My Little Pony Monthly Issue 92 (November 1, 2004)
My Little Pony Monthly
A publication of Nematode (Electronic) Publishing
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Buttons' unicorn magic is moving objects with her mind (or telekinesis, in technical terms). Here are our winners!
Lil' Whiskers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
And our prize winner is Sadira! You have won the Masquerade lip color! Please e-mail me your address and I'll send it off to you right away!
We're getting into the holiday season again, and that means yummy treats! So Gingerbread is here offering her favorite gingerbread-scented lip balm as November's prize. For a chance to win this (or, for you Big Brothers out there, we have Wild Country talcum powder) prize, answer the following question correctly:
Snow'el, Mistletoe, and what other pony make up the Target exclusive Winter Series II?
Tell me the answer by e-mailing TabbyMLP@aol.com mailto:TabbyMLP@aol.comor entering through the form at
THE RULES! *ANYONE* can enter. That means anyone as in anyone. Even if you've already participated in the past, you can enter; in fact, I encourage you to do so. You don't even have to be a subscriber of MLP Monthly in order to enter. But if you're not a subscriber, you're probably not even reading this. ^.~
However, now that we've introduced *real* prizes, we will be putting a limit on how many times you can be entered in the drawing for that. If you've already been selected to win one of our prizes in the past, you can't be entered again- BUT, you can still participate and get your name in the newsletter! So just because you've won something in the past doesn't mean you can't have any fun at all with our contests anymore. And, of course, if eventually all contest participants are ones that have won a prize, it's fair game for everybody again!
On the contest form at http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm, you will be able to select your gender so we'll be able to determine which prize you get. Or, if you'd prefer to be opted out of the prize drawing, you can select that on the form as well.
Are the Pony Friends unique creatures, or entire species to go along with the little ponies? Here's what you thought.
Lil' Whiskers (email@example.com) says...
You know, I've never thought about it. My first thought is 'no.' But when I sit down and think about it, why not? Ponies can't be the only special creatures out there. There were sentient flowers and crabs after all.
Mystique (Jykle2@yahoo.com) says...
I think that there are entire races of these little animals that befriend the ponies, but only a select few get to actually come to live with the ponies. They just wouldn't be as special if they could all come to Ponyland all at once, just like the few humans who know of the ponies and their home.
PikaCheck (firstname.lastname@example.org) says...
When I was little, I had always thought of them as just unique creatures that simply showed up out of nowhere one day. If I think on it now, I think it would be nice to imagine that they were part of their own species of Friends. It would be so cool to see multi_colored Zebras and Giraffes!
Now, please share with us your thoughts on the following question!
Is Hasbro coming out with too many new ponies? Do you buy all the ponies they release or are you selective because of the great variety?
Go to the following URL to give your opinion:
Better to Have Loved and Lost
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)
"Uh-huh," Belle Star nodded. "That's right, Morning Glory; Clever Clover has amnesia."
"He can't remember anything?" Minoko asked.
"Uh, he remembers how to talk, and how to walk, but he doesn't remember anything about his life. He doesn't even remember who he is."
"So when is he coming home?" asked Morning Glory.
"Well, the doctor wanted me to tell you about the amnesia so you'd be prepared. I guess, since I've told you, he can come home any time. But we'll have to help him get settled in for the next few weeks."
"When will he get his memory back?"
Belle Star shook her head. "The doctor doesn't know. He says it could come back at any time... or never at all."
* * *
The three fillies went to the hospital to meet Clever Clover and escort him home. Belle Star led the way to Clever Clover's room. Minoko rushed ahead of the others and threw her forelegs around the amnesiatic prince.
"Oh! My love! I'm so glad to see you again!"
Clever Clover seemed both confused and amused at the same time. "You must be... Mi...Minoko? Belle Star told me all about you."
Morning Glory grabbed Minoko's ear and pulled her off of Clever Clover. "You should be ashamed of yourself! Carrying on like that with an engaged pony."
Minoko crossed her arms. "You're just saying that because I beat you to him."
"I am not! But in any case, this is a hospital, and you should be on your best behavior."
"Didn't Belle Star say that we should behave like ourselves to help bring his memory back?"
"That's right!" confirmed Belle Star. "We shouldn't treat him any differently that usual."
"Well, in that case, I'd say that we're off to a great start," mumbled Morning Glory.
Belle Star grabbed Clever Clover's foreleg. "Come on, let's get you home."
Clever Clover nodded. "Yeah, I could use a change of scenery. And I look forward to seeing what kind of life I had."
After checking with the admissions desk to make sure everything was in order, the foursome made their way to Clever Clover's home on the outskirts of Friendship Gardens.
"Boy, I sure live out in the boonies," said Clever Clover.
"Yes," replied Belle Star.
"It's nice and private, though," added Minoko.
They reached the house and Clever Clover was shown around. "So, what do you think?" asked Belle Star.
