Black: Captain Frosty Stare
"We'll be arriving in Stalliongrad in ten minutes."
The announcement rings through the train and I slip out of a dream about swimming in gold coins which I'm going to turn into reality soon enough. Well, I'll try to at least. My lack of confidence stems from the attack yesterday because the husk found me immediately and almost killed me. What that means is that even the black market here might be closely watched in which case I'll have to run again. It's unlikely though, husks can't just waltz through Equestria unnoticed and the local gathering place will surely be protected against transportation magic.
What would life be without the occasional risk, right?
When I eventually manage to rub my eyes enough to work as the maker intended the grey sky and soft snow of the incoming morning tell me I'm back in the land I grew up. Stalliongrad technically obeys princess Celestia's government but the local law is more ruled by tradition and generally it's much less forgiving than in the mainland. On the other hoof, the guards here are more ruthless because there is more crime and thus it should be possible to find out whether the black market relocated during past two years or not.
I consider myself lucky to come this far north and not see a raging blizzard the first thing in the morning. I'm not exactly tired anymore thanks to sleeping most of the way here so that might be why I can look at the white landscape through the window without growing annoyed immediately. Oh well, no reason to dwell in the past. Let's just get this over with and then buy a small island somewhere in the great sea or any place where it doesn't snow most of a year.
One thing has to be said about Stalliongrad if one wants to be fair, the city is... majestic. Canterlot may be gilded, frilly, and generally uptight but this city was built by earthponies and pegasi fighting every step of the way against the weather and it shows. Most of the buildings may be grey and generally dim but that just makes what little decorations there are stand out even more. Yes, the ponies around don't show as much coat because clothes are more a necessity rather than a symbol of social standing and as such there's much less fancy dresses but where a Canterlot pony would freeze these ponies consider a snowstorm a weather for outdoor activities. In Stalliongrad it's either a stonecracking blizzard or nopony really cares. That's where, at least for me, the true value of the city lies. It has been through uprisings, crime wars, power grabs, and natural disasters and all that just made the house walls thicker, the ponies more joyful of every new day, and the celebrations louder.
Still, this place sucks.
No argument there, it's just too freaking cold.
The scar on my chest twitches this time for real as I step out of the train and stretch my wings almost invisible against the snowy streets. My coat makes me super difficult to spot during my walk to a place I barely remember but a traveller like me has to be able to find his way through the shards of memory. In the end I enter a half-empty bar in the cellar of a multi-story building. My biggest clue that the place still is what it's supposed to be are the ponies who refuse to drink alcohol. Like, this is Stalliongrad. If you're drinking something other than hard liquor you're probably planning a crime. Especially this early in the morning the place should be full of graveyard shift workers trying to steady their nerves after spending the whole night on their hooves.
"What's your business here, stranger?" says a large earthpony with an eyepatch whose posture screams 'bouncer', accentuating every R as hard as possible.
"Selling," I take a guess, "Brick."
He nods in understanding and steps out of the way. Every secret password is 'swordfish', every bouncer is called either Butch, Brick, or... well one of those two. Now, how should I approach the subject without alerting everypony around that I'm not exactly sure how things work around here? There doesn't seem to be any discreet noticeboard or ponies seemingly spreading the business news. On the other hoof, ponies in Stalliongrad have a reputation of being direct in one way or other.
Putting on the completely fake expression of absolute confidence, I approach the bartender.
"I'm selling... griffon technology blueprints. Can you point me to the right place?"
"Tech means a lot of things, friend," the 'friend' part scares me more than the disguised movements of ponies around the room, "We don't need any flashy trinkets here."
"How about weapons?"
Something cold presses to the back of my head. Strange, I haven't noticed anypony move.
"We already have those, friend," the bartender nods behind me which I deduce is a signal I can turn my head without worrying about losing it.
I probably shouldn't have done that because what greets me is the barrel of a griffon rifle being levitated by a unicorn.
"I really, really hope you're experienced with that thing because I like having all of my brain on the inside," I throw my knowledge at the unicorn. The piece of information telling them that I have my experience with foreign parts.
To clarify that, I saw what happened when a unicorn mercenary tried to levitate a griffon pistol for the first time. I'm not exactly sure how levitation works in any sort of detail but he apparently focused his will on the entirety of said weapon and pulled a trigger by accident. We lost a good pony that day, not too smart... but good.
My lack of clothes makes it easy for the bartender to go through my saddlebags and look questioningly at the scroll case tied to the inner thigh of my hind leg.
"The object of business," I narrow my eyes at him.
Carefully, he takes it, unscrews the top half, and nods when only scrolls fall out. Politely, he doesn't examine the blueprints themselves and just rolls them back up. Few clinks of my bags later all my possessions are returned back to me.
"Pardon us for being careful. We've had few infiltration attempts recently which didn't end too badly... at least for us," he grins, "Well, you don't seem to be from these parts. How did you find your way here?"
