• Published 26th Aug 2017
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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 3

Day 5

Day 1

Bringing no erasers for my charcoals was a mistake

I think I must always do my best work when under pressure. I have outdone myself again, of that, there is no doubt. Quick notes for the future: Using multiple makes of silk around the stitch of a hole allowing for a wing is surprisingly unproblematic, and I think I may give sequins a rest this season.

I’ve made these two particular dresses for a purpose, of course, but after that long airship ride, simply creating them has been a delight. While I naturally hope they are well received, I regret not a single hour of time spent on them.

Also, the peryton have been lovely so far. I’ll have to write on that later, but we’re waiting for our host right now and I do not wish to commit to a longer journal entry.

In case I forget: Write more about their architecture. Orto is proof that Canterlotian elegance and curvature (dare I say it is even more stunning?) can in fact be married to staggering openness without sacrificing a sense of the urbane.


The sun rose at the same time as it did anywhere, Dash figured, but “at sunrise” apparently didn’t mean the same thing in Perytonia as it did in Equestria. If Applejack asked Dash’s help with something at sunrise, that meant “when the sun rose.”

Not that Dash would show up, of course. To Rainbow Dash, the sunrise was mostly just something she assumed happened, happily sleeping through this mythical event on principle.

Whatever the case, when Khaird did not show up within the next half-hour, the three ponies asked their hostess if breakfast was an option, and Ligilia swiftly found some more of the kelp cakes and fresh water for them. They were halfway through their meal—and Dash halfway through destroying Rarity’s sanity by refusing to take the dress off while she ate—when Khaird appeared in the doorway, wearing a single strange saddlebag wrapped around the base of his neck, and a scarf to match theirs.

“Come!” he said. “There is much to do, and much for you to see.”

The peryton smiled as genially as ever and said little until they reached the street. The city was far busier now than it had been yesterday; a din of chatter, trills, caws and other strange sounds filled the air, and if the packed streets resembled anything Dash knew, it had to be Canterlot during the lunch rush. The way Twilight had once described it to Dash, anyway, except as a sea of large winged and antlered creatures rather than ponies of all kinds.

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were the only ones who wore anything that answered to the description of “clothes”, and Dash wouldn’t have given it a second thought if she hadn’t been in a dress herself. Many of the peryton wore identical scarves, and some wore woven lime green bands on one of their forelegs, all adding to the riot of colours. Khaird’s explanation of stags and does became useless with every single peryton dyed in bright reds, yellows, greens and more. Some of the smallest children looked like they’d rolled around in a rainbow condenser, and the stones of the streets were discoloured with dye powder.

“I hope you have slept well?” Khaird asked, “Or does travel to a far-away place make sleep hard to come by? I have a lamentable lack of experience with it.”

Dash could barely tear her eyes off all the people. She affected a weak shrug, barely looking up, and Fluttershy said nothing. Rarity cleared her throat. “We slept. The one thing I think we can agree is that the climate here is not the kindest to us. It gets rather cold at night, does it not?”

“I understand the heat and cold are both greater than in your Equestria,” Khaird said, pointing one of his forehooves down the street to set them moving in the same direction as the majority of the peryton. “I did some reading before bed, you see, and found an account gifted to us by a traveller who spoke of the demesne of your Equestria. You may find the hours around sunrise and sunset are the kindest to all,”

“It is a little more pleasant right now,” Fluttershy said. “And, um, a lot more people.”

“Well, duh. It’s a party,” Dash said with a grin.

“It is not a party, it is a festival,” Rarity corrected her. She sounded like she thought she was correcting Dash, at least, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t quite so sure. She looked up at their guide.

“Hey, what’s this party or festival or whatever actually about anyway?” Dash asked. “You said it was Myrrelli or something? What is that?” For a second, she wished Twilight was here. She’d have flipped open a book and told her so Dash didn’t have to sound like she didn’t have a clue.

“Myrtella is one of the forty-nine Aspects,” Khaird said.

“And?” Dash asked when he had been silent for a few seconds, but Khaird simply smiled, glancing down at the smaller pony as they walked.

“One moment. Your question is nearly perfectly timed,” the peryton said. “Hold on to that thought, and you will be shown. You will see.”

What they saw, Dash wasn’t sure of right away. The city of Orto was more orderly than any Equestrian city Dash had ever seen. However far they walked, the roads were always straight and broad. The occasional cart passed through the crowds without trouble, and their city blocks weren’t really blocks, owing to the lack of tall buildings. Even central Ponyville felt cramped by comparison.

Recognising this order was hard with the chaos of the crowds, though. A huge line of peryton danced past them in a snake formation, each of them biting onto the tail-feathers of the person in front. Rainbow Dash swished her tail against her skirt in tune to their movement and the faint drums she couldn’t see.

“Where are we going?” Rarity asked, her voice raised against the noise. “Is there somewhere to sit? A café at the edge of this festival while we get our bearings, perhaps?”

“This is not the festival,” Khaird replied, cawing. “This is an attempt to get to the festival. Have only a little patience, I beg.”

There was entirely too much going on for Dash to be bored for even one second. Everything stood out, and thus, nothing stood out—except for one building-less city block. The busy street became busier by the second, soon a press of feathers and flanks, and then they were through, dumped right onto a massive empty square.

Well, empty of buildings, anyway. From all the corners of the huge open space, more and more peryton flocked to the place, and there was space to spare for all of them. If not for the gentle slope and the subtly tiered steps, Dash wouldn’t see a thing for all the people.

In the very center, at the lowest tier, stood grey-white stones that described an area easily the size of Ponyville’s village square, and the stone slabs themselves were large enough not to disappear in the vastness of the surrounding plaza. From the monoliths hung flower wreaths, colourful cloth and… grain? Dash couldn’t tell for sure. A group of peryton passed in front of them, blocking her view, and more filed in past them.

“Wow. Pinkie would’ve loved to see this,” said Dash. Rarity stared blankly for a second, and Fluttershy muttered the tiniest little oh my goodness under her breath, almost entirely drowned out by a dozen different kinds of music from around the square. Five peryton dancing in a circle passed them by, wingtips touching as they spun and cawed in concert like ponies would laugh.

Khaird’s eyes were on the center square within the plaza, but though he faced away from her, Dash could hear the smile in his voice.

“The forty-nine Aspects each have their own stele—stones—in Orto and elsewhere, their own carvings and depictions, their own stories. Forty-nine exalted expressions of life as lived under the sky and on soil, of thought and of ways of being. This week, we celebrate Myrtella, whose stories are told most often in Orto. She is the favoured Aspect of Orto, if such can be said.” Khaird nodded towards the center square again.

One particular stone stood out, more peryton gathered around it than any other. Some danced by hopping from forehoof to hind-claw, others simply walked past the stone, reaching out to touch it with a wing. This one monolith almost disappeared beneath silken scarves and other decorations.

“She is the Aspect of fertility, of birth and all forms of love, or growth and harvest,” Khaird continued. “In her stories, we come together, no matter who we are.”

“Okay, cool,” Dash said, though she hadn’t quite decided on that. It depended on how mushy the ‘love’ part was. “That’s a stone, though.”

“That is a stone dedicated to her, yes,” said Khaird, nodding.

“I think she sounds lovely,” said Fluttershy, smiling back at him.

“I don’t suppose there is a chance we’ll get to meet her?” Rarity asked.

“Ah, she is not here,” Khaird said, furrowing his brow. “She is… a metaphor, of sorts.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “So she’s not real?”

“Oh, she’s very real,” Khaird clucked, but his laughter petered out when none of the ponies laughed along. Or maybe it was the fact that Dash kept staring at him, waiting for a proper explanation.

