"Did you see his face?" hissed Breeze, once they were well enough away from the warehouse district, clipping down streets left mostly abandoned by the chill rain and the late hour. Doubtless there were ponies keeping tabs on them, but the downpour dampened sound, and Breeze could barely even hear Sun's hoofbeats. What chance was there that a tail could hear him whispering? "What in the name of the Moon are we carrying? Fine china? Potion bottles?" He was already starting to think his earlier assessment of their cargo's importance was perhaps a trifle hasty.
"That's knowledge I can live without burdening myself with." Sun's voice came from somewhere behind and to the right as he kept an eye on not only the cargo, but the clipboard stowed in the cart, that the guards at the checkpoint would need to sign - just to be sure that everything seemed legitimate - and that their contact needed to countersign, so that Gold could be sure the package was in the right claws.
They walked on in relative silence for a short while, listening to the sound of the cart, and the sounds of the storm around them; the rustling of water striking already sodden cobblestones, and the wind hissing through the buildings above them. It was driving the rain down along the street, hitting them from behind, which was just one small mercy on this miserable night. "And you're not going to tell me you told me so?" Breeze said at last, glancing back.
Sun just shook his head, bangs peeling from the soaked fur of his face to flick in front of his eyes, scattering more droplets into air that was already beyond inundated. "Eyes forward. Checkpoint's coming up."
Breeze could see it. In fact, as Gold had indicated, he'd been able to see it for a while know, or at least some evidence of its existence. A few pinpricks of light that shone even through the deluge and the darkness that blocked out all but the haziest of images, until they drew closer.
The boundary of Dragontown was marked by a low dyke that must have done little to deter those who were wont to sneak in or out, but at least made it prohibitively difficult to get large items into the district without passing through the checkpoint itself. This checkpoint, on the only road into Dragontown itself from the city, was an open archway carved of stone, with a small canvas canopy on the city side, with long and serpentine dragons carved into the stone itself and painted onto the canvas. Torches burned in their brackets despite the downpour, and a pair of guardsponies huddled under the meagre shelter of the canopy, their armour and cloaks pulled as tight as they would go. It was obvious that they couldn't hide from the rain, though; their armour was already glistening, streams running down across the steel to cascade over edges and curves.
"All right," Breeze muttered to himself, his eye twitching at the higher pitch of his voice. Of Posey's voice. "No worries, this'll be easy..."
The first guard stepped up, peering through the rain at the pair. His eyes narrowed under his helmet, and as a forehoof lifted itself from the gleaming cobbles Breeze was sure that he was about to hold up that hoof like a warding statue, assemble himself into a dramatic pose and cry out "HALT!" Perhaps with a following of "IN THE NAME OF THE LAW!"
Instead he gave the bedraggled 'mares' a once over, tucked that forehoof up against his barrel, and sighed. "Oh, c'mon gals! It's pouring out here!" His voice was raised to carry over the noise of the weather. "Don't tell me you didn't even bring a Celestia-blessed hat with you?"
"I..." Breeze glanced over to Sun, expecting the other changeling to have something, some kind of response. But he was clearly just as surprised as Breeze, for he stood blinking, not saying a thing. "We...left in such a hurry!" Breeze said, turning his eyes back to the scowling guard. "You see how late it is? Didn't even have time to throw on a coat."
"Really? It's been like this all day! Don't expect me to believe you didn't wear a coat to work! What, did you not have five seconds to grab it on your way out?"
By now the second guard was stepping up. What little of his brows as could be seen were even more deeply furrowed that the first's. "It is pretty late, at least for you two. You should have been along an hour or so ago. Is everything all right, Pose?"
Oh, it was such an innocent little question, and yet Breeze's heart leapt up into his throat. Was it really as innocent as it seemed? A true gesture of concern and nothing more? His racing mind wasn't so sure. It threw up a myriad of ulterior motives behind the question. Maybe he suspected something was wrong. Maybe that the mares before him were being forced to do something they didn't want. Or...
