Drifting Down the Lazy River

This story is a sequel to The One Who Got Away

A frustrated young orphan colt with a talent for painting is determined to run away from his dead-end rural village for the distant cultural haven of Baltimare. All he needs to do is slip aboard a raft and drift down the river Fen until he reaches his destination. It’s a simple plan, and would have worked just fine except for one thing.




16. Cruise Shipping

"Wake up by and by, and look to see what done it, and maybe see a steamboat coughing along up-stream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was a stern-wheel or side-wheel."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

A simple touch of the blade peeled off the white paint in long spirals, curling around his hooves much like the leaves which were just starting to come off the trees in ones and twos. It was probably a little late in the season to paint, but Princess Celestia was going to be at the castle in just a few days, and Turpentine wanted…

Well, he was not quite certain what he wanted.

Sunglasses would be welcome, due to the way the dawning sun was coming right through his narrowed eyelids just about no matter where he stood on the riverboat deck to scrape paint. He had just found a comfortable and slightly shaded spot to scrape when the sounds of an early-rising pony heralded the arrival of Sen, who looked at the long bare patches where Turpentine had already been hard at work.

“Paint for breakfast, lad?” Sen picked up another paint scraper and positioned himself to scrape the taller areas where Turpentine had been unable to reach, and scrolls of dull white paint began to spiral to the deck when the old earth pony pitched in. The two of them scraped in tandem for a time until a third pony holding onto an empty coffee cup stumbled out into the bright morning light.

Gaberdine looked at the two earth ponies, one large and one small, before wordlessly picking another paint scraper out of the collection of equipment Turpentine had brought back to the castle last evening under the cover of darkness. Using his magic instead of gripping it in his jaws, Gaberdine scraped even higher, working his way along the side of the ship until the black peeling paint of the smokestack caught his eye.

“Yes, I got s’me paint for that too, s’r,” said Turpentine from around the paint scraper. He spit the scraper out onto the deck and took a deep breath. “You weren’t kidding, Mister Gaberdine. Canterlot has everything, even ship paint, on the top of a mountain without a ship anywhere. And I got some black metal paint that’s supposed to stand up to dragon breath, so doing the smokestack shouldn’t be a problem. Paint and primer, not like whoever painted the castle before.”

Sen took advantage of the break to spit out his own paint scraper and stretch with a popping of aged joints. “About a decade ago, Baron Miller hired a couple of young unicorns who priced out the low bid. They got paid half in advance and tore out of here right after collecting the other half, but it all started peeling about a week later. Never got around to getting a professional to fix it up afore he up and died. Sometimes I think he liked it this way, all shabby and tore-up lookin’ in order to keep the looky-loos away.”

“Ripple said the paint flakes get into the water when the wind blows,” said Turpentine. “They sting when they get caught in a gill and taste terrible.”

“Hm…” Gaberdine’s horn changed hues when he pressed a section of his magic against the paint and began to run it back and forth. “At least it’s not lead-based. Oh!” The paint he had been pressing broke loose from the wall and slid down to the deck in a disintegrating sheet. A second application of his magic brought down a broader sheet and Gaberdine lit up with a gleeful grin. “This is a lot easier than the scraper.”

Sen exchanged a knowing glance with Turpentine and lowered his voice to the point where the happy unicorn, surrounded in sheets of falling dry paint, most probably could not hear. “Well, Baron Gaberdine always did say ‘The right tool for the job.’”

Turpentine gave a quick glance out into the lagoon and a series of inverted v’s headed in their direction. “We better get the trash bags and a couple of brooms.”

“No.” Sen patted Turpentine on the head, which the captain’s cap was doing a very good job of keeping free of paint flakes. “I’ll get the broom. Gaberdine had a meeting with the school teacher last night before you got back. Today’s your first day of school in Gravel Flats.”


Half-day,” clarified Sen. “Classes are morning-only until First Snow. I’ll go get your book bag and a towel.”

“A towel?” Turpentine turned to look at the departing servant with a puzzled frown, but figured out just what he meant when Ripple came bursting out of the water in a long arc and wrapped around him with all four flippers.

“School!” she cried. “We’re going to school today! Isn’t this terrifffically fantastically great!”

