THE RUMMY BUSINESS OF OLD BLOOEY
by CLOUD WANDER
"Yes, sir?" replied Cheese, materializing beside me.
"Have you seen my new vest about? The colorful plaid one with the bold green stripe?"
"I observed such a garment a short while ago, sir. I had assumed that it had been left behind accidentally by a troupe of traveling minstrels."
"Oh no, Cheese, that was mine."
This is one of my issues with Cheese. Don't get me wrong. In most ways, Roquefort Cheese is a most excellent valet. Many a morn, when I was a bit lathered after a long night's gallivantin', it has been Cheese that tucked me safely into my stable. Stable, indeed, is the word for old Cheese. He is my rock, my fortress. (That's a bit of a play on Roquefort, don't you know? Ha ha! The benefits of a classical education!)
But, dash it all, he has a way of saying indeed, sir? that contains subtle colorations of shyeah, right! And, really, is that any way for a servant to address his master? No! This, I decided, shall not stand.
"Yes, most certainly indeed, Cheese! Why, I'll have you know I purchased that fashionable item just last night whilst trolling the Garment District! I saw it in the shop window and it practically shouted out at me."
"It did appear to be highly audible, sir."
"It shouts, 'Huzzah! Behold, Equestria! Barnyard Marengo Trotter is here!'"
"It provides a useful advance warning, sir."
I rattled this around the old cauliflower and judged it a compliment. "Exactly, Cheese. It is my intention to wear my new vest this evening to the Grand Galloping Gala!"
"I see, sir," said Cheese, in a tone that implied the question, Will sir also be requiring his banjo?
"Please bring forth my vest from wherever you've hidden it, Cheese," I directed. "And, no, I shall not require my banjo!"
"Sir?" asked Cheese, all innocence and light.
"You heard me," I said, fixing him with a steely glint.
"Yes, sir," said Cheese, shimmering away.
I didn't like putting my hoof down with Cheese, but a master has an obligation to be firm. Noblesse oblige, laissez-faire, and so on and etcetera. In the end, they love you for it, no matter what grumbling you may hear.
On to business.
This Princess Luna now. As I understand it, she was banished to the Moon for a thousand years. Harsh, rather! Night Eternal sounds rather bad to your average cove, I'll aver, but after a goodish night wetting the nose at the Drovers Club, the coming of the light seems to me an event best put off a bit. An' the dawn comes up like thunder, as the poet said. So true! Though I have not personally witnessed the dawn for some years now, I understand that it still occurs, despite popular opinion against it, and am glad to be sheltered against its thunder by Cheese's sovereign hangover preparation.
Invaluable pony, that Cheese.
But: re: Luna: to wit: hmmm. I have had the good fortune to have briefly met her sister, our Most Distinguished Ruler Princess Celestia, at my Aunt Coriander's birthday party last spring, and the Princess appeared most formidable. That is to say: big. Big as a barn, to take the full measure of the thing. Robust in the chassis. I dared hope that this Luna would occupy a bit less floor space. A chap likes to feel free to move about, you know.
Cheese approached with my Vest of Many Colors.
"Your... item, sir," announced Cheese, extending it with a bit of the old unicorn TK.
I bedecked the frame. "Well, what do you think, Cheese?" I said, displaying the result.
"Most... entertaining, sir," replied Cheese.
"Exactly the effect I wish to obtain."
"As you say, sir." There was, in Cheese's expression, a sad look, like a child deprived of a candy. Still, I held fast to my sartorial decision.
"Tell me, Cheese, what's your take on this Princess Luna?"
"I have not had the privilege of Her Highness's acquaintance, sir. Still, from all accounts, She is a most gracious and kindly Lady who has suffered a tragic history."
"Well, then! A jolt of the old Barney Trotter charm will be just the thing for her!"
"No doubt, sir, after her meeting with you, her long solitude will seem less objectionable."
"Just so! Perhaps I shall-- hark!"
The doorbell sounded.
"With your permission, sir--?" asked Cheese.
"Carry on, Cheese."
Cheese was gone. I understand these unicorn fellows, some of 'em, can do this thing, here one second, then poof gone the next. Cheese, somehow, accomplishes this without the poof. There is only, suddenly, a complete subtraction of Cheese. Most disorienting, rather! I have, on occasion, found myself transported unexpectedly from point A to B, but only after the application of a few pints of the Desired Potion.
Cheese appeared. "Prince Blueblood, sir," he announced, bowing.
"Blooey!" I cried, full of bonhomie. What a good egg, is old Blueblood! He's one of these fascinating chaps whose voice becomes slower and deeper after a few quaffs of the Necessary Beverage. Listing a few degrees to starboard, his vocal rendition of Dear Old Mum, Me Only Chum fetches water to the driest eye at the Drovers.
"Oh, Barney! Barney! It's the worst possible thing!" cried Blueblood as he trampled into the sitting room and collapsed onto the sofa.
Even in distress, a Blueblood strewn lengthwise across one's divan presents a decorative display. Snowy pelt, golden mane, big shoulders, sapphire eyes, unicorn thingummy. Not much between the ears, but it's the empty drum that sounds the loudest, what?
"My dear old Blooey! Whatever can be the matter?" I inquired, all tender solicitude and such.
Blueblood sobbed. "It's Valencia!"
"Valencia? You mean, your Miss Orange? Is she ill? Stricken? Pulled up lame?"
"Oh, no," Blueblood said, large wet ones rolling down his downy cheeks. "She's as healthy as a, as a...." Blueblood looked about for inspiration, discovering only myself and Cheese. "As a horse," he finished, sorrowfully.
"Then what in Equestria is wrong?" I asked.
"I-- I'm afraid," Blueblood said, haltingly between sobs, "that Valencia and I may have somehow, accidentally you understand, become-- engaged to be married."
