The snow lay heavy across the land. Archaeological excavations had ended for the season, though Clever Clover had work to do in the lab. Artifacts needed to be cleaned, labeled, sorted, and analyzed. There were also reports to be written, though that was primarily Spade's responsibility. Clever Clover didn't mind the change in pace; it was nice to take a break from the more physically demanding tasks involved in excavation. He was also enjoying a break from all the attention he had gotten when word had spread of his invitation to a royal wedding on a distant isle. Once he made a decision about who he would ask to be his date for the wedding, he found his life more peaceful, though one or two ponies who were not chosen had been giving him dirty looks at every convenience. It was a small price to pay, however, to not have all the fillies in Friendship Gardens fawning over him.
The princely purple pony trudged through the snow on his way home. He was taking two weeks vacation for the wedding and Christmas. It would take almost half that time just to travel to the Isle and back, at least three days each way with the snow. And that was if he were traveling alone; with a companion, who knew how long it would take? But he didn't have to worry about that, not until tomorrow at least. Now he had work to do.
Once at the lab, Clever Clover made his way to his workstation, a section of countertop with a sink. Trays of artifacts sat on either side of the basin, washed on one side, unwashed on the other. Each tray contained artifacts from a specific location and was labeled accordingly. He took the artifacts from the unclean trays one at a time and carefully scrubbed them in the sink with a toothbrush. It was monotonous work; but when you got to handle one of the rare finds from the site, it was all worth it. He picked up the arrowhead that his friend Belle Star had found on her first day of the job. It was the first and possibly most impressive point from that site.
By the end of the day, Clever Clover had almost finished cleaning the last of the artifacts from the site. By the time he got back from the wedding, someone else would have finished the cleaning and started to label the artifacts. He had hoped to have been able to finish the cleaning himself, but things rarely went as planned here. Now he just hoped to get out of the lab without running into Spade. Not that he had anything against Spade, but he would try to get him to do one last little chore before he left which would keep him late, and that's the last thing he wanted tonight.
"Oh, Spade, it's you. I was just leaving."
"Listen, could you do me a favor?"
"No." Clever Clover opened the door.
"But..." The door slammed shut in Spade's face.
* * *
Clever Clover trudged home through the drifting snow. It was already dark when he left, but the moonlight reflecting off the snow provided ample illumination. "Gee, this would almost be romantic, if I was into that sort of thing. I must be getting tired; that doesn't sound like me." The cold air helped the purple prince keep awake all the way home.
"Vuul-pix!" Clever Clover's Vulpix greeted him as he opened the front door.
"Eh, girl, how's it going?"
The Pokemon rubbed against her trainer's leg. "Vul!"
"Yeah, I missed you too. Are you ready for the trip tomorrow?"
"I hope that means yes. I'll get us something to eat, then we'd better get some sleep."
* * *
The next morning, Clever Clover got up early, for him anyway, at eight o'clock. It was all right, though; knowing his date, she'd still be asleep when he got to her apartment. The glare of the morning sun on the snow was blinding. Clever Clover put on his sunglasses and set out with Pixie the Vulpix trotting along behind. There was a slight breeze that chilled the purple pony to the bone in the chill morning air. The bright sun, however, promised to make it a pleasant day.
Clever Clover stood nervously before the door at the Friendship Apartments waiting for a reply from within. To his surprise he didn't have to wait very long.
"Good morning, Mr. Clever Clover." Belle Star was all ready for the trip, wearing a heavy navy blue cape. Clever Clover noticed the arrowhead he had made her, pure white with a fiery red vein meandering across it, hanging from a slender silver chain about her neck.
She was about the only pony in Friendship Gardens who hadn't been chasing after him. Of course, she wasn't from Friendship Gardens, but then neither was Clever Clover originally. Belle Star's family lived far away, and she wasn't able to make it home for Christmas. That was the main reason Clever Clover asked her; he was the closest friend she had in Friendship Gardens, and he didn't want her to be alone on the holiday.
"Um, ready to go?"
"Uh-huh. Oh! What a cute little doggy!"
