• Published 24th Oct 2016
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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.

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Chapter 3: A Breakdown In Communications

Freeport Venture: Trust Issues

Chapter 3: A Breakdown In Communications

This one’s plans were in motion.

Tricky Shade, the Signs-mare’s less-than-trustworthy second, had sent this one a message saying that the Signs-mare was going to be meeting with the warlocks again near one of Freeport’s markets late in the evening. A good sign. For one, that made it much easier for this one to do what it had planned. Second, it meant that the warlocks probably didn't trust the Signs-mare enough to see her on her own ground. Of course, that suspicion would only serve to heighten the Signs-mare’s own paranoia. After all, if someone didn't want to meet you on you own ground, then they felt they had reasons not to trust you. Either that, or they wanted you someplace where you weren't at the base of your strength.

After meeting with this one’s agents and the Thorn-stallion, this one and the Heartstrings-mare flew over the designated marketplace. Stalls and market tents were crammed into every step of available space, leaving only enough room for people to walk the streets to peruse and buy the multitude of goods available. A continual rumble of voices and sounds rolled up as buyers and sellers hurried to complete their business before the sun set.

The Heartstrings-mare stretched out her neck as she scanned the market. “There we are.” She pointed to a garden area filled tropical trees, potted flowers, and some serviceable white-painted seats and tables. It was one of the public gardens the Council had set up throughout the city to make it look a bit more inviting and give people, or at least those respectable enough to be tolerated in public places, an enjoyable place to relax. “Ground zero.”

This one studied the garden and nodded. “So it is. At least if this one's information is correct.” This one scanned the buildings near the garden, trying to find one of sufficient height, not too close to the garden but that still gave a good view of the meeting. This one’s eyes settled on a building that advertised rugs. A relatively simple grey stone building that was two stories tall but possessed a flat roof. “There seems like a good place for us to watch.”

“So you like to watch this type of thing, do you?” The Heartstrings-mare grinned knowingly.

This one returned that grin. “Only when this one feels it's necessary. This one isn't the type to need to see the effects of its handiwork.”

She poked this one in the shoulder. “But it can be fun.”

“Fun, but often terribly impractical,” this one said. “At least where one's safety is concerned.”

“Yeah, does put you a bit close to the action.”

This one nodded. “So it does. And we're not supposed to be involved in what's going to come. Not as long as everything goes to plan. We both have our reasons for that.”

Heartstrings-mare’s smile lost some of its luster. “That'd make things messy. Much cleaner if we stay out of it.”

“That was this one's line of thinking. So that's why we're going to oversee things. “

That was the thing about dealing with the warlocks and the Signs-mare. For the EIS, there would be consequences if Equestria looked like it was involved in internal affairs in Freeport. Killing some warlocks who hadn't done anything illegal yet wasn't something the Council liked to have happen in their city, at least if it became public knowledge. That wasn't even getting into the EIS murdering Freeport citizen. True, they would have more freedom to move once the warlocks attacked the Shimmer-mare or the Equestrian Embassy, but letting the warlocks act first would cede the initiative and be asking for ponies to get killed. No, Equestria would want to keep their hooves as clean as possible in this and let this one act to deal with the warlocks in a preemptive fashion—albeit under their supervision, given the Heartstrings-mare was here.

Though this one had to be careful how it acted too. Freeport wasn't the most lawful city in the world, but there were still limits to what you could get away with. Especially where more serious crimes were concerned. At the very least, acting too brazenly could could cause you to get all the wrong sorts of attention from those who worried that the balance of power in Freeport. Particularly from the Council. There were those on the Council that didn't particularly like this one and giving the Council more reasons not to like this one wasn't something this one would do casually.

This one looked around as we landed on the roof, confirming that we would have a good view of the garden and surrounding area. The nearby market tents obscured our vision a bit, but not enough to deter this one. “Hm, this should serve nicely.”

“Room with a view,” the Heartstrings-mare agreed. “Well, roof anyways.” She waved the issue off.

This one couldn't help but chuckle. “Indeed so.” Satisfied with the spot, this one pulled out several stones and carefully placed them in a circle around the roof. Each had a rune carved into them by a caribou mystic this one kept on retainer for jobs like this.

The Heartstrings-mare lowered her head to look at one of the runic stones. “Been studying up on those since somepony used rune magic to bust out on me.” Her tone was accusatory, but she carefully did not mention who we both knew she was talking about. “So .... those are concealment ones, right?”

This one nodded. “From this one’s understanding, they should make it very difficult for anyone to spot us up here. No sense letting ourselves be easily seen when we can help it.” Runic stones weren't easy to make or to use, but when used correctly they could be very potent.

The Heartstrings-mare carefully examined the area around us from the lip of the roof. “Would kinda ruin the sneaky part of the job.”

“So it would, and if these work as they're suppose to we shouldn't be easily spotted.” This one finished setting up the rune stones and then carefully put its hoof on one of them. This one felt the pulse as it activated their magic with an effort of will. “Granted, we are dealing with a couple of experienced warlocks and a crafty information broker, so don't get too comfortable.”

“True.” The Heartstrings-mare frowned in thought. “They'll probably be on the lookout for hiders. I know I'd be watching for archers on the rooftops or something.” At that, she opened a carry-on bag that had been slung over her shoulder and pulled out a small crossbow. “Probably using poisoned arrows or some nasty trick like that.” Next she pulled out a small jar, carefully unscrewed its lid, and then dipped the tip of a bolt into it. When she pulled it out, the head of the bolt was covered in a thick black substance.

“Now wouldn't that be terrible?” This one pulled another crossbow out of its bag and checked it.

“Copycat.” After a moment she added, “Which I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by, given your species.”

This one loaded a bolt into the crossbow and pulled back the string to lock it into place. “Copying is what we are good at.”

