The class wrapped up in half an hour, just in time for a mid-morning snack of dry, tasteless biscuits, which was just what one needed in the middle of an arid desert while nursing the matriarch of all hangovers, and some more of Cannon Fodder's tea. I considered retreating to my office to hide beneath the covers of my bed, with the curtains drawn and a lingerie catalogue to help soothe the pain and misery, but unfortunately I couldn't very well leave the Wonderbolts to their own devices in a busy fortress. Feeling somewhat vindictive, I instructed Cannon Fodder to look for Shining Armour, being the most senior officer in the camp without being so senior that I would get into much trouble for wasting his time, and ask him if he would take over their training for the rest of the day. Why should I be the only pony here inconvenienced by the presence of these irritating foals playing at soldiers? If anything, however, I should have known that they and our venerable Lord Captain would mix as well as gin and vermouth, considering that they all appeared to have the maturity of an excitable spaniel.
There was, however, one further thing to do before I could retire for the rest of the day. After I let the Wonderbolts out for a much-needed break and sent my aide on his little errand, I stepped out of the tent to check on how Rainbow Dash was coping with her punishment. It seemed that Sergeant Major Square Basher had grown bored of being dragged around on the 'sled' like an extremely single-minded foal determined to enjoy the snow despite the fact that it hasn't snowed here since the late Ice Age, for the pallet lay discarded in the shade of the outer fortress wall and etched into the dust of the parade square were the long marks left when it and its rather heavy occupant were dragged in what appeared to be a large oval shape. Judging by those skid marks and the hoofprints scattered drunkenly across the ground, I assumed that Rainbow Dash, despite being nigh-exhausted to the point of collapse, had given a rather good account of herself and must have managed a few laps before giving up.
Instead, Square Basher had settled for a less rigorous but no less humiliating and painful method of punishment: the age-old tradition of 'crucifixion'. Now, for those readers lunging towards the history books to prove me wrong, whom I presume have never served in the Royal Guard and will likely take that term literally, said punishment in the Royal Guard does not actually involve nailing the offender to two blocks of perpendicular wood and leaving them there to die in undeserved agony as the Roamans used to inflict upon the worst traitors, but rather, as Rainbow Dash was when I saw her, had the guilty party with their legs outstretched atop four empty water drums, such that their body was suspended a few feet above the ground. The idea was that after a certain length of time the strain in supporting one's body would become unbearable, rather like an actual crucifixion, except it would merely result in a bruised muzzle, a face-full of dirt, and a wounded ego, instead of a slow and lingering death.
A small group of ponies with apparently little better to do had crowded around Rainbow Dash. One, a corporal with a shock of white in his mane that concealed a scar torn across his scalp, stared intently at a battered old pocket watch that must have been passed down through his family since Princess Celestia was in diapers, while another, a private, appeared to be taking bets. The coins and betting ticket stubs changing hooves rapidly disappeared into the folds of armour and day tunics as I approached, and the soldiers did their best to look as nonchalant as possible but looked all the more guilty for it. I gave them a knowing look, but paid the matter no heed; there were far more important and more immediate things for me to concern myself with, and I felt that I had already indulged in the sin of hypocrisy enough to last me a lifetime already.
"She's doing well," said the corporal, but not before qualifying that statement with: "for a skinny little cloud-humper."
"She might even beat your record, sir!" exclaimed one of the watching soldiers.
Square Basher simply growled in response and stared intently at the struggling mare, whose limbs twitched and shook with the strain and whose latex flightsuit was veritably dripping with rank sweat. She lifted a hoof the diameter of a dinner plate, planted it in the approximate centre of Rainbow's tensed, taut back, with the skin-tight latex making it resemble a topographical model of undulating hills and valleys, and began to apply pressure.
The effect was instantaneous; Rainbow Dash snarled, apparently having since lost whatever fear of Square Basher that had been instilled by the initial violence of the punishment detail, and shouted, "H-hey! What's the big idea?"
