• 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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35. The Suitor, Part 3: A Job to Do

Radish Root swung his practice sword low. Saguaro Shade met it with his. Radish swung it high. Saguaro Shade met it. Radish swung faster, advancing on his instructor. Saguaro Shade transferred his baton from his mouth to his hoof and held his ground against Radish’s blows.

“You’re fighting well this morning, Root. You seem to have extra fire in your furnace.”

“Just feeling motivated this morning, corporal.”

“Yeah? That’s what I like to see in a guard. Maybe Princess Celestia should bed down with a guy every night.”

Radish twitched, then launched himself howling at Saguaro Shade. He furiously smacked his baton against Saguaro’s. The batons cracked into splinters. Saguaro Shade fell back and Radish was on him, holding his broken baton up to Saguaro Shade’s neck.

“Say it didn’t happen! Say you’re just messing with me!”

Saguaro Shade slipped out of Radish’s grasp and pinned him to the floor.

“Yeah? What’s it to you if it did? What’s it to any of us?”

Radish tossed him aside and leapt on him.

“We’re her guards!”

Saguaro Shade knocked him off and held Radish in a headlock.

“What are you guarding her from, Root? Living her life? Where’s that in the manual?”

Radish exploded out of the headlock, wrenching his neck. He ignored the pain and galloped full-bore into Saguaro Shade and tackled him in a wild fury. Saguaro Shade planted his hooves and held him at bay, then stepped aside and let Radish fall on his face. He pinned Radish’s hooves to his back and sat on him.

“Root, listen to me. Princess. Celestia. Doesn’t. Belong. To you.”

“I know that!”

“Then why are you so angry?”

“Because I- because…”

“Yes?”

“Why was it so easy for him and so impossible for me!?”

“There we go.”

He helped Radish up off the floor.

“What’s so wrong with me, corporal? Ain’t I good-looking? Ain’t I easy to get along with? Don’t I do my job well? Do I ever lie, cheat or steal around here? Am I not a decent, hard-working pony?”

Radish felt his eyes water. He turned away.

“Root, if that’s all that mattered, the princess would be dating everyone. You made your choices. You chose the Guard- a position that puts you near her but out of reach, like you’re separated by a gully that’s five feet wide and a mile deep. She’s made her choices, too. The only choice left is how you react to it.”

“I know. I know! I don’t know why I’m feeling this way. I thought it was over and done with.”

“Root, the palace has ponies who help ponies who don’t know why they feel the way they feel.”

“A therapist, corporal?”

“You’ve never been to one?”

“A few times, as a kid. My parents thought it would help me with my marks. Look how I turned out anyway.”

“Root, you turned out damned fine. you just need to lighten your rucksack a bit. And the palace docs are bar none.”

“I guess I could give it a shot. And I’m sorry I busted the batons.”

“For the record, I have no idea what goes on in anypony’s bedrooms. And that’s the way I like it.”

“How do you do it, corporal? How do you work so closely with her without aching for her?”

“I’m married, Root. I have something real.”

“And what, you just don’t see her that way?”

“I don’t. Is it that hard to believe?”

“Yes.”

“Go shower, Root. You’ve got a job to do.”


Radish’s morning assignment was an unusual one for him- a supply run. He entered the Potion Bureau’s main workshop, donning a lab coat and safety glasses as per the rules. He found the Head Potionista, a petite white unicorn, sitting hunched behind a bubbling concoction flowing through a complicated array of glassware. She smiled at him, the view of her face distorted by the refractions of the vessels and tubes.

“Oh, Lieutenant Root! Welcome! You’ve got to see this!”

Radish stared at the array from the side.

“What is it?”

“Artificial phoenix blood. In case the royal pet needs a transfusion someday.”

“Their blood is colorless?”

“Yeah, it’s basically lighter fluid. Hey, is your neck all right?”

“I wrenched it during practice.”

“Oh, I’ve got something for that. Hold on.”

