• Published 24th Oct 2016
  • 3,695 Views, 58 Comments

Freeport Venture: Trust Issues - Ponibius

As Freeport’s foremost problem solver, Puzzle Piece finds himself needing to protect Sunset Shimmer, whose acquisition of the Black Codex—a potent, ancient book of black magic—has caused her to run afoul of warlocks who want the Codex back.

  • ...

Chapter 2: Who Do You Trust?

Freeport Venture: Trust Issues

Chapter 2: Who Do You Trust?

This one’s agents did a fine job of tracking the warlocks, much better than the amateurs who had followed this one earlier in the day. This one merely had to follow a tracking gem to find the agents Silken had assigned for the job. An exchange of passwords and a quick conversation with the head tracker confirmed that the warlocks had gone into an upper-class hotel called the Goodnight’s Rest Inn.

This one told the agents to keep an eye on the warlocks, then turned to the Thorn-stallion. “I’m going to go and see if I can convince the warlocks to talk outside.” This one pointed to an outdoor cafe on the opposite side of the street of the inn. “Find a seat and be settled by the time we come out.”

After a moment's consideration, this one pulled out one of a pair of tracking gems and gave it to the Thorn-stallion. “Just in case we lose track of one another, you can use that to find me.”

With a questioning look, he raised a hoof and tapped the diamond bud fixed to his ear.

“There won’t be many opportunities for me to use those, I’m afraid.” And this one usually only used our communication earrings when none could see it or when quick communication was crucial. “And the gems are quicker and have a much longer range anyway. Still, just to be safe...” This one pulled out its earring to put on.

He nodded. “That works then.” In a quick and efficient motion, the tracking gem was pocketed. He then yawned, one of his ears flat while the other flicked three times.

Keeping its own ears straight, this one tilted its head. “Slept late again?”

His ears flattened. “And woke up early to boot,” he answered in a depressed tone, thus completing one of our hoofshake protocols. We had just agreed on a set of signals to use and precautionary measures to prevent tracing.

“Now then,” this one said, “if that will be everything…”

“Are you sure about this?” he asked, glancing at the inn. “About meeting them?”

“Yes. We will be in a much better position once we’ve confirmed the situation. And surely, you agree it is important to get a good read on your targets.”

“A good read does not necessitate contact with the targets,” he argued. “Don’t forget that these are coven warlocks—people whose entire survival is based on playing your kind of game. Your plan may simply not work.”

“Well then,” this one gestured at him with a smile. “That is why you are here.”

He frowned. “You realize then that this…” He gestured at the cafe and the surrounding area. “... is one of the worst places for things to get messy.”

This one looked around. This was one of the nicer parts of the city, mainly catering to merchants and people visiting Freeport on business. Thus you got a nice little establishment like the cafe who served comfortably employed individuals looking for a quick drink and something nice to eat before proceeding with their business.

Sufficed to say, the Council would not take kindly upon anyone who stirs up trouble here.

“For both us and them,” this one retorted simply.

He raised a brow. “The report you provided suggests that won’t stop at least one of the targets. And depending on how paranoid they are, they may not even follow you out.”

“Then in all likelihood, should something go wrong, it will make a loud enough commotion for the Thorn-stallion to know that now would be a good time to collect his paycheck.” This one gave him a confident smile. “Needless to say, it will be difficult to pay if I’m dead.”

He sneered. “You? Die so easily? That’s a laugh.” The Thorn-stallion pointedly glanced at one of the ponies in the vicinity. “I am sure your…” He idly tapped his hoof three times, numbering them. “... agents are amongst your bests and will make sure it does not happen.”

This one frowned. “This one would appreciate you not casually outing its agents.”

He shook his head, his sneer widening. “Nah, all I did was point at a random bystander and accuse them of being spies. You’re the one who outed them.” He dropped his smile and fixed this one with a humourless expression. “In all seriousness, your plan is needlessly risky.”

“Thorn-stallion, one can only ever gain something if they are willing to take the necessary risks.” It gestured at him. “And with you onboard, their removal is assured anyway.”

The Thorn-stallion did not press the issue any further, though he still looked quite unsatisfied.

“And who knows?” this one allowed. “Maybe we’ll even be able to convince them to leave Freeport without issue.”

He narrows his eyes at this one. “We both know that’s not happening.”

This one shrugged. “We can't get everything we want in life, and it will make for an easier job for you either way.”

The Thorn-stallion grunted again and stared at the entrance of the inn. “Too much can go wrong with these games of yours, Puzzle. Something always does.”

“And yet, I always come out on top.” This one patted him on the chest. “I got this.”

The Thorn-stallion sighed and shook his head. “Fine, have it your way. I'll stand by in position. Try to not let the situation get too messy, for once.”

“Don’t worry, I did not forget your rules.” This one waved for him to go to the cafe. “Now go and get yourself something nice to eat. Consider it a gift. Hold onto the receipt and I’ll reimburse you as a business expense.”

Before he could give this one anymore complaint, this one walked into the hotel. It didn't take long to find the warlocks.

A mare’s voice boomed as this one entered the hotel. “What do you mean the princess suite is not available?!” This one instantly recognized Magna Gravitas from the photo in this one’s files. She was a large unicorn mare, as big and tall as any earth pony stallion this one had seen, and she loomed over a hapless hotel employee with a narrowed-eyed glare of utter contempt. Through the purple cloak wrapped around her, this one could see the bulges of a large set of saddlebags.

A poor, zebra stallion wearing a hotel uniform glanced about desperately, as though searching for an escape. This one didn't blame him. He probably didn't even know how dangerous the Gravitas-mare really was. “Um, I'm really sorry, ma’am, but—”

“No excuses!” The pink curls of the Gravitas-mare’s mane bounced as she expressed of her displeasure. “And it’s duchess, magus, or my lady to you.”

“Sorry again, Ma-a-a-gus, milady,” the hotel employee stammered. “But the room you’ve requested has already been booked all the way through next month. Though I assure you, we still have many very nice rooms available for you.” He gave her the type of smile that zebras only used when trying to convince a large predator not to eat them.

Unacceptable!” She stomped a hoof that shook the nearby furniture. “Just because this so-called city smells like rotting fish does not mean I am going to be slumming it. I will be having your best room, as befits a pony of my station and that’s the end of the matter.”

This one’s civic pride was slightly wounded by the comment that its city smelled like rotting fish. It wasn’t quite that bad. Sure, the poorer districts of the city often smelled something had died in them—usually because something had died, and the tropical climate only helped along the decomposition. Then Freeport’s famous markets could most generously be described as having an ... exotic smell. Also the hot and humid weather ensured that nearly everyone was sweating as they went about their business, either that or they smelled of wet fur from the sudden tropical downpours. The nicer neighborhoods normally arranged gardens with fragrant flowers and used incense to make them smell nice—but usually produced the smell of rotting vegetation in the process thanks to the weather...

