• Published 18th Jul 2019
  • 8,705 Views, 488 Comments

Time Enough For Love - horizon

Clover the Clever tricked war goddess Celestia out of a coup attempt. Now she's traded the sun to woo him, and he faces a bleak prophecy: if he's brave and clever enough, he just might survive her affection for long enough to break her heart.

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1. The Challenge

Clover was approaching Queen Platinum's throne to deliver his usual Sunday morning report when an ear-shattering boom split the air, and five tons of iron door shot past his shoulder.

The thick stone wall just to the left of the throne exploded as the door hurtled through it. Every pony in the Great Hall froze statue-still, then swiveled their heads toward the projectile's source.

"My name," a voice thundered from the tall white mare in the doorway, "is Celestia Invicta, Slayer of the Dragon Legions, Tamer of Tartarus, Imperatrix of the Tribes. And alla you prancers better clear on out, cause you're raising the sun too rutting early, and 'sabout time I showed you how it's done."

Chaos erupted as Celestia tossed back her disheveled pink mane and swaggered into the room. Nobles and servants alike screamed and galloped for the nearest exit. Platinum remained frozen on her throne, terrified eyes locked with the intruder, her face a blank mask. The royal guards, to their credit, huddled into a semblance of a defensive line, backing slowly toward the throne in time with the war goddess' casual advance.

The smart thing to do would have been to join the stampede, Clover thought as he leapt up the steps toward his queen's side. But they didn't call him Clover The Clever because he was smart.

Platinum's eyes flicked toward him. "What's she doing here?" she hissed through clenched teeth. "I thought the alicorns were with the army reclaiming the Great Southern Forest from the Diamond Kingdoms."

"That is curious," Clover murmured back. He narrowed his eyes, taking in every detail of Celestia's approach. Her steps were coming down wide, and her hinds were swaying hypnotically, accentuating the barrel-sized warhammer strapped to her back. A lopsided smile hung on her muzzle — not one of the predatory ones they saw every time she faced her foes, but a self-satisfied smirk.

Clover frowned. "The more so that she'd launch a coup without her sister," he whispered.

One of the guards stumbled as he retreated, falling to the floor and quickly scrambling back to his hooves within range of Celestia's weapon. She halted — ah, and there was that predatory smile. She slowly raised a forehoof, curling a pastern over the warhammer's handle, her body teetering toward the lifted hoof until she took a little half-step to compensate. "Finally," she said, drawing out the f a touch too long. "Mister Smashy has been looking forward to a workout."

Her slurred speech, her near-stumble, her disheveled appearance, her odd belligerence: Ah, that explains it, Clover thought. An idea began to brew, and before self-preservation could stop him, he lit his horn in an amplification spell and took a step forward. His shoe came down with a crack that would have been impressive in any other circumstance, and he boomed in his deepest voice: "Hold!"

Every head in the room — including Celestia's — swiveled to Clover as he strode down the steps of the dais. The guards scurried past him to huddle around Platinum's throne. "Most honored Imperatrix," he continued, "let us not raise arms against innocent ponies when this dispute can be settled with a contest of champions."

Celestia blinked, tilted her head, scrutinized Clover's simple burlap robes, then looked around the hall. "Okay, I'll bite. Where is she?"

"… that would be me, Imperatrix."

There was silence for a moment as she digested this, then Celestia threw back her head in a room-shaking laugh. "Oh, sweet stars, that's a good one. Who are you? Frumpy-Clothes, the court jester?"

Clover stood a little straighter. "They call me Clover the Clever," he said solemnly. "Melter of Windigos, Co-Discoverer of the Fires of Friendship, Lord High Magister of the Platinum Court, and the sharpest wit of the Three Tribes."

Celestia strode forward, closing the gap between them with two steps, and sized him up. Then she poked him in the chest. Clover staggered back — the air rushing from his lungs — and barely managed to keep his hooves.

