Sugarberry and Vanguard were reading in the downstairs parlor of the Vulcanopolis town house, with Banderol busy with his My Little People coloring book, when Sugarberry lifted her head and listened intently for a moment, her ears cocked forward. With a giggle of delight, she jumped to her hooves.
Vanguard looked up from his book. "I didn't hear any knock."
"But it's Tabby's voice!" Sugarberry squealed, pulling open the front door and dashing outside. "TABBY!" The cry could be heard for blocks.
"Well, tiger," Vanguard said, standing up and taking Banderol's hoof in his, "our company has arrived."
The young foal, who looked so much like his dad, grinned. "Fa-ine?"
"Yup. Let's go meet her."
The foal needed no further encouragement and raced after his mother. Vanguard shook his head and followed.
* * *
"... and I'm sure I saw a sea serpent in the waves just as we landed," Tabby was saying after she and Sugarberry had hugged and laughed and cried. Faline pranced happily at their hooves while Thomas stood back with Nymph in his forelegs. Banderol ran to Faline, stopping in his tracks as he reached her, suddenly bashful.
Vanguard grinned at Thomas. "Welcome to Vulcanopolis, buddy." He reached out and chucked the lavender baby pony under her chin, receiving a wobbly smile and an awkward wave of hooves for his trouble, then acknowledged Tabby. "Hey, there, Tabby. It's good to see you."
Tabby ruffled Banderol's hair and sent Vanguard a brooding look. "Fluff and Weedle feel abandoned."
"Oh, Tabby, don't say so!" Sugarberry's face fell. "Adriano says they're getting along fine."
"On the outside, maybe. But you can see the loneliness in their eyes. They're not getting enough love!!!!!"
Thomas intervened. "Tabby's only teasing. Mom agrees with Adriano that they've accepted things as they are. She says that Fluff runs to meet her whenever she enters the house, but that's because he's always expecting a treat, not because he's forlorn. And Weedle shadows Adriano so much and sits and stares at him that Adriano feels as if he's under surveillance for some crime."
"Maybe he is," Tabby said. "And Weedle is just the one to bring him to justice." Without batting an eye, Tabby turned to Sugarberry. "Would you have something to drink? Water will do."
Sugarberry laughed. "I've got a pitcher of ice water in the fridge just waiting for you and fresh cookies for the foals... and Thomas and Vanguard, of course."
* * *
Later, when Tabby and Sugarberry were alone- the stallions and foals had gone for a walk- they sat at the kitchen table chatting about ponies and events that had taken place in both their lives since Sugarberry's departure from Dream Valley.
"Elaine's baby is due next month," Tabby related. "She and Alan are decorating their nursery with a Peter Rabbit decor. Boring."
"Speaking of babies, did you get a chance to see Dreamcatcher's twins before you left?"
"As a matter of fact, I did, the day Nymph had her check-up with Dr. Neil. Paco and Chenoa, their names are. Native Pony all the way."
Sugarberry pushed the plate of cookies Tabby's way. "Will it be uncomfortable for you staying with your mother at her house here in Vulcanopolis?"
"Naw," Tabby mumbled through the bite of chocolate chip cookie she was chewing. "Now that she has two granddaughters to spoil, she can't very well dominate Faline's time... at least, not as much. And with Caprice hovering over Elaine as her due date approaches, Mom doesn't feel the need to claim Faline's affections so totally."
"It's wonderful that the two of you are getting things straightened out. Agatha has been very helpful in getting me familiarized with Vulcanopolis."
"Dad is getting tired of running back and forth between Dream Valley and here, though," Tabby admitted. "He wants Mom back home, although he has heard of some interesting rumors concerning a local legend... something to do with a volcano monster."
"Oh, I hope there's no truth to it!" Sugarberry shivered.
"Well, if there is, Dad will uncover it."
Not wanting to delve more deeply into that subject, Sugarberry reverted to a more pleasant topic. "I'm so glad you and Thomas decided to celebrate your anniversary here. And the timing is good, because the town is holding a Renaissance Faire. It's said to be great fun! I think you'll enjoy it."
"Costumes! Yay!" said Tabby.
"Clare's Creations is involved in it this year. Clare's introducing a new line of fashions directly related to the time period. Her top models will be posing as royalty, and others will be wearing outfits ranging from knights to peasants. It's going to be spectacular!"
"What'll we wear?"
"That's the fun of it! Clare has invited us to come look through her creations- we can have our pick!"