"Oh, that's right, you've never met Pixie. Come and say hello, little fella."
The five-tailed Pokemon presented herself to the golden-maned pony. "Vul-pix!"
"She's so cute! Is she coming with us?"
"Uh-huh, her mother lives along the way, and I thought they might like to have a reunion."
And so the trio set out across the Flatlands toward Clever Clover's ancestral homeland, the Isle of the Green Lake.
* * *
The trip to the Isle was relatively uneventfully. Vulpix's mother was not sighted during the trip, but there was still the trip back to anticipate. Belle Star managed herself quite well, much to Clever Clover's surprise, except for one night when, after a trip to the bathroom, she tripped and fell into Clever Clover's tent, collapsing it on top of him. It was now early afternoon on the fourth day out of Friendship Gardens when the travelers arrived on the shore of the now frozen lake.
Ironwood, the captain of the royal guard, and his guardponies waited around a large bonfire on the beach. On the ice nearby were three strange vessels. Like sailboats without hulls, the body of the vessels were comprised of crossed beams set upon runners. On the back of the structure was a padded platform and a movable runner, a kind of rudder. The masts rose from the crosspoints of the beams.
The guard-captain approached the travelers. "Greetings my prince! Who is your friend?"
Clever Clover noticed a touch of suspicion in Ironwood's voice. "She is Belle Star. The invitation didn't specify whether or not I should bring a date, but I figured you wouldn't mind."
Ironwood's eyebrow arched. "I suppose it is all right; I shall trust your judgement in this matter. Come, Raven and the wedding party are waiting."
Clever Clover turned to his companion. "Belle, this is Ironwood, captain of the royal guard."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Ironwood."
"Ah, yes. Forgive my suspicion, lady; we are not used to visits from outsiders."
"Oh, that's all right. I guess it's a guard's job to be suspicious."
Ironwood grinned. "If you would follow me."
The trio followed Ironwood to the waiting vessels one the ice. The guardponies were making final preparations for launch. Ironwood climbed onto the platform of one of the ships. Clever Clover followed, and Belle Star lifted Pixie up after him; then the purple pony reached down to give his date a hand, but she slipped on the ice, pulling him from his seat.
"Do you two need a hoof?"
Clever Clover nodded. "Yes, that would probably be a good idea."
"Uh-huh. This ice is slipperier than it looks."
With Clever Clover and Ironwood working together, they got Belle Star on to the platform. Once they were all on board and the guardponies were loaded on the other vessels, the sails were raised and the ice-boats shot off across the frozen lake. Pixie howled in delight at the brisk wind as they raced toward the Isle. Belle Star laughed and clapped. As they neared the Isle, they noticed a number of other ice-boats on the lake. The other boaters waved and cheered as the prince's boat passed.
"Ice-boating if a favorite winter pastime among the Isle-ponies." Ironwood had to yell to be heard over the wind and grinding of runners on ice.
* * *
After they had beached their ice-boats (there are no docks on the Isle) the party set off on foot toward the Malachite Castle. The evergreen woods of the Isle were transformed into a wonderland where children played. On either side of the trail were numerous snow-forts with baby ponies peeking out, occasionally throwing a snowball at passersby. In the village, groups of caroling ponies wandered the streets, pausing to cheer the returning hero, Clever Clover. The houses and shops were gayly decorated with wreathes and holly sprigs. In every window, candles burned.
Belle Star gazed at the gay candles. "They sure are pretty, but don't you have electricity?"
Ironwood shook his head. "No. We don't have the means to generate it on our own; and we don't like to be reliant on outsiders, so we do without."
* * *
At the castle gate they were greeted by Enchantment, the young apprentice to the court wizard. "Greetings, my prince! Oh, I see you brought a friend-- and what a cute Vulpix!"
"Yes, and this is Belle Star; Belle, this is Enchantment."
"It's very nice to meet you, Ms. Enchantment."
"And you also, Lady Belle Star. And you can just call me Enchantment." Then she asked of Clever Clover, "What's your Vulpix's name?"
"I call her Pixie. I guess Raven is waiting for me."
