The Village Called Respite

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, those who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.
When the village accepts a new family from Cloudsdale, a not-quite-altruistic pair of changeling siblings offer a young filly friendship and a chance to find her place in the strange village she hopes to call home.
http://www.fimfiction.net/story/291019/the-village-called-respite

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48. Blue Eyes Turned Green

Esalen felt her cheeks aching. The patient smile she wore became more and more taxing with each passing second—not to mention the flat pony teeth in her mouth. If this kept up, she was going to have to ask Toola to give her a nice, long drink.

But all the same, she couldn’t fault the sniffling mare before her. She only caught the tail end of her story when she returned with Aspire, and even that came through choked sobs and loud snorting into tissues. An angry stallion, her now ex husband, came around to belittle her once last time. He’d been one of the few she trusted and held dear, the one she gave the very keys to her heart and with whom shared all her insecurities.

Losing out on a chance to talk to Toola alone was agitating. In fact, she only just suppressed the urge to grind her flattened teeth and swallowed a hiss that built up in the back of her throat.

A quick glance to her left and flick of her tongue showed that Aspire felt much the same—though with a subtle hint of bitterness. Anxiety. Worry. Directed toward Enticier and Sure Stroke, no doubt.

Fun for both of them.

Still, helping others was a Caretaker’s duty. So she smiled and spoke softly, “So you see, Miss … uh …”

Her mother shot her a look, arching her brow. “Rosebud,” she supplied.

“Rosebud, right. Sorry.” Esalen had the grace to look a bit sheepish. “So you see, Miss Rosebud, our friends weren’t trying to scare you, they just have a bit of a different idea on how to make friends.”

The mare’s horn shone a beautiful viridian that matched her watery eyes. A tissue levitated to dab at the tear tracks streaking her golden coat. “I—I’m sorry for being like this,” she warbled. “I don’t mean to be so worked up, but he was always so—sniffle—so charming. And the way they smiled was just so much like …” Her ears drooped and laid flat against her light green mane. “I’m sorry.”

Aspire raised a hoof as if to step closer, but thought better of it. He disguised it by running it through his mane. “It’s okay, Miss Rosebud,” he said gently. “They’re going to get talked to about badgering you, and we’ve helped plenty of ponies who come to our village from bad homes.”

On cue, Warm Welcome strode into the room with a tea tray balanced upon his back. He set it down on the table and poured a cup for each of them, offering the first to Rosebud. “Have some tea, dear. Relax.” The smile he gave was like a campfire in the middle of a cold winter night. “You’re among friends here. Faithy and I would be happy to help, you can stay in our guest room as long as you need if that makes you feel better. Or I could ask Queen Euphoria to put you up.”

“Er, Dad?” Aspire coughed. “She can’t. Not ‘till … y’know. They leave.”

“Ah, right, right. My mistake. Where is my head today?” He clicked his tongue, then fixed Rosebud with a look and nodded toward the tea. “Miss Rosebud, please. Drink. It’ll put a little color back in your cheeks.”

With a shaky nod, Rosebud accepted the cup in her magic and brought it to her lips. Warm brown liquid sloshed around before she got it under control, drinking deeply, almost as if it were a lifeline.

Curious, Esalen flicked her tongue. Then she gagged and staggered a step. Angst, fear, loneliness, and an ocean’s worth of self-loathing assaulted her taste buds and tried to force their way in. Bile burned the back of her throat. She snatched her cup off the table and took a quick sip to wash her mouth out.

She felt a hoof touch her shoulder and glanced at Aspire. With a shake of her head, she waved off his concern. Esalen nodded toward Rosebud, then wrinkled her snout and gestured to mouth.

Aspire hummed as comprehension dawned upon him. He turned toward the mare and offered a small smile—hiding his teeth. “There’s a lot of ponies in the village who came looking for help and ended up staying, and some were uneasy when they first came.” He gestured to himself. “Our friend, Sure Stroke—well, my girlfriend now. But she was nervous too.”

“So was our teacher, Mister Abacus,” Esalen added.

