The Freeport Venture

by Chengar Qordath


I’m not sure what I’d expected to face when Strumming got me to the Equestrian Embassy. After all, I was technically a prisoner. That left a lot of options open for what kind of prisoner I’d be, though. Would it be something light and comfortable where I had a nice room, some books, good food, and all the usual luxuries—where aside from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave the embassy grounds, I was barely even a prisoner? Or would Strumming go for something a bit harsher?

In fairness, a harsh Equestrian prison was still considered fairly pleasant compared to the sort of jails you could find elsewhere, including in Freeport. My cell in the embassy would be nice and clean, I’d have an actual bed instead of a cheap cot, and my jailors would bring me three reasonably healthy meals a day. The worst thing they’d do would be cutting off my magic. Though at least these days there were inhibitor rings and spells instead of having to literally cut off my horn the way they did it back in the dark ages.

I didn’t like my odds of getting a low security lockup. Sure, being Princess Celestia’s ex-student counts for a lot, but with my abilities, they’d effectively be releasing me on the honor system. If I’d had access to my magic, teleporting out of the embassy would be child’s play for me; high security and magical lockdown was the usual procedure for an accused warlock. I’m pretty sure Strumming knew me well enough to warn whoever was in charge that I would make a run for it if I got a chance. Between that, the potential threat I represented, and wanting to avoid any appearance of favoritism, I expected to end up in whatever equivalent the embassy had to a maximum security cell.

Things wound up going a bit differently. Maybe Strumming was nicer in her report than I expected, or maybe Celestia didn’t care if ponies thought she was giving me a little bit of special treatment. Either way, I got a nice little room that was about the equivalent of a small studio apartment. Nothing fancy, but it had all the basic necessities, and there was even a small bookshelf stocked with a decent enough selection to keep me from getting bored while I spent all day locked up in a small room.

The downside of the arrangement was apparent as soon as I entered the room. There were enough anti-magic spells layered around the room to contain a dozen archmagi. Even a basic telekinesis spell was out of my reach, let alone anything I could possibly use to break out of here. The room might be cozy, but not being able to spellcast ensured I wouldn’t forget I was a prisoner. Still, if I had to have a cage, at least it was a gilded cage.

Since there was nothing else to do, I pulled out one of the books and did some reading. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the books at the embassy were about diplomatic relations between Freeport and Equestria. Not the most fascinating of topics, but it was more than sufficient to pass time while I waited.

I was on chapter three of a book about the sugar trade when I heard somepony undoing the locks on my door, and Strumming Heartstrings strode in, a bag of chips tucked under her wing and a hesitant smile on her face. “Hey. Mind if I come in?”

“Do I have a choice?” I groused.

“‘Course you do.” She trotted over to the bed and flopped onto it. “I mean, yeah—I’ll be coming in either way, but it’s still your choice whether or not you mind it.” She shot a look at the bandage on my side. “How you holding up? Doc said you were healing fine, and you didn’t need anything for the pain.”

“I’m fine.” I suppose the one good thing I could say for being imprisoned, the embassy’s doctor had taken a look at my injuries from the pirate fight. Not to mention that I was pretty much stuck on bed rest for as long as I was imprisoned. Boring and unpleasant, but it was good for healing.

Strumming tore open her bag of chips, stared at me for a bit, then offered it to me. “Here, have some crisps. I got sea salt and vinegar ones, since I figured they’d be your favorite.” She paused, then shrugged. “I mean, there were two bags of them in your trash when I raided your hotel room.”

I scowled at that little revelation. “You went through my trash?”

“Well of course,” Strumming answered, as if that were a perfectly normal and reasonable thing for a pony to do. “It’s pretty standard. You can find out all kinds of neat stuff about a pony by looking at what they throw away. Like their favorite kind of crisps.” She offered me the bag once more. “So are you gonna eat ‘em, or will you refuse to touch ‘em as part of some stubborn teenage pride thing?”

I shoved the chips back towards her. “I ate at the hotel, I’m not hungry.”

Strumming sighed and tucked the chips back under her wing. “Stubborn teenage pride it is.” She groaned and shifted about, making herself entirely too comfortable on my bed. “Hope you’re not gonna upgrade it to angry teenage lashing out. I got some stuff to talk to you about, and it’s hard to do that when you’re being all moody and stuff.”

I gave her exactly the sort of response her attitude merited. “Go feather yourself.”

Strumming took that in stride. “And that’s angry teenaged lashing out confirmed. Now all we need is you screaming that I’m not your mother and I can’t control you to have the trifecta.” She paused, tapping a hoof against her chin. “Y’know, I really oughta look into making a game out of this. Rebellious Teenager Bingo. I could make a killing selling that to parents everywhere.” She dumped out several of her chips onto the cover of one of my books, arranging them like bingo chips. “B-27! Trying to change your name to something like Nightfall Darkness. I-34! Doing something just because an authority figure told you not to do it!” She picked up two of her chips and shoved them down her mouth.

I was very tempted to discover what Strumming looked like with her mane on fire. If I ever got out of here, maybe I would get a chance to find out. Pity I had no idea how I was supposed to get out of this cell. I didn’t even know how long they were gonna keep me locked up in the embassy before sending me back to Equestria. Or what they’d done to Puzzle and Kukri.

That left me in the midst of a rather unpleasant dilemma. Strumming could probably give me all the answers I wanted, if I asked. But that would mean being at least somewhat diplomatic with her. She might be pretty easygoing whenever I snapped at her, but I was starting to think that was just another plot of hers. She wanted me to realize I was never going to get a rise out of her, so there was no point in trying to provoke a confrontation. Which just made me wonder even more about what her real deal was. I didn’t really know much about Strumming, and the more time I spent around her, the less confident I was about what I did know. How much of what I’d seen was the real Strumming, and how much was just another one of her ploys?

A strange thought struck me. Puzzle and Kukri might be the changelings, but in her own way Strumming might be even more of a shapeshifter. Changelings might alter what they looked like on the outside, but they always remained the same deep down. Strumming might not ever change her face, but I think a lot of who she really was could shift at a moment’s notice if that’s what she felt the job needed. It was a little scary to think about.

Or maybe she was just a weird, goofy spy.

