• 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 7

Fluttershy,

I got your letter, and if you don’t mind me saying, it’s mighty strange to send letters to your neighbours. I’m not complaining, mind. The most I’ve seen of you so far was when me and the family came by to welcome you to town, and that was a good long while ago. We hadn’t even expanded the northern fields when you took up in that old cottage. How many years ago is that, now?

Anyway, I reckon’ this is about last night. If that feather-brain’s still bothering you, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll always stand up for anypony, and while I might not know you as well as I should (again on account of being neighbours), you’re no exception to that.

If you want to talk, you should just come by the farm. Don’t mind if I’m out working. You just holler at me. I’m never too busy to chat so long as you don’t mind I keep up the farmwork.

-AJ


Getting back to the inn took longer than Rainbow Dash would have liked, but at the very least the streets were less packed in the evening. Presumably, the peryton of Stagrum went about their business indoors after dark, and the magical globes they had seen only indoors in Orto were plentiful here, clusters of them crowning lamp-posts down every major street. They had to ask for directions more than once, but owing in part to good help finding their way back quickly, and in part to the fading sunlight, their manes were still wet when Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash returned to the Autumn Hymn.

“There you are!” exclaimed Rarity. The unicorn stood by the too-tall bar bench with Mirossa and her mother, sipping on a bowl of some sweet-smelling liquid. “I was starting to wonder if we had to go looking for you two.”

“Oh no, we’re sorry, Rarity,” Fluttershy said. “I guess we lost track of time. We didn’t mean to make you worry.” She lay her ears flat and tried to duck behind her mane, but the unruly wet hairs clung to her neck.

“Don’t you worry about me dear,” said Rarity, pushing her drink away. “Look at the two of you! You’re an absolute mess!”

“It’s just water,” Dash said with a shrug, pushing a lock of hair away from her face. “What’ve you been up to?”

Rarity trotted up to Fluttershy and sheathed some of the pegasus’s mane in a soft blue glow, working her magic along as a crude comb. She frowned deeply as she spoke, while Fluttershy resigned herself to Rarity’s ministrations with a muttered thank-you and a smile.

“Mirossa and I visited their market, and it was quite the thing, just as she suggested,” Rarity said, working through a tangle of pink hair. “I picked up some knick-knacks and a few little trinkets I would love to show you, as well as some fabrics I haven’t quite decided how I feel about. I’ve spent some time with my dress plans—but I’m getting ahead of myself. We walked by their bronzeworks on the way back here, since I had a hunch we didn’t need to hurry.”

“Sorry, again,” Fluttershy muttered.

“Oh come on, it’s fine,” said Dash, poking her in the side with a moist wing. Her feathers were a mess. Both of their wings were, really. She spread one of her own wings fully, critically inspecting her primaries while Rarity went on.

“Their mint, bronzeworks, call it what you wish, well, it was—ah, let us say industrious. Impressive in some ways.”

“It’s messy work, not beautiful work,” Mirossa added, putting away her own empty drink bowl. “All bronze slivers come from Stagrum.”

“After that, we headed back here. I’ve been having a little chat with Mirossa and Naressa, though quite honestly, we haven’t been back for very long.” Rarity shook her head and let Fluttershy’s mane fall back to her side with a desultory, sodden flop. “I hope you’ve had a good time? Shall we see about that bath?”

“A bath? We’ve spent hours in the sea, that’s as bath-y as it gets,” Dash said, laughing, but some proper hot water wasn’t the worst idea she’d heard. Walking through the growing cold all wet hadn’t been very pleasant. Plus, salt. She licked one of her forelegs experimentally, but it wasn’t as tasty as she’d hoped. Her coat was crusty.

“I think a hot bath would be nice,” suggested Fluttershy. She looked down at the small but growing pool of seawater below the two pegasi and rubbed at her snout, sniffling.

Rarity already had her saddlebags on. “I brought some gems. It should be right across the street, and they opened at sundown. Come on girls, let’s go.”

“Somepony’s rearing to go,” said Dash, grinning. She hadn’t seen Rarity this excited in a long time.

“Darling, we’ve been on the road for nearly a week,” Rarity retorted, apparently feeling like that was a full answer. She paused at the door, looking back over her shoulder, past Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. “Are you coming?”

Mirossa looked left, right, at her mother, and finally at Rarity. “Me?” she asked.

“You, dear. My treat. Or, rather, our treat. If you have a bathhouse, clearly you peryton bathe.” Rarity waved her over with a flick of her head.

“Is it okay, mama? May I?” asked Mirossa with a big-eyed look at her mother.

“Of course you may go,” Naressa said, smiling at her daughter. She gave her a gentle push with one of her wings, scooting the doe along, and Mirossa happily let that momentum carry her all the way out the door. Dash shrugged and smiled, as did Fluttershy, and the group of four crossed the street without a word, making for a large and well-lit stone building with wide open doors. Mirossa named it the Pearl Road Bath-House. Apparently not all of their stuff had weird names.

“I really could go for some food, too,” Dash said, her stomach gurgling as they mounted the low stairs. A pair of does passed by them on their way out. The two grey and brown does stared at them as they went, rustling and tinkling with silver and gems from antler, ear, tail and wing-feather.

“Did you eat while you waited for us?” asked Fluttershy.

“No, I thought I would wait for you. Surely this city has restaurants,” Rarity suggested. “Cafés? Eating places of some description? We saw something of the sort while we wandered.”