The Heartstrings-made loaded her own crossbow and then went about scanning the crowd. “So ... I assume we're agents of chaos?”

This one nodded. “There's no sense in letting calmer heads prevail today. It would rather ruin the point of bringing everyone together like this.”

“Exactly what I thought.” She continued looking over the crowd below, occasionally sparing a glance at the sky. It wouldn't be too long before everyone arrived. “Or letting one side get too much of an advantage, for that matter.”

“Not when we want them to wipe one another out.” This one laid out a blanket on the roof. It might be a while before our guests arrived, and cooking on a sun-baked room while waiting for a target wasn't an experience this one wanted to repeat.

The two of us settled on the roof next to one another and waited for our enemies to arrive. After a couple of minutes, the Heartstrings-mare looked to the tip of this one’s crossbow. “So what special surprise you got on it?”

This one shrugged with indifference. “This one’s isn't special. It's just here to make sure things start out the way it wants and to deal with any unexpected problems.”

“Makes sense.” The Heartstrings-mare gave her crossbow a forlorn look. “Sad to say, my dosed ones aren't all that fun. Gotta pay for it on a civil servant's salary.”

This one was far from averse to using poisons, having made use of a variety of them over the years—including this one’s own innate venom. Still, this one tended to only use poison sparingly for a few reasons. The first was that it was all too easy to accidentally poison yourself while using such dangerous substances. More than one would-be assassin had killed himself trying to use poison. This one had even watched an incident where a poisoner had slipped something into a mercenary captain’s drink, only to be caught in the act. When the mercenary captain had forced his would-be murderer to drink from the cup instead, the results had been predictably gruesome.

This one also didn't want to be affiliated with a specific brand of poison. This one sought to possess a certain level of mystery and unpredictability about itself, so using the same type of poison over and over again would go against that policy. It caused you to grow overly reliant on one method of killing and would raise suspicions whenever someone died of that type of poison, whether you had done the poisoning or not.

No, best to only use poison when necessary. At the end of the day, a crossbow bolt was plenty dangerous on its own and would serve quite nicely for what this one intended.

The EIS probably had a few poisons stored away somewhere in the Embassy just in case—even if officially they don’t condone its use. The White Pony wasn’t the type to approve of the use of poisons, but that didn’t mean her agents would do a dirty deed or two behind her back to give her some plausible deniability. As a general rule, the ponies of Equestria could be quite fanatical in their devotion to their ruler.

Though this one did have to privately question why the Heartstrings-mare was using poison to start with. It was possible she was going overkill due to her personal vendetta against warlocks, which could present a problem. This one didn’t want to see the job butchered due to personal grudges.

Still, it could be useful to probe into what the Heartstrings-mare was thinking. “Yes, this one is sure that your employers don't have a budget for assassinations. Especially for poisons.”

The Heartstrings-mare shrugged. “My boss does kinda frown on poison in general. It's considered a bit ... inharmonious.”

This one pulled out a pair of binoculars and went about looking over the crowd. “Let us hope the quality of our poison isn't a deciding factor in this, then.”

“Well if we aim right it should be a non-issue anyway.” She lay down and sighted her crossbow, testing her aim towards the market garden. “You take me on the best dates...”

This one settled on the blanket next to her to wait. “As this one said before, you're not likely to be bored with this one.”

“Been happy so far. So I was thinking next weekend we could—” Whatever she was about to say died on her lips as her ears perked and her eyes focused. “Incoming.”

Following her gaze, this one saw what she was looking at. This one turned its binoculars. “Ah, there we are. It seems that everypony is starting to arrive now.”

From one side of the market, the Signs-mare was working her way through the crowded marketplace with the calm assurance of a native of the streets, and she wasn't alone. She was being escorted by three individuals. This one recognized two of them as the thugs that had guarded the Signs-mare’s door earlier that day.

The warlocks entered the field from a different direction. Instead of smoothly working their way through the crowd like the Signs-mare, though, the Gravitas-mare plowed her way through the crowd like some kind of red icebreaker, the Binding-stallion following in her wake.

The Strumming-mare studied the crowd as both parties approached the garden. “So, two jerk warlocks? Check. One shady information broker? Check. Four thugs who aren't nearly as sneaky as they think they are working for said broker? Check.” She pointed out the conspicuously inconspicuous thugs.

This own frowned as it studied the third individual escorting the Signs-mare. “And this one thinks it has just found our potential problem person.” This one pointed to the zebra wearing a set of purple painted full-plate with the emblem of a shield with a halberd and sword crossed behind it. “See the zebra in the armor walking with the Signs-mare?”

Her gaze turned to the zebra. “Oooh. That's no cheap thug.”

“No.” In addition to the fine armor he was wearing, the Heartstrings-mare had probably noticed that the zebra carried himself with the confident step of a warrior. “Are you familiar with the True Heirs?”

“Yeah, bunch of zebras who picked the wrong side in one of their succession wars and followed their prince into exile,” she half-asked, half-said. “They became a bunch of mercs once they settled here in Freeport.”

“That's how they started,” this one confirmed. “Though since then they've been picking up other exiles from the Empire as they've found their way to Freeport. Usually other nobility that had fled for one reason or another. Unless this one misses its guess, that one right there is Hakan, the great-grandson of a princess who lost a succession war and fled to Freeport. At least he’s the only one this one knows about that wears a helmet with ornamentation intended to look like a hawk.”

She turned her binoculars to the zebra and studied him carefully. “Oooh. High-ranker or a plot-kicker?”

“Both, at least according to rumor,” this one said. “The Hakan-stallion is the type that can demand high fees for his services. If this one knows its True Heirs, then he's probably gotten the best alchemical potions money can buy to enhance his natural abilities. That would certainly explain some of the stories this one has heard—such as him managing to stop the assassination of the plantation owner of Sugardays Island, and killing at least half a dozen skilled assassins in the process.”

