• Published 25th Jun 2012
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In a Tavern, Down by the River - Lysis



Trixie is not a weak pony.

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A Harmless Game

“I am proud to be a great magician! I have performed scores of dazzling tricks for thousands of ponies all across Equestria! Whole families flock to my stage to be amazed and gaze in awe at my magnificence! I am The Great and Powerful Trixie, famous in legend and song!”

I like to remind myself of these facts every so often, because the circumstances sometimes suggest otherwise. Such as now, for instance. Striking a pose in front of the mirror, I admire how even in the worst of times, The Great and Powerful Trixie still manages to look stunning. The fact that I’m posing in front of an old, slightly chipped and cracked bathroom mirror doesn’t bother me in the slightest. No, not in the least…

Times were hard after that disaster of a show three months ago, I’ll freely admit it. How could they not have been? Every earthly possession I had was smashed up by the Very Large and Angry Ursa Maj—no, Minor. Ursa Minor. All thanks to those two little brats who kept nagging me for “cool magic.” My own hubris had something to do with it too, I suppose. Maybe. It’s possible I came on a little strong that day in Ponyville, but ceremony comes naturally to a showpony such as myself, and getting the audience to believe in the act is half the fun. How I acted onstage had absolutely nothing to do with what happened later that night. I wasn’t the one who woke up a giant magical starbear.

Though I’d lost everything to the Ursa, that didn’t mean I was about to curl up into a ball and give up and cry. “Lost” does not mean “Gone Forever.” I still had my magic, and really, that’s all I’ve ever needed. My caravan could be replaced. I earned enough for a new cape and hat ages ago; they’re tucked away somewhere safe right now. Trottingham isn’t known for glitz and glamor, after all.

As I look into the mirror and see a wonderful, beautiful mare staring back, I can’t help but feel a surge of well-justified pride. I think to myself, Well, Ms. Sparkle? Could you have gotten back on your hooves this quickly? Could your “talents” have earned you a warm bed and three meals a day? No? What about your immeasurably rude pack of friends who dared boo me while I was onstage, doing what I’m best at? Hmm? I thought not. A lesser pony would have given up! Trixie never gives up!

I allow myself to gloat for a brief moment at my little victory.

My moment is interrupted by an urgent rapping at the bathroom door.

Heavy sigh, roll of eyes. I push the door open and am skewered with glares from the long line of mares waiting to use the accommodations.

“Took ya long enuff, Miss Great an’ Powerful Prissy,” growls one of the older and more… seasoned pub goers.

“Girl, you’ve gotta eat more fiber!” titters another one from the back. Everypony laughs except me.

I don’t counter the insults. For one thing, I’ve realized all too late that starting arguments has never worked out well for me. I’ve tried to be good since then, and I have so far. Mostly. The other reason I say nothing is because I know all of these mares, and I know they don’t really mean any harm. They’re some of my regulars.

Toss of mane, strut past the line, shake my tail as I pass the pretty blue pegasi at the end. As expected, her cheeks flush a very nice shade of crimson. I give her a wink and a nod. I already know I look fabulous, but it never hurts to double-check.

As I push through a second set of doors I’m surrounded by the wonderful sounds and smells of a good tavern. Fragrant pipe smoke hangs heavy in the air in thick layers and ponies laugh and cavort around. The Tin Whistle is a clean, cozy pub that fits well around my shoulders—the kind where intrigue, plots, and endless chatter fill the room, and where reputations are made and destroyed at the game tables.

This is my domain. The Tin Whistle has been my home for the past three months, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

Years ago, when I first struck it out alone, before I became well-known and my travels took me to the edges of the world, Trottingham was my oyster. It’s always been one of my favorite places to perform. The good-natured ponies here are tough, but they like having fun as much as anypony should. The working class appreciates me and what I do for them; and I have to admit, performing without the fanfare or pretense I’d grown accustomed to has been easier to adapt to than I was expecting. A return to my roots, I suppose.

As I pass by the front door, an enormous stallion named Locke Smasher gives me a friendly wave, and I wave back. He’s one of the main reasons I’m so comfortable staying here, night after night, my door never locked. A glare from him is all it takes to stop any troublemakers, and if that doesn’t work his meaty hooves are perfectly capable of aggressive negotiating.

Stock, the proud owner of the Inn, is working behind the stoves preparing meals for his loyal customers. His daughter, Barrel, works the taps. She waves me over to the bar, my drink already being pushed out onto the counter.

“It’s a nice crowd tonight,” I say to both of them as I slide up onto the barstool.

“Sure is, Trixie,” says Barrel, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “But you always bring in good business. What’s your secret?”

“Tell me what you put in the root beer tonight, and maybe I’ll share.”

“Nope!” She laughs, brushing a few loose strands of sandy blonde mane out of her eyes and tucking them back into her ever-present braid.

I shrug and bury my muzzle in the foamy head and gulp the drink down. Sweet and vibrant flavors dance across my tongue and the carbonation tickles my throat in the best of ways. Let’s see… nutmeg and clover and honey, and… and I don’t know, it’s so good I don’t give a pig’s ass what’s in it, I just want more. If Barrel wasn’t an Earth Pony, I’d swear she was adding magic.

“Good, huh?”

Barrel’s rich, brown coat is the same delicious color as my rootbeer. I peer over the rim of the mug in time to see her smiling, freckled face flash a wide grin at me. I can’t help but smile back. I do so love good taverns.

“Give ‘em a bit of the old razzle dazzle. Knock em’ dead, kid,” Stock says to me.

And I do.

** ** **

As is usual when I perform, I close the act with flash and smoke and thunderous applause all around, with many whistles from the stallions—and from some pretty mares, too. I shake my tail and give them all a winning smile. The flirting is shameless, I know, but I also know that if there’s trouble, Smasher will step in and save me.

Barrel and I divvy up my tips, as per our agreement. I’m not keeping much for myself, considering that part of it pays for my room and board, but I’m not complaining either. It will be a long time before I can afford to travel again, and having a roof over my head is worth the price. Or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

I suppress a heavy sigh. It could be a lot worse, I know. It’s always better to do business with somepony like Barrel—a pony who cares, I mean, instead of a snivelling theater owner that takes half your ticket sales. I know I’m dear to Locke, Stock, and Barrel, and they treat me well. Like I’m family, almost. Considering how I fell into their care, I know very well just how lucky I’ve been.

