The rain that spattered against the window provided a soothing, steady beat. Black ink, like glistening ichor of ancient cephalopodic abominations, flowed from the stained silver chisel tip of the ink pen, whose body was made from the finest rosewood. An invisible hand, the gentle but persistent force of the storm itself, rocked the ship like a cradle as it cut its way through the waves.
As he was wont to do, Nut wrote at length of his ward.
For all these years now, she had been his companion, his assistant, and his friend. She had long since integrated into complex society; the clever Miss Blossom had found her place in the world. But he still wrote about her, her successes, and frequently embellished her cleverness, though never by very much. She was often the source of the best ideas, the very ideas that he needed to further his own dreams. This trip to the Gallopagos was her doing. She was the social creature that had charmed so many, and in doing so, made this trip possible.
Witty, treasured, beloved by all, she was the toast of all of Vanhoover—and Canterlot as well.
His pen scratched against the ivory paper of the hardbound ledger, and left behind looping, flowing, beautiful script that was almost too perfect. With such perfection, the written words almost had an unbelievable quality to them, a sort of suggested impossibility that left them difficult to read. The eyes diverted away from such perfection, so one was not driven to despair over one’s own shortcomings.
A thunderous knock against the hardwood door of his tiny cabin jostled him from his work, and caused the glistening ink to blot upon the paper. An imperfection that could be sorted out with a bit of magic, but not right now. As Nut looked up from his work and brought his gaze to bear upon the heavy, sturdy hardwood door, it opened.
“We near the outer islands. Things aren’t well. Captain requests that you be up topside.”
The griffon delivering this message appeared quite apologetic.
“I’ll be up in a moment,” Nut replied. “Tell the Captain that I’ll be right there.”
Lightning hued the nauseating green of witchfire flashed in the distance and the night sky had a disturbing sickly viridescent tint as the befouled light reflected off of the storm clouds. The rain-drenched deck was crowded with bodies wearing vivid yellow rain slickers. Bobbing up and down, the horizon that surrounded them on all sides couldn’t hold still.
Nothing felt right, but this close to the Gallopagos, that was a given.
Peering out from beneath Susan’s canopy, Nut said, “Captain.”
“I don’t think the counter-measures will hold,” the grizzled diamond dog replied. “The ship feels wrong. We should turn back.”
Eyes narrowing, shaking his head from side to side, Nut voiced his disapproval with a single harsh syllable: “No.”
“No?” The Captain went still as rain ran down his slicker in rivulets.
“You say the ship feels wrong. Explain.”
“It just feels wrong. Everything feels wrong.”
“What proof is there of trouble?” asked Nut.
“Instruments and gauges misbehave. The thaumaton reader is in the yellow.”
“All these things are expected. We continue as planned.”
Sheltered from the downpour beneath Susan, Nut studied the crew, and feared mutinous behaviour. If necessary, he would cut them down. He was too close now to turn back. These risks would be managed. Hunches would be ignored. To many years of his life were spent in pursuit of this impossible dream. Fortunes were spent on the necessary advances to make this possible.
“We should back off… at least until the storm passes.”
“Miss Blossom, storms happen. Why aren’t we studying this phenomenon right now, so that we might understand what effect that wild magic has upon our physiology? What of the specimens down below in the pens?”
There was a heavy thump of wood against wood, and Black Maple came forward. “Everypony—everyone—came up on deck to convince you to turn back. I think you should keep going though. Just to see what happens.” Secure in her slicker, sheltered from the storm, the pegasus mare approached Nut’s side, and her wooden prostheses thump-thump-thumped against the wooden deck.
“I’ve spent my life in waiting of this moment… there will be no turning back.”
“We’ve chained our fates to your own, Nut.” Black Maple could be seen grinning beneath her broad-brimmed bright yellow hat. “We all knew what we were getting into when we departed upon this voyage.”
“Indeed, we did,” Potato Blossom agreed, and she could be heard sighing. “I left home and followed you. It has led me here. What is the point of coming this far if I don’t see this through to the end?”
Mere seconds after the rain-slickered earth pony had spoken, the deck heaved. The wood began to warp, twist, and then new growth appeared. Branches grew. Green leaves sprouted. Old dead wood was now very much alive, and the metal hull creaked like whales in a concerto. Rain slickers began to dissolve as the magic-infused rain interacted with the inert, rubberised material. Even Susan showed signs of peculiar strangeness, and seemed that she now drew breath.
