Chapter 11: In Which an Expedition is Made
Miles away from Port Ponzance, miles away from any city in Aloa, a vast forest spread across the land. Strange tropical trees sprouted from the ground in droves, keeping the land safe from any ponies who might try to build there. The forest stretched on for miles and miles, across hills and over the mighty river that cut through the peninsula. The world inside it was a deep blue-green, painted by the moonlight filtered through the leaves far above. Every tree seemed the same; a pony could get lost in the forest forever if they weren't careful.
Wet Mane had not been careful. He had run through the forest blindly, following the flying pony. Now, he was lost. He trudged slowly between the trees, and sighed.
“Great,” he said. “Just great.” He stopped, and sat beneath a large tree that looked exactly the same as all the others. He had lost the pony's trail hours ago, and now he was completely lost. He had no idea how deep into the forest he was, or which way to go to get out of it. The earth here was bare of any grass, and the pools of rainwater all around were stagnant. If he couldn't find his way out soon, he would be every bit as dead as Brig.
He sighed again, and thought about his late partner. He wished that he had fought harder to convince him. He wished that he had been able to talk Brig out of returning to Iron. Wet had known that the gray earth pony was insane; they both knew it. Even so, they had gone back anyways, and for what? For their duty? If they were both going to die, what did duty matter?
Wet slid lower down the tree, lying on his back in the dirt and rubbing his eyes. He hadn't stopped to rest for hours; days even. His body ached, and demanded sleep and sustenance. He might not be able to feed himself, but sleep was something he could provide. He shifted again, getting as close to comfort as he could on the hard ground, and drifted to sleep.
In his slumber, Wet Mane dreamed. The dreams came in flashes and snippets, never a solid image. He dreamed of feelings; feelings of fear, feelings of despair, feelings of oppression. He saw the vague image of a great spectre: an enormous pony, stretched and distorted like a painting that had been left in the rain, with a ghastly grin. Wet tossed and turned, as if he were trying to run from the strange pony in his mind, but could not escape. No matter where his mind turned the spectre was always there. Throughout it all he felt another presence as well. It was subtle and faint, skirting along the edges of his consciousness, but it was always there. It kept the spectre away from him, but never came to him directly. Even as far away as it was though, he could always feel it, as deathly cold as ice.
Wet's eyes snapped open. The world was dark. The moon had slung low, and twilight was coming soon. The yellow unicorn's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light, and as the did he realized that there was a pony sitting across from him. Her coat was an amazingly deep blue, and almost seemed to sink into oblivion. It was like looking into the night sky. She blended into the night almost perfectly, and her bright azure eyes seemed to glow. She stared at him, silent and unblinking. As if to formally announce her presence, she shuffled her wings quietly. Wet stared at her, open-mouthed.
“You...” he said slowly.
“Me.” she answered, her voice piercing through the night. Wet just stared, but finally managed to recover himself. He jumped to his hooves, and his horn lit up. A band of magic appeared around the mare, pinning her wings to her sides.
“You're coming with me,” he said firmly. The mare spread her wings, dissipating the magic about her middle without a trace of effort. Pain shot through Wet's mind, but he shook it off. “Stay where you are!” he said.
“No,” the mare said. She beat her wings powerfully, and took to the skies. She flew in circles above Wet's head, higher and higher. She paused for a brief moment, hovering and staring down at him, before taking off flying. Wet chased after her, dodging and weaving between trees and hopping over fallen logs and roots. He managed to keep pace with her as she flew among the high branches, but only just. More than once she would stop and sit on a branch, as if she were waiting for him. He grit his teeth, and ran faster. The mare was taunting him, but he would catch her yet. Brig was dead because of her, and he wouldn't let that be in vain.
He pumped his legs harder and harder. He was starving, and exhausted, but he kept running. A singular goal kept him moving forward: catch the mare. She weaved through the branches ahead of him, egging him on. His horn lit up, tossing a rock at her from the ground. She dodged it deftly, spinning in the air around it. Wet scowled, and launched another spell. Bullets of hardened air flew at her, but she dodged around them just as easily. She didn't even seem to be trying. She turned around, beckoning him closer, then disappeared through the trees. Wet growled at the darkness, and dashed after her.
He weaved between a tight line of trees, and when he left them he saw open air. He gaped, slowing to a halt. The trees fell away into sparse clusters before him. Grass began to sprout up, and not far away he could see a small stream. He ran to it, forgetting his quarry instantly. He slurped up the water greedily, drinking his fill. He sat down, and looked around. The blue mare was nowhere to be seen. He had lost her again.
“Well...” he said sourly, “at least I'm not in the woods anymore.” He stood up and began to graze, filling his empty belly. Grass was hardly the tastiest meal he'd ever had, but hunger is the best seasoning.
Glad as he was that he was no longer lost, he wasn't sure what to do. If he tried to return to Port Ponzance, he'd be killed. He had no trail on his quarry, and no idea where she had gone. Perhaps she had returned to wherever she came from, or perhaps she was content to simply toy with him for a few more days. He lay down on the grass, grumbling to himself.
“You know what to do,” a voice said. Wet whipped his head around, but there was nopony there. For a moment, he thought that he had imagined it.
“I know what to do, huh...” he said. The option was clear, of course. He could always run away. Head for the hills somewhere, and never look back. They couldn't kill him if they couldn't find him. Maybe he'd spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for somepony after him, or maybe not. At least he'd be alive for a little bit longer.
He rolled onto his back, and looked up at the dark sky. Brig had died in defense of his duty. Shouldn't Wet be willing to do the same? He grunted, covering his eyes.
