The Freeport Venture

by Chengar Qordath

Pirates, Plums, and Parasites

I’ll say one thing for Puzzle Piece: he—no, it—put me up in style, though it probably took way more of my bits than I would’ve liked. As befits a major trade hub, Freeport had some very fancy hotels that catered to anyone with money to burn. The most extravagant of these probably would’ve eaten up most of the ten thousand bits I’d promised to Puzzle, but it had managed to find something that fit into a reasonable price range while still letting me enjoy more luxury than I’d been able to afford in months.

I took a few days for rest and relaxation while Puzzle worked its contacts. I mostly spent time familiarizing myself with Freeport and reading. First up was the book I’d unintentionally paid the Council ten thousand bits for. Granted, I’d read it plenty of times before, and having a first edition instead of one of the reprints I’d borrowed from the Royal Archives was really only useful for bragging rights. I happen to like having bragging rights, though, so it all worked out.

After that, I moved on to some more immediately applicable things. Puzzle had apparently taken it upon itself to correct the few gaps in my knowledge base. Apparently, some enterprising author had realized that there was a market for books about how to survive in Freeport. Most of the information was very generalized and generic, and was mostly stuff I already knew anyway, but having a few reminders never hurt.

Puzzle had also given me some documents that provided a quick rundown of all the major players in Freeport politics. I already knew the basics from my education with Celestia, but we’d never bothered to look at every single internal faction, especially since few of them were actually relevant to Equestria. Most of the Freeport factions were all about internal maneuvering for profit within the islands—the twenty year-feud between the Free Trade Association and the Striker clan over a cluster of kelp farms had no real effect on Freeport/Equestria relations aside from a few fluctuations in kelp prices.

Even that wasn’t likely to matter much, as I was keenly reminded when I nibbled at the kelp sitting on my plate. Kelp was a popular staple in the islands, since it was a crop that didn’t require any of isles’ relatively scarce arable land to cultivate, and grew so quickly and abundantly on top of that. However, it was definitely an acquired taste, and thus far I hadn’t really acquired it, nor had many Equestrian ponies last I’d heard. It’s not that kelp tastes bad, mind you, it was just very heavy on the salt and minerals compared to something like lettuce.

One nice thing about having room service—I didn’t have to put up with kelp if I didn’t want to. Since I was still getting used to Freeport cuisine, I’d ordered more than I needed just in case I didn't like everything. The kelp might have been disappointing, but the breadfruit and dates were much more to my liking.

I was about halfway through the meal when somepony knocked on my door, and Strumming Heartstrings walked in before I could even get up to answer it. Her eyes instantly fell on the platter I’d been working my way through. “Oooh, nice eats. And just when I was feeling snacky, too. You mind?” Before I could even give her an answer, the spy took a seat across from me and stole the kelp off my tray. At least she hadn’t gone for the breadfruit and dates, or else things might’ve gotten nasty.

I swallowed my current mouthful of breadfruit, then fixed her with the best glare I could manage. “The door was locked.”

“I wouldn’t be much of a spy if I couldn’t crack the lock on a hotel room door, now would I?” Strumming stuffed her face with some of my kelp before I could reply. Sure, I hadn’t planned on eating it, but it was still my kelp that I’d paid for. Well, technically Puzzle had paid for it, but I was paying it to set me up, which included paying for the kelp, so...

“Is there some reason you’re here, bothering me?” I threw up a quick warding spell over the rest of my food before she stole more of it. “Or are you just here to get on my nerves?”

By way of answer, Strumming flicked me on the nose with a feather. “Oh, don’t be a grouch, Sunset. I thought we were friends.” She picked up a strand of kelp and dangled it over her face, slowly lowering it into her mouth like she was a foal eating spaghetti. “Seriously though, did you really think I wouldn’t go looking for you after that vanishing act you pulled? You did your switch with the bug when I got dogpiled in the market, right? Obvious, in hindsight.” She gave an irritated wave. “Still, you can imagine my surprise when our surveillance team on the Council’s palace tells me you’re there while I’ve got a changeling wearing your face in the other room. Pity she changed forms and slipped out before her cover was blown—I had all kinds of questions for her.”

She paused, then shot me a grin. “Of course, now that I’ve found you again, we can spend some time catching up. I know it’s only been a couple days, but it feels like forever since the last time we talked. And I have so many questions for you.”

I frowned and stubbornly crossed my forelegs. “Yeah? Well, maybe I’m not in the mood to answer them. Where does that leave you?”

Strumming sighed and made a try for the olives, which sent her hoof bouncing off my ward. “Darn, I was hoping we could keep this friendly. I guess now I’ll have to drag you back to the EIS station house and torture you for information instead. Or we could try drugging you. Wait, brainwave! We’ll drug you, then we’ll torture you! Win-win!”

The mention of torture nearly made me panic and run for the door before I managed to slow down and think. Once I did, it became pretty obvious what Strumming’s game was. “You’re bluffing. The EIS is barred from using torture in its founding charter. And even if you wanted to try and sneak it past, you wouldn’t do it for something this petty, and especially not on a case where Celestia’s watching your every move.”

