The Rains of Vanhoover

by kudzuhaiku

First published

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

Nut, an unflappably polite young professional, is joined by Potato Blossom, his ward and pupil. Together, they have returned to Vanhoover, the place where Nut calls home. The city is a strange place for Potato Blossom, a filly shunned by her isolated, insular community.

Though he is an evolutionary biologist, or desires to be, Nut is charged by his professors to document Potato Blossom's integration into complex society. She becomes his project for university, a project that will have far-reaching influences upon his academic and scholarly future.

Plucked off of the farm, Potato Blossom must adapt, overcome, thrive, and survive in a city utterly hostile to her needs, wants, and desires. Vanhoover is cold, in both the literal and figurative sense, indifferent, and it seems as though the rains never cease.

Potato Blossom's survival means Nut's evolution into something greater... but what, exactly?

A tale sprouted in the Weedverse.

Cast out from the Garden of Ideology

View Online

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

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

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

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

His stomach growled.

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the ocean?”

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“That don’t seem fair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equestria could do better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is that, Miss Blossom?”

“Why’d you do it?”

“Do what, exactly? Elucidate.”

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

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

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

The rain made a staccato rhythm against the glass overhead.

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

There was, indeed, room for two.

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

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

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

His ears went limp, but he did not notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But different.

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

A thin smile haunted his muzzle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what if it’s true—”

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

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

“It’s cold, Mister Nut. And wet!”

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

“Slow down, Mister Nut, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vertical development,” he replied.

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

“How big is it?” she asked.

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

“So, how do we get down?”

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

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

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

“Gust spells?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Flyin’, Mister Nut?”

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

“No, I, no, wait, I didn’t—”

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

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

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

“Nut, I dunno—”

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

Tater Blossom scowled.

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

Confronted with this unpleasant logic, she whimpered.

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

“That’s mean!”

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

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

He was in dire need of a pint.

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

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

“You may feel a bit lightheaded—”

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

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

At least, he suspected it was terror.

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

“Exhilarating, isn’t it?”

“NO!” she yelped.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Blossom, do open your eyes—”

“Ain’t gonna.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” She nodded. “Oh. I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to know more.”

To hear her say this pleased him.

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

“That over there looks like a skull.”

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

“Oh. That’s not good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nut found himself in dire need of a pint.

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Oleander’s expression softened slightly.

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Do you expect better things for yourself?”

“Yeah, Ma’am, I do, fer surely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mister Nut?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tater Blossom nodded.

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

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

“No, Mister Nut… thank you.”

“I beg your pardon, but what?”

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

“I don’t know what you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She deserved better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like it.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Nut.”

“Don’t mention it.”

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

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

And into the vegetable bin of sin

View Online

A palace. The rains fell upon a palace. His ward had called it such, the tremendous building that was the library and the carriage house. Of course, his ward had never actually seen a palace, and only had the barest of descriptions to go by. The brick building had started out as a factory, but if he squinted in just the right way, and tilted his head off to one side, and then the other, Nut too could sort of see a palace. But only if one went by verbal descriptions.

There was a tower rising up from the middle of it all, a belltower. Once, long ago, the bell rang out to announce shift changes. Now it served as an observatory for the library, and several telescopes could be found up there. The structure, once open to the elements, now had windows, shutters, and was really a cosy place. Alas, the bell was now long gone, and Nut had no clue as to its fate. Perhaps it had been melted down for scrap.

With his new perspective, Nut had himself a look around. Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn made up the other half of the ‘horseshoe’ that surrounded the cul-de-sac that was Carriage Row Lane. These buildings alone were larger than anything in the Widowwood put together. The sheer enormity of these structures were more than enough to swallow up everything that Tater Blossom had known growing up.

Nut had a glimmer of understanding that he was unprepared for.

He’d always taken these structures for granted. They were ugly, hideous by Canterlot standards. Crude. Big and boxy, with hard edges and sharp corners. These places had never been constructed with aesthetics in mind, but practical, utilitarian concerns. For being an eyesore by Nut’s standard, they were a palace for Tater Blossom.

There was mold in the mortar between the bricks. Some of the bricks had crumbled a bit. In some places, the wall had been damaged, and new, different bricks were added as replacements. Lichens and moss could be seen. Hardy fungi, sparse grass, and weeds grew in the narrow bands of dirt between the brick walls and the cobblestone road.

“Food, Mister Nut.”

His companion sounded more than a little cross.

“Oh, yes. Of course. Dreadfully sorry. You mentioned that it looks like a palace.”

“And then you went all still and was a-starin’ upwards. If it wasn’t for the umbrella, a bird coulda pooped in yer eye. Or a pegasus with wicked intentions.”

Oh, he knew a pegasus with wicked intentions; Tater Blossom was about to go and meet her. She was still damp from her shower and given the state of the weather, it was unlikely that she’d dry until she stood near the massive fireplace in Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn. But going there meant facing Black Maple, and Nut, he was quite unprepared for that.

“Come, Miss Blossom, we must be going.”

Intense warmth struck Nut in the face as the door was opened. It made his skin feel taut, his eyes watered a bit, and then he caught the smell of what could only be described as home. Fried potatoes. Garlicky pretzels. Clam chowder. The somewhat bittersweet perfume of ale. Coal burning in the grate. Hot wood, which couldn’t be described exactly, but one knew it when one smelled it.

The only thing not welcome here was the chill.

Tater Blossom had frozen up in the doorway, so he pulled her through and shut the door behind her. A moment later, she pressed up against him, and he felt her tremble. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. This place was dim, a bit smokey, and there was an immediate quiet that both alarmed and disturbed Nut.

“Why, ‘allo, Nutter.”

“Greetings, Mister Easton. How goes the fishing trade?”

“Can’t complain. Much.”

“Good to hear, Mister Easton.” Nut raised his closed umbrella in greeting. When he heard his companion murmur something about griffons, he waited and listened, ready to reassure her if necessary.

His eyes searched the room, trying to see if anything had changed, or if anything was out of place. The picture of Princess Celestia hung over the fireplace mantle was sporting a roguish mustachio and muttonchop combo—which really wasn’t her style. It would have to be cleaned, and, if he found the culprit, a word would be said to them in private.

There was no sign of—

Oh. There she was. In the doorway behind the bar. When he saw her, he felt a peculiar, curious sensation of disgust, revulsion, and relief. His feelings for her were quite complicated, and he feared that sorting them out might prove impossible. She was as black as wet soot, with a mane and tail that looked like whorls of frothy maple syrup fluffed into clouds. He looked at her, she stared at him, he felt a spark, a live coal that went bouncing about in his innards, and at that moment, he wished that he’d never met her.

She was just that kind of mare.

“When my nethers moistened up rather suddenly, I knew you’d come back. I felt the sap and knew I needed a tap.”

“Miss Maple—”

“Who’s your lady friend, Nutty?”

“Miss Maple, we can—”

“She has wooden legs!” Tater Blossom blurted out as the sooty, glistening mare with suddenly-moistened nethers moved out from behind the bar.

“Miss Blossom, would you mind—”

“Wooden legs! What happened? Why do you have wooden legs?” Tater Blossom hurried forward before Nut could stop her, and made a beeline for the pegasus mare with two wooden legs.

Several of the patrons began to chortle into their drinks. Almost seething, Nut maintained his calm outward demeanour somehow. This meeting was inevitable. Unavoidable. He almost hoped that Maple and his ward wouldn’t get along, but life hated him far too much to allow for such good fortune. All of his pent up emotion, his frustration, all of his everything came out as a gentle, polite sigh of resigned stoicism.

“Well, one day, I was delivering me some growlers out to other islands, and I was flying over the deeps. You know how your mother tells you not to do something, because it is dangerous, and you could get hurt?” Expectant, crazy-eyed, Black Maple waited for a response.

And sure enough, Tater Blossom gave her one. “I sure ‘nuff do. My Ma told me all kinds of things I shouldn’t do, and I’m already doin’ some of them. I came to the big city, and now I’m in a house o’ whores.”

When Black Maple laughed, Nut was certain it must smell like acerglyn, or maybe rye. Nut immediately regretted trying to delicately explain to Tater Blossom what sort of tavern this was. He’d tried so hard to put it into polite, civilised terms, and it was all for naught. Even worse, the two of them seemed to like one another, and this was awful, just plain awful.

His life might very well be over.

“Well, my mother, she told me to never fly low over the deeps. But I did it anyway, because I’m that kind of gal. I love skating over the surface of the water, and out over the deeps, the water is so calm and placid. When my hooves trail over the surface, it kicks up a spray of diamonds. It was something that I loved.”

“So what happened?”

“An orca happened. A big killer whale. It comes up out of the deeps without warning, just a few bubbles that I didn’t notice until it was too late, and CHOMP! My front legs go right down his gullet! I’m positive that he wanted to bite me and drag me under, but he bit too hard, and my legs were snipped right off! I almost crashed into the water, but I saved myself, and I flew off. But at a proper altitude, because I’d just learned my lesson. Now, I have wooden legs up front. And I use them to kick Nut in the leg.”

“It’s true, she does do that,” he said as he approached.

“Usually when he’s being long-winded.”

Now silenced, he glared daggers at Black Maple.

“That’s just awful.” Tater Blossom was clearly horrified. “I’m so sorry that happened.”

“Eh, I’ll live. Now. I’ve told you a story, it seems only fair to give you a chance to explain why you’re with my Nut.”

“Oh, I didn’t know—”

“We are not a couple,” he interjected.

“Shut it, Nut, or it’ll be your shins.” Black Maple leaned in closer to Tater Blossom, and looked at the filly up and down. She sniffed once, then twice, and then with a smile, she scooted just a little bit closer. “Nut hasn’t tapped your source of sap, so you’ll live.”

Tater Blossom’s face turned a very ruddy shade of red.

“Miss Maple, I would love to explain everything that has transpired. My ward is hungry, and truth be told, I am as well. It has been quite a trying time and—my shins! Bother and blast, why must you do that, mare?” Baring his teeth, he went fumbling about while trying to rub his front legs together to ease the sting. “Vulgar whoremonger!”

Throwing back her head, Black Maple roared with laughter as she wrapped her wing around Tater Blossom’s neck. After a brief hug, she said to the young filly in her embrace, “Go take a seat. I’ll bring out food and drink. You owe me a story, but it has to be you, Miss. If Nut tells it, we’ll be here all night.”

“I would love a drink of water.”

“Oh.” Mindful that his shins faced mortal peril, Nut backed away as he spoke to Tater Blossom. “I am reminded. You must never drink the water that comes out of the faucet here.”

“Why?” Tater Blossom asked.

“Because if you do, you’ll have the explosive splatters, that’s why. Potable water is an expensive luxury, love. Beer and wine are cheap. Fermentation kills the bacteria and germs in the water.” With her wing still around the filly’s neck, Black Maple offered up another gentle squeeze. “I’ll bring ya some soft fizzy cider, so you won’t be smashed, Miss.”

“Why, thank you, Miss Maple. That is considerate.”

“Go sit down, Nut. I’m itching to hear this story.”

He nodded, and felt oddly jealous as Black Maple pulled her wing away from Tater Blossom. All of his worst fears manifested; they seemed to like one another. As terrible as this was, he was relieved, there was no denying that. If anypony could help Tater Blossom adjust after all of the bad things that happened, it would be Black Maple.

Whatever good cheer Black Maple once had was now departed. Nut ate his chowder in near-silence, saying very little. Across the table, Tater Blossom scarfed down yet-another plate of fried potatoes, and she showed no signs of slowing. He was quite proud of his pupil; she had done a fine job of recounting the tale, even the parts of it most painful to her.

The pegasus beside Tater Blossom was now a pissed-off thunderhead, an angry stormcloud that spewed vile, ear-rending profanities like thunderbolts. Black Maple was a passionate mare who had little in the way of self-control. Had she been there, violence would have been the only outcome. Of this, he was certain.

As he licked his spoon, he realised just how much he loathed her lack of self-control.

She did whatever she felt like, at the spur of the moment, with no thought of consequences. It was amazing that she was even potty trained. She drank copiously, scratched herself in public, had atrocious manners, and possessed a thoroughly ribald sense of humour. He watched as she gulped some of her rye, and couldn’t help himself; there was something about her that intrigued him.

“Nut… Nut… Nut—”

“What is it, Miss Maple?”

“What the fronk is wrong with you, Nut?”

“Excuse me, Miss Maple, I don’t follow what you—”

“You wordy bastard!”

“I assure you, my parentage is not in question!”

“You dense, wordy bastard… how could you?”

“How could I what? Make sense, mare. You accuse me of being wordy, but it is you that fails in their proper application of basic communication!”

She glared at him over the top of her glass of rye and he saw thunder in her eyes.

“Look at her, Nut. Just look at that shiner. That’s no common black eye, that’s gotta be bone bruising. I’ve had shiners like that, and the fact that she is up and moving around mystifies me. I’d be lying in bed bawling if that was me. I’d be too woozy to walk. She’s got bruises all over. Her lip is split, and I don’t understand how she’s eating the spicy potatoes. And you… you—”

“What about me?” Nut demanded.

“Why didn’t some heads go rolling?” Black Maple shouted.

“Because enough violence had been done already,” he replied with total calm. “The last thing she needs is to watch me eviscerate her family and everypony she’s ever known or loved. Think about what you are saying, Miss Maple. Do you really want her traumatised in such a fashion?”

“Yes!” Black Maple snapped. “Trauma or no, she needs to know that there is some justice in the world, you thoughtless lout! You didn’t have to kill nopony… maybe just carve the word ‘shame’ into her mother’s face or something. I don’t know. Anything is better than nothing! Show some feeling, damn you!”

There was a loud thump that turned heads as Black Maple dropped her wooden front legs upon the table to rest them there. He sat watching her face contorting with her rage, twisting, grimacing, scowling, every awful colour in the horrible rainbow of impotent fury. At this moment, Nut was positive that eggs could be fried on her forehead, and her ears had to be on fire.

“You said Nut was yours.”

Black Maple’s mood shifted with whiplash speed. “He is. Make no mistake. I’ve marked him. Which means he’s mine.”

There was no point in arguing it; she would just go back to her state of fury. Instead, he ate more of his clam chowder while wearing his most passive-aggressive expression of disapproval. It would drive her nuts, him not responding, and he found that he rather liked that notion—sometimes. If he maintained his calm, she would soon be shoved right over the edge.

“Well, I’m his ward, I guess, so what does that make me and you?”

“Besties,” Black Maple replied without hesitation.

The sound of Nut’s spoon clattering in his bowl was almost as loud as his snort.

“I’m gonna help fix you up, and you’ll be pretty. But not in a whorish way. Mrs. Oleander would get her tail in a knot. I’m gonna teach you about girly things, because I’m pretty sure all that was neglected back home. You know, this is my chance to show Nut that I can be a nurturing, loving, attentive type. And maybe he’ll come around, who knows.”

“Dubious, to say the very least—”

“Shut the fronk up, Nutty! You will come around!”

Watching her squirm in her chair was almost as satisfying as drinking the ale she made. Black Maple Ale. Sweet. Smokey. Comfort in a mug. He reached out, raised his mug in salute, and had himself a drink. Still she squirmed. She hadn’t even noticed the appreciative gesture. Squinting, he leaned in to study her, and pulled his monocle from his pocket. Oh, she wasn’t squirming, not exactly. Oh, she was squirming, but she was wiggling her stumps inside of her prostheses again.

“Miss Maple, do you require some assistance?” As he spoke, her ears pinned back.

“I need you to tap my sap trap.”

All of her usual bluster and boisterousness was now absent. Nut was certain that she needed his assistance, but sexual innuendo and perversity were her only coping mechanisms. As much as he disliked her, he hated how she suffered even more. Tipping his mug, he had himself another swallow, spent a moment to savour its sweet, smokey flavour, and then he was suddenly lost. How had he ended up with these mares? Well, one wasn’t quite a mare, but she wasn’t exactly a filly. What was his life? He sat his mug down, licked his lips, and tried to figure how how he’d ended up in this situation.

With his voice low, he asked, “Do you need me to apply some medicine to your stumps again? Do you need bandaging?”

In response, Black Maple mocked him, and repeated what he’d said in a shrill, nasal whine. “Do you need me to apply some medicine to your stumps again? Do you need bandaging?” She snorted, and made a dismissive wave with her wing. “Do you ever listen to how you talk? You could have asked if I needed help, or if I needed help with a private matter, even. But you have to go dragging it out—”

“Just like you’re doing right now?” he asked.

“Oh, fronk you, you pretentious jerk.”

“You’re unbearable when you’re injured—”

“And you… you’re just unbearable. Period!”

With her cheeks bulging with fried potatoes, Tater Blossom watched the exchange.

“My stumps are a little raw.” Black Maple’s eyes dropped down to the table. “Been on my hooves a bit too much. You were gone, Nut… and I don’t trust nopony else to look after me. I can’t appear weak.” She was whispering now, and it was raspy and faint, like dry leaves blown through a trash-strewn ally. “I have to look tough enough to take it. You know how things are.”

“Indeed, I do,” he said with gentle patience.

“I don’t understand.” Tater Blossom spoke around a mouthful of her namesake.

“We’ll speak in private, Miss Blossom.”

“Dinner’s on the house.” Some of her boisterousness returned, and Black Maple smiled at the earth pony sitting beside her. “You told me a good story, and I think it’s cute what Nut’s doing. He’s a great guy, you know? He really is. You’ll be safe with him, sweetie. You have nothing to worry about, because he’s mine, and he knows it. Denial makes it true, you know.”

“Thanks, Miss Maple.”

“Call me Blackie, sweetie.” Stretching out her wing, she slipped it around Tater Blossom’s neck. “You stay close to him when you’re out and about, you hear? We have a slasher running about, and gangs, and young fillies just like you go missing all the time. It’s an epidemic. When they do find the missing fillies, they’re usually floating face-down in the water, or washed up on a beach. Trust me, honey, I lost my legs because I didn’t listen to my mother. You’d be wise if you listened to me.”

When Tater Blossom turned her head to look at him, Nut nodded. Everything that Black Maple had said was true, and he’d not yet had a chance to say anything about it. His ward seemed to take it well though, and he admired her bravery. Tater Blossom had remarkable resilience.

“See, that’s what I do here, sweetie.” Black Maple pulled Tater Blossom just a little bit closer and placed her lips against the filly’s ear. “I keep others safe. I might just be a low rent madam, but I keep my workers safe. The gangs can’t hurt them here. That’s why I gotta look tough. I have a reputation I gotta uphold. Can’t show no weakness. I gotta look after my workers, because nopony else will. They’re whores, but they still have value.”

“Who looks after you?” Tater Blossom asked, her ear quivering.

“Nut does. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll see it soon enough. Sweetie, there’s something about giving another creature safety. Every creature deserves it, but so few have it. Now, those rich ponies in the Upper City, they have private security to guard their mansions. And the constables, they spend more time up there than they do down here. Nut and I, we give safety. It’s what we do. It is a rare and precious thing down here, and it makes me sad that you’ll be learning all about that.”

Something in the fireplace popped, and a stream of embers was jettisoned.

“That is, indeed, something that Miss Maple and I share in common. We both understand the costs of keeping others safe. It is, perhaps, the only thing we have in common, and might very well be the only reason why I tolerate her presence at all.”

“Nut, I’m not even gonna make fun of you for talking like a pretentious twat after saying that. That was sweet of ya.”

With a roll of his eyes, he had himself a slurp of ale, and then licked the foam from his lips.

“Want to take me upstairs and shag me?” Black Maple asked.

“Merciful Celestia, no. Miss Maple, you are my orca, and I am avoiding the depths of your waters.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Asshole. What an asshole.”

“Maybe it’s you,” Tater Blossom said in a meek, helpful manner. “He treats me nice.”

For a moment, Nut worried that Black Maple would be angry—maybe even furious. For a few seconds, she had no expression at all, her face was utterly blank. But then she laughed. This transitioned into a giggle, then back to a laugh, and as she pulled Tater Blossom into a tender hug, the sooty black pegasus chuckled.

It occured to Nut that he didn’t understand mares, nor ponies in general.

“Welcome to my boudoir,” Black Maple said as she waved her wings about. “One day, I am going lure Nut in here, and churn some Nutter Butter in my crack. But for now, I’ll settle with having my stumps doctored.”

As he passed through the doorway, Nut shuddered with revulsion.

Tater Blossom froze in the middle of the room, awestruck. Her eyes were wide and her senses clearly overwhelmed as her gaze darted from one thing to another. Watching her made Nut consider just how impressive all this was, and how little attention he paid to it. What was once miraculous was now practically wallpaper to him, just something that was there, but not noticed. Visual clutter.

“What is it all?” Tater Blossom asked.

“Eh, some of it is complex maths, some of the scribbles are my notes for my yeast breeding, some of this mess are changes and tweaks to my ale recipes, and that, that right over there”—she pointed with her extended primaries—“that is a list of all the dirty, dirty things I am going to do to Nut when he finally comes around and beds me.”

Again, Nut found himself shuddering from his intense revulsion.

“Where’s the bed?” the farm filly asked.

“Oh, Miss Maple sleeps in a cupboard, like a randy and quite perverse teacup.”

“You’ll get yours, Nut,” Black Maple said dismissively. “We’ll have fillies, and they’ll all turn out like me.”

For the third time, Nut convulsed with repulsed disgust.

“Yer smart,” Tater Blossom said to the pegasus mare who sat down in a pink velvet chair.

“A little.” Black Maple leaned back, smiled, and gazed at Tater Blossom through half-open eyes. “Smarter than most, maybe. All self-taught, too. After I lost my legs, I couldn’t run around and play. I was about your age when it happened. Had to stop being a filly and grow up fast. Lots of infections. I stayed sick. Since I couldn’t be outside playing, I hid out in my nest box and studied. What choice did I have? With my front legs gone, I was gonna have to use my brain to make a living.”

Head tilted back, Tater Blossom studied the stained glass lampshade that hung from the ceiling. Nut finally came away from the door to approach Black Maple, who sat in her hot-pink velvet chair like a princess on a throne. She had trouble dealing with the straps that wrapped around her body and held her legs in place. It was complicated, just as Miss Maple was complicated, and she was not one to ask for help. Sleeping with her prostheses on made everything worse, as her stumps needed to breathe.

“May I look at yer bed?” Tater Blossom did her best to look sweet as she asked.

“Go right ahead. Just pull the door open.”

There was a soft creak as the nest box door was opened by Tater Blossom, and then the filly poked her head in. Nut heard her gasp, and as much as he wanted to smile, he didn’t want Miss Maple to think that he was enjoying himself. That… would be a catastrophe. If she happened to get the wrong idea, that is.

“It’s all sinfully red in here!”

“Oh, she’s a treasure,” Black Maple whispered to Nut whilst she pointed with her wing at the filly exploring her nest box.

Committing himself to his task, he began to undo all of the straps and buckles that held Black Maple’s legs in place. He didn’t fully understand why she had these. They were archaic. Heavy. Practically antiques. Each leg was made of wood and brass, which was as fashionable as it was stylish, but this made them heavy. Bulky. They made her front-heavy, and interfered with her flight. At least she could walk with them, but at such a cost. They caused her pain and if she wore them for too long, they rubbed her stubs raw.

“Miss Maple,” he began, prepared for the tussle sure to come. “You have unicorns in your employ. Surely you could ask for help. Why do you allow this to happen?”

“If they find out that I can’t take care of myself, they’ll think I can’t take care of them, Nut. We’ve been over this. It is a matter of perception, confidence, and trust. I’m the scrappy whorehouse madam that had her front legs nipped off by an orca in search of a tasty pegasus snack and I lived to brag about it every chance I get. That’s an image, Nut. A powerful image that others believe in. Advertising that cost me a leg and a leg. That’s a bit too expensive to risk.”

He wanted to tell her how flawed her logic was, but Miss Maple could not be assailed by mere logic. If she could survive orcas, she could survive any logic he battered her with. While he tried to wear her down with reason, she would just sit back and bat her eyelashes at him, just like she was doing right now, at this very moment.

Her eyes were the colour of pale ale.

There was a soft creak as the nest box door closed, and far too late, Nut realised that Tater Blossom had crawled inside. Just as he was about to say something, he felt a soft touch of feathers, and he heard Black Maple say, “Leave her be, Nut. She’s sleepy, that poor thing. It’s clean in there. If you really must know, I’m celibate.”

“You…”—he found himself whispering—“you’re celibate? Impossible.”

Her response was unexpected; in a quiet, soft voice she replied, “No, it’s true. I’ve been that way since… well, about a week after you and I got to know each other.”

“Excuse me if I am doubtful, Miss.”

“No, it is true, Nut. See, when you finally come around, and you will, I am going to fronk you right in half. I want to be pent up and ready, Nut.”

Harrumphing softly, he undid the last strap, slipped it over her neck, and with a gentle tug, he pulled both front legs off at the same time. When he did so, he heard a sigh of relief from Miss Maple, and he gave her a chance to enjoy the moment before he had himself a better look at her poor abused stubs. When he dared to look her in the eye, he saw that hers were glassy with tears. Both legs were set down on the floor, in the corner. If Miss Maple would not be stood in a corner, at least part of her could be.

Frustrated with her, he thought about lecturing her, but wasn’t sure what could be accomplished. Instead, he focused on her nest box. Tater Blossom was probably already asleep. He envied her. She was no doubt comfortable right now, on an impossibly plush bed, in a dark little cupboard that was shut off from the world.

“Blow on them, please? They’re so hot… I’ll behave, I promise. At least for a few minutes. Until the burning stops.”

Brows furrowing to the point of leaving deep grooves in his forehead, Nut obliged her. It was a silly thing, ridiculous in the extreme, but it did bring her comfort. She claimed that it helped to cool them off after all of the friction caused by her wooden legs. As he blew, she wiggled, and waggled, and squirmed in her chair, almost as if she was lost in orgasmic throes.

This… this was her behaving.

Pegasus ponies were impossibly visceral creatures, and he wasn’t sure if he could stand them. All of the portions of grey matter typically assigned to impulse control were re-purposed to assist flight-related functions. At the moment, her tongue lolled out and she waved both of her stumps around as he blew on them, all while wearing an expression of intense ecstasy.

It bothered him in some weird fundamental way that such a simple action on his part could leave her so happy. The whole thing was illogical. Inconsistent. It suffered a dearth of sense and sensibility. When he caught a whiff of something foul, he allowed himself no outward reaction. He hoped that she did not have yet another infection. He’d only been gone for a few days… a few days had been enough to cause this.

A part of him wanted to smack her upside her head with her own wooden leg.

“You showered with your legs on, didn’t you? Or you went outside into the rain?”

“Both,” she panted while her stumps bobbed up and down. “There’s experimental rye in the liquor cabinet. I’ve been trying out mild opium extracts and somewhat stronger cannabis extracts. I’m trying to make an analgesic without too many side effects, other than the booze. I can handle the booze. I’m not so good at handling the pain. It kinda hurts, Nut.”

“I suppose you want me to pour you a glass?” he asked.

“Why else would I bring it up?” she responded.

Reaching out with his mind, he pulled open the ornate wooden cabinet, and then grabbed the bottle labeled as ‘Formula 477’. No other bottle was marked as experimental, so this had to be the one. Then he grabbed not one, but two glasses, and performed a neat pour. Never one to miss a chance to strike a blow while sparring, he smiled at her while holding her glass up high, out of reach.

“Would you like a sippy cup so you don’t spill?”

“Asshole,” she whispered. “Just you wait. You’ll get yours.”

The rye… was quite dry. Spicy, a bit violent, and with a nuance that corn whiskey thoroughly lacked, he found that he rather liked Black Maple’s rye. A second sip left him tasting maple notes, as if a phantom of maple syrup had passed through his drink. When she wasn’t acting like a lecherous tease, Miss Maple was a brilliant alchemist, chemist, and brewmaster.

“You’re quite a dashing figure, standing there in your tweed vest, sampling my rye.” She gratefully accepted her glass and with marvellous dexterity, held it in her primaries. “I have my eye on the finer things in life, Nut… and you’re fine enough for my plebeian tastes.”

“Oh, I say. I’m flattered.”

“Yeah. That. Do that. Talk like that. It butters my buns, Nut, and leaves me with a slippery squish betwixt my southbound canyon.”

For now, he ignored her while he had another sip of rye.

“Nut, what are you doing with that girl?” Black Maple asked in a tone of voice that Nut had never heard from her before.

“I have no idea,” was his straightforward answer. “I was made to swear an oath as a noble. A pony whose faith had been stricken with doubt was in need of something to believe in. What else was I to do? Walk away? Do nothing? What is the idiom? That for evil to triumph—”

“Sexy stallions who wear tweed must stand aside and do nothing?”

One eyebrow went as rigid as a stone arch, and he replied, “Indeed.”

“Well, I am proud of you, Nut.”

“You are?” His stiff eyebrow relaxed a little. “Why, thank you, I suppose.”

“No, you don’t understand, you tweed-wearing, insincere, overpolite jackass.”

He waited; perhaps she had a point.

“A lot of my working girls come from places just like that one. Some of them had rescuers too. Noble gents that swooped in, saved them, and then shagged them the first chance they got. A lot of those girls felt obligated. Like they couldn’t say no. So they toughed it out. Now, I am not gonna say anything bad about my girls, but Tater is too damned smart to end up in a place like this. She don’t belong here. Instead of a happy fronk, she’d be a sob story. Don’t let her end up here, Nut. No matter how tempting it might be, do not abuse her trust. See, if it was anypony else but you, Nut, I’d be worried… she’s a cute little earth pony. But with all the times you’ve turned me down flat, I figure that she has to be safe.”

“Why, Miss Maple, I do believe that might just be the kindest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Don’t be a jerk about it. Not now. Not ever. This is too serious, Nut.”

“Very well, then.” He had himself another sip of rye, and enjoyed the pleasant warmth.

“When you talk like that, with no emotion at all, no passion, I can’t tell if you are being an insincere twit or not. I never know when you’re being real with me. You have these responses that are so bland and indecipherable that I can’t make out what you’re really saying. It’s gonna be hard for Tater to have any idea how you feel about anything.”

This gave him pause, and his brows formed a wedge over his eyes.

“Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it, ya jackass.”

He bit back an irritated response.

“Some little fillies,” Black Maple began in a low, sing-song voice, “don’t need a lick of attention. They go off and do their own thing. Never once do they suffer in need of another’s opinion. Other little fillies, well, they’re projects. They desperately want approval. Need it. Crave it. They’ll do anything to get it. Some of them go on to be models, or movie actresses, or singers, anything to get them the praise and adoration they so desperately crave. Others… others become whores.”

She drank down the contents of her glass in one gulp, and then grimaced at Nut.

With no need for a request, he filled her glass, then the two of them eyeballed one another. This was the reason why he valued her company. He didn’t like her language, not at all, or her blunt turn of phrase, but he valued her insights. She knew ponies. Ponies were like books to her. This foul-mouthed, booze-chugging, perverted whorehouse madam was a pony reader. A reader of creatures. Already, entire volumes of understanding had just been shared with him, and it had not yet been an hour since entering this room.

“I don’t get it, Nut. You’ll take her in, but you won’t settle down with me. I’m a little offended, so I am.”

“You and I are complicated,” he said, hating himself for saying it aloud.

“Oh… oh… oh my… okay, you have my attention. Sincerely. I’ll be a good filly for the next few minutes if you continue with that line of reasoning. Tell me how we’re complicated. Talk to me about us.

He finished off his own glass, and then poured another, all while looking at a shopping list of some kind. “I have plans, as you know. A future. First chance I get, I’m leaving.”

“Yes, the islands.”

“The Gallopagos.”

“Yeah, those.” She raised her glass. “To impossible dreams, Nut. It’ll cost millions of bits to fund an expedition. A lot of living can be done between now and the time you finally leave.”

“Perhaps,” he replied. “But… entanglements. Miss Blossom will be an actual mature adult in a few years, and well-prepared, she’ll make it on her own. Other entanglements are more difficult to disengage from. Settling down. Having a family—”

“This isn’t complicated at all, Nut.”

“Do explain. You have my attention for once. Must be the rye talking.”

“You give me what I want. As much of it as I can stand. You give me so much of it that I can’t take it anymore. So much that I burst. Leave me in a constant state of pregnancy. Never leave me alone. Fronk me silly when I least expect it, or when I’m not looking, and never give me a chance to recover. I’m positive that after a dozen or so foals, and me never getting a moment’s rest, I’ll be happy to send you on your way to those damned islands, just so I can have a blissful moment of peace and rest my weary womb.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I wasn’t joking.”

“You… you’re not funny.”

She raised her glass and examined the golden liquid within. “It is possible for both of us to get what we want from life. You can have your islands. I won’t hold you back. I respect the dreams of the empowered individual far too much. As important as your dreams are—and they are important, don’t you ever let go of them—there is nothing stopping you from having a few little dreams along the way. Live a little. Give yourself over to passion. Let go, Nut.”

Something about her words left him shaken, but he would never admit it.

“I want to reach a point where I am with foal and I wearily say to myself, ‘Oh no, not again. This can’t be happening.’ See, I want things that will provoke my passions and make me feel something. I want to be tired of it all, and fed up, and get cranky… so that way, when relief comes, it is overwhelming. I want to be swallowed up and overcome.”

“You’re mad.”

“And you… you’re so anally retentive that you had to of been potty trained at swordpoint. I want to see you let go, Nut. I want to see all your walls give way. You… you’ve walked into riots without flinching. I’ve watched you tangle with a sea monster without even breaking a sweat. All this calm of yours isn’t natural, Nut. I want you to be happy… but I also want you angry. It would make me happy to see you feel things, and I want to be the one who makes you feel them. And make no mistake, Nut. Somehow, some way, I will find a way to get under your skin, and you will feel something. Come Tartarus or high water, I will see your fine control slip up one day. I figure it will be when I give you our first foal to hold. That’ll be the day you crack, I think.”

He found himself at a loss for words.

“Don’t make me fight dirty, Nut.”

It was time to change the subject. “Allow me to have a look at you, Miss Maple.”

“It might even be on the day you leave for those islands.” Her face hardened and her eyes turned flinty. “Saying goodbye to his family has been known to break a stallion.”

Turning off his emotions completely, Nut stood passive while waiting so that he might examine Black Maple. She looked up at him, and he down at her, and when she sighed, he knew that she knew that she’d been defeated. At least for now. They would spar again later, because that was what they did. His defense was far too perfect, and her offense was just too strong.

They remained at an impasse; at least for now and for the immediate future.

The politics of exploitation

View Online

Rain pitter-pattered against the window, tap-tap-tapping as if politely asking to be invited inside. While listening to the rain, Nut spent a moment surveying his good work on Black Maple’s stubs. Both legs had been amputated right at the elbow, leaving behind short stubs for her prostheses to be anchored to. A thorough cleaning, a little greasy medicated salve, some padded bandages to cover the tender, rubbed-raw places, and all was well again. At least, as well as it could be given the circumstances.

“It is not yet dark,” he said in a low whisper, mindful of his sleeping ward.

“Leaving?” asked Black Maple.

“I’ve thought about it.” He moved closer to the window so that he could watch as the rain fell. “Need to go to the university. But I do not wish to wake Miss Blossom.”

“She’ll be safe here, you know.”

“I gave my word, Miss Maple. As a noble.

There was no sarcasm to found in Black Maple’s response. “You know, nopony holds the nobles to the fire like you do, Nut. There’s hating your own kind, and then there is… well… whatever it is you are doing.”

“Hating your own kind.” He kept his tone neutral as he peered through his monocle at the rivulets of rain upon the glass. “Is that what you believe my motivations to be?”

“I do, in fact, hate my own kind,” Black Maple admitted in a low, throaty whisper, a whorehouse madam’s voice, suitable for sultry suggestions and private confessions. “I lost my legs, and that was bad enough. But it wasn’t enough to suffer the loss of my legs, no. It affected my flying ability. I was called stupid, and foolish, and reckless. What was left of me was less than a whole pegasus. No longer a perfect flying creature. A danger to others.”

“Black Maple, I really am sorry.”

“Thank you.” Her voice, still a whisper, had changed tone. “Losing my legs was the end of me as a pegasus. It’s almost as bad as losing a wing. But it is how I lost my legs… which everpony says was entirely preventable. They make it sound like I deserved to lose my legs. Like I was asking for it to happen. Whores want to be raped, and little pegasus fillies flying over the deeps want their legs chomped off by orcas. I was a stupid kid. What did I know, anyhow?”

The floor and the room rumbled from thunder felt, but not heard. It made the water on the window zigzag, and Nut observed how the vibration altered the course of the water’s downward trek. A second or so later, more silent thunder was felt, and perhaps he imagined it, but he could have swore he heard a faint suggestion of a boom in the distance. Glasses tinkled in the cupboard and pictures rattled on the walls.

“Nobles have much to answer for,” Nut said as the silence became unbearable. “Many promises were made. Few were kept. I was born into incredible privilege. My birth was winning a lottery. The only thing special about me happens to be the fact that I had the good fortune to be born to the right parents.”

“I dunno, Nut. Not everypony is cut from the same cloth. I see fabrics of all kinds, Nut. Rough cottons, scratchy wools, and smooth silk.”

“I am not a fabric, I am a unicorn.”

“Nut, you’re a tweed. A fabric that is horribly out of fashion that nopony loves, but a few desperate holdouts keep the passion for it alive. Why? Nopony knows.”

It took all of his effort not to smile, and he didn’t dare to turn around and look at Miss Maple. Such an act would be his undoing. Sometimes, she had a remarkable turn of phrase, and she could be so witty. But there were other moments where she was so vulgar, so crude, so crass. He rather liked her in her current mood, but her moods changed with all of the suddenness of a shifting storm.

“One day, this stuffy, uptight unicorn arrives. He’s a student, just got accepted into the university, and this unicorn, he exudes class. Not socialite class, but class. He comes into our humdrum lives, and he has standards. He expects the very best, and even worse, he expects everypony around him to be their very best. Soon, the whole damned neighborhood is twenty-percent snootier. Some of us even eat with napkins. We’re inspired to be better ponies, for some reason. Why do you suppose that is, Nut?”

“Oh, I have no earthly idea,” he replied without hesitation.

“It doesn’t matter about winning the lottery, as you put it. Some ponies are born noble, and it isn’t about pedigree. Just look at Mrs. Oleander. Tell me she’s not a noble. And then there’s you, Nut. Make no mistake, you were born noble, and born to noble parents. See, that’s the difference. Now, can you trust a crippled pegasus to look after your ward while she’s sleeping? Sooner or later, Nut, you’re going to have to leave her. You’ll have class, or a lecture, or a job, or something, and you have to trust somepony.”

“I do suspect that her father, Hickory, would be quite upset if he knew where his daughter slept. I feel guilty, Miss Maple.” For a moment, he considered pouring himself another glass of rye, but then thought better of it. While he knew he was welcome, he didn’t wish to wear upon Miss Maple’s hospitality.

She leaned back in her hot-pink velvet chair, which was covered in tiny, glossy black hairs. He heard her sigh, and he watched her phantom reflection trapped in the window pane. For perhaps a second, he thought her beautiful, desirable even, but the moment was fleeting. He was quick to recover himself and corral all of his feelings.

“I shan’t be gone for too long. At least I hope not. Will you be okay without your legs?”

She pffted once, then twice, and blew a soft raspberry before saying, “I’ll be fine. For a bit. I planned to sleep, actually. A nap might be nice. Go on, Nut. Lock the door behind you. Everything will be fine. Formula four-seventy-seven seems to be having the desired effect, but I might skip out on the poppy extracts entirely with the next batch.”

“I’ll be off, then. Miss Maple, for whatever it is worth, I do trust you with my ward.” He paused, and found that he wanted to say more, but words felt far too dangerous now. Miss Maple was clearly under the influence; she had imbibed a fair bit. While not helpless, she was vulnerable.

Properly liquored up, Black Maple was the most dangerous creature that Nut knew of.

It had cooled considerably, and now the fog was descending upon the islands of the Lower City. Overhead, beyond the fog, the sky was neither grey, nor blue, but some shade of blah in between. Babbling streams of water poured from overflowing gutters and every wall glistened with droplets of moisture.

In the middle of the lane, gulls fought a pitched battle over a rat carcass.

A drenched griffon was lighting the gas streetlights that held the darkness at bay. A fond smile brought out the best features of Nut’s face, and he found himself hurrying his approach so that he might say hello. He knew this griffon, and for a time, they had worked together, doing odd jobs as a team.

“A fine how do you do, Erasmus,” he said. “Getting the lights on early?”

The griffon paused in his task to reply, “Storms blowing in, Mister Nut. Pressure is dropping. Can you feel it? Temperature is plummeting. It’ll blow a gale before midnight.”

“Oh… bother.” It seemed that his ward’s first night in the city would be a memorable one, and Nut found himself gripped with concern.

“The poor sods that live in the marina will provide a hot meal for the fish tonight,” Erasmus remarked. “Expect floods. High tides. The streets will be a mess come morning.”

“Do stay safe, Erasmus.”

“You as well, Mister Nut.”

“Just Nut, if you please. Mister Nut sounds so silly.”

“Go about your business, Mister Nut. There’s maybe an hour or two before things get interesting. After that, everything’ll worsen. I must finish up, so I can get back to the lighthouse.”

“Congratulations on getting that job, Erasmus. I must be going.”

“Later, Mister Nut.”

At one point, in the not-to-distant past, the University of Vanhoover’s biology department had been a cannery and a vast steamworks that kept the industrial machinery going at all hours of the day and night. It wasn’t a pretty school—in fact, it was an incredible eyesore—but looks were deceiving. There was no better place to study biology in all of Equestria.

The campus appeared to be in the middle of preparations for the storm. Shutters were closed, things left outside were secured, tied down, and covered in tarps. The department zeppelin was about to be undocked, so that it might fly above the storm where it would be in no danger. Covers were secured over the marine pools, which were fragile, experimental ecosystems. Over in the marina, the department’s many boats and watercraft were secured.

Most of the students were gone, off to enjoy summer vacation. Extra credit was offered during the summer, as well as advancement courses, but not many students took advantage of these. Just a dedicated few took advantage of what was offered, and Nut was one of them. Many had departed not to vacation, but in search of pay.

Just as the winds changed direction, Nut ducked into the greenhouse wing, which just so happened to be connected to the administration offices. The transition took a moment to adjust to, as it was quite warm and humid in the greenhouses. Temperatures hovered near the eighty degree mark, and the air was warmed by chemically-assisted composting.

There was an atrocious stink lurking amongst the greenery.

A songbird orchid sang, no doubt hoping to lure in a songbird to eat. Nut wondered if the orchid had fed recently, but had no way of knowing. This wasn’t his department, nor his responsibilities. Though he did occasionally study some of the plants here. He passed the hiccuping hydrangeas. Why did they hiccup? What function could that possibly serve? It was a great mystery. But hiccup they did, and sometimes, for reasons unknown, they caused hiccups in others.

Every plant in this particular greenhouse made sound of some kind.

A silverweed sneezed, a great, wheezy blast, and sent a cloud of pollen in his direction. Undeterred by the plant’s brazen sexual advances, Nut moved between the rows, pushing past various leaves and fronds to reach the exit at the other end. Trilliums trilled, singing in harmony with one another, which was fascinating because they did not possess auditory organs. One of the trilliums was quite a little diva, and her voice stood out above the others.

Showoff, he thought to himself.

“Mama? Mama!”

He gave that plant a wide berth as the cries became, “Papa! Papa!” The forget-me-not had a way to lure in ponies and other intelligent creatures. He was far too strong willed to be influenced by mere tricks, but others were waylaid by this predatory plant. The pollen was highly sought after by alchemists, who made powerful sleeping draughts and other sleep-related curatives. Surgeons occasionally used it to put patients under.

“Papa, no! Don’t leave me, Papa!”

“Bugger off!” Nut said as he moved himself a safe distance away.

Forget-me-nots had no direct means to bring actual harm, but sleeping ponies and other creatures made excellent meals for passing, roaming predators. Blood made excellent fertiliser, as did rotting carcasses. Many of these plants fed on decaying corpses, which was the reason for the extra-special, extra-stinky compost.

Nut was glad to pass through the door, and into the next greenhouse.

“That is quite a sordid tale,” Sterling Note said while he puffed on his pipe. “Quite a tale indeed, young Nut.” The greying, silver-hued unicorn leaned back in his overstuffed chair, lifted up a snifter of brandy, coughed, cleared his throat a bit, but he did not drink. The brandy remained at the ready.

There were samples of all kinds on the massive study table, including some from Nut. Rolls of film, some of his study journals, and other things were strewn out and left in disarray after a cursory examination by Sterling Note. Susan stood by the roaring fire, a silent sentinel awaiting service.

“Trolls, you say. Posing as harmless vegetables.”


“Merciful love of alicorns, what is the world evolving into?” Sterling’s heavy jowls quivered, and at last, he allowed himself a sip of brandy. “Trolls are bad enough as they currently are. But to pass themselves off as vegetables… what’s next? And those mimics posing as books in the archives. You’re gaining a reputation, Nut.”

“Perhaps I am, but I am the observer. Not the cause.”

“Oh, indeed.” Warmed by brandy, Sterling Note puffed away contentedly on his pipe, and never once did his keen gaze stray from Nut. “You brought back a specimen from that alicorn-forsaken backwater.”

This gave Nut pause. “I beg your pardon, but I don’t recall procuring a troll and returning with it.”

“Oh bugger the trolls. By the way, what do you recommend regarding that matter? You failed to mention that.”

“A full expedition. Well-funded. Large. As many students as conceivably possible. Safety in numbers, you know.” Nut took a sip of his black coffee, was thoughtful for a moment, and then added, “We need to know how they breed. I foresee potential agricultural applications. We should get a joint expedition going with another school that has a farming science division. I am still having ideas. There is a great deal of potential.”

“Oh, I quite agree. Capital good idea, Nut. A cooperative venture with another school.”

“Geologists might be useful,” Nut suggested. “We don’t know what the vegetable trolls do for the soil.”

“I’ll contact Professor Maud Pie by telegram. Astounding idea. But I quite suspect that your motivations may have malicious intent, Nut.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” He hid his muzzle behind his steaming coffee mug and could no longer look his professor in the eye. “I assure you, my intentions are good.”

“Oh, codswallop, Nut. You want that bastion of ignorance overrun with scientists. You’re unsettled, Nut. You haven’t been right since you’ve entered my office. Since when do you drink black coffee? You’re a mess, my boy.”

“I have no idea what you’re going on about, Professor Note.”

With a grunt, Sterling Note hurled his half-finished snifter of brandy into the fireplace, which burst into a fiery bloom. “Feel something, damnit!” His heavy jowls quivered once more, and his ears reddened. “Forget the trolls. I’m more interested in the live specimen.”

Suddenly, Nut didn’t like where this was going.

“You’ve brought a pony from an intensely isolated community into the big city, Nut.” Sterling Note poured himself another snifter of brandy, and then poured a second for Nut as well. “A remarkable opportunity has presented itself.”

“I will not use my ward for reckless experimentation. Forget it.”

In response, Sterling Note waved his smoking pipe around. “No, no, nothing like that. That’d be barbaric. We’re not graverobbers, Nut. We’re ponies of science. Your ward is a fascinating opportunity to study social evolution. I want you to take notes. Gather data. You will observe her every action, her every interaction, and document her progress and integration into advanced society.”

“Professor, I am uncertain if that falls within my specialisation—”

“You’ll do it anyway, Nut. This data is too valuable to pass up. This is a scientific goldmine. You understand passive observation better than anypony I know. For whatever reason, you blend into the background. Make detailed notes in that way that you do, with equal parts observation and speculation. Spare no detail. Document everything. Do as I say.”

“But I—”

“But nothing,” Sterling Note grunted. “I used my good name to get you accepted here. I opened doors for you, Nut. Nevermind your background that I am aware of now. In you, I saw endless potential. So do as I say.”

“But I’m biased—”

“Stow it.”

“No matter how it might appear, I am emotionally involved in all of this. I have feelings. My ability to be objective is compromised. Any facts that I present will be distorted—”

“Who cares?” Sterling Note bellowed. “Nopony cares, Nut! For all of your faith in science, there is no purity. That’s a myth. A lifetime from now, you’ll be gone. Dead. But your data will live on. It will be picked apart, gone over, picked apart again, and debated endlessly. It is not the gatherer that determines the purity of data, but time and refinement. New understandings will be made as all of this is sorted out. The sorting might actually be more important in the long run than the data.”

Silenced, Nut sipped his coffee, and thought about what had just been said.

“Science is about what we leave behind for others, Nut.” Sterling Note was soft-spoken now, and calm. “You’re young. I’m old. You don’t know it, but I am trying to help you leave a legacy behind. Let the details be settled in debate. Others will endlessly argue your biases and your emotional involvement. That too, is data. You have a rare gift for detail, Nut. It shows in your notes, your drawings, and how you interact with the world. You will leave behind a treasure trove of information, and countless others will benefit from it. A generation or two from now, whole new understandings might be gleaned. Our work is to gather, Nut. We gather and stow away, so that future generations may prosper.”

The black coffee made Nut’s throat go tight, and he struggled to hold back his rictus. There was something more to this, something unsaid, something withheld. Another sip of coffee made him put the mug down upon the table, and he lifted up the snifter of brandy. Yes, Sterling Note was holding something back. Something important.

“Well,” he said softly, “we’ve covered altruism. Now, what other motivations might be at work here?”

Sterling Note cleared his throat a few times, coughed, puffed on his pipe, and shifted his bulk around in his chair. “Nut… are you aware of the science reviews in the newspapers?”

“In general, I avoid the newspapers,” was his blunt response.

“Well.” The old professor coughed, wheezed for a bit, and sipped his brandy when he was no longer in danger of choking. “A number of our best and brightest also keep notes. Journals. They document what they do, and some of it is quite interesting. Interesting enough that ponies will read about it in the newspapers. Interesting enough that ponies will donate money to the university, so that these projects can be funded. A few of our scholars have achieved a sort of celebrity. I am positive that the residents of Vanhoover would love to read about a filly fresh off the farm finding her way in our fair city.”

“Bloody what?”

“Now now, be reasonable, Nut. This isn’t a carnival sideshow. We’re just making the data available to the public in its raw form. Think of it as a sort of massive peer review, of a sort. Ponies will gain interest. They may find themselves attracted to science. Others will want to fund our noble cause. Others still will keep reading for the serial adventure. Everypony benefits, Nut.” Sterling Note gulped his brandy, and when he spoke again, his voice was smoother, less raspy.

“We’re in financial trouble, Nut. The school is just barely keeping its head above water. Every little bit helps. This is but one way, one way among many. Please, try to be reasonable. Try to see the bigger picture. This is equine drama, Nut. Others will be interested. They will buy every paper, hoping to see her progress. To see her grow and develop. We have a unique opportunity, Nut.”

“Won’t this change the outcome of her development?” he asked. “We have no idea what mass observation will do to the outcome. Others may interfere. Celebrity status might be a hindrance.”

“All of that is data, Nut. Every bit of it is important, in some form or another.” Tilting his head back, the old professor emptied his glass in a single gulp.

“So then we study the social evolution of celebrity?” Nut found this conversation increasingly at odds with his own ideals. Even worse, he was seeing his dear, trusted professor in a new light.

“If you say yes, you will go on to have a promising academic career, and no doubt professional career as well. Your ward’s celebrity will also be your own. Having the interest of socialites with bits to burn would only be a benefit to you. Your dream of those alicorn-forsaken islands might actually be possible. And all you have to do is do what you do naturally. Take notes. Write in your journal. Make observations, ground them in reality, and occasionally speculate about the nature of things. Be reasonable. Everypony benefits.”

Suddenly, Nut found that he shared a new understanding with Black Maple’s employees. It was a profound moment, a terrible moment, a moment for which there were no words. This… this was a practical arrangement, an exchange of money for services rendered, but he could not help but compare it to a sort of academic prostitution. It left him feeling dirty, unsettled, and unclean. A part of him wanted to walk out, to get up and just walk away, but another part of him saw the benefit. This might very well make his future dreams possible. But was this unpleasantness worth it?

What might Black Maple say?

He already knew.

Yes, he already knew. She believed that all of life was whoring, and the real trick was finding a means to sell your body in a way that made you happy with the least amount of shame. Or at least, was the least unpleasant. For they all had to exchange their bodies for bits. At the time, when this discussion had taken place, he had vehemently disagreed with her. But now, sitting here in Sterling Note’s office, he saw the truth of things.

The unpleasant truth of things.

Life in Canterlot had not prepared him for this. Commoners no doubt had to endure this every day, similar circumstances at least, and now he found himself living the very same sort of life they had to endure. The struggle to survive. How one survived was just as important as survival, or so he thought. Since coming here, his life had been a process of coming undone. He frequented a brothel and was well-loved there, even though he never partook in anything but the food and drink.

He did odd jobs to make bits, and worked as a mechanic.

So far, his survival had been relatively straightforward, but recently, infinite complexity had been introduced. He’d made himself responsible for the life of another. Why had he done that? To prove that he could? No, that couldn’t be it, could it? He wished that Black Maple were here, she would have insight about all of this. Precious insight.

Sterling Note was pouring more brandy while fighting back a cough.

It was true that the school was facing financial hardship. Recently, assets had been auctioned off to raise funds. Nut knew almost nothing about the financial situation though, and now felt keen regret over this matter. He couldn’t possibly know everything about all things, even though he very much wanted to.

“I will do as you ask, but with conditions,” he said at last.

“I’m listening,” the professor replied.

“These entries will not be scripted.” Leaning over the table, Nut allowed his eyes to narrow. “I will not be coerced to make them exciting, or full of things that draw readership. They will be incredibly dry, incredibly boring scientific entries, written in the most draconian scholarly manner that I can conceivably muster. I will spend hours perusing thesauri in search of the longest possible, most jejune, most archaic language to be found beneath the sun. Nothing will be embellished. Everything will be presented as it happens. Am I clear?”

“I would expect no less from you, Nut,” the older unicorn deadpanned.

“My integrity will not be compromised.”

“Nut, truth be told, I was already under a lot of pressure to get you publishing. I was told flat out that if by the end of the summer that I didn’t have you contributing, I’d be removed from the financial board. I’ve agonised over this. It’s kept me awake at night. This… this is too good an opportunity to pass up. School politics. I hope you’ll understand.”

Though he did not understand, Nut would find a way to survive this ecosystem.

“If this works out well,” Sterling Note said to Nut, “and I get offered a chair position, your star will rise, Nut. I’ll see to that. You… you are my most promising student, and I mean that. This is the game we’re forced to play, Nut. The cost of progress. I want to open doors for you, Nut, but to open those doors, I have to be able to reach them first.”

“All promises of greatness and door opening aside, my integrity will not be compromised. I cannot be bought. If I succeed, I would rather it be by my own merit.”

“Nut, my boy, success has nothing to do with merit. Life doesn’t work that way. Success is about who you know, and how well you understand the system, so you can rig it in your favour. Some of us cheat. Others ride on coattails. Some of us swallow our pride and play the game by its own rules, while foolishly holding on to the idea that once we reach the top, we’ll make up for our compromises by helping others.”

“Which are you, I wonder?” Nut asked. A sheathed sword still stung when striking.

After a long slurp of brandy, Sterling Note replied, “I was like you once. Young and full of ideas. I was going to reform education. I was going to change the system from within. All these years later, I wish I’d stuck with biology, and not academic politics. Beneficial changes have been made, but now I wonder if the price was worth it.”

For the first time in the conversation, Nut felt genuine pity for his professor.

“Hold on to your integrity, Nut. As much as you can, for as long as you can. Once it starts to slip away, it is very much like shifting sand in an hourglass. A little slips away, and you dismiss it. It doesn’t seem like much. But the hour passes, and all those little grains of sand slip away, and you find yourself left with very little as your hour nears its end.”

“Now you talk as if you’re dying,” Nut remarked.

“I am getting no younger, Nut. I have more days behind me than ahead.” The old greying unicorn shook his head. “When I was your age, or thereabouts, this school didn’t have a dedicated biology department. We shared space with the physics eggheads. This campus, all of it, every inch of it, has been my life’s work. I’ve fought for all of it. I slowly battled my way up the ranks, and everything that you see, I made it happen. I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost a bit of my soul in the process.”

“This… was… your Gallopagos, wasn’t it?”

“It was, Nut. They told me I was a fool.”

Uncertain of how he felt, Nut hung his head and stared down into his brandy.

“I was told there was no money to build a dedicated biology wing, so I engineered the purchase of this industrial plot. Everypony told me I was a damn fool, and that I would be the ruination of the school. But then I pointed out Vanhoover’s natural resources, namely, the ocean, and how much study could be accomplished here. It all started with marine biology. I brokered a deal with the seaponies for knowledge exchange. After that, I had momentum, my boy.”

“Why tell me this?” Nut asked.

“Learn from my mistakes, my boy. You want your Gallopagos. I wanted my biology department. Be wary of what it costs you.”

“I think we understand each other,” Nut said to his professor, though he wasn’t sure what he understood. “A storm brews. I should be heading home. I’ll leave my journals with you so they can be duplicated. Let me know how the photographs develop.”

“Sure thing, Nut.” The old unicorn coughed, then added, “Before you go, Nut… tell me, how would you feel about meeting the seaponies? A new liaison is needed. I can’t be out on the open water, or in damp places. Triggers my consumption, Nut. I plan to tell the board that you are my successor. I don’t trust anypony else to do it. Everypony wants to exploit the indiginous tribes that inhabit these waters. That can’t happen.”

Head bowed, Nut took a moment to consider his professor’s request…

A steady downpour drenched everything, and held all things dry with contempt. At the moment, it was difficult to tell if it were night or day, and only the watch in his pocket knew the truth. Susan protected him from the worst of it, but everything was simply wet. Life went on though, and the streets were fairly packed with creatures trying to finish their errands before the storm hit.

“Fresh salmon!” a griffoness fishmonger shouted. “Freshest salmon in all of Vanhoover!”

“Eel pies,” another shouted. “Piping hot eel pies! Just out of the oven! So hot it’ll burn the roof of your mouth to tatters! Eel pie!”

Nut moved among them, a common pony amidst commoners. He struggled to make ends meet, just like they did. Sometimes, he starved just a bit, just like they did. Since coming here, Nut had made their struggle his own. But all of that was about to change, and this, this bothered him a great deal. He’d made this choice with himself in mind, but it didn’t feel fair to subject Potato Blossom to all of this.

Of course, if she’d left home on her own, she might face worse.

“Maps of prosperity!” a pony hollered. “Every good job in the city! Immigrants, waste no time searching for work! Every job marked! Employment in twenty-four hours, guaranteed! Maps of prosperity! Get them now before I’m sold out!”

Nut found himself standing in front of the telegraph office. It was a small business that shared space with a book store, a tea shop, and an appliance repair center that promised the lowest rates in town. Above the shops were apartments, and the five-story building home to a great many families. Not an inch was wasted in this city.

For a brief moment, he found himself considering explosively shattering the map-seller’s jaw.

That would not do.

To enter the telegraph office, to go beyond the doorway, to cross the threshold would mean a compromise in his values. His ideals. He thought about his long conversation with his professor, and the cost of one’s values. Circumstances had conspired against him, and now, he found himself responsible for another. His own values meant nothing if she suffered.

He was a noble of House Eccentrica.

His storied bloodline could be traced back to one of the Founders of Equestria; Smart Cookie.

This was his shame, and he hated it. Everything about it. When brought up in conversation, on the rare times he did mention it, he spoke of it with pride. But it was lies, all lies, and he was deeply ashamed of it. He had come here, determined to live by his own means, and to make his way in life on his own terms. But, try as he might, he could never sever the connection completely. He always had a net beneath him as he traversed this tightrope. All it took was getting in touch with his parents, and he would be saved if there was trouble.

And oh how he hated it.

Teeth clenched tight with self-loathing, he pushed open the door and put an end to his grand social experiment…

A white flag waved

View Online

The raindrops continued their suicidal plunge, abandoning the endless sky to end themselves upon soil and sea. So caught up in his own events, Nut was utterly indifferent to the plight of the falling droplets; ignorant that Susan was an abattoir for raindrops. For she was a place where individuality ended; the individual ceased to be and everything ran together before plummeting as a collective to dash themselves upon the ground below. A tragedy gone unnoticed, undetected, unlamented.

Always falling, raindrops were tears shed for the senseless loss of one another.

He stared into the book shop’s window, and in the glass he watched the reflection of ponies as they passed. It was one thing to feed the body, but the mind needed food as well. Miss Blossom had but one possession, one thing that she owned. A book. While he wasn’t one for materialism, a book was a meal that could be consumed again and again, while always getting something new from it. A feast for the senses that nourished reason.

Surely he could spare a bit or two for his ward’s well-being.

“I need a book that showcases a mother’s love for her daughter.” As Nut spoke, a bell rang as the door shut behind him.

Much to his chagrin, the bookseller seemed to be closing. The unicorn, an older fellow, was assisted by a young griffoness, a rather cute young cub, at least by his own standards. Nut didn’t exactly understand griffon standards, but he found the young of any species rather cutish. It was a survival mechanism, he suspected, though there were dreadful, heartless beasts, devoid of reason, who gleefully snacked upon the tender, succulent young of others.

“Father, we have a customer,” the young cub said. “Shall I fetch Father Number Two?”

“No, Eloise, he’s fixing supper by now. Help me make a sale, will you?”

Nut left Susan standing by the door, in the umbrella stand.

“Preferably, something gently used,” Nut said as he glanced about.

“Am I to guess you are a doting father short on funds?” the unicorn asked.

“A benevolent caretaker who seeks betterment for his ward,” Nut replied.

“Same difference, really.” Nudging the griffoness cub beside him, the unicorn said, “Eloise… go on. You know the store better than I do. I just do the finances. Help the gentlepony, Eloise.”

Somewhat shy, the young griffoness approached with a smooth feline grace. Nut watched her, impassive, unmoving, a statue devoted to fine manners. She seemed to study him, looking up and down, and her tail formed a curious question mark. Yes, there was no mistaking it, she was adorable; so much so that he felt his heart warm. The outside would feel so much chillier when he left.

“A mother’s love?” the cub asked.

“I fear that my ward has… a… strained relationship with her mother. This concerns me. I desire a book that portrays a healthy, devoted, loving relationship between mother and daughter. A passive means to teach a lesson about the nature of this manner of relationship. Perhaps a means to soothe her many hurts.”

“Oh.” Catlike, the young cub lept up to the top of the bookshelf without even spreading her wings. She sat down up there, glanced left, glanced right, and then spent a moment looking around whilst she tapped upon her beak with her index claw. “I know just what you need, and we happen to have a copy.”

“You are remarkably well spoken,” Nut said, offering faint but sincere praise.

“Daughter of booksellers,” the cub replied. “When they took me in, I could barely converse at all.”

“Well, that was nice of them,” he remarked.

“Sometimes, ponies take in stray cats that rummage around in their rubbish. I just so happened to be the stray my fathers found. They captured me with a net—”

“Eloise, please… when you tell the story, you make it sound so dreadful.”

“Sorry, Father.” Her eyes narrowed a bit, and when she blinked, her eyelashes clung together. “I nipped him. Never have I stopped feeling bad about it. Now, about that book.” Quite suddenly, she sprung away, and lept from bookshelf to bookshelf, all with her wings held tight against her sides.

Nut followed, and found himself looking at bare books with no slipcovers.

“What you want is this book right here.” She tapped on a book with a hardbound lavender colour embossed with three stars. “Fundamentals of Familial Friendship. It is written by Twilight Velvet, and it is all about her relationship with her daughter, her son, and her husband. I do believe the section with her daughter, Twilight Sparkle, is relevant to your interests. She speaks a great deal about how a mother is her foal’s first best friend, and what kind of friend she is determines how her offspring will experience friendship.”

“Hmm,” he hmmed, hemming and hawing.

“I’ve read this book. So far, I haven’t read everything we have, but I am trying to catch up. But we keep getting new books though, and reading takes time.”

“Indeed, it does,” Nut amicably agreed.

“I make it a point to read the used books, because customers buy more of them, and I can make good recommendations.” She sat down atop the bookshelf, curled her tufted tail around her body, and waited for Nut to make his selection.

He selected the lavender-coloured hardbound book, lifted it, and held it up in front of the young griffoness. “I’ll take it. You’ve earned yourself a sale, young lady.”

From behind the counter, the older unicorn said, “I’ll wrap that up in waxed paper and sealing tape, to preserve it from the rain.” The old gent smiled, leaned against the worn wood counter, and his horn ignited with a pale blue glow. “One day, she’ll be running this book store, and we’ll be her employees. I hope we’re paid well. And get regular coffee breaks.”

“Form a union,” Nut suggested.

“Great idea,” the older unicorn replied.

“Father… you are silly.”

“Let me ring you up, so I can close up shop. I still need to close the shutters. Not looking forward to getting drenched.”

“Actually,” Nut said, his voice even and pleasant, “I can close up the shutters for you, if you’ll permit me. I’m already a bit damp. Please, allow me to assist you.”

“That is incredibly kind of you. Thank you, stranger.”

Nothing; Nut felt nothing. He thought he would be angry, but he didn’t have it in him to be angry. Perhaps despair was in order here, but he didn’t feel that either. Out in the Widowwood, waiting for Tater Blossom to return for him, or to hear something of what had happened, he’d felt something then. Powerful things. A whole flood of emotions all at once. But now?

Emptiness made for a peculiar sensation.

Going into the telegraph office had been emotionally trying. Exiting, he was… blank? Try as he might, he failed to understand his own motivations, and found himself suspect. Moments like these, he didn’t trust himself. To do something, anything, required motivation. Reason fueled action. Logic was the locomotive that kept him on the right track, or some such silly metaphor.

As a colt, he quite liked trains, as they were orderly and made sense.

Now, as an adult, he barely spared them a second thought, it seemed.

Except for now, when he was curiously empty, bored, and in search of metaphors. Why did he do this to himself? His parents would respond soon, a telegram would be delivered, and then he’d be going home. No, home was here. In Vanhoover. Not Canterlot. A trip which would make everything complicated. He would need to leave his job. Again. Tater Blossom’s entry into the workforce would be delayed. Black Maple would be left to fend for herself yet again, and would fail to care for her own needs—which almost made him feel something, at least for a brief second. Something would have to be done before his departure.

A part of him resented Black Maple for her infantile behaviour a great deal.

Carriage Row Lane was almost deserted. The main entrance for the library was on the other side, near the ferry platform, so it was rare to see patrons exiting out into the back alleyway. Even the ever-present rats and gulls were gone, no doubt hiding in whatever place they sheltered in. Though summer, temperatures hovered near the freezing mark. Tonight would be interesting, come what may.

Susan remained a fortress against the strengthening squall.

A lone figure clad in black emerged from out of the library and then stood waiting beneath the shelter of an eave. Eager to speak to Mister Riddle, Nut doubled his advance; the inclement weather did nothing to slow him. Mister Riddle lived where he worked, at the library, and thus could be found here at any hour of the day or night.

“Ah, Nut a word with you if I may. Sorry to keep you outside in the bluster.”

“Ah, ‘tis no trouble at all, I assure you.” Nut came to a halt and there was more than enough room for him to stand beneath the angled eave.

“Mrs. Oleander,” Mister Riddle began and there was a soft glow from his horn as he cast a warmth spell to keep the chill at bay. “She spoke to me about a number of things. Apparently I have an assistant to help me pull the wagon, you have a ward, and it seems that you made an oath as a noble.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, Nut interjected, “Yes, about that. Work might be delayed. I do expect to be departing for Canterlot rather soonish. Apologies—”

“Oh, stow it, Nut. The job will be here when you return. I wish to speak to you about your recent actions. Perhaps I just need to talk. Confession is good for the soul, and all that rubbish.”

Confused, Nut folded Susan, and slung the excess water from her collapsed canopy.

“I too, come from Canterlot, Nut.”

“Mister Riddle—”

“Oh, don’t be so surprised. You’re not the only noble slumming about, trying to make sense of things, Nut.” Mister Riddle’s face contorted, as if from pain, and his dark eyes the colour of sea ice narrowed into paper-thin slits. “We all have our reasons, Nut. Me and my generation, we’re the ones responsible for this mess we’re currently in. We did this. Oh, I’ve wanted to bend your ear about this for quite some time, but it never felt right, until now. Mrs. Oleander told me what happened.”

Silent, Nut waited; it was good to listen to one’s elders.

“Canterlot’s nobles have much to answer for, but we had the most noble of intentions. Yes, the noblest intentions.” The older unicorn sighed, cast a sidelong glance at the younger pony by his side, and with his sides heaving like a smith’s bellows that were long since worn out, he sighed yet again. “My generation created quite a mess for yours to clean up, Nut. My sin was running away and then stubbornly not involving myself. In anything. Here I am now, old, tired, beaten up by life, and I find myself in the company of another Canterlot runaway.”

Nut did not see himself in this manner, but he said nothing to correct Mister Riddle.

“Good intentions, Nut. A noble can be undone by good intentions.” The old unicorn’s neck sagged suddenly, and he shook his head from side to side. “My generation was born during the aftermath of Equestria’s Uncivil Dispute. That dreadful spat we had. We were born into a war-torn land that was ravaged by scarcity and made poor by austerity measures. My generation saw the cost of war—a war brought about by reckless change that tore society in twain.

“And we, the fine young nobles of Canterlot, we had good intentions. Fine intentions. We decided that it fell upon us to ensure that this never happened again. A lack of stability had torn us apart. Change had been our undoing. We had all the proof we needed to convince ourselves, Nut. Civil service became our rallying cry. Almost all of us answered the call. We had a duty to Princess and Country.

“We flooded the ranks of the bureaucracy and fought a pitched battle for stability. The tatters of this nation were held together by our efforts. It was we who somehow managed the impossible feat of reconstruction. The bureaucracy held everything together. But stability wasn’t enough. No, dear Nut, there was overcorrection. We stifled change. Even the good change that perhaps we were in need of. With our best intentions, we brought about ironclad stability.

“And in doing so, introduced the current state of stagnation, Nut.”

“Mister Riddle…” At a loss for words, Nut was unsure of what to say.

“I saw the harm done when I was young, Nut. Saw it clear as dawn. Even tried to say something about it, that we might be going to far. That got me labeled as an agitator. I was one of those dreadful ponies who wanted a state of war to return. Oh, I tried to be a voice of reason, but all my efforts were for naught. So I ran away. I left Canterlot, wandered for a time, and like driftwood on a beach, ended up here, in this place. Imagine that. Me… a graduate from Princess Celestia’s School For Gifted Unicorns… a youth with endless potential… a self-exile.”

“Mister Riddle, I am very sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Nut. Learn from everything I’ve just told you. Don’t run away. Get involved. We nobles aren’t bad… we’re just mired. Keep your oath. Restore faith in us. But first, perhaps, you need to have faith in us, and faith in yourself. I cast aside my faith long ago, but I do want to see you succeed.” Fiddle Riddle lifted his head suddenly, and his eyes widened.

“More could be accomplished together than apart,” the older unicorn said. “Nut, I give you my word as a noble that I will keep your ward safe while she is in my company. It’s time for me to come out of hiding. All this skulking about has to end. I almost feel young again, Nut. As if some great weight has been lifted from my heart and mind.”

“Good for you… Mister Riddle?”

“I feel reckless and daring, Nut. Like anything is possible.”

“That’s… good?”

“I remember living this way, I do. Excuse me, Nut… but I do believe that I am going to go and take liberties with Widow Oleander’s hospitality, and call upon her uninvited.” Turning to the younger unicorn beside him, he asked, “Do I smell like boiled cabbage and cheese?”

After a single sniff, Nut politely replied, “Just a bit, perhaps—”

“Well, there’s no helping that. Time to be bold again. Can’t be held back by smelling like boiled cabbage and cheese. Nothing would ever get done. I’m going to have me a chat with a pretty widow, Nut, and think about all of the mischief that I could be getting into. We’ll speak again when I have ideas. I used to have ideas once. Big ideas. Time to have them again.”

“Excellent idea, Mister Riddle. Mrs. Oleander delights in your company.”

The world, it seemed, was a far, far stranger place than Nut realised.

“Pardon me, Nut. I must be going. We’ll talk again. Perhaps we’ll make ourselves a little Canterlot of this island. There’s more we could be doing. I’m going to look after my widow… you go and look after your ward. Later, over a pint, we’ll discuss how our efforts fare.”

“Marvellous idea, Mister Riddle.”

Without further ado, the older unicorn cast a shield bubble around himself, and strode off.

Left alone beneath the eave, Nut watched him go. So much had been said, and Nut wasn’t sure if he’d heard all of it. Though, not for lack of trying. Mister Riddle was clearly inspired, touched by the rescue of Miss Blossom. Was this a ripple effect? What else might happen as a direct—or indirect—result from this?

Miss Blossom would be fine, he decided. She would be safe with Mister Riddle. This was an odd place to find himself, because he didn’t trust his fellow nobles—yet, for reasons unknown, he found himself trusting Mister Riddle’s word as a noble. If he discounted Mister Riddle’s oath as a noble, his sacred word, then Nut knew that his own oath was in danger of a loss of credibility.

How did he end up here?

At least he felt better.

And he did—he did feel better. His current state of blank emptiness was now something else. What though, remained to be seen. But he felt… good? How had he arrived at this point? What caused this? He was a pony brimming with good intentions, and he had just been warned about the dangers of said good intentions, but even with the dire lesson fresh in the folds of his grey matter, everything felt as though it would be fine.

“I deserve a pint,” he said to himself as he unfurled Susan. “A pint would be lovely…”

Much to his relief, there was no sign of trouble. No mischief awaited him upon his return. If anything, the common room was a bit emptier than usual. Understandable, really. Nopony wanted to walk home with a storm bearing down. Grace Smooth was behind the bar and she nodded at him as he entered.

This place had a different atmosphere with the windows all shuttered. Not only was it darker, somehow, as the street lights did not shine through the windows, but it felt more isolated somehow. It was an urban fortress, sealed off from the hostile world that existed just beyond the doors and windows. What would his parents say about him frequenting this place? There was a conversation that he hoped would never happen.

“How are things, Gracie?” he asked as he approached the bar.

“Quiet, Nut,” she replied. “What’s it like outside? The reports are a bit conflicted. Some say it’s just a summer thunderstorm, others are saying it’ll be the storm of the century.”

“I suspect something in the middle, Gracie.”

“Good thing I opened up the storage garage for the homeless. It isn’t much, but I guess it is better than nothing.”

“I sleep in a garage, Gracie.”

“And you’re an idiot for doing it, Nut. You’d be a lot warmer in the boss’ bed. Want a pint, Nut?”

“Oh, please. Very much so.” Standing near the end of the bar, he caught sight of the mustachioed portrait of Princess Celestia. He sighed, suddenly weary, but his ears pricked when an earthenware mug thumped down on the hardwood counter of the bar beside him.

“On the house, Nut.”

“I insist on paying for my pint.”

“Nut, you sleep in a garage. That practically makes you homeless.”

Irked beyond measure, he turned his best deadpan expression upon Grace Smooth, but the unicorn mare behind the bar was utterly unimpressed. He thought about her for a moment, and what he knew of her. She was an entertainer with just a hint of charisma magic, the merest sprinkle. Sometimes, she had gigs, singing, but those were infrequent. Working as a barmaid was how she paid the bills, and she was an excellent barmaid. He wondered about her happiness, her state of contentment, and what it meant to settle.

“So tell me, Nut… how does an almost homeless pony that sleeps in a garage go around and remind others that they have dignity? For some reason, you seem to have dignity to spare, Nut. No matter how bad things get. And now, you’ve taken in that runaway.”

His deadpan stare had failed him and he wanted to correct Grace, but there was a pint to drink. Raising it, he offered up a salute to the mare behind the bar, and then he had his first delightful slurp. There was nothing finer. Something about the inclusion of smoked maple syrup. Canterlot had nothing like this. It was too much an assault upon the senses, and would cause fainting among the well-to-do and well-bred.

“I’ll be upstairs,” he announced, and he raised his pint again in parting.

Black Maple was right where he’d left her, sound asleep in her hot-pink velvet chair. Her mouth hung slack, and she drooled. Pegasus ponies drooled. It was just a thing they did. They evolved with specialised saliva glands for the sake of preening. A shiny, glistening patch of slobber had collected upon her now-soaked scruffle, and her nostrils expanded and contracted with each breath she took.

For now, while she slumbered, he liked her. Susan was stood up in the corner near the door and he took a moment to undress. In silence, he slipped off his tweed waistcoat, then his linen shirt, and once naked, he dried himself with magic. His clothes were threadbare and he lamented his use of repair spells. What choice did he have? He was no tailor.

He was not a wizard, but he had a few spells that he could perform well. His best spell was his laundry spell, much to his secret shame. Why was it so extraordinarily good? He had no idea. But his clothes could be made fresh, clean, and free of shed hairs with just a moment of magical effort. Even the dirtiest, smelliest, most befouled articles of clothing, he could make them clean. Lost causes, things ruined by foul things such as tar—he could do the impossible.

And sometimes, he used his skill to make a few bits, but he feared the reputation he might gain. Any laundry house in the city would welcome him after a demonstration, but he always felt bad after taking a laundry job. Diminished somehow. A noble who was little more than a glorified washing machine, a slayer of stains, a saboteur of skidmarked skivvies, he feared a future in laundry service.

In seconds, his clothing was clean and dry again. He slipped on his shirt, took a moment to adjust his choker collar, and thought about his fashion sense. Canterlot favoured big floppy lapels and broad collars. He rather liked plain choker collars that were barren of frivolous excess. Nut was many things, but he would never be mistaken for a fop. He smoothed his shirt, admired the fine tailoring in all of its faded glory, and then he examined his tweed waistcoat.

The silk lining was giving out and coming undone.

Sighing, he spent several seconds staring, wondering what to do about this. One more repair spell might very well be the end of it. With a soft snort of regret, he began to empty the pockets and place their contents upon a nearby table. His pocketwatch, a few coins, a book wrapped in waxed paper that had a pretty pink ribbon tied around it, several bladed darts with barbed, wicked tips, a slim throwing knife that was all blade from end to end with remarkable balance, a garrote that he used to deal with hard, unyielding cheeses, and a hollow steel tube with a sharpened end.

“I like you better with your shirt off, Nutty.”

How had he not felt eyes upon him?

“Tools of the trade, Nutty.” Black Maple’s eyes were open now, and her soft whisper was almost shiver-inducing. “My tools of the trade are beakers, vats, and barrels. Oh, and beds. Lots of beds. You have a vest full of things that drop others dead. Just what is that steel tube for, anyhow?”

“It is a bleeding prick,” he replied while he kept his voice low. “You insert the sharpened end into a blood rich area, like a neck. The tube allows for quick exsanguination.”

“Well… that’s horrifying. I worry about the slasher running around outside. Maybe I should be worried about the one in my boudoir.

He found himself apologising. “It was never my intention to upset you. I believed you be asleep. You are in no danger from me, I assure you.”

“I was keeping your ward safe,” the double-amputee pegasus replied. “Do you honestly believe that my door could be opened, unnoticed?”

“Delightful. We learn something new every day. You are remarkable at playing possum, Miss Maple. For future reference, I will keep that in mind.”

“Never forget that I’m still a pegasus, Nut.” Black Maple’s words were hard now, flinty, perhaps even angry. “For countless ages, my kind have been soldiers. Guards. Warriors. No matter what others might think or say, the loss of my legs has not diminished me. I gave my word, Nut. I was ready to kick ass the moment I heard floorboards creaking halfway down the hall.”

“I trusted you, didn’t I?”

This seemed to mollify the sulky, temperamental pegasus, and Nut tried to relax a bit.

Waggling her right stump around, she smeared the slobber on her fluffy scruffle, blinked away her sleepiness, and yawned. Then she slumped down in her chair, spread her legs wide to reveal her generous assets, and somehow managed to scratch her belly with her hind leg without looking ridiculous.

Nut looked away.

Then, feeling more than a little awkward, he removed his shirt, draped it over the table where he’d placed his belongings, and sat down upon the purple velvet fainting couch that was beneath the shuttered window. He didn’t sit up for long though, and stretched out his considerable length until he was comfortable, all while ignoring Miss Maple’s ravenous stare.

“What did they teach you in that school of yours, anyhow?”

“I really don’t like discussing it.”

“But you will discuss it, because I kept your ward safe. Want to have a peek? She’s right over there, sleeping soundly in my bed.”

He didn’t like this leg-twisting, not at all.

“What’s it called? I don’t remember.”

“Princess Celestia’s School for Disproportionate Responders.”

“Yeah. That.” She wiped at her slobbery scruffle again, but only further smeared more slobber around and made the wet spot larger. “So… what’s a graduate of Princess Celestia’s School for Disproportionate Responders doing in a whorehouse? How did you end up here? With all of your fancy tools and your bleeding prick… quite a name, by the way. Fitting, even, given the act of violent penetration.”

He felt a hot flush burn his face.

“Why are you studying biology?”

“We’re all free to make choices.”

“Oh, we are. I chose to let a slasher into my boudoir. With all of his fancy tools left on my table, I’m pretty sure I can take him… but there is one weapon that he still has that he could stab me with. Over and over—”

“If I discuss this with you, will you cease this perverse innuendo, mare?”

“I’ll make no promises, Nutty.”

Settling in, he lifted up his mug of ale, had a sip, kicked out his hind legs a bit, and made absolutely sure that he did not look at Black Maple, who was spread-eagled in her chair. There were times he hated her, like right now. She was doing everything within her power to make him uncomfortable, and even worse, she was holding his ward hostage. It wasn’t like he could just storm away and leave. Well, he could, but it would mean waking up Tater Blossom.

Thunder crackled some distance away.

“The school is a special place for foals who have innate talents for the application of violence.” These words left his mouth dry, so he sipped more of his ale. “As dangerous as these are, they are still beneficial to society. The school is a factory for soldiers. Spies. Covert operators. Agents. Assassins. Princess Celestia tends to refer to them as repair ponies—”

“Repair ponies?” For a moment, it seemed as though Black Maple might laugh.

“Well, in a sense, that is what they are. Princess Celestia isn’t lying when she mentions them as such.” Another sip of ale, and this time, he savoured the smokey sweetness before he continued, “Problems happen. Things break down. Stuff breaks. Repair ponies move in and fix them. Some problems require specialised repairs. If, say, there is a faulty line of communication within our foreign observation network, then that line must be excised and replaced. It is just a task.”

Black Maple closed her legs, sat up straight, and leaned her head forward. “A task, you say.”

“An unpleasant task.” He somehow managed to convey a shrug while reclining in relaxed repose. “We are taskmasters. Our schooling is extensive. I could have had a promising future doing almost anything, really. A great many things, almost all of them unmentionable. I chose to be a sheathed sword. It is, perhaps, the ultimate state of refinement for my unique talent. My choice was respected. At least, it was by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. I graduated with top marks… which, I must confess, might be complicated to explain. Most schools grade on academic merit.”

“So… Princess Celestia operates a school where she refines assassins…”

“If she didn’t, others would surely exploit those like me with unique gifts, and potentially turn us against Equestria. We’re resources. A strategic element. A gold mine particularly rich in ore. She would be a fool to not extract that ore and use it for the betterment of our nation.” This wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, and relaxing just a bit more, he allowed himself another small sip.

“Our extensive schooling refines us. Empowers us. Embetters us. For some of us going into covert foreign relations, we have to adapt. Fit in. Blend in. That means working, surviving, and existing. We’re taught work ethic from a young age, and it is pounded into our heads that we’re not above any task, no matter how demeaning.”

When he thought of laundry, he almost cringed, but held himself back.

“No one suspects a spy who moves among them doing demeaning jobs as a domestic servant. An assassin who makes the beds and cleans the chamber pots goes unnoticed. We are taught to be invisible. To blend into the background. Some of us are quite adept at this. We are taught to be boring, dry, a chore to associate with. No one remembers us, because no one wants to remember us. These are the things we are taught.”

“But you became a biologist.”

“I am free to become a biologist. It is my passion. I apply the work ethic I was taught in school to my studies. I fade into the background and use my observation skills to study animals. Because of my schooling, I can go into dangerous situations and survive. My schooling never obligated me to do anything. It merely honed and refined my talent. I am free to be whatever, and whomever, I wish to be.”

She crossed her legs, swinging one over the other, and Nut could see that she was studying him. Black Maple was smart—troublingly so—and he liked her best when she was thinking. Of course, he liked her least when she was antagonising him, mostly because she could get under his skin like nopony else.

“So Princess Celestia has a school for erudite repair ponies and it has a fancy name.”

“Well, some of them are maintenance ponies, who do a bit of on the spot maintenance after a repair job. Can’t have fragile machinery breaking down again.”

“This… this is really a thing, isn’t it? I mean, you’re not pulling my leg.”

“Equestria remains mostly at peace, and has excellent diplomatic relations. Why do you suppose that is? How often do you hear of diplomatic kerfuffles? Why is it that other nations desire to be our friends, and seek diplomacy with us? You either deal with us, or you will be made to deal with us. Peace is preserved at an acceptable cost. Breakdowns in the delicate machinery of diplomacy are promptly fixed, and kept well-oiled through preventative maintenance.”

He felt a smug sense of satisfaction when he watched her frown.

“Honestly, I don’t know what goes on. All I have to go on are rumours, gossip, and hearsay. This could be true, for varying values of true, or it could be cloak and dagger stuff, intentional misinformation spread to keep others in line. But when spoken of in a well-said manner, it is entirely convincing, isn’t it?”

“That’s part of the job, right?” She leaned forward, eager to know more. “Stuff like this. Leaving a pony not knowing what the truth might be, but introducing doubt. Weaponised rumour. So this is spycraft?”

He allowed himself a slurp of precious ale. “It could be. Might be. Possibly is. Whatever it is, it seems to be working. Many of our number go on to become S.M.I.L.E. agents, and the stories passed along about them are wildly unbelievable.”

“The way you say that though, it suggests that you believe some of it, even if you don’t want to. It’s that thing you do, that you’re always going on about, what’s it called again—”

“Skepticism.” He sniffed his ale, but did not sip, and he planned to nurse his drink along for as long as possible. “For a time, I thought about going into S.M.I.L.E. At least, I think I thought about it. Looking back, I don’t know. I might have been influenced. Lots of pamphlets slipped into my books, and brochures tucked away in my possessions.”

“Why turn away from all of that? I mean, it all sounds so exciting.”

“I love biology,” he replied.

She wiggled her hips from side to side. “I love booze. I love booze so much that it became my cutie mark. But if I had a chance to be a spy, I’d do that.” Then, slumping down in her seat, she seemed to reconsider. In a low, soft whisper she added, “Something tells me I don’t have the temperament. You have all that impulse control. I think I understand why.”

“I walked into a very dangerous situation in Widowwood,” he said to Black Maple, “and walked out with Miss Blossom. Nopony was hurt. A bloodbath was averted. That is the best possible outcome.”

Black Maple shrugged with her wings. “Might be, but I still think you should have carved a warning message into her mother’s face so that other ponies will know what they’re dealing with.”

“Miss Maple… really.”

“What… seriously… maybe the word ‘bitch’ scribbled across her forehead. Or maybe ‘cu—”

“Black Maple… really. That is not my way. Blaue’s dignity was already quite injured. She lost an ear and her husband. Her social standing was wholly upended. That mare lost—”

“That’s not enough.” Black Maple’s whisper was almost hissy. “It’s not enough, you pompous jackass. You just don’t do what she did to her daughter. And you… you’re a prick for not being pissed off about it.”

“Oh, I assure you, I am angry—”

“I have no proof of that. Profane swear-words were not carved into that mare’s face.”

He found her lack of reason reprehensible, and when he drank some of his ale, a bit more slipped past his lips than he intended. She was infuriating sometimes, like right now. The conversation had been almost nice, pleasant, reasonable even, right up to this point. But now, her passions had been riled, and her reason cast aside, tossed away so that she might fly unencumbered on her flight of fancy.

“You come from a school of disproportionate responders,” she said in a hot, throaty whisper. “Don’t you think this warranted a disproportionate response? I mean, if this doesn’t, what does?”

“I don’t know.” He found himself lacking a more suitable reply. “I can be violent… but I chose not to be. As awful as that mare is, she did not deserve the full brunt of my talent.”

A soft growl resonated deep within the sooty black pegasus’ throat. It was nothing at all like a purr, yet Nut found himself thinking about that very thing. Perhaps he failed to understand just how angry she was about this. It was possible that this hurt her in ways that he did not comprehend. Was it a pegasus thing? An issue for mares? He wasn’t sure that he had enough understanding to even begin speculation.

More thunder rumbled and Anvil Island quivered in anticipation of what was to come.

“I don’t understand your obsession with me,” he said to her.

“I’ve told you,” she replied as she slouched against the left arm of her chair. “I want to get my jollies watching you let go. I want you to feel something. Anything. Even if it happens to be my pink, tender insides. I want to see the calm depart your face, and that stuff that poets write about to make sex sound artistic and meaningful. I’ve made it my mission in life to make you come unhinged. If I could get a second cutie mark, it’d have something to do with this.”

“At the risk of being thrown out into the storm, I must say that you’re not my type.”

She giggled. He found it disturbing. She was actually giggling, and covered her mouth with her wing so that she might contain her giggles. He couldn’t stand her right now, so he rolled his eyes in full view of her—he wanted her to know that her behaviour was worthy of a dismissive roll of his eyes. But this did not have the desired effect, not at all, and her whole body jiggled enticingly with mirth.

“What’s so funny?” he demanded in a low voice.

No response; just more giggles.

He was tired and the fainting couch was far more comfortable than he anticipated. Hunger gnawed at his innards, but he ignored it. The sensation was so common for him now that it was more akin to background noise, just something that was there. When Black Maple uncrossed her legs, he allowed his gaze to wander elsewhere, anywhere, but not there.

“Stay tonight,” she said, no longer giggling.

Nursing his mug of ale, he did not respond.

“Not for me, but for Tater. She needs to recover a bit. When she’s feeling better, then, maybe, she can be introduced to the deprivation that you subject yourself to.”

“Often, I am frequently inculpated of being periphrastic,” he said in a sharp, accusatory whisper.

“You can’t fault me for trying a new approach.” She battered her eyes at him, and made come-hither gestures with both of her stumps. “My pegasus senses tell me there will be a hard freeze tonight. You have no heat. Don’t put her through that. So… stay the night. Be my guests. Have a bite to eat. Sample my hospitality. We’ll call a truce… for Tater’s sake, but not our own.”

“I do suppose that refusing would make me an irresponsible ass.”

“Right now, I’m going to hold my tongue. See, you make it too easy.” She sighed, her barrel rising and falling, and drew her legs closed. “You don’t even have to sleep with me. I’ll give you space. Though, I would very much like it if you did sleep with me. Just sleep. No shagging. No misbehaving on my part. Well, not much. There’s room for both of us on that couch.”

This felt like defeat.

“I am a bit hungry…”

Black Maple nodded. “I could go for wine, cheese, and smoked salmon.”

That sounded good; too good.

“Better yet, I have a jug of acerglyn downstairs. It is marked as recipe number nine. I smoked the maple syrup before I turned it into mead.”

The very thought of it made saliva go squirting through his mouth like water from a firehose. Aware of the fact that his reaction had been observed, he regretted this loss. Black Maple would no doubt use this against him in the future. Whatever poor sap that had said that love was not a victory march was surely mistaken. While it occurred to Nut that he’d lost the battle, he’d not yet lost the war.

“I meant what I said, Nutty. Truce. If you stay tonight, I won’t give you a reason to regret it. I can behave, I just don’t like to. But you can stay tonight, and wait out this storm. Come morning, everything can go back to normal, whatever normal is between us. I suspect that you and I have different opinions about our states of normal.”

“Very well”—he sighed out the words in surrender—“you shall have your truce.”

Shop talk

View Online

The susurrus slosh of the tempestuous torrent was a distraction that Nut could do without. This morning, he’d awoken to remarkably clear skies; but these fair skies did not hold. After but a few hours of gentle, welcome sunshine, the final outer band of the storm arrived to spoil the fun of the sun-seekers. After the squall, everything was a mess. This was normal, more or less, and no one expected any less of the weather after living here for a time.

He thought of Black Maple, but the less he thought about her, the better. A stern, strict part of him intensely disliked the rest of him, all because he’d compromised himself because of his love of ale. Nothing had happened; absolutely nothing had happened—but he hated himself because right now, he kept thinking of what could have happened.

“Consarnit, that stings!”

“Hold still, you silly filly! Whips on your back! Those sting! Bees sting! This is medicine! It is good for you! Now hold still! Is blubbering and flailing about how you show your gratitude‽”

“But it stings like the punishin’ fires of Tartarus!”

