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.




7. Fly, Flown, Flu

"My nose begun to itch. It itched till the tears come into my eyes. But I dasn’t scratch. Then it begun to itch on the inside. Next I got to itching underneath. I didn’t know how I was going to set still. This miserableness went on as much as six or seven minutes; but it seemed a sight longer than that. I was itching in eleven different places now. I reckoned I couldn’t stand it more’n a minute longer, but I set my teeth hard and got ready to try. "

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Dawn should have been more respectful to Turpentine’s feelings, in particular the throbbing aches stabbing through muscles that he did not realize he had before and the dull pain covering every single hair on his coat. In short, if discomfort were paint, he had enough to make a mural over the outside of a barn with enough left over to paint the insides with two coats.

The morning sun had just begun to warm the itchy wool blanket draped over his aching hide when Ripple lifted her head off his side where she had been using him like a lumpy pillow. Her motion left a cold spot, made only worse by the way the rest of the wool blanket followed her when she stood up and yawned.

“Oh, fishguts. I didn’t go home like I was supposed to last night. Do you think my mom noticed?”

Turpentine painfully blinked several times, his eyes tracing a glint of sunlit silver to the reassembled raft bobbing nearby. Everything was blurry and far too bright this morning, but the raft was fairly close and the shiny object sitting on it next to his ramshackle collection of camping gear was fairly obvious. He yawned and nudged Ripple.

“It looks like one of your aunts brought us breakfast, so your mother probably knows.”

The silver tray over on the raft was a lot larger than Turpentine had expected, but since he really had not expected breakfast to be delivered in the first place, he started to wonder if perhaps some of Ripple’s aunts were also going to join them. There were a lot of little silver domes concealing breakfast items on the tray, but before Turpentine could get up the willpower to stagger to his hooves, Ripple flopped through the sand and vanished into the river, reappearing over by the raft with a tiny splash. She used her magic to lift one of the silver lids and gave off a little gasp of wonder.

“Bag-etties! With honey!” The tray lifted off the raft with a glow of her light green magic and floated the short distance to shore while Ripple vanished underwater and surfaced in one rapid motion. By that time, Turpentine had heaved himself up to his hooves and hobbled over to the embers of the campfire.

“Can we get the raft launched first, Ripple? That way we can eat on it while drifting downstream.” Despite his ongoing pain, he kicked wet sand over the remains of the fire and tossed the ragged blanket back on the raft before working on the loose knot of the anchor rope. Ripple seemed disappointed that they would not be dining on the wet sand, but he really was getting a little tired of having a gritty rear end.

It felt good to see the island drift away once the raft had been released to float along on its interrupted journey, but a little sad too. So much of his ordinary life had turned extraordinary on that simple strip of sand, and it was all because of the young seapony who was lying half-on/half-off the raft and sorting through the silver breakfast tray. All he really wanted to do was collapse and go back to sleep, but Turpentine decided to at least try to appreciate the gesture Ripple’s aunts had made to bring them breakfast.

“So, Ripple. What did your aunts make?”

“Duh! My aunts can’t cook.” Ripple distributed a plate over to each side of the tray and started sorting through the rest of the covered dishes as if she did not know where to start. “My mother can a little, since Mister Gaberdine is trying to teach her, but they keep burning stuff whenever they try to cook together and we wind up eating apples or oranges.”

“So, this would be from Mister Sienna the Seneschal, right?” asked Turpentine. “The earth pony servant at Baron Gaberdine’s castle?”

Ripple nodded instead of speaking, because her cheeks were puffed out from two of the baguettes. When she finally got enough of them chewed to swallow, she added, “They taste a little stale, like they’ve been out here for a while. Did you want some pancakes?”

The pancakes tasted off too, even with the minced apples and lukewarm syrup. He suspected the clams from last night were still influencing his taste buds, and between the two of the young ponies, they did not do any more than make a slight dent in the amount of food on the tray. Still, when he settled down on the bare logs to digest in the sunshine, he was content to just stay put and not move. Even Ripple was less energetic, and flopped down with her front half up on the log deck while her tail and rear floated in the river. She gave a yawn and dropped her head onto the wadded-up blanket as a pillow.

“This is boring. It’s going to take all day and then some to drift down to the castle. After we take a nap, can we go swimming somewhere? I’ve still got a bunch of spots I haven’t shown you yet.”