Before Square Basher could complete this latest indignity on Rainbow Dash I noisily cleared my throat and stepped closer. "Come on, that's hardly sporting now, is it?" I said, injecting sufficient jest into my voice to try and diffuse the situation. Besides, I knew that to the competitive little pegasus that having an officer, and especially me of all ponies, come to her rescue like some ineffectual teacher attempting to politely ask some schoolyard bullies to return a certain egghead's favourite cuddly toy would be more humiliating to her than anything that conventional Royal Guard punishment could possibly inflict on her. "I need to have a word with her anyway, if you've finished."
There was a quiet snort of derision from Marezilla, and small, subtle shake of her head in apparent disappointment of not being allowed to inflict any further pain and indignities on Rainbow Dash. She removed her hoof from between (and on top of) the pegasus' protruding shoulder blades with great reluctance. With a single, barked order and a wave of her hoof the stallions moved to help Rainbow Dash from her precarious position, despite the obstinate mare's insistence that she could manage fine by herself. That her forelimbs wobbled awkwardly, before collapsing under her weight so that she fell nose-first into the ground as if prostrating herself before either of my two divine Aunts, had done little, however, to dampen her spirits. Almost immediately she struggled to her hooves, using one of the barrels for help.
"If you don't mind me asking, sir," said Square Basher, her voice mercifully back to a volume that didn’t make my ears ring. She drew herself up to me, eyes roughly level with mine which meant I did not have to crane my neck down to speak with her as I did with most mares. "What did she do?"
"She fell asleep in class," I said, "and was being insubordinate."
The CSM sucked air through her teeth and shook her head in an exaggerated display of mock disappointment. "Despicable, sir. If I'd known I'd have given her more of a beasting. Maybe a dip in the Regimental Bath if we could find some unicorns."
['Beasting' refers to informal punishments inflicted typically on new recruits in the Royal Guard, in particular regiments of the Trottinghamite military tradition. Such punishments typically involve arduous exercises, verbal abuse, and/or whatever harsh treatment is deemed appropriate for the transgression committed on an ad hoc basis. Not only are they intended to punish and correct inappropriate behaviour by the recruit, but also to build character. As for the 'Regimental Bath', this particular stock punishment involves immersing the guilty party into a tub of icy water (explaining Company Sergeant Major Square Basher's reference to finding unicorns, presumably to chill the water despite the heat of the Badlands), and then scrubbing them with abrasive materials until it is deemed by the supervising NCO that sufficient pain, discomfort, and embarrassment has been inflicted. Such practices have since fallen out of favour since the Twilight Sparkle Reforms, as reformists have argued that excessive beastings tend to brutalise soldiers to the point that more discipline problems were created than fixed.]
As much as I would have liked to see an attractive mare in a bath, the line was probably drawn with the application of kitchen scouring pads and an audience of young stallions who missed their filly-friends terribly. "I know," I said, "but she's new, so I think it's best I have a little chat with her. Just to make sure that she doesn't get up to any more mischief again."
That seemed to satisfy her, though really it was not as though she was in any position to disagree with me. Before she left to instil the fear of Faust into another hapless soldier over some minor infraction of the Princesses' Regulations, she turned and jabbed Rainbow Dash aggressively in the chest with a hoof. The slight, plucky pegasus stumbled over her hooves into one of the upright barrels, but otherwise remained standing and as defiant as her battered, exhausted frame would allow her. I had to give her credit—it was a rare sort of pony that could afford to stand up to Sergeant Major Square Basher without flinching, let alone maintain eye contact for any substantial length of time, but Rainbow Dash, despite being battered from her previous 'training' and her more recent punishment did not seem fazed in the slightest.
"You learnt your lesson now?" said Square Basher.
Rainbow Dash stared at the taller mare, still trying to catch her breath. "Sir, yes, sir," she said at length. Inwardly, I was relieved that she remembered that in the Royal Guard female officers and higher ranking NCOs were always referred to as 'sir' and not 'ma'am'; if she hadn't then she might not have survived another round of abuse, which would have been embarrassing for all concerned.
"Louder!" barked Square Basher suddenly. A few of the soldiers looking on jumped in shock at the abrupt outburst. "You're supposed to be a soldier, so bloody well shout like one! Your voice is going to strike terror into the hearts of the Changeling enemy."
