The susurrus slosh of the tempestuous torrent was a distraction that Nut could do without. This morning, he’d awoken to remarkably clear skies; but these fair skies did not hold. After but a few hours of gentle, welcome sunshine, the final outer band of the storm arrived to spoil the fun of the sun-seekers. After the squall, everything was a mess. This was normal, more or less, and no one expected any less of the weather after living here for a time.
He thought of Black Maple, but the less he thought about her, the better. A stern, strict part of him intensely disliked the rest of him, all because he’d compromised himself because of his love of ale. Nothing had happened; absolutely nothing had happened—but he hated himself because right now, he kept thinking of what could have happened.
“Consarnit, that stings!”
“Hold still, you silly filly! Whips on your back! Those sting! Bees sting! This is medicine! It is good for you! Now hold still! Is blubbering and flailing about how you show your gratitude‽”
“But it stings like the punishin’ fires of Tartarus!”
“Fires burn, silly girl! I should know, I’ve been branded! Now hold still!”
As Nut absentmindedly turned his wrench, he sighed. The entire rear end of the wagon had to be disassembled. When the axle suffered its catastrophic failure, the whole of the rear assembly suffered irreparable damage. Rear shocks? Ruined. Brake beam? Practically match sticks. But it could be rebuilt. The sturdy steel bed was intact, but oh-so-very dented. Rear end replacements happened.
Mrs. Oleander was full of affection; just not of the maternal variety.
While some unicorns could remove nuts and bolts with telekinesis alone, Nut was not one of them. He methodically worked through the disassembly process, following every step in the manual to the letter. Nothing was skipped, no part of the job was hurried, and everything was done just so. He was not a carpenter; not at all, not in the slightest. Making the parts from scratch was quite beyond him. But, if given the proper spare parts, he could disassemble and reassemble reasonably well. He kept himself employed and housed with his skill, which was all the evidence he needed that he was sufficient.
It was his attention to detail that made him exceptional, though this detail escaped his notice.
“You have quite a job ahead of you.”
“Say again, Ethelred?”
Nut looked up from his work and spared at glance at the griffon that was curiously seagullish. Though young, the griffon was good at his work, fastidious, and excellent with customer relations. Mrs. Oleander was grooming him for better things. At the moment, Ethelred was installing brand new lanterns on an older delivery wagon. The old lanterns no longer met the city safety standards, as they did not provide enough light during inclement weather.
“A rebuild. That is a tedious, thankless job right there.”
“Ah, but it must be done.” Nut shrugged.
“How do you deal with the tedium?”
Again, Nut shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. I rather just tune everything out, I suppose, and power through. After a tedious task, I seek out something intellectually stimulating, and after a prolonged period of boredom, the mental stimulation feels a magnitude more exciting.”
“Actually… that helps. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Nut. Mrs. Oleander gave me a chance. I don’t want to let her down.”
“None of us want to let her down… she’s something special.”
From the back room, Nut heard his ward blubbering, but didn’t feel particularly worried.
When Tater Blossom strode past, Nut did not falter in his work, but he did spare a moment to have a look at her. Not only had she been cleaned up and tended to, but her mane had been trimmed. Pulled back into a ponytail as it was, and tied off with a ribbon, it made her look fetching, but also made her look younger. More fillyish somehow. Nut suspected that this was an intentional act on Mrs. Oleander’s part, and he was curious as to her motivations.
She eased herself down upon a wooden bench, sighed, and then clopped her right front hoof against the dulled edge of the flat surface upon which she sat. While she didn’t look entirely happy, she didn’t seem particularly sorrowful. It was just a difficult moment for her, a hard moment, and Nut found himself wondering if he could cheer her up.
“You look better,” he said, hoping that his words sounded sincere and meaningful. “In fact, that split in your lip appears to have closed a bit. The medicine seems to be working.”
“It stung,” she said, and there was immeasurable distance in her voice, as if she was quite far away.
“So I heard.”