Either way, I needed information, and she was the only pony likely to give me anything. Since intimidating it out of her was a no-go, that left charm. Pity that had never been my strong suit. Still, nothing ventured... “There any more of those chips left?”

Strumming looked me in the eyes, then slowly lifted up her wing and passed the half-full bag of chips to me. “Sure.”

I took the bag, fumbling a bit since my first instinct had been to use magic rather than my hooves. “Thanks.” I didn’t like saying that to her of all ponies, but when you’re trying to turn on the charm, observing the little courtesies is a must. I got to work on the chips themselves, both to buy time to think of what to say next and because Strumming had been right about them being my favorite flavor. Something about that tasty, flavorful burn the vinegar left behind was just so good. Besides, I didn’t eat junk food all that often, and I’d had a pretty stressful day.

Once I’d gotten through half a dozen chips, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to say next. “So what happens from here? You’ve got me locked up in the embassy, but there’s no way you’re gonna keep me here forever, much less Kukri or Puzzle. You hang onto them for too long and somepony’s gonna start asking questions about what happened to them. Questions that’ll eventually lead them here. Sure, you might have diplomatic immunity to keep from getting prosecuted, but I’m pretty sure an EIS agent getting caught red-hooved in an illegal kidnapping would still cause an international incident. Maybe a bad enough one that your government decides to waive immunity and toss you to the Council as a peace offering.”

Strumming immediately shook her head. “Nah, the EIS never sells its agents off just to score some diplomatic points. I’m not saying we’re all one big happy family, but we stick together whenever danger comes calling.” She opened up the small icebox in my cell and idly poked around in it. “You need better food in here. Anyway, you’re right about wanting to avoid an incident. The whole reason I grabbed them was to make sure they didn’t stir up any trouble on your account. If the Doos and the Council find out about the grab, it’ll cause a whole lot of problems we’ve been trying to avoid. Worse, probably.” She sighed and shook her head. “Of course, we have to let them go eventually. Like you said, we can’t hold onto them forever.”

“But by the time you release them, I’ll be back in Equestria.” Sure, Equestria would have to give the clans and Council something to mollify them, but getting a reduced sugar tariff or whatever was a poor substitute for me. The only way they’d get me back to Equestria was by force, and even if Freeport was crazy enough to start a war over me, they didn’t have anywhere close to enough strength to win it. The Council would just have to give up on their plans for me.

And I would have to give up on the life I’d been thinking of building in Freeport. I’d get to spend years in a jail cell instead of working my way up the city’s social ladder until I was the first Archmagus of Freeport.

“That’s the plan,” Strumming confirmed. “Cut ‘em loose and send a fruit basket once you touch the dock in Baltimare. Of course, you know what everypony says about plans. I know there are plenty of ponies in the EIS that would just love to pick Puzzle’s brain for a bit. Between its private ventures and what it does for the Council, I bet it could give us a ton of juicy intel. Just the small matter of figuring out how to make it spill its guts.” She paused, a faint frown on her face. “Do changelings actually have guts? Or is it just, I dunno, love-sucking bug parts. Guess it doesn’t matter. The important thing is, we’ll figure out how to make it talk eventually.”

I didn’t like what she was implying. At all. A sudden surge of raw fury boiled up out of my stomach. “If you hurt one hair on its...” I trailed off as I realized the problem with the metaphor, and tried to find some way to salvage it. “One ... one...”

Strumming chuckled and gave me a condescending pat on the head. “Relax, I get it. And I already told you, we don’t hurt ponies or anyone else to make ‘em talk. Puzzle’s a mercenary. Getting it to talk is probably just a matter of pulling out our checkbook, putting down a number, and then adding zeroes on the end until it’s satisfied.” She leaned back on my bed, idly fluffing one of the pillows. “That’s the one thing I’ll give mercenaries over most other ponies: their motives are pure and easy to predict. Compare that to somepony like you—aside from teenage stubbornness, you’re a total wild card. Hay, you don’t know what you’re planning, so how can I ever predict it?”

“You’re wrong about Puzzle,” I growled, glaring at the spy. “It’s not just a mercenary. If all it cared about was money, it would’ve turned me in for the bounty my parents have out on me. And it’s not just helping me because there’s money in it, it’s helping me because it’s my friend.”

Strumming stared at me for a long minute, then moved so fast I barely even saw her act. Next thing I knew, she had me pinned to the bed, and one hoof was running around underneath my mane. I tried to throw her off, but she had one of my forelegs pinned behind my back, my hind legs were dangling in the air over the side of the bed, and my one free limb had no leverage. There was nothing I could do but wait until she was done with whatever it was she was doing.

Eventually she stopped prodding my neck, then slowly nodded to herself and let me go. I immediately tried to slug her in the face, but she swatted my attack aside with bored indifference. I didn’t know much about hoof-to-hoof combat; it had never seemed important when I had my magic. If I ever got out of here, I was gonna fix that. I don’t like being defenseless.

The spy slowly shook her head and sighed. “Well, you didn’t let that thing feed on you, at least. You’re just stupid and naive enough to actually believe that bug is your friend.”

“I am not stupid!” I snarled and slammed my hoof down. “Puzzle’s helped me out time after time and hasn’t asked for anything in return.” Well, anything aside from a share of my profits, but that was fair enough. I could never have gotten to Metal Mome without its help. “You and the EIS keep trying to control me, but Puzzle’s the only one helping me do what I want.”

Strumming put her head in her hooves and groaned. “You know, for somepony who’s supposed to have a genius-level IQ, you’re utterly clueless. Kinda figures, though. I read about this one study that said that smart people are twice as likely to fall for con artists as stupid ones. The thing is, smart folks know they’re so much smarter than everyone else, and always think they can find a way to beat the odds and get something for nothing. Meanwhile, your average idiot has the common sense to know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

She met my eyes, and her gaze hardened. “If you’re so smart, then answer this question for me: do you really think Puzzle Piece became the best fixer in Freeport and one of the Council’s most trusted agents by giving things away for free?” She poked me in the chest hard enough to sting a bit. “When someone who’s ruthless enough to survive and prosper in a cutthroat city like Freeport offers to be your friend and give you all kinds of help without asking for anything in return, you shouldn’t be grateful for your good fortune in meeting such a generous soul. You should be asking yourself ‘What’s the catch?’”

