• Published 8th Jul 2019
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The Rains of Vanhoover - kudzuhaiku

It was raining in Vanhoover. It was always raining in Vanhoover.

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Cast out from the Garden of Ideology

It was raining in Vanhoover. As the train rounded the hill, Nut heard a soft gasp from his ward. The long ride had given him plenty of time for internal debate, and he still hadn’t come to a suitable conclusion as to what she was to him. She had cried a great deal during this trip, great and terrible sobs that at times, seemed without end, and in witnessing her profound misery, his relationship with her kept shifting.

As the train sped homeward, for Vanhoover was home to him, he saw that it was raining, and his companion was crying yet again. He had nothing to dry her eyes and the only comfort he had to offer was words, mere words. An endless parade of soothing, comforting words, all of which felt quite inadequate. Unsatisfying. No, words would not do. Perhaps when they were home, something else might be found that would suffice.

Great anvils hovered overhead, a forge for storms. Pegasus ponies had once battled the inclement weather here, but the fury of the storms endured. When the pegasus ponies found themselves bested by mere weather, wizards too, had plied their magic to the skies over Vanhoover—and like the pegasus ponies before them, found themselves defeated. The storms could not be dissuaded, to make them go away proved impossible as a task. Now, they simply existed, and the citizens of Vanhoover—thoroughly drenched—went about their business.

This was a beginning, and the circumstances of it all reminded Nut that not all beginnings were joyful ones, just as stories did not always end on a happy note. His own story might end on an unhappy note, perhaps eaten by some ravenous beast or slain by the wild magic of the Gallopagos. Such ends happened. He’d made peace with these possibilities. With unsatisfying beginnings and terrible endings on his mind, he found that he rather liked a story’s middle. A story was a sandwich, with bread making up the start and finish, and all of the best parts tucked betwixt the two.

His stomach growled.

He’d let Tater Blossom eat the last of their food, because he could not bear for her to be hungry on top of all the rest of her misery. Somehow, he would endure. The smell of woodsmoke tickled his nose; that… that was the smell of home. Woodsmoke, maple syrup, and the scent of pine. To be home again. It wouldn’t be long before he indulged himself in a pint or two. He would need to turn in his findings. Lodging would need to be secured for his ward.

Conjuring up a notebook and a brass pen, he went about making a list.

“I’ve never seen so many trees,” his companion said, murmuring her words through swollen lips.

“Oh, they are astounding, Miss Blossom. Come fall, all the maples will turn to fiery colours while the pines remain green. Ponies come from all over Equestria to have themselves a look.” He paused with his pen held above his notebook. “And promptly leave because they find the ceaseless rain unbearable. This is a rainforest. Just not a tropical one.”

“Where’s the ocean?”

“Obscured by fog, from the looks of it.”

“I thought if’n I could see the city, I could see me the ocean, too.”

“Those are the outer boroughs.” Nut allowed words to flow from his pen without thought whilst he gazed out the window. “The outer boroughs are several miles out from the city proper. Now, the heart of the city is built on a cliff, with much of the city carved into the cliff face. There are a great many stairs, and lifts, and means to go up and down… some of which must be paid for. The Upper City and the Lower City are two very different places. You and I, well, I live in the Lower City. On an island, in fact. Anvil Island. There is also Hammer Island, Bell Island, Horseshoe Island, and well, there are many islands. Connecting these islands are bridges, and with these bridges come the terrible politics of the island-dwellers.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will in time, Miss Blossom. Almost all of these bridges are toll bridges, which many feel are unfair, because only earth ponies and unicorn ponies pay the toll. Natural fliers can avoid them.”

“That don’t seem fair.”

“No, it doesn’t, Miss Blossom. But such is life. The bridges are expensive to maintain. With all this rain and moisture, metal rusts and wood rots. You can actually see the bridges decaying.” He sighed. “Ah, I say… I have missed home.”

Gazing out the window, Nut spent a moment imagining how his pupil might see the city ahead. The boroughs were immense, squalid places of poverty and vice. Not a great thing for a first time visitor to Vanhoover to see, but this was the reality of it. Each borough was made up of multiple wards. The vast expanse of shacks, shanties, cabins, and wooden millhouses were all a fire waiting to happen.

Beyond the boroughs, there was the Wall District, where the old city walls used to be, and then one entered the Upper City proper, a place of prosperity and wealth. Here, stone buildings could be found. Stately manor houses, mansions, towers, and all of it battling mildew. Black rot could be found in every crevice, every crack, and the ceaseless rains made it almost impossible to be rid of the gooey slime found oozing from between the stones.

Cliffside was a unique place and considered one of the visual wonders of Equestria. A little over nine-hundred feet tall, Cliffside had been chiseled into existence from the blueschist. It was a city unto itself, a distinct section that was part of the greatness that made up Vanhoover as a whole. The griffons and the pegasus ponies called this place home, though others could be found here. Navigating up and down Cliffside was a challenge, an adventure worthy of a book.

The best fish and chips in the city could be found right smack in the middle of Cliffside.

