Princess Celestia’s roar, enhanced with the full power of the Royal Canterlot Voice, filled me with equal parts hope and raw terror. Resplendent in her brilliant golden armour, I knew that this was what it must have felt like to have seen the Princess of the Sun in those first battles for Equestria's reunification. She tossed her head back, her shimmering mane fluttered in the warm breeze, and her horn glittered with motes of white light. A flare of yellow and orange blossomed from the highest point of the sun peeking out from behind the rippling mountains beyond, and arced high, tracing a thin thread of light through the pink and purple stained heavens overhead.
Chrysalis turned to face her new opponent with a defiant snarl tugging on her lips. Eyes narrowed, she took aim with her horn, but the long, jagged appendage merely spluttered with sickly green flickers of useless magic. She shrieked in frustration and tried again, earning little more than a few more bright sparkles and a dull 'crackle' of energy dissipating for her efforts.
"What?" she cried, stamping a hoof indignantly into the soggy, bloodstained ground. "No!"
She snapped her head to face me, the gossamer strands of her mane for a moment becoming seemingly weightless before they settled limply over her head and neck. Her forehooves gripped around the frayed lapels of my stormcoat and lifted me up, such that my forelegs dangled a few inches off the ground. She pressed her muzzle to mine with fury burning in her eyes, but more than that there was terror, pure and ice cold within that callous stare.
"What did you do to me?!" she screamed. Flecks of spittle sprayed on my face and my poor abused coat.
"I didn't do anything!" I protested, beating pathetically at her armoured chest with my hooves, as if that would do me any good.
She threw me to the ground, and I fell in a tangled mess of limbs. Pain shot up from my withers to my shoulders as I lifted my head to see Cannon Fodder thrust his spear at Chrysalis' flanks, only for his clumsy attack to be easily dodged by the dextrous mare. A long, elegant hoof struck my aide in the cheek and dashed him to the ground.
As the dread Queen proceeded to stamp upon the prone form of Cannon Fodder, I fought the dull aches in my body and dragged my beaten form to my hooves once more. My aide had saved my life twice already, and as I had grown strangely attached to him it was only fair that I balanced the books. Damnation, I couldn’t let him die like that. My sword lay half-buried in the mud, positively caked in the stuff such that the keen cutting edge was now dulled. Nevertheless, I seized it eagerly as I rose and in an act born of pure desperation I hurled the blade with as much force as my horn could muster.
The Changeling Queen saw the attack coming and darted back, but not nearly quickly enough. The butcherous Pattern ‘12 sabre ripped through armoured chitin and then soft flesh, and Chrysalis cried out in pain. Thick emerald ichor oozed from what appeared to be a grievous wound upon her left shoulder.
It was then that the arc of light from the sun had completed its journey through the vastness of the void between worlds, and beyond where the bulk of the Changeling horde lay a disconcertingly close distance to where we stood a vast fiery pillar struck the earth with a sound like a heavy cathedral gate being slammed shut in the depths of Tartarus. The ground shuddered beneath my hooves, and a blast of searing hot air swept through the field as though the door to a furnace had just been opened. The exposed skin in my face smarted painfully from the intense heat.
I don't know how many Changeling drones were incinerated in the conflagration, but it was enough to wither the heart of their Queen. When I eventually tore my eyes from the awful sight of the pillar of fire, Chrysalis was already gone, presumably fleeing with the drones that swept around us in a mad dash away from the vengeful guardsponies. The fight was over; the Changeling horde had turned to a rout and fled back into the vast emptiness of the Badlands with the might of two full regiments of the Royal Guard and a motley band of the local militia snapping at their heels. For me, however, I had had enough, and simply stood there with the wounded Captain Red Coat. Cannon Fodder, though somewhat battered, was no worse for wear, as the thick armoured plates had absorbed the brunt of the attacks. Apparently fine, he simply sat up with a slight groan and then clambered back up to his hooves, though as he walked he limped slightly.
As the soldiers swarmed around us, a sense of both victorious triumph and bewildered confusion enthusing the masses, Twilight Sparkle tended to the limp, unconscious form of Red Coat until the medics moved in to assist him. He was lifted carefully onto a stretcher and carried away back to the fortress for treatment. As for Luna, however, the medics, unused to the unique physiology of alicorns, could only apply various salves and alchemical ointments to the burns that spread over her skin in great ugly splotches.
By Faust, I was exhausted. Indeed, I was so tired that I barely registered Princess Celestia landing by my side with an elegant flutter of her great wings. Stars spread across my vision as I observed the now quiet field; armoured soldiers stalked across the plain between the ruined bodies of the dead lying so dreadfully still in the dust, putting to death those drones still somehow alive. The solar flare had died away, though in its place rose a great pillar of smoke that stretched into the heavens, and the stench of burned flesh and smoke filled the air.
Celestia approached Princess Luna without acknowledging the bewildered guardsponies dropping to press their noses into the dirt in reverence around her. The medics tending to Luna crept away quietly, and against the quiet protests of one of the bolder surgeons the injured Princess rose to stand on quivering limbs. The two rulers stood before one another in silence, with Celestia regarding her younger sibling with a cold, emotionless expression that seemed somehow terrifying on a face more fit for a loving smile than this stern visage.
“Celestia, you have an excellent sense of timing, as usual,” said Luna, her normally confident, rich voice rasping between great ragged breaths, and her face was a mask of blood that ran from a grievous wound on her scalp.
An awkward silence ensued, and even the constant sound of hundreds of ponies around us trying to organise themselves into some semblance of order were somehow dulled too, though I suspected that had more to do with my slightly unstable mental state at the time than anything else. Celestia's expression did not change at all, and instead remained as a blank, expressionless mask with all of the life and animation of an exceptionally well-crafted waxwork. Yet in the subtle lines that were etched over her porcelain facade and in the tension in her confident stance I could sense a certain rage burning away within her, as though her heart itself smouldered beneath her glittering breastplate. Evidently, Luna could detect that too, as she gulped anxiously and visibly withered under her elder sibling's glare.
