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Heartstrings and Gumdrops: Chapter One


Lyra slammed the copy of Equestria Daily on the desk, nearly unsettling her agent’s cup of coffee from its precarious position where it was standing in her warpath. She leafed through the pages as her agent watched with an abject mixture of fear and nonchalance. Finally, Lyra found the entry, and spun the newspaper towards the agent, who regarded it from underneath a pair of racing shades.

“Look, Heartstrings. I know you’re getting all beat up ‘bout this review, but let’s keep things in perspective, a’right?”

Lyra leaned forward, staring into the face of her employer. She had been finding it so extraordinarily difficult to resist the urge to force a hoof through his face in the week just past. Now his carefree attitude with her career was exactly the sort of treatment she wanted to avoid.

“Perspective?! That’s the third one this week! You can’t say they’re a ‘one-off,’ or ‘some cranky mare who got an uncomfy seat.’ These ponies are what get ponies coming to my concerts, you can’t tell me they don’t make a difference.”

Her agent carefully notched his shades up onto his forehead, unveiling his ice blue eyes as he perched the shades amongst the curls of steel-grey hair in his mane. A stylised look that probably required a metric tonne of hairspray each morning, Lyra thought.

“Heartstrings, come on, we’re still getting the folks in. Besides, they’re not negative, just...y’know, not singing and dancing about ya.”

Lyra snatched up the newspaper, dictating a segment from the review. She hadn’t needed to, really; Acquired Taste’s words had been ringing through her ears since she had first read them. The power of advertising, she supposed, or she was more like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

“‘Miss Heartstrings’ performance was undertaken with the pinnacle of precise playing. However, while this may seem to be a positive, I must relay my concerns. Discerning critics like myself flock to concerts like these to see the artist, to feel the interaction with the audience. Miss Heartstrings offers none of this.’”

Lyra flipped the page, pinching her eyelids tight to stop them smarting so much. It wasn’t easy reading the condemnation that followed, even though she knew the words before she read them.

“‘Her performance, while technically brilliant, offers no passion. I would love the day that other artists show me this level of clarity and reproduction of sound, but I would rue the same day were it to remove the soul of the artist. As a result, I feel Miss Heartstrings’ performance is little better than a fairly good gramophone. Excellent sound reproduction, but nothing else.’”

The paper was lightly tossed onto the floor, landing amongst the pile of paperwork Lyra’s agent had neglected to file. He considered himself more of a casual agent, a fact Lyra found mostly irritating. The same agent lowered his shades with the flick of a hoof, evidently unwilling to have his eyes betray his thoughts.

“Look, Heartstrings.”

“Please, Silver, call me Lyra. I’ve been asking you to for the last two years.”

Lyra flicked an errant tear from the corner of her eye, casting it away to where she hoped the world wouldn’t see it. Quick Silver kept his pristine poker face, only nodding slightly to acknowledge her.

“Look, Heartstrings, I have to use surnames to keep it professional. It doesn’t matter, a name’s a name. Anyway, we can work past this. She says you're good at playing, right? Now you just gotta find something to be passionate about!”

Lyra crossed her forelegs, raising an eyebrow to question Quick Silver’s proposed source of inspiration.

“Right, yeah. I know you’re probably sceptical, but hold on a minute. The city ain't a place to get inspired, not even great Canterlot. You need somewhere quiet, with rollin’ fields; tiny, little streams, and big forests. You need...the countryside.”

Lyra’s right eyebrow shot skyward. She could barely muster an atom of enthusiasm into her voice, replying in an icy, deadpan drawl. She could feel a headache beginning to surface, Quick Silver’s ideas were often far from restful.

“Right. So you’re kicking me to some hick town...for help with classical music?”

Quick Silver shook his head, a feat that surprisingly didn’t move his mane at all. Lyra upped her estimations to about two metric tonnes of hairspray a day. It was more like a slab of concrete than a manedo.

“No, you’re good at playing, and you know it. Tell me, what do tonnes of old poets go on and on about?”

Lyra shrugged.