My blood ran cold. Touching the brow, I felt frost forming on the old pumpkin. I sank down upon the sofa beside Blueblood and extended him the comforting claw.
"I'm so sorry, old fellow. Are you certain that there's nothing to be done?"
"No! Nothing! Of all the worst things that could have happened--!"
"How did it happen?" I asked, hoping to avoid his mistake.
"Well, it was like this," said Blueblood, with all the eagerness of one who secretly cherishes a good disaster, even his own. "You know that Valencia is keen on birdwatching?"
I pondered Valencia. Sturdy, vigorous Earth Pony. Takes long strides. Fond of boots and canvas bags. Voice like a brace of brass bugles. Birdwatching? Typical of the breed. I nodded.
"So, the other day," Blueblood continued, "we were out and about. She was looking at birds. Very hot on the traces of a... what was it? A yellow-throated warbler, or some such. And there I was, galumphing along behind."
"The woods, the sky, the turn of the earth. Quite the romantic setting, I dare say," I dared to say.
"Can't abide nature," said Blueblood, sniffing. "So much awful muck, squishing beneath one's hooves. A good grooming, undone in an instant."
"So I was galumphing along behind her, taking a bracer or two, you know, from the flank flask. Against the cold. Or snake bite. You understand."
"She was rambling on and on about the purple-throated whatzit and the crested thingummy. Then she started talking about nests. You know, nests? Little bric-a-brac bowl-thingies? For birds?"
Nesting? I feared where this would lead.
"Then, suddenly, she asks me if, possibly, the two of us could make a nest together."
Ah, no. The ticker sank.
"Well, naturally, being the noble and agreeable fellow that I am, I said Sure, why not?" said Blueblood. "I thought she meant an arts-and-crafts project." He waved a hoof vaguely. "A Winter Wrap-Up sort of thing. What servants do."
"Well, of course."
Cheese said nothing. It was impressive, the degree to which he said nothing.
"So she rattled on for bit. I nodded from time to time, not really listening." Blueblood struck the sofa with a hoof. "But then there I was, warmed against the cold, or the snakes, or whatever, and slowly it began to sink into me that Valencia was no longer talking about making nests but about making our life together! Marriage! And I had put my hoof into it and agreed! Can you imagine?"
I sighed, shaking the melon. Poor Blooey.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm a firm believer in the old yoke-and-harness. My own parents were hitched, don't you know. Still, for a stallion like Blooey to be broken to the y&h at such a tender age--!
"What can I do, Barney? I'm a Prince!" Blooey struck a pose. "How can one in my position break off an engagement? Imagine the dishonor. Imagine the... larger consequences."
I caught his drift. Disgrace the Royal Family? Embarrass Celestia? Unwise. In the firmament, there would be soon a tiny crater with Blueblood's surprised face on it.
"Oh, Barney, what can I do?" Blooey wailed.
I allowed it was a stumper, and a right corker at that.
Cheese coughed, discretely.
"If I may suggest, Your Highness--?"
And there it was. Hi-yo, Cheese! Away! It's always darkest before the d., but you can always count on Cheese to deliver the straight tabasco.
"Would I be correct, Your Highness, in assuming that you will be attending this evening's Grand Galloping Gala?"
Blueblood sighed. "Yes, of course. This year as every year, with the Dame and Sire."
"And Miss Orange?"
Blueblood nodded. "Of course, she will be there, along with her own mother and father. They are the Manehatten Oranges, you know. Up-and-comers in the social set."
"So you will both be going, but not together, Your Highness?"
"That's correct. Although I don't suppose there's any way for me to avoid bumping into her."
"What are you thinking, Cheese?" I asked, eager to be in on the plot.
"I was considering, sir, if it might be possible to make use of one of His Highness's greatest strengths to extricate him from this unexpected commitment."
"Grand idea, Cheese!" I enthused. "Although I don't see how Blooey launching into a performance of Dear Old Mum will assist in these circs."
"Ahem. Not to in any way diminish His Highness's vocal accomplishments, sir," said Cheese, "but I was thinking more along the lines of His Highness's qualifications as an eminently desirable bachelor. If I may say, His Highness appears to me to be a most handsome stallion, well-spoken, cultured and refined. Not to overlook His Highness's majestic lineage."
"Blooey is the pip, I'll agree. But how does this help?" I asked.
"Wait, Barney," interjected Blooey, sweeping back his golden mane. "I believe Cheese may be on to something here. Do go on."
"I should imagine," continued Cheese, "that His Highness is eagerly sought after by many of the gentler sex, in hopes of winning His Highness's favor."
"Oh, you have no idea," said Blueblood, smoothing his coat and arranging his vest. "Beauty is such a curse, at times."
"I fear that Miss Orange, in the throes of her infatuation, may not have considered the effect of His Highness's exceptional popularity on the comfort of her proposed domestic situation. To wit: she will inevitably encounter rivals for His Highness's affections. And, if I may be so bold, Your Highness, these rivals will not stop with His Highness's nuptials."
"Oh, no. I imagine not," said Blueblood. He straightened on the sofa and now looked quite his usual self. "The race is not always to the swift, you know. There is also... persistence to consider. And there are many fillies that are most... persistent," he said with a secret smile.
"Even so, Your Highness," agreed Cheese. "I suggest, then, that if Miss Orange had the opportunity to observe one of your pursuers, at some small remove, she might come to perceive that the field of marriage is not so much one of bliss as it is of continual battle."
"So your idea is," I put in, struggling to stay up on the game, "that Valencia get a good eyeful of old Blooey in the crosshairs of some go-getter, so that Valencia will get a notion of the trouble she's letting herself in for?"
