The raindrops continued their suicidal plunge, abandoning the endless sky to end themselves upon soil and sea. So caught up in his own events, Nut was utterly indifferent to the plight of the falling droplets; ignorant that Susan was an abattoir for raindrops. For she was a place where individuality ended; the individual ceased to be and everything ran together before plummeting as a collective to dash themselves upon the ground below. A tragedy gone unnoticed, undetected, unlamented.
Always falling, raindrops were tears shed for the senseless loss of one another.
He stared into the book shop’s window, and in the glass he watched the reflection of ponies as they passed. It was one thing to feed the body, but the mind needed food as well. Miss Blossom had but one possession, one thing that she owned. A book. While he wasn’t one for materialism, a book was a meal that could be consumed again and again, while always getting something new from it. A feast for the senses that nourished reason.
Surely he could spare a bit or two for his ward’s well-being.
“I need a book that showcases a mother’s love for her daughter.” As Nut spoke, a bell rang as the door shut behind him.
Much to his chagrin, the bookseller seemed to be closing. The unicorn, an older fellow, was assisted by a young griffoness, a rather cute young cub, at least by his own standards. Nut didn’t exactly understand griffon standards, but he found the young of any species rather cutish. It was a survival mechanism, he suspected, though there were dreadful, heartless beasts, devoid of reason, who gleefully snacked upon the tender, succulent young of others.
“Father, we have a customer,” the young cub said. “Shall I fetch Father Number Two?”
“No, Eloise, he’s fixing supper by now. Help me make a sale, will you?”
Nut left Susan standing by the door, in the umbrella stand.
“Preferably, something gently used,” Nut said as he glanced about.
“Am I to guess you are a doting father short on funds?” the unicorn asked.
“A benevolent caretaker who seeks betterment for his ward,” Nut replied.
“Same difference, really.” Nudging the griffoness cub beside him, the unicorn said, “Eloise… go on. You know the store better than I do. I just do the finances. Help the gentlepony, Eloise.”
Somewhat shy, the young griffoness approached with a smooth feline grace. Nut watched her, impassive, unmoving, a statue devoted to fine manners. She seemed to study him, looking up and down, and her tail formed a curious question mark. Yes, there was no mistaking it, she was adorable; so much so that he felt his heart warm. The outside would feel so much chillier when he left.
“A mother’s love?” the cub asked.
“I fear that my ward has… a… strained relationship with her mother. This concerns me. I desire a book that portrays a healthy, devoted, loving relationship between mother and daughter. A passive means to teach a lesson about the nature of this manner of relationship. Perhaps a means to soothe her many hurts.”
“Oh.” Catlike, the young cub lept up to the top of the bookshelf without even spreading her wings. She sat down up there, glanced left, glanced right, and then spent a moment looking around whilst she tapped upon her beak with her index claw. “I know just what you need, and we happen to have a copy.”
“You are remarkably well spoken,” Nut said, offering faint but sincere praise.
“Daughter of booksellers,” the cub replied. “When they took me in, I could barely converse at all.”
“Well, that was nice of them,” he remarked.
“Sometimes, ponies take in stray cats that rummage around in their rubbish. I just so happened to be the stray my fathers found. They captured me with a net—”
“Eloise, please… when you tell the story, you make it sound so dreadful.”
“Sorry, Father.” Her eyes narrowed a bit, and when she blinked, her eyelashes clung together. “I nipped him. Never have I stopped feeling bad about it. Now, about that book.” Quite suddenly, she sprung away, and lept from bookshelf to bookshelf, all with her wings held tight against her sides.
Nut followed, and found himself looking at bare books with no slipcovers.
“What you want is this book right here.” She tapped on a book with a hardbound lavender colour embossed with three stars. “Fundamentals of Familial Friendship. It is written by Twilight Velvet, and it is all about her relationship with her daughter, her son, and her husband. I do believe the section with her daughter, Twilight Sparkle, is relevant to your interests. She speaks a great deal about how a mother is her foal’s first best friend, and what kind of friend she is determines how her offspring will experience friendship.”
“Hmm,” he hmmed, hemming and hawing.