Or did he suspect the truth? Did he know the truth, that the real Posey and Lavender were gone, that imposters stood before him? Was he trying to catch them out somehow? His hoof rose on instinct, heading to the side of his muzzle, where the faint outline of that damned scar marred Posey's features. It was practically invisible, he'd made sure of that, brushing the fur in just the right way, but 'practically invisible' wasn't quite the same as completely so...
No, it was a stupid, paranoid thought. Panic talking, and though he couldn't help but turn his head away from the guards just a fraction, he was mentally cursing himself even as Sun stepped forward to draw the attention away from Breeze.
"What do you mean? Things have just been a little hectic lately. We've been rushing around all day, and I swear I would have left my own hooves at the door if I weren't walking on them!" He leaned a little closer to the first guard, pitching his voice down to a stage whisper. "And this delay isn't going to help us at all, is it?" A wing stretched out, a hoof reaching beneath it to slide the clipboard out from the cart, the feathers doing their best to shield it from the worst of the rain, and he thrust it towards the guard.
He, in turn, stepped up as he reached out for it, as if to shield it with his body, glancing back at his companion. "Are you serious, Stomper? It's the Flower Fillies, for Celestia's sake! We see them every week! Even you're not heartless enough to leave them waiting in this sort of weather, are you?"
But the other shook his head, stepping up as well. "Just give me a minute. You're right, we see them every week, and when have we ever seen them this late? Wearing nothing in rain like this? Something isn't right."
"Sure, how about the fact that now we're going to be waiting in this rain?" grumbled Breeze. He regretted it almost immediately, but by then the words were already out of his mouth, and though he'd kept his voice low they'd carried to the guards. Both of whom turned to face him, their mouths hanging as confusion showed in their eyes.
"Mmm... And we can get you moving in just a second, Pose," said 'Stomper', the second guard. "Just let me ask, did anypony give either of you something to bring in with you, besides the crate?"
"No..." Breeze groaned, and that was true enough. Not including the crate - and the cart, which was coming out again anyway - the only things they were bringing were themselves. But he couldn't help feeling that wouldn't cut it. The next question was almost certainly going to be "then you won't mind if we have a look around?" and then they'd open the crate and see whatever it was that was inside.
Then... Maybe cooperation was the best course of action? An idea came to him, like a bolt of lightning in the storm. It was a stupid idea, but he had nothing better. Besides, surely they wouldn't expect a stupid idea from him?
"Look, would it make it easier if one of you just escorted us along and back?" He felt Sun tense the barest of fractions, but the other changeling held his tongue.
The guards shared a look, and the first said in a tentative voice, "Stomper, you could hold the fort without me for a half-hour or so, right?"
"I really, really, want to get this delivery done," Breeze added for good measure, his voice softening, hoping it would wipe away the memory of his grumbling. "Once this is done we can get home, and get dry..."
"All right, sure," sighed Stomper. "Weather like this, I'd be surprised if we had another visitor along the road before shift change. Go on, I'll check you through." He held a hoof out for the clipboard, levitating a quill from a pouch.
As the first guard - as yet still unnamed - led the way Breeze had to fight a wide grin down to a more restrained, grateful smile, mumbling his thanks as he and Sun stepped forward, the cart trundling along behind him. It wasn't the perfect outcome; he'd been hoping that the offering would be taken up as a show of good faith, and that they'd be waved through without escort. Having the guard along with them complicated matters a little, but at least they were through the checkpoint and moving again, and he thought that was better than being turned away or arrested at the archway itself. Even if he could feel Sun's uncertain glare on the back of his neck.
He shrugged it off, like just another cold rivulet of water running down his back, and took his first real look at Dragontown.
