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.




8. Night Moves

"She was at work on what they said was her greatest picture when she took sick, and every day and every night it was her prayer to be allowed to live till she got it done, but she never got the chance. It was a picture of a young mare in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her mane all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face…"

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

“Baron Gaberdine of Fen.” The female voice from the darkness outside of the riverboat was both strong and measured, as if the speaker were exerting the greatest control over her words. “Your Princess of the Night begs permission to enter your domain. With guests.”

With a mouse-like squeak of fear and a clatter of hooves, Pearl vanished out the cabin door that lead to the bathroom. From the sounds afterward, she might have also hidden in the bathtub too, but what drew Turpentine’s attention more than anything was the stunned and quite wide-eyed expression Baron Gaberdine was giving to the other door in the cabin.

The one that led outside.

“P-p-princess L-luna?” he stammered.

Ripple nodded and coughed once, covering her mouth with a flipper. “I used some of the enchanted paper you use to send Princess Celestia and Princess Luna reports about us, Mister Gabby. I wrote the note and put my magic to it just like you showed and it whooshed out the window on its way to them. She got here awfully fast,” added Ripple. “I hope she brought the doctor I asked for.”

Even though Gaberdine’s hooves seemed to be welded to the floor, his wide eyes turned to give Ripple a disbelieving glance, then turned on Turpentine, who was still wrapped around the bucket and splattered with specks of vomit. “It’s P-princess Luna,” he repeated almost automatically. “She came to…”

“Baron Gaberdine,” came the soft voice from before. “I’m waiting.”

“Yes!” yelped Gaberdine, scrambling forward toward the door and out of Turpentine’s vision as he galloped down the gangplank to the shore. Even if he were well, Turpentine would not have been able to hear the conversation going on at the shore from inside the cabin, but he tried to listen anyway. While he sat there, Ripple scampered down from the desk and padded up to him so she could put a cool flipper on his forehead, shaking her head much the same way as Gaberdine had.

“You’re really hot.”

“You didn’t have to write to Princess Luna to get a doctor,” rasped Turpentine.

“I was worried.” Ripple poured him a little more milo tea and sat there like a pale green lump as he drank it between coughing fits. “I have my mother, but I never had a good friend before, other than Baron Mister Miller, and he passed into the Eternal Pastures in his sleep because he was old, not sick. I didn’t want you to go there too, just like I don’t want you to go to Baltimare.”

“Going to Baltimare isn’t the same as dying.” Turpentine forced himself to take another mouthful of the vile tea. “I’d come back.”

Ripple moved closer and nuzzled him along his neck, her coat feeling almost ice cold against his blood-warmed skin. “My father said that too,” she whispered, remaining pressed against him until the door to the cabin cracked open and a very old unicorn poked his nose inside.

The doctor was more grey than sky-blue across most of his coat, with a nearly pure white fringe of a beard and twinkling grey eyes. The unicorn did not look startled or surprised at all at the way Ripple was nestled up against his side with her flippers spread wide for stability, but he lit up in a warm smile that showed a golden tooth while he slipped the rest of the way into the room. He was obviously a doctor, from the stethoscope around his neck and the wrinkled white labcoat which bore signs of being put on in a hurry, but he certainly seemed friendly enough when he addressed Ripple in a warm, deep tenor.

“Hello, Ripple. My, how you’ve grown. You’ll be as tall as your mother before long.”

Ripple did not respond right away, because Turpentine could tell she was suppressing a sniffle against his neck, but he looked up in her place and nodded a silent greeting to the old unicorn.

“And you must be Mister Turpentine who Princess Luna told me about,” said the doctor with a warm smile. “I’m Doctor Plover. Let’s see how you’re breathing before we do anything else.”

Ripple finished sniffing and watched as the old stallion put the cold end of a stethoscope against Turpentine’s barrel, moving it around with occasional instructions on breathing and introspective noises that doctors always seemed to make whenever they did not have anything important to say. She cleared her throat to get his attention, then gave a brief cough, but he continued ignoring Ripple as he worked, which was probably a bad idea.

