• 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 18)

My very first experience with manual labour (not counting the time my butler was off sick and I had to iron my own shirts) confirmed my suspicions that I would hate it, and I could not understand how anypony would willingly do such things unless forced to. The whole experience was exhausting, tiring, painful, and entirely undignified; Faust gifted unicorns with magic and the horns to use it for a reason, and to demand that I engage in this thoroughly unpleasant activity simply went against the natural order of things. Though I put the barest minimum of effort into this work, I felt about ready to give up after a few minutes of this ridiculous activity. I swung the pick, it struck the rock with an unpleasant jarring sensation that travelled the full length of my foreleg, whereby it then required a few good tugs to free it, then repeat. Over and over again. Ad nauseum. Once in a while, just to break up the monotony of it all, a lump of rock would fall free, sometimes right on top of my other hoof, then another slave would canter on over to take it away so the tedious work could continue.

Speaking of the other slaves, they were all a rather downcast and sorry bunch. Neither one on either side of me on this chain line was interested in conversation; even when I clumsily attempted to rile up their thirst for freedom in their native language, my attempts were met with dismissive grunts or bewildered looks. At any rate, my initial idea of inciting a slave revolt, much like the ones that used to occasionally threaten the Roamans in pre-Equestrian times, died a very quick and quiet death. I wondered if they had been drugged, or if this practice had been going on for so long that the very concept of rebelling against their masters had been so thoroughly stamped out.

I expect there are other explanations; that with the scarcity of resources and the ever-present threat of Changelings it was necessary for everypony in the tribe to work together without griping about such things as working conditions and fair pay, like the modern Equestrian peasant, as such things would only weaken the tribe. But as I worked away, stopping when the guards weren't paying enough attention to me, I could not for the life of me understand why my comments about rising up, turning our picks on our brutal masters, and starting a revolution were falling on deaf ears.

"Come now," I would say, in my rather clumsy approximation of their dialect. "Workers of Equus, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains." I had lifted the phrase from a pamphlet that I had previously confiscated from a soldier with delusions of vast societal upheaval some time before, but apparently coming from me, a prince, I imagine it did not come across as entirely sincere. The slave next to me shrugged and carried on with his onerous task, and I realised that I evidently could not rely on them for help when my breakout would begin. 'Scabs', I believe is the correct term for them.

After a few hours of this I was certain I was going mad - the sheer monotony of it all, the endless noise that filled my ears and drilled straight into my brain, the growing aches in my foreleg, and the utter lack of any kind of engagement from my fellow miners. I was not at all claustrophobic, having earned my cutie mark in the tunnels beneath Canterlot, but even then the ever-present rock hanging above and the press of ponies all around me made me long for the open sky, illuminated by the bright sun or the cold moon I did not care. The air tasted stale, and was rank with the sweat and odour of the unwashed slaves and guards. It all felt as though it was clogging in my throat with every laboured breath.

I was exhausted by the time this all finished - my muscles, such as they were, ached terribly, as did my joints, and I was about ready to just curl up and take a well-deserved nap right there. A shrill whistle cut through the sound of the activity around me, and it all ceased with a certain abruptness that felt very alarming. Simultaneously, the miners all placed their tools down on the ground, and the other slaves finished up their tasks of clearing away the displaced rock and mined ore. The guards removed the chains one by one, and the slaves were escorted from the cavern. I began to follow, stretching my tired limbs, my flesh feeling as though it was on fire with each movement, when a tug on my tail stopped me.

I turned around to face the impudent peasant who dared to do something so disrespectful to one of royal blood, but when I saw it was that mare with the deep magenta eyes grinning impishly at me, the tirade of abuse I was about to inflict died a dignified death. She was even more beautiful up close; the lack of any make-up or extravagant mane-styles, which I was used to with the sort of noble-mares who normally fought to get my attention, only seemed to increase her dusky allure, and she certainly seemed to know how to use it to turn a stallion into soft clay at her hooves.

"Come with me," she said in Equestrian. Her command of our language was far better than what I had heard from the other natives here, though that curious accent was still there.

[The variety of dialects and even entirely different languages used by the disparate tribes of ponies, Diamond Dogs, and other creatures in the Badlands had led to Equestrian being used as the lingua franca for trade and diplomacy as much with each other as with Equestria out of necessity. It is considered normal even in the most isolated tribal groups for their leaders and traders to be fluent enough in Equestrian to hold a conversation with one of my little ponies.]

