• Published 8th Jul 2019
  • 665 Views, 310 Comments

The Rains of Vanhoover - kudzuhaiku

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

  • ...

You can never go home

Raindrops sparkled like a ransom of diamonds along the ship’s nacelle. ‘Twas a strange night, a foreboding night, as warm, balmy breezes blew in from the ocean and collided with cold winds blown down from up above. It made the airship bob in its moorings and Nut was eager to be off, because knew the volatility of the discordant winds. Whatever peculiar weather mischief happened this even, he had no desire to witness it.

Tater Blossom spent a moment lost in hesitation as the gangplank rocked and swayed beneath her. Left with no choice, Nut gave her a gentle shove, because she was holding up the others in line to board. When she resisted, he shoved just a little bit harder, but no less gentle, and she whimpered when she acquiesced to move forward.

He shared her concern; the structural integrity of the gangplank was sketchy, at best.

Once on deck, Tater Blossom relaxed a bit, but seemed rather nervous. This was a plain ship, not ostentatious in the slightest, with nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. It was a practical ship, one intended to service business ponies and no-frills tourists. As such, it had no first class, but it did boast a reasonable buffet and bar. The bar had some appeal, and Nut was thankful that practical business ponies demanded their drink.

Gulls made a ruckus along the rails, and Nut spent a moment in worry, concerned that his ward might go running off to chase them. But she did not; she was too busy checking out the overhead nacelle, which was a semi-rigid model. While the deck was wood, the keel was thoroughly modern steel and aluminium, with small frosted glass portholes along the side. The design lacked any sort of glamour, and Nut was rather a fan of the utilitarian style.

Looking out over the gull-infested rail, Nut could see Anvil Island. If he squinted, he could see the faint outline of home, the carriage house and the library. Mrs. Oleander was home, in her comfortable, narrow row house. Nut found himself thinking about a house… a home. A dwelling of some sort. He couldn’t live above a garage forever. But on an island, where space was at a premium, homes were expensive. Apartments were costly. There were houseboats, which he thought were ideal, but then you had to rent mooring, and the rates around here amounted to highway robbery.

Houseboats were somewhat dangerous when a squall came a calling.

“How much will supper cost?” asked Tater Blossom.

“It is included with our cabin,” he replied. “Hungry?”


“Oh my… I say... I suppose we should go and eat forthwith.”

“Just wonderin’, Nut… but what does forthwith mean, ‘xactly?”

“Posthaste,” he replied, keeping it short for the sake of brevity. Tonight, however, he was feeling generous, and so he offered up a second definition. “Expeditiously.”

“Would sayin’ hurry make you choke?” she asked.

“Indubitably,” he was quick to say, and he did so with a wink. “I do so enjoy daedal wordplay.”

“I enjoy stuffing my face… so let’s go do that.”

That was a clever word, and a brilliant bit of marketing… flotel. Upon seeing it, Nut figured it out right away. The airship was more or less a hotel that floated. Enjoy your stay on our well-appointed flotel. Every now and then, occasionally, and often by surprise, Nut found himself impressed by advertising. Sometimes, it showed a glimmer of intelligence.

The dining hall was serviceable but tacky. Everything was contoured plastic molded with soft curves, easy to clean and forever durable. Nut didn’t like plastic, but nothing could be done about it; he was living in the age of plastics and the offensive, tacky material would surely spread like a malignant cancer.

It bothered him that his ward was suitably wowed by the stuff.

Of particular offense was the wallpaper on the walls, which was meant to be sleek and modern, no doubt, but came across as cheap and chintzy. Said wallpaper happened to be covered with all manner of trivia, all printed in maddeningly tiny letters that were difficult to read. Which was the worst, really. Ignoring the walls proved difficult with such tiny letters, as one simply had to know what was said.

All in all, the dining hall was an assault upon the senses.

But the buffet bar was impressive. A little mix of everything, for all tastes. There were servers posted behind the bar to help those unable to help themselves, such as the earth ponies, who had some trouble with some of the dishes. Plucking cheese and crackers or ornate hors d'oeuvres off of a heated tray proved difficult for earth ponies.

Just a few years ago and this dining hall would not exist. It would have been all fine hardwoods, with brass and velvet brocade. Everything would have been heavy, stately, timeless. A flying palace. But times were rapidly changing. Rich hardwoods and brass gave way to plastic and glinty chrome. Wainscotting gave way to wallpaper emblazoned with maddening visual clutter made difficult to ignore. The reassuring comfort of dark-stained woods retreated to the overbright future of gleaming, blindingly white plastics. Where a grandfather clock might have once stood, a stately guardian standing watch in the corner, there was a wall-mounted clock made of black plastic, chrome, and glass.

