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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45. The Black Crown

Esalen could almost feel her eyebrows trying to migrate to the top of her forehead—without any shapeshifting. Quite the feat, given the sort of shenanigans that usually went on in Respite, not to mention all that Sure Stroke’s arrival heralded.

The cause? Why, whatever else than the silver-tongued Prince of the Enchanters, Enticier, trotting into Skydancer’s living room in all his dashing glory. Though she had little interest in Enticier himself, Esalen could appreciate his broad chest and sleek, polished carapace. He’d certainly make a great many nymphs and ponies happy when he decided to—ahem—invite a few friends to form a pile of cuddles in his bed. But he wasn’t to her taste. Hers trended less toward her fellow changelings, more toward ponies.

Namely, cute giggly ones. Still, Enticier wasn’t a bad nymph by any means. He was fun to talk to and loved to play when he visited years ago. A great friend, really.

Right up until he started trying to woo Aspire. Entertaining though it was, even Esalen had limits. And as she watched Enticier sidle up to Aspire at the party, all those memories of past attempts came back in a rush. Her fangs lengthened like a changeling on the hunt.

Oh, and then he started in on Sure Stroke. She knew the look in his eyes all too well, the very same he gave Aspire when he turned on the charm (metaphorically speaking, he’d been careful about not breaking rules since that incident with Helter Skelter) and tried to flirt. Esalen had to turn away and follow Nimble and Toola far away, keeping her eyes trained on the pretty little gymnast’s smile to help cool her temper.

So what in the name of Princess Aurora, the Ancient Queen, and love itself was he doing in Skydancer’s house—in Sure Stroke’s house?

“Aspire?” she hissed out the side of her mouth.

Her brother’s smile was bitter as lemon juice. “He asked, Doodle said it was okay,” Aspire replied, jerking his head toward the filly sitting on his left.

As her eyes fell upon Sure Stroke, Esalen quirked a brow. The filly ducked her head and gave her wings a nervous rustle. “I thought he seemed nice enough,” she muttered so no one else would hear, “and he was interested in reading it with us, and the rest of our friends already do. So …”

Esalen shrugged. “Alright. As long as he didn’t push you into anything you didn’t want, that’s fine.” There would be punishments if such a thing happened and she heard about it. Namely, a pair of long, sharp fangs sinking into his Royal Flirtiness’s neck and pumping him full of venom.

Hopefully that wouldn’t be necessary. It most likely wouldn’t. Enticier could be a pain, but he’d never been one to deliberately break a rule. The Helter Skelter incident notwithstanding.

But as he greeted Nimble and Toola, Esalen sucked in her lips. A stab of jealousy shot through her chest and she stepped forward, brushing her shoulder along Toola’s possessively as she forced her way between the pair. “Prince Enticier,” she greeted with a formal bow of her head. A bit petty, but her way of subtly reminding him of how he was expected to act.

The way his smile faltered and ears drooped brought a wicked smirk to her face. Message received.

Enticier stuck out his bottom lip and fixed her with a wide-eyed look. A most pathetic pout from a nymph two years her senior. “You shouldn’t be so formal, Essy,” he complained. “I thought we were friends.”

“Oh, yes. We are. But one of us is on an official visit representing his hive.” Esalen fluttered her eyelashes. She made a point of touching Toola’s shin, her eyes never leaving his. “I’d hate for him to forget to uphold that standard.”

He took two quick steps back, fixing a smile on his face. “Of course,” he replied with practiced ease. Enticier nodded to Esalen, then trotted over to greet Aspire with his usual hug and cheek rub, which drew the normal tight smile and awkward pat on the back—a staple of their tumultuous friendship since Aspire defended Enticier in Queen Euphoria’s court.

Then he turned to Sure Stroke. Soft purple cheeks colored a dusty pink as he smiled at her. She fluffed her feathers and glanced down, raising her right hoof for him to take in his. He brushed his lips against her wrist. “Hello again, Sure Stroke,” he greeted, his voice as smooth as velvet and rich as chocolate.

