The Village Called Respite

by Carapace

43. Visitors from the North

Sure Stroke would wager good bits the phrase “the air buzzed with anticipation and excitement” had never been so literal as the day the Enchanters arrived.

Every villager came out to greet their visitors and set up a welcoming party, just as they had after her family got situated. It was the same setup: tables bearing food and drinks for their visitors, games, a nice view of Lake Neighagara and the splendor of the roaring Falls in the distance, and plenty of places to sit and rest their tired hooves and wings after a long journey. A wooden stage off to the side in the shade of the trees.

At the front of the crowd, Queen Euphoria stood with her entourage. Cool Breeze stood on her right, close enough that their shoulders touched and his primaries brushed against her side. He took the time to tame his normally windswept mane, a rarity as far as Sure Stroke could tell, and Queen Euphoria’s own gleamed with her circlet of golden hearts. Clearly they were taking everything with utmost seriousness and wished to show respect to their guests.

But there was one question nagging at Sure Stroke’s mind. An oversight in the design she felt inclined to share with her boyfriend and friends.

“Why isn’t anyone at the gate to meet the Enchanters?” she hissed out the corner of her mouth. “Isn’t that Warm Welcome’s entire thing?”

Aspire smiled patiently. “His trade,” he corrected. “And yes, it is. But the Enchanters won’t be coming through the gate like you and all the others. They’ll come through the northern part of the forest, down the east side of the falls where it isn’t so rough.” Pausing a moment, he turned and winked at her. “The reason we make ponies come through the gate is so we can have someone there to meet them and make sure they don’t have a heart attack.”

“Oh. So they won’t have to walk or fly all that way around?”

“Right. Saves them time.”

“It also means they won’t have to maintain disguises as long,” Esalen chipped in. “Better to cut straight through the forest where they can shift back to natural form once they meet up with the Village Guard.”

Sure Stroke’s brows disappeared beneath her bangs. She hadn’t realized the Village Guard had gone out to meet the Enchanters. Then again, it made sense. They wouldn’t want visitors getting lost or, the more likely worry, attacked by some of the animals lurking in the forest.

And saving them a bit of a walk was only fitting.

She took a moment to glance at each of her friends and their parents in turn. Every changeling, from Aspire and Esalen to Faith and Warm Welcome, was groomed to perfection—their chitin polished, pearly white fangs displayed with pride, and manes and tails brushed and styled. Sipping and nibbling at love over the course of the past week had become commonplace. Sure Stroke herself had been Aspire and Esalen’s favorite snack.

The ponies, too, had gone all out to make an impression. Coats were brushed until they were smooth as silk and shone in the light, manes and tails washed and styled, and everyone, even her perpetually tired father, was bright-eyed and rested.

A small part of her wondered if this was all part of some sort of show of prosperity. A way for the Respite villagers to show off to the Enchanters and say “look and see how our way keeps our bellies full and our friends happy.”

“Look!” Aspire hissed, jabbing her with an elbow and pointing off into the distance. Other villagers around them stirred as they noticed movement in the trees. “They’re coming!”

About thirty figures seemed to melt from the shadows of the forest. Ten of them were ponies and changelings of Village Guard in their forest green armor, leading a crowd of twenty changelings, nymph and adult alike, and a half dozen new ponies.

Sure Stroke felt her breath catch in her throat as her eyes locked on the newcomers. Her heart began to race in her chest as he gaze flitted from changeling to changeling. They were beautiful. Tall, slender mares with sleek carapaces and wide hips trotted close by toned stallions with long fangs and broad shoulders. Even across the open field, their eyes dazzled and seemed to draw her in.

A young nymph of fiery orange mane parted down the middle, his bangs falling over his forehead to frame a pair of piercing orange eyes that met her gaze. A slow smile spread across his chitinous face as he showed off his fangs. He winked, and her heart did a backflip. Her feathers fluffed and her face burned as he turned to a pair of changelings taller than the rest to say something.

