I did not address Lieutenant Southern Cross immediately, for my mind was a whirlwind of jumbled emotions in spite of the outwardly calm demeanour that I was struggling to maintain, much like trying to stop a leak in a sinking ship with a hoof. Standing before him, I caught faint glimpses of my distorted reflection in the dusty and scratched surface of his stained breastplate, and almost didn't recognise myself for all of the blood and filth covering most of my body and face. In places my white fur, which had turned an unsightly shade of beige over the course of my military career here owing to an inadequate supply of both soap and water, was stained by such a dark shade of reddish-brown so as to appear almost black. From what I could tell from this spectral reflection, my appearance matched certainly matched my dark mood, which had simmered down from a chaotic jumble of anger, hate, and sorrow warring against one another like a storm within my own psyche to a deep, leaden grey overcast. I simply felt numb.
We had lost the Colours, dozens of ponies were dead, Gliding Moth included, and we were stranded from the rest of Equestrian soil by a gorge with the only bridge within marching distance destroyed. I was not used to the concept of failure, but there was some tiny iota of comfort that could be found in the knowledge that there was nothing that I could have done to avert this grotesque series of events. Nothing, that is, except to have killed Lieutenant Scarlet Letter when I had the chance to. I had no concrete proof at the time, but who else amongst us would have been so utterly bereft of common sense to have fired on a merely curious group of innocent ponies, and then to have deliberately detonated the explosive charges on the bridge while a number of ponies, including me, were still crossing it?
Nothing, however, could be done here. With the Colours gone and our main objective of destroying the bridge completed there was little we could do out here, and so I resolved that we should return to the fort. I did not relish having to explain what had happened to General McBridle and Shining Armour in what would probably be the worst and most imbalanced case of 'good news and bad news' in all of Equestrian history, but I was reasonably confident that I should be able to escape most of the blame for this debacle. The problem as far as I could see it, however, was the one now facing the Changeling enemy if they sought to outflank the oncoming advance to the south; the bridge, the only means of crossing this gorge from the enemy front for miles around, was gone.
"You look awful," said Lieutenant Southern Cross, his voice flat and drained of its usual energy and warmth.
I realised then that I had been staring uncomfortably at my own reflection for quite some time, and that everypony was simply waiting for me to take charge. I shook my head and attempted to regain my sense of aristocratic detachment and sprezzatura [a term referring to doing something extremely well without appearing to show any effort, as a sort of affected nonchalance. It is considered a necessary trait for a courtier to possess] to probably very minimal effect. Now, more than ever, was not the time to show any degree of weakness.
"How long will it take to erect a crossing?" I said, pretending to ignore the question.
Southern Cross sucked air through his teeth and regarded the large gap in the precise centre of the bridge. The central pillar remained, or part of it rising defiantly from out of the depths of the chasm at least, but the remaining stubs of the walkway itself extended about five feet or so from the anchorages either side of the crevasse, thus leaving a thirty foot wide expanse that we needed to cross.
"Depends on what kind of crossing you want," he said as he considered the ruined bridge. As he explained our options, some semblance of his former cheerfulness began to return, as though being presented with some sort of engineering conundrum to solve was sufficient to distract him from the misery that the both of us had just been through. "We can toss a rope across, and that'll only take a few minutes. But if you're looking for something that'll take your weight, no offence, mate, then we can build a simple suspension bridge. We'll have to disassemble the wagon for the wooden planks, but it's doable in a few hours."
"Good," I said, nodding my head. "Get to it, Lieutenant."
Southern Cross moved to approach the bridge anchorage, but stopped after one step and inclined his head in my direction. "So that's it, then?" he said quietly. "We're just going back."
I bit down on my lower lip and sighed. Southern Cross certainly was not making this whole affair any easier for me, and in truth I did not expect the outspoken Horsetralian would do otherwise, but I could not blame him for giving a voice to the collective feelings of everypony here. Around me the surviving soldiers had gathered, and stared with what I could only describe as 'expectant hostility' at me. As the only clear authority figure left as perceived by the common soldiery, left directionless and despondent by the day's events, I had to tread a very fine line lest I become the target for the simmering anger that lay within each present pony like a magma bubbling up beneath a smouldering volcano.
"There is nothing left for us here," I said flatly, having uncharacteristically drawn a complete blank on what empty platitude to say.