It was the end of Equestria as Nut knew it.

Even the food had changed. While there were some fancier entrées, most of what was offered on the buffet was junk food, or cheap, overly processed things that could only be called food in the technical sense that they were edible in much the same way one could swallow a coin. Of particular offense were the wheat-meat nuggets and the curiously gelatinous textured vegetable protein foodstuffs masquerading as meat.

As a Vanhooverite, Nut ate meat. In moderation. Clam chowder was ubiquitous in the city, as was salmon chowder. It was cheap, plentiful, and had necessary proteins. Ideal, for when one could not afford to be picky. He even ate bacon on occasion, sweet bacon cured with smoke and the essence of maple. But the facon on the buffet was an abomination, a crime against nature, an unforgivable sin against the taste buds.

“Miss Blossom… might I inquire as to how many black bean cheeseburgers you have consumed?” Fearing the answer, one eyebrow arched while he waited for her to reply.

“I dunno,” she somehow managed to say around a mouthful of food. “I lost count.”

“We have to share a cabin…” His protest faded away into nothingness when it occurred to him that trying to dissuade her would do him no good. If there was abundant food, she would gorge herself, consequences be damned. Where all of this food she inhaled went remained a mystery, but he was absolutely certain that she had eaten the value of both of their boarding tickets.

She would keep going, no doubt.

He would see her exiled to the top bunk. Hot air rose, afterall. But would science save him? Doubtful. These were not even good black bean cheeseburgers, but mass-produced frozen fare reheated in a steamer. Not that it mattered, as his ward found them irresistible. It terrified him how much she ate and made him realise that he had no hopes of feeding her adequately with his current finances.

The murmur of voices and the sounds of eating all around him left Nut in a curious state of mind. He was thoughtful, perhaps a bit melancholy, but also in high spirits. Why? The reason was unknown. All things considered, he rather prefered the sound of rain to the muted sound pollution of too much conversation. It wasn’t even a matter of introversion—he just appreciated the quiet.

“I’m gettin’ more while the gettin’ is good,” his companion announced. “It’s all you can eat, and I can clear a larder. They won’t know what hit ‘em.”

Bemused, tickled, the muscles in his cheeks tightened as the corners of his mouth curled.

The night was an endless sea bespeckled with glittering gems. Tater Blossom had been coaxed out on the deck, and overwhelmed by her own desire to know more of the world around her, she now stood near the rail so that she might see better. Transfixed in quiet awe, her jaw slightly slack, her wondrous expression said more than entire libraries of dictionaries ever could.

At some point, Nut had forgotten the wonder of air travel. Somehow, it had become boring to him, a means to an end, a method of getting from one place to another. At what point had it ceased to be special? How could anything this magical become mundane? Just being near Tater Blossom had somehow allowed him to recapture this sense of magic, and he found himself quite overcome by it all.

“How is it we’re not fallin’?” she asked.

Before Nut could answer, another responded: “A lot of science, a little magic. There might be some luck involved somehow.”

An Abyssinian approached, a tall lithe creature wearing a long patchwork coat that flapped in the wind. She wore a patchwork flat cap as well, and a patchwork satchel was slung from her shoulder. Her dark face was obscured in the dark, which made her a touch mysterious. Of course, Tater Blossom stared, and Nut found himself embarrassed by his ward’s behaviour.

“I’ve never seen anything like you. I’m Tater Blossom. Can I have a look at you?”

With a dramatic flourish, the Abyssian bowed, her tail swished, and she raised one paw to wave as she replied, “I am flattered. Look all you wish. Bastet I am, she who mixes ointments. A doctor I am, though I do not currently have a license to practice in Equestria. You are a brave, curious little pony, aren’t you? Most are afraid of me.” She hunkered down, easily balanced, so that she might look Tater Blossom in the eye.

When Tater Blossom moved in to have a closer look, she was booped on the nose by the feline creature. Nut allowed himself a smile and was grateful for the kindness of gracious, gentle creatures. Not all Abyssinians were friendly sorts—some of them were quite catty—but this alchemist seemed gregarious.