Faith smiled at both and nodded her thanks before turning to face Rosebud. She laid a hoof on the mare’s shoulder. “Our hive is happy to help those who need it, Rosebud. We do ask for some compensation, yes, but we don’t look down on you for seeking someone to talk with about your problems. In fact—” her smile widened “—I’m usually the changeling who takes care of that, if not the Queen herself.”

The mare bit her lip as her gaze fell to the slime pod she was sitting upon. A low, uncertain groan sounded from the back of her throat. Her tail flicked anxiously, but there was a hint—just a hint—of relief in her posture.

Esalen seized on it. With just a little work, she could pull double duty and set the groundwork for that chat Doodle would have to have with her mother. “Speaking of Sure Stroke,” she said smoothly, “she’s mentioned wanting to help ponies through art therapy as her trade when the time comes. Maybe she could come by and show you some of her pictures.”

Her family perked their ears in near-perfect unison. Faith’s golden eyes gleamed with interest. “Is she now?” she drawled. “Well, well, I’ll have to have a talk with Sure Stroke then. Although …” Her gaze flitted to Rosebud and back again. “That might be a good idea.”

“I’m sorry?” Rosebud blinked. Her brows knitted together in confusion, and maybe more than a little apprehension. “What are you even—Sure Stroke is a filly, right?” Her eyes flitted to Aspire, narrowing. “And she’s your … girlfriend?”

If Aspire was bothered by the incredulity in her expression, not to mention her tone, he didn’t show it. He simply nodded once. “Yeah, and she’s nice. Came from Cloudsdale with her family, and we helped her get comfortable here.”

“But how does that—”

“She drew to help herself cope. So, maybe that could help you with your stuff.”

Faith hummed, a smile spread across her face. “Bring her by to see me when our cousins leave,” she said. “Rosebud?”

The mare jolted. “Y-Yes?”

“If you don’t mind, and if Sure Stroke isn’t against it, I’d like you to try as my nymphs suggest—take some time to draw something to show how you feel.”

Rosy ears drooped again. “I’ve never been much of an artist …”

“That’s fine, dear. We’re not asking for the next state portrait of Princess Celestia, just something to show your feelings.” Faith laid a gentle hoof upon her shoulder. “It can just be for your eyes if you like. There’s no pressure to share if you don’t feel up to it. My goal is just to find whatever I can to help you in any way I’m able. But for that to work—” she squeezed Rosebud’s shoulder “—you have to find it in yourself to trust me and allow others in. Can you do that?”

For a moment, Rosebud seemed to wage a war in her own head. She looked from Faith’s hoof to the changeling herself, then to Aspire and Esalen, even glancing at Warm Welcome, the very first face she’d seen upon entry, in search of guidance.

Warm Welcome shrugged as he stirred sugar into his tea. “I can’t decide for you, Miss Rosebud. But I can tell you that Faithy’s very good at what she does, and Sure Stroke is a wonderful young filly.” He turned to smile at the nymphs, and Esalen felt a fuzzy, wonderful taste dance upon her tongue. Pride. She could feel it from him. “For what it’s worth, if my nymphs say she could offer help, I’m inclined to believe them.”

Esalen could almost picture his words pushing her over the line. A smile tugged at her chitinous face as Rosebud gave a single, shaky nod.

The first battle, as her mother would say, had been won. The first of many, many more on the road to recovery. And Rosebud had come to the right place for that.

The best place.

“Well,” Esalen said with a happy buzz of her wings, beaming as she felt the sun’s warm glow wash over her polished carapace, “that didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it might. And we even got tea out of it.”

Walking alongside her, on her right, Aspire gave a half shrug. “It was nice to give her a hoof, sure.” His lips were set in a line, not quite a frown, but definitely not a smile. He licked the tips of his fangs and said, “I’d have rather been with Doodle, though. We were having milkshakes.”

Esalen bumped shoulders with him. “Doodle and Enticier,” she reminded teasingly.

A low grumble sounded from the back of his throat. “Yeah. Him too.”

Her smile faltered. Esalen flicked her tongue. Annoyance, anxiety, and uncertainty hit her hard and made her blink a few times. She stopped, turning to face him. “What’s bothering you?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me, Aspire. You know you can’t hide how you feel from a fellow Caretaker, let alone your own sister. You’ve been like this ever since the welcoming party.”

