said. "I want no further bloodshed."
"News travels fast: Orange has spilled the blood of my kin," Mr. Dorimant said, "and I won't let his crime go unpunished."
"I was not aware of that," I said. "I'm sorry to hear it."
"He means to stop at a building in Ponyville tomorrow at 17:44 exactly; the timing is very precise," Mr. Dorimant continued. "He does this every now and then, and it's nothing out-of-the-ordinary for him. He is a very precise individual when it comes to time."
I listened carefully.
"However," Mr. Dorimant went on, "I find it suspicious that he would visit this particular building in Ponyville, because I am familiar with said building myself. Carousel Boutique, it is called. That is, I believe, where we made contact with you, yes?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I wondered what interest Orange would have in Carousel Boutique, now that news has reached me of the poor passing of the unicorn who once owned it."
"Dresses," I said.
"You still have some way of making dresses," Mr. Dorimant concurred. "Maybe you learned a few techniques of your own, hrm? Whatever the case for why he is employing you, my contact in Manehattan and I are doing everything that we can to make sure that Orange loses his business empire. I must say: I appreciate the risk that you took in coming here, friend."
"-And so, in order to avoid further bloodshed, we have to make sure that those loyal to Orange are out of the way before we find a way to strike at him. I must question your loyalties now: are you bound by an oath to Orange?"
I looked carefully at Mr. Dorimant. I felt him to be more trustworthy than Mr. Orange. I thought upon what I risked in betraying Mr. Orange, but I wanted no part in his empire; having now heard that he had shed the blood of someone close to Mr. Dorimant, I had enough reason to distrust him further and fear for my safety more than I already had. Considering that I had my own interests, and the interests of Farleigh, to look out for, and, in addition, acknowledging that I had travelled to Canterlot with the intention of escaping from Mr. Orange's plan for us, I felt it wise to ally myself, at least temporarily, with Mr. Dorimant.
"I'm bound by nothing more than an informal contract made without my knowing," I said. "Mr. Orange's hold over me stems from a deal that he made with Rarity. She and I were close, and I am now the owner of Carousel Boutique. Because of a deal he made with her regarding the property and its owner, he now exerts control over me. I fear for my safety."
"You're right to be afraid," Mr. Dorimant said. "He has someone working for him who has been trained to kill. We've been trying to find a way to get him to turn against Orange, but we can't see it happening. At the very least, we'll likely have to put both him and Mr. Orange out of service. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I understand," I said quietly. "What do you want from me?"
"For now, I understand that any direct action that you take against Mr. Orange will be met with punishment, and I do not wish to see another innocent stallion die," Mr. Dorimant said. "I would ask that you maintain your act, but that, when the time comes wherein we take action against him, you allow us to do so without resistance."
"I can do that," I said.
"In addition," Mr. Dorimant continued, "would you consider working for me once Mr. Orange has been dealt with? I have no guarantee that you won't go back to Orange after this meeting and tell him what we are planning...but I imagine that he already expects retaliation from me and my family."
"The Dorimant Family," I pondered. "I know your name, but I'm not entirely sure why."
"The Dorimants have been dress-makers for generations, offering quality products throughout Canterlot," he said with pride, although his expression then became troubled. "Orange thought it wise to kill my only stallion-cousin, Fratello. I asked him to oversee a transaction I was making with my contact in Manehattan, when Orange saw it fit to raid the deal and kill everyone there, Fratello included."
"I see," I said. "I can't guarantee that I can offer you my services in dress-making, although I can give you my word that I will remain neutral in the matter. I want out of this entire thing, truth be told."
"I formed a treaty with him a week or so ago, but it was a ruse: I used the opportunity to get my bodyguards to snatch his diary while they rubbed him down for weapons," Mr. Dorimant said. "From that, we have been tracking down all of those he visits during his typical schedule, finding out just how loyal they are to him. He has some loyalists, although, when push comes to shove, few will stand in support of him. We are glad that you are not part of the minority who will need to be dealt with as well."
I nodded, realising that our conversation, at least from Mr. Dorimant's perspective, was coming to an end. I had been invited because he had tracked down the owner of Carousel Boutique based on Mr. Orange's diary schedule, and he had rightly assumed me to be one of his contacts. He had admitted that he was going through said contacts and gauging if they would prove to be a problem, testing the waters, so to speak, before retaliating against Mr. Orange. It was all above and beyond what I wished to be involved in, but I was motivated to speak from my side of the bargain before escaping from this madness altogether.