The boop did nothing to discourage Tater Blossom’s inspection of the patchwork clad feline. Nut too, also had himself a better look, and noticed the peculiar bulge of a wand tucked into Bastet’s patchwork sash. Curious indeed. Perhaps even more curious was the dagger in her sleeve and the stiletto tucked inside her coat. While he was not alarmed, he was mildly surprised.

“I was recently in Somnambula, but Grogar’s agents made that place a bit too dangerous for my liking. They tried to conscript me. Refuse them I did, and trouble happened. So here I came, to Equestria, so that I might do a little sightseeing. Recently, I explored Luna Bay in Vanhoover.”

“I keep hearing that name…” Tater Blossom’s words could barely be heard over the wind.

“Grogar? Coming, he is. Gaining power. War will come to Equestria, if it hasn’t already. Panthera is consumed, as is Siam, Tabbytown, and soon, the rest will surrender as well. Home is lost. But hope is not.” Then, quite without warning, Bastet changed the subject. “A curious city Vanhoover is. A city of intellectuals. Not like Canterlot. Practical intellectuals. A city of invention and innovation. In all my travels, never have I seen its like.”

“Do you really think this Grogar fellow is a threat?” asked Tater Blossom.

Bastet did not reply right away. Hunkered down, her elbows resting upon her knees with an easy, supple, feline casualness, she took a moment to consider her words before she replied, “Grogar be no threat to the Two Sisters, so long as they are one. If they remain as one, with one mind, one vision, the world will survive. But if the Two Sisters become two again, doomed are we. No hope do we have.”

How delightfully cryptic and vague. There was something odd about this Abyssinian, but not something wrong. Nut could not sense ill-intent, or evil, or even danger—and his unique talent had a way of discerning hidden threats. Bastet was more than she was letting on, or perhaps he was paranoid. Or she just had exceptional dramatic flair, which seemed likely. The wand stunk of magic, as did the dagger and stiletto—and she herself, she too, reeked of magic. In fact, something about her patchwork was off, because now, for the first time, he noticed that the patches had a perplexing way of switching locations. Such a fascinating distraction.

But, she was kind. At the moment, she was stroking Tater Blossom’s ears with one paw while rubbing her neck with the other. As his ward seemed to be enjoying it, he did not object, though he was silently miffed how the larger bipedal species enjoyed petting little ponies. There was something off-putting about it, though he could not express what it was, not exactly.

“Who hurt you, little equine?”

“My family,” she replied, her voice strained to the point of reedy thinness. “Folk I thought loved me.”

“And what of the knight who stands with you?” Bastet asked.

“I request your pardon, Madam, but I am no knight,” he was quick to say.

“Pfft.” Bastet made a dismissive wave with her tail and she ignored Nut completely. Leaning in a little closer to Tater Blossom, she asked, “Tell me more about your travelling companion. Rescue you, did he, little equine?”

“Nut is… he’s more like my teacher. I’m his ward.”

“Ah, you see my confusion. Teacher, knight, no difference, really. Civilisation is defended by both.” Bastet held Tater Blossom’s head in her paws, gently cupping her cheeks, and the much larger Abyssinian looked down into the filly’s wide, mystified eyes. “Two patches I see. Already, many threads bind them. Two patches of much potential. Patches are scraps. Castaways. Things thrown aside. Sometimes, once grand things become patches. Great tapestries sometimes fall into ruin, and tatters they become. But no mistake… if you take patches of once great things, and bind them together, great things they become anew.”

Pulling one paw away from Tater Blossom’s face, Bastet gestured at Nut, who stood rigid a yard away. “That one is a scrap from a tapestry long-forgotten. He’s fallen away from the old, rotted thing. But he himself, he is a piece not yet bespoilt, a corner not given to cobwebs and ruin. This one, the knight-teacher, he remembers. He knows. A tapestry is a reminder of former glory. A history in stitches, and a story told in knots.”

“Who are you really?” asked Nut.

“A storyteller. One who tells tales. Bastet, I am. A traveller.” As she replied, she rubbed Tater Blossom’s round cheeks. Then, pulling her paws away, she stood up. “A sleepy kitty am I.” Reaching down, she gave the earth pony a final pat on the head and said, “You teach your teacher. Help him to remember.”

“Remember what?” Craning her head upwards, Tater Blossom wore a slack-jawed expression of confuzzlement.

“He’ll know.” Then, saying nothing else, the tall, thin Abyssinian strode away, her tail slashing the air behind her.

