• Published 3rd Nov 2012
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In Their Highnesses' Clandestine Corps - AugieDog



The name's Blueblood. Prince Blueblood.

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Act I - The Stallion with the Gold Horn

"At last!" Green Briar's whinnies echoed off the polished steel walls of the egg-shaped room. "The symbol of all that's wrong with modern Equestria lies helpless before me! And yes, you may have stopped my previous attempts to reignite the primal magic we unicorns are heir to, Double-O-Zeta! But now that my researches have shown me the proper way, I'll bounce my theory off you—quite literally—till you confirm it!" His eyes bulged from his pale-yellow face, his odd golden horn twinkling. "Then the world will again be as it ought!"

The tingle around Blueblood's fetlocks and horn tightened as Green Briar's spell pulled him even flatter against the stone slab, but the prince refused to acknowledge his discomfort. "You're ruining my tuxedo, you know," he drawled in the lazy voice he spent several hours every day practicing. "Not to mention all this ranting. I mean, do you even know what you're talking about anymore?"

Nostrils flaring, Green Briar lurched a step closer, his horn sparking more violently. "And do you have any idea how extraordinarily annoying you are?!" Little flecks of spittle sprayed from the corners of his mouth. "Believe me, your Highness, before this night is done, you'll be begging to give me the information I want!"

Blueblood sniffed. "Surely you don't expect me to talk to somepony as common as you?"

"No?" The air around them began to hum, tiny lightning bolts arcing back and forth between the tip of Green Briar's horn and its base. "Never mind, then! I'll simply slice you in half like an overripe casaba melon! That ought to give me answers enough for now!" More and more lightning flashed till it became a jagged cloud roiling above Green Briar's forehead, and Blueblood couldn't help but wonder if he might have miscalculated a bit.

A smoky scent tickled his nose, though, and he turned his face away just as the explosives he'd planted in the crawlspace earlier finally went off, part of the wall blasting into a stinging spray of metal dust. It smashed Green Briar sideways, the glow puffing from his horn, and the various spots of fire that held Blueblood in place sputtered out like candles in the rain. He rolled to the floor, lashed out with his hind legs, and winced at the solid thump of his hoofs hitting the other unicorn. All the unpleasant things he was constantly being asked to touch during these little escapades for his aunt!

Something in the walls started whining: magical circuits overloading, no doubt, in the various odd pieces of equipment Green Briar always had tucked away. Blueblood had learned from their previous encounters that this meant it was time to leave, so racing out the doorway, he sprinted down the circular staircase, the whole tower shaking now under the onslaught of the explosions rumbling everywhere.

Gritting his teeth at the realization that a civilized descent was out of the question at this point, he rammed his shoulder against the first window he came to, hitting it again and again and again till cracks spiderwebbed across the glass and it shattered outward. Without a second thought, he leaped into the empty midnight air as the rumbles all around built into a roar, fire flooding down the stairway behind him.

A snap of his teeth at the third button along his vest set the framework expanding inside his tuxedo jacket, a mechanism of some sort that was supposed to be unaffected by the magic-dampening field Green Briar had wrapped around his workshop. But when the hang glider's wings actually unfolded along Blueblood's back—and just as smoothly as when that unkempt little minion of Aunt Celestia's had demonstrated it to him, too—his surprise nearly made him forget to pull out of his dive. Auntie would never send him into the field with defective equipment, of course, but who would've thought something built by earth ponies would actually function?

Extending his front legs and bending his spine, he aimed for the stars, the lights of Canterlot shining atop the ridge to the east. A glance over his shoulder showed him flames engulfing the tower he'd just left, but then this wasn't the first time he'd watched one of Green Briar's labs burn. Still, he found himself hoping against hope that this time, the plebeian unicorn would finally have the decency to die.

Dust in his hair and the stink of burning machinery in his nostrils, Blueblood angled the glider to catch the heated air and left the conflagration behind.

***

"Boring!" The moan woke Rainbow Dash from her after lunch doze and made her blink at the little curl of cloud floating beside the one she was sprawled over.

Something squished below her, and Apple Bloom's unmistakable twang rang out: "Hey!"

"Scootaloo!" came Sweetie Belle's voice, sharp as an arrow. "Rarity says that when you're a spa worker, you're s'pposed to spread the mud all gentle over the client's face, not make it into a ball and throw it at her!"

"You mean ev'rything about this job's s'pposed to be dull as dirt? 'Cause that's all mud is if it isn't a mudball, y'know! Just boring ol' dirt!"

"What?!" Rainbow Dash managed a pretty decent cry of outrage, she thought. Flipping backwards off the cloud, she swirled a quick spiral down to land on the stream bank, and the surprised happiness on the girls' faces—especially the huge smile stretching across Scootaloo's snout—got her grinning. "Nothing's boring when Rainbow Dash's around!"

Scootaloo sagged. "Well, yeah, but—" She dipped her hoof into a bucket of mud Dash figured they must've scooped from the streambed, Apple Bloom sitting next to it with a bib around her neck and half her face coated with brown goo. "What's exciting about this?"

