Love and Other Acquired Tastes
The cardboard roof caved in, and the little filly spluttered as cold rainwater drenched her. She tried to hold the box up with her hooves, but the wet cardboard spalled off in ragged chunks and then her home fell apart entirely. She was now entirely open to the unfriendly sky, and her coat and mane were sodden through in seconds. She tried to bunch up, huddle to gain some warmth but she couldn't. The wind was too fierce. She hugged herself with her forehooves and scuttled closer to the wall. It was damp and cold, and the bricks bit into her back uncomfortably, but the eaves of the building provided some small protection. Not enough. She sniffled.
The cup in front of her was nearly empty. When she first started yesterday a few ponies tossed a bit or two, but that quickly stopped. She hadn't seen anyone so much as approach her since. They even crossed the street to avoid her. All those rich-looking ponies in their well-made suits, and not a bit to spare. She could tell they were... afraid. Why?
She heard the clip-clop-splash of someone approaching through the abandoned rain-soaked streets. She looked up, and saw—blurrily through the mixed tears and rainwater—a gray shape coming closer. She blinked furiously, and her vision cleared well enough for her to see a short, broad-shouldered, pudgy little pony with a grey coat and a dark mane. He appeared to ignore the rainstorm with equanimity. He wore not a scrap of clothing—just a rather battered-looking silver necklace—and the rainwater drained from his thick coat in streams. He didn't seem to mind. She allowed herself a glimmer of hope, and looked hopefully at her cup.
He passed her by.
Her ears drooped, and then perked up again when she heard his steps pause. He came back and gave her a look. To her surprise he sat right next to her, splashing into a puddle. He did not seem to mind that either. He extracted a thermos from his saddlebags that looked as if it had been in half-a-dozen wars—and on the losing side, too—unscrewed the top which was patterned in peeling gold suns, and poured something fragrant and warm into it.
"Tea, miss," he rumbled offering her the cup, "it'll keep the chill out?"
She shook her head minutely and he shrugged and took a sip himself.
"Suit yourself, miss. There's more if you change your mind."
They sat like that in silence for a few moments while the strange stallion sipped his tea.
"Twenty billion, six hundred and eighty million, ninety three thousand, eight hundred and three bits," he said at length.
That... wasn't what she expected to hear. She just looked at him, eyes wide.
"The budget," he said, waving his arm vaguely, "of Foal Protective Services. That's your orphanages, foster family support, agents, psychologists, administration, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Quite a bundle as you may imagine. I should know. I make sure it passes muster every damned year. Pardon my language, miss. Still. The House passes it. Well, they do if they know what good for 'em."
She kept silent. She hardly knew what else to say.
"It's a big responsibility, you understand. The Princesses rule with a light touch, but on this score the rule was ever the same. No exceptions, no excuses, nothing. Nopony gets left out in the cold. No matter the price. Not ever."
He took a swig of tea and continued.
"Now, we're just ponies. Mortal, fallible, all that. We make mistakes. And it is possible that somewhere in the hinterlands there's somepony who got forgotten. Somepony hungry. Somepony alone. I hope there isn't, but there's no way of knowing. But in Canterlot? The center of Canterlot? Leaning on the Ministry of Equine Services building?"
The strange stallion's horn flashed a muted grey, and she felt a prickling all over her... carapace.
"What I'm really trying to say," said Dotted Line turning to the changeling beside him, "is... there's six snipers covering us right now. Any last words?"
Seeker Of Hidden Places 27 swallowed.
Changelings could do more than just sense the emotions of ponies. They could taste the emotional tenor of places. This, Seeker decided, was not a friendly room. It was small, neat, windowless, and—as she could sense based on the sense of tenseness in the stones—heavily warded. There was a mirror, too, and behind it... darkness? Night? The Moon? Madness. This place was thick with magic.
She looked across the scuffed desk at the pony who discovered her. She tried to probe his mind a bit more directly, but she got nowhere. In a world alive with emotion, he was a blank space. A void. Shackled as she was, and trapped as she was, that made her worried most of all. What was he? Even inanimate objects had some emotional resonance.
"What are you," he asked.
"I... I'm a Changeling."
"Changeling drones can't speak. They can't venture far from the Queen. Obviously you can."
"I'm, uh, I'm Seeker caste."
There was a silence.
"I see. Who are you here to kill?"
"Please cooperate. We do not wish you harm, but we need to protect ourselves. Who were you sent to kill?"
"I wasn't sent. I... ran."
"I ran. From the hive. From... her. I can't... we kept our minds when she took over. The Seekers. She could still order us around and we obeyed but we knew what we were doing. What she made us do. I couldn't. Not anymore. So I ran. I expected to die, honestly. Not get this far. But I did. All the way to the Canterlot. I thought I'd be safe in the shadow of the Sun. But I was so very hungry and so I..."
"You tried to feed off of sympathy?"
