There was a little game I liked to play every morning, if I could, and it was called ‘pretend I’m not really here’. It was a deceptively simple sort of game, in the sense that the rules were elementary to learn but it was actually completely impossible to actually win. Since my unwanted return to military life, I had developed the tendency to wake up about five or ten minutes before the morning reveille, which I had learned to take advantage of. So each morning, after I had dragged myself out of my cot and before those damnable bugles were blown, I would sneak out behind my tent where nopony could see me and just sit there, look at the morning sky, and pretend I was somewhere else.
‘Somewhere else’ tended to vary according to my fleeting whims and moods: sometimes I would imagine I was sitting in my mansion’s garden on a hot summer’s day; or perhaps I was holidaying in balmy Los Pegasus; or, if I was feeling particularly imaginative that morning, I was the guest of an exotically dusky daughter of some rajah in the far off Land of a Thousand Gods [an archaic term for Coltcutta; Blueblood’s father was once Viceroy of that region]. Wherever it was, it was certainly preferable to the stark horror of the Badlands and of the war. As I’ve mentioned, this game is utterly impossible to ‘win’, for the simple illusion of being someplace else is instantly shattered the moment I accidentally take my eyes off the blue skies. For even the slight glance down or to the side would reveal the vast array of tents, parade squares, flags, weapon and armour racks, and the strewed mass of sleeping soldiers that always looked disconcertingly like the fallen corpses left behind after that terrible advance up the ridge.
At six o’clock, just like every day in the Royal Guard, my idle escapism was rudely disrupted by a single bugle call, muffled by the distance, which was then joined by another and another to form an offensively loud chorus that seemed to drill into my brain via my ears. The awful sound, which to my tired mind sounded like the trumpet call Tirek uses to call the daemonic minions of Tartarus to his side, reverberated through the encampment. At once, any illusion of peace and quiet was shattered as the encampment struggled into life like a depressed office worker at the sound of his morning alarm clock. Soldiers pulled themselves out of their bedrolls, some having to be kicked awake as they had somehow managed to sleep through those infernal bugles, and the preparations for the day’s work began in a frenzy of activity.
That morning was different; in addition to the dawn chorus of bugles and griping soldiers struggling to wake up, I heard a high-pitched shriek that was undoubtedly Spike being woken up against his will.
I perked my head up, still reluctant to pick myself off the ground, which to my tired, sleep-deprived mind felt like the most comfortable patch of earth under Celestia’s sun. With just the sort of bad luck that plagues my unhappy life, Twilight Sparkle’s tent had been erected on the empty patch of dirt right next to mine, where I had vaguely thought about growing a small Zen garden. A side effect of this was that I now had to contend with two noisy snorers as I tried to sleep, as if Cannon Fodder’s nocturnal drones weren’t bad enough.
I saw small paws grasp at the cloth in panic, and the vague squat shape of Spike flailing against the tent. Inevitably, the cloth tore and Spike fell straight through it and landed face first into the dust.
“What’s that noise?” he shouted, looking around at the ponies frantically. “Are we under attack?”
“Spike!” exclaimed Twilight Sparkle as she emerged from the hole and stepped gingerly around the prostrate baby dragon, apparently doing her best to ignore me and the small crowd of snickering, jeering soldiers that gathered around them.
“Is it the Changelings? Why is everypony looking at us like that?”
“It’s just the morning wake-up call. The Royal Guard has to operate according to a strict timetable to ensure the maximum efficiency of each soldier is fully utilised for the war effort.”
I sighed, Twilight’s short little Twilecture giving me a brief but vivid glimpse of my imminent future. I steeled myself for a long day supervising Princess Celestia’s favourite pet and making sure that no harm would come to her, or, to be more accurate, ensuring that she caused no harm to anypony or anything around her; the last thing the war effort needed was the sort of chaos and insanity that only an unrestrained Twilight Sparkle mental breakdown could bring, and the unpleasant memories of the Great School Chemistry Lab Disaster were still vivid in my mind. [In the course of basic class exercise to measure the boiling point of water, the young Twilight had somehow managed to form a miniature black hole that levelled much of the science block.] So, as I forced something approximating a happy and care-free grin on my face, I rose to my hooves and stepped on over towards the two.