"Ohh! That does sound like fun!"
* * *
"Hold it!" The camera flashed. "Perfect."
Nello stepped back, beaming at the two models in front of him. One of the best aspects of this job was the opportunity to photograph such beauties as these. Tina Marie was a luscious lavender while her twin sister was a provocative pink. Both were perfect.
"That wraps it up for today," Nello said, unable to control a rather wolfish grin as the two models looked at him with their large, sparkling eyes. "Remember to be in early tomorrow, however, because the decision on the queen will be made by then."
A temporary shadow crossed both faces, but was gone before it could be noted.
"I promise to get a good night's sleep," Tina Marie said, planting a kiss on Nello's cheek.
"Me, too," Tina Lucie cooed, brushing an errant curl off the photographer's forehead.
"Good, good," breathed Nello, his eyes never leaving the two fillies' figures until they disappeared through the doorway.
"My, my... they are adorable young things, aren't they?" a voice behind him drawled.
Nello jumped as if stung. "Mooncurl! Are you finished with the schedule already?"
The mare, Nello's wife, shook her head. A beauty in her own right, Mooncurl had been Clare's premier model until the birth of her and Nello's first foal had intervened. She now held a coordinative position that kept her in close contact with the fashion house but allowed her to spend part of each day with Sunsprite who was now one-month-old. Now, however, her thoughts were on her husband at whom she slanted an accusing look.
"Sometimes I think you enjoy your work too much," Mooncurl retorted. She turned her back to her husband and crossed the room to a work station.
"You never complained when you were the head model."
Mooncurl ignored that remark. "As for the schedule, I've got a question or two."
Nello had followed Mooncurl, and as she turned to chill him with another frigid look, he nuzzled her neck. "I married the most glamorous and sweetest model on earth," he confided quietly.
"But you can't disavow that those two are spectacular; you can't take your eyes off of them."
Drawing the white mare in a tight embrace, he kissed her nose. "It would be difficult to photograph them if I took my eyes off them," he chuckled.
"You weren't behind the camera when I came in."
"And I'm not behind the camera now, either," he murmured as his lips settled on hers.
Mooncurl's heart melted, and she forgot all about her pique over Tina Marie and Tina Lucie.
* * *
Passing through the lobby of Clare's Creations, the two Tina's were on their way out when one of the designers, Gabriel, hailed them. His gaze settled on the pink one. He had always found pink to be a refreshing color.
"Lucie, I was curious as to your feedback on the winter wear you modeled at the show last week. What did you think of the waffle-weave knit?"
Tina Marie took her chance. "Luce, I forgot my compact. I'll run up and get it while you and Gabriel talk." She flashed a smile at the stallion and waved to her sister, catching the elevator just as the door was closing. She headed straight for Nello's studio, stopping at the thresh-hold until a long, lingering kiss had been completed between Nello and Mooncurl and waiting for the mare to depart through the opposite door.
"Nello, I'd like to talk with you."
Once again, Nello jerked his attention away from a sensuous source. "Marie! I thought you'd left."
"It's about the faire," Marie continued, her stance determined while her expression remained coy. She looked up at Nello through deep black lashes. "I was wondering if you'd put in a good word for me with Clare about the role of queen. I've always thought I was made for royalty." She fluttered her eyelashes as expertly as the Princess Tiffany could have done.
"Marie, you know that I don't have any say in the matter," Nello hedged.
"Not in the final decision, but Clare always listens to your input. All I'm asking is for a good word from you." The blue eyes clouded with unshed tears.
Nello took time for a quick glance in the direction in which Mooncurl had exited, anxious not to be found in the company of this coquettish filly. "I'll see what I can do," he promised, turning the pony toward the door. "Now, get home and relax. Tomorrow will be a busy day."
* * *
Meanwhile, downstairs, Tina Lucie was making good use of her time with Gabriel. The winter fashions having been discussed, she adroitly turned the conversation to herself.
"Gabriel," she pouted, "don't you think I'd make a wonderful queen?" She ran her hoof along a lock of hair that edged the stallion's face.
"I most certainly do," Gabriel responded, reaching up to clasp Tina Lucie's hoof in his. "You'd be perfect."
The young mare's pink eyes caught the stallion's. "I'll be heartbroken if Clare chooses Marr."
"Why would she choose your sister?" breathed Gabriel, his heart spiraling to Tina Lucie's hooves as her gaze invaded his soul.
"Will you put in a good word for me?" she whispered.
