• Published 6th Nov 2020
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A Clash of Magic and Steam - law abiding pony

The Fire of Friendship that once united ponykind has all but faded. One thousand years ago, Equestria fractured... those who disagreed with Celestia's rule left under the leadership of Princess Luna to found their own nation, their own way of life.

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6: My Own Path

One week after Twilight’s twentieth birthday

It was a bright morning, and Twilight was still burning the midnight oil in her office within Night Light’s laboratory. She was copying all of her father’s notes in a ciphered shorthand to both protect the information, and so she could use it for a machine shop of her own one day. Lined up in order of emptying, were three empty teapots and a well-used cup that still had a bit of cold tea left. The shelves of notes had chalk marks on each row, some which were days old, marking her progress in copying everything.

Bags hung under Twilight’s strained eyes, but she was at the final page. Her quill moved with a noticeable shake that marred the page every now and again. She was so tired, even her horn had been quiet for hours, but there was a tight schedule to keep and a little thing like sleep wasn’t going to throw her off. Multiple empty ink pots were all perfectly lined up on her right, while the last filled pot sat on her left, along with a few broken quills laying in the crumbled-paper filled waste bin.

While Pinkamena had been the last to retire, she was the first to knock on Twilight’s office. She had her own special four note knock that Twilight robotically voiced permission to enter.

Pinkamena came in with a plate decorated in a fresh omelet, a heavenly berry cream pie she had baked, and hash browns. The latter was beneath a noble lady, but that made Twilight love them all the more. The good taste helped. She also had another pot of tea hanging from a handle in her mouth. The rising steam threatened to burn the side of her face, so Pinkamena was quick to find a clear space to set it down. “Breakfast is served,” she called, partly breaking Twilight’s concentration.

Even so, Twilight slammed the quill on the last line hard enough to break it. She rose from her chair in triumph, only to cry out in pain from back pain for sitting so long. She didn’t let the pain pull her grin away from her, however. “It’s done, Pinkamena! I’ve copied everything. How’s preparation for the ‘business trip’?”

The earth mare may have been groomed and well dressed, but she couldn’t quite hide the muscle fatigue from her training the previous day. Still, she wouldn’t let that keep her from Twilight’s side. “Lady Velvet brought the funds you were promised to the estate vault last night, and the wagon train should allow us to make it to Manehattan without stopping for anything more than rest and water.” Pinkamena’s good cheer wilted and her slightly curly hair flattened entirely. “Mistress, are you sure you really want to do this?”

“Of course I do!” Twilight started replacing all of the written notes back into the locked cabinet to keep from raising suspicions when she left. As much as the crown trusted her as a researcher, such notes were never supposed to leave the estate. “Granted the timetable is going to take a lifetime, but I’ve got at least four of those. The best part is all the setup work we’ll be doing is perfectly legal and expected of me. Nopony will think twice about us.”

Now that the desk was clear enough, Pinkamena laid the plate down. Twilight started wolfing it all down as fast as she could. In the bedraggled mood she was in, and there being just the two of them, Twilight had no patience for maintaining lady-like behavior. “That’s not exactly what I’m most worried about. Trading with Lunarians is already frowned upon, but trading some servants away carries the death penalty. Aristocrat or not.”

“I know it’s risky.” Twilight took a long swig from her tea, which Pinkamena promptly refilled. “Thank you. But I need some engineering books to jump start my research, and I have to be ready in case they want more than bits.” She downed the second cup in a hurry as well in a vain effort to stave off sleep. “Besides, ending the stripe practice is part two of the end goal anyway. If anything it might look better to offer them some red stripes right off the bat.”

Even with Twilight’s scandalous choice of words, the stripes in Pinkamena’s hair only glowed a little. Pinkamena closed her eyes and muttered a quiet mantra to herself for several seconds. Eventually the glow faded and Pinkamena returned to the present. “But what about your arranged marriage to Redwood? He might approve of the countryside as well for hunting and the like.”

“Pah!” Twilight shoveled some delectable hash browns into her maw. “He needs a mare who’ll be too focused on making money, not toiling away in a lab that gives him headaches just by entering it, or having to stay silent about any inventions he sees. License or not, he’s too much of a gossip hound. All of that is assuming he’d even want to be involved with the labs in the first place. Or put up with the business trips I’ll be making. By Celestia, he might even find more reasons for me to go on trips just to be rid of me. Besides, I have no interest in game hunting, or drinking, or painting with him.”

Pinkamena nervously bit her hoof. “You can easily outlive him. By the time he’s eighty, you can choose whoever you want after you divorce him on the grounds of needing someone young again.”

“All the while dying a little each day in a loveless marriage?” Twilight paused her inhalation of the omelet to give Pinkamena a concerned look. “Are you having second thoughts?”

“I…” Pinkamena rubbed the side of her foreleg and looked away. She didn’t want Twilight to see her shaking. “It’s just that…”

Even over members of her own family, Twilight could read Pinkamena like a book. Twilight’s mouth went dry and her imagination cooked up horrifying scenarios by the second. The worst of which was Pinkamena leaving her side. “I can’t do this without you, Pinkamena,” she stated with fear creeping into her voice. Please don’t make me chose. Twilight closed her eyes, fatigue clawing at her. “Pinkamena, the rot in this country won’t remove itself. I have to do what I can, and I need my best friend to come with me.”

Pinkamena felt a hopeful smile try to work its way on her face. But she suppressed it to save it for later. “Only if you promise me one thing?”

It sounded like such an innocuous question. But Twilight was in no mood for risks. She stopped eating to give Pinkamena her full attention. “Anything.”

“Don’t send me away.” Pinkamena raised a hoof to stop Twilight from getting up. She couldn’t directly touch Twilight like that, but she didn’t need to for Twilight to stop. “I know you want to build a machine large enough to remove my stripe, but that would mean I’d have to flee to Lunaria. I don’t want to lose you.”

The request would have warmed anyone’s heart, but Twilight sagged at the request and her gaze fell into her food. “But what about making your own future? Or that of your children? If you stay in Equestria, the Bureau will take them.” Twilight felt tears dampen her face. “You deserve better.”

Pinkamena cried too, and desperately wished to nuzzle Twilight so she would meet her eyes. “If losing my future child is what it takes to remain at your side and help others get their smiles back, then my only wish is to pay that price.”

“Pinkamena…” Twilight’s eyes reddened with emotion. Her appetite was gone, but her fatigue redoubled. “It’s easy to say that now. But what if you change your mind once you’ve carried that child for eleven months?”

“Then I will do as any good servant does and hoof them over with a smile… Nothing is more important than your designs, Mistress.” Pinkamena curtsied as low as possible before her. “I like to dream of all the smiles we’ll create when others are freed of their stripes. I can’t help you do that if I have to run away.”

Wiping her tears away, Twilight roped Pinkamena into a crushing hug. “The offer will always be open, Pinkamena. Never forget that.”