Celestia's smile fell away. "Sending a colt to do a mare's job, Platinum? Really?" She exhaled an exaggerated sigh, and a wave of alcohol curled his nose-hairs. "I have no idea how I could possibly make this a fair match. How about I loan you Mister Smashy, blindfold myself, and only hit you with my left back knee?"

Perfect. The last piece of his plan fell into place, and Clover couldn't quite keep a smirk from spreading across his muzzle. "Who said I was here to fight you, Imperatrix? To defend unicorns' right to rule the sun and moon, I challenge you to a drinking contest."

The alicorn's eyes lit up.

In a single fluid motion, she whipped a foreleg down on the handle of the warhammer, catapulting it into midair. A shimmering gold field snatched it from the top of its arc, sending it rocketing downward like a bolt of lightning. With a boom that made Clover flinch, the hammer landed between them, leaving a crater in the hall's marble floor. Celestia lifted both forelegs, crossing them over the handle of the hammer, then set her grinning muzzle atop her legs.

"Challenge accepted, Frumpy," she said.

Queen Platinum shot Clover a glare nearly as lethal as the war-goddess. Clover gave her a single, slow wink in return. "One table, every tankard in the castle, and an ocean of the Three Tribes' strongest cider," he shouted, and Platinum grudgingly raised a hoof, sending servants scurrying throughout the castle.

"Never had a unicorn challenge me to a drinking contest before," Celestia said as the proceedings were being arranged, throwing a hoof around Clover's withers. "Usually it takes an Earther to be dumb enough to think they're in my league."

Clover wheezed, squirming one shoulder out of her vise-grip to open up his windpipe. "If you have never drunk with a unicorn, Imperatrix, then you have never had a real challenge," he said gravely. "In my diligent study of the arcane, I have mastered secrets of the self, shielding my wits from the ravages of alcohol with mental techniques unknown in the toughest earth-pony bars."

Celestia's head swiveled to his. There was a dangerous twinkle of excitement in her eyes. "Really?"

"Indeed," Clover said, "and I aim to prove it. The world's hardiest earth pony could consume, what, a hundred tankards of cider at a sitting? By what margin do you think you could outdrink her? Two hundred tankards? Five hundred?" He leaned in. "Eight hundred?"

"Pfah, do you think your boasts can intimidate me? I outdrank the Lord of the Dragons once! Try a thousand!"

"Well!" Clover examined a hoof. "I'm certain that I'm twice the drinker that an earth pony is. So you'll merely need a nine-hundred-tankard head start for us to be fairly matched."

Celestia's expression tried to contort three different ways at once.

"And never let it be said that the mighty Imperatrix would back down from a fair challenge," Clover said. "Am I right?"

The midnight-blue alicorn kicked several stray tankards out of the way, circled the warhammer-crater, and calmly stepped over Celestia's loudly snoring form. The silence this time was tense rather than terrified. The whispers began when she approached Platinum's throne, head bowed low.

"I beseech thy pardon," Luna said in the Earth dialect used within the court to signal humility and contrition — and out of all the strangeness of the day, to hear such words from the mouth of an immortal was the strangest of all. "My sister hath o'erstepped her bounds. On behalf of the Alicorn Tribe, I would fain reaffirm the Tribal Accords and honor thy place as true custodian of the skies."

Platinum glanced sideways at Clover, then laughed uneasily. "The absolution thou seek'st," she said in the same dialect, "is matched only by Our unending gratitude for the countless blessings thou hast brought the Tribes, o Lighter of Stars. It is not meet for thee to abase thyself to Us or Our ponies."

"Thou art too gracious." Luna left her head down for another long moment, but when she brought it back up, there was the hint of what might have been a smile on her muzzle. "I heard the guards' whispers about the challenge on my way in," she said in Unicorn. "I should like to meet the pony responsible."

"Clover," Platinum said, and gestured him forward.

