I should’ve known I would never be able to get away from Celestia.
Sure, I’d given that nice big speech about how I needed to go out on my own and figure things out by myself, and she’d agreed to go along with that. In hindsight, it had all been too easy.
So here I was trying to get away from Celestia, only to wind up with one of her spies bunking with me. From what Strumming Heartstrings had said, I had a whole team of spies watching me. That was just super—apparently not even leaving Equestria itself would be enough to get the job done.
Contrary to what I had originally planned, I wound up spending a lot of time outside my cabin on the deck. After all, being in my cabin meant hanging out with the spy, and I had a feeling I’d be seeing too much of her as it was. Dealing with a bunch of sailors who just glared at me because I might get in their way was preferable to being stuck in my room with only a spy for company.
I was mostly just trotting around at random, looking over the ship with idle curiosity. After all, I’d never been on a Freeport-registered bulk cargo hauler before. The novelty of that wore off pretty quickly though—a cargo ship is still just a cargo ship, no matter where it’s from. Even the size didn’t make much of a difference to my non-seamare eyes, beyond the obvious fact that the ship had more sails.
I eventually settled by one of the railings, where I could watch the ocean go by and enjoy the view without getting in anyone’s way. After a couple minutes of enjoying the sea breeze, I heard somepony approaching from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and spotted the cabin filly who had shown me to my quarters earlier. “Is the passenger feeling seasick?” Her short wings buzzed as she briefly took to the air to look me over.
It took me a moment to remember her name. “I’m fine, Kukri. I just wanted to get some fresh air for a bit. I’m not in anypony’s way, and things look pretty calm.” I knew Kukri had been assigned to look after the passengers, which was probably just a polite way of saying that she was supposed to keep me from bothering the crew. I didn’t want to make her job harder than it needed to be, but I was allowed to step outside and get a little fresh air.
The brown-grey filly nodded. “Ah. Good.” She cocked her head to the side, making her short-cut pink mane flop around a bit. “If the passenger does feel ill, she should kindly stay near the railing. The deck requires enough scrubbing as it is.”
“Noted,” I answered dryly. Thankfully I’d been spared from seasickness thus far, not that I was especially prone to motion sickness to begin with. Being on a big cargo hauler instead of a tiny ship probably helped too. I made a quick note of my surroundings to ensure that I wasn’t in anyone’s way, and then went back to looking out at the ocean. It wasn’t long before looking at that endless expanse of blue water got a little dull, so I decided to do some basic magic exercises to pass the time. Obviously fire wasn’t an option unless I wanted to get the entire crew yelling at me for putting the ship in danger, and I didn’t want to fizzle another light spell right where everypony could see it. That left ice. Fortunately, being out on the ocean meant I had no shortage of water to work with. I didn’t really have any specific plan, so I just randomly created a few ice shapes to keep in practice.
My practice quickly drew Kukri’s attention, and she trotted over to the railing to get a better look at it. “Ooh! This one has never seen cryomancy of that skill before. Can the passenger make an ice sculpture? Please?”
Her request took me by surprise, but I saw no reason not to indulge her. She seemed like a nice enough little filly and having somepony on the crew who liked me might come in handy. “Yeah, sure. What kind of sculpture do you want?”
Kukri fell silent, tapping a hoof on her chin. “Um ... this one will need time to consider. A shark? No, not a shark. Maybe a dolphin then? No! This one has it at last! An orca! Can the passenger make it an ice sculpture of an orca? Please please please!” She grabbed one of my forelegs in her hooves and was almost bouncing up and down with excitement. “This one would be most grateful to the passenger if she would make an ice sculpture of an orca!”
Okay, normally I wasn’t the type to crumble in the face of a cute kid asking for a favor, but I’m not made of stone. Even if Kukri did talk a bit weirdly, it was still cute. Maybe the whole ‘this one’ thing was just some sort of accent? A big melting pot like Freeport would have dozens of them. “An orca, huh? Well, I'll see what I can do.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated, carefully gathering up the water I would need for this. I was used to working with fresh water, so it took a bit to adjust to using saltwater. I guess all the minerals in it made things complicated. Nothing a mare of my caliber couldn’t handle, though. Since there was plenty of water at hoof, I arranged the water into something more-or-less orca shaped, except a lot bigger. For just about any type of sculpting you wanted to start with something a lot bigger than the final product; I was going to chip away a lot of it as I worked, after all.
Once I had my block of ice, I got to work on carving it using very small, tightly focused lines of fire. Naturally, I kept my magic set up so that the fire would disperse quickly if I happened to miss the sculpture. Not that I was likely to miss, but there’s no excuse for being sloppy with your spellcasting. The whale began taking shape before long, but it still needed a little something special.
Back when I had been a filly and Celestia was still teaching me the basics, we did a lot of different things to refine my spellcasting. She’d always liked to make my lessons feel more like a game than schoolwork—one of her old favorites was to put a slice of cake behind some sort of elaborate magical defense and then challenge me to retrieve it. If I could get it, I got to eat the cake. If I messed up, she took care of the cake by putting it in her stomach for safekeeping.
