• 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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41. The Suitor, Part 9: Some Pretty Strange Secrets

Radish held his practice sword in two hooves, slowly circling Saguaro Shade.

“You sure you’re up for this, Root? I heard about your night out.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I’m seeking the help I need.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Radish clashed his baton against Saguaro Shade’s. They traded blows and blocks back and forth across the arena. Radish advanced, pressing his corporal back. Saguaro Shade thrust low, only to have his weapon swatted away. Radish brought his own weapon to Saguaro Shade’s throat.

“Well, corporal? How’s my focus today?”

“You’re finally fighting in the moment. Forcing my next move, instead of trying to predict it.”

“A fighter’s only as good as his next move.”

“I like that. Where’d you hear it?”

“I just made it up.”

“Did you also make up that tail feint?”

“It’s from the anti-chimera manual, just scaled for a pony-sized opponent.”

“That’s innovative of you, Root. I think you’re as ready as you’ll ever be for your final.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do you proud.”

They sheathed their batons and bowed to each other.


Radish trotted inside the palace’s photo studio, one of the locations in the castle exempt from the censorship filter spell. He found Halftone, the royal photographer, making adjustments to a boxy contraption on a workbench.

“Pardon me, sir.”

“Can this wait? I’m close to figuring out how to photograph a snowflake.”

“That’s been done.”

After it’s melted.”

“That’s just water.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

Radish put the paper with Halcyon’s press release down onto the workbench.

“I need to know about this.”

Halftone looked at it. His ears drooped. “So, you figured it out. Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Halftone wiped his glasses and sighed. “The day Halcyon arrived, Princess Celestia gathered a bunch of the palace staff for a meet-and-greet with him. She asked me to take his official photo. He came in here and sat for it, but… I botched it.”

“Botched it?”

“Every time I looked at him through the viewfinder, he looked off. Too bright, too dark, blurry, miscolored, you name it. I had to keep adjusting the light, the focus, everything, way more than I should have. When I developed the photos, I found I had adjusted way too much. Halcyon’s official picture came out a big orange blur.”

“Really?”

“Captain Armor wanted the photo ready for his briefing. And I couldn’t get Halcyon to sit for another- he had gone to bed. So… I faked it.”

“How?”

“Minor photo problems, I can fix on my own. But when I have a big problem, I go to Broadstrokes.”

“The royal portrait artist?”

“He can rework a photo with his magic. He was at the meet-and-greet, so he knew what Halcyon looked like- he’s a genius at memorizing faces. He agreed to make a fake photo from scratch.”

“He can just whip up a photorealistic picture?”

“Yeah, but he hates doing it. He says the more realistic a painting is, the less true-to-life it is. Whatever that means. Anyway, I submitted it to Captain Armor. They later used it for the press release. No one noticed.”

“Hmm. Then, has Halcyon ever been clearly photographed?”

“I guess not. Why? Do you think he’s a ghost or something?”

“Do ghosts not photograph clearly?”

“No. There are ghosts all over this castle, but I’ve never gotten a good picture of any of them.”

“Thank you for your time.”


Radish went to the Potion Bureau on his lunch break. The staff was out to lunch, but the Head Potionista’s office was full. Inside was the same group of conspirators, along with a new one- Katydid, the records archivist.

“Thanks for coming back,” said Potion Nova, “we think we’ve blown this Halcyon thing wide open.”

“How so?”

“Take a look at this, lieutenant,” said Katydid, giving Radish a stack of documents. “This is the sign-in log for Secure Storage.”

“Are you allowed to show us this?”

“Sure, it’s not classified. It just sits on my desk all day, where anyone can walk by and read it. But look- the day Halcyon showed up, Princess Celestia went down there, and she didn’t come back up for hours.”

Radish looked at the line she was pointing to. Celestia had signed in around noon on the day, then signed out around 3pm. Under “Reason for visit”, she wrote “study of artifacts”.

“Is that unusual?”

“Normally, if she needs something from Secure Storage, she sends a clerk to retrieve it.”

“Okay, but what does this have to do with Halcyon?”

“Well, when she came out of the archives, she was, ah… disheveled.”

“Disheveled?”

“One of the hairs in her mane was out of place.”

“That is unusual.”

“So you see where I’m going with this?”

“No.”

Katydid shifted uncomfortably on her hooves. “Well, you know what else is down there, right?”