"Precisely, sir," said Cheese. "It may even occur to Miss Orange that, as her family is, as His Highness has said, 'an up-and-comer in the social set,' that she herself might, regrettably, be perceived as a 'go-getter' in certain circles. Surely, in deference to her family's reputation, and for her own peace of mind, she will beg His Highness to terminate their understanding."
I shook my head in wonder. "It's the carrots, isn't it, Cheese? Only the regular application of carrots can account for your astounding brain."
"I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir."
"I approve," announced Blueblood, standing. Once more, old Blooey was in command. "You have done well, Cheese."
"It is my privilege to be of service, Your Highness."
"Hang on," I put in. "What's to keep Valencia from just marching straight up to Blooey at the Gala and hangin' on to him all night long? Rather hard to be hunted when the gamekeeper already has you bagged."
"Ah, well," said Cheese. "That's where you come in, sir."
Well, you know the Code of the Trotters: "Never let a palomino down." Blooey isn't a palomino, of course. Still, it's the principle of the thing. And when your pal is a prince, even more so, and so forth.
So, armored up in the full soup-and-fish, I set off to Castle Canterlot, on a quest to rescue a handsome prince from the clutches of a marriage-breathing dragon.
"I say, Cheese," I said, on the cab ride over to Castle C. "Were you able to scrounge a feminine conspirator for this evening's wheeze?"
"I had the opportunity to examine the guest list for the Grand Galloping Gala, sir, and I believe that I discovered a most suitable young lady."
"You had the guest list? For the Grand Galloping Gala? How in Equestria did you manage that?"
"I am a member of the Augean Club, sir," explained Cheese. "An informal society of valets and other domestics. It is not uncommon for the guest lists of major social functions to be circulated among the members, so that one might anticipate and avoid uncomfortable encounters."
"Greasing the gears of the gala, eh?"
"Precisely, sir. The young lady I've selected to assist His Highness in this endeavor is a Miss Rarity of Ponyville--."
"Ponyville? Oh, Cheese, you disappoint me terribly! You aren't going to push some corn-fed rustic onto old Blooey, surely!"
"Oh no, sir!" insisted Cheese, strenuously. Cheese is a most even-tempered pony, nearly inert as a rule, but I dare say in that moment he became almost life-like. "The young lady in question is a most cultured and refined fashion designer that has lately gained a considerable reputation among the smart set. I myself have had the occasion to visit her establishment on my days off. In fact, the cravat that I'm wearing this evening is one of her 'neck creations.'"
"Most stylish, Cheese."
"As is the young lady, sir. It was my thought, sir, that an out-of-town admirer would emphasize to Miss Orange the peril of amorous association with His Highness."
"Valencia vs Equestria, eh? An excellent thought, Cheese."
"Thank you, sir."
Our cab came ashore off the coast of the Castle. Cheese and I tumbled out. While Cheese paid off the cabbie, I looked around the old pile. Most picturesque, I thought.
"Unless I'm very much mistaken, sir," said Cheese, "I believe Miss Rarity and her party are arriving."
"Good gracious, Cheese! Is that a large reptile driving their coach?"
"I believe it to be an immature dragon, sir."
"A dragon? Quite posh, I must say, though I hope they'll keep the beast on a leash. I recall, two seasons ago, when Winky Fig-Nettle brought this manticore kitten to the festivities. Chewing on the furniture, hair in the punchbowl! The unspeakable thing it did in Lady Wickerbottom's hat. Disastrous."
"A most ill-considered adventure, sir."
At this point, as so often happens at these get-togethers, a ferocious song-and-dance broke out. Now, don't mistake me. Barney Trotter's been known to warble a fruity number and twinkle a toe or two, after gassing up with a few oz. of the appropriate lubricant. But a fellow would appreciate a little notice when a quadrille is declared and a chorus line comes charging up the path. As it was, it took a bit of fancy stepping just to avoid being driven into the trenches by the dancing cavalry line.
When at last a general armistice was announced, I looked about to find Cheese standing at the courtyard gate, deep in conversation with a striking unicorn mare. Quite a topper she was! Cheese had promised a proper Blueblood lure and he had delivered the hot stuff, without doubt!
After a mo', the two parted company. Cheese flowed back across the lawn.
"I have directed Miss Rarity to proceed to the Grand Salon, where, if you will recall, sir, His Highness agreed to loiter while waiting for his companion to arrive."
"Keen on the scent, then, is she?"
"I merely brought to her attention, sir, that there was a distinguished admirer who wished, for the moment, to remain anonymous, but who was greatly desirous of her acquaintance, should she find herself in the vicinity of the Grand Salon."
"So, the pawns are in motion, then, eh, Cheese? All the knights and bishes and castle-thingies moving into place?"
"As you say, sir. I believe I observed just now, sir, that Miss Valencia and the Oranges are proceeding to the Foyer, where, if I'm not mistaken, Princess Celestia is receiving guests."
"Time for me to put the squeeze on the Oranges, then."
"If you must say so, sir."
I trotted off towards the Foyer whilst Cheese flickered away to the servants' quarter.
The Foyer of Castle Canterlot was a splendidly lit cavern of marble and velvet. Groups of ponies, no doubt recovering from their recent musical exertions, were scattered about.
Above all, as expected, the Equis Major loomed over the proceedings from her lair atop the stairs, all sunshine and billowy bits.
Below, on the staircase, waiting for their whack at the Presence, was a short line of ponies, the Oranges among them, moving up slowly. I muscled my way towards them and turned on the old personality.
"I say, Oranges! What ho!"
The elder Oranges turned towards me. They appeared disappointed by the view, offering me only shuttered faces: Sorry, we're closed; please come again. Young Valencia, though, bless 'er, was all matey.