"Oh, yes. He is in the library. Follow me."
Through the gate was the grand entry hall which on Clever Clover's last visit had been empty but now housed a massive Christmas tree decorated with a rainbow of glass balls, strings of popcorn, delicate strands of tinsel, and lit with thousands of fireflies blinking and buzzing about the tree. A brightly lit chandelier served as the star.
Clever Clover and Belle Star gazed in disbelief. "Wow! How did you get such a big tree into your castle?"
"We didn't. This tree is standing in a forest on the mountain's slope, though if you went there now all you would see are floorstones from the hall. We use magic to warp space so that we can enjoy the tree without having to cut it down. This way we can use the same one every year."
Clever Clover looked puzzled. "I'm not going to pretend to understand that, but I'll just take your word for it."
* * *
The library was a large imposing room. The walls were lined with ancient tomes covered in dust. A long table dominated the center of the room. Around the table were four ponies– the large, imposing ebony form of Raven; Foxglove, the steward of the castle; and two that Clever Clover didn't recognize, but he presumed to be the future king and queen. Prince Oak was forest green with blue hair and a red oak leaf on his rump; Princess Gooseberry was lavender with pink hair and a cluster of green berries and a leaf on her rump.
Raven looked up from the tome before him. "Ah, the prince has arrived... WHO IS SHE?!" Belle Star recoiled from Raven's harsh gaze and began to pout.
"Raven, you have frightened our prince's companion," Foxglove chided. "Do not fret, lady, Raven is overreacting. I'm sure the prince can explain everything."
"Thank you, Foxglove. Don't worry, Belle Star; his bark is worse than his bite." Clever Clover's words were as much to reassure himself as his date, and he wasn't buying it. "Belle Star is my date for the wedding. I didn't think you'd mind."
"The invitation said nothing about bringing a date."
"Right-- nothing, one way or the other."
"I shall have to make sure the next time that the wording is more complete."
"Let us hope that there will be no 'next time' for quite some while." The unknown stallion stepped forward. "I am Oak, and this is my fiancé, and your cousin, Gooseberry. It is nice to finally meet you, Clever Clover."
"Enchantment, why don't you show the prince's date to a guestroom; give her the one across the hall from the prince's."
"Yes, my steward. Follow me, Lady Belle Star."
"Okay," Belle Starre sniffed.
Once the ladies had left, Raven returned to the matter at hand. "Well, now that we have all been introduced..."
"You should not have been so harsh on our guest."
"Foxglove, until Oak is crowned king, I am responsible for the security of our people. I do not appreciate having strangers wandering about the castle unsupervised!"
"Hey! I wouldn't have brought her here if I wasn't sure she could be trusted. She may be a little flighty, but she's not evil or nothin'."
"Yes, I trust Clever Clover. I do not think that anyone who would liberate us from the curse would knowingly endanger the Isle."
"Thank you, Oak."
"Very well then, she is no threat, but may I suggest that the prince consult with me in the future before bringing a stranger to the Isle?"
"In the future, my good Raven, it is I that the prince should consult."
Raven bowed his head. "Forgive me, my prince. But I would hope that my council will still be valued in the future."
"Yes, Raven. I think this affair has us all on edge. Perhaps we should continue this later."
* * *
Clever Clover relaxed in his room, the same one he stayed in during his last visit to the Isle. Pixie lay curled up on the bed. The prince had been worried about how Belle Star would be received on the Isle, but he hadn't imagined that it would go as badly as it did. Not only did Belle Star's feelings get hurt, but it seemed to trigger an argument between Raven and Oak. Hopefully cooler heads would prevail.
There was a knock on the door. "Oh, hi, Belle. Are you feeling better?" Clever Clover had knocked on her door on the way to his room but there was no answer.
"Yeah. I hope I didn't cause too much trouble."
"You didn't cause any trouble. I should have known better than to take you directly to Raven." Another knock at the door. "Come in."
Princess Gooseberry entered. "Good evening, cousin. I did not mean to interup..."
"Oh, we were just talking. What do you want?"