“C’mon, you’re all artists! Nature, birds in the trees, that kinda stuff! You go out into the country, get yourself a nice spot to chill and get some R ‘n’ R, then get to thinking up some songs about nature. Then boom! You got yourself some passion!”

Lyra stroked her temple with a hoof, working the blood vessels away from her brain in a vain attempt to abate her incoming headache. Well, in her eyes, a paid vacation was a paid vacation, so it made sense to take whatever scheme Quick Silver was investing her in. She picked up her lyre case, ensuring it was firmly buckled in place, and sat it next to her on the chair.

“So, where do you want me to go?”

Quick Silver drew out a stellar grin and a large map, rolling the latter over the desk in front of him. His hoof scanned the vast countryside surrounding Canterlot, hovering over the various states of Kenbucky, Whinnysota and Coltorado, finally alighting on a picture of a small town, before tapping it excitedly with a hoof.

“Yeah, that’s the filly. Quiet, but got some ponies to chat to and learn from. Tonnes of country. Apple farms, forests, hay, even a bog. Perfect for nature stuff!”

Lyra hitched her lyre case up her body, allowing it to rest on the side of her flank like a saddlebag. She leaned onto the desk, alternating her view between the map and her agent.

“And you’re serious about this?”

“Super serious.”

Lyra sighed, waving a submissive affirmative with her hoof. ‘What the hay,” she thought, “At least it’s got clean air and cider.”

“Okay, I’ll see you in a week.”

        *                *                *                *                *                *                

Lyra closed the door behind her with something of a dejected slam, half-heartedly attempting to send the door to a crashing oblivion, but not really feeling up to the task of putting in the required effort. She decided to make up the excess by slamming the keys on the table in the hallway, pricking her ears as she heard a voice from beyond the door at the end of the hall.

“Is that you, Lyra?”

Lyra sighed, slowly treading her way up the carpet to the door. She nudged it open a crack, spotting her mother sitting at the table, nursing a cigarette that was well on its way to the afterlife.

“No, mum, it’s a burglar.  Have we got any mail?”

“Yes, over there on the counter. Just one for you. How did your chat with your agent go, by the way?”

Lyra picked up the pile of letters, several addressed to Miss Hyacinth Bouquet, and one for herself. She opened it to find a leaflet for free horn extensions. Hyacinth noticed a sudden brightening in the room as Lyra channelled her current frustration into her actually quite reasonably sized horn, igniting the paper in a mid-air firework display.

“I presume by your sulking composure that you had a bad time of it today?”

Lyra slumped down on a chair, shoulders slouching to the point where they practically touched her flanks. It felt like too much effort to hold a correct posture at that moment.

“Yeah, I’m just...going through a rough patch. It’ll pass.”

Hyacinth nodded slightly, ruffling a copy of the Posh Pony Press with a slight sniff. Lyra thanked her stars that she considered the more common Equestria Daily beneath her. The last thing Lyra wanted was her mother finding out about the reviews she had received.

“Well, Lyra dear, you really must learn to control your temper. It’s not very ladylike, and I’ve said it time and again, you’ll not catch a stallion’s eye through furrowed brows and frowns.”

Lyra emitted a sigh, just before she proceeded to emit a loud thud as her head hit the table. She murmured from the table surface, electing to let her words make their own way across the table and to her mother.

“Honestly, mum? And I’ve said, ‘time and again,’ I’ll meet a stallion when I’m ready. I just...I want to focus on my career right now.”

Lyra didn’t receive any body language cues in reply, just a curt ruffling of the newspaper she had to stare at in lieu of her mother’s face. In honesty, with the back page showing a picture of cheering hoofball players - and another of a player being charged for racism towards a zebra teammate - the paper was far more approachable, anyway.

“Tick, tock, tick, tock, Lyra. Your body clock is counting down, and when it runs out, you’ll have lost the chance to have children, forever.”

Somehow, the ironic déjà vu hadn’t been lost on Lyra. So while her career was slowly losing its grip on the edge of salvation, at least she could rely on her mother to maintain the status quo by lecturing her on equestrian breeding techniques.