The troops rapidly dispersed as I approached, evidently reasoning that invoking my wrath by teasing the ‘soft civvies’ was not worth it and scampered off to find some breakfast. I supposed that punishing them for being rude to a lady might have earned me a few extra bonus points in Twilight’s eyes, but as she stretched the definition of the word ‘lady’ so far as to render the word completely meaningless I decided to let it pass. Colts will be colts, after all, and I could hardly reprimand them for that.
“Good morning, Twilight,” I said as cheerfully as I could.
The young mare flinched at my approach, in a manner startlingly reminiscent of the same way she would do so in the school playground when I and my small pack of cronies used to tease her relentlessly for her low birth and take her lunch money. I have to admit that I found her response to be quite worrying, and for a tense moment I feared she may yet still harbour some resentment, and maybe even fear, of my rather shameful treatment of her as a teenaged colt.
Fortunately, she recovered quickly, and I put her reaction down to only having just woken up.
“Sleep well?” I asked, inclining my head respectfully towards the mare.
“Oh, good morning, Blueblood,” said Twilight, shrugging wearily. Judging by her bloodshot eyes and the dark rings that framed them it was most certainly obvious that she hadn’t. I had vaguely wondered what she and Red Coat had gotten up to the previous night; I had to leave the two of them alone as I had a mountain of paperwork to catch up on, and though I was wary of what Red Coat might attempt to do while left alone with her for an extended period of time, I correctly reasoned that his fear of Shining Armour was sufficient to keep his teenage lusts in check.
She stifled a yawn. “I was so excited about this new research project I could barely sleep. And Red Coat was gracious enough to help me organise all of the books that I bought.”
I wagered they were doing a lot more than simply organising books, but being the gentlecolt that I am, or at the very least pretend to be, I kept my thoughts on Red Coat’s indiscretions to myself. [Twilight Sparkle assures me that their relationship, such as it was, was strictly platonic, and I am inclined to believe her.] Glimpsing through the hole that Spike had made earlier, I could see that Red Coat was absent, or at least not visible through the small gap. What was visible, however, were the fruits of their labour as, somehow, Twilight had set up a half dozen small bookcases filled with enough books, tomes, and scrolls for me to suspect a great shortage of reading material across Equestria would ensue. Where she got those bookcases from was a bit of a mystery; she could not have possibly brought them with her as they certainly would not have fit in her luggage cases, and that officious bureaucrat Quartermaster Pencil Pusher certainly would not have allowed her to procure such frivolous items from the Logistics Corps. [Twilight had indeed brought the bookcases with her, but used a complex miniaturisation spell to transport them.]
“Hey, Blue,” yawned Spike, waving a hoof vaguely in my direction. I resisted the sudden urge to correct him for using the familiar form of my name with the back of my hoof. “I’m going to have another lie-in. I don’t know how you guys can cope with this.”
He turned to enter the tent via the hole he had just unceremoniously torn his way through, but Twilight had thrust a foreleg out to block him and he sleepily walked straight into the extended appendage.
“Sorry Spike,” said Twilight as she gently pushed Spike away from the tent. “Princess Celestia is counting on me to produce this report and I can’t do it without my Number One Assistant by my side.”
“You’ll get used to it,” I said, patting the odious little reptile on the head and then surreptitiously wiping my hoof clean on my jacket. “The first few nights are always the most difficult.”
Twilight smiled. “That’s what my brother said when he first signed up. I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.”
“So, what’s on the agenda today?” I asked, eager to get this over and done with as soon as possible.
“I’d like to start with some preliminary observations,” she said. “I’ll try to stay out of everypony’s way and just observe the regiment on a normal day, that way I can see how the Royal Guard operates on a daily basis, and then I would like to perform a few interviews with the soldiers, if possible. Using my findings from there I can then determine the best avenues for more vigorous, targeted investigations.”
Her stomach rumbled noisily and, it may have been my imagination, but I think I saw her podgy belly quiver too.
“Oh,” she laughed nervously and blushed, “and find some breakfast.”
