Clover the Clever waited nervously in the large cell with the others. Apparently, their jailbreak was an affront to the prison guards, because they now had guards stationed permanently at their cell door. One by one, each of them had been taken to speak with Celestia in private. Right now Shanks was being interviewed, Clover wondered how the little pup was handling his interrogation. “Master Starswirl,” he sighed, “I’m sorry that I’ve made such a mess of things.”
Sir Stouthorn looked down at Clover with his brown eyes full of wisdom, “Clover,” he said, “it’s not so bad. You finally got the opportunity to deliver your letter to the princess, and in pony no less.”
“Yes, but,” Clover said, “there’s no way Princess Celestia will allow me to head an expedition into the Diamond Vale now.”
Sir Stouthorn wore a smile that belied his sympathy. When he had spoken with Celestia, she’d politely declined his offer to quest in her name after graciously accepting the white rose he’d picked for her in the Everfree. The reasons she gave for declining his offer to serve were many, but he secretly suspected it was because he had mistakenly hit Luna earlier. “Listen Clover,” the minotaur said, “in life there’s no guarantees. The most you can do is give it your all, and hope for the best.”
The sound of the cell door opening interrupted their conversation, a grey unicorn guard escorted Shanks back inside the cell. The pup walked up to Clover and barked happily a few times.
“So how was meeting with the princess?” Clover asked his friend.
“Aroo, the day princess is nice,” Shanks said, “maybe not as great as Darkpaw, but nodog could hope to be.”
The unicorn guard looked at Clover with a stern expression. “Clover the Clever,” he said, “come with me”.
Clover nervously swallowed. He followed the guard out of his cell and through several hallways, until they reached a set of heavy wooden doors guarded by several of the palace guards. The prison guard nodded to them once, they nodded back and opened the door allowing them to enter.
“Wait here,” the guard said before exiting the room.
The room was large, and had several chairs around a large table with a map and several stone markers placed on it. Taking a closer look, Clover saw that it appeared to be a map of the Everfree forest and the area surrounding Londwhinium.
“Would you care for some tea?” a gentle voice asked.
Startled, Clover turned around to see that it was Princess Celestia who had entered the room unnoticed. “Uh, yes Princess,” Clover said.
Using her magic, Celestia poured some tea and levitated the cup towards Clover. “I see you’ve had quite the adventure,” Celestia said, looking at a scroll.
“Well I don’t really know about that,” Clover replied modestly.
“From what I can gather,” Celestia said, reading from the scroll, “your traveling companions are no less than a diamond dog, two knights of the Lawgiver, a griffin, a dragon, and a wanted criminal. Additionally you’ve had battle with servants of the Lord of Earth, fought with no less than a dozen unicorns, twenty of my palace guards, and somehow managed to break out of the palace dungeons.”
“Well Seafoam is still a page I believe,” Clover replied, “and I don’t think Showboat’s really that bad a pony.”
“So tell me Clover,” Celestia said, taking a small sip of her tea, “how did you come by such interesting travel companions?”
“Well, my master Starswirl the Bearded,” Clover said, levitating a scroll out of his saddlebag and placing it before Celestia, “felt that that the current crisis to Equestria was due to the loss of the prime element of earth. He felt that sending an expedition into the remains of the Diamond Vale to petition to the new Lord of Earth for peace, would be the only way to resolve the current crisis.”
Celestia broke open the sealed scroll and began reading its contents. After a few minutes, she put down the letter and looked up at Clover, “I’m afraid I’m unable to authorize any sort of expedition into the Diamond Vale. However, I do have need of ponies with your skills for a sensitive mission. I warn you the task could be dangerous. But if you accept it, all charges against you and your friends will be dropped.”
Clover’s heart sunk when he heard Princess Celestia refuse his request to investigate the Diamond Vale. But when he heard of the task she offered, he looked towards her with curiosity. “What sort of mission is it?” he asked.
“A large group of diamond dogs, griffins, and ponies, are headed towards Londwhinium,” Celestia explained, “we have no idea of what they want. We need somepony to act as my envoy to ascertain their intentions before they reach the city.”
“Diamond dogs…” Clover mused aloud.
“Yes, Clover,” Celestia said, “I believe that they have peaceful intentions, but there have been some who feel this could be a ruse, or even a prelude to armed conflict.”
“So you need somepony to trigger the trap early then?” Clover asked.
“Essentially yes,” Celestia said, “I must warn you, should they have hostile intentions there will be nothing I can do to aid you.”
“Alright I’ll do it,” Clover said, without even thinking it over.
“Are you sure?” Celestia asked in concern, “even knowing the possible dangers.”
“When we fought the beasts in the Everfree and were cornered,” Clover said, “Jormungandr intervened, and saved us from certain death. I fell into a deep sleep and awoke in his realm. He told me that all seven of us were needed in order to restore balance to Equestria.”
