I was really starting to wish I’d taken a few magic lessons from my mother.
At the time, I hadn’t seen any reason to ask her for training. After all, I was Princess Celestia’s personal pupil. If there was anything to be learned about magic, the princess could probably teach me way more than my parents ever could. Besides, I hadn’t exactly been on good terms with my mother since ... oh, my fifth birthday.
Several runestones clattered around my hooves, pulsing with magic. I had no idea what exactly they would do, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. Especially when the caribou who’d just chucked them at me was smiling like a kid in a candy store. Sure enough, a couple seconds later a shimmering field popped up between all the stones, leaving me trapped in the middle.
Since my mother was Equestria’s leading expert on runic magic, she might have been able to teach me a few things that could help in this situation. Then again, since my mother was such an expert on runic magic and had extensive contacts with the caribou, it might not be a coincidence that a caribou runecaster was trying to apprehend me right now.
I wasn’t sure how I would get out of this one. The caribou coming after me looked entirely too competent for my tastes. Caribou are naturally bigger than ponies, and this guy was larger than most. His brown coat was shot through with a couple white strikes that marked old battle scars, and there was a lean, toned look to him. Obviously a physical confrontation was out, and I didn’t like a magic duel where my opponent knew a lot more about how my magic worked than I knew about his.
That left one option: running. I tried to teleport out, but that’s when I found out what those runestones were for—my teleportation spell fizzled when I tried it. Of course; his opening move would be to make sure I couldn’t get away from him.
That left fighting and trying to talk my way out of it. We’d attracted a bit of an audience, but playing to the crowd wasn’t going to be an option—Coldharbor was a caribou city, and the locals would probably side with their own kind. Fighting wasn’t exactly looking like a great option either. “Okay, you have my attention.” I tilted my head up to try and give myself an air of casual confidence despite how bad my situation was. “So who are you, and what do you want?”
The caribou drew himself up to his full height, which was more intimidating than I care to admit. “I am Gothi Sigil Forestson, and you are my prisoner, Sunset Shimmer.”
I put on a confident smirk despite the fear growing in the pit of my stomach. “Don’t you think it’s a bit early to declare me captured? For all you know, I’ve got a clever escape in the works.”
“Feel free to try,” Sigil answered with an uncaring shrug. “Though I would strongly advise not using any pyromancy—you would cook yourself alive in my rune cage, and we can’t have that. Your mother wants you back alive.”
“Well, you’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it.” I threw out a couple quick magical probes at the rune cage, but it was every bit as tough as he’d claimed. I wasn’t going to test it with any heavy fire magic for exactly the reason he brought up; being trapped in a small cage with a lot of fire that had nowhere else to go sounded distinctly unhealthy. Thankfully, one doesn’t spend years as Princess Celestia’s personal student without learning a bit of versatility.
I tried out one of the common weak points of any anti-magic barrier, conjuration. If you used magic to make something real and non-magical, then that non-magical object could pass right through the barrier. Seeing as I was up in the frozen north, ice was the obvious choice; there was certainly no shortage of it around. Plus, nobody expects to see a pyromancer using ice magic, despite the fact that Sunbeam’s First Law of Thermodynamics says that ice magic is just fire magic at lower temperatures.
I wasn’t as good with ice as I was with fire, but then I was probably the best mortal pony in the world when it came to the latter. Ice might not be my specialty, but I could still beat a lot of ponies who did specialize at it—being a natural genius who was tutored by the princess gave me a big edge. It only took me about half a second to pull all the heat out of the air around me until it formed a perfect spear of ice.
I hurled the ice spear at Sigil, though I was careful to avoid aiming for anything vital. I didn’t want to kill him, after all. It’s not like he was one of the bad guys; he was probably just paying back a favor he owed my mother. More importantly, outright murdering someone would be going way too far. Before I’d left her, Celestia told me I could always come back to Canterlot and the palace when I was ready. However, I’m pretty sure that invitation was dependent on me staying one of the good guys.
Yeah, I’d left Canterlot, and on less-than-great terms with Celestia, but I didn’t want to burn my bridges completely. The princess had been like a mother to me. A lot more than my birth mother ever had been—though apparently Mother did care enough to call in a few favors to sic a runecaster on me.
