Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 2)

Cannon Fodder’s brand new dress uniform lasted for approximately thirty minutes before the residue of muck, grime, and assorted unidentified stains in his fur seeped through into the dark blue fabric of his tunic. It was some small mercy that the dark colours of his new uniform managed to hide most of the accumulated unpleasant substances, though the ungodly stench of body odour and flatulence was only slightly muted by the fresh change of clothes. However, considering how long everypony else in this tea party had been living in the Dodge Junction encampment, surrounded entirely by thousands of stallions and mares with access to only the most basic sanitation, I doubted that my aide’s charming bouquet would be quite as noticeable to them.

As for me, I like to believe I cleaned up rather nicely despite the rather meagre facilities on hoof and only having about an hour to use them. It’d probably have taken a full day at the spa, tended on by a small army of attractive spa mares trained in the delicate art of male grooming and armed with the finest lotions and shampoos available, for me to feel anything approaching clean. Fortunately, Cannon Fodder’s incredible skill at scrounging things for me had borne fruit in the form of real soap; as opposed to the bars of unidentifiable origin that the Logistics Corps seem to think make an adequate substitute. Quite how he managed to procure such a rare item in the Dodge Junction encampment was probably something I was better off not knowing, but in the interests of getting somewhat clean I was more than willing to turn a blind eye to whatever suspect means Cannon Fodder had employed.

The tea party itself was held in the Dodge Junction town hall, which had been requisitioned by Field Marshal Iron Hoof and his general staff for his combined headquarters and venue for social events. The town’s mayor and his small cadre of petty civil servants had been forcibly ejected from their municipal offices and forced to take up residence in a small barn on the town outskirts. What the mayor thought about this rather one-sided arrangement is not recorded by history, as historians naturally tend to ignore such trivialities, but I recall the grizzled old ex-cherry farmer being rather livid when his repeated demands to be allowed back in the dilapidated town hall were denied.

I was feeling rather confident as I made my way with Cannon Fodder through the encampment, though my efforts in making myself look presentable were slightly ruined by the ever-present dust that was kicked up by the hooves of thousands of ponies living and working in the camp. Evidence of the Princesses’ passing was evident in the peculiar wreathes of pretty flowers scattered across the parade squares and sleeping grounds and the garlands hanging decoratively over the ubiquitous armour and weapon racks. Actually, as I stepped past them, making my way through the areas cordoned off for the use of other regiments of Army Group Centre, the guardsponies were busy clearing up after them. In all likelihood, the garlands of flowers imported at great expense from the far reaches of Equestria would be recycled as part of our daily rations of the mysterious brown stew; a delicacy that we have yet to learn the component parts of.

We were late, though not so late as to be inconvenient, just enough to be considered ‘fashionable’ by the noble socialite dilatants that made up the bulk of the officer class of the Solar Guard, who would in turn be the majority of the party guests of this little soiree. Come to think of it, arriving ‘fashionably late’, as it were, was beginning to sound increasingly vulgar to me, as it was the sort of thing that the poseurs with pretensions to class and sophistication do to try and impress the social elite of Equestria’s hierarchical class structure. The sad thing is that it quite often works for them.

The rather run-down old building was guarded by two of Celestia’s pegasus guards, with the other two presumably inside guarding her person in the party. She didn’t strictly need guarding, of course, being a physical goddess and therefore impervious to all mortal-made weaponry, and surrounded entirely by loyal guardsponies. [Not strictly true. Like many mortals, Blueblood has conflated immortality with invulnerability.] Their presence, therefore, was purely decorative. Until recently, mind you, standing still and looking imposing was the most strenuous part of being in the Royal Guard and, if I had my way, it would remain so.

The subdued sounds of a polite tea party could be heard through the ramshackle doors and smashed windows – the light bubble of polite conversation intermixed with the clinking of fine porcelain and glass, a polite chuckle, and Twilight Sparkle screaming at Spike to behave himself in front of the Princesses.

The pegasi saluted as I stepped between them to get to the door, but as soon as Cannon Fodder approached to follow me their wings became suddenly erect, spread so that they formed a barrier between him and the door. My aide, unflappable as ever, walked straight into the wall of wings and bounced off them, looking somewhat more confused than usual at the two stallions barring him.

“Halt!” the one on the right shouted, glaring down at my assistant.

“Access is restricted to authorised guests only,” said the left guard sternly.

