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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13. The Heights of Culture

"And then one by one they got up and stood, and went a-weaving around the ring so gentle and wavy and graceful, the stallions looking ever so tall and airy and straight, with their heads bobbing and skimming along, away up there under the tent-roof, and every lady’s rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

The sun was just barely peeping over the low hills around Gravel Flats when Baron Gaberdine trudged into the hangar of the Speedy Cargo office. Powderpuff and Lemon Drops were supposed to be loading the last of their packages for the morning trip to Canterlot, but the only thing he could see in the garage was the wagon. He stopped to look around, resplendent in his suit coat with well-brushed mane and polished hooves for the trip, although his confident air was somewhat offset by a nervous frown at the interruption in his schedule.

“Turpentine? Are you here?” called Gaberdine into the otherwise empty building.

“Just getting my box of paintings tied down, Mister Gaberdine,” came a voice from inside the wagon. “We’ll be all set to go then.”

“Hima, Bar’n Ga’dine!” Powderpuff fluttered in through the open doorway with a paper bag in her mouth and placed it inside the front of the wagon where the passengers were to ride. “Whew. Sis will be right here in a few, ‘cause she’s gotta pay for our breakfast over at Crullers. I got’cha some sodas and a couple of poppy seed bagels to chew on for the trip, too. Canterlot’s a little longer than just runnin’ down to Baltimare, an’ your passengers might get hungry.”

“I’ve had my piece of toast,” said Gaberdine, sounding a little uncertain about the concept of an in-flight meal of any kind. “And I bought an entire pack of gum for the trip. We really should be leaving if we’re going to make our scheduled meeting with Dean Palette Brush. Ah, good morning, Turpentine.”

Turpentine briefly nodded from where he had just stood up in the wagon bed with his captain’s cap snugged down on his head far enough that only the tips of his ears poked out of the holes on the sides. Mostly it was an attempt to keep his hat from blowing off in the slipstream, but he also wore a nervous smile on his face about the other thing he was bringing along with him to Canterlot. “Good morning, sir. We’re all ready to go now.”

“Yeah, come on up, Mister Baron Gaberdine,” said Ripple, popping up over the edge of the wagon beside Turpentine. “The bed of the wagon has these neat tie-downs so all of the cargo won’t shift. We should put some on your motorboat so the painting supplies won’t fly out if we make a sharp turn or hit a big wave.”

Gaberdine stopped cold. “Ripple?”

“I wanted to come along,” said Ripple, wavering a little between determined resistance and uncertainty. “You said if I got good enough with my transformation magic, we could go to Baltimare. Well.” She lifted one slightly oversized hoof over the edge of the wagon and waved before quickly setting it back down so she would not fall over.

“Yes, but…” The presence of a witness obviously upset Gaberdine. He kept casting panicked looks at where Powderpuff was buckling herself into the wagon harness and unlimbering the second set of straps for her sister’s imminent arrival.

“We practiced every afternoon,” said Turpentine, standing right next to the little seapony who was wobbling slightly on her newly-transformed legs. “You told me magic was a matter of willpower, and Ripple really wanted to go to Canterlot with me.”

“But…” Gaberdine waved into the distance with one hoof. “Canterlot.”

“An’ we wrote to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,” said Ripple. “On account you said we should be nice and tell them we’re coming. Aren’t you happy?”

“Ecstatic.” Gaberdine scrambled onto the wagon and lit his horn in order to give Ripple’s legs and pony tail a quick examination, then stopped cold again. “Did you tell your mother?”

“Kinda-sorta.” Ripple cringed. “I wrote a note for Sen to give her. She said she was going to be so proud when I—” Ripple glanced at Powderpuff, who was looking back over her shoulder at the passengers.

“Is everything all right, baron?” Powderpuff wrinkled her nose up at Ripple. “I couldn’t help but overhear your little friend earlier. Do you think we might meet the princesses?”

“Oooo, really?” Lemon Drops dropped out of the sky and slid up to her sister’s side to start shrugging into her own harness. “I heard that you were going to paint Princess Luna’s portrait, Turpentine. Is that why you’re going to Canterlot?”

“He finished that days ago,” bubbled Ripple with a bounce in the wagon that made it rock on its springs. “It’s still drying so we can’t take it with us but Mama says it shows the softer side of Princess Luna she hides. And Mister Baron Gaberdine keeps looking at it and um’ing, just like he does the painting of the pretty batpony nurse. Oh! That one’s in the crate, so we can take it to her family in Canterlot today. Let me get it out and I can show you.”

“Can we please get going?” asked Gaberdine plaintively. “And hurry?”

* *  * *

The trip to Canterlot was not that much longer than Baltimare, particularly with Ripple and the pegasus sisters to talk with and all of the scenery to see. Baron Gaberdine remained resolutely quiet, much as if he were thinking ahead to what would happen when they returned to the riverboat and had to face Pearl. Turpentine was not very enthusiastic about that upcoming conversation either, but until then, he was determined to soak up every single experience of their trip for future inspiration.

And when the shining towers and buildings of Canterlot swelled in front of them, he was so filled with inspiration that it leaked out all over. Ripple looked over his shoulder and used her magic to hold the sketchpad steady for him while he drew, but there was no way he was going to get even a small fraction of the city down on paper before they arrived. He wanted to tell the sisters to slow down, but even if they had hovered in place for several hours, Turpentine knew it would only interfere with the real reason he had for coming to Canterlot.

At least the architects here knew how to put beauty into their craft. Hopefully, the artists at the school did too.

Still, the wagon slowed as they approached the city and the lower commercial landing area Baron Gaberdine had selected for their landing zone as fairly proximate to both the art museum wing of the castle and his own family home. Turpentine was quite busy with getting the curves of an ornate roof just perfect, so he did not notice at first, but when the wagon changed course and began to climb, he looked up.

