• 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 6

Siban has arrived, and she has agreed as a favor to me that when she leaves, she will take with her a letter to where the ponies come from, and return with word as soon as she can. She claims she has a friend there, and that she can handle translation if Siban does not trust herself to remember the words exact. “A zebra always has a friend,” were her words, and I am glad she counts me among them.

Now the challenge is mine to create a letter for this city of many names that will not offend. I must not be Khaird of the Swaying Stalks, but Khaird, citizen of Orto, all without resorting to duplicity.

I must write in an unofficial capacity and ask the council of their city, currently named “Ponyville”, why they are reluctant to speak with Orto. Mine is not the anger of the wounded, but my every breath speaks stories of Chorossa as I try to discover why.

-The Journal of Consul Khaird of the Swaying Stalks, Visitor Liaison

“I don’t think it’s hard to grasp at all,” Rarity said. “I know that Ruby Light’s books about Coral Crown the Unicorn have helped me through many a difficult time in my life.”

“Sure.” Dash shrugged and paused for a step to push the harness back on her body a tad. “They just talk about the Aspects like they’re so much more than that.”

“Well, Phydra sounded like she wanted to say that they were more than that,” Fluttershy said. “Or, they were something like that, but they mean a lot more to them than storybook characters do to us.”

“Spoken like someone who hasn’t read any of Ruby Light’s novels,” Rarity said with an arch look. Fluttershy lay her ears flat and ducked her head.

“You’re right. I still have the first book in my shelf, and I don’t think I’ll ever get around to it. I’ll give it back to you when we get home, I’m sorry. I just think Rainbow Dash has a point, that’s all. If they all know of these Aspects, it’s not the same as any book.”

Rarity nodded. “Coral Crown and I accept your apology. And, well, I suppose it isn’t a perfect match, no. Phydra said that they discovered these Aspects? Who makes these ‘stories’, anyway? Are they the ones written on the stones?”

“She said that they all make the stories,” Fluttershy replied. “And I don’t know where they really are. I think she had some of the stories written on the pottery.”

“Huh. Well, that’s strange,” said Rarity. “I do wish Twilight was here to give us her perspective. Applejack and Pinkie Pie too, really. Perhaps this requires some… lateral thinking.”

“What’s there to explain?” Dash asked, but she agreed anyway. At this point, she’d take anything, even if it was just Applejack siding with her, dispensing some nugget of wisdom about how this didn’t even matter in the grand scheme of things.

“I don’t know, dear,” said Rarity. “But I appreciate you bringing me up to speed, as it were. I feel a little better today. I even managed to write in my journal before you woke up.”

“Hey, no problem,” said Dash. She shrugged, more than happy to leave the topic behind. Phydra had said some words on the Aspects, and it didn’t make sense to Dash. Now she could move on—and move they did. In the morning hours, they passed by a great many clusters of buildings. The road branched out, snaking its way across the plains to a few farms and other groups of bowl-shaped buildings too few in number to be called a village.

Whether they walked through a half-dozen houses by the roadside or spotted a farm down a side path, here they found the life that had been missing for all these days of desolate travel. Peryton wandered about, watering, hammering or planting at a sedate pace, and in other places, they tended to smaller gardens and chatted by their doorways, glancing at the ponies as they passed, but rarely doing much more than that.

“There’re an awful lot of farms that don’t seem to be growing anything,” said Rarity when they drew near the river delta. She pointed ahead with a flick of her head, and Dash saw her point. The closer they got to the river, the more farms were just a bunch of open space with dark soil. Unless they grew invisible apple trees, they didn’t do anything.

“Oh, they’re probably grain farms. There are a lot of them in Orto too, but they’ve done their first harvest, and they have other crops right now,” said Fluttershy. “If they grow anything at all. They plant all their remaining grains later in summer.”

Dash tilted her head. “Uh, if you’re talking about those two stags you talked to at farmer’s market, they didn’t say later in summer, they said second summer. I thought they meant next year or something.”

“Maybe? I don’t think they have two summers,” Fluttershy replied, smiling at that, though she looked about as unsure as Dash herself felt. “I just thought they meant later in the summer because they say a lot of other things differently, like how they sometimes call a day a ‘sun’.”

“Applejack would know what to make of this, I imagine,” said Rarity, her head turning to watch a pair of peryton by a nearby farmhouse talking and gesturing to an empty field. “At any rate, I simply wondered. We know they have some form of grains here. I saw bread at the festival. I’m just hoping they aren’t quite as enamoured with kelp here too.” The four-letter word came out with a grimace that made Dash snicker.

Beyond the barren fields, Stagrum grew taller than any stalk of wheat ever would. The city spread out over all of the river’s branches that Dash could see from ground level, and now they approached the first of the little riverlets. Past a bridge just down the road, multi-storied buildings crowded together, large and broad. Rather than the uniform grey-white stone of Orto, stone and wood together shaped the boxy buildings of the city proper.

“It almost looks like a normal city,” said Dash with an appreciative snort. “Except their towers look weird.”

“I believe those would be called cupolas,” said Rarity, training her eyes on the weird little structures that topped most the buildings.

Almost normal. The entire place looked a lot more chaotic to Dash’s eyes than Orto had, and not just for its lack of open space. Even before they got to the bridge, the din of a busy city met them halfway. Out on the water floated dozens of boats of varying shapes and sizes, all keeping close to docks that hid behind the city as they drew closer. The sea glittered with reflected sunlight, like someone had sprinkled gems in the water.

What the city lacked was a welcoming committee. Dash didn’t realise she’d been expecting one until they stepped onto the wooden bridge. No one came to meet them, and the hesitant looks on her friends’ faces betrayed that maybe they had hoped for the same. No longer were they approaching Stagrum, they were in it. The three ponies stood at a crossroads, and a stone’s throw further into the city, the structures were taller than the streets were wide.

Narrow streets and a wall of sound against the ponies. Hundreds of peryton walked to and fro with purpose wearing metal and gems in leg-guards, bracelets and wreaths around their necks, but nothing half as shiny as what adorned their antlers. Dash imagined that if she hovered right off the ground, she would see a forest of precious metals. Fluttershy had gone very, very quiet.

On every street corner stood peryton engaged in discussion. A cacophony of strange screeches, caws and indescribable noises mingled with innumerable hoof- and claw-steps. Never before had the creatures seemed as foreign to Dash as they did just then. She felt Fluttershy touch a wingtip to her side for support, and even Rarity drew closer, the urbanite fashionista as dead quiet as the pegasi. The peryton who passed the street in front of them looked at them, but not a single one stopped or gave comment. Three steps ahead, off the bridge and onto the street, a fast-flowing river of peryton mirrored the waters below.

“Okay,” Dash breathed more than said. “So. Plan?”

“I don’t know that we have one,” Rarity admitted. She stared straight ahead, eyes on nothing at all. Though she was a little taller, Dash didn’t imagine she could see much more than herself. From the foot of the bridge, the bodies of the closest peryton and the nearby buildings blocked out all else.

“If I am going to be honest, I had hoped to be on a train or a boat or some such, heading for the capital in style by now,” Rarity continued. “I… What is our plan?” She looked at Rainbow Dash, but if Dash had any clue, she wouldn’t have asked her friends ten seconds ago. She could barely think. There was too much going on ahead. Too many sounds, too much movement. It was time to go, but she had forgotten her entire flight routine. What had Rarity said, again?

