• Published 7th Aug 2016
  • 3,017 Views, 465 Comments

Around the World in 81 Days (And Other Problems Caused by Leap Years) - GaPJaxie

When Twilight and Celestia have an argument about the existence of leap years, there’s only one possible way to settle their differences: a race around the world!

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Day 7: Vineigha

There was one pegasus to wash her coat, and another one to brush it. There was one to polish her hooves, one to polish her horseshoes, one to attach the horseshoes, and one to clean the whole affair up when the others were done. There was one to style her mane, and one to style her tail, plus a dyemaster to aid the other two with any color touch ups. There was a pegasus tailor to adjust her dress, a pegasus jeweler to find the right ring for her horn, and an artist to apply her makeup. There were five small covered coal braziers to keep her warm during the fitting, a hundred candles to bathe the room in a perfectly even glow, and a dozen mirrors so she could see herself from every possible angle.

Twilight looked like she’d swallowed a stone. “I can’t dance,” she wheezed, as one of the attendants gently floated around her, adding just a little more purple makeup to really bring out her colors.

“Of course you can,” Prince Chain Link said, reaching up to take her hoof. “You’re an alicorn princess from the homeland. You could literally show up naked and do the pony polka, and the court would declare it a new fashion trend.”

He was a pegasus as well, not much older than Twilight, and as snow-white as the palace stones around them. He could be albino, if not for his pleasant brown eyes, the pale shades of his natural coat and mane contrasting sharply with his dark clothing. He wore a uniform, black along the base, but with gold trim and silver buttons, its epaulets and rank pins blood red. He made quite the pair with Twilight, all done up in her voluminous and elaborate court dress. And when she turned to look at him, he kissed her hoof.

“Um…” Twilight looked down at him, and it took her a moment to decide what to do with her hoof. In the end, she pulled it away, though not as quickly as she might have. He blushed, and looked down, his ears tilting back a few degrees.

“I mean, I know,” Twilight said, her own cheeks turning a little red, “but… I’d like to make a good impression. Particularly if I need to ask your father to stop burning half his forests down.”

Prince Chain Link smiled. “Well…” He managed to lift his eyes to hers, though the red remained in his face. “I warn you, I’m not sure there’s any dance that will make that request go over well, but I am at your service.”

“You don’t have to go out of your way.” Her tone picked up, gaining a nervous edge. “I mean, I know I’m kind of a foreign dignitary making sudden demands. But living in harmony with nature is just really important and…”

Soon, they were both smiling, and both blushing, and both looking at each other's hooves. “I promised I’d help you with whatever you needed at court,” he said, finally managing to lift his head. “And what good is a prince if he can’t keep his word to a beautiful princess?”

After a moment more, he cleared his throat. “But ah… yes. Dancing. A simple waltz is actually quite easy to learn, and nopony will care if we bow out of the more complex steps. I can show you the basics right now.” He pondered for a moment, tapping his hoof to his chin. “Do you think you could match your hooves with mine? If you can, we could do a dance where the stallion leads.”

Spike rolled his eyes, and hopped down off his little chair in the corner of the room. “I’m going to go for a walk, Twilight.”

“Okay! Don’t get lost,” she called to him. She turned to look as he left, but one of the attendants gently nudged her face forward to finish applying her eye-shadow.

Spike stepped out into the palace corridor, which was also made of white stone and filled with gilded mirrors, and where the pegasi guards also wore uniforms of black with gold trim and silver buttons. He walked past large statues of pegasi warriors, murals of Cloudsdale a dozen feet tall, and vast painted domes that showed the sky above. The ceiling was high enough that small cloudhouses could be floated indoors, and he walked under groups of pegasi lounging on their clouds or flying past.

He ignored it all. Still moving, his feet took him past elegantly dressed nobility, busy bureaucrats, and stern-faced functionaries, until finally the stairs started to slope down. Then he came to the section where the guards wore plain blue. Then where they wore plain green. Then there was earthen stone instead of white marble. And then he was on the street.

It was raining that night—a light drizzle that pattered on the cobblestone. The streets were nearly empty. The houses were made of bricks. The street lights were made of iron, and were lit by oil lamps.