“It’s not like that!” Even to my own ears that protest sounded a bit weak. Much as I hated to admit it, a part of me was afraid Strumming was right. Puzzle had been awfully generous with me, to the point that I was pretty sure it was losing money despite what I was paying it. It probably could have earned more money doing something else. At the time I’d told myself that maybe Puzzle just didn’t care about its profit margins, that it enjoyed helping me out enough to take the loss. Plus, it probably saw the value of establishing a good working relationship with a mare of my talents and abilities. But what if Strumming was right? What if there was more to it than that?

Strumming got up and started pacing back and forth around the room. “Lemme paint a picture for you. Don’t interrupt until I’m done—I’m telling a story, and I don’t want you breaking up my narrative flow. So, a young mare shows up in Freeport. She’s lost, alone, and really needs somepony to give her some guidance. She’s also got a ton of raw magical talent, plus a decade of being tutored by Princess Celestia herself. In other words, she’d be a great asset for the Council.

“Getting in touch with her is simple enough, especially since you lucked out and had an agent on the boat with her. Thanks to this agent, you know that the young mare is running low on cash, so offering her a job shouldn’t be that hard. However, there’s no guarantee she’ll stick around once she’s filled her wallet back up. Especially when the Council knows that a lot of its jobs are going to be morally questionable. Sure, they can always just offer more money, but even the Council only has so much of that. Then there’s the problem of Equestria.

“See, Equestria wants this young mare back too. Once the mare’s got enough cash to be comfortable, maybe she starts getting homesick. Maybe she misses her parents, her friends, or her old teacher. Maybe she decides to go home. And maybe once she goes home, she stays. Or maybe the Council’s worried that if they send her out on a mission that could hurt Equestrian interests, she’ll decide that she loves her old homeland more than Freeport. It’s not enough to just pay this young mare—you’ve gotta cut those ties to her old home, or at least do something to bind her a lot more closely to Freeport. Otherwise, there’ll always be that open question about where her loyalties truly lie.

“So, let’s say we’re the Council. We want to bind this young mare to our cause and sever her ties with her old homeland. What’s the best way to do that? Sure, we could have a changeling feed on her and bind her mind, but that’s way too risky. A mage of her talents might be able to break free of any binding, not to mention mind control ruins all that drive and creativity that makes her such an asset. Even if she doesn’t break the binding on her own, the EIS is watching and might help her out. If you get caught, she won’t just go back to Equestria, she’ll probably turn completely hostile to Freeport out of spite. So you need something subtler. Less risky.

“Start off by making sure she has friends in Freeport. That’ll give her a connection to the city that she’ll be reluctant to leave behind. It’s a good opening move, but it’s not enough. Friendship is nice and all, but a couple changelings this young mare has known for a few weeks can’t really compete with her family. So you’ve got to find some way to cut that tie.

“And that’s when Freeport’s best fixer implements a wonderfully devilish plan: get her to cross some lines, and she won’t be able to go home anymore. Hay, if the EIS’s Freeport station chief is an idiot, he might even order this young mare’s arrest. Turn her into a criminal in her old homeland, and she’d be dependent on the Council to offer her sanctuary in Freeport. It’s a good plan; you just need to find a way to give her that push.

“That’s when the fixer puts all the pieces of this little puzzle together. A little kid who the idealistic young mare would naturally feel compelled to protect. A dangerous, ruthless pirate who would be incredibly difficult to kill with conventional magic, but has a specific vulnerability to the right kind of dark magic. And a powerful young unicorn who’s just arrogant enough to get herself in a situation where she needs an escape clause, and good enough at rationalizing doing bad things that she’ll compromise her principles in the right circumstances. Then just apply heat and pressure, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for her to use dark magic. From there, everything falls perfectly into place.” Strumming gave me a cold, bitter smile. “Checkmate.”

I took a step back and shook my head, my hooves wobbling underneath me. “No. No, that’s wrong. That can’t be right. You’re saying Puzzle set me up? That the entire fight with Metal Mome was just part of some elaborate scheme to trick me into using dark magic?”

“Yeah,” Strumming confirmed, flopping back down on the bed and stretching out. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. You got played like a harp.”

“You’re wrong.” I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. “That’s insane! There’s no way Puzzle could set up a plan that complicated. There are just too many moving parts to make it all work out so flawlessly. Nobody can make a plan that flawless.There’s no way it could perfectly predict what everypony would do weeks in advance. It’s impossible. Puzzle didn’t set me up!”

Even as I said that, a troubling thought wormed its way into the back of my mind. When Puzzle had briefed me on Metal Mome, it had casually mentioned that attacking his mind would be one of the best ways to take him down. It hadn’t pushed me on the subject or urged me to use dark magic, it had just dropped a little hint that mind control could fix my problem. Planted that seed, and waited to see what would come of it.

No, that was just a coincidence. Strumming couldn’t be right ... could she?

“I want to see Puzzle,” I demanded, glowering at the door. “You put together a nice little hypothetical, but I wanna hear its side of the story. Your whole conspiracy theory is way too complicated, and you’re a liar. I’d have to be a moron to take you at your word.”

Strumming sighed and shook her head. “Sorry, no can do. It’s policy to keep changeling prisoners in isolation. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that bugs with shapeshifting and mind control powers can cause way too much trouble if you let them have visitors. Especially one that’s as sneaky and underhooved as Puzzle Piece. Be a shame to let it escape after all the trouble I went to arresting it in the first place.”

“But I need to see him.” I hated being so ... so helpless and confused. I didn’t even know what to believe any more. No matter how much I tried to tell myself that Strumming’s theory made no sense and couldn’t possibly be true, I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be on to something. Maybe it was weak of me, but I needed to hear Puzzle tell me that none of it was true. Locked up in here, alone with only Strumming to listen to, it was starting to seem almost plausible.

