The voice sounded more like a griffon’s than a pony’s. “Hey, you! You there, unicorn! In the name of the Royal Guard, halt!”
Nightlight did not halt, he did not answer, and he did not react to the muscular pegasus moving up to him. But of all the things he didn’t do, caring was chief amongst them. It was very difficult to care about anything at the moment. Or perhaps everything was difficult at the moment – Nightlight wasn’t really sure. The easiest thing to do was simply continue to trudge down from the castle and into the city proper, and that was pretty difficult in and of itself.
The burly sentry caught up without any effort worth mentioning, but was nonetheless perturbed. Rare was the pony that would ignore a guard’s orders, even amongst palace staff. “You!” he uttered, stopping in the middle of the road in front of Nightlight, “I ordered you to stop and answer me! What is your business leaving the castle?”
He stopped and stared at the white pegasus listlessly. The sentinel repeated his question, more loudly this time, while Nightlight decided on the most painless course of action. He took two steps to the right, hiked apathetically around his challenger, and continued back on his original path.
This was apparently too much for the young guard to tolerate. “Fine, have it your way.” Once more hopping in front of the apathetic steward, he spread his wings wide in a threatening gesture and bellowed, “Stop right there, criminal scum!”
The guard’s partner must have been watching the proceedings from his post at the castle gates. Finally deciding to act, he took flight and closed the distance, taking it upon himself to clop a hoof against his comrade’s helm as he landed. “Calm down Galea, you can’t say that unless he’s actually a criminal. Has he assaulted anypony?”
“Stolen or pickpocketed anything?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Is he trespassing?”
“Not… gasp! Murder?”
The younger guard just frowned at his superior.
“Well, if he hasn’t done any of these things and he doesn’t have a bounty on his head, it doesn’t sound as if he’s a criminal, does it?”
“No excuses, lance corporal, this is no way to treat a citizen. Get your flank back to the gate.” Ee pointed a hoof towards the post the two of them were just guarding. “I’ll take care of this.” Lance Corporal Galea stomped back to the entrance to the palace grounds, nickering angrily. “And you, sir…” He turned back to the street, only to find it conspicuously empty – Nightlight had continued his trek through the entire ordeal. “Typical.” The grizzled pegasus took wing and sailed further down the road, catching up to the black unicorn. “I’m sorry my partner was bothering you, sir, there’s something going on at the castle tonight and he’s bothered we pulled guard duty outside.” He received no reaction for his efforts, and continued trotting alongside. “But we do need your name for our records of all the guests coming and leaving; it wouldn’t do for somepony to get lost inside without us knowing, right?” Once again, no answer. “Sir, I’m afraid that I need to either take your name, or take you into custody. We’ve had orders from the Chief of the Guard, and I have to follow them.”
Nightlight decided that the effort required to talk was worth the pain it would save him in the future, if just barely. Continuing to stare forward as he walked, he muttered, “Nightlight, Assistant to the Secondary Night Steward.”
The pegasus raised a broad eyebrow and adopted a much sterner tone than he’d had earlier. “A servant, huh? In that case, I’ll have to ask your busine-”
This was not the correct answer, it seemed. Imitating his companion’s earlier actions, the older guard stepped in front of Nightlight and spread his wings wide. “Unless you have authorization to depart castle grounds, I have orders to-”
With the sentry’s wings outstretched, he had to take a much wider radius in circumventing his new obstacle. “My orders outrank yours… sergeant, was it?”
“Horseapples,” protested the guard. “My orders come from-”
“Mine come from the Princess.”
In his years at Canterlot Castle, Sergeant Coolus had only ever heard four ponies make such a declaration out loud. Three had been chefs with ‘emergency orders for provisions’, and the other was a schizophrenic who’d begun hearing voices. This steward didn’t seem the most stable of ponies, but considering that the last pony to stop a servant making a cake run for the princess had been busted down to private, the sergeant decided that this decision was way above his paygrade. “Fine. Get going, but I’ll be passing your name up.” The guard took off and returned to his post.
Nightlight remained silent, not finding the strength to smile to himself. Continuing down towards the city itself, he was only focused on one thing: where to find his family.