Turning left, Spike made his way down Vineigha’s twisting streets, navigating by a mix of instinct and a folding cloth map in his little travel bag. He passed down long cobblestone roads, and past earth pony work-gangs repairing the streets. He moved through the long brick tunnels that ran under the tallest structures, and read the graffiti that covered the inside. He purchased tea from a vendor, who had a long line for their stand despite the rain. A constable chased away two youths who’d been writing a rude word on the bricks, both of them unicorns. It took him nearly an hour to find the railroad tracks again, and another twenty minutes of following them before the station came into view.

Even so late at night, the train station was a hub of activity. The platforms were full of passengers, the whistle of steam constant on the air. Spike made his way directly to the main platform, but having reached it, hesitated and bit his lip. Then he moved on, away from the passenger areas, and into the depot yard nearby. Here, he walked among a twisting maze of tracks that seemed to go on forever, until he spotted something. It was a warehouse of some kind, with a stylized cog-and-lightning-bolt spraypainted across the front, its door left ajar so light spilled out onto the tracks.

The door creaked as he pushed it open, and Spike squinted into the glare. The inside of the workshop was brightly lit, not by oil or fireflies or candles, but by electrical lamps, nearly a dozen spotlights covering the work area in the center. That area was currently occupied by a train engine, half disassembled, its boiler cover pulled away to reveal the convoluted maze of pipes and valves beneath. Tools, benches, mills and more surrounded it on all sides, along with more than a few smears of oil. The space at first appeared abandoned, but then Spike spotted a purple tail sticking out from behind a large piston.

“Hello?” a male voice called, a unicorn’s head poking out from behind the valve. “Oh, sorry, no passengers allowed. This is a Guild workshop. Platform’s back that way.”

“I’m not a passenger,” Spike said, holding up the little golden seal he’d borrowed from Twilight’s dress. Prince Chain Link had been more than happy to provide her with a substitute when she noticed it was missing. “I’m Spike, Princess Twilight Sparkle’s Number One Assistant. She’s here on her diplomatic visit from Equestria.”

The unicorn behind the piston didn’t seem quite sure what to think of that, a crease appearing in his brow. But after a moment, he shrugged, and stepped back out from behind his work. “Alright. Can I help you with something?”

His coat and mane were much the same color as Twilight’s, at least where he wasn’t stained with oil, but it would have been very hard to mistake the two. Built like a draft pony, he stood at least half a head higher than most, and with a bit of luck he might just have been able to wrestle Big Mac. The symbolism of his cutie mark was obscure—a red, a blue, and a white triangle all together—but the symbol around his neck was much clearer. He wore a medallion there, pressed of simple steel, the cog-and-bolt from the door rendered in relief.

“Uh… I think so.” Spike wrung his hands, looking up at the giant of a unicorn in front of him. His eyes flicked to the train. “I need to know if anything is going to delay the 6 PM Orlovian Express tomorrow. The train board says it’s fine, but sometimes the train company doesn’t put things on the board until the last moment.”

“I’m an Artificer,” the unicorn said, not quite impatient, but a little dry. “I don’t run the train schedules.”

“No,” Spike said. “But I don’t know the ponies who do. This place is really different from Equestria, and I don’t know the rules. But we have engineer ponies in Equestria. And the Guild is the Guild anywhere, right?”

The purple unicorn thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “I suppose,” he agreed. “As far as I know, there’s nothing that would stop a westbound train. I’ve seen a lot of repair crews headed out east, but that’s it. If you want to be really sure though, talk to the Rail Labor Dispatch Office two platforms over. They know pretty much everything.”

“Thanks.” Spike nodded, his eyes going back to the half-finished iron engine. “So uh… what are you working on?”

A smile tugged at the unicorns lips, and his eyes lit up just a hair more than the had before. “A mechanical cloud condenser.” He stepped over to the exposed boiler components, taking a moment to admire the pipe work.