“Maybe because dealing with a nymph I wish would take the hint that I don’t like him more than a friend is up to his old tricks,” Aspire shot back. “Little gnat kissed my cheek last night.”

If it were any other time, Esalen would’ve been all over that. But, as her mother would say, there was a time and a place for such things. This wasn’t it. “I could believe that if you weren’t so wound up,” she pressed. “You taste of annoyance, like normal when he’s trying to flirt. But you also taste horribly anxious and uncertain.”

Another low grumble. Aspire chewed on the inside of his cheek.

“Aspire, come on. Talk to me.” She stepped forward and prodded his chest. “Is this about how friendly he’s been with Doodle?”

He winced and looked down at his hooves. “Am I that obvious?” he muttered.

Snorting, she gently nudged his chin so he met her eyes. “Kinda,” she said. “And I noticed him getting friendly when we were reading together.”

“Didn’t feel like stepping in?”

“I put myself between him and Toola, figured you’d keep an eye on how he acted toward Doodle.”

This time it was his turn to snort. “I’m sure that’s the only reason you did,” he said with a wan smile that disappeared in seconds. “And yeah, I’m not sure what he’s trying to pull. One minute, he’s making eyes and trying to coax me to consider his invitation for the thousandth time. The other … it’s like he’s trying to pull that silver-tongued routine with her.” Aspire sighed and ran a hoof through his mane. “I know Grandpa used to say Enchanters don’t steal loved ones, but … I don’t know what to call it other than that.”

Esalen sucked in a sharp breath. She, too, remembered those lessons from Grandpa Beguile. How fondly he spoke of his old hive, though he left to come to Respite so he could stay with Grandma Cloudfluff, and how he knew even when they went to visit his old resort, no one would attempt to steal his wife away.

“You don’t think Enticier would try something like that, do you?” she asked.

“That’s just it. I’m not exactly sure.” Aspire set his jaw. “I don’t mind him being polite or trying to make friends with her, but the flirting and the looks he shoots her just …” He clenched his eyes shut and took a deep breath through his nose, leaving the last bit unsaid.

He didn’t have to say it, of course. Esalen knew full well what he meant. After all, she moved to stand between Enticier and Toola the instant she felt he was up to something.

Still, Enticier wasn’t just some jerk they could write off. Incorrigible though he could be, he also happened to be a genuinely good friend. When he wasn’t pulling his routine.

“Maybe you could talk to him?” Esalen offered.

Aspire snorted again, fixing her with a flat look. “Haven’t I done that over the years? Never sticks.”

“Make it plainer, more firm. Pull him aside and tell him that you like being his friend, but the antics need to stop. Draw a line in the sand.”

“Line in the sand?” he repeated, arching a brow. “That sounds vaguely like what Queen Euphoria wanted to do with the remnants of those timberwolves.”

Esalen gave a chittering laugh. “Well, hopefully, you won’t have to rip apart an unwanted rival to prove a point, eh?”

“Hopefully not.” A weak smile made its way across his face—which Esalen cheerfully counted as another victory on the day. “Thanks, Essy. You’re the best.”

“I know.” She waggled her ears, then beckoned him to walk with her. “C’mon. We can go meet up with Doodle and Enticier at the ice cream parlor. I could go for a milkshake myself.”

The Twins trotted down the dirt path back into the town square, smiling and greeting their fellow villagers and the visiting Enchanters they passed by. Esalen had to resist the urge to roll her eyes when she noticed a stunningly beautiful Enchanter rubbing shoulders with Ready Steady, who was polite enough to reply but kept his expression decidedly neutral. His own little way of letting her know she wouldn’t be taking him back to Paradise.

The tinkling of bells accompanied their entrance to the ice cream parlor. Esalen looked over to the table where they’d left Sure Stroke sitting, and promptly frowned. There was no sight of her. Not even her sketchbook, pencils, or bag remained.

Nor was there any sign of Enticier.

Aspire searched the room, his eyes wide. “Where in love’s name?” He furrowed his brows, glancing over at the changeling behind the counter. “Hey, Creamy!”