“Metaphor might be the wrong word,” Khaird said, clearing his throat. “I do not know how to adequately explain. I am neither story-teller nor claw-priest. I apologise if this does not answer your question.” He tilted his head. “A compromise, then. If you still find yourself frustrated later under this sun, I will try again, but for now, perhaps you should ask others if you are curious. It would be a sad sun’s journey if you travelled all this way to listen to a single voice. Twice the tragedy if that single voice was my own inelegant croaking.”

Rarity took a step in front of Rainbow Dash and nodded her agreement. “I think that sounds wonderful. Now, what does one do at your festivals? What would we do if we wished to join in the—” she cast a broad glance at the movement around them “—festivities?”

“Games!” Khaird said, his smile returning in an instant, and Dash grinned at the word. “Games, dances, songs, and a chance to speak to and meet new people. Friendships and love! These are the best eight suns of the season. I will leave you for now to let you make new friends, unless you protest, and see you back at the Home this evening after sundown. We will have stories to share!”

With farewells exchanged, Khaird dipped his head and turned, walking towards the circle of stones in the centre with a spring in his step.

“Okay, I’m down with that,” Dash declared. “Most of that.” She craned her neck, and now that she knew what she was looking for, less overwhelmed by the size of the place, she could better see what was going on at the plaza. Rather than a disorganised mess of infinite peryton aimlessly chatting and dancing, there were groups near the edges of the festival field who were definitely engaged in games of some sort, and a middle ring halfway to the inner square was dedicated to large tables laden with a variety of foods. Or at least, so she assumed. It was hard to tell at this distance.

Dancing happened all over the place, but nowhere quite so crazy as in the very center, inside the stone square. There must be over a hundred peryton hopping about the place, and for a moment, Rainbow Dash was certain she caught a glimpse of a zebra, quickly lost in the madness of the dance, and some other creature with a long neck disappeared around one of the stele-stones. On the far side, she could barely make out stalls that looked like a farmer’s market to her.

Dash was just about to suggest that they head to one of the corners when she realised Fluttershy and Rarity were mid-conversation.

“—attention,” Rarity said. Dash stepped a little closer to be able to actually hear them amidst the ruckus.

“Well, no one else is wearing any clothes, but no one else is a pony, either,” Fluttershy replied.

“What’s up?” Dash asked.

“I was just saying that I do hope some of them notice your wonderful dresses,” Rarity said, turning away for a second to smile at a curious peryton who stood a few paces away, looking straight at them. “I did not expect such a, ah, complete vacuum of fashion. Khaird didn’t even comment upon what you wear.”

“Huh, I guess not,” said Dash, shrugging. “Whatever. I’m sure they’ll love it, but what do you wanna do?”

“Perhaps we could find something to eat?” Rarity suggested.

“Uh, we just had breakfast,” Dash said.

You had breakfast,” said Rarity with a huff. “I was not very fond of those kelp cakes.”

“I’m sure they were very good kelp cakes,” Fluttershy said, though the tiny frown she wore was grave condemnation. “But I would like to see what else they have, if that’s okay—oh, uh, hello.” She smiled at another one of the peryton, this one stepping up to do the weird neck-bow in greeting to them. The colourful peryton turned his head sideways and smiled back showing all his teeth, whilst briefly spreading his wings dyed in a variety of colours.

“I am pleased to greet you. You must have travelled far. Would you tell me, what manner of creatures are you?” he asked, while another one stepped up to stand at his side. Rarity nodded her greetings in return.

“We’re ponies from Equestria, a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, hi,” said Dash, offering the newcomers a quick wave before she turned back to her friends. “Actually, let’s just split up. You get your food or whatever, I’m gonna go see what they do for sport.”

“Excuse me a moment,” said Rarity, flashing a smile at the peryton while she turned her attention to her friends. “If that’s alright with you, Fluttershy, I don’t mind.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No, that’s fine.”

“Alright. Catch you later,” Dash called, turning on the spot and breaking into a trot. She could find her friends easily enough if she needed to. For all the mess, there was a distinct lack of solid white-and-purple or yellow-and-pink peryton around. Besides, all the attention was weirding her out a little. Normally she’d be all for it, and hay, it was nice in a way, but it’d be better if she felt like she had earned that attention by winning at something other than being a pony-shaped cloud in an all peryton sky.

“So you run as fast as you can around the track, then throw the… ‘disc’,” Rainbow Dash repeated. “And you try to land it on the other disc-thingy? That’s it?” She could barely hear herself over the beating of the nearby drums, her ears bent in defence.

“Yes,” Aroris affirmed. The grey-brown doe stood a bit taller than Rainbow Dash, but she was small for a peryton. It didn’t stop her from getting the high score while Dash watched. The other games she’d seen either needed magic or favoured physical strength, and in that respect, Dash knew she was outmatched.

Here, a dozen painted peryton were gathered around a small circular arena made up by grass-bales, taking turns to try to throw a disc into the center of the arena. They threw the disc with their magic, but Dash knew she could win this without any fancy spells. It was almost like playing horseshoes, when you thought of it, and Aroris with her fancy red wingtips and blue-powdered muzzle ran the game. Because she was the top scorer? Dash didn’t get that part.

“Now, your score is the amount of circles you run in twenty beats, multiplied by the amount of circle-marks you cover on the center disc. More circles run, more points, but being dizzy makes it harder to throw. More circles covered by your disc? Also more points.” Aroris hovered the small wooden disc in front of Dash, and the pegasus grabbed it in her mouth. She got a few odd looks. Or, well. A lot of tilted heads and one yawn with a freakishly-long tongue.

“Mhf, got it. Fh’why it’ph called phircles,” Dash said. She gave her legs a good stretch and crouched low.

“Okay, twenty beats of the drums. Go!” Aroris called, her hoof making a clack against the stone, the drums picking up at her signal. Dash shot away like a bolt of greased—well, no. She shot away like only Rainbow Dash could, grinning madly as she ran right circles around the inner ring. With her right wing extended, she could tighten her turns and run as fast as she wanted to, a trick she’d learned long ago. She was vaguely aware of gasps, some thrills of laughter, and a lot of cheers around her as she went. The beating of the drum distorted slightly as she ran away from them, then towards them, then away again.

When they took their turns, the other peryton ran slowly around the circle at barely a jog. Most only made five laps, and they seemed to be holding back, pacing themselves. Dash was sure she could do fifteen laps. Maybe more. Maybe she’d already done fifteen laps. She lost count, banking herself into the endless turn around the circle.

It took effort not to drop the disc on reflex. It slowed her down, and holding on to it against the rushing wind hurt her teeth. Around and around she went until she swore she could see her own tail just ahead of her. Now she became keenly aware of how her dress and scarf were slowing her down, too. The scarf tugged at her neck.

“Four, three,” came Aroris’ voice, each count in tune with her hoof-steps and the drums. One more lap. Dash upped her speed, passing Aroris one last time.


Dash screeched to a halt. She flipped the disc from her mouth and onto her hindleg with expert precision. She was back at Sweet Apple Acres and she was tied four to four with Applejack. The loser had to do a chore of the winner’s choosing, and Applejack needed space in her winter cellar. The Disc landed on her left hindleg, wobbling, but Dash steadied it.


The disc was still, but now the world wobbled instead. Dash knew she overbalanced, knew that she’d fall. She kicked out just as Aroris called “stop!”. A split second later she was on her side, and the entire world spun around her, Rainbow Dash the only fixed point in existence, a ton of cheers and raucous laughter echoing in her ears. Dash would have cheered herself, but it was a fifty-fifty on that or being sick if she tried to speak. Instead, she covered her head with a leg and groaned. The laughter abated and someone stood over her.

“Are you okay?” Aroris asked. The game master span lazy circles around her head. Dash took a deep breath and nodded weakly, struggling to stand with the help of a slender leg.

“I’m fine,” she said, closing her eyes for a second. Assured that their visitor wouldn’t die, the small crowd redoubled their noise, and more peryton wandered over from nearby games to see what the fuss was about. Already Dash felt better; she had a lot of corkscrews in her aerial repertoire, and this was nothing compared. She grinned triumphantly as she peered into the center of the arena where her disc had hit the edge of the scoring target. She brushed off Aroris’ steadying hoof and smirked.