She rolled her chair over to a cabinet and rifled through its drawers, then pulled out a small vial of brown liquid. She floated it to Radish’s hooves.

“What is it?” Radish asked.

“De-wrencher.”

He popped the stopper and drank it. He coughed.

“Was that alcoholic?”

“It has a bourbon base. How’s the neck?”

“I can’t feel it anymore.”

“Great!”

“What can I do for you?”

“Zecora has completed work on a shipment of potions. I need a courier who’s familiar with the Everfree to get them here.”

“You’ve got it.”

“But not by train.”

“Hmm?”

“Those potions have a molasses base. That means they have to be moved slowly, or they go bad.”

“How bad?”

“They’d bubble over into a big black stinky mess.”

“Sheesh. How slow?”

“Nothing faster than walking.”

“So, pulling a fragile cartload on hoof, from Zecora to here, up the mountain road? That would take me…”

“Yeah, twenty hours of travel time, assuming no traffic. Sorry. But there are plenty of great campsites along the way.”

“I was thinking sixteen. And I’ll probably just keep trucking overnight.”

“Please don’t! No one should cart while sleepy. Your commander has cleared you for taking as long as you need. Just have a nice rest along the way, okay?”

“Okay. Well, at least it’s a pleasant walk.”

“Yeah, it should be a nice change of scenery from looking at palace walls all day.”

“You know, I don’t even see the walls anymore.”

“Whoa, that’s like, crazy transcendental. You should teach a class.”

“See you tomorrow. If all goes well.”

“Stay safe out there, lieutenant.”

“Thanks, Potion Nova.”


The train line between Canterlot and Ponyville was now called the “Friendship Express”. Radish assumed Twilight had something to do with that. He exited Ponyville’s train station and trotted through town. With Twilight and her friends in Canterlot, Radish’s acquaintances in Ponyville were limited to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, whom he had no desire to see again. Twilight’s letters had described a few residents and places in town, but without her group around, Ponyville seemed to revert to a sleepy, unremarkable village. Radish passed through it and found the path to the Everfree Forest.

The path to Zecora’s had decent signage nowadays, and a billboard on the outskirts of town advertised her services and recommended the safest way to her hut. He walked cautiously through the Everfree, keeping watch on the ground at his hooves and the branches above his head. On the plains, most hazardous creatures were small and cryptic- snakes, scorpions, jackalopes- but in the Everfree, most things that could harm a pony were large enough to swallow a pony in one bite. There were now signs informing hikers about them, though Radish thought some of the factoids about timberwolves seemed hyperbolic.

He sighted Zecora outside her hut, carefully placing round-bottom flasks into rows inside straw-packed boxes, then putting the boxes in a wooden crate inside a cart.

“Howdy, Zecora.”

“Welcome back, Radish Root. Thanks for taking on this route.”

“Not a problem. I’m glad the partnership with the Potion Bureau is going well.”

“These medicines are quite unusual. I hope you’re not expecting trouble?”

“Why? What do they cure?”

“A bolstering inoculation, to protect oneself from radiation.”

“What? I haven’t been informed of anything related to radiation danger!”

“Perhaps it’s just to be prepared, so that the populace isn’t scared?”

“Well, it might not be my business anyway. I’m just a lieutenant. I don’t get informed of everything.”

“You seem troubled, lieutenant. Is it the palace’s new tenant?”

“So you’ve heard, huh?”

“Ponykind does love their gossip. It flows out of them like a faucet.”

“Do you know anything about the Far Eastern Edgelands?”

“Even in my old home land, the distance there was quite grand. Far beyond our pleasant shores, just heaths and tundra, steppes and moors.”

“Anycreature live there?”

“Information is hard to come by. Do you think his tale’s a lie?”

“It’s… I guess I shouldn’t even be prying. Luna’s even warned me off it.”

“Lieutenant, do you know… why you cannot let it go?”

