• Published 4th Feb 2014
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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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Brothers & Sisters

Hearthwarming Eve, 1003 a.b. (3 a.r.)

The night was fierce and wild with the roar of an arctic blizzard.

Even inside the Crystal Empire’s train station, Cadance could hear it. The wind howled against the ice-rimed windows overhead. It battered against the doors to the street, finally snapping one open. Cold and swirling snowflakes spun inside before an attendant in a gray uniform and a square hat could shoulder the door closed.

Cadance stared up at the station timetable, a tall board with row on row announcing the evening’s arrivals. And next to each one, the same crisp golden letters: Delayed.

The station was like a thing abandoned—so different from the manic energy the place had shown just two nights before, when Shining Armor left for Canterlot. Scattered wreaths and banners, hung for Hearth’s Warming Eve, struggled vainly to cheer its emptiness. Cadance stood alone at the station’s heart, and the only other ponies she could see were two of the uniformed attendants and one gray mare with an instrument case, sitting slumped against a wall, apparently asleep.
Another gray mare stood in another station, three weeks before another Hearth’s Warming, waving goodbye to her only daughter.

Like a low gong, the bell of the tall, crystalline station clock began to toll—six long peals, but nothing stirred. The gray mare still slept beside her hard black case. The attendants still huddled together, speaking in hushed voices. Outside, a lone train occupied the station’s tracks. Its windows were cold and dark, and drifts of snow were starting to pile around it.

A cough, and a puff of misting air, brought Cadance’s attention around.

“I’m sorry, Princess. We don’t have word yet about when weather service will be restored.” The station agent mashed his red cap against his chest with one hoof.

“Is it likely to be soon, do you think? I was expecting guests for Hearth’s Warming.” Her first, since coming to the Crystal Empire. Her first, since marrying Shining Armor.

“I don’t know, Princess. The pegasi have been working on the problem all afternoon, but… If I may be frank?” She gave him a nod. “I’ve never worked with pegasi before, your Highness. It wasn’t our custom to do so, in the days before… before the restoration. And I can’t say I really understand their methods. All they’ll tell me is that, ‘It takes as long as it takes.’” The agent glanced at the windows and the storm outside. “If you’d like, I can relay any news to you at the castle so you don’t have to come all the way down here again. Those Hearth’s Warming stories of yours are nice, but tonight’s a bad night to be out in the cold.”

The cold didn’t bother Cadance the way it seemed to bother other ponies—perhaps an effect of becoming an alicorn that she’d been unaware of—but she had no desire to return to the forlorn decorations and harsh echoes of the station, if she could avoid it. “Yes, I think I would like that. Mister…?”

“Feldspar, your Highness. Ferrucci Feldspar.”

Cadance gave the stallion her best smile, even if she couldn’t feel the cheer behind it. “Thank you, Mister Feldspar.”

The station agent dipped his forelegs in a bow and backed away. Cadance still hadn’t adjusted to the way these crystal ponies wanted to treat her. It felt alien, and uncomfortable, like she held their whole world in her hooves.

It felt, she thought with a sudden twinge, like being Celestia.

She gave herself a shake and took one last look around the station. Nopony had changed the letters in the timetable. No sound broke the stillness but the clop of Feldspar’s hooves and the soft snores of the gray mare. She left.

Outside the station, the wind tugged at her wings—but visibility was poor, and Cadance had never been skillful flyer, so she let her legs carry her back to the castle. Night had fallen, and the sky was a twisting maze of black and gray and white as flakes fell around her. She looked south, wondering where Shining would be. Were Twilight and Spike with him? Were their parents? Had they become stuck in the snowstorm, somewhere along the line, or were they still waiting in Canterlot for word that the storm had cleared?

The Crystal Castle loomed before her in the night, its walls like stained diamonds, casting back the shadows of the blizzard. Using her magic, she threw open the doors at the base of one of the voussoirs. The halls of the castle hummed with activity as crystal ponies set out candles and hung the last of the greens. Two ponies waited for her in the entryway, ignoring the bustle and wearing somber expressions. Cadance did her best to smile at them as she pulled the doors shut behind her.

“The train from Canterlot is delayed,” Cadance said. “Hopefully, the pegasi will clear the storm before long. The station agent will be sending updates on their progress as he receives them.”

The two ponies bowed as Feldspar had done. They remained in that posture, as if expecting something further. Cadance started to wave a hoof at them, but found herself distracted once more by thoughts of Shining Armor. After a few moments, the two ponies rose again and shared a glance.

“Your Highness, you gave instructions that the feast was to begin at seven. Do you want me to relay a message to the kitchen staff? Let them know that your guests have been delayed?”

Cadance blinked. The pony who had spoken, a stallion with a silver-colored mane, watched her with worried eyes. Did she know this pony? The castle seemed to have so many servants. Why did she find it so much harder to learn their names than she had the names of the ponies in Canterlot? “The… kitchen staff.” What had he said? “No. No, I’ll go talk to them myself.”

Both ponies nodded and gave another bow, slipping aside.

As Cadance walked through the castle, most of the servants ignored her and continued with their work, occasionally glancing around with a vague look of confusion. The few that noticed her bowed as she passed, and Cadance quickened her steps, seeking out a quieter route to the kitchens. The deference some ponies showed Cadance still made her uncomfortable. Everywhere she went, wreaths and garlands lined the halls. The decorations were much more festive here than they had been in the station.

Hearth’s Warming was not, strictly speaking, relevant to the ponies of the Crystal Empire. Although the crystal ponies could trace their descent from the earth tribe, much as bat ponies could trace theirs from the pegasi of old, the Crystal Empire had never been part of Equestria until this last year. Celestia and Luna had intended to annex it into their own kingdom during the Consolidation—her aunt had said as much when Cadance was first sent here. But Sombra’s curse had banished the Crystal Empire before the princesses could bring this land into the fold, and so the crystal ponies had had only a short time to learn the ins and outs of Equestrian culture. Cadance had insisted that the castle be fully decorated for Hearth’s Warming, but the rest of her little kingdom hardly seemed to know that a holiday was upon them.

The scent of roasting, carmelized oats and hot apple cider filled the air as she neared the kitchen. Ponies trotted through the halls carrying sacks of flour, or serving trays, or wood for the castle’s cast-iron stoves. Few of them even took note of her presence. However often she’d visited these kitchens since being acclaimed as Crystal Princess, the cooks and servers never seemed to quite believe she was there among them. She supposed that in their minds, princesses didn’t do such things. Well, Celestia had never been shy about raiding the royal pantries at night, not from what Cadance had seen. The crystal ponies would just have to learn to live with the princess they had, whatever they might think of her.

Coming to the end of a servants’ hallway, rather plain after the jubilant decorations she’d seen elsewhere, Cadance pulled open a door and stepped into a thunderstorm. The kitchens of the castle were alive in all the ways the Crystal Empire’s train station hadn’t been. A vaulted ceiling barely seemed able to contain all the noise in this room: clanking pots and sizzling vegetables, a roaring mare’s voice demanding more orange sauce, the tinkle of shattering glass that told of somepony dropping a platter of champagne flutes, and a hundred other sounds blending into a vast cacophony. Cadance stood in the doorway for a moment, letting the atmosphere of the kitchen wash around her and banish some of the loneliness she felt. Shining will get here, she told herself. He’ll be late, perhaps, but he’ll get home.

