The Blueblood Papers: Royal Blood

by Raleigh

First published

As Equestrian forces march into the Changeling heartlands, Blueblood must rely on his instincts of self-preservation, deception, and sheer blind luck to survive.

Prince Blueblood has escaped the misery of the Changeling War when he is sent to Canterlot to recuperate. He knows this cannot last, for it won't be long before he is called upon once again to risk life and limb for Princess and Country. As Equestrian forces march into the Changeling heartlands, Blueblood must rely on his instincts of self-preservation, deception, and sheer blind luck to survive.

Proofread and edited by Setokaiva

Cover art by jamescorck

Chapter 1

Author's Notes:

This takes place somewhere around Season 4

The Blueblood Papers: ROYAL BLOOD

Prince Blueblood and the Battle of Virion Hive

Explanatory note:

When what is now collectively known as the Blueblood Papers, the vast personal and private memoirs of Prince Blueblood, was unearthed when Princess Luna and I went through his personal effects following his death, it was clear that we had discovered historical material of great importance. His official memoirs had been heavily edited to the point where much of it was so divorced from reality that they could be reasonably described as fiction. These newly-discovered secret documents, comprising of thousands of pages of hoof-written and typed notes, present a much more candid description of Blueblood's career in the Royal Commissariat that is more in line with my own recollection of the personality and character of my nephew, with an almost exhaustive focus on his own thoughts and feelings as he took part in events that shaped our world at the turn of the new millennium. That said, it is my belief that he was his own harshest critic, and his tendency to dismiss moments of genuine heroism as self-serving cowardice implies a great deal of mental anguish that I wish I had been cognisant of when he was alive.

In the first four volumes that I have published and made available to a select few ponies, Blueblood described his actions during the first two years of the First Changeling War: the second kidnapping of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the Battle of Black Venom Pass, the Battle of Fort E-5150, and the Twisting Ravine Incident. This next instalment (in chronological order of events, as I suspect that these accounts were written as and when he felt like it) focuses on what historians today agree is the turning point of not only the war but also the Equestrian military as a whole - the Battle of Virion Hive. The contents of this next volume, however, are not purely of a military nature, and provide a glimpse into his personal life beyond his service in the Commissariat, which should prove interesting to those scholars seeking illumination on the civilian milieu in which Blueblood lived.

Once again, I have endeavoured to leave as much of the original text intact as possible, barring the correction of the more egregious spelling and grammar errors. Blueblood's singular flaw as a chronicler is a tendency to focus entirely on events that directly impacted him or things that happened to interest him at the time of writing, which leaves his narrative without much in the way of historical context. Therefore, to assist those readers who might not have been alive at the time of these events I have annotated the text to provide necessary clarification. These annotations are in parenthesis, italicised, and in red. For further elucidation, I will continue to use extracts from contemporary and more recent academic work where appropriate. Everything else remains pure Blueblood.

H.R.H. Princess Celestia


Virion Hive. A lot has already been said, written, debated, discussed, filmed, and thought about that particular bit of nastiness, and rather too much of it as well, if you ask me. Those who were there and lived through it have already said their piece, vindicating their own actions and making excuses for the mistakes and lapses in judgement that made the whole thing such a horrific waste of life, and I counted myself amongst that number when I paid that damned ghostwriter far too much money (not that I ever have to worry about bits, being a prince of the realm) to hit a typewriter with his forehead and produce that poorly-written waste of paper I call my official memoirs. Writers, journalists, historians, politicians, and other such drains on society have all made their facile views on the matter known, hurling their voices out into the endless cacophony of public debate in a grotesque orgy of hoof-pointing and name-calling without actually accomplishing anything of particular worth.

I don't know what else I can add to all of this, except, perhaps, a description or explanation of what happened from the point of view of a pony who was very much at the centre of it all, despite having done my utmost to have kept myself as far from the proceedings as possible with my usual lack of success. Separated from all of the discourse and noise surrounding the events, perhaps a simple and relatively clear retelling of the whole thing as I remember it, without the necessary arse-covering and empty platitudes that my official memorialisation was cluttered with, would disperse the choking smog that has eclipsed the everypony's perception of this unpleasant event. Either that, or it will merely add to the confusion, if this little project of mine ever sees the light of day, which it won't as long as I'm still alive.

Out of all of my misadventures over the half-century or so I've had gallivanting around the world in a ridiculous outfit that my Auntie Luna had designed, getting stabbed, shot at, tortured, and so forth in the name of Princess and Country, the Battle of Virion Hive still counts as one of the very worst things that I have ever had to go through. That said, I want it to be understood that it was all bad, and that ranking atrocities and equine misery as though it is possible to quantify suffering in some measurable format is at best futile and at worst insulting. It is merely that out of all the horror and pain that I had been through in this miserable life of mine, this one still stands out even amidst the likes of Black Venom Pass, E-5150, and even the infamous Battle of Ponyville. Those at least were over in a matter of days, or even hours in some cases, whereas this dragged out, like an unwanted guest at the end of a party who did not know that everypony else had left and that the host was standing at the door in his pyjamas and making increasingly angry gestures at the clock.

I expect ponies reading this will want me to launch straight into the slaughter, the repeated and failed attempts to take the breach and the massacres that followed, which everypony already knows about. The fact is, the situation was a damned sight more complicated than just a few lunatic officers, whose stupidity was outmatched only by their apparent contempt for the sanctity of equine life, ruining it for all involved. No, like a proper memorialist I ought to start at the beginning and proceed in the proper order.

You see, it all began when Twilight Sparkle - no, Princess Twilight Sparkle now that she had been freshly elevated to the position of a veritable demigod as a reward for her service to Equestria - published her long-awaited report to much fanfare. I had been sent back to a military hospital in Canterlot following my flogging and torture at the hooves of a cuckolded native pony chieftain when all of that happened, and I was rather annoyed that for purposes of publicity that I was not allowed a private room but forced to reside on a bed in an open ward with a dozen other wounded ponies. Nevertheless, it was better than being at the frontline in just about every respect, despite the lack of privacy and the tedious company. My time spent there was not long and after a week or so of being drugged, examined, and lectured by a succession of doctors and nurses on all matters of my personal health I was released back into service and placed on light duties in the Ministry of War until I would be declared fit for active service.

It was around that time that I became aware of some considerable backlash to Princess Twilight Sparkle's suggested reforms, which was to be expected and really should not have come as that much of a shock for somepony so well-read. Normally, I did my best to keep as far away from the cesspit that is politics as a prince possibly could, but even with this exile from the realm of current affairs, much of it seeped through my self-made walls of deliberate ignorance. It turned out that while your average politician might publically say that reforming the Royal Guard was an absolutely topping idea and should be implemented immediately, the moment they realise that doing so might involve raising taxes and spending more public money that could otherwise be spent on useless things like absurd vanity projects and teaching peasants to read, then suddenly the budget's a bit tight and the poor bloody infantry is just going to have to make do with what they've got. I understand that I am hardly the best sort of fellow to complain about the raising of taxes, since being royalty they form a considerable part of my income that goes to the bare necessities like gin and fancy clothes for parties, but even I of all ponies baulked at the short-sightedness of an opposition mobilising to ruin the best chance for achieving victory for short-term electoral gains. And ponies wonder why I have always believed that democracy was a daft idea.

[Blueblood is allowing his prejudices to overshadow his description of the political debates around the Twilight Sparkle Reforms. While a few key figures in the Cabinet and the Ministry of War opposed the reforms on a variety of principles, from the cost of their implementation to a conservative opposition to change in general, it was hardly as overwhelming as he implies here. Public opinion at the time was very much in favour of enacting the reforms in full, and most of the opposition came from the House of Lords and older officers of the Royal Guard.]

I have no intention of explaining in exact detail the sort of devious and under-hoofed things that Twilight Sparkle had to engage in to get her reforms passed by Parliament, being a rather boring and tedious set of affairs anyway that could have been easily resolved if the new Princess had simply circumvented the need for a vote and passed the law by decree instead. If you want to read about that, then put this thing down and go to a library and find an appropriate book. Don't worry, it should still be here when you return. Auntie 'Tia had quietly asked Twilight to refrain from taking that direct option, and, in the long run, I have to concede that she was right about it as usual. Ponies will usually do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other option available.

Though I had done my utmost to keep my hooves unsullied by the filth of politics, Twilight Sparkle did call upon me for assistance. I was still convalescing, though having been released from the hospital, I spent most of my time not spent behind a desk pretending to process paperwork for the Commissariat indulging in fine food, fine wine, fine cigars, and fine company at the Imperial Club. The doctors had told me to get plenty of rest, which I had taken as carte blanche to engage in such brazen bacchanalian indolence in spite of conventional medical wisdom advising against drinking oneself into oblivion each night when recovering from a flogging. I had rather lost control, to be frank, but this was the greatest amount of freedom that I had been granted after two years of being at the front, so I can hardly be blamed for wanting to make the most of it before I would once again be thrust back into the war.

It was during one such evening that she called upon me to do my duty for Equestria. A particularly dreary evening it was, too, with a leaden grey sky that unleashed a veritable torrent of rain down upon our poor capital. I was away from all of that, however, and had taken up my usual position in the corner of the club's common room reading The Daily Ponygraph, with a strange Neighponese comic book that I had confiscated from Captain Red Coat titled 'The Erotic Adventures of Twilight Sparkle and her Friends' discreetly tucked between its voluminous pages. My two best friends, a glass of whisky and a smouldering cigar, rested on the table within easy reach, and the staff were always on hoof to make sure that both were readily replenished.

With much of the idle rich of Canterlot having caught the war fever and bought their commissions long ago, the evening was rather quiet with them off to war; a group of older ladies and gentlecolts played whist in the corner, a younger chap performed a rendition of 'Equestria, the Land I Love' on the piano, and a cluster of colts perched around a window and bet absurd amounts of money on which of the ponies walking past in the rain outside would accidentally step in a particularly deep puddle and ruin their clothes. In short, it was a perfect evening in which I could enjoy my naughty, sinful, borderline-treasonous filth without fear of being disturbed.

That is, until she arrived. The heavy oaken doors that connected the common room with the hallway opened with their usual sense of occasion, the old hinges creaking and the wood scraping across the floor. When they closed with a resonant 'thud', I peeked over the top of the newspaper that concealed my illicit literature to see who the newcomer was. Princess Twilight Sparkle herself stood by the door, nervously looking around the large, open common room and clearly looking for somepony in particular. Likewise, everypony, with the exception of the retired ponies too engrossed in their gambling to notice, had stopped what they were doing to stare at her. A few had gathered enough of their wits to remember their etiquette and dipped their heads in reverence of the arrival of royalty.

She looked, for lack of a better term, absolutely stunning. This was the first time I had seen her in the flesh since the Siege of Fort E-5150, and that was before Princess Celestia had made her an alicorn. It's remarkable what the addition of a pair of wings and a few extra inches of height could do for a rather plain mare. Furthermore, it looked as though she had started dressing for her new status in life too, wearing an elegant pink and white dress that complimented her purple fur, which was just as well considering the dress code of this ancient and noble club. The bookish, somewhat awkward filly that I had bullied relentlessly when attending Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns was still very much present, however, and as she stood there looking around, being momentarily distracted by the sight of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with rare tomes on the far wall, it was obvious that she had yet to become comfortable with ponies showing appropriate deference to her.

Peering over the top of my newspaper like a caricature of a griffon secret police officer looking out for dissidents, I watched as she approached one of the club's staff, who prostrated himself before his Princess with his nose pressed into the floor in the traditional manner. They spoke too quietly for me to hear clearly, but from what I could tell of Twilight's facial expression and the exasperated way she waved her hooves about, she was trying to get him to stand up. Once that had been resolved with the stallion standing but with his head bowed, the two exchanged a few words, and then the servant pointed in my direction.

Of course, thought I, who else would she want to see here? Certainly not Lord Brass over there, having fallen asleep in his favourite chair, snoring loudly with his newspaper sprawled over his lap and his still-lit pipe clenched between his teeth. As she trotted on over towards me through the haze of tobacco smoke, I remembered the rather compromising material still held in my hooves, and with no possible way of disposing of it discreetly, I quickly folded up the newspaper as best as I could and crammed it into the pocket of my lounge suit's jacket with a force that would have greatly upset my tailor if he saw it. Twilight Sparkle smiled as she approached, but it was a forced one at that.

"Hi, Blueblood," she said. I rose from my seat hurriedly and bowed, albeit in a deliberately exaggerated manner by rearing my head up and then swinging it down along with my shoulders, despite the stab of pain in my still-healing back.

Twilight Sparkle's cheeks flushed red with embarrassment. "Oh, um... please, you don't have to do that."

"It is correct protocol when in the presence of a Princess," I said, rising back up to my full height. I still towered over her, back then. "Your Highness."

"You don't have to call me that either. Twilight's fine."

"That would still be improper, ma'am."

Twilight's jaw clenched, and a vein throbbed in her forehead. One might think that I was deliberately teasing her, and one would be very much correct in that assumption. As much as I like to think that I have changed since my teenage years, being less of an officious snob and having gained a new perspective on matters of class since my time at the front, winding up little Twilight Sparkle until she exploded into a fit of impotent rage never ceased to be funny. This time, however, I became acutely aware that along with that pair of wings and a crown came a great deal of power, both political and magical, and if I pushed her too far there may be graver consequences than being beaten up by Shining Armour.

"Ugh, never mind," she said with a growl. "Look, I need to talk to you about something important, and I've already spent all day trying to find you. I could really use your help."

That familiar sensation of my guts turning into ice, which I had been mercifully freed from since I had returned to Canterlot, unfortunately returned. I tried to maintain that expression of aristocratic detachment, more so now that I was surrounded by my fellow nobles and I dreaded to think what the society papers would say if I had disgraced myself, but when a Princess demands an audience about 'something important', it's going to be a damned sight more complicated and life-threatening than helping to pick out flowers for the next Gala, I can tell you. Cadence is the exception, however.

"I'm flattered," I said, "but I'm to relax - doctors' orders, you see."

She glanced over at my half-drunk glass of whisky and half-smoked cigar on the table and pulled a face. "Of course," she said diplomatically, "but this shouldn't be too strenuous. I just need your help with getting my reforms through Parliament."

I snorted, smirked, and shook my head. "Oh, is that all? Why me? And how in blazes am I supposed to do that?"

"Princess Celestia advised me against directly interfering with the democratic process," said Twilight. She then indicated to the folded-up newspaper wedged into my jacket pocket. "Of course, you'd know all about it if you read that."

The offending article and the illicit contents it concealed seemed to burn hotly against my side. I felt a strong desire to get rid of it, especially since the mare it depicted in a number of deeply compromising positions, all rendered in surprisingly exquisite detail that that the poor artist who drew the comic must have done so as a labour of love, was standing right there in front of me and close enough to take it.

"I read it for the cartoons," I said, offering a cheeky grin in imitation of her older brother. She wasn't buying it, judging by her bemused, tired expression.

"Right," she said with a huff. Looking at her furrowed brow and gently pursed lips, I could almost hear her thoughts screaming inside her head - must I spell everything out for this imbecile? The answer, of course, is yes, especially when I'm both mildly drunk and deliberately obstinate for the sake of cheap amusement.

"As I was saying, because Celestia said a princess should guide her ponies gently instead of just forcing them to do what she wants them to do, I now have to let Parliament decide whether or not to endorse my reforms. But, she didn't say anything about getting others to help MPs to vote in Equestria's best interest. That's where you come in, I need you to-"

A servant clearing his throat noisily in a manner to discreetly but deliberately interrupt had stopped Twilight Sparkle mid-tirade, and I was momentarily spared yet another patronising Twilecture. The young fellow seemed to materialise out of thin air, as all good servants are invariably trained to do. They blend into the background, rather like furniture, such that one might be forgiven for not being aware of their presence until they sense that their services are required and just appear as though summoned by magic. This can be quite disconcerting for the common sort of pony who isn't used to servants, as Twilight here demonstrated by flinching and yelping as though the staff had abruptly shocked her with electricity.

"Your Highnesses," said the servant, dipping his head first to Princess Twilight Sparkle and then to me. I would just have to get used to being second in the pecking order, I supposed. "Please forgive my eavesdropping and interruption, but it is incumbent upon me as a member of this establishment's staff to gently remind both honoured members and guests that, in accordance with its ethos and culture, the Imperial Club maintains a prohibition on discussions of a business or political nature within the common room."

The vein in Twilight's temple throbbed just a little harder, and her right eye twitched as she stared down the hapless servant. I was reminded of watching Company Sergeant Major Square Basher staring down a slovenly recruit on parade.

"Are you serious?" she snapped at him, her voice shrill. Everypony else in the room was either staring or doing their best to look as though they weren't secretly listening, which always looks even more conspicuous. "First the pony at the door tells me that there's a dress code and he can't let me in until I put on a dress, then when I go all the way back to the Castle and find a dress it isn't 'formal' enough, so I have to go to the fashion district and buy a dress just to get inside, and now you tell me I can't even talk to the pony I want to talk to about the things I want to talk about in the first place because it violates another one of your crazily restrictive rules?"

Her voice had reached a crescendo, and even the ponies deliberately trying not to look as though they were eavesdropping had given up on the pretext and stared at their newest Princess throwing a small tantrum. The servant, however, remained unfazed, and stood as rigid and formal as a statue throughout the full undignified meltdown. In fact the only acknowledgement he made of the rather un-regal display before him was to retrieve a small white hoofkerchief from his tailcoat's pocket and use it to very carefully wipe a few stray flecks of alicorn-spittle from his silk lapels.

"Our rules, including the dress code, applies equally to all ponies who enter our club, be they royalty, aristocracy, or commoner," he said, now that his lapels were restored to their former luster. "If you continue to disturb our members, then I shall have to ask you to leave this establishment, ma'am."

[The servant is not exaggerating when he means 'all ponies'; I was once barred entry from the Imperial Club on the one day that I decided to visit and had neglected to wear my regalia.]

As hilarious as it would have been to see Princess Twilight Sparkle of all ponies escorted off the premises of the most exclusive gentlecolts' club in all of Equestria, literally tossed into the street outside and into a convenient puddle by the sergeant-at-arms for added comedic effect, I felt it best to cease this light ribbing and save her, and by extension her political aims with which I had some sympathy, from the sort of journalistic evisceration in the tabloid newspapers that I was all too familiar with. Her cheeks had flushed red, though more from embarrassment than anger, and I felt a distinct pang of sympathy that cut through the foalish teasing I had in mind.

"Come now," I said, injecting an element of jocularity into my voice, "she's not one of us, so she didn't know any better. We'll carry on this discussion in a private room, away from everypony else who seeks a sanctuary away from such things."

That satisfied both Princess and servant, and we were led away from the warm comfort of the common room, through the various corridors with portraits of long-dead members staring down at us as if to judge, up a flight of stairs, and into what was probably my least favourite room in the building. We walked in silence at first, broken only by my occasional sip of my drink just to keep me going through the evening, but eventually Twilight must have found it unbearable and broke it:

"Do you have any idea how hard it was to find you?" she said.

"No," I said, "but I imagine you're about to tell me."

Twilight Sparkle made a face, so I made one back. "I tried the hospital first, but then they told me you were discharged and put on light duties, so I tried the Ministry of War but you weren't there. Then I went to your palace but the hoof-pony told me you weren't in, so I tried your apartment, but Drape Cut [Blueblood's butler and valet] told me you were at this club of yours and I could wait there until you turned up, but there's only so much sitting around in your living room drinking endless cups of tea before I got sick of it and went to find you myself. Then when I did get here the pony at the door told me to go and find a dress and, uh, I guess you know the rest."

"Yes, well, forgive me for having a life outside of you, Princess," I said dryly. "The dress does suit you, by the way."

The silence returned, though more awkward than before, such that it seemed to amplify the sounds of our hooves on the polished wooden floor to an almost maddening degree.

"Blueblood," Twilight piped up once her tolerance for awkward silences had run its course. "What did you mean by 'she's not one of us'?"

She knew full well what I meant, that her royal title was just a shallow publicity stunt from Princess Celestia and was thus meaningless. Oh, she might now have a pair of wings, a crown, and a title, but such things are worthless without the dignity, poise, tradition, and history behind them. What was a title worth if such things could be dished out to just anypony regardless of breeding? She was a princess in name only; a commoner from a family of no real social standing thrust into a world where she simply did not belong, and her insistence on disregarding the deference due from those who were now her lessers in favour of some kind of fiction that she was still somehow their equal was proof. History has, of course, judged me entirely wrong on that account, and after a few decades or so I suppose I can say that my stance on the whole matter has softened somewhat, but as rare honesty is the entire purpose of this exercise then I must describe my honest opinion as it was at the time - I was more than a little upset that the little filly I used to pick on at school now outranked me.

"Not a member of the club," I said, keeping my true thoughts to myself. "The gentlecolts' clubs of Canterlot can be quite intimidating places for the uninitiated. I'm surprised they allowed a non-member inside unaccompanied."

"I told him you would vouch for me." Twilight then fluttered her wings, still folded up against the sides of her dress, and added, "I think these might have helped a little."

"I expect being a princess now must have its perks," I said, trying to cloak the resentment in my voice as relatively good-natured sarcasm. "More than a prince, of course."

We stopped at the end of the corridor, and the servant flung the door open to reveal my private room at the club. Well, it was more accurate to say that it was my father's, for it was his grim, haughty visage that stared down at us from the painting that hung on the opposite wall, as if so placed to judge everypony who stepped hoof inside, Yours Truly included. Seeing it always made me feel more than a little uncomfortable, as the master who had painted it had captured all of his arrogance, aloofness, rigidity, bigotry, and severity so perfectly in the medium of oil paint. It was as though he was right there in the room, peering down through his monocle and deeming me entirely unworthy of whatever arbitrary standard he had set.

Since his disappearance in Zebrica, probably eaten by cannibal zebras, the Imperial Club had decided to honour his memory and the generous donations he made to the club by dedicating a suite to his memory and allowing his scions, i.e. me and whatever foals I might one day sire, perennial use of it. As touching as this gesture must seem, the imposing portrait of my father looming over everything had rather put me off staying here, as convenient as a place to sleep in the centre of Canterlot's fanciest districts would be, which had led to me purchasing an apartment for such purposes instead. At least the drinks cabinet was always well-stocked, being one of the few things my father and I ever agreed upon, and I made a bee-line to it to refill my glass while Twilight followed on in after me, staring around at the room.

I imagine it must be rather striking to those who have not seen it before; the main motif was red, as dark and macabre as spilt blood in accordance with my family's ridiculously morbid traditions, with burgundy carpet, maroon walls, crimson curtains, and mahogany furnishings. It hurt one's eyes and gave one a migraine to spend more than a few hours there. The door was shut behind us, leaving me alone in the room with Twilight Sparkle, and I refilled my glass.

"Would you like a drink?" I asked, remembering my manners. Twilight Sparkle shook her head.

"Blueblood," she said softly, "is there something wrong?"

"I’m fine," I said, taking another swig of my drink.

I made my way to an armchair in the corner of the room, next to the large four-poster bed with the red sheets and a small coffee table with a tome of my family's ancient lore resting on it. As I luxuriated in the soft, plush chair, I saw Twilight had been watching me with a look of concern.

Of course I wasn't 'fine', but I couldn't bloody well tell her that. I knew this period of unbridled and self-destructive hedonism would have to come to an end one day, for the war would not stop just to allow me time to drink, gamble, and party my way to an early grave in the ancient traditions of my ancestors. Twilight Sparkle coming along with her damned reforms was merely an unwelcome reminder of the transitory nature of the rare happiness I had acquired, and already, just seeing her there standing before me was an unpleasant reminder of the inevitability of misery.

"Celestia told me about what happened to you," said Twilight as she settled into the seat next to me without asking permission first, but then again she no longer needed it. “You can tell me. I mean, friendship is kinda my thing.”

"I'll manage," I said, settling back in my seat and allowing the soft padding to take my weight and relieve some of the pain of my healing scars. "Now, what's all this about your reforms? You said Princess Celestia has forbidden you from interfering directly, but I don't see how I can help."

"The House of Commons is split right down the middle," she said. "Blowtorch [then Secretary of State for War, having replaced Treble Bass who had been shuffled out of that post] rejected my report, so the Prime Minister had to introduce it as a bill in Parliament to get it through. I have a friend working with me in the Commons to swing the vote my way, among other things, but the House of Lords is so overwhelmingly against the bill that they're sure to block it."

[The House of Lords remained very influential at this point in history, though its power was gradually being eroded by the House of Commons. Its hereditary peers, made up of the heads of the most powerful aristocratic houses in Equestria, senior religious leaders, and delegates from vassal states, scrutinised bills passed by the Commons, and they had the authority to amend, delay, or even outright block legislation passed by the lower house.]

"I see." I didn't, actually, but it was probably what she wanted to hear. "And this is where I come in?"

Twilight nodded. "You're Princess Celestia's nephew, the Duke of Canterlot, head of one of the oldest dynasties in Equestria, and now you're a celebrated war hero. You have a lot of influence, and if the nobleponies see you backing my reforms then maybe they'll support it too."

"You don't sound very certain of that."

"I'm not certain of much anymore," she said, shrugging. "Observing the frontline was supposed to be the hardest part. When I saw the bodies in the courtyard I knew I had to do everything in my power to finish my report and reform the Royal Guard, so their sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. Then I finally published it and now all of this happens; politicians and bureaucrats who know nothing about war telling me it's too expensive, or it violates military tradition, or nopony wants change, or that I shouldn't meddle. I was there, Blueblood, and I saw it. And they didn't."

And I was there, too. I remembered, in the aftermath of that awful battle, Twilight Sparkle, then just a normal unicorn like me, inasmuch as anything about the odd little mare could be considered 'normal', had broken down and wept in my embrace at the sight of the dead. The corpses, pony and Changeling alike, that were strewed across the stinking quagmire, surrounded by the broken walls of the fortress and beneath the light of a dawn Celestia had raised in vengeance, had moved her so far past the coldly rational and scientific approach to her research to the emotional core of her argument - the current state of affairs in the Ministry of War, with all of its bureaucracy, corruption, and incompetence, could not continue. The image was burned into my mind like a brand, as vivid as though I was standing right there up to my fetlocks in mud and blood, the stench of death and burned flesh like a malevolent miasma filling my lungs and choking me. In my mind, I could almost reach out and place my hoof upon the lifeless body of what moments before was a young colt, mutilated beyond all recognition.

"Blueblood?" Twilight's voice snapped me out of my daze, and she had placed her hoof delicately upon mine where it lay upon on the armrest. Her eyes stared into mine with a piercing quality that I had not noticed before; they seemed to strip away my aristocratic masque, layer by silken layer, searching for the damaged, frightened foal that hid behind it all.

She had changed so much over the years, and I wanted nothing more than to just unburden myself of all of the horror and guilt that I had carried within myself ever since I donned that hateful cap. I wanted her to listen to my tortured ravings and then tell me that it's all going to be fine, like an ordinary common pony would, except that my regal position in life would not allow me to indulge in such a luxury. Stiff upper lip and carry on and all that rot, no wonder so many of us lose our minds shortly after the on-set of middle age.

As nice as the gesture felt, I pulled my hoof away from hers. Such a thing was unbecoming of royalty, especially with the portrait of my father staring accusingly down at us. "I'll see what I can do."

"That's all I ask. Thank you." Twilight looked instantly relieved, as though she had spent much of the day fearing that I might refuse. Well, that would not have been beyond the realms of possibility; passing her reforms would mean the war would have to start again with renewed vigour and urgency, which I had wanted to put off for as long as possible, but if her proposals were actually implemented then it could mean competent officers and sufficient bodies for me to hide behind. I have to confess I did not read her report, as I had neither the time nor the inclination to sit down and slog through four hundred pages of dry, tedious academic literature on my least favourite subject [The abridged version available to the general public was four hundred and seventy-two pages long, while the complete edition with appendices was one thousand six hundred and nine pages], but if there was anypony in the world who could be trusted to undertake this grim task it was Twilight Sparkle. For all of my faults, committing what might be considered an act of treason by sabotaging these reforms was beyond the pale even for me, if only because I had seen first-hoof why they were so sorely needed.

"Oh, is that today's Daily Ponygraph?" said Twilight, pointing at the folded-up newspaper wedged into my jacket pocket and poking out of my chest. "Can I borrow it, please? I want to see if they've published my letter."

I was about to float it on over to her, when I remembered what was concealed within its pages, and it was damned lucky I did, too, for I had no desire to be the first pony to be punished for the crime of lèse-majesté with regards to Princess Twilight Sparkle's royal dignity. This folded up wad of paper was part-way out of my jacket pocket, wrapped in my aura, while she held out her hoof hopefully.

"Umm, no," was all that I could come with at such short notice. She looked surprised, as one would when denied a very polite and reasonable request. I had to come up with an excuse, and quickly too before my embarrassment would betray the fact that I was quite clearly hiding something. "It's yesterday's paper," I continued, hurriedly folding up the top so as to conceal the date and cramming it back into the pocket, "and I'm still doing the crossword puzzle."

"You like crosswords?" she asked, scepticism and hope in her voice in equal measure at first, then a wide grin stretched across her face and her eyes sparkled. "I love crosswords! We should do them together some time."

"Yes," I said, resigning myself to a grim fate of having to learn how to do the dreary little puzzles in order to keep up this ridiculous charade. "I picked it up in the hospital as something to do between being poked and prodded by ponies in white coats. Speaking of which, it's getting late and I should be going home now, so please forgive me for cutting this short but I ought to be in bed soon lest I incur the wrath of my physician."

Something about the way Twilight looked at me implied that I was not believed, but that didn't matter - I had to get out of there, and quickly too. With my hasty excuse out of the way I made an even hastier 'goodbye' and darted out of the room as quickly as I could manage, cheeks flushed hotly with embarrassment. I stopped only to grab my hat and coat at the door and bid farewell to the hoof-pony before exiting the club, leaving the bewildered Princess still inside and probably wondering what to do with herself now.

The weather was still atrocious as I made my way back to my apartment, but despite the Canterlot weather team deciding that the jewel of Equestria was overdue a downpour for some obscure reason, I wanted to walk instead of getting a cab. The pouring rain pattering off my umbrella spell made the noises of the street - the conversations of ponies, the mobs of tourists, and the carriages in the roads - somehow distant and muffled, and I became trapped in my own mind as my hooves carried me on that familiar passage home. My thoughts replayed that conversation over and over again, ad nauseum, as if to punish me for being such a damned idiot. That was the first time I had seen Twilight Sparkle in over a year and certainly since her coronation, and while my rational mind railed against the injustice of a common mare being elevated so, there was something inside me that kept me from achieving that state of aristocratic indignation I was sure would come. In my mind's eye I saw her face, so full of genuine worry and concern when she saw me over-indulging in drink.

I couldn't understand it, nor the strange longing that I felt to see her again. More than that, as I came into the lobby of my apartment building and discreetly dispelled the shield, I wondered why, as a pony so accustomed to misdirection, did it feel so difficult and so 'wrong' to lie to Twilight Sparkle over something so relatively trivial?

Chapter 2

Despite embarrassing myself in front of Twilight Sparkle, I am a gentlecolt and my word is my bond, and therefore I was beholden to at least try to help get her reforms passed through the House of Lords. More to the point, it gave me something to do besides sitting at my desk trying not to fall asleep during the day and indulging in wine and mares every evening, and I dare say that having some sort of project to work towards, and one that required much less commitment, time, and personal risk than I had anticipated, was more beneficial to my recovery than the assortment of salves, medicines, and remedies I had suffered through in the hospital.

Speaking of my injuries, by this point the pain had become manageable with a combination of painkillers and fine liquor. Though the wounds had healed, more or less, the scars would remain forever. If one was to find an old soldier who had served before the punishment of flogging was abolished, and if one was brave enough to ask him to show his back, one would often find a grotesque lattice-work of scars. A skilled provost was trained to flog the miscreant with clean, precise strokes that maximised pain while leaving as minimal physical damage as possible, resulting in the characteristic but superficial scarring. Chieftain Earthshaker of the Rat Pony Tribe was not skilled, and thus my back was marred with great lines, some an inch thick, of broken, uneven flesh, inflicted in an irregular pattern from my right shoulder down to my left hip, with a few in the opposite direction for good measure. Though I will admit to exaggerating a little to make absolutely sure that nopony will deem me suitable for frontline duties any time soon, a dull ache still persisted, and would flare up on occasion when I happened to twist or turn my body in a way the scars disagreed with.

The main consequence of this, however, was that I was all but forced to wear clothes in public at all times. My tailors were all very pleased with this arrangement, as it necessitated commissioning a number of bespoke lounge suits now that simply wearing a collar and cravat alone was out of the question for informal wear in town, and subsequently did nothing for my old, original reputation as being an effete dandy.

As for the task in question, the problem that now lay before me was a fairly daunting one. As Twilight Sparkle had said, the House of Lords, that great bastion of conservatism in Equestria that stands as a bulwark against the tides of over-eager reformists and iconoclasts who seek to tear down what Princess Celestia had spent millennia building, was overwhelmingly opposed to her reforms. I almost admired that steadfast, pig-headed mentality, blinded by an ideological and irrational opposition to even beneficial change; compared with the opposition in the Commons, who bickered and argued uselessly while accomplishing absolutely nothing but obstructing what was painful but necessary, and all on the basis of preserving their own careers. The defiance of the Lords was formed on the basis of a principle I happened to share. That, however, would make things harder. Despite the apparent impossibility of what I had been asked to do, I did agree to help, and never let it be said that Prince Blueblood violates his word unless there's a way to weasel out of it with absolute safety. Whether or not I succeeded was another matter, however, and if I spoke to a few of my fellow nobles and they still did not see the light, I could at the very least tell her I did my best, or something approaching it, without fear of contradiction.

To start with, it was merely a matter of reminding a few cliens and vassals exactly to whom they had sworn everlasting fealty to; being younger nobles of lesser ranks, they were always eager to please their betters (namely me), when not scheming to usurp them, and often they had very little interest in political struggles greater than whatever scrap of dirt they owned. A few required more material incentives to encourage them to see reason - money, property, promises for support for future endeavours, the services of my chef Sous Vide, and so on and so forth. 'Bribery' is a rather ugly word to describe what I was doing, but an outsider looking in would see this behaviour, being the usual way the aristocracy conducts business, and consider it to be thus. The fact of the matter is this: the entire Equestrian system of governance as it was at the time, and still is if you but peel back the curtain a little and take a peek, relied upon this give-and-take between those who hold power. It was a matter of exchanging favours, so to speak, and it was the only way to get things accomplished while the House of Commons still vacillated on the subject.

I felt sorry for Princess Twilight; it was one thing to know on an academic level the steps through which a law must proceed to be passed through Parliament, but quite another to be involved in the process itself. She had not only seen inside the sausage factory, but was now elbow-deep in the disgusting, mutilated flesh that even a griffon would find nauseating, trying to make it into something more palatable for the consumption of barbaric carnivores.

[A reference to a griffon expression, attributed to Gerhardt, Chancellor of Griffonstone under the reign of King Grover I and was instrumental in uniting the disparate tribes under a single empire. He is alleged to have said 'laws are like sausages - one should never see them being made'. A sausage is a food product made from finely-chopped meat, salt, spices and other flavourings, and other less palatable parts of the prey animal, wrapped up in a cylindrical casing made from intestines. Though popular, even by griffon culinary standards the process of manufacture is considered unappealing.]

For those who were still too stubborn to accept the gifts I had so generously offered in return for their support, there were still even less palatable options for me to take, and take them I did. As the beloved nephew of Princess Celestia I was privy to more than my fair share of the gossip around Equestria's social elites. A party is not merely an excuse to have fun, fun is for the common ponies, you see, instead it's an opportunity for those who seek power and those who wish to preserve what they still possess to uncover material that might come in useful in the vicious sniping of aristocracy. In attending the various galas, socials, races, and so on that make up the Season, I knew all about everypony's skeleton-filled closets, and in some cases that expression was all too literal. A few thinly-veiled insinuations about what I might do with this information was often enough to secure the loyalty of another.

One might consider the threat of another ambitious noble using that very same tactic against me, but to that I have two counters. The first is my skill with the sword, as I merely have to challenge the other to a duel and he'll either retract his insult, regardless of how true it is, or end up with a rapier through the neck for his troubles. The second has more to do with my reputation, in a peculiar, roundabout manner; by embracing the image that others have of me as being a bit of a cad, it meant that such secrets were already out in the open and embraced where they could do me no harm. A pony who discovered that I had slept with Lord So-and-So's frustrated wife would be in possession of information that had already been disseminated across the entirety of Equestrian society, and was therefore useless for the purposes of coercion. And on the other hoof, ponies were more forgiving of my indiscretions after that recent mess at the front.

Despite all of my efforts, the iron laws of arithmetic were against me; to whit, the numbers of lords that I could bribe and/or blackmail was far fewer than those for whom my efforts proved fruitless. I had to be careful, as putting too much pressure on too many of my fellow nobles would only have the opposite effect, and in the sort of power games that the aristocracy likes to play, caution is almost always the best option. It was rather apt, I thought, that as the power of my class began to decline, the viciousness of its members bickering with one another seemed to worsen in equal measure.

I was ruminating on this problem one evening in my apartment's lounge, two days until the crucial vote in the House of Lords and about a week or so after Twilight Sparkle had come to see me in my club. Though she had sent me various letters asking about how I was getting on and if I was experiencing any difficulty, I hadn't seen her since, and I didn't feel as though I could unless I came back with her reforms emblazoned with Celestia's signature (which I was seriously considering learning how to forge, as soon as I could get one of Philomena's tail feathers and enough of that exceedingly rare rainbow ink to do that convincingly). A Neighgroni cocktail, my usual pre-dinner drink, was doing little to stimulate the brain cells as I lay sprawled over my chaise longue and stared out of the window at the ponies passing below.

Perhaps I could host an opera night, and use that as an opportunity to needle more usable information out of my fellow lords. That, however, would mean going to the opera, and nopony truly enjoys attending that particular cornerstone of Equestrian culture. Anypony who says otherwise is lying to you; four hours of being subjected to ponies in ridiculous costumes singing along to a convoluted plot, which could all be resolved if the characters could just be straight about their intentions and feelings, was not my idea of a good time. One only attended opera to be seen, to be acknowledged as a patron of the arts as a noblepony should be, and to mingle with one's peers. Everything else, especially the performance itself, is merely part of the act we put on for the benefit of the common ponies who look up to us. Luna is quite possibly the only pony I know who genuinely enjoys opera, but she also likes bats, spikes, skulls, the post office, and other morbid things, so I wouldn't put much stock in what she says is so great about it.

"Drape Cut?" I called out.

"Sir." My valet appeared by my side, seemingly out of thin air as he is wont to do when I require his services. I have often wondered what he gets up to when I don't need him, especially when I'm stuck at the front risking all for Princesses and Country. While I'm sure he leads a rich and fulfilling life outside of me, I also liked to think that he and the rest of my staff just went into some form of suspended animation until I came home.

"I think I will host an opera night," I said.

Drape Cut tilted his head to one side and arched an imperious eyebrow, which he often did when he disagreed with what I have just said, but, being a mere servant, he knew it was not his place to say otherwise. The damned thing was that he was almost always right about whatever it was to a maddening degree, and I often thought that his talents were wasted doting on an idiot like me; I feared that one day I might actually complete my term of service in the Commissariat, return home, and find that he had been poached by Princess Twilight to head some form of elite scientific endeavour to find a way to put ponies into space.

"You don't think I should?" I asked.

"Forgive me, sir," he said, "but I assume that this has something to do with Princess Twilight Sparkle's request?"

"You assume correctly."

"Then might I be so bold as to suggest that the most direct approach might be advantageous?"

I sipped the last dregs of my drink, fished out the cocktail cherry at the bottom of the glass, and then nibbled on it. "What do you mean?"

"Well, sir, it occurs to me that both you and Princess Twilight Sparkle have been working under the assumption that our country's legislators need to be coerced in some manner in order to gain their support. While this is not an unreasonable supposition when one considers the behaviour of those who have been appointed to make our laws, perhaps dispensing with the subterfuge, and instead convincing those influential ponies who oppose her reforms of the multitudinous merits of said bill would prove to be a far more efficient method to pursuing one's aims."

It took me a few moments to fully digest his words, but once I had translated that uniquely formal servant-speak into a form of Equestrian that you or I might understand, I soon realised that he simply meant 'tell them what's so great about Twilight's reforms'. I chewed on my cocktail cherry, as a dumb bovine does with cud, as I stared up blankly at him.

"Do you really think that will work?" I said. He had a point, I had to concede; the Lords were sticklers for traditional autocracy, and if they saw a pony of my rank come out publicly in favour of these reforms, then it could sway some of those who had not yet made up their minds.

"The realms of politics lie beyond my capabilities, sir," he said, and I knew that to be a damned lie if I ever heard one. If Drape Cut here had been in charge of the country instead of ironing my dress shirts then we wouldn't be in nearly half the mess we were in now. "But, having been a gentlecolt's personal gentlecolt to some very influential gentlecolts over the years, yourself included, sir, it is my understanding that those Lords who oppose the reforms do so because they fear that their power is waning, rather than a genuine opposition to Her Highness' proposals. If you present this as an opportunity to maintain their influence against the Commons in the eyes of ordinary subjects, then it may be enough to convince them."

"There are only two days left until the vote in the House of Lords," I said, leaving the now-empty glass on the table, whereupon Drape Cut picked it up to take away. "I hope that's enough time."

"It should be sufficient to sway a few key members in time for the vote," he said. "And failing that, sir, I have a contingency. The opposing Lords will have personal attendants who are members of the Adytum Club, which is a society of gentlecolts' personal gentlecolts of which I am also a member. If I might take tomorrow to submit some proposals to the club's secretary, it should be possible for me to convince my fellow servants to arrange a few 'accidents' that will delay the more obstinate members long enough to miss the vote. Such a thing would be an extraordinary request on my part, and I shan't think I would be allowed to put forward such a thing twice, so I advise sir to consider it carefully."

I fell into a sort of bleak silence for a moment, staring up at the impassive face of my valet, who looked back with his usual polite attentiveness in anticipation of my verbal approval of this scheme. The existence of this Adytum Club was certainly news to me, and I thought I knew all of the exclusive clubs in Canterlot. Though I had known Drape Cut and other members of my staff to slip out at night once their duties for the day had been completed, I had always assumed that they had merely nipped off to some bar or public house frequented by other domestic workers, where they might while away the cold, bleak evenings of winter by sharing scintillating gossip about their employers.

“By ‘accidents’,” I said, “I’m sure you don’t mean…”

“Oh Celestia, no, sir. Such a thing would arouse too much suspicion.”

"Still, hopefully it won't come to that," I said, wondering how many of the petty obstacles, social faux pas, and minor inconveniences I had experienced over my life had all been part of some clandestine plan, centuries in the making, for goals that I could not possibly comprehend. "But do it anyway."

"Certainly, sir." Drape Cut glided out of the room, carrying the empty glass, and as I watched him and pondered about just how dependent we nobles were upon our staff, I made a mental note to give him a well-deserved pay rise. It would do well to remain on his good side, lest I find myself with a fate worse than having to starch my own collars myself.

[The Adytum Club takes its name from the innermost sanctums of the temples of the ancient pegasi cloud city-states, where oracles were said to commune with the gods The name is intended to reflect the club’s purpose as a place for the servants of high-ranking nobles to meet, relax, socialise, and share gossip about their masters. Despite the mystical implications of the name, it was chosen partially as a joke, as access to the most intimate details of the most powerful ponies in Equestria, my sister and me included, meant its members appeared to have powers of augury to predict the future. Or so they tell me.]

I stared out of the window once more, observing the ponies going about their daily business and wondering if the ordinary equine out there had to deal with even half of the nonsense that I as a prince of the realm had to, but then I remembered they probably had other, more personal matters to be concerned about, like where their next meal was coming from. Then, I remembered something rather important if I was to go about proselytising Twilight's reforms.

"Drape Cut?" I called out again. He wafted back into the lounge as if on a zephyr, and stood by awaiting my command.


"Would you tell me about Princess Twilight Sparkle's report?" I asked. "I haven't read it, you see; too many words. Actually, before you do that, make me another drink; I fear this may take us a while."

"Of course, sir."


It took us all night, but I got it eventually. What Twilight had proposed was not quite as apocalyptic as Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s infamous assertion that the reforms would transform the Royal Guard from an elite fighting unit and into an unruly peasant army. Instead, it was merely a sort of evolution of existing military culture and organisation, which was required to fully tackle the new realities of modern war. There were, however, a number of sticking points that I knew the average, conservatively-minded old aristocratic officer would oppose - the renaming of the Royal Guard into the Equestrian Army, apparently to better reflect its new purpose as the defence of all Equestrians and not just its royalty, was a major one for all but the most liberal of the Lords.

Two days is a long time in politics, and by the same turn I feared it was insufficient to perform the task at hoof. The debates were still raging in the House of Lords, inasmuch as forty ponies, two of them asleep and another inebriated and singing to himself, counts as a parliamentary debate. Though my desire to step hoof inside that damned chamber was about on par with going back to the front, I reminded myself that it would only be for a short while over the next few days and that there shouldn't be any Changelings around wanting to eat my face this time.

[Anti-Changeling measures had been in place in Canterlot since the first aborted attack; however, despite this increase in security, infiltrator cells continued to pop up and launch attacks across Equestria on less-well protected targets, such as the attack on Fancy Pants’ benefit party. Important government locations such as the Houses of Parliament, Canterlot Castle, and the offices of the ministries were subsequently protected by multi-factor authentication systems with both a unicorn and an inanimate, programmed magical device to dispel Changeling illusions.]

Twilight Sparkle proved to be right in her usual, irritating way. The first debate that I attended was sparsely populated with my fellow Lords, but once word had gotten around that I had made one of my very rare appearances and, to the surprise of all, that I was actually contributing to the running of the country as my title demands, the other nobles who might have forgotten that they were supposed to have a hoof in what goes on in there remembered their duties and started attending. I scarcely think that it had anything to do with my oratory, not being much of a public speaker despite various public appearances reciting from heavily-edited scripts, and more to do with both my position as one of the most senior nobles in the country without wings and my dubious reputation as some sort of war hero.

"The House has a choice before it," I announced to the packed chamber on the day before the crucial vote. Ponies were squashed into the seats, perched on the stairs, and crammed into the aisles; whosoever had designed this building clearly had no idea just how many more peers would be inducted into the Lords, but that had been hundreds of years ago when Equestria was a mere fraction of the size it is now.

[The geographical area Equestria controls has not changed much since the end of the Nightmare Heresy when the last of the griffon invaders were driven out from our lands. As the population increased and new cities and provinces within our borders developed over the centuries, the peerage had to be expanded greatly to accommodate. At the time of the debates around the Twilight Sparkle Reforms, there were eight hundred and fourteen peers including those from the overseas territories, colonies, and dominions. According to records, an estimated three hundred attended the debates where Prince Blueblood spoke. Due to the distances between Canterlot and the furthest areas of our realm, there has never been a sitting where all peers were present; they would never all fit in the chamber anyway.]

"That choice is between survival and extinction," I continued, after a suitably dramatic pause. "Survival of Equestria and the Harmony that we hold so dear, or its destruction at the hooves of the Changeling menace.

"Some ponies say that we are an anachronism, a relic of a distant past no longer relevant to a changing world. If this House votes to deny our defenders out there on the frontlines the means with which to end the threat Chrysalis poses once and for all and avenge Canterlot, then we will merely prove them to be right and hasten our decline. But, my fellow lords and ladies of Equestria, whose families have led our proud nation since its birth, if we do what is painful but necessary to give our soldiers what they need to achieve final victory in the field, if we cast aside our dogmatic adherence to military traditions and customs that hinder the prosecution of modern war, we will demonstrate to the common pony that not only do we remain a force for good in Equestria, but a potent counter to the corruption and partisanship of the lower house at risk of losing sight of its principles."

Contrary to the more raucous Commons, the Lords are a lot more subdued in showing their support or disdain, so I only received a smattering of polite applause in response. I hoped what I said was enough, and that it wasn't so obvious to everypony else observing that I had been reading from a set of notes scribbled on the back of my hoof. Nevertheless, the speech written by Drape Cut under my supervision seemed to have gone down quite well, though I still felt it necessary to place my trust more firmly in his devious little scheme.

It was rather close, though, but the reforms were passed through the House of Lords. Of course, whosoever reads this will think that it was all a foregone conclusion, but at the time it was all rather stressful. In spite of my desire to remain apart from politics, affecting my usual sense of aloofness as though the whole business was beneath my dignity (which it was, and it was also beneath the dignity of even the rats that inhabit the sewers of Manehatten), I could not help but feel invested in its outcome.

