Anniversary Adventure
written by Sugarberry and Tabby

“Prisca! Donato! How wonderful to see you again!” Sugarberry cooed as she hugged the two caretakers of Giorgio, Sr.’s country home near Vulcanopolis at which she and Vanguard had spent their honeymoon two years earlier and which had again been opened to them to celebrate their second anniversary and to attend the forthcoming wedding of Nello and Mooncurl.

“My, you look as pretty as ever!” Prisca returned, studying the strawberry-patterned pony. “Motherhood has agreed with you.” Her eyes encompassed Vanguard and Banderol and her smile widened. “What a darling foal! And just like his papa.” She lost no time in scooping the foal from his father’s forelegs. “What a handsome bambino!”

Flashing a wink at her husband, Sugarberry agreed with the housekeeper’s assessment. “I think so myself.” She then looked to Donato to compliment him on the appearance of the lawns and the flowers while Vanguard informed Prisca of the rather bumpy flight that had caused Sugarberry some tense moments and Banderol some disrupted sleep.

Prisca soon had her charges seated at the cozy breakfast table with caffe and pasta sfoglia and a loaded bowl of frutta. Allowing time for the travelers to sate their appetites, Prisca then launched into a detailed account of the steps she had already taken to arrange the modest gathering of friends that Sugarberry had requested of her in previous correspondence. It was Sugarberry’s desire to cook and serve a meal for the Guardini family who had been so kind to her and Vanguard; and Prisca had entered the project with enthusiasm, delighted to act as Sugarberry’s helper for the food preparation, the menu having been built around those dishes that Sugarberry’s own mother had passed on to her.

While the mares prattled on with the details of shopping and organizing the planned dinner party, Vanguard escaped to the veranda with Banderol, introducing him to the many colorful blooms that cascaded from heavy, carved stone planters that graced the setting. Banderol squealed in delight as a fluttering blue butterfly danced around him, and he stared in fascination as the Lepidoptera landed on the tip of his nose for a whimsical moment.

Coming to join her husband and son, Sugarberry surveyed the sun-flooded surroundings with pleasure but was unable to stifle a shiver that ran through her body as she recollected the evening two years ago when she had been abducted from this very location by Giorgio’s nemesis, Zaverio. Noting the frisson that shook his wife, Vanguard hugged the mare to him and Banderol.

“Is it going to be too hard for you to stay here, my love?” he asked.

“We’ve discussed it and decided I should meet the memories head on,” Sugarberry sighed. Her eyes sought Vanguard’s. “I can’t deny, however, that being in the same spot now weakens my resolve tremendously.”

Cringing to see the haunted look in Sugarberry’s eyes, Vanguard could only guess at the terror she had felt when Zaverio had grabbed her in the pitch black night and forced her to accompany him to the distant and dirty stable where he planned to hold her for ransom. Vanguard’s panic at losing her had been profound, but he had the advantage of knowing that he was on her trail and would stop at nothing to rescue her.

“Keep in mind that Zaverio has turned over a new leaf; everyone says that he has become a model lawyer for the city now that he’s back at work.”

“Being told is one thing; believing that a pony can change so drastically is another.”

“I won’t let you out of my sight,” Vanguard promised.”

The mare grinned. “That could prove awkward... in certain circumstances.”

“Within reason, then,” he parried, content to see that her depression had lifted. He glanced at Banderol whose head was nodding and made a suggestion. “Why don’t we turn Banderol over to Prisca while we take a walk.” The idea of keeping an eye on his lovely wife suddenly seemed the perfect way to spend the rest of the afternoon. He had in mind a quiet little glen nearby where they could sit and talk for hours without interruption.

Noting the tender expression in the lavender eyes that held her blue ones, Sugarberry capitulated without another thought. “I’m sure Prisca would love to watch our little darling,” she acquiesced, her smile revealing all for which Vanguard could hope.

* * *

The first full day of Sugarberry and Vanguard’s anniversary vacation in Vulcanopolis had been spent wandering the city, renewing their acquaintance with the sights and sounds and tastes that were so distinctly different from those of Dream Valley. Banderol seemed to notice that the environment held none of the familiar vistas of his hometown, and the baby pony’s attention was held fast by the color and motion around him.

“That must be the new convention center that Clare was so excited about,” Vanguard said, pointing to an architectural fantasy that gleamed in the sunshine.

“The landscaping is magnificent,” offered Sugarberry, her love of flowers drawing her attention away from the building itself. The lanes bordered with orderly rows of well-tended plants with brilliant blossoms exerted a strong pull, and the family succumbed to the pleasure of meandering the walkways. By the time they had seen all there was to see, Banderol was adamant in his desire for food; and Vanguard escorted them to an outdoor café that basked in the pleasant summer sunshine.

Sugarberry sighed with delight. “This has been the most relaxing day!”

“You’re not homesick yet?” Vanguard teased, remembering his wife’s last backward glance at their home when they had begun their journey the previous day.

“Well, not precisely,” the mare procrastinated, a twinkle in her eyes. “Wherever you and Banderol are is home.” She patted her husband’s hoof. “However, I have this recurring impression that Wishbone’s attention will not be quite as fixed on the needs of the garden as I would like.”

“Just because he can’t tell the difference between the vegetables and the weeds?”

Sugarberry giggled. “I’ve noticed that the ones he likes, like sweet corn, have a higher success rate under his care than the ones he doesn’t... like spinach.”

“In this particular case, I’m with Wishbone,” Vanguard grinned. Then, catching sight of a stallion he had worked with as an exchange teacher at Leonardo University, Vanguard invited him to meet his family and join them for lunch, and the ponies settled down to a spirited exchange of life happenings while Banderol yawned gustily and fell asleep in his mother’s forelegs.

* * *

The following morning, Sugarberry, Banderol, and Prisca, accompanied by Vanguard and Donato, visited the market to inspect the foodstuffs and choose the freshest and tastiest ingredients for the dinner party to be held that evening. In charge of the menu, Sugarberry had final say in all the choices, but she listened to Prisca’s wise counsel and allowed herself to be swayed in several instances by the native mare’s experience of local produce and the vendors who sold it.

Loaded down with fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and wine, the ponies were finally able to remove themselves from the exciting atmosphere of the marketplace and return to the country house that was home for the coming week. After a quick lunch, Vanguard left his wife and son in the care of Prisca and Donato while he went to the Leonardo campus to renew professional contacts with the professors with whom he had once worked while Sugarberry buckled down to the task of preparing desserts for the meal and then later tackling the salad, bread, and main course recipes.

The day was not so hectic, however, that she was not unable to spend some time with Banderol on the sun-soaked veranda while Prisca sat with her needlework. On this bright day with her time filled with pleasurable activities, Sugarberry found that she could face with equanimity the ignoble memory of the pain Zaverio had caused her and Vanguard. The peacefulness of the setting and the warmth and fragrant smell of the air around her served as a balm to set to rest any reservations she had felt about the hospitality of this place; as she thought back to the friendliness of the market sellers, she realized that surely a pony like Zaverio could not be immune to the therapeutic nature of this environment; and she felt a renewed respect for Giorgio’s and his father’s attempts to bring the errant stallion back into the fold.

