• Published 4th Feb 2014
  • 4,754 Views, 100 Comments

Three Nights - Bradel

Beneath a moonless sky, a foal shivers, hungry and alone. In a snow-covered city, a young mare dreams of the things she left behind. On the coldest night of the year, Princess Cadance finds the family she thought that she had lost.

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Wives & Husbands

Hearth’s Warming Eve, 985 a.b.

The night was thick and heavy with the touch of a midwinter snowfall.

Cadance frowned at the instructions. Was she in the right place? She read the numbers on the archway again, squared her shoulders, and rapped her hoof against the door.

Before she could land a third knock, the door flew open and a harried-looking mare dragged her inside. A puff of wind carried a few snowflakes in Cadance’s wake before the mare used her magic to slam the door closed again. She gave a shiver and then rushed toward an open closet near the entryway. An impressive array of hats, scarves, and earmuffs began dancing in the air.

Hesitantly, Cadance stepped forward. “Umm. Excuse me, ma’am. Are you… Twilight Velvet?”

A head poked out from the closet. “Oh. Yes. Of course I am, dear.” She paused for a moment, as if wondering why Cadance was still there. Finally, something seemed to occur to the mare. She gestured further into the house with one hoof. “She’s—”

"Honey," called a male voice, "I can't find the daisy petals. I don't know how you expect me to make a proper fettuccine della pratolina without daisy petals."

The flurry of hats and scarves paused in their flight, and they flexed away from the closet like an indrawn breath. Then, with stately patience, they settled to the ground. Twilight Velvet emerged from the closet, her muzzle raised, and walked slowly toward the voice.

Cadance stood in the entryway, unsure of whether to wait for Twilight Velvet to return or to go looking for her charge. Before long, the uncertainty changed to discomfort.

"I already told you twice, dear. We don't have any. We'll pick some up on the way home from the train station. At least, we will if you can make yourself stop fussing with dinner and go—the foalsitter is already here."

"I wanted to get the sauce ready before we left. The petals need to steep for at least two hours to get the flavors right. You should have bought more yesterday when you went out."

"I was meeting with the board of directors yesterday, dear. I didn't just 'go out'. Anyway, why didn't you do it? What were you doing all day, that you couldn't trot down to the market for an hour."

"I was looking after our daughter. Who—maybe you'll remember—one of us insists isn't old enough to take care of herself for an hour yet. If you've changed your mind about that, maybe we should just send the foalsitter home like Twilight wants. Celestia knows why you're asking some poor filly to waste part of her Hearth's Warming sitting around watching Twilight read."

"This one comes highly recommended."

"How can any of them come highly recommended? You go through them like she goes through books."

As the voices rose in volume, Cadance felt her wings twitch. Arguments always made her uncomfortable. She didn’t understand how ponies who cared about each other could let such trivial things come between them. She peeked around a corner and saw Twilight Velvet waving her hoof at a blue stallion. Back in Hollow Shades, with ponies she knew, Cadance would have tried to say something. Here in Canterlot, in the home of two ponies she’d hardly met?

Cadance felt her horn spark. She stifled a gasp and pulled her head back from the corner, patting at her horn with one hoof as if it were on fire. It wasn’t—of course it wasn’t. Her cheeks flushed, and she forced herself to take a pair of calming breaths. Quietly, doing her best to ignore the words she was hearing, she hoofedged her way through the living room. Although the voices continued to argue, before long they moved toward the front of the house and Cadance heard the door slam. She pinched her eyes shut.

Hearth's Warming Eve. Ponies were supposed to be happy on Hearth's Warming Eve. Everything would be fine.

The house was surprisingly large, much bigger than the one Cadance had known in Hollow Shades. As she passed the dining room, an oil painting of pegasi in flight caught her attention and she stopped for a moment to study it and settle her nerves. The painting was so unlike anything Cadance had seen—or anything she’d seen before a few weeks ago, at least. Thick brushstrokes picked out the tiny figures, swirling on thermals, wings outstretched as they danced above a multihued bed of cumulus. Seeing it gave her a powerful urge to preen her feathers. The figures in that painting looked so graceful. Far more graceful than she’d ever been.

“Are you my foalsitter?” asked a piping, authoritative voice.

Cadance turned her back on the painting and found herself staring down at a little purple filly who couldn’t be much older than four. She opened her mouth to respond, but the filly seemed to read the answer in her expression.

“Well come on then,” she ordered. “I don’t see why I need to have a foalsitter if Mom and Dad are only going to be gone for an hour, but since you’re here, we might as well make the most of you.”