That was when she noticed the Queen and her mate. Sure Stroke had to tear her gaze away from the young nymph to compare Queen Euphoria to the visitor. The latter stood a bit taller, and she seemed to have smaller fangs poking out from behind her lips. But there was something about the way she moved, how her hips swayed and tail swished in time that seemed almost hypnotic, even without their spell. The visiting Queen smiled at her son, then nodded and shared a chuckle with her mate.

Aspire groaned, drawing her attention away. “Oh, great,” he said with a long-suffering sigh. “You get to meet Queen Lilith, her first mate, Winsome, and their son. Prince Enticier.”

Sure Stroke blinked and glanced at the nymph again. She raised a brow. “I take it you know each other?”


“Oh, don’t be so grumpy!” Toola tittered from Mantis’s side a short distance away.

Nimble shot him a grin, adding, “Maybe you’d like to take him up on that offer, eh, bookbug? You and Doodle can head on up to their resort and get cozy with him!”

“I’d rather eat rotten fish seasoned with lemon and misery,” Aspire deadpanned, which only set everyone in earshot chuckling.

Still confused, Sure Stroke turned to Esalen. “Is there a reason he doesn’t like the Prince?”

Esalen nodded, bringing a hoof up to cover a smile. “Prince Enticier has visited with his mother a few times before. He happens to like colts and fillies, and he’s made it no secret that he’s sweet on Aspire.”

“Oh.” Sure Stroke glanced at her boyfriend. A sly smile spread across her face. “Should I be worried?”

Aspire shot her a glare. “The last time he was here, I hit him over the head with a textbook because he tried tried to kiss me. No. You don’t have anything to worry about.” He paused a moment, then grinned. “But if you’re really curious, I can always wrap you up and flirt until you start blushing like a tomato. Been wanting to see if it’s any easier when you’re in a cocoon.”

Her cheeks flushed. “N-No, I think I’m okay. Regular flirting and kissing is fine.”

“You sure?” He moved closer, whispering into her ear, “It’d be a twofer: I get him to buzz off, and you get all the adoration you can stand.”

Cocooning. The mere thought sent a shiver down her spine. That was one thing she doubted she’d ever grow accustomed to.

Fortunately, Faith stepped in, lightly clipping his ear. “Put it on hold, little ones,” she scolded. “You can tease and play after the party. Eyes front.”

Sure Stroke and her friends obeyed quickly, lest they find themselves Faith’s next target. She watched as Queen Euphoria stepped out to meet the visiting Queen Lilith. Both wore smiles and embraced warmly.

“Cousin,” Queen Euphoria greeted. “I hope the trip wasn’t too taxing.”

Queen Lilith laughed melodiously. “Not at all,” she replied, her voice as sweet as honey and birdsong. “Though quite lengthy. I hope you don’t mind, but Winsome and I allowed some of our number to bring their companions. And, well …” she trailed off to turn to a mare in her twenty-somethings and licked her cheek, drawing a gasp and a fluffing of her feathers along with a goofy smile. “Our lovely Merry Melody asked to visit, and Winsome promised each of ours a little trip while I was giving a tour one day, the cheeky boy.”

At her side, Winsome laughed. “Oh, don’t put it all on me! You wanted to take special trips with all of them anyway! I just floated the idea!” He leaned down to kiss Merry Melody’s cheek and whispered something in her ear, then gestured to the young Prince Enticier. “You remember our son, of course.”

The nymph bowed on cue. “Queen Euphoria, it’s wonderful to see you again,” he said, before turning to smile at Cool Breeze. “Mister Breeze …” His lips twitched, he glanced back at Queen Euphoria. “I’m still never accepting a cup of tea from you again.”

Laughter rippled through the gathered villagers and visitors while Cool Breeze feigned offense. “It was an honest mistake,” the pegasus said with a pout. “I was trying to get Phory!”