Creamy turned away from cleaning a bowl and tilted his head. “Hey, Aspire,” he greeted with a smile. “Where’d you wander off to?”

“Had to help mom and dad with something. Did you see where Doodle went?”

“She left a little bit ago with Prince Enticier,” Creamy replied. “I heard him mention something about wanting to see her sketch the falls as part of a deal.”

Alarm bells rang in Esalen’s head. No. Sure Stroke might be new, but they made sure to warn her from making deals with Enchanters. Friendly or not, their talent for catching ponies in their web was unmatched. “You didn’t hear what he offered, did you?” she asked.

“Not the usual thing, surprisingly.” Shrugging, Creamy leaned against the display case. “He wanted to watch her sketch while he told her about some of the scenery around Paradise. A rather fair trade, if you ask me.”

Fair, yes. The Enchanters, much like the Caretakers and Marauders, were always fair with their deals. But that didn’t mean it was without underlying motive. Heavens, no. Of course, that just begged a more pertinent question, one Aspire had already touched on: what angle was Enticier playing?

“Oh, crack my eggshell!” Aspire muttered. He brought a hoof up to massage the bridge of his snout, his lips peeled back to reveal his fangs and a mouthful of teeth. “I know what he’s doing! That—That cockroach”

Esalen fixed him with a quizzical look. “What?”

He slowly dragged his hoof down his face so he could meet her gaze. His eyes flashed green for a split second. “Think about it, think about everything you’ve seen her draw. Sure Stroke’s an artist—she loves beautiful scenery, ponies enjoying life, all sorts of things.” Aspire stomped the hoof into the wooden floor. “And just what might telling her about the beautiful lake, snowcapped mountains, and evergreen forest do for her imagination?”

It hit her like a ton of bricks. Her jaw dropped. “That … That’s clever.” Slowly, she set her jaw and gritted her teeth. “That’s playing dirty!

“It’s changeling. What’s more, it’s an Enchanter’s trick,” he replied. Taking a deep breath, he rolled his shoulders. Then he motioned toward the door. “Mind joining me for a little walk to the lake?”

Esalen nodded once. “What do you need from me?”

“Just take Sure Stroke somewhere else. Give us a little time alone.”

Her brows shot up. “You’re going to challenge him?”

“No.” Aspire gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m going to draw a line.”

For all the effort Sure Stroke put into her art, she had to admit, Enticier could paint a picture with his words. Perhaps it was part of his nature as an Enchanter—after all, Esalen had once said that Regale liked to claim she could charm with her words as a way to explain why she was such an accomplished author, even among the Equestrian population. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if he could do the same?

She could almost see it if she closed her eyes. Tucked away in the heart of the Celestial Mountain Range, a mansion with walls of pure white and red roof sat on slopes of Snowpeak Mountain, overlooking a lush green valley and Crystal Lake. She could picture ponies and changelings, guests and hive, frolicking in the shallows, laughing together as they enjoyed the warm summer days.

Or those mountain trails he so swore by. How wonderful it might be to canter down the winding path during winter, or maybe to fly over Evergreen Forest with Aspire right by her side. They could soar over together, on their way to the top of the mountain, with Enticier to guide them to the perfect spot. Oh, but what form might Aspire take?

Not that it really mattered. Changeling or pegasus, a trip like that would just be so—dare she say it?

Her cheeks flushed pink. Sure Stroke fluffed her feathers and fought the urge to squirm and swish her tail. It would be.

Romantic. Just like that trip to the falls just a few short weeks ago. The very falls she’d just finished sketching for Enticier several minutes ago. Or was it a half hour?

She blinked. Where had the time gone? Curious, she cast a quick glance at the sun. “Huh,” she muttered. “We’ve been out here for a couple hours now.”

“Have we?” Enticier asked, ears perking as he glanced upward. He smiled and returned his gaze to her. “So we have! I guess time flies when you’re having fun! Or—” he waggled his brows “—when you have good company.”

“Or both,” Sure Stroke replied with a laugh. She nudged his shoulder. “Reaching for compliments?”

“I like hearing my friends’ honest opinions,” he said smoothly. “It makes things so much easier when we can just lay our cards on the table and talk, no? We can be more candid.”

