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Further Research [Private, FiniteZero]

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Ah, Manehattan!  An Equestrian city where all the cultures and species of the world could be found, from Ponies to Zebras to Griffons; quite a few Neighponese and Long Guo immigrants rubbing shoulders with horses from Saddle Arabia.  And, as one might expect, changelings.  Though these were hardly obvious to the average passer-by.

 

One such disguised changeling was Kahz, currently housed in an Earth Pony disguise.  It was quickly becoming his go-to look, which might make it obvious who he really was, to those in the know.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that no amount of magic could hide his short and slightly crooked figure, nor the contrasting high spirits in his eyes or warmth in his smile.  Once seen, he was never forgotten, which was a drawback for your average infiltrator.  Good thing he was a diplomat!... Even if nopony seemed to officially recognize him as such.

 

He sighed, blowing steam off a cup of coffee.  'Made with love' the sign outside the cafe had advertised, and it wasn't lying.  It was such a pity that it was paired to such a bitter beverage, but the cafe owner was sweet in her own way, and knew when to chat up her customers or leave them alone.  Kahz wanted to be alone right now, and think.  His diplomatic mission was having troubles, as Chrysalis' Hive had a huge PR hole to climb out of.  He just needed to find some angle of approach, somepony who would actually listen to what he had to say...

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Ah, Manehattan! Such a lovely city. Dusty, of course donning his usual disguise, The brown unicorn donning shades made his way down the sidewalk, at a much slower pace than the ponies around him, pulsing his horn twice every second. He had been to this city once before, and had a blast. Spent quite a bit of time at a city museum, chatting with one of the curators.

 

But this trip was more introspective. After having met a fellow Changeling and having a talk with her in Stalliongrad, he wanted some time to reflect. So, he returned here. As he passed by a cafe, the smell driving a desire for a good beverage. He took a seat, across Kahz, and began waiting at the table. He pulsed his horn, and flinched. "Oh! Sorry, didn't notice you there. I, er, thought this was that table." Dusty said as he pointed at the table next to theirs. "Little distracted. It's not too much trouble if I sit here?"

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Kahz' sharp eyes caught him before he even walked in the door.  Blind, seeing by magical pulses, heh.  Of course, to a creature like Kahz, such magic was like a beacon; they could tell when and were such energy was expended, and to what purpose.  That especially held true when meeting a fellow changeling...

 

How curious, though.  He didn't bear any resemblance to the disguises of infiltrators Kahz knew in this city.  Manehattan was big, of course, and there were a trickle of defectors coming across the border.  There was also, of course, the possibility that Kahz was simply mistaken.  Well, no harm in spending a few minutes finding out over the course of a pleasant conversation!  Not like he had anything better to do.

 

"No trouble at all!  Do take a seat."  He tilted his head.  How to begin?  A trained changeling would already have detected who he was, of course, and probably would have chosen this table 'accidentally on purpose.'  But then, no passcodes were given.  So how would one be received?  And asking outright was just out of the question.  Hm, tricky this.  "Sorry, but I can't help but feel we've met somewhere before.  Can't for the life of me remember where or when, though.  Was it at the Friendship and Harmony Fair?  I was here for that when it was held, big multi-national affair.  Even had a changeling exhibit, if you could believe that."  He watched closely for a reaction to that last sentence.

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"I... Somehow missed that entirely." Dusty said. "I think I heard about some sort of event like that. Would have attended, but I had a camping trip with my parents at the time." Dusty hummed. "If I had known there was a Changeling exhibit, I would have gone. Would love to get to know them better."

 

He mentally cursed himself. Such an event could have given him insight into his culture a lot earlier. This pony did seem quite nice, at the very least, and could be the source of some interesting stories. "How was it? I should make a note to visit the next one."

 

A rather cute pegasus mare, light blue with a blonde mane and a trio of coffee beans for a cutie mark, stepped over to them. "Oh, hello there, dear! How can I help you?"

 

"Oh, what do you serve?" Dusty asked.

 

"We're a coffee shop and cafe." The mare replied.

