Navypony is a submariner in the US Navy, but he earns his name for his understanding and love of ships and shipping. Yes, that's shipping ponies.
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A Very Unusual Evening
It was ninety-eight minutes until sunset, and it was a very unusual evening.
Firstly, the pair of charcoal-coated unicorns flanking the double doors in front of him didn’t stir up the slightest bit of nerves in Nightlight. That was weird, because the Royal Guards always made Nightlight nervous (a pony would have to be insane not to be nervous), and these were Unicorn Corps guards to boot - a group even more prestigious than the Pegasus Division. They didn’t think highly of any pony that couldn’t fend off a rampaging dragon, and outright disdained ponies that couldn’t even face an angry manticore.
It therefore stood to reason that the Unicorn Corps did not much respect the Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward. Far from summoning a rain of magic swords or shooting salvos of telekinetic bullets, the only magic Nightlight was competent with were the fields of levitation and illumination. Admittedly, he was more than competent when it came to lighting – he’d gotten his cutie mark (and a hoofnote in The History of Magic) when he tweaked a darkvision spell to allow the caster to see in color instead of monotone.
The little black lightbulb surrounded by white stars always reminded him why he was working for the night stewards instead of the day stewards. The day stewards may have been more prestigious, not to mention better paying, but the night was his element. After all, how could one have a night steward that wasn’t able to work at night?
Not that Nightlight was technically a full steward. ‘Well, it’s not like you can start on the top of the totem pole, right?’ He’d been at the job for just about a year, and while he may not have been perfect, he liked to think he performed satisfactorily. The day staff always found the castle in the same state they’d left it, if not better, and that was the true purpose of the night stewards. Get things ready for the day, when the real work happens. Fix what they break, order their things, and take note of new jobs that they need to do. ‘And if something bad happens, tell your boss, so he can do something about it, or tell his boss.’ And so on and so forth.
Official protocol dictated that in the event of an emergency, Nightlight was to locate and inform the Secondary Night Steward, Noon Nap. If Noon couldn't solve the problem, he would inform the Primary Night Steward, Star Quill. Star Quill didn’t know how to do much more than bookkeeping, so she would inevitably wake the Chief Steward, Snowy Slopes. Snowy Slopes, if unable to solve the problem himself (a very unlikely scenario, considering the resourcefulness of the elderly unicorn), was tasked with waking Princess Celestia should he see it necessary. According to some of the older castle workers, every steward that had woken the Princess in the middle of the night had turned in his or her resignation the next day. Everypony knew that waking a sleeping alicorn was a career-killer.
That was why the angry-looking guards didn’t stir up the least bit of nerves in Nightlight. Compared to the prospect of waking a sleeping alicorn, Nightlight would’ve very much preferred facing a rampaging dragon, armed only with his darkvision and hooves. And starting tonight, waking up a sleeping princess was on his list of duties.
It was ninety-seven minutes until sunset, and it was a very unusual evening.
It had started normally enough. Nightlight had woken at three thirty in the afternoon, groggily made his way to the communal bathrooms in this wing of the castle, and begun his daily ritual as normal. Some twenty minutes later, still brushing the last few kinks from his long mane, another pony stepped into the bathroom – Noon Nap.
The Secondary Night Steward was a sky-blue pegasus with a gloomy grey mane that curled and poofed exactly the way a cloud did. His cutie mark was a pillow sitting atop a cloud, and nopony could possibly question how he’d earned it. Nonetheless, Noon Nap was a hard worker when he wasn’t napping, and it more than made up for the few hours he actually did his job. The pegasus was prickly, critical, and occasionally belligerent, but as long as his subordinates did more work than they made for him, he wasn’t too hard to work for.
He seemed uncharacteristically pleased to come across the dark-coated unicorn. “Night, thank goodness you’re up, I’ve been looking all over for you,” he blurted out as soon as he laid eyes upon his assistant. “You got all your pre-sunset duties done?”
Still taken aback by the sudden intrusion, Nightlight couldn’t do much more than shake his head.
