Life in Fort E-5150 eventually settled into some semblance of normality in the days following our arrival, inasmuch as anything in the Royal Guard can be considered as ‘normal’. Despite being deep within what was considered to be hostile territory, isolated and alone, and living in less than ideal conditions where what little bodily remains that the previous inhabitants had left behind when they were slaughtered not too long ago had only just been washed from the walls very recently, the average guardspony could be trusted to get on with the gruelling business of soldiering with little or no complaint beyond the usual, sarcastic griping that the lower orders tend to indulge in when being given a task that they feel is pointless. I, on the other hoof, being more cognisant of the very real peril that we were in but not enough to properly voice it, was slowly reaching the end of my tether, and I feared that sooner or later the masque I hide behind so skilfully would shatter under the pressure, and the inchoate terror that lay hidden behind it would overwhelm me. The tunnels below had been sealed by using Lieutenant Southern Cross’ dynamite to bring down the incalculable tons of rock, such that no force in the world would be able to clear it any time soon. The first chamber, with its grisly chains and unsettling display of glyphs and pictograms was left open for Twilight Sparkle to investigate to her heart’s content.
Cannon Fodder had managed to secure for me a suite of spacious and relatively clean rooms on the third floor of the building, which I then had converted into my own private office and bedchambers. My aide and Twilight Sparkle both took a room each either side of my own, and I felt a damn sight safer with a thick wall of solid rock separating me from the slightly unbalanced mare. The room itself was sparsely decorated, but that was simply because nearly all evidence of the Diamond Dogs’ use of it had been cleared away and disposed of. I was surrounded by bare stone walls, and a high ceiling twice the height of the average pony from which hung an ancient chandelier on a rusted chain and decorated morbidly with spikes. In one corner I had placed my cot and in the other was my writing desk, and between those was a large, open window that commanded a lovely view of precisely sod all, leaving a fairly wide, empty space about half the size of a tennis court for me to enjoy. It was this place that I called home for those intervening days between our arrival and the battle, and in some odd way I even found it to be rather comfortable at times.
As for Twilight Sparkle, it appeared that the dressing-down that I had given to her in the catacombs had the desired effect and she appeared to be a bit more quiet and subdued than the irritatingly enthusiastic demeanour that I’m more used to seeing in her. Of course, it might have had more to do with the fact that the full gravity of the situation had finally dawned upon her, and instead of treating her Royal Commission as some small side project, she now threw herself fully into its pursuit. She therefore continued to make a nuisance of herself, generally getting in the way of the guardsponies as they went about their duties of drill, sentry, and conducting basic repairs to the castle to make it at least slightly more defensible than before, though her meddling was certainly not to the same exacerbating levels as the previous few weeks or so since her unexpected arrival at my hooves. That she was in fact frightened – being alone and surrounded by three hundred strange and intimidating ponies, and one even stranger and downright terrifying alicorn – and simply putting on a brave face for the benefit of everypony else around her was certainly a possibility, and upon reflection that seems like the more plausible explanation for her change in behaviour than her, or indeed anypony for that matter, actually listening to anything I say. Perhaps then the two of us were not quite so different, after all.
Despite all of this, I did my best to simply carry on in the best traditions of the upper classes, most of whom believed wholeheartedly in the pleasant fiction that emotions as fear, worry, or even slight concern for one’s own safety were supposed to be anxieties that only the lower orders experienced. With very little of the usual distractions of fine alcohol, impressionable young officers naive enough to think that the principles of fair play apply to gambling, and pretty mares who just find a commissar’s uniform and its contents to be utterly irresistible to help me keep my mind off the fact that very soon I might find my bodily remains being scraped off the walls in the same way that the Diamond Dogs’ had just been, I concentrated on my work. Not that I particularly enjoyed the usual business of filling in paperwork and dispensing ‘inspirational’ pleasantries to everypony I meet like some sort of motivational vending machine, but at the very least, I supposed, it was more productive than simply brooding; if the battalion was to become the highly effective fighting machine that I needed to hide behind when Shining Armour finally got his own affairs in order and the battle would commence, then it was simply logical that I would take steps to ensure that by actually doing my job for once.
