• Published 15th Jul 2014
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Manehattan Madness - Ardashir



It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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Prologue: On The Canterlot Limited

Manehattan Madness
by Ardashir

Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria…

Chapter 1

Prologue: On the Canterlot Limited

Brake shoes screeched and steam chuffed under Luna’s moon as the massive Garratt locomotive eased the Canterlot Limited down the long mountain grade from the capital, two pegasi scouting the winding tracks ahead for any obstructions.

In the observation/lounge car at the tail of the train, a statuesque unicorn mare with golden coat and ebon mane selected an empty lounge seat where the car’s glowgem lanterns didn’t quite reach and draped herself across it, tucking her fetlocks under her. Held in her golden aura, the newspapers floated onto the adjacent side table, hiding the inlaid Sun & Moon gameboard.

“Miss?” the mulberry earth pony passenger whinnied as Yellow Jacket levitated one of the papers – yesterday’s Canterlot Sun – before her golden eyes. “Would you like my seat? It’s right under the lamp, if you’re reading.”

“No, I’m quite all right,” she replied in her silken voice. For a moment, her eyes shone golden like those of Luna’s Night Guards. “Moonlight is enough; I have very good night vision.”

On the front-page photo of the Sun, Princess Celestia towered over two non-ponies in a Sun Palace reception hall. To the Alicorn Major’s left stood a young white wolf in diplomatic finery, his tail tucked in lupine unease; to her right, tall and slim as Princess Luna, the not-quite-alicorn shape of a Changeling Queen.

Yellow Jacket remembered that reception in the Snowdrop Room, days ago. The taste of the young wolf’s apprehension – a wolf she’d met once before under far different circumstances – and the fear mixed with morbid curiosity radiating from all those unicorn nobles. And the stupid questions the thoroughbreds put to the Changeling.

Yes, we can turn into anypony, even an alicorn. No, we’re not planning to take over Equestria, that was Chrysalis and her swarm. Yes, we feed on love. No, I won’t become Luna, and not with you. I’ll never be that hungry!

Just like that fool Blueblood, she nickered with a smile. She’d enjoyed tweaking that snob of a unicorn Royal since they’d first met.

Then she got to the photo caption, and her eyes and nostrils flared. WHAT?

The caption identified the wolf as “Ardi, new envoy from the Northern Forest wolf packs” and the not-quite-alicorn/not-quite-insect as “Vespid, Princess Celestia’s tame Changeling Queen.” A chittering growl echoed from her throat.

She looked around to see some nearby ponies eyeing her. She realized what she’d done and thought quickly.

“My apologies,” she said, making sure to insert a hint of a rasp into her usually silken voice. “I have a bit of a cold.” That seemed to satisfy them. The last thing she needed to do now would be to draw attention.

“Fleur! I say, Fleur!” A stallion’s voice called to her from the other end of the car, in a cultured Canterlot accent. Yellow Jacket recognized the voice from the reception, and hissed under her breath as its owner came past the other passengers, pedicured hooves softly thudding against carpet.

“Fleur, love, whatever is the – oh!” She looked up to see a white-coated unicorn stallion in an expensive suit, cerulean mane as perfectly coiffed as those of any Canterlot noble’s, but the apology he spoke sounded far more sincere as he said, “I do beg your pardon. For a moment I thought you were somepony else. Except for your coloration, the resemblance is uncanny.” His eyes flicked down to her flank, a monocle levitating up before the left one. “Even your cutie marks appear similar at a distance, but now I see yours is three wasps in flight, not three lilies.”

“Lady Fleur de Lis, you mean?” she asked, keeping a professional smile on her face as she shivered within. “I’m often told I resemble her. It must be the Saddle Arabian bloodline.” Of course I resemble her; it’s deliberate.

“However, I don’t actually know the mare. My thanks for the complement, however, good sir…” She hesitated, bracing herself as the car leaned and wheel flanges squealed around another curve, then her eyes widened as she connected stallion and name from the reception line. “Lord Fancy Pants?”