One of the guards said something in protest, gesticulating to me with the point of his bronze gladius. The mare did not even look at him when she said a few quiet words, and whatever they were it certainly shut him up. He could only look on incredulously as this strange mare stepped in front of me, brushing her long, soft tail against my chest in a deliberate manner as she did so, and walked elegantly onwards into the tunnels with a defiant and domineering swing of her hips.

Summoning the most arrogant smirk possible to my lips, I gently grasped the stallion's wrist and lowered it and his sword back down to the ground. "Careful," I said, "you'll have somepony's eye out if you keep waving that thing around." To my surprise, he actually complied, and stared blankly at me with a hint of trepidation in his wide-open eyes. It did occur to me that I could have grabbed the weapon and run him through with it, but being surrounded by at least a dozen natives armed with weapons both metal and arcane, and slaves who would probably pounce on me too if it meant extra rations or a reprieve from the constant abuse, I would have been cut to ribbons before I could even cry 'freedom!'.

I followed the mare out of the cavern and into the tunnels, though one of the guards had taken it upon himself to follow me, presumably to make sure that I didn't get any funny ideas about escaping. Up through the same spiral pathway we went, and then after some time navigating the maze of tunnels and smaller chambers we three emerged into a vast cave.

Before us was a grand boulevard, something that would not have looked out of place in any modestly sized town in civilised Equestria. Flanking this broad thoroughfare filled with ponies going about their normal business were squat, square buildings with flat roofs. Their thick, stone walls were covered in plaster and were whitewashed, with shades ranging from a dusty pale straw colour to brilliant white. A few had elegant floral patterns painted on their surfaces, apparently to advertise the manner of business conducted within but whose purposes I could only guess at this stage. The city was a sprawling mess of these small buildings inside a massive cavern, approximately half the size of Canterlot's Old City district, [The original foundations of Canterlot, which existed before the capital was moved there from the Castle of the Two Sisters following its destruction during the Nightmare Heresy. Prince Blueblood owned property there and a good deal of his income came from charging rent] with a veritable rats' nest of alleyways and nooks between them. They were quite densely packed together, with some apparently having built extensions over one another in curious, intrusive ways that I could only imagine generated a great deal of animosity between neighbours.

The fatigue that sucked the strength from my limbs faded, as the sights and sounds before me seemed to invigorate my much abused body from within. We carried on into the city. The mare adopted an elegant pace that was determined yet open to variety, as though she had to bring me somewhere in particular in a relatively short time, but not so urgently that she could not disappear down one of those quaint little side streets if she spotted something that tickled her fancy at the end of it. It also allowed me to drink in my surroundings; the visual pleasures of civilisation, with its accompanying noise and smells both exotic, enticing, and nauseating, and thousands of ponies each with their own story to tell striving to live their lives as best they could.

This main road itself stretched out before us into the heart of the settlement, which was dominated by a larger building that towered over its smaller brethren. There was a single, rectangular block that stretched about thirteen storeys high, with two broader wings on either side of it. A sky-blue dome capped the central tower, atop which was a flagpole where a red sheet of cloth hanged limply in the still air. A crude image of a rat was painted on this alleged 'flag' with black paint. [The name 'Rat Pony Tribe' is an inexact translation. The small mammal that the tribe is named for is a jerboa, which is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a desert rat]. Above the entire town was rock where I would have expected the sky to be, with illumination provided for by daylight streaming through a series of large holes drilled into its surface. Despite the relatively wide open space, the sensation that this vast ceiling might collapse down upon us in a lethal hail of falling stone was hard to shake, and the moment the thought had entered my mind it remained there to stop me ever feeling truly comfortable down here.

As I was led down this street, noting that the crowds parted quietly and respectfully to allow the strange mare to walk unimpeded, I struggled to reconcile the crudely carved out tunnels and caverns I had seen earlier with the more complex and refined architecture before me. The more I looked, the more that I saw places where these cube-like buildings were patched up or extended with rather more primitive masonry, whose haphazard and lumpen construction meshed awkwardly with the near-perfect geometric structures. I came to the conclusion that this must have been an ancient city, long abandoned and buried in the earth, but excavated and occupied by this Rat Pony Tribe.