Okay, so Freeport wasn’t a great smelling city, but it still wasn’t the worst. That honor belonged to Swineville. Never visit Swineville, trust this one.

Another pony cleared his throat and this one had to walk around the Gravitas-mare to even see him next to his much larger companion. It wasn't difficult to identify the sky-blue unicorn as the Gravitas-mare’s partner in crime, Coptic Binding. The warlock struck this one as what one would expect out of a magus and scholar. He was short and thin, and he looked out of place in the luxury hotel in his ruffled grey cloak, a hastily brushed back seaweed colored mane, and large glasses.

The Binding-stallion frowned as he looked at his compatriot out do the corner of his eyes, and when he spoke it was with clear exasperation. “Maybe you can ask the current owner of the room if they would be interested in perhaps selling their lodgings?”

The hotel employee glanced between the warlocks. “O-of course, I'll go find her right away!” He turned an about-face and and moved with the purpose of someone who had nearly fallen off a pier and into a shark-filled pool of water and had decided that anywhere else was better than here.

This one decided to watch a little bit longer, being careful to make sure its attention appeared to be on a painting. You tend to learn more about people when they don’t think you’re watching them. We are all guilty of putting on masks when we interact with others, and those masks changed depending on context. People tended to act differently in front their family than they would at their workplace—if only because each social group had different expectations than the other.

The Binding-stallion sighed with resignation. “You know, we could take one of the other still very nice, and expensive, rooms here.”

The Gravitas-mare snorted and lifted her nose. “Hardly. I am not about to reduce myself, and I have already suffered enough indignities during this trip as is. After spending the last few weeks rocking about in a ship, I intend to sleep in an actual bed tonight.”

“Something we can do in any of the other rooms here,” the Binding-stallion countered.

The Gravitas-mare narrowed her eyes at her partner. “That is your problem, Coptic, you always settle for second best. It's why you always have been and always will be a little toady instead of doing anything of significance in your life.”

The Coptic-stallion’s features hardened, his fellow warlock having struck a nerve. “Need I remind you that it was I who got you out of prison after you exploded at the conclave? Or how about the fact that it was my plan that got us out of that mess you created in Neigh Orleans?”

The Gravitas-mare huffed and turned away from her fellow warlock. “Details. You would be nothing without me.”

Rolling his eyes, the Coptic-stallion said, “I wouldn't be wanted in Lubeak without you.”

Silence fell between the pair of them, neither of the looking at the other. This one had become very good at reading others during its years and it got the impression this was a conversation that had played out between these two many time. Good, that meant there was tension between them. Though this one got the sense that they were like an old married couple—if one where the fire had died out over a couple decades before. They were stuck together and didn't dare go in alone.

Deciding now was a good time to step forwards, this one put on a friendly smile and approached the bickering pair. “Excuse me, are you Duchess Magna Gravita?”

The Gravitas-made narrowed her eyes in a haughty look. “Who are you, and why are you bothering me?”

Undeterred by the warlock’s rudeness, this one kept up its friendly demeanor. “Hello, my name is Daily Deal, and I was hoping to give you a business proposition while you're in town.” Daily Deal was one of the aliases this one had built over the years. This one had found it useful to build such aliases when it needed to interact with others as someone other than itself. As was becoming a growing problem, this one had become more famous than was practical for some the ventures it wanted to go one. Thus it had made up people such as the information broker Daily Deal.

The Gravitas-mare’s tone went from that of open disdain to that of suspicion. “What sort of proposition?”

“How about we talk about it over lunch?” This one pointed outside to the cafe. “There’s a nice little place we can sit down right across the street. My treat. And I assure you, it will be quite profitable for you two.”

The Binding-stallion shrugged. “It can't hurt just to listen to him. Besides, I'm hungry.”

The Gravitas-mare stared at this one for a long moment before relenting. “Fine, but if you're wasting my time...”

“Oh, I'm not,” This one assured her. “Time is money after all, and I'm not the type to waste it.” This one bowed respectfully and motion for them to follow it. “Come on, follow me.”

“We might as well hear him out,” the Binding-stallion said. “These rooms aren't going to pay for themselves. Unless you’ve been keeping a spare fortune hidden from me, Magna.”

The Gravitas-mare scoffed. “Always worrying about money. Your mean origins betray you.”

“Well, money won't be a major issue for you for quite some time if you take my offer.” This one led the way outside. The warlocks seemed at least interest in hearing this one out. That was good. Certainly better than them trying to kill this one on the spot.

“This sounds like it's going to be a very good lunch,” the Binding-stallion said, following after this one.

This one lead the pair to the cafe, where we were quickly seated. To this one’s pleasure, the Thorn-stallion had done as this one asked, and had taken a seat at a nearby table. Currently he was making the appearances of reading a book while waiting for his own meal. “Now then, the sandwiches are quite nice here. As is the soup. And don't worry, I'll take care of the bill.”

Both of the warlocks didn’t complain at the prospect of a free meal, and soon we had made our orders. Unsurprisingly, the Gravitas-mare had picked one of the more expensive items on the menu while the Binding-stallion picked a more filling entree in the form of vegetable soup and a sandwich.

With all of us settled, now seemed like a good time to probe the warlocks for information. People were always more willing to talk over a meal, it was only good manners, after all. “Now then, while we wait on our meals, I was curious about what brought you to Freeport.”

“And what business of that is yours?” The Gravitas-mare demanded.

This one shrugged helplessly. “It matters to people I do business with. It's not everyday that two formidable individuals such as yourselves show up in Freeport. And it would be good to know that my business is indeed compatible with yours. No sense offering a deal I know will get rejected outright.”

The Binding-stallion narrowed his eyes at this one. “I suppose asking how you know who we are isn't going to get us very far?”

This one chuckled and shook its head. Needless to say, there was no reason to tell the warlocks all it knew about them or its purpose for being here. Instead, this one went with a half truth. “It's my business to know who's coming and going in the city. The powers of Freeport make it their business to know who all the movers and shakers are in the world. Comes with being a small city-state stuck between much larger neighbors that we have to balance against one another. Suffice to say, you're not the type of people to come to Freeport without being noticed.”

The Gravitas-mare puffed out her chest and smiled, clearly pleased by the compliment. “And what exactly is your business?”

This one put on a lazy smile. “My business is to figure out what you're doing in Freeport and act accordingly.”

The Binding-stallion stiffened slightly at what could be construed as a threat under the right light, but the Gravitas-mare continued with her curt inquiries, either not noticing or not caring about how this one had put its words. “And why is that your business? Who do you work for?”