After being made homeless and penniless in Ponyville, I spent exactly one week breaking rocks to earn enough bits to catch the first train that would take me as far away as possible from Ponyville and all who dwell there. I think my ticket was actually for Manehatten, or perhaps Baltimare—I wasn’t in the best of conditions. I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led to me getting kicked off the train at Trottingham Station, but I seem to recall excess amounts of Northern Talon Vodka being involved. All I know is, I woke up lying in a warm, unfamiliar bed with the second-worst hangover I’ve ever had, being ministered to by none other than—you guessed it, the goddess of brewing herself, Barrel. She asked me my name. I tried to answer. Instead, I threw up. I’ve never forgiven myself for that.

The next evening, once I was feeling well enough to walk around, I tried doing a little magic, just practice, dont’cha know, but the patrons loved it and asked for more. Soon I had a show going. By the end of the night, I’d made enough tips to make up for my previous night’s stay, and for another three as well. As the lazy writer once said, one thing led to another, and here I am, three months later.

It’s been a fun three months, too, especially since Barrel and I have become friends—you know, after I got over the sheer embarrassment of being sick on her. We talk when we have time, during lunch and dinner and the slow hours, and sometimes in the evenings she comes upstairs to see if I need anything before I dim the lights and doze off. It’s a friendship that’s all strictly business and such, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed it. She certainly has.

It’s so much more pleasant to do business with a friend, I think to myself as I scrape the last few bits into my coin purse and snap the flap shut. Barrel and I shake hooves and I finish off another complimentary drink before I turn to go. It’s been a long day, and my limbs are feeling especially lazy and heavy. I make it a few steps up the staircase that leads to my room and my lovely, soft bed, but a sudden explosion of cheering from the other side of the tavern stops me. I prick up my ears. This time, I hear a wave of murmurings before the gasps of amazement and the applause.

I forget about bed for a moment, and go seeking out the source. It isn’t hard to find. A much larger crowd than normal has gathered around one of the card tables. The unicorn at the center of attention is a newcomer I’ve never seen before, and he’s practically embarrassing the other players. His ghastly canary-yellow mane is slicked back with gel, the color matched by the equally tacky vest buttoned over his chest. He acts all innocent, shrugging helplessly as another round of cards ends with more bits being pushed to the sizable pile on his side of the table. His cutie mark is—what else?—a fanned-out deck of cards.

I smell a scam. He’s taking his winning streak with far too much modesty. I’m pretty sure a real winner would be excited. I know I would be excited.

The others at the table refer to the newcomer as “Squire,” and compliment him politely on his good luck. He takes the praise with humble grace, but I see the hungry look in his eyes; a look I know all too well. I work my way through the crowd to get by the table, but don’t sit down. My instincts tell me this next game will be worth watching. While the cards are dealt I feign disinterest, yawn a few times, just another spectator, don’t mind me, sir. I pay special attention to Squire’s hooves.

It’s a trick, and it’s not magic. For one thing, not so much as a spark jumps from his horn; for another, using magic would be one of the dumbest ways he could possibly cheat. It’s just too risky. He isn’t even trying to be inconspicuous, and serious card players distrust unicorns by default. The fact that the cards are enchanted to make play easier is just icing on the suspicious cake.

The game is the sort where the deck is passed around after each hoof of cards is played. Although the cards he’s using have the Whistle’s mark on the backs, I’m sure the deck has been tampered with—perhaps stolen on a prior visit. As the pile of bits on Squire’s side of the table grows larger, my suspicions are confirmed. I haven’t a clue if he’s any good at proper magic, but I’ll concede that he’s quite good at sleight of hoof. I can see that he’s dealing doubles, and the cards are marked. He’s probably shaved the deck for good measure, too. Like any decent magician, he distracts the players at the perfect time, but he gets nothing past me. The Great and Powerful Trixie will not be fooled by simple card tricks.

I’m wearing a satisfied smirk as I slide up to the bar, the gears in my head turning as I ponder a new and exciting possibility.

“What’s up, Moneymaker?” asks Barrel as she finishes wiping down the counter and starts pouring me a drink. I take a few sips before answering.

“You’ve got a cheater in the house,” I say, indicating the table with a jerk of my head. I need say no more. Barrel’s pretty amber eyes darken.

Thought something smelled rotten. Little weasel… cheat in my tavern, will he? Oi!” she calls over to the front door, “Oi, Uncle Loc—

“Don’t,” I say, laying a hoof on hers. “Let the cheater have his fun for now. I’ve got a plan.”

She hunkers down, grin back in place. A mare after my own heart, truly. “What’s the scam, then?” she whispers, and I lean in and whisper back.

“Give me a pack of the house’s cards. I’ll take him for everything he’s got next time he comes in.”

“How?”

I wave my hoof dismissively. “It will be a simple trick for The Great and Powerful Trixie. Ponies will be dazzled. Mares will faint. All will be well.”

“Then why not do it right now?” Barrel glances at Squire, then over to her brick wall of an uncle. “Why can’t Uncle Locke just trounce the sodding prick? I don’t like watching my regulars get fleeced.”

“Mmm. I know. As delightful as it would be to see Mr. Locke get his daily exercise, that won’t work to your advantage. If Locke tries to throw him out, he’s going to switch the marked deck with an unmarked deck and feign innocence. He’ll shout out his rights. You won’t find evidence of mischief, and so he’ll keep all the coin. A few days later, the Whistle will suddenly get a tainted name. Might be serious, might not be. Depends on how mad he gets.”

“How do you know all that’ll happen?”

“It’s what I would do.”

That makes Barrel pause and think for a moment, narrowing her eyes at me. Probably considering reassessing her opinion of my character; I’m not worried. I know what kind of mare she is. A little admission like that won’t bother her, especially since she’s already convinced I’m a good pony.

She’s far too naïve, I think to myself as I sit and sip my free drink.

Her positivity comes as no surprise, though. Those clinking mugs on her flanks help balance out Stock’s golden scales. While her father runs the business, she provides that essential personal touch. It’s in Barrel’s nature to trust other ponies.