Cannon Fodder looked rather bemused at this turn of events, looking up at the two pegasi with his usual gormless and confused expression that implied he was barely aware of what was going around him. I stopped short of opening the door, glancing over my shoulder to watch the two pegasi turn their noses up at the dishevelled unicorn, and wrinkling them in disgust at his pungent odour.

“My job is to follow the Commissar everywhere he goes,” he said, and then looked over at me just behind the barrier of feathers, “unless he says otherwise.”

I did consider just leaving him there outside to wait for me, as he would be rather out of his depth at this refined tea party with the Princesses as he was with Fancy Pants’ benefit party a few weeks ago. However, I was growing rather reluctant to being separated from him as he had developed a very useful knack for saving my life and getting me out of sticky situations. I did not expect anything to go so drastically wrong that it would require his unique abilities as a Blank or stabbing things with spears, but one can never be too careful when the enemy is only a few miles away and happens to have a particular aptitude for underhanded warfare. Furthermore, I knew that the officers of the Night Guard would be present, including Blitzkrieg, who was most likely the most improper guest for a high society get-together in all of Equestria, and Twilight Sparkle’s beloved assistant Spike, who came in a close second, so Cannon Fodder would not be alone in being snubbed by everypony else.

The two guards looked at me sceptically, lowering their wings slightly.

“His security clearance is as high as mine,” I said.

They shared a confused glance before reluctantly lowering their wings and allowing my aide to follow me. Cannon Fodder gave an unconcerned shrug as the obstacle was cleared and started forwards.

Satisfied that we could finally continue, I pushed the door slightly open with my telekinesis, and the previously muffled sounds of the tea party became much louder and clearer. The party itself was in full swing already, and through the narrow gap between the door and the jamb I could see that the main hall was filled with mingling party guests. The large table, which had seen both opulent banqueting and intense military strategising, was still there and this time it was supporting a veritable mountain of cakes, biscuits, gourmet crisps [Blueblood means ‘potato chips’; he picked up some elements of the Trottingham dialect and traces of an accent due to his long association with the 1st Night Guards, much to the amusement of his compatriots in the Royal Court], and other assorted confections that were liable to disappear shortly if nopony could restrain Princess Celestia.

“Twilight Sparkle will be there, won’t she?” said Cannon Fodder sheepishly, bobbing his head around comically to try and look past me.

“I expect so,” I replied, glancing back into the hall and spotting a certain lavender-coloured mare bombarding her elder brother with a plethora of searching questions about his recent activities and urgent reminders not to do anything stupid, which was something I couldn’t count the overly enthusiastic Captain of the Guard to adhere to.

“Maybe I should wait out here for you.”

I shook my head. “There’s a free buffet table in there,” I said, knowing that Cannon Fodder’s distrust of Twilight Sparkle, which I surmised to be linked to his equal fear of doctors and dentists, was nothing compared to his voracious appetite. The effect was instantaneous, as he suddenly pushed his way past me, lightly knocking me into the door as he made a beeline towards the vast array of cakes and sweets on the table.

Straightening my uniform and dusting off a few biscuit crumbs that had migrated from Cannon Fodder as he unceremoniously barged past me, I entered into the hall. The other two pegasi guards were revealed to be standing on the other side of the door, and they bowed their heads respectfully and shut the door behind me.

The atmosphere was congenial, if somewhat forced and awkward, as is standard on all of my Aunties’ royal visits as everypony drives themselves into yet higher states of anxiety to make sure that they are all having a good time. There was a reason members the official Royal Party Planners Guild had a higher likelihood of developing high blood pressure and heart disease, and it was rather worrying that these morbid statistics started to get worse as the bearers of the Elements of Harmony started attending royal functions. The red-clad officers of the Solar Guard were busy mingling and engaging in idle banter, while the midnight-blue officers of the 1st Night Guard stood in their own little corner of the room and venturing out only in search of party snacks and drink.

The Princesses themselves were sitting at the head of the table, with Twilight Sparkle by her mentor’s side, and chatted pleasantly among themselves. Some of the braver party guests would approach, bow, and exchange a few polite words with them before trotting back and feeling proud of themselves. Naturally, most of the attention was heaped upon Princess Celestia, who handled it with her usual regal grace. As for Princess Luna, well, I didn’t think it was possible to drink tea angrily but she somehow managed it. Eventually, once they had plucked up the courage after imbibing strong tea and, in Captain Blitzkrieg’s case a surreptitious hipflask full of illicit moonshine, they came to their dark matriarch’s side to keep her company.