Sweetie Belle gave a stomp. "Rarity says it exfoliates, detoxifies, relieves stress, and—!"

"Kid?" Dash tapped Sweetie's horn. "Your sister's one of the best ponies I've ever known, and if it wasn't for her, I would definitely not be here right now. But the way she looks at mud, and the way I look at mud?" Dash put one hoof under Scootaloo's arm to steady it and whirled the other hoof faster and faster around the mud the little pegasus was holding. Fluttering her wings just enough to set up the cross current she needed, she focused her attention and began pulling a tiny mud tornado into the air. "Two totally different things."

Letting the twister grow another inch higher, she felt the balance of moisture and silt shift till it was right where she wanted it. Then slamming her hoof down, she cracked the quick-dried clay coating, let the wind from her wings puff the dust away, and grinned even harder at the stunned gasps of the fillies, staring at the cone of rainbow wavering in the air. "'Cause, yeah," she said into the sudden silence. "Mudballs are great. But why settle for that when you can whip up a mudbow?"

"Wow," they breathed in unison, then they were bouncing around her, their voices running together: "How d'you do that?!" "Where'd the mud go?" "It...it's just hanging there all swirly!"

Dash fluffed her wings. "A little water, a little sunlight, and that special Rainbow Dash magic can make anything cool." A quick breath spattered the rainbow into colored shards and scattered them into sparks like tiny fireworks. "Once you learn that, the rest comes pretty easy."

***

"I tell you, Chives!" Blueblood threw himself back onto the chaise lounge in his dressing chamber, the familiar silky smoothness of the smoking jacket against his hide taking a bit of the edge off his anger. "It was absolutely abominable!"

"Of course, sir." His brownish-orange earth pony valet was laying out his evening clothes, the words emerging crisp and clear despite the lint brush in his mouth. "I honestly don't see how you can continue taking these assignments."

"Well, if Aunt Celestia would learn to manage these sorts of things without me, I'd happily be done with this nonsense!" He shuddered. "The dirt in that hovel of Green Briar's! I spent two hours in the bath this morning, Chives—two hours!—and I swear it's still with me!" He pressed a foreleg to his snout and sniffed, sure he could sense some horrible mustiness lurking behind the jasmine and talc mixture he'd had Chives lace his bathwater with. "But never again!" Leaping to his hoofs, he struck a dramatic pose, cocking his head to check his profile in the nearest of the several full-length mirrors he kept around his rooms for just that purpose. "I shall attend this afternoon's debriefing, report that Green Briar is dead, request a congratulatory leave of absence, and head out to supper and the theater while you draft my letter resigning from the CC! Simple! Direct! Tidy!" He tapped the carpet once for each word. "And I shall be well and truly quit of Her Highness's Clandestine Corps!"

"Their Highnesses' Clandestine Corps, your Highness means, of course."

"What?" If Chives had one fault—and he exercised it so rarely, Blueblood tended to forget about it till it reared its ugly head—it was his tendency to say things that didn't quite make sense. "What are you on about now?"

Chives cleared his throat and gestured toward the desk by the dressing chamber door. "As I mentioned when you emerged from the bath, sir, a dossier arrived."

"Dossier?!" Striding to the table, Blueblood sent his magic out to open the cream-colored folder lying there, a single sheet of paper within. "It says I'm to report to headquarters for debriefing." He narrowed his mouth, knowing all too well that it gave him wrinkles but too annoyed to care overly much. "See?! She treats me like a child! Did I not finish my mission last night? Where else, therefore, would I go today but to the debriefing?!"

"Indeed, sir. But if I might direct your attention to the dossier's cover?"

Blueblood slapped the thing back onto the table and saw that the usual HHCC stamp on the front had been replaced by one with THCC on it, the delicate lettering around the stamp's edge definitely spelling out Their Highnesses' rather than Her Highness's.

Taking a breath, Blueblood expelled it. "I hate mysteries. Did you know that, Chives?"

"I was aware of the fact, sir."

"Then stand aside!" One blast of magic tossed his smoking jacket to its hook on the bathroom door while another spun his white tie, ruffled shirt, and black swallow-tailed coat into place around him. "I shall have some answers from Aunt Celestia!"

***

One more turn along the edge of the Everfree, Dash figured, and she'd be all limbered up for her afternoon practice runs. Besides, with the autumn sun as warm and crisp as one of Pinkie's big sugar cookies, the air soft and smooth and just right for flying, it was her favorite time of the year to stretch her wings over the big, wild woods.

Because while the rest of Equestria'd already had Nightmare Night and the Running of the Leaves and was rolling steadily on toward the first snowfall and Hearth's Warming Eve, the Everfree just plain wasn't. And sure, the way the forest here did whatever it wanted to usually made Dash more than a little twitchy—a bunch of its trees still showed green even now!—but the weird summery days that sometimes hung around halfway through fall were just plain perfect for perfecting her moves.

An acrid, mediciney stink jabbed her nose, movement below catching her eye as she whisked past: a lone pony in a long cloak straining to pull a wagon over the lumpy grass, then slipping, falling, a little gasp hissing up to Dash's ears. Back-winging, she banked, looped around, and settled to the ground beside the cart. "You OK, buddy?"

