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

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

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Honour and Blood (Part 6)

For Captain Blitzkrieg's and Rainbow Dash's punishment, I had to get creative. While I could assign latrine duty after latrine duty for the ignorant thugs that wrecked the canteen until the communal lavatories in Fort E-5150 were so clean one could safely conduct open heart surgery inside a cubicle without fear of infection, I felt that a more unique and, most importantly, more severe and humiliating punishment was more appropriate for ponies who, according to Princesses' Regulations, should have known better. It was not easy, as I'm sure those of you who have been paying attention will know that I tend to put the least amount of effort possible in my work on account of the simple fact that it's all tedious and boring, and in the end I simply gave up and consulted with that expert in administering punishments - Company Sergeant Major Square Basher.

"If it were up to me, sir," she said, nursing a pint of room-temperature brown ale in a wooden tankard, "I'd have the both of them flogged, and I ain't saying that because Captain Blitzkrieg still owes me twenty bits for that game of pool back in Trottingham barracks."

We had met in the officers' mess late that evening, or what passed for the officers' mess in the Night Guards. Colonel Sunshine Smiles' egalitarian approach to off-duty recreation time extended even to the more permanent setting of the fortress, though in reality his well-intentioned approach to fostering bonds between officers and the soldiers they command was confounded by the fact that even here the two classes simply preferred to segregate themselves of their own accord. The distinctions of social class remained as immutable and divisive as ever, excepting the presence of my companion, of course.

"It's a bit unsporting to do that to pegasi," I said. [The flight muscles of pegasi are located primarily on their backs, meaning that a flogging can potentially ruin their capacity for flight for life depending on the severity of injuries suffered and the skill of the attending surgeon. As such, in the pegasus companies of Royal Guard regiments, flogging tended to be the exception and not the rule, as it was in the earth pony and unicorn companies.] "And it would be unbecoming of an officer to be flogged like a common soldier, don't you think?"

[Though officers were of course subject to military discipline, prior to the Twilight Sparkle Reforms what little regulations existed tended to be both vague and inconsistently applied across the Royal Guard. It was, however, considered to be 'bad form' to subject a commissioned officer to corporal punishment, as that was regarded as something reserved for enlisted ponies. Most of the time, however, officers were simply fined based on the judgement of the presiding officer of a court martial.]

The room itself was, it could be argued, one of the nicer communal chambers in the fortress. It was moderately spacious rectangular chamber large enough for a few dozen ponies to gather around the sparse furniture, and commanded a scenic view of the Macintosh Hills that was at least somewhat more interesting than the vast empty plains seen from just about every other room that was blessed with a gaping open aperture in place of a window. A rudimentary bar serving ale rations for enlisted ponies and wines and spirits for those who could afford to pay for them had been set up in the corner next to the window and furthest from the door, and was presided over by a bored Ensign who looked rather too old to be still at that lowly rank but nevertheless seemed content with his lot in life. Tonight, the mess was quiet, with only a small group of junior officers from the Night Guards and NCOs from the attached artillery battery commanded by Bramley Apple enjoying a quiet game of cards in the corner. I suspected that the majority of the off-duty personnel had found rather more interesting, debauched, and most likely illegal entertainment for the night.

I was a little disappointed that Gliding Moth had rejected my invitation to join me in the mess once again, having instead decided to consistently spend her downtime probably reading or going for a walk or some other solitary activity that she found to be more edifying than socialising with me. Her presence troubled me; I did not know exactly what sort of indoctrination took place during her training, but knowing the dark mare who started this whole damned scheme in the first place as I did I felt I had a fairly accurate picture of the exact sort of pony that they were trying to mould her into - Princess Luna. It was my wish to undo some of her programming, that rigidly undue deference to an unbending authority and to a nihilistic worldview alien to the natural hierarchy of modern Equestrian society but was so endemic to the Commissariat, so that she might have a reasonable chance of making it to retirement without getting herself killed, either by the Changelings or by a disgruntled guardspony. That, and I wanted to spend some time with an attractive mare without having to pay for the pleasure of doing so, which I haven't had the chance to since rejoining the Royal Guard. Instead that night I had to make do with a Company Sergeant Major of the Night Guards, who despite her sex didn't count for reasons that should be obvious by now.

Square Basher snorted and shook her head a little too excessively, and then attempted to right herself in that peculiar manner that drunk ponies do when they try to fake sobriety. She remained awkward around commissioned officers, as enlisted ponies tend to be especially when socialising with their superiors, as the very real divide in class and the fact that one invariably holds a great deal of power over the other makes finding common ground with which to progress the conversation past stilted pleasantries, but a few tankards of ale had gone some way in helping her relax a bit more around me enough for us to have something resembling a two-way conversation on relatively equitable terms. Her words, however, still remained limited by the narrow and carefully selected vocabulary that all non-commissioned officers use in the company of ‘the Top Brass’, despite her habitual bluntness and element of casual familiarity brought on by the strong ale.