The hall itself was hastily decorated and it showed. With only a few days to repair and rather more pressing matters to attend to, Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s staff had simply strewed bunting about the place. Brightly coloured flags of red, white, and blue were hung above us on rope that stretched from wall to wall.

The regimental banners were back, and the dark battle standard of the 1st Night Guards stood out amidst the brightly coloured flags. The standard was still tattered and ripped from the battle, with numerous rips from shrapnel shot in the fabric, but Colonel Sunshine Smiles had remarked that the ‘wounds’ the flag had suffered were a far more appropriate tribute than the more conventional battle honours stitched into the other banners. The guardsponies, however, were taking bets on how long until the standard became so damaged that the Colonel would be forced to eat his words and have it repaired. At any rate, the first official battle honour had been applied to standard – a small scrap of embroidered silk that bore the words ‘Black Venom Pass’ had been stitched into the midnight blue cloth.

A quiet hush descended as I entered, which only made me feel a little more tense than usual. The reaction of the party guests was ambivalent; the older, more dyed-in-the-wool traditional officers turned their noses up at me, while a few of the younger officers, particularly the survivors from the 3rd Solar Guard Regiment who credited me with saving their lives from General Crimson Arrow’s incompetence, clopped their hooves in applause. My falsified reputation for heroism had yet to take on the universal appeal it would have later in my distinguished career. Therefore the Royal Guard was split down the centre into two camps – those who fully bought into my nascent status as the hero who slew a Changeling Purestrain in single combat and single-hoofedly saved an entire regiment from destruction and those who thought I was an interfering civilian bureaucrat sent from Canterlot with dangerous ideas about egalitarianism and appointment of officers by merit over birth and social status, both being rather distant from the truth.

Field Marshal Iron Hoof and General Crimson Arrow were together in a corner of the room, apparently having been conversing together before Cannon Fodder and I had blundered clumsily into the hall. Iron Hoof looked at me blankly, as he always did, before suddenly finding a painting of some country yokel’s grandmother incredibly fascinating. As for Crimson Arrow, my former friend and colleague, he glowered at me with a look of pure, unadulterated hatred for having betrayed him.

It was the first time I had seen Crimson Arrow since the battle; he had spent the intervening week sulking away in his tent. Any attempts by anypony to speak with him had been met with either frustrating silence or violence in the rare occasion a more courageous officer blundered in and demand he actually perform his job as commander of Army Group Centre. He looked gaunt and thin, his formerly handsome face now looking rather like a skull that had been flensed of its meat and the skin clumsily stretched over it, and dark bags visible under his hate-filled eyes. I suppressed a shudder when I saw the intense expression of betrayal in those eyes.

I looked away, unable to meet his gaze. I reminded myself that we were at war, and such things as personal friendship were entirely secondary to the prosecution of that war and achieving final victory over the Changeling menace. Looking back, however, I fear I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had said ‘I’m sorry’. Unfortunately, things in life tend not to be that simple, and on a second reflection it is likely that he would have rejected my apology and the course he had set himself upon would be unaltered.

I noticed Spike was at the table with Cannon Fodder and gorging upon a sapphire and emerald cake roughly twice his size, though it seemed that by the way he was eating it much of the cake ended up smeared over his face and on the floor. I watched with vague amusement as Bramley Apple from the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment informed the dragon child that he’ll make himself sick eating like that, to which Spike demonstrated his rather tentative grasp on the concept of causality by explaining that it was a problem for ‘the future Spike’.

“Howdy, sir!” Bramley waved enthusiastically at me as I approached.

“Hello, Sergeant,” I replied, noticing the extra stripe added to his rank insignia. I was rather perplexed as to why he, a non-commissioned officer, was present. Then I recalled all of the commissioned officers of his regiment were either killed or missing in action, thus making him the effective commanding officer until a replacement could be found or buy his way in. “Congratulations on the promotion.”

The War Ministry was likely going through a small bureaucratic nightmare as it struggled to find a way to fix the leaderless and ungodly mess that became of the 16th Royal Artillery. Ordinarily, I supposed, the entire regiment would have been disbanded and the survivors amalgamated to form the core of a brand new regiment or reassigned to other regiments. However, the chaos of war tends to make an almighty mess of the neat and ordered bureaucracy that is the War Ministry, though the Ministry is more than capable of entangling itself with red tape and paperwork by itself during peacetime. In the ensuing confusion and collective arse-covering that occurred after the Battle of Black Venom Pass the regiment seemed to have been forgotten. As with many things in my increasingly complicated life, it hinted towards something rather unpleasant in my future that only became obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

“Ah thank ya,” Bramley saluted. “Ah’m a little bummed out Ah didn’t get a commission, if’n Ah’m honest. Ah’m feeling a might outta place ‘round all these fancy-schmancy officer ponies.”

