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.

Seaponies.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/363036/drifting-down-the-lazy-river

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"And then when I went up to bed she come up with me and fetched her candle, and tucked me in, and mothered me so good I felt mean, and like I couldn’t look her in the face; and she set down on the bed and talked with me a long time."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Everypony loves a parade, particularly in a small town, and wherever the princesses went, a parade seemed destined to follow behind them. The guests of honor had not arrived yet, but there were still speeches out in the Gravel Flats oval-ish town square, while the town’s brass band was busy playing for the crowd between speakers, despite a certain lack of tuning and having to borrow instruments and players from several surrounding towns. Booths had been set up all around the circular square to sell custom small-town items, games were on display to entertain all the curious travelers, and a showpony who specialized in magic tricks put on her act to one side of the street. There was even a banner stretching across the main street of the town proclaiming ‘Welcome Princess Luna and Princess Celestia’ in huge letters, the order of the princesses determined by the possibility that Celestia might cancel and therefore a brief bit of editing might need to then be done on the banner to make it a little shorter and more applicable.

Turpentine had been quite busy all morning since dawn, because the arrival of the Royal Sisters was scheduled for ‘Midmorning-ish depending on workload’ and he had certain arrangements to make before they showed. He would have preferred a quieter visit, but the town seemed to be bursting with civic pride and quite excited, which upon further consideration only made sense. Many of them had never seen a princess before except for photographs in the newspaper. Even the Duchess of East Fenwick had dropped by to make a speech and greet Celestia, which was only fair since Gravel Flats was inside her domain. With a little bit of consideration, Turpentine could easily think of their visit as sharing his own good fortune, because he certainly would have been upset if a princess had visited his hometown and nopony had told him until she had departed.

So once things had been all arranged, he took his place with the two other Very Important Ponies in the general vicinity of the Gravel Flats Town Hall, a somewhat large-ish building for a house and small-ish for a town meeting hall. It never would have been able to hold all the neighboring city ponies who were visiting for the festivities, so the unveiling of his portrait of Princess Luna had been moved to the front porch where at least most of them could see.

His part in the earlier section of the visit was fairly limited. The sisters would arrive, be greeted by the mayor and duchess, there would be the inevitable speeches, and then the unveiling. Afterwards, there was a tour of the town scheduled, and once lunch had been taken care of, the rest of the afternoon was all his to spend with Celestia and his paintbrush.

“Are you nervous?” Mayor Knothole grinned in a very insincere fashion while glancing around at the rest of the local lesser notables who were over by the street and looking to the sky for the incoming chariot. “I know it can be a such an honor to meet Princess Celestia. When she spoke at the mayoral conference in Canterlot three years ago, I even got to shake hooves with her and my knees were weak for hours afterwards.”

“She’s not that intimidating,” said Duchess Calyptra, an elderly earth pony mare who smelled slightly of dye, which was probably how she kept her deep magenta coat free of grey hairs even though her mane was nearly white behind the glitter of a thin gold coronet on top of her head. “Whenever I’m at court during Parliament, Princess Celestia is the model of warmth and acceptance for all of us. I’m certain that your Baron Gaberdine expended a great deal of political capital to bring her here under the excuse of you painting her portrait, but that does not mean you should be worried about offending your patron. I’m certain she will be accepting of whatever kind of painting you produce.” Her pale grey eyes slid sideways to pass a quick glance at the covered portrait. “I’m certain Princess Luna will be just as forgiving as her sister.”

“No, I’m not going to let you look at it before it’s presented,” said Turpentine. “I’m more worried about how—” He shut up quickly, taking another look around the crowd. There still was no sign of Baron Gaberdine or Sen, even though they had promised to show up. Their absence did not make him nervous, because every step of Turpentine’s actions had already been stage-managed by the two other important ponies. It did make him curious, because Ripple and Gaberdine had been very conspiratorial last night at dinner and refused to tell him anything about their plans. Even Sen had simply nodded along, as if he were a party to their conspiracy.

The three troublemakers really needed a responsible adult to keep an eye on them. Pearl might have been able to keep them under control, except she was obviously biased, and just giggled a little whenever Turpentine attempted to appeal to her mothering nature and tell him what was going on.

In any event, the Royal Phaeton with four Royal Guards pulling it was soon spotted on approach to the small village, and Turpentine fell in beside the mayor and the duchess like he was supposed to. After the huge chariot landed and the princesses emerged, he stepped forward with the rest of the delegation, shook hooves when prompted, then stood quietly with the rest of the ponies while the duchess, the mayor, and anypony else who seemed to want to make a speech got up and said very little in quite a few words. Princess Celestia and Luna did not speak, but took their places and roles much the same way as Turpentine, although with considerably more grace and poise because they had most likely gone through much this same kind of routine more times than Turpentine had cleaned his brushes.

In fairly short order, it was time for Turpentine’s brief presentation. He did not make a speech, but the mayor was perfectly happy to speak on his behalf while he got ready, and then step out of the way when Turpentine swept back the cover from the painting of Princess Luna under the waterfall.

At that point, the machinery of formality and routine seized up and ground to a halt.

“That’s a very nice—” Celestia cut off abruptly once she had gotten a good look at the portrait and just stood there afterwards with her jaw hanging slightly open. In contrast, the muscles on the sides of Princess Luna’s cheeks tensed up into nearly steel cords to prevent her polite smile from breaking into an extravagant grin, and she nodded politely to Turpentine.

