Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 8)

“You’re leaving?” I echoed dumbly.

“Yes,” he answered flatly.

I took another slow and measured sip of my brandy as I tried to understand the full consequences of that statement, and put to order the chaotic mess of thoughts and emotions that raced through my mind. As I did so, General Crimson Arrow, who suddenly found one of the many maps on the table to be far more interesting than me, appeared greatly misshapen by the distorting effects of the wide, bowl-shaped glass levitating just before me. The notion took quite a while to sink in, and its subsequent ramifications for the war effort and, more importantly, my own safety, took even longer. Fortunately, taking that long, luxurious mouthful of the utterly perfect brandy did much to buy me time to organise my mind and formulate a response; a trick that I had learned from many a dull high society ball. At first I did not know what to make of this development, but my initial gut-reaction was one of relief; I had expected him to be as difficult to remove from his position as it is to extricate Auntie ‘Tia from a well-stocked pâtisserie, but rather he had appeared to be doing the honourable thing and resigning, seemingly of his own free will.

“When?” I asked finally.

“Don’t know. A few weeks, maybe.”

“May I ask why?”

“Politics,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Ah, I never tread there.” [Not strictly true, as Blueblood was a member of the House of Lords, though his actual attendance record is quite poor]

“The Foreign Office believes the Gryphons may take advantage of the chaos here and try to seize our holdings in Zebrica, so the Secretary of State for War’s suggested I voluntarily resign as commander of Army Group Centre to take command of the EEF [Equestrian Expeditionary Force – a Royal Guard formation set up to defend Equestria’s overseas colonies and allied native tribes in Equestria from possible Gryphon expansion] and Native Auxiliaries there. Of course, the Secretary of State for War knows about as much about war as she does about the concept of marital fidelity, which is sod all.” He frowned at me. “You worked under her when you had that desk job in the War Ministry.”

“Indeed I did.” I chuckled warmly, offering a knowing grin as I recalled fondly my brief time working under the Right Honourable Silk Sheets MP, Secretary of State for War at the time, and remembered with greater pleasure the not infrequent, but much more interesting, late night sessions where I was allowed to be on top. Though I did so with a slight pang of regret at the loss of such a carefree existence, one where I merely had to conceal a few youthful indiscretions with a combination of bribes and the threat of violence (from hired goons, of course; I’d prefer not to get my own hooves dirty), rather than my current situation of having to hide behind a dense tapestry of lies, dissembling, and arse-covering to avoid being exposed as the craven bastard that I truly am.

As I lowered my glass, peering into the deep amber drink that sloshed and churned with the gentle swirling motion that I applied to it, a common saying popped unexpectedly into my head: better the devil you know. Do not misunderstand me, dear reader, Crimson Arrow was a poor general; singularly deficient in the personal qualities and the organisational skills necessary for a general officer of his rank to prosecute a modern war, though, judging by the determination he had shown in organising this new offensive and his newfound openness to the opinions and suggestions of other, more experienced officers, he at least showed that he was willing to learn from his mistakes. I was happy to see him leave, and to do so quietly and without fuss so as to maintain what modicum of dignity he had left, but I feared that the pony who would replace him could be worse. Those fears, of course, would later prove to be well-founded, but, as the history books would attest, at the very least his replacements went through the metaphorical revolving door of commanders of Army Group Centre with sufficient rapidity so as not to cause too much lasting damage to the war effort, despite each coming up with new and creative ways of having me martyred for Equestria.

“You know,” I said carefully, pausing for a moment to try and select my words as diplomatically as possible. “That might be for the best.”

“Of course, of course.” He exhaled deeply, like a deflating balloon, and the mental image was made all the more apt as his shoulders slumped and his head hanged as if he had suddenly lost all motor control of his neck. Raising his head, he looked away from me, apparently out of a small gap in the tent fabric out at the soldiers milling around outside. “We both know what that really means,” he said, an inflection of defeat creeping into his normally refined accent. “They want rid of me without actually getting rid of me, so they simply transfer me to a dead-end post where I can leave and then simply fade away.”

His despair relented; his expression hardened and became, like mine, a mask of aristocratic detachment. Though outwardly, to the untrained eye, he appeared as a pitiful, broken wreck, a mere hollowed shell of the former outgoing and warm personality of a youthful stallion eager to please his betters and gain their acceptance, now made bitter and resentful for what had happened to him; if one looked closer beyond his tired, haggard appearance one could discern a hidden drive and determination that propelled him forth.

“I told the Princesses that I had done my duty,” he continued, “but the truth is that I simply didn’t. A soldier’s duty, your duty, is to follow orders to the letter and to fight like demons, and that’s it. Even in defeat, so long as a guardspony has done those two things he can take solace knowing that he has done his duty. A general’s duty is victory, pure and simple, and I failed to bring victory. There are two types of generals that ponies remember: good ones and bad ones; those that win battles, and those that lose them.”

