• Published 8th Oct 2012
  • 13,339 Views, 827 Comments

Blueblood: Hero of Equestria - Raleigh



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

  • ...
26
 827
 13,339

PreviousChapters Next
Night's Blood (Part 1)

Life in the Royal Guard is ninety-nine per cent boredom and one per cent trouser-ruining terror. That’s what Colonel Stiff Upper Lip told me on my very first day in basic training when I performed my mandatory Royal Guard service some five years before my induction into the Commissariat. Quite how and why exactly he wore trousers was a conundrum that I didn’t particularly want answered, so I just chalked it up to the usual eccentric senior officer nonsense that seems to be so prevalent in everypony with a rank higher than Second Lieutenant.

As I sat in my first class cubicle on the lengthy train journey to Dodge Junction, gazing listlessly out as the dull Equestrian countryside flittered past me at an obscene speed, I couldn’t help but think on those words and ponder just how accurate they were. Despite Stiff Upper Lip’s rather insane eccentricities, which included taking staff meetings while immersed in a bath carried by earth pony guards like a palanquin, he was rather insightful as to how life in the Royal Guard was lived.

Yet what he didn’t say was how that ninety-nine per cent was also spent in anxious anticipation of the one per cent. Considering he served when the purpose of Equestria’s armed forces was simply to stand next to Princess Celestia and prevent paparazzi from taking photographs of her consuming unholy quantities of cake [That happened precisely once and it seems nopony will ever let that go] and the occasional border dispute with Gryphons, the exact ratios of boredom and trouser-ruining terror may have changed somewhat since then.

I enjoy train journeys. They give one time to reflect and think, catch up on reading, or just ponder the great mysteries of life. All this provided you can secure a nice first class cubicle like me, if you’re packed into the cattle cart of third class then you can forget about that and instead concentrate on avoiding catching some hideous commoner disease. I, on the other hoof, took this opportunity to ponder where exactly my life had just taken a turn for the worse.

Even after only one night the newspapers were all filled with images of my handsome face, all proudly proclaiming me the hero of the hour who defeated another heinous Changeling threat to destroy Equestrian Harmony and steal all of our love. Bizarrely, even the Foal Free Press from Ponyville managed to snap a shot of me scrubbing Changeling innards out of my fur. While the attention was nice, and for once it was positive as opposed to having fruits in varying stages of decay hurled in my direction, I still felt a general sense of unease about it. Even then I had the lingering sensation that if I didn’t nip this trend in the bud ponies will expect more amateur heroics from me, and therefore foolishly force me into situations to demonstrate this alleged heroism. However, I still did not have any indication of where exactly my fraudulent reputation would take me, and if I did I would have done something about it rather than merely go along with the flow.

I had been stuck inside this train for several hours now, watching as the green and pleasant fields and forests of central Equestria slowly transformed into the sweltering plains and deserts along its south east border with the Badlands. Trees gave way to cacti, grass to sand, and herds of cows to roving tribes of buffalo. Cannon Fodder was in the buffet car, no doubt giving the other passengers a fright with his horrendous odour and insatiable appetite. I let him use my prodigious commissarial expense account, mostly because I wanted to be left alone for a while to brood.

It then occurred to me that with the warmer climate in the Badlands his body odour would become all the more fragrant.

I wondered if this latest venture was merely Auntie Luna plotting my death in an unusually elaborate way. As diarch of Equestria she could have just had me executed then and there; probably involving fire and brimstone from the heavens or the very earth swallowing me whole for whatever sins I dared to commit in her eyes (probably just merely existing). But no, it seems she wanted me to suffer by thrusting me into a new and frightening situation of which I knew nothing about.

On the wooden table before me were the briefing papers that Auntie Luna and her new Commissariat had so helpfully provided me, along with a drained cup of tea and the scattered remains of Cannon Fodder’s previous culinary escapades. It was an inch thick wad of parchment, written entirely in dense legalese that would have made even the most intelligent and studious lawyer give up and quit his job.

For the most part I had simply skimmed over it and found nothing that Auntie Luna hadn't already explained to me: the purpose of a commissar is to monitor a regiment for Changeling corruption, enforce discipline, maintain morale, oversee senior officer command decisions, and ensure that the political aims of the war are being followed. Exactly how I was supposed to accomplish all of this, however, was still a mystery. I suppose that was to be expected when I am the first of a completely new institution and given minimal training.

The first duty was easy. Before I grudgingly left the castle, Auntie Luna and Twilight Sparkle taught me a simple spell that would disrupt the illusionary abilities of a Changeling and show them for who they really were. I imagined it would simply be a matter of creating a schedule of mandatory scanning with this spell and teaching it to unicorns.

Enforcing discipline and maintaining morale would be infinitely more difficult, and the two duties I least looked forward to. I’m not exactly a people pony; I have trouble remembering names and I could barely manage my small staff of personal servants and maids on my estate let alone an entire regiment of nine hundred ponies. I supposed it was a matter of making the occasional motivational speech and doling out extra latrine duties for any naughty stallions. Probably something I could handle with reasonable enough confidence.

Overseeing senior officer command decisions was more complicated, seeing as how what I knew about military tactics and strategy could have fit on a postage stamp. As I understood it, however, from the vast tome before me and Luna’s ramblings I would simply be taking a supervisory and advisory role. That I probably could do better as it is far easier to sit back and criticise somepony for their decisions than to make those decisions.

As for upholding the political aims of the war, I was far less happy about that. Of course, had we known then what we now know about the true nature of Changelings we would have been far less sanguine about consigning an entire race to extermination. Hindsight, as the old saying goes, is always perfect and looking back upon this stage in the war, when ponies were baying for Changeling blood in vengeance for the attack on the Royal Wedding, it’s all rather embarrassing. The fact is that throughout this wretched war, the political aims kept changing on the fickle whims of politicians and the Equestrian public. This tended to make my job of making sure the troops knew exactly why they were sent halfway across Equestria to fight and die on some Celestia-forsaken desert rather difficult, as more often than not I had no idea either.

Despite mentally reassuring myself that everything would be perfectly fine my stomach still felt oddly hollow, as it was wont to do when I’m anxious. It’s an unpleasant, cloying, nauseous sensation in my gut that at once makes me feel hungry and sick at the same time.