Strumming trotted up next to me and put a wing over my back. “Hey, it’s alright, Sunset. Puzzle Piece is a master manipulator. You’re not the first mare it’s fooled. Probably won’t be the last one, either. That’s how changelings work, whether they’re part of Chrysalis’s hive or not. It’s all secrets and lies with them.” She gave me a comforting squeeze with her wing. “That’s why I told my station chief not to arrest you. You’re not one of the bad ponies—you just got played and wound up in a bad situation. It’s not your fault. With how Puzzle set things up, you were in a no-win scenario. I’ll tell them all that at your trial, and with any luck you’ll be cleared of all charges. I might even recommend that Princess Celestia take you back as her student.”

That offer caught me by surprise. Did I really want to go back to being Celestia’s student again? I’d left her for good reasons. But at the same time, I missed her. The idea of just turning back the clock, and letting everything go back to the way it used to be, before all the trouble had started between us ... I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that. Those years living in my student’s tower and learning alongside Celestia were the best of my life. The idea of getting it all back was pretty damn appealing.

Too appealing. “What was it you just said to me a while ago, Strumming? If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is? Well, going back to Equestria and getting instant forgiveness and reverting everything back to exactly how it was before I left sounds way too good to be true. So what’s the catch?”

“The catch.” Strumming sighed and shook her head. “I liked you better when you were naive and gullible. Probably shouldn’t have put so much effort into opening your eyes.” She took back her bag of chips, which I’d all but forgotten about, and finished off what was left. “You’re right, of course. Things can’t go exactly back to the way they were before. You’ve used dark magic, even if it was justified. There’ll be restrictions on what you can do, which books you can read, who you can talk to, and anything else Princess Celestia thinks might be a bad influence. Plus somepony from EIS keeping an eye on you to make sure you stick to all those rules.” She paused to pour herself a glass of water to wash down the last of the chips. “I guess you could say you’d pretty much be on probation. Do good, and you’d gradually get your freedom back.”

“How long would it take?” I asked.

Strumming shrugged. “That’s up to Celestia. Seems safe to assume those restrictions would last until she doesn’t think they’re necessary anymore.”

I scoffed incredulously. “So what you’re actually offering me isn’t my freedom so much as indefinite imprisonment. Why should I accept being stuck a gilded cage for the rest of my life?”

Strumming’s casual, easy smile disappeared, giving me a glimpse of something rock-hard and uncompromising. “Because your alternatives are a much less pleasant cage or a reform spell. You voluntarily used black magic to destroy the mind of another sentient being. That’s tantamount to murder. The penalty for that is pretty harsh.”

“Murder?” I could scarcely believe my ears. “You have to be kidding! How can it be murder? I was defending myself and everypony else on the Venture from him.”

“You’d have a fair point, if it really was a pure case of self-defense.” Strumming’s eyes narrowed. “But that’s not what happened. You hunted him down, planned out exactly how you’d lure him into a trap, and then sprang the trap. You never would’ve been in danger in the first place if you hadn’t decided to actively go after the guy. You created the situation that lead to your need to defend the Venture.”

“I was hunting a legitimate bounty offered by the government of Freeport,” I countered.

Strumming rolled her eyes. “No offense, but saying you were an assassin-for-hire working for a notoriously unscrupulous foreign power isn’t gonna make your case any better. Just come home quietly, put yourself under Celestia’s supervision, and this’ll all be over.”

I finally figured out exactly what she was driving at. “It wouldn’t be over. You said when you arrested me that I’d have to go on trial for using black magic. The only way to avoid that would be to make some sort of deal. That’s what you want me to do, isn’t it?” All this talk, everything she’d said, was all just to get me to a place where I’d take what she was offering.

“Guilty as charged.” A faintly mocking smirk crossed her face. “Which, incidentally, are words you’re likely to hear if you insist on having a trial. Any prosecutor worth the name is gonna say that muddies the waters enough that you shouldn’t get off free. Might be the jury will agree with them. That’s why we’re offering you this deal now. You get to keep most of your freedom, while we get to make sure you being free isn’t dangerous.”

“And Celestia gets to avoid the public embarrassment of having her student put on trial for using black magic,” I shot right back. The mere idea of it made me sick to my stomach, and I could feel the fury pulsing through my veins. “No. You can take your deal, and you can shove it right up your plot. Everything I did was right, and I’m not gonna say otherwise just so you’ll go easy on me. So bring on the trial. I’m not gonna say I did something wrong just to spare Celestia a little bad press. She’s an immortal princess of Equestria; she’ll get over it.” My eyes narrowed as another thought occurred to me. “Besides, I’m pretty sure spies can’t offer plea bargains in criminal prosecutions.”

“Not officially,” Strumming conceded, “but part of being a spy is doing a lot of things unofficially. Figured you’d know that by now. Nopony can offer an official deal until there are official charges, and at that point it’s a bit too late to avoid all that public attention you were talking about.” She paused and pursed her lips, idly tapping a wing on the bedsheets. “Speaking of which, I should point out that getting a bunch of publicity isn’t exactly gonna do you any favors either. Even if you win your trial, you’ll still be a self-confessed black magic user. That’s not gonna leave you in the best of positions. It’s pretty obvious you wanna make archmagus some day, and warlocks generally don’t get to do that.”

“Whatever.” I really didn’t care about my job prospects or my reputation anyway. Even if some ponies were scared off by my supposed crimes, plenty of others would recognize my superior abilities. Really, all the trial would do is weed out gullible morons who believed everything they heard without thinking for themselves, and I didn’t want anything to do with those types anyway. One of the downsides of being Celestia’s student had always been all those fools who wanted to be around me just because they thought being friends with somepony close to Celestia could get them something. If having a bad reputation made all of them go away, I’d count myself a winner.

I turned my back on Strumming, facing the wall. “I don’t care if it’s an official deal or an unofficial one, I’m not taking it.” I’m sure Strumming would say I was just showing some stubborn teenage pride, but I didn’t care what she thought of me.

Strumming sighed and slowly got up, heading towards the door. “Yeah, you’re gonna go for the whole ‘Fight to prove to the world that you’re right and it’s everypony else who’s wrong’ thing. That’s B-2 on my teenager cliche bingo card, by the way.” She opened up the door, but paused in the doorway. “For what it’s worth, I understand how you feel. Doesn’t make it any less stupid, but I understand it. I’m only four years past being a teenager myself, so I remember what it’s like.” She stepped out and locked the door behind her.