"I'm a mercenary. I was born in Igor's Destillery, a little town-"
"I know the place."
"-Okay then. I returned here two years ago when the Crystal Empire reappeared to see what was going on. Finding this place again was pretty difficult from memory. Not sure how things work around here business-wise though."
"We're on a need to know basis here. All you need to know is what you want and I know the rest. What sort of technology are you talking about?"
"An advanced airship, complete with weapons systems capable of shooting groups of enemies mid-air and a propulsion system unknown to Equestria."
The bartender whistles.
"I could arrange you a meeting with the envoys of weapon manufacturers or industry owners if you want to just sell the ship plans without weapons. There might be other parties interested though, militia organizations and such."
"Do they have money? I'd like to avoid attention."
"So do we, after a fashion. If money is your main concern then I'd go for a private buyer because if the companies find out they might try to screw you over or steal the blueprints."
"What stops the private guys from doing that?"
"They won't have the know-how to build it."
"Understood. How fast can you arrange something?"
"Few days at most. IF you need a place to stay then I offer a reasonable rate-"
"That will not be necessary," a different unicorn from the one who was aiming at me interrupts, "I was listening and I believe my master might be looking for something you describe."
"And who might that be?" I ask carefully, an obvious mistake.
"Well, well, I didn't ask YOUR name, mister pegasus."
"I was only worried about the amount of gold your master can, heh, muster. What I'm selling is completely unique."
"IF, and only if, what you're offering is as good as you make it to be then my employer would gladly pay up to a million bits for that," he points at the scroll case on the table, "After an examination by a specialized engineer."
Hmmmmm. Don't blow it, Icy.
"Let me think about the terms for a while, mister envoy," I turn back to the bartender, put my saddlebags back on and the scroll case back on my thigh, "Where are the toilets?"
"The hall in the back."
One has to love how even if these places look like the dirtiest of the dirtiest bars they are in a superb state because of the clientelle. No rich lord would send some nameless thug do business in their name and the owner of the bar knows it. Despite the patrons looking like low-class ponies they can easily recognize a safe and 'hospitable' place. Still, I prefer the night club atmosphere of Rosie's place to the spartan cleanliness of this bar.
A pegasus stumbles inside as I wash my hooves and pushes me.
"S'rry," he hiccups.
Well, a bar is a bar no matter the...
...wait, a pony drunk this early in the morning isn't a big deal. A pony drunk HERE this early in the morning can't be just a coincidence.
Lunging instantly to the side, I catch a glimpse of a knife passing through where my neck was a moment ago.
"Tch!" the pegasus scowls and jumps straight at me.
He's just some brute who has no real technique but, as my friends used to say, a technique isn't always necessary when you have sharp enough blade. Unfortunately for him, I have more melee combat experience than his entire gang combined, if he's a gang member of course. On top of that, ponies are generally terrible with knives because the necks aren't flexible enough although I'm not going to make the last mistake of underestimating him too much.
Circling around, I end up with my rump pressed against the washing basin.
All I have to do now is fake a look behind to see what I bumped into, without turning my head back sidestep his charge, and slam his head directly into the porcelain basin. The splash of red as the knife makes his wicked smile permanently a little wider washes away when I hold his head in the basin and let the water flow. As the water rises from the plugged basin he kicks around but I'm careful enough.
"Who sent you?" I let him breathe again for a second. Before he can react I push his head back under water, "Too slow!"
This time I let him breathe a little sooner and give him time.
"Now, I know your type likes betting so how many times do you think I can slam your head back down without hitting the knife with an eye?"
Let him back up.
"One. You were saying?"
Rinse and repeat.
"Two. Hey, still both eyes and just some minor cuts. So?"
"I have a family-AAAAAAAAAARblrblrbhlr..."
The cloud of red suddenly spreading through water tells me his luck ran out. Unplugging the basin, I let his body drop on the floor.
"You should have thought about them before doing this. Your foal might have still had a dad."
What to do? What to do?
I doubt that the guys outside would look kindly on me killing a person in their estabilishment and thus bringing the attention of the guards here. It's even possible that this event was instigated by them. I think I've completely misjudged the value of what I'm offering.
Maybe I'm thinking about this the wrong way.
Nerves on edge, I return back to the main room and talk to the bartender.
"Where can I find some engineer to help me read those blueprints?"
"The best ones are one hundred percent working for the big companies. A friend of mine is working there as well."
"You have... many friends," I snicker at this guy apparently knowing everypony worth knowing in this city.
"I am a very friendly pony," he slaps my back.
"You need it fast, don't you?"
"Pretty much. The guy who went to the bathroom after me tried to kill me to get the case."
"I'll bill you the cleaning later," he reaches under the counter and picks up a phoenix feather. Writing a short message, he burns the paper with the feather.
"What was that?"