This one waited until after our waiter delivered our food before continuing. “Powerful forces in Freeport,” this one stated vaguely. “The types that don't like to see the balance of power in Freeport disrupted by outside forces. You see, you make certain parties ... nervous we’ll say. They don't really know you, they don't know why you're here, or what you want. You have just too many questions wrapped around you.”

The Gravitas-mare rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated groan. “Fine, who do we have to bribe? Money's no object.”

“Um, it kind of is,” the Binding-stallion said, giving his companion a wary look. “Lots of little objects in fact—finite objects.”

“Actually, I’m not here to be bribed away.” This one leaned forward and grinned. “I'm here to bribe you.”

The Binding-stallion blinked, momentarily frozen as he calculated what this one could possibly getting at.

It was a long and drawn out silence before the Gravitas-mare finally spoke. “What?”

This one leaned back, giving them a confident smirk, knowing it now had their attention. “My patrons are willing to pay you two one million ducats to take the first ship out of Freeport and never return. It’s as simple as that. No strings attached, no tricks, no hidden clauses. Just lots of coin and a one-way ticket out of here.”

The Binding-stallion’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You're offering us free money in Freeport? That’s hard to believe.”

“Hardly free.” This one waved his suspicion off. “I'm paying you for a very specific task. Don't take it the wrong way, but your types tend to ... disrupt things. The type of disruptions that are bad for business. The Council takes great pains to keep the streets safe, quiet, and most importantly, friendly for commerce.”

While her companion’s brow furrowed further, the Gravitas-mare’s mouth split with a wide grin. “I knew it! He wouldn't be offering us that much money unless we were close. I told you the Codex was here!”

Ah, so they were after the Codex. Good to know.

The Thorn-stallion glanced this way with much of the rest of the cafe. Catching this one’s eye, his flicked at the Binding-stallion before he quirked an incredulous brow. Just as quickly, he grew disinterested and leaned back on his hoof. Through the earring, this one heard a pair of taps, signalling an all clear. His rules were satisfied.

This one tilted its head, as though this were entirely new information to it. “The Codex? You mean the Black Codex?”

The Binding-stallion applied his hoof to his face. No doubt he didn’t want the Gravitas-mare to go around advertising what they were up to. “Gravita? You do comprehend the idea of subtlety, right?”

“Of course I do,” the Gravitas-mare said dismissively. “And yes, I do mean the Black Codex. An associate of mine came here to purchase it from an auction.”

“Could you speak up a bit?” the Binding-stallion growled. “I think that couple on the other side of the establishment didn't quite hear you.”

“Aaah, I see.” This one took a long sip of its tea, putting a few parts of its budding plan together as it pulled the warlocks into its web. “That makes a great deal of sense. A pity then. Likely the Codex is long gone, if what I've heard on the street is right.”

The Gravitas-mare’s brow furrowed. “And why is that?”

“Because the EIS has it,” this one stated. “At least according to my contacts, an agent of theirs bought it at an auction, and then ran off with it. Considering how much time has passed since the auction, I'd be surprised if it wasn't in Equestria by now.” This one shrugged. “Assuming they didn't burn it outright.”

The Binding-stallion cursed some unflattering things about the heritage of the ponies in the EIS. “That's just peachy, then.”

The Gravitas-mare’s squared her jaw and there was a nasty fire in her eyes this one didn’t like being directed in its direction. “Which agent bought the book?”

This one hummed in thought. “Can't say for certain. I've got a couple of names, but they don't come for free.” This one did have to play the part of a small-time information broker, after all.

“But of course.” The Gravitas-mare rolled her eyes at the textbook display of Freeportian greed.
“This truly is a disgusting little city of money-grubbers. How much, then?”

The Binding-stallion sighed. “At least try to negotiate this time?”

“Five thousand ducats,” this one said.

The Binding-stallion gave his fellow warlock an imploring look, but she waved for him to give this one its price. He grumbled and fished the money out of his saddlebags. “You know, we could be adding to our bit purses instead of taking away from it.”

The Gravitas-mare rolled her eyes once again. “A few coins is a small price to pay to get the Codex.”

This one took the money. At least today wouldn’t be a complete waste. “To answer your question, the one who aided the EIS was an information broker by the name of Secret Signs.” Though they hid it well, the warlocks’ faces tightened. “The EIS couldn't get into the auction on their own. So they hired Secret, who is also a well known artifact dealer, to do the actual buying.”

If this one knew the Signs-mare, then she had no doubt withheld what she knew about the Auction House Incident for her first meeting with the warlocks. It was her way to delay telling her clientele the information she already knew in order to charge them more later. Usually by saying that she needed to hire investigators or other agents to help her get the information her clients desired. If that was true, then it would help this one drive the wedge it was building into the relationship between the warlocks and the Signs-mare.

The Gravitas-mare gave her companion a knowing look. “So, it seems we have a new target.”

The Binding-stallion’s look was equally wary. “Someone on good terms with the EIS?”

This one shrugged. “The offer to leave Freeport is still open. One million ducats can take you far. Very far. And I’m sure you can put it to good use.” This one wasn’t sure if they would actually take the money, but this one could make this situation work for it either way. If they did take this one’s offer, the loss of ducats would hurt, but not crippling so. Best of all, it could tell the EIS exactly what ship the warlocks were taking out of Freeport and its destination. Depending on where they went, the EIS could then follow the warlocks to their fellows in the Esoteric Order, or even ambush them at the port they arrived at. This one would earn a favor from the EIS while simultaneously dealing with a dangerous threat to the Shimmer-mare without raising a hoof. It might even get its money back if the EIS decided to show its thanks for its assistance.

The Gravitas-mare scoffed. “The Codex is worth far more than that.”

This one didn't like the enthusiasm the Gravitas-mare was showing. Time to see if this one could temper that a bit. “I'll warn you that the Powers That Be would prefer it if there wasn't a big fight with the EIS in their city. Not to mention that if the agents of the EIS know what they're doing, and they usually do, the Codex won't be in Freeport anymore. They have no reason to keep it here. Especially when enterprising warlocks might come looking for it.”

The Gravitas-mare drew herself up, the challenge of the situation only seeming to make her more determined to continue forward. “Then perhaps those powers should help us get our book.”

The Binding-stallion’s face was unreadable as he chewed on his food. Knowing that one, he was taking a moment to think over the situation that had been placed in front of him. He was the more cautions one of the pair, after all.

“It's not in the interest of the powers of Freeport to cross Equestria in such a manner.” This one made itself look disinterested by stirring its soup. “You know how it is, much of Freeport's trade is done with Equestria. Aiding but two individuals to steal a single book is, well ... bad for business.” This one played off of Freeport’s reputation as filled with a bunch of greedy merchants. If they believed that they were going to be completely isolated, and even attract the ire of the movers and shakers of Freeport then they might very well take this one’s money and leave without further issue. They were but two individuals and they hadn't survived as long as they had without at least a modicum of caution.

