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.




10. Dinner and a Show

"Steamboat captains is always rich, and get sixty bits a month, and they don’t care a whit what a thing costs, you know, long as they want it. "

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

* *  * *

The restaurant Mi Quintile turned out to be in the middle of a very busy section of Baltimare, packed with busy ponies headed in all directions at the same time, most of them seeming to be pegasi who intended on running into the Speedy Cargo wagon, or at least it seemed that way to Turpentine. He clutched the edge of the rail while they descended into the chaotic mess, trying to figure out if he should close his eyes so he would not see the inevitable crash or keep them open so he could lean from side to side in order to help the pegasus sisters steer their unstable craft. At least it kept his mind off their recent trip to the art school for a little while, but after they tucked the wagon away in an underground parking area and trotted up to the surface street, Turpentine’s anxiety managed to push its way to the surface again.

And with the anxiety, came a return of the grumbling rumble in his tummy which reminded him of his short breakfast this morning. Eating had always made him feel better after a disappointment, so Turpentine kept quiet with his flank pressed up against the baron while they negotiated their path through hoof traffic to the ornate door of the restaurant and were quickly let inside by the ornate doorpony.

“Coo, this must be a fancy place, sis,” said Lemon Drops, trying to look at every corner of the quiet restaurant. “It’s got three hoofprints on the sign out front, so that means it’s got a real good rating.”

“Only the best for my father,” said Gaberdine. “Ladies. Turpentine. If you will please follow the server, I will pick up the bill as I promised. My father wanted a private lunch.”

“Oy, ya,” said Powderpuff. “Come on, kid. You can tell us all about how you wowed the socks off those stuffy unicorns at the art school.”

“If you don’t mind, ladies,” said Turpentine suddenly. “May I sit with you, sir?”

“I…” Gaberdine hesitated, obviously uneasy with the request but seeming to be impressed at Turpentine’s good manners.

“Oh, go on, Baron Gaberdine,” said Lemon Drops, making a coy flick with the tip of her wing that brushed up against the baron’s flank. “He’s such a polite young colt, and all we were going to do was talk about stallions anyway.”

Eligible stallions,” added Powderpuff with a giggle before they followed the server away to a distant table, out of sight.

Turpentine remained beside Gaberdine and looked back at him while fighting an uncertain tremor in his bottom lip. Ignoring the impatient serving mare waiting for them, the taller stallion bent down and whispered in Turpentine’s ear, “Keep your chin up. That school wasn’t a good fit for you anyway.”

“How can you know that, sir? I mean, Gabby,” said Turpentine at the baron’s bemused look. The older stallion turned and pointed to his puzzle-piece cutie mark, then gave a short nod before following the second server with Turpentine tagging along, feeling puzzled.

- -  - -

“Duke Whinnysfield, your guests have arrived.” The tuxedo-coated serving mare stood beside the open door to the secluded dining room and gestured inside with one wing. “Please, be seated, Lord Gaberdine, and a waiter will be by shortly to take your order.”

“No need to trouble yourself, ma’am. I’ll have the special of the day with mineral water.” Gaberdine cocked an eyebrow at Turpentine and gestured him into the room.

“Spaghetti,” said Turpentine at the obvious prompt, “with garlic bread and some orange juice. Mother Windrow always said the orange juice cuts down on stinky garlic breath,” he added with a glance up to the baron.

Both Baron Gaberdine and the serving pony’s formal expressions cracked with a brief snort of amusement, although the server quickly regained her composure, made certain Gaberdine and Turpentine were seated, then whisked back out of the door with their order.

Whenever Turpentine had a dinner with a new couple wanting to adopt him, Mother Windrow had never permitted him to eat spaghetti, since there was a near-certainty of messy splatters on his infrequently-worn clothes. It had always been the time to make the best impression possible for the prospective parents, although when things had always inevitably worked out for the worst, after he returned to her little home she had always made him spaghetti and allowed him to eat until he was nearly spherical.

The friendly young serving mare who had just left reminded him of the adoption attempts he had been through, because she seemed to be trying so hard to be something she was not. She was stiff in her suit and obviously wanted to smile at him more than the restaurant owners wanted her to, much like a mother in a starched dress who was being told to act formal instead of rubbing him on the top of his head like Mother Windrow always did when he made her smile.

He did not like it, because that made it nearly impossible to see below the surface, to the pony she really was. He liked seeing ponies for what they were, although Turpentine had no problem with seeing the real pony when looking at Gaberdine’s father.

