Fluttershy watched in quiet wonder as the prince bowed low before the king, his mane the color of the sea brushing the coral-and-shell-patterned rug.
“I apologize for my lateness, Father,” Prince Admiralty announced in a lighthearted tone as he raised his head. “Until your last correspondence upon my return I was unaware that we had guests and wanted to make myself presentable.”
King Azimuth nodded curtly. “Yes, well, now I can introduce you. Tonight, we are joined by Her Royal Highness, Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria.”
Prince Admiralty turned to face Twilight and bowed. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Royal Highness,” he said. Twilight blushed and returned his bow with a curtsy.
“I’m glad to be here,” she replied. “And I came here with my very best friends- Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and my faithful assistant Spike.”
Each of the ponies stepped forward as their name was called. Rarity gave a demure smile and fluttered her eyelashes at him, Applejack tipped her hat, and Ranbow Dash gave him a salute. Prince Admiralty greeted each of them in a friendly manner, but when Twilight said Fluttershy’s name, his eyes widened slightly in surprise and he turned to look at her. She took a small step forward and gave a little bow. She raised her eyes up and saw the look of recognition on the prince’s face. He slowly returned the gesture, his eyes not leaving hers for even a moment.
He said at last in a soft voice, “Very pleased to meet you, Lady Fluttershy.” A small smile played on his lips when he said her name.
“Thank you,” she said very quietly. Remembering that there was one more name mentioned, he looked down at Spike and grinned.
“Well, I must say I am very thrilled to meet you, Young Master Spike,” he said louder. “We have never seen a dragon in Windermare before, let alone greeted on in court. I’m sure we shall all be eager to learn more about you, young sir.” At first Spike was surprised by this form of address, but quickly took it in stride and puffed out his chest with pride.
King Azimuth cleared his throat loudly. “Ahem, now then. Introductions have been made, I believe it is now time to proceed to the Banquet Hall. My dear…” He escorted his queen down the steps from their thrones and led the way through the doors on the right. Prince Admiralty turned to Twilight and extended a wing out to her.
“Shall we?” he asked her. Nodding, Twilight placed her wing atop his, and they walked together towards the doors that the king and queen went through. Fluttershy and the others followed close behind, with the other guests at the end of the procession. The Banquet Hall on the north side of the castle was extravagantly decorated with pillars and seashell décor etched out of marble. Candles and torches lit the Hall and were in a neat line from one end of the banquet table to the other. The table was also covered in decorative coral and seashells as well as various flowers and fruits from the royal gardens. Finely dressed butlers and footcolts stood behind each chair, waiting to seat Their Majesties and their guests.
The king and queen took their places at the opposite ends of the table. Prince Admiralty and Twilight sat together towards the middle, with Applejack and the others intermixed with the other quests. Fluttershy was assigned to the seat on Prince Admiralty’s left while Twilight sat at his right. Poor Spike was so little and sat so low in his seat that a cushion was needed to help him see the table. Once everypony was seated, the first course of kelp soup was served. But before they even lifted their spoons, Prince Admiralty said aloud, “Father, wait- we are still missing somepony.” He indicated to the empty seat between Twilight and Rainbow Dash.
King Azimuth looked at the seat with a frown. “Ah yes, where is the ol’ boy?” Then he scoffed, “Old mule, I should say. He never seems to do anything that he doesn’t see in that crystal ball of his… even if it means arriving on time for dinner.”
“I do believe he mentioned something about it this morning Mi Amor,” La Reina replied as she delicately draped her napkin over her lap. She looked at Twilight with a smile and explained, “I pray you forgive this inconvenience, Princesa- Maestro Epoch is our son’s mentor and a very wise unicorn. I believe that he means no offense.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all, Your Majesty,” Twilight reassured her. “I’m sure it’s…” She paused. “Wait, did you say ‘Epoch’?”
“Sí,”La Reina replied. “Do you know him?”
“I’ve heard the name before,” Twilight said, “but it might be somepony else I’m thinking of.” She recognized the name from several spellbooks in the Canterlot Library, but it couldn’t possibly be the same pony she was thinking of.