Cannon Fodder returned from the buffet carriage just as we were entering Dodge Junction, his pouches and pockets stuffed with sandwiches, hay, and other snacks he had pilfered from the unsuspecting waiting staff there. Perhaps they were bribes to make him go away.

I watched as the rustic buildings of this tiny frontier town drift past us with a mixture of relief and heightened anticipation. While the train journey had given me some much needed time and space to myself, it was rather dull and strangely exhausting; sitting still and doing nothing for several hours except fret about how I’m about to die horribly is oddly taxing on a pony’s body. Above all I merely wanted to stretch my tired old limbs.

From my brief skimming of the briefing papers so helpfully provided by the War Ministry, I learned that Dodge Junction was a relatively new frontier town constructed precariously close to the Badlands. It was populated by a small number of ponies, probably all related to each other by this point, and had a slowly growing industry in the production of cherries. The fact that this town still existed was either testament to either the ingenuity of ponies to survive in the most inhospitable of environments or their sheer stupidity.

Army Group Centre was encamped on its outskirts, judging from the maps in the briefing files the encampment was approximately twice the size of the town and likely contained at least five times the amount of ponies. The encampment would be serviced by long supply lines that stretched across Equestria like arteries towards the heart. No doubt our rations would be supplemented by many, many cherries.

The train finally pulled to a halt at the station and the tinny voice of the announcer proclaimed that this was the end of the line. It certainly felt like it for me as I dragged myself off my seat, my joints clicking and cracking from several hours of disuse. My flanks were feeling somewhat numb after having sat upon it for so long, and was thus forced to perform a bizarre little dance to try and restore feeling in my rear and extremities.

If Cannon Fodder was even the slightest bit concerned by me flailing my limbs he made no sign and instead busied himself by fetching my luggage. It was rather difficult for him, lacking any magical ability at all, but after a brief fumbling with my trunk he managed to drag the large box out from under the seats and balance it upon his back.

“Ready?” I asked, getting somewhat impatient. I was to meet with an officer from my new regiment at the station and was eager to the get the invariably messy business of first impressions over with. Judging from my previous experience with the close-knit nature of the Royal Guard regimental system I was unlikely to be seen as anything but a meddlesome outsider. [The Royal Guard operates on the regimental system, meaning that the regiment is the basic unit of the military. Regiments generally recruit from a single geographical area, for example, the First Solar Guard recruits from Canterlot, the Second from the area around Ponyville, the Third from Trottingham etc. This helps soldiers form a close attachment to the regiment through a shared heritage and origin. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of creating inter-regimental rivalry and a distrust of higher authority beyond the regiment, particularly commissars.]

“Yes sir,” he replied blankly.

I shook my head and stepped out of my cabin. With non-essential travel greatly discouraged by the Equestria government I had the entire carriage to myself. There were a few individuals disembarking from the third class carriages behind us; probably either government bureaucrats or journalists I mused. I didn’t look forward to dealing with the press, but as political officer I wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

I stepped off the carriage and onto the platform, and straight into another stallion wearing steel plate armour.

“Ooph, that’s one way to make an introduction!” the stallion said in an obnoxiously cheery voice as he stepped away and allowed me my personal space.

I straightened my neck to look as tall and imposing as I could, which wasn’t difficult given my stature and the death-black and blood red uniform complete with its leering skull. I put on my best stern expression and glared down at him. As royalty I have had plenty of experience in perfecting the ultimate look of complete and total condescension.

Unfortunately, it didn’t faze him the slightest.

He was a young earth pony, probably still in his late teens judging by his youthful good looks and peppy demeanour, shorter than me and wore a permanent grin on his face that I found rather insufferable. Not because of its relentless cheeriness, mind you, though it was tiny part of the reason, but rather the grin showed off his razor sharp piranha teeth. These were the results of Princess Luna’s blessing which she bestows upon all of her Night Guards, along with the uniform grey fur and the creepy draconic eyes with slit irises.

Luna evidently had a thing for eyes, for there was one upon the Night Guard’s breastplate gazing up at me in a most disconcerting manner. Despite the creepy baroque armour, sharp teeth, and unnatural eyes he looked like a regular youth. At first I took him for a mere ensign, the lowliest commissioned rank who have the dubious honour of carrying the regimental standards into battle, but I saw the rank pips on breastplate and saw that he was in fact a captain.

I noted that his cutie mark, like all of the Night Guards, was concealed by his armour.

“Uh, do I call your Commissar Blueblood or Prince?” he said, nervously rubbing the back of his head with a hoof. “Or even ‘Your Highness’? Or is it ‘Your Majesty’?”

I shrugged, to be honest I didn’t even know the correct etiquette, but at least this young idiot was making a clumsy effort to show deference to his social betters, “Either is acceptable, Captain...?”

“Oh, sorry!” The young captain snapped off a clumsily salute by smacking his hoof against the front of his helmet. “I’m Captain Red Coat of the 1st Night Guard, I command the Earth Pony company. The other senior officers can’t wait to meet you.”

Of that I had no doubt, but whether they would actually like me was another matter. Red Coat seemed naive enough to believe we’ll get along like one big happy regiment, but I doubted that the other officers and the nine hundred-odd ponies they commanded would warm to me quite so well. Granted, commissars like me weren’t as feared and universally reviled by the rank and file as we were much later (largely as a result of a few of my over-zealous colleagues), but my apprehension was only growing.

I bade him to lead me to the encampment and my new life, and he did as he was ordered with his usual energetic aplomb. Cannon Fodder dutifully followed me with my trunk, being ignored as usual but phlegmatically unconcerned with his apparent invisibility. Fortunately, he travelled light that day; he was already wearing his armour and had very little personal effects save for his collection of gentlecolt’s specialist literature and a small photograph of his mother who, to my eternal surprise, turned out not to be a walrus.

The inbred yokels who inhabited this tiny village gave us a wide berth as we stepped through their little settlement, watching us wearily with tired eyes. As I learned through experience where a large army makes its camp there comes opportunities and misery in equal measure for anypony unfortunate enough to live nearby. Businesses can make more money by selling things to the soldiers, but the influx of thousands of bored troops tends to send the crime rate soaring.