Home.

One of the cooks, a golden-hued stallion, appeared to have noticed her presence. He stood beside one of the large stoves, a saucepan dangling precariously from one hoof as he stared at her. The pan slipped, clattering onto the stove and splashing a thick brown compote onto the stallion and a number of other dishes. He gave a yelp of surprise and jumped back from the stove. A mare with a sandy-red mane and a dark crimson coat dashed over, gave Cadance a thin-lipped glare, and set about organizing a small squad of cooks to undo the damage he’d caused.

Once the crisis had been dealt with, the red-maned mare marched over to Cadance and gave her the barest hint of a bow. “Highness, you really shouldn’t be down here. Is there anything we can do for you?” Her tone was polite, barely.

Cadance did her best to sound upbeat. “I was hoping I could speak to the head chef, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“It is,” the mare said. “We’re all busy down here tonight. But I’m his sous-chef, so whatever you want to tell him, you can tell me. Highness.”

Cadance blinked, and couldn’t keep herself from smiling a little. It was a surprisingly pleasant change, to not be met with a wall of bows and deference. “All right, then. Could you please let him know that the snowstorm has delayed the trains from Canterlot, and that our guests won’t be here for a seven o’clock dinner?”

“What do you mean, they—” The mare’s voice cut off as she glanced around the kitchen. Then, in a flurry of hooves she galloped to one of the few windows in the kitchens. It was fogged over from the steam of cooking and warm bodies, so the mare scrubbed her leg across the window pane to clear it. Cadance saw her slump a little, as she stared out into the swirling darkness.

Cadance began to walk towards the sous-chef, but the mare paused at the window for only a heartbeat before dashing into the maelstrom of the kitchen. Cadance watched with wonder as the sous-chef managed to avoid knocking into any of the cooks and servants who bustled everywhere. After a moment the mare was lost from sight, but before long she was hurrying through the throng and back toward Cadance with a tall, bespectacled stallion she recognized.

“Mister Umber—” out of respect, Cadance tried to call all her ponies by their family names, but the castle’s head chef was particularly insistent about it, claiming that his first name was entirely improper for a pony of his talents, “—I was hoping to speak with you.”

The head chef pulled to a stop in front of her, giving a low bow that, this time, his sous-chef matched. “Your Highness! I am most sorry to hear of the delay of your most honored guests. May I offer to you my deepest condolences in this your time of—”

She cut him off. “Of course, Mister Umber. I just want to know if we can postpone the feast until they get here.” Cadance always tried to have a smile and a kind word for her crystal ponies, but the chef’s habit of rambling could try a pony’s patience even on the best of days. Which was what today should be, she reminded herself. And Umber did make the most delicious crystal berry tarts.

“Then if I might ask, your Highness, at what hour should we anticipate the arrival of your most honored guests?”

“I… um. I’m not sure.” A small frown crept onto Cadance’s face. “I don’t know when the weather pegasi will get this storm squared away. Is that a problem?”

Umber gave a nervous whinny. “Of course not, your Highness! We live to serve! Only, some of the dishes we have prepared for you and your guests—not the crudités, obviously, but we have made for you a number of amuse bouches in both the chevalic and cavallic traditions, many of which involve rather temperamental coulis— these are all very particular and it may prove difficult for us to keep them fresh for more than perhaps the time it would take for one to—”

Cadance shot a sidelong look at the crimson-coated mare, and Celestia bless her, the sous-chef laid a hoof on Umber’s withers and silenced him. “What chef means to say, Princess, is that you’ve got about two hours. We can keep the food fresh that long, but most of the baking and frying is already done. Past nine o’clock… well, it’ll still be fit to eat, sure. But it won’t be fit to serve to guests.”

“Two hours. Okay.” Cadance found herself looking toward the window the sous-chef had scrubbed clear. Watching the snow swirl through the night, she felt the loneliness start to creep in again. She hated that loneliness. She hated—

Two hours. She needed something to do. She wasn’t about to let herself mope around the castle all night, waiting for Shining to come back. Waiting for Twilight, and their parents, and…

No. This was Hearth’s Warming Eve. Hearth’s Warming Eve was supposed to make ponies happy. Shining was going to come for her. These preparations would not be wasted. A gust of wind plastered snowflakes against the window pane, and Cadance felt herself begin to smile—her first real smile in hours. She turned back toward the head chef and his lieutenant.

“Mister Umber, most of the work for tonight is done already, yes?”

“Of course, your Highness, since after all we were planning to receive your guests in the next—”

“If you’re just keeping everything fresh, you won’t need everypony here, yes?”

“All of my undercooks are invaluable, your Highness, and of course I can find work for each and every one to do, to make your feast—”

“Yes or no, Umber?”

“Ah… yes, your Highness. Strictly speaking, that task will require fewer ponies.”

Well, if they were going to treat her like Celestia, maybe she could make use of that. Something about her expression must have changed—the sous-chef was giving her a rather disconcerted look.

Cadance amplified her voice so it could be heard all the way across the kitchens. “I need some volunteers, for the next hour or two. There’s something I want to do.”


Twenty-three ponies stood in the entryway to the Crystal Castle, twenty-four if Cadance counted herself. Everypony but her wore an array of scarves, jackets, hats, and boots.

Beside Cadance, the red-maned sous-chef from the kitchens stood, tugging a rather garish knit cap over her head. “Princess, are you absolutely sure this is necessary? I mean… not to question your royal will, your Highness, but wouldn’t you be happier indoors, maybe sitting by the fire with a nice mug of cider? Like any sane— I mean, ah…”

Cadance smiled. “I don’t think I caught your name.”

“Cinnabar Spice, Highness. I… ah… wasn’t suggesting you might be a few dolomites short of a geo— I mean, just… It’s pretty cold out there.”

“That’s precisely why we are going to do this thing, Miss Spice. Because tonight is Hearth’s Warming Eve, and because—” She drew herself up, adopting her cloak of regal authority. “—because singing drives back the cold.”

Cinnabar frowned. “If you say so, Highness.”

Cadance patted Cinnabar on the withers before turning back to the other ponies. She pitched her voice loud, to carry over their uncertain mutters. “Okay! Is everypony dressed appropriately? Are you ready to do a bit of caroling?”

As one, the assembled ponies bent their forelegs and lowered their heads. “Yes, your Highness.”

“No, no, no. No bowing, not tonight.” Cadance tossed her mane and grinned. “This is Hearth’s Warming Eve, and tonight we are going to have fun!”

Stepping forward with determination, Cadance threw open the castle doors and cantered out into the night. Cinnabar and the others followed, their hooves clip-clopping mutedly against the snow-covered roadway.

Cadance turned north, wanting to begin the caroling with somepony she knew so the others could get a feel for the activity. Her mane stylist, Breccia Shears, lived near the castle in a small, one-story home. It took a few minutes to find the right house in the swirling snow, by which time Cadance could hear Cinnabar and even a few others muttering to themselves in the darkness. Then an orange, blocky structure became visible to the left, and Cadance smiled. She turned toward it and waved for the other ponies to follow.

At the door, she raised a hoof and knocked loudly; then she motioned for the others to bunch in around her. After a minute, the door cracked open and a thin streak of light spilled into the street.

