• Published 20th Apr 2016
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The Village Called Respite - Carapace

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, the changelings who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.

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34. A Day in Manehattan

Once they dropped their bags off in the hotel room, Haberdasher led the group on a little trot through his hometown. He idly pointed out a few famous landmarks or mention some of the more popular restaurants, determined to show them “the right parts of the city” during their brief visit.

Sure Stroke found herself too enthralled with the city to focus on his narrative.

Her sky blue eyes darted left and right, wide and hungry to take in every last detail of the grand city before her. Manehattan’s tall, concrete skyscrapers were a heavy contrast to the bleached marble and golden topped towers in Canterlot, or even the fluffy clouds moulded into grand stadiums and spiral-topped offices in Cloudsdale. They almost seemed bigger, more dominating.

It made Sure Stroke feel small.

Yet, at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement. The city stood tall and proud, looming over visitors like a watchful parent while the local ponies rushed about. They bumped and jostled, some shot glares and grumbled warnings to “watch where you’re going!” but others would casually weave their way through with almost elegant grace, never once breaking whatever conversation they held with friends or losing their smile.

There was a lively energy to the city and its ponies. Though she wasn’t a changeling, Sure Stroke could feel it coursing through her body just by walking among the crowd. Perhaps it was no small wonder her friends had bounced on their hooves as the train drew near.

Aspire and Esalen were in a much similar state. Their pony faces were practically split by wide, toothy grins—which still didn’t seem right on their faces—as they let their eyes wander freely over the bright store signs and vendor carts on the street corners.

“Doodle! Look!” Aspire bumped his hip against hers, nodding at something across the street.

She followed his gaze and found a small shop sandwiched between an ice cream parlor and a bookstore. A small display of sketch pads, art pencils, brushes, and paints sat on neatly arranged shelves in the window. From the banister above the red shop door, a blue sign hung. The words “Artists’ Alley: Supplying Your Creativity for Twenty-Five Years” were written in elegant silver cursive.

Her ears perked up. She hadn’t seen a decent arts’ supply store since her family moved to Respite. Turning to face her parents, she called, “Can we go check out that shop?”

Drizzly glanced across the street, curious as to what caught her eye. A warm smile spread across his face when he saw the sign. “Maybe after we eat,” he replied almost coyly, casting a quick wink before he turned to face forward. “If you behave.”

“Oh, stop!” Skydancer scolded, playfully swatting him with a wing. She shook her head. “Honestly! It’s not like she makes habit of misbehaving, and she’s been working on her math grades!”

For a moment, Sure Stroke felt vindicated. She shared a smile with her mother and the other fillies. Even Faith fixed a little grin in place and nodded in approval as Bright Sky tittered behind her hoof. Haberdasher and Warm Welcome, on the other hoof, chuckled and shook their heads as they feigned sympathy for Drizzly.

It served them right. That would teach the stallions to play little games.

Or so she thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the smug grin spreading across Aspire’s face. His orange eyes gleamed with mischievous intent.

Sure Stroke fixed him with a glare. “Don’t you do it,” she hissed out of the side of her mouth.

His grin widened to near impossible proportions. He sidled up to her so their shoulders brushed together with each step, his swishing tail teasing her flank. “Do what?”

“Whatever it is you’re thinking in that smug little head of yours. Don’t do it.”

“You’ve been awful eager to whack me upside the head with those wings of yours.” Aspire’s expression darkened and that smug grin turned decidedly vulpine, a reminder of the disguised predator hiding behind the pony face her friend wore. He leaned in close. Their noses touched. “You don’t really think I’d let that slide for long without payback, do you?”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, glancing at her parents, then back at the shop they’d passed by. He wouldn’t deny her that, not over something silly like swiping at him with a wing.

No. He certainly wouldn’t. The wicked grin splitting his face did, however, emphasize the fact that he might cause trouble some other way. Oh, he’d let her have her art supplies, but he’d either let things “slip” or he’d cash in by getting her to draw exclusively for him. A picture for each of the shots to his head. With the number of times she’d connected, her repayment would fill up the pages in no time.

“What do you want?” she asked.

Aspire’s ears perked up. “Who says I want anything?” he demurred. “Maybe I just want to make you squirm as repayment.”