“So, can I call you Turp?” asked the doctor as he moved the cold stethoscope over some particularly ticklish ribs. “Breathe.”

After as deep a breath as he could take, Turpentine said, “Please no. Some of the colts from home called me Turp the Durp.”

He coughed raggedly after speaking, which gave Ripple the opportunity to float the end of the stethoscope over to her and ask, “Why did—”

“Ahhahyea!” yelped the elderly stallion, jerking away and yanking the stethoscope out of Ripple’s magical grasp. “Ripple, don’t do that.” He rubbed his ears and added, “I saw you when you were very small and your mother brought you up the river. You needed immunizations to live in Equestria, and Princess Celestia made the arrangements.”

“Oh.” Ripple sniffed, still leaning up against Turpentine’s sweating side. “The immunimumizations didn’t work. I’m sick.”

“Not nearly as sick as your coltfriend,” said the doctor. “It sounds like you have some fluid in your lungs, young lad. Have you been underwater lately?”

“Yes, he has,” said Ripple while Turpentine was suppressing another cough. “I took him swimming and used the water breathing spell on him.” She sniffled again. “Did I hurt him?”

“Nothing a few shots won’t cure, since we caught it early,” said the doctor. “Let me get my nurse in here and we’ll have you both right as rain in a few shakes. It will take a few days for your lungs to recover before you can use that spell again, young lad, so no swimming for at least a week, just to be safe.”

Doctor Plover gestured at the door, which he had left open a crack, and a slim young pegasus slipped into the room carrying a bag in her mouth. She was as dark as a shadow, with well-shaped membranous wings and the furriest ears Turpentine had seen, topped with a white nurse’s cap over a woven dark blue mane that glittered and sparkled with faint threads of silver in the room lights. Both golden eyes had slitted pupils like a cat, giving her an entrancing gaze, although she quickly looked down into the doctor’s bag whenever Turpentine caught her looking back at him. Her cutie mark was a thin silver line, almost invisible against her grey coat and looking much like the hypodermic needles she was producing from the bag or putting away as the doctor used them. Turpentine almost did not notice the sharp pains of the shots while he studied the body shape and subtle tints of the batpony nurse, along with the almost fluid way she moved when responding to each of the doctor’s instructions.

“Ow!” said Ripple, which broke Turpentine out of his entranced study of the nurse. He rubbed his warm neck against his seapony friend in delayed reassurance while the nurse got out a second needle.

“Now Ripple,” chided Doctor Plover. “You didn’t hear Turpentine complain when he got his shots.”

“Yeah, but he was making googly eyes at your nurse like Mister Gaberdine does when he looks at my mother.” Ripple stuck out her bottom lip when the doctor gave her the second shot, but she cheered up after he put away the needles and got out a pair of colorful lollipops.

“No hugs,” cautioned the doctor when Ripple started to lunge forward. “Since I’m the official castle physician, I still have other patients to see in the castle tomorrow, and I don’t want to catch your flu. I’ve had my shot, but let’s not take chances.”

“Aw…” Ripple pouted briefly, then perked back up again. “Will you have to come back out again and give us a checkup like Quackers the Duck did when he had to go to the hospital in the book?”

“Ah, Quackers Goes to the Hospital,” said Doctor Plover with a smile. “I read that book to the little foals in the castle infirmary. Whenever we have any, that is.” He gently tousled Ripple’s mane with one hoof.

* *  * *

After the doctor excused himself to go talk to Gaberdine and Princess Luna, the quiet batpony nurse tucked Ripple and Turpentine back into bed, although she seemed momentarily puzzled at the nest of blankets Ripple had made instead of curling up against the pillow with a sketchbook like Turpentine. Once she left the room, he drew feverishly, using a soft pencil as if it were a weapon against time, because he was still sick and trying to cough but as long as he was putting lines on paper, he could hold the impulse back. Something was happening outside, but it seemed as if the grown-ups were determined to hide all of the interesting things away from the sick little ponies.

Turpentine did not mind. He was drawing, and the rest of the world did not matter.

He was vaguely aware when another pony slipped into the room, but he was just finishing a tricky curve at the corner of the nurse’s eye and trying to get the shading just right when the soft voice from before spoke just to one side of his face.

