• Published 8th Oct 2012
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Blueblood: Hero of Equestria - Raleigh

Like all heroes, Blueblood will always do the right thing... after he has exhausted every other option.

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Bloodstained (Part 6)

“We are going to assault Black Venom Pass again.”

It should have come as no surprise to me; our strategic options were extremely limited by the nigh-impassable terrain that separated us from our enemy, but to hear Crimson Arrow say those words with the same blitheness as he would if he were to announce that he was nipping off to the canteen to get some breakfast was most disconcerting. In spite of the unpleasant heat that was just starting to build up that morning, a mere prelude to the scorching temperatures that would peak around midday as it was wont to do, I felt a sudden and unpleasant chill crawl and slither, like some icy wet reptile, across my back and shoulders.

It was a chill that was in no way ameliorated by the hot breeze that wafted through the tent, which made the loose cloth fabric flap and threatened to scatter the myriad papers on the table if it were not for the strategic placement of numerous ornamental paperweights. The morning sun filtered through the relatively thin tent cloth, casting the scene in an eerie yellow and orange glow. Where the pure sunlight penetrated through the small gaps in the fabric, bright beams of hot white light were cast periodically through the tent and cast whatever they touched into stark relief amidst the more sombre surroundings. In these beams the ever-present dust motes shimmered like millions of tiny stars around us, which drifted lazily on the light breeze and gave the proceedings a strange ethereal quality to it.

The sunlight fell harshly on General Crimson Arrow’s face, illuminating his neatly-trimmed white fur so that it appeared to glow with a luminescence all its own. This light, however, only emphasised the haggard lines that now etched over his once-attractive face. The visor of his peaked cap had cast his eyes into a deep shadow that was emphasised to a terrible degree by the dark bags beneath them. For the first time since I had seen him during this campaign he looked as if he belonged in the uniform. Even in our days in the Academy in Canterlot he always resembled a young colt playing dress-up more than an actual soldier, and this only grew worse as he rose up through the ranks and culminated in the venerated and austere position of General. Before, the crimson red dress uniform, peaked cap, epaulettes and aiguillettes, pretty gold lace, and shiny medals looked quite ridiculous on the young stallion – his tunic did not even fit him properly – yet in the intervening nocturnal period between the tea party the day before and this meeting there came a definite transformation into the determined commander that now stood before us.

Behind me, I heard the sound of quill scratching on high quality paper – a sound that would rapidly become the soundtrack to my misery over the coming months – as Spike the Dragon, who was still seated upon Twilight’s back, began his task of taking notes on Twilight’s behalf. One of Shining Armour’s subordinates stifled a yawn, while another slurped noisily from a large mug of the thickest, blackest coffee I had ever laid eyes on. Major Starlit Skies was busying himself filling up a pipe with tobacco, going about the business with the same level of fastidious attention to detail as he did with just about everything else. The tension in the room amplified these noises and the external sounds of the encampment at large to a great degree.

“My plan is quite simple,” said Crimson Arrow finally, such that it was a relief to hear his voice. The words, however, did very little to engender any sort of hope in me. In fact, they had rather the opposite effect.

I looked down on the large map before us and could not help but be reminded of the old saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’, which might apply for relatively simple and harmless things like baking a cake or attempting to construct flat pack furniture (or getting one’s servants to do so, in my case), but when it came to military strategy attempting to do the exact same thing more than once tended to result in utter disaster. If underestimating one’s enemy and failing to learn from past errors were the two cardinal sins of war as described by Princess Celestia the day before, then being repetitive and therefore predictable was the completed trinity of military incompetence. The sad thing was, we did not have any other option than to try and take the valley once more, it being the only passage large enough to support an army of any considerable size and, perhaps just as important, our supply route once we secured a hoof-hold in the Badlands.

I was, however, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he had planned. Partly out of vague curiosity to see what he had been doing in the one week of his self-imposed exile, but mainly because I was safe in the knowledge that I could simply veto whatever it was if I found it to be objectionable. Then again I found just about everything the Royal Guard did objectionable, but in the interests of maintaining my fraudulent reputation and the continued waging of this war I decided that I best be lenient. The thin blue lines that snaked their way around the ridges and contours of the Macintosh Hills on the map, however, indicated that he had planned something rather more complex than just another suicidal charge into the breach. Quite morbidly, they looked to me like a medical diagram of little veins and capillaries.

