At midday, an open air market of Canterlot bustled with activity as ponies meandered between vendor carts laden with silks and jewelry, and loitered in front of irritated shopkeepers’ entranceways. Actually, to say ‘activity’ in such a context inspires an image of the exchange of goods and services, a changing between hooves of bits, and a healthy economy in full swing. There wasn't any of that.
Rather than the dynamics of free trade, there was inertia as the throngs in the shopping district filled the streets without emptying their pockets, perusing rather than purchasing, despite the protests and pitches of the irritated merchants. The fact of the matter was that at midday, particularly on a weekday, the ponies that had the bits to spend on luxury goods would be hard at work, just like the shopkeepers. So the streets of Canterlot were really just a glut of their bratty kids who either had nothing more productive to do on a lazy day of summer break, or, more likely, had many productive things that they had chosen to avoid doing.
That is, save for a single pegasus rambling aimlessly down the main avenue. He had a coat that looked like it had been rolled in ochre, a mane that ran down his neck like chocolate, and a red-and-white checkered bindle supported by a roughly hewn stick clamped securely in his mouth.
Thoroughly lost for the better part of the day and just now deciding to admit it, it was with a sigh that Storm Stunner resigned himself to the fact that he needed directions. Eyes leveled just above the spectrum of manes mixing about the street, he scanned the colored signposts and banners in search of an ideal location to ask. Above a humble storefront he spotted a wooden sign with an icon of a book carved into its enameled surface, and he figured that would be a good place to start. After all, the employees at a bookstore could probably navigate the city as well as they did the shelves, and if that weren't the case, they should at the least be able to point out where the maps were.
He struggled to squeeze past a trio of young ponies choking the entrance to the store who were engaged in mutual, halfhearted protests: they were appalled at the discourtesy the pony at the last store front had shown, rudely chasing off what he couldn’t immediately disprove as potential customers. They continued to loiter, discussing where that day they would not shop next, unaware of the obstacle they were creating. Storm managed a muffled ahem around the bindle, but the ponies either did not notice, or more likely did not care. Carefully attempting to step between them, he managed to catch one of them in the nose with the end of his stick. That caught their attention quicker than words ever could.
“Ow! Jeez dude, watch it with that thing! Haven’t you ever heard of saddlebags?” complained the smarted colt as he rubbed his snout. He added pegasus hobos to his mental list of complaints for the group.
Storm mumbled around the bindle stick what was presumably an apology and made his way inside.
Stepping into the store, he realized that the small facade visible from the main thoroughfare belied an interior that ran much deeper than he would have expected. Although the establishment may have been narrow, the length of it was impressive. Rows of oak bookshelves extended into the depths of the shop, crowded with books and periodicals of a number of different genres. Storm noticed sections marked horror, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, fiction—he could never understand why so many book stores included that last one.
In the dim light of an assortment of firefly lanterns arranged around the store, a number of ponies sat in front of the shelves, casually skimming through novels before replacing them, not always in their original locations.
Just to the left of the entranceway, a very disinterested looking white unicorn sat behind an oak counter, absentmindedly watching the pages of a hardcover turn in the glow of her horn. Through half-lidded eyes and with no shortage of disdain, she glanced up at the latest invader to her sanctuary. Storm took notice of her glare and smiled around his bindle. She groaned in response.
Great, another perv, she thought to herself. Still, she figured that she was obligated by business etiquette to give some sort of acknowledgment to this newest intruder.
“Restroom’s at the back and to the right; do me a favor and don’t drag any of the romance novels in with you.”
Storm dropped the bindle stick with a noisy clatter as his mouth went agape. Recomposing himself he bumbled, “Er, I don’t need to go at the moment, but, uh, thank you nevertheless. I’ll just have a look around a bit if that’s okay?”
He gambled on the grin again, this time without the stick in his mouth. It withered as the unicorn rolled her eyes, before returning to her book. Frowning, he gathered his bindle and what was left of his pride, before retreating into the shop.
To his surprise, after a cursory search of the store Storm could find nothing in the way of maps. He did manage to find a brightly colored miniature globe nestled somewhere in the back, though he decided it was a bit too general in its treatment of landmarks and locales, confident that there was more to the city than the large red star labelled 'Canterlot' implied.
Still, he figured the shopkeeper might be willing to assist him if he patronized her establishment. Setting his bindle near the counter, he trotted to a nearby rack at the right of the entrance, where a magazine cover caught his eye. Titled Equestria Weekly in bright turquoise letters, it advertised an exclusive interview with one of Princess Celestia’s royal guards, just beneath a smiling picture of the princess herself. He took the magazine between his lips and returned to the checkout counter to make his purchase, flopping it in front of the unicorn who looked more than a little surprised to be actually making a sale.