“Now that I’ll believe,” Queen Euphoria said, rolling her eyes. She released Queen Lilith from her embrace, then nodded to the visiting group. “Detailing sleeping arrangements and such can wait until later. As Queen of the Caretaker Hive, I welcome the Enchanter contingent to our village. I ask that you please respect our laws while in our territory. Please enjoy the food and feel free to mingle.”

The Enchanters bowed and offered their thanks in reply, then dispersed to mingle with the villagers. Several headed straight toward Vigil and Maple, smiling brightly and hugging the pair like relatives they hadn’t seen in ages. A young couple and their pony friend caught up to Regale and offered a more gentle embrace before they started chatting about books, while Gale lingered and gave one word replies whenever she was addressed.

Still more headed over in Sure Stroke’s direction. Or, more aptly, Faith, Aspire, and Esalen’s.

Including Queen Lilith herself, with Winsome, Prince Enticier, Merry Melody, and Queen Euphoria in tow.

“Little Faith,” Queen Lilith greeted with all the warmth of the morning sun and offered a hoof. “How lovely to see you again. You look well.”

Faith bowed her head and kissed the visiting Queen’s hoof. “Thank you, Your Highness. You look radiant as always.” She looked to Winsome and Prince Enticier, lingering on the latter. “My, my! You’ve certainly grown, Prince Enticier! The last time I saw you, you barely came up to my knee!”

The young Prince laughed, Sure Stroke felt her heart leap. What in Equestria was with him? “I finally hit puberty,” he replied. “And being active back in Paradise certainly helps.”

“Paradise?” Sure Stroke asked before she remembered herself. All eyes fell upon her, she squeaked and quickly covered her mouth. “Sorry!”

Prince Enticier simply smiled. “No need to apologize. I noticed you in the crowd—a new face to the village.” He turned his attention to her parents and nodded. “A new family, in fact. Curiosity is only natural, right mom?”

“Indeed,” Queen Lilith said, nodding. Her eyes danced. “Paradise is the name of my main resort, the crown jewel of our hive, you might say.”

Winsome gave a low, rumbling laugh. “Quite a lovely place for ponies to get away from it all and let their worries subside. Though, it can be a little too pricey, if you ask me.”

His wife scoffed. “Oh, hush! I run a high-end resort, darling! We have expenses!”

“It’s just my opinion, Lily. Not an indictment.” His eyes flitted from Skydancer to Drizzly before returning to Sure Stroke. Then he glanced at Aspire and Esalen, lingering a moment on the former. His eyes widened for a split second, as if taking stock of something. The corners of his mouth tugged into a seemingly casual smile. “Of course, if you all wanted to visit, I’m sure we could work out some sort of arrangement. Friends of Beguile’s family are always welcome in our home.”

At that point, Cool Breeze stepped in. He gave Winsome a playful nudge. “Now, now, Win, don’t go trying to steal my flight instructing partner and our weather manager away,” he chided.

“I’m not stealing, Breezy. Just offering.”

“I know you are, and I’m just saying.” Cool Breeze turned so he could shoot a wink only the villagers caught. He threw a wing over Winsome’s shoulders and steered him toward the food tables. “How about some food, eh? Sweets and her nephews made a cake. You remember the Mint twins, right?”

Four sets of ears shot up. “Sweet Treat and the Mints?” Queen Lilith almost purred. “Well, I suppose it would be rude not to go over and sample their fares. What do you think, Merry?”

Only then did Sure Stroke think to look at the pegasus that hung off them. She noticed the wide smile, flushed cheeks, and eyes that shone the instant she looked at her changeling lovers. “I’d love to,” Merry said with a wistful sigh, sidling up to the Queen and brushing her feathers against her side. “As long as I’m with you and Winsome.”

“Lovely! Then come along, dear.” Queen Lilith pecked her lips and made to follow Cool Breeze, with Queen Euphoria and Prince Enticier trailing in her wake. The latter shot a lingering look over his shoulder, his eyes flitted between Aspire and Sure Stroke. A slow smile spread across his face before he turned back to follow his parents.