“Duty,” he snorted. “Duty to a madpony. Gods, what did I get myself into?” He heard a rustling noise, and uncovered his eyes. He sat up, and he saw the winged pony sitting staring at him, as she had done in the forest. He jumped to his hooves, binding her once more with his magic. She didn't react.
“I've got you now!” he said.
“You do, unicorn,” she replied calmly. “But why?”
“I'm going to take you back to my commander,” Wet told her. “He'll probably kill you. It's not personal... It's just my duty.”
“Duty to a madpony?” she asked. There was a wry edge to her voice. Wet gritted his teeth, and did his best to ignore it.
“It's you or us,” he said. “If you don't die, we'll all be killed.”
“They'll be killed,” the mare said. “Who says you have to die, unicorn?” Wet narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Any other pony would have been trying to talk their way out of this, but she didn't seem to care one way or another from her tone. Like she was content to live or die.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“You already know the answer,” she said. “Run.”
“Run?” Wet scoffed. “And abandon my duty?”
“Your duty to a madpony,” she said again. “You wanted to run once. Why didn't you?”
“Because... I had a-”
“Duty,” the mare interrupted. “What do you owe them?” Wet blinked.
“I... I... Iron will kill me if I don't bring you back!”
“You uphold duty to a pony who would kill you?” the mare asked. “Enough to kill a pony who saved your life?”
“Who... saved my life?” Wet asked.
“I did,” the mare answered. Wet released her, and stepped back. She was right. She had lead him out of the forest. If she hadn't, he would have starved to death. She had saved his life.
“He doesn't care about you, unicorn,” the mare said. “You owe him nothing. You aren't protecting him, you're protecting yourself. So run. An innocent pony should not have to die to protect another.” Wet sighed.
“I'm not going to kill you,” he said. “You can go.”
“Of course you won't unicorn,” the mare said, almost humorously.
“I have a name, you know,” Wet said. The mare raised an eyebrow.
“I don't recall you asking my name,” she said. Wet sighed again.
“What's your name, p-”
“I don't recall saying I would tell you it, either,” she interrupted him. She spread he wings, and took to the skies again. “I know you won't kill me,” she said. “I wasn't talking about me. I was talking about the prince.” She beat her wings, flying higher and higher until she faded into the blackness of the sky, leaving Wet staring upwards blankly.
The smith's anvil rang out as his hammer struck down, sounding like the peal of a bell with each strike. It shot through Blueblood's mind sharply, shaking him to life. His eyes popped open, and as they adjusted to the dim light he remembered where he was.
He lay in the middle of the guest room, wrapped in the thin sheet that the smith had provided for him the previous night. The game set sat a few inches away from his nose; the pieces were still placed haphazardly about the board. Blueblood and Brook had wound up playing it several times before they had finally gone to sleep, but Blueblood had never managed to even come close to winning. Every time after the first Brook had shut down both his offense and defense, cutting through and taking the throne as soon as he had enough of an advantage over Blueblood to win.
Blueblood wasn't actually sure when they had stopped playing. He didn't remember ever deciding to go to sleep, and he certainly didn't remember pulling the blanket around himself, but there it was. He looked at his master, who was still fast asleep on the bed, and smiled faintly.
Blueblood stepped outside the guest room, closing the door gently behind him. He trotted to the kitchen, where the sound of the hammer was much louder, and poked his head in. The smith's wife was there, and she looked over at him.
“Yes?” she asked pointedly. “Did you need something?”
“Master is still sleeping,” Blueblood said quietly, trying his best to ignore her sharp tone. “I thought that I might bring him breakfast. Do you have anything you could spare?”
“Oh, of course,” she said. She got up from the table and trotted over to the counter, where half a fresh loaf of bread sat. “Here,” she said. “I'm sure he'd appreciate this.”
“Thank you,” Blueblood said quietly, taking the loaf from her. When he brought it back into the guest room, his master had already begun to stir.
“He gets to work early,” the old pony murmured to himself. He peered over at Blueblood, who had just entered. “Good morning, Red.”
“Good morning master,” Blueblood said, bowing slightly. “I brought you breakfast.” Brook smiled faintly, and sat up.
“Thank you,” he said. Blueblood gave him the loaf, which Brook tore in half. “I don't suppose you got anything for yourself?” Brook asked, peering at the white pony. Blueblood smiled sheepishly, and lowered his head.
“Ah... no, master,” he said. Brook shook his head, and handed half the loaf to Blueblood, who took it gratefully.
“Thank you, master,” Blueblood said. Brook nodded, and bit into the bread. Blueblood followed suit, and smiled. The bread was still warm, and perfectly baked. The crust was crisp and crunchy, and the bread was soft and chewy. It tasted of herbs, tingling faintly on Blueblood's tongue. He hummed with pleasure, chewing happily. Brook's faint smile grew a bit larger, and he took another bite out of his bread.
The two ponies finished their breakfast soon enough, and Brook trotted out with Blueblood trailing close behind. They went to into the front room, where they found the golden-brown pony hunkered over his forge. The sound of his hammer striking over and over was deafening in here, and Blueblood had to cover his ears. Brook ignored it, tapping the gigantic pony's shoulder. The smith stopped, and turned around.
“Ah, good morning sir!” he said. “I hope I didn't wake you – I know it can get loud sometimes.”
“Oh, no,” Brook said, shaking his head. “I wasn't expecting you working this early, though.”
“I like to work early,” the smith said, smiling proudly. “I do my best work early, I think.” He shifted aside, showing Brook what he had been pounding in the forge.
He had been working on the plough, hammering the torn edge back into place. He had managed to get most of it aligned; a narrow crack ran down the side of the plough like a seam.
