The mirror version of Cadance squinted back at her as she arranged the tiara on her head once more. No matter how she moved it, it just wouldn’t look right holding down the veil of black that fell around her muzzle and cheeks. She’d never been much for wearing a lot of black, but tradition dictated this, and she couldn’t think of much of a reason to defy it.
In the next room, she could hear Shining Armor talking in hushed tones with Twilight Sparkle and her friends, a few of whom had offered to help carry the casket during part of its journey through the Crystal Catacombs. She could hear one of them sob occasionally, probably Fluttershy, she guessed, and each time she caught the sound of the noise it tugged at some part of her. She wanted to alleviate suffering. It was what she was good at, what she was built for. But right now, she knew that her strength had to be reserved for her kingdom. She knew that to come would be a grand ceremony. She’d speak, she’d hold her head high, she’d mourn quietly and in a dignified way for all her subjects to see.
It was going to be torture.
She gave the tiara a final adjustment, making sure that her hair fell properly around her neck and ears, then turned to leave her changing room.
As she entered the small room where the others were talking, they all fell silent and turned their attention towards her. Fluttershy, Applejack, and even surprisingly Twilight all gave her a slight bow in greeting, and Shining Armor put on a grim smile and moved towards her. Maybe for a hug, maybe just to be at her side as he always was. She wasn’t sure, but she didn’t move to embrace him, and he didn’t insist. As the others raised their heads, she gave them all a nod in greeting and formal gratitude.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I appreciate you offering to help, I’m sure it will make today much easier for everyone.”
“Of course Princess,” Twilight said, and now she realized that her sister in law had damp rims of purple fur surrounding each eye. Perhaps it hadn’t really been Fluttershy who was crying.
“Anything we can do to help,” Applejack chimed in. “I know what it’s like to lose family, so if you need anyone to talk to, you just let me know, darlin. I’m always here to chat with.”
It’s not the same, she wanted to say. You can be sad in private. You can lean on the rest of the rest of your family. You didn’t die a little inside in every imaginable way when you lost them. But this wasn’t a competition. What Applejack was saying was from a place of caring and concern. She wasn’t saying their pain was the same, she was just offering help. Cadance knew that, and that knowledge was enough to keep her from saying what she was feeling.
“Thank you,” she said again, instead of letting her emotions take hold. “Has Shining Armor informed you about how this will go?”
They all nodded. That was good, at least she wouldn’t have to go through everything bit by bit. She wasn’t sure she could do it with a straight face. How was she ever going to manage to walk all the way to the catacombs without cracking?
“Rainbow Dash is going to create a rainbow over the castle as we enter the catacombs,” Twilight said. “She’s all set to do it. Fluttershy will carry the casket first, then pass it to Applejack, then to me. I’ll bring it to the mouth of the catacombs, and then you and Shining Armor will carry it the rest of the way to the tomb.”
“We’ll follow behind until you place the casket, speak, and then you'll lead the funerary procession out. After that…we…we’ll…”
She could see that Twilight was floundering for words. Her eyes darted right and left, some color had left her cheeks, and her voice was getting a tremble to it. She didn’t know what to do after the whole thing was done. She did well having tasks to fill her time, having a list of responsibilities. She needed a place, a system. Without them, she was left with a lack of purpose right now. She was just left with sadness. Cadance put out a hoof and set it on one of her sister-in-law’s shoulders.
“After that,” she said as gently as possible. “I’d like you to make sure that all the media ponies find their way back to their hotels or transportation. They are welcome at the funeral, but I do not want them sticking around after that to try to get special inside stories. The Crystal Empire doesn’t need that kind of press.”
And I don’t need that either, she thought very loudly to herself.
Cadance could feel Twilight’s muscles relax under her hoof as she spoke. Have something needed of her, feeling useful, it was all she needed to hold back the grief for a while. It was how she was going to deal with all of this. Cadence envied her on that much.
“Darling,” Shining Armor said gently from her side. “It’s about time for us to get into place.”
She let out a quiet sigh, shut her eyes, and recited once more that she was a princess. This was her duty. Chin up. Eyes forward. Steps confident. None of them should know anything but what she chose to show them. When she opened her eyes, she felt stronger. At least strong enough to do this.
“Alright,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”
The other ponies went in front of her as they walked and wound down the tall crystal stairs that passed room after stone-doored room. With every step, she felt her chest grow tighter, but her strides stayed even and sure. Only once did they waver. Only once did the rhythm of her steps break. As they passed one particular door with a heart etched into it. A door that was firmly locked, where she could still see the remnants of tape above the door. Where a congratulatory banner had once hung, and was torn down hastily before she’d had the chance to see it again.