Her ears pivoted about and annoyance could be seen on her face. “Mrs. Oleander called me ungrateful. I feel bad. It’s hard to be grateful when everything hurts. She needs a more tender touch.”
He sat a somewhat rusted nut upon a tray and continued his task.
“Black Maple has a tender touch. She knows what pain is, so she’s soft about things. Mrs. Oleander, she knows what pain is too, I reckon, but there ain’t nothing soft about her. How can two ponies who share the same knowin’ be so different?”
“It occurs to me,” he replied while he broke another nut free, “that you are currently in possession of the knowledge of exceptional pain. You endured quite a beating. A lesser creature might have been broken from it. Yet, here you are. Enduring. What might you do with this knowledge, I wonder? If you take a moment to observe Miss Maple and Mrs. Oleander, you can see two wholly different outcomes.”
At long last, the rusted, crusted, flakey metal leaf springs on the right side were free, and Nut was mindful of the jagged, shattered, stabby bits that would require a tetanus shot if they pierced his flesh. The briny air was not kind to iron here, the constant, endless damp was a bane to ferrous metals. Which was why he favoured brass—alas, not everything could be made from brass. Monocle firmly in place, he tugged apart the ruined metal and set it aside in a neat pile.
“My eye don’t feel so swollen. Feels like I can almost open it again. That stuff must be magic. I told Mrs. Oleander that I was all thankful like, but I feel like I should do more, because I made a fuss and blubbered like a foal. Colette would raise a fuss over iodine… and I did too, I s’pose. All us younger foals did. Was too expensive to waste and Ma… after having so many other foals, I think she was tired when it came to us. Picked her battles, I guess. We was allowed to heal up all natural like.”
An immense pile of rust flakes now littered the floor, and Nut was quite annoyed by them. Reaching out with his mind, he fetched a dustpan as well as a small broom, and he went to work tidying up his workspace whilst his ward took a moment to sort her thoughts. It didn’t take long until the floor was clean, but he lamented the fact that it would be dirty again all too soon.
“Thank you for that book, Nut. I don’t think I said that yet.”
“Think nothing of it,” he replied as he put the broom and dustpan away. “Expect more books in the future.”
Leaning down, he spent a few seconds squinting at the stainless steel bed. In the cracks and unseen places, he found rust. Not much rust, and after a quick inspection, he determined that it wasn’t rust left behind by the iron assemblies, but surface rust eating at the steel itself. The passivated metal was oxidising. Defeated, he sighed. His work was now a bit more complicated and he wondered if the surface rust could be removed. If only he had a rust removal spell, but such a thing was beyond him.
Another worker might have ignored this problem; after all, it was unseen. Hidden away. Only a complete disassembly would reveal it. Nut’s attention to detail would not allow him to ignore this. Over time, the affliction would exacerbate. Eventually, the rust would eat away enough metal that a catastrophic failure would happen. It was an outcome that could be largely avoided with effort and attention to detail.
It frustrated him that things like nuts and bolts were made of cheap, disposable iron, and wagon beds were made of enduring stainless steel. Sometimes it felt as though the parts were made to fail, as if some brilliant pony decided that they could make a bloody fortune by selling compromised parts that succumbed to the elements. After all, if the wagon makers sold a wagon that never fell apart, they wouldn’t have much in the way of repeat business.
Disgusted, he snorted and quietly cursed capitalism.
He moved around the rear of the wagon, arrived at the other side, and surveyed what needed to be done. This entire side would also have to be disassembled, so the ruined wooden axle could be free. Why not a steel axle? They existed. But they were costly. He saw that the dished wheels were a mess of wood rot, rusted iron, and filth. It was dirty. Everything was dirty. This city caused things to rot.
Repulsed, infuriated, almost driven feral from his ire, Nut briefly transformed into the Disgustang. Eyelids twitching, the corners of his mouth convulsing, he very much wanted to go and shake some sense into the pony responsible for this offense. But his anger was quick to pass, and in mere seconds, he recovered his fumbled composure. At least Black Maple had not witnessed his momentary fall from grace.