The Heartstrings-made grimaced. “Ooof. Sounds like he's one to keep an eye on.”

“The Signs-mare must be very worried to pay the kind of money it would take to hire someone like him for a simple meeting.” A savage grin grew on this one's lips. “Maybe this one had stirred the pot a bit too much. Putting word on the street that she was the one that killed Marius might have overdone it, all things considered.”

The Heartstrings-mare’s mouth curved in its own savage grin. “Imagine if it devolves into an all-out brawl. That would be awful.”

“The absolute worse,” this one agreed in good cheer, leveling its crossbow at the garden. Everyone was now gathered, and if this one was reading their body language right, they would start talking business soon.

The Heartstrings-mare also took aim, “I might cry.”

“Hold your fire for the moment,” this one said. “We might need it in case something doesn't go the way we want. Let this one get things started.”

The Heartstrings-mare became a touch less tense, but only a little so. “Can do.”

This one scanned the nearby rooftops and saw its agents carefully crawling around on them. Good, that plan was proceed as it should.

The Signs-mare and the warlocks were now facing one another and, if this one had to ask, were having a very tense talk about what they had learned earlier in the day. That was always the issue when you delved into this one’s world: trust was perhaps the most precious of commodities. It was why this one spent so much time and effort building up relations with a variety of individuals around it. If you couldn't trust the people you were working with...

This one carefully aimed the crossbow, took in a breath that it held, and fired. There was a snap as the bolt was launched. It flew towards the garden with almost imperceptible speed. The bolt shot past the Gravitas-mare, close enough for its passage to pull at the curls of her mane, and stuck the cobblestones of the garden—exactly how this one desired.

The Gravitas-mare jerked instinctively and her horn lit up. “You DARE?!” she bellowed.

This one’s teeth flashed in a grin. “And here is where the trust issues become a problem, Heartstrings-mare.”

The Signs-mare blinked and held up a hoof for her bodyguards to stay put and they started clustering around her. “What the—cease fire! I didn't tell anyone to shoot!”

The Binding-stallion’s head jerked around as he took in the rapidly degeneration situation. He raised a hoof to the Gravitas-mare to try and forestall her, saying something this one couldn’t hear. The Signs-mare also said something that was drowned out.

Whatever was said to the Gravitas-mare, it didn’t succeed in convincing her to stand down as her horn glew all the brighter. “Liar!” her of condemnation boomed. Several of the cobblestones around her were ripped from the ground and shot at the Signs-mare and her guard.

The Signs-mare ducked out of the way, one of them knocking her hat off. One of her bodyguards wasn't so lucky; a pair of cobblestones blasted him off his hooves, and he fell motionless to the ground.

“Dammit! Take them!” the Signs-mare commanded, darting behind a statue that dominate the center of the garden.

Cries of shock and fear rang out from the people near the garden as violence suddenly erupted in their midsts. The quickest recognized the danger and worked to move out of the killing zone while the slower were still standing still, trying to register what was happening. The only people to actually move towards the fight were the thugs the Signs-mare had brought to the fight, and they deftly moved through the the crowd, pushing bystanders out of the way.

The Gravitas-mare ripped more cobblestones out of the ground and the Signs-mare’s guards staggered their line. The warlock threw her impromptu projectiles, forcing them to dodge for cover.

The Binding-stallion glanced around him and spotted the thugs heading towards them. He snatched a bag from his side and quickly pulled out some bones with his magic, throwing themto the ground with a series of pops and bursts of smoke. When the smoke dissipated, eight skeletons stood around the warlocks. The hired thugs rushed the warlocks and were met by the skeletons, and the scene quickly devolved into a whirling melee.

Unconcerned with the thugs, the Gravitas-mare focused her full attention on the Signs-mare as she fled into the market stalls. The earth rumbled as the warlock cast a spell. A pillar of stone shot up from the ground from under the Signs-mare, and while she dodged the worst of the attack, the pillar clipped her and sent her sprawling into a nearby market stall.

The Gravitas-mare grinned savagely as she worked to cast another spell. Seeing that she was in danger, the Signs-mare rolled along the ground to take cover in the destroyed market stall. It was a good thing she had too, for the pillar exploded and showered the whole area with shards of rock. Several of the nearby stalls were severely damaged by the blast, their canvas ripped to shreds, a multitude of goods smashed to pieces, and a half dozen fleeing individuals injured.

For a moment this one wondered if the Signs-mare might have been either injured or killed by the blast, but she slipped out from behind one of adjacent stalls. She continue ducking behind the stalls, trying to stay out the enraged warlock’s line of sight.

More than a little bit of this one was tempted to shoot her as she fled, but it held its fire. That might expose this one, and it wasn't absolutely necessary for this one’s plans for the Signs-mare to die right here and now. That is what this one’s contingencies were for.

One of the thugs shouldered past his skeletal opponent, breaking his way through and running for the warlocks. Seeing him coming, the Binding-stallion formed a green globe of energy and launched it. The thug, charging full tilt, wasn't able to dodge the globe. It sizzled as it splashed over him, and vapors drifted from the thug’s head and neck. He screamed in pain and fell to the ground, clutching blindly at the acid as it ate away at him.

Having bought them a moment's respite, the Binding-stallion turned to his companion. “We need to get out of here!”

Withdrawing from the dangerous situation would have been a sensible reaction. Pity for her companion that the Gravitas-mare merely straightened herself and squared her jaw. “I will not flee from common thugs!”

She scooped up more cobblestones and launched them over the market stalls and detonated them like so many fire gems, showering the area with stone shards. While she did manage to destroy several more stalls, the Signs-mare continued to carefully picked her way through the market. It seemed that the Gravitas-mare was determined to see this matter to the end.