“Didn’t Naressa or whatever her name is say they had food at the inn?” asked Dash before Mirossa could answer. “Uh, ‘house’, whatever. Let’s ask her. It smelled great in there.” She’d walked plenty enough for one day.

“Mama will be happy to hear that, and if you take her up on her offer of food, she will be even happier… happier still,” Mirossa said, trailing off and sounding as sincere as she sounded distracted as they stepped inside the large entrance chamber of the bath-house.

To Dash’s eyes, there wasn’t much to see. The square room was almost featureless: In the middle of every wall was an identical door, and in every corner a stone basin or a tiny fountain—whatever one wanted to call them. In the middle of the room waited a bored-looking peryton attendant with jewels hanging from every antler-tip and gleaming bands around the bases of her wings.

Apparently this was all very impressive. Rarity nodded appreciatively as she approached the attendant, and Fluttershy looked up and above, alerting Dash to the presence of some green lichen, moss or other form of greenery hanging from a balcony circling the chamber one floor up. Dash hung back with Mirossa and Fluttershy while Rarity sorted stuff out, more interested in Mirossa’s reaction than inedible plant decorations.

“Why’re you acting like you haven’t been here before?” Dash asked. “I thought your mom said you didn’t have baths at your place, so isn’t this where you bathe?”

The young doe frowned. “Do I look like one who carries the bronze for the Pearl Road? We visit the wavefront baths when we wish to treat ourselves—this place is expensive, for those with more than they can trade away. I think the does who just left were heiresses to the House of Harvest.”

“Alright, cool,” said Dash with a shrug. She didn’t know what else she could say without asking a bunch more stupid questions, but clearly this was a classy place in the eyes of others. She should’ve realised the moment she stepped inside and felt a vague sense of boredom wash over her.

“I… think maybe there’s a problem?” Fluttershy said, tilting her head.

Sure enough, Rarity and the attendant were clearly disagreeing on something. The peryton gestured to the left door, then the right one, talking too low for Dash to hear.

“—you can ask her for yourself, then!” Rarity snapped at the stone faced peryton. “Rainbow Dash! Would you be a dear and come here a moment? There seems to be a bit of confusion.”

“Uh, okay?” Dash asked. Rarity’s voice was entirely too sweet, the kind of angry that Rainbow Dash really did not like being around. She strode to the center of the room, Fluttershy and Mirossa following close by. The peryton attendant raised her snout a smidge and gave her an arch look. She gestured to the door to her left.

“There is no confusion. Stags to your left, does to the right, that is all we ask,” the attendant said. “If our rules are not well-liked in your sight, you may go elsewhere.”

Rarity huffed. “I assure you, dear, that is fine. Even if I wished to quarrel with the way you conduct your business—and I do not—it doesn’t matter. We are not peryton, surely you can see that—”

“Yes, this I see,” the peryton said, her voice flat.

“—and while we don’t use the words ‘stag’ and ‘doe’ as ponies, our stallions and mares correspond perfectly well, which also matters exactly nothing at all, because Rainbow Dash here is not a he!”

“Wait. What?” Dash asked, blinking.

“What?” said Mirossa.

“Oh,” said Fluttershy.

The attendant gestured to Rainbow Dash with a hoof, opened her mouth, then closed it again without a word. She exhaled through her snout, shaking her head before turned her attention to Rarity again. “You expect me to believe that this is not a—well, whatever you call the males of your kind?”

“You think I’m a guy?” Dash asked, her voice cracking on that final word. Her mouth hung open and she tried to poke her brain into action, she truly did.

“You are not?” Mirossa asked, her eyes wide.

“You thought she was a stallion too?” Fluttershy blurted.

“Augh!” groaned Rarity, throwing her head back. She rounded on the attendant with gritted teeth, brandishing a green gem from her pouch like a weapon. “I have not had a proper bath in a week. I have walked more since I arrived in this dried-out, sun-scorched land of yours than I have ever before in my life, and I will not be denied soap and hot water, not by you, not by anyone! If you don’t believe that Rainbow Dash is a mare, you can check for yourself, but I. Will. Bathe.


“That was, um… awkward,” said Fluttershy, finally breaking the silence. She dipped a hoof in the water and drew little circles.

“Uh-huh,” said Dash. She let her wings float freely, still struggling to work out what had really happened, but at least Rarity got her bath in the end, so the world had not ended. The unicorn, Rainbow Dash and Mirossa all soaked in what couldn’t rightly be called a hot tub so much as an indoor pool full of near-scalding water. Though the majority of the stone pool ran a little deep for the group—probably intended for adult peryton—there was a shallow end near the copper pipes that served perfectly. The excess water poured away next to Rainbow Dash, creating a pleasant flow.

The rest of the room was all bright white stone or wood-panelled walls, completed by a few long benches, some deep-green plants, and a corner stele full of gibberish letters. From the other side of a high wall, past where Fluttershy tested the waters, they could hear faint voices from stags perusing the other baths.

The other baths, in this case meaning the half of the bathhouse distinct from their half. The half Rarity hadn’t been forced to rent to prevent ‘potential damages to the reputation of the establishment’ for letting such ‘diverse’ people into the baths together in a public room of high repute. Diverse.

“Seriously, though. You too? What the hay?” asked Dash. “You thought I was a stallion, a stag or whatever?” She didn’t even have to look at Mirossa. She could feel the embarrassment radiating from the doe all the way from the other side of the shallows.

“None of you have coloured feathers, and your friends’ colours are simpler—” Mirossa said, earning a tiny huff from Rarity for that word, “—but you have all this hair, yours more colourful than theirs! Doe wing feathers are plain—tail-feathers too, in comparison to stags. Your hair screams stag to me, I’m sorry!”