In the back of his mind, the feral Disgustang lurked…
“Nut… you kinda got scary there—”
“Think nothing of it,” he instructed. “A momentary lapse of reason. Nothing more.”
“I’m thinkin’ yer the fussy type, Nut.”
Lifting his head, he peered at Tater Blossom over the top of the wagon bed. She was smiling, a broad, beaming smile. Which had to be hurting her, given the condition of her face. He returned her smile; it was the least he could do. She was so brave, so plucky. So full of good cheer even when confronted by the spectre of the Disgustang.
“I wish I had a glass of water,” she sighed as her smile turned into something else, something not as cheerful.
“There is more to life than water.” He thought of a delicious pint and this was almost enough to cheer him up.
“But I like water, Nut. It’s… watery.”
“Indeed, it most certainly is.” Lowering his head, he got to work.
“I like the sound of the rain.”
“It is quite pleasant, is it not?”
“I wonder what Black Maple is doin’.”
To this, Nut said nothing; the less said, the better.
“You two sure were a pile of cute on that couch together.”
Yep. It was time to go to work in earnest. Armed with a wrench, Nut directed his emotion into his task, and did not allow himself to think about the fact that he’d woken up with a mouthful of Black Maple’s mane. He most certainly did not think about the curious sensation of her stumps kneading against his neck while he was lost in a one-quarter awake stupor. And under no circumstance did he allow himself to think about how he had flung her to the floor upon hearing the sound of Tater Blossom’s voice. It was misfortunate happenstance; he’d been startled out of his wits after waking up in the midst of an unfamiliar and wholly unwanted situation.
Just the mere thought of Black Maple’s perverse giggling burned his ears.
Of course she would think the comedy of errors funny, and he hated her for that.
“Ma says it’s a sin for unmarried ponies to sleep together.”
Combing through his mental filing cabinet, Nut’s brain found a suitable perfunctory response: “Have you slept with your sisters?”
“You slept with me on the train.”
“Don’t say it like that, Nut. It’s… dirty. Wrong and dirty. It makes me think that you and I should be hitched to make things simple between us. And we ain’t. So I feel funny, and a bit guilty.”
“But my assertion happens to be true, nonetheless. You slept beside me. Even leaned against me after you kept bumping your head against the glass. Does the necessity of sleep during adverse circumstances constitute sin? How does a ceremony absolve one of such reckless, carnal wickedness that is the need for slumber?”
“I don’t… I don’t understand what that means.”
“It means that Mister Nut prefers to sleep and keep company with his thesaurus, and not Miss Maple.”
The sound of Mrs. Oleander’s voice almost made Nut drop his wrench.
“Here, Miss Blossom, have a glass of water.”
“Why, thank you kindly, Mrs. Oleander. Is it safe to drink?”
“This water is. I conjured it myself. Just the water, and not the pollution. That’s the trick.”
“Why can’t Nut conjure water, I wonder?”
“Every unicorn is different. Is every earth pony strong?”
His ward’s prolonged silence made Nut smile.
“Hold on, Miss Blossom. Let me find something to set the glass on and get you a straw.”
“Mighty kind of you, Mrs. Oleander.”
As he turned his wrench, a slow, steady repetitive motion that he found relaxed him, he heard the sound of hooves as Mrs. Oleander moved about the garage floor. It would take time, he realised, to free Miss Blossom from her mother’s clutches. She’d been separated, but the toxic tendrils had not yet been cut away.
“There is but one sin, Miss Blossom, and that is theft.” All emotion, all feeling had departed from Mrs. Oleander’s voice. There was only a flat, cold monotone. “All other sins derive from theft.”
Nut was a little surprised when his ward, his pupil said nothing.