This happy mood was disturbed, however, when Prisca heard the telephone ringing and rose to answer it; Sugarberry, suddenly skittish, was unable to bear the thought of being alone on this patio and, gathering up Banderol and his toys, she followed the mare into the house.

* * *

The first guests to arrive that evening were Giles and Iveta with their nearly two-year old foal, Jacopo. Having been Vanguard’s next-door neighbors during his tenure in Vulcanopolis, they had remained in close correspondence.

“My, how he’s grown!” Sugarberry remarked over the development of the colt which she had not seen for some time. “Do they really grow up so fast?” She frowned, thinking ahead to the day Banderol would no longer look on her as the center of his world.

Iveta only laughed. “Do you know how many diapers I’ve changed and bottles I’ve warmed in the last two years, not to mention the lost sleep and the teething battles?”

“And,” Giles grinned proudly, “the fact is that he will be joined by a brother or sister before the end of the year.”

“How wonderful!” trilled Sugarberry, drawing the family into the comfortable parlor where Vanguard was watching Banderol. The stallion greeted his former neighbors with genuine pleasure, after which Donato escorted two more couples into the room.

The new arrivals were Hydrangea and Pacificus with their son, Dante, along with close friends of theirs who had also befriended Vanguard and now Sugarberry, Eugenia and Federigo. The room was filled with the clamor of the happy reunion as questions were asked and answered.

Eugenia chuckled over the sight of the three foals. “My, we have quite a nursery forming.”

“I hope there’s room for one more,” came a voice from the entry as the Guardinis arrived- Clare, Giorgio, and Calla, along with Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica. Following in their wake were Alda and Emma, the families’ respective maids serving the two households; those mares had been more than happy to be put in charge of the youngest members of the group who would be fed in the kitchen and relegated to temporary beds as the evening advanced.

For the time being, however, the foals were appropriately fussed over and admired; everyone admitted that they made an impressive showing: Calla, soft springtime yellow with lavender mane; Banderol, his father’s country blue coloring topped with seafoam green mane with his one individual streak of his mother’s red hair; Dante, cinder grey with carnelian mane and tail; and Jacopo, mint green with apricot highlights.

Although Sugarberry had been responsible for the preparation of the meal, Donato and Prisca did the serving; all the guests were impressed with the way their local foodstuffs had been given a new interpretation by their incorporation into the family recipes Sugarberry had chosen to present to them. Due acknowledgment was given to the helping hooves of Prisca, who flushed shyly as Sugarberry heaped her praise upon the mare who had aided and abetted her kitchen efforts.

As it so often happened in the favorable climate of Vulcanopolis, the gathering gravitated to the veranda to enjoy the mild temperature and the glorious floral displays that Donato so tenderly cultivated. The foals joined their parents so that they, too, could make the most of the pleasant evening until sleepy yawns and nodding heads overcame their gregarious natures; Sugarberry carried Banderol to his bed with Jacopo toddling at her side while Alda and Emma took charge of Calla and Dante.

After seeing her son and the other foals peacefully settled, Sugarberry returned to the company of her guests only to stop short as she stepped onto the veranda. Lights had been put into use as the evening dusk fell, but shadows curtained the edges of the flagstones. Conversation had ceased as all the ponies looked toward the ornate wrought-iron gate that fed onto the paths through the floral garden that swept down to meet the manicured lawn and then to merge with the pasture and wild country behind the noble house.

In the silence, the clicking of the gate’s latch seemed to echo in Sugarberry’s ears, bringing back to her the intense fear and isolation that metallic sound had signified to her the night when Zaverio had dragged her from this veranda as a hostage to use in his revenge against Giorgio. The closing of the gate behind them had cut her off from the love and protection of Vanguard, and hearing it now caused her to experience that anguish once more. With pain-filled eyes, she searched out what new dread this unexpected arrival brought.

The unknown pony advanced only a step or two onto the veranda before lifting a mandolin that he carried and began to play a lilting melody that immediately diffused the tenseness of the moment. Vanguard, who had come to his wife’s side when he noticed her trepidation, smiled at her as he offered his hoof and escorted her to an available seat on one of the cozily grouped benches and had the satisfaction of seeing the haunted look in her eyes disappear to be replaced with one of pleased curiosity about the newcomer.

The sunflower yellow stallion continued to play his music as he moved among the ponies who were affording him their full attention as the melody he played was beautiful in its simplicity. Only when he had struck the last chord and had bowed to his audience did his identity become known. It was Hydrangea who revealed the answer as she jumped to her hooves and greeted the musician.

“Solidago! Now I know why you were so curious about our plans tonight!” Turning from the stallion to face her friends, Hydrangea continued. “For those of you who don’t know, this is my brother, Solidago. He imagines himself to be a wandering minstrel misplaced in today’s society. His family tends to humor him.” She gave her brother a sisterly kiss on his cheek.

Solidago took the less than flattering introduction in his stride and smiled winningly at the ponies around him. “I hope you don’t mind my uninvited arrival, but it’s my way of drumming up support for a group in which my friends and I perform. May I ask for your permission to entertain you?”

Receiving a flurry of positive responses, Solidago began a dirge-like tune that brought a somber atmosphere over the swiftly falling nighttime, yet the melodious notes could not cause sadness. Solidago followed that with another livelier number that he accompanied by a fine singing voice, a delightfully blithe verse that paid heady compliments to the beauty of the females in attendance, causing their eyes to sparkle with glee.

“What an enchanting entertainment!” Enrica enthused as Solidago ended his song and bowed once more. “Hydrangea, you never told me your brother was so talented.”

Hydrangea was Enrica’s daughter; but by a strange twist of fate at Hydrangea’s birth, the mare had been given in adoption to the family of Bertramino and Stella Calandra, growing up with a younger brother, Solidago, and an older sister, Primula. It was only several years earlier that Hydrangea accidently uncovered the information that led her to the discovery that Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica were her birth parents and Giorgio her blood brother. Her world had instantly expanded to include two sets of parents and an additional sibling.

Standing self-consciously in the limelight, Solidago colored under the praise while Hydrangea explained. “He and his friends spend a great deal of their time at the house practicing their music; and they honor the Pizzeria Sicily with their genius every Thursday evening.” Hydrangea grinned proudly, unashamed to put in the plug not only for her brother’s minstrel show but also for her sister’s pizzeria where Hydrangea herself also worked on the books.

“When word of this gets out, you’ll be forced to turn away customers,” predicted Federigo.

“I know where we’ll be eating next Thursday,” agreed Giles.

Pleased with this unexpected addition to her gathering, Sugarberry invited Solidago to sit with them and saw to it that he had a lavish helping of the dessert she had made. She grinned at Hydrangea.