I watched as Rainbow Dash muttered something under her breath, but was either not heard or ignored by the Sergeant Major. She then sucked in a deep breath, rearing her head back as if she was about to give Square Basher a thoroughly ill-advised Scoltish kiss [a colloquial term for a head-butt, I believe, given the context], and shouted as loud as her deceptively small frame would allow: "SIR, YES, SIR!"
The ends of Square Basher's lips tugged upwards slightly in what I took to be a rare earnest smile. "Alright, that's a start, then." She then turned to me, snapping her hooves together and giving a brisk, parade-ground quality salute with the angles of her forelegs at all the precise, correct angles, and said, "She's all yours now, sir."
With this latest task completed to the exceedingly high standard that the stern, violent mare sets herself in her work, Square Basher stomped off in search of a new group of soldiers to bully. The onlookers had likewise dispersed, apparently having lost interest in abusing Rainbow Dash or simply not wanting to be in the presence of the regimental commissar for longer than strictly necessary.
Now that I was alone with Rainbow Dash, or as alone as one could possibly be inside a military camp populated by thousands of ponies who all had the concept of individual privacy and the respect thereof beaten out of them by bullish drill instructors, she glowered at me with hate-filled eyes. She wobbled awkwardly on thin, tensed legs, but did not allow herself the indignity of collapsing in a wretched heap before me. "Sir?" she said, her tone of voice suitably defiant.
"Come with me," I said. I turned on my hooves and headed back to the castle to my office. Rainbow Dash followed, albeit slowly, necessitating that I stopped every two dozen paces or so to wait for her to catch up to me. Of course, it would have been a damn sight quicker for both of us if I simply carried her, but I knew that her foalish pride simply would not have allowed her to suffer that indignity. I was in no hurry, however, as I was ever unenthusiastic about performing my other, necessary duties of paperwork, lectures, punishment details, meetings, and other such useless bureaucratic drivel that, despite its eminent tedium and perceived uselessness, nevertheless keeps the Royal Guard running, or rather shambling along in a lifeless imitation of forward movement.
When we reached my office the mid-morning sun was streaming brightly through the window, casting the grey stones in a brilliant yellow-white while leaving the shadows as stark, gloomy pits of despair in the recesses of the room. Fortunately, the ragged piece of cloth nailed to the upper portion of the window frame that served as both curtain and window itself still covered the large gaping hole, and so I was not immediately blinded by sunlight as I emerged from the darkened corridors. The slightly diffused light, however, still gave the room a washed-out and faded look, despite the brilliant sunshine.
I made a bee-line straight for my drinks cabinet, or rather the drawer that I still liked to pretend was the much larger and better-stocked cabinet in the Sanguine Palace, looking for what Blitzkrieg liked to refer to as 'the hair of the dog'. As I rooted around the half-empty bottles of liquor and Rainbow Dash staggered in panting and gasping for air as though she had been drowning recently, I could not help but wonder when exactly I decided that it was acceptable for me to start drinking at around elevenses time. With a grunt of annoyance I slammed the drawer shut, making its contents clatter noisily within; life in the Royal Guard had the tendency to exacerbate the worst traits in ponies, namely the vices one is warned against by robed priests in church who then go and partake of said sins behind the closed doors of the vestry, and I, for one, was unwilling to allow a finely crafted appreciation for the distiller's art to become mere common alcoholism.
"Sir?" said Rainbow Dash. "What's this about?"
I pointed to the cushion just in front of my desk with one hoof, while with the other located a spare canteen of water amidst the scattered detritus on my desk and poured out its contents into two somewhat grimy tumblers. "Take a seat, and for Faust's sake relax, damn you. You're no longer in trouble."
Rainbow Dash hesitated for a few seconds, before she sat down on the cushion with what appeared to be great reluctance. As she planted her firm, taut rear on what was probably the luckiest seat in the entire encampment I removed my cap and stormcoat and tossed those hateful symbols of office, the leering, grinning alicorn's death's head staring grotesquely into one's soul as though Faust herself could see and judge through those empty eye sockets, onto the bed behind me as though this was the last time I would ever have to see them again. It was a simple gesture, partly because I wanted out of that uniform but mostly because I wanted to convey to her that we were speaking pony to pony, equal to (relative) equal, rather than as a commissar admonishing a lowly non-commissioned officer.