Doing so had the additional benefit of keeping my contact with Twilight Sparkle to a bare minimum; I was not overly concerned about her safety here, though, as containing her in a smaller, more constrained, and better regimented environment than the sprawling mess of the Dodge Junction encampment meant that her capacity to get in the way of things was a little more restricted; at least in theory. The absolute worst that happened, however, came late one evening after I had sat through a tortuously long and mind-numbingly dull meeting with Captain Red Coat and the other officers about our meagre supply of oat rations, when I decided that I would pay Twilight Sparkle a visit. It was not a social call, mind you, as I was too tired and irritable (well, more than usual) to spend my time entertaining her, as I find her company to be quite tiresome even in one of my rarer good moods, but merely to check how she was coping so far. You, dear reader, cannot even begin to imagine the horror that took me when I pushed open the door to her room with a small burst of magic to find two of her standing side-by-side in the centre of her room.
“Hi!” they chorused together. It took all of my willpower not to bolt out of the door right then and flee.
It appeared that Princess Luna, who stood a little off to the corner of the room with an expression of quiet satisfaction tugging upwards on the end of her thin, bloodless lips, had delivered on her promise to teach her sister’s faithful student the ancient secrets of the long-lost simulacrum spell, much to my horror. Most common illusion spells tend to have one or two subtle ‘tells’ that give them away; perhaps the light reflecting off the soft fur of a well-groomed mare is not quite right, or maybe the colour of a blood-red rose adorning the mare’s mane is just not vibrant enough, or, as is the case when I attempt these sorts of spells, this illusionary mare is missing one or more of her limbs. Standing before me was a nightmare dredged up from the darkest days of my youth; two Twilight Sparkles, apparently identical in every way such that I could possibly tell which of the two was born of flesh and blood and which was crafted and moulded from primal, forbidden magics. If one had not seen or even heard of Twilight Sparkle before (having spent most of one’s life living in an isolated cave just outside Timbucktoo, of course), then one would have sworn that the two mares standing before me were identical twins. The two bore matching smiles that were relentlessly cheerful in such a way that inspired in me such subtle, terrible horrors. They parted and stood either side of me, flanking me, and I could not help but take a few, furtive steps back towards the door.
Most horrible, however, was that they reminded me of my own twin sisters, right down to the disconcerting manner in which they spoke in short, truncated sentences, one after the other in rapid-fire succession. [Prince Blueblood has two twin sisters younger than him, Duchess Sangre and Duchess Azul, both of whom have married into Prench nobility.]
“Isn’t this spell just amazing?” said the one on the left.
“Just think of all of the extra studying I could get done!” said the one on the right.
“While I shadow you and the officers around, taking notes as you do your job for Princess Celestia’s commission on the Royal Guard...”
“...I can be downstairs studying the entrance hall to the tomb!”
“Oh, I can’t wait to start!”
A low, melodious chuckle came from Princess Luna, and I looked up into the dark corner of the room that she always tended to gravitate to for some reason known only to her. “Twilight has been making such great progress,” she said. “I don’t think I have seen anypony else could have mastered such a complex spell so quickly. I am impressed.”
“I—” I stuttered uselessly for a moment, glancing between the mare in the shadows and the two duplicates standing beside me, doing my best to try and articulate the horror I was feeling. One Twilight Sparkle was bad enough, albeit more manageable most of the time these days, but to have two of her, or at least her having the ability to project herself via this artificial, magical construct which was more or less the same thing in my eyes, was downright terrifying.
It was also rather shocking to once again be a witness to that extremely rare occurrence when Princess Luna pays somepony a compliment. [Princess Luna does not give such compliments lightly, but in this case I agree that it is well-deserved. The simulacrum spell is one of the most difficult known to unicorns, and its continuous usage inflicts significant mental and physical strain on the user. That Twilight Sparkle had learnt much of this spell is such a short amount of time is a testament to both her mental willpower as much as her prowess in magic.]
“I’m sure you are,” I said, at length.
It was at that point that I quickly made my excuses and escaped into the relative safety and comfort of my own room, with little more for company than some much-needed solitude and an excellent bottle of fine Scoltish whiskey that Cannon Fodder had somehow procured for me by methods best left unknown (I can only assume he found it amongst the detritus left behind by the Diamond Dogs), which I then downed with a speed that made a mockery of the fine art of the distiller who crafted this rare drink. Dear merciful Faust, this was almost as bad as the time she presented her high school book report on the Necronomicon. My fears, for once, proved to be somewhat ill-founded, for when Twilight had some degree of direction to her insatiable lust for knowledge she will quite happily pursue it to the exclusion of everything else, at least until something more interesting happens to cross her path. Luckily, that was quite unlikely in this barren, desolate wasteland and thus Twilight was content in using this spell purely to divide her time between her two current projects.