"Barney! How very pleasant! Mummy, Daddy, this is Barney Trotter. He's a friend of Blueblood's."
At the drop of Blooey's name the shutters opened, the windows came up and the red carpet rolled out.
"So, you're a friend of the Prince, then, Mr. Trotter," ingratiated Mr. Orange, exuding the old oil. "Always profitable to meet an intimate of the Royal Family."
The Mrs. looked me up and down, as if unsure if crossing a Barney's path was a sign of impending good fortune or mis-. She delicately proffered the hoof.
"So good to meet you, Mr. Trotter," she whinnied. "You are close to Prince Blueblood, are you?"
"Oh, yes. Old school chums, don't you know? Drank out of the same bottle at kindergarten. Still do so on occasion now, come to think of it."
"So your family is influential?" asked the Mr. with some eagerness.
"Absolutely. We Trotters have always been as tight as ticks with the Royals, right on up to the Big 'Un herself, you know--."
"Welcome to the Gala, Barnyard Trotter."
Princess Celestia's voice sang as a choir of harps.
I froze, like a cat caught in the creamery. I glanced up, following the wavy mane to her face and her vast, violet eyes, now trained like searchlights on yours truly.
"Wha-what ho, Your Highness!" I croaked. "Nice day! That is, it was a nice day, ha ha! Grand old Sun, nice and roundish sort of thing! Good job, I say! A good day's work!"
Princess Celestia smiled at me.
Here's the rummy thing. When my Aunt Coriander smiles at me, there is always in the old gal's rictus a suggestion of Oh, whatever shall we do with you, you ridiculous boy?
But when Princess Celestia smiles at me, there's something inside Barney Trotter's rib cage that warms right up and smiles back at her. And when her gaze turns away, there's an ache in a place that is normally ache-free.
It's something I reflect on, now and again, in quiet moments.
Back to business.
While the Oranges expressed their howdy-dos to Princess Celestia, I turned my attention upon Princess Luna, who I detected crouching in Celestia's shadow. Now, this was more like someone my own size. When it comes to Princesses, I think the half-portion is the recommended dosage for Barney Trotter.
Princess Luna, clad in her gown of night and stars, looked up at me with huge, timid eyes, as one clearly unused to the bustle of crowds. Still glowing a bit inside, I cranked the charm up to maximum.
"Barnyard Marengo Trotter, Your Highness," I declared, bowing smartly. "At your service!"
"Good evening, sir," she replied, quietly. "But I'm not royalty at all; I'm just Princess Celestia's apprentice."
The poor thing was clearly deranged and uncertain of herself after her long isolation. The Trotter heart was moved.
"Wonderful to have you back in old Canterlot," I offered, consolingly.
"Thanks, but I haven't been away from Canterlot that long."
The Princesses count time differently from us common folk, I thought.
"Days. Weeks. Centuries. How the time does slip away," I nodded, knowingly. "Many's the time I've awakened from the post-luncheon nap and wondered where the day has gone."
"Splendid finally seeing you here at the Grand Galloping G.! I hope you'll be lighting up the night sky at many more!"
"Thank you, sir," Princess Luna smiled.
Charming little squirt, this Luna. Happy to see her about the place, sincerely.
I moved aside to let the Oranges have their turn. Looking at Valencia, I contemplated my next move. Happily, a Trotter is never at a loss for a stratagem.
As the Oranges broke free from the Princesses' orbit, I fell in beside Valencia.
"I say, Valencia! Have you seen old Blueblood about?"
"Oh no, Barney. Mummy, Daddy and I have only just arrived."
"Well, here's an idea: let's look for him together."
"Oh, yes, Barney. Let's!"
"Perhaps the four of us should go?" suggested Mrs. Orange, uncertainly.
"Sound idea, my dear," inserted the Mr. "I'd like a chance to discuss a few investment opportunities with the Prince. And with you as well, Mr. Trotter."
Oh, no. This wouldn't do. I pressed the old grapefruit. Stratagem, Trotter, stratagem.
"Oh, Daddy, no!" trumpeted Valencia. "Blueblood and I will want a little time to ourselves. We'll have... affairs of our own to see to, don't you think? I'm sure Barney will be sufficient escort. The four of us might be a bit... ponderous."
"Ah, yes," Mr. Orange looked a bit deflated. Then he perked up, "Well! Perhaps later this evening then, Mr. Trotter."
Victory! A Trotter is never at a disadvantage!
"Let's go, Barney!" cried Valencia.
"Tails up, then. Right ho!"
Per the plan, I drew Valencia towards the Royal Gardens. It required little more than a bump on my part, for, as an enthusiastic amateur ornithologist, Valencia rated the ticking of a rara avis off the tally list only slightly below the ticking of a regalis equis.
Slight complication: the Royal Veg. Patch is pretty big. We wandered through some bally odd statuary and were nearly devoured by a labyrinth before the lights of the party hove into view.
I decided then to brace Valencia for her imminent disappointment. Dashed unpleasant work, I knew, but if there's one commodity that Barney Trotter has in ready supply, it's disappointment.
"Quite the romantic setting, you know," I began. "The Royal Gardens, melting in the dark. All the sweet, green icing flowing down."
"Oh, Barney!" laughed Valencia. "What nonsense you talk! One would think you'd left a cake out in the rain!"
"Well, as it happens, I-- hark!"
There was a rustling in the bushes beside us.
Valencia stopped, perhaps hoping for the glorious sight of a purple-thatched slug-grubber or some such.
"What is the meaning of this?" exclaimed Valencia. "You there! Skulking in the underbrush! I see you! Come out!"
A balloon of pink hair rose up from the shrubbery. A gondola of melancholy, butter-yellow pegasus pony floated beneath.
"Young lady! What are you doing?" demanded Valencia.