Strumming buried her muzzle in her hooves and let out a loud snort. “Okay, okay, you got me. Still, the look on your face? Priceless! I thought you were supposed to be smart, bacon-mane. Celestia would have my wings if I so much as put a hoof on you, let alone go all psycho-crazy. Besides, that kinda stuff doesn’t work anyway.” She went back to her kelp plate for a bit, leaving me to stew indignantly. “Seriously though, what happened with the Council? We know you met with them, and now you’re sitting around in a nice hotel room that I know you can’t afford unless you’ve gotten a fresh infusion of cash since the last time we talked. The Council didn’t get where they are by giving away things for free, so how about you tell me what you gave them?”

“Why?” I glared at her suspiciously. “So you can stop me?”

Strumming groaned and facehoofed. “No, you dumbflank. Well, not unless they want you to do something really insane and evil, but I can’t imagine they would. Insane and evil is usually bad for business. Anyway, back on topic—which is that, as you ought to remember, my orders from Princess Celestia are to let you make your own choices as long as you don’t get yourself killed or left starving to death on the streets, or something like that. Which means I can’t stop you from signing on with the Council even though it’s a dumb move.”

“What makes it dumb?” I demanded. “I know the Council has a reputation for being ruthless and amoral, but they also deal fairly with anypony they hire. Nopony would do business with them if they went back on their bargains.”

“Granted,” Strumming conceded. Her attention shifted to my plate, and she poked at the barrier a couple more times. “Are those candied dates? Can I have a couple?”

“No.” I reinforced the barrier, just in case she decided to push me. “If you really want dates, go buy some for yourself instead of stealing mine.”

“Greedy.” Strumming scanned my food again. “How about that breadfruit?”


“The figs?”


“Not even the oranges?”

Ugh, I could feel a headache coming on. “You’re not gonna shut up until I give you something, are you?”

“I told you I was hungry,” she offered in her own defense. “The kelp only woke my appetite up without giving it enough to settle back down again.”

I reluctantly lowered the barrier long enough to pass over some olives. “There. And for the record, if you ask for anything else, I’m going to see how much the Council would pay for the identity of an Equestrian spy operating in Freeport.”

Strumming just shrugged, then pulled out a bag of chips and used them as improvised scoops to deliver the olives to her mouth. I would’ve commented on the fact that she had chips yet felt the need to steal my food, but I really didn’t care anymore. Once she’d gotten a good start, she took a break from eating to talk. “Go ahead. It’s not like they don’t already know after they had their changelings spring you from my custody. Besides, I’ve had plenty of time to get all my paperwork sorted out since you ran for it. I’ve got diplomatic immunity now, so the worst they can do is just declare me equus non grata and kick me off of the islands. Which would be a shame, since it’d mean we couldn’t talk anymore.”

“Yes, I don’t know how I would survive without an annoying spy who almost instantly blew her cover and lost me five minutes after I got into port, breaking into my hotel room and stealing my lunch.” I briefly entertained myself with an image of Strumming with her mane and tail on fire, but the humor of that quickly faded when I thought back to how my last meeting with Cadenza had gone. That just about killed my mood.

Strumming’s ears perked forward, and she frowned at me. “Something up? You got all quiet and mopey on me. What’s eating you?”

“Nothing.” I certainly didn’t want to have some big emotional talk with Strumming about everything that had happened before I left Canterlot. I knew Strumming wouldn’t just let it drop at that, so I decided to throw her something else to distract her. “If you must know, I’m hunting down a notorious pirate for the Council.”

Thankfully, Strumming took the bait. A second later, it occurred to me that maybe she’d pushed me in the hopes of getting exactly that reaction. “So, Sunset Shimmer the pirate hunter, eh? Piracy’s all fun and games until somepony loses an eye. That’s why so many pirates wear eye patches, right?”

“No, it’s actually so if they have to go below decks, they can uncover their other eye and still have decent vision despite the drop in light conditions,” I rattled off.

Strumming let out a soft little snort at that. “So you’ve done some reading up on pirates. I guess that figures. Any of those books cover how to avoid getting your head cut off by a cutlass?”

My eyes narrowed at the implication. “Celestia trained me extensively in combat magic. I think I can handle a couple thugs with delusions of grandeur.”

“That so?” I caught a hint of a smirk on Strumming’s face and instantly went on guard. I didn’t know what she was up to, but she was definitely up to something, and I had a pretty good guess what it could be. A second later her wing flicked towards me, and something metallic shot out. I was ready for her, emptying out my water glass to create a quick ice shield to block whatever she’d tossed my way. I was a little surprised when I saw it was just an ordinary coin instead of a weapon or something, though a second later it made sense. Considering I’d stopped it about six inches away from my head, she’d obviously planned on thumping me, and a real weapon would’ve done something a lot more severe than that if I’d missed the block.

Strumming took a moment to look over the ice-encased coin, then nodded to herself. “Nice reaction time. Respect. Your magic’s definitely up to snuff, but the fact is you’re jumping into the deep end of the pool when you haven’t even learned to swim yet. You’ve never even been in a real fight, and you want to go chasing after a ship full of pirates? Doesn’t seem like a smart move to me. And let’s not even start on the fact that you’re going up against pirates who must’ve gone so far off the deep end that even the government of a notorious pirate haven thinks they need to go down.”