“Anyway, let’s not bother about him now,” King Azimuth said. “I would like to hear about your journey here, Princess Twilight. I trust that everything went well.”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, it was wonderful. It was very generous of you to send your royal carriage to bring us here safely and quickly.”
Rainbow Dash scoffed. “Are you kidding? I could have flown circles around the carriage!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight hissed aside, throwing a frustrated glance at her. Rainbow Dash ignored her remark and grinned.
“Don’t get me wrong, the carriage ride was great and all. But seriously though, my pet tortoise could have moved faster. I bet I could have flown from Canterlot to here and back five times before they landed.”
“Indeed? That would be quite a feat.” a voice spoke directly into her ear. The sudden presence of the hooded figure standing behind Rainbow Dash startled everyone, and Rainbow Dash leapt into the air with a loud yelp and clung to one of the ceiling beams.
“Ah, you arrive at last, Epoch!” King Azimuth said loudly, leaning back into his seat. “I hope you don’t mind that we started without you.”
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” was the simple reply. He lowered the hood of his faded brown cloak with a cloven hoof. He appeared ancient, almost as if he was carved out of wood. Even his horn was twisted and gnarled like a tree branch. His mane and goatee were straggly locks of grey that fell disheveled about his face and down his shoulders, and the tip of his goatee brushed the center of the emerald green brooch clasped at the throat of his cloak. His eyes were solid dark yellow lacking pupils and eye whites, almost as if he were blind. He turned to look at the queen and bowed his head.
“Majestad.” La Reina inclined her head towards him in reply. As he took his seat he addressed Twilight, “Welcome to Windermare, Princess Twilight, and congratulations on your elevation. Now that we know each other, we can dispense of the formality of your address, Miss Sparkle. I am merely Epoch.”
“Um, thanks?” Twilight really wasn’t sure of what to make of his remark.
By now Rainbow Dash had slowly floated back down to her seat but continued to keep a wary eye on the ancient unicorn.
“Now then, since everypony is finally here,” King Azimuth said aloud, “We can complete our dinner without further disruption.” A few guests laughed, and the conversations began flowing again. As the dinner continued, Twilight and the others began to converse with the other guests about various topics. Sir Hoofington, a portly stallion with bushy sideburns and moustache and dragon enthusiast, was very curious about Spike’s habits and interests. Applejack offered to make King Azimuth some Sweet Apple Acre-style cider and pies, and Rarity poke with an elderly mare about the possibility of muslins and silks making a huge in the fashion world this summer. While the footcolts served the alfalfa and acorn risotto, Prince Admiralty said aside to Fluttershy, “I hope that you have recovered a little from this afternoon’s incident, Lady Fluttershy?”
“I’m much better now, thank you.” She glanced down at her wing. “It’s only a little cut, but when I brushed the feathers out, it’s not very noticeable now.”
“I’m glad to hear it- I was a little feared that it might mar your opinion of our humble little kingdom.”
“Oh, not at all! It’s very wonderful here, and everypony is so nice!”
“Indeed? I have never been to Equestria before, but I have heard that it is quite extraordinary, and that Canterlot has found no equal this side of the Great Sea. I hope to go there someday and see these wonders for myself.”
“That would be wonderful if you did!” When Prince Admiralty looked at her, Fluttershy quickly added, “Um, I mean, I’m sure that Princess Celestia would be more than happy for you to visit.”
King Azimuth, who happened to overhear Fluttershy’s last remark, asked Twilight, “And how is Princess Celestia doing? I trust that she is doing well?”
“Yes, she’s very well Your Majesty,” Twilight said, “And was glad that I could take the opportunity to come here.”
“We have also met her sister Princess Luna a few times,” Prince Admiralty spoke up to join the conversation. “Six months ago she and I spoke regarding the problems we had been having with tide levels and our request that the moon rise further north where the villages there are further inland and are better protected from the risk of flooding.”
La Reina dabbed the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “Of course, I had been hoping that I might be able to call her ‘daughter’ by now…” she said pointedly, casting a glance at her son.
“Mother, please…” Prince Admiralty sighed, turning to her.