Even now, in the dark and the storm, lit up with hazy orange lamps that scattered their light through the rain like some strange orange fog, it could never have been done justice by the calculated, emotionless world of a street map. The buildings lining the cobbled street reminded Breeze of the Hive itself, the way that they were hewn from single outcroppings and pillars of rock, formed into strange and sometimes amorphous structures that were a far, far cry from the houses and city blocks of Fillydelphia proper. No seams or brickwork, just solid stone. And all about the place were tribal patterns and symbols, daubed and carved onto the walls, the streets, the banners that hung, limp and dripping, from lampposts and houses.
The only thing that Dragontown seemed to lack was the presence of dragons. There were a few bulky shapes making themselves scarce up ahead but their forms were made vague and phantasmal in the orange haze. Something small and scaled skittered across the street in front of the small party, but otherwise the district seemed utterly devoid of life, draconic or otherwise. Doubtless they had the good sense to be inside, where it was dry and warm.
"Sorry about all that," the guard said when he was sure that they were far enough from the checkpoint for the hammering rain to cover the sound of their voices. "You know how he can be some days..."
Sun nodded, his eyes fixed on the guard, narrowing to pale slits for a moment before he turned his head forward. "He means well, though." That was all the older changeling seemed willing to commit to, and Breeze didn't feel particularly inclined to raise his own voice. Instead he let his eyes drift to the right, watching the strange buildings for something that resembled the apothecary. A few houses, no two alike, a lower building adorned with banners, and... Ah! The next building after it was also adorned, and the banners were red, decorated with a bold black image of two serpentine dragons coiling a staff, clear even in the rain. That was the one.
"Yup. And he's right, if it'd been anypony beside you two I probably would've called it in and turned you around. Even just to grab a hat or something. I know you can spare the thirty seconds it takes to put on a raincoat or someth... Hey! Where are you going?"
He let out the last words at a louder town, for he was looking back to where he thought the two 'mares' would be, only to see that they'd already pulled away from him and were making a beeline for the alleyway beyond the apothecary's building. The guard broke into a trot to follow, his steel-shod shoes clattering against the ground, and as he was starting to pull up behind them Breeze was already putting his head around the corner with Sun ahead of him.
They saw, in the orange glow of a lamp hanging over a side door, the bulky, blue-scaled form they had been expecting, a reptilian creature easily three times Sun's height. Yellow eyes that glowed slightly in the dim swivelled in their sockets to focus on the pair and he started for them, stepping out of the pool of light with steps that were surprisingly soft. But he pulled up short; the guard was pulling around the corner, too focused on his charges to see the dragon in the darkness and trying to position himself in front of them.
"Come on, what do you think you're playing at?!" he barked. "You're really starting to...worry..."
He blinked. Neither changeling was looking at him, instead staring down the alley to see what the dragon would do. The guard turned to see what they were looking at, and so he saw the dragon. The dragon glared back at him. For a fraction of an instant their eyes met before the colder, yellow gaze shifted back to Breeze. The question was obvious in them, and so was the distrust.
'Posey's' spiralled horn flashed as his head gestured towards the guard with a vicious jerk, praying to the shrouded Moon Queen that his message was clear enough. A haze of magic gathered behind the stallion and shoved him forward even as a blue glow was gathering in his own horn. His concentration was broken as he slid and stumbled forward, and so was the spell, his horn fizzling out. And the dragon was already hurtled forward, feet no longer soft against the hard wet ground. He came with a pounding of scales on stone, with all the raw power of an avalanche, and as the guard looked up with wide eyes and tried to gather the focus for another spell, the dragon swung.
A massive blue fist met the gleaming steel helmet. The moment of impact stretched out as though there were some contest of strength between scales and metal, but time came rushing back as the scales won. There was a sound of crumple metal, a sharp but short-lived ring, the guard's head snapping to the side. He went down with a shocking speed. It was as if time were making up for the pause moments beforehand, and in the space of a blink the guard was on the floor, a heavy spray of water splattering against Sun. The dragon straightened, not even breathing hard, staring down at the fallen stallion. A rumble of faraway thunder sounded before he looked to Breeze once more.