Nevertheless, having four solid walls and an equally sturdy wooden door provided me some measure of privacy, which I took advantage of at every opportunity. Not that there was much opportunity to do so, with my work taking up a large bulk of my time and the fact that being alone and bored invariably led to a lot of idle brooding, and even then what little time I had to myself was often disrupted. Captain Red Coat would often blunder in unannounced, eager to discuss something with me, and he would thus take up a large amount of time that I would have otherwise dedicated to such fulfilling activities as finally getting around to reading the journals of Neighpoleon, albeit with a lingerie catalogue carefully concealed within its pages, or simply gazing out of my window into the vast emptiness that lay beyond and despairing. Of course, these discussions tended to be long, rambling, and never went anywhere in particular, so I shan’t bore all of you here by recanting every single one. The majority of these ‘fireside chats’ (a bit of a misnomer, as I wouldn’t trust the large hole in the wall purporting to be a fireplace within an inch of its miserable life, that and it was far too bloody hot for one anyway) of course gravitated towards military matters and the burden of command, to which I merely parroted a few more quotes that I had picked up from here and there in an effort to sound vaguely intelligent, and he would toddle off thinking he had learned something. It made him happy, I supposed, aside from the time he wanted me to help me compose a poem dedicated to Twilight Sparkle, and that his muse was having great difficulty in finding a rhyme for ‘purple’. I quickly vetoed the idea, for the sake of what little remained of the lad’s dignity.
[Though Blueblood is dismissive of these discussions, Captain Red Coat explains in his own extensive memoirs ‘Through the Fire and the Flames: A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes or an Account of the Re-Establishment of the Night Guards from the Perspective of a Senior Officer’, which I cannot recommend due to its excessive purple prose to the point of rendering the text quite unreadable, that he found such discussions to be quite valuable. Whether this question can be answered by Blueblood’s own self-loathing or by Red Coat’s impressionability at the time I shall leave to your own interpretation.]
Occasionally I used my free time to practice fencing, though I knew that Changelings were hardly ones to pay any heed to the list of complex rules and regulations surrounding what was perhaps the only sport that I ever showed any promise in, aside from croquet, it never hurt to at least ensure that I maintained some familiarity with the large, cumbersome sword that I wielded. Though I would have preferred the large, open spaces of the many fencing halls that I once frequented as a youth, the relatively wide expanse of my personal chambers provided ample room for me to reacquaint myself with the rudimentary basics of the usual cycle of thrust, parry, and riposte, supplemented of course with additional techniques of lunging, feinting, and counter-attacking. Of course my rather clumsy swings of the huge, brutish Pattern ’12 sabre would have given my elderly fencing instructor his fourth and final heart attack were he around to see it, being a weapon designed for hacking and slashing than the refined, precise, and almost delicate movements demanded of the needle-like rapiers that I was used to. After a few more practice sessions chopping away at what is generally referred to as a ‘shadow opponent’, I soon became accustomed to the heavier and more ‘solid’ feel of the larger sword and it was not long before I was able to wield this unsubtle weapon with as much deftness and skill as I would with a rapier blade.
It was late one afternoon that I had an unprecedented one hour of uninterrupted practice, which I found to be slightly disconcerting as not having somepony blundering into my room to demand my input in some command decision, no matter how small and pointless, seemed to imply that something had gone wrong. Well, that was not strictly true; if something had gone catastrophically pear-shaped then the first thing anypony would do is run to their commissar and pray that he is in a good mood. And as my room was bathed in a lambent orange-red flame that made the walls look as if they were drenched in fresh blood, I stopped, panting heavily as I stood still, sweat running over my matted fur and with my blade held before my muzzle, pointing directly at the ceiling to salute the imaginary opponent that I had so heroically vanquished and bowed my head in mock respect.
“Impressive,” a quiet, imperious voice intoned softly from behind me. It was the voice that I had least wanted to hear in my personal sanctuary of all places, aside from that of my mother, and I jerked my head around suddenly to find Princess Luna observing me from atop my cot, her long, gangly limbs folded beneath her sleek body and her ethereal mane and tail flowing in a manner that was quite contrary to the direction of the draft from the open windows. There was a somewhat unreadable expression on her face; quiet, thoughtful, contemplative, and yet still filled with the supreme and unbridled arrogance that was forever etched upon her facial features like a disfigurement. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said.