“What’s going on, Mister Gaberdine?” Turpentine looked at the two Royal Guard pegasi flanking their path and directing the Speedy Cargo wagon toward the castle. “Did we break some sort of traffic rule?”

“I’m not certain.” Gaberdine gave the stern guards a cautious glance before resuming his intent stare at the destination they were being guided toward. “I think that’s the private chariot landing spot for the Royal Sisters over there.”

“Guidance Flight to Big Perch,” said one of the guards with a hoof held up to his helmet. “Destination in sight and on final approach. Are Sunburst and Moonglow in position?”

Whatever the pony on the other end of the communication link said must have been positive, because the two guards spread further apart and gave the wagon a little more maneuvering room for the upcoming landing. Their destination ahead was obvious, and had such a starkly elegant simplicity that it took Turpentine’s breath away. The landing site was a plain disc of creamy white marble quite nearly the size of Castle Paradise held suspended over a huge amount of empty space by a simple cantilevered bridge sticking right out into the middle of the air with nothing supporting it other than its own structure and presumably a number of unicorn spells which Turpentine was finding a sudden distrust in.

It would have taken a considerable lack of skill for Powderpuff and Lemon Drops to miss their landing, but the two pegasi placed their worn working wagon right in the center of the stone slab and fidgeted about what was supposed to happen next. Turpentine could understand their discomfort, because the peeling wagon had most likely not been repainted for the last several years, and there were a few sections in front where the paint had been abraded down to the bare wood by constant tail-wind interaction. It probably would not have been as bad for the young sisters if not for their royal observer.

Princess Luna was standing patiently at the other end of the bridge, looking as calm and serene as ever despite the morning sun washing much of the color out of her coat. Her presence was an obvious invitation for Turpentine and Baron Gaberdine to move forward and greet her, but they both were hesitant to leave the secure confines of the wagon for the insecurity of the huge stone slab.

Ripple had no such hesitations. She scrambled right out over the sideboard with one of her normal leaps, only to slide across the cool stone with a clatter of hooves going in all directions, skidding along until finally stopping perilously close to the edge.

“Whoops. Watch that first step, Turpentine. Wow.” The little seapony scrambled to her unsteady hooves and looked over the precipitous drop to the city far below. “We’re up so high they look like minnows.”

Turpentine was torn between crawling over to Ripple to make sure she did not trip and fall over the edge or walking up to Princess Luna, who was watching the whole thing from beneath hooded eyes and with the tiniest hint of a smirk at the corner of her lips. Since Gaberdine was similarly frozen with indecision, he bumped the older stallion and whispered, “You take Luna. I’ve got Ripple.”

“Luna. Right.” Gaberdine scrambled over the edge of the wagon with Turpentine and both went separate ways as planned, although after a moment’s consideration of just how far above the city they were, Turpentine had second thoughts about his choice.

“Ripple.” Once he was closer to the edge where the fascinated seapony was, Turpentine flattened down on his belly and scooted up far enough to be next to her, just in case he had to make a sudden grab for a vanishing tail when gravity took its inevitable toll. “I think Princess Luna wants to talk with you. Over there.” In a burst of inspiration he added, “Remember, this isn’t like the water. You can actually get hurt falling.”

“Oh. Right.” Ripple turned to go over to Luna and Gaberdine, but promptly tripped and nearly went over the edge as Turpentine had feared. It would have terrified Turpentine out of his wits if he had not noticed both Luna and Gaberdine’s horns were lit up with a low shimmer of magic, as well as a unicorn guard tucked into a nearby alcove, and two pegasus guards who ‘happened’ to be flying in slow circles below the landing platform.

He was reminded again of the immense amount of planning that had gone into moving the town hall building to higher ground and how the mayor seemed to be just standing and watching unless you watched her verycarefully to see how she was tracking every single pony and their actions. Equestria was far larger than his tiny home town of Tidewater, and the princesses had to keep track of far more things than a little colt could even dream of. And still, Princess Luna had taken time out of her scheduled activities for him and Ripple.

“Good morning, Princess Luna,” said Turpentine once he had helped Ripple over to the waiting princess and more stable ground. “We’re honored to…” He trailed off and looked around. “What are we doing?”

His confusion caused Luna to smile in an authentic fashion, much better than the artificial smile she had been wearing before to conceal her emotions. “My sister is a prat. First, she wanted to accompany your trip amongst the myriad of her portraits with the old dusty fossil who runs the museum. Then events interfered, and she asked me to stand up in her stead. We’re about on the seventh revision of her schedule so far this morn, and I can hardly wait to see how it turns out. In the meanwhile.”

She turned to the two pegasus sisters who were still harnessed to their wagon. “Miss Powderpuff. Miss Lemon Drops. The guards will show you a place to store your vehicle until it is time for your departure. Until then, you are honored guests in our residence, and we have instructed our guards to give you access to every area except our private dwellings.”

“You mean,” gasped Powderpuff, “we could go visit the—”

“Yes,” said Luna.

“And the—” started Lemon Drops.

“Of course,” said Luna.

Somehow managing to mix a bow/curtsey/takeoff into one motion, the sisters and their wagon rapidly dashed out of sight and Luna turned her attention to the rest of her guests.

“We thought it wise to introduce an element of security into your visit, young Ripple. These guards—” Luna gestured towards four rather intimidating pegasi in golden armor “—have been briefed on your unique circumstance and shall remain in the background while you are here.”

Luna motioned down a nearby path leading to an open doorway. “Young Turpentine, Dean Palette Brush awaits your presence.”

* *  * *

The tour of Celestia’s school went far better than the one in Baltimare. Dean Emeritus Palette Brush, who insisted his name was “With one l and two t’s please,” was a warm and friendly unicorn with a magnificent white beard almost sheep-like in its depth and consistency. He even helped set Ripple back upright after she fell over trying to shake hooves with him, and shared a laugh with all of them about the feeling of light-headedness other ponies got when traveling to Canterlot’s altitude for the first time.