When we emerged into a modestly-sized square, rather like a piazza in a Bitalian town, I saw a tall obelisk about ten hooves tall. Its ancient, whitewashed surface was absolutely covered in a maddening array of strange pictograms carved into the stone; some were identifiable as Haygyptian hieroglyphs, but others were merely an unpleasant jumble of circles and lines placed seemingly at random and without any particular heed to proper and readable typography. Cresting the very tip of this pointed pillar was a symbol of a stylised pony skull, rather primitive in its design with an almost circular cranium and two oversized pits for eye sockets, and it was framed in a carved circle. Trailing beneath it like streamers were three straight lines, giving one the impression that this skull, the symbol of the inevitability of death common amongst all cultures across the world regardless of race or creed, as if buried in the collective subconscious of all mortal beings, was in some way ascending from below.

My stomach lurched when I recalled where I last saw that particular symbol and those weird pictograms; in the buried temple-tomb complex beneath Fort E-5150, from which the Changelings had emerged to massacre the Diamond Dog occupiers and again to nearly do the same to us. Back then I was ignorant of what that symbol meant, and looking back now I wish I remained as such, but nevertheless it still provoked a peculiar, primal fear within me that was all too happy to take up space in my hindbrain next to my more immediate problems.

We carried on, and I thoroughly enjoyed the delightfully callipygian view ahead of me granted by the gently swaying flanks of the mare leading me. She must have sensed my leering gaze, for she glanced over her shoulder and soft, knowing smile came to her lips. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment at having been caught, and I tore my eyes away from that display and turned my attention back to my surroundings. At least I was not punished with a slap or, considering my prior treatment by the natives here, being beaten by my escort. We must have reached the commercial district of this city, for I saw stalls selling strongly spiced food, fruit, vegetables, and assorted craft goods lining this street. The air was filled with these exotic scents, and likewise the clamouring noise of the traders crying out to be noticed by the wandering ponies around them. If it was not for the guard with the sword behind me, who stared at Yours Truly with a look that implied he was thinking very hard about the best way to impale me with said weapon through my rear end, and the implied promise of some fun with the mare when we arrived at our destination, I might have wandered off to explore on my own accord.

I found myself longing to be a flâneur in this strange and exotic underground city; to sit by the side of the boulevard with a dry gin martini for company and just out of the way of everypony else so as not to be a nuisance, and to merely watch and observe the inhabitants of this place as yet untouched by Equestrian culture, occupying the same space as some long-dead civilisation, go about their daily business. And if the dry gin martini, the greatest contribution to world culture to ever come out of Manehattan, had yet to make it to this distant corner of the world, then I would either have to teach them or find an appropriate local substitute. An urge to wander through these intricate streets and alleys, to find the hidden bars, the gambling dens, or the other places of ill-repute that inevitably spring up where large numbers of ponies congregate, overtook me. I resolved to return after this was all over, if I could ever escape in the first place and if war between Equestria and this tribe could be avoided that is. I could even write another guide book, and one that would surpass my first in terms of decadence and controversy.

Watching the city simply exist around me, with its multitude of ponies going about their daily business with nary a thought about the captured prince walking amongst them, had enraptured me to the point that when the mare had stopped before a townhouse that was somewhat larger than its neighbours I hadn't noticed. I walked straight into her, gently nudging her forward as my chest bumped against her flanks. She looked back and up at me with a somewhat shocked expression, which slowly and almost luxuriously transformed into a lascivious grin. I stepped back, feeling an odd tingle on my fur where her rear touched, and realised that it had been a long time since I had been in quite that close contact with a mare, without having to come to some sort of arrangement about payment first, that is.

She spoke to the guard, and whatever it was made him rather upset. He protested, babbling some aggressive-sounding words and pointing at me. The mare shook her head, turned up her nose in a dismissive, aristocratic sense that I deduced must be common amongst nobility regardless of culture, and made a shoo-ing motion with her hoof. The guard then mumbled something, and then reluctantly took a position next to the open door, sulking.