Breccia’s face appeared in the gap, staring at the unlikely assembly on the doorstep. It took her a few seconds to find her voice. “P-princess? Is that you?”

“Breccia Shears!” Cadance tried to imitate the voice she’d heard Celestia use for scolding students and issuing royal decrees. “We have come from the castle to wish you a happy Hearth’s Warming Eve!”

“A happy Hearth’s Wa… Princess? What’s th—” But Breccia’s words were cut short by a burst of song from the assembled ponies.

Tonight we join and celebrate
A tale of long ago
When snow and ice encased the land
And not a thing would grow
Ere Luna and Celestia
And all we call Equestria

Gather round, tell the tale
Come, join and sing
Of the first Hearth's Warming Eve

Cadance found herself a little surprised by how well the song went. They had only practiced it twice, back in the castle, but these ponies seemed to be quick learners. Of course, many of the crystal ponies still seemed to think that when your ruler demanded something of you, you either did it or resigned yourself to being strung up by your forehooves and whipped in the central square. An uncomfortable thought, as always—she was only a princess because of her capacity for love, and yet so many of these crystal ponies still seemed to regard her with fear. Maybe she could do a little to change that tonight.

By the time they finished the sixth verse, the door to Breccia’s house was open wide and a colt and a filly stood flanking her, all three wearing broad smiles. Snow swirled through the doorway and into their house, but nopony seemed to mind.

“That was… that was wonderful, Princess. But… I’m sorry, why did you say you were here?”

Breccia’s gratitude made Cadance’s heart sing. Shining might be late in arriving, but at least Cadance had been able to brighten somepony else’s night. “Tonight is Hearth’s Warming Eve, Breccia! I thought we’d discussed it before, though.”

“Oh, is this the holiday you were talking about at the salon last week?” Breccia’s cheeks darkened from their usual tan to a dusty rose. “I didn’t realise it was… important. But you all must be so cold out there! Can I invite you in for a little while? I think we have some hot cider, and I was baking cookies for Nickel’s birthday. There are still some left over.” She looked down at the little colt on her right, who couldn’t be much older than seven. “Do you mind sharing, Nickel?”

The little colt still wore a bemused expression, whether from the song, the crowd in front of his house, or the fact that a princess was standing on the doorstep chatting with his mother in the middle of a snowstorm. He shook his head mutely.

Cinnabar stepped forward. “Oh, that sounds wonderful! It’s really much too cold out here for normal ponies to be gallivanting around, and I’d love to get some—”

Cadance’s lips tightened. “Miss Spice, when I asked for volunteers, I was hoping those volunteers would help me spread some Hearth’s Warming cheer at more than just a single house.”

“Yeah, but she said we could…” Cinnabar’s voice fell off when she met Cadance’s eyes. “Oh, fine, fine. I guess it’s not really that bad, when you’re dressed for it.”

Cadance turned back to the open doorway and smiled. “Thank you very much for the offer, Breccia, but we’ll have to decline. Anyway, I’m sure your son will appreciate not having strangers steal all his birthday cookies.”

The little colt found his voice at last. “Th-that’s okay, Princess. I don’t mind sharing with you. Mom says you’re really nice, and I’m sure you’d like them. Mom makes really good cookies!”

Cadance grinned. “That’s very kind of you, Nickel, but we really do need to be going. Anyway, I’m sure everypony will start to warm up a little if we get back to walking. But I hope you have a very happy birthday.”

Breccia, Nickel, and the little filly all chorused their thanks and, feeling quite a bit happier than at any time since leaving the train station, Cadance turned and led her troupe of singers back into the blowing snow.

The home of the librarian Twilight had introduced to Cadance was just a few houses down the street from Breccia, and so she led her party in that direction. The librarian—whose name Cadance found she couldn’t remember—lived alone. It took a few knocks to bring her to the door, and when she finally opened it, Cadance saw that she was wearing a nightgown.

Much like Breccia, the librarian was taken aback by the crowd on her doorstep, but when Cadance mentioned Hearth’s Warming to the old mare, her eyes lit up and she began telling Cadance about how much fun she’d had decorating for the holiday and explaining it to anypony who stopped by the library. It took nearly a minute and a half before she calmed enough to allow Cadance and the castle ponies to sing their song for her.

In the time they spent caroling, however, they met only two other ponies who were aware of the holiday. Everypony was very pleased by the performance, but word about Hearth’s Warming hadn’t gotten around as much as Cadance would have liked. And although the ponies accompanying her began to get into the spirit of caroling as they walked through the snowy streets from one house to the next, Cadance felt her own enthusiasm waning. She’d only had time to teach the castle ponies one song, which was quickly growing repetitive in her ears. This was nothing like the music-filled nights she’d spent with her parents, growing up in Hollow Shades.

The image of the gray mare sleeping beside her cello case bubbled into Cadance’s mind, and she shook her head to clear it away.

One bright spot throughout her frustration, though, was Cinnabar Spice. The young sous-chef never quite stopped complaining about the cold, but as they moved from house to house, Cadance often caught a glimpse of her smiling, and she was among the most enthusiastic singers in the group.

But Cadance could only hold her loneliness at bay for so long. Eventually, it drove her back to the castle. She had to know whether the Cloudsdale weather team had managed to clear up the storm enough for rail travel to resume.

When they returned, she found a messenger in the uniform of the Equestrian Rail Service waiting for her. He looked as if he must have just arrived—meaning he looked slightly less wind-tossed and snow-maned than she and her companions—but the cheer of caroling had brightened their spirits even amidst the snowstorm, and so the messenger looked much the worse, despite having had the better of the blizzard.

Cadance felt her chest tighten, seeing him, but she tried to maintain her composure. She turned to her traveling choir, thanked them for their singing, and released them back to their duties in the kitchens. They all left—chattering together about the snow, and the cold, and the fun they’d had—but at the archway into the castle, Cinnabar stopped for a moment to watch her.

“Do you have any news from the station?” Cadance asked, approaching the uniformed stallion.

“Ahh… N-not really, your Highness, but Mister Feldspar said you’d probably want an update anyway.” The stallion dropped his gaze to the floor.

“So—” Cadance felt a lump forming in her throat. “—the weather team hasn’t managed to get the storm under control yet?”

“No, your Highness. Not yet, anyway.”

“And do you know whether they’re close?”

“I… ahh… maybe? I mean, Mister Feldspar just said I should tell you they weren’t done yet, your Highness. I really can’t say any more than that.”

Cadance sighed. Well, there was the feast gone, and no help for it. She caught the stallion taking nervous glances at the doors leading outside and realized he must not be anxious to venture back out into the storm. She gave him a smile she didn’t feel and did her best to warm her voice. “I appreciate the update, in any case. If you’d like, you can stay here a little while before returning to the station. I’m sure Mister Feldspar won’t mind; there can’t be much for you to do tonight.”

“No, your Highness. Not… not really. Yeah, that’d be great if I could stay here for a bit. It’s really cold out there and—”

Cadance felt a wave of tiredness wash through her. It would still be hours before Shining and Twilight and the others arrived. Hours at best. Her shoulders slumped, and she had to struggle to hear the rest of what the rail stallion said. When he was done, Cadance turned toward the archway and, thankfully, Cinnabar was still there. “Miss Spice, could you please take our guest down to the kitchens and see to it that he receives something warming before he goes back out into the snow? There should be a number of dishes you can offer him now, I expect.”