“Looks good,” Brook said. “Looks like you'll be finished soon. We'll be able to get out of your manes, then.” The smith sighed, and shook his head.
“I'm not so sure about that,” he said. “I've got it realigned, but just trying to melt the edges back together isn't going to work. It'll be far to weak. It'll break again the minute you try to plough anything with it. I need to melt down some more steel to bond it, but I'm all out of scrap.”
“So you don't have any more metal for it?” Brook asked. The smith nodded.
“That's right. I'll need to get more metal. That'll take a while.” Brook looked at him.
“Can't you just go to the market?” the old pony asked. The smith shook his head.
“No,” he said. “They don't sell good steel there. There's a small steel mill across the city that has good steel, I'll need to go there, but it’ll take all day to get there.” Brook thought about this for a moment.
“I imagine you have other things to do?” he asked. The smith shrugged.
“Well...” he said, “you're my only actual order, but that might not last. And I've got another side project I've been working on to sell. Not as important as your plough though, sir.” Brook nodded.
“Don't worry about getting that steel,” he said. Both the smith and Blueblood looked at the old pony. “Red and I needed to gather supplies while we were in town. I can gather food on my own. Red can go and fetch your steel for you.” The smith blinked.
“That's very generous of you to offer, sir,” the smith said. “But if you need your slave I couldn't take him from you -”
“I just said I don't need him, didn't I?” Brook said. “I managed before I bought him. I'll be fine.” He turned to Blueblood, and nodded to him. “Red,” he said. “Will you be able to fetch steel from the mill?” Blueblood nodded.
“Of course, master,” he said. He was a bit surprised that Brook wanted him to go out and get it, but he didn't argue. He knew that he could do it, at least, and he trusted that his master would be fine on his own, so he was more than willing.
“Good,” Brook said. He turned to the smith again, and asked, “Do you have any saddlebags for him?”
“I... think so,” the smith said. “Let me just go find them...”
The smith had returned before too long with the saddlebags. Blueblood had put them on easily enough, and he and Brook headed outside. The old pony had paused for a minute, going inside to retrieve something, leaving Blueblood alone in the square.
He sat on the edge of the fountain, staring over the top of one of the buildings. The sun had only risen an hour or so ago, and its light was still creeping its way into the boxed-off collection of homes and shops. It had rained last night, but most of the water was already gone, either draining off into the ocean or turning into a thin mist that hovered just above the ground. The air was warm, and relatively dry for a coastal city. Blueblood breathed deeply, taking in the morning air.
He had never stopped to do this back in Canterlot. He had paused momentarily to appreciate the beauty of a morning, to be certain, but he had never soaked it in like this. He had always rushed along to something that he had managed to convince himself was more important. He could barely remember what any of those things had been, now. He couldn't imagine what he must have thought was so important. Hard as he tried, he could never picture just what he had done in those days. He imagined that he simply spent most of his time sitting around, or waiting for something to entertain him. He sighed to himself, and shook his head.
He heard shuffling hoofsteps behind himself, and turned around. Brook had returned from inside the smith's house. He carried no saddlebags of his own; he had told Blueblood that he would take the wagon into the market, and had been silent when Blueblood had asked how he would do that. Instead, the old pony carried a thick, folded cloth.
“Master,” Blueblood said, nodding to him. Brook nodded as well.
“I have this for you, Red,” he said. Blueblood tilted his head, looking at it.
“What is it?” he asked. Brook unfolded it, stretching it wide for Blueblood to see. The cloth was long and thin, like a scarf. It was a beautiful crimson red, as deep and vivid as a rose, and seemed to shine and shimmer magenta where it caught the light.
“It's a wrapping,” Brook said. “I bought it for you yesterday... so you would be able to go through the city. This way, nopony will know you're my slave, and they'll leave you alone.”
“Master...” Blueblood said quietly. He stared at the cloth, running his hooves over it gently.
“I thought the colour was... appropriate,” Brook said quietly.
“Thank you, master,” he said. He smiled widely at his master, who smiled back.
“Here,” Brook said. “Let me tie it for you.” He wound the cloth around Blueblood's neck deftly, years of practice guiding his old hooves. It felt strange; tight around Blueblood's neck and draping over his shoulders, but it was warm. When he was done, Brook took off his medallion, and used it to bind Blueblood's wrapping.
“You can show this to the mill workers when you buy the steel,” Brook told him. “They'll recognize the name, and know I'll be able to pay him back.”
“O-of course,” Blueblood said, looking at the medallion. It was solid gold, and gleamed in the morning light. It bore the insignia of Aloa: Two small island and one large island arranged triangularly in the mouth of a river delta. It was one of the few things that Blueblood remembered learning about Aloa. The country was deeply proud of its origins as a fishing colony, one which had eventually spread out over the entire Aloan peninsula, as well as a small portion of the mainland.
“But, master,” Blueblood said. “How will you be able to buy supplies without it? Won't they need to see it as well?” Brook smiled.
“I have other ways of identifying myself,” he said. “But I came to Port Ponzance prepared. Silver is all the identification most will need.” He gave a small smile, and put his bad hoof on Blueblood's shoulder. “Do you know where you're going?” he asked. Blueblood nodded slowly.
“I think so,” he said. “The smith told me the name of the steel mill. He said it's west... I can ask for directions if I need them.” Brook nodded.
“That's good. Be well, Red.”
“Thank you master,” Blueblood said. “You too.” He and Brook exchanged a final nod, before the old pony turned away and went to retrieve his wagon from behind the smith's home.