"I forgot the bloody cloud-humpers don't know how to take a good flogging," she said. "But you're right, sir; can't do that to an officer."

I nodded my head, and swirled the blood-red claret that I had barely touched all evening inside its somewhat grimy receptacle. "I need something that will force them to work together. I don't know what's gotten into them, but I damn well want it out of them before the balloon goes up again." [A Royal Guard euphemism for when something exciting or dangerous is about to happen. The phrase is believed to come from the practice of using observation balloons to pre-sight targets for artillery bombardment prior to an attack during the Nightmare Heresy.]

"It's 'cause the balloon hasn't gone up, sir," she said. She settled the half-empty mug down on the battered wooden table, and idly traced its steel rim with her hoof while propping her head up with the other. "It's like we've got a faulty boiler that's about to blow up. We can give them stuff to do to use up their time, but it's like releasing a tiny bit of pressure. The boiler's still going to blow unless we get a plumber to look at it."

Square Basher must have seen the vacant, glazed expression on my face. Despite her size, appearance, and reputation amongst the common soldiers for being tougher than Royal Guard doughnut rations and just as likeable, the mare sitting in front of me had a rather low tolerance for alcohol. She was not even halfway through her second drink and she was already making badly-formed metaphors that made sense only to her. Of course, before somepony accuses me of taking advantage of the mare by deliberately getting her drunk to have my way with her (as many have accused me of in the past, which is an accusation I must refute as, once again, this 'technique' is the reserve of the cowardly sort of stallion incapable of getting his way through other, less unsavoury means. I am many things, but I insist that any successful sexual escapades on my part are the result of my own Faust-given charm and ability, and not due to mere drunkenness on the part of my conquest), one must remember that she would inevitably sober up and that any misdeeds on my part would likely be repaid in extreme violence. Besides, for once I wasn't terribly interested in that sort of thing; and while the stresses of being on the frontline tended to exacerbate one's urges, I like to think that I had higher standards in appearance, personality, and, increasingly so after having spent what felt like an eternity on the frontline, personal hygiene.

"The plumber is, uh..." she paused and stared at the ceiling as though the words she was trying to say were somehow written immediately above her head.

"An actual battle?" I posited, otherwise we might have been there all night.

"Yes, sir, that." Square Basher gave one of her rare smiles, and then shrugged her shoulders. "You know I ain't all that good at thinking. The Royal Guard's been my whole life, sir, ever since I was a filly, and it's the same everywhere, whether it's being stationed in Canterlot on guard duty or sent to some ugly little native village in Zebrica. Being trained up to be violent and aggressive and constantly being kept trapped together like that does things to a stallion, and while we train them to harness that aggression when ponies like you and me, begging your pardon sir, tell them to against the enemy, keeping it bottled up and making them feel like they're not actually doing anything's only going to make them more nervous. We've been stuck here, not moving, not fighting, no end in sight, and we're all bloody fed up. Sooner or later something's bound to happen that'll make it all kick off."

For a pony who just described herself as not being 'good at thinking', she'd apparently put a lot more thought into it than I had, at least, though as usual her general lack of eloquence for sentences that didn't contain an abundance of expletives artfully arranged into inventive metaphors that stretched the boundaries of both taste and one's ability to follow through with them meant that it did come across as mere inane ramblings. Then again, I suppose one does not spend as much time in the Royal Guard as Square Basher, whose life had been given in its meagre entirety to serving Equestria's great and ponderous war machine, without learning how soldiers work, or don't work as the case may be. Nevertheless, she shook her head and waved a hoof dismissively. "Sorry, I don't mean to lecture you of all ponies, sir," she said, apparently remembering her place in respect to mine. "It's just what I think, whatever that's worth to you, sir."

I told her that I appreciated her input, and for what it was worth what I said was true for the most part. One cannot over-estimate just how much out of my depth I was at that time, and still am if I must be completely honest for once, and any advice on the collective psyche of that creed of the common ponies who had often seemed to me to be as separate from the likes of Yours Truly and the rest of my noble ilk as tomato ketchup is to a fine Bordeaux was finally useful in my life. Despite being surrounded by the common sort of ponies for the past few years, and after this moment for much of the remainder of my life thus far, when I see them I feel as though that I simply cannot understand their lives and that they likewise cannot understand mine, despite being made of the very same flesh, blood, and bone. Anyway, digression aside, Square Basher beamed happily at the remark; NCOs, at least the dedicated ones, tend to respond well to positive feedback from commissioned officers. It was all rather endearing, in a rather pathetic sort of way, but it held testament to the effectiveness of the Royal Guard's indoctrination process.

