• Published 26th Sep 2019
  • 510 Views, 30 Comments

CRISIS: A Royal Affair - GanonFLCL



In an alternate Equestria, a young filly, Blackburn, was destined to be Queen of Hope's Point, a beacon of light in the darkness. See her grow alongside the friends and loved ones that made her the ever-watchful, iron-hoofed Queen she was born to be.

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Chapter Four: Fascinating Foray

Blackburn watched tepidly as the customs agent, a unicorn stallion, used his magic to look through her suitcase with professional diligence. He took an unnecessarily long time searching through her luggage for anything that she hadn’t declared, and yet, to Blackburn’s amusement, was unable to find the hidden compartment containing her lucky scarf and her real passport. Gadget went next, followed by Crossfire, and neither of their hidden compartments were discovered either. So far, so good.

Another customs agent waited at the next gate, this one an older earth pony mare operating a computer. Blackburn approached first, and the mare gave her a brief look-over. “Identification please,” she said in a slow monotone, clearly preferring to be literally anywhere else. She held her hoof out expectantly.

Blackburn fished her fake identification out of her pocket and passed it over to the customs agent, who swiped it through a scanner in front of her with a loud beep, then stared at her computer screen for a moment as it processed the information. Blackburn couldn’t see it, but knew that all the information presented matched what Gadget had input.

“Okay, Miss... Thunderbolt. Welcome back to New Pandemonium City. I see you haven’t been home from Utopia since last year. What brings you back?”

“I started a tech company last year and, well, there’s really not much call for it down south, y’know?” Blackburn said with a practiced tone, accent, and prose that both lined up with her false identity, and wouldn’t alienate anypony she spoke to. “Thought maybe I’d give it a try back in my old hometown. Lots of use for tech up here in Pandemonium.”

“Okay.” The agent typed the information into her computer. “And have you made arrangements for new housing?”

“Not yet, but I understand you have a station here at the docks for taking care of that? That’s what I was told, anyway.”

“We do, right over there,” the agent said, pointing over to another station beyond the terminal gate. “You can get that all taken care of once we get finished up here with a few more questions. First: according to your identification here, you’re originally from Arcadia in the Inner District. Since it’s been so long that you’ve been away, for what reason did you originally leave?”

“My parents wanted to move down south,” Blackburn said with a shrug. “I was too young to be by myself so I went with them, obviously.”

The agent typed this in. “Okay. Next: you say that you own a business. What is the name of your business, and what does it do? You said ‘tech’ earlier but anything more specific would be useful in determining your tax bracket.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Tax bracket?”

“Yeah, how much your company has to pay in taxes every year. Different types of tech get placed in different tax brackets based on the importance of the tech involved. So, what's the name of your business and what does it do?”

Blackburn assumed that Gadget’s research had picked a specialization that would keep their costs down. “Crown Spectrum. And we specialize in conductors and magnetics.”

“Okay.” The agent typed in more information. “And last: how long are you planning on staying in New Pandemonium, or more specifically, are you planning on leaving back to Utopia anytime soon?”

“What if I don’t know for sure? I might fly back to visit my parents every now and then, y’know?” A half truth, since she knew they would be staying for four months on this initial mission, but needed to have an excuse to leave.

“That’ll fall under ‘indefinite’. That affects your tax bracket too.” The agent typed in the last of the information, then passed Blackburn back her identification and, with the same monotone, officially welcomed Blackburn to the city: “Enjoy your stay, Miss Thunderbolt.”

“Thanks!”

Blackburn made her way to the terminal exit with her suitcase and waited for Gadget and Crossfire to go through their own lines of questioning. Between Blackburn’s knowledge of Pandemonium’s social and economic structure and Gadget’s hacking and forgeries, it seemed rather easy to crack Pandemonium’s security. Then again, Blackburn knew the city didn’t really care about security so long as they got paid; the safety of its citizens was far down their list of concerns.

Once they were all together and finished with their entry processes, the three of them then proceeded through the terminal gate and made a beeline for the housing station. A clerk, a pegasus stallion, waited for clients like them, either totally bored or completely ambivalent - it was hard to tell. As Blackburn and her entourage approached, he lazily lifted up his head and yawned, but didn’t say anything.

Blackburn waited a few seconds to see if he’d do anything else, but he didn’t, he just sat and stared. “Is this the housing station?” she asked.

The clerk didn’t reply, merely tapped his keyboard a few times and divided his attention between that and interacting with Blackburn. “Name?”

Blackburn blinked, perturbed by having her question ignored, but shook it off. “Thunderbolt.”

“Means of income?”

“I own my own tech business.”

“Will you be running this business out of your home?”

“Yes.”

“How many ponies will be staying at your place of living?”

“Three.”

Blackburn was astounded how quick the clerk was with the process, moving, speaking, and typing with practiced perfection. She considered it a shame that somepony who clearly had talent in a more enjoyable or useful field was stuck in such a dead-end position. Surely this pony could work as a stenographer and be of use in the legal system.

The clerk remained silent for a solid three minutes, tapping away at his keyboard, until at last he wrote something down on a sticky note and passed it across his desk to Blackburn, who took it and read it aloud: “Mid-South, Central Plaza, North Point, Room 44-6:15.” She looked at the clerk, eyebrow raised. “So, is this our new home?”

“Yes.”

“Well that was quicker than I expected,” Gadget quipped, giving the clerk a curious look. “I thought the bureaucratic system was supposed to be super complicated and convoluted? It was always complicated when I was moving around. Took hours just to get through signing papers.”

“Your tax bracket, your source of income, and your bits on-hoof suggest that you’re reliable for punctual, full payments, so the system automatically pushes you up the waiting list ahead of ponies who aren’t,” the clerk noted. “It’s no Inner District, but Inner District housing isn’t done through the city-operated bureaucracy, and you can’t afford it anyway, not with three of you.”

Blackburn nodded and put the note in her pocket. “Well, thank you. We appreciate the efficiency.”

The clerk shrugged. “Don’t thank me; thank the computer. I just punched the information into the system. A foal could do my job.” Blackburn almost felt sorry for the guy.

Gadget leaned over the desk and pat the computer monitor like it was a pet cat. “Thanks, buddy.” The clerk stared at her, eyes narrowed. Gadget looked right back. “What? You said ‘thank the computer’ since it did all the work. Was… was I not supposed to?”

Blackburn smirked; she knew Gadget had greatly enjoyed practicing with her false persona as a ditzy weirdo who just happened to be a tech genius, and getting a chance to put that practice to work had to be giving her friend a real kick. A glance at Crossfire told her that he was having a hard time maintaining his false stoicism in the face of Gadget’s behavior.

The clerk rolled his eyes. “Anyway, your information is in the system, so when you get there you just speak with the landlord and they’ll get you to your room and go over any extra paperwork they might have. After that, you’re on your own.”