I continue, “I can’t do it tonight because I need to fix the cards, and I need time to do it right. He’ll be back soon, though, and when he is, I’ll be ready for him. With what I’ll win back, you’ll be able to pay your regulars back in full. Maybe even keep a little extra for the bar?” I give her a quick flutter of the eyelashes, sweet but not too sweet. “I know he’s loaded. He’s probably cleaned out every tavern from here to Zebrica.”

The greedy little pony in my head kicks and screams and tries to bargain with me, It isn’t right! We should keep all the bits to ourselves, Trixie! but I tell her to shush up. I have no desire to make an enemy of Barrel over money. I want to keep one of the few good friends I have.

Rather, the only good friend I have.

As I knew she would, Barrel eventually agrees and slips me a deck. I tuck it into my mane for safekeeping and bid her goodnight, and hope she sleeps well.

When I reach the stairwell, I note with an evil grin that she still hasn’t looked away. If past experience is anything to guess by, she’s probably blushing at least twice as hard as that poor flustered pegasus was earlier.

Careful, you. Don’t think I haven’t caught you staring at my magnificent flank when you think I’m not looking. Multiple times.

Frankly, I catch the eyes of pretty mares all the time, but it’s rare to get the attention of one without even trying. I completely understand Barrel’s dilemma. It’s hard to resist The Great and Powerful Trixie. I make sure to give my rump an extra wiggle just for her before I begin my climb upstairs. Yes, I know, I’m so getting my own circle in pony hell for teasing her so badly, but it’s great fun to make her blush and squeak like a trapped mouse, especially when she thinks I don’t see her doing either.

Hmmm… perhaps I can use this to my advantage.

I turn over the new idea in my head and I must say it works rather well, and also solves an important problem. We shall see.

The instant I’m in my room I dive right into bed, my mind whirling with plans and schemes and beautiful things. I fall right asleep without any of the usual tossing and turning, and dream wonderful dreams of the stage and the ponies who love me.

** ** **

I’m up early the next morning and throughout the day I pour all my efforts into altering the deck to suit my purposes. It isn’t enough to simply mark the cards; its condition also has to resemble that of the one Squire was using. It isn’t hard. He didn’t have the sense to steal and alter an old, scruffy deck that saw a lot of use.

Hmmm. Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit? He’s surely been through many tavern’s before this one, but nopony has caught him yet. Anypony could learn those tricks from books, but it takes at least some talent to pull them off consistently. Still, no need to worry. Squire might have an aptitude for tricks, but I’m the master.

Stock brings me my meals and doesn’t ask what I’m up to. He respects my privacy, and for that I silently thank him. It’s very possible that if my plan works, he won’t continue to be so kind to me.

As evening falls, I descend from my room without fanfare. My coin purse hangs heavy around my neck, weighed down with all the tips and bits I’ve scraped together while performing here. My new midnight blue cape comes down low across my flank, covering my cutie mark. I give my mane a little toss, knowing from the nods of approval I’m winning from my dear regulars that I look absolutely stunning. Sin of Pride, I know, but I do so love being the center of attention.

Tonight, though, I won’t be. Not yet. And as much as anypony might insist I’m showing off, my cape serves an important purpose tonight.

Though I intend to put on a show tonight, it is not of the magical variety, so I take a seat in the corner near the fireplace and quietly observe the events of the evening for a while. Instead of rootbeer, I order a large tankard of hot buttered beer. It goes down wondrous smooth, the creamy richness spreading warmth from my horn to my hooves—it also gives my breath a certain bite that will surely aid me in The Deception.

Tonight’s entertainment is being put out by two young griffins, one ripping a lively tune on her violin and the other playing accompaniment on her flute. They’re quite talented and, as a fellow member of the Sisterhood of Performers, I see a bright future for both of them. It’s rare to see a pair so young whip the working stallions into such a frenzy of celebration.

Yes, there is much dancing, stomping of hooves, and general carousing tonight, but instead of joining the fun, I observe the card tables and wait. I’m halfway through my second tankard of butterbeer when Squire arrives in a vision of yellow and false smiles. He takes his place, and immediately begins throwing out bets that are even more outrageous than those of last night.

It is at this point that I am convinced he is an idiot. A smart con wouldn’t come back two nights in a row, but he’s grown complacent, and he’s gotten greedy. I knew he’d be back. I also note that his playing partners are not regulars, nor are any of them the stallions from last night. That’s good. I don’t want anypony to identify me as a magician before I put my plan into motion.

Well then, Squire. Plainly you don’t care about being kicked out after tonight. I’m a bit rusty on my card tricks, but it’s now or never. Let it never be said that The Great and Powerful Trixie ever backed down from a challenge!

There’s just one more thing I want to do before I set my plan into action, but I’m not entirely sure how it will go. I head to the bar and Barrel scurries over to greet me, wearing that toothy grin she always does. I get right down to business.

“I’m almost ready, Barrel. To make it work though, there’s something I’m going to need from you tonight. I won’t lie, you might not like it.” She cocks an eyebrow and leans in so I can explain my plan. As I whisper into her ear, her eyes go wide. Then her jaw drops open.

Well, stunned silence is better than getting tossed out.

“If it’s too much to ask, you don’t have to do it. It’ll just be harder otherwise, and you’re the only one I trust tonight.” I fail to mention anything about her not wanting to do it, because I’m pretty sure she totally does. I wouldn’t have asked otherwise. “Is everything alright?”

She blinks at me, stunned, then snaps out of it. “N-No, no! It’s fine!” She grins again, albeit not as brightly as before, and looks over her shoulder. “I’m actually really, really okay with that plan, but dad…”

“I’m sure he’ll understand. Fathers often try to understand their girls.” I reach across the bar and pat her on the shoulder. “It’s okay, dear. You’re in good company.”

Barrel bits her lip and nods slowly. She knows why I understand. All the regulars know. I haven’t exactly been shy in that regard, and that’s exactly why having me be the one to help her is such a good idea. It’ll make it easier, like. More fun for her, since all the burden of responsibility will fall on me.

This promises to be fun for me, too. I haven’t helped another mare out of the closet in ages.

As I knew it would, it only takes Barrel a moment to see the wisdom in going along with me. Her grin returns and she nods eagerly, ready to make some mischief. “Gimme just a moment,” she says, coming out from behind the bar and heading for the stairs, presumably to her bedroom.

