by Airstream

In Which Things Get Worse

The Hospitality Inn, located by the riverside in the northern part of the city, was as close to luxury as any pony possessing a reasonable amount of money could possibly hope to achieve. The rooms were well cleaned, though not exactly spacious, and a number of amenities were available for purchase, such as delivered meals, laundering services, barbering, and some small amount of shopping, available for reasonable prices and a small amenity for the one providing coin. Boasting an impressive thirty rooms, it took up a half city block on its own, providing access to the market district, the harbor, and the riverside shops which were quite the attraction for many visitors to Crescent City. The top rooms afforded a mildly impressive view of the harbor, as well.

It was in two of these rooms that Libra and Serale were bedded down that evening, having grown quite tired of sleeping in close proximity to one another on their extensive travels. The spoils of their journey were kept quite safely under lock and key in the chests near their beds, individually packaged and ready for transport when the riverboat that had been dispatched for them arrived tomorrow morning. Dinner had been eaten, sights had been seen, a few gifts had been purchased by Libra for Serale, and at last, the mentor and her young charge had settled down for the evening. However, there was still one thing to accomplish.

“Are you sure she’ll want to speak to me, Libra?” Serale asked. “Mother can be very…busy. Especially tonight, it being her birthday as well. Won’t there be a party for her?” It was tradition for the two of them to speak to one another on their birthday, no matter where they were. On her last birthday, Serale had been much surprised to see her mother’s face appear in a scrying glass in her cabin. It had been the only thing good about that birthday, as the ship had been caught up in a rather nasty storm, and had spent several days rolling and pitching in rough weather.

Libra focused on the mirror, making sure everything was properly aligned. “Of course she will. You’re her daughter, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make sure you at least speak to one another tonight.”

Serale shifted uncomfortably, staring at her own reflection. She had finally removed the illusion, or, rather, Libra had, just a few minutes before. She pushed up a few hairs that had fallen across her eyes, and smoothed out the elegant shift she had put on earlier. She sat up a bit straighter, as well. If anypony had seen her behaving this way without knowing who it was she was speaking to, they would have said she was preparing to meet a foreign dignitary. Somepony powerful, enigmatic, and more than a little dangerous.

Libra noticed her young ward’s behavior. “Relax,” she admonished her. “Everything is going to be fine, I promise.”

Serale groaned. “I can’t! This is the first time I’ve seen her in a year! Shouldn’t I be trying to make a good impression?”

“You have no need to impress your mother, Serale.” Libra replied. “She already thinks very highly of you.” Her horn sparked, flashed, and the mirror began to glow. “Now, I’ll be in the next room when you are finished. Your mother will maintain the connection, so you relax and enjoy your conversation.”

Serale watched her go helplessly, watching as the door shut behind her before turning her attention back to the mirror. She steeled herself, using the techniques that she had been taught in her mother’s Court to reduce anxiety and sharpen her focus. She needed to be on top of her game for this. Focusing, Serale controlled her breathing. She was ready, she was prepared. She was-

“Serale!” the mirror said, a bright and warm voice emanating from it before a shape appeared in its depths. Blurry at first, it soon resolved itself into a form that the young mare knew all too well. The mare in the mirror was tall, slender without being skinny, a bright bronze circlet resting on her brow that glowed with purple and reddish flame. She was clad in a gown of purple, with silver dragons embroidered across the front and sleeves. Her mane was done up in a simple braid, tied off with golden wire, and her hooves were clad in simple black slippers. Twilight smiled at her daughter. “It’s so good to hear from you! How have you been?”

Serale cleared her throat nervously. “H-hello, Mother. It’s good to see you, as well. You’re all dressed up, am I interrupting anything?”

Twilight waved a hoof. “Hardly. The party’s going on outside, but I slipped away so I could spend a bit of time catching up with you.”

“I won’t take too long, then.” Serale said. “I apologize for interrupting.”

“Don’t worry! You are more important than the party by a long shot.” Twilight said with a laugh. “Believe me; I’ve had plenty of birthday parties. How was the trip back from Ashtar Sharestan?”

This was enough to warm Serale up a little. She gave a nervous smile. “It’s as marvelous as you described,” she said. “The spires and dome, the aeries, the Hall of the Resurrected, the Palace of the Five Kings, it was amazing!”

“And they treated you well?” Twilight asked. “I sent word to Mahtaram to make sure you were well-received, not that she needed reminding.”

Serale nodded. “She might be a bit old, but she’s still as sharp as ever, Mother. She sends her warmest greetings, and wants me to remind you that you’re expected at her five hundredth birthday party in a few years.”

