“Can you help my sister?” the famous Sun Princess of Equestria, Celestia, pled. She’d tried to pass it off as a casual request, like she was talking about the different styles of tea. Admirable attempt, but my psychologist’s training let me see through that with relative ease.
She was concerned. That meant that there was something seriously wrong with the former exile. Maker, the fact that she was seeking a psychologist in the griffon country, Gryphonia, was a symptom that they couldn’t get their own guys on it. Now this pointed to some sort of pony-phobia, or some mental condition that held race to be of value. Why? I don’t know. But that piqued my curiosity. And, getting a Princess as a client wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.
“I’ll try,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my beak with a claw. No promises. That was the griffon way. A lot of the ponies would say something like, ‘I’ll get it fixed in a jiffy!’, and get more and more stressed when they found that they couldn’t. We griffons were actually smart. No offense. “My methods may be… unconventional, though.”
Celestia smiled, but I could tell that it was a wan one. The legends said that she was the one who kicked her sister … somewhere far away. The ponies had, over time, spun their version of the legend to become more ‘romantic’ and ‘hopeful’, saying that the exiled Princess had gone to her source of power; but we griffons preferred the truth, which wasn’t really that descriptive. Two people separated by hundreds of kilometers of water tended to develop in different ways, and the same could be said of civilizations.
“Thank you, Mr. Tallis,” she said, as she rose from the chair opposite me and opened her saddlebags. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes at this bastardization of my name. Griffon names aren’t like pony names – instead of unique and then family, we follow the unique and then city name. Thus, my full (public) name would actually be Sigurd sak Tallis, roughly meaning ‘the guardian of Tallis’ in Equestrian. That’s why a lot of non-griffons get confused and think we’re all related to one another – the ‘surname’ of Tallis is quite common, given that Tallis is one of the larger port cities.
We do have family names, but we choose to keep them hidden. One’s path in life shouldn’t be determined or influenced by their bloodline, after all.
The famous griffon baker Gustave Le Grand tried to do both – he kept his unique name, but added another of his own – and in my opinion, it would have gone a lot better had he chosen to go with just one naming convention. But I digress.
“Call me Sigurd,” I said, making a steeple out of my talons. “If we’re going to be working together, we might as well get informal.”
Smiling, she picked out some documents with her magic and placed them on my desk. “These are entry documents into Equestria. I’ve given you an indefinite work visa, and you’ll be staying in the palace as an honored guest for as long as needed. Once again, thank you.”
I cracked a tired smirk of my own. “Don’t thank me yet, Princess. I haven’t even started the therapy.”
The Princess’s smile didn’t dissipate, but it didn’t widen either. “We should get going. The journey will take about a day.”
Since I was a single griffon, just under the age of thirty, I didn’t really have a lot to my name; just my education, my experience and my knowledge. Clothing was simply something of a fashion statement in both countries, so I didn’t even need to bring any sets with me. Still, I went around and got my travel bag, containing the essentials – documents, money in both currencies, and other assorted items. Finishing up, I smiled at Celestia, who waited in the hall along with two of her guards. “All done.”
I run a home office, in case you’re wondering. Saves money.
Locking the wooden door felt oddly formal and final, like I had closed down one part of my life. I shook my head. Maybe the fame of my client was getting to me.
The guards gave me the eye. I suppose it’s because of the worsening pony-griffon relations over the last five years. Honestly, I don’t know what that stemmed from. Politics, I guess. Most griffons hated it with a passion. Talk was cheap, actions spoke louder, that kind of thing. I guess they were right. But to me, politics and talking was just a more subtle, indirect form of action. Then again, I’m biased.
Celestia left the door open for me as she got into the golden, decorative carriage, and I ignored the stares of the griffons around me as I pounced in. Looking outwards from the cushioned interior, I could see the crowds getting thicker and thicker. Business here was going to get a boost. The guards, however, didn’t seem quite as confident as before. Nervous ticks, a tilt of the head, a shuffle of the wings – all calls to their inner feelings.
Celestia raised her hoof, and the carriage shot upwards into the air.
The journey took ages.
The guards were fast, I’d have to give them that. Tallis was a port city, connected to Baltimare via a standardized sea route. It’d be suicide to fly for that distance. The Princess had come prepared, though, and she’d gotten some sort of small, steam-powered private vessel that was away as soon as my hind legs were on-board. The thing itself wasn’t particularly plush, and I got the impression that it was actually a military vessel. All cold, silver steel and unpolished wood. No frills. A griffon’s idea of perfection.
Celestia started to pace. Urgency, that much was obvious. Things must have gone to Tartarus over there. Still, there was nothing I could do right now, so I just sat down with my back against a nearby deck protrusion, looking westwards at her and at my destination.
Baltimare stood, a grey, smoggy clump of buildings that reeked of grime and decay. So much for the Equestrian dream. Beyond that, my sharp falcon’s eyes picked up the shining beacon of Equestrian political power – Canterlot city. At this distance, it was just a speck of gold and white against the uncaring grey of the mountain it rested against. Unreachable, untouchable, but always there, in sight. That summed up the aspirations of every poor pony, every unlucky, huddled mass of immigrants from Zebrica and Mulen. They just conveniently forgot that they’d have to pass through the dirt of Baltimare and Manehatten, both literally and figuratively, before they could even touch the golden cobblestones of Canterlot.
I huffed under my breath. We griffons had always had a sense of brotherhood between ourselves. I guess it came with being one of the three omnivorous species in the world. The other two, the dragons and the ‘rock-dogs’ as we called them, were both notoriously reclusive. So, we stood alone in a world full of grass-eaters that looked upon us as savages and barbarians. As they say, united we stand, divided we fall. And we chose to unite.
Ponies had also been encouraged to think that way – one of their cultural legends spoke of an older time, when each pony subspecies had to work together to survive – but remember, there are reasons why the ‘griffon honor’ was so remarkable amongst the observers of other races.
Thinking back upon my people and their behaviors had killed about an hour of time, and with a sigh, I realized that it was going to take more than that before we even reached the maritime border of Equestria. I diverted my attention downwards, where I found out that the crew was staring at me.
“What?” I asked irritably. I was in no mood to see if the stereotypes of pony racism were correct.
The nearest sailor, a fairly bulky earth pony that was covered in soot and carbon, spoke. “How do you like the ship?”
Odd question. “Okay ship, I guess,” I replied, thinking quickly. Was that a euphemism? No, didn’t seem to be.
“Good old Equestrian engineering,” the earth pony said, smiling proudly as he poked the side of some compartment with his coal-covered shovel. “Beat that.”
The crew snickered, and I lost it for a moment. Typical ponies. They never understood the fine lines of interdependence between each nation. Without griffons, the precision parts that made up the engine of the ship wouldn’t have existed, and the ponies would still be stuck with pegasus-pulled carriages as their main form of transportation.
Then, I somehow came to the realization that picking a fight with a burly pony in front of the ruler of Equestria wasn’t exactly a smart idea. So, I just fumed in silence. “I’m a psychologist, not an engineer,” I said, after a short pause.
The pony didn’t seem particularly pleased with my answer, but then, he didn’t seem too angry either. It was like he was trying to be offended, but he couldn’t actually do the deed. After a bit of time, he went back to shoveling coal.
I recast my gaze back to the city that was to be my temporary home.
The palace itself was opulent. Filled to the neck with gold, paintings and tapestry. Personally, I thought it was a bit much. The myriad of colors threatened to drown me in an overload of information, and eventually I found myself staring at the comparatively simple white-and-black marbling on the floor, listening to the clops of hoofsteps of the alicorn walking beside me.
Griffon eyes were made for spotting animals that tried to camouflage themselves in dense foliage. Through millions of years of magical influence, we eventually became extremely adept at spotting the smallest change in tint and color tone. That’s another reason why you don’t see a lot of griffons in pony towns – pony eyes like colors, whilst griffon eyes get tired after five minutes of information bombardment.
I managed to get up to the ‘private area of the castle’, according to my Princess guide, without too much trouble. This was where I would be staying, and where my patient would be as well.
The Princess waited impatiently, shifting her weight from one side to another whilst her magical mane billowed about as if it hadn’t heard of the idea of mass. I cast down my saddlebags next to the bed and rejoined her.
This time, the décor of the castle changed from a modest white and gold, tinged with black, to a rough stone corridor that looked as if it had been carved by magic, and left unfinished. The change was quite sudden; one step we were in the opulence, the next we were surrounded by the mineshaft-like stone. I could see that the finish on the walls was smooth, though, giving credence to my theory. The oddest thing was that it looked as if only one magician had done the carving. Had there been many, the walls would be slightly wavy, as if ocean waves were hung up horizontally from the ceiling. This was because each magician would have a different perspective of ‘forwards’, and as such, they would each carve out a pieces that differed slightly from the rock base. But not this time. The walls looked ramrod straight.
That meant it was the work of either Princess.
“Tell me about the situation,” I said as we walked along. The door at the far end was surrounded by guards – the shiny golden armor was a dead give-away. Mentally unstable? Suicidal? Criminally insane?
“The Nightmare was cleansed from my sister’s body,” Celestia said evenly, but my griffon ears could hear the slight waver in her voice. “At first I thought she was completely fine. However, I was wrong. I should have known that such wounds cut deep.” She blinked a few times, and I could see the slight reflections of light that looked like miniature suns in the droplets of her tears. How fitting, I thought.
“Go on,” I said, my voice soft and solemn. This event, I had lived through. There was no tampering with the legends here.
“On the hour of my sister’s return, I thought her of sound mind and thought. She had always been the quieter, shier sister. I thought her lack of speech as something normal. Little did I know…”
I let her take as much time as needed. She needed to regain her composure, and I definitely didn’t want her on my bad side. For my health, and for my business.
“She… wasn’t right. There was something that was missing, even though she looked fine. And that’s why you’re here,” she said, finishing somewhat lamely. I’m not usually one to judge my clients, though.
“What about pony psychologists,” I asked, clicking my claws absentmindedly along the smooth stone floor. With such a patient, this could be treated as a matter of national security. I wasn’t sure if accepting the offer had led to me becoming a double agent, or anything. There was nothing but the usual confidentiality agreement that I’d signed; but now, come to think of it, I was surrounded by Royal Guards on all sides for miles…
Celestia shook her head, and the motion brought me back to my senses. “My sister does not respond at all. I’ve tried every single one I could find in Equestria, and my sister acts as if she ignores them.”
She sounded like she was just stating a fact; no emotion, no nothing. Acceptance.
And so she turned to me. For a splinter of hope borne out of desperation, guilt and self-loathing.
I had an embryo of an idea as to what was wrong. But to confirm my theory, I’d have to ask the source. And do some experiments along the way.
The doorway to the Night Princess’s chambers lay in front – there didn’t seem to be a door. The lights were out, that much was certain, and through the roughly hewn window on the far wall, I could see the faint spots of stars in the sky.
“How long has she been like this?” I asked Celestia.
“One week,” she replied, and her voice started to break as she looked at her sister.
Right. Better be out.
“I don’t understand...”
“What’s going on?”
“Something’s not right.”
“Look at her eyes!”
I ignored the hissing whispers of the guards in the vicinity, and shouldered my way through. As I passed, all of them fell silent. Sizing me up as a threat, probably. Celestia didn’t appear to have heard them, such was her grief.
Even in the dark, my griffon eyes could easily pick up the slight differences in shade that separated Luna from her bed, and the bed from the floor. Blame it on being half cat and half bird of prey. Our eyes are all awesome.
As I entered the room proper, the Princess didn’t appear to have noticed me yet, and so I examined the furnishings. Or rather, the lack of furnishings. Unusual for a Princess. Then again, it was even more unusual for one to have done something deserving of exile.
That meant that I couldn’t just compare her to any ‘normal’ standard of Princess.
Stone looked like the main motif. Stone bed, stone walls, stone floor. The room was uniformly gray in all directions, except for the blue alicorn sitting in the middle of the bed.
She wasn’t like her sister. That was for sure. For one, she was smaller – about the midpoint between Celestia and the average pony. For two, her hair didn’t attempt to float away, but rather just looked like a mop of fine cyan strings.
In short, she looked like a normal pony, except for the wings and horn. And the size.
Once I entered the room, the Princess of the Night instantly raised her head and stared at me. I mean stared. It was quite disconcerting, to say the least – and they say that the griffon’s glare is intimidating.
Blinking in order to avoid getting into a staring contest, I waved a claw. “Hey.” It wasn’t exactly protocol on dealing with Princesses, but I wasn’t exactly a conventional psychologist.
Her mouth opened just a bit, revealing a row of white, flat teeth. I guess dental hygiene wasn’t a problem in her exile.
She was quite bony, too. Compared to her sister’s, ah, curvy physique, Luna looked like she draped her skin over a thin smattering of muscle and fat. It wasn’t so bad that her ribs were jutting out, but it wasn’t exactly a healthy look either.
She lit her horn. I didn’t know what for. The aura radiated off of me, trying to pull me towards her. Thanks to the griffon race’s naturally magic-resistant body, I held my ground.
“You know, you could just ask me to come closer,” I said, once she stopped trying. That seed of a theory I had grew into a sapling. Just a few more tries.
“Griffon,” she stated simply, without any trace of detectable emotion. Her face didn’t change, either. She just squinted.
“Pony,” I returned, sitting on my haunches a few steps away, just near the edge of the bed. From the way the shadows on the wall changed, I could tell that a few guards had moved closer, checking me out. Clearly, none of them trusted me enough.
So much for patient confidentiality.
She scooted over to the side of the bed, closer to me. Her wings finished fluttering and refolded to her side once she’d arrived at her destination; I could see that the feathers were matted and fluffed; she hadn’t been taking good care of her wings, then.
And then she stretched out a hoof and hit me on the beak.
“Ow!” I screeched, involuntarily flaring my wings. “What gives?”
In hindsight, that wasn’t a very good idea. The clanking of armor made me whirl around, and I came face-to-face with five stony-faced guards, all with extended spears.
I’d done my four years of mandatory military service, just like any other griffon, but I wasn’t a soldier. And even if I was, the numbers were tilted against me.
I could see Luna shut her eyes – no, more like crushed her eyelids together – and wait. Five seconds later, she blinked them open.
A soft ‘hmm’ emerged from her throat, and she waved her front hooves around. “Down. Noble knights, we do not require assistance.”
I guess the guards were just as confused as I was, because for another second, no one moved. Luna’s slow breaths echoed around the room, and for once, I began to seriously contemplate my direction in life.
High-profile clients were a pain in the rear to deal with. I should have known.
“What happened, Princess?” one of the guards said. He was wearing a nice set of purple-painted, gilded armor that looked custom-made. Probably a high-ranker. His name plate read ‘Armor’. As for the others, they all looked like they had been made in the same factory, so I didn’t bother learning their names. Not important, in my view.
“Huh?” she replied, blinking distractedly. It was then that I noticed she was staring at her own hooves, and looking wildly around. “Oh, what was the question?”
Armor frowned just a tad. If I were a pony, I would have missed it, but a griffon’s eyes are sharp, and I could see the faint creasing around his mouth increase in magnitude. “What just happened, Princess Luna?”
“I hit him,” she replied, pointing a hoof at me. Her voice was still emotionless. “Do not worry. All is normal.”
Armor and the other guards stared at me for a moment. I stared back. Eyes are so interesting, are they not? Windows into the soul.
“Be gone,” Luna intoned, as if she was simply asking for a sandwich.
Armor and company nodded slowly, before backing away into the doorway, out of the room.
I didn’t know whether she meant me as well. So, in the infamous griffon bluntness, I went and asked. “Me too?”
She shrugged, and continued to look at me.
Deciding that I had gathered enough information from my current position, I made to get up, and walked over a few steps to the left. Her eyes followed my every movement. To say that it was creepy was an understatement.
“We never expected this,” she said, quite suddenly, and I flicked my head towards her. “A griffon, here to talk rather than fight.”
“That why you hit me?” I muttered, rubbing the yellow keratin. The pain was gone, but the ghost of the sting stubbornly remained. Damn stereotypes. Still, she literally was a thousand years behind the times.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. A bit redundant, but then again, this one had been in isolation for a thousand years. I cut her some slack. “We did not expect thee.”
I think I knew what was wrong. That sapling of suspicion I mentioned earlier had grown into a fully mature tree, and the fruits of my labor were ready to drop into my claws. Still, some more time to guess couldn’t go wrong. If I hit her with my guess, she could unconsciously ‘fake’ symptoms to match, or simply deny it and try to avoid the problem. It was one of those things that I hated about my career.
“Right,” I replied, narrowing my eyes. “Wait… what does that mean?”
“We thought thou would have been a pony.”
So much for socio-cultural progress. Apparently, we were still barbarians stuck in the Stone Age.
I rolled my eyes. “Did you think I’d be carrying a big axe around with me as well?” For your information, we’ve long since graduated from unwieldy melee weapons. Since the invention of firearms, current military doctrine was to keep your distance.
Luna nodded without pause or hesitation. Great. Well, at least she was willing to listen, and not gut me instantly with that horn of hers.
“You’re not what I expected from a Princess either,” I replied, perhaps a bit too harshly in hindsight.
“What dost that mean?” she returned, frowning.
“I’ll see you a week later,” I said, ignoring her last question, and waved myself out. Little did she know, I had no intention of doing that.
This almost confirmed my suspicions. The disparity between her expectations and what she got; the act of whacking my beak, the staring; all of this pointed to a form of mental disconnect from the world.
Celestia was the first to stop me as I popped out of the room. “Well?”
“Looks like schizophrenia,” I replied, flicking my tail idly. “She can’t tell what’s real and what is in her head. For all she knows, the pony psychologists you sent could have been a figment of her own imagination. She didn’t expect me; that’s why she talked to me. And I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect what I said, either.”
Celestia seemed wordless, for once. Her mouth flapped up and down, before snapping shut with a muffled whump. The stone room seemed to lose some of its glow, as did her skin.
“Leave us,” she said, as she turned to the guards. None of them attempted to protest. Well, at least they knew who actually ran the country.
Waiting until the clank of armor had faded into the background noises of a castle in operation, she turned once again to me, making to close the door to her sister’s room. I held up a claw, and shook my head.
“She’ll expect that, and I can’t keep re-introducing myself,” I whispered, stopping Celestia in mid-stride. She turned back to me, reluctantly.
“Is it going to get better?”
I sighed, and shrugged. “It’s a thousand years, Princess. A thousand years with nothing to do but get lost in her own imagination. I can’t promise anything.”
Celestia’s façade seemed to crack just then. I spotted a wobble in the corners of her mouth, and the sudden gathering of moisture along the edges of her large eyes. Coughing quietly, I averted my eyes back to the lonely doorway into Luna’s room.
“Please, bring her back,” she murmured, much throatily than before.
“I’ll try,” I replied, still staring at the door.
I really didn’t know what to do. Poring over my psychology textbook had given me nothing. Schizophrenia remained an incurable condition; all I could do was to help with the symptoms. She would live with the risk of relapse for the entirety of her lifetime.
Besides, it didn’t look like traditional schizophrenia. She had the inability to distinguish between real and false, and the flattened emotion, but not the paranoia or the odd speech patterns. Truth be told, she was holding together remarkably well after a thousand years in solitary confinement. Hallucinations? The fact remained that I had only seen her for an hour yesterday. I’d need more time.
Was it even schizophrenia in the first place? It was possible that she still considered everything to be in the realm of her imagination. With a single thought, or a closing of the eyes, she’d thought she could do anything. That hadn’t worked, back when I was swarmed by guards.
I couldn’t remember how long I’d slept for. By the time I’d awoken, the sun was already travelling merrily along its path in the sky, seemingly ignorant of anything else. After kicking off the sheets, I groggily stumbled over to the desk, and reminded myself of my inability to cure her.
Antipsychotics would harm more than help, I’d feared. They were still an imprecise art, and had more than their fair share of side-effects. Furthermore, I wasn’t even sure they’d work on alicorns.
Groaning, I slammed my face into the pages of the open book, just as I heard the doorknob creak open. Just my luck.
I heard the intruder speak, and tilted my head towards her. It was a female pony, by the sounds of it. Yep, it was.
“Sir? It’s breakfast,” she squeaked, upon seeing my face. “What would you like? I’ve got sandwiches –”
“Just give me a bloody piece of meat,” I said without thinking. Her face instantly took the shade of a green apple. Whoops.
“We don’t serve meat,” she stammered, slowly backing away.
I sighed. “Don’t worry, I’m just messing with you. I won’t eat you.”
She didn’t seem convinced, but then, I’m not that great of an orator.
“Butter and bread will do fine,” I continued, pushing myself up and away from the desk. That was mean, but I had to admit, hilarious. Looked like they didn’t know that the eating of sentients had been considered taboo and outlawed for over a thousand years.
Ambling over, I gave her a beaky smile. To her credit, she didn’t instantly faint, but her soft pink skin seemed to pale even more, if that was possible. She now resembled Celestia in terms of color.
With a gulp, she passed over a plate of bread, each slice with a dollop of butter on top. The plate was trembling so much I feared that the slices would slide off and hit the ground.
I sighed, and took the plate in a claw, keeping its contents steady as I turned and hovered over to the desk. Behind me, I heard the rapid clip-clop of hooves speeding away. Looking at the plate, I could see that the mouthgrip by the side was completely dry; the poor girl must have really been scared for her life. Maybe I had gone too far.
Nah. Had she known, she would have saved herself a lot of adrenaline. Was her own fault for being ignorant. Right?
