Twenty-Seven: All Summer In A Pie
Comet Tail examined the little mare. Roan, white mane, blue eyes, a pile of rocks for a Mark. Unremarkable. Her speech was strangely perfect, too perfect, actually - Comet Tail could hear that peculiar, unique inflection that Loquacity The Garrulous had unwittingly introduced into the 'Introduction To Conversational Equestrian' recordings she had made for the benefit of the newfoals. This... 'Grassdancer', yes, that was her name, sounded remarkably like Loquacity.
Comet Tail had never liked Loquacity. Loved the sound of her own voice too much, which was rather curious as her voice as not particularly appealing. Still, there could be no faulting the impressive effort these newfoals had made.
Comet Tail was being led to see the mayor of the village. 'Droplet Deluge' was her name. 'Mayor'... of an abandoned group of newfoals? A bit pretentious, perhaps. But also ambitious. If those laggards at the Royal Unicorn Corps had even a portion of the drive and determination of these abandoned newfoals, the Corps would instantly be restored to its former glory. Behind Comet Tail hobbled Night Watcher The Ponderous, still grumbling under his foul-smelling breath. Following him was the rest of his original team as well as the majority of the department heads of the Corps. They had all come; Comet had demanded it.
It was about time the lazy old liches left their shadowy tombs and saw something of their princess's day. Mayhaps it might inspire some shred of life within them.
Night Watcher had gone on at much length about the terrors of Summerland Village, the impossibly perfect horror that had somehow risen out of the Exponential Lands. He had made great mention of his unease about the eerie monthly signal from nowhere, and how his unease had been justified, and how something strange was surely going on.
The only strange thing in this lovely village was Night Watcher himself, Comet Tail reflected; the old foal truly had no idea of what genuine determination and cooperation even looked like. He simply couldn't recognize it when it was plainly in front of him. Comet Tail felt genuine pity for the old goat at that moment; feeling such an emotion about her would-be rival surprised her.
Grassdancer led the procession - virtually the entire staff of the Royal Unicorn Corps - out of the fairground corral, and down the cobbled street. Comet Tail felt astonished, a sensation which now quite a rare thing for her, at how lovely the little village was. The thatched roof houses were perfect. They looked as if they had been copied directly out of an Equestrian architecture book. The cobblestones were new and freshly swept. Lush greenery grew everywhere, flowers burst from window boxes and bordered the cobbled street. For newfoals, it was more than exceptional. It was positively incredible.
Night Watcher wanted these ponies fined for lacking lanterns. PFFFT! Comet would find some way to make that frightened, bitter old mule's life a little worse for displaying such a petty attitude. Night would rue the day he darkened her door about those lanterns; the old unicorn just needed to lighten up a little.
Comet Tail stopped to look up. The grand procession stopped with her; Grassdancer walked ahead for a bit, then realized what had happened. She turned around, quickly returning to Comet's side.
A pegasus city. Just as reported, directly above. The cloud castle was a bit crude, but ambitious. It was fairly clear that the newfoals did not grasp the finer points of nephological construction: not a single rainbow fall, not even proper doric columns. Nevertheless it was a city, and it was there, and none of the other abandoned newfoals had even come close to this remarkable achievement. Several groups had managed to build simple platforms, and had even made rainclouds. But this... this was quite amazing.
"Um... are you alright Miss Comet? Do you need anything?" The escort pony called Grassdancer seemed genuinely concerned, but not about anything Comet Tail expected. She wasn't afraid, or grovelling, or even the least bit worried about herself; she appeared to be concerned about... her. As a pony. How intriguing! This newfoal had probably never seen anypony as old as her; apparently the humans had much shorter lifespans than Equestrians, such that even the oldest of them found comparative vitality and youth after their Conversion.
Comet turned to her escort. "I merely wished to examine your work. It is quite satisfactory."
As they continued, Comet Tail pondered her response. Really, she should have said more. She should have said something more... indicative of her actual impressions. The efforts of these newfoals really were quite beautiful. 'Satisfactory' somehow seemed a little cold, in retrospect.
Then again, after so many lifespans within the Corps, Comet felt cold inside. The Royal Unicorn Corps wore a mask of smiles and politeness laid over a skeleton of underachieved dreams. No wonder Celestia seemed bored and annoyed with her court; there was no group among them that had any real warmth.