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This... wasn't making much sense.  If Kahz was talking to a changeling, the other wasn't giving out any clues to that.  But on the other hoof, the pony's reaction was not what one would expect of a merely ordinary pony.  Unless, of course, the Hive had a much too pessimistic a view of how their culture and true visage would be received; which was possible, given the surprisingly positive reception the aforesaid exhibition had received.  "That's interesting; not many I can name who would go out of their way to research changelings, except out of fear.  Might I ask why you're so curious?"

 

He paused to allow the other to introduce himself to the waitress, waiting until the mare had departed before continuing.  "Oh, I do beg your pardon, I forgot to introuce myself.  You may call me Heart Sight, for now.  What should I call you?"

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Dusty hummed for a minute. He couldn't just say the reason outright; That much was very obvious. But, he can give something vague. "A few personal reasons, but mostly because I know so little about them. There's really no society like theirs, and I'd like to know more."

 

He then turned towards the waitress. "Tea, earl grey, hot."

"Would you like sugar as well?"

"Make it so."

"One lumps or two?"

"Two, please, ma'am."

The waitress nodded and walked off. Dusty turned back to Heart.

"My name? Oh, I'm Dusty Tomes, historian. Glad to meet you, Sight!" Dusty said, pleased as punch. He was quite happy to meet yet another pony, and perhaps make another friend.

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'Personal reasons'... feh, that could literally anything!  It was like trying to outmaneuver a floating dust speck.  Kahz knew by this point that Dusty was hiding something, but it could simply be a socially unacceptable affinity towards his kind.  Except that such affinities seemed to be more normal than expected?  The little changeling was still trying to wrap his head around the Equestrian idea of 'tolerance'; it seemed to be so mixed in its application, first not applying to his people, and then being applied to them... was there any consensus?

 

Probably not, he reflected, sipping his beverage as Dusty made his own order.  His ears perked up, however, as the other stallion mentioned his profession.  "Oh, you're a historian?"  The wheels began to spin behind Kahz's eyes.  Perhaps... this could be an opportunity to spread a little light of knowledge.  So many rumors and misconceptions about changelings undoubtedly buzzed about.  Perhaps getting the ear of a writer could ameliorate that?  "Tell me... if you had the opportunity to publish the most definitive work about the Hive and it's culture in Equestria, what would you do for that opportunity?"

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This was a bit of a different question. It sounded like an opportunity, one that Dusty could not afford to pass up. Though if it was a possibility, that might mean that the pony in front of him was a Changeling as well. Dusty considered this odd, going from meeting no other Changelings in years to meeting two in a month. Then again, due to their disguises, he could have met more and just not realized it. In any case, Heart asked a question, and Dusty had an answer.

 

"Pretty much anything! I've been pretty much dying to get to know more, and finding literature on the subject can be tricky. Especially due to my condition, obviously." Dusty answered. "Just a glimpse at their culture, who they really are..."

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And... hooked!  Kahz had guessed right on the condition and incentives of the academic mind.  He was usually right in his guesses, able to see through to the heart of the matter.  Hence, his pony guise and pretended special talent; had he been born a pony, it would have been wholly true.  As it was, it was a mask that revealed as much as it disguised about him.

 

"My friend..."  Here he leaned forward, forelegs on the table, voice low and eager with excitement.  "That is exactly what I wanted to hear.  And if you have a good place where a private conversation can be held... I can arrange an interview with an insider.  You'll get the truth... on the condition that you actually publish, of course.  After all, the public really does need to know this stuff, and you can be the one to bring it to them.  Can you imagine that?  It'd be the making of your reputation."  

Reflecting on what he just said, Kahz realized that he was beginning to lay it on just a bit too thick.  Sounded like a salespony, or worse, a case officer recruiting a spy.  Which he sort of was, in that he was disseminating information as a tool of policy, but he wasn't malicious in his intent!  "Sorry, got a bit caught up there.  Part of my talent is being able to see into the hearts of ponies and situations.  That includes dreams and ambitions, and I can never help wanting to facilitate them.  Good way of making friends, though, as you can imagine."

