Memories of Those Friends Who've Gone Before Us
The Ponyville valley harvests always started in earnest during the late summer, and with them came an increase in merchant traffic to the township, as wholesalers and traders clamored to get their hooves on the fresh produce from the fertile valley farmlands.
Of course, the produce sales meant more bits than usual floating around town, which meant buyers weren't the only ones working the market square. Merchandise from all over Equestria rolled in on road-weary wagons with their fast-talking drivers hawking tools, farm supplies, household goods, jewelry, toys, knick-knacks and other sundries. The additional bustle spawned its own energy as summer ticked ever closer to autumn, providing innumerable distractions (and in some cases, disruptions) for the townsfolk. The “Merchant Summer” they called it, an unofficial week-long festival of harried transactions where the wiser ponies could make out like bandits, and a few unfortunate foals were parted from their money.
A given Merchant Summer morning found one of the more well-received traveling vendors in the lavatory of his rented room, working at making himself presentable for his customers while humming one of the odd tunes he'd picked up during some unremembered stop-over.
As he inspected himself in the mirror, the muted-brown earth pony couldn't help but notice the expanding streaks of gray in his mane and tail, and the deepening lines at the corners of his eyes which were so much more pronounced when he smiled.
“Dad?! What are you doing here?” he laughed into his reflection.
While he was definitely showing his age, he counted his blessings he wasn't feeling it that particular morning; the benefit of a decent night's sleep and the time taken to eat breakfast (a rare occurrence). His spirit was up, and that was good for business.
Once sufficiently primped, he exited his room to begin the usual task of inspecting his cart and cargo before heading off to find a prime spot to set up for the day. The flat canvas stretched over the top of the wagon's low, long bed was dry and intact, the crates stashed carefully underneath hadn't shifted too far out of place . . . all seemed well. He moved to the wagon's head and folded down the tangs, then wriggled into the fixed harness between them and kicked the clamp-brake free with a skilled rear leg. One hard pull forward, and he was off to make his day's fortune.
“Onward!” he cheered aloud as the wagon creaked toward the inn's courtyard gate. “Ponyville cries for its prince of the printed page! Save us from the static stagnation of our spiritless subsistence with your splendid stories, they call! And does he answer? Darn tootin'! Make way, you knaves, for the noble bookseller has come to save the day! Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Hee, hee! Et cetera! Onward and . . . to the left! The marketplace awaits!”
• • •
Twilight Sparkle felt that she'd just gotten used to the slower pace of town when the so-called Merchant Summer descended, and she wasn't certain if the busy atmosphere reminded her of Canterlot's familiar, more frantic pace, or if she loathed it due to the excessive crowds and noise.
It was only her second full month as a Ponyville resident after all, so one could argue that there were still more adjustments to be made. Perhaps when the next such event rolled around, pushing her way through the throngs of shoppers while shielding her ears from the grating barkers' calls just to find some breakfast wouldn't seem like such a task. At least there was some extra satisfaction to be had from one of Mrs. Cake's king-sized sweet rolls and the tall glass of iced tea on the café table before her, as the morning's treats seemed hard fought and won.
Spike, however, who sat perched on a couple of empty crates to bring him up to the table's height, looked upon his breakfast with some disdain.
“Couldn't we have just looked at that jeweler's cart, just for a minute?” he groused.
“No, no, no, nononono. No way. . . . I'm not forking over a month's stipend to some random cart vendor because you think a pair of jade earrings would make a tasty snack, Spike.”
“She had turquoise, you know. That wouldn't have been so expensive.”
“Can you pay for it?”
“Well, no . . . but I could pay you back, honest! C'mon, Twilight! How often is a buffet like that going to drop into my lap?”
“Oh, just eat your sweet roll, okay? Yeesh. . . .”
“Fine,” he muttered, then picked up the pastry and tore away a chunk larger than one would think his mouth could hold, the cinnamon and sugar a weak substitute for jadeite or copper phosphate.
Twilight leaned forward for a nibble of her own when she heard her name come floating in over the shuffling passers-by. She looked up to see Pinkie Pie's unmistakable mane popping above the crowd as the pink mare bounded toward them.
“Hi, Twilight! Hi, Spike!” she chimed as she reached their table in a final bounce. “Isn't this great? Oh, I love Merchant Summer! So much to see, all the cool stuff you can get! Ooh, look at this! Look at this! I got two boxes of these great balloons for only four bits! A thousand per box! The ones in this box have funny faces on them, see?”
She ducked her muzzle into one of her saddlebags and withdrew a bright green balloon, then started puffing like a steam engine to inflate it. A crudely-drawn face expanded toward the unicorn and dragonling; its squinting eyes under a wrinkled brow and crooked, toothy grin seemed more mocking than mirthful.
“Greaaaat . . .” Twilight groaned. “I'm sure those'll go over well at your next party. Speaking of which, shouldn't you be, I don't know, working right now?”
Pinkie giggled as she released the novelty from her lips and it jetted around the table in a flatulent manner. “Mr. and Mrs. Cake gave me the day off because I'm too excited about Merchant Summer and when I get excited I get distracted and when I get distracted I burn stuff.”
