Subsequent attempts to revive the tea party fell flat, the mood having been completely and irrevocably killed by the unremitting verbal broadside from the two Princesses. Many ponies simply left, leaving the Field Marshal and a few hangers-on alone in the town hall like the most unpopular foal in school on his birthday party with the handful of ‘friends’ forced to attend by their parents. I lingered for a while, to see if I could scrounge some more free food and drink out of the Field Marshal, before leaving when I noticed that the Night Guard officers had already gone. After that I left hurriedly, claiming that I was needed to help Twilight Sparkle settle into her new surroundings, though really I just wanted to get out of that wretched party and spend some quality time with my Auntie ‘Tia instead. Cannon Fodder swiftly followed me, but only after stuffing the myriad pouches and pockets that festooned even his dress uniform with cake and biscuits until they were bulging and overflowing with confections.
I was bitterly disappointed that I did not have the chance to speak with Celestia during the party, and as I trudged my way back to the encampment, Cannon Fodder following me like the dutiful assistant he always is, I prayed that I would not be too late. The all-too-frequent confrontations with my own mortality had helped put my mind into a rather new perspective, and I felt the need to try and repair the bridges I had burned down with my foalish and arrogant behaviour. Luna, however, I felt was a lost cause and would never, ever even begin to like me. Although her attitude towards me had started to soften by that point, I believed, back then, that even with the gradual thawing of our relationship it would take far longer than my natural life span [which was rather long compared to that of most ponies, owing to his weak alicorn heritage] before we could be considered on friendly terms. Still, getting her to accept our tentative blood relation was some small step in the right direction.
I confess to feeling somewhat elated after the party, though everypony else was downright miserable. I had hoped that they would take Celestia’s and Luna’s words to heart and begin prosecuting this war in a proper and sensible manner, particularly Iron Hoof and Crimson Arrow, which would mean I could get this unpleasantness over and done with as soon as possible and return to some semblance of a normal life. But then again I was not looking forward to being forced to endure Twilight Sparkle’s company for any extended period of time, particularly if we were to go into battle once more. The prospect of avoiding said combat by having to foal-sit Celestia’s favourite pet only narrowly outweighed the disadvantages of being subjected to her obsessive attention to detail, incessant logorrhoea, and occasional bouts of crippling insanity.
Cannon Fodder and Spike had bonded over the course of the failed tea party; both sharing the same interests in downing vast quantities of sugary confection, especially if it’s free, and both seeing themselves as number one assistants to very powerful and influential ponies. Spike even spoke of forming a trade union of Number One Assistants, though he only had a tentative grasp of what a trade union actually does and seemed to think it was some sort of social club, as opposed to the venomous tendrils of Collectivism infesting the lower orders of industrialised Equestrian society.
Despite the hope that welled within in me that we might conceivably win this war and, more importantly, that there was a decent chance that I might actually survive long enough to see its end, Princess Luna’s final warning about the expansion of the Commissariat worried me. They were a completely unknown quantity, and beyond some terse correspondence between myself and the Commissar-General in the War Ministry I had absolutely no contact with any other member of the organisation. While I believed I would be able to act rationally when it came to exercising the rather absurd amount of power that lay in my hooves, I feared that my future colleagues and brothers-in-arms would not be quite so sensible when it came to enforcing discipline. Nevertheless, I was reasonably confident that any rational officer would learn to behave himself with the omnipresent gaze of the Commissariat lingering over him and therefore any unpleasant confrontations between the Ancien Régime and the new guard would be avoided. If anypony who happens to be reading this has been paying attention, they will know that reality has an increasingly nasty habit of taking my hopeful expectations out behind the scooter shed and bludgeoning them to death with a sledgehammer.