"You don't like me very much," I said, resting my forehooves on the desk and leaning forwards. "Do you?"
"That's a trick question," she replied. "Isn't it? I say 'yes' and I get punished for disrespecting an officer, I say 'no' and I get punished for lying."
I offered a grin that I hoped was sufficiently carefree to put her at ease. It had the opposite effect. "So you don't like me, then?"
"Just wait a minute, sir, I didn't say that," she said.
Well, it seemed that my attempt to form some sort of agreeable working relationship through my usual faux-good natured badinage simply didn't work with her, probably because she already hated my guts and, if her friend Twilight Sparkle had told her everything about what I was like some ten years ago, which was very likely as that's what friends do apparently, then no amount of forced friendly chatting was going to change that. Rainbow Dash seemed to be somewhat sharper than I had first assumed, and I knew that it was probably to my detriment if I was to keep underestimating her. It was time to cut the wishy-washy, gentle nonsense and just get straight to the heart of the issue; I knew that her uncluttered and straightforward way of thinking, her unrefined manner, and the fact that she would most likely prefer speaking to the contents of a cow's digestive system than to me for an extended period of time, meant that she would appreciate the more direct approach.
"Why do you think I ordered you to say those words to Company Sergeant Major Square Basher?" I asked. I took a sip of the water; it tasted faintly metallic.
Rainbow Dash shrugged, which was a gesture that I immediately found very irritating and I did my utmost to refrain from darting over the desk to give the silly mare a slap. "Because I fell asleep in class?"
"That's part of the reason, yes," I said, leaning over the makeshift table and tapping a hoof idly on the sheet of thin wood. The disturbed dust swirled in the draft. "But not all of it. The truth is that I needed to make an example of you."
"Oh, it's because I answered back, right?"
I nodded my head, and then struggled to contain the sudden wave of nausea that accompanied that movement; it felt as if my brain had sloshed forwards and bumped against the front of my skull. Now I had to stop drinking, thought I, probably for the seventh time that day. "Again, that's part of the reason. Tell me, why did you do what the Sergeant Major told you to do?"
The mare fidgeted in her seat, and gave me the sort of dark look that implied that she felt she was being manipulated somehow. Of course, if that was the case then she would be entirely correct in her assumptions; one could say that the entirety of my job, both as a prince of the realm and the somewhat less important role of commissar, was to manipulate, or 'motivate' to be more politically correct, ponies into doing what I, or rather the state, wants them to do. She hesitated as she carefully considered her answer, and, at length, said, "Because it was an order?"
I let out a sigh calculated to sound mildly disappointed but patient, like that of an exasperated teacher trying and failing to impart the basic concepts of the alphabet to a class of idiot foals. "But why? Faust granted you the gifts of free will with all that it entails, so why did you give that up and do all of the humiliating things?"
Rainbow Dash shrugged again, and then hesitantly reached for her water. "I don't know," she said, taking a sip and then screwing her face up at the taste; the unique flavours imparted by the water purification process tends to be an acquired taste. "I don't know what you want me to say, or what the point of all this is, sir. I mean, orders are supposed to be obeyed, right? That's the point of them."
"The Royal Guard," I said, folding my hooves on my desk as I launched into the speech that I had been mentally writing, ordering, and editing in my mind over the past couple of minutes, "is a vastly complicated organisation that can only work if every single pony works in harmony with everypony else within it, and that means having a strong hierarchical system to ensure that all orders are obeyed without question. You, Acting Squadron Leader Rainbow Dash, whether you appreciate it or not, are now a part of that hierarchy; your trainee Wonderbolts look to you for leadership and, when you must face the enemy in combat, to keep them alive. Understand?"
She nodded her head, but the rather sceptical look on her face said otherwise. "Yeah, I think I get it."
I shook my head. "I'm not sure you do," I continued. "I don't know why the Wonderbolts didn't teach you this in the Academy. This is military leadership at its most basic. The ponies you command will pick up on absolutely everything about you. If you are lazy, inattentive, ill-disciplined, and downright insubordinate to superior officers as you were with me then so too will they. Officers of the Royal Guard lead best by example, and thus far yours has been rather lacking."
