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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11. The Hardest Teacher

"It don’t make no difference how foolish it is, it’s the right way— and it’s the regular way. And there ain’t no other way, that ever I heard of, and I’ve read all the books that gives any information about these things. "

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Turpentine wanted to sleep until noon the next day. After all, he and Gaberdine had gotten back from Baltimare in the dark, far later than expected. Although the trip back had given him time to examine the way pegasus wings looked in the moonlight, the Speedy Cargo wagon had still been in the air when the sun set, and Gaberdine nearly had to carry him into the riverboat half-asleep. The image of moving feathers glittering in the silver moonlight even pursued him into his dreams, and when Sen gently shook his shoulder in the light of the morning sun peeking through the cabin windows, Turpentine was momentarily set back by trying to figure out where the old stallion’s wings had gone.

“Good morning, lad. Breakfast is almost ready and I thought you would like to be up and awake when Ripple and Pearl arrive.” A small muscle twitched in Sen's cheek when he added, “Baron Gaberdine has been helping cook this morning.”

“Is anything on fire?” Turpentine held a hoof over his mouth when he yawned, but he was all the way awake now. Gaberdine was the only pony he knew of who could burn orange juice. “At least we have lots of water to put it out.”

“I hope we don’t need it.” Sen took a quick glance over his shoulder and sniffed the air. “Better go back and help him before he figures out I unplugged the toaster.”

Breakfasts on the riverboat were almost as good as Mother Windrow could make, at least if Gaberdine had not burned things too badly. Turpentine hurried through his morning brushing and combing to get to the table, only to be chased out onto the deck by Sen until things were ready. It was probably for the best, because something had gotten into Gaberdine’s coffee this morning. He was as twitchy and jittery as Mother Windrow always got before one of her gentlecolt callers came over, constantly darting to the galley window overlooking the entrance to the lagoon.

So Turpentine went out on the deck and flopped down on his belly to look out across the sunlit lagoon without even his sketchbook to keep him company, only a poppyseed bagel he had snitched off the table. It was a tough, contemplative food worthy of Turpentine’s present mood while he thought about his goals, both short and long-term.

“I probably would have wanted to make my preliminary sketches next to the waterfall at Ripple’s grotto anyway,” he mused out loud to help order his thoughts. “There wasn’t really any place at the school where I would have been comfortable painting her. All of the students would have wanted to watch a princess, and Mister d’Or would have… annoyed her by calling her old or something, like he annoys everypony, I suppose.”

He chewed some more on the tough bagel while watching the morning breeze make little glittering ripples all across the surface of the lagoon. It was peaceful and relaxing until he spotted a pair of v-shaped wakes out in the river inlet. Turpentine had gotten better at being able to spot the motions of underwater seaponies due to their abovewater ripples, and since one of the ripples was smaller than the other, it was most likely Ripple and her mother, here for breakfast as usual.

He checked the sky out of reflex, because the seaponies seemed to have an uncanny ability to spot passing pegasi, then got up to watch for when mother and daughter would emerge from the river, move up the grassy riverbank, and over to the gangplank. He liked to watch every morning, because there was something magical about the way Pearl transitioned from graceful underwater seapony to graceful unicorn, although with large hooves which at first glance would seem horribly ungainly.

Whenever Ripple would flop onto the shore, there was nothing graceful about her energetic motions. Still, she could move like lightning on land, even encumbered by her flippers, and Turpentine was looking forward to seeing just how she would look once she managed to get her transformation spell to work as her mother could do so effortlessly.

He just barely managed to catch a glimpse of the growing wave out of the corner of his eye while turning, allowing Turpentine not to be caught completely flat-hooved when the speeding form of Ripple fairly eruptedout of the water next to the riverboat. Soaring through the air with flippers wide open, she caught him around the middle in a flying tackle and sloshed across the deck with Turpentine locked in her vice-like grip. A near tidal wave of water followed her up onto the deck, enough to nearly wash the two of them back over the side again, but he managed to get his hooves on the deck first, spluttering and coughing while Ripple squeezed him with all the energy she could. The world was just starting to go dim when he became aware of Sen standing over them on the deck, gently tapping Ripple on the shoulder and speaking in a low, soothing tone.

“Ripple, you may wanna let go of Turpentine before you squeeze all the air out of him. He’s looking a mite pale.”

“I’m sorry!” Ripple managed at least to relax her wet constrictive hold enough for Turpentine to get a breath of air, but she trembled while holding him and did not move her face from his neck.

“I told you I’d come back,” he managed to gasp.

Ripple did not respond at first, or at least not until her mother glided quietly across the decking to put a hoof on both of their shoulders. She patted them a few times, obviously wishing she could just go jump back into the lagoon again, but eventually cleared her throat and asked in a near-whisper, “Did your trip to Baltimare not go well, Turpentine?”

Her mother’s soothing voice relaxed some of Ripple’s waterlogged grip so Turpentine could afford to talk while breathing, but he really did not know quite how to respond to the question. “Sorta, I suppose,” he managed to say. “Baron Gaberdine… I mean Gabby says the school isn’t quite right for me, and the more I think about it, the righter he seems. I don’t know where he would look, though.”

“Canterlot,” said Sen, who was still dry because he had been standing to one side in order not to get soaked by the recent tiny tidal wave out of the lagoon. He passed a fluffy dry towel to Pearl and two to Ripple before giving them all a short nod. “I’m off to town to mail a few letters, now that we have the kitchen extinguished.One of them is to the Canterlot Prestigious Institute for the Arts, and yes, ‘Prestigious’ is part of their name. Apparently, Duke Prestigious endowed it soon after Canterlot’s construction, and there’s been a member of his family in charge of the place ever since.”

“Canterlot?” Turpentine grimaced as Ripple began using the towel to dry his mane. “That’s an awful long way away. And up on the mountain, all full of high-class unicorns.”