Perplexed, Nut watched her go and took a step closer to Tater Blossom. How queer, he thought to himself. Wizards… it didn’t matter the species, the whole lot of them were queer folk who dabbled a bit too much in the weirdness the world had to offer. Nothing about wizards made sense, especially their cryptic utterances that could be mistaken as prophesy by the simple-minded. While he did not deny that divination was an art, it was an art that flew in the face of science and all too often was used to exploit the gullible.

He was not gullible, yet he found himself intrigued.

“Are you a knight, Nut?”

“No.” He gave his head a vehement shake. “Absolutely not. I aspire to be a biologist.”

“You have an umbrella—”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Miss Blossom. Knights were not armed with umbrellas. Look, they no longer exist. They’re relics of our past. They did not survive the transition into modernity. Overly romanticised peacekeepers that roamed the edges of our feudal frontiers. Which we no longer have. Equestria is no longer a ramshackle collection of fiefdoms. We’re more of… a collection of city-states held together by the supreme authority of our monarchs. To be honest… I don’t even know what we are anymore. We’re not what we once were, and I don’t think we’ve become whatever it is we’re trying to be.”

“So Equestria is at that same awkward age that I’m stuck in?”

He snorted, but the analogy had a good enough fit. “Yes, Miss Blossom. Equestria is at that odd in-between stage. She is a tweenager.”

“That makes me feel better, Nut.”

“Well…”—his pause stretched for a time—“that makes me glad. Come… you’re starting to shiver. It’s time to go inside. We should think about going to bed, the morrow is sure to be a trying ordeal.”

“It is cold… but the night is pretty. I guess I’ll go inside and read for a bit.”

“That sounds ideal, Miss Blossom. Our cabin has delightfully comfortable chairs. Which is really a rather pleasant surprise, given the rest of the ship.”

When Tater Blossom turned to go, he followed, always her ever-dutiful escort.

The last words spoken by Tater Blossom before nodding off were, “I’m feelin’ kinda hungry. Do you think they’re still servin’ supper, Nut?” She now lay in blissful repose, lost to slumber. Nut watched her sleep, sometimes looking up from his notebook as he wrote down everything he could think of about her first few days in the city.

He spared no detail, no matter how unpleasant or embarrassing. She had insisted that all of her experiences be shared, from having to learn how a toilet worked to her painful panic attack. The words came easy now, they flowed from his pen with almost no thought on his part. Sometimes, he wrote in warm language, when speaking of friendship for example, and at other times, he used cold, clinical language, such as when he compared his ward to a herd animal integrating into a new herd.

Because, she was doing exactly that; the ancient biological drama of leaving one herd and joining another. Sure, things were different now, but not so different. They were talking animals with complex social structures, and sometimes convoluted social rituals—but still animals. Whole pages filled just like magic and he found that he had much to say.

He wrote of matriarchs in the herd structure, and mentioned Mrs. Oleander and Mrs. Maple. These were important maternal figures, and Miss Blossom had been made welcome by them. Up to this point, Nut hadn’t even thought of the fact that his social network was really just a complex herd structure comprised of inter-equine relationships.

And then, mid-stroke of his pen, it happened: he didn’t know where he stood within his own adopted herd structure. He’d departed from his noble herd and joined a common herd—but he did not lord over them. Most of his early struggles were centered around just fitting in, which, looking back, was quite difficult. He’d learned how to rub elbows with commoners, but he didn’t exactly fit in. Not that it mattered, he didn’t need to fit in—he was accepted. That was enough, really. Acceptance was fine.

But knowing that one had acceptance was not the same as knowing where one stood.

Uncertain of where he stood or his place, the ink ceased to flow. Suddenly beset by a cramp in his jaw, he was forced to try and relax his face. At some point, he’d grimaced, and then his face had stuck that way. When? How long ago? Mindful of inkblots, he pulled his pen away and then just sat there, staring at the wall.

A student, he decided, didn’t need a place. He was young, still sorting things out. There was time to establish himself. School would be finished, and with his doctorate completed, he could begin the great work of making a name for himself—all a means to an end so he could reach his final destination. The Gallopagos.

Which meant that any position he held would be temporary.

He raised his pen and then went cross-eyed trying to focus on the tip, which because of his farsightedness, he couldn’t. Self-exile did not hold much appeal. Knowing where he stood didn’t matter, it seemed, if every standing spot was stopgap to something else, a fugitive horizon forever retreating.

Were all friendships inherently fugacious?