Palette Brush greeted Turpentine with a firm hoof-clasp and a clap on the shoulder, taking a few moments to leaf through his sketch book and comment positively about his skills before opening up the crate of painting examples much the same way a colt on Hearth’s Warming Eve would tear into presents. He gave little ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ noises while looking through the collection of Turpentine’s paintings, holding the butterfly painting up close to trace the way the wings all seemed to blend together, and examining the painting of the batpony nurse with much the same expression as Baron Gaberdine, complete with repeated ‘um’s’ before declaring it ‘unique and visionary, worthy of a much older artist.’

On the following tour through the hallways and classrooms of the school, there were young unicorns about his age who greeted them, and Dean Palette Brush actually smiled on occasion, although it was difficult to see through his thick white beard. The group had to take several side-trips to get glasses of water or juice for Ripple due to the dry air, and one of the guards eventually vanished for a time in order to return with what he called a ‘Super-mega-big-gulp’ of strawberry soda. The monstrous foam container topped with a straw was just what the little seapony needed, and she slurped her way down it at an astonishing rate while they walked and Palette Brush talked about the advantages of a proper unicorn education in the field of classical painting.

“And now the art museum wing of the castle,” announced Palette Brush, which baffled Turpentine a little due to all the other ‘wings’ they had seen around the place. Any more wings and the huge structure could probably take flight. “Here we have the Celestial Gallery, filled with centuries of portraits and paintings of our beloved Princess Celestia—”

Luna cleared her throat.

Dean Palette Brush paused. “And… um… while efforts are underway to procure historical portraits of Princess Luna from various private collectors, they have been understandably reluctant to loan them out to our collection due to their recent escalation in value.”

“As well as other complications.” Luna let out her breath in a huge huff. “Many of the portraits painted before the time of Nightmare Moon were not flattering of my emotional state, or were stored away and forgotten upon my banishment.”

“Such a terrible loss to history.” The dean lit up his horn and floated over a brochure. “We have plans for constructing a Lunar wing of the gallery, as well as beginning the expensive process of restoring what few paintings we have been able to locate, but funding has been an issue. If Your Highness will note, a simple grant of a few hundred thousand bits—”

“Can’t you just put Princess Luna’s pictures in the same gallery with Celestia’s?” asked Ripple while pointing down the corridor with her enormous foam cup of soda. “I can see some pictures of her daughter.”

“Where?” Palette Brush whirled around so fast his beard nearly hit him in the face. “Oh! No, that’s Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. She’s…” The elderly pony paused while trying to find a word, only Luna found hers first.

“Special.” Turpentine could see Luna stick her tongue into her cheek a moment before continuing, “She is a young alicorn who was discovered several years ago and brought to the castle for my sister to raise. The Night used to be the domain of Love, but we have seen the advantage of permitting our younger ‘cousin’ to retain that title and associated duties. She seems to be bearing them far better than I ever did.”

The last words came out in a husky whisper while a brief wave of dark emotion swept across Luna’s face. Far too late to stop the conversation, Turpentine remembered the special edition of the Canterlot Times which had pictures of the new Princess of the Crystal Empire and her little foal. Flurry Heart was a tiny little pink thing with abnormally huge wings, much like the foal Princess Luna was unable to have.

“Oh,” said Ripple, missing Luna’s emotional cues totally. “You mean like sometimes late at night when my mother puts me to bed and thinks I’m asleep but then slips back to the castle and—”

“Moving right along,” said Gaberdine rapidly. “We should continue with the tour before adjourning for a late lunch at my family’s estate. You’re free to join us, if you wish.”

The invitation seemed to have been aimed at Dean Palette Brush, but Luna perked up and moved to intercept it faster than the elderly stallion. “We would be delighted, Baron Gaberdine. Ah, and here comes my dear sister, only a few hours late.”

Over his short span of years, Turpentine had seen the sun rise many times, but always outside with the growing light bringing life to the trees and fields, and activity to the happy ponies of his home village. Sunrise was a repeating joy to his heart, much like opening a new box of paints or fresh cookies right out of the oven.

That same sense of rising majesty overcame him now when he looked down the corridor to see the huge white form of the Princess of the Sun striding purposefully in his direction with her glowing pastel mane flowing behind her. The guards stiffened up in even more rapt attention, the elderly dean adjusted the thick mustache over his beard, and even a tired Ripple seemed to brighten up. The newspaper photos could not possibly do Celestia’s statuesque form justice, or capture the inestimable grace in her stride. If there was a mother to the entire country of Equestria, it was certainly her.

She stopped briefly to talk with Baron Gaberdine, who had swept into a deep bow upon her approach and seemed to glow with the same reflected joy as whenever Pearl graced him with a subtle smile. Even the air seemed warmer in her presence, and Turpentine was eternally grateful that the suit jacket Gaberdine had found for him had been ‘lost’ by Sen last night, or he would certainly have broken into a sweat under its itchy embrace now. She was indeed the Sun, and there was no way he could possibly paint Celestia under a waterfall without including a cloud of steam wafting off her long and smooth primaries.

Celestia continued to grow in his sight when she bent down to talk with Ripple, then greeted Luna with a soft sisterly nuzzle. The presence of the Day turned Luna’s soft colors into faded memories of her similar glory under the moon and stars, a mere shadow of her larger and older sibling. For one long heart-piercing moment, Turpentine could understand just exactly why Luna had succumbed to the temptation of the Nightmare after she had experienced centuries of shadow under her sister’s light.