Wolfing down the bread, I leaned back and stared at the city of Canterlot, spread out below me. Beautiful city, actually. On the outside, the spires made it look as if the wingless of ponykind were reaching for the sky; the clean construction, no doubt mandated through strict zoning law, gave it a sense of simplicity and elegance. Shame about the slums at the bottom. A pony would only see tiny splotches of grey and brown from here, but a griffon could see much, much farther.
I placed the empty plate on the desk, and went back to check on Luna.
Traversing the corridors of the castle was a bloody nightmare. I could barely remember which way back it was to Luna’s room, and whoever made this place deemed it unnecessary to put at least some signposts to point guests in the right direction.
Grumbling, I somehow managed to find a guard that didn’t give me the evil eye. He was young, I could see. His armor didn’t have any bells or whistles on it; it was just plain grey steel.
“I need to get to Luna’s room,” I stated.
I shoved my documents in his face – figuratively, of course. You could see his eyes widen until they resembled saucers.
“Of course, sir,” he said, and quickly trotted away, leaving me to follow.
Sir? Well, that was one unexpected benefit. Celestia was efficient, if anything. I could see why, though. Her sister really was in trouble.
I won’t bore you with the details of the journey, but let’s just say griffons aren’t that common in Equestria. We’d turned a lot of heads, and by the time we arrived at the front of Luna’s self-carved stone room, the guard’s face was tinted pink.
“Thanks, mister…” I said, giving him a brief nod.
He simply returned the nod, before galloping quickly away. I rolled my eyes.
As usual, the assortment of guards stationed in front of the room quickly snapped to attention at my arrival. I didn’t really care. Checking out guard discipline wasn’t in my contract anywhere.
They’d left the door open, and I could see the shifting shadows of something inside moving around. Deciding to roll the dice once again, I chose to launch into the room, wings extended, like the griffons of old.
I could see Luna whirl around, eyes affixing on me. “Thou hast returned?”
“Yes,” I returned, deadpan. “Turns out, I had some free time on my schedule.”
We ended up staring at one another for a minute. Trust me, I kept count.
“Who art thou,” she said, after a while. I noticed that she seemed to have been standing in front of a reflective surface set into the side of the room, and that there was a brush tangled up in her mane.
“I am your psychologist,” I replied, foregoing the mysterious image. I had a gut feeling that she could have used the sudden influx of information. Saying ‘I’m here to help’ would just make her think that she was facing another part of her imagination, the part that wanted her to touch reality. But since it was delivered by her imagination, she wouldn’t trust those words.
Hey, maybe reality was imagination in her case.
“Call me Sig,” I continued, as she kept staring at me. I hoped that was a good sign.
She continued to stare, mouth open.
I sighed. Maybe I wasn’t getting to her. There was another way to shock her out of her head, but I wasn't looking forwards to it.
I quickly trotted up to her, and shook the brush out of her hair before I lost my nerve. She didn't seem to react at all; just sitting on the floor, letting me hold the brush.
“Did you feel that?” I murmured, no longer needing to speak up. Absentmindedly, I began to twirl the brush in my claws. It was a good one, I could tell. Tough and reliable, without being overly heavy. No bells and whistles that could break or go wrong.
Oh, right. The Princess in front of me was giving me the look; narrowed eyes, tight set mouth, etcetera. I sighed again, and flipped the brush until the handle faced her way, before prodding it towards her.
“Yes, we did,” she replied, slowly lifting a hoof to grasp at the handle.
Ah ha! I quickly flicked the brush around and upwards, and tapped the top of her hoof.
She winced, withdrawing the appendage, and glared at me. “What art thou doing?”
I shrugged. “You didst not expect such?” My studies had only taught me the most basic of Early-Modern Equestrian, but I hoped it was enough. I’d spoken normally the last few times I’d met her; hopefully, she wouldn't integrate me into her capacious mind. Furthermore, my slip-ups would kick her mind into rejecting that as her own thoughts; I’d like to think that she knew her own language, and as such, know that my words weren't of her making.
She shook her head, half-grinning. It was the first time I’d seen her smile. Hopefully, that meant progress. “Thy butchering of our language dost not endear thee to us.”
I sighed. “Got me there, Princess,” I said nonchalantly. Inside, I was doing wing-assisted backflips. She was happy to co-operate, instead of denying the problem. That meant that I could skip with the persuading, and get to the helping.
“Still, thou didst not answer our question,” she continued, walking closer, before plopping her rear down onto the hard stone floor. I noticed that she seemed rather uncomfortable, constantly shifting her weight around. Was she uncomfortable because of the hard floor, or what I said? More experiments, then.
“Making sure that you could not predict me,” I answered, again contradicting myself. Chaos was predictable after a while – everything said was a lie. To make it unpredictable, you had to mix in a few truths, at random times. Which was what I was trying to do. “The ultimate goal is to help you distinguish between reality and imagination.”
She blinked, and turned to me. “Thou art clever. However, how would we know if thou art a creation of our consciousness?”
I leant over, brush in claw. What I was going to do would have been a great breach of social law; even I knew that. But hey, it’s Equestrian social law. No one back home would know.
Gripping the brush tightly, I reached up, and sank the bristles of the comb into her purply-blue mane. She yelped, softly, her big teal eyes widening.
I ran the brush down, as quickly as I dared. If her sister were to pop up – or anyone, for that matter – it would have been exceedingly awkward to explain what was going on.
She hummed softly, but as the brush ran out of her hair, stopped.
“Imagined that?” I asked brusquely, raising an eyebrow, and going back to my former position. Shit, that was even more embarrassing than I’d thought. It was cute, but at the same time, I wondered if I was going to get fired over this.
She furrowed her brow, mouth working in quiet movements, before starting to hum contentedly again. “We do not know.” Narrowing her eyes, she leant into the brush I was holding, and then closed her eyes and – I swear – started to purr.
Well, that was a new development.
Grumbling in my head, I continued to brush her mane. This wasn’t on my contract. At all. Still, if it was going to help… why not?
“Why dost thou help us so?” she asked, murmuring quietly.
I paused in my strokes, the brush hanging awkwardly off a claw, bristles still deep in her hair. Good question. Griffin society told each of its members to make a mark on the world, for they’d be on it for only a brief time. I’d always wanted to do so by helping others; leave my effect in the lives of others, so to speak. The main reason for choosing the field of psychology was simple: mental scarring may not have been as visible as physical ones, but were no less damaging. The wars in griffon history had told us that much. Medicine tended to be a blunt subject, in terms of the mind; chemicals had all sorts of unintended side-effects, and I was always of the opinion that the drugs only relieved the symptoms, not cure the source. Delving into the inner workings and the wondrous chaos of the mind was a great deal of fun, too.
Or maybe she was asking why I was brushing her mane?
“I thought you might like it,” I said, before stopping, and handing her the brush. No tricks this time. “You looked like you needed it.”
I meant that last sentence both in terms of appearance, as well as sensory stimulation. Being stuck in exile, deprived of any sort of light, touch or smell, it was no wonder that she’d started to imagine those sensations herself. That was the most probable explanation to all this. Still, without knowing the exact details of her exile, I was fumbling in the dark. And asking her about it seemed like a bad idea; her sister had told me that it wasn’t exactly a brilliant time for Luna. Worst case scenario was that the recollections could get her to retreat back into her head, undoing all my progress.
Was she suffering hallucinations? She’d concentrated intensely upon me, both times that I’d seen her. As if I was a specimen under an invisible microscope.
Just one more experiment. Couldn’t hurt, right?
Oh, shit. She’s looking at me. Think of something, quick.
I backed off, nonchalantly heading towards the open doorway. No sound, just a look of what I guessed was confusion. “So, I’ll be going now –”
I whirled my head back around, one claw still raised in the air, like in the crests. She had spoken softly; normally, I wouldn’t have heard, but the silence of the room carried any sound well. The brush hung limply in her hoof, forgotten, as she continued to stare at me. Was that a note of pleading in her voice? She looked… desperate.
As if I was the only stable beacon in her world of darkness.
I didn’t sigh this time. She was making an honest request, and this time, I had a gut feeling that she really needed what she wanted. She needed more than what she’d asked for, actually.
I walked back to her, claws clicking solemnly on the smooth stone. “Yes?”
The way she said it – as if it was a plaintive call for help – broke something in me. It must have been the natural care response we all get when faced with a helpless hatchling; triggered by what seemed like a member of another species, and one breaching adulthood at that.
Trying to give her a genuine smile, I lifted a claw as if to ‘hoofshake’ her. She just looked at it, and then back at me; at a loss to what to do.
“Follow me,” I murmured, lowering my claw. As she slowly got to her hooves, I couldn’t help but sigh softly, letting the escaping air whistle through my beak. What I needed to do was to slowly reintroduce her back to society. The problem was, how.
I decided upon a simple plan. Since I had broken through the veil of her mind, so to speak, she trusted me. I remembered how awkward sitting had been for her. Now that I thought about it, it was clear that she wasn’t used to the new sensations her nerves were firing.
Which meant that I had to get her used to them.
By hiding away in that dark room, she’d essentially isolated all her senses except for touch. Her hearing seemed alright; she didn’t appear to suffer from auditory hallucinations when I was there. There was always that caveat – when I was there. Was I becoming a cure for her, chasing away her demons? I don’t know. But if it worked, it worked, and I could use it to help her.
She got up to her hooves slowly, as if she was still discovering them. Personally, I’d expected that that was what she was doing in the downtime between today and yesterday.
As a pair, we slowly made our way to the entrance. At the far end of the stone hallway, a rectangle of light stood. Milliseconds later, my eyes had adjusted, and I could see that it was just a wall inside Canterlot Castle.
Luna couldn’t, though. She shied away, eyes shut tight, before blinking them open again in a glassy gaze. I sat down, before spreading out a wing in front of her nose, and ignoring the looks of curiosity on the faces of the guards. As I expected, she didn’t even ‘see’ it was there. Her eyes were open, but I bet that she’d told her brain – somehow – to reject the signals.
I flicked the feathers her way, just to see, and she yelped as the fluffy material connected with her nose. Yep. She didn’t even try to dodge it.
“Open your eyes, Luna,” I said, folding the wing back.
“The light hurts our eyes,” she muttered, scowling. I noticed that her eyes were shut once more; as she opened them again, they seemed much more alive.
“Sit with me,” I sighed, doing so myself. She complied, but cowered behind the doorframe, so that the miniscule amount of light spilling into the room didn’t touch her at all. Rather, she looked at the spray of light falling on the walls and floor.
There was really nothing I could do. She needed to adjust naturally; any attempt to make it faster would harm her, I feared. As my patient, she was my responsibility, and I wasn’t going to make it tougher on her than I had to. She was on a knife edge, and the fall back into insanity was far.
We simply sat there for who knows how long. I’d lost count after 100 seconds, and dropped into a prone position. And after that? Nothing, for a long while. We simply waited, and got ourselves comfortable. Time flew by as I silently juggled my next few moves in my head.
The next thing I knew, a heavy weight had settled against my side, where my left wing was. I twisted my head back – and instantly tried to suppress a screech of surprise.
You see, Luna had fallen asleep. Her head lay on my wing, eyes closed, and she breathed in and out in a regular, peaceful pattern. Her horn was almost scratching at my left shoulder, the nasty point moving tantalizingly closer until she breathed inwards. Smiling at the sight, I began to withdraw my wing from beneath her head. She deserved some happiness and peace, after all this. Exile wasn’t a happy fate, I knew; but insanity was even worse.
Struck by a sudden bolt of tenderness, I eased her head back onto her crossed forelegs, before extending a wing –
No. Stop there. She was simply a client, and this was a strictly professional relationship.
I retracted my wing, perhaps a bit too hastily, and the shock of the motion almost sent me rolling onto my own back. I knew I should have bulked up.
The sleeping Luna next to me had started to drool; a line of spittle hung down from the corner of her open mouth, which slowly got longer and longer the more I looked at it. Worse, it was close to my fur.
I shifted sideways, attempting to get away before I was caught in the splash radius. Her head, along with the string of saliva, was still leaning dangerously close to me. Propping her head in place with the flat of my wing, I started to shuffle until I had gone as far as I could without breaking a joint.
This – this was awkward. To say the least.
The drop of saliva freed itself from the embrace of Luna’s mouth, and dropped straight down onto the floor. I could actually see the thing explode outwards, like a blooming flower, when it hit the ground, and I swear that some of the stuff actually hit me.
Swearing in screeches of Griffon, I started to shudder; the sticky fluids latched onto my coat, my feathers, and I could almost hear the squelch as I started to shakily hunch up. Bloody germs everywhere –
Oh. Looked like the Princess was a light sleeper. How long had she slept whilst in exile? Probably every single second, judging by her hypersensitivity.
She didn’t speak. Rather, she simply stared shamelessly at me, and by extension, the awkward position I’d put myself in. At that moment, I thanked the Maker that I had been blessed with grey feathers. They were much better at hiding that red flush slowly rising above my neck.
“Yeah?” I asked, slowly bringing my left hind paw down from its position above the patch of dirtied, stained fur on my side. Granted, the splotch wasn’t that big – only a millimeter at the most – but that was no excuse for not cleaning it off. Decay bred in neglect.
She didn’t reply, choosing to continue staring. Fine. If she wasn’t going to complain, or anything, I might as well get on with it.
I began to slowly scratch at my side, somewhat self-consciously. I could hear the sound of my own soft, rapid breathing, increasing in frequency –
Wait, why was that happening? Was I actually getting nervous? Bloody Tartarus. I forced myself to close my eyes, letting the sound of my regulated, slower breathing wash over me, feeling my lungs expand and contract in rhythm, and sighed out my worries.
Nothing was wrong. Everything was going to be fine.
The mind is a feeble thing, really. It can be driven to sublime heights or harrowing depths by a single whimsical thought.
I opened my eyes, and met Luna’s glassy eyes with my own. In them, I could see the reflection of dim light coming from the doorway. It looked quite a lot like the moon, actually. Worst of all, they weren’t moving. Her eyes weren’t flicking about at all. This was bad.
“Luna,” I stated, snapping into the tone of my old drill sergeant. That old bird was tough, but fair. That was all I could really ask for, in hindsight.
The Moon Princess didn’t move at all, but I could see the minute change in the dilation of her irises. Good, she was waking up. I hoped that she had no dreams. She didn’t really need them at a time like this.
The both of us stood up; I did so steadily, she shakily. As we walked – or, in her case, hobbled – the short distance to the open doorway, I could hear rhythmic thumps behind me. Focusing on the sounds did nothing but bring notice to the fact that they had stopped. Odd. I looked back, and noticed the brush that had been wrapped in my prehensile tail. Wait… that was Luna’s brush. How did it get there?
She must have dropped it when she’d fallen asleep. Oh, this was going to be awkward.
Luna hissed as the light from the doorway, dim as it was, fell onto her face. I was in front, so I snapped around, shielding her from the rays of light. She was squinting – a good sign –
Oh, too soon. Once more, the muscles around her eyes relaxed, and I could see the deadened expression take root in them once more.
I stepped forwards, placing a claw on Luna’s shoulder. The pony’s head whirled around, and her eyes refocused back onto the bridge of my beak. There were clinks just to the right of me, but I ignored that for the moment. Luna’s welfare was more important. Someone had probably just dropped a metal plate or something.
She blinked, for a few seconds, before closing her eyes once more and falling to the floor. “The light hurts our eyes.”
I nodded in understanding, and knelt down in front of her. She would keep her eyes open for a few seconds, and then shut them again, sighing as she did so. It must have been similar to how a griffon feels after staring at a pony painting for too long. A headache and an urge to rub more water into your eyes would be the least of Luna’s problems, though. Glancing around, I noticed the spears retreating into the sides of the guards’ sets of armor. So that had been the clanking…
I tried to smile. Even from my completely unbiased viewpoint, I could feel that it wasn’t a happy one. The muscles above my mouth drew it into a grimace, and I felt my face slip into a soft scowl as I continued to look at her. My squinting eyes completed the set, and that happy expression had soon morphed into a grim one.
There wasn’t a magic bullet for this. The only ‘cure’ for this would be a long period of therapy, and even then, I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t relapse. If she did, that would mean a failure on my part. And I wasn’t going to fail. Not again.
Did I have the guts, the resolve and the skill to carry this through? I sure hoped I did. It wasn’t too late to transfer –
No, it was too late. She trusted me. I’d have to be the one. The liason between her slowly recovering mind and the real world.
Was this the only way? Sure looked like it.
I sighed, letting my expression fall, before glancing back at Luna. Her eyes were open now; no longer blinking or watery.
“How art thou?” she said, staring blankly up at me. The look would have been comical in other situations, but now? Now, it just reminded me of how far down the rabbit hole she’d gone, and how far I had to go to bring her back.
“I’m fine,” I returned, closing my eyes for a moment. I didn’t feel fine. Luna… she would understand if I told her the truth. Wouldn’t she?
Well, here went nothing. Be unexpected, be quick, and be sharp.
“No, I’m not. I’m worried about you, and I don’t want to leave you alone to struggle with whatever remnants of sanity you have left. I want to help, but I don’t know how. All I can do is to go alongside you on your travels. And that last thing is the worst. For all my education is worth, the only thing I can do is to act as a guide.”
Silence reigned after that.
I forgot the exact length of time that we stayed quiet, sitting in our own silent positions. Luna didn’t seem to be falling asleep; her eyes flicked around by infinitesimal amounts. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to where they hovered. She must have been in deep thought.
Her voice broke the silence some time later. “One guide is better than naught.”
I knew that I had come to the same conclusion, somewhere deep in my mind. The cold grip of resignation snaked around my heart, fighting off the desire to do more. To do better. Somehow, I could feel the two opposing thoughts fight one another for dominance in my mind.
Luna flicked her head and eyes up until her gaze rested directly on my face. She didn’t move after that, seemingly content to stay and stare at me. At least she was acclimatizing her eyes to the higher light level.
“I suppose so,” I returned, muffling a sigh. “I hate feeling powerless.”
“We agree,” Luna mumbled, getting to her hooves. She squinted at the lighting, which I just noticed was now slightly dimmer than it had been before. Odd thing. Maybe Luna’s magic was coming back to her. But her horn wasn’t shining…
I glanced down at the rudimentary watch I wore. It read 6:00 pm exactly. Sunset.
“Starlight bright enough?” I asked.
I only got a blank stare as a response.
Looking away, I sighed. “Let’s go to the garden.”
The guards formed up, having overheard our conversation. They lined themselves up until they surrounded the two of us in a ring of golden armor and muscle.
Again, I was reminded of how much security there was around this client. Was that on purpose? Most definitely. Relations had been cooling recently, and neither side was above racism. Bloody politics.
As we clanked up, around and through staircases, fixtures and passages respectively, I took frequent glances at Luna. She seemed to be holding up well. Perhaps too well.
By concentrating on her eyes, I could see that she was still with us. She hadn’t retreated into the false sanctuary of the mind. Something I could respect, that. She had chosen the long-term solution to her troubles, rather than the easier trap. Not a lot of people could do that, pony or griffon.
The halls were still lit with magical torches. I’d heard that they were enchanted to store unicorn magic and release it over a long time as light. The rumors said it was Princess Celestia herself who charged them up. I doubted that, personally, but still. True or not, it didn’t matter. If Celestia was as beloved as I’d heard, the ponies wouldn’t believe that she’d do anything bad, even if the words came from her own mouth.
Back to the point. The lights kept the castle passages at a relatively bright level; about three quarters as bright as daylight was my rough guess. Still, Luna hissed and slitted her eyes as she passed them, her head hung low.
The legendary, almighty night-goddess brought down to this.
I shook my head. Once upon a time, I’d have felt some sort of bubbling, vengeful glee; there are no gods, no unstoppable masters in this world. Seeing one of the self-proclaimed goddesses of Equestria hobbling like a broken pony with a shattered mind would have seemed like just revenge.
Would have, if I hadn’t seen just how badly she’d been damaged.
As I said, the mind is a feeble thing. Ironically, it was also the most important part of one’s self. You might as well be another person sharing the same body if you lost your memories.
Shaking my head slowly, I extended a wing over her head. The grey feathers diffused enough of the incoming light for her to widen her eyes and shoot me a small smile. A sign of progress. That had been the most emotion she’d shown since her return.
It was then that I noticed we’d stopped moving. Glancing around, I saw that the ring had somehow gotten a lot less welcoming.
The guards around us had rotated to face us – or rather, me – and I could see that none of them moved. They were clearly itching to; I could see them shift miniscule amounts, and it didn’t take me too long to figure out what was going on. My wing.
The ones in facing my front had one of their hooves half-cocked, no doubt ready to snap their retractable spears into action. I was certain that the ones behind were exactly the same.
“Why didst thou stop?” Luna called out, softly, from beneath the shade of my wing.
“The guards stopped us,” I said, keeping my extended wing stock still. No need to make them think I was going to hit their Princess. Right now, the hallway was empty, and if they wanted to do anything to us, there wouldn’t be any witnesses to give ‘impartial’ judgment. Even if there were, the guard captain would simply ‘persuade’ them to keep quiet.
That was how things worked, how they worked now, and how they would work. I didn’t believe for a second that Equestria was any different. Sometimes, the nastiest of secrets lay beneath the most beautiful of faces.
The guard leading our little troupe, whom I assumed was the most senior, spoke first. “What do you intend?”
“To help my client,” I replied evenly, concealing a shiver as my adrenaline reached a peak. It was getting tough to keep my wing steady, and my tensing muscles made it twitch and waft, warping the shadow falling on Luna. She huddled closer to my side, squinting at the speaking guard under the shade of my extended wing.
