Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Honour and Blood (Part 13)

It is often said by some ponies, who apparently have nothing better to do with their time than to say or write things that seem profound but are actually rather pedestrian, that a pony's office is a reflection of their innermost soul. This is especially true of officers, who invariably try to bring something of home with them while on campaign and have the means to do so. Mine was a tiny oasis of comfort and relative elegance amidst a desert of hardship and common vulgarity, with a few tasteful furnishings such as my desk and my drinks cabinet with the comforts its contents offered lending a certain air of civility in an otherwise barbarous locale. Colonel Sunshine Smiles' quarters were exceptionally austere even by the standards of the 1st Night Guards, and though I never lingered there for very long, having found the wide empty space and the distinct lack of anything that might be considered a 'personal touch' to be rather uncomfortable, it certainly reflected his apparent rejection of the very notion of officer privilege and his unpretentious style of command and leadership. Conversely, when I've had to suffer through Major Starlit Skies' exceedingly dull and minutiae-driven meetings on the state of the unicorn company I noted that the sheer mass of filing cabinets and bookshelves that filled his office so as to render the journey betwixt desk and door a veritable maze, each filled to bursting with enough paperwork to make Pencil Pusher explode with excitement, reflected his detail-obsessed approach to how he pursued both his work and his hobbies.

In this respect, Shining Armour's office was no different; indeed, it rather more resembled the bedroom of a teenaged colt than an officer of the Royal Guard, reminding me of Captain Red Coat's office without the collection of strange Neighponese toys. His lack of refinement and pretension was reflected in the desk that was clearly built from a mass-produced flat-pack kit, the standard issue Royal Guard cot, and the rustic chest of drawers likely made by some peasant at Dodge Junction. His optimism and his open and pleasant nature was likewise demonstrated by the colourful posters of hoofball players and some garishly-costumed comic book hero plastered on the walls. If such foalish decorations detracted from the seriousness of what was to take place there, then the severe expression on Shining Armour's face certainly restored the atmosphere to a more appropriately grim tone.

I was the last to arrive to this court martial [Although Blueblood refers to this as a 'court martial', this is more of an unofficial tribunal executed under commissarial privilege, or to Blueblood's initial detractors a mere show trial. Official courts martial have definitive rules and procedures like civil courts, whereas the proceedings described here are arbitrary in nature and guilt has already been determined], having enjoyed a digestif of Armagnac alone in my office to relax my nerves. Drinking alone, though considered a vice, a warning sign, and something to be pitied, is an activity that I find to have a quiet, soothing effect upon one's psyche; for it allows one to truly grapple with the darkness that lies within each of us, acting as it does in social situations as a friendly mediator between two parties, without the protective psychological walls created by sobriety. Whether or not what you find on your journey with the drink as your guide is of any comfort is another matter entirely.

In this matter, however, the darkness proved rather stronger than the liquor, and I soon gave up on that venture before I became too inebriated to walk in a straight line or construct a coherent sentence. When I arrived, I feared that they might have started the proceedings without me, but the awkward silence that was not dispelled as I slipped through the doorway and into the room soon dissuaded me of that notion. The two guilty ponies stood before Shining Armour's desk, behind which the Captain of the Royal Guard himself sat silently. The only sound apart from the latent background noise of the military camp that was present every damned minute of every damned day here was the scratching of his quill. In the corner General McBridle sat on a cushion, puffing away thoughtfully on his pipe and staring off into the middle distance with a deeply contemplative expression on his face.

Shining Armour did not look up from whatever it was he was working on as I entered the room and shut the heavy wooden door behind me with a hefty, hollow 'thud'. The only acknowledgement that I received as I crossed the short distance betwixt door and desk were some furtive glances from Rainbow Dash and Scarlet Letter, both of whom were doing their utmost to appear not at all perturbed by the proceedings, and reassuring nod from McBridle. The sound of my iron shoes striking the cobbled stone joined the irregular and persistent scratching of the pen, and then halted as I stood in the vague space next to the desk.

It was a cheap, albeit effective, psychological trick; one favoured by schoolteachers, parents, and military officers alike. The two ponies standing before the desk knew that they were in deep trouble and that the consequences would be severe, but the true nature and harshness of their punishment would remain a mystery that festered away in their minds as their respective imaginations would torment them with conjured images that would make the Solar Inquisition of old blush. It was, however, a delicate balancing act, as often the end result is instead a sense of relief when the punishment delivered fails to match the brutality of their expectations.

Lieutenant Scarlet Letter was the first to lose his nerve. He cleared his throat noisily, making a dramatic show of covering his mouth with a hoof, and saying, "Now that Blueblood has deigned to show up, reeking of drink as usual, perhaps we can continue?"

I flushed a little with embarrassment, having previously believed that this particular vice of mine was sufficiently hidden or at least considered to be part of the rakish cad image that I had cultivated in the early years of my adult life. In truth it caught me a little off guard, and I wondered briefly if I had what some might consider a problem.