“Well, thanks for… whatever, I guess?” Blackburn said with a half-hearted shrug that wasn’t entirely false. She turned to Gadget and Crossfire and gestured for the exit. “C’mon guys, we’ve got to get things to get set up before we get to work.”

*****

New Pandemonium City was divided into three distinct ring-shaped districts that encircled Pandora Tower, each essentially a city of its own. The Mid Districts were further divided into quarters, and the quarters were each further divided into nine sub-districts; the quarters were larger and more populated than Hope’s Point to an exponential degree. Thus, Blackburn’s note directed her and her friends to Mid-South, the southern Mid District first; then to Central Plaza, its centermost sub-district; then to an apartment complex known as North Point, so named because it was on the northernmost border of Central Plaza.

North Point was an absolutely towering building, one hundred stories high and taking up an entire city block. The building was constructed of a rust-colored metal that looked more like straight rust; many of its windows were cracked or completely broken; the awnings were all faded and several were different colors as if they’d been replaced, but it was impossible to tell which of them were the original color.

The trio had hired a chariot taxi to take them there, which wasn’t cheap, but got them there quickly and saved them the trouble of figuring out the city’s complex layout. They all stared up at the domestic complex with trepidation; there was nothing quite like this back home except for the royal palace, but the entire city was made of thousands of buildings around this size, and the ones in the Inner District were even bigger and nicer.

When they landed, the trio finally had a moment to take stock of the situation; they stayed in character even when alone, in case anypony was listening in. Gadget spoke first: “Y’know, I always knew this city was a dirty dump, but I'd forgotten how literal it was.” She sniffed and scrunched up her nose at the awful stench of smog and pollution that permeated the air. “Ugh. How does anypony stand this?”

“My grandpa lived here for decades before getting into the Inner Districts,” Blackburn noted as she looked around. “He didn't live in a ‘nice’ neighborhood until then, either. He only lived by moderate means once in the NPAF; until then he was considered part of lower, maybe middle class.” She shook her head. “Ponies deserve better than this.”

“I get the feelin’ we’re bein’ watched,” Crossfire said, observing the crowd. He turned to Blackburn firmly. “I’ll put this out there right now: y’all ain’t leavin’ the apartment wit’out one o’ us wit’ ya, got that? I don’t care if’n we gotta sneak ‘round after ya, we ain’t gonna let ya outta our sight.”

Blackburn nodded. “I hadn’t considered otherwise before, and I agree fully.” She took a deep breath, regretting it immediately because of the foul, smoggy odor. “Let’s proceed.” She straightened up and led the trio into the building, putting her Thunderbolt smile back on as if nothing was wrong.

The inside of the building was tightly-packed and dirty, but at least it was easy to find the management office, which was considerably cleaner and more open. A young, impressionable pegasus stallion in clean casual clothes sat stiffly behind the reception desk. With him was a middle-aged unicorn mare with a dark orange coat and red mane wearing a neat dress skirt, and she leaned over the counter and flirted shamelessly with him, touching his wingtips regularly. The stallion seemed uncomfortable with the whole affair, his face red, his wings splayed out fully, his mouth curled in a nervous smile, and his hooves in his lap.

Blackburn cleared her throat. “Excuse me? This is North Point, yes?”

The mare glanced her way but didn’t stop teasing the stallion. “It is. Can I help you?” Her voice wasn’t nearly as sultry as she seemed to imagine it was; instead it was rather deep and throaty.

Blackburn pulled the note from her pocket. “We’re looking for the landlord. We’re new tenants--”

The mare brightened. “Ah, wonderful. I just got the confirmation a few minutes ago. I’ll take you right up.” She brushed the stallion’s wing again and winked at him before stepping over to Blackburn and her friends; the poor receptionist breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m Sunspot, your new landlord. You must be Thunderbolt, Tinker, and Fireblast,” she noted, addressing Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire respectively. She took a long look at Crossfire as she did so and licked her lips; he didn’t seem to notice.

Blackburn nodded. “That’s us. Nice to meet you Miss Sunspot.” She offered her hoof to shake, and Sunspot took it.

Gadget and Crossfire did the same, though Sunspot held Crossfire’s hoof for several seconds longer than the others and looked deep into his eyes as she did; he still didn’t pay it any attention.

“Well, let’s get you guys up to your room,” Sunspot said with a wink to Crossfire.

She led them from the management officer to the stairs that led up into the building, which of course meant that they needed to climb forty-four stories first. The stairwell was narrow and dusty, and rather dark and foreboding despite the lighting. It was a difficult climb, and the trio wondered why they didn’t have any sort of elevator system in place.

Sunset broke the silence. “So, your file said you own your own business, Thunderbolt? A tech company?”

“That’s right,” Blackburn replied. “Just started it last year, actually. We’re hoping to expand now that we’re here in the city.”

“Well I hope things work out well for you. Pardon my forwardness, but if you do well, I look good.” She glanced back at Crossfire and winked. “‘Course I look good already. Walking up and down these stairs day after day does wonders for your rear, don’t you think?” she added with a little shake of hers.

Crossfire still didn’t seem to notice Sunspot’s overt flirting, though this didn’t seem to bother her much; if anything it seemed to spur her on. Gadget rolled her eyes and shook her head, wondering if her friend was blind, stupid, or if he was just that aloof and calm about the whole ideal.

They climbed stair after stair after stair, floor after floor after floor, so that by the time they reached the forty-fourth floor, Gadget was completely out of breath, Blackburn was rather short of it herself, and even the physically-fit Crossfire was a little winded. Sunspot, however, wasn’t even remotely perturbed by the climb to the trio’s surprise.

Their apartment was located behind them and off to the side down a mid-sized hallway. If the wall opposite the stairs they came up represented twelve on a clock face, their room was located where the hour hand would be at six o’clock and fifteen minutes. Blackburn was absolutely baffled by the logistics of such a system, especially since the other rooms on the floor didn’t follow any necessary pattern. Other rooms on the floor represented 12:30, 3:20, 8:17, and so on, with no rhyme or reason as to what times were chosen.

The room itself was tidy and big enough for the three of them to be comfortable, sparsely furnished with very basic furniture: a couch, a refrigerator, a dining table and chairs, two small beds and a nightstand in the bedroom, and a cheap television set. All the necessary amenities.

“And here we are,” Sunspot said, passing over a set of keys to Blackburn. “Welcome to your new home. Got it cleaned out from the last tenant last week, been trying to find a new tenant ever since. So glad you guys came along.”

