“I’m so happy that you could meet me here,” Clare smiled warmly at the stallion across from her. The two were having lunch at Fucciono’s. “I’ve missed you.” Clare had spent three days in Dream Valley in conjunction with her fashions premiering at Lemon Treats’ Boutique and had been so busy since returning toVulcanopolis that she hadn’t until now made contact with Vanguard.
Disregarding the implication in that last remark, Vanguard simply grinned. “The only reason I agreed to come is to hear the latest news from Dream Valley; did you get a chance to talk with Sugarberry?”
“Lemon Treats kept me busy; she and her husband were very hospitable. But I did see Sugarberry when she came to the unveiling of my fashions, and the two of us were able to spend a few minutes together. She asked about you first thing, of course.”
“And what did you tell her?” Vanguard asked with some misgivings, knowing full well that Clare was apt to enlarge certain details to convey any impression that suit her purposes.
“Well, I told her that you were doing a super job at the university; and that you were proving to be very valuable to me through this distressing time with Guido... I referred to you as my knight in shining armor.”
“Clare, please tell me that you didn’t say that.”
“That, and more.”
Looking at the mare in perplexed wonder, Vanguard speculated concerning the casual spirit with which she viewed Vanguard’s relationship with Sugarberry. Clare knew his future plans better than anyone, yet she coyly attempted to undermine his feelings. It was a game she played that irritated him. “I wish you wouldn’t treat this so lightly, Clare. I don’t like to think that you’ve given Sugarberry any reason to doubt her place in my life.”
Grinning, Clare responded blithely. “A little worry about her handsome stallion will be good for your Sugarberry.”
“You are incorrigible!” Vanguard shook his head in consternation, but Clare’s melodic laughter and her twinkling eyes revealed that she enjoyed aggravating him.
Her next piece of information was more to his liking, however. “Sugarberry was there with Tabby and Chocolate Chip. They said they’d left Wigwam and Thomas at the book store; I saw them when they left, and there was no third stallion to take your place.”
“From what I hear, your predictions of trouble from Driftwood and Toby were way off base. I never figured Jet as serious competition. So unless Wigwam or Quarterback change their minds, it should be clear sailing from here on in.”
“Don’t get cocky just yet,” Clare advised.
“Don’t tell me you’ve honed in on some new source of trouble.”
“No, but there are still several months in which anything could happen.”
“Anything could happen,” Vanguard repeated reflectively
* * *
It was during the following week that Vanguard was working in his office at Leonardo University when he heard voices that sounded familiar coming down the hall, and as they drew closer he was sure of whom they were from. In a matter of seconds, Guido and Federigo appeared in the doorway. “We’re not interrupting anything important, are we?” Guido asked.
Vanguard threw down his pen and stood to greet the two stallions. “No, not at all. Come on in,” he invited, moving chairs to accommodate them. “You must be on campus for your mini-course in business practices,” Vanguard directed at Guido.
“Yes. The workshop runs for two weeks; it’s had a good turnout,” Guido verified.
“And it is proving to be very educational for those of us who have missed the boat financially,” grinned Federigo. “We’re learning some interesting methods to improve our tactics.”
After some time discussing Guido’s venture, Vanguard remembered to ask about Tiffany.
“She’s enjoying her time in Vulcanopolis to the extreme,” Guido responded. “Mom is delighted to have found the daughter she never had, and Tiffany is soaking up all the attention. But she is getting a little homesick for Dream Valley and her friends back home; we’re making plans to spend the holidays back there.”
“And Eugenia?” queried Vanguard of Federigo.
“Constantly busy,” complained Federigo. “Her new job with the newspaper has her working some really long hours.”
“That’s something that will only get worse with the election coming up, I suppose,” stated Vanguard.
“And how does a non-native view our candidates,” wondered Guido. “Who would you vote for if you could?”
“Giorgio seems to be a popular favorite,” Vanguard avoided a direct opinion.
“But Zaverio has a whole knew outlook that could bring in a revitalizing force to the government,” countered Guido.
“I question Giorgio’s son’s absence from the city during this time when he could be helping drum up votes for his father,” Federigo mused. “I always thought the younger stallion’s attraction was as strong, if not stronger, than his dad’s; or at least that’s what Eugenia and her friends maintain.”
That was not a piece of information that Vanguard especially wanted to know, but it did give him the chance to ask some questions about his exchange partner. “You said once that you were surprised that Giorgio didn’t follow his dad into politics; do you know why he doesn’t have aspirations in that direction?”
