• 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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36. The Suitor, Part 4: Marked Improvement

Radish Root took to his hind legs and held his practice sword in his outstretched hoof. He advanced on Saguaro Shade, warily.

“Root, you’re a bit slow today.”

“Slow, sir? Or cautious? I ain’t gonna be caught off-guard by you again.”

They clashed and locked their swords. Radish carefully backed out of his corporal’s reach.

“That’s all well and good, but you’re passing up openings to strike.”

“I know those are false openings meant to draw me in.”

“Yeah? Then when are you going to make one of your own?”

Radish narrowed his eyes and thrust forth. Saguaro Shade quickly struck his hoof, neck, torso, buttocks, and hind legs with his baton. Radish fell back.

“Something on your mind, Root?” Saguaro Shade asked, helping him up. “Or maybe too little on your mind?”

“I’m just feeling… unfocused.”

“Because you dropped Celestia from your brain and put nothing there in her place?”

“Am I that much of an open book, sir?”

“More like a compass without a north.”

“Any suggestion what to point myself at?”

“Root, what are your ambitions here outside of Celestia? And don’t say Luna.”


“Do you want to be captain someday?”

“I imagined I’d have to wait my turn behind the commander and you, and a hundred other guards.”

“What, then?”

“I’d like to be the Royal Spymaster someday.”

“Root, there ain’t no Royal Spymaster.”

“Isn’t that what a Royal Spymaster would want everyone to think?”

“You got me there, Root. But I’ve been in this castle a good long time, and nopony’s seen nor heard of any spymasters, and Celestia soundly denies such a thing.”

“Well, if there ain’t one, I could become the first. Protect Equestria from the shadows.”

“That’s hardly in keeping with the dominant paradigm around here. Guards put on bright, shiny armor with a nice big star for a reason. Good guys don’t skulk- they shine.”

“Sir, you know as well as I do the value of a good skulk. Almost every animal out on the plains has cryptic coloration, whether it’s hunting, being hunted, or guarding its kin.”

“You wanna be Celestia’s snake in the grass? Far cry from what you first came here to be for her.”

“But it’s better, right?”

“I suppose. I’m glad you have some kind of goal, at least. But if you want sword clearance, you need more than a goal. You’ll need reflexes.”

Radish readied his baton. “En garde, sir.”

“We, uh, don’t really say that around here.”

Radish stood sentry over a large room in the palace’s east art gallery. This room held a number of abstract paintings and sculptures from some of Equestria’s most celebrated modernists.

As Shining had said, Celestia was showing Halcyon the galleries today. Although Celestia rarely shied away from her adoring public, the tourists had been barred entry so that she and her guest could enjoy the art without crowds. Only Celestia, Halcyon, Radish, and another guard, a burly unicorn mare named Claymora, were in the room now.

“What exquisite craft!” said Halcyon. “We have nothing that compares in my homeland.”

“Many of these pieces wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration- schools of thought and design workshops, sharing ideas and spreading techniques,” Celestia noted.

“Another way the lack of friendship has left my people bereft! Imagine the beauty they will create once they understand it.”

He turned to see Radish.

“Ah! Radish Root! It is pleasant to see you again!”

“Good morning, Halcyon. Good morning, your highness.”

“Good morning, lieutenants,” Celestia said pleasantly.

"I understand you valiantly defended my people's potions yesterday,” said Halcyon. “I am in your debt."

"Oh, it was a team effort, sir. I barely did anything."

"My people believe that modesty is a form of dishonesty. If you do not sing your own praises, who will?"

“Actually,” said Celestia, “we always make sure to reward meritorious service around here. Lieutenant Root will be receiving a medal for his actions.”

“Oh!” said Radish. “I’m honored.”

“You should be!” said Halcyon, leaning over Radish, “I was exposed to the radiation like the rest of my people. Thanks to your hard work, I am feeling more vigorous than ever before!”

“Glad to hear it, sir. Guards are here to help.”

“Then perhaps you can help me interpret these works of art! Tell me, Radish Root, what does this piece mean to you?”

