Manehattan, the next-to-last stop on the audition round of the tour, was the one that Tux was most apprehensive about. The train ride dragged along for what seemed like an eternity. Tux tried to take a nap, but what he could get was short and restless, so he spent time writing in his journal and reading Daring Do. While he hadn’t come to an agreement with Twilight that he wouldn’t read ahead, he still felt guilty for doing so. He thought about going and asking her if she wanted to come and spend time reading with him, but he knew she was asleep, and he didn’t want to disturb her.
“You know, Deryn, this one isn’t as good as your others,” he sighed. “I mean, who would steal the Blarney Stone?” But maybe he was just trying to think about the search for the Lost Codex and what a good book that would make.
He put the book down and took out a blank piece of paper and a pen. He hated using fountain pens, but that was what he was stuck with whenever he was riding the train. He usually hated starting letters; it was as hard as starting novels. But whenever he wrote to Deryn, Daring Do’s creator, the words flowed freely.
Dear Deryn, he penned,
It’s been far too long since I’ve written you, and far longer since we’ve seen each other. Your advice to uproot and move to Ponyville was probably the best you’ve ever given me. I’ve been living a good life as an accountant, and I’ve met a whole bunch of amazing ponies who are helping me relearn how to be friends and discover myself.
When you said that I was stagnating in Hoofton, I think you were right. Now I’ve found that my creativity is as active as it once was. I’m singing more, writing more, and even reading more. Speaking of which, your latest book isn’t your best, to be honest. But I have a sneaking suspicion that you added more fiction to this one than you have to your previous stories, if you know what I mean.
I’ve been reading it with a friend of mine over the past few days. Her name is Twilight, and she happens to be the de facto president of Ponyville’s Daring Do Fanclub. There are four of us altogether, three of which are adults. Probably your biggest fan is a fellow Pegasus named Rainbow Dash. She thought that reading was for eggheads, but then Twilight brought you into her life and changed it all. Then Dash got her adopted sister Scootaloo into it. Now Scootaloo is trying to get the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders into the fandom.
Oh, you don’t know about them. The Crusaders are a group of four fillies (one of whom lives in Manehattan) who are all late-blooming blankflanks. Since I’m kind of in the same boat, I have an honorary membership, but I don’t attend meetings. Maybe I should, since they’re always trying hare-brained schemes to earn their cutie marks, none of which work. They’ve tried everything from hang gliding to learning French, which they asked me to help them with. You know how well that turned out.
When I was in Vanhoover the other day, Twilight and I went to see a rare book exhibit at the museum there. There were a bunch of gorgeous manuscripts, and I wish you could have been there, especially because we got a special look at an original autograph of Starswirl the Bearded. Codex Thirteen to be specific. We also got wind of a Lost Codex, and I immediately thought of you. That might make a great future book.
And speaking of that, you really need to try and do a book tour, if only just to a few cities, or even just to Ponyville. I know you want to keep quiet, but there are plenty of authors who lead quiet lives and still have a public face. I know that our little unofficial fan club would love to meet you as much as I would love to show you around Ponyville.
I can’t wait to see you again, but I suppose a letter will suffice. Nos vemos.
Love as always,
He folded the paper and slid it into an envelope, sealing it with his signet and some soft, red wax that would harden in an hour. He wished he was able to do a proper wax seal, but he didn’t have any sealing wax with him, never mind a means with which to melt it. He addressed the envelope to Deryn Doo, Derbyshire, Trottingham.
“Who are you writing to?” asked a yawning Twilight as she poked her head around the corner and into his booth.
“Oh, a friend of mine,” he replied. “Trying to get her to do a book tour to Ponyville.”
“Ooh, what do you think she’ll say?”
“She’ll probably say no, but it’s worth a shot. Besides, I haven’t seen her in a long time, and I think it’s time for her to come to Equestria for a change.”
“So she’s in one of the autonomous states,” Twilight grinned. “I’m milking you for information, little by little.”
“Trottingham,” he shrugged. “I thought everypony knew that. If she lived any closer, I’d go visit once a year, maybe more. But getting across the ocean? Not my favorite.”
“Can you fly across the ocean?” Twilight marveled.
“I can fly about a hundred miles before I’m done. It’s about three hundred from Manehattan to Trottingham. I usually just take a ship. But that presents a whole ‘nother load of challenges.”
“Do you get seasick?”
“I have a stronger stomach than most ponies, but if there’s a lot of motion, yeah. This filly, on the other hand, has a titanium stomach. And it’s her turn to travel.”
“Well, let me know if miss Nonymous ever decides to come our way.”
And that night, it seemed, she did. Upon arriving at the hotel and checking in, Tux found that he had a letter waiting for him, a letter from Deryn, with no postmark. It had been hoof-delivered, either by a proxy or the mare herself. When he got up to his room, he opened the letter and read it eagerly and with great curiosity.
Dear Tux, he read,
A few of your little posters made it all the way to Trottingham thanks to a mutual friend of ours, and I was glad to get my hooves on one. I immediately contacted Princess Celestia and demanded that she give me your itinerary. Yeah, I’m tight like that. When I compared our calendars, I learned that the best thing for both of us would be to plan a trip and meet you here in Manehattan. If you’re not busy tonight--and I would suffer a guess that you aren’t--I would love to meet you for dinner at La Casa Cerrada. Meet me there at seven o’clock. We have some catching up to do.
Somepony knocked at his door, and he called, “It’s open.”
“How are you getting settled?” Twilight asked as she entered.
“Well enough,” he replied. He slipped the letter into his saddlebag.
“Where are we going tonight?”
“Actually,” he started, trying in vain to come up with the words. “Actually, something’s come up, and I have another engagement. I’ll make it up to you tomorrow night, I promise.”
“What’s come up?” she wondered, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, I got a letter from my friend Deryn. She’s in town, and I have to meet her for dinner at seven.”
“Why is Deryn more important than your prior plans, namely me?”
“Well, you know I haven’t seen her in a while. Besides, she’s basically family, so I don’t have a choice.”
Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “All right, just this once. Maybe Rarity and I can have a girls’ night out.” She turned around and headed out, shutting the door a bit harder than usual.
Any meeting with Deryn, especially one at an exclusive restaurant like La Casa Cerrada, was cause to dress up. It wouldn’t be a black-tie event, but it certainly called for a jacket. After a hot shower, Tux took out the tweed sportcoat and blue plaid bow tie that Rarity had made him for his birthday. He pressed out every wrinkle, lifted every piece of lint with the utmost care. He tied and retied his bow tie half a dozen times before he was finally satisfied with the knot. He polished his hooves until they shone, wishing he had a set of fancy shoes to go with the whole thing. By the time he had styled his mane, it was half past six, and he had to go.
He ran into Twilight and Rarity on the way through the lobby. “My, you look dashing tonight,” Rarity remarked. “I think I may actually be jealous of this Deryn filly.”
“I know I am,” Twilight added. “You never look this spiffy when you take me out.”
“I will tomorrow night,” he assured.
“Not really the point,” she sighed. “Traffic jam; you’ll be better off walking. Best get a move on.”
Even though Tux was admittedly bad at reading ponies, he knew that Twilight was more than a little bit miffed at his blowing her off in favor of, well, another mare. And no amount of justification made it seem right. He should have figured out a way to get a message to Deryn, taken Twilight out like he’d originally planned, and met Deryn another night. After all, somepony like her should be able to accomodate.
He arrived at La Casa Cerrada at two minutes ‘til, a bit out of breath from the brisk walk. Deryn was there waiting for him, her appearance quite the opposite from the rugged archaeologist she wrote about in her somewhat fictionalized, autobiographical novels. Her grey mane was pulled up into a bun held in place by a pair of chop sticks, and she wore an olive-green dress that reminded him of a design he’d seen on one of Rarity’s mannequins recently. Her raspberry red eyes caught his, and she smiled, walking over.
“Oh Tux, it’s been a long time,” she sighed, resting her head on his withers.
He wrapped a wing around her. “That, it has,” he nodded. “You look ravishing tonight.”
“Why, thank you,” she smiled, walking with him through the front doors of the restaurant. “It’s one of my favorite dresses. I believe you know the designer.”
“I thought I recognized Rarity’s work,” he chuckled, nodding his head. “It is hers, right?” Deryn nodded. “Does she know exactly who you are?”
“No; she knows me only by my pen name, and we’ve never met. But perhaps that will change someday.”
“I want to let you know in advance that I’ve had somepony stalking me with a camera recently.”
She gave a wry chuckle. “Yes, I saw your little tabloid story. You always wanted to be famous, but not this way. Don’t you worry; I have everything taken care of. If anypony takes a picture of us, it won’t survive the night.”
They were taken to a table for two, situated in the middle of the main dining area. They took some time deciding what they wanted to order, and after they were ready, they talked while they waited for the waiter.
“You dish first,” Deryn said as she dunked a tortilla chip into the spicier cup of salsa. “Who’s this Twilight Sparkle filly I keep hearing about? Or, as it were, reading about?”
“Well, she’s the de facto president of the Daring Do fan club in Ponyville. She’s also the local librarian and a history buff like you. And to cap it off, she’s Princess Celestia’s protégée.”
“What’s she like?”
“She’s smart, humble; beautiful, yet plain at the same time. Way out of my league, that’s for sure.” He crammed a stack of chips into his mouth. Deryn may have been a lady, but she didn’t stand upon ceremony at the table.
“Are you dating?” she asked. “Is it serious?”
“Kinda,” he said through a full mouth. “I’m serious, but she’s not really.”
“Uh-oh,” she remarked. “This sounds familiar.”
“Hey, ouch!” he shot back. He swallowed his mouthful of chips. “She and I are in the beta testing phase, so to speak. She said that we’re dating but not courting. Her exact words.” He took a large chipful of the milder salsa.
“That was exactly what happened last time.”
“That was two dates. There was no understanding between us.” He groaned in exasperation. “Twilight’s a lot more willing than Charity was.”
“And do you remember Blessing? She still hasn’t gotten back to you.”
“She’s dating somepony else.”
“Why are you trying to woo miss Sparkle, hmm? Was it love at first sight again?” He shrunk down, pinning his ears back and putting on a frown. She shook a chip at him at him. “That’s your big problem, Tux. You say you’re stifled, that you don’t have any friends, and then you promptly fall flank over fetlock with the first pretty mare to catch your eyes. And then, when somepony does show genuine interest in you, you turn around and break her heart, just like your idée fixe always does to you.”
“You’re always criticizing my romantic choices, Deryn,” he defended. “And when I asked you to set me up with somepony, you refused.”
“That’s because I was crushing on you at the time. Duh.” She crunched on another chip. “And now, I can’t do it because we live on practically opposite sides of Equestria. Besides, Derbyshire isn’t quite the hotbed of singles that you seem to desire.”
“What do you want me to do? Break it off with Twilight?”
“Either you do it or she will.”
He was crestfallen. Once again, he felt all his efforts were in vain. It was Charity, all over again. “She said she wasn’t leading me on,” he sighed.
“Neither was Charity,” Deryn shrugged. “But for the love of Celestia, don’t let my ignorant postulates erase your hope. She said she’s giving this a try, and who knows? Maybe things will look up. But you really need to do the same thing that she is.”
“To step back and evaluate everything?”
“Objectively,” she nodded. “I know it’s hard, but sometimes you have to take a good, hard look at your life. Humble pie might not taste very good, but it’s better for you than a false hope.”
“Well, I’m clinging to what hope I have left.”
“There’s always more hope, Tux; you just have to find it. Or lean on somepony else and let them find it for you. Besides, if you let it, friendship will last far your ‘failures’, as you call them. But you have to let it.” She lifted another chip from the bowl and took a hearty helping of salsa.
“How can you stand that much capsaicin?” Tux wondered.