Rainbow Dash stared at me harshly, before she slumped in her seat and looked into the glass of water in her hoof, turning it this way and that to make the clear liquid within slosh about against the somewhat grimy glass. Of course, much of what I had just said was complete and utter bollocks of the highest order; if a pony such as me could be considered an inspirational leader by virtue of 'example' without any sense of irony in the slightest, then there wasn't much credence at all to that utterly trite collection of useless management buzzwords. Nevertheless, I stand by the general message of those words; that the character of a Royal Guard unit will invariably reflect that of the officer or NCO that commands it. This theory neatly explains the general incompetence of much of the 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard before Colonel Rising Star was ignominiously cashiered and why the overwhelming majority of disciplinary cases brought to my attention invariably involve the pegasi of Captain Blitzkrieg's company. Looking at the stroppy mare sitting before me, separated only by this makeshift desk, I could see only further problems down the line from her unit, which could only mean even more infernal paperwork.
"Yeah, you're right," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Of course I'm right," I said, forcing that same grin on my face that I had effected so many times that it was starting to become some sort of uncontrollable facial tic, "I'm the Commissar - it's my job to be right."
I had no idea if I was getting through to her, and to be honest, I knew that if I simply failed to impress upon her the necessity of just doing as she's damn well told then I would have suitable grounds to send her and her ilk back to Canterlot due to their attitude being incompatible with that expected by the Royal Guard. Yet that prideful part of me refused to let me do that, as if it thought that Captain Blitzkrieg and I truly had a chance of moulding these cocky showoffs into effective and disciplined soldiers before Parliament stops being distracted by the debacle beyond our northern borders and decides that it's time to wake Field Marshal Iron Hoof from his self-induced torpor to mount another foolhardy offensive.
Shaking my head, I downed the remainder of my water, quenching my thirst only slightly. "Rainbow Dash, I didn't give you that order just to be spiteful," I lied; spite was at least half of the reason why. "I understand that you come from a different organisation with its own history and traditions. I know that the Wonderbolts trace their lineage to the elite warrior culture of ancient Pegasopolis, and I know that it means they value the initiative of NCOs and junior officers in the field of battle, and historically your leaders have fiercely guarded their independence from the rest of the Royal Guard. However, we are fighting a modern war on modern terms. You will stand with thousands upon thousands of fellow soldiers against the Changeling enemy, for victory can only be achieved through the combined effort of these thousands of soldiers fighting together in harmony."
I paused briefly in my speech to levitate my cap from my bed back upon my head, and effected an expression that I hoped matched that of the grinning, leering brass death's head in terms of its severity. It was, I admit, a cheap, theatrical ploy, but then much of my role as commissar, and indeed as a prince, lies in the theatrical; done with sufficient poise, energy, and perceived honesty, even the most ridiculous of displays can inspire great loyalty in ponies. It helps, of course, if said audience is amenable to such manipulation (my ancestor, Coldblood, once said that it took two ponies to manipulate, one to do it and another to have it done to them, which I believe made him think he had carte blanche to do whatever it is he wanted to do), and the utterly exhausted mare drained from a morning of 'training' and humiliating punishment was in the perfect state of mind to have it poked, prodded and moulded as I saw fit. At least, that's what I was hoping at the time.
I continued, pointing a hoof at Rainbow Dash in the same manner as those ridiculous propaganda posters of Princess Celestia pointing accusingly at the viewer. "You are a tiny cog in the vast Equestrian war machine, so am I, and so is each and every single enlisted guardspony, officer, NCO, clerk, and general out there in the Royal Guard and the War Ministry. We all are. It takes just one cog in this intricate machine to stop working and the whole thing will grind to a halt. Victory can only be achieved through the combined efforts of everypony in the Royal Guard, but it takes the failure of just one pony to do her duty to bring defeat. Understand?"
Rainbow Dash nodded her head and mumbled a quiet 'yes, sir', but I suspected that her acquiescence was more due to a desire to be rid of me than any actual understanding of what I'd said. Nevertheless, the feeling was more than mutual, so I dismissed her from my office and resigned myself to the next few hours thinking about where I could take a short nap without anypony noticing.
