Chapter 9: Rhymes and Other Forms of Torture
You may recall my earlier comment about Hindsight, namely that it makes a pony look back on his past decisions with a jaundiced and rueful eye. That was exactly my reaction upon seeing the guard Seeker pop up out of nowhere. “Do not invite this lovesick Romantic to the royal shindig,” I would’ve earnestly entreated my past self, had it been possible. “It seems like genius now, but by the time he shows up your only wish will be to escape that bally dinner.”
Indeed, for some time I had been considering sneaking away, held back only by a desire to steal a word with my great-aunt if the opportunity arose. I had long since written off Seeker—the threshold for “fashionably late” having come and gone several hours ago—so it was a blow when this most chipper member of the Royal Guard sprung up, like Venus out of the sea, expecting an introduction to Sun Shimmer. Still, there it was.
“What-ho, Seeker.” I managed to sound reasonably cheerful, I think, considering the circs.. We Roosters can wear the mask when necessary. “So there you are.”
“I’m so sorry I’m late, Mr. Rooster, I had to—” He cut himself off with a gasp, practically vibrating with excitement. “There he is, there’s Duke Sun Shimmer!” As he bounced up and down on the tips of his boots, I found myself hoping that the Royal Guards were screened thoroughly for health, because otherwise Seeker was surely at risk for a heart attack brought on by over-excitement. “Look, look, look! Wait, no, don’t look, he’ll see you looking! Okay, now look!”
I didn’t look. “Ye-es . . . You might want to curb your enthusiasm a bit, he’s rather . . . Well, what I mean to say is the course of true love never did run smooth. Right, Greaves?”
“Indeed, sir. And, if I might be permitted to observe, rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.”
Before I could register surprise at Seeker and Greaves both coming up with this bit about rough winds in May—I mean, what are the odds?—the grey unicorn squared his jaw and steeled his eyes. He now looked like he belonged on the cover of a book shelved near Only a Factory Filly, perhaps with a title like Soldier of Fortune, Soldier of Love or Battlefield of the Heart.
“Oh, I just know it won’t be easy for us. A noblepony . . . a guard . . . worlds apart. But with True Love to guide us, we will—”
“Well, quite.” Romantics always have to learn the hard way, it seems. “All right, let’s go.”
“Pardon me, sir,” Greaves interjected in a soupy, disapproving tone. “But is this gentlecolt proposing to meet the duke whilst wearing That?”
“What’s wrong with That—I mean, this?” Seeker stopped bouncing and frowned, looking down at his golden armour. “I had it polished up and everything!”
“It’s very . . . . . nice, I’m sure, sir,” Greaves said, giving it the once over again. “But entirely inappropriate for this venue.”
I repressed a sigh. Though I appreciated him rallying around the young master in a time of need, I felt my valet could stand to be less of a doctrinaire when it came to mode of dress. “Does it really matter, Greaves?”
“Proper attire always matters, sir.”
I wanted to tell him that after dinner, while he’d been fooling around in the Servants’ Hall or whatnot, I’d been formulating a scientific theory—based on an evening’s worth of field notes—which predicted that the specimen of Dukus sunshimmerus strutting around the ballroom was likely to turn down Seeker whether he was dressed properly, improperly, or not at all. But I could hardly say that with the guard standing right there, poor sap, and I had promised. Noblesse oblige, I reminded myself. A Rooster always gives it his all.
“Greaves is right, I suppose,” I told Seeker. “You need a proper suit.”
“Well, I don’t have one,” he said, crestfallen and a bit petulant. “And even if I did, I needed my uniform to get in.”
“How do you mean, ‘to get in’?”
“Well, gosh, Mr. Rooster! What do you think my captain would say if he heard I’d been running around in a tux while I’m supposed to be on shift? I’d be fired!”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” I soothed. “Surely they wouldn’t give you the boot for missing one day or, rather, one night. Even my Aunt Agate, who ties damsels to railway tracks and kills rats with her teeth, doesn’t necessarily grind a pony into the cobblestones the first time he fouls up. She snarls quite a bit, certainly—” Here I broke off because I noticed that Seeker was giving me a perturbed look. Of course hearing about Aunt Agate is enough to perturb any pony. Tactfully, I changed the subj.. “You’re sure you don’t have any tails hiding in the back of your wardrobe?”
