• Published 1st Jun 2017
  • 5,429 Views, 178 Comments

Freeport Venture: Blood Debts - Chengar Qordath

When one of Freeport Magus Sunset Shimmer's friends is nearly killed, she must find out who is responsible and decide how far she'll go to bring the attacker to justice.

  • ...

The Incident

Life as the only proper Magus within Freeport, and a magus-for-hire at that, wasn’t always about insane risks and excitement. Sure, every once in a while I wound up with a job that involved someone trying to find inventive and painful ways of killing me, but most of the time I was doing stuff that was a lot safer—often better-paying, too.

Taking on a powerful lich who claimed to be a time and dimensional traveller makes for a great story, but that job had ended with me, Puzzle, and Strumming all taking a trip to the hospital. And all to help a group of poor commune farmers who barely had anything before the fight with the lich had burned up a lot of crops and smashed up their homes.

After something like that, some nice, safe, and easy jobs sounded absolutely perfect. “So, how sensitive did you want this tremor ward to be?”

Puzzle looked over the safe he kept hidden behind a large painting. “This one will defer to the Shimmer-mare’s expertise on the matter.” He shrugged. “It is sure that a magus knows more about the details of constructing a magical ward than it does.”

I frowned and rolled my eyes, not buying his false modesty for a minute. There were a lot of words I could use to describe Puzzle Piece, but ‘ignorant’ certainly wasn’t one of them. Especially not when it came to something as important as the magical defenses protecting his secrets. Information brokers take that kind of thing pretty seriously.

Sure, these weren’t Puzzle’s most important secrets—those were almost certainly contained within the magically inert cold iron floor safe hidden under an illusion. I’m pretty sure Puzzle didn’t think I knew about that one. Or maybe he realized I did, and just wanted me to think I’d gotten one over on him. Or maybe that safe was a decoy, and the real one was somewhere else in his basement. You could never tell with Puzzle.

I grimaced and got back to the task at hoof. “I just didn’t know how paranoid you wanted to be about your security. You know how it goes with tremor wards: make them too sensitive and it’ll go off every time someone slams a door or plays loud music. Dull it enough to not get any false positives, and...” I didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Puzzle nodded along. “This one would prefer to err on the side of caution. Its basement should be reasonably insulated from many of the things which might normally trigger a sensitive tremor ward. This one prefers to keep its office and working area as self-contained as possible precisely to avoid any problems of that sort.”

I’d already guessed as much from the state of his basement’s magical defenses. The wards were a real hodgepodge; my best guess was that he’d hired a dozen different contractors to put together a couple defenses, then tied the whole thing together himself. Certainly not as good as what I could do, but the sheer variety of different magical arts involved in his wards would throw a lot of people off. On top of the obvious changeling magic, I saw some unicorn spellwork, a few caribou runes, two different kinds of zebra magic, a couple of gryphon blood sigils, and one spell thread that was borderline warlockery.

As far as magical defenses went, this was already a very solid setup, which inevitably begged the question. “So why do you need my help?” Especially since the most likely reason he’d set up his wards the way he had was so none of the contractors he hired could give away the secret to breaking his defenses. I had no intention of backstabbing Puzzle, but someone in his line of work wouldn’t count on me staying friendly to him.

Puzzle must have guessed what was going through my mind, because he grinned and answered with entirely too much sincerity. “For one, this one trusts you.”

I scoffed and rolled my eyes. “Well aren't you sweet?” Puzzle hadn’t become one of the biggest power players in Freeport’s cutthroat society by being nice and trusting. Sure, we had a good working relationship and wouldn’t backstab each other, but I kept some secrets from him and I’d be utterly shocked if he wasn’t doing the same. “So, reason number one is that you trust me. What’s number two?”