He was indicating a large canvas that dominated one of the free-standing walls that divided the room. It had been painted entirely sky blue except for one stray black mark in the upper-right corner.

Untitled #17 by Frosty Dawn? She never said, but the tour guides say it represents-”

“I am asking for your opinion.”

“It’s a bug, sir.”

Both Halcyon and Celestia seemed surprised by this.

“A bug, you say?” asked Halcyon.

“I think it’s a clear blue sky, and that black thing is a dragonfly zooming past the corner of your eye.”

“Is this true, Princess Celestia?” Halcyon asked.

“Radish, that’s a bit… physical for Frosty Dawn,” said Celestia. “Most of her pieces explored her emotional states.”

“Forgive me, ma’am. I don’t have much of a head for art.”

“Fear not, Radish Root. This is all dizzying to myself, as well,” said Halcyon. “I look forward to learning about all of these.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Celestia continued the tour and led Halcyon out of the room.

Claymora looked at Radish. “I don’t think that guy likes you.”

“He’s from a land without friendship. He’s trying.”

“Trying to embarrass you in front of the princess. And it worked.”


“Sorry. But none of these are about bugs. Nopony makes art about bugs.”

Radish stared at Untitled #17.

“That’s a bug.”

Radish hunched over a book on art history in the palace library. He found the page he was looking for.

“Oh. I guess it’s not a bug.”

“Hi, Radish!” said Spike in a hushed, library-appropriate tone.

Radish looked up to see Spike clambering into the chair next to him with a thick graphic novel.

“Howdy, Spike. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t make the dinner party. I’m attending to Princess Luna while she’s not feeling well.”

“Is it serious?”

“She keeps getting migraines. They’re bad enough to keep her in bed.”

“What have the doctors said?”

“That her test results are for her eyes only.”

“Well, that’s true. When did it start?”

“Uh… about four days ago.”

“So, around when Halcyon showed up?”

“I guess. Say, do you think he has something to do with it?”

“I don’t see how,” Radish said, considering it.

“Maybe Princess Luna is in love with him, and it’s paining her to see him spend so much time with Princess Celestia!”

“Spike, that’s a little… melodramatic.”

“Or… maybe she’s getting migraines because Halcyon got her pregnant!”

Radish cringed and looked around the library. No one was in earshot.

“Spike! You’re too young to be talking about stuff like that!”

“Hey, how old were you when you got… you know?” he said, gesturing to Radish’s side.

“You know about that?”

He shrugged.

“It’s Equestria’s worst-kept secret. Can I see it?”


“Aww. Come on.”

“No! You’re too young. And isn’t Celestia like a mother to you?”

“They’re that bad, huh?”

“Look, could you get a message to Princess Luna for me? Just tell her I said, ‘get well soon’ and… ‘thanks for the advice’.”


Spike returned to his graphic novel. Radish stared at him. Spike looked up.

“Well, I’m not going to do it now. I’m on break.”

“Spike! There you are! I need your help!” said Twilight Sparkle, trotting up to them. “I’ve hit upon some new ideas about rebuilding Halcyon’s civilization. I need you to copy scrolls from the social studies archives for distribution. We should start with fifty copies each.”

“I’d love to help you, Twilight, but Princess Luna needs me, and I’ve got to deliver her a message from Radish! See ya!”

He hopped off his chair and scampered away. Twilight watched him leave, then looked at Radish.

“Hello, Radish.”

“Hi, Twi. How’s it going?”

“Bad. I’ve barely begun my studies into friendship, and now I have to use what I know to save an entire people from ruin!”

“It’s not like you have to do it all alone. I mean, a project like this could take centuries.”

“Centuries!?” she exclaimed, loudly enough to be shushed by the librarian.

“Well, yeah. Maretonia wasn’t built in a day. And I guess Halcyon’s land wasn’t, either.”

“Or maybe it was. That’s another thing I’d love to ask Halcyon about, if Princess Celestia ever stops monopolizing his time.”

“Monopolizing his time?”

“It means taking up most of it.”