“I’ve read this book. So far, I haven’t read everything we have, but I am trying to catch up. But we keep getting new books though, and reading takes time.”
“Indeed, it does,” Nut amicably agreed.
“I make it a point to read the used books, because customers buy more of them, and I can make good recommendations.” She sat down atop the bookshelf, curled her tufted tail around her body, and waited for Nut to make his selection.
He selected the lavender-coloured hardbound book, lifted it, and held it up in front of the young griffoness. “I’ll take it. You’ve earned yourself a sale, young lady.”
From behind the counter, the older unicorn said, “I’ll wrap that up in waxed paper and sealing tape, to preserve it from the rain.” The old gent smiled, leaned against the worn wood counter, and his horn ignited with a pale blue glow. “One day, she’ll be running this book store, and we’ll be her employees. I hope we’re paid well. And get regular coffee breaks.”
“Form a union,” Nut suggested.
“Great idea,” the older unicorn replied.
“Father… you are silly.”
“Let me ring you up, so I can close up shop. I still need to close the shutters. Not looking forward to getting drenched.”
“Actually,” Nut said, his voice even and pleasant, “I can close up the shutters for you, if you’ll permit me. I’m already a bit damp. Please, allow me to assist you.”
“That is incredibly kind of you. Thank you, stranger.”
Nothing; Nut felt nothing. He thought he would be angry, but he didn’t have it in him to be angry. Perhaps despair was in order here, but he didn’t feel that either. Out in the Widowwood, waiting for Tater Blossom to return for him, or to hear something of what had happened, he’d felt something then. Powerful things. A whole flood of emotions all at once. But now?
Emptiness made for a peculiar sensation.
Going into the telegraph office had been emotionally trying. Exiting, he was… blank? Try as he might, he failed to understand his own motivations, and found himself suspect. Moments like these, he didn’t trust himself. To do something, anything, required motivation. Reason fueled action. Logic was the locomotive that kept him on the right track, or some such silly metaphor.
As a colt, he quite liked trains, as they were orderly and made sense.
Now, as an adult, he barely spared them a second thought, it seemed.
Except for now, when he was curiously empty, bored, and in search of metaphors. Why did he do this to himself? His parents would respond soon, a telegram would be delivered, and then he’d be going home. No, home was here. In Vanhoover. Not Canterlot. A trip which would make everything complicated. He would need to leave his job. Again. Tater Blossom’s entry into the workforce would be delayed. Black Maple would be left to fend for herself yet again, and would fail to care for her own needs—which almost made him feel something, at least for a brief second. Something would have to be done before his departure.
A part of him resented Black Maple for her infantile behaviour a great deal.
Carriage Row Lane was almost deserted. The main entrance for the library was on the other side, near the ferry platform, so it was rare to see patrons exiting out into the back alleyway. Even the ever-present rats and gulls were gone, no doubt hiding in whatever place they sheltered in. Though summer, temperatures hovered near the freezing mark. Tonight would be interesting, come what may.
Susan remained a fortress against the strengthening squall.
A lone figure clad in black emerged from out of the library and then stood waiting beneath the shelter of an eave. Eager to speak to Mister Riddle, Nut doubled his advance; the inclement weather did nothing to slow him. Mister Riddle lived where he worked, at the library, and thus could be found here at any hour of the day or night.
“Ah, Nut a word with you if I may. Sorry to keep you outside in the bluster.”
“Ah, ‘tis no trouble at all, I assure you.” Nut came to a halt and there was more than enough room for him to stand beneath the angled eave.
“Mrs. Oleander,” Mister Riddle began and there was a soft glow from his horn as he cast a warmth spell to keep the chill at bay. “She spoke to me about a number of things. Apparently I have an assistant to help me pull the wagon, you have a ward, and it seems that you made an oath as a noble.”
Suddenly uncomfortable, Nut interjected, “Yes, about that. Work might be delayed. I do expect to be departing for Canterlot rather soonish. Apologies—”
“Oh, stow it, Nut. The job will be here when you return. I wish to speak to you about your recent actions. Perhaps I just need to talk. Confession is good for the soul, and all that rubbish.”
Confused, Nut folded Susan, and slung the excess water from her collapsed canopy.
