• Published 8th Sep 2013
  • 802 Views, 20 Comments

At what price? - Cozy Mark IV



Only Star Swirl the Bearded knows how to save her friends from the reaper, but he has a dark secret of his own. Twilight knows something he doesn't, but could it be enough? And why did Princess Celestia just send a new Guard Captain to Ponyville

  • ...
12
 20
 802

Strengths

Chapter Nine: Strengths

Star Swirl’s rats had lost their cohesion again as he mourned beneath the statue. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but eventually he reassembled himself and began the trudge back to the hotel. If nothing else, the innkeeper and bell captain would be concerned about how quickly he departed, and he also wanted to change his clothes for dinner with the Princess Twilight Sparkle.

It had to have been at least two hours, he realized, noticing how dehydrated and weak he felt. After a thousand years of hoping, waiting, longing to see his beloved again…all of a sudden, his reason for living was really and truly gone, and he didn’t really know how to carry on.

But it wouldn’t do to let other ponies worry about him. He knew what worrying felt like, and he didn’t want to do that to anypony else.

Sadly, he slunk back into the inn and ordered apple juice from the bartender. Lemon Twist looked distracted and concerned as she got it ready for him, and she almost forgot the little sprinkle of cinnamon with which the hotel garnished its’ apple juice. Star Swirl may have been depressed to the point of questioning his reason for continued existence, but he wasn’t stupid. He followed the bartender’s gaze to the table where he had been sitting not so very long ago.

‘Oh,’ he thought. ‘No wonder she looks nervous.’

He picked up his drink and walked over to the table where a poker game, and one which was not going well for the poor Innkeeper, if facial expressions meant anything, was in progress. Star Swirl had never seen these irritating city ponies before, but it only took him a moment of watching them play to realize he knew their type very well. ‘Probably straw-boater hats, too,’ he thought, then glanced over to the hat-stand, where, sure enough, two flattish straw-boaters with bands to match the striped shirts were hanging. ‘Bloody hell. Every single hotel I ever stay at…’

“Pardon me, gentlecolts, but…is this that new card game I’ve heard all the young ponies talking about?” he asked.

“The game is poker, old-timer,” the one with the moustache explained, exchanging a glance with the clean-shaven one that spoke volumes. Even a centuries-old sorcerer with the pony skills of a wet towel could see the thoughts frolicking through their minds plain as the muzzle on his face. “Care to join us?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t played cards for money since the senior home stopped letting us put a few bits on Old Mare games,” Star Swirl deliberately let his voice creak. “And it looks like you’re having such fun,” he went on, with a look at the pile of bits, Prompt Service’s hat, the Innkeeper’s watch and what looked like the deeds to the inn which were decorating the center of the table, “I’d hate to slow things down while you explain the rules to an old nag like me.”

“Nonsense!” the clean-shaven one greeted, standing up and chivalrously helping Star Swirl (who acted a bit more arthritic than he had ever been,) into a chair. “It’s really very simple…”

By asking a lot of very foalish questions and feigning a bit of hearing trouble, Star Swirl managed to stretch the two city ponies’ explanation of the rules of poker out long enough for the Innkeeper, the other hotel patrons who were playing and the unfortunate, broke-looking Prompt Service time to get a drink, use the little stallions’ room and generally collect their wits before the next hoof was dealt. One of the important things in dealing with this kind of pony was giving their victims a chance to catch their breath. That, and he needed to finish his apple juice before the next stage took place.

“So the little ones are called asaps…”

“Aces,” the one explained from behind his moustache.

“And they’re somehow part of the royal family? Don’t that just beat all, I bet those asaps represent some of the more inbred royals!”

He was laying it on a little thick, but the card sharps ate it up, laughing and telling him what a wit he was.

“Well, why don’t I get out a few bits and we’ll have a little flutter on this here poking game.” Star Swirl carefully opened his purse in such a way that looked like he was trying ineptly to conceal it and which actually showed its’ bulging contents off quite nicely. He set down a modest hoofful of currency and said “How much for the…what was the word? Roachie?”

“Ante,” the clean-shaven brother reminded.