"That's Commissar Prince Blueblood to you," said Shining Armour, placing his quill down neatly on his desk next to the letter he was writing. "We've just had a very interesting discussion about the operation, and what he's told me conflicts somewhat with your report, Lieutenant."

"The Commissar, sir, is just that," said Scarlet Letter, a small smile tugging at his lips. "He is a political officer, whose duties cover the morale and indoctrination of his regiment and not the conduct of battle. He lacks both the training and experience to appropriately criticise command decisions taken by officers in the field."

Shining Armour struck the desk loudly and suddenly with his hoof, the force of which sent a few papers flying and some assorted ornaments and knick-knacks rolling off to the floor. Snarling like an angered wolf, he leaned forward over his desk and addressed Scarlet Letter, who had taken an involuntary step backwards to the door, in such a stern tone that I almost felt compelled to imitate that gesture.

"The Commissar," he said, his voice level but strained, "saved the 3rd Solar Guard from annihilation, saved this fortress and its garrison from destruction, and saved Princess Luna, my sister, and my wife from Queen Chrysalis." Shining Armour then looked in my direction, his stern, though calm, expression softening only slightly. "Equestria owes him a lot, and more than you will probably ever understand."

"Thank you," I said, half wondering if he could be in any way cognisant of the truth behind each of the events that he had just described. "The praise should rightfully belong to the soldiers of the Royal Guard."

My telling of the truth for once, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner, would be taken for false modesty by those ponies so wrapped up in their own image of what I should be like that they would not think to look beyond it. Ponies all have the very convenient tendency to either ignore things that did not mesh with their own view of the world or mentally distort their perception until their internal philosophies are no longer threatened by reality. Shining Armour lapped it up like a cat drinking cream, as expected.

"Now," said Shining Armour, "Lieutenant, tell Commissar Prince Blueblood what you just told me."

Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter hesitated, licked his lips, and cleared his throat. In a tone of voice dripping with undeserved pride he said, "We destroyed the bridge, sir, carrying out General McBridle's particular order as written. The 1st Solar Guard performed this task with the utmost alacrity and precision, sir."

Shining Armour tilted his head to one side and arched an eyebrow at Scarlet Letter's words. In spite of his outburst just moments before, he masked his anger quite well with a tense but calm quietness once more.

"Commissar Blueblood's testimony goes into more detail than yours," he said. "Sir, if you'd like to proceed."

I briefly examined Scarlet Letter's face for any hints of unease or discomfort, but either he was so confident in his own presumed innocence that he feared nothing, of which he would be sorely disappointed very soon, or as a politician he had become so very adept at presenting a confident self-image for his electorate (all one of her, if I recall correctly) and the media as consumed by the general peasantry at large that I could detect neither. Instead he stood very casually, in stark contrast to the rigid, statue-like posture of Rainbow Dash standing at attention. If anything he simply looked bored; it was as though somehow all of this, the culmination of greatest dishonour ever inflicted upon the Royal Guard, worse than any of the defeats suffered at the hooves of greater enemies that still nevertheless left the standard and therefore our honour in our possession, was an imposition on his time. The casual smirk as he returned my stare had only boosted my resolve, however, and with the sword of the fallen Gliding Moth resting heavily in its scabbard about my waist, I began the laying out of his sins.

"To start with," I said, "instead of Lieutenant Everlasting Oak, you had taken command without seeking approval from your superior officer."

"As I said in a previous statement before you turned up late, sir," said Scarlet Letter, and in much too casual a manner for my liking, "my comrade Lieutenant Everlasting Oak was injured in an unfortunate accident. Mine was the only other platoon in a state of sufficient readiness to carry out the mission, sir! I needn't remind everypony here of the importance of this operation in light of the coming offensive."

"Fine," I said, knowing that I wasn't going to trip him up on these minor points. The hammer blow would come later, and I looked forward to swinging it upon his misguided belief in his own innocence. "But was it necessary to bring the Colours for a platoon-level operation?"

"Of course, sir!" he said boastfully, puffing his chest out as though those same Colours were not currently being paraded around some native warlord's hovel before an unwashed mob of jeering heathens. "That's my style, sir, where the 1st Regiment of the Solar Guard marches to war the Colours will lead the way!"

I ignored the drivel, and carried on. "On our march to the bridge we encountered a small Changeling patrol, at which point Rainbow Dash here saw fit to disregard her orders and chased after them."

The mare in question did not say anything, but still remained standing almost perfectly still at attention and staring directly at one brick in particular in the opposite wall as though she was trying to remove it with only the power of her mind. As I paced in front of her, deliberately interrupting that fixed stare of her eyes by lowering my head down to her level, I noticed the small, subtle twitches here and there across her lithe, thin body, emphasised by the skin-tight flightsuit that she still insisted on wearing, that implied a slight sense of unease. I decided that her discomfort was nowhere near severe enough, so I stopped pacing and stood directly in front of her so that her muzzle was almost touching my stained coat.

