• Published 26th Aug 2017
  • 4,860 Views, 778 Comments

To Perytonia - Cloudy Skies

Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Rarity are tasked with establishing ties between Equestria and the strange people of Perytonia. Understanding and connecting with your own friends may yet be the bigger challenge. Updates every Tuesday and Saturday!

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Chapter 2

By raven for Orto, Vauhorn, Cotronna, Stagrum, and all kin,

On our shores were found visitors who answer to no known shapes. A small crimson creature without feathers or antlers, one called ‘Red Sun Runner’, sought audience with ‘all of Perytonia’, and their words did not meet ours as easily as they should. They asked us to promise and to do things we cannot, in hopes of forging friendship with their Equestria. At the moment, we did not have a flight to spare to escort them to Ephydoera proper, and they did not have the patience to wait for raven-borne words. Impatient, they asked for permission to deliver more of their kind to us, to guest, and asked where our decisions were made.

We send them to Orto, and deem the task of comprehension theirs while we wait for word from Cotronna (whose name and function was attempted communicated to the creature). We expect Cotronna to suggest the same as we did—and for Orto and its people to relish this task.

Forage looks promising this spring. We ask for no more the coming season than we did last year.

-The High Warden

“We are ever so grateful for you taking the time to meet us,” Rarity said, smiling brightly at their guide.

“Greeting visitors is one of my responsibilities, and one I relish,” he replied. At least, Rainbow Dash assumed for now it was a ‘he’. “Meeting you, and speaking anyway. Our written languages, I understand, are as different as our spoken languages are similar,” he continued, gaze straight ahead as the four made their way down towards the valley floor.

They passed an empty stone building with neither door nor windows. A road branched off to wind past it towards a small cluster of buildings on the western side of the valley, all surrounded by neat rows of plants in dry soil.

“Why is that? Why do we speak the same language? Or… I guess, why wouldn’t we?” Fluttershy asked, though when the peryton glanced over at her, however quickly and kindly, she looked like she wished she’d not spoken up.

“I do not know. That is for those who think on language from sunrise to sundown to answer. Perhaps a keeper of scrolls? It makes my job easier to be able to talk, so I am happy. There are enough hurdles as it is,” he said, throwing his head back and letting out a strange warbling sound unlike anything Dash had ever heard before. Dash blinked. Was that meant to be a laugh? He’d already stopped, eyes ahead again.

Rainbow Dash looked over at Fluttershy, confused, but the other pegasus’s eyes were on another herb farm by the roadside. Two peryton meandered around on the far side of a fence, their backs turned.

“Certainly, arranging for this little meeting has been a challenge,” Rarity said, dispelling the silence before it could fully settle.

“Yes. We received word from Ephydoera that you had been asked to come here, and clearly all has gone well,” said the peryton. “I wonder, if the map reached you, did you not receive the Myrtellan bands? Much effort was put into sending a package, and we were given the impression it had arrived.”

“The what? We got the scarves if that’s what you mean,” Dash said, though her mind was elsewhere. Were all peryton this large? Did they all have those huge wings? Were they fast or nimble fliers? These were the questions she wanted to ask of their strange new acquaintance. His coat was a reddish brown with grey in places, but what his coat lacked in colour, he made up for in his feathers. The tips were green, blue or both, as were the long feathers that made up his tail.

Rainbow Dash stiffened, looking up when Fluttershy cleared her throat, but at least Khaird hadn’t caught her staring. The peryton looked to the other side, apparently talking to Rarity. The unicorn levitated the scarves in the grip of her magic, unfolding one as they walked, and Fluttershy seemed to have found the courage to walk a little closer.

“You see,” Rarity said, “we figured them to be scarves as Rainbow Dash suggested, and I must say, they are wonderfully delicate.”

“Scarves, bands, one word is as good as another in this. Silk is precious and rare. Much of what we use comes from Cotilla. We do not make much ourselves.” He inclined his head ever so slightly. Was that a smile just now? Rainbow Dash could see large teeth, and they weren’t entirely flat. It was impossible to tell whether he was happy or sad: Peryton eyes were entirely too small.

“It was a gesture of friendship from the city of Orto. The colours, the greens, reds, blues and purples, they reference Myrtella, and they are dear to us,” said Khaird. “It would honour me if you would wear them. It will endear you to our city as well, this I promise.”

Rarity gasped. “Oh, that is an even lovelier gesture than I thought! What do you say, girls?”

Fluttershy dipped her head and smiled. “I think that would be very nice. I mean, I would be happy to, thank you,” she said, craning her neck to let Rarity hang one of the scarves about her neck as they walked. Rainbow Dash did the same, leaning down to bite down on one of the silken ends and toss it around her neck one more time to stop herself from stepping on it.

“Hey, it’s kinda comfy,” Dash admitted. She turned her head left and right, grinning as the thin silk touched against her coat. Putting on clothes in the baking heat was silly, but she barely noticed it at all.

“That, they are,” Khaird said with an odd little trilling sound from the back of his throat. “Most wear them for special occasions, some wear them always. A visit from another land is special, I think. And, to go back to what I said on challenges earlier, I see only one of you has an antler, and a small one—but it carries magic, I see just now.”

“All unicorns have their own special magic from their horns, yes,” replied Rarity, and Dash didn’t even try to hold back a chortle at the obvious pride in her voice.

“And these unicorns are your… females? You have two genders?” Khaird asked. He shook his head briskly. “Do forgive if this is rude, but though I see many visitors from afar, I cannot tell you apart aside from what is obvious to me.” He looked to Fluttershy, then to Rainbow Dash, eyeing their wings.

Rarity blinked once, then twice more, saying nothing. Dash repeated his words inside her head, trying her best to make sense of it as well, but it was Fluttershy who spoke up when the peryton cleared his throat, quailing in the silence. If his other mannerisms were difficult to understand, identifying an uncomfortable peryton was comparatively easy.