Oh, Moon Queen... The passcode fumbled on his lips. He stammered, the sudden moment of brutal action leaving him shaking and panting, throat forming useless sounds instead of coherent words. What was it again? What was he supposed to say? The dragon was growling, a meaty fist clenching again as lips peeled up, a snarl baring sword-like teeth.
"Dragontown's cosy, isn't it?"
It was Sun's voice, breaking through the rushing rain like the sound of an angel. Breeze let out a choked gasp that even his own ears struggled to hear, and he fought to control the quivering in his legs.
"All year round," replied the dragon with a nod, his limbs relaxing. The counterphrase was almost enough to make Breeze want to whoop out with joy. "You had trouble at the checkpoint, I take it?"
"There was a delay getting the package ready," Sun explained. "They got suspicious. We were worried they might search the cart if we couldn't...mollify them."
"It is their job to be suspicious," mumbled the dragon, but his tone made it clear he wasn't happy about that either. "Don't worry, we'll deal with this little one." A single clawed finger pointed to the fallen guard, whose chest was still mercifully rising and falling, legs shifting as he fought his way back towards consciousness.
"No!" Sun barked in a voice so harsh it made Breeze take a step back, the cart's wheels rattling. The older changeling took a half-step towards the prone stallion, but cringed and stepped back. "We need him. If we go back to the checkpoint without him, the other guy gets suspicious."
That was true, and it was as good a reason as any to keep him alive. A better reason than any, perhaps. It wasn't the reason Sun had stepped up, though. Breeze knew what the real reason was. "We can...fix it," Sun was continuing. "Make it so that he won't remember this."
The dragon's eyes narrowed once more. "I doubt it, pony. If you're squeamish, don't worry. We'll handle it. No need to get anything besides water on those hooves of yours."
Sun's eyes narrowed in turn. A swallow, a flash of his eyes and horn, and a green blaze surrounded him, making the rain hiss into steam, as he flashed back to his drone self. "Do I look squeamish to you, dragon?"
"Hrm." Recognition was showing in the yellow eyes. Not a pleasant recognition. "Well. I was wondering... Fine. Wait here. You can do your work. I need to let the mistress know that the shipment is here. I will not mention the guard."
He turned on a heel and strode back to the lamp's dusky light, vanishing through the side door. The instant the door slammed shut Sun was striding over to the cart, rearing back and planting his hooves on either side of the box.
"What are you doing?" Breeze quavered.
"'Information I don't want to burden myself with'... Well they can go straight down to Tartarus if they think I don't want to know what in the name of Chrysalis is worth so much death for..."
Sun was muttering, his voice barely loud enough for Breeze to hear. The younger changeling unhitched himself from the cart and turned, his stomach tensing up into a tight knot that squirmed around inside of him. He reared up as well, hooves pressing against the cart to steady himself just as Sun lifted the lid a crack to expose the contents. He blinked down at what he saw, shook his head slowly then stepped back, letting the lid fall back with a clatter. In the short moment that it had been open Breeze had caught a glimpse of six round shapes, nestled in sawdust and scraps of newspaper. Eggs. He was sure they were. Eggs of red and orange, so vibrant it was as it they'd been formed of solid fire.
"You bastards," Sun breathed, staring unblinkingly at the crate. "You stupid, stupid bastards.
"We're carrying phoenix eggs."
A short groan from the guardspony, still lying on the cobbles, broke a silence that had lasted for about a minute. Sun had said nothing else, and Breeze had been little more than confused, not sure if he should have said something else.
"That's what they are?" he hissed at last, glancing around. What little of the street that he could see through the mouth of the alley was as dead as it had ever been, and the far end of it was walled off. "Moon above, they must be worth a fortune. No wonder Gold was so... What the hells do dragons want with phoenix eggs?"
Sun's reply was grim. "To eat them."
