The following day I attempted to settle into a routine, though it was made rather difficult with the slight hangover I was experiencing. It felt like there was a small family of Diamond Dogs living within the confines of my skull and they weren't being particularly good house guests. With this in mind I set about trying to work out what exactly I was supposed to be doing.
I left Cannon Fodder once more to look after the front office, and he seemed rather happy to get on with his duties. In the absence of any particular orders I had decided that the best use of my time, other than lying on my cot and praying for the end of this headache, was to follow and shadow the senior officers. That way, I had hoped, I would be able to understand how the 1st Night Guards regiment operated. Most importantly, however, I thought it would be the option would look as if I was actually doing some work while putting the minimum amount of effort into it.
The encampment was in the process of dragging itself awake. Tired ponies who were on guard duty over the night slumped back to be replaced by fresh and alert guards. A few paused to exchange the sort of rough and vulgar banter the rank-and-file love to indulge in, before returning to their duties or crawling back onto their assigned bedroll to make up for lost sleep. The majority of the troops were lining up at the canteen tent to receive the first of their daily rations; a breakfast of oats in a feedbag.
The early morning sun was just cresting over the eastern horizon, over the vast flat plains that characterised this wretched little corner of our beatific realm. The sky itself was tinged a lustrous orange and gold, giving away to light blue, and finally darkness over the west where Luna's moon was making its descent over more empty and boring plains. The cool morning air helped clear my head slightly, though it still felt like my brain was immersed in a tank of thick, viscous fluid that was attempting to leak out of my ears.
I grabbed a quick feedbag of oats from the canteen, which was basic, nearly edible stuff in stark contrast to the opulent dinner I had the night before. The sight of me queuing up with the rank and file probably made for quite a sight, and indeed many of the soldiers stared in slack-jawed amazement as I, Prince-Commissar Blueblood, had deigned to line up with them for my daily ration of oats. In actuality I was cringing inside for being so close to so many unwashed commoners for an extended period of time, but I was rather hungry and I couldn't find the officer's mess. At any rate, showing the common guardspony that I was willing to tolerate their company and food for even a short while would evidently improve my standing in their eyes. This would prove useful later, for in the bloody crucible of war the troops were more likely to try and help me stay alive if they felt they liked me.
My hunger sated for now I went for a long walk around the Night Guard's portion of the encampment. The breakfast had helped in some small way to ameliorate the hangover, but it still felt like my brain was attempting to escape via my eye sockets.
A platoon of unicorns was performing magic missile drill, so I went over to take a look. They were arrayed out on a firing range, which was just a large space cleared out and surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron in a bid to prevent any stray shots from hitting any wandering ponies. The firing range was built in a way so that the unicorns would be aimed out of the encampment, so in theory if there were any misfires or if somepony accidently punctured a hole in the corrugated iron shielding the missile just go straight across the plains and harmlessly run out of energy or hit a cactus.
By the side of the firing range was an array of clay pigeon traps, the sort of machines that fire small discs into the air and one has to try and shoot them out of the sky. I attempted this ‘sport' a while ago and failed miserably; my horn-to-eye co-ordination is pretty terrible and I accidently shot the head off one of Auntie Celestia's statues the first time I tried my hoof at it in the castle gardens.
The unicorns came up to the firing line in groups of five at a time, where they did their hardest to shoot the flying discs out of the sky. Results were varied, I guessed about three out of the five could hit their target before being sent to the back of the queue. I spotted Starlit Skies sitting off to the side next to the clay pigeon traps, still engrossed in his dusty old book while a Lieutenant and five other guardsponies worked the machines. With little else to do I approached him.
"Still reading that old book, Major?" I asked and the poor old pony practically jumped out of his fur, though this time he kept a hold of his book.
"Oh, Commissar, it's you," he said and inclined his head towards me in a sort of half-hearted bow.
"What is it anyway?"
The old unicorn wiggled his nose, which made the glasses perched upon his snout jitter until they had been adjusted into a more comfortable position. This odd gesture, combined with his friendly expression and calm demeanour, was very much disarming and helped alleviate much of the anxiety I felt about his appearance as a Night Guard.
"It's ‘Fancy Mathematics' by McIntosh," he said as he held up the book for me to read the faded title on the spine of the book. "It's a fascinating book; McIntosh's insights into the application of mathematics in everyday life are most interesting, revolutionary even! There's an entire chapter dedicated to working out how many apple trees a single pony can harvest in any set period of time, the formulae even factors in such concepts as exhaustion-induced insanity."
I nodded blankly. Truth was I didn't care much for maths, or indeed anything remotely cerebral as I must admit that I'm not a terribly bright stallion. My understanding of mathematics never truly progressed further than ‘I have five apples and eat three, how many apples do I have left?' The answer, in case you're wondering, is ‘not enough for your pastry chef to make an apple pie'.
"Not exactly required reading for the Royal Guard, is it?" I asked. "Shouldn't we be concentrating on our duties?"
He looked up, his normally whimsical expression growing rather grave as he slammed his book shut dramatically and I wondered if I may have over-stepped my mark a little. Mirthless amber eyes glared at me through the distorting lenses of bifocal spectacles.
"Mathematics is the foundation of all knowledge," he said in the manner of a teacher lecturing a particularly slow young colt. "All of the laws of science and philosophy all rely upon the irrefutable fact that two plus two equals four, from there, all understanding flows."
I frowned at him and cocked my head to one side curiously, looking at the strange old stallion sceptically. I'm not a particularly deep thinker, as many ponies will readily attest, despite my expensive education in the most prestigious school in all of Equestria, so epistemology is hardly something I could get my head around.
"Don't believe me? I'll show you." He turned to the Lieutenant in charge of the stallions operating the machines, "Mind if Blueblood and I have a go?"
The Lieutenant, a young unicorn mare who would have been otherwise attractive if it weren't for those infernal shark teeth and eyes, nodded and barked some orders at her stallions. The firing line was cleared of ponies in short order, so I reluctantly took my place there just to go along with whatever point that Starlit Skies was trying to prove to me.
"Pull!" he cried, and a clay disc was sent hurtling through the air.
I adopted the stance; legs spread wide to absorb the recoil, and summoned the magical charge in my horn. I took aim, fired, and missed completely.
