The Village Called Respite

by Carapace

50. Filly of Respite

Sure Stroke decided to wait until the following day to ask Aspire and Esalen if they would mind accompanying her to Regale’s house. The twins were happy to slip out of their home with a backward call to their mother, then skittered away before they could be caught and dragged back to clean their rooms and repair their bed pods.

Matching images of rooms decorated with liberal amounts of slime dribbling down the walls with globs containing little knick knacks and preserved treats, and large, gelatinous bed pods floated to the forefront of her mind. A part of her wondered just what qualified as “messy” in a changeling household. Or bed pod, for that matter.

But the little pegasus opted to file it away for later questioning. Who knows? If she and Faith were right about Regale being tricky, it could prove a useful line of questioning for later.

Imagine a chapter like that, she mused with a smile. Chapter three: “How Much Slime is Clean? Or ‘When It’s Time to Tease My Changeling Friends for Being Unorganized.’” She covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. Oh, there were so many directions she could take her writing. Perhaps a bit of comedy along with the information, to keep it more lighthearted rather than making it another textbook.

Sure Stroke was almost certain there had been a fantasy book like that. Something about hitchhiking ponies in the gryphon lands?

Aspire gave her a playful shoulder check that sent her stumbling into Esalen, who hip bumped her back over to him. “What’re you all giggly about?” he teased, nipping at her cheek. “Should I start prodding secrets out of my doodly girlfriend?”

She fixed him with a stern glare, but couldn’t hide her smile. “Try it and you’ll be adding more to how doomed you are, punk.” Quick as a flash, she unfurled a wing and clipped his ear.

Esalen burst into gleeful chitters and had to look away. “You two!” she babbled between titters. “You’re as bad as the old married couple we’re about to go see!”

Sure Stroke sucked in her lips to hide a smile at the visual her friend’s words conjured, stealing a look at Aspire to find his cheeks flushed a deep black and his eyes darting about before meeting hers.

He held her gaze for a few seconds. A strange choked chitter sounded from the back of his throat, a nervous laugh, she realized, then he turned his attention down the path. “Oh, l-look!” he said, pointing ahead. “Missus Regale’s outside with Missus Gale! Isn’t that convenient?”

Following his hoof, Sure Stroke saw the elderly changeling and pegasus working together in the yard. Regale, with a wide brimmed straw hat settled atop her graying mane, was tugging weeds from her flower beds around the corner of the house and depositing them into a burlap sack, while Gale worked to dig up a rather stubborn dead bush. A flurry of nearly unintelligible curses floated to her ears. Something about the parentage of the roots and where she’d like to stick a pair of sheers.

It was more than enough to send Esalen into another fit of laughter. “Looks like gardening day is going just as well as always!” she sang. She trotted ahead, affectionately rubbing shoulders with Sure Stroke as she gave her wings a merry buzz and waved them onward.

Sure Stroke hurried along after her with Aspire at her side. They cut through the lush green grass to where the old couple labored.

Regale’s ears twitched, she turned, brushing the hat back so she could meet them with a smile. “Well, well, the terrible twins and little Sure Stroke,” she greeted warmly. She paused a moment as if expecting something, then frowned and turned to aim a glare at Gale, who hadn’t even so much as glanced up between streams of curses. “Gale Storm! Stop swearing at that bush and say hello!”

“Hello,” Gale growled, barely sparing the trio a glance. With a snarl in what sounded like Griffish, she thrust a spade into the dirt as if she were wielding a spear. Had she served in the Army or the Royal Guard?

Rolling her eyes, Regale set her sack aside and rose with a slight wince. “Oof, my muscles aren’t what they used to be,” she muttered, shaking her head. Her smile was back in place a half second later. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you all here, even though I’m a bit of a mess.” With a chittering titter, she asked, “What can I do for you three today?”

“Not for Esalen or me, Missus Regale,” Aspire said, pushing Sure Stroke forward. “For Doodle here.”

“Oh?” Twinkling jade eyes met Sure Stroke’s. The elderly changeling’s weathered, chitinous face crinkled around her eyes as her smile broadened. “Then to what do I owe this happy surprise?”

A mere few months prior, Sure Stroke was certain she would have squirmed beneath Regale’s gaze.

Now, she actually stood up to full height and met her eyes without fear. “I came to talk about the question you had me consider when we first met. The one about whether I was sure I wanted to make writing that book about changelings my trade.”

