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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20. Tea Time With a Changeling Queen

Sure Stroke shifted around, trying her best to get comfortable in the slimy half-pod seat while Queen Euphoria trotted over with a tea tray balanced on her back. While the sensation was still rather strange, she found herself getting used to the way she could just sink back in the gel-like substance and almost feel a sense of weightlessness.

It was still foreign, though. And while she didn’t quite feel the urge to gag, Sure Stroke found she couldn’t help but give the green, goopy seat a quizzical stare as it melded to support her weight.

Of course, that didn’t stop Queen Euphoria from flicking out her tongue and giving a knowing smile. “It does take getting used to, doesn’t it?” she asked as she set the tea tray down on the table. “I remember the first time I visited one of my friends’ homes and tried to sit in a wooden chair. My back ached terribly—I must’ve been a couple years younger than you.”

The Queen sat across from her, lounging in her own pod-seat with a contented smile upon her muzzle. She hummed a little tune as she set about pouring Sure Stroke’s cup. “Do you take yours with cream and sugar?” she asked, motioning to a pair of tiny porcelain cups, then a plate of lemon slices. “Or do you prefer a bit of lemon?”

“Lemon, please,” Sure Stroke replied. “I thought changelings didn’t like sour or bitter things.”

“We don’t. But the ponies in my little family do, and it helps things around for our guests as well.” Wrinkling her snout, Queen Euphoria eyes the lemon slices with distaste, then picked one up to squeeze over Sure Stroke’s tea before passing the cup and saucer to the filly and setting about to prepare her own.

Sure Stroke accepted her cup with a quiet “thank you,” her eyes watched intently as Queen Euphoria poured a splash of cream into her own tea and spooned some sugar in.

Then she kept going. And going. And going.

Slowly, her jaw fell open. She’d seen Alto add a couple spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten his tea, but this was just excessive!

Yet Queen Euphoria was still going! That poor, innocent cup of tea was more sugar than tea by now.

Thinking back, she let her mind wander to that night at Aspire and Esalen’s. She cocked her head. Aspire hadn’t put that much sugar in her tea …

Then again, she didn’t see how he prepared theirs.

“You, er, really like to sweeten your tea, don’t you?” she found herself asking.

Queen Euphoria chuckled. “Yes. Love tastes rather like sweets and other positive emotions like spices, so we tend to stick towards food like that. The fact that Sweet Treat likes to spoil us with her fare only makes it worse, I’m afraid.” She shook her head, a fond smile played upon her lips. “When she started seeing Vigil, I remember walking outside to find one of my most faithful guards standing with her ears perked, her eyes half-shut, and a sleepy grin on her muzzle. She swore up and down Sweet Treat had figured out our way of infusing love into treats.”

Sure Stroke sat up a little straighter. “Changelings can do that?”

“We can do many things with love. It’s one of our talents. But, perhaps that discussion can wait.” Fixing Sure Stroke with a hooded stare, Queen Euphoria took her cup in hoof. “I was wondering if we could discuss a few things about you, dear.”

Her ears flicked. Sure Stroke took a quick sip of her tea. “What sort of things?”

The smile fell from Queen Euphoria’s muzzle. She leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table. “Your parents and Faith talked to me during your welcoming party,” she said. “They mentioned you had a nightmare about your friends.”

A cold feeling crept into Sure Stroke’s chest. She gripped her cup tighter. “I … I … Um …” Images of how hurt Aspire looked after she yelled at him in the forest and when he pulled her aside at the party flashed before her eyes.

Her eyes flitted toward the changeling queen, then down to the table. She licked her lips, the lingering taste of tea did nothing to dull her worry. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“Relax,” Queen Euphoria said softly. “We’re here to talk things out, dear. I’m not going to yell or pound my hooves against the table because you were a little scared.”

Sure Stroke looked up. “I know, but it’s still …” Her ears drooped. With a shaky voice, she whispered, “I felt bad when Aspire told me he heard about it.”

Queen Euphoria gave a small smile. “Sure Stroke, dear, you’re not the first pony to come to our village and be scared of us, nor will you be the last. As much as I don’t like to say it, being afraid of changelings isn’t exactly an unfounded thing.” Shaking her head, she snorted. “It’s almost instinctual, really. I can’t say I blame you.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke stayed quiet. Instead content to simply drink her tea while she listened.