“Uh, a ton of stuff. Even Discord’s ugly mug is there.”

“Yes. Exactly.” Katydid waited, as if expecting Radish to make a connection.

“What?”

“Lieutenant, we think Halcyon is Discord,” said Swift Sparrow.

“Discord is stone. We all saw him. If he broke free, we’d have been alerted.”

The conspirators all gave each other a look.

What?” asked Radish exasperatedly.

“Lieutenant… you must have heard that rumor,” said Morning Glory.

“What rumor?”

“You know, that Celestia…”

Radish waited.

“...and Discord…”

Radish waited, impatiently.

“...used to be lovers.”

Radish made a dry heave, then another. “What? That’s insane!”

“It makes sense, in a weird way,” said Potion Nova. “They’re both uniquely powerful ancient beings. They can probably relate to each other in a way they can’t with anyone else.”

“Discord tormented the royal sisters! Made Luna cry! Gave Celestia nightmares!”

“Love doesn’t have to be rational, Radish,” said Onion Tartlet. “The ‘enemies-to-lovers’ plot is hugely popular in novels, plays, movies…”

“That’s fiction! Even if it were true- which it’s not- why would Discord be Halcyon?”

“Well- and keep in mind that this is a rough draft- we think it went a little something like this,” said Morning Glory.

Hallmark took a position at one side of the room and contorted his body into the same pose as Discord’s statue. Onion Tartlet walked up to him in a regal-looking trot.

“I, Princess Celestia,” she said, “will now free you, Discord, from your stony prison!”

She dipped her head toward Hallmark as if casting a spell. Hallmark stretched out and laughed maniacally.

“Ha ha ha! Now that I, Discord, am free again, I will turn off the sun and begin my reign of chaos all over again!”

“But Discord,” cried Onion Tartlet, “I have freed you- because I love you! I cannot stand another moment without you! And I know that you love me, too!”

“Don’t be foolish, Celestia!” said Hallmark, turning away, “our love could never be! Your people will never accept it!”

“Then we will keep our love a secret! Meet in secret! Make love in secret!”

Radish held in another dry heave.

“No, dearest Celestia, I have a better idea- I will take pony form, so that we may be together, publicly! I will make myself into a stallion so handsome, no one will question why you wish to be with me. I will give myself a backstory that no one will be able to disprove! And I will present myself to a respected member of pony society and have him introduce us!”

“That is brilliant, my love! But wait, my sister Luna knows all your tricks, and will not be so easily fooled.”

“Then I will create a disturbance in the dream realm, to weaken and distract her!”

“Stop,” said Radish. “It can’t be Discord doing that. Luna confirmed it’s not chaos magic.”

“Oh?” asked Hallmark. “Drat.”

“Then I, Princess Celestia, will cause the disturbance myself!” announced Onion Tartlet. “Then we will take a long voyage together, and let her run the kingdom for a change!”

Hallmark turned back to her and got back into character. “You’d pain your own sister, just to be with me?”

“Yes- because love doesn’t have to be rational!

“But what of all your servants? Your staff? Your guards? Won’t they object to you throwing caution to the wind and leaving with a stranger?”

“No, for they only want me to be happy. Except…”

“Except?”

“There is a guard who is madly in love with me…”

Radish crossed his hooves and scowled.

“...and, though I do my best to deny it, deep down, I harbor feelings for him, as well!”

“Wait, what?” asked Radish.

“Shhh!” whispered Swift Sparrow. “This is where it gets good.”

“Leave him to me, my little sugar swan,” said Hallmark, grandly, “I will challenge this guard to a duel and give him a proper thrashing, thus proving myself the superior stallion!”

“And by the time he and Luna have recovered, we will have sailed away to our new lives!” cheered Onion Tartlet.

They embraced each other.

“Oh, Celestia!” cried Hallmark, “I will now restore the sunlight, so that it can shine on our love!”

“Oh, Discord!” cried Onion Tartlet, “Come, and dishevel me!”

They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes, and drew their faces toward each other.

“And… scene!” said Potion Nova.

Onion Tartlet and Hallmark let go of each other and turned away, blushing.

“Well,” said Radish, “I think your play needs some work.”

“Like we said, it’s a rough draft,” said Morning Glory. “But it fits what we know.”

“Has anyone actually gone down there to check on the statue of Discord?”

