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.




15. Family Dining

"The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Turpentine was not stunned when Pearl walked into Duke Whinnysfield’s dining room because he was too busy trying to figure out how to get his sketchbook back out to capture what he suspected was going to come next. Unlike his young guest, Gaberdine was obviously stunned, and stumbled getting up out of his chair, nearly winding up sprawled out across the floor. Ripple was stunned also, sitting in place on her chair with her eyes locked on the pale form of her mother striding ever so slowly through the dining room doorway. Princess Celestia was obviously prepared for Pearl’s entrance, but Luna had a faint quirk around her lips that indicated a mild distaste at her sister’s preference for theatrics.

Duke Whinnysfield was likewise apparently prepared for any circumstance, and in particular unwilling to show any sort of weakness in front of both of his sovereign princesses. He moved fluidly up out of his seat and took several steps in the direction of the shy seapony, only to stop once Pearl recoiled at his aggressive approach. Without even a pause, the duke sidestepped and gestured to his own chair, which was located between Princess Celestia at the head end of the table and Baron Gaberdine.

It had seemed to be an awkward table seating arrangement at Turpentine’s first glance before, with Celestia, the duke, Gaberdine, and Ripple in a row down one the side of the table, and Luna, Whinnysfield’s wife, and Caractère on the other. Turpentine was supposed to be seated next to the elderly pegasus, but on seeing Ripple looking slightly uncomfortable on the other side of the table, he had swapped in a moment, leaving the table lopsided.

Taking one slow step at a time, Pearl seemed poised on the knife’s edge between terror and determination, with her eyes locked on Baron Gaberdine like he was the marker for a safe harbor in a world of terrible storms. There was no way she would have, or could have traveled to Canterlot on her own without her concern for Ripple’s well-being to drive her and Baron Gaberdine’s presence to reassure her. The combination made Turpentine both a little embarrassed and somewhat proud to be partially responsible for her trip here. He was going to get into trouble for it, but she was a beautiful mare, and Baron Gaberdine’s parents deserved to personally see who she really was instead of just looking at one of Turpentine’s paintings, no matter how well he could reflect her glory.

Guided by Duke Whinnysfield and Sen, Pearl settled into the chair next to Gaberdine much like a mother bird resting her feathered breast upon fragile eggs. Once he was certain the young mare was comfortable, the duke promptly moved over to the other side of the table, causing his wife and Caractère to each scoot down one chair and leaving Sen in the last seat on that side. There should have been an awkward silence at that point, but Celestia smoothly started up the conversation with a polite cough and a soft introduction.

“So good of you to join us, Lady Pearl.”

The older seapony might have said something, but Turpentine did not hear what it was other than a faint noise that could have just been somepony shifting in their chair. It could have even been from where she was pressed up against Gaberdine, and Turpentine suspected she would remain so until the lunch was over and quite possibly all the way back to the riverboat.

“An unexpected surprise,” said Luna in a perfectly calm and polite tone that still maintained a slight bite directed toward her nearby sister.

“A welcome surprise,” added Duke Whinnysfield. “The sketches young Turpentine drew do not do you justice.”

Pearl did not say anything at that, but blushed a bright pink under her pale coat.

“Are we in trouble?” asked Turpentine.

“Can we eat now?” asked Ripple almost at the same time.

Celestia nodded. “Of course.”

And that was the end of the awkward conversation for a while as the servants began to serve the meal. Thankfully, Gaberdine had been giving etiquette lessons to both of the younger ponies at the table or they certainly would have embarrassed themselves with all the forks and their obscure rules for use. There were several occasions where it just would have made more sense to dive into a dish nose-first, but both Turpentine and Ripple worked their way through soup, salad, and main course without any major spillage or disasters.

Although Turpentine thought Pearl would be quieter than their morning breakfasts at Castle Paradise, Duke Whinnysfield proved himself a masterful expert at teasing out little words and shy giggles from the reclusive seapony mare while Missus Whinnysfield remained mostly out of the conversation except to relate a few embarrassing foalhood stories about her son. After a slow start, it turned into a long and interesting conversation filled with pauses and abrupt changes of direction.