“That is a wonderful drawing, young Turpentine.”

Turpentine looked up from his sketchbook and his heart stopped. Almost within nuzzling distance, the darkness of the star-strewn night flowed over Princess Luna’s crown, coiling down her neck in little whorls and streams sparkling with the glittering gems of tiny stars that almost matched exactly with the glitters of mischief he could see in her pale teal eyes. The smallest of smiles touched the corners of her narrow lips and brought the shadows over her tall cheekbones into a perfect contrast. The grace and beauty of the young batpony nurse suddenly looked crude and awkward by comparison, and Turpentine fumbled with his sketchpad to turn a page while lamenting his current state of un-wellness, as well as a lack of the specific tint of Luna’s eyeshadow in his painting supplies.

“You’re beautiful,” he blurted out. “Can I draw you?”

Luna’s magic smoothed down the page in his sketchbook he was trying to turn and she rotated the drawing of the batpony nurse for closer examination, although with the faintest shadow passing over her features while she scrutinized it. After a moment, the hint of sadness went away and she smiled, like the full moon emerging from behind a bank of clouds, and Turpentine could breathe again, even if it was just in short, raspy breaths.

“I… am flattered, young one, but thou art ill, and in need of rest. Lie down and sleep, for you are safe here. I have volunteered to watch over the two of you while the physician and young Ripple’s mother administer the rest of the flu shots among your family so no more may be affected by this distasteful plague.”

Luna’s magic lifted the sketchbook away from his desperate grab, although she seemed curious about the rest of his sketches, leaving Turpentine to settle for a careful examination of the seldom-seen princess from the edge of his covers. While Luna pretended not to notice his rapt attention, she paged through his sketchbook in silence with the occasional small smile or amused shake of the head.

It was curiously restful, even if Turpentine could not spend his time drawing. The peace and quiet of the riverboat cabin was broken only by the muted lapping of the waves against the hull and the distant cries of birds as they hunted through the night. Even Ripple did not say anything except a few small grunts when she settled down into her nest and a polite thanks when Luna floated a glass of juice over for her to drink. Turpentine did not ask for any juice because enough of Sen’s milo tea was still sloshing around in his belly for a few days, and far more importantly, he was watching Princess Luna’s face for every hint of emotion she showed as she paged through his sketch book.

It was entirely unfair the way the world simply faded away as he watched, until the eye-burning light of dawn broke through the cabin windows the next morning.

* *  * *

“Good morning, sleepy.”

Someday, possibly soon, Turpentine really needed to teach Ripple about personal space. At under nose-booping range, her bright green eyes were so sparkling with happiness that he could see himself reflected in them. Twice.

“Morning, Ripple.” Turpentine’s voice was a dull rasp until he cleared his mouth and turned his head to cough into the provided tissue. At least the phlem he hacked up was clear, because if it had been dark like Mother Windrow had always worried about, he probably would have thrown some sort of nervous fit to follow the cough. He blinked several more times, accepting the tissues Ripple floated over to him to get the crusty junk out of his eyes and one more cough until he felt like talking again. “Where’s Prin’ess Luna,” he croaked.

“She went home,” said Ripple, obviously conflicted by the concept from the way her perked-up ears drooped and then popped back up again. “She musta really liked your pictures, though. She took the sketchbook and said she’d bring it back in a week and pose for you. She was gonna have her nurse stay here and watch over us to make sure we’re getting better, but Mama didn’t like that.” Ripple lowered her voice and glanced all around the room before whispering, “I think Mister Gaberdine was watching her.”

“She was really watchable,” said Turpentine after another cough. “I’d love to see her fly sometime so I can see how her wings work. I’d never seen a batpony before, other than in pictures.”

He coughed again and shifted positions on the bed, moving to slide his hooves out from under the sheet on a slow but steady progress that necessity was driving. After taking a moment to let his legs get used to the unaccustomed weight of his body, Turpentine asked “So, is your mother going to watch over us while we recover?”