Twilight’s tone made her swallow uncomfortably, and left Cadance wondering how much this little filly already took after her mother and father. She followed Twilight in silence for a few steps, and then something the filly had said struck her. “We?”

“Smarty Pants and I are studying the history of Equestria today.”

“Oh? So you have a friend over?” The thought of foalsitting two fillies of this temperament together made Cadance take another deep breath.

Twilight shot a dark look over her shoulder. “Of course not. Smarty Pants is my doll. She helps me with my homework.”

“I didn’t realize fillies your age went to school already.” They certainly hadn’t in Hollow Shades.

Marching into her room, a veritable fortress of books and pillows, Twilight settled herself at a desk alongside a threadbare gray doll with button eyes. “You don’t have to be in school to have homework, silly.”

Cadance looked around the room for a place to sit. The desk was too cramped for three (and she suspected Smarty Pants had more right to be there than she did), and there weren’t any chairs or stools besides the two Twilight was already using. Tentatively, Cadance took a seat on Twilight’s bed. The wood creaked a bit under her weight, but the little filly said nothing. She had a book open in front of her now, and it seemed to hold all of her attention.

Cadance sat in silence, reluctant to disturb the little filly. Her stomach knotted a little, thinking of Twilight’s parents. All her ideas for foalsitting felt ugly and wrong, now. Cadance had planned to sing Hearth’s Warming songs and play games with Twilight to pass the time. But insisting that Twilight play with her wouldn’t make Cadance a good foalsitter—it would just make her the same as any other pony who forced their demands on Twilight. Something told her the filly probably got enough of that already.

For perhaps half an hour, the room was quiet as Twilight read with her doll. Occasionally, she would turn a page or read a passage aloud as if to make sense of the words. Cadance found herself growing tired, and more than once she had to fight back a yawn. Her father had said she didn’t want foalsitters. Cadance could see why. She slid a book off of a stack by the bed and opened it to somewhere in the middle:

721 a.b. marked the first time since the Griffonstani wars of succession that Equestria renewed formal ties with the Griffon government. Many credit the renewed spirit of diplomacy to the efforts of the third Baron von Clawsewitz, ironically enough. Despite the baron’s noted reputation as a military strategist, he was also known for his passionate appreciation of woodblock printing, which has always been an Equestrian specialty. The long-standing lack of clear trade agreements between the two nations proved to be—

The sound of a book slamming shut brought Cadance’s attention back to the room. Twilight was staring at her, with a look of mild impatience. “There’s a Whinnyston Churchill book by you. Could I have it, please?”

Cadance glanced around and spotted the book on top of another stack near the bed. She set down the book she’d been browsing—A Brief History of Pony-Griffon Relations in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries—grabbed the Churchill in her teeth, carried it to the desk, and set it down in front of Twilight.

The little filly stared at with a confused look. “Why did you do that?”

Cadance blinked. “Why did I do what?”

“The book,” Twilight said. “Why didn’t you just levitate it over?”

Reaching up, Cadance touched her horn self-consciously. She laughed. “I suppose I’m not very good with magic.” And it doesn’t help that I’ve only had the thing for a month, she added to herself.

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “But you have to be good at magic. You’re Cadance, right? You go to Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns—that’s what Mom says. How can you go to a school for gifted unicorns if you aren’t good at magic?”

Cadance didn’t really feel like telling the whole story. Not when it meant thinking about her own parents, who would be home right now brewing hot cider and baking fruit pies. She flexed her wings, suddenly uncomfortable. She’d never spent a Hearth’s Warming away from Dulcinea and Celliano before. She’d gladly trade all her magic to spend this night with them, too.

“I don’t know,” Cadance said. “I guess I need to do some homework, myself.”

Twilight nodded sagely, her books forgotten for a moment. “I’m not very good at magic either. And Smarty Pants isn’t any better.”

Cadance saw an opening. Maybe she could be a good foalsitter. “Would you and Smarty Pants like to help me with my homework, Twilight?”

“What sort of homework do you have to do?” The little filly sounded wary.

“Practicing with magic, mostly,” Cadance said.

Twilight hesitated. “We’re supposed to study history today. That’s what the lesson plan says.” She pointed reverently to an oversized calendar hanging on the wall, where Cadance saw ‘HISTRY’ scrawled in crayon on top of the machine-printed words ‘Hearth’s Warming Eve’. It was bracketed by ‘MATH’ (yesterday) and ‘BEE-KEPING’ (tomorrow).