‘PRANCER’S’ declared the large glowing sign, sitting outside of a large building on the edge of the river. Below it was the subtext, ‘Coltribbean Bar and Grill,’ with the image of a palm tree turning into an anchor nearby. The boom of club music could be heard from within, and the sound of a pony throwing up could be heard from without, complete with the filly begging her friend to hold her mane back between periods of vomiting. A hooffull of inebriated ponies were leisurely filing out, deciding they’d reached their limits for the evening, while a long queue of mostly-sober ponies waited for their turns in.
This was the place.
Ignoring the line and the angry cries from the ponies waiting within, Nightlight pushed around them and plodded up to one of the scowling ponies at the door. “Hey dad, what’s up?”
Twilight Sky shrugged his drab shoulders nonchalantly as he examined another mare’s license. “Same old, same old. You can go in, miss,” he told the magenta pony next in line, giving back her ID. “What’s up with you? Shouldn’t you be at the castle or something?”
Nightlight shrugged his shoulders right back. “I think I got fired. Can you take a break? I need somepony to talk to.”
“Somepony to talk to, huh?” He snorted unsympathetically, actually looking away from the next pony in line to examine his son. “You look more like you need a stiff drink, if you ask me. Well, from the looks of this line, I’m going to be here until halfway until morning, but Red’s inside somewhere. Pull her off whatever stallion she’s grinding on if you need to talk to somepony.” He gave a flick of his azure mane, signaling Nightlight to go inside before turning back to the colt showing him another ID. “Sorry kid, this is obviously fake – go back home.”
“Hey, you didn’t even check his ID!” the offender shouted as Nightlight stepped past the building’s threshold and into the cacophony of its interior. The colt’s protests were immediately drowned out by the thumping bass, and his father’s response was similarly muted by the dull roar of the crowd. The left side of the building was a large dance floor, separated from a calmer, tavern/bar area on the right side. A bespectacled unicorn disc jockeyed from the far corner, yelling at the dance floor while the sea of ponies within it undulated in time with the music. It was a club, plain and simple.
Nightlight thought he could make out his sister’s fiery mane in the middle of the throng, more of her weight on the pony she was with than her own hooves, but he didn’t have the desire to fight his way through the crowd, let alone demand her time. ‘Too much work.’ Sufficiently disheartened, he pressed his way to the bar and ordered, “Something strong, on Ice’s tab.” Walking away with a highball glass of whiskey (with a splash of cola for color) in his telekinetic grasp and wondering why his dad still went by his bachelor name at work, Nightlight sat down at one of the empty tables in the pub/bar side of the building.
It didn’t stay that way for long. Balancing an entire tray of drinks on her back, the magenta earth pony that had come in before him stepped up and slid her tray onto the table. “Hi, you’re *hic* cute. Iss thishpot taken?”
‘Dearest goddess, she came in sixty seconds ago and she’s already wasted.’ The spot was free, but, “Yes. It’s taken. Sorry.”
“Really? You don’t… ssound that sorry. I think it’s *hic* fine. Prolly not taken.” Without ado, she slid into the bench across from him, struggling slightly to find a comfortable spot. “I’m Berry, by the, the way. What’sh your name, an’ why do ya’ look so unhappy?”
Berry threw back a glass of some brightly colored liqueur in the time it took Nightlight to think of an appropriate response. “Excuse me?”
“Your name,” she repeated, putting her hooves around another tall glass and tipping it back to join her previous drink. “You tha’ drunk already, tha’ you don’t know what I’m askin’?”
The dark servant snorted in amusement. “You’re sloshed,” he said, and took a sip of his drink, as if to make a point. He had to fight himself to not make a face – Wild Pegasus was strong stuff.
The older earth pony snickered at his reaction to the alcohol. “I may be shloshed, But I toldja my name, didn’t I? Tha’ means you canna least do the same.” She grabbed a lowball glass of amber liquid off her tray and swallowed the whole thing effortlessly while Nightlight watched. It looked suspiciously like the same whiskey he was drinking. “Delishish…” she muttered.
It was a victory on her side. “Fine. The name’s Nightlight,” he admitted, taking a slow sip from his own drink. “I… I’m a servant up at the castle.” It might have been a question more than a statement – he didn’t really know if he still had his job. ‘Hay, even if I did before I left, getting drunk on duty’s going to put an end to that. Maybe I’ll just move back home with Red and the parents.’ It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was infinitely better than working for somepony like Her.
