The duo became a trio when Esalen noticed Aspire and Sure Stroke leaving the schoolyard and learned that they were going to visit Queen Euphoria’s house. Her decision came rather suddenly, giving a hasty farewell to the rest of the class before bounding after the pair like she was expected to join them.
Sure Stroke fixed her friend with a quizzical stare, raising a brow at the nymph. “You didn’t have to leave the game just to come with us,” she said.
Esalen shrugged and tossed her sugar pink ponytail over her shoulder. “I’ve been thinking about my trade for a while, so I should probably talk to someone. Caress is the resident masseuse, so it might help me decide if I pick her brain a little bit.”
“Plus, Grandpa Beguile taught her,” Aspire added from Sure Stroke’s right. “So, she knows a lot of lesser known things he used to help ponies.”
Sure Stroke perked up her ears. Curious, she turned her gaze upon Aspire and tilted her head. “Like, how he would charm them?” she asked. “When he lived in the Enchanters’ territory?”
He shook his head. “No, he quit that rather quickly, from what we’ve heard. And never teaching his, ah, particular method of charming to any changeling outside our family was one of the conditions Queen Chaete put on him living here.”
“Oh?” Now, there was something. Special techniques for charming ponies? That would almost certainly be perfect to write down … then again, perhaps not. Why would a Queen demand that he keep his technique to his family alone?
“You’ve experienced it yourself,” Aspire replied, turning to look her in the eye. “Remember?”
The memory of the morning after their sleepover flashed through her mind. A heavy blush rose in her cheeks when she recalled how she praised his fangs and noted how beautiful his eyes were. “You were in my head awfully quickly,” she said, “it didn’t really give me much time to figure out how you did it.”
“Fair point.” Humming to himself, he looked up to the sky as if expecting it to give him an answer. “I suppose the easiest way to explain it is that Enchanters don’t just slap a charm on you like something out of those old tales or vampony novels. You know, dumb stare, migraine for days, and inability to even think once you’re deep under?”
Esalen sniffed. “That’s all the Locust,” she grumbled. “Bunch of inelegant cockroaches who think just looking a pony in the eye and zapping them with as much changeling magic as they can to overwhelm the mind is true charming. It’s disgusting.”
Chuckling, Aspire turned to aim a rueful grin her way. “Inelegant is right, but disgusting is rather subjective. After all, this one—” he gave Sure Stroke a gentle nudge “—still doesn’t like the idea of snuggling up with me in a nice, warm cocoon.”
“True as that is, my point stands. The Locust have no talent for charming. Anyone, changeling or pony, can just throw magic around like a drunk.” The nymph grinned. “Real talent like mom’s or a full-blooded Enchanter’s does it in a way that’s far less dominating. And it’s something a willing partner can actually enjoy.”
“Hey, you’re not gonna hear an argument from me on it. I’m just saying …”
Sure Stroke couldn’t help but wrinkle her snout, confused as she listened to the twins go back and forth on the subject. Charming in and of itself was, in her opinion, a frightening prospect. The idea that simply meeting an Enchanter’s eyes or unwittingly running into any random changeling outside the village and finding herself under their spell made her coat stand on end. Yet the twins discussed it like they felt it was something to be proud of—like a pegasus’s wingpower or a unicorn’s magical prowess.
But all that only added to the new question they raised: who in their right mind would willingly allow it?
Questions, questions, questions! And new ones cropped up each and every day! How was she to figure out how to organize Respite’s culture into a book if it seemed built on such a strange foundation? What sort of race made a law to limit their talents but spoke of them with pride?
Commander Hurricane, actually, she thought back to her history lessons. One of his first actions when the Three Tribes unified was outlaw that old spouse stealing practice, even though he still encouraged his pegasi to wed earth ponies and unicorns and bring them up to Old Cloudsdale. Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. He wanted the other tribes to be able to trust the pegasi enough that some of those old wounds would heal.
Maybe there were some similarities after all. She would just have to dig deep enough to find them. A little common ground could go a long way.
Aspire led them onto the front porch of Queen Euphoria’s house and greeted the guards with a smile. “Hey, Fleetwing! Hey, Stalwart!” He turned to face the mare and asked, “No Tailwind today?”
Fleetwing shook her head and pushed her helmet back to reveal a flash of forest green mane. “He’s been feeling under the weather for the past few days.”
“Oof! Nothing too serious, I hope?”
“He’s been feverish, unfortunately. I’m worried that it’s feather flu, but he seems to be in good spirits.” She broke eye contact with him and looked off into the distance, toward a row of smaller houses near the forest edge. Her smile faltered a touch.