Duke Whinnysfield was a stocky short-horned unicorn with a seemingly permanent expression of great sincerity, and very few laugh lines on his face. He greeted his son with a brief hoof-clasp and spared Turpentine a scant nod before launching into a conversation with Gaberdine. Well, less a conversation and more a series of statements, each of which Gaberdine would either passively deflect or take under consideration.

The elevation of their dining area above the main floor of the restaurant gave Turpentine a good view of the diners through the beautiful clear windows, although it cut the sound down to a bare whisper. Since he was not participating in the conversation with Gaberdine or his father, Turpentine quietly got out his sketch pad and settled down to wait for the food.

He made a few quick line drawings of Duke Whinnysfield and the way he dominated the table with his aggressive posture and fierce expression, but the older stallion moved far too fast to make a very good subject. Instead, Turpentine turned to some of the patrons outside the room’s windows and found them to be much more interesting subject matter.

In particular, there was a little old mare with a tiny dog sitting on the table, who she was feeding right off her plate, as well as a pair of expressive businessponies seeming to argue over a small sheaf of papers with the food to their sides being totally ignored. There were few foals in the restaurant, or even young ponies of any type, but most of the patrons were a great number of old to really old ponies who seemed to be doing their best to be seen by each other while paying only minor attention to their food. It was a wealth of fascinating subjects he never would have found in his home town or even on the riverboat, all caught in place while dressed in their finest clothing.

All except for one.

When an old pegasus came through the restaurant door, Turpentine almost missed him. He was a natural grey with some brown mottling to his coat indicating Appleoosean ancestry, and a raspberry-colored mane flowing down his neck like a red waterfall. All in all, he was not that impressive compared to the peacocks and plumage on display from the rest of the wealthy patrons, and he would have never even noticed the old pegasus except for the reaction of the young serving pony from before. She seemed to light up with an inner fire when she caught sight of the old stallion and glided deftly across the room, shooing a different server away from the guest and escorting him to a smaller booth in a less-traveled section of the restaurant.

His clothing certainly could not have been what sparked the young pegasus server’s attention, because the old stallion was only wearing a simple white shirt and mauve vest, a little rumpled but nothing out of the ordinary even with the simple silver bracelet he had around one foreleg. Turpentine found his attention drawn in that direction while he sketched, because every time the server returned to the booth with the old stallion, they both smiled in a very drawable way. He almost missed it when the server returned to their own table with the three covered dishes, so intent was he on catching the way her mane flowed down her neck, but he looked up abruptly when the young mare cocked her head to look over his shoulder and gave a low whistle.

“Lord Gaberdine, your son certainly has a way with the pencil.”

“He’s not my son,” said Gaberdine, although somewhat slowly and with the most peculiar quirk at the corner of his lips. “Merely a young artist I was taking over to the school today.”

“Oh,” said the mare, although with a second look over Turpentine’s shoulder to add, “He doesn’t draw much like the local students.”

“He’ll learn,” said Duke Whinnysfield. “Now if you’ll excuse us.” The older stallion watched the young mare leave with only a fractional rising of one eyebrow until the door to their glassed-in room was closed behind her.

“Down, Dad,” said Gaberdine. “You’re married.”

“And so should you be,” said the duke. “Your mother and I have been receiving letters from quite a few interested families since your rise in rank. You can’t duck out on your social responsibilities by hiding out in the countryside any longer. It’s time you were introduced to some proper young mares.”

“But he’s already got a marefriend,” said Turpentine before he realized what he was saying.

“What?” Both of Duke Whinnysfield’s bushy eyebrows lowered to frame his blue eyes in a very strict stare that Turpentine was quite glad he was not the direct target of. Turpentine did flip over the sheet and drew a few quick lines to capture the emotion framed in the duke’s craggy face, though, and was still sketching while father and son continued their conversation as if he were not there.

“Father,” said Gaberdine in a disapproving tone, but his father was having none of it.

“You told us there were no mares of appropriate breeding in that benighted backwater you got yourself trapped in. No royals at all other than the East and West Fenwick families.” The old stallion sniffed. “Vinteers. Hardly quality enough for my son.”

“My life is my own business, Father.”

Business is business,” scoffed the duke. “Your so-called barony is scarcely breaking even.”