"You have asked something of me, and it is Trottingham tradition that, when agreeing to something, you are allowed to ask a favour in response," I found myself saying.
"The same sentiment extends to Canterlot business protocol," Mr. Dorimant nodded. "What is the favour that you ask of us?"
"I am not the dress-maker who works for Mr. Orange," I said. Despite not feeling threatened by Mr. Dorimant, I still felt the need to protect Farleigh's identity, at least for now. I didn't want to mention her name in case this Mr. Dorimant wasn't a friend to Mr. Cross; if that was the case, I would be foolish to mention the daughter of someone he may have greatly detested. To avoid potentially turning the mood of conversation sour, I avoided mentioning Mr. Cross entirely as well.
"The dress-maker is a young mare," I continued. "She's a little thing, barely of age, and she has also become swept up in the same complex trap that I have regarding Mr. Orange. He wants to force her to work in his factory, and he's coming to pick her up tomorrow. She doesn't want to go, and I don't want to see her become his slave."
"What is the girl's name?" Mr. Dorimant asked.
"...She gave her name only as 'Fa'," I said. "I know nothing else about her."
Mr. Dorimant contemplated over the name, although it didn't appear to trigger any memory from him.
"I ask that you look after the girl for some time," I found myself suggesting, although I feared passing her from one tyrannical business magnate to another. I did, however, perceive that she would, at least for the time being, be safer in Canterlot than she would be at the factory or in Ponyville; she had said that she wanted to form a plan of action to help her escape from working at the factory, and this was the first stage of that very plan.
"Look after her?" Mr. Dorimant questioned.
"If she stays in Ponyville, she'll be forced to go to the factory. I need to get her away from Ponyville, but I don't know anywhere that's safe. She needs to be somewhere away from Mr. Orange, and so Manehattan isn't an option. Mr. Orange lacks power in Canterlot, right?"
"Currently, yes," Mr. Dorimant said. "So you would leave the girl with us, and then what?"
"Once I've got her with me, I'll come with her back to Canterlot," I said, thinking quickly. "I'll stay with her here, and I ask only that you protect the both of us. Then you can launch your retaliation attack against Mr. Orange, get him out of the picture, and we can all return to our normal lives. I understand that your protection is a lot to ask for in return for my loyalty, but a young mare's life is on the line here. We really need your help."
"I have seven daughters of my own," he said without the need to think much upon it, "and I understand the desire to protect mares from the harsh world that we stallions have created. I shall offer you what you have asked for, in exchange for your compliance and out of respect for this 'Fa' mare."
"Thank you, Mr. Dorimant," I said profusely, sighing in relief. "Do you mean to attack Mr. Orange soon?" I hoped that the answer would be in the affirmative.
"Once we find a way to get his loyal employees out of the way, we'll do what needs to be done," he said simply. "As for you, there is no time to lose. You should get back to Ponyville, gather your things swiftly and then bring the mare."
"Thank you, Mr. Dorimant," I said, lifting myself from the seat. "I shall bring her right away. Will you be at this same location?"
"If not, you won't struggle to find a Dorimant in Canterlot," he said, tapping his medallion. "The stag is a symbol of my family. You will find it on buildings around the city that we own. We are well-respected throughout the city: should you need to find me, ask anyone and they will give you directions."
I nodded, shook his hoof, and then turned to leave, walking quickly towards the exit. I pushed my way through the door and broke into a gallop, charging back towards the train. I hadn't expected the meeting to go so well, and I had fully prepared myself for Farleigh being forced to go to the factory. However, we had been thrown a life-line, and I wasn't about to pass it up. I didn't know under how much of a risk I was personally, although I now fully believed that Mr. Orange was a vicious murderer and one who didn't kill out of pure necessity and thus I wanted to get as far away from him as possible.
I flashed my ticket and stepped up onto the train, which was fortunately at the platform on time. Time, it seemed, had favoured me for once. Out of the window I checked the big clock at the station: it was 15:16. The train was moving by 15:19, and I took a seat upon a bench, letting out another deep sigh. I had gotten myself into a panic, but things were now looking up for both me and Farleigh. From Canterlot we would be safe; Mr. Dorimant would deal with the Mr. Orange problem I didn't like the idea of him being killed, but murder appeared to be the only way - and then Farleigh would be able to return home, and I could continue doing my own thing.