“I too, come from Canterlot, Nut.”
“Oh, don’t be so surprised. You’re not the only noble slumming about, trying to make sense of things, Nut.” Mister Riddle’s face contorted, as if from pain, and his dark eyes the colour of sea ice narrowed into paper-thin slits. “We all have our reasons, Nut. Me and my generation, we’re the ones responsible for this mess we’re currently in. We did this. Oh, I’ve wanted to bend your ear about this for quite some time, but it never felt right, until now. Mrs. Oleander told me what happened.”
Silent, Nut waited; it was good to listen to one’s elders.
“Canterlot’s nobles have much to answer for, but we had the most noble of intentions. Yes, the noblest intentions.” The older unicorn sighed, cast a sidelong glance at the younger pony by his side, and with his sides heaving like a smith’s bellows that were long since worn out, he sighed yet again. “My generation created quite a mess for yours to clean up, Nut. My sin was running away and then stubbornly not involving myself. In anything. Here I am now, old, tired, beaten up by life, and I find myself in the company of another Canterlot runaway.”
Nut did not see himself in this manner, but he said nothing to correct Mister Riddle.
“Good intentions, Nut. A noble can be undone by good intentions.” The old unicorn’s neck sagged suddenly, and he shook his head from side to side. “My generation was born during the aftermath of Equestria’s Uncivil Dispute. That dreadful spat we had. We were born into a war-torn land that was ravaged by scarcity and made poor by austerity measures. My generation saw the cost of war—a war brought about by reckless change that tore society in twain.
“And we, the fine young nobles of Canterlot, we had good intentions. Fine intentions. We decided that it fell upon us to ensure that this never happened again. A lack of stability had torn us apart. Change had been our undoing. We had all the proof we needed to convince ourselves, Nut. Civil service became our rallying cry. Almost all of us answered the call. We had a duty to Princess and Country.
“We flooded the ranks of the bureaucracy and fought a pitched battle for stability. The tatters of this nation were held together by our efforts. It was we who somehow managed the impossible feat of reconstruction. The bureaucracy held everything together. But stability wasn’t enough. No, dear Nut, there was overcorrection. We stifled change. Even the good change that perhaps we were in need of. With our best intentions, we brought about ironclad stability.
“And in doing so, introduced the current state of stagnation, Nut.”
“Mister Riddle…” At a loss for words, Nut was unsure of what to say.
“I saw the harm done when I was young, Nut. Saw it clear as dawn. Even tried to say something about it, that we might be going to far. That got me labeled as an agitator. I was one of those dreadful ponies who wanted a state of war to return. Oh, I tried to be a voice of reason, but all my efforts were for naught. So I ran away. I left Canterlot, wandered for a time, and like driftwood on a beach, ended up here, in this place. Imagine that. Me… a graduate from Princess Celestia’s School For Gifted Unicorns… a youth with endless potential… a self-exile.”
“Mister Riddle, I am very sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Nut. Learn from everything I’ve just told you. Don’t run away. Get involved. We nobles aren’t bad… we’re just mired. Keep your oath. Restore faith in us. But first, perhaps, you need to have faith in us, and faith in yourself. I cast aside my faith long ago, but I do want to see you succeed.” Fiddle Riddle lifted his head suddenly, and his eyes widened.
“More could be accomplished together than apart,” the older unicorn said. “Nut, I give you my word as a noble that I will keep your ward safe while she is in my company. It’s time for me to come out of hiding. All this skulking about has to end. I almost feel young again, Nut. As if some great weight has been lifted from my heart and mind.”
“Good for you… Mister Riddle?”
“I feel reckless and daring, Nut. Like anything is possible.”
“I remember living this way, I do. Excuse me, Nut… but I do believe that I am going to go and take liberties with Widow Oleander’s hospitality, and call upon her uninvited.” Turning to the younger unicorn beside him, he asked, “Do I smell like boiled cabbage and cheese?”
After a single sniff, Nut politely replied, “Just a bit, perhaps—”
“Well, there’s no helping that. Time to be bold again. Can’t be held back by smelling like boiled cabbage and cheese. Nothing would ever get done. I’m going to have me a chat with a pretty widow, Nut, and think about all of the mischief that I could be getting into. We’ll speak again when I have ideas. I used to have ideas once. Big ideas. Time to have them again.”