"Do you have nothing to say for yourself?" I said, glaring down at her and hoping my not-inconsiderable advantage in height would help intimidate her into saying something that might be sufficiently incriminating. That she had faced down such fearsome creatures as dragons, Changelings, Discord, the Nightmare Moon reborn, and Twilight Sparkle suffering from a study-mania and lived to tell about it hadn't occurred to me at the time, but nevertheless the desired effect had been achieved.

"The enemy was sighted and we engaged, sir!" she barked.

"Without authorisation. Your orders were to accompany the earth ponies and unicorns to the bridge, which you failed to execute. You pursued a small Changeling patrol of very little consequence, thus leaving the platoon below strength and vulnerable to attack from the air. Tell me, those Changelings you so valiantly slew in battle, were they worth the losses we suffered at the bridge?"

Rainbow Dash's mouth flapped uselessly, before she settled on the manner in which she would articulate her justification. It was a few seconds until she finally spoke, but it felt like a damn sight longer trying to maintain that glare.

"Sir, no sir! It was the wrong decision and I take full responsibility for it. I wanted to prove the Wonderbolts deserved to be here and fight, sir. I... I wanted to win!"

"And there it is again, that one word - I." I shook my head in mock disappointment and stepped away from her. To her credit there was almost no change in her demeanour, and though I fully doubted the efficacy of the Wonderbolts' training in actual military terms, at the very least I could commend Rainbow Dash's drill sergeant [For the sake of pedantry, the Wonderbolt equivalent is called a drill instructor] in at least inculcating the statue-like requirements for standing at attention for extended periods of time. "The Royal Guard doesn't care about what you want; it doesn't care about your selfish need for glory, or your need to 'prove' yourself, and it certainly doesn't care about your wanting to 'win' over the operational requirements of this war. All that is required of you is to follow orders. Soon you will learn the consequences of failing in your duty."

Rainbow Dash remained silent, apparently having picked up on the other key thing an enlisted pony learns very quickly in their career that the very best thing to do when in trouble, particularly if it's a serious enough issue to involve the senior officers of a regiment including the Commissar, is to keep one's mouth shut. More often than not, excuses and attempts at explanations would only worsen the situation. Scarlet Letter had yet to learn that lesson, owing to his particular sense of arrogance and absurd belief that, somehow, everything will turn out fine for him so long as he could adequately twist the truth. Unfortunately for him, I had been doing that exact thing since I first learned to speak in coherent sentences, and this time, for once, I had the truth on my side.

"Nevertheless we pressed on to our objective," I continued. "The platoon reached the bridge, and as the engineers laid their charges we were visited by a small patrol of native ponies. Lieutenant Scarlet Letter had seen fit to open fire, wounding or killing one of their number and thus encouraging the remainder to attack us."

"It was merely a warning shot," said Scarlet Letter, shaking his head. "The damned fool was flying erratically, not like our graceful be-winged comrades of the Pegasus companies. It was sheer bad luck on his part that he flew straight into the magic missile."

I snorted and shook my head. "Then, realising your mistake, you ran away while your platoon was surrounded by the enemy."

Thus came the next excuse; "Realising that we were outnumbered, I made an orderly retreat to request reinforcements. Lieutenant Grim Cathedra dithered, sir, and delayed the relief force that surely would have saved the platoon had it not been for his inaction."

"The same relief force that was still crossing the bridge when you detonated the charges. Don't dare try to deny it; I was on that bloody bridge when it blew up, and I have Grim Cathedra's sworn testimony as an officer and a gentlecolt."

This time Scarlet Letter hesitated before he answered, apparently not having prepared for such a question in the few hours he had to reflect on his failures. The mock, easy-going smile remained, however, and if anything intensified, insomuch as the deliberately placid and overly friendly expression a politician wears like the skinned face of a normal pony almost by impulse when trying to ameliorate a journalist or a member of the public who is asking too many awkward questions can be described as 'intense'. Whatever it was that he was going to say, be it another useless platitude or something so utterly astounding that it would bring the whole of reality into question by such a degree as to absolve him of his crimes and allow him to leave with the tattered remnants of his reputation intact, it would remain forever a mystery for I did not allow him the time to voice it.

"You lost the Colours," I said flatly. A hush seemed to fall in the room, as though everyone in the entire encampment had heard those words and were thusly stricken mute by them.

"The, ah..." Scarlet Letter stammered, and almost seemed to retreat in upon himself like a turtle seeking safety within its own shell. "It wasn't my fault, sir."

"You lost the Colours," I repeated. "You were the officer commanding here, so the fault is yours and yours alone. You lost the Colours of the Princesses of Equestria!"

If nopony else outside of this room and the platoon had heard the grim news, then after that rather loud outburst from Yours Truly they certainly would. The walls and doors of this fortress were rather thinner than most ponies would believe, both in a metaphorical and an all too literal sense. It is the nature of secrets that they must inevitably be uncovered (an axiom that I live in constant fear of), and it is doubly so when said secret happens to be particularly bad news. The damage control would have to be done later, though I knew that no amount of inspiring speeches and group discussions over hot tea and biscuits would ameliorate the intense sense of dishonour that would inevitably follow. The best that I could hope for, it seemed, was to ensure that I was absolved of all possible blame.

"Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth was in charge of the Colour Guard," said Scarlet Letter. "It was her fault that they fell to the enemy."

"Commissar Gliding Moth died defending the Colours," I said. Damnation, I could have slapped him for that remark, though I stayed my hoof for now - it would be beneath my station to strike him in such a manner. "As did most of the Colour Guard and twelve ponies under your command. Had you likewise given your life then the matter of your dishonourable conduct would have been resolved. Since you have clearly failed in your duty to die in battle, you must now face the consequences of your actions."

Scarlet Letter fixed me with a glare, or at least he attempted to, tilting his head forward and staring up beneath furrowed brows in what I assumed he believed to be a stern, authoritative glare. The effect, however, was rather lessened by his short stature and somewhat pudgy frame. His voice, when he finally spoke, was likewise lowered and deepened in some sort of vain effort to project a level of authority that he must have craved but never truly possessed. "My brother is the Secretary of State for War," he said, "and I have friends in the highest echelons of government."

"Not even the magic of friendship will aid the pony who lost the Princesses' Colours," I said. "For two thousand years since the birth of Equestria, designed by Princess Platinum, sewn by Chancellor Puddinghead, and carried into battle by Commander Hurricane, the Colours have witnessed the unification of Equestria, wars with Gryphons, the Nightmare Heresy, and the Pax Celestia [Literally, 'Celestia's Peace', being the rather poetic term for the thousand years of relative peace between the start of Nightmare Moon's banishment and the start of the Changeling Wars]. And now you've lost it. It's gone. Furthermore, you have failed in almost every criterion it is possible to judge an officer by; your orders have resulted in the needless loss of soldiers and equipment, you have been cowardly and fled from battle twice, you lack even the most basic of skills in leadership, and worst of all you view the lives of ponies around you as merely tools to realise your own selfish ambitions. It is only your connections within the Ministry of War that prevented the imposition of the Princesses' justice. Now, the Commissariat will say 'no more'."

"Lord Captain!" Scarlet Letter's voice was suddenly loud and with a hint of desperation adding a noticeable quiver to it. He moved past me to approach the desk, apparently trying to push me out of the way with his shoulder, but instead merely bounced off my leg and stumbled forward. "I must protest! I refuse to be harangued by this mere political officer. You are the Captain of the Royal Guard and Colonel of this regiment, sir, you can't stand for this treatment of one of your officers."

Shining Armour had spent much of the conversation writing on sheets of paper. The completed letters, for that was what I assumed them to be, were piled with such neatness that it left absolutely no ambiguity to my mind that he was truly Twilight Sparkle's brother. He then placed his quill down on the desk with a small, quiet sigh and then tilted his head up to look Scarlet Letter in the eye.

"Don't tell me for what I can and cannot stand," said Shining Armour, his voice quiet but filled with an underlying menace. "I must now write these letters of condolence to the families of the soldiers killed by your incompetence, and for that I will not stand. Commissar Blueblood here will decide your fate."

"In Equestria's distant, barbaric past, it was traditional for officers who have disgraced themselves like this to kill themselves," I said, gently easing my sword, Gliding Moth's sabre, out from its sheath. It slid from the scabbard with a bloodthirsty sense of eagerness, as though it longed to be plunged into the throat of the one whose actions resulted in the death of its mistress. "The practice is still common with the samurai warrior class of Neighpon. [The ritual suicide method known as Seppuku is largely a historical artefact and since the Restoration is rarely practiced except by the most conservative of the samurai] I fear, however, you will need some assistance."

I raised my sword, and Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter shrank back from me, but I couldn't do it. Once more I found my will seized by the most basic of all the natural laws of Equestrian herd society - you will not kill another pony. I had no doubt in my mind that he deserved it, and at any other point in our nation's history his actions would have earned him the death penalty even before he lost the Colours. Yet when I stood before him with my sword raised to strike the killing blow, with what felt like the spirits of Gliding Moth and every other pony whose life was lost as a result of this wretch's petty ambitions exhorting me to perform the grisly deed in a rising chorus of the unquiet dead, I simply could not summon up the necessary willpower to thrust the blade into his throat. Through my weakness I had failed utterly in my duty, and by extension the souls of the deceased, but yet I am not ashamed of this. It is one thing to speak of cold-blooded murder, for let us be frank and acknowledge what summary execution truly is, but another to actually perform the deed, and I ask those who would call me a coward for this if they would have done any different in my stead.

"No," I said, trying to stifle the bile rising up my throat. "A more public example must be made instead. Cannon Fodder, take him to the provosts. We will hang him in the morning."

My aide nodded his head, then took Scarlet Letter roughly by the shoulder and led him wordlessly out of the tent to his eventual fate. I, however, felt none of the relief that I expected to come with my weaselling out of having to do something very unpleasant. If anything I felt worse, for I knew that a stronger pony than I would have had the courage to perform this grisly but necessary deed, and even one as cruel and heartless as my ancestor Coldblood had enough integrity to take lives with his own hooves and not assign the acts of murder to some hapless underling.