“This is a far cry from the days you lived in Dream Valley and worked at the Café Carousel.”

“Oh, my,” Hydrangea rolled her eyes. “Can you imagine that I thought my future lay as far away from Vulcanopolis as I could get?” She looked at her husband with shining eyes. “And all along, it was waiting for me right here.”

“By the way, Flower Bouquet sends her love. She said to mention that there is an opening at the café, if you’re interested.”

“There you go, Hydie,” Solidago teased. “You can tell Prim that you’ve received a better offer, and she’ll have to raise your pay.”

“The commute would be insurmountable,” Pacificus intoned pragmatically, failing to find any humor in their lighthearted banter.

“It doesn’t stop Guido,” remarked Giorgio. “He’s off to a new vista every day, or so it seems... if not for Macrohard, then for one of his charities.”

“I did invite him to our dinner tonight,” Sugarberry confessed. “But as you say, he was already committed to some distant destination. I must confess that I was eager to hear what he thinks of Tiffany’s beneficence of late.”

“It is true, then, that the princess has expanded her horizons?” queried Enrica, herself an avid promoter of a number of charitable causes.

“Quite dramatically so,” chuckled Vanguard. “It goes to show what falling in love can do for a pony.”

“Oh? How’s that?” asked Enrica’s husband.

Sugarberry explained. “What nudged Tiffany into seeing that she could use her regal position to help others was her dramatic introduction to a tiny foal born, surprisingly, at the Royal Paradise.” Sugarberry went on to detail the events of Tiffany’s transformation, ending with, “So it was love at first sight for Tiffany and the newborn foal. Little Mesquite opened Tiffany’s eyes to the fact that not everyone had such an easy life as she was living.”

“I interviewed the princess for the newspaper when she and Guido were engaged,” said Eugenia. “Her priority at that time was organizing the grandest wedding possible.”

“And all to no avail,” sighed Sugarberry. “It was a shock to everyone when the two called off the wedding at the eleventh hour.”

“Now look at the two of them,” mused Enrica. “Both of them seem to be better for the experience. I wonder...” She cut off her reflection with a shake of her head.

“At least Nello and Mooncurl will have a happy ending to their courtship,” sighed Clare, thinking ahead to the wedding just two days away.

Solidago, as if bored by the conversation of ponies out of his immediate circle, rose to his hooves. “I want to thank everyone for their kind reception of my entertainment this evening, but I think I should be going now.” He turned to Sugarberry. “The pie was delicious; maybe you could give Hydie your recipe,” he said with a wink.

The decampment of the young stallion started a trend as first Giles and Iveta retrieved their foal and headed home, followed by Eugenia and Federigo whom Pacificus and Hydrangea with Dante decided to accompany. Clare and Giorgio, along with Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., lingered on, however, as Giorgio, Sr., was interested in learning how Sugarberry’s parents were doing with their orchard in Berryville at this busy time of year; and Clare was curious as to what comments were floating around Dream Valley concerning her current fashions on display at Lemon Treat’s Boutique.

Before leaving, Enrica made a leisurely tour of the flower displays with her husband and Clare- this was her house, after all- while Giorgio talked privately with Sugarberry and Vanguard.

“I noticed your consternation, Sugarberry, when Solidago came through the garden gate... and I’m well aware of the reason. I want you to know that Zavario is out of town right now, basking on some languid tropical beach for a well-deserved vacation for a couple of weeks. He’s been a model citizen since his unconscionable attempt at revenge two years ago, and both my father and I believe that he has put his disreputable past behind him.”

Glancing at Vanguard before answering, Sugarberry finally said, “I trust your judgement, Giorgio, but I still cannot fully forgive him for the action he took. Maybe someday I’ll no longer cringe when I hear his name; but for now, it’s still a curse... even if he is hundreds of miles away.”

“I can’t fault you for that, after what he put you through. I just wanted you to know that your stay this time will be devoid of any contact with the stallion.”

Vanguard put a protective foreleg around his wife. “That suits us just fine.”

* * *

“Mooncurl is a beautiful bride, but what else could anyone expect?” Sugarberry commented as she, Vanguard, and Banderol stood outside the church in Vulcanopolis where the gorgeous model, Mooncurl, had just become the wife of the photographer, Nello, and were now greeting their guests in the receiving line.

“And Nello seems rather bewildered that he has actually pulled off this fete,” joked Cisani, one of Clare’s designers who was in the company of Elena.

“He only looks that way because he’s not witnessing the wedding through a camera lens,” Elena wryly observed.

“I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him confiscate the camera to make sure he gets the shots he wants of his blushing bride,” observed Gabriel.

At his side, Angela, Pacificus’ sister and Clare’s administrative assistant, giggled. “I’d say that’s a sure bet.”

“One has to admit, Mooncurl’s very photogenic,” Cisani sighed, staring at the bride as she smilingly accompanied her husband down the steps from the vestibule, a vision in white, her large eyes aglow with the joy of the occasion. Nudging the stallion, Elena grimaced. But an echoing sigh came from Gabriel and every other stallion in the area, and Sugarberry sent a questioning glance at Vanguard who also seemed to be quite enthralled at the sight of the diva. After all, he had been the goal of the super model some years back.

Sensing his wife’s disgruntled scrutiny, Vanguard turned to her with a twinkle in his eyes. “She can’t compare to my beautiful wife,” he reassured Sugarberry.

“Whatever that means,” Sugarberry muttered under her breath.

“It means, my love, that you alone are the fulfillment of all my dreams... besides which, something tells me that you are by far the better cook.”

Sugarberry snorted.

* * *

The following dinner proved to be a cornucopia of the finest food Vulcanopolis had to offer, no expense spared. Sugarberry was very suitably impressed.

As the guests began to filter out of the dining hall to the ball room, Sugarberry, with Banderol, located Clare and Calla as Giorgio’s parents were going to take the two foals to their home for the remainder of the day so that Sugarberry and Vanguard and Giorgio and Clare could enjoy the coming dance with no encumbrances. While the two mares waited for Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., they entered into a comfortable chat concerning mutual friends in Dream Valley.

“Is Chocolate Chip comfortable with her decision to work in New Pony?” Clare asked as Banderol and Calla passed a teething ring back and forth.

“She seems to like the job very much, although I think her boss is pushing her too hard; she never seems to have time for herself. Most evenings, she takes work home with her.”

“Face it, Sugarberry. Chocolate Chip thrives on activity. Did she find a good apartment?”

“Fortunately, yes; and it’s not too far from her office but yet is in a relatively quiet neighborhood. And I guess she’s not working all the time, because she’s been to see my aunt, Blueberry Baskets, and Toby’s parents, plus she had lunch with Prime, one of her Pony Pride friends who works in New Pony, too.”

“And how does all this set with Wigwam?” Clare queried while thwarting Calla’s attempt to pull Banderol’s mane.