Crimson Arrow’s horn glowed, and with his magic he brought over an officer’s swagger stick from a writing desk in the corner of the room. It was a short cane of highly polished wood and capped at one end with a silver ornamental head engraved with the crest of our old regiment: the 1st Solar Guards. The orb glinted brightly in the sun as he levitated the stick above the table and indicated with the pointy end the enormous blue arrow on the map.

“The main assault on the south of the Pass will be made by the 1st and 5th Regiments of the Solar Guard and the 1st Regiment of the Night Guard,” he continued, “with the 9th Royal Artillery due to arrive next week providing fire support and the Dodge Junction Militia acting as a strategic reserve.” Well, a fat lot of good a bunch of imbecilic, lazy cherry farmers would be if things inevitably take a turn for the worse, if they could be bothered, what with their hectic schedule of sitting around in the sun and occasionally whoring their daughters out to the soldiers in the encampment for a quick bit, to pick up a spear and actually contribute to the war effort. I suppose, with hindsight, it was good that these clumsy amateurs stayed out of the way and allowed the real soldiers to get on with their jobs, and judging by the derisive snort from Blitzkrieg and one of the Solar Guard officers shaking his head, I was not alone in this opinion. [Royal Guard personnel tend to look down upon the militias as being amateurs, with some small degree of truth to that. However, it should be noted that the militia guards tended to acquit themselves rather well despite their lack of training and equipment. Of particular note is the Ponyville Militia during the Battle of Ponyville later in Blueblood’s career, which is described in another entry in this manuscript.]

“In preparation for the main assault, a smaller force will need to take and hold this position here.” Crimson Arrow indicated to a small, indistinct grey smudge in the south east area of the map with the end of his cane, and I belatedly noticed that the majority of the aforementioned thin blue lines seemed to converge upon this singular spot. It was a pony-made structure, at least as far as I could discern from the blurry image, which to me looked like a squashed insect on the paper more than anything else. As to its actual shape and architectural design, it was completely impossible to tell. Whatever it was, my initial thought was just how isolated and exposed it seemed; though only a few miles deep into enemy territory just beyond the Macintosh Hills that separated us from the enemy like a barrier, it looked extremely vulnerable to encirclement.

“This has been designated Fort E-5150,” he continued, tapping his cane lightly on the dark smudge. I wondered vaguely who had bestowed such a dull and utterly bland name upon that ancient fortress: the faceless desk-monkeys deep within the War Ministry’s dark and forbidding cubicle farms or Crimson Arrow himself? Say what you will about giving military installations, projects, and crafts overly dramatic and vulgar names like ‘Vengeance’, ‘Indestructible’, and ‘Arse-Kicker’, at the very least they are memorable. All I could foresee was a bureaucratic nightmare about to unfold as a result of some desk clerk’s hoof slipping on a typewriter, Faust knows what chaos might ensue if a fort was denied its monthly shipment of paperclips.

“The pony civilisation that built Castle Maredun also constructed a series of smaller fortified outposts along the Macintosh Hills, presumably to prevent pre-Equestrian raiders from bypassing Black Venom Pass and going straight over the hills. A battalion [an ad hoc formation consisting of two hundred and seventy ponies, consisting of three platoons from each company, and often used for when smaller fighting formations might prove to be more tactically advantageous than committing an entire regiment to the battle] made up of platoons from both the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards and backed up with artillery support from a 16th Royal Artillery scratch battery will advance in small groups through the passes between the hills and then take and fortify the outpost. When Army Group Centre makes its assault on the Pass the battalion will be in a prime position to outflank and encircle the Changeling army, thus ensuring its complete and total annihilation on the field.

“Like I said, sirs, quite simple really.”

I have to admit that it did seem like a perfectly reasonable plan. Granted, it wasn’t even in the same league as, say, Neighpoleon and his arch-nemesis the Iron Duke of Trottingham, but still it looked as if it might actually work. Like most military strategies, however, it relied entirely upon the misapprehension that the enemy was going to behave in a predictable manner. If anything, the point of strategy was to try and act in a manner contrary to the opponent’s perceptions. Despite this, assuming that the Changelings did as they were damn well expected to do, it might have a chance of actually working.