Rainbow Dash shook her head. She wanted to be insulted and laugh all at the same time, but she just couldn’t be bothered in either case. She sent waves over to the other side of the pool with lazy sweeps of her wings, breathing slowly. The water was so hot, it bled away all her concerns.

Most of them, anyway, until she took a moment to think back.

“Wait, wait, hang on, hold the cart,” Dash said, suddenly wide awake again. “So you mean that your mom, and all the peryton we’ve met all along probably think I’m a stallion? Everyone?”

“I don’t know!” Mirossa shot, flicking at the water with her tail-feathers. “Maybe? How the feint would I know? It is not an insult!”

“We did have to explain it to Khaird, remember?” Fluttershy asked, smiling at Rainbow Dash.

“I know,” Dash grunted, any leftover annoyance fading as she watched Fluttershy finally slip into the water, her breaths shallow and quick while she got used to the temperature. Dash grinned.

“Oh, oh my, this is really hot. Oh goodness,” said Fluttershy.

“Mm, well, if peryton are used to the weather here, they would want their baths hot enough to feel it,” Rarity offered, though she seemed perfectly at ease, leaning back against the rim of the pool with her eyes closed. “Rainbow Dash, you’re not upset about this little mix-up, are you?” asked Rarity.

“Who, me?” Dash asked. “No, probably not? I don’t know, really, it’s just really, really weird. I’m a mare, okay? Like one of your does.” That earned a rapid few nods from a dejected Mirossa.

“I’m sure that some of the peryton probably guessed you are a she,” said Fluttershy. She sunk down in the water to soak her mane, her eyes and her muzzle barely above the water when she surfaced. “If they thought it really mattered, I’m sure they would’ve asked.” She paused with a lopsided smile. “I’m still having a hard time with it myself. It was especially difficult in Orto with all their dye powders and everything, but I hope it’s okay to want to ask.”

“Why would it not be fine to ask? I would have, if I thought it mattered, as you said,” Mirossa said, nodding at Fluttershy.

“I’m way past it, whatever. I don’t know if I care that much,” Dash muttered. “Heh, I wonder if Aroris thought she was hitting on a ‘stag’, though.” She snorted with laughter and glanced over at Fluttershy, but the other pegasus didn’t say much to that, her smile fading a little as she spread her wings, letting the feathers surface.

Idly, Dash noted that Fluttershy’s wings were an even bigger mess than she’d suspected. It took effort not to wade over there and sort her feathers out right now, but it’d be futile while they were in the water. Besides, there was something else that’d bothered her.

“Don’t you guys paint your feathers? Ever?” Dash asked. Fluttershy mentioning the colourful chaos in Orto reminded her that unless the Stagrumites took a lot greater care with their dyes than they had in the other city, she hadn’t seen a single painted feather so far.

“No. Why would we?” asked Mirossa. “I think a guest at the Hymn told me that it is custom in Orto, but to me it sounds confusing and strange. Did we not see minutes ago how much confusion can come from colour?”

“That’s not my fault,” Dash grumped, but the contrast between Orto and Stagrum wouldn’t go away. ”Anyway, you don’t have any of those scarves they wear, either. Really thin, colourful scarves?”

“No?” Mirossa said, her head at a precarious sideways tilt. “Why?”

“Dunno. It’s just weird,” said Dash, shifting a tiny bit closer to the warmer end of the shallows. “The Ortosians did a bunch of stuff that you don’t do at all.”

“We did visit during the middle of a huge festival, remember,” said Fluttershy, and though that was true enough, she sounded less than perfectly convinced herself.

“It’s still weird that there’s nothing of that here,” said Dash. She squinted. “Wait, that festival was gonna go on for a week. Isn’t the last day today or tomorrow? No wait, more! Your weeks are extra long, so it should definitely still be on!” She fixed Mirossa with a look, searching for any signs of recognition. “The festival of Myrtella, the love and harvest thing, you don’t celebrate it at all?”

“No,” said Mirossa yet again, frowning this time. “A weeklong festival dedicated to Myrtella? Maybe that sounds like a thing that Orto would do, but no, we don’t do anything like that.”

Fluttershy blinked. “‘Sounds like’? You didn’t know they had a festival at all? A city-wide festival?”

“I will wear out the word ‘no’, I think,” said Mirossa, her frown deepening still. “Why all these questions? I try to answer, but there is always two more!”

“Fine!” said Dash holding up a hoof. “I’m just asking! I think it’s weird that you don’t know what’s up in Orto, that’s all. They’re your neighbour city, like Trotheim is to Ponyville, right?”

“We hardly keep abreast of every little local festival in the neighbouring towns,” murmured Rarity, proving that the unicorn had not, in fact, fallen asleep. “Do give her some peace, won’t you? Her, and myself.”

Little festival?” Dash echoed. “This isn’t like not knowing about whatever Trotheim does when we have our Apple Family Hoofenanny. It’s like… like not knowing about the Grand Galloping Gala, except bigger—or the Wonderbolts Circuit. Bigger than even that! The circuit’s just three days!”

Rarity sighed and smiled at Mirossa. Rainbow Dash recognised the smile. She’d seen it many times before. I’m sorry about my friend, it said, but at least the unicorn stirred, one half-lidded eye upon the peryton.

“Speaking of something, of anything else, I do like your antler-wear,” said Rarity.

“It’s lovely,” Fluttershy chimed, nodding her agreement. “They’re like mane clasps for horns—or antlers, in your case.”

