• Published 22nd Sep 2019
  • 2,541 Views, 1,097 Comments

The Princess's Bit - Mitch H

Adventure is nothing but other ponies having a terrible time somewhere picturesque. But you take what you can get, when you take the Princess's bit.

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Ping sat in the cramped foyer to the little office in the Duchess's Quarters in the upper reaches of the Trottingham garrison, his cover slightly bunched up and increasingly crumpled in his wing-grip. He'd escaped from his former squadron with only a modest amount of wailing and recriminations from his former commanding officer. Fishing Pole hadn't been able to deny that it had been his signature on the transfer orders, for it had, like most other documentation that passed through Lieutenant-Colonel Pole's alleged office, been signed off-hoof as the doctor with a commission had breezed through on his way from surgery to boudoir or drinking establishment or fishing-hole.

Not that the 93/1st had seen much in the way of fishing holes in the Isles up to the moment when Corporal Ping jumped ship. It wasn't that sort of war, the Griffish Rebellion.

Ping had gotten what he needed, the same way that everypony in the 93/1st did, by getting the pony who actually ran things to take care of it. That is, squadron clerk Two Pings, batpony and helpful hoof.

Ping wasn't sure who Fishing Pole would find to do his job for him now. Red Tail had been next in line for the squadron clerkship, but there was a reason they usually seconded her to the orderlies, being one part a fondness for Hawk Eye's rot gut, and at least two parts fondness for the company of anyone willing to top up her glass.

Such as Fishing Pole himself, who was never at a loss for drinking buddies.

It had come as a great betrayal to the pegasus when Ping had gently explained to him that the clerk was taking a transfer to a new unit, one where bat ponies weren't strictly regulated and kept out of positions of authority.

Like, say, running a medical squadron. But then, the 93/1st had been, itself, something of an outlier in the EUP. Experimental units designed to test new theories of battlefield medicine were not, evidently, as closely disciplined and ordered as the line regiments or frontline squadrons. Ping's fellow bat ponies being an example of said discipline and order.

Ping had been a tee-totalling, silent shadow in the midst of a barely-mobile bacchanalia. He sometimes wondered what his herd back home might have said if they'd seen their precious Two Pings among such sin and disorder.

Not that it was at all likely that any other bat-pony would have seen Ping among the shambles of Fishing Pole's vanity fair, unless they were wounded and carried in, insensate, on a stretcher.

It hadn't happened, although Ping had constantly been on the out-look for the sudden shock of discovery. There were few aerial squadrons in the theatre, and even fewer bat-ponies outside of the aerial squadrons, where they were carefully hidden among the real pegasi.

And even in the aerial squadrons, they'd been deliberately spread out, only concentrated when they were assigned in carefully-overseen penny-packets to the line regiments. Everypony agreed, and had agreed for generations out of mind, that there was no greater skirmisher party or finer night-picket than a flight of dragon-eyed thestrals, but nopony in their right mind trusted them to order themselves, let alone command themselves.

Memory was long in the service, but tradition was even longer, and long after the memories had faded and died, the superstitions persisted. Never trust a batpony. Never let them cut loose. Never let up on discipline.

Until it was time to set them loose in the darkness, and haunt the enemy.

Generations of veteran bat-ponies had returned to the ancestral caverns bringing their own traditions and superstitions. Never contradict a day-pony. Never take the part of a fellow bat-pony. Never organize. Never be seen, if you possibly could avoid it. Never allow the manuals' discipline to be broken. Never tolerate rebellion and mutiny. Always betray a confidence of disloyalty. Never betray the colony. Never admit that there is a colony. There is always a colony.

Yes, the strictures were mutually contradictory - aren't all traditions?

Still, Ping feared that the real bat-ponies would disapprove severely of Ping's late squadron, and Ping himself. The lack of adherence to the manuals, the unmilitary nature of the medicals and their hangers-on. True military bats were more Burn Salve bats than Fishing Pole or Hawk Eye.

And absolutely no Red Tails at all. Ping's ponies had methods for dealing with slackers like Red Tail. Methods subtle and secret, relentless and inexorable. And not even Ping's… peculiar status among the homeponies back in the colonies would protect him from his hypothetical fellows if they ever caught wise of the company he'd been keeping.