“I was stolen away from my parents when I was young. Too young to remember. It is a vague memory. More of a nightmare that haunts my sleep.” The soft clopping of hooves ceased and Nut heard the clunk of wood as a table was set down. “What I say to you is hard truth, filly, and you would do well to heed my words.
“If you steal away another and place them in bondage, you take away their freedom. And that is theft. A murder is the theft of a life, a robbery for which there is no compensation. This is the worst sort of theft, but make no mistake, it is theft. It can be compounded though. When you steal the life of another, you rob a wife of her husband, or a husband of his wife. You steal a parent away from foals. You take a sister from a brother, or a brother from a sister. What you take is precious.
“Now, when you lie, you rob another of their right to truth, and we are all born with the right to know what is true, and what is not. Grift, con-artistry, and cheating, that is the theft of fairness and trust in fairness. You rob another of their faith in their fellow ponies, and this is a dreadful sin indeed. Do you understand, Miss Blossom?”
“I do, actually. And as I think about it, I can’t find anything wrong in what you said. It’s like, all obvious and common sense. There’s proof of truth in those words, and it would be real hard to argue against. There’s… something to them but I’m havin’ some trouble thinkin’ of the words.”
“Self-evident?” Mrs. Oleander suggested.
“These statements support themselves.” A little warmth returned to Mrs. Oleander’s voice. “With but a tiny measure of reason, a mere portion of rationality, we can weigh these words upon the scales of our minds, think upon them, and know them to be true. They are incontrovertible. Indisputable. They go beyond mere opinion and ring true for all who hear them.”
As he wrenched, Nut found himself in agreement.
“To be a good pony, free of sin, one must never steal.” After a pause, Mrs. Oleander continued, “That is the long and the short of it. Do not commit theft. Take nothing. It is enough to strive to do good. And you, Miss Blossom, are a good creature, with a good heart. But your mother is a thief.”
“I… well… I s’pose she is.”
“We do not abide thieves. Now, enjoy your glass of water, Miss Blossom. And if you desire another, you have but to ask. If you will excuse me, I have recordkeeping to attend to. Keep Nut on task, and supervise his every action. That is your job, at least for now. Do not be neglectful.”
As his boss trotted away, Nut allowed himself the tiniest little wicker of annoyance.
“Nut, I keep thinkin’ ‘bout it real hard, and I can’t seem to think of a sin that isn’t theft.”
Armed with a broom and dustpan, Nut nodded to show that he had heard her while he swept the floor. His workspace needed to be tidied now that he had completely removed the entirety of the rear assembly. The rear of the wagon was up on jacks and ready for a whole new rear assembly to be installed.
Though hesitant to bring up the issue, he changed the subject.
“You’ve become my school project,” he said to Tater Blossom, who dutifully supervised his work. “My professor wishes for me to write about your integration into complex society. These will be coalesced into scientific articles and placed into the newspaper. I’ve agreed to do it, but if you are disagreeable to the idea, I can still tell them no.”
“Will I be able to read about myself in the newspaper?”
“I’d rather you not read the newspapers at all,” he was quick to reply. “Those rags will rot your brain. But I will not stop you from reading them. I might try to procure you better reading material to tempt you away from that drivel.”
“Can I read your notes about me?”
Still sweeping, he shrugged. “Why not?”
“I’m fine with this.”
He wondered how much she understood about this, and he was tempted to try and explain things, but then suffered a minor crisis of conscience. This could very well be an aspect of her adaptation into complex society, and discouraging her might very well be detrimental. He wasn’t sure and was unable to tell. Fearful that he suffered from mild confusion, Nut spent a moment in intense contemplation, and then concluded that this was something he could write about. The big opener. His first article would be about his hesitation to do this, with questions about morality and ethics.
“My new assistant. Oh my, that is quite a shiner.”
Nut put down his broom and dustpan. “Miss Blossom, this is Mister Riddle. Mister Riddle, my ward, Miss Blossom.”
“Pleased to meetcha.”
“Oh… oh… country colloquialisms. How endearingly quaint. I like you already.”