“Five hundred already?” Twilight asked. “She doesn’t look a day over three hundred.”

Serale relaxed further. Without even realizing it, she was slowly being drawn out of her shell by her mother. “Says you,” she teased. “What birthday is this, again?”

“It is officially my thirty second birthday,” Twilight said, her eyes sparkling. “Unofficially? Five hundred and forty two. But it’s easier to put thirty two candles on a cake, so the chefs generally go with that.”

Serale laughed. “How’s the cake this year?” she asked. The cake of Lady Everstar was the subject of parlor legends around the kingdom. Every year it was different, and every year it somehow managed to throw off everypony’s guess completely.

“Honey sponge cake with truffles and cream. Four layers, if you can believe it.” Twilight replied. “I’ve no idea how the pastry chef did it, there was no magic involved, and by all rights it shouldn’t be able to support its own weight.”

“Anypony close this year?” Serale asked.

“Lady Hedera thought it might have been a sponge cake with four layers, but she didn’t count on honey. Most others thought I would go with a traditional chocolate.” Twilight replied. “I’m glad she missed her guess.”

Serale tried to put a face to the name. “Lady Hedera, is she the one with the twin daughters?”

“And the son about your age, yes.” Twilight replied. “Incidentally, your presence has been sorely missed at Court. I’ve been fending off the young colts with a stick. Actually, the guards have. I pretend not to notice.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “They are persistent, aren’t they?”

Twilight smiled. “Get used to it. I’m expected to take a partner eventually. But enough about me, what about you?”

Serale was nonplussed. “What about me?”

“Did anypony catch your eye while you were off on your adventure? Anypony on the ship? Perhaps someone in the Islands, or in Fillydelphia?” Twilight asked. “Perhaps not Fillydelphia, I heard that stop didn’t go so well.”

Serale blushed, both at the questions her mother was levelling, and the recollection of the events of her first and only night in Fillydelphia. The city, she reflected, was nice enough. Its inhabitants, however, left much to be desired. “ I can’t really say anything notable about either of those topics,” she murmured. “It’s not really something I’d prefer to dwell on.”

Twilight’s grin turned up even further at the corners. “Oh, come on. That incident with the ambassador? And the bit with the soufflé? And the flautist from the orchestra?” Twilight lowered her voice. “Or was it the other thing which caused you to blush? A crush on a crew member, perhaps?”

Serale’s cheeks were burning red. “I’d prefer not to say,” she demurred. “If you understand.”

Her mother leaned in conspiratorially. “Come on,” she wheedled. “You can tell me. I won’t laugh, I promise. I’ve had lots of experience with this kind of thing.”

Serale waffled back and forth a little bit before making up her mind. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll tell you. But only in return for one thing.”

“Name it.” Twilight said.

“I need a week’s privacy when I get back home,” Serale said, “In order to sort everything out. To get ready for Court and such. And I’ll need Libra to do it.”

“Done!” Twilight said triumphantly. “As far as I know, you’re working on something incredibly big you picked up on your travels, and can’t be disturbed. Will that work?”

Serale nodded. “That will do nicely.”

“Good, now tell me.” Twilight said.

Serale’s voice lowered. “The ship’s captain.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, then flicked upwards in thought, then narrowed appreciatively. “Good choice,” she said. “Fairview is an able commander, and extremely kind to those beneath him. He’s on a fast track for success in the Navy, something of a rising star.”

Serale glanced out of her window into the harbor, where the ship lay at anchor. “I’m sure he is.” she murmured.

Twilight took note of the wistfulness in her daughter’s tone. “I can’t wait to see you again when you return home,” she said. “I’ve got a surprise for you when you arrive.”

Serale’s ears perked up. “A surprise?” she asked. “What is it?”

Twilight laughed. “If I told you that, it wouldn’t be a surprise!” she replied. “Suffice it to say that it is a joint gift, from one of the ambassadors here as well as myself. And I think you’ll like it very much.”

Serale smiled once more. “I’m looking forward to seeing you soon, Mother,” she said. “We’ll be back in a few days.”

Twilight smiled. “I know, mia stella e anima. And I’m so, so glad to have you coming back home to me. Be safe tonight. I know Libra’s with you, but Crescent City is full of all sorts of unsavory types.”

The three fugitives from the underworld burst out of the drainage chute into the light of the moon, panting hard. They had been pursued with ridiculous haste through most of the tunnels, but they had the advantage of being lighter and smaller than their targets, which meant that they were able to lose them with a bit of effort in the confines of the tunnels, which they knew well from their frequent forays into the city.