“Fires burn, silly girl! I should know, I’ve been branded! Now hold still!”

As Nut absentmindedly turned his wrench, he sighed. The entire rear end of the wagon had to be disassembled. When the axle suffered its catastrophic failure, the whole of the rear assembly suffered irreparable damage. Rear shocks? Ruined. Brake beam? Practically match sticks. But it could be rebuilt. The sturdy steel bed was intact, but oh-so-very dented. Rear end replacements happened.

Mrs. Oleander was full of affection; just not of the maternal variety.

While some unicorns could remove nuts and bolts with telekinesis alone, Nut was not one of them. He methodically worked through the disassembly process, following every step in the manual to the letter. Nothing was skipped, no part of the job was hurried, and everything was done just so. He was not a carpenter; not at all, not in the slightest. Making the parts from scratch was quite beyond him. But, if given the proper spare parts, he could disassemble and reassemble reasonably well. He kept himself employed and housed with his skill, which was all the evidence he needed that he was sufficient.

It was his attention to detail that made him exceptional, though this detail escaped his notice.

“You have quite a job ahead of you.”

“Say again, Ethelred?”

Nut looked up from his work and spared at glance at the griffon that was curiously seagullish. Though young, the griffon was good at his work, fastidious, and excellent with customer relations. Mrs. Oleander was grooming him for better things. At the moment, Ethelred was installing brand new lanterns on an older delivery wagon. The old lanterns no longer met the city safety standards, as they did not provide enough light during inclement weather.

“A rebuild. That is a tedious, thankless job right there.”

“Ah, but it must be done.” Nut shrugged.

“How do you deal with the tedium?”

Again, Nut shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. I rather just tune everything out, I suppose, and power through. After a tedious task, I seek out something intellectually stimulating, and after a prolonged period of boredom, the mental stimulation feels a magnitude more exciting.”

“Actually… that helps. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Nut. Mrs. Oleander gave me a chance. I don’t want to let her down.”

“None of us want to let her down… she’s something special.”

From the back room, Nut heard his ward blubbering, but didn’t feel particularly worried.

When Tater Blossom strode past, Nut did not falter in his work, but he did spare a moment to have a look at her. Not only had she been cleaned up and tended to, but her mane had been trimmed. Pulled back into a ponytail as it was, and tied off with a ribbon, it made her look fetching, but also made her look younger. More fillyish somehow. Nut suspected that this was an intentional act on Mrs. Oleander’s part, and he was curious as to her motivations.

She eased herself down upon a wooden bench, sighed, and then clopped her right front hoof against the dulled edge of the flat surface upon which she sat. While she didn’t look entirely happy, she didn’t seem particularly sorrowful. It was just a difficult moment for her, a hard moment, and Nut found himself wondering if he could cheer her up.

“You look better,” he said, hoping that his words sounded sincere and meaningful. “In fact, that split in your lip appears to have closed a bit. The medicine seems to be working.”

“It stung,” she said, and there was immeasurable distance in her voice, as if she was quite far away.

“So I heard.”

Her ears pivoted about and annoyance could be seen on her face. “Mrs. Oleander called me ungrateful. I feel bad. It’s hard to be grateful when everything hurts. She needs a more tender touch.”

He sat a somewhat rusted nut upon a tray and continued his task.

“Black Maple has a tender touch. She knows what pain is, so she’s soft about things. Mrs. Oleander, she knows what pain is too, I reckon, but there ain’t nothing soft about her. How can two ponies who share the same knowin’ be so different?”

“It occurs to me,” he replied while he broke another nut free, “that you are currently in possession of the knowledge of exceptional pain. You endured quite a beating. A lesser creature might have been broken from it. Yet, here you are. Enduring. What might you do with this knowledge, I wonder? If you take a moment to observe Miss Maple and Mrs. Oleander, you can see two wholly different outcomes.”

At long last, the rusted, crusted, flakey metal leaf springs on the right side were free, and Nut was mindful of the jagged, shattered, stabby bits that would require a tetanus shot if they pierced his flesh. The briny air was not kind to iron here, the constant, endless damp was a bane to ferrous metals. Which was why he favoured brass—alas, not everything could be made from brass. Monocle firmly in place, he tugged apart the ruined metal and set it aside in a neat pile.

“My eye don’t feel so swollen. Feels like I can almost open it again. That stuff must be magic. I told Mrs. Oleander that I was all thankful like, but I feel like I should do more, because I made a fuss and blubbered like a foal. Colette would raise a fuss over iodine… and I did too, I s’pose. All us younger foals did. Was too expensive to waste and Ma… after having so many other foals, I think she was tired when it came to us. Picked her battles, I guess. We was allowed to heal up all natural like.”

An immense pile of rust flakes now littered the floor, and Nut was quite annoyed by them. Reaching out with his mind, he fetched a dustpan as well as a small broom, and he went to work tidying up his workspace whilst his ward took a moment to sort her thoughts. It didn’t take long until the floor was clean, but he lamented the fact that it would be dirty again all too soon.

“Thank you for that book, Nut. I don’t think I said that yet.”

“Think nothing of it,” he replied as he put the broom and dustpan away. “Expect more books in the future.”

Leaning down, he spent a few seconds squinting at the stainless steel bed. In the cracks and unseen places, he found rust. Not much rust, and after a quick inspection, he determined that it wasn’t rust left behind by the iron assemblies, but surface rust eating at the steel itself. The passivated metal was oxidising. Defeated, he sighed. His work was now a bit more complicated and he wondered if the surface rust could be removed. If only he had a rust removal spell, but such a thing was beyond him.

Another worker might have ignored this problem; after all, it was unseen. Hidden away. Only a complete disassembly would reveal it. Nut’s attention to detail would not allow him to ignore this. Over time, the affliction would exacerbate. Eventually, the rust would eat away enough metal that a catastrophic failure would happen. It was an outcome that could be largely avoided with effort and attention to detail.

It frustrated him that things like nuts and bolts were made of cheap, disposable iron, and wagon beds were made of enduring stainless steel. Sometimes it felt as though the parts were made to fail, as if some brilliant pony decided that they could make a bloody fortune by selling compromised parts that succumbed to the elements. After all, if the wagon makers sold a wagon that never fell apart, they wouldn’t have much in the way of repeat business.

Disgusted, he snorted and quietly cursed capitalism.

He moved around the rear of the wagon, arrived at the other side, and surveyed what needed to be done. This entire side would also have to be disassembled, so the ruined wooden axle could be free. Why not a steel axle? They existed. But they were costly. He saw that the dished wheels were a mess of wood rot, rusted iron, and filth. It was dirty. Everything was dirty. This city caused things to rot.

Repulsed, infuriated, almost driven feral from his ire, Nut briefly transformed into the Disgustang. Eyelids twitching, the corners of his mouth convulsing, he very much wanted to go and shake some sense into the pony responsible for this offense. But his anger was quick to pass, and in mere seconds, he recovered his fumbled composure. At least Black Maple had not witnessed his momentary fall from grace.

In the back of his mind, the feral Disgustang lurked…

“Nut… you kinda got scary there—”

“Think nothing of it,” he instructed. “A momentary lapse of reason. Nothing more.”

“I’m thinkin’ yer the fussy type, Nut.”

Lifting his head, he peered at Tater Blossom over the top of the wagon bed. She was smiling, a broad, beaming smile. Which had to be hurting her, given the condition of her face. He returned her smile; it was the least he could do. She was so brave, so plucky. So full of good cheer even when confronted by the spectre of the Disgustang.

“I wish I had a glass of water,” she sighed as her smile turned into something else, something not as cheerful.

“There is more to life than water.” He thought of a delicious pint and this was almost enough to cheer him up.

“But I like water, Nut. It’s… watery.”

“Indeed, it most certainly is.” Lowering his head, he got to work.

“I like the sound of the rain.”

“It is quite pleasant, is it not?”

“I wonder what Black Maple is doin’.”

To this, Nut said nothing; the less said, the better.

“You two sure were a pile of cute on that couch together.”

Yep. It was time to go to work in earnest. Armed with a wrench, Nut directed his emotion into his task, and did not allow himself to think about the fact that he’d woken up with a mouthful of Black Maple’s mane. He most certainly did not think about the curious sensation of her stumps kneading against his neck while he was lost in a one-quarter awake stupor. And under no circumstance did he allow himself to think about how he had flung her to the floor upon hearing the sound of Tater Blossom’s voice. It was misfortunate happenstance; he’d been startled out of his wits after waking up in the midst of an unfamiliar and wholly unwanted situation.

Just the mere thought of Black Maple’s perverse giggling burned his ears.

Of course she would think the comedy of errors funny, and he hated her for that.

“Ma says it’s a sin for unmarried ponies to sleep together.”

Combing through his mental filing cabinet, Nut’s brain found a suitable perfunctory response: “Have you slept with your sisters?”

“That’s different.”

“How so?”

“Just is.”

“You slept with me on the train.”

“Don’t say it like that, Nut. It’s… dirty. Wrong and dirty. It makes me think that you and I should be hitched to make things simple between us. And we ain’t. So I feel funny, and a bit guilty.”

“But my assertion happens to be true, nonetheless. You slept beside me. Even leaned against me after you kept bumping your head against the glass. Does the necessity of sleep during adverse circumstances constitute sin? How does a ceremony absolve one of such reckless, carnal wickedness that is the need for slumber?”

“I don’t… I don’t understand what that means.”

“It means that Mister Nut prefers to sleep and keep company with his thesaurus, and not Miss Maple.”

The sound of Mrs. Oleander’s voice almost made Nut drop his wrench.

“Here, Miss Blossom, have a glass of water.”

“Why, thank you kindly, Mrs. Oleander. Is it safe to drink?”

“This water is. I conjured it myself. Just the water, and not the pollution. That’s the trick.”

“Why can’t Nut conjure water, I wonder?”

“Every unicorn is different. Is every earth pony strong?”

His ward’s prolonged silence made Nut smile.

“Hold on, Miss Blossom. Let me find something to set the glass on and get you a straw.”

“Mighty kind of you, Mrs. Oleander.”

As he turned his wrench, a slow, steady repetitive motion that he found relaxed him, he heard the sound of hooves as Mrs. Oleander moved about the garage floor. It would take time, he realised, to free Miss Blossom from her mother’s clutches. She’d been separated, but the toxic tendrils had not yet been cut away.

“There is but one sin, Miss Blossom, and that is theft.” All emotion, all feeling had departed from Mrs. Oleander’s voice. There was only a flat, cold monotone. “All other sins derive from theft.”

Nut was a little surprised when his ward, his pupil said nothing.

“I was stolen away from my parents when I was young. Too young to remember. It is a vague memory. More of a nightmare that haunts my sleep.” The soft clopping of hooves ceased and Nut heard the clunk of wood as a table was set down. “What I say to you is hard truth, filly, and you would do well to heed my words.

“If you steal away another and place them in bondage, you take away their freedom. And that is theft. A murder is the theft of a life, a robbery for which there is no compensation. This is the worst sort of theft, but make no mistake, it is theft. It can be compounded though. When you steal the life of another, you rob a wife of her husband, or a husband of his wife. You steal a parent away from foals. You take a sister from a brother, or a brother from a sister. What you take is precious.

“Now, when you lie, you rob another of their right to truth, and we are all born with the right to know what is true, and what is not. Grift, con-artistry, and cheating, that is the theft of fairness and trust in fairness. You rob another of their faith in their fellow ponies, and this is a dreadful sin indeed. Do you understand, Miss Blossom?”

“I do, actually. And as I think about it, I can’t find anything wrong in what you said. It’s like, all obvious and common sense. There’s proof of truth in those words, and it would be real hard to argue against. There’s… something to them but I’m havin’ some trouble thinkin’ of the words.”

“Self-evident?” Mrs. Oleander suggested.


“These statements support themselves.” A little warmth returned to Mrs. Oleander’s voice. “With but a tiny measure of reason, a mere portion of rationality, we can weigh these words upon the scales of our minds, think upon them, and know them to be true. They are incontrovertible. Indisputable. They go beyond mere opinion and ring true for all who hear them.”

As he wrenched, Nut found himself in agreement.

“To be a good pony, free of sin, one must never steal.” After a pause, Mrs. Oleander continued, “That is the long and the short of it. Do not commit theft. Take nothing. It is enough to strive to do good. And you, Miss Blossom, are a good creature, with a good heart. But your mother is a thief.”

“I… well… I s’pose she is.”

“We do not abide thieves. Now, enjoy your glass of water, Miss Blossom. And if you desire another, you have but to ask. If you will excuse me, I have recordkeeping to attend to. Keep Nut on task, and supervise his every action. That is your job, at least for now. Do not be neglectful.”

As his boss trotted away, Nut allowed himself the tiniest little wicker of annoyance.

“Nut, I keep thinkin’ ‘bout it real hard, and I can’t seem to think of a sin that isn’t theft.”

Armed with a broom and dustpan, Nut nodded to show that he had heard her while he swept the floor. His workspace needed to be tidied now that he had completely removed the entirety of the rear assembly. The rear of the wagon was up on jacks and ready for a whole new rear assembly to be installed.

Though hesitant to bring up the issue, he changed the subject.

“You’ve become my school project,” he said to Tater Blossom, who dutifully supervised his work. “My professor wishes for me to write about your integration into complex society. These will be coalesced into scientific articles and placed into the newspaper. I’ve agreed to do it, but if you are disagreeable to the idea, I can still tell them no.”

“Will I be able to read about myself in the newspaper?”

“I’d rather you not read the newspapers at all,” he was quick to reply. “Those rags will rot your brain. But I will not stop you from reading them. I might try to procure you better reading material to tempt you away from that drivel.”

“Can I read your notes about me?”

Still sweeping, he shrugged. “Why not?”

“I’m fine with this.”

He wondered how much she understood about this, and he was tempted to try and explain things, but then suffered a minor crisis of conscience. This could very well be an aspect of her adaptation into complex society, and discouraging her might very well be detrimental. He wasn’t sure and was unable to tell. Fearful that he suffered from mild confusion, Nut spent a moment in intense contemplation, and then concluded that this was something he could write about. The big opener. His first article would be about his hesitation to do this, with questions about morality and ethics.

“My new assistant. Oh my, that is quite a shiner.”

Nut put down his broom and dustpan. “Miss Blossom, this is Mister Riddle. Mister Riddle, my ward, Miss Blossom.”

“Pleased to meetcha.”

“Oh… oh… country colloquialisms. How endearingly quaint. I like you already.”

“Oh great… you talk just like Nut.”

“She’s a firebrand, Nut.”

“That she is, Mister Riddle.”

The other unicorn chuckled. “Imagine the world if taking a ward became fashionable.”

After a few seconds of consideration, Nut found himself in disagreement. Some things were not done to be fashionable. If wards became fashionable, or a fad, Nut could not see good things happening, he could see no worthy end result, and he intensely disliked the very idea. As far as bad ideas went, this was right up there with playing poker with Prince Blueblood, or starting a land war in the Midreach. One did not walk away from either unscathed.

The older black-clad unicorn glanced around, studied the partially disassembled wagon, and then focused his full attention on Tater Blossom, who sat on a bench. Tater Blossom unabashedly stared at the older gent with her one open eye, and there was something pleasantly kind about her earnest, honest face.

“She speaks like a hayseed.” Mrs. Oleander’s voice floated out of nowhere and everywhere, which made Tater Blossom look around. “Hopefully, this can be corrected. It will be corrected.”

“Can you pull a wagon, Miss?” Mister Riddle asked.

“This here hayseed can pull a wagon all day,” she replied. “Been doin’ it for most my life. Haulin’ in the harvest and movin’ heavy equipment ‘round the farm. I’m not as strong as some of my kinfolk, but I like to think I can hold my own.”

“We’ll have to get you a license, Miss. I’ll file for a learner’s permit forthwith on your behalf, since you’ll be in my employ. You’ll need to learn the rules of the road and after some time has passed, you’ll be required to take a lengthy examination to determine your road-readiness.” Mister Riddle pulled out his silver wire spectacles and perched them on his thin muzzle. “Merciful alicorns, you were pummeled.”

“I tried to give as good as I got, but there was just too many.”

“Ghastly.” The old unicorn shuddered, huffed, and then turned his attention to Nut. “Last night, while enjoying Widow Oleander’s company, I had a fantastic idea. It needs fleshing out, but I am going to use the library as a sort of adult education center. One that will cater to immigrants. Take in new arrivals to our fair city, evaluate them, test them thoroughly, and determine what sort of help they might need. I suppose we can use this information to help them find meaningful employment as well. Come to think of it, there’s nothing stopping us from helping the whole community, so we’ll do that… but we’ll include the immigrants too. I cannot help but feel that more must be done to help them.”

“That was my idea.” Mrs. Oleander’s voice seemed to come floating out of the toolbox.

Mister Riddle turned huffy-puffy. “Madam, I shared my ideas with you—”

“I took your scatterbrained approach and made it sensible,” the toolbox replied in Mrs. Oleander’s voice. “You spoke with a mouthful of teacake. Odious.

“Well, that can’t be argued, I supposed. To be fair, I just had the idea and shared it in a rather excited state. I would have refined it eventually.”

Leaning over, Tater Blossom attempted to peer down into the depths of the toolbox.

“Er, is something wrong, Miss Blossom?” Mister Riddle asked.

“The toolbox just said something about something smelly, I think,” she replied.

“Oh no, my dear. Odious. Revolting. Repulsive. Exceptional unpleasantness.”

“That’s not a nice thing for a toolbox to say.”

“Well”—Mister Riddle paused as Nut chortled and shot the younger unicorn a dark look—“sometimes one acts without thinking. They are hasty and speak while consuming a teacake while in the company of an attractive, intelligent widow. Now, such a—”


The words echoed up out of the toolbox, and Mister Riddle, quite disturbed by them, had the audacity to shut the lid, which squeaked in protest. But this did no good, as a moment later, a container full of screws began tut-tutting and clucking its tongue at him. With a sigh, Mister Riddle’s withers could be seen sagging beneath his jacket as his head shook from side to side.

“I never fully picked up the knack for ventriloquism.”

“Me neither, Mister Riddle,” Nut said to the older unicorn.

“The library is well-equipped to teach the basics.” Mister Riddle cast a sidelong glance at the container of screws, as if waiting for it to have its say. “Reading, writing, arithmetic. Not everyone who arrives upon our shores has these basic skills. We should do something about that. If they’re courageous enough to make the journey, then I’d say we owe them a fair chance at success. They didn’t come here to take up space, they came here to live. We could be doing more to help assist their efforts.”

The container of screws had nothing to say and maintained its silence.

“Moreover,” Mister Riddle continued, “something needs to be done about the uneducated, illiterate adults. The library could be doing more. I am going to have fliers printed up so that I might pass them out when I make my rounds with the library wagon.”

“Ponies who can’t read can’t do much with print on paper.” Tater Blossom squirmed on the bench, and her next words were apologetic. “And they won’t be checkin’ out books from the library wagon. I don’t mean to be smart. Just pointin’ out what I think should be obvious.”

“But you raise a fine point.” After he shuffled about, Mister Riddle lapsed into thoughtful silence.

“The factories out in the boroughs depend heavily upon educational failure,” Nut said. At last he felt that he had something to contribute. “The wards are set up in such a way that the schools are critically underfunded. They’re really not schools, but a place where the poor are prepared for life in a factory. If they had a solid education, they might choose to make a living somewhere other than a factory. Mister Riddle, this will interfere with the established agenda.

“Damn the established agenda,” the old unicorn muttered.

Nut tried to offer a warning. “You will encounter resistance—”

“Damn the resistance.” Yanking off his spectacles, Fiddle Riddle cast his baleful gaze on Nut. “We spoke yesterday, you and I. You know how I feel. I think we can survive a little instability as changes are instituted.” He adjusted his black jacket, tugged at his cravat, and his tail flicked with agitation. “The city won’t even allow mobile libraries to traverse the boroughs. Won’t grant the permits. They say it is for our own safety, because the residents of the wards would rob us blind. I’ve been silent about this for years.

“Well, causing a scene is so unseemly—”

“Sarcasm.” Mister Riddle’s tone turned deadpan. “We Canterlot nobles love our own sarcasm. Almost as much as we love the sound of our own eloquent voices. We’ll be causing a scene, Nut.”

“Wait, I’m being dragged into this?”

“We’re nobles, Nut. We have an obligation. If not us, then who? This city is criminally mismanaged. A city should not be a factory for self-perpetuating poverty.”

“And what are we to do?”

“I don’t know yet, Nut. But causing a scene is a good start. I am done being quiet.”

“What have I done?” Nut asked in a quiet, subdued, meek tone that seemed quite weary.

“What I should have done a long time ago, when I was still young enough to make a difference.” For a moment, Mister Riddle’s face twitched from intensity, and with the way his tail whipped about, one might think he was besieged by flies.

“There’ll be no living with him now,” the container of screws said. “Who wants lunch?”

Nut cast his eager eyes upon the box of sandwiches that Mister Riddle sat down upon the table. He observed Ethelred doing the same, and Tater Blossom as well. Mrs. Oleander placed cups on the rough, worn down, and somewhat scratched table, which was used for everything, even dining sometimes on rare occasions.

But, try as he might, Nut could not remember eating a meal together with anybody else at this table. Something was different about this, though how or why, he could not say. There was something different with Fiddle Riddle and Widow Oleander, though what had changed exactly was unknown. He couldn’t help but think of Black Maple, and when he did, he felt a rising sense of frustration that bothered him a great deal.

“Fried cheese curd sandwiches, the only known cure for healthy, well-to-do arteries,” Mister Riddle said as he opened the box, which released a delightful aroma. “Miss Blossom, prepare for your introduction to city living. Ethelred, be a kind fellow and serve the good brown gravy. I ordered extra, so the sandwiches could be drenched, as is proper.”

Mrs. Oleander rolled her eyes, but not a word was said.

“Now, Miss Blossom, do not be shy. Sure, you have no magic, or claws, but you do have the enthusiasm of youth. This will be messy, there is no helping that. No one will think any less of you.” Mister Riddle bowed his head and while he did so, he lifted out a small maple loaf cake, which he sniffed before placing on the table. “No one gets desert until their sandwich is finished. I’ll hear no complaints about trim figures.”

The bell rang. Nut’s heart sank, but it could not be ignored, and he wasn’t about to allow this marvellous moment to be ruined. Before Mrs. Oleander could depart, he gave her a gentle tug upon her well-fitted coat and said, “Allow me.”

“Have lunch, Nut.”

“Oh no, I insist. Do sit down. I assure you, I can deal with even the fussiest of clients if necessary. If we stand here arguing, they will be kept waiting.”


“I do hope they like waiting,” he remarked with dry casualness.

“—see to the client, Nut. But don’t think that I’ll soon forget this.”

“Excuse me,” he said to the others, “please await my return, but by all means, eat.”

And before anything else was said, he slipped through the door to deal with the client.

A young mare waited at the counter. She was about his age, maybe, it was hard to tell. Nut studied her for a moment, took note of her working class demeanour, the way she stood and waited, but he also observed her fine wool coat that was clearly tailored, and not pulled from the rack. If her coat had been bought off the rack, she was an extraordinarily lucky mare indeed.

He went with a somewhat less than formal address so that she would be put at ease.

“Greetings. What might I do for you, Miss? Have you come to inquire about a rental, or are you in need of repairs?”

“I need a hearse,” she replied.

“My condolences,” he offered.

“Thank you,” she said, and there was a quick bob of her head.

“I am Nut. We do have a hearse for rent.”

“This is all quite new to me. My mother, she’s buried others before, but right now, she is beside herself with grief. I don’t know what I am doing.”

“Not to worry, Miss. I do know what I am doing, and I assure you, I can walk you through the process step by step. There are printed lists over there, in the wooden bin by the register. A checklist of sorts. It can be easy to lose track of things during a state of emotional turmoil.”

“My father is down here,” the young mare said, “and his grave is near the Wall District.” She frowned. “I’m Marjoram.”

“Miss Marjoram, you will need to schedule use of the cargo lift. Not the wagon lift, the hearse will not fit on the wagon lift. Make sure to contact the fine griffons at the cargo lift. You will need to schedule a trip up, and a trip down. They have reasonable rates for funerals.”

“Do you have a team?” she asked.

“We do not keep a team in-house,” he replied. “But we can get you in contact with professionals. Most customers have their own team… family members, fellow employees, friends, etcetera.” He allowed himself a sincere expression of concern—and waited.

“All of this is a headache,” Marjoram said on the verge of tears. “My father saved and scrimped his whole life to buy a house in the Upper City, but the costs kept climbing. Before he died, he purchased two grave plots; one for himself, and one for my mother. He was in his forties. My father worked himself to death trying to buy a house that he had no hope of ever affording. And now, I’m stuck dealing with all of this, and he had to make everything complicated. Even the graves were expensive, and we’re having to take out loans just to do all of this.”

“I am dreadfully sorry.”

“Thank you.” Marjoram turned away, and then began looking at the walls, which were covered in signs that listed various services and rates.

“How many ponies are needed to pull the hearse?” she asked.

“Typically, six.” Nut paused when he saw Marjoram’s expression, and then he explained, “It is an exceptionally large hearse. Sometimes, it takes as many as nine. The hearse has an occupancy for twelve, and it is capable of holding two coffins in an over-under placement. It is both a hearse and a limousine. It is quite unique, and the only one of its like in the whole of the city.”

“Father would have liked it. He adored one of a kind things. Like my mother. Or me.” A quivering smile could be seen gracing Marjoram’s lips, but her eyes suggested that tears might fall at any moment.

“To reserve the hearse, we’ll need a deposit. I do apologise for that, but that is policy. We’ll need payment in full before or by the day of rental. To make things easier, we have cold storage for the departed, so they can be here waiting, ready for their big day. We are licensed and bonded, so you can rest assured that your beloved departed will be given the care, consideration, and dignity that they are due. Once our services are engaged, and payment is rendered, we arrange for the transfer of the body from the morgue to our facility, which, I suppose, is one less thing for you to worry about.”

“This is a load off of my back,” the young mare said, almost sighing. “I’ll go and fetch a bank note for full payment. Not sure how long that will take. I don’t know if the day is long enough to get everything done.”

“I’ll begin preparing a service contract, forthwith.” After he drew himself into his most dignified, most starchy posture, he continued, “I shall do everything I can at my end to make things easier. Will you need the services of a team?”

“I will,” she replied.

“Then I shall handle the arrangements and secure their services for you. Free of charge. Of course, you will still need to pay them for their services rendered, but I ask for nothing for my own efforts.” Lunch, it seemed, would have to wait, but he was no stranger to cold lunch.

“I understand, thank you.” Marjoram’s tears could no longer be held back and the first one fell. “That is very kind of you.”

“Might I enquire what you father did for a living?”

“He was a shipwright.” She sniffled a bit, and put on a brave face. “Moving to the Upper City made no sense. His work was down here. His life was down here. Everything in his life was here, right here, and for the life of me, I do not understand why he wanted to escape it. He was always going on about the need for escape. His dream held us back.”

Thinking of his own plans, Nut spent a moment nodding. “Sometimes, we sacrifice much for our dreams. It sounds as though your father was a passionate individual.”

“More passion than common sense.” Marjoram’s expression turned from tearful to angry. “He could have invested in his own business. We could have lived in a nice house down here, in this place we belonged, but we lived above his workshop so he could save money. Every day, we did without, all for the sake of the dream. His dream. And at the end of his life, he goes and takes all of his savings, everything we could have used to get ahead, and he buys two plots of land that he couldn’t even afford. He mortgaged his workshop to cover the cost of the crypt. Before he died, he spoke of finally having his mansion. Why am I doing all of this for him? He made such a mess of things.”

“If I may state the obvious without rebuke, it is clearly because you loved him.” Nut allowed himself a sincere frown, and he shook his head. “His dreams were his own. Perhaps things might have been done differently. Ultimately, he lived his dream. There will be a grand funeral procession that goes from the Lower City to the Upper City, and his tired old bones will be laid to rest. Tell me, Miss Marjoram, do you have a dream?”

“I do,” she was quick to reply. “To clean up my father’s mess and then move on with my own life.”

For some reason, Nut found this answer quite unsatisfying, but he was not one to judge, so he held his tongue on the issue. It did make him consider his own plans, and for some reason, he thought of the many things that Black Maple had to say. The very thought of her fanned the flames of his resentment of her, and he felt itchy under his skin.

“I was just married… it was my father’s wish, but it was mine as well. My husband will assume ownership of my father’s workshop and all of my father’s debts. He has a plan to dig us out of debt and then it is my dream to give my mother the sort of life that my father wouldn’t.”

Nut noticed the use of the word ‘wouldn’t’ rather than ‘couldn’t’; it made him wince.

“You’ve been quite helpful. Thank you. It was nice talking to you, actually. You seem to be a good listener. That feels rare these days, you know? Everypony is too busy to listen to others. At least, it feels that way.” Then, as tears ran down her cheeks, she added, “I am ready to bury all of this, and put it to rest. The sooner this is done and over, the sooner I can move on with my life. You’re right. I do love my father. For better or worse. And he loved me. I’ve never doubted that.”

As he stood there, passive, listening, Nut thought of Tater Blossom and Hickory.

“I’ll be back with the required bank note,” she said.

“And I shall have everything ready upon your return,” he replied.

Turning about, Marjoram shook her head from side to side, and then she departed.

Now alone, Nut thought of the Gallopagos, and felt a twinge of regret that he had not felt before.

A couple of pricks

View Online

Eternal, enduring, everburning, the sun dared to pierce the veil of gloom, the shroud of suffocating grey rain left draped over the city of Vanhoover; so it was that sunlight, vivid, brilliant, precious sunlight, did shine upon the city streets, and there was much rejoicing from the sodden, soggy, waterlogged city-dwellers, who did revel during this moment of splendiferous respite.

Tater Blossom pronked through puddles and Nut awaited Mrs. Oleander’s harsh rebuke.

He marvelled at the infectious enthusiasm of youth, her vim, her vigour, her irrational exuberance. Tater Blossom existed in that strange place where she was not yet an adult, but she couldn’t be called a foal, either. Though watching her pronk about and listening to her hooves clattering against the cobblestones offered incontrovertible evidence of a juvenile stage of life.

So far, no telegram.

It would come. His patience would be rewarded. But he was nervous about the whole thing, or at least he thought he was. Was he? Try as he might, he had a hard time determining how he felt about this whole sordid mess. His faith and trust in his parents was absolute. They would come through for him—his parents would always come through for him.

Princess Celestia would raise the sun, and his parents would always come through for him. These were constants. He missed his mother, and something about Tater Blossom’s failed relationship with her mother made him miss his own mother even more. As for his father, their relationship had changed and Nut hadn’t fully sorted everything out. He and his father were drinking partners now, which was quite a different relationship altogether. They talked about things, discussed things in a wholly adult manner, and not necessarily as father and son.

A part of him wished he shared Tater Blossom’s unbridled enthusiasm.

She was pretty, winsome in her own way, a delight to behold. Even as battered as she was, there was something about her, something profound and good. She was a happy pony, even with her troubles, even with her pain, and for reasons he could not explain, he found this inspiring. As he stood watching her revelry, he thought about what he might write about her, what could be said. His vocabulary would need to be expanded to include words for happiness, for joy, for jovial jouissance.

If he was as troubled as she, he knew he would be quite dyspeptic.

“She’s acting like a mustang.”

“No, Mrs. Oleander, I beg to differ… she is behaving like a filly.”

“Mud.” The stern, older widow uttered the word as if it were a profane vulgarity.

“There is that,” he agreed most dryly. “You and I, we’re more restrained. We don’t comprehend her behaviour, do we?”

“I never had a foalhood.” Mrs. Oleander cleared her throat and then made an odd sound that sounded like a strangled wicker. “Surely, you had a foalhood.”

“Oh, but I did. I went running and shouting through the library once…”

When the widow snickered, it was an unexpected surprise.

“Not long after their marriage, when my mother and father were young… younger than Miss Blossom is now, they bid their foalhoods a fond farewell in grand fashion. Together, the both of them snuck out of school, pilfered a considerable quantity of soap, and then poured said soap into the fountain in front of the school. Headmistress Celestia had harsh words for them, and if their story is to be believed, she even gave chase as the two ne'er-do-wells absconded and made good their escape.”

“How old were your parents, Nut, when they were married?”

“Ten and eleven,” he replied. “My mother was older. She was supposed to be the mature one. She’s also the one who filled the school’s heating vents with garlic. To hear her tell it, she was trying to make the school smell better.

“Do you think it is good to marry young, Nut?”

“Oh, gracious… I don’t know. There is so much back and forth. Modern social mores and all that. If we say that marriage while young happens to be wrong, then most of our past, our history, that becomes wrong as well, and then history becomes a taboo topic that isn’t discussed in polite company. ‘Tis risky to hold history to our modern standards. I think it would be wrong for Miss Blossom to marry young, and I think I’ll leave it at that.”

“Hmm,” the widow hmmed.

“The circumstances of my parents marriage are quite different though. They were placed together by a matchmaker. Their union was entirely consensual. Marriage was treated as a learning experience. They were watched over hawkishly and instructed in how to make things work. Those first few years of marriage, they were just playmates, bound together at the hip. It was a time of education… not a time to start a household and family. That came later.”

“Ideally, all marriages should begin that way,” Mrs. Oleander said. “I do believe that would do much to help many of the ills of society.”

“Poverty and ignorance prevents this though,” he replied. “My parents were nobles. They had every need met. Every provision was provided. They were not mouths to feed. No dreadful circumstances pressed in upon our family to hurry my parents out the door and send them on their way. The circumstances for their marriage would prove impossible for most. That is something that I am only learning now, as I live among commoners.”

With a nod of her head, the widow agreed. “Miss Blossom is at the age where she consumes a prodigious amount of food. The poor find such expense a burden. Even the well-off still use it as an excuse though, for a variety of reasons.”

“No doubt.” He cast a glance at Mrs. Oleander. “Exigent circumstances should not dictate adulthood, but development. Tradition should not establish maturity at some given age, but rather, a measurable level of maturity. Unfortunately, reason remains at odds with tradition, and circumstances continue to be arduous for most.”

“Marriage freed me from the bonds that held me back,” the widow said in a voice now softened with sorrow. “My husband was good to me. Kind. Loving. Marriage, at least in my own mind, proved that I was desirable. That I still had value beyond that of a slave. While some husbands treat their wives as domestic servants, or even as slaves, mine did not. He was a bit like you, Nut. Cautious, slow, reserved… and kind. He could be harsh as well, but it cannot be denied that he had a kindness to him.

“But he could be hot-tempered, too. I will never forget him cutting down the diamond dogs that kept me and the others captive. There was so much blood… so much violence. I was terrified of him, at first. But his good nature won me over. He gained the trust of all of us.”

“So he did a little adventuring?”

“That’s a dirty word, Nut, and you know it. Don’t say that about my departed husband.”

“My apologies.”

“He saw the world for a while, and decided that he did not like what he saw.” Oleander’s voice was much, much softer now, stricken, sad, and trembling. “It bothered him, Nut. The awareness that the world was a terrible place. That it was filled with terrible things. The guilt stayed with him, Nut. He was aware of the wretchedness and the awful things that happened, but he couldn’t save all who suffered. He often said that the only thing that kept him sane was that he had at least saved one. And then he’d kiss me, and he’d be real quiet for a time.”

Though he wanted very much to be a source of comfort, Nut did not know what to say.

“Mind your ward, Nut. I have recordkeeping that needs attending. I’ll be in my office.”

Sunshine, like milk, did not keep for long. Now the weather was very much like something poured into coffee, a sort of half and half. Fog crept in, the feral storm clouds marched right for the city, and still the sun did try to shine. While one might expect for the overcast conditions to be bleary, the current state of the out of doors was quite the opposite: it was blindingly bright and the retina-searing fog had no mercy.

The overall effect was dazzling, which made Nut thankful to be indoors.

All of his hard work and effort was on the verge of paying off; the wagon was almost a wagon again. He’d secured a team, and filed all of the necessary paperwork to handle the transfer of a silent client, Marjoram’s father. She had paid in full, so all due return services were rendered. Mrs. Oleander seemed pleased with his handling of this case, so all was well. Even with the tedium, and the curious weather, it was shaping up to be a pleasant afternoon.

“Excuse me, but I am here to see Miss Potato Blossom.”

As he turned about, Nut put down his wrench on the workbench and was quite surprised to see Doctor Dogwood. She was a quiet sort, reserved, charitable, and frequently tended to Black Maple’s employees. Pokeberry Dogwood was an immigrant on the verge of obtaining citizenship, and was an all-around good pony.

“Mrs. Oleander secured my services, yesterday. I would have come sooner, but I had to attend to a fisher with a mangled claw.”

“Oh goodness.” Nut found himself delighted by her accent, which was very old-world and somewhat aristocratic, but also with a hair-raising case of the tingles because of the mention of mutilated flesh. “Do tell, did you save your patient?”

“Nothing was lost, but the healing will take time,” the doctor replied as she hefted her canvas oilskin satchel. “Now, about Miss Potato Blossom… do you have vaccination records?”

“Alas, I do not. I suspect that such things were not tended to.” When the doctor scowled, he frowned with her in a show of well-bred solidarity. “I was planning on a trip to your office, but it seems that Mrs. Oleander took matters into her own hooves.”

“Indeed she did. It is easy to procrastinate when it comes to dealing with these matters.” Like hounds seeking prey, the doctor’s eyes darted to and fro, pausing only to examine the scrapped heaps of rusty metal left upon the floor. “You work in a dangerous environment, Mister Nut.”

“Just Nut, if you please.”

“Alright, Just Nut. You work in a dangerous environment. When was your last tetanus booster?”

“I cannot say that I recollect an exact date, but some time has—”

“You will be getting one today. Prepare thine rump.”

He saw no point in arguing, but he did consider running. “Very well.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Doctor Dogwood said.

“Oh, it is, it is,” he agreed in a passive, halfhearted manner that lacked any trace of enthusiasm.

It was quite fortunate, really, that his job had medical benefits. Many did not enjoy such good fortune, and were not mercilessly shanked by a doctor who eschewed modern disposable medical equipment, but rather, favoured utilitarian, practical enduring tools of the trade that would no doubt exist beyond the downfall of known civilisation. Tools that would no doubt be excavated by the next sapient archeologists that would come along.

She favoured the one syringe for all model, with needles that could pierce even dragon hides.

“Mrs. Oleander is a model employer,” Doctor Dogwood remarked.

“Oh, she is, she is.” Nut found himself in polite, passive response mode.

“Increased heart rate, a high pulse, loss of fine pupil control, and sudden perspiration. Just Nut, do you find me attractive?”

“Oh, very much so.” This was a kindness, a flattering bit of social interaction, and as such, it did not count as deceitful, duplicitous, deceptive dishonesty. The doctor met all of the standard requirements for attractiveness in the base biological sense, as she was female, a unicorn, and at an age suitable for enthusiastic procreation so that the species might be continued.

Such perfidy was unbecoming; he deserved whatever misfortune that came his way.

“I prefer the devoted nesting behaviour of pegasus ponies,” the doctor said in neutral tones. “In fact, one is courting me right now. Quite an experience. He leaps into water features so he can croon and warble at me. Fascinating creatures, pegasus ponies. Like us, but not at all like us.”

“Oh, indeed, indeed.” He tried very hard to not think of Black Maple, and failed.

“Pegasus ponies have an exotic appeal, even though they are ponies. Ponies though they might be, they are distinctly different than we unicorns and earth ponies. The introduction of avian features and traits radically alters their nature.” Almost smiling, she heaved a sigh. “Let us do what must be done,” the doctor suggested. “Where might I find Miss Potato Blossom?”

“Oh, she’s in the break room, reading at the moment. We should go and catch her unawares.”

“Fantastic idea, Just Nut. I like the way you think.”

Tater Blossom, as it turned out, was engrossed in her new-to-her book, the gently used copy of Fundamentals of Familial Friendship. She had it on the table in front of her, and a pencil hung from her mouth so that she might turn its pages with the grippy eraser. It warmed his heart to see her reading, and doing so with such earnestness. She was an eager pupil, and he was glad to be her teacher.

It made him feel despicable that he was betraying her, but it was for her own good.

“Miss Blossom, this is Doctor Dogwood.” He stepped aside and gestured at the unicorn mare beside him. “Doctor Dogwood, this is my ward, Miss Blossom.”

“Oh, you poor girl!” With a sudden burst of movement, Doctor Dogwood shoved Nut aside and rushed over to stand near the injured earth pony, who was quite startled by the sudden attention. “Mrs. Oleander told me that you had injuries, but this is far worse than I anticipated!”

The pencil slipped from Tater Blossom’s slack lips as the doctor began her frantic examination. Nut was quite surprised by Pokeberry Dogwood’s unexpected display of emotion, and she had always struck him as being rather cold and clinical. So, the good doctor did, indeed, have a softer, somewhat more tender side—which made the stabbings yet to come somehow all the worse.

Before the book could close, Doctor Dogwood slipped in a conjured scrap of paper as a bookmark. Oh, she was good. An excellent doctor, as evidenced by her quick thinking. It was terrible to lose one’s place in a book, and the kind, considerate doctor had just prevented such frustration. Nut found himself liking her a little more, while still dreading the promised, perturbing, preordained unpleasantness.

Tater Blossom obediently allowed the doctor to examine her, and Nut could not help but feel a little proud. She was compliant, did not fuss or fidget much, nor did she cry out or whine when the doctor poked and prodded. But things would change, and he knew it. The anticipation was somehow worse than the actual act itself, and he knew that too. This waiting, it was torture.

“Have the constables been alerted?” the doctor asked.

“This happened elsewhere,” Nut replied. “The situation was dealt with through the application of local traditions and customs, and had a deeply unsatisfying outcome. The less said about it, the better.”

A tiny growl could be heard in the doctor’s throat, but her demeanour remained kind. “These are all wounds that should heal well-enough. A few lacerations, some scrapes, and a lot of bruising. Earth ponies are durable creatures, but durable as they are, they still feel pain. You poor dear.”

“Mrs. Oleander put some medicine on me earlier. Zebra stuff. It helped.”

“Jata the herbalist is a remarkable healer. He and I work together often. Though, I do worry sometimes about his trust in unexplained mysticism, he does get results.” Placing her bag upon the table, Doctor Dogwood then pulled out an auriscope and said, “I am going to look into your ears, dear.”

“Zebra mysticism and their application of astral-based medicinal practices could become science if they would just let us study it,” Nut remarked as the doctor peered into his ward’s right ear. “As I understand it, they prefer to keep it as a matter of faith, rather than that of science, for reasons of tradition and heritage. They fear that to understand it, they would destroy what makes it special.”

“Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.” Doctor Dogwood’s head bobbed up and down in agreement for a short time, and then she peered into Tater Blossom’s left ear.

“There are wizards who prefer to keep their arts as wizardry rather than science. I’ll never understand this compulsion to keep things mysterious for the sake of tradition. It baffles the mind. A foolish resistance against logic and reason.” He allowed himself a polite snort, strode over to the table, and carefully placed the pencil against the book so it wouldn’t roll off the table.

“Dear, your ears are very dirty. It concerns me.”

“I hold my head beneath the water, what more can I do?” Tater Blossom asked.

“This is a common health issue among earth ponies. You’ll have to either seek out help when you bathe, or make regular visits to an aural hygienist. I suggest a bath partner, as it is far cheaper.” The doctor tut-tutted for a moment, wickered, and flicked her tail.

“I wouldn’t know who to ask.”

“Make friends,” was the doctor’s reply.

“But I…” Tater Blossom sucked in a deep breath, held it for a time, and then let everything out in a powerful huff.

“Look, I understand that it isn’t as easy as I make it sound.” Doctor Dogwood took a step back, put away her auriscope, and brought her stern gaze to bear upon Tater Blossom. “I have a responsibility to tell you what must be done. You have a responsibility to find the means to do it. Good health is something you labour for. If it means enough to you, you will find a way.”

Tater Blossom’s ears splayed out side to side, but she said nothing.

“Apply some of that earth pony work ethic, and everything will be right as rain.”

With a step back, Nut removed himself from the situation. He wanted to say something, but what to say remained elusive, unknown. While he agreed with everything the doctor said—her statements indeed rang true—he found himself in disagreement with how she said it. It bothered him, even if he lacked the means to put his quarrelous contention into words. Distracting the good doctor from her job would accomplish nothing, however.

“When was your last heat?” the doctor asked.

“Why must everypony know ‘bout that?” the now red-faced filly replied.

“It is an indicator of health.” The doctor now spoke in a monotone, and she waited.

“Mine start in the last days of spring and early summer,” Tater Blossom said as her face continued to redden.

“Was it normal?”

“What’s normal?” Tater Blossom’s ears stood up and she gave the doctor a neutral, blank look. “It wasn’t something we talked ‘bout. ‘Cept for when my Ma wanted to holler at me ‘bout how I should already be married. I don’t know a thing ‘bout my own body, how it works, or what it does. Whatever I was told ‘bout myself, I no longer trust. So tell me, what is normal?”

Doctor Dogwood said nothing, but she did pull a thin paper pamphlet out of her bag, and put this down upon the book that Tater Blossom had been reading.

“Oh… thank you kindly. You spared me some ‘barrassment. I ‘preciate that.”

“Read it. Re-read it. Read it again. When you’re done, read it once more. If you have any questions, any at all, no matter how embarrassing they might be, you come and you talk to me. The visit will not cost you anything. There will be an open and honest discussion, with no details spared… that is, if you need it. Understanding how your body works is empowerment. There’s no great mystery, no unfathomable miracle, there are only facts and basic biology. Be empowered.

“Right. And my Ma, she was always going on about mysteries and miracles. So I guess that is one more thing I need to sort out. Great.”

“It’s tough, but don’t get discouraged, Miss Blossom.” Then, quite abruptly, she said to Nut, “If you could please step out for a moment, there is an examination I must perform. I shall not take long.”

“Well,” Tater Blossom muttered, “I’m ‘bout to show off my foal-shooter and my tooter.”

“Oh… oh, I say. Excuse me, I’ll be just outside the door if I am needed.” And with that, Nut stepped out, all while attempting to prevent the new colloquialism from getting stuck in his memory.

Upon reentering the room, Nut paused to take stock of the situation. Miss Blossom seemed fine, so why had he worried? Just outside the door, he’d been fretful of how she might deal with this intrusion upon her privacy—nopony liked these examinations, did they—and he was relieved to find that she seemed mostly fine.

The room was on the verge of being warm and sunny fogshine could be seen just beyond the window panes. Nut knew what was coming, he dreaded it, but knew that he was powerless against the inevitable. He made himself think of pleasant things; fine linen, shiny brass, and the itchy comfort of exceptional tweed. Puppies, kittens, an adorable griffon stray that was now a bookstore heiress; these were good and wholesome things for one to think about.

“I trust that everything is as it should be,” he said in a somewhat strained, but also incredibly dry voice that lacked any sort of emotion.

“She seems to be in good health,” Doctor Dogwood said as she peered inside of her bag. “However, she could stand to be cleaner.”

“Cleaner?” Nut’s ears pricked.

“I told you…”—Tater Blossom’s voice cracked with awkward shame—“I was told I wasn’t s’posed to touch back there too much ‘cause it’d lead to sinful thoughts.”

“Preposterous.” Pokeberry Dagwood lost all traces of her professional demeanour. “Patently ridiculous. Absurd. Utterly unreasonable. Superstition is no excuse for a lack of good hygiene.”

“So I’ve gathered, but could you be nicer ‘bout it, so I don’t feel so ashamed?”

This caught the doctor off guard, and her mood visually changed abruptly once more. “Dear girl, I’m sorry. I… I never deal with these encounters well. It galls me.” She stood for a time, quiet, the muscles on her neck quivering, and after many seconds slipped away, she exhaled a shuddering breath.

What happened next was the most awkward hug that Nut had ever witnessed.

The two mares were sort of mashed together, with the older clinging to the younger, while both of them tried to endure the strange moment. Tater Blossom was the first to give in, and she went from rigid to clingy in the blink of an eye. This touching moment of closeness would make the moment of betrayal yet to come so much worse.

“I’m grateful that I have a friend to set me straight.”

“I’ll help you, I promise. We’ll talk more later. Under better circumstances. We’ll sort everything out, together.”

“I’d like that.”

There were a few sniffles when the two ponies disentangled themselves from one another, and Nut made it a point to look out the window, even though the curious brightness made his eyes sting. A new life in the city meant new learning, discovering new ways, and adapting. He suspected that he would write about this, eventually, not only for the sake of science, but to perhaps spread some much needed truth. Surely there were others out there who shared similar circumstances with Miss Blossom. If he could be objective and get over his hangups, he might be able to reach out to others—but first, he would discuss it thoroughly with his ward before committing pen to paper.

The struggle to be empowered—to be normal—after being held back with ignorance.

Doctor Dogwood pulled a wooden box from her bag, a piece of artistry really, engraved with many fine details, with little hearts and flowers and the sort of feminine frippery favoured by females. Then she also lifted out a smaller bag from within her bag, and Nut knew—he knew—that the end of all time, the termination of all things was upon him. He gulped, but something went wrong, and what he’d hoped to swallow remained lodged in his throat.

He started to say something, but suffered premature peroration. It made him feel less a stallion, as if he were diminished somehow. Premature peroration happened, his father had told him; sometimes things ended before they began. Occasionally, rousing words of courage failed, and one suffered embarrassing premature peroration. Sweating somewhat, he took a moment to adjust his choker collar while he dealt with his secret shame.

The box was put down on the table with a soft clunk, and Nut reminded himself that there was still time to stage a graceful retreat. He… he could sneeze and suffer the catastrophic loss of sphincter integrity. A sudden remembrance that he had pressing business elsewhere. At this very moment, he could be doing something incredibly foolish, like a sudden elopement with Black Maple—she would agree without hesitation, he just knew it. That was a small, but worthwhile price to pay for a hasty, sudden departure.

What was he thinking? Goodness no, a moment of discomfort wasn’t worth that. Or was it? He found himself lost in an internal debate that he had no desire of winning, yet losing didn’t seem too appealing either. Win or lose, this would end in a painful prick of the rump, which happened to be less than satisfying victory conditions, and unacceptable terms of surrender as far as loss went.

When the good doctor opened the box, there was a soft whine from the hinges, and he saw the flash of shiny, silvery metal within. Someone wickered—he had wickered—and now for the first time, Doctor Dogwood was alerted to the fact that something was amiss. As the lid lifted—seemingly in slow motion—the kindly but stabhappy doctor turned to look at him and he could see the cold, clinical violence in her eyes.

Was this what other ponies saw when they looked at him?

He was terrifying.

“What in tarnation is that?” Tater Blossom demanded.

In this moment, he loved her. It was a perfect love, the perfect love, an innocent, enduring love, the sort of love that Princess Cadance wanted all creatures to feel for one another. It was a unifying love, a love that bridged vast distances. Things like social class were trivial obstacles to this love, and this was the love destined to conquer the world.

“Plannin’ to do a bit of railroad work, Doctor?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why would you keep a railroad spike in a box?”

“Oh, don’t be silly. This is a universal-species syringe. It simplifies things.”

Ears pinned back, Tater Blossom retreated, but had nowhere to go.

After opening the smaller bag, ampules could be seen, each of them clearly marked with an easy to read symbol that allowed for efficient categorisation. Ponies loved their pictoglyphs, as a substitute for written language. Their society depended upon marks of destiny—his was an umbrella—and their written language reflected that.

One was clearly, curiously marked: a pony’s head in profile with a padlock over the jaw.

At first glance, it seemed ridiculous, but it did manage to convey the condition. To anypony with reasonable intelligence, this was lockjaw. Uncomfortable without knowing why, Nut realised that he would rather have his medicines and vaccinations clearly and properly labeled, but this was the way of things. What hope did he have of changing them?

“I’ll die from that—”

“Oh, nonsense. I haven’t lost a patient yet.” Doctor Dogwood’s smile was, at best, described as disturbing.

At least, Nut thought so.

“No.” Tater Blossom’s refusal lacked any sort of meaningful conviction.

“Oh, come now—”

“No. You just told me that I have a right to say no—”

“Not for this,” the doctor said. “This is necessary. And for your good health. This is your civic duty. Nut, tell her.”

Though his throat was tight, he found the means to speak. “This is true. It is a matter of social contract. Societal obligation. We must endure this discomfort for the safety and benefit of all.”

“I think I’ll take a chance on getting sick.” Backed into a corner, Tater Blossom was now visibly sweating.

As for Nut, he was sweating as well, but he fell back on reason for reassurance. “You catching a communicable disease is exactly the problem. In doing so, you will act as a host for disease, for contagion, so that it might evolve, adapt, and potentially overcome the assorted resistances of those around you. For vaccinations to work, everypony, every creature must be vaccinated. It is a united effort. Even one sick creature poses a major risk to all. All it takes for the next plague to spread is just the right opportunity, the ideal set of circumstances.”

“We can’t do much about magical maladies, but we can prevent the mundane ailments that afflict us.” The doctor loaded the tetanus booster ampule into her universal-species syringe, locked it into place with a satisfying click, and then pointed the instrument of flesh-piercing horror right at Nut. “You first. Do set an example.”

Tater Blossom resigned herself to her fate. “I suppose I can handle one shot, if I hafta—”

“Oh no, you silly filly… I can only load one ampule at a time. A series of fourteen shots is required, and even more a few weeks from now.”

“But I don’t have that much rump. Look out, Nut, she’s comin’ right at ya.”

“So I’ve noticed, Miss Blossom.” The room was far too small, and the universal-species syringe had far too much reach; Nut found himself stuck with unfavourable circumstances.

“Oh, don’t be foalish.” A thin stream of liquid shot out of the spike of metal as Doctor Dogwood advanced. “Hold very still… gouging the bone is a distinct possibility if you don’t hold—”

“Madam, your bedside manner is atrocious.” Now was the time for curt words, Nut felt. A short, terse, brief sentence was just the thing to convey his current state of displeasure with this unfolding situation.

“I see no beds,” Doctor Dogwood replied.

“Oh, touché, I say.”

“I would put down my rapier so we could discuss this as reasonable ponies are wont to do, but doing so would work against my intended outcome.”

“The good doctor is eloquent, Miss Blossom. Take note. I find myself facing a worthy foe.”

“Surrender, and I’ll make this quick.”

“Madam, I am unarmed. I find myself at a distinct disadvantage. What of honour, might I ask?”

“I have none,” Doctor Dogwood replied as she brought her syringe to bear. “Now, turn about, face the wall, do not move, and think pleasant thoughts of Princess Celestia.”

“Is everypony in the city like this?” Tater Blossom asked.

“Only some of us,” Nut replied as he dutifully faced the wall and gave thought to Princess Celestia’s overall pleasantness.

“I recently vaccinated a dragon, and she told me that she didn’t feel a thing,” Doctor Dogwood remarked as she prepared to do the deed.

“Madam, thou dost prevaricate!”

“I did not lie; the dragon felt hardly anything.”

“Ah, but you attempt to deceive me with such words, for I shall surely feel—oh villain, I hath done thy mother!”

“Erudite expletives… exemplary.” Doctor Dogwood chuckled, then added, “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?”

Tater Blossom found herself quite unable to sit down and her every movement, no matter how slight, caused her to hiss with pain. Nut pitied her, but also himself, at least to a small degree. He’d only been pricked once, and it was bad enough to leave him smarting. She had been stabbed repeatedly; fourteen times in all.

As it turned out, Tater Blossom had all manner of colourful country colloquialisms, off-coloured metaphors, and the sort of vulgar, hickish vocabulary that was celebrated by authors and poets. For a brief time, she became the master, and he, the student. Was he enriched by the experience? Most likely, but if he repeated anything that’d he’d heard amongst the genteel, well-heeled nobles of his home city, Canterlot, there would be a recrudescence of shortness of breath, if not outright fainting.

She was a goldmine of descriptive metaphors involving barnyard fornicatery.

“I feel the need to have the walls scrubbed,” Mrs. Oleander remarked.

Sighing, Nut had nothing to say. As for Tater Blossom, who currently endured Mrs. Oleander’s intense scrutiny, she appeared to have exhausted herself of words. When Mrs. Oleander’s eyebrow arched, Tater Blossom cringed, but the sudden tension in her body made her hiss like an unexpectedly drenched alley cat caught unawares as a chamberpot was emptied overhead.

“For the record, I am not mad.” The arch of Mrs. Oleander’s eyebrow intensified to a level previously believed impossible by Nut. “But I am thoroughly disgusted and I fear these walls might never know cleanliness ever again. Now my establishment is as debased as the den of debauchery down the lane. Things were said that can never be unsaid. I fear these walls will have memory.”

“I can’t even say anything at all, ‘cause you’ve had worse done to you.” Tater Blossom sounded just like a filly sent to bed without supper.

“I have!” Mrs. Oleander replied, “And I cannot recall ever saying such… filth.

“Powerful sorry.”

“I am sure you are.” Eyebrow relaxing a bit, Mrs. Oleander sighed. “Nut, I have a task for you.”

“And what might that be?” he asked in the most neutral tone he could muster.

“Take Miss Blossom out for ice cream. I’ll fetch some bits from petty funds. Begone from this place and do not return until such a time that a civil tongue can be maintained. This place needs an airing out, and this cannot be done while the perpetrator of this heinousness remains.”

“Do I get ice cream?” he dared to ask.

Mrs. Oleander did not reply right away, no. With her eyes narrowed, she bored holes into Nut’s psyche with her scrutinous gaze, until at last she reached a decision. “Do you believe that you deserve ice cream? I heard what you said about Doctor Dogwood’s mother.”

“Oh, I very much do not deserve ice cream, but I would very much appreciate to have some in spite of my unmitigated crassness. In my defense, I allowed a lady to pierce mine derrière, and she did so, free of the threat of malicious physical reprisal.”

Tater Blossom started to giggle, but the sudden jiggle made her hiss.

“Sometimes, Nut, it is easy to forget that you are young.”

“I beg your pardon—”

“Nineteen, Nut.”

“A very mature nineteen. You would be hard-pressed to find a more respectable, more mature, more reliable nineteen-year-old.”

“Go be young, Nut. Get out of here.”

“I resent being judged for my youth.”

Smirking, Mrs. Oleander departed to withdraw bits from petty funds.

Nature vs nurture

View Online

The rain that spattered against the window provided a soothing, steady beat. Black ink, like glistening ichor of ancient cephalopodic abominations, flowed from the stained silver chisel tip of the ink pen, whose body was made from the finest rosewood. An invisible hand, the gentle but persistent force of the storm itself, rocked the ship like a cradle as it cut its way through the waves.

As he was wont to do, Nut wrote at length of his ward.

For all these years now, she had been his companion, his assistant, and his friend. She had long since integrated into complex society; the clever Miss Blossom had found her place in the world. But he still wrote about her, her successes, and frequently embellished her cleverness, though never by very much. She was often the source of the best ideas, the very ideas that he needed to further his own dreams. This trip to the Gallopagos was her doing. She was the social creature that had charmed so many, and in doing so, made this trip possible.

Witty, treasured, beloved by all, she was the toast of all of Vanhoover—and Canterlot as well.

His pen scratched against the ivory paper of the hardbound ledger, and left behind looping, flowing, beautiful script that was almost too perfect. With such perfection, the written words almost had an unbelievable quality to them, a sort of suggested impossibility that left them difficult to read. The eyes diverted away from such perfection, so one was not driven to despair over one’s own shortcomings.

A thunderous knock against the hardwood door of his tiny cabin jostled him from his work, and caused the glistening ink to blot upon the paper. An imperfection that could be sorted out with a bit of magic, but not right now. As Nut looked up from his work and brought his gaze to bear upon the heavy, sturdy hardwood door, it opened.

“We near the outer islands. Things aren’t well. Captain requests that you be up topside.”

The griffon delivering this message appeared quite apologetic.

“I’ll be up in a moment,” Nut replied. “Tell the Captain that I’ll be right there.”

Lightning hued the nauseating green of witchfire flashed in the distance and the night sky had a disturbing sickly viridescent tint as the befouled light reflected off of the storm clouds. The rain-drenched deck was crowded with bodies wearing vivid yellow rain slickers. Bobbing up and down, the horizon that surrounded them on all sides couldn’t hold still.

Nothing felt right, but this close to the Gallopagos, that was a given.

Peering out from beneath Susan’s canopy, Nut said, “Captain.”

“I don’t think the counter-measures will hold,” the grizzled diamond dog replied. “The ship feels wrong. We should turn back.”

Eyes narrowing, shaking his head from side to side, Nut voiced his disapproval with a single harsh syllable: “No.”

“No?” The Captain went still as rain ran down his slicker in rivulets.

“You say the ship feels wrong. Explain.”

“It just feels wrong. Everything feels wrong.”

“What proof is there of trouble?” asked Nut.

“Instruments and gauges misbehave. The thaumaton reader is in the yellow.”

“All these things are expected. We continue as planned.”

Sheltered from the downpour beneath Susan, Nut studied the crew, and feared mutinous behaviour. If necessary, he would cut them down. He was too close now to turn back. These risks would be managed. Hunches would be ignored. To many years of his life were spent in pursuit of this impossible dream. Fortunes were spent on the necessary advances to make this possible.

“We should back off… at least until the storm passes.”

“Miss Blossom, storms happen. Why aren’t we studying this phenomenon right now, so that we might understand what effect that wild magic has upon our physiology? What of the specimens down below in the pens?”

There was a heavy thump of wood against wood, and Black Maple came forward. “Everypony—everyone—came up on deck to convince you to turn back. I think you should keep going though. Just to see what happens.” Secure in her slicker, sheltered from the storm, the pegasus mare approached Nut’s side, and her wooden prostheses thump-thump-thumped against the wooden deck.

“I’ve spent my life in waiting of this moment… there will be no turning back.”

“We’ve chained our fates to your own, Nut.” Black Maple could be seen grinning beneath her broad-brimmed bright yellow hat. “We all knew what we were getting into when we departed upon this voyage.”

“Indeed, we did,” Potato Blossom agreed, and she could be heard sighing. “I left home and followed you. It has led me here. What is the point of coming this far if I don’t see this through to the end?”

Mere seconds after the rain-slickered earth pony had spoken, the deck heaved. The wood began to warp, twist, and then new growth appeared. Branches grew. Green leaves sprouted. Old dead wood was now very much alive, and the metal hull creaked like whales in a concerto. Rain slickers began to dissolve as the magic-infused rain interacted with the inert, rubberised material. Even Susan showed signs of peculiar strangeness, and seemed that she now drew breath.

With every passing second, the weirdness grew worse, and far more inexplicable.

There was an almost audible gasp as logic died, and proportion followed shortly after. Nut found that he no longer cared about knowing, or having answers. Only the destination mattered. He would reach his islands—the Gallopagos would be his, no matter what. No cost was too great. The ship was transforming all around him, becoming something else.

Some great invisible force tugged at him and he felt something lodge inside of his mind, something very much like a sliver. His eyes changed; he blinked, and then a moment later, the world had taken on a bluish tint of sorts, which stood out in sharp contrast to the green of the witchfire storm.

“Not all dreams have favourable outcomes,” he heard a familiar voice say, a voice that was both inside of his head as well as outside.

The ship rose and fell, a victim to the waves, and the deck continued its strange transmutation. Fierce forces were at work and Nut sensed chaos. For most of his life, chaos bothered him. Unnerved him. He was a creature of order, of harmony. But now, as his journey neared its end, and reality began to unravel, he was forced to embrace chaos. To become one with it.

A griffon stumbled, lost his balance, and fell into Nut. They did not bounce apart, which was strange, but remained bonded together in some weird way. He could feel the sliver in his mind burrowing deeper, and it was only through supreme willpower that he held onto himself as both he and the griffon melted into one another. His flesh had become like boiling wax, and the griffon’s as well. Their biomass was merging, somehow, and he became aware of the griffon’s thoughts within his own mind.

In what might have been seconds, or possibly hours, the griffon was gone, except that he wasn’t. Nut stared down at his left front leg, which was now rather griffonish in nature, and a single wing now flapped against his left side. His body felt wrong now, incomplete, and he was growing longer—more noodly. Yes, he’d gone noodly with chaos, and that was fine.

Chaos gave him gravity.

The others on deck began to stumble into him, and their bodies merged and melded together with his own. Biomass began to transmogrify and their thoughts began flitting around in his mind, unwelcome guests who made quite a racket. They were screaming, great and terrible screams that deafened him and disturbed him. But the screaming was inside of his head, not outside, and reality stretched like a stringy slice of cheese pizza on the verge of tearing free.

Much to his regret and dismay, he noticed that Potato Blossom was slowly losing herself as she faded into him. He could feel her intelligence, her strength, and her charisma all becoming his. She didn’t do much to resist, a mere token effort, perhaps done more out of terror than any real desire to break free and flee.

"We followed your dream. You made us believe in your dream, and we trusted you. You did this to us."

These were her final parting words as he consumed her, and she became one with him.

All of them were screaming now, shrieking between his ears, and he could feel that his sanity had suffered grievous injury. Black Maple alone had somehow resisted the pull, the draw, but no longer. She flung herself against him, a sensate to the end. He felt her wings encircle his neck, and her wooden legs sprouted new growth, complete with tiny brass fruits.

“This isn’t the sex I had in mind, but this is fine,” she said as her right wing sloughed off of her body.

It travelled down Nut’s neck, down his withers, and then began to burrow into his spine. It took root, and now he had a pegasus wing to match the griffon wing on the other side. He was long now, too long, and he had absorbed far too much biomass. Why, even the wood of the ship was now merging with him now that he’d partially absorbed Black Maple’s legs.

He was part plant; perhaps he’d take on troll-like qualities.

Black Maple kissed him, her tongue parted his lips, and with a sickening squish, he felt it tear free. Like a serpent, it slithered over his tongue, flailing and flopping about, and then it went wriggling down his throat into the undiscovered country of his guts. Black Maple’s lips were now fused with his own, and there would be no separating himself from her ever again. She was losing herself to him, and as the madness intensified, he could feel her tongue burrowing into deep, secret places.

“When the Black Star fell from the Endless Night, the dark space beyond the stars, parts of it broke off as it entered our atmosphere. Part of it is here, in this place, lodged like a thorn buried in the flesh of the earth. Sapient minds cannot exist here, as there is only madness. Is this what you wanted?”

So many voices were screaming now, a chorus of the lost all shrieking between his ears. None of his limbs matched. A griffon’s claw. The leg of a diamond dog. An Abyssianian’s paw. One leg was curiously made of living wood and was currently growing bark to function as skin. His brand new wings fluttered, and with each flap, they found new strength.

“What have you become?” the voice asked.

“I am Nature,” he replied, “and I delight in not making sense. I am the contrariness of controlled chaos. All will evolve at my whim and witness my insane majesty.”

Oh, he was becoming ever-so-noodly and his fluffy feline tail curled into a curious interrobang.

Black Maple’s tongue writhed into his heart at last, and he felt the last of his sanity pop like a soap bubble. He laughed, and it felt good to laugh. It really was the best medicine. The lifeforms kept below decks were drawn into him now, a fine collection of genes and random bits of deoxyribonucleic acid for him to play with. And why not? He could change things around on a whim. Evolve into whatever suited him at the moment. What if the right mood struck him and he no longer was in the mood to be warm blooded? He had options.

“You can never leave this place,” the voice said, now sad. “If you leave the magic here, you will become something else, and there is no telling what that might be. Enjoy your destination, Nature, for it has become your prison. At long last, the Gallopagos are yours. All it cost you was—”


Giggling, he allowed himself to slip beneath the waves, to see what he might evolve into.

“Nut, wake up, I’m cold. It’s too cold to sleep.”

Senses dull, Nut dredged himself up from the depths and tried to make sense of the world. He’d been… noodly somehow, though he could not say why or how. When his eyes blinked open, he knew that he’d been dreaming, though what about was unknown. One by one, his senses returned to function, and he became dully aware that Tater Blossom’s snoot was scant inches away from his own.

“My blankets don’t do no good, Nut. It’s all cold down below under me. I can’t stop shiverin’ and everything hurts. Help.” Then, almost whining, she added, “There’s no way to get warm, Nut, and it feels like I’m dyin’. Did all those shots make me sick?”

When she spoke, Nut distinctly heard her saying, “Everythang.” It was charming, in its own way, part of what made her special, and as he struggled with wakefulness, he found himself in a noodlistic state of mind. What this meant, exactly, was unknown; it was just a general state of noodliness that could not be readily dismissed.

Why was there light?

She had turned the light on.


“I’m awake.” This wasn’t a lie; not exactly. He was technically awake, but his awareness suffered. “What is it, Miss Blossom?” With every blink, the curious blue tint to his vision retreated a bit, and the vague awareness of his dreaming mind retreated so that his waking mind might function. “Are you well?”

“No, I ain’t. I’m freezin’ my rump off. Help!”

“Hold on, give me a moment to recover myself…”

In Miss Blossom’s room, he was quick to sort out the problem. It was a failure on his part, at least, he felt this way. Fighting back the urge to yawn, he folded one blanket into thirds, and then laid this folded blanket over the hammock. He tucked it this way, and that way, and tried to smooth it out a bit, so there would be no awful wrinkles that pressed into tender flesh.

“You had nothing beneath you, Miss Blossom. What you need is a layer of insulation… like so. See how I have folded the blanket? That creates insulating pockets of air. Now, climb into bed—careful now.”

She was sleepy, but did as she was told, and he helped her to keep the folded blanket from getting too mussed up. Once in the hammock, she stretched out a bit, yawned, and rested her head against the blanket. He picked up the remaining blankets, held them high from the floor, folded them all in half all together as one, and then laid them over Miss Blossom.

“Give it some time to warm up,” he said to her. “Comfortable?”

He saw her nod.

It was almost cold enough to see his breath, and he struggled against the urge to shiver. He’d left his own warm bed behind to do this. Regrettably, his bed would no longer be warm, and it would take time to warm it upon his return—if he returned. Without thought of what he was doing, he absentmindedly tucked his ward’s blankets around her, and tugged at the corners until everything was just so.

“This is a lot nicer,” he heard her say. “The ropes of the hammock felt like they were cuttin’ into my skin.”

To which, he nodded and replied, “Yes, these hammocks are a bit coarse. Scratchy. They were built to last, and not for comfort. But things are better now?”

Again, he saw her nod.

It was no bed fit for royalty. Nor was it fit for nobility. In fact, most ponies would forgo this as a sleeping solution altogether, and the hammock was consigned to sailors and the like, because it was ideal for rocking, swaying ships. It seemed that they could also be found in rooms available above garages, a cheap solution that was not only functional, but prevented bedbugs.

“I miss Pa.” She sighed, and her voice softened to the point of almost being inaudible. “Ma too. She did me wrong… she did me a whole lotta wrong, but I still love her. It bugs me though.”

“There is nothing inherently wrong with loving your mother. Even if she wronged you.”

“That… makes me feel better, but I don’t reckon I know why.”

She went still in her bed; no longer did she squirm. No doubt, she was getting warmer, either from trapped body heat or reassuring conversation. He stood dutifully by her bed, her hammock, uncertain if he would return to his. Now that he was awake, returning to a state of sleep would be difficult, and there was work that could be done. There was always work that could be done.

“Everypony seems so nice, even if y’all talk funny. None of this has been what I expected. Mrs. Oleander, she’s great. I thought she’d be mean, but she ain’t. Doctor Dogwood is nice and funny. I’m lookin’ forward to workin’ with Mister Riddle and I think I feel safe around him. He’s a bit like you, Nut. But I like Black Maple the most. She’s the best.”

Nut’s expression transitioned into something a bit more deadpan.

“I love the city, and I can’t wait to see more of it. But, it’s colder here, and everything is wet, and damp, and chilly, and soggy, and everything is so big, so tall, and there are so many ponies and other creatures all crammed into such a tight space. And there’s ice cream, that’s good stuff. I read about it in Pinkie Pie’s book… she calls it frozen happiness and I see why. But… but I think there was more ponies and creatures in that ice cream shop than there was back in the place where I was born, and it felt like everything was pressin’ in on me when I was in there.”

Her orange tongue darted out and licked her lips.

“Everything was so clean and white in that place. The floors, the ceiling, the walls… ain’t never seen nothing like it. All that steel and glass. When I was a-waitin’ in line with you, I couldn’t help but think that everything ‘round me had to cost more than everything I knew in my hometown. All that glass and steel and the floor and the ceiling and all those fancy tables and chairs with all that shiny steel that you could see yerself in… and all of that was in just one building. Plus there was all those electric lights and warm air a-blowin’ out of vents in the ceiling.”

“Ah yes,” he mentioned, “the forced-air radiator. Fantastic invention. Some brilliant pony thought it would be a fine idea to use a fan to move the heat generated by a radiator. I do believe it will change the world. Civilisation is an endless parade of marvels.”

“And that grocery store… seein’ all that food… so the food we grow in Widowwood, it gets picked, processed, put on a train, and comes to cities like this one… and ends up in grocery stores like that one. There was so much light, Nut… and more steel and glass. Plus all that white tile.”

“Yes, all of that is quite captivating, but you mustn’t play with the automated doors. ‘Tis a busy place, and customers must get in and out. Which they can’t do while some fascinated farm filly is playing with the doors.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. But it was like magic, Nut.”

“Not magic… steam actuators and a bit of electricity. Pressure plates. That is actually the point of the whole contraption… technology as a replacement for magic. The doors whoosh open and invite shoppers to come inside.” He allowed himself a soft smile. “I shall have to show you an escalator.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

Moving stairs.

“Now yer just pullin’ my leg, Nut. Why would stairs move?”

“Because, honestly, we creatures are lazy. We’ve evolved to conserve energy when we can. But I assure you, the stairs move. You just stand on one and it will move you up or down. There is a grand moving staircase at the department store, and there are displays on both sides, with advertisements aplenty. See, the shoppers are moving at the pace of the escalator, which is quite slow, and the store management is quite clever to entice a captive audience.”

“But… but why make the stairs move?” she asked.

“Verily,” he replied, “because they can. Conspicuous displays of technological prosperity. The various department stores all want to show their shoppers how successful they are, and in turn, consumers feel a bit of exclusivity. All of the poor shop in one place, if they shop at all, while the working class frequents another, and then the wealthy and well-to-do visit temples of hedonistic consumerism where they engage in orgies of opulent indulgement they call retail therapy.”

Tater Blossom yawned, and her orange tongue lolled out.

“The city is a living organism, Miss Blossom. It grows ever-more complex. Like us, it evolves, adapts, and changes. Our fine electrical grid, questionable as though it might be, happens to be much like a central nervous system. It allows our fine city to operate like a large, complex body. We have the telegraph network, and constabulary call boxes where you flip a switch so that the constables or an ambulance might be summoned to that specific box. And that is but one of many marvellous technologies that allow the city to function and prosper as it continues to grow.”

“Tell me about it tomorrow… I’m sleepy.”

“Good night, Miss Blossom. Your refinement will continue on the morrow.”

A misty drizzle fell from the scattered clouds above, which parted frequently to reveal tantalising glimpses of Luna’s moon. It was cold, but not freezing. Up on the roof, Nut watched his beloved insomniac city, an organism that did not know sleep. Fishing boats returned and departed. Cargo ships made deliveries so that empty shelves could be restocked for the morning rush. The steady clip-clop of hooves could be heard from the streets below as delivery wagons and trash wagons navigated the narrow, twisty streets.

Stars could be seen, when the clouds allowed it, and Nut reveled in the beauty to be found just above him. Cliffside was a vertical sea of lights that stretched beyond the realms of visibility. Windows were lit with warm, vivid colours of yellow and orange. The night air was especially briny, moist, and smelt of the city, both pleasant as well as unpleasant.

Here on Anvil Island, most of the streetlights were gas lamps, which had a subdued warm ambiance, though parts of the island were a bit more modernised. He lived in the horn of Anvil Island, the least desirable part, and over near the foot of the island, the electric lights shone the brightest. As he stood looking at the stars and the lights around him, an airship slipped into its secure mooring.

The city was a savage, civilised place, and he was madly in love with it.

Celestia’s sun threatened to cast its wholesome orange light upon the city and the clouds rushed in to defend the city-dwellers from the sudden onslaught of dawn. Nut looked out the open garage door, thoughtful, and a bit weary. He’d finished the axle replacement on the trash wagon, cleaned the entirety of the shop, greased and oiled the garage door mechanisms, and gave the hearse a careful waxing.

Now, he was hungry, and in need of breakfast.

Breakfast however, cost money.

Money, sadly was in short supply.

He would be getting a sizeable commission from the repair of the trash wagon.

Commission work was in danger, threatened by the agendas of the various labour representatives. It was something he’d thought about during the long night. For some ponies, such as himself, he remained employed because of commissions. He had a perfectly good arrangement with Mrs. Oleander, one that he was satisfied with, and he did not feel exploited. She housed him, gave him residence, and he did odd jobs to earn his room.

But his pay came from commissions—generous commissions. Such as the repair of the trash wagon. But all of this was in danger as there was intense pressure to enact a law that all labourers and employees must be paid an hourly wage or a salaried wage—which Nut suspected would end his amicable agreement with Mrs. Oleander.

Oh, he understood the necessity of it all; labour reforms were necessary and needed. The roof over his head was in danger as well, as one of the issues hotly discussed was company housing. Which was, in fact, quite exploitative. One only had to look at the wards and boroughs to see evidence of that. On the odd chance that something was actually done about this, Mrs. Oleander would no longer be able to house him. The implications were far-reaching, and a bit worrisome.

Mister Riddle was housed in his own library.

Leaning against the bricks, he pulled the watch from his pocket, flipped it open, and had himself a good look at his parents. They would never know concern over housing, or labour disputes, or any of the struggles that he himself found so dire. His parents didn’t work because they had to—they had no need of money—but instead worked because it was their passion. Neither of them even drew a salary, at least as far as he knew.

A wagon covered in a tarpaulin went trundling past, pulled by four stout earth ponies.

With a soft click of brass, he snapped his watch shut and returned it to his pocket. He felt that he was a better pony for knowing of the struggle of the commoners, and he had some regrets about asking his parents for help—though he still did not know how he felt about the whole issue. Some regrets, sure, but nothing else seemed to manifest. It had been a grand social experiment, now undone by his own integrity.

He wondered when the telegram would arrive.

“You didn’t call her Miss, Nut. What’s up with that?”

The question caught him off guard and made him consider his actions. He glanced at his ward, and then with a turn of his head, he watched as Grace Smooth vanished through the door that led into the kitchen. Miss Blossom was observant, clever, and good with details it seemed. It was true; he called her ‘Gracie.’

“She and I are friends,” he said at last.

“But Black Maple is called Miss Maple.”

“Why yes, I suppose so. Most of the time.” Nut shrugged without awareness of him doing so. “She and I are friends”—he grimaced as he became aware that he had repeated himself—“and we have a more casual relationship.”

“So what makes a friendship casual?” asked Tater Blossom.

Much to his dismay, Nut discovered that he didn’t know. Grace Smooth was likable. She had a touch of charisma magic, which put others around her at ease. He stumbled into the realisation that he didn’t know why he called her ‘Gracie,’ or why he had such fond feelings for her. It was just a friendship, but one based on mutual respect. Then again, all friendships should be based on mutual respect, so he found himself unaware of his own motivations.

“I don’t actually know,” he admitted.

“And you said so without a whole book’s worth of words, too. Incredible.”

“Fantastic, Miss Blossom. It seems that you are adjusting and fitting right in.”

“Well”—she stretched out the word until it was entirely too long—“I did learn how to keep warm in a hammock last night, so thanks. I woke up toasty, which I gotta say, surprised me.”

Grace barged out of the kitchen, bearing two mugs of hot spiced apple cider. She returned to the table, set them down, and said, “The oatmeal will be out in a bit. Breakfast got started late. Sorry about that.” Then, without further ado, the busy mare was off again to tend to other customers.

Tater Blossom groped the earthenware mug, pulled it close, wrapped her fetlocks around it, and then with her head held over it, she inhaled the fragrant, spicy steam. Nut pulled his own mug closer and then, he too enjoyed the cinnamon-spiked treat. It was the perfect sort of alcohol for breakfast, a great way to start the day. Nothing that would cause a buzz, but one would find themselves with a light, springy step.

“So houses ‘round here, they don’t have kitchens?”

He took a moment to consider his answer before he replied, “Kitchens take up space. Larger, wealthier homes have kitchens and even have dining rooms. Smaller houses and apartments forgo kitchens completely to eke out a little more living space.”

“That seems so strange to me. I can’t imagine a home without a kitchen.”

“A lot of ponies have no time to cook. City ponies are busy ponies. Cooking and cleaning require significant time investment, even with the advent of time-saving appliances. Most eat in public houses, like you and I are doing right now.” He watched as she took a sip of her hot cider, and then he slurped some of the foam off of his.

It was strange, having breakfast. Typically, he didn’t. As a meal, it was skipped, and sometimes, so was lunch. Lots of ponies skipped meals, he’d reasoned, and he desired to be just like the typical pony, so missing out on a meal was a means to be normal. Yet even thinking of his ward doing without a meal left him despondent, filled with a prickly dread he dared not face. He’d almost ordered breakfast for her and done without himself, but he knew that she would say something, or worse, refuse to eat.

What did it mean to survive, exactly?

There was no time to answer, to contemplate, because he heard the all-too-familiar thump-thump of wood against wood. A small sigh of distress escaped from him, and when Black Maple appeared on the stairs, all traces of emotion fled from him. He hunched over his drink and then pretended as hard as he could that he didn’t exist. His pleasant morning was over.

“Tater… how are you?”

“I’m fine, how ‘bout you, Blackie?”

Oh, this was somehow worse than he’d imagined it, and he could feel his neck cramping as Black Maple sat down beside Tater Blossom. The two females leaned close, with the older using her wing to pat the younger. His ward had a friend, a confidant, which should be a cause for celebration—but that friend was the pony that annoyed him like no other. It bothered him that he had to say something, some means of greeting, some manner of acknowledgment.

Just as he was about to say hello—

“So, Tater, do you miss my bed?”

Nut almost snorted into his mug of cider.

“I do… I sure did last night. I was a-freezin’. But Nut showed me a trick and then I was pretty warm and comfortable even, so it wasn’t bad.”

There was a clunk of wood against wood when Black Maple rested her prostheses against the table. She wore a reckless grin—it was dangerous, that grin, far too reckless and dangerous for a pony just out of bed—and Nut allowed his self-loathing to run rampant because he couldn’t stand how attractive she was at this moment. No grooming had taken place, nothing at all. Black Maple had bed-head, with ruffled feathers, and if one looked hard enough, one could still see the wrinkles from the pillowcase pressed into her face.

Of course she had come down here looking all afright; this was her home.

“I had a dream that you and Nut and me myself all had a house together.”

“Oh, did you now?”

This was the consequences of taking in strays, he realised.

“I did. It was nice. But we didn’t have a kitchen for some reason or another, and that bothered me.”

There was no point in bothering with hello.

“I would love to have a house with you and Nut,” Black Maple said as she leaned even closer to Tater Blossom. “Speaking of the kitchen, how well can you cook, Tater?”

“Not good.” The earth pony shook her head. “I’m a cause of sore-headedness in the kitchen. I’m useless.”

“Oh, I doubt that. Something tells me that you’ve never been in a kitchen with just the right teacher.” Black Maple slipped one black-as-night wing around Tater Blossom’s neck and gave the filly an affectionate squeeze. “How would you like to earn your meals for today? Nut’s too. And even make a few coins. All without working upstairs? I need somepony to help me in the cellar. Somepony stout and strong. Somepony that knows potatoes.”

“I know potatoes—”

“Miss Maple, what manner of no good are you up to?” Nut demanded.

“We’re slipping into a state of war—”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Nut, now on guard, gave the sooty pegasus mare a wary, mistrustful glare.

“Don’t be rude, Nut.” Black Maple kept her wing around Tater Blossom’s neck while she stared down Nut. “We’re slipping into a state of war. We publicans have been warned that there might be rations in our future. Corn, barley, wheat, all the usual suspects. I plan to get ahead of this, and meeting Tater here gave me a brilliant idea to use potatoes—”

“Potatoes,” Nut interjected, “to make beer?”

“It can be done,” Black Maple replied, not at all bothered by Nut’s casual interruption. “A potato is about seventy-five to eighty percent water, about sixteen to eighteen percent starch, with similar amylose and amylopectin percentages to that of barley.” Her eyes turned bright and merry, while her ears pivoted forward to face Nut. “I want to start making mistakes now and getting the recipe all sorted out. If it comes down to rationing, and I suspect that it will, I don’t want to be cornholed by surprise. I plan to come out ahead.”

He hated that she was brilliant. Right now, he resented her and everything about her. It would be so much easier to dismiss her from his life if she was dull-witted. But no, Black Maple had to be brilliant. Interesting. Witty. She just had to have a genius-level intellect. He hated her, loathed her at this moment, loathed her with a heated, terrible passion. It was terrible, awful, because at this very moment, he kept thinking of hate-motivated coitus colloquialisms.

It unhinged him.

“Wow, somepony is grumpy-wumpy.” Covering her mouth with her other wing, Black Maple tittered while she directed her sultry stare at Nut over the top of her wing. When she pulled her wing away, her orange tongue slipped out, it wiggle-waggled at Nut like a fisher’s lure, and then was gone with a moist slurp. “I have half a mind to drag you upstairs and sort you out—”

“You have half a mind, period,” Nut retorted.

With Tater Blossom overcome with the giggles, Black Maple turned to her and asked, “Ready to work for a living, Tater Blossom? I need somepony strong and smart enough to follow complex instructions. Several hundred pounds of potatoes needs to be boiled and mashed. It will be hard work, but I think you’re up for it. Do well, and I’ll hire you on for future jobs. You’ll be my go-to potato helper.”

Filled with sudden tension, Nut gulped some of his spiced hot cider. This was his ward’s decision, her choice. He could not deny that this was a good opportunity. Not only was it paying work, but he had no doubt that Black Maple would make it educational as well. It could lead to other things, such as finding a calling, having a much anticipated mark of destiny appear, a sense of self-worth, and the satisfaction of earning a meal.

While he wanted her in school, a little work during the summer wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“Can I get fried eggs and toast with my oatmeal?” Tater Blossom asked.

Clearly, the young lady was a pony with practical concerns, and Nut couldn’t help but smile as she bargained for a better deal. Black Maple wasn’t answering right away; she was being a tease, drawing it out, and making his ward worry. Why did she have to be this way? When she was a tease, she drove him crazy. It was frivolous, a waste of time, and a cause of irritation. Black Maple was an emotional provocateur when she teased, and this was just one of the many things he resented about her.

“That depends,” Black Maple replied at last. “Do you want that toast buttered?”

This seemed stupid, a trivial point to bargain over.

“I sure do. Got jam?”

“We do, in fact, have jam.”

“I want Nut to get eggs and toast too. With butter and jam. He’s skinny.”

Snort or exhort? His ward was bargaining for his sake. While the whole thing was annoyingly silly, he still found himself touched by her thoughtfulness. He didn’t dare show even a single trace of emotion though, because if he reacted, if he responded, this frivolity could become commonplace. Then, life would be a never-ending stream of regular annoyance.

“Getting him to eat it is the problem. See, Tater, Nut is proud. He’s got that dignity thing going on. Even worse, it is infectious dignity and he spreads it to everypony around him. I think he spreads his nefarious nobleness with that monocle of his—”

“Leave my corrective eyewear out of this,” he demanded.

“You’ll get your eggs, toast, butter, and jam.” Black Maple grinned from ear to ear, licked the crevices of her teeth with her tongue, and gestured in Nut’s direction with her wing. “Him too.”

“Then I’ll do it.” Tater Blossom reached out and rested her left foreleg upon Black Maple’s right wooden limb. “He and I, we’re in this together.”

It wasn’t the cider that warmed Nut’s heart, or gave his cheeks a rosy glow.

Red & Black

View Online

Somewhat acidic, the polluted rain cut gouges of cleanliness into the filthy, begrimed, soot-encrusted windows. As Nut stared absentmindedly out the window, the brief but intense storm neared its end and the defiant sun showed a courageous willingness to shine once more. Lost in thought, he did not pay his schoolwork the attention it was due because his mind would not settle on any one subject.

It was quiet in this particular reading room of the library, and he was alone, which suited him. This room was only available to university students, and while it was quiet now, there were times when it was a busy, somewhat noisy place. Not that his fellow students were rude; far from it, but the sound of turning pages, scratching pencils, along with the shift and settle of bodies was greatly amplified when the room was crowded.

But for now, and the foreseeable future, he was alone; ‘twas summer, afterall.

The university reading room was an odd mix of industrial and scholarly. Rough brick walls shared space with well-polished, dark-hued wooden bookshelves. Overhead, there were support struts, steel girders that were only slightly rusty, steam pipes, an industrial coil radiator that kept the room moderately toasty, ductwork and vents, along with serpentine segmented electrical conduits. The old factory floor was scuffed, had a fine patina, and the high traffic areas of the room had threadbare, faded, somewhat tattered rugs. All of the tables were factory tables, great massive slabs of hardwood meant to endure abuse and never need replacing. As for the chairs, they were a ramshackle, eclectic assortment of things too old, too out of fashion, and too beat up to be sold in thrift stores.

Overall, Nut rather liked the room; he found it comfortable and suitable for study.

There was a warning creak from the brass hinges as the heavy double doors opened. Nut did not look away from his window gazing, but his ears did pivot about as another student entered the private reading room. He was somewhat surprised to see a fellow student, but he supposed there were others who used the precious summer months to accumulate extra credits. Surely, he wasn’t alone when it came to ambition.

When he saw her out of the corner of his eye, he recognised her; she was Viridian, and her name suited her. She was a fantastical bluish-greenish colour, and her intense colouration made it easy to remember her name. Like him, she was a biology student, but she had not yet declared a specialisation. Her coat had an almost metallic sheen to it, very much like the shimmering, oily, slick, over-saturated iridescence of dragonflies. He was almost certain that she’d gone home for the summer.

While she hadn’t declared a specialisation, she had a knack for predation factors; bites, claws, she had an intimate knowledge of predators by studying the injuries they left behind in their prey. This stood out in sharp contrast to her mark, which was an eye dropper and a chemist’s vial. Given her current interests, he suspected something a bit more… bitey.

Her voice was intensely nasal: “Hello, Nut.”

“Salutations, Miss Viridian. Come to join me in study?”

“Sort of,” she replied as she sat down in the other chair near the window. “I understand that you recently studied some peculiar trolls.”

“Indeed, I did.” With a slight turn of his head, he gave her his attention.

“I looked at the samples you returned just this morning. The bones bear markings consistent with troll teeth, only tiny… really tiny. Blunt, crushing teeth. So these took the guise of vegetables?”

“They did.”

“You study mimics,” she said; this wasn’t a question.

“Mimics, in whatever form they take, are fantastic examples of the evolutionary arms race. I was just studying a report on changelings when you came in.”

“Oh, I thought you were looking out the window.” Her broad smile revealed teeth too perfect to be natural, and the pull of her lips suggested that she’d worn braces or a retainer for a long, long time. There was also a faint bald patch on the bridge of her nose where her glasses rubbed—glasses that she was not wearing at the moment.

“I was busy thinking.

“You really do like mimics.” It was obvious that she was trying to stoke up a conversation. “So what was the report about?”

Yes, she had worn braces or some kind of dental appliance, and the way she kept her lips pulled away from her teeth was distracting. Nut allowed his gaze to drift out the window so that he would not be distracted by her every spoken word. Had some dreadful overbite or underbite been corrected? Crooked teeth? A fortune had been spent, no doubt.

“The changelings face extinction,” he said as he recalled what he’d read. “Chrysalis, their former queen, she modified them to be better slaves, and to make them entirely dependent upon her. They cannot breed with one another—each and every one of them is an intriguing incompatible match with one another—but they can, in some rare instances, still breed with other creatures and create hybrids.”

“So they run the risk of extinction from a lack of breeding, or potentially breeding themselves out of existence. Either way, they are destroyed. That’s… I don’t know what to say.”

“Princess Celestia has vowed to help them recover their reproductive freedom.”

“She’s real nice like that, Princess Celestia. How many princesses other than Princess Cadance would help a whole species get their fronk on?”

“Oh, verily.” Relaxing a bit, he settled into his chair and decided that he rather liked Viridian’s company, even if her face was somewhat distracting. That was just a quirk, and it could be overlooked, he supposed.

“Your love of mimics must lead to exciting field work,” she said, still trying to strike up a conversation with some degree of meaning. “I don’t deal with excitement well. Lab work is ideal.”

“To each their own,” he replied, unsure of what else to say.