"A worthy effort," he said, lying through his teeth as I missed the stupid thing by a country mile. I wanted to blame all of the Night Guards around us giving me stage fright or the throbbing sensation in my head, but I knew deep down it was all down to me being a rather terrible shot. Besides, I couldn't see the point in focusing so much on accuracy; unicorn battle doctrine focuses on massed sustained fire on a large formation of enemies, not accurately shooting any small, flying discs of clay that the Changelings might suddenly decide to hurl at us. I supposed practicing precision shooting helped encourage discipline and hone a unicorn's control over his magical abilities.
I looked behind my shoulder to see him drawing complex equations and sums in the dirt with his hoof.
I snapped back to the task at hoof. The disc sailed lazily through the air above me, so I let loose with a salvo of shots in the vague direction of the flying disc and was rewarded with seeing shatter into tiny pieces with only the fifth shot or so. Feeling rather pleased with myself I looked back to see Starlit Skies trotting up next to me.
"Not bad," he said, "but you guessed; you didn't think. You just pointed your horn in the vague direction of the target and hoped for the best. But if you bothered to take in such variables like the speed and direction of the target, wind strength and direction, gravity, and even the curvature of the earth into the equation then you can hit the target every - pull!"
A disc soared into the air. With supreme confidence Starlit calmly took aim and fired, blasting the target out of the sky.
"...single - pull! ...time - pull!"
Two more discs were similarly hurled into the sky and they too were blasted out of the sky with frightening precision. The crowd of guardsponies cheered and stomped their hooves in applause, which made Starlit Skies grin widely and bow graciously to his ‘audience'.
"How did you..." I muttered, for the first time in my life I was completely and utterly speechless. I gave up trying to complete the question, instead letting my jaw hang and flap uselessly. It must have made for a rather embarrassing sight, but I wasn't at all worried about that for the moment as my hangover-stricken mind ground to a halt trying to comprehend how this old stallion could perform such a feat of perfect shooting accuracy.
He merely smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder, "Maths, lad, maths."
I turned to leave in an irritated huff, ever the sore loser, but stopped just short of Starlit Sky's scrawled diagrams and calculations marked in the dust. I might as well been staring at Haygyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense it made to me; arcane symbols were interspersed with large numbers and peculiar squiggles that looked as if they were part of some eldritch spell to reawaken the Old Ones as much as a simple mathematical formula. Shaking my head I trotted off, stamping over the drawings as I went.
As I wandered aimlessly around the camp, doing my best to look as if I knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. Fortunately, I managed to stumble across the quartermaster's store room in the course of my meanderings and decided to address a situation that had just started bugging me. Since my unexpected and unwelcome induction into the Commissariat I had yet to be issued with my armour, meaning I had to trudge around in this ridiculous dress uniform that, while stylish, would offer no protection from the rending claws of the Changeling hordes.
The store room was simply a massive tent filled with enormous racks of Night Guard plate armour, spears, kitbags, and various other detritus and equipment that a Night Guard might need over his long career. In front of all that was a simple wooden desk, at which a unicorn stallion sat hunched over a massive stack of parchment. Ah, the joys of mountains of paperwork, I knew them all too well.
Confidently I stepped up to the desk, smiling politely but not too friendly, and he ignored me. Instead he was intent on scribbling something down on the parchment in an illegible script that looked as if a spider had been dipped in ink and left to thrash out its death throes on the paper. The pony was wearing full Night Guard plate armour, though it was covered in messy splotches of ink, despite his non-combatant status as a mere office drudge worker. The Royal Guard's tendencies to make its white collar administration workers wear the same combat gear as frontline infantry is a little perplexing. [There is some reasoning behind this convention; if the encampment were to come under enemy attack the ‘office drudge workers' would be capable of defending themselves]
I cleared my throat and the quartermaster looked up. "Can I help you, sir?" he said in a voice that implied that whatever I had just interrupted was of the utmost importance and therefore my interruption was a grievous sin. It was probably just that shipment of paperclips I had been working on before my transfer out of the War Ministry.
"Yes, I'd like to collect my armour," I said.
He looked up and down at me, "You're wearing it."
I blinked at him incredulously, wondering if he was genuinely afflicted in the head or being deliberately obtuse; either seemed probable. "No, I'm not."
He shook his head, "Yes you are."
"Look here," I said, tapping my hoof impatiently on his desk, "have you not eyes? Can you not see that this is my dress uniform for ceremonies, semi-formal functions, and other fancy occasions? Now, I'm sure you understand, it's only a matter of when rather than if I go into battle and I would much prefer to do so safely encased in shell of steel armour."
"Hooves off the desk, please," he grumbled in irritation and pushed my hoof back. He then grabbed a sheet of parchment from the mass upon his desk, cleared his throat as if he were about to speak sacred words of wisdom from a holy text, and read aloud, "A Commissar's combat uniform consists of one black double-breasted storm coat with red frogs and yellow epaulettes; one crimson sash tied about the waist; one black peaked cap with a winged skull insignia upon it, and one Pattern ’12 sabre."
"I see," I hissed at him, slowly removing my cap with my magic and holding it out in front of the little bureaucrat in front of me. "What's your name?"
"Uh... Pencil Pusher."
"So, Pencil Pusher, you're telling me that when I wade into combat the only thing stopping my royal skull from being cracked open and my princely brain being scooped out is this piece of starched cloth?"
He shrugged, "That's what Princesses' Regulations say."
"Well, I'm a prince," I said, putting my cap back on carefully upon my head and standing as tall and regally as I possibly could. "I demand a suit of armour."
"Sorry, the Princesses outrank you, no can do."
Of course they did, I was forever living my life in Auntie Celestia's shadow. Until that precise moment I was rather happy with my station in life, providing the perfect compromise between the prestige and grandeur of minor royalty but with relatively little actual responsibility. It was only in dealing with the omnipresent and all-powerful ‘Princesses' Regulations' did this become rather grating, especially in the face of common sense.
A small queue of guardsponies was beginning to form up behind me, some waiting rather impatiently to get their uniforms mended.
"Well," I said, trying to come up with another argument, "I am the Commissar assigned to this regiment and therefore represent the divine will of the Princesses, and for all intents and purposes I am the Princesses so on their behalf I order you to give me a set of armour."