Clever Clover shrugged. "Ah, I guess it's all right. I mean, I didn't really know what to expect. It'll take a while to used to."
Belle Star glanced at the clock. "Oh! Your favorite show is starting!" She rushed into the living room and turned on the TV. "Do you want to watch?"
Clever Clover followed Belle Star and stood regarding the TV screen. "A cartoon?"
Belle Star nodded. "Uh huh!"
"Is there anywhere in town to go and dance?" Clever Clover asked.
"What!" the three fillies replied in unison.
"You never liked to dance before!" Minoko said.
"I've spent three weeks in a hospital bed. Now that I'm out, I need to do something physical."
Belle Star thought for a moment. "Well, there is that new club downtown. But when we walked past it before, you complained about how loud the music was."
"Well, I'd like to give it another chance."
"I think it sounds like fun!" declared Minoko.
Clever Clover took Minoko by the hoof. "Well then, shall we go?"
Belle Star jumped up and down. "Let's all go!"
"If you like," Clever Clover replied.
"Well, it's not the type of place I'd normally hang out," said Morning Glory. "But if the rest of you are going, I might as well tag along."
* * *
Later, at the club, The Shod Hoof, Clever Clover and Minoko danced while Belle Star and Morning Glory watched from a table off the dance floor.
"If I had known that Minoko was going to monopolize Clever Clover's time, I wouldn't have come," said Morning Glory.
"Oh, I'm sure he'll dance with each of us. The club doesn't close until two o' clock, and it's only ten-thirty. But if you're bored, maybe you could dance with someone else. Those two stallions over at that other table keep looking over here; maybe one of them would dance with you."
"I don't think so."
"Oh! Come on!" Belle Star grabbed Morning Glory by the foreleg and dragged her over to the other table.
"Hey, what's up, ladies?" asked one of the stallions with a grin.
Belle Star pushed Morning Glory forward. "My friend wants to dance!"
Morning Glory cringed. "Not really..."
One of the stallions stood up. "What about you? You're not going to leave my friend without a partner, are you?"
Belle Star blushed. "Oh, well, I'm waiting for my fiancee! I'm sure he'll be finished soon."
The other stallion rose. "But that wouldn't be fair to us, leaving one high and dry."
Belle Star backed away. "Ah..."
"Maybe we should just go back to our table," Morning Glory suggested.
One of the stallions stomped his hoof. "Oh no! Once you've made the offer, you've got to see it through."
"I didn't make any offer!" Morning Glory shouted.
"I'm sorry..." Belle Star whimpered.
"Hey!" Clever Clover grabbed one of the stallions by the shoulder. "The ladies don't seem to be interested in your company!" With that, the purple prince slugged the stallion.
The other stallion took a swing at Clever Clover, only to be blocked by Minoko. She grabbed his foreleg and threw him onto a table, which collapsed under the impact.
"Oh my!" Belle Star and Morning Glory gasped in unison.
The club's bouncer, a big, burly pony, walked up to the scene of the commotion. "I think maybe you should be leaving."
Minoko manifested her energy horn and leveled it at the bouncer's face, but Clever Clover restrained her. "Don't waste your time with this hooligan. Let's get out of here."
Clever Clover and his friends made their way out of the club under the nervous gaze of the other patrons. Once they were outside, Clever Clover let our a hearty laugh. "Boy, that was the most fun I've had since... ah... well, as long as I can remember."
Minoko nodded. "Yeah, it was a hoot!"
"You didn't have to hurt them," whined Belle Star.
Clever Clover shrugged. "Oh, they'll be fine."
"I hope so!" said Morning Glory. "You are a prince and a regent! As a public figure, image is important, and this sort of thing is not good for your image."
Clever Clover sighed. "If this is the way you acted before I lost my memory, maybe I lost it on purpose."
"That was rude!" said Belle Star.
"I'm going home!" Morning Glory stomped off.
"Oh! Don't be mad!" Belle Star called after her.
Morning Glory paused. "I think we all need a good night's sleep."
Belle Star nodded. "Oh, well, goodnight then."
"Yeah, whatever," mumbled Clever Clover, without breaking his pace. "See ya when we see ya."
Minoko followed Clever Clover while Belle Star stood watching her friends go in different directions. She looked back and forth between them for a moment before trotting after Clever Clover and Minoko. When they reached Clever Clover's house, Minoko yawned and excused herself, retiring to her bedroom.
"So, are you planning to sleep over or what?" Clever Clover asked Belle Star once they were alone.
"I... just wanted to make sure you were all right. You haven't been acting like yourself."
"Myself? I don't even know who that is. Maybe my memory will come back, maybe it won't, but if it doesn't, all I can do is live my life. And if my new life doesn't live up to your expectations, maybe we should call off this whole engagement thing."
Tears welled up in Belle Star's eyes. "Call it off? But..."