The sous-chef frowned for a moment, then turned and called over her shoulder. “I see you hiding behind that sculpture, Soapstone. Well, come on out here then. You heard the princess. We’ve got a guest, so show him the kitchens and give him some of the hot cider I made for tonight. Ought to warm him right up.”

A few seconds later, a young white mare—not anypony Cadance knew, and certainly not any of the ponies who had gone out caroling—hurried out from the arch beside Cinnabar and gave Cadance a hurried bow. Soapstone glanced over her shoulder, saw that Cinnabar was still frowning at her, and then bowed to the stallion as well. His cheeks reddened at this, but the stallion was quick to follow her when Soapstone led the way into the castle. Together, their hooves clacked out a rhythmic eight-beat.

Cinnabar was still standing in the archway, giving Cadance the oddest look. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips puckered a little. The expression made Cadance uncomfortable..

“Well, it looks like you aren’t going to get your feast, Highness.” Cinnabar glanced down the hallway that led to the kitchens and then moved back into the entryway.

“Yes, Miss Spice. You and Mister Umber made that very clear.” For the first time, Cadance noticed that the bustle of servants was gone now. They must have finished decorating this part of the castle and moved on to another. Why did she feel a sudden urge to preen her feathers?

Cinnabar trotted a circle around Cadance, peering left and right as if searching for something. Then she nodded to herself and stopped a few feet off. “I might… ahh… have an idea, your Highness. It’s not… well it’s not gonna help you, but it’ll help somepony.”

Cadance had to turn to face the sous-chef, who was still casting a skittish glance around the room. “Miss Spice, is something wrong?”

The sound of Cadance’s voice made Cinnabar jump a little. “No. No, I just don’t want…” She took a deep breath. “Your Highness, I’ve got a brother named Larimar. He runs a… well, I guess you’d call it an orphanage. I was wondering if maybe… If we could bring some of the food to him?”

For the first time in an hour, Cadance felt her heart throwing back the cold. She grinned like a filly. “That’s a wonderful idea, Miss Spice! Why didn’t you mention it before?”

Cinnabar gave the entryway another look. “Well, Highness, you gotta understand something. A lot of ponies died, back when King Sombra ruled here. And he ruled for a long time. And he… well, one thing you gotta say about him, he was efficient. Didn’t like wasting resources. So nevermind that he was the one killing ponies—execution or overwork, hardly matters the reason—King Sombra made sure any foals that got left behind still had a place to grow up. One big home, for every colt and filly he orphaned. After all, you can hardly run a country if you run out of subjects to enslave. Larimar and me, that’s where we grew up. And eventually King Sombra, he made Larimar the head of that orphanage. Larimar and me, we’ve always been good at organizing things.”

Cadance frowned. “Miss Spice, that still doesn’t explain why—”

“I’m getting to that!” Cinnabar muttered something that was too quiet for Cadance to understand. “You see, ponies don’t much like Larimar. Sure, orphans need looking after, they all know that. Well, most of them know that. There’s a few that think the ponies Sombra killed must have deserved it, since they couldn’t learn to keep their heads down and be sensible, and some of ‘em seem to think the foals are as much to blame as their parents. But Larimar, anyway, he got picked out to look after those foals by King Sombra himself, and a lot of folks think that must make him a bad pony. A lot of folks.”

A spark stirred to life in Cadance. “That’s nonsense. Taking care of foals doesn’t mean he actually supported… what was happening.”

“Well, see, that’s the thing. When I say Larimar was responsible for ‘em, I don’t just mean he was responsible for keeping ‘em fed and clothed. He was responsible for how they grew up, and for making sure King Sombra could get some use out of ‘em. He was responsible for their education, too, and he had a hoof in deciding what happened to ‘em once they were old enough to leave.”

Silence fell over the entryway, except for the sound of the wind outside howling against the doors to the castle. At that moment, a part of Cadance hated Celestia for sending her here. Another part, a bigger part, just prayed she could be what these ponies required her to be.

“So I was thinking, Highness… Life was never very good for the foals at the orphanage, and things haven’t gotten much better for them since you got rid of Sombra. I’m sure Larimar could really use some extra food, and even if it’s not at its freshest, this’d probably make for one of the best meals those kids get all year. If you’re okay with it, I thought maybe we could pack up some of what we made for tonight and I’ll just grab a cart and run it over there? And nopony has to know anything about it.”

That spark burned brighter in Cadance. “No.”

Cinnabar’s face fell. “I’m sorry, your Highness. I… sometimes, I have a hard time forgiving him, too, and he’s my own brother. I just thought—”

That spark blazed like the sun. Cadance strode toward the archway and the hall to the kitchens. “No, Cinnabar. I’m not going to let you go sneaking around on Hearth’s Warming Eve. I said I wanted a feast tonight, and by Celestia, I’m going to have one. Now move your rump.”


Close to an hour later, Cadance led a surly procession of castle servants through the snow to a squat cobalt-blue building that occupied an entire city block. Everypony but her was bundled hock-to-head in thick woolens, and many of them still looked uncomfortable with the cold. Of the ponies who had accompanied her caroling, only Cinnabar was here—Cadance hadn’t requested volunteers this time, and she’d been particular about choosing new faces. The ponies with her all carried blanket-covered panniers.

Somepony must have seen the procession approaching, because the large oak double doors swung open as they approached and a sky-blue stallion strode out. He wore a tweed scarf but made no other concessions to the storm. It was hard to make out his expression through the blowing snow, but for a moment Cadance thought he looked angry.

Cinnabar galloped forward to meet the stallion. Her pannier jostled as she ran, and the covering blanket fell back to reveal still-steaming bread from the castle ovens. She stopped beside the stallion, and the two exchanged terse greetings while Cinnabar set the blanket back in place to keep the snow off the fresh loaves. With the two ponies standing side by side, Cadance could see the resemblance: a certain slant to their shoulders, a shared roundness in their muzzles. Cadance raised a hoof to halt the servants behind her, which prompted another round of grumbles.

Larimar and Cinnabar looked to be arguing, now. Cadance frowned and walked forward to meet them, priming her horn for a judicious application of love, should the need arise. Hearth’s Warming was no time for brothers and sisters to be arguing with each other.

“...can’t, Cinnabar. I’m sorry, but we put them all to bed at nine. That’s barely twenty minutes from now. You know how important the rules are, for keeping discipline.”

“Larimar, I swear, if you quote the rules to me one more time, I’ll—”

“Miss Spice,” Cadance said brightly as she joined them, “I assume this must be the brother you were telling me about?”

Cinnabar shot a warning glance at her brother. “Yes, Highness. We were just discussing your plans for a—”

“We can’t do it, your Highness. Not so late at night. It’s just not proper for the little ones to eat this late. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but that’s the way it is.”

Why did everypony want to make tonight harder than it already was? “And you do not make exceptions even for holidays. Of course, I understand completely.” Cadance forced herself to smile at the stallion.