The mare pushed the door open and slipped inside. I stood there, trapped between a desire to go in and see just what all the fuss was about or to take my chances and flee into the crowds. The former, which I acknowledge was merely an expression of lust triumphing over rationality, won over, and I crossed the threshold. The guard glared at me, and silently drew a straight line across his neck with the tip of his hoof. There was only one way I could respond, and that was with a cheeky grin and a wink, before shutting the door behind me.

Inside was an oasis of relative calm, away from the noise of the city outside and the horrors of captivity and slavery in the tunnels and caves below. The ground floor was a single, open plan room, divided between a living area at the front and a kitchen at the back. It was all sparsely furnished, with but a few cushions scattered over a floor that was covered only with a selection of rugs each intricately woven with geometric patterns in bright colours. The bare stone walls were decorated with hanging tapestries, each with similar designs as the rugs and no two identical.

Sprawled lazily atop a pile of cushions, the mare observed me with eager eyes. "You are not like the others," she said, in between delicately placing dates in her mouth. "The other slaves, I mean. Look at you there, standing so tall and defiant, where they are meek and cowed and oh-so-desperate to please their masters." She puffed her chest out, apparently in imitation of my rather rigid and awkward stance by the door, through which I planned to flee should the exciting things she did with her servants prove to be less of the sordid but ultimately pleasurable sort and more of the murdering kind. "What is your name? You have one, no?"

"I am Blueblood," I said, once again leaving my regal title absent.

The mare rose from her seat and trotted on over, appraising me with her gaze. A collection of small scratches that were scabbing over on my withers, earned in the fight the night before that led to my capture, caught her attention, and elicited a small giggle from her. "Yet you bleed red like the rest of us!"

I snorted. "Well, that's the first time I've heard that," I remarked dryly. "Today." And so I discovered yet another cultural touchstone between Equestrians and the native Badlands ponies was that bloody joke that has haunted me for my entire life.

My sarcasm was apparently lost on her. "My name is Dahlia," she said, leaning in rather too close to me. I could feel her warm breath on my chest as she stared up into my eyes. Hers smouldered fiercely like hot coals in a pit. "Are all you Equestrians so... so..."

She let the words trail off, clearly expecting me to complete her sentence with another cringe-inducing attempt at seduction. 'So handsome', perhaps, or 'so tall' given the diminutive stature of most of the natives I have come across. I imagined this kind of talk might have sounded better in her native tongue, and I would get to know her native tongue quite well in the coming hour, but dear Faust, I wondered if this act ever really worked on any stallion. Looking at her, however, with the soft proportions of her face and slim frame that was plump in all the right places, she probably didn't need her act to bed them.

"Where is this leading?" I said, trying to sound just bored enough.

Dahlia blinked in shock, and stammered a little before regaining her composure with the expert alacrity of a pony used to navigating strict social hierarchies and their accompanying rituals and rules. "So direct, then," she said with a grin. "And direct I shall be, too. I am bored and I have nothing to do. When I am bored, I go to the mines and pick a slave, a pretty one, and then I bring them here and then we have some fun. Once it is over, they go back to their lives and I go back to mine until I am bored again. It is a simple arrangement that works well for all involved."

I had suspected as much from the outset, though a lingering portion of my mind felt that 'fun' was still open to some degree of interpretation other than the most obvious. Still, even if it meant a nice game of backgammon then it was still better than being thrown back into that dingy cave with Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash again. In fact, most things would be preferable to that. "I see," I said, keeping my voice measured. "And so you picked me."

She shrugged, and tossed her head back with an imperious swish of her mane. "It is like I said, you are not like the other slaves; you do not have your will broken by a lifetime of servitude, and you remember what life is like without a chain about your hoof. A quick rut with a slave is satisfying enough, but I tire of their sycophancy. I want a real stallion."

So in the absence of one she settled for me, I thought. Dahlia turned on her heels and walked up the flight of stairs, evidently trying to entice me to follow with a deliberate swish of her flanks with every step. She stopped around halfway, and looked back at me over her shoulder, her eyes half-lidded. "You still believe yourself to be a free pony, so I will allow you the choice. You may follow me, or, if your honour forbids you, you may leave and my guard will take you back to your cave."