Mirossa tilted her head up as though she could see the metal in her antlers, clearly seizing upon the topic change with hunger. “What, my caps and my rings?”

“Mhm. Are they purely decorative?” Rarity asked. “They’re just jewellery?”

The young doe stared at Rarity for a moment, blinking. “They are that and more. They tell others about yourself, of course.”

“We don’t really know anything about them,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “Maybe you’d like to tell us a little about them? I’d love to hear.”

Rainbow Dash expected Mirossa to smile at that. If she’d been a little annoyed before, surely being asked about herself would bring out one of those slightly creepy, toothy peryton smiles, but Mirossa didn’t look all that excited at all. She simply nodded.

“Mine say that I am looking for a House or a trade, or for Daros’ stories to aid in finding a path upon which I can walk—a seeker’s constellation,” the doe said. She moved her mouth as though she yawned, to no sound, idly poking at the water. After a second’s hesitation, her antler-tips glowed, and she popped one of the caps off. She levitated the silver thing in front of the three ponies, a shiny dome-shaped object with a spiral pattern engraved on its tip.

“This one in particular cost much. I ran errands for the House of the Falling Sky for a long time to afford it. Anyone who looks close can tell that I am dedicated to my pursuit of finding a place that can appreciate what I offer. I am… still looking.”

“That’s cool,” said Dash, smiling at the doe. If she’d worked hard for the stuff she wore, good for her. Dash could appreciate that.

“That’s lovely, dear,” said Rarity, leaning a little closer for a better look. “Exquisite detail, in fact, but you say there is a language to it, as well?”

“A language? That may be too much to say,” Mirossa replied. She tried to put the cap back on, but missed her antler-tip over and over until Rarity waded a little closer and sheathed the cap in the glow of her own magic.

“Please, let me.”

“Thank you. And yes, it is to look pretty, and to speak. The two does who left when we entered the bathhouse, I think they mostly wanted to say that they can afford to trade for that which they wore, but mama’s antler-rings are a dedication to Phostos, to the even trade. She keeps her bangles for holidays and for when she visits someone special.”

“Trust me, if there ever was a mare who could understand that, I am she,” said the unicorn, fully alert now. “But if at least part of their function is decorative, are there any venues where peryton go to simply… display them, as it were?”

Mirossa blew hot air, the steam swirling about. “To display? I am not sure I understand.”

Rarity chewed the inside of one of her cheeks, hesitating, but Rainbow Dash already knew what the unicorn was after.

“Catwalks. Fashion show… uh, places,” Dash suggested. “If you got a fancy new dress—some really cool caps and shiny bits you want to show off, where’d you usually go?”

Rarity scoffed. “Rainbow, you make this sound so crude, like I’m looking to flaunt my dresses!” She shook her head quickly and turned back to Mirossa. “We ponies have our own type of wear—well, I say ‘we’, but I like to think I have a style of my own.” She touched a hoof to her chest and sniffed. “Creating fashion is one of our forms of self-expression, both through creating something wonderfully unique, and through wearing it. If I have something new to show, where might I do this?”

“I still don’t think I understand,” said Mirossa, her face completely blank. “Or perhaps it is you who do not. If you have something to offer, then you take it to market. We only visited the outer markets, but the far markets are better for this. I can take you back tomorrow if you wish?”

“I—hm. Well, if that is our only option,” said Rarity, sighing. “A city of this size without a single catwalk? I don’t know if I quite believe it. Now I know we’ve travelled far abroad.”

Neither Rainbow Dash nor Fluttershy commented on that, and Mirossa paddled over to the deep end, swimming about for a little while. On the other side of the dividing wall, the voices got a little louder and a door slammed twice, then all went silent. Rarity closed her eyes again, leaning her head back against the rim, and Fluttershy ducked beneath the water, surfacing with her mane freshly wet.

“So no feather paints here at all,” Dash asked. The previous conversation still stuck around in her head, like an itch just under a wing. “D’you know if they have antler-stuff or jewellery or whatever in Orto?”

“I don’t know. Some gems travel south along the road,” Mirossa replied, swimming in circles. “Many things do, but if I wished to study trade, I would study trade. I think most of what we get from the cliffside mines stays here. Ask mama.”

“But they know about ‘Phostos’” Dash asked, the names of these Aspect things still ungainly in her mouth. “And you said you know about Myrtella.”

“Of course. All do,” said Mirossa, swimming over to the very far end, holding on to the edge of the pool with a foreleg to keep herself afloat.

Dash squinted. “So do you have like… a Phostos festival instead, then?” That’d make sense. Maybe it was like a travelling circus, except without the travelling. Or the circus. But if they all celebrated different things, like the Wonderbolts held different shows in different cities each year, then—

The doe let out a short caw of laughter. “Festival to Phostos? No. Why would we? Every day we trade. Festivals do not relate to the Aspects. A festival is what happens when the fleet returns, and the fleet’s return creates stories in Selyria and Helesseia’s names, stories of Ilyra and Phostos, but the festival is for the fleet and its sailors!”

Or not.

Mirossa swam back to the shallow end, fixing Dash with a look. “You ask but you don’t like the answers. Or, do you smile now? I cannot tell.”

“I did suggest we give the questions a rest a while back, if you do recall,” Rarity said with a weary sigh. “This is why I take Fluttershy to the spa and not you, dear.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making conversation, really,” said Fluttershy, shrugging.

