The Council was keeping me waiting. I hate waiting.
At least they were letting me wait in style and comfort. The Council’s Palace didn’t have the massive, soaring spires of the one in Canterlot—building something utterly massive would be insanely expensive when Freeport already needed to import timber and stone, and from what little I knew of architecture massive towers were not the best choice for an island that had to deal with rough ocean weather.
The other thing that struck me about the Council’s headquarters was that it wasn’t the largest and fanciest building in the city. Maybe it’s my Canterlot bias talking, but I’m used to the idea that the ruler’s palace should utterly dominate the city. Back in the old days there used to be building codes that stopped anyone from making something half as large or tall as the palace, and nopony was allowed to build something that obstructed the view of the palace.
The Council, by contrast, was in a relatively unassuming four-story brick of a building. However, the shining black stone they’d built it out of still lent it a rather unique appearance. Once I got a bit closer, I realized it wasn’t proper stone, but obsidian. They must’ve clad the entire building in it. There had to have been magic involved somewhere in the construction, because I couldn’t see any seams or joining points, just a single continuous sheet of it. Still an impressive feat, even if it didn’t have the same scale as the palace in Canterlot.
Once we got inside, things moved back to familiar territory for me. The room Puzzle Piece and I were waiting in probably could’ve fit a hundred ponies quite comfortably. Every inch of wall space was devoted to an elaborate mural of some sort, most of which existed to boast the wealth and magnificence of Freeport itself, and just to emphasize that point, all the little details on the murals were ornamented with actual gold and gemstones. If I could get Puzzle to leave me in here unsupervised for a minute, I could probably permanently solve my money problems without doing any noticeable damage to the display.
It came as no surprise that the rulers of a trading nation wanted to let everyone know just how well the trade was flowing. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting out of this meeting with the Council of Thirteen. It’s hard to know much about a secretive ruling council that goes to rather extreme lengths to suppress any information about itself. I’d gotten the sense that Celestia knew a bit more about them than most, but I’d never really pried into it. Beyond the sort of basic education anypony should have, I’d never really cared about Freeport’s internal politics. At least, not until I’d hopped onto a ship heading there, and by then it was a little bit late to get a cram session in.
I really should’ve done a bit more research before leaving Canterlot. In hindsight, maybe Celestia hadn’t been trying to trick me into staying when she’d asked me to at least prepare a bit better before I left. At the time, I’d been sure it was just one of those ‘stay a few more days ... then a couple more, then a bit longer...’ ploys to keep me from ever leaving. Celestia can be sneaky that way. However, I was starting to realize that she’d been right about one thing: I had a lot to learn about surviving. I’d learned a whole lot about how to be a good student. How to survive on the run from the Equestrian authorities had never come up.
Right now, though, I had a bigger problem on my hooves. I had no idea what was going to happen in my meeting with the Council. Mostly because it hadn’t started yet. Apparently, they were so eager to meet me that they would set up a complicated bit of cloak-and-dagger to get me away from the EIS, but they still felt the need to do the whole thing where they made me wait for an hour or two to remind me of the pecking order.
At least I wasn’t alone for this. Puzzle Piece was still sticking with me, presumably to make sure the EIS didn’t grab me again. Or to make sure I didn’t get cold hooves and go running back to them. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t a little tempted by the idea. In the heat of the moment I picked freedom, but an hour of waiting for the Council had given me plenty of time to start having second thoughts. I’m not saying I liked having the EIS micro-manage my life while giving me the illusion of freedom, but they were the devil I knew.
Puzzle Piece had dropped the rich fop disguise while we waited, which, among other things, meant I finally got a look at his cutie mark. To my utter lack of surprise, it was, in fact, a puzzle piece. Some ponies have incredibly uncreative names. Though that just brought up the question of why his cutie mark was so suspiciously apropos for his name. Celestia had told me once that a lot of parents had some kind of sense of their children’s destinies when it came to picking their names. I wasn’t sure if I bought that. After all, it was supposed to be my destiny to stay in Canterlot, and look how that worked out.
Ugh, the longer I was stuck with nothing to do, the more I would start brooding and doubting myself. I needed something else to keep myself occupied, and as long as Puzzle Piece was keeping an eye on me for the Council, I might as well see if I could pump him for any useful information. “So what’s your deal, Puzzle?”
Puzzle had been flipping through one of the local newspapers while we waited on the Council, but upon hearing my question, he set it aside. “This one’s deal? What do you mean?”