Blueblood headed west, just as the smith had instructed. The westernmost exit of the square was a narrow alleyway, nearly identical to any of the other alleys leading outward. As he travelled along the cobblestones seemed less well-worn, and older. The gap between the buildings began to narrow, the darkness deepening. Blueblood looked up at the thin stretch of sky, high above him. It cut in like a line of sapphire, bright against the darkness. The buildings stretched at least three stories up here.
Soon the cobblestones faded away, and the street began to wind. Blueblood found himself making turn after turn in the narrow back alleys as he came upon sharp bends and three-way corners. The cityscape seemed to shift and mutate as he walked, like some perverse discordian labyrinth. He trotted through wide and clean streets, and through narrow and dirty streets. Most were vacant; once or twice he spied a pony in the distance, but they had disappeared before he could call out to them.
He had no idea if he was even going west anymore, or if he had been turned around and was now heading east. He had no idea where he was in relation to the square where the smith lived, or to anything at all. The only thing he knew was that he was far enough away from the port that the streets didn't even slope enough to give him a hint at his direction.
He trudged through the endless maze of alleyways, feeling for all the world like a mouse in some absurd experiment. He hoped that he would at least stumble across a major street, or find somepony who would help him soon. He found himself at another wall, and groaned angrily. He turned right without even stopping to consider the choice, and found himself heading into another tight street. It twisted and turned sharply, but it kept its cobbled ground. He came across no other streets while he walked. This path was completely closed in. At the very least the houses here were lower, and he didn't feel so much like he was trudging through a pit. He turned another sharp corner, and saw a pinprick of light ahead of him. His heart leaped, and he dashed towards it. Perhaps it was a main street, he thought to himself. Finally something away from the claustrophobic network of back alleys, where he could find his bearings properly. A place where he could find another pony who could give him directions. He galloped down the tight street, and into the blinding light. For an instant he couldn't see, his eyes having long since adjusted to the gloom, but as he blinked away the blurriness the scene was revealed to him.
Instead of a street like he had hoped, Blueblood found himself in another simple square. The ground was dusty, and the air was still and dry. Like the smith's square, this one was completely boxed in by homes. Unlike his, there were no shops to be seen. The doors to the stone houses were tucked away in the shadows of their balconies, as if hiding from Blueblood. The windows on the second stories were either dark or had their shutters drawn. The square seemed to be abandoned.
Blueblood sighed, and trudged slowly to the fountain in the centre of the square. He sat on the edge of it, resting his head in his hooves.
He would keep walking soon enough, of course. But for now his hooves were tired, his legs were tired, and he was tired. He was tired of the winding corridors, and the hundred same-coloured buildings surrounding him on all sides. He sighed despondently, rubbing his eyes. He sat there was a few moments, before straightening up again.
No point in just sitting around here, he told himself. I need to keep moving if I ever want to find that mill. Just as he was preparing to get to his hooves, he felt something bounce off the back of his head.
“Ow,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. The object that struck him had bounced over his head, and now landed at his feet. It was a leather ball, about the size of his head, and it made a soft ping noise as it bounced along the ground. Blueblood reached down, and picked it up.
“Hey mister,” he heard a young voice yell from behind him, “sorry about that!” Blueblood turned around, looking to the source of the voice. A small group of colts had run into the square, probably playing some foal's game.
“Can we have our ball back, mister?” a big colt in front asked. He stood ahead of the group, probably their leader.
“Right,” Blueblood said. “Sorry.” He tossed the ball across the square and it sailed perfectly, lading in front of the colt. “Actually,” Blueblood called out to them, “could you help me out? I think I'm a bit lost.”
The colt looked at Blueblood strangely, and another foal tapped his shoulder and whispered something in his ear. He seemed to consider this, and gestured to the other colts. They all huddled closely together, Blueblood staring at them awkwardly from the fountain. Every so often a scrawny colt would poke his head out from the group, making Blueblood smile. He looked like a flamingo with his pink fur and his big, ungainly headed seated on top of his scrawny neck. Eventually the group broke their huddle, and their leader trotted toward Blueblood, the ball floating above his head.
“Okay mister! We'll help you if you play with us first!” Blueblood blinked at him.
“Play with you?” he asked carefully. The colt nodded, and grinned widely.
“That's right!” the little red pony said. “You have to play with us first.”
“Um...” Blueblood said, “well... alright. What are you playing?”
“Keep away!” the colt shouted gleefully. His friends darted around the square, and he tossed the ball over Blueblood's head. Blueblood watched it sail past him, and a colt plucked it out of the air with magic. Blueblood stood up, getting ready for the next pass. Instead of tossing it over his head like he expected, the colt whipped it to a friend at his side.
The colts tossed the ball in haphazard and unpredictable ways, making it impossible for Blueblood to follow where it went. He dashed to and fro across the square, trying to get closer to the prize, but for nothing. After a few minutes of this, another colt sent it sailing over the white stallion's head. Blueblood grinned, and leaped into the air.
“Aha!” he shouted, reaching out for it. For just a moment it looked like he had it; the ball was inches away from his grasp, and headed right for him. Suddenly, it began to glow, and jerked away from Blueblood's hooves. The colts all laughed as Blueblood came back to the ground, staring in confusion at the ball.
“Haw!” the leader of the colts laughed, levitating the ball. “What's the matter? Can't you use your magic to catch it?” Blueblood stared at him.
“I... don't have magic,” he said quietly. The scrawny pink pony laughed, and called out to his friend from across the square.
“See? I told'ya!” he said. “He's an earth pony, like my Pa told me about! No magic at all!” The other colts laughed, and started to toss the ball again.
