• Published 26th Oct 2019
  • 234 Views, 22 Comments

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 3 – Calm

When she awoke, everything hurt. There was no comparison. No metaphor could make sense of it. She simply hurt—body, mind, and soul. Even opening her eyes was beyond her. She lay there for untold time and just let herself agonize, only vaguely aware of her own timid breaths.

Somewhere in her soupy thoughts, she knew that she ought to get up. So much had happened in such a short time, and she surely had questions to both ask and answer. Even still, her mind wouldn’t allow her anything. Part of it denied her out of necessity; another part plain didn’t want to.

Sleep found her again—she thought so, anyway. It was hard to know the difference. No dreams came. No nightmares. Yet time passed in the nebulous way only possible under night’s spell. Each stint afforded her another sliver of energy, all of which she put into willing herself to action. No rest for the wicked.

A cold breeze tickled her—finally something external. Princess Amore’s eyes opened, and it took a moment to understand what she saw.

Mooncast shadows distorted the room, hiding most detail. This was not a sinister darkness, though. These shadows were familiar. Ones she had seen countless times, usually accompanied by a far-off din or a twinge in her heart. Her regalia was piled up on a little table nearby, glittering as if newly shined. A blanket wrapped her where she lay, which she now recognized as a bed—a cozy fourposter, minus the traditional veil.

The wind rolled through again, drawing her attention to the window. Silver light streamed in, and she could make out the starry sky beyond. If she stood at that window, she could see the Empire at large.

She shuffled to the edge of the bed. Each motion was rusty and hard-fought, but her body protested less than she’d expected. The pain felt less like daggers and more like shackles.

All of that changed once her hooves touched the floor. Her own weight sliced down her legs and buckled her knees. She yelped and stumbled sideways. Her wings went to steady her, but they barely unfolded halfway before screaming. The nearby wall caught her, and she unceremoniously slid to the ground.

Somepony snorted behind her. “Wah?” It was followed near instantly by, “Princess!”

The voice sank and lifted her heart in equal measures. She glanced to her side where Citrine Star already stood. Amore tried to push herself up, but Citrine held a hoof to her flank. “Don’t move. You still need rest. I’ll get you back into bed.” They reached under her and began lifting.

“The worst of it has passed,” Amore said, now vividly aware of the desert in her mouth and throat. She swallowed, which stung and helped little. “I’ll be fine.” Wincing, she rose to standing, doing her best to only lean on Citrine lightly.

“Don’t be stupid.” Citrine nudged her towards the bed. Their voice was low and smoky. “You were basically dead. Even for you, three days isn’t long enough to shake that.”

That sparked Amore’s mind. “Three—?” She jerked to the window, propping herself up on the sill.

What first drew her attention were the rolling fields that surrounded the Crystal Empire—or the lack thereof. All that remained of them was a grassy strip maybe fifty hooves thin, at which distance the tundra strangled everything beyond. Yet even as her blood ran cold, the feeling was quickly eclipsed as her gaze fell to the Empire itself.

She knew not what sight she had expected, but this hadn’t been it.

The buildings were untouched, their rooftops twinkling as stars. Candlelight wavered in every window, lanterns on every stoop, flickering like a thousand sleepy fireflies. Their glows pooled, casting the town in makeshift twilight. Despite the late hour, many ponies still wandered the streets and gathered in parks. Their features were silhouetted away, causing crowds to blend together in unique shapes. She saw no purpose in their movements—they simply walked.

A quiet song rose from somewhere far below, beyond where she could see. Innumerable voices hummed together in a melancholic chorus, speaking no words yet saying volumes. Amore nearly crumpled once she recognized it. It was a dirge rendition, but she could not mistake their nation’s first hymn: the Crystal Kingdom Anthem.

“What is this?” she breathed.

With a heavy sigh, Citrine joined Amore at the window. “When the Crystal Heart spat you out, everypony freaked. Obviously. Since then, its magic has been fading. And the protection around the Empire with it. Saw it firsthoof from the outpost.”