Puzzle grinned, showing me his fangs. “As you no doubt gathered, in the past this one used multiple contractors so that no single individual could compromise its defenses. These individuals were far less magically adept and dangerous than the Shimmer-mare, and thus far more vulnerable to being forced to reveal this one’s secrets. It pities the street thug that thinks they could force the Shimmer-mare to reveal anything she didn’t want to.”

I nodded, not quite managing to hide a proud grin at the obvious but still pleasing flattery. “I can take care of myself. It’d probably be a lot easier to break into your office than it would be to try and capture me for information on how to pull that job off.”

Puzzle nodded approvingly. “Exactly. And finally, there’s the fact that if this one ever made the mistake of mortally offending the Shimmer-mare, it does not think the security of its secrets would be this one’s biggest concern. This one would be far more concerned about itself and its property catching on fire than it would be about you stealing information from its vaults and engaging in a long and drawn-out campaign of subtle manipulation against it.”

I frowned at the implication. “I can be subtle and sneaky when I need to, you know. It’s not like I’m a one-trick pony who can only set things on fire.”

“Of course not,” Puzzle conceded. “However, this one assumed the Shimmer-mare would chose an optimal strategy to destroy it. This one is far better at secrecy and manipulation, while the Shimmer-mare could easily overwhelm it in a direct confrontation. That is precisely why our partnership has been so mutually profitable: each of us possesses skills to cover what the other is less suited to.”

“Right, you’re the sneaky planner who can’t fight his way out of a paper bag and I’m the dumb muscle.” I chuckled and rolled my eyes. “Never mind the fact that you’re pretty handy in a fight due to being so sneaky and smart even if you don’t have my spellcasting skills or anything else that makes you an especially skilled fighter. Just like how I may not be as sly as you, but I had to be smart in order to make myself a Magus, not to mention having enough brains and talent to be Princess Celestia’s protege. Really, as the only proper magus in all of Freeport I probably rate as one of the smartest ponies in the country by pure IQ.”

“Most likely, yes,” Puzzle conceded. “So now that we’ve established that you’re stronger and I’m sneakier, even if we’re both still quite strong and sneaky in absolute terms, how about you finish up the wards this one is paying you for?” He paused, smirking at me. “This one almost suspects you were simply dragging the task out so you could charge it more.”

“Tempting, but you’re not paying me by the hour. Besides, if I wanted to drag this out, I’d just wait for the weekend so I could turn this into a lesson for Kukri.”

“This one was a bit surprised you didn’t bring her regardless,” Puzzle commented.

“She’s got a school project due Friday,” I offered by way of explanation. I wanted my apprentice to at least get a basic general education before I shifted to teaching her magic full time. It’s what Celestia had done with me, and despite some mistakes on her part, the overall idea had been sound. Not to mention that Kukri was still too young to work with any of the real advanced or dangerous magic, and I was still figuring out all the little differences between changeling and unicorn spellcasting.

I paused, frowning thoughtfully. “Speaking of the grub going to school, that reminds me of an idea I had the other day. Might as well see what you think of it.”

Puzzle raised a single eyebrow, trotting over to one of his comfortable chairs. “Oh? And what idea would that be?”

I decided to take a seat opposite him—the ward-work itself would be pretty simple, so there would be no harm in stopping for a quick chat with Puzzle. “Well, like we said I’m the only magus in Freeport. That’s not going to change until I’m done training Kukri, and that’s a long ways off. But training her got me thinking ... I know the Council was probably half-hoping I could set up some sort of Freeport Magus Corps. The idea sounds pretty good, but the only way to really train magi would be to start young, like I am with Kukri. Even if I kept the trend going and took a new apprentice as soon as I was done with Kukri... ”

Puzzle nodded along. “If all your apprentices took students of their own as soon as they graduated, every single apprentice graduated to full magus, and you didn’t lose anyone from retirement, accidents, injury, or simple voluntary departure ... you might live long enough to see something large enough to actually be worthy calling a magus corps in your twilight years.”