“You don't say.” The unicorn's expression revealed no surprise at the fact.
“Well, somepony's being a grumpy gloomy gussie today. . . . What's the matter, Twilight? Aren't you having fun?”
The purple mare let out an apologetic sigh. “I'm sorry, Pinkie. . . . It's just that I was really starting to enjoy how quiet and peaceful Ponyville is, and then this happened. It's nothing but a lot of noise to me, really.”
“Aw, that's no good. Merchant Summer's always been big in Ponyville! So much neat stuff to see and try and buy, and only for a week every year! Ooh, you should come shopping with me Twilight! I still have to find some good deals on streamers, party hats, noisemakers and pinwheels! Oh, yeah, can't forget those little napkins with pictures of birthday cakes on them! Or the ones that say, 'Congratulations!' or, 'Sorry about your Uncle Chuck'!”
“Pinkie, how in the world can you afford all that stuff, anyway?”
“It's in my budget, silly, and I write it all off as a business expense,” she grinned, giving her friend a stark reminder that she could be unusually practical whenever necessary.
Twilight took a bite of her sweet roll and a sip of tea. “I don't know, Pinkie. I haven't seen anything that interests me.”
“You just need to look a bit more, that's all. There's something for everypony during Merchant Summer!”
As if the fates had heard the pink mare's statement, a distant barker's voice found its way to the ponies' ears over the din of the mulling crowd: “BOOKSELLER! BOOKSELLER HERE!”
“BOOKSELLER?!” both Twilight and Pinkie Pie declared in unison, eyes wide and smiles brightening.
“Yay! He's here! He's here!” Pinkie cheered with a high leap into the air, then shot off in the direction of the call at a speed that could rival Rainbow Dash.
“Wait for me!” Twilight yelled after her friend, then wolfed down the remnant of her sweet roll, drained her iced tea in no more than two gulps, and galloped after the pink blur speeding down the block. “Oh, I hope I have enough cash with me! Pinkie! Where'd you go?!”
Noting he was being left behind, Spike hoisted the remaining half of his pastry over his head and hopped off the stack of crates to toddle after his employer. “Hey! Twiiiiiiiliiiiiiiight! You forgot me! Slow down, will you?!”
• • •
“BOOKSELLER! Bookseller here!” the brown earth pony called to passers-by in a cheery tone as he paraded himself in front of a long wagon with fold-out display shelves laden with a variety of reading material.
“Come on over, Ponyville, and peruse my selection! Winter's coming in a few short months, so as you stock your larders to feed your guts through the cold days, why not stock up on stories to feed your minds? I've got whales of tales, and a few tales about whales! Um . . .” he turned to his display for a quick inventory, “. . . three to be exact! Oh, those silly whales and the misadventures they have!”
As his enthusiasm began to draw a decent crowd, he turned his pitch up a notch. “Yes, indeed! No matter where your interests lie, I've got a read to satisfy! Ripping-good adventures for ponies who like high-action! Reference to quench your thirst for knowledge! Romance for the lovers! Ribald tales for the lustful! Recipes for the famished! And here's a pamphlet on the treatment of hoof-fungus for the completely boring.
“Need to read up on current events? I've got back-issues of newspapers from all over our fair land, from the biggest cities to the smallest burghs! The latest magazines of all topics, fresh from the presses at New Martingale! Looking to start a new hobby? I've got how-to manuals, how-not-to manuals, and stop-before-you-hurt-yourself manuals! Foals to keep occupied? See my selection of picture books, coloring books, and classic fairy tales (fairies not included)! Older kids? I've got a wide array of light-hearted fare for colts and fillies of all ages, covering adventure, comedy, activities, and the latest issues of the most popular comics! In the mood for classics? They're all here, from the collected plays of Sunbeam Shines to the verses of Cloudwalker and . . . Yrghk!—”
His pitch stopped short as a quick turn to the right flooded his vision with a pair of bright, blue eyes framed in pink.
“Hi, Mr. Kerning!” Pinkie Pie bubbled as her close proximity startled the vendor, and he hopped backwards to get a better look at the situation.
“Great googly-moogly! Where'd you come from?!”
The baker giggled. “Weeeelll, when a mommy pony and daddy pony love each other very
much . . .”
“That's not what I meant, but good on ya',” he chuckled, finally recognizing the mare as a customer. “How are you, Ms. Pinkie Pie?”
“Great! Is it here? Do you have it? Do you have it? Do you? Doyoudoyoudoyou? Please say yes! Oh please, oh please, oh pleeeeeeeease!”
A sly grin crossed his lips. “That was the hoof-fungus pamphlet, right?”
“NoooooooOOOOOOooooo! You know what I mean! Please say you have it!”
He ducked around to the back of the wagon and returned with a thick volume clamped in his teeth, then placed it carefully on the bottom row of his display. “1001 Party Games: Hours of Fun for Groups of All Sizes, from Couples to Crowds, as the lady requested.”
“Eeeeee! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” She snatched the book from the display and flopped down on the ground, flipping through the pages as she noted activities which caught her eye. “That's a fun one! Oh, that's classic! Never heard of this one before, can't wait to try it!”