The turnout was rather low, and far fewer than those who attended the debates. The fear that such a small number of Lords turning up to vote would appear suspicious did invariably feature in my mind, but to my relief, it did not go much further than a few quiet observations in the political journals. A wave of unfortunate but ultimately harmless events was noticed by the politicos, but things such as Lady Zirconium being trapped in her bathroom for seven hours due to a broken lock and the train full of nobles from Prance delayed due to sheep on the line were appropriated to either mere bad luck or divine intervention from Faust herself. But as for Yours Truly, I was simply glad that Drape Cut was on my side, and I would endeavour to keep him firmly there forevermore.

The bill still had to go through the House of Commons, and I was somewhat flattered to learn that Princess Twilight Sparkle had decided to follow my example and delivered a speech extolling the virtues of her proposed reforms to the chamber. I recall the day distinctly, as I was worried that it might all end in failure, forcing me to return to the front with the same idiot officers whose competence was indirectly proportional to their perception of such, that I had spent much of the day stuck in some sort of funk in my apartment.

It was mid-afternoon when the doorbell rang, and I was in such a state that I simply could not wait for Drape Cut to answer the door, so I fancied I could do that simple task myself. I darted across the hall, colliding with a small chair, knocking over a potted plant on a pedestal with my flank, and smacking my muzzle on the door in the process. It was all rather embarrassing, really, or it would have been had anypony else other than my valet seen it. I wrenched the door open, its antique hinges squealing in protest, and the slightly bewildered concierge was revealed to me like a prize at a country fair. Damn, he probably heard everything, including the swearing when I extricated myself from being tangled up in my wingchair.

"Message for His Royal Hi-"

I grabbed the slip of paper from his mouth and slammed the door in his face. With the thing floating just in front of my muzzle, its contents hidden until I unfolded it, I slumped back against the door, ignoring the rough and unpleasant sensation the wood made against my scars. Drape Cut was already in the hall and tidying up the small mess that I had made, delicately picking up the poor, abused orchid and placing it back in its place of pride.

"Opening the front door yourself, sir?" he said with barely concealed-amusement. "Should sir start organising his own cufflinks under his own initiative as well, then I fear my services will no longer be required and I shall have to find gainful employment elsewhere."

Ever since he had orchestrated my little usurpation of the Equestrian constitution for Twilight Sparkle's political gain, Drape Cut's sarcastic, dry wit, apparently endemic amongst servants from Trottingham (which I suppose balances out their usual efficiency in carrying out their regular duties), had only gotten worse. The only reason I hadn't corrected him on that behaviour was because I was more-or-less in his debt. That, and I had no desire to find myself on the receiving end of the awesome, terrifying power that I now knew the servant classes possessed.

I ignored the comment and opened up the paper. While it would be charitable in the extreme to call Fancy Pants a friend, he was at least an associate of Canterlot's up-and-coming nouveau riche whose presence I could tolerate for more than five minutes. More importantly, his personal connections with a number of senior members of Their Highnesses' government, and his apparent belief that the two of us shared some sort of cordial relationship, meant that it was not too much of an imposition for me to ask him to have the outcome of the Commons' vote sent to me the instant the Speaker announced the results (being a noble, I'm not allowed anywhere near that chamber, not that I ever wanted to). He had already done for Twilight in the Commons what I had done for her in the Lords, as was my understanding of what was going on in the lower chamber, so for once our aims converged on the same goal.

'We won', it read. If I wanted more detail I’d have to wait until the next day’s newspapers, it seemed. The implications of those two little words took a while to sink in for me, and I must have spent a good few minutes sitting against my front door staring at them, while Drape Cut busied himself with tidying up the hallway.

What historians would later call the Twilight Sparkle Reforms had finally met Parliamentary approval, and the work in transforming the Royal Guard into a modern military force would begin; tens of thousands of soldiers would have to be retrained, officers educated on the new tactics, militias elevated to regular infantry regiments, the entire command structure of Equestria's armies would be smashed and re-assembled, the Ministry of War gutted to eradicate bureaucracy, and so on and so forth. It is a simple thing to read in a book that these reforms were enacted, as though the military was transformed into something approaching competent overnight. Countless tasks were required to enact the contents of that damned report, and each of those little things merely represented yet another opportunity for it all to go horrendously, appallingly wrong. Just because Princess Celestia had scribbled her signature on the parchment, making the bill into law, did not mean the usual equine capacity to ruin everything had finally been conquered. The relief I felt was, as it must always be, tainted.

I mention all of this because I wish to convey the ridiculous level of optimism that swept through society like a plague, once all of this silly business had been resolved, and pit it against what was inevitably to follow. Not since the aftermath of the attack on Canterlot had I witnessed such enthusiasm for the war. Back then it was out of a sense of outrage and shame for having lost our glorious capital so quickly, but now, after two years of stalemate, it was thought that we finally had the means with which to punish the Changelings.

One of the main provisions of the reforms was to increase the size of the army, more than doubling it. While many of those new regiments were simply converted from the old militia units that no longer served much of a purpose in the more civilised areas of Equestria, the rest had to be raised via a massive recruitment drive. I am certain that anypony who reads this will be familiar with the infamous 'Friends Regiments' posters that were plastered on just about every available wall, lamppost, and tree. When I stepped out of my front door, be it either the Sanguine Palace or my apartment, I would see Princess Twilight Sparkle's face beaming at me from all directions, imploring me to do my bit for Princesses and Country by enlisting in her new army. I could not imagine even for a second that Twilight would ever have agreed to her image being used for such a thing, which accounts for the relatively short life of this particular scheme, but the insanity of seeing her image of all ponies gleefully imploring all to fight and die at the front was especially jarring in those times.

[The so-called 'Friends Regiments' were a highly successful but controversial propaganda drive by the Ministries of War and Information to entice new recruits into the Equestrian Army. Friends who enlisted together were guaranteed to be allocated into the same unit. Tens of thousands of ponies enlisted in the first few weeks of this scheme. Princess Twilight Sparkle did not consent to her image being used in such propaganda, and was upset when she learned about it. After I had a quiet word with Treble Bass, who had regained his old position as Secretary of State for War in a deal to back Twilight's reforms, the posters were discontinued, though they remain a potent symbol of the war today.]

From there, venturing through the streets of Canterlot, and I'm sure this was the same in Manehatten, Fillydelphia, Trottingham, and so on, one would encounter rabble-rousing speakers armed with megaphones promising all who would listen their chance to take the Princess's bit and win glory before it was all over too quickly. As I carried on, walking to my club or out to see a show of some sort, there would be further posters demanding subjects of our realm donate old cloth and metal for uniforms and weapons, refrain from 'unnecessary' journeys via train or airship, and to report suspected Changeling infiltrators to the authorities. The transformation of the city I loved like a dear friend into this hideous temple to vulgar militarism took a few weeks, but it was jarring, nonetheless. It was enough to make one sick that the ancient city upon the hill should sink so low.

More immediately, however, this all spelt trouble for Yours Truly, as when the press and the public alike were once again clamouring for Changeling ichor to be spilt (by somepony other than themselves, of course), they invariably start looking towards their favourite heroes to take up the sword once more. My false reputation, inflated to dizzying heights by my retrieving of the Royal Standard from an angry mob of natives, shoved me front-and-centre and shone a bright spotlight right in my face. I expected that Shining Armour must be going through the exact same thing, except he probably wanted to get stuck in again but his wife wouldn't let him - perhaps marriage was the answer to my problems, but I fancied that even the spectre of war casting its baleful shadow over my life was not worth shackling myself to just one mare. My 'excuse' for still lingering around Canterlot, that I'd been damned-well flogged to within an inch of my life and then nearly bloody killed by a Purestrain, was soon getting tired, and all too often I would hear ponies everywhere - at my club, in the office, even out on the street - tell me that I must be itching to get back into the fight.

In short, the entire country lost its bloody mind and I'm not sure it ever truly recovered.

Returning to the front was still a long way off, thank Faust, and I had plenty of time to think of a way out. The 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards had been withdrawn from the frontline and returned to barracks. There, they underwent the re-training necessary to learn how to employ their new weapons and tactics in the field. Once all of that was done, they would be joined up along with the newly raised Crystal Guards, representing Princess Cadence, and the Prism Guards, representing Princess Twilight Sparkle, into the aptly named Guards Division of the new Equestrian Army. This at least meant that when the doctors declared me fit for active duty in the following week, despite exaggerated protests on my part that every waking moment was pure agony, I still had a good few months of breathing space while the earth ponies busied themselves with working out which end of those new-fangled muskets was to be pointed at the enemy.

It was a relief to be out of the cold and humourless halls of the Ministry of War, where it seemed that joy in any form was considered to be against regulations, and into the regimental barracks where things were a bit more lively. The troops seemed pleased to see me, judging by the cheering and exultation of my name when I first crawled on through the portcullis gates and onto the parade square. The feeling was mutual to some small degree, as it was hard not to feel at least some element of attachment to one's charges.

Settling back into my old role, sans actual fighting, of course, was something of a small comfort too, in an odd way; rather like putting on an old lounge suit that still fits after years in the wardrobe. Though the tasks of educating the soldiers of the Night Guards about Twilight's new reforms were tedious in the extreme, and likely futile as I still barely understood what was going on anyway despite having made a minor contribution in its passing, I at least had Cannon Fodder back to alleviate the more unpleasant and onerous paperwork that I was expected to deal with. There was quite a lot of it, you see; despite the cuts in bureaucratic red tape, the apparatchiks of the world will always find a way to burden us with forms to fill in and sign in triplicate.

Despite my personal reservations, the officers, Captain Red Coat especially, attacked the tasks of putting the reforms into practice with a zeal normally seen in ponies who have recently discovered religion. I observed the endless, monotonous drill of earth ponies and pegasi practicing loading, firing, and reloading their new muskets over and over until they could manage the target rate of three rounds a minute. That these firearms could barely hit the barn let alone its door did little to dampen their enthusiasm for the noisy, foul-reeking, smoke-vomiting things. Black powder hoof-guns had been thought of as little more than toys, being far too slow and inaccurate compared to unicorn fire to be considered effective enough for war; suitable only to allow the non-magically inclined to indulge in the sport of target shooting or in the more lethal sorts of duels where swords were considered to be insufficient for the insult. I myself owned a pair of duelling pistols my father had commissioned a long time ago, which he had used to kill a Prench duke after some ridiculous falling out. I never touched the ugly things.

I suppose their main benefit was improving morale, for now the average earth pony soldier could do something instead of merely wait for the inevitable charge. When fired en masse into an approaching horde of Changelings, at least a few of the enemy would be felled in the volleys. There was always the bayonet, of course, for even the rose-tinted spectacles of relentless optimism could not obscure the obvious reality that the fight would still be decided in the hideous scrum of the melee. I understood, however, that the reasoning behind the mass-introduction of these weapons was to whittle down the on-coming mob before the charge hits.

Of course, the earth ponies weren't the only ones with new toys. The pegasi received scaled-down versions of these muskets, called carbines, and one of the pegasi companies was labelled the 'grenadier' company and given, well, grenades to play with. [The structure of regiments of hoof were changed to allow for greater flexibility in the field - creating three companies, each with one hundred ponies-at-arms, for each of the tribes for a total of nine companies to a battalion. The first battalion was engaged on active service, while the second was an administrative formation that served as a pool of reinforcements.] I'd watch them from the safety of my office, swooping around like starlings in Spring and dropping small beanbags onto a target painted on the parade ground. Once they had achieved a sufficient and consistent level of accuracy, they were allowed to practice with the real thing. It was only by Faust's own intervention that the only victims of the single accident they caused in training were a few shipments of pencils, which somepony foalish had left too close to the obvious red circle covered in soot and shrapnel. Pencil Pusher was inconsolable for days as a result, which made me enormously happy for a bit.

As for the other two of the pegasus companies, one was designated 'light' and the other 'heavy'. The former were intended to operate on the lines of the griffon jaegers, ahead of the main formation of troops as skirmishers; the latter fulfilled the more traditional role of pegasi in war, as dictated by the ancient warrior codes of Pegasopolis, in clearing the skies above of enemy airborne. Likewise, the unicorns continued much in the same vein as always; stand at a nice, safe distance and shoot at the enemy, then retreat to let the earth ponies deal with them once they got close enough to retaliate.

All of these things brought a myriad number of little annoyances that distracted me from what would have otherwise been a quiet and rather pleasant stay in the barracks, but for the most part I was still free to do as I wished - namely reading, drinking, shopping, carousing, fornicating, and just loafing about as I always did before the war, at least during my off-duty periods. On the occasions where I wasn't able to do those aforementioned fun things, usually because I was expected to be in my office going through yet more paperwork about something or other, I tried to grapple with the problem that continued to cast its deepening shadow over my life. It would only be a matter of time before the constituent elements of the Guards Division would be trained to a sufficient degree to be sent back to the frontline for whatever offensive Field Marshal Iron Hoof was dreaming of, and I had to make sure that I was far away from it as I possibly could be without arousing suspicion.

Fortunately for me, Twilight's re-organising of the army into this division structure appeared to provide just the thing I needed. The Commissariat was likewise expanded to match the more complicated chain of command, from army group, field army, corps, division, brigade, and down to battalion, and they would obviously need commissars with experience in the field to peer obtrusively over the shoulders of commanders and their staff. Being assigned to Field Marshal Iron Hoof's army group would likely be the safest option, I thought, as he very much liked to command as far from the front as his communications and logistics would allow, but I doubted that those bureaucrats would allow somepony as young and relatively junior as me to do so. Besides, he remained utterly tedious company and I didn't fancy spending my time repeatedly bashing my skull into the brick wall that was the moustachioed old martinet's stubbornness. Watching over a general of division or brigade should be sufficiently safe, while remaining close enough to the action that I could at least be seen to be living up to my reputation for personal heroics.

With that in mind, I made an appointment to meet with some bureaucrat or other in the Commissariat late one evening. It should have been simple enough, really; turn up, ingratiate myself with the poor, spectacled soul shackled behind a desk by telling her just how much we at the front appreciate the hard work she and her ilk do to keep us fit and fighting, then explain how my experience could be put to better use supporting the new commissars in their roles. Clearly, I still hadn't learned anything, or rather the relative safety and security of Canterlot these past few weeks had dulled the instincts that told me such things are never easy. I certainly was not expecting to have to deal with what awaited me there.

Author's Notes:

Why yes, I have been reading PG Wodehouse lately.

Chapter 3

I had always avoided visiting the areas of the Ministry of War building that are portioned out to the Royal Commissariat unless strictly, totally, completely necessary, partly because I never had much cause to, but mostly because, if given the choice under normal circumstances, I'd much rather visit Tartarus instead. Government ministerial offices are dull, grey, and drab little monuments to white collar mediocrity anyway, with the exception of the more prestigious ministries such as Friendship Affairs and the EEA (the latter having enough surplus budget to afford extravagant robes for all employees and an enormous and oppressively-lit headquarters they pretentiously call the 'Cathedral of Learning'). Until Twilight's reforms made warfare briefly fashionable for a time, War had suffered under a meagre budget and thus its offices reflected its financial problems. The room that I had previously occupied was an exception, of course, as I'll be damned if I ever have to work somewhere without at least one well-stocked liquor cabinet in place of the ubiquitous water cooler. The Commissariat's offices, however, appeared to be bleak and austere by design so as to reflect the sombre and moribund tastes of its founder.

[The Ministry of War was considered to be the least desirable and least prestigious of the governmental ministries to work for, and as such often received the lowest funding in government budgets. At first they occupied a floor of Canterlot Castle, but were then moved out into the small and dilapidated office building Blueblood describes here shortly after the declaration of war. The Twilight Sparkle Reforms dramatically increased their funding, which allowed the ministry to move to a larger and better equipped building. The Royal Commissariat shared offices with the Ministry of War for a time, until tensions between the two organisations necessitated the move to a separate building.]

The walls were bare, cold stone devoid of even the most modest attempts at decoration. Though my innate sense of direction told me that we were a few floors above ground level and I was waiting in a corridor on the outer edge, whosoever designed this place had not seen fit to grace the outside walls with windows. With the only lighting coming from candles along the walls that must have taken some poor servant hours to light each day, this hallway remained in a perpetual state of gloomy twilight. The overall effect was such that anypony wandering around here would be forgiven for thinking the laws of geometry had changed somehow and they've ended up in an underground dungeon.

Thus I sat on my haunches on the floor outside the office of one Rubber Stamp, waiting for my turn to be seen. Cannon Fodder, my commissarial aide, sat next to me and flicked through one of the stallions’ special interest magazines he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of. His presence was not strictly necessary, and there was plenty of work for him to be getting on with back at the barracks, but here in these oppressive hallways having him close by was quite reassuring. He had, after all, saved my life multiple times before, though some of it was merely an unintentional side-effect of his incredibly rare disability. He was a blank unicorn; incapable of using magic, but sucked it straight out of the horns of others should they summon more than what is necessary for the most basic of spells. History has sadly forgotten him, but his apparent belief that personal hygiene was just optional and unassuming personality meant that he was doomed to slip from the memories of other ponies, except as a malodorous oddity in the great fictionalised versions of my life they believe to be true.

Rubber Stamp was late. I don't know how long we had been waiting there, but it felt like an eternity. The clock on the wall was clearly visible, but I refused to look at it, though its constant ticking counting the seconds shaved off what little life I had left was a morbid reminder of the transitory nature of mortal existence. The two of us sat in silence, though it was the comfortable sort that was born of two stallions who both knew when nothing needed to be said; my companion was hardly a sparkling conversationalist even at the best of times, but we were both quite happy to just sit and just stare at the opposite wall. There wasn't even anything interesting to look at here, no potted plants, posters, or even pamphlets to read.

Every few minutes or so, a pony wearing either a clean, pressed commissar's uniform or a business suit would come trotting through the corridor. Some would disappear through the other doors along the hall, while the others, often carrying stacks of paperwork, would carry on past us. A few gave me some sort of acknowledgement, usually a nod from a civilian or a salute from one of the commissars should they have a hoof free to do so. Besides a curt 'good evening, sir' or some variant thereof, few said anything at all, and nopony lingered around to chat at all. While my colleagues in the Commissariat tended to be rather tedious company, having taken their duties rather too seriously so as to almost eclipse whatever personalities they otherwise possessed, a brief diversion would have at least helped to alleviate some small iota of this endless tedium.

I wore a fresh uniform for the meeting, straight off the rack and back from my tailor with alterations. However, to maintain my image as a no-nonsense veteran quite out of sorts with all of this bureaucracy, more comfortable with a sword in hoof than a pen, I had buried it in my garden for a few days before wearing it here. The idea was to give the impression that this uniform had been worn in combat, to contrast with the neater examples worn by ponies whose careers kept them safely behind desks, but as the set that I wore in the Badlands had been left behind in the Rat Pony Tribe's foetid little dungeon and I was in no desire to return there and meekly ask for it back, this would have to do. However, I neglected to bring my sword, thinking that this key part of the outfit was entirely unnecessary in good old Canterlot.

Only when the door finally swung open did I dare to look up at the clock to see how long I had been waiting. Just over half an hour, apparently, though it felt like much longer. One would have thought that after spending around two years at the frontline I would have gotten used to sitting around and doing very little for hours on end, and one would be right. It was different in a civilian milieu, as time spent doing nothing at the front also meant little to no immediate danger and was therefore cherished, while here in Canterlot it was merely taking away time that I would have otherwise spent doing something fun, interesting, or relaxing.

“Blueblood?” A mare in a parade ground-perfect example of a commissar's uniform, Rubber Stamp's personal aide from what I had heard, leaned through the open doorway and peered over her thin, rectangular reading glasses at me. "Rubber Stamp will see you now."

"Prince Blueblood," I sneered, rising to my hooves. "If you don't mind."

The mare sniffed haughtily, her expression as severe and humourless as a mortician's, which reminded me of the face Princess Luna used to pull when we crossed paths in the Palace before all of this unpleasantness. On a young-ish mare, however, as opposed to an all-powerful alicorn, it was more cute, almost adorable, than threatening.

"Titles count for nothing here," she said. "All are equal in service to the Princesses."

How dare she? I pursed my lips, as though trying to keep the torrent of vitriol from vomiting forth like canister shot from a cannon. My hooves trembled, my eyes narrowed, and a strange heat flushed up my neck. Alas, though every atom of my being desired nothing more than to remind this impertinent, grey-faced peasant of the yawning gulf between our respective positions on society's great hierarchy, I also knew that I needed the help of this Rubber Stamp filly if my plan was to succeed. She was young, I decided, barely out of her teens; her mind was filled with such rebellious ideas that experience had not yet dragged out into the street and beaten to death with a croquet mallet. A hundred years ago, I would have been well within my rights to do just that to her without much fear of repercussion.

The tirade was already fully-formed in my head, the words pounding at the walls of my mind with a desperate need to be freed, but like the misguided alchemists of old, I would have to try to turn lead into gold - indignation into pleasantry. It would not help my case with Rubber Stamp to be seen screaming at her aide in the middle of the Commissariat's headquarters, after all.

"Of course," was all that I could manage to say. I forced a smile to my face, but I fear it resembled a manticore's snarl than anything pleasant. "How silly of me."

I gave Cannon Fodder a pouch of bits and told him to go and get something for himself from the cafeteria while he waited for me. As he trotted off down the corridor, making the same amount of noise in barracks dress uniform as he did in his loose-fitting armour due to the quantity of unspecified 'stuff' packed into his bulging pockets and pouches, I felt quite alone and isolated without my aide by my side. I was completely safe here, in the heart of Canterlot's government district and with the barracks of Guards Division within spitting distance, but a growing sense of disquiet began to creep over me. It was probably the severe decor, I thought to myself, with the blank stone walls, flickering candles, and total lack of what might be considered the 'personal touch' here reminding me too much of the corridors of Fort E-5150. The memories of that horrendous night bubbled up from my subconscious and intruded rudely into my mind.

My hooves started to itch, which they are wont to do when my primitive equine hindbrain picks up on something unsettling and dangerous but my rational pony mind remains blissfully unaware of. There was something about that mare's manner that struck me as odd, and it was not just the egalitarian nonsense she spouted earlier. That sensation only got worse when I stepped through the open door and saw the office. It was divided into two halves each with a desk, one bare and plain and probably belonging to the moody mare who let me in, and the other bright and colourful. The dividing line was split almost directly down the middle, with the half closest to the door being the one devoid of anything approaching sentimentality and the other positively dripping in it.

The desk on the far side overflowed with paperwork and assorted office accoutrements, which all but obscured the mare sitting behind it all. I didn't think it was possible to make the uniform of a commissar, designed to be as intimidating and authoritative as possible with its morbid imagery and black and red colour scheme, appear friendly and welcoming, but somehow this middle-aged pony accomplished it. The jacket appeared to be looser, and was cut in a more relaxed Bitalian fashion rather than the rigid, padded militaristic style the designers and tailors intended. She wore it quite casually too, unbuttoned and supplemented by an assortment of buttons and pins of cheerful designs which all softened its normally-grim countenance.

Rubber Stamp smiled warmly as I entered, and beckoned to the empty seat in front of her desk. Needless to say, this was not what I expected to see given the decor of the rest of the office and the frosty reception given to me by the other mare, who stood by the door and observed me with a curiously disdainful expression. I suppose some in the Commissariat still thought I had only gained my position due to nepotism, which is a charge I can refute with absolute certainty; it is only nepotism when somepony actually wants the job.

"Your Highness!" she said breathlessly. "I am so sorry for the wait. Please, come in and sit down."

I sat on the offered chair, which I found to be suitably hard and angled in such a way to only just more comfortable than sitting on the floor. Whosoever procured these clearly did not want the occupier to linger too long, which, in this case, was fine by me. There was a variety of things I'd rather be doing than being in this damned building.

"Red Tape," said Rubber Stamp. The stroppy filly at the door grunted wordlessly in response. "Be a dear and get Prince Blueblood here some of Dotted Line's birthday cake from the canteen, if there's any still left over."

Leftover birthday cake, likely stale and more icing than sponge, was better than nothing, I thought; I hadn't eaten anything since a few scones for four o'clock tea time. Red Tape gave a curt nod and left the room, shutting the door behind her with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Now alone with Rubber Stamp, I watched as she shuffled the assorted papers and ornaments around on her desk, then triumphantly pulled out the transfer request form that I had mailed a few days ago. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken weeks, if not months, for this intrepid little sheet of paper to wend its way through the bureaucratic pipes of the Commissariat, before finally reaching the pony who could actually do something with it. That it found its way there so quickly was due in no small part to my name scribbled rather prominently on the top, written in the elegant script my foalhood governess forced me to learn.

"I'm very sorry about making you wait, sir," she said, grasping for her pair of thick-rimmed glasses on the desk. "We're still moving everything into the new building, and it's been a bit of a kerfuffle."

So that explained the rather lax security getting in, and the fact that much of the building appeared to be deserted compared to when I had worked here before. Now that the notion had popped up in my mind, I wasn't certain that the security guards at the entrance checkpoint had actually scanned us. It had been a very brief passage through what was an otherwise tense and threatening experience, as usually the gruff stallion wearing sunglasses indoors asked all sorts of invasive questions to the point where even I was no longer certain if I was really Prince Blueblood and not a Changeling infiltrator. My regal title and my dubious reputation for heroics was no reason for me to skip the line, it seemed, and a damned good thing too; it meant that the security ponies were doing their job properly and keeping the enemy from sneaking in and committing all manner of cowardly, under-hoofed things. I was perfectly willing to endure the indignity of such things if it meant getting out of there alive.

Rubber Stamp made a show of reading through one of the very few forms I can say I completed myself. She did her level best to appear professional, apparently attempting to model her behaviour after a certain icy Equestria Games inspector, but her jittery body language and tone of voice betrayed a level of excitement that no amount of pretending could hide.

"I must say," she said, placing the form back down on the table and giving me what she probably thought was a stern gaze, "none of us expected to receive one of these from you, sir."

I gave an easy sort of shrug and leaned back as far as the awkwardly-designed seat would allow, affecting the usual bluff old soldier routine I had almost perfected for dealing with obstructive civilians.

"I've served with the Night Guards for two years now," I said. "They taught me a lot about soldiering, and I hoped that I could pass on that expertise to the new commissars who will watch over Princess Twilight's new army."

Never mind the fact that the last trainee commissar I had been tasked with educating is buried hundreds of miles away to the south, next to the bridge she apparently gave her life to help destroy for an offensive that would be delayed for yet another blasted year. Hopefully, Rubber Stamp didn't know about that, or the fact that Gliding Moth's death was a result of my failure to execute my duties as a commissar properly and kill Scarlet Letter when I had the chance to. The mare sitting in front of me looked at me sharply for a moment, and I wondered perhaps if I had laid it on a little too thick there.

"By serving with division headquarters instead of on the frontline?" she said, somewhat sceptically as she peered over the top of the form at me. Of course, a war hero like me is supposed to be eager to get right in the thick of the fighting, and would therefore be perfectly happy assigned to a regiment whose colonel had a frustratingly suicidal desire to be right where the fighting was thicker than Applejack's accent.

"In this war, everywhere is the frontline," I said, deciding the best way to proceed was to just pile it on and hope. "Everypony in Equestria is doing their bit for the Princesses in the way that suits their unique talents. Where would our commissars be without such dedicated ponies as you supporting them from afar? Paper shuffling isn't my thing, I'll admit, but I can't imagine I'd have been able to perform my duties without everypony in this office doing their bit. I just feel that everything I've learnt over the past two years with the Night Guards could be put to better use supporting my fellow commissars."

That seemed to do the trick. She beamed happily, as all office drones do when they are made to feel that the many hours they spend shackled to a desk, pointlessly shuffling paper after paper around in an endless cycle of bureaucracy, actually amounts to some tangible good happening somewhere in the world. I watched as she reached for her quill, dipped it in ink, and then held it poised to apply her signature to the form to confirm my request. Then the door behind me swung open.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, and placed the quill down.

Red Tape had returned, carrying a plate bearing a single slice of a sad-looking sponge cake with white icing an inch thick around the outside edge on her back. A knife rested atop the slice, and it occurred to me, as she placed the stale confection on the table atop a small pile of paperwork, that this blade looked much sharper than the sort normally found buried within the drawers of a civil servants' office kitchen. About twelve inches long, it glinted in the candlelight of this windowless room as she took the handle in her mouth; if it was possible, it should have made an appropriately sharp sound effect as the light danced across its edge. I felt the absence of the weight of my sword on my hip more acutely.

My paranoia proved to be my salvation as usual. I saw a flash of candlelight reflected on steel as the knife was thrust in the general direction of my jugular vein. On reflex I hurled myself backwards with as much force as I could muster. The blade struck nothing but air as the chair I sat on tipped over, and I struck the ground with a jolt that reverberated up my spine. The impact hurt, but not nearly as much as if my throat had been sliced open.

"Red Tape!" shrieked Rubber Stamp. "What's wrong with you? That's Prince Blueblood!"

"I know," said Red Tape, her voice chillingly flat.

I looked up at a hoof clutching the knife, which turned at the wrist to point the blade straight down at me. Gripped by panic, I yelled incoherently, partially to attract attention from outside but mainly because I was bloody terrified. Without thinking I brought my hooves up to cover my barrel, and then twisted my upper body in a frantic effort to roll away.

I collided with the wall, but it gave me something to steady myself against as I struggled up to my hooves. Too slow, though; the knife came down, and I felt a sharp sting against my shoulder and something warm and wet trickled down my foreleg. There was no time to check, as Red Tape granted me none. She darted forwards, sweeping her knife in a wide arc at my face. A breath of displaced air stroked my muzzle as I scrambled back in a flail of hooves. My rump hit a bookcase, knocking a few of its contents onto the floor.

Rubber Stamp screamed, but was otherwise useless. I saw her, past my advancing foe, cowering behind her desk for all the good it would do.

"Help me!" I shrieked at her, but she only responded with a frightened squeal.

Red Tape leapt forward, knife in hoof to bring it straight to my neck. My fencer's reflexes sent me tumbling away to the right, rolling onto my side. With a burst of magic that stung my horn, I seized the top of the bookcase in my aura and pulled it down. Books, ledgers, folders, and index cards slid from their shelves and rained down on the mare, as the heavy piece of furniture toppled over. A particularly heavy-looking copy of Princesses' Regulations, the 1019 edition by the looks of it, knocked onto her withers and bounced. She darted out of the way, and the bookcase collapsed onto the floor, splintering into large, broken planks of wood and torn books. Twilight would have had a fit if she could see the ripped pages and broken spines.

With her distracted, I tried the door, but the knob refused to turn. Locked, of course, it just had to be. Red Tape must have locked it behind her, or in my panic I had forgotten how to use a door knob properly, the effect was the same. I turned, swivelling on my forelegs and lashing out with my hindlegs to buck the damned thing open. A stab of pain wracked over my back and my muscles seized up. I instead bounced off the door and fell face-first onto the desk that Rubber Stamp wasn't using for cover.

Fumbling around, I grabbed the first sturdy object my hoof came into contact with. It was a typewriter, which I seized with both forehooves. I lifted the heavy object, muscles burning in protest, and then hurled it with as much might as my battered body could manage. Red Tape had recovered from the book assault and was advancing on me, knife raised to plunge it into my neck, when the typewriter struck her straight in the chest with a thud. It should have hurt her badly, broke a rib or two, or even killed her outright, but to my growing horror she appeared to shrug it off. Where I had struck had collapsed inward a little, like an impact against armour.

Or chitin. I realised all too late, even the Commissariat was not safe from infiltration.

"Do something!" I shouted at Rubber Stamp. She was cowering behind her desk, watching us fearfully. Upon hearing my desperate pleas, she picked up a pencil and threw it at 'Red Tape'. The Changeling didn't notice as the missile bounced off the side of her head.

"Something useful!" I barked again. It was too late, she had fainted.

That was just perfect. There was only one thing for it now. I summoned as much energy into my horn as I could muster, the pressure throbbing through my forehead and into my skull. At this range, even I couldn't miss. Except, I was too slow, or she was too fast. Either way, the Changeling was upon me in an instant, her hoof swung and it connected with my lit horn. Whatever lingering pain I felt from my back was drowned out utterly by the complete and total agony that tore straight into my mind. Hot, sharp daggers plunged through my horn and directly into my brain, blinding my vision in flashes of red and white. Some force shoved me back against the wall, and I collapsed in a heap on the ground, clutching my aching horn and bawling like a foal.

My horn was in excruciating pain, but that was a good thing in the main; it meant that it was still there, for one.

I forced my eyes open, and blinked away the tears and the swirling stars that danced across my vision like Princess Luna had painted the night sky while high on laudanum. My face smarted awfully, I could taste blood, and the stink of singed fur and ozone filled my nostrils. From what I could tell, though delirious with pain as I was, being smacked in the horn had caused the energy I had drawn upon to disperse in a violent discharge of raw magic. 'Red Tape' had been knocked backwards to the other side of the room, but she recovered faster than I could. Rising to her hooves, her lips were twisted into a snarl that revealed rows of fangs and a flickering, snake-like tongue. Her hoof had turned black, layered with glistening chitin and marked with holes, presumably where the magical discharge had burned away the illusion.

[Changeling shape-shifting magic has two main types - true shape-shifting and illusory. True shape-shifting transforms the Changeling's body completely, thus taking on all of its physical properties. It requires the most amount of magic, but for the purposes of infiltration it makes for the perfect disguise and in some cases is immune to the detection spell. Illusory magic merely applies an illusion over the body to mask the true form of the Changeling, and while it requires a minimal amount of magic to perform, it is far more prone to detection and can be disrupted by physical damage. Furthermore, illusions are limited to disguises that are the same size and shape as the Changeling.]

The knife was on the floor between us, amidst all the detritus our brawl had caused. Trying to draw upon more magic to grab it only made my horn hurt even more, as though somepony was twisting it out of my skull, so that was out of the question. There was only one thing for it. I pushed myself closer to the knife, but my back screamed in protest. It felt like hooks were caught in my back and tearing my flesh apart. I fell to the ground again.

I was damned if I was going to die like this, in a tacky office buried somewhere deep within the least attractive building in Equestria. Yet it would have been so apt; the culmination of a pointless life wasted on frivolity and decadence in an end that was just as meaningless as everything that came before it. Be that as it may, I had a great deal more fickle luxuries to indulge in and I certainly wasn't going to give up the potential for yet more little expensive things that make life worth living so readily. If this was to be my end I was going to make absolutely sure that I would go down kicking wildly and screaming incoherently at the unfairness of it all, much in the same manner as I entered this world.

Red Tape stalked towards me, her fanged maw open wide and slathering in anticipation of the kill. Apparently having judged me as being beaten and with the only other pony in the room unconscious, she seemed to think that she could afford to take her time toying with me. Then I saw that she was limping, and that the hoof where the illusion had failed was riddled with a spiders' web of cracks, from which wept stinking green ichor to leave streaks over the linoleum floor.

Something pounded on the other side of the door. The heavy thud of two hooves striking its surface made it shudder in its frame. Cracks and splinters emanated from the point of impact. Red Tape was distracted by the sound for a second, looking up and hissing, forked tongue flickering. A second was all it took; I dragged myself closer on my belly, grabbed the knife in my hoof, and then drove it straight into the beast's wounded leg.

She shrieked in pain as I twisted the blade, the flesh squelching hideously and ichor splashing onto my hoof. Red Tape reared up and stamped her hooves down. I frantically tried to push myself away, but got as far as rolling onto my back. Pain erupted in my chest where she had struck, and I heard a loud crack from somewhere disconcertingly inside me.

The door exploded in a hail of broken planks and splinters. Mercifully, I was shielded from the flying shards of wood by Red Tape, who took the brunt of it. I dared to look up, seeing a pair of hindlegs extended through the portal where the door had been. These retracted, and their owner, Cannon Fodder charged in and tackled my would-be assassin. The two rolled across the floor, over the scattered books, paper, and pens. As I pushed myself out of the way, pain shot through my chest and back with every movement.

Their struggle was brief; two writhing bodies and a flurry of hooves and snapping fangs, but my gallant aide had managed to grab the knife still embedded in the Changeling's hoof with his mouth. A sweep of his head brought the blade straight across the neck, and a spray of ichor splashed onto Cannon Fodder's already-stained chest. The beast collapsed, gurgling helplessly and clutching at its throat as it writhed about on the floor. A few more slashes put the creature out of its misery, and a flash of green light, briefly tinting the room in a malignant emerald glow, revealed the enemy in all of its hideous, mutated glory.

The corpse of the Changeling lay sprawled on its back, limbs splayed out in awkward, unnatural angles, twitching as the last vestiges of life left its mortal frame. Cannon Fodder stepped away from it, his face impassive as usual, and he trotted over to me. I managed to pull myself up against a wall, though the pain in my chest had become truly excruciating at this point. Every breath was like a knife straight through my ribs.

"I had some change leftover," he said, "so I got you a muffin, sir." He offered said baked good out on a grubby hoof, which I politely declined.


It took a few minutes for the guards to arrive, and a little while longer before I could be seen by anypony with medical expertise. While I made a show of insisting that Rubber Stamp was attended to first, I assumed that a medic who had been through some sort of specialist training would understand that I was clearly the priority case here. I did not expect him to take what I had intended to be the usual sort of casual disregard for one's own well-being expected of officers seriously, and he instead trotted right past me, picking his way carefully around the smashed bookcase and its scattered contents, to tend to the unconscious mare. Anypony with the tiniest modicum of sense should have seen the smudges of dark blues and purples spreading across my white chest like I just spilt Cabernet Franc on myself and that I was visibly in agony, then concluded that I could probably have benefited from at least a good few doses of painkillers. It appeared that I had been spending far too much time around Trottinghamites, and all of that damned understatement in the face of adversity was lost on those more used to treating ponies screaming out for relief.

Rubber Stamp was fine, by the way; a little dizzy and nauseated, with a bump on the head when she collapsed for good measure. I, on the other hoof, was eventually diagnosed with a cracked rib, an assortment of bruises, a cut to the shoulder, and some of the partially healed flogging wounds on my back had reopened. For all of those injuries I was dragged out into the corridor again, given a number of potions to help with the healing process, and left there while everypony else ran around panicking and being useless. Cannon Fodder sat by my side, devouring the muffin he had brought for me, which I had in fact paid for, with all of the grace and manners of a starved Diamond Dog. I felt far too sick to even think about eating it, anyway.

"I just can't believe it!" said Rubber Stamp. She sat at my other side, and tried to make up for her previous ineptitude in that fight by holding an ice pack to my horn to ease the dull ache. "I thought Red Tape was acting a bit strange, but we all thought that was just work stress. We've been ever so busy moving everything to the new building."

So busy that they just let security lapse so badly? I kept that thought to myself, but I think I may have given it away by glaring at her.

The Night Guards had the entire building on lockdown, with nopony entering or leaving, so my plans to have a quiet and relaxing evening to myself after the culmination of this meeting were completely ruined. The appearance of a Changeling in the middle of what was supposed to be one of the safest buildings in all of Equestria had everypony's nerves frayed just a tad, and not least of all me, though the relief of survival seemed to take the edge off a little.

"It's just so much to take in!" she said, pushing on the ice pack against my horn with a little too much force as if to emphasise her point. I didn't say anything, but only because Rubber Stamp carried on before I could even think about forming a coherent sentence. "What I don't get is why would the Changelings want to assassinate me of all ponies?"

It might have been the migraine pounding on the inside of my skull like some trapped creature inside was trying to break free, but it took me a while to articulate a polite enough response to that particularly absurd statement. No one would want to assassinate this harmless little bureaucrat, and for that I envied her; I longed for the kind of anonymity that would allow me to sail through life without so many threats made upon it, all orchestrated by those under the peculiar but apparently contagious misapprehension that bumping me off would somehow cause all of Equestria to just give up.

"Anypony as dedicated to serving the Princesses as you might be a target," I said. Rubber Stamp gave me a queer look, wondering if I was mocking her.

"You did say everywhere is the frontline in this kind of war," she said, deciding to take my comment at face value, it seemed.

"I did say that, didn't I?" Of course I had to. Far be it from me to think that whatever force governs the universe pays any special attention to me when there are far more interesting things going on, but occasions such as this did make me consider the possibility that the world possessed the cruel sense of humour of a sadistic foal. "About my application?"

"Oh, that thing?" she said, glancing over to the open door to her office, where the scene of carnage and wanton destruction of so much clerical work was still visible between guardsponies and commissars wandering between pieces of wrecked furniture. "I don't know if the form survived all of that. But you were amazing in there! You saved my life! A hero like you would be wasted foalsitting some general miles away from the action."

Of course this had to happen. I sat there brooding for a few seconds, wondering if the Changeling whose corpse was being poked and prodded by a medic had some foreknowledge that I would be coming here, or if it had been undercover in the Commissariat for some time and my wandering in had been some happy accident. Well, happy up until the moment Cannon Fodder slashed its throat repeatedly. Let's not forget that it was he, sitting there and stuffing his face with this enormous blueberry muffin in his usual, unassuming manner, who had truly saved her life and mine. She had been unconscious for that, however, but my aide didn't appear to mind me not correcting her on that little detail.

I was about to explain that, on the contrary, a 'hero' like me would be of more use helping other commissars become heroes too, albeit from a nice, safe distance, when who should crest around the corner of the corridor but Princess Luna herself, tailed by Celestia. Well, you don't need me to tell you, dear reader, that the appearance of the founder of the Commissariat, the pony responsible for thrusting me into all of this mess in the first place, was the metaphorical buckball hurled through my greenhouse and straight into the very rare water lilies. As if the attempt on my life wasn't bad enough.

Chapter 4

The two diarchs were accompanied by a dozen or so ponies, some mere office drudges and other soldiers of the Night Guard, who all swarmed around the legs of the two towering alicorns. Each of the ponies in suits asked questions, requested orders, or made asinine comments about how they were off the clock and it was unfair for them to be kept behind for so long, all shouting above one another to be heard amidst the din, to which the Princesses responded with their usual grace and patience. The soldiers did their best to keep the bureaucrats from getting underhoof, literally, in Celestia's case, but it looked as though even the hardened veterans of Black Venom Pass and Fort E-5150 were about to be overwhelmed by a force greater than the Changeling hordes - disgruntled white collar workers who just wanted to go home after eight hours trapped behind a desk.

Then Luna saw me. She was haranguing some bureaucrat who had dared to question the need for the lockdown when the danger had obviously passed, but the moment her dark eyes locked onto mine she immediately stopped mid-sentence. Ignoring the stallion's pleas for answers to his question, she shoved him out of the way with a sweep of her hoof and strode through the swarm of ponies around her, never altering her gait to allow for the smaller stallions and mares to scurry out of her path. A few who were too slow were simply shoved out of the way by her long legs. She crossed the distance between us in a few seconds, leaving Celestia to deal with the remaining petitioners demanding attention like a flock of hungry goslings clustered around their mother.

Luna stared down at me like a judge moments before passing sentence upon a convicted criminal. In truth, since my return to Canterlot I had seen precious little of her, merely a few brief and awkward visits she had made when I was in the hospital recuperating from my wounds and delirious with a cocktail of painkillers and actual cocktails. Even then, those short meetings were undercut with the inherent awkwardness that follows the dark mare like the scent of unwashed underpants with Cannon Fodder, though the bouquet of flowers she had brought me was a touching sentiment. I cannot, however, help but feel a degree of guilt about the feelings of apprehension I still held about her, as since I had through no will of my own saved her from capture (after she had thrust herself right into danger in the first place, of course) she had made some effort in softening her approach to me, the pony she once described as the perfect exemplar of all that she found so offensive about modern Equestria. Such things could not be resolved quite so readily and neatly.

"Your Highness!" exclaimed Rubber Stamp, immediately prostrating herself before the Princess and dropping the ice pack in the process. As I picked it up off the floor and applied the soothing, numbing cold once more to my aching horn, the mare babbled incessantly about how I had saved her life. What followed was a veritable torrent of words, panicky, excitable, and tumbling over one another as though each phrase wanted to be the first out of her mouth, like a foal describing a fun day at the beach to a bewildered stranger, albeit with a damn sight more mortal terror involved. She painted a verbal portrait of the heroic Prince Blueblood, standing defiantly amidst the destruction and desolation of her ruined office, striking down the insidious and cowardly Changeling assassin with the swift and righteous fury expected of a commissar. What utter rot; she left out the part where she fell unconscious, too.

Luna listened to this nonsense with the patience that only an immortal alicorn demi-goddess can muster, but even that has its limits. She raised a hoof in the air, the silver sabatons she wore glinting in the candlelight, and Rubber Stamp ceased speaking immediately. I marvelled at this power and wondered how I could learn it, but it would be folly of the highest order for me to presume to match the Princess of the Night's sheer presence of character to silence the talkative with a simple gesture.

"Thank you," she said softly. "Your tale is certainly a heroic one, and I think Captain Red Coat would be interested in hearing it for the official report."

"O-of course!" said Rubber Stamp. She rose to her hooves clumsily, all but tripping herself over on her own legs, and skipped off to where a very tired-looking Captain Red Coat stood off to the side, slightly behind Celestia where he probably hoped nopony could pay him much attention. Nevertheless, I gave him a friendly wave with my free hoof, which he reciprocated with hesitant flapping of his prosthetic foreleg. The two then trotted off down the corridor and disappeared around the corner.

"Blueblood," said Luna. I jerked back to look up at her, a lance of pain struck my neck and twisted into the sinew. Her expression was that curiously unreadable one that she pulls precisely to keep other ponies from determining how she feels; she probably thinks it makes her the perfect image of implacable stoicism, but after having seen it so many times before, it had lost a great deal of its power, and I instead saw it for the masque it was. Perhaps she was the same as me, then, hiding behind a facade we dare not allow to slip.

"Princess," I said, struggling to get to my hooves despite Cannon Fodder's quiet but firm insistence that I should rest. Proper protocol doesn't allow for injuries, you see.

I didn't get very far, though, as Luna swung a foreleg around my upper body and I found my face pressed into her chest, with the raised rim of her cold gorget cutting into my forehead and an ear squashed awkwardly. Somepony, Pinkie Pie most likely, had told her that hugs are something modern ponies like to do to one another, and while it might have worked wonders for the likes of Twilight Sparkle and her friends, I was hardly first on the list to be considered a 'modern pony'. To ponies of my ilk, a hug was something I did in private with a mare rather smaller, plumper, and gigglier than her before, during, or after a certain indulgent activity together. That said, the sensation of being held was not altogether unpleasant; the underlying sense of panic and nausea that accompanies every near-death experience was quelled by the security of her embrace, and the frantic beating of my heart soon slowed to a pace approaching normal. Though the moment was spoilt somewhat by a soft titter from Celestia that brought a hot flush to my cheeks, or that might have been a fever coming.

"I'm so glad you're safe!" she said, planting a chaste and regal kiss on my forehead, just to the left of my still-aching horn. She broke the embrace, and I was left rather bewildered and confused at the sudden and rather public display of affection from the normally cold and distant Princess of the Night, such that I was at a complete loss as to what to say or do. Therefore, I settled for just sitting on my haunches and staring like an idiot.

"I as well, nephew," said Celestia. The other ponies around her had gone, presumably either having received what they wanted from the Princess or told to go away in her usual, polite manner. That is, except one. An officer of the Night Guard, a captain according to the three shiny pips on the epaulettes of his barracks dress uniform, stood to her left. His nervous manner certainly showed that he was at least considering galloping down the corridor to freedom, and for that he was blocked by a huge, outstretched wing behind him like a great, feathery white wall.

When Luna turned on her hooves and glowered at the officer, eyes narrowed and an almost predatory snarl to her lips, I realised Celestia had draped her wing over the officer not to restrain him, but as a comfort. The poor chap, probably no older than twenty years, looked scared out of his wits, and I sympathised; I had been in that same situation rather too many times in the intervening period between Luna's return and my unhappy entry into her good books, and I learned rather too lately that the trick to weathering the tirade that was to follow was to show no fear. That was easier said than done, of course, but what is bravery but merely another form of lying?

"Captain Sterling Silver," said Luna as she approached him, the strike of her gilded horseshoes ringing out even on tacky linoleum. The stallion flinched, all but trying to hide underneath Celestia, though social propriety forbade him from doing so. "Commanding officer of the third company, second battalion of my Night Guard. You are the officer on duty on this shift. Please explain to Commissar Prince Blueblood how your failure to maintain the highest levels of security has led to an attempt on his life."

[In addition to providing reinforcements for the first battalion, the second battalion of each of the Guards regiments also maintained the security of government offices and royal palaces in Canterlot, as well as carrying out their traditional role of protecting Princess Cadence, my sister, and me. Twilight Sparkle continued to refuse a personal guard, despite the Ministry of War raising a full regiment for her.]