Sugarberry chuckled. “Believe it or not, Tabby had a little talk with Wigwam after Chocolate Chip left; and it seemed to do him some good because he hasn’t been sulking since. He’s quite busy himself, what with the construction going on around the casino which he watches like an eagle. When he’s not busy at the casino, he’s with his brother out at the Native Pony site. And no matter where he’s at, it seems that Bittersweet is with him.” Sugarberry could not hide a certain amount of resentment from creeping into her voice.

“While you would like to see Wigwam and Chocolate Chip work things out, I imagine,” Clare grinned.

“They both mean so much to me.” Sugarberry hurried to explain. “It’s not that Bittersweet isn’t a seemly companion; she’s actually very capable and a lot of fun. It’s just that I always thought Wigwam and Chocolate Chip would make a match of it.” With a shrug, she admitted, “But that’s not my choice, is it?”

Their conversation came to an end as Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., came to claim their charges. Vanguard and Giorgio, seeing that their offspring would soon depart the festivities, went to join their wives in imparting last minute instructions on the care of the foals and imparting fond hugs and kisses.

“We’ve been looking forward to having these two all to ourselves,” Enrica grinned as she took Banderol from Sugarberry while Giorgio, Sr., fetched Calla. The baby ponies accepted the exchange in good stride, having been jostled from one pony to another for the course of the day.

“Just make sure that you don’t allow them to tyrannize you,” Giorgio grinned at his parents. “They’re quite adept at getting their own way.”

“We’ll get along just fine together,” Enrica promised. “They’ll both be little angels.”

* * *

The wedding dance for Mooncurl and Nello was a very gala time for all who attended, and Sugarberry found herself often on the dance floor. While Vanguard accompanied Clare, Sugarberry was with Giorgio.

“I hear that you will be back on the staff at Leonardo come fall.”

“Yes. They’re willing to take another chance on me, thanks to my father’s influence,” Giorgio grinned.

“I’m sure the university has missed your experience and expertise.”

“Not so very much; no one is expendable, you know.”

“Maybe on a business level, but not on a personal one.”

“Hmm... yes, I guess you’re right. Nello would not have appreciated a last-minute replacement for Mooncurl,, for instance.”

Sugarberry giggled. “Highly unlikely; he dotes on his beautiful bride.”

“And how does Vanguard feel, seeing his old high school sweetheart wed to another?” Giorgio teased.

“My husband assures me that at no time did he reciprocate Mooncurl’s infatuation.” Sugarberry smiled sweetly. “Now, Clare, on the other hoof, did let slip that you yourself were once rather... intrigued ... by the model.”

“Touche!” Giorgio laughed. “But that little escapade forced me to realize that Clare was the only mare for me, so she has nothing to complain about. You and I are very fortunate, Sugarberry.”

“Indeed we are,” Sugarberry agreed as she and Giorgio both gazed warmly at their mates as Clare and Vanguard moved past in the flow of the dance before Giorgio returned his full attention to Sugarberry.

“It will be interesting, will it not, to see in twenty years or so if Banderol and Calla will cement the friendship that binds our families,” he mused.

Sugarberry smiled over the remembrance of the little foals’ adoring reaction when they had first laid eyes on one another this trip, almost as if they knew they were slated to be best friends... if not more. Then she remembered the way they had struggled over the possession of the bright red stacking ring, their disfavor with one another apparent, and laughed. “Who knows what the future will bring?”

* * *

Darkness had descended over the city, and three ponies had just let themselves in the back door of Giorgio, Sr.’s, villa.

“The servant is out of commission for awhile,” a big tough stallion reported, emerging from the kitchen and punching his front hooves together. “Who’s next?”

Zaverio motioned for silence. “I hear voices. They’re that way,” he instructed quietly but firmly, pointing down the hallway. The two assistants followed Zaverio’s lead and they burst in on the room where Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica were comfortably seated.

“So we meet again,” Zaverio sneered. “I trust you’re both doing well.”

Enrica gasped at the unexpected intrusion, and Giorgio leapt to his hooves. “Zaverio! What are you doing here? Why weren’t you announced?”

“Your maid was indisposed. I had to let myself in.”

“Well, what do you want?” Though Zaverio had supposedly reformed, Giorgio did not trust the look in the stallion’s eyes.

“Revenge, of course, revenge,” Zaverio said silkily.

“What do you need revenge for?” Giorgio demanded. “I think we’ve treated you very well for what you put us through.”

“ ‘Well’? You thought it was treating me ‘well’ to condescend to me the way you and your son did?”

“Why, if it hadn’t been for my son, you’d still be in prison!”

Zaverio laughed hollowly. “It would have been better had he left me to rot in that prison cell. No, the time has come for me to reap my revenge on him and make him suffer for what he did to me. What would hurt him worst, I wonder... fear for his progeny, perhaps? A stallion becomes so soft after experiencing fatherhood, don’t you think?”

“Not Calla!” Enrica whimpered. “Giorgio, do something...”

Zaverio’s other assistant, a red mare by the name of Notte, tapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll get the kid,” she said softly. “You take care of these two here.” She gestured towards the couple before strolling off.

“I won’t let you do this!” Giorgio shouted, leaping at Zaverio. In his rage, however, he hadn’t taken into account Zaverio’s other helper, Notte’s brother, Scuro. Zaverio easily side-stepped Giorgio’s charge and gestured to Scuro. Obligingly, the stallion removed a hidden blade. He and the older stallion proceeded to fight; and in the end, Giorgio, Sr., had a knife wound and was knocked unconscious as he fell against the grey marble fireplace.

“He’s in a coma,” Scuro announced with relish.

Hearing those words and seeing the blood on her husband’s inert form, Enrica started shrieking. Zaverio looked at her in annoyance. “Get the rope and tie her up,” he said briskly to his accomplice. “Don’t forget the gag.”

“Hey, Z, there’s two brats in here,” Notte said, poking her head through the doorway. “Do you want ‘em both?”

“Two of them?” Zaverio echoed incredulously and, leaving Scuro to tend to Enrica, followed the mare to the crib to see for himself. “How interesting,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face as he realized the identity of the second foal, the image of his father. “This one must be Vanguard’s. How convenient! I can get back at both of my nemeses in one shot.” He motioned for the mare to take both of them, and she proceeded to exit the room with one baby pony in each foreleg.

“We’re done here,” Zaverio told Scuro, grinning. “Let’s run.” And the three villains, plus two baby ponies, disappeared into the night.

* * *

As Sugarberry, Vanguard, Giorgio, and Clare walked up to the front door of the house in perfect contentment, Sugarberry asked where Mooncurl and Nello would be spending their honeymoon.

“At an isolated location by the ocean,” Giorgio laughed. “Nello says that for a few days anyway, he wants no interruptions and no cameras.” Using a key in his possession, Giorgio unlocked the door with the confidence of one fully at home in his parents dominion, explaining that there was no need to bother Emma at this hour.

Even without the ringing of the bell, the ponies congenial chatter as they entered the house would have been warning enough of their arrival as they crossed the entrance hall and made their way into the main room where Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica would be awaiting their arrival with two sleeping foals.