The Gravitas-mare’s brows furrowed and her horn started glowing, making this one worry if it might have pushed the aggressive warlock too far. “Think about the dangers of crossing me and my organization. We’re not to be dealt with lightly.”

The Thorn-stallion had shifted, and he sat in a position more suited for springing into action. Not good. This one hadn't chosen this to be the time and place for an encounter. It was one of this one’s rules to make sure as many factors were tilted in its favor in the event of a fight. Getting into a unplanned slugout was a good way to get killed.

“Why we're offering you a considerable sum to end this amicably,” this one said in a soothing tone to try and bring this conversation back from the brink of violence. “Easiest fortune you'll ever earn.”

The Gravitas-mare swept her hoof to cut this one off. “The Codex is worth a thousand times that.”

Despite itself, this one blinked at that assertion. “You could buy a fleet for that much. No book is worth that many ducats.” This one would know. It had dealt with a number of very rare and expensive books in the past, and just as many people without a proper understanding of value. Even so, this one had to wonder how skewed the Gravitas-mare’s sense of money was.

The Binding-stallion’s eyes flicked between the two do us. “There're other Codices out there. There's gotta be. What with everything I've read about them and the way they keep cropping up...”

For several seconds the Gravitas-mare thought that idea over, though her features didn't soften in the least. “Let's not forget Marius. He disappeared while coming to retrieve my book.”

This one had worried they would be searching for the very dead Marius and this confirmed it. Somehow, being right on both of the things they wanted didn't make this one feel better. Though one encouraging bit of information was how possessive the Gravitas-mare was being with the Codex. She had described it as ‘my’ book. Meaning she thought it belonged to her—and not necessarily the Order’s. It seemed increasingly likely that the search for the Codex was an independent operation by these two, rather than a mission given to them by the Order. That was good, for it meant that this matter could be dealt with cleanly without dragging more of the cultists to Freeport.

The Binding-stallion tapped his spoon on the side of his bowl. “I doubt he was stupid enough to run off with it on his own. He would know what would happen if he tried.”

Seeing an opportunity to further its plans, this one made a play of buffing its hoof on its chest. “Well, if you want to know what happened to Marius, then you can find out for ten thousand ducats.”

The Gravitas-mare folded her arms over her chest and didn't even humor this one’s offer as she focused on her companion. “I expect the EIS murdered him.”

The Binding-stallion nodded. “More than likely.”

This one picked up a napkin and coughed into it a, “Not exactly.”

The Gravitas-mare raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Eight thousand ducats for a name.” This one did not want this opportunity to slip away because of a few inconsequential ducats. If this one had to go much lower, it would. “The name of who killed your friend, and any information you'd want to know about his death.”

The Gravitas-mare snorted. “Of course. It's always about money with your sorts.”

This one shrugged. “What can I say? I have bills to pay.”

The Gravitas-mare puffed out her chest. “Or we could grab an EIS agent and take the information for free.”

“And how many EIS agents do you know in Freeport?”

The Gravitas-made growled deep in her throat. “We could just raid their embassy.”

The Binding-stallion’s eyes widened at that declaration and his mouth worked.

“I wouldn't do that if I were you.” This one took a bite out of its sandwich before continuing. The warlocks attacking the Equestrian Embassy wasn’t exactly what this one would have considered ideal. “The embassy is built like a fort. It used to belong some old pirate warlord before the Council moved in to take over. Now it’s well maintained, full of guardponies, and has a couple magi on hoof, the way I hear it. It’s not the type of place you attack with anything short of an army.”

The Binding-stallion gave his fellow warlock a pointed look. “Considering we don’t have an army, how about we try something different. Like pay for the name of whoever’s responsible for Marius getting killed and rip the information out of their head.”

Grumbling under her breath, the Gravitas-mare said, “Oh fine then, what do you want to do, Coptic?”

“Be smart?” The Binding-stallion gave this one a flat look. “We’ll pay you a thousand ducats. Take it or we’ll pay someone else to find out what happened.”

The Gravitas-mare narrowed her eyes at this one in turn. “Or maybe we’ll just take what we need from you instead. I grow weary of this and wish to be done with you already.”

This one took its time before answering, making it seem like it was carefully considering the warlocks’ offer. Admittedly, this one didn’t want to provoke the pair into using mind magic to play with its head. This one had gone through that before and did not want to experience that again. “Alright, a thousand ducats it is.”

The Binding-stallion sighed and pulled out his coin purse to start counting out coins. “This better be worth it.”

“It will be, trust me,” this one said. “And really, it’s good you’re being smart. This city has a nasty tendency of eating ponies alive who don't play it smart.”

The Gravitas-mare glared at this one. “I am more brilliant than you could possibly comprehend.” She stomped a hoof on the table, knocking several items over in the process. “Now tell me something useful. No more of your pointless games.”

This one nodded. “Very well. It was Secret Signs who killed Marius. Marius didn’t like it when Secret used the EIS bits to buy the Codex out from under him. That resulted in a confrontation in the streets. Your friend didn't survive the encounter. Way I hear it, Secret was smart enough to keep plenty of backup in the event your friend tried something.” This one shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the EIS paid her to do the deed in any event. You know Equestria, they don’t like to get their hooves dirty when they can just have someone else do the deed for them.”

The Gravitas-mare bared her teeth in a snarl. “Well then, that makes our next move obvious, doesn't it?”

For his part, the Coptic-stallion sighed and rubbed at his face. “Great, just great.”

They weren’t saying it, but this one could see them thinking over the situation they had found themselves in. At least based on what this one had told them, they had hired the information broker that had helped kill their friend and gave their precious book to the EIS. That would require them to reevaluate their position at least a little bit. Until they could digest all this information, in any event. Now felt like a good moment to strike again, while they were mentally imbalanced.

“My offer for you two to just leave Freeport is still open,” this one said. “No pain for easy gain.”

The two of them exchanged a long look that carried its own conversation, and in the end the Binding-stallion said, “Will you excuse us for just a second? We need to talk about what we’re doing next.”

This one nodded. “Go ahead. How about I go ahead and pay the bill while you two talk things through?”

“Yes, yes,” the Gravitas-mare said with a flick of her hoof. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you.” This one stood up and headed into the cafe to pay for the bill.

This one had no intention of returning to the warlocks. A few minutes had given this one a proper measurement of the ponies it was dealing with. As a result, this one had a good idea on how the warlocks’ discussion would go. The Gravitas-mare wouldn’t want to give up on her goals of getting the Codex and getting revenge for the fallen Marius. The Binding-stallion would advise caution while also wanting the million ducats this one was offering. As a result, they would do what they normally did: compromise.