Crimson Arrow enveloped with his magic the snifter of brandy, which he had left on the table beside him, and brought it just under his nose. I watched him carefully as he nursed his drink, gazing into it thoughtfully in the same manner as a fortune teller con artist does with a cup of stale tea for gullible tourists, and wondered vaguely where he was going with this impassioned speech.

“You don’t want to be remembered as a bad general,” I prompted, eager to get this awkwardness over and done with.

“Precisely.” Crimson nodded his head, and then took another sip of his drink. His face briefly screwed up at the burning sensation that all inexperienced drinkers feel when they swallow strong spirits too quickly, but this time he recovered with greater alacrity than before. An iron-clad hoof swept dramatically at the mass of maps and scrawled notes just beside us. “I want to put things right; one last opportunity to balance the books, as it were. Who knows? Maybe they’ll let me stay here.”

“Did you plan all of this by yourself?” I asked, indicating towards the mass of papers, notes, maps, and reports scattered across the table next to us.

He snorted in irritation. “Of course I did, what did you think I was doing for all this time?”

I gave a vague grunt of approval, though merely out of a complete lack of anything useful to say. I should, perhaps, have offered some small words of encouragement; trot out one of the useless, fatuous slogans dreamt up by the desk-bound lackeys in the Commissariat in the vain hope that would cheer him up, but the words seemed to choke and die in my throat before I could give voice to them. Anything I could have said to encourage him, to tell him that this was a marvellous plan that was certain to work and, once victory in Black Venom Pass had been finally achieved, the War Ministry’s small army of clerks and bureaucrats will prostrate themselves before his undoubted military genius, would have been unsettlingly premature. Despite the morale value of reassuring everypony that everything will turn out just fine and dandy, I often find, probably as a result of some sadistic clause in whatever rules of the universe Faust had written up during its creation, that upon such uttering such words everything goes massively pear-shaped.

Pear-shaped it did indeed become, regardless of my silence, but I’ll get to that later.

“As the Princess wills,” I said, for a lack of anything better. I don’t know whether it was merely a result of having been around the common soldiery for so long that I picked up that oft-used cliché, or whether it was that I have been thrust into so many situations that warrant the use of that particular phrase, but it seemed to me that I had started saying that quite a lot recently. I suspected, quite accurately, that I would be using that damned expression more and more in the future.

Feeling increasingly awkward, and in that rare situation of wanting to go and actually get on with my work, or, at the very least, appear to be doing so, I made an extravagant show of checking the time on my wristwatch. “I hate to cut this short, Crimson,” I said, stressing the informal use of his name, “but I have a few things to take care of today.”

Crimson Arrow gave a vague sort of shrug, idly swirling the brandy beneath his nose as he did so to coax the distinct aroma to collect in the bowl-shaped glass. “I expect you have more important things to do now,” he said, with a slight hint of sarcasm in his voice that was not entirely lost on me, though I decided to be diplomatic and not call him out on it.

I did indeed have some quite important duties to perform: taking care of the spiritual, moral, and ideological health of the regiment, weeding out the weak and incompetent, and making sure that Twilight Sparkle did not make too much of a nuisance of herself in pursuing her little research paper. Nothing too taxing, of course. Naturally, though I was open to any and all opportunities to getting out of doing any real work, especially if said work involved placing me in any sort of mortal peril, I knew that if I had spent all day with my former best friend, slowly getting drunker and drunker on a bottle of fine liquor that no doubt cost many times more than what a single guardspony earns in a year, minus stoppages, would not have done well to improve the slightly more egalitarian image I was trying to cultivate.

[During the early Changeling War, a private soldier of the Royal Guard was paid quite a handsome wage for the day. However, though it looked attractive on paper, and did much to entice needy and desperate recruits, this tidy sum was subjected ‘stoppages’ for their daily rations, clothing, armour, weapons, medical services, and so on. What was left after these stoppages varied according to regiments and the levels to which some unscrupulous officers and NCOs abused the system to steal soldiers’ wages, but for the most part it was rather paltry by contemporary standards. The practice was gradually phased out following the Twilight Sparkle Reforms, and fairer system of pay was put in place.]

I drained the last dregs of my brandy too quickly to properly appreciate the distiller’s art, but I felt it would have been a far worse crime to have not drunk it at all. “We must do this again sometime,” I said, the heady aftertaste of the drink still strong on my breath. “When all of this,” –I waved my hoof around at the trappings of military life around us; the maps, reports, paperwork, armour, weapons, and other army detritus– “is over.”

Only now, decades after, do I realise the foolishness of even contemplating that any of ‘this’ would ever be over. As young and immature as I was back then, though I had already developed that habitual cynicism that would save my wretched life again and again, I still held out false hope that when this war was over I could simply return to the life of indolence and idle luxury that had preceded it. Of course, that was not to happen; my military career would have no end, not after this war nor the wars that followed it until it began to utterly consume my life until there was nothing left but war. Even in my sleep, the only time I could truly let down that facade of heroism and become Blueblood again, withered and shallow as my true self had become over the years behind the masque, I was ever haunted by the numerous horrors that I had witnessed over the years; the faces of those unremembered fallen who had fought beside me, whose names and faces I cannot recall but forever appear in my dreams to judge me for having survived when they could not. [Princess Luna informs me that, like many veterans of wars, Blueblood suffered from severe nightmares. It is possible that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder in some capacity or survivors’ guilt, but if he did he seemed to be most adept at concealing it from those around him.]