Their opponents were far from beaten. While the Signs-mare was doing everything she could to escape, her hired help continue the fight.

The True Heir mercenary Hakan lashed out a hoof and shattered one of the skeleton’s knees. With practiced speed and precision, Hakan hooked a leg under the skeleton’s leg and, using its momentum from falling against it, threw it into one of its companions. Having opened a hole in the warlocks’ defensive line, Hakan-stallion dived through.

Seeing the danger, the Binding-stallion fire another one of his green globes at Hakan. The Heir swiftly stepped out of the way of the attack by the barest of margins and closed the final distance as the warlock charged another spell. The Gravitas-mare was too busy throwing more stones at the other thugs to aid her compatriot and Hakan-stallion struck the Binding-stallion’s horn, disrupting his spell. The Binding-stallion’s cry of pain was cut short when Hakan-stallion followed-up with a strike to the warlock’s throat.

The Hearstrings-mare whistled as the Hakan-stallion hit the Binding-stallion with a series of lightning-fast blows. “He's fast.”

This one nodded. “That would line up with the potion he’s allegedly used.”

After a flurry of blows and a hook to the side of the warlock’s head that sent him spiraling to the ground, the Hakan-stallion brought a hoof down on the Binding-stallion’s neck, making it highly unlikely he would ever be getting up again. The first warlock defeated, the Hakan-stallion turned on the Gravitas-mare, whom was still badly distracted by the other thugs that were battling their way past the skeletons.

“Riiight.” The Heartstrings-mare aimed her crossbow at the True Heir. “Time to even the odds.” She fired her crossbow and her bolt soared. It would have struck the Hakan-stallion as he approached the final warlock, but the mercenary suddenly stopped and smacked the bolt out of the air.

“Oh, that's just not fair!” the Heartstrings-mare complained, quickly reloading her crossbow. This one couldn't exactly disagree with that sentiment. Blocking a bolt in the midst of combat was just mocking the archer.

Still, we stalled the Hakan-stallion long enough for the Gravitas-mare to impale a stone spear through the last of the Signs-mare’s remaining thugs. She tossed a pair of cobblestones at the Hakan-stallion, but he managed to dodge between those stones too, proving to be a very difficult opponent to pin down.

But there were limits to what even he could dodge; the Gravitas-mare’s next spell caused the ground to explode in front of her and a barrage of fast-flying stones flew at the zebra. The burst of stones proved impossible for him to avoid, even with his supernatural abilities. The stones struck all across his side, denting in his armor, piercing his exposed flesh, and carried him until he collided with a market stall. He did not rise again.

“That did it.” The Heartstrings-mare huffed with exasperation. “Shame the warlock is still alive.”

“We’re not done quite yet.” This one’s eyes glanced over the battlefield.

“Have to agree with you there,” the Heartstrings-mare grumbled, leveling her crossbow at the Gravitas-mare.

“Wait.” This one pushed down her crossbow.

The Gravitas-mare’s head swiveled to try and find more threats but only saw the bodies of the thugs, shattered skeletons, and the broken remains of the garden and market around her. Seeing no one moving, she bent down to check over the Binding-stallion.

This one caught some motion in a nearby alleyway. Like the spring of a mousetrap, the Gravitas-mare snapped her horn in that general direction, and the mouth of the alley burst in a pool of black miasma that melted everything it touched.

In that opening, a cloaked blur launched itself from one of the other alleys towards the Gravitas-mare, an eagle-like mask gleaming. An amulet around the warlock’s neck glew and the ground erupted with stalagmites, forming a barrier between her and newcomer. With a flash of the warlock’s horn, the wall burst outward, raining stones upon the street—but black-cloaked figure had already dodged to the side, his approach blocked by a fresh layer of stone.

The Gravitas-mare kept blowing out her barriers as they emerged one after the other, but never finding her assailant. “Stop moving you coward!” she screamed. “I am—!”

Her next words were cut off when the assassin flicked a wing dart, striking the amulet around her neck. There was a crack of magical energies and the amulet went inert. In a blind panic, the Gravitas-mare tore the ground up to launch a torrent of stones at the assassin. The assassin somehow managed to slip his way through the onslaught and closed the distance between them. Her horn barely started to glow before he was upon her, and fell away as it was sliced clean off. Before she could even understand what had occurred, the assassin bore her into the ground, sinking the blade of his gauntlet through her jaw and brain.

The Thorn-stallion remained perched atop his victim, as a buzzard would feasting upon a carcass. His head turned, and for a moment, his gaze seemed to linger on this one. Then, he slowly rose and treaded towards his other target. A momentary check later, the assassin plunged his blade through the Binding-stallion’s head.

Seemingly satisfied with his handiwork, the Thorn-stallion departed, though this one had a feeling he would be speaking with this one later. Likely he wouldn’t be thrilled that the warlocks had hurt innocent people before they being slain. Well, this one would deal with that in good order. Even if the meeting would be unpleasant later.

The Heartstrings-mare lowered her crossbow. “And that's all the baddies down. Except for Signs, anyways.” She shrugged. “Seems like your assassin has finished cleaning house. How many potions do you think that guy is hopped up on?”

“He gets the job done.” This one dropped its own crossbow on the roof. No sense carrying an incriminating weapon around. “This one saw the Signs-mare slinking away during the fight. No sense going after her for the moment” Most likely she was well on her way to safety by now, or at least as someplace she thought was safe.

“Yeah, looks like she bolted as soon as things got hairy,” the Heartstrings-mare said. “Kinda smart, probably.”

“That is what this one would have done.” This one frowned as it saw a squad of the condottieri approaching the destroyed market. “But we should get out of here before the law arrives. Best that we're not around to get questioned about what happened.” This one quickly scooped up the runestones around the roof. Those would be easier to track to this one than the crossbow.