It was all rather too transparent and convenient; I've had more than my fair share of mares trying desperately to seduce me with varying degrees of success (including a certain unicorn from Ponyville with delusions of marriage and princess-hood), so I like to think I've managed to work out how to differentiate between those who just want to sleep with a prince of Equestria and brag about it, and those who are merely trying to advance some kind of agenda. It turned out that my suspicions were completely right in the worst possible way, but I'll allow you, the reader, to discover that as I did.

What I will tell you now, however, was that it was much closer than you probably imagine. My youthful reputation as something of a philanderer and hedonist is not entirely unfounded, though stories of my exploits and tastes became more and more exaggerated until it was eclipsed by my less-deserving reputation for personal heroics. I was hardly one to say 'no' to a willing mare, and I dare say other stallions, or indeed other mares, would be able to say otherwise in my position without lying, but my instincts for self-preservation were engaged in a screaming match with my libido. Paranoia shouted louder than lust, and I was about to thank her for the offer and leave when my stomach chose that exact moment to growl noisily.

Dahlia laughed that melodious laugh of hers, and my cheeks flushed hotly with embarrassment. I hadn't eaten since the previous night and I had just done what might be classed as heavy labour. "I have fresh fruit in the bedroom," she said, before languidly ascending up the staircase and slipping through the door at the top.

Hunger voted with lust and paranoia lost, and so I trotted up the steps to follow.

***

A gentlecolt never tells or brags, even in this most private of memoirs. Whoever reads this will have to rely on their own depraved imaginations [Of that, I am thankful], but I will only state that what took place there was merely a mutual exploration of a shared, shallow attraction. Puritans out there will likely condemn me for this, and indeed have done so many times in the past before I 'grew out' of sleeping around, but I have always ignored their pathetic whining; there is nothing wrong with two adult ponies indulging in a mutually pleasurable activity, it is how one deals with the accompanying swell of emotion in the lead-up and the aftermath that truly separates the ladies-stallion from the bounders and cads of the world.

There was a little more to it, at least on my part. Whether intended or not, what Dahlia and I had done together marked the first kindness anypony had displayed toward me for a considerable length of time. After what I had been through over the past few years, it surely was not too much to ask for me to indulge in the comfort granted by bedding a willing mare, especially without the stain of prostitution that comes with visiting the many brothels that had sprung up in the wake of Army Group Centre's stilted advance. The moments after detente had been reached were, in a way, more rewarding than the act itself. I lay there on the comfortable bed with my limbs wrapped around her smaller frame, holding her against my barrel, and I wondered if remaining here would actually be to my advantage.

The bedroom was rather modest, especially compared to the extravagant boudoirs of young noble-mares that I was used to. The lack of any personal items implied to me that this place was not a permanent residence, but likely a property away from Dahlia's home to be used for the purposes of secret liaisons, much like my apartment in Canterlot's Old City. There was a large and comfortable bed upon which we both lay, a wooden dresser, a few more wall hangings depicting neat geometric designs, and a cabinet up against one wall. An empty plate that half an hour ago held a small pile of dates and citrus fruit rested atop the dresser, the fruit having been hungrily devoured by me before we began. Light streamed through the gaps between the thin curtains of the large open window, basking the room in a peculiar sort of twilight-like ambience that actually appeared to heighten one's senses when in the delicate act of dipping one's biscuit [I'm not sure either, I can't say I've ever heard of that particular euphemism].

"So," I said, after the silence had reached a point where it ceased to be comfortable. Dahlia turned her head and shifted her body in my embrace to look up at me, smiling quite happily as she did so. "Who were you trying to get back at?"

Her smile was marred by a slight frown of confusion, before she regained her composure. I loosened my grip on her as she squirmed to turn her body to face mine. "What do you mean?" she asked, stroking along the line of my jaw affectionately with a hoof.

"I'd quite like to know who I may be duelling for your honour soon," I said. "It's only polite."

Dahlia laughed. "It is a common occurrence where you are from, then?" she said. "My current husband, he is the chief of this tribe but he does not care for me."

"Then he's missing out." The itching in my hooves returned, or perhaps it had been there all this time and I had been much too distracted by more immediate pleasures to take heed of the warning that something was wrong.

"It was, how you say, a marriage of convenience," she continued, her voice growing rather more plaintive. "My first husband, Bludgeoner, was chief before him, but he died. Your soldiers killed him at the battle where we took your flag. He was an earth pony, a big one, with a big club made of metal that he always used in battle. You might have seen him if you were there. Then his brother, Earthshaker, became chief and took me as his wife to secure his position. I went along with it because I did not want to give up the life of luxury."

