While slowly sipping at the tea Camellia set down for us, and nibbling on the cookies, Oval and I tried our best to get the unicorn mare up to speed as quick as she was able to absorb it. The idea that there were thousands of Changelings living in the pony lands unbeknownst to their neighbours was something that she clearly had some difficulty with, even if Oval stressed the different array of jobs and relationships they held were beneficial to pony society as a whole.
The idea that a smaller number of Changelings were now prevented from returning to those lives because of that spell which held Canterlot in its grasp, forcing them to hide or get incarcerated in Canterlot Castle's dungeons, was truly upsetting to the unicorn pony. Family meant everything to her, and hearing we thought along similar lines made her all the more determined to help us out.
While she was a unicorn, she had no idea what kind of spell could have been used to take our guises away from us, as her magic had been largely used for her job as a florist or her attempts to branch out to the greater field of botany. She knew just what was needed for plants to grow big and strong, for flowers to last for weeks and months even after their stems were cut, and how to splice different plants together in order to create a new species which had the benefits from both parent species and none of the weaknesses.
We briefly talked about how we thought Changeling magic worked compared to Unicorn magic, and how we could sense the energy patterns at times, but Camellia was entirely out of her league in that respect. It just didn't connect, and she was not going to be of any help in that area.
As a unicorn, and an employed resident of Canterlot, she was open to gathering supplies for us during daytime, and figuring out of there were others who might be able to help us out where she could not. Oval stressed to no end that Camellia had to be very careful, considering the way we were being viewed by ponies in general. Camellia acknowledged each of Oval's fears and did her best to silence them, but it was clear she was worried about the consequences as well.
As the evening went on and the three of us started to yawn, Camellia led us up to the first floor and into a messy room which smelled like dirt. Her magic quickly moved her botany experiments out of the way until there was ample room on the floor, and a set of sheets flew in after so she could lay out a rudimentary bed for us. As the unicorn retreated to her own room, Oval and I made ourselves comfortable and were soon fast asleep.
The next day arrived with the sight of Camellia standing in the doorway watching Oval and me sleep. I blinked my eyes open to see her standing there, an odd look on her face, and tried to connect her facial expression with an emotion. Failing that, I wurmed my way out of Oval's hold and stood up from the ground.
Camellia moved back as I approached her, motioning for me to join her in the hallway. She closed the door to the other room behind me with her magic, and sat down in the small hallway. I followed her example, but moved my forehooves up to rub some sleep out of my eyes.
"Apart from your looks, you sleep like my nieces do," Camellia suggested. "There is a lot of love and trust there, far removed from the angry mob I saw descend upon my city a few years back."
"That was a mistake," I told her directly. "Our Queen has been having the same problems with understanding you ponies as you have had with understanding us. There's not been a dialogue between our species. All that exists are the preconceptions which just stack up on top of one another. Oval and other siblings of mine have been trying to fix that for decades now; trying to get a mutual understanding going."
"And this situation now is destroying their work, isn't it?" Camellia realised. "We're faced with you being unable to hide among us, unable to do your work, and with ponies who let their fears of your outward appearance get the better of them?"
"Pretty much," I agreed. "We were just on our way to Oval's home in Hoofton, a place where she has a job and a life as a pony stallion. She has a wife there, and is respected in the community. But we can't go there looking like our true selves; nopony would accept us. Individuals are smart, but groups are dumb. And groups who panic won't listen to reason."
Camellia closed her eyes and sat in silence with me for a moment. I could hear Oval's slow breathing from the other side of the door - still fast asleep.
"You have an aura around you of someone who is to be trusted," she finally spoke. "If you had not come up out of the sewer when you did, I would have released my magic onto your sister and called for the guards. I don't trust her."
"I do? Er... well, thanks for not doing that, I guess?" I stumbled. "I'm not really sure what to do with that?"
"I might know somepony who is ready to listen, but they need to meet you. Without your sister present. Is that a problem?" Camellia asked directly.
"I don't think it's a problem, but we're kind of confined to your home right now," I pointed out. "I can't go elsewhere to meet with them, and Oval is going to be in the house here as well."