I nodded my head dumbly. Whatever it was she was planning made little sense to me, and I confess to not paying much attention what she was saying at the time, though it was unlikely that I had missed anything of any actual worth to me. As far as I could gather, with my sleep-deprived mind in desperate need of some breakfast and that revitalising Trottinghamshire tea, my own role in these investigations would merely be restricted to part-time chaperone as she wandered around the camp with Spike taking notes and perhaps sitting in while she interviewed various serviceponies. It seemed simple enough that I could do it without screwing up too badly.
Princess Celestia’s warning still troubled me greatly, as it further complicated my already difficult life, but I had hoped that I might be able to hoof this duty off onto somepony else. After all, Princess’ Regulations dictated that whenever a lady takes up residence in a Royal guard camp, she must be accompanied at all times by an officer of good moral character. Granted, ‘good moral character’ automatically invalidated just about everypony in the officer corps of the entire Royal Guard, especially me, but still I believed that the best course of action was to create some sort of rota for the Night Guard officers to foalsit her for a while each day. At any rate, Twilight would likely consider that to be a good idea, as it would mean further opportunities to investigate the officers and discern further information from them for her research project, provided that she did not drive them away first.
Nevertheless, I had a great many routine tasks and things to perform irrespective of Twilight’s investigations. At the very least, I supposed that if Twilight’s research was based upon quiet and dispassionate observation with only an occasional interview that could be conducted on the interviewee’s off duty time, then the actual disruption to the normal day-to-day running of the regiment would be kept to a bare minimum.
“The canteen is over there.” I pointed yonder to the large tent the array of troughs around it. “One of the Night Guard officers will help you get something to eat.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I have some important business that I need to attend to first,” I said, only half lying this time as, though I did not relish the idea of breakfasting with her as I found her company quite tiresome even at the best of times, I did actually have one rather important duty to perform before eating.
The regiment’s mail-mare would be making her rounds by now and official protocol demanded that I personally accept whatever super-top-secret, classified-confidential, for-my-eyes-only documents that were addressed to me, rather than simply allow Cannon Fodder to do it on my behalf. Well, to be more accurate, I would merely accept the papers, make a show of flicking through them for the benefit of the mail-mare, and then pass them onto Cannon Fodder for subsequent processing and thus satisfy the letter of the law if not its actual intent. It was not strictly legal, but I correctly trusted in my esteemed aide’s rather foal-like belief that absolutely everything I did was for the greater benefit of Equestria. Besides, his unique position as my personal aide (which was a post that was never really fully ratified in Princess’ Regulations but nopony seemed to notice, or if they did then Cannon Fodder’s obstinate personality and his poor personal hygiene dissuaded them from questioning it) theoretically afforded him the same security clearance as me. [Not quite true, as all officers, including commissars, were allowed to keep a personal servant, or ‘batpony’ as they are known in Trottinghamshire regiments, if they could afford to pay one, which was what Cannon Fodder was officially listed as on the regimental books. Blueblood, however, is correct in stating that the post of an official commissarial aide was never fully ratified, but since Cannon Fodder never achieved any rank higher than that of private, his security clearance was in fact the lowest possible grade for the Royal Guard. As Cannon Fodder’s unique gift became all the more valuable to us, my sister and I found it expedient to ensure that this bureaucratic anomaly went uncorrected.]
“Oh, okay,” said Twilight, sounding oddly disappointed at the prospect.
I guessed it was a manifestation of her social awkwardness, which, despite her apparent success in researching the Magic of Friendship, still afflicted her. Then again, anypony would feel quite shy and vulnerable when forced into a vast Royal Guard encampment, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of complete strangers, most of whom are heavily armed and understandably suspicious of any outside intrusion into their daily lives, added to which her academic mindset would preclude her from forming any sort of friendships here lest they affect the results of her research. Naturally, she would cling to very few ponies she was already familiar with, even I, her childhood tormentor.
“I shan’t be long,” I said, trying to mollify her. “I’ll meet you there as soon as I’m finished. And you might want to see Pencil Pusher about getting a new tent, but fair warning; he isn’t going to be happy about it.”