"I'll put in as many good words as it takes," he whispered back.
* * *
"What were you and Lucie discussing?" queried Angela, Gabriel's longtime sweetheart and Clare's administrative assistant. Her watermelon red cheeks were flushed and her green hair was ruffled after a rough day running the office. Her mood was already volatile, and it had not been soothed to find Gabriel in such close conversation with one of Clare's new models.
"Discussing?" echoed Gabriel, his eyes vacant.
"You and Lucie seemed to be deep into something."
An odd smile curled Gabriel's lips. "Yeah...
Angela stomped her hoof. "Would you at least look at me?" she rasped.
The tone of Angela's voice sounded a warning call deep within Gabriel's affected brain, and he turned his attention somewhat belatedly to her. "What am I supposed to see?" he dumbly asked after giving her a once-over.
It was a complete mystery to the stallion why Angela stomped away in high dudgeon.
* * *
Clare and her sister-in-law, Hydrangea, had decided to meet their husbands, Pacificus and Giorgio, at Fucciono's, a small diner near Clare's Creations, after work. Hydrangea arrived ahead of schedule, having left her two active offspring with their Grandma Stella and looking forward to a quiet supper. She did not have long to wait as Clare herself had slipped out of work early, not anxious to face the decision she would have to make concerning her models.
"Tough day?" asked Hydrangea as she pushed a waiting drink toward the frowning orchid mare. She had spoken for an outdoor table near a flower bed that was a riot of color.
"Today wasn't so bad," Clare admitted. "It's tomorrow I'm dreading."
"Pacificus told me you're not looking forward to choosing between your twins."
"Don't call them my twins. I don't know what came over me when I decided having twin models would be fun."
"You can't deny that they're gleaning a lot of publicity for your company."
"That's a fact, but at what price? They're both so... so sexy that half the male staff can't keep a coherent thought in their heads."
"They're awfully young, Pacificus says, and have a lot to learn." Pacificus was the business manager for Clare's Creations.
"Sweet innocence," Clare laughed. "I wonder..." Her attention was caught by something in the street and her words faded away. Hydrangea was shocked by how quickly Clare's expression had changed to one of pure loathing. She followed the mare's gaze and gasped.
The them was definitely Tina Marie and Tina Lucie, but the them that Hydrangea was referring to could as well have been the stallions in the company of the young models, namely, Pacificus and Giorgio, both of whom were intently honed in on the Tinas' conversation. Both also wore moonling expressions that did not set well on married stallions... and fathers at that.
As Clare and Hydrangea watched, Giorgio picked a blossom from a storefront display and slipped it into Tina Lucie's mane. Pacificus- not as suave as his brother-in-law, but not to be totally outdone- presented Tina Marie with a white feather that had at that moment dropped from a white dove circling the square. The purplish filly accepted the downy feather and ran it along Pacificus' chin in a soft caress while the pink twin dropped a peck on Giorgio's cheek.
The two stallions stood, mesmerized, as the two Tinas moved on down the street. It was only a passing cart nearly sideswiping them that brought them out of their stupor.
At the alfresco table, two mares seethed in silent annoyance.
"What have I unleashed against the world?" Clare hissed.
Hydrangea, this being her first exposure to the twins, could only stare. If these fillies were only growing into their sultry beauty, what lay ahead?
* * *
Clare had barely exchanged a single word with her husband the previous evening. Unfortunately, Giorgio barely noticed the lack of communication as he seemed caught up in a reverie of his own. The insipid grin on his face infuriated Clare even more.
Now, in the light of a new day, Clare sat at her desk tapping- no, thumping- her pencil on the smooth surface. "I'd rather see anyone else as queen- anyone except Tina Marie or Tina Lucie!"
At that moment, Angela opened the office door. "Sugarberry, Tabby, and Iveta are here about the costumes you promised them," she informed her boss. "Any special instructions?"
With a wave of her hoof, Clare responded. "No. Anything goes, except the royal..." She stopped, her hoof in mid-air and her mouth open. Slowly, a grin lightened her expression and she ordered. "Bring them to me."
With a shrug, Angela did as she was bid and was soon escorting the three mares, who were giggling like giddy schoolgirls, into Clare's presence. Clare smiled at their obvious enthusiasm over the idea of the Renaissance Faire. "It's good to see, Sugarberry, that you can still enjoy some time away from your writing."
"Thanks to Tabby," Sugarberry noted smugly. "As Macarius' cousin-by-marriage, she exerted her influence on him to grant me a reprieve while she and Thomas and girls are in town. And I'm making the most of it."