"Now, don't go crying. If my memory comes back, we can pick up right where we left off; and even if it doesn't, maybe you'll learn to like the new me. But until then, I'll have to ask for the ring back." Clever Clover held out his hoof.
Belle Star couldn't believe what she was hearing. It was as if her whole world was coming apart. Her mind was lost in an abyss of loneliness.
"Well!?" Clever Clover demanded. Belle Star, as if in a daze, slid the ring from her hoof and held it up for a moment before dropping it into Clever Clover's outstretched hoof. She turned and walked out the front door and burst into tears.
She cried all the way back to her apartment. By the time she climbed the stairs, she had run out of tears and was sobbing loudly. As she fumbled with the lock to her door, Coral, her next-door neighbor, poked her head out her door.
"Hey, Belle Star, what's the problem?"
Belle Star burst into tears again. "Clever Clover... he... he..."
Coral put her forelegs around her teary neighbor. "What is it? What did Clever Clover do?"
"He dumped me!"
"Oh my! And I had such a strong premonition about you two."
"He lost his memory and now he doesn't remember loving me and he isn't even the same pony but I still love him! Why did this have to happen to us!?"
"There, there, Belle Star. Come into my apartment and I'll make you some herbal tea to help you relax."
"Thank you, Coral," Belle Star sobbed.
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com
Clever Clover sat up and looked around. He was surrounded by blackness. It wasn't necessarily dark, as he could he see his hooves quite clearly. He was sitting on a cold, hard surface, but it was as black as everything else.
"Am I dreaming?" the purple pony mumbled.
And then, without warning, a pony stepped out of the blackness. It was a large, noble-looking stallion. Clever Clover thought the stranger looked familiar, but he couldn't place him.
The first pony was joined by a second, this one a filly. "Greetings, my son," she said.
Suddenly, Clever Clover remembered the strange stallion from a painting in the Hall of Kings at Malachite Castle, the painting of his father.
The strange ponies nodded.
"We are very proud of you," said his father. "You have grown into quite the pony."
"But... how is this possible? You're both..."
"Dead?" his mother finished the sentence. "But isn't this just a dream?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But I kind of wish it were real. I never had a chance to get to know you."
"But we have been able to get to know you quite well," said his father. "You have lifted the curse lain upon our people by Jack O Lantern, you have begun the reunification of the clans, and you have displayed great character."
His mother shook her head. "But we fear you are lost."
"Lost? What do you mean?"
"You must find yourself..." Clever Clover's parents disappeared into the blackness.
This story is even more rambling and disjointed than usual and downright boring. I apologize. I just could not get the characters to act out the parts I had planned for them; they went their own way, not to be forced into my preconceived plan for them.
"What should I fix for supper?" Vanguard asked Sugarberry as she loaded her backpack for a day at Clare's Creations gathering data for the book Fairfax-Monk Publishing had contracted her to write.
"You and Banderol can decide that," Sugarberry responded. "This show is going to run late, and I can't miss a thing." The strawberry-patterned mare hugged her son and kissed his cheek as he worked on his breakfast. As she hoisted the satchel onto her shoulder, she gave Vanguard a quick kiss, too. "Tomorrow, we can have the whole day together."
"That's a promise?"
Sugarberry granted him a priceless smile. "A promise," she said, leaning into his embrace for a long moment. "I love you."
"And I, you," Vanguard assured her.
"Luv ya, Mommy," Banderol giggled, throwing his mother a kiss.
"You two are making it very difficult to leave, but I gotta get out of here." With a last longing look at her two fellas, Sugarberry left the Vulcanopolis townhouse while Vanguard watched until she was out of sight. Their schedules seemed always at odds, and Vanguard missed their time as family.
However, the perfect November Saturday beckoned to be enjoyed, and father and son were soon on their way to a nearby park with the neighbors, Iveta and Giles and their two boys, for a rollicking time on the swings, the teeter-totters, and the merry-go-round. When the youngsters had expended all their energy and the adults their patience, the ponies progressed to Pizzaria Sicily as Vanguard's treat.
Over hot, cheesy pizza, the adults conversed while the foals messily consumed the pizza and drank- or more specifically, spilled- their sodas.
"Sugarberry must be having the time of her life at the convention center," Iveta sighed wistfully, having sopped up the latest spill. Right now, the chance to be among sophisticated adults seemed more appealing than watching over three boisterous foals. "She was telling me that today's show is a big step for Clare's Creations."
"Clare's getting her hoof into home fashions," Vanguard concurred. "And if Sugarberry's response to the designs is any indication, Clare has another winner."
"Isn't she afraid of spreading her interests to thin?" queried Giles.
"Clare blossoms when faced with a challenge. She's wired for this project. I just wish Sugarberry wasn't so involved in all the hype right now."