“Well,” Lucky said, panting as he came to a stop in the shadow of a ramshackle storefront. “They certainly didn’t make that easy. Is everypony alright?”

“I’m okay,” Ivy said. “Just a bit out of breath, is all.”

“What about you, Cob?” Lucky said. “How are you doing?”

Cobblestone was wheezing hard, clutching at her chest. Her head swam and her vision blurred, phantom shapes chasing each other around the edges of her vision. She focused on regaining her breath, fighting back images of the stallion she had pushed a knife into back in the tunnels. It had been so dark and confusing that she couldn’t even remember his face, and she doubted she would ever know who it was she had just killed not half an hour before.

“Cob?” Ivy asked, laying a hoof on her shoulder. “You okay?”

The unicorn shook her head violently, trying to clear her vision. A sour taste rose in her throat, and she pushed Ivy away just in time to release a stream of vomit into the nearby gutter, coming to her knees as she did so. She retched again, and then again, before the contractions in her belly stopped and she was shakily able to regain her footing. Ivy and Lucky watched silently as she wiped her mouth, spat once, and then turned to them both.

“Sorry,” she said. “Too much Dragon’s Kiss and too much activity. I’m feeling better now, though.”

“Good,” Lucky said. “That’s good. Now, we need to find someplace to hunker down for tonight. We can get moving again tomorrow, find a new target and get out of here.”

“No,” Cobblestone said, shaking her head. “We go tonight, we get our loot tonight, and we get out of town on the first riverboat tomorrow. I want to be as far away from Crescent City as possible.”

Ivy looked at her worriedly. “Cob, that’s an awfully tall order. You’re not exactly at the top of your game right now. What if something goes wrong?”

Cobblestone’s nostrils flared angrily before she drew her dagger and flung it with pinpoint accuracy at Lucky’s head. Before the stunned Pegasus could react, it buried itself in the wood a half-inch above his head, directly between his two ears, quivering lightly. Her horn lit up, and the dagger detached itself from the wood, executing a lazy flip so the point was flying directly at her chest before she plucked the weapon out of the air.

“You were saying?” she asked, not revealing that the dagger had landed far lower than she intended.

Lucky swallowed audibly, feeling at the top of his head as he spoke. “Well, I for one think that we’re fairly low on options. We can bed down for the evening, hit the target and hope for the best, or find somepony else to rob blind. After that little display, I’m switching my vote to ‘do it anyway’. What about you, Ivy?”

The younger mare was silent for a while before she spoke up. “If you’re sure that you are up to it, Cob, I’ll go along.”

Cobblestone nodded. “I’m up for it. I’m sure. Let’s go.”

Lucky nodded. “Alright then. Let’s move uptown a few blocks, and we’ll find a good spot to go over the plan.”

The trio began their trek northward, keeping to the shadows both out of habit and as a precaution against any of Chip’s thugs who had followed them up to the surface. Lucky’s sharp eyes saved them more than once from roving bands of muggers, patrols of constables, and other ponies with whom contact would be undesirable. There were more of these than one might think. Even if no ill will existed between the denizens of the slums and the three moving through them, every eye that could spy them could then be persuaded to divulge that information to the wrong ponies for the right price. So it was that progress was slow, each route checked and double checked until the three of them got closer to the market, closer to the crowds, and farther away from the territory Chip’s gang controlled.

Finally, Lucky signaled a stop, and the three of them hunkered down in an old alley, where they wouldn’t be disturbed by the bustle of the nearby crowds. Gathering them in close, he withdrew a sketch of the inn, below which was a plan of the top floor. As he had been able to get inside the inn, this second drawing was well-detailed.

“Now,” he said, laying it out. “They rented two rooms, right next to one another. The younger of the two took the corner room, which had a bed, a chest at the foot of it, and a chest of drawers by the window. The floors are carpeted, which makes moving quietly a lot easier for those inside of it. I helped to load the majority of the valuables into the chest, which we can presume has been locked, but once we get it away, we can jimmy the lock, or failing that, smash the damn thing.”

Cobblestone indicated a line outside of the hotel plan. “And what’s that?” she asked.

“The river.” Lucky said. “This limits our options for approach. If we try to come at it from the waterfront, things can go wrong pretty badly. Which is why I took the liberty of disguising myself and securing a room with the coin I carried today, as well as Ivy’s money, which I lifted from her chest when she was distracted. Sorry about that.”