"'Tis a most glorious victory, no?" said Luna in an apparent attempt to break the tension. As the dust around us began to clear I saw a young stallion, no older than sixteen years perhaps, sat dazed a short distance away from the Princess, his guts spilled out onto the ground between his outstretched hind legs. He regarded them with an almost intellectual curiosity, before he mercifully expired as yet another bloodied heap.
"Sister," said Celestia in Ancient Equestrian. Her voice was calm and measured, but underneath those cool tones I felt an undercurrent of power. "We have much to discuss, in private."
There was a flash of light, two loud 'snaps' of suddenly displaced air, and the two alicorns were gone. A faint scent of ozone became infused with the general rot and decay of war, and I was left standing there gormlessly with Cannon Fodder and Twilight Sparkle. Wherever they went, I couldn't imagine that Luna was having a particularly good time of it; Celestia's coldness towards her sister surprised and disturbed me somewhat, though ponies often forget that the normally serene and composed Princess of the Sun is just as capable of feeling and succumbing to emotion as the rest of us mere mortals. At any rate, whatever happened in whichever realm they had momentarily disappeared to was likely none of my business, and nor was I in any particular mood to inquire. [I had taken my sister to a small pocket plane to allow her to rest and recover from the injuries that she had received in her fight with Queen Chrysalis. As for what we had discussed together there, I hope that readers will understand that I would desire some privacy on the matter, and that the details of our conversation are merely tangential to this document's purpose in examining Blueblood's character. Blueblood, however, does continue to describe the effects of what happened to Luna further in this document.]
There was little else for me to do and with no further direction, for Red Coat was incapacitated and any authority higher than he was nowhere to be seen. So I stood there, my limbs shaking and my stomach tying itself into knots as the rearguard of the advancing army remained behind to assist with the clean-up. Twilight Sparkle stood by my side, and despite the evident drain on the last remnants of her magic that maintaining her link she insisted on using this puppet to observe the proceedings and take notes on the notepad that always seemed to be with her wherever she went. The young mare was still shaken by her ordeal, but nevertheless composed herself admirably. She could not, however, help but weep as she saw the piles of the dead, and the soldiers who collected the bodies of their fallen comrades, arranged them neatly into seemingly endless rows, and stripped the corpses of equipment and personal effects.
"Dispel the simulacrum and get some rest," I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
"I'm not a simulacrum," said Twilight, more to her notepad than to me. "This is the real me."
I furrowed my brow and tilted my head to one side. "But why?"
Twilight Sparkle shrugged tiredly, and then turned her gaze, eyes tired, bloodshot, and rimmed with tears. "I ran out of simulacra. I didn't see any other choice. I couldn't stay up in that tower while everypony was out here."
A pony can only take so much, and eventually she gave up, as the horror of what we had just gone through and the continued misery of what followed, and what was to follow, became too much for her. Twilight clung to my side for support and, no longer able to hold back, cried into the dusty, ripped sleeve of my coat. I tentatively held her to me with a foreleg in a half-hearted attempt to comfort her; in truth, though I was not adverse to the touch of a mare, I felt somewhat awkward with her and her sudden outpouring of grief. Nevertheless, I could not help but feel sorry for her, and develop some need to protect her from what she had just witnessed. After all, a guardspony, and even an officer, undergoes considerable training to help them endure the psychological stresses of combat, often brutalising them to the point of emotional numbness. She was a mere civilian who, though she certainly endured much in her service to Equestria, had yet to be exposed to the reality of war. Until one has seen the fields of the dead, one cannot fathom what it feels like.
I therefore bade Cannon Fodder to take her back to the fortress to get her checked over by the medics despite her protests, though she eventually acquiesced and stalked back with my aide to the slope of debris that led into the newest breach in the walls, where they were subsumed by the mass of guardsponies milling about aimlessly on the rocks. Alone, after a fashion, I continued to watch the soldiers working, and though history records how despite my injuries and such I refused to tend to my own needs until their work was done, in truth I merely wanted some time to myself undisturbed by the demands of whatever duties would require my presence in the keep.
My near-solitude, however, was broken when I spotted Colonel Sunshine Smiles, his already-battered armour showing a few new scratches and dents, wandering towards me with an almost lazy gait. The two-pounder cannon that he had liberated from the Battle of Black Venom Pass was strapped across his broad shoulders, and was encrusted close to the muzzle with congealing Changeling ichor. He approached, and I then noticed that he was limping slightly, and that the cause was the stained medical gauze wrapped tightly around his right foreleg. Nevertheless, despite his injury and the fatigue evident in the distant, glazed look in his eyes and the dark rings around them, he carried himself with his usual patrician bearing, which was enhanced somewhat by the cold sneer forced upon his thin mouth by his grotesque scar.
"I would ask what's been going on here," he said, stopping a few feet away from me and surveying the remnants of the carnage before us, "but I doubt even you will be able to give me a straight answer."
"It's a little complicated," I said, and then drained the last dregs of stagnant water from my dented water canteen in a vain effort to parch my dry throat. "But I think what has just happened here is 'victory'."
The Colonel raised his eyebrows, and the un-marred side of his lips joined the other in a somewhat bemused smirk. "I wasn't referring to that," he said, stepping to the side to allow the soldiers behind him, a unicorn and an earth pony of the Night Guard carrying another smaller figure, to approach. As the dust began to clear I slowly recognised the pony being restrained by the other two was a certain lieutenant in resplendent, untarnished golden armour that, despite the dust, glimmered gloriously as if he were on parade. Lieutenant Scarlet Letter stared back at me with a reassuringly gormless expression.
"I expect that you want this returned?" said Sunshine Smiles, indicating towards the rather miserable-looking Scarlet Letter.
I arched an eyebrow and put away my now-empty water canteen as I limped on over towards the snivelling little sycophant cowering before me. No doubt the blood and ashes staining my once pristine uniform only enhanced the aura of grim authority I was trying to project, as, despite my flesh complaining, I straightened my posture and stance to something that I hoped looked appropriately commissarial. Scarlet Letter tugged uselessly at the forelegs of the two burly guardsponies restraining him.