When she heard the name of the winding one, Celestia raised her eyes in surprise. “Jormungandr, hmm…” she said.
“Incidentally, Princess Celestia,” Clover said, “Jormungandr said ‘he sends his regards and the Earth will be healed in its own time’.”
When Celestia heard Jormungandr’s message she furrowed her brown in concentration. “What could Jormungandr know that she didn’t?” she thought. “The child King, was a danger to everypony else, yet Jormungandr believed that he would stop this destruction of his own accord.”
“Princess?” Clover asked.
“Oh yes, Clover,” Celestia said, “I’ll have the guards escort you and your companions to Princess Luna. She will give you your instructions for the mission.”
Celestia rang a bell, moments later a palace guard entered the room and saluted her.
"Please escort, Clover the Clever, and the rest of his party to the briefing room in the palace,” Celestia said. “My sister, Princess Luna, will advise them on what they need to do.”
Nodding, the guard opened the door and waited for Clover to follow after him.
Once the door had closed behind them, Princess Celestia felt the need for sleep overtaking her. Leaving the prison behind her, she headed towards her chambers to go to her room. Laying down in her bed, the last thoughts on her mind before she drifted off to sleep were, “Jormungandr, I wonder what part you’re playing in this game?”
“A noble quest, and for the princess no less!” Sir Stouthorn said, slapping Clover’s back and filling the large briefing room with his exuberant voice. “Well done, Clover.”
“But Sir Stouthorn,” Seafoam said, “Princess Luna will be meeting with us shortly; perhaps she’s still upset regarding what happened during our apprehension?”
Shaw chuckled, “Yeah I couldn’t believe you actually hit a deity like that,” he teased. “I’d bet you left some bruises on that supple flank of hers.”
“Shaw,” Showboat said in a singsong voice, “would you be a dear and help me with my saddlebags?”
“Sure thing, Showboat,” Shaw replied, helping her adjust her saddlebags.
Sir Stouthorn shot a look of gratitude towards Showboat when the griffin wasn’t looking. “Sir Stouthorn,” she said, I don’t believe the Princess would be the kind to hold a grudge, especially if you sincerely apologize.”
“I don’t know,” Shaw said, “some mare’s flanks are very sensitive. I mean take Showboat for example… Oww!” Shaw screeched in pain, when Showboat bit down on his wings.
“Oh Shaw,” Showboat tittered, “I’m terribly sorry, your wing got in my mouth and I bit down on accident. Dear, do try to be more careful in the future.”
Getting the message, Shaw rubbed his tender wing and apologized. “Well I’m sure Showboat is right,” he said, “besides maybe your strength impressed her.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Sir Stouthorn asked.
“Well, that’s how Lord Darkpaw and Lady Zephyr became an item,” Shaw explained. “Lady Zephyr and Lord Darkpaw used to be the bitterest of enemies, until one fateful night. They had been fighting nonstop for three days and nights wrestling with each other, until they stopped looked each other in the eyes and really started wrestling with each other.”
“Now I’m sure the Princess wouldn’t be interested in a tired old knight like me,” Sir Stouthorn said, his normally blue fur becoming redder and redder.
“How crass Shaw,” Showboat sniffed.
“You didn’t think so last time Showboat,” Shaw teased.
“Shaw, I think your wings are getting bit too close to my mouth,” Showboat warned.
Shanks sniffed the air a few times and barked. “Aroo, the night princess is coming,” he said, wagging his tail in excitement.
Moments later, Princess Luna entered the room flanked by two of her personal night guards. Their black armor dully reflected the light of the room, while their bat like wings gave them a unique look. As she walked towards the table, her midnight blue mane billowed in some invisible breeze. Taking a seat at the table she poured herself a cup of tea.
Sir Stouthorn immediately leapt to his hooves; he deeply bowed to the Princess. “Princess Luna,” he said in humility, “My name is Sir le Boeuf Stouthorn, the chivalrous, of the ‘Most Illustrious Order of Triton the Lawgiver’. Please allow me to apologize for striking your person. Had I been able to see, I would never have acted in such an uncouth manner.”
Looking at the blue minotaur knight, Luna narrowed her eyes and took a dainty sip of her tea. “Sir Knight,” she said, “We accept thy apology. Though we must admit, it has been ages since we had been so roughly treated.”
“Please accept this small token of my esteem for your beauty and grace,” Sir Stouthorn said, presenting the pink orchid he had retrieved from the Everfree forest to Luna; its fragrance filled the room, and its open petals were beautifully shaped. It was the perfect flower.
Luna grasped the orchid with her magic, placing it in her hair; its pink petals perfectly complemented her flowing mane. “We thank thee, Sir Stouthorn,” she said. “Never before hast we seen such a beautiful orchid.”