The guard’s eyes flicked downwards towards Luna, almost too quickly for me to notice. He nodded slowly, and stalked back to his place at the front of the ring. The others followed his lead, albeit slower than before, and I could sense their constant glances spearing us as we continued to the gardens.
Nothing I could do about it now. I wasn’t here to help them; I was here for Luna.
No, not in that way.
As dark enveloped us, and the bright hallway behind became another shining wart on the side of Canterlot castle. I re-folded my wing until it lay softly against my fur, before glancing upwards at the stars.
I could spot the Northern Point, an unremarkable blue spot in the inky sky that was the basis for navigation in the entirety of the Known World. There had been rumors why Luna hadn’t chosen to make it something more eye-catching; chief of all was that she wanted to play a bloody joke. Others said that she didn’t want the other stars to be overwhelmed by the Point. Personally, I thought that she was just the steward of the moon; she could push the moon around, sure, but she had been dealt a pre-stacked set of cards, and she couldn’t change them. Not without a lot of effort, and for not much gain.
Luna seemed to shrink from the heavens, hunching low. She couldn’t walk as fast as before, and I noticed before the distance between the two of us grew by too much. I could see the stark terror etched on her face.
“Luna?” I asked, although I feared that I already knew the answer. The sky. I’d thrown her off the deep end; mental murder.
Shit. I’d failed. My stupidity had led me to this. And now, I could only watch as her mind spiraled into a deeper hole of my making.
She threw me a quick glance, and her features seemed to soften with the lightest, smallest shard of hope. Then, without ceremony, she rocketed towards me, wings extended and propelling her blazing sharp horn towards me.
I could see it coming. I could dodge it, I knew. Her technique wasn’t good by any means; she flew clumsily, her wings propelling her towards the ground more than me. She galloped drunkenly, and that horn juddered as it danced from left to right, left to right. Question was, did I want to?
It didn’t matter. I’d failed. I closed my eyes. The howling of wind, the thundering of hooves, the barks of guards all combined to create a chaotic symphony; my funeral song.
Perhaps it was for the best that I did not live to see the aftermath of my failure. No, that was selfish. The coward’s way out. It was my fault. I wasn’t going to hide and pretend that there had been nothing I could do.
There was always a choice. The only thing was that sometimes, we’re just too thick to see it. Or we don't want to.
Adrenaline rushed into my body, and I opened my eyes, tensing my hindlegs as I prepared to fling myself into the sky.
Time seemed to slow down. I could see Luna’s half-open mouth trailing saliva out of one corner, the liquid droplets hanging in the air; the guards in mid-gallop towards her, making the few meters separating them seem a thousand times longer; and I could feel the weight of my innards shift towards my legs as my wings slowly, painfully extended.
I could tell that it was going to be too late, however.
Luna’s deranged grin seemed to extend further and further, and got closer and closer to my face. Too late. Too late. Always, too late.
Impact. She was a pony, an honest-to-Maker alicorn. I was half-bird. She must have outweighed me by about three times. I felt as if I had been hit with a carriage across the chest. My bones screamed in protest, and pain shot up my spine in cold rushes, before being muffled and beaten into reluctant submission by a timely injection of adrenaline.
The world went upside-down. Northern Point whizzed past my left eye, and for a moment, I tried to synchronize my own position.
Then, the stars went fuzzy. A wave of pain cascaded up and down my back like ripples in a pond. It hit my brain, and I’m sure I must have rolled my eyes or something, because the stars just seemed to blacken for a second.
Just lie there. Take the hit. It’ll be quick. A stomp to the neck, and –
A burning started inside my chest, growing to encompass my body, and I felt my mouth and throat open involuntarily and my stomach crunch downwards. I couldn’t think as the feeling grew stronger and stronger. What did my body want with me?
Weakly, I gasped, but all that came out was a small puff of cooling water vapor that dissipated quickly into the cool night air.
Burning pain. My chest on fire. Was this how I died? As a footnote in the annals of history?
I tried to fight, waving my arms about as I sought refuge from whatever was happening to me. Technique had drifted into some locked corner of the mind, and now I simply flailed around like a wild animal, trying to spite its attacker just before its death. Something connected with the end of my fist, and I felt my body suck in a massive gulp of air, swallowing the sweet, cool juice before expelling it in a series of hacking coughs.
As I recovered, panting on the ground with one wing sandwiched between my side and the ground and the other flicking about in spasms in the air, I took stock of what had happened.
I had almost suffocated. Of that, I had no doubt. My ribs felt as if they’d been crushed with a hammer, and my wheezing would attest to the difficulty I had in getting fresh air into my lungs just a few moments before.
How? And why?
I propped myself up with my shoulders, before wishing I hadn’t as my vision swam and my back seared in agony, and I slumped back onto the ground. The stars drifted lazily across the sky in perfect synchronization, almost as if someone had painted them onto a big piece of fabric, and then dragged that to and fro across the aperture lined by the horizons.
Slumping back down, three blurry figures came into view. Ponies. Golden armor. Guards. I could only cough in response. Any half-formed words in my head simply stuck in my throat, and I clenched what muscles I could before the inevitable kicks.
Turning my head to glance to my sides as I lay supine on the soft, grassy ground, I could see smooth, nearby rock unfold into the blue mass that was Luna.
The memories came back now. Charge, then impact. Insanity etched in muscle. Too slow. Failure.
That rictus grin never left her face, not even now. Even as she slowly hobbled towards me, grinning, I felt a cold chill of fear run down my back.
Still, what could I do about it? My spine must have snapped in at least three places, my ribs cracked, my internal organs ruptured. Wait. The fact that I was thinking about this meant that I wasn’t hurt nearly as bad as I’d thought.
Gritting my beak, I rolled to the side, smashing my eyelids together tightly as searing pain lanced up my body. So much for not showing weakness. And I was at the mercy of a country full of people who disliked me.
Well, I was here now. I’d promised Celestia, and myself, that I’d stay until Luna was fine. Still, it was looking easier and easier to simply hand in a resignation letter.
No. No more failure, no more hiding, no more 'everything's OK'.
I eventually managed to get into some sort of sitting position. The pain had dulled to low ripples that crashed occasionally upon my mind, but the haze surrounding my head had mostly vanished, and I could now think.
Solitary confinement in the darkness. To a griffon, that was essentially amputation of the highest degree. Without eyes, we could no longer function. Blind ponies used their noses and ears to navigate; blind griffons couldn’t. Our hearing and sense of smell were simply not good enough.
There had been several case studies on the effect of solitary confinement upon the griffons marked for death. It took approximately one minute for them to start speaking to themselves. One day was enough for them to hold full conversations with themselves. Auditory hallucinations would settle in on the third day. Visual hallucinations onset at the end of the first week. The studies only went that far, because one week was the average time between conviction and execution.
That study had been criticized for being inaccurate, since the subjects had all been marked for death. The assumption was that their brains were already wired up differently since birth. Of course, no one wanted to be the subject for an experiment like that.
Did Luna undergo the same thing? It was remarkable that she was speaking in a sort of coherent manner at all. The dark night must have triggered some sort of instinctive response from her. The environment of her exile. Her hypersensitivity to sensation. Her hallucinations, and schizophrenia. All of this was starting to come together like an intricate pattern in a rug. It only made sense when all the components were put together.
Exile. We’d assumed that meant she’d been banished to some far-away place, out of contact with any other pony for a thousand years. A physical prison wouldn’t hold an alicorn for long. A mental one, however…
The mind really is a fragile thing.
She grinned savagely, sucking in hisses of breaths and small strings of drool that hung from her flat teeth. As I pushed myself up slowly, cursing my weakness, I could see her eyes twitch to and fro, looking for a pattern in a place it didn’t exist.
Too much, too soon. “Luna!” I screeched, and then wheezed. She was getting further and further away. Her legs stayed in place, but she started to sway, and at that moment I knew that it wasn’t enough. She was gone.
Luna collapsed, and with that, the guards rushed me.
Dusty manacles had wrapped around my claws, preventing them from moving an inch off the interrogation room’s sole table. A magical crystal lamp shown downwards from the ceiling, which I noticed was covered in dust. As the light flickered on, I could see whispers of movement just outside the pathetic splatter of light that the lamp threw onto the ceiling.
Spiderwebs coated the corners of the tables like some disgusting tablecloth. The table itself was an old, rubbish piece of carpentry that looked as if it had been pissed on, before being left to dry in some old, forgotten room. A room very much like this one, come to think of it.
Captain Armor slammed a hoof down onto the table. This would have made me jump to attention an hour ago, but by now, he’d done it so many times that the sound had lodged itself into one of the corners of my vast mind. “What did you do to her?” he demanded.
I sighed, repeating what I’d told him, his subordinate, and the subordinate under his subordinate. “I was escorted by –”
“Why did she tackle you?” Maker. Shut up. Griffons had bad hearing in general, but his volume was overcompensating for that deficit.
“I don’t know –”
I rolled my eyes, but internally, I was starting to get a bit worried. Any more of this, and they would start to regard the questioning as useless and go for the torture. I knew my country would. As griffons were resistant to magic, we turned to other forms of ‘persuasion’ to get one to confess. It was well known that torture didn’t work; the victim would eventually say anything to get the pain to stop. Still, the goal of the torture was simply to extract a confession; not to get any real answers. Same in every country.
“– but I have a theory.”
Well, that shut him up. Armor sat down heavily, the ancient chair creaking beneath his weight. I didn’t have a chair.
With pleasure. “It’s connected to what happened to your Princes during her thousand-year exile.”
Celestia barged in through the closed door, letting the wooden thing bang against the stone wall. “All of you, come up to the infirmary.”
“Including the prisoner?” Armor didn’t seem very pleased.
Celestia nodded, and Armor magically unlocked the manacles. Orders were orders, even if he didn’t like them. I resisted the urge to smile smugly at him. For all I knew, Celestia could have a far worse punishment.
We set off; the Sun Princess, the guards and I. Celestia’s finest formed a ring around me as we continued our trek. Judging by the light in the sky, it was about sunrise. I’d spent a few hours down there being yelled at, sprayed with spittle and sitting on dirt and grime. I figured I could use a wash, but the guards didn’t.
Why did she decide to take me up to see the results of my actions, instead of asking me down in those close-packed corridors and rooms? I didn’t know. Was she trying to make me feel even guiltier?
We reached the infirmary.
Hospitals were a marvel of modern society.
A group of strangers working in synchronization and harmony in order to achieve something greater than the sum of their individual successes; all cogs in the machine, yet all necessary for the entire beast to function.
It’s the same all over the world. For the sake of efficiency, you lost that touch of emotion that linked you to the ones who cured you. Was it worth it? That was for everyone to decide for themselves.
Sterile white walls, the aftertaste of antiseptic. Faces set in constant frowns. Machines that aid or replicate the organic functions of the body. Potted plants to give the illusion of normalcy, even when you’re recovering from an organ transplant. Very different to the room I was previously in.
It’s all the same. Pony, griffon, camel, ibex; nothing about hospitals really changes across nations and species.
Luna lay on a wide, state-of-the-art hospital bed in the middle of the royal infirmary. Being the royal infirmary, it was stocked with all the latest medicines and equipment imported from all around the world. It was also big enough to hold at least four normal hospital beds, and have space for visitors.
In this case, Celestia, I, and the guards were the visitors.
The pony doctors and nurses glared at the guards and me as we entered the room, but when they spotted the Princess of the Sun alongside us, the glares swiftly transformed into blank looks of confusion and mild shock.
I hoped the Princess wouldn’t blame them. It wasn’t their fault, really. I’d pushed Luna too hard; it was my failure, and I deserved the blame. Still, I wasn’t looking forwards to the punishment.
Had this happened back home, I’d have gotten a week or three of hard labour for the state.
Celestia made a beeline for her sister, seemingly brightening the room with her natural luminescence. I made to follow her, but the guards flicked out their wings, showing off the sharp blades that protruded from the undersides.
There really wasn’t much to do.
The overhead light in the room shone brightly, despite the sinking pit of dread slowly forming in my stomach. Something was going to go wrong.
I looked around the room. A potted plant in the corner; an imitation of life in a lifeless environment. An overhead lamp, shining down on the sleeping alicorn in the middle of the room. The rack of machines that turned her vital signs into lines on a graph. The bed itself, composed of a spongy mattress and a fluffy duvet that I suspected had been made from the softest down. I shivered in disgust.
Light. Duvet. Mattress.
Back in her own dark room, Luna’s bed had been self-hewn stone – the polar opposite of what she had here.
Symptoms of the condition? Hypersensitivity. Schizophrenic hallucinations.
Luna awoke. Just like that. She didn’t bolt upright, or blink sleepily – her eyelids simply slid open, as if she hadn’t been sleeping at all, but simply closed her eyes for hours.
“Luna! Sister!” Celestia’s peals of happiness reverberated off the walls of the room, but despite the nice atmosphere, I couldn’t shake off that feeling of horror.
It was time to see how badly I had failed. I opened my mouth, ready to warn them all of what was going to happen.
Luna’s hiss of pain cut her sister off mid-word. The Night Princess’s eyes rolled back in her head as she started to jerk uncontrollably, silently. That was the worst part of it. No sound escaped her mouth, even as flecks of spittle flew as her head rolled forwards and back, side to side.
Celestia’s cry of anguish mixed in with the guards’ panicked shouts, summoning what must have been the entirety of the hospital staff. They swarmed all over her, a buzz of bees in white coats.
“Heart rate spiking –”
“Get me some sedatives!”
“Increase the dose, go for 200 cc –”
“LC here, doctor –”
I couldn’t bear to see this any longer. In the end, she was my responsibility and mine alone. “Get that blanket off her and get her on the ground!”
Griffons possessed enormous vocal cords, thanks to our unique genes. Mixing the eagle’s piercing screech with the dull bass of the lion’s roar, griffon screams featured prominently in war cries. Enemy morale took a dip even before the first swing of the sword.
My cry wasn’t particularly strong, but in the relatively small room, it didn’t need to be. There was a moment of indecision, when everyone, even Luna froze; and then someone did so. A flash of a soft pink hoof, and the duvet was quickly tugged to the floor, before time seemed to unfreeze, and Luna’s contorting body was bathed in a soft yellow glow.
The Night Princess was laid onto the floor gently, and the bed itself was kicked to an empty corner of the room as the medics swarmed her.
I coughed, suddenly overladen with tickles in my throat. There was a reason why you couldn’t use the scream as a weapon. Expelling that much air left you with none, and that wasn’t a nice situation to be in.
When I looked up again with a modicum of calm, the guards had flicked out their wings, and the ones without wings cocked their hooves around the spear triggers. I could see the tips of their hooves twitch, ready to snap downwards and turn me into a feathery pincushion. That had been too close. I guessed that they hadn’t really liked me when I arrived, and that their image of me hadn’t improved after I had been tackled into the ground by my own patient. Not to mention said patient fainting after doing so.
Come to think of it, they were all gifted with particularly strong levels of restraint. They’d thought I had harmed one of their goddesses, and still, they hadn’t skewered me yet. Had that happened back home with a griffon VIP…
Well, the stories weren’t pretty. I’d leave it at that.
Still, I would have time to explain after determining that Luna was alright. Perhaps that time would be now.
Celestia stayed by her sister’s side, but she had the wisdom to move aside and take an overseer’s role, allowing the medical professionals to do their job relatively unmolested. I wondered if she knew more than the doctors. She had lived for, what, a thousand years? Anyone could be an expert in anything given enough time. She had more than enough time.
I suppose running a country does sap leisure time, though.
She motioned me over, ignoring the guard escorts that I came surrounded with. “Explain,” she said, blinking twice. “What has happened.”
I looked down in shame. “I had the idea that being in the gardens would help her. Let her adjust. She… reacted differently to what I imagined.”
Celestia didn’t verbally reply, but that one raised eyebrow screamed, “No shit.”
“Why is my sister like this?” she continued, tone even, watching Luna slow her thrashing down to several muscle spasms. “Oh, Luna…”
“I suspect that it has to do with the nature of her imprisonment,” I replied, sighing at the end. I’d hoped that I spoke quietly enough so that only she could hear, but I could see the guards around me flick their ears as I spoke. Looked like I underestimated their sense of hearing.
Celestia glared at me. “Continue.”
Despite her intimidating height, I tried to look her in the eye. She met my gaze, a sign that we would agree to speak completely honestly to one another. “She doesn’t know how to handle stimuli. Every new sensation is a bombardment of information to her brain, and she can’t keep up.”
I blinked and looked away as the strain on my neck muscles seemed to intensified, laying my eyes on the blue huddle of flesh and bone that was Luna. She made a valiant attempt to stand, but on the first step, her gait reminded me of a hatchling’s.
“What did you do to her?” I sighed once more.
“I had no choice,” Celestia’s voice murmured above and beside me. She sounded choked, and I imagined her eyes scrunched up ever so slightly as she tried to stop the tears from falling. A glance upwards confirmed that.
No choice? There was always a choice. But that choice had been made a thousand years ago, and no one could do anything about it now, but suffer the consequences.
“Tell me, Princess. Please. I have to know to better help your sister.”
She sighed, resigned, and appeared to slump just that tiny bit. The façade of the untouchable monarch shattered, and for a tiny sliver of a moment, she was just another griffon concerned for her relative.
I gave her the small comfort of confessing in her own time. Things like this, you needed to go at your own pace. External pressure would just make you clam up. Believe me, I would know.
“When I used the Elements on her – on my own sister,” she choked out, making little huffing noises as she continued to speak, “the spell worked as intended. Ironically, that was the only good thing that happened that day. Sister simply disappeared. I searched high and low for any trace of her, yet it was as if she had not existed at all.
“For days I looked and looked – yet, when I returned, I found a statue. A statue of her, in front of the doors to my room. She looked just like a normal statue, albeit a very life-like one – and I knew that it was her, or at least, some small part of her. I couldn’t let any harm come to her, so I kept that statue in my room. It was to remind me of how I had failed to protect her, the one who needed me most and the one I’d ignored in my hubris.
“On the day of the Return” – I nodded, signifying my understanding of what had happened that day – “the statue simply disappeared. The rest… is history.”
I attempted a smile, but a choked cough from the Sun Princess wiped that off my beak, and for the first time in who knew how long, I felt something of an empathetic link.
Who would have known?
“I understand now,” I muttered, and she acknowledged with a small nod. “Thanks for being honest, if anything.”
“I’m not proud of what I did,” Celestia murmured, so quietly that I could only just hear her over a lull in the noise.
I couldn’t find anything to say to that. Anything I did say, she had probably said to herself for a few hundred years after exiling her sister.
Besides, you comfort them now, you hurt them later. The pain of loss, the guilt and the regret was the consequence of her choice, and if she were to learn from them, she’d have to take full stock of what she’d done and what had happened. If it was necessary, she’d eventually come to that conclusion, bringing alongside her a journey’s worth of wisdom and experience.
Attempting to comfort her would simply sully the lessons that she learnt with her choice.
Celestia coughed, loudly enough to draw the attention of the guards around me, as well as myself. “I trusted you to help my sister, not to worsen her condition. Do not make any more mistakes.”
Psychology was an inherently imprecise art, based on the irrational flickers of thoughts and emotions locked deep in the mind. I would have to blunder around for a bit if I wanted to help. I explained that to her.
The other choice was to simply leave, and assign the job to another, but I’d promised myself that I wasn’t going to do so. That promise, I wouldn’t break.
There’s the old saying: Griffons never break promises. It’s partly true, since we make relatively few promises, even between friends and family. I’m trying not to stereotype; there have been studies done. The reasons, however, were still debated within academic circles.
So, instead, I focused on the huddle around Luna.
There was a short, almost dumpy little mare at the outside. Soft pink skin, earth pony, messy yellow mane. The very same one that served me my breakfast, back then…
What was she doing here?
Did the castle servants double as first-aid responders? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed plausible. A chance to work alongside their idols, decent wages and job security; clearly, working in Canterlot Castle would be a dream come true for many. They must have gotten so many applications that they kicked up the entry requirements to a ridiculous degree.
In any case, the Princesses got more value for their money. It seemed like a shame, though. How many lives outside the castle would have benefitted had the servants been out there, helping the clinics or running homeland security patrols?
It was her hoof that tore the blanket off Luna’s body. I felt an odd feeling of disappointment well up inside me; one of sadness, frustration and also disbelief. I had been treated as an alien, a threat to the Princesses by the guards. Suspicion abounded, mistrust sowed deep into the minds. But how had I reacted?
I hadn’t reacted at all, really. Simply ignored them, and concentrated on my job. That was why I was here, after all.
Did they expect me to wave to them every single time I passed by? When they didn’t even give me that same courtesy? The social contract hadn’t been ripped up. It was never there to begin with.
Except for her. She was willing to reach across the boundary, and follow the barking orders of a foreigner who had made a bad first impression. For that, I guessed, she deserved some respect.
She must have noticed the clacking of my claws across the stone tiling of the floor, or the golden shine of the guards’ armor as they escorted me over. Celestia’s hoofbeats started, and then stopped at the edge of the scene around her sister. I ignored her for now.
How to start, how to start…
“Hey,” I said somewhat anticlimactically, huffing a sigh at what was to come. I wasn’t going to enjoy this, but she deserved somewhat of an apology. Still, a rebellious part of my mind snarled that it wasn’t my fault. And honestly, I thought that it was right. Still, I could have handled it better.
She turned her head, just as my greeting escaped my beak, and started backwards. The guards in front of me rushed to help her. I could see their mouths opening and closing; they were probably trying to reassure her that I wasn’t here to snack on her.
When all of us, including the guards around me, had calmed down enough, she replied. “Y-yes?”
I shook my head. “About what happened a few days ago… we could have gone over that a lot better.”