The lesson that came to mind here, however was when she’d been teaching me cryomancy. We’d started my lessons off with a snowball fight, but apparently there were still a few aspects of foal-rearing she wasn’t an expert in despite being a princess. Like knowing how much time a young filly could spend playing in the snow without catching a cold. While I’d been recovering from that, she’d fussed over me like ... well, like a mother hen.
One of the things she’d done for me was make a few ice sculptures so I wouldn’t be alone whenever she needed to step out for a bit to run Equestria. It had been ... nice. I missed stuff like that. Even after how bad things had gotten in Canterlot when I left, a part of me still wished I could go back to those simpler times.
“Whoa...” Kukri gasped. I blinked, snapping myself out of my reminiscing. A second later, I saw what had grabbed her attention: apparently while I’d been getting all sentimental, I’d managed to add a nice bit of light magic to the ice sculpture, making it capture and reflect the light almost like a huge prism.
Huh. Nice to have a light spell not fizzle for once, though I hope I wouldn’t have to spend a couple minutes remembering the good times whenever I wanted to use light magic.
Kukri stomped approvingly, a huge smile on her face. “That statue is amazing! This one may keep it, yes?”
“Yeah, sure. I made it for you, after all.” I looked the ice figurine over to make sure there weren’t any mistakes, then pushed a little more magic into and tied the spell off. “It should last for a while, but it’s still made of ice, so it’ll melt eventually. Keep it somewhere cool, and it’ll last longer.”
“Understood.” She looked up at me, her eyes big, innocent, and hopeful. “Can the passenger make another one?”
Kids. I suppose I should’ve expected it. You give a filly one cookie, and she’ll start asking for one every time she sees you. I didn’t want to blow her off completely, but I also didn’t want to spend the rest of my trip making knickknacks for her. “Maybe sometime later, alright? Think about what you'd like next.”
Kukri needed about three seconds to actually come up with something, as opposed to the three days I was hoping for. “This one likes mimic octopi best, but it would be hard to reflect their best qualities in an ice sculpture.” She tapped a hoof on her chin in fillyish ponderance. “Perhaps instead the passenger could create a barracuda? Or a hammerhead! Wait, no—maybe both?”
In hindsight, I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut, but I couldn’t resist that opening for a little bit of harmless snark. “Both as in a barracuda and a hammerhead, or both as in some kind of fusion of the two?”
The cabin filly blinked in surprise at my question. “Um ... yes?” Her eyes lit up as she considered it. “Yes, a fusion would be awesome! It would have the sleekness of a barracuda and the fierceness of the hammerhead! Truly, it would be the mightiest predator in all the seas!” She paused for a moment, then amended. “Except for the mimic octopus. It is still this one’s favorite, for the moment.”
I’ll admit, her enthusiasm was a bit infectious. “I'll think about it.”
Kukri looked around the ship, taking note of the rest of the crew going about their business. “This one has to go back to its chores soon. Just one more?” She grabbed my hoof and squeezed, unleashing an impressive set of sad puppy eyes. “Please. Just one more? Pleeease?”
I groaned and rubbed my face. If you give a filly a cookie... “Oh alright, but this is the last one, okay?”
“This one will never ask the other for another statue,” Kukri immediately reassured me, despite the fact that we both knew that probably wasn’t true. She settled down onto the deck next to me, watching the entire process with a huge smile and clapping her hooves every step along the way.
Soon enough, I had produced a ... hammer-cuda, I suppose. For the record, sticking a shark fin and a big hammerhead on to a barracuda’s body looks weird.
Kukri’s head tilted to the side as she analyzed her newest statue. “That looks less streamlined in practice than it did in this one’s imagination.” She studied her statue for a bit longer, then shrugged. “Oh well.” She hopped up and gave me a quick hug. “That was still really cool! This one thanks the Shimmer mare!”
After a moment of surprise, I halfheartedly returned the hug. I’ve never exactly been a ‘hug the little kids’ type of pony. Hugging them just encourages them, and underneath the cute exterior is an unquenchable greed monster. “You're welcome.”
After a bit Kukri let go, though she was still grinning up at me. “Does the passenger require anything of this one?”
No doubt she was hoping that if she did something nice for me I would repay her with more trinkets. “I've got everything I need. Thanks, though.”
“Oh.” Her ears briefly fell in disappointment, but her fillyish enthusiasm could not be contained for long. “Well, the passenger should come find this one if she changes her mind!” She paused, and offered a tentative smile “And ... maybe she could do more ice sculptures later?”
Never doing anything nice for children ever again. “Got it. See you around, Kukri.”
“Bye!” She waved goodbye, then hastily trotted off to get back to her chores, leaving me in peace. Well, until the next time she wanted an ice figurine.
As much as I wanted to avoid it, eventually I had to go back to my quarters. I still needed a bed to sleep in, not to mention that I’d left all my things there. That in turn meant facing off with Miss EIS Spy. Not that I was afraid of her or anything—it was just a big ugly complication I didn’t want to deal with right now. Or ever, really.