The guardspony behind me snickered, "The Commissar is a princess."
I looked over my shoulder and shot the Night Guard a harsh glare, which caused him to whimper and flinch away from me as if I was about to smite him with holy fire.
"Sorry, doesn't work that way," said Pencil Pusher as he shook his head apologetically, a gesture I took to be insincere. "You embody the divine will of the Princesses in spirit only, not physically. Regulations say you wear what you're wearing now into battle and nothing more."
"Not even a helmet?"
The quartermaster glared at me, and I stiffened in response. I was not used to a pony saying ‘no' to me, unless they happened to be either my mother or Auntie Celestia, and quite often pulling rank on any imbecile foolish enough to contradict me or deny me was enough to make them see sense. Quiet indignation rose within me at this irritating little pony and I wanted nothing more than to reach over and ram my silly hat down his throat, but I relented.
It was official; Princess Luna wanted me dead in the most contrived way possible. Oh, it was not enough that she could simply vaporise me, she wanted me to suffer while maintaining the pretence that I would die for Princesses and Country and thus keeping her bloody hooves clean.
"Now if you'll excuse me, Prince, there are other ponies who require my services." He shooed me away with irritated gesture with his hoof and went back to scribbling down on his parchment.
I left in an irritated huff, resigned to the fact that in order to survive I would just have to stand behind all of the heavily armoured ponies and pray that they last long enough. Perhaps I could conceal a small breastplate beneath my tunic and somehow line the inside of my cap with steel, but then again tampering with my uniform might be against Regulations and I would therefore be punished for trying to protect my own life. Such was the peculiar hypocrisy seen only in the Royal Guard.
I trudged back to my tent and whiled the rest of the morning by going through the paperwork that Cannon Fodder had deemed worthy of my attention. There were a hoofful of routine reports; a few letters from the War Ministry in Canterlot congratulating me on my promotion, and a few incident reports I had to process. They were all very everyday things; in any situation where a large number of young ponies, barely out of their teens, are forced into constant contact with one another and are left bored for extended periods of time there's bound to be a few behaviour issues. They were largely harmless, nothing that would negatively detriment the war effort: instances of gambling, a drunken brawl, general insubordination. If these things weren't happening on a daily basis then there would be cause for concern.
Lunch finally came at noon just as my stomach started complaining noisily about empty void within. I had still yet to find the officer's mess; a haven of peace and relaxation from the daily grind and monotony of work, where the aristocratic officer class can indulge into a little luxury. My instinctive knack of subconsciously knowing where I needed to go at any given moment pointed me towards the canteen where I had retrieved a basic breakfast from, so I theorised that the mess was within that general location. It made some sense, despite being in rather close proximity to the commoners it was also rather close to vast food reserves.
When I told Cannon Fodder he could go for lunch he shot off towards the canteen like a rocket, leaving me to take yet another leisurely walk in the vague direction my special talent was telling me to go. The canteen became a veritable bustle of activity as the lunch troughs were brought out. Hundreds of rows of troughs stood outside of the main kitchen tent, while members of the Catering Corps shovelled oats, grain, and other unidentifiable vegetable mush into the waiting troughs. Upon being filled Night Guards dashed hungrily to the troughs and proceeded to gorge with all the grace and poise expected of such low borns, though I couldn't blame them; basic food that is filling and also tolerable is the fastest way to make a soldier relatively happy.
I circled around the canteen for a bit, watching the Night Guards eating. With their menacing fangs and amber draconic eyes they reminded me too much of predators attacking a huge meat beast. They chattered loudly, and I caught snippets of conversations about the war, Changelings, a game of cards that was scheduled for tonight, and, rather touchingly, of home and those left behind.
I thought of those I had left behind; every soldier inevitably has to leave somepony behind as they're shipped off to the frontlines. There were the obvious faces in my mind - my mother, sisters, Auntie Celestia, even Auntie Luna though she would never admit to being part of my family until much later; but oddly I saw Rarity amongst them. I berated myself mentally for letting her go; for my boorish and snobbish nature towards her in the Grand Galloping Gala had all but scuppered any chances of me developing any sort of lasting relationship with this mare. It occurred to me that I never got the chance to say goodbye to her before shipping out, I never got the chance to say goodbye to anypony except Luna.
"Oi, Blueblood!" a harsh Trottingham accent awoke me from my stupor, and I looked up to see Captain Blitzkrieg with the entire officer class of the 1st Night Guard digging into their own separate trough.
Feeling a little perplexed at seeing officers dining with the common troops, I trotted on over towards them.
"Was the ground really that interesting?" Blitzkrieg asked jokingly with a none-too-friendly grin on his sunken features.
I shook my head, "No, no, I was just thinking."
"Ah, contemplating our navels are we? Well don't strain yourself too hard; the Royal Guard doesn't like its members thinking too hard, not good for morale you see."
Colonel Sunshine Smiles was next to him. He glanced over his shoulder to see me and then scooted along a bit to allow me room. I could only stand perplexed at the sight before me. Officers, the ponies meant to be gentlecolts as much as military leaders and fighters, were amongst the common guardsponies and eating from the same troughs as they were.
"Aren't you joining us, Commissar?" asked Smiles, his muzzle was covered in crumbs.
"Where is the officer's mess?"
"You're looking at it, mate," said Blitzkrieg with his mouth full of feed, I cringed a little at the sight of the partially chewed food dribbling down his angular chin.
"We prefer to eat with the stallions," said Sunshine with a nonchalant shrug.
"I must say…" I paused, struggling to express my discomfort in an as tactful manner as possible to avoid turning my new colleagues against me, "…this is most irregular."
"You mean it's not the namby-pamby, wine-sipping, fairy prince things you're used to," said Blitzkrieg derisively. "Celestia forbid you have to live like a real stallion for once."
I moved closer, ready to ram the impudent little pegasus' head into the trough before Sunshine turned and raised a hoof to stop me. Had I been able to get closer to Blitzkrieg he'd have likely snapped my neck or sunk a blade into me before I even had a chance to place my hooves on his disturbingly skull-like head.