“Oh great… you talk just like Nut.”
“She’s a firebrand, Nut.”
“That she is, Mister Riddle.”
The other unicorn chuckled. “Imagine the world if taking a ward became fashionable.”
After a few seconds of consideration, Nut found himself in disagreement. Some things were not done to be fashionable. If wards became fashionable, or a fad, Nut could not see good things happening, he could see no worthy end result, and he intensely disliked the very idea. As far as bad ideas went, this was right up there with playing poker with Prince Blueblood, or starting a land war in the Midreach. One did not walk away from either unscathed.
The older black-clad unicorn glanced around, studied the partially disassembled wagon, and then focused his full attention on Tater Blossom, who sat on a bench. Tater Blossom unabashedly stared at the older gent with her one open eye, and there was something pleasantly kind about her earnest, honest face.
“She speaks like a hayseed.” Mrs. Oleander’s voice floated out of nowhere and everywhere, which made Tater Blossom look around. “Hopefully, this can be corrected. It will be corrected.”
“Can you pull a wagon, Miss?” Mister Riddle asked.
“This here hayseed can pull a wagon all day,” she replied. “Been doin’ it for most my life. Haulin’ in the harvest and movin’ heavy equipment ‘round the farm. I’m not as strong as some of my kinfolk, but I like to think I can hold my own.”
“We’ll have to get you a license, Miss. I’ll file for a learner’s permit forthwith on your behalf, since you’ll be in my employ. You’ll need to learn the rules of the road and after some time has passed, you’ll be required to take a lengthy examination to determine your road-readiness.” Mister Riddle pulled out his silver wire spectacles and perched them on his thin muzzle. “Merciful alicorns, you were pummeled.”
“I tried to give as good as I got, but there was just too many.”
“Ghastly.” The old unicorn shuddered, huffed, and then turned his attention to Nut. “Last night, while enjoying Widow Oleander’s company, I had a fantastic idea. It needs fleshing out, but I am going to use the library as a sort of adult education center. One that will cater to immigrants. Take in new arrivals to our fair city, evaluate them, test them thoroughly, and determine what sort of help they might need. I suppose we can use this information to help them find meaningful employment as well. Come to think of it, there’s nothing stopping us from helping the whole community, so we’ll do that… but we’ll include the immigrants too. I cannot help but feel that more must be done to help them.”
“That was my idea.” Mrs. Oleander’s voice seemed to come floating out of the toolbox.
Mister Riddle turned huffy-puffy. “Madam, I shared my ideas with you—”
“I took your scatterbrained approach and made it sensible,” the toolbox replied in Mrs. Oleander’s voice. “You spoke with a mouthful of teacake. Odious.”
“Well, that can’t be argued, I supposed. To be fair, I just had the idea and shared it in a rather excited state. I would have refined it eventually.”
Leaning over, Tater Blossom attempted to peer down into the depths of the toolbox.
“Er, is something wrong, Miss Blossom?” Mister Riddle asked.
“The toolbox just said something about something smelly, I think,” she replied.
“Oh no, my dear. Odious. Revolting. Repulsive. Exceptional unpleasantness.”
“That’s not a nice thing for a toolbox to say.”
“Well”—Mister Riddle paused as Nut chortled and shot the younger unicorn a dark look—“sometimes one acts without thinking. They are hasty and speak while consuming a teacake while in the company of an attractive, intelligent widow. Now, such a—”
The words echoed up out of the toolbox, and Mister Riddle, quite disturbed by them, had the audacity to shut the lid, which squeaked in protest. But this did no good, as a moment later, a container full of screws began tut-tutting and clucking its tongue at him. With a sigh, Mister Riddle’s withers could be seen sagging beneath his jacket as his head shook from side to side.
“I never fully picked up the knack for ventriloquism.”
“Me neither, Mister Riddle,” Nut said to the older unicorn.