Stalwart reached over to pat her shoulder. “Just hold out a little while longer,” he said softly. “Dupe said he’d be over to cover your shift by lunch time, so you can go home and baby Tailwind to your heart’s content.” He snorted at the way she perked up at the idea, then turned to address the younger trio. “So what’re you three up to? Unless my memory is going early, Abby should’ve released you for a two week break a little while ago.”
“He did,” Sure Stroke replied, nodding once. “But Aspire and I got talking about trades, and he mentioned that I should talk to someone about it.”
“Regale,” Aspire chipped in. He rubbed their shoulders together and grinned. “She’s thinking of maybe writing a book to help new ponies learn about our culture, so I figured Regale could help.”
“Ah, I see.” Stalwart smiled knowingly. He stole a quick glance at the door. “Well, you’re in luck. The Gales are having tea with Phory and Breezy.”
Esalen snorted. “Isn’t he supposed to be teaching the foals with Skydancer?”
Stalwart’s smile took on a mischievous edge. “Certain events led to a slight alteration in his schedule.”
With a sigh, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her forehead and joined the twins in chorusing, “What did he do this time?”
Both guards gave vulpine grins. “Oh, we don’t want to spoil it for you,” Fleetwing replied. “You’ll see once you go inside.” She turned and pushed the door open, her eyes shone with mirth. “Go ahead.”
Cool Breeze laid on Queen Euphoria’s plush couch, wrapped up to his shoulders in a slime cocoon, with his head laying against her chest. He smiled despite himself, even as she ran a hoof through his snow white mane in a gallant effort to tame it.
“One of these days, Breezy,” Queen Euphoria grumbled with a playful smile, “you’re going to learn to knock it off with those jokes.”
Laughing, he leaned back and bumped his head against her chin. “Right about the time you manage to get my mane to stop being messy, I’m sure.” His gaze flitted toward the hallway, he perked his ears when he noticed the trio trotting inside. “Well, well, look who it is: two thirds of my favorite partners in crime.” Cool Breeze squirmed in greeting, grinning as he added, “I’d wave, but, as you can see, I’m a bit preoccupied.”
“Hi, Breezy. What did you do this time?” Aspire asked with a crooked smile.
Before the captive stallion could give a reply, Queen Euphoria nipped his ears. “None of your lying today, you,” she scolded, her eyes gleaming in amusement. She turned to Aspire and said, “He decided it would be a good idea to switch my salt and sugar containers around right before I served tea. This after he woke us all up by sticking a live, wet fish under our covers.”
Sure Stroke bit her lip and quickly covered her mouth with a hoof. Her cheeks puffed up with poorly restrained laughter, her shoulders shook silently.
Queen Euphoria’s slitted teal eyes fell upon her. A wicked smile spread across her muzzle. “And it seems that our villagers’ penchant for mischief has afflicted little Doodle,” she crooned. Her eyes flitted to Aspire and Esalen, then Breezy. “Or, at least, three villagers’ penchant for mischief.”
“Guilty,” Esalen said with a jaunty wave. “Very likely.”
A snort from the far side of the room drew Sure Stroke’s attention. An older mare sat in a pod seat, her nose in a book and a small frown on her muzzle. “You say that like every pony who’s come to stay here hasn’t joined in, usually after you lot get a few tricks in,” she muttered grumpily. Flipping a page, she added, “And then I get to hear you and all the other Caretakers whine about how now you have to ‘remind’ us who the masters of trickery are.”
“Oh, come on, honey!” an elderly changeling chittered from her place in the pod beside the pegasus’s. She sat with a cup of tea in hoof, raised halfway to her mouth. She cast a wink to the younger group, and gently nudged her companion. A coy smile tugged at her lips. “You were happy to play tricks on me when we were younger. In fact, I recall you making me look all around the house for my mixing bowl so I would find my anniversary gift in it last year.”
The mare didn’t so much as raise her gaze from her book. There was a rustle of paper as she turned another page, she grumbled in reply, “Completely different.”
“Of course, honey.” The changeling’s eyes seemed to twinkle. Turning away from her wife, she winked at the group. “Don’t mind Gale. She always gets a little cranky when her reading is interrupted.”
Queen Euphoria chittered from across the room. “Only when she’s reading?” she teased.
Gale flicked an ear and frowned, but said nothing. With a shake of her head, she let out a deep sigh through her nose.
With an amused roll of her eyes, Queen Euphoria turned her attention back to the trio, all the while resuming her efforts to tame Cool Breeze’s mane. “So,” she began, “what can I do for you three today? I would think you should all be eager to run and play around with the rest of your classmates to start off your break, not wandering into my house. Not that you’re unwelcome, mind.”