They rounded a well, and passed another cluster of pleasant cottages. Comet spied a building different than the rest; for all of Equestria it looked like a proper little roadside inn. How very curious! A roadside inn within a village that could not normally ever receive visitors. If it hadn't been for their monthly beacon, they would never have been discovered. Not only was Summerland almost unimaginably distant from Canterlot, the newfoals here had not suffered sufficiently for their pain to be detected by the spells Night Watcher's group had chosen. Brokenhoofs Listening Heart and Call Of Desperation only located those that desperately needed help.
It had been unthinkable that any of the abandoned newfoal groups would not... desperately need help.
Comet trotted directly to a wide, open counter at the front of the quaint little inn. 'Teaspoon's Tasty Treats' it said in flawless Equestrian. The village escort pony cantered up to her.
"Miss Comet? I'm sorry, and don't mean to be any trouble, but the library is kind'a the other way." Comet was taken aback. Did the little pony think that she had become confused, or lost? The poor thing was almost being motherly. This was a most peculiar day indeed.
"I should like to... sample the local cuisine first... Grassdancer, was it?" Comet knew the pony's name; it had simply become her habit to pretend that remembering the names of lessers was difficult. It was all a part of maintaining status.
"Ah... of course, if you want 'n all. But the mayor is waiting." She, Comet Tail, appointed by Celestia herself to lead the Royal Unicorn Corps Of Equestria, was keeping the mayor waiting. She almost allowed herself to smile.
"You. You are the proprietor of this eatery?" Teaspoon had walked to the counter at the front, having noticed the crowd in front of the community kitchen. Everypony had been asked by Droplet to try to act as natural as possible; all had agreed that should they be visited, they wanted to demonstrate a functional, established community and not run around either terrified or fawning as though they were a bunch of broken newfoals, desperate to be rescued.
"Hello! I'm Teaspoon. I guess you could say that. What can I do you for?"
Comet Tail regarded the yellow mare with the three-spoon Mark. 'Do you for?' Very colloquial. "I wish to partake of the flavors of your Village. Do you have a recommendation?"
Teaspoon saw this as a test. What would best sum up all that they had all achieved in Summerland together? What defined their community in terms of flavor? Sweetpepper's 'Galloping Garden', really. Sweetpepper had dedicated his life to making that farm feed everyone. From the very first, he had worked to improve their diet.
Teaspoon went into the back, yes, they still had some. Using her hornfield, she plated a slice and floated the result out to the counter. "Here you go. I think you'll find this a unique treat that represents our little village perfectly!"
"Really?" Comet Tail twitched an ear; these newfoals were utterly unperturbed by her arrival. The plate was standard newfoal resettlement supply issue; nothing unexpected there. But the slice of pie was an unknown. Comet Tail studied the slice for a moment. She could not identify the filling at all.
"Go on, give it a try. See if you can guess what kind of pie it is." The unicorn called Teaspoon grinned at her. Comet Tail could not remember the last time any pony had grinned at her. Shriveled in fear, certainly. Frowned with anxious concern, absolutely. Grinning quite startled her. Very well, then, let's see what you have to offer, oh grinning eatery mare.
Comet Tail encompassed a small piece of the strange, red, green and yellow pie and levitated the bite neatly into her mouth. Hmm... very unusual taste. Sweet, but not overly so... with a strange piquant quality. Savory-sweet, as though bitterness had been transformed into joy. It was an odd sort of pie, but it was a flavor she rather liked. Comet simply could not identify the filling at all. "It is extremely intriguing. What is the fruit used in this?"
"That pie is a specialty of Summerland Village; it's Sweetpepper Pie. The filling is bell peppers."
Comet Tail's eye twitched. "Bell... peppers?"
"Yup! You'd never think it would work, but according to Sweetpepper - he and his husband Goldrivet run the Galloping Gardens Farm, north of the village - anyway, Sweetpepper says that bell peppers are botanical fruits. Since they're fruits and all, there isn't any reason not to treat them like any other fruit, or so we thought. So, we came up with a way to make bell pepper pie! Good, isn't it?" Once again the grin, this time wide as can be. Despite herself, Comet Tail was beginning to feel something not entirely unlike mirth, crawling up from some hidden alcove, down deep within the locked dungeon of her soul.
Night Watcher had actually been right. This was a strange place; not only had these newfoals thrived, they had busied themselves creating intriguing and delicious new desserts. No wonder they had not been found for five years; the only desperation to be found here was likely indigestion from overeating.