The days that followed, as ever, settled into a sort of quiet routine. By no means comfortable, the presence of these blue-suited misfit civilians from Canterlot nevertheless just faded into the background of the general misery that was my life. Despite my misgivings, Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolts appeared to take my words to heart and conflicts between them and the general command structure soon dropped to what is usually expected by enlisted guardsponies, with one notable exception which I'll come to later. That said, they were still not without their unique challenges: primarily just how in the blazes were they supposed to fit in with standard Royal Guard doctrine. The esteemed writer of that manual so beloved by commanders [Von Pferdwitz, I presume] had neglected to mention the role played by the Wonderbolts in his book, but I imagined that it was written long after they had been relegated from the task of waging war against Equestria's enemies to that of waging war against Equestria's boredom as stunt flyers. ['On War' was written shortly after the Nightmare Heresy and during the last aborted invasion of the Equestrian mainland by the Gryphon Empire, in which the Wonderbolts certainly participated in a military role. Von Pferdwitz described the Wonderbolts in terms close to what we would call today 'special forces', which a commander would use to seek out and identify weak points in the enemy frontline through rapid, lightning strikes or as opportunistic raiding parties to disrupt supply lines behind the front. It is therefore likely that Blueblood either misremembered the text or chose to ignore it just to make a point here.] Blitzkrieg had elected to train them simply as regular pegasi troops, which was a decision that I was probably least qualified to criticise.
Speaking of Captain Blitzkrieg, our lessons began in earnest shortly after the incident with Rainbow Dash. 'Lessons', however, may be a grandiose term for the both of us sitting in my office with me simply reading from an outdated etiquette manual. It was, of course, an exercise in futility, as even if he had somehow managed to absorb the sort of convoluted ritual that ponies of the aspiring nouveau riche seem to imagine that their social betters, myself counted amongst them of course, allow to dictate their lives and must therefore be emulated like the common poseurs they are, it was still unlikely that anypony would extend to him the same courtesy that he would to them.
Nevertheless, we persevered. Each lesson would often start with an argument, as most conversations with our esteemed Captain did, about why whatever it was that I was trying to teach him would be of any use to him at all. I recall vividly one occasion where I tried to explain the various different varieties of cutlery and their place and use on the dining table, on the off-chance that he might be asked to dine with royalty (which he already did, with me, in that same bloody trough filled with brown stew, but that didn't count). It was a balmy, humid evening as we sat on the floor in my office, separated by a sheet of canvas cloth upon which I had projected a magical illusion of the sort of lavish dinner set that Blitzkrieg was under the quaint, naive impression that he might be invited to one day.
I had just finished explaining to my thoroughly bored student the mechanics of the vichyssoise fork, and once he had got past the initial shock of the idea that one may eat soup with a fork, Blitzkrieg frowned and said, "A lot of this posh stuff is just bollocks, isn't it? I mean, it don't really matter."
I could not help myself but nod and smile, and made a mental note to work on improving his grammar in the near future. His general lack of eloquence aside, I could not help but agree with him. A year prior, before the crimson sash and the peaked cap were thrust upon me, I might have reacted with anger rather than mere bemusement. My experiences of war had helped put a few things into perspective for me, but alas I had reputation amongst the highest echelons of Canterlot's social elite to maintain. Though I wanted nothing more than to return to my old life complete with that blissfully myopic, ignorant, and self-centred view of the world, part of me dreaded the day that I would have to immerse myself once more into that entirely superficial and intellectually and emotionally vacant realm.
"Yes," I said, turning over the illusory vichyssoise fork this way and that in the air just between us, "but it's 'bollocks' that some ponies take very seriously. The things that 'don't really matter', as you put it, are those that help a pony become a true gentlecolt."
Blitzkrieg squinted at me. "If you say so, mate."
"Trust me on this," I said. "One day, you'll thank me for all of this." Placing the fork-illusion back down amongst its brethren on the cloth, I swept my hoof over the array of cutlery that filled the sheet. "Now, point to the salad fork."
Naturally, this period of relative quiet would not last, and though I did not know it for certain at the time the arrival of the Wonderbolts signalled the restart of yet more unpleasantness in my life. However, I was simply content to wait out this quiet time, all the while making mental preparations for trying to worm my way out when offensive operations inevitably started once again; a bit like falling from a great height with sufficient time before one hits the ground to ponder whether it was better to aim for a lake or try one's luck to steer towards something soft, like the space between Rainbow Dash's ears.