“Excellent idea, Mister Riddle. Mrs. Oleander delights in your company.”
The world, it seemed, was a far, far stranger place than Nut realised.
“Pardon me, Nut. I must be going. We’ll talk again. Perhaps we’ll make ourselves a little Canterlot of this island. There’s more we could be doing. I’m going to look after my widow… you go and look after your ward. Later, over a pint, we’ll discuss how our efforts fare.”
“Marvellous idea, Mister Riddle.”
Without further ado, the older unicorn cast a shield bubble around himself, and strode off.
Left alone beneath the eave, Nut watched him go. So much had been said, and Nut wasn’t sure if he’d heard all of it. Though, not for lack of trying. Mister Riddle was clearly inspired, touched by the rescue of Miss Blossom. Was this a ripple effect? What else might happen as a direct—or indirect—result from this?
Miss Blossom would be fine, he decided. She would be safe with Mister Riddle. This was an odd place to find himself, because he didn’t trust his fellow nobles—yet, for reasons unknown, he found himself trusting Mister Riddle’s word as a noble. If he discounted Mister Riddle’s oath as a noble, his sacred word, then Nut knew that his own oath was in danger of a loss of credibility.
How did he end up here?
At least he felt better.
And he did—he did feel better. His current state of blank emptiness was now something else. What though, remained to be seen. But he felt… good? How had he arrived at this point? What caused this? He was a pony brimming with good intentions, and he had just been warned about the dangers of said good intentions, but even with the dire lesson fresh in the folds of his grey matter, everything felt as though it would be fine.
“I deserve a pint,” he said to himself as he unfurled Susan. “A pint would be lovely…”
Much to his relief, there was no sign of trouble. No mischief awaited him upon his return. If anything, the common room was a bit emptier than usual. Understandable, really. Nopony wanted to walk home with a storm bearing down. Grace Smooth was behind the bar and she nodded at him as he entered.
This place had a different atmosphere with the windows all shuttered. Not only was it darker, somehow, as the street lights did not shine through the windows, but it felt more isolated somehow. It was an urban fortress, sealed off from the hostile world that existed just beyond the doors and windows. What would his parents say about him frequenting this place? There was a conversation that he hoped would never happen.
“How are things, Gracie?” he asked as he approached the bar.
“Quiet, Nut,” she replied. “What’s it like outside? The reports are a bit conflicted. Some say it’s just a summer thunderstorm, others are saying it’ll be the storm of the century.”
“I suspect something in the middle, Gracie.”
“Good thing I opened up the storage garage for the homeless. It isn’t much, but I guess it is better than nothing.”
“I sleep in a garage, Gracie.”
“And you’re an idiot for doing it, Nut. You’d be a lot warmer in the boss’ bed. Want a pint, Nut?”
“Oh, please. Very much so.” Standing near the end of the bar, he caught sight of the mustachioed portrait of Princess Celestia. He sighed, suddenly weary, but his ears pricked when an earthenware mug thumped down on the hardwood counter of the bar beside him.
“On the house, Nut.”
“I insist on paying for my pint.”
“Nut, you sleep in a garage. That practically makes you homeless.”
Irked beyond measure, he turned his best deadpan expression upon Grace Smooth, but the unicorn mare behind the bar was utterly unimpressed. He thought about her for a moment, and what he knew of her. She was an entertainer with just a hint of charisma magic, the merest sprinkle. Sometimes, she had gigs, singing, but those were infrequent. Working as a barmaid was how she paid the bills, and she was an excellent barmaid. He wondered about her happiness, her state of contentment, and what it meant to settle.
“So tell me, Nut… how does an almost homeless pony that sleeps in a garage go around and remind others that they have dignity? For some reason, you seem to have dignity to spare, Nut. No matter how bad things get. And now, you’ve taken in that runaway.”
His deadpan stare had failed him and he wanted to correct Grace, but there was a pint to drink. Raising it, he offered up a salute to the mare behind the bar, and then he had his first delightful slurp. There was nothing finer. Something about the inclusion of smoked maple syrup. Canterlot had nothing like this. It was too much an assault upon the senses, and would cause fainting among the well-to-do and well-bred.