“I love spicy food,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I acquired a taste for hotter foods while I was spending time in Saddle Arabia, digging up sand.”
“What did you find?”
“Sand,” she replied with a groan. “I was working with Sandy Stone, another archaeologist, who found what she thought were ancient potsherds. As it turns out, they were there for only about sixty years, come from a water jar that fell out of somepony’s saddlebags.”
“Sandy isn’t a very good archaeologist, is she?”
“Oh no, she’s brilliant. But we all have our slumps now and again. In her defense, the jar was several hundred years old by the time it broke. Some ponies take very good care of their pottery. Well, until it falls off a precarious perch and breaks.”
“Is that why Blarney Blue was a little bit more fictional than your other books?” he asked.
“In part, yes. Daring Do and the Shifting Sands wouldn’t be a very good...actually, that’s a good title.”
“I do have an idea for a future book,” Tux said, seeing an opportunity. “When I was in Vanhoover, Twilight and I went to the museum and got a special look at one of Starswirl the Bearded’s works, called Codex Thirteen.”
“Ah yes, the Lost Codex. Couldn’t read a lick of it, could you?”
“Yeah, it was in some sort of code. But the librarian said that the Lost Codex was actually the pages Starswirl tore out of Thirteen.”
Deryn shook her head. “No, Thirteen is the Lost Codex. There’s nothing lost about those missing pages; he tore them out and hid them away. I like to call it the Hidden Codex. Now, its hiding place is pretty much lost to the centuries, but I think I know where it might be. I think I know where you’re going, but tell me anyway.”
“What do you say to going and getting it?”
She nodded slightly, not so much an acknowledgement of his idea, but more of a confirmation of her foresight. Then she shook her head. “Not this one, Tux. Starswirl hid that codex for a good reason. Legend has it that he was dabbling in dark magic.”
“Dark magic?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Spells that harm, spells that kill. The spell that drives the Alicorn Amulet. Rumor has it that the Hidden Codex also contains time travel spells, conjuring spells, and even alchemy and necromancy. If that codex were to fall into the wrong hooves, Equestria could be a very dark place.”
“What’s the Alicorn Amulet?”
“A talisman that Starswirl created late in his life,” she replied. “I know it exists, but not where it is, which is unfortunate. It’s yet another artifact that, in the wrong hooves, would mean a bad day in Equestria. It essentially amplifies a unicorn’s power, giving the wearer almost godlike abilities. But this comes at a hefty price. The wearer also gets an insatiable lust for power, corrupting them to the core.”
“Daring Do and the Alicorn Amulet is another good title.”
“Just as dangerous as the Codex. The two of them together....” She shuddered. “Not something I want to imagine.”
“But the Codex was encrypted, right? Neither of us could read it.”
“You should appreciate this: Starswirl was a conlanger. He created two separate languages, giving the same alphabet two sound systems, two lexica, and two grammars. Read it in one language, and the spells are all very banal; that book is in the Archives. Starswirl kept the other grammar with him at all times, but it disappeared some sixty years after his death. Nopony knows what happened to it or where it is now.”
“That would be quite the thing to learn.”
“I would love it for my collection. I’d geek out over its features, use it for inspiration, and lock it in a vault.”
He chuckled. “But hey, I guess I should try and look at his other language if I want to figure that out. Maybe at our stop in Canterlot, I’ll see if I can get into the Archives.”
“If you do, take notes. I’ve been petitioning for access to Special Collections for years.”
The rest of their dinner was spent talking about the tour, Deryn’s latest exploits and stories, and a possible visit to Ponyville. Deryn confessed that she had been entertaining the idea of revealing herself to the public for a while, ever since the runaway success of her first book. Eventually, the two of them came to an agreement: if Tux promised to evaluate his relationship with Twilight, Deryn would plan a trip to Ponyville for a small book signing.
When Tux got back to the hotel, Rarity was waiting outside his room. “Enjoy your evening?” she asked.
“Yeah, it was great to catch up with Deryn again,” he replied. “I convinced her to come to Ponyville for a book signing.”
She shoved an issue of the Questioner in his face. “What is this?”
“The Shadow has Materialized: Mystery Stallion’s Name Revealed. That’s a great question, what the hoof is this?”
“Read the article.”
He read aloud as his eyes skimmed the lines. “The formerly unknown stallion, who has been seen with Twilight Sparkle, has been confirmed to be Tux n Tails, the chief judge for Princess Celestia’s nationwide choral audition tour, Equestrian Idol. A recent graduate from Hoofton College, he is slated to conduct the newly formed Royal Canterlot Choir at this year’s Grand Galloping Gala. A source close to the competition told the Questioner that Tails is going through a rough patch with his fillyfriend, and that the relationship could soon be over. Just how serious the relationship ever was, however, is nebulous. Our source says that, while he is as serious as they come, she’s just not that into him. Ouch.
“The weird thing is that the two of them put on quite the unassuming face. Every time our source sees them, they seem to be perfectly happy, enjoying one another’s company as if they were merely friends. But our source tells us that this is not the case. ‘Why else,’ asks our source, ‘would they be sharing a room in Los Pegasus, unless there were a steamy love affair going on? It’s obvious from the way he looks at her that they’re much more than mere friends.’“
“I can’t read the rest of it,” he scowled, throwing the magazine on the ground. “Somepony needs to put these scurrilous rumors six feet under. What can you do to help me?”
“At this point, nothing. You didn’t want me to help you at the beginning, and you’ve dug yourself too far down for me to help you now. I called the Questioner, and that Inkwell chap said that you were the one who called him!”
He gasped in indignation. “Yes, I called him, taking your advice, to try and get the story retracted, or at least killed. Did he say that I was the source?”
“As a matter of fact, he did. He said you were very forthcoming, that you relished the thought of the attention this article would bring you.”
“That’s a pile of crap and you know it,” he growled. “I don’t want this sort of attention. Do you know how apprehensive I was when Celestia gave me this assignment?”
“You could have turned her down.”
“No, I couldn’t have! She orchestrated things so that I was her only option.”