“Still stuck on Celestia, I guess. I mean, she still stuck on me, too,” he said, looking at his armored flanks.

“I seem to recall giving advice. Did you not find it wise?”

“I know. Get a girlfriend. I keep hearing that. I’m just not good at that kind of thing.”

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

“What do you think of me and Fluttershy?”

“…I, uh, don’t think she is who you need.”

“I know- a girl who’s outside of the palace circles. That’s what Spats said.”

“Have a nice walk home, friend Radish. Things won’t always be so, uh, baddish.”

“Thanks.”

Radish pulled the cart out of the Everfree, through Ponyville’s main thoroughfare. Traffic was light- there were only a few other carts on the road, hauling flowers, crops and garbage.

Radish walked out of town onto the road to Canterlot. It was scenic, at least. He walked for a few hours, running through every trick he knew to keep his attention on alert for extended periods of time. His focus started to wane in spite of his techniques, so he ate a jalapeño chew. The pain sharpened his attention on the road ahead.

He passed a few others coming from the opposite way, and a few ponies passed him from behind. After about seven hours on the road, a lone yellow unicorn trotted up from behind to keep pace with him.

“Hey there, stranger,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Trucking to Canterlot?”

“That’s right.”

“Mind if I walk with you?”

“I’m actually on royal business, so it would be best if you keep some distance.”

“Royal business! I thought royal guards didn’t work alone?”

“Sometimes they do.”

“What if somepony jumps you and steals whatever this is?”

“They’d get hurt bad.”

“What if they had a whole group waiting to ambush you?”

“Like at that pass down the road over there? The one that birds flushed from a while ago? Where there’s enough room to hide about… six average-sized ponies behind the rocks? One of which’s shadow is clearly visible on the tree behind them?”

“Yeah. Just like that.”

“Wouldn’t be enough to beat a guard.”

“What if they had unicorns among them?”

“All guards are trained to handle magic-users. It’s one of the first things we learn.”

“Yeah? How?”

“That I can’t divulge. But any unicorn trying to mess with a guard might find themselves with a broken horn. I hear that’s pretty traumatic.”

“I can imagine.”

“So it’s a good thing nothing’s going to happen to me at that pass.”

“You know what? I think I’ll take your advice and keep some distance. But don’t worry, if you need me, I’ll be right behind you.”

Radish sighed. A short time later, he was at the pass where the road dipped low between rocks. He stopped in front of it. The unicorn stopped behind him. Radish whistled out a chickadee call. A titmouse call whistled from behind the rocks.

“What… are you doing?” asked the unicorn.

Radish continued on his way. He passed between large boulders. Two cuffed and unconscious ponies- a unicorn mare and a pegasus stallion, were laid out on the ground. A purple earth stallion in guard armor was standing over them.

“Hi, Lieutenant Sugarplum Dreams.”

“Hi, Lieutenant Root.”

The unicorn behind Radish stepped back.

“Who the-”’

“I lied,” said Radish. “Guards never work alone. But they’re not always together. Sometimes your partner is flying overhead, watching for trouble. Sometimes they’re a few klicks down the road, clearing your path. But you’re never alone in the Guard, especially when you’re in clear view of the palace.”

Sugarplum Dreams trotted up to the unicorn. “So, who do we have here?”

The unicorn put his aura around Sugarplum’s neck, dangled him in the air, and squeezed. Radish walked over to the unicorn and socked his lights out.

“Thanks,” said Sugarplum Dreams.

“Thanks for taking out these two. But where are the others?”

“It was just them.”

“Seriously? They thought they’d ambush a guard with just three?”

“What would they have stolen, anyway?”

“Anti-radiation potions.”

“Is the palace expecting a ton of radiation soon?”

“I hope not. Need help with these three?”

“Nah, keep going. I’ll signal for pickup,” he said, pulling out a small mirror and reflecting it toward the palace. “Where you gonna stop tonight?”

“There’s a campsite on the map two hours down. Looks posh, actually. Hot showers.”