Then the light shone down on Turpentine and all of his thoughts went away. Celestia bent down and leaned close, with the exact same playful smile as Luna while she spoke to him. Even her words were soft and gentle, rolling out in the precise cadence of a diplomat who had spoken to tens of thousands of creatures over her lifespan. In the midst of his delight, Turpentine despaired, for he would never be able to capture the gentle curves of her lips, the deep violets of her eyes and the way a small reflection of a small colt showed up in the deep blacks of her pupils.

Oh. That’s me.

“Turpentine,” the soft voice repeated. “Hello?”

“Yes!” Turpentine blinked his dry eyes and paused. “How long was I out?”

Princess Celestia’s giggle was almost identical to her sister’s, only deeper. “Just a few minutes.”

“He certainly is a dedicated little pony,” said a familiar voice which Turpentine could not place for a moment. “Most artists can’t concentrate on a subject half as well.”

“Caractère?” Turpentine blinked some more while taking in the sight of the old pegasus, still dressed in his maroon vest with the pencil and notepad in the top pocket where he would write down the prices while following Turpentine around his store in Baltimare. “What are you doing here in Canterlot?”

“An extremely good question,” snapped Dean Palette Brush, turning to Celestia. “What is this criminal doing out of his cell?”

Celestia seemed unperturbed. “Turpentine’s letters mentioned Monsieur Caractère quite favorably, which led me to check on his probation records. He has been a very law-abiding pony over the last few years and a positive influence on our young artist recently. Due to exigencies of my position, I may be called away at any time, and I thought it wise for Turpentine to have a friendly expert here in my place.”

Turpentine did not realize he was trembling until one of those huge white wings reached over and touched gently on his shoulders, feeling much like a sun-warmed blanket on a chilly night. It helped, particularly since he was so close to Palette Brush that he could feel little splatters of saliva when the old unicorn shouted.

“Why was I not informed! He was sentenced to many more years in prison than he could have possibly served by now!”

“Dean Palette Brush,” admonished Celestia. “Please control yourself. You once worked with Monsieur Caractère here in this very building. I thought you would be more forgiving of him, particularly due to his injuries. He was released early from his sentence due to ongoing medical probation.” She reached out with one gold slipper-clad hoof and tapped the thin silver bracelet around the old pegasus’ left forehoof. “He is well tracked, Dean Brush.”

The school dean bristled. “There is nothing medically wrong with him that a good flogging or two could not cure.”

Caractère started to make a response, but Celestia was faster, holding a hoof across his mouth and fixing Dean Palette Brush with a sharp glance. “I know you are still upset about Monsieur Caractère’s actions, but—”

“Upset?” exploded Palette Brush. “He betrayed the trust of our entire department! He stole from our collection, and used his position to defraud dozens of our patrons! There is no punishment severe enough for his crimes! He should be thrown into the deepest prison in Equestria for a thousand yea—”

It was fascinating to see the change in the elderly unicorn’s face while he went from incandescent to icy cold with fear, his eyes absolutely refusing to look in Princess Luna’s direction at all. The Princess of the Moon had faded into the background when Celestia had appeared, but now her silent presence seemed to fill the hallway with the bitter chill of winter.

“Go on,” encouraged Celestia. Her voice had not changed one iota, and her face still wore the polite smile like a mask. In fact, there was no sign at all that Celestia was anything but patient and kind other than perhaps a slight increase in the sunlight coming in through a nearby window.

“Excuse me, Your Highness. Your Highnesses.” Palette Bush bobbed his head in a brief nod while backing up. “I’m feeling ill and must go lie down for a while.”

Both alicorns turned to watch the old unicorn go clattering down the hallway in a near-trot, but remained silent until he had turned the corner and the sound of his silver shoes against the granite floor had died away.

Luna cocked an eyebrow at her sister. “One of Duke Prestigious’ line, I presume?”

“Yes.” Celestia let out her breath and Turpentine could smell the faintest tinge of something burning for a second. “I am so sorry, Monsieur Caractère.”

The old pegasus hung his head. “The fault is all mine, Mademoiselle, both in my original crime and my assumption that Palette Brush, that’s one l and two t’s, would ever find it in his heart to forgive my betrayal of his trust.”

“As I recall,” said Luna abruptly before her sister could open her mouth, “Duke Prestigious had a list of his grudges cast into the bronze cover of his mausoleum, and made it a requirement of his descendents that they keep the list well polished.”

“Indeed.” A small sliver of an authentic smile crept onto Celestia’s face. “For some reason, after the first century or so, the list was polished so briskly that the words became illegible.”

“Undoubtedly poor quality bronze,” put forth Caractère with a series of quick glances between the two alicorns. “Would that a mortal pony’s heart be so easy to change.” He transferred his full attention to Princess Luna, and when he did, the old pegasus seemed to shift slightly from nose to tail, his posture straightened, wings rustled as they settled back on his flanks, and he slowly went to one knee with only a few small pops of aged joints. “And you must be Princess Luna. I am so delighted to meet you, beautiful lady.” He placed a soft kiss on the proffered Royal Hoof and remained with head held low while Luna giggled.

“Arise, you old charmer. Mine sister hath put me wise to thy schemes. Let us hope that thy manners may fall upon young Turpentine without the addition of your criminal past.”

“Criminal?” asked Ripple very quietly.

“Yes indeed, young lady.” The old pegasus turned to Ripple and stiffly bent down on one knee in the same way he had for Princess Luna, and kissed the somewhat larger hoof the seapony filly offered. A look of enlightenment seemed to sweep over his face and Caractère hazarded a brief look at Princess Celestia, who nodded back.

After a brief cough to clear his throat and a few moments to stand back up, Caractère added, “You certainly have come a long distance from your home, young lady. And yes, I am a criminal of the worst sort. While I worked in the Canterlot Museum of Fine Arts as an art restorer for many years, I was never content.”

He gestured at his cutie mark, a pair of roses which were mirror images of each other. “My talent is in painting, which is true, but I could never capture anything new onto canvas and paint. I could only copy that which others more talented than myself had first created. I studied for years to master my talent, but I seemed doomed to remain in the art restoration department restoring old masters until I died.”