Her blush spread to the tips of her ears. “Y-Yes,” she squeaked.

“Ready to hear about our Ancient Queen and Princess Aurora?” he asked.

Something sour bit Esalen’s tongue. Jealousy. Irritation. Her eyes flitted to her brother, watching him close. His smile was looking more forced than his stupid puns.

Hiding it as best he could, Aspire nudged Enticier’s shoulder. “Hey, no spoilers. Or do you Enchanters not care about those when you tell ponies?”

“Of course not. I just assume she’s figured out what happens next. I mean, it is sort of obvious, don’t you think?”

Aspire made as though to fire off a retort, but stopped just short. He blinked a couple times, shutting his mouth with a click as he thought it over. His brows furrowed. He knew the same as Esalen:

Enticier had him.

Esalen sighed and shook her head, an amused smile tugged at her lips.  Enticier always was the one nymph who could back Aspire into a verbal corner—without bringing up how obviously lovedrunk he was for Sure Stroke.

Which meant it was time for one of their time-tested traditions …

Aspire crossed his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and blew a raspberry. The Enchanter Prince gave a horribly fake gasp, the sort some uppity mare from Manehattan’s wealthier districts might make, then responded in kind.

And there went the charmer image, Esalen mused, chittering to herself when she noticed the surprise flashing across Sure Stroke’s face. With a roll of her eyes, she motioned for Nimble and Toola to follow her over, pointedly ignoring their constant giggling. She bumped her hips against Aspire’s, which effectively ended the raspberry battle.

“As fun as watching you hatchlings is,” she drawled, “I believe this is supposed to be story time.”

Their ears splayed back. Both boys had the grace to look sheepish. “Sorry,” Aspire mumbled. His horn lit up bright green, he levitated the book out of his saddlebag. He coughed. “So, ready?”

Esalen led the girls to sit on the cough, pausing only to tug Sure Stroke along. While four fillies claimed their seats and got comfortable, she shot a cheeky grin at the boys when they realized they’d be stuck on the floor.

“Typical,” Aspire grumbled with a roll of his eyes as he moved to sit on the wood floor just in front of them.

Enticier wrinkled his snout. “Should I be offended? I feel like I’m supposed to have first right to sit on the couch as the guest here. Not to mention the whole royalty thing.”

“You haven’t learned by now that Essy plays by her own rules and it’s up to everyone around to figure out what they are?”

“Good point.” Shrugging, he joined Aspire, seating himself on the same side as Sure Stroke. He made like he wanted to lean against his fellow nymph, but then stopped. Esalen caught a hint of a mischief flashing across his face. She could taste it on her tongue. The Enchanter Prince glanced over his shoulder, smiling slyly at the pegasus. “Are you sure you don’t want to sit between Aspire and me?” he offered, gesturing to a bit of space he left empty. “So you can read a bit easier.”

Again, Esalen’s brows raised until they disappeared beneath her bangs. Then they furrowed. Her eyes flitted between Aspire and Sure Stroke. Perfect chance for him to start in on Aspire, she noted. But he’s going back to the well on Sure Stroke like he did a couple nights ago. He wouldn’t …

No. Whether or not he could be a pest and a flirt, Enticier wasn’t a bad nymph. He wouldn’t steal someone else’s partner. As far as she knew, at least.

But that left her with a rather important question: what was his angle?

Sure Stroke bit her lip, her hoof tracing a small circle in the cushion. She ducked her head and looked down, avoiding Enticier’s warm orange eyes and smile. Mumbling something unintelligible under her breath, she nodded once and slid off the couch to sit between the boys. Her shoulders brushed against both nymphs.

Her left wing twitched reflexively, she touched Aspire with the tips of her feathers.