“Well, yes,” he said. Leaning close, he added in what she would have called a conspiratorial tone from anypony else, “But please, do keep it quiet, young mare. I’d like to travel without an entourage for once. Fleur and I would appreciate some time to ourselves.”

“I understand,” she whinnied with a smile; inside, she tried to remember what she knew of this unicorn. Fancy Pants. Along with that retired fashion-model wife of his, lead stallion and mare of Canterlot’s smart set. Born a commoner, raised to the peerage by Celestia for his achievements instead of inheriting everything like Blueblood. One of maybe a dozen nobles in Canterlot the Sun Princess found not just trustworthy and honest, but intelligent enough to respect for it.

And if he was that smart, she wanted to avoid him. In Secrecy lies Safety…

A light from the outside and below lit up the interior, casting monstrous moving shadows onto the ceiling. The chuffing of steam drowned out the stallion’s voice for a moment as the train looped under its own tail; for a moment, the smell of coal smoke filled the car.

Yellow Jacket shook herself as she realized that Fancy Pants was still talking to her. “I beg your pardon, but what did you say again?”

“Just wondering why you were going to Manehattan, is all,” the stallion said over the scream of wheel flanges on rails, bracing against the new curve. “Fleur and I are traveling to Manehattan for the Spring Fashion Show. One of the patrons, you know.”

“No, I didn’t…” So much for avoiding him…

“I expect you’ll be there, then?” He paused and then added, “I also doubt there’ll be any trouble with Changelings, either.”

She jerked her head up, golden eyes wide. “H-how do you know I’ll be there?” She bit her tongue. Idiot! Why not tell him the real reason, as well?

He looked at her through his monocle as she recovered.

“Y-yes, I-I’ll be there, thank you, with one of the smaller houses, but… How did you guess?”

He smiled again, and she caught a trace of self-satisfaction from him.

“Well, I didn’t quite guess…”

“Now he gets to brag,” a Fancy-accented mare’s voice added as its owner stepped up to Fancy Pants’ side – the last unicorn Yellow Jacket wanted to see (except maybe for Blueblood), a recolored twin of herself. Tall as Luna, slim and white as Celestia, cascading mane and tail tinged with pinks and lavenders; nude as any Ponyville pony, three Fancy-stylized lilies on her flanks.

Yellow Jacket kept silent, her face impassive, tasting the surge of dual emotions as the one and only Fleur De Lis gave Fancy Pants a quick nuzzle and cheek-nibble before continuing.

“Dear, don’t bore the young lady. Not every pony needs to know about your guessing games.”

“My dear,” Fancy said to his lady, sounding almost hurt, “I don’t guess, and as for a game, well, I have to find some way to keep my wits sharp.”

He turned his muzzle back to Yellow Jacket and continued.

“Your general destination isn’t hard to determine, given that this is the Canterlot Limited to Manehattan. Your specific one I could surmise from the way you’ve been pacing this car, catching sight of yourself in mirrors, and calmly ignoring the attention of some of the more, ahem, fascinated stallions.” He swept his hoof, indicating the other stallions in the car – two earth ponies and one pea-green unicorn – watching the two statuesque mares. Now that she noticed, Yellow Jacket felt her hunger pangs return at the feel of their desire.

Fancy Pants added, “Your build and demeanor is one with which I am very familiar, that of a thoroughbred fashion model.”

Fleur draped her neck over his, rolled purple-lidded eyes.

“You carry yourself with great poise, maintain an awareness of your appearance that suggests concern but not vanity, and are obviously used enough to male notice that it doesn’t register on you unless you’re spoken to directly.” He smiled and levitated a folded newspaper from the side table. “That and you carry a Manehattan newspaper open to the page dealing with the Spring Fashion Show and have circled both the address of the show and a smaller article beside it dealing with the removal of the Changeling Detection lanterns, and seemed quite concerned when you did read it.” He sat back. “From there it became obvious.” Beside him, Fleur swept her tail up to give him a playful swat.