Square Basher pressed me for more details about what had happened, and I furnished her the best I could. Nevertheless, she listened intently, or perhaps that was merely the effect of the alcohol she had consumed, and stopped me only to ask a few polite questions that were preceded by equally profuse apologies for having dared to interrupt my clumsily pieced-together recap of those events. When, however, I came to the subject of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter's exceedingly ill-timed and thoroughly unwelcomed-by-all return to his commission and command of a platoon of unicorns that I held a rare amount of sympathy for, her disposition changed from relatively upbeat, if somewhat awkward and stilted, to a rather more severe countenance. Indeed, one could see her expression change the instant that I mentioned the pompous imbecile’s name, as though she had somehow slipped on a mask as I blinked.

"How is Captain Red Coat?" I asked, having finished telling my story.

"He's..." Square Basher paused again, and took a momentary glance out of the window to our side. It was at that curious time after Princess Celestia had laid the sun to rest for the night but was still too light to safely consider it to be night - a time between twilight and night that, as of yet, had no name. She sighed and shook her head, looking for all the world like a mother discussing her troubled child. I supposed, in a sense, being just old enough to have been Red Coat's mother (and mine, if one was of a particularly depraved and diseased mind) [If I must be honest, this diversion has very little bearing on Blueblood's description of events, but for the sake of completeness according to Royal Guard records, Company Sergeant Square Basher was thirty-eight years old at the time of the events described, and Blueblood twenty-three] it was to be expected that she might see him as some sort of surrogate for the foal that her life-long career and metaphorical marriage to the Royal Guard would deny her.

"He didn't take it very well," she said, at length. The tendency for understatement, it seemed, was as true for lower-class Trottingham ponies as much as it was a stereotype for their aristocracy.

"I know," I said, finally taking a sip from my wine glass. I pulled a face; the wine had been corked. "I was the one who had to tell him."

If anything, I thought Red Coat took the news surprisingly well, which was precisely what was worrying me. I had fully expected to have to physically restrain the young lad from committing an act of grievous violence upon Scarlet Letter, whom he justly blamed for the deaths of so many ponies under his command in the near disaster that was the siege and by extension his own maiming and disfigurement, but instead when I tried to explain the quite staggeringly poor judgement exhibited by that herd of overpaid desk-bound paper-fondlers in the Ministry of War who discussed, authorised, and signed their petty little sycophant's restoration of rank and command, his response was calm. Rather too calm for my liking. He stared at me blankly, as though he hadn't heard my words, but his half-burned face with one eye rendered opaque and milky, still not yet replaced with a prosthetic by Doctor Surgical Steel of the Medical Corps due to some physiological technicality that I couldn't possibly understand, was thoroughly nauseating to look on. It took a considerable amount of willpower for me to look him in the eye, for the grotesquely puckered and mutilated exposed skin would make even ponies of a callous disposition blanch at the mere sight of such a desecration of youthful innocence.

I almost wanted him to get angry with me; to have some sort of emotional response to show that despite everything that had been inflicted upon him that he was still the same bright-eyed young colt who I had walked into at Dodge Junction station and who would boast endlessly of his ambitions with boundless enthusiasm. Instead he shook his head sadly in a gesture that seemed far in advance of his eighteen years of age, and muttered that there simply wasn't any justice any more. He left me, and hid himself away in his quarters for a few hours, as he was wont to do now since he suffered those horrific injuries, and emerged only when it was time to conduct the evening roll call of his company. There was very little I could have done, for as one would expect emotional openness can hardly be counted amongst the very sparsely populated list of my virtues, and so I left him to his own devices. He still continued to execute his duties with a level of newfound efficiency I found to be almost frightening compared to the somewhat laid-back approach he used to follow, apparently leaving fewer and fewer tasks in commanding his company to his Sergeant Major to perform them himself, so at the time I saw very little reason for me to interfere. As callous as it may seem, and one can certainly call me that after having read these inane scribbles and thus seen me for the craven and effete narcissist that I am, I was not exactly going to exert myself in playing therapist to this stallion when I had a regiment of nearly a thousand other ponies whose mental well-being I was supposed to be responsible for.

