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6. TalariaA rambling suburban house is light-years better than prison cells or cardboard boxes in an alley, but being cooped up for weeks on end is hard on anyone, no matter how pleasant the surroundings. It was time for a break—specifically, an outing to the biggest shopping mall in the area to take advantage of back-to-school sales. While not exactly in the same league as a theme park, it might be busy and colorful enough to catch the attention of bored young women struggling with studies and incipient cabin fever. As a bonus, the shopping would provide necessities the pauper teens still lacked and, contingent on good behavior, maybe a few small treats.
It would come as a disappointment, though not a complete surprise, there would be no treats this day.
The trip started as well as anyone could expect. The sirens and Rose once again rode in the stalwart old panel van with the laconic driver, while Logos and Harmonia followed in t
5. Epistolary interludeDear Rose:
I know sending your reports to me must be inconvenient, so I want to thank you once again for going to the effort. Sunset’s been doing her best to get them to me as quickly as she can, still sealed of course, so don’t worry about that. Usually she gets them to me when I send her my weekly package of newspapers and magazines. After I read the reports, I send them on to Celestia in Canterlot. I don’t know for sure, but she probably shares them with Luna too. (It still feels a little weird for me to be calling them by name, without any titles or styles, but they insist on it.) After that, I think the reports get filed somewhere in the palace for future reference. They have better facilities for that kind of thing anyway, and any time I need them again I can ask.
I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise the sirens are struggling with their studies. I’m pretty sure they never got any formal school
4. The princess and the runawayThe two girls who entered Rose’s tiny office had very little in common with her newest clients, other than the same faint air of alienness. Their strides, though diffident in this unfamiliar location and environment, were firm and unafraid. Rose stood and extended her artificial arm across her desk. “Your . . . Highness? Ms. Shimmer. Thank you so much for coming.”
Sunset Shimmer looked at Rose’s arm, letting her gaze travel up it to the older woman’s face. She smiled hesitantly at the welcoming expression she found there. Princess Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, reached out without a pause to shake Rose’s hand. “Thank you, Captain Brass. ‘Highness’ is technically correct, but please, call me Twilight.”
“In that case, both of you should call me Rose. I only use ‘Captain’ t
3. Home sweet homeThe decade-old white panel van was unmarked and from the outside unremarkable. The interior was another matter. Configured for passengers, with a small cargo space at the rear, it bore several unusual features—most prominently a police-cruiser-style barrier just behind the front seats, albeit in a heavy-duty half-inch wire mesh instead of a thick sheet of transparent polycarbonate. The taciturn driver handled the vehicle expertly, allowing Rose to devote her full attention to the three girls sitting in the seats behind. They in turn looked around at the stereotypical suburban neighborhood of neat middle-class detached houses built, unmistakably, some forty years past, give or take a few. Ranch houses predominated.
In the middle of the block the van pulled to the curb and stopped. Rose called out, “All right, here we are,” then emerged onto the sidewalk and stood back a little way from the curbside rear door.
2. First impressionsThey looked awful.
New clients always looked awful the first time Rose saw them, and it was always a different sort of awful. Yes, there were broad categories of awful, and she generally could classify individual examples of awfulness into the usual buckets, but the three girls sitting on the scratched and sagging stacking chairs in front of her desk were awful not just in the ordinary ways but in an undefinable new fashion as well. She’d expected that, more or less, but the strength and . . . alienness of it still took her by surprise.
They’d trudged through her office door, herded by her favorite cop. Detective Blue had watched with his patented Scowl of Authority, copied from old busts of emperors and consuls in the art-history books, as they more or less wilted onto the chairs. He and Rose had exchanged the usual clipped chitchat, now do
1. PrologueRose Brass frowned and sat back in her rickety old swivel chair. “So why is a cheap suit from the District coming to see a local social worker on the other side of the country?”
The “cheap suit” in question cleared his throat with a mix of annoyance and nerves—annoyance over the trace of disdain in his host’s tone and wording, nerves over her appearance and apparent mood. He shifted on the tired metal-and-plastic stacking chair facing the equally battered desk and lifted his briefcase. Looking down at it as he set it on his lap and opened it was preferable to continuing to stare at her. She, in turn, rocked back and forth slightly, good eye narrowed and mouth compressed to conceal a small smirk. She knew exactly the effect she was having; indeed, she cultivated it.
If it had been just the prosthetic right arm, she might have been ce
Sunset's friends ask what music is like back homeLectern’s New and Used Books, and the street running alongside the converted bungalow’s back yard, echoed with unaccustomed activity as five teenage girls labored to convert part of the wood fence to a double-leaf gate. Most of the noise was hammering of one sort or another, though voices figured prominently as well—particularly Applejack’s, in her role as straw boss on the project. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie supplied most of the remaining muscle, with Rarity and Twilight Sparkle handling tasks calling for coordination rather than strength. It wouldn’t do to flaunt their transformed magical talents in public, so they constrained themselves to more conventional methods—except when they could conceal a little magical help in some fashion.
Sunset Shimmer and Fluttershy sat at one of the weathered round redwood tables gracing the terra-cotta patio not far away. Though the weather was a little c
Rose thanks the Rainbooms for the concert ticketsLectern’s New and Used Books was a cozy shelter against the blustery wind and light snow. The recent music festival’s cold but clear night seemed a distant memory to the seven teens curled up on the front room’s wing chairs, buried in their studies. With winter closing in, they were spending less time in the bookstore, but upcoming exams had brought them together to share notes and quizzes—as well as a bit of guilty loyalty to the shopkeeper who more than once had gone beyond the call of duty on their behalf.
It was a slow evening for the store, but not a completely dead one; traffic shuffled in or out occasionally. The blasts of cold air admitted with the irregular openings of the double-leaf front door had driven the girls to monopolize the chairs closest to the merrily crackling fireplace. By now they didn’t even look up when it opened again to let in another muffled newcomer.