"I just wanted to apologize for Raven. He is a good pony, though he takes his duties too seriously. I'm sure he will reconsider once he has had time to think about it. To make up for it, I would like Belle Star to be a bridesmaid at the wedding."
Belle Star jumped up and squealed with delight. "Oh! I would be honored. Thank you very much!"
* * *
Later that night, Belle Star wandered the halls of the castle looking for the kitchen. "Oh, I am so hungry. I was so upset I forgot to get anything to eat. Now my stomach is all grumbly and I don't know where the kitchen is and this old castle is so dark. Oh, there's a light up ahead! Maybe there is someone there who knows where the kitchen is! I just hope it's not that scary Mr. Raven."
Belle Star crept slowly along the dark corridor, not wanting to startle whoever might be ahead. As she turned a corner, the blue-eyed pony tripped on an uneven floor-stone and crashed into a table piled with pots and pans, causing a terrible racket. As she crawled out from under the pile of cookware, she became aware that the light was coming rapidly closer. In panic, the golden-maned pony began to re-stack the pots on the table. Before she was half finished, Enchantment rushed into the room holding a candle.
"Oh, Lady Belle Star! Are you all right?"
"Yes, oh, I seem to have made quite a mess."
"That's all right. But what are you doing wandering about the castle at this hour? If Raven had found you instead of me, he very well may have banished you from the Isle!"
"Well, I was hungry and couldn't find the kitchen... hey! This is the kitchen!"
"Uh-huh. I was hungry for a midnight snack, too." The little pony giggled.
"A snack is always better with company. Do you know if there are any rice balls?"
"No, but there might be a rice pudding in the icebox."
Belle Star began randomly opening cupboards and cabinets. "Which one is the icebox?"
"It's over here, silly." Just as Enchantment was opening the icebox, Belle Star accidentally pulled on a candle holder instead of a cabinet door pull. The candle holder, much to both ponies surprise, swung out from the wall, and as it did, the cupboard next to it sank into the floor revealing a door-sized opening in the wall behind it.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I think I broke it."
"Uh, I don't think it's broken, but I didn't know it could do that. I wonder where it leads."
Belle Star peered into the darkness of the secret passage. "I guess we'd have to go find out if we really wanted to know, but let's eat first."
"That sounds like fun! First we eat, then explore!"
After the two ponies had finished their rice pudding, they approached the mysterious door behind the cupboard. Enchantment held up her candle, but its feeble light barely penetrated the depths of the passage. The young pony took out her magical pouch and held it before her. "Mana of all creation, give us a light by which we may pierce the vale of mystery before us." An orb of pure white light appeared in the air before the ponies.
"Wow! That is a neat trick!"
"Oh, it's not much. Let's go."
The pair of ponies stepped forward with the globe of illumination preceding them. As soon as they crossed the threshold of the once-hidden door, the cupboard rose again from the floor, closing the exit behind them.
* * *
Clever Clover was awakened by a knocking at his door. The purple pony rolled out of bed mumbling. "Keep it down. I'll be right there." He dragged his feet as he made his way to the door. "Who's there?"
"It's Foxglove. Are you ready?"
"Oh, yeah. I'll be out in a few minutes."
On the way to the meeting room where Clever Clover was to be instructed of his duties at the wedding, the prince noticed something unusual. "Eh, isn't this usually Enchantment's job, fetching me for meetings and parties and such?"
"Yes, but today she has many other duties. There are many preparations to be made. I haven't even seen her today. She must have gotten started before dawn."
"Oh, is Raven going to be my instructor this morning?"
"No. The Archbishop Vin will instruct you, as it will be him presiding over the wedding tomorrow."
The Archbishop was a small white pony with the symbol of a cluster of grapes upon his rump. He wore a cape and tall hat and carried a tall staff topped with a cross.
"Ah, this is the brave prince, Clever Clover. It is a pleasure to meet you, my boy."
"Likewise, your eminence." The purple prince bowed.