“Oh, yes. I always get the six-legged ones confused.”

Prompt Service was giving Star Swirl a perplexed look. The veiled pony had been perfectly sensible and urbane just a few hours before, but now he was acting like he was older than the hills and had hit every stick of the stupid tree in his fall off the turnip truck. He asked Star Swirl if he was feeling well, to which Star Swirl announced that he’d be a lot better if someone got him a pint before he dried up and blew away, throwing a bit to the bell captain with which to go and get it. Prompt Service caught it and headed straight for the bar, only stopping for a moment to examine the bit, the funny weight of it and the unusual engraving…

Suddenly his perplexed smile became a grin and he brought back a tray with a huge pint of cider and a shot glass of strong brandy.

“Good job, sonny. My mother always said a bit of brandy with your cider keeps the flavor in!” He dropped the shot in his pint glass and downed half the boilermaker in one long quaff. (This had the effect of rendering three of his rats absolutely blitzed while the others remained sober as little murine tax accountants.) “My, my. The brandy in Ponyville is –hic!- a mite stronger than Mama used to make.”

And he coughed theatrically, to drive home the point that here was an old, credulous, completely incompetent and slightly squiffy old pony with at least a thousand bits in his purse.

He could smell the card sharps salivating.

The poor bastards.

What followed was one of Star Swirl’s better performances. The first hoof went reasonably well and the card sharps let him win a little, to get him interested. During the second hoof, there was a strange creaking sound and a little clockwork-and-spring device with an Ace of Spades clipped to it burst out of the mustachioed one’s waistcoat pocket with a noise like ‘spang!’ The hotel patrons and the innkeeper gasped, but Star Swirl shook his head and said “I had the same problem when my osteopath first put me in a truss. These new-fangled ones just ain’t what they used to be. Just break off the springy bit, you can have a corset shop put it right for you once the game is done.”

With a look of slight anxiety, the card sharp threw the broken device away, then, determined to regain the upper hand, bluffed wildly on two pair only to be smacked abruptly down by Prompt Service’s straight flush. The bell captain regained his hat and put it back on with a look of confidence restored.

“Now, this here poking game don’t seem nearly so hard as you were making out there, sonny,” Star Swirl remarked. “What’s say we up the roachie a little bit?”

It was a slaughter. Between Flim’s loss of the card holdout, the mirror opposite Flam and behind the other players’s cards suddenly shattering, the Innkeeper’s noticing a funny feel to one of the cards after Star Swirl’s ‘accidentally’ stuck together and asking Lemon Twist for a brand-new deck, Prompt Service’s realization that most decks generally only have four queens and the fact that to cheat at cards and to simply be remarkably good at cards are two very different skill sets, the Flim-Flam Brothers were very soon out of their depth and very nearly out of luck.

Before long the deed to the inn was back in its’ rightful owner’s pocket, Prompt Service’s life savings were back on his side of the table and another guest had raised the money to pay off the family home’s mortgage. Somewhere between Star Swirl’s third straight win and Prompt Service’s winning back his thirty-bit life savings, the Ponyville constable had wandered in for a cup of coffee and decided to stay and watch. It was really remarkable how much Blue Copper knew about cards, so Star Swirl, pleading arthritis, asked her to deal for them when his turn came around.

Flim rallied with three queens and took back enough to keep himself in the game, but Flam blew his last bits on a rather spectacular bit of bluffing Star Swirl managed with only a pair of twos. It was looking pretty dark, and when Blue Copper reminded the newcomers that Ponyville had a municipal ordinance requiring all I.O.U.s to be notarized, the desperate Flim pulled out a piece of paper and a pair of keys.

In two more rounds, it was all over. Star Swirl even managed to win Flim’s hat.

There was, of course, the usual bit of nastiness in which the now-broke card sharps accused Star Swirl of being a hustler, a cheat and generally no gentlecolt. Luckily, Lemon Twist had the remarkable comic timing to return Flam’s card-reach from where he had ‘misplaced it’ in the garbage can and Blue Copper had a very stern word with the city ponies about trying to put one over on a simple old pony with some sort of skin disease, and a friend of the Princess, too! Star Swirl even shook their hooves to be sure there were no hard feelings, and since he was facing away from all of the other players and Blue Copper, decided to let his veil drop for a split-second.