I only half listened as Red Coat exposited much of his life story to me. From what I can remember he explained that he came from a relatively well-to-do family in Trottingham, which compared to my glory and wealth meant he was only a slightly more wealthy form of commoner. He had always dreamed of a career in the Royal Guard but his family could only afford to buy him a commission in the Night Guard, which tended to go much cheaper than the Solar Guard. [At this point the Equestrian military still employed the dubious practice of the sale of commissions, by which entry into the officer class and subsequent promotion could be paid for in bits. This ensured a largely aristocratic and socially exclusive officer class who later found out the hard way that wealth does not equate to military competence.]

Nopony liked the Night Guard, especially not me; they were an entirely new corps created by Princess Luna as a resurrection of her ancient personal bodyguard from before the Nightmare Heresy and therefore lacked the thousands of years of tradition that the Solar Guard possessed. Their disturbing baroque armour and the creepy side-effects of Luna’s blessing only made them even less desirable. The immutable laws of supply and demand were in effect; nopony wanted to be an officer in the Night Guard, ergo the prices were dirt cheap, and so they had to make do with Captain Optimism.

As we walked through the town I noticed new propaganda posters pasted to ramshackle buildings. A particularly intimidating drawing of Celestia’s face implored us all to ‘OBEY’, while a simple red poster advised us all to ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’, and a third commanded us to report anypony suspected of being a Changeling spy to the relevant authorities.

It was not long before we came to the encampment itself. It was a vast sprawl of large tents constructed on the immeasurable empty plain outside the town. The tents themselves were positioned rather sparsely, serving mainly as temporary residences for the officers, meeting halls, war rooms, stores, administrative offices, and field hospitals. Most of the rank and file slept under the stars in a large field pockmarked with various stakes in the ground where individual guardsponies claimed a spot to sleep. Presumably the weather pegasi ensured that they did not get soaked during their slumber.

The camp itself was alive with frenetic activity. I had never seen so many ponies in a single place before, not even the Grand Galloping Gala, on the rare occasion that it all went according to plan without any cake or animal related disturbances, could compare to it. Literally thousands upon thousands of ponies lived across this plain, calling the scrap of earth they slept upon at night home. Solar Guard in their gleaming golden armour and pristine white coats marched drill in complete synchronicity and discipline to my left, while above I saw pegasi practicing aerial combat manoeuvres which left white contrails streaking across the cloudless sky. To my right I witnessed scores of unicorns practicing war magic upon cardboard cut outs of Changelings; blasting them apart with iridescent magic missiles.

War has a distinct smell. Even when there is no battle fought there is still that unique scent in the air. Actually, it’s not just one scent but rather a mixture of many unpleasant smells that combine to make one ungodly odour; the sheer number of so many ponies congregating in one single place for a long period of time tends to cause a few hygiene problems. It smells of blood and sweat, gunpowder, rotten meat, anaesthetic, ozone, and bodily waste, and despite everypony else getting used to it I never did.

More Solar Guard troops were chatting loudly around a campfire; some more were engaged in a tense game of Go Fish, while a group of aristocratic officers watched me with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. They probably recognised me; there were probably very few ponies who didn’t recognise the esteemed Prince Blueblood, nephew to the Princesses and most eligible bachelor in all of Equestria. It was most likely curiosity over the brand new uniform I was wearing, and disdain over my blissfully unaware Night Guard companion.

“They say this is the largest army ever assembled,” said Red Coat confidently. I highly doubted that, the Changelings were probably massing an even larger army just beyond the mountains that separated Equestria from the Badlands.

“It’ll all be over by Hearth’s Warming,” I said with false confidence, merely parroting the general optimistic feeling that the whole war will be a cakewalk. A couple of glorious battles and then we’ll all be sipping tea in Queen Chrysalis’ palace. Even a cursory glance at a history book would inform you that wars tend not to be that simple and involve quite a lot of misery and bloodshed.

“Well, I just hope it lasts long enough for us to get some of the glory, eh?” he said with a big, eager grin on his face that would have served well as the subject for a poster on a recruitment centre.

The 1st Regiment was the only Night Guard contingent in this army and had sequestered itself in a small dank corner of the encampment from which the Solar Guard regiments, of which there were three plus a Royal Artillery regiment, kept a wide berth from. It was, however, quite near a rather large and impressive tent that I assumed served as general headquarters for the duration.

The Night Guards themselves were either milling aimlessly around their side of the camp, engaging in the garrulous idle banter of soldiers or engaging in gambling activities. The ones on active duty were taking part in numerous training activities; the unicorns were practicing combat drill formations, changing positions at the command of an aggressively voiced sergeant to present the maximum firepower against the imaginary enemy. The earth ponies were testing their great endurance and strength with a hike around the circumference of the entire encampment and the town, while the pegasi were overhead.

I became aware of hundreds of pairs of yellow draconic eyes staring at me, like an electric feeling over my fur. I stiffened instinctively, doing my best to avoid their piercing gazes. It became eerily quiet as we stepped across the hard, dry earth; not completely silent, mind you, as the constant sound of frantic activity, chatter, and sergeants bellowing orders was always present, but simply subdued as I awkwardly became the centre of attention.

“Carry on, carry on,” said Red Coat to his troops, trying to diffuse the rather awkward situation. A handful went back to whatever activity they were performing before my arrival, but the air of tense scrutiny remained. I was the rank outsider; an officious bureaucrat sent from Canterlot to make sure everypony was doing their job correctly.

There was a group of three Night Guards congregating outside a tent. They were officers, judging by the silver and gold ornamentation on their baroque plate armour, who regarded me with varying degrees of hostility and curiosity.

“Is this him?” the closest one asked with a voice like sandpaper. He was a dangerous looking pegasus despite his slight physique and small stature. If it weren’t for the masculine blocky face I’d have probably mistaken him for a mare. Of course, if I did I probably wouldn’t survive the beating he’d give me. The air of menace about him was only worsened by the grotesque bat-like leathery wings upon his back, like a hideous mockery of a pegasus’ graceful feathers. The stallion moved like a cat; slow, deliberate, and extraordinarily gracefully, like he was ready to explode into sudden and terrifying violence at the slightest provocation. I despise cats, I think they’re creepy little beggars and I dislike individuals who happen to look like them even more.