The leather ball zigged and zagged across the square, making it even harder for Blueblood to catch it, if that were possible. It spun and wove in impossible paths, dancing out of Blueblood's grasp every time the colts let him get close to it. More than once the ball would spin around him, just to ping off the back of his head. Blueblood dashed after it, but the colts always managed to keep it out of his grip.
Blueblood was beginning to get frustrated. The ball was hitting him more and more, and it was very obvious that the colts were just making fun of him now. He felt like he wanted to shout at them, but he didn't. He finally just sat in the middle of the square, glaring sourly at nopony in particular. The colts laughed harder, tossing the ball at him, bouncing it off his head and shoulders. He sighed dejectedly, less frustrated now than just tired. The colts clearly found this hilarious. A poor earth pony, unable to keep up with their magic. Blueblood had one thing they didn't though: patience. The colts weren't even using their magic now, just kicking the ball at him. Blueblood waited until the leader took his turn, kicking the ball and that back of Blueblood's head. The white stallion whipped around, catching the ball inches away from his face.
“Gotcha!” he shouted, grinning at the gaping colt.
“...Wow,” the colt said slowly. “That was SO COOL!” Blueblood blinked at them, but the colts all ran forward, crowding around him.
“That was awesome!” one of the colts shouted. “Earth ponies really are super fast and strong and stuff!”
“Oh,” Blueblood said, still surprised, “no, I'm not that strong, or fast.”
“You mean earth ponies get STRONGER than you!?” another asked incredulously.
“O-of course,” Blueblood said. The colts were swarming around his legs now, bombarding him with questions.
“Are earth ponies really all armoured?”
“How much can you lift?”
“Can you really make a tree grow in seconds?”
“Can you make an earthquake by stomping really hard?”
“Hey!” Blueblood said, waving his hooves. “I'm sorry, but I need to go. My master needs me to get some steel... do you know how to get to the White Hot steel mill?” The colts all looked among each other, and their leader shook his head and shrugged.
“Sorry, mister,” he said. “Our parents don't like it when we go too far. We've never heard of it.”
“Oh...” Blueblood said. “Well... that's okay, I guess.”
“Sorry mister,” the gangly pink colt said again. The colts had begun to move away from Blueblood, taking their game into another alleyway.
“Goodbye!” the leader called back to him, waving his hoof excitedly. Blueblood smiled, and waved back.
“Goodbye,” he said. When they were gone he put his head in his hooves, and sighed again. It had been fun, playing with the colts, but it hadn't exactly gotten him any close to the steel mill. He sat on the ground, thinking to himself. If he tried hard enough he could at least find west again from the open square. It wasn't much, but it was something.
“That was pretty sweet of you,” a voice said from behind him. Blueblood yelped, and spun around. The voice had come from a mare, sitting in the fountain.
Her fur was a vivid, icy shade of blue, complimented by her deep emerald eyes. Her mane was blue as well, and seemed to be tipped and tinged with a golden colour, like a lapis lazuli. She sat half-submerged in the fountain, leaning on the rim and cradling her head on the backs of her hooves. Blueblood swallowed.
“Um,” he said quietly, “I'm sorry miss, I didn't know you were there. H-how long were you watching?”
“Just a few minutes,” she said, smiling sweetly at him. “You were pretty cute with those colts. Friends of yours?”
“Oh... no,” Blueblood said. “I didn't know them... I was just asking for directions.” The mare laughed, her voice like bells.
“Well, you're an awfully patient pony,” she said. “Most ponies I know would have cuffed them on the ear after sitting through barely half that.”
“They're just foals,” Blueblood said, taken aback by the prospect of hurting them. The mare laughed again, and leaned against the edge of the fountain.
“Well, you're sweet,” She said. “What's your name?” Blueblood smiled in spite of himself.
“Red, miss,” he said. “And... yours?” The blue mare smirked, and held out her hoof.
“Azure,” she said. Blueblood walked up to the fountain, shaking her hoof gently.
“It's nice to meet you, Azure,” he said. He titled his head, and asked, “But, if you don't mind me asking... why are you sitting in the fountain?” Azure laughed again, and water splashed out of the fountain, spraying Blueblood in the face. He spluttered, shaking the water out of his mane and face, and when he looked back he saw a finned tail sticking out of the fountain as well.
Blueblood gawked at Azure. Leaning in, he could see where the tail had come from. She had no back hooves; her body blended seamlessly into the flipper. Halfway down her body her fur seemed to harden, morphing into fine, sparkling scales. A fin protruded from her back, and on where her flank would be was the image of a scroll.
“What's the matter?” Azure said, laughing and waving her tail at Blueblood. “You've never seen a sea pony before?”
“N-no,” Blueblood said, shaking his head and breaking his gaze from Azure's sleek body. The sea pony mare leaned on the fountain again, reaching out and brushing Blueblood's forehead. He winced away but she ignored him, patting his head where his horn used to be.
“Well,” she said, “I've never seen a unicorn without a horn before. So I guess we're even.”
“O-oh,” Blueblood said, “I'm actually an earth pony...” He swallowed again, lowering his head. Azure's smile only widened.
“You're all earth ponies to me, Red,” she giggled. “What makes you so special?”
“That's, um, my species name,” Blueblood lied. The mare had a very magnetic personality, and he wasn't certain whether to run, or move closer. “We don't have any horns... or any magic.”
“Well, that hardly seems fair,” Azure said. Blueblood shrugged.
“It's not so bad. We're stronger. I guess.” Azure smiled, and rested her chin on the ledge of the fountain.
“I'll bet,” she said. “You look pretty tough. Say, didn't you say you were looking for something?”