A cue Queen Euphoria took happily. “I think you’ll find some manner of kinship with Abacus on the matter. He was quite terrified of us for some time, yet now he enjoys a rather healthy relationship with Stalwart, the very changeling who helped pull him out of a tree when he first saw us.”

“A tree?”

“Indeed.” Her muzzle split into a wide, fanged grin. “Abacus jumps quite high when startled. Stalwart delights in sneaking up on him in a friend’s form, then changing back when he’s distracted.”

Sure Stroke winced. “That doesn’t sound nice.”

“It took some time for them to get to that point, but they both seem to enjoy it. Although, Abacus does his best to appear put out when Stalwart pulls his tricks, always huffing and turning away until he gets his kisses.” Chuckling, she paused to take a sip of her tea. “There’s many a tale similar, actually. Clanger and Neat were scared stiff the first time they met me. Their fear tasted of rotting fruit.”

“Really? But they seemed so happy today!”

“They’ve had years to adjust, dear. And I tend to be rather good with making friends.” Her brows raised a touch. “Not to mention making new ponies feel comfortable when they first lay eyes upon my fangs.”

A hoof leapt to her mouth. “I knew you did something!” Sure Stroke cried.

Queen Euphoria nodded once, then sucked in her lips. After a split second, she grinned again, showing off her teeth.

Her new, flat pony teeth.

“I’m very quick,” she said. “A little something I learned with a lot of practice, to help ponies ignore some of my more striking features so we could talk. I’ve found it helps my patients during my regular sessions.”

“You have patients?” Sure Stroke perked her ears up. “Like, a doctor or something? How do you even make time for that when you run a village?”

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria shook her head. “Yes and no. I don’t treat medical problems, I just do exactly what we’re doing right now. I sit down with a pony who has a problem, not really of their body though.” She tapped the side of her head twice. “Much like Faith, I tend to help ponies deal with problems in their head.”

Sure Stroke could only balk. “Like what? A headache?”

This time, Queen Euphoria just broke down into a fit of chittering laughter. “No, dear, that’s not quite it either!” She took a deep breath, her shoulders shaking with mirth. “Oh, if only it were headaches my patients suffered from! My job would be so much simpler! But, then again, I wouldn’t be able to help as I do.”

She set her cup down on the table and folded her hooves. “Stress,” she began, “anxiety, problems with family, anything that you can think of that makes a pony find trouble going about their day, I try my best to help those with extreme cases.” Thinking a moment, she glanced out the window. “Believe it or not, Breezy was one of my first patients when we were young.”

Sure Stroke thought for a moment. Stress didn’t seem like something all that difficult to fix—whenever she got worried over homework or stuff, her mother just gave her a big hug, whispered some encouragement to her, and offered her help as long as she saw Sure Stroke try to do it herself at first.

It was just worrying a lot. How bad could it be?

Still, she found herself a bit curious. Cool Breeze had mentioned something about how he kissed Queen Euphoria in front of the previous Queen, Chaete, but that left out what made him decide to act upon his feelings.

“What was his problem?” she asked.

“He was terrified of heights.” Her eyes danced with mirth. “A rather strange thing for a pegasus, but considering that he was raised by a pair of earth ponies after his parents died of illness, not entirely surprising. It was a small mercy they brought him here at a young age. My mother welcomed them with open hooves, and I made friends with him on his first day.” Blinking, she brought a hoof to her chin. “Not entirely unlike you with Aspire and Esalen, really. But, we’ve gotten a bit off track. Let’s talk about you.”

Sure Stroke fidgeted in her seat, she let her gaze wander down to the teacup in her hooves.

If Queen Euphoria talked to patients like this, did that mean there was something wrong with her?

“Do my parents think I’m having troubles up here too?” she asked, tapping the side of her head just as Queen Euphoria did. “Is that why I’m here?”

The Queen’s smile faltered. “They, and Faith, were worried about your nightmare, dear. And I am, too. I don’t think you’re ‘having troubles’ like my other patients, but I would like to help you adjust.” She sat back in her seat, relaxing her posture. “If you’ll let me, that is.”

Giving her tail a flick, Sure Stroke rolled the teacup around in her hooves. “I’m getting more comfortable each day,” she mumbled. “But there’s still some things I don’t understand because of how strange it all seems. And others that just make me want to jump.”

“Like whatever caused your nightmare?”