There was, however, one huge flaw with this plan that I picked up on almost instantly. I hid my immense discomfiture with considerable effort, being a proverbial stone’s throw away from running out of that tent, digging a small hole, and then ordering the closest guardspony to bury me in it. Encircling the Changeling army meant sneaking through the mountains undetected and taking that fortress, and this was entirely dependent on the assumption that the Changelings would simply not notice formations of armoured ponies marching through these small passes like thin trickles of water flowing around stones in a stream. We would be advancing through those tight, narrow passes, where our progress would be made difficult by the meandering paths conforming to the natural passes forged by nature, thus funnelling us all into indefensible choke points ripe for Changeling ambush.

I’ll grant him that the great generals of the past often had to make blind leaps of faith to achieve victory. It strikes me as odd how sometimes, though not all of the time, the difference between a commander remembered for his skill and one remembered for his incompetence is often down to fickle whims of Lady Luck. The genuinely useless ones, however, are rightly committed to posterity for their idiocy. At any rate, I resolved myself to keep myself as far away from this risky flanking move as possible, thought it certainly meant that I would be joining in with the main attack. At the very least, I would have a veritable horde of heavily-armoured ponies to hide behind and a clear line of retreat.

“Is the fortress garrisoned?” I asked. I had dredged up some vaguely remembered fact from high school classes about how assaulting fortresses tended to result in massive casualties for the attacker, though I was safe in the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I would not be taking part in this suicidal excursion. Showing at least some sort of interest, however, would at least endear me further to the ponies I would be fighting with shortly.

Crimson Arrow responded by inclining his head towards me, and the harsh light only made him look all the more disturbing as the light glinted off his amber irises, and as his eyes were cast in deep shadow by the visor of his peaked cap it gave them the unsettling effect of appearing to glow. He shuffled at the papers on the desk before his hooves, and when he answered my question after a moment’s thought he seemed to speak more to the map between us than he did to me.

“Military intelligence reports indicate that it is inhabited by a small tribe of Diamond Dogs,” he said. “They probably use the tunnels beneath the fort to mine the gems their kind lust after.”

“What are the rules of engagement?” asked Colonel Sunshine Smiles. His scar twitched slightly.

Crimson’s horn illuminated once more, and a small wooden chest levitated over towards us from its hiding place near his desk in the corner. The locks on the chest opened with an audible ‘click’ sound each, and as the lid swung back to reveal its contents the whole tent was suddenly bathed in dazzling beams of multi-coloured light. Inside this chest was a spectacular collection of highly polished and masterfully cut gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topazes, zircons, sapphires, and probably more varieties of shiny, pretty stones than I can remember now. As the thin but intense beams of morning sunlight struck each and every one of those precious gems the light was refracted, coloured, and intensified within to give the vague impression that they each burned with a fire of their own. A few reflected beams of coloured light, giving the peculiar impression of being inside a very underwhelming discotheque, and as the multicoloured light was cast upon the pristine white coats of the General and the Solar Guard officers they looked as if they had been caught in an explosion at a rainbow factory. Behind me, I heard Spike make the same slavering noises as a dog when it hears a tin of dog food being opened or Celestia when she detects cake in the vicinity.

“You may use these to barter for possession of the fort,” he said. I vaguely wondered where he had acquired all of these gems from, though precious stones being as ubiquitous as they are in Equestria I suspect he probably just bought them all from a shop (or, more likely I suspected, he had ordered an underling of some description to do so on his behalf).

“And if the negotiations were to fail?”

“Kill them all.” With those cold words the lid of the chest slammed shut with a sudden and resonant finality as if to punctuate that point. A few of the stallions jumped or shuddered in shocked surprise at the sudden loud noise, and the irritating multicoloured light that had reflected from its precious contents dissipated just as quickly. As the chest was levitated back to its resting place by Crimson Arrow’s desk, I exchanged a few worried glances with Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles; the former was decidedly nonplussed by the implication that we should slaughter a load of Diamond Dogs just to capture some fortress while the latter bore an expression of mild distaste at the prospect.

