Rainbow Dash never made it to Ponyville, according to the letter that I received from Twilight Sparkle a few days after I had unceremoniously booted her and her Wonderbolt friends out of the Royal Guard. The others had returned, but over the course of the long train journey she apparently vanished. Perhaps she had fallen out of the carriage somehow and was left stranded somewhere between Dodge Junction and civilised Equestria, or maybe she could not bear to face the consequences of her failure before Captain Spitfire and had run away to live the rest of her life as a hermit of some sort in the big empty useless bit in the middle of our fair realm. Either way, she was no longer my problem, and I had rather more pressing things taking up my attention than the whereabouts of a national heroine, so I had Cannon Fodder write up a suitably non-committal reply that said I hoped she would turn up somewhere in her own time. She would probably slink back to civilisation when she grew bored of not receiving enough attention from ponies for her above-average ability to fly fast and eject rainbows from her rear end.
The 'more pressing things' all came to a head only a few days after the loss of the Colours. I had been invited to yet another staff meeting with General McBridle, one that at first seemed innocuous enough, promising only a few hours of utter boredom as staff officers with monotone voices and a severe lack of a sense of humour drone on endlessly about all the necessary preparations for the upcoming offensive. The senior officers of the frontline units, predominantly Shining Armour and Colonel Sunshine Smiles, would make some input on the readiness of their respective regiments in terms of training and equipment, while I would try to justify my continued existence here by making a few vague comments about morale and fighting spirit. It was a fine balancing act, really, as my ultimate aim of not having to engage in another life-threatening military operation, through subtle subversion of these meetings by casting the seeds of doubt about the readiness of the soldiers, was in opposition to my desire not to be exposed as a useless coward who didn't want to fight.
Upon entering I had caught the last snippets of the conversation - "...twelve absent without leave so far," said McBridle to a staff officer.
"Nearly half a platoon," said the officer. "Where could they have gone to?"
McBridle shrugged his shoulders. "Provosts would have caught them if they tried to go up the Pass to Dodge Junction, which means they've gone into the Badlands."
"They must be getting desperate, then. If the Changelings don't get them, the sun will. Don't share this information outside this room except with the Field Marshal, or it'll only lead to more desertions."
I could tell something was off, which is usually the case at these meetings anyway, almost as soon as I entered the meeting room; only General McBridle, Colonel Sunshine Smiles, and a staff officer in dress uniform whose name currently escapes me [records indicate this was Captain Hoops] were present, while Shining Armour's strange absence was both suspicious and conspicuous. As I entered, the assembled ponies standing around the table, which was festooned as ever with maps, charts, lists, and assorted writing implements, looked up and straight at me with suitably grave expressions on their faces (with the exception of Sunshine Smiles, of course, as his facial disfigurement meant that he almost always looked as though he had thought of a deeply inappropriate joke involving mares' anatomy and was doing his utmost not to laugh). It was very obvious something had gone wrong and nopony was trying to hide it, which in turn set an uneasy feeling in my gut as I crossed the stone floor to the table.
I took my position closest to the door, just in case something happened, whatever it might be, and I needed to be the first out of the room. The conversation ceased quickly, and I received a nod of recognition from each pony as I sat on the cushion and rested my forehooves on the table in front of me. It was one of the smaller rooms in the fortress, with a series of small slit windows that each provided a mercifully limited view of precisely sod all that made up the Badlands. Still, as this was one of the rooms that was rarely subjected to the unrelenting heat of the desert sun, it was quite possibly one of the coolest rooms available, meaning it was only just slightly bearably warm instead of life-threateningly hot. I made a mental note to write a letter to Auntie 'Tia, asking if she might turn the sun down a little bit, at least until this war is over, but I didn't know if such a thing was possible. [It is technically possible, but not without great ecological damage to the rest of the world]
"Good afternoon, everypony," I said.