“As you wish, Mistress.” Pinkamena hugged her right back with genuine love. A stripe only cares about obedience, but the pony it was bound to had the choice to love.

It took a bit, but the pair eventually broke the hug with Pinkamena starting to clean the plates up. “Rusty Nail is putting the finishing touches on the wagon train.” Pinkamena stepped just outside the door, and grabbed a basket full of grooming products and tools. “But first things first, come on then. You know they’d never let you leave if you looked like you slept in your smock all night.”

Twilight greedily shoved down the rest of the omelet, and choked down the last of the tea. “Well then, it’s a good thing I didn’t sleep at all.”

Pinkamena arched a sardonic eyebrow, prompting Twilight to look in a nearby mirror. The lightning frazzled hair, wrinkled clothes, and bits of egg on her face was not a sight for dignified eyes. “That is unpleasant, perhaps you’re right.”

Twilight ended up half-sleeping through most of the shower and the redressing that Pinkamena put her through over the next hour. Within short order, Twilight blinked and found herself standing in the courtyard with her parents waiting for her at the wagon train. It started with her private coach, the second wagon holding all of the bits, reading material, and food for the journey and the last one holding bunks for the twelve total draft stallions so they could work in shifts. Twilight had been very careful in selecting the drafts as exclusively red striped servants, who were typically Lunarian soldiers, citing saving costs as an excuse.

Twilight took a deep breath and marched over to meet her parents, with Pinkamena staying respectfully behind her and to the right side. Velvet’s eyes were rimmed with tears and she couldn’t help but to meet Twilight halfway and embraced her.

“It's hard to imagine my little filly already striking out on your own.”

Despite how much Twilight regretted having to leave, she knew it was the only way for her plans to move forward. Nevertheless, Twilight still gave her a strong, heartfelt hug. “Don’t worry, momma,” she paused until Velvet released the hug half a minute later. “Even if I don’t make a decent profit, I’ll still be making connections.”

“True. Wealth is not measured by bits alone.” Velvet kept her bittersweet smile and leaned in close to Twilight’s ear. “Don’t do anything foolish, you willful girl. I can’t protect you anymore.”

“I’m sure I’ll only make the same mistakes you did.” Twilight gave a brief hint of a determined stare, just fast enough for Night Light to miss it.

“Celestia help me, I hope so.” Her mother was unsatisfied, but had to let Twilight go. She looked back at Pinkamena. “You be sure to watch over her transactions. Celestia above knows you have a better way with customers.”

Pinkamena giggled politely behind a hoof, much to Twilight’s annoyance. “Of course, My Lady. I live to serve my Mistress in all matters.”

“Well spoken,” Night Light commented as he barged his way in to rope Twilight into a hug of his own. To Twilight’s nose, he still had a hint of engine grease in his fur; a scent that would always remind her of home. She buried her face in his shoulder, taking one last crushing hug.

As was the case last time, it was the parent who let go first. The final separation tore at Twilight’s heart, and she could already feel the need to cry coming. I really hope the next time I see them isn’t from the gallows.

“I’m so proud of you, Twily.” Night Light used a fetlock to brush away the tears that were betraying Twilight’s inner turmoil. “I know your heart lies with the engine more than a ledger. So once you make it, I can petition the crown so you can create an engine from scratch.”

“You know that'd never happen, dad, but thanks anyway.”

Night Light laughed heartily and honestly. Of the two, Twilight had been the most careful around her father. He was the one who could read her best. “You might be right. Even so, I know for a fact you’re going to make a big splash, wherever you land.”

Twilight giggle-snorted. Oh, I plan on it. “I don’t know about that, daddy. Not a lot of places have a use for a demicorn that researches machines.”

“Don’t belittle yourself. There’s more to you than that.” Velvet admonished lightly with a hoof patting her daughter’s forelegs.

“Far more,” her father added with a nod and a wink. He stepped away so Twilight could climb into the coach and shut the door. She stuck her head out of the window while Pinkamena went around to enter from the other side. “You’re young, but you’ve got drive like I’ve never seen before. Go on and make Equestria proud, Twily.”

Lying to her father was always difficult, so evasion was easier. “Love you, daddy.” Both parents moved in and the three of them shared a round of nuzzles and kisses. “Love you, momma.”

“And I love you more,” Velvet teased with one final nose kiss. “As for you,” Velvet directed at Pinkamena who stuck her head out of the other window at hearing the elder mare’s tone of voice. “We paid good money for that personal instructor. Not one hair on my daughter’s head is to be so much as scratched by anypony.”

“My Mistress will never come to harm so long as I can help it, my Lady,” Pinkamena nodded respectfully.

Satisfied, Velvet nodded curtly. “I expect no less. Good luck to you both.”

From within the cabin, Twilight gestured at Pinkamena. The earth mare leaned a bit further out of the other window. “Giddyup you two!”

The draft stallions lurched the coach forward. Twilight’s wings waved goodbye to her parents until they were out of sight. And even then, she kept her eyes fixed on the estate until the curve of the mountain obscured her family home.

Dread and anticipation started to fill her veins and tears flooded her eyes. It was finally going to happen. She was going to start her own two-mare operation to change Equestria. She sank back down in her seat and looked at Pinkamena. The earth pony smiled back at her, and her barely controllable mane was getting curly again. I hope she can breathe free one day.

Twilight's wagon train stopped at the bottom of the mountain so she could speak with the Travel Department, an old defense against Lunarian infiltration. With Pinkamena remaining inside the carriage, Twilight collected the pre-prepared documents she needed and stuck hear head out of a window once she heard hoof steps heading towards her.

As soon as she saw the trooper, a massive smile cleaved her face. "Shiny!” Scrambling out of the door, Twilight nearly forgot herself and the plethora of soldiers and other travelers nearby. She slowed her pace a bit, but didn't let an audience deter her from embracing her smiling brother.

“You didn't think I'd let you leave town without saying goodbye too, did you?” Shining Armor roped Twilight into an equally powerful, squashing hug.

“I admit I was starting to worry.” Twilight couldn't help but to feel at ease around her brother; her eternal protector.

He gently nuzzled Twilight between her ear and horn. “I've already cleared you for the gate, why don't we talk on the move for a bit so we don't hold up traffic?"

Snickering a bit, Twilight playfully pushed his face away. “You know we'll end up talking for hours. Are you sure you can still run that far back to the garrison?"

“Just because I have a star on my collar doesn't mean I've been slouching." Shining Armor gestured a hoof at the watchmen, who promptly pulled the gate open. “Shall we?"

All too happy to entertain her brother, Twilight practically danced back towards the carriage. “I'd love to."

It didn't take long for the wagon train to start moving again, only this time, Pinkamena tactfully excused herself to command the coach from the outside, leaving the siblings in peace. Twilight was proven right because they indeed started gabbing for over an hour and a half, gossiped and giggling about little nothings. A silly story here, plenty of bad jokes and puns, and many more.

