• Published 1st Jun 2017
  • 5,450 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 Investigation

I needed to meet up with some of Puzzle’s lieutenants to work on unraveling who was behind the attack on Strumming, but there was one problem: I’d already promised to take Kukri to the museum to help her with a school project, and there was no way I was letting her down.

Besides, I’d never really checked out any of Freeport’s museums. It seemed a bit wrong to know so little about my adopted homeland’s history, but museum tours had never really made it onto my priority list. Lucky for me, Kukri was there to fill the gaps.

I trotted up a full-scale recreation that showed a pegasus and changeling standing atop a cobbled-together barricade made of furniture, defiantly holding up a banner. Kukri stared up at the statue in awe while I read the plaque to make sure I had all my facts straight before quizzing her. “So, you needed to do a report on Torch the Chainbreaker?”

Kukri nodded, then helpfully pointed to the pegasus holding the flag. “Yeah, this one has to write a paper about one of the leaders of the revolution that tossed out the pirate kings and brought the Council to power. This one was torn between Torch and Starbound.” She pointed to the changeling next to him. “This one could just read a book, but museums are way better.”

She was right about that. “Seeing things for yourself adds that extra touch that you’d never get by burying your nose in dusty old books.”

“Exactly.” Kukri grabbed my hoof and dragged me over to some display cases. “I mean, the armor’s there, the weapons, the banners—it’s all right here! Almost close enough for this one to reach out and touch it!” I nodded and looked over the relics with her, pausing as she stared up in rapt glee at one of the larger display cases. “Oh my stars, it’s Torch’s armor.”

I stepped up to her side and looked it over. At first I thought the patches of rust, holes, and mismatched nature of the set meant that museum had done a terrible job of preserving the armor. A second later the obvious truth sprang to mind: Torch Charger had been a down-on-his-luck mercenary before he’d gotten caught up in the Liberation. Of course his armor would’ve been in terrible shape.

I gave Kukri a prompting little nudge. “So ... what exactly were you going to write?”

Kukri pulled out a notebook filled with chaotic scribbles and random highlights. “This one’s supposed to give a brief overview of Torch’s life and accomplishments. Its teachers want a standard five-paragraph essay.”

Ugh, those. One thing I had to give Celestia credit for, she’d never given me any of that obvious time-wasting busywork. “If you need any help with it, let me know. I need to meet some people at the museum cafe, but I’ll stay where I can keep an eye on you.”

Kukri’s ears perked up, but I noticed a slight frown crossing her lips. “Oh. This one thought ... never mind. Who are you meeting? Anyone this one knows?”

Ouch. I hoped she realized I was just multitasking rather than blowing her off. “Probably not. Some of Puzzle’s people need to talk to me. I told them I was busy with you, but they said it couldn’t wait until we were done.” Maybe not strictly one hundred percent accurate, but it wasn’t a lie and it would spare her feelings and make her feel more important.

Apparently she wasn’t upset, so that part of my plan worked. Instead, she got even more curious. “What are you meeting them about?” She hesitated, then frowned. “Wait, don’t tell this one they’re going to help with its paper too.”

I snorted and shook my head. Kids, they always think the world is either revolving around them or doesn’t care about them. Or both at the same time. “Nothing to do with you, it’s business. I needed somewhere to meet them, and you needed to work on your report.”

“Oh.” Sure enough, my apprentice had more follow-up questions. “What kind of business? Or did Puzzle say you can’t talk about it?”

I thought it over for a second, then decided to share at least the basic facts with her. After all, if the theory that someone was after all of us was true, she needed to know to keep her eyes open. “Someone attacked Strumming and left her in pretty bad shape. Puzzle’s keeping an eye on her while she recovers, and I’m running point on figuring out who did it.”

Kukri blinked in shock, then scowled. “Pity they didn’t finish the job.”

I turned on her, grabbing her shoulder and frowning. “Kukri! What the hay is that supposed to mean?!”

“Whaaat?” she whined with proto-pre-teen petulance.

I crossed my forelegs over my chest. “You know exactly what, young lady.” For a brief, horrible second, I realized I was using almost exactly the same tone Celestia had used with me whenever I’d been a bratty little kid. Gah...

Kukri’s ears seemed to go flat almost from pure instinct. “Sorry, Shimmer-mare.” She took a deep breath, then shook her guilt off and grimaced. “She’s a spy who kidnapped this one, just so she could use it as leverage against you and because this one was in her way. This one doesn’t understand why you seem to have forgotten that, or forgiven her.”