“Look. When I find the right stallion, okay? I just...need some space. I’ll be in my room, alright?”

Lyra exited the room, looking back to see her mother sighing into the gossip pages of the newspaper. She often wondered whether she saw a daughter, or a method of continuing her family lineage. Lyra halted her mind in its tracks. After the event that had left only her mother and herself unscathed, she supposed an heiress was exactly what she was. Lyra couldn’t feel angry at her mother for that, not while she had other ponies to be angry at.

She entered her room, her inner sanctum. There was an unuttered understanding between herself and her mother, which was that nopony other than Lyra entered her room.

In honesty, it wasn’t as if it was holding some form of secret mares in black meeting, as her mother often drily joked. More, it was a place where Lyra could sit with her thoughts, and let them snap at each other for a while. The walls were plastered with posters of various idols, a remnant of her fillyhood obsession with everypony and anypony of musical talent. Her favourite, though, was a wall-height poster of a pony holding an electric guitar seemingly composed entirely of magic. Her coat and mane were luminescent in the near pitch black setting of the photograph, glowing an alluring electric blue that illuminated those in the front row eagerly reaching out to her.

There was a very special reason that Lyra loved that poster so intensely, and it was the tiny, turquoise filly standing on her friend’s back to get a clearer view. She wasn’t at the front, and was barely highlighted by the cyan glow at all. Only Lyra could discern the filly at all, even with her eyes closed she could render the image in full clarity. There’s a lot to be said for memories of musical performances, especially those that spur a pony to take up an instrument themselves.

Lyra had always had talent, as far back as she dared let her memories gallop, she had always excelled with her lyre for her age.  It had been at her side for so long that it was very possible it was older than her. Yet it was only after visiting that very same concert that she had found her drive to show Equestria her musical talent. It gave her a warm feeling that not even her mother’s irate bellowing at discovering her sneaking off to Haltergate at midnight for such an event could cool down. Finding the poster on sale at a local store a few months later had been an inspiring turn of luck as well.

She laid her lyre on the bedside table, wriggling her way under her conveniently rumpled bedcovers. Making a bed was an inefficient waste of time for something nopony would see, at least, in Lyra’s occasionally procrastination-heavy book, it was. The aforementioned book, in honesty, didn’t have many pages in it, though the author promises he will get round to adding more tomorrow.

Lyra flicked the lights off, bathing the room in the opalescent light from the cloud-embattled moon. The vision of the celestial body always brought a strange smile to Lyra’s face. The idea that one mare controlled the very day and night was as empowering a thought as she could have that night. At least there was hope for Lyra, that she could take her own, small life in her hooves, and guide it as she wished.

Another thought stepped into the limelight, noting how she had forgotten to alert her mother of her pre-planned impromptu trip for work. Lyra’s little smile became a wide, unbroken grin as she snuggled further into her covers. It would be far easier to simply trot out the door for a week with no questions asked, anyway.

        *                *                *                *                *                *                

Breakfast was a rapid fire affair. Lyra emptied the bowl of Cheerileeos down her throat in a manner that would have made the most gluttonous of ponies feel somewhat queasy. She devoured the bowl’s contents in a matter of seconds, throwing it into the sink before she assaulted it with a sponge and towel. She perched the bowl on the dish rack at the side, breaking into a light canter as she picked up her lyre case in a mint green aura of magic. Her hoof was on the door handle as she heard the light, airy call from the kitchen she had attempted to abandon.

“Where are you galloping off to, young lady?”

Lyra cursed under her breath, lightly stroking the door handle as she decided to opt for distance rather than direct confrontation. She called down the hallway, hoping her mother would maybe, just maybe, not bother to ask any more of her.

“Just...going on a vacation from work. Only a week, mum!”

“And when were you thinking of telling me about this?!”

Lyra took the opportunity presented by the ruptured silence of her mother’s rage, opening the door to Canterlot and freedom, while she couldn’t hear it.

“I...well, I wasn’t.”

A mad dash through the door, slamming it behind her. Lyra finally allowed herself to pant for breath as she placed three blocks and a river between herself and her mother. Her gallop broke into a tired but sprightly canter, the train station visible at the end of the street.