That is not to say that those weeks were not without stress, of course. I don't know for certain who started it, though I have my suspicions that Rainbow Dash was if not directly responsible then at the very least heavily involved, but over the course of those few days after the arrival of the Wonderbolts the entire damned fortress became embroiled in a prank war. Evidently, the fault of its escalation lies primarily with NCOs being under the naive misapprehension that what eventually escalated into a severe disciplinary headache for Yours Truly was 'harmless' and 'just a bit of fun'. Bored soldiers will often find a means of entertaining themselves, but being very much outsiders the Wonderbolts had decided that the usual methods of drinking, gambling, whoring, or just staring off into the middle distance and missing home and loved ones were not for them.
It started small and fairly inconsequential, as these sorts of things often do; spray cheese decanted into a helmet so that it melted and dripped down one's face as the wearer wore it in the hot sun, itching powder lined inside a flight suit, and a bucket of water balanced on a half-opened door. However, it was not long before one pony, Royal Guard or Wonderbolt I don't know but I certainly have my suspicions, took what should have been a good-spirited if foalish game born of the friendly sort of inter-force rivalry propagated by the regimental system and turned it into something far more bitter and, above all, disruptive. Soon reports started appearing on my desk, written by those ponies who took the decision that it was worth enduring the presence of Cannon Fodder and his unique bouquet of miscellaneous odours to drop it on his desk and dart out of the room before it became overpowering, that rations of 'brown stew' had been spiked with illicitly-obtained hallucinogens just before an inspection by some visiting local politician, personal items and keepsakes had been stolen and either defaced or simply hidden in various parts of the encampment, to suits of armour replaced with frilly Prench lingerie sourced from Faust knows where.
At the time I did not concern myself much with such matters, believing rightly that correcting these lapses in discipline and good sense on behalf of the common soldiery were the purview of their non-commissioned officers and hardly worth the time of the regimental commissar. After all, I had rather more important and more severe cases to deal with when it came to enforcing those sections of Princesses' Regulations that I deemed worthy enough and my hooves were full enough as they were in subtly trying to convince the General Staff that Army Group Centre was in no shape to mount any offensive operation in the near future. Therefore I half-heartedly assigned a few punishment details and the odd flogging and hoped that would be the end of it. What I hadn't counted on at the time was that as the prank war started to turn into a personal vendetta that the non-commissioned officers who should have been at the very least restraining those soldiers were not only encouraging such ridiculous behaviour but quite often masterminded some of these illicit adventures. It was fortunate that I had managed to sweep this under the rug and apportion blame to the appropriate stooges before it could rightly be levelled at my head, and therefore threaten my precariously nascent reputation as some untouchable exemplar of Equestrian gallantry.
I was only forced to act when Quartermaster Pencil Pusher confronted me on the issue one day, ruining what was otherwise a pleasant and relaxed Sunday morning spent reading an erotic book thinly masquerading as both a 'romance' novel and actual literature (one should recognise the sort if I describe its cover - a shapely mare in a silk dress held by a stallion with a more than slight resemblance to me against a backdrop depicting either a castle or a lavish country mansion, with the author's name, which tended to be Twilight Velvet or one of her many pseudonyms, printed in bold letters so as to attract the sort of bored, unfulfilled housewife or simple degenerate like me who read this sort of thing) in one of the abandoned parapets of the castle keep. This was one of the few places here that I could afford privacy, short of wandering into the desert by myself, as ponies had become accustomed to barging into my office without warning to demand my attention on some trivial matter. Up there I had shade and relative quiet, with the bustle and noise of the encampment down below muffled into the background like the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Those few moments of undisturbed solitude each day, if I could afford this luxury in my schedule, is probably what stopped me from falling into the sort of deep, bitter despair that I constantly felt nagging at the ragged edges of my consciousness. The war felt so far away.