Yellow Jacket looked up at him, stunned more than she let show. Celestia said he was smart, but this!... She gathered her wits and said, “True on all accounts, sir. I’m heading to the show, I’ll be modeling for the House of Rarity, Carousel Boutique, Ponyville.”

“Ah, Rarity. I remember her from the Canterlot Garden Party. So she did make it in! I never doubted she would once her fashions got the recognition they deserved.” Fancy looked honestly pleased to say it. “Oh, my dear, I don't think I got your name?”

“No, and I am afraid I must be going, sir,” she nodded politely, thinking, and you won't be getting it, either. Not my real one, anyway. “I'm Yellow Jacket, from South Side...” At least until “Aunt Luna” donated Blueblood’s estate in the Ravine… “And I'm... new, to being a model. This will be my first time ever in Manehattan itself, really.”

“Really, dear?” Fleur said, undraping from her stallion and stepping forward to take a closer look at her. “You carry yourself very well for somepony new to the profession. But having been down the catwalk myself, I might be able to share, ah, a few pointers on what to expect. The industry can be… rough… on new models. And Manehattan can be a large and confusing city for a new visitor, even one used to Canterlot. Maybe later at dinner, in the dining car?”

“I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble,” Yellow Jacket said, hoping to avoid this, as she rose to her hooves, picking her things up from the side-table with her horn. Her hopes faded as Fleur stepped beside her and spoke.

“Dear, no trouble at all!” Fleur said, her voice mingling concern and amusement. “Fancy and I have no prior engagements, and I think we'd both enjoy helping somepony who'll be working with Rarity. Oh, unless you have something arranged?”

“Not at all,” she found herself saying before she could think about it. Like it or not, she needed some “native guides”, and if these two could help? “It would be my pleasure.”

Fancy Pants walked off past both the mares, presumably headed for the stateroom he shared with Fleur. She followed him, calling back, “It's settled then. Ten-thirty in the dining car. The Limited normally starts serving at ten, after leaving Colton. We'll be expecting you. I’m very much looking forward to our chat.”

“As will I,” the yellow-and-black mare said after them, hoping that would turn out to be the last she'd see of those two. Not bad ponies at all, but the fewer who even might guess what she was about, the better. In Secrecy lies Safety…

The windows beside her went from moonlight to black as they entered another tunnel, the rumble of the wheels echoing through the car as the air went foul with warm damp coal smoke.

Ka-click, ka-clack; ka-click, ka-clack…

Pegasus trackflyers scouting ahead, the Canterlot Limited sped south down the valley from the railhub of Colton – now behind a high-stepping Ten-Wheeler with additional express and mail cars. Almost a furlong forward of the observation/lounge car, Yellow Jacket sat with the two unicorns in the train’s dining car. Now that they were out of the mountains, the train’s acrobatics were over; except for the rumble of wheels vibrating the floor and the rhythm of the rails, they could have been in a Canterlot restaurant.

“Dear,” Fleur said, “Even if you are going to be working as a model, you have to eat something.” Beside her Fancy Pants looked up from his own plate of Cauliflower Restelle with alfalfa soufflé and nodded at his lady’s words. The white mare looked at her own sleek flanks and smiled. “I'm not ashamed to say, one of the reasons I stopped being a clothes horse was so I could have a real meal once in a while. Some models even drug themselves to maintain their figure.”

“Oh, I had something very filling before,” the yellow mare said, horn glowing as she levitated a melon ball from her plate. “Something light will do quite fine for me until I reach Manehattan. I don't wish to be unsuitable for Miss Rarity, after all.”

“My wife is right, young lady,” Fancy said. “You'd do better to have something now. They keep you busy at that show. Between the run-throughs and backstage quick-changes and after-hours events, you may be fortunate to have time to sleep.” He looked ready to say more, but Yellow Jacket waved one forehoof.