“I suppose we should go find out who knows we’re coming,” came Fluttershy’s voice, soft but singular in the din. She took a steadying breath. “Khaird said that word had been sent, so maybe the mayor knows about us? Maybe they can tell us what to expect if we’re going to follow the road, and if there’s anything we should know. We’ll need food and water for later, but first, we should probably make sure we have someplace to sleep tonight. Let’s begin with that.”

Rarity gave Fluttershy a look, as if she was checking to make sure it was indeed Fluttershy who had spoken. For her part, Rainbow Dash grinned. She loved when this happened. When the world pushed, sometimes Fluttershy pushed back, even if it didn’t involve dragons, and Dash thought it might just be the coolest thing ever.

Next to Rainbow Dash stood Fluttershy, still every bit as nervous as Dash expected her to be. Her ears were pinned to her head, one wing awkwardly tried to both pin itself to her side and reach out to touch Rainbow Dash, but fear hadn’t stopped her. Suddenly Rainbow Dash didn’t know why she herself had stopped moving. The tight press of people and the narrow, flightless streets ahead didn’t exactly appeal to her, but she could deal with it. Easy.

“That sounds like a good idea. When we have a moment, let’s see if hiring a boat is a possibility as well,” Rarity said. She sounded breezy, her eyes narrowed as she scanned the crowd. “I am loath to disappoint Khaird, but we will want to know what our options are.”

“And?” Dash took a step forward, then another. After a muttered protest from someone who nearly walked into her, they joined the stream of peryton heading deeper into the city. The three ponies walked side by side, shoulder to shoulder in formation barely wider than their cart.

“And what?” asked Rarity.

“You looked like you were about to say something else, like you really don’t like what you see,” Dash said, pinning the unicorn with a frown. Rarity shouldn’t be put off by a crowd.

“Yes, that,” said Rarity with a huff. “I just happen to notice that these peryton don’t even wear the scarves that they wore in Orto. Far be it from me to expect a pony from Clopenhagen to wear the same fashion as a Canterlotian, but…” she shook her head. “No, I don’t quite know. Perhaps this is good, and they’ll be more receptive to my dresses.”

“Maybe we should ask them?” Fluttershy suggested, her head tilted up to look at the buildings surrounding them.

“Ask whom, and about what?” Rarity asked.

“Some of the peryton,” said Fluttershy. “We could ask what they do for fashion, but it’s not hard to guess. Their jewellery is very nice.”

“Mm, I do adore their jewellery as well, don’t get me wrong,” Rarity said, chewing on her cheek as she thought. “I’m not a jewelsmith, however, and trying to create something they already wear is not the point. What I really need is a venue to showcase—well, I have nothing to offer them just yet, that is the issue. Oh, but I am rambling. Don’t worry about it, dear. Let’s just see if we can find… anything, really.”

Dash was equally eager to do just that. Find anything. They walked down a narrow street without purpose, and when a large peryton wagon came down the opposite direction, they had to step onto the sidewalk to let it pass.

Half the time, peryton moved past them, and Dash felt like she was walking too slow. The other half, some bejeweled peryton ahead slowed them down. However many peryton milled about to and fro, even more of them stood still. They talked, levitated all kinds of stuff or gestured to boxes and stacks of items.

Were they bartering? They must’ve hit a shopping street of some kind, but down every by-street they passed, Rainbow Dash saw more of the same. Strange signs that no doubt advertised services and plaques set in walls, all in strange peryton letters. Where doors were open, Dash got a peek at a parchment shop and two jewelers’ shops. When they hit the next crossroads, three more directions of streets, signs and peryton opened up to them. Rarity stopped on the spot, and Fluttershy bumped into her with a muttered apology lost in the buzz of the crowds.

“This is entirely pointless,” Rarity declared. She craned her neck as if she could look over the crowd.

“I can try to fly up,” Dash said. Clotheslines with carpets and drapes hung to dry and the occasional banner stretching across the street would make it awkward going, but the bigger problem was that she didn’t even know what to look for.

“No,” said Rarity. She whirled around on the spot and grabbed her saddlebags from the cart, grabbing a small mirror and a comb which she drug through her mane with a scowl.

“Seriously?” Dash asked. “What—”

“A moment, dear,” Rarity said, tilting her head left, then right, letting go of her brush and lowering her voice to a murmur. “Well, it’s about as good as it’s going to get before I have a proper bath. One has to believe that beauty is universal—excuse me! Hello, there!”

Rarity hailed one of the passing peryton, her frown disappearing so fast it quite frankly scared Dash. When the first peryton passed her by without a backwards look, the unicorn didn’t drop a beat. She simply waved and locked eyes with the next one.

“Excuse me, you, the handsome or beautiful one, do you have a moment?” Rarity batted her eyelashes. This one stopped with a bemused grin.

“Yes? I have a moment, but little more,” said the stag, tilting his head sideways, his many metal necklaces clinking against each other.

“Marvellous, thank you,” said Rarity, smiling at him. “You see, we are new to your lovely little city, and we are quite lost. I don’t suppose you have some sort of visitor information point here in Stagrum?”

“I don’t think that we do, no,” the stag replied, blank-faced. “Visitors are not common. I have never seen your kind before. Are you zebra?”

“No, dear. We’re ponies, from Equestria,” Rarity said, fluffing her mane. “We just need some directions, that is all. I’m sure you can help us.”

The peryton raised a brow at that and nodded once. “If it will get you moving, it may be considered a public service, so yes, I will help for an even trade.” When Dash followed his eyes, she saw that stopping in the middle of the street had interrupted the flow of people. Fluttershy apologised again and again to the peryton who squeezed by with sour looks.

“For an even trade? What does that mean?” Dash asked. “Wait, you want us to pay you to tell us where to go?” She felt her snout crinkling at the thought.

The stag shook his head. “Of course not, but a trade nevertheless. Currency for directions is not an even trade. I will help you find what you need, in exchange for your names and a gift of words on your home city.”

Rarity let out a sigh of relief and flashed a tired smile. “Wonderful. I am Rarity. Now, where does one go to find a bed and a proper warm bath?”

The Autumn Hymn had exactly one room not taken by traders from other cities. Their room was cramped in comparison to their Ortosian accommodations, but a two-peryton room fit three ponies with space to spare, and the “resting house” had a precious slot for their cart. A few minutes after their hijacked guide had shown them to the only “inn” he knew of, they had all their personal belongings squared away in the third and topmost floor. Theirs were two beds, a vanity with a mirror, and some form of misplaced chair or sofa in the corner that was too big to be the former and too small to be the latter.

Fluttershy sat down next to one of the beds as heavily as if she’d been running all day long, wings sagging and ears drooping. It was easy to guess why. Dash closed the shutters to the windows of their corner room, muting the constant hum of the streets below.

“And again, just a single washbasin—and look at the handles on the drawers on this cupboard, hmf,” Rarity said, frowning at the furniture as she leaned in closer to the mirror. “Any hotel without proper accommodation for those without magic would get a scathing review in Equestria.”