“Yeah.” Sure Stroke ducked her head, a shiver ran down her spine. “I’m sorry, it’s just … this all caught me so off-guard. Everything from seeing Mister Hawkeye shapeshift at our house in Cloudsdale, to your fangs, to Aspire changing voices and copying how I look, and everything else that’s come up has just been like getting caught in a tornado.”

“Then why don’t we discuss the tornado called Respite, hmm?” The Queen chuckled at her own little joke. “Tell me what’s been giving you the most trouble, the first thing to come to mind.”

The first?

Where did she even start? There was just so much to pick from!

If not the fangs, then the shapeshifting, or the way their eyes glowed when angry. Or …

Feeding.

“Am I your friend or am I your food?”

Aspire had given an answer, in his own roundabout way. But it still left questions open.

No time like the present. Sure Stroke drained the rest of her tea and took a deep breath in through her nose. “My biggest question is about feeding on love,” she said, not meeting Queen Euphoria’s eyes.

“Ah, yes. I’d hoped we could begin there.”

Her head snapped up. “You did?”

Queen Euphoria nodded once. “Given the, er, nature of the nightmare your parents described, I wanted to talk with you about feeding, but didn’t want to push too much.” Smiling broadly, tossed her mane over her shoulder. “Would you like to discuss your nightmare or the nature of our feeding itself?”

“Both, I suppose.” Sure Stroke rustled her wings. “I’ve sort of been thinking about this for a bit because I find my nymph friends confusing—they act like my friends back home and like the foals here, but then … well, they want to feed. And they taste for our emotions.” She thought a moment, then added, “All of you taste our emotions and want to feed, but still call us friends.”

Comprehension dawned on Queen Euphoria’s face. “Go on.”

Now or never. Biting her lip, she asked, “What exactly are we to you? Are we friends or food?”

For a moment, Queen Euphoria stayed quiet. She sat back in her seat and steepled her hooves, humming to herself. “That’s a question both painfully difficult, yet simple to answer. I suppose the best way to reply is by saying that you’re both.” She held up a hoof. “Though, with a bit of a snag.”

“Oh?”

Queen Euphoria leaned forward again. “Here, in Respite, you are both, dear. We Caretakers have always prided ourselves on being friends with ponies and feeding in exchange for favors or by permission, something we learned from our lost friends. In other hives, I’m afraid you’ll find some of those stories of us are very real.” She pursed her lips. “Our cousins, the Marauders, are the closest to us out of the four largest hives. They broke away from us amicably and keep rather close with our way. The Enchanters, however …”

A rather strange look crossed her face, like she was sucking on one of the lemon slices.

As quickly as it came, though, it was gone. “Let’s just say they tend to like working their charms to convince ponies to stay,” she said.

Sure Stroke balked. “Like with … oh gosh! That’s horrible!”

“They’re kind in their own way. Their … friends, shall we say, live well.” She shook her head. “We don’t like to speak of the fourth hive, here. Their way goes against everything the Sainted Ones taught us, everything done to keep us alive after the Three Tribes unified and chased us to the Northern Lands. But, for your benefit, I’ll say this.” Her eyes hardened. “If you ever find yourself in the presence of the Locust, never trust them. Get away as fast as you can.”

Taken aback by the sudden shift, Sure Stroke’s wings flared open. Her mind raced. The names were unfamiliar, but the way Queen Euphoria spoke of them was telling.

One friendly, one on strained terms, and one in the same manner the Three Tribes once looked at each other.

She pressed a bit further. “If Enchanters charm and Marauders wander, what do they do?”

Queen Euphoria sighed. “Ponies get the stories of us charming them to stay and cast off their old lives from the Enchanters. Those about changelings wearing the faces of lovers and spiriting them away or kidnapping lost ponies come from the Locust.”

Oh.

Well, that certainly put things in perspective.

Flicking out her tongue, Queen Euphoria frowned. “Why don’t we return to your nightmare?”

“Okay,” Sure Stroke replied with a shy nod. “The, um, feeding part of it?”

“Yes.” Queen Euphoria buzzed her wings. “I believe your parents mentioned that you imagined us behaving—well, to be frank—like the Locust. Might I ask if there’s something you’ve seen that led to it?”

A pained smile crossed Sure Stroke’s muzzle. She ducked low. “I think so,” she admitted. “It was a couple things.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

Sure Stroke pulled a face, but acquiesced. The tale spilled forth from her mouth in a rush: how happy she was to make friends with Aspire and Esalen, the rush of excitement when Vector all but made her the centerpiece of their plan to beat the nymphs at hide and seek, and how Toola’s addition made everything seem more fun.