Turpentine could not immediately respond, because he was busy attempting to get a breath of air while trying not to be swept back out into the lagoon with the backwash from Ripple’s abrupt appearance. Likewise, he did not say very much while being dried off, or even during the fairly short trip into Gravel Flats while Ripple was attempting to skip and talk at the same time, which required quite a bit of support on his behalf.

School turned out to be not that bad at all.

* *  * *

By the time they were walking back to the riverboat, Ripple was showing signs of fatigue. School was a place where she had to remain quiet until called upon, which reminded Turpentine a little of a closed-up boiler building a head of steam due to the speed at which the little disguised seapony could spit out words after having to remain silent for even a little while. It was a little disconcerting for him, because he normally would have thought of a teakettle as an analogy for her explosive energy, but the longer he stayed in Ripple’s vicinity, the more ‘engineery’ he had been thinking. She had even helped Turpentine out with some of the tricky math problems the teacher had assigned, with numbers being carried from column to column as well as his evil nemesis, the nefarious Long Division.

Someday, Turpentine would probably meet a colt with that name and get beat up by him. It seemed inevitable. It had not been today, though. All of the little colts and fillies at the school had been various degrees of friendly, and they all knew Sen, so it was a little like the school was… nice. Turpentine had certainly felt more comfortable with only a dozen names to remember, rather than the hundreds or even thousands who could be at Celestia’s school in Canterlot.

One of the colts, a trouble-making little pegasus who had a cutie mark of a frog, had even asked if he could come out to the riverboat and play after school. He had even asked Turpentine instead of Ripple, which was really confusing, but he seemed to accept being told he would need permission from Baron Gaberdine.

I wonder if he’s the little brother that Powderpuff and Lemon Drops were talking about?

The constant flow of chatter between Ripple and Turpentine faded out into a long and expressive pause once the two little ponies crested the little hill on the near side of the lagoon and got a good look at Baron Gaberdine’s floating castle.

“It’s… naked,” said Turpentine, almost in awe at the way the entire structure and smokestack had been stripped down to the bare metal or wood, depending on where he was looking. Even the cover over the sidewheel had been removed and placed on the grassy bank, allowing complete access to the bare wooden blades sticking up in the noontime sun.

“We missed it,” said Ripple, breaking into an awkward gallop that made her hooves fly in all directions at once, leaving Turpentine to follow at a respectful distance so he did not get kicked by accident. They both made it to the gangplank just in time to catch Baron Gaberdine staggering the other way under the load of several trash bags destined for the trash cart. The baron used to be somewhat of a tan-brown, but now looked more Appaloosean with the number of white spots embedded in his coat and mane, as well as the dark flakes of peeled smokestack paint.

“Ah, Turpentine.” The baron grinned, then spat to one side. “Yuck, that’s terrible. How was school?”

After waiting a moment to let Ripple respond, Turpentine spoke up. “It wasn’t bad. Did you get the whole ship stripped?”

“Yep.” Gaberdine heaved the filled bags of paint flakes into the trash cart. “We should be able to get the first coat of primer on this afternoon, and start painting for real tomorrow morning.”

“Did you wash the stripped surface with the soda phosphate?” asked Turpentine.

“Um…” Gaberdine stopped and looked a little guilty. “We did get out the primer and made sure it was stirred up.”

“Put the lids back on,” said Turpentine. “We need to wash and rinse the surfaces first, then fill any voids with caulking compound, then—“

“Paint the primer?” asked Gaberdine.

Condition the wood surfaces with two parts linseed oil to one part turpentine or the surface will absorb too much of the binder.” Turpentine paused. “Then we can apply primer.”

* *  * *

It had been a long time since Turpentine had worked up a good sweat while painting. Between school in the morning and painting the castle in the afternoon, both mental and physical muscles were well exercised, and his painting grew around him. Ripple still seemed to be a little put out that she had not gotten to help strip the old paint off, but Baron Gaberdine enticed her with the need for putting the engine together (again), so while Turpentine worked above decks, he could listen to the thumps and rattles of Gaberdine and his little helper doing whatever arcane wizardry they were doing to the ‘Steam Engine, Reciprocating - Model 57V with Triple-Action Pistons and Regenerative Steam Recapture’ that was so difficult to understand when he had read through that section of the manual.