Nopony had the energy to say or do anything at all to contradict me, which was something of a relief given the circumstances. While Lieutenant Southern Cross busied himself drawing diagrams in the dust using the shaft of his bloodied axe as a writing implement, I had ordered the soldiers to start digging graves for the fallen. It was grim, unpleasant work, and though commissioned officers were supposed to be spared the indignities of manual labour I thought it best to be seen contributing in a more direct manner.
During a rest break I asked for Scarlet Letter's sergeant so that I might interrogate him and find out what in Tartarus actually happened, only to find that he had been killed in the fight. It was a damned shame; that stallion, whose name unfortunately continues to elude me [Sergeant Firecracker of Canterlot], did a damned fine job of keeping the platoon an effective fighting force in spite of their leader's utter failure as an officer. Therefore, I had little course but to consult his corporal, who I found sitting with the other wounded soldiers in the shade of a large boulder. He looked somewhat dazed, with his great, blue eyes staring unfocused at the horizon. His midsection had been bandaged up with white cloth, which had a rather large and ugly red stain growing just under his ribs.
I picked my way around the other wounded ponies, who groaned in pain or simply watched me impassively, and sat next to the Corporal. Everything ached, from my muscles and joints to the bones and organs within, and I was grateful for the chance to rest again. It was also a blessing to remove my cap and momentarily become just a pony again, if only for a short while.
"How are you?" I said clumsily to the Corporal.
The stallion looked at his bandage and then back at me. "I've been better," he said. "And I'll feel better once the painkillers kick in."
"Oh come now, if you want a chance at going home early you'll need to ham it up a bit more than that."
"Speaking frankly, sir, after today I don't think we can go home."
I found that I could not respond instantly. Though I had known it deep down, my mind had been in such a fractured mess of emotions and thoughts that each craved individual attention like a basket of very spoilt puppies that it had not surfaced as an articulate thought; how could I, or any other survivor of this battle, dare to show our faces in Equestrian society again? Though I could pin the blame justly on Scarlet Letter, even without any proof as was my remit as a commissar, the stain of dishonour requires a far stronger detergent than the mere truth. His blood might suffice.
"So what happened?" I said, after a pause. "Who fired at those natives? Who gave the order?"
The corporal stared at me with an intense expression, with his brow furrowed and mouth set in a thin, horizontal line across his snout. He then cocked his head to one side, twisted his lips as he appeared to consider my order-framed-as-a-request, while I waited to hear with growing anxiety to hear the name that would confirm what I already suspected to be true. Though I knew that Scarlet Letter was by no means loved by the ponies under his command, some soldiers invariably hold a little too much loyalty to even the most incompetent of officers out of a misguided sense of loyalty; being a necessary side effect of the Royal Guard's insistence on discipline, the chain of command, and the dogmatic rejection of the very concept of independent thought, that was all designed to inculcate a sense of obedience and devotion.
"The Lieutenant did," he said eventually, deciding that all that had happened over the past few hours was not worth whatever loyalty he felt he owed his commanding officer. "Those pegasi were getting too close and they were armed, so he lost his nerve and shot one of them. You saw the rest."
I nodded my head and thanked him, it was as good a proof as any. We continued our work in respectful silence, carving out individual pony-sized holes in neat rows in the ground into which we laid to rest their mortal remains. It was hard work, for we lacked the sufficient number of shovels and were thus forced to dig into the dry, cracked earth with our hooves. This place would later become a minor war cemetery, one of many that would dot the Badlands after the conclusion of this miserable conflict like spots of mould over stale old bread. [The Royal Equestrian War Graves Commission does indeed maintain what is now known as Gliding Moth's Crossing Cemetery, which is one of twenty-seven within the Badlands converted from ad hoc burials into organised memorial sites] For headstones we had to make do with broken spear shafts and pieces of armour that Pencil Pusher was likely to deem to be irreparable, though I suspected rightly that this unpleasant bureaucrat would complain uselessly about such a frivolous waste of valuable war materiel.
