On the last day of spring, the sun shone from its late-morning position, its light filtering around a seemingly random distribution of white clouds that floated between it and the town of Ponyville. On the edge of the town's territory, a cyan pegasus with a rainbow-striped mane and an orange earth pony walked between the trees of a vast apple orchard, each bearing a pair of baskets full of early-ripened apples to a cart parked on the main path leading out of Sweet Apple Acres. The earth pony was smiling slightly, but her eyes betrayed some confusion as she looked at her friend. "I'm grateful to you fer helping me gather these apples RD," she said, "But I have to admit, this is probably the last way I'd have expected you to offer to help around the farm."
"Hello," Rainbow Dash said, "Element of Loyalty, remember? I'll never leave a friend in need if I can help it."
"Yeah, but I didn't exactly ask," Applejack pointed out teasingly, "You ain't by chance trying to avoid clearing the skies are you?"
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "Please," she said, "You, me, and Twilight all know I can have the sky cleared out in no time. I'm going to keep the clouds up for shade and resting spots until everypony else is done with their jobs." She smiled at AJ and added, "I was kinda hoping I could get first crack at your pies."
Applejack chuckled as she gave Dash a sideways glance. "You'll have to race Pinkie Pie fer…" she trailed off as her ears picked up the sound of raised voices out on the main road. "Huh," she said, "I ain't expecting the clan fer a few hours yet. Wonder what that is." She caught Rainbow's smirk and the pair broke into a gallop for the farm gate, the farm-pony expertly bucking most of her load into the apple cart as she passed it while the pegasus ignored the occasional apple bouncing out of her basket. Big Macintosh paused in his approach from the farmhouse as he saw the two mares streak by and then followed them at his normal sedate pace, picking up spilled apples as he went.
Applejack beat Rainbow to the gate by a nose, but the pair's normal debate over the victory was set aside as they watched a large caravan wagon being pulled by a mustard-yellow earth pony with a mane and tail striped red, green, and blue, and whose cutie mark appeared to be a mask, although it was obscured by both distance and the angle of his body in relation to the mares. Sitting on the riding board of the caravan was a slightly heavy-set caramel-cream pegasus with a grizzled kelp-green mane and wearing a salt- and oil-stained jacket. The earth pony was whining dramatically. "This is torture is what it is!" he exclaimed.
"Quit yer belly-achin' already!" the pegasus snapped, "I've had it up to here with you. Be quiet and pull, or I'll lay a lash in yer sorry hide!"
"We don't have a whip, smart-flank," the earth pony replied snarkily.
"I'll improvise," the pegasus shot back, "I'm sure Cabbage has enough ribbons fer me to braid into a whip or somethin'. You've barely been pulling for two hours; what do you have to-"
"I'm bloody hungry is the problem!" the earth pony shouted.
"How can you be hungry after all you ate this morning?"
The earth pony stopped in his tracks and looked back at the rider with an icy glare. "So that's it," he said, "I break my fast with one old pear and suddenly I'm a glutton? Where do you get off- Oh wait, that was the last pear, wasn't it, old salt? You're just sore because I beat you to it!"
"Quin, Barnacle!" a female voice shouted from the rear of the wagon, "Both of you cut it out and get this thing moving or I'll make both of you pull!"
Big Macintosh arrived at the gate in time to catch the end of the exchange and gave his wheat stalk a thoughtful chew before saying, "If I were them, I'd have had them both pulling from the get-go. Two ponies workin' together can go three times as far."
Applejack looked askance at her brother. "What kind of mathematics are you using now Mac?" she asked, "That just don't add up at all."
"Don't make it any less true," Macintosh replied calmly.
Rainbow shrugged the baskets off her back and flew toward the wagon, her curiosity sparked by the feeling that she'd heard the female voice several times before. The stallions didn't notice as she flew over them and alighted behind the wagon, startling an azure unicorn mare with silvery hair and wearing a purple cape covered in stars. "Well," Rainbow said with a smug look, "If it isn't Trixie the Boastful."
"Hello Rainbow Dash," Trixie said in a level tone as she recovered from the surprise and brushed past the pegasus, "Surprised to see me?"
"Yeah," Dash said, turning to follow Trixie, "But I'm even more surprised to see you with… uh… other ponies."
"They are friends," the showmare said, giving Rainbow a small smile, "We're all just a little cranky because we haven't had much to eat lately." She came to a stop as she found herself nose-to-nose with Applejack.