“The library is well-equipped to teach the basics.” Mister Riddle cast a sidelong glance at the container of screws, as if waiting for it to have its say. “Reading, writing, arithmetic. Not everyone who arrives upon our shores has these basic skills. We should do something about that. If they’re courageous enough to make the journey, then I’d say we owe them a fair chance at success. They didn’t come here to take up space, they came here to live. We could be doing more to help assist their efforts.”
The container of screws had nothing to say and maintained its silence.
“Moreover,” Mister Riddle continued, “something needs to be done about the uneducated, illiterate adults. The library could be doing more. I am going to have fliers printed up so that I might pass them out when I make my rounds with the library wagon.”
“Ponies who can’t read can’t do much with print on paper.” Tater Blossom squirmed on the bench, and her next words were apologetic. “And they won’t be checkin’ out books from the library wagon. I don’t mean to be smart. Just pointin’ out what I think should be obvious.”
“But you raise a fine point.” After he shuffled about, Mister Riddle lapsed into thoughtful silence.
“The factories out in the boroughs depend heavily upon educational failure,” Nut said. At last he felt that he had something to contribute. “The wards are set up in such a way that the schools are critically underfunded. They’re really not schools, but a place where the poor are prepared for life in a factory. If they had a solid education, they might choose to make a living somewhere other than a factory. Mister Riddle, this will interfere with the established agenda.
“Damn the established agenda,” the old unicorn muttered.
Nut tried to offer a warning. “You will encounter resistance—”
“Damn the resistance.” Yanking off his spectacles, Fiddle Riddle cast his baleful gaze on Nut. “We spoke yesterday, you and I. You know how I feel. I think we can survive a little instability as changes are instituted.” He adjusted his black jacket, tugged at his cravat, and his tail flicked with agitation. “The city won’t even allow mobile libraries to traverse the boroughs. Won’t grant the permits. They say it is for our own safety, because the residents of the wards would rob us blind. I’ve been silent about this for years.”
“Well, causing a scene is so unseemly—”
“Sarcasm.” Mister Riddle’s tone turned deadpan. “We Canterlot nobles love our own sarcasm. Almost as much as we love the sound of our own eloquent voices. We’ll be causing a scene, Nut.”
“Wait, I’m being dragged into this?”
“We’re nobles, Nut. We have an obligation. If not us, then who? This city is criminally mismanaged. A city should not be a factory for self-perpetuating poverty.”
“And what are we to do?”
“I don’t know yet, Nut. But causing a scene is a good start. I am done being quiet.”
“What have I done?” Nut asked in a quiet, subdued, meek tone that seemed quite weary.
“What I should have done a long time ago, when I was still young enough to make a difference.” For a moment, Mister Riddle’s face twitched from intensity, and with the way his tail whipped about, one might think he was besieged by flies.
“There’ll be no living with him now,” the container of screws said. “Who wants lunch?”
Nut cast his eager eyes upon the box of sandwiches that Mister Riddle sat down upon the table. He observed Ethelred doing the same, and Tater Blossom as well. Mrs. Oleander placed cups on the rough, worn down, and somewhat scratched table, which was used for everything, even dining sometimes on rare occasions.
But, try as he might, Nut could not remember eating a meal together with anybody else at this table. Something was different about this, though how or why, he could not say. There was something different with Fiddle Riddle and Widow Oleander, though what had changed exactly was unknown. He couldn’t help but think of Black Maple, and when he did, he felt a rising sense of frustration that bothered him a great deal.
“Fried cheese curd sandwiches, the only known cure for healthy, well-to-do arteries,” Mister Riddle said as he opened the box, which released a delightful aroma. “Miss Blossom, prepare for your introduction to city living. Ethelred, be a kind fellow and serve the good brown gravy. I ordered extra, so the sandwiches could be drenched, as is proper.”
Mrs. Oleander rolled her eyes, but not a word was said.