"This is indeed a remarkable creation, Teaspoon." Comet Tail levitated five bits from the small pouch she carried in her mane; that should be far more than was needed. The shining coins slapped down on the counter with faint, bell-like tings. "Thank you. This should cover the pie." Comet prepared to leave.
Teaspoon immediately lifted one of the golden disks in her hornfield. "Hey! Is... is this a bit? A real bit? The official currency of Equestria?" Teaspoon studied the coin. It was small, round, surprisingly thick. There were no markings of any kind on it, it was a simple, fat disk with a smooth, raised rim. If it wasn't gold, it was something very similar.
Teaspoon's grandmother had continued collecting coins, long after they had ceased having any meaning. She fancied herself an amateur numismatist. She had always said that the soul of an entire civilization was expressed in the design of their currency.
The Equestrian 'bit' had no markings; no images, no words, no numbers, not even a portrait of the princesses. It was a simple slug of golden metal. The rim had no milling, no grooves at all. Teaspoon remembered enough of what her grandmother had taught her to read the coin; it had a lot to say.
The lack of imagery spoke of a modest national attitude; instantly Teaspoon knew that Equestria was not a land of intense, pompous nationalistic pride, nor were the princesses the least bit narcissistic. The absence of numbers indicating value suggested a culture devoid of guile; a coin was the weight of the precious metal it was made of, nothing less, nothing more.
But the lack of grooves around the edge said the most; this was a people, a species, that did not have, as a rule, thievery. Grooves exist on coins for one reason alone; to prevent the coin from being filed. A little filing on a great number of coins was an ancient human method to steal a significant amount of metal from them; eventually the metal dust could be melted down to form valuable bars. Equestria apparently had no coin shavers. There was no need to add grooves because nopony would think to shave a coin. Some nearly vanished part of Teaspoon felt as if she should be shocked by this; the notion was utterly unhuman.
Then her five years of being a pony reasserted itself. Of course it was unhuman. What did humans have to do with anything? Ponyfolk were a pretty honest lot. That's just how they are. How could it be otherwise?
Comet Tail turned back, momentarily surprised. "Yes, this coin is called a 'bit'. You do not use currency here? Is there some other form of payment you require?"
"It's just I've never seen one before. We don't exactly use money here. Never have. No real need for it, you understand. We just take care of each other. We're kind of a big family, really. I cook because I like to and everypony seems to appreciate it. It just kinda became my place over time, I guess. Here, you'd better take these back. Not really how it works here." Teaspoon looked embarrassed; she had suddenly realized her admission had undoubtedly made Summerland Village seem pretty odd and even downright weird not to have ever bothered with money.
Comet Tail's face tried to smile. She hadn't planned on that sort of thing happening, and it made the sides of her muzzle hurt. "Please, keep the bits. Perhaps you can show them around; others might find them interesting to look at. Besides, when you are all integrated back with the rest of us, you will need to get used to coinage, won't you?"
"T-thank you." The look on the pony's face was a complex one; excitement, hope, gladness were all there, but also a deep sadness too. Teaspoon's ears dropped, and her head lowered. Comet Tail thought about all that she had seen since she had arrived in this Summerland Village; these ponies had all made such an astonishing effort. They were the last victims of Windfeather's betrayal to be found, but they were by far the most successful, ambitious group Comet Tail had ever seen. Having to leave all of this behind must be weighing heavily on them.
"Um... yes?" Teaspoon looked up; Comet Tail could see the beginnings of tears in her eyes.
"Your pastry..." Comet thought of the endless intrigues of the Canterlot court. Her several lifespans of watching backbiting, useless pretenders trying to rise within the Royal Corps, of frustrated old unicorns with little to do and no hope of advancement. Endless insults and bitter bantering within the ancient, dark halls. And now, suddenly, these eager, innocent, incredibly determined ponies. Comet simply could not call them 'newfoals' anymore. These ponies truly held the authentic spirit of Equestria within them. "...your pastry was exceptional, Teaspoon. I have honestly not tasted better even at Celestia's table."
Comet Tail was old. She was ancient; having lived three centuries she knew the exact moment to turn away and discretely leave. She did not need to see the tears to know they would fall. She had not bothered with such matters as simple kindness in a very long time. That was a terrible shame. A terrible, terrible shame.