“So you copied paintings out of the museum and sold them?” Turpentine cocked his head to one side. “That sounds like you’d be caught pretty quick.”

“Meh.” Caractère waved a hoof back and forth. “There are always ethical collectors who hunger for quality reproductions, particularly if they are identifiable as one. It was good money to raise a family with, but after my dearest Gratuité passed away, something in me was unleashed. I ventured into the darker shades of morality, making better and better fakes for more unscrupulous buyers until one day I found myself unable to tell one of my creations from the original.”

“What did you do?” whispered Ripple.

Caractère shrugged. “I hung one back on the museum walls and sold the other. It made me consider something I had never thought of before. Perhaps, I could create. I threw all of my time and effort into making a new project. Something that would shake the art world to its rotten foundations. A Bledoe. A new Bledoe, something discovered in a dusty attic which all of the pompous art skeptics would hail as brilliant and original.”

“It most certainly was,” said Celestia. “Everypony was talking about it for months. When it went up for auction, the starting bid was supposed to be over ten million bits.”

Gaberdine frowned. “Wait a moment, Your Highness. My father told me about the Bledoe auction. He said you just walked up to the painting, gave it a good look, and told the auctioneers it was a fake.”

“The room went mad,” said Celestia with a giggle. “My guards caught Monsignor Caractère boarding the train with just a little over a million bits in a suitcase, and enough evidence in his workroom to prove the old master was anything but old.” She giggled again, but put a wide wing over the grimacing old stallion. “Do not despair at your lost art, but rejoice at your other creations. I understand your grandchildren are keeping you quite busy in Baltimare. How is Sympathique? Still teething?”

Gaberdine coughed quietly to break the silence. “Actually, Your Highness, she has turned into a fine young mare. She was a hostess at Mi Quintile during our recent trip there, and young Turpentine painted a very nice picture of the two of them.”

“I’ll bring it back to the riverboat so you can look at it when you and Luna come by to pick up her portrait,” said Turpentine abruptly. “And… can I paint you then?”

“Ah…” That sense of perfection wavered when the Princess of the Sun cast a quick look over to her sister. “I can attempt to get free that day, but things always tend to pop up at the—”

“Something always comes up,” said Luna.

“Not always,” protested Celestia. “We’re just a little behind schedule with being sick for a week.”

For some reason, the Royal Sisters exchanged a subtle glance and giggled.

“Are we about done here?” asked Ripple. “My hooves hurt.”

Gaberdine checked his schedule. “Well, Dean Palette Brush was supposed to run our tour through the Celestial Gallery for another hour and a half.”

Ripple whimpered.

“...and then we were going to visit the Statuary Hedge Maze to view every one of Equestria’s most famous sculptors’ works,” continued Gaberdine.

Ripple’s whimper rose in pitch.

“...before a leisurely stroll through downtown Canterlot on our way to my family’s estate and lunch.”

“Or,” said Luna, “If you wish for young Turpentine to continue his artistic tour with my sister, I could take you to the airship port and tour The Indomitable, the biggest Griffon Empire airship in the entire world. They’re here on a mission of goodwill and friendship, so I’m certain they would welcome visitors, particularly ones who appreciate their nation’s fine engineering talents.”

Ripple perked up. “Could we go with Baron Gaberdine by the batpony house and take the painting to Miss Syrette like Turpentine wanted to do today too? Maybe she can explain why he ‘hm’s’ at it all the time.” A little bit of the perk went out of Ripple’s ears and she tucked her tail down. “As long as she doesn’t give me another shot.”

“Of course,” said Luna. “Then we can go look at the grand engineering projects of Canterlot, like the crystalline pillars anchoring our city to the mountain,” added Luna. “And I’m certain Baron Gaberdine would be willing to carry you when you’re fatigued. Meet you over at the Whinnysfield estate when we’re done, Celly?” She turned her sparkling eyes on Celestia and grinned.

“You may borrow our guests for a time, Luna. Caractère and I shall see to young Turpentine’s education in the artworks of Canterlot.” Celestia gave a short nod to Gaberdine. “You are dismissed, Baron Gaberdine.”

Gaberdine looked anything but dismissed when Luna trotted away with a perky and re-energized Ripple bounding along beside her. He looked at the departing seapony and back at Turpentine several times before Turpentine spoke up.

“I’m a big colt, Mister Gaberdine. Go with Ripple. I’ll see you at lunch.”

With only one plaintive backwards glance, Gaberdine hustled down the corridor Luna had used and within moments, the sounds of their departing hoofsteps faded to nothing. The silence stretched a long time before Turpentine took a tentative look up at Princess Celestia.

“Ma’am? Shouldn’t we be going? We’re blocking the hallway.” Turpentine looked up and down the empty hallway and wondered for a moment just why it was still empty of visitors, or even officials. After all, the mayor of his hometown had a secretary who followed her all of the time with a pencil and a notepad just in case she said something important which needed to be written down. A princess should probably have a dozen or more of them, but the hallway remained quite empty and somewhat cold.

“Luna told me a great deal about you, Turpentine.” That glass mask was back over Celestia’s features again, and although she was still projecting warmth and friendliness, it was impossible to determine how sincere she was. With centuries of experience in hiding her emotions, Celestia could easily have been simply toying with him, or using her time with Turpentine as an excuse to avoid other, less pleasant chores around the castle.

It was still hard for Turpentine to accept just how old Celestia was, except for the absolute sense of calm and peace she had drawn around her in inviolate layers until steel would have been soft and malleable when compared to her will. Even her posture seemed specifically arranged to make smaller ponies feel comfortable around her tall stature, and since every pony was smaller than her, she had to feel like she was forever living in a world made for children. It must have been frustrating, far more than for Turpentine living in a world made for larger ponies, because in time he would grow into the world while Celestia had outgrown it long ago.