"A special method we copied from our fair princess Celestia who uses it to send letters over a long distance instantly. Unfortunately, the enchantment only works on phoenix and dragon fire but a-"
"-friend of yours?" I interrupt.
"Indeed," he smiles widely, "A friend of mine, or a group of friends, improved the enchantment to allow me to send it to different recievers using only one feather. The drawback is that they can't send an answer but it's good for cases like this."
"How soon can he get here?"
"Soon enough. I believe you'll want a private room to study the blueprints, am I right?"
"That would help."
"Room thirteen," he throws me a key, "Twenty-five bits a night if you want to stay."
"Oh dear," I whisper to myself.
This time I don't bother with getting comfortable but move all the furniture to be able to throw things at a potential attacker.
The unicorn knocking on my door an hour later surpises me though. I must admit I've been expecting some stick-thin young guy with glasses but the walking brown mountain with blonde mane is something else, especially because the guy seems to be around sixty.
"Cogwheel Ivan," he raises a hoof.
"Ehm, right, yeah... Frosty Stare," he looks at me as I shake his hoof, "It's the eyes. Say, when the bartender told me you worked for a... company I was thinking of somepony younger, sorry."
"You've never worked in an office a day in you life, kid, right?"
"Not my calling, no."
"When you don't do heavy lifting experience is your true value. The youngsters are there just for new ideas but it's up to ponies like me to make those ideas a reality in the best way possible."
"Okay then. First of all," I put the scroll case on the table, "Nothing you see here leaves this room."
"Ha ha ha!" he sits down to the table, "Engineers of my grade are rare, son. I work for three different companies and each one trusts me with their inventions. If I wasn't trustworthy I wouldn't have a job, or maybe a life."
I watch him closely as he carefully unrolls the blueprints and begins studying them. With every paper pushed to the side and new one appearing his eyes grow wider and wider. It takes him half an hour just to briefly go over each one.
"This is... impossible," he shakes his head, disbelieving smile on his face, "At least on the first glance. Where did you get it? This definitely isn't griffon technology like my friend told me."
"That is something I can't share."
"Too bad, too bad. Well, I can get you the best buyer in few hours easily if you want. The original blueprints checked by a lawyer should bring a million bits minimum."
Money, money, money, money... retirement, mares, servants, comfort... boredom.
As I said, ponies in my profession rarely live over forty but nopony can say their lives are dull.
"I had something else in mind when I let you look at these. How much would it cost to build?"
He stares at me and realization slowly grows.
"Ha... ha... ha HAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHA! You've got balls, son. Not much brain but definitely enough balls. Tell me this first, how illegal is this thing?"
"There is no other airship of this type or even similar in Equestria or the Griffon Empire so... probably a lot? I'm the only pony with the blueprints."
"And what are you planning on doing with it?"
"Haven't thought that far yet."
"Well then, as far as the known materials go it should be between five to ten thousand bits, work included. The real problem is magic used to enchant the not so usual materials, crystals and cables. I can't really put a price on that but my estimate for the prototype with research would be about hundred thousand bits."
"Crap. I guess I'll have to sell these then and die at ninety surrounded by my harem of multiracial concubines."
"Heh, wanderlust setting in?"
"I hate sitting still, it's a pegasi thing. We want to fly and conquer the sky."
"Don't be stupid, Frosty. I also want to fly, only in a different sense, and I understand it all too well."
"Too bad, right?" I shrug. Suddenly, the longing inside me makes the vision of heaps of gold unimportant.
"How much money have you got?" Ivan asks after grinning into the air for a full minute.
"Just about ten thousand if I sell my horseshoes. Guarding cargo shipments isn't THAT lucrative."
"Research engineering, on the other hoof, is if you're working for the right ponies who want to own the market. Three groups of the right ponies to be exact."
It takes a while for what he means to seep into my head.
"You can't be for real."
"Boy, I made sure my foals have education and something extra to start their future. My wife is dead, Celestia bless her kind soul, and you're giving me a project of a lifetime. I have no reason to go hoarding gold for whorses and games."
I sniff, I actually wipe my eyes when he says that.
"How... how long?"
"I have no clue how long the chemistry stuff described here will take but if I get extra help then the physical work will take a week. The project is not difficult, it's just unknown."
"Building, yes. Crystal research might take... who knows. I'll have to ask."
"What do you want me to do?" I ask, still flying over cloud nine.
"I'll pay for the entire thing under one condition. I'll stay on the ship and improve it as we go do... whatever you decide to do."
"I-" I stop, realizing I'm trusting this pony way too much. This is too good to be true.
"I know that expression. A young newcomer thinking somepony will steal his amazing and unique idea. Well, I have no problem with that. We can get your blueprints to the patent lawyer, have them signed, and you'll be safe to give me a copy of whatever I need for the job."
"Do you know a good one?"
"I think Burning Brand downstairs has a lot of... friends."
"Heavens and stars above them," I breathe out, "This is really happening, is it?"
"Better start looking for a crew, kid."