“My lady, its beauty pales in comparison to that of your moon,” Sir Stouthorn replied.
Luna smiled at the knight, and then turned her attention to the rest of the party. “We were told by our sister Celestia, that thou all hast willingly accepted this undertaking.” she said.
Clover nodded, “Yes,” he said, “I was told by Jormungandr himself that we each have a part to play. So I agreed to go.”
Shanks tongue playfully lolled out of his mouth as he panted. “Mister Clover is my friend,” he said, “I happy to go, even if have to face the bad dogs again.”
Sir Stouthorn nodded and saluted Luna, “Princess Luna,” he said, “it has always been a dream of mine to quest for the princesses; even if it’s only a message it will be enough.”
“Where ever my charge goes, I too shall follow,” Seafoam said.
Shaw stopped preening his rainbow hued wings, and looked up at the Princess. “Um, I guess I got nothing better to do,” he said, waving his claw dismissively. “Besides, these guys will need me to bail them out when trouble finds them.”
“I’m coming to make sure Shaw doesn’t act too recklessly,” Showboat said. “Somepony has to keep Shaw from diving beak first into every situation without looking.”
Slick was busily eating some doughnuts that had been placed on the table. “What?” he said, through a half full mouth. “She’s my ride, so I’m pretty much stuck tagging along.”
Once she had verbally heard everypony agree to go on the mission, Luna used her magic to unfurl a map on the table. When the map was secured, she used her magic to make miniature trees and vegetation sprout up from the map, followed by a scale model of Londwhinium itself. After a few minutes, a perfect replica of Londwhinium, the area surrounding it, and the entire Everfree forest was on the table. Luna used her magic to zoom in on an area of the Everfree about a day’s journey away from the city.
“Currently,” Luna said, “a large cavalcade of diamond dogs are headed towards the city. We are ignorant as to their intentions towards us. Therefore, we require thee to intercept them, and determine their intentions.”
Shaw flicked his tail nervously; there wasn’t much love between griffins and diamond dogs, the love affair between Lady Zephyr and Lord Darkpaw notwithstanding. “Princess Luna,” he said, even if the diamond dog’s intentions are not hostile towards the city. What if their hostility will be directed towards any messengers you send?”
“Griffin Shaw, thy caution is well warranted,” Luna replied. “We shall grant each of thee the office of ambassador, that thou mayst act as agents on our behalf, free of the threat of molestation. If yonder diamond dogs are on a mission of diplomacy, thou shalt be protected.”
“How will we get there in time?” Seafoam asked. “By the time we reach them and come back, they will already be at the gates of the city.”
“Verily, it is most fortuitous that among thy number is a griffin,” Princess Luna replied. “Shaw shall pull one of our swiftest chariots. With it, thou shalt surely be able to ascertain their intentions and return to us in haste. My royal guard shall escort thee to the waiting chariot, if thou require anything, please alert mine guards they shalt tend to thy needs.”
Everypony but Clover followed after the guard, Princess Luna looked at him questioningly, “Little pony, hast thou other business with thy Princess?” she asked.
Clover opened his saddlebag and levitated the letter addressed to Princess Luna to her. “My master, Starswirl the Bearded said that you might be more receptive to his request then your sister,” Clover explained, while Luna read the scroll.
After a minute, Luna placed the scroll down. “Verily, thy master is a most wise stallion,” Luna said, tapping her muzzle with her hoof. “We take it that our sister summarily rejected thy proposal?”
“Yes,” Clover said dejectedly.
“We find thy party most curious,” Luna said, “Thou mentioned Jormungandr saying that thou hast a part to play. What did thou meanest?”
Clover relayed the conversation he had had with the winding one in his sleep, when he mentioned that Strix had warned them, and that both Lugh and Loki had assisted Shaw, Luna raised an eyebrow. “We think thou surely must have some greater role to play in all this, young Clover.” she said. “We shall meditate on thy request, and give thee an answer when thou hast returned from thy task.”
“Thank you Princess Luna,” Clover said, bowing to her before he left the room to join his companions.
“The pieces…” Luna mused to herself. “Now let us see if thee and thy friends are mere pawns, or something more substantial my little pony.”
About thirty minutes later, the party was flying high and fast over the Everfree forest. Sir Stouthorn was at the reigns guiding Shaw towards the last known location of the diamond dog incursion. “Isn’t it thrilling?” the minotaur asked his young page.
Seafoam gripped the railing of the chariot as tightly as he could, his flippers turned white from the pressure he put on them. “Ye… yes, Sir Stouthorn,” Seafoam stammered. “It’s just that I’ll be much happier when my flippers are back on the ground.”