The self-doubts only grew while Pearl and Ripple helped towel him off after his inadvertent bath. Turpentine had seen pictures of the legendary city, and Mother Windrow got the weekend edition of the Canterlot Times for the crosswords and cryptoquotes, so he had read articles about the fancy galas, balls, and parties. The top of Mount Canter was even visible on a clear day if you looked in the right direction and squinted a little, and Mother Windrow had let him stay up late the night Princess Cadenza and Prince Shining Armor were married, so he had seen the fireworks off in the distance, looking like tiny sparks of light. Thinking about going to fabled Canterlot made him feel like a little colt again, and just a little bit afraid.

Still, if he was going to be the famous artist he wanted to be in the future, Canterlot seemed to be where he needed to go. But for now, the present demanded his attention.

The oatmeal only had a few burnt flecks on the surface and the orange juice just had two pieces of peel in it, showing that Sen had caught the baron fairly early in the cooking process, but the rest of breakfast was just as delicious as ever. The only thing out of the ordinary was the way Gaberdine kept running over to the galley window every few minutes as if Santa Hooves were about to arrive on Hearth’s Warming morning.

And right at the end of breakfast, he did. Or at least somepony who Gaberdine treated much the same way. The Santa’s Little Helper in question was riding in a large, speedy riverboat with a smaller boat towed behind it as he sailed across the lagoon. The boat pilot, a cheerful yellow unicorn with a captain’s cap, waved while he pulled his boat up beside Castle Paradise and called out in a loud voice.

“Baron Gaberdine! I got your purchase right here. Ain’t she a beaut?”

“What?” Turpentine looked up at the grinning baron, who was staring entranced out the window, then over at Ripple and her mother. The seaponies seemed conflicted at the sudden appearance of another pony in their isolated lagoon, but at Turpentine’s nod, they both scurried away from the breakfast table to the cabin to hide until he was gone.

“Isn’t she beautiful,” said Gaberdine in an abstracted voice. “I saw her while waiting on you in Baltimare and wrote a check right there. You told me about going water skiing, and I thought that would be a more efficient way to cruise up and down the river than trying to swim the whole length of my domain.”

The motorboat in question was a sleek red model, looking fast even when bobbing beside the much larger riverboat like a baby duckling next to a giant swan. A giant broken-down swan, admittedly, since Gaberdine was overly-optimistic about getting the riverboat out of the lagoon before winter for a test… float, or whatever it was called when a riverboat went out to test all of the repairs done to it over the last few months.

Hopefully, Castle Paradise IV would not sink as several of its predecessors had.

It was more comfortable to watch Gaberdine crawl over his new purchase from the castle deck, even though Turpentine was fairly confident that if he had fallen into the lagoon, he probably would not even get damp before several of Ripple’s aunts would save him. It took remarkably little time for Gaberdine to tie the speedboat up and see the salespony on his way, but he remained in the bobbing craft afterwards, looking into all of the little drawers and doors with all the excitement Turpentine remembered the Hearth’s Warming morning several years ago at the family where he had gotten a paint set.

“It’s got everything,” bubbled Gaberdine. “The most current traffic monitoring enchantments with automatic braking in the event a snag flag is detected, dynamic stabilization for high sea states, and—” Gaberdine pushed a button on the dash with a growing grin that faded ever so slowly until he was frowning. “That’s funny. It’s supposed to blow the horn. Maybe the button only works when the engine is running.”

“Where’s the engine?” asked Turpentine.

“Um…” Gaberdine looked around, then began flipping through the sheaf of papers the salespony had left with him. Turpentine had not seen many small speedboats other than the one the unicorn family upriver had let him ride, but that one had a large and quite noisy engine on the rear.

“Is the salespony gone?” whispered Ripple, peeking over the ship’s rail and looking around the lagoon.

“Yes, I think so.” Turpentine pointed down. “Baron Gaberdine bought a speedboat.”

“Oooo,” said Ripple with a low whistle while she peeked over the rail. “It’s a pretty shade of red. Does that make it go faster, Mister Baron Gaberdine?”

Turpentine rested a hoof on his forehead and sighed. He expected Gaberdine to be irritated or even angry at buying a motorboat without a motor, but the look of consternation on the unicorn’s face only lasted until Ripple’s comment had a chance to soak in, then turned into a sardonic grin and short snort of Gaberdine’s own while he called back up to the two of them.

“No, I think it’s going about as fast as it’s going to go for a while, at least until I buy an engine. I wanted something to carry Turpentine’s painting supplies so he could go paint the areas on the river the two of you visited. The river’s a beautiful place, and I think other ponies deserve to see it through both of your eyes.”

“Really?” asked Turpentine, looking down at the smiling baron. “You mean it’s not for you?”

“Ah… Maybe a little,” admitted Gaberdine.

- -  - -

When Turpentine got up enough courage to scramble down the ladder and inspect the speedboat closer, he had to admit, it was cool. There was enough space in it for four ponies in close proximity, or two with Turpentine and his painting gear, and it certainly seemed safe enough, particularly since it would not move without a set of oars or…

“Do you think Ripple could pull the boat, Mister Gaber— I mean Gabby?”

“That’s a great idea!” Ripple bounded out of the little boat and vanished into the lagoon with a quiet splash, quite nearly followed by Turpentine as the motorboat rocked with her departure and he stumbled up against the side. In a few moments, she reappeared with a rope in her magic and floated it over to the boat. “There’s a big ring on the front there, Turpentine. Tie it up there.”

He scrambled up to the front of the boat and began tying the rope to the ring, putting in extra knots to to be safe. When done, he took a step back (a short one) and looked over his work next to Gaberdine while the speedboat began to bob out into the lagoon, pulled by an underwater force. “That seems to work even if it is a little slow,” said Turpentine. “Why am I worried?”