"Blueblood, I understand that this might be a bit of a culture shock to you," said Sunshine sternly, as if explaining this to a child. I huffed in irritation. "I understand that you're used to a life of luxury where ponies go out of their way to appease you. But you're in my regiment now and prince or not everypony shares in the same hardships."
With a sigh I shook my head despondently and approached the trough. I supposed it wouldn't be so bad, and thinking about what the Colonel had just said made a degree of sense; if the stallions see that their officers are sharing in their same hardships, if somewhat superficially at least, then it would raise morale. As political officer it was my duty to maintain morale, so this cheap little publicity stunt should go in some small way in helping the troops feel as if I was one of them.
I did not, however, shove my muzzle into the trough and gorge like a common mud pony [A rather outdated derogatory term for earth ponies, I have frequently asked Blueblood to stop using it] but instead levitated each morsel of the thick, grungy feed and nibble upon it with the grace and elegance that only a unicorn can muster. It still raised a few eyebrows amongst those around me who preferred the more direct route, but even in total war I would not sacrifice good table manners.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Brown stew,” said Sunshine Smiles, wiping his muzzle with his hoof.
I arched an eyebrow, “What’s in it?”
“Brown,” he said laconically. At that point I decided I was better off without knowing.
From there I managed to settle into a comfortable daily routine. It was primarily dominated by conducting vast amounts of paperwork; again usually processing and passing judgement upon a few miscreants. Sometimes I would be brought out to deal with a matter personally, for example there was the incident when one of the stallions had been caught sleeping with a married mare from Dodge Junction who was then punished by flogging him in front of the entire regiment.
I intended to run a disciplined regiment, and Sunshine Smiles supported me on this despite his rather lackadaisical approach to tradition. We had agreed on a ‘carrot-and-stick' approach to maintaining order in the regiment: the stallions would be rewarded for good behaviour and for working hard so I instituted extra rations and time off for those who excelled; but those who broke Princesses' Regulations would be punished to the fullest extent possible. That is, without resorting to my powers of summary execution.
The idea of summary execution appalled me and likewise the other officers, so we quietly agreed never to discuss it except in the most grievous of circumstances. As for me, I couldn't think of a worse way to endear myself to the rank-and-file than flaunting my authority to kill any single one of them for whatever charge I felt appropriate. While I was not there to make friends with the common soldier, I wanted them to at least like me enough to try and protect me when the shrapnel and magic missiles start flying.
I brought up topic of the risk of Changeling infestation in the ranks, and the officers were understandably worried about that. Therefore I taught the Changeling illusion-breaking spell to Major Starlit Skies and the rest of the unicorn officers with minimal trouble, aside from one small accident where Ensign Gleaming Spear was temporarily turned into a chicken. We then set up a weekly screening schedule for everypony in the regiment, starting with me to reassure the stallions that the effects of the spell were harmless. I was relieved to find out that I'm not secretly a Changeling.
Another one of my new duties was educating the soldiers about their role in the wider war, one that I did not launch myself into with any particular relish. The stallions were rather ignorant of the aims of the war and, I confess, so was I. In our daily sessions where I held large seminars we all agreed on the vague goal of ‘punishing the Changelings for attacking Canterlot', but beyond that we could come to nothing else concrete. The Ministry of Misinformation tried to be helpful by giving me a load of pamphlets and reading material to hoof out and discuss, though I suspect these ended up being used as toilet paper. Not that I could blame the soldiers exactly, as the pamphlets were full of hilariously bad mistakes and lavatory paper was always in short supply. I recall one pamphlet described the Changelings as being ‘scared of loud noises' and another about how they will sacrifice our foals to their dark queen-goddess. Even the common uneducated hoof-soldier could see this as the transparent, empty propaganda it truly was.
After a while I gave up on these seminars. Either through my ineptitude or the incompetence of the reading material given to me it became clear that these just weren't working. Instead, I transformed these seminars into a free and open platform for the troops to voice any concerns they might have to me. They were rather shy at first, not trusting the bizarre prince in a ridiculous uniform asking them ‘how does the war make you feel?' but eventually they began to open up to me and I did my best to address their concerns and questions. Besides, I supposed the best way to accurately gauge morale is to actually ask the troops. The officers of the regiment were largely receptive when I approached them with my findings on the troops’ morale, as most had a close relationship with their troops anyway. All of the officers, that is, except Captain Blitzkrieg.
It was after the first week when the incident happened. The novelty of being the first Commissar had worn off for all involved by now and, while I wasn't fully integrated into the regiment, the vast majority of ponies didn't regard me with barely concealed contempt any longer. The officers were especially pleased when I took over the discipline roles from them, allowing them to concentrate on the more important task of preparing the troops for battle.
On a balmy Monday morning I was dictating a letter to Cannon Fodder to send to Princess Luna, complaining about the poor quality of the latest batch of ‘educational' pamphlets that had been delivered to me to disseminate amongst the troops.
"…the poor quality of these pamphlets extends not only to their content but also in their presentation," I said as I paced up and down the front office area while Cannon Fodder furiously scribbled down the words with messy mouth-writing, "in ‘On the Barbaric Ways of the Changelings' I have counted no fewer than thirty-seven spelling errors. I have enclosed a copy of the said pamphlet with this letter with the errors clearly marked out in red pen. Such poor workhorse-ship is most unbecoming of Their Highnesses' Royal Guard…"
"Commissar!" a Night Guard Pegasus blundered into my tent in a flail of hooves and batwings. He arrested his movement just before he could barrel into me, and snapped off a clumsy salute.
I yelped in surprise and flinched back, knocking over the table. As Cannon Fodder quietly righted the desk and scooped the papers, quill, and ink pots I regained my composure quickly and looked sternly at the intruder.
"You must have a good reason to interrupt me," I said, making my irritation as obvious as possible.
"Sorry, sir, it's very urgent," he said. The pegasus' amber eyes flittered back and forth between me and the entrance flap nervously, his heaving chest and heavy breathing, coupled with the rank sweat pouring down his coat, implied he must have rushed to get here so I was therefore inclined to believe him.
"Well spit it out then!"
"Captain Blitzkrieg," he gasped between sucking in deep breaths of air, "he's arguing with one of the Solar Guard officers, sir, thought I should fetch you; seemed important."
