Do Changelings Dream of Twinkling Stars?

by Sharp Spark

Chapter 1: 1: The Day Job

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You can see Canterlot from just about anywhere in Equestria. The city of light, they call it. All spires, arches, ornamentation, like some spun sugar dessert for a high-class party.

You don’t see the rest until you get up close.

Ivory towers take a lot of upkeep and don’t have much room. The common pony has to make do without that kind of luxury. Take the the neighborhood I was walking through. It sat in the shade of the palace and housed the ponies that kept the noble world spinning, the types that ran everything while maintaining a respectable invisibility. Maids, gardeners, ponies that left every morning to staff the banquet halls and ballrooms and then came back to a flat the size of a shoebox to scrape together a meal for the family.

It was a street you didn’t come to without a good reason. Not because it was dangerous, no. These were decent, honest ponies – the kind who looked out for one another. The kind that didn’t have anything valuable to steal in the first place.

No, you didn’t come here unless you had a reason because to most of Canterlot, these ponies weren’t worth the time to even acknowledge. Sad but true, and I wasn’t any exception. I had my reason to be there.

I kept up a slow canter down the narrow street, my hooves thudding against the worn-down cobbles. No gilded roads down here. The buildings on either side were squat tenements, indistinguishable muddles of gray butting up against one another, breaking only for the occasional narrow alley or barred door.

2331. The building I sought was like all the rest. Unremarkable. The wall had a poster plastered up, one of the old “See Something, Say Something” numbers from right after the big attempted invasion. It was still mostly intact. I could make out the snarling dark silhouette, though somepony had taken the opportunity to stencil on a moustache and top hat.

Ironic that it’d be here of all places.

I leaned on the door and it swung open. Despite the heavy frame, the lock had been busted at some point and never fixed. It was rusted over, so it had to have been a while.

The inside stairwell was bare but clean. In a rougher neighborhood there’d have been strung-out squatters using the place as shelter from the elements. Instead it was empty and quiet.

I needed apartment 313B. My hooves were loud as I climbed the concrete staircase and made my way through. There wasn’t another pony in sight, all the way to the door at the end of the hall: chipped blue paint on a wooden frame, a faded mat out front saying “Welcome”.

I knocked.

The door was flimsy, the hinges rusted over. I’d be able to shoulder through it, if necessary, but I was only midway through that thought when it opened the tiniest sliver.

“Can I help you?” a soft voice called out.

I doffed my hat, realizing a bit late that the gesture meant I had shown my horn. Don’t know whether I was off my game or deliberately pushing fate. I knew well enough it was always better to keep your cards as close to your chest as possible. “I’m looking for a Ruby Quartz.”

The door closed. I placed my hat back on and squared my shoulders, but heard a sliding sound as she undid the chain lock. The door swung open again.

“Come in,” she said, and trotted further into the apartment.

I followed, keeping my head on. There wasn’t much of an apartment to go into. One room, and it felt crowded with two bodies inside. The shutters on the single window were open, and the sunset threw an orange haze in the room.

Just the two of us, nowhere to hide another. My eyes roved around the small space, trying to pick up on any sign of expected company. Nothing that indicated a coltfriend who had stepped out for a walk around the block. That was unexpected but not unwelcome. Certainly made things easier.

“Can I get you something, Officer? Water? Tea?” Her voice was still soft. Uncertain, but not afraid.

I eyed her. Red coat, darker mane. Attractive in a plain way. Her file had her at twenty-two, but she carried herself with the weary resignation of someone older. “I’m fine. And it’s Detective. Detective Straight Slate.”

“You won’t mind if I start a pot for myself?”

“By all means.”

She pulled a battered kettle out of a cabinet and filled it with water. It went on an old-model thunderhead warmer. Wasn’t enough room in here for a proper stove. She turned back to me. “What can I help you with, Detective Slate?”

I used my magic to pull the grubby notepad from my jacket. Flipping to a blank page, I floated out its partner, a chewed pencil. “I had a few questions for you. Shouldn’t take much of your time.”

“About what?”

“Census information.”

It was a transparent lie, but she went along with it. She was an earth pony and wouldn’t be able to tell what I was really doing with my magic, but it doesn’t take a degree in math to put two and two together.

“Name?” I asked.

“Ruby Quartz.”

“That’s your original name?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

I already knew it, but it was a nice test, back from the old days when we didn’t have the spell. There’s only a few ways to approach living a lie. You think before saying anything suspect, which makes the space between simple questions the tell. Or you keep on your hooves, lie big, and push through with confidence. That particular bird tends to crash hard on its own.