“Coat tails. Evening wear. The old swallow-tail suit.”
“No, nothing.” He pawed at the floor.
Greaves cleared his throat. “I believe I can find something suitable for him, sir, if you'll follow me.”
“Excellent, Greaves!” I beamed at him. “Lead on!”
“Thank you, sir.” He slid around the perimeter of the room and streamed through a small door paneled to look like part of the wall, leading to a hallway so narrow that I found myself dodging waiters and maids quite frequently. Our destination, it turned out, was an enormous linen closet. At least I assume that’s what it was, since clean napkins and bed linens and other such abounded, piled high on the shelves. As I wandered over and poked through the tablecloths, Seeker unshelled himself from his armour. As promised, his coat lightened to a softer grey and his hair brightened a few shades. Surprisingly, his flank did not feature any kind of military hardware, but rather a telescope.
“If you’ll just hold still, sir . . .” Greaves whipped an efficient tape measure hither and thither, making it the work of a moment to take shoulder widths and inseams. “Ah, very good, sir. I'll fetch a change of clothes for you immediately.”
“Oh, thank you so—” Seeker started to turn to Greaves, but he had already projected himself out the door in that mysterious manner of his, so he turned back to me instead. “Thank you so much for all your help! I can’t wait to meet the duke!”
“You’re quite welcome,” I said, despite feeling it was like setting up a lamb on a date with a tiger. “Got your speech all mapped out for when you meet him?”
“You bet! In fact—” He hefted approximately three miles of parchment. “—I wrote it out as a poem!”
“Ah.” Of course he had.
“Would you like to hear it?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t like to trouble you—”
“Oh Sun Shimmer, with thy coat of gold,
Thy sweet nobility is foretold
In the kind cast of thy emerald gaze,
Which sets my poor heart all ablaze—”
“Very nice. Gaze, ablaze. Couldn’t ask for a neater rhyme. But don’t you think you ought to save that for—”
“—And kindles all the flames of love,
Like the soft shimmer of a dove
Upon whose iridescent breast
The sunlight’s gleam does coalesce.
The little sparrows all rejoice
Whene’er they hear thy dulcet voice—”
I will spare you the limitless stanzas that followed, as the thought of them brings a dull throbbing to my temples to this very day. The worst was that every so often he’d stop and ask for my advice, forcing my consciousness to surge to the surface. These occasions presented a something of dilemma; I had to either blunder my way through without knowledge of the subject matter—this led to some awkwardness when I told him I’d found his last few lines enormously cheering and it turned out they had been about how his sundered heart was weary and generally in the dumps—or else ask him to repeat the previous stanza. Requesting encores of this mushy, mashed-potatoes stuff caused me almost physical pain.
He was just asking whether “Butterflies, nectar for to gain” should be followed by “gently alight thy rose-red mane” or whether “gently alight thy fragrant mane” was more the ticket, and I was just thinking what a bunch of dumb bricks these butterflies were, when Greaves trickled back in carrying a parcel.
“I trust I am not interrupting, sir. I found a set of clothes which I believe will suit the young gentlecolt admirably.”
I regarded his return with muted jubilation and assured him he was not interrupting.
“Oh, great!” Seeker opened the package via magic. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me . . . What are these? Oh, I get it—sleeve cuffs.”
“No, no, those are spats,” I corrected. “For your back hooves, you see?”
“Right, right. This is a sleeve cuff . . . Where’s the other one?”
“That is your shirt collar, sir,” Greaves sighed, rescuing the object in question from around Seeker’s ankle.
“Oh, I see!” he said, but his eyes were once again flitting back to his poem and I felt it was only a matter of moments before he started grilling me on a good rhyme for “moonlight.” As the only one that sprang to mind was “leaf blight”, I knew it was time for a strategic retreat.
“Well, Seeker, you stay here and let Greaves kit you out. I’ll, ah, go back to the ballroom and keep an eye on things, what? Greaves—give it your best.” After acknowledging a very-good-sir from my valet and staving off a few more thank-you-thank-you’s from Seeker—he was a nice chap when he wasn’t torturing one with verse—off I trotted.