The look on Nightlight’s face seemed to catch Berry’s attention. She put down her (‘was that her fourth or fifth?’) drink and asked, “Really? I’ll be’ that’sh why you’re lookin’ so down. What’sh goin’ on? I hear sum, some, somethin’s going on up there tonight. That why you’re so bothered?”
Acknowledging to himself that he didn’t care about the mare’s probing enough to move, he slumped onto the table. “Is it that obvious?”
If the earth pony gave any sort of special reaction to the question, Nightlight couldn’t see it with his face down. “Nah,” she droned, “I’m jus’ smarter than yer average pony when I’m buzzed. It’sh why I try ta, ta stay drunk. Now, why’re ya’ so upset? Tell ole’ Berry Punch what’sh wrong.”
‘Well… I did say I needed somepony to talk to.’ “I think I just got fired...”
“Tha… that’s not so bad. I’ve been fired a couple times before. You jus’ gotta-”
“…by a goddess.”
The hazy, half-drunk smile on the mare’s face widened in curiosity. “Really? What for?” She pulled another beverage from her selection, this one crystal-clear, and began trying to guess what his offense was. “You were late? Or no, tha’s boring. She was tryin’ ta d-do stuff t’ya?” Berry’s smile became rather coarse at this suggestion, and she started trying to scoot around the table closer to her new drinking partner. “I could see why she…” Much to Nightlight’s relief, that train of thought was overcome by another. “Ooh! Or maybe, maybe ya tolder tha’ she’sha tire’s aunt? I mean tyrant.” As soon as she realized what she’d just pronounced, her grin immediately faded. “Not tha’ she ish, I mean, but it’d be funny if’n ya tolder that.” A more socially acceptable way of putting her hoof in her mouth, the magenta pony grabbed the closest drink on her tray and poured it into her mouth instead.
He probably wasn’t supposed to tell other ponies about it, but… ‘Whatever.’ It wasn’t as if all of Equestria wasn’t about to find out anyways. ‘Besides, it’s not as if things can get that much worse for you, and you can’t really expect her to believe you, right?’ But the real kicker was that he caring was still pretty high ranked amongst the things he wasn’t doing. “Wrong princess,” he mumbled, taking another sip from his glass of Wild Pegasus.
Her mouth full, the earth pony managed to make a noise that sounded vaguely questioning. She looked over her cocktail glass and raised an eyebrow. “Hmmph?”
“Princess Luna. Celestia’s sister. The moon was late tonight because of me.”
She stopped drinking halfway through her beverage. “Really?”
Berry Punch put her Manehattan cocktail down only partially consumed. “I… Wow. Buck. I need something stronger.” Apparently every beverage that remained on her (mostly empty) tray of drinks was similarly insufficient, because she rose and started ambling towards the bar, pushing her way through the crowd in a daze that couldn’t be entirely attributed to the alcohol.
“Wait, you believe me? Just like that?” he demanded, watching her mulberry tail sidle through the herd of ponies congregating near the bar. There was no answer though, and Nightlight was left to finish his own drink in relative solitude.
‘Relative’ became the operable word when a ruddy mare with an cutie mark of a old-fashioned red lantern just so happened to slide in the seat Berry had until recently occupied. “Are all of these yours?” she asked brusquely, “Wow, dad was right, you do look bad. You okay?” Without asking, his older sister grabbed one of the few drinks remaining on the tray and took a sip, only to jump back an inch. “Hmm… top shelf,” she muttered, swirling the glass dexterously in a dainty hoof. “So anyways, what’s wrong?”
He was about to point out that the drinks weren’t actually his, but… it looked like a couple drinks were just a drop in the bucket to Berry, and she didn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon. Nightlight grabbed one to replace his recently emptied glass and took a sip before answering. The rum really was top shelf stuff, but it didn’t improve his mood much. “Heya Red. I just had the worst day of my life,” he bemoaned quietly, “I, literally, did not do anything right.”
She dismissed him with a loud ‘tsk’ and a wave of her hoof. “You got down here and that’s something you did right, isn’t it?” She laughed contemptuously, but it was obviously insincere. “But no, really, how bad is it? I mean, this is you we’re talking about – it can’t be that bad. Can it?”