Sure Stroke nodded, she met his eyes without hesitation. His gaze was warm as before, but it didn’t make her feel so conscious or anxious. There were limits to his talent, after all, and he couldn’t use them in Caretaker territory without putting himself in trouble. For all intents and purposes, his want for candor was little more than a desire to be treated the same as she might treat Aspire and Esalen. And why not?

He was a friend. Not as close as them, but a friend nonetheless.

With a motion toward her sketchbook, she offered it to Enticier and asked, “What do you think?”

Enticier accepted the sketchpad with a smile and muttered thanks. He paused a moment to look it over, his eyes grew wider with each passing second and lit up—not quite with that warm, dancing flames that made her belly feel like it was squirming and her heart skip a beat or two or three. But with a sort of naked delight.

Enchanter or not, Prince Enticier could be impressed by her talent, just like others. Just like Aspire. In that, she could find a note of familiarity and comfort.

“I take it I’ve met the terms of our deal,” she said, amusement tingeing her voice.

He nodded dumbly. His brows shot up, disappearing beneath auburn locks as he glanced between the sketch and the falls once. Then a second time. Then a third.

Slowly, almost reverently, Enticier raised it up and held it out before him as if to take a side-by-side comparison. It gave Sure Stroke the chance to appraise her work again. She felt a swell of pride within her chest, she fluffed her feathers, unconsciously preening at the sight. The mist was a nice touch. Perfect, she daresay. It gave that touch of realism she always fought to put into her artwork.

Bringing the world around her onto the page, as she saw it.

Enticier let out a disbelieving breath. “Wow,” he said softly. The tiniest of smiles made its way across his chitinous face, showing just a flash of teeth. He stole one last look at the falls, blinking a few times as if to check to see if his eyes were fooling him.

They weren’t. Sure Stroke knew that well enough.

“May I keep this?” he asked, his voice full of wonder.

“You like it?”

His wings buzzed happily. “It’s beautiful. Like some of the paintings we’ve got of the landscape in Paradise.” Enticier traced the outline of the falls with a hoof, muttering just above a whisper, “It’s better than some of my grandmother’s old playmates’.” Slowly, he turned to look her over as if seeing her for the first time, appraising her with those eyes.

The flickering, dancing flames were back again. And with them came the butterflies in her stomach.

Sure Stroke quickly averted her eyes. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips while her feathers bristled. “S-Sure!” she forced out. “You can keep it if you like.”

“I would. Very much. In fact, I think I might have to ask those Wood Brothers for a frame.” Gently, he tugged on the corner of the page with his magic, tightening it out so he could neatly slice through it with another tendril. Once the sketch—now his—was free, he returned her sketchpad to her with a warm smile. “Thank you. This is absolutely beautiful.”

“I appreciate you saying that. It’s nice to hear.”

“Truthful compliments often are. Candor helps.” Enticier set the page aside for a moment, his gaze never left hers. “Though, now I find myself taking from you without offering something in return.”

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. There was something in his tone, a change. The coy smile spreading across his lips gave her pause. “Er, you don’t have to,” she replied. “I mean, I drew it for you, so there’s really no need.”

He shook his head. “Oh, but that wasn’t part of the deal. I just wanted to watch you sketch scenery originally, giving me the piece is something else.” His grin showed pearl-white sharpened teeth. “So, I have to offer something in return.”

“Er, no, really. You don’t—”

“Oh, but I must. Truly, I do,” he cut her off, taking her hoof in his. “Please let me. I’d hate to leave Respite knowing that I slighted such a wonderful friend by not offering something in return. And after she gifted me with such a beautiful sketch, no less.” His smile faltered just a touch, enough to make her chest pang. “It would make me a terrible guest, not to mention a terrible Enchanter.”

Sure Stroke felt transfixed by his gaze. There was no telltale tingle or sweet, tempting whisper in the back of her mind, just a natural lock held by the raw emotion in his eyes—sincerity. Enticier wanted this.

He wanted this badly. She could almost feel it in the way his hoof caressed and traced circles in her wrist.