The buffet had served as a satisfactory base of operations before, and it seemed to me it might do so again. There’s something rather cathartic about shoving a truffle back and forth, untasted, on a little plate. I suppose one could argue that, since my appetite is never particularly robust (leading to a lifetime of tiresome jokes about “eating like a bird”), I had been something of a dog in a manger by making the table my h.q. in the first place. My response is that any dog who had suffered comparable duress was fully justified in having a dashed long nap in the hay, and nuts to the cow or ox who tried to disturb the poor pooch. If the gentry had mentally classed me with plague-bearers and therefore shrunk away from my presence, well, that was no fault of mine.
Sure enough, the nobles flocked around the desserts took flight as I approached—literally in the case of the pegasi and figuratively in the case of the rest. Ignoring this snub, I settled back on my haunches behind the table. I'd been watching the crowd for quite some time—at this late hour some ponies had begun to abandon the party, but Sun Shimmer was still out there, chatting with his peers—when I was startled to hear hoofsteps to my right. Turning, I was doubly surprised to find my cousin had taken up residence at the table. His hollow stomach had lured him out of hiding, judging by the way he was shoveling down tea cakes.
“August! Good heavens.” He looked truly horrible at close range, like a pony who has had a serious disagreement with a carriage over who has the right-of-way in the street.
“Au-GUST,” he snapped, shooting off a glare.
“Well, quite. You’re not looking too peppy, Au—cousin.”
“Thank you, Birdy, for that newsflash. Why isn’t there any wine?”
“I rather think you drank it all.”
“They didn’t bring any more?” He made a scornful noise that started at the back of his throat and blew out through his teeth—his commentary, I gathered, on social gatherings with a limited supply of alcohol. “So . . . you’re still here.”
“As you can see, old thing. Though I’ve had a rather trying time of it.”
I reeled at this lack of sympathy. “You wound me. Is not blood thicker than water?”
This time I staggered. “No?”
“No. And you can stop flailing all over the place,” he added in a heated tone. “Maybe you’ll remember this little experience the next time you decide to wriggle your way into a party and suck up to the Peers.”
“Firstly, I would never do something as unbefitting as ‘sucking up’ to the gentry, and I am disappointed, cousin, greatly disappointed, that you would indulge in such common and vulgar slang. Secondly, it was on your behalf that I braved this miserable wake despite the fact that I am, as I said, hardly having a jolly whiz-bang of a time.”
“Oh, on my behalf, I see. So that’s why everypony is rushing over to welcome me. Birdy to the rescue!”
I drew myself up. “True, my attempts at initiating a reconciliation between yourself and the well-born did not meet with unlimited success, but if I might point out, August, one can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Not that I have ever understood why anypony would attempt such a barbarous thing,” I added, “but the point is—you can’t.”
“Are you saying I’m a pig’s ear?”
“From the way Duke Shimmer was throwing your name around like it was an invective of the highest order—the kind of word that might crop up in a trial for slander, but only after the magistrate has warned that the delicate and very young should be cleared out of the courtroom—I should say you’d be dashed lucky to be considered the ear.”
“Duke Shimmer . . .” His brow furrowed, then he gave a snort. “You mean Sun Shimmer? As though anyone would listen to that hot-headed fool.”
“I hate to tell you this, but the crowd was positively hanging on his lips. Though I must agree,” I added, experiencing a sudden surge of cousinliness that bordered on camaraderie, “that he appears to be an offensive blighter completely lacking in the finer feelings.”
“He’s a crawler.”
“And a bounder.”
“And an idiot.” August sniffed down his nose. “So you ran across him, hm?”
“More like he ran across me, roughshod. By the by, does he have some grudge against you?”
“No, I don’t think so . . .”
“You didn’t tread on his cat or insult his sister or something?”
“He hates his sister.”
“Well, his mother then.”
“No, Birdy. I barely know him. He’s only a duke.”
“Your mother’s a duchess.”
“That is entirely different.”
I didn’t quite follow this, but one expects a certain amount of looniness from close relatives. “Oh well. Rest assured, I will clear off soon enough. One final collision with the Shimmer who is, as you say, merely a duke, and I shall shake the dust of this dinner party from my hooves and gladly.”
“Why?” he asked, eyes narrowing. “Why are you meeting him?”