I rolled my eyes and cut another slice of breadfruit for myself. “You make it sound like these pirates are in league with one of the dark powers or something. If I had to guess, I’d say they probably just broke the Freeport Pirates’ Code.”

“Ah, yes, the Pirates’ Code.” Strumming grinned and scooped some more olives into her mouth. “Because everypony knows pirates are famous for strictly following rules and regulations. That’s why they chose a life of crime in the first place.”

I nibbled on my orange while considering the best way to answer her that didn’t involve profanity or losing my cool. Why did the EIS have to recruit such an annoying smartflank to keep an eye on me? “Freeport’s Pirate Code isn’t about following laws or anything, it’s more a matter of mutual self-interest. Offering mercy to any merchants that give up without a fight encourages surrender, which means the pirates don’t have to fight every ship they try to rob. And limiting how much they take means they’re not driving merchant companies out of business or making the sealanes so dangerous everyone avoids Freeport.” I thought it over for a moment and offered a rather fitting comparison. “It’s like how farmers won’t use up all the nutrients in the soil, and predators try not to wipe out all their prey. They limit themselves in the short term so there’ll still be a long term. Lately, they’ve even started letting ships pass by completely unmolested, so long as they pay a monthly fee that goes into a fund everypony gets a share of.”

“Sounds like a smart arrangement,” Strumming agreed, trying to snatch one of my dates while I wasn’t looking, only to be stymied once more by my defensive spells. “Except that, like I said, pirates aren’t into long-term planning and carefully obeying the rules.”

“Which would be why the code gets broken by some pirates,” I agreed. “A lot of pirates would get greedy and try to take more than their fair share if there wasn’t somepony enforcing the rules.”

“Which is where you come in.” Strumming looked me over and gave a faint snort. “Nice job. You’ve gone from Princess Celestia’s personal student—a pony who was to all appearances being groomed for princesshood—to a low-level enforcer for an organized crime cartel. I’m sure your parents would be so proud.”

My eyes narrowed, and I let out an irritated growl. “I’m not saying I like how the Freeport system works, but it’s taken a whole bunch of violent criminals and turned them into less dangerous ones. One of my books said the number of ponies killed by pirates has fallen more than seventy five percent since the Freeport Code was implemented.”

“That so?” Strumming met my proclamation with a skeptical frown. “According to one of your books, huh? As in, the books your Council-approved contact picked up for you? Gee, I wonder if maybe it picked sources that put the Council in the best possible light? It’s not like convincing you to sign on with them is part of its job or anything.”

I clenched my teeth and took a moment to rein in my temper. “I know how to account for biased source material, Strumming. I’m also not naïve about why the Code exists; it’s all about keeping Freeport’s status as a pirate haven intact without that discouraging trade. It doesn’t change the fact that I’d rather have Freeport’s pirates following a code that prevents them from doing stuff like massacring a ship’s crew or selling them all into slavery. If pirates do that kinda thing, somepony should stop them. If I can get paid for my trouble...” I trailed off, then shrugged. “Well, in that case everypony wins, right?”

“Yeah, sure. Except for all the ponies who are still getting victimized by your new, kinder, gentler pirates.” Strumming gestured grandly with an olive-covered potato chip. “You see, the thing about picking the lesser of two evils is that it’s still, y’know, evil. I’m pretty sure the princess gave you all that magic training so you could use it to actually do something good with it, not so you could moonlight as a crime cartel enforcer. What’s next, busting somepony’s kneecaps if they’re late on paying back their debts? Shaking down merchants for protection money?”

My temper finally went from frayed to completely snapped. “For your information, the pirate hunt is a onetime thing with the Council. What they actually want to do is start setting up a Freeport Mage Corps on the Equestrian model, and they want me to run it.” Strumming’s eyes widened at that, and I felt a thrill of righteous vindication. That’s what she got for calling me a low-level criminal. As if I would stoop to that.

After a couple seconds, Strumming grinned at me. “So the Council wants to start getting a proper magic academy up and running instead of just relying on whatever scraps they can get from everyone else? Well isn’t that interesting?” She quickly finished off the rest of her chips, then got up. “Well, gotta fly. The Equestrian Intelligence Service thanks you for your cooperation. I’ll see you around, okay?”

My jaw dropped as I realized what she’d done. That sneaky little nag! She’d needled me until I let something slip out, and I’d fallen for it. I let out an indignant snarl, and shot an ice bolt at the door, freezing the handle. “Oh no you don’t! You can’t just trick me and walk away! I’ve had it up to here with you!”

Strumming turned back to face me, looking just a bit too calm for a mare who was face-to-face with a pissed off unicorn of my talent. She just stared at me impassively for a bit, then very calmly asked, “What do you think is going to happen now, Sunset? If you just wanna vent at me for getting tricked, then knock yourself out. If you think you can intimidate or threaten me ... sorry, not buying it. Despite everything you’ve gotten yourself into, I don’t think you’ve got it in you to really hurt a pony. Especially not after what happened with Princess Cadance.”