"Thank you for coming at such short notice," said McBridle. The elderly stallion rested his hooves on the table and leaned forwards. His pipe was clenched between his teeth and emitting its usual cloud of sweetly-scented smoke. The events of the past few days certainly appeared to have taken its toll on him, and while he very much remained the sort of older stallion in steadfast denial of his advancing age, as the general officer commanding Army Group Centre it was clear that watching his planned offensive, the modest victory that he hoped would round off his lengthy career, crumble before his very eyes was having a most deleterious effect on his health. For the first time, his appearance seemed to match his age.
"I was only doing paperwork, but I'm grateful for the chance to take a break from that," I said, which was a complete lie as Cannon Fodder was doing said paperwork and I was taking a rather pleasant nap before I was interrupted by the summons to attend.
McBridle smiled at my weak attempt to lighten the mood. "Since we're all here, I think we can start," he said, shuffling the papers in front of him.
"Should we not wait for the Captain of the Royal Guard?" asked Sunshine Smiles.
"Nay," said McBridle, shaking his head softly. "He knows, son, he already knows. I think it's better the wee laddie isn't part of this discussion today."
I swallowed hard, as if it might stop the anxiety rising up from the pit of my stomach. There had been rumours, as there always are in the military and particularly during times of both inaction and hardship, and I had done my best to crush them despite believing they might hold some modicum of truth. A commissar might ridicule these whisperings, or attempt to stamp them out through force, but the trouble with appearing too heavy-hoofed in quashing such discourse is that the very act of doing so will only add credence to their ideas and appear as though one is 'suppressing the truth'. I had hoped they were false, however, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, but wishful thinking can only get one so far before reality as ever stomps all over one's happy little fantasy.
Sunshine Smiles arched an eyebrow and tilted his head at McBridle. "You can't possibly mean..." He let the statement remain unfinished, apparently having finally put two-and-two together, as it were, and came to the same conclusion that I had.
"I might as well just say it," said McBridle, his normally strong, defiant voice fracturing slightly under the strain. He picked up one of the papers, encasing the sheet in a soft red glow that matched the predominant colour of the tartan he wrapped himself up in, and continued: "I only received the orders from the Ministry of War this morning, and so has Shining Armour, I assume, judging by his absence. The 1st Regiment of the Solar Guard is to return to barracks in Canterlot and be disbanded."
So the rumours were true after all. It had been obvious to everypony present that the 1st Solar Guard could not be considered a reliable frontline regiment any longer, yet to hear it spoken aloud for the first time was still a most horrendous shock to all. By some unwritten and unspoken accord we had agreed not to voice it so plainly, most likely out of some kind of foalish desire not to acknowledge the reality that the oldest, most prestigious, and most disciplined regiment in the whole Royal Guard was now reduced to a motley rabble. Denial of the facts could only carry one so far, and the longer acknowledgement of reality was put off the harder it hurt when this self-made delusion was dispelled.
"Damn," was all that I could say. Though I was attached to the 1st Night Guards as the regimental commissar, my time with the 1st Solar Guard represented a far happier part of my life, where my main concern was trying to find my way back to bed from a night's carousing with my fellow officers in the mess or some high society function, perhaps with a lucky mare by my side too, as opposed to Changeling horrors and incompetent officers trying to kill me. I might wear the black coat and the peaked cap of the Commissariat, but my heart wore the shimmering gold of the regiment that gave my life some semblance of meaning and direction after my expulsion from Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, however shallow that lifestyle was.
"Aye," said McBridle, putting the paper down with a heavy sigh and a sad nod of his head. "It's a crying shame. Thousands of years of glory all gone in one almighty cock-up."
I could not have summed up this whole sordid affair more succinctly or aptly. Damn them all, I thought; it was so like the Ministry of War, as its ministers' thinking extended only as far as their next election, to take a sledgehammer to a problem that only required time and care to sort out, and all without any consideration as to the place this regiment held in the long and glorious history of the Royal Guard. They believed that if they could wipe the name of the 1st Regiment of the Solar Guard they could wipe the shame, thus absolving themselves from any complicity in allowing the milieu in which somepony like Scarlet Letter could not only buy his commission but keep it in light of his crimes.