Then I was alone again.

I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. It’s not that I wasn’t tired. Hay, I was exhausted after everything I’d been through. I hadn’t fully recovered from fight with Mome, and tossing in all the stress of getting arrested wore me out even more. But despite how tired I was, I couldn’t actually sleep.

It was all Strumming’s fault. She’d kicked my legs out from under me. I didn’t know what to believe in anymore. Sure, her whole story about how Puzzle had set me up seemed way too elaborate and complicated to be plausible, but I couldn’t prove it wasn’t true. And while I knew it was logically impossible to prove a negative, that didn’t stop me from worrying.

After all, Puzzle did work for the Council. If they ordered it to ensure that I stayed loyal to Freeport by whatever means necessary, then it would do exactly that. It probably said something about the changeling that most of my efforts to disprove Strumming’s theory were focused on how the plan itself would be impossible to execute, rather than claiming that Puzzle was incapable of ruthlessly manipulating me if that served its purposes. I’d accepted from the start that Puzzle was probably trying to advance some Council agenda through me, but there was a big difference between putting a pro-Council spin on events and outright betraying me. If Puzzle had stabbed me in the back, there would be a reckoning between me and it.

Of course, all of that rested on the word of Strumming Heartstrings. A mare who was, in her own way, every bit as deceptive and treacherous as she accused Puzzle Piece of being. What exactly Strumming thought or believed always seemed to be in flux, depending on what gave her the best option for tripping me up and getting under my skin—which was probably the entire point with her. Whenever I talked to Strumming I was always off balance, confused, and trying to figure out what I should say or do. All of which made it that much easier for her to mess with my head. Get me to say things I normally wouldn’t, or listen to her more than I should.

So instead of sleeping, I just kept tossing and turning on the bed, trying to work my way through it all. Even though my body and mind were both exhausted, I couldn’t rest with all those thoughts pouring through my head. Every time I tried to slow my brain down it just sped up instead. There were just too many problems, and I couldn’t find solutions to any of them.

Just when I’d closed my eyes and finally gotten comfortable enough that I might actually have a chance of getting some sleep, I heard a voice. It was distant and filtered, kind of like when you’re listening to a record that’s twenty years old and worn out from being played too many times. Despite all the distortion, there was something familiar about the voice. “Sunset? Sunset, can you hear me?”

My ears perked up as I tried to figure out where that voice was coming from. “What? Who is it?” I opened my eyes to try and find where the voice was coming from, and was utterly shocked by what I saw.

I wasn’t in Freeport anymore. I was back in my old tower in Canterlot, lying in my huge and very comfortable feather bed instead of the simple utilitarian mattress of my jail cell. I climbed out of bed, slowly inspecting the room. Everything was exactly the way I remembered it. “What the...? I'm home?”

One of the most wonderful smells in the world drifted up from downstairs: fresh pancakes. A voice accompanied them. “Sunset, are you up? It’s time for breakfast.”

Some part of me was aware that none of this made any sense, but at the moment I didn’t really care. It was enough to be back here, and hear her voice again. “Celestia? Is that you?”

I galloped down to the kitchen, and there she was. However, I don’t think anypony had ever seen the supreme ruler of Equestria quite like this. Instead of her usual royal regalia, she was wearing a frilly pink cooking apron stained with a few bits of pancake batter, with the words ‘World’s Greatest Mom’ embroidered along the front. When she spotted me coming down the stairs, she looked up from the stove and offered me a warm smile. “Of course it’s me. And I thought you were calling me ‘Mom’ now.”

I would’ve had to be a complete idiot not to have figured out what was going on by this point. “None of this is real. I’m just dreaming.” Though at least that meant I’d finally gotten to sleep.

“Perhaps.” Celestia offered me that cryptic, knowing smile I was all too familiar with. “Or perhaps I am using a spell to manifest within your dreams. Or perhaps that is simply what this particular manifestation of your subconscious would say, because you want this to be real. So long as it comforts you, does it really matter?”

I guess in a way it didn’t. I needed Celestia right now, even if the only Celestia available might just be a figment of my imagination. Instead of worrying about whether she was real, I ran up and hugged her. That was real enough for me.

Celestia returned the hug, wrapping her wings around me in a feathery embrace. There’s nothing better than a huge wing for giving hugs, and Celestia has the biggest wings in the world. She looked down at me with a gentle, maternal smile. “My, you must have had a long day.”

I let my head rest against her chest, shaking as I thought over everything I’d been through since arriving in Freeport. “It's been a lot more than just one bad day. It's been a long ... everything. Ever since I left. It's hard.”

Celestia put a hoof to my lips and gently shushed me. “It’s okay, Sunset. Everything is going to be alright. I promise you.” I felt one of her hooves gently stroking along my mane. “How about you tell me all about it?”

A tremble passed down my spine, and I tightened my hug until I was pressing so closely against her that I was practically melded into her coat. Then the whole story started spilling out. Everything I’d been through since I’d left her in Canterlot. All my hopes and fears, friends and enemies. How’d I saved everypony on the Venture, and the crimes I’d had to commit to pull that off. And finally, my current crisis. “... and I don't know what to do now. I thought I had it all figured out, but now...”

The princess looked down at me, a hint of a worried frown on her face. “After everything you’ve been through, it’s no surprise you’re so unsure of yourself.” She let out a pained sigh and gently squeezed me with one of her wings. “I’m afraid I didn’t train you in everything you needed to know to face the challenges ahead of you. I thought we would have more time—that you wouldn’t need to learn some skills so soon. I erred in that, and so many other things, in training you. I am sorry for that.”

“It’s okay, I wasn’t the best student either.” Now that I was a little older and wiser, and had a bit more perspective on things, I was starting to realize just how good my life with Celestia had been. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it beat fighting murderous pirates just to make enough bits to afford food to eat and a roof over my head.

“We’ve both made mistakes.” She met my eyes, letting me see the depth of her sorrow and regret. “Those mistakes are in the past, though. It is time for us to look to the future. I think it might be time for you to come back home. We can deal with everything else once you’re back.”

