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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36. Conversations on a Comfy Couch

A week had done nothing to rob Aspire of the memory of his first kiss. He sat comfortably in Sweet Treat’s shop, once again in his natural form, and thought back to that night in Coneigh Island. A goofy smile split his face.

Every bit of that moment and every last detail held fresh in his mind. From the way her scent—of biting ink, fresh sketch paper, and musty pencil shavings—flooded his senses, to how soft her lips felt against his. From the fireworks that went off in his mind as he wrapped his hooves around her body and held her close, to the delectable, unparalleled taste of cake and cream frosting that danced upon the tip of his tongue as he felt her project the sweet nectar of her love outward to him. Aspire remembered every bit of it.

How he felt his hooves shake and butterflies flutter in his chest when they parted, to the way he saw the pink lights in the Tunnel of Love run along her body and reflect off those beautiful blue eyes of hers—eyes like a pair of sapphires shimmering in the light, their glow a subtle call to draw in close and return her kiss.

And return it he did. With interest, of course. That silly thing about her walloping him could get bucked.

He ran his tongue over his chitinous lips and along the tips of his fangs. Any effort to focus on his reading or schoolwork was a constant battle with the memory. The way Sure Stroke giggled and grinned, her adorable, pudgy cheeks tinged rosy red and feathers fluffing made him want to toss it all into the air so he could pounce her and kiss her silly all over again.

By the Ancient Queen’s egg, is this what being lovedrunk is like?

Something soft struck him between the eyes and bounced off his head with a rustling sound. Aspire blinked a few times, shaking his head. “Huh? What the—” he looked down at the offender: a paper ball. Furrowing his brows, he raised his gaze to look across the table at the Esalen, Nimble, and Toola. Their grins sent a shiver down his spine. “What in love’s name was that for?”

Esalen’s grin widened and she tossed her cotton candy ponytail over her shoulder. “You’ve been staring off into space and smiling to yourself for the past half-hour, Aspire,” she replied. Fixing him with a half-lidded stare, she raised an eyebrow. “Is my bird’s nest-maned, bookbug of a twin daydreaming about something?”

“Or someone?” Nimble and Toola sang before dissolving into fits of giggles.

Aspire fixed the trio with a flat stare. Unfortunately, he’d stolen one too many kisses and given his sister and their giggly friends all the material they needed to pester him and undermine his smugness. It was an advantage they were all too eager to exploit at every turn.

As if she could read his mind, Toola hopped out of her seat and twirled her way over to lean against his side. “So, Aspire,” she began, waggling her ears, “on a scale of one to ten, how was your first kiss with Doodle?”

“Or was that your first?” Nimble added as she popped up on his left. She buzzed her wings and prodded his shoulder. “Come on! Spill! Did you make the first move, or did she surprise you?”

Across the table, Esalen flashed her coy smile and leaned forward, folding her hooves and laying them on the table. “More importantly,” she purred, “just what sort of kisses did our lovedrunk couple enjoy?”

His cheeks felt like they had burst into flames. Shooting a piercing glare at the sisters, he shrugged them off and tried to think of a way to reverse the heat. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Peppermint trotting out of the kitchen with a tray of drinks balanced upon his back and headed toward their table.

Aspire felt a grin tug at his lips. An easy out, and a chance to divert the attention on everyone’s favorite target. He fixed Nimble Hooves with a half-lidded look, then tilted his head at Peppermint. “Speaking of lovedrunk,” he drawled, “are you sure you wanna throw stones my way when yours is right there?”

Rather than flinch or sputter denials, Nimble simply leaned in close enough that her nose pressed against his. “Do it,” she said. “Because you’ve long earned every bit of this with all the things you’ve pulled, bookbug. Everyone in the village has been salivating over the chance to wipe that smug little grin off your mug one day, and it’s finally here.”

His heart sank. “What?”

“That’s right,” she purred, pausing to reach up and tussle his mane. Nimble pulled away and grinned, her eyes flashing green. “You know as well as all of us what happens when you cross changelings, not to mention all the ponies here. And you’ve built up quite the debt.”

What?”

Waggling her ears, she trotted around the table to take her seat just as Peppermint arrived. She shot Aspire a look, then grinned at the baker. “Hey, Pep! Have you heard the news?”