The Summerland Village city hall was under construction; Grassdancer led Comet Tail to the library. This was where Mayor Droplet waited. They would need to talk, to plan the evacuation of the village, to discuss how best to proceed. It would not be an easy conference, that was now exceedingly clear.
"Of course I need your help! I may be the alpha around here now, but you started this place before hoofing it off onto me. Your support on this would strengthen my position. You know there are going to be objections! You know someponies are not going to be alright with this!" Droplet was angry, and she was angry because she was frightened. It was one thing to govern a community where the biggest issues revolved around whether a rescheduled rainstorm would interfere with somepony's picnic and quite another to have to tell everypony it was time to pack up and leave forever.
Alexi hung his head, his bright blue mane falling over his eyes. Caprice pressed into him, trying to offer what comfort she could. "Droplet, Alexi really prefers kind of staying in the background. That's why he didn't want the job of leader. He's at his best providing support to the leader, not trying to act like a leader himself." Caprice looked at Droplet with an earnest expression; surely this was old news.
"That's all I'm asking him for! I just need his support here. I need Alexi to stand up with me, one last time; the old Alexi, the Alexi from when we first arrived and he kept us all together. That's what I need - a unified front! It's imperative!" Droplet sounded desperate - what was the true issue here?
Caprice gave Alexi a comforting lick right on the lower edge of his ear, the way that always made him relax. Then Caprice looked squarely at the mayor "Droplet, out with it, what is the real story here? If we knew what this was about..."
"Fine, fine. They're going to move us - there's no way around that. You would not believe how far away that wretch of a pegasus dropped us. What was the old diameter... no... the circumference... of the Earth? Something like 24,000 miles or some such? We're not on a planet here. Equestria is a realm, a place - it's different. This isn't like our old universe at all, and... twenty-four thousand miles is nothing here. That's how big this place is, now anyway." Mayor Droplet struggled to wrap her mind around the concept; the Royal Unicorns had certainly been no help at the meeting.
"Anyway Caprice, our Summerland is like... the distance from the old Earth to its moon or something. Maybe farther. If we all set out walking, it would take generations to reach Canterlot, even if we had some way of knowing the right direction and sticking to it. You're the one that brought up the inbreeding issue - we can't stay here. They know that, you and I know that. But there are a lot of ponies in this village that don't want to leave. They don't want to leave their work, their effort, the village itself, they don't want to leave."
"Caprice... Alexi. We don't have a choice, we're being moved. Royal decree. It is a done thing. But..." Droplet looked very sad, very helpless now "...I don't want us to be split up. That's the problem here. If we can't all agree on what we want, they can't guarantee to keep us all together. We have barely the minimum population to count as a community. That's another thing Windfeather did to us. The newfoal colonies were all supposed to have five times the number of ponies in them that we ended up with. If some of us get snippy and demanding with the Royal Corps, we could all end up parceled out to different newfoal settlements. We'd never see each other again. We wouldn't be... well, Summerland Village anymore."
Caprice looked intently at Droplet; she could see the pegasus quaking slightly, this meant so much to her. "So what you're saying is that if we present a unified front, all eager to work with the Royal Corps, then we'll meet some requirement to... what, get a new village all together somewhere closer? We get to all stay as a unified community?"
"EXACTLY! That's what I've been trying to say! We're just barely at that population threshold, even with all of our foals." Droplet sank back on her pillow, slumping against one of the beams that supported the west wall of the cottage.
Caprice groomed Alexi's dangling forelocks. She could see him smile out of the corner of her eye.
"Alright!" Alexi raised his head, shaking his blue mane out of his eyes. "Let it never be said that Alexi is one to abandon his community when it calls on him to heroically help! Alexi is no pathetic shirker! Alexi is no useless pony who cowers in the corner, clopping his hooves in wretched anguish and... and... "
"Overblown drama?" offered Caprice, helpfully.
Alexi glared at Caprice, though there was a barely repressed grin at the edge of his muzzle. "I... will help." Caprice leaned slightly and gave her stallion a sweet kiss on the side of his nose. "Alexi needs more of those." Caprice smiled softly "If Alexi is a good boy, perhaps that, and more, might be his reward." Her eyes spoke of a long night with zero sleep.
"When do we start?" Alexi was standing now, eager to begin.
"The Village of Summerland, our village..." Alexi was addressing the entire population, all gathered in and around the new fairgrounds. The ponies were careful to avoid the area near the Loci Stone; Lightning and Ocean had roped it off so that nothing unfortunate would happen should the Royal Unicorns decide to return. "...what is it? Really, I ask you, what is Summerland?"