“I’ll be upstairs,” he announced, and he raised his pint again in parting.
Black Maple was right where he’d left her, sound asleep in her hot-pink velvet chair. Her mouth hung slack, and she drooled. Pegasus ponies drooled. It was just a thing they did. They evolved with specialised saliva glands for the sake of preening. A shiny, glistening patch of slobber had collected upon her now-soaked scruffle, and her nostrils expanded and contracted with each breath she took.
For now, while she slumbered, he liked her. Susan was stood up in the corner near the door and he took a moment to undress. In silence, he slipped off his tweed waistcoat, then his linen shirt, and once naked, he dried himself with magic. His clothes were threadbare and he lamented his use of repair spells. What choice did he have? He was no tailor.
He was not a wizard, but he had a few spells that he could perform well. His best spell was his laundry spell, much to his secret shame. Why was it so extraordinarily good? He had no idea. But his clothes could be made fresh, clean, and free of shed hairs with just a moment of magical effort. Even the dirtiest, smelliest, most befouled articles of clothing, he could make them clean. Lost causes, things ruined by foul things such as tar—he could do the impossible.
And sometimes, he used his skill to make a few bits, but he feared the reputation he might gain. Any laundry house in the city would welcome him after a demonstration, but he always felt bad after taking a laundry job. Diminished somehow. A noble who was little more than a glorified washing machine, a slayer of stains, a saboteur of skidmarked skivvies, he feared a future in laundry service.
In seconds, his clothing was clean and dry again. He slipped on his shirt, took a moment to adjust his choker collar, and thought about his fashion sense. Canterlot favoured big floppy lapels and broad collars. He rather liked plain choker collars that were barren of frivolous excess. Nut was many things, but he would never be mistaken for a fop. He smoothed his shirt, admired the fine tailoring in all of its faded glory, and then he examined his tweed waistcoat.
The silk lining was giving out and coming undone.
Sighing, he spent several seconds staring, wondering what to do about this. One more repair spell might very well be the end of it. With a soft snort of regret, he began to empty the pockets and place their contents upon a nearby table. His pocketwatch, a few coins, a book wrapped in waxed paper that had a pretty pink ribbon tied around it, several bladed darts with barbed, wicked tips, a slim throwing knife that was all blade from end to end with remarkable balance, a garrote that he used to deal with hard, unyielding cheeses, and a hollow steel tube with a sharpened end.
“I like you better with your shirt off, Nutty.”
How had he not felt eyes upon him?
“Tools of the trade, Nutty.” Black Maple’s eyes were open now, and her soft whisper was almost shiver-inducing. “My tools of the trade are beakers, vats, and barrels. Oh, and beds. Lots of beds. You have a vest full of things that drop others dead. Just what is that steel tube for, anyhow?”
“It is a bleeding prick,” he replied while he kept his voice low. “You insert the sharpened end into a blood rich area, like a neck. The tube allows for quick exsanguination.”
“Well… that’s horrifying. I worry about the slasher running around outside. Maybe I should be worried about the one in my boudoir.”
He found himself apologising. “It was never my intention to upset you. I believed you be asleep. You are in no danger from me, I assure you.”
“I was keeping your ward safe,” the double-amputee pegasus replied. “Do you honestly believe that my door could be opened, unnoticed?”
“Delightful. We learn something new every day. You are remarkable at playing possum, Miss Maple. For future reference, I will keep that in mind.”
“Never forget that I’m still a pegasus, Nut.” Black Maple’s words were hard now, flinty, perhaps even angry. “For countless ages, my kind have been soldiers. Guards. Warriors. No matter what others might think or say, the loss of my legs has not diminished me. I gave my word, Nut. I was ready to kick ass the moment I heard floorboards creaking halfway down the hall.”
“I trusted you, didn’t I?”
This seemed to mollify the sulky, temperamental pegasus, and Nut tried to relax a bit.
Waggling her right stump around, she smeared the slobber on her fluffy scruffle, blinked away her sleepiness, and yawned. Then she slumped down in her chair, spread her legs wide to reveal her generous assets, and somehow managed to scratch her belly with her hind leg without looking ridiculous.