“It is really kind of terrifying that such small creatures showed so much remarkable bite strength. The marks left behind by the teeth suggest that they are quite small, but the fact that they can still crunch bones to get to the marrow…” Her sentence, left unfinished, trailed off as she shook her head from side to side.

The ball was in his court now, and he was obligated to return it. “For their diminutive stature, they showed exceptional fierceness.” Then, remembering the photographs he’d taken, he wondered aloud, “I wonder if the film has been developed?”

“I don’t know.” Her shrug somehow made everything so much more awkward. “Plants don’t have muscle structure like we do. They must have amazing specialised cell structures. I wonder if they use electrical energy and turgor pressure to assist their bite, like flytraps do.”

“Electrophysiology is only something I’ve studied independently. I do have a class on it in the autumn, however. It is theorised that some plants can conduct electrical signals through specialised phloem—”

“It’s so amazing, what plants can do. Even without magic… just through mundane physiological means.” She clopped her front hooves together, inhaled sharply, fell back into her chair, and slumped over. “When I was a little filly, I won the school science fair with my telegraph plants and I created a detailed diorama that showed off how the leaves adjusted themselves to follow the angles of the sun as it moves overhead. It was electrical and the fake plants I created mimicked the movements of the real ones as the overhead light above the diorama was moved about.”


“Thank you. That’s really very kind of you to say.” Tapping her front hooves together, she added, “While I like plants, I like puzzles more. Figuring stuff out. Like trying to determine what took a bite of something… and making sense of how something bites, because there are so many ways to bite, and each of them can be so specialised… like the extendable pharyngeal jaws of certain eels. Sometimes, it feels like I am a detective, and I like that. There needs to be a series of books about a biologist detective who solves crimes using biology. More foals might take an active interest in biology if there was, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose it is possible,” he replied, though he wasn’t sure what he was responding to.

“Everypony is going into archeology because of Daring Do, and biology is neglected.”

“Indeed, that does seem to be the case.” His non-committal answer was polite at least, and he somehow refrained from bringing up the tired old argument about correlation versus causation. Biology didn’t seem particularly neglected; it was just boring for most ponies, and most of the time, there was very little action involved. Biology was not the stuff of Saturday matinee serials.

Unless, of course, one found themselves in an archive full of hungry mimics.

Then, it became the stuff of Saturday midnight-showing horror double features.

“You just shivered,” she said, intruding upon Nut’s introspective cerebrations.

“I did?” Strange, he must have had an involuntary reaction unawares.

“You did,” she insisted.

“I wish I could study evolution in a world without magic,” he said with sudden abruptness. “Without mimics. Without fantastical creatures. Such worlds exist, you know. I would give almost anything to study biology on a world where there was no magic to muck things up.” So self-absorbed in his own thoughts was he that he failed to notice the round ‘O’ of horror on Viridian’s face.

“My family studied survivors from such a world. They destroyed themselves with a plague, they did. The very best and brightest among them tampered with life itself. In the end, they were too successful. They didn’t destroy the minority lifeforms among them that they wished to be rid of, but the whole of their species. I understand that they went to war over skin colour… a whole species gone because of skin colour.”

He sighed, a weary sound.

“But not all of them died. There were survivors. When there were but a few left, perhaps a hundred or so, Princess Celestia intervened. She sent emissaries to their world that sought out the survivors, and brought them here. They were a primate species, but upon coming here, they became equinoids. I am not sure why. My grandfather, Gestalt, and my grandmother, Lambda, they studied the primate species and determined that they could integrate. I met a few when I was quite young and small. From what little I know, their world is still a living planet, which now recovers from all the terrible things the primate species did to it.”

For a moment, he thought of the Gallopagos, and shivered. Pensive, lost in his own thoughts, distracted, he was almost alone with himself. To study evolution without magic was almost as impossible as studying evolution with magic. But to stand upon another world, one filled with mundane, ordinary species, and then to figure out how all of the life forms led to one another—it would be ideal. But Princess Celestia restricted access to other worlds, and for good reason.

“Skin colour?” Viridian asked.

He made a circular gesture with a hoof and thought about his response before saying, “They believed that such a trivial thing as skin colour made them different species. It was a quirk of their biology. They had different skin colour, to be sure, but they were all of the same species. Somehow, they failed to see this, to understand this, and accept this before they released the plague that was their destruction. From what little I know, they were very silly creatures. Quite confident in their belief that magic did not exist simply because they lacked any form of it on their own world.”

“Oh, that is silly. Everypony knows magic exists. It just has a hard time reaching some places.” Viridian’s hooves continued to tap-tap-tap together, a soft muffled click that was almost like a mechanical clock. “So you would give up your own magic to go and study biology on a world devoid of magic?”

“Indeed, I would.” His answer left him with a sort of curious resolve, and he realised, he knew that he would do exactly as he had said. It would certainly be easier to do than his planned trip to the Gallopagos, but it was no less impossible, no less difficult. Why, he had no idea how to even begin to sneak off of his world of origin and gain access to another.

But the idea, like a seed lodged in his mind, germinated.

“A world without magic would be a world without mimic-type predators,” she said.

To which he replied, “You say that as if it is a bad thing…”

Mrs. Oleander handed him a folded, creased sheet of paper as he entered the garage, with an advertising seal of the Royal Telegraph Company. Which wasn’t, in fact, the Crown’s prefered telegraph office as one might be led to believe, and Nut had always thought the name to be a bit deceptive. The logo had a crown with two highly stylised wings sprouting from each side, and a company motto that read, ‘A solis ortu usque ad occasum’, which might have been the most honest thing about them, as they truly did cover the nation from east to west.


He gave Mrs. Oleander an apologetic glance while he restored the fold in the crisp—if somewhat fibrous—paper. Her expression was neutral, which made it rather hard to tell how she might feel about this. He was leaving. Again. Abandoning his post. All because he’d made his life complicated. Such was the cost of nobility, and making an oath based upon the fact that one had, through fortuitous circumstances, won the birth lottery. Self-resentment left a fever in his thin neck and he suddenly felt very much ashamed of himself.

“Stop that,” the stern widow instructed.

“Stop what?” he dared ask.

“That. What you’re doing right now. You look like a foal expecting a life sentence in a penal colony for stealing a cookie.”

“I what..?”

“Mister Riddle and I spoke of this at length. Everything will be fine. Go home, Nut. The world won’t end while you’re away. If it does, however, at least you’ll be at home with family. Just don’t be gone for long.”

Dismayed, though for reasons he could not explain, he knew that he couldn’t be gone for long. Black Maple wouldn’t take very good care of herself and would neglect the care of her stumps. She would sleep with her legs on. The hot self-resentment he felt kindled and became a blaze that threatened to consume him from within. Why wouldn’t that mare care for herself?

“Please, pardon me, Mrs. Oleander, but it occurs to me that I have much to accomplish before eight of clock this even. I need to contact our local courier service. There is something I must do. Something dreadful.”

“Have a nice time at home, Nut. Try not to worry.” Mrs. Oleander allowed herself a rare soft smile. “Your rooms will be here when you get back. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to file permits and forms to conform to new city regulations. Have fun at home, Nut.”

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Oleander, and thank you again for your understanding.”

“Think nothing of it, Nut. You’ve done right by me, so I’ll do right by you.”

Now imbued with a certain smug sense of satisfaction, Nut enjoyed a foamy mug of smoked Black Maple Ale. Some of his schoolwork was spread out before him, a way to pass the time, as the show would be starting soon. How soon was unknown, but he was certain that it would start. He was boxing clever, so he was, and goodness, this ale had never tasted better.

It had cost him a few precious coins, but he no longer cared at this point; Black Maple was about to get exactly what she deserved. He’d done what any reasonable, responsible pony would do in this situation; which meant that he’d gone and told her mother. Oh, not in pony, not face to face, but he’d paid for a courier to go to Cliffside and deliver a note to Red Maple.

Pegasus ponies flocked together, and he was counting on that.

Right now, Black Maple was down in the cellar with Tater Blossom, and the pegasus pony had no notion of the trouble to come. And that… that made Nut feel good. A tall Black Maple Ale, served with a side of savoury, satisfying comeuppance. It was his sincere desire that Black Maple would rue… well, whatever there was between them to rue, for surely there was something to rue, even if he couldn’t quite put his hoof on what it was, exactly.

He was not a vindictive sort, and this was his first dabbling in rue, which made this a fine opportunity to learn. With Black Maple properly rued, was he being rude? This might well be construed, for it might be rude to leave one rued. It could start a feud. He might end up eschewed, a risk one pursued when they were rude and sought to leave another rued, with or without the potential feud, which might result depending on how one’s actions were construed.

Or worse, there might be no feud; when left properly rued, Black Maple might be offensively lewd. That pegasus could be quite rude. Was this how she might feud? Nut was a prude, and took offense to the lewd, which he found rather rude. As it turned out, he was ill-prepared for this feud, no matter how it was construed, and as he sipped his ale, it was he who rued his actions most rude.

It wore down his fortitude.

Was this moral turpitude?

Alas, there was no time left for contemplating his sins, because a red mare sauntered through the door. To say that she was red was understatement. She was red, red as red velvet cake. Not a bright, vivid red, but a dusky, almost smoky, dark, deep, and disturbing hue of red. She was dried, scabbed-over blood mixed with sawdust on a barroom floor red. Mrs. Maple was the colour of past tense violence and moved like a knife honed too sharp to cut cake—which is to say, she never encountered resistance.

This mare knew how to enter a room just like her daughter did.

She did not walk, but sashayed. Her movement was like the silkiest griddle cake batter ever mixed in all of existence, and then poured out on a smoking hot slab of iron. Just looking in her general direction caused one’s eyes to sizzle. Nut suddenly found himself in need of a sizable gulp of his ale, and he did so before she drew too close. Red Maple was Celestia’s sun on four legs and given wings.

“Hello Nut,” she said in a voice entirely too much like her offspring. “You fronked my daughter yet?”

Ah yes, ‘twas the season for regrets already. Why had he asked for help again? Most mothers would rush to defend their daughter’s virtue, but not Red Maple, oh no. He found it quite disconcerting. In fact, he found pegasus ponies in general quite disconcerting. For a mother and daughter to be so much alike. Mrs. Maple sat down, and that in and of itself was quite an act, practically a show stopper, and several of the barflies almost fell right off their stools.

“No,” he said with as much conviction as he could muster.

“Well, why not?” Red Maple demanded. “I made that little minx. She almost wrecked my figure. A lot of work went into her creation… a whole lot of enthusiastic effort—”

“That’s more than I need to know!”

Mrs. Maple giggled, and it caused her barrel to hitch up and down. She rested her forelegs upon the table in very much the same manner as her daughter, leaned forward, and with her eyes twinkling, she said, “I just want to know that my hard work is appreciated. Is that too much to ask? Do you need permission? If so, you have it. Rusty Dusty won’t be mad, you have his permission too. You’re allowed to tap that.”

Nut felt his mouth grow dry.

A little more ale gave him courage. “We need to talk about your daughter—”

“Which part?” Red Maple asked.

The question left Nut’s ears ablaze.

“Nut, I would very much like it if you would tap my daughter’s bung. I can’t think of anything more flattering to me… and you do want to flatter me, don’t you? My self-esteem depends upon knowing that you appreciate what I’ve brought into the world. I mean, she’s a little version of me, and not to brag or boast, but I’m perfect.

“Red Maple, please… this is important, and serious. I must speak to you about Black Maple.”

“Alright then… if you insist on being boring, I’m listening.”

Another sip of ale moistened his leather tongue, but offered no courage. He felt sweaty now, a little too hot beneath his tweed, and something about the way that Red Maple fidgeted in her seat he found entirely too distracting. Like her daughter, her mane was the colour of maple syrup whipped into clouds, and her eyes had the same hue as pale ale. If Black Maple aged like her mother did…

He almost choked on his ale, which left him coughing and sputtering.

Red Maple, a helpful sort, clapped him on the back and almost snapped his spine like a toothpick. A lifetime of rolling around ale casks and brewing had transformed her into something terrifying, something almost inequine. He coughed a bit more, caught his breath, and then turned to face her, which might have been a mistake, but getting involved with Black Maple was already grievous error that he deeply regretted.

“Your daughter,” he began, whispering in a low, muted voice, “doesn’t do a very good job of taking care of herself.” A bit more ale moistened his lips, but his throat stayed dry. “She doesn’t want to ask for help… it’s her stumps. Her wooden legs rub her raw. She sleeps in them, and goes out in the rain with them, and she has trouble taking them on an off. All of this is quite complicated, and I’m not really sure where to begin. She can’t ask for help, or at least she feels that way, because she can’t appear weak. Which might be true. Her reputation keeps this place safe. But, there is more to this than that.

“Quite honestly, I think part of the reason why she does it is to manipulate me. I go off for a few days and I come back to a mess. She hasn’t taken her legs off, she hasn’t applied her salve, and she has sores from friction. I hate to second guess, and to make accusations, but I suspect that she is intentionally making things worse so she can lure me into giving her my attention. It’s not like I’ll tell her no. But this self sabotage is really messing her up. I contacted you because I’m about to go home for a few days, maybe longer, I don’t know, and I don’t want to come home to an infected, smelly crisis in need of urgent care.”

“Aw… shit.” It was almost as if Red Maple was popped with a pin. She slumped over, everything sagged, she rubbed her fuzzy cheeks with both of her front hooves, and made tight little circles. Round and round her hooves went, messaging her cheeks, with her ears bobbing up and down like two velvety semaphore flags. “Shit.”

“I do… apologise for being so blunt, Mrs. Maple. You seem to be taking this hard.”

“It’s alright,” she muttered, her utterance more of an exhale rather than actual words.

Something else needed to be said, but what?

When Mrs. Maple sighed, she seemed older somehow and her delightful sex appeal deminished. Perhaps it was the way she rubbed her face, which left everything wrinkled. Maybe it was the sudden fatigue in her eyes. She seemed more maternal somehow, no, not just maternal, but pegasus-maternal, which was quite a different thing entirely.

No species held a monopoly on exceptional motherhood, but pegasus mothers were storied creatures. Fierce brutes that would pick a fight with a wyvern without hesitation. There were legends, stories, folktales, myths about the pegasus mother—whole story books just waiting to be read at bedtime.

Nut had once waltzed into a whole colony of basilisks—but he did not feel back then the clammy terror that he felt now. As a biologist, he knew and understood that some species were intrinsically more dangerous than others. The females of the Pegasus Pegasos Equus species were long considered as the Ursus Arctos Horribilis of the skies.

Red Maple’s feathers had been ruffled.

“Do you love my daughter, Nut?”

He didn’t know how to answer this, and worse, he feared his own honesty.

“Look, I like you. So you can tell me anything. Anything at all, Nut.”

“Miss Maple and I have a complicated relationship,” he replied. “We’re friends, but also enemies. She makes it difficult to like her.”

“Like the shit she’s doing right now.” Red Maple closed her eyes, pulled her hooves away from her cheeks, and her ears hung limp over her downcast face. “I’m gonna be honest with you, Nut. I want her with you because you bring out the best in her. Well, except for right now, at the moment… she’s better than this. That dumb orca did more than steal away my little girl’s legs… that big bastard fish stole her dignity.”

Knowing that now was not the right time, Nut did not correct Red Maple.

“She met you and all of a sudden, she was the little filly I remember before the orca. Some of her self-respect came back. I don’t want to say that I gave up on her, but I’ll be honest, I thought I lost her. At the time, I was busy trying to come to terms with everything that was taken on that day. But you… you came around and suddenly she’s a bit like her old self again, and I had my hope again. Nut, I hope you never know the pain of being a parent that has their foal crippled. Things can’t go back to how they were, but it sure is nice to see little glimpses of the filly I remember.”

There just wasn’t enough ale in all of existence.

He gulped down the contents of his mug, but his thirst wasn’t slaked. Something lurked; something loomed—something that felt a lot like doom. Right now, he was dangerously close to feeling something that he was not at all ready to feel. He did not want to be friends with Black Maple’s mother; that was dangerous and disadvantageous. Yet, he could not deny that there was something shared between them that hadn’t been there just a few scant seconds ago.

“We have… a complex relationship, she and I.” Whilst he stared down into his now-empty mug, he licked the foam from his lips. Deep within his sinuses, phantom smoke tickled its way about, and the aftertaste of the ale remained strong in his still-parched throat. “I don’t want to admit it, but there is something between us.”

“But with the way she acting right now, you don’t want there to be. And that’s understandable. This is unacceptable. If she’d just grow up a bit, she might have what she wants.” Red Maple seemed to recover a bit, but whatever she might be feeling was, at the moment, unknown.

Unwilling to commit to an answer, he shrugged.

“I kicked her out of the nest and expected her to fly right. So far, I’m disappointed.” Red Maple sighed, shook her head, and slipped a scarlet wing over Nut’s withers. “Not about the whorehouse. There was a need, a demand in the market, and she stepped up to provide a service. It isn’t what I’d do… I separate tourists from their money. Bed and breakfasts are more popular than ever. Blackie is doing good though, keeping her workers safe and giving them a secure place to conduct their transactions.”

She pulled her wing away and folded it against her side.

“But Blackie could be doing better. Shit like she’s doing right now. And those legs of hers… antiques. For the life of me, I can’t talk her into getting something better. Blackie, she’s done pretty good for herself, but she could be doing better. I’m her mother, and as much as I want my daughter to be perfect, I know she isn’t. And if I can be completely honest, I’m kinda peeved with her, because she has an aristocrat right within her reach, and she’s letting him slip away. Sorry Nut, but a mother has aspirations.”

“Oh, understandable,” he said to be agreeable.

“See the thing is, I know I’m right… I had the sort of daughter that is worthy of an aristocrat’s attention. She has all this potential. Blackie is the total package, brains and beauty. Well, minus two legs. But that can be overlooked by the right fella. I’ve brought perfection into the world, and damnit, she keeps trying to prove me wrong and I hate her for it.”

The less he said at this point, the better. Pegasus ponies were vain creatures, so it was said, and Mrs. Maple certainly had a high opinion of herself. Even worse, there was a ring of truth to her statements, a sort of near-plausibility that gave weight to her words. Black Maple had brains and beauty. She had his attention—sometimes. Her missing legs didn’t bother him, except when she was trying to manipulate him, such as now. But was she perfect?

Nope, Nut wasn’t going there; he liked living.

“Excuse me, Nut… but I am going to pick a fight with my daughter.”

Right away, Nut raised and waved his foreleg around. “Gracie… ale… I’ll have another!”

The comfort in a mug failed to provide comfort. His relationship with Black Maple now felt more muddled than ever. Like a foal, he’d tattled on her. He quite literally went and told her mother what she was doing. Now, hunched over his mug, his back to the corner, he did not feel like an adult, not in the slightest. With his relationship with Black Maple even more unclear, so too was his association with her mother, Red Maple.

He didn’t want these relationships; yet here he was, drawn in deeper.

Yet, if this were true, then why did he get involved? Why contact Red Maple and alert her to the problem? Because, a quiet, yet audible voice within his head said, you wish to fulfill primordial biological imperatives with her. A violent and sudden exchange of genetic material followed by waiting to see whatever happened next.

“No I don’t,” he muttered aloud.

Oh, but you do, the meek voice suggested. You have a hankering for assault with a friendly weapon—

Interrupting his own thoughts, he told himself, “I do not. Besides, I do not hanker. That is beneath me.”

You want Miss Maple beneath you… so you can crash your custard wagon into her clap-flaps.

As the corner of his eye twitched alarmingly, he could feel the Disgustang rising within, unbidden. Stress affected different ponies in different ways and Nut began to wonder about the stress that he was under. He waited for further antagonistic quips, but the space just behind his eyeballs had gone silent. Good riddance.

This whole unpleasant episode would soon be forgotten after a bit more ale.


He looked up from his ale, his blood now the consistency of smooth frozen custard.


It came from the stairs, the terrible heartbeat did.


Black Maple could come up the stairs in a hurry—


—so it was obvious that she wanted him to know that she was coming.


Since had the time to spare, he downed some of his ale.


Here she came…


She had arrived. Black Maple strode into the common room, snorted once, and then went behind the bar. Ever-cautious, Nut peered at her over the top of his earthenware mug, but she seemed to be ignoring him at the moment. Maybe things would be fine between them. She was a grown, mature mare, and while she lacked resolve and sometimes had poor judgment, Black Maple wasn’t a bad sort.


She punctuated this with a hurled mug, which flew in a remarkable arc right for Nut’s head. It would have struck him, too, but he was a pony of uncommon reflexes. With a little magical assistance, he yanked his own chair out from beneath him, and dove beneath the table where he was sitting. Less than a second later, the mug smashed into smithereens against the wall, in just about the same spot where his head had been located.

When he dared to peek over the table, he saw that she had readied another mug and held it in her wing. Something had to be done. Where was Red Maple? And for that matter, where was his ward? Down in the cellar? With no reinforcements, it fell upon him to de-escalate the situation before it worsened into something that destroyed a friendship.

That is, if there was anything left of this friendship to save.

“Miss Maple, you are behaving in an unseemly, unreasonable manner.” So far, so good. Nut saw that she had bared her teeth, but she had not thrown the mug. “Can we discuss this like rational adults, Miss Maple?”

“Sure,” she replied through clenched teeth.

He stood up, adjusted his collar, squinted his monocle back into place, and realised just a little too late that she had thrown the mug at him with a flick of her wing. As he dropped to the floor and took cover behind the table, the mug caressed his ear. In shock from the contact, he barely registered the mug shattering against the wall just behind him.

“Madam, that grazed my ear!”

“I was aiming for your face!” Black Maple spat out her response with considerable contempt as she armed herself with another earthenware mug. “Come on out, Nut… don’t you want to talk about this?”

“Fool me once,” he dared to reply.

Drinking their drinks, the other patrons watched all of this with great interest. This was drama. Free drama. Maybe not the best drama, but certainly cheaper than a matinee. Nut understood that this needed to continue behind closed doors, because certain things needed to be said. She was armed, but he could deal with that. Subduing her would humiliate her though, and if she lost face in front of her customers—well, he had no idea how she might take it.

In times of trouble, Nut resorted to The Slide. It was something of a signature move. It allowed him to cross distances at great speed, all without walking. Still as a statue, his legs rigid, he just sort of glided over the floor. Ponies and creatures who witnessed it were typically quite disturbed by it, as it was quite unnatural. Uncanny. He did so without the visible use of magic, because the magic did not come from his horn. This was a secret, one he zealously guarded.

Like an ice skater, he went shooting across the floor. She hurled a mug, but he caught it mid-air, arrested all momentum, and set it down upon a table as he went zooming past. He didn’t slow in the slightest, and bowled Black Maple over. Before she could hit the floor, he lifted her up in his magic, held her away from him, fearing that she might bite him, and then he vanished into the kitchen with the intention of retreating into the pantry.

Before throwing her down upon a pile of burlap sacks, he dislegged Black Maple. Which is to say, Nut disarmed her by yanking her legs off. She snarled, launched herself at him, and he gently pushed her away with magic. When she lunged at him again, he shoved her down a second time, and then a third as well. Her wooden legs were set down in the corner, out of her reach, and he took a moment to calm himself.

When she tried to rise, he pressed his right front hoof into her snoot and shoved her over. This made her tumble over onto her back, and so she brought her dangerous hind legs to bear against him. Unsure of what to do, because he couldn’t have her kicking him, he used magic to shove her right into the corner so that distance could be kept between them.

“Fronk me if you wanna, but make no mistake, I’m gonna bite you!”

Snarling, teeth bared, she lunged again, and Nut was forced to repel her.

“I have no intention of doing anything but—”

“Then why drag me in here?” she spat while she tried to get her hind legs beneath her. “Go right ahead! Thrash my gash! But expect to be bitten.”

With his patience reaching a thin point, Nut put an end to the struggle. First, to keep her quiet, he jammed a sizable portion of an empty burlap sack into her mouth, stuffing it in nice and tight for good measure, and while she kicked, flopped, and squealed, he crammed her into a large burlap sack that reeked of rye. Then, with her still pitching a fit, he cinched the drawstring and tossed the sack into the corner.

He felt bad… but what could he do?

“Now you listen here,” he said in muted, measured tones. “You did this to yourself. What choice did I have? I have to leave… to go away… and I cannot spend the entirety of my time away worrying and wondering if you will care for yourself… if you will tend after your own needs.”

The burlap sack flip-flopped about, Black Maple clunked her head into the stone wall, and then went still. Nut did nothing to help her; for all he knew, it was a clever ruse. She might very well attempt to attack him if he came close. It occurred to him that she might be enjoying this, in some sick way, and that left him more than a little perturbed.

For the moment, perhaps suffering from a headache, she went still.

“I will not have my emotions manipulated by you.” It felt good to say this, as it needed to be said. “When you do this, it makes me think that you do it so you can force me to give you my attention. I will no longer be a party to this self-sabotage. Especially not now, not after your foalish little temper tantrum.

“Furthermore, while we are clearing the air… your legs are antiques. Your mother and I discussed this. They are ill-fitting, complicated to put on and to remove. Those legs of yours are heavy and obsolete. Are you trying to punish yourself with them? Do you wish to hurt yourself on purpose? Are you still the angry little filly that lost her legs, and are you now trying to self-flagellate with your prostheses? Because that is what I think. You don’t have to struggle with those awful, awful things. I can see no logical reason why you keep them.”

The burlap sack lay silent.

“Friendship cannot survive ultimatums,” he said, his voice cracking in such a way that it left him self-aware. “But this cannot continue. While I am gone, I want you to think about our friendship. When I come back, things must change, or our relationship must change. One or the other. That is, if our friendship survives this. I will not sit idly by and watch as you torture yourself and self-destruct. Allow me to be blunt: I like you. Sometimes. But when you chucked a mug at my head, that crossed a line. This crosses a line. You and your base manipulations cross a line. I find far too many lines crossed… so it has come to this.”

Still, the burlap sack remained silent; not even a whimper.

“I cannot have you be a bad example for young Miss Blossom. Please, please, I beg of you, do not make me choose between the two of you. I’ve committed myself to doing the best that I can for her. If you become a detriment”—he tried to swallow and found that he couldn’t—“I will do what is best for her without hesitation. You will not even be spared a second thought.”

With nothing left to say, he turned about and left the pantry.


View Online

Like an unwanted, uninvited, unwelcome guest, wind-driven mizzle crept in when the door opened, dampened the floor, and then was held at bay once more when the door was shut. Grey sunlight—the colour of optimistic depression—permeated the windows, a cold light that held no cheer. The griffon who had entered took a moment to give himself a gentle shake near the door, and then, in silence, he made his way to the bar, where he sat down with familiar feline grace.

With an almost unnatural calm, Nut allowed his ward to cling to him. She trembled, panted, and was in a state of quite some distress. Her blackened eye was now almost halfway open, and both eyes were weepy. She had the sniffles, which made Nut worry that she might wipe her nose on him; it was just a thing that earth ponies did and he would bear her no ill-will should it happen—but he would be annoyed, oh yes. That went without saying.

“It felt like the world was a-endin’,” she said in a whispery waver. Reaching out, she clung to Nut’s foreleg with a vice-like grip. “They was fightin’ and hollerin’ and it felt like something was a-squeezin’ my heart. And it felt like the world was a-endin’.

He was far too rigid to move, to respond.

“All of a sudden, it felt like I couldn’t breathe no more, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get no air into me. It was scary, Nut… real scary. Everything still feels tight.”

Before he could respond, the voice of Red Maple unexpectedly came from behind them, and he heard her say, “You had a panic attack. Don’t worry, everything is fine.”

With a swift kick, she sent a chair skidding over the floor, and when it stopped near Tater Blossom’s chair, she scooted it over just a few more inches until both chairs touched. She sat down, and before Tater Blossom could protest, the pegasus mare peeled the earth pony off of Nut. After a moment of initial reluctance, Tater Blossom melted into Red Maple’s embrace, closed her eyes, and went still.

“Blackie is up in her room, cooling off. She’s turned on and frustrated.”

Teeth clamped together to the point of causing painful pressure in his jaw, Nut turned away. While a part of him was relieved to know that Black Maple was fine after her ordeal, he wished that Red Maple would spare him unwanted details. He could hear her softly shushing Tater Blossom, and there were sounds akin to a sort of clucking, which made him think of chickens.

“You were fightin’…”

“Honey, that’s what we do. We’re pegasus ponies. My daughter and I squabble. No matter how much we bicker, we still love each other very much.”

“It felt like the world was ‘bout to end.”

“That’s the panic attack. Rusty Dusty has those any time he spots deep, open water. His are pretty bad. Debilitating, even. He can’t even fly and he fights to breathe.” Red Maple stroked Tater Blossom’s neck with her wing as she turned to Nut and said, “I sent Blackie away so I could calm Tater down. If I would have known that she would come upstairs and did what she did, I would have stood her in the corner instead.”

“Thank you for looking after Miss Blossom,” Nut replied.

“May I please take her home with me?” asked Red Maple in the most sincere manner imaginable.

He understood what she was doing, or, at least, he suspected that he did. “I fear that I’ve grown rather fond of her.”

“Surely, you can share. There’s no need to be selfish.”

“I went to a troll-infested farm to find her. Pulled her right out of the produce bin myself.”

“That makes her special,” Red Maple said, “maybe even one of a kind, but I still think you can share.”

Hating himself just a little, Nut expressed what was really on his mind, and asked, “Is Black Maple alright? Can our friendship, whatever it might be, survive this?”

Eyes sad, Red Maple pulled Tater Blossom a little closer, securing her in a fortress-like embrace, and her ears pinned back. In absolute silence, the kindly maternal mare stroked the distraught filly’s neck in a rhythmic, slow, methodical manner, and her silence left Nut wondering if she would respond at all.

“You say it feels like the world is ending… Rusty Dusty, he says the sky is crushing him.” Red Maple wrapped both wings around Tater Blossom’s head while her gaze lingered upon the stairs that led upwards. “We pegasus ponies, sometimes we can be a little slap-happy with our wings. There's a lot of jokes about it, but we do have a pecking order. My daughter and I, we’re open with our disputes and just say whatever is bothering us. We trust each other and no matter how bad our squabbles might appear to others, we’re still friends afterwards.”

There was a pause, she sighed, and then said to Nut, “If you want to know what I think, I think my daughter showed her ass and pitched a fit with you just like she does with me to test the boundaries. That’s how we work. It’s what we do. You might not want to hear this right now, but if you do give her a chance, and you stay friends, or whatever it is that you are, this is bound to happen again. It’s a test of trust. I don’t expect you to understand it, but this is our way.”

Red Maple was certainly correct; this was the last thing that Nut wanted to hear right now. While he made no rash, hasty decisions, he did find himself wondering if he wanted to deal with this in the future. Even worse, it made sense, and he hated that. These were passionate ponies, temperamental sorts, and they clearly had their own way. Rationality and reason were abandoned for reckless expressions of temper.

“I might be wrong. There’s always a chance I could be wrong. She told me that she was aroused by the idea that you might finally lose your temper. I know she wanted you to lose your temper. Getting stuffed into a sack was a new and novel experience for her, and I have no doubt that she enjoyed it, because she’s weird like that. Gets it from her father. When I go home, I might stuff him into a sack just to see what he does.”

“When I got into a fight with my mama, I got shunned.”

“Well, that’s ignorance in action.”

Nut bit his tongue. Literally. He was about to voice his protest, but decided to trust in Red Maple’s goodness. Right now, the maternal pegasus was doing a marvellous job of calming Tater Blossom, far better than anything that he might do. Now was not the time for heated exchanges. He wondered what else might be said.

“I have a thick enough skin to survive being wrong. From what little bit you told me downstairs, it sounds like your mother couldn’t stand the loss of control. You made her look foolish in front of everypony, and for controlling, manipulating types, that is the worst thing ever. I wouldn’t actually know, because I’m not that way. Your mother had to beat you down and brand you as wicked to save face… and I can’t stomach the thought that a mother would do that. If I had to pick between my daughter and being right, I’m picking Blackie every time. She’s very dear to me. She’s fun to squabble with.”

Tater Blossom squirmed a bit, her chair creaked beneath her, and then she went still against Red Maple. Somewhat overwhelmed by everything that happened, Nut feared that he might never understand pegasus ponies, and worried that his shortcomings made him a tribalist. Not understanding made him feel as though he was a failure as a biologist, because he was expected to know. At least, it sure seemed that way.

“A-squabblin’ shouldn’t be fun,” Tater Blossom said to Red Maple. “Shouldn’t squabble at all, I reckon. Discord is wickedness.”

“But we have to squabble,” Red Maple replied. “It’s healthy. How else do we clear the air? Blow off steam? If my daughter and I don’t have ourselves a tiff, we resort to meanish passive-aggressive wing clipping, and that’s just rude, because she’s better at it than I am.” Then, entirely out of the blue, she added, “Oh gosh, it’s so cute how she adds a-prefixes to random verbs. It’s like a little sprinkle of pepper on food. I adore it. Nut, please let me take her home.”

“Mrs. Maple?” Nut turned the full force of his incredulous stare upon the pegasus mare.

“Oh, don’t act surprised, Nut. I went through a phase when I was younger and I was bound and determined to break with family tradition. I was going to be a school teacher, and not an innkeeper. And then I grew up a little more, and I thought maybe I’d have an inn, and I would be a teacher to the foals who stayed there. After that, I grew up a bit more and realised how stupid that sounded. At long last, I came to my senses. Though, I don’t rightly know if that is what caused my cutie mark… I did meet with Rusty Dusty right about that time, and he might have had something to do with it.”

With a slow, laboured blink, which was really more like dragging his unwilling eyelids over his eyeballs, Nut was reminded of the fact that Red Maple’s cutie mark was a bed. Again he blinked, then a third time, and after a fourth, he still did not recover. For an innkeeper, a bed was a perfectly sensible mark to have, a bit of positive, reassuring advertising for all to see.

But to have a bed appear for other reasons…

Once more, Nut turned away; he could no longer bear to look at Red Maple.

“Being an innkeeper is a noble pegasus tradition… sharing our nest with others is important to us. Hospitality meant safety. Sharing our nest meant you were under our protection. When Equestria was still wild, I suppose it meant more. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty proud of my daughter. She’s protecting others from the vicious pimps and gangs that might prey upon them. That’s respectable, I guess. I’ll have to think upon it, I suppose.”

“A while back, a rather intimidating fellow came in with some rather rough cohorts,” Nut said to Red Maple while he looked away. “He bellied up to the bar and told Black Maple how it was going to be. She was going to pay for protection… or else.”

“Oh goodness… what happened?”

“I am told the poor chap suffered twenty-nine distinct fractures in his jaw. I earned my ale that even. Black Maple told me that she sent his teeth back to him in the post, and included a note saying that services were due for payment rendered. We’re still waiting to hear back from him, but it might take a year for his jaw to heal fully.”

Then, almost grinning, he added, “Sitting at a bar is dangerous. Sometimes the stool slips out from beneath you, and down you go. Honestly, Black Maple is to blame. The bar should be padded for safety and comfort.”

Holding tight to Tater Blossom, Red Maple giggle-snorted, and then sniggered for a time.

“I cannot deny it, Miss Maple is my friend.” His almost-grin vanished and was replaced with something far more solemn. “She has spirit. I admire what she is doing here, even if I don’t agree with it for my own reasons. Society has undesirable elements, or at least, unwanted elements”—he paused—“perhaps it’s not my place to judge. We creatures must do whatever it takes to get by. Some resort to this willingly, and Miss Maple provides a place of refuge so they can conduct their transactions in safety. In light of the history lesson about pegasus ponies and inns, it certainly casts Miss Maple’s actions in a far more noble light. It changes how I see her, without a doubt.”

“Are you feeling calm yet, honey?” Red Maple asked Tater Blossom.

“Keep talkin’,” the filly replied, “it helps.”

“Well, now that you’re nice and calm, honey, you and I, we’re going to have a long talk about mothers and daughters. If you get upset, you tell me, and we’ll stop. But if you think you can keep going, that’d be great. Because you need sorting out. What you need is some honesty, even if it is hard honesty, just like Blackie needed some hard honesty.”

“Alright, I’m a-listenin’.”

“Oh, she did it again… it’s so charming.

“I did what?”

“Oh, never you mind, honey. Anyway, about mothers and daughters…”

All things considered, Tater Blossom seemed rather chipper once again, and Nut found himself admiring her indomitable spirit. The panic attack—he trusted Red Maple’s opinion on this—worried him a great deal, mostly because he wasn’t sure what could be done about it, or future attacks. If this was an issue of trauma, future attacks seemed certain, and he hoped that she would bounce back from them.

Perhaps a chit-chat with Grandfather Gestalt and Grandmother Lambda was in order.

Gestalt, along with Lambda, had pioneered Cogitology, a radical and different approach to psychology, which slowly replaced the old models. He theorised that the psyche was comprised of multiple parts, which he called cogs, and that the psyche as a whole was independent from its parts, something else entirely. Of course, Gestalt wanted to call the new model Thunkology, but Lambda put her hoof down and it was said that she gave him quite a stern eyebrowing—which, apparently, was still whispered about in hushed tones even to this day in Canterlot.

Satisfactorily, Gestalt had proven most of the old model wrong, and now, with Princess Cadance leading the way, the new model prospered. Lives were changed. It was a quiet accomplishment, the sort of thing that the common pony would never be aware of, but that was how it went for the many accomplishments of House Eccentrica. Their great many quiet successes made them Eccentrics.

“You haven’t moved in a while, Nut. You ain’t even hardly blinked. Is you alright?”

Tater Blossom’s curious homespun grammar roused him from his detached state. Her words only caused an avalanche of further thought, all of his worries, fears, and concerns. He thought of his failures, which seemed to stack up together at the moment. His grand social experiment was dead. A friendship that he valued more than he realised or admitted was now in grave danger.

Also, he had a ward, and she was looking right at him with a worried, or perhaps fearful expression. She was no failure though, but an accomplishment. Or would be, if he did all of the right things. Doing the right things proved harder than he thought, and today's explosion brought sharp contrast to everything. If necessary, he would most certainly walk away from Black Maple—but the very idea of doing so left an icicle lodged in his heart.

“You have your pen out, and your journal open, but you ain’t wrote a thing.”

He glanced down and sure enough, the page was empty, save for a blot of ink where he’d pressed his pen. What had he started to write, only to abandon? Try as he might, he could not recollect whatever thoughts he’d attempted to put to paper. Tater Blossom was still staring at him, and her half-open swollen black eye gave her a curious, squinty appearance.

“You wanna know what I think, I think yer lovesick. That’s what I think.”

“Preposterous.” The speed at which he spat the word out was astonishing. Tater Blossom was wrong, and one word, no matter how many syllables it had, was enough to drive this point home. “What a risible, farcical, nonsensical notion. The very idea itself is daft.” Suddenly with a bad taste in his mouth, he concluded that daft was far too short a word, and very much wanted to berate himself.

“Mmm-hmm.” She nodded, which made her ears bob in a rather cute way. “So, about this trip to Canterlot. How long will it take?”

“Ten to twelve hours,” he replied, “depending upon conditions. Canterlot is, I think, about seventeen-hundred or so miles from here? Not entirely sure. Our flight leaves at eight of the even, and will arrive around dawn or thereabouts.” Still miffed about his ward’s accusation, he thought about all of the ways he might tell Miss Blossom that she was wrong.

“And Widowwood is between here and Canterlot.”


“You can’t call it off with Blackie.”

“Why not?”

Tater Blossom’s nostrils flared. “Well, ‘cause I like her. And her mom too. They’ve been good to me. I need them… I do… and that means you can’t call things off with Blackie.”

“Your reasoning is highly suspect and dubious.”

Her head tilted off this-a-way, and that-a-way, until she snorted in Nut’s general direction.

In her defense, it was a rather eloquent snort, expressive in a way unique to equine creatures. A lot went into the snort; proper head angle, expressive eyes, placement of the ears in a just-so position, plus internal acoustic management for maximum volume. So, all in all, it was an articulate snort. He gave it a passing grade.

“Red told me some things I needed to hear. It’s like Mrs. Oleander saying that the only sin is theft… and I still can’t think of a sin that isn’t theft somehow, no matter how hard I try… but everything that Red told me rings true in the same way. After so much not-knowin’ and outright lies in my life, I need things that offer blessed assurance. Things I can trust. Honest words that I can pick apart and know that they is true.” Then, with her ears assuming a somewhat more submissive position, she added, “And you need to be providin’ these things for me. I’m a-trustin’ you to do that.”

There was a heartfelt sincerity and earnestness to her words that gave Nut pause. He sensed no manipulation there, just a straightforward expression of want and desire. She was trusting him—with the whole of her life. He thought about her wounds and the care she needed, and in light of the panic attack earlier, not every injury was one that could be seen. His ward needed help, and he reasoned that this was her way of asking for it.

“Blackie and I did a lot of jawin’ afore things went and spoilt.” Now hunched over in her chair, Tater Blossom appeared more foalish than young mare. “I was doin’ good in the kitchen too… well, it’s not really a kitchen, but it kinda is. But I was doin’ good. She showed me what needed to be done, rather than just tell me, and that made things so much easier. While we was a-workin’, we talked and talked and talked some more.”

“Do tell, what did you discuss?”


It sounded as though she said ‘everythang’ and Nut allowed himself a gentle smile when he said, “That tells me very little.”

“We talked about you, and then me, and then you, and then me, and then we talked about Almighty Celestia for a time, and then I talked about how much I miss Pa and the others, and Blackie told me that I’d go back there one day, when I was too big and too well spoken to be ignored. She said that she’d come with me, and that you’d be there too… so for this to happen, I need you and Blackie to sort out yer differences, if you please. Because I really, truly do need the both of you. I’ve never met anyone like Blackie… or you for that matter. Or most of these ponies I’ve been meeting. It’s like gettin’ a drink of water, but for the soul. I’ve been thirsty. And you know how much I love me my water.”

“You haven’t been put down, insulted, or belittled for being intelligent.”

“No, I haven’t, and it feels good. Well, except for now, I kinda worry that I sound dumb, and that gives me a powerful worry, it does.”

“Not everypony in the city is an intellectual—but you’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to my milieu. I like to think that I keep exceptional company.”

“You kinda do… these are the ponies I’ve been needin’ in my life.”

The employee break room suddenly felt confining; too small a room for too much emotion. Something about the idea of being intellectually starved resonated with Nut, and after the events of today, he felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Overwhelmed. He was going home to face his parents—and his failure. Disturbed, his mind traveled back in time, back to the point when he’d waited for Tater Blossom’s return, not knowing her fate. He’d been exposed to considerable stress and he still hadn’t sorted himself out. Of course, the long walk to the train platform had also proven to be quite harrowing—bloodshed seemed to be the only outcome for a few tense moments.

Stress was not something he dealt with well, and it was all piling up.

What he needed was a period without stress, but the foreseeable future would be nothing but stress. Which, when he thought about it, caused him just a little stress. The tension was building. Anxiety lurked in the depths of his mind, the dark, disparate, unsettled places he dared not look for fear of what may peer back. He needed some downtime, a bit of pampering perhaps, but the future held promises of nothing but prolonged strain.

“So, tonight’s trip… will it be like the train?”

“I suspect my parents booked us a private cabin. At least, that is my guess. We’ll know when we arrive at the station. Prepare yourself for the dreadful sin of sleeping together in the same room.”

Again, she snorted, and it was every bit as eloquent as the previous.

“Are you excited?” he asked.

“I am,” she replied, “but I’m also scared.”

He was unprepared for this answer.

“Fear of flying?” He had hopes of sorting everything out with a bit of logic and reason.

“Fear of everything.

As it turned out, he was ill-prepared for this response as well.

In the next room over, a typewriter began to clatter. Nut watched as Tater Blossom’s ears jerked and bobbed at the sound the metallic clickety-clack. Mrs. Oleander was busy—but this was almost always the case. A business was like an organism, where only the fittest earned allowed continuance, and Mrs. Oleander was a natural-born survivor.

In light of her recent panic attack, her fear was all the more worrisome for Nut.

She was beautiful, but fretful—he noticed it now that he paid attention. What manner of beauty it happened to be remained elusive to him. She admitted that she was afraid, but she would pull through somehow. Though he was only just now getting to know her, he knew this about her. She was a thoroughly courageous creature, even if her own anxieties loomed over her like some dreadful shadow.

“Come, Miss Blossom. Let us go for a walk… ‘twould be good for us to stretch our legs before our departure.”

In the teahouse, a tempest brewed. Outside, the sun made a valiant effort to shine, and the wan light that reached the windows only served to highlight the grunge of the city. The teahouse was a quiet, respectable sort of place that reeked of tea and dry, intellectual wit. Nut much prefered pints of ale over teacups of tea, but his prefered spot for ale was currently inaccessible.

“I like tea.” In Tater Blossom’s eyes, a storm could be seen, simmering, preparing to boil over.

“Well, you certainly like sugar and cream,” was Nut’s dry reply.

It was his hope that his wit would keep his ward amused.

She laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it. He could tell. Her insincere laughter echoed in his ears and left a hollow ache somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, a vacancy he longed to fill. Though he’d only known her for a short time, he cared for her—deeply—and he treasured her as his friend. She was something special, a bright shining star suspended in the velvet night that demanded attention.

He was repressed, a creature of discrete restraint. She was a curious creature of great wit who reveled in the world around her, even if she didn’t understand it. He was a hardened lump of brass; which is to say, he could be cold, hard, unyielding, and without feeling. She was a basket of kittens, something too inviting, with too much warmth and appeal to ignore, for one simply did not disregard a basket of kittens.

Even a lump of brass had taken notice…

“A mare is what she is,” she began, “and you can tell her measure by what she makes.” Head held low over her wide teacup, a cup suitable for lapping, her ears rose and fell with her every breath. “I was told this from an early age. It was pounded into my head. A mare is her household, the happiness of her husband, and her worth is measured by how many foals she has.”

Watching as the pale sunlight shone through the grimy film on the windows, Nut sat waiting.

“Today, I met a mare that only had one foal… and she was a greater mare than my mother. I’m a-tryin’ to sort out why, and I think I can say why. Ma, she had a lot of us… a whole lot of us. And about halfway through, I think she got tired. She stopped raising us and allowed us to raise each other. Mama got lazy.

“But Red, she had one foal… Blackie… and then she poured all she had into that one foal, and then some. From the sounds of things, she has a husband that loves her to pieces. I’m having a real hard time with this, and it is hard to put into words, Nut. More and more, I’m seein’ proof that my mother was nothing but lies. That her every word was falsehood… and it makes my heart ache. Plus, there’s that book you bought me, it’s been tearin’ up my innards.”

In some way, he understood. When he left Canterlot, he found that Equestria was not the bright, shining beacon of civilisation that was told to him in great detail during his formative years. It was not a prosperous land of abundance where even the poor lived like royals. The rosy picture painted of the plucky poor who supped from the cornucopia of abundance that was Equestria was torn to shreds shortly after his arrival in Vanhoover.

But… he’d survived, and he had no doubt that Potato Blossom would endure this.


“I come from my mother, Nut. What does that make me?”

“You come from your father as well, and I rather like him.”

His words did not have the desired outcome he craved and her sudden sigh left him listless. Hickory had failed too; Nut knew this and he was cognisant of the fact that his ward was aware of it as well. While he wasn’t sure how to fix this, he did have an idea of what to do. He would write about this. This was Miss Blossom’s integration into society: coming to terms with her upbringing in an isolated, insular community. A controlling, manipulating mother. Lies and falsehoods. His ward had to face all of this, overcome it somehow, and then survive in a world utterly unfamiliar to her.

He could see the value in documenting such a process, for surely it would be a boon to others, would it not?

“Everything I thought what a mare was is now all shook up. Ruint. Everything feels a mess, and I don’t know what this makes me. I don’t know who I am. I like Black Maple and Red Maple… I do… but knowin’ them has broken me in some way, it feels like. Nothing feels right, and everything feels so uncertain like. Now I don’t know who I’m s’posed to be, or how I should grow up, or what’s expected of me. Even before I left home, I was powerful confused about my life, and now, it’s all worse somehow.”

“Things will get worse before they get better,” Nut mentioned, without knowing why he said it. Honesty felt important here, but so did comfort. “We removed you from your home, which was harmful to you. There is time to heal, Miss Blossom.” He thought of another pony that needed to heal, and he felt a terrible pang of worry for her. “This is just the start. Things have to fall apart… all of the old has to fall away so the new can replace it.”

“That panic attack scared me, Nut.”

“Something will be done about that, I give you my word.” He leaned over the table and in a low voice, he tried to offer some reassurance. “You’ve trusted me thus far. I’ve escorted you away from home, without trouble I might add, and I am doing everything within my power to provide for you.” He thought of how he’d swallowed his own pride, but said nothing about this. “I can’t change the world, but I can change a life. So that is what I shall do.”

“It felt like the world was ending. And like everything inside my head was a-comin’ apart.”

Still leaned over the table, he listened.

“I thought my heart would stop beatin’, but it was also beatin’ so fast that it hurt. My ears was a-ringing and I was real scared. Everything hurt… my whole body hurt. All my muscles went tight and there was this pressure just behind my eyes. Then I got all sweaty like and felt like I was gonna barf. When I got to feelin’ like I was gonna choke to death, that was when Red got to me. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. Thought I was gonna die.”

Why were happy endings so complicated? Nut found himself wondering this as he contemplated the current mess. The downtrodden filly leaves the farm to find her place in the world, happens to be a rousing success, and lives happily ever after. Only, this was not the case. Tater Blossom was a mess. Right now, she was on the verge of tears, and he feared that she might have another panic attack. She’d left home to get better, not worse.

The poor girl had been uprooted, in both the literal and figurative sense.

She bowed her head, inhaled softly, and then began to lap up her now-cooled tea. Nut watched her, a lump of brass who felt far too much, and his own panic crept up on him. He was heading home; there would be so much to explain, to sort out. There would be an endless stream of questions, all of which would demand careful answers. It was almost enough to be paralysing.

His linen shirt and tweed vest now felt prickly, like a vestment of briars, and the upholstery of the chair beneath him was now somehow coarse and uninviting, as if changed by magic. Something about his choker collar now felt too constrictive, and then, in a moment of beleaguered befuddlement, he wondered if he too was about to have a panic attack.

Distance had grown distorted; the patrons of the teahouse were now far away and the distant murmur of their voices caused his ears to pivot wildly in each conceivable direction. His chair didn’t quite feel solid beneath him, he was aware of the curious sensation of it sagging somehow, leaning from side to side, and the table felt a little less than real. It was as if he was a ship, perhaps, a ship that rocked to and fro, slapped silly by the heartless waves that loathed the tall ships of seafaring equines.

Nut was a pocketwatch too tightly wound.

Then, with the same suddenness as when it arrived, he was fine again. His linen was reassuring and his tweed comforting. Beneath him, his chair was solid once more, and the table ceased to jiggle alarmingly. The world somehow undistorted itself and he gave a little tug at his collar with his magic as he regained his austere tranquility.

Surely, endless hours of conversation to satisfy the many inquiries of his parents couldn’t possibly be that bad. His parents were pleasant ponies, convivial conversationalists. Intellectuals. Even better, Canterlot intellectuals. All was calm, all was right. When he sipped his tea, he was disappointed that it wasn’t ale. It wasn’t foamy, or creamy, nor did it taste of malt and hops. It rather tasted of garden trimmings boiled in water and left to go tepid.

Tea, he decided, was dreary.

When Tater Blossom lifted her head, pale brown tea dribbled from her still-extended tongue and soaked her fuzzy chin. She licked her muzzle, her orange tongue flicked about in a counter-clockwise motion, and the mess vanished, with only moistened lips left behind as evidence of her sins against cleanliness. For the first time, he noticed how broad her ears were, leaf-shaped, full and wide. It might be evidence of exceptional hearing, and maybe he would find a way to test it later.

At this moment, there was nothing about her that was a mature mare; she was all filly.

“I like tea,” she announced for a second time.

“You do have a certain fondness for cream and sugar,” he replied, an echo of his previous statement.

She smiled; it was like the sun smashing through the clouds to impart warmth and cheer upon the sodden, pallid citizens of Vanhoover. “I like tea just about as much as I like water. Coffee was bitter and kinda gross, but tea is nice.”

“Clearly, you did not add enough cream and sugar to your coffee.”

“Is Canterlot a holy city?” she asked.

He took a moment to consider before saying, “Only when it is overrun by changelings.”

She was bewildered; he was entranced.

“There are temples, chapels, and sanctums in Canterlot,” he said, humouring her with a straight answer. “But those can be found here in Vanhoover as well. No, what makes Canterlot special is the Royal Academy of Science. ‘Tis a storied building, a place of old knowledge, and creatures from all around the world come to study there. My family laid its foundations as a gift to the world. You must never enter that place alone. It is dangerous like no other place in all of existence.”

“I s’pect yer pullin’ my leg.”

He changed the subject. “Canterlot is a cramped city. Vanhoover is spread out, while Canterlot is a tiny city built atop a mountain. Much of the city is vertical. You will find many stairs and lifts. There are also many interdimensional and hyperdimensional spaces, which can be quite disorienting for those experiencing them for the first time. The tower that is my family home is quite thin and stately from the outside, but it is immense on the inside. Bewilderingly so. The library is almost an acre and a half. It is a tremendous space. One can easily get lost in the library maze.”

Then, as a warning, he added, “The shelves move sometimes and the maze changes configuration. Keeps the mind sharp and helps with mental awareness. Somehow, even with the moving shelves, the books maintain their order and you can find what you are searching for if you know where to look. But getting there can be a problem.”

They were two ponies in a crowded teahouse, all alone with one another.

You can never go home

View Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houseboats were somewhat dangerous when a squall came a calling.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the end of Equestria as Nut knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

She would keep going, no doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who hurt you, little equine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you really?” asked Nut.

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

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

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

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

He was not gullible, yet he found himself intrigued.

“Are you a knight, Nut?”

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

“You have an umbrella—”

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

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

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

“That makes me feel better, Nut.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which meant that any position he held would be temporary.

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

Were all friendships inherently fugacious?

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

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

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

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

It was time for bed.

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


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

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

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

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

Why noodles?

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

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

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

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

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

What had happened in Canterlot?

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

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

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

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

“Is somepony sick?” somepony asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nut, I’m scared.”

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

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

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

“I didn’t think I would. Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do as she says, Miss Blossom.”

“We’ll get seperated—”

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

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

There was a blinding flash as his picture was taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an awful thing to come home to.

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

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

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

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

A year had transformed this city into something unrecognisable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least now, the bright blue caps made sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like me, with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home is where you practice hard consonants

View Online

To the north and west, just over Canterlot, storm clouds were assembled. The waterfall that poured into the city was more than ornamental, it offered the fine mist and water vapour required to whip up a storm so that the greenery of the city could be watered in an expedient manner. These storm clouds were dull, drab, and rather boring, with nothing exciting about them at all. Why, they didn’t even appear to be thundery, and Nut suspected that they were a school project.

Nut decided that he much prefered feral storms, such as those over Vanhoover.

“Well,” he said to his companion who trotted beside him, “there it is. Home. The Agate Tower. That’s the big orange one right over there. It used to be just dreary cloudy marble, like every other tower around here, but one of my distant relatives happened to be a powerful stone-shaper, and he smeared the fiery orange agate over the marble tower like butter over toast.”

“It’s…”—for a moment, Tater Blossom failed to speak—“so beautiful.”

“Indubitably. That is kind of you to say.” Swinging Susan about, he pointed at his home. “The agate acts as a sort of magical conduit. You may feel strange inside; some do, others do not.” He paused for a moment to think of the magic of his ancestral home—one home of many—and it occurred to him that the oldest and most stately homes of Canterlot were probably well-defended from the rodent menace.

It was a matter of dimensional protrusions. If the burrowing vermin attempted to bore through a wall that housed extradimensional space, things would go poorly for them. Old money wouldn’t be bothered by the rats much at all, while the poor and those lacking in magic would suffer unduly. The Agate Tower was old. Unicorn magic had permeated the interiour for centuries. It was very much like a wizard’s hat soaking up magic over time, but with a magnitude of difference regarding the overall effect.

There were whole miles of hallway in his ancestral home and far too many rooms.

Beyond the wrought iron gate, the garden was much, much tinier than he remembered. Of course, he had once been so much smaller, a foal, and so the space probably felt larger to him. The space between the tower and the garden walls maybe a yard wide at most, with square walls wrapping around a circular tower. Trees grew in the corners where there was the most space, and the leaves caressed the bright orange agate skin of the tower.

As he approached the gate, it opened, unbidden… and why wouldn’t it? He was home. Though, in some way that he could not fathom, this now felt like a strange place. If he was now a stranger, why then did the gate open for him? This question flitted about in his mind like metaphorical bats in a proverbial belfry. He stood for a moment in the gateway, uncertain, confused, but had no time to sort himself out, as the front door opened.

“Pod,” he said when he saw the pleasantly pea-green mare stepping out.


“Too much emphasis on the final consonant, Pod.”

“It is a hard consonant,” she argued. “I’m well within my rights.”

“That might be the case, but you make it sound guttural. Crude, even.” Raising his left hoof, he gestured at his ward and said, “This is Miss Potato Blossom. Miss—”

Before he could finish, Pod smoothly cut in to say, “Salutations, Miss Blossom. I am Miss Pod. You may call me Pod.”

When Tater Blossom spoke, she sounded a little overwhelmed. “Hi there…”

“Pod, what are you doing here?”

“This is my residence. The place where I practice my hard consonants before a grand and stately mirror.” Then, turning away from Nut, she looked Tater Blossom right in the eye. “Nut and I will go on like this all day. We lack an economy of syllables. Tell me, Blossom, would you like to come inside for tea? And to stay, of course.”

“I’d like that a lot, thanks.”

“Do come inside,” Pod said while she gestured at the door behind her. “Clove is in her laboratory, and mustn’t be disturbed for any reason. Bulb is at the castle, minding the tulips he modified to act as remote listening devices. Rather clever, wouldn’t you agree? Grandfather Gestalt is around here somewhere, but Grandmother Lambda is in the Crystal Empire assisting Empress Cadance with some grand psychiatry project. Nut… I have missed you. Seeing you gives me heart palpitations.”

“See a doctor, Pod,” he suggested.

“I am,” she replied. “Well, she will be one someday. Sooner, with my help.”

Intrigued, Nut followed Pod inside, with his ward right beside him.

Tater Blossom stumbled, but then recovered as she came through the doorway. Nut too, felt some disorientation, but it was brief, and he was accustomed to the sensation. ‘Twas an odd sensation, one of being stretched—it made him feel noodly—and the body needed a bit of time to adjust to the extradimensional transition. Reality was stretched a bit thin here, like too little jam on too much scone.

He was home. His foalhood was spent in these halls of fine, cloudy marble. Nothing had changed, and why would it? The entry room was exactly as he remembered it, and the suit of cast-obsidian plate mail still stood guard near the door. Unwelcome visitors who somehow forced their way in would face a terrifying foe that was almost magic immune. As a foal, the obsidian knight gave him the shivers.

It was not so scary now.

With a sigh, he set down his suitcase, and then hung Susan from her hook near the door. The marble floor beneath him was somehow comforting and odd at the same time. For almost a year now, he stood and walked on perfectly mundane surfaces—floors not stretched into impossibility by magic—and the sensation was no longer familiar to him.

Catching him by surprise, Pod left a kiss upon his cheek, a warm, affectionate smooch that he was entirely unprepared for. Her eyes were warm, kind, and full of mischief—exactly as he remembered her. Had things been different, they might have been married now. For almost a decade, even. Pod might have been with foal, or they might have waited until after university. Looking into her eyes, he didn’t know how to respond, and was quite overwhelmed by his own thoughts.

“Nut,” she said, her muzzle mere inches from his own. “this might come as a shock to you, but I am engaged. I’ve been fretting, Nut. More than a little, actually. I’ve found a mare, and I worry how you might take it. There are some who might be offended if their former intended took up with a mare.”

“I’ll confess, it is a bit of a shock.” Looking into her eyes, it was easy to remember how fond he was of her. “But I am quite secure in my masculinity, I assure you. Somehow, I shall recover. Honestly, I am surprised to find that your tastes have turned lesbian, Pod.”

“That’s the thing… I’m not a lesbian, though my intended is tasty indeed.”

Nut’s brows furrowed, and he was aware that Tater Blossom listened intently.

“There are no physical attractors whatsoever, Nut. It is so very peculiar. How do I explain? I am attracted to her intellect. So much so that I am willing to look past the container that holds such a fine, exceptional mind. I find myself in a strange place, Nut. She is an undiscovered country, a strange land I long to explore. Her name is Twilight Taffeta, and yes, before you ask, she is a cousin to both Twilight Velvet and Twilight Sparkle.”

“Pod, I am happy for you.”

“Thank you, Nut.” Again, she kissed him, and this one was somehow warmer than the first. Leaning in, she whispered in his ear, “When we start a family, which if I have my way, will be sooner, rather than later, I will require a contribution from you. You owe me, Nut. I was ready to marry you, to live the whole of my life with you, and you, you broke my heart.”

Even though he only thought about it for a moment, her request seemed reasonable. How could he refuse? “Just let me know, Pod. We’re family. ‘Tis not onerous what you request.”

“Tea!” Pod’s hooves shuffled against the floor as she backed away from Nut. “I will introduce you to my intended over tea. Splendid idea. Blossom, sorry for that moment of family drama, but I couldn’t sleep at all last night because I knew Nut was coming home and much was on my mind.”

“Call me Tater.”

“Oh.” Pod had to recover for a few seconds, but recover she did. “Tater it is then. You’re a Tater, I’m a Pea Pod, and we have a Nut. That makes us a salad.”

Tater Blossom’s whole body shook with her rambunctious giggles.

“Stop over-accentuating the final consonant of my name, ‘tis driving me mad.”

“Nut, tut-tut!”

“Stop that at once!” He saw the mischief in her eyes and was almost overcome with memories. “You did that when we were foals.”

“Oh, capital!” she cried. “I still possess the means to rob you of your goat. Poor Nut, tut-tut… goatless.”

Before he could respond, Pod pranced away—but not at a run of course, because she was indoors.

“This is my intended, Twilight Taffeta.” Pod could not hold still and an excited whinny somehow slipped free, which made her eyes twinkle. “Twilight, this is Nut, the future father of our foals, just as we have discussed, and his companion is Potato Blossom… but we get to call her Tater. Riotous. Capital! Ahem.”

“I am pleased to meet you both.” Twilight Taffeta was far more subdued than Pod was, so much so that she stood out in sharp contrast to her counterpart. “You must excuse Pod. She was up all night and when the dawn came round at last, she drank whole pots of Celestial Glory tea. Nut… I’ve heard so many stories about you. At last, I get to meet you in pony.”

“Good stories, I should hope.”

“All of them.” Twilight Taffeta, a dusky shade of nightfall blue, closed a bit of distance and moved closer to Nut. “There are times when I am jealous and it feels as though I am competing for her affection with you. She loves me though, and I know that.” Then, she turned away from Nut and faced Tater Blossom. “Do sit down. Don’t be shy.”

“Everything is so fancy… I’m afeared to sit down. Everything is so clean and perfect.”

“This is the tea parlour.” With her soft voice, Twilight Taffeta tried to reassure Tater Blossom. “Please, have a seat. Be comfortable. It’s all right. Come sit with me, right over here. I’ll pull up a table so you can have your tea in comfort, and without awkwardness.”

“That’s mighty kind of you.”

She’s amazing! Pod mouthed the words so that only Nut could see them.

Tater Blossom allowed herself to be led over to the loveseat and she sat down with Twilight Taffeta. Alas, ‘twas a loveseat meant for two, and Pod heaved a forlorn sigh. Pod was helpful though, and brought a tall table of carved wood over to the loveseat so that Tater Blossom could have her tea.

After the table was put down, Pod said, “I’ll be back with the tea. I’m serving it myself. Feels so naughty, being domestic. It makes Taffy weak in the knees when I’m domestic—”

“Pod, go away and compose yourself. Begone! Come back when you have manners.”

“Sure thing, Taffy. Tootles!”

When Pod slipped through the door, the flustered mare fanned her face with one hoof and said, “She calls me Taffy. It leaves the room a bit too warm when she does that. Or is it just me? If this keeps up, I’ll end up with a heat rash. One of those unmentionable tropical varieties.” Then, still fanning herself, she gave Tater Blossom all of her attention.

“So, tell me about yourself. I would very much like to know all about you. Spare no detail…”

Tater Blossom and Taffy—the name had stuck in Nut’s mind, much to his own dismay—acted as though they had known each other for the entirety of their lives. Taffy had put the younger filly at ease, calmed her, and then somehow brought the very best out of her. He could sense no judgement from Taffy concerning his ward’s total lack of manners, there was no condescension, no hidden spite beneath a thin veneer of civility.

Taffy was quite possibly the most sincere pony that he’d ever met and he could say this after knowing her for but a short time. She was quite unlike Pod, a bit more serious perhaps, and was too sincere for sarcasm, which Pod had in abundance. From various little bits of conversation that he’d picked up, he found her fascinating.

She was to be a foalhood development specialist and studied with Gestalt. Even though she was only a student, she worked with Twilight Velvet, and helped to sort out troubled foals rescued from bad situations. And he could see her doing it, too. Taffy had certainly calmed Tater Blossom down, and had her sorted out in moments. Yes, Taffy had a knack, and was sure to go places. She was maternal kindness equinified.

When he glanced at Pod beside him, he saw that she was blowing bubbles in her tea. Sighing, he turned away, but said nothing. Clearly, Pod was intoxicated with love. Inebriated with infatuation. A part of him envied her and he found himself thinking of Black Maple. He could be in love—if only he allowed it to happen. But Black Maple needed to be sorted out. She needed to pull herself together. Black Maple was no Twilight Taffeta.

“You are a remarkable pony,” Taffy said to Tater Blossom. “Having a panic attack is nothing to be ashamed of. You will recover. When Gestalt comes out of hiding, you and I will have a talk with him. I’ll be your support. You’re so very brave… it warms my heart. The world needs brave ponies just like you.”

“This is why I’m in love,” Pod said in a sing-song whisper to Nut.

He whispered back, “I say… she’s exceptional.”

“You’re so nice…” For a moment, it seemed as though Tater Blossom might say more, but instead, she sighed, and with a relaxed smile, she leaned up against Taffy.

“I’d like to question you, if I may. For my studies. But only if you allow it. If you are uncomfortable with the idea, just tell me. You have nothing to fear, as I will not be angered by your refusal. You are a very special pony, and I am pleased with whatever choice you make.”

“I feel like I’m meltin’ inside.”

“Melting is fine. You do that if it makes you happy. I’ll collect you in a cup and watch over you.”

“Now I’m melting inside,” Pod whispered.

Now, at this moment, Nut knew and understood how Pod could not be a lesbian, but still be in love. Some ponies were special. Unique. One-of-a-kind. Taffy was clearly one such pony and he understood that one must make allowances for such a rare, exclusive, elusive creature. To pass over such a chance, such a gift, such an opportunity because of the physicality of gender—‘twould be a crime against love itself. Leaning over a bit, he nudged his cousin, and somehow dislodged a muted giggle from her.

Yes, Pod was very much in love, and Taffy’s body was no impediment.


The sound of his name jarred him; almost startled him.


She stood in the doorway, wearing a spotless lab coat over her sleek, modest smock.


“Mother.” The room reeked of garlic and Nut knew that he was truly home.

“Cease this foolishness at once, Nut. I have a name. I am Clove. You are no longer a foal, but a functioning adult. Act your age.”

“My most sincere apologies, Mother.” This made her sigh, and Nut felt some small sense of satisfaction. So much so that he smirked. “It is good to see you, Mother.”

“Very well. Persist with this foolishness if you must. Nut. Be flippant.”

“Oh, I intend to.” He gave Pod another nudge, and she giggled.

“I must say, Nut. She’s… young. Younger than I expected. Your telegram was the very soul of brevity, but I understand the reason. Loquaciousness, your innate sesquipedalian nature, that would increase cost exponentially.” Clove turned her garlic-scented gaze upon Tater Blossom, who huddled against Taffy. “Nut, I will always be supportive of you and your endeavours, and I will never be one to judge love in whatever form it takes, but I am very much surprised that your intended is not closer to your own age.”

So this was the proverbial silence in which a pin drop might be heard.

He sampled this silence, savoured it, but wasn’t sure if he found it to his liking. Tater Blossom had a terrific expression right now; her swollen eye was half open, while her other eye was wide open. Why, it could be said that her other eye yawned and if one squinted hard enough, might catch a glimpse of her soul. Taffy, ever-so-polite and supportive, she reached over and with a gentle touch of her well-pedicured hoof, she closed Tater Blossom’s open mouth, sparing her from appearing as a slack-jawed yokel.

For this, he was as glad as he was grateful.

Something needed to be said, but he had no idea what it was, or might be. In fact, it might very well be impossible to ever speak again, for he was dumbstruck. His mother’s slender ears quivered, no doubt waiting for some manner, some means of explanation, but none seemed forthcoming. Right now, he wanted to explore a liquid state of being, so that he might melt into the couch and vanish.

“I am positive that you must be exceptional in some way for Nut to have noticed you,” Clove said in a voice comprised of calm, austere empiricism. “A living calculator, perhaps. I am not one to judge by appearance. You may look as though you were just plucked out of the potato patch, but Nut has an eye for treasures that most would miss. For all of his multiloquent frivolousness, my son is a fine judge of character. Speak for yourself, girl, and let me hear the quality of your voice.”

“Mother.” Nut was absolutely horrified by the sound of his own voice. Why, it was as if he was a foal again, in trouble for galloping and gallivanting about in the library. “Mother, no. You have reached an erroneous conclusion. She is not my intended, but my ward. I gave her father my word as a noble that I would see to her care. Which is why I am here, at home, right now, at this very minute, so that I could formally ask for assistance so that I might keep my word.”

“Oh.” Clove stood unmoving for a brief time, and then shuffled over to the couch where Nut sat, and she eased herself down beside him. “Oh, Son… that… that is very serious.”

“Indeed it is, Mother. I am charged with ensuring that she lives up to her full potential… and no less. I made an oath. Our family’s honour is at stake.”

“Pardon me, I need a moment to collect my thoughts.” Clove poured herself a cup of tea, added nothing, and then levitated the teacup mere inches away from her nose. With each breath she took, she caused the little curls of steam to scatter every which way.

Nut rather wished that his cup of tea was a mug of ale.

Tater Blossom was at ease now, and lapped up her tea. Taffy was right beside her, making regular slurps of her tea. Nut was thankful for Taffy’s presence, and with each passing minute, he found more reasons to adore her. As for Pod, she was subdued but jittery. All of her sarcasm and wit had abandoned her, so she sat silent. Every time Nut moved for any reason, she twitched and jerked about.

“Calling her your ward will not accomplish much,” Clove said. After a brief discussion, an exchange of facts, she had gone silent, but now seemed ready to speak again. “You are not her father, Nut. Nor her family. As awful as it is, she is just old enough that she will be considered an adult. You will not be able to legally act as her caretaker, as her guardian. Your authority as a noble will only go so far… especially outside of Canterlot.”

“Well then, what do I do, Mother?” Nut, having recovered himself, poured his heart out to his mom. “She needs schooling. I need some way to ensure that she gets it. That I have the authority to make decisions for her, and sign contracts for her as her caretaker. What do I do?”

Much to Nut’s frustration, his mother did not respond.

The tea parlour was a smallish room that was mostly devoid of colour. Nut noticed this only just now. He’d grown up in this tower, and spent much time in this very room. Cloudy marble, rather milky and greyish in colour, with suggestions of blue. The furniture was all sensible and several hundred years out of fashion. All of it was upholstered in neutral fabrics, with nothing vibrant, nothing vivid, nothing remotely colourful. The room could only be described as severe. It was a cold place, almost like a hospital. Or a museum. At the moment, the tea parlour was rather squarish, but there were times when it was round—the tower was so old that it had moods.

“You have but one recourse, Son.”

“And what is that, Mother? Do tell.”

“Claim Miss Blossom as your apprentice.”

“Mother, might I point out the obvious and that is the fact that Miss Blossom is not a unicorn?” When his mother sighed, Nut worried that his mother had taken what he said as sarcasm, and he prepared a sincere apology. But before he could speak—

“I have a copy of the unicorn bylaws in my study. Earth pony and pegasus pony bylaws as well. As it so happens, I have most of them committed to memory. There is absolutely no mention that an apprentice must be a unicorn.”

“I am no wizard—”

“Nor is there mention that a master must be a wizard. Unicorns retained the right to the master-apprentice relationship as they saw fit. Smart Cookie recognised it as something sacred and championed its protection during the integration. You, my Son, have a direct, traceable lineage that goes right back to Smart Cookie. Right now, your father is one of the twelve Erzherzöge of the earth pony tribe, a unique position due to the fact that we are unicorns.”

“At one point, there were thirteen. Yes, I have paid attention to my history. The thirteenth voluntarily relinquished their title, so Princess Celestia could be the tie-breaker in the event of dispute.” What he didn’t mention was the fact that the Erzherzöge only convened during a time of war or crisis, and that the title was now a relic, something considered largely ceremonial. There was no point in setting his mother off, as she was a stickler for traditions.

“Eventually, like it or not, your father’s title will pass on to you, Son. Either when he steps down, or when he perishes.” Clove shuddered in silence for a moment, and her discomfort was noticed by all present. “It would be just and fitting for you to have an earth pony apprentice. More than that… an earth pony apprentice that you school in the way of her tribe. She needs to know her proud culture, its traditions. She could be an emissary for her tribe. A voice. They are sorely needed, now more than ever.”

“Uh, can I ask what that means?”

“You see, Nut? She doesn’t know. Please, my Son. Teach the poor girl.”

Upon hearing his mother’s request, his mouth went dry. “The Erzherzöge... the council of supreme authority during wartime… also known individually as the Erzherzog and the Erzherzogin. They were recognised as something akin to earth pony royalty. The Earth Pony Tribe was largely democratic, with a chief and clan system, as well as a complex hierarchy. They had a chancellor that organised the chiefs during times of peace, but when war happened, as was all too often the case back in those days, the chiefs could not be allowed to argue and bicker, as they often did. So the Erzherzöge would assume command. Even though the Erzherzöge hold supreme executive power, they were still a democratic body that cast votes for all actions.”

Sullen, her eyes glittering thunderheads as she stared down into her teacup, Tater Blossom shook her head and said, “There was a lot of bickerin’ during the moot when I got shunned.”

“Patriarchs, matriarchs, chieftains, and chieftesses do tend to argue. Strong-willed individuals tend to rise to positions of power, and while this stubbornness can be an asset if properly harnessed, it can also be a great detriment during times of crisis.” Nut felt quite peculiar speaking of this, and could not help but wonder why. Was it fear of bias against earth ponies? The lurking fear of being labeled a tribalist? He didn’t know.

“That’s a good start.” Clove nudged her son and gave him a nod of approval. “But it is a start. There is so much more to be said. With her as your apprentice, you’ll have all the time you need to share everything you know. This needs to be done, my Son.”

He found that he could not disagree.

“Would you be my apprentice, Miss Blossom?”

“I think I am already,” she replied as tea dribbled down her chin in pale brown rivulets that plopped into her teacup. “You’re my teacher. I’m your pupil. I don’t see a lick of difference or how anything changes if the names are given a switcheroo.”

A switcheroo. The word stuck in his mind, and he thought of it. What did names matter? He thought of the long walk to the train platform, with all of the angry townsfolk in the way. She was his, even then. Even though bloodshed was avoided, bloodshed remained an option. ‘Twas a master’s solemn duty to protect their apprentice—with their own life if necessary. Surrounded on all sides by hostile, hateful faces, he had sworn an oath to Hickory that he would do right by Potato Blossom. An oath was an oath was an oath—so why did it matter if the titles changed?

Was it a matter of lexical semantics?

No, Nut realised, no it was not.

The labels in the relationship meant nothing. She’d been his apprentice the moment they set off together, and he her master. A sacred position of trust and authority. This was a duty, a task where one prepared another to do greater. To be greater. A master was only successful if their apprentice surpassed them. What an odd measure of success.

“This changes nothing between us,” he said at last. “You are still my pupil. I shall endeavour to earn your trust.”

“You have my trust.” Tater Blossom lifted her head a little higher, and something about her seemed a little more grown-up. “You ain’t wronged me yet… ‘cept for that whole catchin’ me off guard with Doctor Dogwood thing that happened. If I woulda known that I’d be stabbed in the ass fourteen times, I mighta ran.”

“I feel bad for the incident with Black Maple.”

“You had no way of knowin’ that would happen. And I didn’t either. That panic attack just came out of the blue. Not yer fault.’ ‘Sides, I learned a whole lot and I hope that I get a second chance to do it again.”

“Well then, it seems we have an accord.”

He was quite unprepared for the kiss his mother left on his cheek and she lingered close to him, her eyes moist. Being so near her, the air was perfumed with garlic, which he found comforting. He looked at her, and she at him, and no words needed said. He missed his mother; he’d gone off, left home, and hadn’t returned for about a year or so.

“Welcome home, Nut,” his mother said to him. “Get settled in. Your room is just how you left it. I’ll tell the maids to prepare a room for your apprentice, and that room will always be her room, now and forever. I’m proud of you, Nut. But in no way are you in the clear after running amok through the library. That is a permanent black mark upon your record, Nut.”

Unable to help himself, he laughed.

“Beware of the fountain at the end of the hall. Do not play in it. That is the icevator, which creates a column of ice that conveys one from floor to floor. It isn’t practical, but its artistry cannot be denied.” Clove allowed her focused gaze to linger upon Tater Blossom. “If you frolic in it, and it is called to a floor, your injuries might very well be fatal. Do pay attention, as I am trying to help you.”

“Alright.” Tater Blossom seemed to be having no small amount of trouble holding still.

“Do you have fleas?”

“Just like I told the ponies wearing those bird masks, no.”

“Then why can’t you hold still?” Clove demanded.

“It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the multiple cups of Celestial Glory tea—”

“Pod, mind your tongue.” Clove cast a bit of side-eye in Pod’s direction.

“I have ways to keep Pod’s tongue busy,” Taffy announced.

Before he was aware of his mouth’s betrayal, Nut said, “A mouthful of Taffy does keep one quiet.”

He felt the coming silence before it even arrived. Now he could feel his mother’s authoritarian side-eye bearing down upon him, and he wished that he was elsewhere, anywhere. Perhaps off studying a brood of basilisks again. Pod giggled, clearly because she was utterly unaware of what was good for her, and when Clove’s eyes swung around in her direction, Pod engaged in a mighty battle to contain her myrth, but little snorts kept escaping.

“Kitties!” Tater Blossom shouted rather suddenly when she noticed the cat sauntering down the hallway.

“Yes, dear girl, we have cats.” Clove turned the force of her stare upon Tater Blossom, but the filly was oblivious. “We co-exist with them. For our part, we leave out sustenance for them to partake of, along with water, and occasionally, the cats grace us with a condescending smirk for our efforts.”

The white cat, now noticed, meowed once, a suitably cautious meow.

Animals were always the first to know, so it was said.


Tater Blossomed, fueled by Celestial Glory tea, and she exploded into movement. For a moment, her hooves scrabbled against the marble floor, upon which she could gain no purchase, and then she suffered sudden acceleration when at last her hooves found traction. At terrific speed, she bolted right for the cat, who panicked, and who could blame it? A caffeine-fueled equine ran amok in the halls. Clove’s spotless lab coat was tugged upon by a powerful gust left in Tater Blossom’s wake, and the stern mare turned the full destructive force of her accusatory maternal eye weapons upon her son.

The marble floor was like ice, and Tater Blossom was like a cannonball on legs as she went careening after the yowling, howling, fleeing feline. Nut stood very still, fearing that his mother might detonate at any given moment. Her eyebrows bobbed like hairy fuses that sputtered out warnings of imminent danger. The stench of garlic intensified somehow, just as it always did when his mother’s temper neared its boiling point.

“She’s a pip, Mother.”

“Taffy, go collect our pip.” Pod took over and while her voice was neutral, there was mirth to be seen in her eyes. “We’re going to play dress-up. As for you, Nut… do something about your wardrobe. You look—and smell—like a coinless vagrant. Clove, have no worry, I will have precious order restored.”

Wearing a deadpan expression, Clove departed, no doubt to return to her lab.

Though nothing had changed, everything felt different. Nut roamed the halls, unsettled, unsure of where we wished to be. A shower had helped, and he had some clothes in his old room that were rather fresh and new. At some point, he would need to have a long conversation with his parents, and make a formal request for financial assistance.

When he turned a corner, he found himself back to where he’d started; the icevator shaft.

Vanhoover had escalators and lifts powered by steam. Canterlot had extradimensional space and everything felt a little less than real. Pointing himself down a hallway, he tried to get lost once more. A futile effort, to be sure, but the walk was nice. So much effort had been spent trying to survive on his own merits—to be his own pony—but there seemed to be no escaping who or what he was. His birthright lurked just behind him, and there would be no escape. Before he could get lost, he turned himself back around and summoned the icevator.

If he were to wander aimlessly, the library would be the ideal place to do so.

Churlish behaviour

View Online

The illusion of rain spattered against the nonexistent window. A visual decoration of masterful illusion, the window was designed to display whatever was currently visible outside; sunshine, moonshine, or whatever the weather might be. This could be changed, of course, and the nonexistent window could be made to always show the sun, the moon, or even just a pleasant gallery of popular art.

Canterlot was largely artificial.

Nut sat in a comfortable corner, in an overstuffed chair, filtering his many speculations through the point of his pen. Flowering garlic surrounded him and the pungent aroma reminded him that he was home. Penstrokes produced postulations, predictions, profered projections. Now, when he wrote about Potato Blossom’s integration into society, he wrote about his apprentice and this—this felt right. While he still had some hesitation, that had more to do with his inherent sense of caution.

A bit of quiet was just what he needed.

Pulling his pen away from paper, he allowed himself pause. His mother had a most curious collection of books on display in her study. Empusas, Lamias, and the Striges: A Compendium. The book looked like it had been partially burned in a fire, or some catastrophic event. It had certainly seen better days, just like the book on his mother’s desk, the one titled Vetalas and You: A Comprehensive Guide to Eradication. That one barely had a surviving spine.

Housed in a glass case was a wooden-bound novel titled, The First Tribes and the Aluka: A History of the Motetz Dam. Like the other two, this book had been burned, scorched by some inferno. It was fortunate that these novels survived, though Nut could not help but wonder what his mother was doing with such curious reading materials.

One book was quite new and its dark blue cover stood out. Sanguinare Porphyria: What is Known, by Doctor Fancy Fiasco. Nut combed his memory, but was quite unfamiliar with this condition. It had to be a magical malady of some sort. A little peek couldn’t hurt, would it? He reached out with his mind, lifted the book, and bade it to come to him as he sat down his own journal.

It was time to check out his mother’s reading materials.

“Just as expected.”

Nut almost dropped his book, and would have if his mother hadn’t caught it. He saw her in the doorway, smirking in her own special maternal smirky way. The book was closed with a snap and he lamented the loss of his place within the book. Suitable punishment though, for allowing himself to be startled. Clove placed the book upon her desk and then stood smirking at her son.

“You only come to my study when you are troubled, Nut.” His mother crossed the room with great efficiency of movement, and then sat down in the chair behind her desk. She sat with impossibly rigid posture, the kind that would make a steel girder envious, and her smirk remained ironclad. “I left a few books out to see what you might do. To see if you would take the bait.”

“That book… it’s not a joke, is it? The rats of Canterlot… are they?”

“It is not jest, and yes, they are. That is what we face. Dark Desire resurrected an old plague and repurposed it. Changed it in some strange way.” Her head swung from side to side like a loose shutter left to wag in the wind. “Not merely blood drinkers, they also feed on fear and negative emotions. Emovorous vampires. Rattus Nosferattus. I just so happen to have one down in my laboratory. He’s quite nasty, vile, mouthy, and violently allergic to garlic. I do so quite enjoy torturing him and making every moment of his existence inordinately painful.”

“Mother, ethics demand—”

“Nut, he’s not a living creature. Ethics be damned.

“Oh.” Though he tried not to do so in front of his mother, he squirmed in his chair.

“You need financial help.” The way she phrased it was not a question. “Have you grown tired of slumming, Nut?”

Again, he squirmed. So the much-dreaded conversation was now, was it?

“Nut, what are you doing with your life? Other than making noble rescues of imperiled peasants, that is. That I approve of. But everything else, as your mother, I have concerns. Grave concerns. You… you’re practically skeletal, Nut—”

“It’s not that bad,” he said, and then cringed when he realised that he’d interrupted.

“You are forgiven, Nut,” his mother was quick to say.

He took his monocle, slipped it into his pocket, smoothed away the wrinkles from his ill-fitting waistcoat, and then tried to calm himself. The mare behind the desk was still his friend and if he concentrated hard enough, he could remember his mother playing with him, the sort of silly games played between mother and son.

“By now, you could have had your doctorate if you’d attended university here in Canterlot. Even worse, you’ve infected Pod with your way of thinking.”

“Mother… a year of study does not a doctor make. I want to earn my degree.”

“But you will, Nut. Your success is all but guaranteed. You have the will and the drive. What you are doing right now is frivolous, wasteful, and irrational. Time is precious, Nut. You could already have your doctorate and be doing great things.”

“It feels wrong,” he protested, “getting a degree before I’ve properly earned it.”

“But you will” earn it,” his mother replied. “Nut… this is like having excellent credit and taking a loan. You get the money up front and then pay back over time. The accelerated degree program is no different. You get the degree up front… you have all the right credentials. But you get the degree and you begin your great works. In time, you will be worthy.”

“It shouldn’t work that way.”

“Nut. You are impossible. And now Pod feels the same way.”

“Well, she should.” Right away, he regretted his words, because he saw how his mother fumed.

Behind her desk, Clove folded one hoof over the other and went stony faced. Now, she wasn’t even fuming, or maybe she was, it was impossible to tell. Try as he might, Nut could find no trace of emotion, no feeling, his mother might as well have been a marble bust on display. It was impossible to tell if she was even breathing. How did she not blink?

Mother magic, that’s how; it had to be.

“The great work you begin will make you worthy of the doctorate you are given. You will learn, your mind will expand, and your greatness will manifest. If you can’t think of it as a loan that is paid over time, think of it as a key to open the door of success. Just try to be reasonable, Nut. You’re brilliance is going to waste, and as your mother, I find that infuriating.”

“Mother… sometimes ponies skip out on their loan payments.”

“But not you, Nut. I cannot stand how irrational you are behaving about this.”

“Mother, there are many brilliant ponies. I’ve met a few. But they have to work to have their brilliance recognised. They don’t get to get a degree after a year in school. Due to random chance of birth, they do not have the doors of success just flung open for them. They have to work for it.”

Much to his surprise, his mother sat silent.

“I would much rather open the doors of success on my own, so that in my own mind, I will know that I am worthy. Mother, I am confident in my brilliance. It will not fail me. When I have my degree, it will be because of my own efforts, and not because of circumstances involving my birth.”

“You’ve turned your thoughts into communicable disease, Nut. Pod’s mind is ravaged with the infection you’ve given her. You being headstrong is annoying, but the two of you behaving in such a way, it drives me to near-inarticulate rage. You are denying the world the best you have to give in the short time you’re alloted to give it.”

“That may be true.” He nodded, and did agree that his mother might have a point. “But in the long run, I do so truly believe I am giving the world a better version of myself if I struggle for it.”

“Nut, you are a wonderful mystery to me, even if I find your actions incensing.”

“Thank you, Mother?”

“You’re welcome, Nut. And stop calling me that, for Celestia’s sake. You’re a grown up. Speak as one. I indulge your eccentricities, but my patience does wear thin on that matter.”

“Mother… prepare for continued wear and tear upon your patience.”

“Nut, what am I to do with you?”

He shrugged, confident that his mother would still love him after his withers rose and fell.

She relaxed a bit, her deadpan expression softening, and he saw her eyes grow warm. He wished that Tater Blossom was here to see this, to witness this, to discover how a mother might disagree with her offspring and still love them—unconditionally. He had no doubt; his mother indulged him, she tolerated his quirks, and even if they were in radically opposed disagreement, her continued affection was guaranteed.

“So, I suppose we need to sort out the issue of finances,” she said as her expression continued to soften, like a biscuit left for too long in hot tea. “I am relieved, Nut. You are too thin. When I saw you, I almost didn’t recognise you. You… my son. My flesh and blood. You were almost a stranger to me. I just know that your ribs are visible beneath your clothing.”

“Mother, this is a common condition. Many live this way.”

“But it doesn’t mean that you should. Nut… what is it that you are trying to do? To prove? What is the meaning of all of this? Is there something you hope to gain?” Clove leaned forward, but only a little, and not enough to ruin her fine, prim posture.

“You held me to a higher standard, Mother. Now, I strive to maintain that standard. I hold myself to the fire. When I was little, you told me that I was better, that I could be better, and I believed you. Now I strive to be the best pony that I can be.”

“So, am I hearing you say that this is my fault?” she asked.

To which he replied, “I suppose so, Mother. Like it or not, I am the result of my upbringing.”

“Your skills at flattery are unparalleled.” Her voice was flat, but her eyes were warm. “Nut… I do apologise for being so hard on you… but these are trying times we live in. Things are different now, even if I cannot say how exactly. The world is not the same as it was when I was a filly. Nightmare Moon came back. Changelings invaded Canterlot. Now, the rats lay siege to us. Grogar’s shadow grows long over Equestria. Our champions, Equestria’s most determined defenders, the Darks have betrayed us. Every moment feels so much more precious now, Nut. Which is why I wish you would just get on with it and dispense with this frivolousness.”

“Mother… had I stayed in Canterlot, my ward”—he corrected himself—“my apprentice would not have been rescued. Whatever greatness I have to offer the world, it seems to me that I am doing it.” He saw his mother smile and it was as if a great weight was lifted from his neck.

She leaned back in her chair, her posture now relaxed, and her front hooves remained folded over one another before her. Her smile was serene, his mother had a beautiful smile, and it was easy to understand why his father remained smitten with her. While their disagreement might remain for the foreseeable future, he suspected that he’d won her over. Sometimes, getting somepony to change their mind was impossible. But, you could win them over and just agree to disagree, and that was fine.

“When you were born,” she began, her voice almost syrupy now, “you were little, small, and perfect in every conceivable way. More importantly, you were my playmate. My last chance to be young, to play, and to enjoy the world for what it was. I miss those days. What I would not give for their return.”

“Mother… are you gently implying that I should grace you with grandfoals?”

“Yes, Nut. I am.”

“I am rather busy with school, Mother.”

She nodded.

He thought of his plans, his future, and was uncertain if raising a family was possible.

“The Gallopagos,” she said.

“Mother, I said nothing.”

“There was no need, Nut. It was written on your face. In your eyes. What is your dreadful fascination with that place? It strikes me as mania. Obsession.”

He wanted to argue, but words failed him. If he had no foals, no offspring, his parents bloodline would end with him. He was their sole vessel in which all of their hope had been placed—unless of course he made a contribution to Pod and Taffy. But he was expected to reproduce, to continue the ridiculous birth lottery. A winner would be born with every conceivable privilege. It bothered him in some vague way that he could not put into words or even make coherent thoughts about the subject.

“Nut, do not rush into love for love’s sake, or for desperation’s sake. If I may offer some advice, seek friendship, not love. You see Nut, ‘tis easier to marry your best friend and let that transition into love borne of familiarity than it is to marry your love and hope for friendship borne of serendipitous circumstance. In my experience, love is more ephemeral than friendship. In a good relationship, friendship endures, while love can sometimes run both hot and cold.”

His mother’s words left him feeling rather fidgety, and he could not stop thinking about Black Maple. Yes, their relationship, such as it was, ran hot and cold. There were times when he couldn’t stand her—even being in the same room was intolerable—but as he squirmed in his chair, worrying about her, thinking of her, he could not deny that they were friends.

“Marrying for love is still a somewhat new concept,” his mother said as her eyes turned unfocused. “Well, here in Canterlot. I understand the commoners have enjoyed this new fad for quite some time. Some marry for duty, some for obligation, while others marry for political purposes. A great many marriages happen due to contracts… bloodlines must be continued… such as our own, and the unique position we hold in society, at least in regards to the Earth Pony Tribe. Your father and I… we played at romance when we were young… and it was pleasant.”

“Mother, am I to take that as a glowing recommendation—”

“So cheeky.” Her eyes turned flinty, but her expression remained soft, kind. “You get that from me, I think. So I only have myself to blame. Your father, why, one of his favourite pastimes is chiding me for my cheekiness. I myself, I do so enjoy giving him something to grouse about.”