"I didn't want to steal someone's love. It was forbidden before... Before the fall. But if they felt sympathy... sorrow... I could survive off that. But it didn't work. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interfere with your ponies, but I was so hungry and... I'm sorry."
There was a drawn out silence.
"I should tell you that you can't lie. Not here. Your mind is being... examined. Normally terribly, terribly illegal, but... Special circumstances. We thought you were an assassin."
"I'm not lying."
The grey pony looked to the side, his eyes unfocused, and expression abstracted, and then nodded to nobody in particular.
"You aren't. I need to leave. Will you... starve if left here alone for a few hours?"
"I—yes. Maybe. I don't know what's keeping me alive right now. It's been... weeks. Maybe a month."
The grey pony looked worried for a second, and then his face set. He reached with his hoof and lifted the silver chain that hung heavily around his neck. Instantly the blank spot was gone. Seeker could sense... guilt. Regret. Sadness. Love. It took every ounce of willpower to leave the love alone. Not hers. Not hers.
"Well," the pony said expectantly, "what are you waiting for?"
"I can't just... we don't steal. We didn't use to—"
"You aren't stealing. I'm giving. What do you need me to do?"
"Just... just think about someone you care about."
It tasted like... no words can explain it. Like a drink of water after a thousand years in the desert. Seeker nearly drowned in it, losing control for a moment. She smelled... a warm hearth. Pancakes. She heard laughter. Violin music. She felt at home. Cared for.
At length she opened her eyes.
"I... I don't feel like I love her any less," said the grey pony whose expression was halfway between apprehensive and confused.
"That's not how it works. I... your daughter?"
"Goddaughter, " the grey pony said, getting up, gathering papers from his desk, "I need to leave now. I've some considerable work to do. I'll be back shortly. Bang on the door if you need anything."
And with that he left. He had put the necklace on and Seeker could no longer tell what he was feeling. Was he... angry? Disgusted? She wasn't as good at expressions as she should have been. It was always easier to just look. Still. She probably bought herself a few more days. Maybe even weeks. By her standards that was a fortune.
She fell into uneasy sleep. She dreamed the same dream that followed her each night: of becoming someone else, forever. Of slipping on the disguise once and for all. This time, however, the dream came true.
The next few months were spent getting used to being someone entirely different. She had disguises before in her life and the twenty-six incarnations that came before had thousands: brief impressions, studious imitations, false identities so involved that the fate of entire realms turned on their deception. This disguise was more difficult than any of those. Unprecedented, even.
"Ah, Seeker! Please, come in."
Ponies kept advising each other to 'just be yourself.' Nonsense, she always thought, as if they had any choice, but she saw it from a new perspective now. Being yourself was difficult.
"Thank you, Dotted. You wanted to see me?"
Luckily, she had help.
The office was—if possible—even more cluttered with paper than usual. She could just barely glimpse Dotted behind a range of paperwork mountains starring intently at a stopwatch and thermometer.
Seeker smiled despite herself—she tried to avoid it, ponies found her smile disconcerting what with the fangs and all—but the ritual always made her grin. Ponies were starting to rub off on her. Or was she always pony-like, and they were just rubbing off the layers of disguises? How did ponies keep track of who they were without a target to impersonate?
"Ah, I'm afraid I don't partake."
"Of course. Of course. Some enjoyment of tea, then?"
"That would be lovely."
Dotted sat on his much-abused office chair, and Seeker perched on what probably was a guest chair, underneath all the papers, folders, scrolls, and books. Dotted sipped tea and she sipped, well. The joy of tea. It tasted... refreshing. Pleasantly astringent. Warm. Ponies had so many ways of enjoying things.
"How are you finding the Behavioral Analysis Unit, then?"
"Very well, thank you. I am surprised, though."
"I thought you'd want me using my... abilities."
"You are. Sensing emotions is a very valuable skill."
"I meant... disguises. Spying."
"Oh. That. Well, I figured you've had your fill of subterfuge, yes?"
"That's very considerate."
"Well... given the circumstances of our meeting... Anyway. You are useful in that capacity as well, you know."
"Yes. I may have leaked that I employ a Changeling Seeker, you see."
"That must have caused... worry."
"Some. Lots of running around in circles. Waving hooves, claws, and other distal limbs. Great fun."
"But was it useful?"
"Well, I must confess my ponies also may have allowed your file to be stolen."
"Yes. The one that says you are an elite spy who can turn into absolutely anything as long as it is not underwater."
"That's... amazingly inaccurate."
"It was a draft version. Typos, you understand. Anyway, as a result Von Clawsewitz is now holding the meetings he thinks I don't yet know about right next to my array of hydrophones."
"Well, at least he's safe from my elite spying abilities."
"Was this why you invited me here?"
"No. Just making conversation. It's about the security for this big royal ruckus in Ponyville."
"Mhm-hm. Technical term. Look, I don't know how to ask this but... do you do weddings?"