Carrot Top watched the scenery zip by. The trip to Trottingham wasn’t terribly long, but it was still lengthy enough to make her feel a little antsy. She wanted to be there already, so she could start cooking and get this whole competition over with.
“Hey.” Trixie tapped her on the shoulder. “What’cha thinking about?”
“That when this is over, I’m going to need a nap.”
Trixie chuckled. “Well, if you win the money, take a vacation or something.”
“Don’t worry, I plan to.”
Berry Punch walked into the compartment. “Ready?”
“I think so,” said Carrot Top. “Thanks for coming with me.”
“No problem.” Berry Punch grinned. “Now, remember, there’s the preliminaries and then the finals, so you can only use half your ingredients—“
“I know. We’ve been over this.” Carrot Top smiled. “I’m not Applejack over here; I’m not so sleep-deprived that I can’t remember my own name. I’ll be fine, girls.”
The competition would take place in the huge central park of Trottingham. A picturesque and bucolic area, the western half – a massive, expansive field – had been set up with over two hundred kitchenettes, one for each farming team. The competitors would have ninety minutes to use the provided equipment and their own ingredients to produce six dishes that highlighted their farm’s produce. Once this was done, judges would sweep down on the area, taste the provided food, and assign scores. A perfect score was ‘100’, and the top ten teams would advance to the final round. The others were eliminated.
The final round took place in the center of the park, right in front of the old castle (now a monument) that the park had been built around. The teams would again cook their dishes, and would present them to the Head Judges (as well as a few celebrities). At that point, the ten farms would be rated, and the prizes could be awarded.
“What place do you need?” asked Trixie.
“Third. The prize money from third place will just cover the irrigation system, plus the other incidental costs from this week. If I do better, I have some money in the bank. If not…” She trailed off. “Guess I’m couch surfing for a while.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Trixie. “Worst case, you can stay at my house.”
“I don’t know, I’ve heard stories from Pokey…”
“Don’t believe anything he says,” said Trixie, quickly. “Especialy anything about last Thursday.”
“Wait, when he showed up in town covered in—“
“It was mostly his fault, really,” said Trixie. “I mean, okay, maybe it was my spell, but he said I could cast it on him. So, uh, he’s responsible, and I’m in the clear legally. And, uh, in general.“
Berry Punch laughed, and a moment later, the other two joined in.
The door banged open. It was Applejack. “Y’all mind keepin’ it down? Some of us are tryin’ ta focus!”
Carrot Top looked at her. “This is my compartment. Don’t you have your own?”
“Yar voices are carryin’. Why are y’all so happy anyway? Ya gotta know by now ya can’t win.”
Apple Bloom poked her head through. “Hi Carrot Top. Hi Berry. Uh, hi Trixie.” She frowned. “But Carrot Top, thanks again fer—“
“Apple Bloom, go back ta the compartment. These varmints ain’t worth our time.”
Carrot Top interjected, “Hey, I think I can win. Or at least place well. I’ve got a good product—“
“Yeah, well, ah’ve got motivation.” Applejack stepped into the compartment. “What’re ya fightin’ fer. Showin’ ma up? This irrigation system? Hay, even yar farm? Ah’ve got higher priorities.”
“Right, right, we’ll all starve if you don’t personally obtain all the money in Equestria to buy farming equipment,” said Trixie. “We get it already.”
“Har har. D’ya know what it’s like ta die of starvation, Trixie? Ma parents explained it ta ma. It’s a horrible way ta die. Pain ya can’t ever get rid of, cause ya got nothin’ ta eat. Weakness and lethargy till ya can barely move. Other, weaker ponies dyin’ all ‘round ya, an’ wherever ya look fer help, there ain’t none ta be found. Until ya collapse at last an’ then ya’r gone.“ She snorted. “If ah went away, if the Trust died, ya’d find out fer real what that was like. Thank Luna that ah’m here, an’ even after what ya’ve done, ah’ll still sell apples, an’ –“
“Applejack!” snapped Berry Punch. “You’re frightening your sister!”
Indeed, Apple Bloom had paled. “Ah don’t wanna starve!”
Applejack, to her credit, looked horrified at Apple Bloom’s terror. “Don’t ya worry, sugar cube. Ah won’t let anythin’ like that happen.” She hugged her sister. “Ah work hard every day ta make sure it won’t. Ya’ve got nothin’ ta fret ‘bout, cause yar big sister won’t let anypony go hungry.”
“But ya said if we didn’t do well in the competition we might not be able to keep going and—“
“We’ll do fine. Ain’t our dishes the most delicious ya ever tasted?” Applejack looked up at Carrot Top with new anger, as if the carrot farmer were somehow responsible for Apple Bloom’s unease. “Just fine, no matter what they try ta do ta stop us. Now c’mon. Did ah tell ya yet that, when we do well, ah’m getting’ ya a clubhouse?” She led her sister – who still looked nervous -- away.