"She was complaining of not seeing as much of you as she'd like, too," Iveta commiserated. "You have plans for tomorrow, though, don't you?"
The very thought of the next day brought a bright smile to Vanguard's face. "We're going to spend the day in the country. Enrica and Giorgio, Sr. suggested we make use of their house and grounds to get away from things. Enrica agrees with me that Sugarberry is pushing herself too hard."
"You'll all enjoy the day off," Iveta confirmed. "With the foal coming, things'll get even busier."
"At least Sugarberry will be finished with her research soon and can settle down to putting the information all together."
"I hear she'll have a special photographer at her disposal all next week," Giles grinned, knowing full well that Vanguard was jealous of any and all stallions who came close to Sugarberry.
"Starting Monday morning, Sugarberry will be working with him. Nello's been documenting everything, but Macarius insists that someone of his own choosing has to do the final shoot."
"Sounds like Macarius is a micro-manager," Giles sympathized. "He should let Sugarberry make her own decisions. She's the one over here gathering the facts."
"I couldn't agree more," Vanguard scowled.
In a ploy to get the conversation back onto a less explosive topic, Iveta diverted the stallions' thoughts. "It's a good thing Sugarberry'll have all the loose ends tied-up before Banderol's birthday party. Jacopo and Trent are counting down the days to that celebration."
Banderol would be two years old on the fifteenth while Calla's second birthday was the following day. Calla's birth having occurred in Dream Valley while Clare and Giorgio were visiting there, she and Banderol had bonded as newborns. The two foals enjoyed a special connection that this sojourn in Vulcanopolis was strengthening. Banderol and Calla seemed to understand one another in a way that amazed even their parents, showing an affinity of temperament and tolerance that made them perfect companions.
"It's going to be quite a celebration, what with all the Guardini family involved." The big day was scheduled for the Sunday ahead of the actual birth-dates and would be held in grand style. Vanguard shook his head at the extent of the preparations that Clare and Enrica had set in motion for the two birthdays, the only advantage as he could see it being that Sugarberry was spared the added task of party planning.
Far better in the country blue stallion's way of thinking was the private excursion into the country planned with his wife and son the next day.
* * *
The hustle and bustle of the home fashions introduction to representatives of Ponyland's most prestigious stores as well as the top home furnishings magazines and several newspapers created a kaleidoscope of sound, color, and textures that was exciting and invigorating, but Sugarberry soon found herself with a headache and an aching back that cast a pall over her initial enjoyment of the occasion. She had registered enough information to satisfy even Macarius, so she sought refuge in a relatively subdued back room where a coffee maker dripped a strong, dark brew and now-stale donuts lay neglected in an open cardboard box.
Sugarberry drew a foam cup of the coffee, grabbed a donut and a napkin, and sank down into a hard, uneven chair by a drab, grey table at the edge of the room. Taking a sip from the cup, she found the coffee cold and bitter. She closed her eyes and rested her head on her hooves, trying to stop the vivid patterns and brilliant hues of Clare's linens, bedding, towels, pillows, and related accessories from over-loading her senses.
As she sat in the quiet room, Sugarberry's throbbing head gradually eased and her mind cleared to allow peaceful thoughts of her family to sooth her nerves. She was living a daydream of the next day's languor with Vanguard and Banderol when the clearing of a throat caused her to come back to the present; her eyes popped open and her head lifted to find standing before her a very proper and handsome stallion.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," the unknown pony said, "but as we'll be working together, I thought it best to make the introduction. I'm Snapshot, and you can be no one but Sugarberry." The stallion's gaze swept from the strawberry symbol on the mare's white forehead to the to the riotous display of strawberries on her sides.
"Snapshot. It's good to meet you." Sugarberry extended her hoof, stifling a yawn, then grinned. "I'm afraid you haven't found me at my best, but it's been a rough day."
"And it's not over yet." The stallion's eyes flicked to the heavy backpack that rested on the table.
Taking a moment to assess the stallion, Sugarberry noted that he appeared to be younger than herself, fixing his age at approximately twenty-five. His hair was the same sea-foam green of Vanguard's, the mane a shade darker than his body color, with eyes of deep cinnamon. He had a confident attitude that rather intimidated the gentle mare and a stubborn set to his jaw that bespoke a determination to get things done without thought to the ultimate cost. Sugarberry envisioned a difficult week ahead.
"I didn't expect you until Monday."
"Macarius wanted today's expo well-covered."
"Nello and I have been on top of things."
The stallion waved a hoof through the air. "No need of Nello's involvement; you'll find my shots to be much more dramatic. The resident photographer tends to miss the heart of the matter due to routine. It takes fresh vision to uncover true potential."
"The reverse could be true; with Nello's familiarity of Clare's techniques, he can anticipate the truly exceptional shot," Sugarberry defended her friend.