Gadget hummed and rubbed her chin. “So did we need to fill out any other paperwork or--”

Sunspot chuckled. “No no, I’ve already got all that taken care of. Rushed it on ahead so we could start collecting benefits as soon as you moved in. Just a reminder that rent is due on the third of the month, and if you’re not doing automatic payments you can just drop of a check at the management office. Now, anything else I can do for you?”

Blackburn looked around, then shook her head. “No, I think we’re all set here, Miss Sunspot. Thanks.”

“Well, just remember, if you need anything else I’m at the management office in the day, in room 23-12:05 at night.” She glanced over at Crossfire and bit her lip. “You just need to knock.” And with that, she left back into the hall and down the stairs.

As soon as she left, the trio took stock of their room; Gadget and Crossfire in particular did a security check, looking for any possible listening devices, the locations all of the exits and entrances, what was outside in the hall and outside the windows, and how well sound carried within the room. Satisfied that the room was secure and could be protected, they, and Blackburn, took the time to unpack and dropped character now that they were alone.

Crossfire smelled the air as he went about his business. “Y’know, I figured that smoggy smell’d be worse up here, but it ain’t botherin’ my nose none at all.”

Gadget, who was by the window, set her hoof against the mesh screen that covered it. “The windows seem to have an air filtration system in place. Not a good one like what we use to keep the air fresh in the palace but I guess it gets the job done.”

“Well that’s awfully thoughtful.”

“Eh, don’t give them too much credit. Bet you fifty bits you won’t find ‘em on the lower-class apartments. We really lucked out getting this well set up right off the bat. Can you imagine trying to sleep with that air quality?”

“Sure explains why everypony’s ornery all the time,” Crossfire mused.

Blackburn cleared her throat. “Settled in. First order of business: assembling database constructor,” she announced. “Will procure parts, Gadget will assemble. Second: install device at NPRD central servers. Will require access, need to make connections. Third: establish contact with rival smuggling ring, determine if allegiance possible or if destruction necessary. Any thoughts?”

“I’ve already got a list of all the components I need for the constructor, so that part’s easy,” Gadget said. “In the meantime, I’ll remotely hack into the NPRD employee records and put together a list of potential contacts. Any particular requirements you want?”

Blackburn nodded. “Proclivity for accepting bribes. Contact with military and law enforcement as far removed as possible. Little else matters, will determine personality match if other qualities met.”

Gadget scratched her head. “Hmm… I’ll try my best to work those in. All I can really get is stuff like names, contact info, addresses, education, employment history - y’know, what they would’ve put on their résumés. For that matter, I think we can discount the concern with accepting bribes. Not sure how I’d find that out anyway.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“Well I mean, I think we can assume that anypony working for the NPRD - or in any bureaucratic organization in this city - is gonna accept a bribe. Hell, a lot of ponies back home take bribes just ‘cause they’re used to it. Those here that wouldn’t might refuse for any number of reasons, most likely because they don’t want to get in trouble or because taking bribes is ‘wrong’.”

“Hmm… former would be useless, but latter might be convinced of intentions. Still useful.” Blackburn nodded. “Very well, main concern is relation to military or law enforcement. Do the best you can.” She turned to Crossfire next. “Anything from you, Crossfire?”

“I’ve been lookin’ inta that smugglin’ ring, an’ I think I narrowed down who might be the kingpin,” Crossfire added. “I’ll get started on gettin’ us a hook inta that lil’ club once I confirm it.”

“Current thought?”

“Don Virtuoso, head o’ the Fantasia crime family. Nearly all o’ the smuggled goods Hope’s Point gets that ain’t through our own network can be traced back ta somethin’ he’s got his hooves in. I got a list o’ some o’ his top officers ta try ‘n’ be our ‘in’.”

Blackburn nodded. “Excellent. I’ll serve as our ‘face’ in these endeavors, examine data collected to select ideal candidates for contacts from lists. Will also maintain cover of ‘business owner’, procure equipment to match story. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Gadget and Crossfire said in unison.

As of now, the game was on.

Two Weeks Later

Blackburn and Crossfire strolled down the sidewalk of Central Plaza’s West Tenth Street. Blackburn, as Thunderbolt, was dressed in a black blouse with a short white scarf; Crossfire accompanied her in a crisp black jacket, wearing his sunglasses and staying vigilant of their surroundings. Central Plaza wasn’t known as a particularly dangerous community so even if Blackburn wasn’t who she really was, somepony in her position could feel safe walking alone, but Crossfire helped complete the image she was trying to sell and he was a necessary addition to her entourage today.

They approached a restaurant in the middle of the block with a white-and-red checkered awning. A sign above the awning of black wood with cursive gold lettering read: “L’Artisan's Ristorante Baroque”. Blackburn and Crossfire entered; the maitre d’ - a unicorn stallion with a gray coat and blue mane - approached and gave a short bow. “Benvenuti signora. Table for two?”

Blackburn smiled and shook her head. “No, we have somepony waiting for us. A Mister Gun?”

The maitre d’ nodded. “Ah, of course. This way, signora.”

He led the way into the restaurant proper, and Blackburn and Crossfire followed along. The tables were all decorated with white-and-red checkered tablecloths that matched the awning outside. The domed ceiling was high, decorated with gorgeous artwork depicting gorgeous mares in scanty robes lounging by the sea. It wasn’t particularly crowded despite being prime time for lunch; a few couples sat near the front of the restaurant at tables by the doors, but none of the larger family tables were in use.

Except one. At this table, a booth in the rear of the restaurant, sat a single earth pony stallion with a dark brown coat and a white mane, dressed in a crisp, casual suit, no tie. He sat to one side of the booth, leaving the entire middle empty, a plate of stuffed peppers in front of him, one of which he’d just lifted to his mouth and bitten from. Standing at attention to the side of the booth was a unicorn stallion, dressed similarly to Crossfire. Blackburn knew Crossfire wasn’t carrying a gun; the unicorn was, a simple pistol strapped at his side.

The earth pony noticed Blackburn and Crossfire approach, and he politely rose from his seat and stood to greet them. “Ayyy, there’s my southern boy,” he said with a grin. He then turned to Blackburn and smiled wide. “And this must be Miss Thunderbolt. My my.” She offered her hoof, and he took it and leaned down to deliver a dainty kiss. “Fireblast didn’t mention you were such a pretty lady. Molto bello.”

“And you must be Mister Gun,” Blackburn said with a smile. “Fireblast didn’t mention that you were so handsome, either.”

“Please, Miss Thunderbolt, you can call me Tommy.” He gestured to the seat in the booth opposite him, which Blackburn took. Crossfire stood off to her side at attention, like the unicorn. Tommy Gun then gestured his hoof at the maitre d’. “Upper Crust, a bottle of your finest wine. Fallo veloce.”

The maitre d’ - Upper Crust - bowed slightly. “Subito signore.” And off he went.