While we continued with our work, Lieutenant Southern Cross had completed his plans and proceeded to inform his comrades across the gorge of his intentions by shouting as loudly as possible and waving his arms in what appeared at first to be a random manner but somehow managed to convey sufficient information to get them started. They started by stringing a few lengths of rope across the gap, which took only a few aborted attempts at simply throwing it until one had the bright idea of tying one end onto a spear and then employing an earth pony to throw it like a javelin to the other side. It worked, surprisingly, and soon enough there were half a dozen ropes stretching across the void between our bifurcated platoon. With this in place, the engineers reduced their cart and an assortment of leftover barrels and boxes to their constituent planks of wood and set about the difficult task of assembling the recovered material into something one could charitably call a bridge.
Under normal circumstances I would not have dared to cross the ungainly mess of ropes and wood planks even if Fleur-de-lis herself was on the opposite side, resting atop a soft princess-sized bed with a set of signed divorce papers from Fancy Pants, a tub of whipped cream, and a dog-eared copy of the Pony Sutra. These were clearly far from normal circumstances, however, and I would have skipped merrily over that slapdash, rickety thing to the other side if doing so would not diminish the air of gravitas and, let's face, a base level of competence that I was trying to maintain.
I let Southern Cross be the first to use the bridge, but to my combined relief and horror he stepped from plank to mismatched plank with deceptive ease using a spider's web of intricately knotted ropes to support himself, and reached the other side safe and sound. Relief, for the structure that looked like a ball of yarn of record-breaking proportions had collided with a coopers' workshop had managed to bear his weight without any real loss of structural integrity, and horror, for while the spritely earth pony had made it across with ease, a life of over-indulgence on rich Prench food and fine wine meant that I was likely to be rather heavier than he.
All attempts at maintaining dignity were abandoned as I crossed this bridge, hanging desperately onto the ropes with my forelegs as I hesitantly guided my hind legs onto the planks. That the planks were by no means equally spaced, owing to the haste with which they were tied into place, meant that I was forced to look down. In the spaces I could see the seemingly vast gulf between my precarious position, held aloft by rope and wood and wishful thinking, stretch almost into infinity. The bottom of the chasm was shrouded in near impenetrable darkness, into which I could almost discern strange, still shapes that my overactive imagination had decided to interpret as all manner of horrifying monsters waiting for me to slip and fall into their hungry maws.
The promise of safety, and most importantly, revenge, was enough to motivate me to place one hoof carefully in front of the other. Concentrating solely on this deceptively simple task to the exclusion of all else, as much as I could manage, as merely a means to get to the other side and hopefully find and expunge the root cause of all of this misery - the pony stupid enough to either fire on the native party or order another to do so - meant that my hooves were safely back on terra firma a damn sight faster than I had anticipated. Indeed, the moment I touched solid earth, as opposed to bits of wood suspended over what appeared to be an endless void, I was so surprised by the sensation of the ground not swaying beneath my hooves that I almost fell on my face.
"Lieutenant?" I said, addressing the crowd of soldiers standing in a disorganised mob in front of me. As I approached, they parted before me to reveal Lieutenant Scarlet Letter and Lieutenant Grim Cathedra at the centre, the former sitting on his haunches with a spear held at his neck and a very unhappy expression on his round face.
Scarlet Letter snapped his head up to look at me, and said, "It's about time, sir! These ruffians have-"
"Not you," I snapped. "Grim Cathedra, I'd like a word with you, please."
The scarred pony dipped his head in solemn affirmation, spoke a few quiet words to his sergeant while indicating at Scarlet Letter with a nod, and then followed me to a spot just outside the disorganised mob of the remnants of the platoon. There was, of course, still absolutely no guarantee of privacy, but I merely wanted some relief from the peculiar sense of claustrophobia that comes with being surrounded by other ponies. I already had one answer to two of the questions burning away in my mind and now I just needed the second to seal his fate, though I suspected that I already knew the answer to this one.
"Who blew up the bridge while I, while we, I mean, were still on the damned thing?" I asked in a hushed tone, though I did not care overmuch if we were heard. A quick glance over my shoulder and I saw that those soldiers closest to us were trying a little too hard to look as though they weren't listening to our conversation, by conspicuously avoiding eye contact and suddenly finding their own hooves very interesting even though their ears were swivelling noticeably in our direction.
Grim Cathedra answered without any delay. "Scarlet Letter," he said flatly.
"Are you certain?"