“Ah, yes,” Regale’s ears perked up. “I do believe I recall that.”

Gale paused in her assault on the bush long enough to snort and quip, “You remember that of all things, but whether or not you’ve retired slips your mind.

Regale whirled around and fixed her with a stern glare, but couldn’t hide her flushed cheeks. “Quiet you!” Turning away from her smirking wife, she returned her attention to Sure Stroke. “Oh. Did you ever speak with Faith about your interest in art therapy?”

“I did, actually. Just yesterday. The Enchanters’ visit made things a bit difficult.”

“Understandably so. Though it was nice to see some of my old friends’ nymphs all grown up, I must say. But I digress. You were saying?”

Sure Stroke gave her feathers a nervous rustle. An easily notable tell, but it didn’t stop her. “I ended up helping her with another pony yesterday, a mare who dealt with a rather rough end to a relationship and then felt overwhelmed by the Enchanters. She agreed to try drawing with me to help come to terms with it.” A slow smile spread across her face. “It seemed to work. She opened up enough to show us what she drew and explain why it came to her in such a manner.”

Nodding, Regale gave an approving hum. “Well done. I’d heard about the mare you mention through village gossip, but I didn’t want to pry. Especially not if my hive caused her to, ah, relapse.” She wiped the back of her hoof across her forehead to chase a bead of sweat away. “Pardon me. With that said, though, I suppose you’ve decided to stick with therapy over writing, correct?”

“Not quite.”

Gale’s spade struck the dirt but didn’t come out again. Nor did another curse. Sure Stroke could feel the elderly pegasus’s eyes upon her, focused and calculating once again.

Regale, on the other hoof, seemed quite taken aback. Her eyes widened for a moment before she schooled her expression. “I’m sorry?”

“Faith mentioned something,” Sure Stroke said in reply. “She mentioned that you’re right, putting together a book on changeling society for ponies like me would take a long, long time. But she also said there’s no reason I can’t do that along with art therapy is there?”

No reply came. Regale’s smile vanished, a contemplative little frown was in its place.

Sure Stroke decided to press on. “That’s why you wanted me to talk to her, wasn’t it? You knew that writing was an option regardless of whether I liked what she told me or not, didn’t you?”

Regale stayed quiet a moment longer. Then her lips tugged upward. “Did you figure it out by yourself,” she asked, “or did Beguile’s little nymph give away my little game again?”

“She hinted at it,” Sure Stroke admitted shamelessly.

“Of course she did. Faith always did love to help ponies see through my wordplay, especially with my stories. So many hidden plots and references, all so easily found because of her.” With a rueful sigh, she chittered. “Though I suppose I shouldn’t be angry. Things worked out, and now I get to collect on my wager with Gale.”

Snorting, Gale tossed a twig at the back of her head. “No, you don’t. I bet Faith would figure it out straight away, you thought it’d be some back and forth thing that went for a while.”

“Did I?”

“Yes. I’m old and grumpy, not hard of hearing and short on memory.”

Regale sucked in a breath, her cheeks puffed up. “Well … well, fine!” she huffed. “You win again, happy?”

Indeed, Gale was. But she was content to simply aim a smile at her fuming wife before glancing at Sure Stroke. For a moment, the pegasi held each other’s gaze. Neither spoke.

Gale hummed a note of interest, then nodded at Sure Stroke. She returned to her battle against the shrubbery without another word contributed to the topic.

“My wife’s smugness aside,” Regale muttered before speaking at normal volume, “yes. If you wish to embark on this project you’ve created, I would be happy to offer my assistance. Traditionally, the village would have me tell you to declare it on Trade Day, but given this is more of a side trade … we might be able to work something out.”

Sure Stroke’s wings unfurled, feathers bristling and ready to fly. “Really?”

“I’ll have to consult Phory, but assuming she approves.” The elderly changeling smiled. “I think this could be something we could work on. Perhaps not with me sitting and looking over your shoulder, but regular updates, no?”

With a happy squeal, Sure Stroke shot forward and hugged her around her smooth, chitinous legs, babbling her thanks so fast even she couldn’t quite make sense of the words spilling forth from her lips. It didn’t even bother her that Aspire and Esalen were both rolling on the ground laughing, with tears of mirth rolling down their cheeks when she finally composed herself enough to utter a more sedate reply, “Er … thank you, I mean. Very much.”