“You’re a smug punk, but you’re not a complete jerk or you’d have opened your mouth by now. Everything has a price with ch—” she managed to catch herself before she finished the word, but it was enough to make his eyes go wide as dinner plates.

Well, now she certainly had his attention.

Sure Stroke gave an awkward cough, then amended her statement, “Everything has a price with you cheeky villagers.”

He let out a heavy breath. “Yes,” he said, his smile back in place after her near slip. “There is. What of it?”

“What do you mean what of it? That’s the whole point of what you’ve taught me in Respite—everything has a price or value to be traded for. So what’s the price for you not telling or using the chance to make it so all the drawings are yours?”

“Well, to be fair, I wasn’t going to make all of them mine.” Aspire tilted his head. “Just a few of them. But yes, I do have a price.” His smile turned coy. “I think it’s time for another lesson, little Doodle. What do you think?” Before she could reply, he laughed. “Wait! You don’t get a say this time because I hold the cards. So, yeah, another lesson on—” he rolled a hoof in a forward circle “—our culture. Ready?”

With a grunt, Sure Stroke nodded. Another lesson would help her understand, of course, which was always welcome. It just so happened that he’d chosen the most inopportune time to pull it out.

Or, perhaps not. It was inopportune only for her, not so for him. Quite the little strategist, the smug nymph could be.

Aspire leaned in close. “Remember what I told you about challenges?” he whispered, nosing against her cheek. “Same thing applies to slights. If you annoy one of us, we’ll get you back equivalent to what you’ve dealt us. It can be immediate, it can be the next day, it can be years later, but we’ll get you, Doodle. And I’ve let you have enough freebies. It’s high time you pay the piper.”

Flicking her tail, Sure Stroke took a couple strides ahead of him, then turned into his path and stopped. She fixed him with a glare. “Would you stop beating around the bush and tell me already?”

“Fine, fine.” He stopped just in front of her, his orange eyes gleaming. “You have to give me something nice.”

She rustled her wings. That’s it? Sure Stroke drew back and wrinkled her snout. “That’s … not very specific.”

“No, it’s not!” he agreed merrily.

“Could you stop being so maddeningly … well, you. Stop being so maddeningly you and tell me what you want!”

Before he could reply, Faith’s voice cut through the air. “Don’t dawdle, you two!” she called. “We don’t want to lose anypony on these streets!”

Aspire waggled his brows. “Yeah, Doodle. We’d better get a move on.” He stepped around her, pausing just long enough to flick her across the nose with his shaggy orange tail. His grin grew, the sheer smugness more maddening than ever before. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to figure something out.”

As he hurried after the group, Sure Stroke shot another glare at the back of his head. The proud, righteous indignation of Commander Hurricane’s legionnaires pumped through her veins. Her wings fluffed and unfurled as if she were ready to take flight and tackle him in the middle of the sidewalk. That cheeky—I oughta wallop him for putting me on the spot like this!

He glanced back at her, the smile still in place on his smug little face. Those orange eyes were alight with mischief and playfulness, and somehow chased all thought of retribution away. Sure Stroke could feel the corners of her mouth tugging into a smile despite herself.

With a roll of her eyes, she followed along. They rounded the corner and trotted down Sixth Avenue toward a string of small, family owned restaurants. All the while, her thoughts lingered on the disguised nymph who vexed her so.

Fine. He wants something nice, he’ll get something nice. Sure Stroke blew a puff of air out through her nose and kept her eyes trained on his face. The little punk was irritating to a fault and loved playing it up. He was smug, snarky, and delighted in making her squirm, and yet he was kind, helpful, patient, and willing to teach. Not to mention …

Sure Stroke heaved another sigh, her ears drooped resigned herself to it. There was no point lying to herself. Why does he have to be cute in both forms?

Haberdasher led them into a little hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor called Cecci’s Pizzeria. It was a small brick and mortar type place, maybe only fifteen paces from the front wall to the back, with only about thirteen four-top tables pushed up against the right side walls and windows at the front of the store. On the left, a white service counter stood, where one could peer over to watch the ponies behind working to knead pizza dough, spread sauce, and sprinkle cheese and other toppings onto the pie.