The stallion was struggling to his hoofs, and while he wasn't as big as most of the guys around Ponyville, he was still bigger than her. "Relatively speaking," he said, the hood of his cloak muffling his already soft voice. He turned to face her, and Dash kept herself from flinching by sheer willpower. He was completely wrapped in white cloth bandages under his cloak, only the golden horn spiraling up from his forehead uncovered, his eyes too shaded for her to make out their color. "And thank you for asking."

"You, uhh..." She didn't want to intrude or anything, but how could she not check? "You need any help with that thing?" She flapped her wings and gave a little laugh. "I mean, not from me, but I've got a couple burly earth pony friends who run a farm just down the—"

"Thank you again, young lady, but the pain potion I've taken will be wearing off in approximately thirty-five minutes." Light wavered from his horn. "I hope to have reached my destination within the forest by then, so unless you've got your friends hidden somewhere about your person and can produce them forthwith..."

Dash couldn't help another laugh. Sure, the way the guy was slurring his words and the liniment smell reminded her of ponies she'd visited in the hospital, but he still talked like Twilight at her eggheadiest. "Sorry. But you're on the right track for Zecora's if you're looking for potions." Gesturing with a hoof, she pictured the route from here to there as if she were flying it. "Head due west, and you'll come to the path in, like, fifteen minutes. Turn right, and it'll take you straight to her door maybe ten minutes after that."

The eye holes in his bandages fluttered, and Dash realized the guy was blinking at her. "Do you often appear to strangers in their moments of direst need, miss?"

"Yeah, kind of." Dash shrugged, the old familiar tug of her ego wanting to swell up, but no. After getting kicked in the teeth by Discord and Mare-Do-Well and the near-disaster of raising the lake water to Cloudsdale, she'd been keeping extra-careful watch on her boastfulness. "Name's Rainbow Dash, and I've had friends who've been all bandaged up like that." She shook her head. "Lightning burns're pretty much a regular hazard in the weather business, y'know?"

"I suppose so." His eye holes fluttered some more.

"Oh, but hey." Dash leaped into a hover. "You're in a hurry, so good luck with Zecora and ev'rything, OK?"

"I..." His voice trailed off, and he shook himself like he was coming awake. "Yes. I'll say thank you once more, then, and bid you good day."

Dash nodded and shot into the sky, wings pumping to get her back to training speed.

The cloaked stallion watched her go. "Rainbow Dash," he muttered. Aiming the glow of his golden horn at the cart's wheels, he set them in motion again and guided it up the hill into the shadows of the Everfree Forest.

***

"Put it on my account," Blueblood told the cabby. Hopping from the carriage, he strode across the plaza toward the gates of Canterlot Tower, and yes, it was only perhaps half a block from Hippocras, the estate his family had maintained in town for hundreds of generations. But traveling by cab meant he could avoid—

"Bluey!" rang out a female voice, pitched high enough to make his ears fold. "There you are!" The milling crowds—tourists taking photos and gawking at Auntie's fabled palace; tradesponies scurrying past on whatever mundane deeds absorbed their humdrum lives; a few of the lesser nobility skulking about, no doubt trying to scrounge a dinner invitation—they parted as if they'd been practicing the maneuver for days, and a dusky-pink unicorn mare trotted through the open space toward him. "It's been weeks, darling! Where have you been hiding yourself?"

As tall and slender as they all seemed to be these days, she could've been anypony, her shining silver mane cascading like mother-of-pearl around her horn and falling over one eye in exactly the current fashion. Blueblood didn't even try to stifle his sigh. "You might at least attempt to get your facts straight. I've been out of town exactly ten days. Now if you'll excuse me—"

"Ten days?" Reaching him, she struck a pose on the sidewalk, her front legs slightly crossed at the ankles, her hips slightly cantilevered, her chin slightly lowered, and her eyes slightly raised. She was nicely shaped, certainly, but no more so than any of the others who threw themselves into his path wherever he went. "It felt like ages!" She batted her lashes and pouted. "I was afraid you were avoiding me!"

The pout almost seemed familiar, and for a moment, he thought he could picture a love seat in the darkened parlor of some lavish apartment somewhere. But, well, there'd been so many of those... He cleared his throat. "Certain of us work for a living is the thing." He stepped around her. "Now, be a good girl and run along."

"Bluey?"

There'd been so many female voices saying his name with exactly that intonation, too, a wounded sort of disbelief that brought another sigh to his lips. "Try not to make a scene," he murmured, neither turning around nor stopping; moving through the palace gate, he trusted that the guards could keep out all unauthorized and unwelcome visitors without subjecting him to any further awkwardness...

Along the marble hallways and carpeted passages, he finally pushed through the nondescript door just off the third-floor landing of the Tower's easternmost staircase, magically whisked his opera hat across to its usual hook, and winked at Auntie's confidential secretary. "Afternoon, Miss Hyacinth."

Seated behind her desk, she didn't wink back, but then she never did. This time, though, she glanced at the watch dangling from her slender fetlock. "I was asked to inform your Highness that you are late: eighteen minutes at this point, to be precise." She focused on her typewriter again, the glow of her horn making the keys dance. "You're to go in as soon as you arrive."