They suddenly seemed to remember a pressing appointment on the other side of Equestria, or so he explained it to the other ponies. It was really gratifying, the way they refilled his cider mug and praised his skill with cards.

“Really, Mister Star Swirl, when I saw that funny coin you had,” Prompt Service smiled.

“What funny coin?” Blue Copper looked stern.

“Take a look for yourself,” Star Swirl grinned. “It’s a genuine bit, all right, just rather older than you’re used to. The Royal Mint did them in plated copper during the conflict with the Griffonian Empire, which is why the weight feels so wrong, and this one’s simply had a jeweler’s attention to polish the one side smooth and put a bit of a note onto it. Still legal tender, just a bit different, and I’ll give you two gold ones to have it back.”

The coin read, simply: ‘Card sharps. I’ll handle it. Bring me a strong drink, invite the local police over for coffee and pay attention.’

“You deal with card sharps often enough to have a special coin for the bartender?” Blue Copper asked admiringly.

“I’ve traveled quite a bit in my day, and there’s nothing so irritating as watching good ponies’ money taken by a lot of nasty fellows who think cheating makes them clever. One sees it all the time in hotels and such,” the old sorcerer grinned. “It got to be a bit of a hobby, over the years.” They were all smiling at him, so Star Swirl decided to lay it on just a bit thicker, for a lark. “I don’t suppose there’s an orphanage or an animal shelter in Ponyville that could use this big, heavy pile of bits? It gets wearisome to carry it all around.”

“Really? The Ponyville Orphanage needs all the help it can get and with winter nearly here, I know Fluttershy and the Precious Paws shelter are almost always a little short…but are you sure? It’s such a lot of money,” Blue Copper observed admiringly.

“I’ve more than enough saved to get me by. Besides, the hobby feels a little less like taking advantage of greed and stupidity when one doesn’t spend the winnings oneself. It’d hardly be sporting if I made a profit same as those dreadful fellows do.” Star Swirl shrugged. “That, and giving it all away prevents a lot of nasty questions from Her Majesty’s tax ponies.”

That got a laugh. Blue Copper insisted on having Lemon Twist and Prompt Service count the various bits and change so that she could make Star Swirl a proper receipt for his generous donations (just in case the tax ponies had questions,) and the sorcerer found himself enjoying conversation with several other guests and feeling a little better, if still not wholly mended.

‘Perhaps that might be a purpose in life,’ he thought, ‘going about Equestria doing good deeds in my Princess’s name. At least then little fillies and colts might start to think of her as something other than a nightmare.’ Then he thought for a moment. ‘A little quixotic, though.’

“Mr. Star Swirl,” Prompt Service asked suddenly, “what did you want to do about the contraption?”

“Contraption?” Star Swirl glanced around for the card-reach. “I thought that silly colt took his card-cheating toy with him.”

“Oh, not that one, sir. That one.” The bell captain pointed out the window to a large and expensive-looking vehicle easily a story tall and longer than five chariots parked end-to-end.

“…That one?” Star Swirl asked concernedly.

“Yes, sir. You’ve got the title right there and the keys to it, and we all saw you win the thing fair and square.”

“…But what is it?”

“…I’m actually not entirely sure, sir. But it’s yours.”

“I saw the thing last summer, actually,” Blue Copper piped up. “It’s some sort of magic-powered carriage that also makes apple cider. They took it to competition against the Apple family, but while it can beat a team of ponies for speed, the quality falls off dramatically if one doesn’t manage it just so. Rather like those new magical combines in Appaloosa or the Pegasus-powered turbines the science ponies are always going on about. I don’t pretend to understand the thing, but it’s apparently quite valuable.”

“…Makes cider, you said?” Star Swirl looked thoughtful. “I wonder if I might see if the Apple family wants the thing. It’s no use to me, of course, but they have orchards and could probably put the contraption to good use. That, and I’m uncommonly fond of apple cider, and especially of apple brandy, if truth be told.”