“An extraordinary portrait, young sir. I can hardly wait to see how Celly’s turns out.” Shifting positions to her right, Luna continued, “Mister Mayor, what do you think of my portrait? Didst young Turpentine capture mine essence, and that of the Night which I represent?”

“Um…” Mayor Knothole stood almost frozen, with a look on his face that seemed remarkably like the first time Gaberdine saw the painting.

“Ah…” Duchess Calyptra mirrored the mayor’s pose, but after a short time, a wave of joyful realization swept across her face, and she leaned up closer to Princess Luna to whisper something into her ear. If Turpentine had not been so close and the crowd so silent, he would have missed it, but he could barely hear the duchess ask, “Who was he?”

It was obviously the question Luna was looking for, because she also lit up and giggled just as much as the duchess. After exchanging a few brief words with Calyptra, Luna turned to the crowd who were all looking at the painting with varying degrees of emotional confusion, cleared her throat, and gestured in the direction the tour was supposed to be headed next. It took a few minutes of confused scrambling around and backwards glances, but while she herded them along, the group began to wander in fits and starts in the correct general direction.

Celestia was almost left behind, but after giving one last glance at the painting, she lowered her head and whispered into Turpentine’s ear, “I hope you don’t—”

“I’m not going to paint you under the waterfall,” said Turpentine quickly. “Unless you really want me to, and I get permission. Princess Luna seemed just right there, but you’re… not really a waterfall pony, I don’t think.”

A faint twitch appeared in Celestia’s cheek and she gave another quick glance back to the portrait of her sister. “I could be a waterfall pony,” she said in a tone of slight protest. “I’ve been a waterfall pony before. It’s just… undignified.”

“Celly!” Luna’s voice drifted back on the wind from where the tour group was headed up the street. “We’re headed to the bakery. Hurry up, or there won’t be any cake left.”

“Coming, Luna!” Celestia lowered her voice and turned her attention back to Turpentine. “I have every confidence that you will paint my portrait… well,” she finished almost apologetically. “I can hardly wait to see how it turns out. Now, we need to catch up with the rest of the tour.”

* *  * *

The tiny town of Gravel Flats had a lot more ‘tour’ in it than Turpentine expected. The blacksmith shop had the davits for Gaberdine’s speedboat almost done and put out front on display, while the greenhouse had put out one of every kind of flower they grew and seemed to expect Celestia and Luna to graze down through them all. Even the Speedy Cargo wagon was out in front of their delivery hangar, all gleaming in dark green with golden letters under several coats of fresh wax. The wagon painting was a gift that Turpentine was extremely proud of, and he tolerated the additional kisses that the sisters gave his cheeks today with all of the adult poise of his eleven years and several days of age.

Turpentine had to admit he was not paying as much attention to the town tour as he should have near the end, but his ears perked up when he heard the mayor say, “And thanks to Baron Gaberdine and his generous gift, our town now has a brand new dock.”

It was an impressive riverside dock, all fresh and covered with spar varnish to prevent rot. They had even sprinkled sand across the varnish before it dried so hooves would have a good grip on the wooden planks when they got wet. The whole construction was quality craftsponyship, much like the compact crate Sen had put together on short notice for Turpentine to carry his paintings, and it was a worthy replacement for the rotting wood he could see just a little distance under some tarps, awaiting disposal.

The new dock also looked very familiar.

“Do you like it?” whispered Missus Shutters from right behind Turpentine. Sen’s widowed marefriend seemed overflowing with happiness at Turpentine’s stunned expression and patted him on the captain’s hat she had given him when they first met. “Sen and a bunch of the townsponies spent almost a week driving new pilings and putting it together.”

“It’s… very nice,” admitted Turpentine. “Sturdy.”

The elderly mare had a youthful twinkle in her eyes when she swept him up in a brief hug, complete with an additional nuzzle across the captain’s cap. “Sen said you’d appreciate the use we found for your raft. He talks so much about you every time he comes over in the evenings, particularly about the portrait you did for him of Baron Miller. He won’t admit it, but he’s an old softie and your gift hit him right in the heart. If we were fifty years younger, I think the two of us would adopt you in a moment.”

“Thank you,” said Turpentine in what was becoming a reflex. It was not an unwelcome offer on her behalf, because Missus Shutters had been very welcoming, and several times over the last few weeks had sent particularly tasty desserts for Baron Gaberdine’s dinner table by way of Sen. He started to respond further, but something had caught the elderly mare’s eye and she was looking upstream with a growing expression of fascination matched by others in the crowd.

Although Turpentine was a big colt, he was still short, and all of the rest of the adult ponies in the crowd were far taller than he was. It took until he had wriggled through the crowd to the fairly empty area around the princesses that he managed to see what was so interesting, and then it was his turn to stare in open-jawed amazement.

Castle Paradise was steaming downstream, all bright with new paint and trailing a thin stream of pale grey smoke from her tall smokestack. Baron Gaberdine had managed to find triangular white pennants to fly on each side of the cabin, which when combined with the pastel pinks and blues of the trim paint, did actually make the majestic riverboat look like a larger version of Princess Celestia proceeding grandly down the river.

Or an enormous swan, if Turpentine squinted and turned his head just right.

It was impossible for Baron Gaberdine to look any prouder while standing behind the ship’s wheel, although at first glance, Turpentine could not tell if the source of his pride was the beautiful riverboat working the way it was supposed to, or the beautiful pale mare at his side. A few weeks ago, Turpentine would never have guessed that Pearl would be willing to be seen out in public, and he was fairly certain that Gaberdine’s presence at her side was the only reason she was there now, but she was smiling more than the baron, and there was a certain appeal to the scene that Turpentine was determined to immortalize in canvas and paint soon.