Regale’s eyes glittered with mirth. “Of course, dear. I’ve never had a student before, so this will be quite the experience for both of us. I look forward to seeing how you help continue the long tradition passed down from the Sainted Ones.”

“Ah! Don’t tell her!” Esalen yelped. “She hasn’t finished reading it with us!”

“What—you can’t be serious!” Regale’s jaw dropped. “After all this time, you two! And with her so interested in our kind!”

Aspire raised his hoof. “In our defense,” he mumbled from his spot on the ground, “we were a little busy the past couple days. What with Enticier trying his usual routine.

Her gaze settled upon him. Regale raised an eyebrow. “Young nymph,” she chided, “Trade Day is but a few short years away for you and your sister. You are soon to be an adult. Don’t do me the discourtesy of pretending you haven’t had ample time before the Enchanter Prince tried to lure you into his web again.”

Were it any other day, Sure Stroke might have laughed at the way he flinched, or the cowed expression that flitted across his face. But her curiosity had been roused once more.

“You do owe me the end of that story,” she chimed in.

With a sigh, he ran a hoof through his mane and nodded once. His sky blue eyes flitted up to meet hers. “I do,” he replied, flashing a rueful smile. “I’m sorry for dallying.”

Esalen drifted over to bump shoulders with Sure Stroke. “Me too. We both should’ve taken care of this ages ago.”

“Oh, don’t be melodramatic,” Sure Stroke replied, bumping her back. “We can finish up today if it makes you two feel better. In fact, we should. I want to hear how the rest of the changelings react to the Black Crown being gifted.”

Regale’s ears waggled. “Ah! The Black Crown! You’re right at the end.” She let out a contented sigh. “The ending is so lovely. Even Gale smiled the first time she read it.”

Aspire rose to his hooves, shaking off a bit of dirt. “Well,” he said, “we can always head home and grab the book. Or I could just recite it. I’ve read it enough.”

A snort and the sound of a spade being driven into the dirt made everyone turn to pay Gale heed. The irritable old pegasus shook her head as she brushed the soil from her hooves. Her snout wrinkled. “Or,” she grumped, “you could borrow ours and get it over with.” Then, she turned.

Her eyes settled upon Sure Stroke. For the first time, she took stock of their color—a deep stormy gray, like a wild storm hanging over the sea.

The left corner of Gale’s mouth twitched into a tiny smile but was gone in an instant. She stood up, her eyes flitting to Regale. “Get the darn book. I’ll make tea so you don’t burn your clumsy hooves. Again.” She didn’t so much as blink when her wife sputtered, gaping aghast as the elderly pegasus trotted by and flicked her tail across the indignant changeling’s nose as she passed, nor did she break stride as Regale hurried after her demanding an apology.

Sure Stroke certainly noticed the knowing smile and wink the grumpy old mare shot, though. Like a shared secret between ponies madly in love with the changeling in their life.

Sometimes, Sure Stroke thought as she ascended the porch steps and followed them inside, with Aspire and Esalen trailing behind, we have to give a little back to make sure they don’t get too proud.

As fun as it was to watch the elderly couple banter, Sure Stroke felt a small note of relief when everyone finally sat down on the slime pod cushions and settled in to drink their tea and prepare to read.

Gale and Regale sat together on a larger pod, of course, the latter wrapped snuggly under the elder pegasus’s wing. More of a love seat than anything—or would that be a love pod? In either case, Sure Stroke sipped at her tea while Aspire flipped through the pages. On her opposite side, Esalen leaned over to lounge lazily on her side.

“The last chapter, smugling,” she teased as she took a deep drink of criminally over-sweetened tea.

Aspire blew a raspberry. “Suck on a lemon. This is a different version,” he grumbled. “I don’t have the page numbers memorized, just the story—ha!” He slapped a hoof down on the page, his lips curved into a broad, toothy grin. “Here we go! The last chapter—Doodle, scoot that pod over.”

Biting back a retort, Sure Stroke hopped out of her pod and gently shouldered it over until it rolled and glommed its way nearer to Aspire’s. Once there, she took her seat again, pausing to clip him over his smug little ears before wrapping the same wing around his shoulders and sipping her tea. “So, the last chapter. Does this one have a name?”

“Well, yeah.” He snorted as he leaned closer, his nose brushed against her cheek. With a nod toward the page, he added, “Take a look.”

