• 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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67. The Currency of the Plains, Part 1: Interloper

“ROOT!”

Radish had heard his name shouted out on a routine basis since he joined the Guard, but he didn’t recognize the voice this time. He looked skyward to see a pegasus in the olive uniform of the Royal Pigeon Post. He didn’t seem happy.

“Yes?”

“A letter showed up for you today in the pigeon tower.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“It showed up on this.”

The postpony pulled his foreleg out from behind his back. A Prairie Falcon was clamped onto it. Its feathers were painted in tribal markings. Its talons dug into his flesh.

“Whoa, Windwright? Is that you?” asked Radish. It nodded.

“This falcon flushed every last pigeon from the tower. We’re still calming them down. The next time somepony wants to send you a letter, tell them raptors are banned from our facilities!”

“Sorry. I’ll take her.”

“And release her outside of palace grounds.”

“Did you feed her?”

“And what would you have us feed her? Pigeons?”

“Never mind.”

Radish held out a hoof, and the falcon leapt to his head and clamped on it. He winced.

“Not so fun, is it?”

Radish took Windwright to his bunk. She kept stuck to his head while he opened the letter from the pouch strapped to her chest. He thought he was having vision problems, but then realized the letter was written in the Black Bluff language. Sky had something to tell him, she needed to get it to him fast, and she didn’t want anyone else reading it. Radish struggled to translate some of the nouns, until he realized she was writing a few of them phonetically for his benefit.



Dear Radish,

Hi. I’m glad you’ve found someone. She sounds nice. I hope she deserves you.

But I’m writing for something serious. There’s a problem at the Storm Centurion dig site. During the night of the 7th, our crates of artifacts were broken open and rifled through. Nothing was stolen, but it’s a mess. Every skeleton was disturbed, and our file boxes were turned over and searched. Dirt was thrown aside haphazardly, as if someone was trying to dig for themselves.

Radish, it was a pony. A unicorn. Focus Beam (that’s the new Ranger) found magic aura residue everywhere. This wasn’t a common thief. They were looking for something specific. We don’t know what.

There’s more. Sometimes at dusk we see silhouettes on the hilltops. Every time we approach, they run off, leaving no trace. Focus Beam keeps cans on tripwires around her camp, and a couple of nights ago, they were tripped. She didn’t see who was there. Someone is casing us.

We’re pausing and guarding the dig, and now we’ve got nightly patrols going. Focus Beam is searching the countryside like mad.

Remember what I said about ponies getting upset at the history we’re uncovering here? I figured that wouldn’t be a problem until after we’ve published, not during the dig.

Radish, did you tell anypony? I know I never said not to, and I don’t blame you if you did- I shouldn’t have voiced our suspicions prematurely, and I’m sure it felt great to throw the Wagoners’ dark history in Worthy’s dumb face. But the tribe is scared, Focus Beam is scared, and Hoopla is scared.

Radish, if the Wagoners are messing with the dig, nopony’s in a better position to investigate than you. You practically live in the same neighborhood, right?

I know you’ve taken a lot of oaths in your time, and I know your latest is to Miss Skinny, but I hope the oath you made to me under the Water-bearer still means something.

Chief Shortshadow is watching me write this. He wants me to add that thing he always says.

“Respect is the currency of the plains.” Sometimes it’s the only thing a buffalo, or a pony, has to trade on. I know mine for you isn’t misplaced. Please get to the bottom of this.

Love,

Skies Above



Radish looked up at Windwright.

“I’m sorry. I let something slip out, but wasn’t anything that could have caused trouble. Worthy Wagoner must have had suspicions before that. I guess I just… confirmed them.”

Windwright cocked her head.

“I would never do anything to hurt the tribe. Or the Rangers. Or a dig site. Or Sky!”

She fluttered her wings.

“I’ll make it right. I swear.”

She tapped her pouch with her beak.

“Yeah, I’ll write to her now.”

She blinked her nictitating membranes and stretched out her talons.