“Hm?” Blueblood asked. “Oh, yes... I'm trying to find a steel mill on the west side of the city... I think I'm lost, though. I'm... not from here.”
“I'll bet I could take you there,” Azure said, straightening up. “I'm a messenger. I know the city like the back of my hoof!”
“Really?” Blueblood asked. “Thank you, miss. That would be wonderful!” He paused, and his eyes narrowed. “But...” he said, “how are you going to take me there? And... how did you even get into the fountain?” Azure giggled, and leaned forward. She wrapped her hooves around Blueblood's neck, pulling him close to her.
“Watch,” she said gleefully. She leaned back in the fountain, forcing Blueblood to lean over the edge.
“W-wait!” Blueblood said as he was pulled over. “I-I'm not a good swimmer!” Azure ignored him, sinking into the water. She pulled Blueblood down with her, submerging him in the fountain. He held his breath, blinking in the dark water. Azure giggled, her voice echoing strangely in the deep. She pursed her lips, and blew.
A bubble of air formed as she blew, expanding around Blueblood even as he stared at it in confusion. It encircled his entire body, expanding even further. Soon a very confused Blueblood was lying on his back, on the base a large and slippery sphere. He could breathe perfectly, and he wasn't even wet anymore. Azure swam to the top of the bubble, and laughed at him.
“You land ponies all look so funny underwater,” she said playfully. “You make the best faces.”
“...What?” Blueblood asked, still not sure what had just happened. Azure laughed harder, her peals of laughter resounded by the water.
“It's magic,” she said. “Don't worry, you're safe in the bubble. You'll never run out of air, and nothing can pop it until I let it go.”
Blueblood struggled to right himself, eventually finding his way back onto his hooves. Azure swam around the bubble in playful circles, apparently taking the opportunity to inspect Blueblood from every angle. Blueblood reached out, prodding the bubbled wall. It stretched where he poked it, squeaking like wet rubber. It felt thick, somehow.
“Wow,” Blueblood said, “this is amazing!” Azure smiled, swimming to his front and putting her hooves against the bubble.
“Well, thanks,” she said. “But if you think that's impressive, wait until you see this!” She swam to the top of the bubble and set her hooves against it, beginning to push it down. The sudden movement dropped Blueblood on his bottom, and he slid back down onto his back. Azure grinned at him from on top of the bubble, and swam faster.
The bottom of the fountain seemed to be a well. It stretched deep down, and the light faded more and more the deeper they went. For a moment Blueblood was nervous that they would sink completely into blackness, but he soon realized that there was light below him. He couldn't roll over to view it, but in a few moments he didn't need to; they had reached the end of the fountain. Instead of stopping, the bottom was open. Azure pushed the bubble through the hole, and Blueblood gaped slack-jawed at what he saw.
The light from below had come from several open pools at various places in the city, and from several giant crystals. The crystals seemed to protrude from the bottom of the city itself, glowing softly like blue moons. Some stuck out in sharp clusters, others stretched all the way to the sea bottom below.
Port Ponzance was supported by hundreds of gigantic stone pillars, stretching from its foundations to the sea bed like the legs of a great colossus. The pillars were perfectly square, and Blueblood could see door-shaped gaps peppering them. Sea ponies would swim in and out of these holes every so often, waving to each other happily. They were like buildings, breaking up the gigantic, blue-tinged world. It was as if there was an entire other city built beneath the ocean, giving thousands of sea ponies a secret place to live. Blueblood could see specs of light coming from shafts like the one he and Azure had just come through; no doubt more fountains, one in every square in the city.
Sea ponies of every size and colour swam past. There were sea ponies almost as big as the smith, trundling past without a thought as other sea ponies darted around their enormous bodies, and flocks of colts and fillies who darted through the water, giggling and squealing. Every sea pony's sounds carried for miles, blending together into a soft hum; a choir of millions.
On the ocean floor more sea ponies swam, tending to fields of strange crops and herding stranger fishes. Blueblood stared at it all breathlessly. He couldn't think of a single thing to say. Azure drifted beside him, smiling.
“So?” she asked. “What do you think of your first sea pony city?”
“It's...” Blueblood said, unable to find words past his rapture, “It's beautiful...” Azure swam circles around Blueblood's bubbles, laughing her beautiful laugh. She eventually settled on top of it, resting her head in her hooves.
“Isn't it? I see your city every day, but it's just never the same. Too straight, too even. Too mechanical.” She drifted down until her face was in front of Blueblood's, upside-down in the water. Her mane flared out, the golden flecks sparkling as they caught the light. “Forget what they tell you up there, Red. This is how Port Ponzance really got started.” She kicked out her flipper, starting to push Blueblood through the city.
“Really?” Blueblood asked.
“Oh yeah,” Azure said. “They all think that Port Ponzance got started as a trading hub a few hundred years back, but why do you think that was? It's all because of us.” She weaved Blueblood through the pillars deftly, barely even paying attention to where she was going. She would dance around the bubble as she spoke, spinning it to make turning easier.
“We've lived down here for years longer than they did. They started coming here because we gave them protection, you know. They would give us stuff like gold and silver and food, and in return we would keep them safe.”
“Who's ‘them’?” Blueblood asked. Azure was below him now, and she grinned up wickedly.
“Pirates!” she said gleefully.
“Pirates?” Blueblood echoed. Azure giggled, and swam away from the bubble.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “All the worst pirates came to Cape Ponzance, back before it was a port. Captain Kit, Red Beard, Calico Jackal; all the best of the worst. They all went a-pillagin', then came back here to share their loot with the sea ponies! Eventually they started setting up permanent residence and selling their loot to inland ponies, and it just sort of became a trading hub after that. Of course these days they like to say that it was a few merchants who had to weather a storm in here, but I know how it really happened.” She grinned at him, and winked. “But don't go spreading it around, 'kay?” Blueblood grinned back, and nodded.
