Price Back rubbed the bridge of his muzzle. “You want me to write about plants,” he said.
“These aren’t just any old plants, Price,” Written Word—his editor—said. “You’ve never seen anything like them! Hardly anyone in Equestria has! That’s the point.”
“How did you even wind up seeing them?”
“My sister’s wedding.” Written Word rifled through a stack of paperwork. She pulled out a manila envelope and levitated a few photos from it. “She commissioned a bunch of things from Glimmering Gardens after her work trip to Elmshire. Cost her a brass bit, but…” She finished with a low whistle.
Price spread the photos over the desk. The floral arrangements looked like they’d been plucked straight from a child’s imagination. He glanced over a few of the more eye-catching pieces—translucent flowers of some description, floating white gourds with flames tipping their stems, and an entire tree of cherry blossoms glowing every colour of the rainbow.
“They’re pretty,” Price said, “you got me there, Writ. But enchanted plants are still just plants! I already did that exposé on the Tree of Harmony a few weeks back. Next to that, who’s gonna care about some roses made of glass? It’s a neat gimmick, sure, but a whole piece?” He shook his head. “I can’t spin that.”
“They’re not made of glass,” Writ said as she straightened her papers. “They’re made of water.”
Despite himself, Price raised an eyebrow. “How does that even work?”
Writ shrugged. “You have to see it.”
Price waved a hoof as if brushing the topic away. “That’s besides the point. There’s no story here, Writ. What am I supposed to do? Just describe a bunch of plants and write about how gorgeous they are? That’s a catalogue, not a story.”
Looking over her glasses, Writ cupped her hooves together and said, “Look, Price, I can’t make you write anything. But I’ve been mailing back and forth with the shop owner, and she’s more than thrilled about us showcasing her store. I don’t wanna disappoint her. The Grazette’s already arranged for you to head down to Elmshire next week anyway. All expenses paid.”
“Whole lotta not-my-problem,” Price said.
Written stayed him with a hoof. “Let me finish. I think you should at least go to Elmshire. Even if the story doesn’t pan out, it’s a big, foreign city! And it’s a cultural goldmine to boot.” She slid a tourist brochure across the desk. “The astral art gallery, Swan Song’s Amphitheater, the Duchess’s Archives. You’re bound to find something worth writing about. Just try Glimmering Gardens first—that’s all I’m asking.”
She levitated an envelope over to Price. It had PB Travel Info scrawled on the front. “Call it a favour to me, if nothing else” she said.
The envelope hung in the air between them. Price looked past it at Written Word’s gentle smirk. He sighed and swiped up the envelope. “You drive a hard bargain, Writ.”
One week and one eighteen-hour train ride later, followed by far too little sleep—hotel sleep at that—Price Back wanted nothing more than to hole up in his room and lose himself in a book for the day. Elmshire could wait. But he’d made a promise, and he was rarely one to go back on his word. So just before noon, Price donned his hat and saddlebags and set out into the maze of a city.
It took longer than he’d hoped, and he passed many notable landmarks he reminded himself to visit once this story fell through, but Price eventually found himself looking up at the Glimmering Gardens storefront. The windows revealed little—the glass was tinted. And the letters of the shop’s name were stylized to look like flowering vines. It reminded Price of some cheezy flower shop in a fairy tale picture book.
He sighed through his nose. “Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled. He pushed the door open.
A bell jingled above Price’s head—and promptly fell from its perch and slapped him in the muzzle. It clattered like brass but had none of the impact; it felt more like a tulip head. Price watched it slip from his face and fall limply to the floor.
“Oh, so sorry!” called the mare behind the counter. She rushed forward and took the bell in her magic, silencing it. “Seems to be time for a new one of these.” She chuckled uneasily.
Price watched the bell crumple in on itself. “Was that a plant?” he asked.
The mare nodded. “Brass bellbottom. My very own design.” She placed the flower on her desk and levitated over an identical one from amid the gardens dotting the store. It snaked its way into the pot cemented above the door.