“Yeah, let's fly.” The Heartstrings-mare spread her wings.

Quite agreeing with the Heartstrings-mare, this one spread its wings and we took flight to leave the battlefield behind us.

The next morning this one was sitting down to eat at one of its preferred restaurants. The establishment was simply decorated with Zebrican rugs and other authentic Zebrican decorations. Oil lamps kept the place lit and incense burned to help ward off the smells of the street. It was a cozy little establishment that belonged to some descendants of Zebrican exiles, and this one had been a patron of the establishment since its parents had taken it to the restaurant as a child. Perhaps this one was merely being nostalgic, but it felt the place served the best Zebrican food despite the outward mundanity of the place.

This one was also making sure to get authentic Zebrican food while prices were still reasonable. It was hard to say exactly when things would kick off in the Empire, but when it did certain goods were going to become in much shorter supply.

This one was in the middle of eating its vegetable stew when a figure in a black cloak stepped up from behind this one and then sat down opposite of it. “Puzzle,” the Thorn-stallion said, a particularly unhappy frown on his features. It seemed we were about to have one of those conversations.

“Hello, this one is hoping you are doing well.” This one dabbed at its face with a napkin and placed it to the side. “This one wasn't able to double check if you were uninjured from the fight yesterday.”

“I'm fine,” the Sulidae said, his tone terse. “Not that everyone else at the market was so lucky.”

This one knew he wasn't speaking about the warlocks or even Signs-mare’s thugs, so it got right to the point of what he probably wanted to talk about. “The civilian casualties were unfortunate, yes.” This one shrugged. “Sometimes such things can't be helped, especially when dealing with dangerous opponents like warlocks.”

The Thorn-stallion snorted, waving off a waiter that approached us. “You know that’s not true, not here. We could have dealt with the warlocks efficiently, quietly. In fact, even Secret could have been dealt with much more cleanly.” He scowled. “But no. You just had to show off and get them to kill each other. And you couldn’t even do that properly.”

“I’m afraid this one simply has to disagree” this one said, wiping its mouth on a napkin. “Both parties have effectively been neutralized. The Signs-mare’s escape is of no consequence.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Don’t dodge the issue.”

Sighing, this one pushed its bowl aside, no longer hungry. “No plan is perfect. If this one did nothing, then the warlocks would have found out the Shimmer-mare sooner or later. Probably sooner with the Signs-mare’s help. And what would have happened if they caught up with the Shimmer-mare? This one is sure you have heard how her previous encounters have gone against other spellcasters.”

“Yes, which still calls into question whether she’s worth the investment.” His eyes turned accusing. “Her only unique benefits are her lack of previous Freeport loyalties and her political value.”

This was the problem with the Thorn-stallion: he could be shortsighted, at least in comparison to this one. While it was true that the Shimmer-mare did have her flaws, there was still a great deal of potential in her. Especially with this one being there to guide her down the right path. But that would take time. As a crop must be carefully cultivated to bear fruit, so it would be so with the Shimmer-mare. The Thorn-stallion had never trained another, taken them under his wing, or mentored others in his craft, so he did not understand that talent needed to be cultivated. Not really. Or at least he did not have the patience to be the teacher. That was one of the reasons he was effectively alone, after all, and someday that would cost him. An individual's strength will only get you so far in this world.

The Thorn-stallion shook his head. “Digression aside. You had the resources for a cleaner execution on both parties, and I do not know whether it is negligence, ineptitude, or ulterior drives compelling you to such … choices.”

“This one is flattered you hold it to such high regards,” this one said with false pleasure. “But it feels it must remind you that it is not a miracle worker.”

“Indeed, you are not, and I think it high time you learned that.”

This one let out a long sigh. “Here’s the thing, the enemy has a nasty tendency of not doing what you want them to do. The plan this one went with was the one it thought was the most likely to succeed while achieving its objectives. Especially when everything had to be done on such short notice. If it was this one’s choice, it would have taken a lot more time to research the warlocks and discover all the weaknesses in order to find out the best manner by which to eliminate them. But time was of the essence to make sure they did not get to the Shimmer-mare and cause a real crisis, and that meant taking imperfect actions. This one considers itself lucky things went as well as they did.”

“And that’s the crux of the problem: your plan depended on luck.”

This one frowned, growing tired of being given the third degree. “And what else should this one have done? Just hired you to kill them and hope for a perfect kill?” The Thorn-stallion opened his mouth, but this one talked over him. “That still would have taken time, valuable time, and despite your assurances, even you can’t guarantee that you would have killed them before they found the Shimmer-mare—something that would most likely have resulted in a very nasty fight. This one will remind you that you don’t have this one’s ability to find people and gather information, services you often hire this one for during your own jobs, and it still would have been you and you alone against two warlocks and whatever monsters they could summon, or help they could hire. Maybe you are fine with those odds, but this one was not.”

The Thorn-stallion scowled at this one. “So instead, you declare everyone else fair game?”

This one rolled its eyes. “If you don’t like this one’s methods then don’t accept any more jobs from it. Simple as that.”

The assassin angrily hunched over the table, but his words halted in his breath, remembering where we were. He sat back down with a snort, the tension vanishing from his shoulders as he stared with a deathly calm. “Simple as that, eh?” he sneered. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He leaned back and turned his eyes to the surrounding restaurant.

This one ground it’s teeth together, both in annoyance with the Thorn-stallion and with itself. It was letting its emotions get in the way of its judgement. This wasn’t the time to push the limits with him since this one would like to use him more in the future.

“I’ve put up with a lot of crap with you. I suspect I still will for some time.” He turned this way with a contemptuous stare. “But you have been growing increasingly reckless ever since meeting those Equestrians.”

“Hardly reckless,” this one protested, a smile on its lips that it didn’t truly feel. “Even if the Shimmer-mare has a much more direct way of doing things than it is used to.”