Down below, right on the ocean, Lower City could be found. Some of it was on the mainland, but most of it sprawled over the archipelago that stretched for several miles. The Lower City was made mostly of brick, but stone and wood construction was common enough. Houseboats were everywhere, and shipwreck cottages, boats overturned, dragged on dry land, and turned into suitable dwellings.

The first time he saw the city, he’d been quite enchanted by it all—but he had no idea how his pupil might feel about it. He worried about her opinion of the boroughs, and it occurred to him that she might see them as a marvel, some great wonder, simply because of their sheer size and spread. He supposed that the slums were impressive unto themselves, but he found them quite unpleasant.

Equestria could do better.

“So many first times a-happenin’ all at once,” Tater Blossom said as the train trundled along the tracks. “I’ve lost track of ‘em all. After all these first times, you’d think I’d be a mare by now.” She smiled, but it was forced, and her taut jaw muscles quivered. “For maybe the past hour or so, I’ve had my doubts. I feel more like a little filly than ever. Strange, but I feel less grown up right now than I did just a week ago. How’s that work, anyhow? Why am I like this? I’m tired, and sleepy, and I can’t sleep sitting up in these seats, and when I tried to go to sleep, my head kept a-bouncin’ against the window, and that hurts, lemme tell you.”

With her head held away from the window, she yawned.

The windows suddenly became quite wet, and beads of water rolled along the glass. Nut closed his eyes so that he might listen to the sound of the rain against the roof of the train. He was home now. Canterlot might have been his city of origin, but Vanhoover was home. It would always be home. Relieved, he allowed himself to relax just a little bit. A long, detailed schedule appeared beneath the tip of his pen, as if by magic, and the last thing on the list of things to do made mention of returning to Canterlot. Just previous to this entry was mention of asking his parents for money for a trip to Canterlot.

With a muted pop, the pen and notebook vanished back into his battered suitcase.

“What is that?” Tater Blossom asked in an awed whisper. “That’s the biggest building I’ve ever seen.”

Nut opened his eyes, blinked twice to clear his vision, and then saw what his pupil saw. “That,” he said while he gestured out the window with his hoof, “is a sawmill. And a sawdust processing plant. Over there is a pulp mill. Quite surprised that the smell hasn’t permeated the—oh wait, there it is. Yes, I can smell it now. Whew, what an assault upon the senses.”

“Ugh!” Tater Blossom pawed at her tender, swollen snoot with both front hooves. “Oh Almighty Celestia, what is that there evil stink?”

“Paper comes with a price, Miss Blossom. Vanhoover leads the world in paper production. Ah, the delightful stench of civilisation as it is manufactured. Paper, Miss Blossom. Paper.”

As Tater Blossom gagged and retched, so too did several other passengers.

“Well,” Nut said in a dry monotone that was as of yet untouched by rain, “we know who the tourists are. Welcome to Vanhoover, Miss Blossom.”

Easing into the station, the train squealed like ten-thousand pressed pigs. The sky outside was a drab, colourless neutral grey, with darker and lighter grey incontinent clouds that could not hold their water. Tater Blossom was staring out the window, her ears were pinned back, and she was slack-jawed. No doubt, she was impressed by the train station, which had a tremendous roof made of copper, wood, and glass.

At one point, it might’ve been beautiful. It still was, perhaps, but time and weather had ravaged it. The copper had turned a noxious green, and the wood had turned from rich, warm gold to a mildewed, weathered, faded grey. Once clear and clean, the glass was now caked with soot, yellowed somewhat from sulphur deposits left behind by the polluted rain, and so grimy that parts of it now verged on opacity.

“It is the length of five standard passenger cars,” Nut said to his ward as he gently pulled her away from the window. “Three hundred feet. It was constructed for Princess Celestia’s grand arrival, not too long after Equestria’s Civil War. She came to Vanhoover to thank the city for its loyalty and for its great many contributions to the war effort. Vanhoover could have remained neutral, but did not. I suppose this structure is just as much a monument to those who paid for freedom with their own blood as it is a means to commemorate Princess Celestia’s arrival. I don’t think about it all that much. Perhaps I should.”

“Everything is so big here,” she said as she allowed herself to be led away.

“Next major stop, Crystal Empire! We leave in half-an-hour!”

“Mind your step, Miss Blossom. The ponies can be quite testy. They shove, push, and think nothing of the needs of others. I do not want us getting separated as we disembark from the train. Remain close to me, and remember what I told you—”

“No runnin’ off. Mister Nut, I’m too scared to run off.”

He allowed himself a reassuring smile as he said, “All will be well, Miss Blossom.”

Had he remembered to put the film in need of development on the list of things to do? Remembering was hard. Was he becoming scatterbrained at such a young and tender age? He slipped his monocle away into a pocket and unfurled Susan all at the same time. The rain was a steady downpour of a drenching sort, but it wasn’t sideways rain, or rain that bounced upwards from the ground, which left one’s belly soaked.

The giant thermometer built into the stem that held up the station’s enormous, oversized clock said that the temperature was fifty-two degrees, but with the wet breeze, and if the rain were taken into account, the air felt quite cool. Miss Blossom would need outerwear; he himself was in need of new outerwear, and he lamented his threadbare, shabby state of existence.

“Mister Nut, before we go… there’s something I must ask you.”

“And what is that, Miss Blossom?”