I walked in to find Strumming lounging on her bed, idly flipping through a book. She glanced up at me, managing a rather nice approximation of casual disinterest. “Hey, Sunset.” She pulled out a bag of pretzels out of her suitcase and started casually stuffing her face, probably getting bits of food all over her bed. “S’up?”
Clearly the tales of the classy, sophisticated, charming spies in the EIS were gross exaggerations.
I sighed and headed for my own bed. Our cabin might be pretty nice by cargo ship passenger quarters standards, but that just meant our beds were large enough to stretch out on and had actual sheets. Travelling the world in style and comfort was, sadly, a bit out of my price range.
I was just about to get to work on going over a couple of my spell formulae when Strumming rudely interrupted my thoughts. “Hey, Sunset—been meaning to ask. You’re running a little low on bits. What’s the plan?”
I shrugged and got back to work on my spell. “I’ll just do what I always do for more...” I trailed off as I realized something rather important. “How do you know how many bits I have?”
“I checked your bag.” Strumming shrugged and popped another pretzel into her mouth.
My teeth clenched as I let out a low, angry growl. “You looked in my bag? That’s my bag! As in, none of your business! You can’t just go snooping in somepony else’s private property! That’s why I lock it!”
“Kinda figured.” Strumming waved a hoof at my saddlebags. “Nice locking spell, by the way. Took me a good fifteen minutes to crack it. And at least you packed sensibly. You would not believe how much useless junk some ponies will pack in their travel bags.” Strumming took note of my rather obvious rage and chuckled. “Relax. I put everything back exactly where I found it. You’d never even know I’d been in there. And really, if you’re gonna get that worked up over somepony having a look in your bags, you probably shouldn’t leave them in a room with a spy. Just sayin’—having no respect for other ponies’ privacy is practically a job requirement.”
Much as I hate to admit it, she had a fair point there. Not that I was going to let her off that easily. “Perhaps I expected a member of the EIS to be capable of exercising a little self-control.”
“Eh, your mistake.” Strumming popped another pretzel into her mouth. “So, what is the plan for making bits? You’re gonna need some way to avoid running out of money and starving to death.”
“I’ll figure something out.” The last thing I wanted to do was talk about my finances with a spy.
“Sure hope you do.” She shifted around so she was lying on her back, her wing holding her book held in the air over her face. “‘Cause if you don’t, then...” She paused and considered her words. “Well then, you won’t have any money. And that would suck.”
“Truly, you are a master of the Equestrian language.” I flipped through my journal until I reached the section on enchanting. “I’ll just do what I always do when I need more bits. A couple days of cranking out enchanted items or offering spellcasting services, and my bitpurse will be full again. Easy.”
“Yeah, about that...” Strumming rolled onto her side, then fidgeted around a bit to get her wings in a comfortable position. “I can help you out with customers. So far you’ve been lucky, but Freeport’s gonna have a lot more competition to deal with. Most of your work’s been in smaller towns where a unicorn with your talent almost never shows up, whereas Freeport’s a major trade hub. Not only are there gonna be other unicorns who’ve set up shop, you’ll have to deal with zebra shamans and some gryphon and caribou runecasters too. It’d take time to convince anyone to buy from some newbie fresh off the boat instead of one of the established sellers.”
She had a point. If I had to pick between a unicorn selling trinkets on the street and one set in a nice big shop with a proper storefront, I’d take the latter. Still... “I’ll manage. I don’t need a spook getting me extra business.”
“Actually, you kinda do.” Strumming sighed and flopped onto her belly, then met my eyes. “Look, you probably don’t wanna hear this, but ... let’s just say you’ve been doing a lot of business with the EIS lately. Didn’t you think you had just a bit too easy of a time finding ponies who wanted to pay you way more than the market price for your goods and services?”
I scowled at her, not caring for the implication at all. “Ponies paid me more because I offer higher quality than some ordinary travelling unicorn salespony.”
“Yeah, ‘course you do.” Strumming shifted around and sat in the bed properly. “But then, every single travelling salespony in Equestria says the exact same thing, including the con artists. Most of them are also a lot better at presenting themselves as great mages than you are. You’ve got the ego for it, but not enough pizazz.”
“You don’t need pizazz when you’re better than everypony else on the market,” I countered.
“Yup, definitely got the ego.” Strumming chuckled to herself, then reached into her bag and pulled out a small ruby. “Check it—one of your fire gems. You probably remember that one stallion you sold a bunch to in Fillydelphia. I’m sure you’ll recognize your own work. For the record, I tested one out on an ice troll, and they do work very nicely. If Princess Celestia saw it she’d give you an A-Plus. Ten out of ten, seriously.”
I looked the gem over, and sure enough it was my work. That didn’t prove anything, though. “You could’ve just grabbed one of the gems out of my bags while you were snooping around. And since you already admitted the EIS is watching me, it’s no surprise you know about who’s buying my gems.”
Strumming rolled her eyes at that. “Okay, fine, you caught me. I stole one of your gems, something you could easily verify by checking your bag and doing an inventory count, and then made up a big, elaborate story about how the EIS has been helping you keep financially solvent as part of an evil scheme to do something deceptive and nefarious for no conceivable reason. That’s definitely far more plausible than the EIS slipping you some extra bits because Princess Celestia doesn’t want her former student living in poverty.”
