Of all of us in that tent, which was starting to feel more than a little cramped with three unicorns, an alicorn, and a baby dragon sharing the same space as a fold-out desk and a few haphazardly strewed piles of paperwork and barely-hidden pornographic magazines, it was Cannon Fodder who appeared to be the least perturbed. Indeed, the only indication that he was even the slightest bit concerned about the sudden appearance of Princess Luna in our tent was the slight dislodgement of a few flecks of grime on his forehead, caused by his brow knitting together in a sort of confused frown. He looked to me, then to Luna, and then back to me. Upon deciding that, like everything else, I had all of this under control (which I most certainly did not), he asked, “Would the Princess like some tea?”
Princess Luna looked taken aback by the question, as, I admit, was I. She inclined her head towards my aide, and a soft smile came to her elegant muzzle. “Yes, thank you, Cannon Fodder, that’s very kind of you.”
Looking inordinately proud of himself, and quite oblivious to the disturbing implications of Princess Luna having run away to join the Royal Guard that were racing through my mind like a mob of excitable and very loud terriers, he retrieved a standard ‘Guard issue vacuum flask’ from one of the many non-regulation pouches and bags that festooned his ill-fitting armour. [Customisation of Royal Guard equipment is firmly against Princesses’ Regulations; however, it is rarely enforced by any but the most pedantic of officers. It is unlikely that any officer would have had the necessary confidence to confront Cannon Fodder about it, anyway, much less in his capacity as the Commissar’s aide.] As he busied himself decanting the murky brown fluid that passes for tea here into a stained mug, I shuffled anxiously from hoof to hoof as I stood before a very embarrassed Princess Luna.
To say that I was uneasy about this entirely unexpected development would be like saying Princess Celestia is only just slightly taller than most ponies; it felt as if a snake, ice cold and slimy, had wormed its way around my guts and was squeezing for dear life, and then gnawing upon my rapidly beating heart for good measure. Of course, the mere presence of the darker of my two divine aunties invariably has that effect on most ponies; being fully capable of reducing grown stallions to sobbing wrecks, though the aura of malice that usually accompanies her like the stench of body odour around Cannon Fodder was somewhat muted by uncharacteristically sheepish demeanour. Exactly how and for what purpose she had decided to grace us with her presence I knew not, but my initial gut reaction, which has an irritating tendency to be right far too often to be comfortable, was that it was all something that I should certainly be afraid of. The thought that she might have decided that the Changeling army was taking far too long to rip me limb from limb, and that she would rather come here and do it herself, made a very loud and unwelcome entrance into my mind.
“Puh... Princess Luna?” said Twilight dumbly, her eyes so wide open that I feared they may drop out of her skull and onto the dirt by her forehooves. “Is that you?”
Princess Luna arched an eyebrow imperiously, and inclined her head towards her elder sister’s prized pupil sitting just slightly behind her. “Of course,” she said, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Who else might I be?”
“Nightmare Moon?” posited Spike, tactful as always.
Luna scoffed, but otherwise ignored Spike’s outburst. She enveloped with her dark aura the mug of hot tea that Cannon Fodder offered her. “Thank you,” she said with a grateful smile, causing my aide to blush, or rather, the muck on his face to be tinted a slightly red colour, as he retreated back behind his desk. The mug was held just before her lips, and the hot steam that coalesced in ghostly wisps around her elegantly proportioned face, wreathing around her muzzle and disturbing the gentle wafting of her ethereal mane, gave my Auntie’s usual haunting, otherworldly nature a rather more daemonic appearance that did little to help quell my anxiety. Summoning what tiny iota of courage that I had left within the shallow husk of what remains of my withered soul, I stood before her and pulled what I hoped was a suitably stern expression, like the sort I make when a servant has failed to shine my shoes to an appropriately high sheen.
“I think I’d like an explanation now,” I said, trying to present the sort of calm poise and quiet self-assurance that everypony seemed to expect of me, but which I very rarely actually felt.
“Please don’t tell my sister,” she said, a tremor of anxiety inflecting her normally refined voice. I was rather taken aback by this, but I suppose it should really have come as no surprise to me that the one pony that Luna might fear, or, at the very least, respect as an equal or greater, was her elder sister; except, of course, Faust, but considering how our deity has been rather silent concerning the affairs of mortals and that matters of theology were far beyond my understanding, or caring, I dismissed that thought. To see her so shaken, however, in contrast to the supreme confidence and the arrogant, superior condescension that she otherwise exuded from every pore of her immortal body, if she indeed had them, was quite jarring for me and, if anything, put me completely wrong-hoofed. Indeed, I was so flummoxed by the concept that Luna would be disconcerted by anything at all that I struggled for a moment to think of what to say next.
I hope, dear reader, that you will at least empathise with me when I say that, for a brief second, I felt some small amount of foal-like glee at this sudden reversal of fortunes, especially when one considers my past animosity with her, which was based almost entirely upon her peculiar objection to me even daring the share the same plane of existence as she did. With but a single letter to dear, sweet Auntie ‘Tia, then still immersed in negotiations with the native buffalo near Appleloosa as far as I was aware [I was chairing the discussions between the buffalo chieftains and Appleloosa officials for what would later become known as the Treaty of Appleloosa, which definitively settled the Buffalo Question], I could single-hoofedly ruin Luna’s insane plan, whatever it was. Exactly what scheme Auntie Luna had in mind I did not know, but whatever it was it could hardly be conducive to my continued mortal existence. Of course, the thought that she could have me murdered quite gruesomely (and legally, though I’m sure Celestia might want to give her a stern talking to) before I could even open my mouth to dictate that letter to Cannon Fodder had occurred to me, so reason prevailed and I decided against that idea until I could ascertain by just how much Luna’s plan was going to put my life in peril, and whether risking Luna’s wrath was truly worth the modicum of satisfaction I would have received.