"Oval, Burst, I don't care what you call them," the unicorn stated. "If you can convince them to stay out of sight until my friend is ready to meet with them as well, I can get you in contact with someone who has access to the palace and may be able to find out whether they're holding your family there or not."
"I can't promise all of my family are as trustworthy as I seem to be, Camellia," I mumbled. "They do mean a lot to me, though. We told you yesterday how important it is for us to be able to feed. Stuck in a prison cell without the ability to feed, we'll go feral... we won't be able to feed if we can't mimic a pony's looks. All of this can go wrong so quickly..."
"There are some plants which require live food, like the Dionaea muscipula, but that does not make them any less precious than the flowers I work with," the unicorn offered up. "I've been thinking of you along those lines; you look similar to us, but you just need a different diet. As long as I respect your diet, we can co-exist, true?"
I gave her a slow nod. "I hadn't thought of it that way yet, but that's a good analogy. I think we're insects, though. Have you seen our wings yet?" With that I turned my back on her a little and brought my wings out from under the chitin covering my back.
"I saw, and heard, them during the attack," Camellia agreed, but still leaned in to get a better look at my wings as I kept them still for her. "I think you're right. Those are insect wings alright. Now I'm feeling like I should not have mentioned the flytrap as an example."
"Meh, I'm big enough not to get swallowed by one," I chuckled. "I'm fine with a little humorous jabbing at my expense, please don't worry about offending me."
The unicorn pulled back from me with a careful smile. "This is what I meant; everything about you tells me I should trust you. It's the only reason I've even thought of inviting my friend here to meet you. Your sister there? There's something off on her. She feels wrong."
"I can't comment on that, really. She's done so much for me over the past half year that I can't but trust her," I sighed. "Our family is a complicated one, especially thanks to the problems we have with feeding and getting others to trust us when we can look like anyone else we meet. Some of my family members throw themselves at that role of evil antagonist; they like scaring others while trying to take what they can. They don't care about what they leave behind. But there's a growing group of us who are invested in long-term relationships. Who don't want fast food, but want to nurture our crops, if I can use a botanical term."
"And you're one of them," Camellia stated.
"Well, no... I'm not from here. It's complicated, but I want to go back eventually. I don't belong here with the rest of you. Oval is the one who wants to get things working right. She wants so badly to return to her mare and have a long life together with them," I explained while looking over to the closed door between my sibling and us. "You may not get the right vibe from her, but she can't help that. She really wants to figure out how to bring ponies and changelings together on friendly terms. She wants this to work out. And this situation here, the potential for this to turn into a war between our species... The thought alone is breaking her."
The unicorn reached up with her left foreleg to brush some hair out of her eyes, letting my words work on her mind. "Nopony wants a war," she finally emitted in a worried tone of voice.
"None of us do either," I told her. "We almost had a war half a year ago. It's only thanks to Oval that we managed to stop it before it started. Our Queen was about ready to take Equestria by force, which would have done irrepairable damage to all of us. There would have been no coming back from that. Oval and her sisters recruited me to try and get our Queen to change her mind."
"Given that there was no war half a year ago, I take it you succeeded?" Camellia deducted.
"You'd think that, but no; I failed," I told her honestly. "We had this big plan to get our Queen to listen to me, an outsider, but when it came to me to talk to her, I got overwhelmed by her pheromones. I was completely out of it; didn't know who I was or where I was, only that I wanted to do everything I could to keep smelling those pheromones of hers. The only reason we succeeded was because we had managed to sneak two ponies in with us. Starlight Glimmer and Pinkie Pie managed to..."
"Pinkie Pie?" Camellia interrupted. "I know her; she's friends with the Princess Twilight Sparkle, isn't she?"
"Er, yeah. I think Pinkie is friends with everypony, including Oval and me, but you're right," I agreed.
"Yeah, I know her and her sister Maud Pie. Maud studied geology at the same school where I studied botany," Camellia revealed.
"No kidding?" I replied in honest surprise. "I haven't met Maud, but Pinkie is definitely a friend of mine. I'm glad to hear you know her as well!"
"What would you have looked like if that spell had not taken your magic away?" Camellia asked out of the blue, and I folded my wings back under my chitin as I straightened up again.