“He never put his intelligence to any use other than teaching; he seemed to have no further ambitions,” Guido revealed. “If I’d have had his brains, I’d have been a multi-millionaire by age twelve or sooner.”
“His father was a cold one when it came to Giorgio, though. My parents always said they felt sorry for the boy,” Federigo added. “I never understood that because from my point of view he had all the material comforts that I craved.”
Vanguard contemplated that information. “But didn’t Giorgio, Sr. help get his son’s college education expedited? He must have had some paternal concern for him.”
“Only when it came to bettering his position in life; when it involved the one-on-one relationship of a father and son, Giorgio, Sr. never made an attempt.” Federigo looked at the clock and prepared to leave. “I’ve got to run if I want a chance to see my wife today. I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s session, Guido; nice to see you again, Vanguard.”
When the two stallions were alone, Guido extended an invitation to Vanguard for him and Clare to join Tiffany and himself for dinner one night soon.
“I can’t speak for Clare,” Vanguard replied, “But I’m ready to accept.” It would please Sugarberry to get some firsthoof information concerning the princess to pass on to Tabby and the others, he figured.
“That’s good,” said Guido, standing and moving to the door. “I’ll be in touch with details soon.”
* * *
Tiffany took the news of Guido’s social planning with a frown on her face. She didn’t relish spending an entire evening being polite to Guido’s former companion, but she also didn’t want to seem cruel and uncaring, especially with Vincentia and Pietro sitting at the table with them as Guido broached the subject with her. It took some serious control on her part, but she put a smile on her face and acquiesced to Guido’s idea. “Were you planning the meal at the villa or at Agostino’s?” Agostino’s was the premier nightclub in Vulcanopolis with cuisine aimed at the most discerning palates.
“I’ll leave that to you, Tiffany. You have the flare for that sort of thing, so do what you think best.” He looked admiringly at the white pegasus, and she returned the gaze with fluttering lashes.
Softly clearing her throat, Vincentia brought up a topic close to her heart. “Have you two set a date for your wedding yet?” The two in question exchanged a quick glance, and Tiffany deferred the answer to Guido.
“Well, Mother, we’ve been discussing that subject at great length. We’d like the wedding to take place in June...”
“Why, that’s not much time!” Vincentia agitatedly responded.
“...of 2001,” Guido finished.
A look of relief crossed Vincentia’s face. “Oh my! That’s better. I could never make all the necessary arrangements on such short notice. My, my. So much to be done.”
Guido and Tiffany shared another glance, and Guido clasped one of Tiffany’s hooves in his before he spoke again. “And Mother, Ti... ah... we’d like the wedding to be held in Dream Valley.” He and Tiffany watched Vincentia’s face with their breath held, and even Pietro became aware of the implication of the statement and looked to his wife with a hint of a grin playing on his lips.
“In Dream Valley you say? Why, that place is practically uncivilized yet; Pietro, talk to these two!” She looked to her husband for support, but he only chuckled.
“Dream Valley is quite up to modern standards, my dear,” he responded to his distraught wife. “I’m sure these two could be properly united there as well as here.”
“But think about all our friends! They can’t just up and fly to Dream Valley; where would they stay? What would they eat?”
Tiffany finally joined the discussion. “We do have hotels and restaurants, Mother Casale. I’m sure the guests would be well cared for.”
“And don’t forget my private jet,” added Guido. “It has all the luxuries that our friends are accustomed to; and it will be an adventure! I”m sure they will all be enchanted.”
Vincentia was not convinced. “All these years, Guido, I’ve dreamed of the villa decorated with banks of white blossoms and flowing white silk and seeing your bride come down the main staircase...”
...like Clare, Tiffany silently finished the sentence, an icy haze filming her eyes.
It was, surprisingly, Pietro who provided a compromise. “Why not have two ceremonies-- the wedding itself in Dream Valley, and a later reception right here?”
“Why Pietro, what a fabulous idea!” Vincentia could not have been more satisfied. “That is splendid! Guido? Tiffany? Do you approve?”
As the pair had been dreading the reaction of Vincentia in connection to the location of their wedding, and as they were so much enamored of one another that the idea of two celebrations seemed only natural to encompass that love, that they were only too glad to agree. The rest of the evening was spent in a flurry of preliminary planning that eventually stunned Pietro by its extent and sobered Guido as he realized that Tiffany and his mom would probably spend the next year and a half talking of nothing else.
It was only after retiring to her rooms late that night that Tiffany remembered the dinner date with Clare and Vanguard. She had not yet shaken off a fear that Clare might still weasel her way back into Guido’s affections. She remembered Clare’s entrance at the engagement ball; Tiffany had not shown her alarm, but she had almost collapsed from the possibility that this mare might still be able to charm her fiancé.