“How’d the evening go?” Giorgio was already asking, his eyes scanning the room. Surprised to find it empty, he queried, “I wonder which of our two little darlings has been keeping my parents...” He stopped as he rounded the comfortable sofa that defined the sitting area, horrified at the sight that met his eyes. “Mother!” he cried, dropping to the floor beside his bound and gagged parent.

Clare rushed to his side as Vanguard, his nerves set on edge by the tone of Giorgio’s voice, glanced around the room for some explanation of the horror that now seemed to pervade the atmosphere around him. His eyes came to rest on the inert form of Giorgio, Sr., where he had fallen by the marble fireplace enclosure. Sugarberry’s gaze followed his own.

“Oh, my God!” she gasped, observing the bloodied head and chest of the stallion. She grabbed a napkin from the tea tray to thwart the bleeding while Vanguard felt for a pulse. “He’s breathing,” he said, taking the cloth from Sugarberry to hold against Giorgio’s chest. His eyes caught hers. “This is a knife wound.”

The unspoken message that those words delivered almost caused Sugarberry’s collapse. “The babies!” she whispered, frozen with fear.

In the meantime, Giorgio and Clare had succeeded in removing the gag from Enrica’s mouth, and the mare sputtered and coughed uncomfortably. Clare ran to get some tea from the service, cold but wet, and held it to Enrica’s dry lips.

“He has... the foals,” Enrica forced herself to say, the identification of the he a tangible knowledge for the ponies in the room. Then, on a spasm of grief, she wailed, “He killed... your father!” She broke into uncontrollable sobbing.

Still working to untie the bonds that held his mother prisoner, Giorgio called out to Vanguard as Clare ran to check the bedroom where the foals would hopefully be sound asleep through this nightmare. “Is this true?!”

“He’s breathing, but...” Vanguard trailed off. “He needs medical attention.”

Meanwhile, Clare had met her worst fear. “Neither Calla or Banderol are in the crib!” she cried as she reentered the room, rushing to the telephone to call for help. Sugarberry, hearing those dreaded words, could not meet the reality. She fainted on the spot.

* * *

“The maid was attacked from behind in the kitchen; she’s awake now, but she didn’t see anything,” Franco reported to Chief Matteo.

The police chief turned his attention back to Enrica. “Did Zaverio give you any reason for his atrocities here?”

Staring at the paramedics working over her husband, who had diagnosed that he was, indeed, in a coma, the mare responded weakly. “He said... he said he wanted my son to suffer.” A low moan erupted as if from her heart. “He said... taking Calla away from him was the worst he could do.”

“But he took the second foal, too?”

“He laughed over his good fortune! He said two would up the anti for him! He... he recognized... who the parents were... Banderol looking so much like his father.” She winced as her husband was moved to a waiting litter.

Sugarberry whimpered as she heard her son’s name, burying her face in Vanguard’s chest; she was unable to release the stallion from her grasp since she had recovered from her swoon, as if he would be the next to disappear from her. So distraught were her emotions that she could barely speak.

Beside her, sharing her distress, Vanguard was trying to overcome the loss of a part of him that was irreplaceable by going over the facts of the evening’s events in an effort to determine where Zaverio had taken the two foals. Knowing that Matteo had already set his police force into action was small comfort for a parent facing the loss of a child. Vanguard wanted to be out searching every building he came to but knew that in this moment, his place was here with Sugarberry.

Looking at the sheer despair on his wife’s face, he found himself wishing that she would at least cry. He was used to her tearing up at any emotional crisis, no matter how small. To see her dry-eyed in this unbearable circumstance caused him added fear for her well-being. But for the moment, his attention was drawn back to Chief Matteo.

“Did Zaverio include attacking your husband in his vendetta?” the deep raspberry-colored stallion asked.

“My husband tried to stop him from getting his hooves on the babies; Giorgio put his life on the line to save them.” Her face grew bleak. “He failed; and now I might lose him, too.”

Giorgio and Clare sat on either side of Enrica, Giorgio with a foreleg around his mother’s shoulders and Clare with possession of her hoof. The only thing that kept them sane at this moment was the comfort they could offer the mare while their own hearts were bleeding in agony over the fate of their precious daughter and little Banderol. Neither of them wanted to delve too deeply into the possibilities at hoof; staying focused on the here and now kept them from exploding.

Where were the two little soul-mates who had been caught up in this horrible scheme?

* * *

The two little soul-mates, were, in fact, on their way to the harbor. Zaverio was highly disappointed in his hired help for this job after the numerous delays they had caused. Though the abduction had gone smoothly, Notte had twisted her ankle on the way to their getaway boat; and then Scuro had refused to leave his sister behind. So not only was Zaverio stuck with handling both the baby ponies, but their pace was slowed down considerably what with Notte now riding on Scuro’s back.

“I should have left both of you behind,” Zaverio muttered. “The girl’s crying again, Notte. What should I do to shut her up?”

“You’re so incompetent, Z,” Notte snapped, cross after being immobilized by a twisted ankle. “Maybe you should have realized you’re not good with foals before you came up with this crazy scheme.”

“That’s what I hire assistants for!” Zaverio nearly shouted.

“You two are making more of a ruckus than the kids,” grumbled the usually taciturn Scuro.

“Ah, we’re finally at the harbor,” said a relieved Zaverio as the pier came into sight. “We’ve already lost a good amount of time. Okay, everybody in the boat! We’ve got to get to Isola Vizioso before anyone gets on our tail.”

* * *

His wife having fallen asleep from the sedative the Guardini’s doctor had given her, Vanguard placed one phone call to Dream Valley, overwrought with the need to discuss the current catastrophe with someone from home, yet unwilling to alert any family members, not wanting to expose them to an anguish that they could do nothing about. He counted out four rings before the receiver was picked up.

“Hello!” a stallion’s voice rasped as if he had been interrupted from something important.

“Wigwam... it’s Vanguard.”

Wigwam was quick to note the somberness of his friend’s tone and his heart sank. “What’s happened?”

What sounded like a low moan preceded Vanguard’s announcement. “Zaverio abducted Banderol and Calla while under Giorgio’s parents’ care. He and at least two accomplices have taken the foals to an unknown location.”

Silence hung between the two stallions as Wigwam tried to grasp the situation. “How’s Sugarberry taking this?” he finally asked.

“She’s...” Vanguard’s voice broke. “She’s sedated right now. I can only hope that Chief Matteo has some answers to our questions by the time she awakes.”

The tormented emotion in his friend’s voice was too much for Wigwam. Knowing Sugarberry as he did, he could well imagine the agony the mare was going through as well, and his mind worked frantically to find a way to help. He looked at the clock on the wall. “There should be a flight out for Vulcanopolis within the hour; I’ll be on it, Van. Whatever we have to do to get Banderol and Calla back, we’ll do.”

