It was done. At least, it was as done as she was hoping for before sending it off for the first round of editing. Crystal trotted out of her room and exclaimed, "The first stage is complete!"
The condo replied back with empty silence and Crystal sighed. Of course, Velvet was already at practice.
"Well, it is." She gathered up the loosely bound papers and straightened them into an orderly fashion before she slid them into a large manila envelope. "Which means it's time for the second stage. After I drop this off in the mail."
More than writing the story or getting it published, Crystal was excited for the second stage most of all. She had received permission to find her own cover artist, so long as she paid the difference from using the in-house artist. This story was special to her in a way that The Mare's Temptation wasn't. Temptation was certainly a work of pride, but Princess of the Knight was a labor of love.
She couldn't fully explain her fanmare-like obsession with Princess Luna, but the story had come from the simple beating of her heart rather than a muse whispering in her ear.
Conveniently, there was an art exhibit being held that week for artists local to Canterlot. On her way to the exhibit, she stopped at the post office on the corner, a bell ringing to announce her arrival as she pushed the door open.
"Hello!" a unicorn in the standard blue uniform said, offering a small wave. "What can I help you with today?"
"I need a copy made and sent off to Manehattan." Crystal set the bulky folder on the counter between them. "And, perhaps another copy for myself."
The unicorn nodded. "Yes, ma'am." He inclined his head and hollered, "Zerox! Got two copies for you to make!"
A second unicorn walked into sight. His mane and tail were of an off-white color, the former styled to one side and draping over half of his face while the latter hung limp. When his eyes met hers, however, his tail perked up and his sullen expression lightened.
"Zerox?" the postal clerk prompted after an awkward moment of silence held them all. He tapped on the folder. "Copies?"
"Huh?" Zerox glanced at his boss, the gloomy look returning. "Oh, whatever." He sighed and slid the folder over to where the blank pages were kept.
He tucked the wall of mane behind his ear so he could see more clearly. His horn lit up and his amber eyes glowed a brighter shade of yellow as the same color shimmered and enveloped both her pages and the blank ones.
His eyes tracked back and forth as he seemed to be reading the words on the pages. She knew he wasn't, however; copying magic took too much concentration for him to digest any of the content. The moment the words passed from his vision to his magic and onto the previously blank pages, they were forgotten to make room for the next ones.
When he reached the last page for the second time, the yellow glow disappeared from around the levitated pages. His eyes briefly flashed green and he looked over at Crystal. "Done," he said simply, turning and walking away, his mane falling back into his face.
The clerk chuckled and put the new copies in their own folders, then pushed all three back across the counter. "That'll be twenty-five bits, ma'am. Oh, you wanted one of these sent to Manehattan, didn't you?" He returned one of the folders to his side. "Thirty bits, then."
After she paid, she tucked away her folders and trotted out with a cheerful, "Thank you!"
Crystal was a few paces away from the post office before she heard hoofsteps nearing her rather quickly. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Zerox approaching her, though his gaze was focused somewhere off to the side. She blinked, slowed her gait, and asked, "Hello?"
Zerox froze in mid-step and winced. "Hey." His one visible eye glanced at her. "What are you up to?"
She tilted her head. "I'm going to an art exhibit. Why?"
"Oh." He rubbed one hoof against the other leg. "What are you up to after that?"
Realization started to set in and she turned to face him completely, smiling with just a little too much excitement. "I don't have any plans." She stepped closer to him. "Where should I meet you?"
"Do you like coffee?"
She didn't, but her eagerness overtook her and she nodded. "Sure!"
"Okay. Café au Lait at 4?"
"Sounds great!" She paused, then added with a giggle, "I'm Crystal, by the way."
A blush showed on his face at the sudden awareness that he hadn't asked himself. "Yeah, cool. I'll see you at 4." He turned and trotted back to the post office.
Crystal waited until he was out of earshot before squealing and continuing on her way with a skip in her step.
Once she finally made it to the exhibit, it wasn't difficult for her to tell the patrons apart from the artists. Patrons wandered, while the artists stood near their wall of collected work, noses held high. They acknowledged their art's onlookers with raised brows and snarky smiles.
Crystal did her best to look only mildly interested when she looked at paintings. Too interested and the artist might think her disingenuous, and not interested enough would seem, of course, disinterested.