As for Scarlet Letter, I must admit a great sense of satisfaction when I learned that trainee Commissar Gliding Moth had issued him with a rather substantial fine of several hundred bits to be paid to Captain Blitzkrieg as compensation for the great disrespect shown by him to a superior officer. It had been paid grudgingly, and though I had thought that Blitzkrieg would simply spend it all on cheap beer and cheaper mares as was his wont, it appears that I had misjudged him. Instead, he had rather proudly spent the money on a brand new dress uniform, which he intended to wear for the sort of social events that the upper class officers such as myself tended to host instead of actually performing their jobs. [Prior to the aforementioned reforms which standardised Royal Guard materiel, all soldiers, officers and enlisted ponies alike, were expected to pay for their own uniforms and equipment.] However, I also felt a certain degree of shame that this young filly, at least five years my junior, had done something that I had hitherto been far too cowardly to do - punish Scarlet Letter. Though in hindsight it was likely due to a certain sense of ignorance of the stallion's personal influence over the ponderous bureaucracy upon which every soldier was dependent upon, as much as it was simply her doing exactly what the Academy had instructed her to do.

"He'll get over it," said Square Basher, interrupting my quiet musing on the matter. "Faust knows he's going to have to. I'll look out for him, sir. That's what a sergeant major does for her officer."

By now the group of officers in the corner of the room had departed, one sans his armour, having apparently lost it in the card game. I did not envy him having to explain this loss of Their Highnesses' property to Pencil Pusher in the morning. The Ensign at the bar had finished mopping up whatever stains and spillages remained on the large, oblong-shaped wooden box that once served as a means with which to ship armour but had been repurposed as a counter, and stared at the two of us with a sour look that implied that as soon as we left he could close up and go back to doing whatever sordid activity he had planned for the evening.

"Of course," I said, tipping my glass of utterly ruined wine to my companion. "I'm sure he's in good hooves."

Square Basher beamed at me from across the rotting wooden table as though she was puppy being rewarded for having successfully performed a trick for her master, which I suppose quite appropriately explains the relationship between an officer and an enlisted pony. She quickly downed the last dregs of her ale, slovenly wiped the residual foam from her lips with the bare fur on the back of her hoof, and then suppressed the urge to compliment to the brewer in the traditional manner with what looked like considerable effort.

"Thank you sir," she said sheepishly. "But as to your predicament regarding Captain Blitzkrieg and the stunt flyer, sir, I think I might have just the thing for you."


I have to commend Company Sergeant Major Square Basher on her idea, though the Royal Guard frowns on anypony showing the slightest bit of creativity from anypony with a rank below that of a Lieutenant General, and even then having an original thought is considered to be the sign of an encroaching madness. It was a relatively simple plan, but it was one that provided both adequate punishment for both Rainbow Dash and Blitzkrieg for having instigated the brawl and impetus for them to learn the value of teamwork (the Royal Guard definition of teamwork being 'do as you're bloody well told or you will be flogged', of course).

It was early morning when we executed this particular punishment, and unexpectedly chilly for both this time of year and for this portion of Equestria that received a little too much in the way of Celestia's blessing. Under my command, the two offending ponies were roused from their cots, blindfolded and, after the very loud and crude protestations from a certain blue mare threatened to wake up everypony in the entire fortress, gagged, before they were taken by an armed guard under my direction to a location that I had prepared earlier. For those readers wondering why I had gone to so much effort when my usual modus operandi in the Royal Guard was to perform the least amount of work that I thought I could get away with, though my recollection is somewhat foggy on the details I believe I was due to attend a rather tedious inspection of the regiment's supply of paperclips, so I was perfectly willing to do almost anything short of manual labour to avoid having to endure something so monumentally boring that I was all but certain that my brain would suffer a sudden and fatal haemorrhage just to spare itself the misery.

The place of punishment was an area that I had personally selected; deep within the Macintosh Hills and close to the secret route that the battalion had taken to capture the fortress over a year ago. By that time the route itself had been expanded into an additional supply line by the Royal Guard, albeit one that was used infrequently as a diversion on the odd occasion that the traffic through Black Venom Pass became too heavy for the rapid transport of the all-important supply of paperwork that sustained the frontline. It was, however, both sufficiently isolated from the outermost edges of Equestrian civilisation that both the fortress and the quaintly rustic little town of Dodge Junction represented and was mapped well enough to suit my needs.

