Cookie Pusher travels through the portal to visit Canterlot during Hearth’s-Warming for a little cultural exchange. Where will he go? What will he do? Ideas and suggestions from the readers guide his foot—er, hoofsteps on this holiday junket.
Cookie Pusher, recently appointed chargé d’affaires en pied to Equestria, travels through the portal to visit Canterlot during the Hearth’s-Warming season for a little cultural exchange. Where does he go? What does he do? Ideas and suggestions from the readers guide his foot—er, hoofsteps on this holiday junket.
This story stands on its own and does not require reading any other works.
I bounced and slid across a very hard, very cold polished-stone floor, spinning slowly to a halt amidst piles of books. After a moment to regain my breath, I groaned and flopped over to begin the arduous ascent to all four feet. Why the portal insisted on ejecting its users with such wild enthusiasm escaped me, and I toyed again with the notion of applying to receive hazard pay for these trips.
“Cook!” a familiar voice called. “I thought I heard the portal open. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow!”
Once I was sure my legs wouldn’t buckle under me, I turned to see Princess Twilight Sparkle crossing the room from one of the green-glazed doors, still ajar behind her. “I wasn’t expecting me until tomorrow too, Your Highness,” I explained ruefully, “but I had to swap around a few calendar items at the last minute thanks to the Powers That Be. I apologize for the change and the lack of warning.”
To my surprise, she hooked her jaw over my withers in an equine hug—even raising an arm to brush the elbow against my shoulder, making it a warmer gesture than a simple greeting; I reciprocated as best I could considering her greater height. “I guess I can understand that,” she allowed. “Goodness knows how many times I’ve had to gallop off all of a sudden because of a friendship problem or some royal duty.” She stepped back and eyed me. “And you know you don’t need to be so formal, Mister Cookie Pusher.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know I do—at least on first meeting. I’ve gotten one lecture on lèse-majesté already; I don’t care to get another.”
“We’re not in public, you know,” she pointed out as she turned to lead me out of the library.
“No, but it’s a good habit to maintain,” I riposted, following her on shiny-polished unshod hooves. By now I was moderately accustomed to my alternate form—somewhat small and slight compared to typical stallions, with stone-gray coat, crisp dark short-cropped mane and tail, and pale eyes—but I glanced back over my body to take stock of what I’d hauled through the magical gateway, since its interpretation of whether, and how, to translate inanimate objects traveling along could be strangely whimsical.
My high-end carbon-fiber and ripstop nylon luggage had become a pair of rugged but fine sailcloth panniers dyed an attractive deep, rich rust brown. My brightly colored knit scarf hadn’t changed at all, but my nylon and polyester parka had become an odd saddle-like contraption over a thick felted blanket, seemingly intended as both cold-weather garments and padding for the saddlebags. The rest of my clothing, naturally, had vanished aside from my glacier glasses.
The latter looked unexpectedly similar aside from allowance for my transformed cranial anatomy; the lenses even remained polarized, an anachronism for a country still in the midst of its Industrial Revolution. A corner of my mind surmised the portal passed them through unaltered because the polarization provided a real benefit over simple tinted glass, but wouldn’t be obvious to observers. My still-shaky levitation glowed its customary pale gray as I placed the sunglasses over my alicorn; the interior of Twilight’s castle . . . thing . . . tended to the dim side.
I caught up with her to pace side by side along one of the echoing corridors. “Happy Hearth’s-Warming, by the way, Twilight,” I wished her sincerely.
The princess giggled. “Happy Hearth’s-Warming, Cook. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it up in Canterlot.” She cleared her throat and continued in a more serious tone, “So Sunset didn’t come with you, hmm?”
I shook my head. “No, she was adamant about spending the holiday season with the CHS gang. It’s the first chance she’s had other than last year’s fiasco, and she’s determined to make the most of it. I can’t say I blame her, and I figured that was what she’d decide, but I had to make the offer, at least.”
Twilight nodded agreement, then sighed. “I wish I could play trusty native guide like we planned, then, but I can’t get away today, and I can’t very well ask my friends to drop what they’re doing. I’m sorry, Cook.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “I assumed I’d be on my own, and it’s not like I can’t ask for assistance if I need it.”
“Well, I’ll get you some maps and things before you go, at least.”
I stood on the broad stoop of the castle’s main entrance, outside the tall peaked doors still open and framing Twilight, Spike, and Starlight Glimmer. “I’ll be back tonight or tomorrow morning. Since this isn’t an official visit, I shouldn’t stay—or be away from my other duties—too long.”
“Have fun,” Twilight said brightly. Spike waved diffidently and Starlight warily; neither of them seemed entirely at ease with me. In the case of the former, I suspected it was simple unfamiliarity. The latter, of course, had experience of me in a temper, which doubtless colored her view. I regretted that, but there was no time now to redress the problem.
“Thanks—and thank you for the cash and the letter of credit.” The portal tended to be scrupulous about passing through, intact, legal instruments of all kinds, including currency and financial instruments. Eccentric as that was, it made good sense, but the portal and the world beyond it remained classified on both sides, which left financial exchanges in an awkward position. To work around that, the princesses and I had set up a reciprocal arrangement of checking accounts and lines of credit, periodically adjusted to remain in rough parity, to be drawn upon by cross-portal visitors. Sunset Shimmer received a small stipend as a fringe benefit, though it was kept carefully modest to encourage self-sufficiency on her part, and Twilight had authority to release funds in Equestria.
After a last few pleasantries I turned and descended the overly grand steps; the massive doors behind me closed against the winter cold with a soft but audible thump, leaving me to stroll along the broad metalled road connecting the looming arboreal-appearing structure to the nearby rural hamlet of Ponyville. Even this early in the morning, passersby were out and about, walking or trotting briskly, breath pluming, and I nodded or called out holiday wishes in occasional perfunctory greeting.
Mere minutes later I stood on the small platform before the modest station, purchasing a round-trip ticket on the limited express that ran through Ponyville to and from Canterlot. I asked for an extended expiration date for the return trip, which the clerk accommodated as the routine request it was. “Goin’ up to Canterlot, huh?” he asked breezily. “Seein’ family?”
“Well, no, but I’ve never been up there during Hearth’s-Warming,” I replied with perfect truth. “I’ve heard about it, though, and thought I’d go experience it for myself.”
The middle-aged earth stallion grinned. “Fair ’nough. Have a good time, Mister.”
I chuckled. “Thanks. Happy Hearth’s-Warming.”
“Same to you, feller.”
I turned and thumped across the heavy planks to stand with the other ponies waiting by the single track. A growing excitement, the like of which I hadn’t experienced in years, began to fill me. I couldn’t help but gawk unabashedly at my surroundings, my companions on the platform, and down the line for the smoke plume that would be the first sight of the scheduled train. For one day, at least, I wasn’t a diplomat, but a simple tourist. I was determined to play the part to the hilt and enjoy the day.
Steam hissed and billowed; steel groaned and squealed. Hooves by the hundred clattered on concrete and pavers, underlaid by the chimes of spellcasting and the whisper of feathers. Voices shouted, sang, laughed, echoing from the train shed’s glass and iron roof high overhead. The platforms were a living, breathing mass of ponies, their warm bodies steaming no less than the locomotives towering over them. The stamping and chuffing of the latter, in this unexpected juxtaposition, proved a deeply visceral reminder of their archaic nickname—“iron horses”.
I stood stock-still, stunned by the flood of sights and sounds—even scents—that was the Canterlot rail terminal. The jostling of the crowd around me itself betokened a bustling vitality, a metaphorical heartbeat. I felt a grin stretch across my face as I drew in a deep breath sharp with winter cold, redolent with metal and wood, spice and dust. I felt as if I’d stepped into a vintage picture postcard; I could hardly wait to see what it held.
After another few moments I began to pick my way across the platform to the station house, rubbernecking shamelessly all the way. Here and there among the ponies I caught my first sight of other denizens—a pair of griffins, a family of bison, a minotaur, a group of tall, graceful full-size horses. Canterlot might not be a large metropolis, but truly it was a city of the world.
I emerged from the station house onto a newfangled concrete apron thronged with ponies coming and going, or simply loitering for one reason or another. A transverse wrought-iron frame nearby supported a huge sheet-metal placard, more than a stallion-length wide and high, topped by an arched banner proclaiming WELCOME TO CANTERLOT in gold swash capitals. The brightly enameled sign bore a stylized, color-coded map of the city, complete with fanciful contour lines roughing out the slopes on which various districts were built. A ring of ponies around it peered up and pointed, chattering to each other, orienting themselves, and planning their further sojourns.
At the curb stood a line of bright yellow two-wheel cabs for hire, each hitched to a pony wearing a small peaked cap. The whole lot of them was in constant motion, newcomers steadily taking the places of departees. I was struck by the preponderance of hale and hearty earth stallions among the hacks, though a few sturdy, athletic earth mares and a couple of equally muscular unicorns were visible as well.
I hung back a moment, letting the flow of other folk pass around me, and glanced about. The street itself lay barely visible under the traffic, cobbled and crowned. A separate curb-height sidewalk kept pedestrians away from the heavier, slower, less maneuverable vehicular traffic.
Across the street stood a solid row of stone multi-story buildings. The architecture suggested they were less than a century old, making them relatively recent in an old country still in the midst of transforming from a traditional agrarian economy. From the look of it, the structures rose straight from the sidewalk’s outer edge. Their doors, prudently, were recessed in alcoves. Above the mansard roofs I caught glimpses of the city’s terraced upper reaches, among them the gleaming white towers and wings of the palace, all backed by the snowy slopes of the mountainside threaded with the dark skeins of waterfalls.
Having looked my fill, I started forward. When I was far enough from the station house I turned my head to see its clock tower—more from curiosity than anything else; the sun and my stomach suggested it was midmorning. I could spare only a moment for the clock, though, before reaching the row of cabs.
“Where to, sir?” a cheery voice asked. I turned back and couldn’t help smiling at the young earth stallion, just out of colthood, positively bursting with pride and energy as he stood tall in front of his shiny-new cab, polished to a fare-thee-well. His purples and blues looked a trifle odd with the yellow and checkered livery, but the fine wood-spoked wheel of his mark went perfectly with the vest and cap—not to mention the chromed coin-changer riveted to his oversize collar. Rear-view mirrors, the right one surmounted with what looked a giant stopwatch, were mounted on ingeniously designed, and heavily built, forks extending forward from the collar’s sides.
“A Happy Hearth’s-Warming to you, young fellow,” I greeted him. “That’s a very good question. I’m rather new to Canterlot, so I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for it.”
He lit up, clearly delighted by the implied return query. “Well! Are you here for business or pleasure, sir?”
I laughed, equally delighted by his infectious enthusiasm. “I’m just a tourist here to see the city dressed up for the holiday season.” My stomach chose that moment to punctuate my statement with an audible rumble.
The colt’s expression turned sly. “That’s a better answer than your words, good sir. Hop in! I think I have just the place for you.”
Won over by his upbeat demeanor, I did as he suggested and sat on the low padded bench. I let my forehooves rest on the woven-straw mat, still fresh and clean this early in the day, that covered the deck. The canted dashboard bore, on the side facing me, a stamped and painted plaque listing the rates, but for the nonce I spared it only a quick glance.
The cabbie reached up to tap a frog on a big knurled button protruding from the side of the timepiece; a broad, bright-red—well, not hand, I realized—began its sweep around the dial. After a brisk warning of “Here we go!” the small carriage jerked into motion, turning smartly into the steady flow of ponies, carts, wagons, and other conveyances.
After a few moments enjoying the scenery rolling by, I turned my attention back to the rate card. Interestingly, while the basic rate was by the minute, there was a surcharge for every change in elevation. Intrigued, I called out, “So how does the elevation fee work?”
“Every level has a number,” he called back, head raised to make his voice audible without turning his attention from the road. “I think it’s based on how many strides it is above the lowest parts of the city. So one neighborhood might be at level three, say, but another could be at level five. You’re lucky—we won’t have to change levels at all this trip—but if I had to go from five to three, then back to four, to get somewhere, you’d have to pay for three elevation changes. It’s hard work, and going downhill is just as bad as going up!”
I chuckled. “Does anypony ever cheat and change levels more than they need to?”
“Uh, sometimes,” the colt replied, “but not very often. It’s bad business for all of us in the long run, so if somepony’s caught doing it, he could lose his medallion.” He sounded a bit uncomfortable, so I desisted and went back to watching the city go by.
Stone and tile seemed to predominate. An astounding number of windows were arched to one degree or another. Buildings universally stood cheek by jowl, as befitted a very old city standing on very limited buildable land. A dusting of snow, of course, graced every surface that would support it, competing with the wreaths, garlands, and ribbons of the holiday; I made a mental note to look into the symbology behind the decorations and their relevance to the founding and the events leading up to it. At least one group of carolers stood in a small park surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence, their voices just reaching me over the considerable rumble of traffic.
In contrast to the snowy roofs, street furniture, trees, and lawns, the roads seemed mercifully free of slush and puddles. A glimpse of a hard-working city crew busily sweeping a side street explained the latter. Wet cobbles could be downright dangerous, I knew, and metalling wasn’t enough to keep a busy unpaved lane from turning to mud without constant attention.
At last the cab drew up before a pale polished-stone edifice with salmon-pink trim. A pylon over the entrance stoop held up a gigantic magenta torus swirled with lighter lines; the hole in its middle looked more than big enough for a stallion to jump through.