"Not particularly," I said, and then turned to address the despondent Scarlet Letter. "The Commissariat takes a very dim view of deserters, Lieutenant."
The two stallions released Scarlet Letter at a nod from Sunshine Smiles, and he tumbled forwards into the dirt with a clatter of clean armour plates. Nevertheless, he collected himself quickly, and stood to his usual ramrod-straight posture as if to make up for his distinct lack of height. Despite his recent embarrassment and the new scuff marks that stained his gilded sabatons where the two soldiers had grabbed him, the air of appropriated superiority and the intensely aggravating smugness of a seasoned politician, very obviously rehearsed to the point of appearing fake but seemingly always on the verge of just collapsing in a very public career-ruining outburst, had returned.
"Deserting, sir?" he asked, his voice incredulous. "I was merely trying to retrieve some reinforcements, which I have just done so, sir! Yet these unsavoury brutes see fit to pony-handle me most disagreeably for leading them here to your timely rescue."
Of course, I didn't need to see the disdainful look on Colonel Sunshine Smiles' face to know that Scarlet Letter was lying through his teeth. What was most impressive was his belief that I would somehow accept such a transparent falsehood as being true. At least when I lie I have the good sense to try and make sure my lies are as plausible as possible; though a rather crude and arrogant pony of the past might have mentioned something about how others are more likely to believe a big lie than a small one, a lie is more easily swallowed if washed down with the truth. I would have been well within my rights to drive my blade through the rolls of wobbling fat that the Lieutenant called his neck right there and then, like the more bloodthirsty of my fellow commissars who seem to regard such things as due process and fair trials as being mere recommendations that get in the way of their gleeful slaughter, but though I knew his guilt to be unequivocal, I thought that I may as well pay lip-service to being fair.
"Strange," said Sunshine Smiles, "I distinctly remember you telling me that everypony inside the fortress was dead, including Commissar Blueblood here. Now, either everypony around us are so stricken by our grief at losing our beloved Commissar that we have all been afflicted by some bizarre communal hallucination, or you have been lying to us."
Scarlet Letter's face blanched at the Colonel's little speech, though he did manage to collect himself somewhat. "Now see here!" he snapped, turning indignantly to face the far taller earth pony. He jabbed a hoof against Sunshine's dusty and bloodied breastplate, and snarled up at scarred face that watched him with a peculiar expression that looked remarkably like that of a pony struggling to remain calm after having been insulted. "I have a brother high up in the War Ministry and friends in the House of Commons; if anything were to happen to me, they would be most displeased!"
"That's a rather odd thing for an 'innocent' pony to say."
"Enough! I don't have to stand here and listen to these baseless accusations." Scarlet Letter growled in frustration, and then turned to address me. "Who are you going to believe, sir? A pony who has dedicated his life to serving Equestria, or this disgraced noblepony whose misdeeds stain his soul as much as the scar does his face?"
I cleared my throat and glowered at the both of them. Sunshine Smiles did not react, but merely looked to me with a somewhat expectant look on his face, while Scarlet Letter visibly quailed as I straightened my cap and fixed my glare upon his shivering form.
"That's no way to speak to a superior officer, Lieutenant," I said, keeping my voice calm and measured despite the swell of frustration building up within me like a tidal wave threatening to subsume the levees of my patience. "The fact remains that, as well-intentioned as your motives might have been, leaving your post without permission is desertion. Therefore there can be only one penalty for this."
Scarlet Letter stepped forwards, slinking low like a rat that had just crawled out of a sewer. When he spoke, his voice was a quiet hiss that was quite at odds with the deliberately refined accent that he had cultivated. "I have a brother within the War Ministry and connections in every part of government, Blueblood. I can make life extremely difficult for you."
I was far too stunned by his audacity to say anything, except to splutter: "H-how dare you?"
"You are part of a dying breed, the aristocrats," he continued, apparently heedless of the Colonel by his side. "Equestria is changing, and ponies will no longer wish to bow down to those who have been granted wealth and power just because some lord's distant ancestor slaughtered a bunch of helpless villagers, stole their land, and then gave himself some grandiose title. You have a choice, sir, whether to cling to those old ways and be crushed beneath the wheels of progress, to be remembered only as a relic of a poorer, more ignorant era, or I can help you find a place within this new order."
I saw that Sunshine Smiles was about to lunge forwards and strike Scarlet Letter, but I stopped him with a dissuading wave of my hoof. He reluctantly stayed put, though his hoof gripped tightly around the dagger strapped about his belt and a glimmer of untarnished steel could be seen where blade had been drawn slightly from its scabbard. [Officers were given a certain amount of leeway in customising their own uniforms and weaponry, as they were expected to pay for their own equipment. The addition of a dagger, often engraved with a symbol important to that pony, was in common use as a back-up weapon.]
"Are you threatening me?" I said.
"No, of course not, sir," said Scarlet Letter. "I was merely..."
"Do you know what the penalty is for attempting to threaten a commissar?" I snapped, interrupting him before he could launch into another tirade.
There was a brief, awkward pause as Scarlet Letter thought on the subject, and the expression of dawning horror on his face just about made up for the weeks of misery that the irritating little stallion had put me through. Eventually, he decided that shaking his head no was the best option, as indeed it was the only option that did not result in his head becoming separated from the rest of his body.
"There isn't one," I continued. "The ponies who wrote Princesses' Regulations could not imagine that a pony would be stupid enough to even try." I narrowed my gaze on the whimpering wreck before me, and stared down from behind the dark shadows of the brim of the cap that had become the symbol of my authority. "But if you do that again, then I'm going to have a lot of fun dreaming up such a punishment for you. Is that clear, Lieutenant?"
At the risk of sounding petty, though I will freely admit to possessing that particular flaw next to all of the others that have been catalogued within these scribbled notes to be recorded for posterity, the look of utmost horror and defeat on Scarlet Letter's face was immensely satisfying. After the rigors of battle and the strain of warfare, the near-constant boredom and the bursts of sheer, unremitting terror, one learns to appreciate the more base pleasures of simple, unrepentant schadenfreude, especially after all of the headaches and admittedly minor annoyances he had put me through. Indeed, there was an almost foal-like glee welling up within me, in spite of the misery that I had just endured, at seeing the smirk wiped clean from his face.