I hate it when other ponies are right and I’m wrong.
“Okay. Fine. So the EIS has been helping me make money.” I idly sketched out a formula for a spell to do some very unpleasant and anatomically impossible things to a certain spy. “It stops now. I left Canterlot so I could make my own way in the world, not to have Celestia running my life secretly and indirectly instead of openly.”
“Fair enough.” Strumming leaned back on her bed and popped a couple more pretzels into her mouth. “So ... what’s your plan for making money, all on your own in the big city?”
“I’ll figure something out.” I just needed to come up with some kind of backup plan, now that I knew the EIS wouldn’t let me earn a living the way I wanted to. Though come to think of it, they could just as easily mess with just about any other job I picked. As long as Celestia was willing to put them to work watching and helping me, there wasn’t much I could do to stop them. Not unless I managed to slip the net entirely, and I wasn’t sure how to manage that. I’d done a bit of studying on how intelligence agencies like the EIS worked as part of my prep for becoming a magus some day, but nothing that gave me any confidence I could get away from the EIS cleanly—and certainly not while I was all on my own, while they had all the resources of Equestria behind them.
“You’ll figure something out, will you?” Strumming repeated, raising an eyebrow skeptically. “Yeah, sure. No offense Sunset, but you don’t know much about how to survive on your own in the real world. You were just a filly when you moved into the palace with the princess, and since then everything you’ve ever needed was taken care of. You never needed to worry about food on your table or a roof over your head, and if you needed spending money, all you had to do was ask for it.” She snorted, then pulled a water bottle out of her bag and used it to wash down the last of the pretzels. “You think you can make it on your own? Please. What do you even know about Freeport?” She waited for a few seconds, clearly expecting a response that I wasn’t about to grace her with. “No, really—pretend I’m Celestia and this is one of your tests. What do you know about surviving in Freeport?”
Normally I would’ve just ignored her, but there was no way I could let that challenge pass. I was not some sort of sheltered little foal who needed mommy to take care of everything for her. I was one of the best spellcasters in the world; if I’d stayed in Equestria I probably could’ve grabbed one of the archmagus seats if I really wanted to. I wasn’t gonna let some spy who wasn’t even good enough to avoid blowing her cover talk down to me.
“Freeport’s an independent city-state that controls the Fillypine archipelago, which contains around seven thousand islands of varying size and importance.” I rattled off the information like I was one of the textbooks I’d gone over a dozen times. “Because of its strategic position in the seas between Equestria, Gryphonia, and Zebrica, it’s a natural center of trade, but it’s far enough from all three of them that it’s been able to hold onto its independence thus far. It helps that they can play all three nations off against one another to keep any of them from gaining too much power.”
Strumming waved for me to continue, so I did. “Freeport’s run by the Council of Thirteen. Nobody knows who their members are since they meet in secret, but it’s generally assumed to be a collection of the most powerful traders in the city. It also has a reputation as a haven for pirates, outlaws, and exiles. The Council doesn’t really care who does business in Freeport so long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on trade. Even black magic is tolerated, as long as it doesn’t reach the point of having zombies or demons running through the streets.”
Strumming offered a few sarcastic clops on the floor. “Congratulations, you’ve read a book.” She shifted around so her head was hanging off the side of the bed, staring at me upside-down. “So, were you planning on staying in a hotel the whole time? Because that’s going to get expensive fast, and you don’t have the bits for it. You obviously can’t afford to buy a house, so you’d have to rent something. What do you know about finding a good landlord? Do you know which neighborhoods in Freeport are reasonably safe and which ones will put you at risk of getting stabbed in the back for your pocket change?”
Before I could even start to come up with an answer for any of those, she kept barreling on. “And even if you do sort out getting a place to live, there’s still making money. Are you going to look for a patron, or just try and set up shop yourself? How will you know who to trust? Do you know how to read the fine print in the contracts you might have to sign to do any of that? How familiar are you with Freeport’s legal code and contract law anyway?” She rolled over and sat on the bed properly. “How are you going to avoid being held hostage and forced to make your wares in a sweatshop? Believe me, it's possible. If it happens, how do you plan on making your escape with limited or no magic? I sure hope Miss Strong and Independent Mare isn’t going to be counting on us to bail her out.”
“I...” I was at a complete loss for words. “I’ll figure it out as I go.”
“Oh. You’ll figure out how to live in a den of ruthless merchants, cutthroats, and pirates as you go, will you?” Strumming rolled her eyes. “You know everything about Freeport except how to live there.” She offered some more sarcastic applause. “I'm sure you'll pick that with up no problems at all.”
“Oh, shut up already!” I snapped at her, slamming a hoof on the wall for emphasis. “You just want to keep me dependent on the EIS to take care of everything. Or you’re trying to undermine my confidence, so I’ll go back to Equestria.”