“I know what it means. I thought you’d all be working closely with him.”

“Not yet. Princess Celestia has been doling out assignments to us while she’s been teaching him about Equestria.”

“What kind of assignments?”

“Writing up friendship lessons and preparing aid packages, mostly. Rainbow Dash is coming up with lessons on healthy competition. Applejack is looking for crop varieties that can grow in the edgelands. Pinkie Pie is… actually, I’m not sure what she’s doing.”

Twilight noticed his book. “Oh, wow! Stray Cat’s Guide to Modernism, Post-Modernism and Post-Post-Modernism! I had no idea you were into abstract art!”

“I’m not. That’s why I’m reading it.”

“Learn anything interesting?”

“Well, Frosty Dawn’s Untitled #17 isn’t a bug.”

“Who said it was a bug?”

“Never mind.”

“Hey, Shining is acting kind of upset about something. Do you know what’s going on?”

“I’m not sure what I’m allowed to tell you, Twilight. What’s your clearance level?”


“What? That’s one of the highest!”

“All six of us have been Fives since Nightmare Moon. Spike, too.”

“I’m a One, you know.”

“You’ll get there someday. So what’s going on with Shining?”

“He’s worried about the public’s perception of the Guard.”

“Why? Everypony loves the Royal Guard.”

“But do they fear us?”

“Of course not!”

Radish frowned.

“What?” she asked. “You want to be feared?”

“Yes. I want ponies to quake in fear as I approach and sigh in relief as I go.”

Twilight laughed loud enough to get another shush from the librarian. Radish scowled.

“Radish,” she said more quietly, “scary ponies don’t study modern art in the library. They get into bar brawls and back alley fracases.”

Radish closed the book and looked at its cover.



“I’ve been thinking about finding a hobby, but I might already have one. And it’s not for the faint of heart. I used to wrestle competitively with the Black Bluffs.”

“Really? Weren’t they five times your size?”

Four times, Twilight. And yeah, they beat me all the time. But a whetstone still sharpens a blade, even though the blade will never cut through it.”

“Ooh! Was that an ancient martial saying?”

“No, I just came up with it.”

“I’m going to write that down,” she said, producing a quill and parchment, “I love hearing these bits of barracks wisdom.”

“The point is, off-duty guards have wrestling matches in the training gym. I could wrestle again!”

“Radish, you could get hurt.”

“Now, why did you say that, instead of, ‘Radish, you could hurt someone’?”

“Oh, uh… you’re right. You could hurt someone. You’re such a big, strong guy, you might accidentally snap the necks of everyone you fight.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

He checked the clock on the wall.

“Well, my break’s over. I’ve got to go guard some abstract depictions of post-pastoral alienation as seen through mid-century Califoalnian cityscapes.”

“We don’t have any paintings like that here.”

Radish checked the book again.

“Oh. Dang it.”

After finishing his duties for the day, Radish entered the palace gym. He found two guards already wrestling across a large square mat. He trotted up to the organizer watching them.

“Hey, can I sign up for matches?”

“Sure. Right now it’s just informal matches between whoever wants to go, but we’ll be starting a full tournament soon.”

“Is there a prize?”

“Yep. A gift certificate to that pizza place down the street.”

“I’m in.”

“The sheet’s over there,” he said, pointing to a clipboard on the wall. “You know the rules? It’s Canterbury Style, Variant Two.”

“Yeah, I know the rules.”

“You have the gear?”

“Right here in my bag.”

“You ever wrestle before?”

Radish showed him a stitched cloth patch. “I got this from the Black Bluff buffalo. It’s a wrestling trophy.”

“You wrestled buffalo? Aren’t they three times your size?”

“Fo… Yeah. That’s right.”

“What do these words say?”

“It’s Black Bluff, for ‘Marked Improvement’.”

“Nice. Get geared up.”

Radish emerged from the locker room in wrestling gear. The organizer introduced him to his opponent, a yellow, blue-maned pegasus stallion.

“Hi,” he said, extending a hoof. “Lieutenant Flash Sentry.”

“Lieutenant Radish Root,” said Radish, shaking it.