By the time the weekend rolled around, passed by in a flurry of brushing, and approached again, his painting was taking shape. Far more progress had been made than he expected, because Turpentine had found working on one side of the riverboat made a correspondingly larger amount of work happen on the other side, particularly if he talked loudly about how to caulk holes in the siding or properly stroke in the conditioning formula or paint with the broad brush before switching sides. At times he could even hear Ripple’s aunts chattering between themselves or giggling at little jokes, and twice several of the busy seaponies were so focused on brushing on a smooth layer of wood conditioner or primer that they painted right past Turpentine without even a pause.

He was going to miss that kind of delicate acceptance in Canterlot. Ripple’s aunts were a contradiction, both powerful and talented, as well as timid and sensitive. They could not help but treat Ripple a lot like an outsider, while Pearl was somewhere in between, trapped between two worlds and unable to truly embrace either. It bothered him, and much like anything bothering Ripple, the words had to come out of Turpentine eventually.

It was nearing the evening while they were just finishing up some final bits of trim work. The rest of the ponies had gone into the galley to start dinner, leaving Turpentine and Pearl to paint alone for a few minutes. Pearl had a small brush for the light teal swirl pattern cresting atop the cabins like Celestia’s blowing mane, while Turpentine was following up with a smaller brush to tidy up the lines and add whatever flourishes struck his fancy at the moment. It took concentration to wait until Pearl had reached the end of the trim and was cleaning her brush, but Turpentine had gotten better at not ambushing ponies out of the blue, which was critically important with an already shy pony like Pearl.

“Miss Pearl. I was wondering.” Turpentine shifted the brush to the side of his cheek and kept his eyes on his work, because he knew looking at her would only make her more nervous. “Are you and Ripple ever going to go back to the ocean? Not that I want you to. I really don’t. I mean… You don’t have to tell me if you are. After what you said about your husband…”

The words had been a lot easier to say and made more sense when Turpentine was only thinking about them. Once they got out of his mouth, they started flapping around like crazy butterflies, taking off in all the wrong directions and only getting worse when he tried to fix them.

“I don’t know.” The quiet words made Turpentine relax a little. He had expected to only hear a splash when Pearl fled back to her underwater home, and he really did not expect to hear the words that followed. “Are you ever going to find a home, Turpentine?”

Now it was his turn to be flustered. Turpentine took a deep breath and almost inhaled the paintbrush, but covered for his action by wiping it clean and quickly dunking it into the solvent. “Yes,” he muttered finally. “I just need to find the right parents.”

Behind him, Pearl gave out the smallest of giggles, sounding almost like the tinkling of fairy bells in the cool evening air. “Princess Celestia would make a nice mother for you. She told us about your… misconception. It was very touching.” Pearl giggled again. “Prince Turpentine.”

Turpentine was grateful that the captain’s cap allowed his ears to stick out, because they turned bright red with embarrassment and itched uncomfortably. If they had been stuck under the cap, he would have needed to scratch or else. As it was, he hunched over the solvent bottle with the brush until the gentle touch of an oversized hoof on his shoulder made him look up.

Those dark green eyes were only darker and more entrancing in the evening shadows. Gaberdine had confided once that he was first attracted to the beautiful seapony from her voice, but Turpentine was fairly certain that those fascinating eyes had a powerful role in his infatuation, and possibly if Turpentine was reading his eleven years of worldly experience correctly, something far more permanent in their relationship. They were so much like Ripple’s eyes, only with most but not all of the mischief faded away and considerable pain mixed in. Still, the pain seemed muted, even missing whenever Gaberdine was in the immediate vicinity. And over the last few weeks, that same pain had faded slightly whenever Turpentine was around too.

His introspection was gently cut off by a soft but persistent touch on the end of his nose. When Turpentine blinked his way back to awareness, he saw Pearl with her own small smile as she continued to boop him until he moved to push away the hoof with a protest. “Hey! Did Mother Windrow teach you that?”

“Yes.” She giggled again, a musical noise that Turpentine could never tire of listening to, and much the same as Ripple’s happy laughter, but quieter. It was also far too short, and although her smile remained, there was considerable regret in her eyes when she turned the unwelcome nose-booping into a more familiar caress along his cheek. “I will miss you,” she added. “I feel safe when Ripple is with you. I worry about her so. She’s all I have left.”