Peppermint waggled his snow-white ears in reply. “Have I? Who hasn’t?” He set his tray down and leaned against the table, grinning at Aspire as he passed out their drinks. “So, the little bookbug is all lovedrunk for his favorite target for teasing, eh? That’s adorable, bud. Like something right out of those books you read.”

The burn returned in full force to Aspire’s smooth, black cheeks. His eyes darted around, searching for an escape, but to no avail. Gritting his teeth, he snatched his coffee mug and took a sip. “Shut up, Pep,” he grumbled.

“Such biting wit! I’m impressed!” Peppermint teased. He folded his tray in the crook of his right leg cast a wink at Esalen. “Maybe you’ll find yours next and we can see how both halves of the troublesome twins act when they’re staggering about drunk on love, eh? I’m sure Spear’s dying to see it!”

Esalen coughed, shifting in place. Her eyes darted about. “W-We’re talking about Aspire right now, not me!”

“Uh huh. That’s not suspicious at all.” He returned his attention to Aspire. The wicked grin upon his face would’ve made his Aunt Vigil proud. “Well, enjoy your coffee, everyone. Especially you, lovebug. I’ve gotta get back to work before Auntie Sweets boxes my ears again. See ya!”

Aspire shot a piercing glare at the back of his head as he turned and trotted for the kitchen. Had everyone in Respite lost their mind? He was supposed to be the smug one around these parts, who said they got to switch roles?

Nimble’s comment leapt to the forefront of his mind. Truth be told, he’d tasted their desire to get him back and make him squirm just as he did them for years. It was always part of the fun of slipping in a comment here and there, or simply leveling a friend with a sidelong look and his trademark smile.

A low whine sounded from the back of his throat. “It was just a kiss, dang it!” he grumbled.

“Just a kiss, he says!” Toola crowed. “You had your hooves wrapped so tight around her, I thought you were afraid another pegasus would fly by and snatch her up!”

With a groan, Aspire let his head thump against the table. He pinned his ears flat and covered them with his hooves to block out the fillies’ giggling. Why didn’t I take the invite to go with Doodle instead?

 

 

Sure Stroke was almost certain she’d develop a twitch if she kept watching Queen Euphoria shovel spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her tea. Her eyes flitted to the other pony in the Queen’s sitting room, a tall mare of sunny coat, who sat with her eyes shut and a contented smile as she brought her cup to her lips.

As if she sensed Sure Stroke’s stare, Madame Chaleur du Soleil cracked open her eyes just enough to meet the filly’s gaze. Chuckling to herself, she shook her head. “It’s not just you. It was a bit jarring the first time I saw just how much sugar they like in their tea.”

“I’m right here, you know,” Queen Euphoria said, a note of playful warning to her tone.

“Oh, are you? I was wondering what the big, bug-like creature sitting on the cushion to my left might be. For a moment, I thought you were part of the décor.”

“It wouldn’t take long for me to wrap you up and stick you to the wall, Sol. Just a few seconds.”

Madame Soleil simply beamed, unperturbed by the threat, and turned to Sure Stroke. “So tell me about your time in my old friend’s village, little one,” she said, pointedly ignoring the glare Queen Euphoria shot her way. “How do you find Respite so far?”

Sure Stroke paused just as she brought her cup to her lips. “Uh, well,” she began, “I’ve been adapting quite a bit. I think I’ve mostly stopped looking at the Caretakers’ fangs.” Blinking, she turned to Queen Euphoria and said, “That reminds me, do you all prefer to be called Caretakers or changelings? I’ve heard both.”

“Either works, we’re not stuffy about the hive name.” Queen Euphoria shrugged and took a sip of her sugar and tea soup. Then, she set the cup down on a saucer laid on a wooden table, gazing at Sure Stroke through hooded teal eyes. “And I have heard tell that you’ve grown closer to my villagers. Quite comfortable, one might say.”

Her insides felt like they’d been turned to jelly. Sure Stroke squirmed in her place. There was little doubt what the changeling Queen referred to, and it wasn’t like she could excuse herself without seeming rude. After all, she was the one who asked to come over, and fleeing was right out given that she was well within Queen Euphoria’s reach.

A certain threat to wrap her up in a cocoon and feed her sweets like a little foal was still fresh in her mind. Judging by the way Queen Euphoria’s eyes gleamed as she ran her tongue along her lips, she hadn’t forgotten either. Her coy smile seemed to invite Sure Stroke to try. Daring her, even.