Relaxing a little, Nut settled into his chair and rather enjoyed the droll moment.

“I suppose buying a house in Vanhoover is in order, and hiring suitable staff.”

“Mother, no.” Nut cleared his throat before he continued, “That is not the help I am seeking.”

“Then why ask for help?” his mother demanded, though her voice remained soft. “Do you not need housing? Why are you here, Nut?”

“I just wish to ensure that my ward does not go hungry. Everything else will be managed through my own means. I have work that pays… though perhaps not enough for two.”

“Nut… how can you possibly do your best in school while you work to keep yourself housed and to cover your expenses? Every hour toiling, labouring like some commoner is an hour not spent in study. There are only so many hours in a day, Nut, too few days in a week, not nearly enough weeks in a month, and each month precious. A pony is only given so many turns of the seasons, Nut. I want to help you, but I do not wish to help you waste time. I find your actions irrational and illogical.”

“We’ve discussed this,” he said.

“You’re right, we have,” she replied. “And even after a logical presentation of the facts, you have not come to your senses. You are a pony of exceptional potential. With the right resources, you could save dozens of Miss Blossoms, but because you foolishly cling to your ideals, you struggle to save the one. You owe the world better, Nut. Right now, you could be advancing some great unexplored realm of science, but instead you work as a tinker in some garage. You were born to do great things, exceptional things, but you while away the hours turning a wrench. Common ponies were born to do those things. Let them! From the moment of your birth, every available resource was made available to you and your horizons are limitless.”

His mother’s rationality and logic remained an unassailable fortress whose walls he could not scale. Even worse, his mother was right: his actions might very well be construed as illogical and irrational, at least from her perspective. Of course, from where he sat, he saw things somewhat differently, but the clash of perspectives would not allow he and his mother to see eye to eye. She remained here, in Canterlot, the city above the clouds, safe and secure in her tower of gleaming orange agate. His mother didn’t even get paid for her work, at least as far as he knew, and neither did his father. Work was just something they did to fulfil a purpose.

They certainly had no need for financial compensation for hours spent in purpose.

Working for a paycheck was vulgar; one worked to benefit society.

While he understood his mother’s point of view, at least to some degree, Nut believed that one could not benefit society unless one understood society. It came down to his philosophy of survival of the fittest. Society was an ecology with a lot of variables. Nut was a field researcher. As for his mother, well, his mother was content to remain behind her desk and read field reports on occasion.

He could think of no conceivable way to explain himself to her.

“You could be making Vanhoover a better city,” his mother said. “I am almost certain that Princess Celestia would give you governance of the city, were I to ask her for this as a favour. You have the wherewithal and the means. Nut… you could be doing more. Squandered potential is dreadful.”

He wanted to argue, but doing so would be pointless. Yet, he found himself throwing caution to the wind when he replied, “You know, Mother, were I to assume governance of Vanhoover, I would be a far more effective ruler were I to understand the plight of the common pony. To know their struggles. Sharing in their hardships as they strive to survive. A less-than-knowledgeable ruler would surely make things worse.”

“Governance is science, Nut. Economics. Equinology. Political science. It is mathematical formulae. Statistics. Averages. One does not factor in the individuals, but the city as a whole. If one becomes consumed by minutiae, then you neglect the whole organism. A city survives, Nut. The residents are, at best, temporary entities that fulfil vital functions. While some compassion should be spared for them, it should never be at the expense of a city’s overall survival.”

Though he had much to say, he held his tongue.

“So I take it that you want emergency funds, for when you fail to survive by your own means,” Clove said to her son. “You and your apprentice will suffer needlessly, but at least you will not go hungry.”

“There is beauty in the struggle,” he said to his mother. “Intelligence is found in the study of books, but wisdom is found in struggle. Potato Blossom will be great because she suffers. Already, she shows such signs of potential. I barely know her, but I am impressed by the depth of her character. She shows promise.”

“Said promise would come to full fruition in a better environment, Nut. Plants in a greenhouse have better yields than those in the fields.”

“Ah, but that is where you are wrong, Mother. A plant in the field evolves. It adapts to hardship. Greenhouse greenery has no need to improve, to be better. It just exists in ideal, perfect conditions. In the greenhouse, nothing ever changes. Change comes from hardship. In the field, we get tougher, hardier plants… and to continue this metaphor even further… what happens when something happens to the greenhouse? The plants of the field are no strangers to exposure, while hothouse flowers wilt in the face of the first stray breeze.”

His mother was… thinking, and he counted this as a minor, but necessary victory.

“You left the greenhouse, Nut, and did not expire right away. Now, about this analogy—”

“Mother, I am a Nut, not an orchid. I am a tough Nut to crack.”

He saw his mother wince—but felt no shame for fighting dirty.

“Oh, that was ghastly,” his mother deadpanned. “I am considering banishing you from my study until such a time that your cheekiness has subsided. Really, Nut… that verged upon villainy.”

“Do you desire that we become better strangers?”

Eyebrow rising, she replied, “Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee. Thou art a fusty Nut with no kernel.”

“Such wordplay surely doth strain the very bonds of our affections. I speak as a master, and you, a servant.”

In response, his mother glowered at him and made a dismissive wave with her hoof. “Thou art unfit for any place but Tartarus! Away you moldy rogue, away! More of your conversation would infect my brain! Begone from my study, churl! Go! Get thee hence!”

Potato Blossom was a pony transformed. Taffy and Pod had done something to her, something remarkable and spectacular. She was beyond clean, she glistened. Her mane and tail had been brushed to the point of waviness. There was now a slick sleekness to her and Nut found himself quite speechless at what he saw.

“Am I cute?”

Nut heard her drawl the word cute, which she pronounced as ‘kuh-yoot.’ Somehow, a single syllable word now had two. It was almost as if he was gawping at a stranger. Even her ruddy reddish-brown colour was different somehow, as if she was a fresh-scrubbed potato, rather than one just-plucked from the soil. In silence, he pulled his monocle from his pocket, and squinted it into place over his left eye.

“We still need to dress her in something,” Pod remarked in a matter-of-fact way. “Not sure what. She says she stays cold in Vanhoover. We’ll be leaving to go shopping soonish. Sorry, Nut. Just us girls.”

“She won’t have us there to help dress her, Pod.” Taffy—now quite stern—stood tapping her right rear hoof against the floor. “A form fitting woolen vest trimmed in shearling would be ideal. Not fashionable perhaps, but practical and easy for her to slip on and off.”

Rolling her eyes, Pod offered a majestic snort in response.

“Something with a rain cape that hangs down on both sides… hmm.” Taffy tut-tutted to herself for a bit and then added, “We must be practical. Maybe a burro poncho—”

“Taffy, no! That’s a blanket with a hole in it.”

“But Pod, they are practical. And the way they hang down on both sides is no different than a rain cape, not really. Plus, she can use it as a blanket. She has no magic, Pod. We must think of ease of wear for her, and what could be better than a burro poncho? Burros wear them—”

“But they’re so plain. And drab. And not at all fashionable. What about a corseted adventurewear bodice?”

“Who will help her secure the straps, Pod?”

“Why, Nut of course.”

“Nope.” Nut shook his head from side to side. “There is no way I am strapping her up in a corset.”

“What’s a corset?” Tater Blossom asked.

Pod was the first to respond and said, “It’s really quite fashionable—”

But then Taffy interrupted with, “It’s a cruel article of clothing used to torture mares. And sometimes stallions wishing to appear thin.”

However, it was Nut’s response that silenced the room: “I have seen her eat over a dozen black bean cheeseburgers. Strapping up a corset would turn her into a musical instrument of some kind, with the end result being tubafication. No corsets!”

“With that, I am willing to bear Nut’s foals—”

“Oh, shut up, Taffy.”

When Taffy stuck her tongue out, Nut was shocked; it was the last thing one expected a noble, a pony of fine breeding to do, yet here she was, tongue fully extended, and even worse, Taffy was crossing her eyes. It was a magnificent display, but one that jolted the senses. Naturally, Tater Blossom was laughing, hyuck-hyuck-hyucking, while Nut and Pod maintained a stunned silence.

“Well, the princessly behaviour went to your cousin, Taffy.”

In response, Taffy blew a ridiculously moist raspberry in Pod’s general direction.

Just as Taffy threw back her head and howled with laughter, an ancient pony shuffled into the room. His eyebrows were so bushy, so overgrown, and gave the impression that they had such great weight that they sagged over his eyes, which gave him a sleepy, half-awake appearance. Gestalt wasn’t just old, he was longevous.

“Have I collected yet another granddaughter?” he asked.

“Miss Blossom, this is my great-great-great-great grandfather, Gestalt.” Then, turning to his grandfather, he said, “Grandfather, this is my ward, uh, my apprentice, Potato Blossom.”

When the old unicorn blinked, his eyes vanished completely, buried beneath an avalanche of snowy eyebrows, and it took a great deal of effort on his part to excavate them. He blinked, straining against the obstruction, and peered at the earth pony as both Pod and Taffy pressed against one another.

“You were born in autumn,” Gestalt said while he looked Tater Blossom up and down. “That’s quite a brain pan you have there, Miss. Eye and ear placement suggest enhanced senses. Elongated sniffer-snorter. Fascinating.”

“I was born on the last day of fall. How’d you know?” Tater Blossom fearlessly returned Gestalt’s scrutinous gaze.

“Just a knack,” he returned. “Apprentice, eh?” The old pony stood there, faintly wheezing with each drawn breath, and his keen eyes peered out from beneath his caterpillary eyebrows. “I like the sound of that.” Then, having spoken his mind, he shuffled off toward the comfiest of the couches, the one in the far corner. “I had the loveliest conversation with Princess Luna.”

“You look like you’ve been napping—”

“Of course I was napping, Pod. How else do you think I spoke with Princess Luna? She’s asleep too. Napping is the easiest way to contact Princess Luna. Just go to sleep and think about her real hard. Lucid dreaming. She’ll show up soon enough. Foals these days. No sense at all.” With a huff, he dropped himself down upon the couch and then went still.

“And what did you and Princess Luna speak of, Gestalt?”

The ancient wrinkly unicorn leveled his leaden gaze upon Pod and replied, “Friendship. Psychology. The psychology of friendship. Luna’s mischief. She’s been slipping copies of some of her books off to other worlds. Apparently, she’s convinced a bunch of pretentious simians that she’s some kind of mysterious playwright and none of them can quite figure out who their beloved ghost writer happens to be. Devious.”

“I’m makin’ lots of new friends.” Tater Blossom scooted a little closer to Nut, held her head up high, and said, “I’ve never had a friend like Nut. He saved me.”

Gestalt grunted as his gaze shifted.

“I left home and finally got to meet ponies that weren’t all annoyed ‘bout me bein’ smart.”

“We get annoyed at ponies that aren’t smart—”

“Gestalt, that’s not nice.”

“Sod off, Pod. You do it too.”

“I never—”

“Oh, I believe you have. I heard you and Taffy as I went past the door.”

Pod’s mock-indignity fell away and she was beset by the sniffle-snorty giggles. Nut allowed himself a soft chuckle, and as for Taffy, her dusky blue face took on a muted purple hue while her hooves shuffled against the marble floor. Tater Blossom however, seemed in awe of the ancient unicorn, and stared at him with wide, worshipful eyes.

Cautiously, she approached him, and when he did not object, she sat down beside him. He patted the cushion with his hoof, beckoning her to come closer, and Tater Blossom, overcoming her shyness, obliged him. She scooted over, he looked at her, she at him, and Nut couldn’t help but feel hopeful about this relationship. A word would need to be had with Gestalt about Tater Blossom’s panic attacks.

“Do you respect your elders?” Gestalt asked.

“Sure do,” Tater Blossom replied.

“Because they’re old?” asked the ancient unicorn.

“Uh-huh.” The young filly nodded.

“Well, stop that!” There was a prolonged moment of titanic effort on Gestalt’s part as he heaved his eyebrows upward so that his eyes were fully visible. “Most old ponies are coots, silly girl. We’re stuck in the past. Be polite though, and remember to nod once in a while to show that you’re listening.”

“Are you a coot?” Tater Blossom’s earnestness was downright breathtaking.

“Probably.” Gestalt shrugged. “So, tell me, girl… would you like a few wise words about friendship?

“Yeah, I would.”

“Well then.” His eyebrows settled over his eyes like two snowy mineshafts collapsing. “Friends are those we stumble upon by accident, my dear, but we stay with by choice. No one pony is strong enough to contend with destiny, but friends, friends can create their own shared purpose. Destiny can be wrangled and given what for.” His short speech seemed to tire him. The old coot coughed, and then thumped on his barrel with one knobby, gnarled fetlock, a valiant effort to catch his fleeing breath.

Tater Blossom pressed her left hoof against her chin, her downturned brows formed deep furrows just below the forelock of her mane, and her eyes turned serious. No doubt, she was turning the words over in her mind, weighing them, testing them for what she considered truth. Nut felt a stab of pride for her, and he was glad that his grandfather was a gregarious sort.

“I need food,” Gestalt announced while he stood up, his rickety knees popping with his every movement. “Somehow, I became distracted on my way to the kitchen. This is all your fault. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to pester our cook for an off-schedule meal.”

Without further ado, Gestalt exited.

Paying off old debts

View Online

Recently drenched, the garden glistered with rain and smelt of warm, wet greenery. No doubt, the scheduled precipitation here in Canterlot was a boon for gardeners. Nut stood in the spot where he’d spent many hours of his foalhood, with some of those hours spent with Pod. How many hours were spent in quiet study and play? Playing doctor was a favourite, due in no small part to their shared love of biology.

Their first kiss had happened here.

An obelisk stood in the corner, sheltered beneath a tree, and on this small monument there were many names etched into the stone. He and Pod’s names were quite visible; an arrangement etched in stone, a promise of things to come—yet their union had been cancelled. It pained him to see this obelisk, this monument that bore witness to a promise broken. His parent’s names could be seen, as well as Gestalt and Lambda’s.

Nut had broken the chain, and in having done so, now had deep regrets.

He still loved Pod—very much so—and this, this made everything so much more complicated with Black Maple. Now, as he stood in the tiny garden, Nut could only feel the dull ache of remorse as his failure attempted to haunt him. While he had been told that refusal was fine, it bore no consequences, that he was free to say no—he could not help but notice that the long chain of success ended with he and Pod. At least for this branch of the family. Their names were linked together, but no heart had been engraved into the stone to mark marriage.

Seeing it caused a vespine pain whose venom burned his heart.

There was no joy to be had in this place, no euphoric nostalgia to be found, only a reminder of a promise broken. Nut sighed, cast a final glance at the stone that bore witness to his failure, and he tried to make sense of what his life had become. Perhaps his mother was right. Maybe he was just wasted potential. Her words had certainly lodged beneath his skin.

“Pod… I am sorry… you deserve better, and you found that with Taffy. Good for you.”

Eyes stinging, suddenly blurry, he turned his head away, but lingered just a little longer.

The streets of Canterlot felt broad when compared to the narrow corridors of Vanhoover. Well, some of them at least. Depending on where one was in the city. Nut found himself in a new-old part of the city, where towers gave away to row houses that all stood together like perfect, well-aligned teeth. Saved on both space and building construction to share a common sidewall. Quite a practical solution.

Nut detested them as much as he admired their practicality.

It felt nice to be wearing a frock coat once more, even if it was rather old. His old clothes were in far better condition than his current wardrobe, which was to put it charitably, tatters. ‘Twas pale green with various threads of orange, yellow, and pink. Double breasted from throat to chest, and then a more sensible single breasted down the barrel and along the belly. Much to Nut’s lament, his coat was sorely out of fashion.

Surely, such a timeless garment would come back into fashion once more.

There was traffic in the lane and the roundabout, not that Nut cared. He had four good legs and a will to use them. There was no need to hire a hansom cab or carriage. At some point, it had ceased to be stylish to walk about from place to place, and everypony just had to have a pony-drawn conveyance of some manner.

Glancing about, he found himself where he needed to be. The row houses were facades, false fronts. These houses here were carved directly into the Canterhorn, which made them quite large and spacious, but the facades allowed them to fit into the theme of the neighborhood. In reality, these were mansions, and some of them burrowed quite deep into the mountain.

Alas, the home he was looking for could not be seen. Powerful aversion spells kept it safe, which was understandable, really. It was a Dark safehouse, a refuge. During the changeling invasion of Canterlot, Caliginous Dark sheltered many helpless ponies and other creatures in his home. Nut remembered that day vividly as he helped to escort group after group to the Dark safehouse, which remained changeling free. Caliginous was a powerful wizard, and not one to be trifled with.

“Now let’s see,” Nut said to himself. “What was that again? How did that go?”

He squinted, not that it did him any good, and tried to remember the password, which he hoped hadn’t been changed. “Hmm… Treue Dunkelheit. Odd words, those.”

A second later, a row house became visible that wasn’t there a moment ago. It still stood, and Nut was rather relieved to see it. Grinning, he trotted up to the door, took a moment to make himself presentable, smoothed out his frock coat, adjusted his lapels, polished his brass buttons, and then rapped on the door with Susan’s crook.

The silver gargoyle head on the door came to life and its baleful gaze focused on Nut as it asked, “How did you find this place? Go away! No visitors! Don’t make me defend myself!”

“Professor Dark,” Nut said to the silver gargoyle head on the door. “It’s me, Nut. Your student.”

“You could be anypony.” What a ferocious face the silver gargoyle had, with its glinty obsidian eyes narrowed and its teeth bared. “Go away or I shall be forced to deal with you.”

“Please, Professor Dark… I’m worried for you. I’m your student, Nut. I can prove it.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

Leaning in close to the gargoyle, Nut whispered these words: “Manners maketh pony.”

“Do you remember the passwords for the door, my boy? If you try to pass without it, you’ll be obliterated.” Now wizened, the silver gargoyles face was host to a multitude of wrinkles.

Fidelis Tenebris.” As soon as the words left Nut’s lips, there was a click from the door. “Veritas est in obumbratio.” A second click was heard, this one with a great deal more volume. It seemed he was welcome, but there was a moment of hesitation as he pushed the door open and a blast of intense heat washed over him.

Beyond the door was a stranger that Nut almost didn’t recognise. Caliginous Dark had aged considerably. His once stygian-black mane was now more silver and white than black. His mismatched eyes, one a dull orange, the other a muted pink, appeared sunken. As for his magnificent grullo pelt, it was mostly a patchy grey now, while all of this was awful in its own right, what made it worse was that Caliginous was middle-aged.

“I was loyal…” The creaky utterance that came from the ruined remains of the professor was not the stern, commanding voice projected through the gargoyle. It was more of a broken, reedy, nasal sound, entirely too raspy for Nut’s liking. “I was loyal… I still remain her devoted servant. She cast me aside, Nut.”


“I bear her no malice, no ill will. She had to cast me aside. I was poison. No one trusted us, and who can blame them? They came out of the shadows, Nut. Wardens. So many of them. To peer inside of my head. And I let them, too. I had nothing to hide. I was loyal. I was loyal.” These reedy, raspy, drawn-out words were punctuated by coughing.

Without warning, Nut found himself seized by his coat and yanked forward.

“They all went bad, just as I feared they would, Nut. Distancing myself from them was not enough. Not enough! I am still suspect. No trust. No trust. Princess Celestia wanted to keep me as a teacher, she did, she did. But she had to cast me aside. For her own good. She had to distance herself from me so my shadow would not fall upon her. But I’m still here… still loyal. Always loyal.”

“Professor… how about we sit down and have some tea, perhaps? You sound dreadful.” Even worse than that, this was not the pony that Nut remembered at all. The calm, eloquent, thoughtful, gentle soul had been replaced with… something else. Something unknown. All in all, it was quite disturbing.

“Do you still believe in my goodness, Nut?” the professor asked, pleading.

“Of course I do, Professor Dark. I would never doubt it for a second.” Nut thought back to the day of the changeling invasion and the intense expression of frantic mania he’d seen on his instructor’s face. The fear that even one life might be lost. It was in that moment that Nut aspired to be good, and to hold himself to a higher standard.

Professor Dark had taught him much.

There was a wheezy whine from Caliginous, followed by, “I had to keep my students safe. Safe from the shadow I cast. The name Dark has become a foul poison, and for good reason. We almost brought down Equestria from within. First with Mister Mariner, and then Dark Desire’s foul treachery. Damn them both! Damn them!”

Then, he barked out, “Vermillion! I’ll be having my noontime tea early!”

Caliginous stood blinking, his odd, asynchronous blink because his eyelids did not move in unison. Nut struggled, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pony he once knew, but there was no sign of his beloved professor, just a stranger that bore a remarkable similarity. Nut placed Susan in the wrought iron umbrella rack near the door and then waited for Caliginous Dark to do something, anything.

Nut was far too well-mannered to escort his professor through his own home.

“Vermillion! I’ll take my tea in the library! The basement library next to the workshop!”

Soft yellow candlelight cast flickering elongated shadows upon the shaped-stone bookshelves. The shelves needed a bit of care, as many of them leered like gap-toothed smiles, with many books missing. Of course, the books weren’t actually missing, they were piled on tables, desks, chairs, and every available surface.

Nut wondered if his beloved professor grieved for his lost family—or despised them.

“Some good can still be done, Nut… some good can always be done. Never forget that.” Caliginous slumped over in his chair with a sigh. His salt and pepper eyebrows hung low over his mismatched eyes, and his odd, curved, pointed ears failed to point upwards at the ceiling. “We Darks deal in obscurity and oddity. Since I’ve had so much free time, I’ve been trying to make sense of what Dark Desire has done. Princess Celestia still trusts me where it matters. She sends sensitive materials my way and I try to make sense of them. There’s always some good that can be done.”

At a loss for words, Nut did not know how to respond.

“Nut… what did I teach you? What did you learn from me during our time together?”


“What stands out?”

Wondering if class was in session, Nut took a moment to consider. “Well, in a manner of speaking, you were my etiquette professor. But… but it was more than that. After I was enrolled in school… why, you were everywhere. Teaching everything. When a situation happened, you seized upon it and took the opportunity to instruct. You awaited for any chance, any opportunity, any moment that might hold a lesson.” Pressing his front hooves together, Nut added, “I think it could be said that you taught me how to live. I’m not sure that it was ever about manners, now that I look back.”

Head trembling, ears twitching, something that was almost a smile could be seen on the face of Caliginous Dark.

“When the changelings invaded Canterlot, even in the midst of all that chaos, you took advantage of that situation and you taught a lesson to me and the others. Though I cannot say what the lesson was, I can say it was quite vital in some way. Necessary. The events of that day molded me into the adult that I am now. To say that you taught me that every life mattered would be a great disservice, but there is no way that I could explain the breadth of that lesson, nor its depth.”

Caliginous Dark was a little calmer now, perhaps. Or maybe comfortable. Nut studied him while he thought about how some lessons only became apparent in retrospect. How much time would have to pass before he could look back on this moment and see the lesson offered? Vision and hindsight changed with maturity. Caliginous Dark had taught him how to be noble. Not the sort of noble that lords over others, but to be noble, with character and integrity.

His professor had accepted his undeserved fate with dignity and aplomb for the good of all. Even at his own detriment, for surely, Caliginous suffered. A lesser pony might have broken completely. Or worse, become disloyal. Traitorous. Treasonous. Spiteful. Yet, none of these things seemed present in Caliginous. He’d done what was best for everypony involved, Princess Celestia first and foremost, all at the cost of himself.

‘Twas a noble act, and could not be denied.

Nut found himself wondering if his own integrity would hold up under these circumstances.

“You were always a thinker, Nut. Some of your teachers derided you for not paying attention, but not me. Never me. You were the best sort of student a teacher could hope for, Nut.”

“Why, thank you, Professor Dark.”

“I’m dying, Nut.”


“If we Darks have a weakness, it is our lungs. Mine are full of cancer. However much time I have left, it will be spent in service.”

“Surely you could get healing in the Crystal Empire—”

“No.” Caliginous gave his head a weak shake from side to side and then spent a moment fighting for breath. When the tense moment of struggle had passed, he leaned his head against the back of his chair and smiled a feeble smile at Nut. “It’s not that I don’t want to stick around… I do… but I am confident that I’ve left my mark on the world. Ponies like you will pick up where I left off. I fear it has come time for me to exit stage left. So off I go, confident that others will take up in my stead. I’m glad you came today, Nut. Of all my students, I always felt that you were the most promising, and I’ve thought of you often.”

“Fond thoughts, I would hope.”

“Oh, indeed.”

All of this was a bit more than humbling.

“You taught me that nobility was a state of mind, and not a birthright. I might have phrased that poorly. Because of you, I was taught to be conscious of my thoughts, my actions, and how they reflect me as a pony. Because of your patient tutelage, I am noble in thought and deed. I feel there is more I wish to say, but the right words elude me.”

“We Darks were once a noble house.” Caliginous sighed and there was a dreadful rattle heard within his barrel. “But no longer. I am glad that we have been dealt with. Relieved. With whatever time I have left, I plan to clean up the mess that my family has made.” There was another sighing gasp, a cough, and then his head lolled and bobbed as he struggled to hold himself up. “So, tell me, Nut… what brings you back to Canterlot? Spare no detail, or you’ll stay after class.”

“Well”—the idea of staying after class caused Nut to smile—“I’ve taken on an apprentice. The whole series of events has been rather troubling. There is something quite remarkable about her. I found her in a literal potato patch—”

“Nut… what have I told you about peppering your sentences with the word literal?” Caliginous affixed Nut with the stern stare of a seasoned educator.

“No, I literally found her in a potato patch. A farm owned by the Solanums. Her name is Potato Blossom. I am literally free to use the word literal here, without repercussions.” He privately enjoyed his moment of victory, but was careful not to show it. Professor Dark was known to be cranky.

“Is she… an earth pony?”

“Is that a problem?”

Caliginous was quick to respond with, “No. But it is a surprise. I sense your mother’s influence here. You’re not clever enough to come up with this kind of quirkery on your own.”

Nut’s smile became a straight line as his lips pressed tight together.

“Grouse about it if you wish, doesn’t change that it’s true.”

The straight line almost became something akin to a scowl.

“A literal symptom of literal thinking, no doubt.”

Now, the almost-scowl became an almost-smile and Nut could not help but chuckle.

“My mother does not approve of my efforts to survive by my own means,” Nut said rather suddenly. “I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t either, but he has not had a chance to voice his opinions just yet. My grand experiment is something of a failure… I had to come home and seek financial assistance. My ward”—he found himself correcting himself once more—“my apprentice is a prodigious eater. I gave my word as a noble to her father that I would care for her. She shouldn’t have to suffer for my experimental endeavours.”

“Oh good, you’ve finally matured a little and maybe that rebellious streak has subsided a bit.”

“Never,” was Nut’s firm response. “I still hold fast to my ideals.”

Caliginous coughed a bit, his whole body trembled, and then, as he fought to contain his need to hack, subdued wheezes could be heard within his barrel. He held up his hoof though and after a few more wheezes, he said, “What is important to remember, my boy, is that when your circumstances changed, so did you. For some, pride would prevent them from doing right. You deserve a little credit and some respect at least, for your lack of rigidity. Spines should be stiff, for posture and good health, but necks were made to be bent.”

“Liberating Miss Blossom from her home was rather harrowing. My nerves are still quite jittery just thinking about it. There were moments when I was certain that everything would end in bloodshed. Such ignorance… such willful ignorance. They were willing to die for it, I think. It has impacted me in ways that I have not yet sorted out.”

“The day of the invasion,” Caliginous mentioned, “do you remember what I told you?”

“Of course, Professor. Never take what I cannot possibly give back. Your words—those words have made me the pony that I am. That’s why I worried… I feared that I would be left with no choice but to take what I could not hope to give back. Once a life is taken…” Nut’s words trailed off and the rest of his sentence escaped as a soft, overlong sigh.

“That, my boy, is my most important etiquette lesson. Do not take what you cannot return. If you can live by that one rule, just that one, the world will be a better place for you having graced it.”

“Manners maketh pony.”

“Indeed.” Caliginous’ lip curled back into a smirk. “You were ready to take lives that day, Nut. I consider it one of my great accomplishments that I stopped you. You were far too eager to separate some heads from undeserving necks. And for what? Because they don’t look like us? That would’ve been a hasty mistake. Nut, it is my sincere hope that you never live with the burden of taking a sapient, thinking, feeling life. It’ll leave your spine a mess, Nut. The weight bears down, and crushes. Some of us carry it better than others. I’d rather you not find out how to live with the load.”

Vermillion appeared, pushing a small trolley loaded down with everything needed for a proper tea. She was a pony of excellent breeding by the looks of her, with good posture, a dignified pose, and she walked with a light, quick step that could only be described as youthful. Which was an asset for a middle-aged mare such as herself.

In Canterlot, even the staff came from exquisite bloodlines.

“Why, Vermillion”—Caliginous cleared his throat, a wet, raspy sound—“will you join us for tea? Please?”

“Oi, I’m not so sure about that, yer Lordship.”

“Nut, this is Vermillion. She stayed with me. Alone, she remained loyal.”

“Don’t go on and on about loyalty.” The maid rolled her eyes, clucked her tongue, and let heave a nasal sigh. “You pay me well, you’ve never crept up behind me to jump my bones all unexpected-like, and you’ve never once mistreated me. I see no reason to leave.”

Caliginous exchanged a glance with Nut, and with it, a great many unspoken words.

“A girl could do worse for herself,” Vermillion said. “I’m here to stay.”

“Nut… do be a fine boy and tell Vermillion your joke. You know the one.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly—”

“I insist.” Caliginous’ firm tone left no room for disagreement.

“Very well.” Eyes downcast, Nut resigned himself to his dreadful fate, and told the joke that he loved to tell when he was a young colt that knew no better. “Why is Princess Celestia the world’s biggest vandal?”

“I have no idea…” Vermillion did her best to look mystified.

“Because”—Nut now felt ashamed for saying it—“all around the world, the dawn just won’t stop breaking.”

There was an explosive snort from Vermillion, then another, and with the third, she brayed with shrill, nasal laughter. Nothing was held back, and peals of laughter echoed within the cavernous library. There seemed to be no end of this laughter, and with each fresh burst, Nut’s ears sank a little lower, like two ships vanishing over the horizon.

Even Caliginous was chortling, which might very well be the first time he’d ever laughed at the joke. Looking back, Nut had no idea why he loved the joke as a colt, or why he found it so funny, or why he kept repeating it. Even worse, he had once said the joke with Princess Celestia present—only he didn’t know it until it was far too late. After that, well, that was the end of the joke. The deadpan expression of the big alabaster behemoth proved far too much for him to bear.

“Oi, yer hilarious, yer Lordship. I think I’ll stay for tea, since I was asked.”

“Oh, we’d love to have you,” Caliginous said to his maid. “Do have a seat. Be comfortable.” He smacked his lips, perhaps in anticipation of the tea and goodies to come. “I do so hope we have those blackcurrent scones you bake.”

Ears now pricked upright, Nut allowed himself a moment of polite laughter.

Now, when Nut trotted down the street, he did so with a much lighter step. Sure, he was still troubled, especially by the plight of his beloved professor, but the long talk about everything lifted his spirits. Yes, now he was in good spirits, and the clip-clop of his hooves against the cobblestones was proof of that. He was a fancy prancing pony and he didn’t care who knew it. The time for reservation was gone—and now was the time to strut.

All the clouds were gone, the sun was shining, it was warm, at least by Canterlot standards, and everything felt good. Nut wondered how Pod, Taffy, and Tater were getting along. Even though he wandered, he headed in a vaguely homeward direction. Perhaps he’d try having another conversation with his mother. Maybe this one might go better. Even if he failed, things weren’t as terrible as they could be.

For things could surely be worse.

Upon his arrival at his family home, Nut discovered that he had company awaiting him, which he found a bit odd. He’d just returned to Canterlot, so how could anypony know that he was here? How did word spread with such quickness? He wasn’t worried so much as he was curious. But a visitor would be pleasant, perhaps an old friend, maybe somepony from school, possibly somepony like…

“Secundus.” Nut stood in the door of the tea parlour where his guest waited.

“Nut.” Secundus folded up the newspaper he was reading and then set it down upon the table just in front of him. “I ran into Pod and Taffy downtown. Had the pleasure to be introduced to your apprentice. I believe the relationship suits you.”

“Why, thank you. That is very kind of you to say.” Nut entered the room proper, allowed the door to close behind him, and he took a seat in a high-backed chair opposite of where Secundus sat. “How are you, Secundus? It has been awhile, has it not?”

“Indeed, a bit too long, but then again, I’ve been busy, just as you no doubt have.”

“How is officer training?” Nut asked of his old schoolmate.

“Coming to a premature end,” Secundus replied. “I’ll be completing my training in the field.”

Nut did nothing to hide his scowl when he heard this. “Secundus…”

“Let us not quarrel, Nut.” For a moment, Secundus’ face revealed his state of upset, but his neutral demeanour was quickly restored. “I am Secundus, the second-born. My brother, Primus, was first born. He is to inherit my father’s title, the estate, and our great many responsibilities. It is my job to defend everything we hold dear. I’ll not be the one to break the chain. The tradition will hold.”

Again, Nut said, “Secundus…”

“Still rebelling about birthrights, I see.” Something that was almost—but not quite—a smile spread across Secundus’ muzzle. “There’s no escaping what we are, Nut. Some of us are born with debt—”

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Nut snapped. “It is a relic of a bygone era. The second brother was sent away to die on foreign soil so he wouldn’t be a threat to the firstborn’s inheritance. This is wrong, and you’re wrong for doing it.”

“We pay our debts sometimes.”

“The debt shouldn’t even exist.” Nut found himself almost pleading with his dear old friend. “Break tradition, Secundus, I beg of you. This war isn’t like the others in our past.”

“No, it’s worse. Worse than any of us knows.” There was a soft sigh followed by a gentle nod of Secundus’ head. “You are still the pony I remember. My perfect enemy.”


“You are, Nut. I could never best you in a duel.” Secundus’ half-smile changed to a broad, toothy grin that almost went from ear to ear. “We used to fight for hours. I never did find a way to pierce your defenses. It used to infuriate me.”

“You have something I lack, and that is magic. Bring magic to bear and you would best me with ease, Secundus. I fear I wouldn’t stand much chance against a wizard, as I have no means to defend myself from magic.”

“I think you sell yourself short, friend.” Still grinning, his eyes twinkling with merriment, Secundus spent a moment chuckling. “Do you still do that slide thing that you do?”

“Of course,” Nut replied without hesitation. “And no, I’ll not tell you how I do it.”

“It’s creepy, you know. Seeing you move like that. The fact that you are perfectly still, but sliding across the floor as if it were ice. And without the visible use of magic. It is quite unnatural and just thinking about it gives me the shivers.” The grin vanished and Secundus’ face grew stern. “How do you do it? I must know. Really, I must know.”

“Prepare to live with disappointment, Secundus.”

“I would duel you for it, Nut, but we both know it would end in a draw.” Leaning back into his cushion, Secundus sighed and for a moment, his good-natured mask broke. Sorrow was plainly visible on his face, but the breach was fast repaired. “We pay our debts sometimes.”

“Those words seem to have stuck in your mind,” Nut remarked.

“They give my life meaning,” Secundus replied. “Like it or not, you have a debt too.”

“Debt or no, I’m not telling you how I do The Slide.

Again, Secundus chuckled, but this time it sounded a bit strained. A curious merry intensity could be seen in his eyes, but this gregariousness was tempered by the taut muscles in Secondus’ jaw. “As a noble, you were born into debt, Nut. You, me, my brother, Primus, all of my siblings, we all have a debt. We are the best that Equestria has to offer… but unlike the poor and the working class, you and I, we have ways and means, Nut. We’re born into a life of power and privilege. We owe them, Nut. That is our debt. We owe them the very best of ourselves that we have to offer. Every resource has been made available to us, given to us because of the circumstances of our birth, and so we owe. We pay our debts sometimes.”

Nut, who had already convinced himself of this long ago, did not disagree. In fact, he wondered if his sentiment had spread to Secundus. He’d certainly infected Pod’s thinking. With his front hooves resting upon the arms of his chair, he studied his old friend, and thought of happier, more carefree days. They’d been chums. Playmates. Almost brothers… but then came the day of graduation, and life pulled them in two very different directions.

Secundus chose the life of an officer, and Nut pursued biology.

“Zebrabwe, Nut. Zebrabwe. I’ll be posted at the Equestrian Embassy and Bureau of Foreign Affairs to work as a peacekeeper. I’ll be protecting our allies and our interests.” He heaved a sigh and the merriment departed from his eyes. “They’re forming a joint peacekeeping force. A union of nations. Mustangia, Griffonstone, Equestria, Zebrabwe… others are invited to join as well. What’s left of the Abyssinian army will join our ranks. This is something spectacular, Nut, something new. Nothing quite like this has ever been done before. Our loyalty will not be to our respective nations, but to each other and the peace we hope to keep. No one involved knows how this will turn out. Best of the best, Nut. That’s what they asked for. Princess Celestia offered them me, and a number of others.”

Unsure of what to say, Nut maintained his silence.

“Saddle Arabia might still join, but they are hesitant. They want their soldiers loyal to them and them only, not some vague ideal of unity and harmony.” Tapping his front hooves together, Secundus’ brows bunched together and thin creases could be seen in the corners of his eyes. “My father is unhappy.” He paused. “No, my father is more than unhappy. I’d almost say he is furious. He doesn’t want me doing this. Keeps telling me that Equestria must come first, that we should be the priority. Right now, he and I aren’t on speaking terms.”

“I’m sorry, Secundus.”

“We pay our debts sometimes.”

This time, the words were strangely haunting and stuck into Nut’s brain like a sliver.

“I must confess, Nut… this isn’t the way I thought things would turn out. Call me sentimental, or even foolish, but I did so hope that you and I would remain together. Like brothers. We grew up together. Played with the same toys. Went to school together and we were educated together. Pod played doctor with both of us. We had such trust… such a bond. I was counting on that… hoping for it. I wanted to build my life and my career around it. But you… you didn’t want to be a soldier… or even a diplomat. You went off in a direction where there was no conceivable way to keep us together. Now I face this future of mine all alone. I had such hopes and dreams, Nut. Together, we could have done great things. Like brothers.”

Even though he very much wanted to say something, Nut found that he could not.

The tea parlour was suddenly too small a room, too claustrophobic, too confined. Nut felt like he needed space, something wide open, without walls or ceilings. What this meant for their friendship remained unknown, but Nut was aware that some friendships never survived beyond graduation. Ponies grew up and then moved on with their adult lives, which sometimes took them in unexpected or otherwise different directions. Secundus, it seemed, had planned for a life together, while Nut made plans only for himself.

Guilt felt like a debt waiting to be paid.

He could feel his innards clenching. What was he doing with his life? While he was turning a wrench to pay for university and struggling to survive, to make a point, his foalhood friend was about to go off to war. Off to make history. It stung a little. Secundus was about to earn a spot in the history books. Meanwhile, Nut found himself struggling to scrape up enough coins to buy ale and chowder. What of his priorities? Secundus was about to go off and live a life of service, while Nut struggled to prove the validity of an ideal.

To what end?

“Pod wasn’t the same after you left, Nut. She kept saying that you’d come around, surely you’d come around, you just needed more time.” Secundus’ voice grew husky. “She kept telling all of us that you’d come to your senses eventually, and that her patience would be rewarded. Then, you left for university. In the middle of the night. Off you went, and you left us all behind. Not even a goodbye, Nut. Can I ask why?”

“You can ask, sure,” Nut replied.

“Nut… I feel like I’m owed an answer. You might not tell me how you do that slide of yours, and that’s fine… but you owe me. You scarpered off in the middle of the night. With only what you could fit into a suitcase. Why?”

We pay our debts sometimes, Nut thought to himself.

Annoyed, frustrated, his lip curled back into a sneer. This lasted for only but a second, and Nut’s hard shell of composure was quickly restored. He stared at a window of illusion, unable to look his friend in the eye, and wondered what he should say. If anything should be said at all. Something inside ached, and it felt a bit like betrayal. Pod had told him that she was fine with everything, that everything was good between them, and that he had nothing to worry about.

Then, he realised, what right did he have to feel betrayed?

He was the one that had broke off their betrothal.

Which rather made him the betrayer, and not the betrayee.

“How is it, Nut, that you can look so alone in a room full of ponies?” Secundus asked. “I’ve never understood that. When we were together, no matter how close we were, even piled up on a couch in the most compromising of positions, you somehow managed to seem alone. Apart. Even touching, there was a distance that could never be overcome.”

“Secundus, I am sorry.”

“When we served as pages in the castle, you were hardly ever seen. It was like you were invisible—”

“I was trained to remain unnoticed, unseen.”

“Don’t make excuses, Nut. That might work on the common idiot, but that won’t fly with me. I was trained to notice the unnoticeable. You and I, we’re phantoms. Ghosts. Spectres. We’d make damn fine burglars, you and I.”

With his eyes on the illusionary window, Nut sighed.

“I am about to be shipped off, Nut. The opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. You came home. And I came here for some answers. Some closure. Are you really going to let me go away not knowing?”

He thought of what his mother had said just a few hours ago, about his life being like having excellent credit and taking on a loan. About money up front and payments over time. He’d told her that sometimes ponies skip out on their loan payments. But not you, Nut, she had told him, followed by her mentioning that she couldn’t stand his irrationality over all of this.

Something about the sudden flash of anger felt noodly, though Nut could not say how or why. He kept it buried though, so the world wouldn’t have to see nor know about it. Anger was the enemy and above all else, he would remain passive. He was a sheathed sword. Which, he felt, was his problem. His debt. A terrible birthright that he’d never asked for. An inheritance of ill-fortune, from the bitch godmother, Destiny. Secundus reveled in his gift for violence. Every weapon was his friend. Why, even Secundus’ mark reflected this, a sword, a morningstar mace, and an axe, the trifecta of weapons.

A borne assassin.

Gifted with artistic violence.

A sword made perfect, honed, and ready to draw blood.

Only to remain sheathed.

Outright rejection as a foal, feared, mistrusted.

Yet, as a young adult, all of the whispers that he could do more.

He could do great things.

How terrible those great things would be.

Those who feared him as foal were now disappointed with him for not doing more.

For not serving country.

To remain in his sheath was the greatest of sins.

After taking a deep breath, he said to his foalhood friend, “I do apologise—”

“So that’s it then?” Secundus sat there, blinking, incredulous.

Nut nodded.

“If I thought I could survive it, I’d cave your skull in.”

His eyes never left the window, but his muscles all went taut. Nut knew his friend was angry—but surely it wouldn’t come to violence. Secundus was a force to be reckoned with, and a skilled wizard as well. The lesson taught to him by his beloved professor was still fresh in his mind, a painful lesson that now felt far too relevant. Never take what you cannot possibly give back. That was a debt too. He waited, fearful that this could go all kinds of wrong. But his eyes never left the window, because the sight of his friend would be too painful to bear.

“Goodbye, Nut. I had so hoped that our friendship would survive beyond foalhood, but this does not seem to be the case. Keep your secrets. Withhold yourself. I spent all that time telling Pod that she had to move on, and now it seems that I must follow my own advice. Farewell.”

With a swift, fluid motion, Secundus fled the room—and then was gone.

Ideological differences

View Online

Tears rolled down Nut’s cheeks like raindrops down a windowpane. He really wanted a drink, but couldn’t face the accusations. Surely, his mother would say something, he would offer up some denial, and then the situation would grow complicated. So it was better to suffer in silence, to endure, and to give no outward indicators that anything was wrong. Even though right now, everything felt wrong. At least, nothing felt right.

Why hadn’t he said something?

He couldn’t face himself for answers.

When he’d left home to go to school, he had snuck off in the middle of the night. With no warning. No goodbye. He didn’t wish to give his family and friends a chance to try and talk him out of it, for surely they would. Which would only make things harder. Peer pressure made everything worse, and Nut didn’t like the jittery sensation of confrontation, at least not with those close to him. They would not have fought fair; there would have been guilt, emotional blackmail. Unreasonable behaviour. Irrational, illogical emotional entanglements, very much what was happening right now.

Black Maple too, pushed him to feel things and excited his passions.

Perhaps he’d leave tonight; there was a midnight flight to Vanhoover.

Gestalt’s study was crammed full of clocks and other fantastical clockwork contraptions. It was a dizzying place, disorienting, a real shock to the senses. But it was not a place of chaos, far from it. The study was a shrine to mechanical perfection, with a great many tiny parts that made satisfying wholes. There was even an orrery that maintained celestial precision and accuracy, a device no doubt worth more than the entire economies of multiple developing nations.

But nothing in the study held more fascination than Gestalt.

The ancient, wizened unicorn had his muzzle in a book when Nut entered, unannounced. Why, Nut didn’t even knock. With great hesitation, he slipped through the elliptical-shaped doorway and into the study. Silent, he navigated the maze of tables, chairs, desks, shelves, display columns, and other randomly-placed furniture, until at last he reached a seat in the corner. The same seat he always sat in when he visited Gestalt’s study.

The book was titled, The Virtue of Rude Attitudes: A Defense of the Oppugnant Pegasus. And what a book it was; hardbound, dark, subtle hues that were suitable for display in any study, and a solid two-inches thick. Naturally, Nut found the book of particular interest, and he considered filching it when Gestalt wasn’t paying attention.

When Nut sat down, something quite unexpected happened: there was a high pitched squeal, a lingering, overlong flatulent sound, and as the vulgar, unwanted trombonification continued, an embarrassed Nut squirmed in his seat. It was perfectly awful, and could not have come at a worse time, as he was in no mood for such juvenile, puerile toilet humour.

Without even lifting his head from his book, Gestalt said, “Really, something must be done about Taffy. Somepony needs to prank that filly, but none of us who live here are up for such a task. Positively dreadful.”


“She’s a menace, that Taffy.”

“Oh, without a doubt.”

“So, Nut. What brings you to my study?”

Much to his own annoyance, Nut did not answer right away. He thought about spilling his guts and telling his grandfather everything that had just taken place—but he didn’t. There was a lot to talk about, such as the fact that Nut knew an oppugnant pegasus—however, he lacked the courage to give voice to this subject. There was a long list of his own shortcomings that could be mentioned, discussed in detail, and perhaps some of them might even be sorted out—except the very idea of dragging all of his shortcomings out into the light left him feeling quite unhinged.

Almost panicky, even.

“Miss Blossom had a panic attack,” Nut said at last.

“Is that so?”

“That is, indeed, so.”

“Quite… quite.” Gestalt slipped a ribbon marker into his book, closed it with a muffled, muted thump, and then set it down upon his desk. He rested one foreleg upon it, leaned forward just a little, and turned his attention upon a kinetic whirligig clock of mind-boggling complexity. “Well, I must say, I am a bit disappointed.”


“Well, I had hoped that you had finally come to talk to me about you yourself.”

Now thoroughly unnerved, Nut responded, “The less said about me, the better.”

With a turn of his head, Gestalt focused his wizened stare upon Nut and peered out from beneath his bushy, overgrown eyebrows. His nostrils flared for a moment, there was a twitch from his saggy left ear, and the hoof that rested upon the book trembled. “Clove was quite upset, Nut. And not about your wordplay.”

“Oh, I can’t imagine why.” Unable to bear his grandfather’s scruinous gaze, Nut turned his eyes elsewhere; why, he had a whole room full of distractions. If Gestalt wanted ponies to pay attention, then perhaps he should free his study from all the visual clutter. “Should I ever want help for myself, I’ll ask for it. I came here for Miss Blossom’s benefit.”

“And I suppose you do not wish to mention what happened with you and Secundus.”

No longer able to ignore his grandfather, Nut gave his wrinkled ancestor his full attention. “Eavesdropping? Really?”

Gestalt offered up a shrug, but no apology.

“You know, a complete and total lack of privacy is enough to drive a pony to Vanhoover.”

“But that’s not the reason you left, so let’s not pretend that it is. Can we stop dancing around the issue and creating inventive excuses?” When Gestalt scowled, wrinkles threatened to completely consume his face. “Just what are you doing with that nice filly, anyhow? You’ve run from every responsibility that crosses your field of vision.”

Rather than dispute the truthfulness of that statement, Nut chose to remain silent.

“You’ve run from your inheritance, Nut. Every obligation. Pod had her heart broken. You were given a great gift, you were graced with extraordinary schooling, the sort of education that most ponies could only dream about, and now, from what I understand, you’re turning a wrench in a garage in Vanhoover. When you’re not slumming about, you spend a few paltry hours looking after your continued education. You were given a perfect future, which you’ve cast aside, and for what, exactly?”

Gestalt’s voice dropped to a low, rough whisper.

“And now there’s the filly, Nut. What made you get involved? I have to wonder, will you get cold hooves and buck this responsibility too?”

With this becoming more about himself and less about his apprentice and her panic attack, Nut pondered the possibility of escape. He could walk away from this. Much to his own dismay, he regretted his return home. Perhaps things might not have been perfect, but surely he could have survived by his own means with Miss Blossom. Maybe he’d panicked and called for help too soon. Seeking out help or assistance in the future seemed unlikely—the cost was a bit too dear for him to bear.

“Nut… a commoner might become a noble. It happens. And after a generation or two, the new bloodline adapts and they become like us.” He tapped on his book twice, shifted a bit in his seat, and then went still. “But for that commoner that begins the new bloodline, they are never truly like us. The reverse is also true, Nut. You are a noble. You cannot become a commoner. There is no way that you could ever handicap yourself or take away your advantages. You are what you are. Hating the circumstances of your birth does you no good, Nut.”

The words stung more than a little, because Nut knew they were true.

“In your rush to prove yourself, you are squandering everything you’ve been given. I’ve heard you complain about lax, lazy nobles, ponies born into great privilege that do nothing. We all remember your tirade about empty-headed socialites being the bane of Canterlot. How are you any different, Nut? You strive and you struggle, but what are you doing with what you’ve been given, exactly? Think about what you are doing now and compare it with what you could be doing. How are you any better than the leisurely Canterlot socialites that you’ve lambasted with such terrible ferocity?”

“Unlike the overfed, fat, overly indulgent socialites that waste perfectly good air here in Canterlot, I know what it means to struggle. No, I will never know what it means to be a commoner, but I know what it means to struggle. There is beauty in it, Grandfather. In the worst moments of struggle, there is a nobility, a dignity that is only known as one survives day to day.”

Now, it seemed, it was Gestalt’s turn to remain silent.

“You… you have no idea of the courageous goodness I’ve seen, Grandfather. Union workers who consider and weigh the benefits of a strike… who wrestle with the weighty burden of the greater good, doing what is necessary not only for their own future, but also their fellow workers, even if it means that their foals go hungry because of the strike. We ponies of Canterlot never face the consequences of our actions. We don’t suffer for what we do. What does being good cost us?”

“A lot more than you give credit, Nut.” The old unicorn shook his head as his eyebrows sagged, obscuring his eyes. “Doctor Sterling Shoe paid for his sense of goodness with his life. One life given for many. All of Canterlot mourns his death. It is my opinion that you are far too quick to judge.”

Arguing against this would be folly, and Nut could not think of a suitable response.

“Nut, I’ll not deny the union workers face a harsh lot. Allowing one’s foals to go hungry for the sake of one’s ideals… that is no easy thing to do. I suspect that many would sell out their own future and potentially their offspring's future just to sate the pangs of hunger. It’s shortsighted, but the immediate consequences are quite real and rather pressing, I would imagine.”

“And that’s my point, Grandfather. You have to imagine it.”

“So, I suspect that with your distressing boneyness, you are no stranger to hunger.”

“We’ve become familiar acquaintances.”

“So why not take your considerable influence and means, and all of the resources at your disposal, and do something about all of the hungry union workers?”

“Because I…” Nut’s words trailed off, and try as he might, he could not come up with a convincing reason.

“And that, Nut, is my point. Others suffer for your inaction. Good intentions and noble goals do nothing to fill empty bellies.”

With a sigh, Nut suffered a defeated deflation and air whooshed out of him in very much the same way it had from the whoopie cushion when he’d sat down.

“If those hungry foals were fed, those union workers could do more to secure their future. They might be secure enough to stand together in the face of adversity, their resolve, unyielding. Meanwhile, you’re turning a wrench in some greasy garage and contemplating every conceivable way that your noble birth had wronged you and robbed you of rich experience.”

“I yield,” Nut said, pained by his acknowledgement of his defeat.

But, it seemed that Gestalt was not yet finished.

“Your father, Nut, he has an obsession with two things: his tulips and Clove. As for your mother, the same can be said for her. She is thoroughly fixated on garlic and Bulb. This is the scope of their lives. Each of them has a career, a livelihood that exposes them to their obsession on a daily basis. They both derive a great deal of satisfaction from their work. It could be said that they’re both doing what they love, when they’re not busy doing one another.”

Upon hearing this, Nut suddenly felt sweaty and uncomfortable.

Lifting his hoof, Gestalt waved it around a bit as he continued, “It might be said that they live ideal states of existence. The equine ideal. They have a life’s work that is centered upon their obsession, the very thing that makes them who and what they are. They are free to indulge their passions, without restrictions or consequence.”

When he paused, Gestalt’s brows made a heroic effort to lift up and away from his eyes.

“You don’t have this luxury, Nut. If you did, there’d be more bodies than we know what to do with. We’d have to stack them up like cordwood. You do not get to indulge your passions, but rather, you must restrain yourself from it. Your misfortune is that you do not get to take satisfaction in the very thing that defines you and makes you who and what you are.”

The old unicorn pointed at the younger with his hoof while affixing him with a stern, all-knowing gaze. “Secundus gets off on violence. Make no mistake. It is very much like an addictive drug to him. I’ve seen it. He gets drunk on violence and the power that comes with it. The sooner we have him away from polite, civilised society, the better—”

“Grandfather, that is an awful thing to say!”

“Just because something is awful doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. Sometimes. Sometimes, a thing has to be said. Doubly so when you are trying to illustrate a point.” Gestalt’s eyebrows raised themselves a little higher, enough so that his eyes were almost completely visible. “What satisfaction do you take from life, Nut? You cannot indulge in your talent. So where do you take pleasure?”

Nut squirmed in his chair as if he’d sat upon a lit match.

Every wrinkle on Gestalt’s face writhed as he leaned forward to scrutinise his grandson. “I trust you more than I do Secundus. You show some restraint. The Sisters trust you more than Secundus. Sure, nothing has been explicitly said, but you get to live your life among civilised ponies while Secundus is about to be sent to a place of grave danger. He’ll get a chance to be happy, to fulfill his purpose, and others will benefit from his gift.”

Eyes wide, Nut stared at his grandfather.

“But what of you, Nut? At some point, all this floundering must end.”

“Honestly,” Nut replied, “I don’t know.”

“For Secundus, it is the fight.” Now with a frown, Gestalt went on, “For you, it is what ends the fight. That is a unique thing to be gifted at—”

“I resent that,” Nut blurted out. “I resent that and everything about it. Calling my talent unique. Saying that it is special. It isn’t!” Aware that he’d raised his voice, Nut reasserted his calm quietness before he kept going. “There is nothing special about what I do. Anything that I can do, a wizard can do better. A well-placed fireball or a cloud of toxic gas could kill a crowd faster than I could. All this time spent clapping me on the back about the greatness of what I can do and how precious my gift is, the value of my talent. It’s all lies. Fallacy. Pretty words to smooth over my injured ego and to lift my self-esteem. Well, let me tell you, it doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. Everything is just meaningless flattery.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Gestalt mmm-hmmed in the most annoying sort of way that a pony could mmm-hmm.

“What?” Alarmed somewhat by his grandfather’s non-verbal communication, Nut worried that the wily old unicorn knew something that Nut himself did not know. Off to his left, a mechanical clock struck the time by releasing two unicorns from out of their hidden stalls. They danced and pranced, twirling and whirling, until at last they met in the middle, and kissed.

Nut absolutely failed to be distracted by the whimsical display.

“A wizard can only cast so many spells, Nut. They get tired. Fast. They need prodigious quantities of food and extensive periods of rest between casting.” The smile on Gestalt’s face was a smug one, the sort of grin one has when one was thoroughly convinced of their own superiourity. “Once a wizard is out of spells, they cease to be an asset and instead become a liability. They’re squishy and ever-so-easy to cut down.”

“What is your point?” Nut demanded.

Gestalt’s response, a chuckle, was disturbing.

“Really, I must insist. If you have a point, say it now, or else I’ll be leaving.”

“Long after the wizard tires, you’ll still be going.” The old pony’s voice was a creaky whisper, and there was a vaguely demented pride to his words. “You have the stamina to go for hours. Long after the wizard runs out of fireballs, you will continue your unceasing assaults. For as long as it takes. Princess Luna has made sure of that.”

Completely unnerved now, Nut cast his sullen stare upon his grandfather.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Nut.

“Perhaps you should ask Princess Luna about that.” Gestalt leaned back in his chair and relaxed a little, which meant that his eyebrows returned to their usual position, obscuring most of his eyes. “You’ll have a chance tonight, when we go to the fundraising gala. It is time for certain truths to be made known to you. I think that you have the maturity, even if you are a stubborn ass.”

Irked, his ire aroused, Nut did his best not to show it. Rather, he said, “This is infuriating. I’m going to go cool off somewhere. I came here for help… because Miss Blossom had a panic attack… and instead, there is all of this nonsense. Is it any wonder that I left home? It was you lot that drove me away. Go back to your book, Gestalt. I’ll not trouble you a moment longer.”

While Nut left the room, his grandfather re-opened his book so that he might read…

Much to Nut’s surprise, he found the kitchen empty. In a moment of total honesty with himself, he admitted that he didn’t know what the domestic staff did, or their schedules. They were, for the most part, just ponies that he occasionally bumped into as he traversed the tower. These domestic servants were omnipresent and seemed to appear like magic when there was a mess or something in need of doing.

But an empty kitchen was just what he needed. A moment alone to clear his head. Just as he had feared, coming home meant facing the music, as the old expression went, and he was entirely unprepared for all that had transpired. At least Caliginous Dark was supportive. While Nut knew that his family loved him, and would be there for him, he wished that they understood.

The fridge was not electrical, but magic. A literal ice box. How old it might be was debatable, but it had to be centuries old by now, and the various magical matrices continued to function. As Nut stood before the ancient ice box, he found himself thinking of what it might be worth. It had to be worth millions of bits. The creation of such an artifact held such great cost, at least at the time of its creation, and such a thing could only grow in value.

Like so many other things in this tower, it was something that he and his family took for granted. Not only did it keep food cold, but the dimensional pocket altered time as well, slowing it a great deal, and this was just one of many clever tricks that prevented food spoilage. There might very well be food in the fridge that was hundreds of years old—and still edible.

The water that poured from the faucets was all conjured, magicked from somewhere, and Nut wasn’t even sure of the source. Water couldn’t just be created, but it could be conjured. It might come from the waterfall in Central Canterlot, or it might be connected through an interdimensional bypass to some unknown aqueduct. So long as it continued to function, nopony really cared about where the water came from.

Meanwhile, the water that came from the faucets in Vanhoover could only be described as vile sludge. When boiled, it became marginally safer to drink, but still tasted indescribably terrible. Collecting the rainwater was no better, because what came from the clouds happened to be acid rain. The water situation in Vanhoover was especially infuriating to Nut, because he knew it was an issue that could be fixed—it would just be costly. Who would pay for it was the big question that no one could answer.

But here in Canterlot, the old money, old families, they never had to worry about such things as clean water. Life was insulated from actual living. Nut knew that his family would never want for anything. They were so far removed from the struggle for survival that it could be said that they lived in their own little isolated pocket of reality. Why, they even had electricity, but Nut wasn’t sure where it came from. He doubted it came from an outside source—it was just there. Available. Without worry or concern. Probably without cost or expense. Meanwhile, the poor struggled to keep the lights on.

With a hard yank, he pulled the ice box door open and thought about milk. There was a clank of glass bottles, muffled thuds, more clinks and clunks as everything rearranged itself, and after a moment of patient waiting, the milk presented itself. A tall glass bottle with a shiny steel cap. No doubt delivered by the milk pegasus just this morning—or perhaps a few years ago, not that it mattered. Milk delivery to this part of Canterlot was made difficult by the excruciatingly narrow streets, so most deliveries were done by fliers. Sure, there happened to be magical teleportation, but everypony agreed it was better for the economy to pay delivery workers—it was charitable and smart.

Nut hated everything about life here, but the artificiality of it most of all.

He pulled out the milk, placed it on the counter, and then shut the ice box door behind him. A foul temper had overtaken him, and he was quite disgusted by everything, just everything. When he slipped into the pantry, he suffered a moment of disorientation, because everything had been moved around. How annoying it was to come home and find things not as one remembered them. His eyes scanned the shelves, he peered through his monocle as he sought what he wanted, which was malt.

A malted milk would make things better.

Spotting the cookie jar, he snatched it, levitated it down, lifted the lid, and sniffed. Oatmeal and garlic. Of course. Not that his mother had baked these—no, she could not be bothered to be domestic, as she was far too busy—but his mother made her preferences known. Savoury oatmeal cookies were a staple. This went on the counter, right next to the milk, and he continued his search for the malt, which he hoped he would find somewhere.

They did have malt, right?

Or did no one purchase it after he left home?

In his current state of upset, he needed malt to calm his stomach.

The vile hot belches were unbearable.

Up and down, left and right, he searched the shelves for the canister of malt that surely had to be there somewhere. He wasn’t about to walk to the pharmacy for a glass of malted milk. As his search became more frantic, he lifted things from the shelves so that he might have a look behind them. There were all manner of strange things to be found, peculiar items, and he suspected that Taffy was the pony responsible for introducing new things to the pantry.

Then, much to his relief, he found the tin of malt. It was old, a bit dusty, but it would have to do. He found it behind the rice wafers and the tinfoil packets of instant soup. Why they had instant soup was a total mystery to Nut, but he rather liked to see it in the pantry. Sometimes, one wanted soup, and one didn’t want to wait.

With his malt held overhead in triumph, Nut backed out of the pantry, turned himself about, and pulled open the drawer next to the stove for a spoon—only to find this drawer had no spoons. Why, it had no tableware at all. All his life, the spoons could be found in this drawer, but he’d left home, returned, and now the spoons were elsewhere. Who would do such a nefarious act? Why change for the sake of change?

“Beardsplitting bedswerver!” he swore.

“Oh goodness! That’s lewd, yer Lordship!”

The sudden, unexpected sound of another voice caused him to slam the drawer shut. When he turned around, he saw a maid that he did not recognise. She was young, trembling, and terrified. Now, on top of everything else, he felt bad because he’d unwittingly disturbed the domestic help. She stood in the door, more than a little afraid, and kept her eyes cast downward at the floor.

“Might I help you find something, yer Lordship?”

“That depends,” he replied. “May I inquire your name?”

“You wish… to know my name?”

“Well, may I?” he asked.

“I’m a scullery maid. Only the Housekeeper and the Butler need know my name. That’s the hierarchy, yer Lordship.”

“I care not for such things.” Nut took off his monocle, slipped it into a pocket, and then did his best to be unassuming. “So then, scullery maid with no name, would you happen to know where the spoons are? They seemed to have moved to a different neighborhood.”

“Two drawers over, yer Lordship. ‘Twas the cook that did it. Should he be reprimanded?”

“Gracious, no.” Nut studied the maid for a moment longer and determined that she was on the verge of fleeing. “Would you care to join me for cookies and malted milk?”

“If there is something else that yer Lordship wants from me, it would be best if it were stated plainly.”

This caught Nut off guard and it took him a moment to construe what the maid was actually saying. It was then that he remembered that certain unscrupulous nobles took liberties with their domestic servants, and he thought of Vermillion, Caliginous Dark’s sole remaining maid. She’d stayed simply because Caliginous never tried to ‘jump her bones’ as she’d so colourfully phrased it.

More than ever, Nut felt ashamed of his birth, and his loathing became a palpable, physical sensation as his guts writhed like a nest of hibernating serpents. Hot bile left the back of his throat raw, and he struggled to contain his need to shudder from the bad taste of stomach acid. He wanted to apologise to the maid, or maybe even go over to try and comfort her, but doing such a thing would surely caused her to bolt.

Or faint.

That was a possibility.

“I just wanted to be kind,” he said as he tried to explain himself.

“Many Lords believe themselves kind and generous as they huff and puff in one’s ear,” the maid replied. “Real givers, those types. And that’s how you end up with foals born on the wrong side of sheets. Forgive me for stating it so plainly.”

“There is nothing to forgive, it is something that should be said.” As Nut spoke, he watched as the young maid relaxed a bit, but she remained ready to bolt. “I just wanted to know your name, and to maybe have you join me for cookies and milk. Nothing else. No hidden motives.”

“I’m new here,” the maid replied. “Lost my last job ‘cause I refused the Lord’s son. I’m here on a probationary basis.”

“Oh, that is absurd.” Nut rolled his eyes and felt the need to do more, to have a stronger reaction. “Did you explain why you lost your previous position of employment?”

“No, yer Lordship, I did not.”

More bile flooded into Nut’s throat, and it took all of his willpower to not grimace. He feared that he might scare the maid if he did. “Mrs. Cream, the Housekeeper, I assure you, she will be understanding. If you explain your circumstances, your probation period will end and that will be one less thing for you to worry about. That black mark on your record shouldn’t exist.”

“My name is Sticky Toffee, yer Lordship.”

“Oh, that is delightful.” Even though it felt as though his throat was dissolving, he smiled his best smile and did his level best to be charming. “Care to join me for malted milk and cookies, Miss Toffee?”

“I’d be happy to prepare that for you, yer Lordship.”

“I am more than capable of doing so myself,” he told her. “Are you treated well here?”

“Shockingly so, yer Lordship. My room and board isn’t subtracted from my pay. I have a lovely room all to myself. Which is why I wish to keep my position here. I’m a cook… a good one too, but the hierarchy demands that I work my way up.” Sticky’s face brightened a bit, almost like the sun peeking out from behind sullen thunderheads. “Do you really think that Mrs. Cream will scrub the mark off my record?”

“I’m positive,” Nut replied. “Absolutely positive. Not that it matters. Most of our domestic staff remain as lifers. I know Mrs. Cream did after she married. We even have apartments for that very purpose.”

“So I’ve seen, yer Lordship. Seemed almost too good to be true, when I saw it. ”

Now in dire need of something to calm his stomach, Nut turned about, pulled open the right drawer, and found a collection of silver spoons. Not the good silver, which was kept in a locked cupboard, but the common silver, the tableware meant for moments just like this one, when one needed a spoon to stir with.

With Sticky Toffee still firmly rooted in the doorway, Nut fetched not one, but two glasses, and he put these down on the counter. Always a contrarian, he put the malt into the glasses first, rather than the milk. No sparing spoonfuls, either, but several great big heaping spoonfuls, a celebration of excess. When he unscrewed the steel lid from the glass bottle of milk, the heard the muted sounds of hooves against the smooth tile of the kitchen floor.

“You’re not like the others, yer Lordship. I mean, everypony here is nice, don’t get me wrong, I would never be insulting. But you are different.”

“I make it a point to be,” he replied as he poured some milk into each glass.

When he stirred, the spoon clanged against the glass in a soothing, comforting way.


As the spoon went round and round, it clanged, and the milk grew frothy. He was almost salivating now, and his anticipation of sweet relief was almost as good at the sweet relief of malted milk itself. Whilst he stirred, he thought of Black Maple, and of all the glasses of malted milk she’d made just for him. Something about her technique perhaps, but she did something that made them extraordinary.

“They talk about you, you know,” Sticky Toffee said to Nut.

“Do they now?” he replied as he pulled the spoon from one glass so that he might stir the other.

“Your father most of all. He seems very proud of you, whatever it is that you’re doing.”

“Is that so?” With a turn of his head, Nut was able to see Sticky Toffee in the corner of his vision. “Well, that is certainly unexpected.”

“What is it that you’re doing, if I might ask?”

This gave Nut pause; what was he doing?

Try as he might, he could not think of an answer.

At last, like-minded companionship

View Online

The shower was a torrential tropical cloudburst, a monsoon with stifling, breath-stealing humidity. A fine mist drizzled down from the ceiling, while powerful floor jets hit all of the right places. Side-mounted nozzles did a spectacular job of blasting the tension from his muscles. Nut had missed this. It pained him to admit it, but this shower left behind a feeling of cleanliness that common showers could not match.

It was the second time this day he stood in this very shower.

Today was not turning out to be his day. His return home left him with mixed feelings. As much as he loved his family, he resented them a great deal right now. But, he loved them, and if the truth were to be told, he did miss them. Even a bad moment spent with family was better than no moment at all. He wished there was some way to reach them, some way to spill the contents of his mind into theirs so that they might see things his way. Understand his motivations. Maybe even appreciate what he was doing. Was that too much to ask?

Neverending hot water was a glorious luxury; he hated that he liked it.

‘Twas a simple luxury, just hot water. Here, in this place he once called home, it had no meaning. It was just something that was there. Always. But in Vanhoover, water was expensive, and so was heating it. To make water hot required coal, wood, or electricity. A water tank only held so much water; a long shower might empty it and then it would take time before it filled, and was hot again. Though, in Nut’s experience, many water heaters only warmed the water.

“Is there room in there for two?”

Nut peeled his eyes open, blinked once, then twice, and then squinted at Pod through the fogged-over glass door. “Pod, you’re betrothed.”

“Well, ‘tis true. Shall I get Taffy and see if the three of us might fit? I’m confident that we will.”

This… this was not the response that Nut was expecting, not at all.


“Tater told me about Black Maple, Nut. She had much to say.”

“Pod…” Nut closed his eyes and his head came to rest against the fogged-over glass door.

“If Taffy and I could wiggle our way into there with you, we could give you advice, Nut. Perhaps tell you what you need to hear. You seem troubled, and I’m worried. Let’s be honest, shall we? I still love you. But I’ve also grown. I love Taffy. Like, I love Taffy in a ridiculous way that I did not believe possible. Being in love with her, I’ve had to overcome a few things. I still love you, Nut. I love you so much… that I want you to be happy, even if it isn’t with me. For surely you would want the same for me… which, I suppose, is the reason I am with Taffy. There’s a lot to sort out, I’ll admit.”

The tropical deluge continued, unabated.

When the glass door opened, he almost fell over. His eyes fluttered open just as he was shoved aside, and Pod boldly strode into the shower with him. She’d done this when they were younger, and showers were a time of playful exploration—though a line was never crossed. Sometimes, when he was troubled, she’d come into the shower, just as she had right now, and they would talk. Sometimes for hours, until they were wrinkly and stewed.

“It’s a bit hot, Nut,” she remarked as she body-bumped him out of the way so that she could close the door.

He backed into a curved corner and then sat down upon the hot tiles. A drenching downpour soaked his head, and when Pod sat down, she too, was quickly saturated. When wet, Pod was a much darker green, and there was something appealing about her. She had matured quite a bit in the past year, but Nut had a hard time seeing it due to his farsighted nature.

“Are you going to tear me apart as well?” he asked. “Gestalt did it. Clove has done it. Oh, and Secundus. Secundus most of all.”

“Nut… my self-absorbed friend… it’s time you learn the truth.”

“That I’m a terrible pony?”

She scowled. “It bothers me that you think that. Nut, your goodness changed me. Changed my thinking. You… you challenged me. Broadened my horizons. You greatly disturbed my world view and now, my life is topsy-turvy, and it is all because of you.”

“Should I apologise?” he asked.

Pod sighed, and then leaned over a little to soak her ears. “Nut… Secundus adored you. He loved you, Nut, and not like a brother.”


“Secundus was a sword and a sheath, Nut. He carried a torch for you. I got him roaring drunk, Nut. Well, I was too. It was just after you left. We got soused. And Secundus, he poured his heart out. He loved us both, Nut. As a couple. He wanted to be with us. With me. With you. And he felt this way for a very long time. At a young age, he figured out that you didn’t like him that way… but he had hopes of getting with you with me in the middle. To hear him tell it, it was quite romantic, and not the typical adolescent threesome fantasy.”

“I had no idea…”

“Well, Nut… you do tend to be a bit self-absorbed. But that’s fine. Nothing to be ashamed of. That is, after all, part of your charm. It is why we love you. Well, it is the reason why I love you, and apparently, Secundus found it quite endearing as well. Until you left… after you left, it became something that he rather hated about you. Feelings change, I suppose.”

Nothing about any of this made Nut feel better about himself.

“I guess Secundus saying goodbye didn’t go so well,” Pod said as water poured down her dark green hide. “Not the pleasant farewell he no doubt hoped for.”

The circumstances of Secundus’ departure now made more sense, as well as Secundus’ emotion. This, of course, made Nut feel awful, and almost as if on cue, his stomach sent a warning shot of hot bile rocketing up his throat. The taste, though terrible, now somehow felt deserved—this was punishment and he had it coming.

“So… Tater told us about Black Maple. Taffy and I interrogated her thoroughly, though it didn’t take much. Poor dear is starved for intelligent conversation. She’s smart, Nut. Scarily so. She’s willful, thoughtful, forthright, a little sarcastic, and in desperate need of nurturing. During a private moment, Taffy told me that Tater is emotionally stunted, Nut. At least, Taffy believes so. Her growth and development seems retarded a bit. Which makes sense, and I agree with Taffy. Tater has been held back.”

“She wasn’t allowed to grow or develop,” Nut replied, sullen and out of sorts. “Her intelligence was treated as a handicap, I believe. A liability. A detriment.”

“Oh, bother and blast,” Pod swore.

In a moment of wet, naked vulnerability, Nut leaned on Pod, and allowed his weight to rest against her. Her touch filled him with confusing, uncomfortable emotions, and if the truth were told, even a bit of desire. But he didn’t care. He felt her rubbing the contoured angle of her delicate jaw against his windpipe, and the sharp, pointy tip of her horn grazed his cheek.

“Do you like Black Maple?” asked Pod.

To which Nut replied, “I don’t know. It’s confusing. There are moments when I hate her. But there are also moments when I admire her. She’s smart, Pod. As smart as any Canterlot pony… and for a time, that threw me off. It shook up my world view. Ponies from Canterlot were supposed to be the best and brightest. But, I suppose that is why I left home. To find the truth, one must boldly go forth and seek it.”

“What did you find, Nut?”

“I found ponies so locked into the struggle of basic survival that the struggle to do good was largely irrelevant. And yet, for some of them, there is something to be said for their simple goodness. Black Maple… she is a force for stability and control. A harmonious bulwark for the community.”

“She runs a brothel—”

“She commands a fortress that protects some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, keeps them safe, and holds back the gangs, pimps, drug peddlers, and criminal syndicates that would otherwise exploit them. Black Maple has remarkable altruism. There are moments when she is truly inspiring.”

Reaching out, Nut entwined his foreleg around Pod’s, and he clung to her.

“You’re boney, Nut. I don’t like it.”

“Near starvation is normal for many. Why should I be the exception?”

He felt her nuzzles grow a bit more aggressive and his conflicted sense of desire for her caused more acid to bubble in the back of his throat. She was hot—her soaked hide was almost as hot to the touch as the water itself. He imagined that all of her was hot right now and the thought caused him to feel more than a little feverish. But as always, he showed restraint. Having a go at her right here in the shower would only complicate things.

The closeness however, even if it did fan the flames of lust, was still pleasant, something he missed. It was a thing he longed for and now that he had it, he was aware of how much he missed it. How much he needed it. His mind recalled the sensation of cuddling up on the couch with Black Maple—and wished he’d done more to exploit the situation. Then, much to his dismay, he thought of Secundus and all of his pleasant enjoyment turned bitter, like the bile that boiled the tender flesh of his throat.

“Being a Canterlot pony, our goodness costs us nothing,” Nut said to Pod. “We throw a party. Guests are invited. It becomes a contest to be charitable. All of that… it sickens me. It’s fraudulent. Fake. Then we do it again. We cling to our fad causes, and none of us ever suffer for our efforts, unless there’s food poisoning from some terrible caterer.”

He shuddered, overcome by the taste of bile.

“In Vanhoover where I live, the struggle to survive is such that, well, accomplishing anything good is an afterthought for most. You just sort of muddle through the day, survive the night, and then do it all again. There’s an expression… lather, rinse, repeat. So when something good is done, when some great act of charity is accomplished, or some act of altruism takes place, it means more. These ponies, Pod… they sacrifice. It costs them greatly to act beyond mere survival. I’ve walked the wards and the boroughs and I’ve seen with my own eyes some of the most impoverished ponies within this nation. If we are to be judged by the lives of the least of us, then we nobles are guilty. Condemned. We’ve failed.”

“Vanhoover threw off the noble yoke,” Pod replied. “They deposed their duly appointed ruler and then made a choice to live this way. Such is the cost of willful insolence. You should respect that.”

“I can’t.”

“But they did this to themselves. Brought this on themselves. They made a choice and now must live with the consequences.”

“Pod, if you saw them, if you knew them, you’d hold a different opinion..”

“So you’d throw the noble yoke back on them to save them from themselves?” she asked.

“I… I don’t know what I’d do,” was his naked, honest, vulnerable response. He pulled away from her, looked down, tilted her head back so that she’d look up at him, and as she squinted to keep the water out, he searched her eyes. “All manner of troubling implications are raised. Is it tyranny to do what is best for a pony? I mean, I bucked the system… would my parents be right to make me fall back into line? I would surely hate it. But this poverty, Pod, there are so many that do without. Surely something can be done to help them… for their own good. This stays on my mind, Pod, and it eats at my insides.”

After one last glimpse into the windows of her soul, he let her go, and she angled her head so the water wasn’t flowing into her eyes. He knew her well enough to know that she was troubled, maybe even a little shook, and this felt a lot like victory after the woeful outcomes of previous encounters. But it was not a satisfying victory. It felt hollow and meaningless, because of one unpleasant truth.

For all of his intelligence, he had no idea how to solve things, how to fix them.

The solution to make things better eluded him. For all of his rebellion against the status quo, what few answers that presented themselves seemed to involve embracing his birthright. Which unnerved him. Left him unsettled. He thought about what his mother had said, about having a chit-chat with Princess Celestia, and getting him installed in a position of governance. It was so simple for his mother, who was so self-assured in her own position in life. She didn’t care that the city had declared itself a free state. To his mother, the solution was painfully obvious—restore a state of rule over the city.

What if his mother was right?

He thought of Hickory and became even more unsettled. The Widowwood held the right to rule as a religion, with royalty as divine providence and the nobles as Almighty Celestia’s messengers, the beings that had come down from up on high to do Her will. Hickory, in the midst of everything he had faith in coming undone, still believed in the word of a noble and the promise made upon a noble name. Which, if the truth were to be told, Nut found horrifying in the extreme.

“The world isn’t what we were raised to believe it is, Pod.”

“Well then, Nut, what is it?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet, and for daring to look past the clouds that separate us from the world below, I have been called out as a fool.”

“Mmm,” Pod mmmed as she resumed her drenched muzzle-nuzzles against his throat. “I’m not so sure, Nut. Twilight Sparkle was sent to the provincial backwater of Ponyville and she became a princess. Surely, some good will come of you going to the industrial wasteland of Vanhoover. Had Twilight stayed here in Canterlot, surely she would have become yet another vapid socialite, the sort that you detest. This is why I have thrown my fate in with Taffy, Nut. Her career will take her to the places where troubled, disadvantaged foals exist.”

Pod’s words relieved him far more than any tankard of ale or glass of malted milk.

“I think, Nut, the trick is you can’t do it alone,” Pod continued. “At least, that seems to be the lesson of Twilight Sparkle. Everything she needed for her success was found in Ponyville—and not Canterlot. I believe the same is true for you, Nut. That’s why you needed to leave… and sadly, the same is true for us, I think. You and I. Everything you need for your success is to be found in Vanhoover, with perhaps the exception of your apprentice. But Vanhoover is the place where you will find your Applejack, your Rainbow Dash, your Rarity, your Pinkie Pie, and your Fluttershy. Alone and by yourself, you’ll not accomplish much, but together, great things are possible.”

“It occurs to me that I don’t actually know some of those ponies you mentioned,” he said to her in a moment of painful, naked honesty.

“This is why you’re an idiot, Nut.”

“Thanks, Pod, you always know just what to say.”

“Oh, I know, no sense in wasting words to tell me that.” She chuckled, and then reached up to caress his neck with her foreleg. “While the Ponyville analogy works to some extent, I’m not so sure the Elements of Harmony apply to you and your endeavours. Maybe they do, but I would imagine that such a gritty city such as Vanhoover would require a wholly different set of Elements. A team of Elements applicable to the city and its environs. I have no idea what those might be, but I do imagine that it might be a bit of good fun to ponder what they might be.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Pod.”

“Taffy and I attended a public lecture,” she said as she continued to stroke his neck. “Twilight does a fair bit of public speaking. She said, during the lecture, that while it is very flattering that groups of friends attempt to emulate the Elements, she said that not every group of friends fits such well-defined roles. During her lecture, she said that there were other virtues, other positive aspects, and that we would all do well to embrace these wholesome aspects. She closed her lecture by saying that the Magic of Friendship is not restricted to the ebb and flow of the Elements of Harmony, and she made an analogy that the Elements of Harmony were but six colours in a whole box of colour crayons. It made Taffy cry.”

“So what I hear you saying is, I must recognise the good in ponies, or other creatures, and determine what makes them special. Identify their virtues.” Immediately, he thought of Black Maple, and how he’d left Tater Blossom with her. Black Maple had played possum when he’d returned, but she’d heard him coming when he was still down the hallway. This certainly presented the feisty pegasus in a new light. What was her virtue? In which way was she exceptional, and what made her stand out?

And that was but one of his many relationships, the friends he valued and adored.

“I think I’m ready to face the world again,” he announced.

“But I have not yet turned into a prune,” Pod replied.

“Well, perhaps a few minutes more then.”

“Yes, just a few minutes more. Of this. Just this. Me and you. Just like when we were young.”

Naked, not wearing a stitch, Nut stepped into his bedroom and found that it was populated. Taffy lay on his old bed, a book cradled in the crook of her forelegs, and his apprentice was examining his bookshelves. Tater Blossom looked quite different, and he almost didn’t recognise her. She’d had a trim; her mane was now cut into a short, smart, sensible bob, and the long hair along her broad neck was now close cropped. It was almost as if she’d been transformed into a Canterlot pony, but with a look of practical sensibility rather than sophistication.

“Miss Blossom, you look stunning.”

She turned around, a blush visible, and then her mannerism became coy as she shuffled in place. “Taffy talked me into it. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but then I remembered that manes grow back. So I done tried me something new and it’s great. I don’t look like a hayseed hick no more. It’s mighty kind of ya to say somethin’ nice ‘bout how I look.”

“Having been exposed to high society, Tater became rather fretful about her appearance,” Taffy said with her nose still stuck in her book. “I ensured that she was outfitted with sensible apparel. You may thank me at any time you deem apropos.”

Flustered without knowing why, Nut felt that now was the right time. “Thank you.”

“Yes, Pod wanted complicated, clothing that Tater had no hope of dressing on her own with.” Taffy lifted her head, inspected Nut for a short time, and then gave voice to her observations. “I don’t much like your boneyness, good sir. Laundry could be done upon those ribs, and a cuddle with you would be like snuggling up to a fuzzy sack of sticks. What are we to do with you?”

“Is it really that bad?” he asked, suddenly self-conscious of his appearance.

“Yes,” Pod, Tater, and Taffy all said together.

“Very well then.” Nut turned to face his wardrobe. “Perhaps it was for the best that I asked for financial assistance.”

“Nut, need I remind you that unicorns require excessive calories to fuel magic use?”

“No. No, you do not, Pod. I graduated magic kindergarten.” Turning his head around, he gave himself a once-over, and then stood there, frowning. It was a bit worse than he cared to admit, at least when he compared himself to three healthy, solid mares. He could see his spine, which he suspected was a bad thing. A year of rubbing elbows with the commoners had taken a toll.

“Even when there’s food, he doesn’t eat much,” Tater said.

“I see no point in stretching my stomach. It’s shrunk a bit, I suppose, which makes it easier to fill. At some point, I just learned to do without. It seemed normal.”

“Well, that’s horrid.” Taffy slipped in a bookmark, closed her book, turned to look at Nut, and scowled. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

“But it is that way. And I am almost positive that if you looked hard enough here in Canterlot, you’d find it here, as well.” Since he no longer wished to see himself, Nut swiveled his head around to look at his wardrobe. “It is a distressingly common problem.”

“There was always plenty of food at home,” Tater said as she shuffled in place.

“Really, I’d rather not talk about it.” Nut flung open the doors to his wardrobe, and squinted inside. “What did you acquire on your shopping excursion? Once I am dressed, I’d like to see it.”

Denim. Nut had mixed feelings about the fabric. It was no tweed, but it was tough and durable. Waxed denim even more so. The full body vest was lined in shearling, so it would be warm even if it were drenched and waterlogged. It was, indeed, practical and apparently stylish if it could be found in a Canterlot boutique. Denim was a peasant fabric, at least from Nut’s understanding. Meant for protective coveralls. Worn by miners and factory workers who worked in dreadful environments.

Now also worn by the fashionable Canterlot elite.

A bright canary-yellow rain slicker of rubberised canvas. It was a nice one, too, with strapped flaps that secured to the legs. The slicker had an oversized brimmed hood, which was a clever design. Canterlot was no stranger to rain, so the slicker could be trusted and relied upon. It was no mere fashionable accessory.

Tater said, “This spear…”

“That spear is Commander Hurricane’s spear,” Pod said to Tater while Nut kept up his inspection. “Well, one of his spears. Pegasus ponies favoured spears because they were simple weapons that could be easily gripped in the fetlocks and dropped upon enemies. The spear your looking at was given to Smart Cookie as part of a ceremonial surrender. Another spear was given to Princess Platinum. Though, nopony knows what happened to that one.”

“Nut has all these weapons.”

“Yes, Tater, and he is skilled with all of them.”

“What is that, exactly?”

“That is a sai. A diamond dog weapon from Inujima. Nut won the pair of them in a contest. No magic allowed, which meant no telekinesis. Nut chose a staff, a simple weapon. Easy for a pony to grip.”

Nut remembered that contest all too well. Every creature involved in that fight was rather surprised to see a unicorn enter, and none of them expected a unicorn skilled in a bipedal fighting stance. It was a proud moment for him, and a memory of a much happier time, a time when the world made a bit more sense. His talent served purpose—winning contests—and things weren’t so complicated. He longed for a return to those days.

The last item was a burro poncho made of heavy wool. A rather soft wool, which was a pleasant surprise. Or maybe not wool at all, Nut couldn’t tell. Bipedal creatures wore ponchos that hung down to cover their front and back, while quadrupedal creatures wore ponchos that hung down on the left and right. This had a hole off to one side, while a bipedal poncho had a hole placed right smack dab in the middle. It was a practical garment, though it was not considered fashionable.

All three items could all be worn together, which would offer near-immunity to foul weather.

Surrounded by those who believed in him, Nut recovered some of his confidence. Even if Pod and Taffy didn’t fully understand what he was doing—he himself didn’t fully understand what he was doing—they still found merit in his actions and stood with him. It was almost as if he’d been friends with Taffy the whole of his life, though he had only just met her. Peculiar as it was, there was a connection there that could not be denied, though that connection might very well be a shared love of Pod.

After a trying morning, a lazy late afternoon felt right.

Nut reclined in a chair with an enormous tumbler of malted milk, trying to nurse his soured stomach back to a non-volcanic state. He watched as Taffy showed Tater the phonograph, and he was pleased to observe his apprentice’s keen interest in hifi technology. As for Pod, she was cross stitching, one of her many hobbies that she maintained.

There was a faint, soft crackle as Taffy placed the arm down upon the record, and the warm, fuzzy sound of analogue technology filled the music room. Horns could be heard—a sound almost like an orchestra drawing breath—and then the woodwinds too, joined in. After a brief intro, a cello could be heard. Just brass, woodwinds, and a cello, a curious trio of sound.

“Rhapsody of Recovery,” Taffy said to Tater. “Octavia wrote this after the Battle for Manehattan. She says this music is her expression of the emotions she felt when every member of her family was safe and accounted for. You can read the short essay printed inside the album cover if you wish to know the meaning and history behind the song. The horns represent how, at last, she could breathe again, and the light, airy accompaniment to her cello symbolises her state of recovery.”

Ears pricked, her head tilted toward the phonograph, Tater listened.

“That’s right. Allow yourself to be drawn in. Express yourself, Tater. You’re among friends.” Taffy leaned close, slipped one foreleg over Tater’s withers, and then in silence, she waited for the earth pony filly to be swept away.

The rising swell of music left Nut with a buoyant sense of spirit. There was something sad about the cello, something profoundly sorrowful, but the brass and woodwinds were upbeat, almost joyous. It was a discordant contrast and as the music played, Nut found himself with a sense of melancholic relief. Such sweet sadness—a cathartic sadness even—which stood out with the optimism of the horns. He found his thoughts cradled in the lulled lows of the cello, while his spirit drifted like a leaf on the wind, blown about by the horns. The contrast was almost impossible to describe, and could only be experienced.

And Tater happened to be experiencing it. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but there was a smile upon her battered face. There was something in her eyes, but Nut couldn’t make out what it was. He read her facial expressions, trying to understand this fresh mystery, but her thoughts and feelings, whatever they might be, remained unknown. This was new to her, an experience beyond her understanding, and watching as she took it all in was a much-needed reminder that life was a worthwhile thing.

Eleven minutes.

The rhapsody played for eleven minutes, and it was far too short. When the cello ceased to play, Nut felt a tightness in his throat. The woodwinds went silent, and then the brass too, blared out a final prolonged gasp. It was over and Nut had no response. He felt strangely empty and when he went to draw breath, he almost didn’t for fear of disturbing the silence.

“I felt the same way when I was on the train with Nut,” Tater whispered. “Everything was so scary. I thought fer sure that we’d be attacked. Nut made me hold my head high and I had to keep rememberin’ that we was dignified ponies. But I couldn’t breathe the whole time we was leavin’. My chest ached and my heart was a-hurtin’ and it felt like time itself had gone all slow. But then, when we was on the train… when the place where I was born was behind me… I could breathe again.”

“So, the music made you feel something.”

“Yes, Taffy, it sure enough did.”

“They’re beginning to explore music therapy in the Crystal Empire,” Taffy said to the earth pony that she held close. “In my opinion, the idea has merit. Music can be a form of healing.”

“All I know is, the music made feel better. Can we listen to it again?”

Taffy nodded. “Yes, let us listen to it again, and then, when it is finished, I want you to tell me what you are feeling. I wish to know what comes to mind, if it makes you think of any other moments or events. Can you tell me?”

“Ya, I s’pose.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Taffy said in a soft, reassuring way. “But it might help.”

“It does help. I’d like to talk.”

“Good.” As Taffy spoke this word, she moved the arm back to the outside edge of the record so that it might play again. “Now, deep breaths. Breathe in time to the music. Allow it to carry you to a better place. Now… begin.”

When the horns began their brassy introduction, Nut allowed himself to breathe in time to the music…

Go loco for Coco

View Online

Suspended from the choker collar, seven diamonds gleamed like fat, frozen raindrops. Left to stare at her reflection in the mirror, Tater Blossom seemed more confused than anything else. She squinnied into the mirror and had only an incredulous stare for her reflection. Taffy and Pod had brushed her to a state of smooth, silken perfection, and then dressed her up in one of Pod’s old-but-still-fabulous gowns, something in a subdued pastel shade of orange with a creamed-coffee trim.

With a startled wicker, Tater Blossom scooted away from her reflection, pressed up against the wall, and then with slow caution, she raised her head around the frame of the mirror to sneak up on her own reflection so that she might have a second look. When she chame to eye-to-eye with her own reflection, she wickered again while she ducked away.

Nut allowed himself a bit of a chuckle and the soft, mirthful sound made Pod give him a bit of well-deserved side-eye. Potato Blossom, as evidenced by the game she played with her reflection, was a silly pony. Every time she saw herself looking back, she scooted away to avoid her own astonished gaze.

“I don’t recognise myself,” Tater Blossom said at last. She pointed at the mirror with her hoof. “That pony in the mirror, she looks a bit like me, but she ain’t me. She looks like a princess.”

“Oh, this is casual, not formal.” Taffy sniffed once, blinked, and shook her head. “We could, in fact, make you look like a princess. But that means you holding still and not squirming.”

“Nuts to that,” Tater replied.

Taffy tittered, but did her best to appear serious.

“I am still surprised the gown fits,” Pod said.

“You went through an awkward husky phase—”

“Nut, how could you!” Pod whirled around and her face had a somewhat purple hue beneath the green. “It’s bad enough to say that about me, but think of how Tater feels!”