“Experience,” said Gaberdine while spreading his legs out for a more stable stance to counter the bobbing of the speedboat.

Turpentine duplicated his movement and tried to bend his knees with the waves. “I guess it must be what that ring is for, right?”

Gaberdine shook his head and looked back over his shoulder at the castle/riverboat. “No, it’s for attaching a winch so you can bring it up on deck. There’s one on the back too. They’re fixed above the center of gravity so…” The baron paused, his eyes growing wide. “Ripple! Wai—”

The rope went taut.

The front end of the speedboat went forward, but it also went down while the back end of the boat went up. With one loud ‘gloop!’ of outrushing air, the speedboat vanished underwater, leaving Gaberdine and Turpentine paddling on the surface.

Managing to keep his nose above water, Turpentine gasped, “I guess the red ones do go faster.”

“Down, at least,” added Gaberdine while the two of them swam to shore. Fortunately land was fairly close and also fortunately did not have any witnesses to their embarrassment other than Pearl, who was looking over the rail of the riverboat and snickering into one hoof. Ripple popped up behind them and paddled up to match their speed with the tow rope still grasped in her magic and the soggy speedboat surfacing like a red whale behind her.

“Oops?”

Gaberdine chuckled and blew a little water out of his nose while getting to his hooves onto the sandy floor of the lagoon. “We’ll work on it.”

The fix was both easy and complicated. The first solution Gaberdine suggested, buying an actual motor for the motorboat, turned out to be less than optimal, as every motor in the catalog the salespony had helpfully dropped off was labelled ‘Out of Stock’ or ‘Backordered’ in large letters. While Gaberdine and Ripple worked on an engineering solution to their propulsion shortage, Turpentine took a break on the sunlit deck of the riverboat to dry out and talk with Sen.

There had been a crane on the side of Castle Paradise to winch a boat onto the deck, but Sen said it had broken a decade ago and the pieces were stored below decks. They both dutifully tromped down the stairs and took a look at the components, which did not look that badly-bent except in a few spots, and there was a blacksmith shop in Gravel Flats which could probably piece them back together. After a side-trip to examine the disassembled steam pistons which Gaberdine was on his third attempt at reassembling, Turpentine took a long look around the engineering space of the riverboat and sighed.

“It just seems too complicated for one pony to operate. How did you and Baron Miller manage for all those years?”

“Ain’t really that complicated.” Sen brushed a hoof across a nearby dented blue pipe, then swept into a grand gesture across the greasy and dark equipment all through the room. “Everything has its place and its purpose, jes’ like them puzzles Baron Gabby keeps goin’ on about. I started as Baron Miller’s cabin colt about the same age you are now and took over for his seneschal when the old coot retired. Seneschal Sentinel, that is, not Baron Miller. He was a retired Royal Guard, an’ loved goin’ all up and down the river with the baron. A mare in every port, or at least until they caught up with him and dragged him away to be married. Still don’t know which one tied him down, on account I was kinda-sorta promoted to be the seneschal in his unfortunate absence. By then, I nearly had the whole manual memorized, an’ a pretty good grasp on the way the parts of the ship that weren’t in no manual worked too. You can’t just expect to walk in and know everything from teachers, young lad. You gotta go out and live it for yourself. Reckon you thought art school in Baltimare was gonna teach you everything, am I right?”

“Yeah,” admitted Turpentine. “Until I met Ripple. Still, I thought there’d be at least something I could learn from the school.”

“Everything and everypony is a lesson.” Sen reached out with one hoof and tapped a nearby pipe, which was color-coded a dark blue. “After Sentinel quit, Baron Miller tried hiring himself a engineer. Nice young colt with a talent for fixin’ stuff, but he was color-blind. Couldn’t read the color codes and wound up cross-connecting the steam pipes with the septic tank. Blew Baron Miller right off the toilet one morning. If’n he had paid any attention to what I was sayin’ while he was working, he wouldn’t have screwed up. So what lesson does that teach you, Turpentine?”

“Listen when others try to tell you things, and think before you act.” After chewing on his bottom lip for a while, he added, “He didn’t sound like a very good example of an engineer.”

“Everypony’s an example. You. Me. Princess Luna.” Sen patted the pipe again as if he were reassuring a loyal dog. “Some ponies are just bad examples.”

“So we learn from both the good things and bad things that happen to us.” Turpentine thought about his trip to Baltimare, and the ponies he had met. “Like three hooves over a restaurant doesn’t mean the food is any good, and just because an art school is famous, doesn't mean it’s a good place to learn about painting… That is, a good place to learn positive things about painting.”

Sen had a quirky way of smiling where only one corner of his lips turned up and one eye squinted. It made him look almost like a pirate, or at least a happy pirate. “I can see why Gabby thinks so much of you, lad. Most ponies, when the words go in one ear they don’t do much inside the noggin, but with you, they come out in unexpected ways.”

“Painting helps me get my thoughts together.” Turpentine nudged the pieces of the boat crane to see how heavy they were. “While Ripple and Mister Gaberdine… I mean Gabby. While they work on the boat, why don’t we take the broken crane into town and see if they can fix it. I should be able to make a drawing for the blacksmith to show how it’s all supposed to fit. And,” he added quickly, “I’ll carry the pieces so you don’t have to strain your back.”

- -  - -

He should have been using his time to prepare for Luna’s upcoming portrait sitting, but Turpentine found it more enjoyable to follow Sen around for a few days, getting the parts of the boat winch over to the repair pony in Gravel Flats, shopping for groceries at the market, and getting up early to help with breakfast. Sen was a lot like a male version of Mother Windrow for Baron Gaberdine, but Turpentine did not bring it up, because he was afraid of being laughed at.

Besides, Turpentine could cook.