Noon Nap shook his head almost before Nightlight finished, not even paying attention. “No, of course not, there’s like, two hours. No matter, don’t do them today. I’ll put someone else on them, or do them myself.”
Now that was weird. Noon never did anything himself unless it made him look good. Nightlight levitated the brush down and turned to face the azure pegasus. “Umm… sir? Is something going on?”
“Ehh?” He cocked his head, as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard in his tenure. A distinct possibility. “No kidding, Night. Special assignment for the night stewards, and you’ve got the prereqs, I hear. I told them you weren’t up to it, but…” He shrugged his wiry shoulders. “Star Quill has two-thirds of the unicorns and a fifth of the rest of the night stewards reporting in. Congrats, kid. Maybe you’ll get a chance to screw up something important. Go present yourself at the head office,” he finished in a strangely positive tone. 'Maybe if he can’t do the job himself, he at least wants his subordinate to get the job?' Perhaps Noon was turning his attitude around. “Buck this up badly enough and I might get a new assistant. That’d be nice.” Or not.
Nightlight soon found that the summoned night stewards composed only a small fraction of the actual ponies being gathered. A good third of the night staff looked to be about, and although the night staff was only a tenth of the size of the day staff, there were almost fifty ponies present. What was most interesting, however, was that this was not taking place on Star Quill’s initiative (although she was present and overseeing), but rather on Snowy Slopes’ personal orders. It was uncomfortably apparent that Noon Nap had been right: there actually was the chance to screw up something important.
“All ponies line up. Unicorns here, pegasi here, and earth ponies in a third line,” commanded the Head Steward in a dour tone. All of the assembled began doing so until the additional order rang out, “And stand so that I can see your cutie marks please.” That got some grumbles out of a hooffull of the fillies and one colt about sexual harassment, but the word of the Head Steward was law in Castle Canterlot. A few hiked skirts and dropped trousers later, Snowy Slopes began walking each line, asking each pony what her or his job was within the castle. Some were pulled out of line to form another, smaller group; the rest were dismissed.
Soon it was Nightlight’s turn. “And what’s your role around here?”
“I’m one of the stewards, sir.” Slopes raised a bushy white eyebrow probingly. “Umm, Assistant Night Steward, technically. Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward, that is. I’ve worked for Noon Nap for the last year or so.”
“Be precise," Slopes barked back in a sour voice. "More or less than a year?”
Nightlight had to think for a moment. ‘I started three weeks before last year’s Summer Sun Celebration, right?’ This year’s Celebration, and all its associated weirdness, had taken place just yesterday. Ponies were still talking about the sun rising late on the Summer Sun Celebration, of all days. “Umm… More sir. Between twelve and thirteen months, I think.”
The Head Steward raised his other eyebrow, this one in surprise. “Really? Oughtn’t you have made apprentice by now? But you’re still an assistant. Why’s that?” His tone made it apparent that the most likely reason involved a major blunder.
Nightlight rubbed a hoof through his mane nervously. “There’s just no room for advancement, sir. We’re full up, at least until somepony retires.”
Snowy Slopes rolled his eyes and muttered, “Now that’s going to change soon,” quietly enough that the younger unicorn could barely hear it. Speaking more loudly, he continued, “Well, your cutie mark barely fits the bill, but your coloring’s good and anypony with steward experience would be a good start for that post. And a unicorn, to boot. Go join the others by my desk, and try not to make too much noise,” the older pony groused, going on to interview the rest of the lined-up ponies.
It wasn’t long before the Head Steward finished with his interviewing, but it was long enough for Nightlight to figure out what he’d been looking for in coloring and cutie mark. Of the dozen or so ponies that had been pulled aside, all had dark coats of greys, blacks, blues, or purples, and every cutie mark in the group contained stars, the moon, or both. The fact that the stars on his own cutie mark were small and tertiary meant he’d just scarcely fulfilled that requirement, but it was apparently enough. As far as jobs went, there was a veritable smorgasbord, including four maids, two butlers, a librarian, the astronomy technician, a toaster repair pony, one of the night chefs, and a couple ponies that he didn’t recognize. Nightlight was the last to join the assembly.