While the older ponies talked, certain sections of the conversational field were marked out with cautionary flags so that sensitive topics could be avoided, in particular, the fate of Ripple’s father. When Duke Whinnysfield made a cautious inquiry in that particular direction during the serving of a creamy strawberry dessert cake, both little ponies and Gaberdine shot such alarmed looks at the older stallion that he stopped cold in the middle of a sentence, leaving an awkward hole in the conversation.

“Princess Celestia,” said Turpentine in an effort to say something, anything other than talk about Tidal Surge and the dark underwater monster which had killed him, “I don’t recall seeing a painting of you and Princess Luna’s parents anywhere on our tour today. Did we miss a section?”

Celestia paused with a fork full of cake almost at her lips, swallowed once, then placed the fork back down on her plate in order to take a few deep breaths. Luna started to reply in her place, but stopped almost immediately at her elder sister’s quelling glance. There was a suppressed look about both of the old alicorns’ faces, both pain and pleasure in the memories that Turpentine had inadvertently stirred by his impulsive words, and by the time Celestia responded, her accustomed glass mask with enigmatic smile had slid back down over her features again.

“No, I’m afraid there are no paintings of our parents which have survived the years. And to answer your next question, no, I do not think you need to paint us one from our descriptions.”

“Oh.” Turpentine fidgeted and looked down at his somewhat smaller than expected slice of cake. “Do you miss him? Your father, that is.”

“Yes.” Celestia’s voice was nearly a whisper, and without a word, Luna slid her piece of cake over next to her sister’s plate before patting her gently on one hoof.

“Some pains are best forgotten,” said Luna.

“Like Nightmare Moon?” asked Turpentine before pausing and wishing he could unsay the words.

“No.” Luna pursed her lips, and for one timeless moment she was the only pony at the table except for the shadows. “My time with the Nightmare was a lesson which is best held close, so it is not forgotten.”

Turpentine nodded carefully and measured his words with great respect for both of the alicorns at the table. “Nightmare Night teaches all of the little ponies to face up to their fears, and to have fun out in the night instead of just staying home and playing with a pencil. Or at least that’s what Mother Windrow always said,” he added quickly. “I went as Clover the Clever last year, with a paper horn. This year…” He paused, trying to figure out just where they were on the calendar. Time had gotten away from him while out at Castle Paradise, and the single week he had expected to stay was now quite some time ago.

“What’s Nightmare Night?” asked Ripple.

Duke Whinnysfield smiled gently at the little filly and started to respond, only to draw up short when he abruptly realized the extraordinary nearness of the former Nightmare Moon. His eyes seemed to track sideways to look at Princess Luna despite his best efforts, and he almost jumped out of his chair when she spoke.

“It is an Equestrian celebration of the upcoming Winter, when small colts and fillies race about their neighborhoods collecting candy under the guise of sacrificing a portion of it to appease the spirit of Nightmare Moon, who otherwise would gobble them up.” Luna picked up a fork in her magic and used it to sneak a bite out of the still uneaten piece of cake she had slipped over to her sister. “Upon my return, I had considered doing away with the holiday as unneeded frivolity making light of my exile to the moon, but upon closer examination by a wise philosopher who had spent a great deal of his life studying the finer points of the celebration, I found the positives far outweighed any negatives.” Luna paused for a moment while chewing her bite of cake, but nopony else at the table interrupted before she continued. “We would have thought your education at the school in Gravel Flats covered such holidays and their customs.”

Ripple drooped from her ears to her tail, even though one of the servants placed a piece of cake in front of her at that moment. “I don’t go to school. Mama teaches me at home, and Mister Baron Gaberdine…” She stopped, and ever so slowly raised an oversized hoof over the edge of the table while her expression turned from dismal to anticipatory.

“No!” said Pearl abruptly, and louder than she had spoken at the table so far.