I nodded in response, doing my best to meet his intense and emotionless stare. The chilling amber eyes seemed to penetrate through me, and I could tell he was sizing me up; analysing my physique and looking for weak points.

“If you mean Blueblood,” I said dryly, “then he has arrived.”

The stallion coughed out a word that sounded something like ‘ponce’, but I elected to ignore it.

“This is Captain Blitzkrieg of the Pegasus company.” said Red Coat amicably, pointing out the stallion helpfully with his hoof.

“And Major Starlit Skies of the Unicorn company.”

Red Coat indicated towards the second officer, who was an elderly unicorn more focused on the book levitating in mid-air in front of him than he was me. I cleared my throat, causing him to glance up from his raggedy old tome at the pony that dared to interrupt his reading time. His expression changed rapidly from irritated disdain to sudden slack-jawed anxiety, which made his thick bifocals shudder precariously on his snout.

“N-nice to meet you,” he stuttered anxiously, dropping the book to the dusty ground with a heavy thud.

“Likewise,” I replied.

Starlit Skies looked a little more relieved and picked up his book, grumbling in irritation over the dust covering the hardback canvas covers. I watched him with vague amusement as he retrieved a small cloth from the recesses of his armour and proceeded to very carefully wipe down the now dusty surfaces.

“Oh blast it, I’ve lost my place!” he despaired as he frantically flicked through the pages to find his lost position in whatever tome he was buried in.

I left him to it and approached the third and final senior officer of the regiment. He was a big, imposing pony that towered over me by a good number of inches. His entire body, from what could be seen under the impressively ornate and baroque armour, was a veritable mountain of impressive muscle that put any stallion to shame. At first he appeared to be sneering condescendingly at me, indeed the way he carried himself had a certain aristocratic air, but then I caught sight of the left side of his face upon which was a grotesque scar that marred his once handsome features. The puckered scar tissue had pulled the left edge of his mouth up, so as to give the impression of a malformed grin.

“Colonel Sunshine Smiles,” announced Red Coat.

“Ah, we’ve been expecting you,” he said, his voice surprisingly warm and welcoming with hints of the refined upper Canterlot speech, he even held out his hoof to shake, which I did. “Can’t say I’m entirely sanguine about your presence here, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the regiment is an effective fighting machine, but what the Princess wills we obey.”

I nodded; I wasn’t feeling particularly sanguine about this arrangement either. Actually, I was rather surprised that he used the word ‘sanguine’; guardsponies brought up from the rank and file tended to have rather limited vocabularies.

“I’m sure you have,” I said, looking around at the guardsponies around us and nodding in mock approval. “I think the Princesses want to test out their new institution on a good regiment before letting us loose on the Solar Guard. You have a fine body of troops.”

That seemed to placate him, and he smiled genuinely this time. I breathed a sigh of relief, wondering how many more lies and platitudes I’d have to produce to get out alive with this job.

“Aye, soon to be fine bodies of troops,” said Blitzkrieg derisively, and to my surprise the other officers chuckled at the morbid display of gallows humour. I joined in, if only to ease the tension.

***

All in all, I didn’t think the introductions went too badly, except for Captain Blitzkrieg who always looked at me as if he was planning the best position to stick a blade in my back. After a while Red Coat showed us to our tent and then left us to get settled in.

Looking at the interior of an officer’s tent brought back memories of my previous life in the Solar Guard. It was not particularly well furnished or elegant, but it was comfortable and that’s what mattered. The tent was spacious, intending to serve as my office as much as my sleeping quarters, and was divided down the middle by a long piece of cloth with a slit cut through the centre to allow entry beyond. This was the ‘front of office’ section with a large foldable writing desk dominating it, a collapsible filing cabinet up against a ‘wall’, and a bedroll for Cannon Fodder to sleep on. Excellent, not only would I have to contend with his scent and messy eating habits I’d also have to put up with his snoring too.

As Cannon Fodder busied himself unpacking everything and arranging his little area of the tent to his liking, no doubt concealing his pornography collection somewhere where I or some innocent clerk will stumble upon it, I went through the slit in the fabric to my quarters.

They were comfortable enough, if sparsely furnished. Of course, the nature of these encampments is that they’re designed to be temporary, so everything was constructed to be able to be folded away and carried easily when the army was to inevitably march into Changeling territory and begin this war in earnest. There was a sizeable cot for me positioned against the far wall, a decently sized wardrobe to be filled with all one of my uniforms, and a smaller writing desk in the corner.

I was grateful for the near solitude, disrupted only by the sounds of Cannon Fodder fiddling with his meagre luggage and exploring the environs of his new office.

As I had discussed with Auntie Luna and as described in the accompanying guidelines, this job was to have a lot of paperwork. I was to be singularly responsible for the discipline and emotional well-being of nine hundred stallions and mares. As I have learned through my previous employment in the War Ministry one can’t so much as cough in the Royal Guard without having half a dozen forms shoved under one’s nose to be signed in triplicate and sent back to the Ministry for processing, only for it to be lost, filed in the wrong place, or accidently immolated.

That was why I had elected to bring Cannon Fodder. His nigh-supernatural ability to process large amounts of paperwork effectively and accurately, probably due to his literal-minded personality and tendency to obey all of my orders as if Princess Celestia herself flew down from on high and delivered them, helped alleviate much of the burden on me. His offensive smell and slovenly appearance coupled with his dull personality ensured that only ponies with truly important things came to me.

I levitated my trunk over from where Cannon Fodder had unceremoniously dropped it off in the corner. Given our proximity to the frontlines I had elected to travel light, bringing only things that could be replaced or I wouldn’t mind missing if Changelings had burst into our encampment and, for some reason, decided to burn down my tent. Most of my possessions were irreplaceable; nobility does not buy new things, but instead we tend to inherit our possessions. My estate, for example, and most of its contents has been in my family for over a millennium. The only things I possessed that could truly be considered mine were my clothes; as much as I enjoy the time honoured traditions of inheritance I didn’t fancy wearing something that my great-great-great-great-grandfather died in.