"Place the Lieutenant under arrest," I ordered, and the two soldiers duly seized Scarlet Letter firmly by the shoulders. "Inform Shining Armour that I want a court martial at his earliest convenience."
Scarlet Letter did not resist, which was a shame, as if he had then I would have had the perfect excuse to have him killed right there and then and save me a lot of trouble later on. My colleagues in the Commissariat might call me sentimental, and indeed many have called me much worse over the years, but I am rather squeamish about killing ponies, no matter how much I feel that they deserve it. Of course, I'm quite happy to have somepony else perform the unpleasant deed in my stead, and I expect that ponies reading it would consider that to be merely another facet of my cowardly, selfish nature. Nevertheless, what I truly wanted from the Lieutenant was not the base satisfaction of his death, which would have put an end to some of the misery that I had suffered as a result of his actions, but answers.
As I watched him being dragged away, though he stopped part way and insisted that he could damn well walk by himself, I struggled to work it out by myself in my head. I had no proof, of course, but that was what the court martial was for, or so I thought at least. Nevertheless, I deduced that while everypony else was distracted by the preparations for battle, Scarlet Letter had somehow cleared the blocked passageway into the catacombs beneath the fortress, probably with the use of explosives and magic, to allow the Changelings to enter before he fled back into the hills. As for the reason why he went for this insane scheme, I could only imagine that he was so certain of our defeat that he could claim to be the only survivor to escape our doomed battalion, and, having eliminated all witnesses to the contrary, would be able to spin whatever fanciful tale of heroism with which to boost his ailing political career. I confess that such an idea did occur to me briefly, though I had quickly dismissed it for the very same reason that I am still alive today: the chances of survival should never be underestimated.
"Bloody awful mess, this," said Sunshine Smiles, the Trottinghamite tendency towards understatement apparently having rubbed off on him over his time leading the regiment. He shook his head as Scarlet Letter and his escorts disappeared into the crowds of soldiers, and there was an odd look of mild disappointment on his face; probably some other, more apt emotion twisted by the scar that mutilated his features. "But the fact remains that we have won, Commissar. I think that's some cause for celebration?"
I forced a smile to my face, and together we walked between the rows of bodies and the great, black, smouldering pyres of burning Changeling corpses to the fortress. So this is what victory felt like, thought I. It didn't feel any better than the inconclusive result of the previous battle I had endured.
The very first thing that I did when I returned to the fortress was lock myself in the ruined mess that was my quarters, throw my battered form on the cot, only to find that one of the legs had collapsed, and take a nap. Sleep, however, was troubled and restless, and when I woke up a few hours later to the sound of activity just beyond the door, which leaned drunkenly on its hinges and disconcertingly seemed to be held up only by the rusty lock, I felt no better than before. If anything, I felt worse, as the uncomfortable sleeping position probably did nothing to help the many injuries that I had endured moments before. Nevertheless, I decided that it was probably best that I do something, or be seen to be doing something, to be more accurate, and thus I clambered to my hooves, despite the white-hot stabs of agony that flared in my shoulders and ribs.
Cannon Fodder was away, presumably sent on some sort of errand. I left my quarters and tried the door to Twilight's room, but found that it was locked. I reasoned that she wanted some time alone to recover, and so with little else to do I thought it prudent to visit the visit the hospital to visit the wounded, as if my appearance would somehow lessen the pain of my injuries. The corridors were crawling with activity; soldiers swarming through them like blood through an artery, out delivering messages or on errands or simply looking for somepony to give them orders, while others busied themselves with clearing the debris of battle from the halls. Further down, I could see the smouldering, blackened stone, half-melted into slag and re-solidified to form grotesque, baroque shapes, where the late Mister Yellow had reduced a veritable horde of drones into ashes. I suppressed a small shudder as the image of the burning figure stumbling from the flames, its face twisted into a silent cry of horror, appeared unbidden in my mind.
The hospital was set up in one of the smaller halls in the keep, one probably once used for lesser events that did not merit the use of the larger, more grand hall that the bulk of the battalion squatted in. There, nestled deep within the bowels of this ancient structure, an array of beds were laid out row on row, and when I had arrived approximately a third were occupied by ponies exhibiting injuries that ranged from cuts and bruises, through dislocations and broken bones, up to severed limbs and severe lacerations. As I stalked glumly past the injured soldiers, some rendered blissfully unconscious by a potent cocktail of anaesthetics or simply passed out from their injuries, some wailed and groaned in pain horribly, while others, more lucid and rather more hale than their colleagues rendered senseless from drugs or pain, were rather more cheerful. Indeed, as I passed by the rows and rows of beds, those soldiers hailed me as the pony who had saved a Princess and wounded a Queen. I accepted their compliments with as much grace and modesty as was expected of me - oh, if only these poor souls knew the truth.
In the corner of the hall and disconcertingly close to the other patients was an area that served as the makeshift operating room, cordoned off by large, grimy-looking curtains made of thin, translucent plastic. The actinic light cast by a bright lamp projected the stark shapes of surgeons and nurses operating on a stallion onto the curtains like a particularly morbid shadow puppet theatre. What was worst, however, were the quiet whimpers of pain that could be heard, occasionally rising to a chilling crescendo, and the horrid wet sound of flesh being sliced open, once heard never forgotten. With but a brief glimpse of the dark shapes moving behind the damnably thin curtain and the nightmarish sounds emanating from beyond, my mind's eye conjured a myriad of increasingly disturbing procedures that the poor stallion might have suffered while conscious, and a wave of nausea swelled from the pit of my stomach.
Between the agonised cries and the application of the scalpel I could hear a mare's voice, presumably a nurse, doing her utmost to comfort the patient, in lieu of anaesthetic it seemed, by assuring him in a warm, motherly tone that it would be finished soon. The stallions resting on the beds closest tried to do their best to ignore the ghastly sounds and their awful implications, either by attempting awkward conversations with one another or taking sudden great interest in the small potted plants, limp-leafed and evidently neglected, that were collected in corners or placed seemingly at random on bedside tables. Nevertheless, that young mare's voice offered some element of comfort that assuaged the awkwardness that the barely-concealed surgery had created.