Hopefully his snort was interpreted as disdain instead of a hiccup. “It might have involved an alicorn screaming at me at the top of her lungs.” He gave an elongated sigh before taking a long draught of his beverage, savoring the smoothness as he swallowed. “At least, I think it was the top of her lungs, considering I’ve never heard a louder sound in my life. Something about being… what was it? Embarrassing, bungling, and inept. I don’t really remember all of it.” Nightlight looked down to find the rum was gone. ‘Well that won’t do.’ He reached a tendril of magic out to another of Berry’s drinks. “You know, just that Equestria deserves better than me.” He started chugging.
“W-wow.” Redlight just stared at him for a couple seconds before managing any sort of reply. “I… wow. The princess said that?”
Nightlight just took another sip of his newest drink, only to find it already empty. ‘Dang, but these go quickly, don’t they?’ He reached for the last beverage on the tray, a glass of Tiara Royal whiskey. “Yeah, she did.”
“Well… you know mom’ll be her usual self about it, but at least you know dad’ll let you move back home if you have to. I mean, you are kind of his favorite.”
“Hmm?” The unhappy unicorn set his drink back down untouched. “Arc’s his favorite, last I checked – she’s the only one doing real work, if you ask him.”
Red shot her brother a glance indicating a strong desire to clop him upside the head. “She’ll always be his little filly, but you’re his only son, Nighty. Add to that the fact that you’re the only one that inherited his dark coat and the stars in his cutie mark… hay, if you got imprisoned, he’d do whatever it took to post your bail.” She reached out to the tray of drinks only to find it empty. “And he lets you drink on his tab, too," she muttered with a sulk. "I only get that on my birthday."
Nightlight couldn’t feel much sympathy for her petulant tone. “That’s because mom and dad pay for everything else you do. Besides, all these,” he waved a hoof at the assortment of empty glasses covering the table, “weren’t on his tab. Some drunk earth pony brought most of them, and left them here a couple minutes ago. She said she needed something stronger, what with the news.”
Redlight’s ears perked up when her brother mentioned Berry’s gender and broke into a teasing smirk. “Oh? ‘She’ you say? Finally found a marefriend, have you?”
If he hadn’t been as dispirited as he was tonight, Nightlight might have adamantly denied the suggestion. As things were, he just sighed. “No. She just trotted up and started talking at me. And she’s probably twice my age, too,” he commented, draining the last of his beverage.
“Nothin’ wrong with that. At least it’s not stallions twice your age coming on to you, right?” she chuckled. “That’s like, twice as bad."
Uncomfortable memories aside, she was mostly right. “Thrice, actually.”
She laughed loudly, having witnessed a few of those incidents. “Well, it could always be worse. What’d she look like anyways?”
“Pink coat, darker mane. Cutie mark’s grapes and a strawberry, I think.” As if summoned, Berry Punch arrived and slid into the bench besides his sister and dropped a tray with three tall glasses of clear liquid onto the table. “Kind of like that.”
Redlight jumped a couple inches when the drunk pony appeared in the seat beside her, only to immediately recognize their newest companion. “Berry, don’t surprise me like that!” She seemed unable to keep a stern look on her face however, and instead reached for one of the mare’s glasses uninvited. Nopony stopped her. “And what are you doing in town? Don’t you still live in Ponyville?”
By all appearances, the pink mare ignored the questions directed to her, but that was probably on account of some new level of drunkenness she’d reached. Her eyes were mostly unfocused and she had trouble holding herself up, but the words coming out of her mouth were still mostly coherent. “I’m… back, an’ I broughtcha a drink too,” she slurred as she picked one of the glasses from her tray and passed it across the table with unexpected dexterity. “Now… ish it… t-true? Lunash back?” She turned to the side, as if she’d only just noticed the crimson mare besides her – maybe she had. “Oh, heya Red. Wassup. You doin’ much too… toon… tonigh?”
Redlight didn’t answer the question, caught up on the one addressed to her younger brother. “Luna? The hay?” A perplexed expression was evident on her face as she turned across the table, “Night, what’s she mean?”
