Christmas in Dream Valley 2000
Tabby and Sugarberry
"Don't you look utterly native," crooned Sugarberry as she arrived at the Bushwoolie Bargain Books outlet at the mall where Wigwam's book signing event was to take place this cold December Saturday. A light sprinkling of snowflakes had fallen on her walk over, setting her in a holiday frame of mind. She shared Wigwam's delight in having his first book published; and now, seeing the orange stallion with his impressive headdress, she felt even more lighthearted.
Not so the stallion. He was feeling tense, not knowing what reception his work would have with the citizens of Dream Valley; for that reason he had no response for the strawberry-patterned mare. The publisher had assured him that his book was a perfect Christmas gift, and would be a big seller before the holidays. But the time to prove that theory was here, and he was not as assured of the outcome of sales as the publisher was. His stern expression under the headdress, however, gave him such a traditional look of a Native Pony chief that his appearance commanded attention from anyone passing by; and a crowd was already gathering around the table set up with a fine display of his book, Native Pony Tales.
Leaving him to his customers, Sugarberry went deeper into the shop to find Chocolate Chip who was holding down the fort, so to speak, along with Chumster and Friendly. Seeing the chocolate-colored filly straightening books on the clearance table, she greeted her with a compliment. "Your exhibit of Wigwam's books is beautiful, Chocolate Chip! I'm sure Wigwam was impressed with all the hard work you put into it."
"Thanks." The filly smiled briefly but kept on working with the books before her.
"Things are no better between the two of you?"
"No, Sugarberry, and they never will be," admitted Chocolate Chip.
Sugarberry absently picked up a book on wildflowers and flipped through the vibrant pages. "I'd have thought you'd have worked things out by now."
"You can't work out a complete breach of trust, Sugarberry. I thought he liked me for who I was, and it was a shock to discover that he was only hanging out with me because it gave him access to you and Wishbone and all the goings on involving Giorgio." Chocolate Chip turned and moved to another rack of books and began pointlessly moving them about.
"You know that's not true, Chocolate Chip."
"Do I?" She looked up with a smouldering anger in her eyes. "All I know is that he was working for Tawny in an undercover capacity when he so conveniently struck up a friendship with you and me."
"Vanguard asked him to keep an eye on me; he didn't trust Giorgio, knowing what his background was," Sugarberry reminded her.
"That doesn't change the fact that Wigwam let Wishbone walk into that cheating scandal without even trying to turn him aside. If he had truly cared about me, he would have done something to protect my brother. As it was, he used me, just like Giorgio used..."
Sugarberry had no need to be reminded of her experience with Giorgio. She had misread his intent; but she still held on to the belief that somewhere within him there had been some sincerity toward her, and that the friendship that had emerged from the original distrust was not entirely artificial. No further comment could be made, however, as Chumster ran up to Chocolate Chip. "Help, help!" he chattered. "Too many customers!"
The mare and the filly had been so caught up in their conversation that they hadn't noticed that a rather long line of ponies had formed at the check-outs to pay for their autographed Native Pony Tales books. Chocolate Chip scurried off to help the Bushwoolies handle the load, and Sugarberry sighed deeply.
Chocolate Chip had been eagerly anticipating this day of the book signing, as proud of Wigwam's accomplishment as the stallion himself was. But when the truth about the cheating scam at Pony Pride and Wigwam's part in gathering pertinent evidence concerning it was revealed, Chocolate Chip had broken all ties with him on the assumption that his friendship had been merely a coverup to gain information. She had returned to her home in Neighberry for the Thanksgiving holiday with her brother so as to avoid spending the feast with Wigwam which had wounded the stallion deeply and caused him to pull back from trying to soothe Chocolate Chip's ruffled pride. The end result was that both of them were downhearted.
"Sug-berry! Sug-berry!" Sugarberry came out of her preoccupation as Baby Noddins and Baby Falling Leaves ran up to her. "Look what Wigwam wrote!" The foal held up one of the slick, shiny volumes open to the inside page where the author had inscribed a personal note.
May all the words you speak someday fill the pages of a book.
Sugarberry grinned to herself. With Baby Noddins, her words would fill an entire library already! Baby Falling Leaves also had an autographed copy, and both foals were ecstatic. "Isn't he so very handsome!" exclaimed Baby Noddins. "If only he had a last name!"
Punching her friend, Baby Falling Leaves took a more practical approach. "Now that we have our books, let's ask your mommy to get us an ice cream cone!"
Smiling over the backs of the two foals, Sugarberry greeted Frostflake who was coming to round up her two charges. "I imagine you will be kept busy reading stories to these two for the rest of the day."
"We've already worked out a plan... one story per day. That way the book will last a lot longer."
"Oh, but Mommy," Baby Noddins began, "can't we read two stories tonight? Wigwam said that the story he told special for me last spring was the second story in the book, and I want to hear it again."
"We'll talk about it, dear," Frostflake said as she herded the two energetic foals towards the door. "See you later, Sugarberry," she called.