“She is beautiful,” Tiffany spoke softly into the mirror, making a mental comparison of herself and the mare who had once held Guido’s affection. “And she was very close to Guido and his family long before I came on the scene.”
The princess had been exposed to countless tales while under the care of Guido’s parents and knew from all their stories that Guido and Clare had held a special relationship from the time they were foals living next door to one another. Countless retellings of Guido’s past adventures began with “the time Guido and Clare...” or “Guido accompanied Clare...” or “Clare was here with Guido.” Tiffany couldn’t help being concerned about the influence the mare must have exerted on Guido; was Clare so much a part of Guido’s life that-- even now-- she was a threat? Had she made such a mark in Guido’s life that her absence now couldn’t erase that bond?
“I’ll not stand for it!” Tiffany proclaimed vehemently. “She will not come between Guido and me!” Throwing herself onto the brocade-covered chaise longue in the sitting room of her suite, she began to consider her options. Any number of plans were mulled over and discarded before she hit on one that she concluded would work.
It’s so simple, I should have thought of it sooner; Clare already has a connection to Vanguard as was proven the night of my engagement ball, so the groundwork is already prepared. All I need to do is push a little here and suggest a little there, and the two of them will solve my problem for me. And to think that Guido has made the first step for me already!
Tiffany considered dining out or dining at the villa; as she played over in her mind the different scenarios that could be produced in either setting, she soon decided on a cozy at-home repast where she could have full control of the details that would be so important for success.
It was with a satisfied comportment that Tiffany prepared to retire for the night; the lines had been drawn and the battle plans made. Clare wouldn’t have a chance.
* * *
Evoking grandeur from every corner, the dining room at Guido’s villa was not only huge but also ornate. Statuary was placed in carved niches in the end walls while richly colored frescoes decorated the sides of the rectangular room. The size of the room was accented by the smallness of the dinner party assembled at a distressed antique table in one nook of the room to give a semblance of intimacy. The maid and butler stood in unobtrusive attendance, supplying every need either real or perceived.
“I’m so totally delighted that the two of you could join us this evening,” Tiffany cooed.
“The pleasure is ours, I’m sure,” Clare demurely replied for herself and Vanguard. Since their arrival at the villa, Tiffany had been showering them with her adulation of their visit as if she could think of nothing else to say. Clare had soon gotten the impression that Tiffany felt that if she said the words often enough, she might actually begin to believe them. This had made for rather stinted conversation, but the food had been excellent and the surroundings were like coming home for Clare who had been spending the lapses in talk reliving some of the finer dinners that she had attended here as Guido’s guest.
The meal having finally come to an end, the two couples moved to the living room that echoed the opulence of the dining area. Guido pointed out some artifacts from Herculaneum to Vanguard and gave him their historical background while Tiffany activated the computerized musical system and Clare stood reflectively by the sunken pool that dominated the room.
After Guido’s guided tour of the treasures from the past, Tiffany conducted everyone to a comfortable sitting area surrounded by potted flowers that cast their alluring fragrance over the ponies; she directed Clare and Vanguard to sit into a snug settee designed for two while she and Guido took separate wing chairs that were placed for informal conversation.
“Your new fall pieces are selling well, if Mom’s and Tiffany’s purchases are any indication,” Guido smiled at Clare.
“You know I’m purchasing holiday gifts for the princesses back in Dream Valley,” Tiffany defended her addiction to shopping.”
“Business has been booming,” Clare admitted, secretly depending on Guido’s innate sense of profit to bring some of his attention her way. “The addition of the stallions’ line and the opening of a market in Dream Valley has gone very favorably with earnings for my company.” She smiled sedately in Guido’s direction.
Tiffany sensed a barrier to her input as the talk turned to company matters, so as soon as etiquette allowed, she turned the banter to affairs of a more general nature. “Vanguard, what do you think of Vulcanopolis? Are you enjoying your time here?”
“It has proven to be a very fulfilling experience as far as my work at Leonardo University is concerned, but I will be very happy to return to Dream Valley when my exchange venture is completed,” he admitted.
“Oh, but there is so much more to see and do here! Surely one cannot begin to even compare the two places.” Tiffany did not want Vanguard to think of the mare who had the power to make his return to Dream Valley the goal of his present life. “Clare, you know full well that Vlucanopolis is much more exciting and stimulating than that dull, boring little town of Dream Valley. What does it have other than the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe? And the ponies that hang out there are as dull and boring as the town itself.”