The carriage had well and truly entered the forest roads when Twilight offered Shining Armor the last of the scones. “You take it. I can’t enjoy them without tea.”

With a nod and a joking smile, her brother gladly claimed the treat. “Oh I see, you want me to be the parched one.” He nibbled on it a bit since there was no tea left to wash it down. “Ya know, Twily, even after you kept saying you’d do it, it’s still hard to believe you pulled yourself away from home.”

A smirk played on her face. The sudden shift to a topic of substance saddened her deeply. He can’t ride with me much longer.. She swayed gently as the wagon took a corner. “You mean daddy’s engine.” She looked away, trying to focus on the world passing her by. “I can’t stay in Canterlot. Nopony wants to listen to my ideas. You know how that feels, don’t you?”

“More than I should have.” He took another nibble, but he still focused on his sister, mostly her face. “Celestia knows what far away outpost I’d be sent to rot in if it wasn’t for Cadence and the queen having my back. Still, I’ve won over a lot of those with more sense than stubborn pride.” He leaned over so he would catch Twilight’s eye. “But then again, I’m not the one whose known for wanting to make machine creation legalized.“

Among other things. She turned back to face him. “You’re trying to help Equestria’s military. I’m trying to help the civilian sector. We’re climbing different sides of the same mountain.”

“To which I wish you the best of luck.” He leaned forward and smoothed out her static frazzled mane a bit. “Just don’t do anything crazy, or illegal to do it. We already walk a tightrope as it is.”

“Don’t I know it.” Twilight lightly shook her head. “But don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“Is that so?” Shining gave her his signature stink eye, making her squirm a bit. “Because walking a crew of stripes into a neutral trading port isn’t my idea of ‘being fine’. I know mom was against trading with Lunarians on principle, but even a casual knowledge of them should tell you that’s taboo around them.”

“I did my research, thank you, there’s a Equestrian controlled camp nearby. My drivers will be staying there.”

“I’d still be careful taking Pinkamena in there, but trying to separate you two is more difficult than my reforms.” He chuckled at it all, if only to keep from stressing too hard. Not that it did much good. “Just be careful. Reading about Lunarians and meeting them face to face is entirely different.”

Twilight let off a gentle forlorn sigh and stared off towards Canterlot. “Yes, well I’ll leave the clash of swords to you. But as the Merchant’s Creed states: home is where the heart is, but the sea is made of bits.”

“Uh huh,” Shining Armor replies with a snorting grumble. “Rule number seventy five if I remember correctly. I believe you should pay more attention to the forty eighth rule when dealing with the Lunarians.”

A tepid frown fell over Twilight, but she masked it quickly with an approving nod. “The bigger the smile the sharper the knife. I’m surprised you even remember any of the rules.”

“You’d be surprised how applicable the Merchant’s Creed is to politics, both in and out of the uniform.” Shining Armor briefly stuck his head out of the window to gauge how far they were now from the capital. The valley consisted of lower class dwellings and the like, but even here, the streets were kept clean and well patrolled. “Anyway, I need to get going. Stay safe, LSBFF.”

“I will, BBBFF,” she replied with a sad grin. Goodbyes between the siblings were never easy.

With fond sadness, both of them gave a few more little goodbyes as Shining Armor banged the door so the wagon would stop. He climbed out and ordered Pinkamena to resume. He stayed on the marginally busy road, waving his sister off until she was gone. He was slow to turn away. Disquiet soured his already crestfallen mood, yet he knew not the cause. “Please be safe, Twily.”

It took over a month to reach Manehattan by wagon thanks to the roads getting progressively worse the closer they got to the border. Two provinces south and east of Canterlot had seen the ravages of the last war reach past the road she traveled. That ironically made it the safest roads thanks to the near constant military patrols. Her brother had told her Lunaria was showing no signs of renewing their war footing for many years to come, so it was the best route to avoid highwaymen. It helped that the sheer number of other trade caravans passed through the area, giving the army a greater incentive to maintain their vigil.

As they traveled through, Twilight couldn’t help but to look around. Sections of renewing, burnt forests, the occasional rusted cannon ball, and a single stone battle memorial marker laid along the repaired road. It was as rare that bodies were buried at battlefields anymore, and were usually recovered and buried closer to home.

What struck her, was a series of ruins off to the south along the outskirts of Manehatten. Fallow farmlands surrounded a small collection of houses burnt down to their foundations. Not even thirty years ago, it used to be the largest Lunarian fortress-city left on the mainland. The fighting here had lasted the entire war, and had left the city a smoking ruin, bereft of the people who once called it home. The remains of a city wall had been reduced to rubble, barely any of it was taller than a pony anymore. Broken homes and smashed businesses were largely silent, save for the ghosts of the past. To think. If we had not captured that field marshal, how many more cities would have burned? And how many more will burn because we did?

As per the last war’s treaty, Manehatten was to be abandoned, save to serve as the only neutral trade post between Equestria and Lunaria that fit Twilight’s needs. The city in which Lunaria was founded, had been reduced to a glorified flea market.

Still, the deep-water port had been rebuilt, and had a scattering of restored boarding houses and businesses to support the merchants and sailors on shore leave had returned, but Equestrian watchdogs ensures little else rose from the ashes.

Yet before Twilight could set hoof there, she had to settle into the Equestrian merchant camp located in the burned and demolished remains of a university: Union Point.

As her wagon train pulled into the walled area, the gate guards, four total, dressed in royal army reds and golds halted her progress.

At this point, she was sick of sitting in the carriage. So both she and Pinkamena had been jogging alongside the carriage for the previous twenty miles with their armor strapped on, save for Twilight’s buckler shields. It didn’t help matters that Twilight had been without a bath since she departed a way-station a week prior.

If I am going to stink, I might as well work up a sweat doing it. The old idiom Cross Hook shared made her smile inwardly. I still can’t believe momma agreed that I should pay for each bath with a ten mile run. In the end though, she had learned to enjoy the exercise.

Both mares were winded and tired by the time they arrived at the checkpoint in the early hours of the morning. Pinkamena gave a friendly wave at the approaching pegasus soldier, but it was Twilight who spoke up. “Hello, Lance Corporal,” she huffed with a pleasant enough smile.

“And to you too.” His reply was professionally polite, but he didn’t give her a second thought and went to knock on the carriage door. “Sir, I need a word with you.”

Not knowing if she should smirk or be annoyed, Twilight opted for a side-grin. “I’m the one you’re looking for, good sir.”

The young stallion, barely twenty by the looks of him, glanced at her with confusion, and then jumped into the air to peer inside the empty carriage. “I see.” Clearly ruffled with embarrassment, he cleared his throat and landed before approaching her. He produced a booklet and a piece of charcoal to write with. “Name, purpose, and papers please.”

“Pinkamena, could you grab the documents please? Oh, and a couple of towels.” Twilight started fanning her face with a wing, fully ignoring the disgust that flashed across the stallion's face before he replaced it with professional indifference.