Carrot Top shuddered. “I feel really bad for Apple Bloom.”
“Don’t let that influence how you compete,” said Trixie, sharply. “You’re not losing your farm.”
“I won’t. I just wish there was some way to… I don’t know. Get through to Applejack. For her sister’s sake, if not her own.”
“Beat her,” said Berry Punch.
“She thinks that she’s the best farmer in the area, so she has to do all the farming to ensure we’re all fed. Beat her. Prove that she’s wrong. If there’s anything that will get through to her, that will.”
Carrot Top thought. “Well… here’s hoping I beat her, then.”
Carrot Top had never seen so many farmers.
Tables stretched out across Trottingham Park, and each table was manned by between one and three farmers. The early ones were already unpacking and getting their ingredients put into convenient locations, and Carrot Top saw all kinds of produce, from simple apples and carrots to the exotic fruits that Flim and Flam had showed her.
“Come on,” said Trixie. “Let’s go check in.”
“I wonder who else is competing this year?” wondered Berry Punch.
“The registration table should have that,” answered Carrot Top.
According to the registration list, the Apple Trust had sent in six teams – in addition to Ponyville, the Hoofington and Bitse farms were competing, as well as one from Prance and two from cities that Carrot Top had never heard of. Hay and Alfalfa Incorporated (HAI), the hay and alfalfa magnates, had two teams. The Tuber Union (turnips, potatoes, and anything else tuber-like) had four, and the Orange Empire had three. “Every major agricultural concern is here,” said Carrot Top. “Forget Applejack, any of these other groups could buy my farm ten times over.”
“And they will all make exactly the same dishes,” said Berry Punch. “And you won’t. You have that advantage. The judges might all like… I don’t know, hay fries, say, but they’re not going to like eating thirty plates of them. You’ve got novelty on your side.”
Carrot Top checked in and, with Berry Punch helping her carry the crates, moved to her table. She was about halfway into the field. She could see the old castle in the center of the park, and the forested area behind it. “Guess I stay here now. When’s this thing start?”
“The judges need to inspect your station first,” said Berry Punch. “Make sure your ingredients are okay, and that you didn’t try to smuggle in full dishes.”
“And then can we start?”
“Well, they have to read the rules, announce the judges, play the opening song…”
Carrot Top sighed. “Wonderful.”
“It shouldn’t take more than an hour.” Berry Punch smiled. “You’ll be fine. Just remember what you’ve learned this past week, and be confident. You have all the resources you could need to excel.”
“Where are you two going to be?”
“Around,” said Berry Punch. “We can’t be on the field during the competition, but we can cheer you on from the castle ramparts or something.”
“Great.” Carrot Top smiled. “That means a lot.”
Trixie chuckled. “So! Where are the Apple idiots?”
The Apples were a few tables down. Applejack and Apple Bloom were busily unpacking the crates, with Big Macintosh handling the heavier ingredients. Granny Smith wasn’t there; there was a three-pony limit per table.
Carrot Top and her companions turned to see a tall orange pony approaching them.
“My name is Resplendent Orange. I understand you’re from Ponyville?”
“Yes,” said Carrot Top, smiling. “My name is Carrot Top; I run Golden Harvest Farms.”
“Very nice to meet you.” Orange tapped Carrot Top’s hoof. “And I am on the board of the Apple Trust. I don’t usually come out this way, but when I heard that Ponyville was fielding two teams, I simply had to see the other one.”
Trixie frowned. “Trying to intimidate us?”
“Not at all! Just wanting to find out more about you. I’ve never seen Applejack work so hard before. You, Carrot Top, must be a very tough competitor.” Orange smiled politely. “I look forward to tasting your dishes.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Splendid! It’s no fun otherwise. Well, best of luck.” Orange bowed and trotted over to the Apple tables.
“Wait,” said Carrot Top. “Why would he get to taste my dishes? He’s just a spectator, right?”
“I’m sure, as a big agricultural businesspony, they’ll let him sample a few,” said Berry Punch. “So, uh, I think the judges are coming to do the ingredient check. Trixie, we should find a place to watch.”
Trixie nodded. “Good luck. And if I see you showing mercy on the Apples, forget the competition, I’m coming right down here and turning you into a newt.”
“…you can’t do that.” But Carrot Top smiled. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for your concern.”
Berry Punch led Trixie away. “I think we can see from that hill there.”
“Okay, what’s going on? Carrot Top might be too stressed to notice, but I’m pretty sure you made up that whole bit about Orange being just a random spectator.”
Berry Punch paused. “He’s one of the celebrity judges.”
“An Apple’s judging this thing?!”