"So that's it, then," I said flippantly, leaning back in my cushion and tapping the table with my hoof, trying desperately to keep my composure. "It's all gone with the signing of an order."
"I'm afraid so," said McBridle as he tamped his pipe and re-lit it with a spark from his horn. "Though they'll probably reconstitute the regiment at a later date and Princess Celestia will appoint a new Captain of the Royal Guard soon. They might even get a new Royal Standard."
"What about Shining Armour?" asked Sunshine Smiles. His expression was curiously unreadable; that is, until you learn the trick of not staring at the puckered scar tissue that twisted one end of his lips in an unnatural fashion and instead examine his body language as a whole. Normally full of quiet strength and aristocratic dignity, the big, imposing earth pony stallion looked utterly downcast. His posture, usually ramrod straight so as to emphasise his enviable physique, had become slumped. Sitting there, with his head bowed in quiet acceptance of this miserable fact, he seemed about half his size. "I know he planned on resigning his commission after the offensive, but where does this put him now?"
"He'll take the regiment to Canterlot," said McBridle. "Then he'll oversee the disbanding of the regiment; most will go to fill up the other regiments, the militias, and others will be demobilised. Once that's all done he's a free stallion again."
Lucky bastard, I thought. His reputation was in tatters, such as it was, and it might be some time before he could go out in public, but he still got to go home. I had not seen my home, the grim and imposing Sanguine Palace in Canterlot, for years now and I longed to be surrounded by its morbid and gothic architecture. Shining Armour would return to more welcoming hooves; the embrace of his wife who must have missed him terribly, the adoration of the Crystal Ponies who were likely ignorant of the great ongoing shambles that was the war here, and, most important of all, significantly fewer Changelings out to kill him. He would hate it, though, and that represented the ultimate cleavage between us; I could stomach to temporarily lose face in return for more permanent safety, but he could not possibly bring himself to fully put aside that immaterial thing called duty that inspires high-minded ponies such as he to do things firmly against the interests of his own well-being.
I made a note to visit him once this meeting was over, just to make sure that he did not do anything that I wouldn't do. Well, we all know how that turned out in the end.
"What about the upcoming offensive?" I asked, leaning forwards against the desk and resting my forelegs upon its surface, hoping to look eager to hear that it was still going ahead, as opposed to the foolhardy venture being cancelled or postponed in light of this news.
McBridle answered my prayers. "Army Group Centre is in no fit state to carry out this offensive," he said. "It'd be suicide if the Changelings move to oppose us, which they will. The operation will be postponed indefinitely."
The wave of relief that I felt upon hearing those words, once I deciphered the strong Scoltish brogue, was palpable. It was like coming inside from the cold to a warm, welcoming home with a fire blazing in the pit, a glass of brandy by a much-loved armchair, and an eager mare sprawled across said furniture for company. Oh, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before McBridle's sensible approach to war and his reasoned assessment that everything is well and truly doomed unless things changed quickly would be considered politically unviable. But until that moment when he gets replaced by the next insane general to pass through the great revolving door that is the post of commander of Army Group Centre, I could reasonably assume that, unless the Changelings got bored of waiting around for us to get on with the war or the Ministry of War had a sudden outbreak of sense and moved additional regiments up to the front, I was safe.
The staff officer, however, had other ideas. When McBridle had said those words, this staff officer, who had hitherto been staring out of the window and not paying much attention, snapped his head to face the elderly general with enough speed to send his peaked cap askew.
"Field Marshal Iron Hoof's orders are clear," he said. "The offensive must proceed no later than Nightmare Night if we are to regain the initiative."