“For what?” I ask.

Barrel giggles. “You’ll see.”

And so I wait. The crowd around the card table grows thicker, and there aren’t quite so many outbursts of clapping. It’s getting tense over there. I’m on the verge of heading upstairs after Barrel when she reappears. Now it’s my jaw’s turn to drop. She’s wearing a svelte red dress that suits her very well. Understated, simple, but unquestionably elegant. I can’t think of a better dress for a mare of Trottingham.

“Not bad, huh?” she asks, striking a pose. I can only nod weakly in agreement.

Not bad at all.

Barrel’s brought a coin purse of her own. We leave the bar and mingle with the ponies around Squire’s table. I let Barrel lead—even the non-regulars recognize her as princess of this establishment, and the crowds part to let us through. When we reach the game table, one of the finely dressed stallions asks if she would like to grace the table with her radiant presence.

“Oh, no,” she says all demurely, fluttering her eyelashes like any brazen hussy. “But my good friend here would like to play. She doesn’t know much about cards, but her attempts do… amuse me.”

Barrel reaches out and gives me an affectionate pet on my head, just as I had instructed. The tickle behind the ears, though, that’s all her doing. Hale and hearty male laughter breaks out all around. “Of course, let the lady play! You there, out of that seat!” and knowing looks are exchanged as the next bets are laid, but we shall see, gents, we shall see…

I sit, Barrel standing right behind me, and Squire shuffles the cards—his cards, of course—and announces grandly, “It’s Dealer’s Choice again. Oh, by the sun and moon, this is so exciting! What will it be?” He mimes thinking for a moment. “Ah yes! Five-Card Stud, one card down, four up, with a bet on each card. Are we well agreed? Excellent! Ante up, my gentlecolts, and milady, too, if you would…”

Hmph. Same game as last night, is it? Makes sense. Easy to cheat at, but not so easy to catch.

The first cards are dealt, face down, and piles of bits are pushed out. Sweat beads on the brows of most of the players, but not on Squire’s fine self. Some throw him shifty looks while he deals. I picked a good time to join. It would have turned nasty after another few rounds.

If Squire were really smart, he’d be cycling through three decks or more, so his tricks wouldn’t be so easily caught or exploited by one such as I. He isn’t smart, though, or else his overconfidence is showing. The deck is exactly the same one he was using last time. A glance at the back of my card, and I’m sure he’s given me a Prince. Good. That makes it easier. I allow myself a tiny smile.

Last night while watching the game, I’d payed close attention to the backs of the cards, looking for any irregularities. Ha! I recall thinking. There, a very slight extension of a curlicue on the corner of that card right there. Is it a face card? And it turned out to be a Princess. Squire’s system was easy to decipher after that, and now it’s time to put that knowledge to use. I simper and swoon and feign ignorance over the nature of the game, asking questions to the big, strong stallions seated around me. My breath smells like butterbeer, and I make a scene of wobbling in my chair and slurring some of my words.

A few of the regulars who watched and participated in last night’s game have suddenly become interested in this one, seeing their darling resident magician playing the fool over cards and acting drunk when half of them know very well it takes a lot of booze to put me under. They nudge each other, nod in my direction, gather around the table, but all keep their mouths shut.

Good boys! Keep it that way for now.

I reach over and lift our down card. It is indeed a Prince; a very good card, but I don’t believe Squire has given it to us for our benefit. Our next card is a ten of spades, and I make a bit of a fuss and put the tip of my hoof to the card. “But it doeshn’t look like a sphade! Sphades have handles!” I know that Barrel, sharp mare that she is, does not miss the fact that I bet very lightly this turn. Sure enough, we end up with two Princesses and Squire, blessing Luna’s night and stars, turns over two Aces. A pity, that. What rotten luck.

The deck is passed along, and this time we win a small pot. Squire smiles and nods and congratulates us along with the others. After all, he’s got to keep us playing, work us up to the big score. Or so he thinks.

One of the regulars passes over a brimming tankard of butterbeer as a gift, and I bury my muzzle in the foam and gulp it down. I don’t wipe my mouth afterward. When the deck reaches me, I clumsily pick it up and deliberately shuffle it badly. I deal like an amateur, no wrist at all. I make sure we lose that hoof.

As I’m about to push the cards over to the gent sitting next to me, he makes a quip about shuffling my cards for me next time, since I’m plainly hopeless at doing it myself. I turn to Barrel and gaze into her eyes and laugh. “Boys, I swear. They always think we’re interested, hmm?”

On cue, Barrel takes the chance to slip her hooves over my shoulders. I smile and gab aimlessly for the benefit of the other players and pretend to be completely uninterested in the current hoof we’re playing and the bits I’m losing on purpose.

Barrel’s hooves shake as she presses them into my shoulders, memorizing every muscle, the feeling of my warm skin, all that nonsense. She’s exactly like I once was, savoring the touch of her first mare with excitement, confusion, Is this okay? Can I do more? And when I lightly touch my hooves to hers and nod, she kneads her hooves deeper into my back and I melt under her touch and she hears the sigh of supreme bliss escape my lips and knows she’s doing good, real good, and her hooves stop shaking and grow more confident, more sure of themselves. I gaze into her eyes and drink in the adorable nervousness I see in them, the eyes seeking acceptance, praise, encouragement. All virgins have eyes like that, but she won’t remain a virgin for long. She’ll make a wonderful partner for somepony, someday.

Oh, she may think she wants me, but it’s really just the hormones. I’m her friend. I’m doing her a favor. She’s only touching me because I say it’s okay… and it is okay, and… Hmm. I do love to be appreciated, especially by pretty mares like her, and I don’t think she’s faking, and she does look tasty in that dress… I know she wants it. What’s the harm in having a little fun later, upstairs…?

Barrel leans in and gives me a hug from behind the chair. All those watching go D’awww.

I nuzzle into the crook of her neck and banish the evil thoughts from my head. Focus, Trixie. You can’t be thinking about doing that with her. Landlord’s daughter and all. That’s just asking for trouble… that, and she’s my friend, I think, continuing to flirt shamelessly for the sake of our act. Friends don’t do that sort of thing together.

There are big grins all around the table and the audience multiplies. Eventually, the deck reaches me for a second time. As soon as it does, and just when everypony is sure they’ve seen it all, I turn around in my chair and kiss Barrel right on the mouth, and she kisses me back, oh yes, she does.