“Thank you for your patronage, my dear. Since you've prepaid, I just need you to sign your receipt,” he smiled, pulling a clipboard forward and holding it out for her to acknowledge.
She snatched the clipboard's tethered pen in her teeth and scratched her signature—complete with little hearts over the 'i's and three balloons as punctuation—then hauled herself to her hooves and tucked her new acquisition into her saddlebags.
Kerning yanked a copy of the paperwork from under the signed version and passed it to her. “Enjoy! And feel free to grab a catalog from the basket at the front of the wagon. If you see anything you'd like, I'm in town until Friday.”
“I will! Thanks again, Mr. Kerning!” she chimed as she snatched up one of his pamphlets and bounced along her merry way.
Kerning turned his attention back to the throng and resumed his calls. “Another satisfied customer, and you can be one, too! Don't be shy, browse a book or two! Read a chapter free of charge, throw some bits my way to see the story through!”
Twilight finally found her way to the wide stretch of Bridle Avenue from which the barker's calls had come, and stood at the periphery of the ponies listening to the vendor's spiel, transfixed on the wagonload of books before her.
As the unicorn drooled at the array of leather- and paper-bound tomes, she barely even noticed Pinkie bounding past her and giggling, “See, Twilight? There's something for everypony during Merchant Summer!”
Unfortunately for Twilight's passions, her view of the literary smörgåsbord was being intermittently broken by a middle-aged stallion who kept strutting back-and-forth before the display, shouting badly-formed rhymes at any pony walking by and firing off equally bad jokes about fungus. While some found his antics amusing, she was growing more annoyed than anything. This couldn't really be the bookseller, could it? The literary arts deserved more respect than this loud-mouthed earth pony was showing them, didn't they?
As she continued to hold her focus on her survey, Spike trotted up to her well out of breath, still holding the remainder of his breakfast above his head. “Twilight?! *pant, pant* Why didn't you wait for me? I almost got lost in the crowd, and . . . OOF!”
The dragonling suddenly tripped over an askew cobblestone and landed flat on his belly, flinging his sweet roll directly into a burst of unintentional flame which evaporated the treat before his eyes.
“Aw, nuts!” he flustered, then added a short squeak of panic as he realized what just became of the sweet roll. “Uh oh. . . . Uh, Twilight? I think I just sent the Princess my breakfast. What do I do? . . .
Hey . . . is that Mr. Kerning?”
“Huh? What? Who?” The bookseller whipped his head toward the prone dragon upon hearing his name. “Well! There's a familiar face in an unexpected place. . . . Hello, Spike! What in the world are you doing in Ponyville? Besides hugging its streets, that is.”
Spike pulled himself up, dusted himself off, and toddled up to the stallion. “It is you! Good to see you, Mr. Kerning! We've been reassigned to Ponyville by Princess Celestia, and have been here for a couple of months now.”
“That's good to know, and it's good to see you too, kiddo. Thought I might have lost a customer when you didn't come by during my last stop in Canterlot.” He ducked back around to the rear of the wagon and extracted a small stepladder, placing it in front of the display. “New issues of Scaled Sentinel are waiting for you on the third row, lad. Have at it.”
“Awesome! You're the best, Mr. Kerning!” He hopped up the ladder and flipped open the topmost issue of his favorite comic series.
“So . . . when you say 'we' were reassigned, I take it you're still working for that 'overbearing unicorn who never listens to you when it's important'?”
Spike's eyes went wide, and he made slashing motions across his throat with one hand while thumbing over his shoulder with another.
“We playing charades, kid? What's with the . . . oh.” Kerning suddenly noticed the purple mare who'd stepped up behind the young dragon and the dour expression she carried. “Oh dear. That's getting off on the wrong hoof, isn't it? Um . . . sorry about that?”
The dragon turned to face Twilight and put on a pathetic face. “It's my fault. You guys have never met, and sometimes I sort of . . . complain about work. Mr. Kerning, this is Twilight Sparkle, my . . .
uh . . . boss.”
“We'll talk about this later, Spike,” she grumbled.
“Now, now . . . don't be angry with the boy because of my oversized hay-hole, good lady. Let's take a breath and start fresh, shall we? Pleased to meet you! Kerning's the name, spreading tomes across Equestria's the game. Care to browse my wares?” he asked with as friendly a grin as he could muster.
“You're a bookseller?” She cocked a disbelieving eye at him.
“Am I? Let's see here. . . .” He swung his head around, running through a mock-inventory of his surroundings. “Gotta wagon full of books, ponies are giving me money for said books, there's a marking resembling a book on my hindquarters. . . . Yep, I'm a bookseller, all right!”
“You sure as heck don't act like one.”
“What, you were expecting some bespectacled old fuddy-duddy given to shushing anyone who asks a question at too high a volume? I am a traveling bookseller, my dear, not a librarian or shop owner, which means I draw the interest to my goods. That calls for a little showponyship, if you catch my drift.”
“Mr. Kerning always has the latest books when he comes to town, Twilight,” Spike offered. “Whenever he's been in Canterlot and you've sent me out to find a new title, he's always been the one who had it.”
“See? A testimonial from your own assistant! Besides, I have a talent for matching a pony with stories they either want to read, or should read. Selling books is a natural fit.”