“Here we are, sir,” the cabbie told me in a voice filled with civic pride as he clouted the stopwatch button again. “Doughnut Joe’s! One of the best places in Canterlot for pastries and coffee. Why, I hear tell even Princess Twilight Sparkle favors it when she’s in town!”
As gravely as I could manage, I replied, “Well, if it’s good enough for Her Highness, it’s certainly good enough for me.” Carefully I stepped down from the cart and, after a brief discussion, levitated over payment and a hefty tip. The colt beamed and wished me a happy Hearth’s-Warming before speeding off to find his next fare.
I grinned and shook my head before looking both ways, crossing the street, and making my way up the small flight of steps. The arch-topped door swung open at the touch of my magic, and a wave of warm, moist, fragrant air greeted me as I entered. My stomach growled again in response.
“What’ll it be, bub?” The rather portly butterscotch-and-caramel unicorn grinned at me from across the low counter.
“Coffee,” I said decisively. “That’ll give me time to figure out what to eat.”
A hearty laugh greeted this sally. “You got it!” With an amiable nod the stallion turned, then stepped over to a gleaming steel urn. I grimaced slightly. Coffee from an urn, in my experience, tended to be stale if not downright unpleasant; I’d learned long since the single most important ingredient in good coffee is clean equipment. With a sigh I turned my attention to the diagonal racks of baked goods standing against the wall behind the counter. At least the pastries looked—and smelled—fresh and warm. My mouth watered.
“Here ya go. Made up yer mind yet?” A ceramic mug settled to the counter in front of me, steam rising through the glow of levitation. It reminded me of navy mugs I’d seen back home, for use on ships that may encounter heavy seas. Here, the reasons were different, but the result was the same—a simple unadorned shape lacking any handle, filled with black liquid.
Well, at least it smelled good. “Hmm. I think . . .” I lifted a hoof to point out three or four different items. “That should do it.”
Around me the morning rush seemed to be in full swing. Low padded stools, nearly all of them occupied as far as I could tell, surrounded the large round tables standing in rows on the checkerboard-tile floor. The broad, surprisingly airy dining hall was filled with pale winter sunlight from the tall peaked windows, voices from the crowd, and delectable aromas from the ovens and carafes. The jingle of the doorjamb bell fell with hardly a ripple into the commotion.
After paying I half-turned to eye the thronged room; even most of the counter stools were occupied. “Busy season, or is it always like this?”
Joe chuckled. “Well, I usually do a pretty good business in the morning, but Hearth’s-Warming always brings out the crowds.”
“That makes sense.” I looked down dubiously at the steaming mug held in my levitation glow.
“The urn’s washed every morning and afternoon,” my host commented knowingly. “And that batch is less than an hour old.”
“Oh, well, in that case—” I took a cautious sip, not wanting to scald my mouth on the black unadulterated brew, and blinked. “Okay, I’m convinced. The cabbie said this was one of the best places in Canterlot.” After a moment I added drolly, “Why, according to him, even Princess Twilight Sparkle comes here.”
The stallion beamed. “That’s good to hear. ’Course, all the cabbies know about this place.” His expression took on a reminiscent air. “Ms. Sparkle—I mean, Her Highness—used to come in all the time, along with that little dragon Spike and her other friends, when she was in school, but we don’t get to see her much these days.”
I turned back and made interested noises, inspiring him to regale me with a couple of anecdotes I was sure would have said princess writhing in embarrassment, though Joe’s tolerant amusement made it plain he simply regarded the incidents as foals being foals. I chuckled and shook my head at his description of a battered and disheveled herd of fillies, chastened and disappointed, filing in one evening. “They were lucky I was still here that late, y’know. Business gets to be pretty slack during the Gala, so half the time I close up early. And then Princess Celestia herself came in to check on ’em! All alone, no less, without any bodyguard.” He looked bemused, his pleasure at his ruler’s visit apparently warring with his misgivings over her lack of protection.
I grinned, then started as a soft voice sounded behind me, barely audible over the ambient rooba-rooba. “Um, excuse me, but I’d like to place an order, please.” The tone was diffident but a bit irritated, and I glanced over my shoulder as I sidled a step or two to get out of the way.
A bespectacled young unicorn mare stood there in a dark shapeless sweater set off by a newer-looking, more colorful scarf. I guessed she was about the same age as Twilight; certainly she bore a surprising resemblance to the new-minted royal—though I wondered how much of that was the scholarly air they had in common, since her yellows and oranges were very different from Twilight’s purples.
In my most courtly manner I bowed a little and said, “My apologies, Ms.—?”
Taken aback, she blinked at me. “. . . Uh, Moon Dancer.” She turned back to Joe and gave her order, her tone precise and concise, and he filled it on the fly.
When she finished, I put in, “So are you a regular here, Ms. Moon Dancer?” And one who probably got pretty much the same things every time, I’d have wagered.
She stared, as surprised as the first time I addressed her. “Well, I do come in here once in a while. Today I was going to go out for breakfast with some friends, but I got held up returning some books to the library.” With intriguing haste she added, “They promised we’d get breakfast tomorrow instead, though.” A complex play of emotions crossed her face. She would not, I suspected, do well at poker.
“Is the library that busy?” I asked idly, moved by an obscure impulse.
“They’re short-staffed right now because everypony wants time off during the Hearth’s-Warming season.” Her wary glance at me finally snapped my nagging sense of familiarity into focus. I’d seen a filly with the same light coat, thick heavy hornrim glasses, and thick heavy eyebrows—currently knotted in a doubtful frown—in a few of the tintypes and albumen prints scattered around Twilight’s polished-stone domicile.
I concealed my sudden realization in a sage nod and the most reassuring smile I could offer; I was a simple tourist, after all, hardly a pony who would be acquainted with Her Highness. “That does make sense. I imagine it’s true all over town, not just there.”
“Oh. I didn’t think of that.” Indeed, her head cocked and an ear twitched in thought. “Maybe I could have avoided the problem if I had.”
“Now, now.” I raised a forehoof to wave dismissively. “There’s always tomorrow, and you said they did promise. It happens to all of us. I had to change my schedule around too, or I would have been touring Canterlot tomorrow instead.”
“Oh, are you visiting?” she asked politely. More of her attention was on her just-arrived order, and payment therefor, than on me, I suspected.
“Just for the day, alas.” A slightly plaintive note, not at all assumed, crept into my voice. “I’d like to make the most of what little time I have, but to be honest, I’ve no idea how to go about it, and I’m afraid the change in schedule means I’m bereft of guidance.”
“That’s too bad.” Moon Dancer turned, bag and mug following, and squinted at me; in turn I put on my best ingenuously hopeful expression. “Well . . . I guess I could help you figure out an itinerary for the day.”
“I’d be very grateful,” I told her sincerely. “I do have some maps and pamphlets, if that would help.”
“That depends on how good they are.” Her tone was dry, and I couldn’t help chuckling.
“Mm-hm. Oh, you can’t miss that. What about? . . .” I watched, fascinated, as a completely absorbed Moon Dancer wielded a fountain pen with abandon. Despite her use of the second person, her muttering seemed barely to acknowledge my existence, let alone my presence. It was easy to see why she and Twilight got along so well; they were two peas in a pod.
Around us Joe’s continued busy. Moon Dancer’s civil, if preoccupied, request that a well-dressed middle-aged unicorn stallion shift over a seat had gotten us a pair of neighboring counter stools—though he did seem rather taken aback by the young mare’s temerity. Once seated, I had pulled from my panniers the sheaf of brochures provided by the princess and laid it carefully on the countertop. At least I didn’t bobble what most unicorns considered a simple exercise in levitation. I restrained a sigh of relief.
Initially Moon Dancer had responded with diffidence, leafing through the stack and mumbling some noncommittal comments. A few half-hearted and generic suggestions moved me to reply gently, “It’s the city I came to see, Ms. Moon Dancer. What’s special about it and the way it celebrates Hearth’s-Warming?”
“Oh.” Her brow furrowed again, in thought this time. “I guess you want to see local historical and cultural sites, not just the usual touristy things, then.”
“Exactly,” I congratulated her. “I’m much more interested in the way peo—ponies live and work, the places and things they think are special about their neighborhoods. If I can see tourist sights along the way, so much the better, but it’s not generally what I’m looking for.”
“Well . . . let me see that map there.”
“There!” The filly straighened with a pleased smile. I’d been half-afraid she’d end up with ink all over her nose from hunching so close to the papers by now covering the countertop in front of us both. The pen pirouetted through a last flourish, still enveloped in the light pink of her magic, before coming to rest on top of them.
Bemused, I scanned the abundantly scrawled-on map and the less marked-up pamphlets strewn around it. “Good heavens. I appreciate your thoroughness, Ms. Moon Dancer, but—did I mention I have only a day?”
Her smile widened. “Oh, that’s why I marked some places with stars! Those are the ones you really should see today. If you don’t have time for the rest, you can save them for another visit, right?”
“I . . . suppose so,” I said slowly. She had a point, though I hadn’t considered it closely before she brought it up explicitly. After all, I was likely to continue in my current assignment for at least a couple of years—longer if the Foreign Service couldn’t dredge up another officer possessing the mental flexibility to cope with being a temporary talking pony, though I thought that unlikely. And, of course, by that time Sunset and her friends would have reached their majorities, possibly even heading off to university, which probably would reduce my responsibilities in that area as well. In fact, one of the reasons I had only a day was the need to continue my efforts on their behalf toward grants, loans, and letters of recommendation.
My alicorn lit with its customary pale gray to sweep the scattered papers into a semblance of order. I began folding them, but proceeded slowly enough my companion began, with some impatience, to take over the task. For a moment I was afraid she’d comment on it, but she seemed oblivious, her manner that of someone who finishes everyone else’s sentences because she just can’t wait for them to get to the point. Diplomatically—how else?—I desisted and let her finish, only then gathering up the stack and replacing it in my pannier. “Well. Thank you again, Ms. Moon Dancer.”
Through a mouthful of pastry she assured me, “’S nuffin’. Don’ worry ’bout it.” With a gulp she swallowed. “Is this your first time in Canterlot?”
“No, I’ve been here a few times on business,” I told her breezily, “but this is the first chance I’ve had just to look around. Like I said, anywhere I travel, I really do prefer to get a local’s view. For Canterlot, though, that goes double, considering how important the city is, both to Equestria and to my work.”
“You came here all by yourself?” She blinked at me. “Wouldn’t that make it harder to, um, ‘get a local’s view’?”
“Well, yes, but my change in schedule knocked the original plan into a cocked hat.” My half-smile was rueful. “A trusty native guide was supposed to come with me, but she couldn’t get away today, so I had to go it alone.”
“That’s too bad,” she commiserated. “She used to live in Canterlot, then?”
“Yes indeed, though she moved away some time ago.” I waved a dismissive hoof. “It’s a long story, I’m afraid, and I suppose it really isn’t mine to tell.”
“Uh, okay.” After a moment’s groping for a new topic she brightened. “So what is it you do?”
“Negotiations, mostly. Lots of meetings. And reports. It’s good to get away from that, even if it’s just for a day.”
“That sounds . . .”
“Boring?” I interpolated politely. “It can be, but it’s rewarding in its own way, too.” I paused a beat. “And it pays well.”
She giggled. “Has anypony ever told you your sense of humor is terrible?”
“Not lately,” I admitted. “But it’s been known to happen.”
We spent a few more minutes in small talk, during which Moon Dancer polished off her breakfast and cooling coffee—I’d finished mine during her flurry of scribbling—and I managed to learn a little more about her while continuing to dodge around her return questions.
At last she sat up with an air of embarrassed realization. “Oh gosh. I guess I should let you get on with your tour, shouldn’t I?”
I grinned. “The day’s still young—but you’re right, and I’m sure Joe here would like us to leave these seats to new customers. Shall we go?”
Moon Dancer grinned and we both hopped down from our stools.
We said our farewells, with mutual wishes for a happy Hearth’s-Warming, on the sidewalk under the awning that, in part, supported the gigantic stylized doughnut overhead. After she turned and trotted off, head high and humming a carol under her breath, I watched for a moment with a smile. When she vanished around a corner, I pulled out the papers on which she’d lavished so much attention—and ink. Time to take a closer look at just what she’d wrought.
The carolers assaulted me abruptly in an ambush on the boulevard. Well, not me in particular; I just happened to be passing through when they seemingly rose out of the cobbles just outside the front doors of a public house. Between the rumble of wheels on pavement and the untrained—and possibly inebriated—voices raised to be audible over it, I couldn’t hear myself think. Moreover, they stood smack on the corner of a busy intersection, forming a knot in the pedestrian traffic that utterly snarled the progress of everypony around. I sighed and rolled my eyes, albeit with a wry grin. In fairness it was hard to blame them, and it wasn’t like I hadn’t encountered similar phenomena back home, so I stood patiently, waiting for the crowd to break up.
After a few minutes my brow furrowed in uncertainty as I felt a slight tugging and the tingle of nearby magic. I’d fallen into the habit of mostly ignoring the latter, the way one learns to disregard the brush of passersby and similar null stimuli, but this rang faint alarm bells—with good reason, as it turned out.
I looked over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a levitation aura surrounding a floating coin pouch scooting along only an inch or two off the pavement. It took only a moment to recognize the pouch as mine, but that was long enough for it to rise hastily and disappear into a small, tattered old pannier; the flap flopped down immediately, belt-like fastener cinching in place. The tiny unicorn filly to whom the panniers were attached spun in place and shot off like a radio-controlled car, leaving me agape at the sheer brass—and speed—of her actions. A blink and a breath later, I was galloping after her, hollering at the top of my lungs.