Nevertheless, the younger and more naive version of me was very much looking forward to a return to some semblance of a ‘normal’ life, if one could consider any part of my life as being ‘normal’, and apparently Crimson Arrow was under the exact same misapprehension that I was. “I’d like that,” he said, as a thin smile crept over his dry lips. It was probably the first time that I had seen him in a state approaching genuine happiness since just before the Battle of Black Venom Pass. He paused, stammering as his lower jaw and lips worked to try and articulate whatever it was he wanted to say, but failed and finally just settled on, “Good luck out there.”

I thanked him, both for the much-needed luck and for the chance to sample that exquisite drink, and bade him good morning and farewell. Placing the now-empty snifter on the table, next to a small pile of broken quills and an ink pot that had been knocked over and spilt its contents over a relief map of the Macintosh Hills, I turned and ducked through the tent flap into the bright morning sunlight.

Blinking at the intense glare from Celestia’s sun, still fairly low on the horizon as it was still in the early stages of its daily journey across the skies, I sucked in a deep breath of the hot and muggy morning air. I felt quite ambivalent about what had just happened, and wondered whether or not I should have said or done anything different. Should I have done more to reassure him? Should I have offered him more aid? I don’t know, and looking back now I don’t think there was anything else I could have done to make the situation better; the matter of Crimson’s career was firmly out of my hooves and into the distant laps of unseen ponies hundreds of miles away, and anything else I could have said would have had very little practical value. The both of us were stallions quite unused to this modern fixation of constantly talking about one’s problems and emotions; raised as ponies of the upper class to be above the vast masses of commoners, our personal problems and issues could never be seen to be interfering with our duties as stewards of Equestria lest we lose face. To our kind, ‘face’, by which I mean prestige and honour, was everything, and to lose it by displaying any sort of weakness was to expose one to the circling sharks that infest the higher echelons of Equestria’s elite.

I shook my head, as if trying to shake these ridiculous thoughts out of my head; such self-indulgent introspection was not productive and there were far more important and more immediate things for me to worry about, like finding Shining Armour, making sure Red Coat was in a fit enough mental state to command, and the highly disturbing fact that Twilight Sparkle and Spike had been left in the encampment unsupervised. So focused was I on speaking with Shining Armour on the matter of his ill-advised choice of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter that I had completely forgotten about Twilight and Spike as they left the tent. It seems rather improbable that I would have lost track of something so important, especially when one considers just how much I’d fretted over the issue, but I believe I can be forgiven for such dereliction of duty given the great number of problems taking up space in my mind like overfed Neighponese sumo wrestlers jockeying for elbow room on a small dining table.

Well, it probably wasn’t that much of a big deal, I thought. Knowing Twilight as I did, she would likely have returned to the Night Guards' camp to pursue her research in earnest, probably with Captain Red Coat, so she was in a moderately safe pair of hooves for the time being. Resolving to head there to look for her, I stepped away from the relatively cool shade cast by the tent and into the swelteringly hot furnace that was mid-morning in Dodge Junction. The sun beat relentlessly down from a cloudless sky, which bore all the hallmarks of yet another uncomfortably warm day and an equally unpleasant cold night.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Shining Armour loitering nearby, leaning casually against the chest-high wall of sandbags that surrounded the command tent and making idle small talk with one of the sentries on duty there. From what I could understand, they chatted amicably about popular sports; a topic which I am most ignorant of, but I believe they discussed something about the Canterlot Canaries signing on a stallion who had scored more home runs than some other pony I had never heard of from the Manehatten Manatees [This is unlikely to be true, as the Canaries are a hoofball team and the Manatees played basketball. Blueblood’s taste in sports was mainly limited to fencing and croquet, as he often performed very poorly in team games in gym class]. I could not help but admire and, though I am loathe to admit it, envy the way that the Captain of the Royal Guard was able to ‘connect’ with the common soldiery on a level I could barely hope to imitate.

The sentry with whom Shining Armour was speaking showed none of the stilted awkwardness that enlisted ponies often exhibit on the rare occasion when an officer deigns to speak with them, especially one as senior as the Captain of the Royal Guard. He too leaned against the sandbag wall, legs crossed, and his spear resting in the crook of his foreleg in a manner that would have earned him many colourful threats from his sergeant that would have been both graphic in nature and anatomically improbable to actually follow through with, were he there to see it.

“Ah, Prince Blueblood!” greeted Shining Armour as I approached. “What hoofball team do you support?”