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"Honestly, I don't care much about getting famous. It's not what I'm doing this for. However, I will take you up on your offer." Dusty said. This was it! He could finally get answers to questions he had his entire life.

 

He tilted his head as he thought about what Heart had said. "That does seem like a curious skill set."

 

The waitress returned with a hot cup of tea for Dusty, and set it down carefully in front of him. He pulsed his horn and smiled. "Thank you, ma'am."

 

The waitress nodded. "No problem! Let me know if you want anything else."

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Hm... OK, so that guess hadn't quite been as inspired as the last one.  Khaz mentally kicked himself for letting his deductions based on the average of academia color his impression of this particular academic.  Still, it seemed to not shake Dusty's enthusiasm, nor to arouse any suspicions surrounding 'Heart Sight's' talent.  "Yes, it is a curious thing, isn't it?  Of course, it only signifies a knack for observation, more than the magical power to read minds.  Can't do it if I'm not paying attention, you know."

 

The waitress returned and left.  She was cute, Kahz had to admit, but he wasn't here to satisfy any hungers of his own right now.  He was on a mission, one which Dusty could prove essential to.  "I do hope you will publish, though.  Just as you have an interest in knowing the truth, so I do in having the truth known.  It's a terrible thing to be misunderstood, without a chance to explain yourself, you know?"

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"Yeah, I know the feeling." Dusty said with a deep sigh. "I will get that book published." He looked at the table for a moment, a serious look behind his sunglasses. This pony seemed very adamant on having that book published, and that combined with earlier comments gave him a few ideas as to the identity of this 'Heart Sight'. The waitress returned, happily putting down the tea in front of Dusty.

 

"Here you go, sir!"

 

Dusty gave a smile in her vague direction. "Thank you very much."

 

She giggled. "No problem!"

 

With that, he pulsed his horn, grabbed the cup with his hooves, and took a careful sip. "Hot. You empathize with Changelings quite a bit. That's not very common, unfortunately. You know one personally, I gather that much. You know them very personally."

He left his comment hanging. The statement could be taken to mean all sorts of things; How Heart reacts might give Dusty a little more insight. He generally didn't like doing this sort of thing, but he wanted to be on firm ground before doing anything rash.

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Huh, finally!  The hints and elisions dropped over the course of the conversation had communicated something.  Now, whether Kahz had identified a changeling in deep cover, or had just outed his own to a pony, he couldn't tell.  What he could tell was that Dusty would be a good ally for his aims, and that was enough for the little 'ling to extend his trust.  "Oh, I know several quite well, and one very well indeed."  He acquiesced, nodding as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  "I won't go into the hows and whys right now; I'll wager you can guess.  One can never be sure of the reactions were we to discuss such matters openly and in public, right?"

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"Very, very true." Dusty said with a sagely nod. He sipped on his drink. "Still hot. Do you perhaps have a place in mind?"

 

Some things were coming together. This pony must have met and fallen in love with a Changeling! A part of Dusty's heart fluttered in prospect. A tale of forbidden love, hearts from across the world meeting and falling... Right out of one of his mom's novels!

Though the thought did occur to him that he could be misreading the situation.

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Everything was falling into place.  Kahz had his writer and publicist ready, now all he needed was to secure a site for a candid interview.  Unfortunately... he wasn't that familiar with the physical and social geography of Manehattan.  True, he knew more than a few secluded spots, but those were by no means comfortable for guests.  Nooks, alleys, and sewers were not conducive to open and easy conversing.  

 

"I can't say I do, particularly."  He admitted.  "I just arrived in town, and last time I was here, I spent most of my time at the hotel and the Expo.  I haven't checked into my new hotel here yet; perhaps that would be the best option?"

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"That is indeed a particularly good choice." Dusty said, sipping his tea again. "This is really hot. I should probably wait for it to cool down further." He sipped again. "Ow."

 

He hummed. This would prove a very interesting day, perhaps even more interesting than his time with Naj. If he knows something to a true Changeling diplomat... He might get that final true insight into Changeling culture he had been seeking for his entire life. Who knows what he could find out?