“Talent?” The unicorn took on a puzzled expression. “Like magic?”
“I wouldn't go that far. Earth pony here, you know. Providing I've read the material myself beforehand, I can get a sense from others of what they would find entertaining, interesting, or could simply stand to know.”
“Really? Does that mean you've read everything here on your cart?”
“Every word. Even the hoof-fungus pamphlet, see?” He presented a foreleg, revealing an uncommonly clean hoof. “I get the feeling you have doubts. Perhaps a demonstration? Stand back and watch this.”
He scanned the passers-by, looking high-and-low for anypony which carried that familiar little spark about them, and caught something from a low-hanging cloud drifting overhead.
“Ah, here we are.” His head tilted upwards toward the cloud and he called, “Gee, I wonder if anyone would be interested in this new issue of Aerobatics Quarterly with the 12-page spread on the Wonderbolts!”
A sky-blue head popped up from the cloud, and there was a sudden gust of wind as Rainbow Dash materialized in front of the bookseller's display in a multi-colored blur. “Wonderbolts?! Where?”
“Right here.” Kerning pointed out the magazine.
“So! Awesome! How much?”
“Need about tree-fiddy,” he smirked. “By the way, have we ever met? My name's Kerning if we haven't.”
“Huh? No, we haven't met. I'm Rainbow Dash. Pleased to meet'cha. Hold on to that for me, okay? I need to grab some bits. . . .” The pegasus turned and streaked off into the sky.
The brown stallion turned his smirk to Twilight, completing his performance with a clumsy little tap dance and a bow.
“Ta da! Thank you, Ponyville, I'm here all week!”
The unicorn found the stallion's display mildly interesting, and wondered if he was up for another challenge. “Okay then, Mr. Kerning, what would you recommend for me?”
He looked the mare up-and-down with an intense eye for a few moments, then shrugged, “Meh. I've got nothing.”
Twilight let out an exasperated groan. “Seriously? You tout this ability to match a pony with books they want to read, but when it comes to me, you've got nothing?”
“It's a sense, young lady, and I'm honestly not getting one from you. Let's do this. . . . Take a good, long look at my display, and you tell me if there's anything that catches your eye. If so, I'll admit defeat.”
“Fine,” she grumbled, then started scanning the rows of books and periodicals while Kerning returned his attention to gathering more customers.
After two complete run-throughs of the racks, Twilight was loath to admit that the brash bookseller had been right: The newest material he had available didn't carry any appeal, and the reprints of the older works were all things she'd read before. Even the children's stories were covered from her time as a foal.
Kerning had just finished collecting his bits from the sale of several back-issues of the Canterlot Tribune when he shot the young unicorn an knowing glance. “So . . . anything?”
“No. There is one book I've been waiting to get my hooves on, but you don't appear to have it, and I've either read everything else here, or don't find the other stuff interesting.”
The bookseller was suddenly concerned. “Wait . . . am I missing a new release? What are you looking for that I don't have?”
“The newest Compendium of Modern Magic.”
“The twenty-eighth edition? Ooh, yeah . . . that's a problem. It was supposed to have been out last month, but there was a huge screw-up at the printing house and the entire release was recalled.”
“Really?” She frowned in disappointment.
“Yep. Some knucklehead got the page order completely scrambled before it went to the binder's, which could have had some really nasty results. Imagine trying out a spell that was supposed to whiten your teeth or something mundane like that, and your head suddenly bursts into flames! Poof! Or, you get really bad hemorrhoids. Or, your head turns into a gigantic, flaming hemorrhoid. . . . You get the point.
“The worst part is that it wasn't caught until the first shipments were out the door. I'd already sold a few copies myself when the word came down that the book was bad news, and had to make a mad dash around to all of my customers to pick up the books. Thankfully, only one of them suffered an ill effect when a reupholstery spell turned his sofa into a massive key lime pie. Probably would have sued me out of my shoes if the pie hadn't been so delicious.”
“Do you know when the new edition will be available?”
“Sorry. I haven't gotten any word on that yet, and probably won't until my next trip to New Martingale. Here's what I can do, though. Since, through young Spike here, you're an established customer, I'll give you a ten percent discount on a preorder, and ship it to you special delivery when it's released. Prepaid or C.O.D., either option's available. How's that grab you?”
Twilight didn't know if she wanted to place her trust in this street vendor, and shied away from him. “I . . . think I'll need some time to think that over. You're in town until when?”
“Okay, well, um . . . if you don't hear from me by then . . .”
“That's fine. I understand. Why don't you take a catalog anyway, and if you do decide to take my offer, let me know if there's anything else you'd like?”
“Sure. I can do that.” She plucked one of his pamphlets from the basket and tucked it into her bags. “Have a good day. Come on, Spike.”
The dragon hoisted up four issues of Scaled Sentinel and leaned toward the bookseller. “I'll talk to her. She'll come around.”
“I thought she never listened to you when it was important, kiddo,” he chuckled.
“When it comes to books, she will.” He placed some coins on the edge of the display rack before hopping to the ground. “Thanks for the comics. See ya, Mr. Kerning!”