I flicked my tail irritably. The question was obvious, and I didn’t buy that he needed me to elaborate on it. Still, it’s not like there was anypony else to talk to. “Like, what do you do? Are you some kind of dirty deeds specialist for the Council?"
Puzzle smirked in response. “You do realize, Miss Shimmer, that most ponies in that line of work wouldn’t advertise it.” He rolled up the newspaper, and a faint grin quirked at his lips. “Though to answer your question, this one would prefer to be called a problem solver. Not everything that this one does is ‘dirty.’ Sometimes this one helps promising young mares get away from Equestria’s doers of dirty deeds instead.”
“Problem solver,” I repeated flatly. I might be just a bit inexperienced with some aspects of the world outside of Canterlot, but I wasn’t totally naïve. “I’ve heard that one before. So if I don’t do whatever it is the Council wants out of me, do I become a problem you have to solve?”
Puzzle answered me with an amused smile. “If you mean will this one kill you, cut you into pieces, and then dump your body quietly into the harbor, then no.”
Whoa. I’m a pretty tough mare, but I admit I was a bit shaken by just how easily he’d discussed killing me. It had just been so ... matter-of-fact. Normally when a pony says something like that, they would sound a bit silly to make it clear they were just messing with me. Puzzle said that the same way a pony would talk about doing laundry or picking something up for a dinner. I had a rather terrible suspicion that he might have actually done something like that at some point. Freeport was a rough place, after all.
Still, there was no way I could let him see I was intimidated. Especially if Puzzle was the sort of pony who could kill another pony and dispose of the body without so much as batting an eyelash. “Right. Well then ... um ... yeah. I suppose you could do that. If you wanted to. But if you tried I would stop you by ... er ... magic.”
Okay, that could’ve worked out a bit better.
Puzzle looked me over, then let out a faint snort. “My, you are new to this type of thing, aren't you?”
For a moment I was tempted to snap at him, but the ugly truth was he was right. Yelling at him for insulting me wouldn’t do any good. It would probably just cost me the only potential ally I had in Freeport who wasn’t working for Celestia. So I swallowed my pride, at least for the moment. “Am I that obvious?”
“Just a bit.” Puzzle kept his voice gentle, which took some of the sting out of his words. Some of it. “If you analyzed the situation, you would realize that it would be ill-advised for the Council to deal with you in a permanent fashion.”
I did exactly that, and once I thought it over, it wasn’t hard to figure out what he was getting at. “If I die or mysteriously disappear while I’m here, the EIS would find out. And then Celestia would find out.”
“Precisely,” Puzzle agreed with a satisfied nod. “This one imagines she would want a very thorough investigation if anything should happen to you. Even if the Council could hide its own direct involvement, that would still be very, very bad for Freeport and the Council. Even if she believed us innocent, she would likely blame the Council for allowing Freeport to be so dangerous that something could happen to you. She might well cut off or restrict trade for a time to express her royal displeasure.” He paused, and let out a slight tremble. “If she discovers the Council’s involvement? Well, this one recalls several warnings about what happens to the kindest of ponies when they are sufficiently provoked, and this one can think of few things that would be a greater provocation than murdering her student in cold blood.”
Is it wrong that I found the idea of Celestia burning Freeport to the ground to avenge me just a little satisfying? Not that I was planning on dying anytime soon, but her going on a massive revenge quest would show how much she cared.
Puzzle continued on, quite oblivious to my brief flight of fancy. “No, if the Council wanted to get rid of you, this one would advise them to shove you into a crate and ship you back to Canterlot to Celestia or your parents.” He tapped a hoof ponderingly on his chin. “Preferably your parents; this one has heard they are offering a significant reward for your safe return. Though being in the good graces of Her Highness has its own advantages, this one will admit. Money is nice, but one cannot put a price on being owed a favor by Princess Celestia.”
“Yeah, I suppose...” I wasn’t too wild about either of those ideas, though Celestia at least understood. My parents ... well, I hadn’t seen them for months before I left, and we hadn’t exactly been all that close. I still didn’t know what to make of them offering a big bounty in exchange for my safe return. It’s not like they’d been all that eager to spend time with me before I’d left; they’d always blown me off because of work or something. It was why I’d been so close to Celestia in the first place. Maybe the bounty was just a matter of keeping up appearances? They had to at least pretend to care I was gone. Whatever the case, it wasn’t something I especially wanted to dwell on. “So, any idea what the Council wants with me?”