“Yeah, the most optimistic numbers I came up with said we’d break a hundred magi when I was in my nineties.” And that figure involved a lot of very dubious assumptions, such as me training apprentices in my nineties. “But that got me thinking, part of why magus training works so well in Equestria is because they have things like the School for Gifted Unicorns and West Hoof, so it’s not all dependent on lone magi taking and training apprentices, plus it gives all the young apprentices a solid foundation to build off of.”

Puzzle frowned thoughtfully. “So you want to found your own school?”

I nodded. “It’s the key to making a magus corps that would actually function and last for a long time.” There were probably faster and easier ways to make something I could call a magus corps, but the only way to do it properly was to start from the ground up. Especially since, while I planned to steal plenty of ideas from the Equestrian Magus Corps, I didn’t want to make an exact copy of it.

“Creating a magical academy that would rival Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?” Puzzle frowned and tapped his chin. “Well, you certainly set an ambitious goal for yourself.”

“I don’t do things small.”

What Puzzle didn’t know was that the school was just phase one in my plan. I wanted to change Freeport for the better, but there was only so much a lone mare could do, even one with my talents. But with an entire magus corps backing me up—one that had been trained by and would be loyal to me ... well, that opened up a lot more options.

Puzzle nodded along. “This one can’t imagine the Shimmer-mare would be content with anything less than the best magical academy in the known world. If the Shimmer-mare could manage such a feat, the rewards it brings would be considerable. Freeport is certainly well-positioned to benefit from many overlapping magical traditions, and your academy could potentially draw students from all over the known world.”

“Not to mention it would give us a proper force for dealing with warlocks, criminals, and other troublemakers in Freeport.” I scowled. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the condottieri are ... well they’re not totally useless, but when your army and police force is made up of mercenaries, they tend to be more loyal to whoever pays them than to the nation or common good.”

“Whereas a corps of experienced magi you’ve trained and molded into your own image would be loyal to whatever values you instill in them.” He smirked at me. “This one is sure that they would only serve the good of Freeport, with no ulterior motives or hidden agendas. In any case, it seems your plan is sound in principle, so let us move on to practicalities. How do you plan on pulling this off?”

I shrugged. “Well, the first couple steps are obvious. Set up an actual school facility, buy all the equipment we’d need, and get some good teachers. I’m sure you can draw up a list of people with the skills to train our students, and who we can rely on to not be spying on us, have a hidden agenda, or bring any nasty baggage.” I knew finding enough teachers to fill out the school’s staff wasn’t going to be a small talent search, but hunting down information on important ponies was what Puzzle did. He could manage that.

Puzzle tapped his chin thoughtfully. “So what you need is money, and lots of it. Even leaving aside the costs of buying land for a magic academy and actually constructing the facilities, convincing teachers good enough to train magi to move to Freeport and help start a new school won’t be cheap. Especially since the Shimmer-mare’s standards will limit our options. If she wants teachers with no dark secrets, this one cannot blackmail the staff to keep wages down or convince them to take a far less secure job.”

“How much money are we talking about?” I tried to recall exactly how much I had in my bank account. I’d stopped paying attention once it hit a point where I always had enough for what I wanted to buy. I was pretty sure I was a millionaire, if a small one. Mercenary mage work did pay surprisingly well.

Puzzle frowned. “Add two zeroes to your current bank balance, and then we can start to talk about a proper school. That much would cover our startup costs—running expenses would also be substantial. Staff need to be paid, facilities maintained, and equipment replaced. Staff salaries ... well, imagine how much you would want to be paid to teach a classroom full of students full-time. That’s not even getting into how expensive benefits can get.”

He had a point there. I’d figured I would need to save up for a bit to make it happen, but I hadn’t really thought about exactly how insanely expensive it would all be. Even if I tried to set up a school that was within my current budget, it didn’t seem like I stood much of a chance or moving on from that small start. Especially since I wasn’t willing to cut corners and produce a bunch of half-rate knock-off magi.