She smiled a hint of a smile, the corners of her mouth tilting upwards a tiny bit, but no more. “Oh, definitely.”
With the guard escort around her, she seemed a lot more confident than the stuttering mess that she had been when she’d delivered breakfast to my room door. “Thanks for listening to my suggestion. You’ve saved my client a lot of pain.”
“It was hard not to,” she replied. “You sound just like my boss.”
“We’re both bitter old bastards.” I smirked.
She chuckled, shaking her head all the while. “Oh, if she heard you…”
My smile disappeared as I glanced to the side, seeing Luna rise up shakily on her hooves again, surrounded by an oddly quiet huddle of ponies. Her sister stood off to the side, looking over the heads of her subjects.
“I mean it. If you hadn’t been that quick, she would have been drugged up on who knows how many chemicals.” I dipped my head to her in the traditional gesture of thanks. “Thank you.”
She smiled; a full, genuine smile. “Thanks for apologizing to me, too. I see that the old stories were wrong.”
They were wrong 200 years ago, my brain sighed, but in the warmth of the moment I decided to let that mental comment slide. “Let’s start anew.”
Seeing the inclination of her head, I stuck out an open claw. “My name is Sigurd.”
“Sigurd…” she trailed off, clearly perplexed. “Or is that your whole name?”
“My whole name is pretty long, and it defines my birthplace and clan,” I replied, smiling at her confusion. “Just call me Sig.”
“Noted. I’m Heartfelt,” she said, returning the smile. “It’s my taken name.”
Names meant more than you would think. From the ancient saying about the one who became his name, to the current pony ideal of naming children after their parent’s wishes and desires for them, names shaped one’s future. Even for us griffons, who strove for independent development, the names we picked to label our children had connotations to great warriors of old, or ancient virtues. Remember what I said about the meaning of my own name, Sigurd?
Taking a name meant choosing, or accepting one’s path in life. From the day you picked it, you would be defined by that word in both the public eye, as well as the mind’s eye.
Names had power, even years after they were coined.
Moon. Dreamer. Lunatic.
In my mind, I sighed.
“Nice meeting you, Heartfelt,” I said, moving to place a claw on my chest in the traditional gesture. Her eyes flicked between my clenched claw and my face, mouth hanging open in mild confusion.
“Yeah, likewise,” she replied, and I nodded, before heading off towards the huddle around Luna. The guard entourage, minus two, surrounded me once again.
Celestia didn’t deem it fit for me to walk around unsupervised, it appeared. She took one glance at me, her eyes dilating for a moment, before stalking over to me, taking her sweet time as she did so.
“I don’t want any more episodes like this again,” she demanded, voice laced with anger and frustration. “Promise me.”
“I can’t promise you anything, Princess,” I returned, sighing. Better to let her know the truth than to let miscommunication grow into something a lot less easy to fix. “I can promise that I won’t throw her off the deep end again.”
One nervous twitch of the eye was enough to let me know that she’d taken what I said literally for a few milliseconds.
She nodded. “Guards, let him go.”
The guards didn’t seem pleased about it. They followed orders, but reluctantly. Even Celestia could see it in their gait. She ignored it, however, turning her attention to the hobbling Luna, who was turning her head this way and that confusedly.
“She’s muttering your name,” the Sun Princess said, her ears flicked forwards.
Focusing, I could start to make up huffs of breaths that did, somehow, sound like my name. The first syllable of my name, at least.
I elbowed my way into the throng. The ponies nearest to me jumped out of their skins, paling in fright, but apologies could wait. She couldn’t.
“Luna!” I screeched.
The Night Princess swiveled around, ears scanning the air for the source of the sound. The nearest ponies frowned automatically. They probably disapproved of my breach in etiquette. At least they had their priorities sorted.
Upon seeing my grey, feathered face poke out amongst the many muzzles of ponies, she leapt straight at my beak.
Fast reflexes, courtesy of by predator genes, allowed me to roll backwards to avoid the worst of the blow, but her flailing arms still hit my sides. They stung, but I liked to think that I was made of tougher stuff.
Still, it hurt.
She crushed my shoulders in a massive, wrenching hug, leaving me battering lightly at her stomach with my hind paws. “Where hath thou been?”
I kept silent, trying to conserve the air in my body. The rising and falling of my chest would hopefully alert her to the fact that I was still present.
“The dark was to consume us, and when we found thee, we leapt at the chance to escape! Yet, thou appeared to be no more than a shade of thy former self. We believed the darkness had consumed thou as well!”
She blinked, and fell silent, letting me fall onto the floor in a pile of feathers. While I picked myself up, I started to take apart her speech.
The dark. Likely her prison. As a statue, her senses must have shut down over the years, leaving her brain with nothing to do but think, and think and think…
The dark consuming? The darkness had been a staple of her prison. Without senses, without anything to accompany her but her own mind. Maker, what an existence…
Consuming. Post-traumatic stress disorder. She’d thought she was going back to stone. As for the darkness consuming me, well…
Did she think that I had been imprisoned as well? Or somehow dead, or lost to the vestiges of her mind like most of her sanity?
No wonder she was like this.
I patted the back of her head and neck, more out of pity than anything. She really, really needed help. And those old thoughts crashed back into my mind.
Are you sure you could handle it? When you couldn’t help your own friend, the one that you had been with for over five years?
My claw stopped at the base of her neck, and she looked up to me, eyes watering, corners of her mouth twitching upwards.
“Thou did not leave,” she mumbled into my chest. “We doth not desire to return.”
“I won’t leave until you want me to,” I said, murmuring. “Griffon’s honor.”
That was a promise. I’d put my own honor, my reputation, on the table and made it available for everyone in that room to hear. Breaking that promise would show them just how little honor I had.
I swept my vision around the room. The doctors and nurses gaped, and in the corner, Hearfelt’s eyes widened; Celestia had closed her eyes, and the guards’ harsh stares had somewhat softened, albeit minutely; and Luna, choking out noises, eyes closed as she stuck her muzzle into my feathers.
What an audience.
“Do you want to go somewhere more private?” I asked.
She released me, falling back onto the ground with an audible thump. Likewise, I tilted backwards, before rolling and landing on my claws and paws.
“All real?” she asked, still with tears dripping down the sides of her face. Her eyes stared at me, at Celestia, at everything in the room.
I nodded. “As real as I am.”
“And how real is that?”
Good question. As far as I could remember, that question had never really been answered. The brain received signals from the rest of the body, and used that to locate its position in the world. Philosophers had kept coming to the conclusion that there was no way to know if one was experiencing reality, or if the brain simply conjured up a representation of reality that wasn’t by definition, ‘reality’.
It was all very complicated, but to sum it all up, there was no way you could tell.
“I don’t know,” I replied, after that moment of thought. “As far as I know, there is no way to tell.”
“So why should I trust you? Why do I trust you?”
Emotion. Experience. Intuition. Any of those reasons would work. Logic failed here; in the realm of the mind, nothing made sense. I had a feeling that she was talking to herself more than I, although she had bothered to articulate her inquiry, which meant that she wanted my input as well.
“Only you can really answer that," I said, after a quiet few seconds.
She simply stared me straight in the eye, and the neither of us moved. I could almost see the gears whirring in her head as her pupils shrank and dilated like lungs, each miniscule movement representing a thought whizzing through her consciousness.
There were a lot of thoughts in there.
She shrugged suddenly, sending the drying tears on her face flying off. “ Very well.”
I closed my own eyes, letting out a breath I realized that I’d been holding the whole time. I wouldn’t ask her why she trusted me so much; the reasons would be her own, and if she didn’t want to air them, I wasn’t going to press for them.
I was still curious, but sometimes, you shouldn’t examine at a gift too hard. Unless you have a lot of very powerful enemies.
I shook errant thoughts out of my head. “Let’s have lunch.”
I recommended a darker, cozier area than the grand hall, so Celestia booked one of the many meeting rooms in the palace to eat in. It was harder than I’d thought to get Luna there in as little pain as possible. Although she’d adjusted somewhat to the level of light in the castle, the sun was still too intense for her eyes to handle. At those moments, I simply had to guide her around the sunbeams, and move in the shade. Celestia held a wing over her sister to provide a portable umbrella for her sister. For that, I was thankful, but somewhat worried. The two didn’t appear to have the best of relationships; the older sister tried to be caring and kind, but the younger one had scars caused indirectly by the older. I could admire Celestia’s attempts to atone for her past sins, but was she just making things worse?
If Luna still harbored resentment about her sister’s actions towards her, this act of kindness could be interpreted as another jab at how powerless she was. Worse still, with the insult coming from the one who’d made her powerless in the first place, Luna could turn into an emotional bomb.
I’d done the same, yes, but I hadn’t been the one that had thrown her into this situation in the first place. What a damned mess.
We gathered at the entrance; just me, the two Princesses, and four guards. Usually, Celestia herself ate in private. Luna had been fed by servants sliding dishes across the floor of her stone room. The dirty dishes they recovered an hour later, usually only half-eaten.
At least, that was what Celestia had told me. I could tell that she wasn’t too pleased at this change in her routine. As far as my textbooks said, no one was really happy at unplanned changes to routine. Reasons as to that were contended as well; some said that it was the loss of power that displeased people, whilst others believed that it was the hassle of rearranging the mental timetable and plan around the new event.
Still, she knew that she owed Luna that much. The guards weren’t happy at having a member of a country that they were in cooling relations with simply walk through unsupervised to sit with the Princesses, but orders were orders.
Frankly, though, they could have drugged the wine, and I wouldn’t have noticed the differing taste at all. Until I keeled over, that is.
Surprisingly for a royal feast, there wasn’t any sort of grand appetizer or dessert, or anything fancy at all. Celestia went for some hay, set up in a fancy style. Luna and I walked over to the serving area, where the plates of food were lined up, buffet-style, and inspected the contents.
More hay, more grass, more inedible masterpieces of food. I sighed, and picked the slices of wheat-based toast from the appetizer section. Luna simply trotted after me.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, gripping the plate of bread securely with my claw so that I could talk. That also made me move slower, but I was willing to sacrifice speed for surety.
Luna blinked twice, before uttering, “No.”
“Luna, you need to eat,” Celestia said sternly from her place at the table.
The younger sister simply looked at her older sibling. She didn’t reply. Rather, she simply stared.
“Luna, it’s your choice,” I said, placing my own plate of bread onto the tablecloth. The weave was a nice, solid one, with interlinked threads so closely wound together that I reckoned it could repel water. Must have cost a pretty bit.
Celestia glared at me, clearly unhappy. “What are you playing at?” she hissed, pointing an accusing hoof. “She’ll starve if she doesn’t eat!”
For what it was worth, I glanced away towards the blue alicorn, who stood aimlessly in the middle between the table and the serving bench. “You can’t force her. She’ll feel powerless, and that might lead to another incident.”
Celestia’s eyes dilated a tiny amount, and I knew what she must have been thinking. Way back, when she banished her sister… was it because of this? Power? Had Luna felt powerless, leading her to try and demand respect, and ultimately to her downfall? I shook my head. The reasons were many, but right now, I could only deal with the fallout.
“So I let her starve herself?” Celestia hissed, glaring at me. I could notice her expression softening as her gaze passed over her sister’s still form. Luna was still there, still waiting.
My bread could wait.
“Hey, Luna. What’s wrong?”
The alicorn flicked her eyes over to me, her vision focusing as she did so. “Naught. We were simply lost in thought.”
Somehow, that answer wasn’t complete unexpected. I nodded slowly, and tried to smile. “Do you want to sit down at the table?”
She blinked, now with a completely blank expression. “We art present.”
I blinked in return, stupefied for a moment. What – oh. I tilted my head one way, scratching at the soft feathers of my neck as I mentally kicked myself. “Right. Suit yourself, I guess.”
I turned back to the table, and then hopped onto the low chair. The embarrassment wasn’t the only thing tearing me up, though. ‘We art present…’ She didn’t feel like she needed to sit? She didn’t want to sit? She could hear us just fine?
Maybe I would be able to think more clearly after eating.
Guzzling down the food, I ran through the list of symptoms again. Celestia shot me a squinted gaze, but I brushed it off. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, since I’d spent half the day in some cell. Or so it seemed.
Shit, I still needed a wash.
Looking upwards, I noticed that the relative light level in the room wasn’t that dim. Sure, it was comparatively dark compared to the blazing sunlight outside the castle walls, or even the constant flare that the magical crystal torches splayed onto the corridor walls. And she didn’t seem to be in any sort of pain…
I glanced back, focusing on her eyes. They moved minutely, shrinking and dilating by tiny amounts every second. And then they affixed and focused upon me. Good, at least she wasn’t daydreaming. Daydreaming wasn’t bad per se – it was just too easy to slip from an idle trip into a state of fantasy. I couldn’t afford that. Not yet, at least.
“You alright, Luna?” I asked, more to defuse the awkwardness that had suddenly built up between our staring than anything else. She was definitely not alright, in the big picture, but right now, perhaps she’d gotten a little slice of peace from whatever war was going on in her head.
So much for peace.
“Want to tell me what is wrong?”
Luna blinked once, and then whirled her head around to stare at the table of food. “It is just… no, it is unimportant.”
I doubted that. If it really was so unimportant, she wouldn’t have attempted to try and tell me what it was, before brushing it off as something she could handle herself.
“It’s your choice,” I said, nodding my head towards her in a brief display of passivity. I didn’t want to push her. It was lucky I’d stopped with my insanity when I did, shortly after first meeting her. Still, there was something she wanted to say. The only thing now was to wait for her to speak. Her choice to speak.
Luna smiled. “Choice,” she repeated.
That was not one of the things I expected to come out of her mouth. Still, what else was she to say? I wouldn’t have expected her speech to make sense at all, given what she’d gone through.
“What about it?” I asked, jumping up into my seat to start chomping down on my bread. As far as I knew, Luna didn’t speak unless she really, really wanted to. And when she did, it was my job to listen.
“There is no such thing.”
“I – what?” I gaped, bewildered. Where had that come from? “Your own journey is determined by your choice, no?” We griffons took self-determination very seriously. Remember the Gryphonic crest? The words around it, the motto of the people, meant ‘We carve our way’. Destiny had no place in our world.
As members of the only omnivorous civilization in the Known World, destiny had already screwed us over. We had been rejected and outcast for our biology, and over time, I suppose that deep sense of fatalism had set in. We were griffons, and nothing could be done about that. All we could do was to make the best of it; to carve our own paths in the world.
“We doth not truly know for certain,” she said, flicking a quick glance at the corners of the room. I tried to follow, yet my eyes caught nothing but the remains of old spiderwebs still clinging stubbornly in the dark spaces. A sign of the insanity settling back in, then.
I hoped not, but like her, I didn’t know for certain. “Please, explain.”
Celestia’s eyes grew larger as she absorbed this information, but she kept silent as she watched our little exchange.
Luna didn’t seem smug at all, just oddly bland, and blunt. The alicorn turned to the serving bench, and slapped down a few greens and a small piece of bread on top of a nearby plate.
Levitating the plate as she walked over to the table, she continued to speak. “Dost one choose her parents?”
How’s that related to destiny? “No, but I don’t see how that’s relevant,” I countered, though the insidious thoughts that Luna had instilled in me trickled down the back of my mind, like some annoyingly persistent fly. “I chose my path in the world.”
“And yet, one’s parents dictate where one travels,” Luna said, the plate of food weakly floating in front of her. “The difference between the beggar, the bookkeeper and the brigand…”
“Is due to their experiences in the world,” I muttered, more to myself than her, but the flicker of her ears my way told me that she’d heard every word. “They might have started the same, but they ended differently, due to their choices.”
“True. But choice doth not matter if there art naught of consequence.” Luna murmured, starting to eat. ‘Eat’ was a relative exaggeration, in her case. She only really nibbled at the food. “What determines consequence?”
I blinked, letting her words drift around my head as I headed back to the serving bench to get some seconds. Despite my best attempts to twirl the question around and about in my mind, I couldn’t see heads nor tails of the deduction. Everyone could choose how to react to the world. The differences lay in the consequences; not the choice itself.
“Your choice determines the consequence,” I said, absently piling more bread onto my crumb-filled plate.
“No.” Luna’s reply was short, sharp. “The world doth.”
Biting back a ‘huh?’, I mulled over her words. The analytical part of my mind, cold and aloof, came back in full force like an avalanche upon an unlucky village. You made a choice, in hope of a consequence that would benefit you the most; what then? The world would be changed; a new premise, closed doors and opened paths due to that choice.
Would it? Would one’s choice really have that that big of an impact? In the grand scheme, where everyone was interconnected with whatever they did, one choice had a lot of knock-on effects, and from then on, what you would get back from that choice would essentially be out of your hands. Maybe that was what she meant.
Then again, she could just have been raving mad. Still, it just didn’t seem to fit. At least, I thought it didn’t seem to fit. I hoped that I wasn’t deluding myself.
The plate made an audible clack on the covered dining table as I set it down. “You choose, but the world reacts,” I muttered, picking up the cutlery. “And what the world does, you can’t change that, can you?”
“Nothing is impossible, friend.” Luna smiled a genuine, happy smile. Kindred spirits, I thought. She’d found one.
One chooses, the world reacts. All we could really do was deal with the consequences. I didn’t want to admit it, but she was at least partly right. We’d accounted for expected patterns that the world would follow if this or that choice was made; but if the world didn’t conform to your expectations, well…
You wouldn’t be the architect of your own fate. The world would be. It was just a matter of predicting the winds.
And right now, for me, the winds were a maelstrom.
That was what she had called me. In the first person, too.
It was a good sign; a sign that she was coming back to reality, back to the plane where we all existed. At least, I hoped it was so.
Odd, that. I hadn’t come to Equestria with the express intention of making friends. I had arrived, fully expecting to simply help a client regain her mental sensibilities, and get paid. All this was strictly business; even back then, when I saw her sleeping how a hatchling would, our relationship was professional. Wasn’t it?
Those desires back then were out of line, I knew. Some latent feelings, the kind a father had for a daughter, had somehow sprung up from some hidden wellspring. I’d always resigned myself to life of solitude. It wasn’t an uncommon life choice for medical professionals; we were the knowing martyrs, the ones who’d give their life to save those of strangers.
Ironically, soldiers were almost exactly the same, and yet so, so different. I suppose that’s a part of the reason why we griffons all undergo our four years of mandatory military service. We need to understand the meaning of sacrifice, to know that we and our civilization were the product of constant strife and struggle. How it feels to have bits of you stripped away by war or work, or both, for the sake of someone else. It was a pretty sobering experience, from the ten-year-old memories of my time there.
Catching another sigh in my throat, I flicked another gaze around, updating my mental list. Celestia still hadn’t spoken yet, besides some soft mutterings that I couldn’t catch. Her plate lay in front of her, empty save for a few crumbs. Luna was still nibbling on her food; about four-fifths of the meal now rested inside her stomach.
It had been just about an hour since we started eating, judging by the rudimentary watch I wore. Apparently, we’d set up an unspoken agreement to wait for Luna to finish her meal in her own time. Despite the colossal waste of time that this might have seemed, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Seeing Luna actually attempt to do something besides suffer let me think in relative peace.
I pressed my long talons together, and slouched forwards to gaze at the tip of the steeple that they formed. The hospital scene showed that her mental state still wasn’t the best, although it was by no means the worst case I’d ever seen. Remarkable, that. When she got better, I had to ask how she’d kept herself in relatively good care all those years.
Stealing a glance at her, I noticed the soft, dull strands of matted blue hair covering her body, a far cry from her sister’s sleek grooming. Comparing the two, I had to say that I liked the Luna’s overall look more. She was honest with her appearance, and I respected that. It would have been a lot more unsettling had she looked somewhat well-groomed, with her mind still shattered.
Hang on, what was that? Her throat quivered like a beating heart, in sync with her hooves, of which the wrist muscles clenched and unclenched with alarming regularity. A nervous tic? Or a symptom of something worse? I knew for sure that this wasn’t something normal.
Celestia didn’t appear to have noticed. Truth be told, I didn’t expect she would. Luna’s dark coat allowed her muscle movements to remain relatively well-hidden.
I waited for the bulge that meant the onset of peristalsis before speaking. “Is your throat alright?”
Celestia kicked her cushion-chair thing back, standing to her full height in a matter of milliseconds. “Luna!”
Although her voice was full of concern, obvious even to me, Luna’s eyes shrank to pinpricks and she followed her sister’s lead, skittering backwards on four unsteady hooves. Coughs burst from her mouth like the rattle of a machine-gun.
Celestia stopped mid-step, her hoof still in mid-air, and I rushed over to Luna’s side. The coughs had grew in size and force, until one that almost sounded like a retch ejected a small spray of fine hay suspended in saliva solution.
I twisted around to dodge out of the way, but alas, I wasn’t entirely successful. Just one more thing to wash off, counting the cobwebs and dust I’d picked up from the dungeon.
A muffled thump from the door told me that the guards had entered, and Celestia’s rapid words flattened into a tuneless noise as I focused on the task at hand.
I reached onto the table to pull off a napkin, before pausing. Would she want me to do this? She definitely had the magical power to levitate something. It was time to give her some responsibility, some control.
“Clean yourself up,” I said softly, holding out the napkin.
The flare of magic from her horn almost tossed the thing across the room, but luckily she managed to bring her own self under control, and she smashed her face into the cloth.
Well, that was unexpected.
I leapt backwards, landing on all fours. Luna had sandwiched the piece of cloth between the side of her head and her shoulder joint, and was scraping her face against it.
I winced. That had to hurt.
She tossed the napkin away, mouth set and eyes tightened in grim determination.