* * *
A deep blue unicorn sat at the nearby food court trying to look inconspicuous sipping on her glass of water while she had a keen eye trained on the crowd around Wigwam's book signing. Sapphire frowned at the sight; it was tougher competition than anyone in her family had expected. Wigwam's Native Pony tales had been presumed to be inferior to Driftwood's recipes... at least, that was what the Fairfaxes had convinced themselves of after losing Wigwam's genius to the Monk publishing house.
The elders of each respective family had made a few strides lately to patch things up between the other, but old feuds like this one between the Fairfaxes and the Monks died hard. Each family had picked-up a new and aspiring author from this city of Dream Valley– the Monks with Wigwam and the Fairfaxes with Driftwood– and they had both rushed publication of their new book to get theirs out before the other family had a chance to. As it was, they had tied. The publication date was so close that the main publicity stunt for each-- a book signing-- landed on the same day, in the same city, in the same mall. But each opposing force was still determined to outsell its enemy.
Sapphire had a high position in the Fairfax publishing company, and had been sent to Dream Valley to help Driftwood with his book signing, as well as to keep an eye on the Monks' venture and, if need be, steal some of their potential customers. At least Driftwood's book was selling well as of yet, too; if anything, sales were at a tie. Plus, Sapphire was happy to note that the Monks had not thought of printing an attractive bookmark for Wigwam's sales such as the Fairfaxes had done for Driftwood.
But, Sapphire was not just going to sit around all day watching her enemy. There was more she could do than that. Standing up and tossing her cup out, she exited the food court and casually strolled through the mall. She knew what she had been sent here to do.
Hoping she looked discreet, Sapphire leaned up against a poster advertising Wigwam's book. Being careful to ensure she wasn't detected by anyone, she slowly began working the adhesives on the corners of the poster away from the wall. Expertly, she peeled it off and crumpled it into a ball without anyone noticing any suspicious activity. Throwing it in the nearest trash can, she walked on. It might not help her cause a lot, but every little bit did count.
* * *
Happy to see that the flow of ponies stopping by Wigwam's table was unabated, Sugarberry decided to spend some time browsing the mall. She wanted to get some books to give as Christmas gifts, but would wait until things quieted down. She noticed that Friendly was already replenishing the supply of books at Wigwam's side, which boded well for the success of his endeavor.
Feeling somewhat abandoned, Sugarberry headed to Lemon Treats' Boutique to see what new fashions and accessories might have arrived for the holiday season. Lemon Treats, seeing her enter, immediately called her to come back to see the latest shipment from Vulcanopolis. "Clare's fashions are the best!" she declared, lifting some of the festive pieces into view. "How about a matching hat and scarf for when Vanguard gets home?" She held out a lovely blue ensemble in a soft, delicate knit that sparkled as if fresh snowflakes had just alighted on it.
"That's awfully pretty," Sugarberry agreed, taking the scarf in her hooves. "It would feel cozy on those cold winter days ahead!"
"Shall I ring it up for you?" asked Lemon Treats.
"Yes. Go ahead."
While the transaction was being completed, Sugarberry mentioned the good turnout that Wigwam's book signing was having which reminded Lemon Treats of a bit of news that she had heard. "There's going to be a new aisle store moving into the mall next week; the mall management hoped that it could be set up in conjunction with Wigwam's affair, but the owner couldn't make arrangements soon enough."
"How does it fit in with Wigwam?"
"Well, from what I hear, everything is hoof-made by Native Ponies, all authentic crafts. Wouldn't it have been neat to be able to buy one of Wigwam's books and then get a souvenir item to go along with it?"
"What a great idea! I guess everyone will have to come back next week to see the new shop."
Lemon Treats handed Sugarberry her package. "By the look of the clouds today, you might need these by the time you go home."
"Yes. There were snowflakes in the air when I came. But the weather pony predicted sunny skies."
"Figures," grinned Lemon Treats as she moved off to help a new customer.
No sooner had Sugarberry stepped out the door when she spied Tabby and Thomas coming down the corridor. "Tabby!" she called. Thomas she saw every day at the vet clinic, but time with Tabby was becoming more scarce as the two unicorns adjusted to married life and the responsibilities of the mansion that they had received as a wedding present from Tabby's parents.
"Sug!" squealed Tabby. "Don't tell me you broke down and bought something." She eyed the parcel Sugarberry held inquisitively.
Sugarberry laughed. "Well, you know how I'm always complaining about how cold it is, so I got myself a scarf and matching tam."
"Sissy-wear," Tabby scoffed. This was a pony who would never wear a head-covering no matter how hard the winds blew or how low the thermometer dipped. "But anyway, why not join Thomas and me at the food court? We had an emergency case at the clinic, and haven't had lunch yet."
So while the three discussed the problem of Bowtie's cat's broken leg, they found a place to dine in the crowded melee of shoppers. "And I'll never forget how the two of you worked together to save Raptor's life after the big snow storm late last winter," Sugarberry reminded them.