“No, no, not at all, Princess,” I lied; her presence here was about as welcome as an erection at a funeral (yes, reader, I think things I would never say). “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough,” she said, shrugging her shoulders gently. “Your technique is quite impressive.”
I stumbled over to my writing desk, tossing my sabre down atop its surface and taking a small, slightly damp piece of cloth to wipe the perspiration streaking down my face from my matted blond mop, and regarded her cautiously. “Uh, thank you,” I said, already trying in vain to formulate a way of encouraging her to leave without appearing too rude and thus resulting in my inevitable dismemberment.
Of course, she never gave me a chance. With a few graceful movements she rose from my cot and stepped, no, ‘glided’ is a more appropriate word to describe the way that she walks, towards me, her bare hooves tapping quietly against the rough, bare stones. It took some effort on my part not to flinch from her as she looked down upon me, cold eyes narrowed slightly and with a slight smile on her thin lips. She took my sword from the desk with her magic, and raised it to her muzzle to examine it.
“This is a fine sword,” she said. Her cold, dark eyes ran along the curved length of polished, unadorned Equestrian steel, forged and stamped out with thousands of its identical brethren in vast steelworks of Trottingham, Detrot, and Manehatten to be given to officers across the Royal Guard. Stepping back slightly, she took a few practice swings of the blade, and though I was close enough to feel the air displaced by the sharpened steel slicing through it as a gentle breeze her control over this unfamiliar weapon was good enough that I was never in any real danger. Nevertheless, the thought that she might disembowel me and make it look like suicide or a tragic accident, having tripped over a loose paving stone and fallen on top of my own sword, did occur to me.
“It is amusing that ponies believe that it was I who invented the sport you now call fencing,” she continued, proffering the blade to me hilt first, which I tentatively took and placed it back in its sheath on the desk. “In the rare moments of peace between the wars for Equestria’s unification, I set up tournaments for ponies-at-arms to practice their swordcraft, and after one thousand years of absence I see that the nobility has transformed this martial art into an effete little ‘sport’ for their own amusement.”
I could only quietly nod in agreement at the small tirade, and hope that I could come up with some sort of excuse to leave hurriedly; perhaps Captain Red Coat might need my assistance in whatever it was that he did at this time of the day, writing more awful poetry, perhaps, or Lieutenant Southern Cross might have gotten up to more mischief. Nevertheless, Princess Luna clearly had other ideas, as her horn flickered with a dark aura and seemingly from the thin air clouds of the utmost darkness coalesced into the cruciform shapes of two blades. Watching with no small degree of apprehension, I backed up until my rump hit the writing desk and watched in quiet awe as the vaguely-sword shaped black clouds, like small imitations of her flowing mane and tail, were slowly given shape and form by her magic, solidified, and became twin imperfect simulacra of the battered old Pattern ’12 sabre that I had been practicing with just before.
One such blade pivoted about upon its axis, hilt aimed towards me. “Would you do me the honour of allowing me to spar with you?”
Hesitantly I accepted the phantasmal sword, and was surprised to find that it had the same heavy and solid feel of a real blade, though the fact that it was a mere illusion woven by magic was easily given away by the fact that the light from the setting sun did not reflect in the same manner as one would expect it to and instead the steel seemed too dull and grey. “Right now?” I asked, taking a few short swipes through the empty air with the non-existent weapon to get a feel for it. I was not particularly in the mood for a sparring match, feeling quite drained as only a life working in the military can leave one, but as I already counted her elder sister as one of my regular opponents on the piste [The technical term for the fencing playing field] I was curious to see how I would fare against the pony purporting to be the one of the greatest warriors in Equestrian history (at least, she was over a thousand years ago, as her presence here, hiding away out of sheer boredom, standing defiantly in the face of all military logic and common sense had sullied her reputation somewhat).
“I don’t see why not,” she said, shrugging her shoulders casually in a manner quite unbecoming of her regal and divine status. “Besides, we might not get the chance to do so again.”
The implication that the very reason we might not have another chance was that I would probably be dead fairly soon was not lost on me. It appeared that Princess Luna had that same irritating tendency as Princess Celestia to phrase an order in such a manner that implied that one had a choice where none existed. I have to admit, however, that in terms of Luna’s personality it was something of an improvement, as usually she would simply shout and scream and generally throw a small temper tantrum until she got whatever it was that she wanted or somepony got seriously hurt.