“East Trottingham,” I replied automatically; most of the soldiers of the 1st Night Guards supported them, often to the point nearing religious fervour, and I found it a damn sight easier to simply pay lip-service to their inane sports tournament rather than try and explain to the disbelieving ponies that I have about as much interest in their ‘beautiful game’ as I do in the complex workings of Canterlot’s ancient sewage system. I only had some small idea of how hoofball worked, but from what I could tell it involved two groups of fans of opposing teams coming together in a stadium for a brawl, and at some point during the riot, when the local militia moves in to restore some semblance of order, a hoofball match may break out.

[I should point out that Blueblood appears to have confused hoofball with soccer, which is understandable as Trottinghamites insist on referring to what the rest of Equestria calls soccer as hoofball. As I do not wish to get dragged into that argument, I shall refrain from revealing which definition I feel is correct.]

“Please excuse us,” I said, addressing the sentry, “but I need to borrow the Captain of the Royal Guard for a moment.” I offered a smile calculated to put the bewildered and slightly terrified pony at ease, but it was met with limited success; the relaxed and casual attitude that Shining Armour had so effortlessly induced in the guardspony had been completely and utterly ruined by my presence, and I could not help but feel slightly guilty about it. It appeared that Shining Armour too, like my divine Auntie Celestia, possessed that unique common touch that I so lacked and struggled to adopt.

Anyway, it was not like the stallion was in any position to refuse my ‘request’, not unless he had a death wish, so I discreetly tugged Shining Armour away by the hoof.

“So what did Crimson want?” asked Shining as we wandered away from the command tent. Both of our appointed areas of the encampment were in roughly the same direction, so, despite my internal misgivings about having this rather delicate conversation within earshot of scores of ponies, we walked and talked.

“He just wanted to run his plans by me,” I said, lying through my teeth. Rumours in the Royal Guard spread just as rapidly as venereal disease in the Trottingham slums, and I could foresee all sorts of turmoil creating even more headaches for me if anypony else had even gotten wind of Crimson Arrow’s resignation, especially if a politically-minded officer decided that he might take a stab at securing that now-vacant post. “From a commissar’s perspective, of course, to see if the operation fits with the greater political and ideological aims of the war.”

“Hmm, I see,” he said, in a manner that suggested that he did not quite believe me, and I faintly wondered if the smell of liquor was strong enough to be noticeable on my breath. If Shining Armour had noticed he was polite enough to keep it to himself. “And did it?”

“I could think of no objections.” We stepped out of the small cluster of tents that made up the administrative hub of Army Group Centre, ringed by labyrinths of sandbag walls and entrenchments, and into the small area of wilderness that formed a ‘no pony’s land’ between the Crimson Arrow’s small paperwork factory and the regimental camps, surrounding the command sections like a moat around a medieval castle. There, we could afford some small modicum of privacy from eavesdroppers, save for a few patrols and the occasional runner. “What do you make of it?”

Shining Armour shrugged, which made his gold and purple-lacquered armour clatter noisily. “It’s bold. If we can pull this off I might think about forgiving that bastard for leaving the 3rd Regiment out to die like that.”

I nodded, hearing the undertones of resentment plain in his voice. Shining Armour was never a pony to mince words, though I largely suspected that was merely a result of his somewhat limited grasp of the Equestrian language as much as it was his forthrightness and uncompromising dedication to the ponies under his command. Though in the case of his autobiography it would be more accurate to say that he liquified words rather than minced them. “Speaking of the offensive,” I said, trying to awkwardly segue into what I wanted to see him about in the first place. “Lieutenant Scarlet Letter.”

“What about him?” Shining Armour frowned, looking remarkably like some sort of primitive simian trying to comprehend the concept of written language as he did so.

I sucked in a deep breath through my teeth, and idly kicked away some tumbleweed that had dared to block my path, as I tried to think of a way to explain to him that I thought that his choice of the officer commanding the unicorn platoon was completely and utterly moronic, but not quite so bluntly so as to avoid hurting his feelings.

“It’s not my place to critique your command decisions,” I said, knowing damn well that the ridiculous hat resting upon my head and the scarlet sash tied about my waist most certainly made it my place, no, my duty to do so, but I’ve found that other ponies tend to feel better about something if they think that they have some say in the proceedings. “But when I had the pleasure of meeting him yesterday, he made some rather off-colour remarks about the ponies of my regiment. I fear that in this coming offensive his attitude problem may lead to greater friction in the flanking battalion, which will compromise the close co-operation between our respective regiments vital to the success of this operation.”

Shining Armour snorted and shook his head emphatically. “I like to think I know my own subordinates,” he said, but despite his words there was little venom or malice in his voice. His usual cocky grin allayed my fears that I may have overstepped my mark with that bit of rambling politico-speak. “But no, you’re right; he does have an attitude problem, which is exactly why I’ve put him forward for the flanking battalion in the first place.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your logic.” I arched an eyebrow quizzically, wondering if the Captain of the Royal Guard had been out in the sun with his armour on for too long and the heat had boiled what little brains he has.

“What better way for him to overcome his stupid prejudices than fighting alongside the ponies he looks down his perfumed nose at? Besides, you’ll be there to keep him on the straight and narrow. One hoof out of line, and... well, I’ll leave that one up to you. I can’t think of better ponies to mould him into a proper and dutiful officer than you and your Night Guards. Besides, he expressed a keen interest in working with you.”