He took a sniff of the drink Berry had brought and decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. Judging from the way his sister’s eyes bugged when she took a sip, it was the right choice. He put the glass down with a sigh. “Yeah, Luna’s back,” he explained matter-of-factly to both mares present. “I am… no, strike that. I was,” he emphasized, “her hoofservant or something. She had her official return tonight, I think. There was a dinner and everything with loads of nobles there. It’ll probably be in the papers tomorrow morning,” he conceded. “You remember what I said about a princess chewing me out? I never said it was Celestia.”
Berry nodded her head unreservedly, only to stop short with a nauseous look. Red, however was a bit more verbose and much more voluminous. “Wait, you mean that was Princess Luna, who said all that? What the hay? I mean, what does she know? Hasn’t she been on the moon for the last thousand years? For the sake of-”
Nightlight cut off his sister sharply as before she could become much louder. “Yeah, well honestly? It’s hard to argue with her when the moon rose late because of me.” That silenced Red immediately, evoking open-mouthed stares from the mares sitting across from him. Berry Punch’s eyes may have been unfocused, but the effect was much the same. Nightlight continued, “So yeah, she’s got a pretty good point. I probably am the worst servant in the history of Equestria,” he concluded, and took a gulp of his drink for dramatic emphasis.
“Show… what’sh the problem?” Berry inquired, ignoring the fit of coughing the young colt had sunk into. “How many ponies you shink know, note, noticed the moon was late tonight? I didn’t. Prolly, that is.” She shrugged her shoulders lazily and took a matching swig of her own beverage without fuss. “Imeanreally, it’sh not like you coulda been the bery first pony to buck shomefin’ like this up, yeah?” With unexpected agility and an even more unexpected elegance, the pink mare hopped onto her seat, reared up on her hind legs and began declaring boldly to the establishment: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun! Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. Nopony remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by-”
Vainly, Nightlight tried to argue, speaking over the rant. “No. It doesn’t matter if anypony noticed whether or not I failed; the fact remains that I failed a princess,” he voiced. “I shouldn’t be serving her. I’m not good enough! I didn’t just fail Her, I failed Equestria!”
The mulberry mare just spoke on. “I have seen something else under the sun! The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all!”
Perhaps motivated by the numerous looks the trio was receiving from their fellow customers, an especially grumpy earth pony with a grey coat and a spiky ice-colored mane intruded upon the soliloquy. “Miss, if you don’t sit down and shut up, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” growled the bouncer. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll be pleased to drag you out myself.” Berry continued her speech without pause, eliciting a dark grimace from the older earth pony. Nonetheless, he turned away from the pontificating pony and addressed the others present at the table with a nod. “Night, Red. You really should keep better grips on your friends.”
The young stallion failed to hear his father’s admonishment, too distracted as he was by his drunk associate’s discourse as she continued to her climax. “Even as foals walk along the road, they lack sense, and show everypony how stupid they are. If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post! Calmness can lay great offenses to rest!”
Red, however, acknowledged her father’s command with an airy laugh. “Berry,” she called, whistling sharply. “If you don’t quit it, we’re going to get kicked out. Oh, and say hello to our dad.”
The alcoholic pony stopped immediately, plopping down onto the bench with little ado. As suddenly as it had begun, the monologue ended, and she returned to her usual slurring mode of speech as if everything was normal. “Heya Red’sh Dad. Nishe ta meethca. Whasshup?”
“Tch.” Twilight Sky shook his head dismissively and ignored the question completely. Instead of deigning to answer, he locked his frosty blue eyes on his son, asking in a voice as disquieting as his gaze, “You in trouble, Night?”
‘Clop me...’ Nightlight put his hovering drink back on the table heavily, drawing a concerned look from the mares sitting with him. His dad’s stoic expression remained unchanged. “Probably. Why?”
“There’s a couple guards and some palace official outside checking the bars for a colt – something to do with a missing servant or somesuch. They gave me a description of him, and I told them I’d look inside.” The bouncer shifted his gaze around the room, as if worried somepony might bother to listen in. “You know anything about this, or should I tell them to be on their way?”
‘...With the moon.’ Reservedly, he slid out of the booth and onto his hooves with a stagger. “Yeah, that’s me. Tell them I’ll be out in a couple minutes, thanks.” His dad marched back towards the doors, cutting a path through the drunk herd without effort, and he turned to his sister. “Hey Red, couldja get me a glass of water or something? I need to sober up a bit.”