My careful aim with the ice spear turned out to be all for naught, though. As soon as it reached the line of runestones boxing me in, the ice lance shattered. Sigil smirked a bit when my attack failed, clearly amused by it.
I suppose I should’ve expected it. Sigil was a gothi after all. The term didn’t have a perfect translation into Equestrian, but it would be fair to call him the equivalent of a unicorn magus in terms of experience and training. And if he’d worked with my mother in the past, he probably had a decent amount of familiarity with unicorn magic. Clearly, that included knowing the standard maneuvers for escaping a magic-containing cage.
The only other element I was really good with for combat evocation was light. I wasn’t terribly optimistic about it doing any better than fire or ice had, but there was no reason not to try it. At the very least, I could probably blind him through the cage. That might not get me out on its own, but it would at least give me a bit more freedom to act.
I concentrated on producing a pretty standard thunderflash spell—essentially an explosion of light and sound intended to disorient anypony who witnessed it. Admittedly, that would suck for any of the innocent caribou passing by, but that wasn’t really my problem. I’d rather disorient some innocent bystanders for a bit than let myself get captured. I gathered my energy and cast the spell with the degree of utter perfection one would expect from Celestia’s personal student.
It fizzled the instant it left my horn.
“Dammit, not again!” I’d been having trouble with my light magic for a while now. It had started up around the time I left Canterlot. I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but I suspect it had something to do with the way light magic works. The way Celestia explained it, I had to be in a state of personal harmony to use a lot of the spells she’d taught me. I guess it’s no surprise that leaving my life behind had thrown me out of balance. Still, it would’ve been nice if she could’ve taught me some light spells that worked no matter what was going through my head.
Rather than waste more energy trying to smash through the cage, I sat down and thought it out for a bit. I might not have studied with my mother, but I’d seen some of her work and heard her talking about it with my father over the dinner table. That was pretty much the only thing they’d ever talked about, even when I was around. Normally I resented that, but right now I wouldn’t complain about any useful bits of knowledge I could use to get out of my current predicament.
So, rune magic. First things first, it worked a lot differently from unicorn magic. Aside from a few with disabilities, every unicorn was born with some natural ability to spellcast. Even an idiot could figure out basic light and telekinesis spells. Most other races didn’t have that natural talent; they either had no inherent magic or else were like pegasi and earth ponies in that their magic manifested in ways that didn’t allow spellcasting.
Rune magic, however, didn’t care about who used it. As long as you had all the proper runes, infused them with energy, and activated them in the right way, it worked—even if you didn’t have a speck of spellcasting ability.
The downside was that everything had to be done perfectly. Rune magic is not a good field of magic for beginners. If even a single rune was slightly mis-carved or placed out of alignment, the whole spell could fizzle. Or worse, blow up in your face. Any line of work that involves dozens of complicated little details with no margin for error is going to be unkind to beginners, and with how sensitive rune magic could be you might not get the chance to learn from your mistakes.
The other problem with it was its lack of flexibility. A unicorn could pretty much cast any spell they knew any time they wanted to, or even make spells up on the fly so long as they knew all the basic rules and principles of magic. Rune magic, as you might have guessed, doesn’t let you break from fixed spells. On top of that, you had to have all the right runes and have them all charged up. Heavy-duty spellcasting burns out runestones pretty quickly, and a caribou can only make and carry so many. Especially since they had to be carefully stored; a bunch of magically active runestones bouncing around randomly in a loose bag was just asking for trouble.
That’s probably the main reason rune magic never caught on in Equestria. Not many ponies wanted to spend ten years learning enough rune magic to replicate basic unicorn spells. It was a lot less trouble to just get a unicorn to cast whatever spells you needed.
Still, it was useful anywhere that didn’t have unicorns as a widely available resource. Plus there were a few areas where rune magic was arguably more potent that unicorn magic. Divination was a real strength, and it was also pretty good at enchantment. And most importantly to my current situation, it could make nasty barriers and containment spells. Runes were very good at any kind of magic you want to keep anchored in place.
That did give me one big advantage, though. If I could find a way to break out of this rune cage, I could probably handle Sigil without too much trouble. Once it turned into an open battle, unicorn flexibility was way better than static runecasting. I just had to figure out the tiny step of how to break the field locking me in.