I did not know much about Diamond Dogs at the time; I had never seen one before, except for a few diagrams in biology textbooks and some vague memories of hearing my father describing his various adventures with them in the far-off places of the world. From what little I knew, they were dim-witted, unintelligent, territorial, and avaricious to a fault, though nature, being the troublesome mistress that she is, had probably made up for such deficiencies by granting them superior upper body strength, sharp claws, and a violent temperament to match.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” said Crimson Arrow, shrugging his shoulders blandly. “We don’t want to antagonise the entire population of Diamond Dogs here; the very last thing we need is an unknown quantity of partisans disrupting the war effort from behind our frontline. Negotiate for a peaceful hoof-over of the fortress if possible, but if they refuse you are permitted to use lethal force to take it. Capturing E-5150 is absolutely paramount to the success of this offensive, and I am allowing you to use any means necessary to do so.”

I winced at the thought of Diamond Dogs waging guerrilla war behind our lines. It was one thing to be slain on the battlefield, but quite another to be murdered when one believes oneself to be safe and secure behind the frontlines. The mental images of these hulking beasts who, despite their manifest stupidity and distinct lack of personal hygiene, knew this treacherous landscape like Auntie Luna knows the stars and constellations themselves, and would easily be able to sneak and burrow their way past our forward pickets to attack us at our most vulnerable disconcerted me to no end. I glanced at the ponies around us, wondering if any of them could be trusted not to accidentally commit a massive faux pas. Shining Armour, I supposed, was quite an affable pony, though in a manner that disregarded the niceties of social class that I found to be quite irritating, and given the similarities between him and the quasi-bipedal slavering mutts he might get on well with the dim creatures. The Night Guards, however, while being excellent and dedicated soldiers I found their skills in the finer arts of diplomacy to be rather lacking. I know I’m hardly a stranger to the occasional gaffe, but usually when I make a faux pas the very worst that happens is I receive a glass of expensive champagne in the face, as opposed to accidentally starting a war. [He seems to have forgotten the time he nearly started a war with Saddle Arabia by insinuating at an ambassador’s dinner party that the Sultan was inclined towards sleeping with the dead.]

“Excuse me, sir,” said Bramley Apple meekly, snapping instantly to attention as Crimson Arrow swivelled his head towards the NCO’s direction. Bramley swallowed reflexively in his nervousness, and settled on the age-old sergeants’ trick of dealing with an officer by fixing his gaze on the empty space a few inches above the General’s head. “Pardon me for asking, sir, but as sure as the sun rises every morning there’s no way in Tartarus the boys can pull our guns over that rocky ground, sir. Lands’ sakes, sir, we won’t get more than a hundred yards in that terrain before somepony breaks an axle or a wheel, and Ah can tell you, sir, when that happens the gun has to be abandoned. No way to transport a gun once its carriage has been broken, sir, no way.”

“Yes, I had considered that,” said Crimson Arrow with a hint of irritation entering into his voice, as if he wanted to suffix that statement with the short phrase ‘of course I have, you idiot’. “That is where Lieutenant Southern Cross and his ‘lads’ come in. As the battalion advances through the valleys, the engineers will clear a path for your gun carriages.”

The engineer pony next to me nodded his head and grinned. “That’s right, sirs. If you want something built or blown to kingdom come then we’re the blokes you need.” A surreptitious glance at his rear revealed that his cutie mark was, rather worryingly, a red stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. I made a mental note to stay as far away from him as possible in the battlefield, lest I find my component parts scattered over a wide area.

“Well,” said Bramley Apple, finally taking his gaze off the vacant space above Crimson Arrow’s head to regard the Horsetralian officer next to me. His expression was rather quizzical and sceptical as he appeared to be studying the odd pony’s features, before he eventually relented, probably deciding that it was not appropriate for a pony of his lowly station to argue with an officer, and shrugged his shoulders. “If y’all say so, sirs.”