Esalen licked her lips and frowned at the telltale taste of unease mixing with embarrassment, along with a stronger dash of mischief from the Enchanter Prince. But there was something else. Something he usually only held for Aspire. Her breath caught. He might.

She managed to catch Aspire’s eye before he settled in to read. With a jerk her head toward Enticier, she quirked a brow.

Aspire closed his eyes and let out a breath through his nose, then gave a small nod in return. He’d noticed too. But he didn’t want to make a scene.

Fair enough. Esalen pasted a smile on her face and laid down on her cushion, resting her head on her folded hooves. She closed her eyes, but kept one cracked just enough that she could keep watch on Enticier.

He wouldn’t try anything overt or stupid like whisking her off in front of them. Enticier was a flirt and a pest, not a Locust. For all his faults, he had class. But Faith didn’t raise her nymphs to be fools.

Aspire and Esalen knew how their cousins could twist words and fill their friends-turned-lovers’ ears with honeyed promises and compliments, even without the aid of their unmatched charm. Certainly, there were Enchanters who fell in love with Respite, but just as many Caretakers and ponies had left the village to join their newfound lovers in Paradise.

Esalen wasn’t going to let Enticier have it that easy if he thought he was going home with Aspire or Sure Stroke wrapped around his hoof.

Neither would Aspire.

“Right,” Aspire began, “the last time we left off, the Imperial Princess Amortia had visited the Ancient Queen in disguise, becoming one of the few ponies at that time to pull a trick on a changeling. She was also the first to get one over on one of the Queens in that day.” The corners of his mouth twitched. “You can imagine Cool Breeze would be happy to try his luck at it, given how he acts.”

Toola burst into laughter. “No fooling!” she cried, waggling her ears. “He’d probably try to pull all of us into it and run off when we got caught!”

“That’s why you either don’t get caught, or,” Nimble paused to bop her sister, “you don’t agree to help Breezy mess with Queen Euphoria.”

A shudder ran down Esalen’s spine. Teasing or not, Nimble was absolutely right. Never again would she jump up to help Cool Breeze mess with his wife. Never.

At least not until she got a little faster. Her ability to escape the Queen’s wrath was directly related to her willingness to take part again.

With a poorly hidden grin, Aspire opened the book and flipped to the next chapter. “Next chapter is called ‘The Black Crown,’” he said. Leaning back against the front of the couch, he began to read.

 

Anxiety. Fear. Unease. The Ancient Queen was used to tasting such emotions rolling off helpless ponies in waves when they beheld her natural form. They all knew what fate awaited them—their emotions drained and minds charmed to serve and worship her as their new mistress. And, privately, she felt them herself before those last few battles with the Tribes.

 

She was used to tasting them when she met with leaders under the false flag of peace, a favorite tactic her mother so loved to employ, and feeling them a little in kind as she fought to keep the image of negotiator.

But this time, she tasted no such emotion. Not from Princess Amortia or her younger brother, Prince Snowshine.

It was all her. All for her beloved changelings, huddled in some cave in that terrible snowstorm as they hoped and  prayed for her return. They needed her now more than ever. This time, there was no conquering swarm. There was no time for a slow infiltration. The Crystal Empire held their lives in their hooves.

And Princess Amortia knew it.

“I hope you slept well,” the Princess said with a smile. Seated on her crystalline throne, with Prince Snowshine standing to her right, she gazed down at the Ancient Queen from her dais. “A full stomach makes for a more restful night.”

The Ancient Queen swallowed. “You have my thanks for that,” she replied, bowing her head. “It is … rare that a pony offers love freely to one of my kinds without being enchanted. I don’t know of any instance it has happened in my lifetime.”

Princess Amortia raised a brow. “Love is something we have in abundance in my Crystal Empire. It keeps us safe and happy. It seems that our kinds hold that much in common.” Her smile fell. “But you understand that I must look after my ponies as you must look after yours.”

“Of course.” The Ancient Queen bowed her head lower. “I would not be here like this if our situation were not truly desperate.”