The most likely compromise would be for them to pretend to take this one’s offer. They would then either take the next ship out of Freeport, only to return later to complete their objectives. It would either be that, or they would take this one’s money and then quietly dispose of this one. Neither of those options appealed to this one. One involved this one dying, which this one found bad for its constitution, and the second involved them cheating this one out its money—money they would then be able to use to get into all sorts of trouble. No, this one wasn’t going to let either of those things happen.

As the old saying in Freeport goes: Never let anyone screw you.

Thus this one paid its bill inside the cafe and then made its way to the back of the establishment. Making sure the warlocks weren’t watching this one through the cafe's windows, this one stepped through the back emergency exit of the building. Once outside, this one quickly changed its form to that of a pegasus, tapped once, then again on its earring, and casually walked down the alley.

While this one hadn’t been successful in convincing the warlocks to leave Freeport for good, it had gained a great deal of insight into the type of ponies it was dealing with. Not to mention this one got to plant some seeds into their heads that should payoff later.

This one’s thoughts were interrupted when the boom of thunder rolled through the sky and rain fell as one of Freeport’s typical flash tropical downpours started. This one sighed and pulled a wide brimmed hat from its saddlebags to give itself at least a little protection from the rain. After doing so, this one considered it's next move. If the warlocks were following this one, there was no indication that they were doing so. That was good, at least.

A quick check of the tracking gem confirmed that the Thorn-stallion was staying with the warlocks, no doubt to keep track of them and to learn about how they moved and thought. All useful things for dealing with them later.

Deciding to put more distance between itself and the warlocks, it continued down the Freeport alleyways to consider its next move from the options it had before it.

“You made of jelly, youngin'?” someone asked this one.

This one stopped and considered who had ask that ... unusual question. It had completely derailed this one’s thoughts, that was for sure. “Excuse me?”

Before this one stood a figure in a battered and weathered old cloak and a scruffy, ill-groomed beard poked out from under the cowl. The pony, probably homeless considered his shabby demeanor, smirked at this one with ugly rotting and yellow teeth. “I asked if you were made of jelly, ‘cause jam don't shake like that!”

This one blinked at what was possibly the worst pickup line this one had ever heard. This wasn't something this one needed to deal with right now, and so this one decided to take the wise course of walking around the most likely crazy homeless pony.

The homeless pony snerked and then slapped this one on the rump. This one jerked and spun on the pony, not the least bit amused by that.

The homeless pony smirked all the wider, but then spoke with a familiar voice. “Didn't recognize me, bugboy?”

It took a moment to this one to fully register everything. “Heartstrings-mare?”

“In the flesh,” Strumming Heartstrings said in an all too cheerful voice. She spat out the fake teeth and tugged down the beard so that it only hanged off of her by a couple of strings.

This one fixed her with a flat look. “You are enjoying this far too much.” In truth, this one was most annoyed with itself for not recognizing her to start with. So caught up in this one’s own business and thoughts it had completely dismissed what it had thought was a crazy homeless pony. This one knew better than to do that. So much time spent behind a desk these days was causing this one to lose its edge.

“Obviously.” The Heartstrings-mare poked this one’s side. “It’s not everyday that I get the drop on you.”

This one pushed aside its irritation and smiled. No sense being grumpy with this one’s fillyfriend. “So, do you always accost strangers in the alleys of Freeport, or this a special occasion?”

“You're no stranger to me, Puzzle,” she countered. “And don't play coy with me.”

This one smirked, enjoying the little game. “Oh, this one is being coy?”

“Yeah, I saw your lunch buddies.” The Heartstrings-mare waved in the direction of café. “Oh, and talk about wasting perfectly good food...”

This one shrugged at the complaint about leaving much of its meal uneaten. “Sorry, but this one was a bit worried about that pair killing this one after taking its money. This one knows how seriously you take wasting perfectly edible food, but sometimes it just can't be helped.”

She nudged this one with an elbow. “Glad to see you're as smart as you are cute. Otherwise I'd have to dump you.”

This one nodded gravely. “This one is quite fortunate to be so charming.” It wasn't surprising that she had watched this one interact with the warlocks, not after this one had sent her a letter the warlocks were in Freeport. Likely, she too was scouting out the enemy. Putting aside the more light-hearted conversation, this one spoke with a more serious tone. “Though what this one is more curious about is what the Heartstrings-mare thinks of the warlocks it just talked to.”

“Yeah, I've been keeping up to date with the files on the Esoteric Order, and everything I saw confirms that those two are bad news,” she said. “Magna's just smart enough to be dangerously dumb, and Coptic's got enough competence to make her dumb work.”

This one nodded. “That was this one's own impression as well. They're dangerous, very dangerous. Likely they would have tried to take the money this one was bribing them with, kill it, and then go right back to what they were doing. Why this one snuck away when it had an opportunity.”

“Sounds about right, yeah.” The Heartstrings-mare rubbed her chin. “Magna ... never quite understood the meaning the word ‘no’ and how it can apply to her. What got her in trouble at the conclave.”

“Which means she isn't going to stop unless someone stops her,” this one said, following her line of thought.

“Pretty much, yeah.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “So ... you gonna get her?”

This one couldn't help but grin. “Oh no, this one has no intentions of placing a hoof on them. This one had others in mind for that pleasure.”

The Heartstrings-mare nodded sagely. “Outsourcing. I've heard that's popular lately.”

“You should try it someday,” this one said. “It can make one’s life much easier if you have the coin.”

“Sorry, today I'm just a low-level operative with no resources beyond my own two hooves.” She shrugged helplessly, but there was a hint of insincerity about the gesture. “So what's your game plan?”

This one seriously doubted the Heartstrings-mare was helpless as she professed. More likely the EIS and Equestrian Embassy were concentrating their resources on what they considered most important. Namely protecting the Embassy itself, with its many civilian employees and important documents, and the Shimmer-mare, who was a target of the warlocks. At least if the warlocks found out the truth of who had actually killed the Marius-gryphon. What they were probably hoping for was that this one would deal with the warlocks itself. That would keep their hooves clean of the affair, keep it from looking like the EIS was perpetuating some sort of secret war with the warlocks on Freeportian soil, and all without risking any Equestrian lives in the process.

Motivations, if you understood what someone wanted then it was relatively simple to figure out what they're up to.

So this one would play along with the Heartstrings-mare for now. It would show them why they paid this one and give them all the more reasons to give this one a free hoof in its affairs. “This one has a plan in motion to deal with the warlocks. But first this one has to finish setting everything up before the main event. There are still a few more pieces to put into place if everything is going to work out the way it hopes. The next step is to make an appointment with Secret Signs to warn her that her new warlock clients may not be as trustworthy as she may have thought.”

The Heartstring’s-mare quirked an eyebrow. “Isn't she your competition?”

“She is.”

“Bit of a problem with your plan,” she said. “Why would she believe you?”

This one smiled slyly. “She won't be believing this one.”