Nut looked away.
Then, feeling more than a little awkward, he removed his shirt, draped it over the table where he’d placed his belongings, and sat down upon the purple velvet fainting couch that was beneath the shuttered window. He didn’t sit up for long though, and stretched out his considerable length until he was comfortable, all while ignoring Miss Maple’s ravenous stare.
“What did they teach you in that school of yours, anyhow?”
“I really don’t like discussing it.”
“But you will discuss it, because I kept your ward safe. Want to have a peek? She’s right over there, sleeping soundly in my bed.”
He didn’t like this leg-twisting, not at all.
“What’s it called? I don’t remember.”
“Princess Celestia’s School for Disproportionate Responders.”
“Yeah. That.” She wiped at her slobbery scruffle again, but only further smeared more slobber around and made the wet spot larger. “So… what’s a graduate of Princess Celestia’s School for Disproportionate Responders doing in a whorehouse? How did you end up here? With all of your fancy tools and your bleeding prick… quite a name, by the way. Fitting, even, given the act of violent penetration.”
He felt a hot flush burn his face.
“Why are you studying biology?”
“We’re all free to make choices.”
“Oh, we are. I chose to let a slasher into my boudoir. With all of his fancy tools left on my table, I’m pretty sure I can take him… but there is one weapon that he still has that he could stab me with. Over and over—”
“If I discuss this with you, will you cease this perverse innuendo, mare?”
“I’ll make no promises, Nutty.”
Settling in, he lifted up his mug of ale, had a sip, kicked out his hind legs a bit, and made absolutely sure that he did not look at Black Maple, who was spread-eagled in her chair. There were times he hated her, like right now. She was doing everything within her power to make him uncomfortable, and even worse, she was holding his ward hostage. It wasn’t like he could just storm away and leave. Well, he could, but it would mean waking up Tater Blossom.
Thunder crackled some distance away.
“The school is a special place for foals who have innate talents for the application of violence.” These words left his mouth dry, so he sipped more of his ale. “As dangerous as these are, they are still beneficial to society. The school is a factory for soldiers. Spies. Covert operators. Agents. Assassins. Princess Celestia tends to refer to them as repair ponies—”
“Repair ponies?” For a moment, it seemed as though Black Maple might laugh.
“Well, in a sense, that is what they are. Princess Celestia isn’t lying when she mentions them as such.” Another sip of ale, and this time, he savoured the smokey sweetness before he continued, “Problems happen. Things break down. Stuff breaks. Repair ponies move in and fix them. Some problems require specialised repairs. If, say, there is a faulty line of communication within our foreign observation network, then that line must be excised and replaced. It is just a task.”
Black Maple closed her legs, sat up straight, and leaned her head forward. “A task, you say.”
“An unpleasant task.” He somehow managed to convey a shrug while reclining in relaxed repose. “We are taskmasters. Our schooling is extensive. I could have had a promising future doing almost anything, really. A great many things, almost all of them unmentionable. I chose to be a sheathed sword. It is, perhaps, the ultimate state of refinement for my unique talent. My choice was respected. At least, it was by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. I graduated with top marks… which, I must confess, might be complicated to explain. Most schools grade on academic merit.”
“So… Princess Celestia operates a school where she refines assassins…”
“If she didn’t, others would surely exploit those like me with unique gifts, and potentially turn us against Equestria. We’re resources. A strategic element. A gold mine particularly rich in ore. She would be a fool to not extract that ore and use it for the betterment of our nation.” This wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, and relaxing just a bit more, he allowed himself another small sip.
“Our extensive schooling refines us. Empowers us. Embetters us. For some of us going into covert foreign relations, we have to adapt. Fit in. Blend in. That means working, surviving, and existing. We’re taught work ethic from a young age, and it is pounded into our heads that we’re not above any task, no matter how demeaning.”
When he thought of laundry, he almost cringed, but held himself back.
“No one suspects a spy who moves among them doing demeaning jobs as a domestic servant. An assassin who makes the beds and cleans the chamber pots goes unnoticed. We are taught to be invisible. To blend into the background. Some of us are quite adept at this. We are taught to be boring, dry, a chore to associate with. No one remembers us, because no one wants to remember us. These are the things we are taught.”