With every passing second, the weirdness grew worse, and far more inexplicable.
There was an almost audible gasp as logic died, and proportion followed shortly after. Nut found that he no longer cared about knowing, or having answers. Only the destination mattered. He would reach his islands—the Gallopagos would be his, no matter what. No cost was too great. The ship was transforming all around him, becoming something else.
Some great invisible force tugged at him and he felt something lodge inside of his mind, something very much like a sliver. His eyes changed; he blinked, and then a moment later, the world had taken on a bluish tint of sorts, which stood out in sharp contrast to the green of the witchfire storm.
“Not all dreams have favourable outcomes,” he heard a familiar voice say, a voice that was both inside of his head as well as outside.
The ship rose and fell, a victim to the waves, and the deck continued its strange transmutation. Fierce forces were at work and Nut sensed chaos. For most of his life, chaos bothered him. Unnerved him. He was a creature of order, of harmony. But now, as his journey neared its end, and reality began to unravel, he was forced to embrace chaos. To become one with it.
A griffon stumbled, lost his balance, and fell into Nut. They did not bounce apart, which was strange, but remained bonded together in some weird way. He could feel the sliver in his mind burrowing deeper, and it was only through supreme willpower that he held onto himself as both he and the griffon melted into one another. His flesh had become like boiling wax, and the griffon’s as well. Their biomass was merging, somehow, and he became aware of the griffon’s thoughts within his own mind.
In what might have been seconds, or possibly hours, the griffon was gone, except that he wasn’t. Nut stared down at his left front leg, which was now rather griffonish in nature, and a single wing now flapped against his left side. His body felt wrong now, incomplete, and he was growing longer—more noodly. Yes, he’d gone noodly with chaos, and that was fine.
Chaos gave him gravity.
The others on deck began to stumble into him, and their bodies merged and melded together with his own. Biomass began to transmogrify and their thoughts began flitting around in his mind, unwelcome guests who made quite a racket. They were screaming, great and terrible screams that deafened him and disturbed him. But the screaming was inside of his head, not outside, and reality stretched like a stringy slice of cheese pizza on the verge of tearing free.
Much to his regret and dismay, he noticed that Potato Blossom was slowly losing herself as she faded into him. He could feel her intelligence, her strength, and her charisma all becoming his. She didn’t do much to resist, a mere token effort, perhaps done more out of terror than any real desire to break free and flee.
"We followed your dream. You made us believe in your dream, and we trusted you. You did this to us."
These were her final parting words as he consumed her, and she became one with him.
All of them were screaming now, shrieking between his ears, and he could feel that his sanity had suffered grievous injury. Black Maple alone had somehow resisted the pull, the draw, but no longer. She flung herself against him, a sensate to the end. He felt her wings encircle his neck, and her wooden legs sprouted new growth, complete with tiny brass fruits.
“This isn’t the sex I had in mind, but this is fine,” she said as her right wing sloughed off of her body.
It travelled down Nut’s neck, down his withers, and then began to burrow into his spine. It took root, and now he had a pegasus wing to match the griffon wing on the other side. He was long now, too long, and he had absorbed far too much biomass. Why, even the wood of the ship was now merging with him now that he’d partially absorbed Black Maple’s legs.
He was part plant; perhaps he’d take on troll-like qualities.
Black Maple kissed him, her tongue parted his lips, and with a sickening squish, he felt it tear free. Like a serpent, it slithered over his tongue, flailing and flopping about, and then it went wriggling down his throat into the undiscovered country of his guts. Black Maple’s lips were now fused with his own, and there would be no separating himself from her ever again. She was losing herself to him, and as the madness intensified, he could feel her tongue burrowing into deep, secret places.
“When the Black Star fell from the Endless Night, the dark space beyond the stars, parts of it broke off as it entered our atmosphere. Part of it is here, in this place, lodged like a thorn buried in the flesh of the earth. Sapient minds cannot exist here, as there is only madness. Is this what you wanted?”
So many voices were screaming now, a chorus of the lost all shrieking between his ears. None of his limbs matched. A griffon’s claw. The leg of a diamond dog. An Abyssianian’s paw. One leg was curiously made of living wood and was currently growing bark to function as skin. His brand new wings fluttered, and with each flap, they found new strength.
“What have you become?” the voice asked.
“I am Nature,” he replied, “and I delight in not making sense. I am the contrariness of controlled chaos. All will evolve at my whim and witness my insane majesty.”