Ripple shook her head. “No, but Mister Baron Gaberdine and my mother had a talk and then they talked with Princess Luna, and then they—”

“Oh, you’re up, dear!” The elderly earth pony mare who scurried into their room with a pot of hot milo tea was a familiar sight to Turpentine because he had grown up under her roof for many years. The faded pink of Mother Windrow’s coat, as well as the contrasting purplish orchid of her grey-streaked mane had become so familiar to his painting that he most probably could mix the tints out of his limited collection of oil paints blindfolded. He had not realized her hazel eyes were the exact shade of Baron Gaberdine’s until she stopped in front of him and placed a hoof on his forehead.

“You’re still too hot, dear,” she said, nudging him back toward the bed. “Lie down and I’ll pour you a cup of tea. And one for you too, dearie,” she added with as much of a smile to Ripple as possible while holding a teapot in her mouth.

“I have to go potty, Mother Windrow,” he blurted out, although his ears burned with embarrassment after speaking. “I mean the bathroom,” he corrected. “Now?”

“Mister Sen says it’s called a head on a ship,” said Ripple before Turpentine vanished into the small room next door. “And that right is called starsboard, and left is ports, because sailors speak a different language.”

In whatever language, the toilet felt comforting and cold against his rear, far more than the scanty cover of a prickly bush, and the silky toilet paper could have been sculpted from clouds. His abused rear appreciated the caress, and afterwards he found himself casting an envious eye at the nearby bathtub, which also had soap and shampoo as well as other things like brushes and combs he had missed so much over the last few days.

“Could I take a bath before I lie down, Mother Windrow?” he called out after all of the wiping was complete and considering the embarrassing possibility that his orphan matron had brought along her thermometer.

Ripple squealed and burst through the door to the small bathroom, lifting herself up on her rear flippers and tail to look into the bathtub. He quickly flushed and put the lid down on the toilet, thankful that she had not come in a few minutes earlier.

“The water’s even hot!” declared Ripple after she stuck a flipper under the faucet and popped the cork into the tub. “Come on!”

In the orphanage, Mother Windrow had always overseen his bathing practices, with the iron-clad opinion of ‘Not frequent enough’ and ‘Not stringent enough.” She would check beneath the frogs of his hooves with a stern frown, inspect the inside of his ears for any speck of soil, and inevitably order him to remain in the freezing water while she applied a little more soap and elbow grease to the problem.

Also, he had gotten used to swimming with Ripple over the last few days, and learned to appreciate the almost liquid grace in the way she moved through water.

He had never thought those two experiences would ever be mashed together.

Mother Windrow obviously did not either, and although the frequent sniffles and occasional coughs of her two bath-ees restricted the inevitable splashing and bubbling between Ripple and Turpentine, it was a much more fun experience in the tub than he ever had before, even with having his mane shampooed twice. They splashed and sudsed through what felt like about a pound of sand and dirt getting scrubbed out of Turpentine’s tangled mane and coat, with Mother Windrow maintaining control over the long-handled bath brush with her steel-like jaws. There was even a faint smile leaking out from her grip on the wooden brush handle, and Turpentine could have sworn the elderly mare had intentionally splashed Ripple back with it once or twice during the bathing process.

By the time they were drying off, Turpentine could see two curious older ponies peeking through the crack in the bathroom door, both smiling. It was a fascinating scene for him, with Baron Gaberdine fairly bursting with pride and Pearl looking actually comfortable for a change instead of radiating an intense desire to be elsewhere. He soaked up the details revealed in their faces like a little watercolor sponge as related elements clicked together, much like the dot to dot drawings he had done as a foal and the brief experiment he had with Pointillism. Although he was tired and feeling sore everywhere, and certainly did not want to incite Mother Windrow into getting out her thermometer, he needed something to distract her while he grabbed one of his blank sketchbooks and wrote something down.

It was just a guess from the way Mother Windrow seemed fascinated with untangling and brushing the little seapony’s perpetually tangled mane, but he asked, “Could Mother Windrow braid your mane, Ripple?”

Ripple shrieked in happiness.

Mother Windrow smiled and got out her manecomb.

Turpentine slipped out of the bathroom, still a little damp.