I took a quick mental survey of my resources. My magic didn’t seem like it would do much good. I could try light magic, or any of the off-talent spells I’d learned from Celestia, but going down the checklist trying every single spell I could think of until I found a weakness was not the best of plans. Odds were I’d wear myself out before I found an opening. In fact, that might well be what Sigil had in mind for me. A tired, burned-out unicorn is a lot easier to catch.
That left a non-magical solution as my only way out. Pity I didn’t have too many of those close at hoof. The only things I had on me were my heavy wool cloak and a bitpurse that was mostly Equestrian bits, with a smattering of caribou thalers as well. The cloak could be useful for entangling, but it wouldn’t help me escape the rune cage. At least up in the frozen north I could wear a heavy face-concealing cloak without getting any odd looks or sticking out from the crowd; it was cold enough that everyone wanted to cover up. My coins wouldn’t do me any good either, unless I could buy Sigil off for an insultingly cheap price.
So, I was down to finding a way through the anti-magic barrier when the only tool I had was magic. That would be fun.
I could try to enhance my physical abilities and then brute force my way out of the cage, but that was risky. Self-enhancement spells had never been one of my strong suits, and when you’re messing around with changing your own body it can go wrong easily. The last thing I needed to do was magically pump up my muscles only to have them rip apart my still-normal-for-a-pony bones, or something like that.
Come on, think, Sunset. There’s always a way out. No way I was going to let anybody grab me and drag me home like I was a runaway teenager. Besides, it had been more than a decade since my parents gave me to Celestia for training, partially because they’d never been all that good at parenting to begin with. There’s a reason I spent Mother’s Day with Celestia instead of my biological mother.
That’s when an incredibly crazy idea popped into my head.
I mean seriously crazy. As in if it didn’t work I’d probably end up spending a lot of time with a psychologist. Actually, the fact that I was even seriously considering a plan this nuts was probably a sign that I needed to make sure I didn’t have a few screws loose.
Still, as the saying goes, it was just crazy enough to work.
I hammered against the shield with a fireball. Just like Sigil warned me it would, the magical fire bounced right off the barrier, releasing enough wasted heat to turn all the snow around my hooves to messy slush.
“It won’t work, Sunset Shimmer.” The gothi grinned down at me. “Your mother told me you were good, so I made this rune trap special, just for you. You should be honored, really. I had to spend a whole week preparing these stones.”
“Well I’m only going to need a couple minutes to make you drop that shield,” I boasted, hammering it with another fireball. The backdraft from it melted the rest of the snow inside the rune cage. “So I guess you wasted a lot of time.”
“That’s a bold claim.” A smirk crossed Sigil’s face. “And one I see no evidence to support. I’m sure you have a few tricks left, but nothing I haven’t anticipated, and accounted for with the cage. Your mother provided me with a great deal of information about your abilities.” He paused, and his expression and voice softened. “Come now, Sunset, there is no need to fight. Your mother simply wants you home. You’ve gone out into the world and had your adventure, but now it’s time to return. At least long enough to let your parents know you’re alright.”
Ugh. I liked it better when he was just gloating. Gloating I can handle. This caribou I’d never even met before trying to make nice and empathize with me, on the other hoof ... that was more than I wanted to deal with. Instead of answering him, I pounded against the shield with more fire, and then had to discard my cloak—it might be all snow and ice this far up north, but it was getting way too hot inside the cage to wear a thick woolen cloak.
Sigil frowned down at me. “Surely by now you realize you aren’t going to be able to break that barrier with brute force. All you’re going to accomplish is roasting yourself alive.”
I grinned at him, deliberately making my smile just a bit too wide and toothy. “Oh yes, if I keep this up, I’ll probably end up killing myself.” I hurled more fire into the shield. “Of course, there’s not much you can do to stop me, unless you drop the rune cage.”
A unicorn probably could’ve adjusted their spell on the fly to keep me from building up too much heat, but like I said, rune magic wasn’t flexible. He’d set up a barrier to keep my fire in, which meant I could do whatever I wanted with it so long as I kept it inside the cage.
Sigil’s eyes narrowed. “You’re bluffing.”
I bugged out my eyes as wide as I could, just to try and make myself look crazy to go through with this. “Try me.” I hurled some more fire into the cage, turning inside it into something resembling an oven.