Nevertheless, I reluctantly nodded my head in agreement. The smile on Luna’s lips grew wider, and, as far as I could tell, seemed more earnest than the unsettling imitations of a smile that she tended to use in the past. “Good!” she exclaimed, all but clapping her hooves together with joy. Almost skipping, she trotted away from me to the relative centre of the empty space that made up the bulk of my room, and grudgingly I followed suit and faced her.
“You needn’t worry about injury,” she said.
“Though this illusion looks and feel real enough, the blades will simply pass through flesh as if it were not there. Observe.” My Auntie demonstrated this by raising her hoof and impaling it upon her blade by the soft, tender parts underneath, and I could not help but wince as I watched the weapon phase harmlessly through her flesh as if it simply wasn’t there. Well, technically speaking it wasn’t there at all, being just an ethereal projection of light and magic to fool the eye and the mind into perceiving something that simply does not exist at all.
“You see?” she continued, jiggling the illusionary blade around in her hoof. “You will be perfectly safe. I fear the days of declaring the victor to be the first pony to draw blood from the torso of their opponent is not something that today’s society would approve of, and the battalion would certainly suffer if I were to deprive it of its commissar, so I hope that these will provide an adequate substitute.”
The term ‘perfectly safe’ did little to comfort me, particularly when it came from Princess Luna of all ponies. Not for the first I wondered how she had managed to talk me out of a very boring albeit quite safe job behind a desk, where the greatest danger to my life was failing to make the tea for my idiotic co-workers on time, and into that of a commissar. Nevertheless, she seemed excited by the idea of sparring with me, and, perhaps for the very first time since I had first met my dark Auntie, the two of us found some sort of common ground.
I took the en garde position, with about ten feet separating the two of us, and Auntie Luna, once she had finished amusing herself with her sabre illusion, followed suit. Our sabres rose simultaneously in salute and our heads dipped slightly in deference to one another, and with those formalities over with the fight began.
We each started cautiously with a few experimental attacks that were easily blocked, sizing up our relative strengths and weaknesses. Princess Luna had almost every advantage over me in terms of her size, strength, speed, and stamina; whereas I had had some small advantage in being agile enough to dodge her attacks and the rather dubious benefit of being just short enough to duck under the wide sweeps of her blade. The room was soon filled with the sound of steel striking steel, which sounded damnably realistic despite the weapons we used being mere illusions, and each time I parried a blow the greater magical strength behind her blade was enough to force mine away with contemptuous ease. Nevertheless, I trusted my reflexes enough to at least deflect the great blows of her sword away from me, and at least here I did not have to concern myself with the weapon shattering under the immense force of her attacks. Yet as we slowly began to get the measure of one another the rhythm of our strikes and parries steadily increased in tempo, until I was under a veritable onslaught of slashing blades and flailing hooves.
Princess Luna’s fighting style was very different from that of her elder sibling; Celestia tends to adopt a cool, disciplined, and calculating approach to fencing, relying upon a distinct set of well-practiced and superbly executed moves studied from the vast array of manuals written about the sport and honed to perfection, whereas Luna most certainly does not. Her attacks came as a series of frantic, energetic slashes with none of her sister’s elegance or grace, but for her complete and total lack of any sort of subtlety, not even attempting any of the fancier techniques such as feinting, it seemed that pure sociopathic aggression was more than enough to make up for it. My own strategy centred around trying to physically dodge her attacks instead of parrying them, which was something much more easily said than done, as while her attacks were entirely predictable and telegraphed to the point that I could ‘read’ what she was going to do at least three moves in advance, the sheer blinding speed and ferocity of the onslaught of illusionary steel and her own deftness in turning back my own counter-attacks meant that I was permanently on the back hoof. I had hoped to tire her out and strike when she was exhausted, but given her nigh-limitless stamina this proved to be a very bad idea.
Lips curled back in a snarl, Luna shrieked in rage as she brought her blade down again and again, prevented from smashing into my skull only by my own sword. Yet each blow pushed my guard down further and further, filling the room with noise such that I feared anypony lingering outside must have heard, until with a burst of energy I forced my blade back and just managed to push Luna’s off to the side where it phased harmlessly into the stone floor. With my horn throbbing painfully from exertion I scampered past her with my tail between my legs to the other side of the room, and even though I knew that the swords could not inflict any actual damage upon me, the same could not be said of the alicorn herself, who I feared may forget that this was only intended to be a ‘friendly’ sparring match.