Vanguard raised an eyebrow and was on the verge of defending the hometown camaraderie that enlivened the ice cream parlor making it the center of social life for him and his friends, but Clare beat him to it. “I found Dream Valley to be a pleasant and urbane place that has a lot to offer; and the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe is the heartbeat of the city.”
The discussion of the pros and cons of both cities continued until Rita, the head of the household staff, came with a note for Guido. Anticipating a response, she waited silently as he read the message it contained. With a bemused look, Guido contemplated the news, then waved Rita away. “I’m sorry, but it looks like I’ll have to leave; there is a serious problem at the corporate office that needs my immediate attention.” He looked at Tiffany, his eyes sparkling. “Walk me to the door, sweetheart?” As Guido and Tiffany left the room, the princess, in passing the light control, dimmed the lights; and Vanguard and Clare became aware of an imperceptible change in the mood of the music as well.
Vanguard, who had gotten up from the settee when the host and hostess had exited, now heard a giggle from Clare. “That was subtly handled,” she remarked.
‘What’s going on?” Vanguard asked defensively, not wanting to believe the signs.
Clare stood up to face him. “I believe that the princess is doing a little matchmaking.”
“For what reason?”
“To insure that Guido doesn’t have another chance with me.” Another giggle sounded from the lavender mare. “It tells me that she’s not so sure of her hold on Guido after all.”
“Don’t start thinking of winning him back, Clare. He’s as committed to Tiffany as any stallion I’ve ever seen.”
“Well, then,” Clare smiled bewitchingly, “let’s not waste the magic.” She led Vanguard to an area of the living room that was relatively open; and as the romantic music played, the two danced over the mosaic floor in perfect harmony. Clare nestled her head against Vanguard’s shoulder, and the scent of her perfume filled his nostrils. To dance with her in the crowded ballroom had been one thing; this was quite another.
It was with relief that Vanguard heard Rita’s voice in the doorway. “Excuse me, but the Princess Tiffany has asked me to convey a message.”
The dancers stopped, and Rita continued. “The princess was feeling unwell after hearing the news from Macrohard, so Master Guido has taken her to his parents’ home. He extends his hospitality to you, and wishes you to remain as long as you wish. Is there anything I can get you?”
“If Guido and Tiffany have left, I think we had better do likewise,” Vanguard advised Clare. “Come on.” He took her foreleg in his and headed for the door.
“But Mr. Vanguard,” said Rita with a stricken look on her face, “is there some reason that you will not remain awhile? The master will be upset if he thinks we have not served you properly.”
Clare took a step forward. “It’s okay, Rita. Our leaving has no bearing on you or any other of the help.” Then, with a sideways glance at Vanguard, she asked, “Would it be okay if I showed Vanguard the rest of the villa? He’s never seen the entire place.”
“I’m sure Master Guido would be pleased. And as you are familiar with the villa, I will leave you to your tour.” She bowed slightly as she turned and left the room.
“I don’t believe this,” Vanguard fumed.
“Aw... admit it, Vanguard. If we had met at another time, in another place, couldn’t we have fallen in love?” She moved away before he could answer, and turned up the lights. “Come on. I’ll show you all the other rooms and even some of the secret crannies of this place.”
As they walked from room to room, Vanguard was constantly impressed with the sumptuousness of the furnishings and the openness of the space. And feeling a bit put upon by the conniving of Guido and Tiffany, and the playful acceptance of the situation by Clare, Vanguard wasn’t afraid to ask Clare a question. “Do some of your regrets at losing Guido stem from the fact that you also lost the chance to be mistress of this estate?” He watched her closely, but saw no remorse over the physical building.
“Someday I will have my own villa, if that’s what I want.” She continued on down the hall. “Here! You’ll remember this.”
As Vanguard caught up to her, he saw that they had reached the grand ballroom; the decorations of that other night were gone, but the room was still impressive. Pushing a button on a wall panel, Clare connected to the recorded music. “One last dance, Vanguard?” she asked.
Holding her as on the night of the ball, Vanguard knew that her thoughts were far away from him, back to that night and her last attempt to break the spell that Tiffany had cast on Guido. Her head was bent so he could not see her face, but he could feel her tears. He gave her all the time she needed to come to grips with her emotions; he held her closely and guided her gently across the floor.
Only when her tears were spent and dry did Clare finally lift her head and smile at him. “The pain of losing him is not nearly as intense as it was that night,” she confided. “Time really does heal all wounds-- slowly, perhaps, but steadily.”