I had no intention of killing myself, of course. I wasn’t wild about being dragged back to Equestria against my will, but it wasn’t worth dying over. Sigil almost certainly knew that too. We were basically playing a game of chicken now; either I would lose my nerve and stop upping the temperature, or he would drop the shield to keep me from hurting myself. Like I said, crazy plan, but it was the best one I’d been able to come up with.
With any luck, he would crack first. After all, his job was to bring me back to my mother in one piece. I was willing to bet that showing up with me covered in fresh burn scars would not endear him to my mother. Not that I wanted to take things that far either, but I wouldn’t have to. I just needed to be willing to go further than he would.
Soon sweat was pouring off my body, though it didn’t make it too far before it evaporated. For the record, being locked in a magical hotbox is an incredibly unpleasant experience. The good news was Sigil liked watching it about as much as I liked being in it. “Stop this, Sunset. You could severely injure yourself, and it’s not worth risking your life just to get away from your mother for a bit longer.”
The only answer I gave was to chuck some more fire into the cage, pumping the temperature up even higher. Which I suppose was answer enough.
Sigil pulled out a couple runestones and began idly toying with them. I might know less about rune magic than I should, but I was willing to bet quite a bit that he was preparing some type of fire suppression spell. He almost certainly had the runes for it ready; only an idiot would go hunting for a pyromancer without having any spells that could deal with fire.
Sure, I was baking inside the rune cage, but I was pretty sure I had Sigil close to cracking. Now I just needed a little something to push him over the edge. I had something perfect in mind, too.
The next time I chucked fire at the barrier, I didn’t just let it disperse into a bunch of waste heat. Instead I flared it up, making it look like the flames were going out of control, bouncing off the barrier and hitting me. Naturally I had complete control, though the trick would probably cost me some mane damage and a couple light first degree burns. Those were acceptable losses so long as it ended with me getting loose. I care about my appearance as much as any mare, but I care about not being caged up a lot more.
Just to add a little more realism to the illusion, I let out an ear-piercing shriek. “I can’t control it! Help meee!”
I couldn’t see Sigil with the fire wrapped around me, but I felt it when the rune cage dropped, and all the built up heat rushed away. A second later my flames died out as well, presumably suppressed by whatever runespell Sigil had used.
I teleported clear, just in case he had a spare rune cage ready. Not too far, though; I wanted to send a message. After all, if I just ran for it he could probably find me again. Rune magic is good for divination, and given that he’d tracked me down and set up a perfect ambush once, the odds were pretty good he could do it again. It wasn’t enough to just get away, I had to take him down hard enough that he wouldn’t come after me again.
I teleported back to the other side of the street where he’d ambushed me and dropped a quick veiling spell over myself. Outright invisibility was hard to pull off, especially with my current troubles when it came to using light, but I could at least mask my position a bit. Despite how I’d managed to dupe my way out of the cage, Sigil was no fool. He was already carefully scanning the area, while prepping up a runespell that presumably meant to find me again.
I might be able to get in a quick spell before he pinpointed me, but I would only have one shot. While I would have the advantage if it turned into a straight brawl, if only because he would run out of runestones eventually, it probably wouldn’t be an easy fight—especially since neither one of us really wanted to hurt the other. It’s hard to land a knockout blow when you’re afraid of injuring your opponent.
Thankfully, there was another target for me to hit. I took careful aim, and shot a small fireball straight at his rune pouch. Whatever he’d made the pouch out of, it was flammable.
As I’d hoped, he’d also set some of his stones to react to being hit by magical fire. Probably a couple more castings of the fire suppression spell he’d tried on me earlier, given that my flames winked out a second after they hit his rune pouch.
However, by then the damage had already been done. Like I said before, rune magic tends to be very volatile when things go wrong, and having a ton of unfocused magical energy from all those suppression spells swirling around inside the pouch qualified as something going wrong. A steady stream of multicolored smoke started pouring out of the pouch, and Sigil let out a dismayed groan. Not that I could blame him; I’d probably just ruined months of work carving and charging runestones.
“Go home, Gothi Forestson.” I turned about and started walking away. “Don’t follow me again, or I’ll make you regret it. Nobody puts Sunset Shimmer in a cage.”