Was his youth a detriment? Did everypony wrestle with his quandary, the idea that life was a series of progressions, all things were fleeting, impermanent, and that to move on was inevitable? For the sake of one’s goals, sacrifices had to be made. Even unpleasant ones. But to what end? For what purpose? If all of life was short-term relationships, transient conveniences, why bother at all with such distractions?

It bothered him that he didn’t have an answer.

Lowering his pen, he unkinked his eyes, focused on the far wall, and pulled out his pocketwatch. It was almost midnight. They’d been in the air for almost four hours. Troubled, his mind cluttered, he capped his pen, closed his notebook, and slipped his watch back into his pocket. It had been too long a day, too troubling, too trying.

A black pegasus skirted his thoughts and for a moment, he thought he heard cooing.

It was time for bed.

There were three hard thumps against the thin steel door followed by a voice shouting, “Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies to do inspection! We’re being boarded! Rise and shine, you lot!” A few seconds later, another door was pounded on, followed by, “Wake up, you sleepyheads! Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies to board! Welcome to Canterlot! Enjoy your stay and mind the rats!”


Something about a newspaper headline filtered into Nut’s consciousness.

It was a struggle to make sense of the world in his current state. Another door was pounded on, and there was another warning of imminent inspection. There was a commotion from the bunk above him as Tater Blossom thrashed about. She kicked her way free of her blankets, rolled over, and a second later, her hard hooves made a terrible racket as she landed upon the floor.

“I gotta widdle!” she announced. “If’n I hurry and go right now, I can avoid the crowd!”

Before he could say anything, she was gone, and he was left to marvel at how fast she could rise out of bed. Impressive, really. He was having some trouble. How long had he laid awake in his bunk last night, unable to sleep? And when he did sleep… something about his dreams troubled him, and even now as he struggled with consciousness, he had unsettling thoughts of noodles.

Why noodles?

There was a cafe in Canterlot that he used to frequent that had buckwheat noodles—but it did not compare to the noodle bars of Vanhoover. In his half-awake state, he realised that Canterlot was not home; he was a visitor here. Home… was elsewhere. In Vanhoover. He lay in bed, his mind scattered, and the fearful, fretful fleeting images of noodles noodling through his mind made him shiver.

“Immigrants and visitors over here please, and be prepared for an interview.” A yellow-vested pegasus mare with a pleasant, friendly smile prowled the deck. “No one is to be detained, just interviewed. You have nothing to worry about and nothing to fear. Thank you for visiting our fair city.”

Nut felt Tater Blossom press against him as the different travellers were herded into groups. It wasn’t quite dawn, ‘twas quite cold, and the deck of the ship was quite crowded. He spotted Bastet, and the kindly cat lady was trying to calm down others around her. What had happened since he’d left? After having been gone for about a year, he felt like a stranger in the city of his own birth.

“Excuse me,” he asked of another yellow-vested pegasus, this one a stallion, “but what is the purpose of detaining the immigrants? Surely this causes them undue distress.”

“I dunno,” the pegasus replied, his manner friendly, if a little clueless. “It has something to do with trying to track where diseases come from, how they travel, and where they enter Equestria. Look, I’m just doing my job. I board ships and deal with crowds.”

What had happened in Canterlot?

“To compensate you for your inconvenience, each of you will receive a meal ticket for a free breakfast in the cafe near the harbour. Signs are posted. You can’t miss it. Please, cooperate, it makes everything easier, and you get a full complimentary breakfast. Please form small, orderly groups. Immigrants and visitors over here, please. Business travellers right over there. Citizens returning to Canterlot, please gather near the fore. If you have questions, please ask a yellow-vested safety officer. We are here to serve.”

“Come, Miss Blossom. I believe we belong up front, near the fore. Surely this will be sorted out. I’m not sure what is going on, but we’ll know soon enough if we are patient.”

Clad in black, a rat catcher boarded the ship, appearing in a shower of teleportation sparkles. Broad-brimmed hat, strange birdlike mask, light armor, and a flowing rubberised cloak. The mask was, perhaps, the most unsettling thing about the rat catcher, bone white and disturbingly ghoulish.

“I am Doctor Needle,” the nightmarish figure said in the voice of a mechanical tyrannical locomotive. “Doctor Cactus Needle. I am what you would call a parasitologist. When we dock, you will meet my counterpart, Doctor Bertie Bunsen. She is a pathologist, she cheats at Scrabble, can’t cook, but is otherwise an excellent wife. I think you’ll like her. You will give her your full cooperation, and I know that you will do this thing I ask out of respect. All of you seem like good, decent cooperative types.”