I levitated a small fondant fancy with pink frosting up to my mouth and nibbled on it delicately, eyeing Spike and Cannon Fodder over Bramley’s shoulder as they seemed to be engrossed in an ill-advised cake eating contest.

“I’ll see if I can’t pull a few strings with the War Ministry,” I said between mouthfuls of the small cake, with no plans on actually following through with my proposal. While I knew him to be a capable leader, as Major Starlit Skies attested to during the Battle of Black Venom Pass when Bramley Apple rallied the remnants of the 16th Artillery, I was reluctant to upset the proverbial apple cart any more than I already had in removing not only an officer but a general from command. By circumventing the ponderous bureaucratic machine of the War Ministry, and annoying the aristocratic dilettante officers, I would only make more enemies.

It felt like a damned shame.

“Don’t worry about it, sir,” he said with a shrug. “Ah ain’t no proper gentlecolt, all Ah knows is how to fire cannons and yell at stallions.”

“I think you’d be a great officer!” said Spike enthusiastically, crumbs and spittle spraying as he spoke with his mouth full.

Bramley smiled and rubbed the top of Spike’s head with a hoof in a rather unbecoming affectionate gesture that expertly illustrated why he would never become an officer, unless the existing officer class suddenly have a long overdue revelation and realise that grace and sophistication in social gatherings is rather secondary compared to genuine leadership skills, tactical ability, and fighting prowess – particularly when ponies lives are at stake.

I arched an eyebrow cynically, wondering at what point in Spike’s career, between running errands and fetching things for Twilight Sparkle and being left behind to fend for himself when his mistress and her friends were off saving Equestria again, he managed to squeeze ‘armchair general’ into his hectic schedule. The sad thing was that I agreed with him, which I found to be deeply troubling.

“Ah thank ya, Spike, but Ah ain’t lookin’ to be no officer. Shoot, Ah ain’t lookin’ to spend mah whole life in the Royal Guard anyhow. Apples’ are in mah blood.”

A quick glance at his flanks, not that I’m particularly oriented towards checking out the rumps of other stallions, informed me that his cutie mark was indeed of an apple. Though, the fact that the apple seemed to be fired out of a large howitzer left room for a lot of interpretation. [Bramley Apple acquired his cutie mark during his first Apple family reunion in Ponyville, where it is reported he destroyed the Sweet Apple Acres’ barn with a home-made mortar.]

“If ya’ll will excuse me, sirs, but Ah’d like to talk to Miss Twilight for a bit, Ah hear she knows mah cousin Applejack out of Ponyville.”

With a slight bow of his head in my direction he trotted off towards Twilight Sparkle and the Princesses, earning a few disapproving glances from some of the more stuffy officers who evidently believed that a mere nom-com such as he shouldn’t even be allowed to breath the same air as the Princesses, let alone approach them. As it happened, from my somewhat distant vantage point at the other opposite end of the room, it seemed that Princess Celestia rather enjoyed Sergeant Bramley’s company long after Twilight Sparkle drifted away to mingle with the other guests.

“You know,” said Spike as he clambered up on a chair so he could reach the cakes better, “I’ve been thinking.”

I highly doubted that, but for the sake of trying to get through this tea party without having yet more cake hurled in my direction like sweet sugary cannonballs of confection I decided to humour him.

“About what?”

“Well, I was just thinking. Twilight’s basically my big sister now, and her, I mean our, brother is married to Princess Cadence, your cousin. I think that makes us family now!”

Resisting the urge to pick up the moronic dragon and throw him head-first into a large, three-tiered frosted cake took a herculean effort on my part. However, I realised that if I could not get away with using Rarity as a pony-shield I probably couldn’t get away with abusing Spike in such manner, especially in front of his legal guardian, the princesses, and the vast majority of the army’s core leadership, regardless of how much he deserved it. So I merely forced a smile to my face, probably the sort that air stewardesses on airships perform when greeting the customers they were to be trapped with for the next few hours. I had the feeling I’ll be using that smile quite a lot that day.

“In a sense... Excuse me, I have to go and get some tea.”

“Pfft, whatever, cousin.”

I glowered down at Spike, and he just smiled that insufferable smug grin of his before stuffing it full of yet more cake. With a disdainful ‘hmmph’ I turned on my hooves and made my way around the large antique table, weaving my way around the chattering party guests, to the small portion of its surface devoted to drinks. As I left I heard Cannon Fodder loudly announce that he won the cake eating contest.

