Sure Stroke had been warned time and time again about the cunning nature of the Enchanters, the ways they would twist words and use their charms (literal and metaphorical) to flatter and steer a pony to walk straight into the unrivaled comfort of their web. Though she did squirm and blush, she could say that, in hindsight, she expected all of it.
She expected the honeyed words and flattery to go along with the smoldering gazes, brilliant smiles that made her heart race, and the feeling of smooth lips and teasing fangs brushing against her wrist, all of which had become the norm since meeting Enticier. All to butter her up so she’d consider his offer, so she’d answer the one question Madame Soleil warned her to avoid above all else.
Sitting in the soft grass a mere three steps from the beach of Lake Neighagara while sketching a scene of the beautiful falls and the ever-present mist that hung over the far shore like a cloak for the Prince of the Enchanters, however, never once entered her mind.
Enticier wore a smile she could only describe as immensely self-satisfied when he offered to carry her saddlebags for her—an offer she politely declined, of course. She was already going down to the lake with him. There was no sense letting him try to wheedle another deal out of her because he’d borne some minor burden in her stead.
His smile, though, never abated. If anything, it grew warmer and even more self-satisfied when they reached their destination and he took his seat beside her, close enough that smooth carapace brushed against velvety coat.
“I’d like to watch you draw the falls,” he reiterated his wish as if explaining the move. “Would you like me to wait until you finish to tell you about Paradise, or do you like talking while you work?”
Sure Stroke gave a casual shrug in reply. “I don’t mind either way. Whatever you like.”
There. Noncommittal, just as Madame Soleil advised. Not to mention, it put the decision back in Enticier’s hooves and made her seem only passively interested. He was up to something, that much was certain. Specifics, however, she wasn’t quite sure of yet. Regardless, he would have to make the move. Sure Stroke wasn’t going to just stumble into any word games that ended with her standing over a trapdoor—after all, was there really any doubt where he intended her to fall if such should happen?
Instead, she simply began sketching the falls. The familiar scratch-scratch-scratch of her pencil against the sketchpad helped soothe her. It was something she could control, something straightforward and true, guided along by her own hoof. Quite unlike the silver-tongued Enchanter sitting to her left.
Enticier made a little humming noise in the back of his throat that trailed off into a semi-buzzing rumble. “Well, then,” he said with a smile. “I suppose I’d like to talk. We can meet the terms of our deal simultaneously that way.”
“Seems fair.” Careful to keep her expression neutral, Sure Stroke let her gaze flit from the falls to him. A part of her wanted to press for details about the mountains, whether or not Paradise was situated near the pine forests or one of the lakes, but she stayed steadfast. She forced herself to look at the falls again, then down at the page. Sighing, she took her eraser and removed an errant line. Typical.
“Is there anything in specific you’d like me to describe first?”
She frowned. She could feel his eyes on her. He was trying to steer her to choose. Clever enough.“Well, you’ve seen how I see things here through my drawings.” Sure Stroke paused to tap her sketchpad.
The corners of his mouth tugged upward, his smile showed pointed teeth. “True,” Enticier mused. “And a lovely picture it is, to be sure.”
“Er, thanks. So, what is it about Paradise that you think of when you’re away from home?”
Those fiery orange eyes brightened. Enticier gave another hum, this time approving. And with just a hint of pleasure. The sound tickled Sure Stroke’s ears and made her swallow a bit of saliva and flutter her feathers. She fought to keep her gaze fixed on her work, taking the time to put a bit of extra definition of a line to make the ledge look steeper.
“Now, that’s a fun question,” he noted. “And makes for a bit of a balancing of the scales, so to speak. Aspire’s got you thinking like one of the villagers already.”
“I am one of the villagers,” Sure Stroke replied without hesitation, her tone carrying with it a note of irritation.
“Of course. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.” Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed him scratch his shin. A part of her liked to think it was a tell—that he felt awkward because of his slip.
Good. He was getting a little too comfortable.
Enticier licked his lips, then trailed his tongue down to the tip of his right fang before speaking again, “It depends on the season, really. During the winter, there’s nothing that beats the mountain trails. The snow comes down in a fine, soft powder, perfect for skiing in the daytime. You’ve seen pictures of Mount Canterhorn, right?”