Ivy glared at him. “I would have given it to you, you know.”

Lucky shrugged, turning back to the plan. “Right then. You and Cobblestone will enter the inn with me, and we will proceed to our room down the hall. At this point, I will get to the roof from the window, providing a lookout while you two approach the two rooms. I’ll make my way to the windows, and we shall both gently lift the chests out of the rooms. We shall retreat to a location I have already scouted out a few blocks away, and regale ourselves with how clever we all are. Any questions?”

Ivy volunteered a timid hoof. “Which room will I be going in?”

“Well, which would you like?” Cobblestone said. “We’ve got more knowledge of the corner room, but the other will have a lighter load, which means it’ll be easier to get out.”

Ivy considered. “You said the other room had an older mare in it?”

Lucky nodded. “Both of them were Earth ponies. One a little older than Cob and myself, and one I’d peg around fifty or so.”

“I’ll take the room next to the corner.” Ivy said. “She might be hard of hearing, which makes it a bit easier.”

Lucky nodded. “To the daring go the spoils, then.”

Cobblestone’s eyes swept over the map again. “So we lift the chests out. First the lighter, then the heavier chests. How do we get out?”

“Hopefully, you can close the windows and doors with nopony the wiser, and simply walk out into the night,” Lucky said, folding the map up. “But in case things go south, the river is right below. You can both swim, right?”

Cob and Ivy nodded. Lucky smiled. “Then we’ll just evade the authorities like we usually do, get warm, and try again another day. We may just scrounge up enough for passage upriver, and then steal enough to get us back on our hooves when we hit the Capitol.”

The three ponies were in agreement, then. Soon enough, they were moving back uptown, mixing in with the crowd, and drawing ever closer to their destination.

The front desk of the Hospitality Inn was run by an absolutely delightful mare by the name of Charity, and her husband Stalwart, a retired enlistee in the Evening Kingdom’s army. He had spent most of his career as a border fort quartermaster, before a chance trip to Starfall, the capital, had caused him to run into his future wife. This was not a figure of speech. They had quite literally collided outside of an inn much like this one, and had fallen for one another hard. It was a short while later, after his contract had expired, that the two had taken their life’s savings and invested them here, in Crescent City, opening the Inn nearly twenty years ago. Stalwart’s long experience and military efficiency kept the inn running like clockwork, and Charity’s wonderful disposition helped guests and workers alike feel as if they had finally come home.

“Welcome back, Master Blue!” Charity chirped from her desk. “And I see that you have brought friends of yours! You’re in luck, I was about to close up the desk for the evening.”

Lucky smiled at her. “I certainly have, Ms. Charity. These are two friends of mine in town, and we’ve only just now been able to catch up.”

Charity was no fool, and the two mares, hardly more than fillies, did not look friendly in the slightest. But years of life in Crescent City had added a canny edge to her cheerful disposition, and so she did nothing more than raise an eyebrow as Lucky steered his two “friends” up the stairs to the room he had rented for the evening. They did, at least, look competent enough to handle themselves should something go wrong, and if it did, the constables were right around the corner if needed.

Upon reaching the room and closing the door behind them, both Cob and Ivy extricated themselves from Lucky’s embrace with incredible speed.

“Remind me next time we do this that your entry plans are horrible.” Cob grumbled, shivering. “I feel dirty.”

Ivy nodded. “I think I need a bath.”

“You two can have all the baths you want and then some once we finish this job, and then we never have to have an ‘entry plan’ again.” Lucky reminded them. “After all, we’re going straight after this, right?”

Both of the mares nodded. Lucky seated himself on the bed. “Now all we have to do is wait a bit. Give them time to settle in, make sure nopony is still up, out, and about.”

Cob stretched out, sighing and enjoying the luxury of not having to watch her back for a change. Still a bit dizzy, she leaned her head against the wall, letting the effects of the drug wear off. Though she wasn’t as tipsy, she could still see traces of magic in the air, weaving through the room like the threads on an old tapestry. It was quite relaxing.

Ivy sunk into a chair that was placed in the corner. “So,” she said after a moment. “Do we know anything about the ponies we’re robbing? At all?”

Lucky gestured noncommittally. “Possibly a young lady from a merchant family. She has a chaperone, which means she’s probably being shown the ropes on how to conduct business. She didn’t do too badly either, that’s for sure.”

“Maybe she’s from House Bluehide,” Cob suggested. “They trade a lot of stuff in Crescent City, it’s their main port. Well, the only big port, really.”

