• Published 26th Oct 2019
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The Heart Beats Still - ArgonMatrix

In the fledgling years of the Crystal Empire, the first Crystal Princess defends her realm against unyielding darkness.

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Chapter 1 – The People's Princess

The nephrite beacon had gone dull. Sunlight made it so Amore could hardly see the glimmer of magic in the gem's core, even from where she hovered at the spire's peak. She frowned. Casting her gaze down, she nodded to the border guard stationed on the nearby platform. He saluted and shielded his eyes, as per protocol.

Focusing on the gem, Amore closed her eyes. With practiced ease, she drew on the warmth in her heart and allowed it to fill her being. The feeling grew until she became lost in it, as though submerged in a thermal spring. She recalled fond memories: breakfast with her parents; lighting the Crystal Heart for the first time; her coronation. She inhaled a deep breath, held it, and exhaled.

The feeling flooded into her horn, heating it comfortably. She opened her eyes, watching the magic dance through the air like a cloud of fireflies and coalesce around the nephrite. The light flowed through the gem’s facets, condensing in its core. The beacon shone like a second sun. It hummed with power, and a ripple of warmth cascaded outward. The light dimmed—no longer painful to behold, but bright and soothing: a candle against the night.

Ignoring her heavy eyelids and stiff limbs, Amore gave the guard a gentle smile before fluttering back to earth. She stumbled upon landing but steadied herself quickly. “Any others?” She glanced around. About half of the Empire was visible from the edge of the foothills, and every spire she saw along the border shone with the same golden light.

The captain of her royal guard, Citrine Star, marked their checklist and grinned. “Nope. That’s the last beacon rejuvenated. Border patrol is tight and on schedule. Barring another daylight attack, we’re good.”

“Wonderful.” Amore looked skyward. The sun had just crossed its zenith. “And there’s still plenty of time to make my rounds.” Turning to the captain, she nodded slowly and said, “Thank you for your diligence, Citrine. Be sure to take a break once you get the chance.”

Citrine grimaced—an expression they wore well and often. “If I can be blunt, ma’am, I don’t think I’m the one who needs a break. Can’t you skip the rounds for once? Push ’em back or something?”

“Out of the question. It’s important to keep morale high.” Amore gazed out across the Empire. Most of the rooftops sparkled in the sunlight like the surface of a calm sea, but a few on the outer edges lacked such luster. Some were scorched black. Others were caved in. Still others were missing entirely. “Now more than ever.”

“Nopony’s morale will be high if you’re too tired to protect us.” Citrine marched closer. “With the Empire expanding, umbrum attacks are only getting worse. We need you at full strength in case of another breach, especially through the night. As captain of your Crystal Sentinels, I highly recommend you get some rest.”

“Recommendation acknowledged and refused, Captain,” Amore replied, still lingering on the massacred buildings.

“As a friend, then.”

That caught Amore off-guard. She looked to Citrine. The captain had removed their helmet, allowing their mane to tumble down to their withers. They frowned and said, “They’ve been running you ragged these past few weeks, Amore. The umbrum, I mean. You’ve been keeping up so far, because of course you have, but how long until you crash? I’m worried about you.”

Amore’s mouth curved in a tender smile. She trotted over and placed a hoof on Citrine’s shoulder. “I appreciate the concern, but I’m fine. Truly. I may be tired physically, but I’m at my strongest when the ponies I love are happy.” She lowered to rest on her forelegs, meeting Citrine’s height. “Especially those closest to me.” Her hoof traced upwards, caressing the pony’s cheek.

Citrine leaned into the touch and sighed. “I’ll try.” They smiled and met Amore’s gaze. “Just promise me you’ll take a breather at some point. We don’t want a repeat of last Winter’s Ball.”

Despite it all, Amore blushed. “To be fair, that flowerbed was unusually comfortable.” They shared a light chuckle—a rarity these days. Amore wrapped her hoof around the back of Citrine’s head and pulled them into a quick embrace. “Stay safe.”

“Back at ya,” Citrine said, returning the hug.

Amore pulled back and stood up. She levitated Citrine’s helmet over to them, and they promptly donned it, becoming Captain once more. They gave a loose salute and cantered off in the direction of the northeastern outpost.

Sighing through her nostrils, Amore wheeled around to face the Empire. She ignored her pleading muscles and flared her wings again. With a galloping start, she took off at a low glide across the fields, a cool zephyr at her back.