Snowy Slopes bid the last of the rejects out of his office, took a look towards the afternoon sun (still three and a half hours until sunset, it looked like), and addressed the small crowd. “Well, as some of you may have heard, I have special assignments for a couple ponies in the night staff.” There was a little bit of optimistic muttering – those present had only heard there would be one. The hoary unicorn ignored the chatter and continued, “These may only be temporary positions, as I am preparing to expand the night staff significantly.” This triggered much louder conversation from the ponies in the room, and Slopes ignored it just as much. “And it is possible more qualified applicants may arrive. Nonetheless, these positions need to be filled immediately, and consequently, some of you will fill them.”
Slopes paused for a breath, and one of the maids took the opportunity to speak up, “What are these jobs, exactly? And why is the night staff going to get bigger?”
The Head Steward nickered in a surprising display of nerves and looked about the room slowly before answering, “I suppose it doesn’t hurt for you to find out now.” He nickered again, shaking his mane this time. “As you all know, yesterday’s Summer Sun Celebration was about two hours late. This is because…” He paused dramatically, “Princess Luna has returned to Equestria.”
“Horseapples!” shouted one of the ponies gathered amongst them, the on-call repair pony. “You mean the Mare in the Moon? She’s a legend!”
“It is true!” Slopes retorted loudly. “And if you wish to believe otherwise, you are dismissed. If anypony else,” he scanned the chamber while the offender vacated, “has trouble believing that Princess Luna exists, or for some reason refuses to work for her, you may leave now.” Nopony moved. “Good,” Slopes muttered, nickering once more as he calmed. “Naturally, the return of the Princess of the Night means that the night staff must become more robust to better serve her Highness’ needs, whatever they may be. You are all to be assigned roles as her personal staff and assistants.”
“So... that’s the cutie mark thing?” called a confused-looking mare.
"And the coloring?" questioned another.
“Why are there mostly unicorns?” asked a timid pegasus with a deep purple coat, quickly counting through the small group. “Why not more pegasi and earth ponies, too? What if she starts flying? Or...” The librarian stopped to think for a moment. “... I don’t know. What if she does some sort of earth pony thing?”
This question, apparently, was not beneath the Head Steward. “It is my opinion, that unicorns might be the best choices at the moment. I understand that the Princess- I mean, Princess Luna that is, does not do much flying, and as for ‘earth pony things’, I think you’ve answered yourself there.” Slopes seemed unfazed by the dirty glares he was receiving from the pair of earth ponies in the audience and continued with nary a thought. “The fact of the matter is, being a unicorn gives most of you a certain flexibility to follow orders you may not otherwise be prepared to accomplish, and we do not yet know all that will be expected of you. Nonetheless,” Slopes took on an especially stern tone here, “I bid you all remember the significance of your jobs. You are to be the personal assistants to Princess Luna, one of the Royal Pony Sisters, herself. Princess Celestia has personally reminded me that her sister is in every way her equal, and is to be treated as such. You are all to regard her with the respect and authority this merits, and if anypony fails in this task, I shall personally sign the papers to have you sacked. And arrested. Are there any questions?”
Nightlight had dozens, but he wasn’t about to admit it. Neither was anypony else. “Very well,” the Head Steward spoke. “In that case, Star Quill and I will be speaking with each of you individually about what your new assignments are going to be. First off is Miss Harvest Moon.” A midnight blue unicorn with a bright red moon for a cutie mark perked up. Slopes waved her into the office’s back room. “Princess Luna’s personal chef. Come with me.”
She followed Snowy Slopes and Star Quill, leaving the rest of the chosen servants to their own devices - mostly silence. Quiet was in the night staff’s blood, and everypony was still mulling over the implications of the Head Steward’s speech. 'Princess Luna? Back?' It seemed impossible.
About ten minutes later, the newly-promoted Lunar Chef dashed out of the room, wide-eyed and clenching a couple pages of paper in her mouth. She was soon followed by the Head Steward, who merely stuck his head out and summoned the next pony: Origami. Princess Luna’s new royal librarian galloped out in much the same state as Harvest Moon, except that she headed towards the libraries rather than the kitchens. Every other pony followed in suit, most taking fewer than five minutes before they sprinted out of the office to begin their new duties.