Spending mornings with Sen was not as much fun… well, it was a different kind of fun than going out in the afternoon with Ripple to explore places in the river he might want to paint. The water seemed to be getting colder by the day, but it was still fun to be towed at high speed through the river to the various brooks and estuaries filled with colorful pebbles across the streambottom or overhanging trees making shaded tunnels to play tag inside. Eventually, it would be too cold for Turpentine to spend time underwater, and Ripple would be alone under the ice with her aunts again. Even if Gaberdine could get a new motor for his fancy new motorless-boat, it would not be a very usable substitute in the cold weather. Until then, in the afternoons Turpentine found himself in the rather strange position of helping Gaberdine test just how his motorless motorboat performed with a substitute power source.

“We got an eye bolt stuck through the centerline post on the boat,” explained Ripple, pointing at where the back end of the bolt came up out of the floor and was supported by a substantial washer. “A couple of my aunts volunteered to pull, and Mister Baron Gaberdine found a sound spell to make a motorboat noise, so anypony watching won’t get suspicious.”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here. Why am I here? Why not somepony else?” asked Turpentine through the grip he had on the wooden handle of the tow rope. He shifted positions uncomfortably, with the two water skis strapped to his hooves making him even more awkward than Ripple.

“We need an excuse to go out and cruise up and down the river so we can test the boat configuration,” said Ripple as if it were the dumbest question in the world. “It’s perfectly safe. You can always adjust the throttle by screaming. If it goes too fast, just scream and my aunts will slow down.”

“Can I start screaming now?”

Ripple giggled and booped him on the nose with one flipper. “You’re silly.”

- -  - -

In the end, Turpentine did not scream very much, mostly because he found out a good, loud scream meant letting go of the tow rope with his mouth open when he pitched forward into the churning wake behind the speedboat. That did not keep him from whimpering a lot while being pulled up and down the river with Baron Gaberdine proudly steering his new purchase. Turpentine even got to sit in the boat and pretend to steer when Gaberdine decided he wanted to see what water skiing was like too, which went about as wet as expected.

Still, the little boat did make a good way to transport Turpentine’s painting equipment. He managed to get a part of the afternoon to sketch a few drawings of the little seapony grotto while Ripple watched and Gaberdine went off with Pearl to do something else. Over the next few days, they visited the grotto several times, finding it both a relaxing place to just sit and talk, as well as an inspirational place to paint using the shading technique Caractère had taught him.

And before Turpentine realized, the morning of Princess Luna’s scheduled sitting had arrived.

- -  - -

To be honest, Turpentine had expected Princess Luna to arrive sometime early in the morning, most likely after breakfast, when Baron Gaberdine would have the speedboat ready for their fairly short trip upriver to the grotto. He really did not expect to be awoken by a pair of glowing golden eyes just a few inches from his face, but after having Ripple wake him up that way several times, at least he did not panic. In fact, the slender batpony mare who was intently staring at him seemed familiar, even in the dim light of his cabin.

“Miss Syrette? Is Princess Luna here already?” Turpentine rubbed his eyes and suppressed a yawn. “Let me get my brushes and—”

“Go back to sleep, Turpentine.” The nurse put a hoof onto the center of Turpentine’s chest and pressed down slightly as he tried to get up. “I’m just here a little early for your checkup, and I wanted to see how you were breathing after your little bout with the flu.” She giggled, but in an extremely quiet fashion to keep her voice from being heard outside the cabin. “When you woke up, I was afraid you were going to scream.”

There was just the tiniest flicker of regret in those big golden eyes, as if the nurse had frightened a lot of little foals who were not perceptive enough to see the soft and kind soul behind those sharp teeth and strange oval pupils. Turpentine put one of his own smaller hooves over hers and patted gently.

“That’s okay. I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep anyway. Why don’t I get breakfast started and we can wait for Ripple. You’re going to want to check up on her too, right?”

“I…” The nurse blinked, and her somewhat artificial smile smoothed out into a real one. “Yes, of course. I’d be more than happy to join you for breakfast.”

- -  - -

It was not that much earlier than Turpentine had been getting up anyway, and he had wanted to try out the waffle maker in any case. The slender batpony mostly stayed out of the way and watched him work, although she did offer to get the blueberries out of the icebox and helped smush the oranges. It made Turpentine curious after a while, because he had not seen any other of the nocturnal ponies other than Miss Syrette, and eventually he had to ask the question which would not leave his head.

“Do batpony families adopt?”

It seemed to catch Syrette off-guard, and Turpentine quickly moved to clarify. “Not that I want you to adopt me. I mean it would be nice, having a nurse as a mother, but I don’t think I would like staying up at night and sleeping during the day.”

Syrette nodded. “You’re not the only one. You know what it’s like when a unicorn is born into an earth pony family, or a pegasus has a non-pegasus foal? Most of the families can adapt to differences like that, but when a foal wants to sleep all day and be awake all night, even the best of parents can get a little…”

Turpentine had never been adopted by a family with a newborn of their own, but he could remember when he had to share the orphanage with the occasional foal who had been given up by the natural parents or taken away due to abuse. Most of them had at least slept partway through the night, but to have one with a sleep schedule completely inverted from his own would have been a continuing nightmare.

“So, do batponies even have families of their own?” Turpentine squinted a little as he thought, because it helped, or at least it felt that way.

Big families, called clans, who all live in one house and help share the various family responsibilities.” Syrette tousled his mane and grinned. “We adopt nocturne from all over Equestria whenever the original parents can’t take care of them, and in return, we… um…”

It was a fairly short logical step to his response. “So batponies with non-batpony foals give them up for adoption in exchange?” Turpentine sprinkled some water on the waffle maker and decided to wait until it heated up some more. “It makes sense, but it sounds a little like trading hoofball cards on the playground. We never had anypony come by the orphanage to make an exchange. Well, other than when they brought me back.”