I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane. “That ... well, a lot of things have happened since then, and there’ve been times since then where she had my back when I really needed it. It’s ... I haven’t forgiven her for it, but I guess I care more about right now than I do about stuff that happened in the past.”

Kurki shook her head. “She’s not helping you because she went from being a bad mare to a good one. She did it because it’s her job. Just like she locked you up and kidnaped this one because she believed that was her job.”

“I know that.” I groaned and turned my attention to a display case with several old banners to give me an excuse to put my thoughts in order. “Doesn't change that she’s helped me out. I’m not saying that she’s a changed mare or that I’ve forgotten about the stuff she’s done in the past, but...” I struggled to find the right words.

I didn’t like Strumming. More often than not she was an annoying pest, and her moral compass was not so great. There was all the stuff that had happened when I first met her, plus stuff like the time she’d killed a necromancer by stabbing the guy in the back after we’d agreed to a cease-fire. There were times I wished I’d stopped her, but she’d killed the guy before I even realized what she was planning. Besides, without her help the fight against Rising Fire probably would’ve ended badly for all of us.

There were times when I wondered why the hay Celestia had sent Strumming to keep an eye on me rather than ... well, anypony else. You’d think she would’ve sent the best agent she had after me, not one who I’d figured out was a spy after talking to her for five minutes. The only way I could make any sense of it was to say that either Celestia had screwed up or she was playing some massively complicated game of chess I couldn’t hope to understand. For all I knew, Strumming was actually here for a completely different reason, and all the talk of her being here to watch me was just a smokescreen.

Kukri trotted over to a display case holding a couple artifacts recovered from the ruins of the old Tower of the Necrocrat. “So why should either of us care if something bad happened to the Heartstrings-mare? This one’s clan has helped you in the past, but you don’t go rushing out to avenge its clanmates who gets injured or killed.”

I was tempted to point out that her clan only helped when I’d hired some of them, but it wasn’t like Strumming had ever helped me for altruistic reasons. Besides, I would help them out if Kukri’s clan ever asked me for help or was under attack. Hay, I already had with the proto-changeling that had gone after her.

“Why not let the EIS handle it?” Kukri pressed. “She works for them, so if she gets attacked that’s their problem, not ours. Or even just leave it up to Puzzle? Why do you have to get involved with this?”

“It’s...” I struggled to come up with an answer to that. Sure, Puzzle had asked me to help, but he could probably manage just fine without me. Yet, I’d never really considered not jumping right into the middle of the whole thing. “Well, she's one of us. You know, part of our whole ... group ... thing. Which means nobody’s getting away with shooting her.”

Kukri scowled and shook her head. “This one certainly doesn’t consider itself part of any sort of group with the Heartstrings-mare. This one would bet its allowance that whoever went after the Heartstrings-mare had a good reason for it.” She turned her back on me, giving her notebook her full attention. “Maybe she killed someone’s mother, or stole a centuries-old heirloom, or kidnapped someone else's kid for leverage while saying that ‘It’s nothing personal.’ Like that makes it okay.” Her pencil snapped, and she snarled at it, digging in her bag to find another one.

I took the broken pencil from her and sharpened it with a quick spell, then pulled her in for a quick one-legged hug. “Kukri ... one lesson Celestia taught me is that you can’t linger on the bad things. I’m not saying you should forget about it or forgive Strumming, but you can’t let that kind of stuff eat you up from the inside. Don’t go around wishing ponies were dead unless they really deserve it, or you’ll end up going to a really bad place.”

I’d never asked Celestia about that directly, but from the look in her eyes when she’d given me that lecture I had a feeling it was hitting pretty close to home. Maybe it was connected to what had happened to Luna.

Kukri took a deep breath, then slowly nodded. “This one will ... consider that. So why’re you here? Instead of Puzzle, this one means.”

“He says he needs to coordinate things from a central location.” I frowned and shook my head. “I think that’s just an excuse, though. His girlfriend got hurt, and he wants to stay close by to take care of her until she’s better.”

“Oh.” Kukri gagged and stuck out her tongue. “This one really doesn’t understand why he likes the Heartstrings-mare so much.”

I shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care. If he has such poor taste in mares, that’s his problem. The bottom line is that I want to find answers for who’s behind Strumming getting shot. For all we know, it could be the first stage of someone coming after the rest of us.” I thought it over for a second, then shook my head. “I don't think it’s too likely. If someone wanted to drop all of us, I think they’d go after me or Puzzle first since we’re the bigger threats. Until we know what’s going on we can’t rule anything out.”

“And what if it's just her problem?” Kukri pressed.

I took a deep breath, then let her know how it was. “I’ve got a lot of issues with the mare, but I’m not okay with someone trying to kill her.”

“Even if they’ve got a good reason?” Kukri demanded. “Will you still defend her if she’s done something so terrible she deserves what happened to her?”

That was a trickier question. From what I’d seen of the mare, she almost certainly had some nasty skeletons in her closet. I couldn’t rule out that she’d done something nasty enough to make me want to cut ties with her. Maybe I already should’ve for some of the things I knew for sure she’d done. Still... “I want to find out who went after Strumming, and why they did it. Right now we’re just speculating, and I’d rather have some facts backing up whatever I do.”

Kukri thought it over for a bit, then slowly nodded. “That makes sense. Mom and Dad always say there’s no such thing as too much information.”

I nodded and gave her a quick pat on the back. “Your parents are smart. Listen to them more often. Do you need any help with your homework, or will you be alright on your own while I go take care of business?”

She frowned down at her notebook. “This one thinks it knows what it needs to do from here. If you’ve gotta talk to Puzzle’s people, this one will take care of the rest its work by itself and let you know if it needs to move to another part of the museum.”

“Alright. I’ll be right over the cafe, so try to stay where I can see you.” Not that I was expecting any trouble in a museum, but sometimes things go bad when you least expect it.

I headed over to the cafe, searching for anyone who matched the descriptions I’d gotten from Puzzle. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to spot the trio in a corner table at the back. Freeport’s a pretty cosmopolitan place, but even at a simple museum cafe it’s rare to see a hippogryph, a pegasus, and a zebra sitting together. The zebra mare was nursing a cup of coffee and seemed to be caught up in a book, while the pegasus had his back to the wall and was scanning the area as if every single cafe patron and member of the waitstaff might pull a dagger and attack him at any given moment. The hippogryph was the only one to actually notice me, grinning and waving me over as soon as we made eye contact.

I trotted over and claimed the one unoccupied chair, adjusting it a bit so I could keep an eye on Kukri while I talked to them. “Hello. Alya, Blackwing, and Gustav, right?” The zebra, pegasus, and hippogryph nodded in turn. “Sunset Shimmer, pleasure to meet you all. Now that introductions are settled, I assume you all know why I’m here?”

Blackwing the pegasus scowled at me, which made his dark grey coat look even darker than it already did. “Do we?”

Alya sighed and rolled her eyes, setting her book aside. “Yes, we do. You certainly spent enough time grumbling to us about it.”

Gustav did his best to smile welcomingly as I settled in. “Ignore Blackwing, he’s just mad he’s not running things.”

Blackwing scowled at everyone else. “Because this one should be in charge of this operation. It has over a decade of experience in our employer’s operations.” He leveled an accusing hoof at me. “While that one is a teenager our employer has a soft spot for. Exactly how much experience do you have in covert operations?”

I took a moment to silently thank Puzzle for warning me about Blackwing and giving me a few pointers for how to deal with him. “Your boss thinks I’m the right one to lead this. You got a problem with me, then you have a problem with him.”

The changeling glared at me, and I returned the favor. After several seconds, he blinked first. “You’re lucky this one has far more respect for our boss than it does for you.”

“Why don’t you go back to your natural form so you can compare horn sizes with her?” Alya groaned and emptied her cup, signalling a waiter for a refill. “Ignore him. He’s like this with everyone. It’s all about the pecking order with him.”

“Especially to anyone who’s not a ‘this one’.” Gustav agreed. “Don’t mind him, once you meet whatever standard he sets, he tones it down a lot. Almost to the point of not being a complete dick anymore.”

“Right.” I crossed my forelegs and put all my attention on Blackwing. “I don’t care if you like me or not, but the bottom line is I’m in charge on this op. You can either act like the professional you say you are, or you can throw a tantrum like the kid you say I am. Your pick.”

Blackwing scowled at me and grunted something vaguely assenting. When he didn’t complain anymore, I presumed we’d settled the matter.

Conversation drew to a halt while the waiter refilled Alya’s coffee and asked the rest of us if we wanted anything. Once that was done, Alya spoke up. “As long as you don’t lead us all to a horrible death, I don’t mind following your lead.”