Her lips tremble against mine, her eyes are squeezed shut, her breath comes in adorable little gasps through her mouth and not her nose, not like a properly good kisser, but that’s okay. Her sloppiness and inexperience is making a great show, just as planned. I give her a little ground, just to let her know it’s okay to go farther.

And she does. I jump a little as something warm and wet flicks into my mouth and darts between my teeth, searching. I press lips back against hers and take the lead, show her how it’s really done. I can tell she appreciates my little contributions. I take her head in my hooves and pull her closer.

Apparently, she brushed her teeth while she was upstairs. She tastes fruity and sweet, like ripe strawberries.

Our act of passion has the intended effect. Needless to say, every single eye in the tavern is upon us. Randy stallions hoot and whistle, and the mares all look disgusted or envious. I don’t mind the attention, and I don’t think Barrel’s in any condition to mind about anything. It’s at that point, of course, that I switch Squire’s deck with the one hidden under my cape. With all eyes on our mutual exchange up above, it’s easy to slip his deck into the garter pulled up around my right thigh and replace it with my own deck, sliding it out onto the tabletop as I break the kiss, wipe the spittle from my mouth, and turn back around.

That, Mr. Squire, is how you make a distraction. No flash, no cool magic needed. Just a willing assistant.

It’s time to wreak havoc.

“The same game as before,” I gasp, clumsily shuffling and passing the deck over to Squire to cut. “Five-Card stud, four… whatever. The one you said.”

Barrel’s entire face and neck is flushed a most delightful and enticing shade of crimson, the blush showing right through her dark brown coat. She’s wanted to do that to me for ages, though perhaps not in such a public place. Hmm… is that the color of excitement, or shame? If the latter, I badly misjudged her and I’m sorry. If the former, I’m tempted to do it a second time, just to see her squirm and blush all over again. She’s very good at doing that.

My fears are soon assuaged. The regulars all cheer their support, the bold ones pushing forward to give her hearty slaps on the back, and she smiles all around, beaming her joyful countenance on her adoring public. She has ascended to legendary status in the eyes of her patrons, and the Whistle might never be the same again. I fear Stock might be giving us the evil eye by now, but since he hasn’t asked Smasher to live up to his name, we are safe for the moment and I carry on with the plan.

Squire cuts and I reassemble the deck and deal. Like his deck, mine is shaved; the important cards had their edges sanded so I could put the deck together the way I wanted after the cut. I give each player one card, face down. The other three players get unimportant cards—a three, a six, and a seven—but Squire gets a Princess of Diamonds. I know it and he knows it too without looking, because I left the marks on my Princess cards the same as his. In fact, I have made all the marks on my cards the same as his, except on one card, which he does not know about yet.

I deal myself a Knight of Spades, face down.

While nuzzling a very cooperative Barrel, I whisper in her ear, “This is it, sister. We’re betting everything on this one hoof. Let’s break him!” She nods, eager to please on multiple fronts.

“Twenty five bits,” she says, pushing out a little pile of coins. Squire covers the bet, but the others drop out, one of them swiping what little coin he has left off the table and storming off. I deal again, one card up for our opponent. For him the Princess of Clubs, for us, the Knight of Diamonds. Squire licks his lips, perhaps smelling blood in the water.

“High card bets twenty five bits,” he says, making an admirable effort to keep the grin off his face.

“Done. I call,” says Barrel, choosing not to raise this time.

Good girl. We don’t want to scare him off.

I deal another two cards up; a Princess of Hearts for him, and a poor Eight of Hearts for us. There is a stir from the audience. “Two Princesses showing!”

Since Squire once again has the high card, he says “Seventy bits, Miss.”

Barrel appears to hesitate, clutching my shoulder. I’m glowing with pride at her act. We’ll make a thespian out of you, yet!

“Seventy it is, sir,” she says, covering her bet but emptying her purse in the process. Now it’s up to me. “Trixie, deal.”

I do it.

I turn up a ten of hearts for our opponent, and a Knight of Clubs for us. Another gasp from the crowd, and I know what they’re thinking; Two Princesses up against two Knights? What cards do they have face-down?

Barrel licks her lips and gives me a nudge. I open my purse. “The bet ish, uh… one hundred bits, sir,” I meep in my best woeful waif voice which, believe me, is actually pretty good.

Squire looks at the top card on the deck and smirks. It’s marked as another Princess, the Princess of Spades. I even set the deck down for a moment to ensure he sees it. He reaches for his pile of bits, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says, all polite and such, “but I will see your one hundred bits and raise you another seven hundred.”

I imagine I must look as if I’ve been slapped in the face. Did he see through me? I’d planned to carefully raise him to my limit, but I can’t cover this outrageous bet with my meager earnings, and he must know it! Since I can’t, and since he knows I can’t, and since the rules of the house say so, all I can do is call his bet and play for a paltry two hundred-ninety-five bit pot, and resign myself to the knowledge that I will leave with far less than I wanted—

“We’ll see that bet,” says Barrel, looking Squire dead in the eye, “and raise you another seven hundred bits on the good credit of this establishment.”

With a start, I realize that Barrel is putting both her trust, and herself on the line, and all for little old me. She actually trusts me.

Am I honored? Yes. Yes, I am. I’m not used to earning trust.

Squire’s eyebrows go up. “Are you sure? I won’t be held responsible if your luck runs out, but I will hold you responsible. The Whistle might be in debt for quite some time.” He pauses for a moment, the better to let his words sink in. “Considerable time.”

“I’m no foal. I know what I’m doing.”

Squire shrugs. “Then I’ll see your raise and raise you another thou… no, another fifteen hundred.”

“Done!” says Barrel, pounding the table. “If that’s it, then I’ll call.”

“But of course.”

Briefly, I reflect on the fact that growing up in a tavern has taught Barrel how to bet and gamble very, very well.

Everypony holds their breath as I pick up the deck and prepare to deal out the last two cards. Secure in his victory, Squire flips over his down card, the third Princess. Unshaken, Barrel does the same, revealing our hidden third Knight.

The old saying about being able to hear a pin drop is true, apparently. Who could have guessed?