I felt sick and wanted to leave. As I turned around, however, I almost walked straight into the pony standing behind me. He darted out of my way easily enough despite his rather advanced years; a unicorn of at least sixty years and probably should have been retired from the Royal Guard's medical corps long ago, yet from what I heard his skills with scalpel and needle remained undimmed by age. Doctor Surgical Steel was the commanding officer of the small detachment of Their Highnesses' Royal Medical Corps assigned to our regiment, though I did not have much chance to speak with him I knew him by reputation at least to be a pony of rural Trottingham; a pony for whom a good life consisted of the open countryside, Sunday cricket, and lukewarm beer.
"We're all out of t' anaesthetic," he said, nodding to the improvised surgical theatre behind me. His thick accent was nigh-unintelligible even at the best of times, but was made worse in this instance by the mask that covered his muzzle. He was a small unicorn, perhaps closer in terms of physique to a pegasus, though paradoxically his cutie mark proudly displayed a rugby ball. Surgical Steel certainly did not seem the sort of pony who would play, let alone enjoy, that thuggish 'game' that always seemed like a more socially acceptable way for drunkards to fight one another without the risk of somepony sending the local militia in to break it up.
"No anaesthetic?" I repeated dumbly.
"Aye," he said, nodding his head quietly. Mercifully, he tugged his surgical mask free to reveal a stubbly grey beard around his muzzle. The thin flap of protective fabric dangled around his neck atop the once-white coat stained with blood and other, unidentifiable bodily fluids. "There's nowt left; ran out five surgeries ago. I sent a runner out to get some more from t' other regiments, but while he gets back we're having to make do with brandy."
"Not my brandy, I hope?" I said, and then immediately regretted it. Fortunately, by forcing a grin on my face, he took my comment to be the usual sort of gallows-humour liked by the lower orders in the Royal Guard.
"We all have to make sacrifices, sir," he said, returning my grin. Behind me, the patient's screaming had ceased, and instead he sobbed quietly while the nurse continued to comfort him. "Come along. I expect Captain Red Coat will want to see thee."
In my daze I had all but forgotten about the lad, but learning that he was still alive felt like an immense relief to me. At the time it was a bit of a mystery as to why I would indulge in the sort of puerile sentimentality that I had sought to avoid through much of my early life, but looking back, older but not necessarily wiser for it, I can see that I genuinely held some affection towards these ponies.
"How is he?" I asked.
The doctor gave a vague sort of shrug of his shoulders, and began to lead me through the serried ranks of beds to the corner opposite the door I had just wandered through. "I can fix his body alright," he said with a sigh, "and what I can't fix I'll have to replace. But it's what inside his head that I can't help with. Tha'll put these poor lads through fire and hell and blood and I'll piece them back together as best I can, but it's the injuries in the mind and soul that are the worse. Never mind, eh? Tha'll give him a shiny medal and that'll make it all alright."
Before I said anything in reply we found Captain Red Coat, or what was left of him, propped up on a bed with Lieutenant Southern Cross standing by his side. The colt looked awful; one half of his once youthful and handsome face had been burned, and where the unicorns' magic had tried to regenerate his burnt and scarred flesh there was only rippling, puckered bare skin that nauseated one to look upon. One eye, now rendered sightless, was concealed by white gauze fixed in place by a bandage wrapped around his head. His arm too had suffered badly, by which I mean that what little remained of the appendage when it had been caught in the beam from Chrysalis' horn had to be amputated at the shoulder, and in its place was a prosthetic that meshed grotesquely with his bare shoulder and torso. Where the shaven skin met the cold brass of the false limb, being the sort of utilitarian design provided by the War Ministry for free for injured soldiers, was similarly blistered, puckered, and deathly pale as if somehow decayed, and thick, distended veins were grafted into rubber piping. Lieutenant Southern Cross was busy fiddling with the intricate array of gears, levers, pulleys, and other arcane machinery inside the prosthetic itself.
He was awake and alert, which was something, at least. As I approached he smiled slightly and sat up a little straighter, though a wince of pain flittered across his face, at least the part that had not been deadened by his injuries. Southern Cross, apparently unscathed saved for a few scratches from the battle, looked up and nodded in greeting, but otherwise said nothing and continued with his tinkering.
"I take it we won, sir?" he asked quietly.
"We wouldn't be here if we didn't," I said, hoping that my words would be taken as charming bravado instead of facetious and insensitive. To make sure, I added, "We did, Captain, and we couldn't have achieved it without you."
A weak smile came to his lips, or at least the half that had not been burned away. It seemed pained and forced, as my words, however comforting they might have been to him, could do very little to dull the very real pain, only vaguely deadened by a cocktail of drugs, that he must have felt. I did my best to maintain a suitably detached demeanour, knowing from experience that soldiers tend to prefer their commanding officers to carry on behaving like everything is perfectly fine despite various life-threatening injuries over any sympathy, real or otherwise. As I looked at him and all of the other wounded around us I could not help but feel a twinge of grief at the suffering these ponies had been put through in the name of Equestrian Harmony. I recalled how Red Coat had received his commission in the Night Guards as a birthday present from his parents, and I wondered how much of the colt they had sent to war would come home.
"It, uh..." Red Coat paused and stared into space blankly for a single, uncomfortable moment that seemed to drag horribly. "It doesn't much feel like that, sir."
Apparently finished, Southern Cross covered the complex workings of the prosthetic and covered the exposed wiring and gears with a brass plate, which he then screwed on tightly. He grinned proudly as he stepped back to admire his work, and Captain Red Coat stared down at the ugly, ungainly false limb with a look of quiet resignation to his mutilated face. The limb twitched in violent paroxysms, shoving Southern Cross back forcefully and then crashed into the bedside table in a shower of jagged splinters before its new owner managed to get the thing back under control. Cradling the cold metal prosthetic, Red Coat stared first at his new leg and then at the broken table. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he sobbed quietly.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out. "I didn't mean to."