“Literally every single one of them has magic,” Dash said. “Of course they’re not gonna think about ponies. Isn’t it the same as how their portions are all too big? Gilda always complained about our portions being too small. I… uh, I guess Pinkie does, too, but I don’t know if she counts.” Rainbow Dash frowned at the shutters. Now that she had pushed them closed, she had no idea how she’d get them open. It was just like the sliding door to their room. If she wanted to leave without Rarity, she’d be a while.

“The stag who showed us here clearly knew what a zebra was, and zebra don’t have unicorn magic—though I suppose if he didn’t know that I wasn’t a zebra, they can’t get a great deal of zebra visitors here. I don’t really know what to think any more, but I certainly feel for you,” Rarity replied. She levitated some of the contents of her saddlebags onto one of the beds before she slipped the lighter saddlebags back on. “Let’s head downstairs and ask where the baths are, shall we?”

Dash nodded and tapped Fluttershy’s back with a wing, rousing the other pegasus. She grabbed her own partially-unpacked saddlebags and the two of them followed Rarity down hallways that were cramped by peryton standards. Cramped, and richly adorned.

Small shelves displayed elaborate wooden carvings and metal statues, some of peryton or other creatures, some simple slabs with inscriptions. There were no pictures or paintings hung upon the walls, but as they had seen coming in, someone had painted directly on the wooden walls in places, making their descent to the entrance room very colourful. A snake-like creature had its head on the top floor, and the tail at the very bottom. Dash traced its body all the way down with a wing.

“The room is to your liking?” asked the peryton doe in the front room, perking up at their arrival. She wore silver bands in her ears and around some of her antler-tips, and as neat as Dash thought that looked, the grey-white doe’s simple appearance stood at odds with the chaos of a single room that apparently acted both as storefront and a small bar? Eatery? Dash couldn’t tell for sure, but the smell of something tasty wafted in from a back room. What little space wasn’t covered in small statues and sculptures for sale was dominated by a wooden bar desk stained with a variety of spills.

“Oh, it’s quite lovely, yes,” Rarity said. “And the decor is very, ah, vivid. Do you have baths here?”

“I am sorry, but there is a bath-house across the street. If you can afford it, it is to be recommended, but they are open in the evenings only.” The doe inclined her head. “If that does not serve, there are other bath-houses away from the central flakes.”

Rarity nodded. “I suppose that will have to do. A nice bath later, and then straight to bed, thank you. How much do we owe you for the night?”

“Eight bronze slivers,” said the doe. “If you feel that is cheap, it is because food is not included, and if it sounds much, then yes, I ask more during these last weeks of first-summer trade. Hopefully you find this acceptable.”

“Right,” said Dash. She nudged open her saddlebags and rooted around until she found the small bag she’d grabbed from their cart. She tossed it onto the counter with a clink and a clatter. “We don’t have any bronze bits, but we got some gems if you want’em.”

The peryton didn’t seem put off by this, barely reacting at all until she’d opened the bag and peered inside. Her eyes widened and she drew back. “Ah, no. No I cannot.”

“Oh dear. Is it not enough? We can go get more from our cart, it’s no trouble,” Fluttershy said.

“Khaird said that we were right, didn’t he?” Dash asked. “That they would take gems?”

“He did,” Rarity agreed, turning to the doe. “Perhaps you can tell us where we can get some of these bronze items?”

“It is too much,” the doe said, shaking her head firmly. She leaned forward to peer inside the bag again, opening the bag so cautiously she looked like she expected a wild animal to leap forth. “I—no, any one of these gems will be far more than what I can offer. Perhaps… perhaps this one, if you will stay a week?” Her antlers glowed as she levitated out a small, imperfect purple gem. “An amethyst. Translucent.”

“They’re just gems,” Dash said, shrugging. “Is there a difference? Just take a bunch. We don’t care.”

Again the doe shook her head. “I can not. It is not an even trade. I will take this one, here, but the room will be yours for a full week of eight days, and you will let me know what you wish to eat. I will make it.”

“Your weeks are eight days?” Dash asked. “Okay, that’s not what a ‘week’ means, but whatever, seriously, we have a huge bag of these, it’s like… Rarity’s leftovers after making a dress or whatever—”

“Maybe we could just say yes?” Fluttershy suggested.

“Excuse me,” said Rarity, glaring half-heartedly at Rainbow Dash. “I spent hours finding these. Spike and I did, at any rate, but regardless, I agree. If we can give a gift that means little to us, but much to someone else, I don’t quite see the problem.” She widened the bag a little more, levitating out a large and brilliant ruby as well as a huge green emerald.

“Yeah, just take’em,” said Dash, but the doe said no more. Her eyes were on the counter in front of her, her face blank and her jaw rigid as she avoided looking at the gems that hovered in front of her.

Fluttershy cleared her throat. “Um, Rainbow Dash? Rarity? I think we’re being a little rude. Phydra mentioned the peryton in Stagrum liking fair trades a lot, and she obviously doesn’t think this is fair. We should probably respect that.”

Rarity frowned, letting the gems fall back into the bag. “The stag who so kindly showed us here did mention ‘even trade’ as well. I guess that’s significant, then.”

“Right, the whole thing with ‘Phostos’?” Dash asked. “Is it like the deal with Myrtella? How am I supposed to keep track of all these Aspects?” She stifled a groan, looking up at the silent doe behind the counter. “And how are we gonna get anything done if we keep jamming our hooves in our mouths all the time?” She lay her ears flat and grimaced. “Listen, we’re sorry if—”

The doe closed the gem pouch and hovered it in front of Dash, cutting her off with actions before words. She kept the small purple gem on the counter.

“I will keep this, and in trade, a room for a week, such food as you may wish, and finally, an apology.”

Rarity cocked a brow. “An apology for what, dear? We’re the ones who are sorry. If we’ve caused offence by trying to give you a gift you don’t want, well, that’s our mistake. Fluttershy is quite right.”

The peryton shook her head. “No. The fault is mine. I did not think that there were those who had not heard Phostos’ stories, but then, those I let guest are kin.” She held up the gem and looked askance at the three ponies. Dash shrugged and waved a hoof, and the gemstone disappeared into a drawer behind the bar. The doe nodded at Fluttershy.

“This one is correct. To take a trade that is not even, is cruel. No story can be told of Phostos that does not acknowledge this, and so I will offer you one more thing to balance this trade. Wait here a moment.”

With those words and nary a backwards glance, the peryton disappeared through the back door, leaving three very confused ponies. At least Rainbow Dash imagined that Rarity and Fluttershy were, as well. It didn’t matter. Dash was plenty confused for all three of them.

“I still don’t see the problem,” Rarity said with a sigh. “If these gems are so precious to them, it costs us nothing to give her a few extra. We lose nothing, and, if gems are in such short supply here, she could expand this little inn of hers after a simple act of generosity.”

“That might be right,” said Fluttershy. “But maybe they think that getting something you don’t deserve or need is almost like getting something you don’t want. Maybe getting something you shouldn’t have makes it something you don’t want.”

Rainbow Dash looked over at Fluttershy. The other pegasus’s eyes were on a spot on the wooden floor. Dash shrugged.

“If that’s how they want to do things, then whatever, I guess? That’s their call. Hey, if gems mean so much to them, maybe we can buy that boat.” She grinned, but before anyone could reply, the back door opened again, admitting two peryton.