“Does she know that you’re here?” I asked at length. The question was a stupid one; of course Princess Celestia did not know that she had run away, if she had found out, I like as not would not be having this conversation in the first place. Or so I thought, at least.
Luna shook her head. “She believes I have flown back to Canterlot to ‘sulk’, as she put it.”
“And what happens when the guards at Canterlot report to Celestia that you still haven’t arrived?” I asked, unable to resist sounding smug as I did so. “Did you consider that?”
“Actually, I arrived at the palace this morning,” said Luna, taking a sip of her tea to conceal a knowing, enigmatic smile that started to unsettle me, “and I’m still there, after a fashion.”
A quick glance in Twilight’s direction confirmed that, like me, she too was rather perplexed by Luna’s answer, which was actually quite reassuring in an odd way; if the pony purporting to be the most intelligent and magically proficient mare alive was having as much difficulty comprehending something as I was, then surely it was not my fault for not having paid enough attention in school.
When Luna lowered her mug of hot tea, and in the dimming light of dusk and the soft blue glow of her magic the steam emanating from her drink took on an increasingly sepulchral look reminiscent of the smoke created by burning joss sticks in Cathayan funeral rites, her smug grin was replaced by a concerned frown. “Are neither of you at all familiar with the simulacrum spell?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Twilight tapped a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, frowning in concentration as she did so. “It sounds familiar,” she muttered, half to herself. “I think it’s referenced in the texts of Starswirl the Bearded, but so much of his work has been lost in the Nightmare Heresy,” [Specifically, the Great Library of Canterlot was burned to the ground during the siege by the Legions of the Nightmare, and in the conflagration a great many irreplaceable ancient texts and treatises were sadly lost, including the complete works of the great scholar Starswirl the Bearded, of which only a few disjointed fragments remain.] – Luna noticeably stiffened when that particular sad event was mentioned – “but nopony has been able to find enough of the fragments of the spell to make it work, and nopony’s even completely sure what it does. The academic consensus is that it’s a very elaborate illusion spell; completely impossible to tell apart from the real thing.”
Luna chuckled, swilling her mug of tea just before her elegant muzzle. “Very good,” she said, and Twilight’s face lit up with that same broad smile I remembered being on the receiving end of many a teacher’s compliments, “but wrong.”
The smile vanished. “Huh?”
“A simulacrum is most certainly not a primitive illusion; it is a physical construct given flesh and form by magic, and commanded by a powerful mind as if it were merely an extension of one’s own body. It is little more than a marionette, propelled by strings of magic to resemble the real thing so perfectly as to be nigh impossible to differentiate between the simulacrum and its master. The Princess Luna that you saw boarding the royal chariot yesterday was one such construct, and it is that construct that is now staring vacantly into space inside my personal chambers, and will then attend a meeting with the Neighponese ambassador tomorrow.”
Well, it sounded plausible, but as I was hardly the right pony to judge whether such a thing could even be attempted outside of the insane fever dreams of the most unbalanced scholars of the College of Magi, as far as I was concerned Luna could have been talking complete and utter nonsense and I still would have bought it. Judging by the enraptured expression on Twilight’s face, however, like a filly being presented with a little puppy for Hearth’s Warming, it must have been at the very least possible. Either that or she was just as gullible as I was. At any rate, exactly how Princess Luna came to be here while somehow fooling her elder sister, assuming that she wasn’t in on this whole affair in the first place, was quite irrelevant; the fact of the matter was that she was right here now and I should probably do something about it.
So I gave a vague sort of shrug, as if all of this had somehow made sense. “That explains how you’re here,” I said, wanting to get to the real issue here before we could get sidetracked further by an entirely pointless, albeit intellectually stimulating, academic discussion on ancient magics. “But it doesn’t explain why.”
The thought did occur to me that Princess Celestia had sent Luna here to keep an eye on Twilight and I, but that theory just did not add up in my mind, especially considering the awkward body language that most certainly implied that she was most anxious about being caught by her elder sister, unless she happened to be a tremendously good actress. I like to think that all the dissembling and arse-covering that I’ve been doing since my early teens to avoid getting into trouble has meant that ‘reading’ other ponies trying to pull the same trick on me is one of the very few things that I’m actually good at (not getting lost easily underground, seducing mares, lying, and an odd gift for picking up languages being chief amongst my very limited repertoire of useful skills). [Blueblood spent most of his early childhood with his father, who ruled as viceroy of various Equestrian colonies and often went on exploring expeditions into the unknown. Therefore, he has become quite proficient in the varied dialects of Zebrica, Coltcutta, and Gryphon.]
“I was bored,” Luna said flatly, inspecting a hoof with a casual disinterest as she did so. “I am a mare of action, and I tire of waging war from afar with forms and meetings and petty bureaucracy. I desire to see this war up close, as I have done in ages past.”
“Bored?” I echoed, a little too impetuously, but only in a vain effort to try and convince myself that she had actually said something that staggeringly daft. A gentle nod from her confirmed it. I looked frantically to Twilight, Spike, and Cannon Fodder to check if I had just lost my mind, which was becoming increasingly likely as this war dragged on. “Most ponies,” I continued slowly, licking my dry, parched lips, “usually pick up a hobby when they’re bored. They don’t run away to join the bloody army!”
“It’s not like you’re going to find anything fun here anyway,” grumbled Spike.