I have to say that I shared his concerns, but as I was confident of the fact that I would not be participating in this rather foolhardy venture and would instead be firmly in between a steel wall of heavily armoured ponies to the front and a clear route of escape to the rear I felt it rather unnecessary to voice them further. Besides, the other ponies seemed rather positive, and even if I could not be precisely one-hundred percent convinced of the efficacy of this risky plan, I must admit I was starting to find Crimson Arrow’s self-assurance to be quite contagious. However, I did not envy the poor ponies who would be traipsing through those hills, their already slow progress further retarded by having to guard not only a full battery of artillery, guns and limbers all, but also a unit of sappers hewing their way through the rocky, unforgiving landscape with liberal application of high explosives and the threat of ambush constantly over their heads.

I suppose I had one thing to look forward to: I would be free of Twilight Sparkle and Spike for a short time.

Crimson Arrow snorted, apparently some sort of signal that we were to move on. He turned his head to face Shining Armour, who throughout this meeting had divided his attention between listening to what was being said and making silly faces at Spike. “Lord Captain [a rather archaic form of address for the Captain of the Royal Guard, for when his full title is too long but when the speaker wishes to avoid the confusion and possible offence that might occur when referring to him merely as ‘captain’],” he said, “you will command the main assault on Black Venom Pass.”

Shining Armour responded by beaming brightly like a colt scout having just been awarded another badge for his already extensive collection. He saluted in a rather clumsy manner, grinning as he did so with his usual lack of deference for authority, “I won’t let you down, sir!”

“See that you don’t, Shining.” The General then turned his head towards Colonel Sunshine Smiles, who returned his gaze with an equally intense, if not more so, stare of his own. “Colonel,” he said.

“Sir.” Sunshine’s refined accent and deep voice seemed to resonate about the tent.

“You will lead the bulk of your regiment with Shining Armour into Black Venom Pass. As such, I will leave it to you to nominate one of your senior officers to command the flanking battalion.”

Were I in Sunshine Smiles’s armoured horseshoes I would probably have picked Major Starlit Skies to lead the attack. His bordering-on-obsessive care for the most minute details and general calm, unflappable demeanour suited him well to this sort of complex operation, at least in my mind, and out of the three possible candidates he was the least likely to do something reckless and get everypony killed. Red Coat was far too young and his opinions on military strategy and leadership were limited by the diktats, dry literature, and outdated teachings of the Academy. His naive and puppy-ish eagerness to please everypony, though oddly endearing in a child, would certainly leave him vulnerable to easy manipulation by his subordinate officers and NCOs. As for Blitzkrieg, well, though I could not doubt his prowess in the air and this leadership of his company, I simply did not think he had the adequate organisational skills to command an entire battalion plus an artillery battery and an additional platoon of engineers. Not to mention his rather abrasive personality would certainly put him at odds with the Solar Guard lieutenants. No, Starlit Skies was by far the most obvious choice, and one would have to be a fool to think otherwise.

So it was quite a shock to me when, after a brief moment’s thought, Sunshine raised his hoof and placed it on Red Coat’s shoulder.

“I nominate Captain Red Coat,” he said.

Red Coat’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and his pupils shrank suddenly to mere pinpricks. He made an odd, spluttering noise as if he was choking on something, his own saliva perhaps, as he blinked up in confusion at his commanding officer. His jaw worked uselessly for a few moments, only producing that peculiar coughing and wheezing noise interspersed with the odd surprised squeak, before he could finally articulate a single, flat, “What?” At the time I thought that his odd response was merely the result of his hangover and the fact he had not been paying close attention to the proceedings, though I can sympathise with him on the last point, but looking back now I can now see that it was a far greater, more primal emotion behind his comical reaction: fear.

One of Shining Armour’s comrades, Major Puff Pastry of the earth pony company if I recall correctly, made a loud ‘harrumph’ of contempt. “Him?” he blurted out disbelievingly, and I felt I had to physically restrain myself from repeating his incredulous cry. “You must be joking, sir.”

“I never joke about my work,” said Sunshine Smiles.

“He’s only a child,” Puff Pastry replied blankly. He lazily swung his hoof to point at his opposite number directly across the table. “My stallions will never take orders from a little whelp who doesn’t even need to shave.”