The doe who owned the place led another, smaller peryton out. The younger doe stood no taller than Rainbow Dash, and wore only a few simple silver caps on her antler-tips, and a single bangle around her foreleg. Her coat was a white-speckled light brown like that of she who Dash presumed was her mother, and her tail-feathers ended in bright white tips.

“You will stay here, and you have not seen Stagrum before?” asked the adult doe.

“I… yes, that is correct,” said Rarity.

“And you will leave to walk the streets now?” she continued.

“We have some errands, yes,” said Rarity, blinking. When Rarity looked to Dash for answers, Rainbow Dash shrugged.

“Then,” said the older doe, turning to the smaller one who had said nothing so far. “These three are unfamiliar with our city. You will help them go where they wish to go, and answer their questions as best you can if there are things they do not know.”

“Yes, mama,” said the smaller doe.

“And you will leave them alone if they ask you to.”

“Yes, mama.”

“And you will leave them alone when they ask you to.”

Yes, mama.”

“Good,” said the older doe, stepping aside. “Now, say hello and introduce yourself, Mirossa.”

“Hello and introduce yourself, Mirossa,” said Mirossa.

“Why is that your name?” asked Mirossa.

“Because it’s what my parents named me, like with everypony else,” Fluttershy replied, smiling at her. “I guess I could have changed it if I didn’t like it, but I don’t know anypony who ever has.”

“I know a couple who should,” Rainbow Dash snarked.

“And what of yours?” Mirossa tilted her head backwards with uncanny flexibility, looking at Rainbow Dash upside-down while leading from the front.

“Same, duh. What, did you pick your own name?” Dash asked.

“No, but Rainbow Dash is a strange name. They are words.”

“And, Mirossa isn’t a word?” Dash replied, cocking a brow.

“Mirossa is a name. ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Dash’ are words,” Mirossa said, her voice rising in pitch just a tad. Rainbow Dash grinned.

“Yeah? Words that are a name. My name. I’m Rainbow Dash. Hi.” She tried to keep from laughing, but it wasn’t easy when the young doe did nothing to hide her annoyance. This was too easy.

“So!” said Rarity, cutting into the discussion. “I can’t help but notice we’re moving, but we haven’t told you where we wanted to go.”

True enough, Mirossa had wasted no time once they had left The Autumn Hymn, leading them down the crowded street in the baking mid-day heat. Following, Dash felt like she glided in the slipstream of a dragon a thousand times her size, and it was impossible to tell if the doe was good at picking her way through a crowd, or if there were less peryton about. Just like before, all Dash saw were flanks and peryton necks.

“Yes, because you didn’t tell me where you wanted to go,” said Mirossa. “We’re going to market.”

“Uh, newsflash, kid: Your entire city is a market,” Dash said. It sure felt like it. From the moment they crossed the bridge into the city proper, and ever since they left the inn again, every single step they had taken had felt like wading through market day in Ponyville—except with the size and energy of a city easily the size of Canterlot.

“No it’s not. Market is market.”

“Then what do you call all this?” Dash asked, gesturing to the peryton lining the street, talking, trading, gesturing and moving wares about.

“Stagrum?” Mirossa said, rolling her eyes.

“Regardless, while it is very kind of you, we’re not really heading to market,” Rarity said.

“Yes we are, it’s right up ahead,” the little doe said.

“I think what she means is, we don’t need to go to the market,” Fluttershy said.

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “We got a place to stay, so you guys wanna go see if we can find the mayor?” she asked.

Rarity nodded. “We may as well get it out of the way, I think. It is the middle of the day, after all.”

Mirossa tilted her head sideways. “Find what? You can find anything at the market. I am sure you can find two of those there, at least.”

“The mayor, dear,” said Rarity. “Whoever’s in charge of administering the local affairs of this particular city.”

“Like Mayor Mare,” Dash added, nodding. “Wait. Hang on,” she said, glancing over at Fluttershy. “Okay, she definitely changed her name. Do you think she was born with that name?”

With a sharp turn and no warning at all, Mirossa turned left in between two groups of peryton, leading the ponies towards the narrow sidewalk at the side of the street. They found a free spot near what Dash assumed was some sort of candy store. Or a café. Hard to tell, really. The young doe looked at Rarity with unconcealed confusion.

“I don’t understand you. I have never heard of such a person. Administering what?” Mirossa said. “Who are you looking for?”

Rarity poked her cheek with her tongue. “I understand you don’t have a relations manager, but surely someone here must be in charge of receiving visitors? We don’t really have a tourism board in Ponyville, so visitors usually talk to our Mayor if they need help. Do you not have someone like that?”

“Visitors?” Mirossa repeated, frowning. “Those who come here are here for a reason. If you visit, you are here to visit someone, and if you need help, mama has already promised food and bed.” She shrugged. “Maybe you ask for the Heads of the Houses? Ortosians, Vauhornites and Cotronnans here will see them to arrange deals to trade for kelp, bronze, wood or whatever else. You must know this.”

“We don’t know, actually,” Fluttershy said. “We don’t really have anything to trade. Is there any, um, ‘house’ that deals with visitors from other lands, maybe?”

Mirossa’s face was an exquisitely blank canvas.

“Who’s in charge?” Dash asked. “Who calls the shots?”

“Or rather, if someone sent a message—a raven, I understand it would be—and told your city that there would be visitors from afar,” Rarity said. “Who would receive such a message? Or, who would read it?”

The doe squinted at nothing at all for a split-second, then jumped back into the stream of peryton. All Dash and her friends could do was follow, and it took them a second of frantic trotting before they found their place in Mirossa’s wake again. Now she led them down smaller roads and the occasional street so narrow it couldn’t be called by any other name than an alley.

“Dockmistress,” said Mirossa when the ponies followed close enough to hear. “She is no trader, and she is not a Head of House, but she is probably the most important person who is not. She is also raven mistress of Stagrum.”

“Wonderful,” said Rarity, smiling. “I assume that means she will be expecting us, perhaps?”

Mirossa let out a high-pitched trill of laughter. “Chorossa! How would I know? Come!”

“What does that mean, anyway? ‘Dockmistress’?” Dash asked, but she only half paid attention. Finally their trek through the middle of the city came to an end. With every crowded bridge they passed, the press of peryton lessened until it came close to what she’d call ‘calm’. The street ended, both sea and sky opening up to them as they entered the Stagrum docks.

It was huge. Stone and wood mixed along the entire length of the shore-facing city, the docks spreading across the mouth of the delta to cover the lips of four large islands barely distinct in the sprawling mess of sails and piers.

Along the largest of the piers rested multi-masted ships with great curved hulls, unlike any picture of Equestrian ships Dash had ever seen. The smaller, lower piers bustled with activity around small two-hulled sailboats coming and going. Most of them unloaded masses of green and yellow goop from nets. The peryton passing them by didn’t wear nearly as fancy jewellery as the inner city peryton. Dash saw a lot of sturdy rings and torques.

“Rainbow Dash does that at times,” Fluttershy said. “She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“Who?” Dash asked. Fluttershy smiled at her and shook her head.

“You,” said Rarity. “Asking questions and not listening to the answers.”

“Oh. Yeah, the Dockmistress thing,” Dash said. “Sorry.”