“I’ve visited Canterlot before,” Sure Stroke replied. “Dad took us there to watch the Wonderbolts compete against the Westliches Reich’s Donner Fersen.”
“Ah, very nice! Well, perhaps it’s a bit boastful, but the peaks around Paradise put Mount Canterhorn to shame.” At her snort, he chittered. “I did say it was boastful, but it’s something indescribable. You’d have to see them to appreciate it properly.” Enticier gave a wistful sigh. “The hiking trails are wonderful, of course. We’ve used the same ones for centuries. Many of our guests find themselves so stricken by the Evergreen Forest, and we like to think it has a charm of its own.”
Sure Stroke paused in her sketching to laugh. “That sounds rather poetic. How often do you tell your ‘guests’ that one?”
“Only if they ask about the trails. I’ve no reason to lie to them, after all. We like to think complete honesty and freedom of expression are the best policy in Paradise.”
Memories flashed through her mind at blinding speed. She could see Aspire’s blue eyes glowing a few shades lighter, that handsome smile playing upon his lips as he charmed her to give voice to her every thought and slowly coaxed the answers out of her until she was willing to surrender her pancakes.
Honesty and freedom of expression were the best policy? Of that, Sure Stroke had little doubt. She bit back a retort, but couldn’t quite suppress a nervous twitch of her feathers. Instead, she let her sketch work serve as a distraction.
Enticier had no such intent. Sure Stroke felt his posture shift. His shoulder brushed against hers and warm breath tickled her cheek. “You’re thinking about our talent with charming when I say that,” he said.
She stiffened, her pencil froze in mid stroke. Out of pure reflex, she turned to meet his gaze, abruptly flinching away from the instant she saw those orange eyes. Were they a couple shades lighter? She beat the urge to sneak a quick look to death with a stick, and looked out across the lake.
He frowned. “We’re in Respite, Sure Stroke. I can’t charm you here without breaking the law and burning the bond between the Caretakers and Enchanters,” he reminded gently. “You’ve nothing to fear from me.”
“Nothing to fear here,” she retorted. “But not if I walked through the gates, right?”
“Technically? Not until you got to Manehattan or Canterlot. Caretaker territory covers most of the province, but the big cities are neutral ground.” He gave an awkward cough. “And that’s not quite what I meant.” She felt him lay his hoof upon hers, then squeeze her wrist. “Even if we met on neutral ground where I could, I’d never do anything to hurt you.”
Sure Stroke kept her gaze fixed on the lake. She swallowed. “Because I’m Aspire’s girlfriend?”
“That, yes. But also because you’re a nice filly, and I don’t go out of my way to harm ponies who haven’t wronged our guests, my hive, or myself. We do have standards, you know.”
“I don’t know, actually.”
Enticier chittered. “Of course. First time meeting us. My mistake.” With a sigh, he said, “But I do mean it. I’d never hurt you.”
Sure Stroke chewed on her lip. Slowly, she turned to meet his eyes. Then she looked down. “Yes,” she muttered.
“When you said honesty and freedom of expression,” she replied, “I was thinking of how you like to charm ponies.”
Clicking his tongue, he rubbed her wrist, a soothing gesture that stole her breath away. “I believe,” he said, “you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Which is fine. You’ve heard of us from the Caretakers, and they don’t necessarily like our way of doing things because they believe it contradicts the trust ponies place in them.”
Arching a brow, Sure Stroke drew back from him. “You disagree?”
“I understand why they feel that way, but naturally, I do disagree with them.” He shrugged. “I think they should look at it as they do tasting emotions.”
Her brow arched higher. “You’re joking.”
Enticier shook his head firmly. “I’m completely serious,” he replied. “You might think our way of using charms may seem slippery and underhooved, but if you spoke with one of our guests—or, better yet, if you spoke with one of our companions, like Aunt Melody, you might see things in a different light.”
Curious, Sure Stroke put her pencil and sketchpad aside so she could give him her full attention. “No offense,” she said with a disbelieving smile, “but I find that very hard to believe.”
“Oh? Well, let me try explaining this another way. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“I guess that’d be fine.”
“Okay.” He smiled. “How do you feel about the Caretakers tasting your emotions?”