“Thank you, but really, I ate quite well before leaving Canterlot.” And you don’t need to know the details. Especially that I’m feeding off the two of you right now. And off that grey-hooded griffin across the aisle whimpering inside over the meatless menu. And those three young stallions with what has to be their mother at the other end of the car who’ve been giving us the eye since we got here…

Since sitting down with the thoroughbred couple, she’d made sure to clamp down on any sign of her unease. She’d noticed how Fancy seemed to catch everything without even trying, and his lady Fleur seemed scarcely less observant. The last thing she wanted was to give them any grounds for suspicion. And the glowgem lamps lighting the dining car like Changeling Detection lanterns didn’t help.

Wanting to change the conversation, she said with a flutter of long-lashed eyes, “Lord Fancy Pants, Lady Fleur De Lis, you were saying something about what I need to know about Manehattan?” Grinning inwardly, she made her golden eyes go wide and said, “Is it a very dangerous town? I've read several magazine articles and columns in the Canterlot papers about the pony and minotaur and Diamond Dog street gangs in parts of the city.”

“Oh, dear lady!” Fancy smiled and snorted. “Many of those tales are either pure fabrication or rather vast exaggerations. Myself, I visited Appleloosa a few years back and was warned by all my friends at Court that if I so much as looked crossly on any local pony, they would call 'Draw!' and I would be attacked in my tracks. And the tales they told of the 'savage buffalo'!” He shook his head. “I found them both to be among the friendliest and politest of beings.” He frowned, and his horn glowed as he brought out a folded paper from a jacket pocket. It unfolded to reveal a small map of Manehattan, with various sections of the city in different colors. “It has its rough neighborhoods; I would not care to wander certain sections of the docks alone, especially after dark. But most of the city is perfectly safe, especially the area around Dressage Hall.”

“Dressage Hall?”

“The site of the Show for the past twenty years,” Fleur answered with a shake of her mane. “On the edge of the Garment District, near Bridleway and Saddleback Center.”

I should have known that, Yellow Jacket thought. But I’ve never been outside Canterlot.

Horn glowing, Fancy Pants slid his platter and glass aside and set the map down between them. She didn't fail to notice his skill. He wasn't on her level, but he used his horn's magic for more than brushing his coat. And his map looked more detailed than her own.

Down the car, the older mare ushered her three sons out the door to the rest of the train; the three young stallions couldn’t take their eyes off the two elegant unicorn mares. Yellow Jacket gave them a send-off, fluttering her long lashes and caressing her flank with a sweep of her tail, drinking in their flared-nostril reaction.

“Does something catch your attention, my dear?”

“Oh!” Yellow Jacket looked back to see both Fancy and Fleur watching her with curiosity. “I was just looking for where the show will be held, the theater district, and the, ah,” what do the ponies call it again? “The island with the 'amusement park'?”

“Pony Island,” Fleur whickered.

“Want to try and take it all in one trip?” Fancy said with a chuckle. “That may be difficult if you'll be at the show, provided they still do their usual morning and evening schedule.”

“Especially if Prim Hemline is still running the show operations.” Fleur rolled her eyes. “That mare could teach griffins about intimidation.”

Both mares looked up to see Fancy with one eyebrow raised behind his monocle in a rather obvious may-I-continue? “Oh, dear, forgive my interruption.” Fleur smiled when she said it, glanced at Yellow Jacket. “You really should forgive him, these young stallions can get so impatient.” The yellow mare could feel the little spike of love between them. This must be an old game with these two. Not that I’m complaining.

“Of course,” Fancy said with a slightly crooked smile. “I bow to your superior knowledge of the industry, dear. But then, an older mare would know these things.” Fleur's ear flicked back in mock annoyance as he floated a skewer over to use as a pointer, indicating a point south of the large central park, close to the center of the island city.