The Captain stared at me with wide eyes, silently pleading for me to say something that will get him out of this mess. I was hardly going to volunteer myself for Luna's ire, so I stayed quietly.

"I, uh..." he stammered out. "All essential ponies and records had been moved out to the new building. We didn't think-"

"You didn't think!" Luna interrupted, snarling like a tethered manticore; it was certainly a poor choice of words there, but I scarcely think a more tactful pony could have done better than merely delay the inevitable angry rant that she had clearly been itching to unload on him. "I should have Rarity embroider that on the finest Cathayan silks and frame it to hang in our throne room, or, better yet, Twilight blast those words fifty feet tall into the side of Mount Canter with her magic. It will be a monument to the total incompetence with which this war has been waged from the very start! How could you possibly-"

"Luna," said Celestia, her voice in that level, kind-but-firm tone that she must have spent centuries perfecting. "Please let him say his piece."

Hearing it brought back many memories, and not all of them were pleasant; she had used the exact same voice, quietly admonishing and calculated to inspire the maximum amount of guilt in its intended victim, ten years prior, when my unforgivable behaviour towards her personal student had led her to believe my interests were best served by being thrown out of the castle and her care. It certainly worked just as well on her sister as it did me, silencing the dark alicorn as though she had been suddenly struck dumb.

Celestia nudged Sterling Silver forwards with a delicate sweep of her wing, the feathers fluttering gracefully in the still, stagnant air of the office building. The poor, unfortunate lad stumbled a few steps forwards, and then gazed back at the three ponies staring at him, Luna with disdain, I with indifference, and Celestia with her infinite kindness and patience. "Go on," she said with a practiced smile, "tell my sister and my nephew what you told me."

"Yes," Luna hissed. "Forgive me, we should at least hear his excuses first before passing judgement."

"Y-your Highnesses," said the Lieutenant. Despite the nervous quiver in his voice, he stepped away from Celestia, though remaining close enough to dart back into the protective cover of her wing if need be. He continued speaking, but as he was unable to meet Princess Luna's soul-piercing gaze he appeared to be addressing her horseshoes instead. She sneered at this.

"All of the essential ponies and records are already in the new Ministry of War building," he continued, "and we hadn't intercepted any infiltrators for months now. We deemed the old building to be of low risk - negligible, in fact - there's nothing and nopony here the enemy could possibly find useful, just the non-essentials. We haven't trained enough unicorns who can detect shape-shifting magic to maintain the high level of security needed in both sites, so we had to make a choice about which of the two to prioritise."

It sounded rehearsed, as though he was reading from a script. I concluded he had already explained all of this to Princess Celestia, who must have given him a few tips on how to explain bad news to Princess Luna when she is not in an appropriately receptive mood. He hadn't heeded most of them, it seemed, but the fact that he was still standing there, apparently in one piece and un-murdered, clearly showed that what little he had absorbed and put into practice had some small effect. At the very least, it should have introduced the idea into Luna's head that perhaps she was being just a little bit unrealistic in her expectations of what the Guards were fully capable of halfway through their reformation. That is, until he spoke again.

"If Prince Blueblood had warned us about his visit, we would have organised extra security for him," he said, as if it was my own damned fault for nearly having my throat sliced open with a kitchen knife.

"I don't need a bloody foalsitter," I snapped, and rather harshly too I admit. The three of them turned to look at me; Luna stared inscrutably, Sterling Silver quivered in his boots, and Celestia gave her usual, encouraging smile. I collected the jumbled mess of my thoughts hastily, and added: "I didn't want to cause a fuss and waste everypony's time on just me when there are more important ponies who need protecting. Besides, we made short work of that Changeling, and they'll think twice before trying that again."

It was not my best recovery from a minor faux pas I've ever had to make, and I've made more than my fair share of them, but it did the job. A little bit of self-deprecation and just the right amount of bravado, which could easily be deflected onto Cannon Fodder should somepony think that I'm crowing about myself more than I deserved, was what most ponies expected of me and thus helped to ease over tensions. That said, though Luna had already forgotten I was there, Celestia's gaze lingered on me, and then on Cannon Fodder for a second longer.

"Those are merely excuses for your ineptitude," said Luna, regarding the stallion as one would a worm on the pavement in one's path.

Every pony has a limit as to just how much they can take before all sense, logic, and even the notion of self-preservation is just lost. I like to think that mine is set fairly high; being a coward and all that it entails, it would take rather a lot of abuse and trauma before I could reach the point where the primal need to save my craven self is overridden by the desire to prove myself right (a certain seamstress, a pristine tailored dinner jacket, and a confectionary missile excepted). Princess Luna had made a sport of trying to find that limit in the ponies she deals with, having done so with me when she saw fit to lecture me about the nature of warfare from her outdated, backwards viewpoint on top of all of the other misery she had put me through. Now, Sterling Silver, presumably having had issues of his own that were now compounded by what Treble Bass would euphemistically call a 'security breach' and by Yours Truly as 'the time I almost got killed by a cake knife', had just exceeded this limit.

"I did my best with what I had!" he shouted. Sterling Silver's eyes were as wide as saucers as he came to the unfortunate realisation that he had just yelled at one of the ruling Diarchs of Equestria, the mare he was sworn to revere and obey up to and including at the cost of his own life. Having crossed the point of no return, he decided that he might as well go all-in and damn the consequences.

"I'm sorry, Your Highness, but we don't have the resources to protect every single government building in Canterlot and your castle and everypony in every public event that happens here. And you and Princess Celestia, too. I had to make a judgement call, the same as every single day, about what to prioritise. Maintaining maximum security in one place means taking it away from somewhere else. We just can't stop all of them all the time, and it just so happened one slipped through the gap when Prince Blueblood came here."

That's right, shift the blame back on me for just trying to complete a bit of paperwork. The stallion was babbling; his words tumbling out as though they were all in a race to leave his mouth first. When he had apparently run out of both words and courage he ceased speaking, as though a switch in his brain had flicked, and whatever indignation at having been forced to accept the blame for this was no longer sufficient to propel his rather spirited but misguided defence of his own decisions. All that was left now was a scared little pony again, standing before the irate Princess of the Night and awaiting his fate.

Luna's face was an impassive, blank masque, but her tense body language betrayed her true feelings. Even the stars that swirled about in her ethereal mane and tail appeared to do so with an erratic energy, as though they too were eager to unleash her anger upon a young officer who, let's be clear here, was struggling to do the best he could with meagre resources. That might sound unusually forgiving coming from Yours Truly, whose distant ancestors had all but invented the notion of generations-long grudges and especially after I had barely survived the results of this chap's orders, but as I write this I expect that fifty years of distance has the effect of mellowing out one's feelings about some events. That I was still somewhat dazed from my experience might have had some impact too.

"Well, thank you, Captain Sterling Silver," said Princess Celestia, at length. She retracted her wing and folded it up against her body in the usual manner, thus revealing the corridor beyond. "You may leave to carry out your duties."

Taking an opportunity that might not be granted again soon, the stallion immediately slapped himself on the forehead with a hoof in a vague approximation of a salute, and then backed away slowly, apparently following etiquette rules about not turning one’s back to the Princesses. Once around the corner of the corridor and safely out of sight, I heard him break into a gallop, the rapid tattoo of his hoofsteps echoing off the walls. As I sat there, wondering how much longer until the guards would finish their sweep of the building and I would be allowed to crawl on home and rest, Celestia breathed a heavy, exasperated sigh.

"You're being too hard on them," said Celestia to Luna, using the long-dead tongue of Ancient Equestria.

"And you are not hard enough," said Luna, responding in that same antediluvian language.

"They are doing their best, and that is all we can ask of them."

"But it isn't enough, sister, and you know it."

This was not the first time I had been an inadvertent eavesdropper on their private, personal conversations, but then again, it was Auntie 'Tia herself who recognised my unusual aptitude for languages (me being quite singularly terrible at all other academic, vocational, and magical subjects at school, despite having the best teachers my father's money could buy) and personally taught me the arcane words of Equestria's distant past. Clearly, she did not mind me overhearing her words, or had simply forgotten that I was sitting there, staring dumbly at the two diarchs and watching their little sisterly squabble.

I suppose I should have said something, which would have been the polite thing to do in most cases, but Luna certainly did not look at all as though she would tolerate being interrupted even by me. She was most likely unaware that I could understand them, and would probably not be best pleased if she learnt that their attempts at secrecy had failed.

"What more can we possibly ask of them?" said Celestia. "Too many have already given their lives."

Luna scowled at her sister, and it was that same venomous glare she wore when she caught me in a compromising position in the castle pantry with one of the scullery maids. It was not one of hate or anger, as many who have been subjected to it have mistaken it for, but, after having gotten to know her a damned sight better over the years, I learned it actually signified a deep and hurtful sense of disappointment. It was so quickly turned to anger, though, should it become apparent that one's words or actions justified her feeling that way. Nevertheless, it often seemed to be born out of one's inevitable failure to live up to the impossibly high standards that she had set for others, and for herself, I might add.

"There is always more," said Luna, her voice low and measured. "If we are to achieve final victory in the field, our subjects must face up to the fact that no war can be won by mere half-measures. Sacrifices must be made, and our subjects must accept that. They sought a war without bloodshed, without hardship, without effort, and for that they have paid a terrible price, and the price will be higher still if they cannot accept that. I fear you too have fallen prey to this way of thinking, if you continue to refuse my advice."

"And what advice would that be, sister?" said Celestia, the sarcasm in her voice was sudden and cutting. "You have lectured me so much these past few months some of it just slips out of mind."

"Dissolve the government, take direct rule as you did a thousand years ago, and lead your country to victory. We have been at war for two years now and we have nothing to show for it besides a few miles of captured land and bodies. The frontline has stagnated while politicians and generals drag out Twilight Sparkle's reforms. We need decisive action now, we need to go on the offensive now; to take the Badlands, to hunt down the spies in our midst, and to crush the enemy mercilessly."

The tirade stopped, but only after it had reached a deafening crescendo. The sound of Luna's voice, though devoid of the volume-enhancing qualities of the Royal Canterlot Voice this time, continued to echo down the mostly empty corridors a second or two after she had finished speaking. In the ruined office, a few of the braver ponies did peek their heads out to take a look at the two sisters arguing, but apparently not understanding a word of their ancient tongue, could only stare and exchange a few educated guesses as to what they were arguing about.

Celestia was silent for a few agonising moments, the sound of which, or just its absence rather, soon quietened even the trite chatter of the ponies. Each tick of the clock dragging out until the gap between each percussive marking of a second passed seemed like a minute. I found myself transfixed by her, by the plaintive look on her face, tinged with what I took to be a sense of immense sorrow that seemed to plunge her elegant features into darkness like a storm cloud smothering the summer sun. She did not speak for a full minute, by my estimate at least, while Luna stared at her, panting as though her speech had taken her great physical effort. I imagine it did, or rather she had bottled up those thoughts for a considerable amount of time, months if her choice of words was any indication, and the news of the security flaws that led to the attempt on my life was the sabre slicing the cork off the top that kept it safely stored inside.

"For you," said Celestia, lifting her head and fixing her sister with a solemn stare, "it's offensives, encirclements, sieges, recruitment, drill, logistics and supply, casualty lists, guns, spears, cannons, and all of that. For me, it's my little ponies."

"Your 'little ponies'!" Luna scoffed. "You've infantilised them! How can you expect them to fight when you treat your subjects like they're your foals? A thousand years of your 'Pax Celestia' has made them soft, weak, decadent, spoilt, and timid. The Equestria I know would have destroyed Chrysalis already!"

"Do you remember how..." Celestia paused, bowing her head and closing her eyes as she searched for the right word "...how difficult life was for ponies back then? A third of all earth pony peasants didn't make it to their fifth birthday, and those who did looked forward to fifty years of toil in the fields if plague did not get them first. And the pegasi warriors, those who survived the agoge [The rigorous and often brutal education and training programme of ancient Pegasopolis that aimed to produce strong and capable warriors] could only expect a lifetime of fighting your wars of conquest. And the unicorns? When famine struck and the earth pony harvests failed, their great cities were the first to starve."

"It made them strong," said Luna flatly, as if that was entirely self-evident.

"It made them afraid.” Celestia placed a hoof on Luna’s shoulder, and looking as though she was on the verge of tears, she offered a soft smile. “These were the ponies who feared your beautiful night and rejected you, who lavished praise upon me and forgot everything you did for them. With you gone for a thousand years, how could I not seek to build a kinder, more accepting Equestria, ready to welcome back their Princess of the Night?"

Luna pushed her sister’s hoof away. "And now that war has come they cannot even defend themselves. They-"

She was staring right at me, her blue eyes were scalpels that sliced cleanly, efficiently through my flesh and into my soul. An icy chill that had nothing to do with this building's lack of an effective heating system crawled over my back, like some wet, slimy creature, and I realised that I had been rumbled.

"He understands us?" said Luna, turning back to Celestia and snarling with the sort of indignation that only a pony who has been caught saying something incriminating can muster. "How does he know our language?"

"The benefits of our modern education system," said Celestia, and not without the merest hint of smugness. That was not quite true, however, as while Ancient Equestrian was part of the curriculum in Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, I spent most of my time in those classes giggling at the pictures of the naughty ponies on antique vases instead of paying attention to the teacher. My fluency with the language only came about because I spent a month with Auntie 'Tia where she spoke nothing but Ancient Equestrian to me for the entire time until it somehow sunk in. Once one grasps the flow of a language by being immersed in it, the rest follows quite easily enough.

[Blueblood's natural aptitude for languages was truly remarkable, despite his very poor academic performance in school. After I observed him learning Coltcuttan by listening to his servants' conversations when his father served as viceroy there, I discovered that he could pick up grammar and vocabulary very quickly through constant exposure to the language.]

Luna fixed me with her cold stare once more, and I recoiled from it, as if seeking safety against the bare stone wall. Cannon Fodder looked a little alarmed by my reaction, by which I mean the dull expression he always wore shifted a little to include a slight frown, but otherwise seemed to think that I had the situation all in hoof as usual.

"Blueblood," she said, her voice a hushed stage-whisper. "Would you say that you are the only pony here, my sister and I excepted, who heard and understood everything that we had just said?"

"Yes." There was very little point in me trying to pretend otherwise, in light of the overwhelming evidence.

Her eyes narrowed. "Which means that if what my sister and I have just discussed gets out, I'll know that it came from you. Do you understand?"

"Yes." I understood perfectly; there'd be very little left of me for the mortician to reassemble after she had finished with me.

"Good." Princess Luna moved to walk away, but stopped halfway through lifting her left forehoof off the floor. She placed her hoof back with a delicate 'tap', and turned her head to face me. Her aquiline features bore an almost playful smirk that inspired far more icy fear in me than her more usual malignant glare. "Pray, nephew, if you are so keen on eavesdropping on the conversations of your superiors, perhaps you might have some opinion to offer on this dilemma that faces us. Do not feel as though you have to keep them to yourself, 'tis only polite, after all."

Now, under most normal circumstances I would have admitted that I simply don't have an opinion, which, while confirming Auntie Luna's view that I am a dullard all but incapable of independent thought beyond selecting which of my many expensive silk cravats to wear for my midday rest in my palace's south solar, would have still been the safest option. She wouldn't be entirely wrong on that account either, as that's all I ever really wanted out of life. However, still feeling a tad disorientated after having survived the fight and my better judgement likely numbed by those painkillers and potions the medic had given me, my attempts to articulate that entirely pedestrian, inoffensive, and thoroughly unsatisfying opinion that would have disappointed the two of them in equal measure, didn't quite slip from my lips in the way that I had initially intended.

"I think you're both right," I said in halting Ancient Equestrian; my pronunciation was always a little off.

"Explain," said Luna. Her expression of faint amusement turned into her more habitual grimace. Instead of cutting off further debate on the topic, I merely opened up a brand new avenue at my own expense. "Our viewpoints are diametrically opposed."

Damnation, I would have to think of something quickly, unless I could contrive a way to fall unconscious in the next minute or so. I looked to Celestia, who merely gave me a hopeful smile and a gentle nod of her head, as though she was encouraging one of her students to recite a speech on stage in front of hundreds of bored parents. I was on my own then, as she either remained oblivious to my plight or thought that there was some cryptic lesson to learn buried beneath my misery that I had to tease out for myself. Knowing her as I do, it was most likely the latter, but for the life of me I could not work out what it was.

"You were meant to rule together," I blurted out, being the first coherent thought that had coalesced inside my mind that was not just a whole lot of very un-princely swearing.

It must have worked, because both Princesses looked at me as though I had said something profound, or perhaps they were simply humouring me. It was quite hard to tell, really, but from where I sat, Celestia's beaming smile seemed quite genuine on the surface. As for Luna, I was already acquainted with her belief that the practice of concealing one's true feelings to avoid needless conflict was a sign of utmost weakness, so it was an immense relief to see her snarl soften and transform into a more benign frown of puzzlement.

"He's right," said Celestia, and I could finally relax. Inasmuch as I could possibly try to relax after what I had just been through. It was not enough that I had nearly died again, I had to follow up that harrowing experience with some sort of quiz about the philosophical direction of Equestrian society over the past one thousand years.

"Day and Night, Sun and Moon, sister," she continued. "Equestria needs both of us to thrive. We must work together to achieve victory. You are right; in a thousand years of peace, perhaps I did not see that the harmony my little ponies enjoyed could be so vulnerable to an outside threat. In truth, I feared a return to the dark times that turned you into Nightmare Moon."

"I did not mean to diminish your achievements," said Luna, her voice much gentler now. "You have built a nation to be proud of in my absence, and all I ask now is that I be allowed to defend it from those who seek to destroy it."

"Then we must work together to find a way to bring a swift resolution to this war, without compromising the harmony our nation is built upon."

"A path between day and night." Luna tapped her chin thoughtfully, then an enthusiastic smile stretched across her lips, as one would upon coming to a beneficial conclusion to some problem. "I have a few hours before I must patrol the dream realm. Perhaps we should retire to the castle and discuss the matter further."

"Just how we used to, one thousand years ago," said Celestia, beaming happily. She looked to me, and gave a polite nod of her head, sending her incorporeal mane wafting elegantly on whatever cosmic breeze that keeps it aloft. "Thank you, Blueblood, for your insight."

The two then left, chattering to one another about how they might work together for the benefit of Equestria, and I was left sitting there in the corridor, wondering what in the blazes had just happened. Even then I was under no misapprehension that my apparent burst of 'insight', as Celestia had put it, was truly the nice, safe, and conclusive end to their disagreements. Their arguments, reflected in the discussions across Equestria from both chambers of Parliament to the clubs in Canterlot to peasants gathered around mugs of cider in Ponyville, would carry on for far longer than this war lasted. Indeed, it still rages on unresolved, the respective sides taken up by hunched, flat-hoofed, glasses-wearing, pipe-smoking academics who have managed to con the entire country into giving them tax money just to bicker about the past.

[Blueblood's description of the conversation I had with Princess Luna is accurate for the most part, barring a few clumsy translations of Ancient Equestrian words that have no direct comparison to modern Ponish that I have taken the liberty to correct. While it is true that no debate as intense as the ones that I have had with my sister on the Changeling War, and on various other matters pertaining to her difficult adjustment to modern life, could be resolved with two short sentences, my nephew's words did cause the two of us to stop and consider the other's point of view, leading to an effective if volatile working relationship for the duration of the conflict.]

At any rate, it was none of my business now; the affairs of alicorns are not for mortals to meddle with being an old adage from the distant past that still resonates today, but I would often find myself dragged into their problems, schemes, and utterly insane ideas for many years to come, whether I wanted to or not. Shortly after they had left, an officer came to take my version of events, and for once I was largely truthful on the matter. He was not at all interested in hearing what Cannon Fodder had to say, if anything.

Eventually, after another bout of tedious waiting where the pleasant glow of the painkillers and potions began to wear off, the building was declared 'secure', whatever that meant, by Captain Red Coat, who I wagered merely wanted to return to barracks and bed. It was a need I wholly sympathised with, and after brushing off the medic who informed me that I required a few more weeks of light duties and rest to recover from the beating I had just taken, Cannon Fodder half-escorted, half-carried me through to the main entrance of the building where a taxi awaited me. The journey was agonising, with each jolt and bump of the carriage accompanied by a splinter of pain in my chest. Ere long, however, we made it back to my apartment, whereupon Drape Cut guided me to the soft, gentle, comforting embrace of my bed.

As I lay there, still in my wrecked uniform and bound up in bandages, unable to sleep for there was no position which did not result in some measure of pain, whether from my back, cracked rib, or assorted bruises, I heard could hear my valet conversing with Cannon Fodder. Their voices were muffled and indistinct, but were just clear enough for me to discern that Drape Cut's clipped, refined voice dominated much of the conversation. From what I could gather, he had offered my aide the spare room in the apartment should he wish, which was politely declined. The sound of two sets of horseshoes on soft carpet followed, and then the opening of the door.

"Thank you for taking care of His Highness for me," I heard Drape Cut say.

I didn't sleep, or perhaps I did but it was so restless and shallow that I might as well have just stayed awake. Canterlot was no longer safe, and I had been going through these past few months there under the assumption that it was a sacred haven away from the horrors of the war. Whatever counter-measures that we raise will invariably be circumvented by a determined enemy hell-bent on our enslavement. I should have learned after the incident at Fancy Pants' party that the threat of a knife in the back from an enemy so proficient at blending in was everywhere, but I had hoped, somewhat naively I admit, that the problem had been utterly eradicated by the vigilance of our Royal Guard. You see, I wanted to believe in this idea of a sanctuary away from the war so much, and who could possibly blame me after two years at the front?

The next few days were spent in a sort of daze. While I had been excused from duty for a few days to recover and allow the various healing potions I had ingested to work their magic on my cracked rib and bruises, the attempt on my life had left me in a damned funk that was impossible to shake. I merely went through the motions of my daily routine, in some kind of hollow, vacant facsimile of my former wastrel life, albeit without the charm, joy, wit, and bonhomie it once possessed. Perhaps I never truly held those qualities, or recent events had exposed them for the ridiculous distractions that they truly are in the face of the distinct unpleasantness of the knowledge of one's own mortality. It was foolish to think that I could return to the idyllic, carefree life of the narcissistic hedonist I once occupied after all that I had seen on the frontline. It was, however, not for a lack of trying. Even Drape Cut, loathe as he was to suggest it, asked if I required the services of Lady Velvet Tail, which I considered and then dismissed on the grounds that she was probably rather busy of late with all of the soldiers in Canterlot. ['Lady' Velvet Tail was a courtesan of some repute in Canterlot at the time, of whom Blueblood was a frequent customer.]

A few days of this malaise had passed until I received two letters through the post; Drape Cut had left them on the tray when he brought my breakfast in bed, which was just before midday when hunger roused me from the womb-like security of plush pillows and warm blankets. Over a bowl of kedgeree I inspected the first, being a midnight blue envelope speckled with fine silvery pinpricks that glittered when I rotated it around in the light. It could only have come from one pony on Equis, whose tendency towards melodrama extended even to her official royal stationery. I opened it reluctantly, dreading its contents almost as much as I did the pony who wrote it, and read it as my breakfast grew as cold as the chill in my heart.

['Kedgeree' consists of smoked fish, rice, and eggs flavored with curry seasonings. Originating from Griffon colonists in Coltcutta, this dish can prove excruciatingly hard for ponies to digest unless their bodies are acclimated to fish, or they ingest supplemental enzymes beforehoof. Given Blueblood's exotic tastes, I cannot be sure which is true in his case.]

Dearest Commissar-Prince Blueblood,

I write to wish you a swift recovery, so that you may take up your duties once more as commissar to our Night Guard. Rubber Stamp has asked me to convey her gratitude for saving her life and for dispatching the cowardly infiltrator.

It is with regret, however, that I must inform you that your request for a promotion has been denied. The post of commissar for the Guards Division has already been appointed, as have all commissarial posts in the First Army. [Army Group Centre was re-named as part of the restructuring process, and Army Groups East and West became the Second and Third Armies respectively. All three field armies were then placed under the command of Field Marshal Iron Hoof's Army Group. Keeping track of changing military formations in this period remains a logistical nightmare, but can provide hours of entertainment for the pedantic sort of armchair general.] However, let it not be said that I do not reward valour, and therefore I have created an honorary title for you. Henceforth, you have been appointed as Lord Commissar, with a special advisory role to General Solitaire in addition to your normal role as commissar to the Night Guards. You will share your expertise in the field to your fellow commissars assigned to watch over all component formations of the First Army on an ad hoc basis, as and when your duties to Colonel Sunshine Smiles allows. This arrangement will satisfy the desire you had expressed to Rubber Stamp to support your fellow commissars.

I trust that this will be satisfactory to both your needs and those of the Royal Commissariat.

Yours eternally into the night,

H.R.H. Princess Luna

P.S. - See you at Twilight's party!

Fantastic. Not only did my one chance at seizing safety without saving face fail, this damned compromise dreamt up by Princess Luna would simply add yet more work on top of what I already passed onto Cannon Fodder, and I would still have to contend with the bowel-clenching terror of frontline combat. Not to mention, making my list of regal titles even more ungainly by adding the entirely superfluous appellation of 'lord'; His Royal Highness Lord Commissar Prince Blueblood, Duke of Canterlot, Member of Their Divine Highnesses’ Most Honourable Privy Council, Aide-de-Camp to the Royal Pony Sisters, etc., just all sounded ridiculous. I was about to toss this scrap of very pretty paper away when I, by chance, re-read the post-script.

A party? I had no recollection of being invited to one hosted by Twilight Sparkle, let alone accepting such an invitation, unless Equestria's newest princess still required an education in the etiquette around royal social events. That thought was very quickly quashed when I noticed that the second letter resting against the side of the breakfast tray was in fact a card, about the size of one of those vulgar seaside postcards Captain Blitzkrieg collects. Lifting it with my magic, I saw that it was indeed a formal invitation card, of a good texture and with the words engraved rather than cheaply printed. It read:

Princess Twilight Sparkle requests the pleasure of the company of Prince Blueblood at The Castle of Friendship on Friday 13th April to celebrate the founding day of the Prism Guards regiment.

Doors open 8pm
Full-dress uniform or white tie

I re-read that invitation over and over, giving it far more attention than I had Luna's letter. I imagined Celestia had a hoof in arranging the invitations, as I doubted the bookish mare would have much time for royal invitation protocol between saving Equestria and reading books on more interesting and obscure topics. She never put much stock in formality, anyway, if her behaviour and those of her friends at the Grand Galloping Gala was any indication. Then again, if she was truly taking this princess business seriously, it would not be beyond her capabilities to consult the various etiquette manuals available, likely having more than a few in her personal library, and followed the rather simple instructions carefully. Still, I had to commend her on the quality of the invitation card, and it had been quite a while since I had attended a truly formal event.

The implication, however, only sunk in for me after I had finished the kedgeree and was halfway through my cup of morning tea. Though I had been pondering what outfit to wear to the party, if everypony expected me to be in the ceremonial full dress of the Commissariat or if I could get away with the rather more dignified civilian tailcoat, the term 'founding day' intruded quite rudely into my mind. We would be celebrating the founding of her new regiment of Royal Guard, which would join the Solar, Night, and Crystal Guards regiments into the Guards Division. This all meant that very soon the army would be mustered once more and hurled into the madness that was the front, carried out with the renewed and misguided vigour of over-confident generals eager to test out their new weapons and strategies on a tenacious and intelligent foe, who probably had full knowledge of our plans anyway.

Well, I can tell you that this realisation had sunk my already floundering spirits to new depths of despair that I had not thought possible. There was only one thing for it, and that was to make sure that my last days in Canterlot, and possibly on this good, green Equis, were as memorable as possible. I was going to get drunk; utterly, royally, completely, and regally trousered. After a short nap and a few hours trying on suits, I would embark upon a trip to the seedier side of Canterlot, to a place that I had tried to put off visiting since my return out of a misguided and half-hearted attempt to direct my life onto some sort of straight and narrow direction. The Tartarus Club awaited.

Chapter 5

The hall was smothered in a dense layer of pipe smoke, like the fog in Trottingham; over by the piano a group of drunk lesser nobles and landed gentry sang a bawdy song about Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and the various things they each wanted to do with my cousin; in a dimly-lit corner, a small group of mares and stallions writhed, moaned, and giggled; and at the bar older gentlecolts nursed glasses of wine and complained about the non-pony races moving in and ruining Equestria. I rested on a soft, plush sofa in a quiet corner of the room, with a bottle of the Dom Ponygnon '07 and two glasses on the coffee table within easy reach. A pretty mare rested her head on my lap, and she traced her silk stocking-clad hoof along a scar on my chest. This was the Tartarus Club.

"How about this one?" said the filly, tapping the thin line of raised scar tissue with the tip of her hoof. "What's the story behind this one?"

I took a sip of champagne and a puff of my cigar, affecting myself to look as though I was in deep, contemplative thought as I stared off into the middle distance. "A duel," I said, expelling a cloud of smoke that wafted away in the stagnant air to add to the choking smog. "Some blackguard thought he could insult the honour of the Night Guards, so we fought a duel over it."

Her eyes widened and she smiled. "Did you kill him?"

"No, but he learned his lesson." I left out the part where Captain Blitzkrieg had allowed himself to be goaded by an impertinent Solar Guard officer, resulting in said duel in the first place.

In truth, I had grown rather tired of telling heavily-sanitised stories about the war; it was all anypony wanted to hear when I returned to Canterlot, for every high society event that I had attended had been populated by nobles who demanded that I regale them with tales from the front. They tended to be the ones left behind where others took up their expected military posts and marched off to war, being either too old or too infirm to fight, or even having summoned up a socially acceptable excuse to remain behind where I could not, and were thus living out this war vicariously through me. I performed my duty well, at first, but each time I waxed lyrical about the supposed glory of war over canapés and Beaujolais, my words felt as though they were rotting before they even left my mouth. Had I the courage to do so, I would have told them in their opulent palaces the true horror of what I had witnessed; a stallion's face ripped to shreds by canister shot and left to die choking on his own blood, or the countless Changelings consumed in the flames of an angered goddess, or Captain Red Coat sobbing like a foal when he saw what had happened to him. But I am a coward in more ways than one, so I suppressed that urge and buried it deep down so that the images I am forced to see when I close my eyes and sleep remain with me alone.

This time, however, was different. It was pure drama; part of the game a stallion and mare play together to subtly tease out one another's suitability for more involved activities later. Mares liking scars is a cliché that is at least partially true, provided that they are not too disfiguring and that one has an interesting story to tell about it. About half of the ones I had told to this mare were made up on the spot, and she knew it; truth was not what mattered here in this place of sybaritic pleasure, but merely a bit of play-acting to ease our passage into a night of playful and indulgent sin. Scars never lie, the old mare's saying goes, but I sure as Tartarus can.

The mare hummed appreciatively, and squirmed on my lap as her hungry eyes scanned over my upper body for more interesting scars to ask about. I don't recall her name, only that she was a pegasus, small and slim, with a dusky pink coat and a cutie mark depicting a pair of dice displaying ones. We had met at the bar, where she recognised me instantly, and after a few drinks and some idle chit-chat where I learned that she was some down-on-her-luck noblemare who had blown her inheritance on some unwise bets, we migrated over to one of the many sofas in the club's hall.

"What about this one?" she said, stroking the thin line over my left shoulder where a piece of shrapnel had ripped a small but painful chunk out of me.

"Oh, that one?" I peered over at the scar that marred my otherwise pristine white coat; it was not the biggest or most dramatic I had at the time, and the story that came with it was hardly entertaining anyway. Affecting a far-away look, I said, at length, "I can't talk about that one, my dear, not yet."

The mare giggled and swatted her hoof playfully at my chest. "A few hours and I'll make you tell me everything."

I chuckled, sliding my hoof over the gentle curve of her back. "I look forward to it."

Although the Tartarus Club had pretensions of at least having the appearance of a traditional Canterlot gentlecolts' club, its exclusivity had in fact very little to do with its formal entry requirements. That is to say, there were none officially. One had to find it in the first place, its location being something of a secret passed by word-of-mouth amongst like-minded 'ponies of quality', amidst the maze-like alleyways and dead-ends of Canterlot's Old City district, and once stumbled upon, neophytes who lacked the stomach for the sort of debauched entertainment on offer there rarely felt the desire to remain for much longer. You see, dear reader, for the desperately short time that Earl Sand Wedge had run the club, it dying with him after he had tragically drowned in a swimming pool of whipped cream, this had been the place for the decadent sort of gentlecolt and lady to meet and take part in fun activities that society perceives to be immoral but are in fact harmless to all except its participants.

Granted, much of it was merely foalish attempts to shock the prudish with casual blasphemy (even I thought the statue of Nightmare Moon that constantly lactated a stream of perfectly chilled champagne was in bad taste), but anywhere I can drink, gamble, and whore away my worries without having to stray into areas of our fair realm occupied by the working pony is all but guaranteed to become my home-away-from-home. There was none of that ridiculous, juvenile rebellion against social norms or exposure of aristocratic hypocrisy in what I did there, merely what I thought to be fun, and it just so happened our tastes aligned. That said, the play-acting with the robes and nonsense-Old Ponish chanting in the shadow of that statue of Nightmare Moon did provide a frisson of naughtiness that enhanced the experience, at least until a few started taking it rather too seriously. Unlike my fellow libertines and hedonists of the upper class here, I saw no worth in dressing up my selfish pursuit of pleasure in the transparent robes of faux-intellectualism.

All-in-all, it was shaping up to be a rather pleasant evening. A night of drunken debauchery, though somewhat restrained by the standards set by the more philosophically-minded members and their obscene, mock-Pagan rituals, was precisely what I needed after all that I had been through those past few days, and the perfect fortifier with which to prepare myself for the horror to come.

I held the mare's smaller frame to my chest, stroking over her soft, silky mane while I alternated between sipping a fine vintage that probably cost more than what most ponies earned in a week and puffing away on what was ultimately an expensive and very inefficient form of suicide. By now, the mare had either tired of her little game or had simply run out of scars to ask about, and she settled against my chest, watching the licentiousness on display around us and knocking back her drink with the sort of aloofness that comes from being an experienced disciple of decadence. The griffons have a saying, 'the chase is better than the catch'; for the only moment that was better than the deed itself was the anticipation of it, and I was revelling in it. For a brief moment, all was right with my world.

Then this perfect moment had to be spoilt, because nothing nice could ever happen to me without an unpleasant reminder that all happiness and joy in my life must be transitory. Though my gaze was focused on the mare on my lap, on the way the dim light of the candles in the ornate chandeliers above was reflected in her smouldering dark eyes, like the stars in the cloudless night sky, I became aware of another pony standing over me. Probably another one of the club members, thought I, who most likely wanted to try and join in on our sinful little game here. As much of an unrepentant sybarite as I was back then, and still am if age wasn't so much of a barrier, I remained the rather selfish sort who was not all too keen on sharing either myself or my conquests with another.

"Blueblood!" The newcomer exclaimed, and my good mood was shattered like a fine crystal champagne flute dropped from a great height. There are only two kinds of ponies I can tolerate addressing me by name only, and they are family and close friends; I had no close friends, and I can't stand the company of most of my family for a variety of other, more valid reasons.

I looked up, and saw a unicorn stallion who I had not seen in years. He was rather short, and thin to the point of appearing to be just on the cusp of being undernourished. His charcoal grey fur almost blended into the murky surroundings of the club's hall, but the shock of stark white mane and his piercing sky-blue eyes stood out even in this oppressive gloom. It took me a while to recognise him in this darkness and with my mind already clouded by drink, but after I mentally added great red and yellow smears of pubescent acne to what little of his face I could make out, his name and a veritable flood of shared memories came rushing forth.

"Second Fiddle?" I blurted out. In hindsight, I should have recognised his distinctive cutie mark instantly, being two violins crossed like swords.

"Fancy running into you here!" He grinned broadly, and his white teeth stood out both against his dark coat and the deepening shadows cast by meagre candlelight, which, when combined with his eyes likewise contrasting so much, created the disturbing effect of a disembodied smile floating in mid-air.

Second Fiddle then held out a hoof for me to shake, apparently unaware of the fact that my own hooves were rather pre-occupied at the moment, being in the process of making their gradual journey from toying with the mare's mane to her toned flanks that I had been longing to squeeze all evening. Speaking of my new friend, she snorted in annoyance at this newcomer taking away attention that should have been spent on her, and squirmed a little in my embrace, forcing me to loosen my grip on her as she reached on over to refill her glass from the bottle.

I shook his hoof, somewhat reluctantly. Of all the times I had to run into an old friend, it had be now. "How in blazes have you been?" I asked. "I haven't seen you since... you know, at Celestia's School."

His right eye twitched, and whatever muscle did that also pulled a little on the right corner of his grin. It was over in less than half a second, but I still noticed it, and a twinge of guilt wrapped its bony claws around my heart and squeezed. The two of us had been in school together, and I expect that our teachers might have thought us to be close friends given the amount of time we spent together; the truth is that he was merely a hanger-on, a toady, and a hoof-licking crony who stuck by my side and supported my little reign of terror in the playground. It was a shame, really, as he was a good student with the potential to do well in further education and research in the magical arts. Not a great one, mind you, in the manner of Twilight Sparkle, but at least a profitable but unremarkable career. That is, until he fell in with the wrong crowd, which was me, and he was caught up in that whirlwind of angry adolescent delinquency that resulted in my expulsion from the school, and in turn led to him failing his final exams. Essentially, I ruined his life, and I had scarcely paid that notion much thought at all until he unexpectedly turned up in the Tartarus Club of all places.

"Wonderful!" he said, though his tone of voice hinted that the direction his life had taken since I last saw him was far less than 'wonderful'. "Magic school didn't work out for me in the end, so I ended up in the Royal Guard, back when it was still just the Royal Guard, of course. Anyway, after being stationed on the Foalkland Islands for three years guarding the penguins, an exciting new opportunity came up and I just had to take it."

[The Foalklands are a small collection of islands off the coast of the Griffon Empire, and are entirely unremarkable except for a small, hardy population of penguins who outnumber the pony settlers there. The meagre Royal Guard garrison protecting the islands was considered to be the most tedious and un-adventurous posting available, and was often used as a form of punishment for officers who had offended their superiors in some way.]

"Sounds very exciting," I said, doing my damnedest to suppress that rising urge to yawn. My companion, however, felt no such compunction against such ill-manners and did so in an exaggerated manner that just had to be deliberate, given the noise she made and the accompanied stretching of all four of her limbs. Her annoyance and disdain for having her fun interrupted was obvious to all, being the sort of spoilt mare whose parents, nannies, governesses, and so on never told her 'no'.

Second Fiddle carried on regardless; in fact, he barely acknowledged the mare resting her head on my lap with her rump wagging provocatively up in the air. "It is! When something like this comes around you've got to take it with both hooves!"

He was clearly drunk. Not excessively so by my own standards, mind you, though he was a little unsteady on his hooves, but just enough so as to be on the irritating side of talkative. Without asking for permission, he sat himself down on the armchair next to the sofa my new best friend and I occupied, and continued with his excitable rambling. I watched him in amazement; Second Fiddle was always a little socially inept when I knew him at school, even by the standards of a teenager too, with his peculiar and, looking back now, frankly creepy preoccupation with me, but now that I saw him again I hoped that he would have grown out of that behaviour. Even Cannon Fodder, lacking in social skills as he did, would have at least noticed that I had neither the time nor inclination to drop what I was doing with this very pretty mare and listen to him.

"But enough about me, how about you? Then again, I know all about what you've been up to, Blueblood. All of Canterlot can't stop talking about your adventures down in the Badlands, and then you follow it up by busting that Changeling spy-ring in the government. I hope you've left enough glory for the rest of us, because soon I'll be..."

The mare tugged on my arm insistently, and my attention was drawn away from my old school chum's tipsy rambling. She had lifted herself off my lap and sat on the sofa next to me, though she still clung to my body as though she was drowning and my barrel was an unusually buoyant door. I felt her heat radiate from within, like a fire lit inside her slim frame that threatened to ignite that same passion in me, that would throw aside all social propriety and ravish her right there on this centuries-old antique furniture. It was difficult, but I suppressed that urge, but it was not helped when she raised her head and kissed my cheek. The fur there tingled pleasantly, and it lingered for quite a while.

"If you don't get rid of this idiot soon," she whispered into my ear as Second Fiddle droned on, "I shall find another stallion to play with."

I returned the kiss and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Soon," I whispered back, Second Fiddle being too engrossed in telling his life story to notice. "We'll get him drunk, then go back to my palace and leave him here."

I waved down one of the club's staff. In contrast to the refined formalwear of the attendants in the Imperial Club, the ponies who worked here all wore black robes emblazoned with the symbol of the mare-in-the-moon and with hoods pulled down low so as to obscure their eyes. One could always spot the recently-inducted by the way they kept bumping into things. I expect all of this nonsense was part of the image of the Tartarus Club, presenting itself as some sort of ancient, pagan, Nightmare cult, but really, their resemblance to the clerks of the EEA had spoilt it somewhat.

"A bottle of absinthe to celebrate my friend's promotion!" I bellowed to the closest be-robed waiter, who dutifully disappeared behind the bar and re-appeared bearing said libation and the assorted paraphernalia required. Now, while the effects of this particular drink have been greatly exaggerated thanks to those same decadent Prench poets I am so fond of, it remains a very potent drink that will ensnare those unused to its strength. In short, I planned to get him drunk to the point of imbecility, and then leave him in the care of the club while I took this mare back to my home to continue our sordid little affair in peace.

Now, you may think me callous for putting my own selfish pleasure above the joy of seeing an old friend again after so many years, and you'd be damned right. By way of justification, however, I would say that I was unlikely to see this mare again after this night, so I had merely one shot at glory, as it were, besides giving up and going to the nearest bordello. But I could always find Second Fiddle again at a later date, and in an environment far more conducive to two old friends catching up than this. Besides, I thought it was rather rude of him to assume I'd just shove the mare off my lap and pay attention to him instead, so, as his good friend, it was best that I correct this behaviour and teach him an etiquette lesson; I'm sure the Princess of Friendship would have approved.

I'll give him credit for matching me drink for drink, and there's not many ponies who can. Thus far, only Aunties 'Tia and Luna have been able to out-drink me, but I scarcely think alicorns should count in that running. Nevertheless, it appeared to do its work, and once both the absinthe and the champagne were finished he was, for lack of a better term, completely hammered. Soon, even his excited rambling died down, and he became rather maudlin and quiet. Not that I was left completely unscathed, of course, being quite well on my way into the depths of inebriation myself, such that I was haunted by the notion that when it came for the time for me to 'perform', I might just curl up and fall asleep instead. I decided we should get a move on. However, when the mare and I tried to make our discreet exit from this chamber of carnal delights and into the streets of Canterlot, he took it upon himself to follow, which irritated my companion to no end.

It was a chilly night, as Canterlot is in early Spring, as I led my mare through the streets in the direction of the Sanguine Palace. Despite his obvious inebriation, Second Fiddle insisted on following us, bouncing between walls, lampposts, fences, parked carriages, and the occasional other nocturnal perambulator. After a few more blocks of this, we stopped off at some hostelry for a round of fortifying brandy to see us through the cold, but he became so insensible that he couldn't even walk and ended up face-first in the pavement as we left, trying and failing to stand up again like a newborn.

Now, a good pony would have helped him along, maybe taken him home where he could sleep it off or even to a hospital to make sure he made it through the night. I am not a good pony by any stretch of the imagination, and neither was the mare I was hoping to bed either, who now thought this was all excellent sport. So, we dragged him to an alleyway just off Princess Street, painted over his cutie marks with some pitch the workponies had left out when they were mending the road, and then hurled a few stones at two patrolling guardsponies passing by. When they shouted and galloped on over to arrest whoever dared to attack Their Highnesses' Finest, the mare and I ran, giggling like idiots, and leaving them to deal with my old school chum with his nose to the ground and pitch-covered flanks in the air. They should take good care of him.

I'm sure whosoever reads this needs no description of what I got up to for the rest of the night, but, apparently by way of the universe getting back at me for being an utter bastard to Second Fiddle, I woke up the next morning with the mare, my coin purse of two hundred-odd bits, and a bottle of very rare sherry gone. All part of the game, thought I, and I wasn't going to dwell on it considering what a wonderful time I had rutting her. But the universe was not finished punishing me yet, as that morning's micturition was a vivid rainbow of all colours and burning agony, necessitating that I follow the family tradition and adjourned to a doctor to undo the results of that liaison.

Though I did not know it, that night set me on a destructive course that would have dire consequences for the upcoming offensive into the Changeling heartlands. Or perhaps it didn't. Who knows? Maybe if I had been nicer to my friend that night things might have worked out differently, and the horror that was to follow could have been avoided. Or the problems I would face had far deeper roots than a moment's rudeness from Yours Truly, and I am not so arrogant to think that great events revolve around little old me. It's not my place to speculate here, but to deliver the facts as I saw them, though it is with some amusement that I note that scholars, historians, pundits, and the like tend not to bring up the events of that night for reasons that should be fairly obvious; nopony wants me being a randy blackguard dragging down the tone of their debates any further than they already have been.

At any rate, I wouldn't have written about this if I didn't think it would have some bearing on future events, but at the time I paid it very little heed and soon forgot about Second Fiddle again. I had Twilight's party to think about, and to tell the truth I had been rather dreading it; not only was Luna going to be there, but it meant venturing out of Canterlot and into that bleak, run-down, peasant village called Ponyville. It was, apparently, still part of the Duchy of Canterlot at the time and therefore 'mine' (my idea that Twilight, having her palace and main residence on my land, should in fact be my vassal was politely and decisively shot down by Celestia), but I had yet to grace it with my regal presence.

[Ponyville was historically part of the Duchy of Canterlot and remained so for two years after Princess Twilight Sparkle's coronation. Prince Blueblood would later release the County of Ponyville from his demesne, granting Twilight the title of Countess of Ponyville.]

That said, seeing Twilight Sparkle again was very much something to look forward to, and Drape Cut had even taken the liberty to arrange for me to spend the night at her castle following the party. In a series of letters, he argued that as we were expected to finish quite late into the night, either returning home or finding lodgings in the village would prove difficult, and given the large numbers of guests who would descend upon there, surely a pony of my royal lineage should also be afforded royal accommodation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Twilight agreed, and granted me and a number of officers of the Night Guard the use of her many guest bedrooms, but then again, after what I had done for her in the House of Lords I'd say she owed me.

As he packed my suitcase, Drape Cut and I argued about whether Ponyville counted as Country or Town for the purposes of dress code, with Yours Truly wanting to wear a rustic tweed sport coat there and my valet arguing that a navy blazer was more in keeping with its growing urbanisation. ‘No brown in town’ and all that. He won, of course, he always did on these sorts of matters, and I found myself wearing said navy blazer, with a patch of the Night Guard's silver crescent moon stitched onto the chest pocket, paired with the appropriate regimental striped tie as I rode the train there with Cannon Fodder and Colonel Sunshine Smiles. While I was in mufti [military slang for civilian clothing], my fellow travellers were already in dress uniforms, as they either lacked or refused the services of servants to pack extra clothing.

In keeping with the government's wartime austerity measures, both private carriages and first class had been temporarily abolished, forcing me to sit in third class with the rest of the great unwashed. Those same measures, however, restricted travel somewhat, so at the very least the carriage was sparsely populated. Besides, Cannon Fodder's distinct aroma did much to deter the more determined autograph hunters.

[These austerity measures were introduced under the Defence of Equestria Act (the DOE Act), passed shortly after the attempt on Blueblood's life. This controversial act gave the government wide-ranging powers during the war, including restricting the movement of ponies, requisitioning property for the war effort, rationing of fuel, food, and clothing, and censorship.]

The journey took a few hours, and the well of idle chit-chat to while away that time had long since run dry. Cannon Fodder was never much for speaking beyond what was truly necessary, and Sunshine Smiles was engrossed in the heavily-abridged version of Twilight's lengthy and tediously-written report, which, despite having most of the illustrative examples and minutiae eliminated, still looked large and heavy enough to club a dragon to death with. I myself had the latest Daring Do novel to keep me occupied, but try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to focus on it; instead, the words on the pages seemed to evaporate from my mind mere moments after I had read them, such that I could scarcely follow the plot. Perhaps it was because the subject matter, the titular heroine competing with Changeling infiltrators to grab yet another artefact of doom, cut a little too close to the bone for me, or that I was far too distracted with my own thoughts to tackle the populist literature before me.