“New record, I bet.”

“Let’s see,” Aroris said, arching a brow. “The standing record is mine, one of six laps and a perfect hit, meaning six times the eight circles. That makes for forty-eight points.”

“Alright,” Dash said, nodding. “What’d I get?”

“You, crazy creature of wind and sound, ran seventeen laps,” the peryton said with a burst of cawing laughter. “And you hit the outermost circle alone, which is one, for seventeen points total. No, that is not a win.”

More laughter, dozens of trills and caws, strange sounds filling Dash’s ears. Her ear-tips heated up, and she lay them flat, swishing her tail in annoyance. “That’s a stupid game,” she announced, but she doubted anyone but Aroris heard her over the din.

“It is a new lap record. That, I will give you,” Aroris said, leaning down to nudge Dash in the side with her antlers.

“Yeah, well, I guess that’s something.” Dash gave her a tentative smile, and it only grew when the crowd stomped their hooves and claws by way of applause, a few bouncing up and down on the spot. She did a little bow and laughed. “What else do you do for fun?” she asked.

Aroris tilted her head at the question, then quirked a brow. If her smaller eyes made the gesture understated, the excitement plain in her voice made up the difference. “At festival? Everything. Come!”

The doe appointed one of the other peryton to lead their game and led Dash away to goodbyes, waves, and a few whistles, whatever those meant here. Once away from the edge of the plaza and their games, the press of peryton abated. Dash stopped and brushed at her dress with her wings. It was hardly ruined, but the fall had gotten it a bit dusty.

“Here in Orto, dances are a favourite pass-time,” Aroris said. “But I doubt you have missed that. How long have you been here, and where are you from?”

“We just got here yesterday from Equestria. Khaird’s been showing us around,” Dash replied, patting the dress. She’d gotten most of the dust away. Aroris didn’t even seem to acknowledge it anyway; maybe Rarity was the only one who’d notice. Or maybe the way the peryton doe flicked her ears when Dash looked at her was the way they showed annoyance?

“I think perhaps I heard that we were to expect visitors from such a place earlier in spring,” said Aroris. “If that is you, then this makes sense, though I have not heard of your city. What do you think of Orto so far?”

Dash followed Aroris centre-ward, thinking as they moved towards the great ring of food tables.

“It’s cool. I don’t get the whole thing about Myrtella and the other rocks, but I don’t care about that,” she admitted. “Weirdest thing for me is that you don’t fly.”

“We can fly,” Aroris said, glancing over her back.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dash said, waving a hoof. “But I mean, more. I fly all the time! Well, not right now,” she said, kicking off. Only when her hooves were in the air did she realise how long she’d been ground-bound. Captain Calm Seas’ words had stuck around far longer than they should have. She pulled a quick vertical loop on the spot, narrowly avoiding getting her clothes tangled in her wings, flying right up to hover in front of Aroris afterwards. “Like this! Just, you know, flying. For fun.”

Aroris stood stock-still and wide-eyed. “Glandros’ glory, wow.”

“What?” Dash asked, touching down again. “Was it the loop? Come on, I can do way better than that.” Idly, she ran a few routines through her head, wondering which one would work in a dress. She envied Fluttershy her vest.

“No. Yes,” Aroris said with something like a frown. She took a few steps back and glanced behind her, left then right. She shooed Dash back a few steps with a foreleg, and when Dash complied, Aroris spread her own wings.

Rainbow Dash immediately took another step back. She’d forgotten how big Khaird’s wings had been, and even the comparatively small peryton doe’s wings were easily twice the length of her own.

When Aroris took off, she kicked up dust with the blast of her first wingbeat. It took the doe many more strokes before she managed to lift off, scouring some of the green dye-powder from her short tail feathers, and once off the ground, she worked hard to keep moving. Aroris hung in the air for only a split-second before she forced herself forward, and Dash stared, speechless.

The peryton’s flaps were massive and slow compared to Rainbow Dash’s, and the pegasus rotated slowly on the spot as the peryton flew in a small circle around where they stood. Was that the tightest turn she could make? When she finally landed, she was breathing faster, clearly laboured.

“See? I knew you could fly!” Dash said. She tried to sound impressed, and she was glad that the peryton had at least one doe who had the same instinct as she did—of rising to a challenge. Aroris’ toothy smile was short-lived, though.

“Yes, and I know you knew that, but what you did, I can’t do,” she said. “Well, I could try if I gained some height first, and not in this heat, but… forgive me, but please, could you spread your wings?”

Dash flared her wings so fast she nearly sprained a muscle, stretching her neck out too for good measure.

“Are all of your kind, ‘ponies’, like you?” Aroris asked, leaning in closer. Her snout was nearly close enough to touch her wings, and the wonder in her voice made Dash’s grin painfully wide.

“Most ponies aren’t half as cool as I am, no. Almost all pegasi can fly though.” Dash folded her wings and tried to swallow the tail-eating smile she knew she wore. “Even the less confident fliers are far better than—” she stopped herself. “Than they give themselves credit for,” she finished, lamely. She’d nearly said “better than you”. The train of thought soured quickly.

“I have never seen anything quite like it!” Aroris said, beaming. Apparently she was a very close talker. “I hope that more of you will come visit Orto.”

The admiration she was heaping on Dash felt less amazing than she’d thought. Dash simply nodded along, distracted by that last word. She began moving towards the food tables again—if that was where Aroris had them moving—ignoring the curious looks their little flying escapades had gotten. “Yeah, thanks. What’s so special about Orto? You keep talking about it. Don’t you like Cotronna?”

Aroris blinked. “That… is a curious question. What is special about Orto? Look around you! The Festival of Myrtella is a good place to start, no? And why would I—we—not ‘like’ Cotronna?”

Dash shrugged, wending her way around and between small groups of peryton. Some bowed or smiled politely at her. “I don’t know. Khaird kept talking about Orto, too, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say anything about what Perytonia is like. It’s all about this city with you guys.”

“Perytonia itself is not like anything. I know what Orto is like,” Aroris said without skipping a beat. She angled herself to walk a little closer to Dash, flicking her tail-feathers.

Rainbow Dash tried to make sense of that, imagining what it would be like if someone said they didn’t live in Equestria, they lived in Ponyville. Ponyville was in Equestria. If you talked about holidays or the Princesses, telling someone what Ponyville was like, was telling someone what Equestria was like.

“So, you all have this festival? There are other cities, right? They celebrate this too, just like Summer Sun Celebration and Hearth’s warming? ‘Cause we all have those.” Dash asked, a little distracted now. She honestly grew bored of her own questions, and was that Rarity up ahead? She thought she saw a familiar curl of tail made from hairs rather than feathers.

Aroris smiled still. “I do not know who celebrates the Myrtellan festival. I doubt it. Not Stagrum. Perhaps Vauhorn? As I say, I know Orto, and I have never visited another city.”

“You don’t know?” Dash asked, cocking a brow. The question came out a little sharper than she’d intended. Maybe this was like somepony asking Rainbow Dash about crazy customs in some tiny village in the far southeast of Equestria.

“I do not know,” came the repeated answer. “If you want to discuss more of… what it is we are discussing, I would be happy to do so, of course,” Aroris continued, sounding a little unsure. “But, my home is not very far away. We could move this there. It is a little more private.”

Yep, that was definitely Rarity over by the food tables—but no Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash’s ears wilted and her wings tensed the tiniest bit. She knew first-hoof that all these peryton were friendly, and she knew that Fluttershy could handle herself. She’d always known that.

“Very, very private, if you take my meaning,” Aroris said, clearing her throat. She leaned closer, her flank brushing against Dash’s.

