Caress’s clinic looked almost nondescript among the other shops in Respite. While Creamy, Chocolate, and Frosty, and Sweet Treat’s had large windows on the front face like those in pony cities to allow passers by the chance to look inside and see happy customers enjoying their fare, Caress preferred to give hers more privacy.
She had chosen to design hers more like a regular village home, though smaller than others. As Esalen glanced up at the wooden sign hanging above the front door, drawn to the words Gentle Caress Massage Therapy Clinic in loopy cursive, she noted that the building was perhaps about a third of the size of her family’s.
Esalen perked up her ears as if to see if she could hear through the wall, even flicking her tongue to taste for a hint of a client’s discomfort. The bite of irritation, the sort aimed at a nagging issue, made her pull a face. Caress had a client today, one who happened to be in quite a bit of pain.
Typically, most of the shops and various clinics in Respite had an open door policy—if anyone needed the proprietor, they could simply walk in and wait in the sitting room. Unless, of course, there was a sign saying otherwise.
Caress’s clinic bore no such sign. However, Esalen had never actually visited without one of her parents holding an appointment.
Licking her lips to wet them, she gripped the door handle and tugged it open. A bell hanging above the door trilled out a merry call, like a tiny voice crying “visitor” so all within would come to greet her.
Sure enough, Caress’s voice sounded from somewhere behind the door on the immediate opposite side of the room, “Who is it?”
“It’s Esalen, Missus Caress,” Esalen called in reply. “I was wondering if you might have a moment to answer a couple questions?”
There was a moment of pause, then the sound of hoofsteps against the wooden floor reached her ears. The door pushed open a crack, just enough that Caress could poke her head through and offer a smile. “Oh, hello, Essy! If you don’t mind waiting on the couch and I’ll be with you just as soon as I finish a chat with my client!” She gave a meaningful raise of her brows and lowered her voice as she added, “She’s a bit new.”
Esalen’s ears twitched. “Ah.” With a single nod to confirm, she smiled in return. “That’s fine. I don’t mind waiting for a bit.”
“Thank you, dear. I added a few new books on the shelf. I think there might be one or two of those Donnchad MacCulkin books you nymphs seem to love so much.” A mare’s voice, low and meek, barely above a whisper, made Caress flick an ear. “Ah, well, I’ll leave you too it, Essy. I’ll be with you after this.” She turned and let the door shut behind her, eager to answer whatever questions her client had.
Meanwhile, Esalen wandered over to the small blue couch resting before the paned window, the soft rug beneath her hooves felt like the gentle touch of one of Toola’s blankets on a cold winter night, or her coat when they brushed against one another as they tried to huddle together for warmth.
She blinked a few times, then shook her head. It wasn’t the time to reflect on winter snuggling with her friends. She was there on important trade-related business, not to goof around or daydream like a lovedrunk fool—that was for her smugling of a brother to do with Sure Stroke.
With a shake of her head, Esalen forced those thoughts to the side and instead busied herself skimming over the titles of Caress’s selection. A smile tugged at her lips as she noticed a copy of The Cold Queen and its predecessors, Hounded and Cursed, standing together in the middle of the old wooden shelf. Close inspection showed the presence of a few cracks in the wood, Esalen snorted to herself. “Aspire would tell Caress to replace her bookshelf if he were here,” she muttered. “And she’d probably roll her eyes and tell him to get over it.”
Her eyes flitted to the next book title. Curious, she tilted her head and pulled it off the shelf. The familiar scent of a new book, with fresh pages and cover untouched by foal or nymph hooves, wafted to her nose. She turned it over in her grasp to look at the cover.
Shrouded in a heavy mist, a stallion in his mid twenties stared back with dark amber eyes hidden beneath his shaggy mane, a dark cloak with runic sigils rested upon his shoulders and covered his body, trailing all the way to his ankles. But there was something different about him. Donnchad MacCulkin always looked defiant, with magical prowess nigh unrivaled by any mortal just beneath the surface, and eyes which shone with a wrath that made even demons and Old Ones quake when he was roused.
On this book, his cheeks were hallow and worn, almost like a changeling suffering from great hunger. He looked exhausted, dark circles hung around his eyes. Then, Esalen noticed that he wasn’t alone.
A pair of blue eyes shone through the mist like a pair of gleaming sapphires. A gentle hoof was resting upon Donnchad’s shoulder, as if a lover were caressing him. The corners of his mouth seemed to tug into a smile that didn’t quite belong. In the background, the title stood as though fading through the mist itself:
The Fourth Installment of The MacCulkin Diaries
Written by Silver Spinner
Esalen moved to sit on the couch and opened the book to the first page.
Life has a certain way of letting you know that it’s about to hold you down while its old buddies, Fate and Fortune, take turns beating you over the head with a crowbar whilst you wonder just what made getting out of bed seem like a good idea.
Waking up to find the Cold Queen herself laying in your bed with her head resting upon your chest is one of them. Her snow white mane and powder blue coat were smooth to the touch and drew memories of playing in the frosted fields of foalhood. Her icy blue eyes gleamed like diamonds. She held my gaze as she licked my chest and slid herself forward to kiss my chin. “Good morrow, Donnchad MacCulkin,” she purred in a tone that would have normal mares and stallions alike begging for her company, “I have come to collect the favor I am owed. The first of three.”