“Flint’s? Nice place. You might actually find some palace personnel there. It’s a favorite for day trippers.”

“Might be nice to camp among friends.”


Radish pulled into the campsite and secured his cart. He showed his royal expense card to the camp employee, who gave him a receipt.

“Don’t worry about your cargo,” she said, “we’ve got extra night security.”

She pointed to a skunk in the tree overhead. It waved at Radish. He nodded to it.

He ate a meal he had packed, then used the restroom. He emerged and looked around. There were indeed a few palace staff camping there- a group of butlers were gathered around a table, playing cards. A pair of hoofponies were toasting marshmallows on their fire. A palace lawyer and an accountant had joined a game of cornhole.

"Well, howdy, Radish!"

Radish whipped around. Applejack was leaning against a thick oak tree, guitar in hoof.

“Oh! Hello, Applejack.”

“You always go campin’ in yer armor?”

“I’m on a supply run.”

“Ah. It was a nice day for it.”

“Are all of you here?”

“Naw, I’m here by my lonesome. All that fancy palace air starts to get stuffy for a farmgirl, y’know?”

“Yeah.”

“Care to jaw for a bit?”

“Well…”

“What if I made a rule that discussin’ affairs of the heart is off-limits?”

“That would be a relief.”

He sat against the tree next to her, keeping his cart in view. She plucked her guitar a bit.

“How’s the farm?” he asked.

“Doin’ jus’ fine. Bumper crop this year.”

“That’s good.”

“And yer family’s farm?”

“Red beet margaritas became a trend in the south, so beet farmers all over are doing well.”

“I’ll be. The last time apples were trendin’ was during that whole shaved apple craze. Didn’t last long.”

“I remember that. How’s the family?”

“Granny’s good. The new hip is workin’ out well. Big Macintosh is fermentin’ hot sauce now. And Apple Bloom was actually inspired by you a bit. She tried to go for a spear-throwin’ cutie mark.”

“Neat.”

“She skewered the mailbox pretty good, but no cutie mark.”

“Well, tell her I’m rooting for her.”

“Was that a pun?”

“Not intended.”

“Good.”

Applejack got a few more lines of her song out from her guitar.

“That’s nice,” Radish said.

“It’s an old song. Been in the family for ages.”

“Maybe I should pick up an instrument. I think I need a hobby.”

“We could start a band! Tour Equestria! Play to sold-out shows from here to Vanhoover!”

“Yeah. That’d be fun.”

“But seriously, you ever wanted to do somethin’ other than guardin’?”

“I read a bunch of spy novels in my teens. Sometimes I wondered if I could do that. Sneak around, uncover enemy plots, defeat evil masterminds, and rescue… ponies in need.”

“Well, you’ve got the tux now, at least.”

“Heh. Yeah.”

Radish looked up at the stars. “Do you believe in fate?”

She mis-plucked a string on the guitar.

“Oh my. That’s mighty heavy stuff for this time of night,” she said.

“Sorry. I’ve been in a mood.”

“I figure there are forces out there that are always gonna try to push or pull us. But we can always push or pull back,” she said, looking up at the Milky Way.

“Until we wrench our necks,” said Radish, rubbing his shoulders. “Then, it’s time to let go.”

“Hmm?”

“Sorry, I broke the rule.”

“Not a problem. Sounds like you realized somethin’ important.”

“Yeah.”

They sat together, listening to the sounds around them- campers laughing, fires crackling, crickets, frogs, and a Whip-poor-will. Applejack strummed her guitar gently. Radish felt his weariness catching up to him.

“I’m going to hit the showers and then hit the hay. Thank you for the song.”

“Have a good night.”

“Uh, did you… come out all this way to cheer me up?”

Applejack chuckled. “Are ya feelin’ cheered up?”

“Yeah.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Good night, Applejack.”

“Sleep tight.”


“Thanks for getting these here safe and sound,” Potion Nova said. “I heard you had trouble?”