“You’ve come a long way,” Vanguard agreed. Then, as the song ended, he released her and asked, “Do we owe it to Rita to leave by the front door, or will the side door be acceptable?” He nodded to the ballroom door that led into the spent gardens at the side of the villa.
“That depends on whether you want to leave her with some well chosen thoughts,” Clare grinned.
“I think I’ll save those for Guido,” Vanguard acknowledged. “I’ll let him know in no uncertain terms that I don’t appreciate his and Tiffany’s meddling in our lives.”
“You find me that unappealing?” Clare brooded as they slipped out the door.
Vanguard stopped, and turned to face her. “You are beautiful, intelligent, enticing and all those things a mare should be, but you are not Sugarberry. Please accept that, and let’s just be friends.”
“I was afraid you’d say that!” she quipped, and kissed his cheek before they turned to walk the distance that separated her home from that of Guido.
After he had left Clare safely within, Vanguard set his steps for his own home across the city. He soon found himself reliving those days at Birdsong when he had first become acquainted with the Twice-As-Fancy pony from Dream Valley. He saw again the moment they were introduced, the rough day they had spent rescuing flood victims, the escapades with the five foals who had ended up as Sugarberry’s roommates, the discussions over coffee, and his decision to come to Pony Pride because the mare of his dreams drew him there.
And it had only gotten better once he was settled in Dream Valley. Vanguard sighed. He would give anything to be back there now, sitting with her in the porch swing or watching birds at the feeder or sharing ice cream at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. If only... but he shook his head. There were still nearly two months to live through before his dreams could become reality.
* * *
The town house had not been empty while Vanguard was away. Ivetta, receiving a visit from Marissa, had used the time well. The two ponies had let themselves into Vanguard’s section of the town house through the hidden entrance in search of the most recent test solution.
“I wouldn’t have had to bother you if Vanguard would have left his papers at the university,” grinned Marissa as she held up the duplicate keys for his university office and desk.
But Ivetta didn’t return the smile. “I’m getting sick of this sneaking around in here,” she confided. “I thought with Giorgio out of town, it would be easier somehow. But he’s just as intimidating on the phone or through e-mail as he is face to face. And I cringe every time I see Vanguard; he’s so nice, and I can’t stand the thought of him finding out that I’m betraying his trust... not to mention Giles’ trust.” She sat down in the desk chair while unlocking the briefcase.
“You’re not afraid of Giorgio, are you?” Marissa asked as she idly skimmed through the papers on Vanguard’s desk.
“Yeah. Like, you don’t think that he would hurt you or anything, do you?”
“Well... no... I guess not.” Ivetta kept her mouth shut about the goons who had visited Prisca’s home in the dead of night. “But he gets so angry sometimes because he thinks I’m not smart enough to get things done right. He says things that make me feel so... moronic.”
“That’s because he’s super-smart himself. I suppose he looks down on all of us.”
“Here are the papers we’re after,” Ivetta finally found something to smile about. “Let’s get the copies made so we can be done with this for tonight.” Hurrying off from the second floor office to the third floor bedrooms and through the bookcase threshold, the young mares scanned copies of the calculations that would be eagerly sought by those students who were not willing to study up to their potential.
Returning to Vanguard’s rooms, they replaced the pages in the briefcase; Ivetta made sure to set the case exactly where she had found it while Marissa tapped her hoof nervously on the desk top. “What would you do if you ever got caught over here?” she asked.
Ivetta’s eyes grew round and dark. “Don’t even ask such a question! I’m tense enough as it is. Let’s get out of here.”
Marissa led the way back to the guest bedroom where the bookcase stood angled away from the wall, exposing the doorway back to Giles and Ivetta’s portion of the town house. She had just gotten to the opening when she turned to make a comment to Ivetta who was close behind her. To her horror, she saw Ivetta, pale and swaying, slump in slow-motion effect to the carpeted floor.
Maintaining her wits about her, Marissa dropped to her knees beside her friend; Ivetta’s eyes were closed and her skin felt cold and clammy. “She’s fainted!” Marissa whispered to herself. She patted Ivetta’s cheeks and lifted her head off the floor; in a matter of seconds, the mare’s eyes fluttered open and she feebly asked, “What happened?”
“You fainted, silly. How do you feel now?”
“Kind of weird, like I’m made out of rubber. Help me up.”
With Marissa’s kind support, Ivetta was able to regain her hooves and Marissa guided her into the guest bedroom on Ivetta’s side of the wall. Easing her slowly onto the bed and making sure that she was stable, Marissa then returned to Vanguard’s room to pull the bookcase back. She sighed with relief when the unit settled into place, concealing all traces of the portal.