Sigil’s eyes narrowed, and he let out an angry snort. “I will not forget this, girl.”
“Good.” I shot him a smirk. “I wouldn’t want you forgetting just how badly you lost when you tried to take me on.”
Despite my brave parting words, I wasted no time heading for the Coldharbor docks. After all, it was likely Sigil had some backup runes stashed back at his base—I would if I were a runecaster. It probably wouldn’t be a set thrown together specifically to counter me, but I would really prefer to avoid a re-match. Once his defeat had a while to sink in he would learn his lesson, but right now he was probably running on wounded pride more than rationality.
Coldharbor’s docks district did at least have the virtue of adding some non-caribou to the streets. Coldharbor might not be a big city by Equestrian standards, but it was the main trading port for the caribou on account of being their only eastern port whose harbor was largely ice-free all year. The caribou needed to import everything you couldn’t get up in the frozen north, such as any crops that don’t like cold weather. They had plenty of timber, stone, and metal to export in return. Crystals as well, given how a lot of caribou territory was on the outskirts of the old Crystal Empire. Equestria rather dominated the gem market, but the caribou at least managed to offer some competition.
Arriving at the docks district also reminded me of another popular caribou export: mead. Well, you could call it an export, but quite a lot of the mead ends up being consumed right in the docks district itself. The whole area stank of a lovely combination of tar, alcohol, and urine. At least the snow had somewhat dulled the stench of the latter two, though not by nearly enough.
As soon as I came across the first set of ponies, I had cause to regret losing my winter cloak. The cold wasn’t a problem—staying warm was trivial for a pyromancer—but being a young, attractive mare in the part of the city stuffed with drunken sailors came with other annoyances. My particular annoyance came in the shape of an earth pony sporting far too much stomach, a couple weeks’ worth of unshaven facial hair, and an odor that probably qualified as a war crime. “Hey there,” he grunted out before taking another swig from a cheap bottle of mead. “Wanna see my boat, baby? It’s long and hard and full of seamen.”
What a charmer.
“Sure,” I answered, struggling to avoid throwing off enough sarcasm to give myself away. “I’ll meet you behind that bar over there in ten minutes.” The drunk promptly shambled off, and I went on my way.
I needed to find a ship heading out of Coldharbor. After all, the only other ways out of the town were walking or the railroad. Walking wasn’t much of an option for me, and the railroad just led back towards Equestria. Given that I was trying to drop off the radar, the safest move seemed to be heading away from Equestria, not back towards it.
So, I needed a ship. Preferably something that would be reasonably comfortable and reputable as well. A fast departure time would be ideal too, given that I was on the run. And preferably something that wasn’t trading in mead, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the crew tapping into the cargo and getting drunk. A pony crew would be nice too. Not that I had any issues with other species, but getting along with sailors would be tricky enough without adding a species barrier as well.
That instantly ruled out a lot of the ships in the harbor. Out of the ones that were left, I checked to see if any of them were from a reputable trading company. A ship that had to answer to a boss would be more reliable than an independent one, at least. After a bit of searching, I found something perfect: a good-sized merchant ship called the Venture, with a nice big plaque over its name proudly proclaiming that it was a registered ship of the Doo Trading Company of Freeport.
Yes, that would work nicely. I stepped onto the ship, giving it a quick cursory inspection. I didn’t know anything about ships beyond a couple tidbits I’d picked up from reading books, but everything seemed fine. All the wood and ropes were in good condition from what I could see, at least.
There were some crewponies working on the deck, and most of them looked like they had at least a passing familiarity with things like bathing and grooming. The crew was mostly ponies, and heavy on pegasi, but I spotted a couple hippogryphs and one zony—though I’d never liked that name for zebra-pony crossbreeds. Though I suppose ‘hippogryph’ was still following the rule of combining the two species names for the offspring and just using some Old Pegasopolan to hide it. Ponies can be so unoriginal.
I looked around for somepony in charge, and between that and being a strange mare who’d just walked onto their ship it didn’t take long before I found them. The pegasus mare who trotted up to greet me had the hard, weathered face of a veteran sailor, a close-cut brown mane, and a charcoal-grey coat. “Captain Weyland Doo of the Venture.” She offered me a hoof, which I duly shook “What brings you aboard my vessel?”