“Just some highwayponies. Nothing big.”

“On the main thoroughfare to Canterlot? That’s audacious.”

“Well, it’s less-traveled now that the trains have improved. They probably thought the roads are easy pickings again.”

“Not when we’ve got guards walking them! At least you can use the train for the return trip.”

“Return trip?”

“Oh, you didn’t know? It’s Zecora’s cart, after all, and she needs it back. And since I’d hate to waste a trip, I’d like you to deliver a shipment of equipment and ingredients to her.”

“Potion Nova… is the brass giving me busy work to keep me out of the palace while Halcyon is here?”

“This was all my idea. You’re the one who put me in touch with Zecora. You know the Everfree. You have a Class A Carting license. And, yeah, I know you don’t want to hang around here while he’s… spending time with Celestia.”

“I appreciate that. But I can’t dodge Halcyon forever. Guards are supposed to face problems head-on, not run from them.”

“Okay. But I was going to offer you another duty that would keep you out of his way. I was wondering if you’d like to work here as a potions test subject.”

“Guards do that?”

“Guards are the best choice for it! More body mass.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Oh, that’s a whole document you’d have to read and sign if you did it.”

“I’ll… consider it. When I get back from Zecora.”

“How’s she doing, by the way?”

“Great. Still rhyming.”

“Oh, before you go, I got something for you.”

She trotted up to a workbench and floated a test tube from a rack.

“Barkin’ Dogs Potion. Soothes sore hooves.”

“Thanks. My dogs are barkin’.”

He swigged it. He coughed.

“Was that alcoholic, too?”

“Radish, just about every potion here starts off with a grain alcohol base. Sometimes potato alcohol. Sometimes mezcal. ”

“Can I have more?”

“No, I have to cut you off. Have some water.”


Radish secured cargo space for Zecora’s cart on the Friendship Express, then took a seat in the rear car. He stared out the window, watching the landscape fly by. He slowly became aware of a noise coming from the opposite aisle. He turned to see a green earth mare in a gray vest and flat cap, scribbling in a notepad. She noticed him noticing her, and spit her pen into her hoof.

"Hi there, soldier!"

"Hello, miss."

She leapt to the aisle and leaned grinningly toward Radish. "Say, mind if I ask you a few questions about what's been happening in the palace lately?"

"I'm sorry, miss. I can't really answer any questions from the public."

"Ah! I'm no ordinary public!" She reached into her vest and pulled out a card with "PRESS" printed on it. "I'm a reporter for the Canterlot Tribune!"

That's even worse, thought Radish.

"I'm sorry, miss. All inquiries from the press should be directed to the Royal Communications Office."

"The thing is, the Royal Communications Office is rather tight-lipped these days. Like, say, regarding the sun blackout. Now, what the heck is a 'magical anomaly', and how did it kill the daylight for a few seconds without warning?"

"I'm sorry, miss. All inquiries from the press should be directed to the Royal Communications Office."

"And I hear Princess Luna's been under the weather. Could that have something to do with it? Did she cough so hard, it flung the sun away?"

"I'm sorry, miss-"

"-all inquiries, yada yada yada. You know, I've had more enlightening conversations with parrots."

"I'm not much of a conversationalist."

"Tell you what, take my card, and if you feel like you've got something original to say, drop on by downtown. I protect my sources' identities."

Radish took the card and shoved it in his armor's pocket without looking at it. "Thank you, miss. I'll be sure to do that."


Radish unloaded the cart off the train and pulled it to Zecora’s. He knocked on her door.

“Hi, Zecora. I’m back with your cart. And a whole bunch of other stuff.”

“Thank you, Radish, for completing this quest. You look like you’ve been refreshed.”

“Must be the Barkin’ Dogs Potion. Is there anything else I can do for you while I’m here?”

“After yet another walk, would you not like to sit and talk?”

“Okay, since I’m apparently not on the clock.”