"Chpng," the yellow pegasus squeaked. She looked down longingly at the turf, as if desiring to burrow into it.
"What now? Speak up, girl!" insisted Valencia.
"I was... chirping." She pawed the grass a bit. I wondered if I should prepare to badger in after her.
"Chirping? Whatever for?"
"Well, you see," the little shrimp explained, "when I first came into the Gardens, I was so excited by all the wonderful birds and critters that I galloped in to say 'hello' to them all and scared them all away.
"I was so sad.
"So I was hoping that by hiding under the bushes, and chirping quietly a bit, I could get them to come back."
I think you can perceive the type of pony this was: the drooping, soupy sort of saucer-eyed young prune that dotes on the fluffiness of bunnies and the preciousness of pangolins. Probably commits poetry in secret, I shouldn't wonder.
"Ah ha!" said Valencia, swelling into almost Celestial proportions. "You are, I perceive, a fellow birder."
"Oh, yes! I love all the little birdies, bugs and critters! You, too?"
"There is no healthier or more improving life than one spent in the study of nature," Valencia boomed. "Fresh air! Vigorous exercise! The mind and spirit engaged! A certain cure for the lazy and debauched lifestyle that has unfortunately become all too common."
For some reason, all heads turned towards yours truly at this point.
"What ho!" I offered, nodding the lemon.
Valencia shook her head. Then she turned back to the pegasus.
"The trouble, my dear," Valencia explained, "is that you're going about it entirely the wrong way."
"I am?" asked the pegasus, her eyes quivering pools of green treacle.
"Absolutely! You are waiting here, chirping, hoping that they will come to you. But, my dear, you must go to them! And not as a mere passive observer, but as a hunter!"
"A hunter?" the squirt breathed, wide-eyed.
"Yes! In the day, it is sufficient to look on from afar. But at night, you must stalk your birds, approaching with stealth, cunning and guile! Take them unaware, and they are yours! Yours forever!"
If ponies had fangs, I might have seen Valencia's then, glinting in the moonlight.
"Oooh!" cooed the pegasus. "My friends are always telling me I should be more bold."
"Heed them!" Valencia asserted. "Carpe noctem! Seize the night and make it your own! Set aside the butterfly for the evening and become the stalking tiger!"
"Oooh, I'd like to be a tiger! I'll do it! Thank you so much for taking me under your wing!"
Odd statement, I thought, coming from a pegasus to an Earth Pony. But there it was.
"No trouble at all, dear girl. Always glad to aid one of the sisterhoof."
The pegasus flittered off, excitedly mumbling, "I'm a tiger! Grar! Heehee!"
Valencia, looking mighty pleased with herself, commanded, "Come along, then, Barney! Our true quarry is Blueblood! Let us hunt! Tally-ho!"
As it happened, we didn't have to hunt very far. We rounded a corner of the Gardens and discovered a short ways off Blueblood seated on a cushion.
"Ah! Blueblood!" gushed Valencia.
But, before she could charge forward, a unicorn mare appeared, levitating a cushion. This new unicorn set her cushion down beside Blueblood's, plopped herself down, then engaged Blooey in keen conversation.
Valencia stopped. "Who is this, now?" she asked.
This, I divined, was the crucial moment, the time to unlimber the mighty weapon of... of... wait, hold on. Missed the turn there, I'm afraid. "Mighty weapon of...?" Ugh! Long word. Starts with an 's'. Tip of my t. Cheese uses it all the time. Um, ah-- psychology! Yes, got it!
It was time to unlimber the mighty weapon of psychology!
"Blueblood appears to be with someone," I instigated.
"Yes," replied Valencia, in a voice like sharpening knives.
"Quite the pipertino, I'd say," I said.
"The mare, I mean. Not Blueblood. Not that Blueblood isn't a pip. He certainly is! But, in this instance, I meant the mare. She's a pip, too."
"Yes," Valencia said. "I think I'd like a closer look. This way, Barney! And please try not to drivel so much."
Valencia dropped below the line of the hedge and crept off with the stealth and posture of a questing spider. I did my best to lobster along behind her. We moved roundabout towards the couple, stopping at a tall hedge near by. Valencia climbed on top of a decorative garden bench and silently parted the shrubbery so she could spy on the other side.
"Look at her!" she hissed. "Fetching and carrying for him like a servant! Shameless!"
I clambered up beside her and quietly poked a porthole through the foliage. The mare was presenting Blueblood with a flute of the bubbly. A moment later, she used a bit of the unicorn TK to snag two plates of gooey things on crackers from a passing waiter.
"A common courtesan," muttered Valencia. "Has she no pride?!"
"Tough break, old girl," I offered, bracing Valencia against the shock.
"What do you mean?" she whispered.
"It appears that you have a rival for Blueblood's attentions."
"Yes," said Valencia. "It seems so."
"Very attractive. Quite the topper! The mare, I mean, not..."
"Yes, thank you, Barney."
"An out-of-towner, if I'm not mistaken. Likely traveled all day just to be here."
Valencia was taking the matter rather too calmly, I thought. I had been expecting a bit of shouting and stamping about by this point.
"Looks like it's Valencia vs Equestria, old thing," I elaborated, withdrawing a bit from the bracing account and placing the proceeds towards the shock.
"Oh, I relish the challenge!" she proclaimed. She pulled her head out of the shrubbery and gazed at me, her eyes shining with an eagerness that I found not at all encouraging.
"What?" I said, with my habitual eloquence.
"I don't doubt that there are many mares with designs upon my Blueblood," Valencia said. "He's a member of the Royal Family, wealthy, and as you've noted, quite the handsome stud, if you'll pardon my Fancy.
