The Quiescence of the Crystal Empire
The grand hall was empty and as silent as the snow that fell outside.
Cadence craned her neck, peering up through the skylights that let dim sunlight lance down into the room. Her wings folded tightly against her body, she approached the dais where the sun had warmed her for years as she listened to ponies present their problems, learning from the wisdom of her parents and guardians.
A voice echoed in her memory, and the room was filled with ponies, their coats shining and crystalline in the sun that beamed down from the skylights, the colors reflecting in bursts of hue. Earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns thronged the dais, eager to catch a glimpse of their new princess.
The speaker spread his white wings in joy from his position in the center of the dais, obscuring Cadence’s vision of the throng in front of her. She was barely big enough to step up onto the raised crystal.
“They are excited to see you,” her mother whispered from behind the dais, her calm voice easing Cadence’s racing heart. “You are a princess.” Her mother’s soft pink wings brushed her face, soothing away her fear.
“Why?” Her voice was small and high-pitched in her memory. “Why me?”
“One like you is born only when the harmony between ponies is at its strongest,” her father said. His face was dim in her memory, a heart on his flank and the strong shoulders of a work pony the clearest picture she could recall. “Our empire is ready to flower. You are our destined leader.”
“Behold!” The pegasus on the dais said once more. “Princess Mi Amore Cadenza!”
“Go,” her mother nudged her, helping her up onto the dais. “Prepare to lead us. Show them the symbol of our harmony.”
Her heart pounded as she approached the throne, a raised promontory with three crystals radiating from behind her to symbolize the three races of ponykind. Green for the earth ponies, blue for the pegasi, and purple for the unicorns. It dwarfed her completely, and she felt small as she took her place.
But still, the crowd stared.
“Our princess,” the pegasus said, his voice deep and resonating. “Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.” He swept a wing toward her, a white wing that glittered with crystal dust, like a diamond. “Born as a symbol of our unity, destined to represent, and rule, our new empire!”
Ponies cheered, hooves beating against stone, the crystal pillars vibrating with the noise. Cadence shivered, only the kind eyes of her parents, standing on two smaller thrones behind her, giving her strength.
A princess. She was a princess, born of harmony, destined to rule. Pride filled her, and she stood tall. She would help these ponies, and make the crystal empire great.
She thought she had understood then.
Those smaller thrones where her parents had stood were gone now, not even a trace of dust marking where they had once been. The crystals behind her throne were broken, multicolored shards littering the floor. The pale light that arced through the skylights provided no warmth, and crystals of ice formed a latticework on the glass.
Cadence shivered, turning away. Her hoofsteps echoed down the crystal passageway as she left the grand hall, the archway over her head still aloft despite missing stones.
Curving hallways arced around her, metallic colors twisting and refracting with each step she took. Memories played through her mind, and they danced along the reflective surface.
“My Lady Cadence, look! The joust has begun!” Her guardian, Sky Wing the pegasus, pointed with a hoof, Cadence following the gesture. Sky Wing’s coat stood out in her memory, as pure white as Snow Wing’s, who had introduced her to her subjects a century ago.
Birds fluttered through the blue sky, the grass underhoof spring green. Colorful pennants danced on the breeze, a crowd of spectators gathered as the heavily armored jousters took their positions.
Dust skirled under the hooves of the jousters. The chatter around her rose and fell, finally dimming as a horn was blown, a clear note resonating over the crowd. Cadence stood, her head barely clearing the top of the seats.
As one, the jousters knelt to her, their plumed helmets shining in the sun. She nodded back, and then the moment of solemnity was broken as one of the unicorn jousters threw her a rose, Cadence laughing in delight.
It was a fragile thing, with petals made of glass that shone in the sun, and it floated over the crowd and tucked itself gently behind the filly’s ear. The unicorn’s armor was rose-colored, a deep red crystal that protected him from the shining silver lances that made Cadence cover her eyes as they gleamed.
“A flower, for our hope, the new princess!” the unicorn knight shouted. Lances shone in the sun as the unicorns saluted once again. Their happiness, their love for her and for the games, filled her with strength and pride.
Voices and cheers faded in her memory as a hair-thin crack began in the walls, spidering into the appearance of shattered stonework as Cadence walked farther. The slick colors of the wall ended in harsh cliffs as the cracks struck through them.