“I’m not not smiling,” Dash retorted, though she felt her snout frumple even as she said it. “I’m not angry anyway, I just don’t get you guys.” She shook her head and looked to Fluttershy for support, for anything, but the other pegasus looked as helpless as Dash felt that moment. Something annoyed Dash still, and she didn’t know what.

Or maybe that was a lie, and she did know why. Maybe she’d already figured it out, and it had nothing to do with all the little differences she kept poking at. It wasn’t about how different the buildings here were, it wasn’t about feather paint or jewellery. She’d had a thought earlier today when she flew over the docks, and now it returned.

“It’s just like you guys have nothing in common,” said Dash. “The peryton in Orto were way different.”

She waited for Rarity to protest that, not so much because she thought the unicorn would disagree, but because Rarity clearly wanted silence. If Rarity tried to suggest that maybe this was like fashion—that it was ‘just like Canterlot and Manehatten differing in fashion styles’—Rainbow Dash had her answer ready: To her it was more like snickersnouts and geese than it was one dress and, well, another dress.

Rarity didn’t protest at all. The unicorn simply watched, waited with interest now.

“I wish we could’ve stayed in Orto longer,” said Fluttershy at length. “The feather painting looked fun, really, and they all seemed like one big, happy family, in a way. Um, well. I mean, maybe we could’ve stayed together, or not been at the middle of the festival, but I’d—”

“Exactly!” said Dash. “They were all happy and nice, not at all grumpy like the Dockmistress, or the doe who made us pay extra for this place! I don’t know, it just feels like the peryton here don’t care about people as much as they did in Orto.”

“Mm, or maybe you’re disappointed with the peryton here because they don’t hang at your every move, and that they don’t fawn over us simply because we walk down the street,” said Rarity.

“Yeah yeah,” Dash muttered, waving the comment off with a wing, spraying water in Rarity’s general direction. “Like you didn’t like being the centre of attention in Orto.”

“Why would you think that?” Mirossa asked.

“What?” Dash asked, and one look at Mirossa taught her what went for indignant in peryton body language, her neck pulled back and her eyes in a squint.

“I don’t know too much about Orto. It is not my city, but why would you think we of Stagrum do not care about each other?” She scowled. “That is simply not true!”

“I didn’t say you don’t care, jeez—” Dash said.

“Actually, you did,” Fluttershy said, her ears splayed.

“—and how can you say you don’t know about Orto?” Dash continued. “That’s exactly what I don’t understand! Just before we left, you were puffing your chest out over how you’re making the bronze bits for all of Perytonia! Aren’t they part of Perytonia?”

“Of course they are, and of course I know of Orto!”

“Yeah, duh,” said Dash. “You’re neighbours, how can you not? But if you know them, why aren’t you more like them? Why aren’t you guys friends?” Dash asked.

“Friends? We are different cities!”

“So what’s wrong with the other cities?”

“Nothing! Just like there is nothing wrong with how we care about one another here in Stagrum! We have our families, and we love them. We have our House, and we love them too—though I don’t have one yet,” she said, gesturing at the silver adorning her antlers. “When I find those who will have me, I will bond with those I work with, like wagon-teams who bond in love, like those who find each other under Ilyra at sea. I don’t understand why this is difficult, clearly you love your own House or whatever you call it, if you are travelling this far for them!”

“Fine!” Dash snapped. “I get it, I didn’t mean it like that!” She rolled her eyes and sank down into the water until just her ears and eyes poked out.

“We don’t actually have Houses,” said Rarity, gracing the doe with a smile. “We are on a diplomatic mission for Princess Celestia and Princess Luna in Canterlot. I don’t think it’s quite the same.”

“So, the markings on your flanks, they are not House identifiers?” Mirossa asked, blinking.

Dash’s sigh blew bubbles. She poked the tip of her muzzle out of the water, her voice distorted. “No, they’re cutie marks.”

“A reflection of our special talents,” Rarity added, raising one of her forelegs out from the water. “We can give you the short version on our way back to our rooms. We’re expecting that letter from the Dockmistress, and hopefully one with good news about the road to this Ephydoera place.”

Another slam of the door from the other side of the wall. Dash looked at the wall as though she could see through it, but a moment later, it was all quiet again. Perhaps the bath-house’s opening hours were almost over. Rarity must have reached the same conclusion.

“I think I am about as clean as I am likely to get. Shall we dry up, girls?”


Fluttershy had even managed to get some of her winglets tangled with her coverts, and the less said about her secondaries the better. She lay on one of the beds with her mane and tail wrapped in towels for a second round of drying, and Rainbow Dash sat at her side, nudging at feathers with her muzzle. She hadn’t even done anything yet, not sure where to start. Dash sighed, receiving a blush and an apologetic glance from the wings’ owner, who managed both to guess the source of Dash’s exasperation, and to listen to Rarity rather more attentively than Dash herself.

Dash grabbed another bite of the yellow paste-balls on the plate they shared between them. Mirossa’s mom could really cook. Whatever this spiced vegetable mush was, it tasted delicious. She wiped her muzzle thoroughly on the bed sheets when Rarity wasn’t looking, and got to work.

“—so since Mirossa so kindly offered to take me back to market, I was hoping we could all go together tomorrow,” Rarity said, levitating up one of the new dresses-in-making, giving it a critical look before she went to work with her needle again. “That is, if you’re willing to model again, and if you both agree. We’d be delaying our departure from Stagrum for a day, too.”

“I think that’d be… nice,” said Fluttershy. “Another day to rest would be good for all of us. And of course I’ll help, especially if we could do it when there aren’t quite as many people.” She spread her wing a little more when Dash poked her in the side. They’d long since stopped needing to talk while doing this.