“Gladly, Mistress.” Pinkamena bowed and took off to rummage around the carriage.

“My name is Twilight Sparkle of House Light. I’m here to establish some trade relations and do some exchanges. Principly spices and fabrics.” Okay, Twily, you planned for this. Just follow the script and you’ll get through easy peasy.

By the time the soldier wrote it all down, sadly showing no recognition of her name, Pinkamena returned with the documents and surrendered them to the soldier. “Thank you.” He started scrutinizing them heavily for nearly a minute, then handed them back over. “The papers seem to be in order. How many servants do you have with you?”

“Eleven,” Twilight lied smoothly with all the skill her mother taught her. “That’s including my personal servant here.” Glad I told the pull teams to ignore me when not talking to them directly or they’d blabber about the other two.

The sentry hummed with disbelief upon scanning the two wagons and one carriage, each had two stallions at the yoke. He gave her a dubious look. “Three wagons with only two sets of reserve teams?”

“Sir,” Pinkamena butted in meekly and a disarming frightful smile. “We had four wagons originally, but the front axle broke. My mistress and her fiancé agreed that she should go ahead while he returned home. We left with several servants behind to protect him, naturally.”

“Uh huh…” Disbelief was plastered over the soldier’s face. “You do realize servants are incapable of lying to the military.”

“I am completely aware of that, good sir.” She lied smoothly behind a fatigued and pleasant smile.

Twilight tried to mask her nervousness behind a carefully constructed façade of indignation. The cold sweat was thankfully lost amongst the regular sweat still clinging to her. She only spoke her mind when he pulled a wand out of his saddlebag and started waving it around Pinkamena’s face. “Lance Corporal I must protest these thinly veiled accusations, and wasting my time.”

“I am performing my duties.” He almost looked disappointed when Pinkamena’s stripes glowed softly. “The stripes are real. You may pass.”

“Of course they are,” Twilight grumbled before sitting back inside, making sure to put on a good show of a disgruntled noble.

The Lance Corporal blew a whistle for the gate to open.

Twilight looked away from the soldiers, acting as if she was grumbling curses so she could sigh in relief, and looked to Pinkamena with a tired grin. “That went well.”

“Sure did, Mistress.” Pinkamena barked an order for the wagons to get moving again.

Once they passed the checkpoint, they selected a spot to rest the wagon train. It was a rented space nestled among dozens of others. Both Pinkamena and Twilight sequestered themselves in a bath house, and only then did the earth mare feel safe enough to shake the nervousness of the inspection away. “That was waaay too close for comfort.”

Barely faring any better, Twilight half sank into the hot water. A few extra coins had gotten them a private room, and a few more paid to keep evesdroppers at bay. “Tell me about it, but at least part one of the grand plan is complete.”

“Are we going to the docks today or tomorrow?”

Twilight felt some of her stress bleed out as Pinkamena kneaded the shampoo into her mane. However, the scare at the checkpoint kept her on edge. “Merchant’s Creed: twenty two. A wise mare can smell profit in the wind, and I have a good feeling about today.”

Roughly two hours later, the pair left the servants to guard the wagon train while they ventured past the merchants and towards the harbor. Miles and miles of city ruins had been picked over by scavengers for years, leaving little more than bare rock and cracked streets. Twilight traveled in her most modest dress and her self-defense equipment sans the circlet since she found it largely useless. Pinkakena wore nothing, save for her heavy shin guards. All of it was so they would be less of a tempting target for muggers. However, movement between the camp and the harbor was a bit too well patrolled for Twilight’s liking. Eyes would likely follow a noblemare much too closely. So they went off the beaten path under the excuse of curious exploration so they would arrive with less attention.

The pair were quietly passing through the broken remains of a counting house. Twilight was taking in the sights. To many of her upbringing, they would feel pride in an Equestrian victory or terrible at such destruction. But her mind was too busy for that. She was studying the marks of destruction themselves, seeing if she could deduce what caused what. One collapsed building face earned her attention. It was largely intact, save for heavy charring and a circular hole the size of a carriage in the middle of the second floor. “Looks like a fire tunnel ritual spell. Big one too.”

Pinkamena listened to her master’s one-sided conversation, adding commentary every so often, but her eyes never left the streets and collapsed alleyways. The ruins were unnervingly quiet, save for the harbor off in the distance.

The pair walked around the collapsed face of a tenement, idly wondering how the city looked in its prime. Twilight felt something grab her by the skirt and violently pull her into one of the window frames of the fallen wall. Before she could even process what was happening, she was pulled up into a reared up position and a knife was pressed against her neck.

“Well well, look at the lovely winged needlehead walking down my street,” a dangerous baritone voice rumbled from behind her ear. “I musta scared the feathers off ya.”

Twilight choked a gasp as the blade threatened to cut past her fur. Pinkamena reacted without hesitation and jumped in while shouting the activation word of power. “Vi mortiferum!”

She was about to charge the mugger before he could issue a threat, but was stopped dead by a conspicuous click. A second mugger, a pegasus mare, was waiting behind the wall and was armed with a wing-mounted pistol. Too close to possibly miss. A series of thin metal frames braced the wing for the expected kickback.

“Don’t make a peep, love. Our business is with Miss Money Bags here.”

“I don’t have much on me, actually,” Twilight defiantly claimed. “I’m not so stupid as to carry a bitpurse into an unfamiliar place.” She twisted one ear after noticing several ticking sounds coming from the leg holding her.

“Now ain’t that a shame, for you,” her captor purred. It was clearly an earth stallion, if the iron grip on her neck was any indication. “Your little stripe can go on and run off to your convoy and grab some of the bits then. I’m sure you can part with ten grand, easy.”

“That money isn't mine,” Twilight lied with seeping fear, even as her captor tightened his grip. “I - I mean, I’m glad I look that good, but I’m just a go-between.”

The stallion laughed darkly. “Oh, I like this little plucked bird. She could have a real knack for lying if she put the waterworks on. She has more fire than the last mewling noble.”

“Not that it’ll change anything,” the pegasus barked back.

He leaned in and whispered mockingly into Twilight’s ear. “You got gumption, Love, I’ll give ya that. But drop the act. Play it smart and send your little pet to fetch something to fill my wallet with, eh?”

The lightning from Twilight’s horn surged to the point it was dancing across her face and ears, causing the mugger to dig the blade into Twilight’s neck just enough to draw blood. “Keep those sparks under control half-breed. I ain’t got no rubber shoes, so they start jumping, I start cutting.”

Twilight tried to pull away from the blade, but he kept a firm grip. “If you’re so familiar with my kind, you’d know I have no control over it.”

“I just told you lying to me is dangerous, Love.” He shook his grip, making her yelp. “And you ain’t no good at it. I know enough that you can keep it to yourself if you really want to.” His tone was getting angrier as Twilight’s lightning was getting louder and more active. He pressed the blade just a little tighter. “Now cut it out!”