“Hmm, did he now?” I intoned sceptically. Perhaps Shining Armour was right; if the ordeals of battle had forced me to re-evaluate my opinions on social class, then it was just as likely that a similar such experience would prove sufficiently horrifying as to effect the same change in Scarlet Letter as it did in me. There was, however, one fatal flaw in Shining’s idea, other than his rather misguided faith in my abilities, of course, but I was not about to blow my cover by telling him that. “That’s assuming things will go well,” I explained, “there’s always the chance that they won’t.”

“Then he’ll have no choice but to keep quiet,” said Shining Armour, with a slightly conspiratorial edge inflecting his voice. Despite the apparent seriousness of our conversation, the cocky, self-assured grin that had graced the thousands of recruitment posters pasted up on the walls of Canterlot’s streets remained affixed to his face, as if it was some sort of permanent deformity that just happened to send the volatile hormones of young mares into a lust-fuelled overdrive on sight. “If he’s found wanting then we can simply have him cashiered, or executed. That is your job, after all, Commissar.”

I chuckled, recalling the words that Auntie Luna had spoken to me when I first donned the skull-faced cap: ‘fear ensures loyalty’. The prodigious amount of power now available at my hooves did have its advantages, I suppose; it was merely a matter of learning how to use it properly without making too many enemies. Despite the rational, intelligent part of my mind agreeing totally with Shining Armour, which in itself was an extremely rare occurrence that worried me not inconsiderably, the itching in my hooves had refused to go away. There was always that nagging, irritating little voice telling me that it was all going to go ‘royally tits-up’, as Major Starlit Skies would have so eloquently put it.

The short gulf between the administrative hub and the main body of the encampment had been crossed by now, and soon we were weaving our way around the myriad tents, armouries, bivouac sites, and parade grounds that made up this vast sprawl in the desert. We passed few ponies; only a few sentries on patrol and a couple of runners relaying important messages and many more unimportant ones between officers, but at this time of the morning most of the soldiers would already be well into their morning routines of training, drill, and indoctrination.

I stepped gingerly around a small mound of scrap metal, broken swords and shattered armour plates, piled haphazardly by an armoury ready to be melted down and re-forged so as to be of use to the war effort once more. The discarded armour, strewed out on the dusty ground by the open tent flap, was for the most part broken and probably irreparable; they were cracked, crumpled in by bucking Changeling hooves or ripped apart by fangs, and in some cases appeared to be covered in a thick layer of dark brown rust. Upon closer inspection, however, I saw that it was not rust, but rather dried blood, and only then did I realise that the armour and weapons had been taken from the dead.

[The metal used in Royal Guard armour and certain weapons is a magically enchanted high grade steel alloy. The exact spells and forging processes used are a national secret, the entirety of which is known only by a select few ponies in the War Ministry and the Royal College of Magi, and regimental armourers are taught only that which is sufficient to their job of maintaining arms and armour. As the manufacture of new armour and enchanted weaponry is such an involved and lengthy process, the Royal Guard places a great emphasis on re-using and recycling old and worn-out armour. A guardspony’s armour may therefore contain components hundreds if not thousands of years old, previously worn by countless soldiers before them.]

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” I said, trying to ignore the morbid sight before me. “But you do rely on his support in Parliament.”

Shining Armour suddenly stopped, and the grin on his face vanished to be replaced a deep, worried frown, and I wondered for a brief moment if I had crossed a line there. I did not know just how public his troubles with Parliament were, as I assumed that everypony knew about it, but then again, the House of Commons seemed to operate on the theory that they will earn more support from their electorate if nopony had any clue what they were up to. Not that it truly bothered me, as the post of the Captain of the Royal Guard was inviolate, appointed solely by Princess Celestia, but the idea that we could lose one of the few officers actually capable of performing his role properly to the infantile politicking of power-hungry demagogues, the majority of whom wouldn’t know what a war was if one turned up and gave them all haircuts, was most disconcerting. Nevertheless, I warily glanced around to make sure that nopony could overhear us, which would have been a daunting prospect at the best of times considering the endless cacophonic background noise that pervaded this encampment, and then pulled him gently behind the armoury.

“You have my full support,” I said, trying to help reassure him, for what good my support would have actually done him. The shade of the armoury, from which the sound of iron hammers pounding on hot steel resounded with the low hum of magical enchantment, provided some much-needed respite from the heat of the sun.

“Thank you,” he said awkwardly, apparently finding the fact that the two of us could bear each other’s company for more than five minutes without coming to blows just as confusing as I did. “But if all goes well, I won’t be needing his support, or yours, for that matter.”

“Oh?” I cocked my head to one side. “Why’s that?”

Shining Armour leaned in uncomfortably close to me, as if to impart some highly secret piece of information, and I instinctively stepped back away from him to allow myself some much-needed personal space. “Equestrians love a good winner,” said Shining Armour. “When we give the ponies the victory they crave, they’ll forget all about the mess I made of the defence of Canterlot.”