Cadance affected a small frown. “Well, I don’t want to interfere with the lesson plan...”

The little filly paused for a moment, blushed, and then looked over at Smarty Pants as if the doll might decide to argue. “No, the lesson plan’s important and we have to follow it. But… maybe we could help you for a little while if you promised to read to us afterward? Sometimes Smarty Pants’s eyes get tired if she stares at the books for too long.”

“It’s a deal!” Cadance grinned and sat herself on a rug near the center of the room. She tapped a spot next to her with one hoof, and Twilight shyly joined her. The little filly sat down beside Cadance, clutching Smarty Pants with one hoof.

“I don’t know if I can really help much, though,” Twilight said. “I can barely use my horn at all. And I’ll bet they make you do really, really hard magic at Princess Celestia’s school.”

“They do,” Cadance admitted. “But I’m sure you can help. What spells do you know, Twilight?”

The little filly scuffed her hoof against the rug and mumbled something Cadance couldn’t hear.

“Twilight?” The filly didn’t look up, so Cadance stretched herself out on the carpet to meet her gaze.

Twilight turned her eyes away. “Anyway, that’s not how homework works,” she said matter-of-factly. “Teachers give you assignments and then you go home and do them. That what my mom says. So your teachers must have told you some spells you have to work on.”

“Well… not exactly.” It was Cadance’s turn to blush. “They tried giving me assignments for the first week or two, but that didn’t work out so well. I guess Princess Celestia told them to make some special allowances for me.” Which was a nice way of saying that for the last two weeks, Cadance had been barrel-deep in the standard second quarter curriculum for Magic Kindergarten.

“What’s she like, Princess Celestia?” Twilight hugged Smarty Pants a little tighter, but she did turn back and look at Cadance.

“I’ve only met her twice,” Cadance said. “Once when I first arrived at the school, and once about a week ago. She’s pretty nice, I guess. But I don’t know her very well. She is the princess, after all.”

There had been another time, too, of course—in a place filled with stars and paved in light. That was the first time. That also wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about with fillies you’d barely met.

Twilight remained quiet. She stared at the rug again, as if disappointed that Cadance hadn’t said more.

“You could meet her yourself, you know,” Cadance offered. “I’ve heard she’s pretty active with the school. Maybe you could go there in a few years yourself?”

Twilight shook her head.

Cadance frowned. She glanced over at the calendar on the wall again, and this time she took a closer look at it. Every day, even weekends, had a little note in crayon naming a subject to study. Some of them were pretty mundane: science, reading, art. Each of those appeared more than once. Some of the notes seemed a little more eccentric: dragon-training, cake-baking, mane-styling. But magic was nowhere on the list, nor anything hinting of magic.

She scooted a little closer to Twilight on the rug and draped a hoof around the filly’s shoulders. Twilight tensed, but after a moment she let out a sigh and slumped toward the floor. She sniffled a little.

Cadance glanced around the room and spotted a box of tissues on the windowsill. She screwed up her nerve and tried to grab the thing with her magic. Her horn gave off a weak glow, and the box of tissues scooted off the windowsill, levitated briefly, and fell to the floor. Biting her lip, Cadance tried again. A faint magical aura surrounded the tissue box, and it lifted an inch off the ground. She concentrated on bring it closer and it came, but not without effort. It spun in the air, poorly controlled, its corners often bouncing across the rug as it rotated.

Twilight looked up as the box of tissues skittered closer, and then she shot a surprised glance at her foalsitter. She turned back after a moment and watched the box as Cadance struggled with the levitation spell.

Finally, when the tissues were within reach, Cadance dropped the spell and reached out, snagging one with her hoof. Clumsily, she tried to use it to pat Twilight’s eyes dry. The little filly let her, but she had stopped sniffling now and Cadance felt a little ashamed at how hard she’d had to work to accomplish what was probably a useless action.

Twilight looked up, once Cadance was done patting at her face. “Thank you,” she said.

Cadance turned her attention to the used tissue, balling it up and setting it beside the box on the floor. She tried not to let too much of her embarrassment show on her face.

“Thank you,” Twilight repeated a little louder, and then she reached out and deposited Smarty Pants in front of Cadance. The little filly scooted closer, tucking herself under Cadance’s wing. “It’s no fun, feeling alone.”