“People are rather the point of this,” Rarity said. “Though… I suppose we can try to avoid the worst of it,” she continued in a softer tone. “If only because I’m thinking of heavier fabrics this time. It’d be cruel to ask you to model in the midday sun if I’m using anything more than a single layer of cotton.”

Rarity sighed and folded the dress again, rooting around in the supply chest at her side. “This would be a lot easier if Naressa or Mirossa could tell me what sort of reception to expect.”

“I’m sorry,” Fluttershy said. “They don’t really seem to understand what dresses or even clothes are about, so I guess we’ll just have to see. Maybe we could show Naressa the dresses as they are and ask her what she thinks?”

“Perhaps before we leave tomorrow,” Rarity replied around a few pins between her lips. “Even if she thought they were awful, she’s just one peryton, but anything is better than no reaction at all, as I gather you received in Orto. Don’t get me wrong, darling, I hardly expect to spark a fashion revolution, but...” She sighed again, louder this time, lapsing into silence having offered no alternative, and it was all Dash could think that Rarity hoped for exactly that.

Rainbow Dash ran her muzzle between Fluttershy’s primaries all in turn, giving the obstinate ones a little tug. Fluttershy did a good job of holding her wing straight, as she always did. What was it Rarity had said, days ago? While they waited for the other pegasus at the cliffs, she’d said something about it being weird for Rainbow Dash to help Fluttershy out with her preening.

Well, what did Rarity expect? Fluttershy was terrible at it. Probably. Besides, other pegasi helped each other out all the time. Also probably. Dash grabbed another mouthful of food and cleaned her muzzle again.

Granted, she didn’t actually know of any other grown pegasi who preened each other, but she couldn’t remember asking anyone either, and what she didn’t know might as well be true as it was untrue, so, whatever.

“Clearly they have the capacity to communicate through fashion already,” Rarity mused. “And a well-made outfit can say just as much, if not more than any jewel-headdress. It makes me wonder if the feather-paints in Orto were a language of their own.”

When Dash went for another snack, she could see below Fluttershy’s wing that Rarity held an assortment of antler-jewellery in her magic. With pursed lips, the unicorn slipped a simple silver ring with a loose chain onto her horn.

“Maybe,” said Fluttershy. “But I don’t know what they could be trying to say by rolling around in colours.” She giggled and shook her head before gesturing to the jewellery Rarity toyed with. “Do you know what the jewellery you bought ‘means’?” She shifted where she sat, but settled down when Dash made a wordless noise of protest.

“Oh, yes,” Rarity said airily. “I asked Mirossa about it while you were getting our food. They have no meaning beyond signifying a connection to Daros and Phostos. If Phostos is the Aspect of fair trades and promises, Daros I believe is the Aspect of adventure and such. Quite fitting if we are going to be trekking along the road for another week.” She shook her head and her smile waned. Almost as an afterthought, she magicked her jewellery, the dress, and one of the food platters all over to the other bed—claimed as her workbench—and lay down to continue her work while eating.

“You really should try the kelp cakes,” said Fluttershy. “Naressa’s kelp cakes are really good. I didn’t like the ones they had in Orto, but these are delicious. I think it’s the sea salt.”

“Darling, when I say the kelp cakes made me ill, I am not trying to be dramatic. I mean just that,” said Rarity, grabbing a plate of some clear jelly-like things with leaves inside. “They really did not agree with me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, her wings closing on reflex. Dash saw it coming, though, wedging a hoof under Fluttershy’s wing, causing the other pegasus to yelp and give another muttered sorry while Dash continued her work uninterrupted. Rarity, on the other hoof, had made all of two stitches before she put her work away again.

“I also did some thinking,” Rarity said.

Rainbow Dash didn’t look up. She tugged at the last of Fluttershy’s secondaries to make it lie right, then pulled back to assess her work. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d initially thought. Now she hesitated. She didn’t strictly have to keep going, and there was little cleaning to be done after their bath, but on a whim, she leaned in closer to Fluttershy’s axillaries.

The feathers closest to her body looked fine, but it didn’t hurt to make sure. She didn’t mind. Dash bit onto the soft, downy feathers and gently arranged them one by one. Fluttershy glanced over her shoulder and smiled, the towelled bundle of her tail flopping over to touch against one of Dash’s legs.

“Oh! Um, sorry, you said you had done some thinking?” Fluttershy asked, turning to Rarity again.

“About what we all discussed at the baths, yes,” said Rarity. “Or rather, what Rainbow Dash had said, and I agree with some of it, even though I feel you were a little rough with Mirossa.”

Dash snorted. The hot air against her wing’s base made Fluttershy eep, and Dash rose to stand on the bed, stepping over her to sit between Fluttershy and the wall. “Other wing,” she said. “And yeah, I know, I get it, I was hard on her, and she’s just a kid,” Dash admitted, feeling her cheeks heat up. “I feel bad about it, okay? Happy?”

“Why would I be happy about that?” asked Rarity, frowning. “I’m not trying to attack you, dear, I just meant to say that I thought about it, and I find it a little strange how they barely travel between the cities, and it’s only to trade. They don’t seem to mix as much as we ponies do. We have pegasi, unicorns and earth ponies who all travel and mingle with each other as they wish.”

“Mhm,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Sure, there are exceptions, like Cloudsdale, but even there—look at your mother, Fluttershy! She’s an earth pony living in Cloudsdale. How does the prince, princess—head consul or whatever they called them—keep this place functioning if they don’t wish to be kept together?”