"Really? That seems like a waste. I thought phoenixes were supposed to be...endangered?" His voice dropped as realisation set it. "Every...every egg is a rare and precious as a fireruby."
"Because phoenixes rarely lay, and they need every egg they can hatch to keep the population. Because so many races think they're a delicacy, and it's very hard to resurrect yourself when your head's been taken off. Or they want a pretty pet." These were things Breeze didn't know, and Sun was spitting the words with such venom that he felt the knot of nerves rising again. "If these ponies have even the slightest bit of sense in their laws then this sort of thing is going to be like eating a damn pony. It's going to be murder!"
Breeze could only blink at the outburst and try to settle his twisting gut. Something was off in Sun's voice, a sense of brittleness, of fragile tension stretched tight and about to shatter. Was this it? Was this his breaking point, the line he couldn't cross? He wouldn't - couldn't? - stand up to save these 'Flower Fillies', and yet here he was spitting hot fury about avian lives as yet unrealised. It was insane, irrational.. And yet he had stepped up to save the guard. So that couldn't be it, could it?
Something popped into his mind. There were rumours of the Sun Queen, that she had a captive phoenix, a slave to her amusement, in her palace. Sun's words, of a pony's 'pretty pet' had come from a place deep within him, and here were ponies letting eggs slip through their hooves. Never mind that, there were ponies actively pushing them... So was it some strange sense of fellowship? Fuck that. Fuck it, it was irrational!
"Great," Breeze snarled, pushing the thought aside, and the nervous tension along with it. "Didn't you say you didn't care about breaking their laws? So long as no one got hurt, you said, and no one is! They're just eggs! Would you apologise to a damned hen for taking hers?" He shook his head. "You know what happens if we mess this up. Besides, there's something good we can be doing right now." His hoof gestured towards the guard. "The dragon'll be back soon. Let's just get this one sorted, get that signature, and get out of here."
When no response came he turned to glare back at Sun. but the other changeling seemed shrunken somehow, and the glare died before it had a chance to start. Leaning back, moth slightly agape, already looking somehow vulnerable in his natural state, but Sun now looked even moreso. What had thrown him off? The forcefulness of the sudden words? Or was it having his own words turned back against him? Breeze had the sudden urge to have never spoken them at all, and was considering an apology when Sun closed his mouth and nodded. Droplets were flung from his horn, his chin, his glistening fangs, and the rain on his chitin gave him a brilliant sheen.
"Right. Right... I'll take care of him."
Since that first groan the stallion had been shifting and moaning softly and constantly, coming backup to wakefulness under the care of the chill downpour. His eyes snapped to the dark face of Rising Sun as it filled his unfocused vision, blank blue eyes looming out from black chitin. He stammered, trying to pull away, but the changeling lifted him with a hoof under the neck, eyes and horn sparking in tandem.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Sun said, his voice reverberating with leaking power. "I just want you do listen. Do you understand?"
At once the stallion relaxed, his eyes drooping. "Y-yes."
"Good." Sun's words were thick and warm, like melting chocolate. Even to Breeze, who had no idea yet what chocolate was. All he could have said was that they were soothing, making your neck tingle. "What's you're name, guardspony?"
"Stalwart. But Lavender calls me Art." He blinked up at Sun. "You're not Lavender?"
"Yes I am. I've always been Lavender, and I will be until the end of the night. We were never in this alley. You never saw the blue dragon. You won't remember being here, or seeing him. Do you understand?"
A nod. Stalwart - Art - was silent this time.
"Good. We were jumped by a red dragon, just after we dropped the crate off wherever we were supposed to. You got hit. But you drove him away and saved Posey and I. You're a hero."
A slower nod. "Mmm. A hero?"
"That's right. Now sit quiet."
Breathing slow and steady, the stallion let himself go slack, leaning back against a wall. There was a short cough from the door. The dragon had returned and was standing, a quill in one claw, puffing smoke out through his nostrils as he watch the pair. His eyes were practically just lines of yellow in the blue of his face.