Even though he was a beginner pilot, Gaberdine managed to get Castle Paradise nudged up to the new dock with only a few small thumps, and once the townsponies had tied it up, the town tour took on a more aquatic nature. It felt odd to have other ponies climbing all over the place Turpentine had called home for the last few weeks, but he adapted in short order by showing the little ponies from school around the riverboat and cautioning them to keep their hooves and noses away from any of the dangerous parts. The most popular part of the tour was the whistle, of course, with short toots from each student, but when Celestia and Luna took up Gaberdine’s offer of a short cruise up and down the river, all of the little whistleblowers took their place behind the rails to wave at the older town-bound ponies.

Although he wanted to be on board for the short cruise too, Turpentine stayed behind in town to make final arrangements for the painting (and to sneak a bite of Missus Shutter’s pecan pie out of the buffet). It was a little lonely, standing on the new dock and waving to the departing riverboat and the waving students, but it allowed him to catch the exact moment Princess Luna sounded the whistle and the stentorian honk of a giant swan came out instead. It was a moment of great levity for everypony involved, particularly when Princess Celestia unceremoniously tossed her sister overboard before the echoes of the enormous honk had quit echoing from the surrounding landscape.

* *  * *

In a few months, the snow would cover this section of hillside with a downey whiteness that would be great fun for ponies of all ages, providing material for snowball fights and snowponies, little ponies making snow alicorns and big ponies using it as an excuse to drink hot cocoa drowned in marshmallows. Right now, it was carpeted in white dandelion fluff from Mister Pectic’s fall crop of seeds, which Turpentine had purchased… well, promisedto purchase before the vintner found out about his plan and promptly donated the use of the entire field to him.

The crate that Sen had made to carry Turpentine’s painting equipment securely also made a pretty useful something to stand on, and he raised his voice in order to be heard by all of his classmates, as well as the four Royal Guards who had been convinced to pile their armor to one side. Since they did not have to pull the Celestial Phaeton back to Canterlot for a few hours, there was no reason to leave them out of the fun too.

“What I want you all to do this afternoon is to go play in the dandelions,” said Turpentine in as authoritarian voice as he could muster. “That includes the princesses, and… yes, Mister Guard?”

“Specialist Pinion,” said the broad-shouldered white pegasus, who seemed acutely uncomfortable with the twenty of Turpentine’s classmates scattered around him and the two princesses he was responsible for guarding being likewise separated from their crowns and armored shoes. It was a very awkward time with everypony looking at everypony else, but the guards looked even more hesitant than some of Ripple’s aunts considering a trip onto the shore. Without being able to hide under the river’s surface or behind his armor, the fidgeting pegasus looked much like a rabbit after a shadow passed over him from above. “You want us to… frolic?”

“I’m not sure I remember how,” mumbled one of the other guards.

Some ponies follow. Others lead. What kind of pony am I?

“I’ll show you. Come over here, and Princess Celestia, if you could lie down here.”

“I’ll stain,” said Celestia abruptly with her knees locked together and her ears laid back. “You have no idea how hard it is to wash grass stains out of a white coat.”

“You’ve been rolling in the grass before?” asked Pinion reflexively, only to freeze up even more rigidly than Celestia when her cool gaze swept in his direction, and not relaxing a smidgen when she turned her head back to Turpentine with all of the powerful sincerity she had acquired over a lifetime of diplomacy.

Before she could get a word out, Turpentine quickly asked, “Before Princess Luna turned into Nightmare Moon, the two of you played a lot?”

With considerable trepidation, that noble head nodded once, not taking her eyes off Turpentine for a moment. “Oh, certainly. But our times together got shorter—”

“And after you had to banish her to the moon, you didn't have anypony to play with, so you just worked all the time,” continued Turpentine.

“Not… all of the time,” said Celestia, sounding somewhat guilty and not looking to where Luna was standing by her side.

“And now that she’s back, you don’t play together at all?” pressed Turpentine.

“We have—” started Celestia.

“Not,” completed Luna with an air of absolute finality.

“I’ve been quite busy,” protested Celestia. “And rolling around in the grass is a little beneath the dignity—”

“Chuckle-Lot,” said Luna quite firmly.

“Once a year,” countered Celestia. “And not rolling around in the grass. Or dandelions,” she added with a glance at the waving field of whiteness.

It put a snag right in the middle of Turpentine’s plans, but he had one final option to try before giving up.

“Oh,” he said, trying to sound as disappointed as possible. Turpentine turned to the rest of the school ponies and kept his chin down in order to look dejected. He had quickly practiced this with Ripple and the rest of the students several times earlier, and it seemed like cheating, but it was cheating in a good way. “I’m sorry, guys. We can’t romp in the dandelions without Princess Celestia. I guess we’ll just have to go back to town.”

“Awwww…” The sheer force of twenty young ponies all projecting their best mournful eyes over his back and in the direction of Princess Celestia made his mane stand up and the hair between his shoulder blades prickle. It was probably an unfair advantage to bring all of his classmates when he only needed Ripple to break through Princess Celestia’s tough crust, because Turpentine could even hear the Royal Guards whimper with the impact of that many begging eyes.

“I’m not going to do it,” repeated Princess Celestia behind him, although her voice faltered once a few practiced sniffles sounded from the crowd of school ponies. “More than once,” she finally offered.