Well. That was a lie. She hadn’t always. Rainbow Dash shoved away the stupid memories of a time when she hadn’t thought Fluttershy capable. She stuffed them away and gave them a kick for good measure. No, she wasn’t worried about Fluttershy now, she knew that was true, but still she wondered where she’d gone off to.

“One would expect it to be just you and I...” Aroris said, voice trailing off as she leaned around to stare at Rainbow Dash’s forelegs for some reason. “Have I misread you? Did you lose your—”

“Hey, listen, I gotta go, it was super cool to meet you, Aroris,” Dash said, reaching out to give Aroris a quick hug around the neck, which startled the peryton stiff. “But uh, yeah. I’ll see you around. Come by Ponyville any time or something, I gotta scoot!”

“I see,” Aroris said. “Alright, yes, ‘cool’. Nice meeting you! Tell your home city I said ‘hi’!” she called after Dash, but Dash was already in the air, covering the distance over to Rarity in three quick wingbeats, landing next to a unicorn engaged in a deep discussion with a gaggle of peryton of assorted colours and sizes.

“You see, I was under the impression it was primarily a harvest festival,” said Rarity. She hovered a glass bowl of some drink or other at her side.

Dash trotted up to her and prodded her flank. Rarity made a small noise and gave Rainbow Dash an indignant look, but did not turn.

“That, it is, too,” one of the short-tailed ones said, nodding. “And the ‘fertility’ part of Myrtella has been deprecated lately. For most, it is an excuse to socialise and meet with others who may take an interest in your person.”

“Ah,” Rarity said, chuckling. “Well. That is fascinating. And you wear these bands to show that you are taken, so to say? That’s very—”

“Yeah, fascinating,” Dash said. “Hey, Rarity—”

“Oh, yes!” Rarity said, finally turning to Rainbow Dash. Or, rather, she turned to Rainbow Dash’s dress, levitating up the back-part to show off the fabric. Rainbow Dash dropped her tail and her ears both.

“Your silken scarves are very lovely, I must say, as is your choice of colours,” Rarity said, gesturing at the assembled peryton. Nearly all of them wore the four-coloured silken wraps. “And for that reason, I chose to use a similar, deep purple silk for this dress I designed. I understand you are not familiar with Equestrian fashion?”

The does and stags shook their heads. A few raised a brow or tilted a head in query, but none did more than give Dash a politely curious look—which they were doing anyways, dress or no.

“Rarity! Where’s Fluttershy?” Dash asked, her voice bordering on a growl.

“And—wait, she’s not with you?” Rarity took a step to the side as though she expected to find Fluttershy hiding behind Dash’s tail. “She said she was going to find you. I suppose she must’ve found something else to preoccupy her.” Rarity frowned. “Well, I’ll help—”

“Nah, I got it,” Dash said. She was off the ground again in half an instant, hovering above the crowd. Now they really paid attention to her, but Dash didn’t really see the peryton. She looked through them, looked for gaps and everything not one of the local stags and does. It took her less than a minute to spot familiar colours a short distance away, a soft pink and yellow further towards the edge of the festival area.

Fluttershy stood in the company of a group of peryton. The tension that’d started started building in Dash’s body was gone in an instant. She let out a deep breath and sailed towards them, landing nearby to shake out her wings and legs while she closed in.

Even a few short bursts of flight had her panting in the heat. She’d have to ask if Fluttershy had tried flying here, but she seemed plenty busy, the taller pegasus mare smiling at the peryton, speaking too softly for Dash to hear. The peryton gave a round of chaotic warbles and sharp caws in response.

“What a delight, this is. And this mane of yours, it looks wonderful,” one of the peryton said. With coloured wings and tail both, Dash couldn’t tell if it was a stag or a doe, but they leaned a little closer to Fluttershy. “Such a luxurious thing, and so gentle in colour.”

“Um, thank you, really,” Fluttershy replied. Another one stepped forward, this one with a shorter tail. A stag, maybe? He bowed deeply and stepped his body in front of the speaker, saying something Dash didn’t quite catch, and Fluttershy giggled.

Dash couldn’t hold back a private little grin. Fluttershy hadn’t seen her yet, but Dash gave her a hoof-pump all the same. If what she’d just heard was right, and this festival was all about hooking up, Fluttershy was having great success in that department. These weren’t bad looking peryton, either.

“It is curious and wonderful to meet one of a different kind,” said another. “I would be delighted to make your acquaintance.”

Well. At least Dash didn’t think they were bad looking, but she didn’t really know what to look for in a peryton. Fluttershy might know something she didn’t. She’d been the one to go on about feather colours and all that. Maybe she thought these does and stags were perfect for her. Go Fluttershy. She was still smiling and laughing, drawing back a half-step to give the peryton a little more space as she did so.

Still smiling. In an instant, the tension Dash had shed returned with a vengeance. Her wings were half-spread of their own accord, and her ears painfully stiff.

Rainbow Dash sped up, walking straight between two members of the little half-circle formed around Fluttershy. She ignored the soft squawks of protest as she squeezed her way through a gap that didn’t exist, brushing past them while Fluttershy nodded along with whatever some other peryton said.

“‘Scuse me, coming through!” Dash said. She strode straight up to stand in front of Fluttershy, drawing herself up to her full height for what little good that did. She was the shortest thing around. “Oh, hey, there you are!” she said, feigning complete surprise. “Rarity said you were looking for me?”

She drew a few curious looks, and one of the stags gave her the stink-eye, but that might’ve been because she stepped on his claw or hoof or whatever.

“Rainbow Dash, oh, hello,” Fluttershy said. They were simple enough words, but in their wake came a long, noiseless exhale. Even from the front, Dash could tell Fluttershy’s wings were no longer jammed to her sides quite as hard.

“Another! You are… friends?” one of the peryton asked. Rainbow Dash had been in Canterlot enough—meaning more than once—to tell when someone feigned polite disinterest. She’d also known Fluttershy long enough to spot a split-second imploring look from her friend.

Without thinking, Rainbow Dash whirled around to stand side to side with Fluttershy. As an afterthought, she lay a wing over Fluttershy’s back as well, pulling her a little closer. The other mare gave a startled squeak.

“Friends? Nah, I’m with her. We’re an item, a thing. Girlfriends and everything. Why?” she asked, tossing her mane back.

“Ah,” the speaking peryton said, but two others smiled and dipped their heads in greetings, obviously not taking the hint.

“So, she’s mine, and I’m hers and all that stuff, however it goes. All mine, and you should probably move along or something,” Dash added, tapping a hoof on the ground.

“You will forgive my mistake, I am sure,” said the same peryton, nodding and taking a step back.

“Yeah, sure,” Dash said, smiling wide as she gave Fluttershy another tug with her wing. Fluttershy said nothing, seeking refuge behind her mane. One by one, in the resulting silence, the assembled peryton started drifting away, excepting a few stragglers who stayed behind to try to strike up a conversation with the two pegasi.

Where were they from? What did they think of Orto? Did they enjoy the festival? It took Dash a minute of monosyllabics and a painted smile to lose them, and when the last of the peryton had left with a farewell and one of those curious bows that lay his muzzle along his neck, Fluttershy gave a shuddering sigh that Rainbow Dash felt against the side of her body. Dash let go of her and stepped in front again, looking her friend in the eye.

“You good?” she asked.

“Mhm,” Fluttershy hummed, but she took another few breaths with her eyes closed before she seemed right again. Her smile was no longer wooden, and her wings no longer threatened to crush her sides. She probably had a bunch of feathers out of alignment again. Rainbow Dash sighed inwardly at that.

“I’m sorry,” Fluttershy said at length. “I was going to come see you, but, um, well. They’re all very nice, they didn’t do anything wrong, and I wasn’t really scared, but—”

“I know,” said Dash, cutting her off because she did.

Fluttershy, for her part, glanced about and shrank back the tiniest bit from the general attention they still got from every passer-by. There was always some peryton at the edge of vision who stopped nearby and looked like they wanted to strike up a conversation. Dash didn’t mind, of course, but she knew Fluttershy did.