"Is that a fact?" He leaned sideways against the front of the desk and gave her his most rakish raised eyebrow. "Auntie's got a new grandfather clock, has she?"

The smile that Hyacinth turned up at him had altogether too many teeth in it. Blueblood blinked, and she gestured toward the door into Aunt Celestia's office. "We've had a number of interesting changes around here this past week, Double-O-Zeta. Believe me, you do not want to keep her Highness waiting." She chuckled, something that, till that very moment, Blueblood would've sworn the lime-green unicorn was incapable of doing.

Odd. Still, squaring his shoulders, he stepped to the doors, shoved them open, and began: "Now see here, Auntie!"

But he stopped, the place all shadows where he normally had to squint a bit at the concentrated sunshine Aunt Celestia emitted when in any space smaller than, say, the palace throne room. Blinking, he saw the shadows shift, something like a flow of moonlight washing over the desk at the far end of the room. Dark eyes opened beneath the silver swirl, and Blueblood realized it was not Auntie seated there.

"Princess Luna?" he asked, completely unable to keep the astonishment out of his voice.

"Ah, Prince Blueblood." She sounded like she looked: dark and smoky and as serious as a sleepless winter midnight. Blackish-purple energy flowed from her horn, a silver satin sofa springing from the floor like an oversized mushroom. "Please come in and have a seat. We've much to discuss."

***

Eyes closed, floating upside-down, stroking her wings just enough to keep herself airborne, Dash drew in a deep, perfect breath, all her muscles loose and relaxed. Everything had come together better than any dream—the wind, the humidity, the pressure gradients—and she'd stormed through a routine that would've had the Wonderbolts on their knees, begging her to join.

Picturing the scene gave her a quiet chuckle, but a rumble from her middle pushed away every thought but cookies and dinner, and in that order, too. Because the best thing about being out on her own—she'd almost thought 'being an adult,' but she was pretty sure it'd be a long time before anypony'd be calling her that—the thing that made her spin a slow, lazy loop-de-loop right then and there, was eating dessert first.

Still not opening her eyes, she sucked in another big lungful of air through her nostrils, sifting the scents: all spicy and weird from the Everfree to her right; all wood smoke and cider from Sweet Apple Acres behind her; all alfalfa and damp fur ahead—must be bath day at Fluttershy's. And to her left, oh, to her left...

Ponyville pulled at her in ways even Cloudsdale never had, in ways no place in all of Equestria ever would. This was her town, from the top of City Hall to the bottom of Applejack's cellar, and drifting over onto her side, she let her eyes slide open, a grin on her muzzle at the shops and houses, the parks and the river, the whole place drenched in late autumn sunlight from a sky as clear as she knew how to make it. And right in the middle—

She dug at the air, spun, and swooped across the city limits just above the rooflines with enough speed to bend the bare treetops toward her but not enough to break a single twig. The town square flashed toward her, and she bent her wings into a much tighter loop than earlier—folks were watching her now, after all—let herself stall out at the top, and dropped in a series of flips and twirls smack-dab onto the doorstep at Sugar Cube Corner, the late afternoon sun casting her shadow all the way up the street and practically to the library.

Ruffling her feathers, she grinned over her shoulder at the scattered whoops and applause. But no, she wasn't going to let how incredibly awesome she was go to her head anymore. So she just nodded instead of making a big show out of it, then stepped into the bakery, closed her eyes again, and let the smells of warm butter and cinnamon wash over her.

A laugh tinkled like silver bells from ahead. "No sweeter scents, I think, exist," a lilting voice said, "than these, so spiced and sugar-kissed."

Dash opened her eyes and blinked at the smiling zebra, her saddlebags bulging with pink pastry boxes. "Oh, hey, Zecora. That guy find you earlier OK?"

Zecora cocked her head. "I've not had any visitors come up my path or tap my doors."

"What?" Dash's mane prickled. "I met a unicorn three, maybe four hours ago all wrapped in bandages and smelling like he was burned pretty bad. He was hauling a cart into the Everfree about halfway between town and Applejack's place."

"He didn't seek me out, I fear." Zecora's frown made her look even scarier than usual. "You're sure he wasn't heading here?"

"No! He said—" Dash stopped. "Huh. Y'know, he didn't actually say he was looking for you. I just guessed it when he said he was taking potions for the pain." The prickle along her spine got bigger, and she stomped the floor. "I knew I should've gone with him!"

She turned for the door, but a hoof on her shoulder stopped her. "The sun will set within the hour and make those woods too dark to scour."

"But—!"

"So let me search in my own way." Zecora tapped her snout. "I'll find this pony gone astray."

"You're sure? I mean, I can totally help if you—"

"Dashie!" Pinkie came bounding from the kitchen. "I thought it was you here talking 'cause it's just about time for you to be here talking, and look! Here you are! Talking!" She whirled, vanished into the kitchen again, then came streaking out, a glorious aroma drifting up from the tray balanced across her back. "And 'cause I knew you were coming, I made up a batch of your favorite blueberry and banana chip cookies!"