“No one can,” said Katydid. “That’s the other thing. Princess Celestia raised the security clearance level to Five for the room he’s in.”

“Five? That’s one of the highest! You should have led with that.”

“See? Even if it’s not Discord…”

“Which it is,” insisted Onion Tartlet.

“...Celestia is still hiding something down there. And she devoted a lot of time to it the day Halcyon arrived.”

Radish mulled this over. “Well… what do you want to do about it?”

“We intend to bring more palace personnel into the fold, including the department heads, then draft a letter of concern signed by all,” said Hallmark.

“That’s your plan?”

“Well, there’s not much else we can do,” said Potion Nova. “Think you can get more guards to listen? Maybe high-ranking ones?”

“Look, maybe we can talk to Princess Luna about all this…”

Hallmark frowned. “Lieutenant, did you not hear?”

“Hear what?”

“Princess Luna’s pain has grown too much for her to bear. The doctors had to sedate her.”

“Sedate her! I’m her Champion! I should have been the first to know!”

“There’s nothing we can do for her now, except uncover the truth,” said Onion Tartlet.

Radish went to the door.

“Oh, I’m going to uncover the truth, all right. The truth won’t know what hit it.”


Radish galloped through the back halls of the palace. As he rounded a corner, he skidded to a stop to avoid bowling over two ponies. It was Maple Bar, limping down the hall, clinging to Flash Sentry for support.

“Mape? What happened?”

“Oh, hey, Rad. You missed my match with Halcyon. No prize for guessing how it went.”

“He did this to you?”

“Tell ‘em, Flash.”

“She competed very well,” said Flash Sentry. “It was an impressive display of-”

“No. Tell him the truth.”

“Halcyon folded her like a calzone, flipped her like a pancake, and slammed her like… uh… well, you get the idea.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Nothing’s broken.”

“What’s his fighting style like?”

“He’s weirdly fast,” said Maple Bar. “Like, you grab for him, and he’s not there. Then he’s suddenly got you. And yes, he’s as strong as he looks.”

“Don’t worry, I can take him,” said Flash.

“And then I’ll knock him out of the loser’s bracket,” said Radish.

“Love that optimism,” said Maple Bar. “Can we get to the clinic now?”

Flash helped Maple Bar along to the hospital wing. Radish ran on. He reached the base of Selenic Spire just as Spike was coming out the front door.

“Oh, hey, Radish.”

“Sorry, Spike, no time to chat. I have to see Luna.”

“There’s nothing to see. I just came from her. She’s sleeping. Well, more like a medical coma. But ‘sleeping’ sounds nicer.”

“She can’t go to sleep! The dream world is what’s hurting her!”

“The doctors gave her something that keeps her from dreaming.”

“How long are they going to keep her like that?”

“Uh… they wouldn’t tell me.”

Radish gazed up at Luna’s balcony. He chewed his lower lip.

“Spike, I need your help.”

“With what?”

“Research.”

“I’m Twilight’s research assistant, not yours. I oughta charge you.”

“I’ll give you fifty bits.”

“Actually, how about you give me a peek at that, instead?” Spike said, pointing to Radish’s armor-covered flank.

“If I show you my flanks, you’ll help me?”

“Cross my heart.”

“Okay.”

Radish lifted up his armor, revealing a shaved square of skin.

“Aw, man. What a ripoff. I should have taken the bits.”

“You promised.”

“Yeah, yeah. What can I do for you?”

“Come on. We’re going to the archives.”

Radish led Spike across the commons to the administration buildings.

“Hey, Spike? Have you ever heard of enemies becoming lov… uh, becoming a couple?”

“Were you going to say ‘lovers’?”

“...yes.”

“Sure. It’s a pretty popular storyline. Happens in comics all the time.”

“Hmm. What about in real life?”

“Is this about you and Twilight?”

“What? No.”

They reached the front desk of Secure Storage. Katydid had returned from lunch and was on duty.

“Katydid, I need access to the lower levels.”

She frowned. “They’re at Clearance Level Five now, remember? I can’t look the other way this time.”

“Oh, Level Five?” asked Spike, walking around Radish, “Not a problem for a Very Important Dragon like myself. I’ve been Level Five since Nightmare Moon. Hey, Katydid.”

“Oh, hi, Spike! You’ll sign for access?”