With that, I bade them farewell and trotted back to my tent. I found Corporal Hooves, the regiment’s mail-mare, waiting for me inside the ‘front office’ area, while Cannon Fodder sat at his suspiciously well-organised desk and munched messily on one of those muffins the Corporal somehow found the time and resources to bake for virtually everypony.
“Good morning, sir!” she said cheerfully, performing a clumsy salute that nearly knocked off a helmet that was at least two sizes too big for her head. She reached into one of the voluminous saddlebags strapped around her armoured barrel and produced a thick wad of papers and envelopes. “Mail for you!”
“Thank you Corporal,” I said, accepting the packages in my telekinetic grasp. Cannon Fodder appeared by my side a second after his pungent odour filled my nostrils, bearing a hot mug of tea which I accepted gratefully.
I took a few sips of the hot drink as I idly flicked through the envelopes to sort out which could be given to Cannon Fodder for processing and which required my own personal attention. The majority of which were the usual sort of paperwork that makes up the bulk of my duties; forms, lists, letters, discipline reports, propaganda literature to be disseminated amongst the soldiers, requests for meetings, proposals from the RASEA [The Royal Armed Services Entertainment Association, which provided entertainment for Equestrian military personnel. Though many talented entertainers started their careers working for the Association, much of the entertainment was of substandard quality, which led to the more popular translation amongst the troops of the acronym RASEA as ‘Really Awful Shit Every Afternoon’], and a myriad of other important yet onerous things.
What many civilians, and indeed many soldiers and officers, fail to realise is the sheer amount of paperwork required to keep the Royal Guard functioning to at least some degree of efficiency. For every fighting stallion there are at least a dozen petty functionaries, administrators, and bureaucrats completing, processing, and signing hundreds of lists and forms. Each individual soldier constitutes a drain on resources; he has to be fed, watered, clothed, armoured, armed, and half a dozen other things required ensuring that he is in a fit physical and mental state to fight effectively. To ensure that his needs are met requires that such resources are to be brought from all across Equestria: oats and hay from the central fields of Equestria, armour and weapons from the great factories of Trottingham, and so forth; each constituting a significant administrative burden to requisition, transport, and distribute these things. Ultimately, this all trickles down from the non-combatant administrative staff to commissioned and non-commissioned officers and, more recently, to the political officers of the Commissariat. If I didn’t know any better, I was sure that many of these officers were simply unloading as much of their paperwork onto me as they could, as if I weren’t drowning in paper to begin with.
Technically, much of this could have simply been completed by unit commanders and signed off by that officious little bureaucrat Quartermaster Pencil Pusher, but as political officer it was beholden unto me to examine these cases and approve, reject, or amend them according to the wider political aims of the war. That the wider political aims of the war were a somewhat nebulous concept in the beginning had, essentially, turned this facet of my job into that of a proverbial rubber stamp. There were a few other things, mind, pertaining to the education, indoctrination, and loyalty of the soldiers in the form of written reports from officers, organising punishment details, rewards, and the increasingly lamentable pamphlets and booklets supplied to me from the Ministry of Misinformation.
Buried amidst the things actually salient to my job, though I questioned the actual veracity of most of the bits of paper levitating before me, was the usual array of junk mail that was somehow redirected hundreds of miles away from my home to here. Even on the frontlines, with the fate of all of Equestria and the free world hanging precariously in the balance, there was still no escape from endless Cathayan takeaway menus and hoax letters informing me that I have won a free holiday to Los Pegasus.
The last item was the most interesting of my mail, though not necessarily for the right reasons. For as I quickly sorted out which items could be safely assigned to Cannon Fodder for completion and those which, regrettably, required my own personal attention later, I found a brown parcel embossed with the winged alicorn skull seal of the Commissariat. I opened it up neatly to find it contained a handsome black chapbook and a note scrawled on a sheet of paper. On the front of this book the winged alicorn skull motif was repeated again, but embossed in silver above the gothic symbol were the words ‘The Royal Infantrypony’s Uplifting Primer’. The small note revealed that this was the first draft edition of the book, which the powers that be were planning on issuing en masse across all enlisted service personnel in the Royal Guard. They were, however, gracious enough to send me an advanced copy for approval, though given the rather poor quality of the earlier literature they had dispersed to the troops I didn’t hold out much hope for this one.