Just as Nut was about to address this accusation, Tater Blossom exploded with laughter. She brayed like a donkey, with her head held low, and with each peal of laughter, her tail rose and fell. This unrestrained laughter echoed around the bedroom, and of all those present, Pod was the one most caught off guard. She stood there, awkwardly blinking, her face growing ever-more purple with each passing second.

To make matters worse, Taffy giggled. It started with a little giggle-snort that escaped, followed by a few more, and then poor Taffy was completely overcome. The giggles turned into shrill barks of laughter, and Nut, a serious, reserved type, exchanged a glance with Pod, who shuffled in place whilst she wore a purplefied expression of embarrassment.

“Honestly, I liked you more during your husky phase,” Nut said, brave as ever in the face of mortal peril. “There was a lot of enticingly jiggly bits when we played badminton or tennis. It’s the reason I kept losing. Impossible to ignore distractions caused no end of mishap.”

Pod’s face now turned deadpan, expressionless, and she stared straight ahead.

“I was always so self-conscious about my weight,” she said, almost whispering. “Clove would say things that left me insecure. Suggestions about sleek, slender ponies being happy ponies. If only I would have known that you liked it. A part of me wondered if that was the reason you broke our bonds of betrothal.”

“Pod, you have my sincere and heartfelt apologies.” Nut leaned in a little closer, but then wasn’t sure what to do next. “You are my friend, Pod. Had we stayed together, nothing could have possibly changed my state of attraction for you.” He became aware that both Tater and Taffy had gone silent, and the two of them were pressed together, watching the exchange with wide-eyed, eager intent.

“Well”—Pod’s voice creaked like an unoiled door hinge—“that actually makes me feel better. I’ve been carrying this around now for a couple of years.”

“Pod, I’m disappointed. You should know better. I wish you thought better of me.” Nut cleared his throat and allowed himself a little sarcasm. “All this talk of being a mare of the new era, just brimming with modernity, free from the trappings of our vulgar past.”

“Oh, shut it, Nut. I don’t care about what others think of me, just you. And, well, Taffy, if I’m honest. It’s not about being shallow, or vapid, or having the depth of a teaspoon. I just want to know that I am desirable to the pony that I’ve taken an interest in.” Pod took a deep breath, let it all out in a huff, inhaled again, and some of the dark colour drained away from her face. “I don’t want everypony to find me pretty, just the ponies that I love.”

“Fair enough,” Nut replied.

“Fair enough?” Pod snorted and she drew herself up to her full height. “That’s not terribly satisfying after I poured my heart out.”

“Nut loves a pegasus that had both of her front legs bitten off by an orca.” Tater’s ears fell back to a more submissive position when Nut turned to look at her. “Maybe love is too strong a word?”

Nut applied the pressure by narrowing his eyes and he cast a sidelong glance at his apprentice. Oh, he didn’t want to scare her, he just wanted her to squirm a bit, and squirm she did. A little glowering would do the trick, for certain. Tater Blossom’s eyes darted left, then right, left again, and then she looked at Taffy, perhaps in need of some support.

“I’m not sure that looks matter, is all I’m sayin’.”

“Tater Blossom, your flower power is no match for Nut’s glower power,” Taffy said to the filly pressed tight against her side. “Calm down. Relax a little. You’ll rumple your gown. It seems to me that you got under Nut’s skin, which suggests that he does, indeed, have feelings for this Black Maple. Complicated feelings, so we shan’t tease him about them. ‘Tis unseemly.”

“Taffy”— he allowed his stern expression to relax—“I like you.”

“Oh, capital!” Pod’s face brightened a bit when she beamed. “The father of my future young likes my betrothed. Smashing.”

“All this talk,” Taffy said whilst she blushed. “We’re getting nothing done! We have to be going! Nut, go get dressed. Don’t argue! I see it in your eyes! Pod, you too. Go finish. We all were sidetracked by Tater Blossom’s inspection.”

“But I do not wish to go—”

“Nut, you’re going, and that’s final.”

“You’re not my mother,” he said with as much defiance as he dared.

“Now is not the time to argue. This is Tater’s night to be a princess. Now go dress up a bit. Remember, this is dress casual. Go for a dark and sombre tweed jacket if you have one. You’ll contrast well with your apprentice.”

“But I—”

“No buts!” Taffy stomped her hoof. “Now go! Do as I say!”

“Nut, you’re strutting,” Pod said.

“I am escorting some rather pretty ponies,” he replied.

“The streets are too narrow for a carriage.” Taffy sighed. “At least all the walking keeps me trim. I’m a bit peeved with Gestalt… just winked and left us all behind.”

“I’m pretty,” Tater Blossom announced whilst she pranced alongside Taffy.

Canterlot was orange; it was brilliantly ablaze with the setting of the sun, which settled to the west. It felt good to trot down these narrow streets once more with Pod by his side. Things had changed between them; what these changes were remained unknown, but he could sense a difference. The air had been cleared a bit, and she seemed supportive of his relationship with Black Maple—which, if he were honest, confounded him.

Then again, he was quite happy about Pod’s relationship with Taffy, so there was that.

“So, what is our socialite objective for this even?” he asked with only the barest hint of sarcasm. “For what brave, noble reason do we leave our tower, the place of ideological purity that we call home?”

“We’re going to Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns,” Pod replied. “A lot of parents are enlisted. Many parents are away. From what little I know, Princess Celestia is going to appeal to the ponies of Canterlot to open their hearts and their homes to take in foals whose parents are away during the holidays and other days when school is out. Weekend visits and what not.”

A tight-lipped grimace pressed Nut’s mouth into a thin line. “Well… I suppose that seems reasonable enough. I’ll keep my sarcastic disdain to a minimum, perhaps.”

“So gracious, Lord Nut.”

“Oh, I know, Lady Pod, I know.”

“So, when do we meet Black Maple?”

“Hopefully never, Pod.”

“Oh, pish posh.” Pod rolled her eyes in a theatrical way while her flowing gown fluttered in the breeze as she trotted beside Nut. “We could live together. Be a family. I’ve heard that cohabitational herds have become quite trendy, due in no small part because of Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship.”

“I will not subject myself to a tactical disadvantage,” Nut replied whilst he held back a full-body shudder brought about by the unnerving thought. “Besides, I have other plans. Not to mention my life is currently in Vanhoover.”

“That may be true, but it is still fun to think about. What about you, Taffy? What are your thoughts on the issue?”

“It’s fun to discuss and think about, and that is all I have to say.”

Nut didn’t find it fun. Not in the slightest. He didn’t wish to discuss it, but didn’t want to spoil the mood. Perhaps, with some luck, Pod might change the subject. Against his will, his thoughts turned to Black Maple, and he wondered how she was. If she was angry. He worried about their friendship—and if something existed beyond friendship. Maybe this was just what he needed, some time away to clear his head.

Maybe absence made the heart grow fonder, but he had his doubts.

“Secundus has twelve mothers,” Pod remarked. “Sometimes, I feel a bit sad that our family isn’t larger. I plan to have a large family, even if it means sacrificing my career just a little. Of course, having a large family would be easier with a herd of some sort, otherwise I’ll just have to hire nannies, I suppose. A mare must be practical.”

“I don’t know what I want.” Tater’s head swung from side to side, unseen behind Nut.

Though he said nothing, Nut wasn’t wholly certain of what he wanted either.

Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was decorated in festive streamers and bows. From the looks of things, the students had done the decorations, and they’d done a fine job. The Royal Pony Sisters were immortalised in a mosaic of dyed macaroni noodles, which Nut had to admit took a while to warm up to. Carriages pulled up to the front and passengers got to make a grand red carpet entrance.

Almost right away, Nut hated it.

The pop of flashbulbs dazzled his eyes and brought out the very worst within him. Ponies were here to be seen. Why was this even allowed? What ever happened to dignified, sombre entrances? The funeral for restraint must have gone by, unnoticed. At least Nut never received an invitation. Even worse, Tater Blossom seemed to be having the time of her life, which was dreadful. Now he would have to make sure to hide his sour mood so he would not spoil her good time.

“Oh, I do believe that is Coco Pommel,” Pod said to her companions. “She’s wearing a sundress… ooh la la.”

“It’s just a sundress.” Nut shrugged while he also shook his head. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Pod frowned, wickered, and whinnied, but said nothing to Nut.

“She’s here to draw attention to Manehattan’s reconstruction, no doubt.”

“Oh, for certain, Taffy.” Pod sighed, an airy, breathy sound, and then groaned out her heartfelt sentiment, “Oh, how I wish I could wear something as simple as a sundress and have it look that good.”

“Alas, the tragedy of dear, poor Pod, she’s—”

“Don’t you say it, Nut!”

“—green with envy.”

“Argh, you said it. You’ll pay for that, Nut. It seems as though I was mistaken to believe that you might have matured a little during your time away.” Turning about, Pod faced off with Nut, her face contorted with mock-outrage that held more than a little real outrage.

It was all in her eyes, which Nut found quite enchanting.

The old flame still blazed brightly, as it were.

“All these pretty ponies and I’m stuck being green.” Pod stomped her hoof for emphasis while she also tossed her head about. “Green. The most difficult colour to be. I’m stuck this way. Green. I am the colour of pea soup, the least appetising of all soup colours. It’s hard to buy dresses, or clothing, or anything, because I’m the colour of grotty pea soup. And you, Nut… when you were younger, you had the audacity to say to me that my appearance would be improved with a necklace of saltines. I’m still mad at you.”

“Might I inquire what brought all this about?”

“You came back.” All trace of expression left Pod’s face. “Nut… you broke everything off when we were young, and then pretended as if nothing was wrong. Even worse, you pretended as if nothing had changed. But everything changed. Everything that could change did change, and all of your playful barbs, and quips, and witty retorts… I saw them all in a different light. After your rejection, all those words previously said took on new meaning. I didn’t want all of this slipping out, but it did. It has. Here comes the flood.”

Nut inhaled, ready to say something, he had high hopes of making things better—

“I was starting to move on. I found Taffy. Secundus and I consoled one another. Little by little, I let things go. It was painful, but I let them slip away. I couldn’t have done it without Taffy. But then you came back. Quite suddenly and without warning. Much to my dismay, the things I thought I’d let go of still had a hold of me.”

“Would it be for the best if I left?” he asked.

“Is that your solution to everything? Leaving?”

“Allow me to be honest,” he said with a low voice. “I didn’t want to be here. Very much against my will, I was dragged here, and I only came along to be agreeable. If all of this had been said at home, in private, then I could have avoided what was sure to be a long, stressful, awkward, unpleasant evening of forced smiles and pretending that everything is great.”

“Ooh… Inconvenienced, are you? How terrible.” Cursing beneath her breath, Pod stormed away, and showers of sparks could be seen shooting from the tip of her horn.

Taffy watched Pod go and when the furious unicorn was several yards away, Taffy said to Nut, “Don’t tell her I said this, but you kind of have a point. I’m going to go and try to calm her down. Wish me luck.”

Neither Tater Blossom nor Nut said anything as Taffy went running after Pod.

The gardens behind the school were a lovely place but there were far too many ponies for Nut to be comfortable. He dutifully remained though, because his apprentice was having the time of her life. Tater, overjoyed, went from display to display, each of them set up in a nook, an alcove, or some corner in the garden, and she read random facts about the school.

As he was dragged from one display to another, Nut had far too many mares on his mind. The well-being of his apprentice stood out in the forefront of his thoughts, as well as a sense of regret that he might have spoiled her evening. Pod too, was something floating around near the surface, as he pondered just how many mistakes he might have made. There was just no way of knowing. Then there was Black Maple, which was, indeed, a subject every bit as sticky as her namesake.

Lurking in the depths of his thoughts was the knowledge that he was attracted to Taffy.

“So, tell me, Nut… only unicorns can come here. Why?”

Pulled from his distracted state, he focused his attention on his apprentice. A good answer was important, and he already had a suitable one in mind. “Specialisation,” he said to her in a gentle tone of instruction. “Everything is specialised around the instruction of unicorns and magic. It allows for focused instructors. It’s not a matter of exclusion, it is just a matter of specialisation. Magic is the most difficult subject to teach, and there are few instructors capable of doing so. If earth ponies and pegasus ponies were allowed to attend here, the talents of the teachers would be wasted. I suppose it is a matter of priority.”

“Yer sayin’ that the time is better spent doin’ what they know to do.”

“Hmm, yes.”

“Huh. That makes sense. But it might look bad to a pony that don’t know no better.”

“Why, yes, I suppose it might, Miss Blossom.”

“So if an earth pony or a pegasus pony were to demand to come here, it’d do harm in some complicated way.”

“Correct, Miss Blossom.”

“That sign over there said that unicorn foals are the most proportionally neglected foals in the education system, but that popular public opinion says that earth ponies are the most neglected. I’m stuck trying to figure out what is true, and I don’t know where to begin.”

“Quite a conundrum, Miss Blossom. Truth be told, I don’t have all the relevant and necessary facts to say what might be true.”

“What does proportionally neglected mean, anyhow?”

“It means that a statistic can be used to make anything seem possible, but in this instance, it means that it might appear that earth ponies receive poor education, but even a poor education is better than no education in a vital skill, such as magic. An earth pony that receives a terrible education in reading, writing, and arithmetic is still getting a better education than a unicorn that doesn’t receive a remedial understanding of how their own magic works.”

“Oh.” The lights went on in Tater Blossom’s eyes as she had a profound moment of understanding. “Oh. So me with my hick education and my hick learning, I’m still better off than a unicorn that didn’t learn how to unicorn. Oh golly-gosh, that’s making me think big thinks about thinkity-thunks that I don’t understand.”

“You are a clever girl, you know that?”

“It’s caused me no end of trouble,” she replied with a fierce blush.

“Solving the earth pony education problem is far, far easier than solving the unicorn education problem, but both of them are difficult for very different reasons. There’s far too many unicorns and not enough qualified magic instructors. Solving the earth pony education crisis can be done by increasing spending on education budgets and raising standards.”

“But the real problem is, most of us earth ponies is hicks, and we don’t think a hifalutin education ain’t worth a thing. We like to wallow in our ignorance like a pig in shi—”

“Miss Blossom, might I remind you that this is a school?”

Her blush intensified. “I have the will to get smart, and I was shamed for it. So there’s these uh… I don’t know the word. But where I live and how I was raised, we’re only taught enough to do what needs to be done. A filly is taught just enough arithmetic to do baking and household stuff. Like, I learned some of my fractions and basic measurements. And then that was it. No more. Readin’ was a gift though, because once I understood the basics, I could keep readin’ to learn myself how to do all kinds of stuff, if only I had the books.”

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with what she had to say. “And we have the same problem in the cities. Education is doled out in meagre portions. Training for factory work, or carpentry, or the various trades. We’re robbing ourselves of our potential greatness by not expanding our education standards. Advanced education is seen as optional, or worse, a detriment.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded, which made her ears bob.

Then, somewhat suddenly, she went still. Her mouth puckered into a tight scowl, her jaw muscles went taut, and her eyes glittered as she cogitated. Nut could see her mental processes at work, and patient as always, he waited for her to arrive at whatever conclusion awaited. Her head turned, and she looked at the sign. As she did so, her eyebrow arched, her ears rose, and her nostrils flared wide when she drew in a long, steady inhale.

“I ain’t learned enough to sort out this big think of mine. But I’ll get there.”

“Miss Blossom, might I recommend keeping a journal so you can revisit these marvellous thoughts later, when you have more comprehension and understanding?”

“I’d like that,” she replied.

“I’ll make it happen. You have my word.” He gestured at the doors with his extended hoof. “It seems as though they are about to begin. Shall we go inside?”

“Yeah, let’s do that. What’ll we do once we’re in there?”

“Socialise,” he responded in deadpan. “An exercise in excessive boredom.”

For a casual affair, far too many ponies were dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns. Nut didn’t like it, not at all, not in the slightest. There was no sign of Pod or Taffy. Gestalt was nowhere to be seen either. While he himself was miserable, Tater seemed to be having a marvellous time. For Nut, the school-made decorations were far too jarring in contrast to the tuxedos and finery on display.

Ponies were laughing—at their own jokes no doubt—and everything felt a little less than real. Nut could not help but notice that it was just ponies, with no other creatures present. At least with Vanhoover, there was variety. Nothing felt right, or real for that matter, almost as if this was all some surreal dream of some sort, a mockery of the waking hours.

In a dreadful, peculiar moment, Nut felt all alone in a crowded room, and it left him quite disturbed. The crêpe paper flowers made by students were far too garish and out of place among the sea of tuxedos and silken evening gowns. Ponies were here to be seen, and to be seen, one had to stand out, to be noticed. Nut had spent most of his foalhood having pounded into his head that he should not be noticed, so right now he felt a rising sense of profound confusion.

A bubble-blowing machine spat out an endless stream of rainbow-hued bubbles.



“That rhymes!”

It took him a moment to determine what she meant. “I say, so it does.”

“These games… what’re they for?”

“They’re carnival games, Miss Blossom. Slightly rigged games of chance or skill. Somehow manage to overcome the odds, and you can win prizes.” Without realising it, his eyes narrowed as he said, “Crown-sponsored grift. But fun, I suppose, if you can somehow win a trinket.”

“All this fun and not many ponies a-playin’.”

“Oh, I suspect they’re too uptight to have fun.”

“Good thing yer not uptight in any way.”

Nut froze; he knew he was being played right now, but also knew that if he confronted Miss Blossom about this, the accusation of uptightness would stick to him like well-chewed bubblegum. Her manipulations were not malicious; she just wanted to play, to have fun. He studied her, read her face, examined her eyes, and watched how her ears pivoted around to catch every sound that could be heard around them.

“Very well, Miss Blossom. I shall win a token for you. But I get to pick the game. Most of these are cheaty in the extreme.” He slipped his monocle over his eye, squinted, and had a good look at the carnival row that lined one wall. There were about a dozen booths or so, with things like horseshoe tosses, ball and cup games, card games, and in the corner… a shooting gallery.

When Nut grinned, several nearby ponies sucked in a sharp breath as they backed away to give him some room. He was just that sort of pony. His grin? Maniacal. His movements? Predatory. As he started to move towards the corner, the crowd parted as if by magic. Tater Blossom followed just behind him, her trot a bit over-enthusiastic and bouncy. The both of them could not be two more different ponies.

The sign stated quite plainly, “No magic.”

A row of tin ducks bobbed along a conveyor, powered by a clanking, buzzing machine. There was a crossbow on the counter, and a container full of dum-dum bolts. It was a simple crossbow, one meant to be used with no magic. Hold it in the fetlocks and give the simple lever trigger a squeeze. For most ponies, this would be a challenge, but for most unicorns who only used magic to do everything—this was, indeed, a rigged game.

“Five quarrels for a gold bit,” the barker said.

“That’s pricey,” Nut replied.

“It’s for a good cause, pal. What? Are ya stingy?”

“Yes.” Nut nodded. “I tend to be just that.”

“I want the hat with the antlers, Nut.”

At the sound of Tater’s voice, Nut checked the pile of prizes. Up on top, sitting on top of a giant stuffed bear, he saw it. A brown wool felted hat with white spots. Two stubby antlers. Brown fuzzy ears with a pink wool felt lining. Much to his surprise, the beanie was well made. Right away, he saw it for what it was—a lure. Which meant that it was probably impossible to get under most circumstances, if not all.

“All you gotta do to win that,” the barker said, “is knock down six ducks with five quarrels.”

“Easy-peasy,” Nut replied in a fantastic steady deadpan that was the ultimate proof of his fine breeding. Of course, saying it and doing it were two very different things.

He spent a few moments with his eyes on the fawn beanie, which was a ridiculous thing, and then turned his attention to the ducks. He measured the distance between them, and then he considered the dum-dum bolts. His eyes went to the ducks, then back to the bolts. There was maybe eight or nine inches between the ducks, and each bolt was maybe twelve inches long.

“Remember, pal… no magic. If your horn lights up even just a little, you’re disqualified.”

Nut’s horn did ignite, but it was to plunk down a gold bit upon the counter. “I’ll be having that fawn beanie.”

In response, the barker let out a raspy chuckle.

“I’m a-gettin’ me some deer ears. Ooh, I bet I’ll look cute!”

Nut rose into a bipedal stance; using his front hooves, he lifted up the crossbow and gave it a heft to test its weight as well as its balance. It was military surplus, no doubt about it. Lever trigger, squeezed in the fetlock, and it was cocked with a lever as well, which, when drawn back, would engage some cogs to draw back the string. It was ancient, but well-maintained. No doubt, many a pegasus pony rained down death from above with such a weapon of war.

Bracing it against himself, he pulled the cocking lever. One pull brought back the string about a third of the way. Another tug on the lever brought it back a little more. A third pull brought it all the way back and there was a click as the lever trigger locked into place. It was ready to fire. The barker, a helpful fellow, held out a quarrel with his wing. Nut took it, gripped it in his fetlock, and with considerable skill, loaded it into the crossbow, which was now ready to fire.

A crowd had gathered.

Standing tall on his hind legs, Nut raised the crossbow, braced it against his shoulder, and found a good grip on the well-polished wood. Some considerate pony had removed the sights from this crossbow, not that it mattered to Nut. He didn’t need sights, just a target. He had to knock down six ducks with five bolts somehow, and had a pretty good notion of how to do it.

Peering through his monocle, he lined up his shot.

Had the crossbow been weakened for firing indoors?

He was about to find out.

Releasing his held breath, he gave the trigger lever a gentle squeeze. There was a mechanical clunk, a brassy sound of metal parts in motion, and the bolt flew with surprising speed. Yes, the crossbow had been weakened, but it still had surprising punch. Enough to startle a pony and possibly make them miss their shot.

A duck fell over when it was slammed by a dum-dum bolt.

“Hmm, I say. A lucky shot.” Nut grinned, his broad, perfect teeth on display.

“Yeah… a lucky shot.” The barker, no longer smiling, now had a sour expression of contempt. “Remember. Six ducks with five quarrels. No magic.”

Five would be tricky, but not wholly impossible. He needed another shot or two to determine how the bolts flew, their momentum, impact, and flight characteristics. Nut felt this was only mildly improbable, not impossible. He could do improbable things, and regularly did. Like, walk into an infestation of basilisks and emerge in a not-stoned state. Or face off with an archive full of mimics. Sometimes, he did the improbable twice before lunch.

Wearing a cocky grin, he repeated the reloading ritual, and offered up a curt nod when the barker held out a quarrel for him. His brain was already performing the necessary mental gymnastics, the improbable calculations for his cunning stunt. But to pull it off, he’d need more data. Raising the crossbow, he took steady aim…


The duck toppled.

Two ducks down, two shots fired.

He could hear the crowd talking now, the murmur of hushed, genteel voices with austere bearing. Reloading the crossbow was second-nature now, he’d become intimate with it, and every weapon was his friend. Across the counter, the barker wore a curious smirk, a ploy at confidence, but it was betrayed by the doubt that glittered in his eyes.

“I’m a-gettin’ me a fawn hat. I just know it.”

“How will he do it?” a bespectacled mare asked in a hushed whisper.

With the third bolt loaded, Nut took aim, but did not fire right away. Instead, he lined up his shot and then spent a bit of time leading his target. The tin ducks, painted a vivid yellow, were all dented and dinged in the middle. They even had a red bullseye. But hitting the bullseye was folly. Nut’s ears splayed out sideways as he took careful, steady aim.

A third duck met a violent end and was knocked over.

“He’s got two shots left but needs three ducks,” the bespectacled mare said.

Before reloading, Nut craned his head around to peer at the fallen duck. It was hard to spot, but he could see a fresh nick in the paint on the neck, a bright bit of tin. He’d need to lead his shot a bit more, but how much more was a tricky, tricky guess. His ears pricked and he felt just a bit sweaty beneath his collar.

“Somepony is a dutiful big brother.”

“Oh yes, quite.”

Without a word said, Nut cocked the crossbow and loaded his fourth bolt. This shot would prove important. If he messed this up, he’d likely fail completely. He only had one chance to get this right, and if this went just perfect, he’d only get one shot to do the improbable. Slim odds, but not impossible.

Both Nut and the barker were sweating a bit.

The crossbow was perfectly still when Nut fired, and a fourth duck went down with a clink of metal on metal. He found himself wondering if the big stuffed bear was the prize for five out of five, but the ginormous stuffy was not the goal. Miss Blossom wanted the silly deer-ears, and so she would have it. Surely, it would keep her head warm on chilly days.

“Four out of four,” the barker announced, and Nut took great satisfaction in the soft tremour he heard.

Yes. Four out of four. Done with no sights, no means to draw a bead on the target. Now was the time for the finale. The big finish. Quite a crowd had gathered, and Nut took immense pleasure in their suspense. Watching the barker squirm was also rather pleasing. Calm, his breathing slow and regular, Nut cocked the crossbow as the barker held out the fifth and final quarrel.

“The anticipation is terrible,” the bespectacled mare said.

“I hope it lasts,” another pony remarked.

“Oh, pish-posh,” yet another said, “this is Canterlot, the city where anything is possible.”

Nut loaded the bolt backwards.

There was a nervous chuckle from the barker, but nothing was said.

No room for errors. Failure wasn’t an option. This shot would have to be beyond perfect. Luck was no substitute for geometry and the mathematics of improbability. Squinting through his monocle, Nut carefully led his shot, but did not fire. He followed the duck as it bobbed along the conveyor, waiting for just the right time. His target was directly behind another duck, and he planned to take both of them out.

When he fired, the bolt had a dreadful wobble, but flew true enough. The crowd had gone silent, save for the sound of breathing, and Nut watched as the backwards bolt struck the duck on the leading edge of its neck. For a fraction of a second, nothing happened, but then the duck slowly teetered over as the dum-dum bolt swung around. The heavy, weighted tip carried momentum well, and it collided with the duck in front of the one hit. It was a one-in-million shot, but for Nut, he was fairly certain he could repeat this, if necessary.

With a faint squeak, the second duck collapsed.

“Fronk me,” the barker breathed.

“No no, I just want the hat, please.” Nut set the crossbow down on the counter, dropped down on all fours, and then took a moment to tug at his damp collar. One had to look nonchalant after achieving the improbable, otherwise, what was the point?

“I knew it!” Tater Blossom crowed in what was most decidedly not an indoor voice.

“Take the hat,” the barker said to Nut. “You deserve it. Good show and all that.”

“Why, thank you.” Nut offered a gracious bow of his head. There was no sense in gloating about it. Reaching out with his magic, he plucked the woollen beanie off of the bear’s head, and then dangled it just in front of his apprentice’s nose. “I believe this is yours, Miss Blossom.”

“Oh, thank ya kindly!”

Beaming, she shoved her ears into the beanie held before her and Nut could not help but smile. She looked ridiculous wearing the gown, the diamond choker, and the antlered hat. But she was happy, so what did it matter? With his telekinesis, he slipped it down over her head, and then gave it a few adjustments.

Her happiness was his own.

“You are very deer to me—”

“Nut, no… don’t ruin the moment. Come on.” She winced, as if experiencing physical pain, and took a step back. “It was a beautiful moment, but then you had to say that.”

“Allow me to fawn over you—”

“No!” Tater Blossom stomped her hoof. “Ugh, that’s awful. Don’t do that!” Tater Blossom now appeared as though she’d chewed some lemons.

Smirking, Nut was about to come up with something else that was witty, but the sound of trumpets gave him pause. He turned, and so did everypony else in the vast auditorium. Guards assembled near the brass-trimmed double doors. A reverent, expectant hush fell over the crowd, and Tater Blossom’s expression went from sour to curious.

“Ladies and gents,” the announcer said, “please welcome our Headmistress, Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia.”

On cue, the double doors opened, and there she was, larger than life. Princess Celestia strode through the double doors, ducking her head somewhat so her horn wouldn’t scrape. She wore a loose-fitting gown made of silk so pink that it could be described as lustful. It was unmentionably pink, a scandalous colour.

He heard a bleating cry from beside him, an almost throttled sound, there was something almost like a sob, and then he heard Miss Blossom say, “No! Don’t let her near me. I’m wicked. I’ll burn… I’ll burn! I’m not fit to be in her shadow. I disobeyed my parents! Brought shame on myself and them! I’m shunned!”

Her words were cut off with a gurgle and he heard a sucking sound. When he turned around, she was fighting to breathe, struggling for air, and he could hear pained wheezes. Then, while he stood in shock watching, her legs went limp and she tumbled to the floor. Collapsed, she curled into a fetal position, and then bawled in a horrible, strangled sort of way.

It was all so sudden.

“Oh my. Move aside, please!”

When the crowd did not move, Princess Celestia took matters into her own hooves. Or wings, in this instance. She shoved, pushed, and made her way through the crowd until she was mere inches away from Nut, who now stood frozen. Then, he too was knocked out of the way as the glorious giantess took charge.

Right beside Princess Celestia was Raven, who said, “Some kind of anxiety attack I’d guess.”

“Poor dear. Raven, help me move her to a quiet, secluded place, will you?”

“Of course.” Turning about, Raven affixed her commanding gaze upon the crowd. “Give us room. Now.

Stricken, Nut stared down at Potato Blossom, who had her face covered with her forelegs. Her gown was rumpled, disheveled, all made worse as she kicked and convulsed. He’d never seen anything quite like it and didn’t know how to react. What exactly did one do during a moment like this one?

“I’m sorry,” Princess Celestia said to the crowd. “All of you came to enjoy my company, but you must excuse me. Somepony is in need of some help. I’ll return to visit with you once this is sorted out, I promise.” Then, without further ado, the princess lifted Potato Blossom from the floor and carried her towards the double doors.

Still frozen, Nut watched them go while his brain screamed for action.

At the intersection of rationality and faith, a curious thing happened

View Online

Tears, like raindrops, left puddles on the floor. Eyes almost vacant, Nut stared at them, or stared past them; it was difficult to tell for the observers. The lights could be seen reflecting in the tiny pools of water, and little bits of confetti—like visitors to the beach—were saturating themselves with the liquid left behind. Nut suffered the peculiar notion that he couldn’t move, even if he wanted to do so, almost as if his brain had suffered some terrible disconnect.

But then, everything worked again and he spurred his body into action just as Princess Celestia and Raven passed through the doors with his dear, beloved friend. He hurried after them, taking swift action before the gap in the crowd could close. Ponies were murmuring now, speaking to one another. No doubt the gossip and rumour mills were powering up and some fantastical story would be concocted. The very idea infuriated him.

“Wait!” he shouted.

But it was too late.

The doors shut and two guards moved to stand in front of it.

“I need to get in there,” he told the guards as they approached. “She’s my ward. I gave my word that I would look after her. She needs me.”

Neither of the guards budged.

“Perhaps you don’t know who I am,” Nut said while his body transitioned into a more aggressive posture. “But you’re about to find out. Allow me to pass.”

Like statues, the guards were now motionless.

“Very well then, time to cause a scene.”

At the very same second that Nut slipped into a loose and easy combat stance, he found himself frozen once more. Paralysed. It was difficult for his eyelids to blink. The double doors opened and the first thing Nut saw was a long blue horn poking out. Then, Princess Luna’s head became visible, and he saw her looking at him. He tried to muster as much malice as possible with his paralysed face, but failed to do anything worthy or impressive.

“Ah, there you are. Gestalt said you would be here. Come, my student, I have a lesson to impart upon thee.”

Much to his annoyance, Nut’s legs betrayed him. His body relaxed, the tension fled from his muscles, and the tightness in his barrel eased so that he could breathe a little easier. He was spellbound, and didn’t like it, not at all. With sufficient willpower, it was said that one could resist spells like this one, but with so little magic of his own, he’d never exercised his willpower. Perhaps this needed to change, because he was vulnerable.

Both of the guards stepped aside.

“Youthful rebellion,” Princess Luna said to nopony in particular, but her words were clearly about Nut. “At long last, my steely student finally feels passionate enough about something to act in an irrational, illogical manner. He can be motivated with emotion.”

Princess Luna made a gesture with her eyes, moving them in such a way that she beckoned Nut to come forward. “Come with me.”

He felt his legs move, but he wasn’t the one controlling them. A part of him wanted to be angry, but his rationality was rapidly asserting itself. Princess Luna—his trusted teacher—had just spared him from a rather dreadful bit of consequences. He was still angry, though not at her. At himself, at the situation. He passed through the doors and after he did so, they shut behind him. Off to his left, Princess Luna was clucking her tongue, which was somehow both annoying and soothing. He did deserve it, afterall.

“A bit of noble entitlement,” she said. “Good. Good.”

“Is that what that was?” he asked.

“I do believe it was,” she replied with a visible smirk. “No sense waiting for the self-loathing to set in. Time to strike the iron to make it hot.” With one extended wing, she caressed Nut’s cheek. “Welcome home to Canterlot, Nut. Let us go catch up on old times, as the new parlance dictates.”

In a moment that was a bit too surreal for his liking, Nut found himself seated at a desk that was just a bit too small for him, and Luna, his instructor, stood before a chalkboard. The classroom was empty, and was perhaps a bit too overcrowded with desks, of which there were a few too many in a room rather small. He’d been released from the spell, whatever it was, but doubted that he could escape his current state of detention.

For what else could this be?

“It has been a while,” he said to his teacher.

“Indeed, it has,” was her response.

“You seem… shorter somehow. Also, I dare say younger.”

“Flattery will not get you out of this. I’ve not grown shorter, you’ve grown taller, thus, I am smaller by comparison.”

“No,” he said, always a contrarian. “I’m positive of it. You do seem younger in some strange way. Something about your face. You’re smaller, and slighter of build.”

She was staring at him now, and something about her expression suggested that she was annoyed with him. Though, he could not say how or why. Something about her eyes perhaps, and the way her lower lip protruded ever-so-slightly. Her defiant posture. It was almost as if Princess Luna was a defiant filly rather than a mature mare—or perhaps it was just her sarcastic, almost playful demeanour. Maybe the stress was getting to him.

“I miss your lessons,” he said at last.

“Yes”—she sighed out her agreement—“those were pleasant dreams.”

“Dreams?” He spoke his thoughts aloud.

“Oh…” Her eyes took on a playful gleam. “Did you believe those to be real? All dreams, I assure you.”

“But… I remember going to school. Walking. I remember our days together.”

“Very convincing dreams.” Luna’s head bobbed in some odd weightless way. “You did go to school during the day. But at night, while you slept, you also went to school. I called class into session. You must understand… there were trying circumstances at work during those times. I was very busy. But in dreams, I could give you all of the time you so richly deserved… and make no mistake, you were a worthy student.”

Flabbergasted, Nut tried to rearrange the life he thought he knew, but found he couldn’t.

“It is time for certain truths to be made known to you,” she said as she stood before the blackboard. “Honestly, Nut… I believed that you figured all of this out on your own, but it seems that I was wrong. Gestalt says that you’re too rigid, and I find myself in agreement. You’d rather believe a comfortable falsehood than face an uncomfortable truth.”

“In my defense, I had good reason to believe that our time together was real.”

“Any logical examination of the situation might’ve drawn you to the obvious conclusion.”

He scowled, not at all happy with how he felt right now. “Maybe it seems obvious to you, but I trusted you as my instructor, just as I trusted my senses. If I am to doubt my senses, shall I doubt you as well?”

“Oh, remarkable.” Luna’s lips pressed into a tight, thin line. “My student reveals himself. I am proud. Even if you’ve missed the obvious, there is evidence that you are still my apt pupil.”

“I have only ever wanted to please you,” he said to his teacher.

Some cloud of emotion passed over her face, but he didn’t know what it was. Her eyes softened, her perked ears relaxed just a little, and her wings loosened against her sides. She stood there before the blackboard, shuffling a bit, and the stars in her mane and tail seemed a bit brighter somehow. Was she touched? He couldn’t tell. Clearly, she felt something, but it seemed she had no desire to share whatever it was.

“Please me you have,” she said in a somewhat syrupy voice. “Your success is mine own. At this point in my life, I am in need of some success. Things have been more than a little rough. You… you are my Chosen, and you’ve exceeded well beyond my wildest expectations.”


“Verily. You were selected. Risks were taken. Everypony involved said those risks should not be taken, but I was given a chance to prove myself. Other than that little slip of decorum with the guards a moment ago, you’ve proven that I was right and all who doubted me were wrong. Most satisfying… most satisfying. Good thing I am beyond the need to gloat.” She grinned and there was some spectre of youthful defiance that lurked amongst her bared teeth.

“I suppose the lesson now is for all of this to be explained,” he said to her while he squirmed in search of a comfortable position. His desk was too small, he was too large, and his body felt the need for movement, not stillness. “I am forever your willing pupil.”

Something just behind her face broke. Nut saw it plain as day. Or, in this instance, as plain as a bright harvest moon at night. Her eyes gleamed with some emotion, some unknown feeling, and her nostrils flared as her respiration increased. For the merest second, he thought that she might burst into tears; mares did that sometimes, at least in his experience. While Luna was a princess, and an alicorn, she was also a mare and he knew that ponies frequently forgot that fact.

“I wish that I had been braver,” Luna said, her words hushed and rather raspy.

Nut’s response was nonverbal; he cocked an eyebrow.

“Were I braver and more trusting of myself, I might very well have taken you as my apprentice. My chosen vessel. But I am still recovering and am without much trust in myself.” She sighed, almost a hurricane force gale in the close confines of the classroom, and added, “There is another I wish I could claim. Perhaps I should. You were a success. I proved myself to others, and most importantly, to myself. I find myself wondering if I am worthy.”

The Princess of the Night tossed her head about, her neck rippled with fluid movement, and she began to pace before the chalkboard. Her silver shoes rang like delicate bells with each step. She was a creature of immeasurable beauty and Nut, like so many others, found himself entranced by her every move. Stricken, he folded his forelegs atop the desk’s surface and watched as she paced the width of the room.

“You were chosen,” she began, “because of your restraint. Not many foals have that much restraint. Your upbringing and your own inner nature conspired together to create an ideal vessel. I had ideas… big ideas… a new way to do things. Where I saw opportunity, others saw risks. I was forced to prove that my ideas were worthy. Even my most ardent detractors agreed that you were the ideal test subject.”

Test subject?

Nut, more curious than alarmed, wondered what she meant by that.

“Recently, a multitude of circumstances all aligned. Mostly through coincidence. It wasn’t planned, but it was exploited.” Luna turned about, ceased to pace, and then just stood there, her mane blown about by unseen winds. “You went to the Widowwood. My sister and I, we’ve been somewhat aware of the troubles there for quite some time. The dreams there are especially troubling. There’s a lot I can’t tell you… but what I can tell you is that things are complicated. There are too many dreaming ponies and not enough of me to go around. My sister and I, we can’t fix everything. There are millions of ponies and just two of us.”

He acknowledged this with a nod.

“Circumstances reached a fortuitous intersection. You were in Vanhoover, and curious creatures infested the potato patches of the Widowwood.” Luna began to pace again, her eyes were distant, dark, and her lips were tight against her teeth. “As I mentioned, it wasn’t planned… it just happened. All of the right pieces were in the right place. That’s the real trick to being a princess… exploiting circumstances in such a way that everything appears planned. It takes a quick mind.”

“If you knew about the troubles of the Widowwood,” Nut said to his teacher, who paced before the blackboard, “then why not act sooner?”

“I told you,” she replied, “there’s too many ponies and too few of us royal pony siblings. Look, I get it. I do. Everypony wants to hold us responsible for all of the things that go wrong. While I do confess to meddling in all manner of things, including your development, I can’t meddle in all of the things. Even though I would very much like to do so. Widowwood in particular, it bothers me because of the fanatical zealotry involving my sister. Nothing upsets her more than fanatical zealotry. It causes her terrible nightmares. But what can we do? The world is plunging into war and chaos. Our cities are slipping into anarchy. Priorities, Nut. Priorities. Sadly, the Widowwood is extremely low on the list of priorities.”

Though unsatisfied, Nut held his tongue.

“You were in the right place at the right time. Raven brought it to our attention. An opportunity presented itself. None of us knew the outcome. But there was a chance to rattle the Widowwood. Perhaps shake up the residents a bit. We watched and we waited. I feel that I did a particularly good job of making the moon brighter at just the perfect moment.”

As Luna smiled, Nut recalled that specific moment in vivid detail.

“Not only was it the perfect chance to shake everything up, but it was an excellent opportunity to test you as well. A test you passed that exceeded all expectations, by the way. I finally got the chance to hear that I was right, and it was most gratifying. It has done wonders for my confidence and well-being.”

A good student remained silent in class—but Nut had questions, many of them, and it was hard to hold them all in. Luna was in quite a state; she was in the middle of a moment. He couldn’t recall ever seeing her this emotional, but then again, most of his experiences with her happened in a dreaming state, so he wasn’t sure how well he knew her. His familiarity with her was mostly illusion, but her fondness for him seemed real enough for it to matter.

Each step caused her silver shoes to ring against the tile floor.

“You were an odd foal, Nut. A foal with a talent for violence. But you were not a violent foal. My sister said that you were a walking contradiction and she expressed concern that your conflicting nature might cause you extreme unhappiness. Where my sister saw a tragedy in the making, I saw an opportunity.” Luna paused and brought her bright-eyed gaze to bear upon Nut. “You were just what I needed.”

Intrigued, ears pricked, Nut waited.

“Not long after my return, when I was still very troubled, I was introduced to Gestalt. He became my friend… well, more than that. My confidant. He understood certain concepts that I’d always known, aspects of psychology and such, but that I couldn’t make others understand. I had this idea that learning and memory could be shaped through dreams. The memory part I’d already mastered… I can change a pony’s memories or even erase them completely. My knowledge helped to fill in certain blanks in his theory, and his theory helped me to understand certain things that I did but had no understanding of how I did them. Anyhow… it’s complicated.

“There was this idea that I could go beyond memories and implant learning directly. But it had to be things I knew. My knowledge. This worried everypony, and rightfully so. There were some concerns that certain aspects of my psyche might bleed over during a transfer of knowledge. You had this incredible knack for combat, and I very much wanted to pour my combat experience into you just to see what might happen. I had good reason… if this worked, I’d be able to start training the guardsponies. Give them my combat experience. Make them a capable fighting force.

“Then came the changelings. Gestalt studied them extensively after the invasion. They have shared, distributed learning and what one of them learns, all of them learn through a distributed neural network. But this came later, and I am jumping ahead. Your training had already begun, and I was already pouring my experiences into you at this point. Thousands of years of warfare and combat experience. It was my job to fill you up as a vessel, while others around you worked to reinforce your natural restraint. But learning of the changelings shared learning was proof that we were on the right track, and that my ideas had merit. Proof that the concept worked.”

For some reason, Nut thought of Caliginous Dark. Never take what you cannot possibly give back. His beloved professor held him back and made him exercise caution. It was a defining moment, and it was now, right now, at this very moment that Nut realised just how much hinged upon the choices he made that day. Or when he departed the Widowwood, for that matter. Eyes narrow, he studied Luna, and tried to make sense of what she had said. What he’d been told.

“So all that I am and all that I know… it isn’t me, but you?” he asked.

“Well, no,” she was quick to reply. “And yes. It’s complicated. I learned early on that the transfer doesn’t automatically implant the knowledge, as I thought it would. It is the memory of a memory, with a pinch of instinct, and some muscle memory. It’s… it’s like a seed left in fertile soil. With a bit of water and just the right conditions, it sprouts into something greater. So it is with you, Nut. The mighty oak of my combat experience is but a little acorn in your mind.”

“I don’t follow.”

She smiled, patient and gentle. “When just the right circumstances come along, these memories awaken and you internalise them. At least, as near as I can tell. It’s like a fortune telling machine with predetermined responses.” At this, Luna went silent for a moment, stuck out her tongue, and then shook her head. “No, it is not like that at all. Or maybe it is. You see, all of this is dormant in your head until such a time that you awaken the memory and make it your own. I couldn’t put my instincts into your mind, or my muscle memory. And the memory of a memory is inherently unstable and changes with each recollection. What I am trying to say is, the transfer wasn’t perfect. You are still ultimately responsible for whatever you choose to be.”

It was a mighty big concept to wrap one’s mind around, and Nut found that he wasn’t up for the task. Luna, it seemed, wasn’t up for it either, as she was now pacing to and fro once more with a bewildered, frustrated expression plainly visible upon her face. At the moment, Luna was more pony and less princess as she floundered through this difficult time. All of her princessly poise had departed, and Nut was left to stare at a baffled, flustered nerdy intellectual whose complex, complicated plans had gone awry.

At least he could sympathise, and he did.

“I poured all of my knowledge of battle into your mind,” Luna said, almost muttering now. “Weapons. Fighting styles. Martial mastery. Boxing. Kicking. Hoof-fu. Karate. Thousands of years of experience. It was successful, but not in the way I anticipated or expected. Your mind readily accepted this information. Everypony saw that. Everypony. And now, years later, I am proven right. It all worked out for the best. The evidence is quite compelling.”

“What of Secundus?” Nut asked.

“What about him?” Luna replied.

He gave his teacher a hard stare.

“Was he altered?” Luna turned to face Nut and she had her own hard stare. “Yes, but not to the extent that you were. Early on, he exhibited problems. Issues. He still proved valuable though. Secundus taught us a great deal.” Her face softened, she blinked, and then shook her head. “As more knowledge was poured in, his need for violence increased. His desire for it. Eventually, we terminated the process at the insistence of Gestalt, who feared what further tampering might do. Even though it was a failure, we still learned a great deal.”

“Might I ask what you learned? What purpose will this serve? What is the point to all of this? Is this solely to increase Equestria’s martial prowess, or will some other greater purpose come of this?”

There was a sigh from Luna, then another. She inhaled, her sides expanded greatly, and exhaled slowly through her flared nostrils. Her eyes glittered and the muscles on her face twitched with nervous energy. Even though nothing had been said just yet, Nut was fascinated, intrigued by his instructor’s intensity.

“One day, I am going to completely change how Equestria deals with education,” she said at last. “Right now, everything is still proof of concept. I am starting small and sticking with what I know. Violence is my trade. I am the Mistress of War. The Princess of the Night. I am the Night Lady. The Eternal Shroud. But I aspire to be better. To do better. And so I shall.

“I envision a bright future. Once I have this process refined, and once I find a way to divide myself into the millions of dreaming minds, I will leave behind knowledge. Learning. Literacy. Foals will awaken from sweet, pleasant dreams with refreshed minds and the education they need to succeed. Little earth ponies will have brighter futures. Pegasus ponies will be prosperous. And with my sister’s help, if we can find a way, little unicorns will get the magical instruction they sorely need. This is my goal. And it all started with you, Nut. Everything started with you.”

“That’s—” There was no way for Nut to finish his sentence. His mind was blown. He reeled from the words of his instructor, his teacher, and tried to take in the immensity of her words. His good posture failed him and he slumped over his desk whilst Luna beamed, almost glowing with her sense of triumph. Since he could say nothing coherent, he chose to ask a question instead.

“What am I to do with what I’ve been given?” He thought of his life choices and the decisions he made, all of which now stood out. “I’m not a soldier. I chose to be a sheathed sword.”

“Continue to be a sheathed sword if that makes you happy,” was Luna’s enthusiastic, cheerful reply. “Be content with the knowledge that you are a rousing success, one that will likely change the future. I shaped you. Nurtured you. I carefully constructed your mind and turned it into a repository of knowledge. I knitted your mind into a beautiful, purposeful jumper, an accomplishment that I am proud of. I must confess, you were crafted in mine image. Some parts of myself have imprinted upon you. At least, Gestalt believes this to be true.”

“I find myself in an odd position,” Nut said to Luna. “Here I am, a created being. A being purpose-made to serve some function. I find myself before my creator, my goddess so to speak, and of all the questions I could be asking that could serve some practical purpose, I find myself thinking of faith.” His ears drooped into a submissive posture. “Was I created to serve?”

“Do you wish to serve?” asked Luna, who now paced once more.

“How do I answer?” he replied. “I have no way of knowing what my own wants are. If I say yes, that I wish to serve, is it my will or yours? My whole mindset is one of science. Of rationality. I am an empirical being. Yet, right now, all of my thoughts are metaphysical. I am overrun with intangibles and abstracts.”

“If you were to ask Gestalt, he would tell you that your goddess left behind a willful, stubborn streak. He cites credible evidence; the rest of your family are all known conformists. You are the only one who regularly questions the state of things—which I should mention is the cause of a shared headache among the whole of your family. I suspect that Gestalt resents me on some level.”

“Where do I end and where do you begin?” he asked, and even as he said the words, he was crushed by the sheer enormity of them.

“Does it matter?” Now, Luna approached the desk where Nut sat and she wore a soft, reassuring smile. “You are free. As free as I could make you. I worked very hard to give you the freedom that I myself longed to have. That was always there, always present. Always a factor. Rather than allow it to be squashed, as it typically is during foalhood development, I protected it. Nurtured it. Your contrary nature was my precious, tender little flower, and I kept the weeds away. I cultivated your rebellious streak, I confess.”

“So you, a goddess, made an insolent, willful creation. Why? Why make something that would inevitably rebel against you? Something that would question you? What did you hope to gain?”

“I was purpose-made to obey,” Luna replied, and she now spoke in a cold deadpan. “My existence is unbelievably complicated and complex. But… I am not free. I resent that. Recently, I’ve made peace with that, and I am getting better. But make no mistake, I still bear resentment. I will always bear resentment. To satisfy my stubborn curiousness, I struggled to make a truly free creature. I might have stepped out of the bounds of what was intended, and I might have performed questionable acts, but I had to know.”

“And what is it that you had to know?”

“Can a free, willful creature, one gifted with power and privilege, still choose to do good? To be good. To overcome an innate sense of entitlement. Can a free creature be good? What does it mean to be noble? Not noble with peerage, and land, and privilege, but noble. Alas, Gestalt and the others don’t know the depths of my experimentations.” She leaned down over Nut’s desk until her nose almost bumped into his. “You have exceeded all of my wildest expectations and I will continue to watch you with great interest.”

“I am… having… a crisis of faith.”

“Strange, mine husband also had a crisis of faith. He came away stronger.”

“But I am not a pony of faith. I think it to be hooey.”

“I have faith in you,” Luna said, matter-of-factly. “So much faith in fact, that I stuck my neck out at great risk and poured all of my hopes into you.”

“You do realise that everything that you just said makes everything worse, right?”

Luna pulled away, her lips puckered into something that was almost a pout, and then she stood there, lost in thought. Never in his whole life had Nut felt more conflicted, or more contrary. He wanted to refute all of this, to dismiss it, to embrace his contrary nature—but suspected that if he did so, it would be conforming. Down was up, up was down, left was right, right was left, north was south, and south was north.

“What am I to do with my life?” he asked.

“What is it that you wish to do with your life?” she replied.

“Well”—he considered his words for a time—“see, that’s the problem. I just don’t know. My mark is an umbrella. Beyond that, I have an endless horizon. It’s really rather intimidating, if I can be honest, and I’m afraid to commit to anything, because I don’t know if it is a mistake or not. There are times I envy ponies who embrace destiny and then live life without care of consequence. Since I seem to be a free pony”—he glared at Luna for a moment—“it seems that I am free to mess up my life, which I seem to have done. My contrary nature has proven a detriment. My love life is a shambles. I think my foalhood friend hates me. I freed myself from the bonds of betrothal, and Pod seems more than a little peeved.”

He scowled and shook his head.

“My freedom seems to have come at the cost of severe discontent. As your creation, I must tell you, it sucks.”

Now, Luna scowled.

“At the risk of being an impertinent creation, I have some thoughts for you, my creator.” He fearlessly affixed his steely gaze upon Luna, who did not flinch away. “Being free is not all its cracked up to be. I’ve been free to starve. To struggle. To suffer. I left the proverbial promised land and went west of Canterlot. Had I conformed, I might have been happy here. I might have married Pod and known the sort of bliss that my mother and father share with one another. I might not lay awake in bed at night, questioning everything under the sun. You… you did this to me. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“How many creations are free to tell their creator off?” Luna asked.

“Oh… oh… indeed. I say. So that’s how it is going to be.”

Luna shrugged and said, “You’re my first effort. My sister spent years carefully crafting her students, her projects, until at last she had her Twilight Sparkle. I don’t care what anypony else says, or even what you say, you’re not bad for a first effort. I’m not expecting anypony to pat me on the back and congratulate me, but I am not ashamed of what I’ve done.”

“You do realise that as of right now, you and I have a complex relationship.” Nut, somewhat miffed about being referred to as a ‘first effort’, thought of a few choice words to say to Luna, but then he chickened out. It galled him that he couldn’t sort out if it were reverence or courtesy that motivated him. He was, indeed, free to tear into his creator, and verily, she didn’t seem to mind if he did—which made everything worse, really.

There was nothing quite so infuriating as a lackadaisical goddess.

“Perhaps,” Luna began as a wry smile spread across her muzzle, “if you cling tightly to your rationality, your logical idealism, and your empiricism, you will cause your goddess, your creator, to vanish in a puff of logic.”

“What madness is this?” he demanded.

“Oh, stranger things have happened, I assure you.”

Incensed, he tried to think of something witty to say, something caustic perhaps, and failed.

“My sister and I, we protest to be called goddesses. For the most part. We strive to be ponies. Celestia went through a prolonged phase where she was a fertility goddess, and she allowed little ponies to worship her, wholly and completely. It made them happy. They had nothing else in their lives, and at the time, the world was quite a bleak place. Celestia has mixed feelings about that time of her life, and sometimes, I think she longs for a return to those days.

“With all that said, I must confess, I am enjoying my goddess moment right now. You, my creation, are quite endearing. I’ve done something extraordinary. This is an accomplishment, and gives me hope for my future endeavours. Unintentionally, I’ve given you a gift, and that is faith, it seems. You owe me nothing. There is no obligation, other than a tacit acknowledgement of our bond, whatever that might be. You are free to determine the boundaries of our relationship.”

“Yes, but what is it that I am to do?”

“Well… you and your apprentice share an extraordinary common bond. Mind you, I’m not telling you what to do, I am merely suggesting, but the two of you might wish to explore that. She is having her own crisis of faith right now, just as you are having yours. Certain truths must be faced. Stared down. Internalised. She must stand before the Sun, fearful of fire… and you… well, whatever you do next will be your own choosing.”

The desk creaked as Nut repositioned himself in his seat.

“You are a sheathed sword, but make no mistake, you are my sword. I have forged you in my fires, which are wholly different than those of the Sun. My fire is like my light; cold, piercing, and made all the brighter by the darkness. You… my beloved creation, went into a dark place indeed. The Widowwood. There is a spiritual darkness there. A soul surrounded by darkness was attracted to your light—my light—and she rejected that darkness, though it cost her dearly. She was like a curious moth drawn to your flame. And not only her, but others as well.

“Because of your restraint, your care, your consideration, you avoided a massacre. Far worse ends might’ve happened. You inspired the trust of Potato Blossom, and she had the courage to go with you. To seek the light. If you desire some divine purpose, find others lost to darkness. Bring them back to the light. Protect those who cannot protect themselves. Or… do nothing, if that is what you wish. The choice is yours.”

This was inspiring, but Nut would never admit it.

“You feel better.” Luna’s statement was not a question.

After a moment spent in consideration, he gave her a reluctant nod.

“Try not to worry too much about what your family says,” Luna said to Nut. “They don’t understand. Nor will they. Love them anyway, and humour them. There are others who need you. Focus on them. In time, your family will see the good you do, and praise you.”

“I don’t need their praise.”

“But it will still feel good.”

He found that he didn’t want to acknowledge that Luna was right.

“Go pick a fight,” Luna suggested. “A worthy one. Find worthy foes, and humble them. Do not be afraid to use your gifts on the deserving. Sometimes, violence is the only solution. Peace, however, is preferable. A dark shadow looms over Vanhoover. Troubled times have come. I’m not too worried, because I know you’ll do right.”

Something about Luna’s confidence made him feel splendid, and he hated it.

“As for Potato Blossom… her journey is just beginning. I can think of no better instructor or protector.” Once more, Luna’s nose was mere inches away from Nut’s. “All her roads lead home. At least, that is my sister’s belief. She feels that outside intervention simply will not do. Somepony from the Widowwood needs to reform the Widowwood, and it might very well be Potato Blossom. If it is to be her, she has a monumental task ahead. I don’t know how this ends, but what I do know is, if anypony can prepare her for such a task, it is you.”

“She’s shunned.”

“So was Gosling and his mother. Now, Gosling is the Confessor for the Pegasus Tribe. He’s an excellent Confessor because he’s been shunned. His faith is tempered. Potato Blossom will be made all the stronger for her loss and suffering. But all of this means nothing without a worthy guardian and teacher.”

Nut suffered an involuntary headbob of agreement.

“This feels good,” Luna remarked. “Feels right.”

“I might start a religion just to spite you.”

Luna pulled her head back, her eyes narrowed, and her ears angled forwards over her face. “You would, too. No matter. I can think of no better act of devotion.”

“Can faith and rationality converge within the same mind?”

“I don’t know.”

Her blunt answer surprised him, and Nut appreciated Luna’s candor.

“I would like to say yes. But it would have to be just the right mind. Faith without zealotry. Rationality that can accept that some things will remain mysterious, no matter what.” Luna’s wing whipped out with a crack, and then folding it, she began to rub her chin. “You know, Twilight Sparkle almost meets the criteria, I think. She is a creature of logic and rationality, but she has unshakable faith in friendship. I now have something to ponder when I shower.”

These words lodged in Nut’s mind. As answer, it seemed obvious. Self-evident. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Probably because he didn’t know Twilight Sparkle. Perhaps faith and rationality could exist. Friendship was the evidence of something unseen. It was both tangible and insubstantial. Yes, after a moment of further reflection, Twilight was a good answer. Much to his surprise, Nut faced his creator with good humour.

“I have a confession,” he said.

“Do you now,” she replied. “Shall I fetch my husband, the Confessor?”

“No, this is between a creation and his goddess.” Nut drew in a deep breath, held it, and then took a moment to transform his thoughts into words. “I spent a lot of time tearing down and ridiculing ponies of faith.” As he spoke, he saw the sadness in Luna’s eyes. “I wanted my rationality to mean more. To be right. I wanted to belittle ponies of faith so my own sense of self-righteousness would grow fat. I revelled in my own smug sense of superiourity. Going to the Widowwood, I must say, it rather brought out the worst in me. It reaffirmed much of my negative views and how I felt about faith. But, it also changed how I felt about it.”

“That is brave of you to say that.” For a moment, Luna’s lips pursed together, and then she said, “Potato Blossom is still a pony of faith. It’s bruised. Wounded. But it is a fundamental part of her being. Once the grevious wounds inflicted have healed, she will go in search of restoration. Likely, she will come to you, because she trusts you. Wholly and completely.”

“Why me?” Nut asked. “What have I done to deserve this trust?”

“I often ask myself the same question.” Luna shrugged, she no longer rubbed her chin, and she folded her wing back against her side. “I’ve been a monster. Who am I that I deserve this trust and affection? Yet, I have it, and I am a better pony for having been blessed with it. Things have changed for me. Tremendously. My sister and I, we are one, as we were meant to be. I am reclaiming myself from the dark shadow that consumed me. I am still figuring everything out, which is hard, and almost every day, my sister reminds me to be the sort of pony others believe me to be.

“Which is hard, because many still do not trust me. To many, I am still the monster. The Nightmare.” She sighed, then smiled. “But there is my sister. My husband. I have friends. There is Twilight Sparkle. Each day, I remind myself of my friends, and then I try to be the pony they believe me to be.” Leaning in a little closer, she asked, “Shall I add you to the list?”

The question caught him off guard, and he blinked as he sat there, rigid.

After a few seconds of awkward silence that felt like hours, he responded, “By all means.”

“Huzzah, I am friends with mine creation!”

Then, without warning, he was hugged. It was an odd moment, and Luna seemed quite enthusiastic about it, because she almost tipped over his desk, which he was too big to be sitting in. After a bit of time not knowing what to do, he leaned into the embrace, and allowed it to happen. By his own estimation, the hug lasted for far too long, and it was a relief when Luna finally pulled away.

Hurts, donut

View Online

Potato Blossom’s cheeks were somewhat stained with tears, like soil left dark after spring showers. Though her eyes had red spiderwebs, she wore a brave smile, and Nut was relieved to see her. A more careful examination revealed little twitches, taut muscles, and telltale signs of anxiety. The fact that she smiled when under distress revealed much of her character. Her face was still battered, still bruised, though t’was fading fast.

“Are you well?” he asked.

She took a deep breath, started to reply, and failed. Her lips flapped in a frustrated raspberry, she drew in another deep breath, and then tried a second time. “I s’pose. Still feel spooked. I can’t go back out there and face the crowd after I caused a scene. Plus, I’m sleepy.”

Princess Celestia, who stood nearby, reached out with her wing and patted Tater Blossom on the neck. Nut noticed that the filly flinched a little, startled, but she did not pull away. No, she leaned in to the affectionate touch, and allowed it to happen. It was a gentle moment of reassurance, one that made Nut feel things. What those feelings were, however, remained unknown to him.

“I got to meet Prince Gosling, and he done told me about how he and his ma were shunned.” Tater Blossom sidestepped a little closer to Princess Celestia. “Talkin’ to him made me happy. He knew all the right things to say.” With a tilt of her head, she peered sidelong at the princess beside her. “Almighty Celestia didn’t have much to say, but then again, I s’pose not much needed to be said.”

“It was best that I listened,” Princess Celestia said in a matter-of-fact way. “You’ve had more than enough sermons in your life, Miss Blossom.”

“Yer nothin’ like Ma said you’d be.”

“And thank goodness for that. Who wants to be a vindictive harridan?”

“A termagant you are not.”

“Thank you, Mister Nut.”

“Just Nut.”

“I can’t go back out there,” Tater Blossom said. “Just thinkin’ ‘bout it makes it hard to breathe and everything feels tight. Please, don’t make me go.”

“We can go home,” Nut said to reassure her. “The walk might do you some good.”

Tater Blossom relaxed beneath Princess Celestia’s touch and Nut felt his own muscles respond in kind. Potato Blossom had come to the fabled city of Canterlot, met the goddess, and rather than meet a fiery being of vengeance, she found a kindly grandmotherly figure. Of course, Nut had his own goddess encounter, and now saw Luna in a wholly different light. He felt better, changed somehow in some irrational way that defied explanation, and was certain that Tater Blossom felt much the same way. She had encountered the divine—and all of her mother’s destructive doctrines had been challenged. Nut had no idea what might come of it, but he hoped that his friend would heal.

“Wish me luck, I go to face the crowd.”

At the sound of Luna’s voice, Tater Blossom froze. Nut’s eyes darted leftwards, and he could see Luna’s vague outline in the doorway of Celestia’s private offices. He could not help but wonder how Tater Blossom might react to Luna, and this situation had any number of terrible outcomes. Celestia gestured with her other wing, beckoning her sister to come closer. The tension in the air was like that of an impending thunderstorm or a squall rolling in from the ocean.

“Sister, come meet this nice filly.”

“Why hello, nice filly. What a handsome guardian you have.” Luna’s approach was slow, measured, and oh-so-very regal. “He and I had an exchange of pleasantries.”

“P-p-princess Luna.”

“It could be said that you truly came into your own atop the water tower.”

Tater Blossom, trembling, shook her head from side to side. “I don’t understand…”

“Perhaps not now,” Luna replied, “but one day, you will. Miss Blossom, you show remarkable decorum and courage.”

“For meetin’ you and not a-runnin’ away?”

“No.” Luna’s now-narrowed eyes glittered with mischief. “For standing in the foul miasma of my sister’s sweaty wingpits… somehow without flinching or fainting. Commendable.”

Nut was forced to bite his lip to keep his laughter from escaping. As for Tater Blossom, she crowed with laughter, but then jammed her hoof into her mouth to cork the flow of mirth. Little snorts came shooting out of her nostrils like tiny cannonballs, all while Princess Celestia’s eyes rolled in the most dramatic way possible. It was the sort of savagery that could only exist between siblings—and Nut was too busy with his attempts to contain his laughter to think about how he was an only foal with no siblings

After Tater Blossom pulled her slobbery hoof out of her mouth, she asked, “Is it a sin if I laugh?”

“No.” Princess Celestia seemed bothered by her own response in some vague, indiscernible way.

“I think the real sin is for somepony to suggest that you do not love your sister,” said Nut.

“That’s rather judgmental.” Princess Celestia’s eyes first went to Princess Luna, and then to Tater Blossom, who chortled beside her.

“You say it is judgmental, but you did not say it was wrong.” Pleased with himself, Nut held his head high and his ears stood in a proud, pricked posture.

Bold.” Princess Celestia affixed her commanding, maternal gaze upon Nut.

With an almost feline enthusiasm, Princess Luna began rubbing her cheek against her sister’s neck. She grunted, a decidedly unprincesslike sound, and Nut observed that Tater Blossom had taken notice. There was something about Princess Luna, and she had changed in some way from how he remembered her. Not only did she look younger, but she acted younger. In fact, there was something almost Potato Blossimish about her, but Nut couldn’t say how or why.

It confounded him.

“It’s almost a relief knowin’ and seein’ that Ma was wrong.” There was a long, shuddery sigh from Tater Blossom, followed by a bit of a sniffle, but she maintained her composure. “She was always going on an on ‘bout what was moral, and what ain’t… and more and more, I’m seein’ that all she had to say was a pack of lies.”

“I may take an unconventional approach,” Nut began, “but I don’t let anypony tell me what is moral. I try to approach right and wrong through rationality. A great many things that society believes to be moral are, in fact, quite immoral. When I try to draw attention to these things… it never goes well. Defying convention never ends well for me, for some reason.”

With her sister still rubbing against her, Princess Celestia seemed thoughtful. After a few moments, she turned to Nut and said, “It seems as though everypony is attempting to uphold conventional morality. But not you. Out of all of House Eccentrica, you alone are the true nonconformist. The odd black sheep.”

Caught off guard, Nut gave these words careful consideration as he asked, “What is it that you think I do different?”

Princess Luna pulled away from her sister to look at Nut directly, while Tater Blossom reached up to adjust her hat. He found himself quite uncomfortable with suddenly being the center of attention, as it was in his nature to strive to avoid notice. Yet, here he was, with the commanding gazes of two alicorns held fast upon him.

“Time passes. Convention changes. Ponies are so focused on upholding conventional morality that they are letting the past hold back the future. But not you. Nut, you seek to define your own sense of morality. This is not an easy path. Thankfully, you don’t have to go alone. You have an apprentice in dire need of these lessons due to the circumstances of her upbringing.”

He flogged his brain for a response, but all his efforts were for naught.

“It will cost you dearly, but I think you already know that. Traditions and social mores are the hardest things to change. Just look at what it is doing to your apprentice. See how she suffers as she has to examine all of her values to see which are worthy, and which must be cast aside. Such a terrible price. For her, it left her shunned. Cast out. Unwanted.”

Nut found the words he wished to say, but he lacked the desire to say them. Still, such words were necessary, and with great regret he said, “It cost me Pod. My family. I mean, we’re not estranged, but we don’t see eye to eye. It feels like everything went wrong. All because I wanted to discover myself. The pony that I wished to be, and not the pony that everypony wanted me to be.”

In response, the taller of the two princesses nodded. “The right thing is never easy.”

“But am I doing the right thing?” Too late, he realised the folly of his own question. Even after saying that he didn’t let anypony tell him what was moral, and yet here he was, asking a proverbial goddess what she thought was moral. It left him feeling foolish.

Princess Celestia chuckled hard enough that her body shook. “Only time will tell.”

“The cost… what if I am wrong?” asked Nut, who was still in a weird place that he’d rather not be, which was seeking morality advice from some ancient, immortal being. “I’ve given up so much already.”

“Life will demand far more of you. I wish we had more time, but others demand my time and attention. Go do something about Vanhoover, Nut. So long as the city isn’t burnt to the ground, I shall be forgiving. Good luck, and good parting.”

“Yes”—Princess Luna’s head bobbed up and down in an almost manic manner—“go and do something about Vanhoover. I bid thee to bring unbridled havoc to bear upon the injustices found there.”

“Is this… is this like a formal request?” Nut found himself in an odd place, because sometimes the sisters were… playful.

“I seem to recall that you swore an oath—”

“Yes,” Luna said, interrupting her sister, “I definitely remember an oath. On the day of your cute-ceañera. You swore an oath. As I recall, you were quite giddy about it. So much so that your mother had to pull you aside and calm you down.”

“But I am one pony… and there… there is a whole city in need of what for and maybe something greater.”

“Luna, would you please hold still—”

“I can’t,” the younger of the two sisters replied, “the moon is full. Me. I am the moon.”

“Do you need to go potty?” Tater Blossom asked.

“HAH!” Luna’s outburst was almost thunderous in the hallway. “I am off to lay waste to the carnival games and have fun! I shall give away the prizes I claim to win the hearts and minds of mine subjects.” Hooves clattering, she sprang away and went running down the hall while flapping her wings.

“Oh… I must be going… when Luna discovers that the carnies rig their games, she’ll be livid… oh dear. Oh bother… excuse me, but I sense catastrophe waiting in the wings!” Princess Celestia hurried away in pursuit of her sister. “Remember your oath, Nut. Potato Blossom, it was nice to meet you. Remember what Gosling told you. Go do great things together! I must save the carnies from Luna’s sense of self-righteous indignation!”

And then, the sisters were gone. Nut exchanged a glance with Tater Blossom, and he wondered what thoughts must be stampeding through her head right now. She’d been raised to believe that Almighty Celestia was a divine being, a creature of smiteful, frightful fury—and now, she’d seen a glimpse of the real Celestia. He’d need to keep an eye on her, because she was bound to react to this somehow, but how was unknown.

“They’re… very… silly ponies,” Tater Blossom said at last.

“Oh, verily,” he agreed.

“I’m kinda relieved. Ma said that silliness was sinfulness. But she also said that Almighty Celestia alone was without sin. So if Celestia is a silly pony, that means I can be a silly pony, and that’s a relief. ‘Cause I like being a silly pony, but I don’t wanna be a sinner.”

“That seems to be a remarkably logical observation.”

“Thanks. I needed to hear that.”

“Come, walk with me, Miss Blossom. Canterlot is a beautiful city at night. We’ll take the long way home.”

The playground was lit with colourful paper lanterns that cast multihued islands of light. There were ponies out here, adults, who’d stepped outside to enjoy the night. But Nut noticed none of them. He only had eyes for the pea green mare on the swing set. Taffy, a dusky shade of nightfall, was almost invisible in the dark. It occurred to Nut that Pod and Taffy complimented each other, as they were both uncommon colours… unpopular colours.

Taffy’s shade of blue wasn’t too far off from Luna’s.

Pod was a bit too big for the swing, but it didn’t matter. Beside her, Taffy swung back and forth while speaking in a low voice. Nut couldn’t hear what was said, but even knowing so little about Taffy, he suspected that it was kind, reassuring words of some kind. Though they were adults now, something about the playground and the paper lanterns made Nut feel like a foal again, or perhaps he was nostalgic for a time when everything was simpler. When things made sense. A time when he’d been told that it was decided that he would marry Pod, his cousin and best friend, because that was the right thing to do.

It certainly simplified his life and took a lot of pressure off of him.

To enjoy it, all he had to do was conform—and he rather failed at that.

A lifetime of conformity. That is what drove him away. The idea that his life had been planned out for him. His marriage and shared future. With marriage would come a lifetime of this. Navigating the Canterlot social savanna, keeping track of the big players, the predators, the survivors, the grazers who gathered to feed—he wanted no part of it, any of it. Pod did. She dismissed his severe dislike of Canterlot’s social savanna as early onset curmudgeonliness.

“I don’t know how to make things right with Pod.”

“Well,” Tater Blossom said while she sidled closer to Nut, “don’t be a thief of truth. Maybe just tell her how you feel.”

These words resounded in his ears and brought up ideas that had floated in his mind over the past few days. There is but one sin, and that is theft. Plus, there was the oft-repeated words of Secundus, we pay our debts sometimes. Nut knew that his silence had driven Secundus away, but perhaps it wasn’t too late to salvage things with Pod. His apprentice’s advice was deceptively simple, but also had awful complexity.

“I love Pod,” Nut said to the filly beside him, “but I hate all the things she wants. Well, most of them. She wants to settle down. Settle in. She wants a life that she can boast about. Pod is a Canterlot pony through and through. I could never be happy with her. Sooner or later, all of my resentment for all the things she wants would spill out on her directly. And that… that is the worst thing I can think of. Pod deserves better. This makes her happy… and she deserves that happiness. But she and I could never coexist because of it.”

“You gotta tell her that. Nut, you owe her that.”

“But it will hurt her.”

“Yeah, prolly. It’ll likely hurt a goldurn lot. Bein’ stabbed in my hindquarters all those times hurt too, but I lived through it. And in a few weeks, I’ll live through it again. I done reckon I’ll recover, scratch my mad spot, and get over it.”

Even with this earthy wisdom that lingered in his ears, he hesitated.

“It hurt me when Mrs. Oleander said that my ma was a thief. But she was right to say it. My ma… she is a thief. It pains me to say that and makes my heart feel all jumpy. I needed to hear it. Mrs. Oleander said it, and I don’t hate her for it. She’s my friend, and I trust her. If you love Pod, you need to do right.”

He sighed when he concluded that his sensible friend was correct.

With his hooves almost dragging, Nut made his way over to the swing set…




“It makes me feel weird when y’all say each other’s names like that,” said Tater Blossom.

Nut noticed that Pod had a tight grip on the well-oiled chains of the swing. She’d been crying, and the idea that she’d wept while she sat on the swing caused a rush of strange feelings to go ricocheting through his guts. She was holding on for dear life, and he suspected that he knew why, for he was probably the cause.

“Pod…”—he inhaled—“I’m really very sorry that I told you that if you ever swung over the top of the swing that you’d get sucked into an alternate dimension full of foal-munching monsters.”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed, widened again, all while her barrel rose and fell. ”You came over here to apologise for that of all things?”

“Well, I owe you a number of apologies, and thought this might be a good way to warm up.”

“I owe myself an apology for that one,” she said, her demeanour rather curt. “What a gullible filly I was to believe such nonsense. You were so solemn and serious when you told me. I should’ve known better, but I trusted you and your educated confidence. You really were a prat, you know that?”

“Before this turns into a battle of bloody noses on the playground”—Taffy raised her hoof in a gesture to halt—“we should go to Donut Joe’s. Get a proper table between the two of you. Even if the preventative measures fail, the blood will not look too out of place amongst the globs of raspberry jam filling.”

“Oh… capital idea.” Pod’s words lacked their usual enthusiasm. “Just what I need. Hindquarter enlargement. Fetch the harpoons, Taffy. We’re going whaling.”

“We’re all dressed up, so we might as well go somewhere,” Taffy said to Pod.

“Oh, very well. Let’s go.” Pod lurched out of the swing and her gown dragged through the dirt down below. “A batch of warm princess puffs with creamy filling do sound tempting—”

“Lewd, Pod.”

“Lewd?” Pod’s head tilted off to one side.

“Puffy princesses with cream filling!” Taffy said it loud enough that several heads turned.

“Oh… that is lewd.” Pod’s ears fell back and her orange tongue could be seen as it flicked across her lips.

Eyebrow arched, Nut said, “And Pod eats them by poking her tongue through the tiny hole—”

“Oh, I know,” Taffy replied. “I love to watch. Pod has a talented tongue.”

“Lewd,” Nut deadpanned.

“I feel dirty,” Tater Blossom announced.

“Blame the lewds,” Taffy replied. “Now, let’s go get some donuts. I’m determined to salvage this night somehow.”

The walls and shelves of Donut Joe’s were cluttered with enough garniture to cause overstimulation in any pony that tried to take it all in. Pictures. Urns of those departed who wished for their mortal remains to hang out in the donut cafe for as long as it existed. Trophies. Celestia collectables. Keepsakes of Luna. Tourist knick-knacks such as miniature models of famous Canterlot towers.

It was magnificent.

All four of them were crammed into a corner booth with a round table. Tater Blossom was beyond excited, and showed no signs of sleepiness. Unaware of the danger, she made a valiant effort to examine every little thing in her immediate surroundings, and now behaved as if she was jazzed on java. While she checked out the bric-a-brac, Nut watched the ponies present, and it appeared as though quite a few socialite refugees came here to recover with donuts and drinks.

Canterlot might be the only city in existence where tuxedoed ponies went out for donuts.

“Pinkie Pie!”


“Right there, Taffy!”

With a turn of his head, Nut looked in the direction of where Tater Blossom pointed. There was a framed colour photograph on the wall, with a herd of mares gathered around a table. All of them were dressed in their distinctive finery, which was rather tattered and disheveled. The mares almost looked as though they’d escaped a war zone. In the middle of the group was Twilight Sparkle—still a unicorn.

“What a friendship lesson that must have been,” Taffy remarked. “This place has history.”

“Pod and Nut have history.”

“Indeed, they do, Tater.”

“We do.” Pod’s head turned and she watched a young couple come through the door.

Nut too, watched the couple. They were perfect, of course. He was wearing a stylish jacket, black with blue trim, while she wore a simple-yet-elegant white gown. Not a hair was out of place on either of them, and it was obvious to any onlooker that the both of them were very much in love. That wretched phase of love with cooing, big soulful eyes, pet names, and all of the things that caused outright and utter disgust in all those who witnessed the saccharine displays of infatuation.

“The Bounty of Equestria,” the waitress said as she sat down an enormous platter of donuts upon the table. “A little taste of everything, from every one of our cities. Crullers. Maple bars from Vanhoover. Cream-filled. Jellies, including the jalapeño jelly donuts famous in Las Pegasus. I’ll be right back with your drinks. Enjoy.” She departed, and took her nasal deadpan with her.

“Oh my.” From the tone of her voice, it was easy to guess that Tater Blossom was intimidated by the platter of donuts. “What are these, and what do I start with?”

Saying nothing, Nut snatched up a maple bar, because he had to determine if they matched the glorious maple bars of Vanhoover. After a polite bite, he was left disappointed. This wasn’t much like the real thing. Sure, it was delicious, but it only had the mere suggestion of maple, and not the overpowering, cloying assault upon the senses that a true Vanhooverian maple bar was known to cause.

“Try a princess puff,” Pod suggested. “They’re light, airy, flakey, and come with a surprise. There’s citrus cream and blackcurrant jelly. Donut Joe goes through a lot of trouble to make sure that you won’t know which is which.”

In silence, Nut munched his maple bar while Tater Blossom surveyed the massive platter. Pod seemed a little happier, while Taffy was happy. But then again, Taffy always seemed happy, and Nut suspected that she was just that sort of mare. He found her attractive, due in no small part because of her bubbly, effervescent disposition.

Following Pod’s suggestion, Tater tore into a princess puff, which bled out pale orange cream filling. It was gone in three bites, and after licking her lips, Tater destroyed all evidence of its existence. Nut couldn’t help but be impressed by Tater Blossom’s voracious appetite. He found himself relaxing a little, and even enjoying his maple bar—which wasn’t terrible, just different.

“Well… I suppose you don’t have telekinesis so you can hold it up and explore it with your tongue,” Pod said to Tater Blossom. “That’s the real fun in eating them. Sucking out the filling and then devouring the hollowed-out puff.” With a kind smile, Pod plucked out a straw from the container on the counter, levitated it over, stabbed it into another princess puff, and then set it down upon Tater Blossom’s plate. “There you go. Have fun.”

“Why, thank ya.”

The waitress returned with four enormous glasses of chocolate milk, which she sat down upon the table, and then she was off to attend to other customers. Nut found himself wondering where she lived. If she struggled to pay the bills and keep the lights on. How hard was it to make ends meet here in Canterlot? How did a waitress survive here? He was almost certain that he was the only pony in the room to think such things, and the awareness of it left him some self-conscious angst.

For him, it was just more confirmation that he didn’t belong here.

When he glanced at Pod, he caught her with her eyes on him. For a moment, when their eyes met, he felt an old familiar spark. But with it came a cascadevalanche of emotions and thoughts of Black Maple. In a weird moment of introspection, he saw two very different lives stretch out before him, with different outcomes. One involved staying here, in Canterlot, and his awareness of the struggles of waitresses slowly fading away with time, until it wasn’t even a background thought or a passing distraction.

Pod’s love was like anesthetic, which was, perhaps, the point. It crossed his mind that this might’ve been the matchmaker’s intention. A little something to dull the pain as the last vestiges of rebellion and nonconformity died within him. As those fundamental aspects within him died, Pod’s company would make their passing bearable. It was a bleak thought, but it was an honest thought. Though he’d infected Pod with some of his thinking, it wasn’t a total shift in world outlook. She was still a creature of the Canterlot Social Savanna.

Black Maple’s love on the other hoof, was like a sharp stab with a pin. A thorn in the side. She would never allow complacency. He would never fully be comfortable with her. There would always be poking, prodding, testing, her charms would never allow him a moment’s peace—and a part of him knew that he prefered that. It was better for him. Made him grow. He adapted. Survived.

This new awareness caused him no end of pain, but he could not unthink it.

Growing up. The end to foalhood. Surrounded by donuts and chocolate milk. A life of privilege could not save him from this inevitable fate. Was this what he wanted? Yes. It was. There was no turning back now, it was time to embrace the ache. The last and final bridge to adulthood. Or, perhaps he was a bit too dramatic. But this did feel like a transition, a turning point, and once he committed himself, he feared that nothing would ever be the same.

The truth would either set him free, or completely ruin everything.

Perhaps both.

Pod had a princess puff and Nut watched with bemused interest as he finished off his maple bar. When she stuck out her tongue, there was something almost timeless about her, a suggestion that she would be forever young. She would grow up, sure, but she would always be sheltered. Pod would never want for anything. All of her fetching innocence and youthful appeal would be preserved, because in some ways, she would remain an eternal filly, protected from the ravages of hard living.

He felt bad for thinking of her in this way, but he knew it to be true. She was already betrothed to his replacement. While Taffy might expose Pod to some of the harsher aspects of the world due to her planned profession, at no point would either of them ever be in any real danger. They belonged here on the entirely artificial Canterlot Social Savanna, insulated from the harsh reality of the world at large. Canterlot was above the clouds, and above all the troubles found down below.

Her tongue probed the tiny filling hole and when it vanished into the depths, her eyes widened with sweet surprise. She was beautiful, painfully so, though perhaps not in the traditional physical sense. Nut still loved her, everything about her, which made what needed to be done so much harder. He’d left home to avoid consequences, plain and simple, and to come home meant that he had to face the music. Saving Tater Blossom from her troubles at home led him here, back to Canterlot, where he had no choice but to face down his own trials and tribulations. It was fitting in some way, perhaps poetic, but these travails felt a lot like justice.

Tater Blossom was attempting to suck blackcurrant jelly through a straw, which left her cheeks collapsed, leaving her face hollow and pinched. She made a valiant effort and there were vulgar slurping and sucking sounds from within the secret confines of the princess puff. As he watched the filly continue her exercise in futility, he thought about how special this moment was, how precious it was. Because he had suffered, because he had gone hungry, this meant something. The excess food mattered more, as did the joy to be found from consumption.

But for Pod, this was just another night out, in a never-ending series of nights out.

For the first time, Nut began to understand the weight of the choices he had made, and wasn’t sure what to think of them. He’d done this to himself. All of his misery was his own. At any moment, at any time, he could return to this life—it was just a matter of coming home. As he ate the last bite of his maple bar, he thought about everything that Princess Luna had said. Rather than be depressed about all of this, Nut found that he was… satisfied? Perhaps that wasn’t the right description. But he was glad to know the truth, relieved. He hoped that his relationship with Princess Luna would progress and grow into whatever it was meant to be.

As was so often the case, his thoughts strayed to the Gallopagos.

He could leave it all behind. All of the complication. This hoof wringing. Every bit of angst, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He could leave the world behind, with all of its social savannas and unnecessary complexity. All these interactions, such as the apology he owed Pod. He thought of salty breezes, a rocking ship, and surrendering himself to his obsession. The world and its troubles would no longer matter and all of this was temporary. Ephemeral. Distractions to be dealt with and brief encounters to sort out along the way to something greater.

Yet, there was a part of him that had no desire to leave this behind. Sitting here, at a table in Donut Joe’s, with Tater Blossom, Pod, and Taffy… he felt the joy of living. Made all the more pleasurable because of the struggle for survival. Because he’d gone hungry and done without. For the very first time in a long, long time, Nut suffered serious doubt about his future plans, and wondered if he should perhaps reconsider.

But he couldn’t.

He couldn’t.

His plans were part of his identity. A central component to who and what he was. His reputation. He was Nut, the up-and-coming evolutionary biologist who would one day do the impossible, and mount an expedition to the Gallopagos. His academic career had been wholly shaped by his plan, and was the primary reason he had any sort of reputation at all. His quest gave him a sort of gravitas that was typically inaccessible to young upstarts such as himself, but he had a sort of minor fame associated with his name. All because of the plan.

Letting go of the plan would destroy him and his future.

He would sink back into obscurity.

Turning back now would be his ultimate undoing.

He’d found a way to be noticed without flaunting his status as a noble. No longer was he Nut, of House Eccentrica. Now, he was Nut, the up-and-coming evolutionary biologist with the absolutely bonkers plan to visit the Gallopagos. This got ponies talking. It opened doors. The sheer brass balls of it all allowed him access to the academics who mattered. Why, it was the very sort of influence that got him sent to the Widowwood. Which, in turn, led to the rescue and recovery of his apprentice.

Everything he was and would be was because of the plan.

To disavow his plan, to even think of it, was to abandon his future.

Yet, here he was, torturing himself.

“Is this normal?” asked Taffy.

“Yes,” replied Pod. “Here is Nut in all his glory. Alone in a crowd.”

He smirked as he pulled his chocolate milk closer, and then just sat there, enjoying himself. Pod and Taffy made a fine couple. As he sat there, smirking, leaning over his chocolate milk, he thought about fatherhood. He’d been home for quite some time and hadn’t seen hide nor hair of his own father, who was probably busy with work, no doubt. Nut tried to recall time spent with his father, and found, much to his own dismay, that there weren’t that many memories to recollect. But, the memories that Nut had were happy ones, at least.

His father was consumed by his work, in a job that offered no pay.

With her princess puff now devoid of all blackcurrant jelly, Tater Blossom crammed the disemboweled dessert into her mouth and chewed away with no thought of table manners. When she swallowed, her hungry eyes began to search the piled high platter for her next victim. There was no doubt about it; Tater Blossom was a highly evolved eating machine. Before anypony could say anything, or even react, she stretched her neck out, lowered her head, and snatched up a glazed cruller from the edge of the platter. Nut could not help but notice that she’d picked off a straggler from the herd.

The patterns were everywhere; one only had to be aware of them to see them.

He sipped his chocolate milk and wished that it had been malted. Pod was an extraordinary creature, and Taffy deserved all of her—including the part that held out hope for him. By leaving home, he attempted to avoid this awkwardness, this pain, but now here he was, stuck staring down the mess he’d made. As a colt, Pod had made him feel things; he discovered things about himself. Pod was the creature that allowed him to catalogue his sexuality and he learned an awful lot about himself because of her.

It wasn’t too late to fix things. If he wanted to, he could easily insert himself into their lives. He could come home. Tater Blossom would get a very different education here. In time, he would find happiness, right? Once all the vital parts of him withered and died. His own bitter resentments would surely fade in time, right? Wasn’t that just growing up? Acceptance? It was like learning to eat things that you didn’t particularly like, but they were good for you. Canterlot might never be to his liking, but surely he could accept that it was good for him.

With the cloying sweetness of chocolate milk thick on his tongue, Nut felt noodly.

“So, tell me, Nut,” Taffy began as she looked into his eyes. “What have you done since leaving home? What have you accomplished? Have you done anything to make a name for yourself? How goes seeking your own fortune?”

He spent a moment staring back into her eyes and thought about what he might say. He had, in fact, made a name for himself, and had even become something of an expert, but talking about it in polite company might be frowned upon. There was an apology that needed to be said, but this was a pleasant, welcome distraction.

“I’ve become something of an expert on mimics,” he said to Taffy. “My work has revealed a number of things. They’re blobs of biomass with specialised cells that can, at a moment’s notice, become anything. With almost any shape. These cells can become brain cells, or skin cells, or nerve tissue, or basically anything that is necessary. Mimics don’t even have a stomach until one is needed. When they surround their prey, the inside layer becomes cells specialised in digestion. The thing that has gained me some fame, or perhaps notoriety, is that I came up with a specific term due to their unique physiology.”

“And what might that be?” Taffy asked.

“Well, I said in a paper that mimics have a transient anus. That got me dragged before the school review board, and I was made to explain myself. They thought I was joking, and the joke was not funny. Once I explained the phenomenon, the term became an accepted part of scientific nomenclature. So, I have the distinction of originating the term and I will go down in the historical record as the discoverer of transient anuses in mimics.”

When Pod pulled her head away from her chocolate, there was a long ribbon of drool that stretched from her lower lip to her straw. She appeared disgusted, and rightfully so. There’d just been a discussion about transient anuses right after she’d buried her tongue into the filling hole of a princess puff. Nut allowed himself a moment of quiet, sensible satisfaction for having so disturbed poor Pod, but he did not dare grin.

“But… why though?” Taffy blinked a few times in rapid succession, but the shock did not wear off and she remained transfixed in horrified fascination.

Nut shrugged. “A lot of creatures void excrement through their mouths. Mimics could do the same, but they don’t. When mimics pass waste, they have to take great care that they are not discovered. So, they create a specialised anus on demand and pass waste that is invisible, or otherwise disguised as something else. In the archives, where I dealt with the mimic menace, I discovered that the mimics were disguising their waste as writing pens that didn’t work.”

“Some ponies put pens into their mouths to write.” Pod shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut for a second. “Oh, that is just vulgar.”

“All manner of office supplies were doled out through many a transient anus.”

“There exists a sentence that shouldn’t exist.” Taffy too, shuddered. “Dare I ask how you made this discovery?”

“Oh”—A wide, manic, noodly grin could not be held back—“that’s a funny story. I crept up on a mimic unawares and gave it a good scare. The creature was so disturbed that it immediately voided its bowels, grew a pair of legs, and then scarpered off in search of a new hiding spot.”

“So you… watched as… the uh, transient anus was made manifest…”

“Yes, Taffy, I did.”

“Gross,” Pod hissed.

“Well”—Taffy dragged out the word until it stretched quite long—“that’s an… accomplishment. You should be… proud… I guess. I mean, you’ll be going down in the annals of history—”

“Taffy! Must you?”

“Must I what, Pod?”

Pod hissed like a steam kettle left unattended on the stove, and then replied, “Nevermind.”

“So you’re developing a reputation for mimics, and you seem to like studying them… so do you mind if I ask why you don’t specialise in them? I mean, there seems to be much that isn’t known, and you seem to be discerning their secrets. Why not devote yourself to this?”

“Well I… well, uh… well… I don’t know. It was just a means to an end. Something I did for school to get high marks. I… uh… well…” Rather than continue to flounder, Nut sipped his chocolate milk, oblivious to the frothy brown colour, and gave careful consideration to Taffy’s questions.

Why didn’t he devote himself to this?

It was a fair question.

Almost nothing was known about mimics, mostly because the academics that attempted to study them typically ended up as a part of the food chain. Well, this part was debatable, those who studied mimics vanished, but digestion seemed the most likely of outcomes. Vanhoover had a mimic problem, because mimics seemed to like moist environments, at least this was the suggested hypothesis. One could make a name for themselves if they could somehow study mimics—and not end up as cleverly disguised fecal matter.

“I want to make a name for myself,” Taffy said to Nut. “Ambition is a huge part of who and what I am. I envy you… I do, really. I’m in a field where it is tough to stand out. But, it is a rather newish field, or at least a field regularly infused with newish ideas, and so I want to leave my mark. That’s why I’m eager to settle down and start a family. Somepony specialising in foalhood development should have a ready batch of test subjects.”

“How can you hurry up and start a family with a mare… I don’t wanna sound mean, I just wanna understand.” Tater Blossom sucked in a deep breath, then another, and her eyes went wide. “That came out wrong. Please don’t think I’m bad.”

“Calm down, Tater.” Taffy offered up a reassuring smile to the anxious filly across the table. “Two mares can start a family without too much trouble. Nut could help us, if he chooses to do so. We can always find a contributor, if we need one. Deep breaths, Tater.”

Then, while Pod calmed Tater down, Taffy continued, “I want to make a name for myself, but I don’t even know where to begin. At the moment, I lack credibility. I’m told I have talent, but my lack of experience hurts my prospects. What do I have to do to get noticed? I need to have my theories validated. What good does it do me to have all these ideas if I can’t sort them out or put them into practice?”

“It’s fine to ask questions,” Pod said to Tater in a hushed whisper. “You don’t have a mean bone in your body.”