"Well, let's get out on the floor and we'll see," Snapshot said, shoving Sugarberry's backpack toward her. "I'm only sorry I didn't arrive sooner, but Macarius caught me finishing up an assignment that needed my personal attention which put me on a late flight."
"Not late enough!" Sugarberry muttered under her breath as she got to her hooves and flung the backpack over her shoulder.
"What was that?" Snapshot asked sharply.
"I just commented that the latte wasn't hot enough," was the mare's controlled response.
* * *
It was a beleaguered Sugarberry who finally arrived home that evening, accompanied by Giorgio who would not hear of her walking alone or of calling Vanguard away when Banderol was already tucked in bed. The stallion was worried, never having seen Sugarberry quite this upset... well, at least not since coming to Vulcanopolis for her research on the fashion industry.
What bothered Giorgio most was that Sugarberry had spoken barely a word on the walk. Her only response to his comments had been a noncommital hmm here and there. Her mind was obviously dealing with some turmoil within, and he had a good idea of what- or more specifically, whom- was the cause of her trouble.
"Sugarberry, you'd be better off discussing what's bothering you," he finally said. It was several moments before Sugarberry responded, but her words verified his suspicion.
"Did you not meet Snapshot?"
"Briefly." It was Giorgio's turn to give abrupt answers in hopes of drawing out Sugarberry's feelings.
"He's a conceited, uncaring despot."
"From a distance, he seemed congenial enough."
"Bah!" Sugarberry snorted. "He thinks he's Ponyland's greatest photographer and he won't accept anyone else's ideas; everything has to be done his way and in his time frame!"
"Such as which shots he'll approve for my book- and none of them will be Nello's if Snapshot does have final approval. And another thing, he expects me to sit down with him tomorrow to discuss my progress on the book. He's not Macarius!"
"What'd you tell him?"
"That I'd be out of town tomorrow; and as it's Sunday, I wouldn't work anyway. He said he was on a tight schedule that necessitated our meeting before he begins his scheduled shoot at Clare's on Monday."
"How did the two of you resolve your differences?"
"I walked away." Sugarberry cast a guilty glance toward Giorgio. "You don't have to say it... I acted the coward."
But Giorgio only grinned. "If you and Van and Bandy get away from here yet tonight, there's very little chance that Snapshot will find you tomorrow."
"Dare I actually go against his wishes?"
"You said yourself that he isn't Macarius; call your publisher tonight and verify that this upstart is overstepping his authority with you. Let Macarius set his bounds."
Sugarberry looked at Giorgio with admiration. "Why didn't I think of that?"
The two ponies had reached the town house by this time; and Vanguard, waiting impatiently for his wife's return, had heard their voices. Coming to the door, he opened it to find Sugarberry hugging the dark green stallion. He fought against the jealousy that often gripped him in moments like this and succeeded in saying lightly, "Come now; we'll have none of that."
Sugarberry was at his side in an instant. "Vanguard, we've got to leave for the country tonight, as soon as possible." She looked down the street nervously. "First, though, I've got to make a call to Macarius." She disappeared into the house like a flash.
Vanguard stared after her for a moment, then looked wonderingly at Giorgio, who answered the unspoken question.
In a very short time, three ponies- two adults and one sleeping foal- left the house like fugitives fleeing into the night.
* * *
Sugarberry sat up abruptly from a deep slumber, a feeling of dread engulfing her. Unfamiliar surroundings added to her fear. Sleep-shrouded images, shadowy in the breaking dawn, loomed large around her. She scooted backwards on the bed and made contact with an ornately carved headboard; her gaze dropped to a sleeping form beside her, and her mind cleared.
She and Vanguard were guests at Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica's country house several miles from Vulcanopolis.
The dream that had haunted her psyche caused her to shudder and draw the blanket up more closely around her. She, along with Vanguard and Banderol, had been escaping an irate Pharaoh- in the equine form of Snapshot- across the Red Sea.
The evening Mass they had attended at the local parish church on their exodus to the country had obviously inspired Bible-related impressions to influence her unconscious thoughts.
Snapshot was in hot pursuit and had nearly closed the distance between them when, suddenly and dramatically, a giant sea monster came out of the walls of water that had parted for them and swallowed Snapshot in one satisfying gulp. The water beast, with Macarius' voice, had winked at Sugarberry and grunted, "Tasty little morsel," and had disappeared into the churning deep, a high, piercing scream of terror following in its wake.
That scream of distress was what had rent Sugarberry's sleep.
Now, fully cognizant, she heard it again.
Cutting into Vanguard's peaceful dreams, the grating sound caused him to roll over and open his eyes... to peer upward into Sugarberry's wide, alarmed ones. Reaching out a foreleg to draw her down to him, he chuckled.
"I think we've just had our first introduction to Giorgio's new pets."
"Pets?" questioned Sugarberry, snuggling into the warmth and protection of her husband.
