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.




14. High Cuisine

"I didn’t see how I’d ever got to like it so well at the widow’s, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book, and have old Miss Watson pecking at you all the time."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

One thing about Canterlot was that everything was somewhere else, and that somewhere was up or down, left or right, or some combination of all of them. The inside of the castle had been a complex maze which Turpentine could have been trapped in until he starved to death (or asked directions from one of the ever-present guards), but once Princess Celestia got outside and started trotting through the city on the way to the Whinnysfield mansion, it got at least a little easier to figure out just where they were going. According to Caractère, the city was roughly divided into thirds, with the unicorns being closest to the mountain and the castle, while the pegasi preferred houses out by the edge of the city with the astonishing view, leaving the earth ponies everything else.

There was a lot of everything else.

The bill of his captain’s cap did a wonderful job blocking the sun from getting into Turpentine’s eyes, which is probably why Baron Miller had worn it everywhere. Despite Sen’s best efforts washing and re-dying it, the cap still felt a little shabby and plain in the elaborate city, particularly while trotting along at a rapid rate next to Princess Celestia who seemed to attract the attention of every pony on the street. Some would simply wave, while others approached with a bow or nod of the head to exchange a few words with their divine goddess descended from her heavenly residence and to the little colt trotting along at her side. Caractère might as well have been invisible with as little attention he attracted, most likely due to his clerk’s vest making him look like a servant, but they all were introduced to Turpentine, ‘the young colt who drew that delightful Get Well card.’

Once they managed to get into a section of road where there were fewer listeners, Turpentine had to ask about it, of course.

“Oh, that.” Princess Celestia hid a mischievous grin behind one of her large golden shoes. “It was a positively adorable little card, Turpentine. We had to share it with the servants, and then the royalty saw it, and before either of us knew it, the Canterlot Times had printed it with some blank space under it and an invitation for their readers to fill in their own message and send it to us. We’ve gotten hundreds of them so far, and they keep coming, even though we’re over our little illness now.” Celestia coughed once, most likely just for form, and continued. “Luna and I took straight to bed and spent our entire recovery time writing thank-you letters to each of them.”

“Hundreds?” Turpentine blinked a few times at the thought of something he had just dashed off in a few minutes being sent to all of Equestria in the newspaper.

“It was a delightful gesture on your behalf, Turpentine.” Celestia giggled. “Very appropriate, too.”

Caractère nodded agreement. “Perhaps he can be contracted to do another one next year as a public health announcement to encourage ponies and princesses to get their flu shots early.”

“Undoubtedly.” Celestia’s smile smoothed out into the normal polite mask she wore before she stopped by a roadside bench next to a fountain and motioned Turpentine up onto the seat. “On a more serious note, I wanted to take a few minutes before we go into the Whinnysfield estate to talk, and don’t go away, Monsignor Caractère.” The elderly pegasus stopped his subtle shifting in position away from the upcoming conversation and stood uncomfortably while Celestia sat down next to the bench, bringing her eyes level with Turpentine.

“Ma’am, is this about your portrait?” Turpentine moved to get his sketchbook out of his saddlebag, only to have Celestia rest a hoof over the saddlebag flap.

“No. It’s about family.” Celestia reached out with her magic and brought back a shimmering ball of water from the nearby fountain, which she held in front of Turpentine while talking. “Twilight Sparkle and I used to have our little talks out in the garden next to a fountain. Ponies are the opposite of water. They go uphill, they fall in love, marry, and have foals. Ponies need other ponies, just the same as I needed Luna for so many years. All we have left of our family is ourselves. Our family ties are more important than almost anything else, and I would be willing to live in the dump and sort trash if it were the only way I could keep her.

“Every year in my school, I see young unicorns away from their families. They pretend to be happy, but I can tell. Lack of family makes them close themselves away from their teachers and their friends. I can help some of them, but others…” The globe of water in her magic shifted colors into a swirl of gold and crimson before turning back into ordinary water.

“I care very much about all of my little ponies, so I don’t want you to be at my school without a family. It can be very lonely for some of the students with family to be away from their homes, even though they can return for a visit at any time.” Celestia touched him on the cheek with the tip of one forehoof and looked Turpentine in the eyes.

“I know you’ve been adopted several times before. It can be very difficult for someone who has been rejected and alone for a long time to allow another into their heart, but I think you’re ready for it now. I think it’s time you had a family.”