“Why’d you do it?”

“Do what, exactly? Elucidate.”

For a moment, she was confused, but continued, “This. All of this. Save me. Make that promise to Pa. Why take me in? I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout it the whole train trip, and everything I know just takes me to bad places. Most of last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I convinced myself that you wanted me for a wife, but yer a gentlepony ‘bout it, and not the pushy-grabby sort, and yer waitin’ fer me to come ‘round ‘cause yer the patient type. I was mostly okay with that, until this morning, or there’bouts, and I got myself all worked up and doubtful.”

She swallowed, and it sounded as though she was having a hard time with the lump that had to be in her throat. With a clumsy sidestep, she moved closer to Nut, then closer still, until she was leaning up against him. “I know what’s expected and wanted from young mares such as myself. My Ma told me all ‘bout the treasures of youth. So I know why I’m valued. At least, I thought I knew. I thought I’d be alright with it. I told myself, it was the price of leaving home. Mister Nut, I’m real conflicted right now.”

There, standing beneath the glass canopy that covered the train station, Nut felt his guts sinking down into his hooves. He watched the passing ponies, distracted, thoughtful, and morose. Some were tourists. Others appeared to be business sorts. Still others were new arrivals to the city, but these were almost indistinguishable from the tourists. How did he answer this? However he might answer, it would forever shape his ward’s future development. She was in a state of crisis—and so was he himself, for that matter.

The rain made a staccato rhythm against the glass overhead.

“Once,” he began, “I had a teacher, and she taught me that I am a sheathed sword. Quite an excellent teacher, really. I didn’t get much time with her, as she was really rather busy. Perhaps it might be my vanity, but I would like to think that a connection existed between us.” Thinking of his companion’s needs, he adjusted Susan’s position so that they might both be equally covered.

There was, indeed, room for two.

“She taught me that if you change the outcome of a life, you change the world. You become an agent of destiny. She told me that it takes courage to change fate, and that by intervening in another life, by changing fate, you change the outcome of the world. You must own your changes, be responsible for them. See them through. By causing the change to happen, you become responsible for the outcome. Any reckless roustabout can cause change, it can even happen by accident, but then you leave the outcome of said change to random fate. It remains a coin toss. My teacher said that a pony of courage holds themselves responsible for the change they bring about. It is a matter of followthrough.”

He glanced at his pupil out of the corner of his eye.

“These changes can take any number of forms. Marriage. Friendship. Apprenticeship. Saving the life of another. Our actions, our choices make us agents of fate. I have made a choice to be an active agent, rather than a passive one. I have committed to this. For me, it wasn’t enough to save your life, or to rescue you from your dreadful circumstances. I chose to have a say in the long-term outcome. For good or ill, I have chosen to see this through, no matter the cost.”

His ears went limp, but he did not notice.

“Just as my teacher chose to alter the outcome of my life. I failed to see it at the time, but I see it so very clearly now. She has such courage, to change the outcome of so many lives. My teacher is changing the fate of the world by changing the fate of one life at a time. Change enough little things, and big things happen. Each life is but a grain of sand.”

Humbled, he fell silent, unsure of what to say.

For a short time, he wrestled with his thoughts, and then said, “If I had helped you, saved you, and brought you here, or anywhere really, and left you to fend for yourself… things might very well be worse for you. Circumstances might make you desperate and force you into making terrible decisions. Or worse, rob you of your ability to make choices at all. Any number of dreadful fates might await you. You could have left home, only to find that something far worse awaited. I might have saved you from a less than ideal future at home, only to dump you into a nightmare.”

Shaking his head, he said to himself, “Saving others is a risky business.”

“I s’pose it is. Maybe that’s why Almighty Celestia doesn’t answer every prayer for help.”

He hadn’t thought of it that way. Turning his head just a bit, he studied his pupil, and noted her thoughtful expression. Yes, she was definitely a thinker. Not only that, but she’d given him something to think about. He found himself with curious feelings of affection for her, almost a sort of familial affection, but somehow distinctly different. How? He could not say.

But different.

“I will do nothing that might jeopardise or otherwise harm the good outcome I hope for you,” he said to the scared, trembling pony beside him. “It is a matter of followthrough. I want good things for you. You are my ward, and I am your protector. It is my solemn duty to ensure your survival, see to your needs, and give you a future. I made a promise, and it is a matter of followthrough.”

A thin smile haunted his muzzle.

“Now, Miss Blossom, are you ready to go home?”

The ocean remained obscured by an endless sea of fog and mist. Visibility was, at most, maybe a city block or two. It felt good to be home, even if he felt conflicted by the city he loved. A slow, steady, drenching drizzle fell, which left everything glistening wet. Ponies were crowding the sidewalks. The packed streets were beginning to flood, because yet again debris clogged the gutters.

Tourists were rubbernecking, because that is what tourists were wont to do. At one point, he’d been a tourist. It wasn’t like they could see much. At sidewalk level, the tops of buildings were obscured by fog. Cautious pegasus ponies flew overhead, feeling their way along buildings. Flying too fast proved fatal all too often in this city.