Mirossa shook her head. “I only said that the Dockmistress is paid to ensure that the docks run efficiently, but mama says that when the fleet is out, she often takes time to settle disputes between Houses, and that makes her important. She also receives all ravens. If there is one person who has read every scroll, it is her. All the ravens roost with her, and all word of their scrolls begins at her place.”

“We really just wanted to ask about the roads, and maybe introduce ourselves, so I’m sure this will be fine,” Fluttershy said, smiling at the doe. “If there’s someone else we should talk to before we leave, maybe she knows.”

“And hey, if anyone knows if there’s a boat for sale, it’s gotta be her,” Dash added.

“A ship sale? Maybe,” Mirossa said. “Or maybe that would be the Head of the House of Unbroken Wood. I do not know if they sell to those who are not a house. I have no thoughts on it. I do not spend a lot of time at the docks. I hear the scrolls as told by the criers—but this is it, here,” she said, gesturing to a large, sky-blue building smack dab in the middle of the waterfront.

The wooden structure ran all the way from the water to the join with the nearest city block, spanning the distance at a full four stories high. The top floor didn’t have walls, the roof jutting out far over the docks and streets to provide shade for an open section echoing with the chatter of ravens. Similarly, the ground floor missed an entire section, letting traffic pass underneath it. The greater part of the lower half of the building comprised of platforms for carts to load or off-load into what was clearly a warehouse of some sort.

“And this is all her office?” Dash asked. She let out a low whistle, following Mirossa towards a double set of doors set far apart from all the cargo work at the other end of the building.

“That is what the sign says,” said Mirossa, shrugging and gesturing to an unintelligible gilded sign above the open doors as though it explained everything, leading the ponies inside.

The large room contained a different energy from the hustle and bustle of the docks. Just as they entered, a few peryton left, offering them only the briefest of glances in passing. The other peryton didn’t even look up when the ponies stepped inside, most of them stood in twos and threes busily writing with quill and ink on reams of paper by the far wall—a wall entirely covered in a mess of scrolls of different sizes and abused by a chaos of nails and tacks that hadn’t been cleaned up in a long time.

“Are we certain this is the right place?” whispered Rarity, barely louder than the scratch of quills from the other side of the room. “I don’t know what function this room serves, but I don’t see any offices, meeting chambers or reception rooms.”

“It is where the scrolls go,” said Mirossa said, giving Rarity an odd look. “Word flies in, scrolls go on the wall, and the criers collect the stories and the questions to spread them.” Even as she spoke, a stag exited one of the room’s many side doors, carrying a scroll over to the wall and spearing it on a free nail. “This is the Dockmistress’s work. If she is not here, I don’t know where, but I have never met her.”

Rarity pursed her lips and nodded. When Mirossa made no further move, leaning against the wall by the door, Rarity cleared her throat, tugged at her mane with a touch of magic, and made for the stag, intercepting his exit from the room.

“Excuse me, do you have a moment? We’re here to see the Dockmistress, and I think she may be expecting us.”

She was probably the largest peryton they had seen so far. It was also—probably—the smallest room in all of Perytonia, though Dash had to admit that the first fact may have led to her concluding with the second. The Dockmistress’s coat was an even, dark grey, the only other colours on her body a white splash on her muzzle and belly. Consequently, the entire back wall of the room was dark grey with her presence. The huge raven didn’t help matters, its jet black feathers drinking the light of the lantern dangling from the ceiling.

Privately, Rainbow Dash suspected this doe did not spend a lot of time in her “office”, which really seemed more like a supply closet. She also noted that the doe—who had been scowling before the raven-tender even flagged her down and introduced the ponies—scowled a little less after the raven took an interest in Fluttershy. Presently, Fluttershy sat in one corner of the room exchanging quiet noises with the raven, a bird almost as big as she herself.

“Alright. You have cornered me,” said the doe, and Dash very much felt the opposite was true. “I am Dockmistress Ouressia. You say you are diplomats, and that is not a common word. What will you add to Phostos’ song today?”

“Well, first of all, we thought we would introduce ourselves,” Rarity said, smiling. “My name is Rarity, and this is Rainbow Dash, and the pony… charming your pet in the corner there is Fluttershy—Fluttershy, dear?”

Fluttershy nuzzled the raven’s beak and whispered. The raven responded with a wark, making Fluttershy giggle.

“Ahem, yes, well,” Rarity continued. “We have travelled all the way from Equestria to extend a hoof in friendship, as it were. I understand you received word that we would be travelling through here?”

Ouressia frowned for a second, returning the tiniest nod possible. “I remember receiving word from Cotronna and Ephydoera both. Ponies and Equestria, Equestrians in our lands, these are words I remember, so I have heard it. Friendship is good, and I believe Cotilla and other independent traders have mentioned the opulence of such a place. Equestria.”

Opulence?” Dash asked, her snout frumpled. She looked to Rarity for an explanation, but the large peryton went on, tapping a hoof on the wooden floorboards as she spoke.

“For Stagrum to trade with a city not of Perytonia, but all this complexity of diplomacy—yes. I can rouse the Houses who may be interested in trade and call a meeting to everyone’s benefit.” Her lips curved up in the closest approximation of a smile she’d shown yet. “It is strange and new, and no such accords have been struck during my office, but it may work. We will add to Phostos’s story with honest trade. What terms do you offer, and what does your city stand to give?”

Now Rarity stared back at Rainbow Dash, blinking with her mouth hanging half-open.

“Terms?” Dash asked, tilting her head. “Whoa, hold on a minute, we don’t know anything about that.” She glanced over at Fluttershy for support, the other pegasus meeting her eyes for a brief, confused moment. The raven stared as well.

“We’re here to invite Perytonia to a meeting,” Dash added. “The Princesses can probably fix all the ‘trade’ or whatever, we don’t know anything about that. I know less than nothing—I don’t even pay Pinkie Pie for muffins, I get them for free!”

The great doe nodded again, craning her neck down in what Dash assumed was agreement. “Unfortunate, but we will have to wait for second summer before ships are ready regardless, and with treaties, this will not be until next first-summer. We will work what is provided right now. Do you have maps? When is this, and which of the Houses do you wish to invite? Am I required to attend as well? You may wish me to. Certain Houses do not get along without someone to put them in their place.”

“I’m afraid I—well, we can’t really answer that,” said Rarity, balking. “I… think we are having two very different conversations right now. We have directions to bring this sigil to Cotronna, and I am sure the details will be worked out in time by your leader—”

“Then why are you here,” asked Ouressia, her head tilted a smidge. She swept a foreleg in front of her. “Why do you visit my office if you are not to invite Stagrum?”

“Uh, I mean, you’re invited, too,” Dash said. “We’re inviting Perytonia to this meeting thing.”

Ouressia frowned at them for a long moment. “You wish our presence, but you do not. Your words are not clear to me. Would this ‘sigil’ item not better be placed in my care, if it is the invitation?”

Rarity smiled a tight smile. “Well, that would be a little backwards, no? Miss, we are very pleased to make your acquaintance, but the reason we sought you out is because your city doesn’t seem to have any form of mayor, and we were told that you might be able to assist us.”

“Yeah, are you in charge of the roads, too? Because your roads are terrible,” Dash said.

“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity snapped. Fluttershy looked up from her …conversation with the raven? She quickly turned back to her other feathered friend, though.