I popped the trunk on the cot and opened it, levitating out a few books on Equestrian military history onto the desk along with my writing equipment and a handful of random trinkets I had some emotional attachment too.

There was a blue bow-tie. A rather silly little old thing, but it was something that my Auntie Celestia had given to me when I finally graduated from her School for Gifted Unicorns. I put it on nevertheless, supplementing my rather sombre uniform with a dash of bright colour and class. I also found a rose, preserved forever with a magical enchantment to never wilt and die. It was the one that Rarity had picked out for me at the Grand Galloping Gala [Rarity describes this event in rather different terms]. I still thought of that mare, and I realised at that point that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her before Auntie Luna unceremoniously threw me on a train. Compelled by some similar sense of sentimentality I secured the rose to my lapel.

It was already starting to grow dark, as the train journey here had taken up the bulk of the day. I was feeling weary and exhausted in the only way an extended period of sitting down doing nothing can be. There was nothing more I wanted to do than lie back on my cot with a good book and a bottle of fine wine to wile the evening away, alas, that was not to be.

As I had finished arranging the various items on my desk, the sudden stench of body odour alerted me to Cannon Fodder’s arrival in my half of the tent.

“Sir, there’s somepony to see you,” he said, before pulling back through the partition.

I sighed, looks like I wasn’t going to get a moment’s rest after all, so I reluctantly followed my esteemed aide out into the front office area of the tent.

Standing by the desk was a unicorn stallion I hadn’t seen for at least five years.

“Crimson Arrow!” I said.

We had gone through officer training together and then served side-by-side in the 1st Royal Guard regiment. His deferential nature to me and eagerness to please his social betters was naturally endearing, though I have to admit I may have abused our friendship to gain certain favours or avoid performing duties I didn’t like.

He was of decidedly average build; his fur dyed a pure white just like the majority of the unicorns in the Solar Guard, and he bore a constant friendly expression that reminded me of an overly excited puppy. Then I noticed his uniform, it was the crimson tunic of an officer’s dress uniform, but the gold braid and metal pips along his collar marked him out as an officer of the general staff.

“It’s General Crimson Arrow now,” he said, still with that friendly grin on his face.

“Whoops, so you are,” I said jokingly, before snapping to attention and performing a curt salute.

Crimson Arrow’s grin only grew wider, “Bah, no need for that, technically I should still be bowing to you, Your Highness.”

“A general, how the bloody hell did they let you become a general?”

He tilted his head to one side curiously, “Oh, it’s not that hard to believe, I had the right connections and enough money to buy my way up the ranks. It’s a shame you left when your four years of service was up, you could have been Field Marshal by now.”

Ah, the usual mix of nepotism and money then.

I had to admit that ‘Field Marshal Blueblood’ had a nice ring to it, and the uniform did look nice, but I had enough of life in the Royal Guard and wanted to get back to my usual routine of doing precisely sod all in complete and total safety. But, as I had just recently learned, once the Royal Guard get their hooks in you they’ll always find a way of dragging you back.

“Anyway,” he continued, “Field Marshal Iron Hoof is hosting a small dinner party for the senior officers of Army Group Centre, so when I learned that my old buddy Blueblood was here I insisted you be invited.”

A dinner party with the Field Marshal? I couldn’t possibly turn that down; perhaps all I really needed after the past few days’ nonsense was to engage in the one thing I’ve been any good at – hobnobbing with my fellow aristocrats and high borns.

I instructed Cannon Fodder to hold the fort here, and after a brief explanation that it was only a saying and I didn’t want him to literally hold the encampment he nodded blankly and got back to work arranging his desk to his liking.

The Field Marshal had sequestered himself and the general staff of Army Group Centre in the town hall, having evicted the mayor and the town officials to make room for his own administrative team and commanders, which effectively put the whole town under martial law. It was quite some distance away in the centre of town, but the long walk allowed Crimson Arrow and me to catch up on lost time.

It seemed that Crimson Arrow had done pretty well for himself; his position in the Royal Guard had afforded his aristocratic family a great deal more pride and glory, elevating the Arrow estate from a minor family with little influence to one that was greatly expected among the Royal Court of Canterlot. They were an influential family which owed its success to me, in some convoluted way that, thankfully, Crimson Arrow wholeheartedly believed in. Subsequently, having the support of this now influential family would do wonders for my own standing back home, assuming I would ever survive for long enough to return to Canterlot.

Inevitably our chat turned back towards our time together in the Royal Guard. We laughed as we exchanged old anecdotes and memories of the not-strictly legal things we both got up to during our term of service. This, you see, was when the officer corps of the Royal Guard was nothing more than an institutionalised gentlecolt’s club masquerading as a military force. There was the time we sneaked into the 2nd Solar Guard Regiment’s barracks and stole all of Major Star’s medals.

“I wonder what happened to Stiff Upper Lip,” I asked as we finally reached the town.

“Dead,” he replied, “he led a charge into an erupting volcano.”

There was a rather awkward silence as I pondered the passing of one of the foremost and most insane minds in Equestrian military history.

“It’s what he would have wanted.”

It was pitch black by the time we reached the town hall. With a mandatory curfew in effect there was nopony out in the streets save for a few of the local militia standing guard and doing their hardest to look intimidating with their silly Stetson hats and home-made spears. [On the contrary, the Dodge Junction Militia has proven to be a rather effective civilian army. As a frontier town they are already experienced in defending their homes and livelihoods from hostile raids. Like many in the Royal Guard, Blueblood is rather dismissive of the civilian militias.]

Much like the other town houses and shops here, the town hall was a dilapidated old thing constructed with no regard to aesthetics or permanence. It was crafted out of wood and looked as if it was about ready to collapse. Overall it was a depressing affair, but still it was the largest single building and the inbred yokels who inhabited this town were probably rather proud of it. As Fancy Pants might have put it, it was ‘delightfully rustic’.

I was grateful to get inside though, and I was pleasantly surprised by the interior decor. Granted, it wasn’t anything on par with the grand ballrooms and estates of Canterlot that I was used to, but after that train ride and my time seeing nothing but tents in the encampment, some small amount of luxury was more than welcome. What was once the main meeting hall was repurposed into a war room which, in turn, was repurposed to a dining room for the dinner party.