It had taken us a few hours to reach this small plateau nestled in the shadows of a great hill that rose like a sheer cliff above it. By that time the two blindfolded ponies had ceased whatever protestations they were allowed by their bindings and sullenly followed my aide, who led them through the precariously rocky terrain with the use of ropes fastened to harnesses tied about their barrels. The going was slow and tedious, with every few steps bringing a stumble or fall and a subsequent litany of muffled curses for our two captives. Nevertheless, sufficient motivation to continue was imparted by the judicious application of the pointy end of a guardspony's spear to their rear ends. The guardsponies who accompanied us and thus corralled our two prisoners to the area where their punishment was to be executed seemed rather too eager to do this to Rainbow Dash's firm, latex-clad flanks, but a threat from Yours Truly to have their other 'spears' forcibly removed from them unless they stopped mistreating a 'lady' and a fellow comrade-in-arms was enough to encourage them to take a more professional approach to their duties.

Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth had elected to join me, having been woken up by Rainbow Dash's outburst and had arrived on the scene with enough provosts to put down a small peasant uprising. After I had explained my intentions to her, and calmed down the assembled provosts to the point that I was reasonably certain they wouldn't put their truncheons to enthusiastic use on the prisoners, she duly invited herself to observe this punishment detail. She kept to herself throughout the journey, and with the hour being far too early in the morning for it to be considered sane enough for casual conversation I left her to her silence.

At my order, Cannon Fodder untied and discarded the cloth that covered their eyes and then removed the bundle of socks that served to stem the tide of invectives flowing freely from Rainbow Dash's mouth. The two blinked and squinted at the sudden, bright light, albeit dimmed by the early dawn and the shadow of the hills that rose around us.

"Finally!" exclaimed Rainbow Dash. She spat repeatedly, grimaced, and rubbed at her tongue with her hoof in an apparent effort to get the taste out. "I'm going to be tasting that for weeks. Now can you tell just what in the hay is going on here?"

Blitzkrieg rubbed at his eyes and looked around at his surroundings, and then squinted at me with an oddly plaintive expression. "Ain't it obvious? We're about to get whacked."

[Captain Blitzkrieg's use of a term primarily associated with organised crime in Manehatten implies that during his criminal career he must have had dealings with the notorious gangs there, though the extent of which has never been proven in a court of law and despite his candour about his past he remained silent about any affairs that extended beyond the East End of Trottingham. Evidence given at his trial implied that a vicious rivalry had developed, which had made him the target of numerous failed assassination attempts.]

"If I wanted either of you 'whacked'," I said, unsure of the exact meaning of the term but in the context I could hazard a guess, "then I would have already done so, and quite legally too. As it happens, I think Their Royal Highnesses might still have a use for you, which is why I've brought you to this miserable spot."

Rainbow Dash snorted in irritation, and I ignored her rudeness for I knew she would soon be paying for it, and looked around at the craggy hills surrounding us. "Yeah, I can see that. Lots of Changelings to kill out here."

"You can kill Changelings when you're ready to kill Changelings," I said quickly, to pre-empt both Gliding Moth from darting over to run Rainbow Dash through with her rapier for disrespecting a commissar and Rainbow from launching into her 'when are we actually going to kick some Changeling butt?' rant that I had heard and dismissed a dozen times before. Nevertheless, she muttered something about being in Canterlot that I chose to pretend to ignore, if only because every wasted second spent here would delay their inevitable misery. With everypony silent and paying attention I carried on with the speech that I had prepared earlier, or plundered and stitched together like some country-pony patchwork quilt from the asinine pamphlets and texts that lay in great piles on and around my desk to be more accurate.

"The Royal Guard operates on the principle of Harmony. Ultimate victory over the enemy is only achievable through harmonious co-operation between every single facet of the Royal Guard, including the Wonderbolts. Every conflict within our ranks, no matter how minor, weakens us. Your petty squabbling threatens our harmony, which is why you have been brought out here."

"Out here?" Blitzkrieg blurted out, flopping unceremoniously on his backside and tucking his hooves defiantly into his armpits. He still wore his faded white sleeping gown, apparently a key part of a guardspony's stock of equipment along with the ridiculous little cap that seemed to have been kept only because Princess Celestia found them cute [Those caps are actually part of uniform for hygiene reasons], which made him look all the more like some petulant schoolfoal who had been caught launching a midnight raid on the kitchens. As for Rainbow Dash I was disturbed to discover the implication that she slept in her precious Wonderbolt uniform. "At six bloody a.m.?"

"It's character building," I said dismissively, waving a hoof. I found that I could justify nearly anything with those three little magic words, or at least quieten any dissent. "You'll have noticed that I didn't let you bring your water canteens or field ration packs with you on this, ah, 'forced reconnaissance' shall we call it?

"There is a freshwater stream just a few miles from here," I continued, pointing in the vague direction of the stream. "It's used by the native ponies here, and it is the only source of clean, fresh water. All you have to do is get there before heatstroke and dehydration sets in."