“Truly peaceful and without plans for invasion, you mean?” He head snapped up. Princess Amortia’s brow arched higher. “We are unfamiliar with changelings in the Crystal Empire, but that does not mean we are deaf and blind. I have heard plenty from our southern neighbors. And I would be a fool to discount their tales when so many of them say the same thing: never trust a changeling.”

The changeling’s throat tightened. Countless generations’ worth of antagonism had come to bare. But she had to try. She had to play by the Imperial Princess’s rules. “I understand. And I do commend you for considering others’ tales regarding my race. But that raises a question.”

“Oh?”

“Why help me? You could have turned me away or cast me out the instant you learned what I was. So why haven’t you done so?”

A heavy silence fell over the room. Princess Amortia regarded her with a critical stare, her mouth set in a line. Then, she stood. “I tell you these things to make a point,” she said. “I am not like those to the south who blindly trusted you and then awoke to find themselves drained and under your spell. The Crystal Heart can, and will, keep your kind out if I will it so. And I need no help from my guards or my little brother to remove you if I believe you unfaithful.”

The Ancient Queen couldn’t help but wince. “You made that much clear last night, Your Highness.”

“Apologies if that seemed a bit heavy-hoofed,” Princess Amortia said, not sounding the least bit sincere, “but I felt it an important message to impart.”

“I understand. You love your subjects and protect them, as I do mine.”

“Quite. Which sets the table nicely for the real issue of the day.” Princess Amortia stepped down from the dais and strode forth, with Prince Snowshine following in her wake. She stopped before the Ancient Queen just out of hoof’s reach. “This is not the first time your kind has come before ponies under a flag of peace,” she said.

The Ancient Queen closed her eyes, nodding. “It is not.”

“You understand, then, that I’m ill-inclined to open my gates to an invading force.”

“We have no invading force, Your Highness. If our subjects fought, it would be the end of the changelings.”

“And if I don’t allow you shelter, I suppose you’ll tell me that I might as well order you all killed, yes?”

Wincing, she nodded again.

Princess Amortia let out a deep sigh, chuckling ruefully. “Well, at least you own up to it, I suppose. But that hardly changes my position, I’m afraid. Without any assurance for my ponies’ safety, I cannot open the capitol gates for your changelings. I’m sorry.”

The Ancient Queen bit her lip. A thousand thoughts flitted through her mind. The nymphs shivering in their mothers’ grasp; her trusted warriors climbing the cave walls, itching to go out and search for their lost Queen and bring her back to the safety of their makeshift shelter; her mate trying to keep the hive calm while they awaited her return; and the lone thought that plagued their minds since the ponies chased them north:

Survive. By any means. Survive.

Perhaps changeling pride wasn’t as important anymore. It had done little more than lead them to ruin in recent times.

“My changelings,” the Ancient Queen began, “will obey any order I give without question. My authority is absolute.”

Raising a brow, Princess Amortia tilted her head. “I’m not sure how that could be relevant to my point, but go on.”

“If I told them to stand down and submit to your laws, if I ordered that they not make any attempt to use their charms to enchant your subjects or feed indiscriminately, would you allow them entry?”

The Imperial Princess hummed a low note, tapping a hoof against the floor. “Snowshine?” she asked.

Prince Snowshine spoke up for the first time in days, “I think it would help, though it might be better served if this be said in front of our subjects. Just to allay their fears.”

“Done,” the Ancient Queen replied without hesitation.

“I wasn’t finished,” he said. Shifting in place, he looked her up and down. “What I’m about to say may offend you, Changeling Queen.”

“There is surprisingly little that offends me greater than the chance for my race to perish in the snow. Speak.”

He gave a short laugh. “Fair enough.” His eyes flitted up to the black crown resting atop her head. Prince Snowshine grimaced. “You say they will follow any order you give without question. That might cause some … unease, if a sizable chunk of our capitol recognized another ruler.”