Months worth of experience demanded that Sure Stroke keep her rear planted firmly on the couch and give the grinning changeling what she wanted. Fixing a smile upon her muzzle, she replied, “I’ve made a few close friends since moving here, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot closer with them.”

Queen Euphoria’s smile turned vulpine. “With one nymph in particular, yes?”

On her right, Madame Soleil tutted. “Phory, don’t tease the poor filly like that.”

“Says the mare who whines and complains that her little—ahem—friend hasn’t brought home any colts or fillies for you to tease her about?”

“That’s different.” Madame Soleil averted her gaze. “She doesn’t even look.”

“It’s no different at all, so hush and let me have my fun!” Queen Euphoria leaned in close, her chitinous nose a mere hair’s breadth from Sure Stroke’s. “Well?”

Sure Stroke ducked her head and took a quick sip of her tea to buy a few seconds so she could think her answer through. “I, um, well, I may find one of them nice. And a bit, uh … attractive,” she finished lamely.

“Nice and attractive, eh?” With a chuckle, Queen Euphoria sat up straight and patted her shoulder. Sure Stroke could feel her cheeks burning under the changeling Queen’s amused stare. “I’m teasing, of course. If the rumors are true, then I wish you and our resident smug nymph the best. Speaking of whom, I trust he and Esalen have taught you more of our culture since our last little chat?”

Her soft purple ears perked up. “As a matter of fact, yes,” Sure Stroke replied, eager to change the subject. “I asked them about the different hives you mentioned the last time I visited, and they mentioned that all the hives used to be one, big hive around the time the Three Tribes united.”

“That’s how the story goes, yes. Though, I’m not sure just how soon afterward the unified ponies pushed us north.” Tilting her head, she touched a hoof to her chin. “I suppose a century or two after would be about where I’d place it in terms of matching actual history.” She shook her head, rustling the golden circlets in her aquamarine and pink mane. “That aside, what else did you learn from the troublesome twins?”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows in thought. She began reciting some of the lessons she’d learned from her friends. Everything from the trade with Aspire, to how each of the villagers seemed given to payback for slights, even if it was silliness in reply to silliness. The way she squirmed and screwed up her snout as she talked about watching Nimble wrap Toola in a bed wrap cocoon had Queen Euphoria chittering so hard she had to hold her sides.

Even Madame Soleil couldn’t help but shake her head and chuckle.

The laughter stopped, though, when she came to Aspire’s lesson on charming. Queen Euphoria’s eyes hardened, she set her jaw and let out a low, rumbling noise. “Faith and Warm Welcome watched closely?” she asked, her tone betraying a note of irritation.

Sure Stroke flinched. “Yes,” she replied with a jerky nod. “They were there throughout the, um, charming? He only convinced me to give him my pancakes.”

Queen Euphoria sucked in a breath through her teeth. “What he charmed you into doing isn’t the point, dear,” she said slowly. “It’s that they’re flirting with one of the laws in our village that helps us maintain trust with the ponies who live here, as well as those who visit.” She pulled a face and added, “Even though there haven’t been as many visitors this season.”

“Phory, perhaps a little lenience can be afforded here,” Madame Soleil offered. She laid a hoof on Queen Euphoria’s foreleg, rubbing it gently. “They were only teaching her, and it’s not like there weren’t witnesses.”

“They’re supposed to ask my house first, Sol. I don’t doubt that Faith and Warm meant well, or even the nymphs. The problem is what happens if this becomes the norm when we do get outsiders visiting more frequently.”

The Prenchmare cringed. “I see your point. That does set a rather poor precedent. Maybe if you just remind them?”

“I think that’s my best option, yes. Otherwise this can potentially turn into the case no one wants, and I …” she trailed off, glancing at Sure Stroke for a moment before turning back to Madame Soleil. Ears drooping, she mumbled, “And I have to prosecute.”

Sure Stroke tilted her head. “Case? But I’m not—”

“It doesn’t matter that you’re not coming to me to report them for breaking one of our laws, dear,” Queen Euphoria cut her off. “The problem is that this could easily turn into such a thing.” Sighing, she said, “Thank you for telling me, though. I’ll have a word with Faith and Warm so this doesn’t happen again. From now on, if you ever do want to give permission for that, it has to go through either Breezy or myself. Understand?”

A jerky nod was her only response. Sure Stroke pinned her ears back and held her wings tight against her sides. Aspire and Esalen had mentioned the Queen’s reputation as a stickler for the rules, but they never mentioned specifics to what happened if someone was caught breaking them.

