• Published 23rd Sep 2021
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The Only Mark That Matters - CocktailOlive



The story of Radish Root, a pony with obscene cutie marks.

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28. Nightmare Night

Radish stood sentry in Luna’s hallway. Her door flew open.

“Lieutenant! We would have words with thee!”

Radish jumped to attention. “Ma'am?”

“Hast thou heard of Nightmare Night? Echo says ‘tis tomorrow!”

Radish sucked in air. He was hoping to avoid the topic until the holiday was over for another year.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She stomped over to him and poked a hoof into his chest.

“And thou never thought to mention it to us? Explain thyself!”

“I was afraid it would upset you!”

“And so it has! A night bemoaning our misdeeds as Nightmare Moon! Instilling terror of us in younglings!”

“Princess, it’s mostly just a holiday for kids dressing up and getting candy. Almost no one remembers its origins. And it’s really only celebrated in rural areas.”

“We will not have it! This will be changed!”

“But how could you… oh! Is this your coming out?”

“My… yes! Excellent idea, lieutenant! We will debut ourselves to the modern world and reform this festival in the same night! Radish Root, thou will assist in the preparations! One of these rural areas must be chosen as the setting.”

“Might I suggest Ponyville? Twi-”

“Ah, the site of Nightmare Moon’s return! What better way to show the world that we have broken from her malignant influence than returning to the place that we… that she… attacked. Oh, Lieutenant Root, this is daunting!”

“Princess?”

“If we show ourselves in Ponyville, we will be shunned on sight!”

“But Twilight and her friends live there! They know the real you!”

“We… will keep them in mind. But wouldst thou keep to our side?”

“Yes, princess.”

“And if the crowd bewails our presence and hurls invectives at us, thou will stand up for us?”

“I will.”

“And if they set upon us with torches and pitchforks, thou wilt defend us?”

“They’re going to love you. But yes.”

She stared at him.

“Then that is why thou must stay behind.”

“Princess?”

“Radish Root, we have come to rely on thee too much. If we are to be a worthy princess, we must make our debut without leaning on another. We must do this alone.”

“I… I see.”

“It must be this way. We ask for thy understanding.”

“You have it. I want you to have the best coming out you can.”

“We will bring thee back some candy! What kind dost thou prefer?”

“Jalapeño chews.”

“We are unfamiliar with that, but we will honor thy request.”

“Thank you, princess.”


Radish watched as Luna prepared her chariot. It was the coolest thing Radish had ever seen. Luna had the palace’s craftsponies build it out the wreckage of Nightmare Moon’s carriage, and she added a few new visual flairs to it. Radish hoped the giant eye on its front was purely decorative, though he could swear it sometimes blinked at him just as he looked away.

Luna had put finishing touches on the bat ponies, as well. The quartermaster had crafted them armor matching Luna’s own coloration. Their chestplates also featured a central eye design, flanked by flamboyantly curved pauldrons.

“Echo and Nocturn shall pull the chariot,” said Luna. “Vesper and Murk- patrol Ponyville's outskirts. Lieutenant Root, with us gone, there is no need to guard our bedchamber. You instead will guard our garden.”

“Oh! Really?”

“Truly.”

Luna's courtyard garden had always been private. Radish had never seen it- neither guards nor palace staff were permitted entry.

“Now, there is but one last thing- we must complete our look!” cried Luna. She looked into the sky threw her hooves wide. “To us, our darklings! Become our shroud!”

A flurry of high-pitched screeches accompanied the fluttering of dozens of leathery wings. A flock of bats surrounded Luna and landed on her, coming together to form a solid black cloak. Radish was stunned.

“That looks amazing! I’ve never seen bats do that before! Everyone’s going to love it!”

“Agreed. We anticipate that bat cloaks will be all the rage once Ponyville has seen this.”

“Goodbye, princess. Have a good Nightmare Night.”

“We shall, for it shall be the last Nightmare Night! Away!”

The chariot soared skyward toward Ponyville.

Radish felt a twinge of sadness at the world losing a holiday. He had celebrated it in a limited way as a child, carving rutabagas into lanterns with candlelit faces, and dressing up as a space pony while his Ma and Pa took pictures.

He had shared the holiday with Sky, which was the first time she made candy chews with him. Together they made them in a variety of flavors, giving them to buffalo youths and setting aside some for Nightmare Moon- though it was really the elders who split that pile at the end of the night. Radish and Sky shared spooky stories until they fell asleep under the Mare in the Moon, and awoke laughing at the nightmares they gave each other.

Radish stared at the moonlit courtyard garden before him. It smelled properly earthy. He walked the rows of vegetables. Luna was growing parsnips, pumpkins, carrots, turnips, and…

Radish looked closer. Luna had planted radishes, as well.

He tried to tell himself it didn’t mean anything, that they were a common and beloved root vegetable. He looked at the placard she erected for the row of radishes. It was a brand new varietal. She had given it a name- “Champion Radishes”.