Sure Stroke did as asked, turning her head so she could take in the splendorous chapter cover. Immediately, her eyes were drawn to Morrigan, the Ancient Queen of the changelings, as she stood atop a dais before a crowd of crystal ponies and changelings alike, alongside Prince Snowshine and Princess Amortia. The Queen stood tall, her face serene and head held high.

But she was without her crown, perhaps for the first time, most of her race had seen her as such in natural form.

“The next day,” Aspire began, “Morrigan and Prince Snowshine headed out into the terrible blizzard, accompanied by two squads of his best trackers and guards ponies. Snow fell heavy upon the land, a solid sheet of white surrounded them on all sides. Every instinct in Morrigan’s chest screamed at her to take cover. The winds, swirling snow, and dropping temperature had nearly killed her last time …”

But she pressed on, fighting against that raging wind and swirling snow, cursing as it seeped into the holes in her legs and stung her snout. If she stopped, if she faltered, her kin were doomed to freeze in that accursed cave. Doomed to an end caused in no small part by her own folly, and those of all the Queens who came before her.

The cold bit at her. Though she had fed well on Amortia’s love two days prior and again that very morning to give her enough strength to make the journey, she felt it faltering. She could feel winter’s breath freezing her carapace. Her protective shell felt as thin and brittle as the glass cups ponies drank from, and every step made a lance of pain shoot through her joints.

Prince Snowshine stepped closer. The glow from his chest, his heart, seemed to chase away the blizzard’s assault upon the Ancient Queen.

A glow shared by each of his guards and scouts. They were acting as a group, warding the blizzard away both to protect and to aid their search.

“Drink,” he commanded softly. “Lightly, if you please. A sip from the group to dull the effect would be best.”

She felt warmth wash over her body. The sweet taste of love and zest of courage danced upon her tongue. All the pain in her joints melted away like ice in springtime. A tiny sip of ambient love in the air, from all of them, made her carapace strong again.

“Thank you,” she said breathily. “The cold is not kind to my race.”

Prince Snowshine offered a small smile, his eyes sweeping out over the land. “The cold isn’t kind to many, friend. If not for our magic and love, we would be suffering similarly.” He glanced at her for a moment. “Do you need more, or are you ready to press on?”

Morrigan shook her head, then gestured onward. “You’ve done more than any other would. And then some. I will see to it my race never forgets this.”

“I’d settle for finding them first,” Prince Snowshine replied almost conversationally. “Our magic is capable, but we can’t stay out here too long. Not in the height of winter.”

She grimaced. In her head, Morrigan knew she couldn’t blame the young crystal prince for looking after his own first, but in her heart, she wished to rage. Her kin were freezing. She wouldn’t rest until they were found and brought to the safe haven she’d stumbled upon.

A look into his eyes made her relax. Prince Snowshine called out for his scouts to tighten formation so not to overextend their magic. “This is our approximation of where you came from, based on your tale,” he said. “There are some caves in the mountains ahead. Based on what you’ve told us, I would assume we’ll find your changelings there.”

“How far away?”

“A few miles. Not long at all.”

Her heart hammered in her chest. Morrigan licked her dried lips. “I would ask that we search to ensure that none came looking for me as I ordered,” she said softly, barely audible over the wind as they began a brisk trot.

Prince Snowshine thought about it a moment. “Did you leave any of your kin in charge?”

“My mate.”

“Then we’ll check with him first. We’re on borrowed time rescuing them as it is. I would rather we find the group first, then sweep for any who left.” Frowning, he turned to gaze at her. “I don’t mean to sound cruel, but it was pure luck that we found you, Morrigan. If another set out in search of you and missed our patrols …”

He left it unsaid.

There was no need to finish. It wasn’t speculation, mere statement of fact.

“We will save who we can,” she replied stiffly. “The fault for any losses is mine, and mine alone. I will mourn them and seek forgiveness from their mates when my changelings are safe.”

His shoulder brushed against hers. Again, the taste of love played upon her tongue, along with it a hint of bitter discontent. “You won’t be alone. None in the Empire are alone.”

The rescue party approached the mountain range, stopping only when they reached the base. Then came the questions. Did she recall the elevation? The terrain around the cave? Anything within? Were their creatures?

Through the sheet of endless snow, Morrigan recalled few details of the terrain other than the rocks she’d tripped over, the biting cold, and the struggle to ascend the slippery slope at the very mouth of the cave.