Price tapped his muzzle, where a real bell surely would’ve left a nasty bruise. He smirked. “Heh, clever. Suppose I should count myself lucky.” He extended a hoof. “Price Back with the Equestrian Grazette. You must be Lilligold.”
Lilligold smiled and lightly took his hoof. “Pleased to meet you. I must say, I am rather looking forward to this! I’ve heard nothing but great things from your editor. I’m so glad you’ve taken an interest in my little shop.”
Price forced his best smile. “The pleasure’s all mine! The Grazette’s real interested in showcasing this place. I hope we can make a great story here.” He glanced around the store. Fragrance and colour and motion and shine overwhelmed his senses wherever he looked, like he were lost inside a botanical puzzle box. He turned to Lilligold and said, “Well, might as well get to it! Why don’t we start with a tour of the place? Give me the lay of the land, y’know?”
For a moment, Lilligold just looked at him. She blinked into action quick enough. “Yes! Yes, of course. Erm… where shall we begin?” She looked this way and that, seeming greatly overwhelmed herself.
The silence dragged on. As it trickled into graveyard stillness, Price cleared his throat and said, “How about you start by just describing a specific plant or two?” He pointed to a display at random. “These ones here, for instance.”
Lilligold smiled. She stepped up to the display and said, “Ah, yes! This one is my seasonal garden. You can perhaps see why it’s named as such.” She waved a hoof over it and looked hopefully at Price.
He looked the garden over. It housed five miniature trees: a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, a palm tree complete with tiny coconuts, a maple tree with flaming autumnal leaves, and a snowcapped evergreen. The fifth tree was a standard oak that cycled between all four of its seasonal patterns in a matter of seconds. “Pretty neat,” Price said. “How’d you make these?”
“I combined the five kinds of trees with standard pegasus magic, some rather tricky time dilation spells, and the strunkus charm. The minutiae are rather complex, so I’ll spare you the boredom.” Lilligold grinned—it looked out of place on her soft features. “Essentially, it’s magic!”
“Huh. Fascinating.” Price took out his notepad and jotted something down. He looked around and spotted a daffodil spouting water like a sprinkler. “How about this one?”
Much of the next hour proceeded in the same way. Lilligold remained animated and excited as she described her many creations, the glimmer never leaving her eyes. Her enthusiasm failed to be contagious, though, as Price’s interest quickly dwindled. Every plant was interesting and unique in its own right, but the details behind them remained much the same—Lilligold could only use so many descriptors to describe another zany flower or glitzy weed. Each minute grated on Price Back further, and he could feel his patience reaching its limit. Over an hour in and he had little more than a page of notes in his notepad.
“This one was one of my very first creations,” Lilligold said, gesturing to a vine growing from a pot of sand. It curved in random directions as it slithered around like an entranced cobra. “I call it the sandsnare.”
“Right,” Price said. “And what does this one do, besides move?”
Lilligold giggled gently. “See for yourself.”
Her magic flared, and the vine curled in on itself and moved towards Price. He stood stock still as the vine brushed past his shoulder. It coiled behind his neck, snaked through his mane, and wrapped itself around his ear. “Uh, Lilligold?” Price said. “Is this supposed to—”
The vine froze in its tracks. It glowed snow white and suddenly turned into sand. A track of sand tumbled to the floor around Price Back, and some of it caught in his hair. An ethereal breeze picked up and carried the sand back to its pot, flowing like water to a drain. Once it had recollected, a new vine sprouted and began its random course.
“It’s popular at tropical-themed parties,” Lilligold said, beaming.
Price blinked. The phantom feeling of sand in his mane lingered—and a question struck him like lightning. “How do you think these things up, Lilligold?”
Lilligold’s smile faltered. She blanched and said, “Euhm… What do you mean?”