“Look out!” Images of servants dashing through the corridors and hurrying down the spiraling tower steps ran through her mind’s eye. A well muscled pegasus guard, bedecked in form-fitting armor, waited with a roll of his eyes as a servant hurried past him. “My young lady, you look wonderful,” he said as the servant rushed past. “The new fashion suits you.”
“Oh, thank you!” Cadence lifted a hoof to look over her new dress, the skirt bedecked with flowers that twined up the cloth. The dressmaker had outdone herself making the perfect oufit for the growing alicorn filly. She especially loved the vines encircling each other at her hip, forming the image of her new cutie mark, a sapphire heart. Sky Wing, now old and grey, had had it commissioned for her.
“Are you prepared for the celebration, your highness?” the guard asked, taking up position by her side. “The amendments have been made to the banners already.”
Cadence did her best not to look at the newly-hung banners, now bearing an image of the crystal heart that bedecked her flank. “We are very excited,” she said, doing her best to sound formal. The guard frowned, and Cadence broke into laughter. “I’m sorry. Sky Wing always insists I talk like that. He says it's a royal voice.”
“You sound better without it, your highness,” the guard said bluntly. “I mean, I apologize,” he fumbled his words.
Cadence just nodded. “I agree! Don’t apologize, please.” She smiled, and he nodded, cheeks flushed.
She entered the grand hall, covertly admiring the armor of the crystal guard, so much more functional than the jousting armor the unicorn knights wore. Simple was better, she decided, for both her speech and for ponies. An uncomplicated breastplate with a cross piece, upon which sat a crystal that told of the guard’s particular prowess. Taurine meant…
Cadence put her hoof down on the steps, grit crunching underneath. She didn’t remember what taurine meant.
The steps wound higher, Cadence taking a deep breath as she climbed. The pale sun shone on the dusty steps through the cracked windows, the city spread out before her, cold and gray.
Once, hypnotic music had wound its way down this hallway, servants hustling to and fro as they guided the caterers.
Lines of ponies waiting to enter the palace were visible through the windows. Overflowing baskets of food strung through the stairs, carried on the heads of strong farmers. Cadence could barely get by.
“A strawberry for the princess on her birthday?” an earth pony farmer asked, the basket filled to bursting with ripe fruits of every hue. Others jostled behind him, anxious to deliver the food to the princess’s birthday feast. She had outgrown the dress Sky Wing had commissioned for her decades ago, now wearing a more formal gown that flowed around her fetlocks.
“Yes please!” Cadence reached for one, the flavor bursting in her mouth. “Delicious!” The farmer beamed.
“Try my crystal berries, your highness!” another pony shouted. Cadence grinned. She loved crystal berries. With a burst of magic, she fetched one from the basket atop the pony’s head, accidentally sending another berry bouncing down the steps past the hooves of all the waiting ponies. The farmer laughed, the sound echoing through the halls.
A chunk of crystal smashed as it fell down the steps, the bit of stair at the top of the staircase collapsing under Cadence’s weight. She fluttered her wings, heart pounding, and looked back down at the strewn bits of once bright stone.
Not much farther now.
With a pulse of magic, she opened the wooden doors, the creaking sound echoing in the empty castle.
“My Lady,” the earth pony said. Cadence peaked through the wooden doors of the antechamber into the grand hall, the banners of the crystal empire bright in the flames that flickered in the fireplace. The crystal heart that adorned them seemed to reflect extra light, shadows dancing around the room.
The earth pony doctor’s blond mane was mussed, and he wouldn’t meet Shine Star’s eyes. Shine Star, Sky Wing’s great-granddaughter. “My lady, if you please. I…”
“It is alright,” Shine Star said, her voice bored and clipped. Her horn glowed slightly, an easing light. “Tell me what you know.”
“The food,” he mumbled, and Cadence had to strain to hear through the wooden doors. “The crystal berries she favors so much will not ripen this year.”
Shine Star tilted her head. “All this about berries?”
“No.” The earth pony shook his head. “It is not just the berries. It is not growing. The food, that is. The weather has grown colder.”
Shine Star shook her head, her crystalline mane shining in the firelight. “The pegasi are the ones who control the weather, not—“
“No, is it not that either!” The earth pony said, lifting his head with wide eyes. “No one doubts our young princess. But it is worse than that. The food, the weather…it is worse.”