“Holidays? What do you mean, holi—”

“I tried to tell you, didn’t I?” Cinnabar hissed. “But no, you didn’t want to hear about Hearth’s Warming Eve. You just wanted—”

Cadance clung to her plastic smile, but her horn began to grow a little brighter. “Now Miss Spice, we can hardly fault your brother for not knowing the occasion any better than the rest of my subjects. But surely he’ll at least let us drop off the dishes we’ve prepared for tonight. I’m sure he’ll still find a use for them, even if they have gone off a bit by tomorrow morning.” And before Larimar could say a word, Cadance motioned the castle servants ahead once more.

Thankfully, this seemed to bring the argument to an end as Larimar stared for a moment, dumbfounded, at the procession winding its way into the orphanage against his express wishes. Cadance caught a grin on Cinnabar’s face and felt her own good humor start to return.

“But we don’t have anywhere to—” Larimar said. “I mean… Princess, you can’t just—”

Cadance ignored him. “Come, Miss Spice. Let’s help your brother get these foodstuffs squared away.” Cadance trotted back to the line of servants, Cinnabar following close behind. As she approached the building, Cadance looked up and saw the faces of colts and fillies peering out from second-story windows, watching the curious gathering in the street. She smiled and waved to them. Many of the children waved back, but many others vanished.

In the doorway, Larimar was trying to politely turn away the servants, but he was having a very hard time of it. A few of them watched him with distaste, and none of the servants were eager to spend a moment more outside in the snow than they had to. Cadance and Cinnabar each gave Larimar a smile and slipped around the edge of a clump of servants to get inside.

The building’s interior seemed surprisingly well-appointed for an orphanage—not that Cadance had much experience with such places. Again, the image of the gray mare floated through her mind, but she forced it down. Framed paintings decorated the entryway, all of them landscapes showing summer in the Crystal Empire. A wide stone staircase curved up to the second floor in a horseshoe shape, and hallways on the ground floor branched out to the right and left. There was a clatter of hooves and the sound of a commotion up above, and then a haggard-looking amber mare was forced down the steps by a surging tide of foals.

“Bevel Strata, you put that down this instant! Prism, stop shoving! By all the faults and fissures, what has gotten into you children? You’d think—”

“It’s the Princess!” gasped a little purple filly, her forehooves on the staircase bannister. “The Princess came here to see us!” And then the wave of colts and fillies crashed down the stairs, leaving the mare in their wake. Cadance was momentarily overwhelmed. She had no experience dealing with crowds like this, certainly not crowds of foals. So many tiny voices all clambering over each other to get her attention. They washed around her, hopping up and down. They washed around the castle servants as well, many of them seeming just as happy to meet any outsider as they were to meet a princess. Except for a pair of slate-gray kitchen stallions who were doing their best to look impassive, the servants all watched the bedlam with pleasantly bemused expressions.

“Everypony, hush!” Larimar’s voice cut through the clamor like a hot knife through butter, and incredibly, the children fell silent. Their eyes all turned toward him with rapt attention. Larimar turned to Cadance and Cinnabar and gave them both a withering look. “Didn’t I say this’d be trouble? I think I did—or tried to, anyway, before you two went haring off and…” He sighed, deflating. “Well, it’s too late now. Even if we send them back to their rooms, they’ll probably stay up all night chitchatting. Is that so, my little ponies?” He surveyed the crowd of foals, which was still growing larger as the stragglers made their way down the stairs.

With a remarkable show of unity, all the assembled foals spoke together. “Yes, Mister Larimar.” They sounded, Cadence thought with surprise, positively cheerful.

The hint of a smile crept onto Larimar’s face. “And there you have it, Princess. A perfectly good night’s sleep, ruined. And all for what?” He slipped a hoof into the pannier of a servant standing beside him and scooped out a small, round pastry. He gave it a long, dramatic look, and then took a large bite out of it. “Mmmm. Crystal berry tarts! All right, all right. You know where the dining room is, everypony. I guess there’ll be treats before bed tonight, since it’s… What did you call tonight, your Highness?”

It took Cadance a moment to register the question, so surprised was she by Larimar’s sudden performance. “Oh. Ah… Hearth’s Warming Eve, Mister Larimar.”

“Hearth’s Warming Eve, my little ponies. Hear that? Special occasion tonight, so you’d best enjoy it—and don’t plan on staying up late tomorrow! Just tonight, on account of the princess. Now off to the dining room with you!”

The little ponies cheered, and with a surprising amount of order, they filed down the hallway to the right of the stairs. As the entryway began to clear out, Larimar stepped close and lowered his voice. “I assume it will be just tonight, your Highness? Begging your pardon, but these kids are hard enough to manage at the best of times. Coal and iron, I’m glad to have you ruling us instead of that thrice-damned monster of a unicorn, but just because I like you doesn’t mean I want you interfering in my job any more than he did.”

Cadance blinked, and then turned to look at Cinnabar who still stood beside her.

The sous-chef wore a wry smile. “I did say we both had a talent for organizing things, Highness. Speaking of which...”

The castle servants were still milling in the entryway. They had all made it inside, and the door to the orphanage was shut against the cold now, but with Larimar’s colts and fillies making an organized procession toward the dining room, it was the servants who looked like an unruly mob. Cinnabar gave a shrill whistle, cutting through the stamp of hooves and the soft rumble of chattering voices. The servants all turned to face her. “Kitchens are down the hall to the left, everypony. It’ll be a bit tight in there, so I want Limestone Zest and the rest of the bakery crew in there first. Then salads and flower dishes. Anypony who's got a soup or a root-and-tuber dish, make room for the others. Those’ll keep best, so we can leave ‘em for tomorrow.”

A dark emerald pony glanced over her shoulder at her panniers and then raised a hoof.

“Question, Tourmaline?”

“Yes, ma’am. What about desserts?”

Cinnabar shot a questioning look at Larimar, who shook his head emphatically. “Not tonight—not unless you demand it, Princess. We’ll save the desserts for tomorrow, assuming they’ll keep. Will they?”

“Everything but the tarts,” Cinnabar replied. “Anyway, your foals have already seen those; they’ll be expecting ‘em.”

“All right, the tarts can go out tonight,” Larimar said. “But that’s all.” He fell silent for a moment, and the castle servants began to sort themselves and move toward the kitchen.

Cinnabar clouted Larimar on the shoulder with one hoof, and he gave her a surly expression. Then he took a deep breath and spoke again. “One other thing. I’m not very good at… Erm, well… Thank you, everypony. It’s been a long time since the foals have gotten a treat like this. Tonight’s going to be a real pain in the flank for me and the staff, and it would have been nice if somepony’d let us know about this coal-cursed idea before time...” Cinnabar gave him another whack. “...but thank you.”

Several of the servants smiled at that. Most were busy making their way toward the kitchens, but a few hung back to speak with Larimar. Cadance was pleased to note that at least two of them were among those who had been looking at the stallion with distaste earlier. Apparently, being confronted with an army of energetic young foals was enough to thaw a few hearts.

For a moment, the image of a little purple unicorn filly flashed into Cadance’s mind. Her throat caught and she turned away from the bustle.

“Okay, Highness. I think we’ve got things moving in the right direction. I don’t know if you wanted to do anything for the foals, but now would probably be a good time, while they’re waiting in the dining room. I’ll go sort things out in the kitchen for you—get this all moving.”