"See Tabby? Your special touch with animals is proven in the case of Raptor." Thomas directed to his wife.
"Raptor's so sweet, he'd love anyone," Tabby countered.
"He's not always as angelic as he appears to be when you two are visiting," enlightened Sugarberry. "He prides himself on finding new ways to steal food off the kitchen counter when my back is turned. As long as I keep an eye on him, he sits virtuously on the floor as if he has no interest in what I'm doing; but as soon as I forget about him, he's up on the counter looking for edibles. And speaking of food, you two should come over for supper some night soon."
"Name the time and we'll be there," commented Tabby.
"How about tomorrow night then?"
"It's a date."
* * *
When she had stripped the mall of approximately half of Wigwam's posters, Sapphire saw a sight that made her blood run cold. And to make it worse, she knew he was up to the same tricks that she was, only it was hurting her company. But old family feuds didn't entirely figure into this rivalry; Macarius and Sapphire were arch-enemies and would stop at nothing to upstage the other.
Spying on him from the opposite side of the wall, Sapphire could see exactly what he was doing: While standing in front of a sign advertising Driftwood's book signing, he was passing bills out to ponies that strolled by and instructing them to go buy one of Wigwam's book with the jangles. Macarius disliked Sapphire as much as she did him, and would do just about anything to succeed over her; even if he had to pay out of his own pocket, the glory was worth it.
"Good day, Macarius," Sapphire said cooly, walking up and facing him directly.
"Why, good day, Sapphire," the stallion smirked, knowing instantly who it was. He held out a bill. "Care to buy a copy of Native Pony Tales?"
"Shut up, Macarius," Sapphire snapped. "You'd better not be planning on doing that all day."
"But what have you been doing, Sapphire? You've only been stripping all of our posters down. I think it's fair, don't you?"
"You're a jerk, Macarius."
"Now, now Sapphire. Our families are supposed to be on better terms with each other now, aren't they?"
"Look, Macarius. I know we're not supposed to get at each others' throats now, but we're still mortal enemies, okay? Don't forget it."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, my dear Sapphire," Macarius said sarcastically.
"Good." Sapphire turned on her heel and turned to go.
"Oh, and Sapphire?"
"The bookmarks were a good idea, but there's no way to beat the Monk superiority."
Sapphire seethed and didn't bother looking back at him as he resumed his routine to passing shoppers.
* * *
A temporary gap in activity caused Wigwam to look up to see an attractive unicorn of a shade of orange slightly paler than his own-- but with a deep, lustrous shade of orange hair and mane-- approaching his stand. "Good afternoon," he said in his deepest, most profound Native Pony voice.
The mare smiled at him, but centered her attention on the book that lay upon the table. "Native Pony Tales," she read softly. "The cover art is wonderful."
"Not my own, sorry to say," grinned Wigwam. "Although the idea was mine, inspired by some Native Pony art on a cave wall in the area."
"Fascinating! And is that cave accessible?" Her eyes had lit up at the mention of authentic renderings by the Native Ponies.
"Actually, no," Wigwam admitted. "There is a need to excavate the cave at some future time."
"Oh." The pony's attention returned to the first edition again. As she ran her hoof down the list of chapter titles and continued to thoughtfully peruse the book, Wigwam took the opportunity to pensively scrutinize the mare. Her symbol, a dream catcher in the colors of turquoise and magenta, alerted him to the possibility that this was another Native Pony like himself.
"Your ancestors were Native Pony, too, weren't they?" he asked with genuine interest.
"I am a Native Pony," she replied with apparent pride in her voice.
"Of course you are, and so am I."
She appraised him swiftly and responded reproachfully. "You wear the headdress of a tribal chief, but I suspect that you are not one."
"Well... no... but it makes a good impression."
"Our heritage is nothing to take lightly."
"Granted. That's why I wanted to write this collection of stories that have been passed on from generation to generation in the verbal tradition of our forefathers."
This statement softened the mare's attitude somewhat. "Yes. From what I've glanced over, the stories are true to our roots. You have recorded them faithfully."
"Thanks! Would you like me to sign a book for you?" Wigwam picked up a fresh copy and opened it to the title page. "What's your name?"
She smiled at him. "My name is Dreamcatcher."
"Dreamcatcher." Wigwam repeated the name as if spellbound; his gaze held hers for a long moment before he was able to tear his thoughts back to the signing. "Mine's Wigwam."
The mare laughed. "I gathered that from the book cover."
"Yes, but now we've been formally introduced." He scrawled something on the page before him, then asked, "Are you in Dream Valley on a visit?"
"No, actually. I've moved here to open a shop at this mall."
"A shop here? What will you be selling?" He finished the message in the book, and handed it over to her.
"Many different items. But what they all have in common is that each and every one will have been handcrafted by a Native Pony. My store is called Native Dreams."
"It sounds great. How did you decide to come to Dream Valley?"