“Good!” Turpentine turned back around to the cheers of his small school companions. “Now lie down there in the grass at the top of this hill.”

“I can do it if you’re frightened, Celly,” offered Luna with a smirk.

“You’re next in line,” said Turpentine, nearly missing Luna’s stunned blink at the news. “Now, keep your legs stuck out in front and behind, and… uh… keep your wings tucked in, I guess.”

“I feel ridiculous,” said Celestia while stretching out a considerable distance in both directions. “Are you quite certain that I need to go through with this in order to have my portrait painted, young Turpentine?”

“Yes.” Turpentine nudged the ‘volunteer’ Royal Guard into position. It took a little poking and prodding to get Specialist Pinion rather uncertainly set up beside his prone princess, looking as if he really wanted to be on the other side to keep Her Highness from rolling down the hill, but he looked up abruptly when Turpentine said, “Now, push.”

“Push?” echoed Pinion.

“Like this!” Luna promptly demonstrated the proper technique for rolling a rather large alicorn down a shallow hill covered in dandelion fluff by giving a solid shove and laughing uproariously at the result.

“Luna—!”

The effect was really more dramatic than Turpentine had expected. Celestia fairly vanished into a moving cloud of dandelion fluff, but her tumbling path was easy enough to trace, both vocally and by the constant explosion of fluffy whiteness trailing out into the area where the hillside flattened out.

“My turn!” proclaimed Luna, flinging herself down and getting into the correct hillside tumbling pose. This time, Pinion really did give her a push and watched in fascination while the second princess whooped and shouted on her way down the hill.

“That looked like… fun.” Pinion turned to look at Turpentine. “You know, this was never in the Royal Guard Manual.”

* *  * *

The middle of the field was almost foggy with flying fluff when Turpentine took a break from rolling around in the dandelions in order to carry his painting crate down to where the largest lumps of giggling ponies were located. His plan had not really included playing in the fluff with the rest of the students, but the princesses needed some time to unwind and tire themselves out before he started painting. It made for a little free time on his behalf, and it looked like so much fun. When he would go to Canterlot next week to start looking for a family, it was most likely none of them would have dandelion fields like this, and this would be his last opportunity to have fun with Ripple while doing something silly they both had never done before.

Besides. Dandelions.

Celestia and Luna had been playing in the fluff even more enthusiastically than any of the colts or fillies from school, with wingfulls of fluff dumped over each other’s heads and dandelion fluff blowing contests that left both of them out of breath. They were obviously out of practice and had tired out quickly, finding a slight rise where they could both recline and watch the Royal Guards and school ponies frolic instead.

“Oh! Turpentine!” Celestia started to rise, only to have her sister dump a wingfull of dandelion fluff on her head, making her look like Celestia the Bearded until she shook most of the fluff off.

“Sister! Just relax and let young Turpentine paint.”

“But I’m such a mess!” She was too, with green smears of grass all along her sides and a thick coat of dandelion fluff stuck even in her flowing mane, making little waves as it was carried around in swirls and ripples much like an immaterial river. Celestia obviously braced herself before looking up at Turpentine with an expression of mixed worry and pleading, although the note of command in her voice was almost absent. “You’re not going to paint me like this, are you?”

Without even a hesitation, Turpentine said, “No, of course not.”

“He paints what he sees, silly.” Luna took a moment to blow the contents of a particularly fluffy dandelion over her sister’s face and smirk at the resulting uncomfortable twitch. “It’s not like a photograph.”

“Oh. I suppose.” Celestia looked up again, more subdued this time and a little plaintive. “It’s just that I’ve never been painted outside in the grass since Herr Spiegelei.” She took in Turpentine’s instinctive shudder and seemed to finally relax a little.

“You could close your eyes,” suggested Turpentine while setting up the easels. “You’re always busy around the castle, so you never get a chance to just relax.”

“Should I move?” asked Luna, although she did not make any preliminary motion to get up from her perfectly comfortable position snuggled up against her sister’s warm neck.

“No,” said Turpentine. “You could probably close your eyes too. Mister Caractère said I should paint you both with your eyes closed, since I don’t do eyes very well.”

“Do you mean,” asked Celestia while shifting positions slightly and leaning back against the fuzz-covered grass, “that you want the both of us to just lie here in the sunshine with our eyes closed and not move?”

“I can do that,” said Luna, who had already closed her eyes and snuggled a little further into her sisterly pillow.

“But I have important things to do,” protested Celestia faintly.

“Getting your portrait painted is an important thing,” stated Luna.

Although she opened her mouth to protest, after spitting out a few little bits of fluff Celestia closed it again. And then after a period of contemplation while Turpentine drew his initial sketch on the canvas, she closed her eyes too. “Just for a little while,” she stipulated.

- -  - -

Frolicking, gamboling and playing leapfrog was quite tiring for Turpentine’s young peers, who had abandoned the field of battle after several hours of intense play for home, hearth, and most likely, sincere scrubbing at the hooves of displeased mothers who would appreciate their little colts and fillies to be somewhat closer to their original colors. Even the guards had looked a little embarrassed at the number of green stripes on their snow-white coats, although their dour expressions cheered up whenever they took a subversive peek at the two giggling greenish alicorns striding onto the Celestial Phaeton and the drifting swaths of fuzz they were carrying along behind them.