A massive oak table dominated the chamber, upon which a large piece of fabric probably once used as part of a circus tent was draped in lieu of a table cloth. Plates and utensils had been set out, naturally, but the centrepiece of the whole ensemble was a small marble statuette of Princess Celestia standing triumphant over a beaten and cowering Changeling Queen. Apparently everypony here was absolutely confident of our victory, I, on the other hand, was rather more cautious about declaring our invasion a success before we’d even set foot in the Badlands.

The bare and barren walls of the chamber had been tastefully adorned with tapestries and banners of the regiments of Army Group Centre. I noticed how the 1st Night Guard’s dark and foreboding regimental standard stood out from the bright and colourful banners of the other regiments. For starters it was black, with a pale crescent moon tipped on his back and flanked by a set of pegasus wings, and the slogan ‘Virtutis Gloria Merces’ [‘Glory is the reward of valour’ in Ancient Equestrian] emblazoned upon it.

The senior officers of the three Solar Guard regiments plus the artillery regiment were already there, mingling amicably along to a pleasant soundtrack provided by a gramophone in the corner of the room. My hooves clopped loudly on the polished wooden floor as I stepped inside, and the idle chatter ceased.

Crimson Arrow stomped his hoof thrice and announced, “May I present His Royal Highness Prince Blueblood, and Royal Commissar to the 1st Night Guards Regiment.”

I puffed out my chest proudly and stood as regally impressive as I could. The effect was instantaneous, despite the grim uniform I was wearing, and the officers bowed or dipped their head down towards me. All of them bar one; standing in the corner of the room was a thin, wiry stallion of middle age. He wore the crimson of the Royal Guard dress uniform, but the white sashes and gold braid marked him out as Field Marshal: the supreme commander of Their Highnesses’ Armed Forces. His expression, from what could be seen behind his impressively enormous handlebar moustache was stern and emotionless, his eyes, however, were fixed upon me; judging and analysing me. I suppressed an involuntary shudder when I momentarily made contact with those intense, cold, blue eyes.

“Field Marshal, I assume,” I said finally, trying to diffuse the slight anxiety welling up within me. I saluted anyway.

The stallion nodded, “I am Iron Hoof,” he said in a refined Trottingham accent. “You must be this Blueblood fellow I’ve heard so much about, good show.”

There was something about that stallion’s character I found to be rather chilling. I couldn’t place my hoof on it at the time, and I had yet to learn that my gut instinct has the nasty habit of being right. Therefore I tried to push it out of my mind and slip once more into my refined dinner party persona that I had spent a lifetime cultivating.

I was in my element amidst the rarefied company of my fellow upper class ponies. Here was a society of elites, bound by the innumerable social laws that kept everything orderly and refined. There were no true friends here, however, merely tools to advance one’s social ambitions. Crimson Arrow, for example, in my tour of duty in the 1st Solar Guard I took him under my metaphorical wing and nurtured his family into one with considerable political clout, therefore he was beholden to me for his increased prestige and I could rely on his grateful support in future. In the facile parlance of modern middle management, it was time to ‘network’.

Unfortunately we had arrived rather late and there was no time for mingling. A bell was rung and we took to our seats, while servants, presumably in Iron Hoof’s employ, streamed through the door to serve dinner. They bore silver platters, upon which were a wide variety of fine foods and culinary delights – finest hay from the golden fields of the Mid-West Equestria, cherries from the cherry fields near Dodge Junction, apples from Sweet Apple Acres, and I even spied exotic guavas and kiwis imported from darkest Zebrica.

I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this wealth and opulence was appropriate in this state of total war. Granted I am the last pony to be preaching on the virtues of temperance, having recently just bought a solid gold statue of myself for my front lawn but in my defence at the time of writing this we are no longer fighting for our very survival.

At this stage in the war, the very early stage before we had even fought our first battle, it hadn’t quite sunk into our collective psyche just what total war means. For many of us, our only frames of reference were adventure stories written about the ancient wars of old Equestria or ancient texts. I had some inkling, but it was motivated by my primal need to stay alive and the vague feeling that wars are generally a bad thing.

I took my seat in the corner, next to Crimson Arrow on my left and Iron Hoof who sat at the head of the table. Opposite me was a young earth pony mare in an ill-fitting crimson dress uniform, judging by the rank pips on her shoulder straps she was a Captain in the 5th Solar Guard Regiment. Beside the mare, and diagonally left to me, was an older stallion of fine aristocratic breeding (i.e. inbred to the point of idiocy) whose rank pips signified him as the Captain’s commanding officer.

As we tucked into the first course of fruit salad, which was delectable as expected, I briefly glanced around the table to notice that a set of rather important ponies were missing.

“Are Colonel Sunshine Smiles and the others not joining us then?” I asked Crimson Arrow as the servants began clearing the dishes away and bringing in the main course of finest sun-dried hay.

“Oh, they never attend these social functions,” said Crimson Arrow, his mouth salivating a little as a plate of fresh hay was placed on the table before him. “We only ever see them during staff meetings, strictly business and no fun at all.”

“Besides,” the mare opposite me piped up suddenly, her voice cheery but refined, “could you just imagine what those ruffians would be like here? They clearly don’t belong.”

I tilted my head to one side curiously, idly curling some hay about my fork in the graceful manner taught to me by my regal Aunt. “Do you not send them invitations?”

“Oh we send them invitations alright,” she said, tossing her luxuriously blonde mane out of her eyes. “But we make it clear that they’re not welcome here.”

Arching an eyebrow, I decided it was best not to press further before I become embroiled in the class war brewing in the higher echelons of this army. At any rate, it seemed I was now representing the 1st Night Guard for this and, most likely, any future social events.

“They’re all commoners, you see,” she continued. “I’m sure you recall the last Grand Galloping Gala, how the most important social event of the entire year was ruined by those… those ragamuffins from country.”

“It was hardly their fault,” I said, “you can hardly expect commoners to understand the social mores of high society any more than you can expect a dog to. They were simply taken out of their comfort zone.”

The Captain nodded her head, pushing the hay around on her plate thoughtfully with her fork. “Which is why we can’t allow those brutish Night Guards here, we might be on the same side, dear, but that’s no reason to disregard the traditions of social class – the traditions upon which Equestria is built.”