My own levitation efforts proved no more effective than flailing arms as my lack of experience, limited power, and the exertion and distraction of a dead run told against me. For her part, the skinny little foal completely ignored me, expertly bobbing and weaving through the crush even to the extent of darting out onto the vehicle lanes and back. Once she even bolted under a wagon lengthwise, almost losing me right then.
It seemed like forever, but couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes, before she laid over in a right-angle turn and disappeared into what turned out to be a warren of streets and alleys. It took only another minute or so for her to vanish entirely, leaving me to slow to a gradual halt, lost in the middle of the nearly deserted maze.
I sat on the curb, chest heaving, and tried to catch my breath; muscles trembled and a few traces of sweat tracked through my coat. My upward glance caught only multistory buildings looming over the narrow side street—little more than an alley—blocking my view of the ridgelines that otherwise might orient me. I shook my head, then hung it and closed my eyes. All that training, all those cautionary lectures, and still I’d been caught with my guard down like any common tourist. I’d never hear the end of this from Pin Stripes if she caught wind of it!
“I say, my good fellow, are you all—my word!” a vaguely familiar voice intruded. My eyes opened and I looked up, toward the busier thoroughfare not far away. Half-silhouetted against that more brightly lit backdrop was a pair of unicorns, a rather beefy stallion and a slender, graceful mare.
“Ah. Fancy Pants. Fleur. Hello.” My voice was faint with fatigue and chagrin.
“It is young Mister Cook.” A monocle rose in a golden aura to affix itself to a brow and cheek. “You’re rather far from the palace, I daresay. And I don’t recall hearing anything of official doings involving your good offices.” The latter comment was half question.
I sighed. “That’s because there aren’t any. I’m just a tourist today.” My teeth ground for a moment and I looked down at the cobblestones again. “And like any idiot tourist, I let my pocket get picked.”
“Well now, we can’t have that, now can we?” I heard approaching hooves. “Come, come, Mister Cook. Let us put this misfortune to rights.”
I glanced up again, brows furrowed. “Well . . . I suppose I can cash in a letter of credit.”
Fancy Pants waved a forehoof. “Nonsense! We shall replace your missing funds in toto, my good sir. A good host should do nothing less.” Beside him Fleur Dis Lee nodded with a slight smile of tolerant amusement.
I caught myself gawking. “I can’t possibly—”
“Tut tut!” The stallion drew himself up with a mock-haughty air. “I shall brook no objections, Mister Cook.”
A short walk later the three of us stood in a tall, broad echoing chamber. A scattering of pillars, writing tables, and counters surrounded us, along with a dozen or so other ponies and even a griffin, most of them speaking in low tones with tellers. The staid stone and wood décor was livened with a few tastefully restrained pine-bough garlands set off by ribbons; the scent, more than the sight, proclaimed the holiday season.
“If we were so inclined, we could petition the exchequer for recompense—but truly, Mister Cook, it’s a mere trifle,” Fleur assured me in her throaty voice. After a beat she eyed me sidelong and added, “And I would wager a good deal more you’d prefer the affair not come to the attention of the princesses.”
Caught out, I blushed hotly. “Well—no, to tell the truth. I’m not even sure I want to report it to the law, now that I think about it.”
“Your kindness does you credit, my fine fellow,” Fancy Pants interjected shrewdly.
“Well, ’tis the season.” I shrugged uneasily. “Besides, I don’t want to spend the day swearing out a complaint. Or deal with the proceedings if they were to catch her.”
“No doubt,” he replied easily. “Ah, here we go.” He swept an arm toward a just-vacated teller window.
The transaction went quickly enough to remind me just how many layers of bureaucracy separated the digital age in which I grew up from this burgeoning industrial era, where a person’s word was his bond and a signature held real power. Just like that, Fancy Pants presented me a roll of coins with a flourish and a small bow, only slightly humorous. “All’s well that ends well,” he affirmed as my levitation took up the roll and bore it to me.
“Thank you, sir,” I told him humbly. “I am in your debt.”
“Nonsense!” he declared. “I could hardly allow this blemish on our city’s and our country’s honor to go unaddressed.” After a moment, though, he glanced around surreptitiously and leaned in to add sotto voce, “Still, I cannot but acknowledge, however much I love them both, we do not live in a paradise. I apologize for the ill treatment you’ve received, both to you and to your nation.”
“By comparison—” I started.
“Indeed. By comparison ours is a land of abundance and harmony, but it is not perfect.” Fancy Pants paused in thought before speaking more slowly as he led us in an amble toward the double doors. “For the most part we enjoy peaceful relations with other realms. We control the elements and the earth, assuring a reliable and plentiful supply of food, and our magic helps to keep us in good health or to return us to it in the wake of illness or injury. We have not suffered dire privation since the Windigo Winter, and we celebrate this holiday to remind us how very different—and how very difficult—life could be. Alas, I fear all too many ponies today do not take those lessons to heart, for lack of personal experience with their consequences.”
“The burned foot teaches best,” Fleur interpolated in an unwontedly serious tone as we exited back onto the street.
I reflected on their comments. How much less difficult would my own world’s history have been without unruly weather, bad harvests, and all the other pain inflicted by a fickle and unmanageable Mother Nature? Yet . . . even if they were ruled over by a living memory and conscience extending over centuries if not millennia, the ponies too were ordinary mortals subject to their own and their fellows’ flaws and shortcomings. That filly might not be starving, but she might not be thriving either.
“It’s a complicated world,” I finally mused.
“Yes.” The sober simplicity of Fancy Pants’ reply needed no amplification.
We parted ways outside the bank building after further well-wishes. I was left to ruminate on a few suggestions that differed slightly, and intriguingly, from Moon Dancer’s . . . as well as the incident just past. If I’d wanted a closer view of the city’s daily life, well, how could I complain when I received it? “Be careful what you wish for,” the old saying goes. “You may get it.”
It was in this solemn mood I hailed another cab. I knew what my next stop would be.
“I can tell you she’s not one of ours.” The plump earth mare, I suspected, was nettled by the assumptions she perceived behind my inquiry, but was trying hard to remain civil. “Frankly, I’ve no idea who she could be. Canterlot may not be Manehattan, but neither is it Ponyville.”
We ambled side by side down the broad, echoing flagstone corridor, the ineffable patina of centuries clinging to its every surface. The faint yells and shrieks of foals at play filtered to us through the tall windows from the expansive yard outside, but the hallway itself was quiet, only the occasional staff member passing by. Finally she sighed. “Mister . . . Cook, was it? The mere fact you came here to relate your tale tells me you have leapt to some precipitous conclusions.”
“I see.” My reply was carefully polite.
“I’m not sure you do.” The matron was silent a moment. “Perhaps she is an orphan, but that’s no guarantee she has any connection to an establishment like this one, even a . . . less reputable one. Do you propose to visit them all?” She didn’t bother to wait for a reply before going on. “More likely she’s not. If her family’s poor or neglectful or both, she may be doing her level best to contribute or to win approval. If her family’s not poor, she may do it for the thrill or to be rebellious. I will grant she may indeed be part of a criminal ring; they often prefer foals who don’t have their marks yet and thus are less easy to identify. Shall I go on?” This time she did wait, eyeing me sidelong with a cool expression.
“No, ma’am. In truth, I thought to ask more because I felt you and your staff might have a better view of conditions in the city than I, a visitor, possibly could have,” I answered contritely. “Moreover, I wanted to alert some sort of authority without bringing the law into the matter. I apologize if I gave you any other impression.”
“Hmph.” Mollified, but again trying not to show it. She looked me up and down. “I’d lay odds you are not married, much less a father, young sir.”
My ears laid back, which was all the reply she needed. She let out a breath.
“Very well, Mister Cook. You may continue on your way, secure in the knowledge you’ve done your good deed for the day. I wish you a good Hearth’s-Warming. I shall call for an escort to convey you to the front entrance.”
Minutes later I found myself back on the busy street. “That went well,” I muttered to myself, then sighed and shook my head. The matron was guilty of a little conclusion-jumping herself, putting the worst interpretation on my anecdote and questions—but then, I supposed mine was not the first she’d heard in her career. It was easy to imagine the subject becoming something of a hot-button topic for anyone, or anypony, in the same field.
Ah well. However barbed her observation that I’d done my duty, it was essentially correct. Onward.
The vale was peaceful under the bright late-morning sky—what I’d heard a pilot once describe as “severe clear”—as I paced along a footpath delineated by brightly painted wands rising at intervals from the snow. The latter, along with the gravel under it, crunched softly beneath my feet, only slightly louder than the murmurs from a scattering of other visitors carried to me on the whisper of a shockingly cold winter breeze. Once in a while I paused, more or less randomly, to gaze at one monument or another.
A pegasus groundskeeper on his rounds gave me a curious look, which I answered with a silent but polite nod; this was not a suitable setting for casual holiday wishes. It was, however, a fine and lovely place, glorious and humbling in more ways than one. The breathtaking panorama of mountains, a few of the city’s and palace’s spires rising above the valley’s edge, and distant lowlands seemed altogether fitting for the neat ranks and files of stones marking one last formation for the high-flying pegasus soldiers whose marks, names, ranks, and dates adorned their upright polished faces. The rows stretched across the rolling landscape, dark against the bright snow, surrounded by yet unused ground and larger, albeit simple and spare, crypts.
Below, in the heart of the mountain, lay gorgeous crystalline caverns shaped and burnished to host their unicorn comrades; earth ponies occupied the terraced mountain slopes between. It was a unique and strangely moving arrangement for a military cemetery, at once celebrating both the unity on which their country was founded and the differences that made each tribe special.
The site was, however, singularly unrepresented among both the marks Moon Dancer provided and the brochures Twilight supplied. I doubted it even occurred to the former; conversely, I suspected the latter of considering, but rejecting, it. Someday, I mused, the sharply intelligent and perceptive Twilight Sparkle would be a formidable monarch—but she still had some way to go before that day arrived. No, I had Fancy Pants and Fleur to thank for the recommendation to visit this hallowed ground. They divined my true intent even more quickly and completely than either of the two fillies, but then they were older than the princess and, unlike her friend, knew my background thanks to their connections to the court.
My trail wended around a small shoulder of ridgeline to an outlying arm of the pegasus grounds, on its way to another set of switchbacks down to the earth-pony terraces; I looked into the distance and spotted a small family approaching from those switchbacks. A bluff earth stallion strode easily despite appearing on the cusp between middle and elder age, his earth-toned coat and mane graying. Close beside him walked a smaller and younger earth mare, solid but graceful and a weathered-bronze color all over. Bundled into the foal-carrier strapped to her back was a baby unicorn, black as night with lively green eyes, clutching a rag doll for dear life against the stiff wind plucking at the white wings and pastel mane that bore a suspicious resemblance to a certain solar diarch. My brows rose and my ears perked; as I understood it, offspring of a different tribe, while hardly unique, was unusual enough to be notable. The couple’s attention seemed wholly on each other and their baby, and I couldn’t help smiling at their tender regard.
Abruptly my smile melted way. The unicorn finally lost the tug-of-war against the elements and, as the doll tumbled through the air toward the nearby lip and the open sky beyond, put up an astonishingly loud screech. I tensed reflexively, even knowing how useless any effort on my part would be, and watched helplessly. The stallion swung around, mouth open; the mare turned to canter straight for the cliff, foal and all. In mid-step her whole form rippled and shimmered, and a moment later glittering insectoid wings spread to catch the same brisk winds.
It wasn’t until the brightly colored changeling returned to the path, doll held firmly in a green levitation aura, that they caught sight of me. Instantly the mother resumed her unassuming earth-pony form—letting the doll drop to the snow-covered ground—and dodged behind the father, who drew himself up and gave me a stern stare. The unicorn’s sobbing for the abandoned toy was the only sound any of us made as I approached slowly. I glanced down, levitated up the doll, and returned it to its owner without a word before continuing past them toward the track’s continuation downslope. Just audible over the whistle of the breeze were the words, “Thankee kindly, Mister. I reckon we ain’t gotta worry none.”
Without looking back, I nodded in agreement. My lips were sealed. As far as I was concerned, not only was it none of my business, but anypony could see how devoted the little family was. Only a brute would do anything to jeopardize their happiness, especially in this of all seasons.
I’d thought the carolers wowing and fluttering over street noise was bad. I was wrong.
Hawkers hollered for attention in despite of hooves clattering, conversation rumbling, and general work noises. The mélange of smells from every conceivable sort of vendor clouted my nose as aggressively as the racket pummeled my ears. At least I’d discovered why the weather was scheduled to be so clear and sharp: it was a market day.
Peak Place Market, despite its name, lay near the very bottom of the city. The sprawling open-air plaza was crammed with stalls of every sort. Simple pavilions hearkened back to its original purpose as a more or less standard farmers’ market. At the other extreme stood substantial shedlike buildings that, I suspected, barely skirted regulations banning permanent structures and almost certainly never actually were dismantled. Crowds shuffled through the narrow winding alleyways formed by the higgledy-piggledy clumps and strings of booths. I entertained a brief fantasy of hauling a fire marshal through the portal just to watch his—or her—reaction. After a moment I abandoned the thought reluctantly; I wouldn’t wish an aneurysm on anyone.