“Extra! Extra! Canterlot besieged by giant talking rats! Princesses have declared a state of emergency in Central Equestria! Prince Blueblood assures public that there has been no talk of conscription! Prince Gosling plays with foals while nation crumbles down around us!”

“Bah,” Nut muttered. “Pay it no mind, Miss Blossom. All the news unfit to print. Blast and bother!”

“Giant talking rats?” she said as she was led along.

“Sensationalism, I’m certain. Until I see such things with my own two eyes, I remain dubious of their existence. A nightmare concocted to boost paper sales, which seem to be failing. Perhaps if they told the truth or at least more believable news, paper sales might not be in the gutter. Bah! Bah I say!”

“But what if it’s true—”

“Miss Blossom, the rags of Vanhoover are barely fit to wrap your fish and chips in. Mind your step, Miss. I know that puddle. It hungers for unsuspecting pony flesh and loves the taste of tourist. Come around.”

Disaster was narrowly averted as Tater Blossom avoided the pony-swallowing puddle.

“It’s cold, Mister Nut. And wet!”

“You lack proper outerwear, which we shall have to remedy,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “Not to worry, it will be sorted out. For now, be courageous. Stay close. Allow Susan to protect you.”

“Slow down, Mister Nut, please!”

Hearing the whine that crept into her voice, he slowed. “Is this better?”

“A little, but everything hurts. I’m tired. I’m sleepy. My stomach is empty.”

“We must persevere. Soon, each of those things will be dealt with, but for now, we must keep moving. What little coin I have is at home, Miss Blossom.”

“Mister Nut, I can’t see the bottom.” Tater Blossom peered over the rail, which she kept her body back away from. “There ain’t no ocean down there either. Just grey.”

“This is Cliffside. Yes, the ocean down below does seem to be obscured.” He pointed his face into the breeze and enjoyed the cool sensation that tickled his ears.

There was a fast way down, but he wasn’t sure if his ward would enjoy it. While she wasn’t afraid to be atop the water tower back home, she was doing all she could to hide her outright terror right now. Was it because she could not see the bottom, only grey nothingness? His companion was shivering somewhat, though from fear or cold, he was uncertain.

“There’s a whole city built into a cliff just below me. I wish I was enjoyin’ myself more. That’s a sight a-worth seein’, something to crow about, and here I am, up here bellyachin’ ‘bout something to eat. I always thought a town was laid out over the land, all flat like. But this… I don’t even have the words. What is this, Mister Nut?”

“Vertical development,” he replied.

How was he going to break it to her that they would be flying down?

“How big is it?” she asked.

“Cliffside?” He took a moment to consider. “At its tallest, it is about nine-hundred or so feet. The main area, central Cliffside, is about a mile wide, or thereabouts. But then you have the suburbs, which continue along the cliffs for several miles. It seems like a long distance for us, but for pegasus ponies and griffons, most of them can fly a mile-a-minute without too much trouble. So the impressive size is a matter of scale, really.”

“So, how do we get down?”

“I’m glad you asked.” With a smile, he nodded. “We’re going to fly.”

Tater Blossom sucked in a deep breath, her swollen cheeks puffed out, and her head trembled from side to side. Nut watched, and wondered if her resolve would hold. The drizzle became a light misting and the wind slowed to a playful breeze, which was perfect. Conditions were just right for a flight, but said conditions could change with terrific rapidity.

“We’ll be fine, I assure you.” He pulled her closer with a gentle tug of magic. “I will make you feather light, and myself as well, and then we’ll use Susan to float down. The application of a few gust spells will keep us on course.”

“Gust spells?” she asked.

“Well, most unicorns use gust spells to be dramatic, dark, brooding, and edgy,” he explained. “We use it to fluff out our voluminous, billowing cloaks behind us, or to cause our manes to whip about, or we use it to extinguish candles as we enter a place, so that the room is plunged into dramatic darkness. While I do not deny its dramatic applications, conjuring up a gust of wind has practical purposes.”

“Dark? Brooding? Edgy?” Tater Blossom blinked.

Nut raised his hoof and made a circular gesture. “Oh, woe is me. My life is misery. Time to paint my hooves black and dye my coat black as well. I shall call myself Darklight Ebonreach, and shall speak of myself in the third-pony.”

“I’m powerful confused,” Tater Blossom stated.

“Hang around Vanhoover long enough, and this will make perfect sense, I assure you. The rain makes their dyejobs run.” As his eyes narrowed, his jaunty grin intensified. “There are exceptions. Like Mister Riddle. But he is austere, not gloomy or brooding. He wears black because it makes his wardrobe easy to accessorise.”

“Flyin’, Mister Nut?”

“Yes, we’ll be flying. I’m glad you agree.”

“No, I, no, wait, I didn’t—”

“You want to get something to eat, don’t you?”

“I am not a pegasus pony,” she said while each of her four legs went stiff.

“Neither am I,” he replied. “Yet, I have been known to fly on occasion, and I am quite good at it. At least, the pegasus ponies tell me I am, and congratulate me on being clever. If they are just being polite, I suspect such kindness might get me killed someday.”

“Nut, I dunno—”

“Oh, nonsense. Do you want to spend the next hour or two walking down the stairs? Because those are free.”

Tater Blossom scowled.