It was obviously an uncomfortable topic for the both of them, but the nurse let out her breath and continued. “Maybe it is a little awkward. I’ve only met with my birth parents twice in the last few years, but my sister… well, my sister by another mother, she’s doing well. Sells insurance in Fillydelphia, has a foal and one on the way. Day ponies, of course. We write.”

“Oh.” It sounded even more complicated than Ripple’s family. “What about your clan in Canterlot?”

It was as if the moon had emerged from behind a cloud. Syrette fairly radiated happiness from the way she fluttered her lashes, even though she looked down at the table. “Just over thirty of us now, with one on the way. That’s one of the reasons I came down here today. Your Mother Windrow is taking care of a little nocturne colt whose parents are giving him up for adoption. As soon as I give you two a clean bill of health, I get to fly up there and give him a quick once-over.”

- -  - -

After he woke up and saw Nurse Syrette at the breakfast table, Sen seemed pleased that his tiny little kitchen was being put to good use. The rest of the ponies had somewhat different responses when they took their plates of waffles and sat down to eat with their guest. Baron Gaberdine made a rather strange statement about how he did not realize how being a sailor attracted so many beautiful mares or he would have run off to join the navy when he was Turpentine’s age, although Pearl was somewhat cool to the nurse, and Ripple still seemed to be holding a grudge over her flu shot from last time.

It took until Sen and Gaberdine were washing dishes in the bright light of dawn for Syrette to speak up, probably from the way Turpentine kept opening up the curtains to look nervously out the window.

“Princess Luna’s not coming out today, Turpentine.” Syrette rooted around in her saddlebag while looking for something and eventually came out with a pair of her sunglasses. “There, that’s better.”

“Oh.” Turpentine tried not to look as disappointed as he felt, but he could feel his ears droop down and he could not look in the young nurse’s direction. “That’s okay, I guess.”

“Whoa, wait a minute. Time out.” Syrette nudged his chin up and looked him in the eyes, or at least as much as the dark sunglasses allowed. “What’s wrong? Are you still sick? I need to do both of your one-week checkups and give you each a last booster shot.” Syrette held a hoof up to Turpentine’s forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a fever, but—”

“That’s fine,” insisted Turpentine. “I’m fine. I knew she didn’t want to come out and be painted by me. You don’t have to make excuses for her.”

Instead of acting as Turpentine expected, Syrette giggled, going so far as to bring one dark wing forward far enough to cover her face. She fairly quaked with suppressed mirth, much like one of Mother Windrow’s fruit salad gelatin desserts, and gave out a brief snort before attempting to regain her composure and look back at her subject.

“Is that all?” The nurse gave a brief sideways glance at Pearl, who seemed somewhat confused by the attention. “Pearl was right. You are a serious little colt. No, the reason why Princess Luna is unable to sit for a portrait today is—” Syrette giggled again, but kept it short “—she’s sick.”

“She’s sick? echoed Turpentine.

“With the flu.”

“Oh, no.” Turpentine tried to think of something apologetic to say, but the nurse just giggled some more.

“Oh, yes! Alicorns make the worst patients. She won’t go to bed, she won’t stay there, she keeps dragging herself out to court, and all of the royals scatter whenever she shows up all coughing and wheezing. They’re calling her ‘Princess Fluna’ now.”

“It’s my fault. She must have caught it from me,” said Turpentine, but the nurse refused to let him mope about it.

“It’s her fault. She didn’t get her flu shot this year, and she won’t rest so she can get better.”

The early-morning glow of the dawn suddenly got much brighter as the sun fairly exploded up into the sky and hung there, vibrating in place. “Celestia caught it too,” explained the nurse.

- -  - -

After the batpony nurse gave Turpentine his booster shot and went out to find Ripple wherever she was hiding this morning (most probably in order to avoid her own preventive punctuation), Turpentine went to his room to get out his watercolors and a fresh piece of paper. Seeing the sun move back to its correct location with what looked like an embarrassed shuffle had given him an idea. It only took a few minutes to rough out a sketch, but while he worked, Baron Gaberdine stepped into the bedroom behind him.

“I talked to Syrette just now when we cornered Ripple in the engine room and got her booster shot administered. Sounds like our royal reception will be delayed until Princess Luna has recovered enough to reschedule. What are you doing?”

“Working on a get-well card for Princess Luna, since I’m the one who gave her the flu,” said Turpentine. “Mother Windrow always had me do one for anypony in town who got sick. Said it made them get better faster.”

“Let me get you something first.” Gaberdine slipped out of Turpentine’s room for a minute and returned with a thick and most probably extremely expensive piece of high-quality paper. It held the ink of the line drawing almost perfectly while he converted his rough sketch into a more finished form, drawing with long, sweeping lines.

The new art materials the baron had purchased for him in Baltimare really made a difference, being smoother and higher-quality than anything Turpentine or Mother Windrow had been able to afford before. Even the watercolors flowed well as he filled in between the lines with as close to the coloring of the two princesses as he could.

At the orphanage, the magazine articles Mother Windrow collected had made a lot of references to Princess Luna, but more as if they were promoting some new product, like she was a doll for little fillies to buy and comb her mane. The photographs of Luna had always bothered Turpentine, because they all seemed to show a hesitancy and timidness the young mare had been unable to hide.

Certainly, the sisters he had met in school never acted that way. Sisters should be frivolous and mischievous, and while he finished up the painting of Celestia and Luna in their sickbeds, each with an ice pack on their head and one of the more preferable thermometers in their mouth, he could not help but draw the busy nurses surrounding them with the same patient and tolerant expressions on their faces that Mother Windrow wore whenever he had been ill. He even decorated each bed with a cartoonish drawing of the sun and moon, both also with red cheeks and thermometers just like their royal guardians.