He frowned, which made the comically ghoulish appearance imparted by his disfiguring facial discolouration look rather too corpse-like for my comfort. From within the irregular coal-black circles around his eye sockets, his yellow eyes with the draconic slit pupils seemed to smoulder with the intensity of raw hatred even though his outward appearance remained deceptively calm and composed.
"We all saw him," he said. "He watched as you crossed over the bridge, then he pushed his way to the detonator and pressed down on the plunger."
I had suspected as much, but to hear it spoken aloud made it sound utterly absurd; these were far from the actions of a rational pony, and although I well knew that in the chaotic mess of battle ponies in general are far from rational (which is why the Royal Guard insists on enforcing strict discipline and drill practice), even accounting for that strange state of mind where one knows one's life is in great danger it felt very far fetched. Nevertheless, that left two possible explanations in my mind - either Scarlet Letter had truly panicked and activated the detonator because he believed our cause was lost and it was the only way to defend his position, or he merely wanted me dead. Either option still carried grave consequences, for the former was rank cowardice and the latter was attempted murder. The truth, as I saw it, fell somewhere in the middle, and I assumed that he expected that I would not survive and that he could use his connections within the Ministry of War to suppress any version of events that conflicted with his own. Unfortunately for him I survived.
This was not a premeditated conspiracy, planned in detail and complete with a self-aggrandising story that both exonerated and glorified its perpetrator like the incident in the siege not too long ago. Instead, these were merely the actions of a panicked and frightened stallion who had not the training nor the soundness of mind to act appropriately during a time of great stress; Scarlet Letter was merely one symptom of the disease that infested the officer class of the Royal Guard. That was not to say I felt the even the slightest bit of sympathy for him, for it was his actions that ultimately lost us the Colours and killed Gliding Moth and all of those other ponies who would still be alive were it not for him. No, it was time to set an example.
I thanked Grim Cathedra, and he silently slinked away to help co-ordinate the evacuation of our comrades still stranded on the other side. Scarlet Letter remained in the centre of the platoon's messy formation, under the watchful and hate-filled supervision of the dozen or so soldiers whose lives he apparently held in very little regard. As I approached and the ponies moved quietly and graciously out of my way, Gliding Moth's sword in its sheath started to feel rather heavier and more ungainly than before, as though it was somehow trying to make its presence known so that I might plunge its blade into the throat of the one who took its mistress's life and sate our shared thirst for vengeance in blood.
"My friends at the Ministry will hear of this!" shouted Scarlet Letter, though the tremor in his voice betrayed his obvious fear in spite of his arrogant bluster. By now he was being held down by the rough hooves of one stallion, while another held his spear about as close to the disgraced officer's neck as if he was giving him a shave. As I stepped closer, he lifted his head up to look at me, his eyes wide and desperate, and I wondered if he was at all cognisant of just how much trouble he was in now.
"Lieutenant," I said flatly. "This is a new low."
Scarlet Letter blinked gormlessly at me in the manner of a dog trying to understand its master's words, and then said, "I quite agree, sir! These stallions should be flogged for mistreating an officer in this way. This has all been a horrible misunderstanding, and I can explain everything if they let go of me."
Yet for all of my anger when I approached the pathetic stallion I found I had not the will to even unsheathe my sword. It is one thing to speak of taking another pony's life in cold blood, but quite another to actually perform the deed even if he truly deserved it. Though my magic had gripped around the handle of the rapier tightly, I found that I simply could not bring myself to free the blade from the scabbard. I hoped that he could not see the internal struggle raging in my mind, for though it seemed that the unquiet spirits of the dead raged incessantly to implore me to perform the grim deed. In the end I gave up, and thus released my hold on my sword with a defeated sigh.
"No," I said, the strain was evident in my voice.
"No?" Scarlet Letter echoed my words incredulously.
"No. You are under arrest and will be court-martialed immediately upon our return for treason. I have nothing further to say to you." I then looked to the stallion holding the sword to the Lieutenant's throat. "Nopony is to harm him. Is that understood? Nopony, that is, except me."
“If anything happens to me, you’re finished, Blueblood. Not even your Aunt will be able to save your career once my friends in Parliament are through with you.”