"A family crisis necessitated my leaving my hometown, and I did some research on prospective locations and settled on Dream Valley as a viable option."
"Your family must have been disappointed to see you go."
The unicorn's face clouded over as if reliving an uncomfortable situation. "More the reverse of that; I was so disappointed in them that I decided to leave. Would you believe that my parents became partners with several other Native Pony investors to open a casino? I feel very strongly that such a move is a direct insult against the traditions that I firmly believe we must uphold."
Wigwam squirmed uncomfortably. "A casino, you say?" He saw a budding relationship withering under the burning sun of revelation.
"I believe that we Native Ponies should live in the spirit of those who have gone before us, living closely with nature. I refuse to compromise the values that were such an integral part of their lifestyle. Don't you agree, Wigwam?"
"Just how far do you go in upholding the old ways?" Wigwam asked uneasily.
"I live my entire life as the Native Ponies did; my home is a tepee I have set up in the Dark Forest; my food is supplied by the forest as well."
"I'm impressed," was all that the stallion could think to say.
"And I weave baskets and form pottery which I sell through my shop, along with consignments from a network of other crafters who honor the traditions as I do."
Thankful for a chance to steer the conversation in a safer direction, Wigwam asked, "When will you be set up?"
"If delivery is as expected, I'll begin on Monday."
"I'll make it a point to stop by. Monday evening is my night off."
"And where do you work, Wigwam?"
A titter arose from the ponies who had gathered, waiting for their turn to inspect Wigwam's book and obtain his personal signature. They had been intently following the conversation between the two Native Ponies, finding the exchange interesting. Most in the crowd knew Wigwam's occupation well enough to realize that the stallion was in serious trouble with Dreamcatcher's latest question.
"I have my own business on the outskirts of town," he intoned with a disturbed glance over the waiting group. He sought to silence them with mental telepathy, and he may have succeeded if two in the gathering had not been Quarterback and Tex. The opportunity this situation presented to that duo was priceless.
"Aww... come on, Wigwam. Don't be so modest," Tex called out. "This lovely mare deserves a better description of your occupation than that."
Wigwam tried to squelch the impending problem before Tex could say more. With a concerned attitude, he directed Dreamcatcher's attention to the current lull in activity at the checkout counter. "If you act fast, you won't have to wait in line to pay for the book."
But Dreamcatcher had caught a certain inflection in Tex's tone that warned her that something was slightly amiss. She turned to the yellow stallion behind her and queried, "Just what does Wigwam do for a living?"
It was Quarterback who supplied the answer. "Well, for a clue, the name of his establishment is Wigwam's Casino."
The ensuing silence was like a tangible substance that held time in suspension. When the spell broke, Dreamcatcher riveted Wigwam with a piercing glance that evoked frost on a sub-zero morning. Without averting her gaze, she set the book down on the table, pushed it across to come to rest in front of the author, turned on her hooves, and left the area.
"Was it something we said?" chortled Tex, with Quarterback guffawing at his side.
"I'd be angry with the two of you if it wasn't apparent that she'd have had to find out sooner or later anyway," Wigwam philosophized as he watched the unicorn disappear into the mass of holiday shoppers. "As it is, I expect you guys to purchase books to make up for my lost revenue." He set aside the copy that Dreamcatcher had so recently discarded.
"I was planning on buying one anyway," revealed Quarterback. "Merry Moments thinks it will look good sitting on her end table. She says the colors on the cover match her decor."
"You're supposed to read it, not use it in your decorating scheme."
"Don't lecture me. She's the one who suggested that I get it for her as a Christmas gift."
As Wigwam was signing the copy to Merry Moments, Tex continued to torment him. Picking up a copy of Native Pony Tales, he asked, "Did you get your pony tails with a tomahawk?" The congregated ponies responded with laughter as Tex proceeded to go through the motions of scalping Quarterback.
"Actually, I leave that to you, Tex. I've seen the prices you charge on that salsa of yours." More laughter ensued, and Tex was finally silenced.
The clamor for his book continued, and Wigwam was kept busy, but his glance often scanned the faces of the ponies passing by in the walkway, hoping to see again the orange-coated unicorn who had both intrigued and irritated him.
* * *
Sapphire had decided that taking posters down wasn't enough after her encounter with Macarius. She decided to follow his idea, but a little more subtly. Checking out the merchandise in various gift stores, she had found some nice cookie-cutter sets and bought the entire bulk stock that the storekeeper had. These were promptly set out as freebies next to Driftwood's bookmarks, and hopefully it would attract a wider range of customers.
But Macarius had his spies everywhere– like Sapphire had hers– and there was no keeping secrets. He not only had hunted-up some Native Pony bookmarks, but also a stock of attractive beaded hair-clips. Whatever one did, the other was sure to copy.
It was really no use offering more freebies if Macarius would only top whatever she did. Sapphire finally submitted herself to fate, and offered no more resistance to Macarius. It was all in the hooves of the customers now. Who would come out the winner? Sapphire could hardly keep her nerves under control. She was beginning to feel hysterical.