I flinched at that, my mind instantly going back to the confrontation with her. It might’ve been months ago, but I could still remember every detail. How I’d ranted and shouted at her, until her temper was so frayed she snapped right back. Then I’d completely lost it, and next thing I knew I’d burned her bad enough that she had to go to the hospital. I’d never meant to hurt her that badly, it had just ... happened. I’ve had a couple nightmares about it. Nothing serious, just your normal bad dreams.

Strumming met my eyes, then sighed and shook her head. “You know, you might think you’re tough, but deep down you’re still just a kid. You’re not ready to go chasing after pirates. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got the spells for it, but it’s you I’m worried about. If you’re going up against pirates, they’ll play for keeps. Which is a problem, since I don’t know if you’re psychologically capable to using lethal force against another pony.”

She stepped forward and put a hoof on my shoulder. “There’s a reason military and combat mage training takes so long, and only part of it is about training up your skills. Most ponies aren’t really violent by nature. Sure, we’ll fight if we have to, but we’d rather have peace and harmony. It takes work to get a pony really comfortable with the idea of killing another sapient being.” She fixed me with a piercing gaze. “Do you really think that after what happened with Cadance, you can live with the idea of burning someone to death?”

My shoulders slumped, and all righteous indignation I’d been building up against her burned away. Much as I hate to admit it, she was right. I’d never been in a serious fight before. The closest I’d come with the scuffle with that caribou back in Coldharbor, which wasn’t much of a fight and certainly hadn’t been life-or-death.

Strumming sighed, then stepped forward and draped a wing over me. “Look, Sunset, I don’t know everything that’s going on with you, but I think I know enough to realize that you need a way out. Whatever’s going on, you can still drop by the Equestrian Embassy in Freeport, and we’ll find a way to sort it out. Don’t worry about the Council; whatever plans they have for you, they know not to push things with Equestria.”

Strumming paused, and her expression hardened a bit. “However, I think you need to be careful. You’re heading down a road that could end badly. As in, that offer to help you come home might have to be withdrawn if you take things too far. I’m sure the Council told you that you could do things just like a real Equestrian Magus, but I also know the Council has no real commitment to harmony. What they care about is results, and if they think dark magic will get them...”

My eyes narrowed, and I let out an offended huff. “I’m not going to turn into some psycho warlock slinging around dark magic, okay?”

She just shook her head. “You think most of the ponies who went down that path planned on it? Nopony plans on using so much dark magic they turn into a twisted lunatic—it just happens. Usually because they make a whole lot of bad decisions, until it becomes second nature to them. Back in the old days, ponies used to think dark magic was just outright addictive, like some kind of drug.”

Her tone turned dark, and she scowled. “The truth is a lot nastier. It’s like the old saying about how when you have a hammer, all your problems start looking like nails. The whole reason dark magic is bad is that it’s giving you power over other ponies that nopony ought to have. Let’s take mind reading. A lotta ponies say the EIS should be able to use it to get info we need. The old ticking time bomb scenario.” Strumming let out a snort. “What those people don’t understand is that it’s a slippery slope. First you use some mind reading for an emergency interrogation. Then it becomes standard procedure whenever a suspect’s holding something back. Then whenever we think they might be lying to us. And next thing you know, we’re the thought police.”

I heard her out, then offered my rebuttal. “Nice speech, but I’m not ever planning on using dark magic, so...”

“Good.” Strumming offered a single approving nod. “Stick with that. If you really think working with the Council is the right way to go, then fine. Your choice to make. All I’m saying is, don’t forget who trained you, and what she taught you. Not just the magic, the other stuff too. You remember that, and maybe you’ll prove me wrong and actually do some good here.”

“I don’t need to prove anything to you.” I went back to my tray and listlessly poked at my food. “Weren’t you leaving?”

“I would, but...” She waved a hoof at the iced-over doorknob. “Somepony kinda locked me in. Rather aggressively, too. It’s enough to make a mare fear for her virtue.” She let out a snort. “Though actually, our files say you’re still a virgin, so I probably don’t need to worry on that account.”

That remark sent heat rushing to my cheeks, and I quickly melted the ice covering her exit. “I think you should go now.”

Before Strumming could actually leave though, a zebra stallion I’d never seen before barged through the door. I had a pretty good idea who it was. Sure enough, once he’d shut the door behind him there was a flash of green fire, and Puzzle Piece returned to its natural form. The changeling froze, then gave Strumming a quick once-over. The spymare returned the favor, then smirked at him. “Hey there. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess you're the bug who's been getting on my nerves something fierce.”

Puzzle answered her with a grin that rather prominently displayed its fangs. “If the spy-mare means making her look the fool, then yes, this one is indeed that bug.”

“My ego is smarting, but my spirit is unbroken,” she answered flippantly. “You know what they say: you can't keep a good mare down. Besides, I bet Sunset never shared her food with you. Not that she could, considering the species gap.”

“This one is capable of consuming food.” Puzzle walked over and grabbed a few olives to demonstrate. “Though it finds little nourishment in such consumption, it can still enjoy the taste of the food itself. In any case, such things are hardly necessary; this one’s relationship with the Shimmer-mare is strictly professional.”