Radish and Zecora sipped tea.

“This is good tea. And I like your home. It feels… I don’t know, safe?”

“Thank you for the compliment. I am glad that you were sent.”

“Potion Nova just thought I wanted to avoid Halcyon.”

“Do you think-”

“I have to deal with this, right? I can’t just sit around forever, hoping Celestia will suddenly change her mind about me.”

“If you want to know-”

“And she deserves happiness! She’s been leading Equestria for over a thousand years. I don’t even know if she’s been in love once that whole time. That’s so long to go without love. She should get to be with anyone she wants.”

“There is a saying-”

“It’s not her fault she’s on my cutie marks. I have no right to interfere with her life.”

Zecora sipped her tea.

“Thanks, Zecora. You’ve been a big help.”

“You are welcome, Radish Root. I’m glad our chat has borne you fruit.”

“You got any Barkin’ Dogs Potion?”

“Sadly, my bourbon stores are dry, and so is my gin, rum, and rye.”

Radish left the Everfree Forest and took the next train out of Ponyille. He watched Canterlot slowly growing closer from his window seat.

A family with a small filly rode in the same car. The filly stared at Radish while her parents talked.

“A living fossil, he is!” said the mother. “Why, I’d wager he’s the most important visitor this country has seen since its inception!”

Radish sighed and leaned back. The mother caught sight of her filly staring at Radish.

“Well, I’ll be! A royal guard! Hello, there, mister!”

“Hello, ma’am.”

“Say, you must have the dish on this Halcyon fellow!”

"Is it true what they say about him and the princess?” asked her husband.

“What do they say?” Radish asked.

“That he's come to court her!” said the wife. “Oh, imagine the wedding!”

Radish imagined it, then stopped imagining it.

“I can’t speak for their plans, ma’am.”

“And can you imagine the kids they’ll have?” she asked.

Radish tried. He didn’t have the imagination necessary. But he did hit a realization.

“Well… those kids would have the most wonderful pony on Earth for a mother.”

“And it would be your job to protect them!” she said.

“Yes… yes, it would be. My duty. Protecting Celestia’s children. Protecting… the royal family.”

Radish had never considered that there would ever be a royal family. The idea seemed rather foreign in Equestria. Celestia did have family, of sorts- her adopted niece Mi Amore Cadenza, who had been studying abroad for the past few years, and her nephew Blueblood, who kept to his villa and his yachts.

But a real royal family? Celestia, her husband, and their children, living together and loving each other in the palace? Who could ever imagine it would come to that?

Radish realized that he would be guarding it all. Guarding their family meals, their birthdays, and Hearth’s Warmings. Standing watch over the nursery where they played. Chaperoning the little tykes as they went out in costume on Nightmare Night. Radish felt the responsibility, hypothetical as it was, pressing down on his shoulders.

“I hope you’re up for it! Looking after kids isn’t easy,” said the father.

Radish looked at the filly, who was still staring at him. He sat up straight.

“Know what else won’t be easy? Messing with Celestia’s kids while I’m around.”


The train pulled in as night fell. The moon seemed to rise a bit slower than usual. As Radish entered the palace front commons, crashes and flashes burst over his head. He looked up.

“Oh… wow.”

Fireworks filled the skies over Canterlot. Radish had never seen ones so intricate, bright, and beautiful. Shoofly walked up to him and watched them with him.

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Oh! Look!”

In the sky was a new shape: the signature of the unicorn casting the fireworks. It was a spinning orange sun- Celestia’s cutie mark.

“Wow, the old lady is really putting on a show tonight,” she said.

“Yeah. Do you know what the occasion is?”

“Yeah...” she said, turning to Radish, “it's to commemorate the debut of our, uh, distinguished guest. The palace put out a press release about Halcyon while you were gone.”

"What did it say?"

"Stuff about his people and his journey here. Nothing about him and Celestia. But word among the staff is that we may be getting close to that. Sorry."