Finally, one took the bait. "Do you like what you see, madam?"
Crystal offered him a casual glance out of the corner of her eye. "Hmm, well, I suppose when one's destiny is to make fine art, it's not a surprise when one does so."
The stallion huffed. "It takes much more than talent to produce masterpieces such as this!"
Well, that marked him off the list. She needed somepony that was talented, yes, but not full of themselves. There was no way she could work with a snob without eventually strangling them. "I see. Good day, then." She turned away and meandered across the room to another artist's section.
After several conversations with ponies much too interested in themselves, Crystal dropped her rump down to the rough carpet and slumped against the wall behind her. A heavy, downtrodden sigh escaped her while she rubbed her aching forehead. What had she been thinking?
"Need some fresh air after navigating that crowd of pompous self-glorification?" a voice asked from nearby, followed by the distinct sound of sipping.
Crystal lifted her head to spot a buttercream unicorn sitting a few paces away, her back nestled against the corner of the room. Her brown mane was tied into a short, loose ponytail and was adorned with purple and pink streaks, as was her tail. She peered at Crystal over a pair of glasses that were resting on her snout.
A mug of steaming liquid that smelled distinctly of coffee was nestled between both her hooves, which she raised back up for another sip. "What's wrong? Tongue tied up from talking in nots?"
The mare chuckled quietly to herself and gave a vague gesture at some nearby art. Her tone rose and fell to mimic other ponies' as she continued, "That's not a very flattering depiction. You're not really expressing anything with this piece. Well, you're not understanding my vision."
Her hoof returned to cradle her mug and she stuck out her tongue. "Unbelievable." She blew a raspberry to accentuate her point, then returned to a more normal expression. "By the way, hello."
Crystal blinked a few times. A short laugh escaped her as she finally caught on to the joke. "Hi." She scooted a little closer, rotating to face the mare. "I'm Crystal Wishes."
"Painted Wave." She shifted to similarly face her in return, her back now only against the one wall, and nodded cordially.
"I guess you don't much care for the kind of ponies that attend art exhibits?" Crystal sighed and looked around at what she could see of the room from her current position. "I don't blame you."
"I'd hope not. I didn't invite 'em, but I am, at least, enjoying the show." Painted Wave turned her gaze on a nearby patron. "Watch closely how the stallion nods at each piece. He thinks he understands it, but in reality, he just wants to impress the mare he's with."
Crystal's mouth wriggled as she tried to fight back another laugh. The stallion in question glared at the two of them and said, "Excuse me, but if you're not—"
"Oh, look, another not," Painted interrupted. "At least try something more interesting. Perhaps Coltic. Marerick Bend?" She waved a hoof. "Don't you mind us. Your date's gone."
The stallion glanced over at where his companion had been. He tensed from the surprise at her absence and walked briskly away to catch up to her.
Finally, the amusement escaped Crystal in a sputtering laugh, especially when Painted cackled a little gleefully.
"So," Painted asked, returning her gaze to Crystal, "what brings you to the exhibit?"
Crystal rubbed at her tearing eyes and shrugged. "Well, to be honest—" She eyed the mare, nervousness rising in her chest. "That is, I mean—" Her eyes lifted in an attempt to look at something that wouldn't look back at her and she gasped when her gaze landed on a painting hanging above Painted's head. "Wow!"
"Wow? You're here for wow?" Painted shrugged. "Well, there are some pretty talented artists here, so—"
"No, no." Crystal waved away the trail of conversation to pull Painted's attention back to her. "That!" She pointed at the painting. "That's amazing!"
Painted tilted her head back to look up at the painting above her. "Oh, that. I am a little proud of it."
Crystal's eyes went wide and she jumped to her hooves. "You?"
Painted looked back at her. "Well, who else would be proud of my work but me? Well. My mother, but that might be a bit too big for her to stick on the fridge."
Crystal stared at the art and its creator in awe, unable to react with so much as a grin. The painting featured a dramatic scene of a mysterious yet imposing mare surrounded by the vast and shimmering expanse of outer space. The expression on the mare's face demanded nothing less than respect while she was surrounded by a glowing aura. Trails of her aura were pulled across the painting toward a star that was on the verge of going nova, nearly black with a radiant, red halo.
"You—" Crystal's gaze wandered the wall to look at the other paintings.