“I’m against any form of death, even if it’s quick and painless,” Gustav chimed in. “I like living, and being alive. Not to mention that us dying would make the boss very unhappy.”

“He does hate wasted resources,” Alya agreed. “One of the best ways to get on his bad side.”

I saw the perfect opening to get straight down to business. “Yeah, but it looks like someone found a way to climb straight to the top of his list. Namely, by going after his girlfriend. Someone shot her, and he wants to know who did it.”

Blackwing scoffed. “Really? The boss is letting it get personal? He shouldn’t be getting upset over some foreign spy he’s banging to the side.”

Gustav took a sip from a glass filled with some nasty-looking thick green juice. “Spoken like a bug who’s never been in love.”

“Of course not.” The changeling picked up his pretzel and nibbled on it. “This one doesn’t waste its time on love.”

Alya turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “Don’t you eat love?”

Blackwing hesitated, and all of us smirked as we realized he was busted. Finally, the changeling had to concede. “This one doesn't waste its time on romance.”

I chuckled along with the others, but that only lasted a moment before we had to get back to work. I gave them the details of the attack on Strumming and what we knew so far.

Alya whistled softly. “They used an arquebus? On a rainy night? That’s a lot of trouble. You’d think they’d pick a weapon that doesn’t fail as soon as it gets wet.”

“Almost like they went out of their way to use one,” Blackwing agreed. “The Blood Stripes are the only group that has them outside of the odd curiosity piece, so that makes them the obvious suspects.” He frowned and shook his head. “Perhaps too obvious. The Stripes would probably pick a weapon more suited to the weather. The only reason to use an arquebus in the rain is to make a point of using one, so it’s a good way to frame the only merc group with them.”

I nodded along. “That’s one thing we have to consider. It’s either the Stripes deliberately calling us out, or someone trying really hard to make us think that’s what’s going on.”

Gustav shrugged. “First rule of any investigation: follow the money trail. I can check on who’s hired the Stripes recently, then see if anyone outside their ranks bought an arquebus. It’s pretty rare for those to be available outside of Zebrica.”

“No kidding.” Alya contemplatively stirred some sugar into her coffee. “I thought about trying to smuggle one out of Zebrica last time the boss had me operating there, but it wasn’t worth the trouble. Keeping it supplied with powder, fuse, shot, and getting replacement parts was too much effort and too many ducats. Especially when a knife in the back is just as good, and way quieter.” She grimaced. “It’s like Blackwing said: this was about more than killing her. Whoever did it picked that weapon to make a statement. I’ll see what I can dig up about her recent activities and see if she crossed paths with anyone recently. There are plenty of people who might want an Equestrian spy dead, but we have to assume there’s a solid reason behind it happening and why they went to so much trouble to use an arquebus to do it.”

“Makes our job a lot easier if we assume it wasn’t all just a random mugging with a weird choice of weapon,” I agreed.

Blackwing grinned, and I caught a hint of changeling fangs within his pegasus mouth. “Let this one capture one of the Stripes and interrogate him. It will have the answers we need before the day is out.”

Gustav scowled and shook his head. “Yeah, and I’m sure torturing one of them or trying to break into his head won’t come back to bite us at all.”

“I know how to keep things quiet.” Blackwing shrugged. “As long as whoever I grab disappears without a trace, the Stripes will probably assume he just found a new job or wandered into the wrong neighborhood late at night.”

I tried not to react at the mention of what Blackwing might do. I had just enough experience with mind magic to know it was horrifying stuff that shouldn’t be messed with, and torture ... yeah, no way I would ever be okay with that. Not to mention what he was implying he’d do to cover up the rest of it. In fact, that someone working for Puzzle was willing to suggest that made me wonder about him. I’d always known there were probably some nasty aspects to how Puzzle did business, but I’d never had it all so blatantly shoved in my face before. “None of that’s happening while I run the show. Find another way.”

Blackwing scoffed and leaned back in his chair, folding his hooves behind his head. “If you want to keep your hooves clean, you’re in the wrong line of work. I figured Puzzle was coddling you, but I didn’t know he was going that far.”

I was about to give him a piece of my mind when Alya cut in. “If Blackwing’s done trying to piss off our boss, how about some non-psychotic suggestions? I say we find where the attack went down and do some looking around. Someone might have seen or heard something.”