"You just have to be firm with him," Tabby dismissed her part in gaining Sugarberry's temporary freedom. "He can be perfectly reasonable under the right management." The pink unicorn went to look out the window. "Vulcanopolis," she sighed. "Oh, the memories."
Tabby was no stranger to Vulcanopolis, having attended college here, living in her mother's villa. She had also visited the city when her love for Thomas was just freshly budding. The locale conjured up many recollections.
Lost in her own thoughts, Tabby was oblivious to the conversation around her until Clare's words broke through.
"We need a queen, and I was thinking one of you girls might like to fill that position."
Tabby, the unproclaimed Queen of Atlantis, turned to face the fashion executive. "Yeah!! I am so there!!"
Clare was delighted. "A willing volunteer! You've made my day, Tabby!" Clare was so happy to have solved her dilemma that she rounded her desk and hugged Tabby.
Confused, Sugarberry asked, "Wasn't one of your new models..."
Interrupting with a careless toss of her mane, Clare urged Tabby to the door where Angela waited. "Angela here will take care of your fitting." Then, as another thought struck her, she asked, "Tabby, would Thomas consent to being your king?"
Beaming, Tabby responded. "Thomas is my king."
Sugarberry exchanged an inquisitive glance with Iveta, then followed the others from the office.
* * *
Gabriel and Nello were both besieged by distraught Tinas. Marie accosted Nello as he surveyed the results of the previous day's photo shoot.
"You were going to advise Clare that I should be the one to model the queen's attire!" wailed the disappointed filly.
"I talked with Clare," Nello diplomatically stated. He had, in passing, mentioned that Tina Marie was looking forward to posing as queen.
"Surely she can see that someone younger, more vibrant, is best! Nello, talk to her again. You could make her change her mind." The model grabbed the stallion's foreleg to force his attention to her. Tears glimmered on long, thick lashes. Lips trembled. "This means the world to me!"
Trying to remain on firm ground but slipping just a bit, Nello's voice softened. "There will be other opportunities, Marie. She'll come around eventually. Right now, it's important to hide your feelings so she'll be open to our plans in the future." He drew the distraught filly into his forelegs and gave her a bracing hug.
Outside the doorway, Mooncurl stood in shock, digesting the words she had nearly interrupted... and the embrace she had seen. With a muffled cry, she turned and ran.
* * *
In another part of the building, Gabriel had been caught, alone, by Tina Lucie in the elevator. "I'm the one who should be modeling the queen's robes! What prompted Clare to choose some outsider to model at the faire?" the young mare fumed.
"I was sure I'd convinced Clare that you were just what we needed," Gabriel defended. "I truly thought she valued my input, Lucie."
"Well, she obviously didn't, now, did she?" Tina Lucie griped.
In an effort to console the model, Gabriel assumed his most coaxing voice. "Clare chose someone older, someone with the maturity of a queen. She's saving your talent for a shoot when she needs someone with youthful charm." He settled a gentle hoof against the filly's cheek. "You are a knockout."
Perking up at the sound of compliments, Tina Lucie allowed a smile to break through her angst, highlighting her kittenish glow. When she threw herself in Gabriel's forelegs in a huge thank-you hug, what could the stallion do but hug her back?
It was unfortunate that the elevator doors opened just then, and Angela was treated to another scene depicting Gabriel's fickle nature.
* * *
"Ooohhh... this is so cool!" Tabby breathed, looking at her regal reflection in the mirror. The drape of the ornately-fashioned court ensemble flattered the unicorn's natural beauty, and verified that Clare had indeed made the right decision in choosing the queen of the faire.
To Tabby's right, clad in fluttering, silken lady-in-waiting guise was Sugarberry, looking appropriately unassuming. Iveta smugly donned the duds of a flirty country maid. All three mares were quite pleased with their outfits, and Clare was extremely pleased to have found her queen.
"You will be the highlight of the faire!" Clare said, adjusting the folds of the cape and brushing a lock of hair into place. "And you're sure Thomas will have no objection to filling in as king?"
"Why would he object?" Tabby asked. "I'm willing to speak for him."
Sugarberry giggled. "He'll have to obey the command of his queen."
* * *
"You what?" Thomas disbelievingly asked of his wife later that day.
Tabby, noting the tone of Thomas' voice and becoming defensive, responded with a bit of pique. "Renaissance Faire... you, king... me, queen." Her right fore-hoof punctuated her words.