Finally, only the Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward remained. “Mister Nightlight, please come in.”
“Yes, sir.” Swallowing apprehensively, he did as he was bidden, stepping into Snowy Slopes’ personal office. He sat down on a spindly chair, in front of a small desk littered with personal effects and photographs. The most prominent was a tiny image of the old unicorn standing proudly besides Celestia herself. It was taken before color photography had been invented.
The white steward seated himself in a much larger chair on the other side of the desk, Star Quill standing to his right, and began in a surprisingly genial tone. “Mister Nightlight, I understand that your direct superior, Mister Noon Nap, is not an easy pony to work under. Is this true?”
Questions about one’s superiors were never safe to answer. Ever. Nightlight shot a glance to the Primary Night Steward, who simply nodded back. “Well…” he began, hoping his answer was the one they were looking for, “I wouldn’t say he’s easy to get along with, but... that’s not really my job, is it?” This elicited a mild scowl on Slopes’ face, forcing Nightlight to hurriedly clarify. “I mean, he’s not really hard to work for, I think. Just, well, get your job done and things turn out alright. That’s really the same as working for anypony, isn’t it?”
Star Quill and Snowy Slopes shared a strange look before turning back to Nightlight. “And would you say that you work well under duress?” asked the Head Steward.
Unprepared, the dark pony said the first thing that came to his mind: the truth. “No.” Another look was shared between the two, this one much more obvious in its disapproval. “That is… ”
Star Quill shrugged her shoulders helplessly at the unicorn seated beside her. “Well, at least he’s honest, right?” Snowy Slopes raised a suspicious eyebrow, probing for more. “I’ve never gotten any negative reports from his direct superior, either.” Nightlight had to give a concerted effort to keep from rolling his eyes. A lack of reports simply meant that Noon Nap was too lazy to fill out any paperwork. If his boss had ever bothered with a report, it'd probably have been as scathing as possible in as few words as Noon could use.
Not that either of the Head Stewards knew this. Snowy turned back to face the unicorn seated across his desk. With dire sobriety he explained, “Mister Nightlight, Princess Luna has specifically requested that she be assigned, what she called, a ‘royal consort’.”
What. “Is that-”
“No Mister Nightlight, it most certainly is not. While I must confess that I had to consult Princess Celestia about her sister’s meaning, this job is, as I understand it, something akin to a personal hoofservant, and you’ll be referred to as such. 'Lunar Hoofservant' is your official title, as of tonight. I believe that the best way to sum up your job is that it is your duty to assist Her Highness in anything she needs or wants done. You are to make certain that she is well-received, well-represented, and well-treated, and that everything is exactly as she would have it. Effectively…” The older unicorn made a dramatic motion with a hoof. “Her whim is your command.”
An unpleasant feeling overcame the little pony, somewhere between dire foreboding and impending doom. This sounded like a very, very difficult task. No, difficult was the wrong word. Perhaps impossible would be better. “Umm, sir, does that mean that I’m… well… responsible? For Her? For everything? I mean, it sounds like if anything goes wrong, then I’m…” he trailed off implicatively.
Snowy Slopes might have cringed a little as he answered. “Only to a certain extent. As Head Night Steward, Mrs. Quill is going to be overall responsible, however... you are the one that will be interacting with Princess Luna on the most immediate basis.”
“Well buck me.”
The Head Steward clopped a hoof against his desk. “Mister Nightlight, I feel obligated to inform you that the use of vulgarity in the presence of royalty is a severe legal offense, besides being utterly contrary to the professionalism you are to uphold.” He brought the same hoof up to his temple in a display of remarkably torn behavior. “But yes, precisely. Allow me to console you by saying that your post is the first we will try to replace, and that upon completion of your duties, you will be offered a promotion to full steward or a letter of recommendation to any employment you wish, coupled with a generous severance wage.” Which meant Nightlight was going to be set for life, if he pulled this job off. “But in the meantime, we have about seventy-five minutes until your first task; I saved you for last because you need to get the most background information you possibly can.” He pulled out a series of antique tomes and from under his desk. “Everything we were able to pull about Princess Luna.” He followed it up with a thick portfolio of papers. “Plus some suggestions from Princess Celestia herself.”