Luna turned to Clover, and her eyes flicked appraisingly around his form. Despite the lack of malice in her words, Clover suppressed a shiver. When Celestia had looked at him, he had felt like a sparring dummy being analyzed for weak spots — but there was no subtlety to her intentions, and a predictable threat was one you could sidestep and redirect. With Luna, though, the way she stared gave up nothing in return.

Luna finally seemed to satisfy herself, and nodded. "I am curious," she said conversationally. "How many tankards did she drain?"

Clover bowed low. "Well, o Lighter of Stars —"

"I do not think we should waste time on formalities," Luna interrupted. Despite the mildness of her voice, it didn't feel like a suggestion. "If you bested one alicorn, surely you can speak to another as an equal."

Clover blinked and jerked back upright. Not even Platinum got away with discarding alicorn titles.

"M-my apologies," he stammered. "… Luna."

Luna tilted her head in silence at him. Clover tugged at the collar of his robe, wondering if he'd overreached — then remembered her hanging question.

"Ah. Tankards, yes. Nine hundred and seventy-three." He considered, then decided he might as well go for broke with the conversation-as-equals thing. "I must admit, I figured that even reaching her 900-mug head start was impossible."

Luna let out a short, sharp chuckle before her muzzle settled back into flat solemnity, and Clover's adrenaline receded. "Many have underestimated my sister," she said. "Once. I am the one who comes out from her shadow to clean their pieces from the floor."

Clover gave her a disarming smile. "You quite nearly did. A lesser pony would have made the acquaintance of Mister Smashy when he reversed the count at 700."

At that, Luna snorted, a hoof leaping to her muzzle to cage a grin while she struggled to re-leash it.

She coughed, then, and glanced around the room. A blue glow encircled Celestia, the warhammer, the massive door that eight ponies were lugging across the hall, and the pile of wall-rubble that had been assembled near the hole, lifting them all at once. The door sailed smoothly across the room as its damaged frame distorted and straightened, and the scrap-metal of the hinges glowed and reshaped into rods, sliding silently back into position. Simultaneously, the rubble shaped itself into a slab and slid back into the wall, small streams of mortar showering down as its edges wedged in. Amid the midair dance, Celestia and her weapon floated to a point behind Luna's shoulder.

"By your leave, Your Majesty," she said, then turned her head back to Clover. "Clover, was it?"

"Yes, Ligh—" Clover caught himself. "Luna."

"Know that this day you have earned the undying gratitude of …" Luna paused mid-sentence, then studied him anew, an odd expression crossing her muzzle. "Hold. Clover, Melter of Windigos, known by the epithet 'the Clever'?"

Clover blinked, sudden unease gnawing at his gut. Being recognized by an alicorn should have been a mark of incalculable prestige, let alone their completely unprecedented conversation, but there was something odd about the way she said it. "… Yes?"

"Well, well." Luna's expression relaxed back into a blank mask again, but she bowed — bowed! — to him. "Clover, the brilliance of your deceit has saved my dearest sister from walking a foolhardy road cobbled in misery and maregild. I believe I owe a great recompense. And I believe I am in possession of a gift uniquely suited." Her speech shifted back into the Earth dialect. "Wilt thou walk with me, that I may share a story which someday might aid thee in out-clevering a similar misery?"

Clover opened and closed his mouth, finally at a complete loss. He glanced at Platinum, who gave him a pointed look and nodded. Clover swallowed and nodded, too. Luna turned without another word and began strolling out of the hall. Clover blinked, then trotted to catch up.

The two of them moved through the keep in silence, a rag-doll Celestia hovering alongside. Clover ignored the whispers, and focused on hustling to keep up as gracefully as possible with Luna's longer stride. They passed through the gates and some distance down a path into the surrounding woods. Then, without warning, Luna halted, looked around — presumably to make certain they were alone — and fixed him with an intent stare.

"I have good reason to believe," she said quietly, "that you are a student of Star Swirl the Bearded's."

A tiny part of Clover wondered when the day was going to stop getting weirder.