They ranged from simple still life of fruits and vases to big and bold scenes like one piece that was different from the others. It depicted a battle between some sort of monstrous leviathan facing off against a battalion of small, nondescript ponies. The detail in the painting as a whole, however, coupled with the name plate that simply read 'Remember', sent a shiver down her spine.
"—are amazing," she finished, finally looking back at Painted.
Painted set her coffee mug aside and stood up, taking her time to stretch out her limbs and joints before she offered a smile. "If you think so, then it's so, but it doesn't answer my question." She stepped closer. "Why are you here? You don't seem like a typical patron of the arts." She chuckled. "Unless you came here specifically for me, then I suppose that was an answer."
Crystal nodded rather dumbly. "Perhaps I did!"
This caught Painted off-guard and she tilted her head, one brow raised. "What?"
Crystal avoided her gaze, scuffing one hoof against the coarse carpet. "I'm sorry. This may be awfully forward of me. I—"
"Not that I'm not flattered, but," the mare interrupted. She bobbed her head and glanced up at her own horn, where a silver ring rested.
"What?" Crystal flushed and waved her hooves wildly. "No, no! I'm sorry! I want to commission you, professionally and business-like!"
Painted blinked, then laughed. "Oh, is that all?"
"Yes." Crystal's face was still bright red. "I'm a bit of a writer, and I'm working on a new story and need art for the cover."
"I can consider it if you loan me a copy of the manuscript." Painted turned to retrieve her mug, but was stopped by a stack of papers rather suddenly thrust out of Crystal's saddlebags and offered to her. "Oh. Aren't you prepared?"
A bright white aura of magic overtook the manuscript to move it closer for Painted to see. Small lines of color rippled through the magical glow that enveloped the papers, giving the appearance of a watery surface slowly moving in gentle waves.
Silence fell between them, interrupted only by the occasional sound of the pages being turned. The coffee mug glowed as it was levitated and floated over to Painted so she could take a sip. Slowly, she started to sit down, continuing to read.
Crystal bit her lower lip. "So—"
Painted was quick to shush her, one hoof raised in demanded pause.
Crystal waited a few more pages and tried again. "If—"
"Shh." Painted tore her gaze away long enough to shoot Crystal a stern look. "Reading."
Finally, Crystal relented and sat down. She drew a small circle into the carpet with one hoof, then the other, then glanced at Painted. The number of other ponies attending the exhibit started to dwindle down until Crystal's nerves couldn't take it any longer. She took a sharp intake of air, then said quickly before she could be interrupted, "Will you do the cover art?"
Painted jolted, her muscles visibly tensing, and looked up at Crystal as if they were meeting for the first time. "Huh?" She blinked and recognition returned to her eyes. "Oh, right, you're waiting on me for something, aren't you?" She nodded. "I'll need to keep this manuscript, of course." The papers moved closer to her, almost protectively. "For research. Of course."
A sigh of relief escaped Crystal and she smiled. "Thank you so much! Yes, you may absolutely keep that. It's not been through editing, however, so it may be a little rough, but—" She shook her head and smiled again. "Thank you!"
"Mmhm." With a dramatically slow movement, she returned her attention to the papers. "Cover art." Her mug lifted and she took a sip. "Got it."
Crystal glanced at a nearby window to get a gauge on the sun's position in the sky. "I have to—" She was promptly shushed. Giggling, she pulled out a scrap piece of paper, wrote down her address and the ideas she had for the cover, and slid it across the floor over to Painted. "Thanks again," she whispered, then trotted out of the exhibit hall.
Crystal didn't spot Zerox's face in the crowd outside or inside Café au Lait, so she hurried to the bathroom to check on her appearance. Her reflection revealed that she was in dire need of more make-up and, as she realized that she had none with her, the visage in the mirror frowned. She made do by wetting her hoof under a faucet and smoothing her mane into place, then went back out into the cafe.
She had been gone long enough for Zerox to arrive, it seemed, as he was sitting at a table for two off to one side. She sauntered over, a small sway to her hips to swish her tail back and forth. "Hi," she said, inwardly cursing herself for not matching her coy approach with an equally coy greeting.
Zerox looked up and quickly looked back down. She saw a flush of red on his face before his mane shielded it from sight. "Hey."