Gaberdine shrugged. “Where would I put the bits, Father? At the bottom of the river? I have my new home, and I have a barony to administrate—”

“But no wife to establish a family and no bits to grow your estate,” said Whinnysfield. “You can hardly expect to be able to hold your head up at court if you wed some plain ploughmare from carrot country.”

“She’s very pretty,” said Turpentine abruptly, flipping through his sketchbook. The spaghetti on the table was probably getting cold, but this was more important. He had been very careful not to draw any flippers, so there was no real danger of exposing the seaponies with just a sketch. He picked the picture of Gaberdine and Pearl leaning against the doorframe and turned it around to show it to Duke Winnysfield, only to have Gaberdine’s magic grab his sketchbook and flip all the pages over.

“No!” Gaberdine and his father exchanged stern glares, although after a few moments, the father seemed to gain the upper hoof. Whinnysfield’s cheery yellow aura picked up Turpentine’s sketch book and floated it over to the old stallion, who flipped through it with the occasional appreciative grunt or evaluating squint.

It was only then that Turpentine caught the subtle way Gaberdine was looking at him, somewhat wide-eyed and a little panicked while his father leafed through the pages. Turpentine had thought he was helping, but after a little consideration, it was obvious Gaberdine’s father would not be satisfied with a simple sketch. The forceful and aggressive stallion would want to meet Pearl, possibly even bringing Gaberdine’s mother along for an extended conversation on Gaberdine’s riverboat. And if the two of them met Pearl, they might also find out about…

“Who’s this little filly?” said Whinnysfield, flipping the sketchbook over and showing the page to Turpentine. It was a very good flipperless drawing he had done of Ripple when Mother Windrow had been reading them a story, and it captured both of their personalities quite well. The old mare had been trying unsuccessfully to conceal her smile from the little seapony, who was bouncing on the bed every time she got to the end of a page.

Between the time Turpentine took a breath and speaking, inspiration struck. “Her Royal Highness, Princess Persephone of the distant sea-kingdom of Atlanteris, daughter of Queen Siliunas, the rightful ruler of her undersea lands and the pirate Captain Stubhorn of the Blighted Barnacle, home of the scurviest pirates of the seven seas. On account they don’t eat their lemons like they should, you see.”

“Oh.” The old duke looked at the drawing, then over at Turpentine, then back at the drawing before turning the page with a faint scoff. “Kids and their imaginations.”

- -  - -

The spaghetti was good, even if the portion was not as large as Turpentine had wanted. Something about bathtub-sized where he could eat until he could not move would have been more appropriate for the way he felt, although it would have been inappropriate for the situation. Still, it was far better than the two older stallions and their microscopic meals, which looked more like a few beans and a scrap of bread than anything worth eating. Near the end of their meal, Baron Gaberdine had taken to snitching Turpentine’s garlic bread whenever he could, and even Whinnysfield seemed to be eyeing the last few dinner rolls before they vanished.

After politely saying goodby to Duke Whinnysfield outside the restaurant and collecting the two young pegasus mares who had flown them to Baltimare, Turpentine really expected for them to travel directly back to the riverboat. It was a journey he was looking forward to with similarly mixed emotions, because it was a temporary failure to achieve his desired goal, but with the added benefit of getting to see Ripple again for a few days at least until Baron Gaberdine arranged things with Mister d’Or and he could return to the school.

The awful, hideous, terrible school.

“Ladies, if you would like to shop for a while, my… guest and I have some things to purchase before we return home,” said Gaberdine, reaching into his slim saddlebag and bringing out a small bag of bits for each of the mares.

“Ooo, so are you buying your marefriend anything special?” cooed Powderpuff with a flutter of her eyelashes before her sister elbowed her in the side.

“Cool it, sis.” Lemon Drops nodded at the baron in what almost could have been a bow. “Thank you, sir. Just let us know when you want to leave for home. We’re going to go grab something to eat and head down to the boutique at the end of the street.”

“Didn’t you just eat at the restaurant?” asked Turpentine, momentarily distracted from his morose moping by the question.

“We had lunch, yes. Ate, no.”

Powderpuff made a face and stuck out her tongue. “Five tiny flecks of cardboard and beans on lettuce. Rich pony food sucks. No offense, sir.”

“None taken.” Gaberdine made a casual salute, touching a forehoof to his horn with a playful twinkle in his eyes. “Have fun this afternoon, ladies.”

“Thank you, sir!” chorused the sisters before they trotted down the street, leaving Turpentine and Gaberdine standing on the corner.