“However hungry you might be now is nothing compared to how hungry you will be after we go down the stairs.”

Confronted with this unpleasant logic, she whimpered.

“About halfway down the stairs, they have tea shops, and coffee shops, bakeries and diners, eateries of all kinds, all with jacked-up prices. They leave the windows open so that the incredible smells might waft outside, to all those poor ponies going up and down the stairs.”

“That’s mean!”

“That’s life in the city. Survival of the fittest.”

Defeat fell over Tater Blossom like a shroud. Her neck sagged, her ears slumped, and she closed her unswollen eye. He heard her sigh, then again, and the third time was particularly dramatic, as was properly befitting a young lady who had to endure trying circumstances. He was far too good-natured to be impatient, but he was in a hurry to get home.

He was in dire need of a pint.

“Take my hoof, and hold on tight. You mustn’t let go. A physical connection is best. You hold on to me, and I’ll hold on to Susan, and we’ll float down like leaves borne upon the gentle winds of autumn.”

“Fine,” she said while she held her hoof out. “You just remember yer promise to Pa. If’n I go and splatter all over the ground, it’s yer fault.”

“You may feel a bit lightheaded—”

“Those jokes of yers…” Grimacing, she affixed her stern glare upon Nut.

When he took her hoof in his, she trembled. To calm her, he gave her a gentle squeeze, but this didn’t seem to have the desired outcome. Whatever it was that she might be feeling, he hoped she had it under some control. When he pulled her close, she practically panted, and he was fearful about her state of terror.

At least, he suspected it was terror.

Levitating his suitcase, Nut prepared to cast a few spells…

“Exhilarating, isn’t it?”

“NO!” she yelped.

“Oh, come now, Miss Blossom. Look how gently we drift down. Do try to open your eyes. Enjoy the experience.”


“But you’re missing the sights, Miss Blossom. Look at the pretty window boxes filled with herbs and flowers.”

“I don’t wanna look,” she whimpered as she clung to his foreleg.

A passing griffon waved, but alas, Nut had no means to wave back. He did offer a cordial nod of his head though, and the griffon sped away. A foghorn blared somewhere below, and he could hear jaunty music that came drifting out of a window. Some tourists taking a paid lift snapped pictures of him, and he obliged them with his best smile.

As it turned out, a foreleg was not enough, and Tater Blossom practically climbed him like a tree, until both her forelegs were secure around his neck, and her hind legs encircled the foreleg she’d clung to mere moments before. They drifted down, gently bobbing, and he kept their course true with a few well-timed gusts. Smashing into the cliff face suddenly would not do.

“This will never be normal,” she said, her voice hitching with fear.

“We’re quite safe,” he said to her. “I’ve fallen considerable distances with no injury. Honestly, you have nothing to fear.”

Then, quite suddenly, the fog parted, and Nut saw the ocean. He saw home. The blue-green ocean was just below, along with the islands, and the Lower City. It was a breathtaking view, and he wanted his companion to see it. He wanted her to have this bird’s eye perspective.

“Miss Blossom, do open your eyes—”

“Ain’t gonna.”

“But… the ocean. We’re below the fog.” As he spoke, he saw her unswollen eye flutter open, and her body went tense against his. “There it is, Miss Blossom. The ocean. It is as beautiful as it is large and dangerous. Just look at it all. See how it stretches out to the horizon?”

“I can see the end of the world,” she whispered. “There’s a place where the storm meets the water. It looks like they is touchin’. Oh, that is as pretty as a picture.”

Her shallow breathing said more than words ever could, and he was happy to witness this moment, to be here with her, to share in her joy. Her grip relaxed just a tiny bit, and he took this as a good sign. Maybe, with time, this would be normal for her. At this moment, there was something beautiful about her, something free. It wasn’t the sort of beauty that caused attraction, but rather, the sort of beauty that left one humbled, that left one grateful for the good things in the world.

“It just goes on forever until it meets the sky,” she said. “How is it that we’re below the fog? I don’t understand.”

“Warm air rises,” he replied. “The warmth from the water pushes the fog up. At least on some days. Sometimes, we’re buried in fog down below as well. But the fog, it rises, and rises, and rises, and as it goes up, it sheds its water, which causes all this rain. The clouds that come in off of the ocean have to work their way up this cliff, over the land, and stall out because of the mountains due east. Which is why it is constantly raining.”

“Oh.” She nodded. “Oh. I see.”

“We’re in a rainforest, and you, your home, the Widowwood, happens to be found in the Unicorn Range. Some of those clouds make it inland, and you get feral storms. But not many. The Unicorn Range’s weather is heavily enforced and regulated. Most weather events there are scheduled. Without the intervention of the pegasus ponies, the Unicorn Range would be a dry plains, and not a fertile breadbasket. Too little water makes it over the mountains from here.”

“So… so… that’s why we have to control the weather… so things’ll grow and the land will be green, even when it might not normally be. Because… mountains… have a say in the weather? They make it happen?”

“They influence it, yes.” His pupil was too busy thinking to be terrified, and he was pleased. “Because of the mountains and a variety of factors, much of the Unicorn Range would be a dry plains, and not at all suitable for farming. It would be a dry dust bowl. Almost all of the rain falls on this side of the mountains, which is why this region is a rainforest. But you’ll also find temperate swamps, bogs, and marshlands. Which is why I came here to go to school. I am never without something to study.”