A big earth pony with a large metal club. It was probably a coincidence, I thought, but that sounded far too much like the one whose brains were dashed out and pulverised into jelly by my hooves at that awful battle. Naturally, I held my tongue at that potential revelation, as few things would sink a freshly blossoming relationship faster than disclosing that I might have been the one who killed her first husband, even if it was entirely in self-defence. I couldn't help but feel at least a little bit guilty, though; this whole affair, and being forced to fight and kill other ponies as opposed to Changelings, left a distinctly malodorous stain upon my conscience, which, yes, it turns out I really do have.

"But this Earthshaker chap doesn't truly appreciate you?" I posited. She would hardly be the first mare in a noble family obligated by social position to marry somepony they hated to keep them from a life of penury.

I felt her shrug her shoulders. "He thinks only of forcing Equestria from our lands," she said. "Everypony thought he was mad for even suggesting a confrontation with your country, but now that he has you and the other Equestrians and even the Captain of the Royal Guard, he might even be able to do it without violence."

"Or he'll force Princess Celestia's hoof and bring war," I said, feeling an odd mixture of vindication that my suspicions were correct and uneasiness about its potential implications. I didn't much enjoy being a playing piece on the great board game of international politics. "I'd rather it didn't come to that."

"And what of you?" she asked, apparently trying to change the subject. "Is there a mare waiting for you in the north?"

Several, actually, but she probably wasn't thinking of the ones I regularly fooled around with over the course of the various galas and parties that made up the Season [The name given to the period in Spring and Summer where the elite of Equestria attend various social events in Canterlot, including the Wonderbolts Derby, the Grand Galloping Gala, the Canterlot Garden Party, and culminating in the Royal Swanifying Ceremony. Though it has become more egalitarian in recent years, at the time Blueblood is writing about, it was intended for noble families to present sons and daughters who have come of age so they may find a spouse]. Settling down with just the one mare, thus surrendering my title as Canterlot's most eligible bachelor to perform my regal duty of producing an heir to my noble line was, as Spike might put it, a problem for future-Blueblood, but, my life being what it is, by the time that sense of stability was starting to look attractive to me, Princess Luna had already swept down from on high and placed the commissars' cap upon my head.

"No," I said. "I remain blessedly single."

Dahlia bit down on her lower lip, and began tracing small circles in the fur on my barrel with a hoof. "You could stay here with me," she said softly, her voice barely above a whisper. "You'd be my personal slave; no longer confined to the mines and that cave, instead you'll live with me in the palace, attending personally to me and my needs."

The idea was certainly tempting, particularly after the rather vigorous activity the two of us had just indulged in. I would not be free here, that much was certain, but I would still be fed and taken care of in return for keeping this nymphomaniac satisfied. On the whole it sounded rather pleasing. Out there, back on the surface, was only the war; where boredom and tedium awaited, where the unfair amount of responsibility and obligation rested upon my weakened shoulders, and all with the ever-present threat of a needless and undignified death looming over me like a black cloud ready to burst. That was not true freedom in the slightest either, and at the very least I would be much safer down here with Dahlia.

She would soon tire of me, however, once the novelty of owning an Equestrian slave wore off. Dahlia did not strike me as the sort to want to maintain such relationships, being driven by what appeared to be the selfish pursuit of her own pleasure that came with being a spoilt noblemare. I had seen it all before, when lesser nobles and gentry attempt to worm their way up the social ladder, only to be discarded and disgraced like last season's fashion when they ceased to hold any interest to their higher-born paramours. Except here the consequences would be rather more disastrous than a mere loss of dignity and respect. My fate would once more be that of a butterfly trapped in a gale, buffeted from one potential horror to another. Say what one will about the Royal Guard, at the very least they had a certain level of job security and a nice fat pension at the end should one survive long enough to see it. Besides, I was forgetting who I was: a prince of Equestria, and I was damned if I was going to spend the rest of my life in servitude to a sex-crazed mare, despite how appealing that might sound on the surface. My mind was made up, and was already working on how I might exploit this new connection with Dahlia, apparently a mare of some worth in this tribe, to my advantage to aid in my escape.