Did she want me to see this?

Radish tried to tell himself it didn’t mean anything, that this was a common and logical name to give a cultivar of vegetable, especially if Luna had designs to enter them in a contest at a fair.

Radish pictured himself at a fair with Luna. They tasted deep-fried snacks together. They played carnival games, and Radish won her an oversized stuffed bear. They rode the Ferris wheel together, and it stopped at the top.

Radish shook his head, breaking out of the fantasy. He stumbled over to a wooden bench and fell onto it.

“What am I doing?” he said to no one.

He heard a whinny. He looked around.

“Who’s there?”

A small screech owl hopped out of a cavity in a nearby oak tree. It perched on a branch and looked at Radish.

“Oh, hi. You a friend of Princess Luna?”

It stared at him. Radish knew it wasn’t actually angry at him, it was just that the arrangement of its facial feathers made it look that way. Still, the look was hard to ignore.

“She’s in Ponyville tonight. She’s having me guard her garden.”

It stared.

“So, see any trouble tonight? Ruffians? Pumpkin rustlers?”

It stared.

“I’m not in love with her."

Incapable of rolling its eyes, the owl rolled its entire head.

“I mean it. Falling in love with one princess was bad enough. I can't go through that a second time. And Luna's even more different from me than Celestia is! She just got here from ancient times. She's barely had a taste of this world. In some ways, it's like she's brand new."

The owl turned to look at a moth.

"But she's not new, is she? She's ancient. She watched this city get built. I must look like a toddler in her eyes. Maybe a puppy."

It straightened a feather on its wing.

"She's like this force of nature, you know? She rules the night and dreams. What am I going to do, ask her to dinner and a movie? I might as well ask out the moon itself. She needs- deserves- so much more than what I can give her. She should be with some kind of king or something."

The owl took a step to the left. It turned its head back at the tree.

“Criminy, I need a girlfriend,” Radish said, leaning back.

The owl looked at him again.

"A lot of nice mares work here. But I can't date coworkers. So what am I supposed to do, just go out into Canterlot, hang out in some bar, and hope the love of my life just happens to walk in? How does anypony do that and succeed?"

The owl flew to a different branch. It looked at the sky.

“Even if I did, who would ever want a guy like me? I bet even you've heard of my problem, huh?"

The owl returned to its cavity.

“Fine, just leave! A guy pours his heart out to you, and you just go sit in your hole! See if I ever listen to your problems!”

It kept out of sight. Radish sighed.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m just lonely. Could you come out? I’m going to be here all night.”

The owl flew out and perched on his shoulder, looking at him.

“Hi. I’m Radish. What’s your name?”

The screech owl made a soft hoot.

“Mortimer, huh? Nice to meet you. You're, uh, not going to tell Luna about what I said, are you?"

Mortimer chirped.

"Thank you. And thanks for watching over Luna’s garden. It looks great. You can tell she puts a lot of care into it."

Mortimer flapped down to the base of his oak tree. He pointed to something. Radish approached for a better look. Though he hadn't noticed it in the darkness, the moonlight was now illuminating a small dedication plaque. It had an engraving of a stallion's face, a name, and a date. The date was over a thousand years old.

"Vert Vines. Who was he? Luna's... boyfriend?"

Mortimer hooted.

"Her gardener? He tended this place in the old days?"

Mortimer nodded.

Radish planted his hooves in the ground and closed his eyes. He opened up his senses to the garden. "I can feel the love that he put into nurturing this place. It goes deep. But the upper layers feel different- there was a changing of the caregiver. Luna took over caring for this garden when he... died?"

Mortimer whinnied.

"Disappeared? That's terrible. Your oak missed him. And so did Luna. Her growing seasons feel... sad. She was keeping the garden to honor him, but the loss was paining her." Radish walked over to the Champion Radishes, and felt the soil between them. "But this year's growth feels happier. She gets a lot of joy out of gardening now. But there's also fear, and, confusion... and guilt."

Radish walked back to the bench and sat down. Mortimer perched on the bench next to him.

"It's because of me, isn't it? I remind her of him. So she's confused about her feelings for me. Just like I'm confused about my feelings for her."

Mortimer chirped. Radish pet his head.

"And that's okay. We both could use some time to figure ourselves out. But until then, there's one thing that's clear between us- I'm her guard. And she asked me to guard something really special to her." Radish hopped off the bench. "So I should quit moping and do it."

Hoot.

"Okay, you check the top of the courtyard, and I'll do a perimeter sweep. And keep alert. It's Nightmare Night, after all."

Radish and Mortimer guarded the courtyard garden all night. They had no trouble.

The sun rose. Radish bid good day to Mortimer, and ended his shift in Selenic Spire. He made his way inside the back areas of the palace, to the commissary. On the way, he heard a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar tone.