“I don’t think I caught your name, Captain,” I said, trying to change the subject.

“Royal Lace,” she said, inclining her head towards me. “And I know who you are, Prince Blueblood, I dare say everypony should know Equestria’s premier bachelor.”

Oh dear, she was going to start flirting with me. In any other situation where my life was not in abject peril, and the anxiety of said peril not sitting in my stomach like a lead weight, I’d have happily taken advantage of this young and impressionable mare. The severity of my own situation coupled with my abject confusion over what I was exactly here for had put me off pursuing any such debauchery. Fear for one’s life rather helps put things into perspective, I find, and clarifies the mind greatly.

“Besides,” she continued, elegantly washing her meal down with the fine wine; Chateau le Chateau ’82 vintage if I wasn’t mistaken, “I hear that one of their number is a known criminal.”

“Really?” I leaned forward, for the first time actually interested in what she had to say. I probably should have looked at those briefing papers a little more closely beforehand if one of my colleagues was actually a lawbreaker.

She nodded, “Oh yes, the captain of the Pegasus company, I forget his name.”

“Blitzkrieg.”

“Yes, that’s it, such an ugly name. I heard that he was a gang leader in Trottingham, and when he was finally arrested they gave him a choice of either prison or serving in the Night Guard. I tell you, the Royal Guard is going to the dogs if we’re letting common criminals become officers.”

I nodded my head. From the very first moment I laid eyes upon Blitzkrieg I thought him to be a criminal, while I tend not to associate with the violent underworld hidden beneath some of the more densely populated cities there was an air of fierce menace about him. It wasn’t something I can exactly describe, but it was in his odd feline-like movements and the cold look in his eyes that implied that he had seen and perpetrated some awful things.

“Then there’s their Colonel with the ugly scar,” she rambled on. “There’s a rumour going around...”

“Come now,” said the Colonel next to her, thankfully interrupting her small rant, “it’s not nice to gossip about others.”

“Oh what utter rot, they’re only commoners, sir, these are the sort of ponies who eat fritters and hay fries and watch hoofball,” she said dismissively. The Colonel, rather than disciplining his young and naive subordinate, turned his attention back to the pony opposite him and continued their thrilling debate about cricket.

“Anyway, the Colonel with the ugly scar is rumoured to be ex-Solar Guard and a former noblepony, but something terrible happened and he was given a choice: accept a transfer to the Night Guard or be cashiered.” [Cashiered means an officer is stripped of their commission; since commissions cost a fair bit of money cashiering means the officer in question loses a considerable amount of bits. In theory, this was supposed to ensure that officers perform their role properly]

It made a degree of sense; it explained Smiles’ unusually aristocratic manner and possibly even the hideous scar upon his face. But my duties as Commissar probably involved quashing the spreading of such rumours, though I doubted that they would actually pay attention to any such edict I give out. These officers were already in a world of their own; nice, warm, and safe from the horrors they were about to be immersed into.

I tried to keep the conversation light, inquiring into the young mare’s life and background. She was from Vanhoover on the West Coast of Equestria; a cold and frigid place inhabited by a hardy stock of ponies with peculiar accents, I had the misfortune of visiting there once and I shan’t make that mistake again. Her father, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was Baron Gold Acre, whose noble clan was in a tenuous alliance with mine at the time. He bought her commission into the 5th Solar Guard as a Hearth’s Warming present. Well, I could think of many things which would make more suitable gifts for Hearth’s Warming, but she seemed very happy with it.

As we continued eating and making small talk I felt more and more unease about the luxury around us. My thoughts soon turned to my own life. It was not a matter of if but when we would be sent into battle, to be baptised in the crucible of terrible, bloody war. Everypony else talked about it in animated tones; they were excited, as if a disturbing lust for violence, long repressed, had been awakened from deep within the pony psyche. The sensation of feeling that I was the only sane pony in the room, the only one who felt the true enormity of what we were about to undertake, was disconcerting.

The pony next to her was Colonel Imperial Blue, whom I recognised as being of one of the many offshoots of my own noble clan (the Blood clan). The Blue clan was just as powerful and notable as mine, and in past centuries had alternately been staunch allies and better enemies of the Bloods. In recent years it seems that the Bloods have been superseding their old rivals in terms of prestige, seeing as how we avoided the deleterious practice of inbreeding to preserve bloodlines, thus ensuring that we did not devolve into drooling morons. [Blueblood evidently has never had a close look at his own family tree then] His manner, however, was much like Royal Lace’s with his approach to the war; an almost foal-like enthusiasm for it that, frankly, worried me.

Field Marshal Iron Hoof, on the other hoof, was cold and distant and spoke little of himself. When he did utter phrases of more than three words it was solely on the war. He spoke of strategies in a dull monotone that I absolutely could not follow or pay attention to. Fortunately, I had mastered the practice of pretending to pay attention after many hours spent in dull meetings with bureaucratic officials and Auntie Celestia. It was merely a matter of nodding along and saying ‘how fascinating’ and variants thereof at appropriate points in the ‘conversation’.

The main course came and went, our plates polished clean of the fine hay. With our bellies stuffed full of expensive food we all relaxed, except Iron Hoof who remained as aloof and distant as usual though nopony seemed to particularly mind. Servants produced a crystal glass decanter of port, the dark crimson liquid sloshed in the cut glass receptacle as it was placed down upon the table. As the servant poured out the fine beverage in our glasses, and others gave us a fine chocolate cigar each, I mused that this must have been where all the servants in Canterlot had gone; Iron Hoof had pilfered them all.

Getting more than slightly drunk on fine wine and port, the atmosphere only grew more congenial and relaxed. It was not long before Crimson Arrow and I began regaling everypony else with anecdotes of our time together in the Royal Guard, mainly focusing on old Stiff Upper Lip’s eccentricities, which were rewarded with uproarious laughter. We talked about nothing of any particular worth; things I couldn’t possibly remember now even if I tried. Looking back it just feels so distant; looking back on my past life after all that I have been through and experienced feels like trying to remember a dream – thoughts are unclear and indistinct, swimming together to form merely vague ideas and feelings.