"Donato was telling me about them while you and Prisca got Banderol settled last night," Vanguard went on to explain. "Giorgio, Sr., got it into his head that the villa needed some resident animal life, so he recently invested in a peacock and a peahen. Donato says they've taken over control of the place and are adamant to make their feelings known with their screeching. That, I assume, is what we heard."
"Such beautiful birds can sound like banshees?"
"Obviously." Another shriek rent the air.
"Speaking of banshees," Sugarberry shivered, "I had a nightmare about Snapshot."
Vanguard covered the mare's mouth with his hoof. "Not a word about work," he warned. "That was our agreement for this respite."
"Well, he did get what he deserved," Sugarberry managed to say before being quieted with a kiss that did not end until a gentle rap sounded on their bedroom door and Prisca's voice carried through.
"It is the breakfast hour, as you requested to be awakened."
With one last quick kiss, Vanguard rolled over and sat up. "Thanks, Prisca. We'll be down shortly," he called out in the direction of the door.
"No hurry," said the housekeeper. "Banderol and I still have some finishing touches to add to the table."
Sugarberry stretched as she sat at the edge of the bed. "This is heavenly... our son is being cared for; and breakfast will be waiting, fresh and warm. She sniffed the air. "I can smell the coffee." That bit of sensory stimulation got the mare out of bed and on her hooves as nothing else could.
* * *
As soothing and relaxed as the day spent at Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica's country home had been, the following week proved to be more hectic than ever. Snapshot had been properly warned by Macarius to respect Sugarberry's privacy and to respect her input. It was a properly subdued stallion who met with the mare on Monday morning at Clare's Creations, but a certain snap in his eyes forewarned the observant onlooker that he was not a happy camper.
Caught up in the details of her work, the excitement of the coming weekend's birthday party, and the anticipation of the birth of her second foal, Sugarberry was only too ready to accept Snapshot's softened demeanor. Giorgio, however, noted with some concern the stallion's too-condescending manner and took it upon himself to keep an eye open for any further confrontation between Sugarberry and Snapshot. His work for the city in which he was involved on his sabbatical from Leonardo University was proceeding well; and as Clare's new venture into domestic fashions had expanded her workload, he made himself available to help out wherever he could. This allowed him to check often on Sugarberry to insure that she was not bullied or intimidated by the photographer hired by Macarius.
For Sugarberry, this association with Giorgio was a refreshing extension of the friendship that had developed between them years earlier when Giorgio had been temporarily teaching at Pony Pride; their initial contact had been somewhat hampered by circumstances then swirling around them, but they had gotten over the rough spots, cementing a mutual trust and admiration that only increased over time.
Resenting Macarius' siding with Sugarberry on points of protocol, Snapshot put on an outward show of cooperation, even allowing Nello to advise him during photo sessions in which they were both involved. Inwardly, however, he seethed over being bound by unwanted regulations that stifled his creativity.
Apart from Clare's Creations, Vanguard, his attention and focus centered on his responsibilities at Leonardo University which involved managing the mathematics department as well as teaching, saw none of the glamour or the excitement that buoyed Sugarberry as she hurried to tie-up loose ends in regard to her pending book which centered on Clare's booming fashion empire.
Snapshot's input was important in that his photos would enhance Sugarberry's words, but Vanguard was not pleased to see him pushing Sugarberry to the limit; for even though Snapshot had seemingly become more malleable, he had not backed down from long days which kept Sugarberry at Clare's Creations for many more hours than Vanguard approved. His only source of consolation was the fact that when Snapshot left town, Sugarberry would be free to work at home on getting her manuscript in final form which even the foal's birth would not hinder.
Late one afternoon as Vanguard was making ready to leave his office, he was approached by one of the mathematics faculty members. Lyssa, always ready to seek Vanguard's advice, breezed into his office with her peach mane plastered against her head and water drops dripping from the ends. In her hooves was a roll of paper towels.
"I was at the administration building when it started raining; and, of course, my umbrella was here." She proceeded to dry the worst of the moisture from her hair as she continued to ramble. "I hear that New Pony had six inches of snow dumped on it, which seems preferable to me as snow doesn't saturate a pony." She paused only long enough to tear off more sheets of the toweling. "If you don't have an umbrella, I'd recommend waiting out this downpour."
"I'm anxious to get home to my wife and my son."
"I hear he has a birthday coming up."
"Banderol will be two on Monday."
"From what I know of foals- which, admittedly, isn't much- two-year-olds can be a hoof-full.
"They're very energetic and inquisitive," Vanguard replied, a smile testifying to the benefits that accompanied the experience. "Admittedly, there's a lot to learn for all of us."
"I almost envy you your family," Lyssa said, "but I don't think I'm the mothering type."