Then she came to the hunt itself. The way Aspire snuck up and spooked her in retaliation for her unwitting challenge, fleeing from her friend in a blind panic before clipping her legs on a branch.

She couldn’t help but shudder as she relayed how he coated her legs and cheek in slime to bandage her cuts, which brought forth a heated blush when Queen Euphoria chuckled and waved her on. It only grew worse as she relayed the chase to Sweet Treat’s shop and how easily Nimble found her tickle spots, leading to full-on laughter that forced her to pause while the changeling queen composed herself.

Huffing, she pressed on through the sit down with all her friends while they ate cake, talked, and did homework together. A smile made its way across her muzzle at the mere memory.

Nymph and foal alike. They were her friends.

Which, looking back, made it all the more perplexing when Esalen added how her mother loved having friends for dinner.

Queen Euphoria winced at the phrasing. “I see,” she said, speaking for the first time since Sure Stroke began her tale. “Well, it seems you had quite the time with them. Some fun memories, and some not so pleasant. All within a short while.”

Sure Stroke raised a feeble hoof. “I did clear the air with Aspire on quite a bit of it. Just right after all that happened, I had my nightmare where my family and I were …” she trailed off, her ears drooped. “Their dinner.”

“Which, in turn, leads us right back to your question on whether you are friend or food.”

She nodded. “Yes.” Another shudder ran down her spine. “Aspire lunged right for my neck. In the dream, I mean. Not for real.”

“I figured as much. We don’t feed by biting, dear.” Queen Euphoria clicked her tongue. “It’s more of a breathing thing, though we can also feed by standing close and passively sipping. It’s rather painless, really.”

“That doesn’t sound as bad as I thought.” Sure Stroke tilted her head. “But I saw Miss Bright Sky while I was having dinner with Aspire and Esalen’s family. She looked exhausted after Missus Faith fed on her.”

Smiling, Queen Euphoria wagged her hoof. “I said it was painless, not that without cost. When we feed, we do take a bit of energy from our donor. Usually, we offer food afterward so they can replenish their strength, or at least give them a little pep. Depending on how much we feed, that is.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. “So that’s why Missus Faith made her eat a bigger portion!”

“Exactly.” Queen Euphoria chuckled and shook her head. “Oh, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. Faith has always been a bit overbearing when it comes to caring for her charges. Something she picked up from her father, no doubt.” She drained the last of her tea, then set her cup down on the table. “I hope that helps, even though it comes after the fact.”

“It does. Kinda. Sorta.”

“Sorta?”

“Sorta. I’m still a bit curious as to how it works. And, well, feels. I suppose not terrible, if ponies allow it.”

Black chitinous ears flicked. “That is an interesting question,” Queen Euphoria said with a broad grin, tapping her hooves together. “With an equally interesting answer.”

Confused, Sure Stroke perked one ear up and laid the other flat. “How so?”

“Because I’ve heard it described a few different ways, it seems to vary from pony to pony. Honestly, the best way to get an answer is to experience it firsthoof.”

Sure Stroke frowned. She tapped a hoof against her thigh, wrinkling her snout in thought. That certainly made things difficult. How was she supposed to understand if she couldn’t get a description?

Unless she did a little experimenting of her own.

No, that would be silly.

Or would it?

Bringing a hoof to her mouth, Sure Stroke took a moment to think it through. Queen Euphoria had offered to help if she ever had questions about the village.

Of course. So, if she were curious about feeding and the only way to understand what it felt like was to have a changeling do so, it should be someone she trusted.

Who else if not the Queen? “So, if I wanted to know, could you … y’know?”

Across the table, Queen Euphoria flicked out her tongue. Her eyes widened a fraction before she shook her head. “No,” she said firmly.

Sure Stroke gawked at her. Huffing, she flicked her tail. How was she supposed to get answers if the Queen wouldn’t give them? “Why not?”

“A couple reasons. First, I invited you to talk about your adjustment to the village and offered to answer any questions you might have, not the other way around. You’re not my patient. Second, I don’t feel I’m the right changeling for it.” Pausing a moment, she gave a small smile. “I think you might understand why we feel it so special if you shared it with one of your friends when you feel comfortable.”