Awkwardly, Nightlight raised a hoof, as if he were back in grade school. “Umm… And what, exactly, is my first task?”
Slopes opened his folder and, without even looking up from his papers, responded, “Waking the Princess up.”
That was how the Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward found himself standing outside a room of the castle that hadn’t been occupied for a thousand years, until today; he had a job that hadn’t existed for a thousand years, until today; and he was readying to wake a princess that had been a legendary terror trapped on the moon for a thousand years, until today.
‘Make that yesterday,' he corrected himself. Supposedly, Princess Luna had spent all of yesterday in her bedchambers, attended upon by only the Head Steward and Princess Celestia herself. Now, tonight, was to be her first official night upon having returned, and it was Nightlight’s duty to see that everything went perfectly. He’d been told more than he could remember about ancient Equestrian government, been instructed on the way hoofservants were expected to behave, and briefed on as many of Princess Luna’s previous eccentricities as Celestia had remembered.
None of it made Nightlight feel any better about his upcoming duties. As far as he was concerned, Noon Nap's earlier words had been prophetic: he was about to screw up something important. Something royally important, to be precise.
It was 6:18 pm, ninety-eight minutes until sunset, and he had eight minutes left to come to grips with his new job. It could have been eight weeks, and it still wouldn’t have been enough time.
Nonetheless, it was his job, and he had to do it.
He took a step towards the menacing-looking charcoal guards flanking the doorway. Silence. Stillness. Nightlight hated having to talk to these types of ponies. “Ehh… I’m Nightlight, the Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward.” No response. “That is, I’m Her Hoofservant. I’ve come to, um, wake the Princess.”
In precise unison, the gold-barded guards nodded stoically, in what Nightlight could only presume to be a sort of cursory salute, and stepped to either side. After the momentary burst of activity, they once again returned to perfect stillness. ‘What I wouldn’t give for a piece of that calm,’ he mused as he silently magicked open the towering mahogany doors and peered into the darkness within. Taking a deep breath, Nightlight stepped cautiously into the dark, past the statuesque ponies on either side of him, and slowly shut the doors. His horn lit up with the yellowish glow of his magic, and sight was imbued with that one, best spell he knew. As the magic crept into his eyes, he beheld the room of Princess Luna and everything contained within for the first time in his life.
The first thing of note was that the princess’ sleeping chambers were not of the ornate décor that filled the rest of the castle. They spoke of an antiquated sense of decoration - one that ponies had long since abandoned in the last thousand years. Gone were the marble walls and floors; gone were the plush red carpets and billowy curtains; gone was the gilding; gone were the paintings, the vases, the tapestries. Everything was simpler. It was almost spartan in comparison. The floor, like the few pieces of furniture that ornamented the room, was of dark hardwoods, wenge and ebony amongst them. There was a small dresser and a silver mirror on one side of the room, and a brick fireplace cut into the opposite wall. Only two things marked this room as belonging to more than a simple pony. The first one was the great balcony just outside the room, covered by simple blue drapes but certainly commanding a glorious view of Canterlot and its surrounding countryside. The other feature, of course, was the oversized four-poster bed which dominated the absolute center of the room, and more particularly, its occupant. The wispy curtains surrounding it rustled gently as he approached.
Alright. This was it. ‘You can do it Nightlight. You’re ready. You’ve been training as a steward for more than a year. This isn’t that different, right? No reason to be nervous. None at all.’
The lie wasn’t convincing in the slightest; this was, after all the biggest event in Equestrian history for the last thousand years. ‘You know what you’re doing. You’re ready. Alright.'
He watched the curtains continue to flutter.
‘Yeah. You’re ready.'
The silhouette of a pony nearly twice his size was faintly visible on the other side of the thin curtains, the faintest of glows shining from within. She was reclining in a sleeping posture, hooves folded up beneath her, head tucked down on the bed.