I frowned and shook my head. “It’s worth trying, but the rain probably got rid of our evidence and kept everyone indoors.”

“Actually, the rain might have helped us out,” Alya countered. “It would’ve driven the shooter inside too, which would keep any evidence a lot safer than out on a city street. There might even be some unburned powder left on a windowsill or wherever the arquebus was propped. Maybe an alchemist could figure something out with that.”

“Sounds like something to follow up on,” I agreed. “I don’t think we know exactly where Strumming was when she got attacked, but she was hurt bad enough that it had to be somewhere near Puzzle’s office.”

To my surprise, Blackwing chimed in with something useful. “What about the bullet? You know any spells you could use to track it back to the source?”

I thought it over for a bit. “I know a couple spells that might work, though I’ve never tried anything exactly like that. I’ll look into it.” Not to mention I’d need to get the arquebus ball itself. The doctors had said something about getting it out of Strumming, but I had no idea what they’d done with it after that.

“It sounds like Magus Shimmer has our assignments settled then,” Gustav announced with a friendly smile. “I’ll follow the money trail and call in a few favors, see if anyone knows anything. Blackwing and Alya will try to find where the attack happened and see if they can turn up any evidence or find a witness. Meanwhile the magus will—much to everyone’s shock—see if she can use her magic to find any information.”

“That’s the plan.” I got up and nodded to each of them. “You know where my tower is. I’ll be there as long as I’m trying out tracking spells, and if I’m not there you can either wait until I get back or leave a message setting up a meeting. Meet back here at the same time tomorrow if nothing comes up before then.” I thought about letting them know where Puzzle’s safehouse was in case they needed to get in touch with him too, but he wanted that kept as quiet as possible. Not that he didn’t trust his lieutenants, but his secret hideout got a bit less secret with every person who knew where it was. “Any questions, or shall we get started?”

None of them had any, so we broke up and went our separate ways. Kukri grinned when I joined her in front of an exhibit detailing the formation of the Council in the aftermath of Torch’s Revolution, and I quickly looked over her notes. Finding out who was responsible for shooting Strumming was important, but so was my apprentice’s homework.

I was in a bad mood by the time I got back to my tower. Things with Kukri had worked out just fine, but the trip to the hospital had been a complete bust. Worse, it hadn’t been as simple as just immediately finding out the ball had been disposed of. I’d spent two hours bouncing between different employees, then another hour waiting for one of the doctors to get out of surgery just to find out he didn’t know anything useful either. Hopefully, Puzzle’s agents were having a bit more luck.

I’d barely gotten through the front door and started thinking about what I should do for dinner when someone knocked. My first instinct was to snap at whoever it was and tell them to come back later, but someone knocking this soon after I got back probably wasn’t a coincidence. One of Puzzle’s lieutenants might have been keeping an eye on the place waiting for my return. I hadn’t seen any of them, but Blackwing was a changeling, and the other two were in a line of work where not being noticed was a useful job skill.

I tried to wipe the obvious signs of annoyance off my face before answering the door. The pony on the other side was not one of Puzzle’s agents, or anyone else I’d ever seen before. The earth pony at the door looked utterly bland; his coat and mane were in unremarkable shades of grey, and his face looked completely normal, without a single unusual feature or distinguishing mark. He was so utterly boring that I checked for a Background Pony spell or something like it, but found nothing. The whole effect was a little unnerving, and that put me on edge. “Who are you and what do you want?”

The Bland Pony’s voice was just as suspiciously unremarkable as the rest of him, a monotone without a hint of accent or a single change in pitch. “Greetings, Magus Shimmer. The Council wishes to speak with you at your earliest convenience.”

Huh. The Council hadn’t interfered too much with me aside from the first job I’d taken from them. Granted, a lot of that was probably because I filtered most of my work through Puzzle, and he dealt with them a lot more often. That suited me just fine, since I liked going out and doing things a lot more than sitting around talking with a bunch of politicians dressed up in robes and masks. I’d been a bit tempted to try yanking those robes off to get a look at what was underneath, but I was pretty sure they had something in place to stop that. Not to mention it would severely piss them off.

For that matter, ignoring a summons from them wouldn’t go over too well ether. I sighed and levitated my nicest robes out of the closet. “Give me a minute to get ready. Did they say what they wanted to talk about?”

“No,” Bland answered flatly.