“No,” Cadance agreed. “No it isn’t.” The thought of Celliano and Dulcinea returned, the pair of them probably sitting together in front of a flickering hearth. There would be music, of course. There was always music, though not as much as there had once been. And the scent of fresh-baked bread would be coming from the kitchen. She could feel the soft, hoof-knit blanket warm around her withers as she sat at the foot of Celliano’s stool and listened to him play.

Cadance felt her eyes welling up and turned her head away. She forced a small laugh, twitching her feathers in response to a sudden ache in her wings. “Well, you can see how good I am with magic now, I guess. So no, my homework isn’t very hard—but I have to do a lot of it, if I’m going to catch up to the other fillies at the school.” She fought down a sniffle and turned back to Twilight, trying to smile.

The little filly wore a look of concentration, like she’d just found some new puzzle to figure out.

“I don’t know,” Twilight said. “I can’t even levitate things that well. Shining says it just takes time—he’s my brother—but I know he was already really good with spells by the time he was my age. That’s what Dad told me. Mom got really mad at him when he told me, though.”

“Still, I’m sure a smart little filly like you must know a lot more about magic than a… than I do.” Than a pegasus like me, Cadance finished for herself. But she wasn’t a pegasus any longer, was she?

“Maybe, I guess.” Twilight’s cheeks reddened, and she stared at the rug for a moment. Then, in a rush, excitement seemed to sweep over her. “Do you know what I’m getting for Hearth’s Warming? I’m not supposed to know, but I saw Shining with a big, big book about Star Swirl the Bearded! He’s so cool! Do you study about him at Princess Celestia’s school?”

“Star Swirl the…” Cadance blinked. “I don’t… um… think so?”

“He invented all sorts of neat spells! He’s my favorite unicorn conjurer. When I grow up, I wanna be...” Twilight’s voice trailed off.

Cadance gave the calendar a conspicuous look. “You know, I’ll bet Star Swirl had to practice his magic every day.”

“Yeah, but he was really good at it,” Twilight muttered. Then she paused for a moment, turned, and gave Cadance a suspicious look. “Hey, I thought we were supposed to be working on your homework.”

Cadance dodged. “There must be some sort of magic you know, Twilight. Even if you aren’t great at it yet. Every unicorn has magic.” Right? I mean… I think that’s true.

“Well, I kinda know one spell,” Twilight said. “But Mom says I mustn’t use it. I did, I used it on Shining once, and Mom got really upset and told me I mustn’t do it again. Shining just seemed to think it was pretty funny, though.” She paused a moment. “And anyway, I’m not very good at it.”

A smile lit Cadance’s face. “I’m not very good at any of my spells either. That’s why I have to practice. And if you want to get better at magic, you have to practice too. So how about you show me the spell you know?”

Twilight frowned. “I’m really not supposed to. And you might not like what it does…”

Cadance shook her head emphatically. “I’m sure I’ll love it! You said your brother liked it too, didn’t you?”

“Well, that’s not exactly what I…”

“I’m sure it’ll be wonderful.” Cadance gave the little filly an encouraging smile and ruffled her mane with one hoof.

Twilight sighed and nodded. She reached out and smoothed Smarty Pants’s mane. Then she closed her eyes very hard and pointed her horn at the little doll. After a moment, her horn started to glow a soft magenta light and a tiny stream of reddish sparks trickled toward Smarty Pants. Cadance watched carefully, and she thought the sparks almost looked like little hearts.

Then the world shifted around her. Cadance’s ears were filled with a roaring sound, like the wind on a stormy night. Her eyes felt pulled to the little doll, and as they fell upon it, she felt the breath catch in her throat. Twilight’s parents must have been even more well-off than Cadance had thought, to be able to give their daughter a doll this precious to play with.

When Cadance was a child, growing up in Hollow Shades, she’d had very few toys to play with. Dulcinea and Celliano weren’t wealthy ponies, and they’d never expected to have children. What she wouldn’t have given for a doll like Smarty Pants, when she was a filly. Those lustrous button eyes, the elegant polka-dotted shorts, that fabulous gray muslin coat.

Cadance could feel herself grinning. She wasn’t quite sure why. In the back of her mind, she heard a small commotion: a door opening and closing, and a colt’s voice she didn’t recognize. But she couldn’t bring herself to care about anything other than this amazing little doll. No wonder Twilight seemed to care for Smarty Pants so much. How could she not? Smarty Pants was the best friend a filly could have—the best friend a filly could ever hope to have.

“So beautiful… I had no idea,” Cadance whispered. And then the glow around Twilight’s horn winked out, and the world fell back into place.