With that, McBridle seemed to regain much of his earlier strength, sitting straighter as he slowly turned his head to face this impudent stallion. "I now only have two regiments of hoof [The 1st Night Guard and the 5th Solar Guard, which was stationed in Maredun at the time], one of artillery, a gaggle of militia-ponies, and no reserves," he said quietly and very matter-of-factly. "I cannot in all good conscience throw them against an entire Changeling war-swarm." [Changeling military formations tended not to have easy Royal Guard comparisons, being ad-hoc creations of the Hive Mind assembled for specific operations. The term 'war-swarm' was used by officers to describe any enemy formation larger than a regiment, but it had no set number. Famously, when Treble Bass was pressed on the exact number of Changelings in a war-swarm by journalists, he replied with the phrase, "It's a lot."]
The staff officer sucked air through his teeth and shook his head. "We need results, General, and we need them quickly. If we can bring our artillery in range to bombard the Hive, we can bring this war to a swift conclusion."
"Aye, I know that, laddie, and I want a quick end to this bloody war, too. But if we do this now, without more regiments, then the result will be a lot of dead soldiers." General McBridle jabbed emphatically at the staff officer's chest with the mouthpiece of his pipe. "I'll not launch a full-scale offensive knowing it's likely to fail."
McBridle would never budge on this, but for my own peace of mind and because I wanted to get out of this meeting and back into my afternoon siesta I decided I should intervene. "Nopony wants to get stuck into the Changelings more than I," I said, affecting the most casually-heroic tone of voice I could muster. "After all, this waiting around has become rather tiresome. But, I think it would be more prudent if we waited until the Ministry of War assigns us enough soldiers to get the job done properly."
That seemed to placate everypony, at least for now. McBridle grumbled his assent and puffed on his pipe thoughtfully, while the staff officer said he would pass this on to Iron Hoof but couldn't make any promises. I wasn't in any fear, however, as by the time the great inertia of the Ministry of War's bureaucracy finally sorted itself out and mobilised another regiment or two hopefully this war might have come to some sort of conclusion, in theory at least. While Princess Luna's very public admonishment of the Ministry was very well-deserved, I feared that it might have inspired them to begin taking this war more seriously, thereby putting my life in even greater peril if and when they came to their senses and gave McBridle the resources he desperately needed to take the fight to the enemy. That was a problem for another time, and until then I had plenty of it to plot and scheme my way back to home and freedom.
There was little else to discuss. Well, that's not strictly true, as the implications of an entire regiment being withdrawn were many and wide-ranging even just applied to the day-to-day running of this fortress. It's more accurate to say that nopony here truly had the energy or will to do so, except perhaps this staff officer whose name I still can't remember (which won't be an issue, as it is unlikely that either he or his family will ever read this). The loss of the Colours still held its draining effect upon all in the Royal Guard, and even the bravest, most foolhardy officers who appeared to be born without any sense of self-preservation were starting to wonder what the point of all of this was. Perhaps the withdrawal of the regiment would be the best option, then, if only for fewer disciplinary issues for me to deal with.
The meeting therefore wrapped up quickly, and owing to my position closest to the door and my eagerness to return to my nap I was the first out and into the corridor, whereupon I walked straight into Pencil Pusher. The slightly-built earth pony bounced off my chest and onto his rump with a clatter of armour plates and a flail of twig-like hooves.
"You need to watch where you're going," he said, as if I was the pony at fault and I didn't have the authority to punish him for any misdemeanour, real or invented, by any means my depraved imagination could concoct. He picked himself off the ground and dusted off his ink-stained armour. "Nose held so high you never see anypony beneath you."
"What is it this time?" I said, annoyed already of his presence. Behind me, the other ponies filtered out of the room. The staff officer and the general both ignored Pencil Pusher, but Colonel Sunshine Smiles greeted him with a warm smile (at least, I think it was. It could have just as easily been a grimace) and wished him a good afternoon. "And how long have you been waiting out here?"