She’d had somewhere in mind, but Amore decided to touch down a few blocks away—in the midst of the Amaranth Commons. Ponies tended to congregate there, and for good reason.

A suggestion of a dirt path wove through the little meadow, guiding the way between three crystalline ponds. The namesake perennials grew in dense clusters at the water’s edge. They boasted thousands of tiny blossoms, their colour not dissimilar to Amore’s own raspberry mane. Their fragrance flowed like air, bathing the park in springtime—fresh and everlasting. A great chestnut tree tied it all together, dwarfing the valley in which it grew. Droopy white flowers would pop from its branches, were it in season.

For her citizens, the park was a haven. A place where life thrived and beauty reigned even in the darkest hours. It brought Amore that same peace, but in a different way. She drew comfort not from the cultivars, but from the company.

Everypony turned her way as she landed. They didn’t flock to her, but their expressions brightened, and several of them waved. Amore waved back to as many as she could and started on her walk.

There wasn’t a face here she didn’t recognize, and she could name each one. Nopony quite understood how she kept such a perfect memory of her citizens and all their respective lives in such personal detail. Not even Amore knew the specifics of how she managed it, but her reason for doing so was plain. Everyone deserved to feel important. Most especially the ones who had made her their leader. They were her family, after all.

It was with this mind that she took to the streets of the Crystal Empire, exchanging pleasantries and idle conversations with all she passed. Usually these strolls allowed her concerns to fade for a while. Her heart would flutter when she heard her ponies’ eager voices as they recounted their little joys, smiling all the while. Real smiles, too. Not ceramic masks of politeness but the genuine grins of longtime friends.

Of course, recent days had been anything but usual.

She’d seen it more with each passing day, and today was no exception. The smiles remained, but they stopped short of their eyes. Something else lay there. Their pupils would jerk, or shrink, or glaze over at something a thousand yards distant. They changed when they saw Amore, but not in the usual way. They’d look to her like a foal whose mother had come to spook the monsters in the closet. It made her heart twist.

But it wouldn’t do to dwell on such things. Her ponies needed her not to.

Some hours later, she finished her meander in front of a small house: a simple one-story affair of red crystal. The only new detail since her last visit was the row of berry bushes growing beneath the window. Amore smiled. She trotted up and knocked thrice on the door.

“Just a moment there!” called a singsong voice. Silence followed, broken quickly by a heavy clatter from within. Soon after, the door swung open to a middle-aged mare with her mane tied back in a loose bun. Her bloodshot eyes widened with her smile. “Oh, Princess Amore! What a lovely surprise.”

Amore nodded. “Good day, Primrose. How have you been?”

“Oh, about as good as can be, everything considered.” She punctuated it with a half-chuckle. “What brings you by?”

“I just wanted to catch up with you and Alabaster. See how you’re settling in, if there’s anything I can do to make the transition easier. Things of that nature.”

Primrose’s smile faltered. “Oh, I’m afraid Al’s out searching the wreckage again today. But I wouldn’t say no to a chat! Could use a break anyhow.” She stepped sideways and gestured within. “Come on in! No need to stay out on the stoop like hoodlums.”

“Thank you.” Amore ducked under the doorframe and stepped inside.

The living room was cozy and inviting, although it smelled of new furniture. Several boxes—one of which had toppled—were piled in a corner. The fallen one had spilled its contents onto the carpet. Amore recognized a few picture frames bearing scorch marks, but she quickly averted her gaze.

“Make yourself at home, now,” Primrose said. She quickly gathered up the box’s contents and shoved the lot of it to the side. She trotted through an archway into the kitchen. “I’ll warm us up some nectar real quick. Be out in a jiffy!”

“That’s not necessary,” Amore said, seating herself on the nearby loveseat. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Nonsense. It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for us!”

Amore went to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. She settled for, “Thank you. The hospitality is welcome.” She became lost staring at the boxes in the corner.

A sweet aroma soon pulled Amore from her thoughts. Primrose trotted back into the room, balancing a tray holding two mugs and a metal pitcher on her back. “Allow me,” Amore said. Her magic alit around the tray and floated it down to the coffee table.

“Oh, you’re too kind.” Primrose proceeded to pour a dark ruby liquid from the pitcher, filling each mug about halfway. She grabbed one in her hoof and took her own seat in the rocking chair across the table. “Don’t let it get cold, now!”