I thought accidentally breaking the table was a rather odd thing for him to be upset about, but I did my best to look sympathetic and told him that tables can always be replaced.
"You just have to practice using it," said Southern Cross, tapping Red Coat's false limb with his own, which made a dull, chiming sound of metal striking metal. "It took me months to learn how to shave without punching myself in the face. When the doc here's finished patching you up, I'll help you. 'Sides, the fillies dig a good war wound."
Surgical Steel frowned at Southern Cross and shook his head. "Don't encourage the lad."
I was about to say another useless platitude and move on when I felt a presence emerge from the shadows just behind me, as though a dark and heavy cloak had been suddenly draped across my shoulders. I did not need to look behind me to know who had approached, as the rather surprised and somewhat fearful expressions that emerged in unison on the faces of the three ponies I had been conversing with and my all too close familiarity with that peculiar sensation in recent years had all but confirmed her identity. For the sake of courtesy, I stepped out of the way and turned.
It was surprising that Princess Luna looked about as healthy as she ever did; whatever magic that her elder sibling had performed to restore her physical form back to its imposing, imperious countenance must have been powerful indeed. Her body was unblemished by the horrendous injuries that I had seen wrought upon it just hours before, and in her usual regalia consisting of a small gorget lacquered black and emblazoned with the crescent moon, sabatons, and the tiara upon her head she looked positively regal. And though her outfit was put together with civilians in mind, there yet remained a certain martial air despite the lack of weapons, insignia, and other military accoutrements. Her bearing, too, had recovered greatly since I last saw her staggering to her sister and grovelling pathetically; she stood tall, ramrod-straight and towering above the stallions here, and even then her confident posture projected the raw power and authority that I’d always known her to possess. Her face wore her more familiar expression of barely concealed contempt, albeit with a stern, patrician bearing.
"Captain Red Coat?" she asked, and the colt nodded his head quickly.
As she stepped past me and I scurried out of her way to approach Red Coat, he looked up at her with a bewildered, wide-eyed expression and fidgeted a little as if trying to escape the confines of his bed sheets. She stood by Red Coat's bedside and stared down at him with that curiously unreadable expression that she always wore when having to deal with an emotion that was not either mild annoyance or all-consuming rage (at least when dealing with ponies other than those few that she fully trusted and indeed loved). As she watched him curiously, I could almost see the gears and mechanisms within her mind working as she tried to find a way to word what she wanted to say, despite the impassiveness of her expression.
"I understand you risked your life to save mine," she said.
"Y-yes, Your Highness," stammered Red Coat.
Luna nodded her head softly, and from seemingly out of nowhere a small black box, roughly the size of a jewellery box for a necklace of some sort and decorated with the crescent moon and stars upon its top, appeared before her. The box was levitated gently onto Red Coat's lap, and he looked at it curiously. "And that is why you have been injured most grievously. I believe that such heroism and self-sacrifice must not go unrecognised nor unrewarded. Therefore, I am honoured to award you with this."
The box opened, and from it the Princess withdrew a medal - a circle of deepest black stone, save for a thin sliver of shimmering platinum that formed a 'U' shape around the lower portion of the circle, like a crescent moon, and suspended from a dark blue ribbon the same shade as her fur and specked with silvery dots of white. The medal was held aloft for those ponies around us to see, and with a sense of quiet reverence it was affixed onto the bloodstained bandages that criss-crossed around Red Coat's barrel. Luna then leaned forwards and over Red Coat, and kissed him once on the left cheek and once on the right in the Prench manner.
"Wear this with pride," said Luna, smiling genuinely in one of those rare occurrences in which she deigns to do so, "for it is the first Order of the Crescent Moon to be awarded in over one thousand years." [This is not strictly true, as Orders of the Crescent Moon were awarded to Loyalist Night Guards during and following the Nightmare Heresy until the disbandment of the Night Guards in the Reconstruction era. To be more accurate, this is the first time that my sister herself had personally awarded the medal for over one thousand years.]
Red Coat stared at the decoration on his chest for some time, and then wiped at his eyes with his remaining good forehoof. "Thank you," he said, at length, and it appeared that he was speaking more to his medal than to the Princess.
If Luna thought this was rude she made no outward sign, and, with her usual lack of social skills, simply turned away to leave without saying goodbye. However, before I could breathe a sigh of relief, she stopped and levelled her accusing gaze down at me. The urge to turn around and flee was only suppressed by virtue of the extreme tiredness that I still felt and the headache pounding against the inner walls of my skull like a mental patient throwing himself against the padding. Nevertheless, my heart beat faster than it had ever done in the battle moments before, and that familiar hollow feeling in my stomach once more made a void within my being.
"I will speak with you in private," she said. "Now."
Luna walked away down the seemingly endless rows of beds, not even turning her head to see that I would follow or slowing to allow me to catch up. Naturally, she did not need to, as by some strange compulsion I found myself following after her. Though her movements appeared slow, measured, and as graceful as that of a dancer's, I had to maintain a brisk trot in order to keep up with her. As we walked, or rather she led and I merely followed, neither of us said anything; the Princess appeared not to have deemed it necessary to fill the ensuing awkward silence with meaningless small talk, as most ponies including her elder sister might have, and I was not about to risk her ire by being the first to do so.
We left the hospital hall via the same door that I had entered, and as we walked through the sprawling mess of claustrophobic corridors, I noted that Luna was leading me back towards my quarters. The guardsponies milling around the corridors darted out of the way of the Princess, who stepped past them without breaking her stride or offering the slightest indication that she was aware of their existence. As we walked, jumbled thoughts and half-formed notions of my imminent disembowelment raced through my mind; had she been conscious when she heard me surrender to Chrysalis? And how exactly was I to be punished for this treason? Oh Faust, it was almost too much to bear, though I praise Her that I was firmly behind Princess Luna so that she could not see me shivering like a leaf in a thunderstorm. Soon, we came to the splintered remains of the door to my chambers, and to my surprise the Princess walked straight past it to the one next to it - Twilight Sparkle's room.