Eventually, I gave up the pretext of trying to read even this light and unchallenging story, and just stared out of the window at the scenery rushing past us. My thoughts had strayed into that dark, murky realm of existentialism that I tried to keep quiet with drink and mares, but here, with no other stimuli to keep myself from descending to such depths, I had no choice but to tackle it head-on. The war had laid bare the vacuity of my life, freed as it were from the daily struggles of the common pony, but now brought down to their level by that shared horror. As they say, there is no going back, but now that those idle luxuries that had once given my life such meaning were exposed for the empty follies that they truly were, what was there to occupy the space they once filled?

The sight of the thatched roofs of Ponyville coming into view interrupted such thoughts. Peering out of the window, I could see where the railway line curved around at a respectable distance from the Everfree Forest, and nestled between there and the lumpen hills where those famous apple orchards sprawled, was the tiny collection of those quaint little cottages. While it looked lovely, its proximity to both the Everfree Forest, that last blighted spot of untamed nature infested with monsters, and the Gates of Tartarus had rather put me off visiting far more than the fact it was merely a tiny, rustic village with little to appeal to the urban aristocrat. Furthermore, ponies who would willingly live in such close proximity to those two aforementioned tourist attractions were clearly insane and I wanted nothing to do with them.

Though I had never visited Ponyville before, I had seen it through the window of a train carriage on my way to much more interesting places, so the rows upon rows of cottages and endless fields of apple trees were all familiar to me. What was new, however, was the castle towering over the entire village; a gaudy tree-like structure apparently in imitation of some ancient Crystal Empire designs, topped with a tower shaped like the star symbol of Twilight's cutie mark, which I found to be a tad gauche. Clearly, the Tree of Harmony hadn't heard of the concept of subtlety when it gifted Twilight with an entire castle after defeating Tirek.

By the way, if you, dear reader, are at all curious about what I got up to during that particular crisis, the answer is 'not very much'. Those expecting personal heroics on my part will be disappointed, and clearly haven't paid much attention either. I was in my palace minding my own business when Tirek and his lackey Discord burst in, whereupon I was drained of all magic. It was a rather unpleasant experience, having all of my magic sucked out of me like milkshake through a straw, and made all the more humiliating when the megalomaniacal centaur bellowed 'is that it?' at me immediately after. Apparently, he too believed in that ridiculous conspiracy theory about my family having access to forbidden blood magic, and was quite upset when he found such a thing doesn't actually exist.

The train came to a juddering halt at the station, and I was instantly on my hooves to stretch my tired, numb limbs. I longed for fresh air and space too, finding the confines of third class travel to be rather too claustrophobic after hours stuck inside that cramped, filthy carriage. I left Cannon Fodder to deal with my luggage, though Sunshine Smiles insisted on carrying his own for some peculiar reason, and I trotted out onto the station platform ahead of everypony else. It was a rather dismal affair, to be honest, that consisted of a stretch of wooden planks positioned at precisely the right height to make egress from carriage a little bit awkward, being rather lower than what one expected. As for the station building, the roof and even its canopy were thatched to keep with the rustic milieu of the village, and the fact that the sign was a primitive drawing of a train seemed to imply a certain level of illiteracy here.

I had expected Twilight Sparkle to greet us personally at the station, or at least one or more of the other Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, and escort us to the castle where we would be staying. Even Spike the Dragon would have been an acceptable choice of chaperone, if an unbearably annoying and insulting one. Instead, there were three blank-flanked fillies, a unicorn, an earth pony, and a pegasus, sitting around near the door and peering at the train with a sudden and keen interest. When I stepped onto the platform, the three sprang to their hooves and trotted on over as fast as their little legs would carry them.

I don't like foals; they are loud, volatile, obnoxious, and quite often I can't understand a word they say, so I might as well try talking to dogs instead. Standing there, I looked to the carriage behind me, hoping that Cannon Fodder might emerge from the door to drive them away with his charming bouquet of body odour. Alas, from what I could tell from peering through the windows, it appeared they were arguing with another group of passengers about a mix-up with the luggage. I would have to deal with these fillies myself.

As the three approached, I saw that they each wore costumes resembling military dress uniforms complete with little peaked caps, though their insignia was clearly just whatever they thought looked 'cool' or simply made-up. The pegasus filly in particular had an improbable array of medals on her chest, and appeared to have served in the Wonderbolts, the Solar Guard, and the Night Guard all at the same time. It would have been a remarkable career at the tender age of ten, but made all the more impressive and humbling by the fact she had apparently accomplished all of that despite her stunted wings, which were little more than feathery stubs protruding from her back. I expect that this all sounds rather adorable, or even cute, but I found it to be rather depressing, really; as much as I dislike foals, that this infernal conflict has seeped into the realm of the schoolyard could only be seen as a triumph of our baser instincts over the supposed innocence of foalhood. They should be playing anything else other than soldiers.

"Papers, please!" said the earth pony. The rustic twang in her voice marked her out instantly as one from Equestria's rural and backwards south.

"I beg your pardon?" I said, looking down at the three as they stood side by side before me.

"Papers!" repeated the pegasus. Her tiny wing-stubs buzzed angrily, lifting her about half an inch off the ground for a second or two. "You have to show us your papers!"

"What papers?" I blurted out. "And why do I have to show them to you?"

"Your identification papers, sir," said the unicorn. Her accent was a little more refined than those of the other two, and felt very familiar, though I could not place my hoof on it. "We're on the lookout for Changeling spies."

"And trying to get our cutie marks at the same time!" The pegasus pointed to her blank flank.

"Who are you all?" I looked around the empty station platform. "And where are your parents?"

"We're the C.M.C.P.P.M.M.C.C.F.!" they shouted together. Fortunately, having been exposed to Princess Luna's Royal Canterlot Voice at short range meant that I was quite used to sudden and very loud noises, but the shrillness of their pitch still felt like icicles shoved right inside my brain.

I rubbed a hoof over my abused ears, wondering at what point I'll just go completely and irreversibly deaf from Luna's shouting, the roar of cannon fire, and these three fillies' incessant screaming. "The what?"

"The Cutie Mark Crusaders Ponyville Militia Para-Military Combined Cadet Force!" The three fillies then introduced themselves in turn: the unicorn was named Sweetie Belle, the earth pony Apple Bloom, and the crippled pegasus was Scootaloo.

I blinked vacantly at them, trying to formulate an adequate response to that particular outpouring of insanity. Was I supposed to play along with them? That sounded like something Celestia would do with foals and their absurd imaginary games, but I felt that sort of thing was beneath me. This was hardly the sort of thing that I wanted to encourage, either.

"I see," I said, at length. I didn't, really, but I assumed that any explanation they could give was not going to clarify very much for me, and I had rather more important things to be getting on with. Trying to recover my regal composure by standing straight and tall like my father taught me by beating me with a stick until I got it right, I said in as clear and authoritative voice as I could manage given the circumstances, "I am Prince Blueblood."

The three looked up at me in puzzlement, then exchanged a few furtive glances with one another. I suppose it might have been possible that they might not know who I was, but given their apparent interest in the ongoing war and the fact that my handsome face was plastered all over recruitment posters without my prior approval, it was very unlikely. Still, for a few seconds at least I was allowed to indulge in the novel experience of being anonymous, until Scootaloo ruined it for me.

"No you're not!" she exclaimed, wing-stubs buzzing again in a vain effort to bring her airborne.

"Yeah, you're not tall enough to be Commissar Blueblood!" said Apple Bloom.

Sweetie Belle tapped her chin, her wide green eyes scanning over my frame appreciatively. "He kind of looks like the photos in my sister's shrine, before she threw it out and set it on fire, that is."

"But where's his hat?" Scootaloo waved her peaked cap about, which appeared to have once been a part of a chauffeur's uniform that she had selectively painted red and glued on a paper cut-out of a skull.

A deep, warm, friendly chuckle from behind informed me that Colonel Sunshine Smiles had finally sorted out whatever problems involved the luggage and disembarked. Unless Cannon Fodder had a sudden desire to see Appleloosa (and why on earth would anypony actually want to go and settle in that miserable little frontier town with its backward buffalos I'll never know, nopony can like apples that much), I assumed that he too had emerged onto the platform.

I looked over my shoulder to see my two travelling companions standing behind me, as the train itself slowly drifted away from the station and on to the less fashionable parts of our fair realm. Sunshine Smiles grinned so that the right side of his mouth matched his scarred left, while Cannon Fodder stood there holding my suitcase by its handle in his mouth. I made a mental note to have it disinfected before unpacking, if and when I arrived at Twilight's castle.

"I see you've made some friends," said Sunshine, moving to my side. The three fillies stared up at him, towering over them and looking very imposing and authoritative in his midnight-blue dress uniform and gold lace.

"They didn't give me much of a choice," I muttered, mostly to myself though. "What took you so long?"

"Nothing," he said, his voice taking on a mock-innocent tone that I found to be just the right amount of insulting. "I was just watching you."

"Oh, thank you."

He pretended not to hear and turned to the foals, then, to my surprise and their obvious delight, snapped to attention and saluted briskly. "Colonel Sunshine Smiles of Her Royal Highness' Night Guard. I have orders to present myself, Prince Blueblood, and Private Cannon Fodder to officers of the Ponyville Militia Guard, to be escorted to Princess Twilight Sparkle's castle."

The 'Ponyville Militia Guard' exchanged a few confused looks between one another, while I tapped my hoof in increasing frustration at having to indulge in this foalish game. Still, the Colonel seemed to be enjoying himself, at least.

"What officers of the Ponyville Militia Guard?" asked Sweetie Belle.

"Well, my Granny's in charge of the militia," said Apple Bloom, "maybe we should go get her."

[Granny Smith held the rank of colonel and commanded the Ponyville Militia Guard, albeit in a ceremonial role. Her father, Pokey Oaks, founded the militia to defend the fledgling village from the encroaching monsters of the Everfree Forest. Because of their role in keeping the Everfree at bay, the Ponyville Militia was one of the few militia regiments not raised to full Line Regiments of Hoof under the Twilight Sparkle Reforms.]

"There's no time!" exclaimed Scootaloo. "They've got to get to Princess Twilight urgently, probably to discuss some top secret plan to win the war. We'll take them to the castle, and then we'll get our cutie marks for sure!"

"I dunno," said Sweetie Belle. "I thought they were just here for some fancy party at the castle. It's all my sister has talked about for like a week. It's the Grand Galloping Gala all over again."

Scootaloo, however, cleared her throat dramatically, puffed her tiny chest out, and marched forwards in a manner she probably thought portrayed the utmost military authority, but merely resembled a cockerel strutting about the farmyard. "At ease, stallions, and follow me! Quick march!"

She carried on towards the village, to where the Castle of Friendship loomed over the peasant hovels and even the town hall. That they would all get tired of this absurd mockery of the militarism that had strangled our fair nation when it would yield no cutie mark did offer me some minor comfort, but did not save me from the flush of embarrassment that crept up my neck and made my shirt collar feel suddenly very, very tight. Feeling almost the same amount of unease as I did before facing battle or a disapproving aunt, I followed on with my companions in tow into what was, for me, a place as dark, mysterious, and unknown as the endless jungles of Zebrica where my father had disappeared into - a common, rural, earth pony village, populated by ordinary ponies with whom I had next to nothing in common aside from the same number of limbs.

It was some relief, however, that we attracted less attention along the way than I had anticipated; a village occupied by the likes of Twilight Sparkle and her friends is likely used to such strange sights as a group of foals in home-made military uniforms leading a prince and three soldiers straight into their village market. Anywhere else I might have been mobbed or at least stared at, as I hardly blended in with these naked lower-class types, but here I was more or less ignored except for a few ponies not engrossed in their shopping or conversations watching me and then turning away quickly when I made eye-contact. I expect that being in civilian clothing, which I prefer to refer to as merely 'clothing', had made me less noticeable, which meant that I could merely pass off as just a stallion too well-dressed for this bleak little village. Then again, if what the three fillies had said earlier was any real indication of how the general public viewed me, I was completely unrecognisable without that stupid hat, and thank Faust for that.

Fortunately, the three fillies had left me in peace for much of the journey, aside from the occasional asinine question about tedious details of my life. Once they had accepted the fact that, height aside, I really am Prince Blueblood, they were quite eager to learn that, yes, princes still do a variety of things that most ordinary ponies had to do like eat breakfast, bathe, and sleep. Sunshine Smiles, however, being rather more eager to interact with them on their level, occupied most of their attention, answering their questions about life in the military and telling very heavily sanitised stories about the war. They gave Cannon Fodder a wide berth at first, likely on the strength of his unique aroma, which the warmth of spring was allowing to flourish, but eventually curiosity got the better of them and he too was subjected to a battery of questions from the irritatingly curious foals.

The Castle of Friendship drew closer, casting its long shadow over us. The bright light of the midday sun in high spring scintillated off the crystalline bows of the 'tree', tinting the surrounding grassy fields in reflected purple light. Great banners depicting Twilight's cutie mark wafted in the gentle breeze. A balcony overlooked the main entrance, and as we approached, I looked up to see the Princess of Friendship herself standing there, her forelegs perched over the balustrade, watching us intently. Whatever reluctance I felt about coming to Ponyville seemed to wash away at the sight of her, and were it not beneath my princely dignity I might have picked up the pace and trotted on over faster.

Perhaps, I thought, this party might not be so bad after all.

Chapter 6

I dare say we could have found the Castle of Friendship ourselves, it being the single largest structure in this tiny village and visible from just about every part in it. If anything, we might have arrived earlier if we didn't have to answer tedious questions and then stop for ice cream along the way (which I paid for, as apparently somepony had taught these foals about the concept of noblesse oblige). The cobbled stone path that formed the main thoroughfare of the village led straight to the steps leading up to the main door of the castle, and I assumed that this was a later addition to the pre-existing road organised and built by mortal ponies, and not spontaneously formed into existence like the building itself. Then again, I had no idea how powerful the Tree of Harmony's architectural abilities were, so as far as I was concerned extending a road should have been foal's play compared to raising an entire castle from the ground.

Twilight abruptly vanished from the balcony. It was always rather disconcerting when she did that; even as a fellow unicorn I always felt that having oneself forced through the holes in the fabric of space and time to be somewhat unnatural. As we approached the set of golden stairs sweeping up from the road, the leftmost of the great set of double doors was enveloped in that same pinkish-purple glow and was pulled open to allow us entrance. I admit to hesitating before crossing that threshold, as some peculiar sense of anticipation chilled my innards when I glimpsed the grand entrance hall beyond. The Cutie Mark Crusaders, our guides, had no such anxiety about being in the home of royalty, apparently being frequent visitors to the Princess, and simply trotted on in.

I followed to find myself in a vast hall, which, like most castles and palaces built in the old unicorn style, was the crux around which the other rooms, hallways, chambers, and so forth were constructed, rather like spokes on a wheel. Quite unlike mine, then, being a labyrinthine mess of passageways and rooms built with no obvious or rational purpose, at first designed by a distant ancestor of mine who was a few Elements short of Harmony and then modified by successive generations who were not much better. Anyway, the crystalline motif and the purple colour scheme of the outside was carried through into the design of the interior, as indeed was the tree-theme, which was repeated in the design of the wallpaper in what I could only assume was a rather egotistical touch on the Tree of Harmony's part. It was all very elegant and majestic; the overall effect filling one with both a sense of awe and kindness, at once evoking the fearsome and terrifying power of Harmony as well as its welcoming, soothing embrace. Rather like a cathedral, then.

Though it took considerable effort, I was determined not to appear at all impressed with any of this, and thus affected an air of aristocratic aloofness. Sunshine Smiles, however, could not contain himself and let out a quiet and reverent humming noise as he looked around and up at the hall.

Twilight was already there, standing before us in the centre of the hall. Smiling broadly, she seemed genuinely pleased to see me, or perhaps her mirth was directed at the three fillies who proudly presented Colonel Sunshine Smiles and me to her. I looked around, expecting to see liveried servants rushing forwards to take our luggage to our rooms while the hostess greeted us, but alas I saw none - not a butler, valet, attendant, maid, chef, hoofstallion, retainer, or even a gardener to be seen at all. The absence of staff in so grand a palace was rather odd and very disconcerting, like something vital had been sucked out of this place, but I imagine that she still had yet to fully internalise her new position in life and the considerable advantages that it brings, such as never having to worry about performing tedious manual tasks ever again (unless one's regal aunt sends one to the frontline, of course). Then I recalled Spike's continued existence, and for a brief moment, looking about the vastness of the hall around us, I almost felt sorry for the Princess' number one assistant cleaning this entire building by himself. Almost.

"Welcome to the Castle of Friendship!" she said cheerfully as we approached.

"Your Highness," Sunshine Smiles intoned, bringing his head down in a deep bow and scraping his right hoof along the slick marble tiles. This time, Twilight refrained from correcting that behaviour as she had done with me, instead reciprocating with a smile and a slight inclination of her head, all in a manner peculiarly reminiscent of how Celestia acknowledged such greetings.

"Princess Twilight," I said, following the Colonel's lead with a little less of an exaggerated motion, and instead merely inclined my head a few degrees in her direction.

The three fillies rushed forwards ahead of us, each of them beaming proudly at their Princess. I stood back a little and watched, shocked at just how brazenly familiar they were behaving towards the pony who was ostensibly, despite her low birth and distinct lack of breeding, a co-ruler of Equestria. There was no bowing, curtseying, genuflecting, prostrating, or even nodding; they had simply marched on up as though she had never been granted the pair of wings that rested elegantly against her sides.

"We brought the Colonel and Commissar Blueblood, Twilight!" said Apple Bloom. So, they were on first-name terms with the Princess, then. I had gathered the foals must have had some sort of friendly relationship prior to her ascension, which had continued despite the new gulf that existed between their respective social positions.

"Oh, thank you," said Twilight, sounding a little surprised. "I was about to send Spike to fetch them, but he's been busy helping Pinkie Pie set up tonight's party."

"See?" exclaimed Sweetie Belle. "I told you it was just a party."

"Yeah, well, it's still a really important party!" retorted Scootaloo, somewhat defensively. "Come on, girls, even if we can't find any Changeling spies there'll be lots of army ponies who need a Ponyville Militia escort to the Castle. Let's move out!"

The three fillies cheered, again at such an obscenely high volume that I feared that the entire crystalline structure of the building would just shatter and bury us under a mountain of elegant shards. There was probably some peculiar function of the lungs of foals, later lost as one reaches maturity, that allows their voices to reach such heights of shrillness and loudness in spite of their tiny size.

As I ruminated on this conundrum and waited for the ringing in my ears to cease, the Cutie Mark Crusaders saluted Colonel Sunshine Smiles with clumsy waves of their right forehooves, which he reciprocated with an uncharacteristic sharpness for an officer whose regard for the age-old traditions of the Royal Guard was often less than what his position demanded. After a round of 'good-byes' and 'farewells' and so forth they galloped out through the door, and I was finally free of them.

With that out of the way, Twilight escorted us to our rooms. From the entrance hall, we were led through a series of wide, airy corridors and halls. Judging from the thin layer of grey dust that rested on the floor and over the sparse furnishings, this part of the vast castle was rarely in use. This was understandable, considering only the Princess and her assistant/butler/servant/pet baby dragon lived here; even my palace, though populated with staff as any great house should be, had areas that nopony had set hoof in for weeks, months, years, or even centuries.

"I hope the Cutie Mark Crusaders weren't too much of a hassle," said Twilight.

"Not at all," I said, wisely keeping my true thoughts on the three fillies to myself.

"Did they ask to see your 'papers'?" Twilight chuckled. "They did the exact same thing to Princess Celestia last time she visited."

"What did she do?" I asked.

"Had Raven Inkwell show them a one-bit coin, the side with her face on."

"We all did odd things trying to get our cutie marks," said Sunshine Smiles, grinning to himself.

His, of course, was a stylised yellow sun with an abstract depiction of a happy face, consisting of two sunspots for eyes and a coronal loop for the smile, and striking yellow beams fanned out in an irregular fashion. It resembled a foal's depiction of Celestia's golden orb, albeit made by a better educated one with access to a greater array of drawing equipment than just crayons and paper. Far be it from me to allow my gaze to linger on another stallion's rump, especially when a rather more attractive example from the opposite sex was more easily in sight, but I did ponder the praxiological implications of such a joyful cutie mark and special talent on a pony whose job was to spread the precise opposite.

[Praxiology is the study of cutie marks and their meanings. Blueblood's reference here is anachronistic, as praxiology was codified as a specific field of science five years after the end of the First Changeling War by the Cutie Mark Crusaders.]

"So, Pinkie Pie is setting up the party?" I said, wanting to change the subject. Though I had yet to meet her personally, I had heard stories from those who have about the exuberant, energetic, and utterly insane party planner's behaviour. Though I had assumed much of it was hyperbole, as many of these tales seemed to imply a terrifying disregard for the laws of physics and reality that seemed rather too close to that of a certain daemonic lord of chaos, I feared what awaited me that night; would I be hobnobbing with my fellow officers or playing pin-the-tail-on-the-pony like some foal's fifth birthday celebration? Then again, my foalhood birthdays were always rather sober affairs, at least until I had to move in with Auntie 'Tia, by which time I had outgrown those sorts of games anyway.

"Oh yes," said Twilight, oblivious to my growing anxiety. "She's planned everything; she even made the invitations herself!"

"Did she now?" That Pinkie Pie apparently knew about formal evening wear did help assuage some of my misgivings about tonight's event. Not by much, though; bobbing for apples in full ceremonial dress complete with a heavily starched and rigid collar would be a tad impractical, should it come to that.

Twilight nodded. "She's been a real life-saver, especially now that princess duties have taken up a lot of my free time. This will be the first official state function the Castle of Friendship hosts, with ponies coming from all over Equestria to attend, so I want to make sure it's absolutely perfect."

Something told me that it wouldn't; a hunch, as one might call it, or merely an observation on the universal tendency towards one's expectations to be utterly dashed upon reaching that lofty threshold of 'absolutely perfect'. Provided that there were no ridiculously large cakes or Changelings at the party, for it was my understanding that social disasters tended not to repeat as far as my extensive experience in such things went, whatever happened I trusted in my ability to get out of scrapes at least mostly in one piece. That said, my habitual paranoia was conspicuously quiet for once, and for the first time in a while, at least since that rather unpleasant encounter with an overly-sharp cake knife, I felt as close to 'comfortably at ease' as I possibly could with the grim spectre of my impending return to the front looming over me.

It turned out that this castle had an abundance of guest rooms, and so a number of other officers who would be attending this party had also been granted their use. In fact, a few of the keener ones had already arrived and set themselves up in their chambers. I imagined the Tree of Harmony had intended for this place to be used as some sort of communal hub of friendship, rather than being for the exclusive use of Princess Twilight and her friends. The room that I had been allocated was rather small, at least by my standards, consisting of a modest single bed, a wardrobe, a dresser and mirror, and a large window that provided a lovely view of the bucolic Sweet Apple Acres. Overall, it was not the worst place that I ever had to stay in, as a few nights spent in that disgustingly unhygienic cave had rather lowered my standards somewhat; war tends to do that, and while I had immersed myself in luxury since my return to Canterlot, the more homey style of this guest room suited me just fine.

Cannon Fodder dropped off my suitcase for me, while I sat on the bed and tested it. It was quite comfortable, but not as soft as I'd have liked; I prefer a more yielding mattress that one can just sink into, yet rigid enough to support rather more vigorous activities.

"I know it's not as luxurious as you're used to," said Twilight, standing at the doorway and watching me with a slightly amused look. She then stepped out of Cannon Fodder's way as he slipped past to get to his own room, her nose wrinkling as my aide got close enough for her to take in the full, unvarnished blast of his body odour.

"Princess," I said, sliding off the bed and back onto my hooves. "For the past two years I've been sleeping on rigid camp beds and on the ground, so I think this room will do me just fine, thank you."

"Oh, good! Spike will be happy to hear that."

"Why would Spike be happy?" I failed to see the connection, but something told me I would like it when Twilight elucidated that particular point. Anything involving a certain baby dragon tended not to bode well, if that debacle at the Equestria Games was any indication.

"He assembled most of the furniture in the guest rooms," said Twilight, sweeping her hoof in a wide arc. "The Tree of Harmony left most of the castle empty, so we had to bulk-buy some flat-pack furniture from the Crystal Empire. You know, to keep with the whole crystal theme. We tried to do all of it together, but, you know, Princess-things got in the way and Spike had to do a few rooms himself. I think the Cutie Mark Crusaders might have helped out with a few too, hoping to get their cutie marks in flat-pack furniture assembly."

I eyed the bed I had been sitting on just a few moments ago warily, expecting it to just collapse at any moment. "What's a flat-pack?" I asked.

Twilight gave me a queer look; one that implied that she couldn't work out whether I was honestly ignorant of the concept, which I in later years discovered for myself, or simply making fun of her. My presumably gormless expression seemed to prompt her in the direction of the former, but I was spared yet another lengthy, tedious, and condescending Twilecture when who should pop his grotesquely mutilated visage around the open door frame but Captain Red Coat, appearing like a malevolent ghoul behind the Princess.

"Excuse me," he said, mercifully sparing me from having an inordinate amount of my time wasted on a subject I didn't particularly care about. "Sorry to interrupt, everypony."

Red Coat slipped past Twilight, who, despite her status as the foremost expert on friendship in Equestria, still could not suppress the primal instinct to recoil from the sight of the stallion's disturbing facial disfigurement. It had been more than a year since he had faced Queen Chrysalis in battle, indeed Twilight had been there when he lost a foreleg and half of his face to a searing blast of magic, and while his wounds had more-or-less healed to the point where he could still function as an officer of the Royal Guard, what was once the face of a young, handsome, youthfully optimistic stallion scarcely into adulthood was now marred forever. There was no getting used to the sight of it, I'm afraid to say, only learning to suppress the overwhelming urge to avert one's gaze from the mutilated horror that was once a stallion's face.

"That's okay," said Twilight, apparently forcing herself to look him in his one good eye. "How can I help?"

"It's my dress uniform," said Red Coat, taking the midnight blue dress tunic that was draped over his back and holding it up by the sleeve, all in a manner that would have made my valet faint with shock. "I can't get my hoof through the sleeve properly. The machinery keeps getting caught, and I don't want to tear it. Maybe I should just cut it off?"

Military prosthetics were hardly elegant things, being designed to be cheap, durable, and easy to maintain so that the crippled soldier can be returned to active duty as quickly as possible. The result was that the rather ugly brass and steel appendage attached at the stallion's shoulder stump was far bulkier than its organic counterparts, and the tailor who had designed, cut, and stitched together this tunic had not anticipated that its wearer would one day lose a limb.

"A tailor should be able to fix that," I said. He probably could have done that in Canterlot, where most renowned tailors outside Saddle Row conducted business, before coming all the way to this backward little earth pony village, but I kept that thought to myself.

Red Coat winced and looked at his hooves, ears wilting. "I don't really know any of your fancy tailors, sir, and I don't think they'd have me either."

Not without an introduction, of course, but I would have been happy to arrange one for him with one of the more egalitarian-minded of my favourite tailors. That was beside the point now, anyway; we would hardly be able to return to Canterlot in time, and it appeared that taking a pair of scissors to this exquisitely crafted garment was our only option to make young Red Coat here look at least somewhat formal enough for tonight's event.

"Oh, Rarity can do it for you," said Twilight. My right eye twitched at the mention of her name. "She'll be in her shop about now. In fact, I'll-"

An almighty crash echoed through the entire castle - the calamitous sound of a very large, fragile, and expensive chandelier falling from a great height and shattering into a thousand pieces on a marble floor. I should know, I've seen and heard chandeliers fall far too many times in my life. Twilight froze, her body tense and her mouth hanging open in shock, while Red Coat and I exchanged awkward glances with one another. The silence that fell was so total, so all-encompassing and suffocating, that even with my damaged hearing I could make out a voice that was unmistakably Spike's from somewhere deep within this castle, just barely on the cusp of audibility:


Twilight snapped her jaw shut and forced what was probably the worst fake smile I had ever seen. I'd have thought by now she would have mastered the art of the disingenuous smile, being the most important skill royalty must learn. "The Carousel Boutique is just off the town square, and now-I-have-to-go-and-fix-this-bye!"

Before either of us could say anything, Twilight popped out of existence once more with an eye-stingingly bright flash of purple light. With her gone to deal with this latest crisis to demand her attention, I placed my suitcase on the dresser, popped it open, and started unpacking. Normally, I would have a servant do this for me, but against all expectations there were none available in this entire castle, and I was not about to let Cannon Fodder get his filthy hooves over my dress uniform. Besides, I had seen Drape Cut do this before, so how hard could it be?

"Sir?" said Red Coat. I looked up from arranging my pyjamas on the bed to see him still standing in my room.

"You heard the Princess," I said. "Rarity's shop is 'just off the town square'. She'll sort out your sleeve."

"I know," he said, shuffling from side to side on his hooves. "I was just wondering if you could come with me. All of this fancy clothing is new to me, and I wouldn't know what to ask for."

He just didn't want to venture out with the 'normal' ponies by himself; I saw through that conceit instantly, but, feeling unusually generous, seeing as I still felt I owed him for taking that shot instead of me, I decided to humour him. Leaving my suitcase behind, and hoping that it and its irreplaceable contents would still be there when we returned, Red Coat and I retraced our hoofsteps through the corridors, back to the entrance hall, and out into Ponyville.

Twilight didn't actually point out where the town square actually was or how to get there, but fortunately for us, my special talent was more than up to the task. Ponyville was a typical rural village of Equestria's empty and boring Midwest; the town square formed the hub and was dominated by what should have been the tallest structure here, the town hall, were it not for the sudden appearance of the castle. It was simply a matter of heading there, avoiding more street urchins along the way, and in theory this Carousel Boutique should be relatively easy to find. Knowing Rarity as I do, being the sort of low-born mare with a delusional aspiration to ascend into the aristocratic elite of our realm, her shop would stand out amidst these primitive thatched hovels by being an almost perfect replica of traditional Canterlot architecture.

Red Coat was subdued for most of the journey, as he walked on with his head bowed in the manner of a condemned criminal on his way to the gallows. Occasionally he would look up and glance around at the villagers, who were for the most part simply getting on with the tedium of their day-to-day lives, and upon making eye contact, or what he probably thought was eye contact, he would immediately snap his gaze back to the very interesting patch of ground at his forehooves.

"They're staring at me," he said quietly, and mostly to himself.

I looked around, and as I was quite used to being stared at by gormless members of the public amazed at seeing an actual prince walk amongst them, I hadn't really noticed. Seeing now with a newer perspective, while the majority of these simple villagers were far too engrossed in buying fruit and vegetables, chatting, or wandering around aimlessly to give either of us a second glance, more than a few were quite openly watching Red Coat and not being terribly subtle about it either. Most, of course, looked away when I returned their gaze and had the good sense to look guilty when caught in their indiscretion.

"Nonsense!" I said with forced cheerfulness. "They're staring at me."

Red Coat gave me a rather pointed look; it was not one of my best attempts at misdirection, of course, and he saw straight through it. Nevertheless, I had said it and therefore I was duly bound to commit to it, so I performed my best impression of Princess Celestia on a public visit by smiling and waving at the ponies around me. It simply led to even more awkwardness, but, at the very least, I could say that it had been deflected from my companion and onto me.

Fortunately, Ponyville is, or was back then, a rather small village, so the indignity of our walk through the town square was rather short. Acting on a vague hunch, which is how my special talent likes to present itself most of the time, I led Red Coat away from the bustling market in the shadow of the town hall, and down another nameless street. The dirt road, little more than uncovered ground where a succession of hooves had trampled away the grass and weeds, opened up into a small field or park. There, a short distance after the cottages ended and atop a small hillock surrounded by a few trees and some small tents, was the centre of what would later become Rarity's empire of fashion.

It appeared that my assumption was at least partly correct, though it appeared that the proprietress had mashed together architectural cues from all over old Unicornia rather than a straightforward imitation of the Canterlot style. Apparently modelled on, well, a carousel, it was a tall, circular design painted in soft pinks and blues, and in keeping with the apparent chronic illiteracy that has gripped this poor earth pony community, the signage proudly depicted a ponnequin instead of a name.

The bell chimed as I opened the door and stepped inside, and I was immediately taken aback by just how empty the shop was. Your typical Saddle Row tailor is located in a rather small building constructed before Ponyville was even a single parked wagon in Canterlot’s shadow, and yet must service the sartorial requirements of a great many clients, each of whom have exacting standards and the wealth to back those up. Therefore, each shop along that famous Manehatten street bursts at the seams with so much accumulated stuff - suits, shirts, sports coats, blazers, ties, pocket squares, bolts of cloth, cutting rooms, fitting rooms, portraits of notable customers (namely me), and so on - crammed into an area no larger than one of the smaller bathrooms in my palace. What I saw instead was a wide open and airy space, with a small stage on one side of the room and a fitting area on the other, a grand staircase swept up to the floor above, and ponnequins clothed in elegant gowns were dotted strategically around the place. The decor, too, was quite unlike the somewhat oppressive style of a traditional tailor's, with their wood-panelled walls, heavy oak furnishings, dim lamps, and staff who always regarded the newcomer with suspicion and barely-concealed contempt. Instead the Carousel Boutique was light, welcoming, and generally quite pleasant; I didn't like it.

The door at the back of the room swung open, revealing Rarity herself. "Welcome to the Carousel Boutique!" she announced with the confident cheerfulness of a born salespony. "Where everything is chic, unique, and magn- You!"

The expression of pure, unadulterated hate flashed across her face for about half a second before she deftly recovered her composure. Another pony might not have noticed it or merely dismissed the fleeting death-glare as a product of their imagination, but I was rather more in tune to such things than most, and it seemed that despite having saved her life (purely by accident, I assure you) Rarity still bore an irrational grudge against me. If she could hold onto that, then she might fit in with the Canterlot aristocracy she aspired to joining better than I had initially thought after all.

"Yes, me," I said. Red Coat followed me inside and shut the door behind him, and then took up the position normally occupied by Cannon Fodder in my shadow. He looked to the ground, and appeared to be trying to angle his head so that only the 'good' side was visible to Rarity.

"Well!" she said with a defiant sweep of her head as she trotted on over. "What brings you to my humble little shop? I had expanded my business into stallions-wear, but I'd have thought my creations were beneath your notice, Your Highness."

"Ordinarily, you'd be right," I said, stepping to the side. "But my friend here has a sartorial emergency that requires your expertise."

"Oh?" Rarity arched an eyebrow, but bit back on the obvious retort that must have been forming in her head about me not having any friends. She would have been right on that account, of course, but I was not about to admit it to her. Instead, she slipped effortlessly back into her more usual charming demeanour, with a soft, welcoming smile to her lips and a delicate flutter of her painted eyelids. Acting as though I had just completely disappeared into the ether, she stepped past me and approached Red Coat.

"Then you have come to the right place!" she said, extending a hoof as one would to coax out a nervous dog. "Come now, darling, there's no need to be shy. Let's take a look at your garment and see what's wr-"

Rarity shrieked; a short, violent exclamation as she recoiled in horror. Red Coat had looked up, revealing to her the puckered scar tissue that covered the entire left side of his face. With her hoof over her mouth and eyes wide in shock, she stared, apparently stunned into paralysis by the realisation of her own faux pas. Quite at a loss as to what to do, I stood there dumbly, knowing that nothing I could say would possibly lessen the embarrassment that suffused the room like Cannon Fodder's body odour.

Red Coat turned to leave, but that had jolted Rarity out of her fugue, and she darted forwards and touched him on the shoulder.

"Please don't leave," she said, and Red Coat paused. "I am so very sorry for that outburst. It was unprofessional, rude, and downright unladylike of me. Believe me, I am not in the habit of screaming at my customers, or anypony at all for that matter. You just startled me, is all. Come, you must be here for Twilight's party tonight, so I'll make it up to you by ensuring you'll be the most dashing officer there."

Pulling insistently on his upper foreleg, she led the reluctant Captain Red Coat onto the stage, where he stood in that rather awkward manner young stallions do when they find themselves at the centre of unwanted attention. Rarity, having gotten over her shock rather quickly, trotted around him in a circle, appraising his form and stature with a rather amused 'hum' of appreciation. She then enveloped his uniform in a soft blue glow from where it was draped over his back, and held it by the shoulders, suspended in mid-air.

"It's the sleeve," said Red Coat, though Rarity didn't seem to acknowledge him, instead running her expert eye over the garment. "I can't fit my metal hoof in it. I thought about cutting it off-"

"Cutting it off?" exclaimed Rarity, somehow sounding more shocked and horrified than her short, sharp outburst earlier. She held out the sleeve for him to see. "Somepony put a lot of care and attention into crafting this sleeve, and you wanted to cut it off? Heavens, I am so glad you came to my boutique so I could stop you from committing such a crime against tailoring."

Red Coat blinked vacantly at her; he was right, he was quite out of his depth with this sort of thing. "I'm sorry?" he blurted out.

"So you should be!" Rarity snapped. She grabbed a tape measure, seemingly out of thin air, and began the process of taking measurements of Red Coat's prosthetic limb and mangled shoulder. "Now, tell me about yourself."

"There isn't much to tell," said Red Coat, shrugging.

"Nonsense! Everypony has their own story to tell. And stand still, please, and do try to relax; it's very difficult to take accurate measurements when you fidget like that."


"Quite alright, my dear." Rarity scribbled down a few notes on a sheet of paper on a clipboard, which I recognised as being the same arcane scribbles my tailors used to summarise a pony's unique physiognomy. "Elegant clothes allow a pony to present the best possible version of themselves to the world. A garment such as this tunic says to everypony who sees it, 'I am a stallion of strength, fidelity, honour, and duty', when it's worn correctly. Sometimes it just needs a little coaxing to have the desired effect."

"Right now, I just want ponies to keep their lunch down when they see me." Red Coat shrugged, earning himself an admonishing but playful slap with the end of the tape measure.

"I think I can do more than that." Rarity smiled, stepped onto the platform, and guided Red Coat to the mirror, and while it was clear that the stallion would rather not look at his own reflection, she lifted his head up delicately with a hoof and held it there. "That little bit of rudeness earlier aside, I'll tell you what I see. I see a young stallion who has been through much to help keep Equestria safe; somepony who has been very brave indeed. I can't hide your face, and nor would I wish to, but if you project enough confidence then ponies will look past those scars. My job, no, my calling, is to bring that brave, noble pony inside you to the fore. Now hold still, I need to measure your inside foreleg. And you can help me by telling me your name and what you do."

"Oh, uh... my name is Red Coat, and I'm the captain of an earth pony company in..."

As that was going on, I had grown bored of hearing Red Coat recount his life's story and had wandered over to the ponnequins. The sartorial arts were something of a casual hobby of mine, back when I was much younger and better looking than I am now. Sartorialists will point to me as leading some sort of vanguard in shifting the traditional Canterlot style of stallionswear away from the stiff and rigid forms of my father's generation, and onto something that was altogether more comfortable without sacrificing elegance. Really, however, I just wore what I deemed to be acceptable and, as ever, others chose to rationalise my choice of a soft, turn-down collar with a blue bow tie instead of the starched wing collar and an extravagantly knotted cravat as having some sort of grandiose point to it. The fact is, I just happened to be rich enough and good-looking enough to get away with it, and in my early twenties I had little else going for me besides those two.

Rarity's designs, despite her provenance as a designer of ladies' garments for cider-drinking country folk, were rather impressive. I had gravitated towards two ponnequins, one displaying what I had first assumed was a Solar Guard officer's mess dress uniform and the other a fairly standard navy blue lounge suit. The styling was rather conservative on the latter, but I had to admit that the detailing was of exceptional quality. What I noticed, however, was that the padded shoulders and structure of the military uniform, designed to make one look as impressive and authoritative as possible regardless of one's stature and posture, was echoed in the civilian suit. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the mess dress was entirely without any form of military insignia, and was more of a costume than something to be worn by genuine officers.

"It's the latest trend," said Rarity, having finished taking Red Coat's measurements. The tunic was hovering in mid-air just behind her, wrapped in that soft blue glow, with the sleeve and shoulder marked with a series of lines and crosses at seemingly random places. "Military chic."

"I was wondering why so many unlikely ponies had been promoted to general," I said dryly. I hadn't worked it out back then yet, but when mares start wearing tight, brightly coloured tunics with gold lace and young chaps develop a craze for growing extravagant moustaches and whiskers, it was usually a clear sign that the country has forgotten what a dreadful business war actually is. Just a tip from me to you, dear reader, to watch out for such things and make necessary preparations to escape the insanity that is bound to follow.

[The short-lived 'military chic' craze is correlated to public support for the war, and peaked around the time of the declaration of war and again at the publication of the Twilight Sparkle Reforms. By contrast, another contemporary fashion among young ponies was to defy austerity measures by wearing extravagantly designed shirts, jackets, coats, suits, and dresses that used excess fabric that was otherwise rationed.]

"Fashion is merely a reflection of the times we live in," Rarity continued, "and these are very strange times indeed. Nevertheless, an entrepreneuse must adapt to her clientele and its milieu. Ponies look up to their heroes, which are usually the Princesses in most normal circumstances, but these days it's soldiers."

"I remember those princess dresses," I said. "Every mare in Canterlot looked identical for a month."

Rarity made a sort of quiet 'huffing' noise. "That wasn't my finest hour, I'll admit, but as an artiste I can at least nudge fashion away from trite imitation and into the realms of elegant personal self-expression. I certainly won't be making that mistake again."

"Quite." I lifted up the sleeve of the suit and ran my hoof over the fabric, finding it to be quite smooth, soft, and light compared to the heavier wools I was used to, almost like silk. Lifting the right quarter of the jacket, I saw below Rarity’s label printed on the inside pocket was that infamous ‘CC’ logo. "I would have thought you'd be struggling with fabric rationing. My tailor has a three month waiting list."

[‘CC’ stood for ‘Controlled Commodity’, which means that the piece of clothing met the government’s wartime austerity regulations.]

"It has been a struggle," said Rarity. She had crossed over to a desk in the corner of the room where an antique sewing machine rested, and without slowing or halting her speech, she sat down before it and got to work, as though the movements required to alter Red Coat's uniform were entirely automatic.

"But the imposition of such restrictions merely forces one to become more creative! To use what little I have in the most efficient way possible and to find innovative new fabrics that have yet to be rationed. After all, it simply would not do for everypony to be clothed in rags even in this time of crisis. That suit you're looking at, for example; cheap, inferior wool is blended with a tiny amount of star spider silk, making it much tougher and more wrinkle-resistant than such a light cloth would otherwise be, so it will survive long after this dreadful conflict has ended."

It didn't take her terribly long to complete the alterations, and within a few minutes she had Red Coat trying on the tunic. To his evident surprise, not only did the sleeve effortlessly accommodate his misshapen mechanical hoof, it now appeared to conceal it completely; and now to all outward appearances, if one’s attention was not pointed towards the stallion’s false limb, it appeared to be as real and organic as his remaining three legs.

While Rarity continued to fiddle around with Red Coat's tunic, offering opinions on how he ought to wear it to flatter him as much as possible, I thought about what she said about the suit. The star spider silk had intrigued me; even the tailors of Saddle Row struggled to get enough of the stuff to make a single pocket square, let alone have enough to blend it with wool to make a suit. Its alleged properties were legendary, being nigh-indestructible without sacrificing lightness and comfort, and in Equestria's distant past had been used as a flexible armour by the elite of the Royal Guard. It was a shame it was about as rare as common sense in a government employee these days.

"Rarity?" I called out.

She let out a quiet, exasperated groan, then turned and offered the most insincere smile that I had ever seen on a mare. "Yes, what is it?" she answered in a sort of sing-song voice.

"Where did you get the star spider silk from?" I asked.

"Why, the Everfree Forest, of course!" She said the name of what is quite possibly the single most dangerous spot in Equestria this side of Tartarus as though it was just the quaint, little, family-run fabric shop just down the street from her boutique. “It’s the only place they live.”

"Of course," I said. "Rarity, I want to commission you."

Her eyes practically bugged out of their sockets, and her mouth dropped open. "What?" she blurted out. "I mean, of course, it's just... why me?"

I chuckled and shook my head. "Come now, I'd have thought you wanted a royal warrant to go with your new line of stallionswear."

[A royal warrant of appointment is issued to tradesponies who supply goods or services to members of the Royal Family, Prince Blueblood included. This allows them to advertise to the general public that they supply to the issuer of the warrant.]

Rarity smiled, though the quizzical crease of her brow remained. As Captain Red Coat was busy admiring his reflection for what was probably the first time since he earned those scars, she trotted on over to me, and said sotto voce, "A royal warrant would give my business a boost in these difficult times, but I can scarcely imagine you of all ponies being so generous with yours."

"Is it so hard to believe I just want to support small, independent businesses?" I said with mock indignation.

"Yes!" she hissed.

"Fine. I want you to make me a suit of star spider silk armour like the Royal Guard of ancient times; something I can wear underneath my uniform and cap, and will give me some modicum of protection the next time I'm thrust in the way of some very angry and hungry Changelings."

She hummed and tapped her chin with a hoof, while I tapped a forehoof on the ground to affect a sense of impatience. In truth, I was desperately anxious; this might be the only opportunity for me to get some damned protection without Pencil Pusher eviscerating me for going against regulations.

"If you think you can actually do it," I said. Rather like Rainbow Dash, the best way to get her to do something is to imply that she can't, but only if it involves fashion.

"Darling." Rarity stroked her hoof through her mane and stuck her nose up in the air, and with the utmost formality, she fixed me with a piercing gaze that made me consider my little jab might have pushed her a little too far. "I can make anything the client desires. We can source enough silk from the Castle of the Two Sisters, and Twilight's library is sure to have some ancient tomes detailing the proper techniques. The question, however, is simply a matter of cost. I fear it might be a bit pricey, even for you."

I held up a hoof and shook my head dismissively. "I never discuss money," I said, giving my best impression of my father sneering at a common clerk. "Have your staff contact mine, and we can come to some arrangement. I trust that would be satisfactory?"

It would, but in hindsight I should have at least attempted to negotiate the price down, as vulgar as that would have been; the cost would prove to be rather steep even for a pony as fabulously wealthy as I, and would force me to open up the Sanguine Palace to the lowest and most disgusting creatures on Faust's divine creation, tourists, in order to recoup the rather hefty fee Rarity would place on her services. No price was too high for me to improve my chances of survival even by a tiny amount, however, and in the coming months, and indeed for the rest of my life, that sentiment would be vindicated a thousand times over. Having peasants, some of them not even ponies but foreign creatures, wander through my home, taking photographs of my family heirlooms, dragging their hooves and claws and Faust-knows-what-else over my carpets, and harassing my servants, was a tiny price to pay for even the slightest leaning of the odds for my survival.

Author's Notes:

Most of this chapter was written while I was sick with what I suspect may have been the coronavirus.

Now wash your hands.

Chapter 7

Regardless of her feelings either way towards Yours Truly, Rarity remained a consummate professional for the most part, except when she measured my neck and had wrapped her tape measure there a little too tightly for comfort. As with any Saddle Row tailor, she refrained from vocalising the peculiarities of my unique physique, having jumped from drunken overindulgence to military austerity and back again in a short space of time, and instead jotted them down in that impenetrable code in her notebook. Only when I removed my clothes, standing as naked as the common pony and revealed the veritable portrait of scar tissue on my back did her facade slip, gasping quietly in shock at the rippling lines that marred it.

Nevertheless, she got what she needed to start on the set of armour, plus a lounge suit in a grey check to maintain some level of cover. It would certainly raise eyebrows with my fellow aristocrats in the Imperial Club to walk in wearing a suit made by a brand new tailor without centuries of tradition, but if she was truly as good as the populist fashion magazines' incessant proselytising, then the quality of the garment should speak for itself.

As for the star spider silk armour itself, as I had requested a rush order, Rarity assured me that it would be ready in five days time and that it could be collected from her new store in Canterlot. My desire for secrecy around this 'insurance', as I liked to refer to it, might come across as undue paranoia on my part, but in war, as in games of chance, one never revealed the metaphorical ace up one's sleeve. Besides, I would not put it past a few of my fellow officers, particularly a certain former criminal, to attempt to steal it were they to discover it. Red Coat, at least, remained in awe of me enough to maintain his discretion.

With that finished, Red Coat and I went back to the castle to prepare for the party. His transformation was nothing short of astounding; at Rarity's insistence, he had undertaken the journey back wearing his ceremonial dress tunic, complete with a spare cap that she had lying around and generously donated. It's amazing what insouciantly unbuttoning the stiff collar of the tunic, balancing the cap at a rakish angle, and a pep-talk from a Bearer of an Element of Harmony can accomplish. Scars aside, he looked to be the purest ideal of a noble defender of Equestria. At the seamstress' instructions, he stood a little taller and straighter, but not so much as to appear to have a rigid metal pole inserted somewhere uncomfortable, and overall he carried himself with a sense of confidence that was lacking in his demeanour before. Now, as he strode alongside me through the streets of Ponyville, his disfigurements were no longer an aspect of his to be pitied, mocked, or feared, but had become a badge of honour in the eyes of the common pony - a symbol of sacrifice in the name of Harmony.