“Grand Central Station, where we’ll be arriving tomorrow morning.” The skewer/pointer moved south. “Dressage Hall, by the Garment District. This is where the show will be held. Right next to Saddleback Center; you really should visit the Rainboom Room atop 30 Back; best view of the city other than the Equestria State Building, plus five-horseshoe cuisine from every part of the realm.” A sweep north up a major boulevard, back towards the park. “42nd Avenue, the main row of four- and five-horseshoe hotels. The Manehattan Royal, the Mane Fair, the Sun’s Rest, the Moonhaven, and all the rest.” Fancy looked up at Yellow Jacket. “Fleur and I will be staying at the Sun’s Rest, near Central Park.”

“I’ll be at the Royal.”

“Excellent! A short carriage ride if you want to visit us, young lady. And closer to the Theater District; we’d enjoy your company when we take in Rescue at Midnight Castle on Bridleway. I understand it has some of the best reviews from across Equestria. Been drawing record-setting crowds.”

Yellow Jacket’s ears came forward. “Record-setting crowds? Theater district?” From personal experience in Canterlot she knew of the emotions that could be raised by a skilled performance. “Perhaps I will accompany you, if that's acceptable. It's been years since I've seen Midnight Castle.”

“Well, that’s settled then!” Fancy smiled, lifting the map from the table and folding it in mid-air. “So you can see, it was good fortune we met on this train. We'll be seeing you in Manehattan; and please remember us to Rarity and her Ponyville friends as well!”

“I believe it was indeed, Lord Fancy Pants. And I'll be sure to mention you to them. I'm sure Rarity will be delighted.”

A soft whinny came from the white unicorn. “Perhaps before Manehattan.”

Both horns inclined towards Fleur.

“The Limited normally pulls into Grand Central around eleven in the morning,” she whinnied. “The dining car opens for breakfast around seven, well before final approach; meet back here at eight?” She looked at the yellow twin of herself. “First time at Dressage Hall is no place to solo Manehattan. Especially for somepony new to the industry.”

Ka-click, ka-clack; ka-click, ka-clack…

Halfway between the dining car and the observation/lounge car, Yellow Jacket stepped into her sleeper compartment. Locking the door behind her, she checked the compartment’s turned-down bunk and her minimal luggage under the facing shelf. Nothing disturbed; not even the maps and Manehattan gazeteer on the shelf. Her horn glowed as she drew the window drapes aside for a moment and stepped over to the small window.

Outside, Equestria went past, silver-blue under Luna’s moon; open country, no sign of ponies except for the occasional light in the distance, halfway to the moonlit hills on the horizon. Nopony within sight. Letting the drapes fall back over the window, she sighed and let the golden fire consume her as she resumed her true form. Perforated golden mane and tail and horsefly wings and saddle carapace, glowing gold dragon-eyes, ebony chitin perforated with holes everywhere else. And behind her horn – now like a saw blade with half its teeth snapped off – the bioluminescent “crown” of a Changeling Queen. With a shake of stringy gold mane, Queen Vespid uncapped the compartment’s glowgem lamp and settled onto the bunk. Pulling up the folding desk/table from under the shelf, she spread out the map and floated over a quill.

Several days ago in the Sun Palace, after the reception ended and Princess Celestia showed her to a windowless conference room near the reception hall for a more – private – meeting. The Palace staff brought the leftover cake from the reception, a sign they might be secluded for some time.

“Queen Vespid,”the Alicorn Major began, shining like full daylight in the glowgem-lit room. “We need to know how many Changelings remain in Equestria, both Hives like your own and survivors from Chrysalis’ swarm.”

She floated the first helping of cake over to herself; Vespid lounged on one of the pallets around the table, still gorged on the emotions of those idiot thoroughbreds from the reception.

“Simply put,” Celestia said as she started on the cake, “I want you to seek out any remnants of the Changeling Hives.” Vespid sat upright, her eyes wide as the Sun Princess continued.