Thomas recognized the flicker of mulishness in Tabby's eyes and sighed. "I suppose my vote doesn't count."
"Royalty are born to the position, not voted in," Tabby clarified, happy to sense Thomas' capitulation to her wishes. "And besides, this is going to be fun!"
"Well, there is consolation in knowing that my queen will be the prettiest mare at the faire," drawled Thomas, capturing Tabby before she ran off to answer Nymph's demanding cry for supper.
"The king's not half bad, either," smiled Tabby, succumbing to her husband's kiss.
* * *
The day of the faire was perfect in every way. The sun shone from a blue sky and light breezes caressed the earth, carrying the fragrance of flowers. The benevolent weather coaxed more ponies than expected to attend the gala occasion, so the grounds were packed with ponies, most of whom had taken on the appearance and characteristics of the populace during the Renaissance Period of history.
As the time approached for the parade of fashions to be presented by Clare's Creations, the sound of horns/trumpets could be heard echoing over the parkland, calling the ponies' attention to the main feature of the morning. In the reviewing stand, Clare and Giorgio sat among other city officials to review the months of pain-staking labor that had gone into the costumes that now decorated the parade's participants, costumes that would now be available at specialty shops across Ponyland.
* * *
Draped in ribbons and wearing cone-shaped veiled hennins, Tina Marie and Tina Lucie smiled cheerfully for the onlookers of the parade; but inside, each was seething over the slight they felt Clare had rendered them. By the time Tabby and Thomas had been ensconced on their royal thrones to preside over the festivities, the two models could stand no more and took the first opportunity to slip away and mingle with the crowd.
"Marr," Tina Lucie said to her sister, "why don't you go get us some food while I check out some of the booths across the field? We can meet back here in half an hour."
Looking at her sister speculatively, Tina Marie hesitantly agreed. "Just don't forget this spot so we can find each other later," she called after her twin as Tina Lucie took off at a trot across the grassy greensward, her veil blowing in the breeze. She suspected Lucie of some duplicity, but was unwilling at the moment to challenge her. Instead, Tina Marie turned in the opposite direction and set her course for the tantalizing smells coming from the food booths.
* * *
"Gabriel!" Tina Lucie called as she neared her objective. "Wait up! I need your help!"
Gabriel took one last look at his own objective- Angela- who was even now disappearing into a throng of ponies watching a magician's show. "What is it?" the stallion asked roughly, his usual good humor in short supply due to Angela's cool reception of him earlier in the day.
Momentarily affronted, Tina Lucie soon had her saccharin smile firmly in place. "I've lost track of Marr; have you seen her anywhere?"
"No, can't say as I have," Gabriel answered with apparent disregard.
Pouting just a little, Tina Lucie tried again. "I'll never be able to find her with all these ponies milling around. Would you help me, Gabe?"
Wincing at the use of an abbreviated form of his name which he had never liked, Gabriel tried to brush the mare off. "Lucie, I'm sure you'll run into her eventually. I've got other things to do." He continued after Angela who by now could be miles away at the rate she was moving when he last saw her.
"But... but Gabriel," Tina Lucie pleaded, her eyes shimmering with tears and a look of total abandonment on her face, "I've no one to protect me."
Making the mistake of looking back at the filly, Gabriel stopped in his tracks. She did look very young and very vulnerable; and there were a lot of ponies milling around, several of them ogling the model like hungry wolves. And, gosh, she was pretty.
"Okay, Lucie. Let's find Marie." He took her forehoof in his, and together they set off to find the missing piece of the set.
* * *
Meanwhile, Tina Marie had purchased an aromatic lunch for her twin and herself and had managed to return to the exact spot where she had parted from Tina Lucie in the specified time. Tina Marie, knowing her sister well, was not all that surprised that Lucie was no where in sight. "Great!" she muttered, staring at the two boxes of food in her forehooves. "Now what do I do?"
As if in answer to a prayer, Nello, taking random shots of the faire activities, nearly ran into her. "Oof," he grunted as he sidestepped Tina Marie while trying to keep his camera safe. "Sorry, Marie; I wasn't watching where I was going."
"Oh, the fault was all mine," the filly simpered. "I was standing here like a bump on a log."
Nello unconsciously raked his gaze over her. "Never compare yourself to anything so mundane," he grinned, flicking the veil of her hennin from her cheek where the breeze had wafted it.