“Don't be. Celestia can be with whoever she wants. I just want her… to be happy.”

“That sounded convincing.”

“I think I just convinced myself.”

“So, end of an era for you?”

“Let’s hope so.”

“Wanna hit the town sometime? I can be your wingpony. I know all the singles bars- I bet the girls in this burg will throw themselves at you.”

“You know what? I’d like that.”


Radish walked the back halls of the palace on his way to his bunk. Shining Armor appeared around a corner as he approached, as if he had been waiting for him.

“Sir,” said Radish, saluting. “The supply runs are complete.”

“Good. Those potions are the first step in getting Halcyon’s people to a better status quo.”

“Oh, they’re for his people? They’re suffering from radiation?”

“Radioactive dust storms are just one of the many disasters that’s befallen the Edgelands.”

“That’s awful. But at the speed these potions have to be moved, I don't know how we'd get them across the sea."

"Logistics is on top of it, Root."

"Yes, sir.”

“I heard there was trouble on the road in.”

“Three stickup ponies. Sugarplum Dreams acted heroically. I’ll have my report soon.”

"What was your read on their demeanor?"

"Demeanor? Uh, well, overconfident, I suppose?"

“That’s troubling. If criminals are getting it in their heads that royal guards are easy pickings, we may have an image issue.”

“Sir, I’m sure they were just too foolish to be afraid of the Royal Guard. Ponies with sense know better than to mess with us.”

“So, you don’t think the public sees AG1 as the real heroes, and the Royal Guard as a joke?”

“No, sir! I’m sure whatever Twilight knows about heroism she learned by growing up with you as a role model.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow. “Root, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, or if you actually believe the smoke you blow up my chimney.”

“I meant that one, sir.”

“Right. By the way, you’ll be guarding the galleries the rest of this week… unless you’ve agreed to test potions.”

“Sir… testing potions sounds fun, but I have a job to do as a guard.”

“Even though Princess Celestia and Halcyon will be touring the galleries?”

“That doesn’t bother me.”

“Sounds like you mean that one, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine. Check the duty roster for details.”

“Yes, sir. And sir, on a personal note- I’d never want to stand in the way of Princess Celestia’s happiness.”

“You know, when I first became Captain, there were rumors that Celestia and I were secretly lovers.”

"Really?"

“But she’s always been more like family to me. And you always want what’s best for family. But sometimes you don't know what’s best for family- that’s where trust comes in. And trust is as important for guards as it is for family.”

“I trust her. And you can trust me, sir.”

“Good to know.”

Shining Armor started to walk away.

“Oh, sir?”

“Yes?”

“Was that family on the train planted there for me?”

“What are you talking about? What family?”

“Nothing, sir. My mistake.”


Spats waved Radish over as he came out of the bunk shower room.

“Radical, you missed dinner. I saved you something.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

They took seats at a table in their common room. Radish unwrapped the caprese sandwich Spats brought him.

“Ever miss home cooking?” asked Spats.

“Sometimes. But I was a Ranger for years before this. I did a lot of cooking on campfires between here and home.”

“Ever miss those days? Sleeping under wide open skies without nine other guys snoring in your ear sounds nice.”

“That was nice, all right. But I don’t mind the company nowadays.”

“How’s sword training?”

“Almost ready for my final. It’ll be nice to have a solid weapon on my hip.”

“Not a fan of the Royal Easy-Carry Retractable Lancing System?”

“Half the time the extending mechanism gets stuck, and the other half I can’t push it closed.”

“How were you armed as a Ranger?”

“Most Rangers carry a big ol’ boot knife and a crossbow. But our treaty with the buffalo said I couldn’t carry weapons on their land. They let me keep my penknife, and a couple of times, I’d turn my bandana into a sling and whip rocks at a cactus cat that was getting too close.”

Radish took a bite of his sandwich.

“We never talk about you, Spats. Where are you from?”