“Actually, we’re all mares, or ‘females’. Rainbow Dash and I are pegasi, and Rarity is a unicorn,” she said. “Oh, and, I’m sorry if I’m insensitive, but um, you’re a ‘he’, right?”

“I—yes, again, forgive,” the peryton said, the normally even rhythm of his speech momentarily broken. Finally, he launched into another brief throaty warble of quickly changing sounds that Dash was now sure was nervous laughter. “This is never easy when meeting someone new. Yes, I am a he—a stag rather than a doe or other—and that is not obvious to you, I should understand this.”

“Heh, that’s what I guessed too,” Dash said, exulting in her cleverness. Fifty-fifty was always good odds.

“It wasn’t a guess, actually,” Fluttershy said, her ears pinned back. “Sorry. I just assumed, because a lot of birds have colourful feathers on their, well… On their males.”

“Why’re you sorry for being right?” Dash asked, laughing. “That’s awesome!”

Fluttershy blushed faintly at that, and Rarity seemed to finally shake herself out of her stupor.

“Well, I’m, ah, glad we’ve cleared that up, at least,” Rarity said, puffing out her cheeks and letting out a little giggle. “I hope we did not give any offence, and none was taken.”

“Male, female, neither, both or other, it matters very little to us,” Khaird said, shaking his head. “This is not the case for everyone, and I care to the extent that I wish to understand. Regardless, I think you will find Orto both welcoming and understanding if you seek neither to offend nor to be offended.” He gestured to the growing city ahead of them as he continued.

“As for my kin, we all have antlers with some measure of magic, and we all have wings, but you are right.” He paused for breath, glancing over at the ponies. “The most colourful wing-feathers and the longest tail-feathers tend to belong to those born as males. If ‘pegasus’ is not a word for the males of your species, and you do not all have horn magic, then—”

“Equestria has lots of different ponies,” Dash said. “Unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies are all different, uh, ponies, but there are mares and colts of each of those. Oh, and then there’s the Princesses, but they don’t count.”

The peryton tilted his head at this, first one way, then the other, but Dash didn’t know what more to say, and neither Fluttershy nor Rarity filled the gap.

“This, I think, is why Orto needs to expand its libraries. I am embarrassed that this is new to me, and embarrassed again that I found so little in our archives.” He yawned, showing a long tongue as he did. It looked weird, but the peryton didn’t seem otherwise tired.

“When we received word of your plans to land here and visit, we knew something of your Equestria. Visitors of the travelling peoples always speak of a place on the continent called The Great Bridge by the Zebra, but as far as I know, Ilyra has carried no Ortosian hooves there.” He smiled, showing teeth again. “As little we know of your lands, we know even less about your people. Equestria wishes to learn of Orto, and Orto wishes to learn about you Equestrians, and in turn, we hope to teach our kin.”

“Well, supposedly, we used to be friends,” Rarity said. “We must have been since there is mention of you in our libraries, but I understand that was a long time ago. If we must start anew, then we will.”

“Twice as much reason for Equestria and Perytonia to become friends again,” Dash shot. “Everypony loves making friends!”

“As does Orto”, the peryton interjected, though he made it sound almost like a disagreement, like Dash hadn’t just said the same thing.

“Indeed, that is why we’re heading to... Cotronna, I think your capital is called?” Rarity added. “We hope to invite you to a moot of sorts. I assume your prince or princess sits in Cotronna?”

“Ah,” Khaird said, quiet for a moment. “No. I... do not suppose—I do not think I understand the question.”

“Princess Celestia and Princess Luna rule Equestria,” said Fluttershy, smiling at him. “They’re in Canterlot, the capital of Equestria.”

“Canterlot? Now I am confused. Are you not from Equestria?” Khaird asked.

“Eh, Fluttershy and I are really from Cloudsdale, and Rarity’s from Ponyville. That’s where we all live now, but it’s the same thing. It’s all Equestria,” said Dash.

“We carry an invitation for your leader,” Rarity added, getting them back on track. “An invitation asking them to join the Princesses in Equestria at a conference to discuss possible treaties. Surely you have a prince or a princess, even if you call them by another name,” said the unicorn, smiling a little wider at Khaird’s complete lack of reaction. “Rather, who is the most important person? Or if a decision was to be made that affected all of Perytonia, who ultimately decides? Who has the final word, so to say, in Cotronna?”

“I suppose,” said Khaird. “The answer to your question is the Head Consul of Cotronna.”

Rarity nodded her assent and smiled. “Wonderful. We carry a royal seal to mark the occasion, and we’re looking forward to delivering it.”

“And I have no doubt that Cotronna will be thrilled with your presence and your invitation both,” the peryton said, his voice a little more flat than before. “I am glad.”

He gave them another one of those odd, large peryton smiles, this time without his teeth showing but it was hard to tell if he sounded glad at all. Dash didn’t feel like nitpicking anyway, particularly when it could led to a lot of boring arguments. She was more interested in trying to keep track of their surroundings. Finally, they entered the city proper.

Rather than be greeted by gates, guards or other trappings of ceremony, the gaps between the scattered farms and gardens simply ceased to be, and then the bowl-shaped farmhouses were replaced by buildings that slowly grew in size and density.

Dash didn’t pay attention to the unmoving buildings at first, though. Not while there were living things to see. A peryton passed by, and then another. Dash craned her neck to look at the strange creatures, comparing them to Khaird. Now he was no longer unique, and for every stare she cast, Dash received an equal portion of curiosity in return.

Their slim antlers were complicated, with no two sets alike, but most of their bodies were built the same to Dash’s eyes. They all had thin muzzles, and their forelegs were dainty compared to the powerful hindlegs that ended in large grasping talons, the last long joint leathery and entirely hairless.

The biggest differences were in their tail-feathers—some short, some long enough to almost drag along the ground. The peryton would probably have looked weirder if she hadn’t known Gilda for so long, but where her childhood griffin friend was proud of being eagle and lion both, it was impossible to claim that these creatures were two halves. Soon there were too many to single out for inspection. Fluttershy slipped between Rarity and Rainbow Dash to try to avoid the worst of the attention returned by the locals.