“Come home?” I blinked and shook my head, instantly wary after what Strumming had tried to pull on me. Celestia wouldn’t do that, though. Not the way Strumming talked about it, at least. She wouldn’t stick me in a gilded cage; instead, she’d probably sit me down and have a long talk with me about what had happened, and we’d decide of what to do together. There was just one problem with that nice image. “But I left you.”

“And home is the place you come back to after you leave, isn’t it?” she answered smoothly. “A place to rest, be safe, and take stock.”

“But ... but I did terrible things.” I thought back to what it had felt like as Metal Mome’s mind crumbled around me, or Silverhorns lying on the deck as blood poured out of his split skull. “I’ve killed. And what I did to Mome was practically murder. Hay, some ponies would say it's even worse than killing him.”

Celestia sighed and pulled me a bit closer to her. “There is a test we sometimes use in my school for gifted unicorns: the no-win scenario. I know I taught you to always look for a better way to solve your problems, but the unfortunate truth is that sometimes circumstances leave us with no good options. Instead of making the right choice, we have to content ourselves with making the one that is least wrong.” The wings holding me slumped down, and a haunted light entered her eyes. “It is something I have faced in the past, and something you faced when you made that decision. I cannot say that what you did to Metal Mome was right, but you saw no other way to save the lives of the innocent ponies on that ship. A mare much like you once told me that sometimes an action can be morally wrong while still being necessary. But that does not make it any less wrong.”

I let my body rest against hers, too weak and fearful to even hold onto her anymore. Celestia was warm, like the sun on a cloudless spring day. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for everything.”

Celestia smiled down at me—not judging or condemning me, just understanding. “It's okay, Sunset, I know you are. We all make mistakes. What is important now is how we deal with them. Falling into despair and lamenting what you should have done differently will not help anypony. Least of all yourself. You must move forward. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it, and let that knowledge guide us in the future.”

I hesitantly nodded, then took a deep breath, steeled myself, and gave a second, much firmer nod. “Yeah. Lying in bed moping about how unfair it all is or blaming myself for all the things that I would’ve done differently with the benefit of hindsight won't accomplish anything. If I want to do anything about my life, I’ve gotta get up and do something with myself.”

“Exactly.” She put a cautioning hoof on my shoulder. “Just make sure that the next thing you do is the right thing. Your actions have consequences. Your heart is already troubled; I do not want to see you hurt yourself again by making another mistake.”

“Yeah. Do the right thing.” I let my cheek rest against her hoof. “That's what I've always tried to do. The tricky part is figuring out what the right thing is. Everypony has their own ideas, and my own judgment isn’t always the best at that kind of thing.”

Celestia let out a soft, rueful chuckle. “Making the right decision is often difficult. I have not always managed it myself, so I can hardly demand perfection from you. But at least you are trying. It means so much to me, just to hear you say that.”

The nicer she was about the whole situation, the worse I felt about what I’d done. If she’d gotten mad or told me I’d been terrible, I could’ve dug my hooves in and insisted that I was right. Instead, she just kept being gentle and understanding. My ears drooped, and I couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. Instead, I started intensely studying the floor. “I guess you must be really mad at me after everything that happened in Freeport. Or disappointed. Both, probably.”

Celestia gently tipped my head up so she could look me in the eye. She held my gaze for a long time; I’m not sure what exactly she was looking for, but I guess she must have found it. “If I gave up on every pony that made a mistake or disappointed me, then I would have given up on all of ponykind a long time ago.” Her voice shifted, her tone falling into a cadence I remembered from every time she lectured me. “We all make mistakes. It is part of living. It is through our mistakes that we learn and grow. What is important is what we take from those mistakes. Do we repeat them? Grow bitter and resentful? Or do we seek to improve ourselves, to absorb these painful lessons and become better ponies in the future?”

I’d already made my decision, but I repeated it anyway, if only to reassure myself of it. “Being a better pony sounds good.” I let out a frustrated grumble and kicked at the floor. “Again though, the tricky part is figuring out how to do that.”

Celestia shifted around a bit, breaking the hug while still keeping one of her wings supportively wrapped over my shoulders. It felt like what I needed right now, in a strange way. I didn’t need some all-encompassing hug anymore, I was strong enough to stand on my own four hooves. But a little bit extra support sounded just right. “You must do what your heart and mind tell you is right,” Celestia told me. “Both for you, and those around you.”

I know she was trying to help, but her answer just got a sad chuckle out of me. “It always sounds so simple when you put it like that. But what if my head and my heart are telling me two different things are right? What if neither of them is sure?” I growled as my frustration at the whole situation came boiling up. “I don't know who to trust, or what to believe. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying to me. It's hard to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing when I can't even sort out the basic facts.”

Celestia remained at my side, her voice brimming with understanding and empathy. “I know exactly how you feel, Sunset. Believe it or not, I have faced a few dilemmas of my own. Perhaps you need a new perspective? Sometimes it can be hard to see the problem you're dealing with when you're buried up to your neck in it.”

“Yeah, that's exactly what I need!” For the first time since this talk had started, I felt a bit optimistic about my future. At least I had a something solid I could do instead of floundering about trying to find the truth in my heart or something. “I need a second opinion. Somepony I can trust to listen to whole story, and then just tell me what they think.” I paused, and shot a self-conscious look at Celestia. “Well, somepony else. I already told you, but...”

“You need somepony besides me,” she finished the thought with a knowing smile. “I understand completely. I hardly qualify as an objective third party. That was why I wanted you to make friends, Sunset—so that you would have other ponies around you. Ponies you could trust and talk to when I wasn’t available, or when you needed to talk to someone about things you couldn’t discuss with me.”

“Yeah, I know.” Of its own volition, my mind went back to the night I’d left her. I quickly shoved the memory aside. It wasn’t going to do me any good right now. “But now your agents are telling me that the closest thing I have to friends in Freeport have been deceiving me from the moment I met them. If Strumming is right ... well, that’s it for my first try at making friends.”