She blinked twice. “I’m sorry? I don’t—I mean, it was a bit strange at first, but it’s fine. Why do you—”
“But don’t you think they might use it to steer things their way?” he pressed. “I know for a fact that Queen Euphoria herself tastes visitors’ emotions so she knows how to present herself. Same with Warm Welcome and Faith.” He raised his brows meaningfully. “And same with Aspire and Esalen.”
Sure Stroke sucked in a breath, a denial fresh on the tip of her tongue.
Then she thought back. Queen Euphoria had specifically mentioned shifting her fangs away because of what she tasted. Not to mention, Aspire and Esalen organized the entire class to do the same. And how many times had they mentioned that she tasted terrible when she first arrived?
“That’s … they don’t make me do things, though,” she said.
Enticier bobbed his head from side to side. “True, true. But the most we do is simply tell you that there’s no need to be afraid to speak your mind, and we use our charms to make sure our guests aren’t burdened with such trappings like awkwardness or fear to do so.” He offered a warm smile. “It’s nice having that openness, wouldn’t you think?”
Her insides squirmed. Sure Stroke’s feathers twitched and fluffed nervously. “But that’s still …” She paused, taking a deep breath.
“It’s different,” he supplied. “And it sounds strange and frightening because you’re worried about one of us making you do something that’ll hurt you.”
“Yes.” She ducked her head. “I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Oh, no, you’re not. I’ve heard that before many times.” Enticier patted her hoof, then let go. “It’s rational, but charming does have limits. For example—” he nodded at the lake “—go drown yourself in the water.”
Sure Stroke leaped away from him as if she’d been struck by lightning, her wings flared wide, ready to fight. Her heart hammered in her chest. “What?” she shrieked.
Enticier held up his hooves in surrender. “It’s an example. See how you are right now? All that was a natural reaction, something drilled into you.” He motioned to himself. “I could charm you as thoroughly and carefully as I wanted, I could convince you that you weren’t a beautiful young mare, that you were a magnificent fish, and you desperately needed to go home to your fish friends.” His eyes glowed, but the mental tickle didn’t come. But Sure Stroke felt almost drawn into them, as if he were slowly pulling her in deeper, not to drown.
To burn. She could almost feel the fire behind his eyes spread throughout her chest.
“Do you want to know where all that stops and your body rejects my efforts?” he asked.
She licked her dried lips. Her breaths felt oddly short. Sure Stroke glanced between him and the lake, worried. But curiosity got the better of her. She nodded once.
“The moment you put your head under water,” he said seriously. “As soon as you need air, you’ll come to the surface. And your instincts won’t obey no matter how hard I tell you to swim deeper or stay down longer.” Enticier beamed, closing his eyes. “The pony mind is a very delicate, yet powerful thing.”
Sure Stroke let out a heavy sigh. Her shoulders slumped. “That was … a bit heavy.”
He had the grace to wince. “Sorry. Normally, I demonstrate by telling a pony to thump themselves on the wall. Had to use what was available.”
“Right. Well … thank you for explaining your point.”
“You’re welcome.” His teeth showed. “I hope you don’t find me so frightening, now.”
Frightening? Sure Stroke bit her lip. He was still that, and more. After all, Aspire could work his charms on her, and he was, admittedly, not on par with a full-blooded Enchanter.
Let alone their prince.
Changelings’ charms were frightening. But they were a natural part of what her friends were. Much like her own wings.
“It helps a little,” she said after a moment, “but I don’t think I’ll be comfortable with it for some time.”
Enticier’s smile didn’t falter. “I understand. Thank you for listening, at least.” He turned to look out over the lake again, then said, “Crystal Lake.”
Sure Stroke perked her ears up. “I’m sorry?”
“My favorite spot in spring and summer is the nearby lake in the valley. The waters are so clear, you can almost see to the bottom.” He turned to face her again, grinning. “It doesn’t have a waterfall or near as many fish, but it’s great for summer parties.”
Slowly, a smile spread across Sure Stroke’s face. She folded her wings and trotted back to his side, then sat down next to him again. Close enough that her shoulder brushed against his as she took up her sketchpad. “Sounds like a beautiful place. Do you mind telling me about it?”
Enticier waggled his ears. “I’d be happy to.”