But then she caught sight of someone, and her spirits rose as she recalled another matter of "business" she had been instructed to look into on her trip here to Dream Valley. This would keep her from being driven out of her mind.
She quickly dashed out into the crowd and placed a hoof on the shoulder of a white unicorn stallion whom she recognized from pictures she had been shown. "Oh, Thomas! How nice to run into you like this! It is you, isn't it?" She looked at him anxiously.
Thomas turned to face her. "Yes..." he said tentatively. "Do I know you?"
"I'm your cousin Sapphire; don't you remember?" Sapphire realized that he would not remember as they had never met before, but it didn't matter. She also noticed that the expression on the mare's face next to him became much more relaxed at these last words.
"Oh, I see," Thomas nodded. "We ran into Macarius earlier; are you with him?"
"You talked to him?" Sapphire gasped. Darn, she thought, he beat me to Thomas, too! "Oh, no, we're not together at all. He's a Monk and I'm a Fairfax. There's a big difference. Oh... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that. But we're mortal enemies, you see, and it has nothing to do with that whole feud. So... I'm not with him."
"Ah." Thomas tried to sound like he understood. "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Sapphire."
"Uh-huh," Sapphire said cheerily. "And this is your wife?"
"That's right!" Tabby said brightly, answering for herself. "But try to remember that it's Tabby, not Tabitha, okay? And I know how it is with those mortal enemies. They're dreadful, aren't they?"
Shortly the three found themselves in deep conversation, having a lot to catch up on from never having seen each other before. Sapphire was easier to get along with than Macarius had been, and Thomas felt much more at ease with her.
"I don't suppose either of you do any writing?" Sapphire asked the inevitable, looking at both of them inquisitively in turn. Receiving only two shakes of their heads, she promptly tried to persuade them otherwise. "But Thomas! You're a veterinarian; surely you have many tales to tell. Why, you could be the next James Herriot! And Tabby, you work with toys, don't you? Some price guides would be lovely!"
"Hmm..." Tabby contemplated the idea. "It would be neat to organize all the information I have into a book."
"Great!" bubbled Sapphire. "I can advise you every step of the way; won't this be fun?"
Thomas wasn't so sure. "Tabby's busy enough now with her job at the Pokémon Center and keeping up the mansion. I'm not sure I want her buried under a ton of notes every free minute she gets."
"But I don't do anything to keep up the mansion anyway! Elaine does all that. I'd have plenty of time," Tabby protested.
"Oh, Thomas, Tabby can handle it. Can't you Tabby?"
But by this time, Tabby's mind was on other things. "Did you just hear a Furby? I'm sure I did. Let's go over to the toy store and see which ones they have."
* * *
Sugarberry was on her own again; while deciding what to do next, her attention was drawn to the entrance of Bushwoolie Bargain Books as a commotion ensued. Too far away to know what was causing the stir, she could only watch in wonder as an orange unicorn broke through the ranks surrounding Wigwam's position, and stalked angrily away. Sugarberry noted the dream catcher symbol; could this be the owner of the shop that Lemon Treats had mentioned?
Observing that the unicorn was headed toward the food court, Sugarberry maintained her seat, nursing a cold and bitter cup of coffee. A quick scan of the available places around her assured Sugarberry that if this piqued pony were to be looking for a seat, she would find no vacancies. Waiting for the proper moment when the orange mare had purchased her refreshment and came wandering through the sea of spirited ponies, Sugarberry caught her attention as she was about to pass by and offered to share the table with her.
Dreamcatcher looked relieved to have found a compassionate face in the crowd and accepted Sugarberry's invitation. "I appreciate this," she said as she sat down. "Is the mall always this busy on a Saturday?"
"The book signings have a lot to do with it," Sugarberry informed her.
"Signings?" Dreamcatcher asked. "By the way, my name is Dreamcatcher. And yours is..."
"...Sugarberry. And we have two local authors here today autographing their books."
"I met one." Dreamcatcher shot a heartless glance in Wigwam's direction. "Who is the other?"
"His name is Driftwood, and he has recently had a cookbook published."
"A cookbook? I won't have a use for one of those."
"And why not?" quizzed Sugarberry.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"But I'd be interested to hear your story, if you're willing to share it with me."
"Better get a refill on that coffee first," Dreamcatcher grinned.
Returning to the table with a fresh cup of coffee, Sugarberry noticed Dreamcatcher writing on a daily planner that she carried with her. "You must be very busy," she stated to her newly-found friend.
"Actually, I am. I'm going to set up a new store on Monday; it will be completely stocked with Native Pony crafts."
"I heard that a new business was moving in from Lemon Treats over at the boutique. This must be very exciting for you."
"Exciting, yes, but very demanding as well. There have been so many arrangements to set up, and now I have to fret that everything won't run as scheduled," worried Dreamcatcher as she jotted down still more notes.
