• 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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40. The Suitor, Part 8: Coffee and Pie

Radish sat slumped on a bench in a City Watch station, watching his captain talk to a sergeant of the Watch. They glanced over at him unhappily several times during the conversation. Finally, the sergeant returned to his office and Shining Armor approached Radish.

"You okay, Root?"

"I'm fine, sir. What's going to happen now?"

"We're letting the Watch handle this, quietly. They've been after Puddin' Tame for a long time."

"Puddin' Tame?"

"That's her name."

"Oh. I should have known that was a lie, too."

“She’s part of a gang of crooks who have been running petty crimes and scams in Canterlot for years. Looks like they’ve recently built up enough confidence to take on bigger scores. They’re the ones who tried to jack your shipment. I guess they took it personally that you stopped them.”

"How many more are out there?"

"The Watch doesn’t know, but probably a lot."

"And I'm in their crosshairs."

"The Royal Guard doesn't take attempted murder on one of their own lying down. Commander Barrel Roller has asked to handle this personally. She says she'll bust up the whole gang like gangbusters."

"I don't want her to put herself in danger on my account."

"Root, she lives for a good fight. And she hasn't been in once since she took a desk job."

“What’s a good fight these days?”

Shining sat down next to him.

"You've never had somepony try to kill you, have you?"

"Not... quite like that."

"It's different from some wild animal or magical creature, isn't it? It's personal. Changes how you look at ponies."

"Yeah..."

"My first time was as a cadet. I was on a royal cargo train when a band of prairie pirates attacked."

"I've never heard of that. What happened?"

"They boarded us, and we fought. But during the fight, I noticed the pirates' leader breaking away from the fray. I chased after him. It turns out there was a VIP onboard traveling undercover. Somehow her identity got leaked, and the brigands saw her as an easy kidnapping target. And with everyone occupied repelling the boarders, I was the only one who could stop the boss from getting to her."

"I'm guessing you beat him easy."

"Hardly. He was hopped up on some black market potion. It made him insanely strong. He punched right through my best shield spell."

"What'd you do, then?"

"I cast my spell again. He broke it again. I cast it again, he broke it again, and so on. We were at an impasse, but I was clearly going to wear out before he would. I'll never forget the look in his eyes as he readied what he thought would be the killing blow. It was pure, cold, malice, aimed at my very life."

"But the killing blow didn't come."

"By then, the rest of my unit had finished mopping up the bandits, and came rushing to my aid. The pirate leader surrendered. I got a medal, promotion, yada yada. But the real reward was the grateful look on the VIP's face. That’s the look I choose to carry with me. That overrides the pirate leader's hateful eyes, every time."

“I didn’t save anyone. I don’t get a memory of a grateful look to carry out of this.”

“Do you know why I got called away before the dinner party? Someone tried to break into the palace’s supply depot that night. Lieutenant Zero repelled them, but got a black eye for his trouble. I’m guessing it was this same gang.”

“They’re probing the palace’s defenses. Testing the Royal Guard. They could be plotting something big.”

“That’s my read, too. But tonight you took one of them down and sent them a message. You want a grateful look?” He looked Radish in the eyes. “Here.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Have you given Corporal Shade’s advice any thought?”

“You mean therapy? I don’t know if I have the time.”

“You do now. I’m giving you the rest of the week off.”

"Did you take the rest of the week off after the pirates?"

"Yeah, because my captain ordered it, too. And I want you to lay low for the time being."

"Like, I'm grounded?"

“You're being targeted, Root. The next girl who smiles at you could get to the knife a lot quicker.”

“Oh….”

There was a clamor at the front of the station. Shining looked up.

“Ah, dang. The press is here. I need to go give a statement. Why don’t you quietly slip out the back? Just take a cab straight to the palace, okay?”

"Okay.”

“And… that VIP I mentioned? She’ll be on break from school soon, and she’ll be visiting Canterlot. I think you should meet with her.”

“Why? Is she single?”

“You know who I’m talking about, Root. Cadance is an expert on helping ponies who are going through tough things.”

“Does she know about my… whole deal?”

“No. Princess Celestia and I decided that your marks are yours to reveal- or not- on your own terms. We don’t bring them up behind your back. But I would encourage you to talk to Cadance about them.”

“I’m not going to dump that problem on Princess Cadenza while she’s on break, sir.”

“Everyone needs backup at some point, Root. Sometimes it’s your unit rushing to your rescue. Sometimes it’s just the right pony to talk to.”

“Well… okay.”

“Good.”

Shining left to deal with the press ponies. Radish walked through the station until he found what looked like a rear exit. He stepped out into a dark, humid alleyway.

Just slip out the back. Sure. Nothing bad ever happens in back alleys.

“Well, hey there.”

Radish spun around and raised a hoof in self-defense. A green earth mare in a flat cap and vest was leaning against the wall.

“I knew someone would come out the back. The real story is always trying to slip away from the press conference.” She reached out a hoof. “I’m Gazeta. I’m a reporter. And I’d love to hear your story.”

Radish lowered his hoof. “We’ve met. You gave me your card on the train.”

“Oh! The guard? You never stopped by.”

“I’ve been occupied.”

“That I can believe. You’re Radish Root, aren’t you? Talk about a chronic case of bad luck.”

Radish turned to walk away. “Have a nice night.”

“But maybe bad luck is what this town needs. You’ve put more members of the Warmbloods away in a week than the Watch has all spring.”

Radish stopped. He looked back at her. “That’s what they’re called?”

“Uh huh. Well, currently. They change their name a lot.”

“What else do you know about them?”

“You keep your ear to the street, you learn some things.”

“Have you told the Watch these things?”

“The Watch is where good intel goes to die. They ignore every lead they get from the public.”