It was only for a moment. Then she continued as if she hadn’t even noticed.
The front gates opened, and she was momentarily blinded by flashes of camera bulbs as they went off in scattered unison. She blinked, and her eyes adjusted quickly. She knew she’d have to be used to those flashes today.
The crowd parted to let them through as ever-silent Fluttershy stayed at the top of the long path. Applejack fell away a little further down, then at last Twilight branched off and took her place. All the while, Cadence could see her citizens, photographers, children, parents, all lining the way. She could hear some crying, and could hear others calling to her, but she didn’t look to them and wave as was her usual habit. She couldn’t look any of them in the face right then. She had carried an heir for them, though she had failed them in that. She would carry him once more, and she’d be sure to do that much right.
“How are you doing?” Shining Armor whispered at her side.
She’d hardly said a word to him since they’d been home. It had mostly been courtesy, polite thank you’s, no’s, ok’s. He’d asked her if she was ok several times now, and half the time, she was fairly certain she hadn’t answered.
“As well as can be expected,” she said softly.
“I’m here if you need to lean on me. If you feel too anemic and don't want anyone to notice.”
“I know, thank you.”
He offered a willing shoulder for her to press against. She didn’t take it.
Ahead, she could see the cavernous mouth of the catacombs, opening up to swallow them in. She stopped by the opening and turned, with her husband, to face the winding path down towards them. It wouldn’t be a long wait, she knew. Once the signal was given by one of her guards, Fluttershy would lift the small coffin on her back. Usually it was done in pairs, but the coffin was so little, so delicate, that one pony could do it fairly easily. Then, she’d begin the procession…
This was a tradition that had not been done in a very long time. It had taken research and planning, and she knew that the occasion was just another tradition to be resurrected under her rule. Under different circumstances, she might have been proud.
All at once, she heard a shrill, distant wail of a single trumpet. Then, like a far off melodious thunder, she began to hear the bells. Deep, droning, like the quiet groans of ancestors past calling out to them. Her guards rang the bells as their unborn prince passed, and she could hear the din of them clanging growing in volume and complexity. Discordant notes struck each other, and she heard another trumpet blow above the rumblings.
Applejack would have it now.
As the strange, formless music continued to grow in its approach, Cadence allowed herself a glance at Shining Armor. He was looking straight ahead, down the path, like he might find something there if he examined it hard enough. Maybe he was willing them to all show up, so this could be over faster. Maybe he wasn’t even mentally here at all. Maybe he was weeks ago, when there had been breakfast in bed. When there had been conversations about names, about what color to paint the room. Maybe he was in that room, clumsily using magic to swing a hammer as he nailed a crib together.
She’d been there too, as of late. Watching him, smiling at his failed attempts and miniature triumphs. He’d worked so hard to make the castle a home for them all. She pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind as she felt tears threaten to fall, and she quickly looked away from him before he could notice the traitorous flush in her cheeks.
Now, in the distance, she thought she could see movement. The sound of a trumpet. Twilight’s turn.
She was sure she could see her now as she rounded one more curve of crystal road. Twilight’s head was low, her wings drooping so they were nearly dragging on the ground. She was crying, shoulders heaving, and her steps swayed as she carried the small purple coffin across her back. It glinted with jewels and glossy fabric in the low light of the afternoon, and Cadence could see, even from a distance, how much effort Rarity had put into making it. But at that moment, she couldn’t feel gratitude. She couldn’t even feel sorrow for Twilight. All she could feel was a stab in some part of her, below her stomach, with every sway of the tiny casket.
Behind Twilight, the Crystal Kingdom trudged dismally, weeping, and shuffling their hooves. Her guards had formed a line behind Twilight, all ringing their assigned bells in a rhythmless caterwaul.
She knew she should offer Twilight a smile, as she neared. She knew she should say something. But as they met and Twilight lowered her head still farther to pass on the coffin, Cadence could only nod a solemn approval of a job well done. Two guards helped steady the coffin between her husband and her, and then the glow of her horn and his both enveloped the oblong little box. It floated effortlessly between them as they turned towards the cave and begin the final leg of the journey.
“Are you alright?” he said again.
She didn’t answer. She had to focus now. She had to not look at the thing resting between them, at the strange little shape that held what was once a part of her. She had to force out each step, each breath. There was no time for her to tell him ‘no.’