He shook his head. “Irrelevant. Normally you’re a lot more careful, more subtle. You’ve never acted this openly and this often before. I can only surmise that either they are a terrible influence on you or that their presence has bolstered your confidence for some reason.”

This one shrugged carelessly. He was right about this one acting more boldly, though his reasonings for why this one was doing so were a bit off the mark. “Maybe this one is merely getting sentimental in its old age?” It didn’t seem practical to tell the Thorn-stallion this one was moving closer to its end goals. Not at this juncture, at least. There were times and places to reveal this one’s plans, and this wasn’t one of them. Maybe if he knew what this one was up to he would understand why this one was acting in the way it was, but this one kept its hand close to its chest for very good reasons.

The Thorn-stallion sighed. “No matter how obvious, you still choose to lie to me. Fine.” He stood up with a sense of finality. “Either way, I suggest you be wary of where you step. At the pace you're going, you're getting dangerously near your Quota. I can only hope your ambitions do not become the end of you.”

The Sulidae’s ‘Quota’ was effectively his measure of how much someone was ticking him off. He was always the type to want to dress up his occupation in grand titles and gestures, and thus he named such a silly concept as scaling when he would just kill someone for making him unhappy. But it wouldn't do to call him out on such a thing. Not at this moment, anyways.

Dealing with the Thorn-stallion has always been a precarious affair. One always had to strike a balance between his sentimentalities and one’s own goals, and the usual threats of an angry assassin were especially real with his skills, even with this one’s contingencies for either outcomes. It might be best not to hire him for any future jobs for a while, or at least any jobs he might object to. Let the rocky waters settle.

This one gave him an easy smile. “Oh don’t worry, this one’s ambitions haven’t been the end of it yet, and it has no intentions of them getting this one killed for quite some time.”

After all, this one had so much work yet to complete before it could allow itself to die.

The following night found this one at the beach with the Heartstrings-mare. The two of us were relaxing on a pair of towels on the sand and enjoining a plate of shish kabob between us. All about was the buzz of happy people enjoying the food, drink, and each other's company as the late night neighborhood party continued. There was the periodic explosion of fireworks as children set them streaking over ocean while under the careful eyes of adults.

This one lived in a nice, homey sort of neighborhood—the type that one paid good money for a sense of domestic tranquility in opposition to the constant bustle of Freeport. A highly successful mercenary captain had bought the island this one now lived on, having cleared it of the poor residents and businesses that had inhabited it at the time and built up a neighborhood of nice houses, friendly neighbors, and more than a fair share of mercenary guards to make sure it stayed that way.

For the moment, this one had taken the appearance of what this one thought was a handsome-looking pegasus stallion. This one generally preferred to appear in public in rather plainer forms in order to not draw attention to itself, but this one had found that the Heartstrings-mare preferred if her partner was something nice to look at. So this one had been playing around with different forms to see what she liked when we weren’t out on business.

The Heartstrings-mare stretched on her towel in a rather enticing way, and this one smiled. “Enjoying the party?”

The Heartstrings-mare rolled her shoulders languidly. “Yup.”

“Good, it's nice to get to relax now and again.” This one sipped at its fruit punch while watching the fireworks blossom overhead. This was certainly more relaxing than taking down a pair of warlocks and a dangerous rival—if perhaps not as interesting. Sometimes this one did have to wonder if it was on some level addicted to the excitement of its occupation. Though at least if that was the case, then this one was doing what it loved.

The Heartstrings-mare sipped at her own drink of choice. “I'm liking it so far.”

This one shifted into a more comfortable position from which to talk to its. “This one does like to spoil you on occasion.”

The Heartstrings-mare smiled impishly. “And this one enjoys being spoiled.”

Now that we were nicely settled, this one moved to start massaging the Heartstrings-mare’s shoulders. She always did like it when this one did that for her. It would help keep her relaxed while we talked about more serious topics too. “So, this one trusts everything is going alright at the Embassy?”

She murmured softly at my touch. “Pretty good, yeah. Two dead warlocks makes my bosses happy.”

“They were a pair of national security issues, weren't they?” this one asked, fully knowing the answer to that question. What this one wanted to do at this moment was to remind the EIS how useful this one could be to them. “No doubt they knew all sorts of things Equestria really would have prefered no one else did.”

“Sounds about right, yeah.” Changing the topic of the conversation she turned to look at this one. “Just one thing I'm not sure about.”

This one quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? What's that?”

She frowned. “Signs. I don't like loose ends.”

This one grinned at the mention of this one’s rival. It was true she had escaped the battle the previous day, so it wasn't surprising the Heartstrings-mare was concerned about her. “Who said she was a loose end?” She raised a questioning eyebrow, and it continued. “If this one is being honest, the Signs-mare and this one have a number of things in common. Comes with the occupation. You simply need certain skillsets to survive in this business, and something nearly any successful information broker makes sure to have is a safehouse or bolthole to hide in if the heat becomes too much. Which it almost always does sooner or later. It's inevitable with the types of enemies you’re going to make.”

“So you figure she's hiding out?”

This one nodded. “That's what this one would do.” A knowing grin worked its way onto this one’s lips. “Especially when her second-in-command had hired a bunch of mercenaries to take over her organization when she was out to talk with our late warlock friends.” This one had of course arranged all of that. Some would wonder how Tricky had come upon enough money to hire enough mercenaries to take over the Signs-mare’s organization, but that wasn't too big of a concern. Either people would dismiss it as Tricky having planned betraying his master for some time now or they would eventually figure out this one was behind it all and that this one was the real master of the Signs-mare’s organization. Either of those results would suit this one just fine in the end.

“That so?” the Heartstrings-mare, suspicion lacing her tone. “Awful timing for her then.”