“There are always other options. And I don’t believe the princess would be that manipulative.”
“Believe it, Rarity. Every time I’m in her presence, I sense something. Something dark. She covered up Discord’s escape from prison, something which Luna confirmed. And I don’t know how much I can trust somepony who isn’t forthcoming about something which affects my life to such a degree.”
“You shouldn’t be so critical, Tux,” Rarity scolded. “If I were to list your character flaws, that would be at the very top.”
“List away,” he challenged.
“You have narcicisstic tendencies; you’re self-deprecating and critical of other ponies behind their backs. You’re a chronic pessimist, and most of the time, you can’t see the forest for the trees. And one of the worst of your flaws became apparent when you erupted at Rosie Cooper.”
“Hey, I can control my temper,” he sneered.
“If not just barely. I think Twilight could add another one to the list, too.”
“And what would that be?”
“You’re too willing to break promises if you think it would be better for you in the end.”
“I didn’t promise crap, Rarity. And I didn’t have a choice. I had to go to dinner with Deryn tonight.”
“You’re not that much of a doormat, Tux. You were just as complicit in it.”
“Is that what she thinks?”
“I believe her exact words were, ‘Why doesn’t he just date Deryn, if she’s important enough to cancel plans with me?’“
“You don’t understand,” he groaned. “I couldn’t move the dinner because I didn’t have a way of contacting her.”
“You could have at least brought Twilight along.”
“You made Deryn’s dress; you know how private she is.”
“She’s not too private to be seen in public, at an expensive Mexican restaurant, having what appears to be a romantic dinner with Twilight Sparkle’s coltfriend. This does not lend well to your potential fidelity.”
“My potential fidel--? I’m the loyalest pony you’ll ever meet!”
“Then prove it.” She thrust a piece of paper at him. “This is a florist friend of mine who is waiting for you at his shop. It’s up to you to craft the right sentiment.”
He read the address. “I have no idea where this is.”
“Ask for directions. Or is that beneath you as a stallion?” She left him there at the door, walking away with her nose turned up.
He looked down at the piece of paper sitting on his feathers. There was no way he could undo a mistake that he didn’t make. He felt like Twilight was being irrational if nothing else. But still, he could feel that Rarity was right. He had to do something. Without changing, he took the elevator back to the lobby and walked out onto the busy sidewalk. It was cold, and it had started raining, and Tux didn’t have an umbrella with him. “I have to do this,” he sighed. He stepped in front of a passerby. “Excuse me, do you know where to find the Bearded Iris? It’s on 32nd Street.”
“I don’t think it’s open this late,” the passerby replied.
“It is for me,” he replied. “I have an apology to make.”
Half an hour later, he was knocking at Twilight’s door, one wing clutching a bouquet of pink roses and baby’s breath. He had sheltered the flowers from the pouring rain with his wing, and his mane hung wet about his neck. Twilight looked at the flowers, then at him. “What’s this?” she asked.
“I felt bad for blowing you off, so I thought I’d bring a peace offering.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Rarity chewed you out, didn’t she? She’s certainly madder than I am. But I am still kind of disappointed.”
“It’s not too late for dinner,” he suggested. “I brought macaroni salad and some steamed garlic kale from the deli down the street.”
“Come on in,” she sighed, taking the flowers from one wing and the food from the other. “You should take a hot shower; you’re shivering, and you smell like you’ve been rolling in the mud.”
“So how mad are you that I cancelled dinner?”
“I did some thinking, and I understand that you couldn’t get out of it. I wish you’d tried a little harder to push it back, but that probably wasn’t easy to do, either. So I won’t count it against you. That is, not if I can meet Deryn for myself.”
“She’ll come to Ponyville for a little book signing. That’s all I could get from her.”
“I guess that’s good enough. I’ll set the table, you clean up.”
Tux stepped into the shower and shampooed his mane, tail and coat, taking time to relax in the hot water and collect his thoughts. He always did his best thinking in the shower, and he was able to cobble together some sort of apology, some sort of promise to be a better stallion in the future. But after he came out of the bathroom, any words he’d planned on saying were lost in his throat. Twilight sat at the table in her pajamas, stirring the macaroni salad, a haggard look on her face.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“I’m just tired, is all,” she replied. “It’s been a long tour. And you smell like lavender.”
“We’re introverts,” he acknowledged. “We need time to recharge our batteries.”
“I was kind of hoping to get that recharge with you tonight. I spent time with Rarity, but the Manehattan night life isn’t exactly what I’d call relaxing.”
“Last stop on the tour. Then we’re done.”
“All of us, or just us?”
Tux swallowed hard. He knew what she meant. “You’re leaning toward going back to the way things were, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I still reserve judgment until the end of the tour.”
“If you decide to go back to being just friends, I’m warning you that I’m probably going to withdraw. Talking to you will be awkward for a while, so know that it’s nothing personal. And you’re going to have to be the one maintaining the friendship, or at least doing the lion’s share of the work at first.”
“Friendship is what I do best, isn’t it?” she smiled. “But it can’t be one-sided. You still have to do your part.”
“As long as you’re the one initiating the interaction, I can do whatever needs to be done. Before long, I should get back to the point where things aren’t awkward anymore.”
“Not to change the subject, but this macaroni salad is really good,” Twilight remarked. “Are those sweet pickles?”
He took a bite. “Sure enough,” he said, his mouth full. “And those chunks of cucumber!”
“I know, right? If you learn to make macaroni salad like this, I’ll marry you.”
“I hear the kale is even better.” He spooned some of the broccoli and kale out onto his plate. It was steamed and sautéed in butter and garlic, and it looked like there was some sort of cheese sprinkled in. He grasped the fork with his feathers and speared a kale leaf and a head of broccoli. Twilight stole some off his plate and held it in front of her face. “Down the hatch.”
“Where have you been all my life?” Twilight smiled. “I guess there’s something good in Manehattan after all.”
“So, do you want to read another chapter or something?”