“What? It’s true!” Dash said with a shrug. “We really just wanna know if you know anything about the road heading to Effy-whatever. Khaird said something about trouble in the north. What’s up with that? Oh, and yeah, if the roads are out, do you have any boats we can borrow? Three tickets to a ship going to Cotronna or something? Just asking.”

Ouressia shifted where she sat, repositioning one of her large hind-claws. The talons dug into the rough woodwork, and if Dash had earlier thought she had nailed peryton expressions, she was now proven wrong. The peryton flicked her ears and cracked her neck one way, then the other, but Dash couldn’t tell what went on inside her head just from looking at her.

“I am one to ask for ships, to give advice on passage,” Ouressia said, her voice flat and her words slower. “But I have nothing for you, and you will find little luck elsewhere, this I can say. Any ship worthy enough to brave the threat of first-summer storms are at sea already, and none will return for weeks. Ships from other cities are here, but will not leave until the seven suns have passed, and that will be weeks.

“As for the roads, you would better ask the carters, but which Stagrumite would know such things? Who would travel by road from Stagrum to the northern cities when they can go by sea? It is obvious that none would.”

“Yeah, obvious,” said Dash, giving Rarity her best and most sarcastic, flat look. Rarity shook her head and poked Dash in the side.

“If there are concerns,” the doe went on. “Ask Vauhorn or ask Ephydoera. Better yet, ask the Bent Feathers. They stick their snouts in all manner of business, and are better asked than I or any one trader House.”

“Okay, fine,” said Rainbow Dash. “Where can we find them?”

Ouressia blinked. “Where? They are peryton who do not roost. You may as well ask where to find the wind.”

“Wind? Cloudsdale. Easy,” said Dash, shrugging. “Hey, Rarity, do you think Mirossa knows where we can find these Bent Feathers?”

Rarity held up a foreleg. “Honestly, we’re making a bigger issue out of this than we should,” she said. “Miss, we’re simply trying to be prudent, and if you know anyone who can tell us a little about these roads and any potential problems, we’d appreciate it any assistance you might lend us in that respect.”

The peryton nodded slowly. “I could have one of my more inquisitive, talented protegés find them and ask for a report on the roads. There will always be some around the docks or resting houses, but if you ask time of me, I must ask something in return.”

Rainbow Dash grinned, her wings itching. “Sure. What do you need? Do you have a hydra problem? Please tell me you have a hydra problem.”

Ouressia bent forward and made a clicking sound with her tongue. The raven turned to face her, offered Fluttershy a parting caw to which Fluttershy waved and smiled, and let the bird fly over to perch on her antlers.

“No,” said the peryton. “I have a problem of wishing to get paid for my service. Preferably in bronze slivers.”

Mirossa got up and stretched when the ponies filed out of building, the smaller doe waiting by one of the piers stretching out to sea. “Where to next? Bronzeworks? Market?” she asked, falling in step with the ponies.

“Khaird didn’t ask to get paid for helping us,” Rainbow Dash said, ignoring Mirossa for the moment. She took off and flew at her friends’ side just to give her wings something to do. Mirossa stared at her, though she was much less obvious about it than Aroris had been at the festival.

“It was entirely reasonable of her to ask to get paid for her efforts,” Rarity retorted. “If these Bent Feathers are hard to find, doubly so. Do you think she was unfair? Or that she lied?”

“I don’t think she’d lie,” Fluttershy protested. “She didn’t seem like the type of person to do that at all.”

“Uh, yeah, you’d know from talking to her so much,” said Dash, rolling her eyes and laughing. “You didn’t say a word to her the entire time, you just talked to that raven.”

Fluttershy nodded and smiled, heedless of another, even stranger look from Mirossa. “Exactly,” said Fluttershy. “And the Dockmistress and the others there all take great care of the ravens, and Duskbeak only had good things to say about them. That’s how I know she’s a good person. She’s probably just a little grumpy around people.”

“That—uh. ‘Kay, that’s fair,” Dash admitted with a shrug. “I think Phydra mentioned something about these peryton being big on not being dishonest, anyway. Or maybe it was the stag I talked to at camp before you guys woke up, Anhast or whatever, I don’t remember.”

Rarity nodded at that. “We might also have said something wrong, or she could be having a bad day. Surely peryton have bad days, too, just like ponies do.”

Fluttershy glanced up at the sun, shielding her eyes with a hoof. “If the weather was always like this, I think I’d have more bad days, even.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Dash agreed with a snort. It took her a moment to remember what they were talking about. Or rather, what part of what they were talking about she took interest in. “Hey, Mirossa. Have you ever heard of the Bent Feathers?”

“Heard of? Yes, I have,” Mirossa replied immediately, as though she had been waiting for that exact question.

“D’you know where to find them?” Dash asked.

Mirossa shook her head. “Not always? They are not a House, so they do not keep a house-front, and the only times I see any of them is when they guest at the Autumn Hymn.” She sounded excited to Dash’s ears, suddenly brimming with energy. “They are strange, very unlike any others. Why do you ask of them? Do you know them? Are you meeting with them? May I follow?”

“Nah,” said Dash. “To all of those, I guess. If you knew where we could find them, we’d just have thrown away a bunch of gems for nothing at all.”

“I see,” said the doe, deflating a little.

“Gems we’ve already concluded mean very little to us,” Rarity added, holding up a hoof to forestall Dash’s protest. “And before you say anything, I agree Khaird was far more helpful and of a brighter disposition.”

“Let’s not try to say who’s been nicer, or less nice,” suggested Fluttershy, shaking her head to get some errant black feather-fluff out of her mane.

“Yeah. Fine, okay,” said Dash, shrugging. “Shame they don’t have any boats we can hop on, anyway. I guess we’ll have to hit the road again, ugh.”

“Mm, we knew that was a very real possibility,” Rarity said, but for a moment, just saying those words made the unicorn look as tired as she had when they walked the road between Orto and Stagrum.

“And we did promise we’d try to visit all the cities along the way,” Fluttershy said. “Or, I don’t remember if we promised, exactly, but Khaird said he’d be happy if we did.”

“Yeah yeah,” Dash said, again forced to agree. She sighed and landed in front of her friends, stopping them. “Okay, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be a total grump here, I just don’t like having to wait around. Walking is fine, waiting isn’t.”

“Ouressia said she’d have a report to us as soon as she was able,” Rarity replied. “We may as well make the best of it and enjoy ourselves. You’ve mentioned a market. What else is there?” Rarity asked Mirossa, taking a few steps citywards.

Fluttershy didn’t follow. The pegasus turned the opposite way at the exact same moment, trotting up to the edge of the main pier of this section of the docks.

Well past mid-day, the only thing that had changed at the waterfront was the light. Sparkling blue waters, weird two-bodied ships out close to shore, peryton milling about, and not a single—no, scratch that, one peryton out flying. Dash gave a silent cheer for the peryton who flew high above the water.

Fluttershy’s eyes weren’t on the sky, however. She looked out over the water, her wings half-spread. Curious despite herself, Rainbow Dash trotted up to her side, stopping right at the edge of the railing-less wooden platform jutting out over the water. Just past the furthest piers, some sea-creatures swam about. Rainbow Dash could just barely see what she guessed was the tops of their heads, and as they watched, the shapes swam in circles around a small peryton craft. The peryton either didn’t notice, or didn’t care.