‘You’re ready.’ Continuing his self-perjury, Nightlight gently slid back one of the curtains and did his best to refrain from gasping when he finally laid eyes upon the form behind them. He had some idea of what to expect, but expectation could never be a match for the real thing. She was stunning, and beautiful, and more than anything else, frightening. This was, after all, his sovereign.
Princess Luna, Mare of the Moon, Head of the Moon Court, First of the Selene Order, Co-Ruler of Equestria, and owner of whatever other titles Nightlight had already forgotten, slept peacefully before him. Her eyes lay gently shut, and her mighty chest rose and fell rhythmically. Her mane and tail, both spectral blue wisps of impossible star-stuff, floated above and beside her gently, shedding the faintest blue light upon the bed and her surroundings. The ebony mare seemed perfectly at peace in her slumber.
And he was supposed to wake her up. In all of his service, and all of his last-minute training, nopony had ever informed him of the proper method to wake a princess. ‘It’s not a regular pony’s role to wake his sovereign if she wants to sleep!’ his mind screamed at him. ‘Surely they simply wake themselves up, right?’ Nightlight looked towards a window to judge how long it was until sunset, only to realize that every window was covered, protecting the Lunar Princess from the sun. Eventually, his eyes wandered upon a tiny clock on the mantle: 6:27 pm. Eighty-nine minutes until sunset. One minute late. Apparently, princesses did not wake up on their own.
So he actually did have to wake her himself. But how? ‘Maybe just… calling her name?’ It would be complete blasphemy to actually touch her Highness, wouldn’t it? Nightlight prayed silently that Luna was a gentle riser, then realized with some irony that he was actually praying to her sister. ‘Can you pray to one goddess about another?’ He wasn’t sure.
‘And ultimately,' that little voice told him, ‘it doesn’t matter, so long as she doesn’t banish you to the moon for waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Or banish you to the sun, for that matter. That might be worse, no? Or maybe just the dungeon – that wouldn’t be nearly as bad.’
Every tangent exhausted and all his stalling completed, he finally found enough false confidence to begin. Steeling himself, Nightlight took a deep breath and, in his quietest voice, whispered to the shut-eyed goddess before him, “Umm, Princess Luna, it’s-”
“Seven. Minutes. Late.” The Lunar Princess’ eyes shot open to reveal a pair of cold teal irises. Her glare had enough force to put craters on the moon.
The moon. ‘Oh Goddesses.' It was like she could see into his soul. Barely able to force the breath of out his chest, he tried whispering an apology. “Umm, Princess-”
She rose to her hooves, towering over him at her full height, her mane whipping wildly as she gazed down upon the little unicorn who was to be her hoofservant. “Thou art seven minutes late!” she bellowed, “Thou darest to make thy sovereign wait?!”
Nightlight’s mouth dropped, his ears pinned themselves to his head, and his knees gave out. His brain couldn’t even attempt to form words.
“Thou hast the effrontery to impose thy will upon Us? Is thy time of greater value than Ours, We who rule the heavens of the night sky?! And suppose the moonrise is delayed, because of thy lateness! Wouldst thou take responsibility?!”
Barely able to croak out a whisper, Nightlight squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face into his mane. “I’m sorry,” he breathed even as she continued to yell, “I’m-”
This only seemed to enrage her. “SORRY?! Thou art sorry! Thou art a sorry excuse for a servant! Get thee gone! Gone!” she screamed, taking a step off her bed and towards Nightlight. “GONE!”
Nightlight’s job, as he’d been informed, was to obey every whim of Princess Luna. This particular whim was easy, because exactly what he wanted to do. Long tail tucked between his legs, the dark unicorn left her presence fast enough to make any pegasus jealous. He dashed out of her chambers, barreled through the great mahogany doors, over a pair of stupefied royal guards, and straight to the office of the Head Steward. With any luck, he’d be let off with just imprisonment or banishment to zebra lands; they could find some other pony fool enough to work this job.
It was eighty-two minutes until sunset, and it was a very unusual evening.