“He’s just going to sit there and look at you until he figures out what makes you tick, Your Highness,” said Caractère. “We could be here for days. Months, even.”

The unexpected shock made Turpentine blink his dry eyes and turn his attention to a problem which would be more easy to solve. “How were you injured in prison, Mister Caractère?” he asked abruptly, which seemed to knock the elderly pegasus back a step and make him stumble for his words.

“Some of the individuals I sold forged paintings to took my fall from grace rather badly, because it meant attention from the authorities and confiscation of their ‘original’ artwork when I talked.” Caractère moved his head from side to side and turned it slightly. “They hired some of the prisoners to beat me up. Between age and injury, that’s about all the mobility I have left now. My days of forging masterpieces are over, in more ways than one.”

“I arranged for his early parole,” said Celestia. “He is no longer a threat to my little ponies, and with a locator bracelet, he can be found whenever needed.”

Somepony put up the collateral for my store when I got out,” said Caractère without looking up at Celestia at all. He shrugged stiffly. “Guilt money or not, I have a job where I contribute to the community and have begun to pay off my debts.” He shrugged again. “Another century or two and I’ll be done.”

“What did it feel like?” Turpentine moved closer and peered deeply into the old stallion’s blue eyes. “When your Bledoe painting was discovered to be a forgery, that is. You worked so hard to accomplish an impossible task, and almost did. What did it feel like when your plans crumbled?”

“I…” Caractère looked back and forth between Celestia and Turpentine rapidly several times. For a moment, it almost looked as if he were going to flee out of the window at the end of the hallway when his wings raised up and he leaned into a starting position, then he slumped back and dropped his rear on the cold marble tiles.

“I had plans. I was going to make sure my grandchildren were taken care of so they would never want for money. Endowing scholarships, building hospitals, high times with the important ponies in the world. Maybe my own airship. Living out the rest of my life on some tropical island, eating fruit and playing in the sand. I had entire worlds built out of glass, and with one word, they all shattered into a million pieces.”

“A truthful word,” said Turpentine. “Princess Luna said much the same thing when I asked her about Nightmare Moon. All of her plans for Night Eternal were based on a lie, and when they broke…”

“We shattered,” said Celestia almost under her breath. For just the tiniest fraction of a second, Turpentine could see the immense form of Celestia staring up into the moonlit night sky where she had just banished her sister. It was far more weight than even carrying the town hall back in his hometown had been, and no number of backs could make that dreadful crushing burden lighter.

Then the smooth mask slipped over her features again and Celestia smiled down at Turpentine. It was a natural motion, much as if she had practiced it for centuries, but no amount of emotional control could stop the single tear he could see tracking down her cheek.

“It is the past,” said Celestia, “and all that has come of it, good or bad, is still the past. Come, now. We have many portraits and statues to examine before we go to the Whinnysfield estate for lunch.” She lowered her voice. “Young Turpentine, do you think there will be cake?”

Turpentine nodded. “Gaberdine told me their cook always makes cake.”

“Good.” Celestia beamed. “Cake always makes me feel better.”

- -  - -

Luna might possibly have been exaggerating when she said how many portraits of Celestia there were in their castle, but not by much. Although they were spaced out with lots of empty wall around each one of them to accommodate a crowd of interested onlookers, the long corridors of the castle seemed to have hundreds of Celestias watching their slow educational path. The tour was supposedly for Turpentine’s benefit, but he found the lessons learned went far better if he remained almost silent and watched the back-and-forth between Celestia and Caractère. It was almost a contest where the old pegasus attempted to break down Celestia’s cool walls of self-restraint while the Princess of the Sun danced around his verbal jabs with all the skill of a barn swallow skimming across a grassy field and snagging airborne bugs. Still, while he sketched little snippets during their visits to individual paintings, his natural curiosity forced him to ask questions of the both of them in the middle of their odd verbal dance, even when the answers were totally unexpected.

“So the Canterlot castle has a name.” Turpentine thought about the revelation for a moment before asking the inevitable. “What is it?”

Princess Celestia looked strangely reluctant. “Yes, it’s rather silly, which is why I’ve discouraged its use over the—”

“The Heavenly Abode,” said Caractère.

That earned him a long flat glare from Celestia and a deliberate, “It was a far better choice than ‘The Nest of Heaven’ which certain members of the nobility seemed set upon during its construction.”

Now it was Caractère’s turn to nod knowingly. “That seems to have been a low bar to clear.”

“Nest?” asked Turpentine with his head cocked to one side.

Celestia blushed and nudged the little colt down the hallway toward the next portrait. “On account of several of the more poetic artists centuries ago referring to me as the… No, you don’t need to—”

“The Swan of Dawn,” said Caractère with an absolutely straight face.

“How many years do you have left on your parole?” asked Celestia.

“Fifty-three, Your Highness.”

Whatever retort Celestia was going to use in response was lost when a coil of smoke traced down from above, curled around her horn, and appeared with a sharp popping noise as a rolled-up scroll. She caught the message in her magic and held it to her side while giving a short bow to her guests.

“I’m sorry, but it seems Princess Twilight Sparkle has a concern. I was afraid things were going too smoothly today.” She let out a brief huff of frustration. “I had better go see what emergency has popped up that requires my presence. I'll leave the rest of the tour in your able hooves, Caractère.”

The old pegasus bowed. “On both of our behalfs, thank you, Your Highness.”

Turpentine stood by Caractère and watched the princess stride down the corridor toward a prepared servant peeking around the corner. Her movements were smooth and unhurried despite the interruption, placing each hoof with impeccable grace. He had never really understood that phrase before, but the way Celestia made each step and motion into a dance of sorts made it obvious that it had been created by somepony just like him many years ago who watched the Princess of the Sun walking just the way she was walking now.