A trio of stallions worked behind the counter, brothers, if their similar faces were any indicator. The pair with short, trimmed beards of deep red and fiery orange stood around the same height, while the third only came up to their shoulders. Occasionally, the larger pair would share hidden grins and hip bump him as they passed, and then swipe his supplies and place them on the shelf just out of reach when he wasn’t looking.

The lone mare of the group, a pretty young thing just out of her school years, stood at the register. She rolled her eyes at their antics, and tossed her pizza crust brown mane. “Brothers,” she muttered under her breath before turning to the group. A bright smile crossed her pale yellow face. “Welcome to Cecci’s Pizzeria. My name is Pizzetta, how may I help you today?”

Haberdasher did a quick headcount. “Uh, there’s eleven all total, so we’ll probably need two large pies at least. And sodas all around.” He laid one ear flat and let the other perk up. “What sort of toppings do you guys want?”

“Pepperoni was a hit last time we were here with Aspire and Essy,” Warm replied. “Toola, Nimble, what do you usually—”

“I like olives!” Toola chimed before he could finish.

“Same!” Nimble added.

Sure Stroke took that moment to raise her hoof. “I’m fine with pepperoni olives on it as well.”

Faith smiled. “Well, that takes care of the little ones.” She nodded toward the tables. “Why don’t you five find a place to sit.”

Drizzly chuckled and waggled his ears. “Yeah, young’uns at one table, tired old farts at another so we get a little peace from you hellions.”

“Hey!” Sure Stroke objected, her cry taken up by her friends.

“Not that old,” Skydancer said, bumping her hip against his.

“I notice you didn’t argue the rest.” He fluffed his feathers. “Or the table decision.”

“Hush, dear. Subtlety isn’t your forte.”

Sure Stroke groaned and let her head hang. They were off to the races, ready to go through the whole “we poor old ponies” routine with their friends. And if she didn’t take wing, they’d start in on the time-old tradition of bringing up old stories.

Which would just give Aspire and Esalen far too much ammunition for her taste, not to mention Nimble and Toola. They could never be allowed to hear that story about a certain incident involving her, Altocumulus, and an unwitting bite of liquid rainbow snow cone. Not even if she got an equivalent story in return.

The thought alone was enough to drive her hooves into motion. She hastily unfurled her wings and wrapped them around the twins, pulling them along toward the table despite their protests. “So!” she said loud enough to ring out over her parents’ laughter, and pasted a big, cheesy smile on her face. She needed something to keep their focus off debating whether or not they were troublesome, or their parents would launch right into story mode. “What sort of stuff can we check out before Coneigh Island?” she asked, sliding into the booth.

Esalen wrinkled her snout in thought as she ducked out from under Sure Stroke’s wing and took her seat across from Sure Stroke, and was joined by Toola and Nimble shortly after. “Well, there’s a few of the shops nearby. Some of them have crafts and stuff.”

“There’s one we’ve gone to a couple times right across the street,” Aspire said as he slid into the booth to sit beside Sure Stroke. He nudged her shoulder, then nodded out the window. “Look.”

Sure Stroke gave him a little nudge back, but did as directed. She peered through the crystal clear glass, scanning the signs lining the strip on the opposite side of Sixth Avenue. There were a couple little souvenir stores that seemed more made to draw in tourists than anything, a large chain coffee brand called Café au Lait, and a little shop with plates, bowls, cups, and all sorts of little glass pieces displayed in the window. The words “You Do The Dishes” were written across the top of the glass in big blue print.

She tilted her head. “That doesn’t look like a crafts shop. It looks more like a place to buy dishes and stuff.”

“Or wash them,” Nimble added. She snorted, a wry grin spread across her muzzle. “Can you imagine it? Paying to go somewhere to do you own dishes?”

Toola stuck out her tongue. “Bleh! Who would wanna go to a place like that?”

The twins burst into laughter. Esalen clapped her hooves over her mouth and clenched her eyes shut, shaking her head so fast her mane whipped about. “No, not literally doing the dishes!” she said through a fit of giggles.