“If any are hiding, I wish them to know they no longer need to. They can live openly in Equestria, in Harmony with my little ponies under the same dispensation as you and your Hive in Canterlot.” Celestia smiled. “And those wolf packs around Stalliongrad.”

The Sun Princess set her now-empty plate on the conference table, next to the remaining cake. Floating a stack of books before Vespid, she touched her golden-glowing horn to them; Equestrian script appeared on the paper.

“Royal Guard Intelligence reports on possible Changeling Hives, compiled over the past year. I ordered scouting expeditions to the Wastelands after Chrysalis’ attack. Her preparations had been – thorough. We found only dead Hives. No survivors.”

“You wouldn’t have. Any survivors would have hidden from you. ‘In Secrecy Lies Safety.’ It is the first thing a Hatchling learns in the Nursery chambers, when they’re first able to shape-shift.”

Vespid circled a spot on the north end of the island city, facing the ocean – Pony Island and its two amusement parks – Steeplechase and the newly-renamed Luna Park. Then the sites Fancy Pants had pointed out on his map – the hotels, the Theater District. All places where ponies would congregate, emotions run high – and any Changelings would come to graze.

She floated the Gazetteer over from the shelf, flipped through it, marked some other parts of the city – parts listed in the guide as “Do Not Go”. Six Points at the south end, near “The Battery” – like Canterlot’s South Side, but larger and rougher. The docks and waterfront warehouse district on the West Side, and the other matching waterfront on the mainland, across the Two Sisters Bridges. Not as large herds as some of the other attractions, but far more lively – Changelings could feed on violent emotions as well, and South Side’s dives had always been a grazing ground for Hive Vespid. Until Chrysalis.

“Chrysalis –” Vespid chitter-snarled at the name, “– used our instincts against us. Changelings must belong to a Hive, and serve its Queen. Preferably their egg-mother, but any will do if their Queen dies or they are separated. When a new Queen enters the territory of another, the two Queens seek each other out and fight.”

“And the loser is exiled?”

Vespid looked at Celestia; darkness seemed to pass over her, rippling against her golden mane.

“No, the loser is killed. When one Hive Queen scents the pheromones of another, we fight to the death. Uncontrollably.” As in the Battle of Canterlot, when the scent of Chrysalis – Discord Take Her! – penetrated the depths of the Hive. “We go berserk and attack the rival Queen; it’s part of our nature, Discord’s curse.”

Vespid didn’t remember much after the first whiff of Chrysalis; only her drones and guards piling on her in the Royal Chamber of the Hive, holding her down to prevent their Queen from flying out to attack.

[Enemy! Invader! She seeks to take my Hive!]

[No, O Queen! She defeated the Ponies’ Hive Queen, she will kill you!]

Then the magic blast that ended the Battle of Canterlot tore through the Hive…

“That is why you will never see two Changeling Hives next to each other. In Secrecy lies Safety.”

Vespid looked again at the marked-up map. Over three times the size of Canterlot, Manehattan easily had room for three Hives. One at the north end, one at the south end, and one on the mainland, with Central Park and the inlet as buffer zones. And the Theater District, Pony Island, and the Waterfront as obvious prime feeding areas, well-separated. No need for any Queens to come into conflict.

“When a Queen dies, over the next few days some of her drones waste away to die with her, too attached to their late Queen to survive. Most live, and change their allegiance to their new Queen as they bask in her scent.”

“Should I encounter any Hiveless orphans, I would become their new Hive Queen,” Vespid said, half-wondering if she should reveal this, and half-certain Celestia already knew. “And a Hive needs to feed. The larger the Hive, the more often We feed.”

“You’ve already proven you can do so without causing physical or psychological harm,” Celestia responded with a smile, floating over another piece of cake. “Indeed, some young stallions and mares seem pleased by it, or so I’ve been hearing.” Then, more seriously: “But if they live in Equestria, then they are my concern and my responsibility as much as yours. Please, Vespid, as one reigning monarch to another,” the Pony Princess locked gaze with the Changeling Queen, “help me to do this.”