Luna scowled at me, apparently not used to being snapped at in such a disrespectful manner, and, frankly, I was quite surprised myself at having done so, as normally my sense of self-preservation is strong enough to stop me doing stupid things like that, but considering that this insane mare was perfectly happy to put the lives of thousands of ponies here and the fate of the war itself at risk just to alleviate a vague sense of ennui was the culmination of what had been an exceedingly unpleasant day for me I think I can be excused for such behaviour. Looking back, it was the sheer flippancy of her explanation that truly vexed me; it implied that she either did not care about the effect her little escapade would have on my life or the thought just never occurred to her. Under that contemptuous scowl, the metaphorical spine that I had spontaneously grown withered and died, and I was left once more like a frightened foal in front of a monster.
“Forgive me for my rudeness,” I said, the rapid apology stumbling awkwardly from my mouth. I knew from previous experience that the best way to defuse Princess Luna’s rather short temper was to apologise as quickly and profusely as possible; it doesn’t even need to be sincere. I was, however, doing my utmost, once more, to not let Princess Luna know just how scared I was of her. “But it comes from a deep concern for your safety.”
“I’m touched,” she said, her voice positively dripping with sarcasm. “But I can take care of myself.”
“If the Changelings discover you’re here within spitting distance of their armies, they’ll stop at nothing to get you. You’re putting the success of Operation: Equestrian Dawn and all of Army Group Centre at risk just by being here.” And my life too, for that measure; I had no desire to throw it away on her account.
“If they find me,” she insisted in her most imperious tone. Her horn flickered with her dark aura, briefly illuminating the darkening atmosphere of the tent with his cold blue light, but whatever it was she was attempting had failed and the light died. She pulled an irritated face in Cannon Fodder’s direction, who sat behind his desk picking his nose, oblivious as usual to the effects of his unique powers on those around him. “Private, please leave us.”
Cannon Fodder looked oddly hurt as he skulked away from his desk, so I felt compelled to tell him to get some feedbags for our guests and anything else he fancied for himself from the canteen in an effort to cheer him up. As he left through the tent flap, I looked back to Princess Luna, whose horn was once more illuminated. Her eyes glowed with a stark, bright, white light that pierced through the gloom, and the cold aura enveloped her body until it she looked to be a being made purely of moonlight. I shut my eyes, but the actinic glare burned through my eyelids, and I feared that somepony outside might notice the sudden light display from within my tent; I could always blame it on Twilight Sparkle testing something.
The light vanished quickly, a mere flash, and I opened my eyes, blinking away the after-images burned onto my retinas, to see that Luna had once more taken the shape and form of a young mare of the Night Guards. She snapped to attention, or, at least, some semblance of it, and slapped her hoof noisily against her ill-fitting helmet in a clumsy approximation of a salute.
“Private Midnigh’ Rider reportin’ fer duty, sah!” she said with great enthusiasm, though her attempt at a Trottingham accent was still just as atrocious as before, if not worse. Even Spike thought so.
“Seriously?” he said, his voice curiously deadpan as he crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s, like, the worst accent I ever heard! It doesn’t sound anything like them!”
“You wot, mate?”
The faux-guardspony blinked in confusion at Spike, and I now understood that she was under the charming delusion that her disguise was completely and utterly perfect in every way shape and form. Well, in the physical sense, it was perfect, as far as I could tell; the illusion had no blemishes or glitches to it, though if one examined her closely one could detect the same aquiline and patrician features that Luna possessed, as indeed when one spends as much time as she in cultivating an expression of total condescension I imagine it’s rather difficult to shake it. The voice, however, was singularly terrible, and I was glad it was Spike that brought it up; better his hide burned to a cinder than mine.
“What he means,” said Twilight, chuckling awkwardly and admonishing Spike with a nudge from a hoof, “is that your accent is not one hundred per cent convincing.”
The accent was not even one per cent convincing, thought I, but I kept that to myself. Spike grumbled, and I overheard him mutter something about a pony named Pipsqueak who would be so offended if he was here to hear the Princess mangle his native dialect so. The Princess in question, though, huffed indignantly and stomped a hoof, still convinced that her creative interpretation of how the majority of the ponies in my regiment spoke was uncannily accurate.
Luna complained that one thousand years ago ponies from Trottingham all sounded like that, which, even if true, would still not have done her much good. Her body flashed with light once more, and after I blinked away the bright yellow stars that suddenly swarmed across my vision, I was met with the image of yet another mare. On the surface, I suppose, she appeared to merely be Luna in miniature; a small, svelte, lithe little thing with fur of a lighter blue than normal, and her ethereal mane replaced by one of actual hair, which framed her face with sky blue locks. Her face was still identifiable as Luna’s, though rounder, softer, and less aquiline, and yet those piercingly cold eyes remained.
The uniform that she wore, however, was of greater interest, for it was something that I had only ever seen in the faded annals of my revered family’s history. It was an archaic suit of armour of a style and make not found outside of a museum or a reference book or a historical re-enactment society since the Nightmare Heresy; it consisted of a simple breastplate which was little more than a single sheet of steel cast and moulded to fit a pony’s barrel. Absent was the fine filigree and decoration of modern armour, though lacquered a dark and rusty shade of red, like that of dried blood. Iron sabatons guarded her hooves, and an armoured saddle and barding of similarly-shaded lacquered metal protected her midsection and flanks. The only insignia that adorned this suit of armour was a blood red ruby centred upon the exact middle of the breastplate, where the blue star would be on a Solar Guard’s uniform, carved into the shape of a teardrop.
“I am Cloudless Sky,” she said, thankfully no longer attempting that awful accent, “Servant of the Blood, personal retainers to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Blood.” The mare bowed before me, and pressed her nose into the dirt. As satisfying as it was seeing Princess Luna prostrate herself before my regal glory, such that it was, I still felt compelled to point out another obvious flaw in her plan.