The growl from Dash's stomach hit her so hard, she felt it down to her knees, and she couldn't stop a blush at Zecora's little laugh. "While you relax, I'll seek our steed and call you in if I have need."

"Well, OK." Somehow, Dash managed to tear her gaze away from the cookies. "But if you find him or if you don't, you make sure to let me know! Because if I don't hear from you by, like, mid-morning tomorrow, I'm heading out to your place to see what's going on!"

Zecora poked her in the chest. "A 'Pinkie promise' I shall make, all flying eye and smashed cupcake."

Pinkie pursed her lips. "That's not how it goes."

Dash had to grin. "It's close enough." She shook a hoof at Zecora. "Tomorrow, mid-morning."

With a bow, Zecora turned for the door. "If lunchtime comes and I have not, then nothing's gone quite as it ought, and you must come out straight along." She smiled back over her shoulder. "But what could possibly go wrong?"

She stepped into the quickly darkening autumn evening, and a sudden clatter made Dash spin, the tray leaping upward from Pinkie's twitching back, cookies flying everywhere. With no time to even gasp, Dash lunged forward, dove and twisted and swirled around without letting herself think, and grabbed the whole batch before a single cookie could so much as brush the ground. "Whoa!" Clutching her precious cargo to her chest, she hovered in front of Pinkie. "Don't tell me. That's the twitch that means I should go with her, right?"

"No." Pinkie's brow furrowed, her snout scrunching like she was thinking. "That was my you really really shouldn't do anything but eat right now twitch, I'm pretty sure." She shrugged. "It's kinda hard to tell 'cause it's so much like my the ants are stealing the light bulbs twitch." She looked around the cafe section of Sugar Cube Corner. "But I don't see any dark lamps. Do you?"

Unable to resist the gorgeous steam drifting from the cookies any longer, Dash plunged her snout into them and sucked up two or three, the sugar rush setting her whole body to tingling. "So everything'll be OK? Is that what you're saying?"

Pinkie nodded so hard and fast, Dash expected her eyeballs to start rattling. "You bet! Unless the ants really are stealing the light bulbs. 'Cause I don't think anypony'd call that OK."

Dash laughed, fluttered backwards to a table, gently set the cookies down while snagging another couple, and dropped into a seat. "Dinner time, then! I mean, after dessert, of course."

***

"And finally," Princess Luna said, shuffling one last folder from the piles and piles arranged across her desk.

"Yes!" Blueblood couldn't keep from exclaiming. How many hours he'd been there, he had no idea—certainly it must be close to midnight by now—nor was he entirely certain what it was the princess had been talking about for most of those hours. And while the frown she gave him would probably have frozen a lesser pony, Blueblood found he could shrug the effect off fairly easily. "I'm merely concerned, Auntie," he went on in as smooth a voice as he could muster. "Won't Equestria's timekeepers be slightly confused by nightfall's continued non-arrival while you've spent so much of your precious time running over—" He waved a hoof at the folders. "What is it you've been running over again?"

Cold silence settled over the whole room, nothing moving across the desk for a long moment but the princess's mane, wafting about her head like smoke. "In the first place, Double-O-Zeta," she said after a long moment, "do you assume that I am incapable of bringing on the night while reclining here in conversation with you? For I assure you, the sun is setting even as we speak, and I am currently performing all actions necessary for an on-time and successful initiation of the evening." Her voice somehow became more formal and glowering. "And in the second place, I am no more your aunt than you are a prince. I'll ask you to remember that."

Blueblood stiffened. "Not a prince?! Now look here! My family has been royalty in Canterlot since before Auntie Celestia married into our line a thousand years ago and came to dwell among us! My pedigree stretches back unbroken to—!"

"What peculiar things my sister did or did not do during my exile," the princess said, her words snapping like branches in an ice storm, "is no concern of mine." She tapped a hoof against a stack of file folders. "What does concern me now that I've returned is the continued success of the Clandestine Corps I established some fifteen hundred years ago, and as I am once again stepping into a leadership role here—"

"You?!" Blueblood put an extra measure of astonishment and disbelief into the word.

Princess Luna didn't respond with indignation or outrage as he'd expected. In fact, she gave a little smile, nodded as if he'd reacted the way she'd expected, then her dark magic was flowing over the file in front of her, flipping it open almost jauntily. "You've been quite an asset to the Corps, Double-O-Zeta," she said, her gaze intent on the papers as she shuffled them about. "For my part, I find you almost completely repugnant, but I must admit that you do good work."

Nearly surging to his hoofs, Blueblood stopped himself, and the part of his brain that he usually employed only during missions flicked into place like a pair of opera glasses, bringing the scene before him into sharp focus. After all, he realized, she was merely doing to him what he did to most other ponies he met. It made him smile, and he relaxed for the first time in what felt like days. "Coming from an individual such as yourself, Auntie, that's quite a compliment."

That got her to glance up, and the slight narrowing of her eyes felt to him like some sort of victory. Until she said, "This Green Briar, however." Her focus moved back to the dossier. "He seems to know you all too well. You've stumbled upon him six times and have proven to be less effective against him at each encounter."