Pencil Pusher shrugged his shoulders and took out that damned little notepad he always carried with him. "To answer your second question, about five minutes. Your smelly assistant told me you'd be here. As for your first question, some equipment and supplies have gone missing: a set of Night Guard pegasus armour, three weeks' worth of food and water rations, and two sets of large saddlebags. Presumably the bags were taken to put the food and water rations in."
I rubbed the bridge of my nose with a hoof and then glared at him. "Why are you telling me this?" I snapped, and Pencil Pusher shrank back from me. "Tell the provosts somepony's been stealing your supplies and let them deal with it."
"I did, sir," said Pencil Pusher, straightening his posture and standing as tall as his smaller frame would allow. If I hadn't been so annoyed with him I might have found it comical. "But I assume that you are aware that twelve soldiers are absent without leave."
"What?" I spluttered out. "How did you know that?"
"Oh please, I'm the quartermaster here," he said in a tone of voice that was just too cocky for his lowly birth and position for my tastes. "Everypony in the fortress comes to me for my services, so there's very little that happens in this fortress that I'm not aware of. Just before they deserted, like, the night before, some food and water rations also went missing. I thought I just ought to let you know as it might mean others are planning to do a runner very soon."
"I..." I had underestimated him. Oh, he was still irritating, and not just because he refused to give me a suit of armour when I respectfully asked for one, but it seemed those charts and figures he was so enamoured with had a practical purpose after all. I couldn't let that show, of course, otherwise he might get ideas above his station. "Fine, I'll speak with the sentries and order extra security in case."
"Unless they've gone already," he said with another one of his all-too-casual shrugs. "Anyway, I have important things to do now. Toodles."
Pencil Pusher trotted off merrily down the corridor, and I was thankful for his absence. Another word from him and I might have picked him up and thrown him out of the window the way Shining Armour had done with Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, except without wings he would have plummeted to the ground and made an awful mess all over the parade square.
Speaking of Shining Armour, I thought it best that I dropped in on him just to see how he was handling the news. 'Poorly', was my assumption, and I thought myself lucky that I had refilled my hipflask with something a bit cheaper but still relatively palatable, as opposed to the considerably more expensive rare spirits that would have otherwise been wasted on an unrefined stallion such as he. Truthfully, I had been avoiding him since that night we spent reminiscing in his office, though it was not completely my fault as he had become something of a recluse. He remained in his office almost all day and night, emerging only to conduct various mandatory inspection duties and to attend the usual sort of command meetings like the one he had just missed. The past few days had witnessed a transformation from the outgoing, extroverted stallion who always had time for the soldiers under his command, to the point of an overt sort of friendliness that I found a little overbearing but nevertheless was popular amongst the rank-and-file, to a moody, disturbed shadow of his former self. It would fade with time, I assured myself, though now I believe that what was to follow might have been avoided had I bothered to visit just once.
His office door was closed, which it almost never was as, unlike me, he was quite content to allow just anypony to wander in and have a chat. Though I did not think much of it at the time as it had been closed ever since that unpleasantness at the bridge.
I knocked on the big slab of oak and waited. There was no response, so I knocked again.
"Shining Armour?" I said. "It's Blueblood." I disliked the implication of familiarity by using my name sans the appropriate regal title preceding it, but in this extreme case I could probably make an exception.
Again, nothing. I was starting to get worried. Shining Armour would never do something stupid, I thought. Except that was a lie, Shining Armour has done some exceptionally brainless things over the time I've known him, from failing to notice that his then-fiancé had been replaced with the worst impersonation of Cadence ever to scarring his sister for life with a crippling phobia of [redacted], but even his occasional lapses in judgement had to have a limit. Or so I thought. Getting rather worried now, I simply pushed the door open to find he wasn't there. I had feared the worst, such as discovering that that terribly infectious disease called 'honour’ had infected him so gravely that he had hung himself from the ceiling, so it was a relief of sorts to find him absent. Perhaps he was away on some errand or answering the call of nature, and in either case he should be back soon.