"So," said Blitzkrieg, followed by a brief pause as he tried to parse what I had just said, "we are getting whacked after all?"

I shrugged my shoulders, and checked my wristwatch in a manner affected to be deliberately casual enough to be irritating to others. "That's entirely up to you. Find the stream together and you'll live. It's as simple as that."

Rainbow Dash blew a raspberry dismissively. "Oh, that's easy, sir! I'll just fly up to alicorns one-five [In this context, an 'alicorn' is military slang for one thousand feet, so Rainbow Dash meant fifteen thousand feet. Being able to gauge one's height above sea level is always a useful skill for a pegasus, especially so in the Royal Guard, though accurate measurement is impossible without specialised equipment which had yet to be made standard issue amongst the pegasus companies at this early stage of the Changeling Wars] and scout it out that way!"

The second after she spread her wings and bent her legs in preparation to launch herself into the air, my aide pounced on her with all the skill and grace of an overweight, inebriated cheetah belly-flopping onto a helpless and unsuspecting antelope. Rainbow Dash, to my surprise, did not react with the expected outburst of indignant rage, but as she wiggled under the armoured mass of the chronically unwashed earth pony to get as comfortable as one possibly could in that situation, she rolled her eyes and pressed one hoof against her temple and the other tapped the ground irritably. Her stubby little puff of a tail, which had been cropped short in the military style after an incident where Sergeant Major Square Basher had helpfully demonstrated the necessity of this style in her own inimitable manner by grabbing her long, flowing, un-cut rainbow tail and swinging her around the parade square like some garishly-coloured yo-yo, wagged energetically in annoyance, could be seen on the opposite side of Cannon Fodder's strangely-relaxed form swishing from side to side as if in a strong breeze.

"Seriously?" she spat. "Again? You got a real thing for jumping on me, you weirdo."

Cannon Fodder shrugged his broad shoulders and rose to his hooves, though kept Rainbow Dash restrained with a foreleg clamped tightly around her midsection so as to restrict the movement of her wings.

"Just doing my job, ma'am," he said phlegmatically. He was not certain about where exactly the Wonderbolts fitted into the peculiarly complex structure of the Royal Guard, but as with most things in life it seemed that he placed them, along with Rainbow Dash, as being somepony he should show deference to.

The mare squirmed, though seemingly out of discomfort rather than as a concerted effort to escape, as my erstwhile companion deftly retrieved from one of the myriad pouches whose contents were known only by the top biological and chemical scientists of Equestria a length of sturdy rope, which he wrapped and tied about her waist in order to clamp her wings tightly. I noted that she was holding her breath, and when Cannon Fodder stepped back she gasped for air with all of the enthusiasm of a formerly drowning pony. As for Blitzkrieg, he accepted his bindings with a sort of blank stoicism.

"Did you really think he'd let us off that easily?" said Blitzkrieg. He suppressed a yawn and shook his mane out.

Rainbow Dash shot him a narrow-eyed glare, and then sheepishly looked away and awkwardly pawed at the ground with a hoof. "I was hoping that he didn't think of that."

"Then why the bloody hell did you have to announce it like that? You daft bint, if you've got a secret plan to get us out of something you're supposed to damn well keep it as far away from the chaps with skulls on their hats as possible."

I don't think Rainbow Dash understood the meaning of the word 'bint', or she for once realised that it just wasn't worth confronting him over it. Instead, she shot that same venomous glare at him, before simply choosing to ignore the stallion for now.

"So, how are we supposed to find this stream?"

"You didn’t think I’d make you do this without a map, did you?" I said. From one of my saddlebags I retrieved said neatly folded map and a battered old antique compass that had belonged to my father and, for a reason that I couldn't quite articulate, felt the need to carry it around with me at times. I laid out the map on the ground below me, revealing it to be that of Black Venom Pass, the two fortresses that formed the main crux of the frontline in this sector, and a good deal of the surrounding area. The stream I had described was clearly marked, but for obvious reasons our current location was not. Of course, deciphering the mass of squiggles, lines, and arcane symbols that made one shudder to consider their dark purposes should not have been too difficult for two ponies who were supposed to have gone through basic orienteering during their training. If they were anything like me, however, and had used the time that should have been spent training on more edifying things like gambling, chasing mares, and drinking more than an average peasant's annual income in champagne, then it was likely I'd have something difficult to explain to both Colonel Sunshine Smiles and Captain Spitfire the following morning.

“And we won't have any cheating under my watch,” I said. “That would defeat the purpose of this punishment detail.”

“And that purpose is?” said Rainbow Dash.