Disappointment filled Sure Stroke’s chest. She heaved a heavy sigh and let her wings droop. “It’s kind of hard with vague answers.”

Queen Euphoria made as though to retort, but stopped, her smile fell for a moment. Stealing a quick glance outside, she ran her tongue along her lips. “I suppose I could go for a snack before my friend shows up,” she muttered. “Or an early lunch if he’s willing.”

“He who?”

Her smile returned in full. Queen Euphoria stood with a happy buzz of her wings, humming that happy tune to herself as she made for the door. “Come along,” she said.

Sure Stroke stood and slowly walked around the table to meet the changeling queen. “Where are we going?”

“To see Breezy,” Queen Euphoria replied. “I don’t think it’d be proper for me to feed on you—especially since the first time tends to be more draining than normal, even more so since I take more love than most. However, I can let you talk to my husband after I feed on him.”

 

 

Fortunately, Cool Breeze and Caress had stayed close to Queen Euphoria’s cottage. While Caress favored to lay down on one of several cushions set in the shaded the wooden porch, the pranking pegasus had found himself a nice, fluffy cloud to swipe out of the sky and bring to hover to her left so he could lounge comfortably and chat.

“No slime cushions?” Sure Stroke found herself asking, giving a merry flutter of her wings.

Her question drew Caress’ attention. The mare smiled and shook her head. “They dry up in the sun, especially if there’s a drought.”

Cool Breeze held up a hoof and added, “There is almost nothing more uncomfortable than dried changeling slime. During a drought, we can’t afford to spare any water to wet them, and changelings can only produce a certain amount each day.” He rolled over on his cloud, laying his head on his hooves. “So, done chatting? Or am I in more trouble?”

“Not yet,” Queen Euphoria retorted, a playful smile spread across her muzzle. “But I have faith you’ll do something to annoy me soon enough.”

“I should probably be offended, but you’re right. What’s up, then?”

With a bright smile, she nodded toward Sure Stroke. “Our newest filly and I were just talking about how changelings feed, and she’s a bit curious as to how it works. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind treating me to an early lunch, then telling her how it feels afterward.”

Both he and Caress sat up a little straighter, their ears perked up. “Oh?” they asked in unison.

Cool Breeze hopped down off of his cloud, landing nimbly on his hooves. He smiled brightly, though a familiar gleam of mischief shone in his eyes. “I suppose I can indulge you if it helps Sure Stroke come to understand us a little better.” Pausing for effect, he fixed Queen Euphoria with a lidded stare. “Buuuuuuuuuuut …”

Sighing, Queen Euphoria nodded. “Yes, yes, name your price.”

The smugness of his smile rivaled Aspire’s. “I get out of trouble,” he replied.

She snorted. “Trouble and lunch aren’t exchangeable. You know better.”

“Eh, had to try. I don’t really care. Just make me a big lunch after you’re done with your stuff, I guess.”

“That’s fair.” Queen Euphoria hugged him tight, laying her head atop his. “No falling asleep right after like normal, though. Sure Stroke wants to hear how it feels.”

“Right.”

“Ooh, can I get in on this?” Caress asked, rising to join their embrace. “I’m always up for a bit of Breezy’s love.”

“Sure!” Queen Euphoria beamed.

The stallion gave them both a wry look. “When did this become a buffet?”

“When I got the chance to sip on your love,” Caress shot back. “Don’t give me that look, you’ll get a massage and lunch out of it and you know it.”

Thinking on it a moment, Cool Breeze shrugged. He looked at Sure Stroke. “Lucky you, you get to watch two changelings feed.” He nosed against each mare in kind. “Ready?”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, her wings unfurled and feathers bristled. “Won’t that make it worse?”

He bobbed his head from side to side. “I’ll get more tired,” he admitted. “And they’ll drain me a little faster than normal, but I’ve fed them like this before, it’s not so bad as long as I don’t have other things to do.”

“Oh, you do.” Caress licked her lips. “But that’s not for young ears. Can we eat?”

Queen Euphoria nipped at her ear tip. “Behave. Ready, Breezy?”

“Go for it, girls.”

They needed no further prompting. Sure Stroke felt her cheeks burn as Queen Euphoria leaned in and captured Cool Breeze’s lips in a deep kiss, while Caress nuzzled his and whispered sweet nothings into his ears.

They switched, Caress gave him little time to breathe before she pressed her lips against his. Queen Euphoria gave a throaty chuckle and nibbled on his ears.