I ignored that hollow threat, for it was merely the desperate and vain pleadings of a pony doomed to die, and I stormed off in a manner I hoped would be appropriately dramatic. I had determined that Shining Armour would have to decide his fate; after all, the guilty pony was an officer of the 1st Regiment of the Solar Guard and therefore technically out of my jurisdiction, and out of sense of professional courtesy and to avoid even more bureaucratic unpleasantness on my part it was only proper that the infamously lenient and understanding Captain of the Royal Guard should be the final arbiter [Blueblood is incorrect on this account and is likely looking for an excuse to justify his deferment of Scarlet Letter's sentence, as an individual commissar's authority may extend beyond regimental boundaries as circumstances dictate, such as operations that employ units from different regiments working closely together]. Nevertheless, he was right - I was finished, completely and utterly, but I may at least be able to survive long enough to take the tattered scraps of my life and clumsily sew them back together.
I ruminated on this while the rest of the platoon crossed the temporary rope bridge with varying degrees of speed and elegance. Only one pony could, or was willing to I should say, cross at a time, which meant that our return back to the fort would be delayed somewhat. The remaining soldiers on our side took this as an opportunity for a tea break, as those not watching the horizon and the gradually darkening skies had set up a couple of small campfires with which to brew their favourite beverage. Though I wished to be alone, an enamel mug filled with that familiar hot brown liquid did much to settle my mind to the point where I felt I could think relatively coherently for the first time in a while.
This brief upswing in my mood, however slight it was, could only last so long, and it popped like a balloon drifting too close to a lit candle when one of the soldiers on picquet duty declared that he could see pegasi approaching very low and very fast. There was a brief outbreak of the sort of restrained panic that sets in when a unit of guardsponies is required to shift from a state approaching relaxation to combat almost instantly, which they did so with great alacrity. The campfires were quickly stomped out, the canteens and enamel mugs put back into saddlebags, and spears seized and horns lit with magic.
I could see the pegasi approaching rapidly, but it soon became apparent that they were not the same ones who attacked us earlier. Only one particularly irritating group of that one third of the pony race were so damned prideful that it completely eclipsed their common sense to the point that they would announce their presence, and therefore ours, to everypony with an unobstructed view of the sky by trailing smoke and rainbows behind them. The trainee Wonderbolts were in a standard V-formation, with Rainbow Dash, identifiable by her multi-coloured smoke trail being the most flamboyant and gaudy of them all, at the lead. Accelerating quickly in a deep dive to the ground, they pulled up at the last second to avoid smearing themselves across the ground like overripe berries fall from a tree, which would have spared their leader from the even worse fate that I was concocting for her as I watched them.
The Wonderbolts swept directly overhead in a blur of skin-tight blue latex, smoke, and rainbows, close enough that a particularly tall earth pony soldier might have been able to poke one with his spear if he stood on his hind legs and stretched. The air shrieked as it was displaced violently by the speeding pegasi, almost knocking my cap off my head and into a crevasse nearby. I watched with a fire burning brighter and hotter in my chest, until it felt like the only thing preventing me from erupting in pure bloody-minded rage was the flimsy barrier formed by a lifetime of being taught that such displays were for the uneducated peasantry. The formation then pulled up into a steep climb and then split to form a palm tree shape with the smoke forming the multi-coloured 'leaves'. The sheer, bloody arrogance of it all was astounding even by my standards, and it betrayed a complete lack of self-awareness that seemed to be utterly endemic in these entertainers.
If they were expecting the usual applause and whoops of adulation from their 'audience', they were going to be sorely disappointed. As the Wonderbolts swiftly returned to formation and glided down for an elegant and dignified landing, one could almost detect the simmering, seething resentment radiating from just about every pony who was bothering to watch this unwarranted display. To pre-empt any sort of unpleasantness (that is to say, the illegal sort that the mob might commit in their haste as compared to the completely legal type that I was allowed to inflict on ponies), I quickly pushed my way to the front. There, Rainbow Dash trotted merrily towards me, panting heavily from exertion and with sweat slicking her mane and what little fur could be seen in the strategically placed gaps in her skin-tight flightsuit. The latex had split in places, some around the joints of her limbs from stressing the fabric in combat further than its designers had initially anticipated and others where she had received a few superficial cuts and scratches that certainly were not there before.