"Not entirely true." He waved a hoof as negligently as he could. "Our sixth little run-in, in fact, will be the last. Perhaps a perusal of last night's fire department records from down the hill will shed some light on the matter."

She slid one of the papers across the desk toward him. "This report here?" she asked. "The one concerning a structure fire in the woods a half mile west of Canterlot? The one that states the rescue teams found no trace of any inhabitant?" Her magic floated another paper to settle atop the first. "Or this report from one of our technicians who, inferring your involvement in some sort of fire from the condition of your equipment when you returned last night, dispatched several agents to the site? By then, of course, so many hours had elapsed that the trail they found had gone quite cold."

"Trail?" Blueblood couldn't stop his ears from folding. "You're saying he got away."

Another curl of her magic returned the papers to the file and folded it shut. Leaning forward, Princess Luna rested her elbows on the dossier and crossed her front hoofs beneath her chin. "Tell me about Green Briar, Double-O-Zeta."

He returned her gaze and had to dig into the stock of insolence he so carefully cultivated to keep himself from sinking into the bottomless depths of her eyes. "Am I to stand and recite, Auntie?"

Her smile actually broadened, his heart shivering: again, not at all the reaction he'd been aiming for. "However you're most comfortable," she practically purred.

Sighing, Blueblood slouched against the back of the sofa. "What's to tell? Brilliant by all accounts, he still washed out of Auntie's academy for failing to do the work assigned him. Y'see, he's rather obsessed with the magic we unicorns employed back in the days of Queen Platinum and that lot. Before you princesses descended upon us, that is." He gave her his most dazzling smile. "Perhaps you should have a chat with him, Auntie. I'm sure he'd change his tune entirely once he got a whiff of your delightful aroma."

The dig didn't even make her blink, her eyes, in fact, seeming to get distant and unfocused. "And Sister thinks he's dangerous," she muttered.

It didn't sound like a question, but Blueblood decided to answer it anyway. "He tries to be, but I'd call him more destructive than anything else, the way his laboratories tend to burst into flames at the first touch of an explosive device." He shook his head. "So few ponies in the construction industry seem to take pride in their work anymore...."

"The trail." The folder flipped open again, the princess examining the top piece of paper. "It was heading west, the investigators said. Away from Canterlot."

"Given up, then," Blueblood started to say, but a bit of Green Briar's rantings from the previous night bubbled up inside him. "Except... He said something about finally finding the proper way, said he wanted me to confirm his theory." Annoyance flashed through him, but for the first time in quite a while, it was at himself. If he'd simply gone back and checked—

"Very well." Her eyes flashed silver, and the sheer magical voltage that radiated from them made Blueblood feel something else he rarely felt: impressed. "You'll catch the next train for Ponyville, Double-O-Zeta. I want you there by sun up."

"Ponyville?!" He couldn't help leaping to his hoofs this time. "What in Aunt Celestia's name could possibly be there?!"

"The Everfree Forest." Princess Luna had that cold and serious look about her again. "If there's anything of the old magic still festering in Equestria, it's likely to be lurking there, especially since Sister abandoned our castle." She drew a breath and blew it out. "Again, however, I'm not concerned with the past. We're looking forward." She aimed a silver shoe at Blueblood. "And you're pursuing Green Briar to Ponyville. Hopefully you'll finally be able to break his winning streak against you."

"It's out of the question!" He pounded a hoof against her desk, and while a part of him knew he was overreacting, the rest of him didn't care. "Culturally, materially, and in every other important respect, Ponyville is nothing but a wasteland!" There was something else about it, too, something direct and personal that gave the name a negative connotation in his head, but his flaring temper kept him from recalling what it was. "I'll resign from the Corps rather than allow myself to be run over in so roughshod a fashion!"

And while he certainly didn't expect Princess Luna to be as solicitous and coaxing as Aunt Celestia was whenever he threatened to quit, he didn't expect her to shrug, either. "Suit yourself. Naturally, I'll have to revoke your Double-O status and your security clearances. And as long as I'm at it, I might as well dissolve your household and strip your family of all its grants and titles." She smiled. "Just to tie up any loose ends."

Her words struck his brain and stuck there like darts in a dartboard. "What?" he finally managed to squeak.

"I would do no such thing, of course, any more than you would truly give up this job." The glare she fixed on him shook Blueblood like a thunderclap and made him realize with a sudden horrible clarity that the creature he was casually exchanging quips with was less a pony than a force of nature.

"For I know you, Prince Blueblood," she continued, her voice so quiet, he had to strain to hear it, yet each word bit at him more sharply than the shards of a shattered mirror. "I know that you'd lose whatever tiny bit of mental equilibrium you possess should you try to quit, and within a week of you walking out that door, we'd be arresting you for some enormously complicated heist you'd just pulled off." The shadows that burst from her wrapped around him till the only light came from her eyes and her mane. "Because you're as hollow as a bell, Double-O-Zeta, and resigning from the Corps would do nothing but tear out your clapper, leaving you not just hollow but empty."