It was late afternoon as we commenced our journey back, following a gentle trickle of officer ponies, all in similarly disheartened spirits, as they made their way back to the encampment, no doubt to sit in a darkened tent with a bottle of strong alcohol to contemplate where exactly their lives had gone wrong and what they could do about it. The sun, fat and yellow in the clear blue sky, was halfway through its descent into the western plains beyond the horizon. The blistering heat and muggy humidity that is the bane of my existence here in the Badlands was slowly starting to fade away into the horrid chill of the cold desert night, which I found to be marginally preferable to sweating through my shirt all day. The ungodly stench of war would linger on, however, and only grow worse with the coming heat of the new day, and with it so would the vermin: disgustingly fat-bodied flies that seemed to get everywhere, especially in one’s food, tiny mosquitoes that would sneak in unnoticed to feed off ponies’ blood and leave irritating bites in their wake, and legions of rats that were slowly driving the Catering Corps to insanity.
“I think that went pretty well,” said Cannon Fodder abruptly as we cleared the town and crossed the short expanse of wasteland to the encampment.
I cocked my head to one side in confusion. “By what measure can you possibly judge that as having gone ‘pretty well’?” I asked incredulously.
“The food was nice,” he replied with a vacant shrug, “and there were no Changelings like the last party we went to.”
“Touché.” I had to concede that he did have a point in that respect; seeing as how the previous two parties I had attended resulted in my life thrust into terrifying and mortal danger, first from a very large cake and the second from a rabid horde of Changelings, while being accompanied by a certain mare whose shrill and incessant whining could alone conquer the Pits of Tartarus itself. Perhaps I should have sent a letter to the War Ministry requesting that we fire Rarity out of a cannon into Queen Chrysalis’ hive and then sit back and wait for their inevitable surrender.
We trudged through the outer picquet lines, and the soldiers on sentry duty only made a token effort to stop us and check our identification papers to ensure that we were not Changeling spies. The fact that when a Changeling assumes a pony’s identity they usually go out of their way to steal their personal effects to complete the illusion apparently hadn’t occurred to them. While I was thankful that we had managed to get through with the minimal of hassle, for I did not want to waste any more time than strictly necessary and risk missing Auntie ‘Tia completely, I made a mental note to speak with the provosts [the military police] and the General Staff later about the importance of maintaining base security and a gentle reminder about how things very nearly turned to disaster in Black Venom Pass as a result of Changeling infiltration. However, as we crossed into the encampment, that notion was swiftly pushed out of my mind.
Celestia and Luna were still there, thankfully, as we reached the parade ground where their chariot had touched down a few long hours earlier. The vehicle was still parked in the middle of the busy square, and could be glimpsed briefly between the marching formations of dust-covered Solar Guard ponies, a few hundred feet or so from the edge from which we had approached. The four spoked wheels of the opulent carriage had gouged two great furrows in the ground’s uneven surface, and the iridescent gold reflected the glorious rays of the setting sun like a miniature simulacrum of the bright solar orb itself. The two Princesses, one as magnificent and bright as a warm spring day and the other as dark and mysterious as a completely cloudless night, stood by their craft. Next to them, their four pegasus bodyguards and personal chauffeurs tended to the chariot, inspecting the wheels, harnesses, and limbers and performing the usual twenty-point check before they could take flight again.
At first I feared I was too late, and thus broke into a brisk trot in an effort to at least say ‘goodbye’ properly to Auntie Celestia before she left, which was something I was unable to do when I was unceremoniously dragged out against my will and shipped off to this Faust-forsaken part of the world. Irritatingly, the parade ground was still in heavy use despite the Princesses’ visit, as sections and platoons of the 1st Solar Guard Regiment practiced square bashing [military slang for drill]. Sergeants and corporals berated their soldiers’ alleged inability to march in perfect synchronisation by screaming obscenities and questioning the guardsponies’ sexual preferences in increasingly louder voices, and all of this to the tune of the regimental band attempting to play ‘I Vow To Thee, My Equestria’ with their habitual enthusiasm and distinct lack of anything approaching musical talent.
