“Mm-hm. Oh, you can’t miss that. What about? . . .” I watched, fascinated, as a completely absorbed Moon Dancer wielded a fountain pen with abandon. Despite her use of the second person, her muttering seemed barely to acknowledge my existence, let alone my presence. It was easy to see why she and Twilight got along so well; they were two peas in a pod.
Around us Joe’s continued busy. Moon Dancer’s civil, if preoccupied, request that a well-dressed middle-aged unicorn stallion shift over a seat had gotten us a pair of neighboring counter stools—though he did seem rather taken aback by the young mare’s temerity. Once seated, I had pulled from my panniers the sheaf of brochures provided by the princess and laid it carefully on the countertop. At least I didn’t bobble what most unicorns considered a simple exercise in levitation. I restrained a sigh of relief.
Initially Moon Dancer had responded with diffidence, leafing through the stack and mumbling some noncommittal comments. A few half-hearted and generic suggestions moved me to reply gently, “It’s the city I came to see, Ms. Moon Dancer. What’s special about it and the way it celebrates Hearth’s-Warming?”
“Oh.” Her brow furrowed again, in thought this time. “I guess you want to see local historical and cultural sites, not just the usual touristy things, then.”
“Exactly,” I congratulated her. “I’m much more interested in the way peo—ponies live and work, the places and things they think are special about their neighborhoods. If I can see tourist sights along the way, so much the better, but it’s not generally what I’m looking for.”
“Well . . . let me see that map there.”
“There!” The filly straighened with a pleased smile. I’d been half-afraid she’d end up with ink all over her nose from hunching so close to the papers by now covering the countertop in front of us both. The pen pirouetted through a last flourish, still enveloped in the light pink of her magic, before coming to rest on top of them.
Bemused, I scanned the abundantly scrawled-on map and the less marked-up pamphlets strewn around it. “Good heavens. I appreciate your thoroughness, Ms. Moon Dancer, but—did I mention I have only a day?”
Her smile widened. “Oh, that’s why I marked some places with stars! Those are the ones you really should see today. If you don’t have time for the rest, you can save them for another visit, right?”
“I . . . suppose so,” I said slowly. She had a point, though I hadn’t considered it closely before she brought it up explicitly. After all, I was likely to continue in my current assignment for at least a couple of years—longer if the Foreign Service couldn’t dredge up another officer possessing the mental flexibility to cope with being a temporary talking pony, though I thought that unlikely. And, of course, by that time Sunset and her friends would have reached their majorities, possibly even heading off to university, which probably would reduce my responsibilities in that area as well. In fact, one of the reasons I had only a day was the need to continue my efforts on their behalf toward grants, loans, and letters of recommendation.
My alicorn lit with its customary pale gray to sweep the scattered papers into a semblance of order. I began folding them, but proceeded slowly enough my companion began, with some impatience, to take over the task. For a moment I was afraid she’d comment on it, but she seemed oblivious, her manner that of someone who finishes everyone else’s sentences because she just can’t wait for them to get to the point. Diplomatically—how else?—I desisted and let her finish, only then gathering up the stack and replacing it in my pannier. “Well. Thank you again, Ms. Moon Dancer.”
Through a mouthful of pastry she assured me, “’S nuffin’. Don’ worry ’bout it.” With a gulp she swallowed. “Is this your first time in Canterlot?”
“No, I’ve been here a few times on business,” I told her breezily, “but this is the first chance I’ve had just to look around. Like I said, anywhere I travel, I really do prefer to get a local’s view. For Canterlot, though, that goes double, considering how important the city is, both to Equestria and to my work.”
“You came here all by yourself?” She blinked at me. “Wouldn’t that make it harder to, um, ‘get a local’s view’?”
“Well, yes, but my change in schedule knocked the original plan into a cocked hat.” My half-smile was rueful. “A trusty native guide was supposed to come with me, but she couldn’t get away today, so I had to go it alone.”
“That’s too bad,” she commiserated. “She used to live in Canterlot, then?”
“Yes indeed, though she moved away some time ago.” I waved a dismissive hoof. “It’s a long story, I’m afraid, and I suppose it really isn’t mine to tell.”
“Uh, okay.” After a moment’s groping for a new topic she brightened. “So what is it you do?”
“Negotiations, mostly. Lots of meetings. And reports. It’s good to get away from that, even if it’s just for a day.”
“That sounds . . .”
“Boring?” I interpolated politely. “It can be, but it’s rewarding in its own way, too.” I paused a beat. “And it pays well.”
She giggled. “Has anypony ever told you your sense of humor is terrible?”
“Not lately,” I admitted. “But it’s been known to happen.”
We spent a few more minutes in small talk, during which Moon Dancer polished off her breakfast and cooling coffee—I’d finished mine during her flurry of scribbling—and I managed to learn a little more about her while continuing to dodge around her return questions.
At last she sat up with an air of embarrassed realization. “Oh gosh. I guess I should let you get on with your tour, shouldn’t I?”
I grinned. “The day’s still young—but you’re right, and I’m sure Joe here would like us to leave these seats to new customers. Shall we go?”
Moon Dancer grinned and we both hopped down from our stools.
We said our farewells, with mutual wishes for a happy Hearth’s-Warming, on the sidewalk under the awning that, in part, supported the gigantic stylized doughnut overhead. After she turned and trotted off, head high and humming a carol under her breath, I watched for a moment with a smile. When she vanished around a corner, I pulled out the papers on which she’d lavished so much attention—and ink. Time to take a closer look at just what she’d wrought.