Her curiosity demanded that she ask, but Madame Soleil caught her eye and gave a subtle shake of her head. The question died on the tip of her tongue.

Fortunately, Madame Soleil was ready with a change of subject. “Phory tells me that you were a bit curious about feeding on your last visit, and that you were looking to ask your little friends to help you understand and experience it for yourself. How has that been going?”

Sure Stroke perked up her ears. “Actually, I, um, sort of had a trade with Aspire and Esalen. Both of our families, really.”

“Is that so? What was the trade?”

“Missus Faith made us breakfast in exchange for feeding on some of our love. Aspire and Esalen each took a bite from me.” Thinking on it a moment, she wrinkled her snout. “I’m still confused as to just how those are measured. Is it nibble, then bite, then sip, then drink? Or nibble, sip, bite, drink? It’s kind of counterintuitive.”

“The latter,” Queen Euphoria replied, her lips twitched. “A bite from two nymphs for your first feeding. Impressive.”

“It was quite an experience.” Sure Stroke ran a hoof through her mane. “Mister Breezy wasn’t kidding when he mentioned that tingly feeling that comes with feeding. Not to mention how tiring it is.”

“Indeed. Most donors usually end up having to sleep for a few hours afterward and need food to help regain their strength. And the fact that you offered it shows quite a lot of trust between the three of you.”  

Ducking her head, Sure Stroke fluffed her feathers. “It was something I’d asked about and offered before, but Aspire insisted that I wait until I was sure I was comfortable.”

The gleam returned to Queen Euphoria’s eyes. “And, lo, we circle back to young Aspire, hm? Nice and attractive, and willing to wait until his newest friend was comfortable before accepting her offer to feed.” She gave a low chuckle and playfully rubbed her shoulder against Sure Stroke’s. “I wonder if he was able to taste your affection for him when you two shared that kiss I’ve heard about.”

Sure Stroke squealed and buried her face in her hooves, then unfurled her wings to cover herself. “Ooooooh! I’m going to beat those fillies senseless for spreading that around!” she cried. “That was supposed to be a private thing before the stupid boat drifted out into the open!”

“To be fair, the fault lies with you on that front,” Madame Soleil pointed out. “If you wanted to keep it private, you probably should’ve made your—ahem—move while you were in the tunnel.”

“I did!” Sure Stroke grumbled under her breath. “And then he kissed me again and after that, we had both sort of—” she stopped herself halfway through the sentence, a cold shiver ran down her spine. “Meep!”

Queen Euphoria chuckled right near her ear. Her warm breath tickled the tip. “Go on,” she purred. “Is there something I should know about our newest couple?”

Sure Stroke dared to shift her wing just enough to peek between her hoof and her soft, purple feathers. She flinched as she came eye to eye with Queen Euphoria’s slitted, green-blue eyes, their raptor focus locked on her.

“Well?” the changeling prodded.

“Phory,” Madame Soleil chided, again coming to Sure Stroke’s rescue just in time.

With a roll of her eyes, Queen Euphoria backed off. “You’re such a spoilsport, Sol! I’m just trying to enjoy a little gossip!”

“Yes, but if you get started, you’ll never stop. And neither of us will hear about what she’s learned or how she’s taken it.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “Once she’s done, though, by all means.”

“Fine, fine, back on track.” The changeling Queen huffed playfully rolling her eyes. “So you’ve grown comfortable enough in our village to allow my Caretakers to feed. I must say, I’m quite happy to hear all of this. The last time we spoke, I could taste quite a bit of uncertainty mixed in with your curiosity.”

Something about her wording made Sure Stroke’s ears flick. That’s exactly why he wouldn’t take my offer the first time. “Like I said, I’ve had a lot of help learning about how you all do things in the village.” Thinking on it a moment, she sipped at her tea. “Actually, there’s something I forgot to mention.”

The mares perked their ears in silent prompting, both curious as to what new details she had.

Sure Stroke backtracked to the sleepover and went over the story Aspire read for her. As she spoke, she watched a slow smile spread across the changeling Queen’s face, one mirrored, oddly enough, by Madame Soleil. She moved on to the train ride and ran through a quick summary of the chapter about Princess Amortia’s trick, which brought chuckles and knowing smiles to both mares’ faces.

“Ah, Princess Amortia,” Queen Euphoria said with a wistful smile. “You’ll come to love her as the story goes on. She was quite the character.”