“You know how a steam engine works, right?” he asked, going on before Spike could answer. “Water efficiency is a big deal. An engine that loses half its steam every cycle is going to eat about twice as much coal and water as one that reclaims it. But no engine is totally efficient. Some steam is always lost. And right now, that steam just gets vented out of whatever valve lost it. Goes to waste. But thanks to this little creature”—he tapped the boiler—“we can do something useful with it.”

“You can make clouds?” Spike asked, squinting as he examined the little mechanisms.

“We can make clouds,” the unicorn agreed.

“But… wait. Would that be useful?” Spike’s brow furrowed, and his gaze went down to the ground. “Cloudsdale eats an entire reservoir every day to pump out its clouds. The water car on one train can’t be significant compared to that.”

“It’s never just one train.” The unicorn chuckled, though Spike did not get the joke. “Clouds can be sold to the weather administration, you see, so adding this makes running the train just a little bit cheaper. So soon, all new trains will have cloud condensers. As will the power plants, and the paddleboats.”

“And the mine pumps, and the steam cars, and, yeah, okay. Now I get it.” Spike tapped his chin, staring not at the engine, but off into the vague distance. “And how much water do all of those use? Collectively.”

“Right now, about a thousandth as much as the weather administration.” The unicorn shook his head. “But it will not always be thus. Steam engines are getting bigger, and coal is getting cheaper. Soon ponies will want electric lights everywhere, and we’ll need more power plants. And clouds just keep selling.”

“Is it about the money, then?” Spike’s eyes went back to the unicorn.

“Mmm?” He glanced back, taking a moment to register the question. “Oh. No. Money is why the train company is paying for the research, but all my designs are open for anypony to use. I never needed a reason to build new things.”

He extended a hoof. “I’m Next Wave, by the way.”

“Good to meet you.” They shook, claw to hoof. “Can I ask you something else? I’m sorry, it’s kind of a tangent.”

“Yeah, sure. Go nuts.”

“What’s a Black Hoof?”

Next Wave froze, his body and face each momentarily going still. Spike frowned, watching as he recovered. He stepped back to his workbench, but they were quick steps, and his face turned away from Spike. “Isn’t that something you should ask the locals?”

“Yeah, I’ve tried.” Spike let out a little sigh, and looked away from Next Wave. “And all that’s happened is I’m more confused than ever. I’ve only been away from Equestria a week, and already I’ve heard griffon, Griffonian, Griffonstonian, Orlov, Orlovian, Konik, Tori, Torian, Velt, Aradian, Vineighan, Aero, Lipizzian, and Aero-Lipizzian, which you’d think would just be the last two put together, but apparently it’s an entirely different thing, because that makes sense. And I don’t understand any of them, but everypony here seems to think they’re super important.”

“That really seems like the sort of research you’d want to do before you left on a diplomatic tour,” Next Wave said, straightening his tools into nice neat rows. He didn’t look back at Spike.

“Twilight did her research before we left. A lot of it. But she gets really focused sometimes, and can’t see the forest for the trees. And…” He drummed his claws a moment. “You ever get that creeping feeling? When you realize you don’t know what you don’t know? That things are happening you need to be caring about right now and you don’t even know they exist? That’s how I feel when I listen to ponies out here talk.”

Next Wave didn’t answer, and so Spike went on. “Twilight made a bet with Celestia that this trip would go well, and it’s really important to her she win. But now I’m thinking that maybe Celestia knew something we didn’t when she made that bet.”

“She’s thousands of years old.” Next Wave shrugged. “I think she knows a lot you don’t.”

“Yeah. Probably.” Spike snorted a little line of smoke. “But Twilight… she’s important, you know? And this is important to her.”

He paused. “And I want her to be happy.”

Next Wave let out a long breath, straightening tools that were already quite straight. A few seconds of silence hung in the air, until finally, he gestured Spike over. “Shut the door, would you? You’re letting a draft in.”

Spike did, and soon he was over by Next Wave’s side, the two of them sitting around the tool table. “It’s not that complicated, once you realize that each word has three meanings. Like, take the orlov. There’s orlov, which is a breed of pony characterized by wide hooves and a short stature. There’s orlovian, which is a pony culture that emphasizes rune magic, unicorns and earth ponies working together in the fields, and mixed families. And there’s Orlovia, which is a country with Tersk as its capital. And if every orlov orlovian lived in Orlovia, everything would be nice and simple.”