“It was below ground,” she replied hesitantly. “It was warmer, but not I don’t know how long that will last. There was frost in the mouth. Jagged rocks from the ceiling and floor, always dripping into an underground pool …”

“Stalagmites and stalactites,” Prince Snowshine supplied. “Most of the caves have them, but there are only a couple entrances that lead below ground. They’re part of the same cave. The other leads to an open fall.” He turned to one of his scouts. “It’s been some time since I’ve been to it. Can one of you take point?”

One of the crystal ponies stepped forward a half second after he’d asked. “I know it well, sir.”

“Good. Lead on.”

The pony bowed his head, then took his position at the front of the group. He guided them over the treacherous rocks, circled around an area he swore were riddled with holes that could crack crystal, then pointed out the dark cavern on the side of the mountain.

Morrigan felt her heart leap into her throat. This was it. She could feel it!

She bounded forward, undeterred by the slippery, frosted surface at the mouth of the cave. With a chitter of unspoken glee and a hint of worry for her kin, she gazed deep into the darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust so she could pick them out. Just a hint of polished carapace, a glint of fangs, or glowing eyes would do.

It came just as Prince Snowshine and his rescue team joined her inside the cave.

Out of the darkness came a fine stud of a changeling, his hair as deep green as a warm slime cocoon, and eyes like the Dark Forest in Equestria’s southern province. “My love,” he purred, though his hunger made it sound more like a wheeze, “my Queen. You returned. With guests.”

Morrigan approached and leaned down to kiss his head. Her muscles tensed as she noticed the sickly green glow in his eyes and how his cheeks hollowed. “Yes, Cambion. These ponies are responsible for my rescue, and our salvation. There is a city, warm and full of love for all.”

He licked his lips and lengthening fangs. “Delicious.”  The sounds of hundreds of changelings and nymphs approaching, their hooves clacking against the walls, floor, and ceiling made the guards step closer to Prince Snowshine, their chests began to glow. "They all look ... delicious ..."

Her changelings stared unblinkingly at them, each with glowing eyes, hollowed cheeks, and fangs at full extension. They were starved. Desperate for food, ready to feast the instant she gave them leave.

It would have been all too easy.

Just like the years that led to this very day.

Cambion took a step forward, his tongue lashing along his snout. His fangs glistened with drool as he readied to pounce.

Quick as a flash, Morrigan put herself between her mate and her savior and glared at Cambion through glowing green eyes. “No,” she hissed.

He flinched as if struck, the glow in his eyes died. “But …” He glanced at her and the crystal ponies. All around him, changelings stared dumbstruck, their eyes returning to normal purely out of shock. “My love, we hunger so much and they smell … and taste so sweet!

“The old way of taking led us to ruin,” she replied cooly. “These ponies saved a dying Queen and offered love and shelter to her changelings of their own will. I have given my word that we would not take from them.” To accentuate, she bared her fangs. “Any who wish to dishonor my word to our saviors may speak. Quickly, for their time thereafter will be short.”

Silence reigned over them for several minutes. Cambion stood, his eyes flitting between his mate and the ponies like a foal longing for sweets.

“I … We need love,” he muttered softly. “We hunger so much …”

Prince Snowshine stepped forward to meet him. “My sister offered your Queen sustenance and shelter,” he said as if he hadn’t nearly been a meal for the very changeling before him. “She extends her offer to the hive in exchange for considerations.”

“Considerations?” Chatter swept through the hive.

“We take only what is offered,” Morrigan replied. “And they do offer it to us. In exchange, we respect their law and their kingdom.” She raised her voice, adding, “There is food and warmth, more than we have ever known. And ponies who can look beyond what they see. Follow me and you will never go hungry again. Respect them and you will know peace.”

The chatter ceased. Morrigan watched her changelings look to one another to see who might be the first to step forward. Who would be the first to set aside generations of hunting, trickery, and enchantment? Who would know life among ponies without scorn?

Morrigan knew, however.

They followed only one other than her. The most capable and powerful of them all.

“Cambion,” she whispered softly. “You know I would give everything for the hive. This is where I do my duty for you all. Please.”

His shoulders shook. “I’m so hungry …” he whispered. “So cold …”

She cupped his chin and forced him to meet her gaze, pausing to kiss his lips. “Then come with me. Come out of the darkness, my love. Let us put Equestria behind us and move forward. This is our chance.”