“Now, Miss Blossom, do not be shy. Sure, you have no magic, or claws, but you do have the enthusiasm of youth. This will be messy, there is no helping that. No one will think any less of you.” Mister Riddle bowed his head and while he did so, he lifted out a small maple loaf cake, which he sniffed before placing on the table. “No one gets desert until their sandwich is finished. I’ll hear no complaints about trim figures.”
The bell rang. Nut’s heart sank, but it could not be ignored, and he wasn’t about to allow this marvellous moment to be ruined. Before Mrs. Oleander could depart, he gave her a gentle tug upon her well-fitted coat and said, “Allow me.”
“Have lunch, Nut.”
“Oh no, I insist. Do sit down. I assure you, I can deal with even the fussiest of clients if necessary. If we stand here arguing, they will be kept waiting.”
“I do hope they like waiting,” he remarked with dry casualness.
“—see to the client, Nut. But don’t think that I’ll soon forget this.”
“Excuse me,” he said to the others, “please await my return, but by all means, eat.”
And before anything else was said, he slipped through the door to deal with the client.
A young mare waited at the counter. She was about his age, maybe, it was hard to tell. Nut studied her for a moment, took note of her working class demeanour, the way she stood and waited, but he also observed her fine wool coat that was clearly tailored, and not pulled from the rack. If her coat had been bought off the rack, she was an extraordinarily lucky mare indeed.
He went with a somewhat less than formal address so that she would be put at ease.
“Greetings. What might I do for you, Miss? Have you come to inquire about a rental, or are you in need of repairs?”
“I need a hearse,” she replied.
“My condolences,” he offered.
“Thank you,” she said, and there was a quick bob of her head.
“I am Nut. We do have a hearse for rent.”
“This is all quite new to me. My mother, she’s buried others before, but right now, she is beside herself with grief. I don’t know what I am doing.”
“Not to worry, Miss. I do know what I am doing, and I assure you, I can walk you through the process step by step. There are printed lists over there, in the wooden bin by the register. A checklist of sorts. It can be easy to lose track of things during a state of emotional turmoil.”
“My father is down here,” the young mare said, “and his grave is near the Wall District.” She frowned. “I’m Marjoram.”
“Miss Marjoram, you will need to schedule use of the cargo lift. Not the wagon lift, the hearse will not fit on the wagon lift. Make sure to contact the fine griffons at the cargo lift. You will need to schedule a trip up, and a trip down. They have reasonable rates for funerals.”
“Do you have a team?” she asked.
“We do not keep a team in-house,” he replied. “But we can get you in contact with professionals. Most customers have their own team… family members, fellow employees, friends, etcetera.” He allowed himself a sincere expression of concern—and waited.
“All of this is a headache,” Marjoram said on the verge of tears. “My father saved and scrimped his whole life to buy a house in the Upper City, but the costs kept climbing. Before he died, he purchased two grave plots; one for himself, and one for my mother. He was in his forties. My father worked himself to death trying to buy a house that he had no hope of ever affording. And now, I’m stuck dealing with all of this, and he had to make everything complicated. Even the graves were expensive, and we’re having to take out loans just to do all of this.”
“I am dreadfully sorry.”
“Thank you.” Marjoram turned away, and then began looking at the walls, which were covered in signs that listed various services and rates.
“How many ponies are needed to pull the hearse?” she asked.
“Typically, six.” Nut paused when he saw Marjoram’s expression, and then he explained, “It is an exceptionally large hearse. Sometimes, it takes as many as nine. The hearse has an occupancy for twelve, and it is capable of holding two coffins in an over-under placement. It is both a hearse and a limousine. It is quite unique, and the only one of its like in the whole of the city.”
“Father would have liked it. He adored one of a kind things. Like my mother. Or me.” A quivering smile could be seen gracing Marjoram’s lips, but her eyes suggested that tears might fall at any moment.