Oh, he was becoming ever-so-noodly and his fluffy feline tail curled into a curious interrobang.
Black Maple’s tongue writhed into his heart at last, and he felt the last of his sanity pop like a soap bubble. He laughed, and it felt good to laugh. It really was the best medicine. The lifeforms kept below decks were drawn into him now, a fine collection of genes and random bits of deoxyribonucleic acid for him to play with. And why not? He could change things around on a whim. Evolve into whatever suited him at the moment. What if the right mood struck him and he no longer was in the mood to be warm blooded? He had options.
“You can never leave this place,” the voice said, now sad. “If you leave the magic here, you will become something else, and there is no telling what that might be. Enjoy your destination, Nature, for it has become your prison. At long last, the Gallopagos are yours. All it cost you was—”
Giggling, he allowed himself to slip beneath the waves, to see what he might evolve into.
“Nut, wake up, I’m cold. It’s too cold to sleep.”
Senses dull, Nut dredged himself up from the depths and tried to make sense of the world. He’d been… noodly somehow, though he could not say why or how. When his eyes blinked open, he knew that he’d been dreaming, though what about was unknown. One by one, his senses returned to function, and he became dully aware that Tater Blossom’s snoot was scant inches away from his own.
“My blankets don’t do no good, Nut. It’s all cold down below under me. I can’t stop shiverin’ and everything hurts. Help.” Then, almost whining, she added, “There’s no way to get warm, Nut, and it feels like I’m dyin’. Did all those shots make me sick?”
When she spoke, Nut distinctly heard her saying, “Everythang.” It was charming, in its own way, part of what made her special, and as he struggled with wakefulness, he found himself in a noodlistic state of mind. What this meant, exactly, was unknown; it was just a general state of noodliness that could not be readily dismissed.
Why was there light?
She had turned the light on.
“I’m awake.” This wasn’t a lie; not exactly. He was technically awake, but his awareness suffered. “What is it, Miss Blossom?” With every blink, the curious blue tint to his vision retreated a bit, and the vague awareness of his dreaming mind retreated so that his waking mind might function. “Are you well?”
“No, I ain’t. I’m freezin’ my rump off. Help!”
“Hold on, give me a moment to recover myself…”
In Miss Blossom’s room, he was quick to sort out the problem. It was a failure on his part, at least, he felt this way. Fighting back the urge to yawn, he folded one blanket into thirds, and then laid this folded blanket over the hammock. He tucked it this way, and that way, and tried to smooth it out a bit, so there would be no awful wrinkles that pressed into tender flesh.
“You had nothing beneath you, Miss Blossom. What you need is a layer of insulation… like so. See how I have folded the blanket? That creates insulating pockets of air. Now, climb into bed—careful now.”
She was sleepy, but did as she was told, and he helped her to keep the folded blanket from getting too mussed up. Once in the hammock, she stretched out a bit, yawned, and rested her head against the blanket. He picked up the remaining blankets, held them high from the floor, folded them all in half all together as one, and then laid them over Miss Blossom.
“Give it some time to warm up,” he said to her. “Comfortable?”
He saw her nod.
It was almost cold enough to see his breath, and he struggled against the urge to shiver. He’d left his own warm bed behind to do this. Regrettably, his bed would no longer be warm, and it would take time to warm it upon his return—if he returned. Without thought of what he was doing, he absentmindedly tucked his ward’s blankets around her, and tugged at the corners until everything was just so.
“This is a lot nicer,” he heard her say. “The ropes of the hammock felt like they were cuttin’ into my skin.”
To which, he nodded and replied, “Yes, these hammocks are a bit coarse. Scratchy. They were built to last, and not for comfort. But things are better now?”
Again, he saw her nod.
It was no bed fit for royalty. Nor was it fit for nobility. In fact, most ponies would forgo this as a sleeping solution altogether, and the hammock was consigned to sailors and the like, because it was ideal for rocking, swaying ships. It seemed that they could also be found in rooms available above garages, a cheap solution that was not only functional, but prevented bedbugs.
“I miss Pa.” She sighed, and her voice softened to the point of almost being inaudible. “Ma too. She did me wrong… she did me a whole lotta wrong, but I still love her. It bugs me though.”
“There is nothing inherently wrong with loving your mother. Even if she wronged you.”
“That… makes me feel better, but I don’t reckon I know why.”