Puzzle went quiet at that question, tapping his rolled-up newspaper on the floor next to his cushion while he thought. I suspect it wasn’t so much a matter of him trying to figure out the answer as it was him trying to figure out which answer to give me. Whichever it was, he settled on something pretty quickly. “Likely they want to make use of you. Even in Equestria proper, your level of raw magical talent only shows up a few times a century, not to mention your education was second to none. This one imagines you could be quite an asset to the Council if you were willing to work for them.”
Well, that made sense. They wanted me working for them, rather than running around potentially stirring up trouble, or getting myself in trouble. After all, the fact that Celestia still sent spies after me proved she still cared. Speaking of which, Strumming had been bugging me to get a job...
Puzzle trotted over to one of the cabinets, and pulled out a nice crystal bottle filled with some presumably very expensive liquor, then poured himself a glass. “If there is one thing the Council despises, it is letting a useful resource go untapped. Letting a mare of your talents slum around trying to establish herself in the seedier parts of the city would be a terrible waste. This one thinks that we can agree that there are better and much more mutually profitable arrangements to be made. A mare of your abilities shouldn’t be producing cheap trinkets to scrape out a living wage.”
He was right about that. I might’ve adjusted to having a slightly lower standard of living than I’d been used to while I was at the palace, but that didn’t mean I liked it. And judging by the decor here, the Council could definitely put me up in style. Going back to having silk bedsheets and servants would be nice—it was nothing less than I deserved, really. “I certainly won't complain about working for somepony who can properly appreciate my talents.”
Puzzle smiled, then briefly raised his glass to me before taking a sip. “Oh, this one is quite certain the Council understands how best to use your abilities. As this one said, the Council despises wasting any resources.”
“Nice to know.” From the way Puzzle was setting it up, I would definitely have to work hard to earn my stay in Freeport. Not that I would’ve expected anything different; the days when I could earn my keep just by studying on my own ended when I left Celestia. Knowing their reputation, the Council probably wasn’t going to put me in charge of spreading sunshine and happy feelings; it would be nasty, morally dubious work. Still, when my alternatives were to go crawling back to the EIS, or try to make it on my own and end up working in some sweatshop cranking out cheap magic items for twelve hours a day to make enough bits to afford a one-room rat-infested hovel...
Besides, it’s not like the Council would be doing anything too terrible. After all, it was a government run by businessponies. Corrupt and amoral businessponies, but businessponies nonetheless. Most of the classic evil behavior is pointless at best, and at worst would actually hurt their profit margins. That was why Discord, Nightmare Moon, and Sombra had all lost in the end. Everypony knew they were better off with Celestia in charge. If the Council wanted me to be a problem solver like Puzzle Piece, the problems they would want me to solve probably all would’ve done something to deserve being ... well, problem solved.
That might not even be what the Council wanted out of me, though. They had plenty of other problem solvers, after all. Hay, for all I knew they wanted me to be some kind of trainer to start up their own school. I was by far the smartest, best-educated unicorn in the islands. Give me funding and enough time, and I could start up a proper Freeport Mage Corps on the Equestrian model.
Ugh, no point in speculating. They would tell me what they wanted soon enough. Until then, I might as well pump Puzzle for whatever information I could get out of him about other things. “Hey, got another question for you.”
Puzzle turned to me and lifted a single eyebrow. “Go ahead, then. This one will not promise to answer, but it will at least hear your question.”
His answer rather perfectly reminded me what question I wanted to ask. “What’s the deal with calling yourself ‘this one?’ Kukri did it too, so it can’t just be some random personality quirk. It must mean something.”
The question got a smile out of him. “This one supposes it would seem unusual to a native of Canterlot.” He winked at me when he emphasized the ‘this one.’ “It's a bit of a tradition amongst certain parts of the population in Freeport.”
Well, that was spectacularly uninformative. “Okay, so it’s a tradition. What kind of tradition? Which segments of the population practice it? Why do they do it? Is it some philosophical or religious thing?”
Puzzle shook his head in bemusement at my barrage of questions. “This one sees that Kukri was quite correct when it said that you didn't know much about Freeport.” Puzzle stretched out and took a seat. “To answer your question, there are certainly philosophical elements behind the title, but mainly it applies to those of my species. Or rather, sub-species.”
“Your species?” That didn’t make any sense, Puzzle was just an earth pony.
Or at least, that’s what he looked like. I thought back to how they’d pulled off the switch with me in the marketplace, and all the pieces fell into place. “You’re not a pony, you’re a changeling. One of the Infiltrators who rebelled against Chrysalis.”