“It’s just a play on the wording,” Aspire added, his eyes alight. “They mean you decorate dishes and other stuff yourself. There are other things, like porcelain cats and dogs, even birds and snakes too. You pick what you want, and they supply you with paints, and let you do whatever.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. Now there was an interesting idea and a new place to take her art. Ideas raced through her head. The villagers didn’t really have decorative plates, from what she’d seen at the party and in the twins’ home. Some might actually like having something special to pull out of the cabinet every now and again.

Maybe that’s a way I could apply my talent in the village, she thought. Bringing a hoof to her chin, she wrinkled her snout. But Faith, Queen Euphoria, and even Warm Welcome do things to help ponies, not just selling things like Sweet Treat. Her eyes flitted around the table. Each of her friends mentioned going into trades that might help others—Esalen, Nimble, and Toola through therapy, and Aspire through teaching young foals and nymphs.

Art was her talent, not actual physical therapy like the three fillies. But, then again, Queen Euphoria and Faith didn’t work with physical injuries either. They dealt with matters of mind and heart.

Wasn’t that where art came from? So, then why couldn’t she somehow make her talents suit the needs of others while also giving herself a more personal feeling of satisfaction? Sure, she could sketch, paint, and write that book on the Caretakers if she so chose, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t explore other options to go along with it.

Maybe painting can help ponies who feel like they can’t talk about things, or that they’re afraid but can’t express it …

The sound of hoofsteps approaching their table made her flick an ear. Sure Stroke turned to find the adults walking over to the table behind theirs, with Pizzetta following close behind and balancing a tray of drinks upon her back. One of her brothers, the smallest of the trio, followed in her wake bearing a large pizza, half pepperoni and half pepperoni with olives, on his.

The pair stopped by the foals’ table first. Pizzetta deftly passed out glasses of fizzy soda to each of them, then turned to exchange trays with her brother. “Thanks, Linguini,” she said, giving a little nod of her head. She turned and set the pizza in the middle of the table, then passed out a few plastic plates. With a smile, she stepped back and folded her tray beneath a foreleg. “Enjoy, everypony!”

Toola beamed, eagerly reaching over to claim a rather sizable slice of pepperoni and olive for herself. She licked her lips, hunger flashed in her eyes, akin to the way Aspire and Esalen’s eyes glowed when offered a bite of love. “Mmmm, it’s been ages since I’ve had real pizza!” she crooned.

Oh my. Sure Stroke gave a weak chuckle. “If you keep talking like that, I might start to think I’m the only—” she pointedly glanced at each disguised nymph in turn “—non-cheeky foal at this table.”

Snorting, Aspire elbowed her in the ribs. “Don’t kid yourself! You’ve been getting more and more like us each day you’ve lived in the village.”

Was she really?

Sure Stroke shrugged. “Maybe so, but I’m not wrong.” She raised an eyebrow at Toola, who simply blew a raspberry, then set about tearing into the poor, innocent slice of pizza. “I’m very much not wrong.”

“Never said you were wrong. Just that you’re not entirely right.” Waggling his ears, he snagged a slice of pepperoni, and then an olive and pepperoni. He placed the latter on her plate, and said, “Dig in, or there won’t be much left. Toola is to pizza as Essy and I are to pancakes.”

“Truth!” Esalen and Nimble chimed in unison, each sharing a giggle when Toola shot them both a stern glare, though her mouth was still full of delicious pizza.

Ridiculous. They were all completely and totally ridiculous.

Just they way she liked them. Sure Stroke allowed herself a small smile as she picked up her slice and folded it down the middle. The scent of spices, cheese, and olives flooded her senses. She took a bite, her eyes lit up at the taste.

Oh, wow, that really is good.

Once everyone had filled their bellies and enjoyed a soda or two, the group left the pizza parlor and headed across the street, then turned back down Sixth Avenue to trot toward Coneigh Island and that art supply store they’d passed earlier.

Sure Stroke glanced up at the shop signs, her eyes lingering on You Do the Dishes for a few seconds. She stopped trotting, letting the group go a few steps without her as she slowly let her gaze fall to the decorated plates and cups in the display window.