I took a seat by Shining Armour's desk and waited, feeling as though I was stuck in the waiting room of a dentist. Fairly soon, however, I got bored of just sitting there and paced around the office a bit. Being a little nosey is probably the very least of my sins, but I still kept a wary eye on the door as I poked around the personal belongings of the Captain of the Royal Guard. I was amused by his collection of foals' comic books, flicking through a few and wondering how I might introduce this stallion to the more grown-up wonders of Prench decadent poetry written by syphilitic opium addicts. A book about a billionaire encased entirely in red and yellow metal armour who punches things for a living caught my eye, and for a few moments I thought about how I might acquire something like that. However, my interest in things intended for ponies whose age in years had yet to breach double figures had waned, and pretty drawings of implausibly proportioned ponies in garish outfits failed to elicit more than a quiet sense of bemusement at the intellectual tastes of the ceremonial head of the Royal Guard.
Shining Armour still had yet to return, and after pacing a bit more around his office and staring out of the window and watching some soldiers drill in the courtyard below I decided to take a look at his desk. I recalled the bottle that he kept in his drawer, which he had brought out and drunk from after Scarlet Letter's show trial, and remembered that I never got a good look at it. Knowing he would probably be more than a little upset if he caught me going through his desk I decided to do it anyway; I could make up some kind of official reason to justify my curiosity, like I was looking for contraband that somepony else had stashed in his office. I found it in the lower drawer, amidst some stationery and a half-eaten box of doughnuts. A quick, surreptitious sip revealed it to be little more than cherry cola, while a larger swig confirmed the complete absence of any alcohol content. I flushed a little in embarrassment when I realised I had encouraged him, a suspected teetotaller [Shining Armour has been known to drink at special occasions, such as his wedding, but measured against Blueblood's regular alcohol intake he may be considered abstinent], to get completely and utterly drunk when he actually had no intention to do so, and that if either Twilight or Cadence found out I might be due for an awkward conversation when I returned to Canterlot. If I ever did, that is.
That was when I noticed the letter on the desk, positioned prominently and deliberately in the very centre and in line with his chair. Resting upon the sheet of paper were two rank pips, each made of solid gold and depicting the heraldic symbol of the blazing sun; the insignia of the Captain of the Royal Guard and should really have been affixed firmly to Shining Armour's epaulettes. I moved them reverently to the side and skim-read the letter, revealing it to be from the Secretary of State for War detailing the arrangements of the disbanding of the 1st Solar Guard.
I noticed some hoofwriting scribbled in the lower right hoof corner of the letter. In a neat, crisp cursive that I recognised as Shining Armour's it read:
By the time anypony reads this, I should be long gone. Whether or not I return will depend on my success or failure in returning our Colours. Please don't attempt to follow me, for the dishonour I have brought upon the Royal Guard is mine alone. The Princesses protect.
I put the paper back down and made sure that the door to the office was still shut, then I started cursing and swearing in a every language I happened to be fluent in. Shining Armour was a complete and total idiot. I had always suspected as much, but this latest bout of utter insanity had just about confirmed it for me. He had this perfect, golden opportunity to go home and live a normal life, such as it was, with his loving wife in a crystal palace and he threw it all away for some ridiculous notion that he might somehow recover the lost Royal Standard. I thought about Cadence, and how she must feel, already under the strain that all military families must endure when a loved one is sent to war, living in fear of the day that black-bordered letter that starts with 'I regret to inform you...' arrives on their doorsteps. Shining Armour and I might not see eye-to-eye on most things, though recent shared hardships had brought the two of us together in some sort of cordial working relationship, but Cadence was family and the thought that he had just done something that, in the likely event that he made some kind of fatal error on this daft adventure, would result in hurting her made me feel an anger that I had not felt in a considerable amount of time. If he threw his life away over a two thousand year old piece of cloth and his feeling of guilt over losing it then so be it, but to plunge one of the very few ponies who cared about me enough for me to reciprocate those feelings into the sort of anguish that I knew would come as a result was another, more personal matter. I had to find him.