Of course, none of this would have been necessary if Red Coat and his family hadn't been caught up in the war fever, likely drummed up by Princess Luna as she searched for willing ponies to lead her Night Guards. I wondered if he had ever visited home since that awful night, and if his father was proud of the son returned mutilated and scarred. That was none of my concern, however, beyond my job as a glorified counsellor for an entire battalion of ponies insecure and maladjusted enough to volunteer for military service, and I had a party to prepare for, anyway.

This time, our journey to the castle proceeded without any further distractions, and before long I was back in the relative solitude of my guest room. It turned out that this unpacking business was rather more complicated than Drape Cut had made it look, and I was quite at a loss as to where exactly my clothes, toiletries, and other bits and bobs should be stored. Eventually, I worked out the functions of a clothes hanger through trial and error, and my evening clothes were stored away in a state of relative neatness in readiness for tonight, and everything else was merely strewed across the dresser top. I became acutely aware of just how helpless I was without servants to do these sorts of things for me, but that was what I paid them for, after all.

I passed the time until the party in relative solitude; there is a very limited amount of effort that I can allocate to being the sort of interesting and sociable Prince that everypony expects me to be, and though it could be sustained by a steady supply of alcohol and hors d'oeuvre, there comes a point where even I tire of exchanging witty badinage with my fellow nobles and would rather be by myself. Fortunately, Twilight's library provided both privacy and entertainment; the former in that the Princess herself was distracted by the preparations and the guests were off enjoying the very limited sights of Ponyville (there's a bell tower and I think that's it as far as tourist attractions go), and the latter in the sheer number of books on offer. I attempted to grapple with The Teleportation Treatise, thinking that learning how to instantly remove myself from danger would prove invaluable, before I realised that it would take more than a single afternoon to learn what Twilight mastered in a year, and I gave up completely. Instead, I became engrossed in something called Burnferno, which was more befitting my intellect.

The party itself started in the late afternoon, a few hours before Celestia and Luna were due to swap their respective astral bodies in the sky. Dressed up in that tight, restrictive ceremonial dress uniform of a commissar, I looked as though I was about to attend a funeral instead of a celebration. Though I found black to be quite flattering when it contrasted with my white fur, the stark red and the ghoulish skull motifs leant it an oppressive air that I found to be rather incompatible with what was supposed to be a happy occasion. It appeared as though it was designed by two separate ponies who absolutely refused to compromise; one of them was an experienced tailor, and the other a thirteen-year old colt addicted to comic books.

[Blueblood is partially right on this. The uniforms of the Royal Commissariat were designed by Rarity, but the winged alicorn skull symbol was designed by Princess Luna. Her initial sketches on a napkin made during a dinner with Twilight Sparkle and her friends are currently on display in the Clover the Clever Museum of History in Canterlot, along with a few other less savoury doodles.]

I therefore toned down the severe formality of the outfit with a patterned cravat tucked into the open neck of the double-breasted tunic and a flower pilfered from Twilight's garden in the lapel. The detestable cap that served as the most identifiable part of my uniform was balanced at a precariously rakish angle on my head. After a bit more preening in front of the mirror, with Cannon Fodder in place of my valet to offer advice, I was only half an hour late to a party in the same building I was already in.

Fortunately, introductions to the Princesses always took a considerable amount of time, as each pony, Yours Truly included, is desperate for any kind of recognition and attention from the universally-beloved Princess Celestia. That there were now four of them to be presented to certainly didn't help speed the process up either. The queue leading from the great hall stretched some distance out into the corridor when I arrived. While I could have used my position as her favourite (and only living) nephew to jump right at the head of the queue, as the majority of the guests were officers armed with decorative but still deadly rapiers and champagne and cocktails would flow like the Canterlot waterfalls, I thought it best to try and keep things as civil as possible this time.

I took my position at the back of the queue, behind a rather nervous-looking mare in the crimson uniform of General replete with gold braid and an assortment of medals. She shot me a rather odd look as I passed her, and as I stood there, waiting with growing impatience for the line to move forwards, I could hear her muttering under her breath. I dismissed her as a lunatic, but then again, most generals are; to attract enough attention from one's superiors to gain a promotion into the general staff and to carry out one's duties knowing that each decision means the deaths of scores of young stallions and mares, success demanded a certain separation from reality. Looking back now, I suppose that's where Crimson Arrow and McBridle fell short - they were both too normal to be successful generals.

The line moved forwards a few steps, and then the mare in front of me sighed, turned on her hooves, and stared up at me. She was a small, middle-aged earth pony, with a face and frame that reminded me of a rat or other unpleasant rodent; certainly, her nose twitching did very little to discourage me from making that comparison. Her dress uniform was untidy and clearly un-ironed, and she had chosen to replace the cap with a black beret. There was a full ten seconds of her staring up at me before she deigned to speak.

"There are catbirds in my army," she said. Her Trottingham accent was sharp, clipped, and refined; the sort that was adopted and learned, as opposed to a natural way of speaking.

"I beg your pardon?" I said, wondering if I was speaking to an escapee from a nearby mental asylum.

"Catbirds, Blueblood, in my army."

I frowned, wondering what in blazes she was on about, but then I noticed a pair of griffons standing further ahead in the queue. Both of them were incongruously wearing the older dress uniforms of the now-reformed Royal Guard, though the crisp, neat tunics were supplemented with a few items that spoke to the unique barbarism of their kind. One, who I took to be an officer senior to his companion, wore fur-lined pelisse draped over his left shoulder that looked unsettlingly real. The ponies in front of and behind them kept a fair and respectable distance, further than any of the other guests in the queue.

"You mean the PGL?" I said. "And it's Prince Blueblood, if you don't mind, or simply 'Sir' for the sake of expediency."

[The Princess's Griffon Legion (PGL) is a regiment of the Equestrian Army, and is made up of the descendents of griffons who fled to Equestria to escape the mad King Grover III's reign of terror.]

The General squinted up at me. "I am the daughter of a farmer," she said, puffing her chest out. "And now I am a general and you are not, and I will be the one to lead the Equestrian Army to final victory in the field."

"I'm sure you will," I said, unable to hold back on the sarcasm. "And you are...?"

"Market Garden." She said that as though I should have known already. Granted, if I had paid closer attention to the mountains of paperwork currently putting my desk's structural integrity to the test, I probably would have recognised one of the rising stars of Twilight's newly reformed general staff. "General Market Garden, if you don't mind, of the First Army. Princess Luna said you're going to be my special liaison. I already have one commissar peering over my shoulder, so I don't think I need another, thank you very much."

I decided that I didn't like her, and as it happened, I would later find out that I was hardly in a minority in finding Market Garden, despite whatever skill she had as a leader, to be rude and abrasive. Something, however, didn't quite add up.

"What happened to General Solitaire?"

She smiled slyly. "I had a word with the Ministry of War. Victory will require decisive action, the likes of which Solitaire and the old guard of officers have proven themselves to be incapable of taking. Crimson Arrow had no imagination and McBridle had no initiative, and neither of them had any sort of fighting spirit, which, I assure you, I have in spades. I simply made my case to Field Marshal Iron Hoof, and here I am. And here you are, working with me now."

More like keeping an eye on you, thought I. As much as her brusque manner and over-inflated sense of self-importance grated on me, if I could impress upon my superiors in the Commissariat the need for me to serve as a facilitator between a general whose appalling personality was all but bound to insult everypony who had to work with her, then I could at least have an excuse to keep myself out of harm's way. After all, she might be correct in her assertion that she was the one to bring Equestria 'final victory in the field', as she had put it, like some prophesied messiah appointed by Faust herself, but that would all be for naught if she got herself fired from that position by being rude to the wrong ponies. Not everypony can get away with it as I can, especially the commoners.

Market Garden was still talking, rambling on about the state of the war and offering her own opinions on how it should be fought and that if she was in charge from the start we would have won by now. I was only half-paying attention, with the other half distracted by the rather delectable pair of flanks on the mare just ahead of her in the queue. Fortunately, said queue started moving at a fair old pace, and I assumed that Princess Luna was getting impatient greeting each and every guest in turn instead of imbibing heroic quantities of mead and having what she called 'fun'. By the time it looked as though she was starting to suspect that I was merely nodding and saying vague affirmations in strategic points in her monologue, it was time for her to be presented to the Princesses. Based on her inflated ego, I was surprised she didn't ask the rulers of Equestria to bow to her.

It was my turn, and that decidedly one-sided conversation with Market Garden had made me all the more desperate for a drink. Having done this countless times, I kept my greetings short and professional, knowing that I would have plenty of time to chat with the Princesses later; a quick bow and an equally-brisk 'Your Highness' was sufficient to expedite this.

That, however, all fell apart when I got to Twilight. Celestia and Cadence greeted me with their usual warmth, while Luna was her typically cold and distant self. When I saw our newest Princess, however, I found myself momentarily stunned into paralysis. Where before she was plain old Twilight Sparkle, albeit with a pair of wings and ever so slightly taller, apparently having had the same treatment that Rarity had given to Red Coat earlier, she looked every inch the perfect pony princess. She wore an elegant blue and white dress that hugged and accentuated her figure, with a train that cascaded elegantly from her flanks to the floor. What was more alluring, however, was the confidence with which she now held herself; the pretty clothes were merely an accent to her natural beauty and power.

I realised I was staring at her the same way Blitzkrieg stares at a free and open bar, and rapidly collected myself and gave a hasty bow. After a brief exchange of trite greetings I was free to canter through the open set of double doors and into the hall with embarrassment flashing hotly on my cheeks.

Whatever issue there had been with the chandelier had clearly been rectified. It hung rather precariously over the hall from a vast domed roof, resplendent in glittering white crystals, sweeping silverwork, and gently glowing candles. Nevertheless, though the chain that held it suspended over the heads of dozens of party guests certainly looked sturdy enough, I decided it was best to give the space directly beneath it a wide enough berth for now.

The hall itself was of modest size. A central area, underneath the aforementioned chandelier, had been cleared for dancing, a small band played inoffensive classical music in the corner, and around the sides were tables and chairs for ponies to sit on. A larger table atop a raised platform was at the far end of the hall, reserved for the four Princesses. At my right hoof side as I entered the hall was a longer table upon which was served a variety of party snacks, sandwiches, and, most importantly, drinks. On the left, a few open double doors led to a sweeping balcony, from which one could view Ponyville in the distance and the malignant gloom of the Everfree Forest beyond.

As for the guests themselves, most of them were officers of Twilight's new Equestrian Army, and judging by the varying amounts of gold lace, medals, and other shiny accoutrements that one accumulates the further up the totem pole one climbs, there appeared to be examples of just about every rank from major to field marshal. A number of ponies were in the civilian equivalent of ceremonial dress, white tie for stallions and ball gowns for mares, and I recognised a few as senior members of the Cabinet and Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. It occurred to me, standing there and watching over all of the very important ponies congregated entirely within one room, all chatting, eating, drinking, and dancing all in that somewhat restrained way before a party truly starts, that between them and all four Princesses also being present, this was the perfect opportunity for Changeling infiltrators to decapitate Equestria's political and military leadership in one strike.

That was when I noticed the place was positively crawling with guards. There appeared to be one guard for every two guests as far as I could see, and they stood around the corners of the room and at doors and windows, and pegasi were perched like gargoyles on wall sconces. Each was in full plate armour and were fully armed for combat. The earth ponies and pegasi carried those new-fangled muskets, which a number of guests were excitedly discussing, and, to their credit, the guardsponies remained professionally detached and refused to demonstrate how they worked in spite of the persistent nagging. Looking around with a fresh appreciation for security, as my habitual paranoia kicked in once I became aware of just how big a target had been painted on Auntie 'Tia's rather large flanks, I spotted the unicorn guards discretely moving between the groups of ponies and surreptitiously scanning them.

Though I assured myself that security was tight enough to dissuade even Queen Chrysalis from so obvious a target, the weight of my sword hanging from my belt was immensely reassuring, especially after last time. I also noticed that most of the other guests were likewise armed, though I wagered most of those swords and hoof-pistols that adorned the officers and the odd civilian had never been drawn for their intended, practical use at all.

I made a beeline for the drinks, my highly-polished horseshoes tapping on the marble floor as I crossed the hall at a brisk pace. A few heads naturally turned in my direction, as I apparently made some sort of dramatic entrance, which I put down to a level of superficial charm I have always been able to project without effort. Passing the soft drinks, fruit juices, and Apple family cider left out for the tedious sort of killjoy who doesn't drink alcohol, I grabbed a flute of champagne. A quick sip confirmed it to be of an acceptable vintage; perfectly drinkable but unremarkable, but it would do for now.

I turned around, only to be met face-to-face with a bright pink earth pony. Her nose was mere inches from my own, and she wore a grin so broad that it appeared to take up more than half of her entire face. Messy hair like cotton candy and a dress decorated with candy motifs confirmed that this was none other than the infamous Pinkie Pie, whom I had glimpsed from afar at the Grand Galloping Gala so long ago. I let out a short, violent exclamation and flinched back, bumping my rump into the table behind me and knocking over a plate piled high with canapés.

"Hi, Mister Blue-Buddy!" she exclaimed.

"What did you just call me!?" I roared, almost snapping the champagne flute in half. A few ponies turned to look, but I ignored them.

Damnation, what was the point in sending earth ponies to school if they don't learn how to address their social betters correctly? First that Market Garden filly, and now Pinkie Pie. I blamed Twilight, of course, for remaining too familiar with these commoners so they forgot their instinctive awe of royalty. However, that Pinkie Pie was, against all logic and reason, a Bearer of an Element of Harmony and therefore some shade at least of nobility, not to mention a popular heroine and a universally-beloved party planner, probably meant that I shouldn't toss my drink in her face.

"It's Prince Blue-Buddy to you," I hissed through gritted teeth. "Not 'mister'; that's for common stallions."

"Oo-ooo-oo!" She pulled back to a more comfortable distance. "What are you a prince of, exactly? I mean, Celestia is the princess of the sun, Luna is the princess of the moon, Cadence is the princess of love, and Twilight is the princess of friendship."

My initial shock of anger had rapidly deflated, though that might have been because I had been quaffing down that champagne much too quickly. Perhaps, after all, this was an opportunity to educate her on how to approach royalty correctly.

"My distant ancestor took the title of Princess of Blood, but my family hasn't used that for hundreds of years."

Then, the deluge of words began - unceasing, without pause for breath or thought. I cannot describe adequately being subjected to a Pinkie Pie ramble in mere words, but I shall endeavour to replicate what little I can remember of the nonsensical tirade, flitting as it did between different subjects within the same sentence as her mouth struggled to keep up with the sudden and violent changes of topic within her mind. All of this was accompanied by a great deal of mad gesticulation and physical props she had summoned from somewhere. It was like being held beneath a waterfall, unable to escape or do anything but stand there and accept one's fate. Try as I might to interject, there was no stopping her without clamping her mouth shut by either physical or magical means, which I doubted would do much to help anyway.

"Does that mean you're in charge of all of the blood in Equestria? Like, the blood flowing in everypony's veins right now? That's so cool! Because sometimes when I'm lying in bed playing with Gummy, he's my pet baby alligator, and he suddenly comes up with this really, really, really fun idea for a special kind of pie for Rainbow Dash's birthday. You know Rainbow Dash, right? She's my friend and she loves my pies and I bake one for her every birthday, Hearth's Warming, Summer Sun Celebration, Winter Moon Festival, Nightmare Night, and Tuesday! Anyway, what Gummy comes up with is so unbelievably amazing that I just have to write it down before either of us forget it. So I jump up out of bed to get to my notepad before the awesome idea leaves my head, but then my head goes all 'whoa' and I have to lie down again. By the time I stop feeling dizzy I've forgotten the super-cool pie idea - the 'pie-dea'! Twilight said it's because I'm standing up so quickly that my blood can't keep up and get to my head in time. If you could tell my blood to stop being so lazy and keep up with the rest of me, then that would save so many pies!"

Over the course of that insane rant I had completely drained my first glass of champagne and started on the second. Being a little bit tipsy didn't help me understand it any better, and I'd need a damn sight more drink in me before I could. Finally, however, I was allowed to speak:

"'Blood' is an Ancient Equestrian symbol for the Herd's fighting spirit and determination to never give up in the struggle for Harmony. More recently, it’s come to mean the purity of the noble unicorn bloodline descended from Princess Platinum."

Pinkie Pie carried on. What she said, I simply can't tell you, as I had given up on even trying at that point. Instead, I looked past her to find anypony who might come to my rescue; the Princesses were still busy with the introductions, Red Coat was chatting up some young mare and looking very dashing as Rarity had promised, and Sunshine Smiles was wrapped up in a conversation with his new best friend Shining Armour and the two griffons. I'd have even settled with listening to General Market Garden drone on endlessly about how she was going to personally win the war all by herself, presumably by lecturing Queen Chrysalis to death.

"...and that's how I found out Applejack and me are your cousins!"

That jolted me out of my fugue state. Almost choking on my champagne for a second time that night, I struggled to find a way to articulate an appropriate reaction to that particular piece of utter nonsense. "What?" was all that I could manage on such short notice.

"Gee, Prince Blue-Buddy, it's almost like you weren't paying attention to a word I said!" She then waved over at a group of nearby ponies. "Hey, Applejack! Come and meet your new cousin!"

I recognised her instantly, the Bearer of the Element of Honesty who had baked the enormous cake that had ruined a perfectly innocent dinner jacket. Applejack trotted on over, grinning inanely, and if I didn't know any better I'd say the two of them had planned this.

"I'll be," she drawled, tilting her peculiar, beaten old hat back so that she might have a chance of looking me in the eye. "Is that true, Pinkie? Does that make us royalty?"

[Blueblood had written Applejack's accent phonetically. For the sake of maintaining readability and with respect to Applejack, I have taken the liberty of correcting this.]

"That isn't how it works," I said, feeling the pit of my stomach suddenly drop like a trap door. "There must be some mistake."

"Nuh-uh," said Pinkie Pie, shaking her head. "Now, listen carefully this time. The Apple Family is really, surprisingly, stupendously good at keeping records. Goldie Delicious has the paperwork to prove it; your great-great-great-Grandpa Pureblood and Applejack's great-great-Aunt Jonagold Apple got really friendly, like really, really, really friendly, and their love-foal was Applejack's Great Uncle Empire Apple."

"Well, now," said Applejack, sidling over to my side and playfully jabbing her elbow into my ribs. "What do y'all make of my 'common carnival fare' now, cousin?"

"I don't think that actually makes us cousins," I sneered. "In any case, the College of Heralds would never approve an application based on such tenuous grounds." [The College of Heralds is a royal corporation that oversees all matters of heraldry and peerage in Equestria on behalf of the Princesses. Its remit includes genealogical research and recommendations of the granting of peerages.]

"Well, bless your heart." Applejack waved her hoof dismissively at me. "We ain't fussed about titles and all that, and I don't need no fancy ponies to tell me who's my kin and who ain't. Besides, it ain't really up to me to judge whether you and yours are Apples or not; that'll be up to Granny Smith, but I reckon I could put in a good word for you, cousin."

"Ooh!" exclaimed Pinkie, jumping up and down on the spot like an excitable puppy. "We could have the next Apple family reunion at Blueblood's! Think about all the Apples in Equestria converging on your palace, parking their wagons on your lawn, raising a barn in your garden, dragging their muddy hooves over your carpets, drinking your drinks, taking you on a hay-ride through the streets of Canterlot for all of your fancy pony friends to see! Wouldn't that be fun? Hey, that's funny, you've turned an even whiter shade of white!"

Pinkie Pie was spared my full and honest assessment on just how 'fun' I would find all of those things, when the sharp sound of a spoon gently tapping on the side of a champagne flute cut through the noise of the room like a rapier blade. All conversation ceased and all eyes turned towards the table on the raised platform where, now that they had finally finished with the introductions, the four rulers of Equestria sat. The aforementioned glass and cutlery were held in Twilight's magic, as she rose to her hooves and cleared her throat to deliver a speech. I used this opportunity to make my escape, and as I darted to cover on the other side of the hall where hopefully I wouldn't be spotted in the crowd, I reassured myself that with the sheer size of the Apple Family and my ancestor Pureblood's rustic tastes such a connection between our families was inevitable. I also wondered how expensive it would be to have two Bearers and their entire families assassinated.

"Ladies and gentlecolts," Twilight began. Her voice was curiously flat and robotic, as though reading from a script.

The silence that had fallen on the crowd was reverent, like that of a cathedral. She looked to Celestia first, presumably for reassurance, which she received in the form of a polite nod and an encouraging smile, then continued:

"I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming to this celebration of our armed forces; it is by their continuing sacrifice that our safety and Harmony is maintained. This day marks the founding of the Princess of Friendship's Own Regiment of Prism Guards, and with it the completion of the much-needed reforms of our military. The sword of Equestria, blunted and rusted after centuries of neglect, has been re-forged, and is ready to put an end to the Changeling threat for once and for all. Colonel Fer-de-Lance, bring forth the standard."

At that command, an honour guard marched through the open double doors and into the hall to the sound of triumphant martial music. The sound of their horseshoes pounding against the marble all but drowned out the band behind them. A tall, scarred mare in a deep purple dress uniform I hadn't seen before led the procession, followed by a rather nervous-looking ensign bearing the regimental standard itself. It was purple, and bore the heraldic device of Twilight's cutie mark in the centre, framed by an alchemist's prism. There was some symbolism about the Magic of Friendship being refracted through the hearts of ponies or some such rot, but it flew right over my head at any rate.

The crowd scurried out of the way of the marching honour guard, which forged a path right up to the pedestal where the four Princesses sat. This stern-looking mare barked an order, calling a halt to the procession and, mercifully, to the music. As the silence re-settled over the crowd, she brought the trembling ensign up to Princess Twilight. It was rather difficult to see from my perspective, huddled away near the back and away from the more irritating of her friends, but fortunately my tall stature allowed me to glimpse her exchanging a few words with this Colonel Fer-de-Lance, whoever she was, before taking the limply-hanging end of the regimental standard and planting a kiss on it.

With that silly bit of ceremony over with, the party went into full swing. The Colonel joined in, though I would not have the pleasure of speaking with her that night, while the honour guard was sent packing with the standard; it was just as well, too, as I had already gotten myself into a heap of trouble just to rescue one flag and I was in no desire to repeat that whole awful affair.

From then on it was all a mad, drunken haze of flitting between clusters of officers and civilians important enough to deserve an invitation. To recount everything would be a waste of time for the both of us, dear reader, and it was without scandal or much more embarrassment than I had already suffered. Anecdotes and bon mots were delivered with their usual impeccable timing, and as the alcohol flowed and the guests became ever more merry the music rose and swelled in tempo and energy until even I felt the need to dance. In spite of the other deficiencies in her personality, Pinkie Pie had done a sterling job in this party; the strict protocols and traditions of formal parties had been maintained (her own behaviour to Yours Truly excepted), but it was still a lively and entertaining affair.

The brief interlude in the festivities for the lowering of the sun and the raising of the moon by both Princesses was a particular highlight. An hour or so after that, I realised that I had seen very little of Twilight Sparkle since her little speech, beyond the occasional glimpse of purple in the small gaps between groups of chatting ponies. Being well on my way on my journey to inebriation, I decided that I ought to rectify that; after all, seeing her again was the main draw for me in attending this party, and I'd be damned if I was going to be sent back to the frontline without at least a friendly chat. I cannot explain this need in rational terms, only a strong, emotional longing to be in her company, to hear her voice whether passionately extolling the virtues of whatever obscure academic practice held her interest that week or bemoaning my lack of ability to keep up.

I found her on the balcony after much searching and almost getting cornered again by that tedious General Market Garden. It was quite a chilly night, still being that time in Spring where the days are warm but the temperature plummets rapidly after sunset, so the balcony was quiet compared to the raucous party inside. Twilight stood at the edge, her forehooves resting on the rail as she looked over at Ponyville beyond. As far as I could make out in the gloom, the only other ponies around were a couple rather too interested in exploring the contents of each other's mouths than what their Princess was doing. Clearly, she wanted some quiet time to herself. I, on the other hoof, was much too inebriated to recognise this at the time, and stumbled on over next to her.

"That was a nice speech Princess Luna wrote for you," I said, stumbling over to her side. I'd taken another glass of champagne with me, and sipped it as I gazed out at the village.

Twilight turned her head slowly and gave me a quizzical look. "How did you know she wrote it?"

"Your speeches aren't usually so bellicose," I said, and I almost added 'mercifully short' and 'direct and to the point' to the end of that. "The bit about the rusty sword is very much something Princess Luna says too. If I had a bit for every time I've heard her use that analogy I'll finally pay off my late father's gambling debts in one go."

"I couldn't think of anything to say." She had been drinking, that much was clear, but was doing a better job than most of hiding it. I expect that a princess should never be drunk, though with princes it's more or less expected, but whatever quantity she had it was just enough to loosen her tongue for the first pony to speak to her. "I'm the Princess of Friendship, for pony's sake, and I'm making speeches about war, my face is on recruitment posters all over the realm, and now soldiers will march into battle led by a flag with my cutie mark on it. Doesn't it all sound a bit... you know?"


"I was going to say 'wrong', but that works too." Twilight sighed, and turned her gaze back to the warm, soft lights of Ponyville, whose tiny pinpricks in the distance seemed like a small homage to the majesty of the stars above. "It's just that after all I've done to get my reforms passed, all the things that I had to do to get it through Parliament, seeing that flag just now had made me wonder if the Magic of Friendship has failed us. We shouldn't have been in this situation in the first place."

Those words cut deeper than I thought they should, or it might have been alcohol-induced melancholia, and as I stood there, watching her stare forlornly into the distance, I found that I could not stand to see her look so sad. "Friendship hasn't failed," I said. "And it certainly doesn't mean you've failed, either."

"What is war but a failure of friendship to solve our differences? Perhaps if we reached out to the Changelings we could come to some sort of arrangement, and even helped them. But no, Equestria went to war, and now more ponies are going to die because we couldn't find a peaceful solution."

"Chrysalis didn't give us much of a choice," I said. "You're right about friendship, but don't you think we have an obligation to defend it, by force if necessary? It's gruesome and horrible, yes, but talking our differences out over tea and cakes only works if the belligerent wants to, and I doubt Chrysalis is all that keen on tea, anyway."

"On a rational, logical level you're absolutely right. Believe me, I've told myself this a thousand times over since that speech. But what use is friendship in war? How can it survive against all this hate?"

Twilight slumped over the balcony rail, and I feared for a moment that she might have passed out until she drunkenly lifted her head up. In the dim light, her eyes sparkled with the glow of a party that suddenly seemed so very distant. The wind had picked up, tugging at my tunic, and I thought back to just how unpleasant the heat of the Badlands was. In a week's time I'd be longing for this cold again.

"I don't know why I'm telling you, of all ponies," she continued in that sort of far-off voice a drunk pony uses when just rambling without much in the way of forethought. "It wasn't all that long ago you were calling me names and stealing my things and getting into fights with my brother."

"I like to think I've changed since then," I said. "You certainly have. And I think Equestria needs you more than ever now."

She appeared to be lost in thought, which I imagined was a constant peril for one as intelligent as her. "I'm not so sure," she said, at length. "I made my report and I got my reforms completed. The rest is up to the army while I do princess-things."

"Someday, hopefully soon, this dreadful war will come to an end, and both victor and vanquished will need somepony to bring them together to ensure a lasting peace. Until then, I think Equestria desperately needs its Princess of Friendship to keep it on the right path, lest this war makes us lose sight of what we're fighting for."

I was babbling by this point, merely saying the first coherent thoughts that swam up from the depths of my subconscious mind, but it seemed to do the trick. Twilight Sparkle smiled at me, and I felt a sudden and inexplicable sense of relief at that sight. And yet, though I longed to stay, the light and noise of the party beckoned me back, to once more take on the mantle that Canterlot's high society had placed on my shoulders as a high priest of senseless hedonism. Oh, the glitter of champagne in a crystal flute, the sparkle of the sequins on a pretty mare's dress as she danced across the marble, the chorus of laughter that follows a perfectly-delivered bon mot; it all sang to me in an intoxicating siren's song of soporific excess. This was the last party I would attend before returning to the front, and the knowledge of it left its sourness on every drink, snack, and pair of lips I had tasted that night, and if this was to become the last one of my life then I promised that it would be one worthy of the most depraved of my ancient family line.

"Pinkie Pie put a lot of effort into this party," I said, holding out my hoof, "and I think she'd love to see you enjoy it instead of standing out here in the cold."

She looked out into the darkness and then back up at me, then her smile grew wider. "Of course," she said, taking my hoof. "Thank you, Blueblood."

She followed me back, once more into my world of light and decadence.


A single ray of light cast by Celestia's rising sun streamed through a crack between the curtains and landed directly on my face. I opened my eyes, only to be blinded by it, and clenching them shut once again seemed to soften the pain only slightly. Something was beating a rhythm in my head roughly in time with my heartbeat, and whatever creature it was had also made use of my skull as a latrine before promptly dying. At some point in the night, I must have had the stuffing beaten out of me by a lover's jealous husband and then forced to run a marathon at knife-point. This, however, was all very familiar to me; this was the Morning After and I had a hangover.

Slowly, I rolled away the sweat-soaked duvet and stretched out my battered limbs as much as the bed would allow; the sheets were somewhat stuck to my body, so the process was reminiscent of unpeeling a banana. I lay there, the draft from the window cooling my coat, and I waited for the misery to end, but my mouth felt as though I had gargled with dust and I would have to answer a certain natural call soon. There was nothing for it, and sooner or later I'd have to drag myself out of bed like a vampire out of its tomb and begin the long and slow process of piecing together the events of the night before. The pounding in my brain subsided as I wiggled down and away from the accusatory beam of sunlight, and, after a moment of bracing myself for the onslaught the day would bring, I opened my eyes.

This was not my room.

It was far larger, for one, with a wide open space in the middle, a modest bookcase next to a set of double doors, a mirror plastered with photographs, and a very complicated-looking telescope by that window. My clothes were on the floor, along with a blue and white dress that looked familiar but my alcohol-soaked brain still couldn't work it out. I then saw that there was a rather large book on the bedside table, leaning drunkenly against a gramophone. Squinting until the words on the spine would stay still enough for me to read, it was titled 'Lectures on the Theory of Advanced Thaumodynamics: 2nd Edition'. There was only one pony in the world who would consider that to be appropriate for light bedtime reading, and when the name formed in my mind like an enormous billboard, I felt suddenly very awake and very sober, but no less nauseated.

Oh no.

Next to me on the bed was a pony-shaped lump under the sheets. The pounding in my head grew faster as, desperate to confirm or disprove my fears, I took the corner of the duvet with my magic and delicately rolled it back. When I saw a pair of purple flanks emblazoned with stars, the memories of the night before came flooding back, clear and shockingly vivid.

After our little discussion on the balcony, Twilight and I had rejoined the party, and we drank, talked, and danced. Or rather, I danced while she had some sort of seizure, but as nopony rushed to give her medical aid I just assumed that this was normal for her. We both carried on long into the night, after most of the other guests had left, in a veritable kaleidoscope of sybaritic excess, until it was just me, her, and the two other Princesses finishing off what remained of the food and drink. Luna drunkenly regaled us with stories of when she and Celestia were foals, complete with miming and imitations, and with only a few gentle corrections from the slightly more sober elder sister; Twilight rested her head on my shoulder as we listened on, and I recall being subjected to a few unsettlingly eager grins from Cadence.

Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and the Princesses all had business to attend to the following day. Being the gentlecolt that I always claimed to be but only sometimes lived up to, I escorted Twilight back to her chambers, still chatting about any old nonsense that came to mind. We stumbled through the corridor, tripping over carpets and bouncing off the walls, and could scarcely keep our hooves off one another. Once there, however, with the door closed and out of sight from other, more judgemental ponies, all pretence dropped; we tore off each other's evening clothes and fell upon one another in a spontaneous, champagne-soaked eruption of a mutual lust long-repressed by social propriety and a decade of juvenile antagonism.

Back in the present, Princess Twilight Sparkle began to stir, and I considered ducking under the bed and hiding there until I could make my escape. Too late. She rolled over to face me, her eyes flickered open, and then bugged out of their sockets when she saw me sitting in her bed with a very guilty grin on my face.

"Good Morning, Twi-"

Twilight screamed.

Chapter 8

"What are you doing in my bed?!" Twilight Sparkle shrieked. Before I could begin to answer, she screwed up her face in an expression of utmost disgust, like an infant after being fed a slice of lemon, and clamped her hooves over her clenched eyes. "Oh, Luna's full moon, we didn't, did we? We did! I remember everything!"

Gripped by panicked disgust, Twilight scrambled away in a flail of hooves and bed sheets, but her long tail had become matted to my inner thigh with substances that, shall we say, Princess Cadence would be more than comfortable discussing openly, but not Princess Celestia. [You need to buy me dinner first.] A sharp tug that painfully ripped out a hoof-full of my coat and she was free, but, apparently disorientated by the same deleterious effects of a hangover upon her motor skills that I suffered, she tumbled over the side of the bed and fell in a heap on the floor, wrapped up in the duvet like a cigar.

The door violently swung open, striking the wall with a loud 'bang' that felt like iron spikes being driven right through both ear holes. Spike stood there at the door, bleary-eyed from apparently having been woken suddenly. I assumed that his bedroom was close to Twilight's, but given the surprising volume her little lungs could manage with that scream, it was likely that the entire castle, as vast as it was, heard it. Perhaps Luna was giving her lessons in the Royal Canterlot Voice.

"What's the matter this time, Twilight?" he said, rubbing his face. His manner implied this sort of thing was a regular occurence in the household.

However, when he saw me, he looked suddenly very awake; his large eyes narrowed to slits and his lips turned back in a snarl in some sort of juvenile imitation of an angry adult dragon, only without any of the menace. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel more than a little perturbed, as though he may not have been able to eat me just yet, I was still very much flammable.

"Oh!" exclaimed Twilight, forcing a manic grin to her face as she skilfully unwrapped herself from the duvet. Her smile was far too wide to be anything but wholly insincere. Her voice, too, was likewise far too chipper and upbeat to truly sell the illusion that everything was, despite all outward appearances, completely fine. "Good morning, Spike!"

Spike, not being quite as stupid as he looked, arched an eyebrow. He then jabbed a stubby talon in my direction, and said, "What's he doing in your bed?"

"Prince Blueblood was, uh..." Twilight trailed off, her jaw flapping open and closed but with nothing resembling coherent words coming out.

Realising that it was down to me to resolve this awkward situation, I cleared my throat. "Well, Spike," I said, offering my best imitation of a standard Twilecture, "when a stallion and a mare like each other very much, they start to get certain urges..."

"Shut up, Blueblood!" Her horn flashed, and something clamped down on my muzzle quite firmly, such that, try as I might, I couldn't so much as move my lips let alone open my mouth. Touching it with my hoof, I found that it was encased in something that felt as smooth as glass. Try as I might, I could not dispel the spell, as my magic, being quite feeble and unrefined, seemed to slide off it like rainwater off a conservatory window. It was folly of the highest regard to even think I could attempt to undo even the simplest of Twilight's spells. Although, all things considered, it was good that she felt merciful enough to allow me to breathe, however, never one to be silenced by a mare, I decided to signal my displeasure by wordlessly mumbling and waving my hooves around. I was ignored.

"What's going on?" said Spike.

"Nothing!" said Twilight, a little too quickly. "Why don't you get started on everypony’s breakfast? We had a busy night, so we could do with lots of pancakes. Not that Prince Blueblood and I had been doing anything we shouldn't have, because we didn't!"

Faust forbid that two adult ponies have a drunken liaison together, but as I sat there, watching Spike look on dumbly as the limits of his knowledge and experience had been stretched just a little further by this revelation, I contemplated just how much trouble I could be in if this got out. My tendency towards pessimism, or simply a realistic view of a universe out to punish me for some horrendous sin committed in a past life, was only enhanced by this awful hangover, being the metaphysical sort that leaves one feeling entirely separated from the natural order of things. While I, noted philanderer, cad, and bounder, could get away with frequent dalliances with mares considered to be out-of-bounds owing to some sort of real or potential marital status, this was the one mare, outside of certain very distant family members, above me in the social pecking order. I concluded, as I sat there dumbly with Twilight's magic clamped around my muzzle, that I was in deep trouble, unless I could keep her from getting too angry; something told me that crawling out of the window and sneaking across the garden, as I am usually forced to do when caught, wouldn't be of much help here.

Spike, meanwhile, frowned and sucked in a deep breath. "Ri-iii-ight," he said. "Will he be having pancakes?"

I nodded with great enthusiasm, hoping a big serving of breakfast would help settle my churning stomach. However, Spike rolled his eyes, blew a raspberry, and slammed the door shut with a force equal to what he used to open it. Alone together once more, Twilight breathed a heavy sigh of relief, sounding like the gas being let out of a trans-continental airship, and collapsed likewise into a heap on the floor beside the bed.

After a few seconds of waiting for her to remember that I was still here and very much incapable of speaking, I crawled on over to the side of the bed. The sheets and the duvet still clung unpleasantly to my sweaty coat, such that I had to keep peeling it away as I crawled across it. Once there, I reached down and gently tapped Twilight on the shoulder, and when she flinched and looked up at me, I pointed emphatically at my muzzle.

"Oh," she said. Her horn flashed and the pressure around my jaw disappeared. "Sorry."

"That's better," I said, rubbing at my cheeks. "Now what in blazes was that all about?"

Twilight squinted up at me, and I wondered if I was about to be sent on a one-way journey to the moon or some other celestial body befitting my apparent crime. "Do we have to talk about it right now?"

I sat on the bed, with my hindlegs dangling off the edge. Resisting the sudden and inexplicable urge to pat her on the head like a faithful dog, I merely shrugged and said, "Well, no, we don't have to talk about it if you really don't want to. Instead, we can just pretend this never happened and carry on with our lives, except each time we meet again will be marred by this unresolved problem, potentially crushing a new and emerging friendship between us."

Her brow furrowed into a frown. "Are you saying we're friends?"

"With benefits." Don't look at me (this manuscript?) like that, there was no way in Tartarus I or any other stallion could resist saying that. Her retort, however, came in the form of a rather large and heavy pillow, wrapped in purple magic, hurled with great force at my head. It connected with a 'thud' and knocked me clean over, and I lay there on the comfortable, warm bed, contemplating simply allowing the plush mattress to whisk me away back into the gentle emptiness of unconsciousness. There was no such luck, of course, as I rolled onto my side I saw Twilight had turned and lifted her head to face me, at first with a look of concern, but when she discovered that she hadn't accidentally killed me with the pillow, her exasperated scowl returned.

"No chance of round two, then?" I said, affecting a cheeky grin. Twilight growled in response, and held the pillow threateningly over my head. "I'll take that as a 'no' then."

"Look, Blueblood," she began, apparently finding some degree of solace in doing what she did best - lecturing ponies. I propped up my head on my hoof, while she laid her weapon down amidst its soft, cushiony brethren on the bed. "You might be the sort of pony who sleeps around with anything on four legs, but I'm just not that kind of mare."

"You could have fooled me," I said. "Then again, you read an awful lot, so I imagine the spectator sees more of the sport."

Twilight glared daggers at me. "You wanted to talk about this, so if you could just be serious about it..."

"What's there to be serious about?" I said with a shrug. "Let's put this into perspective, shall we? We are two adult ponies who clearly drank far too much at a party and then slept together; hardly the most shocking thing to ever transpire in good old Equestria. And the fact is, Princess, if you didn't feel at least some modicum of attraction to me, there is no way you would have allowed me into your chambers and into your bed regardless of how inebriated you were."

"I guess," she said. "I mean, you're right, I did want it, but if I wasn't drunk then I don't think I would have."

"Well," I said, inching myself closer to her until my forehooves dangled off the bed, "as I said, there must have been something within the two of us for this to have happened. How about a dinner together? Come to my palace; my chef, Sous Vide, is a true artist."

"Blueblood," she said, her voice no longer angry, but soft. My stomach dropped and my heart felt like it was caught in a vice; I knew that tone of voice all too well, as it was the same one that I used in similar situations with the roles reversed. "I like you, Blueblood, and I'd be lying if I said there was nothing between us. And, I have to admit, last night was fun. But I think you know as much as I do that it couldn't work out between the two of us, just yet, I mean."

So, this is what it was like, thought I, and I didn't like it. Embarrassed and angry, I hopped off the bed and gathered up my clothes that had been hurled onto the floor in that night of passion, while she watched with what looked like a shamed expression on her face.

"I'm sorry," she said, watching me awkwardly.

"Don't be," I said, trying to fold up my ceremonial dress tunic but getting it completely wrong, so I just bundled it up and draped it over my back. Drape Cut could press it later. "Like you said, it was just 'fun'. I'll buck anything with four legs and a pretty flank, and that night it just had to be you. It could have been any one of those mares at the party - Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Market Garden - but I picked you."

"I'm not saying it'll never work," snapped Twilight, somewhat defensively. "I don't know why you're suddenly acting like this. You just said there's nothing to be serious about. Unless, you really think there is."

That realisation struck me like a velvet glove slapped across my muzzle. I stood there in mute horror as I understood that, as with most things, she was completely and utterly right. Just why did I react like that? Unless, deep down within me I really did think that there was at least the potential for something more than a brief fling. Either way, I was a damned fool for thinking that Princess Twilight Sparkle of all ponies would be the one to fill it, or that she'd be at all interested in exploring the slightest hint of a potential relationship.

"No," I said, making my way to the door. "There's nothing, Your Highness. Like I said, we got drunk and did something silly together, and nothing more."

"We can still be friends," she said, holding out her hoof. "We'll write to each other."

"Of course." I should have said something, but there was nothing that I could say to magically make this better; it was better to allow this to linger in awkwardness and then die a quiet, dignified death than to drag it out for longer until even friendship between us would become impossible.

I stepped through the door and shut it behind me. The castle appeared to be empty, as I expected the majority of the guests were still recovering from hangovers, so nopony saw me lean against the cool, crystalline wall and beat my hoof into the side of my head until I felt suitably chastised for my idiocy. This was all still salvageable, I hoped, but it would take a damned sight more honesty and work than I thought I was worth. Perhaps Drape Cut might have a plan.

Aside from a brief run-in with Colonel Fer-de-Lance looking for the kitchens, I made it back to my guest room without much further issue. Once there I had a cold shower in the en suite bathroom, which did much to clear my head, as though the soap and water cleansed the fog from my mind as it did the filth and sweat from my coat. The sound of running water and the rare sense of isolation allowed me time to reflect; my track record with relationships, by which I mean genuine relationships with mares and not the sort of until-dawn-do-us-part dalliances that I was used to, was abysmal, bordering on non-existent. Faust knows I have had as much yearning for companionship as much as any stallion; yet a reputation for a caddish disregard for the feelings of my temporary partners and a view of marriage warped by an aristocratic system, which views such things only in terms of political gain, meant that the moment I felt anything greater than base lust, I had little to no comprehension of how to act upon it appropriately.

So, that was that, I decided. Whatever it was that I thought I had felt, and as I had explained to Twilight years ago in that dreadful siege, feelings of affection were luxuries that aristocracy, of which she was now a member, were denied. There was nothing to do except to bury those emotions, steel oneself, and carry on with a veneer of noble aloofness. That shower probably took a bit longer than I had planned, but it did the trick; feeling a damned sight less embarrassed than before, but not quite up to my usual self, I dried myself off and gathered up my clothes.

The application of a crisp white dress shirt, a well-cut navy blazer with flattering shoulder pads, drape, and a nipped waist for a masculine silhouette, and a louche cravat around one's neck did wonders for one's sense of well-being. After half an hour or so of preening in front of the mirror, suitably armoured for the day ahead and with those frightful scars of mine concealed, I was ready for what I knew would be an awkward and uncomfortable breakfast.

Breakfast was held in one of the smaller of the many dining rooms that the Tree of Harmony had so thoughtfully provided for Twilight Sparkle, apparently having decided that, as Princess of Friendship, she might be called upon to host a number of dinner parties for different guests separately but simultaneously. [The simpler and more logical explanation is that there were a large number of empty rooms that had to be furnished by Twilight herself, resulting in many rooms with the same purpose.] Compared to the party of the previous night, it was a much quieter and more restrained affair. When I arrived, a number of the guests who had stayed the night were already present and tucking into plates of pancakes. The room was of a modest size, at least by my standards, with a number of circular tables dotted around the place and each with four or five chairs. About half were occupied by officers, either naked or in civilian clothing, and each in wildly varying states of hangovers; General Market Garden looked to be completely fine, Colonel Sunshine Smiles looked merely tired, Cannon Fodder was happily stuffing his face with pancakes with his usual lack of regard for the appetite of others, while Captain Red Coat appeared to be completely and utterly comatose. [General Market Garden did not drink that night, as she was a teetotaller.]

I spotted Twilight Sparkle at the table with Sunshine Smiles and Red Coat, while the other three Princesses had spaced themselves out in the room and had sat with the other guests. For a moment, our eyes met across the room, before she blushed, looked away, and resumed her conversation with Sunshine Smiles. Now, I had a choice; sit somewhere else and make further awkward eye-contact with her across the room, or sit at that same table and try to carry on as though I hadn't been drunkenly riding below her crupper just a few hours ago. The latter seemed like the best option, and I trotted on over, weaving around the tables and chairs, and sat down beside her.

"Good Morning, Princess!" I said cheerfully, and then nodded to the other guests. Sunshine Smiles reciprocated in the usual way, while Red Coat waved his hoof lazily in my direction and then proceeded to rest his head on the table. Twilight, however, apparently did not expect me to be so bold in my endeavour to pretend that everything was fine, and spluttered out a bewildered greeting followed by an awkward chuckle.

Spike then waddled on over, bearing a plate piled high with pancakes, fruit, and cream. He wore an apron stained with flour and fruit juice, and upon his head was a tall, white chef's hat that was crumpled a little in its middle. His face twisted into a snarl as he tossed my plate onto the table with some force and then stomped away as angrily as his stubby little legs would allow him to. There was a face on the pancakes made out of blueberries, strawberries, and whipped cream, and while everypony else's bore a happy countenance, mine did not. It was the very definition of anger and hatred given form in the medium of breakfast; its strawberry eyes, whipped cream frown, and maple syrup snarl spoke of a deep, fundamental loathing of my very existence that thus far has not been replicated in any other art form since. I had to commend Spike for it. If his intention was to convey the utmost displeasure of what I had done with his alleged 'sister' then he had done so most eloquently.

Somepony sat on the vacant seat to my right, and when I looked up to see who it was I saw that exact same hatred reflected in the face of Shining Armour. Before I could say a word, he grabbed my blazer's lapels with his hooves and pulled me so close that our muzzles were less than an inch apart.

"Shining!" whispered Twilight from my left. Everypony else on the table stopped and watched, except for Red Coat, who had fallen asleep on his pancakes. "What are you doing?"

"Listen very carefully, Blueblood," hissed Shining Armour, his voice barely above a whisper and positively dripping with rage and contempt. "I know what you did, you pig, and if you so much as even look at my sweet, innocent little Twiley again I'll rip you a new- a new... oh, geeze, Blueblood, the look on your face!"

Shining Armour, Prince-Consort of the Crystal Empire and former Captain of the Royal Guard, broke into a fit of hysterical laughter. Bewildered, confused, and still more than just a bit terrified, I managed to push his hooves away from my lapels, doing my best to smooth down the crumpled fabric, so I could just slump back in my seat and watch, dumbfounded at the display. Indeed, everypony on the table was looking at him, and I spotted Cadence, who sat on the other table entertaining another group of officers, trying to conceal a giggle by daintily holding a small teacup to her lips.

"That was too easy," said Shining Armour, once he managed to recover enough to speak, though his face was still twisted by a huge grin. He then glanced under the table, leaned in close, and whispered into my ear, "You didn't wet the floor, did you?"

I spluttered out a hasty response: "Certainly not!"

"Shining," said Twilight, hissing from my other side. "That wasn't nice, and how in Celestia's name did you find out, anyway?"

"Spike told me," he said with a casual shrug. "He thought he could get me to beat Blueblood here into a messy pulp, just like old times. I mean, you're both grown-up ponies, aren't you? And Blueblood's helped me out of a few scrapes before, anyway, so I'll let him have this one. Can I get some pancakes too, please?"