“Two things,” I answered, keeping brisk and businesslike since that seemed to be how she liked things. “First, what’s your destination? Second, do you take passengers?”
She raised an eyebrow. “The plaque on the side of the ship didn’t give our destination away, or are you just making sure?” She grunted and waved a hoof over the ship itself. “We’re taking a load of wood and stone back to Freeport. Just about done loading it up, so we’ll be leaving at high tide.” She gave me a quick once-over, then frowned. “If you want passage, you’ll need to pay. You look too soft and pretty to be an able-bodied seamare, and your mark doesn’t fill me with confidence you know any spells that could help us on the journey.”
I probably did have a few, but nothing I was eager to give away. After all, showing off too much of my magical skill was a sure way to get noticed. “How much is passage, anyway?”
Weyland Doo tapped a hoof on her chin. “Let’s see, ten days to Freeport, maybe longer if the weather causes us trouble. So that’s ten days of food, plus a charge for the inconvenience of giving you a room, and having to put up with a mare who doesn’t know her way around a boat. Let’s call it a good ... five hundred bits.”
“So fifty bits a day?” I repeated skeptically. “If your room and board costs that much, I expect gourmet meals and a huge bed with silk sheets. I’m guessing you don’t offer that.”
“We do keep a spare bunk for passengers that’s nice enough,” Weyland countered. “And I suppose you could dine with the ship’s officers instead of the crew. Four hundred bits.”
Well, that confirmed one thing. Her initial price had been nicely inflated in the hopes I would be dumb enough to take it at face value. I might not be a nautical expect, but I did have a functioning brain. Bargaining wasn’t that hard to pull off if you had any common sense. “I bet I could find a ship that would take me to Freeport for a quarter of that.”
“Sure you could,” Weyland agreed. “If you don’t mind having rats and roaches for bunkmates, eating moldy hardtack, and praying the crew doesn’t decide to just steal the rest of your money and sell you to slavers.” The captain shrugged and turned back to looking over her ship. “You want to travel in quality accommodations with a good crew bearing the name of a reputable company, you have to pay a little extra.”
We went back and forth for a bit longer, and eventually wound up settling on two hundred fifty bits. That would put a pretty big dent in my bitpurse, but that wasn’t the end of the world. Once I got to Freeport, I could do some spellcasting or enchanting to get some money back. I’d just have to be careful not to do anything that would be so noticeable that it would draw Celestia’s attention, or my mother’s.
I hoofed over the bits, then took a quick trip back to the cheap hotel I’d been staying at to pick up my things. My travel bags were pretty heavy, seeing as I’d loaded them down with my spellbook, a couple other tomes, a few outfits, and all the usual travel necessities. Thankfully, I didn’t run into Sigil on the way there. It would probably be a while before he could pick up his spare runes and find me for a rematch, but I saw no reason to tempt fate.
I got back to the ship with half an hour to spare before high tide. I’d even had enough time to stop by a bookstore and pick up the best book I could find on Freeport. Doing a quick refresher course seemed like a smart move if I wanted to try lying low there. I trotted back onto the ship, and Captain Weyland nodded to me, then waved over a filly who was presumably serving as a cabin girl. “Kukri, show her to the guest quarters.”
The filly dutifully lead the way. The ship’s corridors were a bit tight, but that was to be expected. After all, every inch of space that wasn’t being used to store cargo was lost money. It didn’t take long for me to arrive at a door helpfully labeled as the guest quarters by a simple wooden placard. As I opened the door, Kukri turned to go, then paused. “Please tell this one if you need anything important, and don’t bother the crew or the captain while they’re working. Breakfast is at sunup, and dinner’s at sundown.”
“Right, thanks.” I certainly wasn’t going to complain if the trip mostly consisted of the crew staying out of my way, and me staying out of theirs. It’s just a pity I couldn’t pack more reading material. I suppose I could always do some magic practice at least, so long as I avoided messing around with fire. Maybe I could finally hammer out the problem I was having with my light spells. Not to mention Freeport was the perfect place to disappear to for a while and leave all my Equestrian baggage behind.
That plan went out the window when I opened up the door to the guest cabin and found another mare already in there. Given that there were also two beds, I had a feeling this wasn’t some sort of comical misunderstanding.