Squire crosses his legs and leans back in his chair, confident. Too confident. Oh, Squire, you remind me far too much of myself. We can’t have that, now can we? The world is only big enough for one Great and Powerful Pony.

I deal out his last card.

The biggest gasp of all comes from Squire, as I flip a deuce onto his pile. His face is frozen in a mask of the most delightful and hilarious shock I’ve ever seen. I can hardly blame him. His Princess of Spades just transformed into the Two of Clubs—considered by the rules in some games to be the very lowest card in the entire deck. I thought it would be appropriately humbling.

I then deliver the Knight of Hearts onto our pile, the sly grin on the guards face matching the ones that Barrel and myself are both wearing.

The place explodes.

“Four Knights over three Princesses!”

“Over two-thousand bits in the pot!”

“It’s a record! A new bloody record!”

While everypony else is busy screaming and jumping, I slip my deck back into its holster beside the Squire’s. No need for him to want it back now, I reason. It makes for a nice souvenir of my grand success.

Smasher, after having stood aside the entire time, now takes this moment to escort The Very Broke and Dishonest Squire to the back, no-doubt to discuss the matter of payment. Seeing as Barrel was the one doing all the important betting, this victory belongs to her and his debt is owed to the Whistle, not to my own insignificant self.

It’s better this way. This victory will surely never be forgotten, and Barrel will forever be remembered as the stalwart warrior. I’d rather be immortalized through my magical magic tricks, not through a clever bit of con artistry. I was just the dealer, after all.

In the heat of the moment and among all the excitement, Barrel jumps into my chair and smothers me in a big earth-pony bear hug, yelling “You did it, Trixie! You did it, you did it, I can’t believe you did it!” I know she must be playing it up for my ego, and I appreciate it. I show that appreciation by giving her another kiss, slow and long, eyes shut. What’s the harm? Hardly anypony notices it among all the celebration.

It’s my gift to her. I’d say we’re more than even now, hmm?

After things settle down, Barrel reluctantly leaves my lap and returns to her place behind the bar. Her regulars come up and congratulate her and she reaches over and pats their hooves and pours drink after drink after drink. It’s all smiles and nods and dirty jokes among friends. A few mares, whom I know to be of the sporting type, lean waaaay over the bar and flutter the eyelashes, but she blushes all demurely and shakes her head ‘no’, and they leave looking disappointed. Good for her, I say. It won’t do for her to jump into bed with somepony else right away. I don’t want her turning out like me.

In any case, I wish her the very best now that she’s come out into the open. I found my own life to be much more pleasant once I’d embraced that side of myself, too.

Stock remains oddly quiet. I’ll admit I’m more than a little surprised that he sat and observed everything and was so… let’s say, accepting of all this, especially of me doing what I did—but I’m not going to complain, either. If he’s fine with things as they’ve happened, all is well.

The two griffin entertainers continue their set in earnest, and this time I eagerly join the fun. I tear up the dance floor with everypony I can, being, as always, the center of attention, the belle of the ball, the cream in the coffee. As each song finishes I cheer and clap and toss them a few coins and beg for more music, which they are all too happy to provide. I can hardly remember a night when I’ve enjoyed myself so much or when the butterbeer has flown so freely. The moment when Stock comes over and wordlessly tosses a huge bagful of bits onto my table is just a bonus, and an unexpected bonus, too. I didn’t know Locke was capable of getting this much out of Squire so quickly; he must have been extra persuasive, just for him. Lucky stallion.

With a quick word of thanks, I scurry up to my room and dump the coins on my bed. Just looking at them—at how many of them there are—makes me whinny with delight and jump on the bed and roll around in the golden pool of money. I can buy the very best caravan available, far better than that small old thing I had before, and be out on the road again by this time tomorrow evening!

I hop off and shake a few loose coins out of my mane and scrape my winnings back into the bag, hiding it under a loose floorboard. The yawns are starting, long and loud, but this is no time for sleep! This is time for more celebration! More dancing! More drinks! More music! More everything! I, Trixie, daring resident magician of the Tin Whistle, is here on her last night, and she's going to have the best night ever!

And I do. I really, really do, but even the best night ever must end eventually.

** ** **

After the taps are finally shut off and the regulars begin staggering into the streets outside, singing songs of glory and beauty and brotherhood, Barrel comes over to join me by the fireplace. She brings supper for both of us. While we eat, we take turns swapping stories; I speak of my many adventures (leaving out that little fiasco in Ponyville, of course,) and she tells me stories of growing up here, in the inn her great grandfather built. Little things, unimportant. In the time I’ve known her, she’s never really opened up to me, but that’s fine. Friends don’t need to know everything about each other to be friends.

As the town clock strikes one, just as my eyelids are starting to feel especially heavy, Stock emerges from the backrooms and walks slowly over to our table. His gaze is hard, serious, centered on me and only me. He stops and stands over the both of us, but doesn’t even glance in his daughter’s direction.

“What’s wrong, daddy?” asks Barrel, frowning.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he lies. He finally throws a quick smile at Barrel, then motions at me. “You, come along. It’ll only take a moment.”

“Sure,” I say, not really sure if I can say anything else.

As I get up from my chair, Barrel fidgets in place, twisting her hooves in her lap. “Daddy, what’s wrong? Are you m-mad at me?”

There is a noticeable waver in her voice, and its presence there disturbs me greatly. This is the same mare who kissed me so boldly just a few hours ago, yes? What’s going on? I’m the one in trouble, not you, dear girl.

Stock reaches over and gently tousles Barrel’s mane, giving her a reassuring smile. “Of course I’m not mad at you, sweetie. And I’m not mad at Trixie, either. We’ll only be a minute.”

Barrel is relaxed by his words, and nods. “Okay. I’ll wait here.”

Stock leads me over to the bar and motions for me to sit down. I do. He pulls a rag from his apron and mechanically begins wiping the already-shined and polished countertop, like he doesn’t really know he’s doing it. His mind is clearly elsewhere.

I cough, and the motion of his hoof slows. Stock is a shortish pony, smaller than me, but I have to admit I’m feeling quite a bit of pressure from him right now.

“So,” I say.

“So. Was Barrel always a part in your plan tonight, or was kissing her a spur of the moment decision?”

He came right out and asked, so I’ll come right out and answer.