Cadance found herself staring out a window at the still-falling snow. Drifts were already starting to form against some of the houses nearby. “Actually Miss Spice, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like it if you could arrange things here. I… feel like I need some fresh air.”

Cinnabar blinked at her. “What do you mean? Are you planning to leave? Now? After getting those colts and fillies all worked up?”

The snow pulled at Cadance. “I’m sure you and your brother can handle everything just fine, Cinnabar.”

“What about your holiday! I thought you wanted us to underst—”

Cadance didn't hear the rest of what Cinnabar said. The howl of the wind cut her off as Cadance pulled open the door. She stepped out into the storm and took one last look at Cinnabar. The mare glared at her from inside the building, and with her magic, Cadance pulled the door shut again, leaving herself outside. Alone. Something felt right about that.

She strolled into the middle of the street and looked up. The sky was spinning chaos; whatever the Cloudsdale pegasi were trying, it wasn't working. Or were they attempting to clear the weather somewhere else? Restoring calm here wouldn’t make rail travel any easier if the blizzard still raged along the whole path north from Canterlot.

Turning left, Cadance stepped through the accumulating snow. The powder was still fresh, everywhere she looked. It seemed that nopony was inclined to venture outside in this weather; nopony but her and the servants she asked—or ordered—to join her.

For the fourth time that night, she found herself distinctly aware of the fact that the cold no longer seemed to touch her as it used to. She remembered a tiny filly lost in a forest of barren branches. That filly had been frozen to the bone. That filly was gone.

The snow swirled into a dense mist, and for a moment the whole world went gray. Another memory washed over her.

Her eyes hurt.

She opened the book to the halfway point. The page said something about Star Swirl the Bearded’s relationship with his apprentices. She ignored it, laying the letter inside the book where Twilight wouldn’t be able to see it.

Twilight came back into the room, wearing pink and purple pyjamas. She crawled into bed with Smarty Pants, and pulled the doll tight against her chest. “What story are you going to read?”

Cadance tried to smile. “This one is about Clover the Clever, and how she lost her mother.”

The snow blew past her, carrying the memory with it.

Lights shone in a few of the windows as she walked past, moving from street to street, not following any pattern. Occasionally she could make out families of crystal ponies sitting together, reading stories or playing games. She never drew close enough to see more than that. From time to time, she found her tracks crossing themselves, and sometimes the lights in the nearby windows changed, flickering out for the night, or moving from room to room within a house. She never saw anypony singing, though.

Eventually, her steps carried her to the train station, and a part of her mind wondered if she’d always somehow intended to wind up there. The building was still well-lit: it would remain that way all through the night. She approached and quietly, with one hoof, pulled open one of the heavy doors to the central chamber and slipped inside.

Nothing had changed, really, since she’d been here last. The tall crystal clock read a few minutes past ten, now, but the station was as empty as it had been before. She couldn’t see any of the uniformed agents anymore, but the gray mare with her cello case still slept against one of the walls, in the shadow of a tall crystal column. Cadance found herself staring at the mare. Dulcinea had never played the cello. She’d laughed at the idea, the one time her husband had suggested she try.

The station agent’s office was tucked into the northwestern corner of the building, and Cadance found the old stallion inside, sitting at a desk and filling out paperwork. He jumped a little when she knocked and entered.

“Y-your Highness! I sent Jasper to the castle almost twenty minutes ago. Didn’t he arrive? I thought you said I should have updates delivered to you there.”

“I did, Mister Feldspar.” Cadance did her best to smile. “I just… thought that maybe I’d come check with you again this time. Is Jasper the same stallion you sent before?”

Feldspar nodded. “He claimed he didn’t want to go out in that cold again, but when I said I could send somepony else, he changed his mind real quick. Don’t know why; I really shouldn’t have asked him to do it twice. It’s miserable out there.”

“And the weather, Mister Feldspar?”

“Ah, of course your Highness. Well, I’ve heard back from the Cloudsdale team. They say it’s still pretty bad down south. They’re making progress, but they don’t know how soon they’ll be done. I asked, but Rainbowshine hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t give me an estimate one way or the other.”

Cadance sighed. “Thank you, Mister Feldspar. Will you please see to it that I continue to receive updates?”

“You sure about that, your Highness? I mean, it’s pretty late already. Whoever it is you’re waiting for, you don’t think it’s more likely they’ll just wait for tomorrow? If it gets a whole lot later, we may have to cancel tonight’s train service anyway; start up again with tomorrow’s schedule.”

She shook her head. “They’ll come, if they can. Please let me know if you hear anything further.”

Feldspar nodded, and Cadance left him to his paperwork. She took one last look around the station, cheerless and empty despite the decorations. The grey mare was lying on her side. Cadance pushed her way out of the heavy station doors and ventured back into the storm. It had long since obscured the hoofprints of her earlier journey from the station to the castle, and her tracks leading back through the streets toward the orphanage were already filling with snow.

When she reached the castle entrance, Cadance found the rail stallion, Jasper, waiting for her there. She let him deliver his message, thanked him, and told him to head back down to the kitchens once more before returning to the station. Then she headed up into the castle’s interior, seeking out her bedroom.

She lay on her bed for a few minutes. On the bed she shared with her husband. It still smelled like him; he’d only been gone for two nights. Three nights, if he didn’t make it back. Surely he’d be back tomorrow, at least. She lay on the bed but whatever she did, she couldn’t make herself comfortable, so eventually she rose. She walked to the hearth, kept lit by the castle servants even while she was gone, as she’d been so often that night. Sap-filled maple hissed and popped at the heart of the flames, but the warmth of those flames didn’t seem to reach her, much like the cold outside. Eventually, she grew bored with that as well. She pulled a chair away from her dressing table and turned it so she could sit, staring out at the snowfall. Maybe if she watched long enough, the snow would go away.

A quiet knock came from the bedroom’s open door. Cadance didn’t turn, but after a moment a set of hooves clicked across the crystal floor, moving toward her.

“You should’ve seen ‘em, Princess. They were so happy. Hardly even mattered that you weren’t there. They knew it was all because of you, and most of ‘em got to meet you anyway, even if it was only for a minute.” Cinnabar sat down on the floor, leaning back against the dressing table. It was, Cadance thought for a moment, a very improper thing for a servant to be doing in front of the new ruler of her kingdom.

Cadance realized that she really didn’t care. “Did you tell them about Hearth’s Warming, Cinnabar?”

The sous-chef smiled. “I did, Highness. I kinda figured you might want me to. Taught them that song and everything. I’ll bet they stay up singing it for half the night. Larimar’s gonna be mad at me all week.”

That brought a small chuckle from Cadance, and she found herself smiling in spite of her mood. “Thank you. I wish I could have heard them.”

“Well, you can always go back later. Larimar loves those foals and they love you. Everypony loves you, even if most of ‘em don’t know how to show it. ‘Course, you saved us from Sombra—but it’s more than that. You’re… nice.”

Cadance smiled reflexively, and for one beautiful moment, her heart didn’t seem so heavy.

It was hard to tell under that dark crimson coat, but Cadance thought Cinnabar might have blushed. She was certainly quick to change the subject. “Anyway, this Hearth’s Warming Eve thing. Why are you so fidgety about it? It’s just another holiday.”

Cadance turned back toward the window and the snow outside. “Not for me, Cinnabar. Is it okay if I call you Cinnabar?”