And then, occasionally, you got the smart ones, who knew their cover backwards and forwards. Those were the dangerous ones, because they were also smart enough to know that trouble would catch up with them sooner or later. And that meant having plans for such an eventuality.

“How long have you lived in Canterlot?”

“Three years.”

“Before then?”


“Moved for work?”


“Which is…?”

“Assistant cook, administration wing of the palace.”

My eyes drifted to the gem on her flank. She winced slightly. “Odd cutie mark for a cook.”

She met my gaze levelly. “Have to make a living, talent or no.”

I made an affirmative noise. “Any family?”

“Not in Canterlot.” Of course.

“Married? Single?”

“Single,” she said, coming off sharp. “And not looking.”

“Just the questions I have to ask, ma’am.”

Her eyes lingered on the badge pinned to my jacket. “Didn’t know the Department of Equestrian Security ran errands for the Census Bureau.”

“We’re always willing to lend a hoof. Clarifying discrepancies. You know.”

“Mm-hmm. Such as?”

I flipped the notepad shut and tucked it away in my jacket. Enough time had passed for the spell to solidify, particularly since I decided to forgo the normal trailing sub-enchantments that would immobilize the target. She was clever but seemed harmless enough.

“Miss Quartz,” I said. “Are you a changeling?”

She didn’t so much as twitch. The silence stretched out as we stood there, until whistling broke through. She turned, biting down on a rag before grasping the handle of the teakettle in a mechanical motion.

I let the spell finish. All the energy that had been swirling in an invisible ley grid underhoof boiled up, wrapping around her. It steamed off in a fog of green, clearly visible to anypony with a pair of working eyes.

“Miss Quartz,” I continued, “I am legally obligated to inform you that this test constitutes onus probandi for astral banishment. Please come with me peacefully, and I will guarantee you are treated well until one of the Celestial Sisters can attend to—”

I barely threw up a shield in time to keep boiling water out of my muzzle. The kettle clanged off it half a second afterwards. She was out the window before I could say nay, and my knee slammed against the sill as I jumped to follow.

I tumbled out of the window, falling several hoofsbreadths to land on my shoulder hard, in a roll across cement. It was a wide, flat roof, the top of the shorter building next door. I ignored the pain in both front and back and staggered up. She was a red figure already at the edge of the next building and I forced myself into a gallop to follow.

She was young and full of the fearlessness that came from not having anything to lose. She soared across the gap between my building and the next with an easy leap.

I barely made it, my forelegs landing on solid stone while my backlegs scrabbled over a two-story drop. I hauled myself up with the strength of desperation.

She had halted mid-step to look back at me in alarm, but bolted off again seeing that I was okay. That moment of weakness gave me the window I needed.

She had youth on her side. I had a long-distance motor restraint spell and a crack shot with my horn.

The beam hit her in the barrel, locking up both of her back legs and causing her to fall forward in an ungainly slide across the roof.

I took my time, brushing some of the dirt off my jacket as I walked over. She dragged herself a few inches further with the strength of her forelegs, but stopped at seeing its pointlessness. Good for her. Better to go out with some dignity, I say.

I had caught my breath by the time I reached her. A modified flare spell arced into the sky, one coded to signal the Royal Guard. Never did care for their type, but I didn’t exactly feel up to dragging a full-grown pony down two flights of stairs and across the city on my lonesome.

“Why do you do it?” She looked up to me with emotion flowing in those dark eyes. I tried to pin down exactly what.

“It’s my job.” I chewed on the thought for a moment. “I could ask you the same question.”

Pity. It was pity in her eyes. “It’s my life,” she said simply.

I didn’t have much to say to that, and apparently, neither did she. We waited there, watching the sun slip below the horizon for good. The stars would be out soon.

There were a lot of stars in the sky these days.

By the time I got back to the DEqSec, the rush of a successful capture had curdled into something sour.

It bugged me, no pun intended. She was good. Smart. Had the right answers, the right attitude to slip through the cracks. But she had screwed up, too. When it came to the chase, if she had gone with her natural form, or even thrown on some pegasus wings, she would have been home free.

That’s what they normally did – fight or flight, and the latter literal. Didn’t usually work out for them. A restraint spell could lock up wings as easy as legs, and ugly as it was to say it, not everyone in my line of work felt inclined to catch a changeling gently on the way down.

But I couldn’t quit thinking of her staring at me, like of the two of us, I was the one to feel sorry for.