“Nice try, Princess,” I said, shaking my head, “but that title and our private army was revoked from our family by Princess Celestia, after great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Coldblood poisoned nearly everypony in the family and seized the title for himself.” Evidently, she must have missed that part when reading up on what happened during her long absence, if anything, though, I thought that this unhappy chapter in my family’s long and bloodstained history was the main cause behind her antipathy towards me. Credit where credit’s due, the disguise itself was masterful, but I expected that from the Princess whose power pertains to the night, darkness, illusions, and deception (aside from affecting accents).
Luna raised her head from the dirt and looked at me. “And who else will know about it?” She then glanced over at Twilight, who looked as if she was about to say something. “Aside from you.”
I looked at her sceptically, and I supposed, perhaps, that it might be possible to keep her a complete secret from the Changelings. I doubted that they would take much personal interest in me and my various hangers-on, though a great many of the enemies that I have faced over the years appeared to think that I was the most important cog of the Equestrian war machine, and therefore operated under the mistaken belief that if they killed me the entire Royal Guard would be gripped by a sudden sense of despair at my loss and just give up and go home. [Blueblood is understating his value a little here, for his loss would likely have had a severe impact on the morale of the Royal Guard.]
“Auntie Celestia will,” I said at length. Then, addressing Spike, “Take a letter, please: ‘Dear Princess Celestia...’”
“Desist.” Even though she was now smaller than me, I could not help but feel cowed by the sheer weight of power and authority that her voice carried. Nevertheless, my path was set, and as I looked to Twilight Sparkle and saw the doubt and confusion etched in the lines on her face, and the fact that Spike had somehow produced a sheet of paper and a quill from seemingly out of nowhere with far greater alacrity than one would normally expect of the slovenly, simple-minded dullard that he is, I was not alone in thinking that this was the right choice. “Put that quill down, Spike.”
The baby dragon shook his head emphatically. “I never, ever thought I’d say this, but I’m with Blueblood.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Yeah, I know, I’m just as confused as you are, but I just think we should let Princess Celestia know about this.”
“I don’t like lying to Princess Celestia either,” I said. And neither did I like the sorts of horrific punishments that she would undoubtedly inflict upon me should I be found complicit in her younger sister doing something mind-bendingly stupid; I’ve seen the torture implements stored unused for centuries in the palace basements, and I had no desire to be given a practical demonstration of them. [This is preposterous; there is no secret inquisitorial torture chamber underneath Canterlot. Anypony found spreading such rumours will be subjected to questioning by the Royal Inquisition.] I looked to Twilight for support, hoping that her dogged devotion to Princess Celestia would win her over to my side. “Lady Sparkle?”
“I am my own mare,” snapped Luna before Twilight could answer. She rose to her hooves and fixed me with a malevolent glare. “And Princess Celestia is not my keeper. I will do as I wish.”
I considered pointing out that the last time she thought like that, she was possessed by the Nightmare and the bloodiest and costliest war in all recorded history broke out, but to save my own skin I decided against it.
“And Twilight,” she continued, gazing down her elegant muzzle to the young purple mare beside her, “I will teach to you the simulacrum spell in exchange for your silence.”
“One of Starswirl the Bearded’s lost spells?” Twilight gasped, her face split open by a rapturous grin. I knew that right there I had lost her forever, for her lust for the lost knowledge of her favourite long-dead unicorn would most certainly override what slender remnants of common sense yet remains in that over-filled head of hers. The serpent coiled around my stomach squeezed tighter.
“But what of Parliament?” I asked quickly, hoping to seize the initiative.
She took a sip from her drink, and glared at me archly from behind her mug. “What of it?”
I waved a hoof dismissively, finding her casual attitude to be rather grating. “Just you being here invites a constitutional crisis; no alicorn princess may command ponies under arms.”
“I am not bound by Parliament,” she said, again, irritatingly casual about the whole affair; as if plunging Equestria into, at best, the greatest political buck-up since the last one she started one thousand years ago, and at worst, the greatest civil war since, well, the last one she started one thousand years ago, was an entirely trivial affair that was hardly worth her time. “My power derives from Faust Herself, and by Her Grace I am appointed to rule Equestria in Her name. I answer to no temporal authority on Equus, elected or not.”
I wondered if the whole concept of the divine right of royalty was perhaps intrinsically flawed, somehow, especially if it allowed the apparently divinely-appointed rulers of the most powerful nation in the world to go gallivanting off to warzones on a mere whim; my own use of that particular doctrine to excuse some of the more distasteful and illegal things that I had done in my youth notwithstanding, of course. Looking at Princess Luna and Twilight Sparkle, I wondered if the concept of self-preservation was just some sort of mental illness that only I was afflicted with.
“Besides,” she continued, “the edict states that no alicorn princess may lead ponies under arms. There is nothing to say that I may not accompany them into battle. The letter of the law will still be obeyed.”
“If not its spirit,” I retorted.
Princess Luna snorted condescendingly, and placed the now-empty mug of tea to the side. Standing face-to-face with me, or, rather, her face to my chest now that she was the size of an average unicorn mare, her eyes narrowed as they fixed onto mine with a glare of such intensity that I failed to suppress a small whimper. Regardless of the disparity in size, those cold, intense eyes of hers and the haughty, proud scowl on her face was enough to turn my bowels to water.
“You would not dare disobey a direct order from your Princess, now, would you?” she hissed. “Worry not, your dedication to my sister is admirable, but please allow me to deal with her. You are a soldier, Blueblood, and you will obey me without question.”