“Let us find you a place to bed down for later, first,” Khaird said. He slipped in front to take the lead, and the three ponies followed.

They all had antlers. They all had large wings, and it wasn’t nearly as simple as to sort them into peryton with coloured wings and peryton whose feathers were the same colours as their body. In addition, their coats were all different shades of browns, whites and greys. Combined with the light grey stone that served as the building blocks for most everything around, roads included, it could easily have gotten very—what was the word? Dash stared at Rarity as if she could channel her fashion-conscious friend. Rarity, for her part, was looking every which way, eyes wide with wonder.

Samey. That was the technical term, probably. It could’ve looked very samey, but it simply didn’t. Especially when Dash took in all of it at once. Coloured feathers on wing and tail, the occasional scarf, painted wooden furniture and signs, and busy sidewalks teeming with life as though the idea of doing anything indoors was a crime all made the city almost too varied.

The winged natives worked on crafts in the open air, and huge groups walked together in animated discussion. To make distinguishing between the creatures even harder, many of them busied themselves decorating each other with even more colour. Here, a cluster of large, brightly coloured peryton added even brighter detail to their wing-feathers with some sort of dusts. There, three smaller peryton dipped their tail-feathers in some watery paint.

There was a buzz of excitement about the air, in doorways, in the streets, and all around what Rainbow Dash assumed were public buildings. Outside something that might have been a school, throngs of little peryton with awkwardly long legs and tiny bodies played with paints under the supervision of a larger member of their people.

“Why is nopon—uh, no one flying?” Dash asked. The question hadn’t fully formed in her mind before it was ejected as the only thing that made no sense to her. Even as she asked, she spotted a pair of peryton overhead, but they were only gliding, and she saw no others.

“Flying in summer tires the body quickly, even only in first-summer,” Khaird replied with a backwards glance. His brow furrowed for a moment, probably in thought. “Some enjoy it more than others and will go to great lengths to take wing when there is a chance, of course. We are all different.”

“Sure, I guess,” Dash said. The answer didn’t make perfect sense, but while she wasn’t convinced it was too hot for flying, it was definitely too hot to get into an argument about it. Besides, there was so much else going on; the three friends were getting more than curious looks now. When they rounded a corner and entered a wide, busy street, a small group of peryton dipped their heads in unison. A moment later, some debate or other outside a storefront ground to a halt as they passed by, the attendants staring unabashedly. Dash could swear she heard a cheer down the street, but it couldn’t possibly have been for them.

“You see more flying in Ponyville, though,” Dash said. She could barely hear her own voice over the din of the city now. On their right, they passed a large open-air theater full of peryton working on a stage set, several of them with muzzles painted bright red or blue. One held a bucket grasped in its powerful talons for whatever reason.

“They don’t build very tall buildings, either,” Fluttershy said. The more looks they got, the closer Fluttershy walked, and it was only thanks to this that Rainbow Dash heard her. Fluttershy’s head hung low enough that her mane dragged along the street.

“Yeah, what’s up with that? But hey, they seem really friendly. That’s cool.” Dash looked back at Rarity, who had been silent for a while, but it was easy to see why. Rainbow Dash snickered. The unicorn basked in the attention the ponies got. A perfect contrast to Fluttershy, she walked with her head high and smiled beatifically. Finally Khaird slowed down, and Rainbow Dash brought their cart to a full stop.

Their guide stood outside a large, single-storied structure with an open front-section made into a garden, supported only by graceful engraved columns. Further in under the roof waited proper walls, in front of which were more burgeoning plants crowding a small fountain.

“For all that we are honoured and thrilled every time we have visitors, we do not ever get as many as we wish,” Khaird said, smiling toothily at the building as though it was an old friend. “This is the Home of the Heavenly Song, one of our finest resting houses. Orchard owners from the northeastern edges of our demesne often stay here in spring, when they have business in the city proper. Most other resting houses guest traders at the moment, but I had this one reserved for your use. I have spoken to the hostess ahead of time, and gladly will she have you for as long as you wish to stay.”

“You have been ever so kind. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of your bits, or… coin? We did bring some gemstones, though, and we were told they were valuable to you,” said Rarity. Rainbow Dash looked about for a likely place to leave their cart, wondering who in their right minds would trade anything worth having for gems.

“They have been told not to accept payment. As council member, I have some pull, and this is a favour to me, one I will repay. This is a gift, and the simplest thing I can do for you,” Khaird retorted, shaking his head. “And, at any rate, I understand you will not be here for very long after all. If Cotronna is your goal, you have quite the journey ahead. Will you not stay for a while? Anything less than eight days is entirely too little to get anyone’s measure, surely.”

The three ponies exchanged glances. Dash waited for Rarity to say something, but now she hesitated. Fluttershy blew her mane out of her face.

“Um, that’s very nice of you,” Fluttershy said. “But we really don’t know how to get to Cotronna at all in the first place. We don’t have a map of Perytonia because… well, we’ve never been here before.”

“Yeah,” Dash said, offering her support. “We were hoping you could point us in the right direction and all.”

“You’re very kind to offer us a stay here,” said Rarity. “And we’d be delighted if we were free, as it were, but we really do need to get to the capital as soon as possible. When we get there, we will be sure to let them know how helpful you have been,” the unicorn added with a smile, but Khaird seemed less pleased by that than Dash expected. Then again, their expressions still didn’t make a lot of sense to her. To her, Khaird looked perpetually relaxed.

“Yes. Well, that is a harvest for me to be thankful for,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, tilting his head sideways. “But if you do wish to make this old stag happy—no. I cannot ask it. It is not fair.”

“You can always ask,” Rainbow Dash said. “Hey, if you have a hydra problem, we’re pretty good at those! I’m sure we can spare an hour.” Fluttershy shrank back further at that. Soon she’d be under the cart rather than pinned up against it.