In truth I felt the need for a little solitude, which was something of a premium in the Royal Guard and certainly not to be found at this party. For when I stepped away from Spike I was assaulted by admiring fans – young ensigns, lieutenants, and even a captain wishing to congratulate me on my recent success. Naturally, I saw through their obviously shallow attempts to ensure the safety of their very expensive commissions and politely brushed them off with equally vapid platitudes – something that I learned from years spent amongst the social elite of Canterlot.

Over at the other side of the room I could see Captain Red Coat cautiously eyeing Twilight Sparkle, who, like me, was busy mingling amongst the party guests and making polite conversation. After a few fortifying glasses of wine and a sip of whatever illicit alcoholic, and quite possibly toxic, liquid was kept in Captain Blitzkrieg’s hipflask, he summoned up the necessary courage to try to speak with her. I paused, briefly, to watch the train wreck in all of its beautifully hideous glory from the apparent safety of the central table. Evidently, Red Coat had been getting dating tips from Blitzkrieg, and while his arsenal of pickup lines might have worked wonders on the ten bit whores who ply their trade in the Trottingham slums, they failed spectacularly against the more refined mare. Twilight Sparkle was either remarkably tolerant or oblivious of Red Coat’s intentions, though knowing her and her chronic lack of success with stallions I suspected it was the latter. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and after one mangled and particularly vulgar pickup line too many (‘is that a horn on your forehead or are you just pleased to see me?’, which, to this day, the meaning of which still eludes me), Shining Armour, who had been monitoring the situation from close by, could take no more and clipped Red Coat around the ear, barked a few harsh words in his face, and sent the adolescent scurrying back to Princess Luna with his tail between his legs. Naturally, most of his comrades found this hilarious.

With that fiasco over with, I gracefully slid past the assembled mass of party guests to the section of the table allocated for drinks. As expected, there were a wide variety of teas, coffees, and even wine on display. The tea cups, mugs, and wine glasses were arrayed out in neat little lines like soldiers on parade. The smaller assembly of tea kettles, coffee jugs, milk, and wine glasses were situated just behind them. I briefly overheard Captain Blitzkrieg complaining that there was no ‘proper Trottingham tea’ to Princess Luna just behind me. I, on the other hoof, was looking for something a little more tasteful than the sort of mud-like beverage so ubiquitous to the Trottingham underclass, so I settled for a cup of lapsang souchong.

I poured myself a cup, briefly noting that the kettle was the expensive sort with a magical enchantment to keep the liquid contained therein at a steady hot temperature. The warm, smoky aroma of the unique blend helped sooth my fractured nerves, and I was about to take a relaxed sip before I was interrupted by a pompous-sounding voice beside me.

“The Royal Guard has gone to the dogs, I tell you, sir!”

The speaker was either a very ugly unicorn or a very handsome pig dressed up in a Solar Guard dress uniform. The uniform itself was absolutely immaculate – the tunic was a brilliant crimson red that had yet to be faded by exposure to the bright sunlight and the nigh-constant dust around, and so utterly devoid of unsightly creases it must have been starched so stiff as to restrict movement. The high collar seemed to be restricting the blood flow to his head, for the skin on his face beneath his white fur was tinged red and, rather disturbingly, throbbing purple veins were visible on his neck and forehead.


“The Royal Guard, sir!” he blustered. Every syllable that escaped his somewhat malformed mouth made the thick jowls on his cheek wobble as if they were made of jelly. “It’s an absolute shambles, is what it is.”

I took a sip from my cup warily, savouring the distinctly smoky flavour of the fine tea. “Forgive me; I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you before.”

A broad, sickly sweet smile came to the unicorn’s face as he puffed his chest out proudly and stood tall. Well, as tall as the rather diminutive stallion could stand; despite holding his shoulders back and his neck held high he was still a full head shorter than me. Small red eyes, like those of a rat, gazed up at me from their sunken sockets and twinkled with a smug sense of superiority.

“Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter,” he said slowly, as if he enjoyed the sound of his name as much as he did his voice, “of the ‘Celestia’s Own’ 1st Solar Guard Regiment, sir!”