Tommy retook his seat and pushed his plate of peppers over. “Have you tried the stuffed peppers? L'Artisan's makes the best ones in the city. No lie. Not even in the Inner Districts can you get stuffed peppers this good.”

Blackburn took one and took a bite. She’d had stuffed peppers once before and didn’t find them particularly appetizing, but these ones were in a different class altogether. She gave Tommy an appreciative grin. “You’re not exaggerating. Very tasty. I’m not usually much for Baroque cuisine. Don’t get much down south.”

“Now that is a crying shame.”

“I didn’t think you could get much real food up here in Pandemonium either. These are real peppers, right?”

“All of it. The peppers, the carrots, even the cheese, all real, all shipped from the heart of the Utopian continent.”

“Impressive.”

Tommy gave her a suave smile. “And that ain’t nothing compared to what you can get in the Inner District, dollface.”

Upper Crust returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses. He set both glasses in front of Tommy and poured one glass; Tommy passed it over to Blackburn when it was full. Upper Crust then poured Tommy his own glass, set the bottle on the center of the table, and turned to Blackburn with his notepad. “Ready to order, signora?

Blackburn lifted up her menu and glanced at the items. She wasn’t lying about not being much for Baroque cuisine and had little idea what was good or not or what would make her look stupid or boorish. Though she did at least know not to order macaroni and cheese. “Anything you recommend?” she asked Upper Crust.

“The eggplant parmigiana is one of our most popular items.”

“The minestrone here is also, mwah,” suggested Tommy. He kissed his hoof and gestured into the air. “Molto delizioso. A bowl of that for me, Upper Crust, per favore.”

Blackburn closed her menu. “I’ll take the eggplant parmigiana,” she said with a smirk in Tommy’s direction. Tommy chuckled, hoof over his heart. Once the maitre d’ left, Blackburn leaned forward slightly in her seat and lifting up her glass of wine. “So, Tommy, let’s talk about getting me a meeting with your Don.”

Tommy smirked and lifted his own glass. “Business before pleasure, Miss Thunderbolt? More time for that later, huh?”

“You don’t become the owner of a top tech company by wasting time talking about the weather.”

“Ooh, top tech?” Tommy took a sip from his glass. “Y’know, when ol’ southern comfort over there asked me to set up this meeting, I had my boys look into Crown Spectrum. Not a very old company, not even publicly traded. Not much to offer to the Fantasia family from what I can see. But he was insistent.”

“We’re up-and-coming, but I can assure you we’re at the top of top-of-the-line. Company motto.”

“And what makes you think that?”

Blackburn sipped her wine. “My tech specialist is the best in the business. Puts those eggheads over at Vega Tech to shame.”

“Is that so? And what technology has your little genius put out on the market that makes her such a star?”

Blackburn chuckled. “Nothing.”

“Nothing, huh?” Tommy frowned and set down his glass. “You think wasting my time is funny, Miss Thunderbolt? Huh? That I’m here to amuse you? Like I’m some sorta clown?”

Blackburn kept her poker face steady. “Not at all, Tommy.” She turned to Crossfire and nodded.

Crossfire put his hoof in his jacket; Tommy’s unicorn associate gripped his pistol with his magic. Crossfire pulled out a small device about the size of a deck of cards loaded with knobs and buttons, and set it on the table. Blackburn slid it over to Tommy.

Tommy eyed it curiously. “What’s this?”

“Our first product,” Blackburn said with a grin. “It’s not on the market yet, of course, but I thought maybe you’d be interested in giving it a look.”

Tommy lifted it up and gave it a once-over. “What’s it do?”

Blackburn gestured for him to pass it back over, which he did. She held the device in her hoof, pointed it at the bottle of wine, and pressed the largest button on the front. A magical field enveloped the bottle and lifted it into the air about three inches and held it there. She let it stay there as she set the device on the table.

“Huh.” Tommy eyed the bottle with curiosity. “So what, it lifts things up?

Blackburn smiled and aimed the device at the bottle again, then gently turned one of the many knobs. Tommy watched in awe as the bottle floated to her right, just over Tommy’s empty glass, and with a few more twists of the various knobs, the bottle poured wine into his glass, tilted back upright, and floated back to its original spot. She pressed the big button one more time, and the bottle fell three inches onto the table with a loud CLUNK.

Stupefacente,” Tommy muttered.

“My girl put this together in about a month,” Blackburn continued, passing the device back to Crossfire to put into his pocket. “Simulates unicorn telekinetic magic on a small scale. It’s got a lot of applications, but we figured it could be sold to earth ponies and pegasi, or unicorns who have lost the use of their magic.”

“Miss Thunderbolt, I’ve seen a lot of gizmos and gadgets, but I’ve never seen one that does that. You say you haven’t put it on the market?”

Blackburn smirked. “Not yet. See, the problem with the device is that it’s very power-heavy and has a short range, so it’s not really market-ready. We don’t have the resources to get what we need to make improvements to it, you see.”

Tommy leaned forward in his seat. “So that’s why you’re looking to meet the Don. You want access to the good stuff.”

“That’s right.”

Tommy smiled. “And what will you give to Don Virtuoso in return for his generosity, if he sees fit to give it?”

Blackburn leaned back in her seat. “That’s something I’ll discuss with him.”

“Awww, come on now, sweetheart, you can tell ol’ Tommy--”

“Can you get me a meeting with the Don, or not? I’d be more than happy to take my business to somepony with vision. I hear the Rossa family needs a little pick-me-up in the tech game.”

Tommy leaned back and scowled. Blackburn stared him down. They remained this way for several long seconds, before Tommy suddenly broke into a grin and laughed. “You’ve got a way about you, Miss Thunderbolt. The Don’s gonna love you.” He turned as Upper Crust finally arrived with their meals. “Food’s here! Grazie, Upper Crust, grazie.”

*****

Gadget, clad in her work coveralls and wearing her goggles over her eyes, sat at the apartment dining table, which was laid out with assorted electronic components. One lens of her goggles had a slight green glow; from her perspective she could see a set of schematics for Solarian’s database constructor in one eye, the table in front of her in the other. With her magic she was slowly putting together the parts she had to match with the schematics, piece by piece.

The doorknob jiggled slightly and the door opened; Gadget pulled up her sidearm and directed at the door in one swift motion. She didn’t fire when she saw it was Crossfire and Blackburn, just let out a short breath before placing it back on the table and returning to her work. “You’re late,” she grumbled.

Blackburn walked into the apartment, and Crossfire closed the door behind them before grabbing a soda from the fridge and plopping down on the couch.

“Apologies,” Blackburn said she strode over to the table, setting a box down on it. “Lunch took up much of our time. Also, chip was more difficult to acquire than believed: limited production, higher price, needed to negotiate deal.”