It was at that point that I noticed that Corporal Hooves was still standing in front of me with a happy, gormless smile on her face and only one of her infamously mismatched eyes actually looking at me.
“Was there something else, Corporal?” I asked, with the subtle hint that she should leave.
Corporal Derpy Hooves was an odd one. I’m not certain how the Royal Guard recruiting sergeant who signed her up came to the conclusion that this wall-eyed, perpetually cheerful, sweet, innocent little mare was the perfect addition to the 1st Night Guards Regiment. At the very least, I supposed, she was given a non-combatant role assisting the Quartermaster with the regiment’s mail. That said, despite her disabilities, or, perhaps, because of them, she was universally loved across the whole regiment, and often soldiers would go out of their way to protect her from those who might take advantage of her trusting and naive nature.
“Oh! General Crimson Arrow says there’s an important meeting he wants you to go to at oh-seven-hundred hours at his command post.”
I placed the mail items down for the time being. Seven o’clock, for those not au fait with the military’s unique method of telling the time, was less than an hour away and this was the first I had heard of this supposedly important meeting. Instantly, I feared the worst, though the lack of itching in my forehooves that usually precedes something dangerous and life-threatening that my subconscious has picked up on provided some relief. The General had become a virtual recluse after his shameful performance in the Battle of Black Venom Pass, and even then, I would have assumed he had the common courtesy to give far more than fifty minutes warning before whatever high-level briefing he had planned. So either whatever he wanted was of the utmost importance that I had to drop absolutely everything now and attend to him, or he had just lost even more of whatever social skills he had left.
“That’s silly!” said Corporal Hooves suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “How can you have seven hundred hours? There’s only twenty four of them in a day.”
“It’s the military, Corporal; don’t expect it to make sense.”
Breakfast with Twilight was going to have to wait now.
The General’s command post was at the centre of the encampment. It consisted of a single tent, which, while much larger than mine, was quite small compared to the town hall used by the Field Marshal. Around the main tent, where the Centre campaign was supposedly planned according to the greater strategic goals set by Iron Hoof and the ever-changing political goals set by those fools in Parliament, were numerous smaller tents which served as offices for Crimson Hoof’s administrative staff. While the fortress of Maredun had briefly served as his headquarters, with the bulk of Army Group Centre still ensconced in the Dodge Junction encampment and the proximity of the fortress to Changeling country the General had made the logical decision of relocating safely behind the frontline. A sentiment I could understand perfectly.
The tent itself was about the size of a tennis court, and like Iron Hoof’s headquarters it was dominated by a huge table in the centre. Upon this table, which the senior command officers of the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards, Sergeant Bramley Apple, General Crimson Arrow, and a strange unicorn officer I had never met before had crowded around, were a vast assortment of maps, scraps of paper, quills, ink wells, pencils, and other office detritus. Around the walls of the tent were numerous smaller desks, each stacked up with piles of paper and files, and bookcases crammed full rolled up scrolls and documents. In addition to the dense bouquet of war that pervaded the entire encampment there was a lingering scent of musky old paper, ink, and stale coffee.
As I had made the mistake of stopping by the canteen along the way to pick up a small feedbag of oats for breakfast, Twilight and Spike had elected to tag along, much to my irritation. The annoying thing was that despite my status not only as a Commissar of the Royal Guard, but also as a Prince of the Realm, Twilight Sparkle outranked me. She had been given absolute carte blanche by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to do whatever is necessary for her research paper [within reason, of course. Twilight can get a little carried away at times] and, for all intents and purposes, was therefore the highest-ranking individual in the whole encampment. There was some solace to be taken, however, as she and her pet dragon would merely be observing the proceedings. Or so I had thought.
“You’re all probably wondering why you’re all here,” said Crimson Arrow as I ducked under the tent flap and squeezed past his two personal bodyguards, who were uniquely identifiable by their ostentatious and blindingly bright dress uniforms.