The villagers looked at each other, unsure of what Alexi meant.
"IT'S US! We are the Village of Summerland! It isn't the land - the land is just an expansion made from some old dirty planet. Summerland isn't the buildings - we all worked hard, so hard on our beautiful cottages, on the library, on the roads - but buildings are just... stuff! Stuff that we put together, but still stuff. The thing that makes them valuable is our working together, the thing that makes them beautiful is our work as a community!"
Alexi was sweating; although his voice was being amplified thanks to a little unicorn help - Canterlot Voice, page 22, Benthorn's Practical Guide To Fundamentals Of Magic, crate 18 - he felt terribly nervous. He hadn't spoken to a crowd in years, and had grown very comfortable helping from the shadows. Public speaking was not his favorite thing anymore. Alexi's days of doing announcements over the Bureau speakers seemed another lifetime ago; those days had nothing to do with him anymore.
"I know some of you don't want to leave, and I don't blame you. I love this land. I love the four hills, the south lake with the flowers there, the north pond and the farm. I love Hopeful Road and eating at Teaspoon's and watching the races. I love my cottage and Cloudcastle and the red salt from the north end of Only Mountain." One side of the mountain had different minerals than the other; the red salt lick had a complex flavor that the white salt lick lacked. Everypony except Trotsky preferred the red lick; he said it tasted bitter to him.
"I love every little thing about what we have created here. But I love us, together, more. I love Teaspoon making pies and cakes and cookies more than I love her kitchen. I love Sweetpepper and Goldrivet and their amazing ability to make things grow more than I love their barn, or their garden, or the orchard. I love you..." Alexi looked with fierce eyes in the general direction of a portion of the crowd "...and you, and you and you, vastly more than I love this fairground, or the unfinished town hall, or the library, or my own cottage. I love us. All of us together. THAT is what I fear losing. Not these things of stone and wood!"
The ponies were rapt now, leaning forward, understanding. They knew all of this already, but their attachment to their own effort had blinded them.
"If we all face these Royal Unicorns together, if we show them a strong and united front, if we make it clear that we intend to stay together, to remain one community, one village NO MATTER WHAT, Droplet assures me that they will be forced to concede to our demand!" This was stretching things a bit, but the old rabble-rousing art was rising again in Alexi; a common enemy united a people. The Royal Unicorns weren't eager to split up the community; actually they had no stake in the matter at all. They just didn't care beyond getting everypony evacuated. By framing things in this way, Alexi hoped to create a point of common cause that would help the villagers to be willing to let go of their attachment to the things they had built. He wanted to avoid calls for concessions and compensations and get everypony to concentrate on a single uniform demand: togetherness.
"We can stay together! We can keep Summerland Village alive! We may live in new houses, and till new land, and gallop through different meadows, but together, wherever we end up, that is where Summerland Village will live!" Alexi was on a roll now, his previous discomfort forgotten. Oh, yes, he felt that thrill again, the excitement he had once had announcing new Conversions back at the Bureau. "We take our village with us, in our hearts, in our relationships with each other, in our common lives! We are one family! We will not let these unicorns break us up! Join me in standing firm, in showing these Royals that what really matters is staying together, not any one spot of land. ARE YOU WITH ME?"
Yes, they were absolutely with him. Alexi stood tall, flaring his wings, doing his 'Action Pony Pose' while the crowd cheered and stomped and yelled. He could see Droplet nodding at him; this was what she had hoped for. Alexi looked down at Caprice, sitting off to the side; her smile made him actually feel like the image he was trying to present. He was Great Leader Alexi now, and the crowds cantered at his command! How had he ever forgotten what this had felt like?
The crowd suddenly fell silent, as if a switch had been pulled. Alexi relaxed from his dramatic pose and looked around. He followed the eyes near him.
A glowing shaft of light was rising from the Loci Stone.
The Royal Unicorn Corps were returning. They were coming to transport the entire community; suddenly Alexi's heart sank. For all of his grand words, the fact was he didn't want to go. He knew that Caprice was right; they didn't have a future here. They would be finally joining the greater community, this was the answer to the cobblestone prayer that was Hopeful Road. This was what they had all wished for so long ago. Life would be better, life would be richer, it was absolutely the best possible thing to happen.
But the fact was, he was going to miss this land so very, very much.