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"Alright, I will let you finish you coffee, then."  Having set up the appointment, Kahz allowed himself to relax, sipping his own drink with a content sigh.  Things would go alright, he was certain of it.  They had to.  He tried not to let himself feel the whole weight of responsibility settle down on his shoulders again, but, well, the Queen had impressed upon him the possible stakes and risks that came with pursuing the diplomatic option.  They were as such that she had balked at them before.  But, ultimately, war had proved too costly.  Now, it was a matter of extricating the Hive from hostility, without any loss of collective dignity.  A little PR work to lay the ground would be essential to this aim...

 

"If you're about ready, we can go ahead."  The disguised 'ling put the lid upon his drink, scooting off of his chair.  "The hotel's just down the street.  Did you want to fetch some paper to take notes with before we began?"

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"Don't you worry, most hotels carry stationary in their rooms." Dusty said. "At least the ones I go to. Though if there's a stationary store nearby, you can find some pen and paper there as well."

 

Dusty took another long sip of his tea. "Oh, it's a bit cooler now." He then began downing all of it in loud gulps. "That was nice." He said, once it was finished. He was pretty excited, obviously. He was practically bouncing in place, but how much of that was the large amount of caffeine he downed at once wasn't clear. "Should have asked for a smaller cup. How much did it cost?"

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"Three bits a cup."  Kahz answered promptly, paying his own bill.  "Which is pretty good for Manehattan, honestly.  From what I've seen at any rate; certain shops I won't name charge double than for less liquid!"  Arguably that same liquid was brewed stronger, but that was neither here nor there.  The disguised 'ling got up from the table, waving goodbye to the waitress mare before departing.

 

"It's a few blocks down."  He said to Dusty as they entered the pedestrian traffic.  "So I'll start with a few basic points on the way, if you don't mind."  Taking a deep breath, he paused to navigate around a knot of ponies clustering around a busking fiddler before talking again.  "Changelings on the whole don't have much of any written history, so your work would be valuable on both sides of the border.  A lot of what I'm about to tell you is oral history, for which there are few living witnesses, to say the least of it.  I can't promise I can stay to any strict logical or chronological order, either.  I don't know what standards you hold scholarship to, but that's the best I'm going to be able to give you."

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"Three bits, hm?" Dusty said as he paid for his drink. He followed his friend, making sure to pulse his horn often as to not lose track of him. As Heart Sight talked, Dusty listened intently, not only for the subject matter, but also to track his relative position. "Glad to be doing a service. It doesn't matter too much what order you tell me things, I should be able to work it out later. I've had plenty of instances where the history told was almost incomprehensible due to the order I heard it, but I managed to work it out. This shouldn't be too different. I do firmly believe that, while what you say will be difficult to prove, perceived history often tells more about a culture than their actual history. Granted, having the actual events on record would help to see where fact ends and legend begins, but beggars can't be choosers."

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"Thanks for understanding."  Kahz shot a smile back to Dusty, acting purely out of habit.  It was easy for him to forget that the other "pony" was blind, so practiced was he in navigating the world of the sighted.  In any case, the end of the conversation soon brought them to the hotel itself, a moderately comfortable establishment, with a respectable looking front facade and, more importantly to the changeling, good insulation in the walls.  Changelings had an instinct for architecture, being something of building race themselves.  Hives didn't grow out of the desert by themselves, after all.

 

All it took was a quick trot up to the receptionist, a pleasant chat, and soon 'Heart Sight' had his key to a room on the second floor.  "You'll be alright with the stairs?"  He asked, not sure if a lack of sight would prove too much of an issue here.  "Just one flight... ah, here we are."  Emerging out into the hallway, Kahz soon found his room number, and unlocked the door.  The interior was standard for a hotel of this price.  One bed, table and chair.  Sink and bathroom to the left, pathetic excuse for a closet on the right.  Anonymous, and private.  Yes, that was the key.