“Then we’ll find you something to eat.”

She relaxed and hopped on his shoulder.

“Then all I have to do is investigate the wealthiest pony in town over something I can’t prove and don’t understand.”

She nuzzled his neck.

“Thanks, Windwright. Was Sky really mad?”

Windwright made a “so-so” gesture with her wing.


The Wagoner family was old money, old magic, old military, and old every other form of establishment in Equestria. Willow Wagoner had been but one small twig of a sprawling tree which had branches all over Equestria and roots deep into the Tribal Era of all three pony tribes. So many of Uptown’s buildings had the Wagoner name on them, that trying to talk about a specific one usually led to confusion. They dug (or, had their workers dig) the waterfall reservoirs into the mountain Canterlot was built upon.

It was always more of a declaration than an act of goodwill, thought Radish. They’re letting the city know who really keeps it alive.

Okay, what do I know? The tribe suspects Willow ambushed and killed her own unit six hundred years ago. The Wagoners must want that to stay buried. Did they know this whole time? Why did she do that in the first place?

How far would they go to cover it up? Hurt the buffalo? Ruin a dig? They didn’t destroy evidence, just tossed it. What were they looking for?

I can’t just walk up to Worthy and confront him. Okay, I need evidence. But any evidence would be locked up in his mansion, which is so deep Uptown that the trash cans are diamond-studded.

I need allies here. The girls? Twilight has incredible magic ability. Rarity has high society connections. Fluttershy can read lips. Pinkie Pie… does those things she’s always doing. Maybe this is in their wheelhouse?

No. Their job is to stop monsters and supervillains. If I involve them in this, they could really get hurt.

Could I ask some of the guards here for help? No, I can’t let them get hurt, either.

The princesses? Yeah, right.

Folks like Worthy always have enemies. Another family in a rivalry with them? Could I exploit that?

Radish looked down at Sky’s letter again. It was starting to get blurry.

What I need is someone who’s good at snooping. Someone fearless. Tenacious. And preferably someone who owes me a favor.


The palace’s press office was abuzz with activity. Radish stepped inside, dodging clerks pushing carts full of files. He found Gazeta at her desk in the bullpen, typing with one hoof and sipping coffee with the other.

“Oh, hey, it’s the heavyweight champion himself,” she said.

“Hi, Gaz. I need some information.”

“I’m busy. Ever since your little cage match, the press corps has had our hooves full- issuing statement after statement, fielding question after question. I’ve typed ‘no comment’ so many times, it doesn’t look like a real phrase anymore. Basically, you choke-slammed our schedule and put my free time in a full nelson.”

“Well, overtime pay is nice, right?”

“Just tell me what you want.”

“Everything you have on the Wagoner family.”

“No comment.”

“I think they’re up to something shady. I need your help to bust this case wide open.”

“We’re already on thin ice with that family. The last thing you should do on thin ice is poke at a hornets’ nest.”

“Hornets’ nests actually aren’t dangerous in the winter.”

“What a great factoid. You should’ve been a reporter, too.”

“What happened to that intrepid newshound who would stalk back alleys just for a chance at a scoop?”

“Don’t play that card with me. I’ve paid my dues. And now I’m paying condo fees.”

“How about paying me back for getting you this job?”

“I am doing you a favor. The Wagoners make the Warmbloods look like kittens. They’ve got ponies everywhere. You don’t want to go and make yourself their target.”

Radish put a hoof to his chin. “Make myself their target, you say?”


Radish visited the Canterlot public library. He asked the librarian for all she had on the Wagoners.

“Oh! I love talking about them! They’ve done so much for the town. The special collections room is named after them.”

“Do they come in here often?”

“Oh, never. If they want a book, they don’t borrow, they buy it. I bet their personal library dwarfs this one.”

“What if they need a super-rare book that only this place has?”

“They’d buy that too,” she said with a wink.

Radish took the latest society magazines and read over them as publicly as he could. He dug through the family’s history in the room named after them.