My opponent spun upon her hooves to face me, murder in her eyes, and stamped a hoof in angry frustration upon the stones. A thin spider’s web of cracks spread across the paving slab. “Stop dancing away like a fairy and fight me!”
Originally I had planned to just throw the fight and be done with it – I would put a brief struggle, lose graciously, and then Luna can leave me alone once more – but as the fight wore on I had become put off by the idea of losing to her of all ponies. I am not a terribly competitive stallion, especially when I know that being in the limelight tends to result in somepony else taking note and dreaming up another highly creative way for me to die in the name of Equestria, even in sporting events, but for some peculiar reason the idea of having to lose to her without at least putting up a decent fight simply felt wrong to me. Maybe it was merely the adrenaline flowing through my veins, energising my system and clouding my mind with bloodlust, or perhaps I merely saw this as the perfect opportunity to vent all of the built-up frustration and suppressed anger that I held towards her without the additional risk of divine retribution, or that I just wanted to prove her wrong for once and that the only way I could achieve this nigh-impossible feat was simply to win.
“Then try harder to bloody hit me,” I snapped. There was one chance for victory, however slim and risky, and it relied on exploiting Luna’s exuberant fighting style; she, like many other opponents that I have faced, was very much a pony given over to her baser passions, and, in theory, if I were to push her far enough she may make a mistake. “I heard Princess Luna was a mighty warrior, not this pansy standing before me!”
My words certainly had an effect, as she paused, staring open-mouthed in apparent shock as her mind appeared to be struggling to process the idea that somepony had dared to insult her. “Foal!” she shrieked, lunging forth suddenly with her blade aimed squarely at my head, as I guessed she might. I rolled out of the way, but not quick enough as I felt the disconcertingly real brush of air being displaced by the wide arc of her swinging blade, and I had barely enough time to scramble to my hooves and raise my sword to block a veritable barrage of blows. The last one stuck, and inch by horrible inch she forced her blade down upon mine, and all the while her snarling face stared down with hollow, pinprick eyes burning.
“Before the first of your lineage was even conceived I was named Warmistress of Equestria; thousands upon thousands of soldiers were at my command and where Celestia’s silver-tongued diplomacy failed I personally brought fire and death upon those ponies foolish enough to think they could resist Equestrian domination!”
[The ‘Warmistress’ or ‘Warmaster’ is the absolute highest rank in the Equestrian military, superior to that of Field Marshal, and thus far has been held only by myself, Princess Luna, and the Iron Duke of Trottingham. Historically, this rank was only bestowed specially during times of total war, such the Unification Wars, the Nightmare Heresy, and the Gryphon invasions of Equestria, in which the entire Equestrian state and its ponies must be organised to fight for their very survival under the command of a single, all-powerful leader.]
The stabbing pain in my horn grew with the exertion that drained my magic, and it spread through that bony protrusion and into my brain like a hot poker straight through the eye sockets. I shouted in pain, and it might have been my imagination but it looked as if Luna was enjoying seeing me suffer. There was but one chance for me to get out of this, and after sucking in a deep breath I snapped my head to the side towards the door, affecting to look as if somepony was intruding upon our fight. Luna’s grin was replaced by a slight, worried frown, and she turned her head to follow my gaze. With my opponent thus distracted I seized my chance and dove to the right, the swinging blade missing me by scant inches. I had barely enough time to thrust forth when she turned and swatted my sword aside with contemptuous ease.
“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I said, taking a few steps back to put some distance between myself and the enraged mare.
Luna shook her head indignantly. “No, what could possibly have given you that impression?” she said, her words positively dripping with sarcasm.
“Can I ask why?”
Slowly and cautiously, with her sword levitating in the en garde position just before her, she stalked forth like a sleek panther approaching its defenceless prey. “What do you know of your own lineage, Blueblood? Of the so-called House of Blood?”