In truth, I didn't even know what 'my own thing' was. Prior to meeting Rarity, I had been drifting, and now that she was gone, I was drifting again. The dress-making thing had at least given me something to put my mind to. Perhaps Farleigh wouldn't return home after all? We could remain in Canterlot and she could continue to make dresses at her own leisure, and I would remain as her guardian. Or, we could give up on the dress idea altogether and do something else. She was very much like Rarity, now that I thought about it.
I arrived at the Ponyville station at 16:05. It was a shorter journey than the trip to Manehattan. I departed and set off quickly towards the boutique. Leaving the train reminded me of when Farleigh had first arrived in Ponyville. She had been running, while I had been wallowing in self-pity. Before meeting Farleigh, I had been rejecting everyone else, shunning Ponyville behind locked doors. But towards Farleigh I showed compassion during that first fateful meeting, and she had found me to be the only pony in Ponyville with the time to give.
And then, we had ended up living together in a completely unorthodox manner, just as Rarity and I had. I knew that Farleigh was no substitute for Rarity; and, furthermore, that she was far too young for me. But having someone there to protect and look out for, and knowing that they would be lost without you, was a feeling that I had greatly missed, and one that had now been restored. We were in this together, as odd as things were, and we would help each other along from then on.
I slipped the key into the door of the boutique and let myself in. "I'm home, Farleigh!" I shouted upstairs. "I have good news! We're getting out of here!"
I walked through into the kitchen and poured myself out a drink. I took three large gulps and then set the glass down, taking a seat at the kitchen table. "Get your butt down here, Farleigh!" I called out. "I said we're getting out of here! Someone has tossed us a life-line!"
There was no movement upstairs.
I pushed the chair back and approached the staircase, peering up to the door of my room at the top.
"Farleigh?" I questioned loudly. "Come down!"
There was no response, and I hurried up the staircase, bypassing the top step. I pushed the door of Farleigh's room open, saying her name once again; she wasn't in there, and neither was Artemis.
I opened up the other doors the bathroom; the closet; my room; and even the Inspiration Room but there was no sign of Farleigh. I dashed back downstairs, almost tripping as I did, and checked the shop-floor, approaching the back-room and forcing the door open with a shoulder barge. She was nowhere to be seen. My heart pounded as I entered the kitchen once more, shouting her name again, and then falling into the chair, my head hitting against the table.
"Where the fuck are you?" I hissed under my breath, looking around wildly. I checked under the table out of desperation, where I noticed a slip of paper. I reached a back leg out and applied pressure to it, dragging it to my side, where I bent to lift it up. It was a note, and it must have blown onto the floor when I opened the door. My eyes adjusted to the blurred lettering upon it as I read it unwaveringly, my desire to vomit growing with each passing word:
I'm keeping this short, because I don't want to waste any more time. I know you said that we're in danger and that you'll think of a plan, but I just can't go and work at that horrible place. I'm sorry! I'm going to Manehattan to clear my father's name so that everyone will stop thinking that I'm missing because of him. He can protect me, and I bet you'll be okay! Mr. Orange will find another dress-maker, don't worry! Thanks for teaching me stuff and looking after me. It means a lot to me. Maybe we'll see each other again sometime? If you're ever in Manehattan that would be good!
Sorry about wasting your time today as well I hope the Canterlot ponies you met with will forgive you if you made any deals! Mother took me to Canterlot once and they were all really nice! Everything will be okay, trust me! Thanks again for everything!
She signed it with the same insignia as Mr. Cross. I remained still for a moment, and then tore the letter in half, throwing the pieces into the air and shouting out every curse word that I knew. I shouted for some time, thrashing my head and hooves against the table in despair of what to do next. And then I heard a heavy knocking at the door that was louder than my own noise-making, and I knew that it wasn't Farleigh.
"Open up," said the voice. I peered out of the window nervously, seeing who it was. I froze on the spot.
It was Mr. Orange's thug.
I don't recall if he kicked the door down, or if I opened it myself, but I do know that he was in the room with me mere moments later, and that everything had become a haze of white noise.