Nut’s eyes went to Tater Blossom for a moment, saw that she was mostly fine, and then he returned his steady, unwavering gaze to Taffy. “You can’t make a name for yourself in a crowd. I mean, sure, maybe… but the odds feel slim. To be noticed, you must stand where nopony else dares to stand. Surround yourself with a whole lot of nothing, so much so that you’re the only thing that stands out. Do this, and you will be noticed.”

“You make it sound so simple, Nut.”

“Well, for me, it has been, Taffy.” He leaned over the table and unbeknownst to him, his eyes narrowed with fierce intensity. “It’s Canterlot, Taffy. You have little chance of standing out amongst the best and brightest. You are but one star among many. Plus, it is the way we do things here. Our accelerated degrees and doled out diplomas. We become doctors after a year in school and then gain life experience. While that is respected here, in Canterlot, it’s sneered at with contempt almost everywhere else. Why should we be so privileged that we get to skip out on our own educations?”

Taffy seemed shaken by his words and Nut waited for her to respond.

“Is that… is that true?” she asked. “Are we held in contempt?”

“Indubitably.” Nut saw the hurt in her eyes and a part of him felt bad, while another deeper, darker part felt like celebrating. “Verily.” He inhaled and softened his tone. “Everypony else is expected to struggle, but not us. Nopony else is guaranteed success. Regular ponies aren’t just given a diploma and then made to succeed. They work for it. Most of them don’t even complete their education. The dropout rate is high. Those who get degrees often end up working in unrelated fields. It’s a huge mess, Taffy… but not for us. We’re protected from failure… but also from our own meaningful success.”

“But… resentful?”

“Taffy, imagine being born on the bottom, and having to work your way up. How would you feel—”

“Oh… I get it.” Taffy’s ears drooped while her whole body slumped. “This seems so obvious… but for some reason, I didn’t make the connection until just now. Well, I feel a bit stupid.”

“Not stupid,” Nut said to her. “Just unaware. Canterlot is the city above the clouds, and the clouds obscure everything down below. It’s why I left.”

“Here we go. At last.” Pod patted Tater Blossom, but her keen eyes were focused on Nut. “The heart of the issue. That owed apology. Perhaps an explanation with some actual meaning, but I’m not holding my breath.”

“Pod, be nice. Or else.”

“Or else what, Taffy?”

“A year of endless, merciless pranks—”

“Oh, that’s not fair at all!”

“—maybe even a few mean-spirited ones. Don’t try me, Pod.”

“We all have our dark sides,” Nut remarked.

“The place where the sun don’t shine… no wait… that came out all wrong… no, no, no.” Tater Blossom’s head shook from side to side and then, with nothing better to say, she gobbled another donut into her maw to keep her mouth busy.

“I can’t imagine you having a dark side, Nut.”

“Nor I you, Taffy.”

“Oh, I can be passive aggressive with a lovely smile.” Taffy flashed her best false-smile while she batted her eyelashes. “My father was a little less than pleased when I stepped out of the closet. He was hurt. Upset. Kept going on and on about what had he done wrong. As if he was responsible for my lesbian lusts. So I pranked him. Endlessly. Ceaselessly. He had to be reminded that I was still the filly that he’d raised. Daddy had to be made to remember who I am. Eventually, he did. He came around. Sadly, he still thinks that he failed somehow, and he even went through a phase where he blamed my mother for not showing me enough affection, somehow implying that me being attracted to mares is because I seek out the motherly love I wasn’t shown enough of. But he’s getting better. I think. At least, I’ve convinced myself that things are better.” She seemed sad for a moment when she added, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”

Nut thought of the whoopie cushion left in Gestalt’s study.

“We have something in common, Nut. I don’t think your parents understand you either.”

“Oh, indeed.” Pod’s eyes rolled as she spoke. “Always going on about what is best for him. And I’m stuck listening because I live there. Blah, blah, blah, all this talk about what Nut could be, and should be, and ought to be, plus all the usual stuff about wasted potential, and I’m wasting my potential too, because I chose to try things the hard way… which, as it turns out, is just the normal way… but I’ve been made to live with Nut’s sins by proxy.”

“I’m sorry, Pod.”

“That’s not the apology I expected, but I’ll take it.” Pod assaulted Tater Blossom with a paper napkin while she said to Nut, “One night, Clove actually blamed me for not trying harder. She tried to make this my fault. Gestalt let her have it… and once she was cowed, he let me have it too. He didn’t blame me for you leaving… he just said that my feminine wiles were lacking.”

Groaning, Nut collapsed against the table and heaved a weary sigh.

“I can’t even go home,” Pod muttered. “No, I don’t want to talk about it. Nut… you left. And when you did, everything got dumped on me. Everything. Even though the betrothal was broken off years ago, and everything was all happy smiles and reassurances that the future was still promising, all of that changed when you left. You were gone. Everypony was so certain that you’d come around… that somehow I’d make you come around. You’d come to your senses, everypony said, and then they’d give me helpful advice on how to help things along. But you scrammed.

“You scrammed and nopony could quite believe that it had happened. And within a day, ponies are asking me if I did this, or if I did that, or if I gave you the space you needed to get sorted out, and there’s all these inquiries to determine what I’d done wrong. Meanwhile, you completely dodged all the consequences. I had to listen about how I was too clingy, or that I didn’t quite cling enough, or I wasn’t this, or that, and I had to hear all these whispered arguments about me, me, me.”

“Pod”—he kept his tone as neutral as possible—“why didn’t you leave? I mean, you’re clearly not with your parents… but why stay with my parents? Why stick around? Why subject yourself to this?”

“Because I need a place to live while I’m in school,” she spat out with hushed contempt. “Because all of this is temporary. At least, I hope. My parents completely cut me off and did everything short of disowning me. Clove and Bulb were nice enough to take me in.”

“Yes, but why stay? Why not just move out and live by your own means?”

Pod’s mouth fell open and in that moment, Nut knew why he left. He saw it on Pod’s face. She was willing to endure all of this… and for what? To what end? The shock and disgust on her face left him confused and hurt, but also confirmed his suspicions. He felt vindicated even as he felt crushed. Something dreadful tickled its way into his heart, and the love he felt for Pod diminished in some horrifying cancerous way.

She was a Canterlot pony through and through.

The idea of leaving was never even entertained; just enduring until the storm passed.

He was willing to leave and suffer for his freedom, and Pod, she was not. Pod, the pony that he once loved, and a part of him still loved, was too attached to all the trappings of society to go her own way. She would stay, wait this out, and claim her entitled reward for persistence. One day, she would have the Agate Tower, because he wouldn’t be around to claim it. All she had to do to have all these things was endure some discomfort, some shame, and some degradation. For the cost of a little abasement, she would have a secure life of plenty, never wanting for anything.

“I don’t know if I like how you’re looking at me,” Pod said to Nut.

He chose a not-entirely dishonest response: “It is a bit of a shock to hear of all of this.”

“That look you have on your face is worth an apology.” Pod’s voice grew chilly and she rested both of her front hooves against the chromed edge of the table. “Something just changed between us… I can sense it.”

“You’re not wrong.” He took a deep breath and abandoned all thoughts of running away. It was time to sort this out. While he might not be able to make this right, he could at least lay it to rest. “Pod, I love you. I doubt that will ever change. But the fact that you’re willing to tolerate all this nonsense just so you can maintain your prefered lifestyle… that’s exactly why we can’t stay together. You love all of this”—he gestured at everything around him with his hoof—“and I can’t stand it. Had I stayed here, had we stayed together, I would have grown to resent you.

“At least, that’s what I think, Pod. I suspect the matchmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they paired us. You’d anchor me in place. Because I love you, I’d allow you to console me as I settled in and all the vital parts of me slowly died off. Out of a misguided sense of duty, or obligation, or whatever it might be, I’d stay with you and make things work… but at the cost of everything I value about myself.

“You’re willing to settle… and that’s fine for you. For me, myself, I’m not willing to endure this kind of nonsense. You want Canterlot… and I don’t. I mean, just sit back and take an objective look at what you’re willing to put up with to stay here. Which is fine for you. But I can’t live this way. For that… I’m sorry, Pod. I really, really am. All of the things you want are things that I hate. Things I can’t stand. You deserve happiness. Taffy and you, both of you can be happy.

“I want you to have happiness and to be happy. You and I cannot coexist, and for that, I apologise. It is for the best if we truly end things between us and abandon all hope of ever making things work. There. I gave you my apology, and my reasons for departing. Now I need for you to let me go.”

The sound of Tater Blossom chewing and the thumping of his own heart was all that Nut could hear. Everything else around him had gone silent in some weird, unnatural way. He rather felt like throwing up, and it seemed as though that his alimentary canal picked a wonderful time to practice some impossible feat of complex gymnastics.

He made an effort to read Pod’s face and found that he could not. Her eyes were glassy, brimming with tears, but her feelings were unknown. In disturbed silence, he sat and watched as her nostrils quivered. It was a reaction he was familiar with; she was controlling her breathing so that she could contain whatever emotion it was that overwhelmed her. Taffy reached out and grabbed Pod’s fetlock in her own. Pod did not pull away, but allowed Taffy to comfort her.

“What you said makes a lot of sense,” Pod said at last. “And I agree. I was probably intended to be a stabilising force in your life. Which might be why I’m being blamed for something outside of my control. You were always a free spirit, Nut… and I… and I was always told that I needed to find some way to rein you in. That if I made myself desirable enough, you’d do what was right.” She gulped, swallowed again, and shook her head. “For the longest time, I struggled with not feeling very desirable, but I’ve already let that slip.”

“Pod… I’m sorry. A lot was expected from both of us. And rather than draw me in, it drove me away.” Nut’s throat felt hot, sandy, and parched.

“I get it now,” Pod said, her voice cracking mid-sentence as the first tears went dribbling down her cheeks. “All the pressures placed on me, all the expectations… that’s why you left. I can’t say I blame you.”

“Whatever you do, Pod, don’t blame yourself. And don’t feel bad for wanting this life. You’re happy here. I mean, happy enough I guess. Things are pretty burdensome right now. Like you said, all of this is temporary. Eventually, all of this will pass. The storm will blow over. You and Taffy will marry. When one of you foals, the status quo will sort itself out, and everypony will quiet down for the sake of stability. Everypony will focus on preparing the next generation for life in Canterlot.”

While tears spilled down her cheeks, Pod levitated a chocolate frosted donut with pink sprinkles to her mouth, and in a truly foalish display of table manners, crammed the entire thing right in. The whole of her muzzle was now smeared in chocolate, and her nose covered in pink sprinkles. Was this relief he saw in her eyes? He couldn’t tell. So focused was he on Pod’s feelings, that he neglected to figure out how he felt.

“Nut, forgive me for being so blunt about this, but are you truly alright with helping us start a family?” Taffy leaned close to Pod, who licked the chocolate and sprinkles from her snoot. “I mean, there’s a lot of pressure. A part of me fears that you agreed out of a sense of obligation. It’s all Pod could talk about. That… that became the plan. Our plan. She had me thoroughly convinced that it would all work out… and if I might be honest, I’m having some doubts. We can make other plans. I don’t want you to feel as though we’re trying to fence you in. Oh dear… there’s just no good way to say any of this without sounding dreadful.”

When Nut smiled, it was a sincere one, one that cut through the pain in much the same way the sun pierced through thunderheads. He considered his words, weighed them, measured them in his mind, because they were of great importance. What he said next—and how he said it—would determine the future happiness of everypony involved.

“I’m fine with this arrangement, but there is a condition.”

“And that would be?” asked Taffy.

“If you want those foals to know their father, you come and visit me. In Vanhoover. Do not try to lure me back to Canterlot. No guilt, no emotional blackmail, no dirty tactics. We do everything fairly or we don’t do it at all. And when you need a donation, you come to Vanhoover. In short, do nothing to attempt to coerce me to come back to Canterlot. If I want to come here, I will… but I will not be made to come here.

“Deal.” Pod sprayed out pink sprinkles when she spoke, one of which landed upon Nut’s nose.

“That seems remarkably reasonable and fair.” Taffy nodded her approval. “We want you to be happy to see your foals… not resentful.”

Pod shoved another whole donut into her mouth and went to work, chewing.

“How involved are you with Black Maple?” Taffy’s eyes were either half closed, or half open, depending on how one saw such things, and more than a little bit of worry could be seen within them. “What I am trying to say is, I don’t want the two of us to complicate things for the two of you.”

Was honesty the best policy? Yes, he decided. It was. He wiped the sprinkle from his nose with a paper napkin, which he then put down, and once more, he found himself taking great care as he chose his words. “I don’t know how involved I am with Black Maple. Before I left, I stuffed her into a sack for her own good. We had a bit of a row. So I don’t know how she’ll deal with all of this… and honestly, I don’t care right now. Pod and I are family. I owe Pod—”

“Owe?” Taffy shook her head no. “Not sure I like the sounds of that.”

“Call it familial obligation. Call it whatever.” He shrugged and tried to be objective about all of this. “Pod and I still have blood ties. Miss Maple and I have a rocky and complicated relationship that is ill-defined. She will either be supportive, or she will not. If she is not supportive, perhaps it is best that she and I go our separate ways. Perhaps this will offer some much-needed clarity for the both of us. If she is wholly supportive, this might very well change how I feel about her.”

Another donut met a grim end as its red jelly innards spewed over Pod’s muzzle.

“Mmm, twawhawwy,” Pod said around a mouthful of vivid-red donut gore.

“Strawberry, darling? Why don’t you tell us that after you’ve chewed and swallowed. Like a big girl.” With a turn of her graceful head, Taffy batted her eyelashes at Pod, who had jelly that dribbled down her fuzzy chin.

Without a word of warning, Pod lunged forwards and wiped her sticky, jelly-smeared face against Taffy’s cheek. This made Taffy pull away in alarm, but she wasn’t nearly fast enough to avoid Pod’s dreadful retribution. Taffy’s foreleg bumped her tall frosty glass of chocolate milk, which would have fell over if it weren’t for Nut’s excellent reflexes. There’d be no crying over spilt milk, not while he could do something about it.

“Oh, rude!” A bright red smear went from almost mouth to ear and Taffy pushed Pod back with one hoof. “Now I’m sticky.”

Tater Blossom sniggered for a bit, and then slipping her straw between her lips, she began to slurp up her chocolate milk in earnest. As for Nut, he felt as though some great weight had been lifted from his back. There was still a huge mess, but it had been tidied up a bit—which greatly pleased the lurking Disgustang, who demanded neat tidiness in all things.

“I’m all sticky,” Taffy said again. “You’re lucky you didn’t get any on my gown, you creep.”

Nut allowed himself to relax a little as he leaned back into the overstuffed cushion. Things were far from over, but things were better. He flicked his straw out of the way and drank some of his chocolate milk; like Pod, he no longer cared if he got messy, though he was careful. When he tilted the tall glass, he chugged the frothy, whipped chocolate milk, which left behind a foamy moustache on his upper lip.

As was so often the case, his thoughts turned to Black Maple. Now that things were sorted out with Pod, perhaps he could make some headway with the pegasus that was the bane of his existence. If their friendship could be salvaged, he could do that. Surely things could be fixed. Repaired. He drank more milk, which soothed the bile-burnt flesh of his throat.

“This has been an amazing night.” Nervous, Tater Blossom licked her lips, and then met each of the eyes of her companions in turn.

“Has it now?”

“It has, Nut.” She nodded while she spoke. “I got to feel like a princess. There’s my new hat, which I love. My panic attack was bad, but I got to see what Princess Celestia was really like, and talkin’ to Prince Gosling was nice. And even if a lot of this talk has gone over my head, it’s nice a-seein’ all of y’all sort this out. Even if you don’t agree, it seems y’all care for one another. Stayin’ together as family seems all important like and I mighta learned something. Plus, I like that Taffy and Pod are together. Sure, it confuses me, but it’s makin’ me think ‘bout stuff, and I need to be made to think ‘bout stuff.”

“Oh, that’s a hat. I thought you sprouted antlers.” Wearing a wide grin, Taffy snatched up a donut that oozed green jelly. “I meant to say something about it when you met us on the playground. But stuff happened. And then I was going to say something about it here, but stuff happened.” Then, without further ado, she took a huge bite of the donut she levitated.

Within seconds, she became a bit sweaty and her forehead moistened while her ears twitched.

“Jalapeño jelly donut,” Pod said knowingly. “No kisses for you later.” With a turn of her head, she faced Nut. “Honestly, I don’t understand why she tortures herself like that.”

“We endure trying experiences so that we might test our mettle,” Nut remarked.

“But the point of a donut is to be pleasurable—”

“Says who, Pod?”

“Says everypony, Nut.”

“I disagree. By enduring the burn, all the other donuts will be sweeter by comparison.”

The green mare shook her head. “I love you, Nut… but I do not understand you.”

“Not sure I understand myself,” he replied.

“Phew… hot!” Taffy fanned herself with a paper napkin as sweat trickled down her temples. After she licked green jelly from her lips, she took another cautious bite while Pod watched in horrified fascination.

While some of his love for Pod had curdled a bit—something had fundamentally changed between them—things weren’t as bad as Nut first thought. Or maybe they were and he just hadn’t sorted things out yet. It bothered him that Pod wanted to remain here in Canterlot, that she would wait out these troubles. He watched her as she watched Taffy eat the spicy jelly donut. Other ponies had different minds and that was the real trick to life: attempting to empathise with those who had radically different mindsets.

He would never be happy with Pod, and that crushed him. That part of his life, his upbringing, all of that was truly over. The knowledge left him diminished somehow, but he also felt free. There could be no doubt; Pod was the true great love of his life, or had been. They’d started out as playmates. Then came friendship. Familial love made an easy transition to erotic love. The exploration of infatuation between them happened without reservation or shame.

Nut realised that what had died between them was whatever complicated bond of love that existed beyond familial love—that was gone but the familial connection would survive. Their love had withered, gone bad, that connection was severed, and no doubt, that was for the best. He suspected that the current existing connection could only grow stronger from this, and he found himself with optimistic hopes for the future.

He had, perhaps, saved their relationship by ending their relationship.

To celebrate the moment, he picked up a donut with a suspiciously green ooze and had himself a bite. It was, indeed, hot. Not hot like a cup of tea, nor hot like a summer’s day. But it wasn’t hot like the supposed fires of Tartarus. He chewed for a bit, thoughtful, about both his relationship and the heat factor of what he ate. In a rare moment of playfulness, he levitated his donut across the table, hovered it right before Tater Blossom’s nose, and as she stared at it, cross eyed, he gave it a little squeeze. Under pressure, the donut pooted out a dollop of green jelly, which glistened on the tip of Tater Blossom’s snoot.

Then, with a smirk on his face, he returned his donut to himself and had another bite.

“You used to do that with me,” Pod said to Nut. “It… it was something that always stood out. You were always so serious, Nut. So focused and so driven. But then you had these moments when you’d do something like this… like that. I treasured those moments. They meant more because they were so infrequent.”

“Sort of like how a spicy jalapeño jelly donut makes other donuts sweeter.”

Blank-faced, Pod turned to look at Taffy. “Point taken.”

Tater Blossom’s tongue escaped the confines of her mouth, lapped at her nose for a brief moment, and then vanished. For a time, nothing happened, but then it became rather obvious that she was engaged in a struggle to act like nothing was wrong. A glistening bead of sweat rolled down from the crease below her ear, and her eyes turned glassy with excess moisture.

“Funny,” Pod said to nopony in particular, “but I feel a bit more grown up right now. It is an odd feeling. Nut and I finally cleared the air and… and I think I actually have some real understanding of why he left. I don’t resent him for leaving. That’s the thing… I did resent him for leaving. So did Secundus. But right now… it’s strange. Now that the air has been cleared, I find myself… relieved? I don’t know if that is the right word. Everything is still raw and in need of a good sorting out. But I want Nut to be happy”—she turned to look at him—“I want you to be happy in the same sort of way that I want Taffy to be happy. It matters in some important way that I don’t fully understand.”

After another bite of donut, Nut gave careful consideration to Pod’s words. Perhaps that was the trick to growing up—or being in love for that matter. Valuing somepony else’s happiness above your own. Of course, this could be a trap, too. If he’d stayed in Canterlot to keep Pod happy, at the expense of himself… he could see how things could go wrong. But, perhaps in this instance, things had worked out. She would be happy, and so would he, but this happiness came at the cost of whatever romantic love they’d shared.

If this was, indeed, the case, was it a worthwhile exchange?

His initial impression was a resounding yes, but he had a lot to sort out.

“You know, Nut… there are other ponies. It’s frustrating sometimes how you slip off to have a good think and leave all of us in want of your company.” Pod cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her tone softened. “Again… alone in a crowd. If this were a tawdry romance novel, you’d be described as ‘brooding and mysterious’. But that’s a load of road apples. It’s frustrating to have to fight to keep your attention. You just… slip off.”

Somewhat embarrassed, he reflexively offered up one standard issue apology. “I’m sorry, Pod. Were I able to help how I am, I would have done so by now. This is just how I am.”

“Well, make an effort to stay with us,” Pod demanded. “It’s no different than staying awake during a long, trying study session. How is it any different than dozing off? I mean, you just… slip away. You check out. Those eyes of yours go vacant. The lights are on, but nopony is home. And then you just stare off into space in some vaguely disconcerting way. It makes others think that you don’t care about them or what they have to say.”

“But I do care—”

“Saying it means nothing, Nut. You must show it.”

He stuffed the last bite of donut into his mouth just as a fabulously dressed couple slipped out the door. The open door caused a rush of outside air to come whooshing in, and he smelled summer. At least, he smelled all of the things he associated with summer. The hot smell of greenery. A whiff of chlorinated water from the city’s many decorative fountains. Roasted peanuts and popcorn from the street vendors.

And gum.

So many ponies chewed gum.

The smell of it was ever-present.

Unicorns loved gum, and could deal with the dainty, delicate foil-paper wrappers, while earth ponies and pegasus ponies had to fight with such things. Yes, unicorns had a culture of foods that were difficult for the other tribes to enjoy. It occurred to him that he was doing it—again—and with a sigh, he returned his attention to Pod, who now scowled at him.

“I was just thinking about how unicorn culture is so exclusionary,” he said to her in an attempt to make things better.

Her scowl became a saggy frown. “Say again?”

“We have foods that we enjoy that are troublesome for the other tribes to partake in. Like… gum and gum wrappers—”


“—and clothing. Even these donuts. You and I, we just levitate them off the plate with no concern, but Miss Blossom, she has to go about it the hard way. It’s been happening all night. She picked a donut on the edge of the pile so she wouldn’t be rude and I thought about her picking off a straggler from the herd. If she’d stuck her face down in the middle of the pile and dug out a donut from the bottom, it would have been considered rude.”

“Is… is this what goes through your head?” asked Pod.

“Yes,” he replied, matter-of-factly.

She leaned over the table, her ears angled forwards, and Pod’s frown became a prim straight line. Nut could see that she was thinking, and from the looks of things, she was thinking about him. At least, all of her attention was focused on him. Perhaps she was wondering if he was pulling her leg, or maybe she had her mind blown. Whatever it happened to be that she thought, she didn’t seem keen on sharing it.

“Wait”—Taffy held up her hoof to halt the conversation—“Nut, you mentioned foods that are troublesome for other tribes, then gave an example of gum, but then right after that you mentioned clothing. Which is not food. I think what we have here is evidence of—”

“Is Pod’s dress not a candy wrapper?” Nut’s cool deadpan made Taffy’s eyes go wide. “You can’t tell me that Pod isn’t a well-wrapped snack for you to partake in. Something is being eaten behind closed doors.”

With these words still in the air, Pod coughed, choked, coughed again, and then wheezed. Frantic, Taffy wacked Pod on the back, while at the same time she shot Nut a wry smirk. Meanwhile, Tater Blossom’s face turned an unnatural shade of red. After she sputtered for a time, Pod recovered enough to give Nut a glare of unknown intent. Taffy gave Pod a few more back-wacks for good measure while Nut allowed himself a low chuckle.

“See, Taffy, I told you… I told you. Nut has a sense of humour, but it is a wretched, stunted thing that relies upon ambush of the unwary and unwitting.” After she coughed and cleared her throat, Pod clung to Taffy while she tried to breathe.

“And he puns, too.” Tater Blossom averted her gaze when Nut glanced at her. “It’s awful. He needs to stop. There needs to be a law.”

Pleased with himself, he drank a bit more of his chocolate milk, and then finished it off completely while his three tablemates doled out feminine glares. Tater Blossom’s needed a bit of work, but she was a contender. Pod’s was stern, while Taffy’s held the threat of promised mischief.

“Don’t worry, Pod. If these undesirable traits are passed along to our offspring, we have discipline and conditioning we can fall back on.” There was a faint smirk on Taffy’s face as she gave Pod a reassuring squeeze.

“One time,” Pod began, “Nut came home from school, and he was well-behaved, and he didn’t run amok through the library, and everypony had their guard down. We went out for dinner to celebrate something… I do not recall what it was. Right in the middle of eating, Nut, he gets this weird look on his face, and he asks his mother a question.

“He says, ‘Mother, what do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?’ And poor Clove, she is quite confused, and rightfully so. So she consults with Bulb, and neither one of them can answer, much less understand the question itself. Down at his end of the table, Nut, has this incredibly smug look on his face.

“So Clove, in a dreadful moment of poor judgement, she finally says to Nut, ‘Very well then, Nut. What do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?’ In a moment of unfettered antisocial behaviour, Nut says back to Clove, his own mother, ‘Pumpkin pi.’ And right after he says this, everything goes quiet and still. A mare at the next table over, she faints. I mean, she just topples right over and splashes into her soup.”

Pod pointed her hoof at Nut in an accusatory manner. “He destroyed dinner. Lambda lost her appetite. Gestalt choked into his napkin. Clove had to apologise for her son’s behaviour. And this whole time… Nut is just gleefully smirking and celebrating his heinous act.”

“I don’t get it,” Tater Blossom said.

“You don’t want to get it, darling,” Taffy replied. “Pod, my love, I am having second thoughts. We can find another father… another donor with more desirable traits.”

“No, Taffy.” There was a prolonged forlorn sigh from Pod. “I fear these are Nut’s best qualities. As much as it pains me to admit it, I rather liked that he disrupted everything. I mean, dinner was boring. Everything was boring. Playtime was boring. And when the boredom reached some unbearable, intolerable level, Nut had a way of dealing with it. He was my hero. I knew that I certainly couldn’t get away with behaving in such a manner. But Nut? Colts will be colts, as the saying goes.”

“Why, Pod… that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me.”

She smiled, and when she did, so did he.

Yes, things felt a little better after the intense discomfort that took place earlier.

“Say, Nut… have you read the latest Daring Do novel?” Taffy asked.

“No… I can’t say that I have. Why?”

“In her latest adventure, she finds herself in a den of antiquity—”

“Taffy!” Pod almost shrieked her beloved’s name. “Oh, that’s horrible, Taffy! Ghastly!”

“I don’t get it,” Tater Blossom said while she eyed the remaining donuts.

It wasn’t the pun that made Nut chortle, but Pod’s reaction. His glass of chocolate milk was empty. The platter of donuts had a few survivors, but not for long, given Tater Blossom’s determined expression. She never left food behind, as far as he knew. To encourage her, he gave her a slight nod, and much to his pleasure, she caught on right away. The always-hungry earth pony pulled the platter closer and then savaged the survivors in a grisly jelly and frosting strewn massacre.

Not even the remaining jalapeño jelly donuts would survive.

The playful squabble between Pod and Taffy ended when Taffy licked a bit of frosting from Pod’s nose. This lick turned into a quick peck, and then the light peck progressed into a rather steamy smooch. Nut stared for a moment—how could he not—and then when he turned away, he saw that others watched. Tired, fatigued in some awful way, he did not judge their reactions, but ignored them completely. As for Pod and Taffy, they only had eyes for each other.

Coming home wasn’t so bad—but he was eager to leave already.

One more day, he decided, just one more blissful day.

The breakfast rebellion

View Online

Orange juice sluiced down the ridged edges of the juicer like rain down waterspouts. It made a wet trickling sound, which caused several ears to prick, but this reaction was nothing compared to the various expressions that could be seen as Nut juiced his own juice. His father peered over the top of the newspaper, while his mother sat with her head tilted off to one side. She seemed almost confused. Even Gestalt seemed put off by this behaviour, and rolled his eyes several times as Nut gave his selection of oranges the business.

When he was finished, he set a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice in front of Tater Blossom, poked in a straw, and then began again so that he too, might also have a refreshing glass of liquid sunshine with breakfast. Pod giggled, but this got her a stern eyebrow of warning from Clove. Rather sleepy, Tater Blossom failed to notice the drama surrounding her, and she yawned—which was considered quite rude at the breakfast table.

“Well”—Clove’s nose crinkled with distaste—“that’s one way to sink the economy.”

“Mother?” Nut did not pause his efforts.

“My name is Clove.” Exasperated, she rolled her eyes, inhaled, and leaned over in her son’s direction. “We employ domestics, Nut. We pay them well. If we did these tasks ourselves, we’d no longer have need of domestics… which would put many ponies out of work. Think of all that money leaving the economy before you go squeezing your own oranges.”

“Mother,” he replied, almost smiling, “just think about what never paying an electric bill does to the economy. Or paying for water. Think about how you live before you accuse me of causing an economic downturn. We’re so cut off and insulated that we don’t even pay for basic services.”

Taffy fell victim to Tater Blossom’s insidious infectious yawning, but even half-awake, she had the good manners as well as the presence of mind to cover her mouth with one hoof. Nut heard his father’s newspaper crinkle and when he looked up, he could see that both Gestalt and Bulb were now looking over at Clove. He’d lobbed the ball back into her court after her vicious serve, and now, his mother seemed to be having some difficulty.

“Why, Nut… why must you be so contrary?”

Rather than look at his mother, who’d asked him this question, Nut focused on Gestalt instead. “Grandfather… perhaps you’d like to discuss the actions of Princess Luna. You could start by explaining to my mother what the Night Lady did, and why I am a recalcitrant contrarian.”

Shaking his head, Gestalt replied, “There’s no need to be boorish at breakfast. Stop that, Nut.”

“No.” Nut applied a bit more violence to his orange, which bled out copious rivulets of juice. “I will not allow accusations of being an economic saboteur to go unanswered. Rile me at your own risk, but know that I will respond. I am no mere meek foal and will exercise my sense of free agency at any given opportunity.”

“Nut.” Bulb folded up his newspaper, set it down on the table beside his plate, and then he focused upon his son. “I understand that you work in a garage. Are you a mechanic? Where did you learn such skills? How did you go about doing this?”

Rather surprised by his father’s questions, Nut gave Bulb a bit of suspicious side-eye, but humoured him with a polite, well thought out response. “I am self-taught. Calling myself a mechanic might be a bit of a stretch. I disassemble and assemble. It started with a need to feed myself and keep a roof over my head while I am in school. Circumstances offered great motivation for self-improvement.”

“Fascinating.” Bulb took off his eyeglasses, blinked a few times, and gave his son a nod. “So you live and work in a garage while also attending university. How is it that you find the time to do all of this?”

“It’s a struggle.” Nut shrugged. “I manage. Somehow. Though it is not always easy.”

“I must confess, I’ve always wondered how the other half lives.”

“Father… it’s not even half. We are a privileged few. I have no way of knowing the numbers, but the well-to-do nobles of Canterlot are barely even a minute fraction. We have to be less than a single percentage point of the population. There’s several million creatures in Vanhoover. If you took a vast majority of them, pooled their wealth and resources together, and then ran the numbers, I doubt that their collected wealth would even come close to what we gain from interest each financial quarter.”

“Oh.” Bulb’s brows furrowed. “Fascinating. Why aren’t they more prudent with their investments then? Whomever manages their finances should be fired, forthwith. This seems like a case of bad management. Or is it not?”

Nut closed his eyes, sighed, and then opened his eyes once more.

“Do they not invest? Have they no knowledge of using money to make more money? I mean, why do they choose to be poor? Surely there must be options and resources available to help them. What of seed capital? Do the banks do nothing? How does the economy function without financial generation? It strikes me as a perplexing problem. I read the newspapers”—he patted the one beside his plate with one perfect hoof—“but nothing makes sense. Nothing about the world makes sense.”

“No, Father, it doesn’t.”

“Calling me ‘Father’ will continue to be an amusing quirk, I suppose. Even after your outburst not mere moments ago about free agency and adulthood. Fascinating.”

“Father, if all ponies had the ways and means to lift themselves out of poverty, if they had the means to secure their financial future, then who would squeeze our orange juice for us? Who would cook and serve our breakfast? If the impoverished masses suddenly had wealth and means, who then would clean our fabulous tower?”

“Well that… well… hmm. Son, you make a fine point. I fear I do not have a response.”

“Bulb… don’t tell me that you’re indulging him in this behaviour.”

“Oh, but I am, Grandfather.”

Gestalt’s eyes almost vanished completely beneath his now furrowed brows, and a great many wrinkles criss-crossed his face beneath his horn. The old unicorn snorted once, then twice, and then scowled when Taffy had the audacity to titter. Nut tortured yet another orange, while Tater Blossom struggled to stay awake because she was up well past midnight.

“Bulb, what is the meaning of this?”

“Well,” Bulb replied, “we could stand to be nicer to each other. I find Nut’s affectionate monikers endearing. What is it that we gain, exactly, from this constant state of militant formality?”

“Credibility and respect.” Gestalt cleared his throat and when Taffy tittered yet again, he turned to stare at her in the sort of way that only very ancient ponies could. “It’s bad enough that Nut infected poor Pod with his thinking. Look at how much trouble that’s caused her. Regain your senses, Bulb.”

“No, I’d rather not. I’m sick of everything. At least my son is doing something exciting and interesting.” Bulb turned to his wife and said, “Clove… we used to do exciting, interesting things. You were a rabble-rouser. Now we don’t even sleep in the same bed for fear of untoward excitement. I’ve grown weary of this excruciating boredom.”

“You… you”—Clove sputtered a bit but was quick to recover—“you were the stodgy one, Bulb. Always lecturing me for causing trouble. You were the sensible one. The self-policing one.”

“I was wrong, Wife.” Bulb shrugged. “Now that I have what it seems that I wanted, I find I don’t much like it. You were a better pony when you caused mischief. Nut is most definitely your son. He gets this from you, you know. Lambda was right about you.”

“Oh, enough!” Frustrated, Clove gave her husband a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Bulb, you were… you were… you were a tattletale! I would have gotten away with so much more if you weren’t always ratting me out, you stick-in-the-mud brown noser!”

“Oh, here we go—”

“You stay out of this, Gestalt! You bribed Bulb with candy and rewards for being a rat fink!”

“You needed to be reined in,” Gestalt retorted.

“And Pod was supposed to rein me in.” Nut’s sudden outburst caused a spontaneous outbreak of silence in the others. “A corrective or otherwise preventative measure should my mother’s more troublesome behaviours get passed on to me. Is this not the case?”

“There was a concerted effort to breed out these unwanted, undesirable traits.” Gestalt’s voice had a curious, calm quality to it. “Since these efforts failed with Clove, Pod was selected for her desirable traits—”

“There’s nothing wrong with my mother,” Nut said to his grandfather.

“How dare you interrupt me!”

“Thanks in no small part to my mother, I have all the testicular fortitude I need to interrupt you and a whole lot more—”

“I will not be spoken to in such a manner!”

“Oh, shut up you old fart! Don’t you speak to my son that way!”

Every eye at the table now turned to Bulb, who seemed to be troubled by his own disrespectful outburst. He was sweaty, the areas just below his ears were damp, and his jaw trembled enough to cause his teeth to clatter lightly together. Quivering, he pressed his front hooves together, tapped them against each other, and then he licked his lips.

“Is that all I am?” Bulb asked. “A correction?”

“Bloodlines must be maintained,” Gestalt replied as an eerie calm settled over the breakfast table.

“So… if Clove… if my wife… if the pony that I love is seen as a defective product… what does that say about me? Was I not good enough to be given the very best? How am I to feel about being paired with a defective partner?”

“Bulb, you are being irrational—”

“No, I don’t think I am, Gestalt. I’ll not be told that I am irrational for sticking up for my mate. Or myself for that matter. Nor will I be told that I am being irascible for defending my son… which my wife and I so lovingly created.”

While Bulb and Gestalt attempted to stare down one another, Nut sipped his orange juice. His father’s behaviour was quite unexpected, but not unwelcome. From the looks of things, his mother was trying to control her temper—but it was too soon to tell if it would hold. An outright volcanic explosion seemed likely. Taffy whispered something into Pod’s ear, but Nut couldn’t make out what it was.

It was now, at this most perfect of moments that the maid arrived with a cart loaded down with breakfast…

Certain fundamental truths made themselves manifest in Nut’s head as breakfast was served. He was expendable. His mother’s questionable traits made him such. Which went a long way towards explaining why Gestalt conspired to experiment with Luna. If things worked out, great. If not, no big loss. Now, Nut didn’t know if this was true, but it felt true enough for him to convince himself that it was.

Pod’s so-called failure now made a great deal more sense to him as well as more of the bigger picture revealed itself. Well, he had a way to fix this, and fix it he would. He would father troublesome foals with Pod—and inspire his offspring to acts of outright insurrection. While his mother might not take revenge for this insulting, demeaning act, he would for her sake. Gestalt would die knowing that undesirable traits remained in the bloodline, like unwanted weeds in the garden.

Of course, Luna knew about all of this—the efforts to squash these unwanted traits—and had preserved them within him. He owed Luna. What he owed her remained unknown to him, but he owed her. He had a debt to pay, and so pay he would. Once more, he thought of Secundus’ words: we pay our debts sometimes. Even as Luna was working with Gestalt, she was thwarting his efforts—which meant that Luna no doubt had a better understanding of the whole of the situation than anypony else involved.

What Gestalt wished to erase, or purge outright, Luna sought to preserve.

With this one act, Luna earned his unwavering, unfailing loyalty; he would serve.

When breakfast was on the table, the maid hurried off, rolling her cart with her. Nut waited, wondering who might break the silence first. Clove seemed to be stewing; he could see evidence of his mother’s choleric temper simmering away. As for his father, Bulb now seemed pensive and out of sorts. It was hard to say what his father might be feeling right now. Pod and Taffy remained steadfast together.

“What’s that?” asked Tater Blossom. “It looks like a pie. A pie for breakfast?”

“That’s a quiche,” Clove replied, her tone neutral and cautious. “From the looks of it, a spinach and cheese quiche. I’ll cut you a slice, dear.”

“I’ll have one as well.”

“Gestalt, you can cut your own.” Clove’s tone now had an unmistakable iciness to it.

Clove cut a slice of quiche, placed it upon a well-warmed plate, and then set it down in front of Tater Blossom. Then, almost smiling, she cut a second slice, plated it, and then put it down in front of her husband. But it seemed she wasn’t done; while Nut watched in silent astonishment, his mother cut a slice of quiche, plopped it on a plate, and set it down before him.

Before he could offer thanks, Clove asked, “What about you girls? Will you be having breakfast?” Or will you needlessly mind your figures?”

Taffy looked at Pod, Pod glanced at Taffy, and after the two of them wordlessly consulted with one another, they both nodded. Now, Clove had a vindictive smile as she cut two more slices of quiche, plated them, and levitated them down the table. This was a side of his mother that Nut had not seen, one that he wasn’t familiar with, and he suspected this was the sort of behaviour meant to be corrected.

“It’s the death of civility,” Gestalt muttered.

“And you had your hoof in its untimely demise,” Clove responded while she served herself a plate of just-cut quiche.

Nut feared that breakfast would only get more interesting.

A long, thin ribbon of drool glistened as it hung suspended from the corner of Tater Blossom’s mouth. She had fallen asleep on the sofa with all four legs kicked up into the air. Always so kind, Taffy covered her with a blanket, but Nut felt that a bucket might be in order, as the dangly strand of drool grew longer. A part of him wanted to measure it, but he showed some restraint. The quiche was an impenetrable brick of cheese, eggs, and butter, which proved too much for his poor apprentice to digest in her current sleep-deprived state.

Pod and Taffy sat in one chair together, almost canoodling.

A motivational record played on the phonograph, and the volume had been turned down a bit so that Tater Blossom would not be disturbed. Princess Celestia’s calm, reassuring voice could be heard; she had a lot to say about conviction, courage, and confidence. She had started on conviction, which Tater Blossom had listened to, and now spoke of courage—which Tater Blossom now slept through.

Half-listening, Nut read a schoolbook, because schoolbooks must be read. This one was about scat identification, because the second year students had to be able to recognise and identify four-hundred and thirty-two different types of droppings. The book had detailed pictures, along with well-written descriptions.

“—to think for oneself, that is conviction. But to think for oneself aloud, that, that my little ponies, that is courage. Courage is what I want from you—”

“What are you reading?” asked Taffy, who interrupted Princess Celestia’s lesson.

“All about feces,” Nut replied.

“Oh.” Taffy’s ears splayed out.

“Boar feces, specifically.”


“—courage is the yardstick by which we measure how wide life’s doors will open for you—”

“Taffy… please. Remember that you are a mature adult.”

On the couch, Tater Blossom snorted and kicked her right hind leg.

Nut turned the page, uncertain if anything stuck in memory, but found that he was no longer in a mood to read. He closed the book, set it down upon the arm of his chair, and then turned his attention to Pod and Taffy. He watched them for a bit, attempted to determine their mood, and wondered what his future relationship with them would be. Taffy was attractive, easy to like, and there was just something about her that commanded his attention. However, there was something about Taffy and Pod together, two ponies that somehow made a satisfying whole.

It was an aspect of himself that he hadn’t explored or given much thought to.

For the first time, he noticed that Pod and Taffy wore matching frocks. Pod wore a blue one and Taffy wore a green one. How had he not noticed? They wore each other’s colours, which all things considered, was rather romantic. Pod had a good look going with her night-blue frock, which was trimmed in black and had a pleasant contrast with her pea-green pelt. Taffy similarly made a pea-green frock seem stunning. He supposed it was the sort of thing one did when one was in love.

His mind’s eye showed him Black Maple, which caused a sigh to escape him.

“When does your flight depart, Nut?” asked Pod.

“Four,” he replied.

“Ah, the teatime flight.”

“Yes, Pod. Boarding begins at three-thirty, prompt.”

“During winter break, I think we’ll come to Vanhoover for a visit,” said Pod in a low, reserved voice. “If you had a place to live, we might even spend Hearth’s Warming there. No pressure or anything. I’m merely tossing out a suggestion. If we were to holiday with each other, I would want us to stay together.”

He nodded and then mused upon the idea.

“That would be lovely.” Taffy’s ears rotated in the direction of the phonograph as Princess Celestia mentioned something about confidence. “I don’t know when Pod and I will marry. There are those who want us to wait, while others wish for us to hurry. We’ll probably marry here, in Canterlot. Don’t feel obligated to come, but we would like for you to be there to share our joyous moment, Nut.”

“It will be a huge social event—”

“Of course, Nut… and I understand how you feel about those.” A gentle smile graced Pod’s lips. “Don’t feel pressured. As much as I’d like for you to be there, I’d much rather have you happy. Mistakes were made, Nut. This is how things should have been all along.”

“The both of you deserve a huge wedding bash,” he said to them. “Just as much as you both deserve to be happy. I can’t say if I’ll be there. We’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps we can get together afterwards. Vanhoover is a nice city to honeymoon in, if you don’t mind the rain. It just gives you a reason to stay in.”

“Again, we’d need a place to stay,” said Pod. “But no pressure.”

He changed the subject; with a nudge, he steered it away from talk of home ownership, which left him uncomfortable. “You know, I can’t even recall a time that House Eccentrica married out of house. This really will be a big deal. The merging of two houses.”


“Yes, Pod?”

“One small detail has escaped you. Taffy and I are two mares. There’ll be a marriage, but there will be no connection between houses. No meaningful ties of blood.”

Something in the general location of his heart sank down into his guts. “Oh… verily. I suppose you’re right. And if I act as a donor, those foals will be born on the wrong side of the sheets, as the saying goes. That’s…” He struggled for a moment, but couldn’t find the words.

“Pod and I aren’t happy about that, but that’s how it goes. Noble houses are unified through marriage and blood. We technically will not be recognised as a house, our offspring will not be heirs, and our respective family trees will terminate with our branches.”

“Taffy… I’m sorry.”

A chime could be heard from the record player, an indicator that it was time to flip the record over. Apprehensive and a bit put out, Nut squirmed in his chair while it settled upon him just what Pod and Taffy had to sacrifice. For the first time, he wondered just what sort of pressure they experienced, and he thought of all the entanglements that came with marriage when nobles married.

Which was exactly why he didn’t want to marry.

Yet… “You know, there’s an easy solution to all of this.”

“There is?” both Pod and Taffy said together.

“Well, I’m fairly certain there is.” Somewhat fretful to even mention this, he tapped his left hoof upon the hardbound cover of his schoolbook. “We marry… and divorce. Any foals you have of mine will be recognised as heirs. At least, I’m somewhat certain. Perhaps. Maybe. Might be best to look it up first. I might be wrong.”

“You’d do that for us?” asked Taffy.

“Well”—he made a circular gesture with his right hoof as the left one tapped his book—“it’s for a good cause. I rather like the idea of causing a stir here in Canterlot. As divorcees, you would be entitled to up to fifty percent of my inheritance, and so would any of my offspring. At least, I think this is the case. Law is not my speciality, but I did pay attention in class.”

“You’re just doing this to cause trouble and outrage.”

“Well, yes. Yes I am, Pod.”

“I’m fine with that. Capital idea.”

“I find I’m somewhat intrigued by the idea,” said Taffy as she rubbed her chin with her hoof. “What if somepony challenges consummation?”

“Do they even do that anymore?” Pod pulled Taffy’s hoof away from taffy’s chin so she could hold it close to her heart.

“This sort of nitpickery is what leaves me ashamed to be a noble,” he said to the two mares. “I mean, I understand why things are the way they are, and I even understand their importance. This is part of why I left. Which I am now having second thoughts about. I was a fool to think I could escape my responsibilities. However, if I am to be coerced into obeying social ritual and noble ceremony, then I fully intend to twist the rules to my own ends.”

“But Nut… twisting the rules is what brought us to the current state of Canterlot.”

“Pod”—he inhaled and realised she was right—“you make a fine point. Too many nobles abused and exploited the rules. For their own gains. But that isn’t what I’m trying to do. The system that surrounds the noble houses needs reform.”

“Which is tough to do when the ponies who could be the ones to change the system flee Canterlot.”

“Dirty pool, Pod.”

He stared at her, she glared at him right back, while Taffy maintained neutral ground. Pod had a point, and Nut found himself resenting her for it. The noble court and all of the houses were antiquated entities; he saw that clearly now. The trappings of a bygone era persisted. Society had progressed, advanced, things had changed. But the nobility had not. It had stagnated. Nut found himself thinking of Fiddle Riddle.

Yes, the potential reformers seemed to flee Canterlot.

It seemed as though all of the social institutions were in the past. Which was, for the most part, the very thing that drove him to distraction. He believed himself to be a progressive, which was difficult when surrounded by an archaic social system that demanded conformity. In what was a truly exigent moment, he found himself questioning everything about himself as well as everything he thought he knew.

As his thoughts collapsed in upon themselves, he thought of Luna preserving his rebellious streak. She’d done it for a reason, that much was painfully obvious now. Was she trying to save his family from themselves? As a princess, she very well could be. She saw things through very different eyes. While his family had made efforts to remove undesirable traits, Luna had moved to thwart their efforts.

His mind raced as he thought of all the implications.

But his thoughtful state came to an end when his father appeared in the doorway. Bulb hadn’t gone to work, it seemed. He was dishevelled. Almost sweaty and in need of a shower. Had Bulb been exercising? Then, slowly, it dawned upon Nut what his father had been doing—who his father had been doing. The realisation made Nut shudder, but a part of him was also glad, relieved in some odd way.

“We’re going out,” Bulb announced. “Be ready to leave. We’re having a family outing. There will be no arguments.”

And then, before anypony could respond, Bulb stepped out of the doorway, and was gone.

It was almost as if he were young again. A family outing. With Pod, who frequently joined them on their excursions. Only now, there was also Taffy and Tater Blossom. His father was sharp looking in his light, summer weight woollen blazer, and as for his mother, she wore a light, breezy sundress. Try as he might, Nut could not recall his mother ever wearing a sundress. She looked smashing though. Clove also had her mane down, which somehow made her appear to be about Pod’s age.

“Where are we going?” asked Pod.

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Bulb replied.

“Well, we should sort that out.” Clove’s suggestion caused the group to slow, but not halt.

“What makes everypony happy? What can we all agree upon?” Bulb peered back over his shoulder at the line of ponies walking two by two just behind him.

“It should be something special for Tater.” Taffy’s quick, brisk trot caused her ears to bob and she smiled at the earth pony beside her. “Something memorable. We don’t know when she’ll be back to Canterlot again.”

“Oh, I know just what to do!”

“What’s that, darling?” Bulb asked of his wife.

“The Canterlot Botanical Gardens and Aviary. Philomena is on display. There’s something relevant to all of our mutual interests there.”

“Oh, capital idea, Clove.”

“Thank you, Pod.”

“This idea is for the birds—”

“Shut up, Nut,” Pod said, cutting him off mid-sentence.

“Ah,” Bulb began, “to adventure again. How I have missed this. Pod telling Nut to shut up when he is behaving in a manner most belligerent and quarrelsome. Ah!” He sighed. “To the gardens… and then maybe a nice lunch some place. No more drudgery. Smell that Canterlot air!”

“Smells like pompous pretension and—”

“Shut up, Nut.” Having repeated herself, Pod cast a harsh bit of side-eye in Nut’s general direction.

“After lunch, we’ll visit a photography studio and have a family picture taken. Guaranteed fifteen minute development, or you get half off. What an age we live in. Colour photographs. Moving pictures. The telegraph! Steam powered and electrical conveyance. New airship designs every week it seems. High-powered firearms that keep our great nation secure. The best part of all? We occasionally get a new princess or prince to keep things fresh. Keen!”

“Bulb, calm down, dear.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down… I’ll pull you into a secluded spot and take dangerous liberties with your gaskins—”

“Degenerate pervert.”


It was then Nut realised that he’d be dealing with this all day…

The Canterlot Botanical Gardens and Aviary was a place of fond memories for Nut, even if he said nothing to confirm it. He and his family had come here to be quiet together. It was a restorative place, a fine location for contemplation, and he had high hopes that Tater Blossom would enjoy herself here. He and Pod had come here often, and this was a favourite place to do homework. His father and mother were married here, just like so many other Canterlot couples.

Parrots and tropical birds cawed and shouted overhead, while some of the pegasus ponies present responded in kind. It was humid; a fine mist trickled down from the ceiling of the immense glass dome, but no water actually reached the ground. Everything was a rainforest jungle in miniature, a glorious recreation that was considered one of the great treasures of Canterlot.

Nut vividly recalled an incident from foalhood in which a pegasus pony argued with a scarlet macaw. Feathers were ruffled. The memory was hazy, vague, indistinct. Nut was little more than a yearling. His mother sat him down and explained to him that ponies were different, each of them special in their own way. To his best recollection, his mind had been blown. Looking back, he saw clearly now how this had shaped the whole of his life, because he now studied why and how things were different.

The pony he was meant to be existed because of this place.

“Those walkways is scary,” Tater Blossom said while she craned her head upward.

With his thoughts scattered by the sudden distraction, Nut too, looked up. It was Taffy who moved to reassure Tater Blossom. The walkways in question were thin, delicate, almost spiderwebby constructions. A winding walkway that wound itself round and round the dome, until one reached the observatory platform at the top. That was a fine place to observe the canopy, and a great many birds liked to congregate up there.

“Look, there’s rails to keep you safe. I know they appear thin, but they are quite sturdy. Airship-grade aluminium is far tougher than it looks.”

“But it just kinda hangs there…”

“It does, but it hangs from the dome’s frame and not the glass. See, there’s ponies walking along it.”

“I dunno…”

“The view looking down is quite different than the view looking up. You owe it to yourself to see both.” Taffy offered a reassuring nudge to the reluctant filly. “We’ll go up there, together. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Nothing will happen, I promise.”

“A’ight… a’ight… I’ll go, but I might keep my eyes closed.” Though slow, Tater obediently followed Taffy, who coaxed the filly along.

“Pod.” Bulb leaned in closer. “A moment of your time, if I may. A word with you.”

“Oh? Oh. Oh, sure.” Pod allowed herself to be led away by Bulb.

Which left Nut alone with his mother. He looked at her, and she him. Something was about to be said, but he wasn’t sure what. A nearby parrot screeched, but Nut wasn’t distracted, and he watched his mother, he waited for whatever was about to happen. The air was warm and wet. Canterlot’s elite loitured, but for some reason, Nut wasn’t bothered by them in this place.

“Can you stay a little longer, Nut?”

“No, Mother, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I have responsibilities, mother. A job. A job which I was just away from not that long ago. Miss Blossom also has employment, which she is quite lucky to have.”

“But surely those things can wait. They can’t be that important.”

“Mother… the world doesn’t work that way. You honestly don’t understand what the world is like away from Canterlot, do you?”

“I did some travelling when I was younger… though I confess, I didn’t pay much attention.” She sighed, averted her eyes, and her tail twitched once. “Nut, I don’t understand why you’re doing this to yourself.”

“It’s my philosophy, Mother,” he replied. His mother was uncomfortable and this made him squirm a bit from the discomfort that she radiated. “The Canterlot pony is perfectly suited for its Canterlot environment. These are ideal conditions. Perfect conditions. As such, there is no need for us to evolve… to change. Nothing motivates us. The world around us has changed, society has changed, everything has changed… but we are slow to change, if it all. My change in environments has made me change. I’ve adapted. Evolution of the self, Mother.”

“You’ve certainly changed… that can’t be denied.” When Clove raised her head to look up at her son, her eyes brimmed with tears. “I feel bad because I can’t tell if the change is for the better. That bothers me, Nut. You’ve become a stranger and I sincerely can’t tell if these changes are for the better or the worse. Everything about you confuses me. You… you’re my son. I made you. Raised you. You… you left… and you changed. It feels like all my hard work has been undone. Like I’ve wasted all my time. And that… that leaves me angry. It’s all so very complicated, Nut.”

Every attempt at a response came out as a failure; after a few false starts, he gave up.

“I poured everything that I was… everything that I had into you. While I know this can’t possibly be the case, it feels like you’ve just cast it aside. Discarded it. I devoted a tremendous portion of my life to you, and with how much you have changed, it all feels wasted.” She blinked once, her eyes turned glassy, and then she stood there while her head shook from side to side. “I’ve spent my life in pursuit of rationality and now that I am besieged by emotion, it seems as though I am ill-equipped to deal with it.”

“Mother”—while he spoke to her, a nearby parrot threw a fit—“I am the way I am because of you.” He paused for a moment, collected his thoughts, and then clarified his statement just to be safe. “That’s not meant in a negative way. Because you loved me, because you believed in me, I always pushed myself harder to prove worthy of that. I only ever wanted for you to be proud of me, so I pushed myself to extraordinary lengths. Even now, I am still trying to prove myself.”

“But what are you trying to prove?”

“I… don’t know yet.” He flashed his mother a bit of a smirk. “As soon as I do know, you’ll know.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better, Nut.” She smiled, but her eyes seemed sad.

“I want to do better, Mother. Be better. This isn’t something I can do here, in Canterlot. Yes, I am aware of the fact that if I had wealth and resources, I could be doing all manner of spectacular, extraordinary things. I could be saving a whole herd of Miss Blossoms. More of my time could be directed towards my education. But those all feel like shallow and superficial challenges to me. Those are more about what can I do with what I’m given, what I have. But those do not change me or the pony I am on the inside.”

Ears splayed, she shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“The things I want, Mother, are all intangible, methinks. There is no yardstick to measure my success. No means to calculate how much I’ve changed. I have no way to understand what it is that I wish to be until I am that which I hope to be. Now that I say it aloud, I suppose that sounds rather irrational.”

“It does, but that’s fine, Nut. As for myself, I’m not going to worry about it. When you finally become whatever it is that you hope to be, you come to me and you tell me. I’ll be there to congratulate you on a job well done, just as I always have. You just concentrate on becoming the best version of yourself that you can.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

“You’re welcome, Son.” She turned her head and peered upwards. “We should join Taffy and your apprentice. Let us make the most of the time that we have left. I’d like a chance to get to know the pony that my son is becoming.”

Unexpected expectations

View Online

Clove’s eyes were floodgates that somehow held back morose monsoons. With each blink, the storms of summer threatened to break free, but she somehow maintained a brave face even in the shadow of such terrible adversity. As Nut looked into her eyes, he made several meaningful conclusions, the first of which being that he saw this pony not as his mother, but as a mare, and his friend. Their relationship had changed in some as-of-yet unknown way, and neither of them quite knew what to make of it.

The boarding platform was under heavy guard due to fears of sabotage. Not all that long ago, the harbour had been utterly destroyed in an act of terrorism, along with several airships. Now, there was a certain tension here, an apprehension and anxiety that was new to Canterlot. It was too early to say how this new environment might change the ponies of Canterlot, but change they would—and Nut sincerely hoped that it would be for the better. They might be the city above the clouds, but could still be touched by the troubles from down below.

It had been an exceptionally pleasant day, a much needed day for all of them. Family photographs. A fine lunch, served with a side of laughter. It felt as though they’d reconnected, reestablished old, worn bonds left weak from neglect. All of the right things had been done, which made the day almost perfect, if perfection were truly possible. And now, at the end of it all, Nut hesitated, uncertain if he truly wanted to leave.

“Did you talk with Gestalt?” his mother asked. “He’s old, and getting older by the day.”

“I did,” he replied. “Time is limited… this I know. Grandfather and I spoke briefly. I don’t know if anything changed between us, but he wished me well. There was no subtle undercurrent of unpleasantness.”

“I can’t stop thinking about what you said during lunch,” she said to her son. “You’re right. House Eccentrica used to be risk takers. Nonconformists. In some ways, we still are, but not in the ways that matter. We founded the Royal Academy of Science… which is, in all likelihood, the most dangerous place in all of Equestria. I cannot recall when one of our own has even set hoof in that tower.”

“Mother, I have.”

“Oh.” Clove seemed genuinely surprised. “Of course you have. Why wouldn’t you have? If you don’t mind me asking, what did you do there?”

“There was an experiment involving a toilet connected to an interdimensional sewer. Flush waste from our reality into another. Probably seemed like a brilliant idea to whomever thought of it. But things went horribly wrong. I was actually there for a different reason, I was going to attend a biology lecture, but I ended up fighting an interdimensional shapeshifting spider-clown who nattered on and on about how we’d all float. He was no match for us, by the by, and we gave him what for.”

“Oh my.” Bulb’s outburst, if it could be called such, was rather understated and subdued.

“Not keen on spiders nor clowns.” Taffy shuddered and then pressed herself against Pod. “Not keen on those things at all. I am never going to that dreadful place.”

“Well, you should,” Nut said to Taffy. “Just think of the science credentials you could have.”

“No, I’d rather not.” Repulsed, Taffy shook her head. “I’m a powerful-ish wizard, but I am ill-suited for combat. Not my cup of tea.”

“You are becoming a storied member of our house, Nut.” Bulb’s tone was neutral, but his ears were pricked at full attention. “I’d still like to know the whole story of the basilisk den and all those basilisks. How is it that you came away unscathed?”

“I was armed with a spoon,” was Nut’s cryptic reply, and he offered no further elaboration.

“Basilisks, trolls, mimics, a fight with a sea monster… and an interdimensional shapeshifting spider-clown.” After a moment of hesitation, Bulb sighed. “At one point in our family tree, such accomplishments might’ve seemed commonplace. Clove has had a little excitement… and all I have are my tulips. I suspect I might be allergic to hazardous conditions.”

“Yes”—Nut nodded—“Mother has played dangerous games of hide and go seek with vampires. Which I have yet to do—”

“Son, it isn’t a list. And you embellish what it was that I did. We were treating a disease. Trying to stop the spread of a dangerous contagion. I only did what was necessary and I didn’t enjoy it. At all.”

“Well, Mother, maybe you should have.” Nut’s words got him a stern glare, but he endured it. Almost smiling, he continued, “Mother… it seems that right now, you could make a difference. Canterlot is plagued by vampiric rats. Which I am still attempting to internalise. But you could be more involved. If not taking up the fight, you could at least make yourself available to those that do. Share what you know. Teach. You’ve had rare, unique experiences.”

“You glorify my field research—”

“No, Mother… I glorify you. Forgive my interruption, but there is a difference.”

Her eyes, already dangerously glassy, now began to leak. Nut watched as the first tear fell. It rolled down from the corner of her eye—since when had his mother developed crow’s feet—and made it halfway down her cheek before it vanished, absorbed into her pelt. Her lower lip quivered and to see this as it happened caused Nut’s insides to twist into painful knots.

More tears followed the first.

A siren blared and the sudden, unexpected sound caused Nut to tense up. The soldiers did too. While Nut stood there, trying to examine his surroundings, he couldn’t help but notice the different reactions of the various creatures present. For the most part, the ponies cowered in panic—except, of course, the soldiers and himself. It didn’t take long to spot the cause; a stallion had pushed through the security checkpoint. No doubt, he believed he was entitled to do so and now, as he was led away by soldiers, he would discover that there were consequences for his entitled actions.

Panicked panting from Tater Blossom got his attention right away.

“Miss Blossom?”

“I’ll be fine”—her response was strained, almost a croak—“caught me by surprise.”

“These issues with anxiety concern me,” Nut said to his companion.

“Me too,” she replied with subdued nod.

“We’ll get them sorted out. Together.”

“I hope so.” Tater allowed herself to be comforted by both Taffy and Pod, which left Nut in a rather relieved state.

He felt a gentle tugging upon his frock coat and then heard his mother speak, saying to him, “Son, I don’t know how much I can tell you. But the rats… they’re in other cities. Even though most of their efforts are focused here, in Canterlot, our central seat of government, they are elsewhere as well. Be wary. Protect others if you can. I know you’ll do what’s right.”

“What for will be given freely, Mother.”

“Son”—Bulb paused for a short time, perhaps collecting his thoughts—“there’s been some talk about what you could be doing, and while there is some merit in that, there is also merit in the undiscovered. Like your mother, I can’t even begin to understand what it is that you are doing… but I can appreciate that you are doing it. Go do great things, Son.”

Before Nut could respond, Pod was already talking.

“This feels like the goodbye we should have had. The goodbye we deserved. Though, a part of me doubts that we would have made it easy to leave. Yes, we probably would have tried to talk you out of it. Or made things complicated. So it makes sense that you left to avoid all that. I’m still peeved with you, Nut.”

The airship began to board and as it did so, a steam whistle blasted out a single sharp note. Nut lingered for a moment—a part of him did not wish to go—but another more practical part of him felt the need to hurry. Susan and his suitcase were joined by a third; Tater Blossom had her own suitcase, which was filled with clothing, treats, books, as well as assorted odds and ends.

“Pod. Taffy.” With a turn of his head, Nut focused upon the two young mares. “Get into mischief. Do not go quietly into conformity. Become known disturbers of the peace.”

“Sure. Fine—”

“Taffy, no. We’ll end up on a list.”

When Nut chuckled, so did his mother, but it was a nervous, halting chuckle. One of much discomfort. Pod and Twilight Taffeta. His relationship with the two of them was still to be refined. With Taffy, it was oddly as if he’d known her the whole of his life, and he suspected that Tater Blossom felt the same way. For a short time he marvelled at how new friends could feel like old friends, and it pained him just a little that he didn’t have more time to get to know her.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother and father having a quiet word with Tater Blossom. He watched as his mother kissed his apprentice on the cheek, and then whispered something that Nut failed to hear over the hubbub of the loading platform. There could be no doubt, no second-guessing; Tater Blossom was now part of the family, because such was the way of apprentices. Nut suspected that his parents would even arrange for his apprentice to have an inheritance, a tiny share of the vast family wealth. For some reason, this knowledge bothered him, even as it left him relieved.

Pod’s mouth curled into a smile for a short time, then flipped into a scowl, and then returned to a state that was somewhat smilish. “Gestalt is very old, Nut. While I don’t mean to sound ghastly, he could drop dead any day now. While I don’t doubt that you made some effort to say goodbye, I would be remiss if I did not mention the need to reconcile. To reconnect. Perhaps a bit of correspondence? Stay in touch somehow? Gestalt does speak fondly of you, Nut. Well, sometimes. Like the rest of us, he doesn’t understand you.”

Everything that Pod had said made Nut think of the pilfered book stowed in his possessions: The Virtue of Rude Attitudes: A Defense of the Oppugnant Pegasus. He couldn’t wait to read it on the way home. Yes, home. He was going home. This thought was bittersweet, and as he stood there, cogitating, a part of him wondered if Pod had noticed that he’d slipped off, alone in a crowd once more.

“I owe Gestalt an apology,” Nut said to Pod, though he did not mention why. “Goodbye, all of you. I must board. Please, do not make this a clingy experience that hinders me. Let me go.”

His mother waved, a brave action. A moment later, his father did the same. Nut returned the gesture and felt foalish whilst he did so. On the verge of tears, Tater Blossom crashed into Taffy; then, Taffy, Pod, and Tater Blossom all stood neck to neck with one another as they exchanged their goodbyes. Nut watched them as the first ponies made their way along the gangplank to the docked ship.

Nut lifted both suitcases, his umbrella, and then waited for Tater Blossom, who lingered. Watchful guards waited; every move, every interaction was studied as they sought out signs of trouble. Tater Blossom pulled away, but her resolve failed and she pressed herself against the two mares once more. Bulb and Clove leaned against each other, silent and resolute.

“Farewell,” Nut said to all who were gathered. “Thank you for the lovely time.”

A powerful sidewind and violent updrafts caused more than a little turbulence, which left the tearoom in a less than tranquil state. Teacups clattered upon saucers. Tableware led a curiously nomadic existence, sometimes moving whole inches across the fine white tablecloth. Every cup of tea was half-full, if even that, and in its current excitable state, liked to jump out of its cup to see what the world had to offer.

Nut appreciated his surroundings; there wasn’t any plastic to be seen. Anywhere. Wooden chairs, wooden tables, fine porcelain and ceramic. The servers were properly snooty and everything just felt… right. He could even tolerate the wainscotting on the walls; while somewhat plain, it was clean, well-polished, and didn’t appear run down. His chair was comfortable, in good condition, and none of the stuffing was in danger of escaping through any untoward tears.

The Virtue of Rude Attitudes: A Defense of the Oppugnant Pegasus proved to be a fascinating treatise into the behaviours and attitudes of the common pegasus. Nut did a little light reading while eating a creamed spinach and cheese sandwich. Pegasus ponies were odd creatures with a wholly different psychology unique to them. While earth ponies and unicorns had similar traits, as well as unique traits that made them distinct, pegasus ponies were quite different than their ground-dwelling counterparts. A tremendous portion of their brain was dedicated to relating to three dimensional space, making them mathletes and natural mathematicians; but how this affected their social skills and other thought processes was still mostly unknown.

It wasn’t that pegasus ponies were stupid, as might be the typical assumption.

No, far from it—pegasus ponies were birdbrains.

Birds; some brilliant minds believed that birds were the descendents of dinosaurs. Birds had different priorities than most mammals and were nature’s great survivors. Like so many ponies around him, Nut was settled in for a good read from a book that promised to be enlightening. A part of him wondered if the book might be seen as offensive, even though it was written by a pegasus. It painted a rather… colourful picture of the pegasus pony tribe, acknowledging them as vicious birdbrain brutes.

Perhaps the author was having a bit of fun at the reader’s expense.


He raised his eyes from his book and his ears now stood at attention. There was something slightly off with his apprentice, and this worried him. Was she missing Taffy and Pod already? Or scared of the turbulence? He watched her, trying to read her expression, but it was hard. She was wearing the felted deer ear hat, which covered her ears.

“What does it mean to be free?” she asked.

It was a question he was unprepared for.

“I mean, in just a few days, my whole world has changed. Vanhoover. Canterlot. New friends. Meetin’ princesses. Pod and Taffy. There’s just so much. The world is a big place. Now that I’m free, I don’t know what to do with myself. And I’m scared, Nut, real scared and bothered, ‘cause I know that if I didn’t have you around, I wouldn’t be free for very long. At least, I don’t think I would be. You… you made all this possible, and I still don’t know why you did it. You ain’t asked for a thing from me. And as wonnerful as all this is, it’s also terrible awful.

“When yer told what to do, you don’t have to put much thought into anything. You just sort of do it, and even if you don’t much like it, life at least makes sense. There’s direction. But now that I’m free… not having my mark is a whole lot scarier. I ain’t got no direction, no sense of where to go or what to do. It frightens me that I can’t take care of myself. Don’t much care for it.”

Where did he begin?

He started by slipping a bookmark into his book, and then closing it. With his book shut, he attempted to dredge up an answer, but none presented themselves. Smart ponies suffering insecure moments took more effort than mere soothing words, which could be seen as patronising. How she had changed with just one visit to Canterlot. Her short bobbed mane poked out from beneath her antlered felt beanie. The smart, stylish bob made her appear smarter somehow, more sophisticated, but the silly deer hat made her look foalish in some indescribable endearing way.

The fact that she wore it during tea, in a fancy tearoom left him full to brimming with fond feelings for her. Getting her that hat was one of his more memorable accomplishments, and he allowed himself a moment of quiet pride whilst he gave thought to all that she had said. For some reason, he recalled some things said between him and Princess Luna, but this left him no closer to explaining what it meant to be free.

“Prince Gosling went and made everything all the worse,” she said, almost muttering. “He gave me this talk about religion and faith that I ain’t smart enough to understand. Something about how religion is all about restriction and memorising lists about what you can’t do, while faith is ‘bout empowerin’ and being all free from the stuff in religion that holds you back. One gives while the other takes away. He told me that I’m free now to leave behind my religion and go find my faith, and I can’t make sense of a word he said.”

With every word said, Nut could only think about how he’d threatened Princess Luna with starting a religion. Perhaps he’d been hasty in doing so. This—all of this—put things in a different perspective. He was no theologian and he felt woefully unprepared for this conversation.

“Princess Celestia done told me that she only has but one commandment, and that is to love her sister as I would her. And that messed everything up, ‘cause I done heard it from Almighty Celestia’s own lips. Everything I done believed in afore is all messed up ‘cause of it, and now it feels like I have this huge hole in my soul in need of fillin’. I feel like a pie with no squishy middle bits and I don’t much care for it. So I got to thinkin’ that if I could figure out what it meant to be free, it’d go a long way towards a-fillin’ that hole I done gots me.”

Desperate, Nut levitated his cup of tea and had a sip; much to his disappointment, it lacked the harsh slap to his senses that he needed right now at this very moment. With nothing to say, he became almost painfully self-aware of the fact that his continued silence was—problematic.

“How is it that two sisters can have two bodies, but one soul?” she asked, blurting the question out while Nut was already overwhelmed. “It’s hard to understand.”

At last, Nut had something to say.

“Perhaps this is one of those things best taken in faith.”

Even as he said it, he was disappointed with himself for saying it. Almost right away, a little voice in the back of his mind began to compile a list of everything wrong with the words that he’d uttered, such as the fact that they were trite, cliché, and just plain bad. What sort of hackneyed banality had just escaped his lips? Just what sort of answer was that? This hoary old chestnut needed to be put down—and yet, he could not think of a better answer.


“From the looks of things, Nut… you and I have a bit in common. I’m startin’ to wonder if I left home for a lot of the same reasons you did.” She relaxed a little, some of the tension visibly left her face, and she settled back into her chair while she kept her steady gaze affixed on Nut. “We can’t find what we is a-lookin’ for at home.”

“No,” he was quick to reply, “we cannot. For you, I don’t think the seeds of faith can be found in the toxic miasma of religion you grew up in.” His own words surprised him; they sounded pretty good, almost wise. “As for myself, nopony hates nobles quite as much as I do, and I am noble-born. I suspect that, ultimately, I am searching for a reason, something that validates our continued existence. Are we necessary. Am I necessary? Are my hatreds justified?”

“And you can’t answer that in Canterlot, ‘cause all you see is all the reminders of stuff you hate. Which is uh, what’s that word? It changes what you see and how you see it.”

“Eyeglasses?” he suggested in a teasing manner.

She snorted; then, after her nostrils flared wide, she snorted again.

“Now that it is quiet, I suspect that you are sorting out the events of the past few days.” Unsatisfied, he eyeballed his tea, which was pleasant enough, he supposed, but did nothing for him. “Which reminds me, I have a journal for you, as well as an ink pen. Pod included stationary and such in your suitcase when she packed everything for you. There’s some other odds and ends as well, which might please you.”

Though she smiled, her eyes were troubled when she said, “I still don’t know what it means to be free…”

Nut awoke to curious noodly sensations and hazy recollections of the Gallopagos. Somepony was shouting—no, ponies were shouting—and he could hear a commotion in the hallway. When he went to turn on the lights, he discovered that something wasn’t quite right; the lights flickered and had a weak glow. Just as he slid out of his bunk, Tater Blossom awoke with a startled grunt.

The whole of the ship shuddered as a dull roar reverberated through the bowels of the vessel, and this was no mere turbulence. There were more screams, more shouting and panicked cries. He armed himself with Susan, found his balance as the ship listed, and then he put his senses to work so that he might determine what was wrong.

“Nut, what’s happening?”

“I don’t know, Miss Blossom, and that—”

“When I’m scared like this, I’d be real nice if you’d just call me Tater.”

“Tater, I don’t know what is wrong.”

A high-pitched metallic whine came from the back of the ship.

“Stay in our cabin,” he said to his apprentice. “You stay here and you lock the door. The only reason that you are to leave is if they call everypony out or sound a state of alarm. But you stay here, and you stay calm. If you can. Should something go wrong, I shall need to find you. I can’t save you or keep you safe if I can’t find you.”

In response, she whimpered, but nothing else was said.

“All wizards are to convene in the dining room,” a crackly voice on the intercom said. “Please, do not panic. All wizards, please assemble in the dining room. Everypony else, please, stay in your cabins and remain calm. There is no cause for worry.”

An explosion from the back of the ship made everything rattle.

“Be brave, Tater. Lock the door behind me.”

“I’ll try,” she said, almost whining. “I’m real scared.”

With no final words of comfort to offer, he departed.

The hallways were crowded, packed with ponies, all of whom were trying to move to the front of the ship. Nut, a contrarian as always, found himself going against the flow. All manner of Tartarus was currently breaking lose. The lights flickered, threatened to go out, and tendrils of acrid smoke crept along the ceiling. Through the chaos and cacophony, one thing remained constant.

Ponies kept shouting about rats and the fact that the ship would soon sink.

He wasn’t keen on the idea of the ship sinking; while he could save himself and his apprentice, Nut knew that his magic was limited. Also, flight conditions might not be ideal. Flight in high wind was risky at best, and suicidal at worst. Doubt gnawed at him and he wondered if he’d made a mistake leaving Tater Blossom by herself in their cabin.

Without hesitation, he pushed beyond an employees only sign, not concerned in the slightest. The ship was clearly having engine troubles, and that was where he needed to be. While he was no mechanic—well, he was, of a sort, but that was beside the point—he could deal with the furry little saboteurs, should he find them.

“This is the captain speaking,” a tremulous voice said through the speakers. “Would every electrically-attuned unicorn please gather in the dining room. This is a matter of utmost importance. Thank you.”

Without needing an explanation, Nut knew what was going on. Celestium needed electricity to maintain lift—and logic would suggest that the ship currently had a bit of a shortage. He wondered if a group of sparky unicorns could generate enough electricity to keep the ship aloft. Even if they could, for how long? This was dire circumstance, indeed, and rather exciting in a daredevil way.

He was walking towards the sounds of explosions; this bothered him in some way.

The lock was so ridiculously easy to pick that it might as well have been not locked at all. Three wafer tumblers. Just three. No attuned iron to make it magically slippery. No wonder the ship had saboteurs running amok. He bypassed the lock without damaging it, pushed the door open, and then waited for a moment so that his eyes could adjust.

Everything was bathed in vivid red emergency light.

Just beyond the door was an unmoving body, which gave Nut pause. He noticed the tiny dart protruding from the stallion’s neck and suspected that poison was the cause of death—and what an unpleasant death it was. Hemorrhaging from every orifice was a bad way to go. The blood was obscured by the red emergency light, and the floor just looked wet rather than bloody.

A single dart had done this; he would need to be careful.

It was smokey, everything was bathed in a Tartarian red glow, and hot. He could hear the sound of smashing and bashing. Metal against metal. Mechanical violence. The turbine sounded like somepony had dropped a pile of scrap metal into a blender and then pureed the whole mess. Or made the attempt, anyhow. Cautious, creeping, with Susan at the ready, Nut moved through the entryway and then peered around the corner.

There was a rat.

And what a rat it was.

An enormous albino rat that was seemingly bipedal. Its pink eyes flashed in the red light as it threw its bulk into a wrench. What was it doing? Well, sabotaging, obviously. Gutted machinery was everywhere. Wires and conduits were strewn about like entrails. Nut knew that fixing the damage would be no simple task. The ship was doomed, no doubt, but the saboteur would be held responsible.

Little whiskers twitched as tiny pink ears strained to listen.

Doing his best to conceal himself, Nut reached into one of his many hidden pockets, pulled out a wicked barbed dart, and then readied himself. It was time to end this, hopefully without too much fuss or headache. The rat, a rodent of rather unusual size, had about the same mass as a free-roaming foal.

With a careful flick of telekinesis, Nut hurled his dart, which struck the rat in the back of the head. It was a good throw, a great throw, entering just behind the ear, while the tip exited through the left eye. The rat squeaked as it fell over, and it’s clawed front paws clutched at its head. Impaled, it kicked and thrashed about, and Nut watched without pity. Surely, the rat would die—Nut would just have to be patient.

“Ugh, you inconsiderate prick!” The rat hissed, squeaked, and gingerly tugged on the dart, which was barbed. “Do you have any idea how much this hurts, you asshole?”

Well, this was unexpected. While Nut watched in shock, the rat began to push on the dart from behind, and when more of it had exited its eye, it grabbed the barbed point so that it could tug it out. Surely, no living thing could manage such a feat—which led Nut to believe that he might be dealing with a living-impaired rat. An ex-rat, as far-fetched as it might be.

“I would apologise,” Nut said to his foe, “but that would require that I be sorry.”

He drew Susan and with a flick, her metre long blade sprang forth. Now he had a two metre long spear—which was fantastic, because he didn’t want to get too close to the foul, abominable creature. While it tugged and yanked on the dart lodged through its head, Nut advanced, and with a well-practiced stroke, he beheaded the disgusting saboteur.

This should have been the end of things—but it wasn’t. Mere seconds after the perfectly executed decapitation, the head began growing a body, while the body began growing a head. Oh, this was all kinds of bad, the very worst of outcomes, and Nut suspected that he wasn’t dealing with mere regeneration, but rather, the undead. The rat wasn’t an albino rat at all, but a corpse rat.

Hacking the rat apart had only made more rats, and it was right now, during this dreadful moment of realisation that Nut understood the danger that Canterlot faced. Chopping the foul creatures into bits—the reasonable solution to exterminating vermin—only increased their numbers. Mincing the creature into tiny pieces would only create an army, and he needed a way to neutralise this threat.

He thought of his mother and then thought about garlic.

“Vampire!” Nut spat out the word even as he convulsed with revulsion and horror.

It was late at night, though Nut was unsure of the time. Princess Celestia’s sun did not shine. Already, the decapitated rat was almost two rats, and Nut knew that time was short. He needed garlic. No, he needed garlic and some intense heat. Surely the galley would have these things. With two quick stabs of Susan, Nut turned the two would-be rats into kebabs and then hurried out the engine room with his rats-on-a-stick held before him.

“What are you doing?” one of the rats demanded as Nut burst into the galley. “I’ll devour your soul for this, morsel! You will feel Contagion’s wrath! How dare you! What are you, some kind of impaling impaler?”

This rat had a wholly different voice than the other. It was a totally different rat. He was dealing with two distinct creatures now and Nut could not help but be in awe of the undead abomination. The emergency lights bathed the galley in a stark yellow light that, given the current situation, seemed diseased somehow.

“When I get free, I’m going to eat your eyes and burrow into your skull!”

The galley was long and somewhat narrow, with two corridors that ran alongside a central countertop that ran down the middle. He walked down the left side, looking for garlic, but not knowing if he would find it. There was a vegetable cleaver hanging from a hook on the gleaming tile wall, and thinking it might be useful, he pulled it down.

“Hey… what’re you doing with that cleaver? You should put that down.”

When he saw the sink, he paused; as tempting as it might be to cram a rat down the garbage disposal, it just wasn’t a good idea. All those little pieces would surely make a whole army of rats. He held up Susan and examined the two rats, which were now quite ratty, almost whole of body. One of them was trying to free itself, and this posed a serious problem.

“What in blue Tartarus?” a different voice asked.

Nut saw a pony in the far doorway.

“Might I inquire about your identity?” asked Nut.

“I’m the head chef,” the pony replied. “I came to fetch my secret stash. Now’s as good a time as any for a drink.”

“Garlic,” Nut said, “where is it?”

“All we have is garlic powder—”

“I’m not fond of garlic,” the chatty rat said.

“Get it for me. Now.

At Nut’s command, the unicorn shuffled over to a cupboard, opened a stainless steel door, and pulled out an enormous glass container of pale off-white powder. This was put on the counter and Nut offered a nod of appreciation whilst he prepared himself for the grim task ahead. The chef stood there, blinking, unmoving, and Nut had an idea.

“Fire up the oven. It’s gas, right?”

“Now yer cookin’ with gas,” the talkative rat said.

“Right, it is.” The chef nodded and then hurried off to do as he was bid.

Nut smacked his rat kebab against the stainless steel counter to stun them, and then pulled one off. Over and over, he smashed it into the cold steel, rendering it helpless. While it lay on the cold steel counter, groaning, Nut opened up the container of garlic, pulled out a sizeable amount, and prepared to sprinkle it over the vampiric rodent.

“Ow, you asshole. Don’t assume that just because I’m undead that I don’t have feelings, you inconsiderate ass-pimple!”

Sick of the rat’s remarks, Nut dusted the rat with garlic powder. A dreadful howl filled the kitchen as the creature exposed to garlic began to smoke. It’s regenerative healing seemed slowed, or even halted, Nut couldn’t tell. So he repeated the process on the other and with the two rodents dusted in garlic powder, he went to work dismembering them with the vegetable cleaver. After chopping a head off, he applied a sprinkle of garlic powder to the severed neck and was pleased to discover that the spontaneous regrowth had been thwarted.

While he hacked the rats into assorted component parts, he noticed that little tendrils of flesh emerged from the fresh wounds, and these would try to pull the severed limbs back together with the body. But a sprinkle of garlic powder would make the gross little tendrils retreat. There was a fwoosh as the oven was ignited and Nut continued with his grisly task.

The chef stood a few yards from Nut, cringing but unable to turn away.

“This galley will never pass inspection ever again.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Nut replied in stoic deadpan.

“We have jellied alcohol.” The chef gulped, queasy, but still did not turn away.

“Jellied alcohol?” Nut applied a bit more garlic powder to a severed limb.

“We use it to keep food warm. A little fire under the chafing dish. It burns hot. Real hot. And it’s sticky. Might be better than the oven. We just toss those rat bits into the jellied alcohol and set everything ablaze.” For a moment, it seemed as though the chef might spew, but he recovered just before the catastrophic containment breach.

“Good idea. Let’s do that.”

“This is gonna stink, ain’t it?”

“Oh, indubitably.”

“I better get hazard pay for this nonsense.” The chef shuffled off, disappeared through a doorway, and then emerged a moment later carrying an enormous metal container. “Don’t take it the wrong way, but just who are you, anyhow? I mean, I walk into my kitchen to get a final drink before I die, and I find you with some rats skewered on an umbrella. And now, you’re chopping up rats the same way my griffon sous chef chops up chicken. You’d think he’d feel bad about that, but no. Griffons are jerks.”

“Just a concerned citizen,” Nut replied.

“Concerned citizen my ass.” The chef set the container down upon the center counter and then made a dedicated effort to look elsewhere, anywhere, but nowhere in particular. “One order of rat flambé, coming up.”

Nut couldn’t wait to tell his mother that garlic powder arrested regeneration. Or maybe she already knew. Either way, they had something to talk about. The disassembled rat bits, each of them dusted with garlic powder, didn’t move much, but sat in a smoking pile. It was important to have good conversation and a shared interest; it was great for relationship building. He had a chance to be closer to his mother and explore their strange new relationship.

“This is Co-Pilot Red Blaze,” a feminine voice said over the intercom. “I’m fading fast, but while I’m still alive, I will keep this ship aloft. We need a pilot. Anypony with flight experience. It’s still dangerous though, so be careful and come armed—”

The intercom cut out with a crackle of static.

“Oh fuck me,” the chef swore.

It occurred to Nut that there still might be rats on the ship, and naturally, this concerned him. After a moment spent processing this information, he concluded that he had work to do—the sort of work that he was born to do. Meanwhile, the poor chef would also do what he was born to do, which was preparing a fine rat flambé.

“Spacious Skies was my friend.” The chef’s face was a mask on the verge of shattering. “We’ve known each other since foalhood. He got me this job. This is a cushy job… the kind you need connections to get. Can you do me a favour?”

“That depends,” Nut replied. “I need a favour in return. These rats need to burn. It’s the only way to stop their regeneration. They must be rendered to ash.” What he didn’t say was that he was confident that burning them would end them. That remained to be seen—but he was almost positive that burning them to ash would kill them, so there was no reason to cause undue alarm.

“I’ll do that.” The chef’s eyes widened. “In return, I want you to go and murderise those rat bastards. All of them. How ever many are left. Do whatever it takes… but bring them back to me and I’ll flambé the little shits. If we survive this somehow, drinks are on me.”


He would need supplies before he left, such as garlic powder. It was useful and Nut planned to exploit the advantage it gave him. His eyes darted from place to place in the galley in search of anything that might be useful. He spotted several things of interest, most noticeably the cleaning supplies beneath the sink. Some of those might prove useful.

“My name is Strudel Doodle, by the way.”


“Nut, eh? I was expecting something else…” Strudel sighed. “Well, as we say in the business, keep calm and curry on, Nut. Go get those rats.”

He would do exactly that; but first, he needed to prepare himself.

Armed with Susan and a vegetable cleaver smeared with rat blood and garlic powder, Nut made his way up the narrow stairs, mindful of the potential dangers around him. The kitchen and the dining room was midship, while the pilot’s cabin was in the top rear of the ship, a location that Nut had always believed was the tiniest bit illogical. He ascended the stairs, stopped near the top, and peered around at the floor to see if it was clear.

There was an open door to what he assumed was the pilot’s cabin. How welcoming. How inviting. Anypony coming back here to help would get cut down right away. There was a disturbing lack of cover in the hallway. Just a few yards away from the door was another unmoving body. Hidden in the cover of the stairwell, Nut spent a moment musing upon the situation. The rats were an unexpected menace on this trip, but then again, so was Nut. Surely, the last thing the rats expected was a competent killer aboard the ship.

When he emerged from the stairwell, he moved with impossible lightness. No part of him made a sound as he crept down the hallway towards the open door. Halfway to the door, he heard pained cries, muffled sobs, and fearful gibbering. Slowly. Slowly. There was no need to hurry. There was a scritching sound, like something scraping against metal, but Nut did not let it distract him.

Just short of the door, he levitated a can of bug spray that had a huge pictograph warning label of flames. He had this and a spark lighter, a deadly combo. But he did not peek around the doorway, no. Instead, he pulled a spoon from his pocket and relied upon the bottom of said spoon to give him a wide-angle view of whatever was beyond.

There was a small sitting room, well appointed, and a circular staircase in the corner that lead up to the glass-enclosed pilot’s cabin. There were machines in the sitting room, all of which appeared to be wrecked. In the middle of the room was another pale white rat, similar to the first that Nut had met, and this one fed upon one of his victims.

Somepony was alive and she wept while she watched.

The silver spoon went back into his pocket and Nut wasted no time. He rushed into the room, took steady aim with his canister of bug spray, and before the undead rodent could react, Nut squeezed the spark lighter just as he activated the nozzle. A cloud of fire billowed forth and in mere seconds, the pale vampiric rodent was engulfed in flame. The mare shrieked, but she did not move.

This time, Nut did not decapitate his foe, having learned from the last encounter. He flung garlic powder onto the rodent’s charred, blackened skin, and there was a keening wail of pain as the creature thrashed about. With the rodent subdued and helpless, Nut stabbed Susan right through the creature’s skull, while also delivering another dusting of garlic powder.

There was no describing the horrific stench and as the last of the flames died out, Nut had a look around. He saw a crossbow resting upon the body that the vampiric rodent had been feeding on, and there was a rat-sized sword as well, whose blade glistened with gore. Were there more rats? This was unknown, but two were more than enough to start an invasion. Chopping them apart would only cause more rats to deal with, and Nut now had a vague understanding of the danger that Canterlot faced.

“Miss, are you okay?”

She offered no coherent response, only gibbering.

“Miss… can you please speak to me. Say something.”

It seemed as though she stared right through him and he didn’t know what to do. He needed to dispose of this rat, but had no way of knowing if there were more rats. The mare closed her eyes, her head lolled about on her neck, and then she shrieked, a terrible sound of raw anguish. Mere seconds after the shriek, he heard something in the hallway.

A few moments later, Nut was joined by a pegasus, a burly earth pony, and a rather fat, skittish unicorn. The trio were led by the pegasus, who was indeed quite fearless in what was truly a terrifying situation. Nut looked at the three, the three looked at Nut, and to explain his actions, Nut raised the chaired black rat that writhed and smoked.

“We came to help,” the pegasus said in a voice that held no fear. “I’m Private Strangewing.”

“I operate locomotives, but this can’t be that different.” The earth pony tapped on his broad chest with one hoof, his eyes searched the room, but kept returning to the skewered rat.

“And I’m a med student.” After a tooth-clattering shudder, the unicorn added, “First year.”

“Go help the mare,” Nut commanded. “She’s not responsive. I need to return to the galley to help prepare rat flambé. How secure is the ship? Any idea of our status?”

“Slowly sinking,” Private Strangewing replied. “We’re adrift. The dining hall and the deck are secured. Some of the wizards have created barriers and wards and things I don’t understand. The good news is, if we go down, we’ll go down soft. The bad news is, we’re at the mercy of the wind, which has blown us near the mountains.”

“Hmm.” Nut was about to say more, but noticed that the skewered rat was starting to recover. He gave it another dose of garlic powder, twisted Susan’s blade around, and scrambled the creature’s brains. Then, with the rat subdued once more, he said to the trio, “If you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”

“Wait,” the med school unicorn said to Nut as he moved to aid the stricken mare. “Those rats… they don’t die. There’s a published study of a rodent regenerating from a single surviving ear. When threatened, they can tear off pieces of themselves, such as their tails, and hide them so that new bodies will regenerate later. Burn it to ash, but when the sun rises, take those ashes out into the light. It’s the only way to be sure. Princess Celestia’s pure sunlight kills them dead.”

“Excellent advice, thank you.” Nut offered a respectful bow of his head.

And with that, Nut hurried off to return to the galley.

The galley was a smokey, reeking charnel pit that almost knocked Nut right from his hooves upon opening the door. Strudel Doodle was drinking and raised his glass in salute while Nut entered. The diseased yellow emergency lights did nothing to help the situation, and everything seemed tinged with madness in some vague incomprehensible way.

Deep within Nut’s mind, the Disgustang lurked, eager to clean and purge all filth.

Still holding his glass aloft, Strudel’s slurred words were filled with grim cheer when he said, “I knew you would return, friendo. And successful no less. What great fortune we have to have an umbrella-bearer aboard our troubled ship. Who is responsible for this good favour? What providence—hic—provides for us?”

“Princess Luna,” Nut replied as he flung the rat down upon the stainless steel counter.

“Well, glory be to Princess Luna’s umbrella-bearers.” Strudel raised his glass a little higher in a toast, then lowered it, placed it to his lips, and drank the contents. Then, he grimaced as he endured the burn and hiccuped once more.

When Nut raised his cleaver to dismember the rat, Strudel said, “No need. No need. The jellied alcohol burns them into fine powder. But the smell… oh the smell. Princess Celestia’s glorious teats, the smell. There’s no power to run the ventilation system, friendo.”