Amore levitated the mug to her lips, steam enveloping her muzzle. She took a sip. Hints of blackcurrant and honey laced her tongue, ending with tart blackberry. “Mm, lovely. Is this your own blend?”

“Oh, not mine, no. This one’s all my hubby’s. Tends the berries himself, don’tcha know.” Primrose giggled as she drank her own beverage, a soft light in her eyes.

“How is Alabaster?”

The light dimmed. “Truth be told, he’s not coping so well. The move’s been hard on both of us, obviously, but I don’t think he wants to get used to it. Keeps going back to the old place. Says he’s looking for his granddad’s old tools, but I think it’s more than that.”

Amore’s chest clenched. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help him along?”

Primrose shook her head. “Not unless you can magically fix up our old house and wipe our memories of that night.” She laughed lightly and let the statement hang.

“I wish I could,” Amore said. “But while I can’t remedy the past, rest assured your futures are very safe.”

“Mm-hmm,” Primrose said, taking a long sip. Her gaze wouldn’t meet Amore’s.

The princess frowned. “Have I said something wrong?”

Eyes widening, Primrose quickly put down her mug, spilling a little on the wood. “Oh, not at all! You’ve done wonders, putting us up like this. And so close to the Crystal Heart, too! It feels safe as can be.” Her smile was true, but her eyes wobbled and strained.

Amore set the nectar down, her mouth going flat. “Please be honest with me. If there’s anything else I can do to put you at ease, I want to know.”

“Really, Princess, we’re fine.” Primrose’s gaze broke away, falling to the floor. “Skies above, I wouldn’t wanna burden you anyhow! You already have so much to take care of, ’specially with all the—” She swallowed, and her mane lost some of its sheen. “With recent happenings.” She brought her mug to her lips again.

“I assure you, it’s a burden I’m happy to bear.” Amore turned her gaze out the window, where a group of colts played in the street.

“Oh, and we’re so grateful for that,” Primrose said, the bounce in her voice gone. “I don’t know how you manage! I mean, there’s only one of you, and so many of… of them…” The silence pulled Amore’s attention back. Primrose’s focus was lost on something in her drink. She squeezed her eyes and shook her head. She looked up, a brittle grin holding her expression together. “Frankly, I just feel helpless most days. I only wish there was something we could do to help you.”

A sad smile crossed Amore’s face. She was suddenly and keenly aware of the weight of her own body. “You already do plenty, just by being here.”

Something about those words clearly struck Primrose, as tears sprung loose. “I… um…” She wiped her cheeks dry with a hoof. “Sorry, I’m being silly.”

“It’s not silly; it’s natural. You’ve been through so much.” Amore rose from her seat and trotted around the table. She brushed a wing across Primrose’s withers. “Come. Let’s take a walk.”

Sniffling, Primrose gazed up at Amore with a confused frown. “A walk? Where to, if I might ask?”

“Wherever we end up,” Amore said, gently guiding Primrose out of the chair. “What matters is that it won’t be here. I think you need that right now.”

Primrose’s frown gave way to a heavy smile. She set her mug on the tray, composed herself, and the two mares wordlessly made their way outside.

Of course, Amore eventually steered their journey to the one place where she knew darkness could not tread.

An aura of serenity welcomed them as they entered the plaza beneath the palace. To call the feeling familiar would be to ignore the complexity of the relic exuding it. By its very nature, the Crystal Heart’s power shifted over time—as any mood did. Its light waxed and waned with the weals and woes of every creature that shared in its protection. Nopony could grow used to it more than anypony could feel the full spectrum of emotions all at once. The sheer depth even awed Amore herself at times.

It was true that she had created the Crystal Heart, but she'd only provided the catalyst: the seed from which the tree of an Empire had grown, responding and adapting to climates and seasons that changed on a whim. Amore inspired an environment rich in hope and love, and so it became easy to view the Heart exclusively through that rosy lens; and Amore hoped nopony would ever see it through anything else. The hundreds of tiny tragedies which the relic magnified could needle her heart alone. They were muted nothings compared to the symphonic strength she gained from the Heart otherwise, but they were there—reminders of her duty, if nothing else.

She and Primrose drew nearer the dais, the thrum of magic rising in intensity. “I should’ve known we’d wind up here,” Primrose said, grinning up at the Heart.