“You been doing it already, Highness. And I don’t mind. As long as the kitchen staff don’t pick it up, too.”

Cadance heard the words, but not the answer. “I never knew who my parents were, Cinnabar. Maybe I’m an orphan, too. I don’t think anypony really knows, and my memory doesn’t go back that far. The first thing I remember is being lost in a forest. It was winter—no snow, though, thank Celestia. I can remember being so cold. I didn’t even know I was cold; I didn’t remember ever not being cold. I was alone, and it was dark, and then somepony found me. A stallion. He was old, probably old enough to be a grandfather, but he and his wife never had any foals of their own.

“He took me home. He and his wife took care of me, fed me, and when nopony ever showed up to report a lost little filly, they became my mother and my father.

“I don’t know how old I was, when all that happened. I hardly understood any of it at the time, though, so I must have been awfully little. I didn’t understand birthdays or anything like that, either. Nobody knew when I was born anyway, so Dulcinea—my mother—decided they ought to celebrate the night they found me like it was a birthday. And, as it happened, that night was Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

“So it’s sort of like your birthday, too?” Cinnabar asked.

Cadance continued to stare out the window. “My mother and father tried to make Hearth’s Warming special every year. They both loved music, and we’d sing songs, and they’d play their instruments together. My mother played the clarinet, and my father played the cello. And there was always hot apple cider with cinnamon and cloves, and the smell of it would fill our whole house. They made it wonderful. Which was good, because as I got older, I started thinking more and more about what must have happened before they found me. Hearth’s Warming… was lonely.

“And then one year… well… some years in your life, not much happens. Some years, a lot happens. I wound up getting sent to Canterlot so I could live with my au… with Princess Celestia. It was the first Hearth’s Warming I ever spent away from my parents, that year. And it was almost okay. I didn’t really have anything to do, alone in Canterlot on Hearth’s Warming, so I wound up foal-sitting a little unicorn filly. And she had a brother—a really, really handsome brother—and they were both wonderful to me. They hardly knew me, but it felt like maybe I didn’t have to be alone on Hearth’s Warming Eve, like maybe I’d be okay even if I couldn’t spend it with my parents.”

She fell silent. Outside, the wind rattled against the shuttered glass panes, but it seemed to have died down a little. The fireplace crackled and popped behind her. Cadance stared forward, feeling the familiar hollowness this night always brought.

Words never filled the empty space inside. She’d tried, a long time ago. She’d told Celestia—that went without saying. And she’d told a little unicorn filly, in the vain hope that sharing the pain might somehow make it less. She’d never told Shining, though. She needed to, she knew. She’d wanted to tell him tonight, tell him what Hearth’s Warming really meant to her. But he wasn’t there. For the first time in eighteen years, Cadance really was alone on Hearth’s Warming. Except for this little red mare she hardly knew.

The words came anyway. They were all she had left.

“I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with them, not that night. Aunt Celestia had invited me to pass the evening with her, so we could get to know each other better. I’d only been in Canterlot a few weeks. So I went back to the palace. I went up to my room to get ready. And there was a letter waiting for me on my bed. It was in my father’s hoofwriting.

“There was a big snowstorm, like this one. The pegasi didn’t know where it came from.” Her voice trailed off. “Pegasi are supposed to be able to fix the weather, right? I never learned how they did that. Maybe if I…” She shut her eyes tight for a moment, and when she opened them everything seemed a little darker.

“There was a snowstorm, about a week before Hearth’s Warming. It covered the whole forest around Hollow Shades, and then the temperature dropped well below freezing. Dulcinea would have been almost seventy by then. She got caught out in it. She was in the forest, watching after the birds that didn’t go south for the winter. She always loved birds.

“I guess, once it got bad, she couldn’t find her way home. Celliano said the cold must have just been too much for her, at that age. He passed away a few years later. He didn’t have a whole lot to hold on for, with her gone and with me away in Canterlot most of the year, every year.” Cadance bowed her head, and her voice grew quieter. “I should have been there. I should have gone back more often. But I never knew what to say. I’m supposed to know how to fix things. How do you fix a broken heart?”

She raised her head again, and her voice gained a note of intensity. “And do you know what I hate most of all? None of it even happened on Hearth’s Warming Eve—but that’s how I always remember it. It’s not my birthday. It’s not even the day she died. Because of the snow, my father’s letter took four days to reach me in Canterlot.”

The window looked a little more hazy. Cadance sniffled. “Nothing important ever happens on Hearth’s Warming. It’s just a stupid holiday, the same as all the other stupid holidays. I don’t know why anypony even cares. But it’s supposed to make ponies happy.”

Silence settled over the room. Cadance stared out at the snow, longing for the cold she no longer felt.

“It made me happy,” Cinnabar said quietly. “It made a lot of ponies happy.”

When Cadance made no reply, she continued. “My brother, he’s not very easy to get along with. He never was, not even when we were growing up, but having to work for Sombra didn’t make him any better. Seems like he’s always angry about something. I guess I can understand that, with the things he’s had to do, and with the way other ponies treat him.

“But not tonight. Not after you left. Nopony ever cares about those little colts and fillies, Princess—nopony but him. That’s what he thinks, anyway. I still don’t think he’s forgiven me for coming to work in the palace kitchens, not that I had a whole lot of choice when Sombra was running things.

“What you did tonight meant a lot to him, Highness. Even if you did go chasing off like some wild mustang. I don’t know if anypony else is going to care about Hearth’s Warming Eve tomorrow, but those kids will. And so will Larimar. And so will I. It’s been so many years since I’ve seen him happy like that. It felt like…” There was a pause. “It felt like all the bad years never happened. It felt like being a family again.”

The fire crackled in the hearth. Neither of them knew what else to say. Cadance watched the shadows of the storm dance across the window panes.

Another knock on the door broke the quiet of the room. Regretfully, Cadance turned away from the window. The rail stallion, Jasper, stood in the doorway holding a letter. His gray uniform still looked crisp and proper, despite all the time he’d spent out in the snow that night. Cadance’s horn glowed with a faint blue light and the letter levitated to her, unfolding as it came.

Due to disruptions in weather production, all passenger service to and from the Crystal Empire has been cancelled. Service will resume tomorrow at 3:00pm, pending successful completion of weather repairs.

– Hoofry Newcomen, Equestria Rail Chief Commissioner

Cadance let the letter fall to the floor. She took a breath to steady herself, but her voice still came out flat. “Thank you, Mister Jasper. Could you please relay my thanks to Mister Feldspar the next time you see him, as well? And feel free to stop by the kitchen again if you’d like, before you leave.”

Jasper hesitated, as if deciding whether to say something. Then, after a moment, his eyes dropped to the floor and he gave her a very deep bow before retreating from the room.

The room stayed silent for a full minute after he left. Even the fire seemed to sense the mood, burning low over the white charcoaled surface of the remaining logs. Cadance floated in a river of exhaustion. Why did it even matter to her, if she had to spend Hearth’s Warming Eve alone?

“So, bad news then?” The small voice was an unwelcome intrusion.

“Isn’t it always?”

Cinnabar didn’t reply, though she stood and retrieved the letter so she could read it for herself. She was silent for a while and then, perhaps thinking it the appropriate thing to do, she took the letter to the hearth and set it on top of the smouldering logs. Cadance watched as the parchment blackened and curled in the fire.