I swore loudly, which made even the pegasus blush. Yes such language was conduct unbecoming of an officer, a gentlecolt, and a prince of the realm, but I had been dreading this moment ever since I had lain eyes upon Blitzkrieg. Every regiment has its own gang of troublemakers, usually they're resigned to a small group of malcontents in the rank-and-file who need a good flogging to beat some sense and discipline into them, but to have one as a senior officer was dangerous.
After apologising for my language I ordered Cannon Fodder to finish drafting the letter to Princess Luna, a task which would take him quite a while considering he didn't seem to particularly understand the meaning of the letter, before ordering the pegasus to take me to Blitzkrieg. I had to prevent an incident between the Solar Guard and the Night Guard, one which could spell disaster for Army Group Centre before we had even packed up our things and marched into Changeling country.
The pegasus, whose name I found out to be Storm Rider, gave me an a précis account of what happened. Apparently there had been some altercation between Blitzkrieg and the unicorn captain from the 3rd Solar Guard regiment, Clear Heavens, which invariably led to blows being landed. Clear Heavens insisted that it was too difficult to tell who had thrown the first punch, but I was reasonably certain it was Blitzkrieg. The pony was a powder keg, if you pardon the cliché, though compared to the other officers I spent little time with him I could tell he had a significant attitude problem with outside authority. Coupled with the vocal elitism of the Solar Guard it would have only been a matter of time before it all broke out.
We came to the edge of the Night Guard area of the encampment where a large group of ponies were congregating. They were cleanly divided into two groups; the bright and shining Solar Guard and the dark and mysterious Night Guards facing off with one another. Storm Rider barked a few orders and pushed ponies out of my way, apparently taking my order to bring me to the scene of the altercation as bestowing commissarial authority upon him. At any rate, upon seeing my stupid peaked hat the crowd soon parted to let me through/
At the centre of this crowd was Blitzkrieg and Clear Heavens being held back by their respective guardsponies. Clear Heavens had blood leaking out of his nose and staining his white coat and golden armour a crimson red, while Blitzkrieg snarled at his opponent like a caged animal and screamed for his stallions to let him go. Thankfully, the pegasi had more sense than that.
The baying crowds fell silent, save for Blitzkrieg who was still crying bloody murder, as I approached.
"You have two minutes to explain before I have the both of you flogged," I said slowly, allowing the full weight of my words to sink in. "One hundred lashes, each." It was a veritable death sentence for anypony unblessed by the Royal Pony Sisters, but it would be excruciatingly painful for the both of them. [The blessings my sister and I grant to all of our Royal Guard not only change how a pony looks but grants them superior strength and endurance, allowing them to survive things that might kill or maim any other unblessed pony.]
Blitzkrieg responded by spitting bloody saliva on dusty earth by my hooves. "Do your worst, I've been flogged harder than any of you pansies for less."
I sighed and shook my head, "Blitzkrieg, why don't you just tell me what happened?"
The pegasus pointed an accusing, unshorn hoof at the bloodied Solar Guard officer before him, "He called Princess Luna ‘Nightmare Moon'."
There was an awkward pause as I tried to digest what exactly was going on. This fight was over a bit of foalish name calling?
"So?" I asked.
Blitzkrieg spat again. "I knew you'd take his side, you snobs are all the same. The Princess saved me from a life in jail. I was a bad colt before I joined up; rape, murder, extortion, drugs, you name it I've done it, dealt it, or bucked it, or all three at once. Then they caught me, they were going to lock me away forever, but Princess Luna came to see me when they passed judgement and told me I can either go to prison or have a second chance by serving in her armies. So I served here, it took me two bucking years but I made it, two years of gits like you and this dickhead [Derogatory term for unicorns, since their horns are supposedly phallic symbols] looking down on me. I owe her my life, she saved me"
So, the rumour was true after all. I was not only dealing with a known criminal, but a rogue and blackguard of the highest order. I don't know what Luna was drinking or smoking when she thought that this was a good idea, possibly she was incredibly desperate for new recruits given the historical unpopularity of her Night Guard compared to the golden Solar Guard. Perhaps she saw something within this beaten old Trottingham pegasus that could be used as potential for a good officer.
I nodded, trying to keep my expression friendly but otherwise neutral. "So you hit him?"
"Yeah but he hit me first, slapped me around the face like a filly. I've been hit harder by whores."
"Is this true?" I asked Clear Heavens.
"I challenged him to a duel," he said, wiping the blood from his nose. "And mark my words, Your Highness, one day Nightmare Moon's going to be all ‘the night will last forever' again and these animals, her flunkies, her slaves, will turn on all of us when we least expect it."
"You challenged him to a duel?"
Blitzkrieg blinked gormlessly, "What's a duel?"
"See?" Clear Heavens shrieked incredulously. "How can you claim to be an officer in Her Highness's Royal Guard if you don't know what a duel is? He insulted my honour and that of my regiment; I will not lower myself to repeat his hateful words."
"It's a fight to resolve matters of honour," I explained, trying to use as simple terms as I could, "it's a tradition amongst officers of Their…" I pointed a hoof at Clear Heavens and he paled a little, "…Highnesses' Royal Guard."
"Oh, a fight, I can do that!" said Blitzkrieg with sudden enthusiasm, like a child learning a new word.
"You imbecile," said Clear Heavens, "it's not a simple brawl, it's a refined tradition to restore honour. You have insulted the honour of the 3rd Solar Guard regiment, and I demand satisfaction."
I applied hoof to forehead and rubbed my aching temples. A duel, that's just what we needed. I had no doubt that in a brawl Blitzkrieg would invariably come out on top, I had seen him training before on the parade ground and he was quick, brutal, and had no compunction about going for areas considered off-limits by other, more sporting stallions. But in an honourable duel he would be wiped out. Clear Heavens was a fencer and would most likely pick swords, as a unicorn he would have the advantage over the pegasus' unfamiliar mouth-held blade.
Despite my misgivings about him, with the offensive into Changeling territory looming fast I couldn't afford to lose the regiment's pegasus captain. Reluctantly I stepped between them.
"Captain Blitzkrieg is in no condition to fight a duel with you, I will take his place," I announced clearly.