My reading of a particularly enticing chapter, which was so lavishly written that I began to suspect that Twilight Sparkle's home life was not as stable as was generally assumed, was disturbed by the sound I dreaded the most in these self-imposed exiles - hoofsteps. I looked up from my book, tucking it away within my stormcoat and hoping that whomever had dared to disturb me did not see its cover, to see our Quartermaster picking his way delicately around the scattered piles of debris and dust strewed about on the wooden floor. He avoided them as if they carried some sort of contagious disease.
"Oh," he said as he approached, "there you are, sir."
"Pencil Pusher," I said, rising to my hooves. I was damned if I was going to spend this conversation sitting there like an idiot and looking up to him. He was one of the very few ponies with whom I made no effort to hide my innate dislike of, though I don't think he was the least bit upset about that and, if anything, he appeared to accept the fact that he just wasn't terribly popular with anypony at all with a sort of stoicism that could have been found admirable. It was more likely, however, that he simply didn't care what others thought of him, which I suspected is what allowed him to perform his job of maintaining the regiment's supplies to a level of competence remarkable for the Royal Guard. "You're looking for me?"
"I want to talk to you," he said, abrupt as ever. Pencil Pusher brushed irritably at the black ink stains that spread across his entirely superfluous breastplate like vomit on a drunkard's shirt. "This is getting entirely out of hoof."
"What's getting out of hoof?" I snapped.
"The vandalism of Their Highnesses' equipment," he said incredulously, as if it were something that I should have already been aware of.
From his otherwise immaculate breastplate our esteemed quartermaster retrieved a battered, used notepad and flicked through the well-hoofed pages, squinting down at the spidery hoofwriting that made Cannon Fodder's look like a perfect example of the calligrapher's art. It was some time before he found the correct page, and during that time I entertained thoughts about throwing the impudent, arrogant, personality-deficient earth pony from this parapet and onto the perfectly arranged stacks of breastplates, sabatons, helmets, spears, swords, haversacks, saddles, and so on that he spent the entirety of his waking life lovingly doting over as though they were his own foals.
A stiff but warm breeze fluttered through around the tower, buffeting at my stormcoat. It was around mid-afternoon, and the noise below suddenly grew louder. Time for tea, I presumed; it was a simple matter of fact for regiments raised from Trottingham that at precisely four o'clock absolutely everything stopped for a tea break. While others might have found this tradition bizarre, or even dangerous in times of war and certainly in a place where Equestria ended just beyond a distressingly fragile stone wall, I for one took comfort in the ability of these soldiers to enforce some semblance of normality, no matter how minor, on a very abnormal situation. I should have been down there, thought I, enjoying a nice cup of tea, further impressing my entirely false reputation for the 'common touch' upon the common guardsponies and the fawning junior officers alike. Instead, I was stuck with this odious little bureaucrat.
"To date," he said, at length, "twelve breastplates have been painted pink, four decorative helmet fins have been cut into rude shapes, six Wonderbolt 'Hurricane'-pattern flight suits have been shredded into confetti [From this we can infer that either the supply of equipment to the Wonderbolt squadron 'Flying Tank' came under the authority of the 1st Regiment of the Night Guards or that Quartermaster Pencil Pusher was unaware of the fact that Wonderbolt equipment was supplied independently of the War Ministry's supply commission. With the lack of written records on the matter and taking into account Pencil Pusher's personality it is safe to assume the former], eleven spears have been forcibly..."
"Yes, yes, yes," I said, waving a hoof irritably in an effort to shut him up. "I’ve already assigned punishment duty for the ponies responsible."
“Well,” he said, shaking his head. “It looks like it wasn’t enough. If anything, it’s escalated.”
“So I take it you want me to do something about it right now?”
Pencil Pusher opened his mouth, apparently to say something, but stopped himself just before the words could come out. I watched with faint amusement as his narrowed eyes glanced almost imperceptibly up at the grinning skull on my cap leering down on him, then to the well-used sabre strapped across my back with its worn handle just visible over my right shoulder. "Yes," he said, licking his dry lips and looking away at something on the ground instead. "Please. We can't let this abuse of Royal property continue unabated."
I was about to say that it was his responsibility to do that, being the quartermaster and therefore responsible for the maintenance of Royal Guard equipment any improper use or vandalism of said equipment was up to him to investigate. At the time, however, I remained ignorant of the true scale of the problem facing me and how it was all about to explode messily right in my face.