“Oh.” Turpentine blinked several times, looking into Celestia’s deep eyes. It suddenly made sense to him, although not quite what he had expected. He nodded and tried to put on a smile. “Thank you, Princess Celestia. You’ll make a fine mother.”

The ball of water splashed to the ground.

Caractère snorted behind him, a brief and quickly choked off noise that Turpentine’s quick glance showed the old pegasus had suppressed by sticking his head under one wing, regardless of how stiff his neck was.

“That’s… not quite…” Celestia swallowed once and took a breath. The polite smile she had been wearing looked just a little strained, and it seemed to be taking a long time for her to continue her part of the conversation.

“I know you’re awfully busy running the country,” said Turpentine helpfully, “so Princess Luna can help. There was one of the orphans adopted by a family of two mares so I know it’s not that unusual, and that way you can share the responsibility, since Princess Cadenza is all grown up and moved out, and Princess Twilight Sparkle is living in Ponyville now.”

“Turpentine?” Caractère had taken his head out from under his wing, but he still looked rather peculiar, as if he was holding back a sneeze. “Princess Celestia wasn’t talking about her adopting you. She’s… a little old to become a mother.”

“Oh?” Turpentine frowned while thinking, but Caractère’s eyes suddenly grew larger.

“And not me,” he added in a rush. “I’m too old to be a father again.”

“Oh.” Despite his best efforts to remain positive, Turpentine’s ears drooped, only to perk back up when Princess Celestia placed a very motherly nuzzle across them.

“I’m not that old,” she insisted. “I raised Princess Mi Amore Cadenza to be a princess, and taught Twilight Sparkle to be a very powerful unicorn. If I were the best pony available to be your mother, I would be proud to call you my son.” She nuzzled back his captain’s hat and kissed him on the bare forehead. “But I’m not.”

The kiss made his ears fairly glow red with embarrassment, but he still had to ask, “How will I know? How am I going to find a family?”

She let out her breath in a huge huff that smelled vaguely of jasmine and rosebuds before nuzzling him around the ears again, giggling at the way his mane tickled her nose. “I have faith that one is going to find you very soon. Now come on,” she whispered into one ear. “We need to get going to the Whinnysfield estate before they put away the cake.”

- -  - -

As it turned out, Princess Luna and her tour group arrived at the Whinnysfield estate gates almost at the same time as Turpentine, and the sight of Sun and Moon rejoined after even the brief separation made him dive for his sketchbook and a pencil. After the Royal Sisters shared a mushy hug and nuzzle, Luna immediately began to talk without allowing her sister to get a word in edgewise.

“Oh, you should have seen the little foal,” cooed Luna. “We stopped by the nocturne clan house to drop off the painting of Syrette, and found out that Missus Windrow brought the new little nocturne colt up today.” Luna giggled. “We got to watch him sleeping. He does this cute little scrunched up thing with his nose. I’ll have to see if they’ll bring him by the castle later this evening, Celly, because I know how much you like the little ones.”

Celestia winced, but recovered with a warm smile directed at Baron Gaberdine, who had a sprawled-out young seapony (with hooves) draped over his back. “And good day, Ripple. Did you and my sister have a nice time exploring the city?”

“It was soooo cool,” said Ripple in nearly a moan of joy. “We went everywhere, even to the baths.” The little seapony turned to look at Turpentine and slowly waved one hoof. “Hi, Turpentine. Did you know Luna’s got a volcano in her bathroom? It’s a huuuuuge cave with a bunch of pools all different tempreatures an’ she said I could come by and swim in them sometime—” Ripple looked around for eavesdroppers “—once I get good enough to be sure I can switch back.”

“That will have to wait until later, young lady.” Celestia swept a hoof in the direction of the estate’s front doors. “Right now, Baron Gaberdine needs to introduce us to his parents, and I believe somepony promised cake for dessert. Oh, and just one more thing.”

- -  - -

Owning a good suit was starting to seem like a good idea for Turpentine as he sat patiently on the front steps of the Whinnysfield estate and waited for the results of Baron Gaberdine’s polite knocking on the thick oak door. A suit would give him something to hide behind, or use as armor against Duke Whinnysfield’s sharp glare, although Baron Miller’s cap seemed to be a good substitute. Next to him, Ripple struck a similar pose, without a captain’s cap, and whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

“This is so exciting, Turpentine. Thank you for inviting me.”