Vanguard made no comment. It was difficult to imagine the indomitable Lyssa as a nurturing parent. The rain against the window beat out a staccato pattern as Vanguard's thoughts turned to his wife. Sugarberry was an excellent mother; two years of raising Banderol had proven that. And now, in the near future, they would have another foal to guide, teach, and love.
It was a daunting responsibility, but one they both anticipated with joy.
The ringing of the telephone called Vanguard back to the present. "Excuse me," he said to Lyssa as he picked up the receiver. "Hello." He grinned as Sugarberry's voice greeted him in return, but his pleasure was short-lived when he found out the reason for the call.
"Snapshot suggested that this rainy evening would be a good time to get together with Nello over some of the shots that are still needed. We'll be working here at the studio until late, so you and Banderol will be alone for supper again."
The mare's voice sounded so wistful that Vanguard could not be angry. "We'll get along, although we'll both miss you terribly. Call me when you're through, and I'll have Iveta look after Banderol while I come to walk you home."
"There's no need for you to do that. Giorgio is going over some accounts with Elena, so he'll accompany me when I leave."
Vanguard ran a hoof through his mane. "A little rain isn't going to hurt me."
"But it's entirely unnecessary. I've gotta run. I'll see you later."
Vanguard could hear Snapshot's voice in the background as the line went dead. He mumbled a few choice words concerning that stallion as he dropped the receiver back in place.
Lyssa, watching the play of emotions crossing Vanguard's unguarded face, asked solicitously, "Is there a problem?"
"Sugarberry will be coming home late in this rotten weather." Vanguard got up and stalked to the window. In all honesty, it was not the weather that bothered him at all. It was the fact that he and Sugarberry rarely saw one another anymore. Sugarberry saw more of Snapshot, Giorgio, and Nello than she did of her own husband and son. That irked Vanguard more than he wished to admit.
"Your wife has a lot to accomplish before the baby comes," Lyssa soothed, then assumed a thoughtful expression. "I know how the time can pass faster before you see her. There's a unique caffe I've found tucked away on a quiet little street very near here. It's somehow survived the modernization of Vulcanopolis and has the most savory foods I've ever eaten... not to mention a delectable soup that will warm a pony from the inside out." The mare grinned ruefully as she patted at her still damp mane and shivered noticeably. "I could go for some of that soup right now."
Vanguard had no desire to spend the evening with Lyssa, but the melancholy weather and the thought of the town house devoid of Sugarberry's presence made him think twice. Banderol would be happily playing with Iveta's sons and would not notice if his dad arrived an hour later than usual. It would be rather pleasant to enjoy some adult conversation away from the university. Sugarberry would certainly enjoy her walk through the rain with Giorgio, for the two of them seemed to discuss everything.
Flashing Lyssa a warm smile, Vanguard capitulated. "A good meal at a quiet restaurant sounds like just the thing. I'll give Iveta a call that I'll be late picking up Banderol."
"Let me run get my umbrella," the mare said, jumping to her hooves before Vanguard could change his mind. "And it's big enough for two," she trilled as she left the office.
Vanguard groaned. What had he gotten himself into?
* * *
"This place is very... quaint," Vanguard murmured as he and Lyssa seated themselves at a small, round table in a quiet corner. Well, actually, the entire place was rather quiet with only one other customer across the way, a grizzled mare with dark, deep-set eyes who watched them closely. She was sipping a beverage from a steaming mug which reminded Vanguard how chilly the cold autumn rain had made him and he shivered.
"It's so... gothic," Lyssa determined. "It has character."
With that, Vanguard had to agree. The decor, if that's what one could call it, was medieval. A smokey fireplace burned a pungent fuel that filled the air with an earthy, musky fragrance which reminded one of a dark and brooding forest floor. The aroma of mint and anise, fennel and thyme, mixed with the dusky atmosphere, spilled from drying clumps of the herbs hanging from the exposed rafters close overhead. Other than the subtle glow of the fire, the only other lighting was provided by candles on each of the five tables in the room and several heavy wooden wall sconces carved in the shape of gargoyles which hung on either side of the entryway across the room.
The tables, too, were of ornately carved wood seen briefly where the legs extended from under draping, blood-red table covers. Rustic bowls of nuts and dried fruits decorated the table-tops along with the beeswax candles that shed a quavery light over the twining pattern of leaves and insects that decorated the wooden holders. On the rough-hewn wall closest to Vanguard and Lyssa's table were hung the skins of animals- rabbit and squirrel and... rat- and over the open hearth steamed a black cauldron of... what?
The eatery seemed to be devoid of staff, Vanguard noted uneasily. What kind of place had Lyssa brought him to?
With a grunt and an eerie sound of creaking bones, the old crone got to her hooves and shuffled through an opening in the back of the oddly-decorated restaurant, a worn and faded green shawl wrapping her boney figure like moss on a weathered rock.
"She's the owner of the place," Lyssa whispered, then added in a normal voice. "There are no menus, for her choices are rather limited. The lack of variety is made up for by the exquisite flavors she can produce using herbs."