“Really? How so?”

“Oh, I don’t want to spoil anything. But, if I must—” she turned to fix Madame Soleil with an amused smile “—I think you’ll find a great many similarities between her and Princess Celestia. Wouldn’t you agree, Sol?”

Madame Soleil raised a brow. “In what regard?”

The wicked grin that split Queen Euphoria’s muzzle sent shivers down Sure Stroke’s spine, even to the very tips of her feathers. “Why, they share a rather distinct love for teaching lessons through little jokes. Rather sly, you might say.”

“I’m sure Princess Celestia would just love to hear that from one in her domain.”

“I’d wager she would, actually. She’d probably laugh herself silly.”

Madame Soleil snorted. “I can’t deny that.” She set levitated the teapot to refill her cup, then frowned as she hefted it in her magic as if to test the weight. “Oh, darn. Out of tea already.” With a sigh, she made to stand. “Why don’t I go make us another pot?”

“Oh, sit down, you!” Queen Euphoria mock scolded, rising herself to relieve Madame Soleil of the teapot. “I’m the host, so I’ll handle this. You two relax and chat for a bit.” She trotted out of the room without a backwards glance, humming a tune under her breath.

Sure Stroke and Madame Soleil sat in silence for a moment. The filly shifted in her place on the couch, her eyes flitted down at the cushion. Talking while Queen Euphoria was between them was one thing, but where did she even begin with this mare?

“Phory seems quite taken with you,” Madame Soleil said.

“Oh?” Sure Stroke rustled her feathers, taken aback for a moment. “What makes you say that?”

“She’s mentioned a particular interest in seeing you adapt to Respite’s culture. One we both share, I must confess.”

Sure Stroke drew back from her, furrowing her brows in confusion. “What?”

“No need to be alarmed. It’s sort of a project, really. A case study, you might say.” Madame Soleil reclined against a cushion and folded her hooves in her lap. “It’s rather rare that a filly your age moves to Respite, so we wondered just how you would take to it—would you be like the younger foals who adapted with ease? Or would you be like the adults who required a very gentle hoof and ample time to see the Caretakers for what they are? It’s a study my employer finds quite worthwhile.”

“Your employer finds studying up on Respite worthwhile?”

“How ponies adapt, yes. You might say she has a … vested interest in its success.”

Taken aback, Sure Stroke tilted her head and perked one ear up straight while laying the other flat. “Who exactly do you work for? Some sort of social studies group?”

Madame Soleil hummed a note, her golden eyes shone like the morning sun. “You could say that. I suppose one could call the oldest living mind in the world a lover of social studies.”

“Oldest living—wait a minute!” Sure Stroke sat bolt upright. “You work for Princess Celestia?”

The Prenchmare laughed and nodded once. “Yes. I’ve had the privilege of working for Her Royal Highness for many years.” She screwed up her snout, looking up at the ceiling in thought. “I think it’s been fifteen years. Time does fly.”

Fifteen years? Social experiments? Working directly for Princess Celestia? Sure Stroke’s mind raced. Certainly, she knew Madame Chaleur du Soleil had to be important—what sort of ordinary pony traveled with armored escorts?—but not that sort of important. “What exactly is it that you do for her?”

“Oh, not much. I’m just the Head of Canterlot Castle’s Broom Closet Maintenance team.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what I said when she mentioned the position. You’d be surprised how many we have.” Her smile never faltered. “I have it on good authority that I’m the best they’ve had in over a century.”

“But—you—what—social—” Sure Stroke flailed her hooves.

Madame Soleil tittered. “Is something the matter?”

“You said she had a vested interest! I thought you were, like, her super secret changeling researcher, or something!”

“Oh, no. I’m afraid not.” Those golden eyes seemed alight with mirth. “You have to pay attention to wording if you want to deal with changelings, dear. They love finding ways to tapdance through some loophole to make others squirm. Especially when the Enchanters’ visit.”

“But you said you worked directly for Princess Celestia and specifically mentioned her interest! You made it sound like you were involved!” Sure Stroke argued.

Madame Soleil raised a hoof. “Yes, but I didn’t necessarily lie. I do work directly for her, she does hold an interest, and so do I.” She gave a smile as warm as the sun itself. “I am particularly interested because I have known Phory since I was a filly. So, as you see, I haven’t lied to you at all. I simply played with a little wording and let you make your own deductions.”