“Yep. But I’ve got to bring Radish with me as my personal bodyguard. To protect me from rats.”

“Okay. But there’s no rats down there. The snakes scare them away.” She pulled out a key embossed with a ‘5’ on its handle while Spike signed in. “Take all the time you need.”

Spike twirled the key on a talon as he led Radish down the spiral stairwell to the archives. “So, what kind of research are we doing down here?”

“First, we need to check on a rubbish heap.”

They passed through the maze of aisles until they reached the locked room with Discord’s statue in it. Spike used the key. Radish entered the room determinedly. He found what he was looking for, where he last left it.

“Discord.”

The statue of Discord stood there, unchanged, albeit dustier.

“Whoa, this is where they stuck him?” asked Spike, approaching.

“Can we be sure this is the real thing?” asked Radish. “What if he got free, and just put a fake in his place?”

Spike sniffed it. “Nah, this is the real thing. I can still smell banana cream pie on him.”

“Okay. Load off my mind.”

“Ahh… ahh… choo!” Spike cupped his claws to his snout and sneezed a burst of green fire into them. Radish hopped back to avoid it.

Spike rubbed his nose. “Ugh, it’s so dusty down here. Is this all you wanted to see?”

“No. Something else is down here. We just need to find… oh. That’s new.”

At the far end of the room, there was a tall metal door where there hadn’t been one before. Radish approached it. It had a flat metal seal across it bearing the image of Celestia in silhouette.

“I’m guessing our Level 5 key won’t get us in there,” sighed Radish. “Looks like this door can only be opened by Celestia herself.”

“Yeah,” said Spike, walking up to it. “Whatever’s in there must be pretty important.”

He leaned against the door with one claw. “Sorry, Rad, I don’t think- whoa!”

The door swung open, causing Spike to fall onto the floor.

“Guess she forgot to lock it?” he said, standing up and dusting himself off.

Radish peered into the room. Inside was nothing but darkness. He clicked on his flashlight and affixed it to his helmet. Spike snatched a torch off the wall and lit it with his breath.

Radish examined the opened door’s locking mechanism. “Celestia put some of her magic in you, didn’t she? That’s how you send scrolls on smoke, right? The door must think you’re her.”

“Or maybe it’s because I’m half Celestia!” gasped Spike. “There’s this old rumor that I’m the secret love child of Princess Celestia and the Dragon Lord. Wait, is that why you were asking about enemies becoming lovers? Is that what this is all about?”

“I’m sorry, Spike, that’s not biologically possible. And she would have told you if she was your mother.”

“I dunno,” Spike said, “princesses can keep some pretty strange secrets.”

They gingerly entered the room, casting their lights around. Radish stopped in his tracks. “No kidding.”

His flashlight illuminated a tall glass capsule. Hovering inside it was a miniaturized cumulonimbus cloud. As Radish walked up to it, his fur stood on end.

Spike’s torch shone on a thick, filthy mass of roots breaking through the ceiling and reaching to the floor. Distracted by the sight, he walked into a third object, a crystal ball on a pedestal. His light caught small, ethereal purple wisps emanating from the ball and streaming toward a fourth object in between the other three.

Radish and Spike cast their lights on it. The wisps from the crystal ball, the roots from the ceiling, and a cable from the bottom of the capsule all converged into a circular dais in the center of the room. Sticking up from the center of the dais was a long, golden spear.

Radish’s eyes went wide as he approached it. “Son of a bi-”

He looked down at Spike. Spike looked up at him. “Of a what, Radish?”

“Of a big, honkin’ spear.”

“I can see that. What are we looking at?”

“It’s Celestia’s personal spear- a Hearth’s Warming present from the palace blacksmith, Ferrum Flats, a long, long time ago.”

“Really? I never get anything cool like this for Hearth’s Warming.”

Radish peered closer. The spear was no longer a solid piece of metal, but segmented and mechanized. Next to Ferrum Flat’s maker’s mark was a new mark- the insignia of Chandler, the Royal Quartermaster.

“Looks like Celestia had it modified to make it collapsible, just like a modern Guard spear.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“Maybe so it’s more portable? Or more… concealable?”

“But what’s all this stuff it’s plugged into?”

Radish took in the whole of the assembled objects.