“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, to think that.” He cut just a bit more, making Twilight start to give in to panic. “Give me time, it’s not like I get mugged everyday!” Twilight stammered as her horn started outright glowing. The grip on her dress tightened, only making her panic even worse. What do I do, what do I do?! With a knife at her neck and Pinkamena held at gunpoint, Twilight’s terror was making her hyperventilate. She was out of lies, and would be quickly out of time. The knife cutting just a bit deeper pushed Twilight over the edge. “Okay, okay! I Ah, I use a mantra to calm myself down. J-just let me speak and hug myself.”

“So much for that fire,” the pegasus mare sneered.

The stallion being much closer to the free flowing lighting rod was not so casual about it. “Make it quick!”

Twilight hugged herself extra tight so the barrel of her wrist mounted pistol was roughly pointing into the stallion’s barrel. “Solvite.”

The stallion didn’t even get a second to question the odd word before a sharp crack sounded. He felt nothing at first, save for an unnatural numbness and damp feeling on his ride side. His grip weakened as realization kicked in. “Did you just-” He coughed up a spurt of blood and fell over, shallowly dragging the knife along Twilight's neck. The burning pain came roaring in seconds later and he was caught between screaming and coughing.

The pegasus mugger recoiled from the gunshot and the sight of her partner keeling over, giving Pinkamena an opening. The earth mare charged the pegasus, screaming an inarticulate battle cry. She kicked the pegasus’ gun wing, easily breaking bones before finishing her off with a buck straight to her front knees that sent her crashing to the floor. Pinkamena immediately turned and gave the stallion mugger a scathingly dangerous and unhinged eye tick. Only to realize he was down and Twilight had a large swath of red on her neck. “Mistress, your hurt!”

“Damn nag.” He tried to cough out. Each breath was accompanied by a sickening hissing and sucking sound coming from the wound.

Twilight’s panic was just as strong as before and she was gingerly touching her wound to test the depth as well as taking slow breaths. “I... I think I’m fine, Pinkamena. My fur caught most of it I think.”

“Please don’t move.” Pinkamena set Twilight gently down on the floor. She wasn’t versed in first aid either, so the sight of any blood leaking from Twilight’s neck was leaving it images of death in the pink mare’s mind. “I’ll go get help. Just stay here! Try not to move too much!”

Nodding in agreement, Twilight did her best to ignore her injury and start reloading her pistol. “Go on to the docks. They should have a clinic or at least a constable station. Hurry, I - I can hold them.” A dizzy spell struck her, though it be from frayed nerves or blood loss she didn't know.

“Yes, Mistress!” Wasting no more time, she bolted to the harbor as fast as her legs could carry her.

Twilight sat up hissing with pain. The agony was sharp, but she found her breathing was thankfully unimpaired. Trying to angle her neck so any blood would fall to the ground instead of her dress, she went about reloading her pistol in case the pegasus recovered enough to fight. She glanced worriedly at the stallion. Criminal or not, this was the first time she had ever shot anyone.

She was using a rod in her vest to push the musket ball into the pistol when the pegasus woke up. Twilight scrambled to jerk her gunleg away from the rod and aim at the other mare. “Don’t move! The law’s coming, along with a doctor.”

The pain of a twisted and broken wing was incredible. It was a testament to a hard life that the mare didn’t wail like a foal, only spit word out between clenched teeth and hisses of agony. “I thought your type was supposed to be all high and mighty. Was all that mewing of yours just an act?”

Aristocratic pride flared up within Twilight. The criminal was correct, so Twilight evaded the question. “Honor is one thing, but dignity and an empty sack is worth the sack. Merchant’s Creed number one hundred and nine.” With her free leg, she tapped her neck and thankfully found less fresh blood than before. “Or in this case, a slit neck.”

An alcohol soaked bandage and one police report later, Twilight and Pinkamena were exiting the modest police station. Her wound was largely superficial, and pride and a timetable kept her from going to the hospital ship nearby, the only place that offered medical aid since the war. Between Twilight being a noblemare, and the muggers being known criminals, the two were allowed to leave within a couple of hours. The station was positioned right on the docks so they were able to get a good look at several ships currently being serviced.

Due to the nature of the last millennia of warfare, and the immense importance of the Lunarian mainland an ocean away, ponies were no strangers to naval warfare. Twilight was quite familiar with drawings and portraits of famous Equestrian ships and battles, largely thanks to her father's engine and Shining Armor's stories, but she had never been to the ocean until now. The ships flying the Lunarian flag atop their masts and bearing the Lunar Crest upon the bow all but demanded Twilight’s ever curious attention. I'd love to hear about how the boiler inventors managed to convince the Navy to install what amounts to pressure bombs into wooden ships expecting to get peppered by shot and spell alike.

Her eyes darted between the moored vessels of both nations, eagerly searching for differences. While the ships flying the purple and silver colors of Lunaria seem to have the same overall shape, masts for sails and closed gun flaps for cannons that our ships possess, they simply must deviate from there. Excitement made Twilight giggle madly at seeing Lunarian vessels up close for the first time. Most of them were flying the gold cross over a while field flag of a civilian vessel, but Twilight’s eyes zeroed in on the only naval warship moored in port. The vessel was in the middle of loading foodstuffs, and a cordon of marines made it clear they didn’t want visitors.

Viewing it from a respectful distance, Twilight was a bit disappointed to see that while it had three smoke stacks, clear signs of an engine, the vessel was made of unimpressive wood. Buggery. I could have sworn Shiny said there were rumors of new ships of so called 'ironclads'. I guess this isn’t one of them. Glancing at the sides, she spotted the two massive cylindrical bulges on the sides of the vessel, but such things were increasingly common on Equestrian ships as well. So it’s just a paddleboat. The engine probably has much better range than our thaumaturgic accelerators though. They have to cross the ocean to get here after all. I was so sure some sort of screw-like device under the water would be better. If only Shiny had some pull with the Admiralty so they'd stop dismissing my idea.

Twilight shook her head to cast such ugly thoughts aside, but they lingered still. Favor with Cadance and the queen is all well and good, but Shiny has a rough time as it is. It doesn’t help him that they know a lot of the hard data comes from me.

Unbidden, a dozen theories and ideas for improvements circled her brain as she studied the warship from a distance. Chief among those was the steam engine she had designs herself. Yet the knowledge that she’d just be ignored as a misguided technophile and a demicorn to boot just hardened her further. “I swear. I’ll show them all I am more than a misguided defect! I’ll drag this country kicking and screaming into the future if I have to!”

“Mistress?” Pinkamena hazard with a worriedly raised hoof. “You’re going Twilinanas again.”

“Maybe I should be!” Twilight fumed while rounding on her, and waggling her wings impotently. Her boiling temper faltered upon seeing the sad eyes and frown Pinkamena was giving her. The moment she heard a particularly loud spark go off from her horn made Twilight give a defeated sigh. She rubbed her eyes with both wings and hung her head a bit. “Or maybe not.”