“Nothing so perilous,” Khaird said, smiling. “Tomorrow begins the festival of Myrtella, and if you would attend even for one sun’s length, I would be very pleased.” He held up a foreleg and waggled it from side to side. “But, honest. I will help as much as I can regardless. I understand you will need a map for this task you have given yourself, and this I can find by tomorrow even if you are too hurried to say yes.”

Rainbow Dash gave an inward sigh. She really had her heart set on a real fight or challenge of some kind. Still, Fluttershy looked cautiously optimistic, and Rarity smiled wide.

“Why, I for one think that sounds lovely,” Rarity said. “It would be rude to refuse, and we can’t very well get moving without knowing where to go. Fluttershy, dear? Rainbow Dash?”

“I don’t mind,” Fluttershy said. She looked at Dash.

“Sure?” Dash said, shrugging. She was all for meeting new people, of course, but they had barely even started their journey to Cotronna before they were delayed.

“It is settled then!” Khaird said. “I will understand if you change your mind, but if you are sincere, I am happy to hear it. There is sunlight still, and I will try to find for you maps you might need. Meanwhile, the city is for you to explore if you wish. I will come find you here tomorrow after sunrise and help you to the festival field.”

“That is very nice of you,” Fluttershy said, dipping her head in thanks, and Dash added her voice to the sentiment. Khaird craned his neck in a curious thing that could have been a bow or a nod.

“It has been my pleasure. And now, I will go attend my office, with hopes to see you in the morning. Treat the hostess with the kindness you have treated me, I beg, and you will have made another friend.” With a parting smile, he turned on the spot, leaving the three ponies at the entrance to the large building that seemed half indoor garden.

“Well, he was absolutely delightful,” Rarity declared, fluffing her mane. “Let us see about shedding our burdens, shall we?”

“Yeah. I bet you’re really worn out, poor thing.” Dash rolled her eyes before pointedly staring at the cart that contained all their stuff, including saddlebags. Rarity’s burden amounted to exactly one silken scarf.

“I don’t see anywhere to put the cart. Maybe we should check the other side?” Fluttershy suggested.

Fluttershy’s guess was right. On the other side of the building, they found space to leave their cart next to two other wagons that dwarfed theirs. The little two-wheeler Applejack had put together was perfect for their purpose, but it was tiny compared to the local four-wheeled variants. Rarity stopped at the threshold to an open doorway in the back wall of the Home of the Heavenly Song.

“Let’s just leave the stuff out here,” Dash said. “I bet nobody’s going to take it.” She shrugged out from the harness. Though it was comfortable enough to wear, being tethered to the cart was not. She’d taken exactly two steps before the large wooden chest was surrounded in a faint glow. Rarity gave an unladylike grunt, her horn lit as she struggled to lift it over the rim of the cart.

“Oh, I’m sure they won’t,” Fluttershy said, looking askance at Rarity. “Rarity, I’m sure you can just leave it here.”

“Be that as it may,” said Rarity, gently lowering the chest to the ground and letting out a deep breath before she lifted it up again. “I just realised that I need my materials and my tools if we are to make an appearance—ack, Rainbow dear, help me!—tomorrow at the festival.”

Rainbow Dash shook her head mutely and slipped under the chest, balancing it with her wings. She was halfway to the door when a peryton slipped out past Rarity and over to the cart, levitating up one of the pairs of saddlebags. Her many horn-tips glittered with magic, and she smiled at them—a doe, Rainbow Dash assumed, judging by her simple whites and browns.

“Please, let me help,” she said. “And let me see if we cannot find for you a room.”

Ligilia, as the hostess was called, wasted no time in swiftly helping the ponies to what she insisted was ‘their room’ at the Home of the Heavenly Song. Rainbow Dash wasn’t quite sure about that, though she was happy to be out from under the baking sun.

“Silks, cottons and everything related yes,” Rarity said, rummaging around in her travel chest.

Sure, the chamber was large. Perhaps even too large, just like the tall and glassless windows set strangely high on the wall. Rather than a few beds intended for multiple ponies, the room had four beds, likely meant for a single peryton each. They would fit two ponies, if not three. In the center stood a low table, and all these were things that belonged to a room. Absolutely.

“Trimmers, shears, gauges,” Rarity continued while Fluttershy tested one of the beds, pushing down on the mattress with a hoof and smiling ever so faintly to herself.

Rainbow Dash didn’t have a lot of experience with inns and taverns. They were words that belonged in a Daring Do novel. On the other hoof, the moment they got off the airship, she’d decided this definitely counted as an adventure.

Still, the status of this place as an inn, a tavern, or whatever else didn’t really matter for purposes of determining whether or not this was a room.

“Measures, where’s the curved—oh, there it is!” Rarity sighed in relief.

“There’s no door,” Dash said, finally decided on what was wrong. Through the doorless portal, she had free view of the center chamber to which all the not-rooms were connected. Behind a stone counter in a hall covered in carpets, their peryton hostess arranged some items on a large platter, uninterested and uninteresting for the moment.

Rarity did not look up. Fluttershy tilted her head, glancing over at the open arch.

“I guess they don’t feel like they need doors?” she offered.

“Yeah, I mean—I guess?” Dash finished. “That’s a little creepy.”

“I don’t close my door very often when it’s warm outside, because then all the animals can’t come and go as they please,” Fluttershy countered with a small shrug. “They probably don’t get a lot of snow in winter.”

Rainbow Dash stared at Fluttershy. She was the very last pony she’d expected to come to the defense of a lack of doors and windows to hide behind.

“But, um, I suppose I would like to be able to close it if I wanted to be alone,” Fluttershy continued. “I don’t know if I think it’s ‘creepy’, but...”

“I hear that in Manehatten, they actually lock their doors unless they are expecting visitors,” Rarity said, rejoining the conversation while she regarded the myriad of tools and fabrics spread out on one of the beds. She had more kinds of scissors than there’d been salad forks at the summer sun banquet.