I’d seen similar bazaars and marketplaces in my own world, many retaining only the barest traces of their roots. The process was much less advanced here . . . but give it another century and a half, and I could see it becoming just the same sort of tourist-driven location, as transportation and communication continued to improve on the railroads and telegraphy currently common across the country. Already, I noticed, sellers of dry goods or household products, offering the convenience of one-stop shopping, had made inroads into the ranks of farmers, preparers, and other food-related concerns—I even caught a glimpse of a fishmonger, though I doubted there were many of them. If nothing else, Canterlot was too far inland for much saltwater fish to make it even by airship, and the limited local supply of freshwater fish had to serve the whole region, not just the city.
A slightly wrinkled trifold map of the marketplace, engraved artwork rotary-printed in black and red on cheap wood-pulp paper, had been among the brochures provided by Twilight. Swept up by accident in her haste? Added deliberately? I had no idea, but it was easy to imagine her as a wide-eyed young filly in tow of her parents and bored older brother, as the couple shopped for groceries and sundries among the stands in a world as yet innocent of supermarkets and only beginning to experience the joys of national brands. I’d made sure to pick up a new map at the checkpoint through which I entered, since I had a hunch the dog-eared decade-old copy was by now pretty much out of date.
Certainly the market was the very epitome of the type of sights I’d come to see—a telling peek at the city and its inhabitants as well as worthwhile visiting in its own right. Moreover, I couldn’t imagine a better place to find lunch. This would be far from my first meal as a pony, but it was my first opporunity to pick and choose, rather than eat what was set before me; I already had begun to notice similarities and differences in my tastes and wants, brought out by my directionless drifting. Despite my love of seafood back home, the fishmonger didn’t attract me. The bakers did, out of all proportion to my normally moderate interest in baked goods, sweet or savory. Still, the variances weren’t vast or jarring, and it was hard to tell how much was due to my hunger of the moment and how much represented more fundamental trends.
I wandered hither and yon, combining a general look around with staking out possibilities for good eats. Another benefit of this market, I mused as I turned my head to study a display of positively delicious-looking pot pies, was its distance from the palace and the folk there who knew me by sight. My thoughts broke off suddenly as I thumped solidly into another body and fell, limbs flailing, to the packed dirt. When my head stopped spinning and I could look around again, I caught sight of a white coat and chocolate-brown mane. The big blued-steel eyeglasses accompanying them had been knocked askew—but alas not completely off the dainty nose on which they perched.
“Mister . . . Cook?” a puzzled and all too familiar feminine voice inquired.
I managed not to blurt out “What are you doing here?” as the two of us scrambled back to our feet—at least my training was good for that much. What did fall out of my mouth was almost as bad, though, and I hid a wince.
“Ms. Inkwell. You’re rather far from the palace.”
She blinked at me for a moment, and I almost could hear the gears turning in her head as she straightened her glasses and her brain caught up. “I could say the same of you, Mister Cook.”
“Yes, well . . . yes. Well.” I looked around, but there was no escape.
“And I certainly don’t recall your name appearing on any schedule for today.” Considering she was one of the staffers responsible for maintaining said schedules, she would know.
“No, it doesn’t.” I felt oddly paralyzed as I stared at the shapely brown eyes framed by the spectacles.
“Yet here you are.” The pause that followed was pointedly expectant.
I sighed and sagged a little. “Here I am. I just wanted to spend a day touring the city without any kind of official notice or, ah, guidance, and the holiday season seemed like a good opportunity. Now, though—”
A small ladylike snort interrupted me, and I looked up from my hangdog posture at a young mare unsuccessfully hiding a smirk behind a hoof. “Now you’ve been found out. The jig is up, as they say.” When I looked away again, she snickered, though not unkindly. “Now, now, Mister Cook. As it happens I too have the day off, so just as you are simply Cook today, I am simply Raven. I shan’t return to the palace until the morning, so your secret is safe until then, at least.” Indeed, there was no sign of the collar and cravat I normally saw her wearing; instead she was, like most passersby, bundled up and bearing capacious shopping panniers. She cocked her head and studied me, her smile fading somewhat. “And maybe longer. If Their Highnesses ask, I can’t very well refuse to answer, but if they do not ask . . .”
“. . . access to the roads and waterways at the foot of the mountain,” Raven lectured pleasantly. “After all, this was long before the railroads came in, much less airships—although these days there is a rail yard nearby. Not a very big one, I’m told, but it does serve the river docks as well as the market here.”
I listened absently, my attention as much on our surroundings—and the speaker—as on her words. She wove through the crowds purposefully though without haste, bound for some yet unnamed destination in the wake of my further explication. As we ambled, I nodded and made encouraging noises at appropriate intervals to keep the tap flowing with a gentle stream of genuinely interesting and occasionally fascinating history and anecdotes.
After several minutes we emerged from a winding aisle onto a roughly circular open space ringed by more semipermanent kiosks and peppered with the low round tables and stools favored by the equine population. With my first breath of the myriad aromas battling for dominance in the cool air I began salivating, and I glanced up and around at the signs surmounting the host of service counters.
Apparently this little oasis specialized in hot and ready meals, a precursor to the slickly developed fast food industry to which I was more accustomed. Nearly all the signs were mostly or entirely pictorial, I noted, as was typical throughout most of history before mass literacy—which in this industrializing land was only a few generations old and still was hardly universal. Even the simple, spare menus and the accompanying prices were brightly painted and sometimes rather fanciful iconic pictures.
“Oh dear.” Raven had been silent for a minute or so, and the dismay in her voice jarred me back to attentiveness. “I hadn’t expected it to be this busy.” A pocket watch levitated from somewhere in the depths of her coat. “Well, it is the height of the lunch hour. I suppose that explains it.” She sighed. “Let’s see if we can find a table.”
We quartered the dining area twice before swooping down on a table for two just as it was vacated. My companion settled on one of the stools with a distinct air of relief, then made a shooing motion with a hoof. “Go fetch your lunch. I’ll get mine when you return.”
As it turns out, hay fries have nothing—well, very little—to do with fried hay. I wasn’t certain whether to be relieved or disappointed by this discovery. My confounded expression when I returned to the small round table where Raven waited inspired her to a fit of uninhibited snickers. When I explained its origin, her laughter only redoubled; she still hadn’t mastered it fully when she departed in turn, leaving me to defend the table against the press of newcomers desperately searching for seating during the frantically busy lunch hour.
I regarded the wooden tray and everything arrayed on it for a long moment, resisting the temptation to dig in immediately. In place of a fork lay a giant toothpick or small skewer, depending on one’s viewpoint, of scorched wood. Nothing resembling a knife or spoon accompanied it, and after a moment’s puzzlement I nodded. With polymer plastics decades in the future, no available material was cheap but durable enough to mass-produce throwaway utensils equal to the task of cutting or scooping foodstuffs. No doubt a patron was expected to provide his own knife. As for a spoon, well . . .
A hearty minestrone-like soup of vegetables, tomato, and pasta, sprinkled with shredded cheese, steamed gently in a container of plain, albeit heavy-duty, waxed paper. Too wide and shallow to be called a cup, but taller and narrower than a true bowl, it was just right for drinking with the near-prehensile lips and broad snout of an equine. At the moment the soup probably was just short of molten, but it certainly smelled tasty and as far as I could tell no differently than it would to my human nose and brain. For the most part I no longer even bothered to consider such existential questions behind the transformation; they were effectively moot, though I could imagine university philosophy majors debating them with great enthusiasm before arriving at the same disappointing chicken-or-egg conclusion.
A sachet-like wrapping of grease-stained newsprint left over from yesterday’s Canterlot daily, bound up with simple twine, held a generous helping of the aforementioned hay fries. Untying the bow knot took me a bit longer than it should, but once the sheets opened like a blossom, a moist, fragrant cloud puffed up from the pile of long, thin slices that indeed bore a vague resemblance to a haystack, right down to the golden color. More than anything else in my experience, the dish resembled shoestring potatoes fried to a sharper crisp. I levitated the skewer and tried to spear a single slice, only to break it in two. I sighed and glanced around, then put down the skewer and surreptitiously lifted both pieces to my mouth. They were hot and delicious as only salted deep-fried potato can be.
By the time my tablemate returned from the long queues and set down her own tray, half the fries had disappeared—though I’d managed to hold off on the slowly cooling soup. Her lips twitched with renewed amusement when she saw the inroads I’d made and the streaks through the puddle of garum near one corner of the paper, but said only, “They are good, aren’t they?”
I nodded agreement, caught in the midst of chewing another few fries, then swallowed in a gulp. Her gaze tracked from my face to my tray; a sudden twinkle told me she’d noticed the skewer sitting unused. “There’s a trick to it,” she informed me with exaggerated gravity. “Here, let me show you.”
Her alicorn lit with a light pinkish rose, lifting the skewer and deftly spearing a slice. The angle was much shallower, I saw, and the wood implement corkscrewed a bit as the point bit into the firm, but still fluffy, potato. “There!” The skewer rose point up, triumphantly bearing its load, and floated toward my muzzle. I obediently opened my mouth and Raven popped it in with nary a bobble.
Just then a passing pair of middle-aged mares smiled at us. As they sauntered on their way our ears just caught one murmuring to the other “—such a cute couple—”
Both of us blushed fiercely, and the skewer dropped to my tray abruptly. My glance followed it, and I suspected Raven’s was on her own tray as well. After a moment’s silence we simultaneously started mumbled apologies, then broke off.
Raven was an undeniably pretty young mare just about my own age, low-key and studious but not stuffy, and I definitely found her quite appealing. Her position as a trusted staffer for Celestia lent her an imprimatur that only added to her attractiveness. I liked her a good deal, and after my initial shock and dismay in the wake of literally bumping into her I genuinely enjoyed her company. I thought of her as a friend and was sure she regarded me in like fashion. As I examined my tangled reaction to the mares’ innocently mistaken observation, I realized species had nothing to do with it; here I was as much a pony as Raven, and should she travel through the portal she would be as human as I.
But that was the rub: the portal itself and the international, let alone interdimensional, border it represented. An ordinary long-distance relationship would have nothing on this! Even leaving aside the basic logistical difficulties—not inconsiderable in their own right—I was a foreign diplomat and she was a member of the court to which I was accredited; “conflict of interest” didn’t begin to cover such a situation. Besides . . . as friendly as we were, I wasn’t sure I liked her liked her, as the CHS girls might put it, and I doubted she entertained that depth of affection for me.
A muffled snort broke into my thoughts, and I looked up cautiously. Both Raven’s forehooves covered her mouth, but they couldn’t hold back the giggles that burst forth. I shook my head ruefully, then joined in as my own sense of the ridiculous came to the rescue. It was several minutes before we could stop laughing every time we looked at each other.
“Oh my,” Raven finally said with a sigh. “I suppose your Canterlot adventure isn’t turning out quite the way you planned, is it, Mister Cook?”
“Well, Ms. Inkwell,” I replied with virtuous innocence, “what I had in mind was simply to leave myself open to whatever experiences came my way, so I could argue things are running entirely to plan.” To her trenchant look I continued, “But I admit this wasn’t exactly what I expected.”
It was her turn to shake her head, though she raised the ante by rolling her eyes. “No wonder Her Royal Highness likes you so much. You both have the same terrible sense of humor.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.” I grinned. “With a challenge like that, who knows what she’ll do?”
She shook a hoof at me mock-threateningly. “Don’t forget, Mister Cook, I know your secret, and I have the ear of the princess.”
I mimed being struck to the heart. “Woe! Woe is me. I am betrayed.”
When our banter ran its course, nothing would do but for me to recount the morning’s peregrinations, from the moment the portal ejected me. Raven listened raptly, apparently charmed and amused by my descriptions of the places and ponies I’d encountered. Her brow knotted with concern over the robbery, though she bit her lip against whatever protests or objections ran through her mind after I emphasized my desire to let bygones be bygones. The generosity of Fancy Pants made her smile and observe, “He’s such a dear stallion. I suppose it would be a cliché to call him a pillar of the community, but it certainly would be truthful.”
While I couldn’t avoid recounting my misadventure on the streets, lengthy and consequential as it was, I said nothing of the family at the cemetery. If the court didn’t know of them already, far be it from me to spill the beans. I understood relations with the changelings had improved considerably since Thorax took the throne, but that wasn’t the same as taking official cognizance of a renegade individual living surreptitiously within Equestria’s borders. For a moment, diverted, I pondered with profoundly mixed feelings the challenges of sending a diplomatic mission to the changeling hive—or for that matter to any other realm in this world. I resolved to keep the question to myself; after all, if I mentioned it, my superiors might decide to assign the task to me.
As we talked—well, mostly Raven asked questions and I answered—we nibbled on our simple meals. I had to give high marks to the cooks; the food tasted every bit as delicious as it smelled, even the bite of pot pie Raven offered as an additional sample of pony cuisine. “Country food,” she called it. “A good many ponies here in Canterlot would say that with a sneer, I’m afraid. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
“They certainly don’t,” I agreed. “Alas, snobs seem to be a universal constant.”
By the time we rose to leave, the lunch rush had waned enough to leave the dining area merely busy instead of packed. “I had a lovely time, Mister Cook,” Raven assured me with sparkling eyes as we wandered back toward the market maze. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Canterlot today.”
“Thank you, Ms. Inkwell, I certainly hope to. And thank you so much for your suggestions. Some of them were entirely new to me, and even the ones I’d heard before, well—it’s always good to get additional votes.”
“You’re very welcome, and thank you for sharing what you could, not only of your holiday but of your home.” She smiled demurely. “I certainly understand you’re not at liberty to discuss it in detail, but even what little you can tell sounds amazing and wonderful. Of course, I suppose Equestria seemed that way to you as well when first you heard about it.”