I gave a vague sort of shrug, but not letting my guard down for a moment. There came a lull in the fighting, which I took full advantage of in trying to get my breath back. My chest felt tight, abominably so, and I wondered if today might be a good time to finally give up my cigar habit, assuming that I survived this sparring match first. Sweat soaked into my black jacket, which then stuck to my fur in a manner that felt most unpleasant, and I did not relish the prospect of having to unpeel myself from it later; if there was a later. I probably smelt bad, too. “We’re one of the oldest aristocratic families in Canterlot, having ruled there since—”
“I speak of the first of your line,” Luna interrupted. She now stood close enough for me to be able to touch my sword to hers, but, by some strange, unspoken accord between us the fight had been put on hold so that she could sermonise to me about something. Nevertheless, my plan appeared to be working, though somehow I felt that stabbing her in the face while she was still haranguing me would be quite inappropriate, not out of any sense of chivalry, mind you, but out of a fear of what she might do if I had so cheated to win. “Princess Hotblood, one of the foremost generals of the Royal Guard in the wars for Equestria’s unification. No matter how bleak the situation looked, she was always there leading from the front, not afraid to sully her hooves in the blood of our enemies, and always inspiring our troops forward to greater feats of valour with her powerful rhetoric and undiminished fighting spirit.
“When I was consumed by Nightmare Moon, she remained steadfastly loyal to Princess Celestia, and when I fought with my sister in the Battle of the Everfree, she had put herself directly between us. This lone pony, a unicorn only just elevated to an alicorn, stood before me, the corrupted Princess of the Night with all the Legions of the Nightmare and the daemonic forces of Tartarus fuelling my power, and pleaded with me to end this insane war and to spare Celestia. She said that even after all the horrors that Nightmare Moon had inflicted upon Equestria in the name of Eternal Night there was still some good left in me, crying out against all that I had done. Nightmare Moon...” – she paused, and shook her head as a pained expression pulled at her face – “...I killed her in cold blood. Her sacrifice proved to Celestia that I had fallen completely to the Nightmare, body and soul, and that the only way to save Equestria and was to use the Elements of Harmony and banish me for one thousand years until I could be cleansed.
“And now one thousand years later I find her memory all but forgotten by her descendents, who are nothing more than a corrupt family of soft, decadent, disgusting nobles more content to wallow in their own depravity and excess than doing their duty for Princess and Country, as Hotblood had done so before. But you, Blueblood... I think you might be better than that.”
So I did not live up to her absurdly high standards set by somepony who lived and died over one thousand years ago and is only tangentially related to me. I found this to be a little underwhelming, and quite insulting actually; the majority of ponies who actively dislike me (who became an increasingly smaller minority as my reputation ballooned beyond all proportion, but at this relatively early stage of my life if my list of enemies and their grievances with me, which usually involved various acts of debauchery with many a noblepony’s impressionable daughter or significant amounts of money lost in gambling, were to be published it would have to be spread out amongst more volumes than the entirety of the Encyclopaedia Equestria) did so simply on my own merits and not those set by a long-dead ancestor of mine, but in Luna’s case it appeared to be done so through the lens of how everything about modern Equestria offends her somehow.
No, it couldn’t have been just that; the uncharacteristically quiet and pensive look on her face showed that she must still feel immense guilt at murdering her adopted sister, which, in her own peculiar way of dealing with such things, she was taking out on me rather than confronting the issue directly. She was a pony still stuck one thousand years in the past; either unable or unwilling to adapt to a world that has changed beyond all belief. Well, if there was any progress to be made, I’d have to force her to, somehow...
I chewed my lower lip thoughtfully, internally debating my next move. We could not remain at this impasse forever, but when the fighting would resume I wanted it to be entirely on my terms and to my advantage, and that meant enraging her to the point where she would make a mistake. Yes, it was very risky, and once again the thought of simply admitting defeat crossed my mind; there was no shame in losing to a better skilled opponent, particularly if she happened to be as temperamental as my Auntie Luna, but, with my gorge rising, it felt that if I admitted defeat here then I would do so with everything that she had inflicted upon me over the past two years, especially the more recent insanity of following me here.
“She was an idiot,” I said, inflecting my voice to sound as offensively flippant as possible, which was something that seemed to come naturally to me. “She got herself killed pointlessly.”
“She gave her life for her country!” snapped Luna, and she lunged forwards, her sword aimed directly at my chest. Having expected this, I darted to the side and pushed her blade away with my own. “There is no higher honour than to die for your country!”
With her face twisted into an outraged snarl, she pressed the attack, seeking to remove my head from my shoulders with a wide sweep, which I dodged by leaping backwards. I landed on my cot, though it very nearly ended in disaster as my flailing hooves struggled to find purchase on the soft surface of it.