The General stood at the far end of the long table, reared up on his hind hooves and his forelegs planted on the table. As I took my position directly opposite him and next to the unknown officer, our eyes met for an uncomfortably long moment as he regarded Twilight and I with the same level of disdain as he would something unpleasant he discovered sticking to the underside of his hoof. Despite still looking quite undernourished and exhausted, the small pile of half-empty mugs of coffee piled up on the desk around him bore testament to his lack of sleep, there was a newfound energy in those previously dead eyes that simply wasn’t there before.
“A question that has plagued philosophers since time immemorial,” I said, grinning widely. It was a silly pun, calculated to lighten the somewhat tense mood, and I was glad to see that it had worked somewhat as it garnered polite chuckles from most of the assembled officers and even elicited a very brief smile from Crimson Arrow. “I hope I haven’t missed anything now.”
“Twiley!” Shining Armour bounded over like the over-grown excitable foal he was and fired a veritable barrage of questions at Twilight who, to her credit, seemed to take it all in her stride, but I supposed that she was used to such overbearing behaviour from him before. “Did you sleep well? Was it too cold? Do you need an extra blanket? Did they post enough guards at your tent? Did Red Coat behave himself?”
Red Coat winced visibly at the mention of his name, and withered under the threatening glare Shining Armour shot at him from across the table. The young stallion looked positively dreadful, with bags under his bloodshot eyes which were each outlined by black rings and rheum. Apparently suffering from a severe hangover, if the quantity of alcohol he had downed at the party and his obvious inexperience with being drunk were any indication, he tried to hide from the irate Captain of the Royal Guard behind Colonel Sunshine Smiles’ massive bulk. The Colonel himself looked rather displeased at his subordinate’s behaviour.
“He was a perfect gentlecolt,” said Twilight, flicking her uncombed and matted mane from out of her eyes, “until he fell asleep and I had to carry him back to his tent.”
Crimson Arrow and the other officers looked at Twilight suspiciously, but if they protested to her presence here then they made no effort to vocalise it, though the distasteful expressions of the Solar Guard officers and the General made their thoughts on the matter quite obvious for all to see. Crimson in particular looked like a pony who had discovered his milk had gone off only after pouring it on his breakfast cereal. The Night Guard officers, apparently feeling as if they had nothing to fear from her scrutiny, seemed rather more at ease with the exception of Red Coat, but that was for a completely different reason altogether.
“Now, Shiny,” continued Twilight, “it’s important that while I’m here conducting my research that you don’t communicate with me in anyway unless I ask a question, and that goes for the rest of you too; I want to create a snapshot of how the Royal Guard lives and works without any outside interference. So for all intents and purposes, I don’t exist.”
Spike, the little dragon sitting on her back with pen and quill at the ready, made a concerned ‘yelp’ sound. “But if you don’t exist, then whose back am I sitting on?”
“You don’t exist either,” said Shining.
“I... I don’t exist?”
The sound of Crimson Arrow’s bare hoof tapping on wood interrupted Spike’s first existential crisis.
“Now like I said,” the General sighed in exasperation, he had obviously rehearsed this little procedure earlier and seemed exasperated at the fact that ponies, as ever, were not following the neat little script he had in his head. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve brought you all here.”
“Something that requires the expert skills of me and the lads,” said the strange pony next to me, or at least, that’s what I think he had said.
He was a unicorn pony of average height and build, but his virtually impenetrable accent and strange manner of dress marked him out as a pony not of the Equestrian mainland. He wore a blue tunic that may have once been a brilliant shade of ultramarine, but had faded to a sky blue tone over the years from exposure to the harsh sun of wherever he had come from, and was festooned with clumsily sewn-on patches of varying colours where the fabric had worn through. Upon his head he wore a wide-brimmed hat, with the right side of the brim pinned up against the side. At first I took him for one of the civilian specialists that the Royal Guard sometimes took in to help out with some dull administrative task, quite like Twilight Sparkle but without so much power and responsibility, but the military badge on the front of his hat certainly marked him out as a guardspony of sorts. In hindsight, the axe that was strapped across his back might have been a bit of a giveaway too.
The foreigner turned to me and said, “About bloody time you got here, mate, I’m parched. Get me a cuppa.”
I blinked vacantly at the odd stallion.