“I’ll do you one better!” she called with a smirk, already dashing into the crowd.
She did, in fact, do him one better. As it turned out, Redlight was ‘acquainted’ with a unicorn in medical school who just so happened to be on the dance floor, and just so happened to ‘owe her a favor’. Knowing his sister, the specifics weren’t something he would be pleased about. However, what he was pleased about was a very convenient piece of magic the stallion had picked up during his academic career: a sobriety spell.
His tongue coated with the strangely agreeable taste of strong coffee and raw egg yolk, Nightlight marched out of Prancer’s to find his father chatting unpleasantly with a pair of royal guards; the other bouncers were nowhere to be seen. “I’m tellin’ you, I can’t let you in unless you’re going to pay the cover. It’s ten bits, each.” In some detached part of his head, the colt laughed silently at the ruse – Prancer’s was popular because there was no cover. As if to add insult to injury, he added, “And I’ll have to see some ID.”
The smaller of the guards (‘Is that the lance corporal from earlier tonight?’) flared his wings up intimidatingly. “You have to be of age to join the Corps! And besides, these things don’t have pockets! How do you expect us to carry around-“
The senior pegasus clopped his compatriot upside the helmet and turned to face the bouncer with a much calmer, and therefore more threatening tone. “Listen, sir. If the pony we’re looking for is in there, you need to let us in, or you’ll be charged with obstruction and aiding a fugitive citizen. Furthermore-”
As much as he wanted to see his father parry words with these two, it was probably going to get out of hoof soon – the guards were, after all, in the right. Technically. He popped his dark vision spell. “What if the pony you’re looking for wasn’t inside, and he was right here, instead?”
The grizzled Sergeant Coolus didn’t bat a wing when he turned to the voice, “Then I’d have to ask why we’re not already on our way.” He narrowed his eyes, as if trying to decide if this was actually the pony they were looking for. Eventually he reached a conclusion. “You going to come quietly?” he asked softly, eyeing Nightlight’s large horn.
“That nice bouncer convinced me that it would be the patriotic thing to do,” the young unicorn snarked blandly. “There’ll be no problems.”
Nightlight’s promise held true for the guards, at least, but Nightlight had problems of his own on the way, as that unicorn’s sobriety spell apparently effected both physical and mental sobriety. What feeling he’d gained over the last couple hours melted away with the last of the alcohol, and he found himself struck once again with a sort of numbness. ‘Of course, that could just be on account of where we’re going.’ He couldn’t imagine what Princess Luna would have in store for him upon his return. No combination of banishment, dungeons, or the sun seemed like they would cut it, so he eventually had no choice but to give up his contemplation and enjoy the scenery.
The trek from the bar scene, out of the city proper, and towards Canterlot Castle was actually rather nice, if somber. The surroundings were as scenic as ever, and the way the moon illuminated the countryside was especially impressive tonight. ‘And the guards have the good sense not to ruin it all by talking… although that may be policy more than etiquette.’ The low-hanging moon cast elongated shadows across the royal grounds, and the way the stars framed the castle in the distance was stunning. All in all, it was probably the most beautiful night Nightlight had ever witnessed – and it was probably to be his last. ‘I should’ve asked dad to tell the family I love them…’ It was too late now, he figured. ‘Too late for a lot of things, to be honest. Becoming a full steward, getting rich, marrying a cute filly, visiting Roam and Germaney…’ The list went on and on as they continued the quiet march up to the castle. Soon they were at the entrance to the castle grounds. ‘…never ran a mareathon, or wrote that book. I’d have liked to see Equestrian Symphony Orchestra in concert at least once, and-’
A gruff voice broke him from his reverie; Lance Corporal Galea was speaking. “We found him at a bar downtown just now; he matches your description and he looks similar to a servant spotted leaving earlier this evening – is this the pony you’re lookin’ for, ma’am?”
It took Nightlight a couple moments to actually realize that the soldier’s question wasn’t addressed to him. “Yes, that’s him,” murmured Star Quill. Her voice was as detached as ever but her weary expression made it seem that she’d aged a decade in the last couple hours. Nightlight empathized. Rubbing a dark hoof against a temple, she mumbled, “I’ll take things from here, or something. Come on, uhh… Nightright.”