Still, she tried to assert some level of control. Sure Stroke nodded once, albeit just a tad too stiffly to be considered casual. Though it did give her the chance to deftly turn her hoof and gently tug it free of his grasp, and disguise it with an idle rub against her opposite shin. “W-Well,” she began, “what do you have to offer? More stories, maybe?”

“Stories are nice enough, but they’re just words. And cliché as it sounds—” Enticier motioned toward the sketch she’d done for him “—a picture truly is worth a thousand words. To me, it feels like no amount of mere stories or descriptions I give could hope to match your art. But there is one thing in my power I can offer you.” His ears perked up as that winsome smile spread across his face. “Something I think you’ll find quite enticing.”

The butterflies in her stomach whipped into a frenzy. Sure Stroke had to fight to keep her feathers from fluffing, purely from the excitement. In the back of her mind, she could almost hear her father dubbing it a sales pitch. Building up anticipation before revealing his wares.

And she’d be hit with a lightning bolt if Enticier didn’t do a darn good job of it.

Enticier leaned in close, a sense of awkwardness made Sure Stroke lean back before their snouts got too close. Undeterred, he grinned. “How would you like to see it?”

Her blood ran cold. “Uh …” Sure Stroke’s mind raced. All the warnings given by Aspire, Esalen, and Madame Soleil leaped to the forefront of her mind at once. Her tail lashed and wings itched to unfurl and take flight. “I don’t, um …”

“I could show you around myself,” he continued, raising his brows. “Any of our resorts you like. Paradise is the biggest, of course, and the most prominent since that’s where the main body of our hive lives. But there are plenty others if you prefer. We even have one just north of Manehattan, just a short trot from the beach. And one in Vanhoover.” Enticier took her hoof in his again and gently caressed it with the other. “I’d love to return your hospitality and generosity, Sure Stroke. If you’ll allow me.”

Words failed her. Of all times, words failed her now, when she needed them most. Her mouth worked wordlessly, her ears slowly began to droop. The fluttering butterflies vanished, in their place a block of ice that dropped into the very pit of her stomach.

She had been warned. Repeatedly.

She hadn’t heeded them well enough.

Chewing on the inside of her cheek, Sure Stroke hummed and tried to feign consideration to stall for a little bit of time. Just enough to figure a way out of this. Could she maybe refuse because a personal tour in exchange for keeping a sketch she’d already drawn for him wasn’t of equal value, or would that slight him in some way? Or worse.

Would it imply that she had given him something that lacked value in her eyes?

A heavy thump sounded out, like a hoof stomping in the dirt. Sure Stroke’s heart leaped and her ears perked up. A timely distraction! She and Enticier turned to face the source, Sure Stroke felt her heart come crashing down deep in the pit of her stomach where that block of ice hit.

Aspire stood where the grass met the beach, with Esalen right by his side. His shoulders were stiff, his jaws clenched as his teeth ground together, and an angry hiss build up from within the back of his throat until it filled the very air around them. But most striking were his eyes.

Never before had they glowed such a furious green. And never before had she seen him glare at anyone with the same venom he held for Enticier at that moment.

“Sure Stroke,” he said, forcing a smile upon his face as he turned to meet her gaze. The glow in his eyes didn’t ease. “Would you mind if I borrowed Enticier for a bit? I think it’s time we had a chat.” His head jerked back to glare at the Enchanter Prince. “Alone.

Sure Stroke winced. Slowly, she raised a placating hoof. “Aspire, calm—”

“Listen to him, Sure Stroke,” Enticier cut in. Sure Stroke turned to shoot him a quizzical look, but he hadn’t turned to face her. His eyes were locked with Aspire’s, and the smile had well and truly run away from his face. He was attentive and serious. And quite wary, by the way, as he shuffled away from her side and began to rise to his hooves. A vibrant green aura wreathed his horn, Enticier wrapped a tendril of magic around her sketchbook, pencils, and the sketch she’d done for him, and placed them within her saddlebags. Then he levitated it and set it down in front of her, breaking his stare a moment to offer her a strained smile. “Hold onto that for me, please. We can discuss my part of the deal after Aspire has his say.”

Her insides twisted again. Her eyes flitted between the boys, then at last to Esalen. Lost, she tried to convey her uncertainty through a look alone, but found herself mouthing “help me.”