Cool Breeze’s wings relaxed, his entire body just seemed to melt under their ministrations, especially as his wife nosed her way back into the kiss and both mares seemed to tease him together.

Then they stopped. His back arched, Sure Stroke saw his eyes go wide and cross before fluttering shut. A muffled moan sounded from the back of his throat.

As each mare parted or moved to allow the other a chance at his lips, Sure Stroke caught sight of a flicker of ethereal green flowing from his mouth to theirs.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The changeling mares drew back, each inhaling deeply, their eyes alight as if tasting something sweet for the first time. Cool Breeze, on the other hoof, looked like he was exhaling his very essence to them.

And yet, somehow, he seemed at peace. A tired smile was spread across his muzzle. A slight sagging of his shoulders was the only outward sign of any discomfort.

Slowly, but surely, they were taking his love and a sizable chunk of his energy.

And Cool Breeze allowed it happily.

After several moments of Sure Stroke being left to gape in slack-jawed awe, Queen Euphoria broke away, followed by Caress. The flow of green light stopped.

Cool Breeze leaned against Queen Euphoria’s chest, his eyes shut and his head hanging limp.

Queen Euphoria beamed and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, sweetheart. You’re delicious as always.”

He mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath, which brought forth a laugh from both changelings.

“No falling asleep,” Caress chided. “This lunch was supposed to be informative, remember?”

With a low groan, practically a whine, Cool Breeze opened a bleary eye and looked at Sure Stroke. His tired smile broadened a touch. “Y’know that feeling,” he began, his words slurring, “where you sleep wrong and end up laying on a leg, or your wing unfurls and you roll on top of it? And then in the morning it’s all tingly and you can’t really move it?”

Sure Stroke bobbed her head.

“It’s like that, but more in your chest, spreading all over as it goes. But it’s less pins and needles, more of a tickly kind of thing.” He closed his eye again and sighed. “It’s weird the first couple times, but once you get used to it …” Cool Breeze trailed off into a sleepy murmur, nosing against Queen Euphoria’s polished carapace.

Chuckling, Queen Euphoria cupped his chin with a hoof and pecked his lips. “Why don’t you take a nap, Breezy? I’ll come get you in a couple hours.”

Another sleepy murmur, then a nod. Cool Breeze stood on shaky legs, making to walk almost drunkenly toward his cloud.

Caress rose with him and pushed her shoulder against his, steering him toward her cushion. “Why don’t you stay on ground level with me?” she said softly. “No need to try jumping up to your cloud after feeding us both.”

“Want my cloud.”

“You’re too tired for your cloud.”

You’re too tired for my cloud.”

“Oh, very witty,” Caress replied, rolling her eyes despite the smile playing upon her lips. She gently pushed him onto the cushion, sliding gracefully into place so she could nuzzle his cheek and give an affectionate lick. “Lay down and rest, troublemaker.”

With a tired whine, he let his head fall on the cushion. A goofy smile crossed his muzzle as Caress began to nuzzle his ears and hum softly, lulling him to sleep.

“Please remember to give him something sweet if he wakes before I finish,” Queen Euphoria said. “He’ll need extra after feeding us.”

Caress nodded into Cool Breeze’s mane, never breaking in her lullaby as she kissed his ears. Her hoof wandered up to rub between his wings, bringing forth a happy sigh from the tired stallion.

Queen Euphoria caught Sure Stroke’s eye. She held a hoof to her lips, then nodded toward the door.

Sure Stroke took the cue. Treading lightly, she followed the changeling queen to the opened doorway leading into the kitchen.

 

 

Queen Euphoria shut the door with a gentle kick, then faced Sure Stroke with a smile. “I hope that little show helped give some understanding as to how our feeding works in Respite.”

Sure Stroke didn’t reply for a moment. There was something about the way Queen Euphoria looked after feeding. Her smile seemed brighter, her eyes were focused, and every step she took and move she made was full of energy.

Even her carapace seemed to take on a darker black, like she’d just polished it while Sure Stroke wasn’t looking!

Blinking, she gave her head a shake to clear the cobwebs. “It does. I mean, I only have his word to go on, but he seemed rather …” she rolled a hoof through the air, searching for the word.

“Willing?” Queen Euphoria offered. “Happy? Content?”

“Yes! Er, to all three, I mean.”