I couldn’t help chuckling. “That’s an understatement. It sounded like something out of a storybook. But the closer one looks, the more . . . depth, I suppose, any place must have.”
“And all of this because Miss Shimmer ran away in a fit of pique.” Raven shook her head in a sort of bemused wonder.
“Sunset’s become a model student, in the top five percent nationwide,” I assured her. “It’s only because she came late to our educational system she isn’t in the top one percent. She’s found some of the best friends anyone could ask for, and they are quite similar to Princess Twilight’s circle of friends—though they also are different in some interesting ways. And I honestly think she’s fallen in love with the city she lives in now. She even has a whole range of new hobbies and interests. All’s well that ends well.”
The look I got was sharp. “You can say that even with the difficulties that brought you into these affairs, and seem likely to continue?”
I gave the question the serious consideration it deserved. “I think . . . yes, actually. Sometimes it can be pretty scary, and this certainly isn’t what I expected from my career, but it also is exciting and unique. Can’t have one without the other.”
Raven’s answering smile was warm. “Then I wish you well, Mister Cook, today and always. I look forward to seeing you again.”
“And I you, Ms. Inkwell. For now, I should continue on my way, and let you get on with the chores I’ve interrupted.”
We exchanged a hug, jaws over withers, and parted in the midst of the crowd. By the time I looked back, she already was lost to sight, somewhere among the pavilions.
“. . . two performances a day,” Raven had informed me over lunch. “They spend the morning rehearsing and setting up, making any repairs or changes they need to, well, anything. Then there’s the early performance in the afternoon; since it’s during business hours, most of the audience is class trips, a few families taking the day off, retirees, and tourists such as yourself.” She smirked, and I chuckled. “Then they break for a rest and dinner before the late performance in the evening—that one usually sells out. It’s a pretty gruelling schedule, but a good many of the singers seem to thrive on it. The life of an artist, eh?” The recommendation had been irresistible, and so I found myself in the early afternoon before a ticketing window at the front of the city’s biggest concert hall.
“If you really want to sit down in the stalls, we can do that,” the gangly unicorn colt behind the window offered in a doubtful tone. “But that’s where most of the families and the field trips end up. The parents and teachers try to keep an eye on the foals, but they can get pretty, um, boisterous sometimes.”
“I see,” I replied gravely. “I suppose that leaves the balcony and the boxes. Anything to choose between them?”
“Well, balcony seats cost less than boxes. Course, that’s why they mostly fill up with the retired folks.” From his expression, I gathered the last couple of words were a polite euphemism for cheapskate cranky old fogeys. “The boxes are the best seats for this kinda thing, but . . .”
“You get what you pay for,” I finished with a crooked smile. “Sure, I’ll take a box seat.”
“Okay, box ticket for one. I can put you in a smaller one, but you still might have to share it with a couple of ponies. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I’m sure I can deal with it.”
When I entered, the sumptuous lobby indeed was thronged with ponies of every age and tribe. Most of the adults were doing their level best to corral the fillies and colts bouncing around with a superabundance of energy. I hid a grin at the repeated cries for pegasus foals to come down out of the air: “it’s rude to fly indoors!” Certainly that was true, but there was a practical element behind the custom as well. A few times I’d seen the unfortunate aftermath of flyers coming to grief as a result of miscalculating in close quarters, ranging from bumps and bruises to broken bones. Not all of those injuries were theirs—falling from altitude onto other ponies didn’t do those hapless victims any good either.
The smaller boxes, I realized from the seating diagram prominently displayed on the wall opposite the entrance, were closer to the stage, a fortunate happenstance. I scrutinized it for a moment, mentally tracing out a route to the box listed on my ticket stub, before I glanced around again. The concert hall’s architecture and décor, for all their luxury and resulting appeal to the rich or aspiring, were surprisingly clean and streamlined, with far less of the fussy velvet-and-gingerbread elaborations I was accustomed to seeing in vintage settings or photographs in my own world. In fact, the clearest, if subtle, sign of opulence was a complete electrification of every light fitting I could see, the first such I’d seen in the city. If that extended throughout the building, it was quite an achievement, and the refurbishment likely had made the papers at the time, with much verbiage lavished on the improvement in safety offered by electric lighting.
The floor, typically for vestibules in both worlds, was tiled, and it was only a moment before I spotted foot-rail brushes discreetly bolted to the floor near the side wall. I made my way over to scrub all four hooves, one after another, across one of the coir-clad cylinders, as etiquette and cleanliness demanded. The hardwood floors and fine runner rugs of the building’s halls and stairs would not take kindly to dirt and detritus tracked in from the streets. A couple of slightly desperate-sounding voices behind me pointed out my fine example and urged the youngsters to follow it, and I bit my lip on another grin. Once I had my face on straight again, I turned back and began to make my way toward the archway leading, eventually, to my box. The exuberance of the children around me was cheering, but also a trifle wearing, and it seemed the prudent course to evacuate the premises before they stampeded.
Faint murmurs of voices and echoes of hoofsteps underscored the muffled hush so distinctive of auditoria; woodwax, potpourri, and shampooed horsehide lent a genteel scent to the air. I craned my neck to stare at the engraved brass plaque mounted over the smaller arch before me, the curtains within drawn aside welcomingly, the last one along the corrider serving the upper boxes on this side of the hall. Satisfied it was the correct number, I ambled quietly into the tiny gallery between the arch and the box proper.
Two flame-yellow pegasus mares, one in early middle age and the other at least a generation older, already sat on the overstuffed cushions filling the sunken bench at the box’s outer edge. Both looked up in evident surprise.
I was no less startled. “Ah—hello, General. I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“Mister . . . Cookie Pusher, isn’t it?” asked the officer in undress blues. Her elder, who probably didn’t know who I was any more than I knew her, seemed bemused.
“Please, call me Cook, ma’am.” I always have preferred the nickname.
Major General Spitfire rolled her eyes. “You’re not one of my troops, Mister Cook.”
The corner of my mouth quirked. “I have to call you something, General, and just your bare name seems a trifle . . . familiar.”
She raised a hoof, opened her mouth, and paused. “Okay, fair enough.” She turned the raised hoof to a gesture. “Mister Cook, this is Stormy Flare, my mother.”
I bowed and murmured a polite greeting, which was returned in kind with a quizzical air.
“I didn’t expect to see you here either, Mister Cook, so I guess we’re even,” the general added. “I had some leave time, so I thought I’d spend it with family in Canterlot. What about you?”
Ah, the bluff military manner. “I haven’t had a chance yet just to play tourist in Canterlot without any . . . official supervision, and the holiday season seemed like a good excuse.” I shrugged.
Spitfire’s eyes narrowed, and I suspected only the presence of her mother, who doubtless wasn’t cleared to know the whole story, stifled the trenchant remarks I could all but see gathering on the tip of her tongue. Instead, she finally contented herself with a sigh and the oblique warning, “You know I’ll have to fill out a report.”
“So will I,” I riposted wryly, just as a carillon sounded the final call for seating.
Despite a tendency toward hyperbole, the program book proved more informative than I anticipated; all the usual elements were present. Titles and descriptions of the songs to be performed, entirely a cappella. A brief and slightly overwrought description and history of the Canterlot Civic Choir, to back the proud claim it was among the finest in the country. A list of members grouped by vocal range—names only, I was interested to note, without any indications of tribes or sexes. Inevitably the last few pages were crammed with sponsor advertisements, earnest and quaint with their stilted language and etched illustrations.
I had time for only a brief skim before the (also electric) auditorium lights lowered and the curtain rose. The serried ranks of performers stood, splendid and statuesque, on their risers, those on one side of the stage gowned in gold-trimmed white, those on the other in midnight blue chased with silver. If my mental arithmetic was correct, that wardrobe couldn’t be older than about two and a half years. In any case, it was a gorgeous contribution to their corporate identity, as uniforms should be, and it muted the visual cacophany that would result from so many brilliantly colored and probably clashing bare equine bodies in one place. A vibrant moment of silent suspense held the vast chamber en tableau. Then a wave of the conductor’s baton punctured the dam, and a flood of voices burst forth.
Every hair on my hide stood at attention. A soaring paean vaulted to the heavens with the hopes and fears of a generation on the verge of starvation and exposure. Petty hatreds and jealousies, folly and obduracy. The tender green shoot of friendship rising through the blinding white snows of despair. A new land and a new nation flowering where once had been nothing and less than nothing.
It was, perhaps, not the most factual of accounts. Its truth was emotional rather than historical, and for its purposes, that was enough. I blinked on sudden tears, breathless and shaken by the sheer power and naked longing in the lyrics and the voices giving them form. It was a masterwork, and I had no trouble understanding why it led the program.
If the rest of the songs did not scale the same heights, still each was affecting in its own way. There were breezy popular carols, staid traditional folk tunes, solemn formal chorales. The program progressed smoothly, one form to another, never allowing young ears to grow too bored with stuffy old standbys nor old ears to grow too impatient with newfangled trifles—there would be something more palatable soon enough.
It all culminated in a reverent, introspective reminder of the holiday’s importance, thoughtful and measured. By the time the last notes faded, I found myself, for the first time since I’d set out that morning, truly regretting Sunset’s decision not to come. I shook my head and reminded myself her new friends in her new home probably were showing her things that were as new and exciting to her as this was to me. The difference was, the first voice whispered, new though it might be, she was home. I was a diplomat in a foreign land.
“Quite a show, isn’t it?” The quiet murmur beside me was barely audible over youthful cheers and whistles and the more circumspect stamping of hooves on floors.
I blinked, suddenly pulled from the reverie in my own little world. “Ah—it certainly is,” I agreed with complete sincerity. I eyed the general sidelong and, under cover of the applause, added, “As fine a show as any I’ve seen back home.”
A beaming smile flashed for a moment before settling back into a pensive look. “It’s a great reminder why I put this on in the first place.” A polished hoof brushed over her uniform tunic. “We might have been a tribe of mighty warriors, but this—” She waved the same hoof outward, toward the foals and families below and the bowing performers on stage. “—this is more important.”
I said my goodbyes to the two mares on the front steps, our breath puffing in the chill midafternoon air and a raucous tide of foals pelting around and past us like a cataract. Stormy Flare had been a more gracious sort than her daughter, but both shared a certain plainspoken practicality I found refreshingly straightforward. They took wing right from the spot rather than cope with the thundering herd, and I quirked a slight grin before turning to make my way carefully through the crowd. By the time I reached the sidewalk, I was humming and looking for another cab. I knew just where the next stop would be.
I studied the slim saddle-stitched souvenir guidebook floating in my pale-gray levitation aura. “HEARTH AND HOME: A Modern Celebration of Hearth’s-Warming,” the cover proclaimed proudly with large wood-block type cut in a clean, streamlined style that, I suspected, was the latest fashion in Equestrian type design. For that matter, the pamphlet’s wire stitching, a recent innovation in Equestria, added its own modish, state-of-the-art flair. A small, quirky smile of ambivalence crossed my face.
Determined as I was to experience Canterlot as its inhabitants did, there was of course no way I could escape at least a few stereotypical tourist destinations. Civic pride inspired some such recommendations, including the Canterlot city choir. Behind others, I was sure, lurked a desire to convey a sense not only of the city’s values, but those of the country and the society of which it was a part; the military cemetery filled that role admirably. And, of course, there existed those landmarks like Restaurant Row—where I planned to find dinner—as popular with the locals as with visitors.
An art gallery looms large in all three categories, which likely was why every single pony who’d ventured suggestions included it, but I felt much the same apprehension a small child does when faced with a plateful of vegetables. I never have been much of an art aficionado, though I did struggle through a couple of art appreciation and art history courses at university; for obvious reasons, any diplomat worth his salt must be able to converse knowledgeably on the arts—among many other subjects.
The guidebook lowered and my head rose for a glance around the high, echoing vestibule. The building itself was as worthy of study as the artworks displayed within it. Like any other ancient city in either world, much of Canterlot’s identity lay in its distinctive architecture and materials, especially among the oldest or most monumental edifices. The high ceilings, pillared walls, polished-stone floors, and tall came-glass windows around me distilled that identity into a singular consciously realized showpiece. I could see hints of the royal palace, the orphanage I’d visited in the morning, and a host of other local buildings I’d glimpsed or entered, all reflected in this much more recent construction.
It was easy to imagine heated debates arising during the project’s early stages, among architects and the public alike, over whether those details constituted handsome, stately homages or hideous, unseemly caricatures. Well, however those arguments turned out, the place got built, and likely nopony even thought about it any more; if they did, they probably regarded it much the same way they did the rest of the urban landscape that clung to the sheer mountain slopes. Truth to tell, I had a soft spot for the solemn dignity it affected, but then I’d developed a sneaking fondness for the fairy-tale charms of Canterlot—and Ponyville—in general, so I probably wasn’t the most objective observer.
Ruminating on those charms, however, wasn’t why I was here. I took a deep breath and ambled into the labyrinth of exhibition halls, preparing to browse through the works on display . . . as well as eavesdrop shamelessly on other patrons nearby.
“No, dear, that’s not a sculpture. It’s a radiator.”
Hall 1. The First Hearth’s-Warming Even after so many celebrations of the holiday, ponies continue to explore its roots, re-examining the source of the traditions and sentiments to which we have become accustomed. What are they? From whence did they spring? What makes them so important and so cherished?
“This pony’s work is always best when she’s off her tonic.”
The collage sprawled across the substrate, its daringly shapeless edges a surprising breath of abstract modernity. Fragments of text and engravings—clipped from old books, newspapers, magazines, circulars advertising seasonal sales—all brought to my mind an explosion of holiday joy captured and enclosed by mat, glazing, and frame for posterity.