I snorted contemptuously. “Canterlot was not your fault,” I said sotto voce.

“Heh, you know... it doesn’t matter how many times ponies keep telling me that, I still can’t quite convince myself of it.” He shook his head, twisting up his face into a slightly pained expression before his habitual irritating yet charming smile returned to his lips, and waved a hoof dismissively. “Never mind all that garbage, it’s not important. Don’t you worry about me, Blueblood, victory wipes away all dishonour. I’ll catch you later, if Twiley doesn't have you run ragged trying to keep up with her.”

With that, Shining Armour snapped off a parade ground-quality salute, which I reciprocated without nearly as much alacrity and precision as he did, before he cantered away to do whatever duties the Captain of the Royal Guard was supposed to perform at this hour. As I watched him be subsumed into the amorphous mass of white fur, gold armour, and canvas tents that made up this vast, sprawling encampment, I took a brief moment to straighten up my uniform so I looked at least halfway presentable. I was feeling a little pensive, with that strange sort of lethargy that comes with the knowledge that one’s fate has been placed firmly out of one’s control, like a jar of biscuits placed on a shelf just out of one’s reach, and I contemplated simply wandering out into the desert to live as a hermit subsisting on tumbleweed and cactus juice.

I confess I was rather more stunned by the notion that Shining Armour was perhaps more intelligent than his appearance and behaviour would otherwise imply, as not only was he cognisant that Scarlet Letter, either through incompetence or malice, may end up jeopardising the success of this mission (and, more importantly, my hopes of living a long and happy life) but appeared to have adjusted his plans to either redeem Scarlet or at least keep him in line. Granted, I still thought it was a staggeringly daft plan that relied upon the two dubious assumptions that the operation would proceed without any major hiccups and that Scarlet Letter was of sound mind and rational bearing, but, considering that I had failed to come up a suitable alternative, I felt I had very little choice but to go along with it. Of course, I could have pulled rank and forced Shining Armour to do my bidding, but the fact was that my dislike of Scarlet Letter was based on a personal, paranoid distrust of the pony and not a professional critique of his competence as an officer; he could have made an excellent officer, for all I knew. While Shining Armour would have likely acquiesced to that demand, I was all but certain that Scarlet Letter would use his many connections in the higher echelons of the War Ministry and the Commissariat to make my life very difficult. Well, more difficult than it was already.

I decided that Scarlet Letter was just not worth getting so stressed over, not when I had far more important threats to my life to contend with, like Twilight Sparkle. It was probably best to find her as soon as possible, lest I come back later and find a large smoking crater a mile wide where the Night Guards’ camp used to be. So, reluctantly, I walked away from the cool shade and into the burning sun, and straight into a soldier who had been lurking just around the corner.

“Ooph!” The pony bounced off my chest and fell on her backside with a clatter of armour and flailing hooves. She was a unicorn mare of the Night Guards, and probably quite an attractive little thing underneath all of that armour and without those fangs, eyes, and other morbid accoutrements that Auntie Luna seems to like. Despite failing to recognise her, as there were nearly a thousand or so ponies in the whole regiment and I could not possibly remember the names and faces of each and every one of them (though it is prudent for a commissar to give the impression that he does), there was something very familiar about her, but for the life of me I just could not put my hoof on it.

“Sorry about that, guv’nor!” she exclaimed, her accent sounding curiously fake. It was the sort of accent that a pony who has never been to Trottingham fondly imagines what ponies from that great metropolis sound like; for starters, nopony there has ever called anypony else ‘guv’nor’ for hundreds of years, unless they were trying to squeeze more money out of tourists.

“Do watch where you’re going,” I snapped, gently pushing the mare aside with a hoof as I stepped around her. Feeling a more than a little embarrassed at having so carelessly walked into her, and wanting nothing more than to get away before the scene escalated, I left her sitting on her rear in the dust and continued my journey.

“Toodle-pip!” she called out as I departed.

Ordinarily, I would have paid the event no further mind, but the itching in my hooves forewarned me that things were definitely not what they first appeared, which, of course, would vindicate my suspicions later that day. There was the issue of her accent; having spent quite a significant amount of my time over the past few weeks surrounded by ponies from Trottingham, I like to think I had by then worked out their odd and idiosyncratic manner of speech, particularly in their dialect, as I recall one highly embarrassing incident where I learned that to them the word ‘fanny’ pertains to a lady’s front bottom. Of course, there was a rational explanation for this – she could have been from Ponyville and merely putting on that accent, quite unsuccessfully, in a misguided attempt to fit in. [Though the 1st Night Guard is supposed to recruit only from the Trottingham area, a lack of new recruits meant that the recruiting sergeants often had to resort to using the city’s many prisons or range further afield to the surrounding towns and villages such as Ponyville. This lack of recruits, however, would not last long, as Blueblood’s fame meant an influx of ponies signing up to fight alongside their hero.] What she was doing this far away from the regiment, I don’t know, and frankly I did not care.