“Right.” I was tempted to shut the door in his face, but put aside that impulse almost as soon as it popped into my head. Needlessly offending people was usually a bad move, and for all I knew he could be the personal secretaries to one of the Council members or someone else with just enough power to make me pay for snubbing him. I’d learned not to do that after Puzzle’s secretary found a dozen subtle but annoying ways to get back at me for barging past her when I’d wanted to talk to him.

Instead, I decided to be a bit of a gracious host. “Come in and have a seat in the foyer. Would you like anything to eat or drink while I get ready?”

“Thank you, no. I am not hungry or thirsty.” He walked over to one of my chairs and sat down in the most boringly conventional way possible.

I nodded, then trotted upstairs to get dressed. I was meeting with the rulers of Freeport, it was only proper to make myself at least a little presentable. I wasn’t vain about my appearance, but one of Celestia’s many lessons was the importance of looking like the part you wanted to play. The Council would be a lot more likely to treat me like a powerful magus who deserved their respect if I didn’t show up undressed and with my mane a bit ragged from several hours of dealing with hospital bureaucracy.

About an hour later I was freshly showered, had my mane fixed up properly, and had picked out a few bits of jewelry that showed off my wealth and power without being too ostentatious about it. Combined with my dress robes and a little bit of carefully applied makeup, I checked myself in the mirror and nodded approvingly. I undid the top button on my robes to make sure my armor was visible underneath it. It never hurt to remind them that I’d seen plenty of combat.

Blandy was still waiting for me, still sitting exactly like he’d been when I let him in an hour ago. I was starting to wonder if he was an automaton. At the very least, my wards confirmed that he hadn’t tried to do any snooping around while he waited.

The walk to the Council’s palace was exactly as boring as one would expect, given my traveling companion. It was late enough that most of the daytime traffic was winding down, but not quite late enough for Freeport’s nightlife to have started. At least the heavy rain we’d gotten last night had cleared the air of the usual stenches of a port town, though I’d lived here long enough to know that it was only a matter of time before Freeport’s dead fish and rotting seaweed smell came back twice as strong.

Blandy led me to the Council’s squat rectangular block of a palace, made of obsidian just like my tower. Once we were inside, I realized he wasn’t headed for the meeting chamber I’d used the last two times. I thought about speaking up, but for all I knew he was just taking a shortcut, or the Council wanted to meet me somewhere new.

It turned out that neither of those was strictly right. Mr. Boring eventually led me to a door that was just as nondescript as he was, and opened it to reveal a small but efficiently laid-out office. He walked across it to a door set into the back wall, then knocked once. “The Magus is here.”

“Bring her in.” It was hard to tell through the door, but the voice on the other end sounded like it belonged to one of the Council members. All of their masks had a spell to conceal their voice as part of the whole secrecy thing, though not even that magic could make them sound quite as dull and lifeless as the errand boy they’d sent to find me.

The unremarkable stallion held the door open for me, and I stepped into a far more lavishly decorated office. It wasn’t ostentatious like the waiting room for people who were meeting with the full Council, but only because the wealth wasn’t being shoved in my face. The desk made out of exotic zebrican hardwood decorated with inlaid pearl probably cost more than a lot of Freeport’s workers made in a year.

Of course, my main focus wasn’t on the desk, but the being behind it. When I’d been called in to meet the Council, I hadn’t expected it to just be one of them. It was a bit odd to see someone going through all the paperwork on their desk while wearing heavy identity-concealing robes and a silver mask covering their face. The Councilmember looked up, and despite the completely face-covered mask, I got the sense that I was being met with a polite smile. “Thank you for seeing me, Magus Sunset Shimmer. Have a seat.”

“Pleasure.” I accepted the offer and made myself comfortable. “So just one of you? I was expecting to meet the Council.”

“You are,” the Councilmember set their paperwork aside. “The full Council does not need to assemble for every single affair of state. In this case, one of us will suffice.”

No surprise. Getting all thirteen of them together at the same time couldn’t be easy, especially when the common theory was that the Council were the richest, most powerful and influential members of Freeport’s high society. They had to get up to something whenever they weren’t sitting around in dark rooms wearing their creepy robes and masks.

However, there was a big difference between meeting with part of the Council and only meeting with one member. “Let me guess: this is an informal off-the-record meeting?”

They nodded. “It would be less complicated for both of us if that were the case.”