“Now they made me hungry.” Gaberdine cocked his head slightly to one side as he regarded Turpentine’s obviously depressed face. “Cheer up, lad. At least my father bought lunch for both of us, and you got something to eat out of the deal. Now, let’s go get some painting supplies for your portrait sitting with Princess Luna. On me,” he added when Turpentine looked up.

He had left two of his last five bits as a tip for the serving mare at the restaurant, and Turpentine was not quite sure how far the three bits he had remaining would go. He might not have even been able to buy a brush without the baron’s financial assistance. “I really don’t see why you’re doing this, sir. I must be such a problem for you. Disrupting your river. Getting you in trouble with the sawmill about the logs. Goofing up lunch with your father.” Turpentine picked up his pace while Gaberdine began striding downtown.

“Don’t worry about the logs, my boy. Besides, you’re not a problem. You’re a project! I love putting together puzzles, and you’re one piece that has to have a spot somewhere other than that school.” He shuddered in an exaggerated fashion.

“You mean you’re not going to get me into the school?” Instead of the explanation Turpentine expected, Gaberdine trotted along in silence for a while before asking an unexpected question.

“Did you ever put together a puzzle in preschool?”

“What?” School in Turpentine’s agricultural home town had been somewhat limited, and there was no pre- in any of it.

“I mean when you were a foal,” explained Gaberdine. “Trying to get one of those little cardboard pieces in where it doesn’t belong. Maybe even mashing it to fit.”

There had been a lot of puzzles in the orphanage, most of which had been donated in somewhat of an incomplete state, and the rest of which had been made that way by decades of orphans with a preconceived notion of which piece went where, and strong young hooves to hammer it in.

“That particular school is not a place for you,” said Gaberdine firmly. “They would mash you and smash you until you fit into one of their ugly little slots cranking out ugly stuff to hang on the walls. No, you’re a puzzle. Admittedly, you’re not an edge piece, or you’d be a lot easier to fit. You’re more like one of those twisty inside bits that has to match up just right.”

Turpentine had slowed down somewhat while Gaberdine was talking, but picked up his pace as not to lose ground. “If you say so, sir.” They dodged a few fellow pedestrians and crossed the street, which terrified Turpentine enough to shut him up until they had gone nearly another block. ”I’m sorry about telling your father about Miss Pearl.”

“What’s done is done.” Gaberdine shrugged. “My father’s not a fool, and I’d be a fool to try to fool him. He knows I don’t want to talk about her, so he’ll keep quiet. Might even grumble a little about his son falling for a local.” They dodged across another crosswalk before he continued. “It’s probably a good thing, and should help keep some of the worst social parasites from flying out to the castle and trying to catch themselves a royal, even if he is all new and green with no estate to speak of.”

“If you say so, sir. I mean Gabby.” The chaotic surroundings of the big city were distracting Turpentine from being nearly as upset as he should have been, with all of the cabs galloping down the streets and the crosswalk lights. He kept one flank against the taller unicorn while they trotted briskly across the street and into a painting supplies store called The Painting Palette, where the noise and confusion of the city cut off with the closing of the door, but was replaced with a much more welcome atmosphere.

It was the powerful scent of the place which struck Turpentine the hardest. Oils and dry cardboard, canvas with the primer already applied, and the smell of his namesake turpentine over it all. He paused to take a deep breath, and when he opened his eyes, there was an elderly clerk standing in front of him and blocking Turpentine’s view of the rest of the marvelous store.

“Good afternoon, sirs. Can I help—”

“Brushes,” murmured Turpentine before taking a sharp left turn into an aisle filled with all kinds of bristles, both the short-handled variety for unicorns and the longer-handled type for ponies who lacked horns. His brush collection had always been made up of whatever Turpentine could find on sale or donated to the orphanage, leading to an eclectic mish-mash of all kinds which he treated as if they were made of solid gold. He moved to one particularly fine-haired brush with his mouth open to pick it up, then paused as he saw the price. A similar type seemed less expensive, but was made for unicorns, so it would take an awkward grip between his lips to achieve the same results. Then there was a packed collection which would be less expensive than buying them individually, but had a few brushes in it he had never worked with before.

“Do you need me to pick out a selection for you? You’re going to want the good stuff, since you’re painting a portrait of Princess Luna.” Baron Gaberdine’s voice cut through Turpentine’s indecision and made him realize he had been darting back and forth between the displays for quite some time without actually choosing a purchase. He blushed slightly with embarrassment, because Mother Windrow had used that exact tone of voice whenever he had been indecisive about which candy he could get at the market in return for carrying the groceries home.