“Apparently,” Fluttershy said, glancing back at her own flank, then down at her forehooves. “Butterflies are a symbol of love here in Orto, and they really like meeting new people. They’ve been very, um… They’ve been very glad to talk to me since we got here.”

“Yeah, I saw,” Dash said. She didn’t know what else to say.

“You did not show you were taken,” a vaguely familiar voice said. Fluttershy disappeared behind her bangs again, but Dash perked up when Aroris walked up to them, carrying a bowl of drink in the grip of her magic. At her side walked a riotously colourful peryton with excessively dyed wings.

“Oh, hey again Aroris. Sorry I had to run,” Dash said. “What’s up?”

“We were on our way away from the festival grounds when we spotted a visitor flying overhead, and that warranted investigation, that is all,” said Aroris with a grin. “But, truly, you did not show you were taken.” She held up a foreleg, around which she wore a thin band of crude green cloth. The stag at her side did the same, nodding his greetings at the same time.

“Okay, I don’t know what that even means,” Dash admitted with a helpless shrug.

“It means that if you already have someone—forever or for the this sun only—and are not looking for more, you wear one of these bands, as Thylis and I now do,” Aroris said. She cocked her head sideways. “And it was my mistake for assuming visitors would understand this without being told. I apologise.”

“Oh,” Dash said while thinking, then “Oh!” again when she actually realised what Aroris had said. Suddenly, the memory of Aroris brushing up against her and the doe’s breath on her wing feathers took on a very different tone. Dash’s cheeks heated up. “Right. Uh, hey, no harm no foul, right? Yeah, I totally didn’t realise, sorry. You two have a great time!”

“No harm,” Aroris repeated with a smile, both her and her companion tilting their heads forward before they turned and walked away close together. Only when they had left did Fluttershy clear her throat and speak up.

“Friends of yours? They seemed nice.”

“Something like that,” Dash said, sure she still blushed. “Uh, you know, now that I know what this festival is actually about, it’s kinda weird.”

Fluttershy giggled. “Oh, I think it’s wonderful. So many pon—um, well. So many people in love, and looking for love.” She looked around, and clearly meant it, but in the end she looked to Rainbow Dash, and that smile faded a little bit. “I just wish they didn’t look at me quite as much.”

“Oh no,” Dash said, rolling her eyes and laughing. “They really like you. That’s terrible, Fluttershy.” Fluttershy didn’t look very happy with that. Rainbow Dash was trying to decide whether to laugh it off or apologise when something more important struck her. “Wait. Why don’t you, anyway?”

“Why don’t I what?” Fluttershy asked.

“I’m sure you could find some nice and quiet stag or doe or whatever to chat with, someone who could tell the others to back off, y’know?” Dash tilted her head. “Why don’t you?”

“Well… Because I don’t really want to,” Fluttershy said, adjusting her dress saddle with a push.

“Yeah, but why?” Dash asked. The thought was oddly pervasive. The idea of Fluttershy chatting up someone, and someone thinking Fluttershy was really cool, understanding how awesome she was. That last bit in particular was hard to shake.

“Um, because I don’t want to,” Fluttershy repeated. Dash opened her mouth to protest, but she’d heard the sliver of iron in Fluttershy’s voice, the no that she wondered why others often couldn’t hear.

“Okay,” Dash said. She started moving in some random direction, any direction at all, pausing only to make sure that Fluttershy followed. “But hey, does that mean you wouldn’t date even one of the Wonderbolts? Not even Soarin’? Or Spitfire?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Fluttershy said. She gave a soft giggle as she began moving, but it was short-lived. “Um, Rainbow Dash? Do you think we could get a pair of those bracelets?”

“What, the we’re-dating-and-I’m-taken things? Why?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Maybe if they see that we’re taken, and if we’re together, they’ll stop… looking at me as much? And maybe stop talking at me all at once?” Fluttershy hung her head. “I never even got to the other side of the festival to see the farmers market, but I think I’ve had enough festival for one day, now. It’s barely mid-day, and Khaird wasn’t going to meet us until later.” Fluttershy came to a stop, and Rainbow Dash sighed, puffing out her cheeks.

“But that means they’re just going to ignore me,” Dash said, painfully aware of the whine that crept into her voice. “That’s no fun at all! And I kinda want to go see what other games they have, too.”

Fluttershy didn’t protest, nor did she complain, or even give Rainbow Dash a sad look. She simply nodded. “That’s okay. I’m sure I can just get one of the bracelets, and they’ll probably respect that.”

She’d even given Rainbow Dash an easy way out. A free pass to talk to any of the thousands of peryton here. Sure, she didn’t know what exactly she’d do or say, but it’d be awesome to see if they could really fly. Maybe she’d find some like-minded fliers to hang out with. If they were all as easily impressed by a few loops as Aroris had been, she could have the plaza cheering her on within the hour. They’d probably leave Fluttershy alone anyway, and a few friendly peryton wouldn’t hurt anyone.

But it was still up to Dash whether or not to leave Fluttershy hanging, and that made it a complete non-decision. She closed her eyes for a second, entertained the image of the biggest crowd she had ever drawn, a roar of weird peryton noises as she threw off her dress and launched into the craziest stunt routine of her life.

“Let’s go get some bracelets,” Dash said. “I think I saw some freaky birds in a pen on the other side. Let’s check those out, I just need some food first.” She only had to force the smile for long enough to Fluttershy to light up, and at that point, it stuck around by itself. Maybe she could still persuade Fluttershy to chat up one of the peryton? Probably not. That idea wasn’t quite as appealing as it had been five minutes ago.

“Thank you for staying with me. It was a very nice thing to do,” Fluttershy said.

Dash didn’t bother replying. She just waved a foreleg to acknowledge it and flashed her friend a lopsided grin. Fluttershy had already thanked her twice. Besides, as much as she didn’t want to admit it, the weird geese were way cooler—and less hostile—than Equestrian geese. It wasn’t a complete waste of time. She finished off her fruit treat, chewing noisily.

“Hey, there’s Rarity,” Dash said, and she was glad of it. When the sun crept close to the horizon, Dash had flown over to tell her that they were leaving, and the two pegasi had waited at the entrance forever since then. Or for five minutes. Peryton trickled out of the plaza at a slow and steady rate, but just as many flocked to the festival. Torches were being lit, more lights springing up every second.

“Hey, Rarity!” Dash called, waving. “Over here!”

“Oh, there you are!” Rarity upped her pace a bit, still waving and smiling at peryton as she passed them by, clearly enjoying the attention, but when she got close to Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, her focus was on them and them alone. She grabbed the two ponies in a tight hug and bumped snouts with Fluttershy.

“Darling, please do forgive me, I did not mean to abandon you!”

“Oh, it is no problem at all. You didn’t abandon me, I was the one who left,” Fluttershy said, but Rarity let go of Dash, hugging Fluttershy tighter around the neck with a foreleg.

“Nonsense. I will apologise, and you must accept, please do,” Rarity insisted. Dash shook her head and looked away. Rarity looked truly distressed, and Fluttershy was fine. She’d be fine even if Rainbow Dash hadn’t gone after her.

“That’s okay, apology accepted, then,” Fluttershy said, nodding in earnest. “If it really means that much to you.”

“Yes it does, and good, thank you very much, dear,” said Rarity, sighing in relief. She pointedly looked left, then right. “Shall we be away, then? I don’t suppose either of you remember the way back? Ah, never mind, I remember. This is where we came in.”

Dash shrugged and followed in Rarity’s wake. If the unicorn didn’t ask, Rainbow Dash could pretend she knew where they were. The darkness settled around them as they walked along the unfamiliar streets and lanes, and by the time they returned to the Home of the Heavenly Song, braziers were lit along the streets. They didn’t do much to light up the city.