She shook her head. “Actually, let’s just sit here and recharge. We don’t have to talk. We don’t have to read. We don’t have to do anything at all. Just sit.”
“Finally, somepony who gets it,” he sighed with a smile.
After they finished eating, Twilight dimmed the lights, and they sat on the couch listening to a choral music mix that she had compiled. Each song was as beautiful as the last, filling the room with the richest of sounds. Before long, he could no longer keep his eyes open, and he whispered, “I need to go to bed.”
But it seemed she was already asleep on his shoulder, and he couldn’t bear to wake her. He closed his eyes, and as he drifted off, he heard the faintest sound come from Twilight’s horn. The lights dimmed until the room was dark, and a gentle whisper rose from her lips. “Good night, Tux.”
The next morning, a sharp rapping at the door jolted Tux from his pleasant slumber. Twilight was still next to him on the couch, and before he could get up, the lock clicked, and Rarity entered the room. “Twilight, do you have any idea what time it—” Her mouth dropped open.
“What?” Tux asked.
“We were supposed to be at the convention center half an hour ago!” Rarity scolded. “Well, this explains why you weren’t in your room.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Vinyl asked, walking in with Octavia. Her mouth dropped open as well. “Whoa, Tails, are you and Twilight, like, dancin’ the...you know?”
“Vinyl!” Octavia snapped.
Tux shook dropped his jaw in shock and disgust. “How could you even insinuate? I hurt her feelings yesterday, and I brought a bouquet of flowers and some dinner. We sat here listening to music, and just fell asleep. That’s it!”
“Well your manes need an hour’s worth of work before you’ll be fit for public appearance,” Rarity coughed. “I sent Ivory on ahead for damage control.”
“I’ll be ready in ten minutes,” Tux promised. Just let me run a comb through my mane.”
“No time for that,” Rarity pressed, producing a comb from thin air. She pushed him off the couch and pinned him to the ground, madly combing his mane. “Twilight, darling, wake up!”
“I don’t feel like working today,” the lavender mare protested.
“Comb your mane. Vinyl, Octavia, go on to the convention center and start the auditions. We may miss two or three, but Tux and I will be there as soon as we can.”
“Don’t start without me,” Tux opposed.
“No,” Rarity asserted. “You dropped the ball on this one. Vinyl, Octavia and Ivory will be the three judges until we get there. If you are seen leaving Twilight’s room with this atrocity of a mane, the Questioner wet themselves with excitement. I have a friend who paid top bit to take photos of you and Deryn at La Casa Cerrada out of circulation. I can’t imagine what a tabloid like that would pay for photos of you and your fillyfriend emerging groggy and disheveled from the same hotel room. Did I mention how completely incensed I am that--”
“I get the picture, Rarity,” he groaned. “But won’t the outcome be the same if we walk out of the same room at all?”
“You’re flying out the back way.”
“You can’t be serious,” he chuckled wryly.
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
She clearly wasn’t. “Can you let me up?” he sighed.
“Yes. I suppose flying through Manehattan will wreck everything I just did, but it’s probably for the best.” She took her knee out of his back and went to combing Twilight’s mane.
“Which way is it?” he asked, scrambling to his feet.
“Due northwest. You won’t be able to miss it.”
“I’ll see you there.” He walked out onto the balcony and spread his wings. “Why do I get this feeling that everything’s about to go to Tartarus?” He hopped over the railing.
By the time Tux arrived at the convention center, there was still a line of ponies out the front door, with two burly draft stallions controlling a rope barrier that kept the crowd from flooding in too quickly. He started for the barrier, but one of the bouncers held up a hoof. “Back of the line, pal.”
“What?” Tux scoffed. “I’m the dude running this show. Let me in.”
“You look like some generic Pegasus meathead to me. If you were with the rest of the judges, the story would be different.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he groaned. “Go in there and get Vinyl or Octavia. They’ll vouch for me. Hay, get Ivory Coast, the accompanist. Anypony on the staff should be able to confirm my identity!”
“Listen, pal. Bones and I have to keep these rabid ponies from exceeding the maximum capacity allowed by the fire code. If you need to be in there, you’ll have a badge. The other judges had theirs. So either come back with a badge or hit the back of the line.”
“Badge,” Tux gasped, remembering that he had left his staff ID badge in his saddlebag. “But that would take another half hour! I need to get in there now so that I can make sure everypony who deserves a spot gets it.”
“Then it’ll take half an hour before you can pull the strings.”
“Fine,” Tux growled. “I’ll go get my badge. And next time, you’ll know who I am, capisce?”
“It’s just policy.”
Tux just as soon would have waited until Rarity and Twilight showed up to vouch for him, but he was angry, and he wanted to shove that badge up the bouncer’s nose. “I shouldn’t need a badge,” he grumbled as he flew. “My freaking face is all over the tabloids. Stubborn son of a nag probably knows exactly who I am. What did I ever do to him?”
As he neared the hotel, he remembered that his room key card was in the pocket of his jacket, which was hanging up in Twilight’s room, and he didn’t want to show his face there and risk drawing Rarity’s ire. He thought he might have left his own balcony door unlocked, so he flew by until he figured out which one was his, landed, and tried the door. Not only was it unlocked, but it wasn’t latched. That was something he knew he wouldn’t have let slide, so he poked his head in and called, “Hello? Do I have the right room?”
“I figured you’d be coming back,” said Deryn from the shadows. “I hope you didn’t mind; I let myself in.”
“At least you’re not from the Questioner. I’m just here to get my badge.”
She pulled the cord on the bedside lamp, filling the room with light. “A friend of mine came by at four this morning with these.” She dropped a stack of large photographs on the bed. “I had my assurances that there would be no paparazzi. But they have no way to prevent a peeper with a telephoto lens from snapping a shot or two.”
Tux walked over to the bed and browsed the photos. They must have been the ones Rarity had mentioned earlier. “The photos are out of circulation. So what?”