“But… but… if we change the weather to make stuff grow, wouldn’t that change the animals, too? I mean, swamps and deserts have different critters. What’ve we done, Mister Nut?”

“We’ve made Equestria habitable,” he replied. “By controlling the land, the weather, and other environmental factors, we’ve turned a dead land green again. And yes, our changes affect the animals. Unfortunately, we’re only just now starting to fully understand what we’ve done. Environmentalism and naturalism are only now gaining credibility as we try to understand the changes we’ve wrought. Vanhoover is the very nexus of these new schools of thought. We study very exciting things here. There is no place better in all of the world to study biology.”

“I want to know more.”

To hear her say this pleased him.

“Look… there… you can see Anvil Island. And Hammer Island. Horseshoe Island is over there, and Bell Island is that beautiful place over there. Hammer Island doesn’t exactly look like a hammer. I think it looks like, well, I don’t know. Long and skinny along the length, and round at one end. Like a lollipop.”

“That over there looks like a skull.”

“And we call it Skull Island. I’ll take you there. The two ‘eyes’ are naturally carbonated springs. As for the mouth, it is the opening for a vast underground cave network, most of which is flooded. Occasionally, monsters come crawling out.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“Sure it is,” he replied. “Can be quite exciting. A real treat.”

“I think I’druther explore the island I’ll call home. It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

At last, her death-grip around his neck became a somewhat relaxed embrace.

“We’ll be home quite soon,” he said to her as she continued to have a look about.

Anvil Island was home to about twenty-thousand souls, give or take a few thousand. It was a city unto itself, and functioned as the residential bedroom island for the other islands nearby. The University of Vanhoover took up most of Hammer Island, and all of the workers for the canneries and pet food factories found on Horseshoe island called Anvil Island home.

He lived on the ‘horn’ of Anvil Island, and that is where he touched down. This wasn’t a residential area, but various creatures did live here, typically with odd living arrangements, such as his own. The ferry service yards could be found here, an airship port, there was a garbage depot here, where the trash was collected so it could be hauled away. The ‘horn’ was a place of services, mostly, and many considered it undesirable.

Carriage Row Lane was just as he’d left it. The carriage house that he called home was just as he remembered. One of the garage doors was open. Beside the carriage house, and part of the same immense structure was the library. And not just any library, no. The library. It served as a remote classroom for the university, had an art gallery, and a hall of exhibits on display, with artifacts owned by the university.

Beyond the library, at the cul-de-sac at the end of the lane was Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn. Fantastic ale. Excellent food. But the fact that they charged by the hour for rooms and offered the ‘services’ of ‘relaxation specialists’ annoyed him somewhat. He thought of Black Maple and felt a flood of mixed feelings overwhelm him. She… that pony… while he didn’t agree with her on a great many things, including how she ran her business, he often found himself dealing with drunks and rowdies that partied just a bit too hard upstairs.

Rule number one: you did not rough up your relaxation specialist.

Rule number two: you did not rough up your relaxation specialist.

He felt conflicted about the very notion of taking his ward in there.

On one hoof, he felt that what went on upstairs was a gross and ugly thing. On the other hoof, these ponies had a right to earn a living, and Black Maple kept them safe. Rules were enforced. Safety for every party involved was ensured. Working the streets was dangerous. This whole city was quite dangerous, and Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn was a refuge of relative safety. Due in no small part because he made it that way. He had a reputation.

He didn’t like how entangled he was in all of this.

This was Black Maple’s doing. She had pulled him into this mess, with her pints and pretzels. A pint sounded fantastic, but that would have to wait. First, he had to sort things out with Mrs. Oleander, and see about securing the spare room for Tater Blossom. Of course, Mrs. Oleander would want to know why, she would want every detail of this story, and this could take a while.

On the odd chance that Mrs. Oleander said no, he would need to find lodging for himself and his ward before nightfall. A challenge. Life was a challenge, and he was mostly alright with that. A light rain pitter-pattered against every available surface, including Susan. Tater Blossom was sorting herself out after their fantastic flight.

Nut found himself in dire need of a pint.

Mrs. Oleander’s pursed lips said more than words ever could. To say the mare was stern and fussy—that would be a gross understatement. Nut had given her the abridged version of everything that had happened, with Tater Blossom offering up the occasional interjection, or filling out demanded details.

So far, his employer had not said yes, but nor had she said no. She stood next to the hearse, which was in immaculate condition, just as he’d left it. The stern older widow conjured up her eyeglasses, perched them on her narrow muzzle, and then turned her full attention on Tater Blossom, who made the mistake of backing away.

Mrs. Oleander advanced, a lion on the savanna, and when Tater Blossom bumped into the hearse, the austere mare cornered the younger, frightened one. Tater Blossom whimpered, but there was no place else to go, as the nefarious hearse thwarted her escape. Still as a statue, Nut waited for Mrs. Oleander’s judgement, whatever it might be.