I groaned and slumped down in my seat. “Bottom line, it's way beyond my current resources or anything I could realistically obtain.” I tried to come up with another solution. “I guess we could try to find someone willing to loan us the money or sponsor the school. Except a loan’s not likely since the school wouldn’t turn a profit, and anyone who’d be willing to just give us that much money would want something in return, like control over the school. And that’s assuming we could find someone in the first place.”

The list of people with that much money to spare was a short one. Maybe I could convince Celestia to pay for it, but she’d definitely want to set up something similar to the Equestrian Magus Corps. I didn’t have any issues with taking inspiration from Equestria, but I didn’t want to make a carbon copy—not to mention that if Celestia paid for everything it would look less like a Freeport Magus Corps and more like some sort of Equestrian plan to gain influence in the city.

Puzzle nodded grimly. “This one can’t imagine you want your new Magus Corps to end up as some rich merchant’s private army. It could attempt to persuade the Council to fund such a project, but they would certainly want assurances that the new corps would be absolutely loyal to it, and nopony else.” His eyes rested pointedly on me. “This one presumes that would not be an acceptable arrangement.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” It wasn’t like I was planning to use my new magus corps as a private army to overthrow the council and crown myself the new Queen of Freeport ... but I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. However I planned on changing Freeport, it would be a lot easier to make those changes stick with a couple hundred trained magi backing me up. Too bad it was nothing more than a pipe dream. “So ... it’s another idea that gets discarded on the pile of ‘I don’t have enough money to make it happen.’”

Puzzle shrugged. “It is what makes the world go ‘round, as they say. Though this one feels that it should mention that there are ways the Shimmer-mare could substantially increase her income.”

I had a pretty good idea where he was going with this. “So, I’m going to guess that getting a lot more money than I’m currently earning would involve doing something highly immoral, insanely dangerous, or both?”

Puzzle nodded reluctantly. “Yes, assuming you want to earn that money quickly enough to actually see your plans to fruition. You could possibly save up enough money to start your school by the time you reached the end of your active adventuring career, but...”

“Same problem as just training up apprentices as fast as possible,” I concluded. “I’d probably be dead of old age before we got anything substantial done.” I groaned and flopped onto my back, staring up at the ceiling. “There’s not much point in coming up with plans that won’t even pay off until after I’m gone.” Celestia couldn’t give me wings twenty years after I died. I needed a plan that could work fast enough to make me an alicorn.

“This one feels it should mention the value of establishing a legacy that will endure past your own death.” Puzzle paused for a moment, then smirked at me. “Though perhaps that is something the Shimmer-mare is a bit young to be worrying about. This one certainly doesn’t plan on having the Shimmer-mare die anytime soon.”

“Me either.” I frowned, thinking back on some of the jobs we’d been on and a few close calls I’d had. Combine that with the fact that now Puzzle had suggested I take even more dangerous ones if I wanted to make enough money to pay for my school plans. I was good, probably one of the best unicorns in the world, but sooner or later my luck would run out, or I’d pick a fight with something I couldn’t beat, or—

“Shimmer-mare!” Puzzle hissed, snapping me out of my train of thought. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear wha—?” Before I could finish asking, I found out what he meant: a loud thump coming from upstairs. Loud enough for us to hear it down in the basement,

I was suddenly very aware of the fact that the magical defenses on Puzzle’s office were a lot weaker than normal. I’d turned a lot of his wards off so I could work on setting up my new ones without triggering a bunch of anti-tampering alarms. At the time I hadn’t been worried about it; Puzzle and I could handle any trouble that came our way. Except ... well now that it looked like we might actually be in for a fight, I wasn’t quite as certain we’d be fine. I hadn’t brought my armor, and Puzzle probably didn’t have all his concealed weapons on himself at the moment. At least, as far as I could tell.