“I think it’s even more strange that they don’t seem to know much about each other, either. Or, not as much as I thought they would,” Fluttershy said. She sounded half asleep, sinking heavily down onto the bed when Rainbow Dash leaned in under her wing to triple-check some feathers. “Mh. Their leader is probably really good at their job to keep them all working together.”

“Are they, though?” Dash asked. She surfaced, letting go of Fluttershy’s wing for a moment and resting a hoof on Fluttershy’s side. “I don’t know if they do work together. The Dockmistress wanted the sigil for herself, like she didn’t want us to take it to this Cotronna place. What’s up with that?”

Rarity huffed and nodded. “Can you imagine some foreign diplomat visiting Ponyville and inviting Mayor Mare to discuss foreign affairs without consulting the Princesses? These are national matters!”

“Mm, I’m sure she just didn’t understand what we meant. It must’ve been a misunderstanding,” said Fluttershy, yawning.

“I don’t know,” Dash said. “They’re just… really different from each other.” She poked Fluttershy above the base of her wing, prompting her to furl it, the other pegasus folding her wing with exacting care and a tired smile. Licking her lips, Dash lay down at the foot of the bed to spread her own wings and start preening them, too. She was five seconds in when she paused.

“Hey, Fluttershy, think you can do me?”

Fluttershy blinked heavily, rubbing at her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

“Wings,” Dash said. “I think I lost a few feathers playing in the sea, can you check?”

“Oh. Of course,” said Fluttershy, and though there was a note of hesitance in her voice, Fluttershy scooted over without protest. It wasn’t unfair to ask a favour for a favour, of course, but Rainbow Dash hadn’t really thought to ask her before. It wouldn’t hurt to teach her if she really was that bad at preening.

“Just tell me how bad it looks towards the back. I can’t see those feathers, I’d have to feel my way,” Dash said.

“Do you need a mirror, dear?” asked Rarity.

“Oh, no, it’s alright, I got it,” said Fluttershy before Dash could protest. “It’s not all that bad. The only ones missing should grow back, but I think… these are a little skewed. I’ll get it.”

Rainbow Dash nodded and stretched her forelegs out ahead of her, yawning. “Cool, thanks. Hey, Rarity, can you pass me a plate—” she began, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door.

Rarity raised a brow. “At this hour? A few more minutes and we might have been asleep, hmh.”

“Door’s open,” Dash called, having no desire to wrestle with the sliding door. Besides, she didn’t even know if it could be locked. It slid open heedless of her musings revealing a peryton doe’s head, and Dash needed a moment to recognise Naressa from just her head markings and her jewellery. She thrust a folded sheet of thick paper ahead of her.

“I did not mean to interrupt or wake, but a note arrived for you, and it looks to be important. I thought you might appreciate it,” she said, letting Rarity take it from her. “Was your meal to your tastes?”

“It tasted wonderful, thank you ever so much,” said Fluttershy, poking her head over Dash’s wing. “If you don’t mind me asking, what was the sweet yellow paste?”

“Sweetened rutabaga with my own blend of spices.” Naressa beamed. “I am pleased.”

“Really liked the spongy things, too. Thanks!” Dash said.

“And these,” said Rarity, nodding at the plate that held the last of the jelly-like treats she favoured, smiling only until she opened the letter. “Ah yes. Could we ask one more favour of you?”

Naressa tilted her head. “I owe you still, twice for the kindnesses you have bestowed upon my daughter.”

Rarity held up the letter and sighed. “We can’t understand your letters. Would you read this for us?”

Naressa nodded and took the letter back, unfolding the brownish paper. She stepped inside the room proper and closed the door behind her before she looked at the note.

“Ah, so. It says, ‘the Bent Feathers have received and give in fair trade to the Dockmistress Ouressia of Stagrum words neither secret nor rare, nor knowledge gathered upon request.’ This is a common way to open a letter. Its pride establishes the value of the content. I explain this because my daughter tells me you find many things strange—I hope you do not think I pry.”

Rainbow Dash nodded along, while Fluttershy nuzzled in between her feathers. She’d been working on the same feathers for a good half minute now, mostly just smoothing them out.

“You can’t be that gentle,” Dash whispered. “Use your teeth if you have to, come on.”

“Sorry,” Fluttershy returned, barely audible to Dash’s ears. A second later, Dash felt a tug at her feathers.

“Not at all, nothing in that letter is secret,” said Rarity. “In fact, we don’t know much about these ‘Bent Feather’ peryton at all except that the Dockmistress suggested they might know more about the roads. What do you know of them?”

Naressa gave a small, hesitant nod. “I know some. If they are shrouded in Kholarys’ veil of secrets, it is only because none have cause to see them much. They are honest, but they are also rootless. They travel. Since I run an establishment and offer beds for when they visit our city, I see them more than most, and as of late, I have had cause to need to learn more.” She frowned ever so slightly, staring past the letter now.

“Mirossa has taken an interest in them.” She added, shook her head. “That is not what we talk of now. I will continue reading this letter.”

“Where are they from?” asked Fluttershy, pushing Rainbow Dash’s wing away for a moment. Dash frowned and let the wing stay exactly where Fluttershy left it, waiting.

Naressa slowly let out the breath she’d taken, her brow furrowed. “They are from all the cities. The last one I saw had the bearing of a doe from Ephydoera, and Mirossa was very taken with her.” She smiled and shook her head, then cleared her throat. “So, the letter says the following. ‘This Bent Feather relates its own story of words as understood over the past five hundred suns, that the path by land from Stagrum to Ephydoera returns safe, but that the path through the highlands from Vauhorn to Ephydoera is travelled by no single wagon-team for the loss of cargo.”