“How much do I owe you for this?” Storm asked as he undid his checkered bindle, nosing aside a few personal effects and fishing out a hemp coin purse.
“Um, five bits will cover it,” the unicorn said, nonplussed. It was a rare occasion that her store was used as other than a more au courant library, and she had been caught off guard.
Storm Stunner emptied enough for the purchase from his purse, tightened its drawstrings, and gingerly placed it along with the magazine into his bindle. Turning back towards the unicorn, he tried another smile. This time around he was met with some semblance of success: the unicorn actually gave a hint of a smile as well. Third time’s the charm, he thought, either that, or a little bit of patronage.
“Say, I’m pretty unfamiliar with this area. Would it be alright if I troubled you for some directions?” he ventured, his voice cloying with as much charm as he could muster. “I’ve been trying since the earlier part of this morning to find the Canterlot Royal Guard recruitment center and have had no luck whatsoever. I heard it was in the area?”
At the question, the unicorn’s smile evened into a straight line, as her countenance leveled into a blank stare. He stared back. At some point in time she blinked.
Maybe this was some kind of code?
“Whoa,” she eventually answered. Alright, actual words; that was a step up.
She continued, “When you say ‘it’s in the area,’ are you referring to Canterlot, or Equestria in general?”
The pegasus grimaced. “I take it I might’ve made a detour somewhere along the line...?”
“You must have,” the unicorn sighed. “The only recruitment center I can think of is about an hour’s trot away.”
Storm bit his lip at that unexpected bit of news. Admittedly, his interpretations of directions could at times be considered creative by those too kind to call them terrible, but he didn’t think he was that far off-track this time around. His head sank, and he let out a low groan. Seeing the pegasus (and more importantly customer) suddenly look so downtrodden, the shopkeeper couldn’t help but empathize.
“Tell you what: how about I walk you over there? You’ll probably find it a lot quicker than stopping for directions every other block,” she said, a commiserative smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
Storm looked towards the back of the store, where ponies continued hoofing through various bodies of text.
“Are you sure about that? I mean, it’s very kind of you, but what if one of those ponies wants to make a purchase?” he asked.
“They won’t,” the unicorn answered flatly. To her left, a pony sneezed into a paperback novel, before replacing it and moving on to another shelf.
“But what if somepony tries to rob this place while you’re gone?!” Storm continued, unable to believe that somepony he had just met was willing to abandon her shop to help some random stranger.
“Magical security system,” she replied as she tapped a hoof against her horn. “Only I can open the register, and not a single novella is leaving this place without getting rung up.”
“Huh, no kidding?" Storm said, surprised. "Unicorn magic is something, isn’t it? But I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised you’d go so far to assist somepony you don’t know.”
From the back of the shop, the sound of a number of books toppling from one of the shelves could be heard, followed by a raucous snort of laughter.
“Anything for my best customer,” the unicorn replied dryly.
Storm found himself being led by the unicorn he came to know as Nomde Plume through narrow alleyways, where bright swaths of fabric hung from clotheslines overhead, and down serpentine, cobblestone paths lined with vibrant flower beds. He had attempted making a mental map of the area while being led to the Royal Guard recruitment office, but that proved no easy task on hoof when one was used to the bird’s eye view. All hopes of making sense of the area were summarily dashed by the countless turns and bends he and his guide had taken. Furthermore, most of the architecture was a repetition of residential styles, confusing the pegasus even more. Giving up on any ambitions of cartography, Storm instead attempted conversation.
“Sho aye ‘oo you ‘ork ah a ook shore?”
“Excuse me?” Nomde paused and turned back towards Storm, quirking an eyebrow.
As Storm spat out the bindle stick, he winced. “Ow! I think I got a splinter…”
While his cheek deformed as he tried to remove the offending sliver with his tongue, Nomde’s eyebrow descended, as the other rose in turn and dutifully maintained her puzzled expression. After a few seconds, Storm spat out a small shaving of wood.
“I asked, ‘Why do you work at a book store?’ If it’s not too personal, of course.” Storm continued, decidedly ignoring the look that Nomde was giving him.
Her face softened into a simple smirk and she answered, “Inspiration. As a writer,” she nodded towards her flank, where a quill and ink well contrasted against the white of her coat, “it is invaluable to have at hoof an abundance of classic and contemporary literature, historical and geographical references, etcetera.”
Storm thought the unicorn’s shop could stand to have more of the geographical references, but he kept his mouth shut and considered her reasoning for a moment. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it seemed like a big hassle when there might be easier solutions available. Cocking his head to the side, he asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier just to go to the library?”