He finished by writing in the white space left behind, “Stay in bed, drink lots of fluids, and listen to your doctors. T.”

It took until he had put the ink pen back into its holder before Turpentine realized he had an audience. Fourponies were crammed into the back of his room, even though Pearl had just her head poking in the doorway and Ripple was sitting on his bed.

“Very nice,” said Gaberdine. He used his magic to pick up the ink pen and added a script ‘G’ next to Turpentine’s message, and passed the pen to Ripple and Pearl, who each added their own letters. “Watercolors, I presume?” asked Gaberdine once the signing was over.

“Yes, sir. I mean Gabby.” Turpentine put the pen back away and started cleaning his new brushes. “It’s still a little wet, so I’m glad I wrote the cover on the other side before I start—” The pale blue of Gaberdine’s magic covered the watercolor painting, and in an instant it was perfectly dry.

“I’ve gotten very good at that spell over the last few months,” said Gaberdine. “I know not to use it on oils, but it should be just fine for watercolors.” He checked the cursive ‘Get Well’ written in broad strokes across the other side of the paper, then took a long look at the painting of the two alicorns, depicted with bright reddish noses and boxes of tissues scattered around them. After a moment, he shook his head with a muffled snort which might have been a laugh. “Perfect. They’ll love it. Ripple, do you want to do the honors?”

The light green of Ripple’s magic touched one corner of the paper which promptly burst into fire, consuming the entire painting before Turpentine could blink. The smoke rose up and drifted through the door while Turpentine whirled around, his eyes wide open but unable to speak due to the conflicting emotions churning around in his head.

“Dragonfire imbued paper,” said Gaberdine with a calm smile. “From here to Celestia in just a few seconds. It’s how Ripple sent a message to her when you were so—”

“Celestia? Princess Celestia?” Turpentine looked frantically out the door with the hopes of being able to find a jar and catch the smoke before it got away, but he was far too late.

“Luna’s a princess too, even if they’re both royal stinkers. I’m thinking it’s just what those two need.” Syrette giggled again and pointed to his initial sketch. “Can I keep that?”

“I…” Turpentine took a deep breath and tried not to panic any more than he already had. It was only a silly drawing, and he was a very young artist. Certainly Princess Celestia would not be too angry. The nurse did not look as if she was worried. It was her fault, after all, with those mischievous eyes making him all scramble-brained after waking him up so early.

“I suppose,” he said while a plan blossomed inside his head. “On one condition.”

- -  - -

The morning sun lit the rock-lined grotto with a welcome warmth fighting against the chill breeze leftover from last night. The trip to the seapony relaxation spot had been without incident, as several of Ripple’s aunts pulled the motorless motorboat with Syrette sitting inside next to Turpentine. Ripple had suggested that she use one of the water skiing ropes to be towed like a glider, but the idea was vetoed, because the curious ponies along the riverbank would probably ignore a speedboat, but not one with a batpony in tow.

It took a little while to get all of his equipment set up, but after both the sketching and painting easels had been set up and Turpentine framed out the scene on both of them, he called out to the nurse, “Miss Syrette, if you could please stand over by the waterfall?”

“Since you asked so nicely.” The batpony took her directions well, backing up into the waterfall and extending her wings as requested. It took a while to get her arranged just the way he wanted, but the river was warm even this late in the season and she seemed to be enjoying both the attention and the sensation of water cascading off her. Between the pencil and the paintbrushes, Turpentine was fully engaged with his work for a long time, long enough that the seaponies started to come up out of the water around him in order to talk to Syrette about minor medical issues and peek over his shoulder while he worked.

His jaw was cramping up by the time he had gotten the lines and the colorful way trickles of water sparkled when they ran off the nurse’s mane just the way he wanted. He put away his brushes while Syrette took a peek at his paper, with her mane and tail draped in several dry towels.

“That’s… um…”

“Sexy,” said one of the seaponies over his shoulder, which nearly made Turpentine look back to see who it was if not for the certainly of all of them vanishing back into the river. He cocked his head to one side and took a longer look at the unfinished painting. With the shading provided by the acrylic undercoat lines, it popped out of the canvas better than anything he had done before, but it did not look sexy. Admittedly, he had painted Syrette in a pose much like some of the undergarment models in Mother Windrow’s magazines, but had not drawn any clothes. He looked back and forth between the batpony mare and the painting with a thoughtful frown.

“Do you think it would look better if I painted some underthings on you?”

“No!” blurted out Syrette, although she blushed at the titters of amusement from the watching seaponies. “That… um…”

“I wish I could have painted it at night for more realistic shadows,” said Turpentine. “Princess Luna just comes to life in the dark.”

“That she does,” agreed the nurse. “But I don’t think you should be painting any underthings on her either. It’s… um…”

The painting did seem to be quite ‘um,’ as Syrette looked at it a long time before she gave a definite upward jerk to her chin and a small smile crept onto her face. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I think if you paint Princess Luna this way, with feathers and without underthings, of course, she will love it.”

- -  - -

The next few days fell into an awkward routine for Turpentine. As a guest at Castle Paradise, he was treated… well, as a guest instead of the young working pony he had always been before. It bothered him far more than he told anypony, so he made his best effort to be useful around the castle while waiting for the results of Baron Gaberdine’s letter writing. He got up in the morning with Sen to help make breakfast, and helped as much as he could below decks while Baron Gaberdine worked on the steam engine, or just stayed on deck and painted if Ripple was around, because she was a much better mechanical helper than he was.

After the two of them had lunch with Ripple, she would take Turpentine out to another one of her beautiful places on the river for the afternoon, which was an awful lot guest-like, but he excused it under the principle of diversifying his experiences, as Caractère had suggested.