“I’m a big colt,” said Turpentine, trying not to sound defensive. “I don’t need anypony to pick out my stuff.” He reached over to the nearby shelf and removed the first brush he had spotted, dropping it into the basket which Gaberdine floated over to him. Then, after a suitable amount of consideration, he looked up at the baron and asked, “How much can I spend? I mean some of the brushes and paints can be awfully expensive, and—”

“Whatever you want.” Gaberdine snickered a little at the acquisitive expression that must have passed over Turpentine’s face. “Try to leave at least one brush on the shelves when you’re done,” he clarified. “I’ll set things up with the owner while you shop. Do you need me to stay here until you’re done, or can I step out for a few minutes to do some shopping of my own?”

“I’m a big colt,” repeated Turpentine. “I’m almost eleven. I did just fine on my raft by myself, so I’ll be fine here.”

As much as he just wanted to run down the aisles while putting everything he could into his basket, he was going to have to carry his purchases back to the Speedy Cargo wagon, and the two pegasi were going to have to fly them home, so Turpentine restrained himself.

Well, mostly.

He really did not think he was going to need every brush he picked out for just one painting of Princess Luna, but he was seduced by their velvety softness and firm handles, all standing in rows while begging for him to apply them to canvas in the act of creation. There was just something so appealing about unwrapping a fresh brush, peeling off the protective outer layer and tasting the sharp tang of factory varnish. It made him drool despite his best efforts, and by the time he was ready to leave the brushes and head over to the canvas selections, he had an embarrassingly-large damp spot on his shoulder where he kept wiping his mouth rather than drip.

“Now, what size canvas do I want to use?” he mused quietly, looking at the vast array available.

“The baron filled me in on your assigned task, Mister Turpentine,” said the clerk from behind him. “Although he left out many of the pertinent details. A school project, I take it?”

“Uh… Kinda.” Turpentine twitched when the clerk swept past him and placed several canvases into a basket, then proceeded into the paint aisle where he continued to add items. “Hey, wait. I don’t need any acrylic paints. Where are the oils?” He cautiously put the items back on the shelves where they belonged and looked at the canvas in his bag. “Linen? I’ve never used that before. Maybe I should stick with cotton.”

“Linen gives a smaller grain for smaller details,” explained the clerk. “Her Highness is very complicated to paint, particularly for such a young colt, and more particularly with a difficult medium such as oil paints.”

“Oh,” said Turpentine, squirming a little at the thought of Luna’s displeasure.

“If you like, we have a selection of photographic prints for you to copy from, although they all look like she’s trapped in a room with the photographer in front of the door,” admitted the clerk. “Let’s go pick out a pose and we can build your purchase list from there. The baron insisted on the proper tools for the job, no matter the price.”

“I really had an idea of my own.” Turpentine pulled his sketchpad out and flipped through it before remembering the sketch of the grotto was on the pad Luna had taken with her. He settled down on the floor of the shop and began to draw it out from memory, from the way the water glistened as it struck the rocks and sprayed out into the sunlight all the way to the depth of the pool. It was difficult to frame Princess Luna’s proportions without having her actually there, but he sketched in the pose he was thinking of and the way the water would redirect around her body. It was a world of unknowns, because he had never actually seen what it was he wanted to turn into paint all at the same time, but he had seen the parts of the painting individually, and pieced them together in his mind much like one of Baron Gaberdine’s hypothetical puzzles.

It took several attempts and many pages of his sketchbook as he lost track of time, flat on his belly on the cool floor with the pencil between his teeth. The ratio of width to height would be important if he were to frame it just right, with the eye drawn to Luna’s body instead of the surroundings. He played with different wing postures as he drew, with the clerk occasionally pointing over his shoulder and offering suggestions such as sweeping the wings forward to emphasise her strength or having Luna tilt her head back for the water to run off her head, but not too far as not to have it run up her nose at the same time.

“Why do you have her eyes closed?” asked the clerk during one of Turpentine’s contemplative pauses.

“I can’t do eyes very well.”

Turpentine winced when the clerk placed several canvases in his purchase pile and turned back to the paint aisle to make more selections. “You’re going to need a few acrylics for the body.”

Turpentine shuddered. “No. I don’t see how I could paint Princess Luna in acrylic. It’s ugly, and she’s beautiful.”