“Okay, I take it back. That is creepy.” Dash snorted. “Why’d you lock your doors all the time? Eh. Anyway, did you guys notice how Khaird kept saying Orto whenever we were talking about Perytonia? Like there was a big difference?”

“I guess they’re just very proud of their city,” Rarity suggested, unfurling a bolt of red silk halfway before freezing it mid-air. “Surely that’s all?”

“He didn’t seem very happy when we said we would tell the pon—um, well, the peryton in Cotronna how nice he had been, I think,” Fluttershy said with a tiny frown, she spread one of her wings open and furled it again. Her frown deepened, and she did it again. Dash winced in sympathy.

“Hang on, I’ll get it,” Dash said. She slipped off her own bed and hopped onto Fluttershy’s, sitting down next to her.

“It is probably nothing,” Rarity said, folding the silk and wrapping it around herself, craning her neck to get a better look as she spoke. “I know plenty of ponies in Canterlot who speak of their city as if it has nothing in common with Ponyville or the rest of Equestria at all.”

“But it does, and it’s still part of Equestria,” Dash protested, poking Fluttershy in the side to make her spread her wing. She nuzzled in between Fluttershy’s secondaries and nudged them apart, biting down on an offending feather to right it, ignoring the little ow of protest. “That better?” she asked, licking her lips. As little as Fluttershy used her wings, she at least kept them clean.

“I think so,” Fluttershy said, experimentally furling and unfurling her wing again. She smiled by way of thanking her and Rainbow Dash shrugged, sitting back against the wall.

“Well, if nothing else, we should remember to ask our host about it,” Rarity said. “He has been very forthcoming, I feel. Now—”

“I understood you were hungry?” The inn owner stood in the doorway, a large tray and a silver decanter in her magical grip. Without pausing to confirm, she put the tray of food on the center table, inclining her head. “Kelp cakes, sour-grass balls and okra pudding. Please enjoy.”

A large platter of food, three ornate bowls and three plates were worth three sets of thanks and smiles, and Ligilia returned the smile in earnest, tilting her head forward until her muzzle lay flat along her neck before she departed. The ponies gathered around the table, Dash calling dibs before she decided what she wanted.

“There’s enough for everyone, I am sure,” said Rarity, and she was probably right. The grass and the pudding portions were more than a mouthful, and by elimination, the coarse, disc-shaped things had to be the kelp cakes. Each of them were almost the size of a pie.”

“Um, so,” said Fluttershy, staring at the food, clearly having met the same challenge Dash did.

“So, I’ll just, uh,” said Dash. She leaned over to nab one of the kelp cakes in her mouth. She put it down on an empty, flat plate, staring at it while Rarity gave the pudding a taste using only the tip of a large spoon.

“Hm? What’s the matter?” asked Rarity, wiping her mouth with a napkin while she cut off a portion of one of the cakes.

“These aren’t really made for non-unicorns,” said Fluttershy, poking at one of the utensils with a hoof.

“Oh. Huh. I suppose you are right,” said Rarity, frowning ever so slightly. “The plates should be a little more curved, and the portions aren’t clear.”

Dash was too hungry to hesitate. She held down the kelp cake with a hoof—cake, pie, disc, whatever it was, she tore off a bite-sized chunk and chewed noisily while Rarity shielded herself and winced. “Eh, whatever. That just means it’s not my fault if this gets a bit messy,” she said between bites. “I think you’re the only pony in Ponyville who’s ever eaten a muffin with a fork.”

“I’ll have you know that the Canterlot style guide for fine dining insists that if a fork can be used, then it takes precedence over the spoon,” said Rarity, though she couldn’t keep her rigid, painted smile for more than a second before she giggled.

“Maybe we can ask if she has something we can use to clean up afterwards,” Fluttershy suggested, smiling. She pushed her plate up to the larger platter and scooped a hoof-ful of pudding for herself after wiping her hoof on her coat. “How’s the… kelp?” she asked.

“No idea,” said Dash, grabbing another bite. “Ask me later.”

Where Fluttershy paced herself and Rarity even said some words about their flavour or whatever, the first few kelp cakes disappeared before Dash even considered their taste. Right now, their primary function was being food for the famished pegasus. The water in the fancy carafe disappeared, and Ligilia happily refilled it not once, but twice. At least the water bowls made sense and were easy to drink from.

A little later, when Rarity called for one of the two pegasi to stand model for her, Rainbow Dash was on one of the beds, belly full and thoroughly out of commission. She tried and failed to cover up a small belch. While she hadn’t planned to be extra loud to make Rarity pick Fluttershy over her, it worked out great.

“Are you seriously going to work on your dresses all the time while we’re travelling?” Dash asked, covering her head with a wing. Now she regretted that last kelp cake. Her stomach throbbed and ached faintly.

“Not constantly, certainly not,” Rarity replied, “but if we are to attend this festival, I only have an evening’s worth of time.”

“Oh, Rarity,” Fluttershy said. “You’re not trying to make three dresses all by tomorrow morning, are you? You really don’t have to.” She pulled back a half-step, pausing Rarity’s efforts to match colours to her coat, travel-sized bolts levitating on standby for the moment.

“Darling, did you not notice? These peryton wear next to no clothes at all! I can create something both simple and elegant to show them the wonders of fashion with time to spare. It won’t be my best work, but I’ve been in a rush before.” Rarity pursed her lips. “And besides, I am making two dresses, not three. The entire point is to show them fashion that they’ll want to wear, and that means taking wings into consideration. I’ll make something for the two of you. Nothing to drag along the ground. Oh, I have an idea.”

“Yeah, you’ve been in a rush before,” Dash agreed, snickering. “That always works out.”

“It usually does, sort of,” Fluttershy said, raising a foreleg to let Rarity weave the fabric around her.

“It does, thanks in part to my experience,” Rarity said with a nod and a smile at them both. “And thanks in part to friends such as you. Now, Rainbow Dash, please come stand next to Fluttershy, and don’t move. This won’t take more than an hour or three.”