“Stand up straight,” the stern mare barked. “Quit cowering. Such a thing does not become you.” Her brows beetled so fiercely that her bun quivered. “I can’t have an employee behaving in such a manner. It would go poorly for me. We have exacting standards, young Miss.”

“Sorry, I’m scared. I’m hungry. All this is new. I’m powerful frightened.”

Mrs. Oleander’s expression softened slightly.

“I was you, once.” She pulled her eyeglasses off and they vanished with a hissy fizzle of magic. “My husband, rest his soul, he saved me from a terrible, terrible life. Very much like Mister Nut here has done for you. He… my husband, he put me into school. My education was made a number one priority. I was given refinement. Under his care, I was transformed from a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

“Tell me, filly… do you wish to be smart?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Do you expect better things for yourself?”

“Yeah, Ma’am, I do, fer surely.”

The old stern mare scowled and her lower lip jutted out.

Nut could not help but notice that Tater Blossom was sweating now, even though it was quite cool in the garage. He allowed his eyes to wander and saw a trash wagon up on the blocks. One axle was splintered and in need of repair. It seemed he had a task awaiting him, and what a doozy it appeared to be.

“Nut, you literally pulled her out of the produce patch, didn’t you?”

Silent, he nodded while his eyes lingered upon the broken axle.

“Well, humble beginnings and all that. I was a slave to diamond dogs, and I can say this with no shame. If I can become who and what I am from that lowly position, then surely, you have no excuses available to you. You will do the same.” Mrs. Oleander drew herself up to her full formidable height, and glared down at Tater Blossom, who quivered against the hearse.

“Everything begins and ends with hard work. I have a job that needs doing.” She raised her hoof and pointed at a wagon parked in the corner. “That’s the library wagon. Mister Riddle was just here this morning saying that he would need a new assistant—”

“Mrs. Oleander, with all due respect, I object.”

“Mister Nut?”

“The city is dangerous.” Right now, he himself felt the very real danger of being booted out. “I gave my solemn oath as a noble to her father that I would keep her in my care. That she would be safe.”

After the span of a few seconds, when nothing else was said, he asked, “What happened to Bon Mot? Why isn’t he available to pull the portable library?”

“Bon Mot is to be a grandfather soon.” Mrs. Oleander’s tone was neutral. “His daughter is to foal twins. He is moving home to help her and her husband. Admirable action, wouldn’t you agree?”

He nodded, but was still uncertain of where he stood with his employer.

“Mister Riddle is a wizard of no small skill.” Mrs. Oleander backed away from the cowering filly so that she might have a little breathing room. “He will keep your ward safe, Mister Nut. She will learn the streets and gain familiarity with the city. I dare say that some of Mister Riddle’s education might rub off on her, and working as his assistant with the wagon might open other doors for her. As soon as summer draws to a close, we can see about getting her enrolled in school.”

“Right, because backward agrarian cities cease school for the summer rather than continue education year round.” Annoyed, a little frustrated. Nut allowed himself a short sigh. “I suppose we do have a little time before school starts. So Miss Blossom would have a room in exchange for helping Mister Riddle?”

“He did ask me to search around to find a capable assistant. She’ll be paid, if she proves herself worthy. Even if this doesn’t work out, she still has the room. Mister Nut, you do the work of at least a half-dozen ponies. Her room is covered.” With eyes narrowed into slits, the starchy older mare cast a sidelong glance at the filly that left smudges on the mirrored black finish of the hearse.

“If a client came in, and saw you right now, they might very well turn back around and walk out.” Mrs. Oleander’s face wrinkled with upset. “You will need to stay out of sight as much as possible until everything heals. Beyond that, we’ll have to make you presentable. I’ll see what I can do. Try not to say too much, until such a time that you no longer sound like a yokel. I do not say these things to be cruel, filly. But this is a business. And if this business goes under, you will have no roof over your head. You will see my kindness in private, when I help sort you out.”

Tater Blossom nodded.

“Mister Nut, take her upstairs and show her around. I will try to scrounge up a few blankets and such for her comfort. Also, I will visit that nice zebra that lives on the next block over, and see if he has any medicinal salves that might help. Mercy, if I don’t look after my employees, who will? Certainly not the Crown.” The crotchety widow rolled her eyes and let go an exasperated, weary sigh.

“Thank you, Mrs. Oleander,” Nut said to his employer.

“No, Mister Nut… thank you.”

“I beg your pardon, but what?”

Her hard expression persisted for a moment more, but then the widow’s face softened. Wrinkles could be seen in the corner of her eyes. Her ears went less than rigid. “Oh, don’t be coy, Lord Nut. You may live above a garage, and rub elbows with commoners in the local pub, but you’re not fooling anypony.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

One eyebrow arched. “Unexpected. You really do not know.” For a moment, her lips pursed into a fretful frown, and then she said, “Just look after the filly, Nut. If it were any other pony that did this…” She did not finish her sentence, but clucked her tongue.

Try as he might, he could not figure out what she was alluding to. Oh, he had guesses, but all of them felt wrong somehow, and were unpleasant to think about. Tater Blossom was crying again, and he would need to see to that. This had to be hard on her, but he would see her through, somehow.