I weaved my way around the marching formations like a lost dog dodges the heavy Manehatten traffic, leaving scattered formations of confused guardsponies who were torn between stopping to salute me as I passed them or ignoring the distraction and carrying on marching regardless. Whatever they did earned them a torrent of further vocal abuse and threats of bloody violence from their NCOs regardless of their actions being right or wrong. I ignored them, hell-bent as I was on making sure that I at least have a short conversation with my beloved Auntie, and thus leaving a trail of mayhem and chaos in my wake that was further compounded as Cannon Fodder barrelled through the confused formations with his usual single-minded determination to stay by my side at all times.
That if the Princesses were preparing to leave they would have cleared out the parade ground so that their pegasi would have enough space to build up speed for a decent take-off had not occurred to me at that point, and if it had I probably would have taken a rather more leisurely pace that did not interfere with the Solar Guard’s drill practice. At any rate, it was all inconsequential; the ponies might have taken a bollocking from their NCOs for daring to do anything without their express permission but ultimately they would recover from the peculiar distraction and get on with yet more drill.
The Princesses and the carriage had a small space cleared for them in the centre of the parade square, which was cordoned off with a barrier made of short sticks placed a few feet from each other and connected by long hemp rope. While I initially doubted that such a barrier would be effective against any intruder, as I was able to simply step over it, I realised that it was just there as a guide to prevent the marching troops from wandering into the chariot. To march sections and platoons straight into walls and other solid objects, sometimes straight into other ponies if a drill instructor is feeling particularly cheeky, and watch the hapless ponies continue to march on the spot in front of the bemused obstruction to the vague amusement of all observing is a fairly common trick used by NCOs, so I just assume now that it was to prevent some sergeant or corporal trying that out with the royal chariot and the Princesses. [Actually, a few did attempt just that.]
The four pegasi bodyguards tended to their craft; checking the various harnesses and joints fastidiously for any faults or problems that might put their lives at risk. I say ‘their lives’ as two alicorn demi-goddesses they were to escort to Appleloosa were made of much sterner stuff than the average pony, being able to shrug off injuries that would likely kill you and me as if they were mere paper cuts.
Twilight Sparkle was beside the carriage tending to her luggage, which consisted of a number of large wooden trunks and a chest of the style that is normally seen being dragged out of the ground by surly pirates. Being the fastidious little pony that I know and can barely tolerate even existing, she had her checklist out and was partway through verifying the contents of her luggage against the enormous list in front of her. Ordinarily, I supposed, she would have employed the aid of her ‘number one assistant’, but he was still paying the price for his over-indulgence and lay groaning in pain on the ground, obviously in no position to lend a claw in aid.
“Uhhrr... never again,” he groaned, and his stomach made a hideous gurgling noise like a caged animal.
Twilight popped her head up from her checklist. “You said that last time, and the time before that. I think you might have a serious problem!”
“Nuh-uh! I can quit whenever I want to!”
“You said that before, too.”
Captain Red Coat stood off to the side of the chariot and quietly observed Twilight as she tended to her luggage. He looked rather sick, with a haggard appearance and a rather green tinge to his cheeks underneath his grey fur. Evidently, he was still rather inebriated, though seemingly now stuck in the melancholy stage after his very public embarrassment at the hooves of Shining Armour. I later learned that this was the lad’s first experience with alcohol, and at a mere seventeen years old he shouldn’t have been allowed near the drinks table in the first place.
“Captain,” I said, injecting as much authority into my voice as possible, as I trotted on over to him. “How are you holding up?”
Red Coat shrugged. “I was so stupid, and now she’s probably never going to want to speak to me again. Besides, she’s the Princess’s personal student; she’s not going to be interested in some grammar school oik and the son of a minor accountant.”
The poor lad looked thoroughly despondent, and I feared that it would have some negative effect of his leadership of his company. Any organisational stratum of the Royal Guard, from sections through platoons, companies, regiments, armies, and the administrative staff, is only as good as the officer who commands it. An officer’s personality and his own state of mind reflects positively upon the stallions he commands, and in the interests of keeping myself alive by ensuring that the wall of heavily armoured ponies I intended to hide behind were in a suitable mental state to do so, I decided I’d lend him a hoof. After all, I did not want in a battle situation for him to suffer a sudden bout of despair, specifically the sort that melancholic romantic poets and modern ‘break-up’ pop songs fixate upon.