She had some steel in her spine. No doubt her neurons were firing like crazy, sending jolts of pain shooting straight into her skull. Despite all of that, she managed to maintain a reasonably calm expression. “It is difficult to eat.”
I raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t a lethal complication, but it was still an obstacle. One more step to overcome. “How so?”
Luna shot me a flat stare, which I reciprocated. Truth be told, I had something of an idea.
Have you ever flown in the fabled Hold mountain range, back in Gryphonia? Biting cold, but what a view. Now, imagine doing an entire scouting flight with your mouth open. If the cold didn't kill you, you'd wish it did by the time ice starts crystallizing in your throat.
That was probably what Luna felt when she ate. Like her skin, the inside of her mouth had nerve endings. If I was right, then there probably wasn’t any way besides dissolving her food into a liquid solution for her to drink, like baby food.
So much for ancient goddesses.
“We cannot swallow,” she said, finally, drawing the attention of the now silent guards. More than a few jaws unhinged at that.
I lifted the plate of food off the table, planting it in between the two of us. On the plate, a few stalks of hay, half-chewed, took center stage, with some greens layered haphazardly here and there. I reached up again for some sort of cup.
Luckily for me, there was still some water in it.
“What art thou doing?”
I flashed a beaky smile at Luna. In hindsight, that might not have been such a good idea. She raised an eyebrow, clearly confused, but it wasn’t that which drew my attention.
Celestia and the guards had materialized by my side, and formed a circle around us. At that moment, I knew how it felt to be a street performer. The stakes were high, but the rewards even more so. If she got used to eating slurry meals, it would make her acclimatization a lot easier on me.
“Making porridge,” I replied, settling the cup of water down next to the plate. All I needed now was to grind the hay and greens into a powder, before mixing that with water. Sure, it wasn’t real porridge, or even gruel; more like a suspension of nutrients. In the end, though, I hoped that she’d be able to swallow it better than the dry hay.
Well, there was the problem. There didn’t seem to be any sort of mill or grinder in the room at all. “Anyone lend me a pestle and mortar?”
Everyone stared at me, expressions of befuddlement on their faces. Yes, even the guards, although they hid them well. Celestia must have figured out what I wanted, because she quickly stomped a hoof. “You’re not serving my sister gruel.”
“It’s only until she gets used to eating,” I muttered. “You’ve –”
“She deserves much better than gruel.”
I paused, twirling the words over in my head. She was right; both in her view, and in mine. Still, very few people got what they deserved.
I sighed. “Do you have any alternative?”
The Sun Princess stopped for a moment, and I took the time to glance back to see how Luna was faring. She stared at us, silently judging, observing.
“Gruel,” Luna muttered, jolting every other pony out of their thoughts. “A peasant’s meal.”
As far as I knew, feudal classes had been removed quite forcibly from Equestrian culture. There were still hints of it, sure, but it was much less pronounced now compared to what it used to be like, according to the history books.
“We have never eaten gruel before,” Luna murmured contemplatively, prodding the plate of dry food with a hoof.
“At the very least, porridge,” Celestia said evenly, firmly. “Nothing less.”
I shrugged. I only wanted Luna to be able to eat in relative comfort. Right now, the methods didn’t really matter that much, compared to the end results.
Celestia ordered a guard to go out and pick up some wheat and veg slurry from the kitchens. While we waited, she folded her legs underneath her, and simply glanced between us.
“Why gruel?” Luna asked, lifting her head from its resting place at her hooves.
I waved my claws around vaguely. “Couldn’t think of anything else at the time.”
The Night Princess shook her head. “Why not this?” She prodded at the plate with the hard part of her hoof. The ceramic disc gave off a soft clang.
I slapped my forehead. “Your throat tells me you can’t swallow dry foodstuff well.”
She stared evenly at me, pausing for a few long moments. “True.”
She looked back at the food. “If we do not try, we will never acclimatize.”
“Small steps, Luna,” I said, clicking my talons against the hard floor idly. The guard was taking ages. It was just a small bowl of porridge, after all. “Can you drink water in comfort?”
“We drink water equally well on a pillow or off.”
It took me a few seconds to realize why Celestia’s face suddenly broke into a small smile, and when the revelation finally hit me, I groaned.
“Bad choice of words,” the Sun Princess remarked.
Luna didn’t show any sort of expression at all. Her face was still blank, impressively so. If anything, she seemed confused.
“I meant: does it hurt when you drink liquids?”
Luna blinked. “Yes.”
Her sister sighed. “You have to eat, Luna. You’ll die if you don’t.”
Even as I tried to play devil’s advocate, I realized she was right. Luna would simply have to trade one sort of pain with the other. The bit earlier with the cloth showed that she was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
I hoped her resolve would not falter in the long months ahead.
I signed off the report, and handed it to the nearby secretary, whose squinting eyes and taut face glared out beneath the black fringe of her mane. This was the fifth one; Luna’s condition had improved immeasurably (both figuratively and literally, for psychology was a qualitative subject) since I arrived about eight weeks back.
Luna huffed audibly as she glanced around the room. I could hear her step to the side, but I ignored it for the time being. She was probably simply exploring.
The secretary’s face didn’t lighten up at all. Maybe this was her normal face, one she’d developed after years and years in this job. The line between who she was and who she had been had blurred, until she was simply her job.
I nodded an acknowledgement, before turning back to find Luna tapping the sides of the wall experimentally.
She nodded once, before pressing the side of her head to the marble.
My eyes widened. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Celestia’s arrangements for me to become a constant mentor, companion and friend for her sister was to reduce the chances of a relapse. We even lived adjacent to one another nowadays. Thank the Maker that the Sun Princess didn’t go so far as to have us cohabit in the same room.
Luna smiled happily, suddenly, and I found myself awkwardly mirroring her soft grin. Her feelings were quite ‘infectious’, as they say. Her first real display of actual emotion; a soft, small grin during breakfast, a week ago, had Celestia breaking out one of her own. Back then, her happiness was enough for me. I’d known that we were finally on the right track – the planning was done, and the flight could begin.
I’d dared hope that, with my constant presence, she would be reminded of the ‘real world’ that we all inhabited in one form or another, rather than lose herself in the fantasy inside her head. Still, I supposed that we all needed escapism in one form or another, at the end of the day. A coping mechanism, and nothing more.
“Come here!” she whispered, with her ear still flat against the wall.
The secretary back there hadn’t changed her expression at all. Was she a golem? Celestia’s magic certainly allowed for that possibility, although I was sure golem production was outlawed in this region of the Known World. Still, power let one bend the laws until they broke.
I shook out my unruly thoughts, and tried to mimic Luna, placing the feather covering my ear-hole against the wall as well.
Nothing. Griffon ears were insensitive, to say the least, and I wasn’t going to pretend to hear something I hadn’t. “Luna, I –”
She tapped the marble, her hoof clicking off the stone.
I shut up on instinct as the clack magnified in magnitude, reverberating off the wall straight into my eardrums. Regardless, it wasn’t impressive.
“What was I supposed to hear?” I asked, repositioning the bones in my neck back to a nicer, more stable conformation.
She frowned. “We doth not know. The other wall doth contain no such acoustic anomaly.”
I shrugged. “It’s an old building. The blueprints show rooms that aren’t used any more, and the castle now has buildings that weren’t there in the blueprints.”
She blinked, once, twice, before sighing. “Time doth pass us by.”
Too late, I realized how I’d said those words. To someone who’d lost her entire past life, who’d had to adjust to a new way of thinking, a new society, even a new language; it was like she was an alien in her own homeland. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
“Luna, listen,” I said, automatically, before clamping my beak shut. So much for impartiality. Now, with the way I was acting, I could tell that there was a personal stake in this job. Luna had become more than simply a client; now, she was an
acquaintance at the very least, a friend at the most. All that time together did mean something to me. To her, though?
The blue pony shot me a stare. It was like that stare she gave me when we first met; now, however, I could sort of tell that it was much less intense, much less hungry. A good sign.
“It’s alright. We all have times like this,” I finished, somewhat lamely.
“We art not unhappy,” she said, starting to walk alongside me. Eye-contact was more of a challenge, as we devoted some time to our conversation partner, and some to the path ahead of us. That was a subtle coercion to get Luna to become less reliant on me as an anchor. Back when we’d started, she’d hit everything in front of her hooves, and after the first worrying wobble of a heavy vase, I’d simply moved to the center of the hallway.
She was right, though. She didn’t sound unhappy, and I was pretty sure of my ability to detect self-delusion. She simply sounded tired. Like an old soldier, she had the tone of someone who’d undergone much more than their age would suggest.
“It was simply an observation,” she remarked, rather calmly, as we went around a corner, ignoring the set of guards that were positioned outside one of the doors. Celestia had made it clear that she only wanted her sister to be around the safe-zones of the castle, and she’d even thought of putting up guards to make sure that happened. I was pretty sure that this was simply a way of saying that she didn’t want me snooping around and reporting back to the komitet. She was thorough, for sure.
“I understand now.” Truly, I did. At that moment, she simply accepted the fact that she was going to be seen as an outsider. A foreigner, in her own country. Perhaps with more time, she’d become an iconic figure, a representation of Equestria like her sister. Only question was, did she want to?
“Good,” she said, as we passed under the transition into the rough stone that she, and now I, called home. Honestly, I’d have preferred open sky. The walls threatened to squish me into a pulp, like a mouse under the wheels of a cart. With the sky, I could see my death approaching, and face it. In the dark, surrounded by uncaring rock, I would die – just like that.
Still, for her. I could do that for her. I owed that much to my friend. May he rest in peace.
We stopped before the doors to our respective rooms. Mine was carved out hastily by the Sun Princess herself, and given a magical door-curtain thing that was supposed to stop intruders. Back at home, we used a door with a lock. The fabric, waving slightly despite the lack of any breeze (kind of like Celestia’s mane, to think of it), didn’t look like it could stop a fly. Yet, we all knew looks were deceptive.
“Must thou insist on sleeping in a separate area? We desire company,” she said, somewhat suddenly.
“Wha?” I spluttered, filling the empty, soundless gap with a low hum of errs and umms as my brain processed her request. “Wait, what?”
“We said, must thou –”
I raised a claw. “I heard. Still, didn’t you think it was awkward?”
She blinked. “No.”
Well, I did. Celestia had been on the cliff at that point; she’d wanted her sister to get well, but at the same time, this just wasn’t done. Above and beyond the call, I was going.
I still didn’t know how I felt. How I should have felt. Somehow, something bright and burning had sparked up a fire inside of me, and I could empathize with her plight. In the dark, listening to her irregular breaths, whilst she clacked her horn against the stone wedge that was her bed during her short muscle spasms; that was something sobering.
“Very well,” I said softly. “For tonight.”
She smiled, and we entered her room side-by-side.
There’s an old griffon saying: if you see your enemies, you can kill them.
What if your own mind was that enemy? What then? Co-existence was a possibility, but even then, it wasn’t a permanent solution.
I sighed. Despite all my research into the matter, post-traumatic stress was still one of the greatest mysteries of these times. Celestia must have found my research, somehow, and tracked me down based on it. Simply putting theory into action was what I was doing now.
Luna’s eyes sprang open and she rolled over to the side, where she saw me sitting pensively on the floor.
I turned to face her. “Another nightmare?”
Judging by the sweat rolling off her coat, and the jerky movements of her pupils, I supposed so. She nodded to verify.
I reached up to touch one of her shoulders with as soft a claw as I could make. “It’s alright, I’m here. Want to speak about it?”
She paused, before glancing at the door. The shadows of two guards splayed into the room from the lit doorway. Celestia had never really gotten rid of them; despite her proclaimed trust in me, she still had the soldiers on my tail. A wise move, I thought. Wise, but still a pain for me to deal with.
“It is about my sister,” Luna replied, whispering.
I could see the shadows shift from their positions, before suddenly freezing into place. Clearly, the guards had overheard. “Do you want to speak privately? They can hear.”
Luna glanced back at the doorway, before extending her wings, surrounding me in a cocoon of feathers. They were larger than when I’d first met her, by about a few centimeters. I’d only noticed because she used to be unable to block out my field of view with them; now, she could, if just barely.
Inside the feathery dome, we leaned our heads forwards like a pair of conspirators. I could feel Luna’s cheek brush along my own, and her exhaling breath blasted against my left ear-hole. Likewise, I found my beak centimeters away from Luna’s own fluffy left ear.
It was getting really warm in there, too. Somehow, the warmth felt odd; uncomfortable, yes, but still bearable. Must have been my curiosity that kept the heat at bay. Anything like this had to be juicy.
No! This was serious. I let a breath slip through my beak, seeing the waft of damp air sweep the hair on her ear left and right.
She sighed airily, before starting. “My sister. I – I stood outside Everfree Castle. Untouched. Smoke rose in columns as far as the eye could see. Buildings burned, without exception. The stones embers, the wood kindling. Smoke and the taste of blood in the air.” She paused for a moment. “All my fault.”
I felt my breath hitch in my throat.
“I burned those structures to the ground. I killed the ponies inside. All for what? Mine own pride.”
“But it didn’t feel like that, at the time,” I mused, shivering as a jolt of ice seemed to spread from my chest. “Still, why?”
“Damned pride, damned jealousy!” she hissed. I tensed up immediately. At this range, it was like she was shouting. “It was not their fault! Why must they die?”
There was nothing I could say to defuse the situation. She needed to let it out, and know that she didn’t have to be alone.
Tapping her foreleg with an open claw, I exhaled deliberately slowly, attempting to forget the fact that I was in the room with a murderer; a remorseful, broken mare that had her hooves stained black with the blood of her people. The very same people who had trusted her, followed her, and were rewarded with death.
It was kin-slaying, almost. Without synchronization and harmony, natural or coerced, a society could not function at peak efficiency. Why weaken the community you were in? It made no sense. No sense, unless you had nothing more to lose. Spite and hatred could do a lot.
Did she intend to kill? Perhaps not. But one couldn’t change the past, not even one as powerful as her, or her sister. Time was truly the lord of us all. Time and death.
She sighed a long, wavering sigh. “Why? Why did I survive?”
I continued to comfort her with my presence. Somehow, it was working. The tears that I thought would be forthcoming did not flow. There was simply nothing left to flow.
Perhaps she wanted an answer from me. As much as I wanted, saying the honest truth that she got off lighter than her victims would not help. She recognized that already. It was the injustice that was eating away at her, not any self-delusion of who to blame.
“I don’t know, Luna,” I murmured, closing my eyes.
“Blind fate,” she growled softly. “Not fair. I did not deserve this. I did not deserve you.”
“Many do not get what they deserve,” I continued, perhaps a bit more harshly in hindsight than I had thought at the time. “You, your victims… yet, we cannot change the past. We can only choose to fly in one direction in the present time.”
“I never wanted to hurt anypony,” she choked out.
“No one ever does, Luna.” I opened my eyes again, taking in her twitching wings all around me. Wracked with sorrow, guilt and insanity, she truly made for a pitiful display. I wondered if I was the same. Thinking of it, we weren’t so different in this regard. Neither of us had wanted to hurt anyone. Yet, that was what we'd ended up doing.
The next few moments we spent in that little bubble passed by like the brutal, bone-chilling wind down the Hold mountain range; uncaring and constant. In that little cocoon of feathers, we had one another, and that was the only reassurance then and there.
“What should I do?” Luna muttered, placing her hooves around the claw touching her foreleg. “What should I do?”
Alas, all things never lasted.
“Sister, I’m here!” Celestia’s jolly voice reverberated off the room’s walls.
Bad. Bad. Bad. Shit.
The click-clack of metal on stone stopped, and for a split second, peace.
“What is the meaning of this!”
We disengaged from our little world in a tangle of forelimbs and feathers. Each of my feathers felt like they were sticking out at some odd angle to my skin, and I was sure that under my coloring, my skin was scarlet from head to tail. A quick glance to the side at Luna revealed that she was also similarly flushed.
“We were –” They sure weren’t kidding about Celestia’s infamous glare. I felt as though my hindpaws had grown into the stone beneath, and that I was just staving off the inevitable execution. I froze, mid-sentence, as my mind flickered through a multitude of scenarios. Was there going to be torture? Was it going to be quick? Either way, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to decide how fast I would die. They would.
Sobering thought. I sighed, and seemed to shrink slightly as all the air left my body.
“You have betrayed my trust, griffon. I hereby –”
Both of us looked at Luna, whose even, quiet voice cut through her sister's shouts like a bullet through cloth.
“I never meant – I never meant to hurt anyone,” she murmured, eyes vacant. Little droplets of water trickled out of the corners of those big teal eyes.
She spread her wings wide, nearly clipping the back of my head. “All my fault.”
Celestia shot me one last glare, before taking a step towards her sister. “Luna!”
Her sister’s head shot up, and the blue pony started to shake, her breaths coming in ragged little gasps. “Please – I – just do it quickly.”
Enough was enough. I moved a claw up from the smooth stone grip, but Celestia’s little growl made me falter. Then, my eyes passed over Luna’s form, and her face, carved with a resigned, relieved smile.
Please, Luna. Death wasn’t the only way out.
I took a deep breath, steeling my shaking muscles, and reached out once more.
Celestia’s bark went unheard and ignored, as I placed the soft palm of my talons against Luna’s shoulder. “Snap out of it!”
“I did not mean for any of this!”
“Get your damned claws off her –”
The cacophony of voices, of which I was a part, brought my charge down to her knees. She lay there, moaning a tuneless, melancholic elegy, her forelegs wrapped over the top of her head. Her wings, exposed as they were, twitched randomly. The both of us stopped what we were doing; I froze in place, claw in mid-air. Celestia was in a similar position, on the other side.
With a glare that said “This isn’t over”, she slowly stood back up, before stomping downwards. A harsh crack reverberated through the wooden room.
Luna didn’t stop her humming.
I stopped talking, just as Celestia did, when we realized that we had started at the same time. Glancing over at her, we met gazes; I waved a claw towards the shivering blue form that was her sister, and she nodded once.
Nothing. I expected as much. Celestia sighed.
“I’m sorry, I have to go now. I’ll come by after court’s finished, alright? I’m so, so sorry.”
No reply. Luna’s elegy continued unabated.
With an awkward, slow nod and an almost indistinguishable sigh, she left the room, glancing once backwards. She stopped near the guards, and after a quick, hushed discussion, the two golden forms turned to face us. After a short staring contest, I ignored them. If they weren't going to do anything, then they weren't worth my attention.
I could understand that, for once. Simply a numbers game; as a Princess, with an obligation to serve her country, she had to neglect her own siblings. The people at the cost of the sister. Probably what happened a thousand years ago, reflected here.
We griffons say that the first casualty of war is innocence.
So true, I noted as I looked at Luna. Her sobs and her song had abated somewhat in the twenty or so minutes after Celestia had left, but as I stayed sitting with a claw upon her upper foreleg, I let my mind drift off.
She couldn’t cope with what she’d done. Once the bloodlust, the adrenaline and the hatred had been stripped away, she’d taken a look into the mirror, and she didn’t like what she saw.
There was nothing about it. A kill was a kill, regardless of intention or circumstance. No take-backs, no second-chances. Sure, the law could stand up for you; back home, legal self-defense meant no official punishment. At that point, though, if you felt guilty, you’d be guilty even if the law said you weren’t. In your mind’s eye, the difference wasn’t there.
Even an ancient Princess had a mind. Even she could feel guilt.
I slumped, drained. Maybe I was in over my head.
No. I made a promise, and I was going to see it through.
“Sleep in peace, Luna,” I murmured, patting her shoulder.
A whimper and a sigh brought me back into the land of the conscious. I blinked my eyes open, seeing nothing but black. I gasped, and my heart went into overdrive. Had I been captured? Celestia! Of course! That bitch –
My eyes adjusted enough to the dark for me to pick up the dark, sleeping form on a stone platform in front of me. Too small to be Celestia, but too big to be a normal pony. Ah, right. I had been sleeping in Luna’s room, hadn’t I?
And we’d been interrupted in the middle of an intimate heart-to-heart. Well, heart-to-ear. Close enough. Still, I knew enough now to make a judgment.
All I had to do would be to wait for her to wake up.
The wait wasn’t that long, in all actuality. Letting my thoughts run free in my head, I ran through all the possible ‘cures’ for PTSD. As far as I knew, a friend with listening ear and a sympathetic heart did wonders for sufferers. Sufferers of all sorts of mental conditions, actually. Sometimes, all we needed was to be understood.
Good luck to anyone attempting to understand a guilt-ridden, mass-murdering, centuries-old pony.
Shaking the sarcasm out of my head, I walked over to check on her.
The tears on her face had dried, leaving little trails of dust on the blue fur. Her breaths came in slow, quiet huffs. She still had her forelegs over her head, but I could see that the muscles were relaxed; the tension all but vanished into the bone. Peace, for a limited time, had come to her.
She blinked her eyes open after an indefinite amount of time. We met each other’s gaze, and I could feel a small smile stretch across my own face as one spread out across her own. Alas, the moment did not last.
“I did not mean for anything like that to happen,” she muttered, sighing.
“I know,” I replied evenly. “I know.”
She exhaled again, pushing the air out of her lungs. “What do I do?”
I shrugged. “We carve our way.”
She shot me a stare. I met her eyes with my own, resigned and passive.
“What doth you mean?”
I sighed, before shaking the base of my shoulders and cricking my neck. The tension flowed out like water down a mountain river, leaving a slightly odd feeling of naked comfort behind. “In the end, it’s what you want to do. I can help you get better, but I can’t decide what… I can’t decide what you want to spend your life doing.”