“Oh, it is.” Strudel lurched forward, regained his balance, and set his empty glass down upon the stainless steel counter. “One order of rat flambé, coming up. Is that one rat or two? I can’t tell. Flambéd rat, the official dish of Princess Luna’s umbrella-bearers… the strange tweed-wearing saviours who walk among us. Would you be offended—hic—if I asked if you were a spook?”

“If I were a spook, as you suggest,” Nut replied, “do you think one such as I could be trusted to give an honest answer about it?”

This made Strudel pause mid-lurch. “Woah… that is exactly what a spook would say.” The whites of his eyes gleamed yellow in the emergency light and his ears twitched as the rat’s claws scraped against the steel surface. “So… wait… wait… what’s with—hic—the umbrella?”

“Nopony suspects an umbrella,” was Nut’s quiet, cryptic response. “Perfect low-key sinister menace.”

“Princess Luna has the spookiest spooks,” Strudel said in a drunken matter-of-fact way. “I’ll have to keep my eyes open for other umbrella-bearers. Is that rat multiplying? Stand back… I’m gonna cook some rat flambé.”

Before entering the dining room, Nut paused for a moment so that he could make himself presentable. But after giving himself a once-over, he saw the futility of his chosen action. He was smokey, dusted in garlic powder, there were splatters of blood here and there, as well as some unmentionable smears of filth. A shower was needed, some laundry, and a bit of downtime to recover.

A thorough search of the ship had revealed nothing, but he feared that yet another rat might remain hidden somewhere. He went from top to bottom, searching the secret places, even exploring maintenance access passes, but found nothing. After his search, he’d returned to his cabin, only to find it empty. Which meant that his ward, his apprentice had to be with the others, those in the dining room.

Strudel pushed the door open, hiccuped, staggered inside, and then stepped aside so that Nut might enter. Standing just to the left of the door, the inebriated unicorn said, “Our hero has arrived. One of Princess Luna’s umbrella-bearers. Don’t ask him if he’s a spook. Just—hic—don’t. With his help, I prepared a fine rat flambé, which I will present to Princess Celestia as a burnt offering—hic—when the dawn cracks. Nothing like a freshly cracked—hic—dawn. It’s like peanut brittle. But orange.”

Every head in the room turned in Nut’s direction all at once.

A murmur spread through the crowd like wildfire, but Nut ignored it as he strode forward. All that mattered to him was Tater Blossom, and he saw her sitting at the table in the far corner. She waved—she seemed fine and cheerful enough given the circumstances—while he closed the distance with remarkable alacrity. There were a number of foals seated at the table with her, and all of them watched as he drew near.

“Miss Blossom… am I glad to see you.”

“I got conscripted as a foalsitter,” she replied. “Doin’ my part. Some of the ponies up on deck needed to know their foals was safe.”

“And I can think of no better foalsitter.”

Tater Blossom blushed, started to say something, and then gagged. After gagging several more times, she finally managed to speak, but did so in peril of spewing. “You smell bad. Nut… please… I have to keep the foals from cryin’. Go away! You stink like stale sin!”

Sure enough, several of the little foals were on the verge of tears. Some of them had pressed their hooves over their noses. One filly in particular was engaged in a mighty struggle as tears ran down her cheeks, but she made a valiant effort to be polite. Ah, the eternal struggle. He backed away, conflicted, torn between his sense of duty and his need to be near Tater Blossom. A little pegasus colt, surely no more than a yearling, waved as Nut backed away.

“Mister, you smell,” a tiny earth pony filly said to him once he retreated a yard or two.

“Ah, you again…” Private Strangwing approached. “I never caught your name. At least, I don’t think I did. Red Blaze will live, I think, but I fear what the poison has done to her. Are we secure, benevolent stranger?”

“I searched the ship,” Nut replied. “Found nothing. My name is Nut, by the way. What is our situation?”

“I sent capable fliers off in different directions for help. We’re still sinking. Slowly. And we’re still adrift. We’re in no real danger though, and thanks to your efforts, we seem to be safe. Thanks in no small part to one of Princess Luna’s spooks, it seems.”

“I assure you, I’m just a concerned citizen doing what is right—”

“Oh, please. I’ve been around the Lantern Corps and been assigned to Prince Blueblood’s retinue.” Private Strangewing leaned in and lowered his voice. “Common citizens are here, in this dining room, or up on deck. Not a one of them has the sort of spine required to do the dirty stabby business you’ve been doing. None of them are armed. Now, I don’t know who you are, but I know what you are. Spook.

There was no point in arguing, it seemed, and Nut let go of a soft, resigned sigh.

“Dawn’s in about four hours,” Private Strangewing announced to the crowd. “Please, remain calm and look after one another. Attend to the needs of one another. Remain quiet. Some of us are injured and are in need of rest. The Crown”—he paused for a few seconds and gestured at Nut with his extended wing—“the Crowns, both of them work to protect you. There is no cause for alarm, fear, or worry. Hail the Night Lady, in whom we trust. Carry on. As you were.”

“Hey.” Strudel sidled up closer to Nut, hiccuped, and held up a mostly full bottle of gin. “We have drinking to do. We should do that. A drink would do us some good.”

“I do believe a drink would suit me right about now that my dirty work is finished…”

Veins of Equestria

View Online

A cold grey drizzle fell upon the tundra city of Whinnipeg. Though overcast, there was just enough sunlight to turn the ashen remains of the vampiric rats into sparkling glittery smoke. Something about the glittering remains of the vapourised vampires offended Nut, but he couldn’t quite say what it was, or why he was offended by the sunlight-fueled sparkles. It was just wrong in some way, unnatural and unpleasant.

Caribou and ponies lived together in the tundra city, but shared one thing in common: they were impossibly polite and said ‘eh’ more than was strictly necessary. There was also the local custom of caribooping, their way of saying hello, goodbye, showing affection, or even just saying thank you. Nut couldn’t help but think about pathogen vectors and communicable diseases caused by touching mucus-spewing orifices.

“Nut, I’m hangry.”

“Oh, that is going down in your development journal, Miss Blossom.”

“But I am. I am hangry. If I don’t get something to eat, I’m gonna die.”

“Which would be a pity, since you just survived an airship crash. To have endured so much, only to expire from a lack of breakfast. By the way, your new denim vest looks fantastic on you.”

“Don’t change the subject. I need food. Do something!”

“Very well, but I intend to partake in the local cuisine. You could stand to have a little cultural enrichment. Let us sally forth to sample the local culinary delights.” He sighed, smiled, and his ears pricked. “I think the local caribou find your deer beanie quite endearing, Miss Blossom.”

“No more talk… food… food! Rawr!”

“Fine, fine, we’ll go get something to eat. It’s nice that we have food vouchers.”

A huge roaring fire crackled as it consumed black lumps of coal. The fireplace was an immense stone basin that dominated the room, and there was a massive copper plated construction just above it that funneled smoke up and away. Everything else about the building was rough-hewn timber—which Nut knew to be a status symbol of sorts because wood was in short supply on the tundra. The massive lodge was a hotel, a restaurant, and a casino all in one.

All of the passengers on the downed airship now stayed here for the time being.

“It was nice of total strangers to trust me with their foals,” Tater Blossom said while she waited on her food to arrive. “Made me feel good. Some of them even said I seem trustworthy. And while I don’t know how I seem trustworthy, I like that I am, and I hope to keep it that way.”

The thermometre just outside the window said it was fifty-eight degrees outside.

“Once I got over a-bein’ all scared, everything that happened was kinda exciting. It was a weird feelin’, knowin’ that I was in danger, but that I was also safe. I don’t s’pose that makes a heap of sense, but I don’t know of any other way to say it. Everypony had the danger dealt with in some way and when we actually crashed, it was more of a bump and less of a huge burnin’ explosion.” She turned her head to the left and looked at the airship, which now lay on its side.

“You did a fine job dealing with everything, Miss Blossom.”

“Thank you, Mister Nut. And you did good at… whatever it was you did.”

“Forgive me, Tater. It might take me some time to adjust. I am… formal.”

“We is friends. We should talk like it.”

“Yes, we are friends. As I mentioned, you are very deer to me—”

“No, don’t do that. That’s rude.”

He allowed himself a soft, quiet, polite chortle, one that surely wouldn’t disturb anypony.

“I miss Pod and Taffy already. They was nice to me. Like… sisters.”

Distracted, Nut found himself watching a couple just a few tables over. They were almost disgustingly lovey-dovey, perhaps because they’d survived the crash. Or maybe they were just really in love. The two stallions leaned over the table to be close to one another and were currently holding fetlocks. A pegasus and a unicorn, both of them making the most of what life had to offer—even if it was an unexpected crash in the tundra city of Whinnipeg.

His thoughts turned to Black Maple. Could a pegasus and a unicorn find happiness together? The answer seemed to be a resounding yes, if the couple a few tables over was anything to go by. It was as if the couple were oblivious to others around them, and they seemed to only have eyes for each other. Perhaps the brush with danger made them realise their importance to one another. It could very well be that hazard, and not absence as was commonly believed, made the heart grow fonder. The precariousness of life meant that there were no promises of another day to sort things out. Imminent imperilment tended to sort out one’s priorities.

“Yer missin’ Black Maple.”

He glanced in Tater Blossom’s direction, but offered no denial of her statement.

“I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout Blackie for a while now, mostly last night when I was trying to keep myself calm.”

“Have you now,” he replied whilst he returned his attention to her.

“You know how you want to become a biologist doctor, and Pod wants to be a doctor for makin’ foals, and Taffy wants to be a doctor too?” Tater Blossom rested both of her front hooves upon the edge of the thick wooden table. “Well, I’m pretty sure that Blackie wants you in the same way that all three of y’all want to be a doctor. Call it a hunch.”

“That’s not quite the same thing.”

“How’s it different?”

“Well”—he tried to think of just the right words—“for starters, What Pod, Taffy, and I want is an education. A state of being. A distinction that comes with a piece of parchment. All that is dependent upon us getting what we want is hard work and effort. What Black Maple wants goes well beyond a state of being or attaining an inanimate object. Her desires depend upon me making a decision—and I reserve the right to choose.”

“I don’t see how that’s so different.”

“Tater, it is. I assure you.”

“The way I see it, Nut, is that she has to work hard and earn what she wants. And I think that so far, she’s been goin’ ‘bout it all wrong. But I don’t think it is all that different. Instead of being a doctor, she’ll be a wife. I get that you’re not a piece of paper, but you’re still something that she has to earn.”

Silent, Nut considered Tater Blossom’s words and did not dismiss them. She was learning how to assert herself, and he decided that was too important to discourage her. While he did not wholly agree with what she had to say, he could understand where she was coming from, and with some thought, could potentially shift his own opinion slightly.

The black lumps of coal in the stone basin crackled and popped while he studied Tater Blossom’s face. She was almost completely healed now, which left him to marvel at how hale and hearty she was. He could tell that she studied him as he made his observations of her, and she did so unabashedly, without reservation. A part of him wondered if this meant that they trusted one another. Perhaps she had initially trusted him out of necessity and now, it was blooming into something else, something greater.

He found, with some careful thought, that he valued this trust.

It was precious.

She was precious.

“Here we go,” the waitress said as she drew near. “One prairie-sized breakfast platter for the young miss, and one breakfast special.” There was a clunk as the various plates were put down, and she smiled, which revealed the fact that she was missing a lower front tooth. “Have a nice breakfast.”

“Thank you,” Tater Blossom was quick to say.

“Oh, you’re welcome, sugar,” the waitress replied as she hurried off to tend to other hungry customers.

The prairie-sized breakfast platter, as it was called, might have been the largest serving of food that Nut had ever seen. In the center there was a veritable mountain of poutine. Fries with cheese curds, all of which was smothered in gravy. Off to one side was a pile of beaver tails, some sort of fried confection that he wasn’t familiar with. On the other side was a dozen scrambled eggs, an enormous stack of Fancy toast that was drenched in maple syrup, battered fried mushrooms, and a fried oatmeal cake. On a separate plate was a pile of pastries, all of them shaped like maple leaves. There was also a dish of soft, whipped butter, responsibly served on the side, because, why not?

His own breakfast was far more modest.

“Well, I do hope this will tide you over.”

“I might stay full ‘til lunch, but I doubt it.”

He gulped, an audible sound. It was something he couldn’t help. What she’d said unnerved him; it wasn’t just what was said, but how she’d said it. He watched as she checked out her food, and he wondered what part of her prairie-sized platter she would wreck first. Requesting help from his parents was the right thing to do, he had no doubt of that now. No wonder earth ponies were so adept at growing food; it just had to be a survival adaptation, a means to keep up with their prodigious portion sizes.

“I ain’t ever had Fancy toast before. What is it?”

“It’s bread, dipped in eggs and fried,” he replied.

“Oh. That sounds good. But it also looks sticky and I’m worried ‘bout stickin’ my face in that.”

“Faces can be cleaned.”

“But sticky has a way of stickin’ ‘round, Nut.”

“So it does.”

“I s’pose there’s no helpin’ it,” she said as he lowered her muzzle down near to the mountain of poutine. And then, without further ado or reservation, the hangry earth pony filly began to gollop her food…

The factory was quite a marvel, all things considered. Canned maple syrup. What wonders the modern age brought about. Vanhoover and the surrounding region produced so much raw maple sap that it was hauled by train to other places, like here, to Whinnipeg, where it was turned into fine syrup of various grades.

Light amber, medium amber, and dark, rich amber.

It was an enormous industrial complex, one that would have been right at home in Vanhoover, and the only reason it existed here, in the middle of nowhere, was because of modern transportation. Perhaps normal ponies didn’t think about such things, but Nut did. Without the railroads, towns such as this one would barely even exist. Tourism, however, was now a major factor, as Whinnipeg existed between Canterlot, the Crystal Empire, and Yakyakistan.

There was also a massive bottling plant here for maple seltzer, maple soda, and spruce beer, a truly tremendous industrial fortress made of brick, steel, and glass. Raw goods went in, finished products came out. A train could roll right through the factory so that no time was wasted in loading and unloading goods for import and export. Equestria was made mighty because of this industrial efficiency, which no other nation in the world could match.

“Nut… I has me a question.”

“Go ahead, make your inquiry.”

“All the stuff we grew back at home… it comes to places like this one, right?

“Correct.” He could see his apprentice in the corner of his vision, she craned her head upwards to look up at the smokestacks. “We are all connected in some way, Tater. Your home, the Widowwood, they produce raw goods. Those goods are sent elsewhere. The creatures that live here in this place, and in other places like it, they depend on the transport of goods. The railroads are like blood vessels that carry Equestria’s lifeblood. This town exists to serve a function. Should any part of the great and mighty supply chain be disrupted for whatever reason, all involved will feel it.”

She squinted, thoughtful, shuffled about, kicked at a few pebbles on the road, and said, “I think I understand, but it’s a lot to take in. The world seemed so much smaller not that long ago. There was just the Widowwood. We Solanums sent our stuff out to other Solanums who lived elsewhere, and all was good.”

He waited while she wrangled her thoughts into a corral.

She began to trot away and he followed. Shafts of golden sunlight pierced through the dull grey clouds and mud puddles glistened invitingly in the rutholes of the road. There were other airship passengers having a look about, each of them trying to deal with the inconvenience and boredom in their own way. Nut found that he rather enjoyed this unexpected layover, and it was a good opportunity for his apprentice to learn about the world around her.

“We’re saved!” somepony shouted. “Airship! Finally, we can leave!”

“At last! It took them long enough!”

It took a bit of squinting, but Nut had a good look at the incoming airship that caused so much excitement. It wasn’t a commercial airship, but a gunship. There was sure to be disappointment. Still, it was probably a good idea to find out what was going on. He was about to call out to Tater Blossom, but as it turned out, nothing had to be said. Already, she trotted in the right direction, so he followed after her, eager to find out whatever was going on.

The sight of golden armor was both reassuring and inspiring, though some ponies were annoyed by the continued inconvenience. Quite a crowd had gathered around the gunship, which was a small, light model, a craft made for speed. Private Strangewing strutted his stuff, and rightfully so; he’d earned the right. An off duty guardspony had answered the call.

As for Nut, he did his best to avoid calling attention to himself.

There was still no word on when they could leave, though they were free to leave by their own means should they choose to do so. The promise made by the company to cover the cost would surely be kept, but it meant waiting for arrangements to be made. Since food and shelter were provided, Nut wasn’t worried, at least not too much, but he did feel the pressing need to return home.

“You there.” The stallion who spoke wore black sunglasses, a black suit jacket, and a white shirt that had a small brass lantern on the collar. “Lord Nut, correct? Of House Eccentrica?”

Suddenly self-conscious, Nut suspected that an actual spook addressed him. “I am. May I inquire who you are?”

“Nevermind who I am, but know that I represent the Crown of Equestria. You are to come with me. This is not a request.”

“Oh, bother.” Nut breathed out the words. “My apprentice is coming with me. I’ll not leave her alone. Where are we going?”

“To a secure location,” the pony in black replied. “The Crown thanks you for your cooperation. Hail the Night Lady.”

Immediately, Nut’s whole demeanour changed, and he adopted a stiff, starchy posture. “Hail the Night Lady.”

The pony in black paused, tilted his head, and peered at Nut over the top of his sunglasses. After a few seconds, he nodded, and then said, “Every comfort will be offered to your apprentice while you are our guest. Please, follow me. Prince Blueblood is eager to see you.”

Everything was cold bare metal and naked conduits. The interiour of the ship wasn’t even painted, because paint was heavy. Stark hallways were like industrial wombs and the bulkhead doors were mechanical cervixes with twitchy movements. There was nothing warm or inviting about this place, and Nut was thankful that he hadn’t enlisted. While he endured deprivation and slept in a bare room above a garage, he had some comforts in his life. This was just as bleak as it was awful.

A steam pipe ticked as Nut strolled past.

“You’d think the prince would have a yacht at his disposal,” Nut remarked.

To which the pony in black replied, “Prince Blueblood prefers utilitarian function for these matters. The sight of the gunship does much to reassure the shaken citizenry.”

“Forgive me for being contrary, but I am positive that the sight of a ship ready to carry them home might do more for their spirits.”

“Oh, I agree. But that is not for us to sort out. That is a matter for private enterprise.”

“Hmm.” Nut wasn’t sure that he agreed, but said nothing as the pony in black led the way.

Prince Blueblood was wearing some sort of blue and red military jacket, something with little golden ropes but was devoid of the medals that Nut was certain should be there. He stood in the middle of the room, tall, proud, commanding, and there were two other ponies present with him, both foals, both unicorns. One was a filly—a rather sickly filly—who’s pelt seemed to be falling out and she had jaundice yellow eyes. The other, a colt, had a cup of what was sure to be military grade coffee. Both of them watched Nut’s every move.

“I was… well, forgive me, I was expecting something else entirely,” said Prince Blueblood. “Greetings. I am Blueblood, as I am sure you know, and these are my cohorts for the time being. Miss Piper and Mister Nicker. You’ll have to forgive Mister Nicker’s silence, he was recently garrotted. Nasty business, that. He gives a good stern glare though.”

“Greetings and salutations,” Nut replied. “I am Nut. This is Miss Blossom, my apprentice. Might I inquire as to what you might have been expecting?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Coveralls, perhaps. Something more befitting a repair pony.” Blueblood’s words were as cold as the bare metal walls of the room. “I understand you did a little maintenance work on the airship.”

Unsettled, Nut swallowed once, which made an audible sound. He cast a hard glare into Blueblood’s eyes, but the prince did not turn away. When Nut spoke, he did so in the deadest deadpan he could muster. “Those were unscheduled repairs. I was not acting in any sort of official capacity, and surely, you must know that. I chose biology, and not the life of a repair pony.”

“Oh, can we dispense with the word play?” Blueblood demanded.

“I dispensed with my coveralls,” Nut replied.

“Clever.” Blueblood’s flattery was sincere and he bowed his head. “I was sent to thank you. Without realising it, you saved an untold number of lives.”

“I don’t think the airship held that many.” Nut eyeballed the two foals who sat on the bench, curious as to why they were here, and he heard Tater shuffling her hooves behind him.

The jaundiced filly bounced up from the bench, wobbled for a moment, regained her balance, crossed the cramped room, and then stood before Nut, with her eyes angled up at him. “You’d be wrong.” Her voice was strained, tired, and somewhat weak. “I am Piper Pie, of the Underwatch. There was an undercover agent aboard. They were being sent to Vanhoover, away from Canterlot. There’s some kind of medicine, or a serum, a little something that needs further development. We feared sabotage in Canterlot. Prince Blueblood”—she cast a vicious sidelong glance at the perfectly coiffed stallion—“believed that our best course of action would be a clandestine effort rather than official transport.”

In silence, Nut assembled the situation and put all of the various component pieces together. There were quite a number of alchemy labs and pharmaceutical labs in Vanhoover; it was a city that reeked of science. An airship crash would have destroyed the sample, thus preventing it from reaching its destination. Devious. Alarming. Unsettling. While the rats didn’t know the identity of the agent, perhaps, they’d discovered the ship. Possibly.

It wasn’t too hard to put what few puzzle pieces he had together.

“Prince Blueblood’s judgment was sound,” Nut said to Piper, and his words caused her to frown. “He had no way of knowing. It sounds as though all of Canterlot is compromised. Sure, the citizenry was put at risk, but anonymous transport was still, by far, the best possible option. The sample is safe, is it not? Was the agent harmed?”

“Our agent is fine,” Piper replied, obviously frustrated at this development. “We’ve recovered the sample. It’s very special blood from a very special filly. We want you to deliver it to Vanhoover’s Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies. Once you make the delivery, you will receive further instructions.”

“Huh.” Nut looked down at the yellow-eyed filly who stared up at him. “I didn’t hear a please. Or even a request—”

“I wasn’t asking,” Piper spat out, and as she did so, Prince Blueblood chuckled.

The filly had scars, and if Nut had to hazard a guess, he suspected that Piper was younger than Tater Blossom. He saw a crazed, almost maniacal gleam in her eyes, and pain—there was an awful lot of pain to be seen. She was far too young for all of this, which led him to believe there had to be extenuating circumstances.

“What makes the filly so special?” asked Nut. “I feel like I have a right to know, if I am being conscripted.”

“None of your—”

“Her name is Boxcars,” Blueblood said, interrupting Piper. “She has powerful serendipitous magic. Fortune favours every conceivable aspect of her existence. If she becomes infected with something, her innate luck kicks in to counter the disease. We need samples of her blood delivered to Vanhoover.”

“Fine.” Nut nodded. “I can do that.”

“Thank you,” Piper said, her tone softening. “Please, forgive me. I’ve been under a lot of stress.”

“She has.” Blueblood moved forward and stood beside Piper. “Far too much has been asked of her, but she struggles to meet the challenge. Mister Nicker, while technically the head of the newly formed Underwatch, is not a great commander. He is no great leader outside of battle. Miss Pie has taken it upon herself to do what Mister Nicker cannot.”

“Miss Pie, some ponies respect ferocity. Others are annoyed by it. Some cannot be cowed.” Nut lowered his head until he was eye level with the young miss. “Diplomacy is an art, just like swordplay. Learn how to read ponies and then carefully choose how you approach them. Has anypony told you who or what I am?”

Piper bit her lip, gave it a good chew, and then shook her head.

It was almost a relief to see that she was still a filly, and Nut smiled.

“I am a biology student.” He grinned and allowed his charm to flow.

Beside Piper, Prince Blueblood chortled.

The deserted mess hall was dim, chilly, and cramped. At least there were places to sit down. Round steel tables with cold, unyielding steel benches offered no comfort, and the frigid metal was quite a shock to the unmentionables. In the middle of the table, there was a case, an unassuming carrier case that held something of incalculable value.

Hunched over the table, Flicker sipped his coffee and occasionally let go a croaking cough.

Now almost silent, Piper didn’t say much. She leaned against Flicker, weary, sapped of energy. Something told Nut that the jaundiced filly didn’t get much sleep last night and truth be told, neither did he. Nor did Tater Blossom for that matter, and she was getting rather sleepy. All of them sat almost elbow to elbow, packed in around the round table, upon which was the precious package.

There was just no way for him to process everything he’d been told. The actual, honest state of affairs in Equestria. New plagues. Diseases. Contagion—no mere sickness, but a malevolent entity out to sicken every healthy creature. The Underwatch was a fledgling force still struggling to do much of anything. For Nut, the sheer enormity of the situation was difficult to grasp.

“I should probably mention that you will be paid handsomely for your service.” Blueblood’s voice held no trace of culture nor refinement, just resigned weariness. He too, like the others in his company, was fatigued, no doubt pushed beyond the limits of his endurance. “When we call upon you, when we have need of you, you will not be treated as a mere conscript. Mister Walker, who is currently in Canterlot, insists on a policy of fair compensation for conscripts, and as much as it galls me to say so, I am inclined to agree.”

Nut mused on these words, their meaning, and how they applied to him. Payment was nice, but also problematic. It could foster a sense of greed over national duty. However, payment could also keep one loyal—though Nut could not be bought. After some thought, he wasn’t sure where he stood on the issue, but he appreciated the fair compensation. His apprentice was an eating machine and he wanted to provide for her through his own means, whenever possible.

“This blood is worth more than gold.” Raising one hoof, the weary prince gestured at the case on the table. “We can always get more of this blood… but little fillies only have so much blood in them, and they tend to cry when stuck. So this package remaining safe and sound saves us a great many shed tears. Not sure how the rats knew which ship to sabotage… this concerns me more than a little. At the moment, I keep second guessing myself and I find myself wondering if things might have gone better had I sent it via a pegasus courier.”

“That smacks of risk,” Nut said to Prince Blueblood. “I mean, it’s all calculated risk, obviously. At least with an airship full of ponies, you might have a little luck on your side. Capable ponies might be on board. Dastardly plans can be thwarted.”

“Indeed.” Blueblood tapped his hoof against the edge of the steel table and his nervous eyes darted in every which direction. “It seems that even Boxcars’ blood is lucky. Everything worked out. Mostly.”

Flicker nudged Piper once, then a second time, and nodded at her.

“Mister Nut”—Piper did her best to be charming, given her current state of exhaustion—“we of the Underwatch would like for you to be our courier for future transfers. Your travel expenses will be covered, completely. No matter what class you fly. Payment can be discussed and negotiated. I’m no longer willing to leave this up to chance. My reputation isn’t great as it is, and I think I see a chance to show some competence.”

“School is a concern.”

“We’ll try to limit transfers to once a month.”

“Paying for my apprentice to travel with me will be costly.”

“She’ll be covered.”

“Fine.” Uncertain of what he was committing himself to, Nut hesitated and added, “School comes first for me. Don’t ever ask me to make a hard choice between the two. Come fall, I have a full class schedule. I’ll do whatever is necessary, but not at the expense of my future.”

“Excellent.” Piper’s thin, scarred lips pulled back from her teeth. “Your courier pay will be issued for this trip, and you will be refunded for your travel expenses. I’ll see to that myself.”

“Fabulous. Thank you. ‘Twas a pleasure to do business with you.”

Piper almost beamed and her yellow eyes gleamed. “You will be contacted for other jobs as well. We may have need of your services in Vanhoover.”

“I suppose I could use some extra coin,” he said, admitting his need aloud. “Now, if my apprentice is to take risks with me, I’ll need for her to be paid as well…”

It seemed as though that when Nut left Whinnipeg, he would be a different pony. No, he could not say how he was different, or why exactly—only that something about him had profoundly changed. Had he grown up? Was it the fact that he had a tentative career? It wasn’t the career he wanted—that much was for sure—but the pay seemed rather good and he had the option to make a life out of this.

That changed everything.

As a moment, as an experience, his future opened up wide before him, and he saw all manner of possibilities. It was like opening a window on an airship and discovering a whole new previously unseen horizon. Plus, there was the awareness that came with said new horizons. Not only was his own future filled with options, but his shrewd negotiations opened up possibilities for his apprentice as well. She now had a Crown-appointed job, which might mean a hoof in the door for future government positions.

He’d done well for himself; so well, in fact, that he planned to reward himself somehow.

“When does our train come?” asked Tater Blossom.

“Two,” he replied.

“I feel all excited-like for havin’ me a job, and I don’t know how to act.”

“Be happy. Celebrate.”

“Can we celebrate over lunch?” she asked.

“You wrecked the prairie-sized breakfast platter not but a few hours ago.”

“That was a few hours ago. I got a bit hungry when we was a-talkin’ on the ship. Didn’t say nothin’ ‘cause I didn’t wanna be rude. But my stomach was a-growlin’ and I thought fer sure that everypony could hear it, and I was trying to keep quiet ‘cause of all the important talk goin’ on.”

It was a struggle to keep his eyes from rolling. “What am I to do with you, Tater?”

“Feed me, I hope. Truly, I feel faint. Kinda.”

“I can’t even…”

“Well, I can.” She paused, glanced around for a time, and then in a low voice said, “I need to go potty. There’s brownies in the oven. When those come out, I’m bound to feel even emptier. Can we go have lunch?”

“Yes”—he sighed, resigned to his fate—“we can. And shall. I fear that I’ll never have a desire for brownies ever again.”

She giggled, because why wouldn’t she? Nut watched as she was overcome with youthful mirth, and he allowed his fond feelings for her to flood through his being. Potato Blossom was a truly delightful creature, and he was glad to know her. He would do right by her, because he’d given his word. For a moment, he thought of Hickory, and wondered how Tater’s father was doing.

“Come, Tater. Let us go have lunch…”

What we miss while we are away

View Online

The windows went from dry to drenched as the train collided with the wall of rain. Nut looked up from his book, thankful to hear the reassuring, susurrant pitter-patter of Vanhoover’s ever-present precipitation. His eyes were strained, his vision blurry, and his face ached from all of his reading. Squinting to hold his monocle in place was less than ideal for marathon reading sessions and his farsightedness was ill-suited for studious endeavours. Perhaps it was time to pay heed to his father’s suggestion and get proper eyeglasses. Upon thinking of this, he scowled; he did not wish to be robbed of what he considered an asset, because farsight was a boon.

Life had taken a drastic change. He’d killed two undead abominations. Well, three, perhaps? Yes, three. It was complicated, and the book that he’d been reading proved that. The living rats were shadowborn, umbral creatures, mortal things of flesh and blood. Shadows and negative energy would coalesce in some weird, unknown way to form living flesh. That in itself was quite alarming, a worrisome development—but of course it only grew worse.

These rats lived to die.

Death empowered them. After dying, the rat’s soul went into an unknown location, some other plane of existence. At least, for a time. A sort of off-planar waiting room of sorts. These souls would leap into a vampiric body as soon as one became available. Which was, truthfully, far worse than it sounded, because these souls carried with them the knowledge and skills they learned in life. Killing the vampire rats would just send the souls back to whatever off-planar waiting room from whence they came—except for the rats killed by Flicker Nicker. Apparently, Flicker Nicker had some extraordinary means of causing soul-death, which just so happened to be a visible, observable phenomenon that was truly spectacular to witness.

For reasons unknown, the colt known as Flicker Nicker was a rat-reaper.

“It feels good to be home.”

More than a little surprised, Nut allowed these words to sink in before he replied, “So, is Vanhoover home to you now? You spent so little time here.”

“Feels like home, so it must be.” Tater Blossom squirmed in her seat, looked out the window, and the rivulets of wind-driven rain on the glass could be seen reflected in her eyes. “Now you got me a-thinkin’. Why does this place feel like home?”

After a few seconds spent in reflection, Nut concluded that he didn’t have an answer. He closed the book that Prince Blueblood had given him and tried to make sense of things. But there were too many things to make sense of and he found himself overwhelmed by just how complex his life had become. One trip to the Widowwood had thrown his life into total disarray. Chaos. He had an apprentice now. His return to Canterlot had changed everything. And now, as he headed home, he found himself in a position that he swore that he’d never be in.

While he wasn’t exactly a member of the guard now, he was close enough to be uncomfortable. He had no desire to be a soldier—yet he was now an unofficial member of the Underwatch. Not a soldier, but a courier. An agent. Of sorts. He specifically avoided becoming an agent, and now, he found himself on the verge of agenthood—or perhaps he was in denial and he was now an agent. A spook. While it was reassuring to tell himself that he was but a mere courier, a messenger, none of his reasoning felt honest and it was difficult to convince himself of the veracity of his own claims. A mailpony he was not, nor a parcelpony for some delivery service. He was a courier because of his unique talents and skills.

Soon, he would have a badge.

Life took unexpected twists and turns.

“I think I missed Mrs. Oleander the most.”

“Is that so, Tater?”

“Yes, that is so, Nut. There’s something about her that I like. She’s like you, Nut. But different, I guess. I wanna be just like her. Wanna make something of my life. Rise above my humble origins. She… she… she inspires me, I think is the right word. If she can do it, then I can too.”

“I do believe that Mrs. Oleander would be touched to hear you say that, Tater. When you get a chance, you should converse with her. Tell her that. ‘Twould create a bond, I think.”

“I want a bond,” the thoughtful earth pony filly replied.

He nodded; a bond sounded ideal, though he had a different pony in mind.

Smokestacks rose like sinister spectral fingers rising from the heavy fog, which clung low to the ground, obscuring the factories from view. So many smokestacks in so many configurations. The residents of the boroughs and wards had names for all of them, in much the same way that mountain peaks or prominent landmarks were also named. Like the factories, the slums, shanties, and millhouses were also buried in the fog, leaving only a forest of smokestacks that rose above the evergreens and deciduous trees.

They were coming down the ridge and soon, they too would be lost to the fog that hid so many sins. Nut was silent, pensive. Equestria faced a dire threat from within, even as the world succumbed to a state of war. He had no desire to be a soldier, no sense of calling. When the option had presented itself, he hadn’t joined the agents of S.M.I.L.E. Though, he could still do so at any time. Not that he would.

Right now, he found himself in an awkward place, because he was fond of a certain pithy phrase, a real chestnut of an expression. Yet, it applied to him—perhaps more so than it did to others. Evil prospered whilst he went off and played biologist. Princess Luna had so lovingly created him, honed his skills; she had created a perfect blade. But one content to remain sheathed. She had called him a success, and Secundus a failure—yet Secundus was the one going off to do something about the world’s many problems while Nut hung out in his sheath.

If he hadn’t have become involved with the crisis on the airship, not only would it have crashed, but the precious samples it carried would have been lost. How might this have hurt the world? It wasn’t that it was just one little thing, a long singular isolated action. There were ripples, so many ripples, with so many fates entwined, connected, woven together in inexplicable, unexpected ways.

And all it would have taken for evil to triumph was for him to do nothing.

For the very first time, Nut put serious thought into reconsidering his stance.

He had an intense dislike of the nobles of Canterlot for a variety of reasons, and as he matured, he found many of those reasons also applied to himself. Which was a source of much disquiet and disturbed thoughts. As he gazed out the window, pensive, pondering, he thought of Fiddle Riddle. Another noble off slumming. An exile from Canterlot. Together, they could cause so much more mayhem than either of them could do alone.

Getting involved meant making a commitment, and that was hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Committing to something sometimes meant sacrificing your own plans. Nut was who he was because of his plans. His mad, mad plans. It opened doors for him. Got him attention. His admittedly eccentric plan to visit the Gallopagos served as a way to get noticed, to stand out from the herd of cookie-cutter conformists. It was the ultimate form of advertising and the primary means that Nut used to distinguish himself without using his status as a noble.

And now, as the train descended into the fog, he felt his plans coming undone.

The glass ceiling of the train station protected those beneath it from the torrential summer downpour. It was almost warm, the rain, and there were hot breezes blowing in from the south. Thunder rumbled and lightning illuminated the fog, turning it a blinding, brilliant white. Visibility was almost nonexistent, and from where he stood, Nut could not see the other end of the far end of the train station where the locomotive sat parked.

At any moment, it seemed as though the sky might explode and shatter in some world-ending way, even with the heart of the storm still off to the south. Nut unfurled Susan, spent a moment to warily glance around him, and he could not help but notice just how few travellers had arrived on this train. Overhead, through the glass roof, he could see sheets and ribbons of rain whipped about by the strong, unrelenting wind. This was the summer in Vanhoover; when the hot winds blew upwards along the coast and collided with the arctic currents from the north, the weather became a fiendish nightmare of meteorological fury.

“I can’t wait to be home,” Tater said, her words muffled by the cacophony of the storm.

“First comes our errand,” Nut reminded her. “Say… do you want to wear your rain slicker?”

“I’ll save that for when it’s chilly.” She looked about, upwards too, and then returned her attention to Nut. “It’s warm, Nut. Kinda weirdly warm. That wind is like the hot that comes from an open oven.”

“Vanhoover has a few weeks of summer that have intensely hot winds. Does dreadful things to the weather. Once it blows out, autumn will begin in earnest. Then comes the long white winter. It might surprise you, but we’re on a similar latitude to that of Whinnipeg. But that’s tundra and this is a temperate rainforest.”

“Huh. Neat. Some call that city Winterpeg, and accordin’ to that monument I read, one of the absolute worst battles with the windigos was fought there. The ponies rescued the caribou and we’ve been friends ever since. Some of the marshes ‘round the city are still magically frozen to this very day, and there’s magical alchemical stuff that grows there that don’t grow nowhere else.”

He nodded. “I am impressed. Good job.”

“Thank ya.” She blushed, shuffled a bit, and then stomped her front right hoof. “Aw, shucks. I got the tinglies.”

Once again, he was almost overcome by his fondness for her. It was like… having a little sister. Or maybe not. He never had a sister, so what did he know? Pod was most assuredly not like a sister—she was intended to be his betrothed and that was established at an early age—so Nut wasn’t entirely certain what having a sibling was like. But he imagined that it would be a bit like now. Lots of tinglies, as Tater had so cleverly put it. Like little tap dancing spiders doing a song and dance number up and down one’s spine.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Sure am,” she replied.

“Then let us be off. I should be able to find our destination without any trouble.”

Ministry Row was a poor imitation of Canterlot. Stone towers. Dominating urban fortresses that housed bureaucratic bunkers. Ornate stone pillars were common and added to everything, including buildings that didn’t need them. All of this was the ostentatious display of government wealth and a monument to the power of the purse. While some—or perhaps most—ponies would find these structures impressive and awe-inspiring, Nut just found them tacky. These were monoliths of inefficiency, and Nut could not help but wonder just how much it cost to keep them heated come winter.

Constables were out in force here, walking in pairs. They wore pale blue uniforms, not dark blue as one might assume. As it turned out, the dark blue was seen as depressing and dull, so the constabulary uniforms were a bright robin’s egg blue, which Nut found absolutely hideous. He wondered what Princess Luna might have to say about the rejection of the dark, stately shade of midnight blue, and imagined that whatever she might have to say, none of it would be nice. Uniforms were to be manifestations of authority, and there was nothing commanding about robin’s egg blue.

They walked beneath the protective overhangs and awnings, never once stepping out into the wet. Even with their caution, they were still a bit damp, because everything in Vanhoover got wet. It was just the way of things. Nut had to stop because Tater Blossom was rubbernecking the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Exploitation Annex. Quite a name, that. Some honesty and truth in government. A whole bureau of ponies whose jobs were to find a way to most efficiently exploit the available natural resources.

“It’s huge. Like… a castle.”

“A very poor castle,” he muttered to himself.

The earth pony filly did not budge, but continued to look upwards. She looked left, then right, then left again, and right once more. Since she stood beneath the awning, she took a moment to shake a little water out of her tail, and kick out her wet hooves. Since Tater Blossom simply would not budge, Nut humoured her and allowed her to continue to rubberneck—but he was mindful of their package.

A bright-eyed, overly-eager pony approached, which caused Nut some anxiety.

“Say, do you need jobs?” The chubby bureaucrat came to a swaying halt, smiled, and waved with one extended wing. “Unlike other cities in Equestria, Vanhoover is the only city with a patented Promise of Prosperity. No matter your skill, the city can find you a job.” The smile became more than a little forced. “Even if your job is telling others that jobs can be found for them and offering promises of a rewarding career.”

Nut chose polite tact over annoyed sarcasm and said, “No thank you, good sir. We are both gainfully employed at the moment.”

Tater Blossom’s head swiveled around. “What’s this about a Promise of Prosperity?”

“Vanhoover is the first city to offer such a promise. We even patented it!” The pegasus folded his wing against his side, his smile vanished, and his demeanour became one of intense seriousness. “Even if I’m currently a bit unhappy with my job, it’s nice just to have work. We live in a time of trouble and social upheaval. Jobs are scarce even as industry booms. Vanhoover hopes to set a progressive standard for other cities to follow.”

“Surely this has nothing to do with leaving workers indentured to the city,” Nut remarked.

Nothing changed about the chubby pegasus, except for his eyes. No outward sign of reaction could be seen on any of his features. Nut studied him, watched him, and put his education to work. The tension in the air was thicker than the fog that blanketed the city. Why the silence? The lack of response? There were all kinds of reasons, none of which could be disclosed it seems. For Nut, it was a reminder that the world was broken; it was broken and the Royal Pony Sisters had very little power in Vanhoover, as well as the other cities. Their power was in Central Equestria, while the coasts held their own.

Vanhoover had deposed its nobles… and for what, exactly?


Corporate robber barons?

A year away from Canterlot had taught Nut much about the world; he’d learned a lot that he didn’t wish to know. He envisioned a corporate Equestria, with the Sisters’ influence shrunk down to the Canterhorn itself, with corporate nobles ruling over the wage-slave peasants. Mister Mariner had failed, but he had shown what could be done. Surely, another would follow. With each attempt, a way forward would be paved.

Unless somepony did something about this.

But what?

And who?

He thought about what his mother had said—all of it—and endured an unpleasant moment. He studied the sad-eyed pegasus, who stared back, all while Tater Blossom seemed to be lost in thought about something. No pony did anything about this, because no pony wanted to get involved—except for the ones who desired benefits for themselves, those who wished to exploit the system. Nut himself didn’t want to get involved, which meant that nothing would change.

“We really must be going,” said Nut. “Our own job awaits. Pleasant day to you, sir.”

At the far end of Ministry Row, on the very verge of Cliffside, Nut found the place he needed to be. There was a woodcarving on the front, a sign with a dead rat. You could tell that it was dead, too; it lay on its back, with all of its legs kicked up into the air, and each eye was a big black X. Just below it on the wall was a much newer brass plate with the words, Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies.

This structure lacked the pretension of the others along the street. It was squat, rather squarish, with only somewhat rounded corners—no doubt to maximise indoor space. There were no large windows, only narrow slits. The front door was plain, but fortress like, a slab of massive timbers and steel. This place wasn’t built to be showy, but to survive the toppling of civilisation, should it happen.

“No loitering,” a disembodied voice said.

“I’m here with a delivery,” Nut replied with the hopes that somepony or something might be listening.

“One moment.”

Something heavy thunked and clunked within the front door, as if massive unseen locks shifted and moved about. Nut heard a clank, then a ratcheting sound, followed by a series of clicks, as if a bank vault door were opened. It was an intimidating sound, and Tater Blossom scooted behind him. The front door did not open, no, not right away. It slid outward from its frame, revealing that it was at least two feet thick, and then began to silently open on perfectly oiled internal hinges.

Inside the doorway, there were two turret-mounted autoguns, and no sign of a friendly greeter. Nut peered around, uncertain of what to do or how to react; he’d never had two turret-mounted autoguns pointed at him before. The ancient wartime relics gleamed with fresh oil and puffs of steam ejected from the engines that powered them. He knew of such things, but seeing them up close was still awe-inspiring. The steam powered crank guns could spew clouds of remorseless metal at a truly unbelievable rate.

“Do come in,” the disembodied voice said, “we’ve been expecting you.”

The entryway had murderholes along the walls and grates in the ceiling that all manner of unpleasant surprises could be poured though. The floor had gutters for easy clean up, and Nut knew that whatever was left of unwanted visitors could be washed down the drain for convenient cleanup. A second steel door began to open as the door behind him began to close.

Nut had the feeling that this place was a sanctum for the paranoid.

Beyond the door, an earth pony could be seen. Old, though not ancient, the stallion waited with an easy grace. He was missing an eye; in fact, one half of his face was covered with a steel plate, and this even covered the spot where his left ear would have been. It might have been intimidating, except for the fact that the stallion was short; maybe two-thirds of the size of a regular, full grown adult. This marked him as extra-dangerous in Nut’s mind, because little ponies had something to prove.

“My name is Piston. Not Doctor Piston, or Professor Piston, just Piston. Normally, I don’t do the ol’ meet-n-greet, but we’re understaffed. Don’t make no sudden funny moves, or you’ll be a cloud of red mist and our apprentices will be stuck with yet another horrendous cleanup job. Follow me. Slowly.”

If Tater Blossom was scared, she didn’t show it now. Or maybe she did. She had her head held high, striking the same dignified pony pose that she had on the day they left the Widowwood together. Cautious, slow, and steady, Nut moved forward while he maintained his calm. Surely there was a reason for this security, and the good pay made all of this quite bearable.

Bleak stone walls awaited beyond the steel door, and this place felt more like a hospital than government office. The pungent tang of disinfectant tickled Nut’s nose and made his eyes water. He could feel eyes on him, and all of his senses told him that he was in grave danger. Yet, his intelligence told him that this place was necessary. A plague might wipe out most of civilisation, but this place would endure. Ponies would endure. In a way, it was quite reassuring.

“Welcome to North Luna’s Ocean Coastal Command,” Piston said as he led the way. “Odd name, but I had nothing to do with it. We used to be the Rat Catcher’s Guild, but now we’re the ministry with the name too long to say. Forgive us for the cold welcome; we used to be a good bit friendlier, but most of our number was recently killed off in skirmishes across Equestria. Our brethren and sistren in Manehattan got the worst of it, though Canterlot was decimated too.”

The earth pony passed through an open door and then continued, “We’re a research lab more than anything else. Vanhoover has always been a city of crackpots, free-thinkers, crazies, madponies, and radical intellectuals. They said that we were crazy. Paranoid. That we partook too much in the demon jitter bean. But when the rats came for us on that fateful day, we were ready. Lost my eye and part of my face. We fared better than every other guild and now our research center status is more important than ever.”

Nut followed Piston through the door and found himself in a stone room barren of all comforts, save for a stainless steel bench and table. Piston moved to a corner, turned around, and then just stood there. Nut heard the door close behind him, and then multiple locks clicked into place. He felt Tater Blossom press up against his side; she was damp from the rain and shivered, though he suspected that it wasn’t due to the cold, clinical chill present in the air. On the far side of the room, near where Piston stood, there was a narrow steel door.

“Those guns at the door”—Nut stood as rigid and unmoving as a statue—“something tells me those wouldn’t be exceptionally efficient when dealing with rats.”

In response, Piston snorted and said, “The flamethrowers are for the rats. Those autoguns, those are for Grogar’s agents should they drop by for tea unannounced. We had that happen too, not long after the rats failed to do us in.” The short, stout earth pony turned his single squinty flinty eye upon Nut and seemed to study him. “I understood you took out some vamps in combat.”

“No,” Nut replied.

“I heard wrong?” asked Piston.

“I ambushed them. There was no combat. Too risky.”

“Right.” Piston stretched out the word for several long seconds. “Assassin. You don’t get into fair fights. Doctor Tripper is really gonna dislike you. He thinks assassins are contemptible sots.”

“I am not an assassin—”

This made Piston laugh riotously and Nut grew frustrated—though he showed no visible outward sign. He kept his cool, partially because of his natural restraint and also because the paycheck made it worth it. This was the cost of taking professional work with his talent and reputation; ponies were bound to make assumptions.

“I’m not,” Nut said, repeating himself. “This is an issue that needs sorting out. I never chose that life. When the time came, I retreated from it. I avoided that career because of the negative connotations.”

At all of this, Piston only laughed harder, a sort of raspy, husky, hearty chuckle.

Nut set both suitcases and the case down upon the stainless steel table while Piston laughed. His magic was growing a little weary from carrying so much, and after a moment, he set down Susan as well. A quick check upon Tater Blossom revealed that she was jittery, and he wondered just how long they might have to wait in this tiny cell of a room.

“I don’t think it’s kind of you to laugh,” Tater Blossom said through bared teeth.

Piston ceased abruptly; he did so in such a way that it was downright disturbing and it left Nut unsettled. The short, stout earth pony’s face was hard to read, because a good half of it was a steel plate. But the other half, there was something that was almost… respect? Surprise? It could be any number of things. After a few tense seconds, Piston nodded.

“See, I had you pinned as a shrinking violet,” Piston said to Tater Blossom. “Just another soft pony to be undone in a crisis. But you show unexpected courage. It remains to be seen if this job suits you. For now, I’ll reserve my judgment.”

“You shouldn’t judge others,” Tater Blossom snapped.

“It’s my job to judge others.” Piston kept his scratchy voice low and soft. “When I judge others, it is often a matter of life and death. Prince Blueblood demanded my opinion of you. He wanted to see how you’d handle yourself under pressure. Don’t take this the wrong way, Miss, but you haven’t exactly proven yourself. You are only here because you are Nut’s apprentice, and it would be rude to make you wait outside.”

“You have my gratitude.” Nut bowed his head slightly with the hopes of smoothing the situation over.

“Oh, you’re being tested too. Assassins aren’t known as stable, dependable types. They’re not team players.”

Piston’s words made Nut think of Secundus, who loved violence.

“Even worse, you’re young,” Piston added. “Unproven. None of us know what sort of discipline you have, because you weren’t raised within our walls, by our standards, as an adherent to our way. Prince Blueblood put in a good word for you on Princess Luna’s behalf… but as far as I am concerned, their combined word don’t mean nothing. Even with our thinned numbers, I’d rather trust who I know than an outsider who’s had a good word put in for them.”

The earth pony shrugged. “With all that said, you still have a little of my respect. Killing the vamps isn’t easy. I don’t care how you did it, or if you call it ambush, or how you might dismiss it in your oh-so-casual manner. Maybe it was luck. It might have been circumstance. You might have some kind of murder-magic like Flicker Nicker does. Maybe you really did just catch them off guard, and next time, they might wear your guts for garters. None of that matters. The fact that you killed them… that matters. I’m pragmatic enough that I can appreciate that.”

Unmoving, Nut offered no response.

“Nut’s a good pony,” Tater Blossom said to Piston. “He saved me from my home. Things coulda got all violent, and didn’t. Sure felt like things were gonna take a turn for the worse. I might be a know-nothing hick, but I know I trust Nut with my life ‘cause I done seen how he respects life. We are more than we’re brought up to be.”

“Noted.” Piston’s response seemed sincere, even friendly.

“And I only got mad ‘cause it didn’t feel like there was no respect.”

“Also noted.”

“And if anypony else acts like a dirt clod, they’re gonna catch an earful from me as well. Nut ain’t the sort to speak out much or fight back. He’s the quiet type. Patient. Good. Kind. It don’t mean you can walk on him. Me, I’m the mouthy type, and I’ve spent the whole of my life gettin’ switched for it. Ain’t stopped me yet.”

Piston’s sole surviving ear stood rigid when he nodded.

Though he said nothing, at least not now, Nut felt immense pride for his apprentice, and he knew that he would have to do something special for her later to show his appreciation. It struck him how the same pony that could have anxiety attacks could also be utterly fearless. Some things didn’t make sense, nor did they need to. Life was full of perplexing mysteries to be enjoyed.

“Doctor Honclbrif will see you now,” a disembodied voice said. “Please, come through the door and make no sudden movements. Doctor Honclbrif is a twitchy, easily startled fellow. Thank you.”

After navigating a few claustrophobic hallways filled with all manner of mechanised murder, Nut found himself in a comfortable laboratory with a dedicated office space. In a strange way, it felt like home, because it was almost like some of his mother’s work spaces. There was an alchemy bench, various machines such as autoclaves and centrifuges of every make, model, size, and description, and other more fantastic things he failed to recognise.

In the middle of it all was a three-legged pony with a most curious feature; he had a duckbill. It was hard not to notice, and even harder to ignore. Bright orange-yellow, the duckbill dominated most of the pony’s face, and it was almost impossible not to stare. But Nut’s fine manners won out—though Tater Blossom failed completely—and he assumed a relaxed stance near the curious three legged duckbilled pony.

“This,” Piston began in perfect deadpan, “Is Doctor Honclbrif Droppamapantz.”

There was a snort from behind Nut and he worried that Tater Blossom might come undone.

“The name is Germane,” the duckbilled doctor said.

“Doctor Honclbrif, this is Lord Nut and his earth pony apprentice, Potato Blossom.” After a low bow of his steel-plated head, Piston added, “I’ll be going. Holler if you need anything.” And without further ado, the earth pony departed forthwith, vanishing through a fortified steel door.

Nut heard more snorts from his apprentice, and when he turned his head around to glare at her, she shrank away. He leaned in, she swayed back, but no matter how hard he stared, little snorts escaped, and these were joined by the tiniest of giggles. She was trying, but obviously not enough.

“You must forgive the bill,” said Honclbrif. “I was experimenting with chewing gum as a means of medicine delivery. There were side effects. The duckbill was quite unexpected.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nut replied good naturedly, “when I go to the doctor’s office, I expect a bill.”

Tater Blossom’s giggles ceased right away and were replaced with sullen silence. Doctor Honclbrif shifted his weight around, his eyes rolled once, and then he shook his head from side to side. Pleased with himself, Nut allowed himself both a polite grin as well as a sensible chuckle. Meanwhile, the three-legged earth pony helped himself to the nondescript carrying case in Nut’s possession.

“Last winter,” Doctor Honclbrif began, “a new plague landed upon Equestria’s shores. A plague unlike any other. Yersinia pestis is an old enemy of ours, and one of the few organisms that Princess Celestia truly, truly hates. This new strain came to us from Windia, we think, though we could be wrong. The ship originated in Windia, that we know. By the time it arrived, most were dying, or already dead.

“But there were two notable survivors, both of whom had fared quite well. Erm, where was I? Oh yes… that’s right. This new strain of an old enemy doesn’t just focus its attack upon the lymph nodes, no. This new strain of Yersinia pestis attacks the thaumaturgic system directly, and rapidly mutates itself, becoming whole new strains with magical traits. It’s the damnedest thing that we’ve ever seen, and Princess Celestia herself has said that this could be the plague that destroys ponykind as we know it.

“Thankfully, those two survivors were exposed to the new plague. Boxcars and Domino have powerful luck magic. Not so powerful all alone, as we’ve discovered, but together, they practically warp reality. Boxcars, in particular. It’s her blood that we’re using to synthesize new cures as the new plague mutates. There’s been a little over a thousand deaths, which seems terrible, until one realises that this plague could be the end of our species. Maybe all species. It was an extraordinary stroke of good fortune for Doctors Needle and Bunsen to take in Boxcars and Domino. What you carry with you is the survival of our species.”

The hard, heavy harshness of reality sank down upon Nut’s back and he shuddered even as his metaphorical spine bent from the pressure. When one heard of the potential end of one’s species, one tended to be somewhat distraught. It certainly had his attention, and he understood the full importance of his precious cargo, more so now than ever.

“It was a fortunate stroke of luck that you were aboard the airship,” Doctor Honclbrif said matter-of-factly. “While others will dislike your profession and may not trust you, I believe it ideal. Assassins are ideally suited to dealing with other assassins. It is only logical. It is my opinion that you are the perfect courier for our endeavours… though I confess, nopony else agrees with me. Doctor Tripper had some rather unpleasant things to say.”

Eyebrow arched to intellectual perfection, Nut mused on what the doctor had to say.

“To deal with spies, one uses counter-spies. Intelligence has counterintelligence. To deal with an army of small undead assassins, one must employ counter-assassins. This shouldn’t even be an issue of debate, but it is. My views have long been controversial. Almost as much as my inventions. I was exiled from Canterlot for being a menace. I was welcomed here though. In time, Nut, you will be welcomed here as well. The Vanhoover Rat Catcher’s Guild, we’re not like the others. All of us, every single one of us, we’re all exiles. Cast asides. Throwaways. The unwanted untouchables deemed unfit for service with every other respectable branch. Make no mistake, you’re one of us.”

“Am I to find that reassuring?” asked Nut.

“Yes?” The doctor offered up a half-shrug. “No?” Again, another half-shrug. “Do you need to be reassured, colt? If so, might I suggest the protective refuge found beneath your mother’s belly.”

It was at this moment that Nut found his respect for Doctor Honclbrif.

“Ah, unexpected. I expected anger. Frustration, perhaps. Some kind of reaction. But your face remains passive. No murderous rage. Or maybe this is what I should have expected all along. What good is an assassin without passivity during periods of inactivity?”

“I am a sheathed sword,” Nut said to the doctor.

Doctor Honclbrif opened up the carrying case, peered inside, and quacked. It was an odd sound, but Nut did not dare laugh. Tater Blossom did though, and he knew that he’d have to have a word with her later about professional courtesy. Inside the carrying case was a notable amount of lead shielding, a layer of attuned iron, and twelve glass phials covered in a layer of frost. The true enormity of his task settled into Nut’s mind, and he found that he was rather pleased with his new career—even if it were only a part time job.

“That seems like a lot of blood,” Tater Blossom remarked.

“It is, indeed, a lot of blood,” Doctor Honclbrif replied. “Only so much blood can be taken from such a small filly. That is why it is so precious. We must not kill the goose that lays our golden eggs.” He removed the blood, closed the case, and then began to put the blood away inside of a stainless steel refrigeration unit. “Traditionally, when making antibodies and vaccines, we’d be able to grow cultures in the lab. Just a little blood is enough to begin synthesis so that new medicines can be made. But this is not the case with this precious blood. Our efforts at synthesis produce no magical effects—which means we must continue to draw from the source.”

This made everything click into place in Nut’s mind, and he understood why the blood was so valuable. It made sense now. These transfers would have to continue so that new cures could be researched and found. But the source of the blood remained in Canterlot… which left Nut unsettled. Could Boxcars be kept safe in the city that posed the most danger to her very existence? He didn’t know enough about the situation to answer.

“I must stress upon you the importance of your job,” Doctor Honclbrif said while he turned to face Nut. “Failure potentially means death for others, or immense suffering. As the new plague continues to spread, we continue to hold our own against it. So far, it remains a nuisance to our existence. Had this case not reached us, we might have fallen behind. We might not have synthesised new cures to deal with the new strains that appear so rapidly. In the past, Princess Luna herself has flown over some of the cases, but you must surely understand that she is a busy pony. She cannot be relied upon as a courier.”

“I understand.” Nut nodded with the hopes that he could win some favour with whom he believed to be his boss.

“We are Princess Luna’s guild,” the doctor said, his words almost a conspiratorial whisper. “She favours us. We’re rejects she’s collected. The unwanted. The castaways and cast-asides. Princess Luna ensures that we get our fair share of funding. She is our patron. Princess Luna encourages our ideas… and our… how shall we say… our questionable research methods. Nopony has nice things to say about us. We’re feared because we’re not understood. Princess Luna understands that… respects that. It is my opinion that, if you are here, it is because she wants you here.”

These words fell upon Nut’s ears with an almost physical force.

“You were exiled from Canterlot?” Tater Blossom’s hooves clopped against the stone tile floor as she moved up alongside Nut. “Can I ask why? I don’t mean to be rude. I’m an exile too. I got shunned and sent away from home.”

The duckbilled doctor froze for a moment and there was sincere pity in his eyes. “My apologies, Miss. Ponies often reject the strange and unusual. The things they do not understand. My inventions were deemed too dangerous. I made weapons… terrible weapons. Truly horrible weapons… my intentions were good. I wanted to stop conflict. Discourage it before it happened. But the weapons I made… well…” The three-legged unicorn sighed.

“Things did not work out the way I planned. My research methods were frowned upon. It didn’t matter that I got results and that studies in medicine saved lives. This, and a variety of other factors, it got me branded as a menace. The Canterlot Guild issued me my walking papers. I was told to leave. Princess Celestia offered me a reprieve though—this was before Luna’s return—and like so many, I ended up here. Here, I found brotherhood. And sisterhood as well, I suppose. We all arrive here through providence.”

“You make it sound like some manner of divine order,” Nut remarked.

“It is,” Doctor Honclbrif replied without a single second of hesitation. “We’re not like other guilds. You’ll discover that in time. We are brethren and sistren. Here in isolation, we’ve found our own way. This is why I know that you’ll be embraced… in time. This is our sanctum. Our sanctuary. Science and servitude is our faith. Our holy order. Our divine mandate. We recently survived what should have been the end of our order. I lost a leg. We all lost something. How did we survive? Everypony here will tell you the same thing. We have faith in what we do.”

“I’ve been a-wrasslin’ with my own issues of faith.” Tater Blossom’s voice had a vulnerable quaver to it. “Recently, it got all shook up. It kinda broke. I’ve been tryin’ to put all the itty-bitty pieces back together. Nut showed up and he done showed me the scientific method, and ain’t nothin’ been the same since.”

Doctor Honclbrif chuckled, but it was a sad sound. “My own apprentice was plucked from an isolated community to the north, along the coast. He showed a remarkable aptitude for science. A knack for chemistry.” The doctor turned his head and pointed with his nose. “He died right over there, valiantly defending the sample cabinet.”

“I’m sorry,” Tater Blossom said to the doctor.

“I am too.” After a sigh, the doctor shook his head. “Sea Ice was a brilliant earth pony. He took to molecular chemistry like a gull takes to water. That boy could make the most complex calculations inside of his head, with no need for slate and chalk. He had a promising future.”

“Do earth ponies and unicorns make for good pairs?” asked Tater Blossom.

“Oh, indeed, they do.” Doctor Honclbrif’s head now bobbed up and down. “Earth ponies of a certain type, they have keen intelligence, but lack the means of complex manipulation that we unicorns have. We unicorns have keen manipulation, and plenty of smarts, but nothing like the living calculators that are some select earth ponies. Working together, much more can be accomplished than anything done on our own. Our guild favours this tradition, and you will find many unicorn and earth pony pairings within our ranks. To accomplish greatness though, there has to be trust. Communication. There has be total familiarity with one another. This has long been our way. Even those of us in Vanhoover, the nontraditionalists and anticonformists that we are, we see the wisdom in this pairing. It has become part of our sacred order.”

“Over the past few days, I’ve been a-wonderin’ if Nut and I were supposed to be together.” Tater Blossom’s voice was little more than a hushed whisper now. “It’s been real troublin’ for me, because mares and stallions are only s’posed to be together in marriage. Like, it’s been real hard for me to understand what we are together. I was taught that everything was s’posed to be a certain way, and that’s it. There ain’t no more to life. But I done seen with my own eyes that this is wrong, and I’ve been a-workin’ real hard to sort everything out. But then I was called his apprentice, and that seemed real weird, ‘cause I ain’t no unicorn.

“Yet, here y’all are, together, and I don’t think that Nut had any idea that earth ponies could be apprentices to unicorns, ‘cause he seemed kinda stumped about the whole thing when it was brought up. It’s a relief that all of this is normal though, and it makes it easier for me to put all the pieces in place. Still a-sortin’ everything out though. It’s hard.”

“You poor dear.” Honclbrif sighed, his ears sagged against his temples, and he shook his head. “Sea Ice’s clan sacrificed one of their own to the sea every year during the Winter Solstice. That is, until Princess Celestia herself put a stop to it. Have no fear… your isolated upbringing can be undone. You can still grow and be everything you wish to be. You need only the drive to do it.”

“Thank you.” Tater Blossom took a step closer to the doctor, then stopped and chewed her lip.

“Come.” The doctor gestured with his head. “Come break bread with us. Have lunch. I’ll introduce you to the others. Perhaps if we all eat at the same table, we can accept the assassin as one of our own. As for you, my dear”—he paused as a quack that could not be contained somehow managed to escape and he was left embarrassed—“I want to hear your story. Tell me about your upbringing. I wish to know more about you.

“Lunch sounds good,” Tater Blossom said and her words were punctuated by a swift lick of her lips. “Nut, can we stay for lunch?”

“Certainly, Miss Blossom. I feel that it would be good for us to get to know our employers.” Then, to Doctor Honclbrif he said, “Prepare to be eaten out of house and home, Doctor. You will be astounded by her ravenous nature.”

“Ravenous nature, you say?” The doctor’s eyebrows rose. “Passive magical talents deplete the system, you know. Sea Ice was a prodigious eater. The more complex his calculations, the more rapacious his appetite. And Piston’s danger-sense. Piston is a bottomless pit now that his intense paranoia has left his danger-sense forever going. I’m working on liquid nutritional supplements for earth ponies. Compressed calories. Piston needs upwards of twelve-thousand calories a day to remain healthy and not sink into a malnourished state. But if he does physical labour of some kind, that number easily doubles. It’s become a health crisis.”

Nut blinked.

When he failed to process what had just been said, he blinked again.

“Tell me, my dear… to the best of your ability… did your appetite increase after you left home, or were you always this hungry?”

“I had hungry days at home too,” she said while her eyes grew unfocused. “But now that you mention it, since I left home, I’ve been downright hungry. Nonstop. It never goes away. How’d you know?”

“We’ll talk over lunch, dear. Perhaps we can reveal a few mysteries. Come, come… I am eager to begin. Follow me. I am beyond peckish myself.”

“That might be the bill,” Nut suggested.

Both the doctor and Tater Blossom sighed in unison.

“He does that,” Tater Blossom said to the doctor. “I don’t think he can help it. Like some sickness of the mind.”

“Some ponies are perverse,” the doctor agreed. “A most grievous social handicap. How do you cope, dear?”

“It’s hard,” she replied. “Real hard.”

“You make it sound punishing.”

Both the doctor and Tater Blossom winced at Nut’s interjection.

“See, there he goes. Ain’t that terrible?”

“It is indeed, my dear. Remember, gentle forbearance. We must show mercy to the socially inept.” The doctor peered at Nut through narrowed eyes. “Positively dreadful. Come, we can discuss this over lunch.”

Pleased with himself, Nut smirked and prepared for a witty, interesting meal together.

O Captain! My Captain!

View Online

Violent spatters of rain pounded a stuttering rhythm upon Susan’s chainmail reinforced canopy. The heavy fog poured over the side of the cliff and was pushed downward, where it collided with the warm air far below and was obliterated. Nut found that he was perfectly content to stand still and spend a little time enjoying the beautiful sight. The fog was almost like a liquid as it flowed over the side and then was torn apart by the swirling eddies caused by warm ocean-born currents. It was mesmerising, and a weather phenomenon unique to Vanhoover.

“We made friends.”

“Verily. We did make friends, Tater.”

“Except for Doctor Tripper. Well, I made friends with Doctor Tripper. I don’t think he likes you, Nut.”

“But he likes you, so we have that going for us.”

“Do you really think I have some kind of passive magical ability, Nut?”

“You might.” Nut felt as though he should choose his words carefully, but the right thing to say didn’t come to mind. The words he settled for felt inadequate somehow. “That might be the case. ‘Tis best to not jump to conclusions. It could just be that you are growing.”

Together, the master and apprentice peered over the rail to watch the fog below.

“Is we makin’ good money, Nut? See, I don’t even know. Makes me feel all insecure and such. We just got paid, and I s’pose I should be real happy ‘bout that, but it just makes me think ‘bout just how little I know. I feel stupid. When I feel stupid, I can’t be happy. ‘Cause I feel stupid. So I gotta feel smart again afore I can be happy.”

Tight-lipped, Nut turned to face his apprentice so that he could look her in the eye. “When I left home, I barely understood money. It was difficult to learn and adjust. I went from having everything to having nothing. My parents never taught me about money management because there wasn’t a need for it. I felt stupid too… but please, do not think yourself as such. Just inexperienced.”

“So did we do well?” she asked, eager to know.

“Our combined pay from that one trip is more than the average factory worker’s monthly wages,” he said in a low voice that was devoid of feeling. “I actually feel conflicted getting paid so much for doing what seems like so little. Something about this bothers me. I fear it shall take me awhile to come to terms with things like wages. It just feels unfair that I am paid so much while others are paid so little. There are so many factors. Education and such. I understand those things… but to experience them… I fear I don’t know what to make of them. The state of inequality in the world feels so much more pronounced right now.”

Tater Blossom started to say something, her mouth opened enough to reveal her broad teeth, but whatever words she had on the tip of her orange tongue failed her. She swayed a little, endured the silence, and tongue tied, she cast her gaze over the rail. Nut tried to imagine what she might be feeling, but it was impossible for him to tell. Did he say something that upset her? He didn’t know, and found himself in a fretful state as he attempted to discern her mood.

“I didn’t mean to spoil your good mood, if I did.”

“You didn’t, Nut. And don’t think that you did. You did just give me something to think about, and that’s made me all the more grateful for what I have. For what we have? Feels like I don’t know how to talk no more. I like havin’ stuff to think about, even if thinkin’ ‘bout it gives me the hungries.”

He almost said something, but didn’t. Doctor Honclbrif had planted curious seeds with his suggestions and ideas, and now it seemed there would be lingering questions. Everything would seem suspicious, a possible cause, or a factor that might be evidence of magic. It was just the sort of thing that truly annoyed Nut, because puzzles had to be sorted out, lest he go mad pondering them.

“Peppercorn was nice,” she said, and her interjection changed the subject. “He’s a bit like you, Nut.”

“He is.” Nut nodded his agreement. “Canterlot noble. Old blood. Refined. Good breeding. Real shame about the family situation. They wanted a wizard to extend the fame of their bloodline and wound up with a gunsmith.”

Tater let heave a mighty snort, pawed the ground with her hoof, and tossed her head around. “Seems like some families just get it in their heads that their foals have to be this, or be that, and if things don’t turn out as planned, they just get all sour about it. Like my family and how they done treat me. I’m glad he found ponies that appreciate him. He’s a nice fellow.”

Nut’s mind politely brought up the fact that Peppercorn Bluemark was just about the same age as Tater Blossom. The thought alarmed him for some reason, though he could not say why, and he resigned himself to keep a wary eye on the colt in the future. Peppercorn was charming, a smooth talker, a real suave and sophisticated fellow for his age. A somewhat dangerous colt with a rather dangerous job. Everything about this bothered Nut, but the reason why remained elusive.

It was far too windy to float down to the Lower City. Too dangerous. While he could probably afford to take a lift to go down, his frugal nature balked at the very idea. Plus, there was the absurdity of riding a lift so that one might go down. One expected to be elevated upon a lift. As much as he didn’t want to take the stairs, they were free and a little exercise might do them both some good. He turned his face into the warm breeze and enjoyed the pleasant heat upon his cheeks.

“My apologies, Tater, but I fear we shall have to descend the stairs…”

Beneath a sky that was the colour of neglected iron, Nut stared at the spot where there was no longer a bridge. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, on the landing, which offered an incredible view of the Lower City, and the bridge that connected Anvil Island to the mainland was gone. Powerful gusts of wind tugged on his umbrella and tossed his mane about while he stared at the immense empty space that offered nothing to look at but the ocean.

“The bridge is gone,” said Tater Blossom, who stated the obvious.

“Indeed. It most certainly is.”

“I remember it being there.”

“Verily. ‘Twas.”

“So where’d it go, Nut?”

“Off on an adventure, as bridges are wont to do, Tater.”

“That was a huge bridge, Nut. Mighta been too big to go on an adventure.”

“Evidence suggests otherwise, my apprentice. One wonders where a two-hundred and fifty foot span of bridge goes when it decides it is time for a sabbatical.”

The two ponies gawked at one another, with wide-eyed exaggerated faces, with both making extraordinary attempts to outdo the other. Tater Blossom was silly-serious, while Nut was just seriously silly. Other ponies stopped on the landing; some did to catch their breath, others had to have a look at the missing bridge, while still others watched Nut and Tater Blossom make faces at one another.

“It collapsed,” a nearby earth pony said. “Just the day before yesterday. It gave a cry, screeched a bit, and then took a tumble into the sea. Took plenty of wagons down with it. Was quite a sight.”

“Wow,” was Tater Blossom’s subdued exclamation.

“Wow, indeed,” Nut echoed, and then he added, “oh, bother and blast, how will we get home?”

“The ferry has raised its fares,” the earth pony said to Nut.

“Of course it has.” He offered a passive, resigned nod. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“I’d get there before the shift change,” the earth pony suggested. “Fares go up the highest then, and the lines are longest.”

“Dirty pool,” Nut muttered. “Come, my apprentice. We must be going. Let us endure this nonsense. Thank you, kindly stranger.”

“Don’t mention it,” the earth pony replied. “Good luck getting home…”

It was of the utmost importance to remain dignified at all times, at all costs, in every conceivable situation. Such as now. Nut made for a jaunty captain for his tiny craft, the E.S.S. Susan. For he was such a jaunty captain that he did not look at all ridiculous as he sailed across the channel in his umbrella. Tater Blossom on the other hoof, had a little trouble; her nervous anxiety robbed her of her dignified poise. She peered over the edge of Susan’s canopy at the choppy water with wide, anxious eyes that darted about in every conceivable direction.

“Tater, wave at the nice ponies who so rudely stare,” he suggested.

“Uh, no,” she moaned in return. “How’d I let you talk me into this?”

“We’re too light to sink.” When his words failed to reassure, he took to whistling instead, which he supposed was the sort of thing that dignified, jaunty sea captains did whilst piloting their craft. He adjusted his wind gust spell just a bit, until he was satisfied that he was on course.

Why, he could see the library from here, the front door of which was right next to the ferry stop. The door he seldom used. He much prefered the rear entrance, the one on Carriage Row Lane. It felt good to be home, though he was apprehensive. Now that he was home, it meant sorting things out with Black Maple, and that was bound to be a chore. Perhaps he’d avoid her for a while, or simply be elsewhere. Or busy. Busy was good.

“Ain’t right, Nut. Sailin’ in an umbrella. This ain’t natural. How do you talk me into these things?”

Distraught, the filly leaned against Nut while she kept her eyes affixed upon the choppy water that surrounded them. She moaned, a wordless sound, then whimpered her disapproval of the unscheduled voyage at sea. Her deer beanie sat askew and her short, bobbed mane bounced fetchingly against her head. While Nut whistled, her state of adorable distress continued unabated.

“Just think of the bits we’re saving,” Nut suggested.

“Nuh-uh.” She shook her head. “I think I saw a fish, Nut.”

“Well,” he replied in a dry, dignified deadpan, “we do sail upon the ocean blue. Fish are to be expected.”

“The water is more green than blue and smells worse than an outhouse basement.”

“Just a moment longer, First Mate Tater. We’re almost to Anvil Island. Hold still. Don’t rock the boat.”

“This ain’t no boat, Nut… and that’s my problem…”

Dry land. Solid firmament. This was a precious natural resource that earth ponies held dear to their hearts. Who knew they held it in such high regard? Nut watched as Tater pranced and pronked about in short, tight circles. She flicked her tail, whipped it about, all while she snorted and wickered in gleeful relief. As he gave Susan a quick laundering with magic, he could hear his apprentice as she muttered to herself, with promises that she’d never leave dry land ever again.

This was a promise that could not be kept; the bridge was out, and would be for the foreseeable future. Surely, they would board an airship again. Soon. In just a few weeks. She had such indescribable joy, his apprentice, and he could not help but be entertained by her actions. Canterlot ponies, for the most part, did not behave this way, and Nut himself was rather reserved. But to watch her as she cut loose left him happy in odd ways that could not be put into words.

Steam rose from Susan as she rapidly dried.

Tater Blossom pronked and pranced with the sort of grace that poets wrote sonnets about. She was a hefty, solid filly—Nut knew from experience—and yet she moved with an impossible lightness. He too could move with an impossible lightness, but he used magic to do it, a magic that he himself did not fully understand. Which made him wonder about Tater Blossom’s potential magic.

Perhaps sheer joy gave her buoyancy.

A part of him wondered how happiness evolved. Why did it evolve? What purpose could it serve for survival? For that matter, why have a means to be conscious of misery? Even worse, sapient creatures were cursed with awareness—consciousness. They worried about happiness and misery, which only compounded the problem. Why evolve this way? How did it benefit survival? What made these emotions and the awareness of these emotions necessary?

Whilst he stood there, with profound thoughts about happiness, it occurred to him that he was happier with Black Maple than without her. She challenged him—a near constant state of challenge—and something about that made him happy. But why though? Some ponies liked challenge. Certain special ponies thrived on it and needed it for their lives to have some semblance of meaning. Which brought him back to thoughts of self-awareness, consciousness, and why things evolved the way they did. Why evolve such complex needs and what purpose did they serve for furthering the species?

What might Pod say if she were here and saw him lost in thought?

The garage was in quite a state of disarray. Nut hissed though bared teeth at the sight of four wagons all in dire need of repair. Different parts of each of them were broken, yokes, axles, and wheels. But they all had one thing in common; each of them appeared to have been pulled up from the bottom of the ocean. There were still bits of kelp and watery weedy bits that Nut did not recognise. One had a wooden body, which had fared rather well, but the doors were gone. He suspected the doors had been smashed to free the occupants, who might have been trapped inside.

“Welcome back, Nut. I suppose you know about the bridge.”

“Indeed, I do. How are things, Ethelred?”

“Well, things were kind of bad there for a time, but then you returned. There is a lot of work to be done. We have four wagons to repair, and another half-dozen more in other locations that we don’t have room for at the moment.” The griffon reached up, scratched at his crest, and then flicked some debris from his feathers. “By the way, the boss is real pleased with how you handled the Marjoram job. Also, most of our wrenchers quit. In fact, it’s just you and I.”

“Oh.” Nut had plenty more to say, but most of it wasn’t nice.

“Some couldn’t get to work, and others, well, for others, there’s just too much work. The unpleasant kind of work. With the bridge gone and this”—Ethelred gestured at the wrecked wagons—“I suppose the others went off in search of greener pastures, as you ponies like you say.”

“Can those even be fixed?” asked Tater Blossom while she gave the wagons a head-tilted stare.

“Yeah.” Ethelred nodded and his feathered crest bounded up and down. “The cab… the one missing the doors, all the glass is broken and the interiour is shot. All the upholstery needs to be ripped out and replaced. It’s going to need a total rebuild… which usually isn’t a big deal. You get a small army and go at it. Only now, that small army is really small… just Nut and I.”

“Nut… Nut, are you gonna be a’ight? Yer lookin’ kinda… outta sorts there, Nut. Like yer ‘bout to start swearin’ until all our ears catch afire.”

“Why would I curse such good fortune,” he found himself saying whilst struggling to hold in a raging torrent of emotion. “Clearly, the universe wishes for me to acquire wealth through my own means, and have no need of family funds. Verily, I am blessed with good fortune.”

“He’s taking it well,” Ethelred remarked. “Look, Miss Blossom. You can barely see his eye twitching.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean. That’s worrisome.”

“Pig swivering whoreson—”

“Oh, there he goes,” Ethelred said whilst he backed away.

“Feculent, foul-breathed felcher of rancid, scabrous, canker-blossomed meat pies!”

“Mister Nut!” Mrs. Oleander’s voice had a hard grittiness to it. “That… that is quite enough. One more word out of you and I will give your mouth a thorough scouring with soap!” She cleared her throat, coughed, and strode forward, closer to Nut. “Welcome back. Did you have a nice trip?”

“Our airship crashed,” Tater Blossom said to Mrs. Oleander.

The stern, prim unicorn narrowed her eyes at Tater Blossom so that she might study her. After a few seconds, Mrs. Oleander scowled, her ears leaned back, and she cast her stern, withering gaze upon Nut, who savagely chewed his lower lip. Tater Blossom’s head began to bob up and down, an enthusiastic endorsement of the truth.

“Is this true?” asked Mrs. Oleander.

Unable to provide a verbal response, Nut nodded.

“Nut, you’re not going to quit, are you?” Mrs. Oleander tilted her head to look up at Nut, who stood a full head and a half taller.

He shook his head from side to side while his teeth threatened to pierce his lower lip.

“I’m sorry that your airship crashed.” Mrs. Oleander’s ears pitched forwards. “Right now seems as good of a time as any to tell you that I am most pleased with how you dealt with our client, Marjoram. She thanked me and told me that you were a tremendous help. You’ve earned a raise, Nut. Be thankful that I am willing to overlook your little slip of the tongue a moment ago.”

“Why thank you, Mrs. Oleander”—Nut’s voice was as creaky as a rusty hinge in need of oil—“that is most kind of you. I look forward to the continued development of our business relationship. How might I serve you better?”

“As of right now, you and Ethelred are management.” The starchy unicorn mare almost smiled at the griffon, who preened with pride. “Ethelred, you are now the Garage Manager. Your word is law. Don’t disappoint me.” Then, she looked up at Nut once more. “As for you… Customer Relations Manager. When you’re not back here in the garage wrenching, I want you to get more experience dealing with customers. Be mindful of the bell when it rings.”

“Does this mean I’m responsible for finding new hires?” asked Ethelred.

“Yes, but ultimately I have the final say,” Mrs. Oleander replied.

“Excuse me.” Nut bowed his head in a polite, apologetic manner. “I am going to stow my belongings upstairs. While there is still daylight, I need to pay a visit to school so that I might drop off a few assignments.” He cast a sullen stare at the wagons, sighed, and shook his head. “I promise that I’ll be back to help sort all of this out.”

“School first.” Mrs. Oleander’s tone was commanding and calm. “And once you have that dealt with, there is a moody, forlorn pegasus in need of your attention, Nut. She’s been here every single day to ask me if you’ve returned. So go and sort that out. Please. She’s so upset that she’s molting. Feathers everywhere. All over my shop floor. Up and down the lane. I’m worried that she might actually pine away into nothing but a mess of feathers.”

“Actually, I was rather hoping I could avoid dealing with that…”

Nut stood alone in his room uncertain of how he felt. Life was now a whirlwind and he was trapped in the chaotic vortex. Since going to the Widowwood, everything now moved at a breakneck pace. So much had changed in so little time. It felt as though the whole of his life was unravelling. While some of the changes were good—great, in fact—he longed for a moment to catch his breath.

This room… wasn’t great.

It hadn’t really bothered him before, but it bothered him now.


The reasons flitted about in his mind like swirling leaves on treacherous currents. He wanted Pod and Taffy to be able to visit. His parents, too—should they somehow manage to break routine. Beyond survival, there was life, and life was all about living. Which wasn’t the same as surviving. He studied the faded grey wooden planks and dusty old bricks. This room had taught him things. In this very room, he’d discovered some vital aspect of himself. A better pony.

But now it felt as though it was time to move on and learn new things. Whatever lessons life had to teach. He would keep his job here; he liked his job because the menial labour allowed him to think with a relatively clear mind. Mrs. Oleander was more than his boss, she was his friend and something of a teacher. She still had lessons to teach—this room did not.

Owning something meant being responsible for it. Sort of like saving a life. Owning? Was he that far ahead of himself? He considered; rent didn’t seem prudent. While he didn’t plan to stay here forever, he did intend to live here. This was home and he wanted others to enjoy his home with him. But he had no actual home in which they could stay as his guests.

Perhaps that was the next great life lesson.

In Canterlot, it would have been a matter of staying in the family home, of which there were many. Eventually, he would inherent said home, and everything would be provided. Everything—everything—would be provided, every conceivable need would be accounted for. Maids, household staff, servants, furniture, fine art, all the bric-a-brac and garniture of living. Life was all about the miscellaneous bibelots one collected. Hoarded? Canterlot had the finest, most ostentatious gimcracks in the world, little gewgaws that were essentially worthless but oh-so-pleasing to the eye.

And the house would come with so many of them.

But here, he could start with something empty. Something he could make his own. Here he could learn the value of a house that he himself founded—even if he himself did not live out all his days within its walls. Conflict tore at his mind, the distinct sensation of being tugged on in two very different directions. He’d come out here to Vanhoover to evolve, and now, he found himself doing just that. But he evolved in a direction that he hadn’t expected, that he hadn’t counted on. Shelter shaped evolution; this made him think of hermit crabs and small burrowing mammals.

He’d outgrown this shelter.

“Nut? You a’ight?”

He heard Tater Blossom’s hooves on the wooden floorboards behind him.

“Yer just standing there, a-starin’ at the wall. I’ve been peekin’ though the door for the last few minutes. Wanted to ask ya something, but I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Do ask,” he said to her while he turned around to face her.

“Can I come with you on your errands? I wanna see the city. And yer school.”

“Well, I don’t see why not. Plus, we need to talk.” All of his thoughts shifted about in his mind, each of them vying for his undivided attention. Thoughts of his apprentice won out though, as she would benefit from this in ways that could not be seen from his current vantage point. For her to grow, he had to grow as well.

“I like it when we talk. You talk to me, instead of at me. Ma, she talked at me. Pa did too. Though, there were times when he tried to talk to me. But then I’d say something smart and scare him off. I figure it was just easier to talk at me rather than argue about what I said or be scared of whatever it was I had to say.”

Her waxed denim vest with the shearling lining looked fantastic on her. It was still stiff, still new, but with time it would relax a bit. The denim would fade and the wax would lose its shine. Nut found himself looking at her deer beanie, and for reasons unknown to himself, he was proud. Tater Blossom was discovering herself, forging her identity, and now had a certain look about her. He had no doubt that the deer beanie would remained glued to her head until it such a time it was little more than tatters.

“Ready for a walk?” he asked.

“I am.” She bobbed her head with eager agreement. “There’s a bit of sunshine startin’ to peek out, and I wanna make the most of it.”

Professor Sterling Note was a sweating, panting, huffing mess that fought for every breath taken. Yet, even in his current poor condition, he too was charmed by Tater Blossom. Together, they sat in the indoor arboretum, which in another life was a coal crusher for the cannery’s steamworks. Now, it was a peaceful place, with lots of glass held up and supported by skeletal steel struts. The trees—this was an arboretum—were all bonsai trees seen to and tended by fanatical devotees.

It was a peaceful place, and Sterling Note’s suffering stood out.

The older unicorn sat on an ornately carved wooden bench, locked in a struggle to keep his breathing even and regular. Tater Blossom sat on a threadbare blue carpet that had been left in the corner, while Nut sat on a rickety chair that had the most alarming wobble. Surrounded by tiny trees and good company, Nut enjoyed the restorative moment of peace. Sure, the peace wouldn’t last, but peace was valuable because it was always in short supply.

He’d turned in a surplus of material to the professor; some of it happened to be for school, while a good bit of it was his notes about Tater Blossom’s integration into society. All in all, Nut felt rather good about that now, even though he’d hesitated initially. Of course, Tater Blossom wanted all of this documented; she wanted this to happen, and just a while ago had mentioned to Sterling Note how nice it would be to be able to go back and read all of this when she had maturity as well as wisdom to change how she saw things.

Sterling Note pulled out a hankerchief, mopped his brow, and then stuffed it back into a pocket. Tater Blossom watched him, captivated by his every movement, more attentive than any student ever trapped in a lecture hall. And Sterling Note appreciated the filly’s attentiveness; Nut could not help but notice that his professor was quite taken with the young miss.

“Nut… my student”—Professor Sterling Note’s tone had changed and Nut took notice—“we must talk about the seaponies.”

Eyebrow raised, ears pricked, Nut gave his wheezing professor all the attention he deserved. “You mentioned that the last time we met.”

“The situation might be changing a bit.” Sterling Note grew red faced as he battled to hold in a cough. “Nut”—there was a prolonged wheeze—“I’ll not have them exploited. The city council is leaning in hard on the university council. They want us to squeeze the seaponies. There’s a long list of dangerous wants. Such as expanding the fishing territories for the city of Vanhoover. That can’t happen, Nut. The fish aren’t an endlessly renewing resource. Both the city and the seaponies are dependent upon them for sustenance. The city does not understand that the balance is fragile and easily broken.”

Tater Blossom grew solemn.

“As I have mentioned, I can no longer fulfill my role. Right now, the city council is attempting to place their own pony into this situation. A fat, craven idiot that has no understanding of the fragility of the situation. He only understands trade and finances.”

“You need me secure in this position to reassure the respective councils, I presume.”

“Correct.” Sterling Note endured a shuddery inhale, held it for a moment, and then let it out with a laboured, raspy wheeze. “The pet food council wants a tremendous expansion of fishing rights and they don’t particularly care that this will do great harm to the sea ponies. They don’t understand that the seaponies have their own city beneath the sea. That particular council believes the seaponies to be a bunch of wet savages that can just relocate elsewhere.”

“What you need is a biologist that understands the limited resources involved.”

“Spot on, my boy. Always a quick one, Nut. Vanhoover keeps growing. We already strain our own sustainability. I have to retreat from this fight, and I need a replacement I can trust. Can I count on you, Nut? I understand that your life has become a bit complicated, but you are the only pony that I trust with this issue. You’re the only one smart enough to grasp what is truly at stake.”

“I wanna go meet the seaponies.”

Both unicorns turned in unison to look at the earth pony filly, stared at her for a time, and then looked at one another. Nut already knew what his professor was thinking, and from the looks of things, Sterling Note seemed to know that Nut knew. This mutual awareness caused the two of them to spend a prolonged moment reading one another, until both exchanged a nod. Then, the professor pulled out his hankerchief again, mopped his brow, and then stuffed the damp fabric back into a pocket.

“She doesn’t have a pony in this race,” Sterling Note said. “What she does have is her charming viridity. No offense, Nut… but she oozes friendliness in a way that you do not.”

“None taken.” These words came in the form of a sigh from Nut.

“Princess Celestia herself brokered the first treaty between the settlement of Vanhoover and the indiginous tribes of the seaponies.” The professor drew a ragged breath, coughed once, and then continued his scholarly lecture: “That first settlement is now what we call the Lower City. There was a mutual exchange of goods, trade, that allowed everypony to prosper. This prosperity caused some problems though, because Vanhoover grew.

“Through the years, we’ve managed a sort of precarious balance. The University of Vanhoover was made responsible for the maintenance of the treaty, because you need learned, educated ponies to understand what is truly involved here, and not bean counters. This treaty was never about economics, or even trade at its heart, it is about our mutual, shared survival. Well, that and a continued exchange of our most important of resources, knowledge. The scientific and magical data that we share has done much to advance—well, everything. And the moronic bean counters would toss all of this away just to make a profit.”

“So this treaty… does it change?” asked Tater Blossom.

“Occasionally,” was Sterling Note’s strained response. “But for the most part, we agree to keep things the same. The last major change happened about two years ago. We agreed to a full exchange of medical research data. Medical science made a tremendous leap forward. Lots of new medicines were introduced both above and below.”

“So I gotta ask… why let the city get involved at all?” Tater Blossom leaned in and waited for an answer.

“Politics, my girl.” The professor shuddered for a moment, didn’t cough, and somehow managed to smile. “The city is threatening the university with all of the usual threats. Promises of detrimental bureaucracy, withholding funding, causing headaches, all the typical dimwittery that bean counters like to inflict upon others.”

“So why work with them at all?” The young filly’s forehead creased with concentration.

“Because… we need them. To a certain degree.” Sterling Note slumped over. “We need them. For now, we fend them off with vague promises of how the knowledge that we exchange is more beneficial for the city’s prosperity in the long run… but the new generation of bureaucrats want more immediate results. Profits and returns that happen sooner, rather than later. They want to muddy the waters with fishing rights, mining rights on territorial islands, and all of the issues that the industrialists froth at the mouth over.”

Tater Blossom raised her right front hoof, rubbed her chin, and the wizened wrinkles on her forehead just below her deer beanie intensified. “And Nut’s not the type that’ll be taken in by promises of money and such. He’s got… whatchacallit?”


“Yeah, that,” Tater Blossom said before the professor could say more. “Nut’s a trustworthy type. Pa trusted him and Nut done gave his word as a noble. Which is how he ended up with me. Now, with nobles, I guess, there’s good ones and bad ones… but what yer needin’ is a good one. A noble that is all smart like and can look ahead and can make the right choices for everypony. To keep things fair. Which… if’n I understand all this right, is why we need nobles in the first place. Right?”

Sterling Note coughed, gasped, coughed again, and then concentrated on his breathing. Nut considered Tater Blossom’s words, how they applied to him, and a part of him marvelled at her intelligence. She had good ideas on how things should be. Her interjection had somehow changed his way of thinking, and right now, at this moment, he felt as though he owed the world more than what he currently gave.

“So,” Tater Blossom began, “when do we go out and meet the seaponies? I wanna say hi!”

Permission to come within

View Online

The summer rains of Vanhoover were warm and smelt faintly of rotten eggs. Tater Blossom stood with her nose pointed into the warm breeze that blew northward, her eyes were closed, and she seemed unusually still for a pony who had pronked just a few hours ago. There was a traffic jam in the water as ferries, fishing boats, and other craft all contested with each other to get where they were going. Overhead, the sun shone down golden spears of light through the thin, patchy tufts of storm clouds that drifted north.

It was an exceptionally lovely day by local standards.

A pair of young griffons flew in circles overhead, the both of them tossing a ball back and forth to one another. Waves slapped against the stone retaining wall, a rhythmic sound that was somehow both soothing and jarring. One began to await the wet slap of a wave against the stone blocks, but it never happened when one expected. Seagulls shat everywhere, because that is what seagulls did; just more filth in an already grimy city.