The Heartstring’s mare smirked. “Going for a double-bluff?”

“Want to find out?”

She shrugged, but this one could tell she was interesting in what this one had planned. “I got nothing better to do, since you sent the kid off.”

“Excellent,” this one said. “Would you happen to have a few more disguises on you?”

The two of us headed to a small warehouse this one owned to get ourselves some disguises and some other things we would need to see the Signs-mare. This one had taken the form of a lime-green pegasus mare with a dark-blue mane. Taking a moment to make sure there weren't any flaws in this one’s disguise in a mirror this one had put upon one wall of the warehouse, this one confirmed that it's pith hat and explorers jacket looked right.

The Heartstrings-mare stared at this one for some time as it examined itself. “So, does this mean I'm a fillyfooler now?”

This one grinned at the Heartstrings-mare’s slight discomfort and confusion. Near as this one knew, this was the first time it had appeared before her in the shape of a female. There were a couple of reasons why this one normally didn't take the appearance of a female. The first was that this one merely preferred appearing as a male. While this one was a hermaphrodite, or at least that was the closest approximation for a shapeshifter’s sex, this one simply had a masculine predisposition. That was simply something each Free Mind chose for itself, and personal preferences could run the gauntlet.

The second reason this one normally appeared as a male was the purposes of disguises. It was a simple fact that most sapient creatures tended to see others as male or female. So because this one always appeared as a male in public, everyone thought of this one as male, even knowing this one was a changeling. The only times this one took on a female form was for the intentions of taking on an alias or infiltration. So anyone who was looking for this one specifically had to overcome a significant psychological barrier to identifying this one when it wore a female form, such as now.

Also, it's sometimes amusing to play with ponies’ heads by flipping genders, such as now with the Heartstrings-mare.

“The Heartstrings-mare can be one if she wants to be,” this one teased.

The Heartstrings-mare stared at this one for a long moment before settling on saying, “Huh. Lots of space for fun with changelings, I see.” She shook her head. “Forget it. So what's the gameplan?”

“This one is going to be selling the Signs-mare a few artifacts from the Zebrican Empire as one Busy Delver.” This one patted a crate that contained several items from the Empire it had saved such an occasional like this. Planning ahead had often proven key to this one’s success. “In addition to being an information broker, the Signs-mare also acts as a middlemare to help sell items that their sellers would prefer not to be directly affiliated with. This one has sold a number of artifacts to the Signs-mare as Busy in the past, and so she should see us readily enough.”

“Sounds good,” the Heartstrings-mare said. “So what's my role? Arm candy?” She tipped the wide brimmed hat she was now wear. It was a magical hat this one had procured a few years ago for jobs such as this one. At the wearers will, the hat would cast an illusion over its wearer to change their appearance, in addition to changing its own shape, and the Heartstrings-mare had used it to give herself a pale orange-coat and changed her facial features to make it highly unlikely anypony would recognize her.

This one nodded. “We will call you a bodyguard to keep things simple and say that you’re this one's newest associate. Our story is that we both just got back from the Zebrican Empire after procuring some objects.” This one grinned. “Through completely legal methods of course.”

The Heartstrings-mare mouth spread in her own grin. “Oooh, sneaky. I like it.”

This one motioned for the Heartstrings-mare to help it pick up the crate and the pair of us lifted it up onto a small cart. “As for what we’re really up to, this one wants to make sure that it knows what the Sign’s mare is up to, and then plant a few seeds into her head to push her in the direction we want her to go. If all goes well, she’ll be dealing with our little warlock problem.”

She nodded. “Gotcha. I'll follow your lead?”

“That was this one's plan,” this one agreed. “This one is sure you've been trained to help sell something like this.”

“A bit, and I can improvise the rest.”

This one strapped itself to the cart and made a motion to the warehouse door. “Well then, let's go in and give the Signs-mare a visit.”

This one’s fillyfriend opened the door and gave this one an exaggerated bow. “Let’s do.”

Within an hour we were entering into the Signs-mare’s place of business. The building was a converted warehouse and a sign with bright, multi-colored lettering read “Luck Day Investigations” hanged over the door. There were several workers busying themselves moving crates around the warehouse. It wasn't long before a bulky, hard-bitten looking zebra stallion this one instantly recognized approached us.

“Busy, good to see you.” While the zebra’s voice was deep and gravely, his pleasure at seeing us sounded genuine.

This one smiled brightly. “Hey, Clean Sweep, how’s it going?” The Sweep-stallion was the Signs-mare’s second in command, or at least he technically was, for the person standing before this one wasn't actually the zebra everyone knew as Clean Sweep. Knowing a confrontation with the Signs-mare was coming months ago, this one had arranged to have one of its more trusted agents and fellow changeling by the name of Tricky Shade to replace the Sweep-stallion. Having an agent within the very heart of the Signs-mare’s organization was something that was going to become very useful soon.

The other one slapped this one’s back in a friendly manner. “Pretty good all things considered. What brings you by?” It's eyes glanced at the crate this one was dragging behind it.

“Oh, a couple of things.” This one motioned to the crate with its head. “Got a few things Secret’s gonna want to see.” Letting some of the jovialness of this one’s tone drop, this one looked the infiltrating changeling in the eyes. “These are the times for great exchanges on the streets of Freeport.”

Tricky Shade froze for an almost imperceptible moment as it recognized the code phrase this one had given it. “Then these are the times for great profit,” the other replied with the acknowledging code phrase. This one had instructed the other one to go to a prearranged dead-drop to pick up a letter with written instructions to it.

That done, and not wanting to draw too much attention to ourselves, this one asked, “So where’s Secret? She still run this dump, right?”

Tricky pointed behind her to a door further into the warehouse. “In her office. Go on ahead. Secret’ll be happy to see ya.” The other slapped this one on the shoulder and left this one and the Heartstrings-mare to do as we wished.

This one motioned for the Heartstrings-mare to follow this one, and soon we were before the office doorway being blocked by a pair of guards. They were earth ponies of the big, hulking variety. The types one hired to look intimidating, and if the need arose, would break a person in half at the beckoning of their master without really thinking about little things like the morality of their actions. They each wore breastplates and helmets painted in gold, and the one that held up his hoof had a nice, gruff, and official sounding voice, marking him as somepony that had served in a mercenary company at some point. “What do you want?”

This one gave them a friendly smile. The best way to be allowed to walk around someplace was to act like you belonged there. “My name’s Busy Delver. I'm guessing you two are new around here? Secret knows me. Just tell her Busy is here with another shipment and she'll see me.”

The first guard grunted and shot me the type of frown normally reserves for something one scraped off one’s hoof. “Wait here. And don't try anything funny, or...”

“Yeah-yeah, big guy.” This one waved unconcerned. “Kick this one upstairs and stop wasting my time.”