With every ounce of her being, Pinkamena dearly wished to hug Twilight and lift her spirits. Yet the world they lived it forbad it. All she could do was gently pat at the air around Twilight, and offer sympathy. “You’re not broken to me or the family, Mistress. We can see the truth.” All that got was Twilight’s scowl devolving into a morose frown.

“I suppose.” She huffed and stood up straight, biting her cheek to regain her composure. “So, a ship. If Shiny was right, civilian ships are generally commanded with a similar structure as navy ships. I need an introduction to a shipmaster if we mean to get those books.”

“We could try the lounges,” Pinkamena offered with a growing smile to try and spread at least some cheer over to Twilight. “Sailing and drinking go hoof in hoof, right?”

The effect worked and some measure of warmth returned to Twilight’s demeanor. “Too true.” She gazed down the length of buildings servicing the docks. “I’m sure the sailors of our two nations segregate themselves. It shouldn’t be hard to find a Lunarian establishment by name alone.” Trotting off, Twilight moved with renewed purpose.

“Won’t we draw too much attention?” Pinkamena loves to see Twilight smile, but all it took was the wrong attention to wipe that smile away forever.

“If anypony asks, I can just tell the truth, mostly. I’m a new merchant looking to take advantage of the peacetime trade while it lasts.”

It didn’t take too long for them to find a string of such establishments. “Well, if they are anything like the lounges in Brimshire, there should be two stories, one for common sailors and one for officers. One look at this place is enough to see there aren’t any theaters or other forms of high entertainment for the gentlecolts. So a lounge is the most likely place to be.”

Soon enough, the Salty Tart came into view. It was two stories as hoped and if the ‘Equestrians not welcome’ sign was any hint, she had found the right place. Twilight stopped at the stairs and rounded on her servant. “You know the plan. Go in, find a respectable looking officer then come back. The common sailors may get too hostile to talk to, or won’t have enough sway to help, but the officers should have better pull and manners.”

Pinkamena gave a crisp salute and a giggle. Her hair was turning into a proper curly mess, which brought a smile to Twilight as well. “You can count on me.”

Her companion was gone for few minutes, leaving Twilight to wait. It was still only midday, so the tavern was not very populated. Relatively speaking. Twilight got some dark or puzzled looks from some passersby. She kept an aloof air through it all by reading a thin book, hoping no one would try and confront her. She even kept her wings hidden in her dress to attract less attention.

When Pinkamena finally returned, Twilight was starting to get outright nervous and lightning was running down her mane. “Mistress, I found somepony who was only drinking cider and was the most polite one there. She also told the others not to throw me out too. I think she’s a civilian.”

“Perfect, excellent work!” Twilight was all too eager to get off the street and nearly sprinted up the stairs. Twilight stopped to comb her mane back into some semblance of order, and recover her noble bearing before actually stepping inside. She was met by a startling sight. A bouncer barred the way in with leathery wings and dangerous looking slitted eyes and fangs. The sight of her panicked Twilight enough that her wings tried to flare, only to stop herself midway. “I knew it. Where there’s a stripe, there’s a… pegacorn? Still an Equestrian either way.” The bat pony mare jabbed at the door. “We don’t serve slaveholders. Your ‘property’ should have told you that.”

Twilight fumed at the word ‘slaveholder’ and was absolutely livid at what she called Pinkamena. Doubly so since Pinkamena was Lunarian-born. Her temper rose along with the sparks on her horn. “Now see—”

“Mistress.” A gentle hoof on her back made Twilight snap her head back to see it was Pinkamena. The servant bore a patient smile that could always drag Twilight’s temper back down. And so she composed herself.

It was an effort that made Twilight shiver a bit to beat down her indignation. “Good madam, I promise not to buy any drinks then. I simply want to speak to one of your patrons.” Her struggle to verbally lash out was difficult to suppress, even with Pinkamena’s presence.

“Is that right?” The bouncer faced the bartender and waiter who were listening in. “You hear that? Not so much as a glass of water.” She squared up towards Twilight. “Just in case you forget.”

“I won’t.” Twilight let Pinkamena take the lead so she could guide her to the proper Lunarian.

Pinkamena directed them to a table of three that was secluded near the back windows. Two of their number were pegasus stallions with the one in the center being an orange and blond earth mare. Each of them wore silver uniforms that slightly stunk of oil and coal. The pegasi had wrench emblems on their sleeves and a matching one on the hats they had thrown on the table. The mare’s emblem had two crossed wrenches. There was also some blue parchment laying beside the two barely touched glasses of beer and one cup of fizzy non-alcoholic apple cider. But the mare was in the process of rolling it up to be placed in one of her coverall pockets.

Twilight adopted her diplomatic smile. “Hello, my name is Twilight Sparkle of House Light. I was told by my friend you might be willing to talk to me.”

“Friend?” One of the stallions huffed as he spat into a spittoon on the floor. “Is that what you tell yourself?”

The orange earth mare had a scowl, but eventually gestured at the only empty seat at the table. “Can’t say I’ve seen one o’ you pegacorns in a good while.” She took a swig of cider, and took a moment to wipe the fizz off her freckled cheek. “Name’s Applejack, Indentured Second Engineer of the Sea Hopper. These are my shipmates: Oiled Piston,” she indicated to the pegasus that had spoken. “And Turbulence.”

Pegacorn? I kinda like the sound of it. “A pleasure.” Twilight spotted a chair at the adjacent empty table. She walked over and used a wing to pull it over for Pinkamena to sit down with them. The act earned disquieted side glances from the Lunarians, but silence reigned until Twilight leaned in a bit to speak quietly. It helped that a phonograph was playing an upbeat tune to drown them out.

“I know I am intruding on your leisure time so I will get right to the point, Engineer Applejack.” She fished out a small bag of bits and dropped it noisily onto the middle of the table. “I am willing to pay you for an introduction with your captain.”

“Why?” Applejack replied with a furrowed brow. “Cap’n doesn’t handle any trade deals, he just moves freight back and forth. All deals are written up in Crossroads on this side of the pond.”

“Because I am not looking for a... legal trade per se. I am an abolitionist. I have two servants I wish to pass into your care as both a sign of intent and to facilitate a much needed item or two to help the cause.” I think I should neglect to mention how many I brought with me for now. They might want them all at once, and I don't want to have to explain how so many disappeared. Twilight slid out of her inner thoughts quickly enough for the others to assume she was just taking a breath. “From what whispers I hear, the Lunarian government offers compensation to stripe runners and those that aid them.”

Applejack and the others gave each other dubious looks. Turbulence jerked his head at the Equestrians. “You heard right. But how do we know you ain’t some Inquisitor or one of their lackeys? Treaty says any merchant or captain caught with stripes could be arrested or fined. If they’re lucky.”