Rainbow Dash groaned and rolled off the bed.

“And you’re sure you don’t want to come along?” Fluttershy asked, not for the first time. Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and leaned against the doorless doorway. The un-door? The open and un-doored… hole?

Rainbow Dash leaned against the opening that separated their possibly-a-room from the central chamber where Ligilia sat scribbling away at a piece of parchment with a large and dark short-haired dog snoozing against her side.

“No, thank you. I could really use some quiet, so this works out wonderfully, I think,” said Rarity, not so much as looking up. With the food cleared from the table, it had taken the function of workstation, Rarity’s fabrics and cuts and whatever else she worked with arrayed before her. “Once I finish the designs, I will still need to fit these dresses properly, though, so please be back in an hour or two at the most.”

“Sure,” said Dash. “I just want to walk around the block or something before I go crazy.” She leaned back to stretch out her forelegs.

“Okay, if you’re sure,” said Fluttershy, smiling at the unicorn. “We’ll be back soon,” and with that, Fluttershy turned to leave, taking all of two steps out of the room before she froze in place, her ears perked and her eyes fastened upon the dog at Ligilia’s side.

“Oh. Oh my, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog like that before,” said Fluttershy. She covered her mouth with a hoof. “Sorry, I guess he’s sleeping,” she added in a whisper. Ligilia looked up and smiled toothily at the two before she went back to her writing.

“I’m sure you can pet the dog when we get back or something,” Dash suggested, pointing to the two identical doors leading out through the garden. “C’mon.”

“That’d be nice,” said Fluttershy, and even as they made their way across the carpeted floor of the large and empty chamber, the pegasus’s head turned to stare at the dark-furred dog until they were actually out the door and she could no longer see it.

“Where do you want to go?” Fluttershy asked a moment later, when they stood at the edge of the broad street. The walled garden was almost pleasantly cool, and the light a little less intense than earlier, but past the little patch of green, there was no telling what was what. Dome-shaped houses all around, some open spaces where peryton gathered, and others that stood silent.

“Right,” said Rainbow Dash, turning ninety degrees to the right and walking on along the roadside. “Right’s a great tie breaker. Only thing that beats it is going straight ahead, but that kinda ruins the point of walking around the block.”

“I guess that’s true,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. She fell in step, keeping Rainbow Dash between her and the rest of the street—and in the way of all the stares and curious looks they got. There were less peryton out and about now, but the two ponies still received a good amount of attention.

That was fine anyway. Anything not a pony walking down Ponyville’s main street got a healthy helping of eyeballs, too. Most of them even smiled, and a few did that weird thing Ligilia had done, tilting their heads forward until their antlers pointed straight ahead. Nods? Bows? Dash still wasn’t sure, but it made Dash feel a little like a celebrity.

“I’m glad it’s a little less hot,” said Fluttershy, looking straight up. “There aren’t a lot of clouds here.”

“Yeah,” said Dash, frowning and the nearly perfectly bare sky. “It’s like the opposite of the Everfree. Instead of too many clouds for no reason at all, there’s nothing. I guess everyone has a bad cloud day once in awhile.” She shrugged. They passed another group of peryton who pointed and stared, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones.

“Goodness, they’re really excited about us, aren’t they?” asked Fluttershy, glancing nervously at them.

“I guess?” said Dash. She eyed the little group and waved at them. One of them raised a foreleg and waved back, awkward, unpracticed, and very energetic. Fluttershy both joined in Rainbow Dash’s laughter and hid behind her as they moved on.

Finally they could take another right turn. Peryton city blocks were apparently huge. Something reminiscent of the House of the Heavenly Song passed them by on their left, more garden, less building. Maybe there wasn’t even a house in there at all. Up ahead, another building loomed large, an elaborate facade with columns and arches set deep in a wide stone courtyard. Even across the road, Dash heard harsh bird calls from within.

“I think those are ravens,” said Fluttershy, her eyes lighting up. “They sound just like the ones who live in Equestria.”

“Huh. That’s weird. Why’d you keep ravens in a… whatever that is?” asked Rainbow Dash. Further in the courtyard, past some decorative fountains, stood huge stone billboards with scrolls pinned to them.

“Ravens are wonderful messenger birds,” said Fluttershy, smiling.

“I thought that was pigeons,” said Dash.

Fluttershy shook her head. “Not only pigeons. Plenty of birds are more than smart enough to carry a message. Or, well, all birds are, but ravens have great memories, and just about anypony can train them. Well. Um, any peryton, too, but I’m just guessing, really.”

“Right. Could be anything,” said Dash with a grin. “Maybe they just have a huge bird feeder in there and really like ravens or something.”

“That would be very nice of them,” Fluttershy replied, giggling. She perked an ear. “I don’t know if that would be very practical, but I can tell they’re happy in there from all the noise they’re making.”

Already the strange raven-place fell away, replaced by other buildings, and on this stretch of road, no two things looked alike. Rainbow Dash had no idea what to make of the other buildings. One she pegged a library or school of some kind, a small group of peryton leaving all together. Closing hour, probably. After their next turn right, they passed some closed, silent and dark buildings that might’ve been shops.

Somewhere beyond the city, behind the lip of the valley barely visible over the roofs of the buildings, the sun crept towards the horizon, and it got a little colder still. Keep going, Dash thought. It’s almost comfortable. The sunlight gained a tint of red which coloured all the stonework with the same feather-light touch of pink.

“So, this Red Sun Runner pony, she never came here?” Dash asked on a whim. “Because if she’d written about this place, I’d like to read it. Like, some notes on where their hayfries stands are or whatever.”

Fluttershy laughed and shook her head. “I don’t think there are any hayfries stands, but I guess we never know. Maybe… kelp fries?”

“Uh, pass?” Dash stuck out her tongue. “Okay, games, then. Hoofball, skating, I don’t know, anything cool. We don’t know what any of this stuff is. What if we just walked past a night-open indoor skating rink?”