Esalen stepped forward and tugged her to her hooves, glancing at her brother and Enticier in kind. Then she levitated the saddlebags onto her back. “C’mon,” she said quietly, pulling Sure Stroke by the hoof as she began trotting back to the village. “The boys need to hash this out. Without an audience.”

A part of Sure Stroke desperately wanted to refuse. That was her boyfriend angry enough to hiss and flash his eyes at one of his oldest friends, and she was involved in setting him off—whether or not it was actually her fault.

But then, her lessons on changelings crept to the forefront of her mind. Sure Stroke glanced over her shoulder toward the lake, then she looked at Esalen again. “He feels slighted, doesn’t he?”

Esalen stopped walking. She took a deep breath, then nodded once. “I feel slighted,” she whispered, drawing the last word out in the beginning of a hiss. With a shake of her head, she bit it back. “But Aspire has more of a claim as your boyfriend, so he’s going to take care of things, one way or another.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head low. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.” Esalen offered a small smile and leaned over to give her cheek an affectionate lick. “Aspire isn’t angry at you, I promise.”

“That … I’m glad of that, at least.”

“Good.” With another lick, Esalen gestured for her to continue on. “Come on. Let’s go hang out at my house for a bit. We can have tea something.”

Sure Stroke took one step forward, but bit her lip and cast one last look back at the beach. “Are they going to fight?”

For a moment, there was silence between them.

Then Esalen laid a hoof upon her shoulder and said, “Aspire means to draw a line. If they fight, it’ll be because Enticier crosses it first.”

Anger had a way of doing funny things to a changeling. Funny in the sense that all pretense and friendliness—false or not—was dropped faster than an earth pony falling straight through the clouds. Eyes glowed, fangs lengthened and sharpened to a fine point, venom sacs began to secrete their payload, and cheeks hollowed out and took on a more … ghoulish appearance.

Even the Caretakers, they who built their home for the purpose of welcoming visitors and offering help in any way they could, were not immune to this—the lone constant that bound each of the hives aside from appearance and shapeshifting. In fact, one might argue that their anger, their fury, could be more violent when finally roused.

The last of the wars between the hives might have ended over a century ago, but legends of the Caretakers’ wrath still gave their cousins pause and made them tread lightly in Equestria’s eastern province, lest their fury be roused again.

It also had a way of making fear and tension taste delicious.

Aspire felt that very anger coursing through his veins the instant he laid eyes on them. How closely Enticier had been seated beside her, the way he leaned in and caressed her hoof had rankled him for days, but today just set him right off. And when he heard that offer …

Something within him snapped.

“Explain yourself,” he hissed, “right now, thief!

Enticier drew back as though he’d been physically stricken. Indignation flashed across his face for an instant before he managed to school his expression to something more neutral. “Perhaps it might be best if we sat down and talked.”

Wrong answer. Aspire strode forward and leaned in, nose to nose with his old friend. “We’ll stand. Start talking.”

With a heavy sigh, Enticier looked down at his hooves and shook his head. Bitter regret stung Aspire’s tongue, but didn’t do a thing to douse his anger.

“I suppose,” Enticier began, “I do owe you one given that she’s your girlfriend.” Furrowing his brows, he raised a hoof and said, “Correction. I don’t suppose. I simply do owe you an explanation.”

Aspire let out a warning growl and bared his fangs.

Enticier had the grace to cringe. “Sorry. I owe you an apology for the way I’ve been acting lately. It was never my intent to hurt you, Aspire. I’d never want that for someone I love.”

“And yet, you keep flirting. Touching her hoof. Making eyes at my girlfriend!” The urge to bite him was almost too great to bear, but he swallowed it down. He took a shuddering breath, then spoke just barely above a whisper. “And you invited her to Paradise.”

“Any resort she wants,” the Enchanter Prince corrected gently. “Aspire, please, sit down and talk with me. I’ll explain, I promise.”

It only served to stoke Aspire’s fury. He could feel the urge rising in his chest—he’d been slighted. His blood screamed for him to avenge his honor.

And Sure Stroke’s. For that, he knew just the button to press.