I don’t know whether it was the effect of the alcohol, but I felt I was starting to finally relax after a full night and a day of terror and cloying anxiety. I was even enjoying myself. This was a return to my old life; a life of luxury where the biggest threat to me was a simple social faux pas that could easily be amended by appearing at an appropriate charity or benefit event. It was a good life; filled with good food, good wine, expensive things, and good company. Well, perhaps not the last one so much, but the fawning adulation of lesser nobles was sufficient enough for me, if a little lonely.

Yet there was still the nagging feeling that this was merely temporary. Even through the slight haze of intoxication I knew that in the morning I would be sober, probably with a slight hangover, and there would still be a war on. No amount of alcohol and fine food and empty platitudes would change that fact.

So I left feeling rather empty. We walked back together and continued our banter, though we left Iron Hoof in the town hall.

The night was eerily beautiful. Out here, in the back end of nowhere where even streetlights are considered an expensive extravagance, the full glory of Auntie Luna’s night sky was made evident. The moon shone its baleful yellow glow down upon us, while billions upon billions of stars formed a glorious mosaic above us. I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole Nightmare Moon incident one thousand years ago could have been avoided if ponies had bothered just to look up once in a while, then again Luna was a relative teenager at the time and ponies of that stage of development tend to have their own unique, selfish view of reality.

We said our goodbyes and parted, making assurances that we ‘must do this again sometime’. Again, my sudden maudlin mood swing was probably just a result of the alcohol coursing through my veins, but I was feeling rather dejected as I picked my way around the sleeping guardsponies curled up on sleeping mats on the ground. In the grim moonlight they looked disturbingly like corpses, if corpses could snore.

After navigating my way around the sleeping ponies I reached my tent with little difficulty, except for one Night Guard who suddenly embraced my hind leg and wouldn’t let go until I kicked him awake. He apologised profusely when he recognised the menacing skull upon my cap and did his best to return to slumber, most likely doing so with one eye open from now on.

There was a warm, welcoming orange glow in my tent, which made the various objects inside cast black silhouettes upon the beige fabric like a Neighponese shadow puppet show. I could see two figures sitting together, one of them probably Cannon Fodder by the silhouette of his grubby uniform and peculiarly malformed crest upon his helm, and the other a Night Guard judging by the creepy dorsal fin in lieu of a Solar Guard’s crest.

I pushed my way through the flap into my tent, rather curious as to what was so important as to disturb Cannon Fodder during lights out. I also pondered the wisdom of using candles in a tent made entirely of flammable material, but then I realised that Cannon Fodder, being a Blank, has no magical ability whatsoever and therefore cannot summon even the simplest of light spells.

Cannon Fodder was sitting on his haunches upon the floor next to Colonel Sunshine Smiles. The two were in the middle of a friendly conversation when I blundered inside.

“…so the doctor said I’ll never be able to use my horn ever,” said Cannon Fodder, apparently explaining his entire life story to the Colonel who, against all reason, didn’t look like he wanted to end his life then and there. “They even said I should get it removed and live the rest of my life like an earth pony, but it just didn’t seem right.”

“Nothing wrong with being an earth pony, is there?” said Sunshine Smiles, his friendly grin made hideous by that malformed scar.

“Can I help you, Colonel?” I asked, noticing for the first time that my words were slurring together clumsily. I must have been a little more drunk than I first realised.

“No, no,” he said as he slowly stood up, “I was just having a nice chat with your assistant here, very interesting.”

Cannon Fodder smiled at the praise and nodded his head gratefully, while I blinked gormlessly; ‘very interesting’ is not a phrase that’s readily applicable to the quiet and thoroughly unimaginative colt here. Indeed, I selected him as my aide for those two precise reasons, among others such as his ability to soak up powerful magics like a sponge.

Sunshine sniffed at the air, “Chateau le Chateau wine, my, you have been having a good time, Blueblood.”

I arched an eyebrow, or rather I tried to. Given my slight intoxication it was a rather difficult gesture to do. The Colonel was full of surprises; not only did he have the necessary intelligence and education to understand and use the word ‘sanguine’, he was apparently enough of a wine connoisseur to tell what wine I had been imbibing through scent alone. Or perhaps I was so liquored up that I practically reeked of the stuff, far more than Cannon Fodder does of his usual dirt-induced fragrance.

“You should have come with us,” I said, taking my cap off and placing it on the desk. A quick glance at the clock there showed that it was approaching midnight.

He shook his head in response, “No, no, I know I’m not welcome there anymore,” he said somewhat forlornly. “You want to know how I got it?”

I blinked, “Pardon?”

“My scar.”

I hadn’t realised I had been staring at it. I flushed a little with embarrassment at having been caught in such an act of discourtesy, but then it was rather hard not to stare at the puckered, damaged tissue that ruined what might have been a handsome face at one point.

“Shaving accident?” I said and instantly regretted saying it. I cringed and looked away, expecting a slap or some torrent of abuse. Instead, the Colonel merely smiled back; a genuine smile that still looked rather sardonic thanks to the scar.

“That’s it, I cut myself shaving,” he said amicably with a slight, albeit forced, chuckle. He patted me on the shoulder as he made to leave, “Good night, Prince.”

He then left, leaving me and Cannon Fodder alone in the tent. My aide crawled onto his sleeping mat and fell asleep almost instantly. I, on the other hoof, found sleep rather more elusive. It might have been the alcohol muddying up my sleep cycle, or the constant, unending anxiety that kept my brain turning when it should be resting.

There was a known criminal and fallen noblepony leading the regiment and me; a useless, talentless, cowardly hack who once accidently saved the day once while trying to run away. With that combination of inspired leadership I didn’t have much hope for the future of the 1st Night Guard regiment. In fact, I didn’t have much hope for the future of the entire Royal Guard itself. I didn’t know much about the average soldier, but on the whole they appeared to be well-drilled, well-equipped, and well-trained, but their leaders were an unknown quantity. At the dinner party I saw an officer class that was wholly inept and even unconcerned about the business of leadership; to them war was a game, and they were unaware, as I was, of the brutally high stakes that were to come. They existed in blissful ignorance and I envied them. It was a formula for military disaster; one didn’t have to be Neighpoleon to understand that.

Sleep that night, when it did eventually come, was restless.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
PreviousChapters Next
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!