Returning to Ivetta’s side, she patted her hoof and was relieved to see that she again had some color in her cheeks. “I’ll go get you some water to drink and a cold wash cloth to put on your forehead.” Ivetta opened her eyes long enough to nod her understanding, then let her lids close down once again.
The cold, wet cloth and a sip of ice water soon had Ivetta feeling back to normal, but Marissa insisted that she stay at rest for a little while longer. Finding some humor in the situation, Marissa giggled. “Imagine Vanguard’s surprise if he had come home and found you lying there with that wall hanging open.”
Appearing as if she might faint again at the thought of such an occurrence, Ivetta groaned.
“That was a close one. If you hadn’t been with me...” A shudder ran through her prone body.
“I guess when you say that this occupation of yours is getting to you, you really meant it,” Marissa stated. “Your nerves must be really shot for you to faint like that.”
Ivetta shook her head, and put a foreleg over her closed eyes. “That’s not why I fainted, Marissa.” She laid silently for a minute. “Giles and I are going to have a baby.”
“What?” Marissa squealed. “That’s great!”
“A smile lighted Ivetta’s face as she agreed. “Yeah. Can you imagine me a mother?”
“I think I can. Your foal will be spoiled to death, though; I’ll bet on that. What does Giles think?”
“He’s more excited than I am. He’s already making plans on how to turn this room into a nursery. But I...”
“But what? This room would be wonderful decorated in pastels.”
Tears suddenly clouded Ivetta’s eyes. “Don’t you see, Marissa? How can I be a good mother while I’m doing unlawful things like sneaking into someone else’s house and stealing his stuff? What kind of mother is that?”
Marissa sat down on the edge of the bed. “Hmm. I see your point. But why don’t you just tell Giorgio that you won’t work for him any more?”
“He’ll tell Giles what I’ve been doing.”
“Would that be so bad?”
“Marissa! Giles will hate me for it!”
Weighing her words carefully, Marissa responded gently. “Giles could never hate you, Ivetta. And don’t you think it would be a good thing to get the truth out, especially now?”
Pushing herself up to a sitting position, Ivetta began talking excitedly. “I’ve got a better plan. I figure that if I can convince Giles to move away from here, Giorgio will have no further use for me, and I’ll be free!”
“Will you, Ivetta?”
The burst of optimism was quickly squelched. Ivetta’s smile faded and she covered her face with her hooves. “No. I’ll never be free. Even if I get away from this town house, I’ll always expect to see Giorgio come unexpectedly into my life, threatening me. Oh, Marissa! What am I going to do?”
“Well, I guess my advice would be to hang on to things the way they are for now; with Giorgio out of town, they can’t get any worse. By the time he gets back, maybe you’ll be able to see things a whole lot clearer.”
“When he gets back,” Ivetta repeated anxiously. “That’s only two months away now. What can change by then?”
Marissa smiled reassuringly. “Any number of things could happen. Just concentrate on taking good care of yourself so the foal will stay healthy, too.” She helped Ivetta stand, making sure that she was steady on her hooves before allowing her to walk unaided. “I think you should have something to eat; that’s probably why you fainted in the first place.”
“Food hasn’t been that enticing lately,” Ivetta admitted.
“I’ve got just the thing. I used to fix it for my sister when she was expecting her first foal. Come on! We’ll have you feeling fine in no time.”
* * *
Wending his way up the flights of stairs later the same evening, Vanguard was surprised to find that he had left the light on in the den; he was usually more energy conscious than that. But the hour was getting late, and he didn’t give it much thought until later when he was lying in bed unable to get to sleep. “Tiffany’s brand of coffee obviously isn’t decaffeinated,” he grumbled as he turned on the bedside lamp and grabbed the novel he was currently reading.
But the story wasn’t that interesting and he soon let the pages close. His mind slipped to his reason for being in Vulcanopolis-- troubles long ago that had thrust him into this place at this time. He dwelt on his college days at Binks University and the problems that had siphoned him into a mess that had boomeranged on him and came back to plague him just when he thought he had his life on track.
Last spring, he thought that he would be married to Sugarberry by now; but one phone call had put all his plans on hold. Not only were they not married, they were not even engaged. As much as Vanguard wanted to claim her love absolutely, he had felt that he had no right to restrict her life while he was so far away. In his own heart, he counted it as self-inflicted punishment for his mistakes of the past. But he had begun to doubt the sensibility of his decision. What if some other stallion snatched her heart away from him before he was back in Dream Valley?