“Trust me, it’s worth it for the Titan 9600XL Processor Chip. Top-of-the-line, not available to the general public, and a real beaut of processing power. This sweet piece of hardware can run through the entire city’s registration database in thirteen picoseconds.” Gadget licked her lips. “Mmm hmm, if this baby was my coltfriend, I’d never want to leave the bedroom.”

“Disturbing. And the database constructor?”

Gadget opened the box and removed a small mechanical chip. “It’s as good as built,” she said as she added the chip into the device. “Give me twenty minutes to get everything all hooked together.”

“No rush. Device complete, means of installing it still tentative.” Blackburn took a breath and sat down at the table opposite Gadget. “Disqualified last of potential NPRD contacts this morning.”

Gadget paused, a frown on her face. “Golly, that stinks. That was Silent Storm, right? What disqualified her, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Ex-coltfriend’s sister is a cadet in the NPAF. Too close.”

“Kinda wish y’all could’ve picked that up earlier, Gadget,” Crossfire noted as he took a drink of his soda. “Could’ve saved us a lot of time.”

Gadget snorted. “Yeah, well, the hack only gets me some basic information. That’s why we’re trying to get this database constructor installed: it’ll search through the city’s entire database for every single piece of data on the pony in question. Like, it could find out who your third-grade teacher was, who was in your class and even what seat you sat in, and that the pony that sat next to you is a cadet in the NPAF today.”

She turned to Blackburn. “We are still moving forward with the database constructor, right? I hope so - we put a lot of effort into this sucker - but if we’re not--”

“We are. Have reconsidered course of action with rival smuggling operation. Negotiation of alliance preferable. Fantasia Crime Family has NPRD contacts, could be useful. Alternative: assimilation of resources. No longer considering destruction unless as last resort.”

“Yeah, that could work.” Gadget shrugged and returned to her work. “Does that mean Crossfire got things settled on his end?”

Crossfire smirked. “Yup. Took some work but I got us an ‘in’ wit’ Tommy Gun, one o’ Don Virtuoso’s captains. Blackburn ‘n’ me got him convinced we might make good business partners, what wit’ us havin’ good connections in Newhaven ‘n’ Utopia.”

“Showed him your TS-100, sung your praises,” Blackburn added. “Suitably impressed him.”

Gadget stuck her nose in the air proudly. “Damn right you did.”

“Have an invitation to party next week,” Blackburn continued. “Don’s daughter’s cute-ceañera. Most known associates in attendance, can make additional connections. Required to bring gift, black tie dress code. Did not pack appropriate clothes, nor potential gift; will need to shop this week.”

“Sure thing, Blackburn, sure thing. Can’t wait to get all gussied up for-- done!” Gadget snapped the last piece into the database constructor, which was a brick-shaped device the size of a cell phone. “The database constructor is good to go.”

Blackburn smiled. “Excellent. Slight change of plans, but still on track. Next order of business: procure attire for party. Need to look our best; impress and attract others; expand circle of influence.” She took a deep breath. “Should be fun.”

One Week Later

The Inner Districts of the city were in such sharp contrast to the Mid Districts that Blackburn and her friends were convinced they were in a completely different city. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what it was. Their chariot taxi, drawn by a pair of pegasi, flew through relatively clean air above well-maintained and litterless streets as they passed by clean, elegant residential towers and high-class businesses and office buildings.

Unlike the Mid Districts, the Inner Districts were divided into a multitude of neighborhoods with distinct characterizations. Blackburn’s fake Thunderbolt identity, for example, had been born and raised in Arcadia, a neighborhood well-known for its ivy-league education centers. The Fantasia Crime Family made its home in Baroque, known for its high-class art museums and unmatched cuisine. Blackburn now knew why her father was so dismissive of the threat this city posed: he almost exclusively dealt with the upper class, and this part of the city was arguably nicer than Hope’s Point.

The chariot taxi descended from the sky and landed in front of tall high-rise, The Torre Gloriosa, a tower of white concrete stabilized with gold-plated durasteel. It was the fifth-tallest building in the city. The tallest, Pandora Tower, was visible from anywhere else in the city, even from the Outer District and even with the worst smog conditions; the other three were in clear view from the top of any Inner District high-rise. The concrete had been textured to look like pearl, which with the gold-colored stabilizers gave the structure the appearance of jewelry.

When the chariot landed, Gadget passed the drivers several bits as payment, plus a few extra as a tip. The trio was dressed to the nines. Blackburn wore a black satin dress with a split that exposed her flank and hindlegs, a pair of pearl earrings, and expertly-applied red lipstick, her mane braided up in the back and make-up applied to completely hide her scar; Gadget wore a dark purple cocktail dress with a frilly lace hem and a silver chain necklace, plus her modified glasses, and had tied her mane up in a bun; and Crossfire wore a snappy black tuxedo and bowtie, and he also carried their gift, which was in a exquisitely-wrapped box the size of a deck of cards.

They reached the front door and were greeted by a doorpony, a unicorn stallion dressed in white-and-gold, who tipped his hat as they approached. “Evening, folks. Welcome to The Torre Gloriosa. May I have the name of your contact, please?” Blackburn was surprised how genuinely friendly he sounded; she supposed he was being paid handsomely for his work.

Blackburn gestured to Crossfire, who drew a small envelope from his pocket and passed it over. The doorpony took it with his magic and looked over the card inside, a formal invitation provided to them by Tommy Gun. His eyebrows raised, impressed, and he returned the envelope. “You’re looking for floor one-nine-nine, room one.” He pointed at the hallway just inside and tipped his hat again. “The elevator is at the end of the hall. Enjoy the party.”

“Thanks,” Blackburn said with a smile.

The trio entered the lobby and headed straight for the elevator, and the doors opened found it was operated by a pegasus mare in a snappy white-and-gold uniform. “Which floor?” she asked as the trio entered, her voice as pleasant and polite as the doorpony.

“Floor one-nine-nine, please,” said Blackburn.

When the elevator operator pressed the corresponding button, the doors closed and the elevator immediately started upward without even the slightest hint of friction; the ride was smooth as silk, all the way up to floor one-nine-nine, where it stopped without a fuss. The entire ride took just shy of twenty seconds.

The trio then disembarked, turned right, and found themselves right at the door to room one. Two hulking earth pony stallions that filled out their tight suits and ties flanked the door; one lifted his hoof to stop the trio as they approached. Crossfire presented their invitation and the earth pony guard looked it over, then nodded and opened the door to let them in.

Blackburn was floored by the quality of the apartment, especially since the high-rise itself had already impressed her with its elegance. The room itself had white marble floors and walls; great glass windows that stretched from floor to ceiling and looked out over the city; a staggering exterior area complete with a pool, a patio, and a jacuzzi; a fully-stocked kitchen; a large entertainment room that could house dozens of ponies at once; and a large dining room with a window of its own. And that was just what was visible from a short walk from the front door; she knew there had to be multiple bedrooms and other rooms elsewhere. She’d lived in the royal palace at Hope’s Point her whole life and even that paled in comparison to the quality found here. All the palace had going for it was the size.