Around the castle, towards one of the servants’ entrances, and through the vacant hallways, Nightlight followed, almost as indifferent as when he’d followed Coolus and Galea out of the city. Unlike the guards, however, his current escort was remarkably talkative, another sign that this night was unusual. “I mean really,” she huffed at the unicorn following her, tackling a staircase used only by the servants, “to abandon your post? The shame you’ve wrought upon the Night Stewards is incredible. Do you have any idea how you’ve made us look? How you’ve made me look? To Princess Luna? She… why, she…” the older unicorn dropped several decibels, and the look on her face became pained. “Incompetent… why, to suggest that I’m incompetent… I, the Head Night Steward? Why, how could an incompetent pony possibly come to this position? I… Of course I can manage my subordinates. It’s not my fault if they run away from their duties. It’s not my fault if they don’t know how to get around the castle. How should I have known the moon-raising was to be in the Tall Tower? Who’s ever heard of an Astral Dais? Why is it my fault if the maids haven’t polished her tiara enough, or her cook hasn’t prepared her meal satisfactorily? It’s not my fault, it’s theirs.”
The younger steward mostly ignored his superior’s mutterings as they began to degenerate into self-absorbed monologue. Star Quill may have been a good logistician, and knew how to make things run smoothly on a day-to-day basis, but she didn’t know how to deal with the unexpected. Nor, in fact, did she know how to deal with other ponies. According to her policy, if things deviated from the expected, it was because they were defective. She believed that unpredictable things were inherently flawed, and the fact remained that ponies were very rarely predictable.
‘I suppose I, therefore, am a problem, no?’ Star Quill had never expected him to make off like he had. ‘But then…’ Nightlight was struck by an interesting thought. ‘Did anypony expect Princess Luna to be like this?’ Judging from what he’d been informed of from Slopes and Quill before he woke the Princess (it felt like days ago, but it was just tonight), Luna had caught everypony by surprise. ‘So then what does she think about the Princess?’
“Conceited… unjust… belligerent… excessive… callous… noisy…” Assuming he didn’t misinterpret the context, nothing good, it seemed. “And you,” she bemoaned, abruptly addressing the assistant steward. “You just made things worse!” Her horn lit up, and the dark mare threw open the nearest pair of doors with an enormous crash. She continued as she led them in, either disregarding or oblivious to the bothered looks she was earning from the other servants. “Running away like that! Do you know how bad you’ve made us look!? On the first night of Her return, you disgrace the name of my Night Stewards! What the hay could possess you to gallop downtown? The Princess has practically been looking for you since moonrise! The things she’s had to say about-”
Two corridors and one back passage into the tirade later, Nightlight realized where Star Quill was leading him. Well, he might not have understood the actual location, but he understood the actual purpose. They’d passed by three staircases since he’d entered the castle, which meant that their destination was definitely on this floor. Adding to that the fact that there were no administrative offices of any sort on the main floor, and it could only mean one thing:
“And further more-”
‘Oh Goddess. es. Goddesses.’ The realization was enough to make Nightlight entirely shut out the rant coming from the mare in front of him. ‘Princess Luna.’ Rationally, he knew he’d have to come face to face with the Princess of the Night after absconding the way he did. Logically, he knew he’d have to face the consequences of his actions – one always had to do so. It didn’t make coming to grips with it much easier.
“In fact, I have half a mind to-”
Star Quill didn’t make things easier either, but she was orders of magnitude below what awaited him. Orders of magnitude below Princess Luna. Orders of magnitude below the double doors staring the colt down at the moment. The same double doors that swung open in response to Star Quill’s magic. The doors of the Royal Library.
Rows and rows of books extended further than the eye (even aided by magic, as Nightlight’s was) could see, and in the very center of it all, sat an indignant alicorn, glowering at an enormous hardbound manuscript. Stacks of similar books flanked the tome on either side, framing the scowling princess’ face and extending halfway to the ceiling. If Nightlight could see more than the reading princess, he might’ve noticed the sidelong glances the Royal Librarians were casting, as if afraid the spindly table might collapse under the weight of the numerous tomes Luna had collected.