However wings-length the whole business had been. Ping had found that if you made yourself useful, few ponies noticed that you weren't actually their friends. They just assumed.

It made it easier for Ping to cut ties, but more painful than he'd thought for those other ponies who had, apparently, thought the little bat-pony was their friend.

Day ponies were strange ponies.

Ping thought about the orders he'd drafted, sitting in his pannier. Would the new colonel accept them as-is, without kicking? Ping wouldn't, if he were in charge.

Ping had, however inadvertently, been in charge of the last squadron, the proper running of it. Without really intending it to be so. His talents lent themselves to doing the job properly, although they hadn't been given him for that squalid purpose. Would that be the case here? The aunties had hinted as much, but Ping wasn't sure if that was true prophecy or just the auld night-haunts wishfully thinking.

Ping wasn't a leader of ponies, whatever the aunties said. But the aunties said, and, so, he went.

Well, the aunties and the dreams. They said it was his destiny, his strange, masculine destiny. Unnatural. Unsettling. Wrong. A stallion, dream-walking! Worse, a stallion, day-walking. Dream-walking was odd enough in a stallion, but for there to have been born into the colonies a stallion who walked the day knowing where his hooves would land before they did? Knew when and where without having the knowledge to know?

The aunties said-

"-I did give Cadance the paperwork, didn't I?" said the purple unicorn as she burst into the office, the door banging slighly as it bounced off its frame. "I made myself clear last week, right? I'm not just dreaming I did the paperwork, right?"

"I didn't observe the exchange personally, no, captain ma'am," said a familiar voice from the corridor outside. "But there are copies in the desk. Somewhere. I think."

"Wha- oh, hello, there. We'll be with you in a moment, corporal." The purple unicorn in the captain's tabs turned to the tall, gangly, scruffy griffon entering the office behind her, demanding out of the side of her mouth, "Gilda, there's a bat pony in my office. Why is there a bat pony here?"

"Oh, hey there, Ping, what does Colonel Pole want? I didn't think I'd see any of you after we left you in the sticks. You lot ever get your hocks out of the bloody slush?" Corporal- no, look at that! Sergeant Gilda had always been an amiable sort as far as Ping was concerned. If a trifle loud.

"The lieutenant colonel wants me under arrest. Or something about heads and pikes. He wasn't being clear when I escaped. I'm here under orders, sergeant, Captain Shield. Here."

The magenta glow of the officer's magic took up the orders packet from Ping's wing-grip, and opened them for said officer to scan, quickly.

"Transferred! We didn't have a battalion a week ago! This is dated three days ago."

"It took some time to talk myself out of the stockade, Captain Shield."

"This is signed by Colonel Pole himself!"

"He does that. Without looking. I suppose he was feeling betrayed that I'd slipped one past him."

"I rather imagine so. Can't be having a clerk who'd hoof you all sorts of nonsense to be fitted out under your chop!"

"The officer's own fault for not reading what he signs, captain ma'am," the lanky griffon said, looking disapproving. "On the other claw, there's a lot of damage an untrustworthy corporal can cause before she's found out."

Oh, look, the disapproval was of Ping. That look has locked cell-doors and shackles glinting in it.

"I agree entirely, sergeant. I was very much at fault, and it won't happen again. But I needed to be here."

"Whatever do you mean?" demanded the unicorn officer.

Ping gestured at the tsunami of papers and documents and detritus which was slowly drowning the little office.

"Military units operate by paperwork, and I could hear the grinding of the pulp-choked gears from all the way out there in Bridlederry. Like a thousand filing cabinets choked with refuse, crying out for my touch.

"Also, word is that you're taking thestrals," Ping continued. "Without tribal limits. Is it true?"

"Well, yes!" admitted the perplexed purple pony. "I said that we wouldn't be limiting recruitment by tribe or species. But I wasn't really thinking-"

"Transfers? Captain Shield, I don't think you understand what is coming. There have been regulations in the EUP for generations. Centuries. Strict regulations about how the squadrons can recruit nocturnes, how they can be used in the ranks. Will you be following those regulations?"