“Take it easy, lad. And don't be a stranger!” He scooped up the coinage and dropped it into his money box with a clatter, then turned to watch the pair receding down the street. “That was a whole lotta work for a maybe. Oh, well. . . . BOOKSELLER! Bookseller here! I've got whales of tales, and tales about whales! Three to be exact! . . .”
Spike had to run to catch up with Twilight, but at least this time she let him hop onto her back as they headed toward home.
“You're not going to order that book from Mr. Kerning, are you?”
“I might, I might not. Something's off about him, Spike. The way he acts just doesn't fit for a bookseller. It's like he doesn't respect the literature, you know?”
“No, I don't know. Mr. Kerning's a pretty cool guy, he knows his stuff, and like he said, you're already one of his customers, even though you've never met him before today. So what's wrong with ordering through him?”
“I'll think about it, Spike. In the meantime, we need to talk about these 'complaints' you have about work.”
“Oh, you remembered that, huh? Um . . . would it help to say I'm sor— Hrrk!”
The dragon's cheeks suddenly puffed out, and he belched up a flaming cloud of smoke that flashed into a half-eaten sweet roll with a small note tacked to it.
“What's this all about?” The magician floated the pastry in front of her eyes for a close inspection:
Thank you for sharing, but I've already eaten.
HRH, Princess Celestia
“What the! . . . Spike, what did you do?!”
“Aw, jeez,” Spike muttered as he smacked an embarrassed palm into his face.
• • •
By the end of Wednesday, Kerning had done brisk enough business that he was able to lock up his wagon back at the inn and focus on the personal deliveries for his long-standing customers.
He'd covered most of his stops by early Thursday afternoon, saving his two favorite locales for last. First would be the Ponyville library, where he hoped for a game of chess or two and some lively conversation with his oldest acquaintance in the town, then he'd be off to the mayor's office for some quality time with Vanilla Rose, a friend and classmate whom he'd always failed to seduce, even when his efforts were genuinely serious.
His mood was high as he made his way to the library, singing a nonsensical tune he learned from yet another unremembered stop-over as he trotted along:
“. . . Is anypony alive in here?
Is anypony alive in here?
Is anypony at all in here?
Nopony but us in here,
Nopony but us. *Ungh.*
Your uniform don't seem to fit,
You're much too alive in it . . .”
The song cut short as the old, hollow tree that was Ponyville's library came into view, and he found that the door was sealed. “Eh? Why's that old foal closed up at this time of day?”
Octavo, the township's gruff and aged librarian, always kept a fairly strict sunrise-to-sunset schedule, and made a habit of posting a notice whenever he was out or otherwise occupied with something that required privacy. Kerning discovered that the door was unlocked when he tested the handle, and—knowing Octavo well enough—figured the old stal was dusting his precious collections, and wanted to keep idle breezes from hindering his efforts. The bookseller also surmised that 'unlocked' equated to 'open', and since the curator would probably give him a ribbing for not stopping by earlier in the week, decided to admit himself in a grand fashion and apologize as needed.
With five rhythmic knocks he was certain Octavo would recognize, he pushed open the door and stepped in while blustering, “Dust off that chessboard, you miserable old goat! Kerning has arrived and the game will prove his fortune has changed! I'll have you done in seven moves, I swear. . . . Oh . . . oh dear.”
To his surprise, the vendor found a familiar yet wide-eyed pair standing amongst a small forest of books stacked on the floor, staring at him as though he was completely insane.
“Mr. Kerning?” Spike asked with a confused tone.
“Can I help you?” Twilight Sparkle bristled, in no way pleased with the intrusion.
“Um . . . sorry about that, kids.” A sheepish grin crossed his lips. “I was expecting Octavo to be puttering about, and didn't figure he had guests. Or is it hired help? Looks like a bomb went off in here. . . . The old knob recataloging again? Where's he hiding, anyway?”
The mare and dragon looked at each other briefly, then asked in unison, “Who?”
Their mutual ignorance caused Kerning to recoil slightly. “You're kidding, right?”
Another shared glance and they shook their heads.
“You know, the grumpy old stallion? King and High-Master of the late-return fee? Always keeps a dictionary handy to correct anyone when they misuse a word? Has a tendency to growl like a bear whenever one mentions Cloudwalker's third volume while he's in earshot?”
His questions were answered with unknowing shrugs.
“Ugh . . .” he grunted in frustration. “Octavo! . . . The librarian?!”
Twilight stepped toward the bookseller. “I'm sorry, but . . . we've never met anypony named Octavo since we came into town. Are you sure you have the right library?”
“Young lady, I've been delivering books to Ponyville for more than fifteen years, and am quite certain I have the right library, considering this is the town's only one. That leaves me with two questions: one, what's become of old Octavo, and two, why are the two of you here?”
“We live here now,” Spike piped up. “This is where Princess Celestia arranged for us to stay.”
“There's been no mention of a librarian since we've been here, either,” the unicorn nodded in agreement with the dragonling. “Once again, I'm sorry, but we don't know of any Octavo.”
Kerning turned his attention to the daylight streaming through a nearby window as he pondered the implications.