“Red Sun Runner never visited a city,” said Fluttershy. “She just met with some… I think she used the word ‘patrol’, and they together decided that we’d come meet them here.”

“Right,” said Dash. “Not us, but someone.”

Fluttershy nodded. “Mm, I don’t think the Princesses meant for us to visit, specifically. Just that someone from Equestria would. I think we’re the first ponies to visit in a very, very long time, so if anyone should write a guide, I guess that’s actually us. That’s why Rarity’s keeping her journal. Not just as an official report, but—”

“Yeah, I know. Twilight asked us to take down notes,” said Dash. “That’s cool as long as I don’t have to write it.”

Walking the almost completely abandoned shopping street—if that’s what this was—made her feel a little bit like an explorer. Down the smaller by-streets they still saw flocks of peryton painting each other and laughing as they did, but there were fewer people around now. If there was some sort of festival in the morning, that made sense. Early to bed to get ready for a party? Maybe they weren’t so different after all. Dash thought she could feel it. A charge building in the air.

“Did you ever think I wasn’t going to come with you?” Fluttershy asked.

The question came out of nowhere. Rainbow Dash looked around as if she would find someone else for whom the words were meant, but she remembered Rarity and Fluttershy had talked about this earlier that day.

“You mean to Perytonia, not just for the walk,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Mhm,” said Fluttershy.

“I don’t know, probably not,” said Dash, shrugging and stretching her wings out. “Would be weird if five of us went off to help the Princesses out, and you stayed back home. I know they said it was up to us, but c’mon, that’d be—well, weird,” she repeated. Weird, and she didn’t know if she’d want to go herself, if it came to that.

Dash turned them right again. Yet more houses. At least, she assumed that the smaller ones were houses. Upturned bowls with windows placed too far off the ground. A peryton stuck its head out one of the windows, shutters glowing with faint magic as they pulled shut.

“Were you ever thinking about staying home?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy’s brow knit, silent for a second. “Maybe?” she said. She tilted her head, and reached up to push her mane out of her face. “When they told us how far away all the places they wanted to send ponies were, and that it could take weeks, I was a little worried.” Fluttershy shook her head. “But no, I didn’t really think I would ever stay home. At least not after you asked.”

Rainbow Dash scratched her head. She tried to remember what she herself had said, but she couldn’t recall. All Dash knew was that she’d flown over to Fluttershy’s cottage the day after they got back from their visit to Canterlot earlier in the summer. Whatever. She was glad Fluttershy had come along. The city was quiet and boring right now, and it’d be twice as bad without her.

“Anyway, the peryton aren’t much for night-life right now,” Dash said, stretching her wings out. “Wanna head back?”

Fluttershy glanced left, then right, all with a hesitant smile that could barely be called such a thing. She looked over at Rainbow Dash when they drew near an intersection across the street. “We could, but I don’t mind if you want to walk a little longer.”

“Sure,” said Dash, who didn’t, really. But why not? She smiled and set them moving across the street.

Rainbow Dash snarled. The giant changeling had employed some sort of wing-binding magic. She tried to spread her wings, but they simply wouldn’t unfurl. Her foe grinned with unrestrained malice, charging its horn with another spell. Dash strained against the magical restraints with all her might, growling with effort.

The spell grew in strength. The changeling horn brightened, and with its mounting glare came a sickening heat. Finally one of Dash’s wings were free, then the other. She took to the air, swift and powerful wingbeats carrying her away from the dreadful heat-spell.

A sharp pain. She crashed to the ground and found she couldn’t move at all. The spell intensified, hotter and hotter. She tried to yell out for help, but she made no sound at all. Rainbow Dash awoke with a sharp intake of breath.

She was upside down in a tangle of sheets on the stone floor of their bedroom, and her head hurt like she’d been kicked. She must’ve flown off the bed and smacked it against the floor.

Even worse than the dull and throbbing pain was the heat. Her lower body was cocooned in bedsheets, and the room was oppressively hot, making her feel decidedly clammy and sweaty as a result of the sun’s glare through the window rather than a long flight or run. Judging by the lump of cloth and ponies next to her, she’d pulled her friends to the floor along with her. A purple tail stuck out from under the mess, and Fluttershy stood next to her trying to extract the complaining unicorn.

“—completely unnecessary,” came Rarity’s muffled voice, and Rainbow Dash idly wondered how this had all happened. Vague memories of yesterday played through her mind, but their order seemed random in the morning haze. Rarity had finished the dresses, and they were all getting tired. She said she’d finish up in a moment, letting Rainbow Dash go to bed, and Fluttershy to go hang out with the resident dog. At some point Dash had woken to Rarity sneaking up to huddle next to her under bedsheets from three beds. It got cold during nights, then.

“How are they not melting in the sun or freezing during the night?” Dash asked. She tried to kick away the blankets, but she couldn’t. Fluttershy helped Rarity up, then said her good-mornings to Rainbow Dash and helped her as well. Rarity huffed and trotted over to their room’s center table. Someone had put up a steaming washbasin and folded cloth.

“Do you know, Rainbow Dash, you kick like a mule in your sleep,” Rarity said, rubbing at the side of her barrel. She pinned Dash with a frown that rapidly softened. “Troubled dreams, dear?”

“Huh? Of course not.” Dash blinked in confusion and tossed the blankets onto the bed with a flick of her head. She nodded her thanks to Fluttershy, too. “What’s that?”

“Supplies for cleaning ourselves, what else?” Rarity asked.

“Could just use a raincloud,” Dash retorted with a shrug, rubbing at her eyes with a leg.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of those here,” Fluttershy said, grabbing one of the washcloths in her mouth. Rainbow Dash did the same, quickly cleaning what parts of herself she could reach, taking extra care with the wings. Satisfied, she trotted over to the window and stuck her head outside, craning her neck to look up.

“I really wish we had more water,” Fluttershy said behind her.

Rarity hummed in question. “What do you mean?”