“Oh, that’s easy.” Twilight smiled and raised her wings and let her horn crackle. “I’m too memorable. The Inquisition would have no use for an agent that would be recognized as soon as they walk through the door.”

“Bein’ a memorable criminal is just as bad, honorable or not, but I guess ya got a point.” Applejack snorted in amusement, but the sight of Twilight’s wings made her nose wrinkle. “But that just leaves me wonderin’. Why would an abolitionist keep a stripe, let alone show her to us?”

“My mistress must keep up appearances.” Pinkamena took no small amount of pleasure in the surprise from the sailors at her speaking up. “She is nobility after all, and the circles who know her, know I am always at her side.”

“So she’d give herself away,” Piston muttered. Eventually he was forced to nod. “Still though…”

“How can you go along with this?” Applejack asked bluntly. She got up and reached for Pinkamena’s mane. The pink mare didn’t resist as Applejack tossed Pinkamena’s mane about, confirming her stripes was not a dye job. “Shouldn’t you be running to confess all this to the nearest police station?”

The answer didn’t come at first. Pinkamena looked to a Twilight for guidance. Twilight was sluggish in coming to a decision. “I’m afraid that has to remain confidential.”

“You really want us to trust you’re on the level by saying that?” Turbulence countered after spitting again.

Twilight sighed and gave him a firm look, eye to eye. “My noble heritage and family are the only things keeping me from being thrown out into the streets due to my tribe.. If word of her loophole became more widely known, the Crown could find a way to correct it. Worse yet, if they couldn’t then you knowing about it puts you in more danger.”

“Fair enough.” Applejack took a swig of her cider. She never took her eyes off Twilight the whole time, looking for any sign or tell of a lie. “So what’s this item you need so badly you’d come to us of all ponies?”

Twilight kept herself from rubbing her foreleg out of nervousness, and hesitated in answering. “Honestly I was hoping to save that question for your captain.”

“Well too bad,” Piston said with a gruff as she leaned in, silently suggesting a threat. “The three of us are indentured to the ship. If you talk the captain into doing something legally dubious, we all take the fall since we can’t leave. You want the captain, you better start talking.”

Twilight sighed heavily and looked to Pinkamena who could only shrug helplessly. “If that is what is needed to move forward...” Twilight had never been great with sales. She got Velvet to teach her more about logistics and trade routes than anything else, but she would have to make it work. “I need a few engineering textbooks. That is the right word. Engineering, right? I need some manuals on industry machines as well. They don't need to be up to date, just something for me to base future work off of.”

Applejack remained silently watching Twilight’s face when a frown started to develop on the engineer’s muzzle. The stallions however scoffed and laughed incredulously with Turbulence actually wiping a tear away. “Oh sure. Lets all risk the death penalty by giving Equestria our national secrets. Not a chance, sister. I like my head right where it is.”

“Please reconsider,” Pinkamena implored with careful pressure. “My Mistress is one of Equestria’s leading machine scholars. If not the actual best. She can end enstripement in Equestria, I know it!”

“I’m beginning to think those stripes of yours ain’t real,” Piston interjected. He waved them both off, close to outright dismissing them. “You just so happen to be able to talk freely of what amounts to treason? Give me a break.”

“Not real you say?” Pinkamena challenged with a smirk. “Fake stripes don’t glow, but mine can.” Sitting back, Pinkamena closes her eyes and started whispering to herself. The Lunarians watched Twilight closely, but the demicorn remained passive. Within seconds, the stripes on Pinkamena’s mane and tail began to glow. She held it for only a few seconds before she started to stand up to leave, only to renew her mantra, enabling her to sit back down and end the glow. Pinkamena needed twice as long to catch her breath from the panic the stripes had tried to impose.

“There, satisfied?” the pink pony challenged. A headache developed, forcing her to massage her temples.

“Aaabout the stripes at least,” Applejack said at last. She downed the last of her cider and rang the bell on the table for the waiter to bring more. “But how would those books help end stripes?”

Twilight dearly wished to rub Pinkamena’s back, to help with her headache, but couldn’t bring herself to break decorum. “It’s a bit complicated, so I’ll keep it as simple as possible.

“Equestria accepts enstripement largely because of two things: faith and economics. Scripture says Celestia’s fervent wish was to keep ponikind united. That was the underlining point for her side of the Schism War, and the stripes was Equestria’s solution. Granted that was centuries after the Sisters vanished, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The other half of the equation is the economic boons stripes have become. I will not mince words here. Stripes are very lucrative due to them being cheap labor." She stopped when the waiter tried to be sneaky and lingered nearby. When the group at the table started looking at him in various levels of annoyance, he slinked away.

“As I was saying, my plan is to turn that boon into an economic liability. If I could use machines to make far and above more money than stripe using businesses are capable of, I can pressure those in power to allow me greater flexibility. The more money I make, the more I make others want to get in on the action. As more and more businessponies open their own machine factories, the demand for stripes will plummet.”

“And how exactly does that fit in with Celestia's so called wishes.” Piston smirked in delight at the moral decay of his rival nation. “Sounds like heresy to me, not that I'm complaining, mind you.”

A side frown escaped Twilight. “Code of Merchants number ten: greed is eternal. I like to pride myself for having read a book or two. What the history schools don't teach us, but my tutor did, is that the Solar Church were the most vigorous opponents to enstripement when it was first suggested. Some rather suspicious vows of silence by the firmest critics against it and a number of sizable church donations occurred within a span of five years after the proposal. All of a sudden, priests started finding scriptures that would justify the practice.” She shook her head. The whole tale left a bitter taste in her mouth. “The point is, the greedy and the powerful always seem to find a way to get what they want. I think it is high time that greed is pointed towards doing something moral for a change.”

“If that doesn't work, and after I've made my fortune being the only machine industrialist in the country, I’ll buy out some newspapers and publishers and fill them with like-minded writers. Over time, these papers will erode the moral acceptance of enstripement until the priesthood will be forced to ‘re-interpret’ Celestia’s wishes. Once that happens, the casus belli of the last six of wars Lunaria started evaporates.”

“May Luna help us if you ever use your powers for evil,” Applejack said with a shaky exhale. She made a show of rubbing her chin thoughtfully for a few seconds. “The only thing though, your plan sounds like it'll take decades if not a few hundred years.”

“You’re probably right.” Twilight dearly wished she had some water to wet her throat, but a deal was a deal. “My ‘tribe’, if you can call it that, may be cursed, but at least I age very slowly. Provided I’m not executed, I’ll live to see this through.”

Applejack slammed her hooves on the table. “Well you got my vote. A couple of books for all that? Sounds good, right boys?”

Turbulence scowled to himself, his brow deeply furrowed. “I suppose Equestria will always be playing catch up technologically, so we’ll maintain our edge. Count me in.”

Piston had waited for the others to vote, and simply shrugged. “If you think it's a good plan Chief, I'll play along.”