“But they don’t.”

“No. They don’t.” He shook his head. “Because we’re in Aero-Lipizzia. A country that is less than half lipiz lipizzian, and less than a tenth ‘aero,’ and most of the rest is either lipiz orlovians who aren’t big on the ‘aero’ part, or orlov orlovians who aren’t big on pegasi, lipizzians, or Aero-Lipizzia. Rather against it, actually.”

“And Black Hooves?”

“Where dwells an orlov, there is Orlovia,” Next Wave said, with a deep and dramatic cadence, as though booming out to a crowd. After a moment, he went on more normally. “They’re, ah... orlov orlovian Aero-Lipizzians who think they should be orlov orlovian Orlovians, and who feel so strongly about that they’re willing to register their complaints with explosives instead of sternly worded letters.”

“Why tear up train tracks to Equestria then?”

“Because lipizzians say that Equestria is ‘the homeland.’ It’s where they’re from, even if they did leave a thousand years ago. Orlovians strenuously disagree.”

“Right. Because getting angry over something that happened literally a thousand years ago is an entirely reasonable and level-headed thing to do.” Spike rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “So Twilight’s visit could be taken in a bad way, then.”

“Could be.” He shrugged. “I’m not a politician or a Black Hoof.”

“Right.” Spike looked up. “Twilight’s supposed to join Prince Chain Link and the royal staff on their tour of the countryside tomorrow. Do you think we’re likely to run into any trouble?”

Next Wave hesitated. “I’m really not the pony to ask about this.”

“Yeah, but you’re the only pony I’ve got,” Spike said, lifting a claw as though in apology. “Twilight’s future is at stake. Please?”

His muzzle scrunched up, and Next Wave answered with a slow, deliberate speech. “I really, really don’t know anything specific. And this is really, really outside my job description,” he finally said. “But with the way the atmosphere is right now, I’d be a little nervous if I got into a carriage with anypony whose title is ‘Your Highness.’”

Spike drummed his claw tips over his scales. “What if Twilight left before the tour? Are there any trains leaving right now?”

“No. The next set of west trains won’t run until noon. And even if there were, the police would be sure to stop anypony trying to jump a midnight express over the border.”

“If…” Spike spoke slowly, “it was important. And I really needed to get one royal pony on their way to Orlovia before the morning tour. What would I do?”

“You’re serious about this?” Next Wave asked, still speaking slowly. “You understand you’re about to reschedule a major diplomatic tour because a mechanic had a bad gut feeling?”

“No.” Spike tapped his chest. “I’m about to reschedule a major diplomatic tour because I’ve got a bad gut feeling. I’m her assistant. It’s my job.”

Next Wave bit his lip, and then gradually shrugged. His horn glowed, and he removed his Artificer’s medallion, handing it over to Spike. “The Guild keeps a motor-pool for long distance deliveries, up by Einwanderung and the municipal building. Show them that and say it’s royal business. You’ll probably still have to bribe them a few hundred bits to run this late, but they’ll do it and they don’t ask a lot of dumb questions.”

Next Wave hesitated, and didn’t quite let go of the medallion. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“No,” Spike said. Then he took the medallion out of the air, and the glow around it vanished. “Thanks, Next Wave. Good luck with your cloud condenser.”

Outside, the rain had picked up, heavy drops falling as Spike made his way to the motor pool. That building was made of brick, and its doors also bore the cog-and-bolt. Spike showed the medallion, and filled out one of the blank checks that already had Twilight’s signature next to the royal seal. A mare offered to be their driver, firing up her car and bringing them both towards the palace.

The ball was in full-swing when they arrived, and the servants refused to allow Spike to interrupt. And so, he left a message for Twilight, to be delivered to her the very moment she was free. He tipped the driver, who set her car to idle, and then took a place in the back seat. He nudged his head into the cushions, shut his eyes, and as the rain beat against the glass, he managed to get some sleep.