Celestia closed her eyes and took deep breath, then let out a long sigh. “You shouldn’t let one or two failures persuade you to give up on ever having friends. However, perhaps you haven’t chosen the best place to do it. Freeport has long been a troubled city and nation. The Council does not aspire to harmony or wish for a peaceful nation.” A haunted look crossed her eyes. “The Council was young and idealistic, once. Some of its members still are. However, they have spent too long accepting the lesser evils of Freeport—telling themselves that they had to ignore poverty or inequality because there were other, greater evils to be fought. In so doing, they have taken some measure of that evil into themselves as well.”

She suddenly fixed me with a piercing gaze. “That is the true danger of dark magic, Sunset. Not only does it bear terrible consequences for those it is used upon, it corrupts the soul of the pony who uses it as well. Not by twisting your thoughts or forcing you to do evil, though some artifacts can do precisely that.” Celestia’s gaze dipped down to the floor. “No, what dark magic does is far more insidious. It carries no special taint; merely the same corruption all power offers once it is abused. The warlock who routinely violates minds will tell herself she has a right to possess other’s secrets. The warlock who murders will tell herself she has a right to decide who should live and who should die.” She frowned and solemnly shook her head. “Nopony has the right to do such a thing. While there may be cases where grim necessity requires such choices, that power is never something anyone is entitled to. Not even me.”

Well, that had been a sobering lecture. I stood there, not quite sure what to say in response.  It was something a lot more in-depth than the lessons I’d gotten on the subject in the past. Usually, the moral discussion of dark magic basically boiled down to ‘dark magic is bad, and if you use it then you’re bad too.’ What Celestia had given me this time was a bit less of a stock lesson and more of an explanation. I liked her version a lot better.

Before I could come up with a way to put everything I was thinking about into words, Celestia’s ears perked up, and I could hear the pancakes sizzling. “Oh, we’ve been talking so much I forgot all about the food.” She quickly ushered me over to the breakfast table, then got to work on flipping the pancakes.

“Why haven't you ever tried to fix it?” I hadn’t planned on asking the question at all, but somehow it had still come out of my mouth. “Freeport, that is. If you think there’s something really wrong with the Council...”

Celestia took her time answering, flipping over the rest of the pancakes first. “A few reasons. For one, I have not been asked to. At least not officially.”

That didn’t sound right at all. “So you only fix what's wrong with the world if someone officially asks you to?”

Celestia softly chuckled to herself. “Ah, the idealism of youth. Reforming an entire society is a bit more complicated than just deciding it’s the right thing to do. If I were to truly change Freeport, it would have to want to be reformed. Otherwise, I would have little hope of enforcing any of my desires without sending in an army to occupy the islands.” She frowned down at the pancakes. “After forcibly invading the isles, I rather doubt the locals would think well of me or my planned reforms. I would be dealing with a far-off territory constantly rebelling against me in the hopes of regaining its independence and returning to its old ways.”

“Not to mention the gryphons and zebras wouldn't want you taking over the city.” I sighed and ran a hoof down my face. “I guess I should’ve known there was a reason. It's always more complicated than it looks.”

“Such is my experience in life, and if you’ll forgive me for saying so, I have quite a bit more of it than you.” Now that she was done with the pancakes for the moment, she shifted her attention to chopping up peppers. “The unfortunate truth is that usually by the time a problem comes to my attention, all the easy solutions have already been attempted. Intelligent beings are usually quite good at solving easy problems without any outside help.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I slumped down, resting my chin on the kitchen table. “Still, even if there isn’t an easy solution, Freeport still has problems. When there’s a problem, somepony should do something to fix it.”

“In an ideal world, yes.” Celestia pulled some eggs out of the icebox and started cracking them open. “But it is easy to say somepony else should act. I fear that actually taking up the cause is a long and hard road for anypony, and one none have yet succeeded at.”

I snorted at her answer. “Figures. Everypony would rather just pretend the problem doesn’t exist, ‘cause that’s a lot easier than actually fixing it. Except nopony ever accomplished anything great by doing things the easy way. The whole reason ponies respect heroes and geniuses is because they do things that are too hard or dangerous for anypony else to manage.”

“Perhaps that’s true,” Celestia agreed while transferring the peppers to the pan. “Though I have found that sometimes ordinary ponies can perform extraordinary acts when the occasion calls for it. In any case, power and responsibility are heavy burdens. I do not sit on my throne because I find it enjoyable.”

My eyes went wide as something clicked into place for me. “Yeah. And if somepony ever wanted to earn the right to sit at your side, they couldn't get there by taking the easy way either, could they? They’d have to do something hard. Really hard.”

Celestia frowned while she added the eggs to the peppers, presumably to make my favorite type of omelet. “Yes, I suppose that is true. There are reasons I tried to prepare you for all the challenges I expected you to face in the world. It would seem I failed in some aspects, but once you return to Equestria, I will correct that. By the time we are finished, you will be ready to face any trials that await you.” She flipped the omelet. “Perhaps that was why you needed to leave. So we could both realize how much more you still had to learn.”

No. She was wrong about that. I knew why I’d left her, and it wasn’t so I could come back a few months later after I’d learned my lesson. “I think I've got it figured out now.”

Celestia scooped the finished omelet onto a plate alongside three pancakes, then set the plate down on the table in front of me. A second later she poured raspberry syrup all over the pancakes, just the way I liked it. “Is that so? Do share your answer, then.”

I’ll admit that my mouth was watering a bit as I looked down at that freshly made breakfast, but I didn’t want to pig out just yet. At the very least, I owed Celestia an answer first. “Maybe you can't fix Freeport. Not with everything else you have going on. But I can.”

One of Celestia’s eyebrows quirked up at my declaration. “Well, I see your recent troubles have left your ambition undiminished. Do you think you can do that?”

My answer was somewhat muffled on account of pancake. “Maybe.” I swallowed and stiffened my back. “Yes. I can. And I will.”

Celestia turned her searching gaze on me once more, “This will be a long and hard task. Freeport is a deeply troubled city. The Council rules by maintaining a careful balance of power between many hostile factions while also balancing against the great nations of the world. It is plagued with inequality, suspicion, and hatred—and it is not kind to the gentle-hearted.”

“My heart's not as gentle as it used to be.” Although I wouldn’t have called myself gentle-hearted for a long time, the fight with Mome had definitely hardened my heart a bit more. Life-and-death struggles will do that. “And didn't we just say that a pony doesn't earn a throne by doing something quick and easy?”