"Thanks," Tina Marie smiled back. "My hooves are full, as you can see." Suddenly, her eyes shifted downward in a shy manner. "I don't suppose you'd be free to have lunch with me?" She indicated the two lunch servings, then returned her gaze to his face, her eyes limpid pools of sky blue invitation.
"I was on my way to meet..." he began, but stopped as the filly's eyes became shimmery with disappointment. "On second thought," he shifted gears, "something sure smells good."
"Oh, Nello, we could sit over there under that tree," Tina Marie suggested, her distress completely forgotten.
"Let's go stake our claim."
* * *
"Hydie, what's the matter?" asked a concerned Giorgio of his sister. He had seldom seen her so down in the dumps.
"What's the matter?" echoed Hydrangea. "Two little strumpets who use their s... s..." Here Hydrangea stuttered. "... sex appeal to steal other mares' husbands, that's what's the matter!"
"Who are you talking about?" queried Giorgio with a grin. His sister was obviously over-reacting to some imagined slight by Pacificus. After all, there were any number of very attractive mares about the park; and the costumes seemed to free any number of inhibitions. He had encountered several rather forward females himself.
"I'm talking about those two prettier-than-anyone-has-a-right-to-be models that Clare has working for her! And Tina Marie in particular. She's dangling after Pacificus."
Giorgio's grin became a chuckle. "You're imagining things, Hydie. Pacificus has eyes only for you, and you know it."
"Then explain why he was cavorting with the little baggage while she was primping before the parade?"
"Pacificus? Cavorting? He's never cavorted in his life." Giorgio's eyes twinkled with the effort of imagining the steady stallion so much as taking one step out of line. It was unthinkable.
Hydrangea's eyes narrowed. "Remove the plank from your own eye first," she quoted, then turned and stalked away from him.
"What was that about?" the stallion muttered. He shook his head and huffed, "Go figure!"
* * *
"Clare, you must be very pleased with the reception of your Renaissance fashions. The costumes were a big hit," Sugarberry congratulated the entrepreneur as the business part of the day wound down.
"Yes, it was nice," Clare mumbled, her attention seemingly elsewhere.
Sugarberry glanced at Vanguard with a worried frown. Clare should be ecstatic, not depressed. The day had been an unqualified success.
"Is something wrong, Clare?" Vanguard asked the mare who truly did seem caught in a brown study.
"Wrong? What could be wrong?" asked the mare, her eyes fixed on some point across the busy park which seemed to be even more crowded now that twilight was settling in. Torches were being fired around the perimeter and at other key locations within, sending out flickering spheres of light.
Sugarberry and Vanguard followed the mare's dismal gaze. "Oh," choked Sugarberry. "Your young models are under heavy guard."
And so they were. Tina Marie and Tina Lucie were being accompanied not only by Nello and Gabriel, but also Giorgio and Pacificus. The twins appeared to be as fresh and lovely as they had been at the beginning of the day, but the stallions had a definite droop to their shoulders. As they came nearer, Sugarberry noted that each of the male ponies sought out his respective mate with anxious, almost haunted, eyes.
Unbeknownst to the girls, the guys had gone through a tough day. Yes, Tina Marie and Tina Lucie were pretty, poised, and provocative; but they were also self-centered, single-minded, shallow-witted, and, the stallions had come to realize, nothing more than schoolgirls. The twosome expected a steady diet of compliments and attention which had at first fed the stallions chivalrous spirits but soon came to grate on them as an annoying nuisance.
Having been in their company for an extended period of time, Giorgio yearned to have an intelligent conversation, preferably with Clare; Pacificus craved his own wife's gentle companionship; Nello pined for Mooncurl's off-the-wall reasoning that always kept him guessing; and Gabriel longed to have Angela order his fractured day.
The females, however, had caught glimpses of their stallions in the company of the models throughout the day and had not been well-pleased with what they saw. Now, suddenly, they had more important things to do than to smilingly greet their traitorous beaus. Angela turned to speak with Mooncurl about scheduling a photo shoot for the coming week while Clare drew Hydrangea aside to ask her advice on how to curb Calla's penchant for coloring on walls. It was quite obvious that the return of the stallions meant diddley-squat to them.
Giorgio and Pacificus went straight to their wives, only to be looked upon with icy disdain. Clare slanted her gaze away from Giorgio in a calculated cut. "Thomas," she purred, "does your offer to help me with... things... still stand?"