In the evening over dinner in the small but efficient castle galley, Ripple would tell Baron Gaberdine all about their afternoon and any work out on the river she had done in the morning, although Turpentine suspected Pearl had already informed him while they had been out having fun. All of them including Sen would spend some time playing boardgames or reading out on the castle deck until the sun went down, and then Ripple would vanish off with her mother to their underwater home while Turpentine would return to his cabin to make a few more sketches before going to bed too.

It made Turpentine feel more like an odd duck than ever, or perhaps the misplaced puzzle piece that Baron Gaberdine considered him to be. It was bad enough that when he was in the middle of an underwater landscape one morning and Sen had dropped by to say he was going to town to get groceries, Turpentine had dropped his brush into the solvent and trotted right after the elderly earth pony, catching up with him just as he left the gangplank.

“Wait up, Seneschal,” called Turpentine, even though the call was largely superfluous, due to Sen’s slow pace.

“Ay, lad. That I’ll do willingly.” He did not stop his slow trudge, but he did look over his shoulder when Turpentine drew up beside him and slowed to his pace. “Going a little stir-crazy on the ship, young lad?”

Turpentine really did not know how to respond other than nodding briefly.

“Ya, ya. The old girl can wear on you,” said Sen. “I’ve been walking her decks nigh on fifty years now, ever since she was a new ship straight out of the Baltimare yards. The old baron, he tore the bottom out of the Paradise III on some rocks, and that took some doin’ I’ll tell you, on account of the riverboats don’t draw much more water than a cup. Then he up and died when he slipped on a gangplank while shopping for a new one in Baltimare, an’ his grandson took that as a sign.”

“A sign of what?” asked Turpentine. “Slippery when wet?”

Sen chuckled. “On Sale, Price Reduced. Got ‘em to knock over fifteen percent off. Oh, it was a wonderful time. Up and down the river, with mares wavin’ to us in every port. Baron Miller, he was a cagy old cuss, but he could pinch a bit until it squealed. When somethin’ needed fixing, he made sure it got fixed right, but if it were just some gee-gaw cluttering up the ship, out it went.” Sen eyed the little colt strolling along to his side. “But I suppose you don’t want to hear about some old stallion, do you boy?”

“Actually… yes.” Turpentine made an abortive wave of one hoof after a passing mosquito while hopping on three legs for a second. “Baron Miller taught Ripple all about the boat… I mean ship, but I’ve never seen a picture of him. I thought I could maybe paint one for Baron Gaberdine as thanks for putting me up while he looks for another art school for me. Once I get my picture of Princess Luna done, it sounds like he may have another school he wants me to try.” Turpentine caught the troublesome mosquito landing on his rear and squashed it with one precise flick of his tail.

“Practical.” Sen nodded in agreement. “Most likely if you offered him money, he’d turn you down, but a portrait, that’s a coin of a different denomination.”

- -  - -

Although Sen did not have any recent photographs of Baron Miller, he did have a way of describing the old pegasus stallion that brought him to life in Turpentine’s head. While Sen reminisced about their river journeys together, Turpentine sketched out a few line drawings of the baron’s square chin, his steely eyes, and the awkward way his feathers always stuck up on both wings, due to a birth defect that made flying difficult for him. A few of the town residents added their own tidbits of information, including Madam Shutters at the stall and breakfast, who had inherited his captain’s hat. It was ratty and stained, with the white top being more an ivory shade and the black bill having faded to a patchy grey, and nothing left of the golden thread but holes, but it brought a youthful smile back to Sen’s face, particularly when Madam Shutters gave it to Turpentine by putting it on his head and refusing to take it back.

“You wanted to see what the old reprobate was like,” said the old mare with a wink. “He wore that old hat every day I’d ever seen him. Said it gave him luck, an’ you’ve got the look of somepony who needs a little luck of their own.”

It was really too large for his head and made Turpentine’s ears bend down in an uncomfortable fashion from where they stuck out of the holes in the sides, but it did feel ‘lucky’ in some small way. The old stallion had seen so much of the top side of the river, and Turpentine had just gotten a little glimpse of the underwater side, which made him feel a little like a reflection of the gentlestallion when he looked in the mirror and gave the hat a generous rake to one side.

After he helped carry the groceries back to the ship, Turpentine managed to convince Sen to dig out his old photograph collection, which soon attracted Baron Gaberdine, all grease-splattered and dirty from working on Castle Paradise’s piston rebuilding. It baffled Turpentine how a unicorn who held things without touching them could get so greasy, but whenever Ripple helped out with the ongoing rebuild, she was just as smeared with oil or even more.

One picture in particular caught Turpentine’s eye, slightly blurry and out of focus as if the camera user had moved while shooting, but it showed the old baron posing in front of the steamboat with a much younger Sen in the background. They both were sporting mustaches of generous volume and length, with straw boater hats and matching vests, making them look as if they were in a singing group of some sort.

“That’s from the Mill Stream’s Winter Wrap-Up Song and Dance Contest,” explained Sen. “Every year, we’d pick up a dozen or so partygoers from downriver and shuttle them to and from the contest. Let ‘em blow the whistle and everything. That’s where I met Missus Shutters back when she was still married. We did the trip every Spring until the old baron sprained an ankle and couldn’t dance any more. Still stopped by once in a while just to watch. Those were the days.” Sen chuckled as he held the photo, lost in his memories.

- -  - -

Several days later, Turpentine had reached the end of his patience with his project. Using the photograph of the old baron, he had tried to make a painting of Sen and Baron Miller, but every time he hit the wings, things just went sideways. After his third attempt had ended with the unfinished painting floating in the lagoon, Turpentine had been coaxed out from under his bed with the most sincere promise from Baron Gaberdine that he would ‘fix it.’