“Yes, I know it’s a painting—but it’s not a good painting.”
To my mind, Hearth’s-Warming hard candies held together with white glue was the most appropriate possible medium for a bust of Puddinghead—and certainly was an ingenious inspiration for a primary-schooler. Alas, a trail of ants already was making its way from the baseboard moulding to the pedestal on which the sugary sculpture sat. I sidled away to drop a tactful word in a nearby guard’s ear, then departed hastily as a quiet commotion erupted.
“Oh no! I disagree with your conclusions about this piece. It’s obvious the artist’s attempting to rebel against the stifling pressures that attempt to force artists into pre-conceived models and styles. Here we see a lone iconoclast rallying against the armies of conformity!”
I squinted at the drum-shaped object and, after a moment’s thought, determined it must be an empty fruitcake tin, its entire circumference encrusted with découpage. Holiday scenes deftly cut from wrapping papers told a charming little tale of the first holiday, complete with word bubbles written on bits of cartridge paper.
“I don’t care what the artist says the painting is about. I know what they really meant to say!”
The mosaic filled one’s field of vision even halfway across the sizable room, all the better to immerse the onlooker in its depiction of lean, menacing windigoes half-hidden amongst windblown rags of cloud and flurries of snow. I shivered despite the still, mild indoor air. Balancing style against representation couldn’t have been easy, but the artist—clearly an experienced professional—had exploited that tension to heighten both an impression of cutting, freezing wind and a frantic sense of desperation.
Few lingered to study the piece, given its disturbing intensity, but something about the lack of uniformity in the shapes and sizes of the tiles drew me closer to peer at them. A slight liberty had been taken with the blossom-shapes, faceting what normally would be smooth organic curves, but the lozenges and five-pointed stars tesselated with them were perfect. My eyebrows rose. Half obscured by the design’s overt harshness, the three traditional tribal symbols mingled freely, a sign of hope even in adversity. I wondered how many passersby had missed this subtext entirely.
“I am not drunk enough to look at this stuff.”
Hall 2. Hearth’s-Warming in the Snow The Windigo Winter may have been a time of privation, but today ponies can celebrate without fear what makes the season unique and different from the rest of the year. The outdoors give us snowball fights, snowponies, snow and ice sculptures, ice skating, and a host of other activities—and once those are done, the indoors chase away the cold with warm fireplaces, hot drinks and snacks, and loved ones close by.
“I hear other ponies complain about the artist’s unorthodox technique and how it’s had a detrimental effect on his creative psyche—but all foals eat paste at some point.”
The thick, heavy disk sat on a short, broad pillar, surrounded by a couple of dozen excited foals, their slightly harried parents in tow. The round surface, as wide as a good-size stallion was long, was thoroughly and lovingly landscaped in miniature. Tiny buildings and even tinier ponies made up a picturesque little town of clapboard and shake, all muffled in white flocking and surrounded by a custom-built model railroad. I blinked and checked the nearby placard more closely; indeed, the sponsors—and builders—claimed to be the first club of its type in the country, pioneering steam-powered scale models of a quality and fidelity worlds beyond the simple and wildly inaccurate toys that heretofore had dominated the market. A proud, almost smug, mare in an engineer’s outfit stood by to tend the engine that puffed around the circular track, as well as guard the diorama from inquisitive pokes and prods. I couldn’t be sure, but based on the state of technology I suspected this club was a generation or more ahead of the equivalent era when similar organizations arose in my own world.
“I like this. I think this artist has potential.”
The distemper painting on paper was wrinkled and rough, its subjects discernable only after some examination as foals building snowponies and throwing snowballs. The preschoolers behind it displayed no knowledge of artistic theory, but more than made up for that debatable lack with a great deal of exuberance.
“It’s a pony . . . or a dog . . . or a shaggy bush.”
It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. The snowball fight was monumental yet filled with whimsy. Pegasus ponies hovered or hid or swooped, their cloud a magnificent fort; the unicorns and earth ponies below craned their necks or sat or even sprawled. Tiny tongues stuck out on several of all tribes as their owners concentrated or simply blew raspberries. A ramshackle little cobbled-up siege engine crewed by a trio of earth ponies was all set to hurl a whole bucketload of BB-sized white spheres upward.
This one, I could see, was a popular hit, with a crowd at least a couple of ponies deep completely surrounding the display case. It was captivating, it had a lot of little features to discover in delight, and the technical achievement was impressive in its own right. Colored glass was blown, foamed, drawn into delicate shape in a single gigantic piece, the largest I’d seen. Even with the advantage of levitation it must have been a challenge to work all the myriad details quickly enough as the glass cooled, moving and rotating the whole mass in mid-air as needed until everything was finished. And, apparently, all of it was the work of a single unicorn artisan. I shook my head ruefully. I doubted I could achieve that degree of power and control even if I spent my whole life in Equestria.
“Either I’ve drunk too much already or I’m learning to like this drivel.”
The middle-schooler must live in Canterlot itself, I mused; both princesses were rendered with a meticulous care and accuracy that bespoke a fair amount of personal observation—though I couldn’t recall having seen those lovely expressions of carefree merriment on their actual faces. Bright paints, also painstakingly chosen to match the royal sisters’ hues and shades, covered the papier-mâché figures that, according to the placard, had been built up using strips, then covered and smoothed with pulp. The scene was genuinely beautiful and bespoke a surprisingly shrewd insight, for I doubted either Celestia or Luna spared much time for building snowponies, however much they might wish to.
“Why do artists feel so compelled to paint Hearth’s-Warming scenes as winter-time settings? Really, I just don’t see why!”
Hall 3. Hearth’s-Warming Today Even after more than eleven centuries ponies still find fresh ways to express their affections for this holiday. As the world and our place in it change, customs and traditions change with them—or are preserved in the face of those changes, fetching reminders of days gone by.
“It’s nice, but I think the artist is still grappling with the concepts of perspective and lighting. That or they’re blind as a bat.”
The small, humble mosaic portrayed nothing more complicated than snow falling around Canterlot Palace, but there was a quiet dignity to its simplicity. The colored granules and pebbles that made up the image had come from the streams and falls that wound past and through the city, collected by the young artist during a school camping trip up higher in the mountains.
“Oh! That’s much better than I was expecting.”
I puzzled for a long moment over the framed photograph, an unexceptional landscape of some anonymous rural expanse viewed from a low hilltop, muffled under winter snows. A frozen river wound by at the hill’s base, a lone fisherpony sitting at a hole in the ice. The small town beyond rose in angular contrast to the hummocks and drifts, bits and swathes of red and blue and yellow showing against the white and the winter-pale sky. Good composition, nice juxtapositions of color and texture, but why—ah. Yes, of course.
Color photography was brand new. Indeed, I might be looking at one of the first ever taken in Equestria, which certainly would qualify it for a gallery exhibition. The colors looked odd not because they had drifted with age, but because ponies likely still were working out the subtractive color process. When I squinted at the matted and framed print, nose nearly pressed against the glazing, I could make out the cyan, red, and yellow layers, especially where movement between frames had occured. The four-color printing process, which in a digital world had become familiar even to owners of desktop printers, yet lay in the future here.
“Well, yes, it’s trash, but it’s artistic trash.”
What my own world regarded as a classic of children’s art were just getting started here—but already were something of a hit, to judge from the bright multi-hued scribble on foolscap of Canterlot in the snow. Either the young artist espoused a unique and intriguing approach to color theory, or lacked the necessary crayons to portray a snowy day.
“I have no idea what I am looking at.”
The small oak cabinet had seen better days, but it had undergone a skillful and practical conversion. Alone and forlorn, it seemed nothing more than a middling example of the woodworker’s art, but a crank ending in a ring for one’s pastern stuck out the side and an eyeshade jutted from the front near the top, both of them brightly polished brass. Curious, I stuck my face against the shade and my hoof through the ring and started cranking. Instantly an electric bulb flickered to life, illuminating a brightly painted pony that galloped in place against a snowy winter background. It was a zoetrope, powered entirely by muscle; a quick glance at the placard confirmed a simple brush motor lit the bulb.
“Why are all these paintings on square or rectangular canvases? That kind of mindless adherence to the status quo is strangling the life out of art these days!”
Hall 4. Snowfall Frost’s Hearth’s-Warming This beloved tale has become a staple of the holiday in the generation since it was first published. It serves as a reminder of those things most important about Hearth’s-Warming and how they affect the individual—where the story of the holiday’s origin, in its grand sweep, speaks more to our tribes as a whole.
“If you can’t contribute something witty or enlightening to this conversation, then please be quiet.”
The final hall of the exhibition had been remodeled in its entirety, transformed into a make-believe parlor complete with a Hearth’s-Warming tree, garlanded and lit; I did not fail to note a period-costumed unicorn attendant positioned discreetly nearby, ready to deal with any emergencies resulting from the small live candles gracing the boughs. The fireplace had been set up like a stage prop, with enough of a glow to suggest a dying fire among embers.
According to the guidebook this miniature wonderland was among the few entries planned and executed specifically for the exhibition. While art in its own right, it also incorporated several works, many from schoolfoals, that worked best in such a context. At first glance I thought the place merely a generic synthesis of common urban elements, but a closer look made me chuckle. The story had become enough of a cultural icon for a consensus to emerge on what the place—and its inhabitant—looked like, doubtless fostered by illustrations accompanying the early printings.
“Oh, I am so sorry. I thought your hat was one of the pieces on display!”
The framed needlepoint was bright and cheery, a lyric sheet in fabric of a popular carol, recognizable despite the spelling errors and a certain lack of planning where to put all the lettering. Still, the foal who’d embroidered it clearly had put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and affection into the piece, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s . . . too red.”
Most of the tree’s ornaments looked to be vintage examples of commercial products; I winced upon imagining the insurance policy required to put them on display, suspended on evergreen boughs in a public venue. Nestled among them, though, I found a number of unique individually crafted decorations, most in carved and painted wood: windigoes, the trio of holiday spirits from the same story that provided the setting as well as its main character, and a number of other real or fictitious individuals with or without connections to the holiday—almost all were ponies or other creatures, I noted with fascination, with few inanimate objects. How much of that was due to cultural convention and how much to jurying for the exhibition I had no idea.
“I expect big things from this artist.”
The quartet of small stuffed dolls sat proudly, heads raised as if singing a carol together. Thanks to careful choices of color and shaping of manes and tails, set off by meticulous stitching, they looked striking and distinctive despite their simple shapes. I was sure, should I meet them, I would recognize the family of the filly whose talented work graced the mantel.
“Can we go now?”
I ambled back into the foyer along with a steady stream of other slightly tired-looking ponies, adults and foals both. With a stolen glance down at the booklet I surveyed scribbled notes memorializing some of the more amusing snippets of conversation that had come to my ears. There was no way I’d be able to sort them, given how I’d penciled them anywhere I could find enough blank space, so they’d fall as randomly as those notes. Likewise, the number of individual works was considerably more than I could cram into any journal or diary; memory of the more notable pieces, marked with underscores, asterisks, or other distinguishing heiroglyphs, would have to serve as a sampler.
Once outside I blinked a couple of times under the late-afternoon sunlight slanting sharply across the streetscape. Sundown was not far off, and the dinner hour approached. Time to find another cab.
Restaurant Row stretched away before me, quaint and upscale, into the evening darkness. I was reminded irresistably of the neighborhood where first I met Sunset and her remarkable friends. The resemblance was more a matter of character than appearance, but if places as well as persons had counterparts on both sides of the portal, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this street, and the district in which it lay, was one of them.
I trotted briskly along the busy sidewalk under the gas-jet street lamps, nodding politely to all and sundry as I went. Locals and visitors alike mingled in a delightfully random mix; I never knew who or indeed what I would lay eyes on next. The cold seemed no barrier to haughty nobles or humble working-class tourists or even the hardworking teams pulling delivery vans—though I noted a distinct absence of rowdy behavior along the lines of the impromptu carolers earlier in the day and a good league or more away.
Signboards vied to entice diners through the doors under them. The workmanship and artistry, including gilt lettering accompanying the fine illustrations, was a far cry from the simple banner-boards of Peak Place. Many also still featured the trio of shoeprints I’d heard about, though it amused me to see notably fewer than I understood to be the case not long ago. A culinary revolt of sorts was under way, it would seem.
At last I drew abreast of a broad but short alley, almost a small square, interrupting the jumble of buildings old and new lining the street; the modest façade at its back was bright even for this color-saturated land. Aromas of spice, herb, and oil, concentrated by the barriers on three sides, beckoned with delectable promises of exotic dishes from distant marches. And unlike any of the previous stops on the day’s itinerary, I had discovered this little gem all by myself.
Last summer Princess Twilight had hit upon an ingenious way to ameliorate the expatriate Sunset’s occasional bouts of homesickness—sending weekly packages of newspapers and magazines from home. In the autumn Her Highness had added a second set of subscriptions specifically for me, to be picked up at the same time and handed over whenever Sunset was able to meet up with me in person. Once I had absorbed every bit of information from the inky pages my brain and my notebook computer could soak up, I sent the whole kit and caboodle off to a very discreet archive in a very discreet government building serving, among other agencies, the Foreign Service.
I’d found the recent saga centering on the obscure family-owned restaurant to be entertaining out of all proportion to its minor importance in the grand scheme of things. Determining the actual course of events had required piecing together disparate bits from a variety of publications, not to mention a good deal of reading between the lines. I’d gotten quite a lot of practice at that sort of thing while investigating Sunset’s background, though, and the reward in hilarity and schadenfreude over the outcome was worth the effort.