"We'll see," Vanguard stated, absently taking a nut-meat from the bowl and eating it. The oddly bitter taste surprised him; and he brushed a fine, powdery substance from his hooves onto a coarse, black napkin, leaving a trail of sparkling white crystals behind. Finding the flavor unsettling, Vanguard tried a shriveled, dried apple slice and noted once again the bitter aftertaste. He could not, however, stop himself from eating more and more of the mix from the bowl, which included unidentifiable red berries, dark raisins, and white shards of coconut, all of which had a sprinkling of the fine, white powder coating them. Lyssa, too, partook of a fair amount of the mixture, although she was more deliberate and meditative in her munching, a bemused expression on her olive face.
By the time the old mare reentered the room with a battered tray holding two hot bowls of soup and some bread, both Vanguard and Lyssa appeared to be in a mellow mood. The hag smiled down on them as she placed a steaming bowl in front of each of the ponies and plopped the basket of freshly-baked rolls onto the table-top. Vanguard only vaguely noted the proprietor's toothless, gummy grin which seemed to hold more menace than hospitality. The stallion's attention seemed to be more and more geared toward Lyssa than to the food he was eating.
Why, Vanguard wondered in some secret part of his brain, had he never really noticed just how lovely this mare was? Her olive complection was burnished by the candlelight and her peach-colored mane, drying now in the warmth of the room, curled about her face in tiny ringlets that begged to be touched and...
Vanguard suddenly sat up straight, his relaxed attitude disappearing in a moment. Where was his vagrant mind taking him? Feeling guilty as sin, he cleared his throat and made a noncommital comment. "The soup is... good."
"Very good," Lyssa purred. "I told you this was a superb spot to eat."
"Yes," Vanguard managed to agree, finding himself drowning in the limpid gaze Lyssa was radiating. He cleared his throat again. "However, I find that I'm not particularly hungry... now." A lone sweat drop trickled down the left side of his face. "Maybe... we should leave."
"And spoil our night together, Vanguard?" pouted Lyssa, her steady gaze faltering momentarily before riveting the stallion once more with aquamarine eyes that begged for his company. "Here comes Gipsy now with more food." Lyssa's hoof reached out to envelope Vanguard's. "We can't walk out now and hurt her feelings."
Casting a dark glance at the crone who did resemble his mental picture of a gypsy, Vanguard doubted that the ancient pony had any feelings to hurt; but once his eyes made contact with Lyssa's once more, he was sunk. "Of course we'll stay to finish our meal, Lyssa." He patted the hoof that still rested on his, then pulled back as the Gipsy served them cuts of meat smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce with a leafy green salad made up of a variety of foreign plant parts on the side. She followed this with mugs of piping hot cider garnished with more herbs of unknown origin; then with a sly wink at Lyssa, she shuffled out of the room again.
The meal passed like a dream for Vanguard, sometimes seeing Lyssa across from him in striking clarity; and at other times seeing her as if she was shrouded with a gauzy softness that made her seem almost ethereal and very enticing. By the time he had finished his mug of cider, however, he was feeling oddly sleepy and could think of nothing but getting home to Sugarberry and Banderol.
"Lyssa, we should be going."
The mare shook herself as if coming out of a trance. "Go?" she murmured, then smiled. "Yes, it's time to go... home."
The ponies got to their hooves and walked across the uneven plank floor to the door where they were met by Gipsy. Vanguard gave the elder a startled glance, not having realized she was even in the room; he was mortified to recall that neither he nor Lyssa had paid for the repast.
Lyssa, however, met Gipsy's appearance with composure and offered her what appeared to be a bag of coins. "It was a delightful meal, Gipsy."
The old crone accepted the payment, slipping the pouch into the folds of her garment, then bringing forth two smaller packages as if by magic. She bestowed one on Lyssa and one on Vanguard, and Vanguard knew immediately by the feel of it that it was more of the powder-coated treats that had sat on the table. He said thank you, but had every intention of discarding them at the first opportunity. Lyssa, however, hugged hers to her as if it was a treasure. Then, Vanguard and Lyssa stepped out into the still rainy night, protected by the umbrella's canopy.
Behind them, a sound that could only be called a cackle sounded in the dark and dreary night.
* * *
"I'm glad we had this evening to get to know one another better, Van," Lyssa said, unlocking her apartment door while Vanguard protected her from the rain with the umbrella. "You enjoyed it too, didn't you?" She turned to him, her face only inches from his, the drumming of the raindrops providing a mind-numbing aura that clouded an already fuzzy mind. Vanguard shook his head to clear the mental cobwebs that seemed to rob him of his thought processes.
"You didn't enjoy it?" the mare pouted, putting a hoof to Vanguard's cheek, her eyes a study in disappointment, her mouth turned sulkily downward.