“That’s very easy for you to say,” I said, wiping my bedraggled mane from eyes, “you’re immortal.”
“What would you know?” she shrieked, her voice raw with emotion. “All I ever wanted was to atone for my sins, but how can I when nopony will give me the chance, and least of all Celestia! I want to cleanse my soul in the fires of battle, but no! I am to stay behind in Canterlot, locked away while others die in my stead, and I refuse to let that happen!”
“Have you tried saying ‘sorry’?”
“One word will not wash the blood from my hooves!”
“Have you even tried?”
Luna frowned for the briefest of moments, considering my words. I saw my opportunity and, knowing I was not likely to get another, I dived forth off my cot. She stumbled back, swinging her blade wildly, but it was far too late. I hit the ground between her forehooves and, with her weapon still raised above me, I rammed my sword straight into her barrel. The blade phased through skin harmlessly, but nevertheless the mare shouted in barely-contained frustration.
“You cheated!” she shrieked indignantly, her dinner plate-sized hooves scrambling away from me as if I was something unpleasant that she might step on, which, given the damage she had done to my floor just moments before, looked like a distinct possibility.
I slowly dragged myself to my hooves and looked to my opponent, who, while not quite as angry as I feared she might be, still looked very much displeased. Her sword evaporated into the ether, and so did mine. “I used psychology to my advantage,” I said, stumbling back over to my desk to retrieve my towel, “in order to make up for my disadvantages, of course. If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t mean any of the words I said.” Well, that was a bare-faced lie, of course, but I didn’t feel like telling her.
Her response was another one of those trademark glowers, which I did my best to avoid by wiping the sweat and muck from my face. My limbs and horn felt as if they had been filled with acid, while my brain swam disconcertingly in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a hangover without the memory of having a good time prior to it, and I felt oddly nauseated by the whole experience. Winning, it seemed, was not all it was cracked up to be, especially when one over-exerts oneself as I had just done, nevertheless, even with my ‘cheating’, Luna seemed content enough to consider that victory well-deserved, and her sour expression developed into a wide, broad grin. I desperately needed a drink.
“I didn’t expect you to fight so well,” she said, and to my surprise she actually bowed before me, “or employ such a clever stratagem.”
“You’ll find I’m full of surprises like that,” I said, truthfully enough.
“Yes, victory provides its own justification. Nevertheless, you’ve taught me an important lesson – never underestimate an opponent, for even the softest, most effete of exteriors can conceal a will of iron.”
“Uh, thank you.” I thought that was a compliment, it was always rather difficult to tell with her.
Her smile widened, and she stepped to my side and, hesitantly at first, stretched a vast wing protectively over me, in imitation of Celestia’s quite affectionate displays. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable with that, but being rather exhausted and not wanting to upset her relatively good mood I allowed it.
“All warfare is about willpower,” she continued the lecture, “from the highest level of command to the civilians that support Equestria’s war machine to the individual soldier fighting for his life on the field. The sharpest blade in the arsenal is useless without the willpower and the discipline to use it effectively in combat. In you I see the indomitable spirit of Princess Hotblood still survives; against a far superior opponent you remained calm, developed a strategy, and used it to great effect. You used your mind as much as your blade against me, and that is the reason I named you commissar.”
I was about to make my excuses and leave, hoping to take a breath of fresh air and some much needed time to myself on one of the many castle’s battlements when I was interrupted by three heavy knocks on the door, and in an instant Princess Luna was replaced by the smaller form of my personal life guard. The door swung open drunkenly, and in stepped Cannon Fodder, who looked at me with his usual vacant expression for a few awkwardly long seconds, apparently having noticed that I was in rather a state, before deciding that I had everything under control.
“Captain Red Coat has called an emergency meeting for all officers,” he said, in his usual flat monotone. “The enemy has been sighted and is advancing towards us.”
I darted to my window, as if possessed by some strange desire to prove my aide wrong. Yet there, the bleak, empty plains that surrounded this wretched little structure in the middle of nowhere were marred by what looked like a huge black coffee stain on the quivering horizon. There was only one thing that could possibly look like that here, and it was the same sight that I had seen on the side of the Macintosh Hills at Black Venom Pass; a vast horde of Changelings massing, and, like a black tide of chitinous horrors, advancing inexorably upon our exposed little fort, ready to wash it away with sheer numbers. The plan, it seemed, was starting to go awry.