He took a long, shaky breath. "Setting aside how absurd that accusation should be, considering that history's greatest unicorn died a century before my birth," he said, "I'm … not entirely certain that I can deny it."

Luna nodded silently, gestured with a head-tilt toward the path, and began walking again. Clover fell in alongside her, bit his lip, then decided to go for broke.

"I've … hallucinated him, a few times," Clover said. "Or at least that's what I've always assumed. Occasionally — when I was close to a major spellwork epiphany — a figure who was the spitting image of the old coot has suddenly appeared over my shoulder, said something cryptic to riddle me in the right direction, and then vanished again before I could react.

"And then — a few days before Cookie, Pansy and I discovered the Fires of Friendship — I woke up to somepony shuffling around near my desk. Star Swirl's silhouette. I scrambled out of bed, hoping to confront him, but by the time I lit the magelights, he was gone. The only sign of his visit was that three books had been moved from my shelf to the reading-stacks on my table.

"While I was refiling them, I started wondering why he'd do something so bizarre … and then thinking about what the three books had in common … and that's what led to me creating the spell which I used to harness the fires." Clover took a long breath. "But I've never told a soul, because I thought nopony would be crazy enough to believe me. How did you know?"

"It is therein which lies my tale," Luna said.

"… Go on."

Luna walked in silence for a moment — her shining silver peytrals coming down in the Everfree's deadfall with the whisper of dreams. "Before I say anything," she finally said, "you must understand. A century ago — after the Calamity and before the Three Tribes' cessation of open warfare — it was a dark and bloody time full of regrets. I shall not speak freely of it, even for you.

"But lights within the deepest darkness shine all the brighter for their surroundings. One such was Star Swirl. When the Calamity scattered the alicorn herd to the six stellar poles, and two fillies yet to reach apotheosis were abandoned here to die, he saved them and raised them as daughters and as students."

"Yes," Clover said, "that was mentioned in my magical histories — although, at the time, the part about you two was thought to be a legend." His own hooves landed with clumsy crunches of leaves. "If what I've heard is true, it was right when you got your Marks that he vanished without a trace?"

"True," Luna said, "but irrelevant to my tale."

Clover tilted his head inquisitively. "How? I was there when you showed up at the Tribal Accords. I heard some of the rumors of your search for your father." He hesitated for a moment, but pressed on without giving Luna a chance to reply. "Normally I'd feel it wasn't my place to ask, but … isn't this conversation hurtling straight toward the fact that Star Swirl somehow is still alive, a century beyond his normal lifespan?"

Luna walked on for several steps. "That is, I believe, a tale for another time," she finally said. "Because the fact is, my suspicion of your tutelage came not from the modern era, but from something he said in my youth."

Clover's eyebrow shot upward, and the other quickly joined it. "You have my undivided attention."

Luna nodded, apparently satisfied.

"One night," she said, "early in our teenage years — when he was tutoring us in the ways of magic — I found myself struck by insomnia, and took a walk while Celestia was sleeping. There was a light in Star Swirl's workshop, and I entered to investigate. He was at his workbench, casting an enchantment I did not recognize into a small amulet of gold.

"It was simple in design, a circle inset with an inscribed triangle. 'What's that?' I asked him.

" 'A very special present,' he replied. 'Another student of mine, who's too clever for his own good, someday is going to fall madly, impossibly, dangerously in love.'"

Clover smiled unsteadily. "That first bit might sound like me, I'll admit."

Luna turned her head and fixed him with an inscrutable stare for a moment before continuing.

"I asked Star Swirl," she said, " 'What does the amulet do?' And he simply winked at me.

"But I had always been quite the curious filly, and had learned that that manner of non-answer meant I was asking him the wrong question. So I asked, 'Why are you making the amulet?'

"He nodded at that. 'Because cleverness won't be enough,' Star Swirl told me. 'Without the amulet, the mare who loves him will be alone and broken-hearted at the time she needs him most. And with it, the mare who loves him will be alone and broken-hearted at the time she needs him most.'"