Aspire nudged Sure Stroke forward with a gentle hip bump. “Doodle and I were talking about trades,” he replied. “She’s got a couple in mind, but one of them is sort of up Missus Regale’s alley.”
The elderly changeling buzzed her wings at the name. “Me?” she asked, pointing a hoof at herself. She eyed Sure Stroke for a second and tilted her head. “What did you have in mind?”
Sure Stroke fidgeted under Regale’s gaze. Faced with a new changeling, she felt trickle of doubt crept into her chest. Her feathers twitched. “I, uh …”
“Relax,” Gale muttered without looking up. “She’s pretty much fangless. Treats them like an accessory.”
“Excuse me! I do so use my fangs!”
“Sure you do.”
“How do you think I went out and caught fish on our vacations all those years ago?”
That made Gale look up. She fixed Regale with a flat stare and said, “You didn’t. I did.”
“No you—wait.” Regale furrowed her brows. “Actually, you’re right. I’m a terrible fisher.”
“No fooling.” Gale’s attention returned to her book. She wrinkled her snout at something and shook her head, muttering something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like “what sort of idiot edited this thing?”
“My loving wife’s snark aside,” Regale said with an awkward cough, “you don’t have to be nervous around me, dear. I’m just a semi-retired author.” She blinked twice, then muttered out of the side of her mouth to Gale, “I am semi-retired, right?”
“Oh, good. I was worried I was under a long term deal again.”
“Nearly. Your agent tried to sign you to one.” Another rustle of paper, she flicked her tail. “I socked him in the nose.”
Cool Breeze cleared his throat. “Ladies, while Phory and I do love your stories, and I’m sure our younger guests would enjoy them another time, Sure Stroke did mention her interest in a little information about a trade.”
“Oh! Sorry!” Regale’s cheeks flushed a deep black. “I didn’t mean to ramble like that!”
“It’s no trouble,” Esalen replied with a wave of her hoof. She turned to Cool Breeze and Queen Euphoria. “Actually, speaking of trades, is there any chance Caress is around? I was hoping to ask her a few questions.”
Queen Euphoria shook her head. “Sorry, sweetie, but Caress is over at her massage clinic right now. I doubt she’s busy if you’d like to drop by, though.”
“Not a problem! I’ll head over.” Esalen turned to give Aspire a hug, then Sure Stroke. “Try to behave, you two,” she teased.
Aspire snorted. “Never. Have a good chat with Caress, Essy.”
“Will do.” Esalen released Sure Stroke from her embrace, but paused to nuzzle her cheek and whisper, “Hope Regale’s got the answers you want, Doodle.”
With a nervous fluff of her feathers, Sure Stroke nodded in kind and leaned in to reciprocate. “Thanks, likewise with you and Caress.”
Beaming, Esalen bid the others goodbye, then trotted back down the hallway and out the door.
Regale coughed into her hoof, drawing Sure Stroke’s attention again. The changeling shifted in place, her attention back on Sure Stroke. “So, what is it that I can help you with?”
Sure Stroke took a breath through her nose and forced a crooked smile. “I was, um, sort of talking with my friends a while ago about how I had—am having, rather. I am having a bit of a tough time adapting to certain aspects of the culture here.”
A warm smile spread across Regale’s muzzle. “I wager by now you’re tired of hearing assurances that you’re in good company, no matter how true it is.”
“It’s become a bit repetitive.” Sure Stroke felt her cheeks heat up as the adults shared chuckles and chitters. Clearing her throat, she continued, “So, I talked about it a little with Esalen and Toola Roola, and mentioned that things would be a lot easier for newcomers if there was a book they could read. Something simplified.”
The adults perked up. Even Gale stopped reading and looked up at Sure Stroke, a contemplative look settled upon her face. She caught Queen Euphoria’s eye and raised a brow. “Interesting idea,” she muttered. “Could go a long way in acclimating ponies. Might even get more to stick around.”
“Interesting, indeed,” Queen Euphoria mused. She put her battle with Cool Breeze’s mane on hold and steepled her hooves. “And I could see that being very beneficial to our village as a whole.”
“Yes,” Regale said, “but summarizing changeling culture—which, if I may be blunt, can be as confusing and tricky as our race—is no small task. Also, I’m more of a fiction writer, really, so I’m not entirely certain how much help I’d be. In addition …” Her eyes flitted to Sure Stroke’s flank, honing right in on her cutie mark. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but your cutie mark looks more related to drawing and painting than writing, young filly.”