“But why not?” implored Ripple, leaning her head out over the table so she could see around a suddenly immobile Gaberdine. “Turpentine’s going to go to school all the way up here in Canterlot, so why can’t I go to school in the pony town? You’d take me to school in the mornings, wouldn't you, Mister Baron Gaberdine?”

“Um…” A trapped Gaberdine seemed to be paralyzed with every muscle in his body locked into position except his eyes, which flickered back and forth from Ripple on one side of him to Pearl on the other. Turpentine wanted to help the poor stallion, but he had made a mess of things by jumping in without thinking before. There had to be something he could do which would help all three of them, and the words just popped out before he could stop them.

“I could walk her to school, Mister Gaberdine,” said Turpentine. “At least until I start school in Canterlot.”

“A generous offer, young Turpentine.” The flicker of a smile formed at the corner of Celestia’s lips and she finally picked up a dessert fork in her magic. “I have seen your school transcripts from Tidewater, but when I sent an inquiry to Gravel Flats, they were unable to find any evidence of your attendance. My Canterlot school will need to see your educational progress before you transfer. Some of your grades are less than stellar. Mathematics, for example.”

“Math is easy,” scoffed Ripple.

Celestia made a noncommittal noise while making her second bite of cake vanish. “Lady Pearl, I can provide assurance that your daughter will be perfectly safe in the school at Gravel Flats, particularly with a friend like Turpentine to help watch over her.” Two more large bites vanished in short order and Celestia smoothly switched to the second piece of cake. “Ripple, I understand that Duke Whinnysfield has a simply marvelousmodel train set in his den. Since I would like to speak privately with your mother about your attending school, once we are done with dessert, I’m certain if you asked him politely he would be willing to show it to—”

Turpentine had never seen a piece of cake vanish so fast. One moment it was sitting innocently on Ripple’s plate, and the next it was gone with the little seapony scrambling out of her chair and around the table in the direction of Duke Whinnysfield.

“Mist’r Duke,” she spluttered around the cake packed into her mouth. “Can we go look at y’r train? I’ve alw’s wanted to see a train!”

Turpentine barely managed to get his cake eaten by the time Ripple had fairly towed the larger unicorn stallion out of the room, and after he excused himself from the table and darted off in pursuit, he could have swornCelestia had somehow managed to steal Duke Whinnysfield’s unfinished piece of cake too.

Somehow, he suspected that was part of her plan.

- -  - -

There was a surprising amount of painting involved in making a model train set, from the detailing and aging of train cars to tiny little model houses and buildings around the tracks. Ripple was more interested in the complex little innards of the electric engines and the tiny couplers tying them to the following trail of cars, but to Duke Whinnysfield’s credit, he managed to entertain both of his little guests for quite some time before Turpentine managed to slip away. It was not the size of the train pieces or the complexity of the construction which made him find more interesting things to do in the huge house, but a nagging pain somewhere around Turpentine’s heart to see the large unicorn stallion and the small seapony filly with their heads together while peering through a magnifying glass much like grandfather and granddaughter.

It was unfair. It was also jealousy. Turpentine had never known his father, let alone any grandparents. He was not some cute little filly with a beautiful exotic mother who was falling in love with a baron. He was just a lazy colt who preferred to play with his paints rather than put in a good, long day pulling a plow.

The dark depression was all too easy to pull around himself as it always had whenever a new family was getting a little too close for Turpentine’s comfort. It was hard to keep it wrapped around his gloomy soul, though. The kitchen servants refused to let him wash dishes, and instead tried to bribe him with sweets and unending compliments about his colored pencil drawing of the Whinnysfield family. The library likewise was not a refuge because both Sen and Caractère were having a spirited friendly discussion in which Turpentine could hear his name repeated several times. Even going outside and finding a place in the garden to hide was a lost cause, because Baron Gaberdine and Pearl were proceeding slowly through the rows of flowers, and would most certainly be able to spot him wherever he hid.