That got him some smiles. A questionable old unicorn turning from a mysterious life of travel and adventure to the cause of charity was sometimes a little too fairy-tale to be accepted without suspicion, but a jaded old rogue who had, despite mending his ways and being generally good, still liked a drop of strong alcohol now and then, well, that was believable. It was strange how ponies needed just a bit of mischief or equine weakness to believe anypony was really anything like what they seemed to be.

And perhaps that was why Luna had had such a terrible time of it. Princesses weren’t allowed to show weakness to anyone, except perhaps their old professors, so naturally nopony knew or believed what she was really like.

That made him feel depressed again, but the throng of ponies encouraging him to get out and try driving his new contraption would, at least, give him something to get his mind off of things.

He didn’t even notice he’d missed a rat when he re-formed by the statue of Nightmare Moon.

***********************

Scootaloo cuddled her new friend gently in the pouch of her hooded sweatshirt. Sweetie Belle had given it to her for her last birthday, and though the autumn day wasn’t especially cold, she was very glad to have it. The poor little rat was practically drenched and sniffling sadly, tears in his shiny black eyes and a shiver crackling occasionally down his poor, naked tail. The hoodie’s pocket was just the right place to keep him warm.

She wasn’t sure why he had been there, cold and crying by the statue of Nightmare Moon, but she could sympathize. Perhaps the matron might let her have an old gerbil cage for him until she could make an appointment with Twilight Sparkle after school. Or perhaps Fluttershy might be the best rat expert.

Carefully supporting the little rat with her hoof as she steered the scooter with the other, Scootaloo began to make plans. She would ask Apple Bloom what rats ate, and if there were some bruised apples her family didn’t have any especial use for, that might be a nice supper for the little guy. It also occurred to her that a soft nest might be a thing rodents liked, and perhaps Sweetie Belle could get a few soft scraps or some fabric lint from Rarity. Pinkie Pie could generally be counted on for a cupcake or two if one walked past her looking slightly sad, Twilight had books about more or less everything, and while Scootaloo couldn’t really imagine Rarity or Applejack having much fondness for rats (the latter was too inclined to regard such critters as thieving pests and the former…well…she was Rarity,) she knew they’d be kind enough to spare unimportant scraps for their sisters’ friend, especially if she offered to help with some of their chores.

It was funny how they always gave you exactly what you wanted and hurried all three Crusaders along when you offered to help with chores. It was almost like the last few times they didn’t go quite exactly right had made a bit of an impression.

And of course, Fluttershy would know exactly what to do, once Scootaloo persuaded her that the Crusaders had really and truly abandoned their plans to seek exterminator Cutie Marks. Rarity had given them each a generous hoofful of bits for getting the spiders out of her boudoir and they hadn’t squished any, but Fluttershy had been so horrified she hadn’t spoken to them in days.

Scootaloo wasn’t sure what Rainbow Dash would make of her little friend. Well, obviously she couldn’t show him to Rainbow Dash while he was all wet and cold! She would only be impressed by the coolest and best-kept pet, something awesome and cool, with cute little twitchy paws…

“Squeak?” the little rat asked suddenly.

Scootaloo wondered how this had gone from an attempt to get an Animal Rescue Cutie Mark to adopting a pet in the space of, oh, about three minutes. But if Rainbow Dash had a pet…

“It’s going to be okay, Squeaky Twitchypaws,” she promised. “We’re going to the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse and then back home to my room. I’m going to get you warm and dry and then pick you up some dinner.”

“Squeak,” the little rat observed, as if accepting this as a reasonable plan of activities. He curled up into a ball within her pocket and went to sleep.

Scootaloo resisted the temptation to go “aww!” at this. Even rats could be sensitive about dignity, she didn’t want to wake him, and going at the speed she was, it was always possible to swallow the occasional fly. She didn’t need to make any more mistakes that might land her on Fluttershy’s bad side…even if her idea of even having a bad side was to just become twenty percent shyer.

And it was nice to have a pet!

Comments ( 1 )

I like this story so when will u add more

Login or register to comment