With a soundless snap, the room returned to normal, the princess closing the file folder gently with a hoof before looking back up at him.

Realizing that he hadn't taken a breath in quite some time, Blueblood forced his lungs to move with a choke and a gasp he was just able to swallow. Taking another moment to find his voice, he managed to keep the shivers that were wracking his body from making his words wobble. "So. Ponyville, then."

"If you wouldn't mind, nephew," she said sweetly.

***

It wasn't often that Dash found herself blinking at the very first strokes of dawn's light brushing across her cloudy walls. When it did happen, though, it was always just like this, the way she would be instantly and totally awake, a weird energy humming through her. It made her itch like she had something she was supposed to be doing, but she never had a single idea what it might be.

She sat up, fluffed her wings, and jumped to the window. Outside, black faded to gray faded to blue in the east, and for an instant, she felt like she was the only pony in the whole wide world. It wasn't a good feeling—kinda cold and lonely—but it wasn't bad, either, like she was Daring Do about to leap off into another adventure or something.

Besides, she knew Applejack was already up and doing whatever farm pony things she was always yammering about, and Pinkie would be baking, too, her and the Cakes getting the donuts and pastries all ready for the morning rush. Thinking that made the good feelings get bigger, and when the rim of the sun poked all golden and bright over the mountains to the east, Dash couldn't keep it all inside; grabbing the windowsill, she heaved herself out into the autumn-frosty air.

As much as she wanted to just cut loose, slice through the stillness like a knife, and leave nothing behind her but swirling shards of sky, she knew that'd royally screw up everything the morning shift was supposed to be doing with today's weather. It made a part of her grin, thinking of the crew trying to settle things down after she'd gone tearing through, but it wasn't that big a part.

A whistling toot drew her attention to the night train from Canterlot chugging along the valley floor over the hill to her left. That got the rest of her grinning, and she veered toward it. The old earth pony engineer Coal Porter always groused whenever she saw him at Sugar Cube Corner about how boring the red eye run was. Maybe she'd do a little fly-by and give him a thrill.

***

Among the many things Blueblood prided himself on was his ability to sleep anywhere and at any time. Even after the more life-threatening moments of these excursions, he'd always been able to catch a few winks whether he was sprawled over the crates in an airship's cargo hold or bobbing across the sea in a lifeboat.

Yet here he was, propped up in the fold-out bed of his train compartment, the pre-dawn sky gray out the window and Chives snoring lightly in the room next door. He'd stomped home after his meeting with the princess, had ordered Chives to pack him a bag, and then as a sort of existential protest had ordered the earth pony to pack one for himself as well. If Auntie Luna wanted to punish him with this assignment and have him chase her wild hunches to the backside of nowhere, well, he would allow himself an amenity he never did while traveling on Corps business and bring his valet along.

But how could Princess Luna doubt his hatred for the Corps? Was she unaware of how tired those in his social circle had become of his constant litany of complaints every time he was forced to leave the civilized precincts of Canterlot for the trackless wastes of the Equestrian countryside? Truly, it had gotten to the point that, when some boor or hanger-on would dare inquire where he'd been for the past week or three, those who frequented the same salons as he did would heave the sighs for him! "Please don't ask!" they would exclaim with almost as much exasperation as he could himself, and the talk would quickly move on to other subjects! Wasn't that proof enough?!

The brightening sky, though, seemed to bring a strange and sudden clarity to his thoughts despite his sleepless night. For perhaps the first time in his life, Blueblood found himself not only unable to summon his usual bluster but also thinking honestly about the princess's words. After all, it made for a nearly impenetrable cover, the way he'd conditioned everypony not to ask about his frequent absences. And he could never deny the exquisite rush of pursuing these foul miscreants and dragging them in to face justice. Or as had happened four times in the years since Aunt Celestia had granted him Double-O status, leaving Miss Hyacinth to contact their next of kin...

He blew out a breath, touched a hoof to the moisture that condensed from it over the compartment's window, and vowed that Princess Luna would never hear these words pass his lips. Because she'd been right. The Corps was his life.

And he wasn't at all sure how he felt about that.

Out the window, a speck of sky seemed to tumble out of alignment, its streaming double rainbows drawing his attention. What in Equestria—?

Drawing rapidly nearer, the speck developed outstretched wings and hoofs as well as a short but sleekly feminine shape. She whooshed past the train like it was standing still, the rumble and roar shaking the car even more than it already was, and Blueblood caught the briefest glimpse of squinting violet eyes before she was gone, only her colorful trail showing she'd even been there. The shimmer of it made Blueblood smile. He didn't know many pegasi—they more often stood guard at the gatherings he found himself invited to than attended them as guests—but when compared to the snobby unicorns and sniveling earth ponies of his acquaintance, the lack of affectation most pegasi seemed to display always struck him as quite refreshing.

A rap came from the compartment door, and Chives's thick voice trickled through: "Your pardon, your Highness, but the conductor's just informed me that we'll be arriving in five minutes."

"Confound it!" Leaping to his hoofs, he pulled on his usual characteristics like a comfortable jacket. "Am I to be rousted off like some hobo?! This conductor and I shall have words!"