Sure Stroke let out a breath through her nose. “That was still mean.”

“A bit, yes. But not a lie. Phory and I have discussed how you’ve adapted, because we like to talk and dream about one day coexisting without having to hide.” With a wistful sigh, Madame Soleil let smile fall. “More than likely, it’s nothing but a dream these days. A dream and a one shot chance from a lost era in history, ruined by one wicked stallion’s bid for power.”

Purple ears twitched. Sure Stroke leaned forward. “How did things get to be like this?” she asked. “The way my friends talk about the crystal ponies—the Sainted Ones, they say—things should have ended up just fine. They should be living in some sort of utopian society in the north.”

Madame Soleil snorted bitterly. “They did. For many centuries, the Crystal Empire was mighty. The changelings and crystal ponies formed an alliance on par with that of the Union of Three Tribes, or, Equestria, as it came to be called. But then …” She sighed again. “It’s not my place to spoil the ending. Finish it with your friends.”

“But—”

“No.” The Prenchmare shook her head. “You need to hear the full story to appreciate just how high they were raised up by the love they shared, and how far they fell when the Empire was lost.” Her smile returned. “I’d be happy to discuss it with you afterward, as well as the little dream some of us dare to cling to. But not a moment before.”

Sure Stroke let her ears droop. “You could just tell me how it went.”

“No, I really can’t. And I won’t. Believe me, you’ll understand why once you’ve read the full story.” The sound of a kettle whistling cut through the air. Madame Soleil flicked an ear toward the kitchen. “Ah, good. The tea is almost ready. Phory makes such a lovely brew.” She glanced at Sure Stroke’s long-neglected cup and raised an eyebrow. “You may want to finish yours before it cools more, dear.”

With a sheepish grin, Sure Stroke took another sip of her tea. Just as Madame Soleil said, it had lost its warmth, leaving a rather stale taste overpowering the soothing herbs and cream. She downed the rest as fast as she could so to avoid it as best she could.

As she finished, Madame Soleil raised a hoof. “Oh, before Phory returns, I’d like to offer you one small piece of advice. It may help when the Enchanters come.”

“Oh?” Sure Stroke set her cup down on the table and gave her full attention. Any information she could receive on the mysterious Enchanters would be welcome. Especially after Aspire charmed her so thoroughly and claimed he was nowhere near as skilled as a full-blooded member of that hive.

“They’ll try to tempt you to visit one of their resorts. It’s a standard thing, really. Unless you fall inexplicably, irrevocably in love with one of their number over the course of their village, I would strongly advise against accepting it. Don’t vocalize it even if you don’t mean to follow through. They have ways of … encouraging you to follow through.”

The cold claw of fear gripped Sure Stroke’s chest. “My friends said they’d behave when they visited. That they wouldn’t charm me.”

“Oh, they certainly will behave to the letter of Respite’s laws. But charm you? Oh, my dear, there are many ways to charm a pony.” Madame Soleil patted Sure Stroke’s head. “If you catch the eye of a strapping young colt or a beautiful filly, they’ll play it just like a young pony courting while they’re here. Everything will seem innocent and lovely, and they’ll butter you right up with praise and affection. Then, dear, they’ll try to convince you to agree to come visit their home.” She gave a wan smile. “If you take it, I’m afraid you’ll find yourself caught in their web. Leaving will never cross your mind.”

Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch in her throat. She licked her lips to wet them. When did they get so dry? “Then how should I refuse it?” she asked. “How do I say no without falling into one of their word games?”

“Gently. Don’t offend a changeling, but especially don’t offend an Enchanter. Ever. They have a way of making sure you regret it like no other.” Thinking a moment, Madame Soleil added, “As for escaping their word games, I think you’ll find that being honest, but noncommittal will suffice. Just as I did with you a moment ago.”

At that moment, Queen Euphoria trotted back into the room with the teapot held aloft in her magic’s glow. “I come bearing a fresh brew,” she said as she approached. Depositing the pot onto the table with a flick of her magic, she sat down between the pair again. Her gaze fell upon Sure Stroke once again. “Now, about that little slip of yours, Doodle. Do share.”

Sure Stroke cast a pleading look to Madame Soleil, desperate for a distraction.

The Prenchmare simply met her gaze with a smile and a shake of her head as she refilled her cup. There would be no more help from her.

Oh, cirrus, I’m doomed.

 

 

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