“You’re welcome.” The door was remaining very quiet and unmoving, quite unlike his rumbling tummy, so he added, “Do you think we’re too late for lunch?”

“Father will hold lunch for our arrival,” said Gaberdine very quietly. “The condemned stallion should eat a good last meal, after all. I don’t think Ripple’s mother is going to be very happy about our trip.”

For some reason, that set Celestia into a giggling fit where she was standing to one side of the door, just like her somewhat puzzled sister was on the other side where they would not be seen at first glance. It seemed to work fairly well, because when Duke Whinnysfield opened the door and looked at his son, he did not notice them.

“Well?” The heavyset duke frowned at Gaberdine, giving a short glance down at Ripple, then a second glance once the little seapony’s features seemed to trigger a memory. “Oh! Beg pardon, young miss. Son, it’s only polite to introduce your guests.”

“Of course.” Baron Gaberdine placed a hoof on top of Turpentine’s head. “You already know about the young artist staying at my estate. Turpentine, you remember my father, correct?”

Turpentine nodded. “Good morning, Duke Whinnysfield.”

“Good afternoon,” said Whinnysfield in a sharp tone just short of a rebuke.

“And this is a… friend of a friend,” said Gaberdine, moving the indicating hoof over to Ripple’s head and giving her a brief rub. “Miss Ripple of Gravel Flats.”

“Charmed to meet you,” said Ripple while extending one hoof and leaning up against Turpentine so she would not fall over.

“Young lady,” acknowledged Whinnysfield, bending over and giving the little filly’s oversized hoof a brief brush of the lips.

“And a friend of young Turpentine, Mister Caractère of Baltimare.”

The duke nodded at the elderly pegasus, who stiffly nodded back.

“And, of course, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,” continued Gaberdine with an absolutely straight face.

Both princesses stepped out of their concealing position and took their places at Ripple and Turpentine’s side, much like large bookends around a pair of very small books. It made an amazing shift of emotions cross Duke Whinnysfield’s face, a collection of rapidly-changing motions that ranged from bafflement to sudden realization. He glanced between the two proffered Royal Hooves, quite obviously trying to determine which one to kiss first, before giving into tradition and placing his respectful smooches in order of seniority.

“Our house is your house, Your Highnesses,” said Whinnysfield, opening the door the rest of the way and gesturing inside. “Will you be joining us for lunch?”

“Of course.” Celestia proceeded forward with Luna at her side, moving as if they were one.

“We shall need to freshen up before we dine,” said Luna.

“Right this way.” Whinnysfield took a brief look over his shoulder at Gaberdine before vanishing around a corner with the alicorns right behind him.

It really was amazing. He looked just like Baron Gaberdine when he did that.

- -  - -

Between bathroom breaks and the tendency of larger ponies to look up at new things while Turpentine was below their line of sight, it had been easy to slip away from everypony else and travel where his instincts led him. The jingle of silverware and clink of plates attracted him to the dining room, because Turpentine had always set the table back at the orphanage while Mother Windrow prepared the meal. When he had gotten older and returned from more homes, Turpentine had been given more responsibilities in the kitchen, but their little table could not hold a candle to the magnificent wooden structure in the Whinnysfield dining room, all draped with linen and adorned with glittering crystal while the servants bustled around, putting an extra leaf in the table and laying out several extra place settings.

He drew the scene, of course.

It was easy to pick out Missus Whinnysfield, a slightly thickening older mare the shade of dusky rosewood, with a curled auburn mane spilling down her neck in a way that must have taken her hours to brush and style. She placed herself in the center of the busy dining room, pointing and gesturing while occasionally giving an extra swipe of polish to a piece of crystal or taking a tiny taste out of a passing dish. She looked happy in her environment much the same way as Duke Whinnysfield when he had been pressing Baron Gaberdine at the dinner table in Baltimare.

The Whinnysfields were action-ponies, as Mother Windrow would have described them, and he could see where Baron Gaberdine had gotten the idea that Turpentine would not have been comfortable in this house. He was more of a noun-pony, interested in things and stuff, and how they reacted to each other instead of being driven by actions, tasks and protocol.

He could not help but think about his recent conversation with Princess Celestia. Turpentine had always thought finding and using his own talent was more important than family, but when the Princess of the Sun said she would rather sort garbage than live in a castle if it was the only way for her to keep Luna, it really disturbed him on some deep, primal level. Being a part of a family was painful for him, and painful to admit. It reminded him of his dead mother and the missing father who never returned to raise him in her absence. He was jealous of families who seemed to do this ‘togetherness’ thing so effortlessly, and that had made him focus instead on his talent to the exclusion of all else.