Nodding, Applejack focused on the pegacorn who was doing a poor job masking her excitement. “The Sea Hopper is leaving as soon as our cargo is loaded. Sometime late tomorrow evening I reckon. I can still get you in front of the captain in an hour or so when he comes in for a drink. He’ll decide if you pass muster.” She jabbed a hoof at Twilight. “Just remember, if you are an Inquisitor, that jail time and the fines are limited to the captain alone.”

Twilight shuddered as relief flooded her, but she ultimately kept her noble air intact. “Then we have an accord.”

The captain asked roughly the same questions and had similar concerns. But if Velvet had been watching, and was able to ignore the blatant treason, she’d have been rather proud of her daughter.

“Captain Deck Flog, I realize I’m asking you to take a serious risk, but there are other ships in port. Since I plan to get those books one way or another, I can always employ some other ship. But I must say, the risk is nothing compared to a hero’s welcome, even if it is to only two stripes returned to their families.”

The bat stallion was missing a wing, and leaned on his stump to give her a critical glare. It surely pained him, he gave no sign. He puffed occasionally on a tobacco pipe that had a sickeningly sweet smell to it. “And I’m sure you got a plan in place in case I try an’ double cross you to the Royal Army or some such. They’d pay a pretty sum for a treasonous noblemare.”

Twilight flashed a poisonous smirk and leaned in a little, doing her best to ignore the smoke. “I didn’t realize Lunarians could put a price on the lives of liberated stripes. Soldiers too, no less. About the only positive thing Equestrian censors these days say about you is the honor Lunaria bestows to its military. Tell me, do you think my bounty is worth that to you? Provided they believe the word of a Lunarian to an Equestrian noble.”

Deck Flog scratched his beard, and did a slow shake of his head before holding a hoof out. “You’re a right serpent tongued trader alright.” He took a long drag from his pipe, the sudden stress of such a proposition pulled on him. “Have the two stripes sent to my ship by twenty hundred hours tomorrow. The dark’ll keep any nosy authorities from see'n them come aboard.”

“That might be too suspicious, and it would cause their stripes to question my commands,” Twilight warned with a wing-finger wave, leaving Deck Flog’s hoof hanging in the air to press her point. “You must remember, the stripes are not just to keep them compliant to their owners, but to allow the stripe to defend themselves against orders from their owners or strangers from unjustly harming them or breaking the law. That would include walking onto a Lunarian ship in the dead of night.”

“So I’ve been told, but if you want my help, you get them to me on time or I'll forget this conversation ever happened.” Deck Flog pulled his hoof back, while eyeing Pinkamena and her stripes. The pink mare seemed fully aware of the conversation by virtue of her tilted ears alone. Her attention, however, was focused on the bouncer who never stopped scrutinizing them. He took a napkin off the table and a piece of chalk from his pocket and jotted down a note and passed it over to her. “Here, my ship's pier number, have them show up there. Should you manage to make it happen, we'll be back in Manehatten in six months’ time with the books. There are names of other ships I trust who can take my stead if the need arises. Either way I'll have the merchandise waiting for you.”

Twilight quickly stuffed the note into her dress. “I can’t thank you enough, captain.” While she kept an outward appearance of aloof gratitude, Twilight was inwardly ecstatic. A little filly version of her was jumping for joy in her mind. Her plan was on track, and going as planned. Score one for me!

“Color me interested, lass,” Deck Flog said while puffing on his pipe. He was still nervous, but the reward for such risks was too great to dissuade him now. “What do ya plan to do in the meantime?” he asked, trying to refocus.

“What is expected of me,” Twilight replied with a wink. “My passion is unaffordable without an actual source of income. Namely, mercantilism. Grant money for machine-magic research is thin, I’m afraid. Even more so now that five new research shops have opened in the last eight years. My mother has warehouse storage in multiple cities around Equestria, so product is immediately available to buyers. It only makes sense for me to start to do the same. This time, in Tranquillity.”

“You sure you want to do that, missy? If war breaks out, any assets you got in that place would be frozen. Don’t matter if you’re a stripe runner or not.”

“Frozen, or seized?” Twilight leaned back a bit, a slight dip in the edge of her lips. “I want to be certain.”

Deck Flog contemplated lying to her, and studied her attentive eyes and for any slips in her tense body language. “Frozen, same thing Equestria does with Lunarian merchandise. We traders expect war, do we not? What we also expect is that our foreign housed goods are legally protected. That aside, be mindful of when you send the slaves to me. I don’t like the idea of have'n to jump a stripe in broad daylight. Tends to attract unwanted attention from ponies I’d rather not mention.”

Twilight largely nodded in agreement through it all. “We carry risks no matter what path we choose. Tell you what. I’ll send the first stripe during daylight with a load of product and the money required to rent some warehouse space. It may be during the day, but he'll be right there next to the ship. I'll send the second after dark. If our luck holds, you’ll be long gone before I need to report them missing.”

“I suppose I can manage the daylight one then." He took a puff off his pipe to think. "You’re playing a dangerous game, missy, don’t get careless.” He downed his drink in one go and ordered another. “But ya got a deal.” He thrust his remaining wing forward. Twilight was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t recoil when she used her own wing to shake it.

“I could say the same for you, Captain. Until next time.” Twilight got up as well with Pinkamena following after her. The earther was practically bursting at the seams trying to contain her excitement, but she kept it contained so long as they remained in the public eye.

Twilight spotted Applejack waiting alone at the exit. The bouncer had moved away at Applejack’s request. Twilight nodded to Applejack who suddenly grabbed her by the dress, making Pinkamena bristle and growl at a snap. The mugging was still fresh in her mind and it took great effort not to bend the offending hoof off of Twilight.

Applejack flinched a bit at such a rapid mood change, but held her ground and kept her gaze fixed on Twilight who was doing a better job of masking her sudden anxiety. “I got a good thing going on this ship. If you double cross us, you better hope I never see your face again.”

“I understand the risk you’re taking.” Twilight’s social energy was utterly spent, and she leveled an iron glare at her, bereft of anything but a token attempt at being cordial. “I trust you realize the greater risk is mine. A fine and a year of incarceration would be a slap on the flanks by comparison to what I would suffer.”

“I guess you’re right about that. Still, you keep what I said in mind.” Applejack let go of Twilight’s dress and stepped out of the way. “I’ll be seen’ ya.”


As Twilight passed through the door, Pinkamena locked eyes with Applejack and gave a menacing warning behind a clenched jaw. “Touch her like that again, and I’ll turn you into cupcakes.”

“I’d like ta see you try,” Applejack shot right back more out of reflex than anything else. Inwardly, however, she quaked like a filly in her coveralls until the door closed behind the pair.

Author's Note:

I know this one is late in being released, but after checking it over again, I was unsatisfied with many places. I hope I caught all the errors, but there always seems to be at least one... dozen. See ya next time!!

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