Sure Stroke frowned. “I didn’t think cutie marks played a factor in Trade Day.”
“Well, not formally. But most ponies tend to go toward things that their marks call them to.” The old changeling gave a small smile. “I don’t mean to be rude, dear, but I’d hate to get you excited about something your heart really isn’t in.”
“But I am interested in it!” Sure Stroke protested. “I mean, yes, I love drawing and painting, but it’s …” she trailed off and glanced at Aspire. “It could be put toward art therapy, like Aspire said. I do sort of use it to help come to terms with things myself.”
Aspire nodded. “You’ll have to talk to mom about that, just a reminder.” Turning away from Sure Stroke, he faced Regale. His typical smirk was absent, in its place, a small, genuine smile. “Missus Regale, I can speak from experience that Doodle, here, loves learning about our ways. Whenever something comes up she doesn’t understand, she’s quick to ask us to explain how and why we do things in certain ways—where most ponies would either shy away or rationalize it as ‘just the way things are.’”
Regale chewed on her bottom lip. She looked down at her tea cup for a moment and swirled the contents about. “It would provide a real service to the village,” she said after some thought.
“And giving the information from a pony who came from outside the village would provide a unique perspective,” Cool Breeze put in. He shot a supportive grin at Sure Stroke. “I think she can do it. Phory, you know how perceptive she is. What do you think?”
“I, personally, am in favor of it,” Queen Euphoria replied, kissing the top of his head. “Traditionally, it isn’t my place to interject, but this might be something worth considering, Regale. She would likely need—”
“A mentor, yes. The thought has occurred to me.” Regale looked up, her gaze settled upon Sure Stroke. Her face looked as though time had reversed, a glimmer of energy shone in her eyes. “The idea is intriguing, but there’s far more to unpack than you know, dear. Just from what I know from friends who used to be on that side of the industry, this wouldn’t just be something you could knock out in a year or two. While Breezy has a point about your perspective, it also means you’re starting from ground up like the rest.” She paused a beat, then asked, “How exactly would you think to present this to another pony? What would be the best way, in your opinion, for another to tell you what living with changelings is like?”
Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. She glanced at Queen Euphoria, thinking back to how she learned about how changelings fed.
Experience. The wheels in her head began to turn. It’s how Breezy, Queen Euphoria, and Caress showed me when I first came by for tea.
Firsthoof experience. That was what the Caretakers and ponies of Respite seemed to hold a high value on—whether it was learning or offers of trades, they all seemed to insist that participation was the way to find an understanding of the village.
Sure Stroke had her answer. It had been staring her in the face for some time.
“I want to write about the culture and explain it by showing my experiences with it,” she said. “That’s how I learned, and that would be how I would want somepony to teach me if I were new all over again—somepony who understands why I don’t feel comfortable and knows how to put things in a way I’ll get.”
Regale nodded. “Probably for the best, but it will mean you’ll have to spend quite a lot of time on this. What’s more, I doubt you’ll be able to cover everything in one book, if you even can do so.” She paused to sip at her tea. “This would have to be a project you invested the better part of your life in, and you might not see immediate results. I don’t ask to be mean, but … I want you to understand what you’re looking at getting into.”
Sure Stroke bit her lip, her eyes fell to the floor. Was that what she wanted? To spend years cobbling together a bunch of books about these changelings and their nebulous culture, and maybe someday see her work having a positive effect?
Or would it be easier to stick with art and let other ponies learn the same way she had—by falling into the right situations and hoping someone would take pity on them.
She licked her lips and slowly raised her head to face Regale. Her ears drooped.
“Why don’t you take some time to think about it, dear?” Regale offered with a smile. “Talk to Faith about your art therapy idea, weigh the two, and then come visit Gale and me sometime. We’d love to have you over for tea, wouldn’t we, honey?”
Gale grunted an affirmation, then returned to her book. Her interest in the conversation had finally waned.
Sure Stroke gave a bittersweet smile in reply. “I’ll do that. Thank you for your time. Aspire and I won’t keep you any longer.” She turned and bowed to Queen Euphoria. “Thank you as well. Be sure to keep Breezy in line for a while, so the rest of the village can have some peace.”
“Hey!” Cool Breeze cried.
With a snort, Queen Euphoria nipped his ear. “I’ll do my best. Come visit again soon, Sure Stroke.” Her gaze flitted to Aspire. A slow grin crossed her muzzle. “And bring your little boyfriend, too.”
The pair blushed and offered hasty farewells before scampering away from the chittering and laughing adults.