I fixed her with an even gaze. “That’s your job.”
She fell silent, slumping back down onto her belly and chest, staring vacantly at the doorway. Her forelegs were tucked cutely underneath that soft fur, her large teal eyes blinking slowly, once, twice, thrice, and the ends of her mane fluttered through the air weakly.
She whirled her head around to face me, propping herself up so that we were eye-to-eye. Her hair whipped around, the strands tracing fine blue circles in the air before wrapping themselves around her smooth contour of her neck.
“Come with me,” she said, suddenly.
I nodded, speechless for a moment. She took up the lead and we walked side-by-side in relative silence. The castle’s twisting and turning corridors gave the distinct impression that, despite the uniform white towers as seen from outside, the building was in fact conglomeration of separate structures, stretching back centuries into the past. Even the flooring changed from tile to marble to common mudstone as we continued our little trek. Judging by the low number of guards here, it was a private area, closed to the public.
I supposed Luna had never seen any of this, never even known of this. She’d been exiled before the ponies had even set foot here.
She stopped at the base of a stained glass window, peering through the light film of dust on its surface to discern the pale colors beneath. The sun’s rays shot out from behind the glass, spraying the opposite wall with a kaleidoscope of colors. Luna’s dark coat absorbed most of the light, however, leaving her as an empty black space in the midst of the rainbow.
The glass window depicted what I guessed to be the start of Equestrian history. Three ponies – one of each race – stood in rearing positions, each one facing away from the others, back to back. Above them, the crossed forms of the two princesses stood in a perpetually frozen dance, with the sun on one side and the moon on the other. Curiously, the figure that depicted Luna had the sun on her back, and it was the opposite with Celestia’s depiction. Above them, at the top of the glass window, another alicorn stared down impassively at all bystanders. She was white, with a red mane, and her wings were spread out to encompass the width of the window.
I’d never heard of her. Some long-forgotten princess? The pony god? Eh, it didn’t matter.
Hoofsteps bounced around the corner, and the source popped out into view a couple of seconds later. It was Heartfelt.
Her eyes brightened up as she saw me, but beside that, she gave no notice as she trotted to a respectable distance before bowing.
I raised an eyebrow, before a shadow fell across the floor, and I looked up to see the impassively blank face of the Moon Princess.
“I have something for you, Princess,” she said, her slightly shaky voice echoing through the empty corridor.
“Give it, then,” Luna declared, raising her hoof to a point directly in front of Heartfelt’s face.
Poor lass. Her head jolted backwards, as if she’d been shot, and even my mediocre ears could pick up the faint panting coming from her mouth. Clearly, she wasn’t used to Luna’s odd quirks.
Come to think of it, only the guards and I were around Luna for more than a few passing seconds. She’d spent the first few months simply acclimatizing to the environment, and with her sensitive ears, we had all agreed to keep the number of visitors to a minimum. Not that there were any.
I stepped forwards, flashing a beaky smile. “You’ll be fine. It’s just her way.”
She nodded, gulped audibly, and then turned to a small saddlebag strapped to her side. As the servant fumbled with the straps, I pushed down softly on Luna’s outstretched hoof. The limb seemed to fold like gelatin under my touch.
Hearfelt’s head came up and around again, this time with a scroll of paper held delicately between her light pink lips. The royal seal was present.
Heartfelt’s rapid gazes upwards, directed at the Princess in front of her, almost passed by my eyes. Almost. She was scared. The way her breathing became shallower and shallower, faster and faster, and her eyes flicking here, there all testified to that. I sighed.
“Pass the scroll to me,” I said, raising a claw. She dropped the parchment onto my outstretched talons, before bowing hastily, and turned to leave.
Time to start acclimatization phase two.
“Wait!” I called, handing the scroll over the Luna, who stood still as a statue in my peripheral vision. The Moon Princess plucked the scroll from my grasp with a whisper of magic.
Heartfelt turned around, spotting me walking towards her. “I just want to speak to you,” I continued, before turning my head back around to face Luna. “I’ll just be a moment!”
Luna glanced over the top of the parchment for a moment, staring at the both of us. She blinked, once, twice, and then nodded slowly, before burying her nose in the parchment.
“You don’t have to be scared of her,” I murmured, walking a short ways away. “Well, actually… Never mind. She’s not as bad as she was before. That is for sure.”
Her smile flickered into existence. “For sure,” she returned, in that same low tone. “We’ve all heard of the myths.”
She turned back to glance at Luna, and so did I. “Do you think they’re true, though?”
The alicorn in question, meanwhile, simply shot us a long, tired glance.
I put a clenched claw to my chest. “Sorry, patient confidentiality.” This was the cardinal sin of medicine, both physical and mental – never stab your patient in the back. They entrusted their lives to you, and if you had any shred of moral decency, you’d honor their trust.
“Ah,” she said, glancing downwards, a wistful smile playing upon her muzzle. “I’m so sorry, Doctor.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Luna raising a hoof slowly and jerkily, as if someone else was in control of her muscles. She hesitated for a long moment, as if planning her moves on a chessboard. It was for naught, though. She let her hoof fall limply back to rest upon the ground.
“Don’t mention it,” I said, waving a claw. “And don’t be a stranger. You’re not my patient – call me Sigurd.”
She smiled, and her eyes seemed to light up with some spark of life. “I will. Oh, and thanks. For, you know, taking the time. I hope I’m not too much of a bother.”
“The pleasure is mine. After all, I asked for you to wait.”
She chuckled bashfully, scraping one of her forelegs with the other. “Ah, yes. Force of habit.”
Hmm. So it seemed. Perhaps the feudal system was still in full swing under the pristine white tablecloths of Canterlot Castle’s dining hall.
“Sigurd!” Luna called, again with her announcer’s voice. I gave Heartfelt a hoofshake, before turning and ambling back towards my friend – sorry, my client.
I shook my head rapidly, trying to clear my thoughts and sort them into degrees of helpfulness. Between snarky jabs at my own capability, the ever-present, low-key dread in the background grew steadily – an encompassing blackness that I couldn’t detect, but simply knew was there.
The unspoken cardinal rule of medicine: never get attached to your patients.
I was already close to committing that cardinal sin. Every psychologist, therapist and psychiatrist knows that friendships are formed as a side effect of their jobs. Even ones that specialize in research, like me, have to talk to the subjects – ahem, interviewees – unlike physicists or engineers. And the more friendships you form, the more bonds tie you down, until it becomes torture to try and leave – for both the patient and the doctor.
Luna bent down and put the end of her snout into the crook of my neck. Her coat, soft as down, brushed against the stems of my feathers, tickling the skin beneath. Small, whispery exhales brushed against my neck, leaving it warm and slightly damp, although the feeling was far from unpleasant.
I raised a claw, and slipped the talons around her other cheek, intending to push her away. Still, I froze as the scales met with her skin, right as another warm gust of breath crossed my neck. My claw fell away, limply, the sharp keratin tips hitting the floor with a soft but profound clink.
She pulled back, casting a glance once more down the endless corridor. I turned around in time to see Heartfelt’s retreating form round the corner and disappear.
Luna looked down at me once more, smiling softly. I couldn’t help but smile back. She looked truly majestic, with her darkening hair wafting through the air slowly behind her like a blue ocean wave, and her long, slim legs tapering into a lean frame which shifted smoothly from side to side. Her teal, almost translucent eyes shone with warmth and the happiness of a trust freely shared.
I couldn’t help but smile back.
“What is this ‘Grand Galloping Gala’?” Luna frowned, as if the words had suddenly sprang into life and were now flowing around the piece of parchment.
Her words – more specifically, her voice – kicked me out of my own dark thoughts, and I hummed for a few seconds as I tried to remember what exactly she had said. “It’s some big party.”
“Party? Such as, a group of individuals?”
I sighed, smiling. “No, it’s an event. A celebration or something. I don’t really know, it’s a pony thing.”
Her ears flapped backwards, and she cast her eyes down. “Oh.”
She sounded… disappointed, oddly enough. I turned my head around to glance at her, only to find her gaze locking with my own. Resignation was etched on her face, and her ears hung limply down the side of her head. She attempted a smile, but the both of us knew that it was half-hearted at best.
“What’s wrong?” I ventured.
She didn’t respond with words. Instead, she floated the parchment down to my eye-level.
Please consider going to the upcoming GGG (Grand Galloping Gala). It will happen in about 3 months’ time. It will help you get acquainted with most of the important ponies in this day and age. You won’t have to do much. I’ll do the greetings out in the main lobby, so you can make small talk with my –’
The word ‘my’ was heavily slathered over with ink, but I could still discern it.
‘– our ponies at your own pace and leisure.
I want to speak to you about yourself, as well as the griffon doctor. We’ll talk whilst we eat dinner. In private.
Somehow, I could sense that she wasn’t going to be saying nice things about me in her private talk. Or perhaps it was The Talk.
Despite the sense of disappointment rising in my gut, I couldn’t help but sigh, and my beak curled in a half-smile. I’d gotten Luna this far, and now, she was truly on the road to recovery. How long had it been? Five, six months? I mentally shrugged. She was getting healthier, and it was time for the doctor to pack up and head for sicker, needier pastures and patients.
She caught the parchment in her magic, and floated the scroll above her back as we continued to walk towards… towards wherever she wanted to go.
I should have known this day would come. Getting attached to a patient; what a fool I was. I thought I’d prepared for the side-effects of such a long treatment plan, but apparently, my preparations weren’t enough. Even now, I could feel cold fingers of dread coalescing in my stomach as I imagined myself packing up. The research papers would go in the briefcase, the folders and textbooks in luggage; perhaps I would leave a short, small note for Luna as a parting gift…
I kicked myself. Get a grip, Sigurd. Nothing was happening. We were both just caught up in circumstance, and now that the problem was over, we could go our separate ways. Cut off the bonds, burn the bridges.
So why did the prospect of doing so feel so difficult? Did the time we spent together mean nothing? Perhaps we could remain in contact. Our bond wouldn’t be as strong as before, with all likelihood, but it was still better than the scorched-earth policy.
Luna turned around, hearing me stumble slightly, and rushed to my side. Evidently, whilst I’d been shooting some of my more romantic and idealistic thoughts to bits, I’d actually kicked myself in the real world. I could feel the sting in my left hindleg’s shin.
The blue alicorn held out a hoof, awkwardly, like a newly drafted recruit reaching for one of the rifles in his first weapons training session. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she was so determined to help; it was endearing, in a way. She still cared for me.
I smiled up at her, painfully aware of how similar my expression was to hers. I’d long since figured out how to hide your true emotions from your patients – a good deal of sarcasm, an easy grin and a friendly attitude could mask the manifestations of many emotions.
I placed a claw on top of her hoof, and pushed it back down softly. Her eyes still shone with concern and worry, though.
We continued to walk. This time, the route of our meandering path somehow came to me; we were heading for the smaller, private dining rooms the Princesses used when they had small diplomatic meetings, or when they wanted to eat in a cozier setting. I imagined that we must have spent a lot of time there. Luna had managed to conquer her agoraphobia over the months; now, she could eat in the main dining hall without making slow, sliding steps from the buffet table, or gripping the table itself as if she was preparing for any sudden absence of gravity.
I didn’t blame her. Phobias usually weren’t unfounded; rather, they tended to be a by-product of some trauma in the past. Some griffon soldiers with PTSD came home afraid of sudden, loud sounds like the clang of a dropped plate, whilst others couldn’t stand open space or sky. They had never really completely left the battlefield.
I would know.
We arrived at the entrance, a wooden door that was comparatively simple in its construction and design. A border of roses and thorns ran around the edges, wooden stems twirling over and around one another in an intricate pattern. Probably imported hardwood, judging from the dark shade.
The guards stationed on either side of the door crossed their spears in front of the door. Luna looked at them, face contorted in puzzlement. They grimaced, but held their ground.
Luna shrugged. “Perhaps that was the wrong room.”
I glanced upwards at the inset engraving on the door. The numbers matched perfectly, and the door was definitely saying ‘Clover Hall’. The stone doorway was engraved with the same name, displayed proudly at the top, and I was sure that I hadn’t misread that letter.
“Princess,” one of the guards coughed out, voice still a little raspy from disuse. “Your sister requests your presence in the room. Only your presence.”
Now, I was positive that Celestia wasn’t going to flatter me. Still, I’d (mostly) my job and my duty, and it was time to leave. That didn’t make the prospect any more heart-rending, however.
“Go on,” I muttered, patting the back of her foreleg. The guards’ eyes swiveled around to lock onto me, their gazes as cold as ice.
“We shall speak to thee,” she said, giving me a short, simple nod. I reciprocated the gesture. She smiled, before turning back to the door, and finding the spears that had barred her path now standing straight up, re-locked into the armor.
I could see the brand logo etched across the steel that held the spring-mechanism. The guards had been given Mustang models. Finicky, but high-quality pieces of tech. Smooth release and very powerful, if they were maintained properly.
We wouldn’t have bothered with all of that. Even as they glowered at me, I could recall my first training session with melee weapons. It was one of those classes that everyone didn’t take seriously. A skirmish at knife-fight range was to be a last resort; we weren’t as powerful in musculature structure as anything like an Earth pony, or as fast as anything like a pegasus. Surprisingly, as the unholy marriage of two apex predators with two very different bodies and hunting styles, we couldn’t do well at being either. Our speed was hindered by our heavy cat’s half, and our strength by our relatively fragile bird’s half. This must have been the Known World’s cosmic joke of the Maker-damned millennium.
Perhaps that was why we had become what we were. One day, we had been born into the world as predators, without a way to predate efficiently and effectively. Forced into co-operation and civilization, the advent of agriculture saved us from the life-death struggles of our distant ancestors. But even then, it was out of necessity. We never really had a choice if we wanted to continue to survive, to thrive in a world that had fucked us over.
Even now, with all of our achievements in engineering and the physical sciences, there was still that sense of resentment that was as inherent in our culture as weaponry. The two were interlinked, actually. It was far easier to carve out your own way through a world that conspired to torment you with a good gun by your side.
Of course, that brought problems as well.
Right now, my biggest problem was the one blue alicorn who came storming out.
Luna entered the dark room. The patterns etched into the walls, the painting on the ceiling, the chairs and table in the middle she could all see, but her mind was not focused on them.
She remembered the darkness well. It had been her companion, her friend and her enemy. Her mind, once her greatest ally, was now her most dangerous liability. Oh, how things had changed.
Sigurd. Who knew that a griffon, of all people, had been the one to push past the illusions and the trickery
and the deceit? Blunt to a fault, brutal and uncompromisingly stubborn, it seemed that yesterday’s apple didn’t fall too far from the thousand-year-old tree.
The good doctor wasn’t like the ones she’d met a thousand years ago, possessed by bloodlust and hatred. The single-minded determination so prevalent in their race had been used to perfect a field of healing, used to help rather than harm. Perhaps that was why she found him so interesting. Luna had never heard of ‘psychology’; what he was doing simply seemed like being a good listener, and a good friend.
She could feel her gaze softening as her mind’s eye conjured up an image of him, unafraid of her presence and ready to dispense short snippets of wisdom. Around him, she felt… right. He was a kindred spirit, one who’d somehow gone through just as much as she had, and his behavior didn’t seem like pity, but rather, empathy. Perhaps she’d ask about his past, after the dinner.
Her sister didn’t seem so happy. She sat at the room’s only dining table, a relatively modest wooden construct that was about the size of the bed in Sigurd’s room. He was a good griffon. He deserved more. But what was that he said? Ah. ‘Few people get what they deserve.’
Celestia stood up from her chair, which was essentially a very large cushion. They used to eat sitting on stone, Luna remembered.
The Moon Princess blinked twice, and her eyes refocused on the white form of her closing sister – her once enemy, once friend – and she started backwards, almost through the door. The image of her sister, mane alight with flame and coat awash with flickers of orange-yellow light, blazed through her mind.
Celestia stopped, the hurt evident in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Luna simply grunted. Sigurd would tap her foreleg, and when he’d first done that, she’d flinched; that she distinctly remembered. It was such an odd thing for a griffon to do! Was blood not their currency and death their only god?
Things had changed, Luna reminded herself. Things changed, and she hadn’t. She shut her eyes, and the image of the good doctor, wearing an understanding smile, flashed in her mind’s eye. She sighed.
“Shall we eat?” her sister asked, as if she was speaking a crowd of thousands.
Luna nodded slowly. This didn’t seem good. Sigurd had always brought up important things quickly – better to get it out than have it fester, he said – or maybe that was simply the griffon way. Some things just didn’t change, and she took comfort in that. This wasn’t all in her head, after all.
She made her way to the dining table. A lit candlestick stood in the middle, despite the sunlight pouring onto the white tablecloth from the large windows inset in the far wall. Three dishes were placed out in front of her, each with a sort of semi-fluid, semi-solid that was known as ‘pudding’.
She glanced at the cutlery to the side of the plates. A whole set of silver knives, forks and spoons were set in some sort of hidden pattern, arranged in concentric rectangles. She shrugged. A spoon was enough for Sigurd, and it would be enough for her. There was simply no point in making the primal act of eating flashier than it needed.
The skin of the pudding split without any resistance, as if it was a ball of congealed water. Luna put her snout closer to the food, sniffing at it. As far as she could tell, the pudding was lacking in magic in any form, even when it had been cooked. Any stray field that would have made her hair stand on end was absent; the cook must have been a master of his art.
“Luna,” her sister’s voice rang out, and she looked up to see Celestia smile softly. Whether that was from exasperation or happiness, she couldn’t tell.
“We need to talk. About the Gala, and the doctor.”
Luna felt a cold trickle of dread spread out from her spine. “What of Sigurd?”
“Well, let’s talk about the Gala first,” Celestia replied, although Luna got the impression that it wasn’t really a request, but a direction in which to point their conversation. Sigurd had never done so. He would simply have asked, and gotten an answer, rather than playing games of words.
“What of Sigurd,” Luna repeated, appetite gone. The pudding seemed as shaky as her. Her breathing slowed, and she closed her eyes, fearing the worst.
Her sister sighed, replacing the cup of tea that she’d been drinking from on top of its saucer with a soft clink. It sounded more like the impact from a judge’s gavel to Luna.
“It’s enough,” Celestia said, fixing her with a straight, direct gaze. A spark of satisfaction flared up in Luna’s mind, squashed down with the worry that now came crashing down from broken barriers. So, this was it, then.
Luna sighed, pushing the plate roughly away from her. The cutlery set around it protested in their metallic clanks.
The Sun Princess continued. “I worry about you, Luna.”
Luna said nothing.
“He’s a doctor,” Celestia said, after a short pause. “I know how you feel about him, but he’ll have to go and see some other patient sooner or later. He can’t be by your side forever.”
Luna remained silent, but she averted her gaze to the window, and the scene outside. Contrary to the dark thoughts plaguing her mind, the day outside was as sunny as her sister’s disposition. Suddenly, the subdued, dark atmosphere chilled her to the bone. What she wouldn’t give to fly outside, lose her troubles, with the one she trusted…
“Luna? The sooner you get this, the less you’ll be hurt.”
It wasn’t fair. Finally, she was happy – why did that have to be taken away? For once, there was someone who talked to her without the specter of her history hanging over her head. For once, there was someone who treated her like she wasn’t some remorseless mass-murderer, but a pony worth talking to. Perhaps that was her real punishment. The fates could be cruel indeed, but perhaps she deserved this loss.
‘We carve our way’, he had said. Perhaps the consequences of her actions would be determined by the ones around her, but the choice she made was still hers, even if they amounted to nothing. And then, she could always say that she tried. He was worth that. He deserved more than that. More than some fallen princess whose hooves were slick with the blood of her people.
“I’m sorry, Luna. But this is for your own good. You’ll thank me later.”
“No,” she murmured, voice cracking. “This is for his benefit. I never was good enough.”
“Sister, don’t say that!” The Sun Princess stood up from her cushion, moving around the table. Luna mirrored her sister’s movements, going around the other side. The wooden table between them suddenly seemed like the largest, most impassable mountain range in the world.
“Don’t pity me!” Luna mumbled, half-sobbing. “If you are going to send him away, why talk to me about it? Your nation, your people, your rules! Do what you do, and don’t you dare act as if I have a say about any of this!”
‘We carve our way’, he’d said. If there was anything worth fighting for, it was him. It was time for her to carve her way out of the mess she’d created.
Celestia’s falling hoof almost didn’t register in her mind, nor did her sister’s crestfallen expression.
Forcing down her sobs, and gulping down great mouthfuls of air to slow her breathing, Luna flung open the doors and stormed out.
“Luna?” I said, almost squawking, as her form got closer and closer. Small trails of sparkling liquid ran down the side of her snout, trailing from the corners of her eyes to coalesce at the tip of her jaw. I could hear short, rapid puffs escape her lips.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, moving to place a comforting claw on her leg. She was getting taller and taller, day by day, and I had to stretch out an arm fully before I could –
She charged me, hooking one foreleg beneath my outstretched arm and the other around my other limb, before pulling forcefully into a crushing hug. The warmth of her body soaked into my own. It was impossible to truly describe the feeling; the closest I could do was say that it was like vodka had been poured into each and every cell of my body, the fiery sensation welcome and cozy. Best of all, there was to be no hangover.
I could smell the perfume she was wearing, something cold and sweet. It reminded me of sweetened mint. Perhaps that was her natural scent; it clearly wasn’t unwelcome, as I took a large, shuddering breath to calm to blood and adrenaline kicking around my body.
Her small breaths – almost like whimpers – tickled the fur on the back of my shoulders, curling over the leading wingbones and making them shiver, despite the ambient warmth. The regular, rhythmic beat of her heart pulsed through her skin into mine, and continued through my body as waves of heat.