The doe frowned, lowering the letter again. “While this is business between Ephydoera and Vauhorn, I do not like reading this.”

“So there is, in fact, trouble of some sort,” said Rarity, looking none too pleased.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. The letter could be poetry for all she cared as long as it told them exactly what was up. She waited for Naressa to go on, glancing back at Fluttershy when the other pegasus went back to finishing up her first wing, starting on the other with more enthusiasm than Dash had expected—and her right wing’s feathers were well in order.

“It explains,” said Naressa. “‘Two wagon-teams have returned without their cargo, one in fall, one at the onset of first summer. For payment offered, this Bent Feather shares how the Bent Feathers relate: Twice, Vauhorn has asked the Bent Feathers’ help. Two times, the Bent Feathers have turned to Ephydoera to suggest they make safe this path. Twelve times, Ephydoeran flights have patrolled the road in the past five hundred suns, and nothing has been found.’”

“So my understanding is that someone is waylaying wagons between these two cities, stealing their wares?” Rarity asked. “And that these Bent Feathers have asked one of the cities to solve it?”

Naressa nodded. “None of what you say is false. There is a note at the end, in the same writing, but hastily added. I suggests that if yours is a flock carrying no great value, they suggest the path is safe, but with no promise. They also supply what is known to all—that eight stele dedicated to Selyria guide the path to Ephydoera from our town of Stagrum. The letter ends.”

Dash furled her wing, and Fluttershy made a startled noise. Dash flashed her a smile, shaking her head at the confused pegasus. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll fix the rest later.”

“So, if these statues are a day apart, that means that it is even further to this town of Ephydoera than it was between Orto and Stagrum,” said Rarity. She sighed and rolled onto her side with one foreleg in the air. “No ships, and the road is both long and potentially dangerous further ahead.”

“If you hurry, you will make it to Ephydoera before the seven suns of the storm,” said Naressa, showing teeth in a wide smile. “That is something to be grateful for. If not, you are welcome to stay here.”

“It might be, if we knew what that was,” said Fluttershy, lying down at Dash’s side now. Dash pushed the plate of food closer to her. “I think someone mentioned it before,” Fluttershy added. “Is that, um—that’s not a week full of… storms, is it?”

“Storms happen now and then in summer, dry or wet,” said Naressa. “You cannot guard yourself against the threat, but the seven suns of the storm is the midsummer small-week wherein one such storm will happen without fail. The storm does not last the week, but it is always the fiercest one of the year. The seven suns of the storm separate first summer from second summer, a time during which all kin with good sense will be ready to run indoors. If you wish to be sure to make it to Ephydoera, you need to make good speed. The seven suns begin in a week and two days, ten suns from now.”

“Hey, I’m down with a storm,” Dash said, but a quick look told her that her friends were rather less enthusiastic about the prospect. Fluttershy’s ears wilted, and Rarity, well, the unicorn still lay stretched out on the bed staring straight up at the ceiling as she had since the prospect of more travel had been brought up.

Fluttershy chewed her bottom lip, peering over at the dejected unicorn on the bed opposite. “Rarity? If the storm is at least ten days away, and Ephydoera is only a week from here, we still have enough time to try to show them your dresses tomorrow. We don’t have to leave until the day after tomorrow, just like we planned.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Rarity told the ceiling, sighing deeply, then again when she apparently decided that her first sigh wasn’t loud enough.

“I know what could make this next trip way better, though,” said Dash, leaning over the edge of the bed to fetch her saddlebags. She knew she had a small bag of gems in it, somewhere. “You really know how to make food. D’you think you could make us some more food for the road for when we leave? Maybe some smaller portions?”

“That’s a good idea,” said Fluttershy, nodding. She gave the supine unicorn an encouraging smile. “Having something good to eat is a nice start, isn’t it?”

Rarity flopped over onto her side again, facing both the ponies and a clearly very confused peryton. “Very well. If I must trek into the jaws a tempest, I shall do so on a full stomach.” She frowned and sat upright, her demeanour brightening in an instant as she pointed to the last remaining treat on her own plate. “Oh! And if you could make sure to pack an extra helping or ten of these jellied herb items, that would be wonderful, thank you. How much do we owe you?”

“I will make sure that this is done, and that you have all you may need if you will travel in a day’s time, yes,” said Naressa, blinking. She folded the letter she’d held on to all the while, putting it on a shelf near the door. When Dash finally pulled the gem pouch out of her saddlebags, the doe shook her head. “I will ask no more of you, you have paid more than you must already, and I have delayed your rest enough.”

Naressa tilted her head forwards in a small bow and departed, leaving the three ponies alone again, and Rarity rooted around in her supply chest before the door had even fully closed as though she hadn’t been in the throes of her own dramatics seconds prior.

“Okay, so… we’re not worried about the walking any more?” Dash asked, cocking a brow.

“Hm? Oh, by all means, I don’t look forward to it,” said Rarity, waving a hoof in Dash’s general direction. “I’ve much work to do if I am to make another set of dresses, however, even if I use the old ones as a base. Would one of you lend me a hoof, please?”

“Hey, whatever works,” said Dash, giggling under her breath while Fluttershy hopped off the bed and went over to help. Dash spread her wings and leaned back to see if there was anything more to be done, but her feathers were all clean, aligned and neatly ordered after Fluttershy’s little check-up. They must not’ve needed much care after all.