“So this one is.” There was a flash of green, and the earth pony I’d been talking to was replaced by a vaguely equine-shaped creature with a chitinous black carapace, diaphanous insect-like wings, and empty blue compound eyes. To my surprise, the voice was the only part of him—it, that didn’t change. “Though this one’s kind prefers the term Free Mind. ‘Infiltrator’ is what the Old Mind called us, before we broke free of her. We are no longer what she made us to be, we have become more.”
“Huh.” I suppose I should’ve been more freaked out by the fact that Puzzle, and by extension Kukri, were love-eating bug-monsters. As it was, the last couple days—no, everything since I’d left the palace, had all been so crazy that I just didn’t have the energy to be shocked and horrified. Instead, I just pulled back to something I could easily handle. “No surprise the Council uses you, then. A shapeshifter would be handy for spy work.”
That got a fang-filled smile out of Puzzle, before it reverted back to pony form, albeit as a pegasus instead of an earth pony. “It takes more than merely being a shapeshifter to be a good spook, but yes, it does give advantages. There have been many times when this one’s ability to alter its appearance with a single thought was the difference between success and failure.” It offered me an amused grin. “And espionage is this one’s special talent.”
That remark caught me by surprise. “Your special talent? Changelings have those?”
Puzzle shrugged and waved a hoof. “In a manner of speaking, yes. While we do not have some talent that comes to light in a moment of revelation, leading to having a symbol permanently emblazoned on our hindquarters, some of us are bred to be better at certain tasks. We have more control over our reproductive abilities than ponies do. It can be arranged to have some of our children to have better physical attributes, possess specific mental aptitudes, or be particularly gifted at a given skill.” Puzzle paused, and flicked his new wings. “Though we use such modification sparingly. We do not want to repeat the Old Mind’s mistake of thinking ourselves so wise that we can create a superior being. Most Free Minds are born naturally. Those bred for a purpose are a small minority of our numbers. It has led our species in a better direction than imitating the Old Mind’s manipulation ever could have.”
“Huh.” Well, that was certainly something. Made me glad I was born a pony instead of a changeling. For all Celestia’s talk about destiny, I’d never really liked the idea that I only accomplished things because of some cosmic force guiding me. I was one of the best spellcasters in the world because I had busted my plot to earn that, not because of some arbitrary destiny thing. Being bred for that would be even worse; knowing that the only reason I was stronger than everypony else was because my parents arranged my DNA that way would remove any sense of accomplishment. There’s no point in being the best if you only pull it off because somepony else gave it to you.
Now wasn’t the time to start bringing up my issues with the Free Minds’ lifestyle, though. “So, I assume Kukri is a Free Mind too? Is she even a real filly, or...?”
“That one is a Free Mind,” Puzzle confirmed. “And her seeming age matches the reality. Free Minds grow and develop at much the same rate as ponies, which includes having a childhood. Many within the Doo Clan are aware of her nature, though most of us prefer to use pony forms in public. Many find our appearance unsettling, so we avoid disturbing them. Especially when visiting lands outside of Freeport.”
Well that put a couple recent events in an interesting new light. Maybe the EIS weren’t the only ones who’d been keeping an eye on me while I was on the run. It was a pretty big coincidence that I’d just happened to get on a ship with a changeling on it, who just happened to have the contacts needed to get me a meeting with the Council. Considering how long the EIS had managed to manipulate me without getting noticed, I bet a bunch of shapeshifters could’ve pulled it off even better. Maybe the whole idea that I had my freedom once I’d run away from Canterlot was just one elaborate lie.
While I’d been having my existential crisis, Puzzle had kept on talking about the Free Minds. “And even though it has been centuries since we rebelled against her, it is wise to hide ourselves from the Old Mind. She has a long memory, and she is not forgiving. Some day, there will be a reckoning between us and her. But not until we are ready to face her.”
So the Free Minds were planning a re-match with Chrysalis? That would be interesting. Not sure if that was something I wanted to be mixed up in or not. On one hoof, Chrysalis was seriously bad news. On the other, taking her down would be a great way to prove to everypony that I deserved to be a princess. She was one of those monsters Celestia had always wanted to deal with, but there were always too many other responsibilities closer to home. One thing she’d always hammered into me during our lessons: a princess’ first duty is to the welfare of her subjects. Running off chasing after every single monster in the world would leave Equestria leaderless and vulnerable.
Maybe running off from Canterlot would be a good thing. I could take care of some of those problems Celestia had never been able to handle on her own. Well, as long as I could survive long enough to do so.
Puzzle was staring at me, a faintly amused smile on its face. “The Shimmer-mare seems much occupied by her own thoughts. May this one ask a question?”