Each was decorated a different way. A set of plates was decorated to look like different parts of the city, with Mare Liberty standing proudly on the largest of the serving plates. Several coffee cups were adorned with matching birds—one or two even showed a pair of parakeet leaning against one another while the sun rose behind them with the words “Birds of a Feather Rise and Fly Together” written beneath in deep red print. There was a little ceramic Dalmatian puppy all reared up on its hind legs, a little doggy grin split its tiny face. It almost looked ready to yip and bound about its shelf.

Someone had put a lot of effort into painting each piece. The detail in each picture made them all seem so lifelike, and it gave each plate, cup, or ceramic piece that intangible little something that lit up the display all on its own.

Her feathers fluffed, she turned to face the group and called, “Mom?”

Skydancer stopped in mid step and turned to look over her shoulder. She tilted her head, her sunny mane fell to one side. “Yes, dear?”

“Do we have time to check this place out?” Sure Stroke pointed at the little shop.

Her mother cocked her head to one side. “I thought you wanted to look at the art supply store, sweetie,” she said.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time if we want to beat the nighttime crowd,” Haberdasher added. “The lines can be really long at the entrance on Saturday nights. I doubt we’d have time to hit both stores.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip. On one hoof, she could always use another sketchbook and a few more pencils. And she hadn’t had the chance to check on her brushes since the move. There’d just been too much stuff going on. Still, she was curious. And her curiosity would nag at her if she didn’t at least peek into the store. Her friendship with a certain pair of tricksters was testament enough to that.

“I’d like to see what this place is all about,” she said.

Raising a brow, Skydancer looked to the other adults, who each shrugged and turned to walk toward the shop. She nodded and gave a small smile. “Alright,” she said, trotting up to Sure Stroke and affectionately trailing her feathers along her daughter’s wing. “Let’s take a look and see what’s caught your eye this time, sweetheart.”

Happily fluttering her wings, Sure Stroke nuzzled up against her mother’s shoulder, then bounded over to the shop door. She pushed it open and trotted inside with a bit of a bounce in her step and a merry swish of her tail. Skydancer followed close behind.

The moment her hooves touched the polished wood floor and the familiar scent of freshly opened paint cans hit, Sure Stroke closed her eyes and let out an appreciative hum. It was very much an artist thing—much like that how first stroke of a freshly sharpened pencil across the sketch pad felt like poetry in motion. Some ponies might think such a strong smell too overpowering, but to her, it was as enchanting as fresh morning dew. Or ozone and rainwater when the weather teams passed overhead with shipments of thunderheads for all of Equestria.

It was like home. And yet, it was completely new.

Her eyes darted about, opened wide and hungry to take in everything they fell upon. Shelves upon shelves of plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and little figurines lined the walls. Tiny ponies of all sorts, dragons, wyverns, dogs, and even a few cats and little kittens stared back at her, she had to bite down hard to hold back a squeal that blossomed forth from somewhere deep in her chest.

“Pretty good, eh?” Aspire said from just a few inches to her left. “We did a few of these that last time we visited.”

“Really?” She turned to face him. “I don’t remember seeing anything like this.”

“Mom keeps them on a little shelf in the kitchen,” he replied. “Out of the way so we don’t knock it over when we run around or start wrestling, like we usually end up doing.” A sheepish grin made its way across his muzzle, he ran a hoof through his mane. “We nearly broke grandma’s vase once.”

A few steps away Faith’s ear flicked. She leveled him with a silent look, then turned it upon Esalen, who was caught reared up on her hind legs with a hoof out to take hold of a ceramic kitten. Her eyes narrowed, and the disguised nymph froze in place and fixed a nervous grin upon her face.

Faith raised a brow and simply said, “No.”

Esalen let out a squeak, then hastily backed away from the shelf and planted all four hooves on the floor as she tried to hide between her fellow fillies. Nimble and Toola burst into a fit of giggles and rubbed shoulders with her, whispering a flurry of quips that made her cheeks flush a rosy red.

Sure Stroke hid a grin behind her hoof. She’d just leave the teasing to the others, no need to get dragged into yet another nymph’s games because of some sort of slight—even just a perceived one. Instead, she let her eyes wander over to the tables lined up near the other side of the shop.

A small family huddled around one of them, along with a store clerk dressed in a paint-stained apron. Each pony had their own little figure or dish to paint. The parents took their time, trying their very best to stay neat and orderly in their work, then sharing a laugh each time they made a little mistake. Their little foal, on the other hoof, seemed more interested in just how many colors he could paint his fish figurine than anything.