“Cinnabar?”

“Yes, Highness?”

Cadance continued to stare at the fire for a little while, even though the letter was already gone. “Do you like being a sous-chef?”

Cinnabar paused in turn, and the firelight danced around the room. “It’s what I’ve done all my life. Ever since I left the orphanage, at least.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“I know.”

They were both silent a little longer, and then Cadance continued. “In Canterlot, Aunt Celestia has a whole army of ponies that help her run the kingdom. It’s a lot of work, keeping track of everything.”

“Sombra seemed to manage,” Cinnabar said a touch bitterly.

“I’m not Sombra. I’m just a pegasus that never learned to fly right.” Cadance took a deep breath. “What would you think about…”

Her voice trailed off, and she turned to stare at the window.

“What would I think about what, Highness?”

“Quiet!” Cadance hissed. There it was, again. “Did you hear that?”

Cinnabar cocked her head, and the room grew very still. Then, her eyes opened wide, and she turned toward the window too. “But that doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“I don’t care if it makes sense!” Cadance rose from the chair and rushed to her study where a balcony looked out over the city, facing the train station. She threw open the glass doors and stepped out into the storm, which still raged throughout the city. Down below, she could just make out the train station—and a tiny pink cloud of steam rising from an engine that she knew hadn’t been there earlier in the evening.

Her heart skipped a beat, and she looked around her in a panic. She had to know if it was them, if somehow they’d found a way to get through the storm.

Cinnabar hurried out onto the balcony. “Princess! Can you see anything?” She raised a hoof to shield her eyes from the wind, scanning the sky.

Cadance turned to the other mare and gave her a smile. “Cinnabar, would you please see if any of the servants are still awake and let them know I may yet have guests coming tonight? I’ll meet you down in the entryway in a few minutes.”

“What do you mean, you’ll—”

Cadance didn’t hear the rest. She ran toward the edge of the balcony, spread her wings, and leapt over the guardrail. The wind caught her immediately, pressing her down, and it took all her skill to stay aloft. She kept her eyes on the station, banking left against the wind, then banking right, then left again. The air currents refused to settle into any single direction, and the rush of snow around her made it difficult to see. But all she had to do was glide and fall, glide and fall all the way to the train station, and…

The ground was coming up too fast. Cadance flapped her wings, but the wind beat down on her from above. Her hooves struck the snow and the cobbled streets beneath, and her knees buckled, pitching her forward. She tried to flap again, but the motion was useless. She skidded headlong into a drift of snow in the shadow of a small green house. Her cannons began to hurt, but she ignored them, throwing herself out of the snow and galloping down the street toward the station. She ran headlong at the door, throwing it open with her magic just before she reached it.

And she found herself careening into a large, unutterably handsome white stallion. He caught her, somehow. She thought she might have felt the tingle of his magic around her wings. She looked up at him and grinned.

He started to speak. “How did you know—”

“Cadance!” The voice came from off to her left, utterly ruining her contemplation of Shining’s beautiful eyes. She didn’t care.

“Twilight!” Cadance dashed over to her sister-in-law, throwing hooves around her in a hug. “How did you get here? They told me they’d cancelled the trains!”

Twilight blushed and scuffed a hoof against the ground. “Well, we didn’t exactly…”

“C’mon, Twily. You have to tell her.” Shining’s laugh twinkled in Cadance’s ears as he walked over. “It was brilliant. You should have seen the look on everypony’s face when she suggested it.”

Cadance frowned, and Twilight’s blush deepened. “Well… I was visiting Luna last week, and I did some studying in the Star Swirl the Bearded wing. And when they told us the train was delayed, and we were all just waiting around in the station, I had some time to think about how a couple of those old spells worked. You see, if you use Star Swirl’s chronodisplacement spell with Brindlevine’s looping algorithm for magical energies and Blue Moon’s theory of exchangeability, you can make the—”

“Twily…”

“We, um… We took next Tuesday’s train instead. We just got here early. Everypony’s going to have to take a couple extra rail trips next week to make up for it, but they all said they didn’t mind.”

“So your parents were able to come, too?” Cadance asked. She’d gotten to spend Hearth’s Warming with them the last couple years, and it had been… nice. Nicer than she would have expected, long ago. She had hoped they wouldn’t mind coming to the Crystal Empire, especially if Shining and Twilight were already planning to be here.

“Yes…” Twilight still sounded a little sheepish. “And… maybe a few others.”

There was a commotion from one of the walkways leading to the tracks, and a familiar white unicorn in a bright pink hat pushed into view with a filly tagging along at her heels. Two other fillies followed close behind, all talking to each other in excited voices. Then came a little purple dragon, carrying an enormous tower of luggage. Then Shining’s parents, and behind them a family of earth ponies, only one of whom Cadance recognized. Then more ponies.

Her eyes started to water. She turned to her husband. “Was this your idea?”

He shook his head, looking a bit rueful. “Nope, still Twilight. She was full of ideas today.”

Cadance turned to her sister-in-law and found that her vision was starting to blur. She scrunched up her face, trying for a smile.

Twilight spoke in a quiet voice. “I remembered a story you told me once, a long time ago. You were supposed to be reading to me and Smarty Pants, and you pretended pretty well, but I know what’s in my books. It seemed like a pretty important story, though, so I remembered it.”

“My Clover the Clever,” Cadance said.

Shining looked between the two of them, confusion painted on his face. “What are you two talking about? Twily? Cadance?”

The clock began to toll the hour. Midnight.

Twilight stared up at it, puzzled. “That shouldn’t have happened. We were supposed to arrive exactly at the beginning of the new day. That’s the only way I could get the math to work out.”

Shining said something in reply, but Cadance didn't hear it. She turned and stared out the windows of the train station. The Crystal Castle looked cold, and dark, and far more welcoming than the palace in Canterlot had ever been.

Nothing important ever happened on Hearth’s Warming, she’d told Cinnabar. No. That was wrong. Three times now, Hearth’s Warming Eve was when she’d found her family.

Cadance gave the train station a searching glance. There, behind Spike and the three little fillies, the gray mare with the cello was beginning to stir, awakened by the commotion around her. Cadance felt a stab of sadness, watching her. The mare had spent all Hearth’s Warming Eve alone, in the cold of the train station. Cadance could have fixed that, if she hadn’t been too preoccupied with her own problems to think of it. No one deserved to be alone on Hearth’s Warming Eve.

Shining brushed his muzzle against her neck. “Well, love-muffin, should we head back to the castle?”

Cadance smiled and shook her head. “Not yet, Shiny. I think there’s something I need to do, first.” She gave him a quick kiss, turned, and trotted toward the gray mare.

Author's Note:

Well, this one took a little longer than I'd planned. Initially published last February, and had to wait 10 months for final edits and its intended Christmas release.

Many thanks go to my pre-reading team of GhostOfHeraclitus, PoweredByTea, and "Nettle", ably assisted in this case by Special Guest Pre-Reader Skywriter, who knows a little something about Cadance. The cover art was drawn by Nadnerb, who also assisted with pre-reading. Oh, yeah, and I should mention Horizon, Themaskedferret, and Swashbucklist who also helped a lot in bringing this story up to a level I can feel proud of.