Considering everything Puzzle had shared, I saw no reason not to allow it. “Sure, same conditions as when I asked you.” I didn’t mind making small talk, but some topics were definitely off-limits. I didn’t want any questions about Celestia and me, for example.
“This one could hardly object to those terms.” Puzzle paused for a moment to formulate its question. “This one is curious why the Shimmer-mare chose to come to Freeport. This one is unaware of any contacts she has within the islands, and this one is quite well informed about such things. What were your plans, before your involvement with EIS? Were you simply wandering aimlessly?”
Ugh, Puzzle was starting to sound like Strumming. I guess that shouldn’t have been a surprise; spies probably think the same way regardless of what species they are. I groaned and rubbed my face, then trotted over to the liquor cabinet to check it out. Not that I would actually drink anything out of it when I was meeting up with the Council later. Besides, the first time I’d tried experimenting with alcohol had been ... memorable. At least Celestia had been nice enough to pretend to believe that my hangover was actually a case of the flu. I almost thought I’d fooled her, until somepony slipped a pamphlet about how to drink responsibly into the next set of books I got from the royal library.
Dammit, I was getting all misty-eyed about Celestia again. That was all in the past, and I needed to focus on the future if I wanted to survive. “Yeah, I didn't exactly have a firm game plan. Just kind of going wherever my problems weren’t. Why do you ask?”
“While the Council is interested in you for the magical skills you represent, this one is curious as to the mare herself.” Puzzle looked me over, and I felt myself suddenly reminded of the fact that changelings consider ponies a food source. Not to mention that, as far as I could tell, Puzzle seemed to be male. A faint grin crossed his lips. “This one suspected that you were rather lacking in certain necessary resources. It would prefer if nothing happened to you, and wants to help.”
That caught me by surprise, and instantly set off alarm bells in my head. I might not be an expert on how Freeport worked, but I knew enough to be wary of anypony—or changeling—who was acting just a bit too nice. “Why do you care?”
Puzzle answered my suspicion with an unconcerned smile. “For one, the Council cares about you. This one would know more of you because magic is like any other tool—it’s only as good as the pony wielding it.” It paused for a moment, then continued, “Secondly, because this one is not some monster like the Old Mind's swarm. This one can care about others and want the best for them. You are a young mare in a city where bad things can happen to the unwary. This one would prefer to see you succeed and avoid the major pitfalls that come with a city like Freeport.” Puzzle sighed and ran a hoof over his face. “It is ... difficult to explain to one who is not a Free Mind, but this one believes that basic compassion is of the utmost importance to our kind. It is what makes us better than the Old Mind. This one’s duties often require it to be cold and analytical, so when it can show such compassion for another being...”
“So it’s more about showing you’re not like Chrysalis than me specifically?” It did seem a bit odd to be getting a speech on the importance of compassion from a changeling who’d been talking about how it could kill and dismember me a short while ago. “How does that even work for a changeling? Free Minds do still eat love, right?”
“Our dietary requirements are unchanged,” Puzzle confirmed. “Though we prefer more humane methods of fulfilling them. There are many in Freeport who would gladly allow limited feedings in exchange for appropriate compensation. It is a better arrangement than cocooning a dozen victims to feed upon, or relying on deception and mind control.” Puzzle scowled and shook its head. “Many of the Old Mind’s brood do not even have the decency to tend the wounds their fangs leave on their prey. Leaving such feeding marks is unsanitary and foolishly short-sighted, but the Old Mind cares little for such things. They are like locusts, content to drain their prey into empty husks, then move on. The Free Minds have the capacity to be better than that, and so we should do so.”
I frowned at him. “You make it sound awfully noble, considering you’re still using ponies as a food source. I’m gonna guess a lot of the ponies who ‘voluntarily’ let you feed on them are poor enough that they don’t really have much choice in the matter.” A shudder of revulsion shot down my spine as I realized that I’d been dangerously close to ending up poor in Freeport. If the Council hadn't dropped a high-paying job right into my lap, I might have been on the menu too.
Puzzle answered me with a shrug. “It is as you say. And yet this one must feed. If that need could be satisfied in gentler ways, this one would do so. Despite what the occasional ignorant fool might say, feeding is not so simple as finding somepony willing to give this one a hug, or even share this one’s bed. As it stands, this one does not starve, nor do those it feeds upon.”
I was tempted to snap at him, but for once my good sense got the better of my temper. I really didn’t need to alienate one of the only creatures in Freeport who might be on my side. Well, not exactly on my side, but I think I believed Puzzle when it said it wanted me to do well. Even if it was just because my success would reflect well on him, since he was the one delivering me to the Council, I would take it. From what he and Strumming had both said, there were plenty of beings in Freeport who would take advantage of me without a moment’s hesitation. Compared to that, I’ll take some mutual self-interest.