“Tell me, then,” Shine Star said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. Cadence huddled in the dark antechamber, her heart pounding. Be kind, she willed her guardian.
“It is just…” The doctor scuffed the crystal floor with a hoof. “There have been no foals…”
Cadence pushed through the door then, the glow of her magic announcing her presence. The doctor froze in place. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Why are foals not being born? Why is the weather changing?”
The doctor’s gaze flicked to Shine Star, his eyes white with panic. “Y-your highness…”
“Your highness,” Shine Star said, her voice soothing. “Do not worry yourself. You are young. Let me handle such problems. The weather is fine.”
Cadence paused in the dark room, the colors of the crystal empire flag faded on the banners that remained, covered in dust, the crystal heart dimmed into invisibility. Others had frayed completely, tattered threads hanging from a darkened ceiling. Out of the great windows, snow fell in swirling flurries onto the abandoned buildings of the city, icicles hanging from the eaves.
The Crystal Guard escorted her through the streets, Cadence wrapped in a woolen scarf. Ponies of every hue filled the city square, the air chill and cold, the clinging mud underhoof churned by hundreds of hooves. Without the sun, the crystal spires glimmered only faintly, and most ponies who walked past didn't look at them. A frigid breeze washed over her, and one of the guards looked back at her with a reassuring smile when she shivered.
“We are almost to the palace, your highness,” he said. In the lee of a blue stone building, a shivering earth pony perked up at the words.
“Your highness?” he shouted. Cadence froze, ice piercing her heart. No one had ever spoken to her like that before.
“Equestria’s princess can raise the sun, but our highness cannot even help us survive!” The earth pony’s brittle voice echoed in her memory, blocking out the image of the dark room around her.
The unicorn guards swarmed forward, protecting her from the pony who had shouted—a ragged looking earth pony, his belly drawn in and his limbs gaunt.
“Do not listen to him!” Feather Down told her. For the first time, she had to look down upon her guardian. “You are a young princess yet. No one expects you to match Celestia’s power. As your guardian, it is my duty to see to the empire until you are old enough.” He sounded like Shine Star had. Behind the pegasus, the guards dragged the kicking earth pony away.
“Wait!” she called. The guards drew back as she approached, bowing their heads, one or two keeping a careful eye on the earth pony.
Cadence closed her eyes, summoning her magic. Her best, most powerful magic.
Care for me. Care for others.
The heart burst on the earth pony’s brow, but his narrow-eyed gaze never changed. “Relying on our princess has doomed us!” he shouted.
The shout still echoed, reverberating around the crystal pillars. Cadence sank to the cold floor. Once, the crystals had hummed with life, the lives of all the ponies who tread upon it.
“It is said that the life of the land is tied to the health and power of its ruler.” Her father’s words echoed once more from her foalhood, the once strong earth pony lying on a bed of down, his skin sallow and bones jutting, the heart on his flank a sickly purple. His eyes, though, were bright. She remembered that.
“Mi Amore Cadenza. Daughter. Listen to me.” Cadence moved closer, tears welling. For the first time, she wished she had more power.
“Don’t cry. Be happy. The empire we worked so hard to build will only grow more beautiful as you grow more powerful and take up your responsibilities.” Her father blinked rheumy, distant eyes. “Your presence and power will grant the crystal empire an eternity of glory.”
Outside the crystal tower, the city lay quiet, and snow began to fall.
“Are you ready, Cadence?” Celestia was as glorious as everypony had said she was. This was an alicorn with the power to raise the sun, the benevolent ruler of Equestria, a land greater and older than Cadence’s once-empire. She stood on the terrace, the expanse of the dead empire beneath her.
Princess Celestia, symbol of harmony for all ponies. Cadence’s only hope.
“Yes. Please. I give myself to your care. Teach me to be a ruler.”
Celestia nodded once. “Come then. One day, you will return. We will find a way.”
Cadence cast one more long look over her city—her once empire. A tower in the distance, one that always shone with emerald rays in her memories, lay still and gray, a gust of icy wind sending chunks of crystal shattering to the stones below.
Her foalhood had lasted a long time, long spring days spent surrounded by those who adored her, even as she failed to save them.
She had been blind for too long.