“Don't worry,” he said, laughing. “But how do you know all this?”
“You think a messenger doesn't learn a thing or two?” Azure asked slyly. “I hear lots while I'm making my deliveries.” She swam forward sharply, bumping the bubble with her hip and pushing it forward, knocking Blueblood over again. “Speaking of,” she said, swimming back up to the bubble, “I've got a pony to deliver! Now, where did you say you needed to go again?”
Blueblood and Azure drifted up a wide fountain, surfacing in the centre of a wide-open square. The buildings here were different than in the square where Blueblood had met Azure: they were much larger, and very clearly not homes. They were in an industrial sector somewhere deep within the city.
Azure popped Blueblood’s bubble, helping him onto the edge of the fountain. “This is your stop,” she said sweetly.
“Thank you, Azure,” Blueblood said. She nodded at him, and leaned on the edge of the fountain.
“Don't thank me just yet. You probably don't know how to get back from here, do you?” She smirked as Blueblood blinked and lowered his head sheepishly.
“Um...” he said, “no, I don't.”
“Well, don't worry,” she said. “I'll take you back to where you're staying once you've got that steel.”
“Really?” Blueblood asked. “You'll wait out here for me?” Azure giggled, and splashed water at him.
“I'm not exactly going to get up and walk down the street,” she laughed. “I’ve got nothing better to do; today’s my day off. I'll wait out here for you. Just don't keep me waiting for too long.” She smiled coyly, and Blueblood smiled shyly back at her.
“Aheh,” he laughed awkwardly, “I'll try. I'll be right back, Azure.”
“I'll be waiting,” she said. Blueblood trotted away from her, chancing a quick glance back. She was resting on the edge of the fountain, leaning on one of her hooves and smirking.
The steel mill was obvious; it was an enormous, plain stone building with gigantic metal towers stretching up behind it. Blueblood trotted up to the doors, knocking on them politely. He waited for a moment, but no answer came. He knocked again, but still nopony came out to greet him, so he pushed open the door, peeking his head inside.
It was clear why nopony had answered him, at least. The mill was full of an amazing din, as if an infinitely long piece of metal was being scraped across a spike. The constant screeching droned over the entire interior, but annoying as it was the workers inside seemed to ignore it.
The mill was filled with big, bustling unicorn stallions, all trotting around with some place to be. Some were levitating gigantic bubbling cauldrons of molten metal, others were inspecting ingots on a factory line. Others still were pressing and molding the steel into strange shapes. Blueblood trotted cautiously into the fray of the building, skirting around the edges of the room. Ponies rushed past him, ignoring him completely. He kept his head low, afraid to venture further into the building lest he find himself in somepony's way. A nagging feeling in his gut was telling him, over and over, that he shouldn't be here. Still, his master had given him a job and he needed to do it. He swallowed hard, and ventured deeper into the strange chaos of the mill.
Strange machines swung too and fro, and more than once Blueblood had to dodge out of the way of a hefty unicorn with a large load. Shouts of “One side!” and “Watch it!”flew, and Blueblood ducked apologetically to each.
“Sorry,” he said, dodging another irritable unicorn, “sorry...” He ducked onto a catwalk, and took the moment of peace to get his bearings. The mill was even more chaotic in here, almost completely packed with bustling ponies. As he looked around, Blueblood spotted one pony who didn't seem to be working. He was a great, steel-gray stallion, standing on the centre of a catwalk and looking over the workers. Blueblood approached him, trotting up carefully.
“Um,” the white stallion said slowly, “excuse me...”
“I'm busy,” the stallion said sharply. Blueblood winced and took a step back, but tried to catch his attention again.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “but -”
“I'm busy!” the pony snapped again, whipping his head around to face Blueblood. He paused and looked Blueblood up and down, stopping to focus squarely on his forehead. “Oh,” he said. “An earth pony. Well. Look, colt. I've got work to do, here. I need to make sure none of these idiots manage to kill themselves. I don't have time to deal with you. Go find somepony else.” He enunciated the last sentence slowly and clearly, as if he only half expected Blueblood to understand. “You got that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Blueblood said quietly. “But, I'm sorry, but -” The gray stallion groaned.
“I. Do. Not. Have. Time. For. You,” he said, leaning close to Blueblood. Blueblood shrunk back, crouching low as the stallion leaned over him. “What part of that don't you get, Rocky?”
“I just need to buy some steel,” Blueblood said quietly. The stallion sighed.
“Look, I don't care what you want, colt. I've got work to do here. Sales isn't my problem, so get out of my mane! Scram!” He brandished his hoof as if he was about to strike Blueblood, who darted backwards.
“Okay!” Blueblood yelped. “Okay, I'm sorry! But... can I just ask a question?”
“Whaddaya want!?” the stallion barked. “ I already told you I don't do sales, didn't I? Or did you forget that already? Now beat it Rocky, before I kick your rump out of here myself!” Blueblood wanted to shrink back again, but he forced his legs still. His heart was pounding in his chest, but his master had given him a task. He needed to see it through.
“I know that,” he said, mustering some confidence. “I just need to know who will sell me some!” The gray stallion scoffed at him.
“Why should I care who you find to sell you something? It's not my problem. Gods, I'll bet you even forgot to bring any silver, Rock-head!”