"Oh, there's no need for that. If anything, I should bow to the one who saved us from that dreaded curse. But now is not a time for formalities; it is a time for celebration. The curse is lifted, a new king is to be crowned, there is a wedding, and Christmas. Now I suppose you want to know what part you will be playing in all of this? Well, your roll in the wedding will be relatively small. You escort the bride down the aisle and then step aside and bow to the groom, who will step into your place at her side. Understand?"
"Sure. Sounds simple enough."
"Good. Now the most important thing to remember is to try not to look bored. I know you barely know the couple, but Gooseberry is your kin so you should make your best effort to look interested."
"Excellent. Now the coronation will take place directly after the wedding. After the couple kiss, Enchantment will bring the crown forward; it is currently in the keeping of her teacher, the magus. You'll deliver a short speech, I'll do a blessing, and you place the crown on Oak's head. Then you kneel; well, actually everyone but Oak, Gooseberry, and I kneel. Then Oak will make a speech and then we adjourn to the reception hall."
"Uh, I have to make a speech?"
"Oh, it's nothing to worry about. Short and to the point. Like 'As this crown, mark of our most high king, was placed upon the brow of my father, I now pass it to you, Oak of the Wood clan, and with it all the power and responsibility of the king,' or something to that affect. But in your own words."
"Uh-huh. I'm glad you gave me such advance warning."
"Well, we'd hoped you'd arrive earlier by a week or so, but that's water under the bridge. I'm sure you'll do fine."
"I hope so. I'm still not too comfortable with this prince thing."
"Yes, I suppose it is quite a burden to bear, even when you are used to it. You know, it was I who passed the crown to your father. I was a bit younger than you at the time. It was right before I went into the seminary. I suppose I was partly trying to escape my princely obligations; now look at me, Archbishop of the Isle, nearly the equal of the king. It's rather ironic when you think about it."
"That's not exactly the reassurance I was looking for."
"The point of my story, boy, is that regardless of the path we may seek, or seek to avoid, all we can do is make the best of it."
The young prince sighed. "I guess. Thank you, your eminence."
"No problem, my boy. Now I believe you have a meeting with Prince Oak over breakfast. You'd best not keep him waiting."
* * *
The formal breakfast was awaiting Clever Clover in a grand banquet hall. Raven and Oak were the only others at the table, but the room was bustling with activities as servants rushed to make things ready for the festivities of the morrow.
"Ah, Clever Clover. Come, sit. Have you meet Vin?"
"Yes. He's quite a pony."
"He was my teacher at the monastery where I was raised. I lived there until you lifted the curse."
"It was my pleasure. So, what's for breakfast?"
"Waffles, fruit, muffins, whatever you want."
"So, Rav, why are you so quiet this morning?"
"This meeting is for you to get to know Prince Oak better. I am simply having breakfast."
Clever Clover smiled as he loaded his plate. "Well, that's good to hear. What's on your mind, Oak?"
"Well, Raven and the others have told me a little about you, but there is a lot I still don't know."
"Well, nobody's really told me anything about you."
The princes' breakfast lasted until noon, with much talking and little eating. Raven finished his meal and left to attend to his duties. As preparations began for the mid-day meal, Foxglove and Enchantment entered the hall.
"Ah, it seems we have found the lost princes. Have you been here all morning?"
Clever Clover glanced at his pocket watch. "Yeah. I guess the time got away from us. What's up?"
"Aside from the imminent serving of dinner? Not much. But Belle Star and Gooseberry are wondering where the stallions have gotten off to."
"When will they be joining us?"
"They were right behind us. They'll be along in a moment. How have you two been getting along?"
"Very well. Clever Clover has challenged me to a fencing match this afternoon."
"How typical of stallions to test their friendship on the field of battle."
"Oh, and what would you recommend, poker?"
"That sounds like fun. Do you have any cards?"
Gooseberry and Belle Star entered. "This is no time for games, my love."
"Ah, Gooseberry, I suppose not. Dinner is served." The servants had begun laying the meal on the table.
"Oh goody! I'm starved!"
"I agree with Belle Star. Let's eat!" Clever Clover began eyeing the spread.
Belle Star sat next to the purple prince. "Oh, look at all this food! I can't wait to taste it. It looks delicious!"