“That so?” Strumming shot a grin back at me. “Well, while you’re being strictly professional, Sunset and I are best buds. So ... yeah. There we are. I win, you lose.”

Puzzle answered with an expression that it took me a bit to recognize; changeling chitin wasn’t quite as expressive as a pony’s face, but I still managed to work out that Puzzle was doing the equivalent of a faintly mocking smirk. “Is that so? If the two of you are truly so close, then this one finds it curious how quick Sunset was to escape from her best friend once given opportunity. With a love-sucking bug, nonetheless. And did not seek you out or make inquiries afterwards.”

Strumming shrugged. “What can I say? I'm an authority figure, and she's a teenager. You know how that goes.”

Puzzle answered her with sarcasm that managed to sting even more than normal thanks to its relatively blank changeling face. “Ah yes, clearly the Shimmer-mare’s actions are merely those of an angry teenager. This one completely understands. Surely she has no legitimate grievances, and her clearly-expressed desires should be dismissed as unimportant.”

The spymare answered with a shrug. “It’s not my place to judge her relationship with her family or the princess, or what she desires out of all this. I just have to keep her from getting into more trouble than she can handle, and make sure she can still go home to everypony who cares about her when the time comes.” She offered Puzzle a friendly smile that showed just a few too many teeth. “I'm sure you wouldn't want to get in the way of that.”

“Of course not,” Puzzle agreed, matching her smile with one of its own that rather prominently displayed its fangs. “This one is simply making sure she is adapting to Freeport and is being given opportunities befitting her talents.”

“Super.” Strumming grinned and slapped it on the back with one of her wings, earning an irritated twitch from Puzzle. “I mean it, that’s very kind of you.” She gave that comment a moment to sink in, then followed it up. “So how much of her pirate-hunting bounty are you taking for all the help you’re giving her?”

“A reasonable amount we both agreed upon,” Puzzle answered levelly.

“How sweet of you,” Strumming murmured. “Helping her out of the goodness of your profit margin. You're practically a paragon of harmony.”

Puzzle gave a cavalier toss of its head. “This one does its best to make its way through life. It has not struck an unfair bargain with the Shimmer-mare.”

“Good for you, then.” Strumming nodded to him, then looked over her shoulder and shot me a final grin before heading for the door. However, she paused in the threshold and glanced back at Puzzle. “You hurt her, try to feed on her, or turn her into a warlock, and I'll feathering kill you. Just, y’know, FYI, thought you ought to know. As long as we’re putting all our cards on the table.”

Puzzle shook off the death threat with a smile. “The Heartstrings mare is welcome to make the attempt, though she may find it difficult to achieve. Regardless, this one thanks her for her honesty. It will act accordingly.”

“Cool.” She waved to me. “So long, Sunset. You need any bug spray, lemme know.” With that final part, she trotted out of the room, shutting the door behind her.

Puzzle looked out through the peephole, then moved to a window to make sure Strumming was really leaving the hotel. Once it had confirmed she was gone, one of its ears gave an irritated twitch. “Such a pleasant mare.”

“She's definitely something else,” I agreed.

Puzzle turned to face me, and it let out a resigned sigh. “Whatever irritation she induces, she merely wishes to protect the Shimmer-mare.”

I sighed and slumped down onto my cushion. “Yeah, I get that. The annoying quirks are just a trick she uses to get past my defenses, or just because she enjoys messing with ponies. Doesn't make her any less annoying.”

Puzzle glanced out the window with a contemplative frown. “Would you prefer to no longer see her? This one can arrange it.”

Considering the fact that Puzzle had already told me it had worked as a ‘Problem Solver’ for the Council in the past, I was instantly wary of the offer. “I wouldn't go that far. Yeah, she gets on my nerves, but it’s nothing to get worked up over.”

Puzzle answered that with a long-suffering sigh, rolling its compound eyes as best it could in its natural form. “This one does not solve all its problems with murder, Sunset. It is not, for lack of a better term, a one-trick pony.”

Well, somepony—or was it somechangeling? Someone. Someone was just a little bit offended once it had guessed the reason for my hesitation. “Yeah, I know you do stuff other than solve problems for the Council. I’m just saying, she's annoying, but I think I'd rather not cut ties with Equestria completely.”

“She is hardly the Shimmer-mare’s only means of contacting Equestria,” Puzzle countered. “If she is unpalatable, we could always expel her and have her removed. There is still the Equestrian Embassy, even if the Heartstrings mare herself is no longer present. And the Council would not attempt to cut ties between the Shimmer-mare and Equestria regardless. Still, it is your choice.”

“Yeah, it is.” I thought it over for a bit, then offered a dismissive wave. “You can always equus non grata her later if she crosses a line. Until then, there’s no reason not to keep her around. For all we know, the replacement they send could be worse.”

“This is so,” Puzzle conceded. “The Equestrian Intelligence Service seems to have a certain appeal for the more unusual sorts of personalities, in this one’s experience. Regardless, there is more than one way to deal with the problem the Heartstrings-mare presents.”