Cambion bit his lip, nodding slowly. Then his eyes flitted to Prince Snowshine. “I can taste it,” he said softly. “You feel it for him as well.”

“He has offered to help solidify our alliance if you approve.”

Prince Snowshine remained silent as her mate surveyed him. After a tense moment, the stallions shared a nod.

Then Cambion took the first step, his first act to embrace the changelings’ rescuer. “I accept.” He turned to kiss the crystal pony’s cheek. “Brother.”

“Wait, just like that?” Sure Stroke blinked. “Wasn’t he just about to … y’know?”

“Drain Snowshine dry?” Esalen supplied. “Yes. But Queen Morrigan stepped in and explained how much he’d done for them. Even before they took us in, we were rather obsessive with such things.”

From her spot on the love pod, Regale nodded as she placed her now empty cup down on the saucer. “Quite so, Esalen. Our culture has always been geared more toward subtle wordplay and steering others into deals, much like my hive. However, with the Sainted Ones … things changed a bit.”

Tilting her head, Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “Based on what you’re implying,” she said, “it sounds like the crystal ponies’ offer of love and shelter in exchange for an alliance and surrender of the Black Crown was the first trade. The basis for the Caretakers.”

A nudge to her shoulder drew her attention to Aspire. He beamed and waggled his ears. “That’s exactly it. But we’re not quite to the part where Queen Morrigan firms it up.”

“She made it as official as it can be for changelings,” Gale noted in her usual grumble. Sure Stroke looked over to see her idly looking out the window at the shrubbery, frowning and shaking her head. “Need to do that one before I get comfortable or my knees won’t be kind.”

Regale nosed against her cheek. “I can take care of it,” she said softly. “You rest.”

The elderly pegasus raised a brow. “In exchange for what?”

“Your comfort. And more of this later.” A coy smile crept across those aged chitinous cheeks. “And perhaps some considerations in matters best suited left unsaid for younger ears.”

Violet ears quickly pinned back against Sure Stroke’s scalp. She turned to direct her attention away from the snuggling lovers, instead aiming a smile at each of the twins—and receiving strained poker faces and poorly suppressed chittering in kind.

Cheeky, bug-looking jerks. Sure Stroke forced a smile and nudged Aspire with a sharp of jab her wing joint into his side, drawing an amused snort. He barely even felt it through his carapace.

Sky blue eyes danced with unhidden mirth. He waggled his ears, then turned his attention to the chapter once more. “Prince Snowshine and his crystal ponies guided the changelings through the terrible blizzard with the protection of their special shield. The changelings huddled close, eyes wide and ears perked as they beheld their saviors' power. Love’s sweet, delectable nectar danced upon their tongues. A few dared to drift toward the ponies to take in a quick sip, but were stopped by a mere look from Morrigan and Cambion.” He paused to drain the rest of his tea, then took a breath and continued, “At long last, they arrived at the glimmering gates of the Crystal Empire’s and were greeted by a sea of curious crystal ponies. But above all others, there was one who stood out from her place on the dais and stole the breath from their lungs …”

Princess Amortia’s crystalline body glistened in the light as she looked down upon the newcomers. Her ears were erect, a tiny smile played upon her lips.

She waited until they had all entered the city gates. The last remnants of the changeling race, three hundred in total, had entered a city without disguise, without trickery, and without invasive intent. For the first time in any living memory, the changelings entered another race’s dominion as welcome guests.

Prince Snowshine turned and motioned for the changelings to halt, then beckoned Morrigan to follow him up to meet his sister. She did so with her head bowed just slightly in deference to the smaller ponies’ authority, as she had so vowed.

When they met Princess Amortia on the dais, the Crystal Princess met her with a smile. “We are pleased to see that you were able to find your kin again,” she spoke, her voice carrying over the crowd so that all could hear.

Morrigan bowed lower. “Thank you. And thank you for all you have done for us. It’s more than any other would have even thought.”

“Perhaps. But with love and understanding, a great many things are possible.” Her gaze swept out over the assembled changelings. Her smile widened. “You are welcome to enjoy the comforts of our hospitality so long as you respect our laws. If you wish to feed, it will be done with the permission of my crystal ponies. In exchange, we offer a place in our city. Now—”

Before she could finish, Morrigan cleared her throat. Pony and changeling met gazes for a moment, in silent conversation.

Then Princess Amortia ceded the floor and waved her forward.