Safe in the knowledge that things could not possibly get any worse, I kept walking. Little did I know, however, that things were only just starting to go wrong.


I was pleasantly surprised to find that Twilight had behaved herself while I was gone, which, in itself was doubly surprising; anything pleasant happening that involved Twilight was an extremely rare occurrence. There were no magical mishaps, incurable curses, hexes, cantrips, or any repeat of the nameless horrors of her fifth grade chemistry set awaiting me as I cantered back to my tent. No, when I found them, she was quite happy sitting outside of her tent with Spike, who most certainly was not happy, observing as the soldiers performed their drill meticulously to the loud directions of a sergeant intermixed with colourful threats of obscene violence.

The rest of the day proceeded as normal, albeit with Twilight lingering around me as if we were joined at the hip. I did my best to ignore her, but I must admit that finding her continual presence, and that of Spike and the ever-present sound of his quill scratching on paper and his occasional complaint about how boring things were, to be quite grating. After taking a particularly dreadful show put on by the RASEA in the afternoon, which the two researchers decided not to attend, not that I could blame them considering the abysmal quality of the entertainment on hoof, I retired to my tent for the evening to start work on my letters.

A not-insignificant amount of my work was generated by receiving, reading, and responding to letters. The majority of my letters, I’m sure, had probably vanished in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the War Ministry, to be found centuries after my inevitable death and then burnt for kindling. However, with Spike present, the odious little reptile finally proved himself to be useful for once in providing a means for me to communicate directly with the two Princesses. As vindictive and passive-aggressive as it might seem, I had elected to give voice to my frustrations at being forced into this unpleasant situation by using him to send as many letters to Princess Luna as possible. [Contrary to what he has just written, his correspondence with the War Ministry and Princess Luna, the majority of which merely pertains to the bureaucratic minutiae of the Regiment, was received and collected for posterity. Readers wishing to illuminate themselves further will find these letters stored in the Canterlot Archives.]

It was just starting to grow dark as I dictated my latest letter to Princess Luna, and the mosquitoes were out in force once more. The light, gently tinged with a slight amber hue, flooded in through the open tent flap as I paced up and down the front office area and dictated to Cannon Fodder, who sat at his desk. Twilight, too, was there, lying on her stomach as she looked over the reams and reams of notes she had made that day, while Spike appeared to be passing the time by doodling in the sand with a claw. From what I had heard, he most certainly wasn’t enjoying his time here, which cheered me up immensely. Ordinarily I might have closed that tent flap to afford myself some modicum of privacy, but the heat had grown so unbearable that day that I was quite willing to sacrifice that to get some air in, despite feeling like I had been put on display like a prize on a game show. Just outside, the soldiers milled about aimlessly during their off-duty period; relaxing by camp fires, drinking tea, smoking, and indulging in card games and the sort of raucous banter that the lower orders enjoy.

“ ‘ such, owing to the extremely poor quality of writing in the Royal Infantrypony’s Uplifting Primer, even by the abysmally low standards of the Ministry of Information’s recent outputs, I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend this book for publication and dissemination.’” Cannon Fodder frantically scrawled down my words on some yellowed paper with his usual disregard for legibility. “ ‘Yours Sincerely’... well, you know the rest.”

I stopped pacing and looked over his shoulder to make sure that he actually placed my name there, for his unyieldingly literal interpretation of orders meant that there was a very real chance he would sign that letter ‘Yours Sincerely, well, you know the rest’. Fortunately, he appeared to have learnt his lesson from last time and had scrawled ‘H.R.H Commissar Prince Blueblood’ there.

“Oh, and put a postscript at the bottom there,” I said, suddenly recalling some other important point that I wanted to make. “ ‘Please pass this onto the director of the Royal Armed Services Entertainment Association: the entertainer known as the Great and Powerful Trixie is to be henceforth banned forever from all future RASEA entertainment events following an incident today that resulted in the Horsetralian Engineers voicing their displeasure of her act by attempting to burn down the stage. Those soldiers have since been commended by their commanding officer, a sentiment which, if you have had the great misfortune to have seen her act, you will understand perfectly. I can confirm that Trixie has survived the ordeal, but she appears to have fled and her whereabouts are unknown.’”

Cannon Fodder added the finishing touches to the letter, dotting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s’, or the other way around as he sometimes got the two letters mixed up. Apparently satisfied with the legibility of the letter he passed it over to me, and thus ensuring he got a good amount of his saliva as he picked it up with his mouth. Taking it gingerly with my magic, I rolled it up neatly and tied a ribbon around it, before affixing a wax seal bearing my family crest, a single drop of blood within a kite shield. Satisfied that it looked halfway presentable, which is the most important thing when it comes to sending letters to royalty, I offered it over to Spike.

“Direct to Princess Luna, please,” I said.

Spike snorted, making no attempt at disguising his boredom or displeasure at being trapped with me for an extended period of time. Not that I could particularly blame him; even I found my own company to be rather tedious at times. The feeling, of course, was more than mutual, but at least I had the courtesy to feign politeness; the memory of the time he ate my homework, which, admittedly, I had forced Twilight to complete for me, was still quite fresh in my mind at that point. “Fine,” he said, his voice positively dripping with unconcealed irritation as he grabbed the scroll from my telekinetic grasp, but not before muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘who knew war was so boring?’.