Rainbow Dash gave no indication that anything to her seemed amiss, though I can hardly blame her when the rest of the Royal Guard and I had treated her and her ilk with barely-concealed disdain the majority of the time anyway, so as far as she was could probably tell the angry scowls and angry mutterings were simply normal behaviour for us. She approached with a lively spring in her step, in spite of the admittedly light injuries she had suffered in whatever fight she had just come from. I struggled to conceive of the idea that she was somehow oblivious of just how much trouble she was in, she simply had to acknowledge the fact that she had willingly disobeyed orders and left us entirely without any aerial support whatsoever, but the big, cheerful, ever-so-self-satisfied grin stretching her face so wide that I feared it might split her face right down the middle in two certainly implied that she was just as oblivious of her transgressions as Pinkie Pie was of the concept of personal restraint.
The tension rising as she approached was like the discordant hum of a machine of some description powering up. The soldiers around me eyed her warily, clutching at their weapons and seeming to strain on invisible leashes to pounce and rip her apart. A few snorted and stamped their hooves, but they remained silent and would make furtive glances in my direction. I drew myself up and took a few steps forward, where Rainbow Dash stopped, snapped to attention with a well-practiced stomp of her hoof that, in the expectant hush that had descended like a curtain to muffle all sound, sounded like the slamming of a great cathedral door.
"Sir!" she greeted me proudly, swinging her hoof in a crisp salute. "We routed the enemy, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing them to retreat with zero losses on our side. In total we have seven confirmed kills and thirteen probable. Not bad for our first operation!"
Rainbow Dash looked up at me with an eager and expectant expression on her face, no doubt bracing herself for the flurry of praise and adulation that she believed that I was about to heap upon her like a Labrador that had successfully performed a trick for its master. Perhaps she also expected a medal of some description, or even a promotion or a commission for her heroic victory over a small patrol of Changeling drones whose loss would barely register amongst the seemingly endless reserves that Queen Chrysalis had at her disposal. Nevertheless, I still could not quite believe that she remained so utterly oblivious, so completely wrapped up in her own personal heroic fantasy, that she failed to notice that everypony else, most notably the pony she was talking to standing right in front of her, bore expressions of such unmitigated disdain and anger directed entirely upon her. How could she so fail to grasp the horrendous consequences of her actions, made obvious to all in the blood and dust around her? Did she not see the dried blood splattered across my face like a baptism gone horribly wrong?
"Sir?" she said again, nudging me out of my stupor. I realised that I had been staring at her as I struggled to find a way to put what I needed to say in coherent words. In the end I simply gave up and addressed Cannon Fodder, who had evidently made it across the rope bridge and discreetly taken up his usual position just behind and slightly to the left of me.
"Put Rainbow Dash under arrest," I said, and then I turned abruptly on my hooves to find something better to do than waste further time on her. Naturally, the mare in question did not take too kindly to that, and as when Cannon Fodder moved past me and asked her to surrender any weapons and come quietly I heard a loud, sharp, and violent exclamation from her.
I owed her an explanation at the very least, though on a selfish level I thought that nothing would do more to improve my fractious mood than for her to finally comprehend the grim consequences of her ridiculous, self-centred actions. Thus, I turned to face her once more, and saw the confused and indignant expression on her face. The other soldiers had moved closer with weapons in hoof to assist my aide should the Wonderbolts be so utterly bereft of sense as to resist, but most simply stood, tense and alert with tails swishing and snorting in frustration, and waited silently.
"Your orders were to provide close air support to the infantry," I said, consciously keeping my voice as flat and level as I could. A calm, measured tone would do more to impress the severity of the situation than the anger and fire within me that demanded to be made known. "Your orders were to stick close to us at all times. You chose to wilfully ignore that order, and that is insubordination."
"We saw the enemy and we engaged!" she protested. "We're soldiers, that's what we're supposed to do! Fight the enemy!"
"Soldiers obey orders!" I snapped. I then fixed her with a glare and sucked in a deep breath, and then released it slowly as a frustrated sigh, before I continued again in the calm yet stern tone as before. "You are not soldiers. You have proven yourself unworthy to call yourself soldiers. Yet, you are operating under the authority of the Royal Guard and are therefore subject to military law. You are under arrest and will be court-martialed upon our return to the fort. That is all."