Not many clouds today, either, Dash noted. Only on the horizon, far far away, could she see any cloudstuff at all, and it was a huge, unruly bank. It trailed off near the edges, wispy and uncontrolled, even more indistinct than the clouds over the Everfree.

“Well, without magic, it’s a little hard to wash your own face without soaking it, and I don’t want to ruin the water for you,” Fluttershy said.

“Oh. Of course, dear. Here, let me help you.”

Dash scratched the side of her head against the windowsill. Even pegasi would struggle to make rain-clouds here if the only water they had was salty seawater. She hadn’t seen any freshwater lakes coming in, at least. Rainbow Dash turned around to find Rarity levitating a washcloth, scrubbing at Fluttershy’s face. The other pegasus’s eyes were tightly closed, her legs braced against the hygienic assault.

“Don’t they have cloud magic?” Dash asked.

Fluttershy turned towards her and popped an eye open. Rarity went to work on her ears, and Dash had to hold back a giggle. It looked like Fluttershy had second thoughts about asking Rarity’s help.

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy said, “but they did say that they got tired flying in the heat, so maybe not?”

Rainbow Dash blinked at the non-answer.

Fluttershy turned the other side of her head to Rarity. She gave Dash a helpless look. ”They have unicorn magic. Or, well, something like it. Maybe that means they don’t have what Twilight calls pegasus magic?”

“Be that as it may,” Rarity said, leaning back and nodding in satisfaction before she put the washcloth down. “It’d be very rude to ask in case they don’t, in fact, have ‘pegasus magic’.”

Dash dipped her face in the washbasin and shook her head quickly, spraying water all over her friends. Clean and wet as a rainstorm. She grinned at the look Rarity gave her. “All ready for the party!”

Rarity sighed and grabbed the remaining clean washcloth, drying herself off. Satisfied, she levitated over two outfits from the far beds. Fluttershy gave a little gasp, and Dash whistled low under her breath.

“I’m afraid it’s the best I could do on such short notice, but I made some alterations after you went to bed,” Rarity said, though she did a terrible job at concealing her pleasure as she hovered them in front of the pegasi.

“For Fluttershy, a vest and a dress saddle. I changed my mind on the colours. Green and white matches you better,” said the unicorn with a firm nod. “Rainbow Dash, I shortened the flared royal purple dress I made for you. I thought you might both appreciate the simplicity, and I did not have time to play around with sequins like I had planned.”

“Hey, I see wing-holes that weren’t there yesterday, I’m happy,” Dash said, grinning.

“They’re beautiful,” Fluttershy said, running a hoof along the fabric of the vest Rarity had made for her.

Rarity smiled bright, three long and colourful scarves flying across the air from one of the beds. At first she thought they were the Perytonian scarves, but though they were the same green, red, blue and purple, the colours were more vivid and wound around each other, like a rainbow given a twist.

“I had a little time to spare,” Rarity explained. “I made some scarves of my own design using their colours. In all honesty, they clash with the dresses, but they are a concession to their own style.”

Fluttershy smiled. “That’s a very nice thought. I’m sorry you didn’t have time to make a dress for yourself.”

“Alas,” Rarity said with a theatrical sigh. “Some sacrifices had to be made. Besides, this isn’t really about me, is it? It is not even about you two, it is about showing the peryton the wonders of Equestrian fashion, of good design.” She unbuttoned Fluttershy’s vest and waved the yellow pegasus closer, helping her into it. A minute later, Rainbow Dash experimentally swished her tail, watching the hock-length dress flow left and right. Rarity busied herself cleaning up and organising her supplies in silence.

A silence that was off, somehow, and Rainbow Dash knew why.

Fluttershy was quiet. That was her nature, part of who she was, but Dash had long since clued in to the immense variety of silences her friend could produce. She looked over to find Fluttershy looking at her own outfit, then out the window, next out the door—her eyes flitted about the place, and her jaw was the tiniest bit more taut than it should be.

“What’s up? You okay?” The words were spoken before Dash had thought them. They’d come out very quiet, but it was still enough to startle Fluttershy stiff.

“Oh. Um, sure,” Fluttershy said, but she deflated a second later, giving Dash an appreciative smile. “I don’t know. I thought the idea of going to the festival sounded great, and I am sure it will be ever so nice—and it would disappoint Khaird if we didn’t go.”

“But?” Dash asked, tilting her head.

Fluttershy opened her mouth, then closed it again, hesitating. Dash was just about to repeat herself when the other pegasus found her words. “I’m not sure I like the idea of sticking out like this.”

“Stage fright, darling?” Rarity asked, joining them by the table again. She shook her head a tiny bit and smiled, reaching out to lay a hoof on Fluttershy’s withers. “We both knew that you weren’t very comfortable modelling, and if you don’t want to wear the outfit I made, I understand. I’ll be a little disappointed, but it’s not important compared—”

“Oh, no no,” Fluttershy rushed to say. “It’s not that, or, um, well, not just that. The outfit is fine. It’s wonderful, but we’re the only ponies here, that’s all.”

“Well, that is certainly true,” Rarity said, chewing her cheek for a second. “Khaird himself seemed delightful, though, and our hostess here, Ligilia, she’s given us no trouble either. There is no reason to believe that the others here are any different—and I’ve changed my mind,” she added, unwinding the scarves about all of their necks in no time at all, fetching the Ortosian scarves instead. “It would be rude not to wear the scarves that they’ve made for us, I feel.”

Fluttershy nodded once, slowly. Rainbow Dash stretched her hindlegs, then her forelegs, and finally gave a stifled yawn.

“You’ll be fine,” Dash said, bumping her flank into Fluttershy. She stuck her head inside the tangled mess of her scarf and tried to make it look intentionally unintentionally cool. “Besides, we’ll all be there.”

That had an effect, at least. Fluttershy looked at Rainbow Dash and the tension in her body lessened, if only a tiny bit. It’d be enough for now, Dash knew. She gave her friend a lopsided smile that said it’d be alright, and Fluttershy nodded once more, smiling back.