“Terrible timing indeed,” this one agreed. “Especially when all of her best and most loyal followers were out backing her up at the market. And now that all of them dead or incapacitated, her organization ripped out from under her, and her only options are either to run or hide if she doesn't want some very nasty enemies she’s made to find her.”

The Heartstrings-mare winced slightly, but only slightly. “Oooh. She's in a tight spot.”

“Yes.” This one continued with this one’s fillyfriend’s massage. “And wouldn't it be even more terrible if, say, some of her enemies found out about her bolthole too. Especially if someone knew all the contractors she had hired to make her bolthole, and thus knew about all the defenses and locks she used to keep everyone outside. Depending on who that person is, they might even sell that information to her other enemies.”

“Oh, that would be just awful.” She glanced at this one out of the corner of her eye. “So does someone have that much information?”

“This one thinks so,” this one said with a nasty grin. “She has made quite a few enemies. Enemies who would be waiting for a moment of weakness from her. Such as now.”

“Oooh dear,” she said in the tone of a mare who knew exactly what this one was saying. “She's in trouble.”

This one took a moment to take a bite out of its shish kabob. “So she is, assuming we can even still talk about her in the present tense.” Considering the amount of time that had passed since this one had put its plans into motion, this one was reasonably confident that this was the case.

It was a long moment before the Heartstrings-mare said, “Nasty.”

This one shrugged. “At least she won't be a threat to the Shimmer-mare anymore.”

“True.” She shrugged also. “That's the main goal.”

“So it is,” this one agreed. “That’s the Signs-mare and the warlocks out of the way, at least.”

“Yep!” She took a moment to stretch out. “Anyways, what was the deal with those goons that attacked you yesterday by the docks?”

“Them?” This one was a bit surprised by the shift in topics. It wasn't terribly surprising that the EIS had heard about that incident, even if this one had thought it had done a good job of not being tracked while it was doing its mission for the Council. Well, this one would just have to be more careful in the future. “They were known as the Smasher Gang, a small hooffull of small-time thugs who took odd jobs around the city when someone wanted to hire some dumb muscle. Curiously, they’re all dead or missing now.”

The Heartstrings-mare frowned. “Your work?”

This one shook its head. “This one injured them, but none of their injuries should have been fatal. But according to this one’s agents, one of them died at a local healing house due to an allergic reaction to a drug he had been given. Another was escorted away from the healing house by people claiming to be family while the other two have apparently disappeared completely.”

This one’s fillyfriend mulled over what she had been told. “Maybe your people simply haven't found the others yet.”

“Possibly,” this one allowed. “But as a small gang of small time thugs, they’re not the types to have the resources to be able to disappear off the face of the earth. At least not easily. Maybe this one’s agents will find them soon enough, but this one has a feeling they won't.”

“So you think there’s something fishy going on?”

“Indeed.” This one rubbed its chin. “This one doesn't have enough proof to prove anything yet but...” This one sighed and shook its head. “What will turn up will turn up, but this one has a feeling someone has just tied up a loose end to keep anything from getting tracked back to her.”

“So someone put a hit on you and then took out the hit ponies when they failed?” The Heartstrings-mare rolled her neck and shoulders. “Any idea who might want to take you out?”

“Only in general.” This one shrugged. In truth, this one didn't want to get too far into the details of the issue with the EIS agent. It could be that the Heartstrings-mare was fishing for details on whatever it was this one had carried for the Council and was doing so in a roundabout manner. So now was probably a good time to switch topics. This one would continue its own investigation, even if it seemed nothing would come of it. “How about instead we talk about more productive business.”

“What business is that?”

“This one was wanting to discuss a little problem this one is having with a particularly troublesome smuggler. The Heartstrings-mare might have heard of him, considering he's caused problems for Equestria in the past.” This one grinned and lied down next to her. “How about we discuss what we can do about him?”

The Heartstrings-mare returned this one’s grin. “I'm game for that...”

That was the thing about this shadowy world this one lived in. The Great Game never ended. It just kept going and going. Some rise and others fall with the passage of time. No one ever really won. No, all one could do was achieve their goals and hope it turned out for the best.

After many years of hard work, this one now had wealth, influence, an information network, and no small measure of power. None of this one’s rivals in the underworld of Freeport were much in the way of a threat to this one. Then the greater powers in Freeport either found this one too useful to dispose of or thought this one was too dangerous to be worthwhile to tackle, but these things were not this one’s end goals. No, what this one now held was merely a base to work off of to achieve what it really wanted.

With the Shimmer-mare’s coming to Freeport and falling under this one’s influence, it seemed now was the time to start moving forward with this one’s ultimate ends. Conditions were about as ideal as they were reasonably going to become. It might mean this one will need to step out of the shadows a bit more now, and that would mean having to risk much of what this one had already gained, but that was fine at the end of the day. After all, those that never risked anything never gained anything, and this one was playing for very high stakes.

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.

Comments ( 21 )

YAY for Freeport

I wonder what Puzzle Piece is up to.

The Council, i assume. Either a spot for himself or more likely removing them.
I remember Sunset wanting to set herself as a sort of Celestia for Freeport. Except her ties with Equestria make this a big contention point for 2 other countries. However the Zebra's are going to be busy with the brewing civil war, so that leaves only one opponent.
Somehow, i don't think Puzzle will be going against Equestrians, as that would set off Sunset, so most likely we can expect a big pile up with locals, warlocks, Old Mind and current protagonists.

Excellent! An enjoyable read as always. Love this universe. This was a nice insight to some of Puzzle's inner workings.

The Heartstrings-mate rolled her shoulders languidly. “Yup.”

I can't decide if this is actually a spelling error by the author or a Freudian slip by the character :pinkiehappy:

Great story. Your Puzzle stories are always very engaging and get me thinking about how exciting it's gonna be to see more adventures in Freeport.