"Howdy," the orange pony said flatly, "Hope you don't mind me askin' what yer business is here?"
Trixie backed up a couple steps and returned AJ's flat look. "The Summer Sun Celebration is tomorrow," she said, "and among the festivities will be a performance by us," she gestured dramatically at the wagon and the stallions, "The Great and Power Trixie's Traveling Thespians."
"Thespi- what now?" Applejack asked.
"Thespians," Trixie repeated, rolling her eyes, "Actors, in a more common way of speaking. Allow me to introduce Harlequin," the pony in the harness put on a goofy grin and waved, "and Captain Barnacle Salt."
"Former captain," the pegasus clarified, "I ain't sailed in near half a dozen years."
"Sailed?" Rainbow asked, flying up to Salt's level, "Like, on the ocean?"
"Aye ma'am," the grizzled pony said.
"Wow," Rainbow said, impressed, "I always thought sailing was more of a unicorn thing."
"Ah, ya get ponies of all stripes," Salt said with a twinkle in his eye, "Not to mention zebras of even more stripes. But don't start askin' fer any tales missy. I save those fer the stage." Rainbow's mouth worked a little as she thought over the other pegasus's words, and then face-hoofed with a groan when she realized the pun. Barnacle chuckled.
"Y'all are really gonna perform tomorrow?" Applejack asked Trixie, eyeing her suspiciously, "This is the first I've heard of it."
"Same here," Dash said, alighting next to her friend, "Of course, neither of us is in charge of the entertainment, AJ."
"Could you tell me who is?" Trixie asked politely, "Is it Pinkie Pie by chance?"
"Nah," Applejack said, "She's with me, Carrot Top, and a few others taking care of the food. You'd best head into town and find Twilight or the Mayor; they'll point you in the right direction. Oh, and one more thing," she added as Trixie nodded and turned away to return to the back of the wagon. The showmare gave her a curious look as she twisted to present one of her apple baskets. "I might not like ya much Trixie, but it wouldn't be right ta send you and yer buddies off without something ta eat. I can spare a few apples."
"Thank you very much," Trixie said, levitating four apples out of the basket, "I hope you'll give our show a fair chance. I promise you it will be quite unlike anything you've seen from me before." She gave one apple each to Harlequin and Barnacle Salt, who both munched on them gratefully, and carried the other two back into the wagon. Once she was inside, Harlequin threw his weight into the harness and began hauling the wagon down the road into town.
With food in his belly, Harlequin's steps had a happy spring as he pulled the wagon through Ponyville, whistling an aimless tune every so often. Barnacle sat proudly on the riding board, waving to the ponies who stopped to look at the large conveyance. He was nearly thrown off when Harlequin reared back in response to a sudden burst of light and a pair of ponies materializing less than a foot in front of him. One, a brown earth pony mare with a darker brown mane, blinked in surprise at the yellow stallion, and then turned to look at her companion, an ash-grey unicorn stallion with a red-and-orange mane and tail styled to resemble flames. Both were wearing saddlebags that looked well-filled. The unicorn was grinning broadly and danced in place for half a second.
"Ha ha," he said, "It actually held up! Now, where to first?"
"How about apologizing for almost teleporting us onto this poor guy?" the earth pony asked, motioning behind her with a toss of her head.
"Hm?" The ash-grey unicorn looked over at Harlequin. "Oh. No worries; fail-safes in the spell would've moved us away from his position. They actually might have at that… Onward and outward Gale, let's get busy."
"Ash!" the brown earth pony shouted as she galloped away in the unicorn's wake. Harlequin exchanged a glance and a shrug with Barnacle and prepared to move on when a sliding window opened behind the pegasus and Trixie glared out.
"What is the hold up now?" she asked.
"We barely avoided a collision," Barnacle explained, pointing at the retreating pair. Trixie strained to follow Barnacle's hoof, then raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"I think I know those two," she mused, but then shook her head and said, "Never mind. Let's get going. Look for the tall pavilion in the town square. I'm pretty sure that'll be the center of the preparations."
"Aye aye ma'am," Barnacle said. Trixie closed the window and Harlequin put his weight into the harness again.
There were fewer ponies in the town square than anypony in the wagon expected there to be, and those that were there continued the earlier trend of pausing in their work for a few moments to watch before resuming their tasks. Harlequin parked the wagon to the left of the stairs leading to the pavilion's porch and unhitched himself while Barnacle knocked on the sliding window. "We're here," he said when Trixie opened the window.