Puzzle silently motioned towards the stairs, and the two of us headed up. There was another thump, and now that we weren’t in the basement we could tell it was coming from the front door. From how loud the thumps were and the way the door shook in its frame, it sure sounded like someone trying to kick it down.

Puzzle and I quickly took our positions—him to the side of the door with a dagger perfectly positioned to stab into an attacker’s back once they came through, while I took cover behind Merry Penny’s desk and got a fireball spell ready. Once we were ready Puzzle nodded to me, then silently mouthed the countdown before yanking open the door.

Instead of the burglars or assassins we’d been expecting, Strumming Heartstrings stumbled through the open door. She was utterly soaked—no surprise when Freeport was having one of its usual storms blown in from the sea. I scoffed and rolled my eyes while Puzzle closed the door behind her. “You could’ve just knocked. Puzzle and I thought you were...”

The rest of my sentence vanished when Strumming collapsed onto the floor with a weak groan. She didn’t get back up, and after a couple seconds I noticed that water soaking into Puzzle’s fine carpeting had a distinctly reddish tinge.

Puzzle’s eyes widened, and he quickly pulled off Strumming’s rain cloak to get a look at how badly she was hurt. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting—probably some huge, horrible, bleeding gash. Instead there was just a little hole in her side, between two of her ribs. It wasn’t even as big around as a ducat, and while it was bleeding, it didn’t even look like she was losing that much blood. You’d think it would take something bigger and uglier to leave Strumming in such bad shape...

“Shimmer-mare!” Puzzle snapped at me. “There’s a first-aid kit in the Penny-mare’s desk! This one needs it right now!”

“Right!” I used my magic to snag the kit while throwing a quick medical analysis spell Strumming’s way. The news wasn’t optimistic. “She needs a doctor.” I knew a few basic first aid spells, but trying to do serious medical magic without the proper training was more likely to kill the patient than help them.

Puzzle quickly wiped the wound with some disinfectant, then hissed. “Bullet wound. The puncture is too clean for a dagger.” He carefully placed a bandage over the hole. “Maintain pressure, this one is going to summon help.”

I secured the bandage with a quick blast of ice, but I knew we were only buying her a little bit of time. I briefly considered trying to freeze or cauterize whatever was responsible for the internal bleeding, but I really didn’t know enough about medicine to be sure I’d get it right. “A bandage isn’t going to fix this. She’s bleeding inside, Puzzle.”

“This one knows!” Puzzle snarled. He rushed into his office and came back with half a dozen gems and runestones that he quickly smashed and triggered. “At least one of those doctors should be able to make it here in time.” His eyes narrowed, and a hint of a growl entered his voice. “For their sake, this one hopes so.”

“Calm down, Puzzle...” It was no surprise he was pissed about his girlfriend being hurt, but the last thing we needed was him flying off the handle and losing his temper. Puzzle’s best weapon was his brain, but someone thinking with their rage isn’t using that. That was one thing I had ample first-hoof experience with.

“Calm down?!” Puzzle repeated incredulously. “How can this one possibly be calm when its mate is...” He snarled and turned his back on me, pacing furiously.

I gave Strumming another quick scan with my spell. It still looked bad, but not that much worse than it had been when she got here. She’d survived long enough to make it from wherever she was attacked to Puzzle’s office, so I was cautiously optimistic she could last until a doctor made it here. Especially since Puzzle had several of them on emergency call. No surprise, given our line of work.

That just left Puzzle to deal with. I didn’t want to deal with him nervously pacing and generally panicking and getting in the way, so I decided to throw something his way to keep him distracted. “Any idea who did this?”

“Someone who just signed their own death warrant,” he snarled. However, a couple seconds later Puzzle stopped pacing and took a deep breath, and I could practically see his brain turning back on. “Someone used an arquebus on her—on a rainy day, no less. Clearly not a spontaneous attack, this was planned. This one knows of only one group in Freeport that uses firearms and has a grudge against the Heartstrings-mare...”