Defeated, and realising that there was simply no arguing with one so stubborn as her, not least of all due to the fact the alicorn in question can just as easily render me into a small pile of dust to be cleaned up by Cannon Fodder when he comes back, I simply gave up. It wouldn’t have been the first time I just surrendered in the face of Luna’s insane stubborn streak, and as sure as Tirek lies chained in Tartarus it would not be the last. [This phrase indicates that this entry was written just after the first time he retired, before Tirek was unbound from his daemonic prison and Blueblood’s return to active service]
Truth be told, I was simply exhausted; I suppose I could have argued with her further, but I believed my position to be untenable in the face of her overwhelming bullheadedness and thus I bid a hasty retreat, preferably before I was reduced to a messy stain on the ground. The events of that day – the upcoming mission, Twilight Sparkle, Crimson Arrow’s resignation, my confrontation with Shining Armour – after all of that I felt an intense fatigue I had not known since the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Black Venom Pass. Military life often leaves one at the very edge of physical and emotional collapse, and Luna’s appearance was most certainly an unpleasant shove in the direction of that precipitous drop to a breakdown.
Spike tugged at my sleeve. “Uh, Blue? You okay there? You kind of zoned out.”
“I’m fine,” I said, despite my imminent meltdown. I was doing my utmost not to grab Princess Luna by the ears and scream into her irritatingly smug little face that this was all a bad idea. “I just remembered that there’s something very important I need to do. Cannon Fodder will take care of your needs until I return.”
I left hurriedly, their feeble protests barely registering as I ducked through the tent flap and into the cool of the early evening. Wanting nothing more than to escape to some semblance of solitude, I picked a direction seemingly at random and started walking, hoping the nocturnal perambulation would help clear the tumult of thoughts swirling like a hurricane in my mind. The ponies gave me a suitably wide berth as I stalked between the tents, armouries, and parade grounds, no doubt the scowl upon my face indicating that I was most certainly not in the mood for idle conversation, should anypony feel particularly suicidal enough to approach me for that.
If Princess Luna wanted to play at soldiers, so be it, I thought. I shan’t risk my life unduly for her sake. I kicked at a stray dog unfortunate enough to cross my path; the damned things were becoming endemic in the encampment, no doubt fed scraps and kept as pets by the more sentimental of the soldiers here. The dog yelped and sprinted away from me.
Darkness descended, and Princess Luna’s moon loomed fat and yellow in the star-flecked expanse above, as if she was mocking me with it. I crossed into Dodge Junction, and there I wandered listlessly into the district given over to the less wholesome activities a soldier on leave might waste his monthly pittance on. I found a brothel frequented by many off-duty personnel of all regiments – a dank, sordid little place, lit darkly by a small number of dim gas lamps that illuminated the prostitutes entwined with their clientele like grotesque, multi-limbed monstrosities, obscured by a dense haze of tobacco smoke that lingered like a fog. I caught glints of steel and gold mixed with elegant silks and velvet, and of eyes watching me with a mixture of alarm and distaste. Ignoring them, I sought comfort by procuring the services of one of the many painted, pretty mares from a slovenly, fat, greasy little stallion, presumably the proprietor of this establishment.
I indulged in a night of rough passion, a far cry from the skilled and refined courtesans I was used to, but when the morning came the next day, a sickly feeling of guilt and shame for having sunk so low added to my already troubled nerves. I settled the bill by tossing a purse full of bits onto the bed, and walked back to the camp hoping nopony would notice my indiscretion.
The preparations for the upcoming offensive proceeded with the usual precision and efficiency expected of the Royal Guard, that is to say, with none. The weeks that followed Luna’s arrival on my doorstep, or tent flap to be more accurate, were a confused mess of muddling through the various problems and issues that arose in trying to marshal the necessary formations, supplies, and resources required for this complex operation. Much of these were conducted in a series of ad hoc meetings with General Crimson Arrow, as and when he felt like it, it seemed. We often went days without hearing from him; the apparent mastermind of this audacious, if suicidal, plan remained ensconced within his tent alone, only for a flurry of frenetic activity to follow as I and half a dozen other officers would rush to his call to discuss some seemingly trivial aspect of the attack. As tedious as these meetings were, at the very least military personnel tended towards brevity in their discussions, as opposed to the meetings I attended when I worked at the Ministry of War, where civilian managers could somehow say so little of actual worth with so many words in a manner that was as impressive as it was irritating.
Though these meetings and the dozens of other, minor things that demanded my attention were onerous in the extreme, I threw myself into these new duties in a vain bid to remain as far away from Princess Luna as possible. Twilight Sparkle’s presence was annoying enough, but at the very least I was not often the subject of her attention, and more often than not I merely acted as her chaperone as she observed or interviewed soldiers. When ‘Cloudless Sky’ stood by my side (remaining a judicious distance from Cannon Fodder) I could not shake the uncomfortable sensation that she was observing and judging me.
Her disguise itself worked perfectly, and Cannon Fodder could be trusted to do as he was told and keep quiet, and as for Spike, well, foals tend to be very amenable to bribes so his silence was bought by a large helping of ice cream with extra sapphire sprinkles. To my dismay, I had hoped that perhaps Major Starlit Skies, a proficient magic user in his own right, might have been able to spot some holes in the illusion. Alas, my colleagues, the senior officers of the regiment, only took a passing interest in the new arrival, who I tried to explain as having been sent by the family matriarch, my dear old mother, in one of her more lucid moments, to act as my personal bodyguard. [After the disappearance of Blueblood’s father in unexplored Zebrica, his mother was sent by distant members of his family to a mental hospital on the dubious pretence of being ‘overcome with grief’. He is rather private about that affair, and I do not wish to insult the memory of my nephew by disclosing the specifics here.] The exception, however, was Captain Blitzkrieg, who winked at her lecherously and lamented that nopony ever sent pretty mares to him anymore, which left both I and Luna quite speechless. Nevertheless, I actually saw precious little of my auntie in those weeks, save for the few token appearances masquerading as my personal retainer and her loitering about my tent as I tried to do paperwork, thus eradicating the last vestiges of what little privacy I had left. What she got up to when I didn’t see her, I don’t know, and neither did I particularly care, but the notion that she had taken on the form of a black, amorphous, star-speckled cloud and lingered in the shadows, just beyond my sight, could not be shaken.