The Ancient Queen frowned. “You suggest that I cede authority to your sister?”

“It would go a long way to put some of the inevitable tension to rest.” Thinking on it a moment, he added, “Another way is a bit more traditional when it comes to alliances. A union more lasting than paper and ink.”

“Brother,” Princess Amortia warned.

“Not you, sister,” he replied. His eyes met the Ancient Queen’s.

“A political marriage.” With an amused hum, the Ancient Queen looked her savior up and down. Broad chested and toned, with a glimmering coat that shone like the starry sky and showed off his muscles, Prince Snowshine certainly was attractive.

For a pony.

“I will speak with my mate on your proposal,” she replied diplomatically. “If he refuses, then I’m afraid I must decline. Though, perhaps our heirs would suffice in our stead?”

“I think it would. Sister?”

Princess Amortia flicked her tail. “I’m not a fan of arranged marriages, to be perfectly honest. If you two and your absent mate can work it out, I’ll accept it. As for any future foals, I’d rather see them develop relationships naturally.”

“Playmates, then,” the Ancient Queen replied with an easy smile. “And we watch to see what comes of it. The first step in changeling-pony relations free of past prejudices.”

“That, I can accept.” She returned the smile with one of her own, though her eyes flitted to the crown atop the Ancient Queen’s head. “Though, my brother’s previous point is valid …”

Centuries of changeling pride and tradition weighed on her mind. How her parents and grandparents would shriek and hiss at her for ever daring to consider what she was about to do. No changeling would dare think it.

No changeling had ever stood in her place before. Their race, their future depended on it.

Drawing in a deep breath, the Ancient Queen plucked her crown off and held it out to Princess Amortia. “My name is Morrigan, the last Queen of the Changelings. From this day forth, I and mine are yours.

“From this day forth, the changelings are sworn to alliance with those who saved them in their hour of need. The changelings serve Crystal Empire.”

 

 

 

“That,” Sure Stroke repeated for what must have been the fiftieth time, “was amazing.”

After they finished reading, Aspire and Sure Stroke decided they’d like to go on an early evening walk along Respite’s dirt path, through the center of town toward the lakeside. A nice little spot to hang out and cuddle. Of course, since Enticier had to walk in the same direction to get to Queen Euphoria’s cottage where he was staying, he felt inclined to join them. But Aspire was determined not to let it ruin his good mood.

He chittered and flicked his tongue out. Her assessment was sincere. Sweet glee and wonder danced upon his tongue like Coneigh Island cotton candy. Grinning, he leaned in to rub shoulders with her. “You’re acting like we’ve reached the happy ending of the story,” he said. “They still have to go get the changelings out of that cave.”

“Oh, shush, you!” she shot back, playfully swiping a wing at him. “You’re all here, so I can infer they did!”

He rubbed his ear, grinning at his girlfriend. She had him there, of course. And she could have the little swipe as payback, just this once. He did sort of deserve it.

Hopefully it would give their tagalong a hint.

Enticier followed along on Aspire’s right, just out of hoof’s reach, but close enough to hear and join in the conversation if he wished. He also made sure he was close enough to scoot over and catch him in a hug, something Aspire noted with a frown.

What in the name of love his old friend-slash-pest up to? One minute he was up to his usual games, the next he had eyes for Sure Stroke, and then back again.

Aspire gritted his teeth. Flirting with him was one thing, but Sure Stroke was off-limits. She was his girlfriend, thank you very much! And the last time he checked, he had most certainly not mentioned anything about adding members to the relationship—neither had she!

If Enticier noticed Aspire’s mounting irritation, he paid it little mind. “Queen Morrigan is quite an interesting figure in changeling lore,” he said with his sly smile. “At that point in time, it was almost sacrilege to even think of submitting to pony rule, and there’s still a bit of that feeling to this day. I assume you know of our, er, nature when it comes to challenges or slights.”