It was this obliviousness that caused Nightlight to jump when a familiar-looking pegasus with a folded paper star for a cutie mark stepped out of his peripherals and addressed the pair of stewards with a whisper. “Th-th-the Princess specifically told us, I mean me, that is, to let nopony interrupt her unless it was r-really im-important,” Origami stuttered with fearful eyes. “I’m sorry, b-but I’m going to h-have to ask you t-t-to t-t-turn around.” The fearful way she trembled was almost, but not quite, enough to distract Nightlight from his own fate. While she’d obviously experienced a taste of the royal Canterlot voice, it was hard to imagine that anypony had received as much as he had. ‘After all, she didn’t have to get hauled back by guards, right?’
Star Quill rolled her eyes and kept walking. “It is important.”
The filly appeared uncertain. “But she’ll get mad at me if it’s not important…”
Such a reply was unacceptable to the Head Night Steward; she narrowed her brow dangerously and snapped, “I don’t care. She told me to approach her immediately when I found this pony. Move now.”
“But she-” The older mare’s horn lit up and the younger filly slid to the side with Quill’s telekinesis. A spluttering but unobtrusive “aah” escaped her lips as she was pushed away. To the end, it seemed, Origami was always a librarian.
Nightlight started walking once more, and so there were only ten yards between Nightlight and his fate.
Princess Luna’s mane floated ominously in a nonexistent breeze.
She cocked her head curiously at her book. ‘Maybe she’ll be merciful?’
A tendril of magic stretched from her horn. She turned a page, and her frown set itself even deeper upon her face. ‘So much for that.’
The princess’ eyes danced across the page, turning harder and harder until they were practically shooting daggers at the manuscript. ‘Horseapples.’
Without warning, Luna’s visage shifted from anger to actual fury, and the tome launched itself across the room. The book nearly unbound when it struck the far wall and landed in a heap. ‘Goodnight, cruel world.’
Luna pulled a fresh book from one of the nearby stacks and opened it recklessly, diving into the text with violent abandon. ‘And flights of pegasi sing me to my rest.’
Star Quill came to a halt, watching their Princess flip through pages. Her knees locked in place, the self-assured voice that had just opposed Origami lost. The two stewards remained silent for some time, petrified by the prospect of what was before them. ‘Only…’
He was only one yard from… what? ‘Death? Dismemberment? Banishment? The moon? The sun? The dungeon? Dismissal?’
And then one of them made a noise. From somewhere, one of the stewards found enough noise to draw Princess Luna’s attention, but not enough to speak. Nightlight didn't think it was him, but he wasn’t sure - the Head Night Steward looked almost as frightened as Nightlight felt, after all. The Moon Goddess looked up from her tome, glaring coldly at the ponies before her. “Yes?” she demanded in a voice that was, for her, hushed. “What brings you to interrupt my study?”
Reflexively, Nightlight dropped to a deep bow, kowtowing forwards so that his long mane shielded his eyes. ‘Mercy, mercy, mercy…’
His superior remained slightly more composed, even if she, too, avoided eye contact. “Your Highness, I’ve returned your hoofservant, as ordered.” A magical sheath enveloped Nightlight, and he felt himself forced forwards, filling the place between the princess and Star Quill. “He’d fled into the city; and the guardsponies had difficulty finding him.”
She raised her brow, opening a large eye in what might have been curiosity. “Oh? Is this true, hoofservant?” Of course, it might have been menace.
Nightlight couldn’t find the strength to speak. A nod had to suffice. Unfortunately, nodding caused his mane to shake aside just slightly, allowing the tiniest bit of eye contact.
Her voice was level; her visage was calm; her eyes cut into Nightlight’s soul. “How commendable,” came the cold words.
The dark colt’s brain could only process one word.
The same word murmured from the mare behind him. “What.”
She turned away from the ponies occupying her attention, focusing once more upon her books. “While your enthusiasm in following orders is praiseworthy, never again leave the castle when I order you to vacate my presence. I was greatly inconvenienced by it. Is this understood?”
Unable to comprehend what the princess meant, unable to form complete thoughts, all he could do was agree. “Y-y-yes your Highness.”
“Very well. See to it that this does not reoccur. Now fetch me my midnight meal.”
Correction: all he could do was agree and obey. “Y-y-yes your Highness.”