“Not really; he doesn’t assign an official score. It’s just supposed to be for the news; they’ve got Sapphire Shores and a couple Night Court ponies here for that same reason. But I didn’t want to worry her.” Berry Punch shook her head. “Now come on. Let’s get good seats”
“You can go watch if you want. I have something else I need to do.”
Berry Punch looked appalled. “You’re going to abandon her? Now?”
“Of course not. But… okay, Carrot Top told you about Flim and Flam, right?”
“This is their last chance to interfere in the match. From what I know of them, they’ll take it. I’m going to try to find them.” Trixie nodded. “Keep an eye on Carrot Top; make sure nothing happens at her table. I’m going to look through the crowd. Together, hopefully, we can keep any cheaters away from her.” She was racing away before Berry Punch could say anything else.
“This is not a good plan,” hissed Flim. “We could get arrested.”
“We could also become millionaires. Greengrass promised us the sky if we could deliver Carrot Top,” responded Flam.
The two were dressed as judges, and were walking freely amongst the competitors. They’d located the Apple and Golden Harvest tables, and were just waiting for a chance to interfere with the match.
Flim scowled. His head still hurt from Applejack’s buck to his face. “Sweet Apple Acres is still alive. I still don’t understand what we can do now.”
“The competition isn’t over yet. All we have to do is cheat well enough for Carrot Top to win, then threaten to say that she hired us to do it unless she signs on with the Duke!” Flam grinned evilly. “She saved their farm from the Farmslayer, but if we can wreck Applejack’s team now, she won’t have time to help them.”
“That doesn’t mean she’ll win. Even if Applejack is disqualified—“
“Who cares? Final placement doesn’t matter. We just need a solid, shameful act we can pin on her if she doesn’t do what we want.”
“And what might this ‘shameful act’ be?”
“This is a huge competition. All kinds of things could go wrong,” said Flam. “Rats in the ingredients, somepony turns off an oven or a refrigerator at just the wrong moment, a bribe to the judges—“
“We don’t have any money. We spent Greengrass’s funds on Farmslayer.”
“So we’ll get some, then. We’ve been doing this a long time, brother. Have some faith in our abilities.”
The two continued to talk as they moved through the park.
“BEGIN!” cried the master of ceremonies.
Carrot Top and hundreds of other farmers leapt into action, and then the world seemed to fade out. There was just Carrot Top and a lot of food that needed cooking.
Grate. Cut. Sauté. Bake. Carrot Top’s hooves were a blur of motion as she prepared her dishes. And all around her, ponies were cooking just as frantically. She saw a few bursts of fire here and there from ponies who weren’t as comfortable with the ovens or who had a flambé go horribly wrong, but she ignored this. She had to focus on her cooking. It was like what Berry Punch had taught her; she couldn’t get distracted but just had to keep working. It was the only way she’d have a chance.
One dish went in the oven. On to the next. Chop up the lettuce and cabbage, squirt some lemon juice, mix with the finely shaved carrots. Put that aside, start the third. There were only ninety minutes, so the full six dishes had to be timed perfectly.
At the twenty minute mark, disaster! Carrot Top bit down wrong on a pan of carrots coming out of the oven. The mouth-holder slipped, the hot metal touched Carrot Top’s lip, and she cried out. The dish fell towards the ground.
Moving as quickly as she could, she stuck a hoof beneath it, and – heedless of the pain – hastened to get the mouth-holder back in place and then pick it up and set it on the table. She did so, and managed to save the pan. But when she looked up, now with a burned mouth and sore hoof, she saw a judge staring at her. “It didn’t touch the ground,” she said, as quickly as she could. “The food never touched the ground.”
“I saw,” said the judge, turning away.
Two tables down, Carrot Top saw a team get disqualified for making a similar mistake – dropping the potatoes – except they tried to quickly throw the potatoes into the pot anyway. They were shut down almost instantly. The judges were everywhere and let nothing slip by them.
“Can’t focus on that, gotta get back to the cooking! Thirty seconds behind, come on,” hissed Carrot Top. “Grapes next…”
At the halfway point, Carrot Top had completed two of the main courses. She plated them and put the plates onto the special section of her table with the unicorn enchantments. Food placed there would be essentially frozen in stasis until the judges came by. It wouldn’t cook further, lose heat, or spoil. But there was no time to marvel, or to congratulate herself for finishing two dishes. She just had to keep going.
With twenty minutes remaining, she heard a ‘whump’ sound. Turning, she saw that a pony cooking several rutabagas had collapsed. One of her partners immediately helped her up and led her to a rest area, while the other made sure the food didn’t burn. Carrot Top reflected idly that it’d have been nice to have a partner, but of course she was her farm’s only permanent worker, so that meant she was the only one from her farm allowed to compete.
Well, I can’t change that now. Keep pushing!