“Is somepony sick?” somepony asked.

“We are unsure,” Doctor Needle replied. “That is what we are trying to ascertain. This is a random inspection. Alas, we don’t have the resources or ponypower to check every ship that comes in and out of Canterlot. This is routine. There is nothing to fear.”

The sound of the doctor’s mechanical respirator was unsettling to say the least.

“Doctor Bunsen might ask you for samples. She and her assistants will want to swab your mouths. Please, give her your kindness and cooperation. You are being compensated at great expense. Your cooperation ensures the safety and good health of all. You have many rights, but saying no or refusing is not one of them. Please, prepare yourself for orderly disembarkment.”

Down below, the harbour was strange, unfamiliar to Nut, and currently in a state of construction. Reconstruction? Renovation? What had happened while he was away? Since when had the Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies become a thing? Try as he might, he couldn’t remember any mention of it when he still lived here.

After the changeling invasion, Canterlot never quite recovered and just wasn’t the same…

Doctor Needle roamed the deck, his mask and mechanical respirator unsettling the passengers more than a little. They shied away from him, huddled together with one another, and were clearly relieved when he passed them by. Nut divided his attention, trying to get a better view of Canterlot while keeping one eye on the rat catcher.

“Nut, I’m scared.”

“Don’t be,” he replied. “Remember, we are dignified ponies, and we walk with our heads high.”

“We are dignified ponies,” Tater Blossom said. “Fear does not become us. Bein’ dignified ponies, we shall face danger with our wits and courage.”

“Outstanding, Miss Blossom. I shall reward you with ice cream at the first available opportunity.” Standing a little taller, Nut allowed himself a moment of proud, smug superiourity. “You remembered.”

“I didn’t think I would. Thanks.”

“Winds are spirited,” Doctor Needle remarked. “Docking might be bumpy. Please, do not panic. All is well. There is no cause for alarm. Welcome to Canterlot… please, enjoy your stay.”

Canterlot was now a strange, peculiar place, and Nut did not feel as though he was home. What had happened here? Perhaps he should have read the papers—even if they were mostly drivel. Surely some grain of truth existed to be found in all those printed lies. Ministry agents swarmed the ship, the dock, and the whole of the harbour. Another ship seemed to be in quarantine and was now a floating prison. Nut did not envy those poor passengers.

“You there,” a yellow-vested pegasus said to an impatient, snooty unicorn. “Been exposed to fleas or bedbugs recently? Have you lived in close proximity to rats? Had any recent illnesses?”

For some reason, Nut thought of the rat carcass he saw, the one fought over by gulls.

“Oh, perish the thought,” the unicorn snapped. “Why, the very idea… me, exposed to that? You must be kidding.”

“Just doing my job, sir.” The yellow-vested pegasus now seemed a little flintier. “So have you been exposed to any of these things?”

“No.” Shaking his head from side to side, the unicorn offered a clear answer. “I do not recollect being around such things, though I do suppose there were rats lurking unseen in Vanhoover. ‘Tis a disgusting, dirty, murky city, given to grime and slime. Everything is covered in mildew and the city smells horrendous. It rained the entirety of my trip. You’d think the rain would wash away the filth, but no. The rain itself is dirty and befouled.”

Nut wanted to contest this assertion, but couldn’t, and so resigned, he sighed.

“Very good, sir. Move along. Please be patient.”

“I was just given a whole bunch of shots. My hind-end is still sore.” Tater Blossom held her head high, but she trembled in the face of the masked rat catcher. “The doctor stuck me bunches of times and I go back in a few weeks.”

Doctor Bunsen’s mask bobbed up and down as she nodded her head. “Thanks. Now, mouth open, deep breath, and hold still.” The doctor held up a swab and sample container. “Don’t be scared, Miss. This won’t hurt.”

“Yer scary lookin’. You look like a bird.”

“Yeah, maybe a little. Now please, mouth open. We need to make this quick.”

Nut—who’d already been swabbed—watched and waited as his ward did as she was instructed. It was over in seconds, but still she trembled. This must be strange to her, and truth be told, it was strange to him as well. Canterlot was a city under siege, it seemed, and the disturbing stories in the papers proved true. All in all, learning the truth was quite unsettling.

“Thank you. Move along. Don’t block the line. Next!”