“San Franciscolt. Ma owned a hat shop. Dad, uh, ran a numbers racket.”

“Really?”

“Never got caught. Did get jumped, though.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“He lived. Gave up the game after that, and took up guitar. Played requests and little ditties of his own in bars.”

“You play anything?”

“Oh yeah. Sax. Didn’t bring it to the palace, though. I’m probably rusty these days.”

“How’d you end up in the Guard?”

“Well, I’d have to begin that story when I got these.”

He pointed to his cutie mark, a piece of white material with a line of black buttons.

“I, uh, was never sure what that was supposed to be,” admitted Radish.

“It’s called a ‘spatterdash’, just like me. You put them over nice shoes to protect them from dirt.”

“Oh. I guess I’ve never had shoes that nice.”

“I was always one for looking snazzy. I always assumed my mark would be something fashion-related. Then one day, my family was vacationing in the lake country, and my sister nearly fell off a dock. I grabbed her just in time. It was the first time I used my magic to lift anything that heavy. That’s when these appeared.

“See, she had on a brand new dress that would have been ruined. At first, I thought this meant my destiny was to help others keep themselves neat and tidy. But on the long cart ride home, I thought more about it. It hit me that she could have drowned. I realized that saving my sister from drowning was a lot more important than saving her dress from getting muddy. I realized my marks were more symbolic than I thought- I’m meant to protect delicate things from getting hurt.”

“Is that why you wanted to become a guard?”

“Actually, that’s why I wanted to become a lawyer. So I could help out the little guys when they’re about to be thrown into the deep end. I’d been interested in how the law works ever since I was a kid, probably ‘cause my old man was so good at skirting it.

“I saw a lot of folks in the neighborhood get a raw deal in courts through no fault of their own. I was so used to seeing the law being biased, corrupted, and useless, that I grew up thinking it was like that everywhere. I figured even PC must be like that.

“But one day, a tropical storm was bearing down on the town. Not pegasus-made, it was some freak thing. To this day we don’t know what caused it. It was looking bad. We didn’t have the infrastructure to withstand it, the transportation to escape it, or the supplies to survive it. But wouldn’t you know it, Princess Celestia herself came to our aid. She stood right on the coast and shoved the storm back with her magic. It was incredible.

“But she didn’t come alone. Her guards were cutting up the storm, redirecting the floodwaters, and evacuating the buildings. One of them pulled a friend of mine out of a whirlpool.

“And when all was said and done, they had saved every single life. PC had nearly died facing down that storm. That’s the day I realized that not all ponies in power were corrupt. There were good ones. And they were here.

“I went to the nearest recruiter and signed up. They’ve been putting me through law school on the side. I want to go back to my old block and help the kinds of ponies who get raw deals from the law. Until I can protect others as a lawyer, I can protect them as a guard. And I’ll look snazzy doing either.”

Radish chewed on his sandwich and Spats’s words. He frowned.

“Dammit, Spats.”

“What?”

“You know why I joined the Guard. I was just hoping to… you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I came here for a totally selfish, unrealistic, and stupid reason. But you, and I bet everypony else, came here for real reasons. You all wanted to help others, to make something of yourselves. You all must see me as a damn clown.”

“Radical, no one here judges you. If any one of us had your marks, we’d be trying to fulfill them, too.”

“Spats… I need a real reason to be here. I need something to tell people when they ask why I became a guard. I don’t have a story like you. All I ever wanted was Celestia.”

“There’s got to be something else you’re sticking around for.”

“Well… the Discord crisis showed me that there are enemies out there that I never could have imagined. Someone has to stop enemies like that.”

“Someone like you?”

“Someone exactly like me. Thanks, Spats.”

“Not a problem, Radical.”

“Could you stop calling me ‘Radical’?”

“Not a fan?”

“Not really.”

"Noted." Spats looked at the clock on the wall. "Ah, it's almost lights out."

"Then we should hit the hay. We've got guarding to do."

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