The teenage mind being as it is, constantly starved for sex but also very much incapable of holding its attention on one thing for any extended period of time, I considered just letting him borrow a few items from Cannon Fodder’s extensive library of specialist gentlecolt’s literature. Though I doubted that would be a good long-term solution, as I would not want to encourage that certain practice and Cannon Fodder would be rather unhappy with being forced to part with even a small part of his collection. I supposed giving him a little nudge in the right direction, even if his attempted relationship with Twilight Sparkle was doomed to failure, would at least help improve his self esteem for the time being.
“Go and help her with her luggage,” I suggested, and vaguely wondering at what point in my hitherto short but unexpectedly ascendant career my already prodigious job description included ‘regimental matchmaker’. Despite my proven track record when it came to meeting and bedding pretty young mares, I was hardly the best colt to be giving advice on doing so. My prey tended to be very impressionable and very bored daughters of minor aristocrats, and I merely had to say 'I am Celestia's nephew' and they were mine for the night. It rather took the sport out of it.
“But she’s a unicorn!” he protested. “I think she can handle all of that herself.”
“She’ll appreciate the effort anyway, Red Coat, and besides, it’ll give you a chance to talk to her. Just don’t use any more of Captain Blitzkrieg’s chat-up lines.”
“Well, okay, if you think so...”
I gave Red Coat a friendly pat on the shoulder and wished him luck before he trotted off to ‘help’ Twilight, whether or not she actually wanted or required it. It struck me as rather disturbing at how most ponies were often willing to just blindly follow whatever vague suggestion I put forth, though I usually find that many of my proposals tended to be the one obvious, unpleasant, but very necessary solution to our survival but nopony wants to admit it. But even I would think twice about following my own advice.
I shook my head despondently and left Red Coat with his latest attempt to seduce Twilight Sparkle, though I knew he had about as much chance of succeeding as Cannon Fodder winning the Miss Equestria beauty pageant. Still, being let down gently by the object of his affections would be better for him that being beaten to a bloody pulp by her over-protective elder brother.
Putting this latest insanity out of my mind for the time being I decided to focus on my original goal of seeing Auntie ‘Tia, so I bade Cannon Fodder to make sure that Captain Red Coat did not do anything untoward with Twilight. My veritable aide complied with his new duties as chaperone with his habitual stoicism and quiet obedience.
The Princesses themselves were standing away from the chariot, quietly conversing in Ancient Equestrian as I approached them. It appeared that they were having an argument of sorts, but speaking sotto voce [low voice] and in Ancient Equestrian implied that they did not want to be overheard. I wanted to respect their wishes, following Twilight’s example; not wanting to get involved in the affairs of alicorns which would no doubt lead to something unpleasant and possibly dangerous, but given the natural curiosity of ponies and my personal paranoia that anypony not wanting to be heard is invariably up to something sinister I just couldn’t help myself.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Luna, hissing through set teeth, “I cannot believe you’re suggesting we stand back and do nothing!”
“I am suggesting nothing of the sort,” said Celestia calmly and soothingly, as one would with a petulant child. “We will guide and advise our little ponies, but no, we cannot dictate and rule as we have done in the past; Equestrian society has moved on since your banishment.”
“I know,” she hissed, stomping a hoof in frustration and kicking up a small cloud of dust that wafted away in the warm breeze. “’Equestria’s government system has developed so much over the last one thousand years’,” she said, mimicking Twilight Sparkle’s rather studious and nagging voice when she delivers one of her infamous Twilectures, “’The old system of vassalage whereby feudal nobility swear fealty to one another and are subject to the divine autocratic personal rule by the two Warlord-Princesses has gradually developed into a constitutional diarchy, in which the executive and legislative power of the Crowns is exercised by the office of the Prime Minister and the Houses of Parliament respectively’.”
“Then you know we cannot undo one thousand years of political evolution. I apologise, sister, but an Act of Parliament forbids any alicorn Princess of Equestria from personally commanding any ponies under arms, and I have no intention of inviting a constitutional crisis by allowing you to break this edict.”