"Well, er," I started carefully. "I do have a look which is kind of my... identity... I mean, I'm called Pearl because of a bit of a stupid story. I didn't quite mimic anypony in particular, but I would have sat here as an teenage earthpony mare with a light grey coat, a light aquamarine mane and tail with lighter green highlights, bordering on grey... deep yellow eyes, with a cutiemark of a brown conch shell with a pearl in front of it."
The unicorn mare's eyes scanned over me as if she was trying to imagine it as an overlay over my insect like current form, the corners of her mouth rising slowly. "I can see that," she finally spoke to me. "I can see your words coming out of somepony like that, yes. Almost like a fresh cucumber sandwich. Is that what you feel like on the inside? Past the dark skin and sharp fangs?"
"I don't know, I haven't really gone through any other guises for any length of time to get used to them as much as that one. I guess it's as much my identity as anything else? I would feel more comfortable looking like that now, than I do sitting here bared to you and anypony else who may see me, if that's what you're asking?" I returned, reaching up with my left hoof to rub at my left cheek. "I dunno, I... I haven't really spoken with anyone about it yet. My clutch have all been in this thing longer than I have, and they each have their own guises to fall back on. Blaze and Burst have pretty permanent ones, but Breeze skips between them like she has no attachment to them whatsoever. Pinkie just accepted me for who I am, no matter what I looked like. I don't think Starlight wants to talk about it in depth. We remind her of a bad period in her past."
The unicorn's purple eyes flitted across me again, and I was starting to get a little uncomfortable as I realized just how much information I was giving her, and the way in which she got me to spill it. What was she thinking, exactly? Where was she going with it? If Camellia ended up not being trustworthy, I would have given her so much information that she could ruin me and all other Changelings roaming through Equestria.
I was starting to feel nauseous again, but this time not due to some magic spell keeping me from taking on a pony guise. This time it was due to the full weight of the situation finally coming down on me like the hammer I evaded for over half a year now.
Camellia noticed the change in me, and her ears flattened. I could sense the magic flowing in her direction as something about me made her decide to get defensive.
"What are you doing?" she spoke carefully, backing away from me in the hallway.
"I need you to promise me," I spoke to her, hearing the sharpness of my Changeling voice hiss the words at her. Just my appearance was enough to make anypony worried, but the voice did not help in the least bit to calm them down when they were already on edge.
"Promise you what?" Camellia asked, her horn starting to glow with a soft, almost ambient yellow light as if she was pre-charging it before releasing the full force of her magic into it.
"Don't... I'm not doing anything, I just need to make sure," I warned her, but at the same time felt the muscles around my resin glands twitch. My body was ready to meet the challenge of a fight, even if I was desperately trying to get myself back under control again.
Camellia was in a similar situation; her magic ready to go, her mind trying to figure out why we were suddenly facing off like this, and I could read it on her face.
"Don't betray us, please... don't... We need to get this working. We need friends. We need trust," I listed, finishing by swallowing a bit of goop which had leaked from my resin glands onto my tongue.
Camellia's eyes were scanning over me, even as she continued to back away from me, but her facial expression told me enough; I had done irrepairable damage to her ability to trust me. We had walked the thin rope and I had somehow managed to cut it by doing nothing... nothing at all. It had just been a moment of fear flashing over my face, fear which had reflected onto the unicorn before me as if it needed her to plant its seed in so it could grow.
And now we were both faced with this beast between us, and we were losing the battle. It was untouchable, invisible, all-encompassing, and we were just a pair of strangers caught in a situation neither of us wanted to be in.
The pony was faced with a creature which had plagued her nightmares ever since her city had been attacked by a vast army of them, and while she had tried to give me the benefit of the doubt, there was just no way we were going to overcome that in just a single night and couple of chats. She had the upper hoof; she could have the guards come down upon us in force by just the smallest of actions. All she needed to do was reveal us to her neighbours.
There was a click to my left and the door to the room Oval and I had been sleeping in swung open...
Yellow lightning flew past me at the same time as green goop shot out of my mouth, and I flew backwards down a flight of stairs once I was hit by Camellia's magic. The magic spell she hit me with prevented me from opening my wings to correct my fast descent, and I hit the ground like a grey brick, losing consciousness from the impact...