“Come away from the hearse,” he said to Tater Blossom. “All those smears and smudges will have to be waxed. Follow me upstairs, and I will show you around.” Then, turning to his employer, he asked her the following: “Somepony used repair spells on the axle, didn’t they?”

“Some ponies have no common sense.” Mrs. Oleander spat out the words with visible disgust. “The city wanted to save money, so they went with a cheaper shop. Now, they’re furious about the enormous repair bill and they’ve accused me of price gouging. Me! Of price gouging!”

“Repair spells are cheap. Materials and manual labour are expensive.” There was no known force in all of the known universe that could stop Nut’s eyes from rolling. “Is it so hard to do the job right? We can’t use magic to fix everything. A repair spell will only hold for so long. That axle is well beyond ruined.”

“Mister Nut, you know how it is with unicorns. Magic makes us lazy.”

“Mrs. Oleander… I would resent that remark, but the evidence on display makes it quite difficult to do. Must you rub it in?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “I simply must. You and I hold ourselves to higher standards. Mister Riddle, too. We are better. We do right. Just like I know that you will do right by your ward, Mister Nut. Now, upstairs with both of you. Begone! See to it that your ward is fed, Mister Nut. I cannot bear to see a hungry stray.”

“Very well, I will do so.” He gestured at Tater Blossom. “Come on. Let us go.”

Pushing open the door, he waited for his companion to enter. As she passed, he said to her, “This used to be a factory. These rooms and this whole upstairs were for the management. An office section. The wagons would get loaded and they would oversee the whole operation, and everything was all neat and tidy. But all the factories on this island were shut down so this would be a nicer place to live.”

The room, like his own, wasn’t much to look at. Bare rafters could be seen overhead, and there was no insulation. Wind could be heard whistling through the room. A hammock was hung in the corner; aside from the hammock, there was nothing else to be found in the room, but industrial memories, cobwebs, and old, dead bugs.

There was a window, which had thin glass and contributed to the drafty nature of this place. It needed cleaning, but from the outside. Light peeked through the floorboards below his hooves, and as he stood listening to the soft creak of the flexing timbers, he felt a keen sense of regret that this was all he had to offer Tater Blossom.

She deserved better.

“It’s not so bad,” she said. “You live here, so it can’t be that bad. I mean, it could be worse, right? There’s glass in the window… I didn’t have that at home. And toilets. Something else I didn’t have back home. And there’s an electric light too.”

“Miss Blossom, you are very brave. I commend you.”

“There’s a lot I had at home that ain’t here,” she whispered. “Like Colette. And Pa. And Aunt Beech. I had a bed filled with straw that I was fond of, even if it was pokey at times. Fresh straw was the pokiest. Once you slept on it for a while, it softened up a bit.”

“I think you will like Mister Riddle. Fiddle Riddle. He is a wizard of no small skill, and an accomplished fiddler. Why, he doesn’t actually need a fiddle to make music. He can produce music with vibratory friction and telekinesis. I’m not wholly sure of his method. Working in a library would do you good.”

“Mrs. Oleander is nice. I thought she was gonna be mean, but she’s actually nice. I understand why she’s so gruff though. At least, I think I do. She’s gotta look after the reputation of her business.”

“Yes.” Nut watched as Tater Blossom went over to investigate the hammock. “It is her husband’s reputation. He was quite a figure in the community. Much loved, and respected. He had impossible standards… and ponies… the community… every one, really, all of them watch Mrs. Oleander and wait for a mistake. For her to slip up. She wouldn’t sell the business, you see. Her husband was loved, but this property was coveted. So when she took over, she did so with others desperately wanting this business for themselves. This is a prime location, a much-desired bit of real estate, and so she has to maintain impeccable standards. It’s complicated.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I get the feeling that by running this place, she keeps the memory of her husband alive. Which has to be troubling for her. More so with Mister Riddle about.”


“She and Mister Riddle are fond of each other. Everypony knows it. But Mrs. Oleander is still grieving. And Mister Riddle is far too proper to do anything else but be kind and patient. Occasionally, she invites him over for tea, and in return, he shows her new exhibits that arrive in the library. It is quite sweet, really.”

Head tilted off to one side, Tater Blossom poked her hammock with her hoof.

“Take a shower,” he suggested, though this was more than mere suggestion. He also was quite in need of cleaning up. “Afterwards, we’ll go and get something to eat. There’s no kitchen here, and no pantry, so we’ll be taking most of our meals out. That makes us modern city dwellers, I’m told. Quite different from how life was in Canterlot, where I’d ring a bell and tell the maid I was in need of sustenance.”

“You left all of that,” she said, incredulous, “for this?”

“I did.” He roused his most convincing smile and put it on display.

“Well, if you can do it, I s’pose I can too.”

“That’s the spirit, Miss Blossom. Give adversity a bit of what for. Be fearless. But not cocky. We are dignified, gentle sorts. Cockiness does not become us. Now, go and shower, and I shall unpack. Your book is welcome in my bookshelf, where it may keep company with the others.”

“Thank you, Nut.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“No, really… thank you… for everything. I won’t disappoint you or Mrs. Oleander, I swear.”

Nodding once, Nut backed out of the door, and left to go unpack.

Author's Note:

No. I have no idea how this happened. It just did. Hail Eris, I guess?