“An edict that was passed by short-sighted and ephemeral mortal ponies while I was exiled upon my moon and while you had lapsed into a coma following our fight...” Luna stopped and made a sudden pained expression, which disappeared as abruptly as it had formed upon her face, “...your fight with Nightmare Moon. This whole mess would have been avoided had we personally taken command of our armies and brought the fight to Chrysalis. I will not stand idly by while ponies’ lives are wasted by incompetent foals!”
“Don't forget, Chrysalis nearly killed me." Celestia stared into Luna's eyes with a soft, yet determined expression. "I cannot risk the same happening to you.”
Luna shook her head emphatically. “No, she only defeated you because you were holding back; you did not want to risk harming our subjects by unleashing your full power. The government be damned, sister; I don’t want to spend the war wasting away in Canterlot Castle with all the bureaucrats and their blasted red tape and toilet paper! I want to fight!"
I cleared my throat in the noisy manner one does when one wants to attract attention, and the two Princesses stopped and looked at me in surprise.
I had decided I had overheard enough, and did not want to earn the ire of both princesses for having listened in too much on what they had obviously intended as a private conversation between them, largely because I did not think that I could adequately pretend not to be eavesdropping; one who tries to affect nonchalance usually looks more suspicious as a result. Though what they were discussing did make me feel somewhat uneasy, I resolved to put it out of my mind. The edict of which they spoke of (as if I need to explain the post-Heresy Reconstruction, but judging by the declining standards in history education in Equestria’s state schools I probably have to, assuming the reader happens to be a low-born, state-educated commoner) was intended to ensure that the immense destruction caused by the Nightmare Heresy would never be repeated by delegating the command of the vast Legions across numerous officers and commanders, as opposed to being vested entirely in one individual who may or may not fall prey to feelings of jealousy and personal inadequacy and try to take over the world.
Celestia forced her usual kindly smile to her face.
“We will continue this discussion later, Luna,” said Celestia in modern Equestrian, apparently giving up any efforts to hide their conversation.
“Your experiments with democracy will bring Equestria nothing but ruin,” said Luna, and for perhaps the first time since her return to Equestria I agreed with her on something. She gave a snort of utmost contempt, matched only by the scowl on her face, as she climbed onto the chariot and watched the marching ponies.
Celestia breathed a heavy sigh of exasperation and shook her head in dismay as she watched her sister go, once more allowing me a glimpse of the pony underneath the regal façade she always wears like a shield. I found it rather disconcerting to see the two goddesses of Equestria, in whom we all look to for safety and guidance in trying times, behaving more like two bickering siblings than the serene deities they were supposed to be. As she turned her gaze back towards me, her habitual gentle smile returned once more to her face.
“Your Auntie Luna can be rather trying at times,” she said softly, “she does her best, but it is difficult to adjust after such a long absence. She’ll learn.”
The divine goddess of the sun, ruler of all Equestria and her territories and dominions overseas, stepped forth and bent her long, swan-like neck down and nuzzled me gently, which I returned tentatively and, frankly, I felt rather embarrassed by the open display of familial affection in front of everypony. Fortunately, everypony was rather too busy to pay much attention to us.
“I’m sure she means well,” I said, stepping back a little to allow myself some modicum of personal space again, as much as I love my Auntie Celestia, her tendency to show affection in public can be rather grating. “I think her taking command of the Royal Guard might be best, however.”
I was being earnest for once; Princess Luna would certainly do a far superior job of leading the Royal Guard to victory than Field Marshal Iron Hoof. Then again, in my opinion a boiled potato was more suited to command an army than the Field Marshal, and possessed a more interesting personality than him too. However, I knew the political fallout would be immense, and not many ponies would be particularly happy about a pony who was once the single most notorious war criminal in Equestrian history, whose armies slaughtered, burned, and raped in a vast swathe of destruction across the land to the very gates of Canterlot Castle, once again in charge of a large number of heavily armoured ponies. As getting trapped in the subsequent political turmoil was inimical to my overall goal of living an as stress-free and ultimately safe life as possible, given the rather precarious situation my unwanted reputation had forced me into, I then decided that perhaps it just was not worth it. Naturally, I would later be forced into said political turmoil regardless of what I wanted, so it made no difference in the end.