The ‘fix’ apparently involved a pre-dawn wakeup call and a brisk walk through Gravel Flats to the Speedy Cargo office, whose wagon was loaded down with radishes and parsnips for the sisters’ weekly trip to Baltimare and the surrounding vicinity.

“Here you go, girls.” Baron Gaberdine dropped a pouch of bits into Powderpuff’s outstretched hoof and patted Turpentine on the head. “Have fun in Baltimare. I’ll see you this evening.”

“Wait!” Turpentine’s eyes could not decide whether to look at the wagon or the departing tan stallion, who was not stopping. “You said you were going to fix how I can’t paint feathers.”

“You said you’re a big colt now,” said Gaberdine over his shoulder. “Powderpuff is going to drop you off at The Painting Palette before they do the rest of their deliveries. They’ll pick you back up when they’re done with their delivery route and you can tell me how it all went this evening. Sen packed you a lunch, and there’s bits in your bag for supplies and bribes for that old codger who runs the place. Last week, it sounded like he really knows how to paint feathers, so have him show you. Enjoy your day!”

And with that, the young baron passed around a corner and vanished, leaving Turpentine alone with the two pegasus sisters.

- -  - -

“Can’t believe he just left me,” grumbled Turpentine as he shouldered open the door to The Painting Palette. “Sending a little colt into the big city with a bag full of bits. It’s irresponsible, that’s what it is.”

“Good morn, Turpentine,” said Caractère from where he had been opening the shades to the large front windows of the store. “I thought you said last week you were a big colt.”

“I am! It’s just…” After a brief consideration of his vanishing logical high ground, Turpentine dug into his saddlebag and got out Gaberdine’s bag of bits. “Here.”

The old pegasus took the bag and looked inside with a low whistle. “So, you have robbed a Baltimare bank and are looking for poor, old Caractère to hide you until the polizia have finished searching, yes?”

“No.” Turpentine was trying to scowl, but his eyes kept getting caught by bits and pieces of tempting floor displays, and an entire spectrum of oil paints out on display like some overly enthusiastic rainbow. “The date for my sitting with Princess Luna got pushed back, and I need to get more supplies for my practice piece. I was going through canvas like it was paper for a while, even scraping off the old failures. I just can’t get feathers to come out right!”

The storekeeper snorted deep in his throat, then coughed twice into a kerchief which he tucked back into his vest. “Sorry, getting over a cold. Don’t be embarrassed about painting over your failures. The old masters did it all the time. Didn’t you read any of those books your friend bought for you?” At Turpentine’s incriminating silence, Caractère pulled one of the books off a nearby shelf and leafed through it. “Foolish children, always wanting to make their own mistakes. Here. Read before you do anything else. You can read, can’t you?”

Grumbling to himself, Turpentine settled down at the table. It was just a dumb old history book, even if it was about artists and their works, but the longer he read it, the more interesting it got, particularly the section on Cloudsdale artists. He took to doodling in his sketchbook while reading, with the old pegasus owner dropping by the table every once in a while to see how he was progressing. Most of the time at school, Turpentine had only figuratively nibbled at books, but he fairly devoured this one, using the book’s example diagrams to make notes and little practice drawings as he went.

“They all did feathers a different way, but they all worked,” he said to Caractère when the elderly stallion dropped by the table during a break from helping customers.

“Everypony does feathers different. Here, come look at your painting from last week and tell me what you did wrong.”

The painting of Caractère’s granddaughter looked different to Turpentine’s eyes now that it had a week to dry and his mind had some time to wrap around the concept of feathers. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Turpentine, squinting with his nose almost against the dry paint. “I didn’t really do anything. Can I borrow a brush and some paint again? I’d like to fix it.”

“I thought you might.” The old stallion reached behind the display of art supplies and pulled out a primed and outlined canvas, which he put on the second easel. “I was going to see if I could do your painting in the style of Cotton Boll, but I only got this far before my neck cramped up again. Let’s see what you can do from scratch. Again, but better this time.”

- -  - -

Time slipped away from Turpentine while he sat in the front window of the store and painted, trying to make the feathers in the portrait breathe the way the photographs in the books had. Caractère dropped by to offer encouragement and advice whenever he had a break between customers, and by the time he broke for lunch, there were several ponies outside the store window just watching the young colt work.

He barely tasted the sauerkraut and mango salad Sen had packed before he was back with a brush in his teeth and the flowing lines of wings filling his mind. The owner of the store was a great help with the finer details, making several references to various old masters and their techniques, each of which he seemed to be able to describe and demonstrate with ease. Still, none of the styles matched exactly what Turpentine wanted to do with the sweeping rows of feathers, even after having Caractère bring his own wing over for a nose-length examination of the faded feathers. A fusion of techniques fit Turpentine’s own painting preferences better, with little flicks of the fine brush for details and vanes, and dry brushing for the way the light glistened off the oils on the surface layers of the secondary feathers.

It was almost a shock when Powderpuff touched him on the shoulder, making Turpentine realize the shadows in the streets were starting to get long and the store should have closed nearly an hour ago.

“Coo, you’ve got a sweet touch with the brush there,” said the pink pegasus with her head cocked to one side while she looked between the two different paintings of Caractère and Sympathique in the restaurant. “Yer gettin’ better too. It’s worth gettin’ home late tonight. Princess Luna’s gonna be awful proud of bein’ painted by a sharp colt like you.”

“He still didn’t get the eyes right,” grumbled Caractère before carrying Turpentine’s bags over to him. They were stuffed to the top, with a half-dozen primed canvas blanks in a bag to one side, and he hoofed them over while escorting his last two customers to the door.

“Since you were busy, I took the liberty of packing your purchases. Your change is in your saddlebag, and I’ll let the painting dry here so you can pick it up next week. Just do me a favor.” The old shop owner paused once Turpentine and his older escort were outside of the door. “Just… paint Princess Luna with her eyes closed.”

   
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