“Right, right.” I stretched and grabbed another piece of breadfruit. “Anyway, enough about her. I was tired of Strumming while she was still here, so the last thing I need is to keep talking about her now that she’s gone. So, changing the subject. You got any info on those pirates?”

“Quite a bit, actually.” Puzzle reached into its saddlebags and pulled out a stack of papers. “To begin, Metal Mome is a unicorn zony stallion. Mother was a unicorn, sire was a zebra. His mother was Granite Mome, a research assistant to Magus Quick Fix until she departed rather hastily after she learned she was suspected of doing illegal golemry experiments with stolen research materials. Given the following events, this one believes we can safely assume the accusations were, in fact, correct.”

“Golemry, huh? Sounds messy.” Golemry had always been one of those grey areas of magic. It wasn’t dark magic, but it tended to be rather strictly regulated due to a ton of ethical concerns. Most importantly, the fact that most golems had some degree of intellect, however limited. Making a golem was essentially creating an intelligent life form whose sole purpose was to obey every command a pony issued. In short, golems were basically slaves. It wasn’t a huge deal as long as they were unthinking automatons, but the moment they started to become sentient, or worse, sapient, a whole new can of worms opened up.

On top of that, there were safety issues. One of the most common uses for golems was to serve as guardians and protectors, since they had the natural advantages of never needing breaks to sleep or eat or use the bathroom, and never getting bored or distracted. The problem was, golems kept in operation for a long time tended to get a bit weird. In the case of guardian golems, they became too aggressive about protecting whoever or whatever they’d been assigned to, and would start seeing innocent ponies as potential threats.

Combine a couple nasty incidents with the growing moral objections to creating golems in the first place, and you had a recipe for golemry coming under heavy regulation. It had been more than a thousand years since a full-size golem had been created in Equestria; all we had were smaller ones made strictly for research purposes under carefully controlled conditions. Well, unless you counted any big ones left behind and forgotten about in some old ruin.

“So, I’m gonna take a wild guess that Metal Mome has a couple pet golems?” I was not at all surprised when Puzzle nodded in confirmation. “Super. Well, I should be able to handle them now that I’m forewarned, at least. Especially if we’re fighting at sea. Just knock ‘em off the boat, and they’ll sink straight to the bottom.”

“Actually, this one’s sources indicate he’s accounted for that.” Puzzle sorted through its papers until it found the one it was looking for. “According to several witnesses, his golems are in fact buoyant. Most likely some sort of magical enhancement. Logical, to address such an obvious weak point.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I groaned and rubbed my face. I suppose I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. The Council wouldn’t need me at all if this guy didn’t even think about how to cover the most common-sense ways of knocking out his secret weapon. “So, how many of these things am I going to be up against? I really hope you’re not gonna tell me his crew’s all golems.” Though that seemed pretty unlikely. Golems usually weren’t known for being especially dextrous and lacked the initiative and creativity of truly sapient beings.

Puzzle shook its head. “No, most of this one’s reports say he only uses two at any given time. Usually, one focuses on defending him, the other on attacking the enemy. Those reports of him using less than two usually come directly after encounters where one was heavily damaged or lost, suggesting an obvious cause. There was a period where he tried more, but by all indications that degraded their efficiency.”

“So, most likely I’m up against a pair of golems. Well, that’s better than an army of them, at least.” Though it seemed a bit odd that he couldn’t use more than two of them at a time. Golems were supposed to be largely autonomous within the scope of their orders. You give one a task, and it accomplishes that task in the simplest and most direct way it can. It’s why they’d frequently been used for combat to begin with: ‘Go kill that’ is a nice and simple command that doesn’t need to be executed with any finesse or subtlety.

However, a downside to that possibility quickly came to mind. “If he’s only got two golems, he’s probably pumped them full of all kinds of magic, hasn’t he?”

“That would seem to be a safe assumption,” Puzzle agreed. “By all accounts, he’s not only enhanced them with traditional unicorn magic, but has incorporated zebra alchemy into their design as well. Presumably, something he learned from his sire.”

Oh great, zebra alchemy. At least I knew most of the basic rules when it came to runecasting. When it came to zebra alchemy, I was close to clueless. In my defense, just about everypony in Equestria was in the same boat. The zebras guarded their alchemical formulae very carefully, and when it came to enhancing a golem, they probably knew all kinds of useful things. The big downside of zebra alchemy had always been that, like rune magic, it required a lot of downtime preparing a spell, though in this case it was potions instead of runestones. That wasn’t an issue for golems, though. Considering it would take months if not years to build a golem completely from scratch, the week or two it would take to brew up a couple potions to enhance said golems would barely even matter.

“I don’t suppose all your research turned up any obvious weak points, did it?” I rather doubted it—if he had an easily exploited weakness, somebody would’ve exploited it by now. Still, one could always hope. After the way my life had been going for the last couple months, I had to be due for some good luck.

“Alas, nothing of the sort,” Puzzle confirmed. “The closest this one found is that he takes a very active role in managing his golems, and they will only obey his commands. The latter restriction is rather prudent, given that pirates are not known for being especially loyal. Still, it suggests that the greatest weak point of his golems is, in fact, him. If you can neutralize him, the golems might well be rendered inert.”