 

After Dusty entered, Kahz shut and bolted the door behind him.  "There!  We should be good for the next few hours."  Sighing in a bit of relief, he let his disguise drop in a flicker of green glamour.  "I suppose you've figured this much out already, at least as far as I'm concerned.  But... I'm still not sure about you.  Can I ask you outright if you are a changeling yourself?"

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Dusty followed him all the way to the hotel room, having slight issues with the stairs but still able to climb them regardless. Once inside the room, he pulsed his horn and began looking for something to write on and with. "Hm."

 

When his friend reverted to his natural state, he heard the noise, but couldn't quite place it. "Huhwha?" He said, looking at Kahz. The sound... And the wording of his question... Suddenly, a few things pieced together. "Oh, ooohhh, you're a Changeling. I thought you were in a relationship with one, my bad." Dusty then 'looked' around again, making sure the door was nice and closed and that they were the only ones in the room, before dropping his own disguise. "I am, yes." He took a moment to carefully open the top bedside drawer and pulsed his horn. "Ah!" He pulled out a pen and parchment. "There we go. These cities and their fancy pens. So, uh, My name is Texty." It wasn't a pony name, to be sure, but it wasn't really much of a Changeling name, either. Not that Texty really knew what a Changeling name would actually sound like. He's only heard one.

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Kahz couldn't help himself, he burst out laughing as soon as he heard Texty's mischaracterization of his behavior.  "Ahaha, well, I wouldn't say you're wrong, exactly, just that you erred on the side of understatement."  Not that the other changeling was exactly right, either; Kahz's standings with certain other female changelings wasn't exactly fixed in any way, though they could be said to think surprisingly well of him, considering his slightly bent outline.

 

Of course, Texty couldn't see that Kahz was a bit malformed, due to nymphood malnourishment.  "Well, pleased to meet ya, Texty.  My own name is Kahz, I suppose I ought to put out there."  With a slight buzzing of wings he perched on the bed.  "And I hope you don't mind the delay, but I really want to hear your story first.  What's a changeling doing out here, separated from the Hive, and seemingly ignorant about it?"

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Texty clicked for a moment, something that would come off as Changeling gibberish. It was something he sometimes did in his natural state when deep in thought. He took a seat in the chair and took in a deep breath before letting it out. "That... Is a story and a half. I know little about where I come from, what Hive I belonged to, any of that. I was abandoned at birth, I suspect due to my defect. My eyes have a hypersensitivity to light; Even the light from the moon is painfully bright. While this does mean I can see in very dark areas others cannot, I cannot see color or much detail. I, uh, I'm getting off track. I was found by a pony couple, who I would come to know as my mothers. They took me in and raised me as their own. They gave me love and helped me fit in with the other ponies as best as they could, coming up with a new appearance, name, and cutie mark. The latter two came about when I expressed a great interest in history. Anyways, I didn't meet another Changeling for many, many years. Not until recently, at the Gala. She was quite nice, giving me a little insight into the side of me I thought I would never know."

 

Texty looked upwards, leaning back. "That's the short version."

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Kahz was literally on the edge of his seat, or to be more specific, the edge of his bed, all throughout Texty's tale.  His grey eyes were wide with shock, even though the narrative was simply and quickly told, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  "That's... honestly astonishing.  Most of us in the Hive wouldn't believe that Equestrians would be so kind to one of us when discovered.  I mean, we're not the most charismatic looking of creatures, let's be honest."  He chuckled, running a holed hoof through a tatted brown mane-like growth on the top of his head.  "It was said, and largely true, that a changeling either went undiscovered, or they never came home.  I suppose, though, that there might be more than one explanation for that, after listening to you."  He tilted his head, wings buzzing in thought as he pondered the historian in front of him.

 

"Not that most of us would have thought of that, which is where the whole trouble started.  Fear and hunger were always the constants of life in the Hive, from time immemorial.  Shame, too, was there in the beginning, but natural selection weeded it out of us.  Even then, though, we felt that the world thought of us as scum, and, well, we didn't have much to disprove them with.  Can you imagine what life's like then?  You're born, you live in fear of discovery and loathing of yourself, and die in the dark with nothing but the scraps of stolen love.  That's the beginning of our story."

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