The mint-green pegasus trotted over and offered me her hoof. “Hi there. I’m Strumming Heartstrings, travelling musician extraordinaire. Nice to meet you.” She offered me a grin with entirely too much bubbly cheer in it. “The captain said there was another passenger when I signed on with her, so I guess we get to be roomies for the trip. I sure hope you don’t snore.” She looked over at the two beds, one of which already had her saddlebags on it. “And that you don’t mind sleeping on the left bed. Oh, and if you get any bright ideas, I’m terrible in bed and hog the covers.”
“Noted.” I hope she wasn’t going to be this cheerfully energetic for the entire trip, or I might need to brush up on my silencing spells. I looked the pegasus over. It was weird, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. Eventually I just gave up on placing her and asked, “Have we met before? You seem familiar.”
Strumming looked me over, then shrugged. “I don’t think so. Where are you from?”
“Baltimare.” Saying I was from Canterlot might give me away, and that was the last thing I needed.
“Right, that probably explains it,” Strumming answered with a shrug. “I’ve got a cousin who lives there. Younger than me—still a filly, really, and a unicorn on top of that, but we’ve got almost the same color scheme. Or maybe we ran into each other while I was visiting her or something.”
I certainly couldn’t admit that I wasn’t really from Baltimare at all, so I just rolled with her explanation. “Yeah, that’s probably it. Nice to meet you again, if that’s the case. I’m Sunshine Twinkle.” I would’ve preferred something a bit further away from my real name, but when there was a giant sun stamped on my flank it was hard to have a name that didn’t say something about the sun. Pity I didn’t have have something vaguer for a cutie mark.
“Nice to meet you,” Strumming answered with a grin. I was about to just dismiss that weird feeling when I’d first seen her as ordinary deja vu—I had certainly run across plenty of ponies during my time in Canterlot—when she pulled out a flute. “Also, I hope you like music.” She expertly lifted the flute to her lips with a wing, and played a few notes. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna play while you’re trying to sleep or anything.” She started up a song I also recognized about five notes in.
The flute jogged my memory. “That’s where I saw you! Your mane was brown instead of green, but you were playing that same song on your flute outside my hotel room in Manehatten.” I frowned as I thought back to it. “Actually, you were playing it every single day I was there. You were there whenever I left, and still there when I came back.”
Strumming frowned and shook her head. “No, you must be mistaken. I’ve never even been to Manehatten. I do have another cousin who lives there, though. There’s a lot of Heartstrings around, and most of us are into music of one kind or another.”
“No.” I scowled and shook my head. “This wasn’t a cousin, it was you.”
There was plenty of ambient moisture to be found on a ship, so I had no trouble conjuring up some ice. Before Strumming could try another lie on me, I threw out ice clamps to pin all six of her limbs to the floor. She yelped and dodged a lot faster than one would expect out of a mere travelling performer. Not quite fast enough, though—I still snagged one of her hind legs, and that slowed her down enough for me to get the rest of limbs on my second try.
I stalked over to tower over the pinned-down pegasus, glowering down at her. “Okay, let’s try this again. Who are you?”
Strumming groaned and smacked her face against the deck below her. “Dammit, I told the station chief he shouldn’t have put me this close to you, but nooo, he knows what he’s doing, and an operative with my experience shouldn’t be questioning orders. Urgh.” She groaned, and feebly extended one of her trapped forelegs towards me. “Let’s try this again, ‘kay? Nice to meet you, Sunset Shimmer. I’m Agent Strumming Heartstrings, EIS.”
“EIS?” That shocked me a lot more than her knowing my real name. “Okay, wanna explain to me why there’s an Equestrian Intelligence Service spy in my cabin?”
“To spy on you. Duh.” Strumming groaned and rolled her eyes. “You’d think Princess Celestia’s star pupil could figure out something that obvious. Of course the princess is going to keep tabs on you. Nice trick getting away from that runecaster, by the by.” She vainly flexed her trapped limbs. “So, mind letting me up? I was cold enough before you tied me up with ice, and let’s not even talk about how uncomfortable this position is.”
Great. Celestia had spooks watching me. Strumming was right; in hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out about that. Of course she would want to keep an eye on me.
So much for dropping out of sight in Freeport.