“I do not doubt her ability to command,” said Celestia gravely, no doubt having experienced her younger sister’s fighting prowess and tactical acumen on the battlefield during those dark days of the Nightmare Heresy. [I only faced Nightmare Moon once in battle, and that was during the Siege of Canterlot. And while Princess Luna was certainly a capable military leader, who led the Royal Guard to many great victories in the wars for Equestria’s unification, as Nightmare Moon she had lost all semblance of military sanity and relied heavily upon massed infantry charges that, while undoubtedly successful against the Loyalists in the opening stages of the Nightmare Heresy, were unsubtle and resulted in monstrous casualties that contributed to her final defeat at Canterlot.]
Celestia shook her head and said, “Never mind, she’ll understand eventually. Your Auntie Luna always hated politics; she seemed to think it got in the way of getting things done properly.”
Once again I found myself in that rare situation of agreeing with Luna. I vaguely wondered if Tartarus was freezing over at the same time.
“Do you really have to leave so soon?”
“I’m sorry, but there’s another dispute over land ownership between the settler ponies in Appleloosa and the buffalo tribes.”
“I still think you should...”
“No, Blueblood,” Celestia interrupted me by placing a hoof on my shoulder. Despite being clad in shimmering metal, it did not feel cold to the touch. “For the last time, I’m not going to evict the buffalos from their land and force them into reservations.” [Sadly, Blueblood’s proposal did garner quite a bit of support from Parliament, but I am thankful that he was rather too lazy and apathetic to put any serious effort into seeing it passed and that the opportunity for a more peaceful solution to the ongoing land disputes presented itself.]
I gave a vacant, nonchalant shrug that would have done Cannon Fodder proud, had he actually seen it; my venerable aide was rather preoccupied by watching over Red Coat struggle to lift up and arrange the grossly over-sized suitcases that Twilight had brought with her. I turned around to observe them, aware of my regal auntie stepping to my side, towering over me in a manner reminiscent of a mother over her foal, and then stretching a long and graceful wing over my comparatively smaller body. With the warmth emanating from her, like basking in the sun in a pleasant summer’s afternoon, I could not help but be reminded of the days of my late childhood and early adolescence when I lived with her.
We walked back towards the chariot slowly. With the airy feeling of nostalgia filling my mind I began to feel somewhat less discomfited by Celestia’s outward displays of affection, though I reminded myself that she was like this with just about everypony. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of smugness when I saw Twilight Sparkle glance up at us from her ubiquitous checklist and, for a fleeting moment, I saw what I hoped was a small degree of jealousy on her pudgy little purple face.
“Blueblood, I want you to look after her,” said Celestia.
I blinked up in surprise at her, rather perplexed at the idea that Celestia would think that Twilight Sparkle, the mare who defeated Nightmare Moon, Discord, and numerous other threats to Equestria’s existence could possibly require looking after. Granted, this was before her controversial coronation as yet another bloody Princess of Equestria and ascension into our nation’s divine pantheon, but I’ll come to that later.
“Of course,” I said, “the Royal Guard can be an intimidating place for a young innocent mare such as her. Private Marathon and Corporal Hooves are both from Ponyville; I’ll assign them as her bodyguards.”
Celestia chuckled warmly, and hugged me closer to her side with her wing as we walked towards the chariot. There, Red Coat sat patiently as Twilight Sparkle continued to run through her checklist, which I assumed was merely a large list of assorted sundry items that she had brought with her. Knowing her as I did, they would likely be lots and lots of books. Fortunately, the studious little mare was rather too focused on her monstrously long checklist to pay any attention to what we were saying about her, or anything else going around her for that matter.