“Which is probably why he keeps one of his golems defending him.” I concluded. “He might be the weak point, but he’s keeping himself well-protected. The only easy way to get to him would be to use some kind of attack a golem couldn’t block.” Which would have to mean some kind of non-physical attack, and most of those either took a lot experience in a field I had little real talent for, or a willingness to use black magic to launch a psychic assault. Neither option was on the table, but that left me rather short on choices.

“I suppose I could just try outmaneuvering it.” I did know how to teleport, after all. It would take good timing and positioning, but I might be able to lure his bodyguard one way, then quickly teleport behind it and get a shot in on Metal. I’d have to get the timing perfect and not reveal my ability to teleport until I was sure I could land a knockout blow, though. Otherwise, he would keep his guard golem too close for me to pull it off.

Ugh, maybe I was just overthinking all of it. Combat tended to be messy and chaotic, and Puzzle only had very general information on how Metal Mome’s golems worked. There was no point in going into too much detail when all the plans I made would probably go completely out the window as soon as the fight actually started.

Besides, the golems were only part of the problem. “What about his crew? How many of them are on the ship, and how dangerous are they? Anyone I should be on the lookout for?”

Puzzle shuffled through its papers again, and let out a faintly annoyed huff. “This one was unable to find an exact figure for Metal Mome’s crew count. Pirate crews tend to have a very high turnover rate. Casualties in battle, crew who leave the ship once satisfied by the amount of loot they’ve taken, and those who are simply left behind because they are too busy enjoying their ill-gotten gains. This one has long suspected that the best means of profiting from piracy is not to be a pirate, but to be the one who provides intoxicants and rents companionship to freshly returned pirate crews.”

The changeling cleared its throat and shifted around. “While this one cannot provide a certain answer, it can make a reasonable estimate based on his capabilities. Metal Mome’s ship, the Granite Heart, is a mid-sized brig, which would mean—”

I let out a snort at that. “He named his ship after his mother? Wow, there goes all his credibility as a pirate.”

“Thieves and murderers can be every bit as fond of their mothers as any other sentients.” Puzzle paused with a thoughtful frown. “Presuming they do not include said parents in their list of victims,” he amended. “That is not the case here. By all reports, Granite Mome died of old age five years ago, and Metal was quite fond of her. Thus, his ship’s name.”

The changeling cleared its throat and got back to the briefing. “The typical crew complement for a brig is twelve to eighteen individuals, though pirates are known to heavily overcrew their ships to allow for boarding actions. This one would estimate a crew of forty individuals. Most pirates use far more, but Mome’s golems are used for the bulk of heavy combat duties, and the space for holding and maintaining his golems would leave less room for crew. And while pirates prefer to have the benefit of numbers in battle, there is also much to be said for having fewer hooves to split the bounty between.”

Puzzle shuffled through a few more papers. “There is one other member of the crew this one would suggest being wary of. The first mate, Silverhorns. A minotaur of some repute as a warrior, and known to be quite loyal to his captain. It is rumored they are lovers, though this one was unable to confirm whether this was true or mere gossip.” The changeling shrugged. “Regardless, it would be very difficult to kill or capture Metal Mome without also subduing Silverhorns. Even if such a thing were achieved, the first mate would likely hold a vendetta against the Shimmer-mare and go to considerable efforts to gain vengeance. This one would suggest addressing the matter as part of your mission.”

I wasn’t going to argue with him on that point. I had enough troubles in my life without adding a new nemesis to the pile. “Right. If I can handle the crew and the golems, a single minotaur shouldn’t be too hard.” Not that this was a small proposition. I was good with magic, but going up against forty-to-one odds and facing two golems plus a big nasty minotaur was starting to sound a bit lop-sided. Maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions before I’d taken the job. I guess that was another lesson I’d learned the hard way. At the rate I was going, I was starting to get a bit worried about whether I would have the chance to actually have a second round of negotiations with the Council. They certainly weren’t going to make it easy for me.

No, I couldn’t start getting pessimistic. If I started doubting myself, everything would just collapse on me. I had to stay confident. I was Princess Celestia’s personal apprentice, and one of the most gifted magical prodigies she’d ever seen. The most talented natural pyromancer since Sunbeam Sparkle. I wasn’t going to lose to a bunch of scruffy pirates. I could handle this. Somehow.

I got my mind back on task. “Anything else I need to know about Mome and his crew? Obviously it would be hard for you to pinpoint his exact location, but does he have any typical hangouts? It’d probably be a lot easier to deal with him in port than at sea.”

“Like many pirates, Mome and his crew are frequent customers of the more disreputable docks district on the outlying islands of Freeport proper.”  Puzzle briefly frowned, then shook its head. “This one would not advise attempting to apprehend him whilst in port, though. The Council takes a dim view of excessive public violence within Freeport proper, even within its seedier suburbs. A mere bar brawl or mugging is easily overlooked, but this one suspects a battle between the Shimmer-mare and Metal Mome would rapidly escalate beyond that. Pyromancy is known to be rather problematic with regards to collateral damage.”