“What are those?” Dash asked, squinting.

“I think they’re green snickersnouts,” said Fluttershy. “The book mentioned them. They’re very rare on the western coast of Equestria. I’ve never seen one before.” She leaned forward as though she could lean all the way past the nearby jutting piers to nuzzle one of them. Rainbow Dash automatically stuck out a foreleg to stop her from falling into the water.

“Are you coming?” called Rarity. The unicorn and their young guide stood a few paces away, looking their way. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, Rainbow Dash, do you think it would be alright if I went and said hello?” Fluttershy asked. She hovered off the ground, rubbing her hooves together and casting a longing look out to sea.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Why wouldn’t it be?” I mean, they’re like… wild animals, right? I don’t see any pens or stuff.”

“Well, um, I don’t, either,” Fluttershy admitted, casting a sweeping look across the docks.

“Besides, it’s not like they own them, is it? And you didn’t hesitate in grabbing the Dockmistress’s raven, and that was her pet.” Dash laughed.

“Oh, I guess you’re right, but I don’t know,” Fluttershy bit her lip. “I haven’t met many sea creatures at all, before. I said hi to a seal at the beach, but we’ve been in such a hurry travelling so far.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Rarity. She walked over to the water’s edge with Mirossa in tow.

“Hey, does anyone own those creatures out there?” asked Rainbow Dash. She waved a hoof in the vague direction of the things in the water.

Mirossa squinted, then shrugged. “No? Why and how would anyone? I have a cousin who said they upended his kelper, but I think he overloaded his boat. I have told you already, I do not love the sea, but I know they are wild.”

“See? Go for it, all yours,” Dash said, smiling.

Fluttershy didn’t go for anything at all. She stood very still, her wings wilting bit by bit. For every longing look she gave the snickersnouts, she cast two glances lengthwise along the port, no doubt counting all the peryton milling about. Peryton who’d probably mind their own business just fine, but Rainbow Dash already knew this would go nowhere if she didn’t do something.

“I, um, no, that’s okay,” Fluttershy said. She took a single step back, beginning to turn as though she meant to join Rarity, heading for the city—confirming Dash’s suspicions.

“Well, I’m going, at least,” said Rainbow Dash. She shed her saddlebags in one smooth motion, stepping off the platform to hover mid-air. “Hey, Rarity? If you and Mirossa are gonna go check out the market or whatever, can you take my saddlebags? They’re almost empty. I’ll meet you at the inn later and we can all go to the bathhouse if that’s cool.”

“Of course, dear,” said Rarity, quirking a brow. “But since when have you taken an interest in sea creatures?”

“I’ll see you later if you don’t wanna come along. Your call,” said Dash, flashing Fluttershy a grin.

Rainbow Dash didn’t bother looking back. She soared over the piers, pulling a few loops as she went along. Though they were only simple tricks she could—and sometimes did—pull off in her sleep, she couldn’t help but notice that the peryton didn’t pay her all that much attention. Casting little covert looks below to see what her audience was like was pretty much part of Dash’s every routine, but the peryton here didn’t see half as impressed as the citizens of Orto.

Rainbow Dash flapped her wings as hard as she could, flying straight up before she folded them, letting herself fall nearly all the way to the pier before she broke the fall. Another loop and she levelled out to fly alongside Fluttershy, slowing down to match her speed low along the water.

Nothing. A few kelp fishers looked up, barely more than a passing glance, and that was it. Already Stagrum was different from Orto in far more ways than Dash had expected: the buildings, the trading, the way they wore all manner of jewellery and their manners—for all that it was so different in a myriad ways, nothing struck Dash as stranger than the way the ponies were suddenly no longer the center of the attention. Rainbow Dash flipped to fly upside-down alongside Fluttershy. Even Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash probably had more in common than the two groups of peryton.

“Thank you,” said Fluttershy as they approached the shapes bobbing in the water up ahead. She offered Rainbow Dash one of those small smiles where she didn’t even look Dash in the eye, but Dash knew it was for her.

Rainbow Dash would’ve shrugged, but flying upside down, that’d probably land her in the water. She also could’ve played dumb and asked what she was being thanked for, but she knew that Fluttershy knew, so she didn’t bother.

No big loss anyway. She didn’t much feel like squeezing through the crowds to go look at the market, and seeing what kind of creatures lived in the ocean didn’t sound all that bad. If anything, she was annoyed that Fluttershy hadn’t just asked her to come along for support.

Then again, she kind of had, she just hadn’t used words.

Fluttershy eased herself into a hover right above the water, and Rainbow Dash did the same. Right below them, a half-dozen large furless heads poked out from the gentle waves, black eyes regarding them silently as the creatures bobbed up and down. Their muzzles were long and toothy, and their scales shone grey-green in the sunlight. Below the water, Dash could see their bodies were long and smooth—nearly three pony lengths in the case of the largest one—with flippers at the end of their tails, and two more sets of flippers on their sides. Flippers? Paddles? Side-tails?

“Ocean creatures are weird,” Dash declared.

“They’re beautiful,” Fluttershy said, squeezing her forelegs to her chest with joy, either ignoring or not hearing Dash. She lowered herself a little more until her hooves almost touched the water, proving she could be a precision flier when animal friendship was at stake. “Hello little snickersnouts,” she said, leaning as close as she could get to the largest, toothiest one. “I’m Fluttershy, and I’m ever so pleased to meet you!”

Little?” Dash mouthed soundlessly.

Two of the larger ones whistled. Or clicked. Or quacked. The strange sounds nearly made Dash fall straight out of the sky, first out of surprise, then again when she burst into laughter.

“What was that?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“I think it sounds lovely,” Fluttershy said. “They’re saying hello!”

“That’s the stupidest sound I’ve ever—augh!” Dash flapped madly to keep her balance when a spray of seawater blasted her in the face. She shook her head and wiped her eyes with the nook of a leg, glaring at a snickersnout right below her who tried to look innocent. Fluttershy giggled, and the other sea creatures whistled, chattered and clicked noisily.

“Okay, who did that?” Dash asked, glowering. “And how?

Fluttershy looked down at the calm waters below. She stifled her laughter and eased herself into the sea, folding her wings. Once she was afloat in an easy paddle, one of the smaller creatures swam up to her side and blew water out of the top of its head.

“They breathe through little blowholes on top of their heads, see?” Fluttershy said. “I guess they can spray water through them as well. You were a little rude.”

Dash rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I still think they’re strange. They can’t do anything about that.”

This time, she got to finish her sentence before a smaller spray of water hit her belly. She yelped and flew a little higher.

“Stop that!” Dash yelled.

“They just want to play,” Fluttershy said, though her smile faded a bit. “Um, you’re not mad, are you?”

Dash snorted hot air. “Of course not,” she said, glaring at the snickersnout she thought was responsible. It stared back at her. Though its eyes were entirely black, and she couldn’t really tell, she knew it stared at her.

“The water’s fine if you want to go for a swim, too,” Fluttershy said. “It’s a lot warmer than the rivers in Ponyville, even in summer.” She ducked her head under. When she surfaced, she was drenched, and her mane and tail floated lazily around her, dying the ocean pink. One of the snickersnouts nipped at her tail, and another popped up right in front of her, chattering. She smiled.