“Probably not,” said Turpentine with a matching pained yawn. He pulled over a bag with the unused tent in it and cautiously put his head down on top of the lumpy and musty-smelling thing. It was too hot out to use the blanket, even if Ripple had not appropriated it for pillow usage, but at least this way he did not have to rest his head on the logs. “I should stay with the raft in case it gets in anypony’s way.”

“Part of our jobs is to drag floating logs onto the river sandbars so they don’t do that,” said Ripple.

Turpentine considered her statement. The reason behind the difficulty he had steering his raft away from the sandbar several days ago had just become obvious. There really did not appear to be anything to gain by asking Ripple about it, though. The events had turned out for the best, after all, and the last thing he really wanted was to be run over by a tugboat with a load of barges, even with the magical beacon tied onto the raft to warn them away. Besides, it was probably one of her aunts who had grounded his vessel on the sandbar.

He cautiously settled down on the raft and closed his eyes to the bright sunlight. The lure of a morning nap to make his aches and pains feel better was tempting, but after remaining still and breathing regularly for a while, he cracked one eye open and peeked at the length of rope he had left tied to the end of the log at the ‘front’ of the raft.

It was difficult to see in the morning sunlight, but there seemed to be a faint green glow much like Ripple’s magic around the rope, and it was nudging the raft away from the shore on its trip down the river, much as a mother duck would look over her little ducklings.

He closed his eyes. Seeing Ripple’s mother’s magic made a nice, warm feeling fill his chest, and combined with the warm morning sunlight made it easy to fall asleep again.

* *  * *

By the time he woke up, Turpentine was fairly certain something was horribly wrong. His eyes burned, his throat itched, and he had to go to the bathroom so bad he could hardly keep it in. He shuffled to the other end of the raft away from where Ripple was still draped half-on/half-off, and squatted down to stick his rear out into the water. At least there were no riverside villages or tugboats within sight, or Turpentine would have died of embarrassment.

It took far longer than he had anticipated, because there was far more to deal with, but by the time he was done soiling the water, Turpentine expected that the seaponies in the river would never invite him back again. He took a few minutes to rest his abused rear end in the cool river, just watching the clear blue sky through runny eyes and trying not to cough.

His nap had not made him feel better. If anything, everything hurt worse than before and his chest gurgled deep inside as if he had not exhaled all of the water the last time Ripple had used her water breathing spell on him. Turpentine took an experimental cough that triggered several more, along with a little more poo and a sudden, abrupt need to turn around and throw up.

Much like his other end, once Turpentine started to vomit, he was unable to stop. Clams, if anything, tasted far worse coming up the other way than they did going down, and some of the stuff he saw drifting away on the river afterwards he was fairly sure he had not eaten. He spit through dry lips several times once he was done and had determined neither of his ends was going to start up again, then just sat there and looked at the still water slowly becoming clean again.

He really missed Mother Windrow. Whenever he was sick at the orphanage, the elderly mare would spend all day reading him stories or fussing over him despite his objections. She would make boiled milo tea and insist that he keep drinking it every time he woke up, even though the stuff tasted awful and had no health benefit he had ever found. And when he got better, she would always keep him in the house ‘just one more day’ until she was certain the outside air would not cause him to double over and die on her doorstep. She must have been so worried when he left their little home.

The water rippled and shimmered, feeling cool on his forehooves while he splashed the last evidence of his diarrhea and vomiting episode off the rough logs. The illusion that Ripple had an easier life than he did was a fragile thought, and he wondered just what it would be like if they had traded places. She certainly would have enjoyed the diversity of experiences that could be found in his little town, and with her buoyant personality, she would have had no problem attracting and keeping a family there. He, on the other hoof, would have been frustrated by the wealth of beauty to be found under the water with no easy way of preserving it in ink and paint.

He shuffled back to the front of the raft and regarded the little seapony who had barely moved from her initial resting spot other than a few twitches and the occasional shiver. Ripple even had the most adorable little whistling snore as she slept with her head turned away from the blazing sun and her ears twitching with the breeze.

At first, Turpentine was going to lie down next to her, but after suppressing another wet cough, he moved to a less infectious corner of the raft and allowed his aching body to rest against the damp logs. It should not be too much longer until the raft drifted downstream to the castle Ripple had been all atwitter about, and he would be going ashore to deliver the raft as promised. Maybe if he was still sick, he could ask Baron Gaberdine to put him up in a guest room for a day or two. After all, castles were big, impressive buildings with all kinds of servants and guards, and he was just one little colt. Even if he had to sleep curled up next to a fireplace in the servant’s quarters for a day or two until he felt well enough to head to Baltimare, that would not be too bad.