She went still in her bed; no longer did she squirm. No doubt, she was getting warmer, either from trapped body heat or reassuring conversation. He stood dutifully by her bed, her hammock, uncertain if he would return to his. Now that he was awake, returning to a state of sleep would be difficult, and there was work that could be done. There was always work that could be done.
“Everypony seems so nice, even if y’all talk funny. None of this has been what I expected. Mrs. Oleander, she’s great. I thought she’d be mean, but she ain’t. Doctor Dogwood is nice and funny. I’m lookin’ forward to workin’ with Mister Riddle and I think I feel safe around him. He’s a bit like you, Nut. But I like Black Maple the most. She’s the best.”
Nut’s expression transitioned into something a bit more deadpan.
“I love the city, and I can’t wait to see more of it. But, it’s colder here, and everything is wet, and damp, and chilly, and soggy, and everything is so big, so tall, and there are so many ponies and other creatures all crammed into such a tight space. And there’s ice cream, that’s good stuff. I read about it in Pinkie Pie’s book… she calls it frozen happiness and I see why. But… but I think there was more ponies and creatures in that ice cream shop than there was back in the place where I was born, and it felt like everything was pressin’ in on me when I was in there.”
Her orange tongue darted out and licked her lips.
“Everything was so clean and white in that place. The floors, the ceiling, the walls… ain’t never seen nothing like it. All that steel and glass. When I was a-waitin’ in line with you, I couldn’t help but think that everything ‘round me had to cost more than everything I knew in my hometown. All that glass and steel and the floor and the ceiling and all those fancy tables and chairs with all that shiny steel that you could see yerself in… and all of that was in just one building. Plus there was all those electric lights and warm air a-blowin’ out of vents in the ceiling.”
“Ah yes,” he mentioned, “the forced-air radiator. Fantastic invention. Some brilliant pony thought it would be a fine idea to use a fan to move the heat generated by a radiator. I do believe it will change the world. Civilisation is an endless parade of marvels.”
“And that grocery store… seein’ all that food… so the food we grow in Widowwood, it gets picked, processed, put on a train, and comes to cities like this one… and ends up in grocery stores like that one. There was so much light, Nut… and more steel and glass. Plus all that white tile.”
“Yes, all of that is quite captivating, but you mustn’t play with the automated doors. ‘Tis a busy place, and customers must get in and out. Which they can’t do while some fascinated farm filly is playing with the doors.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. But it was like magic, Nut.”
“Not magic… steam actuators and a bit of electricity. Pressure plates. That is actually the point of the whole contraption… technology as a replacement for magic. The doors whoosh open and invite shoppers to come inside.” He allowed himself a soft smile. “I shall have to show you an escalator.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Now yer just pullin’ my leg, Nut. Why would stairs move?”
“Because, honestly, we creatures are lazy. We’ve evolved to conserve energy when we can. But I assure you, the stairs move. You just stand on one and it will move you up or down. There is a grand moving staircase at the department store, and there are displays on both sides, with advertisements aplenty. See, the shoppers are moving at the pace of the escalator, which is quite slow, and the store management is quite clever to entice a captive audience.”
“But… but why make the stairs move?” she asked.
“Verily,” he replied, “because they can. Conspicuous displays of technological prosperity. The various department stores all want to show their shoppers how successful they are, and in turn, consumers feel a bit of exclusivity. All of the poor shop in one place, if they shop at all, while the working class frequents another, and then the wealthy and well-to-do visit temples of hedonistic consumerism where they engage in orgies of opulent indulgement they call retail therapy.”
Tater Blossom yawned, and her orange tongue lolled out.
“The city is a living organism, Miss Blossom. It grows ever-more complex. Like us, it evolves, adapts, and changes. Our fine electrical grid, questionable as though it might be, happens to be much like a central nervous system. It allows our fine city to operate like a large, complex body. We have the telegraph network, and constabulary call boxes where you flip a switch so that the constables or an ambulance might be summoned to that specific box. And that is but one of many marvellous technologies that allow the city to function and prosper as it continues to grow.”
“Tell me about it tomorrow… I’m sleepy.”
“Good night, Miss Blossom. Your refinement will continue on the morrow.”
A misty drizzle fell from the scattered clouds above, which parted frequently to reveal tantalising glimpses of Luna’s moon. It was cold, but not freezing. Up on the roof, Nut watched his beloved insomniac city, an organism that did not know sleep. Fishing boats returned and departed. Cargo ships made deliveries so that empty shelves could be restocked for the morning rush. The steady clip-clop of hooves could be heard from the streets below as delivery wagons and trash wagons navigated the narrow, twisty streets.