“It’s useful,” insisted the clerk. “You need to diversify your experiences, or you will be stuck doing one thing wrong forever. You wouldn’t do an entire portrait with a Number Zero brush, would you?”

“I have before, when it was a very small portrait, and it was the only brush I had. I did one of Mother Windrow that—” Turpentine blinked several times as he took the time to look at the clerk instead of the surrounding store. “Oh. It’s you.”

The old pegasus stallion chuckled. “I was wondering when you’d recognize me. You spent enough time at the restaurant staring at me. May I?” He took the sketchbook and flipped back a few pages to the sketches Turpentine had drawn at the restaurant. He stopped, pursed his lips, and took a sideways glance at Turpentine, who felt it important to defend his activity.

“You were both very sketchable, sir.”

The stallion nodded. “It is a good thing you are not a few years older, or I would be suspicious of your intentions toward my married granddaughter, Sympathique. You seem to have captured her essence fairly well. Even the eyes.”

“It doesn’t come out in paint, sir.” Turpentine traced the pencil lines with one hoof. “I can feel it, right there, but it just won’t…”

The clerk grunted. “My name’s Caractère, by the way, not sir. Makes me feel like some old fossil.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I mean Mister Caractère.” Turpentine craned his head to look around the small shop, but the two of them appeared to be the only ponies still there. “Where did Baron Gaberdine go?”

“He’s been back twice since you started drawing.” Caractère shrugged. “He said he’ll be back again. Until he returns, pull that easel over by the store window and let’s see how you do with oils.”

It took little time to set up two easels, one for the drawing and one to prop his canvas on, allowing Turpentine to get comfortable with the familiar motions of getting ready to paint while Caractère nodded approvingly and watched his motions in the background. The linen canvas was a softer, more precise surface as Caractère claimed, and soaked up the pencil strokes of his outline in neat curls and wide arcs. The drawing of the two ponies, grandfather and granddaughter in the warm confines of the restaurant booth, was right and flowed naturally under the graphite of his pencil, although when he picked up a freshly-unwrapped brush to continue in oils, the old stallion held up a hoof.

“Stop. Is that how you would paint her?”

Turpentine glanced between the canvas and the old stallion before nodding with the brush still in his mouth.

“Watch.” Caractère got out a light pink acrylic and a wider brush, painting over the guiding lines of Turpentine’s outline of Sympathique in long strokes. After a similar process with a dull grey over his own sketched image, the clerk dropped his brush in the thinner.

“There. You want depth. Shadows. The old masters, they painted their underlying strokes first in oils and waited for days until they dried and could paint over them, and over again, until they had built up the surface to where it seemed more real than the subject.” After a quick swish and clean of the brush, he dabbed out some dark green and continued with parts of the restaurant booth, talking from between his teeth as he painted. “You want the eye to linger on the colors and shadows, but always travel to your subject, as if the viewer is watching the same scene. The eye is sensitive, able to pick out even one or two layers of paint at greater distances than you’d expect. The shadows, they have to fall naturally or the viewer does not believe in what they see.”

Caractère dropped the brush back into the thinner and snatched up a pencil between his teeth. He drew several straight lines to give perspective to the restaurant booth and chairs, talking all the while. “The sun, she comes into the picture here and here, reflecting to illuminate your subject. Do you know what your subject is, boy?”

“It’s both of you,” said Turpentine reflexively.

“But which is more important?” he pressed, still drawing short lines on the canvas to indicate light directions.

“Both of you,” repeated Turpentine, feeling a little confused. “It’s the way you were looking back and forth—”

“Wrong.” Caractère pointed with the pencil. “You are a colt. That is a young mare. You placed her near the center, where the eye lingers, as is only correct. The old stallion, he is important, yes, but the mare. Oh, the mare.” A smile formed around the corners of his lips as Caractère plucked the brush out of the solvent and began to highlight the flowerpots with a brick-red acrylic. “You may not know it in your head, but your heart knows. You remind me of Reiindear. Oh, he was a tricky one. Spent too much time on cutie marks, though. They should be there, but the eye should slip over them to the face, not linger. There.”

Caractère dropped the brush back into the acrylic solvent, cleaning it with a few experienced motions and placing the acrylics to one side while fanning one wing rather absent-mindedly over the painting without even looking. “Never use the same brush for oils as acrylic. They hate each other. Stains and seeps. Not good. Now what do you see, Turpentine?”