“Well, the old codger always did grouse about retiring completely. Talked about building a quiet little cottage at the edge of town where he could be left to his own devices, but I never thought he'd go through with it. I'm sure 'Nilla-Bean knows the details. Still, does this mean the two of you have taken full charge of the library, then? Is this mess part of your recataloging efforts, or what?”
“Yes . . . and, no. . . . Well . . . maybe?” Twilight appeared to be confused herself. “Honestly, no one's ever said that we were supposed to be in charge of the library as, um . . . you know . . . a library. Not even the Princess. I mean, I'm a student of magic, and that's what I'm here to study.”
A horrified expression fell onto the bookseller's face, and he took a long, hard look at what he could see of the hollow tree's main floor from his vantage. There were huge voids in the bookshelves where volumes had been pulled and stacked willy-nilly all over the floor, and many more lay open and askew on practically every table surface with crumpled wads of notepaper scattered among them.
“Are you . . . are you telling me that this, Ponyville's only public library, has been turned into some sort of private study hall?! What insanity is this?!”
“Well . . .” The unicorn's ears folded back as she cowed at his outburst.
“There's no way something like this could happen! There's no way something like this should happen! Where are the ponies who can't afford to buy copies of their own books supposed to go to read, eh? Libraries exist so that everyone can study whatever subject they desire, or wile away a few hours with a good story as it suits them! To turn such a noble institution over to some . . . some . . . student to horde unto themselves is ludicrous! Honestly, girl, do you have any respect for the literature you have scattered all over the place? How about the citizens of this town, eh? How about the library itself?!”
“I didn't . . . I don't . . .” Tears started to well up in her eyes as the sting of his accusations burned into her, the fact that they were the same complaints she had about him earlier in the week all the more painful. “The Princess sent me here to—”
“Princess Celestia be damned,” he spat. “This will not stand, you hear me? I'm going to have words with the mayor about this, and if you don't want to find yourselves out in the street, start putting the library back together so it can be used as it was intended! Good day!”
He slammed the door behind him as he exited, leaving the purple mare and her dragonling behind in a stunned, guilty silence.
• • •
Mayor Vanilla Rose stood at the bay of windows in her office, looking down on the activity of the market square with a satisfied smile.
Merchant Summer was important to Ponyville's economy, and this year's had gone very well so far. No accusations of fraud had been voiced, and a larger-than-normal sum had made its way into the town's general fund through the solicitor's permits sold through town hall.
Pity it would all be over before the weekend was through, but time marches on, and Ponyville had other things to focus on. The farmers and fieldworkers needed to put their efforts into their harvests to make good on the contracts they were currently signing, and she had to prepare for the Running of the Leaves, which would be upon them sooner than anypony realized.
The buzzer of her intercom suddenly shook her from her thoughts, and she stepped back to her desk and clicked the 'talk' button. “Yes, Buttercup?”
“There's a pony here to see you, Madam Mayor. A bookseller named Kerning.”
“Ah, wonderful! Please send him in,” she chimed, happy that her old friend had decided to pay her a visit. She hoped he had the 'trashy' romance novels she ordered, even if it meant the usual jokes at her expense.
The door creaked open and the familiar brown earth pony stepped into her office, his expression more sour than she'd ever seen it. “Hey there, 'Nilla-Bean.”
She trotted to him and gave him a hug, then regarded him with some concern. “Kernie? It's great to see you, but you look distraught. What's wrong?”
“Well . . .” he sighed, “. . . I just came from the library, and am absolutely disgusted with what I saw. It seems Her Majesty has saddled you with a unicorn who's turned the place into her own private collection, and I'd like to know if you were aware of it, and if so, what you intend to do about it.”
“So you've met Twilight Sparkle, then.” She returned to her desk and sat down, slipping into an official mode. “Yes, I'm aware of the state of the library, and honestly, I don't know what we're going to do with that girl. There are extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration where she's concerned . . .”
“You mean because of her connection to Princess Celestia? Honestly, 'Nilla! I never would have pegged you for one who would kowtow when an important part of your town is being ruined—”
“Don't interrupt me, Kernie,” she admonished. “You know better than that. Twilight Sparkle is one of Her Highness' personal students, yes, but she's also a hero to Ponyville.”
“What? What do you mean she's a hero?”
“You know about Princess Luna's return, I take it?”
“Well, I wasn't in Canterlot when Celestia gave her speech welcoming her younger sister back to Equestria, but I've read the transcript and a considerable number of articles on our younger monarch. What does that have to do with Twilight Sparkle?”
“Here's a few tidbits of information that most of Equestria hasn't heard. . . .”
Her Honor recounted the tale of Nightmare Moon's return, and how Ponyville was targeted as the Summer Sun Celebration was held in town that year. He listened intently as she told of Twilight's brave crusade to find the Elements of Harmony, and how she and a handful of local mares were able to harness the ancient magic which separated Princess Luna from her sinister incarnation.
It was a lot for the bookseller to take in, as most of his knowledge came from what he read rather than what he gleaned from word-of-mouth. It appeared that several facts were held back from the press to respect the privacy of those involved: the details of Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna were disclosed as fully as the Royal Court wished them to be, while the important roles of the six common mares in the event had been quashed out of courtesy.