“Equestria’s largest rooster.” Caractère shook his head. “Ruler of the roost and undeniably above all who she surveys. All that is missing is for her to crow while raising the sun.”

“No.” Turpentine squinted a little to watch Celestia talking with the servant at the other end of the corridor. “I see… a playful little filly, like Ripple. Then one day, she grew up. She bent her neck to lift a heavy burden nopony else could, and has been stuck beneath it ever since.”

“Right,” said Caractère. “A little filly who plays ball with the sun and moon.”

“It’s why she took time off from her schedule to be with us this morning.” Turpentine stood for a while, sketching the way the beams of light from the window played across Celestia and the distant mustached servant. Little flecks of dust danced in the breeze, making circles and starlit paths around the two of them, served and servant, but Turpentine could not tell which role they each played.

“She’s trapped,” Turpentine said after a moment. “She can never go back to being that little filly again, but she can spend time with us and live out her lost dreams in our lives.”

Caractère took a deep breath. “Thanks. Now I’ve got guilt. I should go apologize for that ‘Swan of Dawn’ comment.”

“No, I think she liked it,” said Turpentine from around the pencil in his teeth. “The muscles in her cheek tensed up to keep her from smiling. The whole castle is full of ponies who have her up on an untouchable pedestal, just like those statues we saw.”

“And all she wants to do is run around in the grass and play.” Caractère looked down the hallway full of portraits. “I think we’re done here. How would you like to go out and walk in the garden?”

“Is your neck bothering you?” Turpentine looked up at the old pegasus who had not seemed to be in pain, but some ponies hid their pain really well. “We just got started with the tour and I’ve only made a few sketches,” he added, “but if you think we should quit now…”

“Good news,” said Celestia with a happy smile while she trotted back down the hallway. “Just a minor detail involving a foreign diplomatic visit that Kibbitz can take care of, so we can continue our tour. And—” she lowered her voice “—have cake afterwards.”

While they continued their walk among the portraits, Turpentine could see little bits and pieces of Celestia appear from under her mask, much as if the close proximity of so many other oil painting images gave her some sort of shield of anonymity which she could never get in reality. The real Celestia did not really ‘let her mane down’ like Luna in the waterfall, but she was much more relaxed and conversational than her companion. Every time they approached one of the portraits, Caractère began to avoid small talk. Instead, he would list the techniques the artist used, how they compared to other masters of that period, and sometimes the subtle hints of context which the artist was trying to say.

Still, Caractère seemed to get tenser while Celestia relaxed and became more chatty. As they walked to and from each painting, she simply talked about the artist, waxing poetic at times about little details of the actual sitting or events of the time like some sort of living history book which fascinated Turpentine in ways that ordinary paper and ink never had. No small bit of information or odd occurrence happening during the painting escaped her piercing memory. Sometimes, it was the artist’s pet who would be distracting during the session, or their children, and one time it was a simple piece of fruit.

“To be honest,” said Celestia while they were looking at the portrait, “the Hustzchupokian ambassador brought a banana and I accidentally left it on the table during my sitting. Before I knew it, we had a trade route with Hutzchupokia dealing in nothing but bananas, twenty-seven varieties of bananas, express delivered to every corner of Equestria before they could spoil. That was two centuries ago, and Hutzchupokia still has over a quarter of its exports strictly due to the fact I wasn't very hungry before my portrait sitting. So yes, small things matter.”

“And to Celestia, all ponies are small,” added Caractère. “Well, smaller.”

“The smaller they are, the more attention they require,” countered Celestia softly.

“The fruit’s a distraction,” said Turpentine. He drew a quick outline of the painting and a few lines for reference. “It’s a focal point, but it’s a primary focus instead of being a secondary. The subject is supposed to be what everypony looks at.” He looked at the picture again without trying to stare at the banana. It was difficult, because the painting seemed to be staring back at him, and in a most disconcerting way.

In fact, nearly all of the paintings they had seen so far had Celestia portrayed with her eyes partially hooded and looking slightly past the observer. It was a little like every painting kept watching his cutie mark while they left their vicinity, and the accumulated attention was causing Turpentine to act a little jittery, as well as making him keep his tail tucked firmly against his rear. He asked about it, of course, and received the most peculiar response which he should have expected.

A portrait. A huge portrait.

“What is it?” Turpentine looked over the wall-sized painting depicting a grassy hillside with dozens of young foals at play and Celestia reclining in the middle of them. It was vibrant and alive with color, but somehow creepy right down in the pit of his stomach.

Caractère answered without taking the hoof from over his eyes. “Celestia Among The Flowers. It’s the most famous painting by Spiegelei, quite old, and preserved by generations of protective spells. It’s survived no fewer than five mysterious fires in art galleries, being stolen twice, and a bad case of Dragon Sneezles.”

“The Dragonlord emissary Carnage took a week to get over his illness before he could go home. We used to brew him huge vats of lemon and honey tea in the courtyard. That’s when we put the volcano into the Royal Baths for him to soak in,” explained Celestia as if it were only natural to put a volcano into one’s bathroom. “I never thought we’d use it again until Twilight Sparkle hatched Spike. He learned the backstroke in the lava there. Wonderful little dragon.”

Turpentine considered for the moment how many little freshly-hatched dragons available for painting might be found around the castle. After all, he had never drawn a dragon before, and the Canterlot newspapers tended to crop Spike mostly out of any pictures they had of Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friends. It would be a challenge. Plus, he had never drawn scales before. Or lava.

“How do you teach a dragon to swim in lava?”

“Very carefully.” Celestia cleared her throat. “What do you see in this painting, Turpentine?”