Stars could be seen, when the clouds allowed it, and Nut reveled in the beauty to be found just above him. Cliffside was a vertical sea of lights that stretched beyond the realms of visibility. Windows were lit with warm, vivid colours of yellow and orange. The night air was especially briny, moist, and smelt of the city, both pleasant as well as unpleasant.
Here on Anvil Island, most of the streetlights were gas lamps, which had a subdued warm ambiance, though parts of the island were a bit more modernised. He lived in the horn of Anvil Island, the least desirable part, and over near the foot of the island, the electric lights shone the brightest. As he stood looking at the stars and the lights around him, an airship slipped into its secure mooring.
The city was a savage, civilised place, and he was madly in love with it.
Celestia’s sun threatened to cast its wholesome orange light upon the city and the clouds rushed in to defend the city-dwellers from the sudden onslaught of dawn. Nut looked out the open garage door, thoughtful, and a bit weary. He’d finished the axle replacement on the trash wagon, cleaned the entirety of the shop, greased and oiled the garage door mechanisms, and gave the hearse a careful waxing.
Now, he was hungry, and in need of breakfast.
Breakfast however, cost money.
Money, sadly was in short supply.
He would be getting a sizeable commission from the repair of the trash wagon.
Commission work was in danger, threatened by the agendas of the various labour representatives. It was something he’d thought about during the long night. For some ponies, such as himself, he remained employed because of commissions. He had a perfectly good arrangement with Mrs. Oleander, one that he was satisfied with, and he did not feel exploited. She housed him, gave him residence, and he did odd jobs to earn his room.
But his pay came from commissions—generous commissions. Such as the repair of the trash wagon. But all of this was in danger as there was intense pressure to enact a law that all labourers and employees must be paid an hourly wage or a salaried wage—which Nut suspected would end his amicable agreement with Mrs. Oleander.
Oh, he understood the necessity of it all; labour reforms were necessary and needed. The roof over his head was in danger as well, as one of the issues hotly discussed was company housing. Which was, in fact, quite exploitative. One only had to look at the wards and boroughs to see evidence of that. On the odd chance that something was actually done about this, Mrs. Oleander would no longer be able to house him. The implications were far-reaching, and a bit worrisome.
Mister Riddle was housed in his own library.
Leaning against the bricks, he pulled the watch from his pocket, flipped it open, and had himself a good look at his parents. They would never know concern over housing, or labour disputes, or any of the struggles that he himself found so dire. His parents didn’t work because they had to—they had no need of money—but instead worked because it was their passion. Neither of them even drew a salary, at least as far as he knew.
A wagon covered in a tarpaulin went trundling past, pulled by four stout earth ponies.
With a soft click of brass, he snapped his watch shut and returned it to his pocket. He felt that he was a better pony for knowing of the struggle of the commoners, and he had some regrets about asking his parents for help—though he still did not know how he felt about the whole issue. Some regrets, sure, but nothing else seemed to manifest. It had been a grand social experiment, now undone by his own integrity.
He wondered when the telegram would arrive.
“You didn’t call her Miss, Nut. What’s up with that?”
The question caught him off guard and made him consider his actions. He glanced at his ward, and then with a turn of his head, he watched as Grace Smooth vanished through the door that led into the kitchen. Miss Blossom was observant, clever, and good with details it seemed. It was true; he called her ‘Gracie.’
“She and I are friends,” he said at last.
“But Black Maple is called Miss Maple.”
“Why yes, I suppose so. Most of the time.” Nut shrugged without awareness of him doing so. “She and I are friends”—he grimaced as he became aware that he had repeated himself—“and we have a more casual relationship.”
“So what makes a friendship casual?” asked Tater Blossom.
Much to his dismay, Nut discovered that he didn’t know. Grace Smooth was likable. She had a touch of charisma magic, which put others around her at ease. He stumbled into the realisation that he didn’t know why he called her ‘Gracie,’ or why he had such fond feelings for her. It was just a friendship, but one based on mutual respect. Then again, all friendships should be based on mutual respect, so he found himself unaware of his own motivations.
“I don’t actually know,” he admitted.
“And you said so without a whole book’s worth of words, too. Incredible.”
“Fantastic, Miss Blossom. It seems that you are adjusting and fitting right in.”