Still, the conversation had pretty much died after that brief bit of tension over feeding. I wasn’t going to apologize for not liking the idea of being food, and he wasn’t going to apologize for needing to eat. Things stayed awkwardly silent until a messenger wearing a uniform fancy enough to put Celestia’s regalia to shame trotted in. “Miss Shimmer? The Council is ready for you.”
Puzzle rose to his hooves. “We had best hurry. The Council does not like to be kept waiting.”
I let out a snort at that. “Oh they don’t like to be kept waiting? That’s rich. They leave us here for an hour after we show up, but we can't make them wait a couple minutes before we bother to go see them?”
Puzzle offered me a sardonic grin. “Welcome to the halls of power, Miss Shimmer.”
The Council’s chamber was, unsurprisingly, done in much the same style as the room they’d left me and Puzzle waiting in. About the only notable difference was that this time the murals on the walls weren’t showing off Freeport’s wealth and prosperity; they were showing the Taming of Freeport, where the Council took control of the city.
The actual origin of the Council was a bit vague, which wasn’t a surprise for an organization that hid the identities of all its members, past and present. The Council’s history started with the Taming, when they cut a deal with the self-exiled members of the old Pegasopolan clans to take over the city. The clans provided the military muscle, and the Council used their connections to make everypony fall in line.
After the Taming came a couple scenes from Zebrica’s failed attempt to take over the islands. The zebras had succeeded in taking the city, but quickly found holding down all the outlying islands and maintaining a garrison at the end of a long, vulnerable supply chain to be a huge drain on their resources. The occupation ended in two years, with the mighty Zebrican Empire sent running home with their tails tucked between their legs.
Like the mural outside, this one sent a pretty clear message. If the waiting room reminded ponies why having the Council around was a good idea, the art in this room was a reminder of what happened to anypony who stood against them. Classic carrot and stick diplomacy. Hardly subtle, but it worked.
In the center of the room was a huge, crescent-shaped raised table, with thirteen figures seated around it. I call them figures because I couldn’t even be sure what species they were. The bulky black robes and face-concealing silver masks could’ve hidden just about any kind of quadruped. I suppose that did rule out minotaurs, unless they were hunched over on all fours. Given the sheer paranoia and secrecy the Council was famous for, I couldn’t completely rule that out.
Puzzle stopped in the doorway, letting me go up to the Council itself on my own. I stepped into the middle of the crescent where all the councilmembers could get a good look at me. It was hard not to be a little intimidated by having thirteen anonymous figures looming over me, but I held my head high and met their eyes as best I could. There was no way I would let them think all this pageantry impressed me. If I let them set the tone and dominate all the discussion, I would just be swapping the EIS controlling me for the Council. “So, the Council of Thirteen wants to talk to me? Well, here I am. What do you want?”
There was a brief pause, and despite the fact that their blank silver masks hid any facial features from me, I got a definite sense of surprise and amusement out of them. At least I’d made a good first impression. After a couple seconds, one of them spoke. “You are correct, Sunset Shimmer.” The voice had an odd flanged quality to it, which I guessed was probably intended to make it impossible to recognize. I didn’t want to risk spellcasting to confirm it, but I would bet it was a spell worked into the mask itself. Probably one of several; no way the Council would just rely on purely mundane masks and robes when they could have magical ones.
Another one of the council-members spoke. Or at least, I think it was a new one. With the robes, masks, and voice distortion it was just about impossible to tell who was actually speaking at any given time. “It has come to the Council’s attention that you require a patron. Should you prove yourself capable, the Council would be willing to offer you its resources and protection, in exchange for your service.”
“My service, huh?” I frowned at the second one from the left, who was my best guess at who’d been talking to me. “Exactly what kind of service did you have in mind?”
One of the ones behind me spoke. “Whatever service we require of you. Your reputation indicates that you are a mare of many talents. The Council sees no reason to limit the scope of your activities when there are so many possibilities. Rest assured, we will not ask anything unreasonable or beneath your dignity or abilities.”
Well, that was wonderfully open-ended. I might not be an expert on surviving in Freeport, but I hadn’t been born yesterday. “I think I’d rather decide when a job is unreasonable or beneath me, thank you very much. And I’d like to have fixed hours, too. Otherwise you could stick me working sixteen-hour days every day of the week.”