Strumming rolled her eyes and finished off the rest of her water bottle. “It’s not about what I want, Sunset, it’s about the facts. Like it or not, you are dependent on the EIS to smooth all the usual horseapples of life out for you. That’s just the way things are right now. I’m all for letting you get a bit more independence, but you don’t have the skills for it yet. Right now, you need to work with us, not make our job harder than it’s already going to be.”
“Plenty of other ponies my age manage it just fine,” I countered. “And none of them needed a bunch of EIS nursemaids keeping an eye on them.”
“Sure they did,” Strumming agreed with a shrug. “You pack any snacks? I always get snacky when I travel. Anyway, yeah, survival. The thing is, most ponies figure out how to make it in the real world by listening to their parents, or other ponies who’ve gone through it all and know what they’re talking about. Kinda like I’m trying to do right now.” She frowned, and crossed her forelegs over her chest. “That’s the easy way of doing things, and the smart way.”
Her frown deepened. “Your other option is to figure it out yourself by going to the school of hard knocks. You get conned out of your bits enough times, and you’ll learn to recognize a conpony when you see one. Assuming you live long enough to learn all those lessons, which isn’t guaranteed by any means. And even if you do make it out, you’ll come out of it with a whole lot more scars, trauma, and generally unpleasant life experiences, which is why it’s a lot smarter to learn from other ponies’ mistakes than to make them all yourself.”
“I prefer just never making mistakes in the first place,” I shot back.
Strumming rolled her eyes, then reached into her bag and pulled out a candy bar. “Well, if you’re gonna talk like that, I won’t offer to split this with you.” She opened it up and took a big bite out of it. “Look—I get it, alright? You wanted to go out into the world and prove to everypony what a strong, capable adult you are. It’s a pretty common thing for ponies your age. But Freeport’s the worst possible place to do that. You’ve had your fun, but now a lot of ponies are worried about you, and I think it’s time for you to go home.”
I tensed and kept a wary eye on her. “Are you going to force me to go back to Equestria?”
Strumming shrugged and chomped down on her candy again. “If the EIS wanted to keep you in Equestria, we never would’ve let you get on a ship going to Freeport. It’s what I would’ve preferred, but orders from the top say we’re supposed to keep an eye on you and only bail you out if you get in a tight spot. Other than that, you’re allowed to screw up your own life as much as you want.”
I growled in irritation. “I don’t screw up.” I got up from bed, taking my notebook with me. “Screwing up is for stupid ponies who don’t know any better. I just get things right the first time around.”
“Of course you do.” She finished off her chocolate bar, then flopped back down on the bed. “So tell me something, oh brilliant genius. What’s the plan for making money?”
I clenched my teeth and glared at her, which didn’t bother her nearly as much as it should’ve. “I’ll figure something out.”
Ten days, a dozen ice sculptures and no concrete plan on how to make money later, we made it to Freeport.
Granted, making it to Freeport is a bit of a complicated statement when you’re dealing with a city-state. One must specify whether you’re entering Freeport-controlled territory or the actual city itself. In this case, I was discussing the city. We’d been in Freeport territory for the last day or so, passing by outlying islands that were mostly devoted to farmland. A city the size of Freeport needs a lot of food, and importing everything would’ve been impractical and incredibly expensive. A lot of islands were devoted to raising wheat, figs, olives, citrus fruits, dates, lentils, and a modified strain of breadfruit. There were also a couple plantations for cash crops, mainly sugar and rubber.
That’s not to say agriculture was the only thing going on outside of the city proper. While Freeport was the only major city in the archipelago, there were several smaller villages and outposts. Kukri had been more than happy to tell me about how the Doo Trading Company had more than twenty islands under its control and had recently captured a lucrative olive-growing island from one of their rivals. Apparently, the officials in Freeport didn’t get too fussed about that sort of low-level skirmishing so long as all parties involved paid their taxes and didn’t let the violence spread.
I stepped out onto the deck to get a look at the city as we approached it and was soon joined by Kukri and Strumming. Freeport was different from what I’d expected. From all the stories of how it’s a gathering point and melting pot for most of the species out there, I’d been expecting it to be a wild, uncoordinated mess of a city with dozens of different architectural styles on display. Instead, it all looked very grey, and there wasn’t anywhere near as much variety as I would’ve expected.
When I commented on that, Strumming was quick to explain. “Most of the buildings in Freeport were made to stand up to stormy ocean weather. That’s why it’s all so grey: slate roof tiles and cladding are a cheap and reasonably effective way to waterproof a house. Why else did you think the ship’s cargo hold is full of the stuff?”
I suppose that should’ve been obvious, in hindsight. Architecture tends to be one of those fields that has a lot of ruthless practicality to it. At the end of the day, you can’t beat the laws of physics. Freeport’s buildings were built to deal with the realities of life in Freeport, which included big ocean storms. Thus, buildings were relatively low the ground and waterproof. The only exception was some of the bigger buildings in the center of the city, which were probably built in defiance of the local conditions purely to show off. Massive spires or huge Gryphon-style steep roofs would never be able to stand up to stormy weather without being made out of special materials or magically reinforced. The rich could afford to show off. The poor ponies in the streets got their drab grey slate-tiled homes.