“Uh… Thank you, ma’am.”

“Pearl.” The seapony’s smile thinned, and the hint of a tear appeared in the corner of one of those beautiful eyes. “I wish you could stay,” she whispered. “I wish I could turn you into a seapony and steal you away to live with my Ripple forever beneath the waves.”

“What about Mister Gaberdine?” asked Turpentine. It was a question he had not intended to ask, but his mind was still deliriously scrambled by Pearl’s beautiful eyes, and he had to say something.

“I…” That terrible pain crept back into her eyes again, and Turpentine reacted by instinct. He reached out and wrapped his forehooves as far around the mare as possible, only instead of holding the hug for the absolute minimum in the way he always had done with Mother Windrow, he clutched her just as tightly as Ripple would have, and kept holding her until she started breathing regularly and relaxed her own crushing grip.

“Better?” he asked hesitantly, not certain if his ribs could take another aquatic hug.

“Better,” she reassured him from where her nose was pressed into the top of his cap. They could have remained holding each other for longer, except for the sound of a familiar sharp beeping of the smoke alarm from inside the riverboat galley and some associated commotion.

“Oh, fishguts.” Pearl cocked her head to one side and looked at the trail of smoke leaking up from the galley vents. “Gabby was baking your birthday cake.”

“Birthday?” Turpentine glanced between the embarrassed mare and the trickle of smoke, which was rapidly dwindling while Ripple and Gaberdine dealt with the source. The days had snuck up on Turpentine despite his best efforts, but it was only a birthday, and nothing really special. Normally, Mother Windrow would bake them both a few tins of cupcakes and they could apply whatever sprinkles and icing desired. And she bought him some new paints, which were normally not the ones he needed but he never complained. A whole cake…

He eyed the suddenly shy seapony again. “Were you supposed to keep me out here so I’d be surprised?”

“Yes.” She tried to look down, but Turpentine slipped under her chin and wrapped her up for another hug instead. After a considerably gentler squeeze and some thought, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and a smile.

“Thank you, Pearl. That’s one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten for my birthday.” He chuckled, because giving in to an urge to giggle was not a very eleven year old colt thing. “I’ve never had somepony tell me they wanted to turn me into a seapony and steal me away before. I think it’d be fun, but I’d miss painting.”

“We can’t have that.” Pearl lifted his captain’s cap up and arranged Turpentine’s mane before putting the cap back on his head and settling it down. “Just as long as you don’t invite any more of those kind of pegasus over to paint anymore.”

“Do you mean batponies?” asked Turpentine, still feeling a little giggle-y inside. “Or female ponies.”

“Princess Celestia is a female pony,” said Pearl very sincerely despite the smile that kept trying to sneak into the corners of her mouth. “You have my leave to paint her this weekend, only if you don’t put her under the waterfall.”

“Oh.” A little of the levity in his heart lessened at the thought. Princess Luna’s rescheduled visit was the day after tomorrow, during a period of time where Celestia had punched a temporary hole in her schedule and might be able to come along. Baron Gaberdine and Ripple had worked from dawn to dusk on Castle Paradise’s engines, so there was supposed to be what he called a ‘smoke test’ tomorrow that did not involve cooking, and if it succeeded, the riverboat would be able to take a short cruise up and downstream all decked out in bright white paint with the pastel colors of Celestia’s mane on the trim like some giant celestial swan out for a daytime paddle. Everything was all in waiting except the most important part of all.

Where was he going to paint her portrait?

He had not put any thought into the problem over the last week, due to the immense amount of work it had taken to get the castle properly painted. He couldn't just paint her alone and fill in the background later, because that’s how that terrible, awful, creepy painting in her art gallery happened, and all of the paintings over the years that followed with those eerie eyes. Turpentine did not think his portrait of Celestia would become that popular, but it was best to err on the side of caution, particularly since his get well card had wound up being printed in the newspaper, and he had not expected that either. He really needed to find somepony with an answer to his question.

By the time his birthday party was over and he settled down in bed, he knew just exactly who he was going to ask.

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