At times like these, Turpentine was rather disappointed at not having a naturally greener coat like Ripple or even a darker green like her unicorn magic tutor, even though it had not kept Ripple from being gently herded back to the riverboat by her mother once the flying fuzz frolicking had died down to a few little fillies making dandelion alicorns. Before Pearl had gotten out of sight, she had sent a glance in his direction which seemed to somehow be encouraging and disparaging at the same time, as well as estimating how much soap it would take to get both of them clean. There seemed like no escaping the bath in his future, but the more important item of the moment was the damp canvas which Baron Gaberdine was floating along in front of him while on their way back to the riverboat.

“Careful,” urged Turpentine for the umpteenth time. He had his own burden, because Turpentine did not want his painting and his equipment carried by Gaberdine at the same time. After all, he might get distracted and drop one or the other. So the heavy crate of paints and the collapsable easel had been hefted up on his own smaller back while he supervised the painting’s move. It felt a little strange to be ordering the older baron around, but Gaberdine did not seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to enjoy their walk through the afternoon streets of the small town and toward the new dock where Castle Paradise was moored for the moment.

“I’ve got it,” repeated Gaberdine, carefully walking one step at a time down the street. “Did you get everything the way you wanted?”

“Almost. Just a little touch-up left for tomorrow. There’s a raised cobblestone here, so be careful.”

“I told you, I’ve—” Gaberdine caught the tip of his hoof on the cobblestone and stumbled a half-step, making a smooth recovery and giving a short snort of irritation. “Okay, no more questions until we get this hung up in your room.”

The quiet stroll gave Turpentine a chance to think while walking. In a few days once he was in Canterlot, the small room in the riverboat would not be ‘his’ any longer. The contents would all have to be packed up and stored somewhere until he found a family there, a search that Turpentine was looking forward to less and less as time went on. He would miss his weekly trips out to Baltimare and talking with Caractère about painting, although Baron Gaberdine would be making occasional trips to Canterlot for sessions of Parliament, and might be willing to stop by and pick the old pegasus up for a visit.

No, that would take Caractère away from his employment, and besides, Baltimare was almost in exactly the opposite direction. Also, long trips by air were probably not good for the old stallion. Even Sen had expressed his intense interest in remaining groundbound for the rest of his short career as seneschal, and had offered the services of a distant relative of his for Gaberdine’s Canterlot visits, but only for there. Friday Haystings had no intentions of stepping into Sen’s professional shoes and moving to Castle Paradise. He was a proper Canterlot gentlecolt’s gentlecolt, and had responded to Sen’s letter of invitation with such dry wit that the letter had to be shared among the five ponies at the castle’s dinner table, as well as being posted on the icebox for humorous contemplation whenever needed.

When Gaberdine reached the gangplank going up to the riverboat, Turpentine carefully dropped off his crate of painting materials on the dock and held castle doors open to guide his wet painting to the bedroom wall where it was going finish drying. Both of them breathed a sigh of relief once the wire on the back had been looped over the stout hook and the painting of the Royal Sisters was secure. After a period of close examination of the damp paint on both of their parts, with Turpentine looking for smudges and Gaberdine just looking, the baron reluctantly spoke up.

“It’s a fine portrait, but I think you may have lost a few… years for the Royal Sisters.”

“Centuries, more like,” mused Turpentine. “I wanted to show the way they were at their happiest, and I couldn’t have painted Celestia without her sister.”

Balancing their ages had been the hardest part, because Luna had to look young, but not helpless, and Celestia had to seem older, but not old. In the end, he had decided to show Luna at about Ripple’s age, young and filled with energy and mischief, while Celestia was more his own age, old enough to know better and to protect her younger sibling from harm. But still young enough to have childish fun, like rolling in dandelions.

Turpentine flicked an ear, which was playing involuntary host to at least three pieces of fluff and considered that perhaps a bath this evening would not be all that bad. After all, the sounds echoing around the riverboat revealed Ripple was already in the tub being vigorously scrubbed by her mother. From the way Gaberdine smiled and glanced toward the closed door to the bathroom, he also enjoyed the sounds of mother and daughter sharing his floating house.

Adding a stallion-like chuckle to his smile, Gaberdine said, “What a day. Fluff and grass stains everywhere. Oh, you have a couple on the paint.” Gaberdine leaned forward and squinted at the troublesome little bits of fluff. “Don’t worry. I can get them.”

The baron lit up his horn, but Turpentine held a hoof across his nose. “No, sir. Leave them.”

“But—”

“No,” said Turpentine in his most authoritative voice, although quiet enough not to disturb the bath going on next door. “Please.”

“Hmm… I suppose.” The baron cast a mischievous glance Turpentine with a twinkle in his dark eyes. “Looks like you could use a bath too. Are you sure you don’t want to go hop in the tub with Ripple while the water’s still warm?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Turpentine shook his head. “I don’t think it’s very… properity. I mean… she’s a filly. And I’m eleven now.”

Gaberdine’s mischievous smile calmed down to a faint echo of itself. “How quickly they grow up. Well, there should be plenty of time this evening after we get the castle docked back in the lagoon. Sen is staying the night with Missus Shutters again, but he laid out fresh sheets so Ripple and Pearl can stay the night here too. That way we can talk for as long as you want tonight, before… You know.”

“Before I go to Canterlot.”

Whatever Turpentine was going to say after that was lost when the sound of seapony voices began to rise from the bathroom next door. It started with Ripple skipping merrily up the musical scale in a glissando of fluid notes, leaping and dancing through the melody the same way she could dart through the water. Then Pearl joined in, supporting her daughter in a resonant harmony that made Turpentine’s heart ache, a powerful chorus of both joy and sorrow that simply cried out for a strong tenor counterpart.