"If you need extra help to get things ready, I could come in Monday after work; and there are others who would be happy to help as well."
"Thanks for the offer," Dreamcatcher smiled gratefully. "If you could drop by, I'd be glad to see a familiar face if nothing else."
"Where are you staying, or have you found a home for yourself already?" Sugarberry asked.
Dreamcatcher was silent for a moment before answering. "I set up a tepee in the Dark Forest."
"You what?!" Sugarberry gasped. "In the Dark Forest?"
"From what I was told, it is public land."
"A large part of it is, but still..." Sugarberry was unsure how to say what her feelings were, "...the Dark Forest is rather... strange."
"I believe in living my Native Pony heritage to the fullest," explained the unicorn. "The forest is an ideal setting for my home, and it supplies what I need."
Sugarberry's eyes grew round as she visualized what that meant. "You don't eat the animals, do you?" She had visions of the flocks of turkeys that had so recently spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Ponyland for their personal safety and wondered if any of them had met up with this unusual mare. And what of Butch's pet duck? The unknown creatures of the Dark Forest made the forest a dismal enough place on their own; Sugarberry was unsure how she felt about a hunter among them.
"I've found plenty of berries and nuts and fruits that I've hoarded away just like the squirrels," she smiled reassuringly. "And the river that cuts through the forest yields plenty of fish, clams, and snails."
"Oh, I see. But won't you be awfully cold out there when winter settles in for good?"
"A forest has plenty of firewood," stated the indomitable unicorn. "And I would be a sorry example of a Native Pony if I couldn't weave warm blankets for myself."
"Of course," agreed a rather overwhelmed Sugarberry. "You sound very self-sufficient."
"As we all should be."
Sugarberry steered the conversation onto a more comfortable course, or so she thought. "It's great that you could be here today when Wigwam is signing his book. Did you get a chance to talk with him?"
"Long enough to find out that he is not what he pretends to be," Dreamcatcher responded with a return of animosity in her eyes that reminded Sugarberry of the same look she had seen in Chocolate Chip's earlier, causing her to wonder how the stallion had succeeded in firing hostility in both ponies. "He is merely masquerading as a Native Pony; his life does not bear out his heritage."
"But how can you say that?" Sugarberry replied defensively, feeling sorry for Wigwam's seemingly unfortunate destiny with mares these days. "He's done an excellent job in retelling the old stories that otherwise might have been forgotten."
Dreamcatcher looked at Sugarberry speculatively. "You and he aren't..." Her glance dropped to Sugarberry's front left foreleg.
"Wigwam and I are friends, and I helped him to get his manuscript ready for publication. You don't know how strongly he admires the Native Pony culture, or what a kind and caring stallion he is."
"I know all I need to know, Sugarberry. He runs a casino."
"And wait until you see it! He has it decorated with Native Pony artifacts and he even has an authentic tepee set up in the main lobby that is as educational as it is beautiful."
"But don't you see? Would any of his Native Pony ancestors have condoned such an enterprise?"
"I don't know," admitted Sugarberry. "But I think they would have been proud of what he has accomplished."
The two mares were interrupted as a third one trotted up to their table and dropped familiarly into a seat. "Hi, sis," she directed at Sugarberry. "What's up?" The visitor looked curiously at Dreamcatcher.
"Hi, Raspberry. This is Dreamcatcher, a Native Pony who will be setting up her own shop here next week; Dreamcatcher, this is my sister, Raspberry. She's a close friend of Driftwood, the cookbook author," Sugarberry completed the introductions.
Sharing the usual small talk, the mares enjoyed a pleasant round of conversation before Dreamcatcher excused herself as she had a meeting with the mall manager for some last minute exchange of information. Raspberry watched her leave, and grinned at Sugarberry. "I like her. She seems to be very self-assured."
"That she is," agreed Sugarberry. "She lives alone in the Dark Forest."
"She what?!" That piece of information stunned even the level-headed Raspberry. "Doesn't she know what kind of reputation that place has?"
"She knows, but she doesn't care. She lives like her ancestors did, and that's what is important to her."
"More power to her," commented Raspberry. "And, by the way, Driftwood wonders why he hasn't seen you yet. He has a book reserved for you."
"I walked by earlier, but the place was packed. Wigwam's been doing well, too." Both mares looked toward the Bushwoolie's store, and saw that customers were still frequenting the stallion's site. "I have yet to get copies of Native Pony Tales for the folks. What time is it getting to be, anyway?"
"Nearly time for the book signings to end," verified Raspberry. "But with the way the two publishing houses have been trying to outdo each other all afternoon, I wouldn't be surprised if they made our authors stay until the mall closes."
The sisters decided to cover the mall together once before going their separate ways again and when Sugarberry returned to the bargain outlet, she had a copy of Driftwood's Recipes and Revelations along with her other purchases. As the dinner hour was approaching, the mall horde was thinning out, and Sugarberry saw her opportunity to purchase the gift books she wanted.