Several other guests had already arrived and had started mingling out by the pool, and Blackburn knew it was wise to do the same. She was headed off first by Tommy Gun, who was dressed in a crisp wine-red tux and tie with a large, fake flower tucked into the breast pocket. His smile was wide and friendly. “Miss Thunderbolt! So glad you could make it. You are looking absolutely lovely this evening, just stunning. Bellissima.”

She offered her his hoof, which he daintily kissed. “Tommy. We’re not late, I hope?”

“Oh no no, not at all. The few guests already here live in the tower so they didn’t have to travel far. I’m actually impressed you got here so early. The Don appreciates a go-getter attitude.” He turned to Gadget and offered her a smile as well. “Well hello there. And who might you be?”

Gadget smiled and nodded. “Name’s Tinker. I’m Thunderbolt’s assistant and tech specialist.”

Tommy gave Thunderbolt a sidelong glance. “This is your star employee, Thunderbolt? You didn’t mention she was such a cute little thing.”

“I don’t like the competition,” Blackburn replied with a charming grin.

“She really doesn’t,” Gadget chuckled. She offered her hoof. “A pleasure to meet you, Mister Gun.”

Tommy took her hoof and kissed it gently. “Please, Miss Tinker, you can call me Tommy.” He gestured towards the pool and the few other guests that were already here. “Go on out and get comfortable. The party starts in a few minutes.”

“Oh? What about you, Tommy? Won’t you be joining us?” Blackburn asked.

“Later, my dolce signora, later. The Don wants me to take care of a few things, and since you’re here I’ll make sure you’re still on to meet with him after the ceremony.”

Blackburn smiled. “Thank you again, Tommy, we really appreciate it.”

“It’s been my pleasure, dollface,” Tommy said with a wink, then off he went past the kitchen to another part of the apartment.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Gadget leaned over to Blackburn and whispered: “You’ve really been flirting with that slimeball? You’re braver than I thought.”

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Blackburn whispered back.

“Ugh. I’m gonna need to take a shower when we get back to the apartment.”

The trio stepped outside to mingle with the other guests. There were only about half a dozen ponies outside at the moment, and it didn’t take long for Blackburn to determine that none of them were of any particular use to her mission here in the city; they all lived in the same tower as Don Virtuoso and so were basically little more than neighbors he considered worth inviting: a pegasus mare who was his wife’s yoga instructor, a unicorn stallion that owned the Don’s favorite Baroque restaurant, and so on.

Within the next ten minutes, a few other guests had arrived, but Blackburn and company didn’t have a chance to interact with them before Tommy stepped outside and got everypony’s attention with a loud clap of his hooves. Everypony looked his way, and seconds later, Don Virtuoso himself stepped outside, accompanied by his wife and daughter.

Virtuoso was a tall, white unicorn stallion with a larger-than-average horn and a broad frame that filled out his crisp charcoal-black tuxedo to the brim. His ocean-blue mane was short and neatly-trimmed and matched his equally-short and neatly-trimmed pencil-thin mustache. His cutie mark was a trio of musical notes floating around a conductor’s baton.

His wife was also a tall, white unicorn, taller than even her husband or Crossfire, which made her the tallest pony at the party. She was much thinner, with a trim, tight supermodel build, and wore a red velvet dress that hugged every single curve on her body. Her long pink mane flowed behind her like a curtain of silk. Her cutie mark was a silver tiara.

Their daughter, no more than eight years old, was also a unicorn, thin like her mother with a pink coat and purple mane. She wore a short white dress that showed off her cutie mark - a pair of ballerina shoes - clear as day; this entire party was meant to celebrate her getting it, so it made sense to show it off.

The Don cleared his throat. “Fillies and gentlecolts, grazie, thank you for coming here this evening to celebrate the cute-ceañera of my only daughter, Crown Jewel.” He laid a hoof on his daughter’s shoulder, and she beamed and waved at the crowd. “On behalf of my family, please, enjoy the party.”

*****

The party had just gotten into full swing by the time Virtuoso headed back into the apartment, specifically to his study. It would be a full ten minutes after that before Blackburn was summoned into his study, alone, with only the gift box she’d brought along as company. She was escorted by Tommy Gun, who showed her into the study, closed the door behind them, and stood at attention in front of the door.

Don Virtuoso sat behind his desk smoking a thick cigar, a flood of smoke haloed over his head. The lighting consisted of little else but a ceiling lamp, which had been dimmed to give a very particular amount of light just over the desk and chairs on either side. An intimidation tactic that Blackburn was well-acquainted with and not at all intimidated by. She didn’t think for a second that this meeting was going to be easy, but at least she could see the kind of pony the Don was before he’d said a word.

The Don merely gestured ever-so-slightly at the chair opposite him. Blackburn took her seat, and pondered Virtuoso for a few seconds while he sat in silence, smoking his cigar. Another intimidation tactic: if she spoke first, he’d take it as an insult; if she looked at him wrong, he’d take it as an insult; if she fidgeted in her chair, he’d think her nervous and weak. So she just sat back in her seat, quiet as a mouse, gift in her lap, and waited.

Nearly a minute of silence later, and Virtuoso finally spoke. “So. Tommy tells me you own a little tech company. Is that right?”

Blackburn nodded once. “That’s right.” She kept her answers short for now, unless she knew they needed to be longer.

“And you come to my house, on the evening of my daughter’s cute-ceañera, and you ask me to do business with you?”

Blackburn lifted the gift box from her lap and set it on the desk. “Don Virtuoso, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me into your home, especially on the evening of your daughter’s cute-ceañera. Please accept this gift for her, from me, as a showing of my appreciation.”

Virtuoso took a deep puff from his cigar and opened the box. Inside was a lovely necklace, silver and sapphire, sized to fit a filly. The central stone was in the shape of a pair of ballerina shoes that perfectly matched the cutie mark of young Crown Jewel. Virtuoso smirked and resealed the box.

“We don’t know each other Miss Thunderbolt. But Tommy spoke to me on your behalf. He’s a good boy--” He turned to Tommy. ”Ain’t you Tommy?”

Tommy Gun nodded. “That’s right, Don.”

“And if Tommy spoke to me on your behalf, that means you’ve got something worthwhile. He says you’ve got a little mare working for you, top mind in the business. Whipped up a little something that was very interesting to me.” Virtuoso leaned forward in his seat. “As interesting as it was, I need something more, if I’m going to even consider opening up my family to a stranger. Can you offer me that, Miss Thunderbolt?”