“There is still much color and uniqueness to be found in the streets themselves,” Kukri was quick to reassure me. “If this one’s duties allow it, it would be this one’s pleasure to show the passenger some of the sights in Freeport. We could visit one of the local museums, or perhaps the Grand Market. Perhaps we could even take a trip to the Doo islands, so that this one could introduce the passenger to the others of its clan.”
Strumming blinked, then suddenly shifted to place herself between Kukri and me. “That all sounds very exciting, but I imagine Sunset has a lot to do in the city.”
“Oh.” Kukri’s ears drooped, and she stared out over the harbor, letting out a wistful sigh. “That is often the way of things. This one hopes that the Shimmer mare will at least be able to visit once her other business in the city is concluded. If the Venture has already left port, this one can be contacted through the Doo Trading Company’s offices in Freeport proper.”
Before I could assure her that I would, Strumming cut me off. “I’m sure she’ll keep that in mind. In any case, you’ve probably got work to do, and I actually need to talk to Sunset real quick.” She wrapped a wing over me and wasn’t especially gentle about it. “Just some packing up stuff—I think I might’ve gotten one or two of my things mixed up with hers. Wanna sort that out before we go our separate ways.”
I set my hooves on the deck and resisted Strumming’s efforts to pull me along. I don’t know what her sudden problem was, but I didn’t care for anypony thinking they could just marehandle me whenever they wanted. “I already checked my bags, and I’ve got everything that’s mine and nothing of yours.”
Strumming tugged at me again, and when I still stubbornly refused to cooperate she shifted in closer to me and dropped her voice down to a whisper. “Sunset, I need to talk to you about something. Now.”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t budge. “Yeah, I kinda picked up on that. What you seem to have missed is that I don’t care that you want to talk to me; I don’t want to talk to you. I want to watch the ship dock and hang out with Kurki. Whatever you’ve got to say can wait until after that.”
Strumming let out an irritated growl and shot a quick look at Kukri, who was watching the two of us with a faint frown on her face. She put up a wing to block Kukri’s line of sight before she said anything more to me. “Dammit, Sunset—for once in your life, listen to somepony instead of being a hardheaded idiot who thinks she has all the answers just because she’s smart and has read a lot of books!”
Okay, that was it. I jabbed a hoof against Strumming’s chest hard enough to knock her half a step back, not that I planned on letting her get away that easily. “I’ve had it with you! You think you can boss me around and insult me just because you’re in the EIS, but—”
Strumming clamped a hoof over my mouth, and her voice dropped to a low, angry snarl. “For the love of Celestia, will you think before you start shooting off your damn mouth?!”
I slapped her hoof away and glared right back at her. “I am thinking. A lot more than you are. I haven’t seen you do anything the entire trip but sit in the cabin being lazy, eat junk food, and just generally get on my nerves.”
“Such a charmer.” Strumming stepped back a bit and smirked. “So, do you have a plan for how you’re going to make a living yet?”
Dammit, she just had to bring that point up. “I’ve got it figured out.”
“Oh do you?” Strumming crossed forelegs over chest. “Let’s hear it, then. Tell me exactly how you’re going to make a living wage.”
I let out a low, irritated growl. “It’s pointless to commit to an ironclad plan when I haven’t even set hoof in Freeport yet. You’d think a spy would know that. I need to spend some time in the city first, get a feel for it and find out what my options are. Until that’s done, it would be a waste of time to have anything more than a loose, flexible outline.”
Strumming let out a faintly mocking snort. “Oh, so it’s that kind of plan, is it?” Her smirk grew a bit more. “Well, then let’s hear your outline.”
Dammit, she wasn’t going to let this one go, was she? “Well, it’s still a work in progress. You know, figure out the details as I go along...”
“Is that so?” Her smirk grew a bit more, until I was tempted to slug her in the face just to wipe that grin off of it. “So, you have part of a pre-plan outline? Well, you’re practically set, then. How far along are you?”
“Um ... maybe a quarter of the way,” I reluctantly confessed.
“Oh grand.” Strumming rolled her eyes. “You have twenty-five percent of an outline for a plan ready, after ten days. Don’t worry—we have about fifteen minutes before the ship docks. That should be plenty of time to finish up the rest of it.”
Have I mentioned that I really don’t like Strumming Heartstrings?
Kurki had slipped away at some point during our chat, presumably because she had other duties to attend to with the ship so close to mooring. I wasn’t in any mood to talk with Strumming, and the rest of the crew was also busy bringing the ship into the docks, so that pretty much just left me to sit and silently watch it all play out. It wasn’t the most exciting procedure—just a lot of the ship slowly drifting into position until it was close enough to cast out lines to the ponies on the docks so they could slowly guide the Venture the rest of the way in.
As soon as we were docked, Strumming picked up both our bags and shoved mine against my chest. “Load up, I’d rather not hang out around the docks district any longer than we have to. There are things we need to talk about, but not out in public.”