"Do you have any books left?" she queried of Wigwam.
"Sure. Plenty of them. How many do you want?" the stallion answered with a grin.
"Three for sure. I figure I can always buy more later if I need to, and force you into signing them for me. Four, if you've decided not to give me one for all my hard work on your behalf."
"I have your copy at home; I'll deliver it some evening this week. So three's all you'll need. Who are they for?" Wigwam stood posed and ready to write.
"The first one is for Mom and Dad."
"To Sugarberry's parents," Wigwam repeated what he wrote. "If you find any errors in the typing, it's your daughter's fault. Sincerely, Wigwam."
"Am I to assume that you are getting tired of writing sweet, sentimental thoughts to your customers?"
"You got that right," grimaced Wigwam. "A pony can only be proper so long."
"Well, the next one is for Vanguard's folks, so try not to say anything I'll regret," Sugarberry teased.
"I'm sorry, but I don't remember their names," admitted Wigwam.
"Whirlpool and Floral Breeze," Sugarberry reminded him.
After writing a suitable message, Wigwam picked up a third book. "Who's next?"
"That one's for Enrica."
Wigwam looked hesitantly at Sugarberry. "For Giorgio's mother?"
"Why, for heaven's sake, are you getting a copy for her?"
Sugarberry met his troubled gaze without wavering. "Giorgio had planned on buying one for her, but he's not here so..."
"And why isn't he here?" Wigwam broke in. "Because of his treacherous plans that threatened your family, Sugarberry. If he hadn't been so blasted hard-headed, you'd have Vanguard at your side right now, and I'd have Chocolate Chip!" He looked across the room as he finished his tirade to where Chocolate Chip remained busy at the checkout, and felt keenly the separation; the blame for the problems they were now having he placed directly at Giorgio's hooves.
When his thoughts came back to Sugarberry, he handed her the unsigned book. "I can't sign it now, Sugarberry. I'll do it when I deliver your copy. Maybe you can write me a script."
"I understand," the mare smiled bleakly. "I'll pay for these, and then maybe you can get away from here." She glanced around to see only a couple of ponies waiting to talk with Wigwam; but further along the mall aisle, she saw her sister and Driftwood coming in her direction.
"What, they released you from your bondage?" Sugarberry asked of Driftwood.
"Actually, I escaped when they weren't looking," the beige stallion grinned. "As much fun as this book signing was, I'm ready to say enough, already."
"Just be grateful that you had customers willing to buy your book," Sugarberry retorted. "You'd really have something to complain about if no one showed up."
"I had nightmares about that," admitted Driftwood. "But those Fairfaxes made sure the market was ready."
"Are our plans to hit the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe still on?" queried Raspberry as Sugarberry payed Chocolate Chip for her purchases. "Driftwood wanted to treat us at the Estate Manor, but I put my hoof down to that. He'd end up working in the kitchen all night." With a grin, she added, "You're invited, too, Chocolate Chip."
"That'd be great, but..." Chocolate Chip was caught by a customer who needed help locating a title.
Sugarberry, Raspberry, and Driftwood idled their way to the store front to wait for closing, and Wigwam helped Chumster and Friendly move the unsold books and the other props into the store before making his way to Chocolate Chip. "I'm leaving my headdress here until tomorrow," he told her.
"I'll make sure it's safe," she replied.
"And I wish you'd reconsider accepting this copy I signed especially for you." He held out the book, open to his uniquely scrawled message of which the closing-- Love-- played a prominent part.
The young mare looked at it briefly, but shook her head. "No, Wigwam. I've gotten myself an unsigned copy."
Wigwam wasn't about to give up. "Come to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe with us." The filly's eyes lit up which brought hope to Wigwam's face, but what he didn't know was that the object of Chocolate Chip's attention was the spirited stallion approaching from behind him.
"Ready to go?" a male voice that Wigwam recognized asked. Wigwam swung around to face Prime, who nodded briefly at the stallion, but centered his attention on Chocolate Chip. "The movie starts in fifteen minutes."
"I'm just ready to lock things up," Chocolate Chip informed him, her gaze swinging to Wigwam, "as soon as everyone's out of here. Goodnight, Wigwam. Glad your day was a success." And she turned to verify the day's receipts with Friendly, leaving Wigwam cut-off and alone.
* * *
"We've got enough books here to start our own library," giggled Sugarberry as she, Wigwam, Raspberry, and Driftwood headed out of the mall. All four had copies of both new books to give as gifts to various ponies on their shopping lists.
"That's one way to make sure your own publication becomes a success..." observed Driftwood, "...buy enough personally so that sales look good."
"I only bought a cookbook because Sugarberry forced me into it," acknowledged Wigwam with a grin. The stallion had vowed to himself that nothing was going to spoil the celebration of this day's first book signing, even if the look of dismissal from Chocolate Chip haunted his memory.
"That's funny," countered Raspberry, "because I had to do the same to get Driftwood to purchase Native Pony Tales as well."