[It seems rather incredulous for ponies these days that officers of the Royal Guard were allowed to duel one another to the death. As Blueblood had explained previously, the Royal Guard, up to this point, was more like a socially-exclusive club for young aristocrats to spend their early adulthood while pretending to perform duties to the Twin Crowns of Equestria. Before the abolition of duelling in the subsequent Twilight Sparkle Reforms (which will be examined later in this manuscript), the practice was even enshrined in Princesses' Regulations. Since the matter was of regimental honour, it was perfectly legal for Blueblood to stand in for Blitzkrieg.]
"You what?" Blitzkrieg blurted out. "Listen, mate, I appreciate you trying to help me now but I can handle my own fights."
I shook my head and approached the restrained pegasus. "No, this isn't some pub brawl. You don't know how to use a sword, you don't know how to fence, and he's likely going to kill you."
He glowered at me, and those intense amber eyes seemed to burn into my soul. I flinched back slightly, unable to meet the harsh glare. "This is my fight," he said, slowly and calmly but with brutal venom behind those words, "this is my fight, not yours."
"You're in the 1st Night Guards, this is our fight," I said. "Listen, you said Princess Luna gave you a second chance, do you want to disappoint her by throwing it all away in some stupid fight you can't possibly win?"
Blitzkrieg bowed his head and stayed silent for a moment, apparently deep in thought, though the scornful expression on his face never faded. After a while he looked up and stared at his opponent, who was already picking out thin rapier blades offered to him by his orderly. "You think you can win?"
I nodded, while in reality I sincerely doubted it. I was out of shape and it showed, despite my new exercise regimen to bring me back up to the peak of physical fitness I was still showing an embarrassing amount of pudge. Yet out of all of the officers I was probably the most experienced fencer available, I wasn't sure about Sunshine Smiles but again his lack of telekinetic magic to hold the thin rapiers would put him at a massive disadvantage. Naturally, in accordance with the way fate tends to conspire against me, it fell upon me to uphold the regiment's dubious honour.
"Alright," said Blitzkrieg finally, "fight like a Night Guard and show me what a namby-pamby, wine-sipping, fairy prince can do."
The crowd formed a ring around us; the field of honour where this rather silly little argument would finally be sorted. I didn't want this, but not even I could very well disregard the sacred traditions of duelling. To use my commissarial authority to call off this farce would only breed further resentment with the Solar Guard, who would feel that I cheated them of their honour. Irritatingly I found myself trapped once more in the social traditions that bound the upper class together, rather than using them for my own advancement.
Therefore I reluctantly took my place on the field of honour and disrobed. The ancient strictures of unicorn duelling dictated that no armour and no clothing of any sort be worn on the field of honour, as doing so might give one unicorn an unfair advantage. Combatants were also forbidden from using any magic other than that necessary to hold our weapons aloft and use them. Anypony unscrupulous enough to use any other spells would be branded a dishonourable cheater forever, a fate akin to death for the prideful aristocracy to which I belonged. The idea behind all of these rules was to ensure an as fair a fight as possible, with only the combatants' skill the deciding factor.
My discarded clothes and cap were given to Storm Rider, who held them reverently as if they were the sacred vestments of Princess Celestia herself. Clear Heavens' adjutant offered me a rapier, which I enveloped via the hilt with my magic telekinetic aura. I gave the blade a few testing swings with my magic. As expected it was a well-balanced blade constructed perfectly for the refined art of duelling, in a real battle the needle thin blade would snap far too easily and couldn’t possibly penetrate steel armour or Changeling chitin.
Clear Heavens removed his armour and took his position opposite me, holding his weapon in a soft green aura he brought it up to his face and kissed it. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous, clichéd gesture and simply raised my sword in a guarded defensive position.
Without his armour Celestia's Blessing faded away; his pure white coat returned to its natural pale blue colour, and his white mane exploded into a luscious blond. I suppose he might have been considered a rather handsome young stallion, if it weren't for the scuffs on his face, the blood dribbling out of his nose, and the expression of pure, aristocratic contempt. His cutie mark was a sun emerging from behind a white, fluffy cloud.
As far as I could remember, he was of a minor aristocratic clan that owned a small scrap of land around Los Pegasus, his father was probably a baron or some other low rank of some description. In peacetime he wouldn’t have been worthy of my time and attention, unless he had insulted me directly or had powerful ‘friends’. He was just another upstart minor noble; a bottom feeder amongst us sharks. Unfortunately, this was not peacetime and I simply couldn’t ignore this duel – honour had to be satisfied.
"We will duel to the death or until one of us submits," he said gravely.
"In accordance with tradition," I replied. I'd rather it didn't come to killing, and I didn't particularly want to die at the end of some impudent minor aristocrat's blade over some trivial little argument like this. Dying at the hooves of this upstart whelp would have been as embarrassing as it was inconvenient. Come to think of it I didn't want to die at all, which made me one of the rather more sane officers in the Royal Guard at the time.
Captain Royal Lace of the 5th Royal Guard stood in for a referee to ensure a good, clean, honourable fight. The young mare's infatuation with me had rather grown, though it merely extended to displaying certain subtle hints that I pretended not to notice. Unfortunately, it seemed that she had taken that to mean I was playing ‘hard-to-get' and redoubled her efforts. Even on the duelling ground she winked and batted her eyelashes at me. At least it meant she was on my side, whatever good that would do me.
Of course, my possible imminent death at the hooves of this duellist was of more concern at that moment. From the way he held his sword I could tell he was intimately familiar with it, probably trained from a young age in the rare art of fencing. Though I was a keen fencer, if somewhat out of practice, I had never fought a proper duel before. Fortunately, my standing as Princess Celestia's nephew tended to dissuade the more pompous upper class nobility from offending my honour. Here, however, duelling was a firm tradition amongst the officer class, even a method of promotion in some extreme cases.
Royal Lace held a small, white hoofkerchief and I watched it nervously out of the corner of my eye. Internally I was berating myself for even getting involved like this; it might have all just blown over if I hadn't interfered. Sure, there might have been a big brawl, some ponies would end up hospitalised for a bit and I'd have to order floggings all around for everypony involved (once they recovered and were discharged from the field hospital), but it wouldn't have involved me getting into any mortal danger.
The thin square of white fabric wafted delicately down to the ground, signalling the duel had begun.