“I beg your pardon?” was all I could manage to say. As a Prince of the Realm I had grown quite used to a wide variety of different responses from ponies when they first meet me, even before I had donned the scarlet sash and my reputation grew beyond all reason, but I have to admit that this one took me by surprise. Reactions usually ran the gamut between slack-jawed amazement, defiant refusal to be impressed by me, and, more common in the earlier part of my career, barely concealed contempt for my very existence. As he looked up at me with a vaguely impatient expression on his face, which I returned with one that probably resembled a fish that had been dragged unwillingly out of the water, I realised that he had, quite earnestly and innocently, failed to recognise me. As perplexing as that sounds, not only being the Princesses’ nephew, Canterlot’s most eligible bachelor at the time, and, more recently, a Hero of Equestria, I actually found it fairly refreshing.
“For the benefit of those who have only just arrived,” said General Crimson Arrow, shooting Twilight and I another one of his disapproving glares, “this is Lieutenant Southern Cross of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers Corps, who has just arrived here via airship from Horsetralia.”
Horestralia, that explained it; a distant Equestrian colony more accurately known as ‘the land where absolutely everything wants you dead in the most horrible, painful, and humiliating way possible’.
“G’day.” Southern Cross touched the brim of his hat with a hoof which, I had only just noticed, was a magi-mechanical replacement built out of dull brass and made a faint humming noise every time he moved it.
“And may I introduce to you,” Crimson Arrow continued in an oddly grandiloquent tone that, come to think of it now, had quite a mocking quality to it, “His Royal Highness Prince Blueblood, Duke of Canterlot, Member of Their Divine Highnesses’ Most Honourable Privy Council, Aide-de-Camp to the Royal Pony Sisters, and Commissar...” –he said that word as if it were the name a particularly nasty strain of flesh-eating virus– “...attached to the 1st Night Guards Regiment.”
[That was Blueblood’s full style of address at the time, and by the end of his career he would accumulate so many titles and medals that, rumour has it, if he ever turned up late for an occasion the announcer would simply keep on reading them until he eventually arrived.]
I confess to taking no small amount of satisfaction at seeing the realisation slowly dawn on his face, looking as his pale grey eyes widened in shock and he seemed to lose all motor control over his jaw muscles. He recovered his composure with commendable alacrity, forcing a cheerful grin to his face as he then leaned against the table, resting a foreleg on it.
“Bloody hell,” he said, “I’ve really stuck my hoof in it this time. It’s the little bowtie, mate; makes you look like a waiter.”
“And my uniform didn’t dissuade you of that notion?” I said jokingly. I offered a smile to show that there was no offence taken, despite the slightly more irrational part of my mind wanting to invoke the ancient laws on lèse-majesté and have him thrown in a dungeon somewhere. [Lèse-majesté refers to the crime of injuring or offending the dignity of members of the royal family. Though it remains on the statute books as law, it has not been enforced since the end of the Reconstruction era, despite many unsuccessful attempts by Canterlot royalty to do so.]
“Gimme a break, I’ve been stuck on an airship for the past two days.” He rubbed his dark-ringed eyes with a hoof and hesitated for a moment. “I don’t have to kiss your bloody hooves now or something, do I?”
I chuckled. “Please don’t; it’s very unhygienic and not to mention quite undignified for all involved.” I do so hate it when ponies tried to do that. After all, there is a difference between basic respect towards one social betters and outright sycophancy, and the last thing I wanted was slobber all over my nice and clean boots. I have to admit that I found the engineer’s good humour quite infectious, in spite of my lack of sleep, his less-than-deferential manner towards me, and the chronic paranoia gnawing at the back of my mind telling me that I would not find the results of today’s meeting to my liking. Nevertheless, I found his company to be at least more tolerable than that of most of the ponies in my usual social circle. At the very least, his friendliness appeared to be genuine, as opposed to the rather more cynical attempts by elements of my clique back in Canterlot trying to gain my friendship in exchange for power and influence.
My unusually good mood, however, would not last particularly long as Crimson Arrow cleared his throat in an obvious attempt to draw attention back to him. He was always like that; forever in the shadow of other ponies, myself included, which I think explained his intransigence in accepting the advice of other ponies in the Battle of Black Venom Pass. However, any sympathy I might have felt for him quickly evaporated when I vividly remembered the bodies scattered across that cratered ridge, blood and viscera smeared in great streaks across the ground, and how close we came to defeat as a result of his inflexibility.