The majority of my work, however, was spent working as liaison officer between the four arms of the Equestrian Armed Forces that would form the flanking battalion – the 1st Night Guards, the 1st Solar Guards, the 16th Royal Artillery, and Southern Cross’ motley collection of Royal Engineers. What this actually meant in practice, of course, was that I had to sort out any arguments and conflicts that would arise between the four while trying to give the impression that I was being as fair and even-hoofed as possible, which made me feel like a kindergarten teacher most of the time. As a result of the close co-operation required between the officers of these disparate organisations, each with very different mindsets and viewpoints on just how things should be done, disagreements and arguments were all but inevitable, but fortunately all of the officers were possessed of sufficient will and drive to see this endeavour through without causing too much of a hassle. Regardless of their personal opinions of each other, for I suspected that many of the Solar Guard still held reservations about their darker cousins in service to the former Nightmare Moon, they were mature enough to form working, professional relationships between them with only a little direction and relatively few threats of violence from me. There was, however, one notable exception, and you, dear reader, shall receive no prizes for guessing who that pony was.
Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter appeared to have made it the goal of his hitherto short and undistinguished career in the Royal Guard to make my life as difficult as possible; it was he, and not Twilight Sparkle, or Princess Luna, or even Spike, as irritating as the infant dragon was, who contributed the greatest to my misery over that week and the weeks to come. I do not think that he truly intended any malice towards me, as he was under the charming delusion that the two of us were friends and he would therefore take every opportunity to try and ingratiate himself with me despite my increasingly unsubtle attempts to distance myself from him. The problems arose from his distinct inability to get on with anypony else, and he frequently butted heads with Captain Red Coat and Lieutenant Southern Cross over matters which I felt to be quite trivial, necessitating me, as political officer, to come in and definitively settle the issue.
One such argument arose over the proposed marching order of the column. Scarlet Letter insisted that it should be the 1st Solar Guard, being the oldest and most prestigious regiment in the Royal Guard, and his platoon specifically, that should have the dubious honour of the battalion sent to certain doom in the valleys and gullies of the Macintosh Hills. Ordinarily, I might have allowed him that privilege, as placing him at the head of the column would have invariably exposed him to the greatest amount of danger, were it not for Southern Cross’ equally vociferous insistence that the engineers lead the column. The engineers’ reasons, of course, were purely practical; if they were to clear a path through the rough ground for the battalion with its artillery and baggage train, then it made sense to place them at the head of the column. Naturally, reason prevailed, by which I mean I put my hoof down and told Scarlet Letter to shut up, and the Horsetralian Engineers would lead the way.
That example was typical of the sort of fiasco that invariably followed Scarlet Letter wherever he went, like hoofsteps in the snow. I like to think that I had done all that could be reasonably expected of any sane pony in that situation, save for throttling him with my bare hooves. Looking back, however, if I had done that right there I might have saved myself a great deal of trouble, and probably earned the Medal of Harmony a few years earlier than I actually had done. But as the weeks wore on and my patience wore thinner and thinner, the thing that I recall giving me the most grief, aside from the thoughts of my imminent and messy death in a Changeling ambush, was a rather insidious rumour that began to infect the ranks of the platoons forming the flanking battalion.
It was a simple enough rumour, as the most insidious ones tend to be; Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter had been drilling his platoon all day in the hot sun, when, to the surprise of nopony but him, two soldiers had fainted from heatstroke, for which they were to be flogged. Whether there was any truth to this, I didn’t know, but regardless of its veracity the rumour spread, as they inevitably do, and filtered through the ranks and strata of the regiment and was thus embellished with every telling – the soldiers did not suffer from heatstroke but of chronic dehydration and malnutrition, and they were not to be flogged, but hanged. Ordinarily I would have simply ignored it, knowing that even the simple act of denial only adds credence to that rumour in the minds of the more paranoid of ponies, however, if left unchecked I knew it could erode the trust that I had spent the past week or so trying to build between the two regiments. What most ponies fail to realise is that good discipline is built upon a foundation of trust – soldiers obey orders because they trust in their officers’ ability not to get them killed needlessly in combat, and likewise officers trust in their soldiers’ ability to carry out those orders professionally. To erode that trust, even between different regiments and formations, is to invite defeat. Whatever I thought about Scarlet Letter was irrelevant if the common guardspony, standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, had absolutely no faith in the abilities of the ponies in the next platoon over.
“He only threatened to have them flogged,” explained Shining Armour when I confronted him about the matter over our habitual game of chess. I had taken to visiting the 1st Solar Guard Regiment’s officers’ mess regularly so that I might ‘liaise’ with their officers in a more relaxed and casual setting, at least that is what I told Colonel Sunshine Smiles, in actual fact most of my liaising was done with their well-stocked drinks cabinet of fine liquors and the younger officers, all of whom under the charming misapprehension that games of chance had more to do with sheer blind luck than the pair of aces that I kept concealed up my sleeves. The Lord Captain himself seemed to tolerate my company here, and on occasion we would indulge in a few games of chess to while away the remainder of the evening, though most likely for professional rather than social reasons. [The idea that Shining Armour might have simply enjoyed his company does not appear to have occurred to him. Shining Armour’s own memoirs imply that he considered Blueblood to be a friend, or as close as their respective ranks could possibly allow.]