Of course, if Turpentine’s raft was going to be confiscated by Baron Gaberdine, he was going to need some other form of transportation to Baltimare. It seemed to be a very long walk, and he had no idea which roads actually led in that direction.

While the special talent of his cutie mark let Turpentine accurately remember and draw even the smallest detail on a landscape he had studied, it was a constant mystery to him how those pictures fit together into a map of actual ground filled with roads and paths. At least with a raft, he knew where he was going, and would make constant progress in that direction as long as it floated. But still, no raft meant no easy way to his goal.

While he laid there on his belly and looked down into the water under the hot afternoon sun, his mind wandered. What if his special talent was not urging him to Baltimare, but instead wanted him to travel up and down the river, finding all of the beautiful places and putting them on canvas so other ponies could admire them. He could get a job on a riverboat as… no, that would not work. Few if any riverboats would want a painter. They wanted somepony with Ripple’s skills, who could fix their engines and other parts of a tugboat, not just paint a pretty picture of the broken equipment.

Baltimare had to be his destiny. He would learn all of the techniques that professional painters used, and then once he had sold a few paintings for money, he could hire his own boat to travel up and down the river. Every fascinating place Ripple had shown him could be painted… no, that would not work either. The boat he would hire would be full of ordinary ponies who would frighten the timid seaponies and let the other land ponies know about them.

He took a deep drink of the river water, tasting the sun-warmed tepidness of it but swallowing anyway, as Mother Windrow insisted he drink fluids until he was about to pop whenever he was sick back home. At least the river water did not taste of milo tea. It still churned in his belly, and did not make him feel one bit better.

There was something peculiar about his reflection in the river as he drank, and the longer he looked, the stranger it seemed.

I’m pretty. And I’m a unicorn?

The pale pony floating like a ghost below the surface of the river had to be Ripple’s mother, if nothing else from the color of her sea-green mane floating along in the current, which matched tints almost perfectly to Ripple’s coat. Her every facial curve and shade seemed perfectly proportioned, matching so well against the beautiful mares of the fashion magazines which Mother Windrow purchased for the articles, except for the eyes.

There was something haunting about her dark green eyes that called out to his soul, as if she were holding back an immense flood of grief with a shaky dam of confidence and love for her daughter. It made him want to draw her and capture that elusive pain, but he was more afraid to move for fear of frightening her away. For several long minutes they stared at each other in motionless stasis, until little hints of concern and worry began to slip onto that perfect face, and with a faint motion that could have been a swallow to steel her timid nerves, Ripple’s mother began to move.

Ever so slowly, she floated closer to the surface, moving slightly to one side until she was barely underwater with only the tip of her short horn above the river. Her lips moved, and Turpentine could barely hear her soft, beautiful voice drift up above the water, like mist in the dawn.

“Are you feeling well, Turpentine?”

“I’m sick,” he managed to croak in response.

Ever so slowly, Ripple’s mother continued to rise up until her entire head was above the water. He could see the way she swallowed to make the gill slits on her chest flare slightly above her pale creamy coat, thereby allowing her to breathe air in and speak above the water in a low whisper almost quieter than before.

“Mister Gaberdine has the flu. I’m afraid he may have given it to you.”

The faint, raspy sound of Ripple coughing into her wool pillow brought a cold chill up Turpentine’s overly-warm flanks. He spared a look back over his shoulder at the little seapony, and the way she was also trembling just as much as he was in the warm sunlight.

“Us,” croaked Turpentine, turning back to Ripple’s mother.

For a brief instant, Turpentine thought the beautiful seapony was going to vanish into mist right in front of him. With a twitch, she looked over at her daughter who was sleeping in the afternoon sunshine on the edge of the raft and her expression grew even more terrified, as if she were afraid that at any moment the little seapony could breathe her last.

Then there was a quiet bloop and Ripple’s mother was gone, leaving nothing behind but a small ripple in the river that quickly faded away.