“Ladies and Gentlecolts,” he said clearly and evidently trying to inject as much authority into his raspy voice as possible, “if I might be allowed to begin.”
[Again, though Blueblood is largely accurate in describing how this meeting took place, he still tends to gloss over some of the smaller details. If the reader wishes for a complete transcript of the meeting, then Spike’s minutes are currently stored in the Canterlot Archives. When free from any distractions such as his favourite confections, Spike proved to be a superb ‘number one assistant’ for Twilight.]
He glared around at us, daring anypony to interrupt him once more. None did, and when he was apparently satisfied that none would do so again he pulled up one of the large maps from the table, scattering a few of the smaller sheets and some quills onto the ground around our hooves. I leaned forward to get a better look at the miserable scrap of land that we would be fighting and dying for and, in my case, running away and hiding from. To my complete lack of surprise, it was Black Venom Pass.
Upon closer inspection, the map turned out to be a composite of innumerable aerial reconnaissance photographs cut and pasted together to create a single large representation of the Pass and the surrounding mountainous terrain. Indeed, as I swept my eyes over the image, trying to discern any clues as to Crimson Arrow’s plan, I could make out the subtle lines in the shadows where the smaller individual photographs were stitched together.
The rocky and barren landscape, which looked even more desolate from above than it did from the ground, seemed as though Crimson Arrow had rolled up the sheet of paper and then attempted to flatten it out once more. The entire band of hilly terrain was riddled with ridges, rocky outcrops, and undulating troughs and peaks was split in half by the thin wavy band of Black Venom Pass, and looking straight from above I could see how its serpentine form had lent the pass its nickname. The fortress of Maredun was visible at the northern end of the pass as a dark, blocky structure clinging to the side of the ridge, while looking at the southern end I could discern tiny black spots which I took to be the bodies left after the battle. [This is highly unlikely, as the bodies would have been recovered and returned to Equestria for burial. Even then, at the altitudes pegasus aerial reconnaissance flights usually operate at and keeping in mind the relatively low resolution of cameras at the time, individual ponies, dead or alive, would not be visible. It is probably that Blueblood merely saw indistinct collections of boulders and his imagination filled in the gaps.] What was most interesting about this map, however, were the thin lines drawn in blue ink that weaved their way around the ridges and contours of the hilly terrain either side of the Pass. I didn’t know what they meant at the time, but knowing the Royal Guard as I did, I doubted that they indicated anything pleasant. What was absolutely plain to all of us, however, was the big blue arrow that left very little room for interpretation as it swept southwards straight through the Pass and into Changeling territory.
“The Changelings' main strength is cowardly deception,” said Crimson Arrow after we all had a chance to examine the map. “If robbed of this advantage, they are weak and easily defeated.” Well, I wasn’t too sure of that. Granted, in a straight one-on-one fight a well-trained and disciplined soldier will almost always triumph over a single Changeling drone, but the fact of the matter was that one never encountered a drone without a thousand or so of his best mates and a Purestrain or two to back him up. Overwhelming numbers and a complete disregard for casualties, while not a complete guarantor of victory, still tended to tip the odds in the Changelings’ favour when it came to set piece battles. Anyway, I was rather interested in what Crimson Arrow had planned; he seemed to have all of this worked out already, which was at once reassuring and disturbing at the same time.
“It is my aim, therefore,” he continued, “to force the Changelings into a battle of annihilation, where they will be completely and utterly destroyed. Once that has been achieved, we can secure a hoof-hold around Black Venom Pass and begin the invasion of the Badlands.
“Ladies and gentlecolts.” He paused in a manner he must have thought was very dramatic, his warm amber eyes sweeping over each and every one of us. No doubt he imagined himself as playing the leading role in a cast of millions, and as he fixed his gaze upon me and I stiffened in response, I silently begged him to just get on with it. He cracked a small, smug smile, and said with all the gravitas of a classically trained actor, “Welcome to Operation: Equestrian Dawn.”
This was not going to end well.