Amore’s eyes widened. “The border guards…”

“Evacuated,” Citrine said matter-of-factly. “Everypony’s safe. Guards and castle staff’ve been running their tails off trying to keep spirits high to power the Heart, though. I’ve barely slept, keeping everypony moving.”

Flattening her ears, Amore said, “And the umbrum?” Her eyes widened as her memory finally caught up. She glanced to Citrine. “Where’s Cobalt?”

Their eyes downcast and their mouth ironclad, Citrine said, “Redhoof’s got him in the infirmary. He’ll recover—physically, anyway. As for the umbrum…” They stared into the distance. “No attacks. No sightings. Nothing. Whatever you did out there seems to have kept them at bay.”

Amore followed their gaze. Tenebrous clouds crowded the arctic skies, blotting all light. “For now.”

Her frown etched itself deeper. All of her ponies were safe and sound, including Cobalt. The Crystal Empire itself still stood—if weakened. And the umbrum had likely suffered a grievous wound that would keep them away for some time. Despite it all, Amore couldn’t smile. Somehow this still felt like a loss. She bowed her head. “I am so sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” Citrine growled. Amore looked over and saw the sheen in their eyes just as they squeezed them shut. “Whatever. You’re caught up. The rest can wait.” They pulled back from the window and tugged at Amore’s hoof, guiding her inside. “Just get back to bed. You look like Tartarus.”

Even as Citrine pulled her inside, Amore listened to the dour notes of her empire’s song. Each one echoed in her mind and broke her heart. She squared her jaw and veered towards the door. “I’ll rest later. I need to address them.”

A sharp pain in her hindquarters stopped her dead. She looked over her shoulder to where Citrine had bitten her tail. They spat it out and shot her a glare that could've slain a cockatrice. “Amore, no. What you need is more time to recover. They can wait.”

“Clearly not,” Amore said, gesturing outside. “This will only get worse the longer I put it off. I can sleep later. Right now, I need to fix this.”

“I’ll fix it.” Citrine stepped up beside Amore. “The citizens will be happy to hear that you’re awake and recovering well. That’ll smooth things over fine—you don’t need to be there for that. Let me handle this. I’m your second-in-command for a reason.”

Amore’s features softened. “You are,” she said, tenderly wrapping a wing around the captain and leaning in for a nuzzle. Their body was so rigid. “And you’ve done wonderfully. I’m sorry to have shouldered you with such a heavy burden. It never should have fallen to you. But because of my recklessness, it did. I only wish I’d heeded your advice earlier.”

Citrine exhaled a hot, trembling breath. “Then heed it now. Please, Amore. I can’t bear to see you like this.”

Amore squeezed them closer. “I have to answer for my actions, Citrine. I’m sorry.” Pulling out of the embrace, she offered a wan smile. “I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

Citrine’s eyes rippled. Their upper lip stiffened, and they cantered into the space between Amore and the door. Darkness obscured their face, save their steely glare. “No,” they said, sniffling. “I won’t let you.”

Amore’s smile faltered. She tried her magic to nudge Citrine aside, but a million tiny explosions thrashed her skull at the effort. A few sparks sputtered from her horn. She winced, clutching her temple. She fixed Citrine with a level stare and said, “Your concern is sweet, Captain, but it isn’t your place to tell me what I can and cannot do.”

“Somepony has to look out for you if you won’t do it yourself.”

The silence, however brief, was thunderous. “I can handle myself just fine.”

Citrine wiped their muzzle. “Not if the last three days are anything to go by.”

“And that’s why I’m trying to fix this. To apologize for abandoning everypony in their time of need. Now—”

A harrowing groan cut her off. “That’s not what they care about!” Citrine bawled. “That’s not what any of this is about!”

“Yes. It is.” Amore stomped a hoof, sending bolts of fire up her leg. “I failed in my duty. Let myself be blinded by emotion and became incapable of protecting the Empire. Their spirits are broken because of that. Because of me.” She failed to keep the crack out of her voice.