New-looking wall signs had been posted on both sides of the alley’s mouth, listing not only my destination but a smattering of other businesses no doubt inhabiting the buildings facing the alley’s sides. I was gratified to see a decent amount of foot traffic in the tiny plaza, not all of it bound to or from the restaurant. I suspected the latter had boosted the commercial value of the adjoining properties. I grinned and beelined for the ogee-arched doorway at the top of the small stoop.
“Welcome to the Tasty Treat,” a chirpy unicorn filly greeted me from behind a lectern. I guessed her to be in her mid-teens, as shiny-new an addition to the cozy dining hall as her hostess station. “Just one for dinner?”
I nodded. “Yes indeed.”
“Do you mind sharing a table?” she asked with a trace of trepidation.
I looked around to see that every one of the half-dozen or so tables, each a pony-length in diameter, hosted at least one occupant. I turned back with a reassuring smile. “That would be fine, Miss.”
She blew out a relieved breath she no doubt fondly imagined to be surreptitious. After levitating a menu from the stack in front of her, she led me to a table at which sat a pair of mares. The older of the two was a tall, rangy unicorn with luxuriant gold and orange tresses over pale blue coat. Her petite earth-pony companion, by odd coincidence, was her visual inverse—aqua page-boy mane topping a pale yellow body. Their animated chatter over the appetizers broke off as we popped up on the far side of the table from them.
My guide cleared her throat nervously and asked, “Would it be all right if this gentlestallion joined you at the table?”
“Perfectly!” the unicorn mare, whom I guessed to be in her thirties, assured her in a strong, confident voice with a wave of a perfectly pedicured forehoof. The young earth mare seemed less certain, but nodded quietly.
The process of settling me at the table became a bit perfunctory as the doorjamb bell chimed with yet another arrival. The filly scurried back to deal with the newcomers, leaving me to catch the menu in mid-air and levitate it to a soft landing on the table in front of me. I looked down in some bemusement at the simple foldover of heavy yellow-ochre card stock printed with red ink.
“Silk and satin, I remember my first boutique job.” The same amused voice brought my head up again. “I wasn’t any older than that filly, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to keep everything straight.”
The other mare giggled softly, then replied, “You’re doing fine now.”
A snort answered this sally. “I almost didn’t, you know. But we shouldn’t be rude to our company.” The handsome, fine-featured blue face swiveled back. “I’m Sassy Saddles and my friend here is Coco Pommel.”
“Hello to both of you.” I considered them for a moment before adding, “Call me Cook.”
At Coco’s soft-voiced suggestion, Sassy restrained herself long enough for me to concentrate on the menu. By the time a solidly built unicorn levitating an order pad paused by our table a few minutes later, I was able to rattle off a coherent list of selections.
“A fine choice!” Coriander Cumin commended me in a hearty voice. The middle-aged brown-on-gold stallion sported the bushiest eyebrows and mustache I could remember seeing on any pony; all three tufts of curly hair waggled on his mobile face as he spoke.
“I’ll bet you say that to all the customers,” I told him dryly.
He guffawed, but shook his head. “Not at all. To those who make poor choices I say nothing. On their own heads be it; perhaps they will learn from their experiences. If they do not, well—no words of mine will enlighten them, I fear.”
The mares tittered in what appeared to be genuine amusement, and I had to agree with him. All too often the very individuals who most need help or advice are first and fiercest to reject it.
In a lower tone, and with only a glimmer of his previous humor, he added, “You seem acquainted with our cuisine, good sir. So few in Canterlot are, for all their cosmopolitan boasts! It is refreshing to find such a discriminating and knowledgeable palate in this city.”
I pulled a half-smile at the question buried in his little speech. “I have encountered something very like it before. Besides, dinner at this fine establishment always was a part of my agenda for today.” Like art, cuisine is a small but important part of a diplomat’s education—and, like many other elements of each world, it often was echoed on the other side of the portal, if not always identical.
After another few moments of small talk he bustled off to another table and the evening’s newest patrons. I did not fail to note his considerate detour afterward to make sure his newly hired young assistant posted by the front door was not in need of rescuing or bolstering. When he disappeared through the bead-curtained archway at the back of the room, I returned my attention to my tablemates, courteously talking in undertones, and smiled winningly. Theirs were names I’d glimpsed once or twice in print, but I had only the vaguest notions of the personalities behind those names. This was a golden opportunity to rectify that lack.
Sassy was aptly named, as were so many ponies. But then, according to Sunset, in a nation where institutional recordkeeping still was less all-pervasive than it had become in a digital age, changing one’s name was a less . . . bureaucratic affair. Coco, though not so effusive, was adorably sweet and kind.
The chatty unicorn informed me her companion had traveled across the country from Manehattan to see the capital and not incidentally visit with her and her boss Rarity, on whose recommendation they’d decided to try out the Tasty Treat. I heard quite a bit about the up-and-coming fashion designer who, along with her more famous heroics beside the rest of Princess Twilight’s friends, had changed both present mares’ lives. It was a fascinating glimpse into a personality from third-party perspectives, and I couldn’t help comparing the head start the unicorn had over her counterpart despite their similar ages.
Equestria had begun the transition from apprenticeships and one-room schoolhouses to a fully industrialized society’s highly structured mass educational system, but that transformation wouldn’t be complete for many decades. In the mean time, teens still—mostly—retained their status as junior adults able to work, not the economically dependent senior children they would become. I’d heard an earful on that particular disparity from all the Rainbooms, especially Rainbow Dash. Sunset generally bore it with good grace, but even she occasionally grumbled about being treated as if she were twelve and not seventeen. Given that she grew up in a society still clinging to the traditional view of adolescence, it was hard to blame her.
“Why, if it weren’t for her I might still be working for that—that—” Words failed the gentle Coco, but her scrunched muzzle said it all. I blinked and came out of my brown study to attend.
“Slaving, you mean,” Sassy amended acerbically. “Fashion is full of ponies like that, I’m afraid. But you’re well rid of her, dear.”
Coco nodded emphatically. “And it’s all thanks to Rarity—well, and her friends, of course. She even got me the big break I needed to get into the theater business!”
The elder mare grinned. “How many productions has it been now?”
Coco giggled. “I’d have to think about it and count them all. Especially if you include the Midsummer Theater Revival!”
Sassy laughed and shook her head. “You’re well on your way, then.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned to give me a speculative eye. “And what’s your business, Mister Cook? You know all about ours by now, I’m sure.”
“Not nearly as colorful as yours, I daresay,” I told her drolly. “Negotiations, meetings, and reports, mostly. Even more boring to talk about than to experience firsthand, alas.”
A baffled expression crossed Coco’s face. “But—”
“I’m sure,” Sassy interrupted smoothly. “Oh, and here’s dinner!”
I turned my head to see Coriander Cumin working his way to our table, orders held overhead in the purplish glow of his levitation. Under cover of the arriving dishes, all of which looked and smelled heavenly, Sassy shot me a knowing look, to which I returned my best innocent expression.
One of my university instructors once mentioned that excellence was more important than perfection. At the time it seemed an obscure comment of the sort beloved of self-important intellectuals, but the banquet that ensued demonstrated to me the essential truth of the statement. Coriander Cumin and his daughter Saffron Masala understood it deeply.
Dishes were quirky, odd, by turns traditional or experimental. Some were simple staples. Others were fancy celebration foods, as most restaurant fare tends to be. Recipes were played straight or combined fearlessly with other cuisines for unexpected fusions. There was an air of abandon to the cooking and preparation that gave no thought to perfection, instead taking astonishing chances in pursuit of excellence. More often than not, they found it.
I might not be much of an art aficionado, but I have a reasonably educated palate. Apparently it showed, at least to my tablemates; it wasn’t long before all three of us were sampling not only our own dinners but each others’ as well, passing bites back and forth. Interestingly, while Coco clearly enjoyed herself, Sassy seemed to have a better grasp of the subtleties involved. By the time we sat back, replete and almost somnolent, the wreckage lay strewn across the whole table.
“It has been a pleasure to serve you, honored guests.” Coriander Cumen’s voice was jovial, but with a serious undercurrent. I opened my eyes to look up, then straightened in my seat, as did both my companions. Beside the stout stallion stood a pretty young mare of similar coloration, who beamed happily at us.
“Ms. Saffron Masala, I presume.” I half-bowed to her from my seat. “You have done your family and your establishment proud. That was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had.” Sassy and Coco nodded enthusiastically and murmured heartfelt endorsements of my sentiments.
Saffron’s magenta eyes sparkled. “Thank you so much. Canterlot was not the most welcoming of cities when we first came, but it has become a wonderful place for us. Ms. Rarity and Ms. Pie helped us so much, and it is an honor to serve those who call them friends.”
Her smile quirked for a moment as her gaze met mine briefly; my brows rose. “I . . . see. I thank you in return, Ms. Masala. If I have any choice in the matter, rest assured I shall return when I may.”
“That is all we can ask,” she replied graciously. After blasting all of us with a last blinding smile she returned to her kitchen, leaving her father to present the bill.
I chatted and laughed for a few minutes with Sassy and Coco on the tiny square outside the restaurant, rather like my farewells to General Spitfire and her mother after the concert. By this time most of the alley’s other businesses were closed, so we weren’t blocking traffic, but at last the cold started gnawing at us, and we all had places to be. We wished each other a happy Hearth’s-Warming and parted ways, hoofprints in the snows falling lightly on the streets.
My steaming mug rose, enveloped in the glow of my levitation, and I took another thoughtful sip. The coffee within was even better than Joe’s, but then I expected nothing less. While the proprietress specialized in teas and cakes, she prided herself on the superior quality of everything she offered.
I was feeling at loose ends. Sightseeing just wasn’t the same when it was too dark to see the sights. By the same token, it seemed a bit early yet to be heading for home. Of course, if I sat nursing my coffee long enough, the end of the day might catch up with me yet; the evening was well under way already.
Idly I glanced around the parlor. Everything about it was even smaller than the public space of the Tasty Treat, including the dainty little tables and seats. The front windows held shelves that, during the day, bore some of the cakes produced in the kitchen at the back. Now they stood almost empty, the panes between them and the street night-dark blank. Gas-jet sconces and oil table lamps lent the room a cozy air that, I long since had realized, was the source of the obsession in my own world with unnecessarily low lighting in so many restaurants.
A few of the brochures Twilight provided lay spread on the small round table in front of me. “Canterlot by Gaslight”, “Luna’s City at Night”, and several others offered blandishments to the curious. The trouble with nearly all of them was the underlying assumption one would be staying in the city overnight, at home or in a hotel, for all ran, or even started, quite late. Moreover, it had been a busy—and active—day, and I wasn’t prepared for anything as physical as, say, a walking tour.
“Can I get you anything else?” Cinnamon Chai smiled graciously at me as she paused beside my table. The brown-over-cream unicorn mare’s tiny waitstaff was stretched to the limit on a busy holiday-season evening; with the bakery closed for the day, she obviously had decided to stay on and help out—and, I guessed, keep an eye on things.
“Yes, actually.” I smiled back. “I think I’ve digested enough dinner to make room for a little baklava.”
She laughed. “I think we have just a couple of pieces left. I’ll be right back.”
The small square of dessert was still fresh, probably part of the day’s last batch; its flaky, sticky sweetness balanced the coffee admirably. However, it did nothing to help resolve my indecision regarding the rest of the evening. I sighed and shuffled through the circulars once more like an indifferent hand of cards.
“You look busy.” The unfamiliar voice brought my head up. Standing on the other side of the table was a slender, graceful pegasus mare, off-white with bouffant blonde mane and tail. The latter’s distal half was braided; a sidelock of the former echoed it on a smaller scale. A shock of blue near the mane-braid might have been dyed—it was hard to tell. She looked young, possibly younger even than I, but with a mature poise that reminded me obscurely of Raven. Her eyes, just on the orange side of red, were laughing, and I couldn’t help chuckling in response.
“I wish I were. Alas, I’m afraid I’m just spinning my wheels.” A moment too late I realized my slip; it was hardly fatal, but the idiom belonged to the automobile age, and might sound distinctly odd to the inhabitant of a cart-and-wagon society.
“Maybe you need a little sand under them,” she riposted immediately.
I restrained my sigh of relief. Of course she would parse the phrase in terms of railroad locomotives. Steel wheels on steel rails are extremely energy-efficient at speed, but trying to accelerate from a dead stop involves a good deal of wheel-spinning—unless the engineer dumps sand on the tracks to increase friction. It was very common to see streaks and small piles of sand on the ties and against the tracks, especially at minor stops like Ponyville.
I sat back from my slight hunch over the pamphlets. “Maybe I do.” I explained my dilemma in a few short phrases; she cocked her head and listened in amusement.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “have you considered attending a holiday pageant? You could sit on a comfortable cushion—no walking required—and it would be a very educational experience, I’m sure.”
My brows rose. Conscious of my pose as an ordinary tourist, I commented, “And how would it be different from pageants elsewhere? After all, Hearth’s-Warming pageants are a staple all over the country.”
Her laugh was musical. “Maybe I have just the thing, then.” Deftly she turned her head back to pluck a small portfolio from one of the panniers cinched around the outside of her full-length winter tunic. Golden gaslight flashed from the polished triangular pectoral and lozenge-pendant earrings she wore. She deposited the slim card-stock jacket on the table. “You could attend a performance of the crown invitational pageant. I have a few tickets—more than I need, really—and I’d be happy to spare one for you.”