"Changelings. Never could abide them," he snorted, spitting a gob of saliva onto the cobbles, where it sizzled and steamed in the rain. "Both of you?"
He was answered with a nod and gave another snort. "Hrm. Maybe this explains why the Family is doing so well. Whatever. Give me the clipboard and I'll get that crate out of your hooves."
Breeze passed it over, paper facing down to keep it shielded. Neither of them were very much inclined to correct the dragon, to tell him that this was their first job, and neither of them were happy at the thought of staying for a moment longer than was necessary.
"There," the dragon rumbled as he scribbled something on the and passed it back. "Your boss will be happy, and the guard at the border shouldn't bother you. So long as your 'friend' remains cooperative."
He flashed a glance towards Art, who stared blankly through the dragon as he pulled his dented helmet off and cast it aside to rub a hoof against a throbbing temple. Every so often he blinked rain out of his eyes and wiped his mane away from them.
"He'll cooperate," Sun promised, then flashed back into Lavender's skin and held a hoof point to point to the crate. "Do you need some help with that?"
The dragon merely raised a brow before stooping to take the crate in both hands. "I ought to be fine. You two - three - best be trotting along."
The rain was easing by the time they reached the checkpoint once more, though the late hour made sure the streets were still clear. It was good for Stalwart, since he had been too unsteady on his hooves to walk back, and was instead riding in the cart with his helmet still doffed.
"What the... What in the name of Tartarus happened? Is he all right?" Stomper was cantering over, practically skidding over the slick cobblestone.
"I'm fine, Stomper," replied Art. "Got smacked upside the head, but the other guy got it worse, believe me!" As Breeze pulled to a halt and Stomper drew up beside the cart he was leaning over, helmet clutched in both forehooves, showing off the dent. "Some scaled scumbag tried to jump these two. Damned good job I happened to be there, let me tell you."
"He was amazing," breathed Breeze. He let something of a quaver into 'Posey's' voice, looking up at the guard, who had the good grace to look a little sheepish at what seemed to be adoring praise. "This huge red dragon leapt out of the shadows and started growling at us! He jumped between us and it, and that beast hit him so hard I thought he'd be knocked out for sure, but he drove it off with a blast of magic!"
Art was chuckling by now. "She's exaggerating. I'll make a full incident report when we get back to the station, but for now I'll just say thank Celestia that Posey suggested I walk them down there. Will you gals be all right walking back from here?"
A nod from Sun, his wings pinned flat to his sides in a show of lingering fear. "I think so. Are you going to need us to come in to report anything?"
Art shook his head, then winced and put a hoof to his temple. "No, it should be fine, I think. Unless you'd rather bring them in, Stomper?"
That made Breeze a touch nervous; if anypony here was going to demand that a witness statement it would be the frowning guard, but he shook his head as well. "I doubt we'll ever even see that dragon again, let alone arrest him. Besides, if the guard started marching into Dragontown demanding to see every red dragon in the district we'd have a riot on our hooves. I think it's best that you two just get yourselves home."
"Take a long bath, a hot meal, maybe something to drink, and try to forget about it," added the first guard. "And try to get some sleep, you're going to need it."
"We will," Breeze said, moving to help Stomper pull Art down onto the cobbles. "And...thank you. Again."
"Just doing my job," he replied with a little smile, before leaning against Stomper.
As they pulled away from the checkpoint, disappearing into the light rain that was almost more of a mist by now, Breeze couldn't deny a strange sense of guilt, just as he had that night with Melody. And yet, perhaps even more strange, it was being overwhelmed by a sense of gleeful satisfaction. Because they'd gotten away with it. Despite of all the setbacks they'd played the guard - played Art and Stomper - for fools, snuck in, dealt with the dragon, and now they were walking away, free.
He might have found it something of a source of shame, if he had thought of it, to find that he wasn't even considering the phoenix eggs...