In the end he managed to find Gaberdine’s old room, slightly dusty and a little disorganized from his abrupt departure several months ago and seemingly never returned to afterwards. It made Turpentine feel useful to dust and put away the unshelved books, but after what little clutter he could find had been dealt with, he found himself drawn to the sun-drenched window with his sketchpad. It was probably not a great view by unicorn standards, but Turpentine could see dozens of houses before the long dropoff to the valley far, far below, and it kept him warm and busy with his sketchpad instead of thinking uncomfortable thoughts.

Some time later, the eventual creaking of the door jarred Turpentine out of his sketching, with the shadows in the room considerably lower than when he had started. Missus Whinnysfield stood in the doorway, her horn lit up to illuminate her path in the dark shadows left by the afternoon sun, peering into the room and looking at Turpentine with a false smile.

“Turpentine?” She moved quietly into the room and stopped at the edge of the warm sunbeam coming through the window. “Gabby said we’d find you somewhere with a big window. It’s getting late, and you should be getting back to Gravel Flats.”

She stood and watched while Turpentine put away his sketchpad and his pencils, waiting until he was done before asking very quietly, “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, shouldering his saddlebag while keeping his eyes on the varnished floorboards. “I don’t want to keep Mister Gaberdine waiting.”

“Oh, he already left,” said Missus Whinnysfield. “Princess Celestia had her Celestial Phaeton take him and that nice young seapony mare back to his castle. I’m sorry you missed it. They really looked quite the pair standing together on that huge golden chariot when it took off.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Is Gabby’s castle really just a riverboat, or is he pulling my leg?”

“It’s not just a riverboat,” said Turpentine, feeling a little better as he stood up for Gaberdine’s rather unique house. “It’s a Hampton and Smythe Rivermaster with a three-piston steam engine and a streamlined sidewheel which lets it skim over sandbars, and the rudder is on a spring, so it goes places you barely can get a hoof wet. Well, once he gets the engine put back together.” He paged through his sketchbook and produced a line drawing for the older mare’s examination. It was one of his better colored pencil drawings of Castle Paradise IV as it once had been, flying its Equestrian flag proudly with the old baron and his young crew out on deck enjoying the theoretical cruise.

“My. It’s certainly… a boat.” She flipped through a few more pages with her magic, fast at first, then slowing to a quiet examination of a sheet which really did not have much on it. “Gabby certainly seems happy with his… friend.”

“Yeah.” Turpentine tried not to let his shoulders slump. “Is Mister Caractère or Sen waiting on me? Or Ripple?”

“No, Mister Sienna and Miss Ripple went with my son, and Princess Celestia sent a special chariot to take Mister Caractère back to Baltimare. Your friend is a most accomplished art historian, Turpentine. I can see why he likes you so much.” Missus Whinnysfield settled down on the hardwood floor next to Turpentine and pulled over a cushion for him.

“Please. Sit down. I can tell something is bothering you. You’ve got that same look Gabby had when he walked into the house today, and somehow I don’t think it’s just because you didn’t get to ride home on Princess Celestia’s magnificent Phaeton. I promise, I’ll keep your secret just between us.”

With a subdued grumble, Turpentine settled down on the cushion and stewed. He probably would not have said anything if Missus Whinnysfield had not seemed so much like Mother Windrow, but the lump inside his chest would probably feel better outside, and the only way for that to happen was to let it out.

“I’m afraid.” Turpentine took a deep breath. “I’m afraid about everything. I’m afraid something will happen in my life that I don’t get to see, like Celestia’s big fate-on chariot. I’m afraid I’ll never find my place, and I’ll wind up growing beans for the rest of my life. I’m afraid of missing an opportunity, because once it happens, it’s done and I’ll never get another chance. I’m afraid of finding another family, because I’ll lose Mother Windrow, and she’s been the only family I’ve known since my m-mother d-died.” He huddled up closer to the older unicorn mare, who he had not realized was sitting quite so close. “Was Mister Gaberdine ever afraid?”