“What’s the rush?” I took a quick look over the docks, but everything looked fine. Hay, it looked downright squeaky-clean. All the usual accoutrements of a docks district, like taverns and drunken sailors, were conspicuously absent. “Honestly, these are the nicest-looking docks I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s just because Freeport shifts out all the nasty stuff.” Strumming pointed to a bridge off in the distance. “It’s how they do things. Freeport proper is kept nice and squeaky-clean by the condottieri, and stuff like the cheap bars and dirty dealings happen on one of the nearby islands. That way everything stays nice and respectable as long as you don’t look too far below the surface. Lets all the big-name merchants do business in the same port as smugglers, pirates, and slavers while pretending there’s nothing crooked or immoral going on because they don’t have to see any of it.”
“Charming.” I looked over at the distantly visible nearby island, which featured the shabbier, more run-down look I would’ve expected from the docks district of a shady, disreputable port city. “So from the sounds of things, I should be safe as long as I stay in the nice part of the city?”
“Yes and no,” Strumming answered. “Random street crime isn’t an issue, if only because the condottieri come down hard on anyone who might be causing trouble for the respectable merchants. After all, a visiting ship captain getting mugged might be bad for business. However, you don’t have any influence or connections here.”
She stepped off the ship and waved a hoof at a pair of finely dressed and heavily armored pegasi. “The condottieri are very good at their job, but their job isn’t to be nice or make sure there’s any justice in Freeport. Their job is to uphold order, preserve the status quo, and foster a positive environment for trade. Which means that if one of Freeport’s high-and-mighty decides to have his servants kill you because he doesn’t like the way you look at him, they’d probably help him discreetly get rid of the body. Can’t have a scandal that might hurt business, after all.”
“Sounds like you don’t like Freeport very much,” I observed.
Strumming let out a disgusted snort and waved at the clean, slate-covered buildings. “The Council of Thirteen can put up a nice facade to make everything look clean, but scratch the surface and you’ll see they’re just the latest in a long line of thugs and murderers to take over Freeport. The only difference is that they were smart enough to recruit two exiled Pegasopolan clans as their enforcers, and turn all the brutality of Freeport from random and arbitrary to efficient and orderly.” She waved contemptuously towards the center of the city. “Ponies say the Council of Thirteen civilized Freeport. Maybe it’s true, but it’s not any kind of civilization worth living in, and the only reason they did it is because civilization is good for business.”
That made her position pretty clear. “Okay, so it’s a nasty place, even if the rulers try to wallpaper the nastiness over.” It’s not like Freeport was unique in trying to whitewash its history and ignore inconvenient facts about the present. Everypony tells their own side of the story, and that’s usually the side that makes them look good. “So what’s the rush to get off the docks anyway? I doubt anyone would go after a passenger fresh of a merchant ship and still within sight of the docks. That could be bad for business.”
“We need to get off the docks,” Strumming began, glaring at me once more, “because you went and said a lot of things you shouldn’t have while one of the Council’s agents was less than five steps away from us.”
“A Council agent?” I frowned at the other mare. “What are you talking about? The only other pony there when I let that slip was Kukri.” Strumming met me with a level look and said nothing. Once I figured out what she meant, it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You’re not seriously suggesting that the ten-year-old cabin filly is somehow working for the Council, are you?
“I’m not suggesting it,” Strumming agreed, practically pulling me along after her. “I’m telling you it’s true. Fortunately, she’s still young enough to slip up where an experienced operative wouldn’t, especially since she gets excited when she talks to you. Plus, I’m sure you noticed that disappearing act she pulled.”
“She probably just had work to do,” I countered.
“Possible.” Strumming frowned at me. “But then she would’ve at least said goodbye to you before you left.”
I glowered at her. “She probably didn’t say goodbye because some jerk dragged me off the ship the instant we docked.”
Strumming just sighed and kept pulling me along. “I’ll explain later. The important thing is we need to get underground before word gets to the Council about you. I don’t know what the Council of Thirteen would do if they learned Celestia’s rogue student was in their city. Well, actually I know exactly what they would do; try to find a way to turn the situation to their advantage. I don’t want to be part of their profit margin, and neither should you.”
“I don’t plan on being a pawn in anypony’s schemes,” I growled out, trying to tug myself free. “Including yours.”
I was almost tempted to use my magic to get away from her, but even as I considered it, the cold ugly reality of the situation asserted itself. Even if I did get away from Strumming, she was right about my money situation. The only thing worse than letting her pull me along now would be if I managed to get away, only to have to come crawling back a month later because I was out of money. Strumming was right: all my magical skill wouldn’t count for anything if I didn’t know how to translate that skill into a steady flow of money. Sadly, exploiting your magical talents for profit hadn’t been part of Celestia’s curriculum.
So instead I let Strumming lead me onward. Eventually she stopped pulling me along and just let me follow behind her, though she still kept a wary eye on me. At least now we’d slowed down enough that I could actually get a look at the city itself. Freeport’s streets were the first part of the city that actually matched what I’d expected. They were busy and bustling, and packed with just about every single species I’d ever seen, all of them going about their business or stopping at one of the stalls set up wherever somepony could fit one without impeding the flow of traffic. Just in crossing a single block, I came across a zebra alchemist selling potions, a minotaur offering armor forged for any species, and a book dealer. The last one slowed me down enough to earn an annoyed glare from Strumming, but who wouldn’t have been tempted by the sight of a first edition copy of Sunbeam Sparkle’s Maxima Dictionis Regum?