The dessert was finished, and the appetizer, and then the side dish. A few moments of idleness passed, as Carrot Top waited for her casserole to finish. She glanced up and saw the Apples busily cooking – even Applejack, who seemed to have fought off her exhaustion and was slicing up apples like a machine. She saw Carrot Top staring and pointedly looked away. Carrot Top rolled her eyes and returned her focus to her dish.
Five minutes left, then four. The oven dinged. Carrot Top yanked the casserole dish out of the oven and began to paint it with a savory glaze. Back into the oven, wait ninety seconds…
“One minute remaining!”
Carrot Top yanked the dish out, hurriedly cut a big portion, and plated it. She slammed it into the stasis section of her table.
Carrot Top, panting, collapsed onto her haunches. She was done. She’d finished.
The rest was up to the judges.
“You did great! I could see it from all the way on that hill!” Berry Punch was hugging Carrot Top. “Top ten for sure. I don’t think half these teams even got through all six dishes, and half the remainder probably burned at least one.”
“Thanks,” said Carrot Top. “But you’re choking me…”
Trixie slapped Carrot Top on the back. “Nice going.”
The judges were beginning to move through the crowds, tasting each table as they passed by. It would take about half an hour for them to make it to Carrot Top’s position, and then another half hour to finish up.
“So now we wait,” said Carrot Top. “Wonderful.”
Berry Punch opened up her sack. “Well, I brought a few snacks. If you’re not full from tasting –“
“Honestly, at this point I’ll eat anything, as long as it doesn’t have carrots.” Carrot Top smiled, and the other two laughed.
“Wonder how the Apples did?” said Trixie.
Carrot Top shrugged. “No disasters that I saw. But with all their money and resources, I’m not sure what could total that team. They could lose a whole dish and probably have enough spare food to make it fresh.”
“Move! Hay, why don’t they move!” hissed Flam.
Flim sighed. They hadn’t been able to get anywhere near the Apple ingredients. The two big ones, Big Macintosh and Applejack, were always standing right by them. The same with their oven and other equipment. Besides, Applejack knew what they looked like now, so they couldn’t risk even being seen by her.
“We’ll go with the ‘bribe the judges’ plan then,” said Flam.
“How’re we going to steal money?” said Flim. “There’s thousands of ponies here. We’ll be seen.”
Flam scowled. “You know what? Why don’t you come up with a bright idea, then?”
They both looked down to see Apple Bloom.
“Are you the judges? Are ya judgin’ us now?” Apple Bloom bounced. “Cause ah’m really lookin’ forward ta y’all lovin’ our food!”
“Well, we’re the… uh…” Flam brightened. “We’re the candy ponies!”
“Candy ponies?” asked Flim, clueless.
Apple Bloom grinned. “Candy? Yay!”
“Yes, this year the farming committee decided to show our support for getting young foals involved in farming by having a big candy giveaway – and you’re the winner!” Flam grinned. “Why don’t we take you to get your reward?”
“Where is it?”
“In that big castle right over there!”
Flim pulled Flam aside. “What are you doing? We don’t have candy!”
“Go steal some, quick, and hide it in a room in that castle. I’ll take her over there slowly.”
“Why, exactly, are we giving her candy?”
“All team members must be present for judging, or it’s disqualification. That foal’s on their team! We just have to hide her for… thirty minutes or so… and Applejack’s out for the count!”
“Isn’t this abduction?”
“Only if she doesn’t want to go, and right now, she looks pretty eager. C’mon!”
Flim looked uneasy, but ran off.
Apple Bloom hesitated. “Wait, ah gotta check with ma sis ta see if ah can go.”
“We already have, Apple Bloom!” said a smiling Flam. “She was quite happy for you!”
“How else would we know your name, if we hadn’t told Applejack that her kid sister had won the candy prize, and she hadn’t said, ‘Ma darlin’ Apple Bloom! This’ll be the happiest day of the year fer her!’ Course, we could ask again if you really want…”
“Well… ah want. No offense, but AJ taught ma not ta go off with strangers.”
Flam, fed up, smiled broadly. “Hang on. You’ve also won another fabulous prize. This… uh, this pinecone!”
As he picked up the pinecone, he focused. His horn still hurt from being bucked, but he had enough magical energy to cast a simple Want-It-Need-It spell. It hit the pinecone, which shuddered slightly. And Apple Bloom’s confused expression vanished. “Really? Awesome! Ah really want that pine cone!”
“Ah ah!” Flam tucked it into his shirt pocket – it wouldn’t do to incite a riot – and then said, “To get it, you have to come to the candy room.”
“Alright, ah’ll come, just gimme the pine cone!”
Flam grinned. “Certainly. Just follow me!”
Flam and Apple Bloom took off into the crowd.