An intense spark lit in Price’s eyes. He grabbed his notepad and said, “I mean, like, what’s the thought process that goes into making something like the sandsnare? The inspiration for it? That’s something readers would want to know. The method behind the madness.”
“Oh, um…” Lilligold averted her eyes. Her voice came out soft and shaky—a far cry from the proud one she’d been using. “I’m… not so sure about that. Surely we should keep the focus on the plants themselves, not on me.”
If one were quiet enough, they could’ve heard the gears at work inside Price Back’s head. “No, no, I think that’s exactly where the focus should be.” He grinned broadly and bonked himself on the head. “Of course! I’ve been looking at this all wrong! Look, I can’t make a story about your plants on their own—there’s just not enough substance. But there’s something they all have in common. A side that nopony knows. And that’s you, Lilligold! That’s where our story is.”
Lilligold withered. “N-Not enough substance?” she said. “But… But all of your notes…”
Price dropped his notepad to the floor and stomped on it. “I’ll be frank with you, Lilligold. Your plants are all beautiful and magical and yadda yadda, but there’s nothing more to them than that. You already summarized my notes in just three words: ‘Essentially, it’s magic!’ That story’s a flop, but your story is one I wanna tell.”
“Well… but… I don’t want to tell it.”
The hope in Price’s eyes crumbled away. “Say what?”
Lilligold hid further behind her mane, looking anywhere but at Price. “I… This was meant to be a showcase of my store, not of myself. I’m not at all comfortable with that idea.”
Price grimaced. A familiar fire smoldered in his gut. “Why not?” he pressed. “This is a good idea!”
Lilligold shook her head. “I’m just… uncomfortable with it. It’s far too personal. Can we please go back to the plants?” Her eyes darted sideways and landed on a spherical cactus. It flashed vibrant colours like a neon sign. “L-Like this one!” Lilligold said. “I call it—”
Price groaned. “I don’t care!” The fire in his gut went wild, burning all the way up to his tongue. “I already told you there’s no story there! And then the one actually salvageable story I find in all of this, you shoot down! I’m fed up!”
Recoiling as far as she could, Lilligold said, “I… I don’t understand, Mister Price Back. Written Word assured me you could do my store justice.”
Price’s glare hardened. All of his teeth showed as he spat out his words. “Writ wanted me to do this story because it’s one she wanted to see. I didn’t want to do it because I knew this is exactly how it would go! It’s a gimmick! Nothing more! The best damn writer in the world couldn’t spin a story from it!”
Tears wetted Lilligold’s eyes. She blinked quickly and said, “P-Ponies tend to love my plants. I-I thought—”
“You thought wrong!” Price barked. “I knew this was a waste of time right from the start. I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt—the chance to prove me wrong. But no! You and your stupid plants have no hook! No intrigue! No point! All this time spent listening to you ramble on, and for what?! Nothing!” He lashed out his hoof on impulse. It struck the nearby cactus, sending a thousand tiny pains up his leg. He roared and grasped his hoof.
There was a tiny gasp. Lilligold shoved her way past Price Back and scrambled towards her cactus—which had fallen from its table. Its pot was smashed, and the light within it strobed frantically before fizzling out entirely. Lilligold lifted it in her silver aura and slowly rotated it through the air. She placed it on the table and bowed her head.
As his tirading tongue cooled, Price Back watched. He looked from his hoof—where the pain was rapidly subsiding—to the ruined cactus, and to Lilligold’s broken expression. He blinked. “Lilligold, I—”
“Now see here, Price Back!” Lilligold rasped. She glared daggers at him through teary lenses, making Price stumble back. She advanced on him and said, “I invited you here today because I assumed this would be a wonderful opportunity for both my shop and your magazine. I absolutely did not invite you to storm in, verbally assault me, slander my plants, and outright destroy my work!” Her voice cracked on this last. “If you didn’t believe there was a story to be had here, you should have spared us both the trouble and never have come in the first place!”