He got his pancakes, and the rest of the meal proceeded with a tense sort of formality. Aside from that odd display from Shining Armour, everypony carried on with a very hostile sense of etiquette that reminded me perfectly of my foalhood meals with my parents, when they deigned to allow me to dine with them. Conversation, such as it was, was terse, tense, and unfailingly polite, and never drifted once from society's pre-approved 'safe' topics such as the weather, local sports, and the on-going conduct of that murderous war to the south. Twilight remained the consummate hostess, apparently having suppressed whatever feelings she had towards Yours Truly following our little spat earlier, though an experienced socialite such as I could detect the thin cracks in that regal facade.

Colonel Sunshine Smiles was the first to leave, and he took Captain Red Coat, slipping in and out of varying stages of lucidity, with him. Once I had finished my plate of pancakes and my tea, I saw no reason to linger any longer than I had to, and so spared Twilight any further embarrassment. I said my farewell, curt and polite, and as I got up to leave, however, her hoof brushed against mine and lingered there briefly.

"Good luck out there," she said, giving my foreleg a light stroke. "Make sure you come back in one piece."

"Yes, that's the goal in war, is it not?" I said; it was the sort of thing Commissar Blueblood the Hero was supposed to say, complete with a cocky grin and perhaps a wink. Nevertheless, we said our goodbyes and I trotted on back to my room to pack for the train ride home, though as I left the dining room, I could feel Twilight's eyes lingering on the back of my head.

The journey back was uneventful, being spent catching up on lost sleep, and as was much of the remainder of my stay in Canterlot, barring two incidents of note. The first was picking up my star spider silk armour from Rarity's shop in Canterlot, the Canterlot Carousel. Unlike her Ponyville boutique, this was more in keeping with the usual aesthetic of traditional haberdasheries, as the space afforded by the more rural shop was a luxury in our capital's older districts. Rarity herself was still in Ponyville or gallivanting off somewhere at the whims of some magical map, which was just as well as I’d rather not risk her wrath if she had found out what I had done with Twilight, so instead I was taken care of most agreeably by a tall, leggy mare from Trottingham named Sassy Saddles.

That minor dalliance aside, the armour itself proved to be everything that I had desired; it fit like an undershirt beneath my dress shirt and tunic, and a few careful tests with one of the many swords in my palace's armoury proved it to be at least resistant to cutting and stabbing, if not fully proof. It would, however, prove to be an effective insurance for when I faced the enemy in battle once again. As a garment, however, it was certainly as beautiful and elegant as Rarity had promised. Despite it being a form of functional armoured underwear, her dedication to the craft of tailoring certainly showed through in every single stitch. The fabric itself was wonderful too, having a soft, satin sheen to it that belied its strength and durability. I wondered if I could have ties made out of this stuff, and hopefully without nearly bankrupting my estate again in the process.

I trust readers, whosoever finds this document long after I have passed (I hope), will not think me a braggart for having written about my liaison with Princess Twilight Sparkle; while sleeping with an alicorn princess certainly did wonders for my self-esteem in the short-run, once I got over the subsequent rejection, in the long-term there were unpleasant consequences which, in hindsight, I really ought to have seen coming. Drape Cut, being rather more perceptive than I, gave one of his rare but insightful instances of unasked-for advice. I remember it clearly, along with the icy sensation of dread that crept up through my bowels as he explained while serving me my afternoon tea.

"If you'll permit me, sir," he said, laying the tray of scones and tea on the table in the drawing room. "Rumours of your amorous relations with Princess Twilight Sparkle have circulated amongst my colleagues in the Adytum Club. I feel that it is in your best interest, if I may be so bold as to step beyond my bounds, to remind you that Her Royal Highness the Princess of Friendship is not the frustrated wife of a noble-stallion nor a Prench courtesan. I fear that if this indiscretion was to be made public, it would have the potential to escalate into a scandal that no amount of generous donations to our educational facilities can distract from. Especially, sir, when one considers certain members of your own family would no doubt see this as an opportunity to make a move against your title."

[Prince Blueblood had the habit of deflecting criticism of his numerous scandals in his late teens and early twenties by making generous donations to schools and universities across Equestria. These donations were often made without any thought as to how these institutions would use them and were far in excess of their actual needs, leading to such instances as Ponyville Elementary School having five hundred microscopes for a class of eighteen students and the University of Canterlot founding the Prince Blueblood Endowed Professorship of Equine Sexuality.]

I hadn't considered that, but now that it had been brought to my attention, the increasingly frequent visits from my sisters suddenly made a whole lot of sense. Sangre and Azul, identical twins who had been married off to Prench nobles who also happened to be a pair of identical twins, had never attempted to hide their envy of my taking of the regal title simply because I had the good sense to be born first.

"Power," one of them, Sangre, I think, had said, when I had lost patience with the two of them haunting my palace's drawing room one day and I demanded to know what they wanted.

"Yes, power," said the other, probably Azul. I never did work out how to differentiate between the two despite growing up with them, but as they spent nearly every waking hour together and were physically and psychologically identical to the point of obscenity, there was very little point in treating the two of them as separate individuals. They were one pony spread across two bodies, and their husbands were no better.

"I meant right now," I explained. "And other than power."

"To tell you that your behaviour is unbecoming of a prince," said one, "and that Papa would be very disappointed if he could see you."

"You've become popular with the lower orders," said the other. "And popularity is so terribly vulgar. It would be better if somepony more deserving had your title."

They were referring to themselves, though how they would agree to share one title between the two of them I don't think they had worked out yet. Presumably Sangre, born two minutes and thirty-three seconds before Azul, would take it should anything happen to me. Though I was safe in the knowledge that while the both of them, and many others in my extended family, wanted that which gave my life some modicum of meaning, they were all far too lazy and indolent to do anything at all about it besides complain. However, should this silly little affair with Twilight erupt into a scandal beyond my power to control, they wouldn't have to do much to take what they had wanted their entire lives.

At least I could rely on Twilight Sparkle keeping quiet out of sheer embarrassment, hardly being the sort herself to boast about such things anyway, and through her influence the discretion of Shining Armour, Spike, and her friends could be maintained. As for the others at the table, Colonel Sunshine Smiles' was hardly the sort to gossip and Captain Red Coat was barely aware of what was going on around him. Anypony else at the party who had somehow discovered what the two of us had gotten up to that night could be dismissed as spreading scurrilous rumours aimed at besmirching the honour of a national heroine. With the initial panic over, cold and rational thought reassured me that all would be well. At least, however, until I got to the front, when I would have more immediate problems to deal with.

Speaking of which, I expect I have rambled on about my time in Canterlot for far too long. The pony who finds this document will likely agree with that, and wonder why I spent all of this parchment and ink to write about parties and tailoring and politics instead of the exciting battle. The answer to that is simple - I'd much rather write about such trivial things than that particular piece of horror. Nevertheless, I feel that I must exorcise those demons from my mind and my dreams, and perhaps doing so will give my last years in this mortal realm some degree of peace.

The 1st Battalion of the Night Guards, of which I was the unhappy commissar, had completed its re-training and was to be sent to the front. There it would be joined by the rest of the Guards Division and the First Army for what Field Marshal Iron Hoof was euphemistically calling 'the Big Push'. In order to prepare for it, I, as political officer, was to be sent on ahead to do something, I wasn't sure what exactly, to make sure the battalion's arrival would be as smooth as possible. I spent about a day or so considering chartering a one-way flight to Klugetown and claiming political asylum there now that the slavers there had been dealt with, but I wagered Luna would follow me even to that benighted little spot on our fair continent. Considering what was happening there, concurrent with the war and unknown to ponykind at the time, it was a good thing I saw sense. [The Changeling Wars coincided with the Storm King's seizure of power in Klugetown, in the aftermath of the Royal Guard's prior campaign against the slavers there.]

So that was that; back to the front. That's such a simple phrase for something that held so much horror and dread for me, and though it was always there in the background throughout my stay in Canterlot, leaving its bloodied hoofprints over everything I saw, it still felt quite distant and remote, such that when the day finally approached it was quite a shock. I spent the night before in a horrendous state, alternating between fitful sleep with strange dreams and just sobbing into my pillow, but though the night dragged on with the maddening tedium of insomnia, the dawn finally came as it must always do.

My uniform, new armour, weapons, and a few personal affects were packed up in a suitcase and given to Cannon Fodder, who had come to collect me. I made a round of farewells to my loyal staff who would continue to look after the palace and my affairs for me, and then it was off to the station.

I felt sick for the entire journey, and not just because I was stuck next to Cannon Fodder for hours on end in an enclosed train carriage. What should have been a very pleasant journey in which I could read, ponder, or just watch the majesty of Equestria rush past was ruined utterly by the thought of the dreadful fate that awaited me; one that had I not wasted those weeks and months in Canterlot pretending it was not to come I might have found a way to weasel out of. The hours bore on, and the green and pleasant heartlands became the parched plains of the south, and there was a dreadful sense of déjà vu as I repeated that same journey I had made those years ago when I began my unhappy career.

This time, however, we did not stop off at Dodge Junction but carried on, the carriage having off-loaded all of its civilian passengers by now. The train slipped through Black Venom Pass on the new supply line, past the logistics depot, and finally stopped just outside Fort E-5150, now given the less unwieldy and more apt name of Fort Nowhere. Having reached the end of the line and my destination, we disembarked, emerging into the harsh sunlight, blistering heat, and choking humidity of the Badlands, onto the very last outpost of civilisation. It all felt very terribly, dreadfully familiar; rather like returning to an abusive home, I imagine.

The fort had changed much since I was last there, being evacuated in a stretcher. Over the course of the Twilight Sparkle Reforms and the resulting build-up of the new First Army, this tiny pre-Equestrian outpost had been transformed into a vast encampment that would, in the near future, house over fifteen-thousand troops. [I Corps, which was to lead the offensive into the Badlands, and consisted of the Guards, 3rd, 7th, and 12th Divisions.] The keep and its walls were now little more than a miniscule portion of this entire camp, which sprawled out in a mass of tents and primitive wooden structures all around the formerly empty plains that surrounded it.

The train might have deposited me on the outskirts, but I was still greeted with a veritable hive of activity. The ponies and mules of the Logistics Corps had mobbed the goods wagons and set about unloading the supplies that keep an army marching, but beyond the creaky wooden platform a seemingly endless swarm of soldiers marched, drilled, trained, or just sat around off-duty in a clearing ringed by tents.

Entering a military camp of this size is an assault on all senses, and can be utterly overwhelming for those unprepared for it. The sight of so many ponies, the sound of incessant chatter, barked orders, and marching hooves, and indeed the smell of what was effectively a medium-sized town crammed into a relatively small space, devoid of the luxuries of privacy and solitude we take for granted, was incredible and unsettling; this was to be my life now again, either for the next couple of years or until something terrible happens to me, whichever came first.

"Do you see anypony here to collect us?" I asked. The stench of Cannon Fodder's body odour, overpowering even that of the camp's inhabitants, alerted me to the fact he had finished collecting my luggage and had emerged onto the platform by my side.

"No, sir," he said, looking dumbly around at the platform. The remaining few officers on the train had disembarked with us and were soon swallowed up by the crowds, and often getting in the way of the loggies trying to offload and organise the crates of supplies. My orders had been to report to General Market Garden, and I had assumed that somepony, likely a low-level staff officer with the ink on his Academy certificate still wet, would be sent to collect me. I suppose with the excitement of the imminent Big Push, even the arrival of Princess Celestia's favourite nephew warranted no special treatment.

"Well, where in blazes am I supposed to go?" I snapped.

"The General's probably in the castle," said Cannon Fodder, ever the quiet voice of reason and logic.

That seemed as good a place to start as any, thought I, and at least in there I could get some shelter from this abominable heat. I had been standing there for less than a minute out of the shade and already had sweated right through Rarity's armour and my tunic, though it was something of a mild blessing that perspiration stains tended not to show up on black, at least until it turned a sort of grey-ish brown with all that dust. This, coupled with the incessant, droning noise, occasionally spiking with sudden bursts of activity from Faust-knows-where in the camp, meant that I was already starting to get a mild headache and an almighty thirst. The sooner I was sequestered away in my quarters, away from all of this nastiness where I could at least pretend I was back home in Canterlot during some sort of heat wave caused by vindictive pegasi whom I had neglected to tip, the better.

I was about to hop off the platform, not bothering to try and find the stairs down, when from out of the crowd emerged a familiar pony in a black and red uniform. When I saw him, I was so shocked by the incongruity between the pony I knew and the severe and formal uniform of a commissar that I could scarcely remember his name. His earnest grin, so eager to please his social betters to get even the slightest recognition, stirred up the name from my subconscious, along with a more recent memory of when I might have behaved in a rather appalling manner towards him.

"Second Fiddle?" I blurted out.

He had by now reached the platform, though standing below it he had to crane his neck further back than usual to look at me. "It's Commissar-General Second Fiddle," he said, grinning and puffing out his chest like some sort of ridiculous bird trying to establish dominance. "But just in front of the troops."

His uniform was similar to mine, being a black, double breasted tunic with red piping, a crimson sash around the waist, and a black peaked cap with a winged skull emblem, but in addition to being ill-fitting his differed from mine in the gaudy trinkets that festooned it. The severe and formal uniform had been rendered ridiculous and showy with the addition of a white sash from his right shoulder to his left hip, and yellow aiguillettes tipped with gold were wrapped around his foreleg and chest like small, constricting snakes. The epaulettes were studded with gold pips, apparently signifying his high rank, and in spite of the ever-present dust that was already staining my finery they and every button and badge shone brightly in the stark, white sunlight. Most conspicuously, however, he wore a long coat draped over his back and shoulders like a cape, fastened around the neck with a gold chain from which hung a polished enamel sun-and-moon pendant. All in all, I thought he looked unbelievably silly, as he apparently tried to convey as much authority as possible with excessive ornamentation, but in over-doing it had the precise opposite effect.

So, this was his 'exciting new opportunity', and a fortnight ago I had rendered him completely insensible with drink, smeared pitch over his cutie marks, and left him in the tender care of Canterlot's finest so I could go off and rut a stranger in peace. Judging by the way he seemed to be pleased to see me I could safely assume that he had little to no memory of the incident, or he was a damned sight better liar than I could ever hope to be and was about to cheerfully lead me straight to a gallows. At least his coat on his flanks had started to grow back, from what I could tell.

"Come on, Blueblood," he said, beckoning me over with his hoof. "Let's not keep the General waiting."

Chapter 9

Once again, I had been confronted with the terrible and inconvenient truth that my actions have consequences. Faust damn me, if I hadn't been so blinded with lust for that Prench whore, stirred up with my fear of Auntie Luna and the war itself, I'd have put what Twilight Sparkle had been preaching incessantly about over the past few years into practice and avoided a whole heap of unnecessary grief. While my impulsiveness when it comes to sating my animal desires has consistently gotten me into trouble ever since one of Celestia's ex-pupils put me in a coma for grabbing her flanks [My former student Sunset Shimmer, and Blueblood was twelve years old at the time], my instincts for weaselling out of such problems remained just potent enough for me to avoid internalising whatever lesson I should have learnt by now.

"How have you been?" I said, hoping to tease out his thoughts on the incident under the guise of making small talk. It was best to get it resolved now, lest he continue thinking about it and come to the realisation that it was, in fact, all my fault.

Second Fiddle led me through the camp towards the castle, around and through groups of tents and small wooden structures. "Busy," he said. "Very busy. It's my job to make sure the generals are all fully committed to the Big Push, and some of them are still holding onto the old way of thinking. No stomach for offence, as Princess Luna put it. Market Garden's fully onboard though, so that makes things a lot easier for us."

"Oh, yes," I said. He was walking far too quickly for comfort, almost at a trot or a canter, and I had a devil of a time trying to keep up when the crowds became a tad too dense for easy movement. I'd also lost track of Cannon Fodder, but I trusted he'd turn up before time. "I've met her."

"Have you now?" he said, his pace slowing a little, before picking up again. "She's an odd one, but she's got the offensive spirit we need. When did you meet her?"

"At Princess Twilight's party."

"Oh." Second Fiddle sucked air through his clenched teeth. "I was invited but couldn't attend, because of what happened after the Tartarus Club."

Ah, there it was, and now I had to tread quite carefully here to avoid implicating myself. "About that," I said, inflecting what I hoped sounded like genuine concern into my voice. "Why did you run off like that? I'd have seen you safely home, but I couldn't keep up, on account of my war wound, you see, and I lost you in the darkness."

I carefully left out any mention of that mare, lest it trigger some kind of sudden and involuntary recollection of the night's shameful events. He glanced around, and then tapped me on the shoulder and led me on a short diversion behind a rather large officer's tent. There, away from the eyes and ears of the common soldiery, with the exception of Cannon Fodder who could be trusted to keep quiet, he leaned in close and explained in a hushed voice:

"I don't know," he said. "I can't remember. I must have gotten a bit too carried away with the spirit of things, just like the time we found that crate of champagne in the teachers' lounge and we both drank the whole thing. Do you remember that? The prestige cuvée Princess Celestia bought for the teachers to celebrate Twilight getting the highest ever grades in the school’s history?"

"Yes, I remember." That was the incident that had directly led to my expulsion from the School for Gifted Unicorns. There were many others, of course, but that one was the final straw, so to speak.

"All I know is I ended up somewhere dark, and then some ruffians set upon me and, uh, they painted my flanks with tar or... or something! And then the guards came and I was locked in a cell until morning, and then Princess Luna had to come and fetch me. Oh, it was so embarrassing; I had to have my flanks shaved to get it off, and it took a week for my cutie marks to grow back. If only you'd been there to stop them!"

As he went on like that, I had to wonder how in Tartarus Princess Luna could ever think he was commissar material. At least I had the distinction of being in the wrong place at the right time and had managed to blunder my way, with help from Cannon Fodder, of course, into a clumsy rescue of Cadence. Then, it struck me; it was the same way he had managed to worm his way into my little gang of fellow bullies, cronies, and hangers-on in the playground - toadying. He was full of it, and it was always a challenge to work out just how sincere he was. I could scarcely believe that anypony could sound quite that pathetic without intention, but I thought it best to take him at face value for now.

"Oh, Sun and Moon!" I said with mock astonishment. "The streets of Canterlot just aren't safe anymore!"

"But I have to ask," he carried on. "Why didn't you come to check up on me? You had two weeks to pop by and see if I was well."

"Oh." Blast, I hadn't thought that far ahead. Fortunately, my knack for spinning convincing lies on the spot saved me. "I wanted to, believe me, but as a prince of the realm, journalists and photographers and the like are so eager for pictures and stories of me for their audiences to lap up in their gossip magazines. I simply couldn't risk one of their ilk finding out about what happened to you, a Commissar-General, and publishing it."

Second Fiddle smiled, genuinely it seemed, and said, "You're a true friend, Blueblood."

Well, that was a bloody relief, thought I, as we resumed our journey. We passed through the portcullis gates, the crumbling walls rendered a useless historical landmark now that the camp had stretched beyond its bounds. The courtyard had been cleared to make some sort of formal parade ground, and at this time of day it felt eerily quiet and empty when compared to the sheer noise and chaos of life beyond the walls. The only ponies around were a couple of staff officers trotting past us, each carrying books, papers, envelopes, attaché cases, and the like to and from the castle keep that loomed over us.

A few years ago, this had been the site of the bloodiest siege in Equestrian history since the Nightmare Heresy, which I had barely survived, no thanks to a certain Princess who couldn't do the sensible thing and just leave well alone. The dirt, which had turned into cloying mud by the rains, that so many ponies and Changelings had fought, bled, and died for had been neatly paved over. With the Equestrian flag wafting languidly in the stagnant, warm breeze, here, in this little isolated spot of tranquillity, one would be forgiven for thinking the war was so very far away.

Still, as my horseshoes tapped noisily on the polished stone, no doubt kept clean thanks to frequent punishment details, my mind drifted back to events that at once felt so very distant and terribly vivid in my memory. I had to ponder a question that still had yet to be answered to my full satisfaction, and would not until years later - whatever happened to all of the Diamond Dogs?


The keep's interior provided some measure of respite from the choking heat; the climate was still unpleasant, with the humidity feeling as though one was wading through soup, but at least I no longer had the glare of the sun in my eyes. The guards on sentry duty checked my papers and subjected me to the usual detection spell. While Cannon Fodder had been sent off to sort out my lodgings for however long I was to remain here, I was led through the claustrophobic maze of corridors and rooms and out into what was, hundreds or thousands of years ago when this place was the seat of some petty kingdom's power, the great hall.

Though the great hall had changed much, I still had a striking sense of déjà vu as I entered. With the exception of the dais, the entire place had been fully renovated; where before it had served as a wide open space for the soldiers to sleep in, it had now been converted fully into a dedicated headquarters. Desks, tables, filing cabinets, and the like filled the space, and were it not for the dozen or so ponies in barracks dress uniforms pouring over maps and tapping away noisily at typewriters, it could have looked like any conventional open plan office.

My eyes were drawn to the same dais where two years ago my fellow officers and I had huddled around a table, which was actually an ancient door panel propped up on some boxes, and discussed the deeply concerning news that we were about to be assaulted by an entire Changeling war-swarm. The makeshift furniture was now gone and had been replaced by a proper map table that could more adequately support the sheer quantity of paper, books, ledgers, compasses, inkwells, quills, pencils, rulers, and other stationery piled atop it. Against the wall, where the old throne upon which some long-dead kings and queens had planted their equally ancient behinds stood before it was thrown out to make room, was another, smaller table, upon which were many bowls of fruit, mainly cherries, and pitchers of clear water.

General Market Garden stood at the table where Captain Red Coat had that terrible night, staring intently at a map of the Badlands as though doing so hard enough would cause the entirety of the Changeling lands to spontaneously combust. A mug of hot tea, which the Trottingham ponies still insisted on drinking even in this infernal heat, was balanced precariously atop a collection of papers and photographs piled up haphazardly in a shallow mound. When she lifted it periodically to drink, which wreathed her sharp, weasel-like features in steam, a brown circle would be left behind to frame the portrait of some Changeling like a halo. A few staff officers lingered around her, and each apparently waiting for some sort of order or confirmation.

As I entered, she looked up and peered down her muzzle at me. An imperious wave of her hoof sent her underlings scurrying away for the moment.

"Ah, Blueblood," she said. The lack of the correct title still rankled me, but aside from an involuntary twitch in my left eye I like to think I'd hidden my irritation well. "I trust you had a pleasant journey?"

"Pleasant enough," I said, and then followed up that lie with an even bigger one. "It's good to be back again."

"Yes, quite." Market Garden narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. "I'm sorry for pulling you away from your regiment early, but I wouldn't have asked for you if I didn't think you were necessary."

So, it was all her fault then, not that I would have done much more with an extra week at Canterlot. Although, perhaps I could have found a way to weasel out of my duties, perhaps get a transfer to somewhere safe, remote, and boring like the White Tail Woods or Vanhoover.

"I'm sure they can take care of themselves without me." Though I fully expected to find out that, in my absence, the entire Night Guards regiment had collapsed into an atavistic orgy of drunkenness, brawling, theft, property damage, murder, and bad language; Canterlot would be in flames and it would be all my fault for leaving them out of my sight for more than a few days. At least, that was the impression that I received from my fellows in the Commissariat whenever I had to be absent from my duties, even when I was languishing in hospital and rendered insensate with painkillers and anaesthetics.

"Right," said Market Garden. It was clear she didn't care the slightest jot for this sort of small talk, and while I had to agree that such trite conversation was beneath the both of us, I at least had the good sense not to inflict it on other ponies. At least, the ones whose presences I can tolerate, that is.

Saying nothing further, Market Garden crossed over to the table where the drinks and snacks were, taking her mug of tea with her. While she did this for whatever reason (perhaps planning another costly and inconclusive offensive worked up an appetite), I peered over at the things strewed across the surface of the table to try and discern any clues as to what sort of misery I was in for in the coming days, weeks, months, or however long this would take. The maps, aerial photographs, and scribbled notes offered very few hints that I could work out, other than that we'd be marching deeper into Changeling territory to accomplish something of some military worth. My eyes were drawn, however, to the small portrait of a Changeling, which, the more I studied it from my awkward vantage point at the opposite end of the table, began to look more and more familiar. Indeed, its stern, cold, insect-like countenance, even distorted by perspective and framed by a ring of tea stains, inspired a peculiar sort of dread in me, like something stirred up from a repressed memory, that I could just about piece together if given the time.

"Here, Blueblood, have an apple!" Broken out of my reverie, I looked up just in time to see General Market Garden grab an apple from the bowl on the snacks table and toss it at me in an exaggerated cricketer's throw. It arced gracefully through the air, as apples are wont to do when thrown with moderate force, and impaled itself squarely on my horn. "Good catch!"

Too stunned to say anything, I stood there dumbly as fresh apple juice trickled down my forehead. However, I recovered at least enough of my senses to prise the apple from my horn and mop up the juice with a hoofkerchief. I looked to Second Fiddle, who pulled an apologetic face that implied that this sort of behaviour was hardly uncommon for the General, and then jabbed in the direction of his open mouth with a hoof and mimed chewing.

"Thank you," I said. I took a bite, finding it to be delicious, despite having been stuck on my horn. In fact, I hadn't eaten for much of the train journey here, so, despite the unconventional delivery, I was actually grateful for it. Market Garden watched me for a few uncomfortable seconds while I ate the apple, and then crossed over to the table again.

"What have you been told about the upcoming offensive?" she said. "Operation Buttercup?"

"Not much," I said; in keeping with the habit of a lifetime, I hadn't read much of the small forest's-worth of literature that ended up straining the inbox on my desk to the bursting point. Very little of it was of any real use anyway, and what was I could have Cannon Fodder summarise for me in a few short sentences. "Is it the Big Push?"

Market Garden snorted and shook her head. "That's what Iron Hoof calls it," she said. "And the press."

"It's good for morale," said Second Fiddle insistently, though Market Garden just rolled her eyes and otherwise ignored him. "It's fine if you don't know the details; the specifics of the operation have been kept on a strictly need-to-know basis. We've had far too many leaks already; the damned Changelings always get through."

"They've had an easy war so far," said Market Garden. She looked over the mess of maps and charts with an eager grin. "Not any more, now that I'm in charge. My predecessors' aims were sound—to defeat the enemy decisively in open battle—but they lacked both the means and the will to do it. This time, we'll draw them out into the field by applying more and more pressure until they can stand it no longer and are forced to stand and fight. And we will do this by threatening their only means of sustenance."

"The Changelings are starving," said Second Fiddle, trotting up to the table. "That's why they attacked Canterlot in the first place; their current source of love is no longer enough to feed their growing population."

He picked up a large photograph, roughly the size of a broadsheet newspaper, and levitated it over for me to see. It was of an ancient walled city, and the pegasus must have been very high up indeed to have taken it [There is a limit to how high pegasi can fly, so the photograph described was in fact a composite made up of ones taken at lower altitudes]. A wide river bisected the city neatly into two almost equal halves, which were joined by a series of bridges of varying width. Where the river flowed into the city was a formidable but ancient castle keep, constructed so that the water ran through a culvert beneath it. It towered over small, squat, blocky houses, open squares, and narrow, winding streets, which all reminded me of the underground city the Rat Pony Tribe now squatted in, and implied that it had been built by ponies of the same culture, if not the same dead kingdom. However, even from the lofty perspective, I could still make out other, more alien structures dotted amidst them. Jagged black and grey structures that looked unlike any architecture I recognised wrapped around and over the other buildings, including the castle, like putrid lichen clinging to the edifice of gravestone.

"That's Virion Hive," Second Fiddle continued. He then placed the photograph back down on the table once I had a good look at it. "A town of some two thousand native ponies that came under Changeling occupation about a hundred years ago. There are other such settlements across the Badlands, but this is the closest one of significant size. The love stolen from towns like this is taken back to Chrysalis' Hive to provide sustenance for the entire Changeling race."

"If we threaten their supply of food," said Market Garden, "then we shall force the enemy into open battle. When the enemy is defeated in the field, we will cut off their supply of food. Then they will be forced to come to terms or risk starvation."

Well, that all sounded just fine and dandy, I'll tell you that much, but I couldn't help but detect a couple of flaws with that plan. While Market Garden's exaggerated sense of self-confidence in her abilities as a military leader was certainly a refreshing change from McBridle's frank, realistic, but ultimately depressing outlook and Crimson Arrow's singular incompetence, whether or not the size of her ego was justified was another matter. Furthermore, this new general had yet to shake the Army's fixation with defeating the Changelings 'in open battle', whatever in Tartarus that was supposed to mean.

I expect that they and everypony else who went through the Academy and learned the art of war and how to hold a knife and fork correctly were all thinking of the ancient wars of conquest and the repeated Griffon invasions, which all tended to be sorted out in a number of quick, decisive, but costly battles before one side or the other sued for peace, capitulated, or was banished to the moon. Chrysalis, however, did not attend the Academy, and must have picked up her strategy from somewhere else, and if anything seemed to be dead set on avoiding anything quick and decisive at all. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say she was trying to drag this infernal conflict out for as long as possible.

"That's the gist of it," said Second Fiddle. "There's a bit more to it, but that'll do for now, I think."

"There's one more thing," said Market Garden. "I still need to tell him about the catbirds. That's why we wanted him here."

Second Fiddle pursed his lips and puffed his cheeks out at that particular slur, then sighed and said, "The Griffons are coming. The PGL will be joining I Corps as part of Operation Buttercup in a few days' time."

With the mention of the PGL, the final piece of the world's worst jigsaw puzzle elegantly fell into place: "You would like me to make sure they stay out of trouble."

"While making sure our soldiers work with them in a spirit of comradely friendship and harmony," said Second Fiddle. He looked at Market Garden pointedly, who didn't seem to notice the not-so-subtle admonishment and found the maps on the table to be far more interesting than this talk about Griffons. "You spent a good few years in Griffonstone, so I can't think of anypony else more qualified!"

I could think of several ponies, actually, but they probably said that they were otherwise occupied and I just so happened to be the next pony in line. My time in that accursed black heart of their decaying empire was spent sequestered in the safety of the Equestrian embassy there, not that it was ever of much use, as the Griffons of Griffonstone were hardly inclined at all to have any dealings whatsoever with our realm, beyond trading their expertise in gem cutting for salt.

I was ten years old at the time; my father, having been recently ousted from the position of viceroy of Coltcutta, was appointed as ambassador to the Griffons, where it was presumed he'd do less harm. Aside from a few brief excursions out under armed guard, including one occasion where I had wandered off on my own and was traumatised when I'd drifted into one of their horrifying butchers' shops, I saw very few ordinary Griffons. The only Griffon I had anything close to regular contact with was the terribly excitable and very annoying young daughter of one of the maids who I'd been entrusted to foalsit from time to time, and she was hardly indicative of what most of their kind was like anyway.

Still, getting the Griffons on my side could still help, especially with the direction that Equestrian society was moving in back then, for better or worse. As I've always said, and tried to impress upon my cadets in the Academy in my old age to varying degrees of success, the more friends you make with the common soldiery the more likely they are to watch out for you, both in battle and in camp. One does not even need to actually like them; as long as they believe one is looking out for their best interest, they'll eventually return the favour even at great personal risk to themselves.

So I agreed to do it, which was met with an exultation of joy from Second Fiddle and further indifference from Market Garden. There was little else of actual worth to discuss, but that didn't stop the Commissar-General. He mostly prattled on about a few minor administrative things that I have since forgotten about - the rota of the officers of the day, restricted areas in the camp, passwords, and, most importantly, the opening hours of the officers' mess. However, I was damned exhausted after that lengthy train journey, and the heat and humidity of the Badlands certainly had a way of just sucking what little energy I had left. Certainly the barrage of information I had just received did little to help either.

He continued to drone on, having switched the topic onto some of the things he had gotten up to since his cutie marks grew back and he got to work here, doing something or other to inspire the offensive spirit in our officers. I can't be expected to remember every single conversation I've had over the years in such detail, and whatever it is he said I clearly didn't think was important enough to scribble down at the time either.

[This sentence is the clearest indication that some of this manuscript is constructed from notes or a personal diary Blueblood had made either during or shortly after these events. Certainly, notebooks and diaries have been found amongst his personal effects, but these are little more than short fragments. This would account for the exceptional detail of these memoirs, at least on those matters he chose to provide it.]

"Sorry," I said, interrupting his bloviating about how his efforts have streamlined the command structure or some other such self-aggrandising nonsense. "I'd love to stay and catch up, but I'm behind on my paperwork, and you know how the Commissariat gets if the paperwork is late."

"Oh." Second Fiddle's ears flattened and he pawed at the ground with a hoof. "Of course. I'll see you at the mess tonight?"

I offered a cheeky grin. "As long as you promise to lay off the drink this time," I said. "I was terribly worried about you."

Though not worried enough to have inquired about his well-being after the incident, thought I, but that was in the past and there was little point in dwelling upon it when there were bigger, more life-threatening things to occupy my attention. Market Garden was engrossed in reading a report of something or other, and it felt a bit rude to interrupt her, so with a polite nod to my old school chum I turned on my hooves towards the door. I made it about three or four steps before her thin, reedy voice, with its grating over-pronunciation, caused me to stop mid-stride about halfway to the door, beyond which lay some measure of peace and quiet away from all of this.

"Just one more thing," said Market Garden. I turned to see her pick up the photo of the Changeling from the table with her lips and hold it out to me.

"Come on, he's just arrived," said Second Fiddle, but it was too late; I had seen and recognised the face on the photograph.

I don't think it is unfair to say that all Changelings look more or less the same, but some of them, most notably the Purestrains, were at least unique enough to allow even Yours Truly to differentiate between them. The example shown before me was one that I could never forget nor fail to recognise; it was tall, broad, and its thick chitin was like a suit of lacquered black plate armour, while its large, compound eyes evoked a cruel sort of intelligence, cold and calculating, that was absent in its more bestial comrades. My mouth turned dry and the pit of my stomach seemed to collapse like a rusty old trapdoor at the sight of it, and my mind conjured memories of a partially-collapsed cave, that same hellish creature towering over me, and a mocking, sadistic smile turning the corners of its thin maw.

"W-what?" I stammered out, before collecting myself. "How did you get that?"

"It's your old flame," said Market Garden. [Presumably after having taken the photograph out of her mouth] "Odonata, or 'General' Odonata as she's calling herself now. The Changelings have made a press announcement that she will be leading the defence of their occupied land."

I frowned. Something didn't add up. "Changelings don't make announcements, especially not to the press."

Market Garden shrugged. "This time they did. I'm not surprised you don't know about this; the Ministry of Information's been trying to suppress it. Faust knows what they aim to accomplish, except for pretending to be a civilised race, but it said that this General Odonata will 'lead our gallant drones in the defence of our Hive, our Queen, and our way of life' and that 'the unprovoked invasion of sovereign Changeling land by the Equestrian imperialists will be met with swift and merciless retribution'."

[The Changelings made numerous such 'announcements' throughout the war, usually in the form of letters and articles dropped off by infiltrators at the offices of Equestrian newspapers. Most were blocked from publishing by the Ministry of Information after the DOE Act introduced wartime censorship of the press. Other newspapers took a stand against this oppression of free speech by publishing them anyway, arguing that these articles were such obvious attempts at propaganda that it was impossible for a pony intelligent enough to read their paper would be taken in by it. Nevertheless, Changeling infiltrators had invested a great deal of time and resources into this propaganda effort, to the point where it is rumoured that this was a deliberate act of sabotage by Purestrains disloyal to Queen Chrysalis. Recent historiography indicates that infiltrators used these as a means to pass coded messages between cells.]

"I thought she was dead," I blurted out. "I-I-I saw her fall into the ravine! Rainbow Dash crushed her wings; there was no way she could possibly have survived that."

"Then she has made a remarkable recovery. Or they're simply lying. We will find out soon enough."

Well, that was that. After another set of 'goodbyes' with Second Fiddle I skulked off to find my quarters, leaving the apple core behind for them to dispose of. It was a small and rather depressing affair, as the more spacious room that I had occupied before must have been appropriated by somepony else in my absence. The only furnishings here were a desk, a chair, and a bed. At the far end was an open window, which was little more than a large hole in the wall that had been covered loosely with a torn linen sheet. Cannon Fodder had already unpacked my things for me and then disappeared off to do something or other, but, judging by the lingering scent of mouldering sweat and rancid vegetables lingering around the small room, he must have left very recently.

While I was thankful for the solitude, the sight of a barren military cot, covered with an itchy wool blanket and wedged up against a bleak stone wall, truly hammered home the reality that I was back at the front once more, and that my future, for as long as I would have one, would be filled with much hardship and misery.

That Odonata was somehow still alive was a concern, yes, but I reassured myself that, whatever happened, the likelihood of the two of us meeting one another again was miniscule. She was a general, whatever that meant in the Changeling hierarchy, and I was but a lowly regimental commissar and special liaison for Market Garden, whatever that meant in the Equestrian Army's hierarchy. I should have known better, of course, that our fates would be intertwined, but I’m getting ahead of myself there.

I crawled into the cot for a nap, rested my head on the lumpy pillow, and stared up at the ceiling. As I drifted off to sleep once more, or what passes for sleep given the unbearable heat and the nightmares, the image of her face, framed with the hefty chitin like a helmet and sneering with supreme arrogance, lingered in my mind.


The acclimatisation period was far rougher than the first time I had to go through that awful process. The heat, humidity, and whatever it was in the water that one's intestinal tract took exception to resulted in a rather unpleasant experience that my 'official' memoirs had judiciously left out. None of the ghost writers and editors, being enamoured with the image of Yours Truly as some kind of gallant, conquering war hero, wanted to paint a textual picture of me running desperately to the latrines every ten minutes or so, especially when it was revealed to be a mild case of the Trots that took the better part of a week to pass. Readers will be thankful if I likewise refrain from any further detail than is truly necessary, but suffice to say I was placed on light duties until I recovered, and whatever time I had that wasn't spent in a state of misery in the latrines was filled up with drinking gallons of water and lying flat on my back with fever and stomach cramps.

A piece of advice, if you will, from me to you, dear reader, is that if you ever find yourself south of Appleloosa to drink only gin and tonic. It's much safer than the water there.

I blamed the habit I had picked up from Colonel Sunshine Smiles of eating some meals with the enlisted soldiers, which might explain why most of my fellow senior officers had escaped the epidemic of disease in the camp. Indeed, even a brief excursion outside the keep before the disease made venturing too far from the latrines a risky endeavour, unsupervised by Commissar-General Second Fiddle, revealed it to be a filthy, dismal place; the stench was appalling, even by the standards of a military camp, and while the soldiers appeared to be in good spirits and full of optimism for victory over the Changeling foe, the degrading conditions that they found themselves in, with nearly a quarter laid low by a variety of communicable diseases, was a tremendous shock to me.

Evidently, hygiene standards had slipped somewhat since I was last here, and while I was being examined by Doctor Surgical Steel, who had stayed behind at the fort, in the keep's hospital wing, he explained:

"It's t' plumbing," he said, as I lay on my back on the bed and he poked around at my abdomen with a cold hoof. It tickled, and I hated it. "Thousands more soldiers come over here and they can't build t' plumbing fast enough to cope, so we get little outbreaks of t' Trots and t' like just to keep us from getting idle in my old age. Aye, 'tis bad enough I still have to fix cuts and bruises, broken wings, and now burns with those fancy new musket things everypony keeps raving about, now it's diseases we're supposed to have kicked out of civilised Equestria a hundred years ago. Now, drink plenty of water and tha'll be right as rain in a week or two, and for Faust's sake lay off t' booze. I know tha won't, but I'm contractually obligated to tell thee."

Any hope that Twilight's much-ballyhooed reforms had burned away the decay and rot of incompetence in the Royal Guard was consequently shot down. In hindsight, it was naive to believe that with the passing of a law everything would be fixed overnight, and in their eagerness to build up the forces necessary for the Big Push somepony had neglected to consider the infrastructure of the camp where this build-up was happening. It’s one thing to read in a history book that on such-and-such a date the Twilight Sparkle Reforms were passed, giving the reader the false impression that after sorting out the political mess a switch had been flicked and the military instantly became fully competent, but the reality is that such change takes time.

History likes to credit me with starting the process to fix the sanitation issue, but really, it was Cannon Fodder, of all ponies, who should receive those laurels. It was his reply on my behalf to a letter sent by Princess Twilight Sparkle, explaining that I was far too sick to respond personally to her friendly letter, that opened the enquiry into the conditions of Fort Nowhere and provided some much-needed impetus to officers already struggling to fix the problems. I just happened to be the first pony to have fallen ill deemed important enough to warrant such an investigation.

[The issue of sanitation across the entire front remained a constant problem throughout the war, especially on the Eastern Front as Equestrian forces pushed through the Hayseed Swamps and the Forbidden Jungle, and Blueblood's implication that it only became a problem at this point is misleading. It is likely that he didn't know or care about it until he got sick. Efforts to improve sanitation and the living conditions of soldiers were already underway when he arrived, having been started in earnest by General Market Garden when she took command of the 1st Army. It only became a political issue when Twilight Sparkle received Cannon Fodder's letter and started the inquiry, which only hastened a process that had already begun.]

Alas, in receiving credit one also receives blame. After a week, when the sickness had subsided to the point where I could at least undertake a short conversation without fear of being interrupted by an emergency dash to the latrines, I had a rather unwelcome visit from Second Fiddle.

"We can't afford this distraction," he said, his voice muffled by the hoofkerchief clamped over his muzzle. "I know you meant well, but Operation Buttercup must proceed according to the schedule."

"It won't proceed at all if our army is too sick to fight!" I snapped; a week of this had hardly put me in the best of moods, and I was already feeling unhappy about being back here. "It's out of my hooves, anyway. Princess Twilight Sparkle has ordered the Ministry of War to stamp out the disease here, and I can't exactly tell her to stop it."

"It's not about that," said Second Fiddle, shaking his head. "Things have changed since you were last here. You're not the only commissar around anymore; you're part of a team and you answer to me. Do you understand? Don't you dare go above my head again, Blueblood."

Now, that was a shock, I’ll tell you that much. Second Fiddle might have been the meek, slimy sort of pony who likes to try and ingratiate himself with his social betters, but give anypony like that the smallest amount of authority over another and they will wield it like a vengeful bludgeon on their former superiors. I was about to demand what in the blazes made him think it was appropriate to speak to a prince of the realm like that, when Cannon Fodder, apparently acting on his own initiative for once, trotted on over from his desk where he had been sorting out my paperwork.

"Excuse me, sir," he said. Second Fiddle gagged a little, as his hoofkerchief was not enough to avoid a full blast of my aide's halitosis at such close range. "His Highness is under doctor's orders to rest."

The emphasis on my royal title was not lost on either of us, and, after a few moments of bewildered stuttering, Second Fiddle gave up and stormed out of my office while I crawled back into bed. It looked like meeting Drape Cut had an effect on Cannon Fodder, and I was certainly not about to complain if it meant certain ponies could be kept out of my mane while I was occupied with the business of trying not to die.

Recovery was slow, but not slow enough; by the time the PGL turned up and the headaches truly began, apparently delayed as the part of the camp apportioned out to them had to be rendered suitable for habitation, Surgical Steel pronounced me 'well'. I tried to convey just how rotten I still felt, but the dour old doctor wasn't having any of it. As skilled a liar as I am, it was nothing compared to the analytical power of a seasoned, experienced doctor who lacked any sort of patience for time-wasters. Needless to say, my attempts to get sent back to Canterlot were rejected outright, and once again I was stuck here to suffer. This illness had rather set the tone for the upcoming campaign, and mark me, dear reader, it was only going to get worse from there.

Chapter 10

The PGL arrived to very little fanfare, and it was just as well, really, because as soon as Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume unpacked his suitcase there were problems, which, apparently nopony except me could solve. Never mind the fact that I was still quite ill, though at least able to move about under my own power for limited periods of time and speak in more-or-less complete sentences without being interrupted by another mad dash to the latrines, it appeared that I was the only pony at all interested in getting everypony to work together. As afraid as everypony was of Changeling infiltrators sowing discord and mistrust in our ranks, they needn't have bothered as we ponies are quite capable of doing that by ourselves.

Readers, particularly younger ones who are presumably used to seeing our towns and cities teeming with griffons, hippogriffs, yaks, and Faust knows what else creatures have been allowed to take residence upon sacred Equestrian soil, will probably wonder what in blazes everypony was getting upset about. By way of explanation, I can only state that it was a very different time, and the idea that the Magic of Friendship could be extended beyond the confines of our race (and whether one included other equines such as zebras and donkeys in that definition was still up for debate) was met with a considerable amount of scepticism. One only needs to examine the EEA's rather vocal condemnation of Twilight's School of Friendship in later years to get an idea of the sort of mindset that still plagued the older, more aristocratic officers. Now, imagine that arch-conservative leader of theirs with the ridiculous goatee, total lack of a sense of humour, and no sense of irony in charge of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers and one will begin to have an idea of the problems I had to sort out.

If I document each and every single little dispute that I had to settle between the PGL's arrival and getting tossed into battle then I'd be long interred in the family mausoleum before I could have a chance of finishing, so I shall describe just two of the most significant ones. The first revolved around rations; it is said that an army marches on its stomach, and the job of ensuring that each and every soldier is fed and healthy enough to fight requires a monumental effort. I had yet to even meet the Griffons, who were at the time getting themselves settled into the camp, when I, apparently now 1st Army's resident expert on Griffo-Equestrian relations, was dragged away from my rest and back to the train station.

"It's meat, sir," a snivelling lieutenant of the Logistics Corps said as he pointed at a pile of boxes still in their wagon. The ponies and mules under his command lingered around the station platform, distinctly not doing any work at all. Instead, they lounged about in the hot midday sun, looking rather like a clowder of overgrown cats on the veranda of an Appleloosan orchard house. "They won't touch it."

The sound of the train's whistle felt like a hammer to the head, and the engineer in his hickory stripe overalls and cap leaned out of the cab windows and gesticulated at the idle workers.

"Oh, come on!" he yelled above the hissing of the great steam engine. "I've got a schedule to keep!" The loggies ignored him, and, apparently out of a lack of any other method of persuasion, he simply blasted the whistle again and retreated back inside his cabin.

"Give me the manifest," I demanded, holding my hoof out. A week of the Trots had eradicated what little patience I had left for this sort of petty nonsense, and while I was at least tolerably well enough to deal with this, the illness had left me with a great feeling of nausea and bloating. How much of my foul mood had to do with being sick I can't say for certain, but I hardly think my bearing would have become that much more cheery had I been a tad more careful with the water.

The lieutenant swallowed air and then held out the clipboard for me, and I seized it in my magic. A quick glance at the paper pinned to it confirmed my suspicions, and I trotted on over to the goods wagon. The work-shy loggies scurried out of my way, but then crowded around to watch what I was doing. A few whispered to one another, and from what I could gather from little snippets I could pick up, they seemed to be rather concerned that I'd just have the whole lot of them flogged for their impertinent little strike. I was certainly tempted, if only out of spite at having been disturbed, and I would have been well within my rights to do so; many of my comrades in the Commissariat would have sent for the provosts to round up the miscreants without even leaving their office, but my deliberately cultivated reputation for being somewhat fair must have led this officer to seek me out personally.

Wooden boxes were piled up neatly in the goods wagon, and each was stamped with the symbol of the royal crest of Equestria and then a bewildering array of numbers and letters that corresponded to a system that nopony but that special breed of bureaucrats can comprehend. Nevertheless, I had picked up enough of that arcane knowledge, against my own will, of course, to identify these as containing food rations specifically for the use of Griffons. I lifted the lid of one of the boxes, revealing it to be crammed full of innocuous little brown paper packets each tied up with string. Without hesitating, I unwrapped one of the packets and then took a large bite out of its contents; the gathered crowd emitted a short, shocked gasp.

"He's eating meat!" one of them cried.

"They're scones!" I announced, turning around and holding up the griffonscone in the air, with a neat bite taken out of it. At the very least, the loggies had the very good sense to look embarrassed and mumble some half-hearted apologies, before they sheepishly sidled past me, tails and ears drooping and pointedly avoiding eye contact with me, and started doing the job that Equestrian tax bits paid them for.

I forced myself to swallow it, despite the foul taste and the pre-emptive cramping of my stomach, as spitting out the disgusting, chewy, and rock-hard lump purporting to be a delicious scone would have undermined my point somewhat. Griffonscones, if you've never tried the national dish of old Griffonstone, are an acquired taste, and it's best acquired by searing off one's taste buds with a soldering iron first. The best way I can describe the experience of eating one, or attempting to at least, is to imagine biting into an old brick that had been heavily dusted with cinnamon and talcum powder. I've heard they've gotten better in recent years, but I'm not going to take that risk.

[Griffonscones are a staple food for Griffons and formed the bulk of the PGL's food rations. They are notoriously unpalatable for ponies, but with a few tweaks to the traditional recipe, such as the addition of baking powder, they can be quite delicious. Conservatively-minded Griffons regard such adulteration to be an offense to their tradition.]