“Perhaps, but this way I don’t have to worry about finding that a book I want is out of stock, unavailable, or that the pages have been ripped out,” Nomde answered with the practice of one who had been asked that very same question many times before. She then added with a conspiratorial wink, “Plus this way, I can guarantee anything that I write doesn’t end up hidden away in the corner of some bottom shelf.”
“Hm. Very pragmatic.”
“And how about you, what business do you have at the recruitment offices?”
“What else but to join Her Majesty’s Royal Guard?” Storm preened, puffing out his chest in what he hoped was a masculine display.
“Huh. Wouldn’t have pegged you as the military type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Storm’s masculinity deflated.
“Well... On so many ponies you see cutie marks of bows and arrows, of swords and shields, of any number of martial instruments. Ponies like that I could see joining the Guard—” Nomde craned her head to the side, bringing Storm's flank and the object of her scrutiny into view, “—But a pair of shoes?”
Sure enough, prominently on Storm’s side were two shoes—baby-blue sneakers in fact—their laces undone and hanging sloppily to their sides. To the pegasus’s longtime ire, they were simply adorable.
“Shoes can mean tough! Like I’m ready to stomp trouble where it starts!” Storm said, the flush on his cheeks just barely visible beneath his dark pelt.
“They’ve got twinkling stars and moons on the side.” Nomde gestured nonchalantly with a hoof. As she had said, astral scenes played across each of the shoes. On the left shoe, two particularly bright stars and a tilted crescent moon formed what looked like a smiling face.
“W-well what’s in a cutie mark, anyways?!” Storm was feeling flustered, a slight quaver building in his voice. “It’s all a matter of interpretation!”
“I suppose you have a point,” the unicorn relented. It seemed that the poor guy was taking her ribbing a little harder than she had intended, and decided to shift the tone. “How did you get them, anyways?”
Storm bit his lip. “Actually, I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember one of the most important moments in a pony’s life?” Nomde said, incredulous.
“All I know is that whatever I did to get them ended with a blow to my head. I just remember waking up in a hospital bed with bandages wrapped around my brow, and these bad boys on my flank.”
Did he really just call them bad boys? Nomde bit her tongue to stifle a laugh that so desperately wanted to escape her lips. It managed to sneak out diplomatically enough in the form of a cough.
“And nopony witnessed the event?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Storm sighed.
“Well, I suppose it could mean a number of things. I’ve met ponies with the most abstract of cutie marks to represent their special talents,” Nomde said with a slight shrug. “It seems that half the unicorns in Canterlot have stars on their flanks, and Celestia knows they’re not all astronomers.”
“See, that’s what I like to think!” Storm leapt at Nomde’s concession. “Maybe the stars on mine mean that I should reach for the heavens, like joining the Royal Guard in service of the princesses!”
“Or maybe they mean you have bad taste in fashion,” Nomde teased as she pointed a hoof towards the checkered bindle stick lying next to the pegasus.
At this, Storm harumphed and once more clenched his bindle stick between his teeth, effectively ending the conversation. Nomde openly laughed at that; although it might’ve been a bit cruel, she couldn’t resist shooting off the quip. Besides, she could tell by the look in the pegasus’s eyes that he probably found it at least a little bit funny.
Eventually the two ponies reached their destination. Out of place in a line of spire-tipped ivory towers and gold-domed minarets, stood a small square building of grey, painted brick which had the emblems of the royal sisters painted above its entranceway. Close to the road and away from any potential offending shadows, an orange, marble sundial with copper corona flourishes displayed the time. A small brass placard to the right of the door confirmed it as the recruitment center for the Royal Guard. To most ponies, the ascetic facade might have seemed unmemorable and unimpressive, but to Storm it looked efficient. Of course, that may have been due to a bit of bias on his part.
Remembering to set down the bindle stick this time around, Storm turned to face Nomde.
“Thank you very much for your assistance, Nomde. There is no way I would’ve found this place on my own.”
“As I said, anything for my best customer. Good luck with the Guard, and maybe I’ll see you around once you get your uniform.” She gave Storm a friendly pat on his shoulder, “Although I might not recognize you in gold and white.”
“Will you be alright making the return trip to your store?” Storm asked. It had been a long walk coming and would be a long walk going. Although he didn’t relish the idea of reaching the finish line only to head back to the starting gates, the idea of making Nomde travel that distance alone didn’t sit well with him. Maybe he could pay for her taxi fare at the least.
In response, Nomde simply tapped her horn with a hoof, smiled a final time, and blinked out of sight in a flash of white. Rubbing his eyes to rid them of the spots from the sudden, blinding display, he couldn't help but chuckle. Unicorn magic was something else.