“Interesting choice of words.” I had to wonder just how much this particular member of the Council was in lockstep with the others. They might always be on the same page publicly, but I’ve never met thirteen people who could agree on absolutely everything. I decided to test the waters. “Must be hard to do paperwork in a cloak and mask. I’m surprised you don’t drop that when you’re not in an official meeting.”

The Councilmember slowly set their paperwork aside. “Do you know why the Council operates the way it does, Magus?” I’d read enough history to know the basics, but decided to let them lay it out for me in case there were any new insights to be gleaned. “We began as an underground movement, which naturally made anonymity a necessity. Darksword the Necrocrat hated us for disrupting his slaving operations, and went to considerable effort to destroy our leadership. By remaining anonymous the Council not only protected itself, but also provided the image of continuity. Whenever we lost a member to his agents they were immediately and seamlessly replaced, with no indication that we had suffered a loss. The lack of any visible success both frustrated him and made him look impotent.

“That same continuity serves us well now.” The Councilmember scooted back from their desk, gesturing to the mask and robes. “Where Equestria has its immortal ruler to provide continuity, we create the illusion of immortality. Anonymity makes us mysterious, unknowable, and at least theoretically incorruptible. Every member of Freeport society steps just a bit more carefully when some small part of them must always wonder if one of us might be hidden in their midst.” The barest hint of amusement entered the voice. “And, of course, it leads to endless speculation about who we might be, what our masks conceal, and what our true agenda is. Some of the theories are quite ... creative.”

The Councilmember paused, then waved whatever they were going to say next away. “Hopefully you will make appropriate use of this insight. In any case, we brought you here to talk about recent events, not to discuss about how the Council conducts its day-to-day business.”

I nodded along, though I was pretty sure that little impromptu history lesson hadn’t been a random meaningless tangent. “Alright then. What recent events did you want to talk about?”

“The ones revolving around Strumming Heartstrings, and the attempt on her life.”

I leaned back in my seat, trying to look as unconcerned as possible. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised you heard about what happened to her.”

“Nothing happens in Freeport without our knowledge.”

I was pretty sure that was a load of horseapples. Probably just part of the image the Council wanted to project. I couldn’t resist the temptation to tweak their nose. “If you know everything, can you tell me everyone who was involved in shooting her, what their motives were, and where I can find them?”

The Councilmember paused, and I got the distinct impression that a very annoyed glare was hidden behind that mask. “We know that you think the Blood Stripes are involved in the attack.”

“Are they?” No reason to stop pressing my luck when it was working.

Unfortunately, the same trick didn’t work twice. “At the moment, the truth is far less important than what you believe and how you intend to act upon those beliefs.”

Interesting answer. Were they worried I would go off half-cocked and do something before all the facts were in? “Why does the Council care about me looking into the Blood Stripes? Last I heard, they weren’t your favorite merc group.”

“They are currently in disfavor,” the Councilmember confirmed, “in no small part due to an operation both you and Strumming Heartstrings were involved in. However, just because you stand in our favor while they do not does not give you the right to indulge in excess in your response to an attack on Agent Heartstrings. To be blunt, we do not want you burning down half the city to punish them for injuring a single mare.”

I clenched my teeth at the implied insult. “Have I ever done anything like that?”

“You have an established pattern.” The Councilmember pulled a folder out of their desk and opened it. “The destruction of Glimmer Manor; wrecking a public marketplace in an incident that also resulted in several dead condottieri; leaving half of the plantation on Sweetash Isle in ruins; two out-island communities ravaged during the Rising Fire incident. We trust our point is clear, but we can go on if you wish.”

My eyes narrowed and I went down the list point by point. “Glimmer Manor was torn up far more by one of its occupants resisting arrest than by me. If you hire mercs who are stupid and corrupt enough to take bribes from warlocks, that’s your problem. From what Puzzle said, you were more than happy to write off some damage to a plantation or some out-islands if it meant stopping Chrysalis or a crazy lich.” I crossed my forelegs over my chest, refusing to give an inch. “My job involves taking on warlocks and criminals on a good day, and I’ve gone up against a lot worse on a bad one. I do my best to avoid collateral damage, but I’m sure you'd rather have me wreck a few buildings then let the bad guys get away with whatever they’re up to.”