With that done I returned the manifest to the officer, who then dropped it on the floor when he attempted some sort of apologetic salute. I then hopped off the platform and wandered back into the camp while they got on with their jobs. I can't say that I entirely blame his stallions for jumping to that conclusion, as most common ponies back then had likely never even seen a Griffon before and had only hearsay to base their assumptions on. The manifest itself merely said 'PGL rations', and commoners who had only heard 'Griffons eat meat' and could barely spell 'omnivorous' would have jumped to the conclusion that the rations contained meat.

It occurred to me then that I yet to introduce myself to Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume, the Griffon commanding this battalion of the PGL, but now that I had been dragged from the womb-like security of my cot I thought I might as well do something to make sure that this outing was not a total waste of my time. My plan to ingratiate myself with them and earn their trust would be ably assisted by the good news that their problems with their rations had been solved by Yours Truly.

I weaved through the maze of tents and small buildings, and when I was safely out of sight I tossed what remained of the half-eaten griffonscone away. One of the many stray dogs in the camp, now endemic thanks to home-sick soldiers desperate for creatures that would provide them with unconditional affection feeding them, approached the unassuming confection, gave it a sniff, then screwed up its face in disgust and kicked it away into the dirt. Even creatures that will eat excrement didn't want it. Nevertheless, much of the filth and rubbish that had accumulated in the camp had been cleared away, thank Faust, and with it the infestation of vermin that fed off the detritus and carried with them the contagion of disease was down to a much more manageable level, for the time being at least.

The Griffons' portion of the camp, by contrast, was almost spotlessly clean, though the offensive stink that permeated the entire camp was never too far behind. They had only just moved in, of course, and so hadn’t had the chance to let standards slip and the filth to build up.

I hadn't seen so many Griffons in one place since that year I spent in Griffonstone, and being rather solitary creatures who seemed to spend the majority of their lives trying to avoid one another as much as possible it was very rare that I saw even a fraction of the multitude that I saw before me. Griffons in the golden plate armour of the old Royal Guard practiced musket drill in the parade square to the gruff barking of a sergeant, going through the endless repetition of load, aim, fire, reload, and so on. Having claws instead of hooves, they appeared to be having a much easier time of it than our earth ponies and pegasi, who even with the necessary adjustments and refinements that Twilight Sparkle had worked out with the gunsmiths of Manehatten to accommodate our clumsier appendages, still often struggled to meet the required minimum rate of three rounds a minute. Above, Griffons in V-formations swooped around, engaging in mock battles with one another, with 'dead' soldiers sullenly gliding back down to earth to sit in a small squared-off area marked 'Time Out'.

A sentry pointed me towards one of the larger tents just off the parade square, where his Colonel was likely to be and was, he assured me, quite eager to meet me. I doubted that. Nevertheless, I trotted on over, skirting around the parade square where the soldiers drilled, and slipped inside the tent.

The senior PGL officer I had seen at Twilight's party sat behind a large wooden crate that served as a makeshift desk, pouring over the forms and letters that made up the bulk of a military officer’s job. Though we had attended the same party, we hadn’t had the chance to speak at the time, as my attention was otherwise occupied. The rest of the tent was just as spartan, with only a small pile of straw in the corner arranged into something like a nest for a bed. The only decoration present was a framed portrait of Princess Celestia placed in the far corner with an unlit candle as some sort of primitive, makeshift shrine. The artist, whoever he was, had managed to capture her calm, patient, and motherly demeanour in the medium of oil paints quite well, and it was quite reassuring to see her gentle smile in a Griffon’s tent of all places.

The officer looked up from his paperwork as I negotiated my way through the tent flap. In the heat of the Badlands, he had wisely left his fur pelisse behind, and instead wore a clean, crisp dress tunic, whose lustrous crimson hue had yet to fade with the sun and the constant dust. As I took off my hat and tucked it under my armpit, he smiled, or made what passed for a smile with a sharp beak, and stood up from his seat.

"Your Highness," he said, bowing his head sharply and clicking the heels of his hind paws.

It had been quite a while since I was last addressed with the proper respect that my regal title demands, common ponies apparently having forgotten their etiquette in recent years, so it was something of a pleasant surprise to be addressed so, if by a Griffon. At least they, the expatriate community that resides in the secluded areas of our realm, held onto the old ways of appropriate deference. Or this could have been a cynical gesture to appeal to my admittedly fragile sense of self-worth, wrapped up as it was with a title that, if I must be honest, was starting to feel like more of a hindrance than a boon by that point in my life. It worked, of course, as my withered and desiccated ego lapped it all up like a cat with cream.

"Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume, I presume?” I said. He nodded and puffed out his chest; creatures seemed to like it when I bothered to remember their names, and this time I had made an effort to seek it out. “I believe I owe you a griffonscone. Forgive me, but I helped myself to one just now as they were being unloaded.”

“Ah.” The Griffon sucked air through his beak and frowned, tilting his head to one side. “Trouble with our rations again?”

“I’m afraid so.”

His eyes narrowed. “Let me guess, they thought it was meat?”

“Yes, though I managed to convince them that your scones are safe to handle.”

“I am sorry you had to deal with that, sir,” he said, the exasperation clear in his voice. “It’s a damned nuisance. One has to wonder if our ancestors had to deal with this when they fought side-by-side with ponies against Nightmare Moon’s hordes.”

I gave an easy sort of shrug, as though sorting out their little problem was not a hideous waste of my time, which could have been better spent hiding in my quarters brushing up on the latest edition of Princesses’ Regulations, albeit with a Platinum’s Secret catalogue tucked discreetly within the pages.

“It’s my job,” I said. “Sometimes ponies need a little reminder to work together every now and again.”

“Yes,” he said, “we all serve Princess Celestia.” Guillaume looked to the portrait in the corner, and made some sort of strange gesture where he placed his right claw over his breast and splayed out the talons as wide as they could go. [The Sign of the Sol Invictus, a quasi-religious gesture used by the PGL as a declaration of loyalty to me. The spread-out talons symbolise gratitude radiating like the rays of the sun from the hearts of the Griffons who were granted asylum in Equestria more than a thousand years ago.]

While such dedication to my regal aunt was admirable, in a way, I hoped that it would not slip across the dividing line between appropriate respect for the authority of our Diarchy and into the utter absence of sense, reason, and regard for the safety of oneself and others that comes with fanatical devotion to our alicorn princesses. It was as though they, these descendents of refugees, felt that they constantly had to prove their allegiance to our fair realm above and beyond that which was expected of the average subject. As I was about to find out quite soon, this apparent need was as much the result of continued doubt expressed by ponies who took Celestia’s grace and generosity for granted as it was their peculiar desire to show ‘gratitude’ for something that had happened so long ago.

Nevertheless, we had a brief chat, where I asked some general questions about how they were settling in; I didn’t care that much, to be honest, but it never hurt to at least feign interest in the well-being of others, as they seemed to like that from authority figures such as Yours Truly. His strange adoration of my Auntie ‘Tia, being a tradition peculiar to the PGL, notwithstanding, he proved to be a rather amicable chap, the likes of which I would not have been unhappy to have met at a cocktail bar in Los Pegasus. Despite the severity of the ongoing war and the rather dire situation that we found ourselves in, his calm and measured confidence, coupled with a sense of honesty about himself that other officers tended to lack, made speaking with him less of a chore than it had been with his equine counterparts.

Alas, we were not there to socialise, and he had the tedious business of overseeing the organisation of his regiment or some such boring bureaucracy to deal with anyway. I’m sure I had something else that I ought to have been getting on with too, as the Night Guards regiment would be arriving shortly, and with it the long-awaited offensive could begin at last. I was about to leave when, in accordance with a common theme of others managing to throw me off before I could escape, he touched me by the shoulder and fixed me with a determined glare.

“It is an honour, sir,” he said, his voice quivering strangely with the same reverence it had when speaking of Celestia; it was most odd and rather unsettling when applied to me of all ponies. “My ancestors fought to the last Griffon at the Princess of Blood’s side a thousand years ago. I hope to live up to that standard one day.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting at there, and I felt rather embarrassed at that odd reference to the long-dead progenitor of my regal line. “Well, let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself,” I said, hoping that it was indeed the right thing to say.

He smiled and thanked me, and I beat a hasty retreat lest I find myself signed up for a suicidal last stand. I already had one of those thus far in my career, and that was more than enough for my liking. As I trotted along back to my office, hoping to get there before Second Fiddle, who continued to peer over my shoulder and tut at everything I did like a disapproving matron, it occurred to me that once again I was to be the quiet voice of reason in a world driven mad by this war; Guillaume certainly seemed level-headed and, by the standards of the officer class, some measure of sane, but so often the memory of the glories of a distant, romanticised past can cloud one’s judgement with the desire to, as he had put it, ‘live up to that standard’.

My family’s history becomes more mired in legend the further back one delves, culminating in the mythical figure of the Princess of Blood looming over the memory of her scions and casting us all in her heroic shadow. Only Celestia and Luna can say with any degree of certainty about what really happened in Equestria’s distant and bloody past, and even then they are still subject to the same all-too-equine biases and presumptions as the rest of us mortals. I dislike ponies mentioning that ancestor of mine, as usually it is done as a reminder of how far my family has fallen since then, and applied as an exhortation for me to do better. The crimson sash had already given me an impossible standard to live up to, and I scarcely needed another.

[The event referenced by Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume is more commonly known today as the Last Stand of the Princess’ Griffons. In the Battle of the Everfree during the Nightmare Heresy, the Princess of Blood and two hundred Griffons of the PGL defended the Castle of the Two Sisters against overwhelming numbers. This delaying action bought me time to collect the Elements of Harmony and banish Nightmare Moon. Neither the Princess of Blood nor the Griffons survived.]

The second incident was really a number of smaller incidents that merged together to create one single mess that fell squarely into my lap. Next to the PGL’s camp was that of the Prism Guard, and what began as a few minor scuffles between soldiers of the two regiments accidentally, or purposefully as might be the case, straying into one another’s ‘turf’, as I believe is the correct term in the common parlance, inevitably escalated when these groups encountered one another when on leave and frequented the bars, gambling dens, and brothels of Dodge Junction. While their own regimental commissars really should have sorted this out on their own - after all, that is what they were paid for - now that junior officers had been getting involved in this foalish spat that now apparently required my specific involvement.

“I asked for you personally,” said Colonel Fer-de-Lance when she invited me into her office to discuss this nonsense. My reputation for undue fairness had its drawbacks, it seemed, as everypony in the entire damned military wanted me to sort out their problems for them.

I slipped through the open tent flap, past the tall, scarred Prench mare, and caught a whiff of some light and floral fragrance wafting from her. Inside, it looked as though she had tried, and failed, of course, to bring a little bit of the elegance of her native land with her. It was almost funny, in a way, to imagine her orderly lugging the massive, ornate desk around with him while on campaign, along with the rather large armoire filled to bursting with extravagant uniforms. Decorative silk tapestries depicting several dour-looking ponies in the finery of the Prench court hung from the tent poles.

Fer-de-Lance followed me in and took her seat at this mahogany desk, with its carefully positioned desk mat and gilded inkpot, and invited me to sit on the cushion opposite, which I did gladly. “This is getting out of hoof,” she said. “Lieutenant Golden Tarot has challenged a Griffon officer to a duel.”

I settled back in the cushion and stroked my chin, waiting for her to continue. When it became apparent that she was waiting for my input, all I could muster was a flat, bored, and uninterested, “I see.”

“Perhaps I should have them arrested,” she continued. “That would be according to the new regulations, no? Duelling is forbidden now.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering where in blazes she was going with this. “Twilight Sparkle believes it’s more sporting to let the Changelings kill our officers instead.”

“But I do not think such a thing will help.” She waved her hoof dismissively, apparently having ignored what I had just said. “Golden Tarot is one of us; he is a stallion of the noble class, and I believe he is a cousin to your sisters’ husbands. His honour will be insulted if he is not allowed to duel an officer who has insulted him so horribly. Even if this officer is a Griffon.”

“And what did this Griffon do?” I asked. “And who is this Griffon, anyway?”

Fer-de-Lance flicked through a neatly placed stack of papers on her desk. “Lieutenant Gunther,” she said. “I think that is what it says. Griffon names are very confusing. He left a dead rat in Golden Tarot’s tent.”

I tapped my chin, affecting to look as though I had dredged up some bit of insight from the depths of experience. “What do you think caused this Lieutenant Gunther to leave a dead rat in your officer’s tent?”

She shrugged her shoulders and leaned back in her seat, tapping her hoof on the table in annoyance. “The two broke up an argument with their soldiers on a joint training exercise, and some of my ponies ended up in the infirmary. Then this barbarian puts a dead animal in his tent as an additional insult. A duel is the only correct response to this, if they were not made illegal.”

“It’s an apology,” I said, and Fer-de-Lance boggled at me.


“Griffons are part-feline, after all. If Golden Tarot’s rejected the apology-rat, then Gunther would feel just as insulted. Just call for the provosts to put a stop to the duel and be done with this farce.”

“I’m afraid I cannot.” Fer-de-Lance spread out her hooves apologetically, and I felt an inward burst of irritation at being expected to do other officers’ jobs for them - it was all Luna’s fault for making me her special catspaw in the 1st Army. “The honour of a Prism Guard officer is his life, and his word is his bond. If he has sworn to duel then he must proceed, and were I to forbid it he would take it as a betrayal on my part.”

As I sat there, listening to this nonsense, I cast my mind back to helping Princess Twilight Sparkle pass her reforms, and the rather underhanded things I had to do to arrange the victory that she, and Equestria itself, needed. It was all well and good getting the required signatures on the piece of legislation that put all of her changes into practice, but it appeared that reforming the chopped-up remnants of the old Royal Guard into something resembling a modern army, free from the costly distractions caused by the egos of aristocratic officers, was where the real struggle still lay.

“You want me to do it,” I said, finally putting two and two together. “I, as somepony on the outside, turn up, break up the duel before either of them can hurt themselves, and they can both carry on thinking that honour has been satisfied because Prince Blueblood ordered them to stop it instead of an ordinary provost. Or you, either.”

“Yes,” she said. “I trust that you will not mention this conversation.”

If this seems ridiculous to you, dear reader, then I imagine that you are a pony of some reasonable level of intelligence and wit. Well done. The very concept of honour is a shackle to the aristocrat, like a price that one must pay for one’s birth into a position of privilege, in the form of a frustratingly vague set of guidelines that one ought to follow in the absence of common sense. It’s all well and good opening doors for ladies and doffing hats to strangers on the street, but when it comes to fighting and potentially dying over perceived insults then it all becomes a bit silly, frankly. The true art of nobility, I find, is to navigate one’s way around these rules, exploit them where appropriate, and find ways to weasel out of them without being seen to break them. That, apparently, was where I came in to resolving this little spat; it was very astute of her, and I imagined Fer-de-Lance was as seasoned a veteran of this as I am, though I had to wonder why she couldn’t have picked somepony else to bother.

So I agreed to do it, and at the appointed time and place I emerged onto the scene flanked by two provosts I had grabbed along the way. Golden Tarot and Gunther had agreed to fight this duel out in the Badlands, about a mile south-east from the outer confines of the camp and beyond the defensive line of trenches and fortifications. Aside from their seconds, who were their ensigns, there were no other ponies or Griffons present. It was dawn as well, with the sun creeping over the eastern edge of the vast expanse of desert, and I expect the two of them thought that this was all very dramatic and such.

I had arrived a few minutes late, affecting to look as though I had picked up this rumour of an illegal duel at the last moment and then frantically raced to put an end to it. Fortunately for them, neither had been badly injured, each having received only a few light nicks from each other’s swords; it appeared that their relative youth, being merely older teenagers the both of them, and inexperience in such things led them to be quite restrained in their duel, though had I not arrived there was still every chance it could have escalated.

The two combatants seemed almost relieved when I arrived and forced my way between them, though that sense of relief was quickly destroyed when I assigned them and their seconds latrine duty. Technically, I had been in breach of regulations in assigning officers manual labour as a punishment, instead of the more usual fine they could easily pay off, but this was about sending a message that duelling was not to be tolerated any longer, and neither was wasting my time. Furthermore, I had placed these two apparent enemies into the same punishment detail, which I hoped would allow them to bond over a mutual feeling of resentment over this injustice.

Whether or not that truly worked I’ll never really know; first because I never bothered to follow up on it, and second I would not have had the time to even if I had the inclination. It was finally happening - the Big Push, Operation Buttercup, the grand offensive, or whatever you want to call it. After months and months of anticipation, preparation, planning, and monumental logistical effort, the thing that I had been dreading for so very long was finally upon us. The arrival of the Night Guards and some pegasi from the newly raised MWC [Meteorological Warfare Corps] from Cloudsdale meant that the build-up of forces was finally complete, and the great offensive could begin. The order was given out at last, and the camp, already a hotbed of activity, positively exploded in a level of excitement that I could scarcely comprehend.

Within two weeks of receiving those orders, much of Fort Nowhere was emptied; the thousands of troops and all the necessaries that kept them fed, happy, and armed were vomited forth onto the great plains of the Badlands. Try as I might, there was no possible excuse that I could muster to remain with the small garrison left behind, who had the gall to express disappointment at missing out. Were I brave enough, I’d have happily swapped places and uniforms with any one of them. Even attempting to induce a second attack of the Trots, which I was well aware might be lethal twice in a row without so much as a rest, was doomed to failure as, despite their usual lackadaisical approach to such things, the army had managed to stamp out the worst of their sanitation problems before that intrepid little bacteria had a chance to invade my bowels once again.

And so we marched deeper into the Changeling heartlands, with each step bringing us closer and closer to the awful fight that I knew must inevitably follow. I am certain that every schoolfoal knows the particulars of the first engagement of what would later be called the Battle of Virion Hive, so ingrained as it is in popular military history, so I shan’t bore my readers too much with the minutiae of the plan and how it all went, save for how I saw things transpire.

I Corps had marched for the better part of a full day and made camp for the night. The going had been arduous, of course; we had marched all day in the blazing sun, and only stopped every now and again to make sure that the soldiers didn’t die of dehydration and exhaustion before the Changelings could have a fair go of that instead. Even as dusk fell I barely had time to eat a hasty dinner and rest my aching hooves before I was dragged in for yet another conference, this time with Major General Garnet, who commanded the Guards Division, the two Brigadiers who commanded the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the Division, a pegasus from the MWC and a number of desk-shackled staff officers.

Major-General Garnet was yet another one of Twilight Sparkle’s rising stars, being a very modern sort of major-general with a penchant for memorising a whole host of interesting but ultimately useless facts about the most obscure of topics. That was probably why he got on so well with the Princess, I imagined. Nevertheless, despite his tendency to expound upon pointless trivia, this odd personality quirk is what had allowed him to come up with, what I must admit, was a rather good plan. Of course, ‘good’ plans in war still result in a whole lot of death, dismemberment, injury, trauma, and misery for everypony involved except the planner.

“These hills here,” he said, pointing to said geological formation on the map he had pinned up to a board in his tent. “They are the key to taking Virion Hive. They form a natural defensive line from attack from the north, which just so happens to be where we’re coming from. The Changelings know we’re on our way, so they’ve done what any sensible general worth his stars would have done and dropped a war swarm right on top of it; on the reverse slopes, too, out of sight of our artillery just to make things more interesting for us. Ladies and gentlecolts, General Market Garden wants that high ground and I intend to give it to her on a silver platter. Now, this is all very interesting from a geographical standpoint, being a stratigraphic sort just like the Appleachians…”

He went on like that for a while, and that gallant little imitation of a Twilecture was still very fresh in my mind the next morning when I got to see that ridge up close. It was still very dark when I was woken from my fitful sleep, plagued with nightmares as it must always be, and the Guards Division was quickly mustered and sent out into the desert. As the sky turned from inky black-blue through the varying shades of purple and orange with the slow rising of the sun, those aforementioned heights, ridges, hills, or whatever the correct technical term is for the scrap of high ground we were about to fight, kill, and die for, were gradually illuminated.

It took a few hours of yet more marching to reach the base, where the ground, which had changed from the empty, flat plains of the northern Badlands to the more hilly and rocky terrain of the Changeling heartlands, began to slope up and up to reach a high, sharp peak, where it would slope away just as dramatically into the valley where the city lay. The last hour of the march was conducted under the cover of clouds, helpfully provided by the MWC, so my only view of them, before everything became smothered in dense grey fog, showed that the ascent was hardly an even and consistent affair. Gentle slopes suddenly became sharp cliffs and rocky crags, punctuated by the occasional ditch and cleft. The sight of it, silhouetted darkly in the dim light of late twilight, rising ahead of us, looming like some vast and grotesque monster, filled me with a quiet sense of dread - it was happening, and there was nothing that I could do to escape it.

Once the pegasi had placed the clouds over the entire division, I could only see up to about three feet in any real clarity. The soldiers marching on ahead were consumed by this endless grey fog, but those closest were still visible as ghostly silhouettes, like lost souls drifting into the eternal void of Limbo. How nopony got lost in that pea soup of a fog is a testament to the discipline and training of the ordinary Equestrian soldier, and I suppose the map-reading skills of junior officers. The hills were no longer visible, but the sight of them before they became obscured was still present in my mind, and knowing that they were still there, concealing however many thousands of Changelings behind their ragged, broken peaks, only heightened my fear. In the vague, indistinct, uniform grey I imagined I could see the hills, bigger, steeper, and rougher than they truly were.

The division came to a halt, just where I could feel the ground beneath my hooves start to slope upwards. I had very little idea of what was going on around me, but from what I could tell as messages were passed up and down the line, the sharp ‘pops’ of teleporting runners cutting through the muffled noise of an entire division trying to arrange itself in formation, everything had gone smoothly thus far. We had arrived only slightly out of position in the fog, as even our experienced weather ponies struggled here, but it was quickly sorted out.

After I had done my job, moving up and down the line and offering hollow words of encouragement to nervous soldiers, there was nothing left to do but stand there and wait as the first phase of the plan was executed. The Solar Guards had been sent forwards out of the fog as bait to lure the Changelings down from the safety of the reverse slope, down to where they would be in sight and range of our hidden muskets and artillery. That was the theory, at least, for even I, as inexperienced with strategy as I am, feared that the enemy would be somewhat suspicious of the sudden onset of a dense fog in a land known for its hot climate. [Without pegasus-controlled climate, naturally-occuring fog in the Badlands is rare but not unheard of, especially in the Changeling heartlands where the climate had been warped by Chrysalis’ malign influence.]

We waited in silence, or as near to silence as it was possible to imagine with so many ponies around; the sound of a lot of ponies trying to be completely silent is distressingly loud and chaotic. Armour clinked and rattled; ponies coughed, whispered, or merely breathed; hooves shuffled in the dirt; and a myriad other such noises echoed from all around us, each amplified and distinct in this peculiar, awkward hush. My ears twitched and shifted involuntarily at each such sound, some louder and closer than others. Somewhere, a pony broke formation to vomit, with the sound of great retching followed by a splash. His comrades jeered at him, but they were silenced with a single barked order from a sergeant.

I could sympathise entirely. While the Solar Guard was off ahead, dangled like a small treat in front of the maw of a very hungry tiger, I could only wait and allow my anxiety to build up like the bubbles in a shaken bottle of champagne. It was maddening. There was no possible way of knowing how they fared up there - if the Changelings had taken the bait, if the battalion was being massacred as we stood by unknowing, or if the enemy was still safely behind that ridge.

A cannon fired, and its roar decisively cut through the silence. I jumped, which made Major Starlit Skies snicker. Glaring at him only made him grin wider. Seconds later, another, fainter ‘thud’ could be heard as the shrapnel shell exploded in mid-air to shower its victims with a lethal hail of lead. Another cannon followed, and then another, in a small, desultory cannonade that only served to bolster the illusion; no Equestrian force, no matter how small, attacked without artillery support.

They were coming, then; the artillery would not have opened fire without a target, as Market Garden abhorred wastage. The plan was working, or so it seemed, and very soon I would be hurled into the fight once again. I was at the front, you see, standing with Major Starlit Skies behind two lines of earth ponies and unicorns. Behind us, Colonel Sunshine Smiles stood with more earth ponies in denser formations should the enemy close in for hoof-to-hoof combat, which they most certainly would. The pegasi remained at the rear to keep the cloud that concealed us where it should be, and dart in to keep the Changelings from taking to the skies and outflanking us. Even further back, Major-General Garnet was safely out of harm’s way to direct the battle. He didn’t need my offer of assistance, of course; no, my place was at the front with the stallions, and try as I might there was no getting out of this without unveiling myself as the coward I truly am.

My heart pounded in my chest, louder than the distant cannon fire seemingly muffled by the fog. The air was dense, soupy, and was thick with the stench and taste of fear and sweat and vomit; it was everywhere - in my nose, my mouth, and clogging my throat like a urine-soaked ball of cotton wool crammed down there. Each breath was laboured, like sucking air through a clogged straw. By Faust, I wanted it over with. If this was to be my end, then so be it, if it meant an end to this interminable waiting.

Just let it end.

“Sir?” said Cannon Fodder, who had been standing silently by my side. “Are you alright?”

I noticed that he was having no problems breathing, and neither did anypony else for that matter. It was just me, or rather the mounting fear within.

“I’m fine,” I said, forcing a grin. “Must be allergic to clouds.”

A cold wind blew, plucking at my coat, chilling my sweat-soaked fur, and nearly knocking my cap off. The standard of the Night Guards above fluttered. A thousand pegasi behind the line beat their wings all at once, striking up a brisk gale that blew away the cloud and provided some momentary respite from the horrid stench. As though a veil had been lifted, a curtain drawn from a window, the battlefield was revealed. Ahead was the great range of hills, and there, upon the slopes, the Changeling war swarm rushed down towards us.

Thousands of drones charged. Each second brought them closer to our line, a pitiful two ranks between me and them. They could only have been a few hundred yards away; their hooves thundered on the ground and their wings filled the air with an awful buzzing. Amidst the great mass of them, some running, others already airborne, I could already make out individual drones; snarling, slathering beats with fangs bared and tongues flickering as they bore down on us. The earth trembled, reverberating up my hooves as I stared transfixed in horror at the sight. Dear Luna, this was suicide.

They had left it too late. The Changeling swarm would be upon us soon, and we’d be washed away like a sugarcube in a cup of hot tea.

“Present!” shouted Starlit Skies, his voice surprisingly loud and sharp for a such a soft-spoken pony. He held his hoof up as though he was about to merely signal the start of a school sports day race, and peered at a quietly ticking pocket watch. The first two ranks lowered their muskets or horns. We happened to be behind an earth pony company, so I had a front row seat in seeing how these allegedly war-winning weapons would be used. It would be very interesting to see that before being ripped to shreds.

The cannons thundered behind us somewhere, one after the other in an irregular, rolling volley. Each was like the pounding of a hammer against my skull. Spears of flame and smoke screamed over our heads, piercing through the residual fog that still lingered and leaving behind the sharp, acrid tang of burnt gunpowder in its wake. The slope of the hill was a killing field; roundshot tore great, ragged wounds into the swarm, while shrapnel and mortar shells eviscerated scores at a time in murderous showers of iron and lead. Yet it was not enough, the holes torn by cannonfire were quickly healed as the dead, dying, and wounded were merely left to be trampled. The enemy’s formation dispersed, spreading out so as to minimise losses. Yet for all the fearsome power and horror of modern artillery, Bramley Apple’s battery was not enough to halt the seemingly limitless numbers of the enemy, who cared not for casualties. The swarm charged onwards to our fragile line, unimpeded by hail of shot and shell.

“Steady, lads!” The Major wiggled his nose, which settled the pair of pince-nez balanced precariously there, and peered through the lenses at the vast swarm. “Wait for my command!”

The enemy were a mere hundred yards away, and the artillery ceased firing lest they hit us. The absence of the roar of cannonfire was suden, abrupt, and disturbing - now, the drumming of thousands of hooves and the buzzing of thousands of wings had become overwhelming. Though I prayed, pleaded really, the thundering mass of Changelings showed no sign of slowing or stopping at the sight of an entire division about to open fire. Instead the snarling, hissing mass of hooves and fangs roiled like a boiling sea, and rose up like a tidal wave.

Give the order, I wanted to scream, give the bloody order, damn you!

Our troops stood firm - horns charged, muskets levelled with locks back and hooves clenched around triggers - where I had no thought but to turn and run, yet my hooves remained rooted to the ground as though glued. It was the end; nothing to do but stand and wait for it to happen - for us to be swept away in an onslaught of hooves and fangs. Major Starlit Skies gazed out thoughtfully at the oncoming horde, with no more concern than one would for a particularly tricky crossword puzzle, and then he looked at his pocket watch again. The stampeding beasts were almost upon us and nopony could possibly miss, so what in blazes was he playing at? Sixty yards and closer every second - give the order you senile old fool, give the order or I will.

I could stand it no longer, and yelled over the noise, “Give the or-”

Major Starlit Skies dropped his hoof. “Fire!

Chapter 11

The volley thundered out from the front rank in a sharp, ragged crash of musket fire and magic. The smoke billowed back in my face, stinging my eyes and assaulting my nostrils with the sharp tang of burnt powder, but as I blinked away the tears and peered through the swirling morass, I saw the entire vanguard of the horde eviscerated in a storm of lead and magic. A great, screaming confusion erupted in their ranks, as the foremost drones crashed down into the dust before us in a hideous flail of twisted, broken limbs and bloodied craters of flesh and chitin. Those behind, carried forwards by the momentum of the charge, careered straight into their fallen comrades, and became entangled in the grotesque pile of eviscerated corpses.

Fire!” roared Starlit Skies again. The second rank fired over the heads of the kneeling first rank, and the volley smashed into the mess of panicked Changelings. Drones shrieked and fell as the musket balls and magic bolts ripped into the densely-packed mass, hooves lashing out blindly and tripping the ones who had somehow survived. As the smoke cleared in the stiff breeze, it unveiled a horrendous sight that haunts me still; a few scant dozen or so yards away was a bank of dead and wounded Changelings, all piled up in a bloody and twisted tangle of drones, with limbs and heads and wings stuck out at obscene angles. Some still lived, though barely, and I glimpsed one such poor creature, a raw crater in its chest oozing ichor and liquified organs, shrieking in the madness of indescribable pain, trying in vain to pull itself free from the weight of its dead comrades.

Major Starlit Skies surveyed the carnage with his usual dispassionate, analytical coldness. The enemy had been given a bloody nose, yes, but the greater mass of the horde was still unbroken, though merely reeling from the onslaught. It would not be long before the Purestrains re-established their hold on their drones, and would descend upon us before the front rank had the chance to reload.

“Fix bayonets!” he shouted. “Draw swords!” The order was relayed across the line, and at once the unicorns drew their swords and the earth ponies went through the mechanical process of fixing bayonets.

I saw one, quite close to me, struggle to insert the blade’s handle into the gun’s muzzle. His hooves shook with fright, and the bayonet slipped from his sweaty grip and landed in the dust. Sergeant Major Square Basher, who had been trotting up and down the line making sure everypony was ready and sorted, came across this poor lad, who flinched from the imposing mare and the onslaught of creative invective that was to follow. To his surprise and mine, she simply picked up the dropped blade, inserted it into the barrel, twisted it to lock it in place, and offered a few quiet words of encouragement that I couldn’t hear.

[These early bayonets were of the ‘plug’ type, which fitted directly into the musket barrel as Blueblood described, and allowed the musket to double as a spear for close combat. This, however, prevented the gun from being loaded and fired. The socket bayonet, in which the blade is off-set from the muzzle and would allow the soldier to load and fire, was introduced much later.]

Surely they would flee, thought I, in the face of overwhelming Equestrian superiority in the field, but there was no such luck. A retreat back to the high ground would still have allowed us to fire upon them with impunity and without fear of retaliation, so another frontal attack before our troops had a chance to reload and recharge was their only recourse. I could see them, beyond the jagged line of the dead and dying, regrouping and massing for the final charge that would finish us off, unless we got there first.

“Sir?” Cannon Fodder touched my shoulder, leaving a smear of filth on the already dusty tunic sleeve. “Your sword?”

It was still in its scabbard, hanging by my hip. I muttered a quiet, awkward ‘thanks’ in embarrassment and drew it with a sharp rasp of steel grating on steel. The hefty Pattern ‘12 sabre, more like a heavy machete for chopping into tough chitin than anything else called a ‘sabre’, felt oddly reassuring in my grip. Gliding Moth’s rapier, which had remained a constant and reliable companion when I inherited it, was back at camp; its elegant and slim blade was ill-suited for hacking up Changelings, and I couldn’t risk losing it, either.

Then, somewhere close by but unseen, a bugle blasted a short, cheerful little refrain that was soon drowned out utterly by the fearsome, terrifying roar, louder than the volleys, that rose up from our ranks. I was deafened by it, and cowed by its oppressive power; it was a bestial, atavistic cry that belonged more to our primitive ancestors braining one another with large rocks than supposedly civilised ponies. But then I suppose we always were those ponies, and such bloodlust only lurked behind the locked door of civility where it could be torn open by drill instructors and projected at an enemy to fight.

I was swept forwards from behind on a veritable equine wave. Try as I might to slow myself to allow those soldiers more eager than I to charge on ahead, I found myself somehow forced to the fore, as ever, to the very front line with the earth ponies. I scrambled with my newfound comrades over the piled bodies of the Changelings, my hooves sinking into ichor-soaked dust and squelching horribly in glistening entrails and exposed flesh. There was nowhere for me to go without stepping on something disgusting, that was once a living, breathing creature that, regardless of orders, probably didn’t want to die here.

I had half a second’s glimpse of the disorganised rabble that was the war swarm before we collided into it. The earth ponies smashed into the horde, their bayonets slicing through toughened chitin and into the vulnerable flesh beneath, and the dead and wounded were trampled under-hoof.

Hurled into the hell of combat once again, I swung wildly with my sabre. The drone looked shocked, horrified even, as the brutishly heavy blade came down and bit deeply into its skull. The creature hissed and shrieked as I tugged the sabre free, blood and brain matter splashed into my face, and it fell to the ground in a twitching, bleeding heap.

I stepped over the dead thing. The next one lunged at me, sharp and glistening fangs bared for my throat. My sword was raised again to fend it off, but this one ducked underneath the panicked swing. Cannon Fodder, advancing by my left, thrust his spear and caught the creature in the exposed gap between chitinous plates. It fell to the ground like a coat dropped from a hook, bleeding from severed arteries. My aide flashed me one of his rare grins, looking very proud of himself.

The Guards Division forced the enemy back, but the Changeling swarm surged against us, battering itself against the impenetrable Equestrian phalanx. For a moment the scrum was at a stalemate, as ponies and Changelings pushed against one another, struggling in the massed press of sweat-soaked bodies and sun-baked armour. Squeezed on all sides, I barely had room to swing my sword, while around me, the long muskets tipped with bayonets were now unwieldy with the enemy mere inches away, and many soldiers had discarded them. As ever, for all the advances made in the science of killing, it all came down to hooves, teeth, and fangs.

A Changeling hoof struck my nose, and it exploded in a torrent of blood and pain. There was no time to check if it had been broken; the creature hissed and reared up on its hindlegs, forelegs flailing to smash my skull. I flinched back, right into the pony behind me, who yelled something I couldn’t make out and gave me a heavy shove forwards. My horn rammed into the drone’s chest, knocking into the hard chitin without so much as a scratch or a dent and sending a jab of pain right into the centre of my skull. It tumbled over onto its back, and I, without conscious thought on my part, hacked my sword down like a great machete.

The drone raised its hooves to try and block my sword, but the heavy, inelegant blade simply chopped through and severed them. I hacked again, putting the poor thing out of its misery by burying the blade deep into its chest, and its screaming mercifully ceased.

We pushed on, and slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the Equestrians began to drive the Changelings back up the hill. Above, the light pegasus company weaved through the air, while the heavier ones lingered closer to keep our foe pinned to the ground. I struggled onwards, pushed forth by the grinding momentum of the advance, my horn aching with each and every swing of that heavy sword and my limbs with every step. What was going on elsewhere, along the flanks, ahead and behind, beyond the mere three feet all around that had become my entire world, I had no idea; there was only this narrow, solipsist view of but a tiny portion of this monstrous struggle.

Everything became a blur of blood and steel. In the press of bodies all around and my attention reduced to my sword and the snarling beasts immediately in front of me, so it was no wonder I or the ponies near me failed to see the ditch ahead. All I can recall of it is seeing the vast horde ahead of us part suddenly, opening a wide gap, and before I could look down I felt the awful sensation of my forehooves falling through where I thought the ground should have been. I scrambled back on my hindlegs, but there was a pony behind me, and with no room to manoeuvre I toppled over the edge. My hooves grabbed onto the closest thing that seemed sturdy enough, but that happened to be Cannon Fodder, and I only succeeded in dragging him down with me.

I rolled down this steep, almost sheer drop down into this ditch. Rocks jabbed painfully into my body, and scraped against my skin until I came to a stop in a bruised and bloodied heap.

Everything hurt, but that at least meant that I was still alive. I dragged myself to my hooves with Cannon Fodder’s assistance and grabbed my sword from the ground, which had slipped from my magical grasp. A cursory check proved I wasn’t gravely injured, though my new uniform would never be the same again.

About a score of us had fallen in, including the pony behind me who I had bumped into. Apparently seeing that we were trapped, a mob of Changelings braved the swarm of pegasi above and dived into the ditch to finish us off. Only then, as the grinding advance of the Night Guards proceeded above us, did they perhaps realise they were now trapped in this ditch with us.

We were stuck there, and that became readily apparent when I tried and failed to get out the way that I had fallen in. I scrambled back, trying to crawl up and out of the ditch, but the ground was too steep and the gravel too loose for my hooves to find firm purchase. What could only be described as a vicious brawl broke out, as both sides, maddened by their newfound captivity, realised the only way to escape was to exterminate the enemy.

There was no glory in this, only savagery. Here, a stallion’s neck was torn open by Changeling fangs and he fell, choking on his own blood as he desperately tried to stem the bleeding with his hooves. Next to him, another pony repeatedly stamped on a drone’s head until its skull cracked and its face turned to jelly. A unicorn blasted magic at point-blank range into a Changeling’s chest, burning a smouldering hole the size of a dinner plate clean through, before he was mobbed by three others and he fell beneath them. Elsewhere, a pony and a drone wrestled in the blood-soaked dust in a fatal embrace, until their coats and chitin became so covered in foul-smelling sludge that it was almost impossible to tell the two apart. Around us, the battalion poured around the edges, though in the mad press of bodies all around, a few tumbled in after us.

I darted right in; I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking straight, but it seemed that if I was going to survive this hell I had to do something. As the pony and the drone rolled in the dust, hooves hurled at one another and teeth snapping, I wrapped my hooves around the Changeling’s waist and pulled it back. At the same time, I brought my sword down between its neck and shoulder, impaling it right through. It gurgled, spasming in my hooves until it suddenly went limp. The soldier thanked me and joined his comrades, and I dropped the dead thing and followed.

Another drone lunged at me, this one with its right hoof transformed into a sharp spike twelve inches long from the fetlock. Bewildered and surprised at this, I scrambled back, slipping in the puddles of blood and ichor, and only just brought up my sabre in time to deflect the thrust. It was a little too late, however; pain burst around the left side of my chest as the blade sliced into it.

Yet there was no blood, though it hurt like the blazes. I didn’t know if their kind were capable of expressing surprise, but the face that the Changeling pulled looked desperately close to it. That moment of hesitation was enough for me to turn my sword in a loop, still using the momentum gathered from when I deflected the thrust, and raked the blade through the Changeling’s chest. The thing shrieked and flinched back, and blood gushed from the gaping wound. Acting more on instinct, despite knowing there was no way even it could survive that, I leapt forward and hacked the blade down, catching the creature in the neck and digging deep into its flesh.

Then it was over as quickly as it had begun. The Changelings were all dead, along with about half of the ponies. A few would join them before the day was over, judging by their horrendous wounds. This ditch had become a charnel pit; bodies were piled up at the bottom, drones and ponies alike in the still embrace of death, unmoving and yet whose lifeless eyes stared accusingly at those who had been granted the mercy of survival. Those survivors stared back with haunted, empty expressions; one of their number broke down and sobbed quietly, and were it not for my station as an officer I’d have done the same.

My ribs stung with every laboured breath, but I was still alive; Rarity’s armour had paid for itself. I pulled at my tunic, seeing the hole that the Changeling’s bladed hoof had ripped into it, and when I angled it the right way I could make out a scratch, about three inches long and quite deep with frayed edges, in the star spider silk. With it, I suffered only a painful bruise, but without it, the blade would have slid between my ribs and punctured a lung.

The stench of death and blood all around had become overwhelming, and the bile burned the back of my throat. My head swam, as though I was drunk, and simultaneously there came an immense throbbing and pounding inside my skull, or perhaps it had been there all this time and I only noticed because now I had a second to think about it. My mouth was desperately dry, and all I could taste was copper and ash, so I tried to drink from my canteen. I ended up spilling a great deal of its precious contents, and what I could greedily gulp down was not enough.

I wanted out of there. Now. The sight of so much horror inspired a peculiar sort of mania in me, and despite my injuries I threw myself against the steep slope to try and escape it. One would think that I would have become accustomed to such sights after all that I have been through, and I can say with some small element of pride that I did not, and still have not. Strong hooves seized me by the shoulders and lifted me up. I flinched, raising my sword in panic, and squirmed as they wrapped tightly around my upper arms.

“Easy, sir.” I looked up to see not a drone but a pegasus lifting me out of the ditch. His comrades had started doing the same to the others. “It’s only us.”

After being dropped unceremoniously on the dusty ground, I pulled myself up and tried to fight the rising nausea and panic. Cannon Fodder was deposited next to me by another pegasus who promptly sped off to wash his hooves; my aide looked no worse for wear after our shared ordeal, though I had lost sight of him in that gruesome fight. Looking around, from what I could tell, though somewhat delirious with pain and adrenaline, it appeared that the division had advanced without me. Good luck to them, thought I, as I stared up at the ridge and the vast band of steel and gold that stretched off unseen into the distance either side, but I was in no eager rush to join them. It looked like they had already reached the summit, and were holding the high ground Market Garden had ordered them to take.

Around us, though, was not much of an improvement on the misery of the ditch; bodies dotted the entire stretch of the slope from its base to its peak, some torn and bloodied, others whole and looked as though they were merely sleeping, and all around I could hear the pitious wailing of the wounded and dying. We might have won this battle, the turning point in the war some would later call it, but every triumph must be tinged with loss and pain. I watched, not knowing where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do now, as the white-uniformed medics moved like ghosts between the bodies, both dead and clinging tenaciously to the thin sliver of life, marking the fallen, tending to the wounded, and easing the passage of the dying. Teams of stretcher-bearers collected those destined for the surgeon’s hacksaw, and carted them off down the slope to where a small collection of tents had sprung up; one must have been the field hospital.

Captain Blitzkrieg landed next to me, the flutter of his wings almost silent. He looked dreadful, more so than usual, with torn feathers, a gash over his right eye, and hoof-shaped dents all over his armour. He peered over the edge and into the ditch.

“Celestia’s tits,” he said breathlessly, pointing down at the butchery below. “Were you in that?”

“Yes,” I said. “Damned rotten business.”

“Too bloody right.” Blitzkrieg pulled out a packet of cheap cigarillos from his pocket, stuck one in his mouth, then patted his hooves over the pouches and pockets slung over his armour for what I assumed was his lighter. I obliged with a small light from my horn, and I admit gaining some foalish amusement out of making the diminutive pegasus have to rear up to reach it. He mumbled a thanks and took a heavy, impatient drag on it.

“The colonel wants to see you,” he said, expelling a dense cloud of smoke that was soon lost amidst the lingering smog left by the artillery and musket fire.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Ours, you daft ninny,” he said. I ignored the insult, or I think it was intended as such; although I have spent more time than I ever intended to with Trottingham ponies, some of their slang still escaped me. “He’s been chatting to the Griffons and he thinks he’s got an idea.”

Colonels getting bright ideas was rarely a good sign, and considering Sunshine Smiles himself was the sort who applied himself to his job with far too much enthusiasm for my liking, it was even less of an incentive. Nevertheless, Blitzkrieg pointed me to where the good colonel was, which, to the surprise of nopony, was right at the very top of the ridge.

I politely refused the offer of a lift, preferring to walk, or perhaps crawl, my way up there with Cannon Fodder rather than suffer the indignity of being carried by pegasi again. After about five minutes into my journey, pulling myself step by painful step up that uneven slope, I regretted that choice. However, I could hardly go back and ask for one now after having refused it; I would never hear the end of it from Blitzkrieg and the other pegasi in the officers’ mess once this was all over. The going was slow, not helped by the fact the adrenaline had started to wear off and the wave of exhaustion that had been kept at bay came flooding in.

I was drained, completely, utterly, and totally. My legs felt like they were made of jelly, and seemed like they could barely hold me up. I felt sick too, and were I not on an empty stomach I was sure I would have thrown up by now; in fact, I was rather hungry, and while I was moderately certain that eating something would help me feel better, I was afraid that I would almost immediately expel it. My nose too, where it had been punched by a Changeling, stung awfully, though at least the flow of blood had ceased for now. When I touched it with a hoof, the pain increased tenfold, like a hot knife straight to the nerves, and I could hear and feel a horrid ‘crackling’. Still, as long as I could focus on putting one hoof in front of the other, and try to ignore the horror all around me, I knew I could manage.

It was still early morning, as far as I could tell; I didn’t bring my watch, unlike Starlit Skies, as I did not fancy losing a valuable family heirloom in that fight. To give an accurate measurement of how long the battle, or at least the part I had participated in, had taken would be impossible; it had felt like an eternity, but it could only really have been an hour or so. I reached the top, where the entire division was arrayed out in a line along the ridge. As far as I could tell the fighting had mercifully stopped, judging by the general mood and bearing of the troops now arranged neatly into their formations as before.

I found Colonel Sunshine Smiles at the front of the formation, as usual, standing with Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume and one of the unicorn runners some distance away from the front line of earth ponies and unicorns. As I approached, emerging out of the relative safety granted by the armoured wall of soldiers, I felt so terribly exposed out in the open. I looked all around in case some Changeling would suddenly dart out from behind one of the clouds of smoke that still lingered or dispel a cunning disguise as a rock and rip me to shreds. It would have been a shame, thought I, to have survived all of that, only to be struck down by an assassin.

The ridge sloped away into a shallow valley, and lying in the middle of it was that city I had seen in the reconnaissance photograph much earlier. That image had not done it justice; taken from a great distance, it had failed to convey accurately the sheer size and thickness of the walls that surrounded it, nor the formidable castle that towered over the squat, flat houses and the twisted Changeling architecture. To advance from this high ground that Market Garden had so desperately wanted to the walls would mean charging across open land, as replete with craters, ditches, and outcroppings as the other slope, without meaningful cover for what must have been at least a mile.

Once they crossed that open ground, an attacking army would have to overcome a deep and wide ditch that had been dug around the entirety of the city, except, of course, where the river passed under the walls. Even then, the massive stone walls would have to be breached, and these were not the same as the decaying, crumbling defences of Fort Nowhere - instead, they appeared to be new, or at least well-maintained and bolstered, being tall and thick, with towers and bastions at presumably strategically-placed locations to counter assault from the air. Changelings, being the sort of conniving, un-gentlecoltly, and dishonourable creatures that they are, were likely to have a whole host of other nasty surprises hidden away too. Any positive feelings about being on the opposite side of a siege after last time were very quickly washed away when I saw precisely what we would be up against.

“Bloody hell,” said Sunshine Smiles as Cannon Fodder and I approached. “You look like shit, Your Highness.”

“I fell in a ditch,” I said. “It was full of Changelings.”

The colonel looked far from peaky himself. His grey Night Guards armour had turned black with smoke residue and dried blood and ichor, which caked his peytral and covered up the eye symbol upon his breast. There were a number of cuts and gashes on his exposed skin, though they seemed to be superficial, but his left eye was bloodshot and there was a dark hoof-shaped bruise around it like a frame. He beckoned me over and pointed at something down in the valley.

“They’re retreating,” he said. I followed his hoof to see what was left of the Changeling war swarm milling about, roughly halfway between us and the city. If they were running away, it looked like they were doing it rather slowly. “Guillaume here has come up with a cunning plan. Why don’t you tell the commissar about it?”