“He was. And rather eager to help, from what I could taste.” She paused to run her tongue along her lips as though to savor any remnant of his love. “Breezy’s always had such a lovely flavor, so full of love, mirth, mischief, and so much more. It takes so much control to stop sometimes. So much.”

Sure Stroke eyed her warily, her wings unfurled. “Because you’ll hurt him?”

Queen Euphoria snapped out of her stupor. “If I take too much, he can be left incredibly weak. And, well, you may have noticed that I am quite a bit bigger than the rest of my kin, yes?”

The amused snort escaped before Sure Stroke could stop herself. “It was one of the more striking points of my first day here.” Her eyes went wide, she quickly clapped a hoof over her mouth.

Rather than take offense, the Queen simply laughed. “Quite alright, dear, I don’t blame you at all. But, with that in mind, it takes more love to sate my hunger. So, one of the reasons I could not feed on you, is that you wouldn’t last too long if I began to drink.” Her eyes danced with mirth. “Although, I suppose it would be somewhat adorable to have an excuse to wrap you up in a nice, warm cocoon, hold you in my hooves, and feed you sweets while I entertain my guest.”

Squeaking in dismay, Sure Stroke leapt out of reach, her wings flared out wide. “No thanks!”

Queen Euphoria threw back her head, her chittering laughter tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. “Oh, my! I can see why Aspire teases you so! You’re a delight!” Shaking her head, she ran a hoof through her mane. “In any case, I do need to feed more than others. It’s a small mercy, really, that I’ve managed to accidentally woo a few ponies here and there.”

Sure Stroke regarded her with a quizzical stare. “Because you get more to eat?”

“In a way, yes. I meant more of a mercy for Breezy’s sake. If not for that and his understanding on the matter …” Queen Euphoria’s cheeks darkened. She shook her head. “Thank heavens for his understanding. In any case, with more ponies around I can feed a bit more freely, as can Caress.” Thinking on it a moment, she glanced over her shoulder. A fond smile crossed her muzzle. ”I’m lucky he let me keep him,” she whispered, her tail swished merrily. “All these years later and I’m still so love drunk for him.”

Love drunk, huh? Violet ears perked up. Sure Stroke wracked her brain, she was certain she’d heard that phrase at least once since coming to Repite.

The other part, however, she was quite sure she hadn’t.

Just what did “keeping” Cool Breeze mean? Was it something to do with them getting married?

Sure Stroke’s feathers fluffed, a smile tugged at her lips. Could that be it?

Had she just unwittingly stumbled upon another little snippet of Respite’s dual culture?

A light cough sounded from behind her. She flicked her ear and turned to find Stalwart standing in the kitchen, his helmet held in hoof and his head bowed.

“Sorry to interrupt, Your Highness,” he said. “But Madame Chaleur du Soleil has arrived.”

Queen Euphoria gasped. “Oh, crack my eggshell! I lost track of time!”Bringing a hoof to her forehead, she sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning her eye upon Sure Stroke once again. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to end our little chat here. Madame Soleil is a monthly regular of mine, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Sure Stroke nodded, but couldn’t hide her wings drooping. Nor could she stop that flicking tongue from tasting her emotions.

Frowning, Queen Euphoria took a couple steps toward Stalwart. She stopped just short. “If you have any more questions or concerns, I’d be happy to answer them another time.” She paused a moment to offer a playful smile. “Besides, I believe Aspire should be waiting outside for you right about now, or he’ll be busy trying to make some poor pony’s mane gray early.”

Sure Stroke snorted, nodding again as she followed Queen Euphoria and Stalwart back into the sitting room.

There, standing with her back toward them while she looked a few pictures sitting on the mantle, was a mare of soft yellow coat and bright pink mane, with a smiling sun for a cutie mark. Her ear flicked, she turned to face the trio, light shone off her velvet smooth coat. She was, in a word, beautiful.

Queen Euphoria stepped forward and greeted her in Prench. The two shared a hug and a kiss on either cheek before launching into a rapid fire conversation that made Sure Stroke do a double take.

How could anyone talk so fast?

Sure Stroke fidgeted in place, stealing a glance toward Stalwart. The stallion was waiting to be dismissed, his eyes locked firmly on the embracing mares.

She bit her lip and began to edge toward the exit.

“… Et, qui est-ce cette jeune pouliche?” Soleil’s dulcet tones made her ears flick. The mare coughed into her hoof. “I mean, who is this young filly?”