“—know what Mom would say, if she saw you doing that.” A small snort of laughter, quickly repressed. “And to your foalsitter!” That was the colt’s voice. He sounded like he was trying to chide Twilight and having a hard time of it.

“But she asked me to do it!” Twilight said. “I told her that Mom said not to, but she really wanted to see it…”

Cadance blinked, trying to clear her head. She looked down at Smarty Pants again—Twilight’s raggedy little doll with the button eyes and the mane made out of two-colored yarn—and couldn’t hold back an involuntary shiver. Twilight had said she wasn’t any good at magic. If that was what “not good at magic” looked like… Suddenly, the prospect of studying at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns seemed a great deal more daunting.

“Miss?” That was the colt’s voice again.

“Her name is Cadance, Shining.”

“And since when do you remember your foalsitters’ names, Sis?”

Cadance turned toward the conversation and saw Twilight talking to a very tall, very well-cannoned colt a few years older than herself. He shot her a smile, and Cadance felt her heart quicken momentarily. She had a sudden and inexplicable urge to try using Twilight’s spell on herself.

“Cadance is a very good foalsitter,” Twilight said authoritatively. “I think I would be happy to have her come back the next time Mom and Dad have to leave me alone.”

Shining gave Cadance an appraising look and whistled softly. “Well, that’s a new one.”

“Not that I need a foalsitter,” Twilight added.

Cadance coughed. “Ah. So. Um. Your parents are back from the train station, then.” Why did she have to sound out of breath?

“Just now!” Shining said before Twilight could respond. His face split into a grin. “The Guard Academy holds classes right up until Hearth’s Warming Eve. Otherwise Mom and Dad wouldn’t have had to ask somepony to waste part of their own Hearth’s Warming taking care of my little sister.”

“I told Mom she didn’t have to get anypony,” Twilight protested. “I’m five now. It’s not like I’m a foal anymore.”

“They just don’t want you to be lonely. They think you spend too much time with Smarty Pants and not enough meeting other fillies. You know that.”

Twilight muttered something Cadance didn’t quite follow—her attention was still on the rather handsome white colt, after all. “The– The Guard Academy? So you’re going to become one of Princess Celestia’s Royal Guards?” And I’m a princess too, right? So does that mean I get my own guards? Those thoughts were terribly distracting, and she wished they’d just go away. Can… can I have him, maybe?

“That’s what I’ve wanted to do, ever since I was Twily’s age.” Shining ruffled his sister’s mane affectionately. “But we really shouldn’t be keeping you here any longer. Cadance?” He gave Twilight a questioning look and she nodded in confirmation. “Cadance. I’m sure you must have some place you want to be tonight. Thanks for looking after my little sister.”

I have some place I want to be, yes, but I won’t be there anyway, Cadance thought. This was to be her first Hearth’s Warming on her own. She’d wanted to go back to Hollow Shades and spend the night with her parents, as she had done for the last twelve years, but Princess Celestia had asked that Cadance spend the holiday in Canterlot this year. Celliano had agreed, had told Cadance she’d need to leave the nest sometime. Dulcinea wasn’t quite as willing to let her adoptive daughter go, but the old mare wouldn’t buck the will of the Princess of Equestria.

“Cadance?” That was Twilight’s voice. The little filly was staring at her with a worried expression.

It took a moment for Cadance to return from her reverie. “Oh, yes. Yes, Hearth’s Warming. I guess I should head back so you and your family can enjoy tonight.”

“Let me at least see you out,” said a deeper voice. Shining, Twilight’s brother. How had she managed to forget about him?

Cadance blushed and gave a small nod of her head. She stood, glancing around Twilight’s room one more time. “Oh! I promised I’d read for you and Smarty Pants!”

Twilight gave a little giggle. “That’s okay. You can do it next time.”

Shining led her back down the hallway, and Cadance caught a glimpse of the mare and stallion she’d seen earlier working together in the kitchen, and of a dining table set with expensive place settings. At the door, she thanked Shining and did her best to control the fluttering in her stomach. Then she turned to go, stepping out into the quiet snowfall.

There were still a few ponies out on the streets, but from the glowing windows that shone through the fading light everywhere she looked, she thought most of them must have been inside, enjoying themselves. Enjoying the company of those around them. She turned toward the palace, sitting high up on the mountainside like some sort of elegant beast crouching in the shadows. The windows were alight there, too, but they didn’t look welcoming to her. They looked… watchful.

There was a letter waiting for Cadance when she returned.