The music swept through the bedroom where Gaberdine and Turpentine stood in silent witness, holding them spellbound as it surged and ebbed against the walls of the riverboat like a tidal wave of music until the older stallion leaned forward and opened his mouth. Gaberdine held that pose for an impossibly long time, although it was only for a few seconds before he settled back onto his hooves and blinked away tears. Turpentine knew just exactly what the older stallion felt like because he too had wanted to join in. The pang of yearning in his soul begged to be released in song, to the point where if there was a way to sacrifice his entire painting talent in exchange for the ability to capture the moment in any fashion at all, he would have given it up in a heartbeat.

Then, after a period of timeless beauty, it was over, and all that could be heard from the bathroom next door was mother and daughter giggling over the bubbles again.

- -  - -

Sitting on Gravel Flats’ new dock beside the riverboat was a good place for both Turpentine and Gaberdine to recover, since there was a quiet breeze from the north and a hint of upcoming frost in the air. They had both almost crept out of Turpentine’s bedroom on the tips of their hooves and did not exchange a single word until they were out in the fresh fall sunshine for several minutes and the feeling of reality had finally sunk back into their skins.

“Wow,” breathed Turpentine almost in a whisper.

“You said it,” echoed Gaberdine after a few more calming breaths. “Wow.”

After due consideration of the late afternoon sun and the way the clouds near the horizon promised an unforgettable sunset for the evening, Turpentine took a deep breath. “You’re a very lucky stallion, Mister Gaberdine.”

“Far more than I deserve.” Gaberdine turned his head slightly to look at the distant mountain peak of Canterlot, just barely poking up above the horizon. “It’s hard for me to believe that was my home, until I came here. I thought it was where I belonged, but I was wrong, and I didn’t realize it for…” He chuckled and shook his head. “A week. That’s all it took. A short lifetime of growing up and working my way up the bureaucracy, all gone away in less time than it takes to check the numbers on a budget.”

“Maybe I’ll find my home there,” said Turpentine while trying and failing to sound enthusiastic about the possibility.

“Doing budgets?” Gaberdine laughed again, but this time in a much more carefree and relaxed manner at Turpentine’s instinctive shudder when faced by his mortal enemy. “Sorry,” he added with a smile that indicated very little regret, but it was perfectly fine with Turpentine, who promptly proceeded to laugh too. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day, and it was not even all the way over yet.

“By the way,” said Turpentine, trying to sound older and mature with the secret entrusted to him. “I talked with Princess Luna about you after the painting was over. She said there was going to be a surprise meteor shower this evening in your honor.”

“Really?” After a moment of consideration, Gaberdine gave a short nod. “I’ll have to make lemonade for while we’re out on the deck tonight appreciating it.”

I’ll make lemonade,” said Turpentine with a brief snort of amusement. “I talked with Princess Celestia too. She said Luna is just as bad with cooking as you are, or worse.”

“I’m not that bad,” protested Gaberdine without much sincerity.

“Luna admitted she once managed to set ice cubes on fire.” Turpentine rubbed his nose to get out the dandelion fluff he had accidentally inhaled. “She also said she thought you were cute, and that it was too bad you were taken.”

“Oh?” Gaberdine nodded and took a quick peek over his shoulder at the riverboat. “She’s a magnificent mare. Whenever I saw that painting you did of her, I could see the stallion who was worthy… The stallion I could never be for her.” He took a long, shuddering breath and looked back up at the cloudy horizon, but did not say anything else.

“I talked with Pearl before my birthday party,” said Turpentine, somehow triggered by the distant expression in Gaberdine’s eyes. “She wished she could turn me into a seapony so I could go live with her and Ripple beneath the waves. I thought it was… nice.” Turpentine took a moment to rub a fleck of irritating fluff out of his eyes before they got too watery. “She needs you. She needs you to protect her, and to be with her, and never to be apart.”

“I know.” Gaberdine wrinkled up his nose and wiped away a piece of dandelion fluff.

They need you.” Turpentine tried to put as much emotion into the words as possible, but he could not help feel them backlash on himself. All he could think of was the good times of the last few weeks, from diving through all of the secret underwater playgrounds with Ripple to feeling the glory of creation while painting princesses. It was like he had stumbled on some secret garden full of magical beauty, and if he ever left, he would never be able to find his way back.

“I’m going to miss this.” It was actually Gaberdine who said what Turpentine was thinking, and he kept silent while the older stallion continued. “Ripple is a joy to be around and Pearl is… Pearl, but having you here really makes my day, Turpentine. You’ve given me a look at life I’ve never seen before.”

“So have you, sir. I mean Gabby.” Turpentine glanced back at the riverboat and lowered his voice. “One of the first things Ripple ever asked me was if I thought you would be a good father for her. I wasn’t sure at the time because I’d never met you, but… I think you are.”

“No, I’m not,” said Gaberdine slowly, somewhat as if it were a mental path he had trod many times. “A father should always be there for his children, from when they’re born until they no longer need him.” He paused for a long time after that, still looking off into the distance at the clouds until with considerable reluctance, he added, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” said Turpentine, who had been waiting for the inevitable apology, like everybody tried to apologize after saying something awkward about his absent parent. “A real father should be there when his children need him, just like your father tried to help you. He was wrong, but he tried, and that’s what is important. It didn’t matter to him when you said you didn’t need his help. In his eyes, you did, and he’ll always be there for you, no matter what. Ripple trusts you, and treasures her time spent with you as much as she loves to play with me. You may not be Ripple’s father from birth, and you may think you’re not ready to be a father, but when she needs a father—” Turpentine blinked back something that had gotten into his eye “—you are an excellent one to her.”