Clover slowly blinked. "… Did I hear you right?"

"That was the question I myself asked," Luna said. "By then, I was well used to his riddles, but even so …" She shook her head. "When he repeated the prophecy, I told him, 'That's stupid. What good is it, then?'

"Star Swirl smiled in that knowing way that meant the conversation was over, and said, 'Oh, it's quite stupid. But they don't call him clever because he is smart.'"

Four days later, Clover was discussing merchant tax receipts with Platinum when a boom echoed through the Great Hall. The re-hung iron door bulged inward, tilted, and fell, and by the time it had hit the carpet, the stampede toward the side doors had already begun.

Oh no, not again, Clover thought as Celestia sauntered through the hall. This time, the pink aura of her well-brushed mane had a streak of blue war-paint dyed in, and she was in full battle regalia, her breastplate and chausses gleaming with reflected light. Clover's heart stopped when he saw her stride — this time, the sway of her hips was narrow and precise.

Guards shuffled forward into a reluctant half-circle around her. Celestia gave them a menacing smile, not breaking stride, and the circle widened. Platinum frowned, assessing her advance, then raised one hoof and flicked it sideways. The circle gratefully scrambled to reform into two lines, escorting Celestia toward the throne.

She came to a stop at the head of the stairs, and a hush deeper than the bowels of Tartarus settled over the room.

"So," Celestia said, "my sister ordered me to come and apologize for trying to take the sun off your hooves, or something. But on my way here I realized two things." She shifted her hoof to the handle of her warhammer — as the guards' horns lit and a dozen swords immediately leveled themselves at her — but she merely nudged it with the inside of her leg, causing the weapon to roll off her back and land with a heavy crash on the floor. "One, what you care about ain't actually an apology, it's making sure I don't do it again. And two, Frumpy there did a heck of a job cheating me out of the sun."

Clover briefly wondered whether apologizing would help. Not that it mattered — his throat felt like he'd swallowed a block of ice.

"Now, I've gotta admit he tricked me fair and square, and I ain't ever been beaten in a fair fight before," Celestia continued, stepping forward and towering over the seated Platinum. "So I'm gonna make you a deal. I'll swear three oaths, by hoof and wing and horn, by all the power of my tribe, that I won't ever take the sun from your bloodline. And in exchange —" she pointed at Clover — "I get him."

Platinum wordlessly opened and closed her mouth several times.

Feeling the situation rapidly slipping away, and feeling very un-clever for once, Clover swallowed and managed to squeak words out: "What are you going to do to me?"

Celestia locked eyes with him, her mouth curling into a predatory grin. Her horn lit.

Clover slid across the dais toward her, his body encased in a golden glow, his hooves scrambling for purchase against the marble. Celestia whipped her hooves around to the back of his head, yanking him in, and clamped her muzzle to his.

"Mmmmmf!" Clover said, trying to inhale and finding only tongue. A burning sensation spread through his lungs as he struggled for air. Long seconds later, when Celestia released him, he crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.

Heat rose to his cheeks as he tried to process the situation, staring in disbelief at the Imperatrix's sculpted form and the smirk on her lips. What had just happened? He had cheated the Tribes' war-goddess out of a coup. And she had kissed him.

Nope, he thought as his heart began to pump a bewildering stew of confusion, terror, and lust through his leaden chest. It made no more sense in hindsight.

"We accept," Platinum said far too eagerly, then glanced at Clover apologetically and added: "On one condition. Clover the Clever is no trophy to barter, but a pony. If you desire his companionship, you must win his heart as any suitor would. The only recompense We may offer for thy oath is Our blessing for that attempt."

A smile slowly inched up Platinum's muzzle, and Clover's heart stopped again.

"But never let it be said that the mighty Imperatrix would back down from a fair challenge," Platinum said. "Are We correct?"

Author's Note:

THE RIDE BEGINS! I have done my best to make this worth the three-and-a-half-year wait.

New chapters will be posted daily until Bronycon!