"But..." Rainbow Dash's rebuttal died in her throat along with any hint of self-righteous defiance. For her, it seemed that the penny had finally lost its battle with gravity and had fallen to the ground with a dreadful clatter. I could only imagine that she now saw the dirty, filthy, wounded, and profoundly hostile group of soldiers forming around her, weapons readied and the mental restraints holding back their bloodlust weakening with every passing moment, and at last saw the consequences of her actions. She turned her face away from me and looked to her fellow Wonderbolts, who likewise gazed back with silent, dejected expressions - so rapidly had their pride been punctured.
"I ordered them to engage," said Rainbow Dash, looking back at me. "Whatever happens, it was my responsibility. The other Wonderbolts shouldn't be punished for my mistake."
Though it pained me to admit it, I was quite genuinely impressed by her integrity. Then again, for all of her many, many faults - her brashness, rudeness, defiance of authority, and pride - Rainbow Dash was the bearer of the Element of Loyalty, after all. As I looked at the thoroughly dejected mare, I felt some small stirrings of what might be considered sympathy coalesce within me; none of this would have been such an issue were it not for Scarlet Letter's actions, and her apparent remorse for what was ultimately a foalish mistake forced upon a mare too young and inexperienced to be serving on the frontline and her obvious dedication to the ponies under her command encouraged me to be more lenient to her than Scarlet Letter.
"So noted," I said.
With everypony across the bridge we started to make our way back to the fort, but not before collapsing the bridge that we had just built. Lieutenant Southern Cross was a trifle miffed that his latest engineering marvel was to be torn down, but nevertheless reluctantly acquiesced by hacking through the ropes that suspended the dangerous wooden walkway until the entire structure began to twist beneath the mess of its own haphazard construction. With whatever component key to its structural integrity now gone, the entire bridge collapsed and folded in on itself in a spectacular and rather noisy implosion of wood and rope. Within a few seconds it was no more than a pile of splinters at the bottom of the chasm.
The journey back was blessedly uneventful, with no Changelings or native ponies sighted and with little to no protest from either of our two captives. Perhaps Rainbow Dash and Scarlet Letter had accepted their respective guilt and failure and were engaged in quiet and reflective contemplation of their sins or, as was most likely, attempting to get their stories straight so that they might escape the imminent tribunal with as much of their careers and lives intact. As far as Scarlet Letter was concerned, however, he would be lucky to suffer only a quick and instant death.
It was late afternoon when we returned to the place I could only charitably call 'home', with the sun already beginning to sink from its ascendant position in the sky and commence its descent into the west. Immediately upon crossing through the portcullis gates I delivered our two prisoners into the care of the bewildered provosts, giving only curt instructions that they were to be held pending their court martial and to fetch Shining Armour immediately. I had first thought to wait for the Captain of the Royal Guard, who was indisposed elsewhere at the time doing Faust knows what [records suggest that Shining Armour was engaged in routine inspections at the time], but I then considered that I had done all that I could and, with what I hoped would be taken as sangfroid and not mere selfishness on my part, retired to the officers' mess and ate a champagne dinner.
I had just finished the delectable wild mushroom and truffle risotto and was halfway through polishing off a thoroughly exquisite bottle of Dom Ponygnon '07 when Shining Armour found me. During my meal the other officers there had given me a rather wide berth, and I realised only after the fact that it was because in between returning to the fortress and having dinner I had neglected to wash off the filth of the battle. I could hardly blame them, for I must have made an interesting and horrific sight, dining upon the fine cuisine and drink that the prestigious mess hall of the 1st Regiment of the Solar Guard offered with my uniform and fur caked in a mixture of dust, blood, and gore. Nevertheless, it suited me just fine, as this darkened mood that clouded my mind meant that I would hardly be the sort of pleasant company these officers were after. Besides, I was only really going through the motions of enjoying a nice meal, as the anger and grief of what had happened had coalesced into some kind of fog that seemed to shroud the rational, thinking parts of my mind. Though I knew on a conscious level that the risotto was expertly cooked with the right balance of richness and flavour and that the champagne was as the nectar of the gods, none of the pleasures associated seemed to register at all. [It is likely that Blueblood was still experiencing some level of shock, which would explain his 'dazed' state of mind.]