Before Tater Blossom could say anything, Nut pulled her along through the checkpoint. She was baffled, overwhelmed, and her head turned about every which way so that she might have a better view of her surroundings. Because she wasn’t paying attention, she stumbled, but did not fall. Nut kept her upright as they approached the next stop in the checkpoint.

“Please, stand apart,” a mare said. “Move in front of the white backdrop and wait for your photograph to be taken. Your photo will be used to create a visual registry of those who’ve entered the port of Canterlot. Please, hurry along. There’s a long line behind you.”

“Do as she says, Miss Blossom.”

“We’ll get seperated—”

“No, we will not. I’ll be close. Now do as she says. Everything will be fine.”

Hesitant, Tater Blossom stood frozen in place for a moment before she trudged over to the white backdrop. Nut did the same, and others too, moved to stand where they could be photographed. Four hooves were chalked on the ground as markers of where to stand, and Nut felt strange seeing the markers. What of griffons? Other travellers? Abyssinians?

There was a blinding flash as his picture was taken.

“Move along,” a voice said. “Please, keep the line moving. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

At last, it was over. Tater Blossom, shaken though she might be, was still more than willing to gobble down a free breakfast. It wasn’t an amazing breakfast, no sumptuous feast, but for a free breakfast it exceeded expectations. The cafe was crowded with inconvenienced travellers, many of whom were discussing all that had transpired.

“Cheer up,” an older waitress said as she poured more coffee. “All of this comes courtesy of Princess Celestia’s purse. Welcome to Canterlot.”

“I was born here,” Nut responded. “This city has grown strange during my absence. What has happened?”

“Well, the Dark Obelisk has been destroyed and rats attack the city almost daily.” The waitress paused in her duties, leaned over the table, and gave Tater Blossom a warm, sincere, waitressly smile. “How’s the eggs, hun?”

“Fine, thanks,” Tater Blossom managed to say around her mouthful of eggs.

“The Dark Obelisk has been destroyed… what of the Darks?”

“Most of ‘em are dead, and good riddance. Betrayed Equestria.” The waitress rolled her eyes while she sighed.

“What has happened while I was away?” Nut asked, though not expecting an answer. “I wonder what has become of Caliginous Dark, my etiquette teacher. He was a fine fellow. Very mannerly. I can’t imagine he and wrongdoing existing in the same sentence.”

“I wouldn’t know,” the waitress said as she sauntered off with her coffee pot.

Nut found himself in a strange place—and not just the city of his birth. His aversion to newspapers had somehow flanked him and now he was oblivious, ignorant even, of current events in Canterlot. Oh, he’d heard some of the stories of rats, but he’d dismissed them. Such tales seemed too fanciful, too improbable to be true. Canterlot was too well defended a city, and yet, here he was, faced with the awful truth.

What an awful thing to come home to.

He took a bite of food, but tasted nothing. There was no enthusiasm when he chewed, only the necessity of action, and when he swallowed, there was no satisfaction, no enjoyment. The second bite suffered the same fate, and in a daze, he ate his meal in a listless manner devoid of pleasure. It rather felt like he’d left home to go and live in another country, he could think of no other way to describe his current feelings.

After he swallowed, he looked up from his food and said to his ward, “Welcome to Canterlot… I suppose. We’ll be departing as soon as equinely possible.”

Posters littered estate walls and city sidewalks. Warnings to call for help, or to contact your neighborhood watch. Slogans for vigilance, catchy, pithy phrases that meant nothing but were still somehow inspiring. Jingoistic longing was on full display, with cries to arms and appeals to nationalistic fervour. Even worse were the implied suggestions that those not doing their part were somehow enemies of Equestria.

Canterlot had call boxes now, just like Vanhoover. With but a flip of a switch, help could be dispatched and the watch would arrive. The city seemed to be in transition. Where there were once stately, delicate, ornate gates and fences, there were now fortified protections, which Nut knew would do no good. Security was a placebo, a sugar pill, and all these expensive fortifications were just conspicuous consumption—a means to show off wealth.

A year had transformed this city into something unrecognisable.

Perhaps the changeling invasion had influenced the city more than he realised, more than he cared to admit. For surely, all of this change could not have happened just because of a few rats. For this much paranoia, fear, and doubt, the seeds had to have been already planted in fertile soil, and had waited for just the right conditions to grow. He passed by a fence overgrown with vicious, spiky brambles, and couldn’t help but feel that what he saw reflected the city at large.

Hope, like the birds of summer, had departed with the metaphorical fall.