"What? Where? How? Gilda, can you go get the -"

"Staffing manuals? I'll have to go raid the division archive, none of this is ringing a bell. Captain, ma'am - you would know better than I. Wasn't this part of your fancy academy education?"

"Do I look like a pegasus to you, Gilda? Go, find the reference material. Corporal… Ping? You say we're likely to get more bat ponies?"

"An un-restricted regiment taking all comers? A Guards regiment? Yes, sergeant. They're coming. I beat them here because…"

"Yeah, I've seen you in action. Wasn't aware it worked on paperwork, too."

"I wouldn't be a clerk if it didn't, sergeant."

The little bat pony hadn't been kidding. Gleaming Shield's idealistic bureaucratic outburst of anti-tribalist harmonism had been, sadly, committed to paperwork before either she or Gilda had made the proper connections and realized what they were opening themselves up to with Shield's grand gesture.

It turned out that the EUP had a lot of really obnoxious regulations on the books about thestrals. Stuff that, in black and white, looked a lot more draconian than anything the books said about griffons. But, Gilda thought, the regulations had been written when there wasn't much prospect of griffons in the ranks of the pony armies, generations ago - no, centuries. Century after century of the pegasi tearing themselves up over the presence of something dark, and predatory, and dangerous in their ranks.

Looking at it all, Gilda couldn't understand why there were bat ponies in the armed forces at all. There were actual capital punishments listed for thestrals where the regular ranks got stockade or hard labor!

Things began to become more clear when the first couple thestrals reported with their transfer orders. Such a bunch of hardflanks Gilda had never seen. In point of fact, they were the first bat ponies Gilda had met other than the little clerk.

They were nothing like Ping. Big, grizzled, stony-eyed. Gilda knew killers when she laid eyes on one. And the first couple new transfers were definitely that. Two of the first dozen had more seniority in service than Gustav, if little in the way of experience with non-fliers. Or training. Or anything other than ‘night service'.

Over the weeks that were to come, Gilda heard her crop's worth about the ‘night service'. Griffons weren't especially nocturnal beasts, which explained to a certain degree why she'd never seen a bat pony other than Ping up to this point. And also explained why the EUP had maintained a continuous advantage in the long war in the Isles.

Gilda felt it was something like cheating to maintain secret corps of night-fighters like that. Even if the paranoid ancients of the EUP carefully kept these night-terrors divided up into penny-packet ‘skirmisher' units among the aerial troops of the pegasus regiments. Not even full troops, but rather double files assigned on a squadron by squadron basis. The equivalent of a single squad for a ground pony regiment.

Gilda and Gustav had a little head-to-head meeting after the first dozen thestrals were joined by another twenty the week after that.

"What in ‘ades is drawin' them out like this, Gilda me ‘en? I ‘aven't seen so much leather since we raided that bootleg parchment operation back in ‘91."

"The little I can get out of the clerk is that the thestrals have been waiting for an ancient Guards regiment to be reconstituted for… something like centuries? He was being shifty, and didn't want to answer the question straight."

"‘Ave you never spoken to a screamer? They take shifty in with their dam's milk, they does. Comes of lurkin' in shadows all yer inky life."

"Still, this smells of something nasty, don't it?"

"Most things in the service is smelly, Gilda me ‘en. They seem to be calming down, some."

"Well, they're not pushing for length of service, that's good. And they seem to be willing to bend to proper discipline."

"That's because I'm bending my head to you, you young guttersnipe. If I weren't here, sayin' yes marm and no marm, we'd be in the soup for sure."

"Helps I've got the captain's ear, I guess."

"That's another thing, we're going to need a major or two sometime soon. And more recruits. We're gonna have to scramble if we don't want to be a thestral regiment."

"We're barely a company as it is, Gustav. And the captain has plans which can't wait on a season. We've got obligations."

"‘ow can we possibly have obligations? The regiment's barely a month old!"

"Came before there was a regiment, old crow. You see, it's like this…"

Author's Note:

Thanks for editing and pre-reading help to Shrink Laureate, Oliver, and the general Company.

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