Before Vanguard could respond, he heard the receiver crash into deafening muteness. Brushing a tear from his eye, the distraught father whispered another fervent prayer for the foals’ safety and added an appeal for their rapid retrieval.

* * *

Meanwhile, Giorgio had his suspicions as to where Zaverio might be taking the two baby ponies. He had seen Zaverio’s family’s ancestral home on Isola Vizioso, and it was exactly the kind of base a villain like Zaverio would feel at home in. The large villa sat atop a steep, rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. The island was prone to inclement weather, so it was often given a sinister appearance- the perfect hideout.

After being clued in on Giorgio’s suspicions, the police force gladly arranged to send a detachment to search the island. Giorgio, who felt better while doing something, invited himself along. By the time the team reached Isola Vizioso, daylight was already descending on the land. The police force swiftly swarmed out over the island, looking for any possible hiding locations either in the villa or elsewhere. Giorgio decided to investigate the house.

Having become separated from the police at some point after entering the house, Giorgio wandered quite deeply inside the premises with no backup. He did not realize the intrinsic danger, however, until someone seized him from behind and he found a knife pressed to his throat.

“Zaverio!” Giorgio choked. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“My revenge that has been long overdue in being dealt out,” the teal stallion said testily.

“Very well then, you’ve had your revenge! Don’t you think I’ve suffered enough, if that’s all you wanted? My father is in a coma and my daughter’s safety is at risk. Can’t you end this all, now?”

“Already? But it was just getting good!” Zaverio said grimly, pressing the knife closer to Giorgio’s skin.

Giorgio stayed rigid. “How far are you going to take this?”

“Until you’ve made up for all the shame you caused me!”

“I don’t understand... what’s wrong with you? I saved you from going down the wrong path, because I knew what it was like! I had done the same thing, and it’s not the way to go! Believe me!”

“Spare me your warm, fuzzy speeches! Yes, you thought you could just wave your magic wand as son of our city’s leader and welcome me into your big happy family. Well, you’re not all-powerful! You can’t make ponies change just by condescending to them. How much better it would have been if you’d left me alone after the fiasco with the election!”

“You would give up freedom as an honest citizen in favor of a life in prison?”

“I don’t like being beholden to anyone. Anyone, Giorgio!”

“Give it up, Zaverio! The police will catch up to me any second now. Face it, your game is up.”

“I’m not going to let you go a second sooner than I have to. Besides, I wouldn’t say I’ve lost yet. Scuro!” Zaverio shouted.

“Very well. If it’s me you want, let Calla and Banderol go. Leave them out of this when it clearly involves only the two of us,” Giorgio said.

Zaverio refrained from answering, and before very much time had elapsed a dark stallion appeared on the scene. “Whadya need, boss?”

“Help me bring this vermin to the secret room. We can stay there until the police give up, and in the meantime I can determine exactly what I want to do with him.” Zaverio looked at Giorgio in disdain.

“What about the foals?” Giorgio demanded, struggling as Scuro began dragging him off down the hallway.

“Oh, the foals. They haven’t really done anything to inflict my wrath, but...” Zaverio shrugged. “It all depends on what I feel like.”

“Why you-“ Enraged, Giorgio broke free of Scuro’s hold and rushed at Zaverio after landing Scuro a powerful blow that rendered that stallion out of commission for the moment. A scuffle between the remaining two stallions ensued. The writer of this segment does not know exactly what happened, but in the end Giorgio came out triumphant as he stood over Zaverio’s unconscious form.

“Giorgio? Is that you?” Suddenly an orange stallion came trotting on the scene. “What’s th- oh, man, don’t tell me Zaverio’s taken care of already?” Disappointment was evident in his voice.

“I’m afraid so, Wigwam,” Giorgio gasped, a scrape on his forehead dripping blood and a bruise forming around his left eye. “Here, why don’t you watch over these two and make sure nothing happens to them. I’ve got to find the foals.”

“My pleasure!” Wigwam prodded the unconscious form of Zaverio, then dragged him next to the groaning Scuro; picking up the discarded weapon, he grabbed some conveniently located sheeting- from a pile that smelled like last month’s laundry- to make restraints for the two stallions. He was just finishing when a flurry of hooves sounded in his ears, and he turned to see Chief Matteo, Officer Privato, and Vanguard dash around the corner.

Matteo looked at Wigwam with undisguised admiration. “You captured them both single-hoovedly!”

“As much as I wish that were true, it was Giorgio who took these two down. I’m just cleaning up the mess he left behind.” Wigwam looked at Vanguard. “Giorgio ran off that way.” Wigwam indicated the direction with a toss of his head. “He’s looking for the foals.”

Vanguard was off like a shot while Wigwam threw the rest of the rag strips to Privato. “These two are yours; I’m going to help Van.” He ignored Chief Matteo’s admonition to wait for back-up and hurried off after Vanguard who was just disappearing around another corner ahead.

* * *

Notte had heard some muted noises from the main hallway that fed the suite of rooms that Zaverio had designated as his headquarters and set down the jar of applesauce that she was currently feeding the two baby ponies. She then cautiously left the comfortable bedroom, closing the door behind her. She had taken only a step or two across the carpeted floor of the living room of this particular suite when Giorgio burst through the doorway.

“Where are the babies?” he asked in a menacing voice.

Staring at the stallion as if he was a crazed interloper, Notte assumed an imperative pose and lifted her nose arrogantly. “What are you doing in these private digs anyway?”

“I don’t know who you are,” Giorgio responded, trying hard to control his temper, “but I do know that Zaverio has my daughter and another foal somewhere in this villa; and I intend to find the two of them if I have to tear it down stone by stone.” His voice had grown progressively softer as these words were uttered, but the unleashed fury behind them could not be mistaken. Notte shivered slightly before she responded.

“Why would Zaverio have two brats here? That’s not his style.”

Giorgio began an ominous advance across the large room toward the mare, causing Notte to think twice about incurring the stallion’s wrath any longer. With a quick glance at a closed door on the opposite side of the room, she muttered, “But if there’s babies here, they’d be tucked in there.”

Adjusting his march across the room so that he was headed toward the indicated door, Giorgio forgot the mare in his determination to find Calla and Banderol. Notte, quickly taking advantage of the stallion’s dismissal of her presence, grabbed a marble statue from a nearby table and went after Giorgio. Her precipitate pursuit was cut short, however, as an orange stallion entered the room from the point where Giorgio had arrived, flaunting a rather large knife in her direction with the words, “Drop your weapon!”

Notte dropped the weapon, but not quite as Wigwam would have hoped. She flung the heavy statue with unexpected force at Wigwam while she darted for the wall of curtained patio doors that faced the sea. Wigwam dodged the flying sculpture- appropriately of Pegasus- but saw that the mare had already slipped through the one open portal to the courtyard beyond. He and Giorgio both dashed after her, not wanting to lose one of the ponies responsible for the foals’ kidnaping.