I left the letter where I found it and stormed out of Shining Armour's office. Ponies darted out of my way as I marched back to my quarters, though I barely noticed them as my mind was occupied with the problem of what in blazes I was supposed to do now. The letter had only been received today, and the post was normally distributed by Corporal Hooves late in the morning after it had first been collected from the supply depot and sorted. That meant that the earliest he could have left was a few hours ago, so he could not have gone particularly far, especially if he was travelling on his own. I briefly considered that the sentries might have stopped him from leaving the fortress, but that notion was quickly dispelled when I considered that no lowly soldier would ever dream of telling any officer, much less the Captain of the Royal Guard, that they could not leave when they might have important business to conduct elsewhere.
It was then, as I reached my quarters and threw myself on my cot with enough force that I thought it might break under my weight, that I remembered Rainbow Dash. Twilight Sparkle's letter remained on my desk, buried somewhere underneath the growing mountain of paperwork that threatened to collapse the antique desk's legs into very expensive splinters. There was no possible way that the timing between each disappearance had been a coincidence, and the theft of the equipment and supplies only confirmed the theory I had stitched together in my head; the disgraced former trainee Wonderbolt must have put Shining Armour up to this, by convincing him of the efficacy of her foal-like and impractical notion of 'just go and get the flag back' as she had put it when she confronted me in that corridor.
I lay there on the cot, one hoof applied dramatically to my forehead and the other swung over the edge of the mattress in a manner that was sure to make Rarity proud, and tried to think of a way out of the mess they had made for me. The first idea that came to my head was the most appealing, which was to do nothing and wait for Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash to run out of water and return empty-hoofed with their tails between their hindlegs and apologies ready for making us worry so much. I dismissed it after some further thought when I remembered that the two were more likely to get themselves killed in the process before they reached a point where they might consider giving up their quest. Cadence wouldn't like that, nor would she appreciate me having just sat around getting drunk and morose while her husband was off doing something stupid. Twilight Sparkle was another matter, and if I allowed her BBBFF and her close friend to get themselves heroically martyred over a fancy piece of thousand year old cloth then I truly would be in deep trouble; her new position as a heroine of the realm and her close relationship with my divine aunties would no doubt result in my expulsion from the Canterlot nobility. I would have to live as a common pony just like everypony else, and the thought filled me with greater terror than the threats of Changeling fangs and heathen-pony spears.
That left the second option, which was mounting an expedition to get them back. Not the most obvious of choices, wandering into territory infested with Changelings and tribes of hostile ponies, but the longer I lay there considering it the more appealing it became. Oh, it would be a waste of time at best and deadly at worse, but if I was to embark into the Badlands, look around for a bit, perhaps ask the native ponies who didn't attack us with pointed sticks if they'd seen a Royal Guard officer and rainbow-maned idiot wandering around recently, then come back and say that I did my level best then that might at least nudge me beyond the bounds of opprobrium here. If I did so happen to find them alive then so much the better, and if they had somehow recovered the Colours then I could indulge in some of their reflected glory. Besides, I may even delay this offensive even further.
My mind was made up, though I hated the decision I had come to. If 'Twilighting' had been a part of the common lexicon back then [Horseford Equestrian Dictionary defined the term eight years after these events as 'an extreme over-reaction to stress characterised by hyper-ventilation, over-thinking, and over-planning far in excess of severity of the situation as perceived by one's peers] I might have coined the term 'Blueblooding' to mean weighing up one's options, picking what is objectively the most dangerous and life-threatening but also the most morally correct one, but only after mentally exhausting all of the others, and then spending more time and effort justifying to one's self why it is actually the safest and best option. Except I would ensure that it was never used outside of my own self-indulgent moments of introspection of how undeserving I am of everypony's praise, which I did alone and away from witness anyway.