“Oh, I have my reasons.” Naturally I wasn’t going to lay out the whole Seeker-Shimmer affair for his consumption. A Rooster—or any gentlecolt of worth—does not bandy names about like a gossip columnist for the Society Spice. But as August was continuing to give me the wary look of a cat who suspects a stranger is secretly a veterinarian and is planning to test this theory with a lot of claw-work, I decided to change the subject with all due haste. “Look here, if you don’t want me taking an interest in your troubles, that’s fine by me! You might even send a telepathogram to Aunt Agate saying as much. I don’t say that lacing the missive with glowing praise is in any way necessary, though I feel confident that you will realize, upon thoughtful reflection, that cousinly sympathy deserves to be rewarded.”
He didn’t agree, just pushed an empty platter around with the flat of his hoof and snorted a little, but didn’t actually refuse, either. He was on the cusp, teetering, and I felt encouraged to give him a shove.
“It was only out of concern for you, dear flesh-and-blood, that I stuck my oar in to begin with. I could tell you were in a pickle.”
“Abandoned by your servants, slopping wine down your gullet like a common sot, going out in public looking—well, looking like that—more or less like you’re the lead in a tragedy, preparing to charge into the Third Act and soliloquize on how you’ve Lost It All—” Noting that Cousin August’s expression had grown stony, I redoubled my efforts to show him that I understood the depths of his woes. “Well, I mean to say, only a pony whose mind was in a deeply disturbed state would do such things. Dashed painful to watch, you poor old egg. When I first heard you’d shut yourself up in your room, I frankly thought you’d gone ‘round the bend—like Uncle Berry, you know—”
This got a strong reaction, though not the one I’d hoped for. “You thought I was like Uncle Berry?”
“Er, not so much ‘like’, perhaps—”
“With the rabbits?”
“—as ‘tangentially similar in some ways’—”
“And the jelly?!”
From the way August was bristling, I decided another change of subject was called for, with all the rapidity I could muster. Food often provides a suitable distraction in such situations, and so I shoved over the nearest dish with a bright smile. “Have a fritter?”
By this point I had resigned myself to the fact that August was not brimming over with the milk of equine kindness when it came to his cousin Birdsong, but nevertheless it came as something of a shock when he slammed his hoof against the edge of the platter with enough force to send it somersaulting into the air. Suddenly I found myself dodging six fritters (apple) followed by the serving plate itself (silver). Only by skipping around like a particularly lissome mountain goat taking part in a ballet did I manage to avoid the tumbling pastries.
What with the serving plate ringing against the marble tiles, I missed what he said next—something about “calculated insults”, I think—and by the time the dust (and apple filling) had settled, August Blueblood was stalking away in a huff. I clicked my tongue, wondering if he’d gone out of his head after all. Does a mentally stable pony take offense when somepony offers him a bite to eat? Does he hurl food about like an amateur juggler? (Well, maybe at the Drones, but that’s a bit different.) He does not. Yet here was well-bred unicorn colt doing just that. Inevitable, one might argue, when you consider that at a tender age he was already such an unstable character that he found mirth in shoving innocent ponies into puddles. Still, sad, very sad, watching a pony’s descent.
Shaking my head sorrowfully, I decided to step away from the scene of this embarrassment—partly fired, I admit, by the fact that a couple of waiters were speeding over to clean up the mess and it would’ve been awkward to remain hanging around while they scrubbed. At any rate, I felt I should see how Seeker was getting along; he'd been absent a good long time.
I'd barely pushed off from the table when Princette Snow Shimmer suddenly fell into step beside me. “Maybe you’re not the fool I took you for,” she said, apropos of nothing. I would have preferred a greeting of “hallo!” or “what-ho!”, but by the standards of the night this was positively chummy, so I thanked her.
“That was skillfully done, at the buffet,” she continued. “Not pre-arranged?”
“What? Oh . . . that.” Rather depressing, realizing August’s debacle had been witnessed by more than self, but then he had been rather loud. “Unplanned, certainly. Just a bit of nerves on my cousin’s part.”
“So modest,” she said in a cool, sarcastic sort of way, and added something about gadflies that I didn’t quite follow, as I was busy wondering how to shake her off. I increased my strides, trying to outdistance her, but she doggedly kept pace. Apparently they had taught speed-walking at her finishing school.
“I wonder if you can satisfy my curiosity about something, Mr. Rooster,” she said, puffing slightly.
“What’s that, Princette?”