“It’s definitely something,” she said absentmindedly. A small part of her wanted to see if she could somehow canoodle a chance to work on something out of the short visit, but she resisted the urge.

The store clerk looked up from her place by the family and met them with a smile. “Welcome to You Do the Dishes!” she greeted, trotting away from the family she’d been helping. “My name is Fine Brush, is there anything I can help you with today?”

Before Sure Stroke could reply, Drizzly was at her side. “Just looking today,” he said, laying a gentle hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “My daughter saw your shop and was bit curious.”

“Oh, we get that quite a lot! A lot of ponies come in wondering what this place even is. My husband, Color Pallet, loves his silly names.” Fine Brush laughed and shook her head. Then she turned and gestured to all the dishware and ceramic figures with a sweep of her hoof. “He came up with the idea when we worked for a fine china decorating company years ago. We both were in charge of painting those nice little scenes you might see on your grandma’s Hearth’s Warming plates, or the flowers on fancy tea sets.”

Skydancer tilted her head. “Really? What made you decide to leave?”

“Pal had this brilliant idea that we should do a line where ponies commission custom sets, but the company wanted to charge a princess’s ransom for it.” Fine Brush rolled her eyes. “Bit-grubbing foals, the lot of them. So, Pal and I saved up our money and opened this place.”

Drizzly let out a low whistle. “Impressive,” he muttered, his eyes flitting about. “Self-funded and all. How long did it take you both to get things going?”

“Not long at all, actually. We had plenty of friends in the industry willing to spread our names around, and a lot of them were suppliers for our old company. And a few who still work there write us every now and then, laughing about how angry the bosses are at the loss of potential revenue.” A self-satisfied smile settled upon her face. “I won’t lie, it was quite vindicating. And we do get quite a lot of tourist traffic, so our name spreads a bit there as well.” She shook her head. “But that’s for another time, let me tell you about our product! We use a paint mix that won’t run off the glassware or ceramics, then coat it with a special glaze to protect the paints from damage or chipping over time. That way you don’t have to worry about losing the pictures you’ve worked on.”

“Very interesting,” Drizzly said, more to himself than anything. “About how long does it take?”

“Oh, we usually let them sit for a few hours for some of the smaller pieces, but the bigger ones can take about a day or so.”

A day? Sure Stroke let her ears droop. Well, there went the chance to try it out for herself. If they didn’t have time to stop at shops without running the risk of long lines at Coneigh Island, there was no way they could afford to sit and wait while she indulged her curiosity any further.

Still, she could at least look around a little more while the adults chattered away about business and the like. Sure Stroke let her eyes wander over to the shelves again, drawn toward one lined with coffee mugs of all shapes and sizes. Her gaze lingered a moment on a plain white mug with a half-circle handle.

She glanced at Aspire, then back at the mug. A smile tugged at her lips. If she had the time, it’d be a nice little gift for him. Something simple, perhaps. He’d probably fall over laughing if I gave him a mug with “Smugling” written across it in big letters.

Maybe a birthday present. Or Hearth’s Warming. It would certainly fit the bill. But that begged a very important question: how could she get such a gift for him without outing her changeling friends?

A small stack of boxes on the top shelf caught her eye. On each box was a picture of a mother and her filly at home, working together to paint a bird figurine at the kitchen table, all set beneath the words “You Do the Dishes: the at Home Decorating Kit. Fun for the Whole Family!”

Her eyes lit up. That would work perfectly! She scanned the shelf for a price tag. A yellow tag sat at the exact center of the shelf, right beneath one of the boxes, and bore the words “Six Bits Each” in bright red script.

Sure Stroke chewed on her bottom lip. Not a bad price, but she might have to ask for a little help getting it, all things considered. Tickets for the train ride weren’t exactly cheap. Unless they took money orders, of course. She turned to face Fine Brush and raised a hoof. “Excuse me?”

Fine Brush turned away from her chat with Drizzly and Skydancer, and faced Sure Stroke with a smile. “Yes, dear?”