I reluctantly rolled off my cot and summoned my aide into my room. After explaining to him my intentions, which he accepted with his usual phlegmatic stoicism as though I was planning a pleasant little excursion to Rainbow Falls instead of out into Changeling country, we got to preparing, by which I mean I made him source and pack supplies into two sets of saddlebags while I paced around and tried to work out how to justify this to Colonel Sunshine Smiles and General McBridle. I then decided that I simply wouldn't, and though it was technically in breach of military law and would potentially lead to my court martial I had every confidence that I would receive little more than a slap on the wrists for being absent without leave for a day or two at the most. Besides, as the Commissar here I had considerable leeway in what I could and could not get away with in the name of enforcing said military law, and bringing in the most senior officer to desert in Equestrian history surely counted as that. Nevertheless, after a considerable amount of deliberation I left a note on my desk stating my intentions in as plain language as possible:
Off to retrieve Shining Armour, be back soon - Prince Blueblood
It would have to do.
It took Cannon Fodder only an hour to get what we needed - plenty of food and water rations, maps, tinder, rope, bedrolls, linen cloth robes to cover our uniforms and armour, and two pairs of hoofcuffs and a horn null-ring in case either Shining Armour or Rainbow Dash were reluctant to return to the fortress. I also raided my personal stash for bits and some gems in case we needed to bribe whatever natives we might come across out there, in case they weren’t going to aid us simply out of the goodness of their hearts. A last minute stop at the quartermaster’s office, timed so that the ineffable Pencil Pusher was off inspecting the latest shipment of staplers, allowed us to procure a dozen or so steel spearheads and daggers from one of his lackeys too over-awed by my dubious reputation and regal bearing to protest, likewise to offer to primitive ponies we might encounter in return for aid. [The Badlands are particularly poor in natural resources, so while gems are ubiquitous enough in Equestria to be used in mundane decoration, to the native pony tribes they are considered rare and very valuable (leading to an issue of imbalance of trade between our two nations that is too complex for us to discuss here). Furthermore, the dearth of iron ore in these lands means bronze is still the metal in use the most, so iron, in particular steel appropriate for use by the Royal Guard, is likewise much prized and would ensure the tribe an edge over its rivals]
We were all set, and so we headed off with no fanfare. Readers might assume that I should have sought more help in this endeavour, perhaps taking an infantry section or a platoon with me in case things took on the visual attributes of a pear. The fact is that I was not supposed to be doing this in the first place, and taking soldiers out on a wild goose chase would scarcely reflect well on me if I was to return empty-hoofed, which I fully expected to. Furthermore, two ponies were far less likely to be noticed by the enemy, who might even ignore us if we posed no threat. There is also the fact that I was in such a damned rush to catch up with the two, especially considering that one of them has 'speed' as her special talent, that the thought didn't occur to me until I was out of the fortress gates and walking through the bleak, dusty wastes of the Badlands.
It was getting into the late afternoon by the time Cannon Fodder and I passed through the portcullis and out into what is depicted on the map as enemy territory. I could think of two places that Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash might have gone to first - the fresh water stream frequented by some of the less-hostile native ponies or the site of the battle where we lost the Colours in the first place. If I had been in my cousin-in-law's sabatons, and I had taken a few recent blows to the head in order to make this idea of his seem like a good one, I'd have gone straight to the stream to ask for information about who took the Royal Standard. However, after a few more blows to the head to sink to the same intellectual level as Shining Armour I would have gone directly to the ruined bridge.
I, however, am not Shining Armour, and decided to go on to the stream first. From there, only Faust knew, but whatever it was I had the sinking feeling that none of this was going to be as easy as I had thought.