Blackburn leaned back in her seat and gave a calm smile. “I can assure you, Don Virtuoso, there’s more where that came from. But only if my company has the resources and materials to develop it.”

Virtuoso leaned back and took another puff of his cigar. There was a long silence. Then: “Tommy.”

“Yes Don?” replied Tommy.

“Make sure Miss Thunderbolt gets whatever she needs for her next project.”

“Of course, Don.”

Virtuoso leaned forward again. “Someday--and that day may never come--I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this business arrangement as a gift to you for my daughter’s cute-ceañera.”

Blackburn nodded. “Grazie, Don Virtuoso.”

Prego. Now go,” Virtuoso said, waving his hoof, “enjoy the party.”

Blackburn rose from her seat and headed for the door, which Tommy opened for her with a nod and a smile.

*****

Blackburn returned to the party but kept her poker face steady; things were going well, but it would be best for business if she kept up the appearance of cool headedness. Thunderbolt had a role to play, and Blackburn would play it well. The party was in full swing at last, so there were plenty of adults chatting in the entertainment room and out by the pool, drinking punch, wine, and champagne, and eating delicious hors d’oeuvres. The special filly of the evening, Crown Jewel, was chatting with her friends out on the patio, showing off her cutie mark with pride.

Blackburn noticed Crossfire first, all by himself near the catering table inside pouring himself a glass of punch. She trotted over to him. “Fireblast,” she said, giving him a slight smile. “Enjoying the party?”

Crossfire nodded. “Yes ma’am, it’s been a real hoot. They’ve got great punch. Tastes like back home.”

She casually poured herself a glass of punch and made sure she was out of earshot of anypony else nearby; she kept to character just in case. “Anypony worth mentioning so far?”

“A few names here ‘n’ there but nothin’ worth wastin’ yer time on right now. Only pony y’all might wanna meet is the Don’s wife, Ivory Charm, but she’s been occupied all evening,” Crossfire replied. “Things go well on your end?”

“I think we’re in, but the Don’s a bit skeptical and I don’t blame him. Tinker’s gonna have to wow him.” Blackburn took a drink of her punch. “Mmm. That is good.” She looked out at the crowd, scanning for Gadget. “Speaking of Tinker, where’s our little genius at?”

Crossfire indicated the outdoor pool, where Gadget was sitting on the edge chatting with a handsome earth pony stallion in a snappy white tuxedo. “Been flirtin’ wit’ that’n fer the last few minutes. Not genuine flirtin’ o’ course - I’ve seen ‘er when she’s ‘in the zone’, an’ that ain’t it - but the fella thinks she is.”

“Well hopefully he’s worth spending time on.”

Blackburn could see that Gadget had noticed her out of the corner of her eye; she signaled to her with a slight fluff of her wings - a secret gesture that wouldn’t mean anything to anypony else, but would let Gadget know to group up. Gadget didn’t reply in any way, but Blackburn didn’t need her to.

It took about a minute for Gadget to pull herself away from the other pony and trot over to the catering table. She poured herself a glass of punch. “Thunderbolt,” she said flatly.

“Tinker,” Blackburn replied just as flatly. “Enjoying yourself out there?”

Gadget took a deep breath. “Golly, ma’am, I’ve been to a few cute-ceañeras when I was a little filly but I’ve never been to one like this. At mine we only had like ten guests and just played board games all afternoon. If this is the kinda stuff I’ll get to see working for you, then I’m glad we met.”

“Well I’m glad I could be of help getting you into fancy parties,” Blackburn replied with a grin. She again checked to make sure nopony was in earshot. “Any luck?”

Gadget sipped her punch. “Got a few names that might be worth checking out, but nothing worth checking out tonight yet. I assume your meeting went well?”

“Very. You’re gonna have your work cut out for you, Tinker.”

“Oh. Joy.”

Blackburn poured herself another glass of punch and scanned the crowd for anypony that seemed worth trying to make a connection with in between fraternizing with other random guests. She trusted Crossfire and Gadget’s attempts to make connections so far but knew there was enough time left at the party for her to make her own effort and she had a different eye than they did.

She had a couple of criteria on who might be worth spending time on. First: they should be clearly involved with multiple other guests; if the pony in question wasn’t useful as a contact directly, maybe they knew somepony who was. Second: they should clearly not be an actual part of the Fantasia crime family; they already had that ‘in’ and trying to scope out potential double agents here was too early and risky.

One pony in particular seemed to meet those requirements so far from a few minutes of watching the crowd while she helped herself to refreshments. A pegasus stallion in the entertainment room who, over the course of the evening, she’d seen chatting with nearly everypony in the room either one-on-one or as part of a group, and who was too scrawny to be an enforcer and not well-dressed enough to be a captain, the Don's underboss, or heaven forbid the Don's consigliere.

He had a rich gray coat and a short, mud-brown mane that was kept neatly-combed, and wore a plain brown dinner jacket that was clearly off-the-shelf, not custom-tailored, because it was a little too big. He also wore a brown fedora, though this one was of distinctly higher quality. His cutie mark was a black umbrella.

Blackburn turned to Gadget and tilted her head towards the mystery stallion. “Have you talked to that one yet?”

Gadget raised an eyebrow. “Oh, him. No, not yet. He seemed like a good pick since it looks like he knows a lot of ponies here, but he’s been busy pretty much the entire time so I haven’t had a chance to speak to him myself. Got his name from some of the other guests, though: Lockwood.”

“Hmm. Anything more than a name?”

Gadget shrugged. “Everypony just seems to know him. No idea what he does though.” She put a hoof to her chin and shrugged. “Total mystery stallion.”

Blackburn nodded and filled her glass again, with champagne this time. “Well, looks like it’s time to solve the mystery then. Wish me luck.”

“As if you’d need it.”

Without a beat she strode across the room towards the mysterious Lockwood, who was currently talking to a duo of unicorn mares - twins with green coats and pink manes dressed in matching gold cocktail dresses whose only difference was their manestyles, one long and wavy, the other in a ponytail. His back was to her so he didn’t notice her approach; she chose to stand just off to the side for now and feign fascination with a painting on the wall. She didn’t get to hear most of the conversation, but was able to gather a bit from the tail-end she did hear.

“It’s next week at noon,” said long-and-wavy with a grin. “You can bring a guest or two if you want. The more the merrier.”

“We’ve got a few Dolor Foods representatives coming out since they’re catering the event,” said ponytail.

Lockwood rubbed his chin. “They gonna have Blue?”

Long-and-wavy stuck out her tongue. “I still have no idea why that’s your favorite. It tastes like toothpaste y’know.”

“Not when you chill it. Then it tastes like cotton candy,” he replied with a wink.