Then again, there wasn’t much need for it in a place where everyone knew magic, Dash supposed, and most of them did as Rarity, the unicorn lighting the way for her friends while happily regaling them with her doings at the festival. Apparently she’d ended up dancing in the very center of the plaza at one point, but mostly, she expressed frustration at how little the peryton seemed to care about the idea of fashion.

“Now, I understand that clothes would need to be fit for purpose here, due to this heat—” Rarity said as they passed through the darkened garden that made up the front half of the House. Now Dash recognised the stone sculptures that dominated a full quarter of the garden as a miniature version of the stele field at the plaza.

“And cold,” Dash interjected. A tiny gust of wind carried with it a chill, and it wasn’t much warmer inside the Home.

“—but there are fabrics for warmth and there are fabrics to keep cool, it is not a complicated concept. Their scarves and other little ritual knick-knacks are gorgeous, but I am starting to think that they look good merely by accident.” Rarity sighed as they stepped into the common room of the Home. Ligilia wandered in from one of the adjacent rooms and gave a small start when she saw them, their hostess disappearing back from whence she came.

“Maybe it’s our fault,” Fluttershy said, her head low to the ground. “Should we have stayed close to you and modelled? Um, maybe they had something like a catwalk somewhere?” She lay her ears flat, and Dash couldn’t help think that she treated the word “catwalk” like Dash treated the word “early”.

“I, ah, no,” Rarity said, leading the three back into their bedroom. The beds had been freshly made, and the table was clean, but Dash was barely past the threshold when Ligilia entered with that odd clop-click, clop-click of peryton hooves and claws. She placed a platter with assorted foods on their table, then a bundle of heavy cloth.

“Oh, hey, thanks,” Dash said, squinting at whatever the cloth thing was.

“I understand you must be cold,” their hostess explained. “I saw that you had used nearly all of the blankets, and I feel the fool for not having asked.” The multiple tips of her antlers glowed, and she unfolded a large, deep crimson blanket, more than two full pony lengths across. “Please, accept this as a gift from the House.”

Fluttershy reached out to touch the fabric, spreading her wings a tad. When she turned to face the peryton doe, she more than matched her smile. Dash let out a breath she’d been holding for hours when the last vestiges of Fluttershy’s apprehension at the festival left her.

“It’s lovely,” Fluttershy said. She almost looked sad at that. “You’re being so very nice to us, is there anything we can do for you? I don’t think we can accept this, but maybe we can borrow it, at least?”

Ligilia shook her head resolutely. “You must keep it, please. Giving a gift exalts the one who gives, and this is from me to you. It is selfish, and you must forgive my indiscretion.”

“We can do better than accept,” Rarity said. She ducked past Fluttershy and Ligilia both, flipping open her travel chest. “Now, I understand that silk is something of a rarity here?”

“It is precious enough that all of it is spent in memory of the stories of Myrtella,” Ligilia replied, her brow furrowed. “Please, you are guests—”

“Here,” Rarity said. In her magic grip, she held a small dark blue bolt of silk. The peryton took a step back, as though the item frightened her.

“I cannot.”

“So you would insult us, then, by refusing a gift? It is a grave offence in Equestria, you must know,” Rarity said giving her an arch look. Clearly, Ligilia didn’t see the humour lurking beneath the unicorn’s demeanour. Instead, the doe’s mouth moved soundlessly, a doe become goldfish.

“Please. Take it,” Rarity said, and as an afterthought, she hovered up what purple silk she had that wasn’t part of Dash’s dress, as well as the three scarves she’d made that they didn’t wear. “These as well. We were gifted three wonderful scarves by your city, and it is only right that we return the gesture. As for the silks, well. Clearly silks aren’t doing it for me right now, and I have plenty left.”

Ligilia’s antlers lit up before her face did, but eventually, she levitated the silks and the scarves close to her chest and tilted her head forward until her muzzle lay flat against her neck, pointed to the floor.

“Orto honours its guests, and its guests honour Orto in return. My home is your home, and I hope I will see you again,” the doe finally said, walking backwards out the door, her eyes on the three ponies until she disappeared from view.

“Anyway,” said Rarity, closing the chest with a bang.

“Uh, how much more stuff do you have in there?” Dash asked. Sure, the chest was larger than she’d have liked when she was the one pulling the cart, but it wasn’t that large.

“My point was,” Rarity said, starting anew. She looked at Fluttershy. “To your suggestion, specifically, dear. Modelling may indeed have helped, because I was stuck trying to describe something they could not see, but if I had foreseen those difficulties, I would have asked. I am sure we will get other opportunities. Forget modelling and catwalks; what did they think of the dresses as worn, in a more natural setting? Did anything stand out to them?”

Dash poked the inside of her cheek with her tongue. Fluttershy looked about to say something, so Dash instead elected to trot over to the table and inspect the food-stuff. She grabbed one of the grass-balls she’d found she liked, chewing noisily and humming in appreciation. This one had some kind of sauce inside of it.

“Um,” said Fluttershy.

“Oh. Oh dear.” Rarity deflated and sat down on the floor. “That dire? Well, what is the matter, then? Did I make some sort of mistake in making silken couture? Were the colours offensive? Surely it wasn’t the saddle ornaments.”

“Well, no,” Fluttershy said, rubbing at one foreleg with the other.

“They didn’t dislike them,” Dash said, swallowing another grass-ball before sipping from one of the small water bowls. The water was icy cold, just the way she liked it. Her appreciation for their hostess grew by the moment.

“In fact,” Fluttershy added, “they didn’t seem to notice at all.”

“I don’t think any of them said anything about mine,” Dash said, but she wished she hadn’t. Rarity had gone very quiet, and Dash’s heart sank. “Hey, listen, I really liked it—it rides a little low, but I think it’s one of your better ones!”

“Did, ah,” Rarity took a deep breath and let it out again. She walked up to sit on a pillow next to the table, poking at one of the food items Dash didn’t quite recognise. Something paste-y with herbs on top. “I don’t suppose you… asked for opinions on them?”

Dash paused her attack on the food. This obviously meant a lot to Rarity. She’d not really thought to ask for any of the locals’ opinions, but if she was under any illusions that that was the problem, Fluttershy crushed that fear—and hope.

“I asked a few of them about clothes, but they really didn’t seem all that, well, interested.” Fluttershy splayed her ears and sat down next to Rarity. “It wasn’t that they weren’t impressed, they just didn’t seem to care at all. Rarity, I’m sorry. I know you worked hard on these dresses, and I agree with Rainbow Dash. They really are lovely.”

“Hey, if they don’t care about your dresses, they don’t care about any dresses,” Dash said, pointing a hoof straight at Rarity. Either the grass-ball sauce was really hot, or she was getting really annoyed, her face flushed. “You’re great at this, and if they don’t like it, they can stick with their stupid scarves.”

Rarity’s attention flitted between the two pegasi, from Fluttershy’s sympathetic smile to Dash’s, well, whatever Dash wore at the moment, but she felt angry anyway. At length, Rarity drew herself up and lifted a bowl of water to her lips, drinking deeply before she replied.

“Well now, that’s quite enough. Let us not speak ill of our hosts,” she said with a cautious smile. “I still maintain that these were good by any pony’s standards, especially given the short notice, but I’m certain I can do better. I can always do better. There is room for fashion in the hearts of all creatures, and I will find it. You are both absolute darlings regardless.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged and smiled at that, and Fluttershy did the same, the two pegasi looking at each other while Rarity grabbed a dainty bite of one of the herb-laden mushy things. Rainbow Dash grabbed a second helping of the grass balls while Fluttershy made an attempt at eating a thick collection of leaves speared on a sharp wooden stick.

Whoever designed this food clearly had not met a pony without unicorn magic. Fluttershy made a brave attempt at pinning the thin stick against the edge of the table with a hoof to let herself eat them properly, and Rainbow Dash didn’t know whether to laugh or applaud, so she did both.