"But, you see, Barney, of all of Blueblood's suitors, only I understand what sort of partner he truly needs. Not some gussied-up serving girl who will wait upon his every whim, but somepony who is strong! Somepony who will take the reins firmly, apply the spurs and drive him through his paces and over the hurdles! Somepony to draw him out of the rude clay of his indolent, self-indulgent life and sculpt him into a thoroughbred to be proud of!
"Somepony," Valencia declared, baring her teeth, "like me!"
I have previously spoken, I believe, of the regard in which I hold Cheese and his remarkable brain. I admit that I have less than a full share of the thinking stuff, so I hold those with an overage in high esteem.
Yet! Look at the absurd situation I found myself in! After carefully following Cheese's scheme, Valencia was still eager to score on Blooey, more keenly than ever!
At Valencia's declaration of her renewed dedication to Blooey, I goggled. I daresay, I was even gobsmacked! The plan, the precious plan, had become a complete floater! You could have knocked me over with an f.!
If there was ever a time for a bit of liquid stimulant, this was it, I thought.
At this moment, Blueblood and his companion arose and ambled off towards the Salon.
"Come, Barney! Let us pursue!" directed Valencia. We dismounted from the bench and moved circuitously around to the Gallery, where couples strolled from one place of merriment to another.
Valencia was hot on the scent of Blueblood, while I was casting about for a source of refreshment. Reflecting on my circs., I felt a moderate skinful would improve my outlook considerably.
"Cousin Applejack!" bugled Valencia, unexpectedly.
What what? I thought.
Valencia had stopped before a vendor's cart. The vendor, a lovely young palomino, stepped out from behind her grocer's stand to embrace Valencia.
"It is so good to see you, dear cousin," exclaimed Valencia.
"Cousin Valencia, yore a sight for sore eyes yourself!" insisted the vendor.
"I have so missed my visits to Sweet Apple Acres! The fields, the trees, the birds...!"
"Come on out for the next family reunion! We'd all be plumb tickled t'see ya!"
Valencia and her cousin, Applejack?, were quite matey for a bit. I pawed at the pavement, pondering the nearest likely sources of refreshment.
"Please, Barney," pled Valencia, at last. "Stay here with Applejack while I look for Blueblood. He must be about somewhere!"
Valencia stepped away to reconnoiter.
Applejack. Now, there was a name that whispered opportunity. I turned my full attentions to this cousin.
"Howdy, partner! You hungry?" the palomino asked, brightly.
"Um, no. Thirsty, rather."
She motioned to her collection of flasks. "Sweet cider, fresh from the farm! No better apple cider anywhere, nosiree!"
A sigh escaped me. "Nothing to protect one against snakebite, I suppose?"
Applejack tilted her hat back and favored me with a speckled grin. "Well now, I reckon I can help you with that." She fished around in her stand and came up with a small bottle of golden liquid labelled with a smiling apple. "I think this might be what yore a-hankerin' for."
"Will it protect me from snakes?"
"Believe me, partner: it'll bite 'em back."
"One, please," I said quickly, digging in for the bits.
I passed her the shiny. She passed me the wet stuff.
I mouthed the cork on the bottle and quickly soaked up the contents. At the risk of being accused of hyperbole, I felt in that moment that the golden light of Celestia's sunrise burst through me and fairly glowed through my pores. My toes danced and my tail twitched. I may have whistled. I daresay I would have been unsurprised if wings had unfurled from my back.
Smiling, Applejack asked, "That suit ya, partner?"
I replied, after careful deliberation, "Eee-yup."
Unfortunately, before I could request a second snifter, Valencia returned.
She motioned energetically towards me and the two of us quickly sought concealment behind some potted plants.
Blueblood and his companion arrived on the scene shortly, strolling towards Applejack's marketplace.
After some dickering, Blueblood accepted a jolly-looking apple fritter.
Blooey took a big bite of the pastry, essayed a chew or two, then spat it back out.
Rather bad form, I thought. I've been through enough dinners with my Aunt Coriander to know that it's better to just choke the stuff down than bring it back up, particularly if one is trying to impress. There is always the consolation of the midnight raid on the larder to consider, not to mention the wine cellar.
Blueblood and his companion fussed about a bit, then strutted off from the Gallery towards the Salon.
Cousin Applejack, I noted, looked downcast. Poor girl, I thought. Perhaps she had a few more flasks of the golden brew that I could purchase. To help elevate her spirits, you understand. And, possibly, my own.
I turned to Valencia for advice. Valencia looked rather like she'd just bitten into a particularly sour apple and discovered a worm. Or, perhaps, half a worm.
"Insufferable! Insufferable!" she muttered, shaking her head.
Naturally, I assumed she was referring to me. I get that a lot, from my aunts. I scanned the carcass, seeking my error. On the whole, everything looked quite oojah-cum-spiff, I thought.
Looking up, I saw that a new note of determination had entered into Cousin Applejack's countenance.
"Well, my down-home apples are plenty good enough for this crowd," said Applejack. "I'll just dress 'em up a bit. Prove it to 'em."
The Trotter heart went out to this horse before the cart. I wondered how I, a simple stallion, could comfort this fine creature in her sad hour.
Happily, Valencia Orange had the answer for me.
"YOU! TROTTER!" she declaimed, aiming a hoof in my direction.
"You shall assist Applejack in 'dressing up' her 'vittles.'"
"Me? I hardly know which end of a fork to use. Cheese is the pony you want for this job. Now, if Cheese were here...."
"May I be of some assistance, sir?" asked Cheese.
Nearly startled me out of my shoes, I must say. "Cheese! You have a habit of congealing out of the air in a most heart-stopping manner. Consider wearing a bell or something."
"My apologies, sir."
"As I was saying, if you were here...."
"I am here, sir."