Thomas, who had made no offer of any kind to Clare, looked startled; but upon catching the imploring look in her eyes, he sent a wink to Tabby and then offered his foreleg to the orchid mare. "Your servant." He whisked her away from the befuddled Giorgio so smoothly that the stallion could only gape and stare.
Faring no better, Pacificus had to watch as Hydrangea marched off with Cisani, another of Clare's designers, who, like Thomas, had received an unexpected and beseeching invitation to come to her rescue. "Hydie!" the distraught stallion called after his wife, but he received only an insolent flick of the tail in response.
Exchanging bewildered glances, Giorgio and Pacificus were completely confounded.
* * *
Mooncurl and Angela were not so subtle. When Nello and Gabriel interrupted their conversation, Mooncurl faced her husband with a withering look. "I trust you've been enjoying your day."
"As a matter of fact..." Nello began, but Mooncurl cut him off.
"It's obvious that Marie decided to disregard your advice to hide her feelings; the whole world saw what's going on between the two of you today."
Interrupting Nello's startled query, a fuming Angela could not wait her turn to rake-down Gabriel. "As for you, you... bounder... you don't need to offer me any explanations. We're through, and you're welcome to little Ms. Lucie." Her eyes narrowed. "And I hope she makes your life miserable."
"She already has," Gabriel dejectedly found voice to admit, followed by a gasp from Tina Lucie who was watching the drama unfold before her wide eyes.
"Gabriel!" Lucie breathed, shattered.
Ignoring the young model, Gabriel concentrated on Angela. "I'll be the first to admit that I made a fool of myself, falling for the charms of that spoiled brat."
Another gasp sounded as Tina Lucie bore the brunt of those harsh words. No one else noticed, however, as the gathered ponies strained to hear Angela's response.
"You realize your mistake?" she asked hopefully.
"Temporary insanity," Gabriel grinned. "Do you forgive me?"
"Well..." the mare hedged.
"Don't give in, Angela," Mooncurl advised, her gaze on Nello. "He'll promise you the moon and deliver..." She cast a quick glance at Tina Marie. "...unfaithfulness."
"Unfaithfulness!" Nello spluttered. "You can't seriously think..."
"I heard you making plans for your future together," Mooncurl spat.
Nello looked dazed for a moment, then he began to laugh. "Mooncurl, you heard us planning for Marie's future with Clare's Creations, not a..."
"Then how do you explain your obsession with her?"
"I'm with Gabriel on this, that I suffered a temporary lapse of my faculties. Who would trade a tried-and-true confidant for a self-indulged child? Forgive me, sweetheart?"
Mooncurl was only too ready to fall into her husband's forelegs, but Tina Marie was as put out as her sister over the blatant dismissal of her perceived charms. Both of the twins looked to be at the point of tears when a deep, hearty voice called from the crowd.
"Marie! Lucie! What's wrong with my precious angels?"
The two fillies raised their heads and sobbed tragically, "Papa! Papa!" Running to the ginger stallion, they flung themselves into his forelegs, both vying for his attention as they complained of their shoddy treatment at the hooves of these churlish chevaliers. The accusing glances they sent toward Nello and Gabriel made it unnecessary to hear their words, and the glowering face of the stallion made it obvious whose side he upheld.
"What's the meaning of this?" the stallion- Raymond- blustered, coming closer to accost Nello and Gabriel, a twin tucked under each of his forelegs. "Who are you to cause my darlings these bitter tears?"
The two darlings were at this moment clinging to their male parent, their weepy expressions unable to hide a gloating satisfaction to see the stallions brought to task by their defensive father.
Giorgio and Pacificus, upon learning from Nello and Gabriel's experience what was bothering their own spouses, had been quick to smooth the troubled waters; and Giorgio now accompanied Clare to face the irate stallion.
"You are Lucie and Marie's father, I presume?" Clare asked at her most authoritative.
"Proudly, I answer in the affirmative. And who, may I ask, are you?"
"I'm the one who pays your daughters' salaries," Clare stiffly replied to the officious stranger.
"As to that," he replied pompously, "I'm sure no amount would be able to compensate for my little beauties here." He beamed a look of genuine adoration on each of the twins and received an equally worshipful look from them.
"As to that, they are well compensated... considering their lack of experience."
The models' father bristled under the implied criticism. "Marie and Lucie have no equals!"
"They have brilliant futures ahead of them, but at this moment they are rank amateurs," Clare elucidated firmly. "They'll have to grow into their full potential with lots of hard work and strict attention to their responsibilities... and that includes learning to stand on their own four hooves."