Also present was Captain Blitzkrieg, who sat at our table nursing a pint of lukewarm Trottinghamshire bitter. Like me, the Night Guard’s officers too had taken to visiting the mess, apparently for the same reasons as I, though far less frequently and usually only if I was there to accompany them, and it appeared this time that the vulgar pegasus company commander had drawn the shortest straw. Despite my fears and reservations, he had yet to offend anypony; if anything he had become quite shy and reserved, though I put that down to a concerted effort not to embarrass himself or me in front of his social betters. At any rate, he was quite content sitting quietly with his brown beer and watching Shining and I play chess, occasionally picking up one of the defeated antique pieces to examine them.
The mess itself was a very large tent, far larger than General Crimson Arrow’s headquarters, and more luxuriously furnished, too. Plush, faux leather-backed seats, so soft that sitting upon one felt like sinking into a pleasantly warm marshmallow, surrounded by darkly-varnished wooden coffee tables, around which the many officers of the 1st Solar Guard and their guests would relax after a day’s work with idle conversation and drink. A few officers had brought mares, farm girls they had seduced while on leave, perhaps, and they danced in a vain approximation of a high society ball to the inoffensive, tinkling tune of harpsichord played by a young ensign. Above us, the accumulated smoke of dozens of fine cigars and tobacco pipes formed a visible fog, looking much like the clouds on an overcast Trottingham day, and promised woe for anypony concerned about the health of their lungs.
“But he didn’t go through with that threat?” I asked, looking over the chess board that separated us. It was Shining’s turn, and I watched with only a vague interest as he considered his next move. As he did so, one of the few pieces he had left on the board would be illuminated by a gentle blue glow, before he would decide against it and select another, and then another. His vacillation didn’t bother me overmuch; for the first time in weeks I was actually enjoying myself, and I had set myself up for a comfortable win in a few more turns and all he could do was delay the inevitable, though I suspected that he was merely allowing me to win out of politeness.
Shining Armour shook his head. “No, the two soldiers were taken to the field hospital. I doubt he would have gone through with it anyway.” At length, he finally selected his prince and moved it forwards; a bold move that had me worried for a brief moment, before I took another sip of my drink and re-adjusted my strategy.
“I see,” I said, nudging a pawn forth with my hoof. Just over Shining Armour’s shoulder I could just about see the pony we were gossiping about, sitting on another one of those luxuriously plush chairs and surrounded by a small mob of officers, some of whom I noticed were from the 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard, and was apparently halfway through telling some sort of anecdote about his time in Parliament. I spotted Captain Fine Vintage amongst them, looking distinctly bored as the aristocratic officer did not appear to even attempt to look the slightest bit interested, and only lingered out of a sense of dim politeness.
“He’s a politician,” said Blitzkrieg suddenly, nodding his head in Scarlet Letter’s direction, “ain’t he?”
“He’s the member of Parliament for East Trottingham,” answered Shining Armour. As he considered his next move he picked up his glass of lemonade – the straight-laced Captain of the Royal Guard was not one to indulge in the ‘demon drink’ – and took a sip.
“Well, he’s certainly a member, alright.” Blitzkrieg frowned, and swirled what little remained of his dark amber drink in the glass. “Well, I didn’t bloody vote for him.” [Captain Blitzkrieg was, of course, a resident of the constituency of East Trottingham.]
I chuckled. “Of course you didn’t,” I said, “you aren’t eligible to vote.”
The puzzled expression on his face grew a little more intense as he struggled to work out the convoluted mess that was Equestria’s political system at that time, what with democratic reform still languishing in its infant phase of development, and how that slotted in with his rather primitive and one-sided view of the world. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought that this was the first time he had even considered how this country is run, or not run, as seems more likely. “But why not?” he asked, after a moment’s pause.
“You need to own an expensive enough property before you’re allowed to vote. Parliament seems to believe if you can look after a moderately large house, you’re intelligent enough to vote for somepony sensible, which means that hardly anypony can vote.” [Prior to the widespread electoral reform that followed the Changeling Wars, it was estimated that less than five per cent of the total population of Equestria could vote, though this was by no means uniform across the country as the necessary prerequisites changed from borough to borough.] And therein lay the main flaw with democracy, or, at least, that’s what I thought, for as the last century started to progress out of its infant stages my views were becoming less and less popular; the crux of the issue lies with the choice of prospective representatives with which to invest legislative and executive power over the state, and democracy tends to only attract those who actually want power and are willing to pursue whatever ruthless means necessary to get it. In my personal experience, it is those sorts of ponies that one should look out for, and, more importantly, should never be allowed to receive that power.
“But I owned lots of properties,” insisted Blitzkrieg. “Pubs, bars, gambling dens, opium houses, brothels...”
“He means owned legally,” said Shining Armour, offering a friendly smile. He moved his prince forwards and took my pawn, which I had sent out as bait, and while his piece remained unsettlingly close to my unguarded princess I remained confident that I could pull off a tidy victory here. “I used to have the vote, until I married Cadence, that is, and became a prince.”
“And East Trottingham is a rotten borough,” I added, considering my next move.
“Well, sir,” said Blitzkrieg, looking slightly offended, “I know it ain’t Canterlot, but Trottingham ain’t that bad.”
I begged to differ, having visited the destitute east end of that miserable little metropolis before with its disease-ridden slums and poverty-stricken rookeries, but as I did not want to run the risk of waking up with one of his stiletto blades embedded in my neck I refrained from voicing it, and instead tried to explain the corruption that lay at the heart of Equestrian politics, “No, no, a rotten borough is a constituency where the MP controls the small number of voters that live there.”
“Voter,” corrected Shining Armour, leaning back in his seat and taking another sip of his lemonade. “East Trottingham has only one voter, and that’s Sir Scarlet Letter’s wife.”