“Sure sure, whatever, we’ll have them bring some chilled Blue,” said ponytail with a roll of her eyes. “Just be there, okay?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

The twins sauntered off together towards the pool, leaving Lockwood alone. He turned away and almost ran right into Blackburn in his hurry, nearly making her spill her champagne; not really, but she made it look like he did. “Oh! Sorry, sorry, didn’t see you there.”

Blackburn smiled gently as she steadied her glass. “It’s alright, no harm done.”

Lockwood looked her up and down for half a second, then raised an eyebrow. “Hmm… I don’t recognize you. We haven’t met before, have we?”

“Can’t say that we have.” Blackburn offered her hoof. “I’m Thunderbolt.”

Lockwood took her hoof and gave it a gentle shake. “Lockwood. Pleasure to meet you. Enjoying the party?”

Blackburn took a sip of her champagne and glanced around the room. “I’ve never been to a cute-ceañera quite like this. It feels more like a wedding party.”

“Yeah, that’s just Don Virtuoso showing off to all the high rollers he knows. He’s proud of his little filly, so I can’t blame him.”

Blackburn eyed his attire curiously. “I was told this was black tie. Sorry if this sounds forward but you look a little underdressed.”

Lockwood scuffed his jacket with a hoof, embarrassed; Blackburn guessed he didn’t really belong at these sorts of events. “Yeah I know, but this was the nicest jacket I owned. The Don won’t blame me for it. You though, you look lovely… if you don’t mind my saying.”

“Thank you. But I thought you said he was inviting all the ‘high rollers’ he knew? That jacket doesn’t seem very ‘high roller’ to me.”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah, well… I’m the exception I guess?”

“Oooh, sounds like there’s a story behind that,” Blackburn said as she took another sip.

“Well, it’s kind of a long story, I don’t know if you want to hear--”

Blackburn smirked. “Oh, I’d love to hear it.”

“Huh. Well, okay. This is gonna sound kinda roundabout but here goes.” He took a breath. “I live next door to one of the Don’s low-level enforcers, and I kinda did him a huge favor in getting this mare down the hall to go on a date with him, so... he kinda invited me to a dinner to celebrate their engagement two months later.

“I met his captain, Hotline, at that dinner, and we hit it off pretty well since it turns out I went to school with his wife - didn’t know her well, but that didn’t matter - and he’d never seen anypony with such an appreciation for good Baroque cuisine. We hung out a few times, and he trusted me enough that eventually I got to meet the Don at a little get-together last year... aaand the Don liked me well enough that I got to meet his wife and daughter.

“And so, well, last week I got invited to come along to a little party, and I volunteered to watch Crown Jewel when the Don had to go aside and deal with some business. The little filly wanted to dance with me since nopony else usually wanted to dance with her, so I showed her what I knew and let her lead a little dance together. Guess she took a liking to it ‘cause she got her cutie mark.”

Blackburn stared at him, absolutely mystified. “So wait… you eventually met the Don because you happened to live next door to some low-level enforcer, and the Don trusted you enough to leave you alone with his daughter, and then you helped her get her cutie mark by pure happenstance?”

“Well when you say it like that it sounds pretty crazy,” Lockwood said, scratching his neck. “But yeah, that sums it up.” He tipped his hat. “The Don got me a new hat to replace my old ratty one, even invited me here since I’m responsible for her getting her mark in the first place.”

Blackburn tucked this all away in her mind to try and decipher in private later, then tilted her head towards the twins, who were now flirting with a stallion she knew was one of the Don’s other captains, Octavian. “What about those two? You seemed to know them pretty well.”

Lockwood glanced in their direction. “Oh, Mint and Matcha Tea? Yeah, they’re editors on the New Pandemonium Times. I met them at a wine tasting event a few weeks ago that I got invited to because I knew the guy that owned the winery from, ah… when I was younger. I went to school with his cousin.”

Blackburn noted the awkward pause. Was he embarrassed about it? Ashamed? More to ponder for later. “Did I hear them invite you to a party? You’re that close with them after just meeting them at a wine tasting?”

“Oh I wouldn’t say I’m close or anything, but I guess I made a good impression.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry, I’ve been just rambling on about myself. What do you do, by the way?”

Blackburn took a final sip from her glass and considered him again. He was self-conscious, too. Just another of several very odd traits for somepony so well-acquainted with Don Virtuoso. “I own a tech company, Crown Spectrum,” she said. “Top of the top-of-the-line is our motto.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of you.”

“We’re pretty new actually, but we’re rising stars, I assure you. Even Don Virtuoso’s taken an interest.”

“Ah, that’s why you’re here at the party. Neat. I don’t know many tech-minded ponies. What’s that like anyhow?”

Blackburn shrugged. “Oh, I’m not the one to talk to about the nitty-gritty technical stuff, that’s really more my tech specialist’s job. I’m just a businessmare, she’s the wiz.”

“Still, that’s pretty neat.” Lockwood paused for a moment. “Say, you’re not doing anything next week, are you?”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Maybe you’d like to come to the party the Tea sisters invited me to? I’m allowed to bring guests if I want, and if you own an up-and-coming tech company, it couldn’t hurt to meet a few ponies here and there involved with the press. Y’know, maybe get your name out there?”

Blackburn kept her poker face steady; this was a perfect development, but she didn’t want to seem desperate. “Hmm… yeah, okay, that sounds like it could be pretty nice. Can I bring my bodyguard and specialist with me? I mean, we’re the only members of the company, so I figure if ponies want to meet Crown Spectrum, they should meet all of us.”

Lockwood shrugged. “Yeah, sure, that’s fine. ‘The more the merrier’ they said. They’re sending me the details tomorrow, so I can forward that along to you. Where do you live?”

“Mid-South, Central Plaza, North Point.”

Lockwood whistled. “Wow, Mid-South Central? Nice. Well I’ll send that information out to you as soon as I can.”

Blackburn smiled. “Thanks. That’s awful nice of you, inviting somepony you just met to a get-together like that.”

“Hey, no trouble at all. I was actually struggling with the thought of who I would bring with me before you came along. Works for me.” He glanced out into the crowd. “Now, if you don’t mind, Miss Thunderbolt, I have a few other ponies I’m looking to talk to before the party wraps up.”

“Sure, no problem. It was nice meeting you, Lockwood.”

“Likewise.”

Lockwood then headed off into the crowd towards a pegasus stallion dressed in a dark red tuxedo, who he greeted like an old friend. Blackburn watched with some interest, baffled that such a nondescript pony could somehow know so many ponies of wealth and influence and be so nonchalant, no, humble about it. It seemed too good to be true; she’d take him up on his offer, certainly, but she made a mental note to keep an eye on him.

Because if there was one thing she’d learned from her grandfather, it was that things that seemed too good to be true usually were.

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