She could hear a soft “oooh” and a distant crack like a gunshot as Rainbow Dash flew over, creating an arch of color and light over their procession. She was sure the rainbow was breathtaking, she’d have to thank her for doing that later.
The throng followed them into the low-lit shadows. Their moving reflections became strange formless beasts, with many eyes and one slithering body. A snake wandering on into the darkness. Cadence could see the muted shapes of other coffins encased in crystal on either side of them. Etchings of regal ponies, simple names, or memorable cutie marks differentiated each tomb. The tomb they were coming up on would just have a name. There was really nothing else to work with.
She could see the small, low bed of crystal ahead. See it lit by torches as the soft glow of her own magic. She could see how smooth, clean, neat it was. Everything would look so lovely, like the little coffin was just tucked neatly into bed for a short rest. She’d set him there. She’d settle him. Then she’d leave him to sleep.
She and Shining Armor mounted the steps and carefully set down the casket with a soft click that echoed in the vast catacombs. As it touched down, the bells abruptly stopped, and the lack of their sound made the place suddenly seem even more vast, even more empty. Cadance took one last glance at the small purple box, then turned towards her assembly. She tried not to look at them, to not really see them. She did her best to look through them so that she wouldn’t see the flashbulbs reflecting off the walls, or the gleams of tears in their eyes.
She cleared her throat, and began.
“My loyal subjects,” she said. Her voice boomed in the cavern, rolling away down corridors to echo in distant ancient tombs. “I thank you for coming on this solemn day. I had hoped that, when you met your prince, you would have welcomed him, showed him what a glorious place this kingdom can be. I can say that, though the circumstances are different, you have all done well. You have treated this day with the dignity it deserves. You have proved that, even in darkness, the Crystal Empire shines.”
She paused, unsure if there would be muffled applause at this, but there was quiet. She wasn’t sure how they’d all react to this, so she’d prepared to pause, just in case. She took a small breath to ready herself, and went on.
“Today, I lay to rest your prince. His name was to be Topaz Shine, and I know he would have been a gentle and glorious ruler for you all. He would have loved you, as I love you, and cared for you, as I care for you. So I ask that you offer your respects and your love to him as well. He never had a chance to show you who he would have been, but I know that this would have been his home, and you would have been his people.”
She paused yet again, and she could hear the distinct sobbing of Twilight Sparkle from where she stood in the front row. She could hear others crying as well, but above the others, the sound of her sister-in-law weeping rang clear. She told herself not to look, and somehow she managed not to.
“This is a sad day for us. This is a great tragedy, a great loss. But we are strong. He would have wanted us to be strong. He would have wanted us to carry on and be a nation of love and prosperity. So in his name, I ask that we do that. I ask that you go home with nothing but love in your hearts. I ask that you show each other nothing but kindness. Not only for me, but for him as well. Thank you.”
Now there was a soft drumming of applause. She waited for it to die down before she descended the crystal stairs with her husband at her side. They turned in unison to face the gleaming coffin and crystal pedestal it rested on.
“Guards,” Shining Armor said, his voice even more booming than her own. “Salute your prince.”
She heard the clatter of armor as the ponies raised their hooves in salute. There was a second clatter as their hooves lowered, and then a low glow began as they began their final duty of this procession. Before her, the walls of the chamber were beginning to light up with their magic. Like strange, winding stone fingers, juts of crystal began to grow from he walls. The fragments met, became one, found the floor, found the ceiling. Before her eyes, they began to form a glowing, shining wall of beautiful crystal between her and the box. It rose, higher, stronger with each passing second. Soon she could barely see the outline of the casket through the crystal.
Without warning, she could feel her legs begin to shake. She could feel her lip quiver, and she had to bite down on it hard to keep it still. No, not now, she ordered herself. You can do this. Hold strong. Hold steady. It’s almost over. It will be over soon, you can make it. Then, before she was ready for it, before she’d had time to really think or prepare, the shape faded from sight.
The glow dimmed, and the tomb was sealed. It was gone.
As the crowd parted to let her through, as she turned with Shining Armor to make her way back to the palace, she could feel how unsteady her hooves were. Her balance swayed, she felt woozy, weak from exertion. For an instance, she was afraid she would faint. Once she was past the crowd again, out in front, once she was sure none of them could see too clearly, she finally allowed herself to lean over to him. She felt his shoulder meet hers, and she knew that he’d never stopped offering it to her that whole time. She allowed him to steady her as she walked, and neither said a word about it the entire way back to their home.