“You’re dealing with somepony who has a special kind of stuff, somepony who is so obsessed with you that they would follow you with a ten-thousand-bit rig just to snap a photo of you doing something that would besmirch your name. I’ve dealt with Quillan Inkwell before, and he isn’t your problem. His source, on the other hand, is somepony who you don’t want to mess with.”
“Do you know who?”
“I dropped my friend a bit or two so that he can investigate it for me. I’ll let you know.” She picked the photos up again. “But this is a wakeup call. I certainly need a more public presence. It’s going to happen one way or another, and I’d rather come out as the real Daring Do myself than have Quillan Inkwell publish some sort of conjectural crap.”
“What are you saying?”
“At about five o’clock, I’m going to be stopping by the convention center for a visit. I’ll let you know then if my PI has found anything new. But at the very least, I’ll help you make up for ditching Twilight last night.”
“I think I might be good in that arena.”
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt.”
He fished his badge out of the saddlebag and hung it around his neck. “I’ll let the bouncer know you’re coming.”
“I’m pretty sure he’ll let me in.”
“Don’t get your hopes up; I had to fly all the way back here just to have a chance at getting to my desk. Bye.” He walked back out to the balcony. “Could you do me a favor and lock up when you leave?”
“Don’t forget your room key.” She tossed the key card at him, and he caught it in his teeth.
“Thanks,” he said, slipping the key card into the plastic pouch behind his badge. “I’ll see you later.”
He flew as fast as he could to the convention center, coming in for a long landing. He skidded up to the bouncer and held up his badge. “See?” he asked.
“Right this way, Mr. Tails,” the bouncer replied with a victorious smile.
“Oh, and if you or your boys get a pony named Deryn coming up to the door, let her in. It should be some time near the end of the day.”
“Whatever, pal,” the bouncer shrugged.
He walked around the bouncer and made his way through to the audition room. He put his ear to the door and heard the tail end of the audition in progress. “Put her through on probation,” he whispered. “Her highs were flat.” He heard Octavia’s muffled voice, and a few moments later, the singer walked through the door. “Did you make it?” he asked.
“Two yesses,” she replied.
“I’m looking forward to working with you,” he smiled. “I’m supposed to be one of the ones judging you; I’m just late.”
“Oh, well, pleased to meet you.”
He slipped into the room and took his seat. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said as Octavia slid the stack of applications over to him. “The neanderthal out front didn’t let me in, so I had to fly all the way back to the hotel and get my badge.”
“You didn’t see the other two coming, did you?” Octavia asked.
“No, sorry. But I’m sure they’ll be here soon. In the meantime, let’s get going.”
He took on the responsibility of calling each of the singers until Rarity and Twilight arrived half an hour later. Twilight blamed the traffic and the inability to fly, but Tux suspected that Rarity had been part of the holdup, though probably not by choice.
The rest of the auditions went well. Vinyl and Octavia didn’t cause a problem when it came to the voting overall; Octavia was thinking much more objectively, even though Vinyl still beat her own path. They did, however, cause many a disruption by fighting between the two of them. At first it was apparent that the disputes were merely a matter of musical taste. But as the day progressed, things grew increasingly personal, and Tux had to send half a dozen embarrassed singers out while the two judges tussled.
Eventually, Tux couldn’t take the squabbling anymore. After vetoing a no-vote and putting an exceptional singer through to the next round, he leaned in close and asked, “Rarity, could you leave the room?”
“Today’s auditions are done. Could you let everypony know?”
“But we still have ten ponies left,” she protested.
“Just....” He took a deep breath in a feeble attempt to calm himself. “Just tell them. They’ll be first in line tomorrow.”
“Will do,” she said tentatively.
“And make sure the door shuts tight.” As she trotted out the door and latched it, he remembered that Ivory was still sitting at the piano. “You too, Ivory.”
“I kind of want to see this,” the pianist shrugged. “Could be good.”
“Get the hoof out of this room,” Tux growled.
Ivory got up from the piano in a hurry. “All right, all right! Good grief.”
Tux tried once again to suppress his anger as Ivory left the room. As soon as the door latched, he turned toward the sill-arguing Octavia and Vinyl, and he released the pressure valve. “Shut up, both of you!” he roared, blood rushing to his face and adrenaline coursing through his veins. “I’m sick and tired of your crap!”
Both of them turned to face him, shock in their eyes. Octavia opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his hoof and silenced her. “No. I’m speaking. You two have been fighting with me and each other since day one, and you’re really making my plot tired.
“Octavia, you just turned down one of the best performances of twelve-tone music I’ve ever heard, by a singer who had perfect pitch and angelic tone, and why? Because you said it wasn’t music. You complain about my veto power, but it seems you still haven’t gotten through your thick skull that this is not about your musical tastes.” He looked over at Vinyl, who wore an air of victory, which he found contemptible.
“And Vinyl,” he continued, “you wipe that stupid, smug smile off your face! You have consistently voted the opposite way that I have. This is not a pop singing contest. I don’t want ponies who sound like Sapphire Shores. I want ponies that sound like they’ve come here from Heaven, not Downtown. You may know how to drop the bass, but I’m going to write you a prescription for your musical ignorance: take the money you’ve made spinning records and go back to school. Take a music theory class at the Canterlot Conservatory, and follow that up by filling in the last thousand hears of music history, and then maybe, just maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
“Now, I’ve given you both more than enough chances. Honestly, neither of you has done anything to help this audition tour, and the only reason either of you is here is that I couldn’t persuade Twilight to be on the panel, and you came as a package deal. Since you’ve shown that you can’t at the very least show some restraint when it comes to arguing--or sleeping--on the job, I suggest you both take a hike.”
“Very well, Mr. Tails, if we’re not wanted, then we’ll go our way. You won’t be seeing us here tomorrow.”
“Tux, give me another shot,” Vinyl pleaded. “I can try to--”
“No,” he snapped. “You’ve struck out.”
“Come on, Vinyl, let’s go,” Octavia sighed. “It’s happy hour. Or it will be in about twenty minutes. Since we’re sleeping in tomorrow, we might as well drown our sorrows.”