Rustling her wings, Sure Stroke shuffled in place. “Do you, um, ship those, by chance?” she asked, waving a hoof at the boxes. “I’d like to try decorating a couple things, but we’re from out of town and won’t be here long enough to try it.”

“Oh, yes! We deliver throughout the province, but there is a bit of a fee for that.” A sheepish grin crossed her muzzle. “It’s an extra three bits. Postage, unfortunately, tends to creep up as a hidden fee when you own a business.”

Nine bits to deliver, then, weighed against six bits if she came and picked it up herself. But, then again, coming to get it meant paying for a round trip on the train.

Something to think about later.

Haberdasher coughed and motioned to a clock mounted on the wall. “Sorry to interject, but we might want to head over. The crowd’s gonna hit around six.”

Sure Stroke followed his gaze, then winced. It was a quarter after five. They needed to get moving if they wanted to make it in time.

However, it did nothing to diminish Fine Brush’s smile. “Well, let me give you our card before you go, at least. That way you can send me a quick letter if you decide on the take home pack.” She cantered over to the register and took a business card from the stack, then trotted right back over to offer it to Sure Stoke. “Here, dear. Hold onto that.”

Sure Stroke accepted the card and gave a smile in reply. “Thanks. I definitely will!”

“Great! And to the rest of you,” Fine Brush said, glancing about the group, “please drop by if you’re ever in the neighborhood again! I think you’d all have a great time!” With her pitch said, she gave a little bow of her head before turning to trot back to her other customers just in time to catch a paint cup the little foal nearly knocked over.

As the group made to leave, Sure Stroke glanced at the card a moment longer before she offered it to her mother, who put it in her bit purse for safe keeping. She fell into step between Aspire and Esalen once more, but kept quiet this time as she listened idly to the twins chattering with Nimble and Toola.

The more she thought about it, the more solid her idea seemed. Aspire did love to be smug, and he reveled when others called him out for it. If she combined it with his love for coffee, he’d either laugh himself silly or fall head over hooves in love at first sight.

Her lips tugged into a satisfied smile as she glanced at his smiling, orange-coated face. She fluffed her feathers and let out a happy sigh. Perfect.

Saying that Coneigh Island drew a crowd was, in Sure Stroke’s humble opinion, the understatement of the year.

The line stretched all the way out to the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bridleway. Ponies from Manehattan, the suburbs, all across the Sunshine Province, and even as far as Stalliongrad chattered and laughed while they waited, the very air around them abuzz with excitement.

A quick look to Aspire, Esalen, and Nimble showed each of the disguised nymphs’ eyes alight as they bounced on their hooves. Even Faith and Warm Welcome seemed to perk up a little more.

Is it because of all the excitement they can taste, or are they just eager to have fun? Sure Stroke wondered, her lips tugged into a bemused smile. It could very well go either way. Or both, if that day when Toola cozied up to Aspire as thanks for math help was any indicator.

Sure Stroke sidled up to the giggling gymnast, lightly nudging her elbow into Toola’s ribs. “Looks like a certain trio of cheeky foals is about ready to dance on rainbows, eh?”

Toola took her cue and nodded as a laugh bubbled forth. “Uh huh! They look like a bunch of squirrels about to pounce on leftovers from a family picnic in Canter Park!”

All five disguised changelings turned to level them with flat stares. Then, much to Sure Stroke’s surprise, Faith stuck out her tongue. Stern, no-nonsense, caring, sweet Faith! She even blew a raspberry!

Sure Stroke felt her jaw drop. Her parents’ laughter made her shake her little head. “Missus Faith?!”

“Hush, you!” Faith chided with a huff. She laid her head against Warm Welcome’s shoulder and smiled. “This place holds a lot of memories for our family, even Warm and I.” Dropping her voice, she added, “It’s also a bit contagious when we’re around such an excited crowd.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head and gave a sheepish smile. “I didn’t realize. I was just joking.”

“It’s fine, dear. So am I.” Faith cracked open an eye and glanced down at her. “I brought Warm here for our first date out of the village, so this place holds a rather special spot in my heart.”

“And we’ve come here as a family pretty often since then,” Warm added as he tilted his head to lay his cheek atop hers.

A quick look to her left showed the trio of disguised nymphs nodding along with the adults. Each wore wicked grins, their eyes seemed to gleam. She almost swore she saw Aspire’s flick between blue and orange.