* *  * *

He managed to get almost three pages filled in his spare sketchbook before Ripple flounced back into the cabin, proudly displaying the way her mane wove into itself as it descended her neck. Mother Windrow had even found a few pink ribbons from somewhere to tie into her mane and flutter in the wind while she bounced around, still a little damp but mostly dry. She insisted on having Turpentine draw her with the braid, although it was quite difficult for her to hold still, look at the artist, and turn the back of her head to him so he could draw her mane accurately.

Thankfully, there was a mirror in the room.

As he worked, Mother Windrow slipped by with a spoonful of medicine and a glass of chilled milo tea for each of them, and after watching him draw for a while, forced Turpentine to lie down even though the sun was high in the sky and giving the perfect light for painting. The bed was a far cry from resting his sand-encrusted flank against wet logs, and he relished the relative quiet when Ripple slither-flopped out to the galley with Mother Windrow to work on a little bit of oatmeal and some juice for her recovering little ponies. It made a good time to think instead of drawing, or at least think of something other than drawing.

He was still looking rather contemplatively into a corner of the room when Baron Gaberdine poked his nose through the doorway, obviously expecting to see a little slumbering pony instead of Turpentine’s wide-awake eyes.

“Oh! Um… You’re awake,” said Gaberdine. He fidgeted, casting a plaintive look at Turpentine’s sketchbook, and then out the window. “I happened to see some of your work when Princess Luna was looking it over and I was just wondering… Since you were sketching just now…”

Turpentine nodded and Gaberdine lit up his horn, floating the sketchbook over and flipping through a few pages. “Very nice,” he murmured, although the next page he flipped over seemed to confound him briefly. “Very…” Gaberdine coughed once and swallowed. “You seem to have caught Miss Pearl…”

The sketch he was looking at was not really that good. Turpentine always had problems with getting eyes just right, so he had drawn Gaberdine and Pearl leaning together at the doorway with his eyes half-closed and hers all the way shut. The dark pencil could not reflect either of their manes well, with his straight and proper, and hers tangled and water-blown, but the mixture of them together had made a nice counterpoint to the sketch. The baron did not say much more other than to flip through the few pages in the sketchbook Turpentine had managed to fill while waiting for Mother Windrow to come in with the oatmeal, but there was a question, or more correctly a series of questions that was bothering Turpentine.

“Mister Baron Gaberdine, sir—”

“Gaberdine,” said the baron. “Please. And no sir. From Ripple, it’s cute. From you…”

“It’s sucking up,” said Turpentine. “Yeah, I know. I just wanted to ask. Is Mother Windrow staying here for very long?”

“Only until the two of you are over your flu.” Gaberdine still looked a little distracted while he flipped over another page in the sketchbook. “She was very worried back when you ran away from her home, and when Pearl asked about finding somepony to help take care of you two, I thought it best to have somepony familiar with smaller children. In addition—” Gaberdine frowned and looked intently at the sketchbook instead of Turpentine “—I was not looking forward to informing her of your condition.”

“And since Castle Paradise only has three rooms… er… cabins, she’s staying in Sen’s cabin, right?”

Gaberdine waved a hoof in the general direction of town. “Sen is staying in Gravel Flats for the next few days with Madame Shutters… I mean at Madam Shutters Bed and Breakfast.”

“And Pearl is staying in your room, right?”

“Yes,” said Gaberdine, although he froze almost immediately afterwards and started backpedaling with the speed of a clown on a unicycle. “Not that there’s anything wrong with her staying in my cabin while her sick daughter is being cared for here. I’m sleeping on the floor. By myself. It’s perfectly proper.” He eyed Turpentine over the top of the sketchbook and gave a polite cough that had nothing to do with his own battle with the flu. “By the way, my father has made arrangements to meet me in Baltimare four days from now. If you would like, I can provide transportation and introduce you at an artist school there.”

“And I don’t mention this to your father?” asked Turpentine.

“And you don’t mention this to anypony,” said Gaberdine. “Particularly, my father.”

Turpentine nodded. “Good. That will give me a few days at school to set up for Princess Luna’s portrait.”

Author's Note:

Blackmail is such an ugly word.

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