“You,” Aspire said slowly, taking a vindictive pleasure in annunciating each word, “are a thief. A thief of the worst sort—of lovers themselves.”

Enticier’s eyes flashed. “I am not a thief!” he hissed cooly.

“Trying to entice my girlfriend to visit Paradise so you can charm her into your web? Sounds an awful lot like something a thief would do, if you ask me.”

“You assume far too much.”

A cool smile settled upon Aspire’s face. His voice took on a dangerous edge. “Then I suggest you start explaining just how you’re not a thief before this turns to how one is dealt with.” He inclined his brows. “You know just how good I am at wrestling, care to see how good I can be when I’m angry?”

Closing his eyes, Enticier took a deep, slow breath in through his nose, then let it out through his mouth. He took a moment to gather his thoughts before speaking again.“Never once has the thought of stealing her from you entered my mind, Aspire.” He opened his eyes and met Aspire’s gaze, the angry green glow had faded away. “Not once. And I’ve never considered stealing her from you.”

“Lies!” Aspire spat.

“Not in the slightest. I mean it sincerely.”

Gritting his teeth, Aspire looked into Enticier’s eyes. He knew the young Prince better than most, he knew full well that Enticier could be flirty, coy, and scheming, and everything in between if it meant drawing a pony into his waiting hooves. Or, as he would so often remind Aspire, a changeling nymph.

But deep within those orange eyes was a note of sincerity. That’s how the best charms worked, as Grandpa Beguile told years ago. If there was something real, something genuine in the tone and look, the words would take hold and lower any inhibitions on candor. Wrinkling his snout, Aspire flicked his tongue and tasted the air.

Gentle sincerity washed over his tongue like milk. Enticier meant it. He genuinely didn’t mean to hurt or steal from Aspire.

Slowly, he let his lips return to cover his fangs again. Sometimes, Aspire hated tasting Enticier. It made it difficult to be angry with him.

Though not impossible.

Letting out a sharp breath through his nose, Aspire focused on fixing his appearance. Green fire washed over his face as he slowly let his anger die down to smoldering embers. He took a deep breath, his cheeks filled out and fangs shrank back to their normal size. The glow in his eyes dimmed. “If you’re not trying to steal,” he said barely above a whisper, “then what in love’s name are you trying to pull? Because this genuinely feels an awful lot like thievery.”

“Hmm, perhaps it does.” Enticier clicked his tongue. “Well, that’s my fault. I will say that I genuinely do like her, though. So my invitation and want to have her in Paradise is very real.” He gave a small smile. “I’d love to hold her close and lavish my affections upon her. And you.”

“Excuse me?”

“I haven’t made it a secret, Aspire. I want you by my side in Paradise. That never changed.” Chuckling, he shrugged. “Just seeing her made me want to ask her to join us. And as fortune would have it, you’re both dating.”

Aspire groaned, his shoulders slumped. “This again? Don’t you ever give up?”

“Not until you say the words and mean them.” His lips twitched. “I’d be happy to charm you into complete honesty and hear what you have to say.”

Before he finished, Aspire jerked his head away and fixed his gaze on something else. His heart hammered in his chest. “No.”

“Why not? I’ll only make you tell me the truth. Nothing more.” A gentle hoof cupped Aspire’s chin and turned his head so he faced Enticier again. The Enchanter Prince nuzzled his nose. “I’ve loved you for years, Aspire. And as many times as you’ve refused me, I’ve never heard you use that word.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Asks the Caretaker who can recite Legacy. Don’t be daft, you know the power of the word—you swear by it almost daily.”

Aspire grimaced. “Fine. You have me there.”

“I do. Now say it or let me coax it out. Or—” his tone dropped an octave “—is there a little part of you that isn’t so sold on it?”

Teeth ground together again. Aspire batted his hoof aside and lightly pushed his chest, forcing Enticier to take a step back. “We’re getting sidetracked,” he said flatly.

Enticier grinned. “Fair enough, we’ll put that one in a slime pod for later. As for your original question, I do hope this will make my intentions are quite clear. I have no intent to steal her from you. Or you from her. Nothing of the sort.” With a merry swish of his tail, he said, “I plan to steal you both from the village.”

   
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