"Sorry," I said, stroking a hoof delicately through her short mane. "I don't think I can. The Princesses would be most displeased if I abandoned my oaths. In fact, I plan to escape." Specifically, Princess Luna would tear me up into tiny thin ribbons if she found out I willingly gave up my duties as a commissar for the first native mare who slept with me.

Dahlia sighed in disappointment. "This is about that stupid flag of yours, isn't it? You would risk your life for a flag?"

"I'm a soldier, it's what I signed up to do." A massive, colossal, skyscraper of a lie, but it was the sort of thing the bluff old soldier I pretended to be was supposed to say. Dahlia still looked confused, and I don't expect that this hedonistic, sheltered mare could ever understand the concepts of duty and honour (I understand them on principle, just not why I should be the one beholden to such ideals at great personal risk), but I tried to explain anyway. "The Royal Standard has been present for every important event in Equestria's history - its founding, the wars for its very survival against heathens and gryphons and monsters, even the Nightmare Heresy and the Reconstruction."

"And when Equestria invaded the lands of our ancestors, murdered our ponies, raped our mares, burned our villages, and banished the survivors here, your flag was still there," she said coldly. [All sides were guilty of committing what would be called war crimes today, but such things were merely considered an acceptable part of warfare at the time. However, I still recall these events with considerable personal shame for having allowed them to happen. The concept of jus in bello, justice in war, would only be codified following the horrors of the Nightmare Heresy.]

I confess ignorance of such matters, having rather little interest in history beyond that of my illustrious family and its various feuds with other noble houses. The past was barbaric and violent, even ours, and these events might have been more than a thousand years old but for some of these natives they might as well have happened yesterday. "And if you want to make sure that doesn't happen again, then all of us need to be freed with our flag. We could sort out a treaty and work together against the Changelings. I could even be Equestria's official ambassador to your tribe, and we could still get together for some special, one-to-one negotiations."

"I'd like that," said Dahlia, proffering a small smile that caused an odd twinge in my heart when I saw it. No, I couldn't allow myself to get too attached to her at this early stage, not when I was trying to escape, but damn me if it wasn't difficult.

"You know," I said, moving my hoof down to her chin and lifting it gently. "There are more things we could do together if you removed this damned ring from my horn."

Dahlia chuckled, and playfully swatted at my chest in mock admonishment. "Nice try, Blueblood."

The bedroom door swung open violently, with such force that it left a rather unpleasant crack in the whitewash where it struck the wall. Dahlia shrieked in surprise, and scrambled out of my embrace with a flurry of flailing hooves to stumble out of the bed. Standing in the open doorway was that unicorn, the one who had presided over my capture and whose magic manipulated the very earth beneath our hooves. It was then that the realisation struck me; this very pony staring at me aghast as though he was mentally willing me to burst into gory shreds right there, who had tossed me around with magically summoned clods of earth and stone, was Dahlia's husband and chief of the Rat Pony Tribe, Earthshaker.

The expression of a husband discovering his wife in bed with another stallion (or more than one), was one that I had seen before, and often enough for that look to have become readily identifiable to me. It was a mixture of betrayal, disgust, anger, horror, and sadness; all of those played out over Earthshaker's face, before he eventually settled on the more usual righteous indignation. Unlike the previous times I had been caught in this compromising position, I could not simply open up my chequebook and start scribbling down numbers of increasing size until he promised to be quiet, nor could I challenge him to a duel for this 'lady's' honour. In short, I was completely and utterly doomed.

A yellow glow enveloped me before I could even think about making a break for the window and leaping to temporary freedom. Despite Dahlia's loud, impassioned protests not to hurt me, I was lifted from the bed and hurled none-too-gently onto the floor. The unicorn regarded his spouse with a disgusted sneer as she rushed towards him, apparently begging for some form of mercy, which was repaid with a back-hoofed slap that sent her recoiling to the floor.

"Bitch," he spat, then he turned to me with a look that could rot an apple in a single, terrified heartbeat. "You. Not enough that you violate our lands, you must do the same with our mares." Dahlia scrambled to her hooves and backed up into the corner of the room, staring at the two of us with wide, terrified eyes.