“You misunderstand me; I want you personally to watch over her.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
My divine Auntie stopped as we reached the chariot, removed her wing from my back and stepped around to face me. As she loomed over me, her stern but motherly expression framed by the soft pastel shades of her flowing mane and her scintillating gold regalia, I could not help but feel rather small and insignificant. I suppressed the urge to prostrate myself, though I confess I found it difficult to look her in the eyes.
“I know you and Twilight have a...” she paused, as if trying to think of a more appropriate word, “...a history together, but I hope you two can be grown up enough to put that aside.”
I nodded my head. “Of course, Auntie.”
“Then hear me. The results of Twilight Sparkle’s commission will affect the military and political careers of many aristocratic and moneyed officers across the Royal Guard, many of whom fear that they will be found wanting when she publishes her findings for all of Equestria to see. I pray that such ponies will see this as an opportunity to amend their ways or retire their commissions gracefully. But I fear that there will be many who will want to affect the results of the commission to appear more favourable to them, by manipulating or threatening Twilight Sparkle herself. I do not wish to see her come to harm as a result.”
“I see,” I said pensively.
“Please, Blueblood, you and Shining Armour are the only ponies I can trust to protect her. My faithful student is a wonderfully intelligent mare, but she can be rather naive of such things. I have tried to shelter her from the political mire of Parliament and the Royal Court so that she may concentrate on her studies into the Magic of Friendship. You, however, are much more experienced in the cutthroat affairs of the aristocracy, and therefore ideal for this purpose.”
Well, technically I was most experienced in avoiding the tangled webs of lies, deceit, and backstabbing that plagues all strata of the rich and powerful in Equestria, but I supposed even that made me perfect for looking after Twilight. It was not something I was going to look forward to, but it was impossible to ignore a directive from Princess Celestia of all ponies. Granted, she still used that insufferable technique of masking what is in fact a direct order behind the alluring facade that I might actually have a choice in the matter. At any rate, I believed that protecting Twilight from the more politically minded and, frankly, insane ponies around us would be rather easy; a simple matter of imposing my supreme commissarial authority to block any who might be trying to cosy up to her for malicious ends or simply threaten her.
Oh how wrong I was, but I’ll come to that later.
“Of course,” I replied, tipping my head in respect and laying a forehoof over my chest. “On my honour, no harm will come to Lady Sparkle.”
“Thank you, Blueblood.” Celestia smiled and gave me a quick and gentle nuzzle before she stepped gracefully onto the chariot itself. The four guardsponies, apparently now satisfied that their vehicle was appropriately airworthy, set about securing themselves safely to the four yokes.
“How long will she be staying here?” I asked.
“As long as necessary.”
I gestured towards the gilded carriage. “Do you not want the honour guard to give you a proper send-off?”
Luna, to my surprise, snapped out of her sulk and said, “Nay, ‘tis better that we leave discreetly; we wish for those officers to think well upon our words and reflect upon their own performance. Besides, it would not do well to indulge in such pomp and circumstance in these troubled times.”
I had to disagree, but I kept my objection silent as I was rather not in the mood to get into an argument I would surely lose. If anything, giving the Princesses the proper royal send-off that they deserve would invariably give the ponies here a much needed morale boost after the rather lacklustre showing at Black Venom Pass. Morale is a fickle thing, and despite the infinite complexity of making large groups of young, hormonal stallions and mares happy for an extended period of time to keep them useful, sometimes it is rather small things like little ceremonies that can perk their spirits up, if temporarily at least.
The four pegasi stamped and snorted impatiently, stretching wide their long wings and flexing their powerful dorsal muscles in preparation for another long haul flight. Ahead of them the swarming formations of marching ponies had parted to leave a small runway, though the drill practice had certainly not ceased as their NCOs would be loathe for even royal ceremony to interrupt what they saw as the backbone of all Royal Guard operations.
As I took a few steps back away from the chariot to allow it free room to manoeuvre, and more importantly out of the way of the huge spoked wheels, Twilight Sparkle had apparently elected to rejoin us in the real world and abandoned her checklist to Red Coat and Cannon Fodder. She trotted up merrily to her side, beaming brightly at the prospect of her latest academic venture and simultaneously giving me a glimpse of what the next few months of my life might be like.