“Constantly. Particularly during thunderstorms,” she added with a tense giggle. “He’d come scrambling down the hall with snot coming out of his nose and trembling before climbing up into his father’s bed. When the thunder started to roll, I always knew he was coming, and I’d sleep over in my own bed on those nights.”

When Turpentine looked up with a puzzled glance, she looked down and added, “It’s an old unicorn tradition, having two beds in the bedroom. One of them always gets a lot less use than the other, but it upholds the dignity of our station, or so Grandfather Whinnysfield said when we moved in and Poppy took up the title.”

She let out her breath in a long sigh and leaned up against Turpentine. “I was so afraid back then. We were Poppy and Lily in love until one day we turned into the formal and proper Duke and Lady. Thankfully, it didn’t change him on the inside. He had a new coat of paint, but under the surface, he was still my old Poppy, just as fresh as when I met him.”

“It gave him texture,” said Turpentine.

Missus Whinnysfield looked puzzled, but after a moment said, “Yes, I suppose so.” She sat there by his side for some time, looking at the way motes of dust drifted in the sunbeam before adding, “Are you still afraid?”

“Yes,” admitted Turpentine. “But it’s better.”

“Good.” Missus Whinnysfield patted him on the shoulder. “I haven’t needed to be there for a little colt in some time. I was afraid I had lost my touch.”

He thought about the way the duke had enjoyed showing Ripple his model train set and decided that just because a pony was an action-pony did not mean they could not also have a solid stripe of noun-pony in them too, like he did. It did bring up a question, though.

“Missus Whinnysfield, if I stayed here while going to Celestia’s school, would I be able to talk to you about… stuff?”

The path of her nose was warm when she nuzzled underneath his captain’s cap and across his forehead much like Mother Windrow used to do. “Call me Lily, please. You can talk to me about stuff anytime,” she whispered into his ears. “If it were not for you, our son would have hidden his special somepony away from us forever.”

She paused and settled Turpentine’s cap back on his head, looking much more serious. “Do you think…”

“I don’t know,” said Turpentine rapidly.

“Don’t worry about your secret,” said Lily. “Princess Celestia told me that Pearl and Ripple are seaponies, and that I should keep it quiet. I was just wondering about… grandfillies, I suppose. Hooves or a tail.”

It was a topic Turpentine had considered at some length once he had discovered Gaberdine was an ordinary unicorn instead of a disguised seapony, as he had first thought. It had been more of a practical consideration for artistic expression rather than the poignant need for drooling and diaper-filling grandfillies like Missus Whinnysfield, that is Lily seemed to be implying. Still, he had come to a conclusion back then which had not changed up until the present.

“I don’t know if Mister Gaberdine… that is if Gabby and Pearl are ready to make that kind of a decision yet. Besides, if they do decide to have more little fillies like Ripple, would it make a difference either way?”

“No.” Lily rubbed him across the top of the captain’s cap. “Horn, wings, tail or not, grandfoals are still heaven’s gift.” She gave him one last warm hug before looking out the window at the diminishing sunlight. “Well, the pegasus sisters who are supposed to take you back to Fen will be here shortly. Do you need anything before you go? I could get Cook to throw together some of her famous muffins if you want. I know poor Gabby is lost around a stove. I’m surprised he hasn’t burned his new riverboat castle down to the waterline yet.”

“Sen cooks, and I help,” explained Turpentine rather defensively, but he wavered at the thought of some of the wonderful baked goods that had been served at lunch, and his stomach put in a low rumble to express its own opinion. “I suppose a few muffins wouldn’t hurt.”

“Anything else?” asked Lily with a smile. “Gravel Flats is such a provincial town, and we can get you anything you need in Canterlot.”

“Anything?” He devoted some thought to the wonderful word, so filled with promises of paint. “Well, Princess Celestia is going to show up at the castle in a few days, if Princess Luna can pry her loose. I’d like to…” A plan unfolded in his mind and Turpentine began to smile. “Can I get you to buy some painting things for us?”

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