“Root? The guy with... uh, never mind."

“Yep, that's me. Tell you what- beat me, and you can see them.”

“Oh, you’re on!”

The two took their places, then circled each other. Radish eyed Flash cautiously.

Unicorns had their magic duels, and pegasi had their flight competitions, but every contact sport in Equestria developed out of earth pony traditions. Earth ponies’ primal connection to the land provided them with strength, stamina, and durability far above that of baseline pegasi and unicorns. In terms of power, Flash was at a disadvantage, and his key advantage over Radish- his wings- was nullified. Under the Variant Two ruleset by which Radish and Flash were competing, a pegasus’s wings were braced to their sides by pads.

However, wrestling is more than a contest of raw physical strength- a unicorn or pegasus with enough brains and heart could outmatch a stronger opponent, and all guards were trained to take on bigger and stronger foes. Radish had no delusions that this was going to be easy.

Flash bolted forward and went for Radish’s legs. Radish got his hooves around Flash’s midsection and grappled his opponent down. Flash wriggled out of Radish’s grip and grabbed Radish’s torso, attempting to push him onto his side. Radish re-centered his balance and pushed back hard, shoving Flash down.

Radish had Flash on his back. Flash slipped away, swooped behind him, and put him in a headlock. Radish lurched forward, throwing him. Flash landed on all fours, facing him.

He's fast. No, wait... it's more like he's frictionless.

Pegasi have electro-magical fields around their bodies which allow them to stand on clouds and manipulate the weather with their bare hooves. As a pegasus flies faster, the field grows stronger, forming a protective shield which deflects air particles to cut drag.

Flash, however, seemed to be controlling his field consciously, powering it up to full strength at any speed. He cut through the air with no resistance, and slipped out of Radish’s grasp with ease.

That must be his special talent. Good one for a guard to have. Okay, I can't get a grip on him. I'll have to work around that.

Radish rushed Flash again, a bit slower than he really could, to lure Flash into shoving him. Radish planted himself, and pushed back just enough to bait Flash into over-committing his push, then ducked and allowed Flash to trip over his body. As Flash stumbled, Radish rolled onto him.

Flash engaged his electro-magical field again and squirmed. Radish leaned his full weight on Flash's abdomen, and Flash popped out from under him like a cork from a bottle. Flash slid across the mat, but shut off his field just in time to stop himself at the edge of the ring, narrowly avoiding a ring-out. While he recovered and stood to turn, Radish hooked his hooves around Flash and slammed him into the mat.


The referee gave a three-count. Radish had won.

"Good match," said Flash as Radish helped him up.

"Thanks. You've got nice moves," said Radish.

"Are you entering the tournament? I'd love a rematch."

"Yeah. And since you've been a good sport..."

Radish pulled back his singlet and showed Flash his cutie mark. Flash's eyes went wide.


"I know, right?"

Radish lay back in his bunk, smiling.

“Radish. You look happy,” said Spats, peeking down from the top bunk.

“I wrestled for the first time in years. I won.”

“Was there ever any doubt? You’re a stack and a half, Rad.”

“You know, I spent a lot of time working out because I thought it would impress Celestia.”

“I figured.”

“I had this fantasy where she’d see me as an adult for the first time, and she’d be taken aback at how good I looked.”


“She wasn’t even taken a little aback.”

“Well, don’t take it personally. She still hired you.”

“Sometimes I wonder why she did.”

“She gave you the job because she knew you’d be good at it.”

“It felt more like a dare, really. Like she was giving me room to fail, and then she’d be rid of me forever.”

"Princesses don’t hire guards to fail, Rad. The hiring paperwork alone takes weeks to put through.”

“Yeah, it’d be a hassle to the administration office to get rid of me.”

“And to me, too. You’re the only one here who wipes his hooves.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

"You gonna wrestle more?”

"A lot more. I'm entering a tournament."

"Are you hoping someone will be taken aback by that?"

"No. For the first time in my life, I’m doing something that’s just for me. And no one's going to be surprised when I win the whole thing."

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