Luna's horn flickered briefly with light, as did the lock on the door, which opened with a quiet, subtle 'click'. She pushed it open gently with a hoof, revealing the dimly-lit room within and allowing a faint but reassuring scent of hot tea to waft into the corridor. From the half-open door I heard a soft voice that was unmistakably Princess Celestia's, quietly reading aloud from the latest Daring Do novel in the sort of gentle and maternal tone that instantly brought back the earliest memories of my childhood. Spurred on by this strange sense of nostalgia for those bedtime stories, and a melancholy longing for those days of lost innocence, I stepped into the room as quietly as my steel horseshoes would allow.
The room was dark, but the presence of Princess Celestia, sitting upon a small, plush cushion by Twilight's bed, made what should have been a confining and oppressive atmosphere warm and inviting. Levitating just in front of her muzzle was a small paperback novel [Daring Do and the Forbidden City of Clouds, for those curious], from which she read to what looked like a small collection of lumps under the sheets that must have been Twilight herself. The only light came from a thin stream where the curtains of the window did not quite meet together in the centre and from the soft glow of Celestia's horn. As I entered, Celestia stopped and smiled warmly at me, which I did my best to reciprocate.
"How is she?" I asked.
"She's well," said Celestia, looking over the sleeping form of her trusted student. "The magic has left her exhausted, but she only needs a little time to rest."
Luna followed and shut the door behind her with a dreadful sense of finality, and my all-too brief good mood was shattered once more as she stepped around to face me. This time, however, there was none of the pure arrogance inherent in her countenance, and instead she looked rather more 'normal', if such a word can be used to describe an alicorn princess. In the presence of her elder sibling, one unconscious mare, and me, she seemed somewhat more relaxed, as though whatever steel rod that had been inserted into her rear had finally been removed.
"Blueblood," she said, and with none of the venom that normally inflects her voice when she speaks my name. That she addressed me by my given name and not by a flurry of insults was a miracle in and of itself. "It would appear that I owe you my life, or my freedom, at least."
I blinked gormlessly at her; was this some sort of trick to get me to lower my guard and confess everything? "I was just doing my duty," I said. "I'm sure anypony else would have done the same." Of that I had no doubt, thought I darkly.
"No," she said, with her usual lack of tact or subtlety. "What you did out there was above and beyond the demands of duty; few ponies would have had the courage to face down Queen Chrysalis, and fewer still would have had the cunning to feign surrender."
Relief swept over me like the yearly floods of a river nourish the parched desert soil of Haygypt, though the sickly feeling in my stomach remained and would do so for quite some time. Nevertheless, I felt safe that the secret of my cowardice and self-serving nature would stay unknown to all but me and you, whomever you are, reading this drivel. Such was my relief, however, that I could scarcely think of what to say next, and thus stood there like a brain-dead imbecile, staring slack-jawed at the Princess standing before me. It was fortunate that she remained as ignorant of social cues as ever, and didn't seem to notice.
"It is for such heroism, level-headedness, and dedication that you too are awarded the Order of the Crescent Moon," said Luna, her voice warming with pride. She summoned yet another one of those little jewellery boxes, and from it retrieved another medal identical in every way to the one that she had awarded to Red Coat just moments before. With a suitably dramatic flick of her horn she fixed it to the tattered fabric of tunic where it hung proudly, and then kissed me twice, once on each cheek. Her lips felt strangely cold, as though I had just been kissed by a corpse, and I suppressed the urge to flinch from their icy touch; it seemed that she still had yet to learn the virtues of at least feigning body heat.
I looked down at the medal pensively, not quite certain what to make of the shiny bit of metal and ribbon on my chest. It was not the first medal that I had ever been awarded, as I had already received a Good Conduct Medal from my earlier career in the Royal Guard that must have been awarded to me with a sense of great irony, and it would certainly not be the last. As I looked at the thin sliver of platinum cradling the jet black stone - the old moon in the new moon's arms - the words of Doctor Surgical Steel echoed through my mind.
"Thank you," I said, doing my utmost to appear as grateful as possible without appearing sycophantic.
"There is something else," said Luna. She stepped back a little, retreating a little into the darkness of the room such that it seemed all but impossible for me to determine where Luna began and the gloom ended. Her expression, what I could see of it, was rather more subdued and had none of the arrogance that her sharp, aquiline features held.
"I have been selfish of late," she continued, her voice quiet, and lacking in the calm but forceful power that usually underlies every single syllable. She lowered her head to my level, which was something she had never done with anypony as far as I could tell, and looked me in the eye not as an alicorn Princess, but merely a pony. "I realise that my actions placed an undue amount of strain upon you, interfered with your duties as commissar of this battalion and protector of Lady Sparkle, and forced you into an uncomfortable position of having to choose between your duty to the stallions and to your Princess - a situation that no officer of our Royal Guard should ever be put in. I can only say by way of explanation that I wished only to prove myself worthy of the title of Princess once more through the fires of war, and that my judgement was clouded by this foalish desire for an acceptance that I already had. I am...."
Princess Luna stopped suddenly and sucked in a deep breath through set teeth. She turned her head to look over her broad shoulder to her elder sibling, who watched intently from behind the sleeping form of Twilight Sparkle. Celestia smiled softly, like the sun cresting over the horizon on a crisp, clear Spring morning, and nodded her head supportively.
"I apologise for my un-Princess-like behaviour," said Luna at length, her voice came out more as a sigh than actual speech.
I felt slightly lightheaded at hearing Princess Luna apologise to me of all ponies, and this time without it merely being an insult with the word 'sorry' tacked on half-heartedly towards the end of a tirade, and, as far as I could tell, without any indication that she might have been disingenuous. Then again, I always suspected that Princess Luna was a particularly good liar, which may have contributed to my inherent distrust of her, as those skilled in deceiving others are often capable of uncovering such deception in other ponies. Auntie 'Tia must have put her up to this as part of whatever it was that these two demi-goddesses had discussed away from the ears of us mere mortals, thought I. Truthful or not, it was still an improvement I felt, and I was not about to let the opportunity to finally be on top of my darker Aunt slip through my hooves.
