Approaching the serene storefront of Glimmering Gardens was one of the most nerve-racking experiences in Whitewash’s recent memory. He stole a few deep breaths on the opposite street corner and crossed the road. A meek suitcase trundled along behind him, rattling over the flagstones.
Just a moment before pushing the door, Whitewash paused and made a half-hearted attempt to smooth out his mussy mane. It flattened under his hoof but popped back up when he pulled away. He sighed through his nose and entered the store.
The bell installed above every quaint, homey shop’s door chimed happily at Whitewash’s entry. He barely had time to register the sea of springtime fragrance before the mare at the counter gasped. Whitewash locked eyes with her as a quill dropped from her magic. “Oh!” she said. “You must be Mister Whitewash!” She averted her eyes and gathered her tablecloth worth of papers into a shoddy pile. “I, um… I wasn’t… You’re early!” She stuffed the papers in a drawer and put on a smile.
“Heh, am I?” Whitewash said. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I can come back later if you want.”
“Oh, no no no, don’t be silly!” The mare stepped around the counter and approached him. “I should’ve been ready sooner. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. I’m Lilligold, as you’ve likely already guessed.” She extended a hoof to him
He took it—perhaps a little too forcefully. “Nice to meet you too! I’ve been looking forward to this.” A lie. “Your letter really intrigued me.” The truth, but for none of the right reasons.
Lilligold chuckled, but it trickled away into silence. They stood there, two near-strangers from a continent apart. Lilligold cleared her throat and said, “Yes, well, I suppose we can get right to it! Make yourself comfortable. I’ll, um, go get the specimen I’d like you to look at.” She nodded and scurried into the backroom.
Whitewash meandered around the store, his eyes glazing over the esoteric jungle. His heart pounded in his throat. Nothing so much as a clock’s ticking broke the silence. Eventually his focus stuck on a flower that loomed taller than him—its four petals rotated like a windmill. A small plaque on the pot marked it at five hundred bits. “Miss Lilligold?” he called.
“Yes?” came the quiet reply.
“Just curious: what did my parents place an order here for?”
“They, erm, wanted a bouquet of quicksilver orchids. For their twenty fifth wedding anniversary, I think. They’re on display near the counter.”
True enough, Whitewash found a little garden just beyond the counter. Amid many peculiar flowers grew a few iridescent silver orchids. Drops of quicksilver gathered at the tips of its petals and fell to the soil, vanishing in a shimmer. Before the flowers lay a plaque marking them at eight hundred bits apiece. Eight thousand for a bouquet. Whitewash bit his lip hard.
He turned just as Lilligold came out of the back. “Here it is!” she said. A potted cactus levitated onto the countertop. Its spines sparked every now and again, and a dull red glow thrummed in the heart of the plant itself—like candlelight fighting through a damp cloth. “Not… well, not quite my most impressive work.” She smiled at Whitewash. “But that’s why you’re here, I suppose.”
Whitewash grinned. “Of course,” he said, taking a step closer. “Just so we’re absolutely clear though, no matter whether I can help fix this or not, the fee for my parents’s order has been waived?”
“Oh, of course!” Lilligold said. “It’s the very least I can do for troubling you to come all this way. I really must send them a thank-you note for recommending you. ‘Best chemist in Equestria,’ they said!” She shrank back and looked at her cactus. “I truly hope that’s the case,” she whispered.
Whitewash chuckled. Years of practice had made it sound carefree and confident even at the worst of times. “I’ll do my best.” He approached the cactus with no right idea what to do next.
The plant lifted in his magic. He pretended to scrutinize it as he rotated it, buying him a few moments to think. “You said in your letter that you thought it could be the neon interacting with the magic somehow?” Whitewash said.
Lilligold nodded. “I ran into my first complication after the initial infusion.”
Whitewash hummed—a genuine hum at that. He may have flunked his chemistry course, but he still had a skeletal understanding of the field. “That seems unlikely. Neon is a noble gas. It doesn’t react with anything.”
“That’s what has me baffled as well,” Lilligold said, watching the cactus herself. “But it seems to be the only explanation. The specific spell it seems to take issue with is the corneus enchantment. I’ve analyzed the spell dozens of times over. It’s as optimized as I can make it.” She looked past the plant at Whitewash himself. “Do you think it’s maybe a combination of the enchantments and the chemical structure of the cactus itself? Arcane gluons having an adverse effect on—” She stopped, and a faint fire lit in her cheeks. “S-sorry. I get carried away sometimes. You’re the expert.”
“It’s okay. I appreciate your input.” Whitewash nodded. Slowly, to give the illusion of thought. He raked his memories for anything he could say or do, and something struck him. His eyes flicked to Lilligold’s counter, to the drawer where she’d stuffed her papers. “Do you have any notes I could look at?”
Lilligold froze up. “Um, I… maybe a few.” She looked away, hiding behind her mane and rubbing one hoof over the other. “I’m not sure I know where they are. Do you really need to see them?”
“It would probably help.”
“Oh, okay.” Lilligold shuffled toward the backroom again. “I’ll go have a quick look.”