The idea was so revolting to Vanguard that he leaped out of bed and headed downstairs. “If I can’t sleep, I might as well drown my sorrows with more coffee,” he reasoned. Upon opening the bedroom door, however, he made another discovery. A sliver of light was breaking from under the closed door of the spare room, and although it was possible that he had accidentally left his den light on, it was very unlikely that he had left this light on as he only rarely went into that room.
Cautiously opening the door, he prepared himself for the worst; but the room was empty. He slowly circled the chamber remembering how the one red book had recurringly been found out of place and how the newspaper clippings in some of the volumes had disappeared. All seemed in order, and he was ready to flip the electrical switch off when a glint of reflected light caught his eye.
The gleam came from the edge of the bookcase; and as Vanguard walked toward it, his shadow cut off the light so the object-- if there really was something there-- seemed to disappear. He ran his hoof along the front of the shelving and felt the cold, hard touch of metal. But when he tried to pick up the object, it wouldn’t budge.
Dropping down to the floor, he found what the problem was. The item-- and it appeared to be the back half of a key-- was stuck under the bookcase, held by the weight of the books and shelving. It took some time, but by slowly wiggling the protruding end of the key, Vanguard was finally able to pull it free.
The key was small, like a briefcase key. Vanguard got up off the floor and continued to inspect the immediate area for any other signs of an intruder, but found nothing else out of the ordinary. But he sat in a chair in the room to do some thinking.
It was no bombshell that someone had been in his house that evening; he expected that from the course of events since his arrival in Vulcanopolis. He knew that certain students had made dramatic improvements on their test scores with the only explanation being that his tests were being accessed by Giorgio’s associates; the thought of it sickened him, but Matteo had warned him not to interfere in any way with what was happening.
Wigwam had told him that the same thing was transpiring at Pony Pride, but Tawny’s hooves were tied, too, as the Vulcanopolis officials had stressed that nothing was to be done concerning the cheating ring until another problem which hinged onto this one was solved. And that problem, Vanguard was sure, somehow involved the ransacking of Prisca’s home which led it right back to the picture of Strawberry Shortcake and Giorgio, Sr. From there, he was at a loss.
He looked down at the key in his hoof. At least this was something tangible. He sometimes felt that there was a nebulous spirit world invading his privacy, gliding, sliding, slipping, and creeping through his surroundings at will to snatch whatever caught their fancy.
The cold metal in his hoof verified the reality of the situation.
But how had the key gotten in the position in which he had found it? If the pony who accessed the town house had dropped it, it should have been lying out in the open unencumbered by the bookcase. But the key had been trapped under the bookcase. Vanguard sat looking at the shelving unit totally mystified. The best he could ascertain was that someone either purposefully stuck the key under the case, or... or... someone had purposely moved the case.
Vanguard got up and moved across to the wooden bookcase, pushing against it to see how easily it would move. It was a tall structure, and he wasn’t able to get it to yield. “Weird,” he mumbled softly. “It should have at least shuddered a little.” He shoved harder, and still could not succeed in shifting the unit in the slightest.
Inspecting the back edges of the shelf, Vanguard discovered that the bookcase seemed to be attached directly to the wall. That’s unusual, he told himself. It certainly limits the way the furniture can be arranged. And if it is attached to the wall, how in the world did the key get underneath?
His curiosity sparked, the stallion began a systematic removal of all the books on the case until there was nothing left to obliterate whatever it was he hoped to find. Standing back away from the shelf, he pondered the situation. What’s here that I’m not seeing? What could be gained by having the bookcase permanently mounted?
As his thoughts continued to assess the situation, Vanguard abruptly had a flash of comprehension. If the bookcase can’t move, what if the wall can? He approached the unit with a new outlook, and gently pushed against the shelves. Nothing happened. He put more muscle into his next try, but still the bookcase remained obstinately in place.
He stood staring at the arrangement before him, wondering if he was crazy to be standing here in this room in the middle of the night attempting to move furniture that obviously had no inclination to be moved when his eye caught sight of a nearly undetectable button built into the bottom of the highest shelf; the craftsmanship of the builder had guaranteed that no one who wasn’t specifically looking for the oval button would see it. It appeared to simply be a natural pattern of the wood.
Now he was getting somewhere. Vanguard, however, was not in any hurry to activate the mechanism. He had not been on the third floor of Giles and Ivetta’s apartment, so he couldn’t be positive which room lay on the other side of the wall. If the case did indeed open up, he did not want to access the master bedroom at this time of night. Thinking of the times he had been a guest in their home, Vanguard reconstructed the position of their stairway in connection with the way his ran and decided that the two town houses were the mirror image of each other. Therefore, the room directly behind this wall should be the spare bedroom.