“Everything is double- and triple-checked, Your Highness!” said Twilight excitedly, bringing her hoof up to her forehead as she did so in a sort of clumsy salute. “I hope I have everything I need to get started; I have every history book I could find in the Golden Oaks Library about Equestria at war, plus plenty of parchment and quills. Ohhh, I just can’t wait to get started on this research project!”
Celestia chuckled, and I rolled my eyes in mild irritation. “Your enthusiasm is to be commended Twilight,” she said, “but remember; your findings here may mean the difference between victory or defeat and life and death for many of my little ponies. This is a very serious undertaking, but I can think of no mare better suited to this task than you.”
“I won’t let you down, Your Highness!” Twilight positively beamed with barely-contained pride at her mentor’s approval.
“Good luck, my faithful student; and to you, my nephew.”
At the stamp of her hoof the chariot lurched forwards awkwardly. The four straining pegasi pulled on their yokes, gathering speed and beating their powerful wings faster and faster. We watched patiently as the ungainly and inelegant craft, its garish luxury still somehow unmarred by the perennial dust and sand that tends to stain everything within a few minutes of arrival, careened down the runway faster and faster. The pegasi leapt into the air, muscles straining with the effort, and were then born aloft by their innate magical abilities of flight. The chariot, against all of the known rational laws of aerodynamics and common sense, followed suit.
Despite their desire to leave with as little fanfare as possible, many of the Solar Guard out on parade stopped to cheer the two Diarchs as they departed. Not that they seemed to mind, really, as I could see two hooves, one gilt in gold and the other clad in silver, waving down at the whooping crowd below them. I supposed that the rather more natural and spontaneous display of affection for their Princesses, especially when it happened to be against direct orders from their immediate NCOs and drill instructors, to be a rather more suitable send-off than gathering the honour guard once again for a contrived and forced ceremony. As the airborne chariot flew onwards, shrinking from my view until it became a tiny golden speck flittering through the reddening sky, the cheering died down as officers restored order to continue with their drill practice.
With the Princesses gone and with little else to do with the day, we all gathered up Twilight’s luggage; Red Coat and Cannon Fodder precariously balancing huge piles of luggage upon their broad backs while Twilight and I carried the remainder with our magic. Spike was still in no fit state to walk, his stomach grossly swollen and distended in a way hitherto thought impossible by all medical science and making ghastly noises as if it were a dying beast, and so he hitched a ride on Twilight’s back.
“I trust that your accommodation has been prepared for you?” I asked, eager to get back to my own tent and while away the rest of the afternoon and evening with naught but a bottle of finest single malt that I had negotiated out of the Quartermaster’s store for company.
Twilight nodded. “Colonel Sunshine Smiles was gracious enough to give me an empty tent.”
“I’ll help you settle in, then,” I said, reasoning that providing a little extra hospitality for our irritating guest might help me look a little more favourable in her eyes. Though I had little reason to fear from her scrutiny, as much of Equestria was under the false impression I was somepony of good moral fibre, a little extra insurance wouldn’t hurt.
“This is heavy!” said Red Coat, the chest and the small pile of suitcases wobbling precariously on his back. “Is this all books?”
“Mostly,” said Twilight. “I’ve packed every book I can find about warfare; On War, The Magic of War, the journals of Neighpoleon of Prance to name a few.”
“Oh, I read that in the Academy! Ooph, who knew paper could be so heavy?”
“Welcome to my world,” groaned Spike, but nopony paid much heed to him.
We made our way back to the Night Guards’ camp slowly, drawing a few odd and wary looks from guardsponies and officers alike. Red Coat and Twilight continued to converse politely about their mutual love of books, though Red Coat’s seemed to vary somewhat from Twilight’s as he had a rather odd fascination with Neighponese comic books, but their conversation was pleasant, at least. I, however, tuned much of it out and pondered my ever-changing circumstances. The coming weeks would become very interesting for me, and not in the way I hoped for.