"Apology accepted," I said quietly, still rather unsure of what else to say at that point.
A heavy sigh of relief escaped through Luna's lips, before she rapidly composed herself. Indeed, she had slipped back into her old, autocratic demeanour with such speed and efficacy that it was as though an entirely different pony stood before me - the stern, uncompromising, and arrogant Princess of the Night of old. Perhaps what I had just seen was what lay behind this masque; could it be that the Princess Luna that I had known and feared all this time was merely a front for her to hide behind, as I do behind my reputation?
"Excuse me," said Luna with renewed confidence. "I would spend more time with the soldiers."
"Of course," I said. "They would be grateful for that."
Luna nodded her head and looked back to her sister. "Will you join me?"
"In a moment," said Celestia, then she returned to her quiet vigil over her faithful student as though guarding her.
"Of course, sister." Princess Luna stepped forwards, her hoofsteps chiming loudly on the stone as if amplified. She stopped just short of the door, her magic already enveloping the knob, and once more turned her head to address her sister. In the darkness, her eyes smouldered, and those narrowed slits, burning with sudden fire, focused not on Celestia but on the unconscious bundle resting on the bed. "She crafted two dozen simulacra," she said in Old Equestrian, apparently believing that I would not understand her. I saw no reason to lead her to think otherwise, but nevertheless pretended not to comprehend her words. "I have not seen such power for millennia. I think, sister, she might be ready."
With that ominous statement Luna left through the door behind me, thus leaving me alone with Celestia and Twilight. It would be a year until I understood her meaning, but at the time I paid it little heed.
That, however, is something for another night of pointless scribbling. Feeling a little unsure of myself, as I wanted to spend some time with my favourite aunt but I did not want to intrude upon her if she wanted to spend some time with her unconscious student (which I might add is about the only time Twilight's presence could be considered tolerable for an extended period of time), I approached the bed cautiously. In stark contrast to Captain Red Coat's appearance, the young unicorn looked perfectly hale and healthy as she slept, though I knew that the damage suffered was not one that made itself known on mortal flesh and blood, but on the soul. Closed eyes gazed upwards, though ringed with dark patches of exhaustion, but asleep and dreadfully still she looked rather peaceful in the dim light.
"Thank you for taking care of her," said Celestia. When I realised that I had been staring at the soft, delicate features of Lady Sparkle for what must have been a thoroughly uncomfortable length of time I blushed slightly, and hoped that in the darkness my Aunt couldn't see the tinge of red colouring my white cheeks. "And for looking after my sister, too. She can be a little headstrong, but in her own way she only meant well. I hope that this experience has taught her a valuable lesson."
"What's going to happen now?" I asked.
"I don't know," she replied, shaking her head softly. "I shall have to return to Canterlot soon and answer to the House of Commons for my actions, and those of my sister. I fear what I have been forced to do to save my sister will drag Equestria into a constitutional crisis that we can ill-afford now."
I shook my head and snorted disdainfully. "Had you not intervened, we would all be dead."
Princess Celestia smiled softly, and stepped gently around the bed to my side, such that despite the steel upon her hooves they barely made a sound on the ancient stone. Her presence, the warmth of her body and gentle scent that evoked thoughts of warm summer mornings, gave comfort to my battered and fractured nerves. Simply being in the same room as her helped me to forget the pain and horror of the night before, if only for a short time.
"Don't worry about me," she said, extending a wing protectively over me. "Let us not forget that we have won a great victory here - Black Venom Pass is in our hooves and Queen Chrysalis has been cowed. In my experience, ponies have a tendency to forgive most transgressions, so long as victory has been achieved. Everything, my nephew, will turn out fine."
As she spoke, a thought occurred to me - the timing of her intervention was exceedingly fortuitous, almost implausibly so. After that doomed tea party, which felt like a damnably long time ago, she was engaged in solving yet another land dispute with the buffalo tribes around Appleloosa, which I felt could have been more easily resolved by simply taking their land. Once that had been finished, she and the simulacra that she believed was her sister would have likely returned to Canterlot to continue their roles as heads of state. For even an alicorn to travel from the royal capital to the Dodge Junction encampment, take command of General Crimson Arrow's army, and march on the fortress would have been impossible to complete in such a short amount of time. That is, unless she already knew about Luna's deception.
I felt a churning in my gut as I silently pondered this, only half-listening as Celestia rambled on to explain the various potential ramifications for Equestrian politics. I wanted to believe that I was wrong in this assumption, but I found that I could not deny the possibility that the Princess of the Sun could have seen through the magical simulacrum that accompanied her on her diplomatic mission, or that she could not have seen that the younger sibling whom she had loved for longer than our great nation had even existed would attempt such a stunt. No, the more I thought about it, the more plausible it became; Princess Celestia, rarely involving herself directly but always gently pushing and nudging her little ponies, as she always liked to refer to her subjects, to do her bidding unknowingly. She must have known that Chrysalis would also learn of Luna's presence within the battalion, and would use that to advantage to 'cow' her, as she put it.
Celestia had stopped speaking, and offered an enigmatic smile as if she had somehow heard the chaotic jumble of thoughts and theories that clouded my mind. Behind that loving smile, the gentle voice, and that motherly demeanour lay something darker than even Princess Luna's neuroses; were we, her subjects and even her sister, merely tools and implements to be used for some higher end? I knew that her goals were pure, and I would never doubt her dedication or her love for her subjects, even one as craven and useless as I, but the feeling of being used so sickened me. I could only force myself to return that smile, and try to put the disturbing idea out of my head. Whatever it was, it was over, for now at least.
I remembered what Shining Armour once said to me, when we spoke of the Battle of Canterlot: victory wipes away all dishonour.
[It is on this pensive note that this entry in the manuscript ends. As for the theory that Blueblood raises in these last paragraphs, I can only offer by way of closure that in war one must take advantage of all opportunities that present themselves, even if the risk appears to be too high. I make no apologies for my decisions, as they have been vindicated by history.]