"And in learning to curb their tendency to play the coquette," Giorgio added under his breath, which nearly undid Clare's cool composure.
"My daughters are perfect just the way they are!" Raymond roared. Nello flinched, remembering that he had at first thought them perfect, too. Now, however, he acknowledged that his wife was the only one who fit his ideal.
Raymond continued. "Come, my little pets. Your papa will show you a fine time before the faire closes." He turned Tina Marie and Tina Lucie and guided them toward some wandering minstrels who would be more than happy to sing some songs of the beauty of youth.
The ponies in Clare's group were still standing, watching the doting manner in which Raymond coddled his daughters, when a quiet mare approached. Her smile encompassed all the ponies, but she spoke to Clare.
"My name is Cerise," she began. "You must forgive my daughters and my husband. They're used to having their own way, all three of them, but I can see that you'll be a steading influence on the girls."
"You're the twin's mother?" Clare asked, amazed that such a reticent creature could be the mother of such overweening offspring.
"Yes, and I know that they can be a hoof-full. Raymond has spoiled them terribly, you see, and they expect adoration from everyone... especially the stallions."
Four stallions blushed guiltily while the mares snickered.
"I'm sorry if we were harsh on the girls," Clare apologized, realizing how upset she would be if anyone submitted Calla to such unkind words.
"It was for their own good," Cerise smiled. "You did admit that they have bright futures to look forward to, and I'm sure they'll blossom... with your direction." She looked to where her daughters were already using their wiles on fellow faire-goers under their father's watchful eye. "I'll be the first to admit, however, that it might not be an easy job," she winked at Clare.
Liking the mare's honesty, Clare grinned. "It's the prima donna syndrome," she confided. "Being thrown into the spotlight has gone to their pretty heads. Once they're introduced to the grueling schedules and the hard work, they'll come down to earth again."
Cerise caught Giorgio's gaze. "That's an optimistic assessment, sir, don't you think so?"
"Clare's seldom been known to fail, so my jangles are on her." He smiled proudly at his wife.
"Enough talk." Clare brushed away the praise. "Cerise, would you like to join us in exploring the faire? I believe a dance troupe will be performing soon."
"Delighted," assented the mare.
* * *
"Well, Tabby, what did you think of the Renaissance Faire?" Sugarberry asked as she and Vanguard walked with Tabby and Thomas back to Agatha's villa where Banderol, Faline, and Nymph were safely tucked in for the night. It had been Agatha's idea to have Sugarberry and Vanguard sleep over as well, to give Sugarberry and Tabby a chance to chat to their hearts' content.
"I like the idea of being queen," Tabby replied. "Having ponies grovel at your hooves could be habit-forming."
"And Queen Tabitha has such a noble ring to it," agreed Sugarberry.
"Of what kingdom would you be queen?" queried Vanguard, unaware of her ties to Atlantis.
Tabby squinted as she pictured her kingdom in her mind. "A watery world with lots of loyal subjects always ready to do my bidding... and a fabulous palace."
"You already have that, what with all the aquariums full of crayfish in your mansion... and Thomas at your beck and call." Vanguard winked at his friend.
"Quiet, knave!" Adopting a queenly stature, Queen Tabitha dismissed Vanguard with a wave of her hoof. "I'll have you thrown into the dungeon for your impudence."
"Now you've angered my queen," King Thomas shook his head morosely, following his wife's lead. "Justice will be served."
"Oh, Queen Tabitha, I beg your mercy for this brave and handsome knight!" Sugarberry pleaded prettily.
"And why would you plead the cause of this... this upstart?"
"He is the love of my life," Sugarberry answered simply.
Queen Tabitha drew herself up to her regal best. "Then you shall share his fate!" she intoned majestically.
Sugarberry broke the mood with a giggle. "As long as there are no spiders or rats or other creepy things in your dungeon, it might be kind of fun."
"You are a hopeless romantic, Sug," berated Tabby. "All dungeons have creepy, slithery, disgusting things roaming about them." She paused a moment, her tendency to investigate the unknown piqued. Her eyes flashed as she continued. "It might be fun, at that. Does anyone know of a nearby dungeon we could explore?"
In the silence that followed Tabby's outrageous suggestion, myriad moments of memory encompassed Sugarberry- all the years since foalhood that she and Tabby had been best friends and all the experiences they had shared- and she threw her forelegs around her dear pal in a heart-felt hug. "Oh, Tabby, I've missed you so!"