“Radish!”

It was Luna. She flew up to him with a wide smile on her face.

“Good morning, Princess Luna!”

“‘Tis a most good morning, indeed! My coming out in Ponyville was a rousing success! Nightmare Night was fun! The decorations! The costumes! The games! And Twilight Sparkle was indeed helpful! She helped me make friends, Lieutenant! I have friends now!”

“That’s great!”

She bowed her head. “Nay, what am I saying? You have been my friend these many months. Our vastly different stations matter not. I regret leaving you behind. Forgive me. It was my pride that kept you out of the fun.”

“That’s okay.”

“But I have not forgotten my promise- here, your reward!”

Luna reached behind her back and produced a small box of jalapeño chews. Radish took it and opened it.

“These are an uncommon sweet in Ponyville,” said Luna. “The local confectioner said she could not give them away. Yet she did give them away to me, just the same.”

“They’re southern. The buffalo turned me onto them.”

“I’ve not sampled them. May I taste?”

“Sure.”

He gave one to Luna and took one for himself. Luna chewed, then pursed her lips.

“Friend Radish, you must have the palate of a dragon. These burn like fire. And the texture leaves much to be desired.”

“You get used to them.”

“Nay, you get used to them. I will keep to the caramels.”

“I’m glad to hear everything went all right,” said Radish.

“It truly did!” Luna looked around the hall. “We should hold Nightmare Night celebrations here in the castle! Imagine- cobwebs in every corner! Bats flying through the corridors! Bobbing for apples in the throne room!”

“That would be great! Canterlot barely does anything for Nightmare Night.”

“Pish posh to that! ‘Tis my night now, I will see it celebrated to the fullest! Start picking out a costume, Radish!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Perhaps we could dress up as your cutie mark! I could put on a Celestia wig and stand in front of you making this face!”

She contorted her face into a parody of Celestia’s expression on Radish’s mark.

“Uh…”

“Ha! I am only ‘ribbing’ you, lieutenant! ‘Tis something friends do to strengthen their bond. Rainbow Dash and I ribbed each other heartily throughout the night, and now we are thick as thieves. Now, you must rib me as well!”

“Well, princess, Nightmare Night is over, so you can take off that grotesque mask.”

“But I wear no mask. I… oh. I see.”

She stepped up to him imposingly.

“You dare mock a royal’s countenance? I’ll have you strung up by your ears!”

“Princess! I was only-”

“Ha! Tricked you! Do you see what I mean? Do you not feel thicker with me now?"

"I do, Princess Luna."

She smiled warmly. "Good. I consider myself lucky to know you, Radish. Without your careful guidance, I'd still be a miserable waif crouching fearfully in the shadows. Now I feel as if I have risen... from the grave!"

Lightning flashed outside the windows. Radish jumped in surprise.

"And that... is what makes this next part so hard," she said, sadly.

"Princess?"

"Radish, it is time you left The Night Shift."

"Did I do something wrong?"

"Nay. I did. I took what was meant to be a week-long assignment and turned it into your sole duty. That was selfish. I want you to have postings in more interesting parts of the castle. I want you to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow guards. And I want you to live in Celestia's sunshine and sleep under my moon, as a pony should." She took a step closer to him. "Will you do these things, for me?"

Radish looked into her eyes. "Yes... yes, I will."

"Thank you, Radish. You may consider your duty to me complete, for the time being. Congratulations on a job well done. You have earned this."

She walked up to him, put two hooves around him, and hugged him. His eyes went wide.

"Thank you," he said softly.

"You are welcome, Radish." She let go and stepped back, smiling. "Until next time."

"Until next time."

She took to the air, flying down the hall and out of sight. Radish watched her go.

“Happy Nightmare Night, lieutenant,” said Celestia, walking up to him dressed in a jester outfit.

"Happy Nightmare Night, princess.”

“It sounds like Luna had a good time in Ponyville. I want to thank you for all you’ve done for her.”

“It was nothing."

"I hope you're not too disappointed to be leaving the Night Shift."

“Well, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. I just hope she’ll be okay without me. No, I know she’ll be okay without me. She’ll be great.”

"I think so, too."

Radish held up the box of chews. “Would you like one?”

“Oh, thank you.”

She ate a chew. Her eye twitched. She frowned.

“Radish... were there jalapeños in that?”

“Yes?”

She took a deep breath and a hard swallow. “Did… did you not know that I am very allergic to jalapeños?”

“What!?”

She dizzily stumbled back onto her haunches, gripping her throat. She gasped for air and slumped to the floor.

“MA’AM!”

Radish ran to her side. Her eyes rolled back as she wheezed.

“Ra… dish…”

“Princess! I… I…”

“Gotcha!” she said, winking.

Radish frowned.

“Ma’am, that was in bad taste.”

“Not as bad a taste as that candy, Radish.”

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