“After living here for a few months, I’ve gotten rather familiar with it.” Sure Stroke shot a grin at Aspire, bumping her hip against his. “Smugling here made sure of that several times over.”

“Hey, if you’re going to try pinning me and daring me to sweep you after I’ve repeatedly demonstrated that I am literally the best wrestler out of all the nymphs, you deserve all the teasing you get,” Aspire shot back without missing a beat. “And it’s not my fault you keep opening yourself up for a sweep. That’s all you, Do—Sure Stroke,” he amended.

Sure Stroke drew back, ears twitching. She blinked owlishly at him, her brows knitted together.

Fortunately, Enticier didn’t catch his slip. “Wrestling Aspire? You’re quite bold.” Aspire could almost hear his smile widening. “Though, I should think it good he’s been teaching you. Better that than an unfortunate misunderstanding, eh?”

The couple flinched. “Uh …” Sure Stroke fixed a fake smile on her face. “Well … there was a thing in the forest.”

“A thing in the forest?” Enticier raised a brow. “Between you and Aspire?” At Sure Stroke’s nod, he leaned over, Aspire could feel the Prince’s chitinous shoulder rub against his, an affectionate touch he’d grown far too accustomed to. “My, that sounds like an interesting story. Would it be too intrusive of me to ask to hear it some time?”

Aspire shared a quick look with Sure Stroke, running his tongue along his lips to sample the rather muggy taste of her unease mixing with a hint of affection—the sort one held for a friend. But there was a touch of lingering apprehension aimed at him.

She was worried he’d take offense.

“I don’t think so,” he said with a shrug. “It’s pretty tame, really.”

Sure Stroke’s ears perked up. The taste of unease died off, warm, mashed potato-like relief filled its place. Much better. “I wouldn’t mind either,” she said.

“Oh, good!” Enticier waggled his ears. He bounded in front of them, beaming like a hatchling who just got his first offer of love from a friend. “Tomorrow, then? We could have ice cream at that little shop. Chocolate, Creamy, and Frosty run it, if I recall.”

“That’s them.”

“Excellent!” His attention turned to Sure Stroke. “I heard from Queen Euphoria that you’re a wonderful artist. Would it be too much to ask if I could …” he trailed off, scuffing a hoof against the dirt path. His amber eyes gleamed. “See some of your work?”

Aspire sucked in a breath through his nose. What did Enticier think he was up to?

Sure Stroke either didn’t notice or didn’t pay it much mind. She ducked her head, her feathers fluffed and fluttered. Nervous. Or flattered. “I suppose I could,” she replied softly. “I haven’t been painting since I moved here, though. Just sketches.”

“I’d like to see whatever you have, dear. I’m only picky with whom I call friend!”

“Oh. Well, okay.”

“Tomorrow around noon, then. It’s a date!” Before either could correct him, Enticier took Sure Stroke’s hoof in his and brushed his lips against her wrist again, an unmistakably delighted gleam shone in his eyes when she squeaked. He winked, then released his grip. “Until tomorrow, dear.”

Sure Stroke’s feathers fluffed, she fidgeted in place. “Y-Yeah. Sure.”

Chuckling, Enticier turned his attention to Aspire again. He caught the Caretaker in a tight hug. “It’s been fun spending time with you again,” Enticier said. “Just like old times.”

“Yeah. Old times.” Aspire patted his back, trying to fight the urge to grit his teeth.

A pair of soft lips pressed against his cheek, pointed fangs tickled his chitin. His eyes went as wide as dinner plates. “Gah!” Aspire swiped at Enticier.

The Enchanter Prince hopped nimbly out of reach. With a wide grin, he dashed off for Queen Euphoria’s house as fast as his hooves could carry him. Though not without a quick look over his shoulder and a mischievous grin.

Aspire felt a chill run down his spine. Whatever his old friend was up to, he had a feeling he was in for a wild ride.

Love, help me.

 

 

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