“Eh, I don’t know,” Dash said. Fluttershy seemed to be okay now. She didn’t pay any attention to the peryton working at the docks, and the other pegasus didn’t even seem to notice the small boat that sailed right past Fluttershy. “I think I’m just gonna go fly for a bit, actually. I’ll be around.”

“Okay,” said Fluttershy. She hesitated for a moment, tilting her head, and then traded a few whispered words with one of the snickersnouts. Rainbow Dash looked about for clouds, flying peryton or anything else interesting just when she became aware of something moving quickly below her. Dash dodged on instinct, thinking one of the creatures set up to spray her again.

A smaller snickersnout breached the surface, shooting out of the ocean to hang airborne right next to her, mid-air for a second before it crashed back down into the sea with a huge splash. Even as Dash watched, another one dove deep and came back up again as fast as it could, launching itself into the air. Fluttershy clopped her hooves together and gave a little cheer.

“Okay. Change of plans,” Dash declared. She stared at one of the green-snouted creatures below. “Fluttershy, you gotta tell them to teach me how to do that.”

Fluttershy smiled wide and nodded.

Rainbow Dash chased the snickersnout, kicking her legs with all her might. The slippery little thing did a twist and a loop in the water, as if to say I could beat you without a running start, taunting her. Dash paid him no mind. She was right behind him, now, using her wings as flippers. Awkward? Yes, but it worked. The snickersnout pushed away with his tail and all his flippers at once, breaching the surface at the exact same time as Rainbow Dash, two perfectly timed explosions of water, two shapes launching into the air.

The snickersnout had better speed leaving the water. He wasn’t weighed down by soggy feathers, he’d done this a million times, and he had more flippers. While Dash felt herself losing momentum, he kept flying up. The snickersnout twisted his body mid-air when it reached the apex of its ascent, and one of its eyes faced Dash. He probably smirked, in his own way.

Dash didn’t have four flippers. Dash had wings. She gave the wet and bedraggled things a solid flap. From any other pegasus, it might’ve been a futile gesture. A desperate gambit, trying to squeeze air-time out of soaked feathers.

Rainbow Dash shook the wet from her wings in a single move so forceful she left a few feathers behind. A halo of water formed around her, and as heavy as they were, the finest wings the world would ever know launched her up past the height the snickersnout had reached—and then some. Dash let out a loud whoop and furled her wings again, letting herself fall back into the sea in a headfirst dive.

When she surfaced again a moment later, her competitor rested in the water right next to her. A dozen chattering calls echoed around them, and the snickersnout, the loser let out a short burst of chatter. Fluttershy giggled, the other pegasus floating over by the main group of the creatures, a short distance away.

“Paddles says that you cheated,” she said, shaking her head. She made a poor effort of curbing her laughter and looking solemn.

“Hey, I’m just evening the odds,” Dash said, laughing. “I flapped once, and my wings are wet. It’s not my fault someone didn’t take the contest seriously. You know you could do better than that.” She eyed Paddles, and she already knew what was coming. She ducked the water-spray and nudged her mane out of her face. Paddles made a series of clicks and moved over to poke Dash in the belly with his snout, surfacing right next to her.

“He says it’s okay, you can have this one,” Fluttershy said, smiling. “He’s being very nice. You should say thank-you.”

“Uh-huh,” Dash said, awkwardly patting the smooth sea-creature on the top of the head, receiving another burst of clicks in return. “That’s what, twelve to one for him? Ten?”

Fluttershy swam a little closer. “Fifteen, actually.”

“Right,” Dash said with a grunt. A shadow passed over the sea, and she turned to see the sun closing on the horizon, the light slowly fading even as she watched. At some point, the sea had taken on a darker blue, no longer matching her coat. The water was still warm enough, though.

“I guess we should start heading back,” Fluttershy said. She looked at Rainbow Dash, rather than the city behind her.

“Yeah, probably,” said Dash with a sigh, but she didn’t feel like swimming back to the city just yet. Or at least, she didn’t feel like swimming. Dash drew breath and dove beneath the surface again.

Kicking away like she’d done just a minute ago, Rainbow Dash picked up speed. When she breached, she flapped her wings as quickly as she could, shaking off as much water as possible. She only barely managed to keep herself above water and in flight, and her wing-muscles strained with the effort at first, but with every wingbeat it got easier. She tossed her mane and shook her tail, grinning at Fluttershy who still floated in the water, staring at her.

“What?” she asked, laughing.

Fluttershy shook her head, swimming slowly backwards, her eyes still on Rainbow Dash. “I don’t think I could do that,” Fluttershy said, chewing on her bottom lip. “I didn’t know you could do that. That’s very impressive.”

Rainbow Dash felt her chest tingle pleasantly, smiling wider still. “Yeah? Hey, I didn’t know I could do that,” she admitted, running a hoof through her mane. “That was actually pretty cool. Uh, thanks.” She flew a little closer to Fluttershy, offering a hoof. “Need a lift? Wanna see if I can drag you out of the water, too? Or d’you wanna try yourself?”

“Oh, no,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “No, I’ll just swim—oh. Oh my,” she squeaked, and Dash flew a little higher, staring in confusion as Fluttershy rose out of the water.

“What the—” was as far as Dash got before she saw the shiny grey-and-green head underneath her. One of the snickersnouts lifted her up, and then another one joined it. Fluttershy nearly rolled off, but Dash reached down to steady her, and soon Fluttershy lay atop two snickersnouts who swam towards the shore. It looked for all the world like she skimmed atop the waves without effort, at rest like she lay on a sofa.

“For the record,” said Dash, “That is awesome.” She flew as close to the waves as she could, right at Fluttershy’s side, and Fluttershy only laughed in return, thanking the two large sea-creatures who carried her.

If the only thing the peryton afforded them before were the occasional glance from passing boats laden with kelp, now they had their attention. The Stagrumites still working at the docks lined up and pointed at the strange yellow creature who rode the waves to the shore, backlit by the sun and trailed by breaching snickersnouts with their chattering, clicking song.

Fluttershy hardly seemed to notice. Perhaps she didn’t know they were there. Perhaps the peryton were simply less interesting to the mare than the chaos of the snickersnouts playing around them. Whatever the case, Fluttershy’s eyes rested on Rainbow Dash, smiling at her, and it was all Dash could do to smile back.

A minute later, Fluttershy stepped off onto the lower docks and leaned down to nuzzle the sea-creatures, saying her goodbyes, and one by one, the peryton went about their own business again. Rainbow Dash couldn’t even pretend that any of them had looked at her. With that entrance, not a single set of eyes would be upon Rainbow Dash, and in that moment, for once she found that she didn’t mind.

Rainbow Dash landed at Fluttershy’s side, leading the way up the stairs to the docks proper.

“We probably have to ask someone for directions back to the Autumn Hymn,” said Fluttershy. “Unless you remember where it is?”

“I didn’t even remember the name,” Dash admitted, chuckling. “Let’s head into the city and ask someone!”

The two ponies pointed their snouts towards the city and its darkening streets, dripping wet and with tails dragging along the dusty streets. Fluttershy had missed her chance to quail under the spotlight, and Dash couldn’t stop smiling.