* *  * *

The rumble of moving water and the slow oscillation of the raft woke Turpentine from a fitful dream about a terrible storm raging across the river. It took a moment for him to blink the sleep out of his eyes, and then several more moments to make sense of the real world. The raft was violently bobbing up and down, making a spray of mist flick into his face and a strange breeze blow through his sun-warmed coat in a sharp chill that baffled him at first, or at least until he raised his head further.

The shore is going past awfully fast.

The front end of the raft was at least a half-length out of the water and a spray of water hissed out to each side in a haze of mist. It was not the shore that was moving, but the raft, traveling much faster than Turpentine had ever gone before including the terrifying time the unicorn family from his home town took him water skiing. His first instinct was to look for Ripple, and to his relief, she was still on the raft, but had apparently been nudged closer to the center where she was awake and regarding her surroundings through bleary eyes. To the back of their raft—

Turpentine blinked again. There were eight seapony mares of various pale shades of blue and pink pushing on the back end of the raft, with their tails churning the water up into a froth behind them. The combined glow of their magic lit up the glistening logs in rainbow colors, which shifted abruptly as the raft turned to the right, or maybe starboard if his fevered brain was interpreting maritime directions correctly.

Ahead, it appeared the seaponies were pushing the raft into some sort of lagoon surrounded by tall cottonwood trees and illuminated by afternoon sun. It almost had to be where Baron Gaberdine had his castle, but there were no structures in view at all, just the trees and a beat-up old sidewheel riverboat tied up at the shore.

Maybe they’re going to use the boat to take us down the river to a Baltimare hospital. Or maybe...

He squinted as the raft continued its rapid progress toward the shore and considered the old riverboat, from the peeling paint to the fresh rigging of a radio aerial up the single mast. It was a far cry from the Castle Paradise which Ripple had described. He had been expecting some sort of huge stone structure with a speedy riverboat as a kind of taxi for carrying the baron out on inspections of his domain. This looked more like a decrepit boat about ready to sink into the swamp, perhaps being lit on fire first in order to illuminate its path.

The raft had barely touched the shore when all of the seapony mares pushing the raft vanished back into the lagoon, abruptly leaving him alone with Ripple in the growing silence. Their wait was not for long, because an elderly earth pony with a grey mane and a faded coat which once must have been the color of sienna was already hobbling down the path to where their raft was beached. He certainly looked like the seneschal to the baron that Ripple had told him about, right down to the concern in his eyes when he saw the two young ponies both simply remaining in place instead of moving to get off the raft.

“Land sakes.” Sen stopped at the edge of the raft and tried his footing cautiously. “What’s going on here? I’ve been tending to Gaberdine most of the day, and somepony goes and hammers on the bottom of Castle Paradise, shoutin’ like the world is comin’ to an end. Miss Pearl?”

Turpentine turned to see the beautiful seapony leaning over the deck of the raft, with her green magic just starting to cautiously envelop a groggy Ripple. She hesitated, with wide terrified eyes and just the slightest push away from fleeing back into the river. “Ripple’s ill.”

Sen nodded, and those sparkling topaz eyes glanced over at Turpentine once before the old earth pony nodded again. “Yep, the flu’s got ‘em both, just like the baron, it looks like. If’n you want, Miss Pearl, I can bed them both down in the castle and tend to ‘em along with the baron. Ain’t that much more difficult to make three bowls of carrot soup than one, I suppose. Can you walk, boy?”

“Yes,” rasped Turpentine, staggering up to his hooves, then slowly sagging back down to the damp logs of the raft. The world seemed to waver beneath him, and somebody had turned up the gravity on Equestria to a degree where he felt almost as heavy as the raft. “Well, no.”

“And how about you, Miss Ripple?” It took less ‘up’ for Ripple to stand, because her flippers sprayed out to either side and the flukes of her tail dragged along the back, giving her the awkward look of a seal on dry land. She made a few short waddles in the direction of the shore before sinking down at the edge of the raft and giving a damp cough.

“Sorry, Sen,” she rasped.

“It’s up to you then, Miss Pearl,” said Sen, looking at the frightened seapony mare. “You can take her home if you want, or we can give her a place to stay here until she’s over it.”

“Can I stay with Turpentine?” asked Ripple with a short cough. “I promise to do whatever Mister Sienna says, and I can help look after Mister Gabby too.”