“Commissar Prince Blueblood of the 1st Night Guards,” I replied. I couldn’t help but wonder which idiot granted this pony a knighthood, but considering how knighthoods might as well have been given free in boxes of cereal for what they were worth these days it shouldn’t have surprised me. [Sir Scarlet Letter MP was knighted on a recommendation from the House of Commons for his services in the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Regulation of the Sizes of Stamps, which, after five years of intense deliberation and billions of bits spent in research, decided that postage stamps were the right size for the job after all. To ensure that no undue blame is apportioned either to me or my sister, I wish to make it absolutely clear that it was Princess Cadence who approved the absurd request.]

Scarlet Letter chuckled and patted me on the shoulder, and I instinctively flinched away from the well-hooficured hoof. “Of course I know who you are, sir! Saved Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s life, foiled a Changeling plot to invade the city, and...” he looked over to where Crimson Arrow stood sulking in a darkened corner of the room, “...burning the dead wood from the Royal Guard. I daresay you’re making quite the name for yourself, the common pony seems to think you’re some sort of bally hero.”

“I was merely doing my duty,” I said with the verbal equivalent of a vacant shrug. Annoyingly, it was that exact sort of modesty that perpetuated my undeserved image, but for the time being it was serving me well and I didn’t particularly feel like talking to Scarlet Letter. It didn’t take a master of pony psychology to work out what he was doing, it was as plain as the irritating friendly smile on his face – he was trying to butter me up, befriend me, and hope that I wouldn’t treat him too harshly should I find him wanting on the battlefield.

“Of course, of course.” He stepped to the table and prepared a cup of coffee for himself. “Personally, I think you’re rather wasted here. I mean, you’re the Princesses’ nephew for Faust’s sake, you should have Iron Hoof’s job.”

I shook my head and smiled as best as I could, indulging in this little stallion’s pleasing fiction that he was acquiring my friendship, if only out of morbid curiosity to see what exactly he thought he could get out of me. Naturally, being so high up in Equestria’s aristocratic hierarchy made me subject to this sort of behaviour, and I had come to accept it as one of the more irritating drawbacks of my noble lifestyle. Ponies would often come to me, offering false promises of friendship and alliance in a bid to gain something they believed I could acquire for them. For the most part it was supporting some piece of legislation that was being sent to the Princesses for approval, or putting my not-inconsiderable influence behind a certain pony, or in Rarity’s case a chance to enter into Equestria’s upper classes.

“And be stuck five miles behind the frontlines buried beneath a mountain of paperwork and miss out on proper soldiering? I think not.” It was a lie, naturally, as there was nothing I wanted more than to be five miles behind the frontlines, where the biggest threat to my life was a paper cut and not hordes of bestial, angry Changelings intent on tearing me into tiny pieces.

“Quite right, old chap, quite right,” he patted my shoulder again and grinned irritatingly. “But it must be galling for you, dear boy, to be surrounded by that low born scum who dare to call themselves officers of the Night Guard.”

He jerked a hoof in the direction of the said officers, who were conversing happily with both of the Princesses. I couldn’t quite hear them over the gentle murmur of dozens of gossiping party guests, but it seemed evident that all involved were having a good time of it. To my surprise, Captain Blitzkrieg was chatting quite amicably with Princess Celestia, who smiled with genuine warmth and affection at the gruff pegasus. I have always secretly admired my Auntie Celestia for her ability to relate to the common pony and make each of her individual subjects feel uniquely blessed and loved, which is something neither I nor Princess Luna have quite managed to achieve yet. Though frankly, in my case I just didn’t bother trying until much later in my life.

“They’re good soldiers,” I said blankly before taking another sip of my tea, resisting the urge to throw the scalding hot liquid over the impudent little Lieutenant’s face. I decided instead to go for the bluff old soldier routine, despite the fact I was much too young to pull it off effectively at the time.

“Yes, they might be good soldiers but they’re far too unrefined and vulgar to be officers.” He leaned uncomfortably close to me and said in a suspiciously low and quiet voice, “They’re not gentlecolts. We’re both officers of the old school and we both know that officers need to act with a sense of decorum. After all, sir, it’s what separates us from the brute beast that is the common Equestrian soldier. It’s a shame that a pony of your great and noble standing has to lower himself to the level of these base animals.”

I grimaced, but managed to hide my facial expression behind my rather dainty little teacup. A few weeks ago, before my baptism of blood in Black Venom Pass, I’d have naturally agreed with him, but after having fought alongside those ‘base animals’ and ‘brute beasts’ my viewpoint had been rather corrected. I even began to feel some small measure of affection for this band of misfits and social rejects, though that might have just been a result of my innate paranoid streak that told me I had to form a bond with these ponies if I were to survive.