"Yes, I can see that. But if you were here...."
"I am here, sir."
"Alright, alright, we've established that. Now, if you were here...."
"I am here, sir."
"Barney! Do be quiet for a moment!" exasperated Valencia.
She continued, "Cheese, do you suppose you could lend your culinary expertise to this endeavor?"
"I would consider it a privilege, Miss Orange. Judging from the exquisite confections artfully arranged on Miss Applejack's cart, the young lady's skills in this area far exceed my meager own. Still: in my brief visit to Castle Canterlot, I have had the opportunity to study the Royal Kitchens and to acquaint myself with the gustatory possibilities that lie within, so perhaps I might serve as her guide and assistant."
"Then," said Valencia, "please be so good as to escort my cousin to the kitchens and help her with her preparations."
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure. If I could, perhaps, tempt Miss Applejack to accompany me to the Royal Kitchens...."
"You shore do talk fancy, Mr. Cheese!" said Applejack, grinning.
"Thank you, miss. Now, if you will proceed this way--?"
Cheese and I helped wrestle Cousin Applejack's wares down to the Royal Kitchens. The kitchens were bustling with busy ponies, but we managed to drift into a quiet cove where Applejack was able to set to work enhancing her "vittles."
I took the opportunity to draw Cheese aside for a sadly necessary rebuke.
"Cheese," I began, "what I have to say will wound you, but it must be said, aloud and plainly: you have failed me."
"I am most distressed to hear this, sir," said Cheese. "Might I enquire as to the manner in which I have not given satisfaction?"
"Your plan, Cheese!" I ejaculated. "This wheeze of yours is entirely a non-starter. I thought as much this afternoon, when you laid it out before Blooey. But I held my tongue, against my better judgement, in the hope that you had somehow scouted a narrow way through. But look where your navigation has led us! Bang, up on the rocks and sinking fast! Valencia has looked upon the competition and laughed, laughed derisively mind you, ha ha! And behold her now! She is more keen on Blooey than ever!"
Valencia had stabled herself in a corner of the kitchen, between an ice sculpture in the shape of a swan and a crate of turnips. A hiss of "Blueblood!" escaped her from time to time, like a kettle coming to boil.
"She's champing at the bit to get to him!" I said.
"It shames me to admit, sir, that I may have slightly shaded my previous explanation of my proposal."
"I am appalled, Cheese."
"Forgive me, sir, but I thought it best for all concerned to be indirect, in order to spare His Highness's more tender feelings. This afternoon, after hearing His Highness's dilemma, it occurred to me that possibly all that was necessary to resolve His Highness's conundrum was to permit Miss Orange to observe His Highness 'in the wild', as it were, unrestrained by her companionship. In such circumstances, I felt certain, taking into account the psychology of the pony, that His Highness in a gathering of eligible mares would follow his usual instincts with respect to the gentler sex. And Miss Orange, utilizing her experience as a keen observer of nature, would be led sadly but inevitably to the understanding that His Highness, while in every other fashion a most excellent pony and a credit to his family, is, perhaps, a less than entirely desirable domestic companion."
I rattled the walnut. "Sorry, Cheese, I followed you up to the first hurdle but you lost me in the chicane. Shorter and simpler, if you please?"
"Left to his own devices, Prince Blueblood will act as Prince Blueblood will. And Miss Orange, seeing this, will reconsider her relationship with His Highness."
"But look at her, Cheese!" I insisted. "She's itching to get at him!"
"Miss Orange has a most passionate nature, to be sure, sir. But her present manner communicates certain subtleties that may have escaped your notice. Ah, if I may excuse myself, sir? I believe Miss Applejack is signaling for my assistance in preparing the egg whites."
I felt shaken to my core. I had always held Cheese's brain high in my artillery, but here the old party cannon had plainly misfired. A sad, sad turn of events.
Leaving Cousin Applejack and Cheese to their preparations, Valencia and I returned to the Grand Salon to resume our surveillance of Blueblood.
The music that infiltrated the Grand Salon had taken on a boompa-boompa quality that I found stimulating. A pink mare bounded by insisting, "C'mon! Dance!" A Trotter is a creature of action, at his best when presenting a moving target. I looked to Valencia for support, but she seemed disinclined to "party."
"Blueblood! Where is Blueblood?" she demanded through gritted teeth.
Applejack? Where is Applejack? I wondered, with a desiccated throat.
In an amazingly short time thereafter, as if in response to my soul's desire, Applejack appeared with her confection: an apple-themed cake of towering magnificence.
What happened from this point on, I don't entirely understand, although I suspect it was the result of some careless pony unleashing that dragon.
There came a cry of, "STAGE DIVE!" This cheered me immensely, having shouted such myself on occasion. I turned to welcome this kindred spirit to my bosom, when I abruptly encountered a face-full of apple cake.
This is excellent cake, I thought, scraping a bit into my mouth. You have done well, Cousin Applejack.
However, I had little time to appreciate the fruit of Applejack's efforts, as at this juncture there came a great deal of crashing and shrieking, at the end of which I was not dead or even injured. I considered this a good thing.
It was pleasant, I must confess, to be at the center of a disaster that was not of my own making. For once, I was not the chump. I gloried in this moment for awhile, then looked down.
I quickly realized that I was closely crouched in a compromising posish. over the huddling form of Valencia Orange.
"Barney!" she exclaimed, clearly startled to be pressing the flesh with yours truly.
"Oh, sorry, old girl!" I exclaimed back. "I appear to have somehow leapt to your aid and shielded you from the falling wreckage with my body! My apologies!"
"Oh, Barney!" she exclaimed further, her orbs suddenly dewey with emotion.