“Are you certain?” asked the nervous seapony in almost a whisper. Her eyes darted over to Turpentine, then over to the old earth pony, who really did not look very medical to Turpentine’s evaluating eye. Taking a long look at her sick daughter, Pearl took a breath and a wispy green aura formed around her horn again.

Ever so slowly, one step at a time, Pearl moved toward the shore and began to emerge out of the river with little rivulets of water pouring down her sides and pasting her sea-green mane to the side of her neck. Her stride was so slow and deliberate that Turpentine wished he had a pencil to capture the way she moved and the grace in every hoofstep. Her deep green eyes were wide with suppressed panic, and if even a mouse had emerged to squeak at her, Turpentine was certain she would have been back into the water instantly. Still, she persevered, and moved to stand next to Sen with only the smallest of trembles in her creamy white hide.

It was the first time he had been in the vicinity of a seapony transforming their flippers into oversized hooves, and Turpentine wished he had been closer to actually observe the process. It gave him enough energy to scoot forward and pull the folder with his sketchpads and pencils out of his pile of supplies, then stagger to his hooves while Sen and Pearl helped the two of them up the grassy embankment and into the old riverboat.

* *  * *

Inside the corridors and comfortable quarters of the riverboat was a decor far more attractive than its peeling outer skin indicated. The scents of wax and camphor drifted through the hallway, with the gleam of polished wooden paneling reflecting the lights from several small firefly lanterns. Even the doors were thick and well-constructed, swinging open on well oiled hinges when Sen ushered Turpentine into a small guest cabin and whisked the dusty tarp off the large bed inside.

The ship’s guest cabin was even more rich and beautiful than the hallway, with the dark wood and gleaming brass glimmering in the muted illumination of Pearl’s hornlight. The bed was soft as a cloud, and Sen apologized several times for the nonexistent mess and discomfort while stowing the folded up dust covers in the cabin’s unused cabinets. The seeming inattention by the servant gave Pearl enough courage to come the rest of the way into the room and arrange Ripple and Turpentine at opposite ends of the bed, but she cringed back when he was done and turned around to supervise her ministrations to the young patients.

“Sorry, Miss Pearl,” said Sen, touching his forehead with one hoof. “I’ll just slip out and get our young guests some juice.”

“I don’t mean to be a bother, sir,” rasped Turpentine through the sharp thorns that seemed to be filling his throat.

“You ain’t no bother, and neither is you, young miss,” said Sen. “I’m well over my flu, an’ I’m probably the one who gave it to the young stallion to give to you, so it’s my fault you two is sick after all. Jus’ a minute.”

He vanished out of the room to next door, then returned with a dark brown bottle and two large spoons. “Somethin’ to drop your fever and let you breathe a little better. It should work for seaponies jus’ fine, Miss Ripple, on account of it’s the same stuff that got used on a couple of your aunts a few years back. Open wide.”

“Yuck,” declared Ripple after the first spoonful. “It’s terrible.”

“Better than struggling on a coughin’ and a wheezin’ all day,” said Sen. “Asides, if’n it tastes bad, you’ll wanna get better fast so you don’t havta take it anymore.” He sat the used spoon on a table at Ripple’s end of the bed and got a clean one for Turpentine. “You get two spoons full, young lad, on account you sound so bad.”

Ripple was entirely correct. There was a sharp bite to the sluggish brown fluid like raw tannin, quite similar to several of his inks for the more darker shades whenever Turpentine had gotten a little sloppy while inking a drawing. After dutifully swallowing the allocated dosage, Turpentine got out his sketchbook and a pencil while settling in next to the lamp.

“What’cha dooin?” asked Ripple, awkwardly shifting position in order to crane her head in his direction.

“I wanted to do a quick sketch of your mom, but my paper is all damp,” said Turpentine out of the corner of his mouth. “Oh!” he added when Ripple lit up her horn and the sheets of damp paper promptly flattened out and regained their original dryness. “Thanks.”

“Can I watch?” The little seapony wriggled closer while he shifted positions so they could both see the paper at the same time. She remained perfectly quiet and still while he sketched from memory and Sen tidied up the room, getting out more towels and a bucket, just in case. There was a grace and symmetry to Pearl that Turpentine struggled to convert into dark lines, making several smaller sketches before his eyes watered so much he could not see the paper any more.