It made me long a little for the days when they’d come right at you, disguise off, fangs flashing. More dangerous, but cleaner that way. These days, more often than not, I wouldn’t even see a hint of carapace. Surprise, denial, sometimes a disgusted acceptance, but they’d go to the stars in the skins of ponies.

Maybe I was getting too old for this line of work. Too introspective. That’s what the whiz kids nipping at my heels would say, anyways. That was the way of the young, to know everything and understand nothing.

I walked into the office to get a face-full of just that.

“Slate!” he called out, raising an aluminum can high in the air. I could smell the cider on his breath from across the room. “Celebrate with us!”

His name was Rising Star, an unfunny joke on his work and career trajectory both. He had only been at the Department for Equestrian Security six months, and in that time set the records for changeling captures twice over.

Not all of them were clean. Nothing I could put a hoof on and call foul, but too many trips out on a ‘hunch’ that ended with somepony lighting up the night sky. I couldn’t recall the last time he had submitted a report of a detection spell that hadn’t come up green.

“What’s the word?” I muttered.

He hopped off the front secretary’s desk, the pretty mare behind it watching him with rapt adoration. “Rising Star just brought in Blueblood!” she chirped. “The Prince Blueblood!”

An eyebrow arched on my face. “Replaced? Have they found the original?”

“Naw,” Rising Star crowed. “Original bug, baby.”

“You’re telling me the single extant prince of the realm has been a changeling all along?”

“Yeah. I mean, think about it. It’s perfect. Who would ever think to test him?”

“You, apparently.”

The smirk that blossomed on his face was begging to be wiped off with forceful application of hoof. “You know it!”

I grunted and pushed past.

“Oh, Mister Slate!”

I paused, looking back as the secretary shuffled through some papers at her desk. “I have… somewhere… Aha.” She beamed at me. “The Chief wants to see you in his office.”

It took a force of will to stifle the grimace. “Thanks,” I said, walking onwards. Not to the cluttered hole nominally called an office that I shared with three others. To the big boss.

I paused in front of the frosted glass door to his office, pragmatism fighting with a generalized resentment in my stomach. I pushed it down and knocked. I wagered it was bad news either way. Not worth antagonizing him by muscling in unannounced.

“Come in!” he barked out and I did so.

The Chief hadn’t seen street work in a long time and it showed in his paunch. He sat behind his desk like a princess on her throne, and certainly acted the part here at the Department. At least he had some roots in the old-school like me. His desk was piled high with documents, requisitions, a thousand incident reports. None of that paperless-office wash.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Your numbers are low this month, Detective.”

I took a seat in front of the desk without being asked. “I just brought one in.”

“I’ve heard. South Guard Station sent over the paperwork.”

“Then there you go.”

He leaned over the desk. “A cook, they said.”

“Assistant cook. Administration wing of the palace.”

“Not good enough!” I didn’t flinch at the roar. He didn’t scare me, and both of us knew it, but I didn’t fault him the attempt. “You know that Rising Star just bagged a Prince?”

“So I’ve heard.”

“I’ve got brass riding my back over a supposed new wave of changeling invaders at the highest levels, and in the meantime you’re chasing down assistant cooks.” He shook his head. “Wake up, Slate. Lift up the rock and it’s crawling with bugs underneath. Wild timberwolves roaming the streets and you’re bringing me a pussycat.”

“You’re mixing metaphors there, boss.”

He fell silent. Calculating. “I’ve got a job for you.”

“I follow my own leads,” I said. “You know that.”

“Not this time.” He pushed a folder forward across his desk.

“What makes this any different?”

For a moment, the anger in his face flickered into regret. “Look, Slate, I respect you. You’re the best damn detective in this squad, you know that?”

I let him take an answer from my silence.

“I’m giving you this one out of that respect. It could easily be another notch in Star’s billet. But I figured you’d want to handle this one personally.”


He nodded down at the folder.

I stayed slumped in the seat, but slid the folder across the desk and into my hooves with a swish of magic. I opened it to come muzzle-to-muzzle with an old and very familiar face. I could taste bile in my mouth.

“No. Not her.”

The Chief wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“It has to be done, Slate.”

“And if I say no?”

“I’ve got a dozen other agents outside that door that’d line up for the privilege. Is that what you want?”

I stood up. Took my hat off. Put it back on.

“I’ll take it,” I said. He nodded. “And boss?”


“Go to hell.”

Next Chapter: 2: The Old Flame Estimated time remaining: 2 Hours, 31 Minutes
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