“Well”—she stretched out the word until it was entirely too long—“I did learn how to keep warm in a hammock last night, so thanks. I woke up toasty, which I gotta say, surprised me.”
Grace barged out of the kitchen, bearing two mugs of hot spiced apple cider. She returned to the table, set them down, and said, “The oatmeal will be out in a bit. Breakfast got started late. Sorry about that.” Then, without further ado, the busy mare was off again to tend to other customers.
Tater Blossom groped the earthenware mug, pulled it close, wrapped her fetlocks around it, and then with her head held over it, she inhaled the fragrant, spicy steam. Nut pulled his own mug closer and then, he too enjoyed the cinnamon-spiked treat. It was the perfect sort of alcohol for breakfast, a great way to start the day. Nothing that would cause a buzz, but one would find themselves with a light, springy step.
“So houses ‘round here, they don’t have kitchens?”
He took a moment to consider his answer before he replied, “Kitchens take up space. Larger, wealthier homes have kitchens and even have dining rooms. Smaller houses and apartments forgo kitchens completely to eke out a little more living space.”
“That seems so strange to me. I can’t imagine a home without a kitchen.”
“A lot of ponies have no time to cook. City ponies are busy ponies. Cooking and cleaning require significant time investment, even with the advent of time-saving appliances. Most eat in public houses, like you and I are doing right now.” He watched as she took a sip of her hot cider, and then he slurped some of the foam off of his.
It was strange, having breakfast. Typically, he didn’t. As a meal, it was skipped, and sometimes, so was lunch. Lots of ponies skipped meals, he’d reasoned, and he desired to be just like the typical pony, so missing out on a meal was a means to be normal. Yet even thinking of his ward doing without a meal left him despondent, filled with a prickly dread he dared not face. He’d almost ordered breakfast for her and done without himself, but he knew that she would say something, or worse, refuse to eat.
What did it mean to survive, exactly?
There was no time to answer, to contemplate, because he heard the all-too-familiar thump-thump of wood against wood. A small sigh of distress escaped from him, and when Black Maple appeared on the stairs, all traces of emotion fled from him. He hunched over his drink and then pretended as hard as he could that he didn’t exist. His pleasant morning was over.
“Tater… how are you?”
“I’m fine, how ‘bout you, Blackie?”
Oh, this was somehow worse than he’d imagined it, and he could feel his neck cramping as Black Maple sat down beside Tater Blossom. The two females leaned close, with the older using her wing to pat the younger. His ward had a friend, a confidant, which should be a cause for celebration—but that friend was the pony that annoyed him like no other. It bothered him that he had to say something, some means of greeting, some manner of acknowledgment.
Just as he was about to say hello—
“So, Tater, do you miss my bed?”
Nut almost snorted into his mug of cider.
“I do… I sure did last night. I was a-freezin’. But Nut showed me a trick and then I was pretty warm and comfortable even, so it wasn’t bad.”
There was a clunk of wood against wood when Black Maple rested her prostheses against the table. She wore a reckless grin—it was dangerous, that grin, far too reckless and dangerous for a pony just out of bed—and Nut allowed his self-loathing to run rampant because he couldn’t stand how attractive she was at this moment. No grooming had taken place, nothing at all. Black Maple had bed-head, with ruffled feathers, and if one looked hard enough, one could still see the wrinkles from the pillowcase pressed into her face.
Of course she had come down here looking all afright; this was her home.
“I had a dream that you and Nut and me myself all had a house together.”
“Oh, did you now?”
This was the consequences of taking in strays, he realised.
“I did. It was nice. But we didn’t have a kitchen for some reason or another, and that bothered me.”
There was no point in bothering with hello.
“I would love to have a house with you and Nut,” Black Maple said as she leaned even closer to Tater Blossom. “Speaking of the kitchen, how well can you cook, Tater?”
“Not good.” The earth pony shook her head. “I’m a cause of sore-headedness in the kitchen. I’m useless.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Something tells me that you’ve never been in a kitchen with just the right teacher.” Black Maple slipped one black-as-night wing around Tater Blossom’s neck and gave the filly an affectionate squeeze. “How would you like to earn your meals for today? Nut’s too. And even make a few coins. All without working upstairs? I need somepony to help me in the cellar. Somepony stout and strong. Somepony that knows potatoes.”
“I know potatoes—”
“Miss Maple, what manner of no good are you up to?” Nut demanded.