The two of us eventually reached a nice big open plaza, which as one would expect was full of creatures trying to buy or sell something, or else just milling about. It made for quite the nice chaotic jumble, though the condottiere watching over it made sure things didn’t get too chaotic.
We were about two thirds of the way across the square when an earth pony in a rather elaborate and obviously very expensive-looking uniform walked past us, bumping into Strumming as he went by. A second later he slapped a hoof on his saddlebag, then whirled around and levelled an accusing hoof at the spy. “Guards! That mare just stole my wallet!”
The condottiere watching over the square took one look at the obviously well-to-do ship captain, compared it to Strumming’s slightly scruffy nopony important appearance, and then leapt into action. Before she could so much as offer a word in her defense, she was buried beneath a mountain of flesh and steel.
I chuckled at the spy’s plight, but before I could find a popcorn vendor and settle in to enjoy the show, somepony nudged me in the shoulder. I turned around, and found myself face to face with ... myself?
“The building over there with the red door.” My double pointed at one of the closest buildings just a quick trot across the square. “Quickly.”
“What?” I couldn’t make heads or tails of this situation. One minute we were walking along, and now Strumming was getting arrested and there was a second version of me standing right there.
“Quickly!” my doppelganger urged, before dropping her voice to a low whisper. “Unless the Shimmer mare wishes to spend the rest of her life under the EIS’s hoof, she should get her plot moving!”
That finally spurred me to action. I still had no idea what was going on, but if my choices were freedom or dealing with the EIS, I knew which one I preferred. And if somepony was going to all the trouble of springing me, then they probably had something in mind for helping me make my way in the world.
I bolted, galloping for the indicated building as quickly as I could without causing a scene. It didn’t take too long for me to cross the square, and the door was unlocked. I wasted no time opening it, trying to keep things moving at a brisk but casual pace like I entered this particular building all the time. I closed the door and quickly took stock of the situation—apparently this was some sort of home.
Once I confirmed that there was nopony else in the immediate area, I glanced out the window to check whether I’d gotten away cleanly. Strumming still seemed quite preoccupied with the condottiere thoroughly searching her for stolen goods, and my double was standing there, watching the whole scene play out with a smirk. The doppelganger’s eyes briefly turned to the building I was in, and then she looked to the pony who’d accused Strumming and offered a barely perceptible nod.
Moments later, the finely-dressed stallion reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a wallet, staring at it dumbfounded for a moment before offering a sheepish chuckle and calling it to the attention of the guards. The guardponies let Strumming up, and more apologies were exchanged while the spy dusted herself off. Then Strumming and my replacement walked off, the spy seemingly clueless about the switch.
While Strumming and my replacement marched off for parts unknown, the stallion who’d precipitated the incident headed for the house I was hiding in. Given that he was obviously in on the con, I was waiting for him when he walked through the front door. I had no clue who he was or what I’d gotten myself into, but I wanted some answers. If I really didn’t like them, I could always go back to the EIS. Hay, all I’d really need to do is go to the Equestrian Embassy and introduce myself and I’d be fine.
The stallion stepped through the door, then gave me a quick once-over. “So, Sunset Shimmer. Princess Celestia’s runaway student. What an unexpected pleasure.”
“Yeah yeah, nice to meet you.” I crossed my forelegs and hit him with a suspicious glower. “You helped me get away from the EIS, that buys you my time and attention. You want more than that, impress me. Oh, and since you know who I am...”
A momentary grin crossed the stallion’s face, and then he extended his hoof. “Ah, it would seem that the Shimmer mare’s reputation for feistiness is very well-founded. This one is called Puzzle Piece, and it is a considerable pleasure to meet you.”
I tentatively shook his hoof, still keeping a wary eye on him. “Alright, that’s a good start. So, you’ve obviously got friends, and enough resources to whip up a pretty damn good body double for me. No idea how long it’ll fool Strumming for, but obviously it was long enough to get me away cleanly. And you got everything into position on pretty short notice, assuming Strumming’s theory about Kukri being one of yours was accurate.” He certainly seemed to share Kukri’s odd habit of referring to herself as ‘this one,’ though maybe that was just some weird Freeport thing. “Makes a mare wonder who you are and who you’re working for.”
“Naturally.” Puzzle offered me a charming grin. “This one is certain that the other has many questions, but it must ask that those questions be delayed for a time longer. The Council wishes to speak with the Shimmer mare at once.”
“The Council?” It wasn’t hard to guess who he meant, but I asked anyway just to be sure. “As in the Council of Thirteen?”
“The very same,” Puzzle Piece confirmed. “Come. The masters of Freeport await the Shimmer mare. It would not do to keep them waiting.”
Oh. Goodie. The rulers of a nasty, ruthless trade empire wanted to personally meet with me. I was glad about getting away from the EIS, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Fine. Fire was my best element anyway.