But the stallion began having misgivings about the entire venture. What if he pressed the button and whatever was set in motion involved a lot of noise? His confidential escapade would end rather inappropriately. Not only could it cause an embarrassing encounter, but it might also interfere with Matteo’s investigation.
I’ve got to look at this rationally, Vanguard theorized. If this is a doorway of some sort and it is being used for subterfuge, then Giorgio would certainly have installed an opener that was discreet. Finding this line of reasoning acceptable, Vanguard prepared himself to test his theory.
With his hoof just making contact with the button, Vanguard was caught totally off-guard to hear the telephone ring. He jumped, causing his head to receive a sharp bump from the side of the shelf. The phone rang again. Hurrying back to the bedside phone, he answered with a hint of anger in his voice. “Hello!”
“So you are awake!” It was Clare’s mellifluous voice. “I’ll never forgive Tiffany for serving us decaffeinated coffee tonight...” Here she shot a glance at the clock. “...or was that last night?” She giggled. “What are you doing to wear off its effects?”
“I had my hooves on a mystery,” Vanguard divulged, not entirely untruthfully.
“I tried reading a book, but I just couldn’t get into it,” Clare chattered. “So I started going over my calendar, and do you know what I realized?”
“No,” responded Vanguard, wishing the mare would just say what it was she had called to say.
“Well, when I was in Dream Valley, Lemon Treats was showing me the displays that she was planning to put up for Thanksgiving; and it just now hit me that you are going to miss that holiday as we don’t celebrate it here in Vulcanopolis-- at least not like you ponies over in Ponyland do.”
“It’s not the only thing I’m missing, Clare,” interjected Vanguard with an anxious look toward the bookcase.
“Are you referring to Sugarberry or sleep?” Clare unsuspectingly asked. Not waiting for an answer, she continued. “Anyway, I was thinking that some of us could get together for a Thanksgiving dinner!”
“Sounds nice, Clare. We’ll have to talk about that.”
“Here’s my idea. How about you hosting the affair? I would supply Alda to do all the cooking; we could include Angela and Pacificus and maybe Frederigo and Eugenia in the festivities, and we would have a chance to put Giorgio’s lush town house to the kind of entertaining it was meant to be used for. How about it?”
Vanguard’s mind was reeling by this point. “We can talk about it.”
“That’s great! I knew you’d like the idea. I’ll let you go now so I can write up some lists of things to do. This will be such fun!”
“Goodnight, Van. Sleep well!”
Setting the phone down with a sigh, Vanguard returned to his interrupted venture. Placing his hoof once more over the button, he held his breath as he pressed it. For a second, he thought nothing was going to happen, but then an insignificant click was heard within the wall itself, and slowly but smoothly the section of wall containing the bookcase slid slightly askance. Vanguard gaped in wonder at the ease with which the maneuver had taken place.
The unit stood just far enough open to allow a pony to manually pull back the shelving to access what would then be an open door. Vanguard had no need to go any further; he had found out what he needed to know. He simply pushed the unit back into place and heard again the subtle click of closure.
Having satisfied himself on that point, he should have felt content; but as he loaded the books back onto the shelves, he couldn’t stop feeling the disappointment to find that two ponies he considered friends were involved with Giorgio and his conniving operation. To think that they had access to his home whenever they pleased caused renewed grief over this entire Vulcanopolis stay. If only the entire ordeal could be ended, and ended quickly.
The key that he had found earlier was still on the bed where he had tossed it. He picked it up and contemplated what to do with it. It would not do any good to take it to Chief Matteo as he would only look at it and listen to Vanguard’s story and then tell him not to worry about it. If he got rid of the key, then Ivetta and Giles would know that he knew, assuming they realized that they had dropped it in the town house. But if it was lost, they would surely come back looking for it. And if it wasn’t here, it might upset Matteo’s plans. In the end, Vanguard simply threw the key on the floor to appear as if it had accidentally been dropped and never discovered.
The room now restored to normal, Vanguard was able to return to his own bed. At the last moment before leaving the room, he withdrew the scarlet volume of Poems of Life and Love again from the shelf and took it with him. If nothing else, he figured, it would put him to sleep; and right now, that is all he wanted-- the escape that sleep would bring him from the reality of where his life now stood. And so it happened that he fell asleep with the love poems close to his heart.