“Feeling, as you do, that my brother is ‘an offensive blighter’ why exactly do you wish to speak with him?”
I stopped in my tracks so suddenly that she overshot by ten feet before realizing she’d lost her walking companion. Her expression, as she retraced her steps, was as calm as ever, with the slightest veneer of satisfaction.
“How—how do you know about that? Were you—?” I cut off, struggling to find a way to ask the young lady a question that one doesn’t, technically speaking, ask a young lady.
She solved the problem neatly. “I was on the other side of that pillar over there. Eavesdropping.”
I would like to report that a blush rose to her cheeks, or that her eyes dipped to the side, or that this young gumboil showed some sign of remorse as she made this confession, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, “confession” puts the wrong light on it; her demeanor was less “pony unveiling a secret shame” and more “pony casually reporting the weather.”
“Well, of all the dashed nerve . . .”
Her lips curved into the type of smile you might see in a classical painting of a pegasus caesar tossing a few underlings to the harpies. “Well, Mr. Rooster?”
“Dash it all . . . well, I mean to say!” A deuced awkward situation . . . on the one hoof her behavior was simply the frozen limit, but on the other hoof I felt embarrassed to have been caught out calling her brother opprobrious names. But then there was the third hoof, the fact that there didn’t seem to be any love lost between the two of them so she probably didn’t care what he got called anyway, and the fourth hoof, the fact that it wasn’t my place to spill the beans about Seeker’s romantic ambitions in any case.
Deciding to go with hooves One, Three, and Four, I spoke firmly. “I’m afraid it’s a private matter. Quite private.” I expected her to kick up a fuss at this, but she merely stared at me as though she was trying to bore into my brain and take a look at what was inside. Most unpleasant. “So it’s no good asking me,” I continued, trying to get the message across, “because I can’t tell you anything about the topic of conversation, if any, that I mean to broach with him—”
At this point I turned away—pointedly—and got a nasty surprise. Not only was Duke Sun Shimmer shaking hooves with various nobleponies, but he was drifting towards the garden—clearly about to make good his escape. This spelled disaster for all our plans. I mean to say, there’s no point in setting up a love scene only to have one half of it refuse to show. Imagine if Romeo had arrived beneath the balcony and found it uninhabited. Quite the chump he’d have looked, tossing out juicy lines like “Soft! What light from yonder window breaks?”, only to find it was a gas-lamp that Juliet had neglected to turn off before going out on the town. Immediate action would have to be taken to prevent Seeker from running into a similar sitch..
“—no, I cannot tell you anything about the topic of conversation, Princette, except that the duke will absolutely hate the subject from start to finish.”
“Oh, he will, will he?” One of her eyebrows pulled itself up.
“Absolutely loathe it.” I hoped, for the Royal Guard’s sake, that this wouldn’t be true, but this was no time to paint a rosy and optimistic picture. “He’ll be as sick as mud. I hope he knows a good dentist because he’ll probably grind his teeth down to stumps.”
“All I need,” I persisted, “is somepony, anypony, to keep the duke planted at this party while I, er, fetch the . . . the surprise. That I have for him.”
Her other eyebrow surged up dubiously.
“Trust me, he’ll . . .” I paused, imagining the duke’s probable reaction to being informed that his voice was “twin to the babbling brook in spring / that maketh all of Nature sing.” A smile rose unbidden to my lips. “Well, he won’t know what to think, by jove.”
It was the smile, I’m sure, that convinced her. “Perhaps I will go chat with my dear brother,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m sure he won’t mind if I detain him a short time.”
“That’s the ticket!” I encouraged her before speeding off. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any servants in the hallway this time around, as I’m sure I would’ve knocked them over like ninepins. As it was, I nearly skidded past the appropriate door.
I knocked with a hoof and the voices within, formerly engaged in muffled dialogue, fell silent. A moment later Greaves pushed his head out.
“Ah, good evening, sir. You've arrived at a most opportune time.” He flicked a glance behind him and uttered the last words I wanted to hear: “We’ve run into a little difficulty.”
Next chapter: Seeker versus dinnerwear, Greaves versus Proper Dress Codes, and Duke Sun Shimmer is surprised.
Sorry, no illustration in this one! (This was part of a mega-chapter that got split in two, and the other half got the drawing . . .)
This fic is now over 100 pages long in its native Word doc! Woohoo!