Once Lilligold had gone, Whitewash wasted no time. He set down the cactus and slid open the drawer as quickly as he dared. A mishmash of scattered papers—some crumpled, others scribbled and stained, others still immaculate—filled the thing. Whitewash flitted his eyes across the topmost one.
and Violet tossed her mane back. It caught the sunlight like sheet gold. She smiled at her reflection, wondering what Stardom would think when he saw her. Of course he would compliment her like he always did, even though she so rarely deserved it.
Risking her lengthy styling process, Violet threw herself back on the bed and giggled like a schoolgirl. He wouldn’t pick her up for another two hours yet, and butterflies threatened to burst from her stomach already. She daydreamed the afternoon away.
“A perfect corsage for my perfect mare,” were Stardom’s first words at the doorstep. He bent forward with a complex flower between his perfect teeth and placed the corsage above Violet’s breast. Her heart went aflutter.
“Such a charmer,” she said, twirling a hoof through her mane.
“You look just as ravishing as ever, my dear,” Stardom said. He stepped over the threshold and stole her in an embrace. Fireworks flew when he planted his soft, sensual lips on hers. Violet melted. In that instant, she knew the night would—
A tiny gasp froze Whitewash on the spot. He slammed the drawer and whirled around. Lilligold was staring at him through quivering lenses, a few more intellectual-looking papers in her silver magic. The notes slipped from the air and slapped against the floor quietly.
Whitewash backpedaled and said, “Miss Lilligold! I’m so sorry! I just meant to help you look and I didn’t mean to… to snoop, or anything.”
Lilligold was still rooted—not moving, not speaking, hardly even breathing. Her eyes were transfixed on the drawer. Her pink cheeks flushed darker and darker red. She closed her eyes.
Despite everything, Whitewash still remained focused. He had found a way out of his predicament—not a pleasant one, but a way. “I, er… For what it’s worth, I kinda liked what I read! I mean, the Stardom guy seems a bit too perfect and cookie-cutter, but Violet seemed real! And I dunno how far in that is, but it seemed maybe a little generic—which could be okay, mind you. Depends how you spin it. But I, um… er…” He looked at Lilligold, who still hadn’t moved. “Are you okay?”
Her head twitched to one side. “I…” she began, but it fizzled out.
Whitewash swallowed the considerable lump in his throat. “Look, maybe I can help with this too! I’m a pretty good proofreader.” He slid the drawer back open. “With just an hour or two—”
Lilligold’s magic caught the drawer and slammed it shut. Dense silence flooded the store. “I…” she tried again. Then she sighed. “Please leave,” she whispered.
Whitewash blinked. “Pardon?”
“I’m sorry, but… but I need you to leave.” Her voice was a weak and shaky, like autumn’s last trembling leaf. “I’m so sorry I brought you all the way down here. This was a big mistake. This is a sign. I—I normally work alone.” She trotted to the other side of her counter, lifting her eyelids to do so. Only then did Whitewash see the tears flooding her eyes.
His heart sank. “Miss Lilligold, I’m very sorry. I really didn’t mean to—”
“No. No, it’s fine. Sorry for your troubles.” She opened another drawer. Her magic flickered a few times, and she bit her lip. Finally she just ducked her head in the drawer and grabbed a little envelope in her mouth. She spat it across the counter and said, “Your hotel information. It’s paid for a week.” Her voice snapped. “Please. Please just go. I can’t take this.”
In complete silence, Whitewash nodded. He took the envelope and dragged himself and his suitcase to the exit. He paused, looked over his shoulder and said, “Good luck with your project, Miss Lilligold. I hope it turns out great.”
Her back was turned, but she nodded and squeaked out something that sounded like, “Thank you.”
Whitewash left. Out on the sidewalk, he breathed a hearty sigh. He glanced at the hotel information and wandered away, doing his best to push the encounter from his mind. He was fairly sure he’d passed a comic store on one of Elmshire’s labyrinthine streets. Perhaps something there could clear his thoughts.
In the midday gloom of her shop, Lilligold wept softly. Her body still shook, although Whitewash had been gone nearly twenty minutes. A small part of her wanted to lash out and hit something, but the only target was the luminescent cactus she’d toiled over for months, so she bottled the impulse up.
Several quiet minutes later, she stood up and straightened herself. She approached the cactus and eyed it sadly. It still looked like a chimera of broken magic and plant life—a mere fragment of what her mind’s eye had imagined. She slid it away and sprawled herself across the desk. She sighed and blew her mane from her face.
Something tingled in her stomach. Lilligold’s eyes flicked down to the drawer that contained her story. That stupid, damned, troublesome story. She considered for a moment before sliding it open and lifting the top page out. She scanned it and hovered her quill over, jotting something in the margins:
Stardom too perfect. Plot too standard. Revise.
She stared at the note for a moment, then scratched a hard line through it. She stared longer and scribbled the note out entirely. Lastly she tapped her quill and rewrote the note in red ink. Shaking her head, she hid the page away and grabbed the cactus in her magic. She trotted into the backroom and got to work.