“Tree roots, a storm cloud, and a magic crystal.” He looked back at the spear. “It’s being powered up by earth power, pegasus weather, and unicorn magic. Celestia is charging the spear with all three of her alicorn powers. She’s making a superweapon!”

“Sheesh. For what? Or, rather, against what?”

Radish looked out the door, into the next room, where Discord’s stone form stood.

“She told me she doesn’t like to send others to fight her battles. Maybe this is her way of ensuring she’ll never have to again.”

“You’d think something like that, she’d keep in her own tower, not the archives.”

Radish put his hoof on the tree roots and closed his eyes. “Hmm. Citrus. Non-native citrus.”

He opened his eyes and gazed up at the dark ceiling. “This is the Balencian orange tree! We’re underneath Courtyard A.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve snuck in there for snacking, from time to time. Those oranges are crazy sour. If there was a fruit I’d weaponize, that would be it.”

There was a new sound outside the room- heavy hooves walking across the stone floor.

“Spike? Are you down here?” called out Celestia’s voice.

Spike and Radish looked at each other, fearfully. They both doused their lights. Spike rushed to the door and closed it, enclosing them in darkness. They both huddled with their ears against the door.

“Spike!” called Celestia, now muffled. Her hoofsteps were getting closer. They stopped in front of the door.

The door made a series of clicks and clunks. Radish scooped Spike onto his back and pressed against the wall. The door swung open, concealing Radish and Spike behind it. They both peeked around the door at Celestia as she walked into the room, her horn lighting the way bright as the sun. They shut their eyes to adjust to the new light, then cracked them open to watch her.

She walked up to the spear and put a hoof on it. She inspected the tree roots closely. She walked up to the glass cabinet, and wrapped her wings around it. Finally, she touched her horn to the crystal ball, causing it to glow.

She then walked to the side of the room and looked at a small shelf that neither Spike nor Radish had noticed. Nothing but a single scroll sat on it. She seemed satisfied that it was there. Radish and Spike hid again as she turned. She left out the door, clicking it shut and locking it behind her.

Radish and Spike reignited their lights.

“Well, that was a close one,” said Spike.

Radish walked up to the spear-charging devices. The crystal ball was now glowing with purple light, and its emanations looked more substantial. The miniature thundercloud was flashing lightning inside its case, which struck the bottom plate and flowed through the cable.

“I guess she has to recharge these things every once in a while,” said Radish.

Spike approached the shelf. He hopped up and grabbed the scroll.

“Huh.”

“What?” asked Radish, walking up to him.

“It’s a transcript of throne room proceedings… from the day Halcyon arrived!”

“Don’t court transcripts usually go into public records?”

“Yeah, but this one is marked Top Secret. Clearance Level Six! This, I’ve got to see!” said Spike.

“Spike, don’t. Stumbling into a secret room is one thing, but looking at documents above our Clearance Level is something else entirely. And by ‘something else entirely’, I mean a federal crime.”

“Who’s going to prosecute me for a federal crime? I’m just a widdle baby dwagon.”

“Spike, I’m serious. We can bend the rules, but we can’t-”

Spike unfurled the scroll. A cloud of dust wafted up from the paper into his face.

“Ahh… ahh… choo!”

He sneezed out a large green flame which enveloped the scroll, reducing it to smoke. The smoke hovered in the air for a moment, then flew away from them, slipping under the door and out of sight.

Radish seized Spike in a panic. “Spike! Where is that going!?”

“Uh… usually a scroll goes to the last place I was thinking of.”

“You just sent it into Rarity’s lips!?”

“Hey! I have interests outside of Rarity, you know!”

“Then, where’s it going?”

“Well, your talk about bending the rules made me think of that rigged pinball game in the bowling alley, and that time I tried to tilt it.”

“What?”

That made me think of the claw game right next to it.”

“What?”

“There was this cute stuffed seal inside. I thought it would be nice to win it for… okay, for Rarity. Happy?”

“You sent a top-secret document… into the claw game at the bowling alley… full of ponies!?”

“Uh, heh heh. Yeah. But look on the bright side- no one ever wins at those things.”

Radish bit down into his hoof to muffle his own screaming. Spike walked up to the door and opened it.

“Come on, Rad. We’re never going to get that scroll back if we stay down here.”

They made their way out of the archives, passing the statue of Discord.

Radish scowled at it. “If I find out you had something to do with this, I’m going to crush you into gravel.”

The statue did not respond.

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