Price’s mouth worked wordlessly. “I didn’t—”
“I am not done!” Lilligold wiped an eye and continued, “Now I may not be the most confident pony in the world, but I have enough pride in my work to know that I don’t deserve to be treated this way. So I’ll choose to forget that you’ve just ruined my most difficult project to date and ask you this once politely: please take yourself and your savage demeanor and leave my store.” She whipped a hoof at the door and stood firm.
For his part, Price stood there dumbly and stared at her. He blinked once, then again, then broke into a broad smirk. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!”
The rigidity bled from Lilligold’s stance. “Er… I don’t follow.” She shook her head. “Never mind. Out!”
“No, no, Lilligold. Listen. I’ll leave without another word if you just hear me out on this.”
It took her a moment’s thought, but Lilligold lowered her hoof. She sighed and said, “I’m listening.”
Price grinned. “Thanks. Now, you probably could’ve guessed, but that’s not exactly the first time I’ve gone off on somepony for wasting my time. But you, Lilligold. You’re one of the only ones who’s ever fought back like that. That’s why I’m saying you should be the focus of this story—not your plants.”
Lilligold quirked an eyebrow.
“I mean, look at this place!” Price swept a hoof over the storybook jungle of a store. “It speaks for itself. You’re talented, obviously have one heck of an imagination, and if that little speech didn’t speak to how passionate you are about this, I don’t know what would. There’s no reason to be uncomfortable sharing that—hay, you should be proud! And you said it yourself: ponies love your plants! If that’s true, why wouldn’t they love you too?”
He set a hoof on her shoulder. “That’s why I want to write about you. To give ponies a different side of the story. The best side. Your side.”
Lilligold pursed her lips. She looked away and said, in a much quieter tone, “Are you done?”
Price’s smile faded. “Uh, yeah,” he said, lowering his hoof.
“Well, none of those words sounded quite like an apology, so I must ask again that you leave my shop.” Lilligold nodded and whispered, “Good day, Price Back.” Lifting the broken cactus in her magic, she strode past Price and behind her counter. She set the plant in front of herself, sat down, and frowned.
For a moment, Price didn’t move. As the silence stretched on, he clumsily put away his notepad. A pile of business cards sat buried in his saddlebag. On a whim, he pulled one out and placed it on Lilligold’s desk. “My address,” he said, “in case you ever change your mind.”
“I’m quite sure I won’t need it,” Lilligold said. She never looked away from the cactus. “Thank you anyway. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Elmshire.”
Price nodded. He turned to leave but caught himself just shy. “Sorry about the cactus, by the way.” Lilligold bit her lip, but she said nothing. Price left the store without another word, the brass bellbottom singing him goodbye.
Back on the street, Price adjusted his hat and sighed. He considered the laundry list of other places he could search for a story in Elmshire. Certainly he could make something great out of one of the many tourist attractions—probably better than Lilligold’s story would’ve been. And without the drama.
Instead, he started back towards his hotel. He needed to pack.
Several weeks passed, and Lilligold’s life returned to its beaten track. Just her and her plants and the occasional customer who paid her little mind so long as she delivered. Exactly how she liked it—alone and unnoticed.
Sitting at her counter, Lilligold absently watered a desktop pitcher plant while looking over an order form. The pitcher plant giggled, and Lilligold couldn’t help but smile. She sighed airily and opened one of her drawers. She slid the form over and filed it away.
Deep in the crevice between paper and wood, something caught Lilligold’s eye. She levitated the object out—a tiny rectangle of cardstock with a Canterlot address printed on its face. Lilligold’s heart missed a beat. She set the card down and looked her store over.
She was alone with her plants—all of which she loved like children. All of which had some story or another behind their inception. All of which only she knew—her customers only saw novel decorations. Just how she liked it.
Lilligold frowned. She looked down at the business card again. Opening a different drawer, she stowed it carefully with her own business cards, where it wouldn’t be lost. She closed and locked the drawer.
Today wasn’t the day, but perhaps she’d want her story told another day.