Tater Blossom opened her eyes, looked about for a bit, blinked a bit more than was usual while she recovered her vision, and she smiled. Her head bobbed as she began to hum to herself, and her overall joy was almost infectious. Nut found his mood altered by her mood; the day just seemed better somehow in some vague, indefinable way. A nearby congregation of seals raised a ruckus when a flock of gulls drew too close, but no real trouble broke out.

“I like this better than Canterlot,” Tater Blossom said after a prolonged silence.

Nut offered a silent nod in return.

“Yer professor is nice, Nut. I like him.”

“Why, I say, I do believe that you charmed him, just as you’ve charmed so many others.”

“I couldn’t charm my family,” she said whilst she turned away to look in the other direction. “So I don’t think charm is my magic talent.”

“Oh. That. So that is what you have on your mind.” He leaned in a little closer, wondered if perhaps he was too close, and tried a gentle approach. “Your family was unaware of the treasure they possessed. They lacked the understanding of what they had. With the exception of your father, perhaps. Hickory I think had a glimmer of insight, but his ability to understand was hindered by his environment.”

“I don’t get it, Nut… I just don’t. My family… and everypony ‘round me in the Widowwood, they just got fed up with me. Even Pa got annoyed. Yet, in the… what’s it been, a week? In the past week or so, all the ponies I’ve met with you seemed to like me. It kinda hurts in a way, Nut. I mean, the world is full of nice ponies that seem to like me… but my family, they couldn’t stand me. What gives?”

“Well, to be fair, Tater, the ponies you’ve met with me aren’t the sort of ponies who revel in their own ignorance. The sorts who celebrate their own ineptitude and hold it up as a virtue. I keep better company. You’ll find small-minded sorts here as well, and inevitably, you’ll have to deal with them, just as you had to cope with your family.”

“Maybe.” Tater Blossom returned her gaze to Nut and looked up at him from the corner of her eye. “But right now, this… all this feels good. I don’t feel so downtrodden. I finally feel special, Nut. And I like it. I wanna see the world and I wanna keep feelin’ what I’m a-feelin’ right now. Like when I met your professor. We had us a talk ‘bout stuff that wasn’t stupid, like the weather, or the soil, or how things was a-growin, or all ‘bout the will of Almighty Celestia.”

“Meteorology can be a fascinating subject—”

“Not when the talk of weather is all about how the sun’ll shine if the Almighty Celestia wills it. And that’s all yer aloud to say about it, and askin’ questions ‘bout it will get ya switched.”

Nut winced.

“Yeah, now you understand.”

“Well,” he said to her in his most reassuring voice, “those days are over.”

Window shopping was an enchanting experience for Tater Blossom, and while Nut enjoyed it as well, he did wish that she wouldn’t press her nose against the glass. Mostly because the glass was filthy. Polluted rain, splatters from the mucky streets, the windows were all in a frightful state of filthiness. Window shopping was good because it slowed down their progress home.

He needed more time before he faced Black Maple.

“There’s so much stuff in the world, Nut. Where does it all come from?”

“Factories,” he replied, distracted with other things on his mind.

“So many things. The world is full of stuff. Most of this stuff is things I ain’t never seen.” She raised her left foreleg, gestured at everything around her, blinked a few times, drew in a deep breath, held it for a time, and said, “There is so much to see. How do I see it all? I wanna follow a teacup’s journey from the place it was made to the window it now sits in. I wanna see how stuff works. How everything is all connected. There’s so much to understand.”

“Well, when a teapot and a tea kettle love each other very much, one sits on a hot spot so that it might sing a lovely song for the other—”

“Nut… hush.” The earth pony filly snorted in his general direction.

“Love changes the flow of time, you know.”

“Does it now?” She cast her best dubious expression in his direction, a look that she borrowed from him. “And how does love change the flow of time?”

“Spend ten minutes with somepony that you love, and it feels like ten seconds. No amount of time is ever enough. But, like the tea kettle, if you sit down on a hot stove for ten seconds, it will feel like ten minutes, or even ten hours. There is peculiar magic at work, Tater.”

“Nut… yer weird.”

“I am in a weird place right now. That much is for certain. Spending time with Pod… it changed a few things. I still love her, just not in the way I thought I did. There’s no way to put it into words. She’s very dear to me, and the time we spent together was far too short. There is another though, and the time we spend apart now feels far too long, but for some reason, I am avoiding her and delaying my return.”

With a turn of his head, he looked into the window. He saw teacups, plates, platters, teapots, along with all manner of crockery and kitchenware. Also in the glass, he saw his own reflection. The wind had done quite a number on his appearance, but he liked to think that he was handsomely disheveled.

“Black Maple,” said Tater Blossom in a knowing manner. “Ya know, Nut, ya didn’t look at Pod the same way ya do Black Maple. I feel funny talkin’ ‘bout it, like maybe it ain’t my business. Maybe it’s time you went back and sorted things out.”

He stared at his own reflection and had nothing to say.

“Pod told me to tell you that you can’t stay like this forever. She said it would sour into resentment. I don’t know what she means, and when I asked her, she done told me that you’d know. Pod said to seal the deal or break it off.”

The unicorn reflected in the glass window slumped.

“Did Pod tell you anything else?” he asked.

“Only that if you break it off, I’m to send her a telegram. But I don’t know how.”

“One more thing I shall have to teach you.” He sighed and resigned himself to his terrible fate. “Let’s go home. There’s no sense in delaying this any longer.”

Perhaps a visit to Princess Cadance was in order. Or enlisting with the Fancy Foreign Legion. Yes, these were good options, with both of them preferable to the current situation. Surely Princess Cadance would have helpful advice or perhaps even a solution, because the idea of facing the rude, boorish, aggressive pegasus left Nut a little sweaty. A little shaky. Yet, for all of his fear, Nut was more afraid of a life without her. He thought back to his curious moment in Donut Joe’s, when he knew for certain that he and Pod wanted very different things.

He still hadn’t sorted things out, and yet here he was…

Just what was he doing?

Carriage Row Lane was almost deserted. But it almost always was. The rear entrances were back here; this was mostly a service alley. How many times had he walked from the garage to Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn? These slick, mildewed cobblestones were no stranger to his hooves; he knew each and every one of them. He heard the clip-clop of hooves on the next street over, where the library’s front entrance was located.

And then, he was no longer alone. The lane was no longer deserted. A mare as red as scarlet sin now stood near the rear door of Black Maple’s Alehouse & Inn. Nut stared at her while she watched him, and he heard a sharp exhale from Tater Blossom. A second later, the excitable earth pony filly was galloping down the empty lane, and he could not fault her for her enthusiasm.

It took him a moment to will his hooves to move, but he did follow; slowly.


“Tater! You’re back. Am I glad to see you.”

She ran a bit too hard, a little too fast, and when Tater tried to come to a stop, the slick, treacherous cobblestones had other plans. With a cry, she skidded right into Red Maple, there was a meaty smack, and much to Nut’s startled amazement, Red soaked up the blow as if it were nothing. Why, the pegasus mare didn’t even budge; she wasn’t knocked back a single scant inch. Most of Tater Blossom’s forward half vanished behind Red Maple’s wings, and Nut watched the pair with keen interest whilst he approached.

“The newspapers made the crash sound terrible and tragic,” Red Maple said to Nut. “Poor Blackie has been beside herself. For two ponies that were aboard an airship that went down in a flaming heap, you two seem well enough.”

“This is why I don’t read newspapers,” Nut replied.

“A soldier was made the hero of this tragedy, a Private Strangewing, but the papers also mention that one of the Night Lady’s agents were aboard. Witnesses tell of an epic battle between spy and saboteur before the ship plummeted to its fiery demise.”

Upon hearing this, Nut came to a halt and thought about swearing.

“Seems to me that Private Strangewing has the approachable good guy face in all of this, while the Night Lady’s agent remains terrifying, mysterious, and unknown. Funny thing is, ponies fear the unknown. That aspect was hyped up a great deal. The agent was made out to be incredibly dangerous—”

Nut rolled his eyes.

“—and armed with an umbrella.”

Before Nut could say anything, Tater Blossom began to giggle, and Red Maple gave her a squeeze. The pegasus and the earth pony had a laugh together, while the tweed-wearing unicorn scowled his most horrendous scowl, the one reserved for special occasions. Tater Blossom chuckled, but also wickered and whinnied as she rubbed her neck against Red Maple’s.

“Blackie is upstairs. In her room. She’s having a stress molt, so she’s real sensitive about how she looks right now. I know you’ll be nice to her, Nut.” Red Maple pulled her wings away from Tater Blossom and gave the filly her full attention. “You and I are going to go out and have a nice time while Nut and Blackie sort things out.” Then it seemed that the pegasus noticed the deer beanie, and she covered her mouth with one wing to suppress her laughter.

“I don’t know how to fix this,” Nut said much to his own dismay.

“If you allow things to happen, this will probably fix itself.” Red Maple turned serious for a moment and all traces of mirth vanished from her. “Blackie realised that she’s a better pony with you than without you. She understands that you bring out the best in her. But she’s a long way from the pony that she wishes to be. You’re the only pony that will stand up to her overbearing equinality and push back.”

“But… I don’t know if I need her in the same way she needs me. Ugh, that sounds so heartless, but it’s true.” He sighed, his heart sank, and there was an unpleasant tightness in the girth of his barrel. “A pony shouldn’t need another pony to complete them. They should be whole on their own. I’m having trouble with all of this.”

“Then tell her that. Go upstairs and say that to her. Sort this out. A choice has to be made. Either break it off or commit. Black Maple is not in a good place right now. She’s a strong little cuss. A break up will devastate her, but she’ll recover and then sort her life to whatever it will be without you in it. Blackie and I had some hard talks while you were away.”

“You don’t mind looking after Tater Blossom for a while?” he asked.

Red Maple said nothing, but gestured at the door with her face and ears.

“Right,” Nut said to himself. “Let’s get this over with.”

There was no point in knocking. They were well past the point of knocking on the door. Besides, she no doubt heard him coming, and probably expected him. It was warm in the hallway, stuffy, a reminder that true summer had finally arrived. Each step brought him closer and he fought the urge to rehearse the conversation in his head. That would only cause disappointment, or even anger, as these sorts of confrontations never went the way that one rehearsed for them. It was best to leave his expectations at the door.

He pushed open the door and let himself in. There was a squeak from inside the nest box, followed by a soft moan and another squeak. Nut’s ears pricked, his body froze, he cocked his head in the direction of the nest box, and breathed in an intoxicating musky smell that set every nerve in his body on fire.

“This is awkward,” Black Maple said from within her box.

His face ablaze, Nut heard a wet squish, a sound that left him curiously thirsty.

“I was just trying to cheer myself up,” Black Maple said, her voice somewhat muffled.

Perhaps he should have knocked. Nut began to second guess himself. He’d stormed right into Black Maple’s boudoir without ever once thinking about what she might be doing in the privacy of her own quarters. Worst thing of all though, he was curious. She had no front legs. How did she go about the business of scratching the itch? He tried to clear his thoughts, but the musky perfume wafting out of her nest box sapped his willpower.

“You know, Nut… a gentlepony would have excused himself by now so that I could finish.” There was a long pause, two very distinct sighs, a moist squelch, and then she added, “Point of no return, Nut. If you’re not going to leave, common courtesy demands that you offer a lady some assistance.”

Nut’s hooves betrayed him with forward movement. With magic, he shut the door behind him, whilst he wondered just what was it that he was doing. He still had the presence of mind to ask why, but the sweetness of the musky perfume clouded his thoughts, and robbed him of reason. There was a soft creak from the nest box, a low groan, and a thump. For reasons unknown, the thump was intriguing. What could possibly thump?

At last, he found his tongue, which felt weirdly disconnected and far too large for his mouth. “We squabbled. Well, we squabble a lot. Some things were said.” After a moment of consideration, he added, “I stuffed you into a sack.”

“Yes you did,” she replied from within her nest box. “And that caused a pornado of dirty fantasies. Which I am trying to deal with right now, in my own way. But it’s hard to carry on a conversation and do what I’m doing… which is me. I’m doing me. Myself. I’m a lonesome little pegasus trying to fight the pornado all alone.”

He found himself wondering what the proper etiquette was for this situation. Caliginous Dark hadn’t included anything about this in his lessons. Did one open up a pegasus’ nest box and peep inside? Perhaps if it were empty. But with the pegasus inside, and in a state of carnal excitement—opening the door felt dangerous, like facing a den full of basilisks, or attempting to ambush vampire rats on a sinking airship.

Opening the door would change his life. Possibly in ways he could not foresee. He thought of Pod; she was engaging in premarital coitus and no one seemed too upset about it. But then again, it might be argued that such activity between two mares might not be coitus in the traditional sense. It occurred to him what it was that he was doing, and at the worst possible moment. His thoughts were constantly pulling him away from what mattered, what was important.

“Might I have permission to come within?”

The sudden explosion giggles caused him a great deal of confusion.

Why giggles?

“Nut… before you open that door, there’s something you should know.”

He paused, and waited for Black Maple to continue.

“Before you come within, you should know that I’m not on the pill.”

Now, Nut was overcome with sweaty hesitation.

At least she’d been honest. That counted for something, though right now, at this very moment, he wasn’t sure what. She could have entrapped him—but the truth was, he’d stumbled into this trap on his own. There was a lot that needed to be discussed, things that had to be said, very important things, none of which seemed all that important at the moment. His horn ignited with a faint, flickering glow, and almost holding his breath, he pulled open the nest box door.

Right away, he was blasted with musky humidity, the heat and scent of which left him dizzy and weak in the knees. It was like opening the door to a sauna. He peeked in, trying to see past the shadows, and when his eyes adjusted, he saw her. Black Maple’s pupils were pinpricks due to the sudden light—and that was all that he could see. No other details presented themselves, because he could not look away from her eyes.

“Wait,” she said in a husky whisper. “Before anything happens… this can’t happen if there’s a breakup afterwards. I don’t know your intentions. As much as I want this to happen, I’m scared about what comes after.”

“I came to find a way for us to fit together,” he found himself saying, and his own honesty was surprising. “But there’s a lot that we need to sort out.”

“Take your clothes off, Nut. Then, get in and close the door. Don’t keep me waiting.”

Uncertain of what he was getting himself into, Nut began to undo his buttons.

It was hot and humid, and everything was damp. Black Maple was exceptionally damp, her mane was soaked with sweat and clung to her face. He could feel her stumps twitching against him as she lay there in a heap against his side. As much as he wanted space to cool off, he could not bear to push the drenched mare away from him, so he endured the unpleasant moist heat of her body against his. He could feel sweat pooling in his navel, and it trickled down the inside of his ears. In a state of gross bliss, Nut dared not move, for fear of spoiling what might be the most perfect moment of his life.

“You were right, you know,” she said in a voice that was not quite a whisper, but was still hushed and soft. “I do punish myself with my legs. I do, I do. They hurt me, cause me discomfort, rub me raw, and I keep telling myself that I deserve it. I deserve every minute of it. And sometimes, I do things that makes it all worse. I don’t know how to stop, Nut.” Her confession was interrupted by a yawn—

Which in turn, caused Nut to do the same.

“I need help, Nut. Just like I told my mother, I just can’t do this on my own. I can’t. Don’t know why. Please don’t think that I’m trying to emotionally manipulate you by telling you this. I spent hours telling my mom, and she kept telling me that I need to tell you, and I kept saying to her that I was scared that you’d see it as something else, and this… this right now is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’m scared that I’ve messed up and broken your trust, and that right now you’re thinking all of this is just me manipulating you.”

Her hind leg shifted and he felt her moist, fuzzy thigh rub up against his own. She was naked and vulnerable right now, fragile in some way that he didn’t understand. Not all that long ago, she had writhed against him, below him, above him, beside him; she had allowed him to explore her secret places without reservation. Now, she seemed on the verge of tears. He was quite unprepared for this much intimacy, and wasn’t sure how to respond.

“We’ll sort this out together.” It felt like the right thing to say, considering what had just taken place between them.

“Now that you’ve said that, I feel like I can breathe again.” She drew in a deep breath, held it, and then let everything out in a slow exhale that lasted for several long seconds. Again, she inhaled, held it, and exhaled. “I want to help you too. While you were away, I bought a little something for Tater.”

“Did you now?”

“I did. Princess Celestia’s Secondary School by Mail. My mother dragged me off to the department store to keep me from sulking. It has books to study and records with lessons, and some of those lessons are taught by Princess Celestia herself. And you don’t need a record player, it came with one. The box says it adheres to the highest possible education standards and that every lesson has Princess Celestia’s seal of approval.”

Nut was touched; so much so that he didn’t have words.

“Mom said it was a good idea. Tater will be able to work through the lessons at her own pace and when she’s done, she’ll have a diploma. We can help her if she runs into trouble. You… and I. Together. We’re together, right?”

“It seems we are.”

“I thought I lost my best friend. After you left, I almost lost it. You were gone, but I really wanted to talk to you. Salvage things. Fix things. Make things right. But you were gone, and I was stuck with my mom, and I had no choice but to take a good long look at myself. That was bad, Nut. I saw some stuff I didn’t like, but it is so much a part of me that I don’t know how to change it.”

Her breath was hot against his neck, and left his pelt saturated with moisture. It was as though he was braised in his own juices, which made him pause and wonder how a pony would know what braised meat felt like. A part of him was stunned that he’d done the deed with Black Maple, while another part of him decided that all of this felt right. She knew what she was doing, while he did not, so he just allowed things to happen.

Allowing himself a brief moment of insecurity, he asked, “How was I? I mean, I don’t have a yardstick to measure by. Did all of the right things happen?”

Much to his surprise, Black Maple seemed to purr. It was an odd sound, one that he did not expect, but there was something about the low throaty rumble that got his attention. Other parts of his body responded and he felt his stomach muscles twitch as Black Maple wiggled beside him. This was quite surreal; he was one of two ponies inside of a cupboard, and the pegasus was practically purring.

“You were perfectly average and adequate in every way.”

“That’s uh… reassuring—”

“But not what you wanted to hear. Right?”

“I don’t know what I wanted to hear. Or what I expected.”

“There’s something to be said for average and adequate,” Black Maple said in a throaty, conspiratorial whorehouse whisper that was pure sex given sound. She slid her leg up and over Nut’s belly, and she bent her head so that she could whisper into his ear. “Don’t get upset, Nut, but I’ve seen a few foal poles in my line of work. Big ones, little ones, perfectly average ones. There’s a whole lot of foal poles in the world.

“While the big ones can be fun, they’re also a pain. It stings a lot, there’s a lot of preparation involved, and afterwards, there’s a period of recovery. It’s a bit like birthday cake, Nut. The really rich and decadent kind. It’s nice for a treat, but you can’t eat it every day. Now, with being perfectly average, you can indulge every day. No guilt. No consequences. No sore tuchus that you can’t sit down on.”

“That… that might very well be the most reassuring, most sensible, most honest thing I’ve ever heard you say, Blackie.”

“Oh, how sweet. Hearing you say that makes me feel better.”

Much to his surprise, she climbed atop him and straddled his ribs. He felt her damp body against his, and there was a faint, cool breeze as she waved her wings around to keep her balance. What he felt could only be described as drunkenness; he was intoxicated with infatuation. But as nice as all of this was, there was still a lot that had to be discussed.

There was time though.

They had time.

This moment was too pleasant for it to end so suddenly.

“A few days ago, there was a freezing squall. Now, it’s all hot. And sticky. So very sticky. At least, I’m sticky. I propose that we continue to canoodle in the shower.” She paused for a time, and when she spoke again, her voice was serious to the point of being stern. “You know, Nut… I’ve shared my bed with a few fellas… and I suppose you’ll have to be comfortable with that. But that isn’t what I wanted to say. I mean, it kinda was. Sorry, I’m a mess and I’m distracted. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve never had a fella in the shower with me. I don’t know if you’ll understand, but it is a pegasus thing. Preening, cleaning, and grooming are far, far more intimate than boning. I’m actually more scared of inviting you into the shower with me than my bed, because that means something, and the moment my mother hears about a shared shower, or a bath, or anything along those lines, there’s gonna be a talk. I don’t know if I can explain to you how serious this is. Wow, right now, I feel really awkward… just like I did when it was my first time. This cannot be more awkward.”

“I’ve showered with another mare,” Nut said in the most serious tone he could muster.

“So I’m not your first.” Black Maple sighed and there was nothing at all funny about the situation. “It’s strange. We’re both ponies, but we’re so different. Values, culture, the way we do things. Mom said it was fine for me to play with colts, but she told me that premarital preening was the one thing that she would never forgive me for.”

“We’re not married,” Nut said as he was gripped with a sense of alarm that rapidly grew.

“She might throw stuff at you. Or cuss. She might be totally fine with it because she likes you and trusts you. Or, you know, she might just kill both of us. Pretty sure you’ll go quick and clean, and I doubt you’ll feel a thing… but mine will be painful. Prolonged. It’ll be awful.” Her powerful thigh muscles quivered against Nut’s sides. “If worse comes to worse, I’ll keep her distracted so you can escape.”

“You’re being serious.”

She sighed. “Oh, I am. And when we raise our own little flock, you’ll need to learn all these customs and rituals.”

“How crazy are pegasus ponies that hygiene is somehow elevated above sex?” he asked.

“Trust, Nut. There’s no real difference between fighting and fronking. They’re just things that happen. The proud pegasus pony tradition of conquest and rape. We’d swoop down, raze a community, have our way with our captives, and about a year later, after we’d lived on whatever fat the land had to offer, we’d have a whole bunch of new recruits. Once we had them, we’d leave behind any unicorns or earth ponies born and we’d raise our new little soldiers up in the clouds where it was safe. A few years later, we’d return—surprise!—and repeat the process all over again.

“But preening is when you let your guard down. A pegasus could kill another pegasus in open combat, such as a duel… but to kill another pegasus while preening… eeeugh. That’d get you a slow, painful death. You might get your wings axed and then shoved off a high cloud. You’d have some time to think about the wrong you’ve done as you fell.”

“You really are being serious.”

“I wouldn’t joke about this. Will you join me?”

It dawned on Nut what Black Maple was really asking. Though he didn’t fully understand it, he respected it. She had her ways, and he had his… though he’d abandoned many of his own ways when he left Canterlot. He didn’t belong there, and that was exactly why things wouldn’t work out between Pod and himself. Perhaps it was time for new traditions, new ways. This might be a way for him and Black Maple to start over, in a sense. A chance to make things right.

With the loss of her front legs, she was largely disconnected from her own culture.

Perhaps together…

“I would very much like to join you,” he said to her with as much sincerity as he could muster. “Are there any rules I should know about?”

“Oh.” She seemed surprised, and Nut wondered why. “Uh… um… I didn’t expect you to show this much interest.” She thoughtfully fanned his face with her wing. “Think of it as a time of truce and trust. No fighting. No bickering. No obnoxious behaviour. It’s like teatime. You put on your best manners and be nice.”

“That sounds pleasant. Are you sure you can behave?”

“We can fight later. Right now, I want peace between us until I know that everything is alright.”

“Very well then. I agree to your terms.”

“And I to yours.”

“There’s a lot we need to talk about.”

“Well, I won’t kick you for being long-winded.”

“And I shan’t curse at you.”

“Nor I you.”

She leaned down, kissed him, and then lingered, her lips pressed against his own. He raised his sweaty forelegs, wrapped them around her neck, and then spent a moment enjoying this newfound sense of closeness. Perhaps a truce is what they needed, but this went beyond a simple truce. This was something else entirely. Something more meaningful. It wasn’t quite common ground, but it might give them something to work from.

“Would you please carry me to the shower? I don’t want to put on my legs just to walk down the hallway and have to pull them off again.”

“Yes, Blackie… I will carry you because you asked.”

Frigga's Night is alright for fighting

View Online

The showerhead was turned so that it would offer a drizzling mist rather than a steaming, streaming downpour. Nut sat opposite of Black Maple in an overlarge tub that had more than enough room for two—in fact, some of the paying clients managed to fit four or five. A whorehouse was distinguished by fine amenities, and the enormous tub was distinctive. Two glasses of rye sat on a shelf on the wall near the tub.

Together, they had spoke of many things; everything that seemed pertinent. Nut told Black Maple of his trip to Canterlot, all about Pod and Taffy, and answered every question she had about the airship crash. He even told her about his moment of realisation in Donut Joe’s, and Black Maple had hung onto his every word with keen interest. She too, had revealed much to him, and how she had struggled with herself over these past few days of separation.

For whatever reason, all of Nut’s hesitation that he’d experienced with Red Maple had departed. It seemed as though the dreadful tension that existed between Black Maple and himself was now gone, though he refused to believe that the vigorous and athletic shagging had done it. The wall, such as it was, had come down, and her company was far more tolerable. Maybe this was temporary, and soon, they’d go back to squabbling.

“I’m glad you told me about your arrangement with Pod and Taffy,” she said.

“Are you upset?” he asked in response.

“No,” she was quick to say. “Not at all. Not in the slightest. But I do have some conditions if I have to share you with two other mares.”

“Well, that seems reasonable.” Nut allowed himself to slide down deeper into the tub so the falling mist would land on his stomach. “I have to say, I was worried. All those promises made, and I didn’t talk to you about it… because, I guess, at the time, you and I—”

“Needed sorting out,” Black Maple said. She rubbed her hind legs together beneath the misty drizzle, licked her lips, and looked Nut right in the eye. “I am actually pretty happy about this. I want you to have family ties. You need to be more passionate about life. Experience some feelings.”

“So what are your conditions?” he asked.

“Simple.” Her eyes narrowed. “I want to be there when those foals are conceived, however they are conceived. Ideally, they’re made the old-fashioned way, but if the parties involved aren’t comfortable with that, we’ll do whatever happens to be necessary. Also, we’re going to be actively involved in the lives of those foals. We’ll not be strangers.”

“That seems reasonable,” Nut said, repeating himself.

“With that out of the way, we need to talk about my legs.”

He gave her his full attention and waited.

“I need some help. You know it, I know it, my mother knows it. If I’m left to my own devices, I’ll procrastinate and put it off. Nopony knows me like I know me, except for maybe my mother. She’s canny, my mother. But I have too much invested in continuing to punish myself. So…”—she puffed her cheeks out during the long pause—“you need to be hard on me. Maybe stuff me in a sack again, because that got my attention the last time. I’m going to fight you and I might even be unpleasant. But if you’re my friend… you’ll shove me through this. Help me, and I’ll give you my undying loyalty and the best birthday blowjobs that you’ll ever have. You’ll be pulling your tail out of your fuzzy crack when I’m done, I promise.”

Her words left him distracted for a moment because his brain decided that now of all times would be a good time to visualise what she said. A match was struck in his loins and the mist did nothing to cool the burning heat emanating from his groin. Black Maple was chewing on her bottom lip while she made eyes at him, the sort of come-hither stare that made his stomach do flip-flops. Just who was this stunning creature and what was he doing in a tub with her?

“I made some new friends,” he began. Intense concentration was necessary to keep his voice from cracking. “A lot of them are missing limbs and have replacements. I’ll go talk with them and see if I can get some advice. Some of them have some pretty advanced prosthetics.”

“You’d do that for me?” Each blink of her eyes was like an arsonist tossing lit matches. She had thick, sooty eyelashes, perfect eyelashes if ever there were any. Wearing a reckless grin, she reached out with one hind leg, and with a light touch, traced her hoof along the inner flesh of Nut’s thigh.

Reaching out with his magic, Nut turned off the shower, which caused the knob to squeak in protest. He lay there, steaming, suffering a terrible distraction from long, sooty eyelashes, and wanting a drink of rye. Black Maple lay in a provocative position, and he felt no need to look away. She was his to look at now, and he allowed his eyes to roam over her every tantalising inch. When wet, her pelt was as black as pitch at midnight.

“It’s Frigga’s Day.” Black Maple sighed out these words, as if tired. “The weekend is starting. Tonight will be lively. It’s a payday. Sun will be setting soon. With all the tension in the city, I expect trouble tonight.”

“What sort of trouble are you expecting?”

She shrugged. “Just trouble. I never know what form it’ll take.”

“I plan to pull an all-nighter in the garage. There’s ruined wagons that are in need of repair. If there’s trouble, send somepony for me.”

“Before you go”—her words were coy and inviting—“have some supper with me. Maybe a few drinks. I promise I’ll let you go. But I want to enjoy myself before the trouble starts.”

“I’d like that,” he replied. “Fish and chips on Frigga’s Day. That sounds good.”

“And fried egg sandwiches with onion jam. If the numbers are anything like last week’s, about four hundred of them will be sold. Who would have thought that a fried egg sandwich with onion jam and stinky cheese would sell so well?”

“Well, they are rather good. Four hundred, you say?”

“More customers come here for the sandwich than they do the entertainment. I don’t get it. It’s just a sandwich.” She shrugged with her wings. “I mean, it’s a good sandwich, but a sandwich is a sandwich. I’m partial to nookie, myself.”

He grinned. “Right about now, I’d take the sandwich.”

The windows were open to allow a cool, moist, briny breeze to blow the stink out. Though not yet nightfall, the first of the regulars showed up, most of them the sorts that would spend a majority of their pay here for an epic night of revelry. Or, at least, what passed for an epic night of revelry. There was something on the air tonight, just as Black Maple had said, and Nut wondered if there would be trouble.

A massive plate of fried fish and chips sat between Nut and Black Maple, a shared plate that got the attention of Grace Smooth. Nothing was said though. Nut felt good about things; unusually so. While he ate, he thought about the many things said, the way Black Maple moved in bed, and as was so often the case, the Gallopagos was on his mind. It seemed more distant now, a little further away, so what harm was there partaking in the pleasures that life had to offer? What was the old chestnut? The tired old idiom? Something about life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, or some such thing.

It certainly applied here. None of this was planned. In fact, for the longest time, it was avoided, just like so many other things, the sorts of things that he considered distractions. Yet, now that he’d let his guard down and relaxed a bit, he found himself with some regret, and wished that he’d done so sooner. In some strange way, this was Hickory’s fault, though Tater Blossom might also share some of the blame. His plans had been radically, forcibly altered with his trip to the Widowwood.

Lifting a chip with his telekinesis, he flicked it in Black Maple’s general direction. Very much like the orca that had nipped off her legs, she lunged at the flying chip, and with a snap of her teeth, she snatched it out of the air. It was an impressive feat, one of meaningful kinesthetic and spatial mastery, something he respected a great deal even as he made light of it by turning it into a game.

“I’m going to buy a house,” he announced out of the blue.

“You’re what?” Black Maple asked around a mouthful of partially chewed fried potato.

“I’m going to buy a house,” he said again. “Tater Blossom deserves better than a room over a garage. I suppose I do too. After some thinking, I’ve concluded that I’ve learned all that I can learn from my current experience. Time to move on to something new. Plus, I want Pod and Taffy to be able to visit. And my parents.”

“Are you putting down roots, Nut?”

“Nothing of the sort,” he was quick to say. “It’s all temporary. Ephemeral. Transitory. But I can’t live like a hobo until the day of my departure. My mother made some fine points. I could be doing more with my life. So I intend to. I’ll buy a house and then figure out what to do next. Why shouldn’t I? I mean, I just landed a lucrative job working for the Crown. That was never part of the plan, but it happened. I am now a contracted courier for the new agency known as the Underwatch. Supposedly, I’ll be getting a badge. I also have an apprentice… something else that was never part of the plan. And now”—he turned to look at the pegasus beside him—“there’s you. This… all of what we just did, none of that was part of the plan.”

“You know, Nut, you being long-winded isn’t so bad when you actually have something to say.”

Rather than respond, he flicked another fried chip in her direction.

He watched as she ate and thought of the many differences between Pod and Black Maple. Pod was refined, a natural born socialite, while Black Maple was earthy and crude. One day, Pod would be a reproduction specialist—a doctor. As far as life dreams went, Black Maple already accomplished most of what she wanted from life; she now owned an inn that served as a brewhouse, restaurant, a pub, and a brothel. Her success was such that she’d already paid off the loans needed to secure it and from here, her fortunes could only rise.

Distracted, Nut drenched a slab of fried fish with malt vinegar, stabbed it with his fork, and tore off a rather polite bite. The vinegar jolted his senses, tickled the hidden depths of his sinuses, and caused his salivary glands to gush. When Black Maple helped herself to a bite, he didn’t complain. What was once annoying—her stealing his food—was now endearing.

“Tell me about your tribe,” he said to her after swallowing.

“You actually want to know?” she asked.

“Very much so. And I don’t mean pegasus ponies in general, but your specific tribe.”

“I don’t know where to start.” She swallowed with a loud gulp, leaned over the table, rested her heavy wooden forelegs upon its edge, and then cast a sidelong glance up at Nut. “We’re not like the pegasus ponies that came along with the Founders. In fact, the pegasus ponies of Cloudsdale really hate our kind, because we have a proud tradition of mixed blood.”

“Yes, because of the swoop down out of the sky for rape and plunder tradition.”

“Yeah”—her head bobbed—“that. There’s only so many mares in the tribe and they can only birth so many foals. But if you take over a city, there’s a whole lot of mares that can potentially birth little pegasus foals. It’s a gamble though, I suppose. But we’re as mixed as they come and the pegasus ponies of Cloudsdale think we’re barbarians.”

“Are you?” he dared ask.

“Want a black eye?” she replied.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“You’ll take whatever I have to give and like it.” She belched thunderously, licked her lips, and belched again. “Now where was I? Oh, right. Our tribe came to Equestria later. We, the Endless Horde, the Sky Nomads, the Terror Wings, we had a long and fabulous history terrorising the world and causing mischief. We had no home of our own, no territory, no continent. The sky was ours, along with whatever else we happened to take. Things were pretty good, I’m told. Our strategy worked out a little too well and our numbers were such that they blotted out the sky.

“When we swept over a city, we could block out the sun. One day, as the story goes, we invaded a city. Unbeknownst to us, this city was hit with the plague, only the city didn’t know it either. It had only just started. The plague did what no other army had ever done; it defeated us. Laid us low. In no time at all, we went from the Endless Horde to the Very Small and Very Sick Horde.

“An old enemy showed up. Princess Celestia. We regularly flew into Equestria and its territories to help ourselves to whatever they had to offer. Since we were asshole barbarians, we expected her to finish us off in our weakened state. One less menace in the world, one fewer barbarian tribe. She had every right to kill us, to do us in after all we’d done, and all the crushing defeats we handed to her armies.

“But she showed kindness. Mercy. Benevolence. We Sky Nomads, we called that weakness. But there she was, helping us, and helping the city we invaded. At the end of it all, with what few survivors were left, she invited us to come home with her. So we did. We pledged our undying loyalty to her, now and forever. That was a long time ago though, and I suppose some of us wonder what she’s done for us lately. I don’t know. But we became Equestrians, just like so many other tribes. And we’re the most vicious, most bloodthirsty, most dangerous of the various Equestrian tribes, and we have the military service record to prove it. Cloudsdale pegasus ponies can suck it.”

With her story told, she hoisted her mug and guzzled down its contents.

“And you became an innkeeper,” he remarked.

She belched up an ale sour cloud, pounded her barrel with a wooden foreleg, and then gave Nut the stink eye. “We developed a tradition of hospitality and keeping others safe.” Her words were almost a growl. “Our kind protected the weaker ponies on the far off frontiers. We built inns… bastions of civilisation and a refuge for pioneers, traders, and merchants. To stay under our roof was to be safe. Secure. To have no worries about waking up in the morning. Princess Celestia called us hospitaliers rather than barbarians, and we treasured our newfound reputation. We were once her sworn enemies, most hated enemies, and she trusted us to look after her precious little ponies.”

“That’s actually quite fascinating. Really.”

She cast a dubious glare upon Nut, belched up another ale sour cloud, then stole the fish still hanging from his fork. It was almost as if she dared him to say something while she chewed, and he couldn’t help but feel a certain fondness for her right now. She was bold, brash, and boisterous. Black Maple was the anti-socialite. She was the literal barbarian at the gate, come to crash the party.

And he liked that.

Just as he was about to express his sentiment, the door opened and a group entered. He felt something—concern—and it was obvious that Black Maple had the same reaction. Two pegasus ponies, an earth pony of immense bulk, and a unicorn with shifty eyes. The unicorn was well dressed, in very much the same way that Nut was well dressed. As for the others, they were cheap hoods in cheaper clothes.

Flanked on both sides by the pegasus ponies, the unicorn began to look around, and his critical gaze went from place to place. Nut had seen this before; others had come in here and done the same thing, acting as if they owned the place, or were interested in buying. This behaviour was particularly annoying to Nut, and irritated him a great deal. He found it arrogant, insulting, and ire-inducing.

Nut was a pony whose ire should not be induced.

“I would very much like to speak to the proprietor of this establishment,” the unicorn said.

“That would be me,” Black Maple said.

Now, the unicorn, still flanked by the pair of pegasus ponies, approached the table, and when he drew near, he said, “A while back a very reasonable offer was made. My associate suffered some misfortune. Lost his teeth. I understand that he had quite a rude reception. Bad form to maim the messenger.”

“So now you’ve come to deal with us yourself,” Nut said to the unicorn who stood near the table.

“I do not recall speaking to you,” the unicorn replied. “Kindly fuck off.”

Black Maple smiled, a shark’s grin, wide and inviting. “I have no need for business partners. Sorry. Don’t need insurance, or protection, or whatever slimy racket that you’re selling. There’s no negotiation on this issue. So how about you kindly fuck off.”

“I would say you clearly need a business partner, because you clearly don’t understand what is going on.” The unicorn too, smiled, but it was not a nice smile. Not in the slightest.

“And I would say that you’re going to need a surgeon,” Black Maple replied, her grin as wide as ever. “Now get the fuck out, shit-for-brains.”

From behind the bar, Grace raised the attitude adjusting table leg; it had a rusty nail sticking out of one end. Nut sized up the situation. The two pegasus ponies were speed, while the earth pony was muscle. Something told Nut that the earth pony wasn’t a fighter though, at least not much of one. He was here to do property damage, most likely. Smash tables and break chairs. The unicorn was calm and collected, obviously no stranger to violence. His magical capabilities were unknown, and so he was the top priority, if this went sideways.

“My interests will not be dissuaded,” the unicorn said in a voice of utter calm. “If this offer is refused, other offers will be made. I will not be told no. Surely we can reach a mutually beneficial agreement before there is any unpleasantness. I do not wish to merely take from you, but offer you a product as well. A profitable product. One that will make you wealthy. Surely a clever mare such as yourself is not averse to wealth.”

“Your sales pitch is about to cost you an eye,” Black Maple replied.

“It seems as though your previous business transactions cost you a leg. Or two.”

True as always to his nature, Nut did not respond. He did not react. Motionless, he waited, conserving energy. One of the pegasus ponies stared at him, egging him on, an invitation to do something rash. Nut would not be the one who started trouble—but there was a good chance that he’d be the one to end it. Just a little while ago, he’d slipped his foal pole into Black Maple’s foal hole, and now there was about to be a fight. This wasn’t how he expected his day to turn out. But then again, when he went to the Widowwood, he didn’t expect to return home with an apprentice, either.

“How much is it,” the pegasus on the right croaked, “to take this queer one upstairs? Skinny here needs his asshole stretched.”

No response. Not even a twitch of an eyebrow. Ever the stoic, Nut did not react. He waited, watchful, his eyes on the trouble. No distractions, no reactions. A sheathed sword was not the promise of peace, but of readiness. The customers were all watching now, waiting, perhaps hoping to see a show. In between the two pegasus ponies, the unicorn seemed to be losing patience, while the earth pony behind them flashed a malicious grin.

What happened next was chaos, plain and simple.

Black Maple’s wing flexed faster than any equine eye could follow and her mug rocketed off at impossible speeds. Before anypony could even blink, the crockery mug smashed against the unicorn’s face—right into his eye, in fact. There was a crash of crockery, the distinctive sound that it made when it shattered, and then a multitude of things happened all at once.

A pained screech, a spurt of crimson, the sound of crockery shards hitting the floor, and then a moment later, the muffled thump of a body falling upon those sharp, jagged pieces of shattered mug. There was a bellow from the frog-voiced pegasus, shouts from the crowd, and then came clarity in the chaos:

“My eye!” the unicorn shrieked as he clutched at his face with his hooves.

Doing so caused him to shove the thin sliver in his eye in even deeper.

One of the pegasus ponies yanked his boss up from off the floor, and there were several sharp bits of crockery now lodged in the unicorn’s bloodied flesh. Heaving his boss, the pegasus threw the unicorn over the back of the earth pony, and as all of this was taking place, the second pegasus lunged for Black Maple. Wings out, front hooves forward, he closed the distance with alarming speed.

Nut was faster.

Susan was brought to bear, her blade sprung forth, and with a smooth upward swing, one wing was sheared clean off. With Susan still in motion, Nut whirled her around, and the crook end was rammed into the pegasus’ exposed throat. His forward momentum drove him right into the hardwood crook, which compressed and flattened his windpipe. With a telekinetic shove, Nut hurled the pegasus away, and an eyeblink later, the brute lay upon the floor, minus one wing, and pawing at his crushed windpipe.

The severed wing lay upon the table, still twitching.

Black Maple licked her teeth, her eyes on the pegasusless wing, and then she said, “You’re free to go. Take your boss and get out while you still can. This wing however, this wing belongs to me. If any of you ever come back, it’ll cost you your balls. I’ll geld you and hang your sorry, shriveled balls above the door as a warning. Now, get the fuck out before I kill you and have your bodies dumped into the deeps.”

“No.” Nut’s voice was flat. “Don’t move. If you do, I’ll finish what I started. Somepony go to the callbox and flip the switch to summon the constables. We would be terrible ponies if we sent them away without medical attention.”

“Damnit, Nut… why make things more complicated?” Black Maple demanded.

“Because this is the right thing, and we do the right thing.” He glanced around and saw that nopony had budged. “You there!” He pointed at a pegasus. “Go to the callbox. A free drink awaits you.”

With a gurgly belch, the soused pegasus zoomed off at remarkable speed, thirsty for a free drink.

“Grace, come here. If these two try any funny business, I want you to bop them over the head. Not gently.” Stepping around the table, Nut drew closer to the fallen pegasus. “I’m going to attempt to stop the bleeding. If any of you try anything, I promise you, I will make the bleeding so much worse. Allow me to save your friend’s life.”

“We’re helping them?” Black Maple seemed incredulous.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Nut replied as he went to work. “Hey, I need some kind of soft, absorbent cloth. Somepony go fetch something.”

The cleanup crew worked to scrub the blood from the floor. All of them experienced, they could clean up all manner of bodily fluids and get anything soiled sparkling clean. Nut sat watching them work while nibbling a somewhat cold slab of fish and nursing a fresh tankard of ale. Black Maple sat in sullen silence beside him, peeved with him because he’d done the right thing.

All that was left now was the mess. As it turned out, their unwanted visitors were all wanted ponies, with outstanding warrants, and the unicorn, a one Mister Key, was a wanted fugitive that had escaped from prison quite some time ago. He’d come here to Vanhoover and started himself a new criminal empire from scratch. His prefered occupation was an alchemist and opium salespony.

“You just had to go and get the constables involved, Nut,” Black Maple muttered beneath her breath.

“It was the right thing to do,” he retorted.

“Says who?” She looked over at him with her teeth bared.

“Says me.” He sipped his ale, licked the foam from his lips, and stared right back at the pegasus beside him.

“Frigga’s Night is alright for fighting,” she said, changing the subject. “Thank you, by the way. I had everything under control, but I appreciate what you did. I owe you.”

“You owe me?”

“You’ll get yours later,” she said to him with a flirtatious wink.

Much to his surprise, she leaned up against him and closed her eyes. No fighting, no bickering, no snarling or contention. When he sipped his ale, she sighed, a sound that seemed content to his ears. As for the rest of the room around him, everypony and everybirdy was on their very best behaviour. He heard lots of pleases and thank yous. It was like this every time there was trouble; everypony and everybirdy would clean up their act and behave like model citizens. There were plenty of drunks already, but no disorderlies.

“Fighting and fronking on Frigga’s Day. Today has been just about perfect.” She rubbed her body up against Nut’s side, her feathers rustled, and the joints of her wooden legs creaked. “In fact, if you want what’s coming to you right now, we could go upstairs.”

Nut was tempted, but torn. He had ale to finish. It had been a long day, but if the truth were to be told, he still had a bit of stamina left. Black Maple continued to rub up against him with catlike affection and he found it odd that he didn’t mind her antics. In the past when she’d done this, he thought of her as a pesty pegasus. Now, it was just affectionate.

When the door opened, he looked up from his mug.

It was Red Maple and Tater Blossom. The earth pony filly appeared tired, but wired. She had glassy eyes and she wore a huge grin plastered across her face. The pair approached the table and Red Maple herded Tater Blossom away from the mess on the floor. Just before they sat down, Nut raised his mug in salute, and he heard a low titter from Black Maple.

“Given the mess on the floor, I reckon you two had to sort out your differences. Funny, neither one of you look too bad.”

“Oh, that.” Black Maple rolled her eyes. “That’s not our blood. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Red Maple pulled out a chair for Tater Blossom, helped the filly sit down, and then sat down herself. She leaned over the table, sniffed once, thoroughly invaded her daughter’s equinal space, and then began to chuckle. Meanwhile, Tater Blossom hunched over the table, yawned, and eyeballed the cold, greasy leftover chips on the plate that sat between Nut and Black Maple.

“I’m really very happy for both of you,” Red Maple said.

“I don’t know what you mean, Mom.”

“Don’t be coy, girl. I know what you’ve done. You’re radiant right now.”

“Radiant?” Black Maple sat up straight, blinked once, and then looked her mother in the eye. “If by radiant, you mean happy, then yes, I am happy right now. Filled to the brim with happiness. If I were a bird, I’d be singing.”

“So where have you two been off to?” asked Nut.

“Well, we went to the Museum of Grotesquerie and we checked out the display of brand new pickled punks, there was a live two-headed chicken, and a whole bunch of new displays.”

“I saw a two-faced cow,” Tater Blossom said in a sleepy voice to Nut. “It had three eyes.”

“After the museum, we went to the arcade. Turns out that Tater here is a bit clumsy. Poor thing. Still growing. Hopefully, she’ll either grow out of it or into it.” Red Maple smiled, slipped her foreleg over Tater Blossom’s neck, and gently rocked the filly. “After the arcade, we went to the Seaside Aquatheatre and watched a puppet show—”

“All the puppeteers was under water, where they couldn’t be seen, and the puppets was above the water. It was neat!”

“Yes, the puppeteers were submerged,” Red Maple said. “We got to watch the Founding of Equestria. The Princess Celestia puppet was exquisitely detailed. When that was over, I took Tater out for pizza, and then we had ice cream, and I did everything equinely possible to spoil her. Because, why not?”

“That is incredibly sweet of you, Mrs. Maple. You have my sincere appreciation.”

“Appreciation is the thing,” Red Maple said, the tone of her voice abruptly changing. “So many foals today wouldn’t appreciate this at all. But Tater had so much enthusiasm and verve. She was so excited about everything. It felt good… like when Blackie was young… before the orca.”

Nut’s mug was snatched away from him and before he could react, Black Maple emptied it all in one gulp. Then, she belched up a cloud of ale fumes, swayed a bit in her seat, smacked her lips, and thumped the empty mug back down upon the table. She licked the foam from her muzzle, looked at her mother with sad, ale-softened eyes, and then her head shook from side to side.

“You never stopped being appreciative, Blackie…”

“That… that actually makes me feel better.” Black Maple belched again, this time she peeled her lips away from her teeth to achieve operatic resonance, and several heads turned to better hear the frog song. “I always appreciated everything you did, Mom. Even you coming to look after me while Nut was away. Really. Honestly.” She swayed. “Even if I acted like an ungrateful cuss. You’re always here for me when I need you, Mom. Always.”

With one extended wing, a watery-eyed Red Maple fanned away the ale fumes.

“I need ponies who will put up with me when I’m being difficult,” Black Maple said while a little dribble of foam trickled down from the corner of her mouth. “They will have my appreciation. My undying gratitude. For some reason, right now, I am very emotional. I’m not drunk. What’s wrong with me?” She blinked, glanced around, and then let go of yet another terrifying belch, which made everything on the table rattle.

Red Maple redoubled her efforts to fan away the fumes.

“I bought you the most amazing gift,” Black Maple said to Tater Blossom. “Once my mug is refilled, I’ll tell you all about it.” She turned. “Grace! More ale! And soft cider for the young miss.”

“Sure thing, Boss!”

“Mom”—Black Maple covered her mouth with one wing to stifle a hissy, fizzy belch—“I have a guilty confession. I was a bad filly.”

“Blackie, I already know that you got laid, there’s no need to—”

“No, Mom. I didn’t say a naughty filly, I said bad filly.” The younger pegasus looked the older pegasus right in the eye. “Since we were clearing the air and being so open… Mom… Mother… I lured Nut into the tub with me. He fondled me and I fondled him back. There was a lot of groping. We mighta scrubbed each others’ unmentionables.”

Red Maple’s eyebrow arched.

“Oh balls… run for it, Nut.”

But Red Maple’s response was surprising. “It’s fine,” she said in a flat deadpan. “At least, it’s fine for now. But there’d better be a proposal in the near future. Otherwise, things will not be fine. Things will not be fine at all.”

Nut gulped and was strangely terrified.

“So basically,” the younger of the two pegasus ponies said, “things are fine so long as we stay together. But, uh, if we break this off—”

“I’ll be coming for you, first, because you know better. You’ll wish the orca finished what it started.”

Black Maple’s ears pinned back. “I sorta thought that I’d get amnesty for my confession.”

“Other pegasus ponies might have preen-mates, and that’s fine.” Red Maple’s voice lowered down to almost a whisper. “But that is not our way. This is how we lose our past, Blackie. We give up little pieces of it so we can be modern. Little rituals and customs get carelessly cast aside… tossed away like so much garbage. And when all of it is gone, what are you left with? Tell me.”

Ears completely limp, head low, Black Maple shook her head. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it does now. If anypony is going to suffer for this, it needs to be me.”

Grace set down four mugs and then hurried away.

“I was actually asking Blackie about her past. Her traditions. The reasons why all of this happens to be the way it is. She is surprisingly well-versed in her history and social customs. I find them fascinating.”

“You do?” Red Maple’s head swiveled around until her authoritative maternal stare fell upon Nut. “You actually care about this stuff?”

“I do,” he replied without hesitation. “Blackie was just telling me that when we raise our little flock that they’ll need to learn these rituals and customs.” His words seemed to mollify Red Maple, so Nut allowed himself to relax a bit.

“We’re holdouts.” Red Maple pulled Tater Blossom close her to, gave the earth pony a gentle squeeze, and then sighed. “All we have left is our odd rituals and stories. I worry that one day, we won’t even have that. We’ll just be pegasus ponies. Equestrian pegasus ponies. Indistinct from all the other pegasus ponies.”

“Princess Celestia will remember your history, I’m sure.” For all of his efforts to be reassuring, Nut wasn’t sure of how Red Maple took his words. “Your daughter told me of your history. I asked, because I wanted to know. So long as Celestia lives, she will remember your kind.”

Black Maple raised a full mug. “Not all those memories are good ones.”

With a dangerous smirk that left her muzzle lopsided, Red Maple also raised a mug. “We were worthy foes… and valued allies. When Princess Celestia remembers us, it’s no doubt with a sigh of relief and an unclenching of her mighty sphincter.”

The two mares clunked mugs together, gulped some of the foamy liquid down, and then smiled at one another. Nut pushed the mug of watered-down cider across the table to Tater Blossom, and then hoisted his own mug. Lost in thought for a moment, he thought about what to say, and hoped to think of something meaningful.

When no words seemed forthcoming, he simply presented his mug in a silent toast…

Encountering Headwind

View Online

Summer thunder rumbled and crackled while brilliant flashes of blue-green lightning illuminated the rain that fell with a sideways slant. The garage door was open so that Nut might enjoy the cool breeze as he worked. He was tired, but not sleepy, though he had been awake for quite some time. Work had to be done, work needed to be done, because he needed this time to sort his head out. The ruined wagons would not fix themselves.

While he laboured to remove the shattered, splintered wheel, he could not help but wonder what Pod might say about his coupling. A part of him wanted her to know; it would be a relief for her to know that he’d moved on. That they were still connected in meaningful ways that mattered, but that both of them had successfully moved on. She had Taffy, a pony that Nut felt was a much better fit for Pod than himself, and he had Black Maple—also a better fit. To be an adult about these things, it was hard, so hard to do.

He could not deny that he was an adult now, for he had made adult decisions. It wasn’t the act of consummating his relationship with Black Maple; far from it, for foals could also engage in such acts, and sometimes made more foals when doing so. It was accepting Black Maple’s shortcomings and embracing her strengths that made him an adult. In return, he hoped that she would do the same, for surely he had his own flaws.

Was it love?

It might be.

Might not be.

He spun the wrench in a smooth circular motion to remove the bolt. The wagon stank of the sea, of fish, of filth, of sewage, and pollution. This would not be the sort of smell customers would want to encounter, should they come here in search of services. This gave him pause, the wrench ceased to turn, and Nut knew what must be done.

Surely his laundry spell would also clean the wagons.

What would it hurt to try?

Earlier this night, he’d drank a prodigious amount of booze, both ale and rye. This was helpful to him as a unicorn, because now he had a surplus of calories to work with, and he could afford this downright excessive magical expenditure. His laundry spell had gained strength with his maturity, and now, at the age of nineteen, he could cleanse a truly horrifying amount of filth if the situation demanded.

Not but an hour ago, before departing for the night, he’d laundered Black Maple’s bedding.

It was a good warm up for what came next. Squinting at the filthy, seaweed strewn wagons, he thought about bubbles and suds. Like foamy ale, but soapy. As far as he knew, the spell had no name; it was just a spell, something he’d picked up in school, found he had a knack for, and then had modified it to suit his needs. Was he drunk? Not quite, but he was a little tipsy perhaps. Laundering Black Maple’s bedding had sobered him up considerably, and he wondered if his casting now might kill his buzz completely.

Bubbles, bubbles… he thought about toils and troubles. Yes, he expected to toil through the night, and he might have some trouble come morning. He’d need some sleep sometime. Why was the night so invigourating? Had Princess Luna done something to him? Altered him in some way that she had not yet confessed?

Distracted, he redouble-bubbled his efforts. Suds. Froth. Foam. Spume. There was filth all around him, and filth was bad for business. Something had to be done. He was a manager now, and he was responsible for customer satisfaction. If he was a customer, and he walked in the door, and was then assaulted by this stench, he’d walk right back out.

Deep within Nut’s psyche, the Disgustang opened one hoary eye and turned its cold stare upon all the offensive filth. It coated the floor, permeated the air, there were stains beneath the wagons where they had dripped. Dried gooey seaweed festooned the wagons like gross party streamers. A putrid party that celebrated putrefacient putrescence. Without realising it, Nut channeled his revulsion into his magic and in doing so, suffered an explosive breaking point.

This had never happened before; magic surges happened to other unicorns, not himself. He was seized by the sheer magnitude that flowed through his body, his eyes lost all colour and turned a luminescent white. His horn ached and his guts churned. Cleanliness was next to Celestial goodness. When sharp, stabbing pains went lancing through his throat and lungs, he let out a feeble cry.

A second later, the world exploded and turned white, tinged with oily rainbows that gleamed with iridescence. For a moment, he was afraid that he might smother, but then he realised that he was surrounded, buried by bubbles. A sea of bubbles. The soap that he’d somehow conjured burned his eyes, stung his nose, and tasted terrible as it somehow crept betwixt his lips. Everything was hot and wet; not quite scalding, but uncomfortable, as if he held himself over a column of steam.

Overcome with magic, Nut spoke with a voice that wasn’t entirely his own.

“I am become bubbles, destroyer of filth!”

Armed with a hose, Nut washed away his shame. A torrent of foamy, sudsy bubbles flowed out into the street, which scoured away the years of grime left on the cobblestones. As for the garage and everything within… well, Nut was almost certain that it had never been cleaner. Of course, much of it was still inundated with bubbles. After the initial explosion, the bubbles went from floor to ceiling, and from wall to wall.

Now, everything smelled freshly laundered, and even had a pleasing floral scent.

Nut dared not ask how.

He hadn’t the faintest clue how most magic worked, and certainly not his laundry spell.

Even the tools were free of grease, gunk, and grime, with each and every one of them appearing brand-new. Aiming his hose, he blasted some bubbles and wished that they would just go away. He coughed, hacked for a bit, and then, when he belched, a stream of bubbles went cascading from out his mouth. Had he transmuted all of the alcohol in his body into soap somehow? It sure felt that way, because right now, he was stone cold sober at a time when he very much wanted to be a bit sloshed. As a unicorn, just about anything was possible, he reckoned.

“Doing a little late night cleaning?” a voice asked from the shadows outside the open garage door.

“My apologies, but we are closed,” Nut said to his as-of-yet unseen visitor.

“I didn’t come to rent a carriage.” A shadowy figure ventured partially into the light that spilled from the door, and two eyes flashed a witchfire green. “A crime was committed. I was dispatched to make some determinations.”

“Am I in need of a lawyer?” he asked.

At last, the figure moved fully into the light and revealed themselves. Herself. Her voice was distinctly female, though her physical form completely dwarfed Nut. “I am Warden Headwind. You… you are Nut, of Canterlot, son of Clove and Bulb. I understand that you are a graduate of Princess Celestia’s School for Disproportionate Responders. I know who you are, I know what you are, and I know for certain that you will not give me any trouble. The Night Lady said that you were loyal, and I don’t think you will make her a liar.”

“Hail the Night Lady,” he said while his hose gushed water.

“Praise be to the Day Maiden,” Warden Headwind said in return.

Suddenly, everything felt quite awkward. Here he was with a bat-winged night terror. A draconic nocturnal pegasus. This was a literal nightmare scenario. The strange creature seemed more reptilian than equine, even if she had a vaguely equine shape. When she blinked, he watched how her nictitating membranes glistened. Finally, he had the presence of mind to turn off the hose, and he did so. Clean up would have to wait.

“I would like your permission to peek inside your head,” she said, stating her objective.

“That strikes me as odd,” he replied. “Since when do your kind ask permission? You might already be in my head right now. Why ask at all? What if I say no?”

“Well,” she began, and her face showed amusement as she checked out the bubbles. “I am true to my namesake. We Wardens as a whole have a public relations crisis. Nopony trusts us. All of you little ponies fear us, and perhaps for good reason. We’ve done a lot to cultivate that fear. I’m trying to change things. Which is why I was exiled to Vanhoover. My elders thought that being exposed to the worst that society has to offer might toughen me up a bit and give me a few much-needed mental callouses.”

“And?” Nut waited, unsure of what to expect.

“If anything, it has given strength to my resolve. There are exactly two Wardens posted to Vanhoover. There are two of us to deal with criminality in this city, and I think we could get more done if ponies came to us. Instead, we’re forced to hunt them down and confront them. Very much like what I am doing with you.” Curls of smoke rose from the corners of her mouth when she smiled and her eyes flashed bright in the harsh overhead lights of the garage.

“What would peeking inside my head accomplish?” he asked.

“Would you say that your actions were necessary, or a disproportionate response?”

The question caused him to stiffen his posture. “A disproportionate response would have meant killing them. I could have beheaded each and every one of those fellows in mere seconds. Instead, I put a swift end to the situation, and then offered medical assistance. I have no desire to take what can’t be given back.”

Warden Headwind nodded. “And that is what I hoped to determine. I’ve already been inside their heads. Unpleasant ponies, the lot of them. A drug peddler with delusions of grandeur that’s read too many pulp crime novels and thinks of himself as some kind of syndicate kingpin. A pedophile rapist with a penchant for yearlings. One of them was a torturer of animals and was fond of drowning kittens and puppies. Just a matter of time before he progresses to something bigger and better, perhaps something that pleads for its life. As for the fourth, the fourth just wanted to be somepony important, and he chose poorly.”

“I knew none of this, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have killed them. The outcome would remain the same.”

“The life you saved was the pedophile rapist.”

Nut’s mouth went dry and he found that he had no words. Oh, he tried to say something, but speech had abandoned him. Shocked into silence, he turned away from Warden Headwind and tried to reconcile with his actions. This revelation caused him to tremble and he felt sickened. Yet, in the larger sense, nothing had changed. He remained confident that he’d done right and he found his voice once more.

“That changes nothing. It is for the courts to decide what to do with him, not me. I merely dispatched him and rendered him helpless. Even if I had known of their crimes, that changes nothing. The outcome would remain the same. Why tell me these things? Why deal with intangibles and what-ifs?”

Warden Headwind smiled wide enough to reveal serrated teeth. “I’ve learned all I need to know. Thank you for your time, Nut of Canterlot.”

“But… but… but…” he sputtered, “you didn’t look inside my head.”

“There’s no need to do so.” Warden Headwind bowed her head. “A little old-fashioned detective work will suffice, methinks. You and I… we only do what is necessary, correct? Just what it takes to get the job done and no more. A disproportionate response feels unnecessary for our endeavours.”

Flummoxed into silence once more, Nut tried to process what had just happened.

“Make no mistake, we shall meet again, Nut of Canterlot. Princess Luna told me that you could be called upon should I need assistance. I might very well do that. There’s a slasher running amok, as I am sure you know. You and I might have a hunt together. Fare-thee-well, for now. Praise be to the Day Maiden.”

And then, before Nut could find his tongue, Warden Headwind was gone without a trace.

After a lot of spraying, the garage was finally rid of bubbles. It was clean, cleaner than it had ever been, perhaps. None of the stains had survived, even the really old ones, and the mildew had been purged from the bricks. It smelled pleasant as well, without even a hint of mustiness. Nut surveyed his work and was pleased. In the future, he’d have to be more careful with his laundry spell, even if the end result of a surge was absolute cleanliness.

With everything just right and just so, he sat down to begin again, determined to finish the job that he had started. Warden Headwind’s visit rattled him more than he cared to admit and he found it odd that he was bothered more by the Warden’s visit than the violence that transpired earlier. They were bad ponies, sure, but he bore them no grudge. Even with the knowledge that he now had, he had no desire for a different outcome.

Vanhoover was a huge, sprawling city that was spread out too far, too wide, and had too few constables. It was multiple cities really, all of which shared one name. Vanhoover. There were the wards and the boroughs, a vast, sprawling expanse, a large part of which could barely be called housing. There was the Upper City, which, along with the Wall District, the wards and the boroughs, had well over a million souls. Then there was Cliffside, a vertical city, one that was nine-hundred feet tall and several miles long. It crept up and down the coast, growing longer every day.

The Lower City was said to have at least one and a half million souls, give or take a few hundred thousand. It was mostly densely packed apartments, tenement towers, and an endless expanse of row houses all crammed together, in tight, serpentine lines. Houseboats were packed into ever-expanding marinas and there was no telling just how many souls lived on watercraft, because the numbers were always changing.

And then there were the islands; the archipelago.

The sheer scope and scale of it all made Nut wonder how civilisation held itself together.

He also worried about how easy it might be to tear it all apart.

Armed with a collection of tools that gleamed in the stark glow of the overhead light, he went to work once more. The wagon was spotless and no longer stank of the ocean. As he settled into his menial task, he allowed his mind to wander, because this was the time when he could do his best thinking, all of the important thoughts that mattered.

His mother was right; there was more he could be doing. His problem, as he saw it, was that he didn’t know what to do. Getting involved meant having a plan, and he’d made no such plans. Where did he begin, exactly? How could he help the city? Where did one start with such a monumental task? It was almost paralysing to even consider and Nut worried about his utter lack of experience.

Perhaps his mother was on to something though. Though he doubted he could do much for a city the size of Vanhoover, he could take on something a little more reasonable. Perhaps he could lay claim to an island. How did one do that, exactly? Stake a claim and have a chit-chat with Princess Celestia? It might actually be that simple; after all, his mother did mention that such a thing was conceivably possible. But then there was the matter of being deposed; Vanhoover had already cast out its nobles once.

For some reason, he thought of his professor, Sterling Note.

Such great cost was politics.

If for some reason Nut was to lay claim to Anvil Island—or perhaps the whole of the archipelago—who would stop him? But what came after? He would need administrators. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna would no doubt offer up a whole army of administrators if he requested them, just so long as he remained loyal to their interests.

And then, very much like a bolt out of the blue, he knew just what to do and how to do it. All those hours in history class were not wasted, not even in the slightest. Why, the very thought of it made him grin. There was a precedent in history that might serve his needs. This was almost madness, yet there was a sort of sense to it all, a baffling logic that would surely hold the plan together.

All he had to do was lay claim to the islands, declare war against Equestria, and immediately surrender so that he might sue for peace. Then, as penance for his act of unprovoked aggression, he could offer restitution in the form of acting as a puppet governor acting in Equestria’s interests. This very thing had happened before, though with somewhat different circumstances. In fact, it happened more than once. Could it happen again?

Just what might Princess Celestia do to box his ears for this transgression?

While it was fun to think about, it was dangerous to act upon. It could conceivably be done, but it might also fail in the most spectacular of ways. Things could go wrong. Innocents might get hurt. Wars did not always go as planned. This half-baked plan of his was almost as crazy as going to the Gallopagos. Which in truth, made it feel right. Members of House Eccentrica should have crazed hare-brained schemes. His house should cause the Royal Pony Sisters to regularly facewing, or spew out vile curses. At some point, his house had become a den of conformity; a real shame, really, and something had to be done about that.

Something outlandish that would make the whole of the world hold its breath.

Smart Cookie, it was said, pestered poor Princess Celestia to the point of fits, suggesting all manner of crackpot ideas—precious few of which actually worked. Not every idea was a good idea; far from it. One had to have a multitude of terrible ideas before greatness manifested. Nut’s mother had once concocted what she believed was a brilliant idea; garlic perfume. While the idea had poor initial reception, Nut was almost certain that said perfume now served as a weapon against the rats. His father turned tulips into spying devices.

It would take a Nut to declare war against the Royal Pony Sisters.

Dreams. To be young and have such dreams. It was good to have dreams, but one had to be careful. Divide yourself too much so that one might chase after every dream one had, and one would catch none of them. Dreams were like elusive butterflies that defied capture. One had to commit and then devote all one had if one stood any small chance of success—which meant that other dreams, no matter how grand or glorious, had to be cast aside. For the Gallopagos, everything else would have to be sacrificed, no matter how dear the cost.

He committed himself to the task at hoof and settled into a fine pace…

A full moon reflected in the tenebrous ripples of an insomniac ocean that never slept. It was dark, almost midnight, and a saturating drizzle fell from purple-blue skies that reflected the light of the vast city below. In the distance, a foghorn let out a forlorn blast, and a lighthouse sent a message of hope out to sea. The pier was overcrowded and the boat stage had crates covered with slick tarpaulins that glistened when struck by stray light.

Quite a crowd had come out to say goodbye. They stood beneath umbrellas, some wore rain slickers, while some sought refuge below a canopy that wobbled in the wind. The crew laboured to load the last minute cargo into the ship’s hold, and it seemed as though the schedule would hold. What a fine ship it was, a marvel, a technological accomplishment for the history books. When the seas above proved too dangerous, it would submerge and take shelter below the storm. The largest submarine ever built—though not exactly a submarine in the traditional sense because it had a deck.

“Is everything ready?”

With a turn of his head, Nut brought his attention to bear upon the unicorn sailor.

“Good question. Is it?”

Before the sailor could respond, somepony said, “You don’t have to go.”

It was Taffy. Twilight Taffeta. The sailor forgotten, Nut turned to face the distraught mare. Taffy was not alone; just behind her was Pod, and Black Maple stood beside Pod. Gathered around the three mares were quite a few foals, most of them Black Maple’s. Nut could not recall how many off the top of his head for some reason, and try as he might, he was unable to focus upon their little faces, which remained blurry, indistinct.

“This was always the plan,” he said to Taffy in a voice left harsh by brine and hard rye liquor.

“But we made other plans.” The first hint of a scowl marred Taffy’s beautiful face. “We thought that you would stay. Haven’t we given you enough reasons to stay?”

“This was always the plan,” he said again, though this time it seemed as though his words lacked conviction. “You made your plans, and I obliged them. But we all knew it would come to this. I gave you all that I could. Everything that you have asked of me.”

“Except… you’re leaving.” Pod shook her head.

He felt the pang of hesitation. “There’s no turning back now. These plans were laid down long ago. They started as an idea, and even then, I was committed to them. I’m sorry, but I committed myself to them before I committed to any of you. You knew what you were in for when you agreed to share me.”

In the distance, up on the cliffside, the lighthouse continued its endless rotation.

“Nopony has ever survived the Sea of Luna’s Tears. The waters cause melancholy and madness.”

“Taffy, we’ve sampled those waters, discerned the cause of the psychosis, and we’re prepared.” Nut did his best to be reassuring, but he felt a niggle of doubt that bothered him more than he cared to admit. “The peculiar reef below releases hallucinogenic compounds that rise to the surface and disperse. With a little careful science we were able to sort out the cause and solve the mystery. A tablet taken every few hours will keep our minds sound.”

Though it pained him, he pulled away from Taffy and approached Potato Blossom, who stood apart just a few yards away. She’d grown and matured into a remarkable mare, one with confidence, poise, and compassion. What had started as a tender bloom had grown into a hardy, enduring specimen. Like all of the other mares in his life, he loved her, adored her, and treasured every moment that he was fortunate enough to have with her.

“Are you sure that you won’t come with me?” he asked. “It promises to be an adventure.”

She seemed to wrestle with her response, her face contorting unpleasantly as her cheeks drew taut. Her solid, stocky body shuddered as she inhaled, and then she shook her head from side to side. “No, I can’t go with you. You… you gave me a life here. After all your sacrifices for my sake, I’d be an ungrateful cuss if I cast them all aside to follow you.”

His ears twitched with the implication and he understood what she said without actually saying it. She was a creature of nuance, subtlety, and she had a knack with speaking whole volumes while saying hardly anything at all. He was proud of her, all of her schooling, her accomplishments, all of which he had a hoof in.

“You are the best nanny a pony could ever hope for,” he said to her.

“While your flattery is appreciated as always, it won’t get me to change my mind. What sort of nanny would I be if I said no and didn’t mean it?”

The smile that spread over his face hurt; his cheeks ached.

“You gave us all so much,” Potato Blossom said in a low voice. “Everything we asked for and so much more. With all your hard work, you gave us a life. Gave this city a life. Don’t you want to stick around and see how it all turns out?” Some of her drawl had returned, and with each word spoken, it grew thicker and slower.

“I gave you all of myself that I could,” he replied. “This was always the plan.”

“Plans can change, Nut. My whole life was planned out. I was supposed to marry young and spew foals out of my backside until my uterus quit out.” Eyes narrowed, she brought herself up to her full imposing height and stood eye-to-eye with Nut. “You showed up and the plan changed. There was a time when I might have followed you into the great unknown, Nut, but I can’t throw away everything you’ve given me.”

“Goodbye,” he said, and then retreated.

When he turned about, Black Maple was there, waiting for him. Her sides had a soft, gentle swell that filled him with longing and made him want to change his mind. Pregnancy suited her. While some mares were crabby and irritable when pregnant, Black Maple became placid and peaceful. Serene to the point of uncanniness. The only way to calm her seething hostilities was to satisfy her itch for motherhood. Perpetual pregnancy pacified the savage barbarian.

“Don’t let me hold you back,” she said. “I knew what I signed up for.” Her rain-slicked mane formed tendrils that framed her face. “You were a good mate, Nut. The best. I’m grateful for what we had. I’d go with you… you know I would… but I have obligations here. I’m a lot of things, Nut, but I’m not a bad mom.”

“You’re the best mom.” He whispered these words to her and hoped that they would not be drowned out in the ambient noise all around them. “I wish you and your ironclad uterus the very best. You’ve made me happy and all these years together were wonderful beyond compare.”

“Perhaps if you were happier, you might have stayed.” Pod’s bile was unmistakable.

Nut stared into Black Maple’s eyes and would not be distracted. Sure, there were lots of squabbles, some bickering, and sometimes even some shouting. But that was spice that made the relationship zesty, and Nut rather enjoyed it, even if he never mentioned so aloud. A little strife allowed for the air to be cleared, and then came the vigorous apologising. Oh yes, so much apologising.

How many of his offspring were the results of these vigorous, involved apologies?

“We have time for a quicky,” Black Maple suggested.

“With everypony watching?”

“Sure, why not.”

“No,” he said whilst he looked down at the flock of foals whose faces would not come into focus. Then, he gazed into Black Maple’s eyes once more. “Goodbye. I don’t know if you were my soulmate, but I don’t care. You’re my best friend.”

“You helped me live up to my full potential,” Black Maple said to him. “Nut, you brought out the best in me. I can’t thank you enough. While it hurts to let you go, I knew this day would come and I prepared for it.”

Pod approached with hesitation visible in her every step. Nut pulled his eyes away from Black Maple and with a dreadful ache in his heart, he faced the mare that had once been his betrothed. They had something, a relationship that he could not define, a bond that could not be explained. He loved her, but not in the same way that he loved Black Maple.

“Why?” asked Pod. “Why is none of this good enough? What does it take to make you stay? You ran away from Canterlot and became a solitary, fusty Nut. Then came the change of heart. You let others reach out to you. To touch you. You finally got involved. Look at all you’ve done. All of your accomplishments. Once you chose to become involved, you became this unstoppable force, this juggernaut of change.

“All of Vanhoover owes you a debt. So many lives were changed by your efforts. There is still so much more that could be done. The job is half-finished, Nut. We can look after your legacy, but you were the mastermind. What more might you accomplish if you would only stay?”

“This was always the plan,” he said and he almost choked on the words.

“But this also was a plan,” Pod retorted.

“But this plan came first.” He felt a stabbing ache in his heart and could no longer look Pod in the eye. “This was always the plan from the beginning. My first plan. If I gave it up, I’d look foolish. This was the plan that made me the pony that I am. It became my reputation. When ponies think of Nut, they think of my plan. The Gallopagos.”

“Plans can change,” said Taffy. “We were never part of the plan, but then you changed that. It started with Potato Blossom. You were made to care for another creature that was wholly and completely dependent upon you. She made you bloom, Nut. You grew. She released your potential, and you made other plans. That earth pony was the fertile soil that you put roots into.”

“Taffy, don’t say it that way. That’s a terrible analogy. It sounds—”

“Dirty,” Potato Blossom said, and she shivered with revulsion. “Thankfully, Nut kept his root out of me, and I appreciate that.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, apologising. “But the sea beckons. We must sail while the tide is high. I love you all. While this feels bad, I’m positive that all of you will find a way to carry on without me. All of you have such potential. Such greatness. Go do good things for the world. I have to follow through with my plan.”

Just as Nut finished speaking, the rather placid ocean came to life. A tentacle broke the surface, rose skyward, and assumed the shape of a curious question mark. Screams came from the faceless crowd—faceless but not eyeless—and these eyes were wide with terror. More tentacles surfaced, and while everypony reacted in some way, Nut did not.

The sea beckoned and this had always been the plan.

He didn’t even cry out when the slimy tentacle encircled him and almost crushed him. Limp, he allowed this to happen, because this was always the plan. Resigned to his fate, he embraced whatever came next, for surely it would be glorious. But Pod and Taffy resisted and together, they seized Nut in their collective magic. They pulled and tugged on his hind legs while the tentacle tried to pull him from the pier so that he could be dragged down in the briny depths.

Others grew involved; Nut could hear his parents shouting, but for some reason he couldn’t remember seeing them on the pier. Had they been there this whole time? How could he fail to notice? This—this resistance—was not part of the plan. How could his friends and loved ones betray him? Hold him back from his destiny? His greatness? After all he’d done to help them achieve their greatness, after all of his efforts for them to realise their full potential, instead of gratitude there was only betrayal. They were holding him back. All of his loved ones would not let go.

He felt himself pulled in two directions; Taffy was pulling on him as if he were taffy. The tentacle tightened around his barrel to the point where drawing breath was impossible, but that was fine. It yanked him closer to the edge of the pier, but his family, his loved ones, they pulled back with everything they had.

As the opposing forces played tug of war with his body, Nut felt himself stretch. Oh yes, he was growing longer… he was becoming noodly. His torso unfurled like an accordion, grew impossibly long, and neither side ceased their pulling. Unable to be torn in twain, Nut evolved, he adapted to his new circumstances. He heard the laughter of the damned, a cacophonous, discordant, horrisonant clamour, and as everything stretched into bedlam, he realised that the awful laughter was his own.

Why wouldn’t they let go? They were doing this to him. His noodly condition was entirely their fault. A part of him resented them, hated them. If only they would let go so that he could follow through with his plan. As he lengthened, his resentment turned inward. If only he’d left Potato Blossom behind, all of this could have been avoided. He might have gone through life with no connections, no attachments, no deadweight anchors to hold him back.

His noodlefication continued unabated.

Morning triumphant

View Online

Tappity-tap; the rain that tapped against the glass startled Nut from his slumber. Confused, sweaty, and with the tang of soap in his nostrils, he attempted to make sense of the world around him. For a moment, he was certain that he would sneeze, but it passed and the painful pressure subsided. All of his thoughts seemed somehow noodly, though he could not say how or why, and he could not remember what he had dreamt about. Against the window pane, the rain kept tapping, perhaps it sought an invitation to come in.

Warmth lingered through the night and now, with the grey of dawn, he found his room unpleasantly stuffy. His eyes, crusted over from sleep, were dry and irritated. Whatever he’d dreamt about, it was probably silly, or frivolous, though disturbing was a possibility that he could not dismiss. Beneath him, his hammock creaked as he flexed his legs, and though stuck in a half-awake stupor, he began to plan his day. There was lots of work to be done, that was a given, though he could not be certain what else might happen.

“Nut, you awake?”

Tater Blossom’s booming indoor voice came from just outside his door.

Before he could respond, she barged into his room, drew near to him, and said, “I heard you laughin’ in yer sleep. It was scary, Nut. Sounded all kinds of wrong. Scared me silly. Can we get something to eat? Please? I’ve not had a thing to eat for at least—”

Nut watched as her lips moved, and he assumed that she must be counting.

“—ten hours or more. Maybe longer. Don’t just lay there, Nut. You gotta get up and feed me. We ain’t got a kitchen and there’s no food. Hurry up. Don’t be lazy. If we had roosters, they’d be a-crowin’.”

“Oh, ten hours… it’s an emergency,” he said in a dry, raspy voice that was excellent for conveying sarcasm.

There was a thump that rattled the window when she stomped her foot. “It’s not funny, Nut. It really hurts. My insides is all achy and empty.”

“Fine, fine, I’m getting up. Give me some time to sort myself out.”

She backed away from his hammock so that he’d have room to get up, and asked, “Tell me, Nut… why does everything stink like soap? The whole place just reeks with it. Did something happen? It kinda burns the eyes, Nut.”

There was no rain. Oh, it had been raining, but it wasn’t now. A glorious dawn burned away the rose-tinted fog and brilliant illumination pierced every dirty, water-spotted window. Nut could not remember a more beautiful dawn in Vanhoover, and the eye-searing luminescence told him that today would be a truly special day. Dawn came a little later for those who lived in the shadow of the massive cliff, and the sun made up for its tardiness with a truly spectacular show.

Overhead, airships were loitering, drifting and bobbing on breezy currents. Factory freighters waited to pick up product that could be processed as they moved inland. A whole fleet of boats prowled the calm waters of morning. With the sun barely even in the sky, it was already a busy time for the city that never slept. As Nut locked the door behind him, he watched as his apprentice skittered about on legs still stiff from slumber.

With the door locked, he pulled out his ornate key, and it occurred to him that no one thing was immune to change. Stones changed, eroding over time. The raw materials of the universe changed, their half life slowly altering their very existence. Land and sea changed, with whole continents vanishing or sinking, and vast bodies of water flowed elsewhere, adapting as the foundations of the world went tumbling about. He had changed; the introduction of Tater Blossom into his life had altered him in some fundamental way that he could not begin to comprehend.

And yet, he felt those changes were indeed for the better.

For all of the good the changes wrought in him, they left him feeling noodly. Why noodly? This he did not have an answer for. It was just the way it was; he felt noodly at times. Long and flexible. When the changes of life were flung far too fast, one’s rigidity could not be maintained, and one became long, flappy, elongated, and noodly. One’s spine surely vanished to allow such bends and twists, and if one happened to be spineless, then one was surely noodly.

“It’s beautiful in a way that home wasn’t,” Tater Blossom said whilst she basked in the golden rays of Celestia’s sun. “I wonder how Pa is doin’.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Nut took a moment to admire the view, and found himself in agreement with his apprentice. “Come, breakfast beckons.”

A coal fire blazed in the grate of the common room; not for warmth, but for cheer. It merrily crackled and popped while it cast a ruddy orange glow. The common room smelt of sour ale, sawdust, vomit, and there was still a faint hint, a mere suggestion of blood. No matter how it smelled, it still felt like home, perhaps more so now than ever.

Red Maple was hunched over a tankard filled with coffee. From the looks of her face, she was up far too late. Nut wondered when she would leave for home. Tater Blossom sat beside the sleepy pegasus mare in relative silence, enjoying herself with all of the good cheer typically possessed by morning ponies. Dreadful beasts, the whole lot of them.

When Black Maple came down the stairs, Nut found that he was excited to see her, though he showed no outward sign. He watched as she approached the table, and was just a bit surprised when she smooched him on the cheek. A second later, she smooched Tater Blossom on the cheek as well, and before Red Maple could protest her smoochless existence, Black Maple kissed her mother as well. Then, without saying a word, she sat down hard enough to almost tip her chair over, and then collapsed against the table with a substantial thump.

“Somepony’s in a good mood.” Red Maple’s remark caused a half-smirk to appear upon her daughter’s lips.

“Celibacy almost destroyed me,” Black Maple remarked to her mother and then she turned her attention to Nut. “I had a Warden show up last night. This… this is why I don’t summon the constables. It never, ever pays to get involved, Nut. This creepy Warden shows up last night and scares away most of my customers. They jumped out the windows, for crying out loud. She asks me a bunch of questions about what happened, and then she asks me a whole gaggle of questions about you. Dumb questions about excessive force and if I felt your actions were necessary. Did I mention that she was creepy? Because let me tell you, Nut… she was creepy.

“I found her rather charming,” he said to Black Maple.

Right away, her lips pursed into a tight, pouty pucker, and her narrowed eyes informed him that he’d just said the wrong thing. The pegasus mare bristled, her ears rose, fell, rose again, and then swiveled forwards over her eyes in a manner that implied violence was imminent. Nut found the mare’s response amusing, but he dared not show even the slightest reaction, for it was too nice a morning for fighting.

Harrumphing, Black Maple turned away from Nut and gave all of her fickle attention to Tater Blossom. “Hey… you and I, we’re going to finish what we started before everything went crazy. Mom’s going to stay one more day, and she told me this morning that she’d like it very much if the three of us could spend some time together. I give you my word that there’ll be, uh, no unpleasantness like last time. No anxiety attacks. I’m in too nice a mood to be bitchy.”

“And what was that a moment ago?” asked Tater.

“It wasn’t me being bitchy,” Black Maple replied. “I mean, I thought about it, but… meh.”

“Perhaps with regular servicing, my daughter can be a nice pony again—”

“Mom, you’re not helping.”

“But I’m not wrong.”


“Everypony owes Nut a hearty thank you. Why, Blackie, you’re almost tolerable.”


“See, right now, you’d already be going for the throat, sweetie.”

This time, she sighed, “Mom,” whilst she rolled her eyes. Then, to change the subject, Black Maple’s ears pinned back as she gave all of her attention to Nut. “No more charging for meals. Your money's no good here, Nut.”

He raised an eyebrow, the left one, the sinister eyebrow, which was all that he felt needed to be said. Black Maple spent a moment reading his face, or at least Nut thought that is what she might be doing; it was hard to tell. She leaned closer, and so he did the same, because he found that he enjoyed this moment, this silent contest of wills. Why, Black Maple was downright tolerable in her current state.

“Look around you, Nut”—she gestured around the common room with her extended wing—“over half the regulars that you see get their breakfast on a tab. Which, I should mention, will probably never be paid. If I didn’t feed them, they’d go to work hungry. These ain’t the rough and rowdy regulars that come in here at night and spend their paychecks. Since we’re being civil, I gotta say, I never did understand your insistence on paying. Those times when you went hungry, it drove me crazy because it felt like I couldn’t help you.”

“Do you really want to know?” he asked.

Black Maple seemed taken aback. “Yeah.” Her head bobbed up and down. “Let me into your head.”

“We nobles took far too much for far too long. I felt that it was important that I established that I could make my own way, and not live on entitlement alone. For the record, I think that I’ve learned what I needed to know and I am ready to move on to whatever comes next. Some changes are necessary.”

“Oh.” Black Maple’s ears pricked. “Oh. Alright. Well, now that you’ve established yourself, can we put that behind us? Can I just be nice to you without starting a fight?”

“I will gladly accept your kindness, but only if you accept mine in return.”

“Look, Tater,” Red Maple whispered to the earth pony filly. “The noble savage and the savage noble are negotiating. They used to fight, but look at them now. Afraid to tread upon each others’ hooves.”

In response, Tater Blossom covered her mouth with her foreleg and giggled.

“Change is difficult,” Nut said while Black Maple scowled at her mother. “Truth be told, I was so locked into the changes that I’d made that it slipped my mind that further changes were necessary. It took meeting Tater for me to realise that. I’ve only just begun to make the changes I need in my life, and I was so focused on making them stick that I was dangerously close to being stuck in a rut. So, I am back to making changes again. Lots of them. I think I’ll just ride them out and see what happens, come what may.”

“I had no choice but to change after the orca ate my legs.” Black Maple seemed unusually subdued and she averted her eyes down to the surface of the rough wooden table. “At least you want these changes. You left Canterlot on your own volition. No pony made you leave. Circumstances did not conspire against you. You’ve made all these grand, sweeping changes”—her voice fell into a scratchy whisper—“and this is why I admire you.”

Sometimes, words were not enough. Nut reached out, pulled Black Maple to him, and her wooden forelegs were cold against his body. Other parts of her were warm though, and quite exciting to touch. She offered token resistance, but not much, and sighed when she finally settled against him. No kicking, swearing, or insulting. It was just a nice moment, a real change of pace from how things typically were. For now, the peace held, and it was pleasant.

The future however, remained unknown.

Soapy soapiness awaited Nut upon his return to the garage. Even before entering, he felt the need to sneeze and his eyes watered just a bit from the powerful aroma of cleanliness. There was soapy, then there was soapy, and then there was whatever this was, which was like the distilled essence of pure soap—which was almost too much to bear. The garage would need to be aired out and he worried that his boss might complain. If she did, he would have to explain what happened, and he most certainly did not wish to do that. But lying was out of the question.

He went around the side of the building, to the entrance, inserted the key, and found that the door wasn’t locked. Mrs. Oleander must be here early. He went rigid, his posture perfect, and pushed open the door to find one unicorn and three griffons. Mrs. Oleander stopped speaking mid-sentence, turned to Nut, and studied him for a moment.

“Do come in,” she said in a voice that sounded more than a little amused. “I thought we’d rent out the garage for surgery.”

Frozen in the doorway, Nut tried to find his tongue.

“Don’t just stand there in the door,” the stern unicorn said. “Come in. You’re letting the lovely floral scent out and the stink of the city in. We can’t have that, can we? We have new hires, Nut. Come in. Introduce yourself. And maybe explain why my garage stinks like a soapworks.”

“Nut, this is Gary and Gabija, our new potential hires. Ethelred brought them in and I was just in the middle of interviewing them. Have a seat and pay attention.” Mrs. Oleander gestured at a nearby chair and then underwent a stunning transformation as all of her seeming amusement visibly dissipated. “Ethelred was quite honest and up front about the fact that you were fired from your job. Would you care to tell me why?”

While she spoke, Nut had a seat on the hard wooden chair next to the potted plant.

“No reason was given, but we both know why,” the male griffon said. “We were trying to start a union. The pony workers were reprimanded and had their pay docked. My fellow griffons and I were let go.”

“Tell me more about this factory,” Mrs. Oleander said, her voice calm as ever.

The female griffon perked up, her feathers fluffed, and her exceptionally long tail zigzagged from side to side. “It used to be our factory. Well, sort of. After Mister Mariner, the furniture factory was given to the workers. We all held ownership. For a time, things were pretty good, but then things weren’t so good, and most of us, one by one, we sold our ownership. We all had our reasons.”

“Gabija speaks the truth,” the male griffon said. “She and I, we did the same. We didn’t really understand what it gave us. None of us really understood how to run the factory, we just knew how to do the job there. A mistake was made.”

“The new owners were cruel. Unkind. Our hours changed. Shifts went from eight hours to twelve. Hourly pay was switched to piecemeal. We tried to fight the changes, and since so many others are doing so, we tried to organise a union. I don’t think we did a very good job of it. Gary here had detectives show up at his apartment and threaten him just before he was fired.”

“All of us griffons were fired.” Gabija, the fetching female griffon, wrung her front talons together. “We’re good workers. Gary and I are carpenters. Wood workers. We’ve known each other from hatching, practically, and we work well together. He and I are good workers, and we just want to be treated fairly.”

“Hmm,” Mrs. Oleander hmmed, and her lips stretched thin over her teeth when she grimaced.

“Is something troubling you, Mrs. Oleander?” asked Nut.

“Yes, actually,” she replied, her face relaxing just enough to loosen her lips. “Should we be a union shop? Ethelred? Nut? I mean, if we hang a sign over the door, it might attract both workers and potential customers. Seems to be the way the winds are blowing, and I intend to stay ahead of it.”

Nut was quick to respond and had this to say: “I can offer no opinion, as I am largely unaware of the state of the world. There’s too much I’m still learning. I could offer what might sound like an educated opinion, and be utterly, completely wrong.”

Head tilted to one side, Mrs. Oleander considered what Nut had to say, but said nothing in return. She began to pace the length of the room, her eyes never leaving Nut, until she reached the other end and turned around. Then, she faced Ethelred, and scrutinised the somewhat jittery griffon with a critical eye.

“Be honest with me… I’m too objective to be angry about something like this and I don’t allow my own feelings to get in the way of doing business.” She paused, inhaled, and then continued, “The business is more than bricks and mortar. It’s more than the owner. It’s everything, including the workers. A responsible owner takes care of everything. The building, tools, customers, and the workers. Especially the workers. Without my workers, I have nothing. At the risk of showing weakness, I feel vulnerable after most of my workers quit.”

“It wasn’t anything you did,” Ethelred was quick to say. “You’re a good boss. Really. It’s just that with the bridge gone, getting from Lower City to Anvil Island is really expensive if you can’t fly. I heard the cost of the ferry was up to ten v-bits.”

“That’s outrageous!” Gabija cried. “That’s twenty v-bits a day.”

“Capitalism, ho,” Nut said with as much acerbic sarcasm as he could muster.

“Be quiet.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

His response made Mrs. Oleander’s swivel about in a most unpleasant way. With her commanding gaze upon him, he did his best to appear unassuming. Innocent. Invisible. He looked away, cast his eyes downwards, squinted, and then tried to find lint or debris that he could pluck away from his tweed waistcoat.

Lower lip protruding a bit, Mrs. Oleander returned her attention to Ethelred, but Nut failed to notice because he was lost in the middle of his tweed examination. She shifted her weight from right to left, then left to right, and then back to the left again. Her tail swished to and fro, while her ears pivoted in almost every direction.

“Ethelred, might I discuss politics with you?” she asked.

“I suppose?” The griffon began to comb at his pelt with his claws, much in the same way that Nut attended to his tweed.

“At the risk of causing a stir, I am aware of the efforts of the Equestrian Nativist League.” She paused for a moment while both Gary and Gabija hissed. “Equestria is for Equestrians and all that nonsense. Anti-immigration nonsense. The whole of the city is metaphorically on fire with it, and might soon actually be on fire because of it.

“Ethelred… you found me these two griffons”—she paused for a time, and when she spoke again, her words were honeyed—“surely you could find others who are out of work.” With a turn of her head, she nodded at Gary and Gabija. “Both of you are hired… but with a condition. Bring me more hires. With autumn soon to come, business will pick up as it always does, and I need seasoned workers by then. Put the word out on the streets that this is a griffon-friendly shop.”

Gary seemed relieved, but Gabija remained tense. With his tweed now forgotten, Nut studied them, he tried to read their strange faces and body language, but found that he understood very little. Something told him that this action would surely have consequences, because no good deed went unpunished, but he admired Mrs. Oleander’s resolve. She was his teacher, in a sense, and he owed her much. More t