“No, your mother is right,” King Azimuth said aloud. “You have been spending far too much time away, and it’s about time that you stayed and married. For example, Princess Twilight here-”
Twilight, who had been endeavoring to eat and drink her food with as much propriety and decorum as she could, sputtered on a mouthful of pomegranate water. Covering her mouth with her napkin, she could only manage, “I’m-cough- um, not sure -cough- I would be suitable, um –cough, cough-”
“I should think not, sir,” Epoch interjected. “Besides, I believe that there are other matters at present more pressing than arranging a wedding.”
King Azimuth’s glowered at the elderly pony, but Epoch ignored his look and casually sipped his own drink. Instead, King Azimuth replied darkly, “Yes, quite right,” and resumed his meal, unwilling to talk about “other matters” at present.
Prince Admiralty glanced over at Fluttershy, who smiled kindly at him. He returned the smile, and they resumed their meal.
After the banquet was over, and a toast was made to Twilight and her friends as well as the safe return of Prince Admiralty, the king and queen led their guests back through the Throne Room to the Great Hall. Once they reached the Front Hall, many of the guests left through the front doors to their awaiting carriages while others made their way up the stairs. Before alighting his carriage Sir Hoofington promised Spike that he would bring a case of gems the next time he and his wife returned to Windermare from their estate in Manechester. While Twilight spoke with the king and queen about how grateful she and the others were to be staying there, Fluttershy used the opportunity to speak with Prince Admiralty. She led him aside and when she made sure nopony was looking she held out his hoofkerchief, clean and neatly folded.
“Thank you very much for lending it to me earlier,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want you to think I was stealing it, but you left before I could return it to you.”
Prince Admiralty looked down at the kerchief in her open hoof for a moment, but then with a gentle feathered hoof he nudged it back to her. “Keep it,” he said, with a soft smile. “Call it… a ‘gift of friendship’.” Fluttershy nodded, tucking her gift back under her wing. “ If you haven’t already and do not have any engagements made prior, I hope that perhaps tomorrow you might like to walk the castle grounds with me tomorrow morning? The gardens are quite nice, and looks to be very lovely weather once the rain has gone.”
“Oh! That would be wonderful!” Fluttershy replied.
“Excellent! Shall we say eleven o’clock here, after breakfast?” Fluttershy nodded, and his eyes shined brightly. “Very well then, eleven it-”
Suddenly his eyes dilated and he inhaled sharply as if in pain. He shut his eyes tightly and lowered his head, his hoof pressed against his forehead.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Fluttershy asked, immediately concerned.
“I-it is nothing,” Prince Admiralty shook his head and looked back at her, smiling forcibly but his eyes still dilated. “Please excuse me but I must speak to my father immediately. I bid you a good night.” Before she could reply, he bowed curtly and hurried to where King Azimuth and La Reina were speaking to Rarity.
She watched as Prince Admiralty spoke to the king in a hushed tone, and the king grimly replied to him, “Of course. Go now and guide them back before this storm gets any worse.” And with that Prince Admiralty trotted back down the Great Hall and out of sight.
For a moment Fluttershy considered running after him, but knew that it would be a silly thing to do, and instead followed the others as they said their good nights to the king and queen before going upstairs back to their rooms. But she noticed that as the prince's mentor Epoch, who was standing nearby, had been watching the prince very intently. After the prince left the old unicorn turned his head to stare directly at Fluttershy. She quickly looked away, shuddering a little under his intense gaze, and hurried up the stairs after her friends.
When she got back to her room at the very end of the hallway and closed the door behind her, Fluttershy leaned back against the door and sighed, suddenly realizing how exhausted she was from today’s events. She walked over to her bed and was about to climb in when a flash of light caught her attention. She went to her window and pulled back one of the curtains, looking out towards the dark sea. The storm was raging outside, rain pounding against the window and flashes of lighting tearing across the sky. She could make out a stone lighthouse at the very edges of the cliffs that she hadn’t noticed before, and at the top emitted a flash of blue-green light within a small dome. It pulsated rhythmically, illuminating a path of light through the blackness of the stormy sea. The rain was pounding hard against the window, which made it difficult to see, but for a brief moment, Fluttershy believed that she could barely make out the smallest figure of a ship, heading towards the castle shores, before it disappeared behind the pounding waves.