Shining Armour sneered when he saw me, and only reluctantly sat down at my table as though it was the last remaining seat in a busy train carriage next to a very friendly and talkative looking pony with an abundance of pamphlets about the good word of Faust. The empty plate, the half-drunk bottle of champagne, and a lit candle separated us, and he glowered at me from across them. As he was staring at me with the same expression that he pulled moments before swinging his hoof at my jaw when we were colts and he'd had enough of my teasing of his sister, I quietly took my cigarillo case from my coat pocket, selected a slender cigarillo, and went through the ritual of lighting it.
"Well?" said Shining Armour, with an edge of invidious directness in his voice. "What happened?"
I told him. Over the course of smoking that cigarillo and drinking the remaining half a bottle of champagne I explained in as terse and clinical language as I could manage exactly what had taken place; that Scarlet Letter usurped command of the operation; that Rainbow Dash had deserted us and left us without air support; that Scarlet Letter provoked a native patrol by firing on them; that he fled and then destroyed the bridge with half a dozen ponies and me still on it, thus cutting off further support; and finally how the Colours were lost. Shining Armour did not speak or react as I delivered my explanation of the events, but instead merely stared intently and quietly at me with only the occasional nod of his head indicating that he was, in fact, paying attention.
"I see," said Shining Armour flatly when I had finished. His whole body was tense, and though his face was still that masque of conscious and deliberate non-expression he still looked as though at any moment his hold on his patience and famed good nature must inevitably break and explode in a torrent of violence. Having experienced it before, albeit when we were both much younger, I aimed to be as far away as possible when that happened.
I had finished my cigarillo and left it to die a dignified death by resting it on the ashtray, and though I desired another, chain-smoking them was a tad vulgar and so I refrained. Having finished telling my story, I reclined back in my seat and idly fiddled with my slowly-diminishing final glass of champagne and watched Shining Armour carefully. It was some time - a few more sips of the glass and a glance at my watch - before he spoke again.
"So that's it?" he said, again his voice curiously and forcefully level and devoid of emotion. "And you just come here after all that and have a meal and a drink and a cigar like nothing happened."
I placed the now empty glass between us, and watched as the shaped glass distorted Shining Armour's scowling face. "If you can think of a better use of my time, I'd like to hear it."
"Like dealing with this mess, Commissar."
I snorted and shook my head, contemplating ordering another bottle but I wisely decided against it. The drink had clouded and dulled my mind, leaving me in a pleasant haze where the full pain of the situation no longer hurt me so much. "How am I supposed to do that?" I said, my voice being a little too loud for the seriousness of this conversation. "I can't just bring the Colours back."
"Scarlet Letter is still alive," hissed Shining Armour through set teeth. "He escaped justice once before, and he'll do it again if you continue to sit here doing nothing."
"Oh." I leaned forward and rested my hooves on the small table between us, fixing the Captain of the Royal Guard with a glare that he returned. He was right, perhaps; I should have exercised the right of summary execution then and there and at least some of the stain of dishonour would have been washed clean with the detergent of this pony's blood. Yet I could not admit to him that I was so sickened by the idea of committing murder, so devoid of the necessary will to commit the act that I knew to be both justified and inevitable.
Nevertheless, Shining Armour's sudden dark mood had disturbed me, though it did not surprise me. Behind his cheerful, caring, brotherly exterior still beat the heart of a determined career soldier who had to sacrifice so much to earn his place, and whose career had been balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff for some time and now just been given its hardest shove. I had, of course, experienced his darker, angrier moods before, though we were both colts at the time, and despite my apparent drunkenness, the underlying threat of a sudden violent outburst from the tense stallion opposite was rather chilling. That he of all ponies, so devoted to the ponies under his command, and indeed to all who served under the aegis of the Royal Guard, could so callously demand the death of another was a shock. However, as I reflect back now it was that same devotion that inspired this seething anger, for Scarlet Letter had committed the most grievous of all sins in his eyes - the avoidable deaths of ponies.
"I had assumed," I said, proffering an apologetic smile, "that you wanted some input in this matter or that a more public example should be made of him."
Shining Armour glowered at me for a few moments more, and then nodded his head quietly. "Meet me in my office in one hour," he said authoritatively as he rose from his seat to leave. There was nothing further to be discussed, and as I watched him storm out of the officers' mess, ignoring the polite expressions of concern from his fellow officers, I could not help but feel a certain level of sympathy for him. Whatever was going to happen, I knew that there was no way that he was going to leave with his career intact - the first Captain of the Royal Guard to lose the Colours under his command.