Tux dropped his head to the desk as the last of his energy flowed out of him. His catharsis went from roaring fury to despaired tears. He still felt that dismissing Vinyl and Octavia was the best way to handle the situation, but he regretted allowing his anger to boil over. He felt a tentative touch on his shoulder, and it startled him, but upon looking up and seeing Twilight’s face, he returned to his sullen withdrawal.
“I.... I guess those doors aren’t as soundproof as I thought they were.”
“Heh,” he said dryly. “How much did you hear?”
“All of it. It, well, kind of scared me. And Vinyl and Octavia left the room looking traumatized.”
“I’ve lost my temper thrice in the last two weeks. That never happens.” He sighed. “I hardly ever snap, but when I do, it’s a thermonuclear explosion. It doesn’t last long, though, as you can see. I would never get violent. Please understand that.”
“The thought never crossed my mind. You know, even Fluttershy can snap like that. It just surprised us, is all.”
“I threw them off the panel,” he explained. “Too much infighting, too many creative differences. Did I do the right thing?”
“I think you did what you had to,” she replied. “You should have done it in Los Pegasus, though.”
“I’m out two judges now. I don’t want Ivory to be a full time judge, so.... If you could.”
“Since it’s just tomorrow, yes. I can sit on the panel.”
Rarity poked her head in just then, annoyance on her face. “Tux, I hope I’m not interrupting, but there’s somepony here who says you invited her. She’s not a singer; she doesn’t have a number. And she refuses to leave. Could you try to persuade her?
“Honey colored coat, grey mane and tail, map cutie mark?”
“So, maybe you did invite her.”
“Let her in.”
Deryn trotted in, looking around the small studio. “By Celestia’s beard, this is a dull room. I know you didn’t have much time before you had to begin seeing auditions, but you could have at least put down a carpet.”
“Who is this?” Twilight asked, her mouth hanging open in surprise.
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“Nope, it’s me,” Deryn replied. “Deryn Doo, better known as Ann Nonymous. Yes, I do look like Daring Do, and the reason is that I am Daring Do.”
Twilight took a deep breath in effort to control herself. “Well, it’s nice to meet you. I have a few, well, dozen questions to ask you, but now’s not really the time for that.”
“Something’s wrong with Tux,” Deryn nodded. “I haven’t seen him this vacant in years.”
“He snapped at two of the judges, who were arguing pretty heatedly. I think he’ll be fine.”
“Snap is probably an understatement. Were he a unicorn, he would have rage-shifted.”
“Now I understand a little bit more. That’s happened to me before.”
Deryn smiled. “In a couple hours, he’ll be right as rain.”
“I think I’ll be cancelling our dinner tonight,” Twilight sighed. “Unless we eat in. But I can tell you don’t want to go out.”
“Yeah, not really,” he chuckled.
“We’ll eat in, then. If that’s all right with you.”
He nodded. “By then, I’ll be better.”
Instead of a romantic Italian dinner with the finest grape juice, Tux and Twilight spent their night eating microwave lasagna and spinach salad. Later, Deryn stopped by, and the three of talked about Deryn’s adventures. Twilight was surprised to learn about the relative truth of the books, and Deryn gave her permission to talk to the fan club about it.
Twilight offered to let Deryn room with her, but she said that she already had living arrangements. Twilight left them soon afterward, and Tux asked where Deryn was staying.
“Well, I was staying with Aldous Pipesmoke, that PI friend of mine. But given the circumstances, I was able to pay for a night here.”
“Cool. What’s your room number?”
“That’s right next door,” he commented, glancing at the adjoining-room door. “Did you plan it that way?”
“Of course. I want to be there for you if you need me.”
“I’m not a colt anymore, Deryn. I can handle myself.”
“I know you, Tux. Relying on your own strength is what caused your depression in the first place. Do you want to go back there?”
“I’m happy,” he grumbled. “I’m gainfully employed, I’m dating the mare of my dreams, and I live in the perfect town. I have everything I ever wanted.”
He looked down at his hooves. “I guess you may be right.”
“If you need to talk or anything else, I’m right on the other side of the wall.” She went into the other room and left the door open. Tux slipped into bed and closed his eyes, falling into a restless sleep.
The next morning, Tux thought about the events of the tour as he got ready to go back to the convention center. He still felt bad for dismissing Vinyl and Octavia so harshly, but he was glad that he had Twilight for the final day of the tour. The four of them met for breakfast at a local eatery, and Tux asked Deryn to take Twilight’s place to call each audition into the room. She accepted gladly.
But her position didn’t last long. Half on hour after everypony was supposed to be in place at the convention center, Ivory still hadn’t shown his face. Neither Twilight nor Rarity could play the piano to the degree that Tux needed, so he slipped outside.
“I think we may need you in here today,” he sighed. “Our pianist flaked, for who knows what reason. I can’t play as well as I need to in order to fake it and listen at the same time. Can you?”
“It’s been ten years since I took lessons, Tux,” she admitted. “I’m rustier than a discarded shoe.”
“Please? I’ll call the auditions in.”
“All right,” she sighed. “But you owe me. Exactly what price, I have yet to decide.”
She sat down at the piano, and Tux took all the scores out of his audition packets, writing down the ponies’ names on each one. Deryn looked them over, playing several of them to test her abilities. Tux was confident that she would be able to do well enough, so he called in the first pony on the list.
He was a tall, thin pony, and Tux thought he could easily be horse-sized. He had a placid demeanor, and his spiel was almost rehearsed. “My name is Linguine, and I am auditioning for the part of first tenor. I will be singing ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ from Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’.”
“Well, let’s get down to it, then,” Tux acknowledged as the music started. Linguine’s voice was warm and sweet without sacrificing presence and ping. He was perfectly in tune, and he expressed himself beautifully. After the short song finished, he bowed briefly and awaited the verdict.
Tux looked at Twilight, who sat next to him, and then at Rarity, who had taken the seat vacated by Octavia. “Yes,” they said simultaneously.