She dodged past and around ponies of all sorts and sizes, most of whom huffed at her like she was some breed of orphan or street waif. Canterlot was too pompous for its own good, Lyra felt. Full of ponies who declared themselves as being better for the most arbitrary of reasons. How a mare who could make nice dresses was considered the pinnacle of modern society was beyond Lyra, but she rarely bothered to question it. Music was her domain, and nopony on that street or in Cantlerlot could contest her primacy in that field.

Her train was already waiting at the platform, an act of rare timing on the rail company’s part. Lyra had anticipated at least some delay on their part, much like anything organised by an industry that appeared to put its timetables and train organisation in separate time-zones. The last train ride she had taken had required her to pack freeze-dried rations and foil blankets to keep her going during the wait.

The conductor took her ticket, mustering a smile that seemed more akin to a smile somepony who had never actually smiled would make. Lyra could only assume he had read about smiles in a newspaper once, and decided to give them a try before turning to the pages with ecological armageddons to brighten his day.

She took her seat on the train, vainly attempting to wriggle her way towards comfort on the wafer thin cushions, before abjectly surrendering all hope of doing so. At least the view outside would keep her busy for the majority of the trip, as the train rolled onto the railroad that curled around the mountain much like the ridges in a unicorn’s horn. It allowed her a panoramic view of Equestria, circling around Mount Everfree to show all the lands that surrounded Canterlot. Vast, sprawling landscapes were unveiled. Verdant fields, coat blistering deserts and bone chilling tundra dominated the horizon.

And yet, no matter how idyllic or insane the locale’s weather was, Lyra could see the signs of life within them. The little townships and frontiers, of ponies working to survive in the land life had gifted to them. Lyra considered that to be fairly inspirational. Quick Silver had urged her that nature and ponies were the key to song ideas, and as such, she opted to spend the remainder of the journey writing a song or two about the struggles of ponies all over Equestria.

        *                *                *                *                *                *        

The fourteenth napkin was tossed aside, the notes held on its papery surface were of no use to Lyra. Try as she might, nothing she wrote felt worthy, and she found herself second-guessing her own ability. Perhaps, she wasn’t even able to write songs after all. Maybe that was her problem throughout all this.

It was in her newfound and intense will to at least learn to write a good song, that the train rolled to a second, miraculously on-schedule stop that day. Sadly, many complaints were still received by Equestrian Rail, claiming that the company was being unreliable by not being as late as they usually seem to endeavour to.

Ponyville was...well, small. Exiting the train station showed Lyra that even her limited view could encompass the whole town and all its inhabitants. While it had been mid-morning when she had left Canterlot, it was now high noon in the small village. Lyra’s stomach furiously reminded her that it hadn’t received its daily quota of rapidly ingested junk food, and demanded she find the nearest repository of fast food soya burgers at once.

Sadly, one thing Lyra rapidly ascertained on her wandering through Ponyville, was that it had no local branches of BuckDonalds, nor was there even a Spurbucks. Mod-cons appeared to be too modern a concept for the village. Thankfully, Lyra finally happened upon a fairly large building placed in the very centre of Ponyville, both geographically, and socially as well. It seemed to have been hewn from a particularly large sponge cake caught in the middle of the worst icing sugar blizzard in Equestrian history. In Lyra’s current hunger-struck condition, she eventually opted to peruse the establishment’s wares by entering through the door, rather than her original plan to eat her way through the wall.

She carefully opened the door, finding that her hoof landed somewhat unfortunately on a misplaced bar of soap. The resultant of the forces at work was that a certain mint-green unicorn ended up skidding her way across the room and into the counter. The opposite reaction to the force of Lyra smacking into the counter was the large crack of laughter that erupted from the earth pony at the counter. Her purple and blue mane bounced with her heaving fits of laughter as she slammed her hoof down on the counter in an exuberantly ecstatic manner. She leaned over the counter, smiling down at the unicorn that had fallen prey to her, ‘accident.’

“Oh Celestia, I’ve been waiting all day for somepony to do that!”