“But you became a biologist.”
“I am free to become a biologist. It is my passion. I apply the work ethic I was taught in school to my studies. I fade into the background and use my observation skills to study animals. Because of my schooling, I can go into dangerous situations and survive. My schooling never obligated me to do anything. It merely honed and refined my talent. I am free to be whatever, and whomever, I wish to be.”
She crossed her legs, swinging one over the other, and Nut could see that she was studying him. Black Maple was smart—troublingly so—and he liked her best when she was thinking. Of course, he liked her least when she was antagonising him, mostly because she could get under his skin like nopony else.
“So Princess Celestia has a school for erudite repair ponies and it has a fancy name.”
“Well, some of them are maintenance ponies, who do a bit of on the spot maintenance after a repair job. Can’t have fragile machinery breaking down again.”
“This… this is really a thing, isn’t it? I mean, you’re not pulling my leg.”
“Equestria remains mostly at peace, and has excellent diplomatic relations. Why do you suppose that is? How often do you hear of diplomatic kerfuffles? Why is it that other nations desire to be our friends, and seek diplomacy with us? You either deal with us, or you will be made to deal with us. Peace is preserved at an acceptable cost. Breakdowns in the delicate machinery of diplomacy are promptly fixed, and kept well-oiled through preventative maintenance.”
He felt a smug sense of satisfaction when he watched her frown.
“Honestly, I don’t know what goes on. All I have to go on are rumours, gossip, and hearsay. This could be true, for varying values of true, or it could be cloak and dagger stuff, intentional misinformation spread to keep others in line. But when spoken of in a well-said manner, it is entirely convincing, isn’t it?”
“That’s part of the job, right?” She leaned forward, eager to know more. “Stuff like this. Leaving a pony not knowing what the truth might be, but introducing doubt. Weaponised rumour. So this is spycraft?”
He allowed himself a slurp of precious ale. “It could be. Might be. Possibly is. Whatever it is, it seems to be working. Many of our number go on to become S.M.I.L.E. agents, and the stories passed along about them are wildly unbelievable.”
“The way you say that though, it suggests that you believe some of it, even if you don’t want to. It’s that thing you do, that you’re always going on about, what’s it called again—”
“Skepticism.” He sniffed his ale, but did not sip, and he planned to nurse his drink along for as long as possible. “For a time, I thought about going into S.M.I.L.E. At least, I think I thought about it. Looking back, I don’t know. I might have been influenced. Lots of pamphlets slipped into my books, and brochures tucked away in my possessions.”
“Why turn away from all of that? I mean, it all sounds so exciting.”
“I love biology,” he replied.
She wiggled her hips from side to side. “I love booze. I love booze so much that it became my cutie mark. But if I had a chance to be a spy, I’d do that.” Then, slumping down in her seat, she seemed to reconsider. In a low, soft whisper she added, “Something tells me I don’t have the temperament. You have all that impulse control. I think I understand why.”
“I walked into a very dangerous situation in Widowwood,” he said to Black Maple, “and walked out with Miss Blossom. Nopony was hurt. A bloodbath was averted. That is the best possible outcome.”
Black Maple shrugged with her wings. “Might be, but I still think you should have carved a warning message into her mother’s face so that other ponies will know what they’re dealing with.”
“Miss Maple… really.”
“What… seriously… maybe the word ‘bitch’ scribbled across her forehead. Or maybe ‘cu—”
“Black Maple… really. That is not my way. Blaue’s dignity was already quite injured. She lost an ear and her husband. Her social standing was wholly upended. That mare lost—”
“That’s not enough.” Black Maple’s whisper was almost hissy. “It’s not enough, you pompous jackass. You just don’t do what she did to her daughter. And you… you’re a prick for not being pissed off about it.”
“Oh, I assure you, I am angry—”
“I have no proof of that. Profane swear-words were not carved into that mare’s face.”
He found her lack of reason reprehensible, and when he drank some of his ale, a bit more slipped past his lips than he intended. She was infuriating sometimes, like right now. The conversation had been almost nice, pleasant, reasonable even, right up to this point. But now, her passions had been riled, and her reason cast aside, tossed away so that she might fly unencumbered on her flight of fancy.