For a moment, Sure Stroke could only stare. She blinked a few times, then turned to her friends.

Aspire and Esalen wore nervous smiles. They sighed.

“Merry’s fine,” Aspire said. “Under their spell, but fine. All they’ve done is coax her to tell them exactly what’s on her mind.”

“She genuinely feels that way?” Skydancer asked. She looked at Faith. “I don’t mean to be rude, but that was—”

“Unsettling?” Faith offered. “It can be. My father had to fight to break his old habits, and he taught me the same. But yes, if Merry Melody says she’s happy as long as she’s with Lilith and Winsome, that is how she feels deep down.”

Warm Welcome stepped in. “Think of it as removing her brain to mouth filter. Anything she thinks, she’ll say.”

“Ha!” Drizzly scoffed. “That sounds like more trouble to me!”

The changeling parents grinned. “You might,” Faith replied, “but it can be a good thing. Now, enough of that. You’ve nothing to fear of their charms here. Let’s enjoy the party. Sky?” She turned and gestured toward the tables. “Let’s find something to eat. You helped bake, if I recall. What was it again?”

As the adults began to wander toward the party. Sure Stroke’s attention returned to her friends. Aspire stood on her right, still, but Esalen had slipped away. Or so she thought.

Smooth carapace brushed against her shoulder. She looked to her left and found Esalen at her side.

“It’ll be fine,” Esalen said softly. “Just watch out for their word games and don’t make any deals. They’re fine friends otherwise.”

She felt Aspire lean over and rub his cheek against hers. “Stick close,” he advised. “We’re here if they bother you at all.”

Sure Stroke forced a smile. They made it sound like the Enchanters were friends and threats in the same breath. Which was it? She put it to the side, instead favoring to unfurl her wings and lay them across her friends’ shoulders. A comforting gesture all pegasi knew.

A part of her wondered who it was really meant for: them or herself.

The party went into full swing shortly after that meeting with the Enchanters’ Royal Family. The food was, as always, amazing, and Sure Stroke found she fared better in the Find the Pony game this time around. Pear Tree gave it away when he burst out laughing as Sure Stroke tricked Duplicitous and Façade into bickering, which earned her no shortage of praise from Aspire and Esalen. It also earned her a pair of wicked smirks and glowing eyes, along with vows to remember her little trick from the adults.

A shiver ran down her spine when she felt their eyes upon her again. She knew she’d pay for that later. Perhaps not quite like how Creamy and Frosty got Aspire back for whatever he’d done to them, but she’d get hers.

Scuttling off to hide in the crowd while Nimble Hooves and Toola Roola danced seemed like the perfect way to escape.

The dance itself was simply stunning. On the right side of the stage, Allegretto sat at his small piano, with a cocoon slime green bowtie around his neck. He played an upbeat melody that brought memories of flying through the sky in Cloudsdale, flitting between fluffy clouds and hiding from weather ponies while Alto showed her how to push a thunderhead without getting a shock.

Nimble and Toola were in their element. They twirled, flipped, and cartwheeled across the stage with ease, drawing gasps of surprise and impressed buzzes from everyone present. Their big finale, though, was the cherry atop the sundae. Nimble spun on her left hind hoof, with her right extended out. She slowly bent her leg, bringing it in tight as she picked up speed.

She stopped at the center of the stage with a stomp of her hoof, then threw her forehooves up. Toola seemed to come from nowhere, flipping right over her and landing so their forehooves met, balancing perfectly atop her sister.

The crowd burst into thunderous applause and buzzing. Cheers split the air as the performing trio took their bows and hopped down from the stage to rejoin the party. Each received affectionate pats, hugs, and even a few words of praise from the Hive Queens themselves. Though none cheered quite as loud as Esalen.