"To teach the both of you the importance of working in Harmony with one another. Preferably before the Changelings force you to."

Getting the two to actually start the fun process of orienteering proved more troublesome than I hoped, as Rainbow Dash, apparently having not matured emotionally much since early puberty (though I suspected that pegasi might be late bloomers, which, if that was the case, makes much of what I have just written here unpleasant in the extreme) sulked and whined until Blitzkrieg helpfully pointed out that the sooner she shut up and started work the sooner they'd get some water. Satisfied, I left the two to pour over the map and argue over their respective viewpoints of exactly where they were and how they were going to get to the stream. My entourage consisted of Cannon Fodder, my bodyguard of two soldiers who were on an unrelated punishment detail for being drunk and disorderly, and, of course, the trainee commissar who had seen fit to follow me around like a lost cat. We were unlikely to find any Changelings around here, with the majority still 'contained', to use Field Marshal Iron Hoof's somewhat dodgy terminology, within the Badlands proper, but as ever I felt safer with several ponies I could place between me and whatever might be lurking unseen amidst the hills. If anything, I would have been happier with more, but alas I didn't think I could justify taking yet more guardsponies from their duties just for my own protection.

Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth had observed the whole thing with an expression of quiet bemusement, and in that stern look I saw a disturbing mirror of my Aunt Luna, which made me shudder despite the rising heat of the morning.

"Sir," she said, as I approached, "I don't think I follow the rationale of your punishment."

I shrugged my shoulders, and glanced over one of them to see the two guilty ponies arguing over who gets to be in charge of the compass, with Captain Blitzkrieg apparently winning because, despite being on the same punishment detail, he still outranked Rainbow Dash. "I think I explained it well enough."

"Forgive me sir, it's not my place to question your judgement."

"It most certainly isn't, but humour me anyway." I was hardly in the best sort of mood to explain myself once more, especially to a teenager whose main concern should have been trying to decide how to get the captain of the hoofball team to attend the prom with her, and who made up for her lack of a sense of self-preservation with a propensity for sticking her nose in precariously close to the truth. In my experience, ponies who said something along the lines of that statement, it itself being a variation of that hated phrase 'with all due respect', meant the precise opposite, but in this case I was willing to humour her. Having gone through a lengthy indoctrination from Princess Luna that imparted whatever warped and twisted ideology that my aunt viewed the world through like a dark lens, I expected that it would take a considerable amount of effort on my part to help her re-learn how the real world worked, assuming that she had any grounding in the same reality you and I inhabit to begin with.

She did not react to the terseness of my reply, at least not in the manner that I expected her to. If anything, rather than being offended as even the most hardened of soldiers might (though they would do well not to act upon it), she seemed to let it roll over her as though it was simply normal. "I don't remember seeing this form of punishment in the Regulations. I think it said that the punishment for brawling is fifteen to thirty lashes, depending on the severity of injuries inflicted and property damaged."

"You are right in that respect," I said, entirely unaware that I was just about to coin a brand new legal phrase, "but in this case I feel it's best to exercise my commissarial discretion. There's more to being a commissar than dishing out floggings for every single little infraction." [The concept of 'Commissarial Discretion' existed from the outset of the foundation of the Commissariat just after Princess Luna's return, though Blueblood is indeed correct when he says he gave it its name. Broadly speaking, it refers to legal right of a commissar to briefly suspend all legal restrictions including Princesses' Regulations, Acts of Parliament, and Common Law as the situation demands. The use of Commissarial Discretion may be subjected to later review by the Commissariat, if such scrutiny is deemed necessary.]

She snorted and shook her head, which made the bangs hanging from under her cap flutter in a manner I found rather attractive, in an endearing sort of way. Her expression, however, still remained as perfectly unreadable as ever, deliberately set into a mask that betrayed nothing of what thoughts and feelings floated about inside her head, if any still remained after her training. "The Regulations are very clear about it."

Dear Faust, it was worse than trying to maintain a meaningful conversation with Cannon Fodder. "Read and memorised the whole thing, did you?" I snapped, rubbing the bridge of my nose with a hoof in mild frustration. Nevertheless, I could see that despite my rudeness, or perhaps because of it, she was hanging on my very word like I was some sort of fakir who had just crawled out of his miserable little hovel to dispense some utter nonsense that sounds profound enough for the easily-manipulated. [A fakir is the name given to a religious ascetic in Saddle Arabia and Coltcutta who has taken vows of poverty and worship. Blueblood spent much of his foalhood with his father in the Raj in Coltcutta, and likely picked up the term there.]