"Sir?" said Rainbow Dash. I had forgotten that she was still standing there at attention, or at an awkward stance that approximated attention at least. "What about me?"

Precisely the wrong words to say to a commissar under normal circumstances, I thought, but these circumstances were about as far from normal as one could possibly get. Hers was a more difficult problem to solve, for while I could safely dispose of Scarlet Letter and keep the backing of the Commissariat and the Princess whose dark patronage I hid behind like a scared foal and her mother's apron, Rainbow Dash was a heroine of the realm and a bearer of an Element of Harmony. I was therefore trapped between the requirement to punish her according to Princesses' Regulations and the desire not to have to deal with the potential backlash from executing a beloved public figure. Once more, I simply chose to dodge the issue by giving it to someone else to deal with.

"Your fate I will leave in the hooves of Commander Spitfire, though I think it will be safe to say that your future in the Wonderbolts is no more. You are dismissed."

Rainbow Dash hesitated for approximately two seconds before she apparently realised that she had been let off reasonably lightly compared to what I could have inflicted upon her. She saluted with a stomp of her hoof, and then turned and left the room almost as quickly as if it had been on fire. The abrupt slamming of the door shut behind her was a full stop to everything that had happened before; a moment of catharsis that allowed at least some of the tension in the room dissipate. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, feeling as though I had held it throughout the entirety of that difficult court martial, and then sucked in a lungful of that stale, humid air.

The three of us left remained in silence for a few moments, as if neither of us felt that we had the courage to break it. For in this nether period of time, however brief, we seemed to occupy some sort of strange region outside of the conventional reality that we would have to face at some point. I would have stayed in this blessed limbo had I the choice, but as ever I had no such freedom to choose, and there would have to be a time where this most fragile of all respites would be shattered like an antique vase toppled from its shelf. As it happened, it was General McBridle who made the first move, rising from his seat with an arthritic grunt of exertion.

"Well, lads, so much for finishing my career on a high note," he said as he hobbled over. "We're all in it now."

"It was hardly our fault," I said, rather at a loss to find anything meaningful to say.

"Aye, laddie, you're right there," he said, stopping to look at me and fix me with a stern glare. "But that's not going to stop the three of us here from being remembered as the ones who lost the Colours. The commissar on duty, the colonel who commanded the regiment, and the general who ordered the battle - we're a glorious triumvirate of failure. Now, I'm off to bed, and I hope to Faust that She takes me in my sleep so I don't have to deal with this in the morning. Goodnight, gentlecolts."

With that stunning ray of typically Scoltish optimism, General McBridle left us. I suppose I should have made an excuse and followed him, but when I saw Shining Armour pull open a drawer and extract from it a dirty bottle containing a suspiciously cloudy brown liquid I thought it best not to leave him. He placed the bottle on his desk and grabbed an enamel mug from amongst the carefully ordered furnishings on his desk.

"Come on," I said, "you don't want to do that now."

Shining Armour ceased unscrewing the top from the bottle and looked up at me with an expression that could be most charitably described as 'hostile'. Despite not saying a single word, his face seemed to scream 'don't tell me what to do'. Ordinarily, I would have obliged and allowed him to indulge in his self-destructive behaviour, and yet something kept me from leaving.

"You heard him," he said, staring up at me. "We lost the Colours. We're finished."

"Nonsense, it was Lieutenant Scarlet Letter who..."

The Captain of the Royal Guard poured himself a shot of whatever it was that was in the bottle and downed it with such sudden and worrying zeal that I found myself incapable of finishing that sentence. I hadn't seen him drink before, and it was inconceivable that the straight-laced, squeaky-clean Shining Armour, ceremonial head of the Princesses' elite palace guards, would have any vices more severe than a mug of hot cocoa just before bedtime. He slammed the now-empty glass on the table and glowered at me from beneath his furrowed brow.

"It's alright for you," he said, waving a hoof dismissively in my direction. "This is just another scandal for you. You won't get invited to the next big posh thing in Canterlot, but you'll bounce back. You always do. But me? There's nothing left for me in the Royal Guard anymore."

"But you're not to blame for this," I said.

I was well aware of the fact that I was simply repeating myself, but reassuring statements were hardly my forte; I might have been capable of convincing stallions to ignore the most basic and primal instinct shared by all living things of self-preservation and risk death in the name of two royal sisters hundreds of miles away, but here I was hardly the most capable pony to play counsellor to a senior officer apparently on the verge of a total breakdown. Though it causes me now great physical distress to write this statement, I needed Captain Shining Armour, if only as a buffer between me and the avalanche of bile and invectives that was to follow from the press once the news reached them, like raw sewage leaking from a broken pipe.

"Just like I wasn't to blame for what happened at the wedding? That didn't stop ponies demanding my resignation. This war was my final chance to set things right, and I blew it by not getting rid of Scarlet Letter."

"You are Captain of the Royal Guard, appointed by..."

Shining Armour held up his hoof and shook his head. "Stop," he said, looking away from me as if in shame. "Stop talking to me like a commissar and just talk to me like a pony."

"Like a pony?"