Her tale told, Vanilla Rose pulled herself out from behind her desk and returned to gazing out the window.
“I've been giving her something of a wide berth out of respect and gratitude since Her Majesty chose to assign her to town, and perhaps I shouldn't have,” she admitted. “Honestly, I was rather hoping that she'd have come to me by now and asked me about becoming the town's librarian, but it appears she's had other ideas.”
“Well, at least I understand the situation a bit better, but if one were to ask me, I don't think the girl is a good fit for the position. There's really only one pony's opinion I'd value on the subject, and he hasn't even been mentioned. . . . What's Octavo's take on all this, anyway?”
The mayor's head dropped a fraction of an inch as the mood in the room grayed. “. . . So. You haven't heard yet.”
“Haven't heard what?”
• • •
It was no more than thirty minutes past dawn on Friday when Twilight Sparkle emerged from the Ponyville library, disheveled, exhausted, famished and numb.
Since the bookseller had stormed out in a rage, she spent several hours crying out her frustration—both at the shame of his accusations and the pain in that he'd been right—then several more cleaning up her chaos and setting the library straight. Part of her wished she could feel some sense of accomplishment in such a monumental task, but how could one take pride in correcting such a huge mistake?
Her legs carried her down the street to Sugarcube Corner almost automatically, and her growling stomach hoped beyond hope that she wasn't too early for the shop to be open. Mr. and Mrs. Cake were early risers as they always had dough to prepare, and there was at least a chance that they might take pity on the unicorn and offer her something at that hour, even if they weren't fully up-and-running.
As the storefront came into view, it appeared that Twilight wasn't the only pony hoping for such kindness. Kerning himself was there, half-slumped over one of the café tables in a state that matched her own, with the exception that he looked infinitely older than he did the day before. The magician didn't resist when her legs carried her to that same table and she took a seat to the bookseller's left.
“Hi,” she muttered.
“Hey,” he responded in kind, and for a long moment the pair sat quietly, staring down the street as they waited for some sign that food would be available soon. Neither bothered to ask the other why they were in such a sorry state, as it just seemed to be a given fact.
Kerning was the first to shake his courage into action. “I'm really sorry for going off the handle like that. I didn't know the full situation, and really didn't have a right to yell at you like I did.”
“No, you were right,” the unicorn replied. “I've spent most of my life in libraries, never paying attention to how others used them. . . . It was always about me. Suddenly, I found myself living in one, and the whole idea that it was a public library just kind of . . . evaporated. Until you came along, I never even considered what it took to manage one until I cleaned up my mess. Took all night doing it, but it's ready for the public again. Now, if I could just figure out what I should do next—stay there and work as the librarian, or move out and keep to nothing but my studies—I'd be all set.”
“Do you like the place?”
“Do you understand what it has to offer you?”
“I think I do now, yes.”
“Are you willing to share that with all of Ponyville? Answer honestly.”
“Glimmer of hope in that.” He managed a smile, but offered no more to her. The decision needed to be hers.
“Did you find your friend Octavo?”
“. . . I did.” He finally turned to face her and caught that familiar little spark as she came into view. “I think the two of you should meet. Care for a short walk?”
“He won't mind.”
“. . . Okay.”
Kerning led Twilight three-quarters of a mile eastward from the town center at a sombre pace, neither pony speaking nor taking note of their surroundings as they moved.
The unicorn barely noticed the ground on which she trod had changed from cobblestones to green grass wet with the morning's dew, and the iron gate through which she passed didn't register. Only when the bookseller stopped in front of the tall, gray stone did she realize that he'd led her to the Ponyville cemetery, and to say she was surprised would have been a lie. Sometime during her night's work, she realized—if the pony known as Octavo carried the type of passion she suspected he might—that death would have been the only thing that would have torn him away from his precious library.
Kerning, however, was never one to consider the worst case scenario as the first possibility; it simply wasn't in his nature. The news of Octavo's passing thus hit him hard, as did the fact that he was halfway across the country and probably doing something stupid in front of a crowd when the old stallion breathed his last. He wished with all of his being that he could have said goodbye in person, but then again, perhaps passing the last piece of the old stal's wisdom on to someone new would make a more fitting tribute.
“Here he is.” The bookseller looked behind him to the purple mare, and she stepped beside him to view the headstone.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered through a little smile, not knowing what else to say.
“Remember how I said I got a sense from ponies about what they should read? I think you should read this.” He nodded toward the monument, specifically at a quote which had been artfully carved under the librarian's name:
“A book in and of itself can sit on some shelf somewhere, gathering dust and rotting away,
but a good story will stay fresh in a reader's mind forever.”
“That's . . . beautiful.” Her smile widened a bit as she read through the statement several times, committing it to memory. “Your friend was something of a poet, wasn't he?”
“Heh. . . . Oh, he was, but he'd have railed against you for suggesting such a thing. Prose was his first love, and he used to vehemently deny his deep respect for poetry, simply because so much of it was sycophantic drivel. That's why he hated Cloudwalker's third volume so much, because reading it, he knew the poet himself had given up on his craft simply to appease the rabid screeching for more 'palatable' verses from his publishers. Damn shame, too.”