Pinned as I was, all I could do was pat her on the withers and back with my free arm. All I wanted to do at that moment was to comfort her, and make her happy.
Even I, addled as my brain was on hormones and emotion, realized that what I was doing was clearly out-of-line. Getting attached – or Maker forbid – falling for a patient was a big red line, one that I had just crossed.
She wasn’t a bad pony. She had made mistakes in the past – grave ones, I reminded myself – but she was willing to work to attempt to fix them, to clean up the aftermath, to… atone. Remorse and guilt could be powerful motivators, ones I feared she would never fully satisfy. Her past would always be hanging over her head, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
Luna was smart, sardonic and blunt. She didn’t like to tiptoe around any issue, but would face it head-on. I suppose a millennium spent with only her thoughts would set her priorities straight. Time was valuable, especially with someone as long-lived as herself. Her friends and confidants had long died, leaving her alone with no-one but her jailor and her mind to keep her company in this new world she’d emerged into.
Damn. Now I was getting sappy. I never used to get sappy.
I never used to treat someone like this, though. I’d never thought that the closest bond I’d ever forged would be with a pony, of all creatures. A princess, of all ponies.
She was also quite the looker – for a pony, of course.
As I patted her on the back, and as her breathing evened out and deepened, I couldn’t help but smile. And then, my responsibilities came crashing down.
The Sun Princess stood awkwardly in the doorway, leaning against the stone, her face haggard and creased. All those descriptions of her youthful, effervescent energy were wrong at this moment in time. A slow shake of her great, white head and a sigh later, she spoke. “Luna.”
Luna shifted, turning one eye closer to her sister without taking her head off my shoulder. Now, I could feel how matted the fur there had become, soaked with silent tears. In that instance, a flash of sympathy ran through me. Her hair attempted to follow, wafting all over my face, bringing with it the odd smell of cold mountain mint and sweat.
“Mmm-hmm?” Luna’s reply was a mumble, rather than an intelligible answer. A soft hoof stroked my back, right between the areas where my wings attached to my body, and I stiffened up unconsciously. A red blush started to work its way up my face, trying its hardest to display beneath my gray feathers. Even I, a relative recluse, knew what that kind of motion implied.
Cool breaths. In, out, in, out. Like how they taught you in the army. Keep your cool, keep your wits and keep your life.
“I’m not going to send Dr. sak Tallis here away,” Celestia continued, resigned. “I just wanted you to be happy.”
Luna mumbled another set of unintelligible sounds, but her grip loosened just a bit. I took the chance to shrug my wings about. Unknown tension in the muscles simply seemed to evaporate into the cool air, leaving the feathery appendages hanging, relaxed and limpid.
A ghost of a smile drifted across Celestia’s features, before she glanced downwards and turned away. Her clicking hoofsteps simply faded away, the regular, rhythmic clacks fading into the ambient sound of Equestria’s capital. Back to normal, then. Whatever ‘normal’ was, nowadays.
We stayed like that for who knew how long. Alas, all things came to an end. A simple fact of life, as relevant for a banker as a beggar, or a psychologist. In this case, that reminder came in the form of a castle guard.
Local security had gotten used to my presence. Their searching, suspicious gazes simply reflected standard procedure. I could see it in their eyes. Despite their training, it was pony nature to gloss over things that weren’t interesting or new. Imagine the hassle if they had to give every visitor, every maid and servant, every foreign ambassador a search once they crossed some boundary of the castle.
The guard looked awkwardly away, and I recognized the new recruit, way back when I’d first arrived. He wasn’t so new to the job now, what with a slightly bulkier frame and the practiced roving gaze of the patrol guards. For some reason, I felt particularly miffed that he’d stumbled upon a clearly private thing, before realizing that Luna and I had been embracing in the middle of a corridor. A private, rarely-traversed corridor, but still, my point stood.
He coughed, the sound coming out as a harsh bark in the relative quiet. Sunlight lanced through a nearby window, reflecting off the golden armor and painting the surrounding walls with spots of light. He looked a lot like a bigger, spikier version of one of those party devices – dance balls?
Luna’s head turned towards the newcomer, and by virtue of that, we started to disentangle ourselves from one another. The air, whipping around us in a sharp gust, suddenly felt a lot colder without her nearby. The guard’s jawline tightened, almost imperceptibly.
“Princess,” he said, bowing quickly to Luna.
“Doctor,” he continued, shooting me a cool glance and a quick, professional nod which I made sure to reciprocate. “Perhaps it would be best to continue your activities in private. For the benefit of all of us.”
I nodded. “Very well.”
Tapping the cheek of the mare in front of me, I whispered, “Come on.”
Luna picked herself up, and we both shared a half-smile at the guard’s insinuation. Or, maybe I did, and she was simply mirroring me.
The guard nodded respectfully towards the Princess, before turning tail and trotting off.
“Well, what now?” I murmured, rubbing the back of my head. It was like venting a hot kettle; all of the awkwardness and embarrassment of before had wafted away into the breeze, and all that was left was the good, solid company of a friend.
“There have been many changes,” Luna muttered, almost to herself. She chose a direction to walk in, and I simply followed. “Just enough. Too many for things to go back as they were, but too few to release the hope that they will reverse.”
She stopped near an open window, looking outside. A city’s noise and sights greeted her, and a small swirl of wind picked up the free ends of her mane, curling them around her face and neck. An artist’s brushstroke brought to life.
She smiled, all of a sudden, and nodded. Turning back to me with an almost predatory smile and a twinkle in her eyes, she spoke. “Let us go to my room.”
There’s nothing more exciting than cracking open a new book. The smell of freshly primed paper (or parchment, if you insist on that old-fashioned stuff), and the anticipation of the knowledge or entertainment that’s just about to spring up from those amorphous squiggles known as words would drive any academic worth their published papers into bliss. As for the book?
I was acting as Luna’s book for today. Back in the dark stone room she called home, we sat; her on the stone bed, lying down with her legs tucked into her body, and me on the floor, so that we were eye-to-eye. She’d carved out and molded a stone perch for me to use – it resembled something like a flat plane jutting straight out, perpendicular to the wall it had come from – but as usual, I’d shoved all of my notes and research onto that, and started using it as a table. I had a bed back in my own room, I said.
She smiled as I finished tidying up and organizing. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m Sigurd sak Tallis, psychology Ph.D., Clawbridge University,” I muttered, somewhat bemused. This was like the interview I’d gone through when I first applied to that institution. Oh, the irony.
That question was one of the most useless questions ever devised by interviewers. If they already knew about you from the applications you sent them, why did they ask for you to introduce yourselves? Breaking the ice? Both sides knew that the interview was purely business. What was the point in familiarizing, making small talk?
Even then, it was like asking for a one-sentence answer to why Gryphonia’s Unification War was so important. You’d get half of a biased answer, at best.
I shrugged, and shook my head absently. Luna gazed at me, her head tilted to one side, her mane falling over one side of her face.
“Why?” I muttered, scratching at the floor idly. “Why do you want to know?”
“I have told you about myself, and my past,” she said evenly. “It is only fair for thee to return the favor.”
I sighed. Oh, the lengths I went to in order to fulfill my duty. “Fair enough, I suppose.”
Luna smiled, before fluttering her wings and shift-crawling closer. “So, Tallis… you were of the Talon clan?”
I’d heard of the great clans before. About a thousand or so years ago, just before the U-war, the griffon people were a set of disparate tribes – ‘clans’ – wandering around, eking out a nomadic existence as we finally figured out that we couldn’t survive as a species if we did not work together. Still, our distilled heritage as a fusion of two predators left us all with a penchant towards solitude and selfishness. It made sense, given that we used to eat what we hunted and foraged; being close to another, a competitor, put your own foodstuff, and by extension your life, at risk.
Still, we weren’t really given a choice in the matter. It was adapt, or die. In that case, it was a simple decision to make, but difficult to carry out. The U-war proved that.
Even when we’d been ‘united’ as a ‘nation’, many of us simply preferred the imagined blood-bond to others in the same clan. It didn’t help that there remained bitterness and resentment, as per the usual, after the war. Setting off to found cities under their names (Talon somehow turned into Tallis over the centuries), the clans fell back into semi-isolation, only seeing the other clans in the yearly gathering meant to prevent exactly that.
Of course, the gathering worked in the end. Intermarriages, both political and otherwise, and the death of the old guard eventually changed our mindset.
“No, I don’t think…” I tapped my claws on the stone floor, the regular clicks providing an accompaniment along with my heartbeat, creating some sort of organic drumbeat. “After the years, we’d all intermixed. I don’t know what clan I am anymore. I do know my family name, but it’s not a particularly famous one.”
A flash of pain crossed Luna’s face, and she heaved out a breath. The smile she put on afterwards now seemed more mirthless than ever.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I didn’t mean to cause pain.”
“No one ever does, doctor,” she murmured, her voice low and soft, like a lonely string instrument in a sea of drums.
We stared at one another for a moment, before I suddenly chuckled at the irony. All this time, I’d been dispensing advice to her like some wise hermit at the top of a mountain, but I’d never really taken to apply what I’d said to my own life. We all made mistakes.
“So, any more questions?”
“What is ‘Clawbridge University’?” Luna slowed her speech down at the mention of the institution’s name, as if she was rolling the syllables in her mouth. I almost gasped in shock – how could she not know about such a venerable place? – before remembering that she’d been exiled 200 years before its founding.
I didn’t know how long we talked for, but by the end, my throat was parched, and my saliva glands struggled to sooth the cracking desert that was my mouth. Luna had listened intently; I could not have hoped for a better student. Even some of the ones I supervised couldn’t hope to possess her stamina.
“And so, that’s how we as a country came to be – the short and rough version, at least,” I said, coughing at the end of my sentence. As I recovered, Luna’s concerned face hovered for moment in front of mine. “Are you alright?”
“No,” I muttered, trying to ignore the feeling of needles being poked into the walls of my esophagus. “Need some water.”
Her eyes brightened up, as if to say ‘Ah ha!’, and a stone cup materialized in front of her with a shimmer of magic, falling to the ground as soon as the rim solidified into solid matter. As the water inside sloshed around, still turbulent and eddied, she pushed the cup towards me with a hoof.
Knocking my head back to let the liquid run down the back of my throat, I spotted a white mass billow and form just inside my field of view. I gasped – not a good idea when drinking fluid – and my gag reflex rose up in concert. I turned my head, squeezing my eyes shut. The cough wasn’t weak by any means; I could feel my throat lock up, the muscles tightening, before –
Water spewed out in a spray of fine mist down the front of my feathers. I shook my head to clear the sudden light-headedness that seemed to have settled in my poor, concussed brain, snapping to attention at the two ponies that now regarded me – one with aloof curiosity, the other with unconcealed worry.
“I’m here to talk about the Gala with my sister,” the Sun Princess said, after a short period of mutual, awkward silence. “Alone, please.”
Luna’s eyes widened, as did my own. Yet, neither of us questioned the request. I left the cup of water, half-empty, where it lay on the floor, and quietly padded out of the room.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. Celestia popped back out, the door snapping shut just as her flowing tail followed its owner out of the room. She tilted her head towards the adjacent doorway – the doorway to my own room, all the while fixing her gaze on me. I got the message.
The darkness of my own room wasn’t as traditionally foreboding as Luna’s own, what with the tighter, cozier interior and the magical lights inset into the wall above the desk and the ceiling. Still, it felt a lot colder, a lot more heartless and clinical. I was again reminded of my status here – a temporary visitor, to be moved through and processed. Back then, I hadn’t minded. There wasn’t anything here for me. Now?
I managed to contain a somber chuckle, but a soft sigh escaped the confines of my mouth. My room wasn’t particularly conductive to having visitors – a desk occupied the most of one wall, and was handed the task of being a working area, eating table and storage – whilst the bed occupied the opposite wall. The space in between was only about as wide as I was. Furthermore, on the desk was a loose collection of papers and open textbooks, notes and observations that I hastily attempted to make presentable, before slumping in defeat.
Celestia entered the room with a few quiet clinks, and shut the door with a low, soft thud. I glanced away from her, towards the open briefcase that lay, almost forgotten, in the far corner of the desk.
“Let us talk about my sister,” she began.
“Princess Luna has shown remarkable –” I stopped yammering as Celestia raised a hoof lazily, like the judge’s gavel hovering above the platform.
“I haven’t even told you why I’m here,” she said, with a soft smile. I grinned sheepishly, wings flicking slightly in embarrassment. She let the smile fall, and inhaled deeply, eyes closed, before looking me in the eye.
“So, why are you here?” I ventured, before the pause could grow.
“My sister’s improved immeasurably since her return,” Celestia said, glancing off towards my work, my papers. I followed her gaze. “In six, seven months, it appears that you’ve undone a thousand years’ worth of isolation.”
“Not undone,” I growled, before shaking my head. When had my voice gotten so bitter? “Never undone. I just staved off the symptoms. She’ll need help for a long while after.”
Celestia’s gaze hardened, her magenta eyes turning into bloody diamond. She made no sound. Neither did I.
My eyes wandered, latching onto the ant that was trying to cross the expanse of featureless desert that was the ceiling. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to do. Maybe she was right. Taking some leave, getting some sense back into my head sounded like the wise thing to do – distance made the heart grow fonder, it was said. If my feelings died down, I would know that this wasn’t to be.
“What is your recommendation, Doctor?” The Sun Princess’s tone was jovial, even friendly. Still, her eyes never lost that hard edge. Perhaps that was why she was such a good leader. Olive branch with one hoof, gun with the other.
I grimaced. “She’ll need therapy, support, maybe for the rest of her life. From someone she trusts –”
Those two words seemed to have been aimed specifically at me, tearing through me with the efficiency of steel bullets. Soldier on, ignore the pain, the sergeants said. Pain was a message, but so were words, and I wasn’t going to let one stop the other.
“Like me, or you,” I muttered, glancing away from those incriminating eyes. That briefcase – how would it look, filled with the material I’d gained? Hopefully, it would be strong enough to carry every piece of luggage I’d garnered. “Depends on how well she reacts.”
The following silence fell upon the two of us like heavy duvets, suffocating and uncomfortable. Eventually, she was the one to break it.
“Do you know about the Gala?” Her tone had lost its warmth. Now cold and clinical, she sounded like a doctor – like one of my colleagues before a surgery.
I shook my head.
“It’s a social event, where the upper class gathers to hobnob,” she continued, before heaving a soft sigh. “As the Princess, I’m expected to be there. My sister is, as well. We both agreed that you should accompany her.”
It didn’t sound like I had a choice in the matter. Still, being by the side of the Moon Princess helped make up for that. And, personally, I was a little giddy at the prospect. We griffons tended to treat parties and celebrations as private affairs, to be shared amongst those we considered valuable to us. Sharing food wasn’t in our genes, not when food was so difficult to find and catch. Thus, it was a great honor to be invited to a griffon party, where you’d sate your hunger with the hard work of the host.
Pony parties tended to be different. The gist of it was, invite as many as you could, and share the happiness and food around. Probably stemmed from equine herd mentality, and the idea of protection in numbers. A party was simply a way for the host to buy allies.
“You’re not worried about the political implications? The rumors?”
Celestia smiled ruefully. “My sister being happy will be a victory in itself.”
“Alright,” I said, slowly. “When’s this Gala?”
She smiled a practiced, forced smile. It was an almost perfect facsimile of the genuine article. The only difference was that the smile hit the lips first, before the eyes.
“Two months from now,” she said, and then stood up. Just before she reached the door, she stopped, and twisted her neck back to face me. “Sigurd, have you heard of Nightingale Syndrome?”
Which psychologist hadn’t? I mentally sighed, and forced myself to nod once, slowly. It had occurred to me.
Nightingale Syndrome was one of the occupational hazards of the job. Over time, patients and therapists would end up getting emotionally attached. This was unavoidable. Cold-hearted types didn’t make good GPs or psychologists, or even nurses. Yet, we all knew that the patient had to leave for his or her own family, in the end. Forming this attachment to break it later could be incredibly damaging to a caregiver’s psyche.
This was even more pronounced in psychology circles, where the patient would pour out her soul, and it was our job to listen.
Celestia simply blinked, and left.
Maybe Luna was right. There were some things you simply couldn’t control. Choices that all lead to the same outcome, a number of differing outcomes from the same choice; it was all out of my claws now. Perhaps I should take some leave, think things over. Distance makes affection fonder, or something.
Luna’s head appeared from beyond the borders of the doorframe, and I snapped my head back up from where I was contemplating my own claws. Her face, one of worry and confusion, immediately brightened into happiness and relief, before reverting back to worry.
“Art you alright?” she exclaimed, eyes wide, as she stormed in.
I looked up at her, as if seeing her for the first time. Her face, full of concern and worry; her silken mane and tail, now flowing in the air at its own accord to complement an otherworldly sight; her figure, tall and majestic, cutting an impressive silhouette; as my eyes fell upon her, I felt my lower jaw hang loose, and the hurricane of thoughts in my mind exploded outwards. For a moment, everything was disordered, yet I knew without doubt this one fact: she was absolutely beautiful.
I retained enough mental capacity to recall that I hadn’t thought of her as anything other than a broken, pitiable mare just out of adolescence at the start of this whole story. When I arrived, she was a wreck; now, more than capable of living by herself, given continued support. Oh, she still had to learn the customs and the language of the times, but I suspected that she could do that by herself without a problem.
“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s gone right, in fact,” I murmured, a happy, tired smile breaking out over my face. “Thank you.”
She blinked, and time seemed to slow as we stared at each other. A sense of passive resignation took over; acceptance.
Yes, I loved her. I didn’t know when it happened, or why, or even how. I did know, that despite my own past, despite everything that had happened over the last few months – or perhaps, because of them – I’d bonded to her. And she to me, it seemed.
You know those stories, where true love always prevails, even against a society hostile to the existence of that love? I’d never believed in those. I’d thought that society would win out, in the end. You had to buy food from someone, after all. Still, now, how I wished they were true.
Perhaps they were.
Luna’s awkward smile broke the spell, and she wrapped her forelegs around my neck in an awkward embrace. She was growing quite tall, now larger than me, but no less fluffy. I felt those warm, slender limbs press on the feathers firmly, confidently. My heart burst with pride.
“No, thank you,” she murmured, moving away. She sat across from me, forehooves touching my shoulders. A warm smile graced her lips for a moment, replacing the worry and fear just a few moments ago. I took in a deep breath, savoring her scent. The fresh, clear aroma of mountain wind, of home, brought up a sigh of deep contentment.
A hot blast of moist air ruffled the feathers on my cheek. Something moist pressed down on those plumes, tugging at the skin. I gasped soundlessly, jaw hanging open yet again, eyes snapping open.
Even I knew what that was.
It was much softer than the griffon equivalent – our beaks were designed to tear through skin, after all. It was so much more delicate, more intimate. The gesture itself wasn’t that special to an outsider, but to us, to me, it was the ultimate symbol of trust. Coming from a patient – no, a friend, or perhaps even more – that couldn’t trust her own mind a few short months ago, this was…
I purred, pressing back against her and turning my head to place my cheek against hers. This was the compromise we had to make, but judging from the happy mumble of a gasp that sounded from right next to my ear, she didn’t mind at all.
She pulled away, leaving the warmth of her lips and face to diffuse through the feathers and skin on my cheek. A light heat whipped up in my stomach and coursed through the bloodstream, making me feel like I’d hit a thermal and was lighter than air.
It couldn’t last forever, despite my wishes. She smiled as she withdrew, standing up to her full height, before breathing out softly and turning to leave. Before she crossed the threshold of the doorway, however, she turned back to face me, gazing at me over the curves of her back and rump.
“I shall see you at the Gala.”
I pulled at the suit I’d been given, a fine two-piece tailored by the Sun Princess’s favorite dressmaker, a white unicorn mare by the name of Rarity. She was all business, looking me over with the cold eyes of an artist trying to make the best of what she’d been given.
Granted, she did try to be friendly during the measurements. Still, my tongue was tied. Doctor-patient confidentiality. I supposed that my vague answers made it appear as if I was disinterested, as she quickly lapsed into silence. I preferred it that way. We spent the rest of the session with the quiet zips of a measuring tape and the scratch of pencil on paper to keep us company, only speaking when she wanted to know which choice of fabric or what cut of cloth I wanted.
I liked suits. They were a pain to clean, and deadly to the wallet, but there was something about the garment that made me feel as if I was more clever or confident than I really was.
The night of the Gala had quickly approached, and as Luna’s condition improved, I was no longer obligated to be by Luna’s side every night or day. Just as well, since she was supposedly a nocturnal creature. I could do as well in the night as in the light – eagle eyes could pick up rabbits from a mile away – but she simply smiled, and said that it wasn’t necessary. Do what made me happy, she said.
The tunes of the Gala’s rehearsing musicians drifted through the castle like the stray scent of blood. The players, on the floor directly above us, had started practice an hour ago, and their melodies had diffused into the back of my mind. Now, it was as if everything had an orchestral accompaniment – even an act as mundane as walking and waiting.
As I rounded the corner of the familiar stone passageway towards our rooms, I blinked.
The world seemed to flash before me. Had it simply been eight months since I had first arrived? Years, I’d have thought. So much pain, so much loss and so much joy won, lost and reduced in these rooms. And it was all worth it.
I could see the path I’d followed.
The death of my friend.
The choice to do my research project on the then-unheard field of post-traumatic stress.
The years that followed, full of surveys, interviews, questions, answers. Late nights and early mornings. Chats. Logic and illogic and emotion and intuition all coupled, all mixed. Writing a paper.