“Fantastic performance,” Tux smiled. “Would you consider a solo, if our repertoire calls for one?”
“Yes, I would,” Linguine replied. “I can sing choral music, but solo is my strongest.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Tux replied, harkening back to his music school years. “We’ll see you in Ponyville for round two. I think you’re pretty much guaranteed a shot in the choir, but we have to go through formalities like this anyway.”
“Thank you,” Linguine said with a bow before walking out.
“Shortest audition ever,” Twilight remarked once the door had closed. “I might actually be able to survive this.”
She changed her mind after the next audition. It was a pony named Almond who seemingly couldn’t carry a tune, singing a song that wasn’t right for her, without accompaniment. Twilight ground her teeth throughout the entire audition, and she was the first judge to speak up after the singer finished. “I’m gonna have to say no. Sorry.”
“You have spirit,” Rarity sighed. “And I suppose you get points for that. But not enough to put you through. I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any other hobbies?” Tux asked. “Knitting? Baking?”
“Listening to music,” Almond shrugged. “Only reason I did this is because I lost a bet. I don’t even like to sing.”
“Well, that explains it. Why you didn’t seem to like it, that is.”
“I also added a little extra bad into it.”
Tux furrowed his brow. “I wish I could hear your actual singing voice. Would you care to sing for us again? And something other than...Sexyback?”
“I don’t have any music with me.”
“I noticed you submitted ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ in your audition packet,” Rarity suggested.
“Oh, that,” the singer replied. “I just submitted it because I needed something classical on the list.”
“Can you sing it, or can’t you?” Tux asked impatiently.
Almond nodded. Deryn flipped through the pages until she found the music, and she looked at Almond to signal that she was ready. Almond nodded, and the music started. Tux expected a mediocre performance, but as soon as Almond started singing, he sat there breathless.
Her contralto voice was warm and sweet, but with a believable bitterness that perfectly reflected the text, of which he could understand every word. The song took him back in time, bringing up memories of depression and rejection, of singing this very song at his senior recital, of the tears that flowed down his cheeks as he once longed for a companion so true as the Brook was to the Miller.
When the song finished, Tux felt Twilight’s hoof on his shoulder. He snapped back to reality and found his cheeks wet. “I’m fine,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he asserted. He looked back up at Almond. “Almond, why don’t you like to sing?” he asked.
“Well, because none of my friends like the music I sing. They say it’s boring.”
“Don’t listen to them,” he encouraged. “You are a very talented singer. But this brings me to an impasse. You said you came here because you lost a bet. Do you want to be in the choir?”
Almond’s expression sunk. “No,” she replied. “Choirs aren’t my thing. Again, I just lost a bet. That’s it. Sorry I wasted your time. I just wanted to do my penance and get out.”
“You certainly didn’t waste my time,” Tux replied. “Never stop singing. That’s all I have to say.”
“Thank you,” she said with a weak smile. She walked out with a sparkle in her eye.
“What was it about that song?” Twilight asked.
“I guess we’re all friends here,” he sighed. “First, the story of the song cycle.” He explained to them about Die schöne Müllerin, a song cycle about a wanderer who falls for the beautiful daughter of a miller he meets in his travels. He settles down and tries to woo her, but a strapping, young hunter comes and sweeps her off her feet. Then he translated the song. “The Wanderer is so overcome with sadness that he drowns himself in the Brook. This song is the last in the cycle, The Brook’s Lullaby.”
“How awful!” Rarity gasped. “So sad.”
“It’s meant to be bittersweet,” he chuckled wryly.
Rarity was tentative. “I hope you never....”
“Never,” he acknowledged. “But there were times when I was emotionally numb. It may be a cliché, but it’s true.” He got up to call the next singer in.
“How did you cope?” Twilight asked.
“I got better,” he replied. “And I met you.”
The rest of the auditions were mostly good. Tux had to narrow his criteria to avoid having too many ponies in the next round, and it pained him to turn down singers who would have been good additions to the choir. But he left each one with a word of encouragement, trying to assure them that it wasn’t anything they had done, but rather that there just wasn’t any more room.
The three of them stayed well past the time when they had planned on quitting, making sure to get down to the very last pony on the list. By the time Tux dropped her audition packet on the top of the pile, his nerves were frayed, and he was ready to sleep for a year.
Somepony knocked on the door. Tux groaned and shuffled over, opening it just a crack. “Auditions are over,” he said. “If I don’t have your packet, then I’m sorry, but you’ve come here for nothing.”
“Somepony’s here to see you,” said one of the burly security guards who had harrassed him the day before.
“Who? I don’t have time if they don’t have a name.”
“Some private eye. You in any sort of trouble?”
“He’s with me,” Deryn piped up. “Let him in.”
Tux nodded, and a tall, black unicorn walked into the room. “Aldous Pipesmoke at your service,” he introduced.
“Tux n Tails,” Tux replied. “Deryn has mentioned you. Not by name, though.”
“You shouldn’t have any more problems with the tabloids, Mr. Tails,” Pipesmoke smiled. “They’ve printed a retraction, under pain of a lawsuit. Defamation of character.”
“Deryn, I’ve found the elusive source that Inkwell used. A shady character by the name of Ivory Coast.”
“Ivory?!” Tux gasped in indignation. “I trusted him!”
“It’s no wonder he flaked,” Deryn remarked. “He knew my guy was onto him.”
“Where is he?” Tux demanded.
“Nowhere I know of,” the investigator shrugged. “He hopped the first train to Canterlot this morning.”
“Can you find him?”
“I can, but it will cost you. Meet me for lunch tomorrow, and we’ll powwow.”
“We’re all leaving for Canterlot tomorrow morning,” Tux replied.
“Then meet me for lunch day after tomorrow. Deryn, ladies, Mr. Tails, good evening.” As quickly as he had appeared, he was gone again.
“Let him go, Tux,” Rarity advised.
“I need to know where he--”
“Let him go,” Deryn said sternly. “You’ll probably never see him again.”
“You may be right,” he sighed. “I certainly hope you are.”