Not having any patience for this one, the guard stepped into the office while the other guard stared disapprovingly at the pair of us. After a couple of minutes the first guard returned with with the same frown he had left with. “Boss'll see you.”

This one smirked. “Told ya.” This one walked forward and the guard held the door open for us.

We entered an office that was clearly trying to showing off a fair bit of wealth, if the wealth of a collector that picks expensive objects randomly out of an auction. The marble heads of statues dotted the sides of the room, expensive paintings and tabards covered the walls, as well as numerous photos of the Signs-mare with a variety of notable individuals.

The Signs-mare was sitting behind a large, intricately carved wooden desk, busily looking over some papers. The emerald-coated earth pony was dressed in an outfit this one could best describe as flamboyant. She wore a brightly colored purple vest with a floral pattern stitched into it, a yellow scarf tied around her neck, and a bicorne hat whose colored matched her vest and possessed a large feather plume.

This one’s rival looked up from her paperwork to give this one a big smile. “Busy!”

“Secret!” This one returned the smile, unhitched itself from the cart, and the two of us approached another and gave each other a hug. “Great to see you!”

For her part, the Heartstrings-mare took place besides the crate, giving the impression of the bored guard putting up with the antics of her charge.

“It’s great to see you!” The Signs-mare’s eyes turned to the crate. “Well well well, what have we here?”

This one leaned against the crate and grinned. “I've got some new product for you if you're interested. I’ve got some nice artifacts from the Zebrican Empire. You know how it is over there right now. What with the budding civil war and everything. Turns out a bunch of zebras are looking to get what money they can before things get really ugly and are selling all sorts of great stuff right now.”

The Signs-mare nodded. “Yeah, I've heard about it. Real seller's market right now.”

“Exactly.” This one pulled out a crowbar to pry open the crate. “I just pulled into port today, and I'm looking to unload some of this stuff. Don't want to waste time here in Freeport when I could be getting more artifacts like this to sell. And I don't want to be stuck in the Empire once the actual fighting starts. So the quicker we can take care of our business the better.”

She watched as this one removed the lid. “So you need somepony to move your merchandise? I can do that.” Reaching into the crate and pushing aside some straw, she pulled out a vase with an elaborate painting of zebras working a farm on it. “Hmm. Not bad, but like I said, lots of sellers lately.”

This one snorted, playing the role of a pony who wanted the best deal she could get. “Yeah, but none of it's as good as the stuff I've got.” This one poked her in the chest. “Careful, or I might go ahead and put the lid right back on this crate. It might be a seller’s market now, but I can always put this stuff in storage for a few years and bring it back out again once the market has settled back down.”

The Signs-mare rolled her eyes. “Don't worry, I won't screw you.”

The Heartstrings-mare narrowed her eyes. “Pretty sure that's a lie, boss.”

The Signs-mare snickered in reply. “Well, no worse than usual. We both know how this game is played, Busy.”

This one grinned, indeed this one did know how the game was played. “Come on now, I'm sure we can come to price that'll make the both of us happy. After all, you don't want to lose my business, now do you?” This one pointed at the vase. “Especially when there's more like that coming down the pipe.”

“Same way we always do business, then,” the Signs-mare said. “You bring me good stuff, I give you a good price. Easy-peasy. So is the vase all you have?”

“Nope!” This one dug out a small statue of a Zebrican janissary in full military gear, unwrapping it from its paper for everyone to see. “Got all sorts of stuff.”

“Nice.” The Signs-mare spotted the ledge inside of the crate and pulled it out to examine it. “Don't suppose you have any juicy gossip to mix in with the goods?”

“Only if you've got some gossip of your own to trade.” It was only natural that the Signs-mare would want to learn what she could from Busy. Having come from overseas, and specifically from the increasingly volatile Zebrican Empire, this one’s alias could have all sorts of useful information for her. Now that we were getting to the part of the conversation this one desires, it pulled out a bottle of the Zebrican drink called raki. “It's been too long. How about we catch up?”

“This is why I like you.” The Signs-mare opened a drawer in her desk to pull out three small glasses.

“And for what reason would that be?” this one teased. “Is it because of my good looks or just because I brought booze? Or maybe it’s because I filled your coin purse?”

“You bring a lot to the table.” The Signs-mare chuckled, slowly relaxing at the friendly banter and offer of a good foreign drink. People always became more comfortable with those that gave them things for free and made them laugh. “So yeah, good old gossip. Freeport's new magus is still pretty busy.”

“That so?” This one pulled the cork on the bottle and filled each cup. “What she been doing? It always sounds like there's something new with her whenever I stop at port.”

The Signs-mare sipped her own cup. “Yeah, she got into it with some nasty guys out on one of the plantations. Wrecked the whole place.”

This one made a long whistle. “Sounds like a wild story.”

This one of course knew exactly what had happened on the Sweetashe Isle plantation considering it and the Shimmer-mare had been the targets of the Old Mind. Being more concerned with our survival, the pair of us hadn't really put much thought into the property damage we caused while there. After the ordeal, the Council had decided to cover up the whole matter, as they usually did whenever the Old Mind made an excursion into Freeport territory. Not exactly to this one’s pleasure, but there wasn't much this one could do about that in face of Council politics. Yet, at least.

The Signs-mare plopped herself back into her plush desk cushion. “Heard she got hired by a rival family to pull off a hit.”

“And the Council let her go and do that?” this one asked. “Usually the planters don't like to see each other getting knocked off. Makes them nervous they might be next and disrupts the whole balance of power thing they've got going.”

The Signs-mare shrugged. “Apparently the Sweetashes were up to some things the Council didn't like, and you know how the Council tends to deal with those they don't like.” She ran her hoof along her throat in a cutting gesture.

“Ah, that would do it.” This one milked its drink some more. “It would be like them to use someone else to deal with a problem person.”

“So it is.” She sipped and waved for this one to talk. “Your turn.”

This one rubbed its chin, as though thinking about what juicy gossip to talk about, but this one already knew well ahead of time what it wanted to bring up with her. “Well, I got to have some interesting conversations with a pair of warlocks on voyage back to Freeport. There's something I didn't expect to say. Especially in my career.”

To her credit, the Signs-mare didn't let her interest show. “Oh yeah? How'd that go?”

“Interesting.” This one rolled around its cup to pretend to be in thought. “The names they gave me were Magna Gravitas and Coptic Binding. One of them was one of those pompous noble types. You know, the type that thinks the world owes them something because of what family they were born to. And the other I wouldn't trust to turn my back to. Not my type of ponies, to say the least. Even if I did get a couple interesting conversations with them.”

This one’s rival snorted softly. “Stop teasing and give up the goods. I know you've got something worth hearing.”

This one puts its hooves up in surrender. “Okay, okay, here it is. Seems they're after something called the Black Codex. The way they tell it, one of their friends came here to buy it at some auction, but then he disappeared on them. From the sounds of it they wanted it badly, as well as figure out what happened to their buddy.”