“I have a brother high up in the War Ministry and a few friends in the House of Commons,” he said, sipping from his cup of coffee. The rising steam from the hot liquid formed a wreath around his rotund face with its sickly sweet smile, and he licked his thin lips in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of a lizard. “All I have to do is send off a few letters to some very important ponies, a quiet word here or there, and I can have you assigned to a regiment of your own choosing. Who knows? I might even get you out of that ghastly uniform and into a Colonel’s.”

I have to admit that I found it all rather tempting at the time, but I knew that underneath all of that faux-affability and smarmy friendliness laid the hidden truth that he expected me to do something for him too. I doubted that whatever it was that he had in mind was particularly pleasant or easy, and in all likelihood it probably would have ended up causing more trouble for me than it was worth. Call me unhealthily paranoid, but when a pony goes deliberately out of their way to try and become friends with me, to the point that they’re becoming rather creepy about it, they’re obviously up to no good, particularly when politicians and the Royal Guard are involved. [I find a degree of paranoia about what my politicians are doing to be rather justified in most cases.] A near lifetime of dealing with these sycophantic social climbers had shown me that these ponies rarely, if ever, want something for nothing.

“Have a think about it, Your Highness.” With that he patted me on the shoulder and slinked away, melting into the crowd of ponies around me, and then he was gone.

I was relieved to be finally rid of him. Initially I had thought it best to put it out of my mind, after all, with Changeling-held territory not more than a few miles away to the south and a number of military commanders of questionable sanity and competence dreaming up ways to get me killed in the name of Princesses and Country, I had rather more important things to worry about.

“I see you’ve made a new friend,” said one of the few voices I was actually pleased to hear. The newly promoted Captain Fine Vintage, who had been quietly observing from the sidelines, approached me and took up position by my side.

He wore his new rank pips with obvious pride, as evidenced by the slight smile on his thin lips and the self-assured manner in which he carried himself, which was a far cry from the exhausted and beleaguered junior officer I had seen in the Battle of Black Venom Pass. As Scarlet Letter might have put it, he was an ‘officer of the old school’; meaning he was of aristocratic descent and had paid for his commission and subsequent promotion into Clear Heaven’s vacant position with a not-inconsiderable number of bits. Unlike Clear Heavens and many other such officers, however, he was actually rather competent in his job and pragmatic enough to realise that noble birth is not an adequate prerequisite for military and that if he wanted to succeed in his job he had to actually put the work in.

“That pony is an idiot,” I said derisively, draining the last dregs of my tea before gently floating the empty tea cup back to the table. “I can’t imagine why Shining Armour would allow somepony like him hold the Princesses’ commission in his regiment.”

Fine Vintage smirked and shook his head. He held a half-filled glass of red wine in a pale telekinetic aura just underneath his chin, and as he swished the glass around, making the dark crimson liquid disturbingly reminiscent of blood slosh swirl and slosh about inside, he looked thoughtfully into it as if the answer to that quandary lay at the bottom of the glass. Considering his special talent, the manufacture and appreciation of fine wines as denoted by his cutie mark of a wine bottle decanting its dark red contents into a glass, I was not surprised that he adhered to the ancient proverb ‘in vino, veritas’ [In wine, truth]. Despite the substantial proportion of Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s wine cellar he had been sampling throughout the party, the young Captain remained remarkably composed and clear-headed for most of the afternoon.

“Leverage,” he said, after some consideration. “He’s not an idiot, Blueblood, he’s a snake. If he comes off as foolish to you, it’s because he wants you to.”

“What do you mean by ‘leverage?” I asked.

“Shining Armour is dancing on a knife edge,” he said quietly, glancing around to check that nopony was eavesdropping on our conversation. “He lost the entire city of Canterlot to a Changeling invasion in less than ten minutes. Granted, it wasn’t entirely his fault; he was under Queen Chrysalis’ mind-warping illusion spell, but a lot of ponies question whether he should still be Captain of the Royal Guard.”

“Hmmph,” I snorted in contempt. “It shouldn’t matter what those ponies think; if my Auntie Celestia wants him she can damn well have him.” [One of the rare occasions I agree with Blueblood on political matters. Equestrian democracy was at a rather nascent stage of development at that time, and Parliament often created more problems than it solved.]

Captain Fine Vintage smiled and took a small sip of his wine, taking a short moment to savour the complex flavours before finally swallowing. I’ve never understood oenophiles, while I do enjoy a good glass of fine wine every now and again and I am not exactly a philistine when it comes to appreciating the art of a particularly good vintner; there are some ponies who seem to revere the grape as much as they do Celestia, Luna, and even Faust Herself. Besides, I was more of a whisky fan myself.