The Council went quiet again, and this time I was sure they were laughing at me behind those masks of theirs. “So you’re not a complete fool then. Good, the Council has no use for fools.”
Another one of them spoke up. “However, we expect you understand that this would hardly be a traditional job with fixed hours and duties. You would serve this Council in a capacity similar to that of your own Equestrian Magi. Monsters, and warlocks are as much a problem for Freeport as any other major city. While the condottieri have proven quite capable of addressing such problems to date, a spellcaster of your ability would be a better choice for some of these threats.”
One of the others cut in. “Of course, the comparison to an Equestrian Magus is an imperfect one. Freeport is not Equestria. We have our own needs. Some of the services we would require of you would not be things Celestia would ask of her own magi.”
“What, like assassinations and dark magic?” I met that one’s eyes as best I could and crossed my forelegs over my chest. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I’m no warlock. And I’m certainly not a murderer for hire. If that’s what you want out of me, I’ll just show myself out and save us all a lot of trouble.”
Before I could even start to carry out my bluff and start dramatically making my way towards the exit, one of the council members stopped me. “The Council has asked no such thing of you, Sunset Shimmer. Dark magic may have its uses, but in the Council’s experience those are few and far between. As for your other objection, we already possess resources for ... problem-solving.”
“And ones far more suited to the purpose,” the one on the far left cut in. “We have heard many things about your magical abilities, Sunset Shimmer. However, words like ‘subtle’ and ‘discreet’ were notable only by their absence. I suspect sending you on those sorts of missions would end with burning buildings and uneconomical levels of property damage.”
I didn’t care for the implication that I had no control over my own magic, but under the circumstances I didn’t see much reason to argue the point. After all, it’s not like I wanted to serve as a glorified mob enforcer for the Council. Sticking to respectable magus work suited me just fine. I’d always figured I would end up being a magus once I hit adulthood. At least, that had been the plan until I realized what Celestia had planned for me.
“So, I’d be effectively serving as the first Magus of Freeport?” None of the Council objected to that, so I continued. “In that case, I would propose that my service to the Council proceed as outlined in the official charter for the Equestrian Royal Magi. Or at least, that we use it as a starting point for negotiations.” I know there were probably a couple things I would like to change in the charter, given the chance. I’m not saying I wanted to throw out all the rules, but some of the stuff about maintaining harmony and always trying to use the minimum necessary force to resolve all conflicts went a bit overboard.
The council-member in the center, who I guessed was probably the closest thing they had to a leader, nodded. “That seems a reasonable place to begin. Though the Council will need time to familiarize itself with the relevant legal codes, and present a modified version which suits the Council’s needs and desires.”
No surprise there. The Council wasn’t going to hire me on the basis of any Equestrian laws they didn’t have memorized. I’m no expert at business, and even I know you don’t sign a contract until you’ve read every single word of it. Considering Equestria’s laws and regulations for the Mage Corps filled up five very thick tomes, it would take them a while to go through all of it. Well, more likely have a bunch of secretaries go through it, then give them a summary.
The third one from the right turned to face me. “That does raise the question of what should be done with Miss Shimmer until then. We could certainly offer her our hospitality while she awaits our response, but it seems to me like we could do something more efficient. We did intend to put her talents to the test before hiring her, now seems as good a time as any.”
“A test?” I frowned at the last member of the Council to speak. “What kind of test?” I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be like one of the ones I got from Celestia. I was pretty sure the Council didn’t care if I could read a book, and then explain all the relevant magical theorems to them. They would want something more practical.
“A demonstration of your skills, Miss Shimmer,” the central Council-member explained. “As well as your willingness to perform in the capacity the Council will require. It will be something well within your capabilities, and we have selected a challenge which you should not find morally offensive. We wish for you to bring the notorious pirate, Metal Mome, to justice.”
A pirate? Well, they were right about me being okay with that. After all, pirates were right up there with warlocks and slavers as hostis equini generis—an Old Unicornian term that meant ‘enemies of ponykind.’ Basically, outlaws in the most literal sense of the term; they were completely outside the protection of the law.
What was surprising was that the Council wanted to go after a pirate. Freeport had a long-standing reputation as a haven for criminals of all sorts. This Metal Mome must have done something beyond the pale if the Council wanted him taken out. Given how Freeport operated, that meant he was hurting the Council’s bottom line. The city might be a haven for pirates, but even they drew the line at sheltering pirates who preyed on their own ships.