Nearly snapping my knight in half in my telekinetic grip, I blinked up in surprise at Shining Armour, and then stole a sidelong glance at the pony we were gossiping about. The idea that a mare could have tolerated his company long enough for them to exchange vows, or worse, copulate with him, was profoundly disturbing, but then again, my mother married my father, of all ponies, for purely political reasons, so I supposed it must have been possible.
Blitzkrieg frowned and then shook his head, deciding that, as all commoners should, that issues of state and power are far beyond his meagre reckoning, and downed the last mouthfuls of beer in one big gulp. Wiping the residual drops from his now sopping muzzle fur, he once again indicated Scarlet Letter, this time by pointing his empty pint glass at him. “So, I’m guessing being an MP’s fairly prestigious and well-paid and all, right?” he said. “What I don’t get is why he’s decided to join the Royal Guard as a lieutenant.”
“He’s fallen out of favour with the Prime Minister,” said Shining Armour, leaning forward conspiratorially, his voice low so as to be almost drowned out by the vapid, bland harpsichord music and the equally inoffensive ripples of polite conversation around us. In spite of myself, I could not help but lean over the chessboard too, and neither could Blitzkrieg, apparently. “He used to be the Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, but in the last cabinet reshuffle he lost out, and he’s been sitting on the back benches for a few years now.”
I moved a knight forward and took Shining’s prince, and then tapped my chin thoughtfully. “I see. He thinks a short spell in the Royal Guard, earning a few shiny medals and a couple of impressive but ultimately cosmetic scars, will resurrect his flagging political career.”
“Eh, good luck to him,” said Blitzkrieg blandly, shrugging his shoulders casually, “a hoof out of line, though, and he’ll have to answer to the Commissar here.” Well, that was the theory at least. I wished it was that simple, but Scarlet Letter did not strike me as the sort who would be cowed into submission either by fear, as the Commissariat recommends, or by reason and out of a sense of duty, as I had been trying to instil in the officers I work with. Shaking the thoughts from my mind, which were becoming less and less coherent the more I drank from my glass, I noticed belatedly that Blitzkrieg had thrust his empty glass, with residues of foam coating the inside of the vessel, under my muzzle. “Speaking of which, it’s your round.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Come on, mate, how about a bit of that noblesse oblige, eh?” [Prench for ‘nobility obliges’; it refers to the concept that those lucky enough to have been born into the nobility have certain obligations and responsibilities to those less fortunate under their charge. Needless to say, Blueblood tended to find this idea an annoying hindrance at the best of times, though he often made pains to be seen adhering to it.]
As I took that glass and dragged myself reluctantly to the bar, I made a small mental note to find the pony who had taught him about that concept and have the unscrupulous bastard flogged, for I knew the good Captain would now take every opportunity to squirrel as many treats out of me as possible under that spurious pretext. Anyway, shortly after I returned with fresh booze the game ended in victory for me, as predicted, though Shining Armour seemed rather distracted for most of the remainder of it. Nevertheless, the alcohol flowing through my veins had made me feel proud of that victory, though I suspected that it had been quite unmerited.
Following that, I decided that it was time I retired for the night, and bade my farewells to the Captain of the Royal Guard. With Blitzkrieg with me I made my way back to the Night Guards’ camp, where I had hoped to sleep off the effects of the whisky. Had I known what lay there when I eventually arrived, I might have gone back inside for a few more drinks to help soften the blow of what would come next, but, innocently, we wandered back to our camp, and I had to make awkward small talk with the pegasus captain. Once out of earshot of the mess tent, or, at least, what he fondly believed to be out of the earshot, Captain Blitzkrieg returned to being his usual cocky, crude self, and almost immediately began to cast aspersions on the lineage of a few Solar Guard officers who had been rude to him, though he was somewhat justified, I might add; he had actually behaved himself quite well this time.
“Shining Armour’s all right, though,” he said, once he had finished his tirade, “and that Fine Vintage bloke.”
I chuckled; Fine Vintage had attempted, unsuccessfully, to impress his love of all things vinous on Blitzkrieg, and after one taste of a particularly rare white wine, the pegasus announced that it ‘tastes of cat piss’. Now, I recall hearing of a rumour that Fine Vintage had quite savagely assaulted a young ensign who requested that his pinot noir might be better served chilled, so I feared that Blitzkrieg might once again land me in another duel. Luckily, Fine Vintage merely chuckled and joked that ‘it’s not on the tasting notes’, and from then on the two had got on surprisingly well.
As we reached our tents, Blitzkrieg said ‘goodnight’ and departed. I noted, just before I ducked through my tent flap, that a warm glow of candles emanated from Twilight’s tent next to mine, and the silhouette of a small, slightly chubby unicorn lying on her stomach, legs tucked neatly under her frame, and of a hovering book was projected onto the cloth. Inside my tent, however, I found that Cannon Fodder had already gone to sleep, snoring loud enough to wake the dead, while Spike had curled up in what looked suspiciously like a dog basket at the end of the desk, also asleep and with plugs in his ears. Evidently, he could not tolerate another one of Twilight’s all-night study binges and stole away into my tent for some peace.
Wanting nothing more than to follow them into the realm of dreams, I stumbled into my ‘room’, and there, resting on my pillow, I saw a small brown envelope and a muffin – Corporal Hooves had probably visited with the mail. Luna was absent, off doing whatever it was she got up to at this time of night. Placing the muffin aside to enjoy later and, hopefully, sober, I picked up the envelope and opened it curiously. What was contained therein was enough to wash away the fog of drunkenness and bring me back to cold, hard, unforgiving sobriety. Ultimately, it was a fairly innocuous thing; a sheaf of papers bound together in red string and a red seal bearing the coat of arms of the Royal Guard. They were orders.
We were to muster at the staging ground tomorrow afternoon, and the attack that I had been dreading these past few weeks would finally begin.