"Finally," Trixie said with a sigh and closed the window. Barnacle jumped down from the riding board and joined Harlequin in walking around to the back. They waited patiently as they heard a quick, muffled conversation come from inside before Trixie threw the door open and stepped out into plain view wearing both her trademark hat and cape and a long-suffering expression on her face. "Quin," she said, "keep Cabbage company if you please; the poor thing is still overcome with butterflies. Barnacle, with me." Harlequin, grateful for a chance to get off his hooves, rushed into the wagon as soon as Trixie moved out of his way while Barnacle fell into step next to the showmare. The pair entered the pavilion to find some of the crowded activity they'd missed outside. Unicorns and pegasi were milling about hanging ribbons, banners, and tapestries emblazoned with the Royal Sun under the direction of a white coated unicorn with an elegant purple mane standing on the balcony at the back of the room. Trixie paid her and the others no mind as she made her way across the floor toward a low stage below the balcony.
"My word. Trixie, is that you?" Trixie and Barnacle paused and looked up at the balcony to see Rarity looking back down at them. "Well of course it's you," the white unicorn said, "I can't think of a single pony other than yourself with the conviction to wear such a distinct ensemble, especially this season. And who is that rugged stallion with you?"
"Oh, I like this town," Barnacle muttered to Trixie with a cheeky grin, "They got charmers 'cross the whole of pony-kind."
Trixie rolled her eyes and said, "Rarity, Barnacle Salt. We're looking for Twilight Sparkle or your Mayor."
"I see," Rarity said, thinking, "They were in the Mayor's office reviewing the preparations last I saw of them. Just head through those curtains in front of you and it'll be the first door in front of you to your left."
"Thank ye kindly fair lady," Barnacle said with a bow that made Rarity chuckle demurely, and then he trotted to catch up with Trixie as she passed through the curtains at the back of the stage area. They found themselves in a hallway that stretched around the perimeter of the building to their left and quickly terminated in a staircase on their right. The door to the mayor's office was easy to pick out, since it had a small brass plaque reading "Ivory Scroll, Mayor" on it. Barnacle raised a hoof to knock, but Trixie just grabbed the latch in her magic and opened the door.
Inside, an old tan earth pony mare and a lavender unicorn looked up from the clipboards spread on the table between them to see who was interrupting them. "Trixie!" Twilight Sparkle said in surprise, "What are you doing here?"
"Can't you guess?" Trixie asked, taking a proud stance and closing her eyes, "I am here to inform you that The Great and Powerful Trixie's Traveling Thespians have arrived and are ready to discuss our placement in tomorrow's festivities." She held her pose for several seconds and then cracked one eye open when neither Twilight nor the Mayor responded. She saw them both giving her blank looks and dropped out of her stage persona. "What?" she asked.
"Well," Twilight said levitating a clipboard and flipping to the third sheet of paper on it, "No offense, but given your reputation in town, don't you think it's a little presumptuous to just roll into town out of the blue and expect to be given a spot? We've already got a lot of local talent to choose from for the entertainment…" She trailed off when she glanced up and saw the confused look on Trixie's face.
"I sent a letter ahead of us to inform those in charge of planning that we would be coming," the showmare said, and then looked at Barnacle out of the corner of her eyes, "Which I was assured made it to the post office?"
"Dropped it off and paid the postage myself," the pegasus said.
"Was it addressed to any pony in particular?" Twilight asked. Trixie shook her head. "Then it should have ended up in your box Miss Mayor," the lavender unicorn said to the old earth pony.
The Mayor pursed her lips in thought. "I don't recall receiving anything from out of town recently besides the announcement that Princess Celestia will be in Fillydelphia this year and that Ponyville is to host the celebration for ponies who can't or don't want to travel across the country to see her." She gave Trixie an apologetic smile. "It seems your letter got lost I'm afraid."
Trixie sighed and rubbed her head. "I swear," she said, "There must be a curse on this town that makes me look like a fool every time I set hoof in it…"
Twilight looked at her clipboard again, and then nodded and said, "I'll tell you what Trixie. I was just about to check on Lyra, she's in charge of organizing the music and acts for the after-sunrise party. Come with me and we'll see if we can talk her into giving you a chance to try out for a spot"
"You're more than welcome to stay and enjoy the celebration either way," the Mayor put in.