“Oh,” said Rarity. “Oh my word.”

“What?” asked Dash. Rarity stared at Fluttershy’s hoof where it rested against the table. Specifically, at the green band around her lower foreleg.

“Ah yeah,” said Dash, holding up her own left foreleg. She bit onto her own band and slipped it off, tossing it away. “Guess we won’t need those any more.”

Fluttershy, finally realising what Rarity had meant, did the same, with a warm smile of thanks to Dash. This time, Rainbow Dash didn’t even bother acknowledging it. It hadn’t been any trouble at all.

Rarity blinked once. “I see. Well, would one of you pass me those… whatever those fruit things are?”

When Khaird arrived at the entrance to their room, the three ponies lay together, flank to flank under their new woolen blanket. Though Dash was getting a tad sleepy already, it was mostly for warmth. They had even enlisted Ligilia’s aid in moving two of the beds together to make for a more comfortable bedding area.

To Rainbow Dash’s left, Rarity sketched away with merry abandon, working on some designs that Dash couldn’t make heads or tails of, occasionally pausing to write in a tiny notebook. To her right, Fluttershy had dug out a book of her own from her saddlebags.

Fluttershy’s book was supposedly a very precious volume on rare animals, some of which might be found in Perytonia. How Fluttershy persuaded Twilight to let her check it out of the library for more than a week, Dash didn’t know. She stole a peek every once in a while. Some of the “animals” were monsters with huge claws, fangs, or other cool stuff.

Most of the time, however, Fluttershy simply read about some bird that looked just like any other bird, and Rainbow Dash stared out the window willing time to pass so she could sleep. The second a familiar peryton stuck his head through their doorway, Dash beamed at her saviour. Talk, then sleep.

“I believe you are owed a map,” Khaird said, stepping inside. “And in turn, I am owed some thoughts.” He looked tired, but he smiled, and there was a sparkle in his small and dark eyes. The stag’s flanks were covered in coloured powders, and he had reams of silk in his antlers that Dash suspected he didn’t know were there.

“Hello again, dear,” Rarity said, folding her glasses and neatly depositing both her sketches and her journal at her side. Dash and Fluttershy said their greetings, and Khaird sat down by the table a small distance away. While Fluttershy put away her book, he levitated out a large scroll that poked out from the strange saddlebag he kept around his neck.

“My hope is that though your stay has been brief so far, we have shown you a little, at least, of what makes Orto unique,” he said. “It is later than I would have liked, so I will not will not ask you to recount all your experiences at the festival, but I must ask, did you have a good time?”

“It was pretty cool,” Dash admitted with a lazy grin.

“I agree,” Rarity said. “I don’t think even the largest outdoor events in Equestria can compete with the scale, at least, and your… is it proper to say ‘your people’? Well, everyone was quite friendly, at any rate.”

“The harvest market was just wonderful,” Fluttershy said, though her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Um, and yes, everyone was nice. Almost too nice.”

Rainbow Dash remembered her comment about the attention her cutie mark had gotten her. Dash snorted, and almost started laughing when she saw the bright blush on Fluttershy’s face, but the look the other pegasus gave her killed the joke dead in the water. Maybe it hadn’t been that funny.

Khaird was apparently better at reading ponies than Dash was at reading peryton. He raised a brow and made a small humming noise, presumably in question, but Fluttershy didn’t seem inclined to elaborate. So Dash did.

“People were really interested in her, I guess? Like, they were paying a little too much attention to Fluttershy. Her flank, really,” Dash said, shaking her head at the weirdness. “Apparently butterflies are really great to peryton, I don’t know.”

Khaird’s confusion fell away, replaced with wide eyes and an open mouth. “Oh. No—that… is unfortunate. I apologise if anyone have given you trouble—”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Fluttershy rushed to say.

“—and if I need to reprimand anyone for untoward advances—”

“Hey, it’s fine!” Dash said, holding up a hoof. She gestured in the vague direction of where the cloth bands lay on the floor. “We just had to grab a few of those and tell people to back off, that’s all. It’s fine,” she said, glancing over at Fluttershy to ensure that it was, in fact, fine. Fluttershy nodded quickly, and Rarity beamed at the two pegasi as though this all made her really happy, too. Probably, she was just glad it had all worked out.

“Well. If there was no harm done, that is good,” said Khaird with a sigh of relief. “I never thought anyone here would make you uncomfortable. You of course would not know of the bonding bands, I should have realised, but more than that, I should also have understood that your symbols are not created with the same meaning that they carry here.”

“Symbols? Whatever do you mean?” asked Rarity.

“The markings on your flanks,” said Khaird. “I do not know what meaning butterflies have in your home city, but here, they are commonly associated with Myrtella, and specifically with her love. When you painted that on your flank, you, ah—let us say that it likely gave some young stags and does the wrong impression. Please, forgive that I did not think of this.”

“Uh, they’re not paint—” tried Dash.

“They’re not decorations,” said Rarity. She pulled aside the blanket to reveal her flank and the three blue diamonds that adorned it. “They’re our cutie marks. They are related to our special purpose, our talent, what is unique about us as an individual. They are not chosen, but appear as we come of age.”

“Then,” said Khaird. “They are… magic wrought upon your body? How do you create them, if not with paint?”

“Um, they’re not created at all, actually,” Fluttershy said. “They… just appear. It happens to all ponies. It is a special kind of magic, but I don’t think there is any kind of magic that can change them, or make them appear.”

“Wait, wait, if hers is some symbol of love or whatever, what does mine mean?” asked Dash. She rose to stand on the bed and turned her side to Khaird. “Do rainbow-lightning-clouds mean ‘awesome’ here too?”

Khaird looked thoroughly nonplussed. “I am sorry, this is much for me to understand, but I will hear your words as you speak them. It is only… here, our feather-paints speaks of decisions, not of … destiny.”

The final word had been spoken not with contempt, but some shade of distaste. “Hey, it’s not that, whatever you mean,” said Dash. “It’s just, uh,” she scrambled for words.

“A reflection,” said Rarity, pulling the covers over her back again.

“Yeah, that,” said Dash.

Khaird tilted his head down and closed his eyes for a second. “I understand. And then, I hope you understand our mistake if you were given undue attention, Fluttershy,” he said. The name sounded odd coming from him, but the other pegasus mare herself nodded and smiled.

“It’s okay, it was just a misunderstanding, and like Rainbow Dash said, we figured it out. Everyone really was very nice, honestly,” said Fluttershy.

“Uh-huh. But seriously, what does mine mean?” asked Dash, leaning forward.

Khaird grinned, showing his teeth. “Most symbols carry meaning, but yours do not speak to me, not together. Clouds and lightning say storm, and storms are a divisor, an end and a beginning, but if any of my kin thought you had painted it on yourself? Likely only decoration. I cannot tell.”

“Lame,” muttered Dash.

“Regardless, I am glad if you enjoyed yourself, but this moon is not getting any younger,” Khaird said. “I will ask you one question that I have asked you before, though not as direct.”

Dash glanced at her friends, trying to keep the frown off her face. When neither Rarity nor Fluttershy spoke up, she did. “Okay. That sounds bad? Good?”

“What do you intend? I wonder, what is your plan, leaving our city?” Khaird asked. He sat still with infinite patience, and it was only his calm, tired smile that kept Dash from feeling like she was sitting her Flight Theory exams again. The question left the room deafeningly silent for a second.

“Uh, let’s see. We know we’re heading to Cotronna, but the airship couldn’t take us all the way there,” Dash said, the words coming out painfully slow. She half expected to be told she was wrong.

“Yes,” Khaird said with a small nod. “Since Ephydoera asked you to land here, it was wise to listen and not surprise them. They can be zealous in their vigil, but they must be. It is best to accept that their city has earned that right.”

“Right,” Dash said, though she didn’t know what to make of that at all.