Clear Heavens leapt towards me with unexpected ferocity, blade thrust towards me to impale me upon its length. I barely had enough time to bring my own blade up to deflect the attack. His blade clashed with mine in a shower of sparks as steel met steel, and I pushed his weapon to the left. It was too predictable a move and he saw that; rather than resisting me by pushing back on his weapon he suddenly pulled back, causing me to stumble forward in surprise, before lashing out with a wide sweep.
I darted back but the tip of the blade nicked me across the chest, leaving a long but shallow wound that wept blood onto my white fur.
It suddenly became very hot, and sweat trickled over my nude body and matted my previously clean and sweetly scented fur. In the heat, either from the oppressive sun or my own fear, my blond mane became matted and fell across forehead and eyes in bedraggled clumps. I felt sick, with a nasty hollow feeling in my chest despite my heart hammering away behind my ribcage. I wanted nothing more than to pull away and vomit in peace.
With a bestial whinny of rage he lunged forward again and again, and each time I barely managed to block the onslaught of thrusts and slashes against me. From the crazed look in his cold blue eyes and the menacing snarl upon his face I knew he truly meant to kill me. Such was the wrath of a minor noble scorned, desperate to wash away Blitzkrieg's insult upon his honour with my blood.
His thirst for revenge was to be his downfall; he grew over-confident, hacking and slashing with little refinement or thought behind his assaults. I reacted defensively, stepping back closer to the baying crowd of roaring guardsponies, to lull him further into his confidence. It was a dangerous tactic to encourage such ferocity in my opponent, for I feared I would not be able to keep up with the brutish tempo of his onslaught of thrusts and slashes.
His attacks became clumsy, no doubt feeling the magical strain of thrashing his weapon around like that. He swept his blade wide and I saw my chance. I dived under the sweeping arc and rolled to the right, before lashing out with my blade and striking his unprotected chest. The blow was shallow and by no means fatal; I didn't want to kill him, though I could have easily forced the blade between his ribs and punctured his lung and heart.
My opponent hissed and flinched back, swinging his blade down, which I blocked easily. Leaping to my hooves I pushed my weapon away and then violently reversed its momentum. The sudden burst of magic to change the sword's direction of movement sent a sharp, stabbing ache into my horn. The hilt of my sword smashed into Clear Heavens' horn, shattering his attention with the sudden agony known only to unicorns. [For the benefit of pegasi or earth ponies who may be reading, a unicorn's horn becomes extremely sensitive when ‘lit' with magic. It is said that being struck in this manner is the worst pain imaginable, often likened to childbirth or being kicked in the groin.]
Clear Heavens recoiled back and his concentration faltered enough for the magical hold on his weapon to disappear. Seizing my chance, I grabbed up his sword in my aura and held both blades threateningly at his neck. When he had quite recovered from my rather underhanded attack he stiffened at the sensation of two, needle sharp points pressing against the nape of his neck. History seems to forget about that particular cheap blow, Celestia forbid that ponies learn that their favourite hero had to resort to a vulgar horn attack to save his own wretched life.
He glowered at me, looking battered, bruised, and exhausted from the brief fight. Closing his eyes he stiffened and awaited for the inevitable to come, muttering a prayer to Celestia to receive his soul.
"Do you yield?" I asked, not wanting to kill an unarmed pony.
He remained quiet, silently murmuring his prayer.
I flicked one of the blades up, slashing a thin red line upon his left cheek. The stallion gasped at the sudden pain. "Do you yield?" I asked again more forcefully.
He opened his eyes and stared into mine, blood trickled down from the open wound in his cheek. "Is this what has become of you, Prince Blueblood? Associating with criminals and wretched commoners with ideas above their station? Look at them, they are the worst dregs of Equestrian society, deluded to believe that they are worthy of serving alongside us. Worse still they follow the Princess of the Night; Nightmare Moon, and mark my words ponies, it will only be a matter of time before she turns on our beloved Celestia..."
I had quite enough of the rant, so I slashed his other cheek with the other sword. He yelped in pain, touching his hoof to the wound.
"Do. You. Yield?" I growled, and pushed the two blades a little more forcefully against his neck, not enough to break the skin mind you but just enough to give the illusion that I was quite prepared to kill him.
"Y-yes," he finally gasped, bowing his head low in defeat.
With an audible sigh of relief I dropped my weapons to the dusty ground as a wild cheer rose up from the Night Guards behind me. Honour satisfied, the Solar Guard dispersed back to their duties with only Clear Heavens' adjutant remaining to collect the discarded weapons.
Royal Lace gave a graceful, feminine giggle of approval and clapped her hooves together. She trotted over to give me, the victorious stallion, a kiss on the cheek with a vivacious chuckle before cantering off once more. I was rather too exhausted and happy to be still alive to notice or care at the time.
My legs felt like jelly as relief washed over me, and all of the aches and pains that had been suppressed by the primal need to survive came flooding in as they do after every fight I've been in. My shoulders ached, and pain flared there when I tried to move my front limbs. There was a stinging pain across my chest where I had been slashed, and only just then did I look down and realise that the wound I had suffered was a damn sight more serious than I had initially thought. It was bleeding quite a lot now, and I felt rather woozy just looking at the crimson fluid staining my white fur.
"You sure showed them, Blueblood," said Blitzkrieg, patting me on the shoulder with enough force to almost send me toppling over. "Maybe you're alright, for a ponce, oh..." his jovial expression suddenly turned serious as he saw the rather large wound on my chest, "... I'm taking you to the hospital."
"It's-it's," I gasped between ragged breaths, "it's only a flesh wound." I despise that cliché, but it sounded like the sort of thing a hero would say at a time like this.
Blitzkrieg shook his head, "Well, they're all bloody flesh wounds, ain't they? Come on, best get it looked at, sir."
The thin, wiry pegasus sudden crawled beneath my undercarriage and, with unexpected strength, lifted me up before I could protest. I flushed with embarrassment as he carried me, much like a mother carries her foal, to a huge tent marked with a red cross that served as the regiment's field hospital. The Night Guards swarmed after us, congratulating me on my victory, a few of the braver ones shaking my hoof. I tried to look dignified, accepting their praise with well-practiced false modesty, but it was rather difficult to do so when carried in such a way.