"I have to be honest with ya, the boss ain't happy that the dragon know about you two. You've probably guessed that we're in competition in certain markets, and he was hoping to keep your particular talents under wrap for a while. Not to mention letting an officer of the law get hurt near you. The Pinheads are starting to squeeze, boys, and the less cause for suspicion we can give them, the better."
Though the weather outside was still calming, Breeze was more than relieved that, with the cart stowed and the clipboard retrieved, they had been bustled into the warehouse and up to a small office that overlooked the main floor. Both he and Sun had reverted back to their drone selves in the relative privacy of the office itself, the transformation removing the water from their coats even if it couldn't shake the bone deep chill, before Gold had shown up, demanding a full account of the night.
Now he was pacing in front of them, face set as he delivered what Breeze could only assume was his version of a debriefing. He paused in the middle of one length of the room, a journey of perhaps seven paces, and turned to look the changelings over. His eyes were narrowed, but after a moment his head hung down and he gave what looked to Breeze to be a rather reluctant shrug.
"That being said, I can't think of anything else you guys could have been expected to do, and I'm pretty sure the Boss isn't gonna be able to, neither. Now I'm not saying that there weren't better ways things could've been handled, make no mistake about that! But all things considered, you did the best we could expect. Goods delivered, deflecting the Pinhead's attention to the dragons themselves, keeping the big guy from making more problems by offing him..." Then, after a short, sharp intake of breath, he nodded. "Well done."
Breeze had to admit, he was surprised, for this was the first time he could think of that the sleazy stallion had been utterly genuine with them. It was almost surprising to think that Gold had even that much respect for them.
His head dipped down, and in unintentional synchronism, he and Sun both said "Thank you," as one.
Gold shivered at that, his head shaking. "Urgh... No offence, boys, but you give even me the creeps sometimes." He motioned them up onto their hooves. "Forget that, though. I'd say you've earned yourselves a little something to make our gratitude clear! Get yourselves dressed up, and come with me."
He led them, their old familiar disguises in place, deeper into warehouse, through half-filled halls of crates and boxes, over loading bays holding waiting carts, to a small, well lit but smoky room. Around a small table a handful of ponies - and a single snowy, female griffon - sat, one dealing cards to the others, stacks of bits of various sizes piled in front of each of them.
"Goldy?" said one mare, her eyes flicking up from her cards. The rest of the group turned as well, sizing up the newcomers. "You bring new meat into our den?"
A shudder ran around the table. The other mare sitting at it flicked a peanut, astray from the bowl sitting between her and a stallion, while making a face. "You really gotta be so foul?" she whined.
"Ladies," Gold said, holding up a hoof. "And gents as well... These are the boss's new sneaks. The ones you've heard so much about. Evening Breeze and Rising Sun." He pointed each out in turn, and a chorus of nods followed, accompanied by a few mumbled, indistinct sounds that Breeze assumed were meant to be a greeting. "Boys, this is the VIP lounge, and these are some of our top players. I'm sure they'll introduce themselves, so that'll save me the trouble."
The stallion waved around the room, gesturing airily at points of interest. "Couches over there, nice to relax, there's a bar in the corner there - self service, of course. Usually we keep any eye on the tab, but you boys can drink what you like tonight, no charge. Consider it a reward for the successful job. And feel free to snack. Just..."
He pulled them in a little closer, his eyes shifty and his voice dropping to a whisper. "Now, these fine fillies and colts know a modicum of your true selves, but only that and no more. You can show off a little, put on some party tricks, or even just turn the disguises off altogether. Just make sure nopony lower down on the chain sees that. Oh, and no feeding on the pones, neither. You get an offer for a good time you have all the fun you want, but only insofar as you consider it a roll in the hay and forget about the meal. All right?"
Both changelings nodded. It all sounded fancy, but Breeze couldn't help feeling a pang of anxiety, for he knew Gold would be leaving them with these ponies. And even as much as he disliked the stallion having the familiar face around was reassuring. If he had known the phrase, he might have thought something about the devils you know compared to the devils you don't.