“It’s… very detailed, Ma’am.” Turpentine found the little foals romping about the hillside a more comfortable subject than the immense bulk of Celestia laid out in bright white paint. There was a… theme to their play, with raised wings and sprawled limbs making them appear to be more dolls than ponies, much as if the painted Celestia had surrounded herself with a group of lifelike toys. It took quite some time for Turpentine to get a good look at all of them, because the painting was quite expansive, but he started at the outside and worked his way inward, taking notes on his sketchpad while he worked.

Even up close, the behavior of one of the subjects was nearly inexplicable. “What is that colt—”

“Nursing,” said Caractère, who still had one hoof over his eyes even though he was turned with his back to the subject.

“Oh.” Turpentine took a sideways glance at Princess Celestia, who seemed to fairly radiate an aura of divine tolerance. “Did you have a foal, Princess? Or foals?” he added, looking at the rest of the little colts and fillies.

“No.” Celestia nodded at the painting. “Herr Spiegelei painted me alone on the hillside.”

The layering of the pigments where the little foals touched Celestia or vice versa made that abundantly clear, but it forced Turpentine to look at the main subject despite his misgivings. He got up close and squinted, or took a few steps back at times, tilting his head from side to side while he considered the painted alicorn and compared her to the real thing just a few lengths away. He really did not want to say it, but despite the stylistic themes that each painter brought to their works, there was one thing that stood out enough he had to make a comment about it.

“I don’t like the eyes.”

“I don’t either,” said Celestia. She stood looking at the field full of little foals with an expression of deep regret. “I should have explicitly told him so at the time. All I said was ‘It’s perfect except for a minor detail’ and went off to another appointment. He took my comments entirely the wrong way. It was months before I had time to look at it again, and by that time, every artist in Canterlot was copying his style. I tried restricting any young ponies from the exhibit, but that only drew more attention. It got so bad for a time that parents would hustle their little foals away from me whenever they saw me approaching.”

“I see,” said Turpentine. “Were you the one who tried to set it on fire?”

Despite Caractère’s astonished gasp, Celestia nodded. “I couldn’t ban it, because that would only fuel the rumors about my—” she coughed “—activities to a fever pitch. Every century or two, I try again. It’s become a little bit of a tradition whenever too many paintings of my rump start stacking up.”

Turpentine nodded. “Mother Windrow sprays for crickets every spring. She doesn’t mind a few of them, but they’re awful noisy and get into the kitchen.”

“Your Highness!” spluttered Caractère. “You can’t mean you burn down your own art galleries?”

“I’m very careful to ensure nopony gets injured,” said Celestia calmly. “And I only burn the older ones that reallyneed to be burned. Between the protective enchantments and the caution of the museum staff, this one has escaped the culling so far, but eventually it too shall pass.”

“Like all of us.” Turpentine turned away from the painting and regarded Celestia, who was sitting calmly in the beam of sunlight coming through the skylight above. “Mister Spiegelei really didn’t capture you very well.”

“Thank you, Turpentine.” A fraction of the authentic Celestia smile broke through her restraint much as the sun would rise above a cloud layer, and the beam of sunlight from above felt much warmer and more welcome.

“It’s close.” Turpentine stuck his tongue in his cheek and looked over the princess, who towered over him like the sun and just as bright. “The eyes are all wrong, but there’s a little something in there.”

“Arson,” muttered Caractère. “Ten to twenty years, at least.”

“I think we have enough time to visit one more exhibit.” Celestia turned and strode purposefully along the corridor. It was a short trip with only two turns before she stopped in front of yet another portrait of herself.

“Ah, here we go. The museum found this one a few years ago, but I just never had time to look at it until now. What do you think of it, Turpentine?”

He inspected the portrait while trying to watch both Caractère and Celestia out of the corner of his eyes. The painted Celestia’s pose was similar to several he had seen during their tour, and composed in what Turpentine was starting to think of as the ‘Cluttered Room’ period of art. Thankfully, there were no bananas, but something bothered him about it. Other than the eyes.

“It’s another painting in the Spiegelei period,” he ventured. “A Frühstück, it looks like. Done a little more recently than the other one we saw.”

“Good. And?” prompted Celestia. “Luna said you were a very perceptive little pony. What else do you see?”

One of the advantages of owning the building and the contents was that Princess Celestia had no problems at all with letting a little colt walk right up to a painting and put his nose almost on it for a close-up examination. The brushstrokes were perfect, just like the other huge painting, and layered in order to bring out the shadows and highlights in the room. He followed the lines and swirls of paint with a growing discomfort, breathing in the faint scent of antique paint and tracing the painted Celestia’s form while he worked. There was something wrong with it, but he just could not put a hoof on the flaw until he turned around and saw Caractère’s face.

Then it was obvious.

“It’s a fake.” He turned back to the painting and examined the portion he had first been suspicious of. “Right there. The way he did the tufts of hair inside your ears. That’s exactly the same way Mister Caractère helped me do on my painting. It must have been his practice piece he did before making the Bledoe.” Turpentine turned back again and looked up at Celestia. “That’s not why you knew, though. Every painting we’ve seen so far, you’ve posed for. You talked to the portraitist, learned about their families, their pets, their lives. You took the time to get to know the artist so…” He paused.

“Go on,” encouraged Celestia.

“So you would remember them.” Turpentine swept a hoof in a broad gesture down the hallway. “These aren’t pictures. These are memories. That’s why you knew Mister Caractère’s other portrait was a fake. You weren’t there for it. No matter how perfect he managed to duplicate Bledoe’s style, he could never duplicate your memory of the portrait session.”

“You sneaky little…” Caractère stood with his jaw agape and stared at Celestia, who was obviously suppressing an expression of supreme smugness. “You said you recognized the portrait as a fake but you never said why! I didn’t realize… You sneak!”

With her air of gentle restraint gone completely, Celestia giggled like a schoolfilly. “Oh, you should see your face,” she snorted.

Turpentine, however, was drawing.

 
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