* * *

Having followed Wigwam’s advice to circle around to the back of the apartments that seemed to be the center of the current activity, Vanguard found himself on a rocky outcrop overlooking the ocean that surrounded Isola Vizioso; the austere beauty of the rough and ragged island was lost to the stallion at this time as his attention was directed to a long bay of glass apertures that provided Zaverio’s ancestral villa with a marvelous view of the surrounding area. Just erupting from one of those windows was a red mare who could well be the one Enrica had described to the police.

For a brief moment, the mare stopped to stare at the country blue stallion, muttering, “More blasted intruders!” At the same time, Vanguard realized that never in his life had he been called upon to restrain a potentially dangerous mare- not under such serious conditions as this, at least- and he wished he had Wigwam’s training on how to tackle- literally!- such a situation. But before either Notte or Vanguard could respond, Wigwam, followed by Giorgio, burst out of the villa behind Notte. The mare found herself surrounded by stormy- eyed stallions.

“This is private property!” she hissed, maintaining her resolve even when outnumbered.

“As Zavario and his goon are presently under police custody, I don’t think...”

“They have Scuro?”

“If that’s the name of the thug with Zaverio, then yes, the cops have him,” Wigwam assured her.

Notte felt immediate concern over her brother, yet hadn’t she warned him that Zaverio was nothing but trouble? Now, if the cops had both her brother and Zaverio, what would happen to her? If she could escape from these three stallions, did she have a chance to rescue Scuro? And, really, what did it matter? He never listened to her anyway. She had to think of herself now.

The stallions watched Notte in fascinated wonder as the play of emotions swept over her face: concern, fear, confusion, anger, determination. She at first swayed on her hooves as if she might collapse; then, regaining her resolve, she sprang forward toward the cliff edge. Vanguard made an attempt to waylay her progress, but she slipped from his grasp and continued to the very edge of the precipice.

Unfamiliar with the structure of the island, the stallions were horrified to think of the young mare throwing herself into the ocean from this height; but as they followed her to the periphery, they found that Notte knew what she was doing, for a rocky path opened up, spiraling downward to a narrow stretch of beach on which a small motor boat was tethered. It became apparent that Notte was intent on escape.

Giorgio and Vanguard were already committing themselves to a race down the steep slope when Wigwam called them back, nodding to an approaching boat. “That’s one of Matteo’s units,” he informed the other two. “They’ll round her up.”

Exchanging a quick glance, Vanguard and Giorgio had only one thought. “Let’s get back to our search for the foals!”

“You go on ahead,” Wigwam concurred. “I’ll keep an eye on things here in case the mare tries to elude capture again.”

* * *

There were a number of doors and hallways that fed out of the main room in Zaverio’s main suite, so it took the two stallions a bit of searching before Vanguard finally opened the bedroom door that hid the babies. His heart somersaulted at the sight of the two foals, and he broke into a huge grin as he contemplated their current activity. Calling Giorgio to his side, Vanguard nodded his head toward the improvised playpen that stood to the side of the room.

Their lunch having been interrupted by Notte’s hurried retreat, Calla and Banderol had taken affairs into their own hooves and had decided to feed each other. They sat with the jar of applesauce between them, happily dipping their hooves into the sauce for generous servings which they then offered to the other, unmindful of the dollops of crushed fruit that dripped down their forelegs and ran down their bodies and coagulated in their manes.

Upon hearing the familiar sound of their fathers’ laughter, the two baby ponies looked to the doorway and broke out in wide grins themselves. Both foals abandoned their feast and scrabbled to the edge of their confining space to meet their dads who lifted them into their forelegs, applesauce and all, and smothered their sticky, gooey offspring with hugs and kisses.

“Thank God, they’re safe!” Vanguard managed to say.

“Amen to that,” Giorgio returned, holding Calla from him momentarily to verify that she had suffered no ill effects at the hooves of her captors before crushing her to him again. “They seem in good shape.”

“We’ve got to get word to Sugarberry and Clare,” Vanguard realized, recognizing the need to end the mares’ suffering as soon as possible.

“I can take care of that,” boomed a voice behind them as Chief Matteo entered the room. “It looks like you have everything in control here.” Noticing then the messy condition of the foals with their applesauce covering, a good share of which had now transferred itself to the stallions, he amended his statement. “Well, almost.”

When the chief went out to send a message to the mainland and the anxious mothers, Wigwam came in to join the reunion, eying the foals with an avuncular eye. “Well, well, it appears that you two had fun anyway.” He patted the two babies on their heads, then frowned at his now sticky hoof. “Are you sure you want them back?” he grinned at Vanguard and Giorgio.

His mild jest was met with two dollops of applesauce of his own.

* * *

Zaverio’s private quarters had probably never seen quite the bathing that occurred in his opulent hot-tub as Vanguard and Giorgio doused Calla and Banderol, ridding them of their apple-flavored veneer, while Wigwam explained how Notte had experienced second thoughts when she had spied the Vulcanopolis police force landing on the beach below her and had opted to return to the top of the cliff to put herself at Wigwam’s mercy. “She climbs like a mountain goat,” Wigwam noted, scrubbing his own face and forelegs.

“She probably grew up on or near the island,” Giorgio rationalized, bundling Calla into a plush moss green bath towel that swallowed her up. The young filly squealed with delight. Wigwam accepted Banderol from his father, wrapping him into a matching towel. When the foals had been dried thoroughly and had their hair combed, Giorgio stood back.

“Well, I think it’s time for these two little rapscallions to rejoin their mothers, don’t you, Van?”

Vanguard looked down at his small son- clean, dry, warm, safe, and very close to sleep now that the excitement was over- and agreed.

* * *

That evening was spent quietly at the country house; Sugarberry and Vanguard sat on a divan in the small parlor at the back of the house, Banderol securely encircled in Sugarberry’s forelegs. The distress that had paralyzed her while Banderol was out of her care had been dispelled once Vanguard had placed the foal in her forelegs at the dock where she and Clare had been escorted by the police to await their children’s return. The relief she had felt to see her son again had brought a surge of emotional tears that had baptized the baby in his mother’s love.

Now she gazed down at the foal as he played havoc with the once proud bow of a plush cat and smiled. Banderol responded by grinning in return and offering her the rather wet and bedraggled toy. “Thank you, my little angel.” The foal snuggled contentedly against his mother’s shoulder and reached out to touch his father next to them. Vanguard gathered the tiny hoof in his large one and was overwhelmed once again by the awesome responsibility he had toward this little gift of God and the emptiness of life devoid of him. Looking into his wife’s eyes, he knew she was harboring the same thoughts.

Their intimate family circle was broken as Prisca knocked gently on the door before coming in with Wigwam on her heels. “You have a visitor,” the mare announced superfluously, not quite sure what to make of the orange stallion whom she had never met before, yet seemed to claim a familiarity with Sugarberry and Vanguard that could not be denied.

She noted with relief that both of those ponies were all smiles for the newcomer, and Vanguard further set her at ease as he rose to his hooves to make the introduction. “Prisca, this is our good friend from Dream Valley, Wigwam. He helped in rescuing Calla and Banderol.”