Gold didn't seem to notice any of this. He returned the nod with a grin. "Good boys." Then he gave a final wink, and left, closing the door behind him.
"Well then, gentlecolts, I guess that means you're in the club," grinned one pegasus stallion, the one who'd been dealing the cards. He was shuffling them with fluid motions of his hooves, wings curling around as if to keep stray cards in check. "And that means you're in the game, too. First timers are required to play a good few hands. Don't worry, though, we'll lend you a few bits to get you started. I'm Velvet Glove, but I'd be grateful if you called me Val."
"Sure thing, Val," Sun replied, joining the table. "What's the game?"
"Poker. Five card stud. You know how to play, uh..." Eyes were focused on Breeze now, and Val's lips quirked at the corner as he recalled the name. "...Breezie, was it~?"
There were sniggers around the table, not that Breeze had much of an idea why. "I'm aware of the rules," he allowed, as five cards were tossed his way, another five dealt to Sun. Along with the cards came a little glass, full of something mostly clear that smelt vaguely of paintstripper, an acrid scent that rose up to Breeze's nose even with his head held high.
"That's just another part of the welcoming ceremony," purred the griffon - griffoness? - who sat to his right, leaning in a little. She was the one who had called him 'meat', and there was something predatory about her, the way she looked at him. "Boss told me you were shapeshifters? Said that you weren't exactly easy on the eyes. Would I be wrong if I guessed this wasn't the form he was talking about?"
"I, uh... No, no. Just one that I use by default around ponies," he said, glancing across the table at Sun.
"Ah. So I don't suppose you'd be willing to drop the act, show us what you really look like?"
A swallow, a shift of the eyes back to her, and he couldn't help but lean away.
"Another time, maybe? Not exactly the most comfortable, showing it off to strangers. No offense."
Val let out a laugh. "I'm sure there's none taken. You'll have to excuse Nat, though, she likes to hang around Dragontown, since griffons and dragons seem to have so much in common. The formel's probably the closest thing there is to an expert on the scaled bastards."
Nat just leaned back, smirking. "Natalya, if you please, or you can do what these brutes all do and call me whatever you like." Long talons drummed at the table, leaving little scratches in the varnish. "I wouldn't even go so far as to call my self close to an expert, though. They don't tell me a thing, which is still more than they've told any pony, far as I can tell. The only thing I know for sure about them is that most of them are a different breed from the big ones you see in the less civilised parts of the world."
"You mean literally a different breed, or figuratively?" asked Sun, leaning over the table.
That seemed to be the only reply Nat was willing to give. Or perhaps the only insight she was capable of offering. In either case, the other ponies were lifting their own glasses, and she and the changelings picked up their own.
"In one, lads?" said one stallion with a heavy Trottingham accent. Breeze hesitated for just a moment to see the others knock their drinks back without reaction before he tipped the pale liquid into his mouth.
Drinking it was a mistake, upon reflection, but he had an idea of the sorts of ponies he was dealing with, and spitting it out would be an even bigger mistake. That meant there was only one way for the burning liquid to go. He swallowed with some effort, and despite his attempts to keep a straight face at least a little of that effort must have shown, given the fresh round of chuckling.
"Well then, why don't we start with the first sneak on my left?" said Val. "That means bet's to you, Breezie."
Breeze nodded, eyes still watering as he glanced down at his cards. What he'd said before was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but; he was aware of the rules of poker. Aware, but not familiar. Not even passingly. An infiltrator had explained card games once, which was the breadth of his knowledge, and Breeze struggled to remember what it was she had said.
Confidence was the key. He knew this, it was a commonality in so many dealings where you were forced to bluff, or to make a stake on what an opponent thinks you have in your hand. So he had to at least look like he knew what he was doing. And so it was that, with the utmost confidence, he locked eyes with the pony across the table from him, reached out with a single hoof, and tapped it on the table.