“Hm…” The corner of Gaberdine’s lips twitched ever so slightly and he gave Turpentine a sideways look. “I did say you saw things in a way I couldn’t, didn’t I?”

“Sometimes, you get too close to things and you can’t see them very well.” Turpentine patted the logs of the dock they were sitting on. “When I saw this raft, all I could see was an exciting trip with Baltimare and my destiny at the end of the river. I knew the happiness I was looking for was there, and all I needed to do was drift downstream until I found it.”

“I would say happiness found you first,” said Gaberdine with a chuckle. “She tracked you down on that little island, suffered through the flu at your side, and gave you years worth of material to paint. And I’ve got to say, you’ve spread a lot of happiness here too, between getting Ripple to practice her transformation magic enough to be seen in public, managing to get Pearl to meet my parents, and having both princesses at your beck and call. You got Celestia to roll down a hill full of dandelions, of all things. Fluff and grass stains everywhere, and I’ve never seen her happier.”

Gaberdine’s words seemed faint and distant to Turpentine, because something inside his gut seemed to explode into fireworks and fountains that held him frozen in place even more than the seapony song.

He was happy.

There was no time in his life where he was happier than this moment, not when he got his cutie mark, or his faded memories of his mother, or even just after the first time Ripple had nearly drowned him. It had slipped up on him so quietly and grown by one seapony giggle and drop of river water at a time, but it was there now that he knew what he was looking for, filling his chest with a warmth that he had searched in vain for without knowing how to recognize it.

All of the times he had been adopted, he had been looking for happiness to be given to him, just like the other gifts the prospective parents had insisted on giving to him. He had never given back to them with his own heart and soul, not like the paintings he had done for the strange but recognizable family on this old riverboat. He had only felt safe opening his heart to Mother Windrow, whose words now resonated through his head all the way to his tail.

You can always make me happy. I’ve just not been able to make you happy in return.

It was a moment he wanted to cherish forever, a full circle from the time he had first stepped onto the log raft and pushed it away from his old home until now, where those same logs had been given as a gift to this town. There was risk of failure on all sides now, with the newfound happiness in his heart in danger of being snuffed out if he made the wrong move, but it did not worry him in the slightest. Caractère had encouraged Turpentine to follow his instincts while painting the princesses, and those same instincts drove him almost effortlessly into his next words.

“I don’t think I’m ready to go to Canterlot.”

Gaberdine seemed a little set back and cocked his head to one side before responding, “You mean this week?”

“No. Like…” Turpentine’s eleven year old mind churned with words, kinda-sorta overwhelmed by thinking forward in time and grasping for some solid point of reference that would make him sound less like he was babbling. “Like this raft, sir.”

“Gabby, please,” said Gaberdine.

“Sir,” insisted Turpentine. “Please let me finish. You see, I’ve been drifting through life just like this raft, waiting to see where I’ll wash up. I thought that would be Baltimare, but I know better now. I need to be somewhere I belong, somewhere I’m happy. A place where I can practice my painting and learn the skills to become the famous painter I can be, even if it’s not the way I thought about it at first. A place where others need me as much as I need them. Here.”

There was a very long pause while Gaberdine soaked up his little speech, and although the baron looked reluctant, there seemed to be some sort of spark in the back of the older stallion’s mind urging him onward too, and making his discouraging words in return lack a great deal of sincerity. “You know I really don’t think I’m ready to become a father yet, Turpentine.”

“I know,” said Turpentine rapidly. “I’m not sure if I’m really ready to be a son yet either, and I don’t think Miss Pearl is ready to be a wife again, or a mother again either. But time has a way of sneaking up on me. Someday, you’re going to be a really good father. Maybe you could… try?”

At least Gaberdine was thinking about it, even though he was slowly shaking his head from side to side. The glow of happiness in Turpentine’s chest flickered a little, but did not go out, because there was something familiar to Gaberdine’s expression which he had last seen on this same raft several weeks and a lifetime ago, during an afternoon much like this. It reminded Turpentine of the stressed unicorn that Gaberdine had said he used to be, and how life with the seaponies had made him a better pony.

It was difficult, but he was still happy, so Turpentine took a deep breath of the river-scented air, trying his best to look at things from Gaberdine’s point of view. It only stood to reason, because if some pony had walked up to Turpentine and asked to be his little brother, it would take some time to get used to the idea and not turn him down immediately. Plus, he had practically ambushed the older stallion, and possibly frightened him much the same way Pierce had been frightened when he discovered he was going to be a father.

From somewhere under the dock, a bullfrog let out a raspy croak while a few dragonflies buzzed by on iridescent wings. It was a rich environment of sight and sound he had gotten accustomed to in rapid order with Ripple’s helpful assistance, and one in which he could feel the little corners and notches of his life fit, not perfectly, but with time...

Giving a noncommittal noise halfway between a grunt and a sigh, Gaberdine finally shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

It was difficult, but Turpentine nodded. “I understand. It was a dumb idea, anyway.”

“No, it’s a good idea,” said Gaberdine, still looking thoughtfully across the river. “The timing is just a little off. I mean, you said it yourself. I’m not really ready to be a father and Pearl really isn’t ready to be a mother again. And Ripple—” Gaberdine cut off with a chuckle.

“Ripple is ready for anything,” said Turpentine. “Sometimes, too much so.”