Shanks hung his head out the side of the chariot, letting his long broad tongue flap freely in the breeze. As he panted, his drool was hitting the passengers behind him. Eww!” Showboat moaned, trying in vain to avoid getting puppy saliva over her pink coat. “Shanks, don’t you know it’s rude to keep your mouth open?”
“Aroo,” Shanks replied, “but it’s so much fun, pretty pony lady.”
“Perhaps you could sit behind us then?” Showboat suggested. “That way you don’t drool all over everypony and you can still feel the wind hitting your face.”
Shanks bounded happily towards the back of the chariot, and gave Showboat a few playful licks to her muzzle. He took the seat behind her, barking happily.
“Stop jumping around back there,” Shaw grumbled, “I’m trying to fly this crate straight, and all that moving around isn’t helping things.”
“Darling you’re doing a marvelous job,” Showboat said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Shaw muttered under his breath.
“There it is!” Clover shouted, looking down at the forest far below.
“I see it,” Shaw replied, as he banked the chariot to the left in an effort to find a suitable landing spot.
Minutes later the chariot was about fifty yards away from the head of the procession. Sir Stouthorn gestured for Clover to lead the way. “Clover my boy it’s time,” he said, pointing towards the golden palanquin near the head of the procession.
“Why me?” Clover asked.
“Because Clover, this is your quest,” Sir Stouthorn said. “You accepted it from Princess Celestia herself. But fear not…” he said, readying his massive battleax, “you shall not face them alone.”
Clover gulped a few times, and then headed towards the column of diamond dogs at the head of the procession. “What should I say,” Clover whispered under his breath towards Sir Stouthorn.
Sir Stouthorn chuckled lightly, “A bit late for studying isn’t it?” he teased. “Fear not Clover, I’ll be your herald in this matter. Just follow along as well as you can. Once we speak with the top dog so to speak, you’ll need to ask their intentions.”
“Oh I don’t know if I can do this!” Clover moaned quietly.
“Don’t worry lad you’re a natural at this, you’ll see!” Sir Stouthorn said cheerfully.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Clover grumbled.
Once they had reached the head of the column, about thirty diamond dogs all heavily armored surrounded the small group. The group of dogs parted, allowing a mastiff nearly as large as large as Sir Stouthorn to approach them. The diamond dog padded towards the unwelcome intruders, and carefully appraised each of them. “What business do you have, blocking the path of the Lord under the Earth?” the dog demanded.
Sir Stouthorn raised himself to his full height and looked down at the dog before him. “These are the Princesses’ roads,” he bellowed, trying to be as intimidating as possible. “Any who use them, do so according to their whims.”
“Yet I do not see the Princesses here,” the hound countered, “and I count over one hundred of my pack mates against your seven.”
“Be that as it may,” Sir Stouthorn said, cool as a cucumber, “I remind you good sir that any who wishes to use these roads may be questioned as to their intent by agents of the crown.”
“Our business is our own,” the dog growled. “But if you insist, you may speak with our liege.”
“That would be most agreeable,” Sir Stouthorn said, “please lead the way.”
The guard dog whispered something to one of his lieutenants, and waited as the dog ran towards the palanquin. He returned a few minutes later, and whispered a response into the hound’s ear.
“Very well,” the diamond dog said. “Your party may approach the arch duke.”
Once they had approached the gold palanquin, Clover’s hooves shook as he climbed up to meet with the arch duke. Once they were all standing atop the palanquin, Sir Stouthorn rested his battleax in front of his hooves, “I present to you,” he said in measured breathes, “Clover the Clever, lord of the burning brambles, protégé of Master Starswirl the Bearded, personal envoy of Princess Celestia the Radiant and Princess Luna the Beautiful, may their holy light shower us always.”
The guard dog not willing to be outdone by the minotaur took a deep breath and recited, “I present to you, Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap, steward of the Diamond Vale, most esteemed among Diamond Dogs, voice for the Lord under the Earth the great and terrible, may the Earth grant us a blessing and spare us its wrath.”
The arch duke, satisfied that all the required posturing was concluded looked at the diverse party. After carefully appraising each of them, he said, “So what does Celestia wish to discuss with the Great Slave King?”
From deep in thicket burning red eyes waited and watched, curious as to why they had willing returned the last Gem Biter into his grasp.
Gentlereaders, finally we are back in the thick of things. With the Slave King's and Clover's party's story lines beginning to intertwine, how will the arch duke handle this delicate situation. The last Gem Biter is within easy reach, yet capturing the pup would make any diplomatic overtures with Celestia an impossibility. Will Clover choke on his new responsibility, or will he succeed in his quest? What will Luna's answer be, if they ever return from this mission? And will Scourge finally get his revenge?
Find out all this and more in the next exciting chapter of the ongoing saga of The Great Slave King.
Thanks for reading gentlereaders, until next time.