The hospital was welcoming and an attractive nurse with a shapely flank led us to an empty bed for me in the main ward, though Blitzkrieg still insisted on carrying me. If it weren't for the exhaustion and possible blood loss I would have found his newfound dogged attachment to me rather strange, having leapt from vocal resentment of my very existence to willingly carrying me over for medical attention in the space of a few minutes. Then again, as a former violent criminal he probably just admired my fighting prowess.
I was attended and treated quickly; the nurse declaring it to be ‘just a flesh wound' barely worthy of her attention and applied a quick healing spell before bandaging me up. Despite this, I was instructed to remain in the hospital for a short while as the spell slowly repaired my damaged body.
The field hospital itself was mostly empty, with the vast space of the main ward inhabited by a small hoofful of guardsponies who had been injured in accidents. I felt a pang of despair when I thought of how much longer this relative quiet here would last, as sooner or later, when this war starts in earnest, the empty beds would be filled with the wounded and dying.
Blitzkrieg sat by the side of my bed, with an oddly soft expression on his usually hard features. The pegasus Storm Rider appeared bearing my uniform, which he placed on the end of my bed and left to return to his duties. Captain Blitzkrieg smirked and picked up my absurd cap with his hooves, examining the ridiculous thing.
For a while we sat in an awkward silence, neither of us quite certain what to say to one another given the rather intense events we had just been through. The pain in my chest started to dull, though the ache in my joints and muscles was still prevalent. I remember wanting a shower, for some reason the fact I was covered in a grimy mixture of sweat, dust, and blood made me feel extremely uncomfortable.
"You don’t have to stay here with me,” I said when the silence started becoming too unbearable.
“Pfft,” Blitzkrieg shook his head and tossed my cap back on the bed, “I want to make sure you’re alright.”
“I didn’t think you cared,” I spat with no small degree of venom. I didn’t like the stallion and I made little to no effort to hide it other than that strictly necessary to continue doing my job. He was a criminal. He might have been given a royal second chance by Princess Luna, but I wasn’t about to trust the judgement of a madmare who had been locked up in the moon for a thousand years. The last time she practiced jurisprudence dunking mares in rivers and seeing if they drowned was an acceptable way of finding out if they were witches.
The stallion was a killer, a scoundrel, and a rogue, and as far as I was concerned there was nothing he could do to change it.
If he detected my hostility he didn’t show it, but instead patted me on the shoulder as if we were the best of friends. “You might be a pompous, stuck-up, fairy prince, but you’re our pompous, stuck-up, fairy prince now.”
I blinked gormlessly back at him, not quite sure what to make of the frankly bizarre statement. “Uhh... thanks?” I said blankly.
“We look after our own here.” He looked like he meant it, as there was an oddly sincere look in his amber slit eyes. While I’m not the best judge of character, I supposed there was some primitive loyalty at work with the criminal pony. A peculiar, ancient, tribal mentality that meant just because I fought and humiliated a rival I was somehow accepted into his ‘gang’. Then again, such primitive camaraderie was how the Royal Guard’s regimental system operated; I suspected that he merely swapped his old gang for the 1st Night Guard Regiment.
Cannon Fodder appeared, much to the consternation of the nursing staff who probably assumed that his distinctive scent carried with it all manner of diseases and pestilence. He slogged lazily up to my bed with in his usual manner of not appearing to be even vaguely aware of the rest of the world around him, upon his saddle he carried a sheet of parchment I took to be the letter I left him to work on. My clumsy adjutant pushed his way past stunned nurses moving to and from patients, proudly announcing he was on ‘commissarial business’ and couldn’t be detained. Somehow, along the way, his bull-headedness and literal-mindedness helped him to decide that being my assistant meant he was part of the commissariat and therefore possessed of the same privileges I was, or at least the privileges he thought would be useful to him in carrying out his duties. His duties, of course, were doing whatever I told him to do.
“Sir!” Cannon Fodder snapped a relatively smart salute as he approached the bed. “Colonel Sunshine Smiles sent me to tell you that...” he paused, his brow furrowing in concentration as he struggled to remember whatever it was that the Colonel told him to say, “...that Captain Shining Armour and the 1st Solar Guard have arrived at Dodge Junction and that you need to come for a big meeting with the General Staff.”
So, it had finally begun. The moment I had been dreading since I first read of Equestria’s formal declaration of war in the newspaper some weeks earlier; I was to be going into battle very soon. The arrival of the 1st Solar Guard, the so-called elite of Their Highnesses’ Armed Forces and my former regiment, meant that the mobilisation of the Royal Guard was finally complete and the war can finally begin in earnest.
It was to my eternal surprise that the War Ministry had managed to mobilise the army in such a short space of time. My own conservative estimates ranged from about a month to several years, but evidently this had been planned for in the darkened recesses of the Ministry’s dungeons for quite some time now. It was rare in the military for something to go according to plan this way, but, as I later found out, plans always go wrong in the army but only after lulling everypony involved into a false sense of security by making us think that the plan is working. Victory, it seems, merely belongs to the side that can recover the fastest after things inevitably go pear-shaped.
I remember feeling oddly excited, which was strange given my cowardly nature and concern over my general well-being. Perhaps I was merely looking forward to hearing the suicidal ‘Grand Plan’ that Field Marshal Iron Hoof had been concocting in his lair, or just eager to get the whole messy business over and done with so I could go home and pretend this all never happened.
Ignoring the pain in my chest and the verbal protests from Blitzkrieg and the nurse I dragged myself out of best and dressed myself rather clumsily. I wanted to look at least slightly presentable despite still being covered in sweat and dust, my hair matted and uncombed, and my fur dirty and un-brushed. It would have to do.
“No, I don’t need to be carried this time,” I said, warding Blitzkrieg off with a hoof.
The pegasus chuckled and shook his head, “I ain’t doing that again; you’re bloody heavy, you are.”
I started to limp my way down the ward, when I remembered the letter on Cannon Fodder’s saddle.
“Cannon Fodder,” I called and he snapped to attention. “I want to add a postscript to the letter, ‘PS. Duelling is a bloody stupid tradition that must be abolished immediately’.”
A/N - Another chapter, not particularly happy with this one but here it is. Part three will come later and will hopefully be better than this one.