“The Blood Stripes.” Breaking into the headquarters of that zebra mercenary group had all been Strumming’s idea, and they had made some noises about getting payback after we’d finished up our job against them. Apparently, they’d followed up on that.

Puzzle’s scowl deepened. “This one will make them regret that.”

While Puzzle resumed his furious pacing, another worrying through sprang to mind. “If the Blood Stripes went after Strumming, they’ll probably guess she went to you for help.” If I were looking for Strumming, the only place I might check before Puzzle’s would be the Equestrian Embassy. “If they’re watching and see a bunch of doctors come running to your office, they’ll know she’s here.”

Puzzle froze in place, then slowly nodded. “Right. Yes. Of course. Shimmer-mare, can you check the perimeter? This one would not put it past the Stripes to target this one’s medics to prevent the Heartstrings-mare from getting aid.”

I nodded and headed out into the rainy night without another word. It didn’t take long to confirm that there weren’t any Blood Stripes around. They clearly hadn’t had anyone watching Puzzle’s before Strumming got here, or they would’ve shot her again before we opened the door. They’d probably set up ambush somewhere dry for the initial attack on Strumming, but with how hard the rain was coming down they probably couldn’t make it to Puzzle’s without getting their equipment soaked. From what I knew of arquebuses, they and their powder needed to be completely dry to work properly.

Still, I didn’t feel completely safe until I saw one of Puzzle’s doctors make it through the front door without incident. That just left the hardest part of all.

The waiting.

The next couple hours went by in a blur, which was kind of odd considering how little actually happened in all that time. It was mostly just following Strumming to the hospital to make sure nobody tried to shoot her again, and then a lot of waiting. At least she was reasonably secure once we actually got her to the hospital. One of Freeport’s unwritten rules was that hospitals were neutral ground. Mostly because starting a fight in one was a good way to get blacklisted by Freeport’s medical community, and no mercenary group wanted to risk that.

That didn’t stop Puzzle from hiring an entire platoon of Doos, just to be safe. After all, the Blood Stripes were mercenaries, and with mercs just about every rule was up for negotiation if the pay was good enough. No need to worry about getting hurt if you’re getting paid enough by a job to retire in comfort, and the hospital might forgive a breach of conduct in exchange for a large ‘charitable donation.’

Once the doctors had Strumming stable, Puzzle and I slipped out. There was a lot to do, and not much time to plan it all out. He led the way to a nondescript building in the dockside warehouse district. I was barely surprised when he opened it up to reveal a safehouse that had almost as much equipment as the hospital, albeit with fewer beds.

Puzzle shrugged and started checking things over. “This one likes to be ready for any situation. If this one should need to hide for a few days, it only made sense to account for the possibility that it might be injured.”

“Right.” I started looking over everything as well. “I’m surprised you had her taken to the hospital instead of straight here.”

Puzzle shook his head. “This one considered it, but it had not checked this safe house as recently as it would have liked. It did not want to risk bringing the Heartstrings-mare here only to discover that something critical was missing, some of the medicine had gone bad, or the house had been compromised, or...”

“Got it.” I gave the magical defenses a quick upgrade—not enough to hold up to a serious attempt to break them, but still miles ahead of what had been there before. “Place looks secure, as far as I can tell.”

Puzzle nodded grimly. “This one will bring in one of its doctors to check the rest of the supplies and make sure it has everything it needs. Assuming there are no problems, it will bring her here as soon as she’s stable enough to make the trip. Once the trauma surgeons are done with her, she shouldn’t need too much in the way of treatment. It’ll mostly just be a matter of recovery.”

“Right.” I put fresh sheets on the bed. “Think it’ll be safe to move her?”

“The Heartstrings-mare is in the hospital under an assumed name, and this one has plenty of guards,” Puzzle grunted out. “The only thing it can do to make her safer at this point is to deal with whoever is responsible.”