“You come from a school of disproportionate responders,” she said in a hot, throaty whisper. “Don’t you think this warranted a disproportionate response? I mean, if this doesn’t, what does?”
“I don’t know.” He found himself lacking a more suitable reply. “I can be violent… but I chose not to be. As awful as that mare is, she did not deserve the full brunt of my talent.”
A soft growl resonated deep within the sooty black pegasus’ throat. It was nothing at all like a purr, yet Nut found himself thinking about that very thing. Perhaps he failed to understand just how angry she was about this. It was possible that this hurt her in ways that he did not comprehend. Was it a pegasus thing? An issue for mares? He wasn’t sure that he had enough understanding to even begin speculation.
More thunder rumbled and Anvil Island quivered in anticipation of what was to come.
“I don’t understand your obsession with me,” he said to her.
“I’ve told you,” she replied as she slouched against the left arm of her chair. “I want to get my jollies watching you let go. I want you to feel something. Anything. Even if it happens to be my pink, tender insides. I want to see the calm depart your face, and that stuff that poets write about to make sex sound artistic and meaningful. I’ve made it my mission in life to make you come unhinged. If I could get a second cutie mark, it’d have something to do with this.”
“At the risk of being thrown out into the storm, I must say that you’re not my type.”
She giggled. He found it disturbing. She was actually giggling, and covered her mouth with her wing so that she might contain her giggles. He couldn’t stand her right now, so he rolled his eyes in full view of her—he wanted her to know that her behaviour was worthy of a dismissive roll of his eyes. But this did not have the desired effect, not at all, and her whole body jiggled enticingly with mirth.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded in a low voice.
No response; just more giggles.
He was tired and the fainting couch was far more comfortable than he anticipated. Hunger gnawed at his innards, but he ignored it. The sensation was so common for him now that it was more akin to background noise, just something that was there. When Black Maple uncrossed her legs, he allowed his gaze to wander elsewhere, anywhere, but not there.
“Stay tonight,” she said, no longer giggling.
Nursing his mug of ale, he did not respond.
“Not for me, but for Tater. She needs to recover a bit. When she’s feeling better, then, maybe, she can be introduced to the deprivation that you subject yourself to.”
“Often, I am frequently inculpated of being periphrastic,” he said in a sharp, accusatory whisper.
“You can’t fault me for trying a new approach.” She battered her eyes at him, and made come-hither gestures with both of her stumps. “My pegasus senses tell me there will be a hard freeze tonight. You have no heat. Don’t put her through that. So… stay the night. Be my guests. Have a bite to eat. Sample my hospitality. We’ll call a truce… for Tater’s sake, but not our own.”
“I do suppose that refusing would make me an irresponsible ass.”
“Right now, I’m going to hold my tongue. See, you make it too easy.” She sighed, her barrel rising and falling, and drew her legs closed. “You don’t even have to sleep with me. I’ll give you space. Though, I would very much like it if you did sleep with me. Just sleep. No shagging. No misbehaving on my part. Well, not much. There’s room for both of us on that couch.”
This felt like defeat.
“I am a bit hungry…”
Black Maple nodded. “I could go for wine, cheese, and smoked salmon.”
That sounded good; too good.
“Better yet, I have a jug of acerglyn downstairs. It is marked as recipe number nine. I smoked the maple syrup before I turned it into mead.”
The very thought of it made saliva go squirting through his mouth like water from a firehose. Aware of the fact that his reaction had been observed, he regretted this loss. Black Maple would no doubt use this against him in the future. Whatever poor sap that had said that love was not a victory march was surely mistaken. While it occurred to Nut that he’d lost the battle, he’d not yet lost the war.
“I meant what I said, Nutty. Truce. If you stay tonight, I won’t give you a reason to regret it. I can behave, I just don’t like to. But you can stay tonight, and wait out this storm. Come morning, everything can go back to normal, whatever normal is between us. I suspect that you and I have different opinions about our states of normal.”
“Very well”—he sighed out the words in surrender—“you shall have your truce.”