Well, almost. As much as Mother Windrow tried to deny it, she had been his family up until now. A little odd, a little awkward, and not quite perfect, but always there when he needed her and always waiting when he returned from another failed family. No doubt Missus Whinnysfield would be there for her son if Gaberdine ever failed and had to return to his foalhood home, but Turpentine could not imagine himself calling her mother, and particularly not calling Duke Whinnysfield father.

There was a photograph of the Whinnysfield family on a nearby wall, with three young sons in suits dutifully lined up in front of their solemn and well-dressed parents, but it did not really reflect the actual ponies Turpentine had met so far. It was wrong in some fashion, and he bent his head over the sketchpad to draw what he could see instead of what was hanging on the wall.

It took some time and several sharpenings, as well as digging his colored pencils out of his saddlebag, but nothing else mattered while he was drawing. Lines and swoops, stubby little horns on mischievous little unicorn colts, parents gently chivvying their children back to the table. The varnished boards of the floor felt comfortably cool on his belly while he drew, alone in his bubble as the picture grew beneath his touch.

He was just finishing up drawing the dark lines of the wooden flooring when Turpentine became aware of the relative silence in the room. He looked up from his comfortable spot on the floor and met the eyes of at least a dozen ponies crowded around and looking down at him, all paused in rapt attention to what he was creating. Even Ripple was engrossed in his drawing while holding onto a celery stick she had snitched from the table, but was very carefully not-chewing in order to be not-distracting.

“My word.” Missus Whinnysfield scurried over once she was certain Turpentine had finished. “What an astonishing picture. You even got that little tuft of mane that Gabby never could get to lie down correctly.” Her hoof traced over the picture of a family at the table, all doing something different but somehow all together, from youngest Gaberdine building a tiny little lake of gravy in his mashed sweet potatoes to eldest Elderberry reaching across the table with his magic to lift a pot of creamed asparagus, and both parents trying to keep order.

The room murmured agreement, even the servants who had stopped work in order to watch.

“I told you he was a talent to watch, Celly,” said Luna with just ever so slightly the tiniest bit of snark. “Now will you make time to get your portrait painted next week?”

“We can discuss this later, Luna. Right now, we have a more important task.” Celestia’s ears flickered while she moved back toward the table, being promptly followed by the rest of the family and guests much like little baby swans after their mother. “If everypony will be seated. Turpentine, please put away your things and come to the table. I have an announcement before we eat.”

It took very little time for Turpentine to do the practiced motions of putting away his pencils and folding up his sketchbook, although he kept it close at hoof just in case an idea struck between plates. There was something odd going on, and it probably had to do with the sound of hooves in the other room, both the distinctive sound of the Royal Guards’ armored shoes and several other, lighter hoofsteps.

“We have some additional guests at lunch today,” announced Celestia. “I received a letter earlier this morning and dispatched my personal chariot to bring them. It’s an unexpected surprise, and I would like all of you to make them feel welcome. I apologize, Duke Whinnysfield, for not notifying you earlier, but I was not certain they would be able to make it.”

“That’s perfectly fine, Your Highness,” said Whinnysfield with a short nod. “Our house is yours.”

Turpentine was not quite sure Duke Whinnysfield was being entirely truthful, because a small muscle in his cheek twitched while he was talking, and the soup on the table looked suspiciously thinned out much the same as when Mother Windrow had unexpected company and added a few cups of hot water. Still, all of the books in the library back at the orphanage had been very specific about the dainty appetites of royalty, and between both alicorns, they could probably dine on a single lettuce leaf. Oh, and the piece of cake which Celestia had been so determined about.

“Thank you, Duke Whinnysfield.” Celestia turned to the open doorway of the dining room. “Mister Sienna, Seneschal of Castle Paradise, if you please.”

Sen strode slowly out into the open doorway, his thinning grey mane looking windblown and most of the normal grease stains on his coat having been washed out, which made him look ten years older. He nodded at the group and bowed briefly to the Royal Sisters before clearing his throat.

“Gentlecolts and ladies.” The elderly servant moved to one side in order to allow the new visitor into the dining area. “May I present the Lady Pearl of Fen.”

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