“Of course,” I grumbled. “We couldn’t just grab him in port where his crew and golems aren’t around. That would be too easy.” Though I suppose I couldn’t really blame the Council for not wanting to risk me burning down half the city to make an arrest. Not that I had so little control over my magic that I’d set some random building on fire every time I cast a spell, but I couldn’t deny that something might eventually go wrong if I threw enough fire magic around. Sure, I could try to make the arrest without using any fire, but that would be the equivalent of fighting with one hoof tied behind my back.

“It is likely Mome has established a base of operations on one of the outlying islands in the archipelago,” Puzzle added. “However, attacking his fortified base of operations would be a hazardous proposition, and with several thousand islands in the archipelago, finding it would be rather difficult even for this one.”

“So we need to catch him at sea, then.” I concluded. “I assume the Council has no objections to massive fire damage to Mome’s ship?”

“They do not,” Puzzle readily agreed. “Though this one feels compelled to point out that a relatively intact ship is a valuable resource. If nothing else, the Shimmer-mare could sell it for a considerable profit.” The changeling gave a fang-filled grin. “This one would be more than happy to arrange such a sale in exchange for a reasonable finder’s fee.”

“I bet you would.” I took a moment to fight down my irritation with the changeling’s mercenary nature. Regardless of the fact that it wanted it a cut, it had a fair point that selling Mome’s ship would add more profit to the venture. I certainly wouldn’t complain about having more bits at my disposal. “So, how do we find Mome while he’s at sea?”

“Such would be rather difficult,” Puzzle conceded. “Which is why this one believes it would be far simpler to lure him to you instead. Or rather, a ship you would be covertly stationed on. This one drew up a quick inventory of the last dozen ships targeted by Mome, and extrapolated a list of trade goods likely to draw his attention. From there, we simply commission a ship to carry those goods along a well-known trade route and arrange for that fact to become common knowledge in certain circles.”

“So we lure him into an ambush with the promise of easy prey? Sounds simple enough.” It didn’t take long for the first potential problem to spring to mind. “Except that we have no guarantee he’ll come after the ship, and no way of knowing when he will. I might spend months sailing all over the place without even seeing his ship.”

Puzzle offered me another one of its unsettling smiles. “Have some faith in this one’s intelligence capabilities. It is rather certain it can tempt the pirate into moving sooner rather than later. Until then, this one advises patience and vigilance. If nothing else, this one is confident that the trade vessel it intends to use as bait will make sufficient profits from its journeys to allow us to continue the effort until it bears fruit.”

Well, of course Puzzle had already taken care of its bottom line. It seemed to be pretty consistent about that. “So, if I’m going to be running security on this ship of yours until Mome can bother to show up, can I at least get a cut of the profits?”

The changeling answered me with a frown. “This one is uncertain what the Shimmer-mare will do to earn such payment. You have already been provided for quite generously under the terms of our existing arrangement.”

“I don’t know that I’d call you generous,” I offered him a pleasant smile. “I think we both know that the only reason you’re helping me is because it benefits you as well. Besides, I’m pretty sure my standard of living would take a nosedive if I went from staying in a nice hotel to living on a ship. That kind of inconvenience deserves some compensation, wouldn’t you agree?”

Puzzle let out a long-suffering sigh. “Oh very well. Twenty percent.”

“Twenty? Don’t make me laugh.” I tossed my head. “I’m going to be the one on the ship doing all the hard work while you just sit around fat and comfortable in Freeport. I’ll take half the money, and that’s probably too generous of me.”

“This one feels compelled to point out that the Shimmer-mare’s contribution will have little impact upon the profitability of its venture, until the pirate shows himself.” It waved a hoof over the room. “Still, as the Shimmer-mare has seen, it is not ungenerous. It will allow a quarter share, but no more.”

“You’ll have to do better than that.” I smirked at it. “I don’t have to go along with this specific plan, you know. I’m going to bet you have at least two or three backup plans that you could also use to take out Mome. Maybe we should try one of those instead. It might let me capture the pirate faster.” My grin widened. “Though if I were a betting mare, I’d say the plan that was your first choice was the one that gives you the most profit on the side.”

Puzzle chuckled and conceded with a nod. “That much is true. Very well then, as a gesture of respect, trust, and friendship, this one will offer the Shimmer-mare the same percentage that it requested of her bounty.”

Forty percent? Not bad at all. “Deal.” I shook hooves with the changeling to seal it. “You know, I like our bargaining a lot more when I’m the one getting money instead of the other way around.”

“This one has often noted such to be the case in its own dealings.” Puzzle took a moment to organize the huge stack of papers it had pulled out, then passed them over to me. “The Shimmer-mare’s ship departs at dawn. This one would advise reading the full report it prepared regarding Metal Mome. Though it has provided all the pertinent information, facts which currently seem irrelevant may have greater importance than one would expect.”

I took the intelligence report and added it to my stack of books. I was going to need a few more if I was going back to being ship-bound. I wasn’t looking forward to that, but as long as I got the bounty at the end of it, I could live with a little inconvenience.