"I bought more than anyone, and I'll certainly appreciate the favor returned when my next novel gets published," Sugarberry stated.
The foursome was just approaching the mall doors when they noticed another pony headed for the same exit. "Dreamcatcher!" called Sugarberry. "I hope your meeting with Brandon went well."
"It did; everything is arranged for set-up Monday."
"And this is Driftwood, Dreamcatcher," Raspberry went on to introduce the two ponies. "He's the owner of the Estate Manor nightclub here in Dream Valley as well as the author of Recipes and Revelations. Dreamcatcher is opening a native pony craft outlet and makes many of the products that will be for sale."
"It's nice to meet you," Dreamcatcher murmured.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Wigwam spoke up. "I just happen to have your book here." He offered her the copy that she had left behind, but Dreamcatcher shook her head.
"No, thank you." And she turned to go.
"Why don't you join us at the local ice cream parlor?" asked Sugarberry, attempting a reconciliation. "It's been a long day, and Scoops makes the best banana splits!"
"Yes. Please come with us," Wigwam backed up the invitation.
Dreamcatcher's eyes flickered over the group and ended on Wigwam. "No, thank you," she said once more. "I have many things to do yet this evening. Goodnight."
Watching her leave through the automated door, Wigwam sighed. "What's the old saying... 'You win some, and you lose some'? Personal experience proves that wrong." So saying, he dropped both Chocolate Chip's and Dreamcatcher's books into the garbage receptacle and quickly walked outside.
Sugarberry shrugged her shoulders as Driftwood and Raspberry looked at her for an explanation. "His personal life hasn't been as profitable as his business life," she enlightened, fishing through the garbage for the abandoned books. Recovering them, she placed them on the stack she carried. "We'll just have to cheer him up," she advised, leading the others to join him on the sidewalk. "As the Furbys would say, let's party!"
* * *
Wigwam wasn't the only one feeling depressed that evening. Earlier in the day, two ponies had approached the front door of the Royal Paradise expecting a royal welcome, and one of the two at least had been dreadfully disappointed. "Where is everyone?" complained Princess Tiffany to the yellow stallion at her side. "I sent word that we were coming!" She pounded on the door in a less than princessly manner.
"Here. Let me try," offered Guido as he pushed on the doorbell one more time. A rush of footsteps could be heard from inside, and soon the door was unceremoniously opened by Hugster, the Bushwoolie. "What you want, yeah, yeah?" he growled, obviously in no mood to be polite.
"What I want is a little respect!" responded Princess Tiffany sharply.
The little furry Bushwoolie forgot his own problems at the sound of the familiar voice of the long absent princess. He focused on the white pegasus before him, and opened the door wider. "Sorry, yeah. Come on in."
"Are the others gathered in the reception room to welcome me?" she asked of Hugster as she and Guido entered the home of the Dream Valley princesses. She looked eagerly up and down the hall for any sign of life.
"Nope, nope, yeah, yeah," truthfully admitted the Bushwoolie. "All gone. Except Queen Serena, yup yup."
"No one's here except for Serena?" dismally asked Tiffany. "What's so important that no one is here?"
At that moment, the beautiful Queen Serena appeared on the scene. "I thought I heard your voice, Tiffany! What a pleasant surprise! And you, too, Guido. Come on in." Serena led a puzzled Tiffany into the living room.
"Didn't you get my letter?" the princess asked. "I wrote that we'd be coming to Dream Valley for the holidays."
"We received a letter, yes. But you didn't indicate just when you'd be arriving, and there are still several weeks until Christmas."
"I told you that we should have cabled before the cruise ship came into port," Guido reminded his fiancee.
"Oh, I guess you were right," moaned Tiffany. "I just thought that everyone would be so anxious to see me..." Her voice trailed off forlornly.
"All the princesses are looking forward to seeing you again, Tiffany," assured Serena. "But they could hardly be expected to put their lives on hold until you showed up."
"So what important plans did everyone have?" asked Tiffany as she sat next to Guido on the sofa.
"Well, let me see. Royal Blue had a hair appointment, Dawn went to Friendship Gardens to see Perry Winkle, Pristina and Moondust took a trip into New Pony to shop, Sparkle and Misty were volunteers at the hospital, and the rest were going to hang out at the mall, I believe."
"The mall would seem so dreadfully boring after the shopping experiences I've had in Italy," responded Tiffany. "What do the princesses see in that place?"
Serena smiled, remembering the hours that Tiffany had spent in the past at the mall. "There was a special occasion today-- two local authors were unveiling their first publications and signing them personally."
As Tiffany and Serena discussed local goings-on, Guido maintained an outward display of listening while inwardly calculating profits and losses on his varied business ventures. The mention of book publishing pushed him to consider expanding into that field as well.
Serena, as the time grew later, began checking the clock at increasingly swifter intervals until Tiffany couldn't stand it any longer. "Serena, what are you waiting for?"