With an awkward cough, Sure Stroke rustled her wings and looked to her parents.

Skydancer met her gaze and promptly shook her head, laughing to herself as she waved a hoof. A silent show that Sure Stroke had to dig herself out of any clouds she flew into on her own. A notion shared by her father, who paused long enough from his talk with Haberdasher to chuckle.

Super. She’d just opened the floor for three nymphs to have fun with their teasing and jokes, and in the middle of a place she had to stay close by their side.

I’m a regular Commander Hurricane with that sort of strategy.

Her salvation came as the group ahead moved. A mare dressed in a blue shirt with white pinstripes and a matching bow in her goldenrod mane waved them forward to her podium. “I can help the next group!” she called, her voice full of pep and energy. Someone had certainly enjoyed a few cups of coffee.

Haberdasher led them to stand before her. He tipped his hat and gave a small smile. “Six adults and five foals, please,” he said, levitating his hat to reveal a rather fat bit pouch he kept hidden beneath.

“Okay!” She reached behind her podium and pulled out eleven tickets. “That’s four bits for adults, three for foals—thirty-nine bits, please.”

Warm Welcome coughed. “Hab, why don’t I—”

“No,” Haberdasher cut him off without losing his smile or looking away from the attendant. “You’re on a village stipend and you hosted Bright and I when we visited. This time, you get to sit and hush while I pay.”

“But you paid for dinner …”

Haberdasher turned, his smile held. “Yes, I did. If it makes you feel better, I’ll earn it back Monday morning. Now, shut it, and let me return the favor.”

Warm Welcome sucked in his lips, looking like he had quite a bit more to say, but kept quiet all the same. He let his ears droop and mumbled under his breath while Faith pecked his cheek. The Caretaker had been out-Caretakered, and he very much did not like it. He huffed and pouted like a petulant foal as Haberdasher counted out his bits, then passed out tickets to everyone in their group.

If she weren’t already flirting with a bit of changeling payback, Sure Stroke might laugh. Instead, she bit her lip and let her eyes wander elsewhere.

They settled on Aspire’s face, just in time to catch him running his tongue along his lips, no doubt tasting her amusement. He raised an eyebrow. “Hey, mom?” he began, a hint of mischief crept into his smile. “Would it be alright if we did our own thing for a bit?”

Faith’s ears perked up. She lifted her head off Warm Welcome’s shoulder and fixed her son with a critical stare. “Can I trust you all to behave?” she asked, her eyes flitting between he and Esalen. “Especially you two?”

On cue, Aspire and Esalen fixed bright smiles upon their faces. Their flat, pony teeth almost seemed to gleam. “We will!” they chanted in unison.

Nimble bobbed her head. “Toola’s not doing any flipping today, since her leg was bothering her. So no crazy gymnastics from us.”

“And we,” Toola began, looping a hoof around Sure Stroke’s shoulders, “can keep them from causing any trouble!”

Humming, Faith turned to Drizzly and Skydancer. “What do you think?”

Drizzly turned to face Sure Stroke. He rustled a wing and flicked his tail. “I don’t mind as long as we all meet up sometime.”

“A couple hours, perhaps?” Skydancer offered. “Is there a good place we can all find easily?”

“The ferris wheel and food court are right next to one another,” Esalen replied. “That’s probably as good a spot as any.”

“Then let’s plan on meeting there.”

Aspire beamed. “Great!” He leaned into Sure Stroke, steering her toward the entrance. “We’ll catch you all later then!”

Sure Stroke squawked in protest as he nudged her along with his shoulder. “Aspire! Cut it—ow! I can walk on my own, you know!”

“Yeah, yeah, but you’ll sit there and take forever if I let you, so I cut out the middle mare.” He paused just long enough to grin and waggle his ears at her. “Besides, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and only a couple hours before we meet up with our parents. And I know just where we should start!”

“Oh?” Esalen leaned in, her ears twitched. “Where’s that?”

“An old favorite of ours …”

Author's Note:

Thank you for reading the misadventures of my ponies and changelings in this strange village called Respite! If you like the story, please consider reading my other works and donating to my Patreon.

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