“Quite right, Blueblood, but sadly even the Goddess of the Sun must acquiesce to the facile demands of Parliament from time to time. As it happens, Parliament is split between those who support Shining Armour and those who want his dismissal. It is only by divine providence that both chambers of Parliament are marginally in support of Shining Armour, due in no small part to the Lieutenant’s efforts in encouraging certain members of Parliament to seeing reason.”

“I see; Shining Armour is beholden to Scarlet Letter for saving his career.”

I didn’t state the obvious, but a quiet nod from Fine Vintage confirmed that I was thinking along the right lines – Scarlet Letter was using his influence to keep Shining Armour’s flagging career alive despite criticism from Parliament and the Royal Guard itself in return for a boon of some description. I had already known that Shining Armour’s performance in the Battle of Canterlot had severely damaged his reputation, but I was prepared to cut him some slack considering he had what little remained of his mind under the magical thrall of a dominating mare – much like his current marriage.

What Scarlet Letter wanted in return, however, was still an abject mystery to me. While it was certainly possible that the irritating little stallion might be content with being a junior officer in the Royal Guard’s most prestigious regiment, no doubt winning a good number of brownie points over his friends and peers back at Parliament, I feared that his ambitions lay a damn sight higher than that. Then it hit me; he wanted Shining Armour’s job. Naturally, I didn’t have the slightest bit of evidence other than a gut feeling, but my innate paranoia has the incredibly irritating tendency to be right about these things, and when I factored that into the equation it started to make much more sense. However, this revelation did bring some smidgen of hope for me. Shining Armour was not a complete fool, appearances being deceiving and all that rot, and though Scarlet Letter had managed to establish himself on the 1st Solar Guard Regiment’s chain of command and ready to work himself up to that esteemed position of Captain of the Royal Guard, he was exactly where Shiny Arsehole could keep a very close eye on him.

Regrettably, it did little to assuage my worries enough to suppress the gnawing paranoia in the back of my mind. That same paranoia which had the irritating tendency of being right nearly all of the time, and as it happened I might have saved myself a lot of trouble later in my career if I had managed to organise an unfortunate and very messy accident involving him and one of Bramley’s sixpounders that we might have ‘forgotten’ were fully loaded.

“I say,” said Fine Vintage, interrupting my thoughts, “is that General Crimson Arrow over there? I assumed that he had returned to Canterlot in shame.”

I glanced momentarily at the General, who had, by now, ventured out from his self-imposed seclusion in the corner of the room to chat with the few officers who had chosen to support this with equus non grata. He seemed a shadow of his former, outgoing self, and looked ashamed to even be in the company of other ponies.

“The same reason Colonel Rising Star is allowed to command your regiment,” I replied, “War Ministry whitewash. One can’t just get rid of a general or a colonel; they both have too many supporters within the Ministry, so Clear Heavens was made the scapegoat.”

There was very little time to dwell on the matter, however, as the chiming sound of a teaspoon tapping delicately against an empty wineglass cut through the gentle hubbub of conversation around us. Everypony turned their heads towards the sound, ears forward and attentive, to see that the origin of the universally accepted gesture that somepony wants everypony’s attention was Princess Celestia.

The supreme Diarch of Equestria stood, spoon and glass in her golden telekinetic aura, and waited patiently for everypony’s rapt attention. A couple of soldier-servants appeared from the darkened alcoves of the room and cleared the table of leftovers with military precision and speed, much to Cannon Fodder and Spike’s dismay, to ensure a clear line of sight between the Princesses and their audience. It may have been my paranoid streak acting up again, but I glanced over my shoulder behind me to see the two pegasi guards that had accompanied the Diarchs secure and bolt the door, thus ensuring that the audience was very much a captive one.

I thought it was rather early to end the party after just half an hour, and I was feeling rather disappointed that I didn’t get to speak with Auntie ‘Tia, though I consoled myself that there would be plenty of time later once she had gone through the motions of thanking everypony for such a lovely, if short, party.

“I would like to thank each and every one of you for welcoming my sister and me so warmly today,” she began, which resulted in a polite and restrained ripple of applause from the assembled mass of officers, and an excited whoop from Bramley Apple.

“However,” she continued without bothering to wait for the sound of clopping hooves on the rough wooden floor to die down, “I would also like to say that my sister and I are very much disappointed in you all.”