Red Coat flushed a deep red colour beneath his ashen grey fur and looked decidedly uncomfortable with what was going on. He anxiously touched his acne-covered chin and cheeks with a hoof. “I do too have to shave,” he protested quietly, though by his body language and tone of voice he appeared to be trying to convince himself of that rather than the pony opposite him.

“They will do as they are damn well told,” snarled Sunshine Smiles. “And you forget your place, Major.”

“Forgive my rudeness, sir,” said Puff Pastry, bowing his head a little in deference to the superior officer. “But I refuse to put my stallions’ lives at risk by placing them under the command of an inexperienced officer, especially on a mission of this great complexity.”

“And that is why Commissar Prince Blueblood will accompany Captain Red Coat.”

Oh, thank you very much, Colonel Sunshine Smiles. I wanted to strangle him right there, to just leap straight over the map-strewn table and wrap my hooficured hooves around that imbecile’s neck and squeeze until his eyes burst like balloons, but that might have been considered impolite in the circumstances so I relented. I like to feel that I kept my irritation in check at having my plans scuppered so completely, though I could not help but feel the ends of my lips tugging downwards and my brow furrowing into a frown. As all eyes turned to me I forced a decidedly fake smile to my lips that I hoped looked sufficiently cocky enough to fit in with their idea of the sort of thing I’d do, all the while I tried desperately to think of a way to get out of this suicidal plan without appearing to lose face.

It was an already difficult task that was made completely impossible with everypony staring at me, waiting for an answer. Especially disconcerting was Red Coat, whose gaze at me from over the desk with those huge, pleading, puppy-like eyes of his which, when combined with his sullen expression and the ravages of his drinking yesterday, made him look so pathetic it was difficult to say ‘no’. I came up blank; there were no lies, half-truths, deceptions, or tricks left in my arsenal that would have gotten me out of this situation with my reputation intact. It was then that I decided my best option, objectively, was to simply go along with it and then take measures to ensure my own survival in this mission.

“Oh, I don’t think the lad needs any help,” I said, taking step one in plotting my survival. “He’s a perfectly capable officer who graduated from the Academy with top marks if I recall correctly.” I recalled that minor factoid from some half-forgotten conversation I must have had with him some time ago, or probably dredged it up from some record or scrap of paper. Not that the slightest bit of difference, as what the Royal Military Academy believes an officer should be and the reality are quite dissonant concepts. After all, even I had managed to scrape a passing grade all those years ago. Anyway, that helped to boost his confidence slightly, which was sorely lacking, and would also mean he would try that little bit harder to avoid disappointing me.

I shrugged my shoulders, affecting to look as if putting my life in danger was no real issue for me, despite the fact that my heart was rapidly turning into a frigid ball of ice beneath my ribcage. “I’ll be more than willing to offer my assistance to him if needed.”

That seemed to mollify Captain Puff Pastry and Captain Red Coat a bit, as a little bit of colour started to return to the latter’s skin. This bloody issue was going to irritate me further, but I decided that I would worry about it later. It might not be all that bad, I told myself; if we were careful we could reach the fort unmolested, happily exchange it for a few shiny baubles, and then launch the flanking attack on the Changelings’ rear. At least there we would not be facing the full frontage of the Changeling army, but rather their exposed flanks. Despite all of these assurances my hooves began to itch once more.

Terror, however, soon gave way to boredom as the meeting continued to drag on. From what little I can remember of the remainder of that briefing, and even if I could recall more I would have spared my dear reader (whoever you are) from the sheer banality of what was being said, the conversation soon drifted towards the exact military formations that would make up the two prongs of the attack. While it was obvious that the main bulk of our two regiments would be committed to the frontal assault on the Pass, the issue of which platoons to assign to the battalion was a rather more difficult task. It had been decided, much to my confusion, that both the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards regiments would contribute their platoons to form an inter-regimental battalion. It was a nice enough idea in theory, and thankfully Shining Armour was able to beat a little sense into the more snobbish of his junior officers.