Had that exact thought at the time of reading it too

Senior Puzzle Piece for el presidente!

He'll make Freeport great again!

Puzzle 's plan:

I suspect Puzzle's real endgame involves Crysalis' corpse, and the generation thereof.

Just an observation but things usually end up going badly or not the way one expects when someone who is so used to fighting from the shadows comes into the light

This story was good and all, but it's missing that one essential piece: MOAR!!! <3

I keep clicking the Thumbs Up button, but it just won't increase any higher!

7741289 An Sunset. As much as these little 'side plots' are awesome to read. Really the over all story doesn't progress. Sunset is best pony, and I wish to see more of her story. Not just these little jobs she does once in a while, but her overall story arch progress farther too.

Well, I'd argue that Puzzle is guiding Sunset on her path--and so this is advancing the main plot, at least a little. We keep getting hints that Puzzle has something BIG in the works, that he has for a while, and that Sunset is basically crucial to those plans. The main arc with Sunset seems to me like it's going to be depending on how these plans affect her--and I'm guessing quite a bit. The thing that bugs ME is that despite Sunset deciding she's going to stay in Freeport to try to fix the place, her own morals are incredibly weak and she's focused on money, like a merc. She nearly hoofed over the Codex in the previous story... I am frustrated seeing a lack of altruism in much of her actions. I'd like to see her growing in that direction. Honestly, it often seems to me as if Puzzle is more moral than Sunset is--although this arrangement to kill his enemies does belie that somewhat. It's just, with Puzzle, I know he's always going to find a way to stop the bad guy AND turn a profit on it, and I don't worry he's going to do something stupid (like help warlocks in a big way) the way I do with Sunset. I never know exactly how she's going to jump, and though she's trying for (mostly) lawful good (if I understand those right...feel free to correct me, anyone), she seems extremely attached to the monetary aspect, getting dangerously close to forgetting her morals in favor of a payoff in multiple situations. Her moral compass is crudely drawn and hard to read, and the needle tends to swing towards personal gain...

7744839 She is not attached to money, per say, but more of she understands that she needs money to keep on working/living. However, she still has a moral code. She extorts Puzzle for money, knowing that Puzzle wants and needs her for something and won't readily deny her. However, puzzle has mentioned that she will tend to help people she feels morally needs it, even if they don't have money to pay, and refuse people that want something very morally wrong done. Such as being hired to kill someone, she refuses unless it's the Council.

As for the Codex, I am upset about that as well. She never was going to hoof it over to the Warlock, that was a fake. But that she hoofed it over to the EIS without making a copy first and keeping the original while giving away the copy.

Sunset is in a very.... gray area. She wants to help, she wants to do good, but understands she can't just dedicated everything to being good as that doesn't pay the bills. What's more, in a lot of situations, it ends with her being forced to do bad things, in her mind anyways. Being so young, or in the heat of the moment, she doesn't think about a better solution and turns to more darker ones.

So Puzzle's tally at the end of this is: two powerful warlocks slain, one rival removed from power, said rivals entire operation annexed, and one offshore plantation marginally improved. Overall, pretty good! XD. Also, this may seem like a strange thing to ask, but I was just wondering what is the situation with Freeport's gang culture? It's been stated that the Council's mercenaries mostly cleared Freeport proper of those they believe diminish trade, so is do the majority of Freeports criminals simply inhabit the outlying islands or are there shadier parts of the city we haven't seen yet?


That's a bit of a complicated situation and I'll try and answer relatively briefly. Namely, the condottieri aim to prevent the types of crimes that do diminish trade. These are namely violent crimes and things like theft. Naturally the condottieri isn't perfect, like real world policing organs, so they don't prevent everything, and anytime you make anything illegal there are going to be those that break the law. And they are fairly corrupt. Then certain criminal activities are more tolerated than others. Smuggling for one, for example, since it doesn't disrupt trade nearly as much as say an incident of assault. Then there are places where it's much easier to engage in certain illegal activities. Poorer neighborhoods and the outlying islands get much less policing than the nicer parts of the city of Freeport, and the natural consequences of that follow.

Gangs take a number of shapes in Freeport. Some act as their own established organizations, either as mercantile houses or mercenary companies, while other engage in far more illegal activities and thus get more attention from the condottieri.

“That'd make things messy. Much cleaner if we stay out of it.”

But Strumming, you seem to like things messy.

that didn’t mean her agents would do a dirty deed or two behind her back to give her some plausible deniability.

Poison sounds more Luna's method, not Celestia's.

No sense going after her for the moment”

Missing a period.

Before I read this, what is the Dark tag for ?
And how bad does it get ?


There is some killing in this story, so that's where there is the Dark tag. Though I don't think it anything grimdark.

I really like these Freeport stories.

Everything I said on the previous story about Puzzle being a greyer protagonist than Sunset seems like it applies even more now. Killing a bunch of changelings in a massive explosion was one thing, but the way he dealt with the warlocks and his rival was quite another, especially the way he rationalises to the assassin afterwards about the necessity of it, even despite the collateral damage. And I'm not sure what exactly his plans are (though I know they can't be too bad if he expects Sunset to go along with them), but the way he talks about Sunset and his intentions for her still comes off as really sinister.

I will say, though, I'm very interested to see where all this is going. Between Puzzle's allusions to big plans, his enemies on the Council, the assassin, the Smasher gang and their disappearance, and whatever it was his rival knew that he wanted to keep secret from Strumming, it seems like a lot of set-up is being done for future stories. I hope I'll get to read them soon.


This one couldn't help but chuckle. “Indeed so.” Satisfied with the spot, this one pulled out several stones and carefully placed them in a circle around the roof. Each had a rune carved into them by a caribou mystic this one kept on retainer for jobs like this[.]


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