Well, this won't do, I thought. We Trotters have always been doughty, moving instinctively to protect the meek from catastrophe. Code of the Trotters, and all that. In this instance, however, a bit less flesh-pressing and a bit more studied remoteness was called for, I reckoned.
And then, in the next instant, the garden doors of the Grand Salon burst open and a beastly gallimaufry abruptly invited themselves to the party.
"YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE ME!"
Surprisingly, this belligerent pronouncement came from the squirt that Valencia had earlier rescued in the Gardens. She had apparently taken that 'tiger' business to heart like billy-o.
When a Trotter is called to the post, he must respond. Ever the peacemaker, I drew myself up and prepared to suggest to the young droop that, while I felt that 'love' was premature, I was willing hold her in 'warm regard' if she would only be so good as to restrain the oncoming stampede.
However, I was compelled to re-focus my attentions when a ferret, or a frantic, furry something similarly equipped with claws and teeth, attached itself to my face. I attempted, without much success, to negotiate a ceasefire with the creature. At my hoof, Valencia, for her part, was struggling to escape the embrace of a squadron of hedgehogs that had sought shelter in the lee of her harbor.
It seemed best, at this point, to for us collect ourselves with some alacrity and retire to a place of safety, outside. Where, of course, we immediately ran into Blooey.
You have heard, perhaps, of the Traditional Canterlot Voice? It is a sort of well-mannered bellow, probably developed as a polite way of claiming the last baked yam at the royal dinner table. "STAY THY HOOF, YOU FOAL! THE ULTIMATE SWEET POTATO MUST BE MINE!" That sort of thing.
I believe Valencia considers it her "indoor voice." What she offered now to Blueblood was her "outdoor voice," a tone one might adopt when inviting a griffon perched on a distant mountaintop to a knife fight.
"My cousin Applejack is the most honest, hardworking pony one could hope to encounter! Not some fancy courtesan or social climber, but an Earth Pony, noble and true, struggling to earn a few bits for her precious family! And yet, you have rejected her delightful, homespun treats! And not merely rejected them! You spat them back in her face!
"Such rudeness! Such disrespect! To one who is, in heart and spirit, your superior! Shame on you!
"BLUEBLOOD, YOU DISAPPOINT ME GREATLY!"
There may have been a discrete crack of thunder at this point.
"You, sir, are no gallant, but rather a galoot! You, you are a consarned long-eared varmint!" stamped Valencia.
"My ears aren't that long. Are they?" asked Blooey, worried.
"Oh! You are impossible! You stupid, stuck-up, self-involved jackass!"
"Hay!" exclaimed a nearby donkey.
"I apologize, sir. No offense was intended," said Valencia, shame-faced.
"Well, all right. Blighter probably has it coming," said the donkey, adjusting his monocle. "Carry on, then."
"Barney here is more chivalrous than you!" continued Valencia.
"Now, wait--!" objected Blooey.
"What ho!" I said.
"SHUT UP!" they shouted in unison.
Valencia pointed the accusing hoof. Lightning may have flashed from the orbs. "Blueblood, I don't care if you're a prince or not! YOU ARE A BAD APPLE! And there's no place for a BAD APPLE on the Orange family tree! You may consider our engagement... disengaged! Hmmph!"
With a flick of her tail, Valencia trampled off, leaving behind a bruised and flattened silence.
"Tough break, old fellow," I said, after a bit. One must say such things, at such times.
Blooey nodded. He sort of dug his hoof into the pavement, in the way one does at such times.
"B. is thicker than w., as they say," I said.
"Plenty more f. in the s.," I observed.
This gave Blooey a moment's pause, then he nodded again.
"When you're thrown from the h., you've got to get back in the s.," I encouraged.
"Barney?" asked Blooey.
"Yes, dear f.?"
We gave the old engagement its moment of silence.
Then Blooey looked up, grinning. "Thirsty?" he asked.
"Parched," I admitted.
"My thought, precisely."
Then, in the way one must at such times, the two of us burst into song:
BLUEBLOOD: At the Drovers!
SELF: In the taproom!
B.: That's where I'd like to be!
S.: Hoisting the odd glass or two with my best chum Prince Bloo-ey!
B.: For we are the best at drinking, I'm sure you will agree!
S.: That's our motto!
B.: Getting blotto!
TOGETHER: And we'll have The Best Pint Ever!
I swam to the surface some time later, a promenade of pink Princesses prancing the Pony Pokey in the old persimmon. Shaking, I feared the approaching thunder of the Hoofbeats of Death, but, happily, it was only Cheese with the sovereign remedy. I engulfed it gratefully, and, once the convulsions stopped, I felt quite like the old Barney again.
Details of the previous night were sketchy at best, mostly lines pencilled in with multiple erasures. However, the pinched guardpony's helmet, stylishly cocked upon the bedpost, suggested that I had enjoyed a fruity time.
As Cheese arranged the toast and tea, I inquired, "Cheese?"
"That plaid vest of mine. Have you recovered it?"
"Yes, sir. Although, I'm afraid, sir, that it is a bit worse for wear. Mysteriously, it was discovered this morning flying as a pennant from the flagstaff of Princess Celestia's tower."
I sighed. "Well, that's how it goes, eh, Cheese? As the philosopher says, in time, all things lose their... well, their thingness, I suppose."
"A most wise observation, sir."
I kicked an idea around the old coconut for awhile, then announced, "Cheese? About that old vest of mine? Give it away!"
"Give it away! I have enjoyed good fortune, wearing that vest. Perhaps some other pony, down on his luck, will inherit the garment and a bit of the old Trotter magic will rub off on 'im. And good for him, I say."
Dashed if I can understand it, but Cheese fixed me with a look that reminded me, oddly, of Princess Celestia.
"That is most charitable of you, sir," he said.
"Not at all, Cheese. Not at all."