He nodded. "Like a regular pony."

"I am far from a 'regular' pony."

"You'll just have to do for now."

I chewed my lower lip, then pulled my cap off my head. It was only when I removed that symbol of office did I realise just how heavily it rested, like the crown of a ruler. I then tossed it in the corner of the room, taking care to have it face the wall so that the leering, grinning alicorn skull was not staring accusingly at me. Perhaps there was some truth to the rumour that the skull symbol was based on the stern, aquiline features of Princess Luna, I thought, as it almost felt as though she was looking through its hollow eye sockets. [A popular but unfounded rumour among the more superstitious soldiers was that both my sister and I could see through the skull emblems on commissars' caps. It is likely that some commissars perpetuated this myth to instil fear in their regiments.]

"In that case, we'll need to start drinking the good stuff," I said, retrieving my trusty hipflask from my jacket's inside pocket. Though I was loathe to share its precious contents with the pony I considered to be my mortal enemy for what was the majority of my life thus far, before more serious nemeses, the sort who actually want to kill me, started to demand more of my attention, the unfortunate circumstances in which we found ourselves encouraged me to be somewhat more generous than usual. I poured a dram of the whisky I had liberated from General McBridle's cabinet into his glass.

Shining Armour looked at me sceptically and then downed his drink. Almost immediately he screwed up his face, bent over his desk, and grasped it with his hooves as though a hole had suddenly opened up underneath his chair and threatened to swallow him. "It tastes like paint thinner!" he gasped between great, hacking coughs.

Feeling more than a little affronted, I took a sip from my flask and detected nothing wrong with this twenty year old single malt - it was smooth, dark, sweet, and had a lingering aftertaste of Prench roasted coffee. Of course, a pony such as Shining Armour would lack the experience and refinement to tease out the flavours amidst the harsher alcohol. It then occurred to me that I had never seen him drink anything stronger than lemonade, and that getting Twilight Sparkle's brother drunk would likely undo the progress we had made in the strange sort of d├ętente we had reached in her too-brief attachment to our army. Then again, if there was any time that the Captain of the Royal Guard was allowed to get royally drunk, it was now.

"I know," I said, pouring a second dram into his tumbler. "It's the good stuff."

"I don't know how you can stomach it." Shining Armour shrugged his shoulders and downed this second drink, albeit a bit slower this time and with a much less severe reaction to the burning sensation that one must learn to overcome in order to fully appreciate the distiller's art. Progress at civilising this lower middle class commoner had been made at last, thought I, and perhaps we would make a prince out of him yet, and then pigs would fly, the war would end, and I might be able to return to my normal life of luxury, indolence, and debauchery.

"It's an acquired taste," I said, being the usual sort of polite excuse one trots out when one's drinking companion is having trouble enjoying his drink.

"That's what they all say, and it still tastes like solvents," he said.

I shrugged and summoned over a cushion to sit on with my magic. "Considering the circumstances now, perhaps it's time for you to start developing your palate."

Shining Armour looked at me over his fastidiously tidy desk and shook his head with a sigh. "I never really fit in with all of that upper class stuff; 'fine' spirits taste like they should be used to clean airship engines, wine is grape juice past its sell-by-date, cigars make me sick, and I'm the worst croquet player you've ever seen. After today I'll have plenty of free time to develop my 'palate', whatever that means."

"You can't possibly mean that," I said, shaking my head. "You're the Captain of the Royal Guard, appointed by..."

"Yes, yes, I know," Shining Armour interrupted me, waving his hoof and bobbing his head drunkenly from side to side. He continued in a rather clumsy impression of what sounded like a clipped, refined Canterlot accent, which I assumed was intended to be an imitation of me, "Appointed by Princess Celestia and only she has the authority to strip the Captain of the Royal Guard of his esteemed rank."

"Well, it's true, after all. Celestia's patronage makes you untouchable."

"Even the patronage of a princess won't be enough to save me this time," he said quietly, looking more at his desk than at me. He looked as though he might start crying at any moment, and that it was only an increasingly fragile sense of duty that held up the facade of his stallion-hood. I say this not as any slight against the pony, after all he had rather more glaring character flaws than the tendency to start crying at the drop of a hat, and indeed if there was any situation where it is acceptable for a grown stallion in service to the Twin Crowns of Equestria might weep then this was certainly it. Besides, I recalled Princess Luna stating that in her day [With a lifetime measured in thousands of years in a physical form, 'her day' could mean any point of equine history, but I must infer that Blueblood is referring to first unification of Equestria], stallions openly weeping was considered exceptionally masculine, but back then ponies also believed that disease was caused by an excess of blood in the body so I still would not put much stock in her nostalgic rants.

"I'm going to resign, Blueblood," he continued. "But not right now. I'll see the regiment through the new offensive, but my career in the Royal Guard will be over. There's nothing I can do to recover from this."