"A commissar's sole, defining purpose is to ensure victory over the enemy," I said. Judging by the way that Blitzkrieg stared hopelessly at the compass, doing his utmost to pretend that he knew how to use it in conjunction with the gridlines on a map, and how Rainbow Dash was attempting to read said map upside down I suspected that I had plenty of time with which to explain this point, whatever it was. "The punishments that a commissar assigns should reflect that, don't you think? Why merely have these two flogged when I can remind them of their commitments to the Royal Guard and to each other as comrades?"

Gliding Moth pursed her lips and frowned, and her narrowed eyes smouldered behind her fringe in the deep shadows cast by the visor of her cap. When she spoke again, her voice was halting and more hesitant than the aloof, imperious tone, distressingly similar to the frightfully measured tones of Princess Luna on the rare occasion that she deigned to speak at a safe volume, as though she was unsure of what she was trying to say to me.

"You... You didn't go through the same training with the Commissariat that me and my fellow trainees went through, did you?"

I shook my head no. In truth I was uncharacteristically caught off guard by that comment. My hooves itched just as badly as when I was caught in more overt, obvious danger; though I had always feared that sooner or later somepony less enamoured with the mystique of my reputation would seek to undermine it by pointing out that all of my training as a commissar consisted entirely of Auntie Luna forcing me to wear a uniform and then pointing me in the direction of the nearest train to the front line. The problem was that she was thoroughly taken in by the impressive edifice of my false reputation; but when she saw that behind the image of the gallant hero was a soft, pampered, terrified little colt who just wanted to go home, would she then seek her revenge by bringing the truth crashing down upon me like an executioner's axe?

"No, I did not," I said at length, having struggled to formulate an adequate response in time. Instead, I elected to seize the initiative and throw the question back at the mare. "Just what are you insinuating?" I tried to keep my tone relatively light, for voicing that statement as a threat or leading her to interpret it as a threat would only encourage her to dig a little too deeply into my sordid, depraved, cowardly past.

The young mare smacked her lips, and then shook her head. "Nothing, sir. I was merely curious about your background."

"I warn you, it's not terribly interesting," I continued, taking my cap off and sitting down beside her. A little openness, or perceived openness, I thought would help diffuse the situation. "Princess Luna appointed me to be her commissar. To be honest with you, I don't know what she saw in me when she awarded me with the crimson sash. I'd already served with the Royal Guard as an officer in Canterlot, Zebrica, and Coltcutta, but it was an unremarkable career that I ended early to focus on matters of state. When I uncovered the Changelings in the catacombs beneath Canterlot, I did what I thought any other pony would have done in that situation." -Against all reason and logic, I remind whomever reads this- "Nevertheless, the Princess of the Moon had seen fit to grant me this honour, and I certainly don't intend on letting her down. You might be trained,] but I have two years of experience leading ponies and killing Changelings, both of which I've done quite well if I might be so bold, and that experience has taught me that as thorough as Princesses' Regulations may be, there are some situations that simply aren't covered. I would appreciate it if you bore that in mind the next time you seek to criticise my decisions."

Well, it worked, I thought, for the time being. Gliding Moth quietly nodded her head and wisely kept any further thoughts about my suitability to do my job to herself, regardless of how damnably close she had come to unmasking me. It was with some relief that I saw that Rainbow Dash and Captain Blitzkrieg had come to some form of agreement as to their next course of action, which after much deliberation between the two consisted of walking in a vaguely easterly direction, which Blitzkrieg had simply identified by pointing in the direction of the rising sun and saying 'it's probably over there-ish', until they come across the stream or 'find some water or something' along the way. To their credit, at least they came to this solution without brawling again.

As we made preparations to get underway once more, I eyed the young black-clad mare warily. If my written reports had been required reading during her training and if she had so determined to succeed as a commissar that she requested posting as close to me as possible, then surely she must have been familiar with my 'background', and hopefully the official version which had all of my past infractions, improprieties, scandals, and drunken orgies that my younger self indulged in expunged from it. She expressed a particular interest in me, which was not something that I was unused to being a prince of the realm and the former leading light of Canterlot's aristocratic social scene, but this time the attention was of a more professional nature that left me feeling strangely uncomfortable. Once again, I was merely Blueblood the Commissar and not Blueblood the pony, but now I feared that if she continued to prod and probe with the sort of questions that no military pony should have the independence of mind to even consider, then she would see that Blueblood the pony was little more than a frightened little colt way out of his depth who just so happened to convince everypony of a certain level of competence.

The sun crested over the hills, and the little valley we were in was bathed in light. With my thoughts troubled, exacerbated by the lack of sleep as usual, we followed Blitzkrieg and Rainbow Dash onwards.

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