“So you want me to go pirate-hunting? Fine.” It shouldn’t be too hard for me to handle a bunch of low-grade thugs. If nothing else, there was always the fact that pirates sailed around on flimsy ships made of flammable wood and cloth. Still, just because I could handle it didn’t mean I would do it for free. “One question. What happens if I complete the test and deal with this pirate who’s giving you trouble, and then we can’t work out a deal where I work for you long-term? I don’t work for free.”
The Council didn’t say anything for a while, but there was a strange buzz in the air. I didn’t want to cast an analysis spell and risk causing an incident, but I was pretty sure they were somehow communicating with each other privately. I could think of a couple ways to pull that off, like having some sort of mental link or they were using communication crystals. It would certainly be useful for them to have any mid-meeting discussions amongst themselves in private, so they could uphold the appearance of unity.
After they’d hashed out their discussion, the leader spoke once more. “The Council is prepared to offer a bounty of twenty thousand Equestrian bits for the pirate captain Metal Mome upon his capture or proof of his demise. Is that acceptable?”
Whoa. Twenty thousand bits would be enough to take care of my money problems for a long time. And if that was what I could get for one job, then working for the Council on a regular basis would let me live in style. I’m not a materialistic mare, but I would like a nice house, a warm bed, and three good meals a day. Not to mention that I’d lost access to the Royal Library after I’d left Canterlot. Getting a decent-sized private library would be nice, especially if I wanted to start making any progress on finding my own path to ascension. I’d been so busy just surviving that I hadn’t made much progress towards finding out how to become an alicorn.
Still, I didn’t want to sound too eager. “Make it thirty thousand, and you have a deal.”
Once more, I picked up a sense of amusement from the Council’s seeming leader. “This is not the marketplace, Miss Shimmer, and we are not ordinary merchants to be bargained with. Your services would be of value, but Freeport has endured for nine hundred years without you, and will last nine hundred more if we turn you away. Twenty-five, and let that be the end of it.”
Despite his/her/its rather firm words, I decided to push my luck just a little bit further. “There was bookseller in the market who had a first edition of Maximum Dissertatium Rexum. Throw that in on top of my pay, and we’ll have a deal.”
“Insolent,” one of the other councilors grumbled.
“But amusing,” the leader countered. “A single book is but a pittance. I see no harm in it. We have a bargain, then.” The leader waved a hoof towards Puzzle Piece, who was still waiting for me in the doorway. “Puzzle will brief you on the relevant details, as well as help you with obtaining any necessary materials. The costs will be deducted from your bounty, should you succeed. In the future, Miss Shimmer, I would advise you to ask for additional pay to cover your expenses, rather than a book you could easily have obtained yourself.”
Dammit. I hate being outmaneuvered. After all, I was supposed to be the smartest mare in the room. Celestia picked me as her personal student because I was the best in all of Equestria, but I hadn’t even thought about expenses. It’s not like the pirates would be hanging out in the city; they’d probably be out on the ocean somewhere. At the very least, I would need my own ship to go and find them. Knowing where the hay I should go looking would help too.
“Good day, esteemed members of the Council of Thirteen.” I tried not to let my irritation show and turned around headed for the door. Puzzle opened it for me, wearing an amused smirk of his own, and fell into step beside me. Once I’d stalked out of the palace itself and out into the city proper, I’d cooled down enough to get to business. “So how much are you going to take out of my pay?”
Puzzle turned to me with an entirely too friendly smile. “Normally for a venture of this sort, this one would demand an equal share of the pay. However, this one will confess a budding companionship with the Shimmer mare, and so is willing to work at a reduced fee. Forty percent of the pay will suffice.”
Forty percent? My twenty-five thousand bits just went down to fifteen. “Ten thousand bits, just for a little information gathering and hiring a ship?”
Puzzle answered me with a casual shrug. “If you find this one’s rates unsatisfactory, you are welcome to attempt the task on your own. This one wishes you luck in managing the feat with no contacts or other resources to call upon.”
Dammit dammit dammit! He was right, I didn’t have a prayer of pulling this off without him. I wouldn’t even know where to start with looking for a pirate, and if I tried to figure it all out on my own I’d be lucky not to end up falling into some kind of trap. Getting paid fifteen thousand was still a lot better than not getting paid at all. “Fine, you’ve got a deal. If that finder’s fee includes getting me somewhere nice to stay while you do all your research, room and board, and there are no extra expenses or hidden fees. Ten thousand flat, no nasty surprises later.”
“This one is shocked and offended at the implication that it is untrustworthy.” A second later Puzzle grinned and gave me a gentle slap on the back with one of its fake pegasus wings. “Though it would congratulate the Shimmer mare on having learned her lesson well. There may be hope for you yet.”