I wanted to tell him that was all utter nonsense, but damn me if he wasn't right. Regardless of whether or not he was truly responsible for the loss of the Colours, as the commanding officer of the regiment the stain of dishonour would tarnish his armour the most. The pressure from both Parliament and the Ministry of War, reacting to the anger and horror of the Equestrian public, would only worsen to the point where Shining Armour here would be incapable of executing his duties. The conduct of the war here could ill afford such distractions, in spite of the best efforts of the politicians and bureaucrats to waste the time and, by extension, lives of soldiers.

"Then what will you do?" I said.

"I'll go with Cadence to the Crystal Empire," he said, offering a sad smile. "They're trying to set up their own army to send to the front."

Faust knows why, I thought. Why would anypony want to take part willingly in this blasted war? The Crystal Ponies were in a perfectly safe position to the far north and this was not their fight. As a vassal state of Equestria they might have been legally forced to raise levies to send to the south, though I could not imagine for an instant that Princess Celestia would even consider such a thing, but to desire to needlessly waste the lives of their youth in this conflict that was increasingly losing all meaning and sense seemed like the very definition of insanity. Having been kept in some kind of magical stasis at least meant that they had some memory of how war is supposed to be conducted, if under the chains of a brutal tyrant. At very least they would provide a few more warm bodies between my own and those of the Changeling hordes.

"I'll go quietly," he continued. "The last thing the troops need is more sentimentality when there's still a job to do. To think that all of this could have been avoided if I stopped him buying his commission."

"Don't be too hard on yourself," I said, leaning back on the cushion to rest my back against the wall. I thought I might as well be as comfortable as I could possibly be if I was going to sit through this awkward conversation, increasingly inebriated, and playing suicide watch with Shining Armour. "I should have executed Scarlet Letter when I had the chance after the siege."

Shining Armour fixed me with an intense, piercing glare that, in my intoxicated state and with the walls of etiquette and aristocratic detachment therefore weakened as though the alcohol had soaked the soil into which their foundations had been laid, all but made me wither in my seat. I wondered perhaps if I had gone a little too far, and that in my attempts to, well, 'cheer up' might be too grandiose a term for simply making sure he didn't do anything regrettable on his own, I might have turned his anger away from himself and back onto its more justifiable target of me. I was right, though, I should have done the deed then and there; the political fallout would have been harsh and unpleasant, but ultimately easier for me to weather than the storm that was rapidly looming darkly on the horizon.

"Then why didn't you?" he snapped.

I thought about making an apology and a hasty exit, but after a moment's consideration I took another sip from my flask and asked, "Could you? Could you have carried out a summary execution?"

The stiffness left Shining Armour as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he slumped once more in his seat. "No, I don't think I could."

"But it would have been the right thing to do." I sent my flask over to refill Shining Armour's glass, and then raised it in the manner of some kind of grim toast, which he reciprocated after a degree of hesitation. "Damn this war for making murder the 'ethical' choice."

"I never thought I'd miss the days of standing guard out in the hot sun in heavy armour for five hours while Princess Celestia has a tea party, or holding back royal autograph hunters, or the endless ceremonial parades."

I smiled and drank my toast, only to find that my flask, much like how my life was feeling at the time, was empty. Nevertheless, I stayed for a little while longer, listening to Shining Armour ramble on about life in the Royal Guard before this infernal war; I had lived much of it with him, but indulged him nonetheless, for I too felt painfully nostalgic for those halcyon years when military service carried about as much risk to one's health and wellbeing as celery. I recalled how ponies of the not-too-distant past thought of nostalgia as being something of a mental illness and ought to be treated as such, and as we reminisced and became more and more morose with each anecdote I came to the conclusion that perhaps they were right. We could never go back to the past, no matter how much we wanted to and certainly not after what we had witnessed, but ever would it remain in our minds as a shade taunting us with vivid images of a happier time of which we lacked the foresight to truly appreciate, and always slipping just beyond our reach. Memory was not a comfort, but a cruel and malignant thing that took pleasure in the misery of the present and our inability to return to its own idealised vision of the past.

It was getting late, and I made the excuse that I had paperwork to be getting on with (an obvious lie, as Cannon Fodder tended to handle the more tedious of my duties and I just wanted to go to bed where for a few blissful hours nothing was going wrong). Shining Armour seemed to understand, however, and as I left he once more threw himself into the unpleasant task of writing those letters of condolence. This was technically not his duty, but I suppose that adding the personal touch to the letter that every military family in Equestria dreads to receive was his way of assuaging his guilt [The duty to write casualty letters to next of kin generally falls to the soldier's commanding officer, sergeant, or, depending on the religious denomination of the deceased, the regiment's chaplain]. My method was found in the bottom of the bottle.

I shut the door behind me as I left, and almost walked straight into Rainbow Dash, who I could only conclude had been standing in the corridor next to the door and eavesdropping on our conversation. She regained her composure quickly, such as it was, snapping to attention and saluting with her usual parade ground efficiency.

The corridor was dark and deserted, and when I checked my watch I saw that it was far later than I had initially assumed. The night shift had started, with the majority of the camp asleep and only a small number of ponies on watch on the fortress walls. The background noise, however, had only lessened, for while ponies may sleep the war will not. In the gloom of this corridor, lit dimly only by a few spluttering torches hanging from brackets that had been fitted there when Auntie 'Tia still played with dolls, her bright blue fur, rainbow mane, and garishly bright flightsuit stood out starkly.

