Guilt-edged

He’d come to Applewood a few months back, mostly because he was tired of running; he’d bounced back and forth between the west and east coasts at least a dozen times, and they’d finally quit looking for him. Maybe. And Applewood was a good place for a unicorn with a past: a tiny exclave just beyond the edge of sprawling Los Pegasus, it turned out that the pegasi whose job it was to look over the place were more than happy to overlook it, inasmuch as it was on the ground, of all places, and therefore unworthy of their notice.

In general, he thought, he’d done well, and with the Equestrian economy in another slow-growth pattern, he’d had far more customers than he’d imagined for those not-quite-junk securities; there was risk, sure — there was risk in any investment, as it says in the fine print of every prospectus he’d ever shoved under a client’s nose — but there was always the chance that somepony’s ship would come in, and the happy customer would come back for more of the same. Or nothing would happen, and the worried customer would come back to double down on his bet. Either way, he got paid, and by careful management of his own investments, including exactly none of his barely-legal debentures and equities, he’d built himself, at twenty-eight, a decently sized nest egg.

There would be, however, no nest, and he knew it.

##—–##—–##

The summer he turned nineteen, he had signed up with a construction crew, reasoning that yeah, the work would be hard, but at least he could bank some bits fairly quickly. They sent him to Saddle Lake, south of Canterlot, where a new aqueduct was planned: the old water line to Ponyville was adequate, but barely, and the Royal Engineering Office, after a “suggestion” from Level Plumb Construction, had decided that maybe a new line wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Level Plumb hired subcontractors, and one of them hired him, and he went to work a week before the Summer Sun Celebration.

Despite his lack of formal training, he did his work well; a crew of six earth ponies would drag the concrete forms into the ditch, and he’d levitate the binders and sealants into position. Drag, repeat; drag, repeat. In terms of excitement, it was right up there with middle-school trigonometry; however, the fact that he somehow remembered all those tangents and cosines and whatnot made it easier for him to determine the optimum placings for the massive forms, and in a matter of days, he’d worked himself into an Assistant Crew Chief position and a substantial raise.

There was, of course, no work on the day of the Summer Sun Celebration, and he wandered into Ponyville, on the basis that he’d seen Canterlot already, and besides, a unicorn of that age not working on a college degree was considered something of a slacker by Canterlot’s upper crust, which might hamper his ability to get dates. Earth ponies, by far the majority in Ponyville, tended not to be so snooty.

Ponyville being a small town, the Celebration was suitably small-scale, but the basics were all in place, and the cider flowed freely. He decided he wanted some company, and with a week’s pay in hoof, he’d decided that if necessary, he’d actually buy some; it wasn’t that he was desperate, exactly, but, well, a stallion has his needs, and he didn’t know any of the local mares.

And then he met one. A pegasus, a little darker grey than he was, a slightly wayward yellow mane, a sweet smile offset by a dazed appearance. Too cute, he decided, to be a minute over seventeen.

Just the same, he asked: “How old are you?”

She blushed. “Seventeen.”

Which made her legal, barely, assuming she was telling the truth. She seemed utterly guileless, though, and she was happy to stay with him the rest of the evening and most of the night.

He’d vanished by morning, though, mostly because he realized that the combination of overwork, high-point cider and hormones had made him forget the contraception spell he’d been trying to learn, and there’s no way he could be sure that she’d taken the appropriate herbs.

The rest of the summer passed without incident, and once they’d wrapped the project, he decided he’d stay over one more night in the hopes of getting lucky. Just after sunset, he was turning a corner, when he saw her. She was exactly like he remembered, except for a telltale bulge along her midsection.

He turned and fled into the night.

##—–##—–##

From that moment on, he imagined himself a marked pony: the deed was done, she could have identified him, and while the Crown couldn’t force him to marry her, they could definitely force him to pay foal support, which, he decided, was worse.

And so he became a drifter, moving from town to town, occasionally changing his story and his name, doing whatever odd jobs might be open to a fairly bright unicorn with limited magical skills but no fear of getting his hooves dirty. It wasn’t much of a living, but it would have to do for the time being. And in the beginning, he liked it just fine; he got to see lots of places he might never have seen otherwise, and in most of those places, he had no trouble finding mares who weren’t, as they say in hoofball, staunch defenders of the goal. Cash and carry, then carry on: nice work, he thought, if you can get it.

Then the supply of female companions began to diminish. He was inclined, in those days, to blame this situation on filly fickleness, which seemed to be more than an adequate explanation. But as time and travel took their toll on him, he realized what the problem was: they knew. They’d seen stallions like him before. They could see him betraying his questionable motives with his every word and deed, and then thank you for a lovely evening, but I really must go. It did not occur to him that something inside him might be giving him away: conscience, some old pony on the construction crew had said, was for losers, and he wasn’t a loser.

Well, he wasn’t. Of that much, he was certain.

And he would keep telling himself that for as long as he could bring himself to believe it.

##—–##—–##

“You’re … you’re sending me to Ponyville?

“Whole new market,” said the boss. “New possibilities, new customers. You should be drooling over the prospects, instead of standing there like somepony’d caught you in the cookie jar.”

“Uh, yeah. I suppose you’re right.”