Teasing out details of the relationships of Canterlot’s high society families seemed daunting, until Radish realized he should be looking for what wasn’t being recorded. The most important movers and shakers tended to surround themselves with a set stable of associates, with little crossover between social circles. Radish realized that an entourage was basically a street gang from nicer streets.

For important public events where one must absolutely be seen, all these circles were begrudgingly brought together. Photos of these events showed the groups they arrived and left with. More disreputable shutterbugs caught candid scenes from parties at winter homes and beach houses. Patterns emerged. There really were rivalries.

Rarity has long claimed that her friend and client Fancy Pants (who was apparently at Twilight’s birthday party, not that Radish would recognize him) was the most important pony in town. Radish realized that by voicing this opinion, she had taken a side.

Fancy Pants was the hub of a coterie of important ponies, none of which seemed to interact with Worthy Wagoner’s own coterie. And while the Wagoners made their empire out of utilities and necessities- shipping, logistics, construction- the Pantses focused on luxuries- personal zeppelins, designer clothes, cosmetics, and interior design. If Radish didn’t know better, he’d assume the Wagoners were a better sort of pony than the Pantses.

Are they? Am I investigating an innocent family? Is anyone in Canterlot involved with what’s going on at the dig at all?

He took down a binder’s worth of notes, then left the library, thanking the librarian and telling her he had found all he needed.

Okay, that’s step one.

He visited the city’s largest newspaper office next. He asked to see the editor of the high society section, and was turned away. He made sure to leave his name anyway.

Step two, maybe?

He went to the museum where Willow Wagoner’s bones were still on display. The museum had added a matte backdrop, depicting dragons fleeing before her. Neither Radish’s name nor any mention of the Black Bluffs were anywhere on the display. A docent approached him.

“Admiring Willow? She was amazing.”

“Tell me, how did she get put in charge of the Centurions?”

“It’s an incredible story. A dark wizard was training dragons to attack Canterlot. She created a nor’easter and blasted them off the continent.”

“Wow. Sounds like she didn’t even need a team at all.”

“Oh, she was going to train the rest of the Storm Centurions to be just as great as her.”

“Then what happened? Why did they all die in a cave?”

“An army of bandits had enslaved a local bison tribe and forced them to dig up an ancient monster that was imprisoned under a mountain. The Centurions collapsed the cave, destroying the monster but sacrificing themselves.”

“Oh?”

“The bison revered the Centurions so much, they kept it a secret for six hundred years. They’re a superstitious people, you see.”

“I see. I didn’t know any of that. Are the rest of the Centurions going to be displayed here?”

“Yes, but work at the dig site is slow. There’s a dragon nearby. The Plains Rangers believe it’s paying respects to Willow, too.”

“That’s interesting. The Wagoners must have been so happy to find her again.”

“Oh, you bet. They brought her here packed in silk cushions. I can’t wait for the full team to be reunited here.”

“Do the rest of the Centurions have any living relatives?”

“No, we’ve looked diligently for any descendants. The Centurions only live on in the Wagoners.”

“Thank you. I can’t wait for everyone to hear their story.”

Radish left the museum. He visited the neighboring park and sat on a bench. He could see Uptown’s mansion row from his seat. The Wagoner estate, however, was too fancy to be part of any row- it was further back out of sight.

I’ve made my intentions known. Let’s see how they respond.


Radish lay in his bunk reading an old newspaper’s society page. It had photos of a wedding conducted on the Wagoner estate. Radish tried to fit the images into the mental map he was making of the estate grounds.

There was a burst of light to his side. He squinted and looked. It wasn’t a dragon fire scroll. A glowing message in jagged red capital letters hung in the air.

DROP IT, BOY.

It dissipated into nothing. Radish looked around, but no one else had been there to see it.

Okay, that’s how they respond.

Then, something else appeared in the air. It was an image of a prism splitting light. It was Light Fantastic’s cutie mark. It vanished as well.

It was a threat.

Oh, shit.

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