“That’s very generous of you, but—”
“It’s a very old tradition started by Princess Celestia herself,” the pegasus put in persuasively. “Of course, she and her sister do attend, although usually only the first and last performances. Attending every evening would be tiresome for anypony, and besides, it would distract attention from the performers.”
My eyes narrowed slightly. If Celestia and Luna wouldn’t be attending this evening’s performance, as she implied, I could go without the risk of accidentally running into them. “Well . . . in that case, thank you very much.” I levitated the paper jacket closer and peered at it.
“You’re very welcome. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. You may even learn some new things about the history of the holiday.” She gave me another cheerful smile. “For now, though, I must fly. I have places to be this evening.”
“Happy Hearth’s-Warming,” I called to her as she trotted for the door.
She slipped through it, then stuck her head back inside just long enough to reply, “Happy Hearth’s-Warming, Mister Cook.”
Among the oldest, and to me most familiar, districts of Canterlot was the complex within the city walls and around the royal palace. In recent decades, I’d been told, many of its narrow streets and narrow buildings had been renovated or even demolished to make room for parks and greenbelts. Certainly its current whitewashed and spacious appearance contrasted sharply against other cities of similar age in my experience—but then, as the city spread up and down the mountainside over the centuries, the need to pack so much into such little space waned. Moreover, to the city’s denizens, it was just home; making changes to suit new conditions, even when they involved centuries-old buildings, often were regarded as routine.
Walking amid the throngs streaming into the neighborhood from the open gate was nerve-wracking. I expected any moment to be recognized by a passing member of the court, whereupon the jig, as Raven put it, would be up. When at last I reached my destination without incident, I breathed a covert sigh of relief and joined the lively queue of families and other groups awaiting the evening’s performance.
The pair of palace guards detailed to tend the doors were strangers to me, but their soldierly professionalism was utterly familiar. The burly, grizzled earth-pony sergeant never allowed his scrutiny of the herd to falter, even in the festive atmosphere, as his wiry young unicorn corporal examined each ticket proffered up. Neither stallion in issue greatcoat and plumed shako, both garments black with red and gold trim, showed any sign of recognizing me in return when it came my turn to pass over my ticket. I received the same distant military deference they extended to all the line-standing civilians, including a slightly gruff holiday wish from the sergeant as I passed.
Once inside, I ambled with the rest of the crowd up the center aisle of the long vaulted chamber until I spotted an empty mid-row seat about halfway to the apron. After an upstream struggle to reach it, I settled on one of the rugged, if thin, square cushions that filled much the same role in pony society as sheet-metal folding chairs did back home. That feat accomplished, I took the chance to look around the dim and heavily garlanded gallery.
I had no idea what the hall’s original purpose had been, but its conversion to a small stage theater did not seem new. Perhaps it had been some sort of government annex once upon a time. The historical scenes portrayed by the tall and seemingly ubiquitous came-glass windows at intervals along both sides looked to be generally, but not always, from the formative days of the realm.
More intriguing was the design and construction of the stage. The flat house floor posed a difficult problem of visibility, especially for the audience at the back; adding a rake clearly would require so much rebuilding as to render moot the whole point of using the existing structure. Instead the stage was raked to raise its back higher than its front. The only other place I’d encountered a similar design was a reconstructed early-modern theater I visited during a summer break in one of my university stints abroad. According to the docent, it was the source of still-common expressions such as “upstage” and “downstage”.
My survey revealed no lurking surprises of the sort I experienced at Peak Place or the concert hall. It was possible I simply had missed somepony familiar thanks to the low lighting, the capacity crowd, and the lack of rake to the floor, but then, the same factors made me equally difficult to spot. Well. If it happened, it happened; the day was nearly done, after all, my self-assigned informal mission mostly accomplished.
An old-fashioned lung-powered brass fanfare sounded. It was showtime.
A couple of years ago, I understood, the crown’s invitation had been extended to a not-yet-royal Twilight Sparkle and the circle of friends she’d found in Ponyville. Overheard snippets of conversation indicated those performances had acquired a certain retrospective notoriety, but I suspected the actuality had been more typical of pageants past—if possibly a little rough around the edges given the youth and exuberance of the fillies involved.
This time around the troupe was listed as “The Method Mares and Company”, which was a story in itself. Some of the names listed under that grand page banner I’d seen before, buried in the police blotters, and a single short article, of the Manehattan paper. Former con artists who’d turned over a new leaf under the impetus of a daunting encounter with the judicial system, the quartet made ends meet with paid engagements and teaching gigs, but played small community venues for free under the terms of their probation. Likely this pageant season was one of the latter, though winning a crown invitation and being named as headliners hinted at royal approval of their rehabilitation, besides being worthy achievements in their own right.
The now-familiar tale unfolded before me. For a watcher accustomed to the understated, nuanced performances enabled by video media, the acting seemed broad and stilted, a classic illustration of the ancient phrase “playing to the gallery”. In the present context, however, it fit perfectly—and not simply as a means of ensuring even those seated in the back rows could see and understand all the doings onstage. Blind passions and all-or-nothing stakes couldn’t help but make the narrative larger than life, even leaving aside the exaggerations and distortions inevitable after more than eleven hundred years of telling it.
I found myself wondering just who those ponies had been, the personalities behind the icons so stridently or quietly proclaiming and declaiming on stage. Celestia and Luna had mentioned a few of them, and their contemporaries or near-contemporaries, to me in passing, but rarely in any detail. That reticence, I was sure, arose out of respect for the memory of those who, in the end, had risen above prejudices and habits of thought to bring a new united identity to the three tribes, but I resolved to find out what more I could. The forensic approach to history, archaeology, and similar fields that had arisen in my own world was in its infancy here, so only the royal sisters’ living memory was likely to be capable of providing an unvarnished, if incomplete, perspective.
The narrator’s booming voice abruptly filled the auditorium once more, recapturing my attention, as the curtains slid aside on a new scene. The flats and props, I realized, were simple and stylized, but fine and graceful in execution. I wondered if they were new for the season, comparing them to a framed albumen print I’d glimpsed in the palace: Twilight and her friends in costume, beaming proudly, under a painted wooden sun with crooked rays and backed by rather rough-looking scenery. Perhaps the previous sets had been retired, too shopworn for further service, or perhaps the current crop of performers and stage staff had aspired to a greater polish. Or both; they need not have been mutually exclusive.
With a wry shake of the head, I put aside the wayward thoughts. The admittance had been a gift and the Method Mares gave every indication of genuinely enjoying their new vocation. It behooved me to honor both with my full attention.
I limited my participation in the final carol, led by the assembled cast, to a low humming along. However charming and infectious it might be, I couldn’t forget this wasn’t my holiday. Whatever my pose, I was not in fact a tourist from elsewhere in the country. I had friends here, firm and fast ones, but the fact remained I was a visitor, an alien, on foreign soil. Still, by the time the subsequent applause had faded and the happily chattering masses began filing out, I was smiling as much as anypony around me. The performance capped off what was undeniably one of the most enjoyable, and in some ways informative, days I’d experienced in years.
The lacy veil of a gentle snowfall greeted me as I emerged from the warm vestibule and paused in thought; around me clumps and flocks unraveled to go their separate ways on the drift-edged streets, all the while filling the freezing air with parting holiday wishes carried on puffs of steaming breath. I was of two minds about sharing it all with Sunset. She might enjoy hearing about her home country and the city where she’d lived before in effect emigrating, yet I hesitated to prod any homesickness she still harbored. Well, I decided, I’d wait to share it when and if she asked.
If I had any lasting regret, it was the inability to take back with me anything more substantial than memories. Identifiable souvenirs were, for obvious reasons, out of the question. Photography still required bulky, balky equipment and long seconds of stillness, unable yet to capture and preserve candid or fleeting moments. All that was left to me was the written word, and I had no doubt there would be many thousands of those. Some, as I’d promised Spitfire, would be delivered unto my superiors. Some I would retain for myself, having developed the means and ability after so much practice writing reports for others. At least in the latter I could give full rein to the poetic bent that occasionally got me grief when it sneaked into more formal and official—for which read stuffy—prose.
I heaved a sigh half of satisfaction and half of weariness. It was by now quite late, but if I found a cab promptly I still could catch the last train of the evening.
“Ponyville! Next stop, Ponyville.” The conductor’s call jarred me from my half-doze. I blinked and sat up, glancing around. There was little to see outside; the glass beside me was more mirror than window on the dark night and the scattered few lights of a rural pre-electric countryside. The gently swaying clerestory car was sparsely populated this late, with at least a couple of the other passengers frankly sprawled across their benches, fast asleep.
I yawned and stretched as the train slowed. Had there been no tickets for Ponyville, the limited express wouldn’t have stopped at all, instead blowing past on its way elsewhere. That didn’t happen often these days, according to the conductor’s friendly banter over punching my ticket. The town was growing and had become something of a tourist spot—especially since Her Newest Highness had taken up residence in the strange crystalline tower that appeared several months ago. If urban growth followed the same pattern I’d seen before between a city and an outlying rustic getaway, in another century Ponyville likely would be a suburb of the greater Canterlot metropolitan area. Tactfully I did not mention this out loud.
With a hiss and a squeal the car lurched to a stop beside the small station platform from which I’d boarded so many hours before. Only then did I stand and retrieve my bags. The unwary pegasus whose impatience had betrayed him into standing prematurely cursed under his breath as he regained his feet and shook out his wings. I affected not to notice his discomfiture, instead departing by the door at the car’s other end.
I barely had stepped from the car’s platform to the station’s when I stopped in surprise. “Twilight—ah, Your Highness! I didn’t expect to see you at the station.” Indeed, there stood Princess Twilight Sparkle, clad in a scarf and an odd garment that seemed half vest and half saddle. Beside her slouched a sleepy-looking Spike.
Twilight giggled. “I know you didn’t! But when you didn’t show up any earlier, it wasn’t hard to figure out you’d probably be on the last train.” Spike muttered something about the lateness of the hour; Twilight spared him a glance of reproof.
They were so like a pair of siblings I restrained a grin. “You dragged poor Spike out for this—why not Starlight too?” I teased.
“I offered, but she said no. I don’t know why.”
Twilight’s genuine bafflement strained my poker face. “She probably just figured a little more beauty sleep was more important than meeting a stuffy old stallion at the train station.”
Twilight turned her look of reproach on me. “You’re thirty-one, Cook. Even I know that’s not old.”
“I notice you didn’t argue the ‘stuffy’ part,” I returned, deadpan.
The young princess rolled her eyes. For some reason, everybody—and everypony—I knew did that sooner or later. “Tsk. Well, stuffy or not, you still have a ways to go before you get home, so we probably should get moving.”
I let the obvious deflection pass and fell in with her as she turned to amble toward the end of the platform. Hardly had we stepped from planks to ground before she began peppering me with eager questions. I answered them willingly; Twilight on a tear was an engaging companion so long as her inquiries didn’t stray into awkward territory.
Her reactions were not dissimilar to Raven’s, including concern over the robbery in the morning, but like the other mare she reluctantly acquiesced to my desire that bygones be bygones. Even in this retelling, though, I held my silence regarding the changeling mother, not wanting to subject the self-conscious new royal to a crisis of conscience.
A summary of the day’s doings, and all the encounters with mutual acquaintances, filled the whole journey back to her tower. Spike said little, though he perked up at various points in my narrative, most notably the visit to Doughnut Joe’s. When at last we closed the grand front doors on the winter chill, he wasted no time excusing himself and scampered off, no doubt to bed. Twilight sighed and shook her head as she watched him go.
I could see the apology forming on her lips and chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, Twilight. Right now, I pretty much want to do the same thing.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She sighed and shook her head, then led me back to the library and the magical mirror that awaited.
Our goodbyes were brief. It really was late, and it probably wouldn’t be all that long before we would see each other again. After a last quick hug I hopped through the portal and found myself on the deserted grounds of Canterlot High School, once more clad in parka, polo shirt, chinos, and ankle boots, with a high-end messenger bag over my shoulder.
“Hey,” a familiar throaty feminine voice greeted me.
I pivoted on a heel. “Sunset! For heaven’s sake why are you here so late?”
Sunset leaned a shoulder against the side of the plinth, fists stuffed in the pockets of her bomber jacket; distressed jeans and her usual outrageous strapped boots completed the visible ensemble. The look she gave me all but shouted don’t be an idiot. “Waiting for you, of course. Twi gave me a head’s-up you prob’ly were comin’ in on the last train, so—” She shrugged as she straightened from her casual lean.
My brow furrowed. “I thought you’d be with the girls, at a sleepover or something.”
“Not every night, Cook.” It was her turn to roll her eyes. Then she grinned. “But yeah, today was pretty busy.”
I laughed. “Okay, fine. Coffee at Sugar Cube Corner, then? We can trade stories.” It seemed my concern over possible homesickness was unfounded. Truth to tell, despite my tiredness, I found myself looking forward to the prospect of telling my tale—and hearing hers.
“It’s a deal,” she told me in a laughing tone. “C’mon. I know that car of yours has to be around here somewhere.”
“After you, madame.” I grinned back and, with a slight bow, swept an arm in the direction of my parked sedan. As she fell in beside me, I added in a more serious tone, “Oh, and Happy Hearth’s-Warming, Sunset.”
Her return smile was unusually pensive. “Happy Hearth’s-Warming, Cook.”
My assignment might be one of the strangest in the history of the Foreign Service, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.