The guards who had accompanied Earthshaker then seized me by my forelegs, hoisted me up, and I was dragged out of the room, down the steps into the living room, and out into the streets once more. This time, there was no sense of awe and mystery as I saw the city pass by, only a cold, shivering terror that struck me dumb and sapped any energy I might have had left to try to escape. The crowds parted, but this time it appeared to be out of a sense of fearful anticipation than respect. Some jeered at me, and I imagine it was some small mercy that I could not understand about half of the mocking words hurled in my direction.

Each singular second of my journey I was forced to imagine the horrific fates that awaited me at the end. If they engaged in the barbaric practice of slavery, then there was no telling what kind of further cruelty they were capable of inflicting upon undesirables; our own past, for example, is filled with such horrors as beheadings, the firing squad, and the iron maiden to name a few. Even in this more enlightened age flogging was still considered an acceptable form of punishment in the Royal Guard. Whatever it was, it was unlikely to be quick and painless, and judging by the twisted look of barely-controlled rage on Earthshaker's face I could not rely on him having enough restraint to remember that, if he wanted to ransom me in exchange for Equestrian withdrawal, then I should be kept alive and as undamaged as possible. The only restraint he seemed to have was enough to delay my punishment a little longer, as opposed to doing to me what I might have done to his brother the moment he saw me in bed with his mare.

I always knew my taste in mares would get me into trouble one day, but never quite like this. I was taken to another piazza-like square much like the one I had passed through before, and in the centre was what looked like a modest bandstand where the previous one had an obelisk. There were two pillars of stone set in the centre of this raised circular platform; plain, standing about thrice the height of a pony, and unadorned except for a shackle dangling from a chain set into the very top of each column. The very sight of them inspired a sudden and overwhelming terror in me. No longer able to hold back, I cried out and tried in vain to pull away from the iron grips of my captors. I pulled and wrenched and squirmed but to no avail. Kicking out my hindlegs to try and trip them earned me a blow to the side of my head that made my vision swim. Cold sweat that was not at all related to the heat and humidity of the climate drenched my fur.

They hauled me up the steps, and in spite of my struggles they managed to pull my forelegs over my head and strap a shackle around each fetlock, such that I was forced to stand on my wobbling hindlegs. A crowd had gathered by now, with all sorts of ponies gathering to watch whatever punishment was about to be inflicted upon me. Before me was a sea of curious faces, most of whom I assumed had never seen an Equestrian before, let alone a prince of the realm. The keen, expectant expressions, like those of an audience waiting for a play to begin, only heightened the sense of panic that rose up within me; public displays of punishment, or even execution of prisoners, might still be regarded as light entertainment by these savages. The sudden appearance of stalls selling all manner of snacks likewise inspired yet more dread.

I was shaking with fright, using what was left of my panic-inspired strength to tug at the rusty chains. Sickly bile rose up my throat, but I managed to choke it down, and yet nothing could quieten the rapid beating of my heart. My chest felt as though it was about to explode. A glance down at the floor revealed that it was covered with a strange rusty brown coating, which flaked off when I scuffed it with my hooves. They wouldn't kill me, I hoped, but that glimmer of light felt very faded and fragile indeed against the monstrously dark storm that surrounded it. Surely, they still needed me alive and whole. Yet I more than others perhaps knew the depths of rage that a pony can descend into, where all concept of rational thought and even base common sense is drowned utterly by the sea of righteous indignation when presented with a target upon which to inflict all of that pent-up malice and hate.

The sound of horseshoes on stone cut through the jumble of thoughts and anxieties swirling in my head. I dared to look over my shoulder, twisting my torso in an awkward, somewhat painful manner as I did so, and saw Earthshaker striding purposefully up those steps. Hovering next to him, wrapped up in his sickly yellow aura, was a crudely fashioned whip all coiled up like a snake ready to strike. Upon reaching the top of the steps, just a short distance behind me, he stopped, and let the length of the whip uncoil and trail on the ground. A few experimental swings sent it writhing on the floor.

"Oh Celestia, no," I gasped. In truth it was almost a relief to know that was my fate; it was something my mind could grasp, articulate, and react to. It still did not make what came next any less excruciating.

"Your false goddess cannot save you now," he said in almost perfect Equestrian. I wrenched my head away, clenched my eyes shut, and waited for the pain to begin.

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