Crystal took the seat across from him, smiling to hide her sudden panic. How long had it been since she had gone on a date? She had no idea what she was supposed to do. "Have you ordered yet?"
"No." He shook his head. "I was waiting for you."
"Oh!" She picked up the menu and started to look it over. "What do you recommend?"
Zerox glanced at his own menu, which laid in front of him on the table. "I guess, well, I just get espresso."
Crystal hesitated. She knew that espresso was particularly strong, but, beyond that, her knowledge of coffee was limited and she didn't want to admit that. "I see." She bit her lower lip. "How about—oh! A caramel macchiato!" She smiled, folding the menu and setting it back down. "That sounds delicious."
Zerox shrugged. "Too sweet for me, but I guess you're into that sort of thing." He got up and went to the counter to place their order, then returned to the table. "So, you're a writer?"
"Huh?" She straightened up and avoided eye contact. "What? Oh." She laughed somewhat nervously. "Yes, something like that, but what about you?" Her gaze refocused on him. "What do you do when you're not working at the post office?"
His face, or at least what she could see of it, scrunched up in clear distaste. "Not much. I listen to music. I don't really want to talk about me, though. I, uh—" He swallowed and his expression smoothed out. "I've made copies for you before. You're really pretty, so I wanted to get to know you better."
Crystal's whole face turned red. She fiddled with the menu absentmindedly, doing her best to not look as flustered as she was. "Oh, well, then, um, yes. I am a writer. I mailed off one of the copies you made to Manehattan, and just gave the other to an artist who I hope will do the cover." Her eyes lit up. "You should go to the art exhibit before the end of the week! There are some amazing pieces of work on display right now."
"I've already been." His ears fell to the sides.
Crystal furrowed her brow. A barista behind the counter called out Zerox's name and their conversation paused while he retrieved their drinks. She turned the cup slowly between her hooves, staring down at it, then looked up at him. "You don't seem, well, happy. What's wrong?"
Zerox sighed heavily. "Is it that obvious?"
Crystal hesitated, but was saved from answering when he continued on his own.
"How would you feel if your only talent was copying others' work for them? I can't write or draw or anything creative like that. My whole purpose is just to make copies." He raised a hoof and brushed his mane behind one ear to look at her with both eyes, which held the same bitterness as his voice. "It's pretty lame."
Crystal dared a sip of her macchiato. It was sweet and fluffy with the distinct taste of coffee behind it. It certainly wasn't tea, but it was something she could stand to drink. Finally, she slid the cup aside, folded her hooves, and looked at him with a gentle seriousness. "Have you tried?"
"What?" He frowned.
"Have you tried?" she repeated. "My talent is writing, but I can do other things, too. I can cook a little. My friend's talent is dancing, but she's a pretty good baker from helping out her parents. I'm just saying." She swallowed, suddenly nervous again. "Have you tried?"
He glared down at the cup of black liquid in front of him. "Of course I've tried. My writing is terrible and my art would make a foal look talented."
She bit her lip and pressed, "What else?"
This gave him a moment of pause. "I tried everything that I'm interested in," he admitted. His mane slipped out of place and covered his face again. "What else even is there?"
"So many things!" Hope sparked in her chest. "You could try cooking, or baking, or—" She gasped excitedly. "Music!"
He furrowed his brow and leaned back into his chair. "Music?"
She nodded, a smile working its way onto her lips though she tried to look calm. "You mentioned that you listen to music, so it must be important to you. Why don't you try that? There are so many instruments, and I know a lot of musicians in Canterlot if you found an instrument you liked, and—"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Zerox's eyes widened, one hoof raised to pause her. "What are you doing?"
"Huh?" She tilted her head. "I'm trying to help."
"Why?" His brow furrowed.
Crystal took a sip of her macchiato to ponder her response before she said simply, a small flush heating her cheeks, "Because you said I'm pretty."
He blinked a few times, then started to smile. "Oh. Well. It'd be cool to make music. I guess I'll give it a shot."
"Great! So, why don't we meet back here again in a week and see how it goes?" She glanced up at him.
He nodded. "Sure."
"Great," she repeated, trying to sound more excited than she felt. It wasn't quite what she had in mind when she thought 'date', nor was she certain 'meeting again in a week' would count as a second date, but it was better than nothing.