Sure Stroke froze in mid step, turning slowly to give a strained smile.

Chaleur du Soleil’s deep purple eyes bored into hers, alight with curiosity. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you during my other visits.”

“She just moved here with her family, Soleil,” Queen Euphoria said. “Our new weather team lead.”

“Oh! Yes, I do remember you telling me!” The Prench mare approached Sure Stroke, offering hoof. “Chaleur du Soleil, and you are?”

Sure Stroke accepted the hoof shake. “Er, I’m Sure Stroke. Nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine. I hope you find the village to your liking.” Slowly, a knowing smile made its way across her muzzle. “It’s always so nice to see ponies and changelings coming to understand one another.”

“Quite so,” Queen Euphoria added. She turned her attention to Stalwart. “Would you mind walking Sure Stroke out?”

Stalwart nodded. “Of course, Your Highness.” He gestured toward the hallway leading to the front door. “After you, Sure Stroke.”

After a quick bow to Queen Euphoria, Sure Stroke trotted for the door, with Stalwart following a short distance behind.

She pulled the door open and stepped out into the bright sunlight, just in time to catch sight of a familiar nymph, flanked by Vector and Zephyr, doing his best to get a pair of burly white pegasi standing on either side of the door to laugh with, of all things, silly transformations.

Sure Stroke watched as green fire washed over his form. In a flash, he changed. A bright red shirt with yellow polka dots covered his chest, his mane curled and fluffed out like he’d been hit by a lightning bolt and painted in all the colors of the rainbow, but most striking of all was his face.

Her jaw dropped.  His black carapace was covered in white paint, bright blue eyeliner circled his eyes, his lips were tinged a bright red that matched the silly clown nose that sprouted from the edge of his snout.

He’d become a very literal clown changeling. A clownling, just like her drawing.

Had Esalen told him?

Yet, for all his efforts, even the way he threw his hooves out wide and gave a big, toothy grin, the guards didn’t so much as snort.

Aspire huffed, shifting back to his natural form in a flash of green fire. “C’mon! I know you guys are at least amused! I can taste it! You do this every time you escort Madame Soleil!”

The pegasi didn’t reply. Although, Sure Stroke was quite certain she saw one of them bite the inside of his cheek, trying to hide a smile.

Duplicitous caught it, giving the stallion a wink before he turned to Aspire. “I think you’ve played your game enough, Aspire.”

“Besides, Sure Stroke’s done,” Stalwart chipped in.

Three sets of eyes turned toward her. Sure Stroke gave a little wave, earning a grin and a flick of Aspire’s tongue to test her mood.

“Have a good time after all, huh?” he teased. “Guess we’ll have to drag you along for trouble more often!”

Sure Stroke shook her head, laughing. “No thanks!” she said as she held up her hooves and crossed them over her chest. “I’m pretty sure I just used up my freebie with her, and I don’t wanna chance being wrapped up, dyed funny colors, or whatever else she can put me through!”

The trio of colts shared matching grins. “Coward!” they chanted together.

“Better a cowardly filly than being in trouble with the Queen,” Duplicitous quipped. “Now, run along, you four. Go pester Creamy and Frosty or something.”

Aspire’s ears pinned back, drawing sniggers from the other colts. “Y’know what? We were just about to go to Sweet Treat’s shop and do our Saturday morning math session, so … yeah! Not the ice cream parlor!”

Sure Stroke raised a brow, eying her friend critically as he glanced from left to right. What’s got him so nervous about the ice cream parlor? He was all excited about it when he showed me around …

Filing that away for later, she shrugged. “Fair enough, snacks and homework it is.” She fixed him with a half-hearted glare. “Except I didn’t bring my stuff because no one told me about this.”

He blinked. “Still having trouble?”

“Extremely, yes.”

“Oh, sorry!” Aspire cringed. “If I’d known, I’d have said something.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “I’ll go home and get my stuff. Meet you all at Sweet Treat’s shop.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Zephyr said tiredly. Thinking on it a moment, he smirked. “Better hurry, though. Zippy’s been known to get real hungry when he waits.”

Without missing a beat, Vector took his cue. “I’m already hungry,” he added, grinning broadly and fluffing his feathers, “and I think I just might clear out Sweet Treat’s case between now and when you get back if you take too long!”

She didn’t need any further prompting. Sure Stroke took off for home in a rustle of feathers.

 

 

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