“That’s enough, young lad.” Sen picked the sketchpad out of his hooves and sat it on the nearby table. “The two of you need to get some rest. Miss Pearl was supposed to be back with some orange juice already, but—”

“I’ve got it, Sen.” The young tan stallion who Turpentine had last seen on his raft came cautiously into the room, using his magic to carry two large glasses of orange juice and a pitcher with condensation running down the sides. Baron Gaberdine looked a lot more tired now, with shallow bags under his eyes and a rumpled mane, as well as a wrinkled nightshirt in some sort of plaid print which was almost painful to look at. After Sen excused himself from the room, Gaberdine floated each of the glasses of orange juice to their respective young pony and nodded in an obviously false stern fashion. “Drink it all up, you two. I don’t want you getting dehydrated, particularly you, Ripple.”

It was fairly easy to obey the bedraggled baron, even if he really did not look very noble or royal at the moment, but more like somepony’s older brother who had been rather abruptly woken up in the middle of a nap. There was still some good light coming in off the glass-block windows on the side of the riverboat, and Turpentine figured that if he played along until the young stallion left, he’d still have some time to draw until it got too dark to see. The orange juice burned a little going down where the thick medicine had irritated his throat, but it sloshed down into his belly like liquid nectar, even if it did make him a little more queasy and glad that there was a bucket within reach, just in case it wanted to come back up again.

Once both of them had polished off their glasses of orange juice, the baron filled them up again and sat them on the little endtables in the room, Ripple’s at one end of the bed and his at the other. “The two of you need to take a nap now, and no staying up to draw,” admonished the baron, giving Turpentine a very stern look. “When you get better, I’ll see if I can get Miss Pearl to let you draw her, and not before.”

“Are you sure, Mister Gaberdine?” asked Ripple while she was fashioning her blankets into some sort of a nest-like structure. “My mother is awfully shy.”

“I’ll ask,” said Gaberdine with a faint smile welling up behind his impassive face despite his best efforts. “It would be nice to have a portrait of her around.”

The faintest of noises, much like a mouse clearing its throat sounded from the doorway, and ever so slowly, the pale seapony mare poked her nose around the corner. There was a hint of a smile on her face matching Baron Gaberdine’s expression almost perfectly, and her dark green eyes seemed to reach out and capture Turpentine in their timid but still firm gaze. “I think… I would like that too,” she said in a near whisper.

* *  * *

Between the medicine and the orange juice, Turpentine was feeling better, and not even the slightest bit sleepy, particularly with so many things he needed to get down on paper before he forgot. Still, he closed his eyes and put his head down on the pillow for a few minutes and pretended to sleep so Gaberdine would leave the room, which would allow Turpentine to make a few more quick sketches in the afternoon sunlight before it got too dark.

When he opened his eyes again, the flaw in his plan was obvious.

It was already dark in the room other than the glow of the firefly lantern and the faint glow of silver moonlight coming through the window. All around him were the faint noises of a riverboat moored to the shore, from Ripple’s quiet and thankfully not as raspy snore, to the gurgle of water under the hull and the songs of the river’s nighttime inhabitants outside, which he had gotten quite familiar with over the last few days.

He blinked heavy lashes and coughed, which he had expected to be a quiet and polite noise in order not to wake up Ripple, but the first cough triggered a larger second one, and then another, until he found himself on the floor, scrabbling for the empty bucket.

It was not empty for long.

Thankfully, he did not have much in his stomach, but what little he had soon occupied the bucket in streams of orangeish fluid and green slime. He coughed and threw up and coughed some more while the room filled up, first with a concerned Ripple beside him, calling out to the rest of the boat just as loud as she could, then Sen, who brought a brighter lantern. Baron Gaberdine was close on his heels, with his horn lit up to illuminate the room, casting stark shadows dancing along the walls until a suspiciously dry Pearl also crowded into the room with her horn lit up as well.

“He’s running a good temperature, even with the medicine, sir,” said Sen with one hoof on Turpentine’s forehead. “Do you want me to get the thermometer?”

“No!” croaked Turpentine, in between spasms at the moment and with his tail tucked tightly to his rear. “Mother Windrow used to check my temperature every hour when I was sick. I hate it!”


“Then I’ll go make you a nice cup of milo tea,” said Sen before vanishing in the direction of the castle galley.

“Should we give him another spoon of medicine?” asked Pearl. She held the bottle close to her eyes and read the small print with her delicate lips moving to sound out the complicated words. Turpentine knew he was really sick because the sight of her concern did not even give him the urge to grab his pencil again and get it down on paper.