"Thank ye kindly," Barnacle said, "We're bound to stay here for a spell anyway. We're not exactly shipshape for moving on to another town at the moment anyway."
"Come on," Trixie said, giving the grizzled mariner a light shove as she went back out into the hallway, "Let's get this sorted out before the sun goes down, shall we?"
"This way," Twilight said as she left the office and went out into the main room. After a brief pause to praise Rarity and her helpers for their work, Twilight led Trixie and Barnacle outside and stopped again to look at the stage wagon. "That's new," she said.
"There are four ponies in our troupe," Trixie explained, "my old wagon could fit two comfortably, so we had to pool our resources to get this one. I plan to decorate it with our names once we can afford to."
"Are you doing ok, money-wise?" Twilight asked with some concern as the trio resumed walking again, heading toward the fields near the school house.
Trixie snorted and started to shrug the topic off with a flippant comment, but Barnacle cut in with a frank admission: "We've been short on coin for the last week or so. It doesn't help that Harlequin didn't have a bit to his name when Trixie recruited him. The name's Barnacle Salt by the way, former sailor out to share the marvels of the sea with all the landlubbers of Equestria."
"Nice to meet you," the lavender unicorn said, "I'm Twilight Sparkle." She looked over at Trixie with a concerned frown. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked.
"Just help me get permission to perform tomorrow," Trixie said, "Once I've proven once and for all that the Great and Powerful Trixie is an act worthy of Ponyville's approval, I'll be able to negotiate a short series of full-length, ticketed shows to refill our cashbox."
"Can do," Twilight said, glad to hear the confidence in the showmare's tone.
Twilight and company found Lyra reclining on a bench rubbing her eyes with her front hooves with a pained grimace on her face. The source of her stress was easy to locate, for on the small stage that had been erected down the street from the school, and which the green unicorn's bench was situated in front of, the trio of fillies known as the Cutie Mark Crusaders were evidently taking another shot at earning their cutie marks by acting out some sort of play. The scene apparently called for lots of movement, and Trixie's face was a picture of bemusement as she watched the little ponies repeatedly trip over one another and succeed in knocking over most of their impromptu set pieces. "Local talent you said?" she asked Twilight sarcastically as Applebloom tried to arrest a fall by grabbing the curtain and pulling it off of its rings.
"OK!" Lyra shouted, throwing her hooves up before sliding off the bench onto all fours, "Girls, thank you for that… interesting show. I'll have to get back to you on my decision, so run along."
"Thanks Ms. Heartstrings!" Sweetie Bell responded as the fillies ran off.
Lyra heaved a deep sigh and muttered something to herself before spotting Twilight. "Ah heh heh," she said with a nervous smile, "Don't worry Twi, I won't be letting them do anything… Assuming I can think of a nice way to let them down… Anyway, Fluttershy's bird chorus is doing well, Vinyl's got her mixes ready for tonight, and why do you have Trixie with you?" She gave the caped showmare a suspicious look.
"Trixie is here," the azure unicorn said, stepping forward purposefully, "to request your consideration for including The Great and Powerful Trixie's Traveling Thespians as part of tomorrow's shows."
"Traveling Thespians?" Lyra said incredulously, "As in more than just you?"
"Are you surprised that there are ponies capable of working alongside the Great and Powerful Trixie?" Trixie replied, and then pointed back at Barnacle Salt, "There is one, and two more wait at our stage." Lyra looked at the yellow pegasus, but her frown remained in place.
"Just give her, er, them a chance Lyra," Twilight said, stepping forward to stand next to Trixie, "Ponies can change for the better, and I for one am curious to see how Trixie's improved her act."
Lyra gave Twilight a curious look, but then sighed and said, "Fine. Show me what you've got and I'll try to keep an open mind about it."
"You won't be disappointed, I promise you," Trixie said with a bow and flourish of her cape. "Barnacle," she said when she stood up, "Run on ahead and tell Harlequin to set the stage for a preview."
"Aye aye Trixie," Barnacle said, snapping a salute, "What about Mar? Should I…?"
"Hmm," Trixie said, looking at Twilight and Lyra appraisingly, "Yes, there's no reason to hold anything back. Get her prepared." The seafarer nodded and took flight, whirling around to head back into town.
"Who's Mar?" Twilight asked.
"Oh, you'll see," Trixie answered with a coy smile.