“The Royal Guard doesn’t. Tell me what you know.”

“That could land me in hot water.”

“I can pay you.”

“In my line of work, the best currency is information.”

“I don’t have any of that.”

“No? I bet you’ve got a few beans to spill about that Halcyon guy.”

“The palace put out a press release about him. That should have all the information you need to know.”

She fished out a folded newspaper from her bag. “Yeah, I’ve seen it. Of course, the real story in any press release is what they leave out of it. And what they left out of this one is a real head-scratcher.”

“What did they leave out?”

She smiled. “Come on. We can talk about it over a cup of coffee. My treat.”

“I’ve already had one bad date tonight.”

“How about coffee and pie?”

“...fine.”


Radish and Gazeta took a corner booth in Horns and Hardcart, a spacious, 24-hour automat downtown. She put the press release on the table between them.

“All right,” she said, “look at this and tell me what’s wrong with it.”

Radish read it over. He shook his head. “Is this a punctuation thing?”

“It’s announcing Halcyon to the world, but there’s no photo of him.”

“What are you talking about? There’s one right there.”

“That’s an artist’s rendition. Photorealistic, but still a drawing. What I want to know is, why would they go through the trouble?”

Radish squinted at the image. It was the same picture of Halcyon’s face that Shining Armor projected during the briefing. As far as he could tell, it was indistinguishable from a photograph.

“Well, maybe he has a cultural thing against being photographed. Or maybe he just thinks the camera adds ten pounds.”

“Or maybe it’s because he’s not what appears to be, and you can’t fool a camera?”

She spread a series of photos across the table top. Radish frowned.

“You tried to photograph him? That wouldn’t work. Cameras don’t work in the palace outside of designated photo op zones. Anywhere else, and you just get a picture full of lens flares. It’s a spell that Celestia casts herself.”

“Yeah, all because some Ponyville kids took an embarrassing photo of her for their school newspaper. Talk about an overreaction.”

“I’m fond of the spell, myself.”

“I’m not. It means the only way to get a photo of Halcyon is to climb to a vantage outside the palace, use a long-focus lens, and try to snap a picture of him.”

“Don’t tell me you did that.”

“Of course I did. And guess what happened?”

“You felt a sense of remorse over being a voyeur?”

“I got attacked by birds. Since when does the palace employ attack swallows?”

“We don’t.”

“Well, that’s what they were. The blue kind with black wings. They swarmed me and I dropped my camera. It broke my lens and ruined the rest of my roll.”

“Black wings? That’s a northeastern species. They don’t get any closer to Canterlot than… Fillydelphia.” Radish clicked his tongue. “Did you get a photo of them?”

“No. They came out of nowhere and were gone in a flash.”

Radish looked at the photos. Gazeta had circled certain orange blurs inside certain palace windows on certain photos.

“What are these?”

“That’s Halcyon, or the best photo you can get of him from extreme range while he’s moving past a window.”

“It can’t be. Halcyon’s gold-colored. These are too orange.”

“That’s my point. He photographs differently from how he looks.”

“It’s probably bad film, a bad photographer, or a bad developer.”

“It’s none of those. And I resent that.”

“You probably just took a picture of the Quartermaster. He’s big and orange.”

“I resent that, too.” She leaned back and sighed. “You really don’t know what’s going on with Halcyon, do you?”

“No. I really don’t.” He looked down at the table. “Sorry. I have no information to trade you.”

She pulled out her notebook, wrote something down, and tore out the page.

“Here,” she said, offering it to him. “For your trouble. A list of places the Warmbloods have been gathering lately. Maybe the Guard can put it to better use than the Watch.”

“Thanks. We will.” Radish looked at a clock on the wall. “It’s getting late. Can I escort you home?”

“That’s sweet, but you’re the one being targeted. I should escort you home.”

“I don’t think anyone in the palace should see me with a reporter. In fact, why don’t we say this chat never happened?”

“If it never happened, then I’m not paying for your pie.”

“...fine.”


Radish took a cab to the palace and entered through the back. He found Princess Celestia pacing the atrium of the rear entrance. She approached him with a relieved expression.

“Radish…”

He saluted. “Your highness.”

“I heard about the attempt on your life. Are you all right?”

“I sustained no injury, your highness.”

Her head drooped as she stepped closer. “I’m sorry for how I behaved. If that had been the last time we spoke…” She grimaced and looked off to the side.

“Yes?”

“Please, forgive me. I need you to know that-”

“Radish Root! I am glad to see you safe!”

Halcyon appeared around the corner. Princess Celestia stood up straight, calmed her expression, and turned to him.

“Halcyon?” she said. “What are you doing back here?”

“I heard that Radish Root was attacked!” He looked at Radish. “It must have been a terrifying ordeal for you!”

Radish shrugged. “Oh, it wasn’t so bad. One time I got into a bar brawl in Fillydelphia- now that was terrifying.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah,” said Radish, stepping closer to him, “a lot of unsavory types hail from Fillydelphia.”

Halcyon stared into Radish’s eyes. “I would not know.”

“Some cool birds live there, though.”

“I would not know that, either.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t. Well, sir, madam, it’s been a long day for me. I’m going to turn in.”

“Good night, Radish,” said Celestia. “And if there’s anything you need-”

“Thank you, your highness. You’re too kind.”


Onion Tartlet heard a soft rapping at the door of her quarters. She opened it to see Radish.

“Lieutenant?”

“Miss Tartlet, is there still room for me in your conspiracy?”

She looked relieved. “Yes. We’re all getting really worried. Princess Celestia is already planning her journey to the Edgelands with Halcyon. They could be leaving as soon as next week.”

“Then we don’t have much time.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“Everyone needs backup at some point. And I think Celestia needs all of us now.”

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