Sure Stroke had to lean against Aspire so she wouldn’t fall over laughing as the nymph nearly bowled their giggly friend over and pulled her into a tight hug. His shoulders shook as he snickered under his breath while he helped her regain her balance.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him flick his tongue out. His ears twitched, and a knowing grin spread across his face. “Well, well, well,” he muttered. His eyes flashed. “Oh, payback for all that teasing Essy and Toola gave us is gonna be good, Doodle!”

Her ears twitched. “Really?” she asked, grinning. “What’d you taste?”

“Same thing I tasted from you right before you kissed me at Coneigh Island,” he replied with an ominous chuckle. “I’m going to enjoy this. You?”

“Oh, yes. She deserves every bit of it for how she teased me.” Thinking on it a moment, she added, “Toola, too. Cheeky little giggleblox.”

“Definitely.” Shaking his head, he turned, motioning for her to follow. “C’mon, let’s go see about swiping a bit more of Sweet’s cake before it vanishes. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long anyway.”

Nodding, Sure Stroke turned, but stopped cold. She felt Aspire tense at her side.

“Aspire,” Prince Enticier said with a smile, his eyes shining with delight. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again.” He stepped closer and wrapped him in a tight hug. “How’ve you been?”

Aspire forced a smile. “I’ve … been well enough.” He patted the Enchanter Prince’s back. “Good to see you, too. Enticier. How’s Paradise?”

“Paradise is just what it’s name suggests, naturally. Mom’s been teaching me the managerial aspects, and I’ve caught on well enough.” Prince Enticier released his embrace and puffed out his chest. “She’s actually impressed. Says I should be able to run one of our other resorts in a year or two!”

“Good for you. Really, that’s great.”

Sure Stroke glanced between them, her brow furrowed in confusion. Hadn’t Aspire mentioned he didn’t like Prince Enticier? They were acting like old friends!

“Well, hopefully it goes well. If all goes well, I’ll be able to improve the resort and the lives of our residents.” The Prince sighed. He fixed Aspire with a hooded stare. “If I recall, you wanted to teach for your trade, right?”

The smile ran away from Aspire’s face. “Yes. And I know what you’re thinking.”

“I haven’t even said it!”

“It’s written on your face, I don’t even need to taste you. So I’ll say it now: no. It’s not happening.”

Prince Enticier pouted. “Won’t you even think about it? Just imagine! You could teach all the nymphs and all the foals who come and stay with their parents—just like here! But you could run your own classes straight away!”

“And I haven’t even taught a class of students by myself yet,” Aspire shot back. “I’ve only tutored my friends. I haven’t had my mom sliding me duties for the past several years. I’ve got no experience.”

“Well, think about it at least. Please?” He leaned in so they were almost nose to nose. His eyes widened.

Aspire made a point of looking straight at Enticier’s nose. “I’m not promising anything. I’ve given my answer.”

“So cold.” Prince Enticier’s pout grew more pronounced. “You used to be so friendly when we were little. Remember when I’d visit with mom and dad?”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. Another hint. “You two were friends?”

“Oh, yes,” Prince Enticier replied, turning his attention upon her. His smile made butterflies take wing in her belly. “When I was little, mom would bring me and have me play with him and Essy while she chatted with his parents and grandparents. She missed his grandpa so much.”

“Too bad you couldn’t take no for an answer then, either,” Aspire grumbled.

“It’s called persistence.”

“It’s called being a pain in my—” He bit off his own retort, blowing a breath out through his nose. His eyes flitted to Sure Stroke, then back to Prince Enticier. “I think,” he ground out, “we’ve both been rather rude. Introductions are in order.”

Prince Enticier beamed. “Oh, yes! Who is this fetching young mare you’ve got here?” His eyes met Sure Stroke’s. She found herself lost in them, like gazing into a burning fireplace on a cold winter night.

“This is Do—Sure Stroke,” Aspire said, gesturing to her, “my girlfriend. Sure Stroke, this is Enticier, Prince of the Enchanter Hive of the Northern Mountains.”

“And an old friend of Aspire’s,” the newcomer added.