“The kiss was essential, yes. I told her about it right at the beginning, and she agreed knowing full well what she was doing.”

“Was it really necessary? Don’t lie to me, now.”

Very well, then. I won’t. “No, not really. It was fun, though, and I think she enjoyed it.” I smack my lips, contemplating. “What kind of toothpaste does she use? I have to say I liked the flavor.”

He continues wiping the bar with the rag. “If you’re looking for approval over your methods, you won’t find it. If you’d been a stallion, I’d have had Smasher disembowel you for leading her on like that.”

“Protective father? I’d expect nothing less from you, sir.” I tilt my head to the side. “Don’t deny it though, this is good for her. She’ll be more comfortable now, smile more often. She’ll make friendships, find love. Granted, I made the experience a little too easy and enjoyable for her, so she might very well encounter a few stumbling blocks along the way—”

“You used her,” says Stock. “You used her to make your bits so you could leave as soon as possible. Doesn’t that bother you at all?”

“No, not really.”

Stock says nothing to that, and instead lets me sweat it out for a while. He might have a point, in a way. I did use her. Yes, she was extremely enthusiastic about it, but that won’t make it right in Stock’s eyes. Plainly, he’s never had to argue about the ends justifying the means before.

“Would you rather she struggled with her insecurities and be unhappy? Now that she’s done it once, she’ll be perfectly capable of doing it again. The first time is always hardest.”

Stock’s hoof stops moving across the countertop. “I knew…” His shoulders droop and he sighs, a great, heavy, fatherly sigh full of responsibilities, unsaid words. “I knew about… that she liked mares. Ever since she was little, I knew. She never told me, though. She was scared. Can’t help but wonder if she’d have told Honeysuckle…”

“Honeysuckle?”

Another great sigh. He clenches his teeth as if in pain, shuts his eyes. “Her mother,” he says, his voice cracking slightly.

Is he… is he blaming himself for this?

“Please, Stock, that’s enough,” I murmur, reaching out to put my hoof on his. “What’s done is done. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think she could handle it, and she could, and she did. Really, this isn’t so bad, right? When I leave she’ll be happier, and you won’t have to worry about—”

Stock jerks his hoof out of my grasp. “You’ve given me plenty to worry about. That was her first kiss.”

“It… was?”

I steal a glance back at the table, where Barrel is anxiously watching us from across the room. As my eyes meet with hers she gives me a nervous smile. Then a little wave. Then more smiles. Just like when Stock reassured her, she seems to relax a bit, as if merely seeing me is bringing her some comfort.

The reason behind why Stock is so concerned suddenly hits me like a freight train.

She tried to Prench kiss me. Her first kiss.

“Trixie? Can you hear me?”

My head jerks up. “Wh-What?”

I realize my mouth’s been hanging wide open. I’m feeling lightheaded, and it’s not from all the butterbeer. I shake my head and try to pull myself together but it isn’t working, not with Stock standing right there. He takes pity on me and turns to head into the backroom.

“Let me get you a drink, Trixie. On the house.”

“Wh-What, like… all those other drinks weren’t… free too…?” but my heart isn’t in it, and he doesn’t hear me.

Once alone, I can almost feel Barrel’s eyes drilling into the back of my skull. I glance over at her again. Even from this far away, I can see her fidgeting, eyes daring around the room, like a foal afraid of being scolded, but those eyes always settle back on me, and every time they do, her fidgeting ceases just for a little bit. Looking at her gives me the very strong urge to go over there, give her a hug, and let her know everything’s going to be alright, and the fact that it feels like I have to do it scares me.

I think I might have just made a terrible, horrible mistake. Barrel isn’t as confident as I thought she was. In front of her customers, when in control of her bar, her domain, she’s bold, proactive, assertive, but when the pressure is on her and her alone, she turns into a scared little mouse.

I thought she knew what she was doing. I thought she was more experienced, more worldly. I mean, sure, a mare like me only comes along once in a lifetime, but I felt sure she’d at least kissed one pony before. A failed relationship, perhaps from her days in school—she is quite young, after all, younger than me, and—well, I don’t know, something that toughened her up somehow! But if she really is that inexperienced…

Why did she agree to kiss me? Why did she agree to go so far? I don’t think even I would have done it if I’d been in her position.

It doesn’t fit. Is it possible there’s something else going on, some small detail I’ve missed all this time? Her interest in the physical me couldn’t have been more obvious. She started staring at my flank a mere week after we met. It’s more than that, though. When she’s in a bad mood, she brightens up the moment she sees me. She’s gone out of her way to talk to me during her off hours, and she trusts me, she likes– no, scratch that. She really likes me. Almost as if she…

As that thought reaches its inevitable conclusion, my stomach drops out from under me. It all makes sense. Not only the stares, but the blushing, the dress, the kiss—the fact that she brushed her teeth before she kissed me—the way she’s looking at me right now, and the way she turned all those other hopeful mares aside… it makes sense, but I really, really don’t want to believe it.

It’s not my fault, though! I mean, if she feels something for me, that’s her fault, not mine.
I can’t help being beautiful and charming and amazing! I didn’t do anyth– well, no. I totally did. I kissed her, for one. I let her feel me up. I made it very clear that I enjoyed letting her feel me up. Every second of that act was like an open invitation for her.

...Horseapples.

I rack my magnificent brain, desperately trying to come up with a plan, a loophole, anything, but it fails me and my head sinks to the bar. What can I do? What am I supposed to do? I’ve never been in a situation like this! I've—

No… no, calm yourself, Trixie. You’re jumping to conclusions. It’s puppy love, nothing more. A little crush, that’s all, and it didn’t help that you were a bit free and easy tonight. Too much excitement, too much butterbeer. You got reckless, you gave her permission to be bold, you were both swept up in the heat of the moment, and in the end, it doesn’t even matter. It wouldn’t ever work out between us and she knows it. I’ll be out of here and back on the road tomorrow anyway.

Stock chooses that moment to reappear, pushing out a foaming tankard of my favorite pick-me-up. I push the root beer aside, not wanting or needing the distraction. He soon realizes I’m not going to touch it, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He expected this. I’ve a feeling this is exactly the sort of reaction he wanted, actually.