Vespid nodded. If any Changelings were out there, better they be brought into her Hive than wander as Hiveless orphans, possibly going mad without the empathic link to a Queen – or being swept up into the next Swarm Chrysalis.

And make sure any active Hives were accounted for, that no new Queens were hidden out there. Vespid didn’t need another Chrysalis storming into her rebuilt Hive to kill her and take over.

From her cover at the fashion show, she could check the feeding areas south of Central Park – the Theater District and maybe the show itself – for stray Changelings seeking a quick meal. And the scent and empathic feed of any active Hive. If she found them, make sure they understood that they didn't need to hide any more. That Chrysalis was either destroyed or gone so far away she'd never be seen again, which meant that they could join a new Hive and live in safety, and that Celestia and Luna would not harm them or any Changeling that wanted to live in Harmony in Equestria.

And she had that outstanding theater invite from Fancy Pants and Fleur…

I need a native guide dueled in her mind with In Secrecy Lies Safety. Secrecy hadn’t helped the Hives in those Intelligence reports. Not only Chrysalis’ trail of destruction in the Wastelands as she built her super-swarm, but the evidence of Hives within Equestria itself…

Hive Theda, which had run a couples’ resort on a coastal island for generations, feeding off their guests until they – and their last herd of guests – had been wiped out by a parasitic Dire Wasp infestation, becoming incubators for its eggs and fresh food for its larvae. The Royal Guard was still searching for the resulting Dire Wasp swarm before it could repeat the process elsewhere…

The nameless Hive wiped out by the Mount Gymkhana eruption near Vanhoofer over twenty years ago, leaving only carbonized traces in the pyroclastic flows and mummified husks in the lahar deposits. “We worked for days to clear the ash from the atmosphere and divert the flows away from populated areas,” Celestia had commented. “We never suspected anypony would be in their path…”

Recently-abandoned Changeling tunnels and chambers, traces of Hives that had evacuated and relocated when news of Chrysalis’ attack spread over Equestria, their present whereabouts unknown…

Fancy and Fleur… Those two had already been helpful, and might be not just helpful but useful later on, but she remembered how quickly Fancy figured out so much about her simply by observing. More, he'd once met her in her true form as Queen Vespid, when Celestia first introduced her in public. Until now she would have sworn that nopony could associate one of her shapeshifted alter egos with the real Vespid, but now she wondered.

If they can figure out who and what I really am, they're a threat. Not one to me personally, not any more, but In Secrecy Lies Safety. And ponies still fear Us.

And yet, part of her wanted to risk it. She'd heard so much about Fancy in the capital, before her secret came out and afterwards, about his ability to discern and deduce so much about others on sometimes the briefest of meetings. Rumor had it that once or twice he and Fleur caught out some criminal that way when even the Royal Guard failed, though both he and his wife played coy about it. And here on the train he’d demonstrated those rumors were true.

Should have had a magnifying glass as a Cutie Mark instead of three coronets…

Vespid smiled to herself, revealing jagged Changeling fangs. A dangerous asset. A challenge. For all that Changelings bragged among each other of their skills at deception, she knew that mostly they just played on the assumptions of others and did nothing more. She didn't want to simply spend this weekend fooling ponies she'd never seen before and never would again, not in the same form. She wanted to try herself, her skills and cunning, against a pony who might be smart enough to see through them.

And besides, if Fleur and Fancy could help, then they were assets to be cultivated. Besides, the love they felt tasted so wonderful... and blast it, she just wanted some time to herself to watch something entertaining in the company of ponies she could like!

And if they did help her find one or more of her lost folk at the play, wasn't that more than worth any time in their company?

And yet somewhere deep within her that old worm of fear and worry gnawed at her. And if they find out Yellow Jacket’s secret? In Secrecy Lies Safety…

Trackflyers scouting ahead under Luna’s moon, the Canterlot Limited pounded the double-track mainline towards Manehattan.

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