The Councilor held up a forelimb to cut me off. “I think you misunderstand our concerns, Magus. Overall, we consider the amount of collateral damage you’ve inflicted to be within acceptable levels commensurate to the threats you face. As you said, repairing a plantation is a small price to pay to stop whatever Chrysalis was planning. However, in the matter of Agent Heartstrings you are not acting in defense of Freeport or its interests. She is a foreign spy whose presence we tolerate because expelling her isn’t worth the trouble. Whatever you do in your conflict with the Blood Stripes or whoever you ultimately conclude to be her attacker is private vendetta that offers no benefit to Freeport.”

“So don’t burn down half the city in a crazy revenge quest?” I concluded.

“We would appreciate the show of restraint,” the Councilmember agreed dryly. “For all its reputation as a lawless haven for criminals, Freeport does have rules, and maintains a reasonable degree of public order. The Council tolerates the occasional private feud, and in exchange both parties agree to limit their actions. Feuding parties avoid burning down entire city blocks or choking the gutters with the blood of their enemies, and in exchange we accept when a feud ends with someone drowning in the harbor, falling down a flight of stairs, or tragically committing suicide by stabbing themselves in the back three times with a longsword.”

I frowned as all the facts came in. “So you don't care what I do with the Stripes as long as we keep it from spilling out into the streets?”

“Essentially,” they agreed. “In a perfect world, the condottieri would have the resources to investigate the matter and would be reliable enough to do so impartially. However, we both know that is not the case. Even if it were, the Council knows that neither you nor Puzzle would be content to sit back and wait for the results of such an investigation. Thus, the compromise: we stand aside, and you control yourselves.”

I couldn’t help but recall what Puzzle had said after we got Strumming back from the hospital. All his talk about blood in the streets definitely didn’t sound like he planned on restraining himself. Maybe he was just venting. Nobody would blame him for being pretty mad when his girlfriend had nearly gotten herself killed. That didn’t mean he’d follow through with that after he’d had a bit of time to cool off. Puzzle had always been pretty cold and analytical, and he would probably go back to that once he calmed down.

The Councilor must have guessed what was on my mind, because they hit me with a question. “Puzzle was supposed to be here with you, but he has not answered our summons. Do you know why he would do that?”

I thought about just stonewalling completely, but lying to the Council was probably a bad move. Not that I planned to give too much away. “He’s got Strumming in a secure location while she recovers. I doubt you’ll be able to get in touch with him by leaving a message at the office.”

“I assure you Magus, we have other means of contacting him.” The Councilmember steepled their hooves, resting their chin on them. “If Puzzle is not responding to us, it is because he choses not to do so. Do you know why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know why he does half the things he does. And half the time I think I know why he’s doing something, I’ve probably got it wrong. “

“That does sound like Puzzle, yes.” They leaned back in their chair, looking almost suspiciously relaxed. “A word of advice, Magus: Puzzle is very good at what he does, but do not forget what that is or what he is. He is an affable crimelord with many legitimate business ventures, a small degree of respectability, and far too much ambition for his own good. If you become too dependent upon him you might one day regret it. He has disposed of assets in the past when they became too much of a liability.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” I answered neutrally. I didn’t doubt that most of that was true, but I wasn’t stupid enough to think they were telling me that out of the goodness of their hearts. I decided to change the subject back to the whole reason I’d come here in the first place. “So about keeping the vendetta under control, I assume you'll tell the Stripes the same thing?

“The Stripes were told how we expected them to conduct themselves the last time they disrupted the peace of the city.” Somehow the voice took on a menacing tone despite the mask’s magic obscuring it. “We don’t like to repeat ourselves.”

“Just making sure.” From the sounds of things, the Stripes were operating on much thinner ice than I was. No surprise, when I’d been running a very above the board and respectable operation defending Freeport, while they’d already pissed off the Council once.

“The Council trusts your judgement and expects you will do the right thing for Freeport.” The Councilor picked up some of the paperwork they’d set aside when I entered the office. “Unless there is anything else, you may go.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my meeting with one member of the Council. I guess the overall thrust of it wasn’t too much of a shock. They saw a feud brewing and wanted to make sure it wouldn’t go too far. What baffled me was that they were worried I’d push things.

Yeah, I wasn’t happy about Strumming getting shot, but I wasn’t so enraged that I’d go around blasting everything the Blood Stripes owned to pieces. I didn’t even like the mare.

So why did the Council, in all their vaunted wisdom, think I might do something like that?

I grinned as the nucleus of a plan started forming. After all, if the Council, with all their resources and information, was worried that I might go flying off the handle and do something extreme, how worried would the Blood Stripes be?

Author's Note:

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