“It’s ugly. And skeletal. Like… a skeleton made out of shadows.” He tilted his head to one side before starting to dab little bits of paint onto his new palette. The taste of varnish on his tongue and the tang of fresh oils in his nose faded into near insignificance as he painted around the drying acrylics. They were still slightly tacky, but there was much to do away from them around the outside edge and the background.

While he painted, every once in a while the old stallion would reach over his shoulder to point, once even to push him to one side with a fine pointed brush in his teeth and give a little swirl to a paint point by her ears that Turpentine just could not get right. As he worked, the dry acrylic vanished under the oils and gave those sections of the painting depth, just like the old stallion had said. More tubes of oil paint found their way onto his mixing palette while he worked his way through the rest of the scene, feeling something deep in his chest open like a flower while he painted. Even if he had to work in ugly colors and plastic paints in school, he would still be able to paint like this when he wanted. The warm sun shining through the shop windows gave him a perfect lighting to work by, and although he could tell when other customers passed by behind him and the clerk had to go wait on them, his mind focused on the painting to the exclusion of all else until the sunlight changed to a reddish hue and he found himself working on trivial little bits like the dust motes in the air and the way the leaves of the potted plants reflected the restaurant's artificial lighting.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” Baron Gaberdine’s voice distracted Turpentine from where he was washing out his brushes in the afterglow of creation, and he turned around to see the clerk nodding.

“Having him in the front window certainly brought in the shoppers,” admitted Caractère. “I hear he’s going to be one of d’Or’s prospective students.”

Turpentine was still not quite up to talking yet while the unrealness of painting was wearing off, so he nodded instead.

“I suppose that will smear if we try to take it home today,” said Gaberdine, cocking his head to one side to examine the painting of the pegasus mare. “The feathers aren’t quite… right.”

The old stallion snorted. “Feathers always give non-pegasi painters trouble. Even Cloudou never could get the joints in the wings right, always too short or too long.”

Gaberdine nodded while cocking his head to the other side. “Maritine back in the late Diaspora period did wonderful feathers. The Canterlot Museum of the Sun has some beautiful works of his behind glass.”

Caractère did not seem impressed and shook his head. “No, most of the works in there are fakes, done long after the period and magically aged. The real pigments of that age have faded almost beyond recognizing. Take a look at the Storm Glider period of Cloudsdale art, if you can find any that the humidity has not ruined.”

“Grand-père!” The young pegasus server from the restaurant walked in the front door with a hesitant smile for the two additional ponies in the shop. “Lord Gaberdine, was it? And your delightfully talented not-son.” As her eyes traveled upward to the painting, she stopped cold with the smile on her face freezing in place, then slowly, bit by bit, the corners of her lips began to lift further until her expression grew into an astonished grin. “Madre dios.”

“He didn’t quite get the feathers right,” grumbled the old pegasus.

- -  - -

It took a fairly short time to pay for the collection of art supplies Turpentine had used for the creation of the painting, plus the books and additional supplies Baron Gaberdine had picked out while waiting. The accumulated purchases seemed more than enough to make paintings of a whole flock⁽*⁾ of princesses and made both of them stagger a little under the additional load, although Turpentine could carry more on his muscular back than Gaberdine. The resulting slow walk back to the wagon for the flight home seemed like a good time to ask some of the questions still bouncing around in Turpentine’s head while he still had some privacy.
(*) Technically, two princesses is a Crisis, three or more is a Disaster.

“What did you mean when you told me the school wasn’t a good fit for me? It’s an art school, even if they paint… Um…”

“Art.” Gaberdine shook his head cautiously as not to disturb the packages he was towing in his magic field. “They take a perfectly good word and glue so many ugly things to it.”

“They glue some weird stuff to the paintings too,” said Turpentine.

“Like somepony with a puzzle who wants a piece to fit somewhere it doesn’t belong, and hammers it until it fits,” said Gaberdine.

“Yeah,” said Turpentine, who then paused and looked back at Baron Gaberdine’s puzzle-piece cutie mark. “Oh.”

Gaberdine chuckled while they headed over to pick up their drivers for the trip back to Gravel Flats. “Don’t worry, Turpentine. I’ve never had a puzzle with a loose piece that I haven’t been able to find where it goes. You just focus on your painting of Princess Luna and I’ll see about finding the you-shaped hole in the universe.”

Author's Note:

Chekov's Waitress *and* customer.

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