Celestia worried at her lower lip, and I could plainly hear the reluctance in her voice. “That is true. But are you sure this what you want? And even if you want this task, you should at least come home for a time. We can discuss strategies, complete your training, and I can help you obtain the resources you need. And ... I miss you. Come home, Sunset.”

I was tempted. I’d have to be insane not to be tempted. But in the end, I knew I couldn’t take the offer. Not because I was afraid Celestia would put me on trial or keep me under guard until she was sure I’d reformed. No, if I went back home I might not ever leave again. I missed Celestia, too. I missed her every day. It had nearly broken me to leave her once. Trying to do that again ... I don’t think I was strong enough to manage it. Not yet.

I closed my eyes and concentrated. When I opened them again, we were in the central market of Freeport instead of back at my old tower in Canterlot. “I am home.”

Alright, maybe that was a touch overdramatic. Freeport didn’t have the same feeling of home that Canterlot did. I’d lived in Canterlot for all but the last few months of my life. I’d been in Freeport for less than two weeks. Hay, I’d spent more time on the Venture than I had in Freeport. But if I was going to make cleaning up this city my mission in life then it was gonna have to be home from now on.

Celestia closed her eyes and lowered her head. “Is that really what you want?”

I licked my lips. “Yeah. It is.”

She was silent for a long time, then reluctantly shook her head. “No, Sunset. I can’t let you do that. Not like this. If you want to return to Freeport some day I would be more than happy to help you, but only after you come back to Equestria and finish your training. You’re not ready to face Freeport. Not yet. But I can help you.” Her voice shifted from iron determination to a quiet, desperate plea. “Just come home.”

“I will come back to Equestria,” I promised her. “I'll come back after I’ve cleaned up Freeport, and I’ll have a nice set of wings to show you.”

Celestia sighed and patiently shook her head. “Sunset, have you forgotten where you are? You’re in the middle of an EIS detention facility. Tomorrow they’re going to carry you to the docks under heavy guard and put you on a ship heading back to Equestria. I want you to come home of your own free will, but make no mistake, you will come home.” She drew herself up to her full height, towering over me. “Do not think that I will spare you from the consequences of your actions just because I understand you faced difficult circumstances. You must face those consequences and learn to avoid such situations in the future. I will help you with that. No matter what you do, no matter how far you fall, I will always help you find your way back to the light. But just like with Freeport, I can’t save you if you don’t want to be saved.”

“You’re not going to change my mind.” I stood up and tried to match Celestia's height as best I could, though it made me feel like a kid standing up on the tips of her hooves. “If the EIS is going to force me back to Equestria, then I just need to escape from them before they load me onto that ship. Then come up with a master plan to reform an institutionally corrupt city. If you really want to help me, then order the EIS to let me go.”

Celestia frowned. “I think you’ve forgotten that this might be nothing but a dream. If I’m a figment of your own subconscious, then I can hardly issue orders. And if I’m the real Celestia, I couldn’t order the release of my beloved student, who so desperately needs my help right now.”

“Oh well.” Even putting aside the question of whether I was speaking to Celestia or a mere dream, I hadn’t really expected that to work. “For your sake, I'll try not to hurt anypony when I escape. They might not give me any choice, though.”

Her frown deepened. “My servants in the Equestrian Intelligence Service are following my orders. They have dedicated their lives to protecting Equestria and everypony who lives there. If you use dark magic against any of them, I will personally return you to Equestria. By force, if you leave me no other choice.”

“Is that so?” I stubbornly set my hooves on the ground. “Well, I'm trying to do the right thing too. For myself, for Freeport, and for everyone else. When I left Canterlot, you said you would let me follow my own path. Make my own decisions. Well, do that. If you don’t want to risk me hurting your servants, don’t put them in my way.”

Celestia’s expression hardened. “This is madness, Sunset. You cannot stand against Equestria and Freeport all by yourself. It’s more than any single mare could do. Even I could not change the world all by myself.”

“And what better way to earn my wings than by doing something you can’t do?” I shot right back. “You’re right, though. I can’t do this on my own. I’ll need to gather allies and supporters.” I paused and twisted the knife just a little bit. “And friends. Kukri and Puzzle are a good place to start. As long as I'm pulling a jailbreak, I might as well go all the way.”

“Didn’t you tell me earlier that you were uncertain of their loyalties?”

“I was,” I confessed. “Maybe I still am, a little bit. But right now they want to keep me out of Equestria and away from the EIS. That’s what I want too. That at least gives us a little bit of common ground to work with. Besides, it’s not like I have enough potential allies that I can afford to be picky. If they did betray me, I’ll deal with them at some point too.”

“Will you violate their minds to find out the truth?” she challenged.

“No,” I immediately answered. The thought of doing that to Kukri sickened me. “I thought you wanted me to have friends. Well, the first step in friendship is trust. I’m sure she’d say I’m being naive, but I don’t trust Strumming Heartstrings. I trust Puzzle and Kukri.”

“And if you made the wrong choice?”

“Then I’ll have to live with it.” I sighed, took a deep breath, and tried to purge myself of any of that lingering anger. “Look—whatever happens, you’re still important to me. Don’t think I stopped caring just because I might have to smack half a dozen of your agents silly to keep from coming home to you. And thanks for the talk, Mom.”

Celestia regarded me levelly for several long seconds, then gave a barely perceptible nod. “Whenever you need help or guidance, you can always turn to me. You will always be precious to me. Whatever comes to pass. And I will never give up on you.”

I hesitated a moment before putting my fears to voice. “Never? Even if you end up having to fly all the way out to Freeport and have a magic duel with me?”

She answered me with a sad smile. “Doesn’t the fact that I’m willing to go that far for you just prove that I haven’t given up?”

I took half a step towards her. “I’m not ... I’m not a bad pony, right?”

“No. You’re not.” She closed the gap and pulled me into one last hug. “Be safe, and please don’t make me come after you.”

I hugged her back, but it wasn’t the same anymore. “I’ll be as safe as anypony can be in Freeport.” That didn’t sound nearly as reassuring as I hoped it would be. I might not have lived in the city for very long, but I had picked up on very important fact.

Nopony was safe in Freeport.