Having never seen the magical transmission of mail through dragons’ fire in action before, and curious to see the one and only thing that Spike was actually useful for, I watched with mild interest as the lambent green fire issued forth from his maw and enveloped the scroll, apparently without burning himself [dragons’ skin, of course, is very resistant to fire]. The paper was immolated utterly; the resultant ashes swirled in the air, coalescing into a vague sort of cloud, and were swept on whatever arcane means Spike uses to direct these letters to and from the Royal Pony Sisters. [The exact mechanisms on how dragons’ breath works is far too complex to explain in these annotations, and quite inconsequential to the analysis of this text. Those curious, however, are encouraged to read chapter seven of Scientific Method’s authoritative but unfinished work ‘Treatise on the Biology of Dragons and Dragonkin’, published posthumously after his unfortunate death by immolation when testing the hypothesis that living creatures could be transported in the same manner as paper.]

The letter, however, seemed to have other ideas, and materialised inches in front of the surprised face of a seemingly random soldier, loitering a few feet away from my tent flap. She yelped in surprise, flinching back slightly as the scroll dropped to the dusty ground at her forehooves.

I did not know much about the magic of dragons’ fire breath, though for that matter I did not know much about magic full stop, but I had sufficient knowledge to realise that should not have happened. As Spike scrambled to his feet in a clumsy flail of stubby limbs, the look of abject surprise on his face indicated that, for once, we were in complete agreement. Reluctantly, with nopony else available to ask for an explanation as Twilight was in the middle of a study binge and therefore completely isolated from the external material world save for the parchment laid out before her, I looked to Spike for an answer.

“That’s not supposed to happen!” he blurted out, his ability to state the blindingly obvious in no way compromised by the intense heat of the day or his boredom. “I mean...” He frowned, looking remarkably like a ruminating bovine as he did so. “I mean, it should only go to Princess Luna because I told it to. And only the Royal Pony Sisters can receive mail like that, so...”

“That must be Princess...” I stopped, unable to finish that sentence for to do so would imply something quite horrible, but nevertheless the evidence there and, if Spike was correct, completely irrefutable. It should have been impossible; I saw both of my divine Aunties leave on their golden chariot just yesterday, but as both are beings of immense magical power, such that none but they and their kin can even conceive of the eldritch nature of their magics, the word ‘impossible’ more often than not just did not apply to them. It was not beyond the realms of believability that Princess Luna could mask her shape and form, for I was well aware of her new annual tradition of taking the appearance of the hated Nightmare Moon and scaring ponies for what I could only imagine as foalish amusement, but if whether she could at the same time create an illusion great enough to fool Auntie ‘Tia was another matter entirely.

“Uh, Blueblood?” Spike poked me in the foreleg, and the frantic, panicky thoughts that had flooded my mind in a vain attempt to understand it all ceased.

I looked at the mare, who, to my surprise, was still there. I recognised her belatedly as the pony who had bumped into me from the way back from my conversation with Shining Armour, and as I saw the stern and condescending expression on her face, and the menacing demeanour of cold and calculating superiority in her posture, I knew it could be nopony else. She picked up the letter with her magic; the aura that surrounded the scroll was one that I had seen many times before, most notably enveloped around me as I was suspended upside down, while Luna bellowed in my face for having groped the flanks of a passing servant mare.

There was only one way to find out for sure, though, so I darted through the tent flap and seized her. The mare emitted a high-pitched yelp of surprise as I wrapped my forelegs around her, and squirmed slightly. The lack of more vigorous resistance was a little surprising, but as she tilted her face up towards mine I saw a slightly defeated and guilty look to her. A part of me hoped that I was correct, because if anypony else was watching it looked as if I had just abducted a random mare.

I pulled her back into the tent. By now, Twilight Sparkle had torn her attention away from her research notes and looked at me with a decidedly bemused expression that implied that she had only just started paying attention to what was going on, and just saw me dragging in a mare without any context at all.

“So it’s come to this? You’re just foalnapping mares... now...”

Twilight’s words died away in her throat as I stepped through the threshold into the tent, and within a sufficiently close distance for Cannon Fodder’s magical null field to take effect, and thus vindicate my suspicions. A flash of light, and almost instantly the mare held between my forelegs grew considerably and, though I am certain she will not find it particularly flattering, much heavier too. Dropping her, and stepping back to close the tent flap from prying eyes, I beheld Princess Luna, sans armour and regalia, sitting there and looking about as guilty as a small puppy next to a pair of chewed slippers.

“You’re nicked, chum,” I said in a clumsy imitation of her false Trottingham accent, unable to resist the urge to tease her a little.

Luna offered a slight, awkward, and guilty smile as she shuffled nervously before me. “It’s a fair cop, guv’,” she said, again with her fake accent, “you’ve got me bang to rights.”