“And since Red Sun Runner’s little chat with this ‘Ephydoera’ taught us that Cotronna is as Canterlot is to us, we’re travelling there,” said Rarity with a winning smile. “Hopefully aided by the map you so graciously offered to provide. I’m sorry, is there a problem?”

Khaird leaned back a tad, shaking his head. “Not at all. I must apologise. I did not mean to sound apprehensive, or to cause apprehension. I ask, because I have a suggestion and advice, but I am very, ah—I am loath to try to influence diplomats who are on a mission. You must understand, it would be in poor taste, and I truly hope that in the future, Orto has a chance to foster a relationship with your Equestria.” There was a note of pleading in his voice, Dash thought.

“That’s what we hope, too,” Fluttershy said, nodding enthusiastically.

“Yes. Well, to that end, I truly hope that you will consider my words, without undue pressure,” said Khaird.

The consul lit up his antlers, adding to the light provided by Rarity’s horn. Finally, he unfurled the large scroll he’d brought, smoothing it out with a touch of magic. With the large scroll flat against the ground, he summoned forth a tiny mote of light and hovered it over the thick paper, just where a large swath of blue met faded yellow.

“Here we are. Orto, in the center of the city’s demesne. Here, three honoured guests listen to an old claw prattle when they would rather be sleeping, no doubt.” He glanced up at them, flashing a smile. Fluttershy made a wordless noise of protest, but the stag went on.

“This area, we call Perytonia.” The glowing light swirled around the greater part of the scroll, a yellow boomerang bent around a clump of grey.

“Here, Cotronna.” The light pulsed on the opposite side of the yellow area.

“Oh goodness. Um, that’s quite far,” Fluttershy said.

“Eh, it’s a big map. That means it’s shorter, right?” Dash said, earning a raised brow from Fluttershy that suggested… no?

“It is quite far, but not that far,” Khaird said in agreement, or not. “A question with many answers, no doubt. Now, a confession, and what is normal to me, but perhaps not to you. You will find our roads are rougher than our city streets. Travel between the cities is undertaken by trade caravans with the resources and the wagon-craft to handle such journeys. Those few who go from one city to another will join with them. Else, and mostly, travel is the realm of Ilyra, and thus happens by trade ship by sea.”

“Then why don’t we just hire a boat?” Dash asked. “If gems are worth a lot here, we could probably buy one with all the gems we’ve got.”

“Don’t be so gauche, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said with a huff.

“It is not a question of buying power, it is a question of services offered,” Khaird replied. “Orto’s trade ships are all across Perytonia. All left is a small amount of pleasure craft and the occasional kelper. The Joyous, our council ship, is in drydock, and trade ships are arriving in Orto these days, not leaving. Summer flash-storms are a threat, and the seven suns of the storm are near. Ships will be less happy to leave shore for each passing day until they are past.”

“So… you use boats a lot, but you have no boats,” Dash asked, tilting her head.

The stag inclined his head. “Not now. We will be of no help soon, and I regret that. You could conceivably find a ship from Stagrum to Cotronna. I doubt it, but there is always a chance. They will be traders from Cotronna seeking to make a mad dash for home to obey their schedules, or risk-taking Stagrumites with heads full of Daros’ stories. For a fair trade given, a Stagrumite will never say no, but they will not be happy to accept passengers. Bad luck on this side of the storms, they will say, and I suspect you will waste your time.”

“Then, um, what do we do?” Fluttershy asked. “If we can’t find a ship, and if the roads are bad, I mean.”

“The roads are not smooth, but they can be walked, and they will not lead you astray. I will suggest to you a route. It may be the fastest, or it may not. I travel to Cotronna only once every eight years for such things as cannot be covered by carrier raven, and I have not gone by land for thrice that time. I wish to impress upon you that this road I suggest has an advantage, but I must not be duplicitous. I will be honest and say that I have an agenda.”

The mote of light moved along the map. Dash didn’t look at the map so much as she did the light itself.

“Go by land to Stagrum. It is not very far, and these coastal roads are good. We trade much with them all year.” The mote wandered. “Follow the river Meronna up through the Khosta. The forest will take you inland, and you will reach Ephydoera—or, Ephydoera will find you.

“From there, the roads back to the coast will get much worse. Ask the Ephydoerans how the gap to the north is. I have heard mutterings of trouble in the highlands, but you must cross them to Vauhorn by the coast of the northwestern Spokes, here,” another pulse of light. “and from there your journey to Cotronna should be simple. Vauhorn and Cotronna are both by the northern coast, as close as any two cities.”

The light winked out over the black dot marking their final destination on the far edge of the map. Khaird turned the map around and moved it a little closer to the three ponies.

“It might seem simpler to follow the coast all the way, but travel will be very tough past Meronna, especially if you carry more supplies than can be fit in your bags. There are cliffs that force you inland, and you will have to double back without the aid of any feathers who know the land. The Spokes in particular are unnavigable by ground, I have been told. I asked one who knows such things.” The consul stretched his neck side to side before resting his eyes on the map again, looking lost to thought.

“And you say you have a motive of your own for suggesting this?” Rarity asked, her horn brightening a little. She whisked her glasses over, squinting at the map. “This seems like good advice to me, and we have no reason not to trust you.”

“Yeah, what’s this about an agenda?” Dash said, wrinkling her snout. The word tasted foul.

“Only this,” said Khaird. “I would be happy if you took my advice and visited all of the major cities of the demesnes that make up Perytonia. I cannot free myself from that desire, though I am glad for your trust. You have seen under this sun part of the soul of Orto. In a single sun’s journey, you have sampled our love for each other and for all those who choose to grace us with their presence, and indeed, I wish you could reconsider and stay longer.”

“We kinda have a thing we’re supposed to do,” said Dash, shrugging. She looked to her friends, but all she got was a small nod from Rarity.

“I understand you are committed,” said Khaird.

“Don’t the other cities like visitors like you do?” Fluttershy shifted uncomfortably under the blanket.

Khaird frowned at that. “I expect Ephydoera sent word to all cities of their meeting with your envoy, and they will have conferred with Cotronna by raven. Do not misunderstand, even where you are unexpected, you will not be unwelcome.” He rolled up the map and tied a small piece of string around it, levitating it over to Rarity.

“I simply desire that you should grace all with the opportunity to greet you, and greet them in turn,” the stag added. He rolled his jaw in a very pony-like fashion, looking like he tried on a dozen different answers before he finally sighed, speaking slow, every word painfully deliberate. “I will not insult you by telling you what to do. You are emissaries, and you have been given, or made for yourself a task. What I will say, and you must remember this, is that I do not presume to speak for any others.”

“And if you were less afraid to insult us,” Rarity said, arching a brow. “What would you say, theoretically?”

Khaird blinked. Rainbow Dash hadn’t thought peryton capable of subdued smiles, but there it was.

“Well. I would suggest that our visitors, that those I would like to name friends, should at the very least stay one or two nights in every city, for that was the courtesy afforded Orto,” he said. “The route I suggested is sound, at least up until Ephydoera. Talk to the peryton of every demesne, meet the old claws and the small-feathers. Learn about them, and let them learn about you. I have only my own voice with which to speak of them.”

The consul rose to stand, scratching his muzzle against the side of his neck. “I would ask a lot, perhaps too much. Your road goes to Stagrum first at any rate. I can not be one to tell you what an Equestrian diplomat is to do. That would be vastly overreaching my authority as consul and ambassador. You leave tomorrow?”

“I think so,” Fluttershy said, and Dash did not protest.

“Then, if you have not yet stocked up for the journey, I shall have some supplies delivered to you by tomorrow morning. You will find that stalls and shops open with the sunrise, and that is the best time to trade for anything else you may want. If we do not speak again, it has been my pleasure to have met you, and my future stories are richer for it.” He craned his neck and closed his eyes, smiling. “I hope the rest of your journey is enlightening.”