***

Relaxing on top of the outgoing mail bags, Dash sipped a paper cup of Ponyville Station's magnificently horrible coffee—Twilight was sure they used fish sauce in it somehow, but Pinkie kept insisting the sign that said 'fresh ground' must be literally true since it tasted so much like dirt. Of course, Dash wasn't planning on drinking the stuff; she just wanted something she could mess with, stirring it and blowing on it while she pretended not to see Coal Porter glaring at her from the engine as it pulled in.

But when the train's single passenger stepped down onto the platform, a stallion as big and white and gold and glowering as a thunderhead moving in front of the sun, Dash couldn't look away. His plain gray traveling cloak alone looked more finely woven than the bed sheets Rarity had gone on and on about at the last sleepover they'd all had at her place.

Not bad at all, she found herself thinking. And then—

"Hurry up with those bags, Chives!" he barked to the earth pony hovering in his shadow, and that was when she recognized him. His nose went all wrinkly like he was smelling something worse than the coffee, and the way his gaze jumped from spot to spot around the station made Dash think he was afraid that looking at anything for too long might get his eyeballs dirty. They were nice eyes, she had to admit—which, of course, was right when they locked onto hers.

"Ah." His smile was just as nice—or maybe it would've been if she hadn't known who he was. He moved across the platform and gave her a little nod. "Our aerialist from this morning. Quite the display."

Well, if he was going to be polite, Dash figured she could be, too. "Welcome to Ponyville," she said, nodding back.

His face brightened. "Say, perhaps you could help me, you being an 'eye in the sky' as it were." He sidled even closer. "I've a friend I'm told is in this neighborhood—a unicorn like myself—and I was wondering if you might perhaps have seen him."

"Him?" For half an instant, Dash had thought the jerk had finally come out to apologize to Rarity, but—

"He's smaller than I, a bit older, and of a more sallow coat. His cutie mark's something like a sprig of green wheat with thorns about the base, and he's got the oddest golden horn, not at all the same color as any of the rest of him."

The golden horn struck a bell with her, but since he didn't mention the bandages... "Guy must've done something pretty serious if a Canterlot prince is chasing him all the way out here. He insult your necktie or something?"

The gleam came off his smile just a bit. "I take it, then, that you recognize me."

Dash nodded. "It's just the last time I saw you, you were wearing a cake."

She could almost see the connection getting made in his head, and that smile grew even chillier. "Of course. That group from Ponyville at the Gala last year. Rainbow something, aren't you?"

"Rainbow Dash." She flicked her mostly-full cup of coffee across to the nearest trash can, spinning it in such a way that none of the spatter came anywhere near him, and had to give him a point when he didn't flinch. "Sorry I can't help you with your friend." Taking off straight up, she figured she'd get enough altitude so he couldn't see her, then head to Sugar Cube Corner and see if Zecora had checked in yet. Beause if as big a jerk as Prince Blueblood was out here looking for that guy, he probably had more problems than just getting lost in the Everfree Forest.

***

Blueblood watched the pegasus dwindle to a spot of sky once more. That she knew more than she was letting on was obvious, and keeping his eyes fixed on her, he used a bit of magnification magic to follow the arch she transcribed. She would be setting down somewhere in the middle of town, he calculated, no doubt eager to spread word of his arrival amongst the rest of the bumpkin-laden populace.

"Chives?" he called. "Hire a cart and rent us some rooms at whatever passes for a hotel here. They have a mayor, I seem to recall, so leave word for me at City Hall as to where we're staying." He shrugged his cloak closed against the autumn morning and started down the steps to the street. "I believe I'll take a bit of a walk."

***

"You're sure?" Celestia asked, and Luna, settling onto the platform atop Canterlot Tower, was surprised to see something very close to worry on her sister's face. "It's just that Blueblood, he's, well, he's..."

Her voice trailed off, so Luna finished for her: "He's a grotesque and bloated toad." But she gave Celestia a quick nuzzle to take the edge off it.

"Starry..."

"Well?" Luna took a breath, let go the reins of the world, and felt the wonderful flow of creation surge out of her.

The glow of it swept like the sun's first kiss over Celestia, but her scent still came to Luna all musty and troubled. "Blueblood has so much potential! I mean, you've seen the reports, and the things I've watched him accomplish when he actually applies himself, well, the result are nothing less than astounding!"

And as much as Luna wanted to— "I can't disagree. But with all due respect, Sunny, he needs a bit of tough love."

With a smile, her sister nuzzled her in return. "Your specialty."

"I should say so!" Luna looked away from the rising sun, extended her senses all the way to the Ponyville train station, and felt Blueblood's aura there as hard and cold as a lump of undigested oatmeal. "He'll either fail and doom everything we've tried to accomplish in Equestria the past few millennia, or he'll succeed and enter into a life more wonderful than anything he's ever dared dream." She turned back to Celestia and grinned. "His choice."

Delight sparkled through Celestia's mane. "You've even more faith in him than I do!"

Luna laughed. "He and I are kindred spirits, I'm afraid." And with less than a thought, she dispersed herself on the winds of the gathering dawn.