The Griffon stepped forwards hesitantly. He too looked as though he had been in the thick of the fighting, though I had no idea what the PGL had been up to and where, as I hadn’t seen any of them from my myopic view point. [In the Battle of the Heights the PGL had fought to maintain Equestrian dominance of the air, with individual flocks, their equivalent of companies, assigned to different sections of the battlefield] In addition to the ichor and gore smeared on his armour, his beak and talons were likewise smothered in it. Despite being part of the Equestrian Army, it still seemed that the PGL adhered to the relentless, predatory savagery of the Griffon traditions of war; namely, tearing the enemy to shreds with the weapons that Faust, in Her dubious wisdom, had granted them.

“We can cut them off,” he said, his voice raspy, as though he had been shouting an awful lot. “Gather the PGL and all of the pegasi in the division, then cut off their retreat before they reach the city. Then the ground troops can move in, surround them, and then finish them off.”

“Then Market Garden and the general staff can have that decisive battle of annihilation they’ve always wanted,” said Sunshine Smiles.

I made a quiet, impressed humming noise as I peered over his shoulder at the fleeing Changelings, pretending that I was considering his plan. It certainly sounded all very dramatic and such, I’ll admit; the sort of thing Neighpoleon himself might have pulled off all those years ago before it all went badly for him. I, however, claim to be no expert on such things, and as a general rule if I think that any sort of military endeavour is a good idea based solely on my gut instinct and my complete lack of knowledge of anything military beyond hitting things with a sword, then it will very likely lead to disaster.

As it happened, the two weren’t looking for my input, but just wanted me to accompany Guillaume when he explained his bright idea to General Market Garden.

“It might be more convincing if you’re there to back him up,” said Sunshine Smiles. “General Market Garden seems to like you.”

That was a damned lie and he knew it, but then who could really tell with her? The pony had the social skills of a bowl of cold, watery porridge with a chunk of rusty iron hidden within its bland depths. Ordinarily I’d have leapt at the chance to get away from the misery of the frontline, even if it was just a mile or so further down where the generals got to sit back and watch the battle they had planned as they sipped their morning tea, but Market Garden’s personality was so unbearable that I was considering charging on ahead and trying my luck with the Changelings instead.

Of course, sense won out, and I accepted this task, knowing full well that its success could mean me being hurled right into danger yet again. I was about to start heading back down the slope to where I assumed Market Garden and her cronies still were, when I felt the unpleasant and distracting tingle of teleportation tickling hairs on my coat.

The dizzying sensation of being shoved across space and time was at least over in an instant, but it was disorientating enough to send me toppling over into Guillaume, who seemed to fare much better with such things and steadied me with a bloodied claw. Looking around, I saw that we were now much further down the hill, back where we had started. Gazing up at those heights, the rough and dusty slopes appeared to be covered in tiny dark dots, some moving and others still, while at the summit a great number of them had congregated into a neat band like a vast silk ribbon draped over it. I tried to see if I could find that ditch I had fallen into with Cannon Fodder, but from this distance all of those lines of trenches and pits looked the same to me, and I quickly gave up.

Another one of Twilight’s new innovations, though how many of the reforms that bore her name were down to her alone over the countless names tucked away in the references section of her report was anypony’s guess. Messages and certain important ponies could now be delivered faster and more safely by a cadre of highly-trained unicorns skilled in teleportation, instead of the traditional runners who had to trot or fly; it was all well and good, but I would have appreciated a warning first.

[Just like many other things associated with the military, this has its own acronym: Teleport-Aided Command and Control (TACC). The unicorns were therefore nicknamed ‘tackers’ by the troops. While an improvement on the previous system of relaying messages with runners, teleportation is very high level magic that few unicorns can ever master, and in battle may end up draining their magic too quickly. Therefore, runners were still in use throughout the war.]

Speaking of my aide, the unusually fresh air in place of the odour of fermented vegetables made me realise that Cannon Fodder had been left behind at the top of the ridge. Of course, his unique ability to suck out magic from all around like a sponge and channel it to Faust knows where worked just as effectively on beneficial spells as it did those that would harm us. Evidently, the unicorn who brought us here hadn’t been informed of this (I made great pains to keep this whole thing a secret, as it had proved to be very useful in otherwise deadly encounters) and he was a little upset at having lost a passenger, though I reassured him that he would turn up sooner or later.

We had materialised just outside Market Garden’s command marquee, which looked suspiciously like the sort used for the Canterlot garden party I had attended a few years ago during happier times. There were a few other large tents surrounding it, forming a small camp of sorts, and with it the usual bustle of frantic activity. One other such tent, the largest one around and a reasonable walk away, was marked out with red crosses as the field hospital, where medics and stretcher-bearers carried the more serious cases from the battlefield to be dealt with by the surgeons. Those awaiting treatment were placed outside in pitiful rows, each having been quickly bandaged up and left to wait for their turn under the scalpel or bonesaw. I forced myself to look away, but the moans of pain that could not be dulled by morphine and sedatives could not be ignored so easily.

I led Guillaume into the marquee. Inside was an austere version of Market Garden’s command centre in Fort Nowhere, with the very same map table occupying the centre and the same staff officers milling about and transporting vast amounts of paperwork to and from smaller desks and filing cabinets. The tent at least provided some measure of respite from the heat of the day, which by then was starting to beat down in earnest. Here, ponies chattered, argued, bickered, discussed whatever was on these very important bits of paper, and runners and tackers in weathered armour darted in, either collected or dropped off scribbled orders and reports, and then dipped out again.

However, as I stepped inside, the general hubbub of a busy office abruptly ceased, as though the needle had been wrenched violently from a gramophone record. Judging by the reactions I received, Colonel Sunshine Smiles was not exaggerating when he said that I looked like ‘shit’, as he had so eloquently put it, and though I had neither the time nor the inclination to verify that assessment by consulting a mirror, which I was unlikely to find around here anyway, the way that I felt certainly warranted so vulgar a term. I was covered in dust, sweat, ichor, and blood, and how much of the latter was mine or somepony else’s I couldn’t say for certain. The staff officers all stared at me as I staggered in, Guillaume in tow, each bearing stunned and horrified expressions - I wagered many of these bureaucrats had never so much seen the sight of blood until today, and I feared for their sanity should they peek outside at the rows of wounded laid out by the hospital.

“Blueblood!” exclaimed Market Garden. She grinned widely and beckoned me over with a hoof. “A spectacular victory by all accounts! And by Celestia you look like you’ve been in the thick of it. Oh, how I wish I could have been there.”

I concurred; generals might be a tad more careful about ordering offensives if they had to share in the fighting and the dying like the rest of us, but then I supposed there wouldn’t be very many such operations anymore. Although, that would be no bad thing, the more that I think about it, and perhaps we might have peace instead if leaders shared in the suffering of their followers. Really, though, there was little chance of that even if I did get my wish, and knowing my luck the likes of Market Garden would only be encouraged further.

“Shall we muster the troops for an inspection?” she continued, all but prancing back over to the large map table. Market Garden preened in front of the rather exasperated-looking staff officers, all of whom probably had been putting up with this sort of thing the moment she glimpsed Equestrian flag raised on top of the ridge. “The soldiers will want to see their victorious general!”

“My division has spent all morning fighting,” said Major-General Garnet, glaring at his superior. “I think an inspection can wait, ma’am, especially if the ponies look as bad as His Highness here. It wouldn’t be fair on them.”

“Oh, fine,” said Market Garden, sounding more like a spoilt foal who had been talked into sharing some of her birthday cake with the others at her party. Still, Garnet seemed to have handled her well, and even though he made absolutely no effort to hide his displeasure she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Let them bask in our victory for the moment, but I want to see Virion Hive for myself sharpish.”

Even in his ridiculously ostentatious uniform Second Fiddle still seemed to disappear into the background when in a large group of ponies, so it was something of an unwelcome surprise when he abruptly said something and made me finally realise he was present. As implausible as it might sound, with his highly polished gold reflecting the bright sunlight from outside and the assortment of self-awarded medals jingling with each movement, I had completely failed to spot him. Of course, I was also dehydrated, exhausted, and quite generally out of it after that ordeal, so I like to think I can be excused for this oversight.

“Why aren’t you with your battalion, Blueblood?” he said. His face was quite pale as he looked at me, or rather the blood splattered all over my uniform, and he covered his mouth and nose with that silly hoofkerchief.

“The division’s just routed an entire Changeling war swarm, so I think they can look after themselves for a bit,” I said, choosing to respond to his rather rude insinuation that I shouldn’t be here with a sarcastic quip, instead of the rather less erudite series of un-printable expletives that my lips had first formed before my aristocratic sense of propriety stepped in. “However, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume has a proposal for you.”

“I am not in the habit of taking advice on strategy from Griffons,” said Market Garden, turning away from us.

“I think we should hear it out,” I said, surprised at my own insistent tone. “I would not have come here if I didn’t think it had some merit. Guillaume, if you would.”

The griffon stepped forwards, trying to hold himself confidently with his head held high and back straight, though a more perceptive eye would have seen his tail tucked between his hind legs and the ruffled feathers around his neck. He explained his observation and suggestion as he had done with me just earlier, albeit with a far more deferential tone and a great deal more ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’ams’ used, almost in the place of commas and full stops were I to write out his speech verbatim. The generals and staff officers present listened on with varying levels of interest; Market Garden looked bored but paid attention presumably because she had been informed that it was the polite thing to do, whereas Garnet, for once listening to what another had to say rather than dominating the conversation with a prepared speech about whatever useless trivia interested him at that moment, was thoroughly enraptured by the idea, and had at least held off on his rambling until Guillaume had finished.

“It could work,” said Major-General Garnet. “A total encirclement of the war swarm, just like the Battle of Canine in the Second Ponic War, when the Cartaginians completely encircled and wiped out-”

“Yes, yes,” snapped Market Garden, silencing him with a wave of her hoof. “We all read about that in the Academy.”

I didn’t, but then again I spent most of my time in the Royal Academy chasing mares, drinking, and gambling instead of studying, and I still walked out with a commission in the Solar Guard as well as a collection of easily-cured venereal diseases, a cataclysmic hangover, and a coin purse heavier than the one I had enrolled with. The poor dears here before me had wasted that time actually learning, which, now that I think about it, is probably why they got to be generals in the relative safety of a mile behind the frontline, while I had to slog through the dust, dirt, and blood with the common soldiery. Nevertheless, I nodded along as though I understood the reference.

“It would be a tremendous gamble,” said Market Garden, partly to herself as she seemed to be thinking through the proposal. “Maintaining the encirclement would be difficult; we will require enough airborne troops to keep the bugs from just flying out of it, and even then our ground forces will be spread much too thinly.”

“We have reserves,” said Garnet, stepping around the table and picking up a clipboard with a few sheets of paper pinned to it. He peered down at the numbers and charts. “The Two Sisters Brigade [the common nickname for the 1st Brigade of the Guards Regiment, consisting of the Solar and Night Guards] took a bit of a beating taking that high ground, but the 2nd Brigade is still mostly fresh. They and the PGL can pin down the enemy while you send in another division to finish them off.”

Market Garden shook her head. “This is simply too much,” she said. “Far, far too great a gamble, and the costs of failure far too severe to justify it, even to destroy an entire war swarm. Now that we have taken this high ground we must conserve our strength for the fight ahead, not squander it with this cavalier scheme.”

“Ma’am, we may never get another chance like this again!” Garnet waved the clipboard at his superior, as though that might convince her. “We simply can’t let this opportunity slip past our hooves. I simply can’t. No general ever won a war through caution.”

“No, but generals have lost wars by wasting lives and materiel on such ill-planned adventures. I’ll not have it, Garnet. We dig in and prepare for a siege.”

Major-General’s Garnet’s mouth hung open in disbelief, as though the muscles that had held it shut had been rendered loose and inoperable. He looked to me, as if for help, but I couldn’t give more than a sympathetic look; I certainly was not about to get involved in this little argument, especially if it meant coming down on one side and earning the ire of the other.

“But if we strike now we can avoid a siege!” His voice now had become exasperated and pleading.

“A siege is precisely what I have planned for.” Market Garden swept her hoof over the veritable mountain of paperwork on the map table. “Our objective is to take Virion Hive, and I’ll not throw away the victory we have won this day by marching our troops into what might very well turn out to be a trap.”


Second Fiddle cleared his throat and stepped forwards, startling me again by reminding me that he was still present. “General Market Garden has made up her mind,” he said. He then turned to Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume, who had stood by my side throughout this whole argument with a sort of bewildered awkwardness, as though he had wanted more than anything to interject on behalf of his plan but his inferior rank forbade him. “Thank you for your suggestion, but it is not needed here. Now if you don’t mind, we’re all rather busy trying to win this war.”

He made a shoo-ing motion with a hoof and then turned away; the condescension rankled me, but I held my tongue for now. Though I hadn’t had much stock in Guillaume’s plan, and indeed, deep down, I must admit that I was hoping it would be rejected, seeing the rather disappointed expression on the Griffon’s face did invoke at least some sympathetic feeling in me. I muttered a thanks and then led him back outside and into the glare of the mid-morning sun, the smell of antiseptic and blood, and the choking dust all around.

“I thought it was a good idea, at least,” I said. “But General Market Garden has to consider the bigger picture. Don’t take it personally.”

Guillaume shrugged his shoulders, and clicked his beak. “I know,” he said. “At least I caught the eye of Major-General Garnet.”

So, he was more astute than I had initially thought, and when said general officer emerged from the tent behind us, apparently having followed us out, he discovered he was more correct than he had initially thought. Guillaume boggled at him, and then snapped to attention and saluted briskly, which Garnet responded to with equal alacrity.

“So much for that ‘offensive spirit’ she keeps talking about,” said Garnet. “The PGL acquitted itself well today.”

“Thank you,” said Guillaume, “sir.”

“You kept them off our stallions’ backs for the entire fight so they could concentrate on pushing forward, just like the Battle of Canterlot when-” he stopped, holding up a hoof to his mouth, and grinned “-I know, I’ll tell you all about that later. Look, the general’s said we can’t encircle the enemy, but you can still do something for me. You Griffons are hunters, so I order you to hunt; harass the enemy, pick off stragglers, just don’t let them have an easy retreat back to their walls. I’ll leave the specifics for you to sort out.”

He handed over the scribbled order on a folded sheet of note paper, and that appeared to mollify Guillaume for now. After another round of salutes and ‘sirs’ he flew off back to the top of the ridge and Garnet trotted back inside the marquee.

And so that was that; we had won, apparently, and that marked the end of my involvement in this part of the battle. I could go on to describe the mopping up, consolidating, and general fretting about that took up the remainder of the day, before I could finally retire for the night and drink myself into a stupor so I could finally sleep untroubled by nightmares, but I expect that I would just be repeating myself. That’s not important, anyway, as ever, history is less about these sorts of details and more about the debate between conflicting interpretations, as Twilight had told me decades later when this accursed war had fallen into what society would call ‘the past’.

I have told you, dear reader, as much as I can remember of that dreadful morning, or wish to remember, as the case may be. If it doesn’t tally up against what you have read in somepony else’s memoirs or what some intellectual binoclard had written in a dry history book then I’m at a bit of a loss; what I have laid out are the facts as I recall them, or rather the feeling of them. Some say that Major Starlit Skies had really left it too late and the Night Guards could only fire off a single volley before charging, whereas others say there was a third volley - I remember two, and I am certain that he, who always planned everything to mathematical precision, intended precisely two volleys. Perhaps they are right and I’m wrong, I was there and even I can’t say for certain.

I mention this because I expect some who read this will do so to seek elucidation on Market Garden’s decision not to pursue the fleeing Changelings, as if my testimony will shift the balance one way or another in the debate that had been raging in the long decades since. It is not my place to trade in should-haves and what-ifs; who can say with any real certainty that Guillaume’s idea would have worked as spectacularly well as some say, or if it would have resulted in throwing away a stunning victory as Market Garden feared? Might the horror that was to come later be avoided if the fleeing swarm was surrounded and destroyed, or would that have only accelerated the escalation of misery?

I am afraid that all I can provide on this account is, again, the events as I experienced them, but if pushed, if Twilight Sparkle held her horn to my temple and ordered me to come down on one side of the argument or the other or my brains will be ejected forcefully through the opposite side of my skull, I suppose I must err on the side of caution, as is my nature, and fall into Market Garden’s camp. I claim no expertise in that matter, but after that brutal uphill fight I was thoroughly exhausted, and I do not believe it would be arrogant of me to assume that much of the division felt the same way, regardless of what Garnet said about 2nd Brigade being ‘fresh’, and to ask them, and me, of course, to go through that again with barely a rest was demanding far too much of those who had already given so much.

As I crawled back up that slope for the second time that day, weaving around the bodies and the medics dealing with them, I knew, like this ridge after reaching the apex, the only way to go was down - things could only get worse.

Chapter 12

And so the siege was laid; the day after the heights were taken the division’s artillery had been dragged up the slope to the summit, whereupon the two batteries of cannons began hammering away at the walls. I’m no expert on such things, but when I went up to take a look for myself, the twelve guns firing one after the other seemed to have very little effect on the stout, reinforced fortifications around the city. I would watch as a cannon fired, belching flame and smoke like a certain baby dragon with indigestion, only for the cannonball to smack into the thick stone wall and bounce off, leaving what looked like a tiny paint chip in the wall.

“Our guns might as well be loaded with apple sauce,” said the recently-commissioned and newly-breveted Captain Bramley Apple. He kept glancing down at the rank pips on his epaulettes, which were so new that they had yet to be tarnished by the burnt gunpowder residue that stained the rest of his uniform and coat.

Despite his very sensible insistence that the military life was not for him and that he’d like nothing more than to return to his family’s unhealthy apple fixation, he had finally relented and accepted the battlefield commission and brevet rank that the Ministry of War had been dangling in front of him ever since all of the officers of his artillery battery had been killed or captured. I had considered offering to mentor the aspiring new officer, after all, there was more to leadership than merely the capacity and will to rally ponies to a common purpose; it required a certain level of elegance, gentlecoltly behaviour, and manners that his crude, country upbringing had sorely lacked. While working with an artillery battery would allow me to sit back and sip martinis as cannons hurled lead shot at the enemy a mile away, that incident where the Changelings had infiltrated the battery had rather put me off that notion.

A cannon roared, spitting its lead shot in a streak of fire and smoke through the air, over the heads of the picquet lines a little further down the slope, where it struck the sturdy wall and bounced off harmlessly. The gun crew, stripped of their armour and their coats foaming with sweat, pushed the gun back into position and set about the arduous process of reloading. I waited until the thunderous bark faded before speaking.

“I heard Market Garden will bring in an expert to help,” I said.

“Well, bless her heart,” he said, and I wondered what that phrase really meant as I’d heard that quite a lot lately. “But I don’t need no ‘expert’ to bring down that wall. What I need is bigger cannons, and more of them, too.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and speaking of Market Garden, my presence was required at another one of her strategy conferences. Quite why I needed to be there, my input being considered neither useful nor desired, still remained something of a mystery, but I strongly suspected that I was merely there for window-dressing. Lord-Commissar Prince Blueblood, the Hero of Black Venom Pass who had saved Princess Luna from capture and recovered the Royal Standard, certainly lent a touch of class to any dull meeting of military minds. I was an attractive piece of furniture that happened to recite mindless sentences dreamt up by a team in the Commissariat who thought they would be inspiring, and really, that actually suited me just fine as long as I could grab some free sandwiches when it was over.

The bodies had been cleared earlier, making my journey back down the slope a little more tolerable at least, though the landscape still bore the scars of the battle; if one was not careful, one could easily place one’s hoof into a small divot carved out of the earth by an errant cannonball and end up with one’s snout buried in the dust where a Changeling might have bled out. I tried not to think about it too much, lest the vivid memories of that battle that I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to drown out with drink every night rise up like bubbles in champagne. It was a relief, therefore, to be back at the camp at the base of the hill. I was still rather early, so I took a quick detour back to my tent on the off-chance something there required my immediate attention and got me out of this meeting.

Selecting an appropriate spot to place my tent proved to be a rather more difficult task for me than most other officers, who were more concerned about its proximity to the mess tent. Erecting it too close to the edges of the camp would leave it vulnerable to any plucky infiltrators who slip through the picquets, but too close to the centre would make it harder to escape should we come under attack. Eventually, after much thought, I had selected a spot that seemed to offer the best compromise between the two, and the mess happened to be well within my usual ‘stumbling-home-whilst-very-drunk’ distance as well. That it was rather close to Market Garden’s command marquee was something of a drawback, however, but I had hoped that if the camp were to come under attack by assassins in the night that they would go there first before coming to get me.

By the time I had reached my tent Corporal Hooves had already completed the mail deliveries, and Cannon Fodder was busy sorting through letters and documents sent to me from the Royal Commissariat and the various bits and pieces that Drape Cut had dutifully forwarded from my various homes. The latter consisted of the small amount of mail I receive that my valet had decided required my personal attention, which tended to be vitriolic hate mail, fawning fan mail, and personal letters from various members of my extended family asking if I still really needed particular bits of land under my demesne and if I could possibly spare one or two fiefdoms. The former, which I had been receiving rather less of as of late, usually provided a few moments of amusement to read before being tossed into the closest fire. This was more than what I could say for the latter which was more often than not destroyed the moment I had deduced my distant relatives' self-serving schemes to ‘heal the schisms in the House of Blood’, whatever that was supposed to mean.

Fan mail was something I was quite uncomfortable with, as I could never be assured of the sincerity of the praise and desire to have my foals expressed in these letters, so I left Cannon Fodder to deal with them by providing a standard response along the lines of ‘His Royal Highness is too busy martyring himself for Equestria to respond personally to your rather creepy missive, but he appreciates its sentiments regardless’. Of course, he worded it rather differently, but, as each reply carried some measure of my aide’s powerful body odour, repeat letters were quite a rare occurrence. If, dear reader, you have received one of these in response to a letter you have sent me, then I can only apologise and point out that there are other ponies far more deserving of your praise and offers of marriage than I.

There was nothing from Twilight yet, despite her promise that she would write to me. Perhaps I should have taken the initiative, but I was rather at a loss as to what to write about; the Battle of the Heights was hardly the most appropriate subject for a pleasant and potentially amorous correspondence between two members of royalty, but everything else that I had experienced around that was either terribly boring or would have been subjected to the censor’s black marker.

[Censorship of soldiers’ letters home was allowed for under the DOE Act and was up to their commanding officers to blot out any information that might be useful to the enemy or lower morale. Correspondence between Blueblood and Twilight Sparkle, however, would have been protected under the Defence of Equestria, Royal Prerogative provision (the DERP provision) and therefore not subjected to censorship.]

One letter, however, caught my eye, and for once I read it personally. A lengthy missive was scribbled in three different styles of hoof-writing that were unmistakably those of foals, which was incongruous with the rather fancy parchment used. A closer inspection revealed a faint watermark on the upper right corner of the sheet, showing a mare in profile with a remarkably familiar manestyle and the words ‘Carousel Boutique’ beneath it. The letter was from the three fillies I had met on the station platform in Ponyville, the ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’ they had called themselves, and rambled on at length, in the usual meandering way that foals tell stories, what had happened in the intervening period between that party and now.

The three of them had finally received their cutie marks, and had apparently decided that I had to know about it. There were a few other things mentioned, too; Auntie Luna had helped them overcome a few nightmares, Apple Bloom’s brother developed a taste for cross-dressing, and something about Twilight Sparkle and her friends at an obscure little commune run by some tyrannical unicorn with a cutie mark fixation, among others. Now that they had acquired theirs, it meant that they could put a stop to their absurd little paramilitary cadet force and cease harassing ponies as they disembarked from trains.

Rather than leave this for Cannon Fodder to deal with, I had a few minutes before the conference started to write out a reply myself. I am not sure why I felt motivated to personally respond to a letter sent by three fillies I had met precisely once in rather awkward circumstances, but nevertheless I felt compelled to out of more than mere polite obligation. Indeed, I felt rather embarrassed; in the previous week I had plunged eighteen inches of Manehattan steel into the body of a living, breathing Changeling, and now I was writing a congratulatory letter to foals on reaching the most important milestone of a pony’s life.

Perhaps it was precisely because of that odd disconnect between the horror of what I had just been through and the rather pleasant, quaint, and even, dare I say it, ‘cute’ diversion this letter had granted me that I bothered with it in the first place. Distractions from the war were difficult to come by out here on the very edge of the land liberated by our glorious Equestrian Army, and those vices familiar to any soldier on campaign, namely drinking, gambling, whoring, and fornicating, were of a self-destructive nature that, as I suffered through another hangover and the disconcerting gaps in my memory of the events of the previous night, started to feel like they were doing me more harm than good. So to indulge in an activity that was altogether much more edifying and beneficial simply felt good in a way that defied easy explanation.

[Prince Blueblood and the Cutie Mark Crusaders would exchange letters for much of the remainder of his life. After his passing, these letters were found in a safe and a selection are available for viewing in the Royal Archives.]


I was about ten minutes late for the meeting, but nopony seemed to care. In fact, they had started without me, and when I wandered into Market Garden’s marquee she and Major-General Garnet were already having a bit of an argument.

“I seem to recall forbidding further offensive action on behalf of your division,” she said as I entered. I made a bee-line for the refreshments table and picked up a cucumber sandwich first.

I received no acknowledgement from the other officers, aside from a polite nod from Second Fiddle as I took a reluctant position next to him; it was the polite thing to do, I thought, and if on the rare occasion that any questions were hurled in my direction I could simply deflect them onto my supposed superior officer. Perhaps the novel experience of being below another in the grand pecking order had its advantages.

“You only forbade me from encircling them,” said Garnet, shrugging all too casually. “I merely used my initiative and allowed the Griffons to do what they do best.”

Market Garden glowered at Garnet, her beady little eyes squinting up at him beneath a heavily furrowed brow. “I don’t approve,” she said, her tinny voice frightfully formal in that odd, cultivated accent she uses to tell off ponies. “I don’t approve of officers using their initiative. All I require of them is to follow my plans.”

“Your plan was followed. My division took and held the heights as you ordered. My orders to the PGL did not violate your battle plan. I merely allowed them to fight as their ancestors had done, during the Nightmare Heresy when two flocks harassed-”

“That’s enough, Garnet.”

Things looked rather tense, and I wanted this meeting over and done with as quickly as possible so I could go and do something more useful with my time, like taking a nap or reading a racy novel or considering how attached I was to my left forehoof and if I could spare shooting it off to be sent home. So I did something that I rarely ever did, or wanted to do, in these meetings and said something that sounded vaguely worthwhile.

“I’m sure Major-General Garnet didn’t intend on undermining your authority,” I said. The two generals stared at me from across the table. “But I was there, and the Griffons were straining at the leash to get stuck into the Changelings again. Letting them pick off the stragglers let them work off their natural, predatory aggression in a constructive manner, instead of picking fights with our ponies. I expect we’ll see less of those incidents from now on.”

It was utter nonsense and I knew it, and they probably did too, but I imagine that the drivel that gushed out of my mouth like jam from a doughnut that had been struck with a mallet distracted them enough from their petty little squabble long enough for them to realise it was all pointless anyway. From there, the meeting proceeded, and, as per usual for me, one should not expect an exact, word-by-word facsimile of exactly what was said; the majority of which was dry, tedious, and utterly boring, and therefore of no interest to anypony except those peculiar sorts who can explain in great and frightening detail the precise workings of a six-pounder cannon but are clueless on how one would go about pleasuring a mare. Twilight’s books on the war are good for that, but not for one’s psyche, and so for the sake of expediency in portraying this horrid battle the way I experienced it, I shall be forced to summarise and condense.

“Lieutenant-General Glitter Star’s VIII Corps attempted to cross the River Vir on I Corps’ right flank.” Market Garden picked up her swagger stick with her mouth, tapped one end on said location on the large map that dominated the table’s surface, and then put it down again to continue speaking. “They established a hoof-hold on the opposite bank, but counter-attacks threatened to destroy the pontoon bridges erected across the river. The situation on the southern bank was therefore untenable and had to be abandoned. The retreat was conducted in good order, as I instructed, with minimal losses.”

“It turns out Changelings are very good swimmers,” said Second Fiddle, grinning at his own joke. Nopony reacted.

Market Garden carried on. “The River Vir forms the largest natural obstacle for 1st Army’s advance deeper into Changeling territory. It must be crossed. I had hoped to cross along the flanks of the city, but this ‘General’ Odonata is smarter than she looks. It’s a bit of a setback, I must admit; I’d wanted to surround the city and push on ahead, and tackle the inevitable relief column before assaulting the city. Defeat in detail, and all that. We’ll have to take the city directly, then.”

It was grim news indeed. I had internalised enough of military theory, mainly through osmosis rather than paying attention, to know that taking a city ‘directly’, as Market Garden had put it, would be a slaughter on both accounts. The Siege of Fort Nowhere was horrific enough as it was, but now, with an entire city full of Changelings, fortified to the greatest extent of their science, and with Faust-knows how many terrified civilians to get in the way, I could only foresee a long and protracted bloodbath in my near future.

“We could just starve them out,” said one of the staff officers whose names I had never bothered to remember. I stared at him, waiting until he thought through the proper ramifications of what he was proposing.

“That would conserve our resources for the fight ahead,” said Second Fiddle. “Position our artillery to fire on Changelings trying to bring food into the city, and get the PGL to raid them too, then all we need to do is sit tight and wait for Charlie to surrender or starve to death.”

[‘Changeling Charlie’ was a character from a series of informational pamphlets and posters produced by the Ministry of Information. This was part of a media campaign aimed to teach Equestrian subjects how to spot potential Changeling infiltrators in daily life and encourage them to report suspected infiltrators to the local authorities. This was neither popular nor successful. The Ministry also used such pamphlets to encourage soldiers to use this term to refer to the enemy over the more commonly used nickname of ‘bugs’; it was deemed bad for morale that the Equestrian Army had thus far failed to comprehensively defeat mere ‘insects’. ‘Charlie’, however, never really caught on, but the grotesque caricature of a Changeling remains a potent and controversial symbol of the homefront.]

“Right, but aren’t we forgetting something?” I said; reluctant as I was to interject, I couldn’t claim to be a prince of the realm and stand by and watch this insanity unfold. Second Fiddle sneered at me, the nameless staff officer merely looked confused, but Market Garden smiled knowingly and nodded. “What do Changelings eat?”

Second Fiddle rolled his eyes and sighed. “Love, Blueblood. They eat love. Where are you going with this?”

“Bear with me, there is a point to all of this,” I snapped back at him. “Changelings ‘eat’ love extracted from living creatures. So, in order for us to starve out the garrison, all of the ponies in that city, who have suffered under Changeling oppression for so long, would have to be starved first.”

An uncomfortable silence fell, as I waited for Second Fiddle to acknowledge his rather callous oversight. Instead, he stood there, glaring at me as if I had just told him that I had slept with his mother and spoilt the ending of a mystery novel he was halfway through reading. At the very least, the other staff officer had the good sense to flush crimson with embarrassment and admit that he had forgotten all about that.

“It’ll take far too long anyway,” said Market Garden, tapping her hoof noisily on the table. “We have to maintain the initiative, which will mean a direct assault on the city itself. I won’t sugarcoat it; the cost for us will be high, and perhaps too high for most ponies to bear. I don’t like it either, but it’s the only choice we have right now, which is why I have brought in an expert to assist us. Send her in.”

Another staff officer led a young earth pony mare into the marquee from outside, and pointed her to Market Garden’s side. Her appearance was bland to the point of obscenity; it was as though one of the statues in the gardens of Canterlot Castle had come to life. Her coat was grey, her mane was a sort of faded grey-ish purple, and her expression was so very neutral to the point that I feared she might have suffered some form of facial paralysis. The one thing, however, that at least hinted that this creature possessed a soul and wit and all else that life entails was a pair of piercing blue eyes that seemed oddly familiar.

“This is Maud Pie, a rock farmer,” said Market Garden. “She will assist our artillery crews in breaching the walls of the city, as part of her studying for her rocktorate in rock science.”

That was the second most stupid thing I had heard all morning, but I suppose that’s earth pony ‘magic’ for you. Still, if it made them happy, then it was no harm done.

“Hi,” said Maud Pie. “I look forward to working with you.”

It was remarkable, truly; I have heard some monotone voices over the years, as, indeed, military staff work appeals to some desperately dull individuals, but not even Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s infamous deadpan delivery could compare to the total flatness of the voice that came out of this mare. Devoid of the merest hint of emotion, I have heard metronomes with more expression and variation in pitch, tone, and volume than her.

At the very least, however, with such dullness came brevity, and after this rather terse introduction she was sent back outside for the rest of the meeting. I shan’t bore you with the details of this, because I have largely forgotten what was discussed, but as the old saying goes, if one can’t remember it then it probably wasn’t worth remembering in the first place. For a general idea, it was merely dry and tedious reports on morale, supply, reinforcements, officer-of-the-day rotas, picquet duties, and so forth, and made all the longer by Garnet’s frequent interjections about whatever subject was even slightly related to the topic discussed. I might have dozed off, if Second Fiddle didn’t keep jabbing me in the ribs with a quill each time I closed my eyes for more than five seconds.

Market Garden wrapped up the meeting, and just in time for afternoon tea, too; one could always trust the Trottingham officers, of whom I have seen a surprising number in the course of this career, to make sure enough free time was allocated for that most sacred of rituals. I, however, did not partake, as consuming heavy, butter-laden scones and imbibing steaming hot fluids in the blistering heat and humidity of the Badlands seemed somewhat counter-productive to me, so I used this as a cover to sneak out, citing the ever-convenient excuse of ‘paperwork’ to deal with.

Maud Pie loitered around the edge of the tent, apparently engrossed in examining a small collection of pebbles in the dust. A few of the soldiers, apparently starved of at least vaguely pretty mares to gawk at who weren’t printed in certain gentlecolts’ special interest magazines, had gathered around to leer at her, but she paid them absolutely no heed. When I stepped outside, blinking in the harsh sunlight, she looked up and trotted on over to me. As she approached, I gave those stallions a withering stare, or it was intended as such at least, and they quickly remembered they had other duties to be getting on with and swiftly dispersed.

“Hello,” she said. “You must be Prince Blueblood.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering if she had really been waiting for me for however long I was in that meeting. “I am Prince Blueblood. How do you do?”

Maud Pie tilted her head a fraction of an inch to the left, and then looked me up and down. “Pinkie Pie is my sister,” she said.

I didn’t see much of a family resemblance, but perhaps there was something in that rock farm of theirs that had caused a few issues with the pregnancies and drained all of the personality from one and into the other. Who knew what these isolated little earth pony communities got up to out of sight of civilised ponies? One shudders to think.

“Yes, I’ve met her,” I said, choosing to go along with it for now. “How is she?”

“Pinkie’s well,” said Maud Pie, and her tone of voice remained as flat as Market Garden’s flanks. “She asked me to give you a present.”

With Pinkie Pie it could have been anything at all; a hug, a kazoo, or the secretary of state for agriculture. So, imagine my surprise, if you will, when Maud Pie reached into the pocket of her frock and produced a small sheet of slate, about the size of a small paperback novel but at a fraction of the thickness. She held it up for me to see, and though, for all intents and purposes, it looked like a flat, rectangular chunk of rough grey stone, I admit to flinching slightly from it, as though it might explode suddenly in a shower of confetti and glitter. Having met her more exuberant sister before, that was a very distinct possibility.

“Pinkie Pie said you looked like you could use a friend,” she said. “Prince Blueblood, may I introduce Slab? Slab, this is Prince Blueblood. You take good care of him.”

She held out ‘Slab’ with her hoof. I waited for the inevitable laughter to accompany this bizarre little joke, but her face remained as stony as before. Either she was completely serious in her assertion that rocks are friends or she was very committed to this practical joke; both interpretations felt just as plausible. However, when I took this sheet of slate and peered at it, though I was thoroughly inexperienced in such mundane matters, it appeared to be nothing more than a smaller version of roof tile as seen on primitive earth pony houses.

Out of a lack of any other idea of what to do, I tucked Slab into my jacket’s inner breast pocket, where the weight of this thin sheet of stone felt oddly reassuring against my chest. “Thank you,” I said. “I will.”

“I was talking to Slab.”


Even out here, in this barren, desolate wasteland, the officers’ mess still provided the trappings of civilisation and culture that made existence on this miserable little world bearable for ponies such as I, who have been born into positions of privilege and wealth but have very little of practical worth to offer society. Sunshine Smiles still disapproved, of course, preferring to take meals and socialise with the common soldiery, where I made merely a token effort to participate with that sort of thing. An officer, and a prince no less, eating from the same trough as the enlisted was a wonderfully egalitarian gesture, symbolising the brotherhood that binds together the gallant defenders of Equestria across class lines, and yet it was just that - a gesture and a symbol. The gulf between our two stations, nobility and peasantry and all that lay in between, remained insurmountable. My unique position within Equestria’s new model army had forced me to share in the same dangers as the common soldiery, and as I have already described here I have shed blood with them. Therefore, I ask, with even an iota of luxury dangling before me, offering a temporary but unequal respite from this horror, can one truly blame me for desiring to take advantage of it?

The mess was quiet, but I preferred it that way. While the soldiers out there gathered around troughs and mopped up their tasteless brown stew with chunks of hard, crusty bread, I had dined alone on a wonderful wild mushroom and camembert puff pastry parcel and washed it down with an agreeable bottle or two of Chenin Blanc. On an ordinary night I would have been holding court with the usual coterie of officers eager to hear bon mots and anecdotes from Yours Truly, but Garnet had been pushing them pretty damned fiercely over the past few days preparing for the inevitable slaughter to come. So I dined and drank alone in the corner of the mostly-empty marquee, where I tried and failed miserably to do the crossword puzzle in The Daily Ponygraph, on the off-chance that Twilight Sparkle might remember a certain little lie I had told her in what felt like an eternity ago.

Besides, I still had Slab resting in my jacket pocket, so I was not entirely alone. Unlike certain officers I’ve had to deal with over the years here, he did not offer self-serving sycophancy masquerading as friendship, nor did he drone on relentlessly about boring military matters. He did not dominate the conversation with the tedious drivel of his personal life, nor his boorish and vulgar views on the important political matters of the day. I had to admire his stoic silence; Drape Cut had once told me that the true definition of a gentlecolt was simply a stallion who could listen to the problems of another without dispensing judgement or steering the conversation to his own matters, which made Mr Slab, Esq. the perfect model of a gentlecolt.

As far as evenings go out here, this one was at least approaching what one might consider to be ‘nice’; if I was careful about where I looked and kept my eyes away from the military camp outside then it was almost like being back at Canterlot, if the shining city upon the hill had become unseasonably hot and humid due to a weather pony strike and the Imperial Club had to temporarily move venues to a tent. To be somewhere where I did not have to even think of the conflict, even though it was mere dozen yards away through the open tent flap and if only for a few minutes at a time, was precisely what I needed to keep myself from plunging into the depths of despair.

This rather pleasant respite was cut short, however, as it must always be, when a pony-shaped shadow fell over the newspaper. It couldn’t have been a waiter, as the soldier-servants, whose greatest contribution to the war effort and eventual victory was keeping Yours Truly well-fed and well-lubricated, were far too polite and well-trained to block the dim candlelight that just barely allowed enough light for reading.

“Bastard,” I said, before looking up to see Second Fiddle glaring down at me.

What?!” he blurted out.

“Thirteen down.” I tapped the half-completed crossword puzzle with the eraser end of my pencil. “Illegitimate son. The answer is ‘bastard’.”

In truth, I had given up on trying to do the puzzle properly, and had instead spent the last ten minutes or so filling in the blank squares with as many vulgar words as I could think of. This way was much more fun, but I don’t think Twilight or the eggheads who wrote it would have approved of my creative approach.

Second Fiddle squinted at me for a moment, then shook his head. “Whatever,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you, you weren’t in your tent.”

“I’m off the clock,” I said, using a phrase I had heard parroted around the hunched-back office drones I used to work with in the Ministry of Supply.

“A commissar is never ‘off the clock’. I thought I told you to look over those reports and-” Second Fiddle stopped and looked me up and down, frowning. His lips quivered, then pursed, and then he leaned in and whispered: “Are you wearing a tux?”

“Oh, this?” I looked down at the offending article, being a cream-coloured dinner jacket very similar to the one that had been ruined by so much icing and jam in a Grand Galloping Gala those long years ago. “Just because we’re at war doesn’t mean I should give up on the tradition of dressing for dinner.”

He screwed his face up in disgust, and sniffed as he eyed the empty bottle of wine on the table and the half-empty one next to it. “You are drunk.”


Blueblood,” he hissed, sounding almost… disappointed? I think that’s what it was.

I sighed, folded up the newspaper with its crossword puzzle now rendered unfit for publication, and pulled back the spare chair at the table with my magic. “Sit down,” I said, pouring a glass of wine and sliding it in his direction, which he glowered at as though the bottle had been labelled ‘arsenic’. “And for Faust’s sake, loosen up, damn you.”

‘Loosening up’ was not a phrase that appeared in Second Fiddle’s rather limited vocabulary, or whatever training he had gone through as a commissar, which I had not, had expunged it. Even though he finally relented after losing a staring contest with the wine glass and sat down with me, his posture still looked as though he had sat on a strategically-placed ramrod.

“I haven’t touched alcohol since that night,” he said, sliding the glass back to me. The rather pricey vintage inside swished and swirled precariously in the bowl in a manner that would have made Fine Vintage, were he here to see it and not out on the picquet line, faint with shock. [The remnants of the former 3rd Solar Guard had been used to bolster the new, reformed Solar Guard Regiment.]

Shrugging, I took a sip of the wine and found that the bottle, having previously been chilled to perfection, had become unpleasantly warm in this heat; the delicate notes of quince and apples had become sharp and tangy. Disappointed, I pushed it to the side and looked to my friend, if I could call him that.

“It’s a matter of knowing one’s limits,” I said. “Mine are considerable.”

Second Fiddle snorted, shaking his head, and then drew himself up even taller and straighter somehow, as though trying to invoke a sense of formality and authority over me. There was, however, something about his manner that simply did not lend well to those things, being concepts that, paradoxically, diminish the more conscious effort one puts into them. Contrast, if you will, to Yours Truly, slouching drunkenly and yet comfortably in the rattan chair; it irritated him to no end and I would be lying if I did not feel at least a small amount of glee at that.

“Why in Equestria did Princess Luna appoint you?” he sighed. “You haven’t changed since Celestia’s school.”

“I don’t know,” I said, exhibiting a rare amount of honesty. “I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I read about what happened with Princess Cadance,” he carried on, “and everything else since; you’re quite the role model back at the Commissariat. Now I see this. Do you want to know why Princess Luna appointed me?”

I had some curiosity on the matter; Luna was very much the sort of pony who had little time for fools, and made even less of an effort to hide it, so how Second Fiddle of all ponies made it to the rank of commissar-general was frankly a mystery, although I had an inkling based on what I knew of the lad. Then again, she also appointed me too, so perhaps she was just an astonishingly bad judge of character after a thousand years on the moon.

It was very clear to me, however, even though I was moderately tipsy, that he had been stewing upon these thoughts for quite some time, and only now, as he found me most pointedly not working as he expected me to, had he been finally pushed into shoving his metaphorical bowl over and spilling out his half-cooked thoughts all over my lap.

“It’s because I worked hard,” he said, emphasising his point by tapping his hoof noisily on the table. A few of the other patrons glanced over, but quickly looked away; few officers wanted to get involved in whatever it was that commissars were discussing. “Getting expelled from Celestia’s School with you ruined my chances of a career in magical research. You went and bought a commission in the Royal Guard with Daddy’s money, and I had to enlist and start from the bottom. That was the last time I ever saw you until that night in the Tartarus Club.”

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. It was a lie, of course, I might have been a bloody hellion as a teenager (and frankly, who wasn’t?) but it was his own damn fault for sticking too close to me and getting some of the blame splashed onto his coat when I was showered with it. “Things weren’t exactly rosy for me either.”

“Like Tartarus they weren’t,” he snapped.

I boggled at him, stunned by that outburst. “You can’t talk to me like that,” I stammered out.

“You might be a prince back in Equestria, but out here I am your superior officer,” he said with no small hint of smugness; he must have been positively itching to say that for months. “I’ll speak to you however I please.”

“Fine.” It wasn’t worth pressing, so I merely glared sullenly at him and drank my slowly-warming white wine. Wherever he was going with this, I didn’t fancy taking it without most of my higher functions drowned in alcohol.

He continued: “Whenever you hit a problem, you had your wealth and your titles to lift you up again. What did I have? Nothing, Blueblood. No money, no titles, and no golden alicorn auntie to put me back on my hooves. I spent three years on the Foalklands with those princess-damned penguins, but I kept at it while you dropped out of the Royal Guard and carried on as you always did.”


“And now you come here, undermining me at every turn; the sanitation issue, that stunt with the Griffon, and now correcting me in front of Market Garden. I did not work my hooves to the bone just for you to come here and take down everything I’ve worked for, and out of what? Jealousy? Because I’m your superior and you can’t take it?”

My glass was already empty by the time he finished that tirade, so I poured myself another. In truth, I didn’t care the slightest jot for what he was saying, for as far as I was concerned my title as a prince of the realm overruled any mere temporary military titles, and despite what he thought, I was, and have been, perfectly happy to work in a role subordinate to others, provided that their orders made sense. Indeed, the abrogation of responsibility when things inevitably all went to Tartarus in a hoof basket more than made up for any slight to my regal pride.

“But you still didn’t tell me why Princess Luna appointed you,” I said, acting on a hunch. I sipped at the wine, finding that as I drank more of it I didn’t mind it being a little too warm.

“Princess Luna recognised my potential,” said Second Fiddle, wrinkling his nose at my continued indulgence of one of my lesser vices. “She needed more commissars, so I arranged a personal meeting with her. I explained how, like her, I too had been held back by the nepotism and incompetence rife in the Royal Guard. I told her my ideas on how to stamp those out, and how to inculcate aggression, initiative, ruthlessness, and the drive for victory we need to win this war. I’d even brought examples from when she was Warmistress of Equestria. She hired me on the spot and mentored me through my training.”

“So you toadied.” The glare my words invoked from him would have turned the sweetest apples of Sweet Apple Acres as sour as lime. “You told her what she wanted to hear. It’s the same as when we were in school together. You weren’t my friend because you liked me; I know I was an utter horror back then and you thought a connection with a prince would give you an edge. But that didn’t turn out so well, did it? Auntie Luna still isn’t settling in well to the modern world, and so she responds all too agreeably to ponies who tell her she’s already right and doesn’t need to change.”

“Now see here, you can’t talk about the Princess like that.”

“She’s my aunt.”

“Fine, but while you were malingering in Canterlot, I was busy-”

“I was flogged.”

Second Fiddle blinked. “Pardon?”

“I was flogged,” I repeated, “while retrieving the Royal Standard. It almost killed me, Second Fiddle, and perhaps you might like to see the scars? I might not have had to work to get where I am today, but I have had to fight and bleed for Equestria. Only one of us sitting here has experience in the field with the common soldiery, and it’s a shame you think my sharing that experience is undermining you. It’s not about you or your ego, it’s about winning this bloody war, and it’s high time you put your feelings of inadequacy aside and actually listen to the things I say.”

And there it was, that chink in his armour, needled expertly with the thin rapier blade of reason. He slumped, as though the aforementioned stick that had been rammed up hard had been extracted, and his body was finally allowed to collapse in a small heap on the chair. The glare, however, remained, as I could tell Second Fiddle was trying to come up with an adequate riposte. While he racked what little remained of his brain besides an absurd victim complex and poor fashion sense, I poured out a second glass of wine for him, the last in the bottle, and slid it on over.

“Look,” I said, returning his stare with what I hoped was a friendly, if drunken, smile, “you’re right, I don’t know what it’s like to work, that day I spent doing slave labour excepted, but why don’t you tell me? We have so much to catch up on.”

Second Fiddle looked at the glass, and I could tell that he was tempted, but damn him, he just wouldn’t. Instead, he thanked me for my time, and then got up and walked right out, leaving me sitting there alone, bewildered and rather embarrassed. So much for the Magic of Friendship then, thought I as I watched him slip through the tent flap.

History is replete with moments where the fate of our nation might have been forever altered had one pony who made a decision went one way instead of the other: if Princess Celestia had been just a little bit more attentive to Princess Luna’s whining; if the Crystal ponies had been a little bit more suspicious of a certain power-hungry stallion named Sombra; if the Duke of Baltimare said ‘why not build a model of the solar system?’ instead of approving his daughter’s parasprite breeding programme for the school science fair. Though not as dramatic as the previous examples, if Second Fiddle had stayed a little longer that night then perhaps we could have rekindled some small flame of genuine friendship, or at least I might have convinced him that this sort of foalish politicking was beneath the both of us.

Alone again, except for Slab, of course, I opened up the newspaper to the crossword, and there, in seventeen across, I wrote a four-letter word beginning with ‘F’ that accurately and concisely summed up my thoughts on the matter.

Return to Story Description


Login with