With another bow, Morrigan turned to address her changelings. “For as long as any changeling could remember, we have been tricksters and deceivers. Our nature and the way we have perpetuated longstanding prejudices led to our ruin in Equestria. On this day, we put it all behind us. Forever.” She turned to face Princess Amortia and continued, “The night you visited me, you offered me love, even when I attempted to frighten you. When you heard my tale, you could have sent me back into the blizzard. Instead, you offered my kind a home and the right to fill our bellies. All you have asked in return is the respect of your laws, your ponies’ right to live their lives without fear of attack within their own home, and my deference to your rule. You will have it without question.”

Gasps went through the assembled crowd of changelings and crystal ponies. They shared looks, glancing at one another up and down, some curious, some fearful, some intrigued.

Prince Snowshine stomped a hoof, drawing attention back to the dais again. Once everyone had calmed, he pointedly turned to Morrigan once more and perked up his ears like a parent reminding his foals to listen.

Morrigan gave him a nod of thanks. “From this day forward, the changelings will honor the crystal ponies as they deserve. Without your aid, our race would be lost. From this day forward, our race will endeavor to return your kindness with our own.” She paused a moment, then turned to face Princess Amortia again. “From this day forward, our race will have a name for yours befitting the kindness you have shown us.”

Then Morrigan, the Ancient Queen of All Changelings, kneeled before a pony ruler.

“I name you, forever, the Sainted Ones. May the legacy of your love endure for all time.”

Aspire closed the book softly, passing it over to Regale with reverence as if it were the most precious of jewels. “And that,” he said, turning to face Sure Stroke with a warm smile and a knowing gleam in his eyes, “is how we came to be what we are today.”

“Mischievous tricksters,” Esalen added.

“Helpful in hiding,” he took up.

“And ever reverent to their legacy,” Regale finished. She set the book against the side of her slime pod and reclined against Gale. “Legacy of Love was the beginning of the height of changeling society, a union with our greatest ally. And though the actions of the Dark King may have torn the Crystal Empire asunder, we remember the Sainted Ones. Even if some of us have strayed from the lessons they imparted. Others are happy to ensure their legacy endures.” Her eyes fell upon the foal and nymphs. “In a short time, you’ll all be taking your place in that endeavor.”

Sure Stroke took a sip of her long-cold tea. Her heart raced, her feathers positively bristled. If she wrote her book and showed newcomers how to understand, how to interact with the changelings—oh, there was little doubt in her mind she could make sure no pony felt so lost as she during those first few months.

But there was a bigger picture in all that.

If ponies knew any of this, just a small bit …

Maybe things could change.

Just maybe.

She stood with a smile and a happy swish of her tail. Dusty violet feathers fluffed. “Thank you,” she said, nuzzling Esalen and kissing Aspire on the cheek. Then she turned to the elderly couple and tilted her head. “I’d be happy to do my part. With the right teacher, I think I have a lot to offer.”

The couple turned to share a look. Regale tilted her head in silent prompting, a coy smile danced upon her lips.

Gale broke their gaze first. “There’s no better teacher when it comes to writing,” she said softly. “You, little filly, may very well be exactly what both our kinds need.”

Sure Stroke felt her chest swell. She thanked the pair for their time and bade them a good afternoon. With her goals set and a sudden nip to her cheek from a wickedly grinning boyfriend, then a shoulder from his chittering sister, she was steered out of Gale and Regale’s lovely home and into the sunset.

It’s funny how a few months can change things.

The pudgy little pegasus trotted down the dirt path with a spring in her step and swish in her tail, with her best friend and boyfriend flanking her on either side.

Perhaps one might think her to invite the powers that be to reverse her fortunes. Everything was lining up so perfectly. She had her trade, her side project, the best friends she could ask for, and a loving boyfriend all in the same village.

Sure Stroke was happy. Ecstatic that the scared little filly who walked through the wooden gate had been wrong all those months ago. There was nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, and no reason to feel she didn’t belong. It took some time, but she finally knew it for herself.

She wasn’t a Cloudsdale filly anymore. She hadn’t been for quite some time.

As they began their walk home, Sure Stroke drifted closer to Aspire, close enough that their shoulders brushed together with each step, and kissed his cheek. Then she unfurled her wings and wrapped her friends, those terrible, mischievous twins, in a feathery embrace as they walked.

I am a filly of Respite.