The moonlight caught in Citrine’s teeth as they bared them. “You really think any of this is because you ‘failed in your duty?’ I guarantee that thought hasn’t crossed a single pony’s mind in three days.” They advanced a step, revealing silver tears flooding down their cheeks. “Why did you pick Cobalt?”

“Pardon?”

“Why did you go after Cobalt instead of staying behind to protect the Empire?” Their glare met Amore’s eyes unblinkingly, as though her answer now would change the world.

Amore’s heart burned. “Because I couldn’t bear the thought of somepony I cared about suffering so much.”

“Exactly!” Citrine took another step, now close enough to touch Amore if they reached. They jabbed a hoof at the window. “They’re hurting now for the same reason. They care about you. They love you. And not just because you’re a princess, or a leader, or whatever. You’re like family to them. What do you think it did to them to see you drop from the Crystal Heart a half-dead, bloody mess?!”

For the first time, Amore struggled for a reply. Her heart twisted, but she wrenched her eyes shut and shook her head, as though this would all vanish like a bad dream. “You can’t claim to speak for the Empire, Citrine. They don’t know me like you do.”

“What? So they don’t get to care about you because they’re not in—” They sniffled. “Because they’re not best friends with you?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Amore turned away, unable to meet Citrine’s boiling eyes. “I know they care. But it’s not the same.” The sparkle of her tiara on the nightstand caught her eye. “It can’t be.”

“You don’t get to pick who loves you, Amore. Or how they do it.”

“What difference does it make?!” Amore shot, heat rising in her own eyes. “Even if you’re right, I’m still their princess. Above all else, I’m supposed to protect them. And I did the opposite. They might not see it that way, but I do. I went to rescue Cobalt because I was caught up in the heat of the moment—like you are now. It was a mistake.”

“His wife and kids probably don’t think so,” Citrine said, their voice dark.

Amore bit her lip, the first of her tears rolling free. “You agreed that it was the wrong choice.”

“Made for the right reasons, though.” They stepped back in front of Amore, but the princess craned her head away. “Everypony would understand why you did it.”

“Well, ‘everypony’ doesn’t have an empire to protect, do they?”

“And how are you supposed to protect anything if you don’t protect yourself?” Citrine moved over to the window. The muted song still carried through it, filling the night. “Listen to them! They’re not just upset. They’re mourning. Last they saw, you were at death’s door. Just hearing that you woke up, even for a bit, will be the best news they’ve had in days.

“Right now, they don’t care if you failed them or not. They don’t care if you can protect them or not. They just want to see you happy and healthy again. And stars above, that’s what they’re gonna get.” They marched over to the bed, straightened the blankets, and waited.

Amore swallowed a sob. Her heavy eyes finally met Citrine’s. They wore the bloodshot blear of a restless lifetime. Amore wanted to continue, but she had nothing left. The vice of exhaustion had clamped down once more.

At last, she sighed. “Can I make one request?”

Citrine’s pupils narrowed. “What?”

“A glass of water,” she said, pursing her cracked lips.

At that, Citrine’s whole face loosened. They nodded and trotted over to the door. Edging it open, they threw a look over their shoulder and said, “Stay here.” They disappeared into the hallway, leaving the princess alone.

Part of her wanted to barrel out the door the moment Citrine’s hoofsteps faded. Part of her wanted to dive out the window and vanish into the night. It would be fine. Citrine would forgive her—eventually—and she’d get her rest all the same. It couldn’t matter that much.

Her gaze lingered on the bed for a few heartbeats. She blinked, and she climbed beneath the sheets. She curled into a cocoon of blankets and feathers as her head sank into the pillows.

Eyelids fluttering shut, she soon lost herself in the distant melody that became her lullaby. She wondered whether she deserved to hear it, and that was her final thought as sleep muddled her mind.

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