So he duly packed up his portfolio and boarded the train, spending much of his time in transit making up variations on the theme of “I’m sorry, you must be mistaken.” Maybe she’d left town, her and that infernal brat. Wouldn’t that be a stroke of luck?

As the train pulled into the Ponyville station, he found out exactly how lucky he was: she was standing at the Air Mail window, picking up the noon run. He invoked a small-scale spell, not enough to make him invisible, but enough to make him relatively inconspicuous, and crept out of the station, unnoticed by her, by any of the passers-by, or by the pink pony who was evidently part of the town welcoming committee.

That afternoon, he followed up on four leads he’d been given, made two sales, and felt well enough, he judged, to see the town, something he hadn’t done much of during his last visit. It was a pleasant enough town, he decided, though obviously no place for a pony of his gifts.

Down a side street on the far side of the marketplace was a small park, where a brownish earth pony was tossing some sort of disc into the air; it was promptly retrieved by a pale-violet unicorn filly. “Got it!” she cried.

“You’re getting very good at this,” said the earth pony.

“One more, please?” she said.

“Of course,” the earth pony replied, and she took off. He flung the disc; she brought it back.

“Now that’s enough for right now. Let’s see what your mother’s made for dinner.”

“Okay!”

Somehow, he knew what was coming. Reinforcing his blur spell, he entered the park, and it was as he had feared: her mother was that same grey pegasus with the wayward mane, and the filly seemed to have his eyes.

That other pony? Not a factor: this filly was almost certainly his daughter.

He beat a hasty retreat back to the inn.

##—–##—–##

There’s an old joke about a town with only one lawyer, and business was so poor that he was actually facing starvation. Then a second lawyer moved to town, and both of them became rich.

In Applewood, this joke would have made no sense. Given the nature of the population, legal advice was constantly in demand; there were, in fact, more lawyers per pony in Applewood than anywhere else in Equestria other than in Canterlot itself, and in Canterlot so many lawyers had wangled government positions that few were left to offer services to individual ponies. Blue Shingle could have stayed on — her Canterlot practice was doing reasonably well — but one day she closed up her shop, packed her bags, and set out for Applewood. “Not so many nobles,” she’d said, perhaps not entirely in jest, to a former client.

“So you see my problem,” said her current client.

She shuffled through a stack of papers. “It’s pretty much the way you described it. The foal was born the last day of Secondmonth in ninety-eight, which suggests conception on or about the Summer Sun Celebration ninety-seven. The mare stated in a deposition that this was only the second time she’d been with a stallion, and the first time was several months before, so all the numbers point to you.” Blue Shingle smiled. “Curiously, she did not file for a foal-support declaration.”

“Which means what?”

“Nothing, legally, except that all that running around you did was completely unnecessary. She wasn’t trying to get money out of you.”

“So there’s no problem then?”

“There is always a problem,” said Blue Shingle. “In this case, it’s the fact that you admitted paternity to an officer of the court, which is to say, me. Which means that yes, you are liable for all that foal support, since I’m not going to perjure myself to save you a few bits.”

“How many bits are we talking?”

She turned to a calculator on her desk, and pounded several keys. “So far, eleven thousand, six hundred forty.” She pointed to a document on the desk. “Under Equestrian law, foal support continues until age seventeen, or until the foal is able to work part-time, whichever comes first.”

He frowned. “I suppose there’s no way out of this?”

“Not really. Then again, if you really didn’t want to deal with this — well, you wouldn’t have brought it to me in the first place, now, would you?”

“I suppose not,” he said.

“You’re not the first pony who realized too late that he had a conscience,” said the lawyer. “But the laws are clear: once a wrong is determined, it must be made right.” She pointed to another document. “The earth pony you were telling me about is apparently now alternate guardian to the foal, which means that while she may not want to pursue the matter, he can, and once notified of your whereabouts, very likely will.”

“I messed up big time, I guess.”

“You should have stayed with her. You probably should have married her.”

“I didn’t love her,” he protested.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have slept with her.”

On the way back to the rooming house, he pondered. He had maybe nine thousand bits set aside; that wouldn’t cover the arrearage, and he had eight years of future liability staring him in the face. The law said that no more than 35 percent of his earnings, after taxes, could be garnished to pay for current foal support, and maybe he could live with that for the next decade, if the supply of suckers held out, but the law also said that any previously unpaid foal support was payable immediately, and the penalty was imprisonment for up to, of course, eight years, during which time he wouldn’t earn anything, and 35 percent of nothing was still nothing.

If only he hadn’t seen that poor little filly.

##—–##—–##

Halfway across the continent, it was dinnertime in Ponyville, and the little filly had a question: “Was my real daddy a unicorn?”

“Yes, darling, he was,” said her mother. “Big and strong, like an earth pony, but he had magic.” She sighed. “Oh, he definitely had magic.”

“How come he didn’t stay with you? Everypony’s daddy lives with them, except for mine.” Her mouth curled up into a definite pout.

“You have me,” said the stallion sitting across from her. “I think I do a decent job in the daddy department, despite a total lack of experience.”

“But it’s not the same,” the filly protested. “Someday I want to meet him.”

The stallion thought for a moment. “Perhaps there is a way.”

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