“And I’m gonna guess you have a gameplan for that.” I found a battered but comfortable couch and took a seat. It had been fairly late in the evening when all this started, and by now we were an hour away from sunrise. I probably would’ve been tired if I wasn’t so keyed up from everything we’d gone through. “So what’s your plan? Should we get in touch with the EIS?”

Puzzle immediately shook his head. “No, no involving the EIS. This one would prefer not to introduce any more complications into the matter. As for the plan itself, it’s really quite simple.” He opened up a closet full of potions, weapons, cloaks, and a suit of mail. “This one is going to find whoever is responsible for what happened to the Heartstrings-mare and then it will destroy them. Permanently, and utterly.”

“Yeah, I already figured you’d be doing that.” I hesitated, not quite sure how I felt about that. Strumming and I ... well to say that we had some complicated personal history would be an understatement. I wasn’t okay with the Blood Stripes shooting her, but I wasn’t anywhere near as mad about it as Puzzle was. Considering some of the uglier things Strumming had done, maybe I should’ve been alright with what happened to her, but... “Strumming isn't my favorite pony in the world, but she's still one of us.”

Puzzle nodded sharply. “That she is, and she is this one's mate. An object lesson needs to be made.” He pulled out several throwing darts, checking their balance and practicing a few throws. “This city seems to have far too short of a memory for its own good.”

Well, that sounded ominous. I didn’t like the idea of Puzzle going on the warpath. From the way he was talking, he wasn’t going to be happy until everyone connected to the attack on Strumming was dead. That was a lot further than I was willing to go.

Puzzle pulled out several knives, checking how sharp the edges were. “The big question is how far this goes. The three most likely explanations are that this is the act of a single or small group of Blood Stripes, this is an act by the company as a whole, or someone is hiring them as a convenient group to attack the Heartstrings-mare.”

“No matter which of those three it is, it sounds like our investigation needs to start with the Stripes,” I pointed out.

“Indeed.” Puzzle pulled out a pair of spike-studded gauntlets. “This one just needs to figure out which Stripes it needs to have a private meeting with. Mercenaries usually do not reveal information about their clients, but this one can be very ... persuasive.” His eye hardened, and he added. “Though this one is terribly tempted to go right to the headquarters of the entire company, chop off the head of their captain, burn their base to the ground, and hunt every single last one of them down like animals.”

I sighed and leaned back on the sofa. “Yeah, kinda figured you’d feel that way.”

Puzzle shot a look my way, and his eyes hardened. There was something about the look on his face I really didn’t like. His eyes were just so ... cold. I’d always known he could be a ruthless, calculating killer, but I’d never seen it so openly displayed before. “This one didn't become one of the most powerful and well-connected fixers in Freeport by being nice, Shimmer-mare. Oh, this one will play ball, negotiate, compromise, make friends and alliances. But sometimes...” He rather pointedly hefted his spiked gauntlet. “Blood needs to be paid with blood in Freeport. If you’re not ready for that, then go home.”

Worst fears confirmed. I wasn’t happy about Strumming getting shot, but the idea of starting a bloodbath for her sake ... hay, starting a bloodbath at all... “Exactly how much blood are we talking about?”

Puzzle shrugged. “Depends on whose idea it was to try and kill the Heartstrings-mare, and why they did. If it was the act of a lone Stripe with more bravery than good sense, then this will be a clean cut. A quick example made to the Stripes to keep their members in line. If it's bigger than that ... this one will not let any of the ones responsible escape.” He stared out the window, his eyes taking in the rain-drenched streets. “It could be that someone is acting against all of us, and the Heartstrings-mare was just their first target. Maybe she discovered something that someone would rather keep secret. Or maybe we’ve just made too many enemies, and this is their opening move against us. This one has more than its fair share of enemies, and there are plenty who would have a toast if they found out this one was dead.”