“H-Hello,” Sure Stroke greeted, her tongue tripping over the word. “Nice to meet you, Prince Enticier.”

“Charmed.” He offered his hoof as if to shake, a gesture Sure Stroke accepted happily. But rather than shake hooves, the young Prince bent his head and kissed her wrist. Her cheeks burned.

His smile broadened into a full-blown grin that made her knees weak. “Please, let’s not have titles burden my visit. Call me Enticier. And the pleasure is mine.”

Enticier was … different. Yes, different was an excellent way to describe him, Sure Stroke had decided.

He stayed with Aspire and her throughout the party, and liked to stand close enough that his shoulder would brush against one of theirs when he went to talk. Not quite friendly close, like the villagers either. He seemed to like leaning in and trying to meet their eyes, like when she tried getting Aspire to look at her so she could see the blush spreading across his cheeks, or when Aspire knew he had her puffing her cheeks out, agitated at one of his quips.

A quick glance to her boyfriend forced her to hide a smile behind a hoof. Aspire’s mouth was set in a thin line matched by his eyebrows as Enticier sat between them at one of the wooden tables and chattered away about a few nice foals he’d hosted in one of his mother’s resorts. All pegasi, he claimed, whose families had chosen to stay and became fast friends with the Enchanters.

“Good for you,” Aspire said, forcing a tight smile. “So how come you didn’t show up with them hanging off you, hmm?”

Enticier chuckled. “We didn’t want to travel in too large a number. Might be a bit noticeable if we ended up with closer to a hundred trekking through the forest, eh?”

“True. But you have other—ahem—companions, yes?” Aspire raised his brows.

For a moment, the Prince’s smile faltered, but it was back as quick as it left. “I’m afraid we haven’t gotten quite that close yet. The only one who has is you.” His smile returned in an instant. “The offer’s still open, of course.”

Aspire frowned. “Answer is still no.”

“Fortunately, it isn’t time sensitive,” Enticier replied without missing a beat. He beamed, then turned his attention to Sure Stroke. “So, how about yours, Aspire? Or are you hers?” His eyes danced like flickering flames.

She squirmed beneath his gaze, rustling her wings as though to help alleviate some of the warmth. The evening air seemed strangely hot. “I think we just share each other,” she said, wincing at the uncertainty in her tone. “But I’m not sure there’s much to tell about me.”

“I doubt that very much,” Enticier said with a patient smile. “You’ve been polite enough to put up with me sitting between you and our favorite Caretaker this evening—”

Sure Stroke’s ear flicked just in time to catch Aspire muttering something under his breath that ended with “take a hint and move, then,” but didn’t comment.

“—Not to mention, you’ve caught his interest as well.” He leaned in close, his breath tickled her cheek. “So, what is it about Sure Stroke that makes Aspire’s heart race, hmm? Or him yours?”

She leaned back, pinning her ears as she tried to ignore the blush tinging her cheeks. “I’m, uh, well I’m not sure how I caught his eye. But he’s helped me through adapting since I moved here.”

“Of course he has.” Quick as a cat, he looped a hoof around Aspire’s shoulders and pulled him close, laughing at the indignant chitter he received in return. “He’s always been like that. Gets it from his parents and grandparents, if you ask me.” Again, he turned to Aspire. “I remember the time you had to remind me not to use my charms to convince Helter Skelter to give me a little love in exchange for a kiss during my first visit here. You argued so hard in front of Queen Euphoria that I forgot myself and convinced her to let me off with a warning as long as you explained the rules to me.”

Aspire ducked his head and looked away, rubbing anxiously at his ankle. “Was just trying to keep things calm,” he muttered. “And you didn’t know better at the time.”

“True, but you were there to make sure I stayed out of trouble. And Helter forgave me.” His ears twitched. “Speaking of, how is he?”

“Moved back to Canterlot with his family so he could study at that fancy magic school. He sends letters sometimes. He’s got a boyfriend now.”

“Ah, good for him. He was nice. Could you tell him I said hello?”