"Listening in, were we?" I said. It was a struggle to get the energy to be truly angry with her, so I settled for a sort of teacher-like disappointment instead.

"Sir, no, sir!" barked Rainbow Dash, likely waking up any soldiers who happened to be sleeping in the adjacent rooms. "I wanted to talk to you, sir!"

"Have you been standing out here all this time?"

I could have told her to get lost, and with the benefit of decades of hindsight I now realise that I probably should have and then gone to bed as I had initially planned. Instead, I asked her what could possibly be so important that it could not wait until tomorrow morning, and I have regretted it ever since then. The walls in this fortress were thick, designed to withstand the most brutal of sieges, but words have a way of seeping through the cracks between stones that even the heaviest artillery cannot pierce. Once again, the trajectory of one's life can be altered so rapidly, so effortlessly, in the space of but a single sentence.

"Why don't we just go and get the flag back?" she said, beaming proudly as though she had single-hoofedly come up with the way to win finally win this war herself.

"'Go and get the flag back?'" I repeated incredulously, and she nodded enthusiastically. "And just how do you propose we do that? Do you know where it is? Who's got it? Do you have the resources to do this? You'll need food, water, weapons, shelter, and, most importantly of all, enough volunteers daft enough to sign up for this, well, it'll be generous to call your half-baked idea to redeem what little shred of your reputation and dignity still remains a plan."

Rainbow Dash's expression could not have been any more hurt and broken if I had slapped her, but, and I must credit her this, her cocky self-confidence recovered with remarkable alacrity. Almost instantly she lost all pretence of following the usual deference expected of an enlisted pony to an officer. She jumped into the air, her wings beating rapidly to keep her aloft and hovering just high enough for her to look down on me.

"At least I'm trying to fix this!" she snapped, gesticulating emphatically with her hooves in such a way that I thought she might upset the delicate balance of wing power and weight distribution that kept her more or less stationary and send herself crashing straight into me [For the benefit of readers without wings, hovering in one spot is quite a difficult skill for pegasi and requires considerable skill with wing control, maintaining balance, and stamina in excess of that required for forward flight]. Even though the corridor was rather narrow, Rainbow Dash had somehow avoided striking these ancient stone walls with her wings and potentially breaking the fragile hollow bones within them.

"How dare you!" was all that I could splutter out in response. I took a step back, but Rainbow Dash drifted forwards to keep the uncomfortably close distance between us - she could probably smell the alcohol on my breath.

"I'm just saying we should stop sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves and actually do something! Someponies stole our flag, so we need to go over there, kick some bad-guy butt, and get it back for pony's sake."

"Enough," I said, returning her hate-filled glare with one of my own. She slowly sank back down to the ground with a sense of great reluctance, though her stance remained as defiant and un-cowed as ever. "We have an offensive to plan for, and the Royal Guard is not going to drop everything and put the conduct of this war and the lives of its soldiers in jeopardy just to satisfy your glory-seeking desires. Rainbow Dash, I understand you might be upset, but this is not how a soldier deals with a grievance with an officer."

Technically, a soldier deals with a grievance with an officer, especially a commissar, by taking whatever it is that troubles him and burying it very deep within them so that it has no chance of providing said authorities with reason to punish him. Occasionally, however, this tension might be relieved with the age-old tradition of 'griping' to one's comrades.

"Like you said, I'm not a soldier," hissed Rainbow Dash with enough venom in her voice to kill an elephant. "And now I'm going to be kicked out of the Wonderbolts, so it doesn't look like I have much else to lose. Which also means you can't tell me what to do anymore."

With that odd little contretemps over with, Rainbow Dash jumped into the air once again and darted down the corridor a damn sight faster than any consideration for her own safety or that of any other pony who might be embarking on a midnight perambulation would allow. In a short moment she was swallowed up by the darkness and I was left alone once more, with only the flickering torchlight for company.

The younger me would have gotten angry - I'd have shouted, ranted, and likely called for the nearest guard to have her arrested and punished to the fullest extent of the law, or at least until Auntie 'Tia would step in and quietly explain that I can't have a Bearer of an Element of Harmony put in stocks and pelted with rancid tomatoes for simply being rude to me. I, a prince of the realm, deserved respect for having been born to a noble family, and my duties to the Twin Crowns of Equestria demanded appropriate deference from the lower orders. Yet now, I was simply too tired and too drained to summon even one iota of that former aristocratic indignation. My anger had already been spent, leaving nothing more than a cruel void into which could only be glimpsed the grim truth that all we have struggled and fought for had been undone. The Colours were gone, and with it thousands of years of Equestrian history and whatever pride in itself the 1st Solar Guard had left after the debacle at Canterlot.

There was nothing more to be done and nothing more to be said until the morning, so I took one last glance at the door to Shining Armour's office and silently prayed that he wouldn't do anything stupid. Fat bloody chance.