“Have I become so predictable?” Amore said.

“Oh, yes. But that’s hardly a bad thing.” Primrose rested on her haunches. Her eyes glazed over as she basked in the light.

Amore giggled. She let her gaze wander. They were far from the only ponies in the plaza. A few palace guards patrolled casually near the edges, and citizens from around the Empire were scattered throughout. Most lay on the ground in groups, laughing and chattering away. Some were alone, either muzzle-deep in a good book or just enjoying the day for its own merits. A few eyes drifted her way, especially as she approached the center, but no one interrupted.

She turned her focus to the Crystal Heart. Her reflection stared back—only it wasn’t exactly hers. It certainly bore her likeness, but the eyes were different. Inexplicable age lay behind them, like they had already seen a thousand lifetimes.

“Why do you think I brought you here, Primrose?” Amore asked.

Primrose was silent for a few moments, like she hadn’t quite heard the question. “To help get my mind off things, I reckon.”

“In a way, yes.” The Heart’s aura ebbed infinitesimally. “How does the Crystal Heart make you feel?”

“Oh, it’s just wonderful.” Primrose’s smile broadened in ecstasy. “Even after all that’s happened, it puts me at ease. Makes me feel like nothing else could go wrong.”

Amore’s reflection in the Heart shifted, showing Primrose instead. “Why?”

The bliss in Primrose’s features dampened. “Why? Well, I suppose that’s just what the Crystal Heart does. Besides protecting us, of course. I never thought about it much past that.”

“You know where the Heart gets its power from, right?”

“Sure do!” Her beaming face returned. “It’s the happiness of everypony in the empire all mixed together like gumbo.”

Despite herself, Amore chuckled. “More specifically?”

Primrose quirked an eyebrow, frowning. “Oh, well, I thought that’s all there was to it, Princess.”

“It comes from you, Primrose.”

No response came, as though Primrose had expected more. She blinked. “Me?”

Amore willed herself to look away from the Heart, meeting Primrose’s real eyes. “Yes, you.” She looked around the plaza—most other ponies were already looking her way. “And him. And him. And her. And him,” she said, pointing to several ponies in turn before gesturing broadly to the plaza. “Each of you, individually.

“The Crystal Heart on its own commands nothing. But through each of you laughing, loving, living…” Amore closed her eyes. Her heart called out, and the Heart answered. Countless coloured lights winked to life in her mind’s eye, dancing together in a breathing starscape. Every light was familiar. She could name each one. They did nothing; they simply were. And that was enough.

A pulse of sparkling light radiated outward, engulfing the plaza. Sensual pleasure ignited Amore’s every nerve like a lover’s embrace. Her muscles relaxed, and her body felt like water. Her wings extended on impulse, giddy with energy. For that brief moment, Amore could have held the entire Empire on her shoulders.

And too soon, it was gone. Exhaustion crashed through her once more, but still she smiled. She opened her eyes to everypony’s slackjaw faces. Their coats dazzled in the afterglow, raw and beautiful like uncut diamonds. Some of them were crying. They all looked to one another, lost in a shared reverie.

Amore landed—she’d barely registered lifting off the ground. She looked to Primrose, who was staring into the Crystal Heart. Amore touched her chin and guided the mare’s gaze to her own. “As I said, you already do plenty to help me. Keep that in mind.” She moved her hoof to Primrose’s back and pulled her up in a gentle hug. Soon after, Primrose returned it. And for that moment, nothing else mattered.

A pang struck Amore’s heart. Her mind snapped to attention, and she quickly noticed the presence of a new guard near the plaza’s border. Sable Rook—she had been stationed at the northwestern outpost. She spoke with one of the palace guards, her eyes occasionally twitching Amore’s way.

Ice gripped her heart. She put on a smile and pulled out of the embrace. “I hope this has been helpful, Primrose,” she said.

“More than you know, Princess,” Primrose said, not bothering to wipe her tears away.

“Feel free to stay as long as you need to. For now, I'm afraid I must tend to other matters.”

Blinking rapidly, Primrose said, “Oh, gosh, of course you do! I wouldn’t want to hog all your time. You go on, Princess. You’ve already made my day.”

Allowing herself some final warmth, Amore said, “I’m so happy to hear that, Primrose. Be well.” She nodded and trotted past the mare. Her trot devolved into a cold march as she approached the guards. Back to reality.

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