“We’re slipping into a state of war—”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Nut, now on guard, gave the sooty pegasus mare a wary, mistrustful glare.
“Don’t be rude, Nut.” Black Maple kept her wing around Tater Blossom’s neck while she stared down Nut. “We’re slipping into a state of war. We publicans have been warned that there might be rations in our future. Corn, barley, wheat, all the usual suspects. I plan to get ahead of this, and meeting Tater here gave me a brilliant idea to use potatoes—”
“Potatoes,” Nut interjected, “to make beer?”
“It can be done,” Black Maple replied, not at all bothered by Nut’s casual interruption. “A potato is about seventy-five to eighty percent water, about sixteen to eighteen percent starch, with similar amylose and amylopectin percentages to that of barley.” Her eyes turned bright and merry, while her ears pivoted forward to face Nut. “I want to start making mistakes now and getting the recipe all sorted out. If it comes down to rationing, and I suspect that it will, I don’t want to be cornholed by surprise. I plan to come out ahead.”
He hated that she was brilliant. Right now, he resented her and everything about her. It would be so much easier to dismiss her from his life if she was dull-witted. But no, Black Maple had to be brilliant. Interesting. Witty. She just had to have a genius-level intellect. He hated her, loathed her at this moment, loathed her with a heated, terrible passion. It was terrible, awful, because at this very moment, he kept thinking of hate-motivated coitus colloquialisms.
It unhinged him.
“Wow, somepony is grumpy-wumpy.” Covering her mouth with her other wing, Black Maple tittered while she directed her sultry stare at Nut over the top of her wing. When she pulled her wing away, her orange tongue slipped out, it wiggle-waggled at Nut like a fisher’s lure, and then was gone with a moist slurp. “I have half a mind to drag you upstairs and sort you out—”
“You have half a mind, period,” Nut retorted.
With Tater Blossom overcome with the giggles, Black Maple turned to her and asked, “Ready to work for a living, Tater Blossom? I need somepony strong and smart enough to follow complex instructions. Several hundred pounds of potatoes needs to be boiled and mashed. It will be hard work, but I think you’re up for it. Do well, and I’ll hire you on for future jobs. You’ll be my go-to potato helper.”
Filled with sudden tension, Nut gulped some of his spiced hot cider. This was his ward’s decision, her choice. He could not deny that this was a good opportunity. Not only was it paying work, but he had no doubt that Black Maple would make it educational as well. It could lead to other things, such as finding a calling, having a much anticipated mark of destiny appear, a sense of self-worth, and the satisfaction of earning a meal.
While he wanted her in school, a little work during the summer wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“Can I get fried eggs and toast with my oatmeal?” Tater Blossom asked.
Clearly, the young lady was a pony with practical concerns, and Nut couldn’t help but smile as she bargained for a better deal. Black Maple wasn’t answering right away; she was being a tease, drawing it out, and making his ward worry. Why did she have to be this way? When she was a tease, she drove him crazy. It was frivolous, a waste of time, and a cause of irritation. Black Maple was an emotional provocateur when she teased, and this was just one of the many things he resented about her.
“That depends,” Black Maple replied at last. “Do you want that toast buttered?”
This seemed stupid, a trivial point to bargain over.
“I sure do. Got jam?”
“We do, in fact, have jam.”
“I want Nut to get eggs and toast too. With butter and jam. He’s skinny.”
Snort or exhort? His ward was bargaining for his sake. While the whole thing was annoyingly silly, he still found himself touched by her thoughtfulness. He didn’t dare show even a single trace of emotion though, because if he reacted, if he responded, this frivolity could become commonplace. Then, life would be a never-ending stream of regular annoyance.
“Getting him to eat it is the problem. See, Tater, Nut is proud. He’s got that dignity thing going on. Even worse, it is infectious dignity and he spreads it to everypony around him. I think he spreads his nefarious nobleness with that monocle of his—”
“Leave my corrective eyewear out of this,” he demanded.
“You’ll get your eggs, toast, butter, and jam.” Black Maple grinned from ear to ear, licked the crevices of her teeth with her tongue, and gestured in Nut’s direction with her wing. “Him too.”
“Then I’ll do it.” Tater Blossom reached out and rested her left foreleg upon Black Maple’s right wooden limb. “He and I, we’re in this together.”
It wasn’t the cider that warmed Nut’s heart, or gave his cheeks a rosy glow.