Prisca’s eyes took on an aura of admiration. “Signor Wigwam, we owe you a great debt of gratitude.”

“Thank you, Prisca.” Wigwam bowed over her proffered hoof. “But in actuality, I had very little to do with the rescue; Van and Giorgio handled that quite well on their own.”

“Ignore his humility, Prisca,” Sugarberry grinned. “Just his being here was worth so much to us.” The look she settled on Wigwam made him feel like a hero, regardless of the circumstances.

“Is there any further word on Giorgio’s condition?” asked Vanguard of Wigwam.

“I stopped at the hospital before coming here; there’s been no change, but the doctors are optimistic.”

“He put his life on the line for Banderol and Calla,” Sugarberry mused. “He’s got to come out of this.”

Prisca patted the mare on the shoulder. “He’ll fight his way back, no doubt about it. He’s got too much to live for.” Then, getting practical, she added. “ I’ll be bringing in some coffee and dessert.” The housekeeper bustled out of the room to prepare a worthy reward for Wigwam and a reassuring comfort for the others.

“We can’t thank you enough for rushing over here to be with us,” Sugarberry smiled at Wigwam as he came to sit in the spot Vanguard had abdicated. Banderol diplomatically offered him the soggy cat.

Wigwam looked the cat over warily. “No applesauce?” he queried.

Sugarberry giggled. “I wish I could have been there to see the lot of you coated in the fruity substance.” Then she sobered. “Wigwam, we really do want you to know how much we appreciated your coming here to help us; you’ve been so busy with the casino, and you just dropped everything to put our problem first.”

“What could I do, Sugarberry? This little guy means a lot to me, too, you know.” He drew Banderol into his own forelegs and looked the foal in the eyes. “Uncle Wigwam couldn’t let you have all the fun, now, could he?” He turned to Sugarberry with a grin. “And I was very pleased to see that Bandy knows how to show a filly a good time.”

That prompted Vanguard to ask, “What did Garnet think of you leaving the casino in her hooves so suddenly?”

“It just so happens that I talked with her on the phone before I left the police station. She informed me that everything is running smoothly, and that she and Hawkley hadn’t even noticed my absence. So I informed her that if that were the case, I wouldn’t be back for a couple of days yet.” He looked from Vanguard to Sugarberry. “I like the looks of Vulcanopolis and thought that I might as well enjoy the sights while I’m here.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Sugarberry agreed. “And you may stay here with us.”

“I’ll not impose on your vacation. Chief Matteo recommended a good hotel.”

“Nonsense,” Sugarberry asserted. She looked to Vanguard for support.

“I’m sure Enrica would want you to stay here after your efforts on her granddaughter’s behalf.”

As Prisca returned with the refreshments at that time, Sugarberry also gained her support for the idea. “I’ll have a room ready for you in no time, Signor Wigwam.” Prisca forestalled his arguments with a raised hoof. “We’ve got plenty of space and it’ll be no trouble at all.”

As the ponies settled back with their coffee after polishing off Prisca’s rich and delicious dessert, the conversation came back to the main events of the day as thoughts were shared and forgotten details were explained.

“I’m impressed at how well you’ve handled this, Sugarberry,” Wigwam noted.

Sugarberry rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen the basket case I became when I realized Banderol was gone.”

“Your son was taken by a reprobate, Sugarberry. You had cause for concern.”

“I wasn’t much help for my husband.”

“You kept me sane,” Vanguard admitted to his wife. “By having you to worry about, I was forced to stay in control. Unlike Giorgio, I didn’t have a clue on where to concentrate my concerns for Banderol. It was an utterly helpless feeling.” Sugarberry’s hoof already rested in his, but he pulled her closer while Banderol slept in her forelegs. “Zaverio seems to want his pound of flesh from Giorgio and family, and we keep walking into the middle of his plans.”

“Well, Zaverio will be kept under lock and key this time; he didn’t seem to appreciate the efforts Giorgio and his father had made to reform him, but Giorgio won’t be swayed by any feelings of compassion in this case,” Wigwam asserted. “Zaverio had it made, but threw it all away... and has no one to blame but himself.”

Prisca hurried back into the room. “There’s a telephone call... from Giorgio.” She handed the cell phone to Vanguard, then stood back hesitantly, as curious to learn the news as the rest of them.

“How’s your father?” Vanguard asked, tightening his hold on Sugarberry’s hoof.

“It’s good news,” Giorgio revealed. “He’s come out of the coma and is talking to us.”

After relaying that information to his audience, Vanguard returned to Giorgio. “That’s excellent news. What’s the doctor’s prognosis?”

“They say that as he’s healthy as a horse, he should heal quickly from the knife wound.”

“And how has Enrica withstood all the strain?”

“Mother is exhausted, but she’ll be fine now.”

“So why don’t you sound happier?”

Giorgio sighed. “Father blames himself entirely for what happened. He thinks he should have been able to stop Zaverio from taking the foals.”

“He did everything he could under the circumstances.”

“He doesn’t see it that way... only that he failed to protect Calla and Banderol.”

Vanguard was silent for a moment, remembering the affection that Giorgio, Sr., had always felt toward Sugarberry, then asked, “Would he listen to Sugarberry, right now, over the phone?”

“It’s worth a try, Van.” Giorgio’s voice carried a positive inflection, then he drooped again. “Will she do it? She’s been through a lot, too.”

“Give me a minute to explain matters to her, then she’ll be on.”

* * *

Wigwam had been shown to his room by Donato, and Sugarberry and Vanguard were standing over the crib watching Banderol sleep. Sugarberry had succeeded in convincing Giorgio, Sr., to stop berating himself over Zaverio’s treachery and to concentrate on getting back on his hooves. The stallion had decried the circumstance that had put Sugarberry’s family once more at risk because of his own family’s problems. Sugarberry’s assurance that Banderol was unharmed, and that she and Vanguard suffered no further anxiety would allow the stallion a peaceful night’s sleep, especially after her promise of a visit on the morrow.

Yet Sugarberry was not so positive in her own mind that her own anxiety was resolved.

“He’s so small, and the world’s so big,” Sugarberry sighed, resting her hoof gently on Banderol’s head.

“And he’ll learn to make his way, day by day,” Vanguard returned. “We can’t protect him from everything, Sugarberry; hopefully, there will never be such an occurrence as we’ve just been through. But I don’t want you to worry incessantly and miss all the joy he brings us just by being here.”

“I’ll do my best, but I think I’m going to be rather cautious for awhile.”

“More so than normal?” he grinned, slipping his forelegs around her to turn her to him. “You haven’t forgotten why we’re in Vulcanopolis, have you?”

She felt safe in his embrace and snuggled closer, soaking in the strength of him. “To celebrate our anniversary.”

“Very good. Now, might I suggest that we do just that?”

The mare promptly lifted her head to receive his kiss.

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