Enchantment giggled. "You two make such a perfect couple!"
Clever Clover and Belle Star stared at each other. "W... we're not a couple. We're just friends."
"Yeah, besides, Mr. Clever Clover is a prince and I'm just... me."
* * *
Once Raven and Vin arrived, the meal began. The black pony did not mention Belle Star, or speak to her. She appreciated the lack of attention and returned the favor. After the meal, the ponies went to the gymnasium. Oak armed himself with his personal foil. Clever Clover had not brought his own so he had to borrow Ironwood's; Raven had offered his own but the prince could barely lift it. The two princes sparred fiercely but in the end Oak was victorious.
"Good show, Clever Clover. You almost had me there for a little while."
Clever Clover saluted Oak. "I guess I'll have to try a little bit harder next time. But that will have to wait; I've got a speech to write."
"Oh, Mr. Clever Clover, I'm so sorry you lost!"
"It's okay, Belle Star, I'll get him next time, when I have my own foil."
"I look forward to that, but you are right; there are preparations to be made for tomorrow. See you tomorrow, Clever Clover."
* * *
Enchantment awoke Clever Clover early on the morning of Christmas Eve. The entire castle was awake and bustling with activity. Clever Clover and Belle Star were served a simple breakfast and then taken to be prepared for the days festivities. Once everyone was ready, including the sparkly hair spray streak in main and tail, they gathered in the grand chapel. As the procession began, Clever Clover noticed that Belle Star had received the sparkly treatment, but he thought that was reserved for those of royal blood.
The wedding ceremony went smoothly, and Clever Clover managed to look interested for the duration. Belle Star cried through the entire service. At the end, when the bride and groom kissed, their symbols began to glow and change. A ring of berries encircled Oak's leaf and a cluster of oak leaves adorned Gooseberry's berries. With that, the wedding was over and the coronation began.
Enchantment walked slowly down the isle carrying the crown of the Isle King upon a cushion. The assembled crowd was hushed with anticipation when she reached the royal assembly at the altar. Clever Clover stepped forward and lifted the crown.
"The ponies of this isle have gone for too long without a king. I am honored to finally be able to rectify that situation. As a young prince once passed his father's crown on to my father, I now pass my father's crown to your new king, Oak of the Wood clan! May he execute the office with dignity and honor."
As Clever Clover set the crown upon Oak's head, a cheer arose from the crowd and Belle Star cried again. Then the assembly kneeled; Oak bowed his head. Archbishop Vin held his forehooves over the newly crowned king and uttered a blessing too softly for any other than the king and queen to hear.
"Rise, friend Clever Clover. I hope that my rule is as great as your father's. I will count on your counsel in the years to come."
"I will be there for you, my king."
* * *
After the ceremonies, the assembly moved to the grand banquet hall for the reception. There was food and drink and music and dancing. To his surprise, Clever Clover found that Belle Star, despite her bouts of clumsiness, was a very graceful dancer. After their dance, Clever Clover sought out Enchantment in the crowded hall.
"Enchantment, I've got a question. Last time I was here you told me the sparkly hair thing was only for those of royal blood, but why does Belle Star have sparklys? Do you know something you're not telling me?"
"Oh no. It's nothing like that. It's just that as a prince's date she is entitled to an honorary title and all the privileges that go with it. Besides, when she saw my hair this morning she liked it and asked if she could get the sparklys and I couldn't refuse."
A familiar, but unexpected, pony stepped out of the crowd with a drink in her hoof. "Oh, Clever Clover, I was hoping to get a chance to run into you while we were here."
"Uh, Moonshine? What are you doing here?"
"I was invited, silly! And I didn't want to miss a chance to visit my favorite niece." She patted Enchantment's head.
"Moonshine is your aunt?"
"By the way, I was surprised by your choice of dates. I was hoping you would bring Morning Glory."
"Oh, why's that? Hey, you wouldn't happen to have anything to do with everyone in Friendship Garden finding out about my invitation, would you?"
"Oh my, it seems my glass is empty. I'll need to get another. Well, see you around."