I fought the urge to shriek like a little filly. The Cold Queen had a certain reputation amongst those who knew enough about the Old World, the one before even the Three Tribes were at the height of their power. To a point, her reputation went something like this:
The Eternal Sisters and Discord once stood shoulder to shoulder against her schemes and barely made it out alive at the cost of what little sanity the Mad Lord of Chaos possessed. Take a moment to let that sink in, and understand that her entire reason for putting them through it all in that particular tale was complete and utter boredom while she waited for the next war with the Queen of Spring.
And she was in my bed. Kissing my chin like we were lovers enjoying a tender moment the morning after a night full of passion. And wanting to collect on the favors I owed her for saving my life and that of all of Whinneypeg.
I somehow managed to keep the tremble out of my voice. “I recall a stipulation that I got to pick what the favors could be,” I began, “I’m going to go right ahead and say anything leading to, ah, giving you a foal is a no go.”
She threw back her head and laughed, her eyes danced. “No, Donnchad, that is not my request. However …” The Cold Queen ran her tongue from my chin to my lips, then stole a kiss that almost had me begging for her. “If you were to take me up on my alternative offer …” Her hips began to move, I felt her forehooves wander up to cup my cheeks. “I would consider all debts paid in full.”
I struggled to fight back a whimper. Gritting my teeth, I forced myself not to be played. “Never,” I grunted as she ground against me.
Her smile made some primal side of me wish I said yes. I very nearly changed my answer right then and there. “One day,” she whispered, pausing to kiss me again, “you will give me what I want, Donnchad MacCulkin. You will come to my palace in the Land of Neverending Frost and kneel before me. You will be mine …”
She leaned in close to whisper in my ear, her frigid breath drew a shiver not of want, but need.
On second thought, getting out of bed seemed like a great idea. The question, though, was how to do it without pissing off the mare who put the “evil mastermind immortal queen” in “evil mastermind immortal queen.”
Something told Esalen the wait wouldn’t feel long at all.
Though young, Esalen felt quite comfortable in claiming a few things certain in Respite. For instance, if at some point Aspire, Sure Stroke, or any one of her friends were to wander into Caress’s clinic and find her nose-deep in a book, the jokes about bookbug twins would be endless. Even more so given that she was closing in on the halfway point.
She simply couldn’t help it. The story seemed to draw her along as if a spell had been cast upon her, cursing her never to put the book down until she finished the tale and learned just how the Cold Queen’s machinations would leave the wily spell caster. Would he emerge alive despite the battles and backstabbing? Or would he end up like all of her other playthings over the years: dead at her hooves while she shrugged and moved on to the next.
More importantly, what was her angle? In Waking the Sleeping Dragon the Cold Queen was the ally no one wanted to call upon—a being so powerful, so meticulous in how she enacted her punishments for the opposition that even her allies feared the prospect of calling upon her when they were faced with an enraged dragon. But, of course, there was a price for her aid.
Donnchad MacCulkin owed her three favors, which the Cold Queen could call in at any time she wished. Privately, Esalen had to wonder whether or not Silver Spinner was having a little bit of fun with the title. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” she wondered aloud, “if Ryvnek the Terrible was the dragon of that particular book, but not the Dragon of the series?”
Now there was a conversation she could have with Aspire and the others, and not worry about any implications. Of all the characters, the Cold Queen was a favorite among the villagers. What was more entertaining than a character who, by all logic, should be a villain playing the part of ally to the hero, who, in turn, accepted it with the same manner as one might hold an angry cobra?
The Cold Queen certainly loved to make Donnchad dance for her amusement, and all to force him to come willingly into her embrace. Why, it was almost changeling of her.
Deliciously so, as a matter of fact. With a few alterations to some of the machinations, Esalen could see quite a bit of fun in tricking a future husband or wife to scamper right into her waiting hooves, especially when the annual Hunting Game came around.
One filly in particular would make the most adorable sound when the realization hit …
She flicked her ears, Caress’s voice brought her back to reality with a jolt. Esalen closed the book with a sharp snap and looked up to face her. “Yes?”
Caress was leaned against the door jamb, a small smile played upon her lips. Chuckling to herself, she stepped out of her massage room and into the lobby, the door shut behind her with a click of the latch. “I’ve got a few minutes to talk while Pearl Shine enjoys the hot rock treatment. The poor mare is under a lot of stress.”
“Her business takes up a lot of her time and her mother is nagging her to get married. Her father, too,” Caress supplied. With a tired sigh, she sat down beside Esalen. She shook her head. “It’s not my place to talk about her business, though. And that’s not what you’re here for anyway.” Her smile was back in place. “What did you want to talk about, Essy?”
Esalen set the book on the arm of the couch, then let her hooves rest on her cushion. “Well, I wanted to ask about your trade.”
Caress’s ears perked up. “Oh yeah? What about it?”