“Sure.” Aspire paused a moment, then rolled his eyes. “I suppose that’ll mean you want me to relay his reply.”

Enticier nodded. “If you don’t mind, yes.” He nudged Aspire’s shoulder, then glanced back at Sure Stroke. A sly smile spread across his face. “And you’ve still not answered my question, smartling. What do you like about her?”

Sure Stroke watched with no shortage of interest as her boyfriend’s eyes flitted to meet hers and his chitinous cheeks flushed a deep black. He licked his lips and said, “She tries to understand things she’s unfamiliar with and shows an interest in learning. And her talent for art is …” Her ears perked up. Aspire fidgeted beside Enticier, struggling to find the words before he mumbled, “Amazing. She made it look like liquid rainbow spilled onto the picture she drew for me.”

Orange eyes widened. The playful gleam there vanished in favor of something else. “A talented artist who loves to learn, huh? Well, that certainly does explain a lot.” Enticier chuckled, not chittered, chuckled. It tickled Sure Stroke’s ears and made her fight not to smile at him and duck her head. “Quite the interesting filly indeed. Maybe you could share some with me?”

Feathers fluffing at both nymphs’ compliments, Sure Stroke nodded. “If you’d like.”

“I would. I love learning about my new friends and seeing their talents in action. Or, well, on display, in this case. Semantics.” He shrugged, letting out a chittering laugh at his private joke. After a moment to compose himself, he spoke again, “So, what about changelings have you been most interested to learn?”

It took all her self-control not to scoff. The answer for that was like trying to ask if she could drain the ocean with a cup. There was far too much to cover. From feeding to emotion tasting, to their uncanny ability to speak in unison, and, naturally, to their shapeshifting, and even the village culture, she would dare say she could fill up books on each if given the time. Changelings, as alien and frightening as they could be, were many things.

Fascinating was firmly at the top of the list.

But among all the things she learned, there was something that stuck out, even among the feeding and shapeshifting. Something that ran parallel with what she knew as a filly of Equestria.

“The story,” she said. “The one about the Crystal Empire and the Ancient Queen.”

Enticier’s chitinous ears perked up. “Oh, really? Aspire’s shared it with you?”

“He’s read parts of it to me.”

“How sweet.” He turned to beam at Aspire. “Thoughtful as always, isn’t he?”

Seeing Aspire squirm in the Enchanter Prince’s grasp, Sure Stroke grinned. It was nice to be on the other side for a change. “He really is.”

Enticier’s gaze was back on her again before she could enjoy her boyfriend’s suffering too much. “What part were you on?” he asked.

“Uh,” she stammered, trying to recall.

“The visit,” Aspire mumbled. “Where the Queen was tricked.”

“Oooh! Aurora’s trick, the clever mare!” Enticier chittered. “Well, I won’t spoil the rest. I hope you enjoy it. You’ll learn a lot about us. More than you already have, that is.” His ears stood up straight. He released Aspire so he could clap his hooves together. “Would it be okay if I joined you for the next part?”

Aspire’s back went rigid. “Excuse me?”

“I love the next part, Aspire! And I’d like to be there when you read it to her! Unless, of course, this has been a private affair between you two.” He flashed a brilliant smile. “I wouldn’t dream of stepping in on that.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip and shared a quick look with Aspire. A hint of unease crept into her chest. And by the look on his face, he felt the same.

Their reading sessions weren’t private, but they weren’t exactly inviting their whole class to the show. Enticier was a nice enough nymph, to be sure. But he wasn’t close like their regular crowd.

A nagging little voice reminded her that none of her friends were close when she first came to Respite, especially the changelings. “I don’t mind,” she said.

Enticier threw his hooves around his shoulders and squeezed her tight, drawing a squeak and a renewed blush. “Thanks, Sure Stroke,” he said softly, pressing his cheek against hers. Sure Stroke could almost feel the heat off the glare Aspire shot at the back of the Prince’s head. “I’m looking forward to it.”