Oh. If he was right about that ... well, it changed things. “I'm not exactly wild about the idea of blood running in the streets ... but I like the idea of getting killed even less.”

Puzzle grunted and nodded. “That is the way of Freeport sometimes. If the Blood Stripes are after all of us, our only choice is to kill them first. This one has done it’s best to respect the Shimmer-mare’s moral qualms in the past, but that is a luxury we can no longer afford. This one will not let this attack on the Heartstrings-mare go unavenged. It will destroy everyone responsible for Strumming’s injuries, no matter how deep the trail goes. This will only end with blood, and likely quite a bit of it. If you aren’t prepared for that, then this one suggests you return to your tower and leave the matter in its hooves.”

I grimaced, my eyes slipping down to the floor as I thought it over. It was ... ugh. I didn’t want to get mixed up in a bloody street war, but just going home and sitting this one out didn’t sit right either. Since I didn’t like either of the options before me, I tried to find a third one. “Let's hope it doesn't come to that.”

Puzzle didn’t say another word for a long time. He just stared at me, until it had gone on long enough that I was shuffling uncomfortably on the sofa. Just when I was about to start looking for an excuse to get somewhere out of his line of sight, he finally spoke. “We will see. Though before we worry about how to destroy our enemies, we need to find out who they are.”

I was glad the conversation was back on safer territory. “Right, the big question is whether the Stripes shot her as payback for that break-in she did on their headquarters, or if someone hired them to do it.”

“It’s difficult to say,” Puzzle conceded. “Their new head of operations in Freeport, Captain Sanaa, has a reputation for financial-minded pragmatism, but also understands the importance of maintaining appearances. It seems equally likely that she could dismiss revenge as profitless, or decide that protecting the group’s reputation was of utmost importance and Strumming would have to pay for making the Stripes look weak.”

In other words, he had nothing. Or rather, he didn’t have anything yet. “So I guess this is the part where you talk to all your contacts and see what they can dig up?”

Puzzle hesitated, a frown spreading across his lips. “This one ... is not inclined to spend a great deal of time out in the field at the moment. This one should remain in a central location to better coordinate its agents’ activities in the field. Not to mention that if we are all targets, it would be foolish for this one to expose itself to an unnecessary risk.” He hesitated a moment, then far too casually added, “And of course, this one will need to supervise the Heartstrings-mare’s transfer to the safe house, and she will need care and protection while she recovers from her wounds.”

He should’ve just started with that. He’d never had any issues with going out in the field before, and I didn’t buy for a second that he needed to spend all day in a safe house to keep tabs on his agents. No, this was all because he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend’s side. I guess it was kind of sweet, in a really stupid and annoying way. He and Strumming didn’t even really like each other that much.

I took a deep breath and put the matter out of my head. Why he was staying here wasn’t as important as the fact that he was. “Well if you’re not going to be working with all your spies and contacts, how are we supposed to figure out who we go after? It’s not like we can go up to the headquarters of the Blood Stripes and politely ask them whether they went after Strumming on their own, and who hired them if it was just a job.”

“True...” Puzzle shot a look my way, and I saw a mischievous glint in his eyes as a smirk spread across his lips. “This one needs someone to act as its proxy in the field. Someone highly intelligent, capable, and reliable. Perhaps the Shimmer-mare would like the chance to get a bit of hooves-on training in the arts of espionage and information gathering?”

Oh. Huh. Well, I suppose that was one way to go about it. I would’ve thought he would have someone in his own organization who ran things when he was busy elsewhere. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a normal operation for him.

Besides, finding out a bit more about spywork in general and Puzzle’s organization in particular would almost certainly come in handy at some point. “This is what I get for that talk we had about how I could be smart and sneaky.”

A brief smile flickered across his lips. “Think of it this way; now you get to prove how good you really are.”

I took a deep breath. “Well ... this’ll be interesting.”

Author's Note:

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