Blueblood frowned. His fear was beginning to give way to something else. This stallion reminded him vaguely of the old homeless pony he had met in Riverbank: dismissive, rude and gruff. It frustrated Blueblood, just a little bit.
“N-no,” he said, still holding his head low, “I didn't bring Silver, but-”
“Well, there you go then!” the stallion shouted. He was clearly angry now, and he waved his hooves theatrically. “Look, Rock-head! If you don't have Silver, then it doesn't matter one bit who I send you to! Your not going to be able to buy any, so stop wasting my time and get out of here! Seriously, dense earth ponies!”
Blueblood frowned. The angry pony still frightened him, but with every word he was fanning the flame of frustration in Blueblood's belly more and more. The white stallion breathed deeply, and stood up straight. He did his best to put on a confident face, but he didn't think that it was working. The gray stallion just scoffed at him.
“Oh, what?” he asked harshly. “You think you can intimidate me into giving you steel? There's dozens of unicorns here, rocks-for-brains, just in case you can't count! You'd be done in a minute if you tried anything. Get out of here Rocky, you aren't fooling anypony.”
“Stop calling me that!” Blueblood said. The gray stallion just stared at him with a dull, unimpressed expression. “Please, stop calling me Rocky, or Rock-head, or rocks-for-brains,” Blueblood repeated. “My name is Red. And I may not have brought Silver, but I brought something just as good.” He unclasped Brook's medallion, sticking it in the gray stallions face. the rough unicorn read it, and his eyes bulged.
“White Brook?” he asked incredulously.
“That's right,” Blueblood said. “I'm White Brook's s... servant. He sent me to get steel. So I need to get steel. Who can I buy some from?”
“U-um,” the stallion said, suddenly very humble, “yeah... right this way, I'll take you to somepony who can sell you some steel...”
Blueblood smiled. He felt like a weight had just been dropped from his chest. His legs were weak, and his heart still pounded furiously, but he felt good. He followed the gray stallion, showing his medallion to a clerk and fetching four steel ingots. He packed them into his saddlebags, then trotted happily out of the mill.
Azure was still waiting for him in the fountain, and she smiled as he returned.
“Well now,” she said, “that's more like it! You've got you steel?”
“Yeah!” Blueblood said happily, sitting on the edge of the fountain. “Thanks, Azure.” Azure blinked at him.
“Me?” she asked. “Why are you thanking me?” Blueblood blinked, and pawed at the ground sheepishly.
“Um, well... you brought me here, and waited for me,” he said. “So, I guess... thanks for that? I guess I’m just in a good mood right now,” He grinned, and Azure stared at him.
“You're welcome, Red,” she said, giggling. “Are you ready to go back?” Blueblood nodded.
“I think so,” he said. Azure smiled. She flicked her tail, propelling herself up to Blueblood's height. She leaned close to him, wrapping her hooves around his shoulders.
“Well then,” she said, “we'd better get going. It's a long trip back; you made it pretty far before I found you. Lots of time to talk, you know.”
“Really?” Blueblood asked, smiling shyly.
“Oh yes,” she said. She leaned back, pulling Blueblood into the fountain with a splash.
It was late in the afternoon when Blueblood and Azure resurfaced in the fountain in front of the smith's home. The bubble raised to the surface, and Blueblood jumped out with a pop. He landed on the edge of the fountain, and turned back to Azure. She leaned on the edge beside him, smiling up at the white pony.
“This is your stop,” she said. Blueblood grinned at her.
“It is,” he said. “Thank you, Azure.” She giggled.
“Oh, don't worry about it Red,” she said. “It's not like I had anything better to do. Besides, it was fun.”
“Well,” Blueblood said, chuckling faintly, “I guess this is goodbye, then.”
“I guess so,” Azure said, sighing dramatically. Blueblood shuffled his hooves.
“Goodbye, Azure.” he said. She smiled sweetly at him.
“Goodbye, Red,” she said. “Maybe I'll see you again some time?”
“Maybe,” Blueblood said. She smiled, and sunk into the water. Blueblood watched her sink down the well until she slipped out of sight in the darkness. He stepped down from the edge of the fountain, and turned around.
Brook must have been watching for him. The old pony was limping across the square, now. Blueblood smiled at him, and trotted over.
“Master,” he said. Brook nodded to him.
“Red,” he said simply. Blueblood unclasped Brook's medallion, and gave it back to him.
“Here, master,” he said. “Your medallion.” Brook took it, attaching it to his own wrappings, and sighed.
“Thank you, Red,” he said. “It was nice to be at least somewhat anonymous, for a while. But it's nice to have it back.” The two stallions smiled at each other, and Brook gestured to the fountain.
“Who was your friend?” he asked. Blueblood looked over his shoulder.
“Oh,” he said, “Azure? She's... a sea pony. She helped me find the mill, after she found me playing with some colts.” Brook raised an eyebrow at this.
“Playing with some colts?” he asked. Blueblood shrugged, and chuckled sheepishly.
“Well,” he said, “I... sort of got lost. They said that they would give me directions if I played with them, so I played with them a while. Then Azure found me, and took me to the mill, and back here.”
“Sounds like you had an eventful day,” Brook said, smiling faintly. Blueblood smiled shyly.
“No, it was nothing exciting,” he said. Brook smiled wider, and nudged Blueblood with his nose.
“Well... it sounds like you were pretty good, to me,” he said, chuckling faintly. Blueblood stared at him, but Brook didn't seem to notice. “Come on,” the old pony said. “Our hosts have almost finished preparing dinner. We shouldn't keep them waiting.”
He began limping his way back to the house. Blueblood was still for a moment, still staring. A slow, earnest smile broke across his face, and he trotted after Brook.