“You said it.” Gaberdine shook his head again. “She’s going to be a problem when I go to hire my next seneschal.”

Turpentine nodded. “Sen is getting a little old. He seems to spend more time at Missus Shutters’ house than out at the castle with you.”

“Missus Shutters has a softer and warmer bed,” said Gaberdine, looking like he was concentrating on something else and the words just slipped out without him realizing it. “You see, I’ve been thinking about taking Castle Paradise up and down the river this spring to survey my barony, but Sen is getting a little old to be traveling for days at a time. Since he and Missus Shutters have… well, an arrangement of sorts, I was considering hiring a new seneschal on a training basis for the barony while I was out and about.”

“Oh,” said Turpentine, trying to think of what the riverboat would be like without the old earth stallion. “He or she had better know how to cook.”

“True.” Gaberdine nodded. “They would also have to be aware of the… special nature of Miss Pearl and Ripple.”

“Absolutely.” Turpentine nodded. “The seaponies need to be protected.”

“I doubt I’d be able to find an experienced seneschal who would be willing to move to the castle. Management skills and sailing experience is an odd skillset to find around here.” Gaberdine pursed his lips and looked up at the bright white riverboat. “She’s a magnificent place, but a little smaller than most employees would prefer, and moving around on the river all the time would be a strain. Most experienced seneschals have families, and there’s just no room on board for more than four or five ponies. So I was thinking about hiring a cabin colt to do the work Sen can’t do, just like when Baron Miller hired Sen to help out Seneschal Sentinel.”

“That makes—” Turpentine’s mouth stopped, but his mind kept working. He examined the idea carefully from all sides, giving it little pokes and prods to see if it was going to fall apart.

“It would be a part-time job,” explained Gaberdine, who seemed to be looking downstream at a distant steam tug chuffing along down the river. “Sen may not retire fully for several years yet, so whoever I hire as cabin colt is going to have a lot of spare time when they’re not studying for their promotion.”

“Would there be math involved?” asked Turpentine hesitantly.

“Most certainly, in order to keep the books up to date,” stated Gaberdine. “However, I have a young and talented engineering assistant who can help out with the training, so I don’t see that as a problem.”

Nothing was ever as easy as it seemed, but having to work his way through math did not seem quite so much of an obstacle anymore. “Would I… I mean would this cabin colt be able to make trips to Baltimare on occasion?”

“Yes, as well as traveling with me to Canterlot when Parliament is in session,” added Gaberdine. “Several of the nobles there are quite fascinating, and would make a trip very educational. Not to mention Their Highnesses, who have always been willing to assist young talent along with a gentle nudge or two.”

Turpentine thought back to his hometown and the busy mayor when she had been supervising the moving of their town hall to higher ground. To even think the alicorns who moved the sun and moon would take the time for a young colt like himself would have been ludicrous a few weeks ago, but he had not one, but two paintings which proved otherwise.

Princess Celestia had been so completely right, much like he suspected she was most of the time. A family had found him. A little strange, somewhat awkward, and not anything like he had expected. He would have to grow into it, but he was going to grow anyway, and like a plant growing toward the light, he would change for the better.

Speaking of changes…

“Mister Gaberdine.” Turpentine reached up and took the captain’s cap off his head. It really was not his size, and he turned it around in his hooves before extending it forward to the older stallion. “There’s something I noticed when you were piloting Castle Paradise. You’re a captain, and that deserves a hat to go with it. Princess Celestia has her crown, and Duchess Calyptra has that little golden circlet in her mane. If you’re going to be a captain, you should look the part, just like Baron Miller.”

Gaberdine’s horn stuck up at an odd angle, so the symbolic gesture did not go as well as Turpentine had hoped. The hat still fit, but did not look as natural as a new one from the store would, and despite the gesture, he made a mental note to buy one at the earliest opportunity. Besides, Gaberdine looked good in a captain’s cap. Decisive. Taller, somehow.

“About that job, sir.” Turpentine looked up and fought the mischievous grin which was trying to sneak onto his face. “Is Captain Gaberdine accepting applications today?”

“For a limited time.” Gaberdine cocked an eyebrow at him. “Can you think of any applicants?”

“Just myself, sir.” Turpentine tried to look as serious as possible. “I’m done drifting through life, sir. I need someplace to… I need a safe harbor.”

Gaberdine nodded, although he seemed to be blinking more than usual. “I’d be happy to provide you that safe harbor to drop anchor in, Turpentine. I may not be ready to be a father just yet, but I think I can be a pretty good captain until we’re both ready.”

The smile that Turpentine was holding back could not be denied any longer. He saluted, or at least held a hoof to his face like some of his storybooks had shown. “Permission to come on board, Captain Gaberdine?”

“Aye, aye.” Gaberdine saluted back. “Welcome aboard, son.”

- -  - -

Barony of Fen
Official Census (Revised)

Permanent Resident(s)

Castle Paradise IV: Five inhabitants

- Baron Gaberdine of Fen
- Sienna, Senechal of Fen
- Lady Pearl of Fen, and her daughter, Ripple
- Turpentine, Cabin Colt for Castle Paradise

Transient Residents

Four (4) Ducks (one adult, three adolescents, currently out of the vicinity to return in the spring)

Your faithful servant
Baron Gaberdine of Fen

P.S. Correction

One turtle, ‘Aspidochelone’ currently hibernating in the mud by the castle.

Thank you both, from the bottom of our hearts.

Gabby and Pearl

 
 
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