I had to admit that the previous collaboration between our two corps had worked out reasonably well in Black Venom Pass, as battle and shared mortal danger tended to have quite the levelling effect on most ponies. Nevertheless, from what I could tell, despite my attention still wavering between the listening to the officers discussing dull numbers and statistics and my own daydreaming about sharing a bath with Fancy Pants’ attractive and highly promiscuous trophy wife, two thirds of the flanking battalion would be made up of Night Guards platoons. The remaining third would naturally be formed up of three platoons from each company of the 1st Solar Guard, and it was quite a shock when I heard Scarlet Letter’s name announced to lead the unicorn platoon. It was enough to pull me straight out of my pleasant, erotic fantasy to crash unpleasantly back in the grim real world – the mental equivalent of being awoken from a deep sleep by having cold water splashed on one’s face.

Of all the ponies I had met in his regiment, Scarlet Letter seemed to be the least suited to be in charge of any group of armed ponies, in fact I barely trusted him to perform his day job as a Member of Parliament adequately. My dislike of him was not entirely rational, I’ll admit, and for all I knew he could have been a perfectly competent officer. Yet there was something about that scrawny little pony that just put me off; at the risk of sounding shallow I found his physical appearance quite repellent, but that was hardly his fault, yet there was something in his manner, the idea that he was trying to gain my friendship merely as a means to an end, that just disturbed me. I had mostly forgotten about him and his rather amateurish attempts to ingratiate himself with me in the intervening time between the tea party and this meeting, but those incredibly snobbish and derisive terms he used to describe the same ponies I had fought with and seen die did not sit well with me.

Despite my objections, I decided that it was not worth interrupting the meeting merely to voice my unproven paranoia about this particular pony. I made a mental note to speak with Shining Armour about it at a later date, though I suspected that Shining merely wanted the scheming little unicorn as far away from him as possible in the battlefield. If Scarlet Letter could be trusted to shut up and keep his views to himself, especially when surrounded by over a hundred of the so-called ‘base animals’, then there shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Following that we came to the most onerous part of any meeting, the question-and-answer session. As the officers posed their questions to General Crimson Arrow, who did his best to answer them despite the rather nascent stage of planning here, I noticed a distinctly different atmosphere in this meeting compared to the last briefing I attended. A week earlier there was a sense of excited anticipation, as foals feel on Hearth’s Warming Day morning before they rush in to tear open their presents, whereas now one got the impression of the utmost professionalism. Questions were short, terse, and wasted few words, and their answers were suitably punctilious, if dull.

The meeting dragged on past an hour and my legs were starting to ache from standing in one place for so long. Though I had been trained in the subtle arts of standing perfectly still for extended periods of time by virtue of my previous and lacklustre career in the Solar Guards, the intervening time being spent in idle luxury must have done much to erode what little remained of that. I gently flexed each of my legs in turn to maintain the circulation and avoid fainting, which would have been most unseemly for one of my austere station to do so. But with my mind wandering and my limbs getting ever number each passing minute I silently begged them to stop asking so many damned questions and let me go.

After what felt like an eternity the questions soon began to dry up, probably because the other ponies were getting as bored as I was. I, however, was sufficiently skilled to maintain the illusion that I was paying rapt attention to what was being said, with judicious and frequent nods of my head and making noises of general assent whenever it felt necessary.

Crimson Arrow gathered up some of the papers in his magic and began to shuffle them neatly on the table in the universally accepted sign that business is concluded, and not before time. Unfortunately, I heard an excited gasp from behind me, and instantly that high-pitched sound brought back distressing foalhood memories of being stuck in thaumatology class and a certain purple filly wasting everypony’s time by asking so many irritating, but admittedly academically valid, questions so that we all missed our break time. So ubiquitous was that sound in all classes that I shared with her that it had become so ingrained in my memory, I did not have to turn my head back to see that Twilight Sparkle was holding a hoof in the air and likely waving it anxiously.

The General glanced up from his papers and frowned in a peculiar way. “Yes, Lady Sparkle?”

Giving up all semblance of trying to appear at all regal, relaxed, and as if I actually wanted to be here, I let out an irritated groan and sat down on my haunches. What Twilight actually asked was rather more unexpected and all the more horrifying than having to sit through a veritable barrage of questions.

“Can I come, too?”

Faust help me.

Author's Note:

Lots and lots of lovely exposition here, sorry guys but I hope I've at least made it entertaining for you all.

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