“I’ve been giving some thought on massage work and physical therapy.” Her ears twitched, she gave a nervous little flick of her tail. “It’s been something I’ve considered for a while, and you’re the expert in the village.”
“I don’t know about expert, but I’d be happy to help.” Caress laid a gentle hoof upon Esalen’s shoulder. “I take it you’ve been doing some reading on the subject?”
Esalen nodded once. “I have. And I’ve practiced a little on Toola and Doo—er, Sure Stroke.” She coughed into a hoof and gave a crooked smile. “But yes, I’ve read up on it. I was looking into it mostly because I want to get into therapy like mom, but I wanted to do my own thing.”
“Nothing wrong with that. I understand entirely.” She chuckled. “This is actually a bit of deja vu for me.”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, it was a talk with your grandfather that led me to pursue this trade.”
Her ears twitched again at the mention of her grandfather, Beguile. “Grandpa Beguile helped you decide?”
“More than that. He was my mentor.” Caress buzzed her wings, a fond smile crossed her muzzle. “He didn’t want it at first because he worried that some of the more prickly Caretakers initially felt he was going to use his charms on his clients. Though he kept true to his word not to do so, he still faced a bit of suspicion.”
“Why, though? We’re usually fine with Enchanters joining up. So why was he different?”
For a moment, Caress hesitated. She chewed her bottom lip. “Beguile was … special, even among the Enchanters,” she said. “His charm rivaled that of the Enchanter Queen herself at the time.” Shooting Esalen a sidelong look, she raised a brow. “I’m sure you’ve noticed how easily your mother can use hers on her clients, not to mention how talented you and Aspire are.”
“There’s no one better in the village except for the purebloods,” Esalen said with a hint of pride.
“Indeed. And Beguile could enchant with a sidelong glance and a smile when he wanted, even his own hive mates felt a bit nervous sometimes.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “Actually, the Enchanters viewed it as quite the tragedy that he opted to leave their resorts and settle here with Cloudfluff.”
Esalen drew back, her brows shot up. “Why?”
“They didn’t want to lose his bloodline. He came from good stock, and he never lacked for companions, based on what I heard.” Caress tossed her mane. “But he never felt a connection with the ponies he charmed or the changelings who invited him to join their households, so he served to help entice guests to stay—hard to say no when a changeling masseuse can wheedle out everything you enjoy about his trade and then deliver, especially when he took time to tell them how much their guides wished him to make sure they felt like royalty. A real silver-tongued devil, even when he came here.” She paused to titter into her hoof. “At least, until he met Cloudfluff. Oh, Queen Chaete used to laugh herself silly when she told Phory, Breezy, and I about how lovedrunk he was for her, and he hadn’t even asked to feed!”
Now there was something. Esalen couldn’t help but draw a line or two from the mental picture of her late grandparents to Aspire and Sure Stroke. Certainly, a few differences were there, but the attraction and obliviousness were almost dead to rights. “So he left and the Enchanters were upset?”
“Sad, but not angry. They tried many times to convince him to return with Cloudfluff.” Caress shrugged. “But he fell in love with the village just as she had, and he refused. Beguile was an Enchanter charmed by a pony, and he quite liked it that way.” She paused a moment to run a hoof through her mane. “I benefited in his choice to stay, so I can’t complain too much. He taught me quite a lot about the trade and how to ensure each client got the care they needed.”
“I see.” Interesting. It was all very interesting, but not quite the information she wanted. Tangent relation, really. “Then, would you mind me asking how he taught you?”
Caress beamed. “Ah, thank you, I didn’t mean to ramble quite like that. As for his teaching, Beguile believed in a very hooves-on approach—I worked under him sort of like how Sweet Treat serves as a mentor to those nephews of hers.”
“Is that how you would train someone else?”
“Definitely.” She nodded once. “The point of Trade Day is to allow young villagers the chance to declare trades and make arrangements with mentors, or discuss the opportunity to find them outside the village with those who might have connections. If there were a foal or nymph interested in learning from me, I would be happy to pass on what I know.” Her eyes shone. “Especially to one of Beguile’s grandnymphs, and doubly so since you’ve already started on your own.”
Warmth filled Esalen’s chest. She ducked her head and tried to hide her darkening cheeks. “I appreciate that.” She fidgeted in place. “And what if, for argument’s sake, I wanted to go elsewhere for a while? Like Manehattan.”
“Phory and I know a few ponies who could help with certifications,” Caress replied without missing a beat. “It wouldn’t be an issue in the slightest.” She paused a moment, her eyes shone with intrigue. “If you don’t mind my asking, how certain are you about this as your choice?”
Setting her jaw, Esalen sat up a little straighter. “Just from what I’ve done, I think this would be a good fit for me.” She offered a small smile in return. “And the help with certifications in case I end up moving is a much appreciated bonus.”
“Good. In that case,” Caress said as she stood and dusted herself off, “I’m going to go check on Miss Pearl, so I’m going to have to cut this short. That said, unless you have a change of heart between now and Trade Day —” she held out a hoof “—I would be happy to return Beguile’s favor and serve as your mentor.”
Beaming, Esalen stood and accepted her hoof. She was on her way.