“He’ll just throw it up again,” said Gaberdine. “He needs a doctor. I’ll go into Gravel Flats and see if I can wake up Doctor Wallaby.”

“You’re still sick,” said Pearl, looking up abruptly from her examination of the bottle.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” countered Gaberdine, which was promptly undermined by him stifling a brief cough against his shoulder.

“You’re staying,” said Pearl with an unexpected hint of steel in her voice. Gaberdine made a brief show of resistance before shooting Turpentine a glance and retrenching his position.

“I’ll see if Sen can go wake up the doctor,” he countered. “You should probably take Ripple out of the room while the doctor’s here so she doesn’t find out about… you know. You can use my room again,” he added. “I’ll stay in here.”

Being surrounded by concerned faces was a new experience for Turpentine. At home, Mother Windrow had been the only one worried about him when he was sick, and that warm feeling of being loved was somewhat muted by having a thermometer shoved up his rear every hour so she could keep track of how sick he really was.

“Here we go, young lad.” Sen slipped back into the room with a cup of steaming tea from which the nauseating scent of boiled milo wafted into the air. “Up and over the gums, like my mother always said. It’ll help keep your tummy calm so we can get some more medicine into you.”

Turpentine wrinkled his lip and resisted as much as he could, but eventually gave in and took sips of the awful substance between weak coughs. It did not seem to calm his tummy the same way as before, but the faces of the three concerned ponies around him brought a warmth to his heart that no amount of tea could match.

Is this what it’s like to have a real family? They barely know me! How can they care so much about me?

Around his second cup of tea and his uncounted wet cough, he noticed an absence in his audience. At first, he thought Ripple had left because she was upset about the way he was monopolizing the attention of her mother and the ponies she had begun to think of as the rest of her family. It did not quite match with the caring little seapony he had gotten to know over the last few days. In fact, if she could somehow turn Turpentine into a seapony and have her mother adopt him, he felt fairly certain she would have done that already so they could play all day as brother and sister while growing up under the water. Not that the concept was all bad, but… Actually, that would not be such a bad thing, if he could somehow get paint to work underwater. Still, he wanted to develop his talent, to learn what his talent was capable of instead of doodling with watercolors until he was old and grey. For that, he needed to get to Baltimare, and for that to happen, he needed to get well.

A cold shudder traveled up his flank, turning into a similar wave of fire as it traveled back down. The tremors were getting worse, despite the warm blanket that Gaberdine draped over his shoulders and the spoonful of medicine that Pearl gently slipped into his mouth between coughs. Sen had vanished after a few whispered words with the baron and most likely was on the way to Gravel Flats to get the doctor. Not that he needed one. It was just a cold, and would go away in a day or two, even if he was more sick now than he had ever been before.

Through the shivers and the tea, he could hear Pearl call out, “Ripple? Where did you go?”

The distinct slither-flop of the little seapony could be heard coming down the hallway outside, growing louder until Ripple came into his cabin and promptly climbed up on the desk in front of the window. She did not say anything at first, but just kept looking outside as if she were waiting on something out in the moonlit darkness.

“Ripple,” said Pearl in a quiet reproach for her misuse of furniture. The pale seapony mare turned back to Gaberdine and smiled in a way that made Turpentine ache for a paintbrush even as sick as he was. “I’m sorry, Gabby. Will you be able to take care of Turpentine here while I take Ripple back to your cabin?”

“I want to stay here with Turpentine,” stated Ripple in a loud, clear voice, although she kept looking out the window.

Pearl winced almost as if she had been pricked by a pin. “You can’t,” she whispered. “We don’t know if the doctor will be able to keep our secret. Sen said Doctor Wallaby is fairly new, and she talks to ponies all over this settled area.”

“Turpentine is sick, really sick,” said Ripple insistently. “He needs a real doctor, not just some young filly just out of school.”

There was something about Ripple’s alert posture and the stubborn set of her chin that Turpentine recognized, even as sick as he was. Pearl recognized it too, as she sucked in a breath of air and her terrified gaze went to the window, making her next words come out in a bare whisper. “Ripple, what did you do?”

The moonlight outside the window flared up briefly, almost as bright as the sun for a moment, then the sounds of beating wings could abruptly be heard while the light faded back to normal.

“I sent a letter,” said Ripple.

* *  * *

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