“To reserve the hearse, we’ll need a deposit. I do apologise for that, but that is policy. We’ll need payment in full before or by the day of rental. To make things easier, we have cold storage for the departed, so they can be here waiting, ready for their big day. We are licensed and bonded, so you can rest assured that your beloved departed will be given the care, consideration, and dignity that they are due. Once our services are engaged, and payment is rendered, we arrange for the transfer of the body from the morgue to our facility, which, I suppose, is one less thing for you to worry about.”
“This is a load off of my back,” the young mare said, almost sighing. “I’ll go and fetch a bank note for full payment. Not sure how long that will take. I don’t know if the day is long enough to get everything done.”
“I’ll begin preparing a service contract, forthwith.” After he drew himself into his most dignified, most starchy posture, he continued, “I shall do everything I can at my end to make things easier. Will you need the services of a team?”
“I will,” she replied.
“Then I shall handle the arrangements and secure their services for you. Free of charge. Of course, you will still need to pay them for their services rendered, but I ask for nothing for my own efforts.” Lunch, it seemed, would have to wait, but he was no stranger to cold lunch.
“I understand, thank you.” Marjoram’s tears could no longer be held back and the first one fell. “That is very kind of you.”
“Might I enquire what you father did for a living?”
“He was a shipwright.” She sniffled a bit, and put on a brave face. “Moving to the Upper City made no sense. His work was down here. His life was down here. Everything in his life was here, right here, and for the life of me, I do not understand why he wanted to escape it. He was always going on about the need for escape. His dream held us back.”
Thinking of his own plans, Nut spent a moment nodding. “Sometimes, we sacrifice much for our dreams. It sounds as though your father was a passionate individual.”
“More passion than common sense.” Marjoram’s expression turned from tearful to angry. “He could have invested in his own business. We could have lived in a nice house down here, in this place we belonged, but we lived above his workshop so he could save money. Every day, we did without, all for the sake of the dream. His dream. And at the end of his life, he goes and takes all of his savings, everything we could have used to get ahead, and he buys two plots of land that he couldn’t even afford. He mortgaged his workshop to cover the cost of the crypt. Before he died, he spoke of finally having his mansion. Why am I doing all of this for him? He made such a mess of things.”
“If I may state the obvious without rebuke, it is clearly because you loved him.” Nut allowed himself a sincere frown, and he shook his head. “His dreams were his own. Perhaps things might have been done differently. Ultimately, he lived his dream. There will be a grand funeral procession that goes from the Lower City to the Upper City, and his tired old bones will be laid to rest. Tell me, Miss Marjoram, do you have a dream?”
“I do,” she was quick to reply. “To clean up my father’s mess and then move on with my own life.”
For some reason, Nut found this answer quite unsatisfying, but he was not one to judge, so he held his tongue on the issue. It did make him consider his own plans, and for some reason, he thought of the many things that Black Maple had to say. The very thought of her fanned the flames of his resentment of her, and he felt itchy under his skin.
“I was just married… it was my father’s wish, but it was mine as well. My husband will assume ownership of my father’s workshop and all of my father’s debts. He has a plan to dig us out of debt and then it is my dream to give my mother the sort of life that my father wouldn’t.”
Nut noticed the use of the word ‘wouldn’t’ rather than ‘couldn’t’; it made him wince.
“You’ve been quite helpful. Thank you. It was nice talking to you, actually. You seem to be a good listener. That feels rare these days, you know? Everypony is too busy to listen to others. At least, it feels that way.” Then, as tears ran down her cheeks, she added, “I am ready to bury all of this, and put it to rest. The sooner this is done and over, the sooner I can move on with my life. You’re right. I do love my father. For better or worse. And he loved me. I’ve never doubted that.”
As he stood there, passive, listening, Nut thought of Tater Blossom and Hickory.
“I’ll be back with the required bank note,” she said.
“And I shall have everything ready upon your return,” he replied.
Turning about, Marjoram shook her head from side to side, and then she departed.
Now alone, Nut thought of the Gallopagos, and felt a twinge of regret that he had not felt before.