“I know why you made the mistake, Trixie. You’re impulsive. You want the road. You saw a chance and you took it. That’s fine with me, I wouldn’t ever hold you back on purpose, but since you understand why I’m concerned about Barrel now…”

“...You want me to resolve everything between her and me before I go, is that it? Don’t leave her with a broken heart, and all that?”

“That’s exactly right. I like you, Trixie, but I love my daughter. If you break her heart, I’ll never forgive you,” he says, smiling.

“...I don’t know how,” I mumble, shrugging helplessly.

He blinks twice. “You’ve never had to break up with somepony before?”

“More like nopony’s ever been in lo—well, no, they have. Trixie is so easy to love, after all— but this, this is different! Th-This is… it’s...” I groan and bury my face in my hooves.

“Now, now, none of that,” he says. “Sleep on it. I trust you. I know you won’t disappoint me.”

As he vanishes into the backroom again, I stare into my drink and try to cope with this turn of events.

I can’t.

Barrel’s known for ages how I planned to leave as soon as I had the bits, but if this is true and she really does happen to… to love me, I… no, of course she doesn’t. I can’t allow myself to think like that! I need to give myself time to think. I won’t talk with her tomorrow. I’ll just—

“Hey, um… Trixie? You okay?”

I tense up, noticing all too late that Barrel’s slid onto a stool next to mine. Her hooves tap uneasily on the bartop, and her big amber eyes gaze at me, filled with worry. They’re quite pretty, really, those eyes. I look deep into them, trying to draw up the confident, self assured barmare I kissed earlier this evening in front of almost a hundred witnesses, but all I see is a small, naïve girl looking for help from literally the worst mare possible.

“I… suppose I’m fine,” I say cautiously. “He just told me to warn him the next time I’m about to… you know, do that to another cheater. Not that he said it was wrong or anything.”

“He’s okay with me?” she asks, leaning forward just a bit. “He wasn’t mad about what we did?”

Great, let’s jump right to the tough questions.

“Of course he’s fine with it. He didn’t even mention it.”

“R-Really? He didn’t say anything?” She grips my foreleg hard as she says it. I can feel her hooves shaking again.

I really don’t have the patience to deal with her right now.

“Not a word, I promise. That’s not surprising though, right? He even told you not to worry.” I gently brush her hoof aside. “So stop it. Quit worrying so much. Everything’s fine.”

“Are you sure he wasn’t mad? I watched you talking. He—”

“Are you calling me a liar?” I snarl, and Barrel jumps a little in her seat. On cue, her big, pretty eyes well up with tears.

Oh nonono!! You’re not a liar! You can’t be a liar! Nopony as amazing as you could possibly be a—”

Resisting the urge to slam my forehead into the bar, I hop off the barsool and give her a hug. Not a long hug, nothing like that, just a hug that pins her legs against her body and gets her to stop squirming around so much.

Her chest is warm and smells like vanilla and honey.

Ah. That’s probably what she put in the rootbeer tonight.

I break away. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” I say in my best authoritative-yet-kind voice. “You and I are both going to go upstairs. We’re going to fall into bed and dream wonderful dreams. Tomorrow, we’ll talk. We won’t worry about any of this until that talk begins. Okay?”

Barrel sniffles. “Okay. Night, Trixie. And, um… thanks. For everything.”

I manage a small, sincere wave to her as I trudge upstairs, my mind refusing to let me ignore the fact that she was blushing like a schoolfilly the entire time she was talking to me.

I push open the door to my room and collapse onto the bed. As I sink into the mattress, I close my eyes and think harder than I’ve thought in ages. Harder than I thought when my caravan was wrecked and I was made penniless. I don’t know what to do.

I know there are ponies out there of both genders who take rejection quite hard. It isn’t entirely unreasonable to assume Barrel is one of them. Stock would probably know something personal like that, seeing as he knows her better than me. She’s his girl, after all. His ‘sweetie.’ He just wants her to be happy, I can understand that.

Thinking of my own father, I can’t help but sigh wistfully. They have a really nice relationship.

Assuming, for a moment, that she does have feelings of some kind for me, I—no, I’m not going to assume anything. If I do, I risk overcomplicating things. At most, she’s got stars in her eyes; the ones on my flank, to be specific. The extra bits in the kiss were a surprise, yes. The sheer enthusiasm with which she massaged my shoulders, undeniable. But beyond those things, she didn’t do anything I wasn’t already telling her to do. If she makes a move tomorrow, I’ll know for sure. All I can do right now is wait.

She can’t possibly love me. No way. It’s just simple lust, and let’s face it, I made myself into a wonderful subject to lust after tonight.

If anything, I suppose the most telling sign of how Barrel might feel is how she turned those other hopefuls away. Does that mean she was trying to “stay faithful” to me, the pony she loves but isn’t even dating yet? On the one hoof, that’s one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. On the other, it’s terrifying.

Flank stares aside, Stock said he’s known about Barrel’s interests in the fairest sex ever since she was little. Does that mean she’s had a crush before? What happened to it? Did it not go anywhere? Did she watch the object of her affections from afar, never daring to make the first move? Sort of like what she did with me, but—no, focus. Obviously, this crush of hers never went anywhere. Did it end badly, if it started at all?

What about her mother? If they were so close, why hasn’t she said anything to me about her before? Did she have a hoof in how Barrel feels about relationships? Does it even matter?

...Does it matter what I think?

No it doesn’t. This is stupid. Me, The Wild and Uncontrollable Trixie, party mare extraordinaire, she who was almost kicked out of magic school for being too damn charismatic, is worrying about simple relationships? Commitments? What Barrel might actually feel? I haven’t worried about those kinds of things since my first “fillyfriend,” and she turned out to be straight! What in Pony Hell do I know about relationships? I know as much about relationships as I know about pegasus wings. They’re soft, warm, easy to lose yourself in, but they don’t belong to me. I’m no more capable of having a stable relationship than I’m capable of flying. Or teleporting. I bury my face in the pillow and turn over. My head is pounding.

I’ll deal with her tomorrow. I won’t lie, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life. Kissing my best friend couldn’t have been the worst one…

The gulls from the ocean have flown up into town looking for scraps. Their lonely cries echo sadly through the wet air, lingering just outside my window.

Author's Note:

As of 6/8/2014, this chapter has been edited by me to be better than in the original publication. The other chapters have not received this treatment yet, but they will soon enough!