“I couldn't get through the first third of it myself, it was so bad,” she offered, “especially if you've just read his first two volumes back-to-back. It was like he turned his soul off or something.”
“Ha! Octavo would have found you delightful, Twilight Sparkle. Really, I do believe that you two would have made fast friends if you'd had the chance to meet.”
“. . . How did he die?” Twilight asked quietly, unsure if it was appropriate.
Kerning let out a heavy sigh. “From what 'Nilla-Bean . . . sorry . . . what Mayor Vanilla Rose told me, he was out doing his weekly shopping and just . . . collapsed. He was pushing ninety, and a few folks in town were surprised he'd lived as long as he did. Me? I thought he was immortal, idealistic foal that I am. Maybe if he'd let me win at chess at least once, I wouldn't have had such a notion in my head. That reminds me. . . . I've been out here most of the night, and keep forgetting to give him this.”
The bookseller nosed into one of his saddlebags and withdrew an ornately carved chess piece—a black king—and carefully placed it atop the headstone, standing tall in the morning sunlight.
“I yield, you old coot,” he chuckled. “Damned be the nitwit who ever tried to topple you.”
• • •
Sunday midmorning, Princess Celestia was relaxing in her study, taking some time to catch up on a short pile of personal correspondence.
Princess Luna sat nearby, running through one of the oldest annual Royal ledgers the hall of records had on file. Since her sister's return, Celestia had kept Luna close as she educated her on the here-and-now of Equestria, hoping that the younger monarch would be willing and able to resume her role as an equal ruler of their nation. Part of that education was the history which had passed the younger sibling by during her exile, and the ledgers provided a logical framework upon which Luna had chosen to base her studies, radiating her knowledge out from those points.
Of course, current events piqued Luna's interest as much as history, so whenever a scroll spiraled into existence for Celestia's review, she'd taken to reading them aloud for her younger sister to hear. Twilight Sparkle's latest report was no exception when it arrived.
As she scanned through the document, the elder monarch noted a change in the hoof-writing. “Hmm . . . this is odd. Young Twilight's written this one herself, rather than dictating it to Spike.”
“Is that significant?” Luna asked as she moved closer. Twilight Sparkle was held in high-regard as one of her saviors, as well as something of a curiosity due to Celestia's long-running interest in the young mare.
“Out of the ordinary, at least. Let's hear what she has for us, what?”
Dear Princess Celestia,
I'm sorry that this week's report is late, but at least it was because I've made a new friend and have been spending some time with him while he was in town. His name is Mr. Kerning, and he's a traveling bookseller, so we may not see each other for another year. He's an older gentlepony, maybe twice my age if not older, and can act kind of weird since he spends a lot of his time putting on a show to draw in customers, but he's a nice old stal once you get to know him.
What I've learned this week, I've learned from him: first, it can be easy to make friends, and it can also be very hard. When we first met, I thought he was something of a freak, and later he got really mad at me for making a mess of the Ponyville library. I later found out that Ponyville's previous librarian was one of his college professors and a very good friend of his, and that this old professor had passed away last spring. He didn't know that until he found Spike and me at the library, got mad like I said because I'd been treating it like it was all my personal property (which I'm no longer doing), and went to the mayor to complain.
Once he'd heard about his old friend passing from the mayor, we ran into each other by chance, both apologized, and he started telling me all about the old librarian, Octavo. Through those stories, we found that we had a lot in common, and liked each other's company, so we ended up as friends. That brings me to the second thing I've learned, that losing a good friend can be very, very hard on a pony, and the best thing for it is to talk about the friend who's gone with other friends. Mr. Kerning told me that “Memories of those friends who’ve gone before us make them immortal,” and I believe that truer words have never been said.
Your Faithful Student and Ponyville's New Librarian,
“Significant. . . . Yes.” Celestia's eyes moved toward the window as she let the scroll furl and drift down to her desk. “. . . A brush with mortality.”
Luna did nothing but observe her sister's quiet reverie. While she could only guess at the thoughts which held Celestia's attention, she was, quite possibly, the only pony in Equestria who could truly comprehend their gravity.
• • •
As he hauled his near-empty wagon out of town, Kerning took a slight detour back to the library in order to say a proper goodbye to his newest friend, collect her preorder for the Compendium of Modern Magic, and wish her well as she started her new career as Ponyville's official librarian.
She was a bright girl, that Twilight Sparkle, and he hoped she found the same love for the work that old Octavo had. He wished he'd had more time to spend with her, and would have loved the chance to tell just one more story about the old grump's rants over authors he'd felt had no business being published. But, the bookseller had schedules to keep and inventory to restock, and he'd already spent two extra days in the valley town. . . . It would have to wait for the next Merchant Summer.
Finally on his way, yet another old song popped into Kerning's head, one that Octavo himself had taught him some years ago, and he felt it appropriate to put it to voice as one more tribute to his dear, departed friend:
“Well the lush separation enfolds you
and the products of wealth
push you along on the bow wave
of their spiritless undying selves.
And you press on God's waiter your last dime
as He hands you the bill,
and you spin in the slipstream -
tideless - unreasoning -
paddle right out of the mess.
And you paddle right out of the mess. . . .”
- fin -