“Yeah, Sunset Shimmer bought the thing.”

This one rose an eyebrow. “That so? She has been busy. So what happened to our warlock friend?”

“Rumor has it he tried to take the book.” The Signs-mare shrugged. “It didn't end well.”

“Ick, guess our dear magus is going to get a nasty visit here soon then if the warlocks find out about all of that,” this one said.

“Seems likely, yeah.” She wasn't showing it on her face, but this one could see the wheels turning in the Signs-mare’s eyes. Time to move the talk in the direction this one wanted.

“They did talk about hiring some information broker to help them out with that.” This one smirked at her and spoke conspiratorially. “You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”

She smirked back. “Well, I am the best one around. The only other one who could help them out is Puzzle, and there's no way he would. Everyone knows he's sweet on the new magus.”

“Oh really?” this one asked, curious what rumors there were about it.

“Oh yeah.” The Signs-mare finished her glass and began pouring another before continuing. “They've been working together a lot. And, well, kinda obvious why that would be. Young naive girl needs herself a guide and Puzzle gets himself a pet magus for the low price of some bedroom shenanigans.”

The Heartstrings-mare narrowed her eyes. “That's quite a theory.” From behind the table, she stepped on this one’s hoof.

This one did its best not to grimace over being deliberately stepped on and the implications of that. Jealousy was radiating off of the Heartstrings-mare and it wasn't hard it figure out why she was unhappy. She didn't like the Signs-mare’s implications that this one was sleeping with the Shimmer-mare, even if the assertion was completely baseless. That was the problem with the issues of the heart, logic often had little to do with them. Best to try and put the brakes on this quickly before this one had a crisis on its hooves.

This one shrugged. “Assuming that's true, which I'm not convinced it is. Though if the warlocks are hiring you, and Puzzle's looking to use her for his own ends, isn't that going to put you two on opposite ends? Like kinda dangerously?”

The Signs-mare shrugged without any concern showing. “Not the first time I've butted heads with the competition. I always come out on top in the end.”

“Yeah, but isn't Puzzle supposed to be in another league? Way I hear it, he's responsible for more than a few bodies ending up in the Freeport Sea.” This one just wanted to be sure that the Signs-mare was indeed trying to cross this one. A little bit of bluster between friends was one thing, conspiracy another.

“He's not the only one.” The Signs-mare opened another drawer of her desk and pulled out a particularly nasty looking wavy dagger. “Back when I was starting out, there was plenty of competition. This hippogryph called Ramir, well, he was the big guy around the docks back then. He didn't want me cutting into his bottom line, so he sent five of his best thugs after me. His best one used this dagger. Gave me a nasty scar.” She used her dagger to peel back her vest to show off a jagged scar on her chest. “Tell me, either one of you ever hear of Ramir?”

This one rose an impressed eyebrow. This one of course knew that the Signs-mare had dealt with the Ramir-stallion in permanent fashion some time ago, but this one had a role to play. “Can't say I have.”

“Exactly.” The Signs-mare tossed the dagger and hit a nearby dartboard. “Same goes for Small Bit, Lockjaw’s under my hoof now, and Florian doesn’t dare mess with me.” Her lips turned in a positively nasty grin. “Besides, I have information that I can use against Puzzle. He’s just a changeling, and changelings can be killed just like everyone else.”

Now didn’t that sound foreboding? This one had to wonder what type of information she thought she had on this one. It was sorely tempting to press the Signs-mare for what exactly she knew about this one, but the problem was that, even if she was willing to tell this one what she had, there was the fact that the Heartstrings-mare was standing right next to this one. She could learn something about this one that it would really prefer she didn’t. Shifting the danger the Signs-mare posed to this one to the Heartstrings-mare would be foolish. No, best to move the conversation in a different direction for now.

This one puts its hooves up in surrender. “Okay, okay, you made your point. As long as you know what you’re doing. I just didn't want one of my best business partners getting hurt, is all.”

The Signs-mare picked her glass up and raised it in a toast to this one. “Thanks for the consideration, but I’ve got this.”

“Still, there is the fact you're dealing with warlocks,” this one pointed out. “They did pay you up front, right?”

The Signs-mare’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Who said anything about them paying me?”

“You're an information broker, right?” This one pointed at the door. “Gotta do some brokering for that information of yours to pay for nice things like Big and Tall guarding your door.”

The Signs-mare rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks for reminding me of what I do for a living.”

“You're welcome, Secret. It's just one of my free services.” This one dropped the cheer in its tone to speak more gravely. “Though I am being serious here. One of the things that kept coming up between those two was money. Money, money, money, how they're short on it, and how this trip to Freeport is costing them always everything but the cloaks on their backs.”

The Signs-mare grunted, not sounding happy. “Right.”

“Just trying to give you a fair warning,” this one said. “Because let me tell you, there're reasons why I don't deal with their types. They tend to see ponies like you and me as expendable. Pawns for their games to be used and sacrificed as needed. Remember that old story about what happened to Bright Bay?”

“Who said I was doing business with them?” A frown grew over her features and this one could feel her studying this one very carefully. Best be careful at this important juncture if this one didn’t want to overplay its cards.

“You're the second best information broker in the city, right?” this one reasoned. “And Puzzle isn't gonna be dealing with them. So either they're gonna hire a second rate information broker, or they're gonna show up at your doorstep sooner or later, right?”

“Sooner or later, yeah,” she said, sounding suspicious. “So why do you keep talking like they've already been in to see me?”

This one snorted. “I got to spend weeks with those two, and I got a pretty good idea of what they're like. Duchess Great and Large isn't the type to take the slow and cautious route. She's gonna barrel right on ahead to achieve her objective, which in this case means finding out what happened to their bud and the book they're lookin' for. Something that will go a lot faster if they talk with somepony who can figure that type of stuff out for them, like you.”

“Right.” The Signs-mare knocked another glass back. “Well if they come to me, I'll see if they're worth doing business with.”

This one shrugged and finished its own glass. This one had made its point to the Signs-mare, no sense pushing too hard and make her act in a way it didn’t want. “Fair enough. Though I'm just asking you be careful with them. Okay? You don't want to get burned on something like this.”

She nodded. “'Course not. Thanks for the heads-up.”

“So.” This one gestured at the crate. “How about we pound out the prices for what I've brought so that you can get back to your other business?”

“Right...” She didn’t sound completely convinced by this one’s turn in conversation, but that was alright. After all, it was this one’s intention for her to be quite paranoid by the end of the day.

Author's Note:

I would like to thank my editors Chengar Qordath, Comma-Kazie, and JaketheGinger, and my prereaders, Swiftest, Trinary, and 621Chopsuey for all their help with this story.