Canterlot felt bleak, but Nut had an inkling that he might have some overreaction. He was stunned, shocked, and certainly not himself at the moment. Miss Blossom certainly seemed to be enjoying herself; she looked at everything in wide-eyed wonder, all with an expression of rapturous joy. She was having the time of her young life, while he… he was moping.

“Greetings, citizens!” a pegasus colt leading a squad said as they approached. “Have you seen trouble? Does anypony need assistance?”

“Might I ask who you are, and what your purpose is? I have only recently returned home, I am unaware of all that has changed.” Though it bothered him, Nut found himself intrigued by the squad of youths, all of whom wore silver sashes and bright blue caps.

The colt pulled ahead of his fellows, puffed up, and his stubby wings waggled against his sides. “We’re Awareness Scouts, and we’re doing our rounds before school. We’re doing our part! Every morning before school, we patrol our neighborhood and offer our assistance to any who might need it. Or squad is sponsored by Princess Luna and if we do good, she gives us candy and pep-talks.”

At least now, the bright blue caps made sense.

“And what, might I ask, is the procedure should you encounter trouble?” asked Nut.

“We stick together at all costs,” an earth pony filly replied. “As a unit, we move to the nearest call box and summon help. We are one! United!” When she stomped one hoof against the cobblestones, the others in the squad did the same.

Though Nut could not say how or why, things no longer seemed quite as bad. The squad was a tight-knit group, with all three tribes represented. These foals were getting some hooves-on experience with civic duty. They were active, involved, and dare he think it… impassioned. For some reason, Nut thought of Mister Riddle, and he wondered what the old librarian might think.

Perhaps it was time for Fiddle Riddle to return home as well.

Eager, bright-eyed, the pegasus colt stood waiting, his tiny wings twitching with anticipation.

“You’re doing a fine job,” Nut said in the most commanding manner he could muster. “House Eccentrica thanks you for your service.”

As one, the squad hoof-stomped again. With his wings too short for a proper salute, the pegasus colt raised one hoof as he snapped to attention. The rest of the squad did the same, though with a little less fervour and skill than their leader. Tater Blossom waved at them, and though he hesitated, Nut returned the respectful salute he’d been given.

“Go and do good,” Nut commanded. “And do well in school.”

“Right-o!” the colt barked with more than the necessary vim and vigour. “Off to do good we go. Forward… march!”

As the squad departed, a unicorn filly who brought up the rear waved goodbye…

As they hurried together through the streets, surrounded by stately, dignified homes, Tater Blossom asked, “What if those foals run into some kinda trouble? I mean, some of them are kinda young… like Colette’s age. Things ain’t safe, right?”

“You fail to understand the average Canterlot foal,” he replied. “Had such a squad existed back when I was a foal, I would have been among their number. No doubt they had a prodigy or two among their ranks… an earth pony with exceptional strength or a unicorn gifted with a dangerous, mind-boggling degree of magic. As for those who are normal, with normal being a varied and wondrous range, they are no-doubt learning to put their trust in those capable of protecting them.”

“Like me, with you.”

“Miss Blossom, there is nothing normal about you. Everything about you is exceptional.”

“That’s mighty kind of you to say, Nut.”

There wasn’t much traffic here in this part of Canterlot, the oldest part of the city. Tall, thin, graceful, slender towers rose skyward, and the air fairly crackled with magic. Each tower had a claustrophobic walled-off garden, a tiny, token yard tended by clever gardeners that made great use of whatever space was available. He had fond memories of his own miniscule garden, which was an ideal place for reading.

“Look, Miss Blossom. Right there. That tower… that one… that is where Twilight Sparkle and Shining Armor grew up.” He pointed at a striking seven-sided star-shaped tower with Susan. “When the sun shines on it at just the right angle, the white marble turns pink. Beautiful, is it not?”

“It’s huge,” was all that Tater Blossom could say.

“Steel yourself, Miss Blossom. The streets grow narrower here, and the garden walls taller. Eventually, it will be like traversing a maze of narrow hallways. You can’t even fit a wagon through the passages, and in some places, it is almost impossible for two ponies to walk abreast. As the city spread out from the epicenter, more of the Canterhorn was carved away. The first towers built were packed tight together.”

He drew a deep breath, then added, “Almost home. Not far to go now…”

Author's Note:

Prepare for a cavalcade of zany Eccentrics. Crackpots. Nutjobs. High-functioning insanity.

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