Ivy shook her head. “No, she’s not a Bluehide, they’re all unicorns. I’d guess she’s a Hedera. They’re mostly Earth ponies.”

“How in the bloody blue blazes do you know that?” Lucky asked.

Ivy shot a withering glance at him. She was surprisingly good at it. “Unlike most of the ponies in the gang, I pay attention to who moves what in the city. All those crates down by the harbor, the ones stamped with the compass mark? Those are Bluehide. Their stuff gets unloaded here and either loaded onto riverboats for points beyond, or gets sold further up the coast to traders from the Celestial Empire.”

Cob leaned forward. This was a side of Ivy she hadn’t seen before. “Alright, then what about the Hederas?”

“Well, they’re mostly land traders, doing caravans and such. They have a lot of reach, too. They go from the Gryphonic Oligarchy in the south up to Fillydelphia, and all the way out to Canterlot at least.” Ivy said.

Now it was Cob’s turn to be amazed. “Alright, seriously. How do you know all of that?”

Ivy smirked. “It’s all about watching the flow of things. Go to the market, ask a few questions. The Hedera caravans have that leaf mark on them, the three pointed one inside a vine. They’ve moved all sorts of stuff. Gems from Fillydelphia, metal from the Oligarchy, manufactured goods from all over…I mean, it’s a pretty extensive list.”

There was silence for a few brief moments. And then, from Lucky, “Ivy, you have the strangest hobbies.”

Cob wasn’t so dismissive. “Seriously, how do you know all of that? There’s no way you could have picked that up by watching crates.”

Ivy’s smirk lessened. “True. I had a bit of prior knowledge…before.”

Cob pressed her for more. “Go on. What do you mean?”

Ivy shrank back. “I…I don’t want to talk about it now. It’s not the right time.”

Lucky stared at her. “What do you mean, ‘not the right time’?”

“Look,” Ivy said, running a hoof through her mane in a way Cob had never seen her do before. “If everything goes according to plan, and we grab our loot and make it to Starfall, I’ll tell you then. I Pinkie Promise.”

“What in Dusk’s name is a Pinkie?” Cob asked.

Ivy tilted her head. “You know? I’m not really sure. I must have picked it up somewhere. It means that I swear on my life that I’ll tell you. That’s all I know.”

Lucky shook his head. “Right. On that note, I think we’ve waited long enough. Anypony hear movement?”

There was a brief silence as they listened, and then both of the unicorns shook their heads. The Hospitality Inn was deadly quiet. Lucky spread his wings, opening the window as he did so.

“I’ll be ready right outside,” he said, one hoof on the sill. “Move quick and quiet like, and I’ll see you both soon, eyah?”

“Eyah.” Cob and Ivy echoed, and without further ado, each drew lockpicks from their packs, opening the door as they did so. Ivy checked the hallway she could see, which was clear. Cob did the same, and found it likewise devoid of passerby. The duo counted to one, two, three, and slipped into the hallway, hearts pounding and ready for the task ahead.

The squad of assassins were each hoof-picked for their speed, stealth, and skill in the art of ending lives quickly and unexpectedly without raising a fuss. Each was clad all in black, each carried a dagger and each of them would see their task through at the cost of their own lives without a second thought. To ensure nopony would be taken alive in case of a fight, each carried a vial of a swift poison that would be downed if the authorities drew near. They numbered four, with their handler, the stallion in the jacket and tie, waiting across the river. He had been watching the Inn for hours, making sure nothing was wrong, and at last he gave the signal to begin.

Time now, brothers. Good hunting.” he thought, and then the four Pegasi began their tasks, sweeping from the sky on swift, soot-blackened wings. They plummeted like crows, but before they could alight on the roof, they veered off course, climbing back into the sky. The stallion frowned. “Trouble, brothers?

One of the Pegasi touched his mind respectfully. “There is another Pegasus on the roof. He is unaware of us, but is slowly moving towards the corner room. He clearly has skill at remaining unseen.”

The stallion considered. He did not like dispensing of lives uselessly, but he had his task and would see it done. “Remove him. Do so swiftly.”

The four plummeted again, and there was a short gasp from the rooftop before the Pegasus touched his mind again. “It is done.”

Did he die well?

As well as could be expected.” the Pegasus replied. The stallion bowed his head, sending a quick prayer to Fate to help his unknowing brother find rest.

He lifted his head. “Continue in your work.” he ordered.

The four Pegasi crept towards the windows as the stallion watched. Though he didn’t know the name of the Pegasus on the rooftop, there were two in that inn who did. Lucky’s luck had run out.