The years of diligent study that paid off with a feature in an international journal.
Another patient. A chance to set things right. To show, truly demonstrate, that I had learned from the mistakes of the past.
Insanity, psychosis, severe phobia. The intense, forlorn pit of hopelessness forming as I looked at the Night Princess, drooling on her bed of stone. Only halfright, of course. PTSD on top of that.
Constant companionship. For duty, for what should have been. Taking lead to teach her bathing, eating, drinking. A lost child, forgotten in the forests of her mind.
Progress. A spark of hope in the darkness of her room and her memories. Reformation, rehabilitation seemed possible, all of a sudden.
Continued improvements. Pride, joy and happiness, but also a sense of sweet, soft bitterness. Attachment. Breaking the vow to doctor impartiality.
Beauty and recognition. Innocent admiration and desire in her teal eyes, unknowing of the turmoil within. My grimace faded away, to be replaced by blank resignation.
I breathed out, feeling my shoulders sag. This was it. The final stretch. Tonight, hopefully, the two of us could leave our pasts, having learnt from failures.
The guards stood, not on both sides of her doorway, but by the side of the wall. Luna herself, dressed in a simple black cloak, floated the furniture out of my room.
The guards had warmed up quite a lot in the time I’d been here. Now, I was simply another member of staff, another servant, instead of ‘foreigner’, ‘guest’ or ‘visitor’.
They inspected me for a few seconds, before deciding that I was safe to pass. I ignored their gazes, instead focusing on the blue alicorn before me.
The desk and the bed slid against the wall to the side of the doorway to my room. The papers on top were still undisturbed, thanks to the influence of magic. Still, I wasn’t exactly pleased.
Luna poked her head into the room, before withdrawing a few scant seconds later, smiling. “Perfect!”
“What are you doing, Luna?”
My exclamation twisted her head around to face me, and her face lit up in happiness that I, suddenly, couldn’t feel. It was as if all of my emotions had evaporated, leaving a cold, empty husk behind.
“We art moving to new rooms,” she said, smile faltering as my face stayed impressively blank. Didn’t she know not to touch my stuff? I frowned, deepening the glare that I just noticed I was giving out.
“Please don’t do this,” I muttered, quietly. With my face set as such, I supposed that I cut a more sinister figure than I really was. “If you need to get things from my room, or want to stay inside, or do anything concerning my room, please ask me first.”
Her face fell from disappointment to sadness, to a slight flare of anger, and then understanding. I stayed still the entire time, pointedly loosening my face muscles until they fell idle.
She hung her head, and her eyes shut for a moment. “Apologies.”
“Accepted,” I murmured, flashing a smile as she blinked her eyes open once more, mouth slightly agape. I suppose, as a Princess, she never had to do this. There was a first time for everything.
Still, the fact remained that she wanted me to stay. She could have simply had me removed from the grounds or the country, but no. Perhaps she was as invested in this as I was. “So, where are the new rooms?”
“Observatory,” she said, horn starting to glow. The blue glow cast the surrounding rock in shades of gray and black, and a hiss of power accompanied the radiant light cast off from that bony spire. “We shall take thy belongings to thy room!”
“Alright!” I said, over the ever-growing sound.
With a bright flash that made the dimly-lit tunnel seem as bright as day, she vanished, along with my furniture.
None of us made a sound as the magical residue winked out of existence. Then, one of the guards whistled; a nervous, awed sound reverberating through the corridor. His partner kicked him with a hoof.
I shook my own head, waiting for the telltale growing hiss of wind that usually accompanied teleportation entry. When there was none, I sighed.
“If she reappears –” I cut myself off as the soft whistle of wind picked up, and Luna rematerialized in front of us with a muted explosion. I closed my eyes as the shockwave hit, the displaced air ruffling my feathers.
Luna smiled as she walked over, before draping a wing over my back. The guards pointedly looked away.
“You were honest with me,” she murmured, as we continued down a corridor perpendicular to the one we’d just traversed. “I – I… Thank you. I needed that.”
“I try.” I smiled at her, and she reciprocated. “I wanted to be happy. Better a rebuke from me, than from a stranger in the future.”
“Best to have no rebuke at all, by doing everything right,” she said, grinning.
“Ah, yes. We can hope, my dear.”
We walked together, side-by-side, towards the main dining hall; I’d been here long enough to remember the routes to the big, important rooms. Decorated corridors, empty for the night, passed us by. Her metal-shod hooves clicked as they hit the stone flooring. Outside the passing windows, three trails could be seen – two of smoke, one of thunder. They were so close together, it was like a single, wide swath of black cloud rocketing off in the sky.
The stars beyond shone brightly, as did the moon. A multitude of observers for their avatar’s good health? They certainly seemed sparkle especially vigorously this night. The moon gave off so much light, it almost rivaled the sun in spectacle. Luna’s face certainly reflected that of her namesake. Her smile, full of hope and anticipation for the future, was infectious; pretty soon, my heart swelled in excitement. And to think, I never really liked social events!
Perhaps it was my companion. I might not have liked the event, but a night with my friend-or-lover was the thing I was happy about.
The sound of the crowd washed over us like waves over sand. It was as if someone suddenly activated a radio; a wave of laughter and noise, and suddenly there was the sound of chattering and speech. The party was in full swing.
I continued to walk, but the sudden lack of heat and comforting weight from Luna’s wing made me pause in my step.
Luna had frozen in her stride. One hoof hovered over the floor, whilst she stood stock-still, almost beating the guards at her statue-impression. With each pulse of laughter and noise, Luna blinked.
I rushed back to her side. “Luna, what’s wrong?”
She took a deep breath, before turning to nuzzle the top of my head. She was tall enough to do so without me stooping down. “This was how it started.”
“The Nightmare?” I said, grimly, although I already knew the answer.
“The rebellion,” she murmured, letting her hoof fall to the floor, a limp piece of meat and bone. “I confronted my sister in the middle of court, on the twilight betwixt day and night.”
“Full circle,” I muttered. Her wing, still extended, now hung loosely in between us like a feathery wall. “It shall end how it started. But this time, we shall make another choice. No fighting; simply observing.”
She stared at me as if I had gone crazy. Ironic, yes. That spiel had come out of nowhere, and all of a sudden, I was waxing lyrical poetry more suited to a master of literature than a psychologist.
As quickly as that had come, my muse faded away, and I shook my head. “Well, that came out better than I’d thought.”
“I’ll say,” Luna giggled, sounding like a mare just out of adolescence rather than the ancient pony princess she was. Still, this side of her felt real, not an act put up for the people.
I unfurled a wing, sliding it over her back.
“So, shall we?”
The trepidation returned to her face, but it was less than before. I nuzzled her neck and chest with my cheek, careful not to scratch at the velvet coat with my sharp beak. She cooed, a sweet melody that felt like honey mead to my ears.
She nodded, and just like that, we continued down the corridor, towards the dining hall.
Opulent chandeliers, crystal with gold inlays, hung from the ceilings like spiders from webs. Massive, thick marble pillars seemed to line the walls in the far corner, and between them, I could spot an opening into the castle gardens. Next to the pillars, the doorway was dwarfed by its neighbors. A massive golden statue, all curves and abstraction and no merit, sat on a grey stone pedestal in another corner. Serving tables, stacked full with drink and food and staffed by bored, tired servant ponies lined the walls, with a pair running down the length of the hall. Most diners, almost all unicorns, ate where they stood, hovering a plate and a set of utensils in front of them as they did. Why did they even need the utensils, though? Couldn’t they simply pick up the food with their magic?
Luna’s shawl obscured her wings, but the way she had her wings wrapped around me made it look as if I was under the shawl as well. She nudged at me with a wing, and I snapped out of my stupor.
There was a dining table, unoccupied, close to us. It was in a niche of the room, where two walls would be at our backs, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of traffic nearby. The Moon Princess kept her gaze and snout pointing downwards, like an amateur spy attempting to conceal her presence.
Baby steps. Nothing ever came easy.
We sat down, next to one another. There were no chairs that I could see, but the table was designed more as a coffee table, than a dining one. It fit our purpose well, though.
Luna heaved out a breath, and I instinctively glanced over at her, before pressing closer. She would know that she didn’t have to face this alone.
Social anxiety stemmed from a sort of disconnection between a person and ‘society’, the nebulous, constantly changing thing that no one could really define. One’s description of society changed from species to species, race to race, even city to city. With Luna, though, it was likely that she wouldn’t fit any normal society; she was a princess, and furthermore, gone for a thousand years and turned into a legend.
So, these feelings she had were entirely natural.
We stayed there for a long, long while. Several ponies had passed us, giving us appraising, guarded glances. Luna had stopped shaking out of nerves, reverting to hide behind the flimsy cloth shell of her shawl. I tapped her shoulder, meeting her eyes dead-on with my own.
“I’ll get some food,” I said, pointing towards the nearby dining table. Luna’s eyes wandered over to follow my claws, and then she nodded and gave a small, shaky smile.
I piled her plate high with cooked hay of all sorts, and topped the mountain off with two artfully cut vegetable sandwiches. Hobbling back towards the table, I found it occupied by two other ponies – a male and a female. By the way they were holding one another, they were obviously a couple. By the sounds of it, Luna and the two were having a subdued conversation.
I slid the plate by Luna’s side, and she pressed her snout to the crook of my neck for a moment, before withdrawing. I smiled.
“I’m going to get more food for myself,” I whispered into her ear, and when she responded with a quiet ‘alright’, I turned tail.
Even when I wasn’t halfway to the table, I could hear the conversation stop, then kick up. It was best not to loiter.
I’d spent more time hunting for a meat substitute than I cared to admit. Despite the Gala being an event for all castle ‘guests’, including ambassadors and the like, they really only served pony food. There were some meat products, according to the servants, but they’d run out for the night.
I made do with a load of dessert. Piling cake slice upon cake slice onto my plate, I returned to the table, to find the poor Luna stumbling under a barrage of questions. Her mouth hung open as she stammered, unable to answer one question before being asked another, yet her interrogators wouldn’t stop their salvo of words.
“Is he really good in bed?”
The clink of the plate settling upon the white tablecloth surface made them both pause, and their ears swiveled to meet me before their heads turned. That last question had caught be in between the eyes; I didn’t know who had asked, but I also didn’t really care.
“Hello,” I said, trying to be as casual as I could. The way their eyes bulged and their jaws hung open – oh, Maker, I could treasure that forever. I looked over to Luna. “Meat’s gone. Making do.”
Luna unfolded her forelegs and gave a happy little gasp, before proceeding to fold a wing around me as I started to eat.
That did the trick. Their jaws seemed to fall off, hanging loosely with only the skin there to keep it attached to them.
I grinned. “As for your question, I’m not sure. I’ve never bothered to find out.”
This time, their faces reddened until they had taken the shade normally reserved for tomatoes.
“Who are you,” one of them, the mare, blurted out, and then covered her mouth with her hooves as her brain caught up with her mouth. The way she was going, I could see some of the makeup smudging as she pressed her hooves to her cheeks.
“Honey, we’d better go, and stop bothering the Princess,” the male chuckled, awkwardness oozing off every word. His pale grey coat was now so red that it looked like he had a bad case of sunburn.
“Princess Luna,” the alicorn beside me shouted. The two ponies opposite us almost went flying back into the air, but somehow, they managed to stay where they were, like kites anchored to a table. Suddenly, I was grateful for my species’ mediocre hearing.
As I gulped down the sense of nausea that had started to bubble up from my stomach, I glanced around. The ambient noise of the party made hid her exclamation quite well, and the fact that we were essentially in a corner helped to limit the number of people that could have heard. Just as well; I had the suspicion that Luna couldn’t handle crowds yet.
I smiled, and reexamined the two. The stallion was now bashfully attempting to pry his wife or mistress off the table, but the mare, cheeks rosy and eyes wandering under influence, roughly shook his hoof off with a flick of her shoulder. How much did she have to drink?
“Dr. Sigurd Frund sak Tallis,” I said cheerfully, finishing the introduction with several rapid gulps of cake. Maker, the taste! It was as if someone had managed to shove endorphins straight into all of my nerve systems. The creamy chocolate almost melted in my tongue.
“Dearie, can’t you see that the Princess is busy? I’m so very sorry,” the stallion chuckled, his monocle almost jumping ship at the awkwardness. His eye was twitching a dance, and he was sweating artillery shells at this rate. I shrugged, and continued to eat.
I glanced to the side as I swallowed. Luna didn’t seem pleased, but neither did she seem sad, or angry, or scared. It was simply as if she was an observer, a bystander in the stage of the world. Not puppet-master, not an actor, not a prop. Outside all of that.
“Why?” Luna asked, her voice a roar. I swore I could see little trails of dust blast out from her mouth. “We do not appear to be occupied.”
The male froze in his movement, before giving up with a sigh. He let himself fall onto the chair, face full of resignation. The female, however, was squinting very, very hard, as if concentrating on an imaginary fly on the wall behind me. She was still sloshed, so I suppose it could have been a hallucination of some sort. Who knew what was in her alcohol nowadays?
“Doctor? I thought bodyguard,” the mare said, all of a sudden, before collapsing into a fit of giggles and hiccups. “Oh, this is so… so, so romantic!”
“Ha ha,” I said, a mouthful of cake in my mouth. “Funny.”
Still, I couldn’t deny that there weren’t any old, idealized ties to fables in our story. The princess who fell for the commoner, the nurse who married the patient…
“Again, I apologize,” the stallion said, putting on a massive, forced smile for the Princess. He hooked a foreleg beneath his partner’s barrel, and despite the verbal and physical protests that she made, led her away.
“Well, that was fun,” I muttered, finishing off the cake. Luna had only gone halfway through her own bundle of food.
“No, it was not,” she murmured, before turning to me with a flat look. “There is no recognition in their eyes. A fresh start, for better or for worse.”
“Let’s make sure it’s for better, then,” I said, turning to shoot her a quick glance.
She returned it. “For the ones who lie dead.”
“And for yourself.” I patted her on the foreleg with the palm of my claw. “Guilt assuaged is beneficial to the self.”
She frowned, before returning to a more neutral expression. “I suppose. A side effect of good deeds.”
“A consequence, even an unintended one, is still a consequence.”
“Aye.” She turned to look at me, with an odd glint in her eye. “I tell thee this – perhaps I did not deserve my second chance. But I have it, and I shall use it to the best of my ability, to atone for my past sins.”
Her wing swept up my back, before the tip folded around the outside of my body, and drew me next to her. “Dost you thinkest my goal is worthy?”
“I think we could all do that,” I said, a smile playing upon my lips. The ponies of the Gala suddenly felt a lot further away, and their covert glances a lot less intrusive. I turned to her. “We don’t have to do it alone, however.”
She returned the smile, eyes glistening with new hope and new tears. A new future. “I… Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure,” I said, and suddenly, I realized that this was the first time I had been totally sincere using that phrase. Chilled by an imaginary wind, Luna’s body heat seemed all the more inviting.
“I had never thought a griffon to be sensitive,” she murmured, nuzzling the top of my head. “How things change.”
“We all have hidden depths,” I purred, almost involuntarily. “Past experiences, actions, help shape what we are, who we are. Beyond that…”
Her snout hit a sensitive part on the base of my neck, and I almost crooned. Almost. In hindsight, it would have been the most embarrassing thing if I had – but at that point, I didn’t care. It was like how my mother would treat me…
“Beyond that, we shape ourselves,” she finished, a triumphant smile upon her face. The star – or moon – of the ball, shining brighter than the candlelit chandeliers overhead.
“We try, I suppose,” I said, grinning stupidly. “But hey, it’s the thought, the intention that counts. Consequences come as they may. But we can say, ‘we have tried’.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, reciprocating the smile.
As I gazed into her beautiful teal eyes, and she into my own, time seemed to slow down, and the rush and noise and distraction of the party seemed to fade into a low white static. There was nothing in the world right now but her. An adrenaline high, an opioid dose couldn’t compare to this feeling of falling, yet flying, hunger and satisfaction, desperation and contentment.
Oh, this was true. I was in love. And it looked like she was as well.
The world seemed to get smaller, and she bigger. Her face, her snout and lips filled my vision, and I reflexively parted my beak.
Then, three things happened.
A shrill voice screamed out, launching a tirade against an unknown, but probably very nervous, partner.
A somewhat whispery roar burst out in the far corner closest to the gardens.
A tide of creatures, big and small, furry and scaly, streamed out like water down a broken dam.
Our respective mouths stopped millimeters from one another as our eyes snapped open, and as one, we stood with mute horror as the pillars started to collapse.
Luna sucked in a hard breath as the somewhat familiar sound of cracking stone sounded from the ceiling, like the cracking of knuckles. She closed her eyes, and her blue horn lit up.
Unbelievably, the stone started to knit together. Like strands of muscle winding over and under and in between one another, the stone began to spread ‘roots’, simply sinking into neighboring stone slabs as if they were water. All the while, I could see a thin blue layer tint the frescoes painted on the slabs that were once the ceiling.
I gaped at the display. The ceiling, once whole and then fragmented into massive, interlocking slabs, was now healing – gluing one slab to another using their materials they were built from.
Another aura, light gold, reestablished the pillars, propping up the hastily sewn ceiling before the latter could fracture into more chunks.
The animals running around almost went ignored by me. None of them stepped close to us; it was as if they knew what I was. Some primal part of their brains had activated their self-preservation instinct, and they knew well enough to stay away.
Luna collapsed into a huff, a light coat of sweat covering her slim frame. She smiled tiredly at me, and giggled. I realized that I was still gaping like an idiot.
“Wow,” I muttered. Right then, I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She drew me into a hug, watching as a light gold tint played around the repaired ceiling, filling in gaps and repainting the artwork. As if someone turned on the radio, the screams of the partygoers suddenly seemed that much louder, and I let loose a shaky breath, aware of my sudden shivering. The last vestiges of adrenaline evaporated from my muscles, and suddenly I felt spent, leaning into Luna’s soft, warm embrace.
Hoofsteps sounded off from the right, and I turned my head over to see Heartfelt stepping over the path of a colorful rodent. She was dressed in simple servant uniform, tarnished by a messy slosh that had once been thousand-bit soup. She shook her head, and then drew into a bow, pressing the light pink of her chin almost to the floor. Luna bade her to rise, although with slightly more formality than I expected.
The alicorn laid her head on top of mine, using the crown feathers as a sort of pillow.
“You know, Your Majesty, Doctor Sigurd… no one would notice if you two were missing from the Gala. Especially not after an event like this.”
It took me a moment to catch her drift, before I closed my eyes and half-smiled. “Really? You know I’m not that kind of person.”
Luna, meanwhile, kept silent. With her head directly above mine, her expression was hidden from me, but I suspected that she was somewhat confused. Perhaps it was the subtlety of the language.
“Hey, I don’t know.” She grinned. “I never suggested anything. Just… if you’d like some privacy in your own rooms, no one will stop you.”
“Message received in full,” I said. It was good to see her, get some laughs to balance out all of the melancholy philosophy of before. Balance. That was the spice of life, or more accurately, the staple. “You got anyone in mind?”
Her smile faltered a little, becoming dreamier and her eyes more vacant, before she turned to look away. I followed her gaze to one of the guards that were trying to instill order amidst the shouts of anger and cries of distress. “Yeah.”
“Best of luck,” I said, turning back to look at her. “By the way, you might want to get cleaned up.”
“Hmm?” She followed the point of my claw, suddenly noticing the patch on her uniform. “Oh, piffle. That’s going to get a wash later, anyways.”
“Yes, it would,” Luna said, after a moment as I fought to contain my urge to chuckle at the blatant hint. “Thou cannot report for duty with dirty clothing.”
“Princess, I meant… never mind,” Heartfelt said, trying very hard not to facehoof.
I grinned at her. “You know, I see he’s all alone right now, in need of some help.” Sure enough, the poor guard was surrounded by panicking animals and guests, all of whom threatened to overwhelm him like a massive wave. “Just waiting for a partner to battle the hordes with.”
Heartfelt looked away from us, her violet eyes searching and lighting up as she spotted her chance. “Farewell, Princess, Doctor,” she said, and took off cantering.
“Ah, how romantic,” Luna cooed, in a whisper of a voice. She lifted her head up from mine, and shot me an odd, hungry look. “We shall also make our own happy ending.”
As we passed the threshold of Luna’s room, I marveled at the interior. It was massive – enough for a family of griffons to fly around in – but also, somehow, managing to feel cozy, not distant. The place was barren, free of all furniture save for the big, four-poster bed in the center, directly beneath a moonbeam. A small hint of dust spiraled through that waving, silvery current of light, but with a blast of her horn, Luna expelled all the detritus out of the window, in a cloud of black and grey.
We sat on the bed together, side by side, looking out over the landscape. The lowest reach of Canterlot turned, quite suddenly, into forest, which was cut by a lonely, meandering train track. A small town sprung up in the outskirts of the forest. Even from this distance, I could see the mechanical rigidity of the rows of trees present on the far side of the town, a stark contrast to the random placement of colorful residential housing. Beyond that, the world became much too indistinct to pick out specifics, but I thought I could see the great coastal city of Manehatten, a grey set of blocks amidst a cloud of fog and dust.
Luna sighed. I asked her what was wrong.
“It’s all so different,” she said, wrapping a wing around me. “Before my exile… our subjects were only a set of disparate tribes, linked together because of common fear and hardship. We sat upon thrones of stone, not gold or silver. In that forest, we guided our people. Now, it is… different.”
I simply nodded, and leaned into her side. “They say change is the only constant of life.”
“Aye.” She turned to look at me, eyes wide and searching, gaze somewhat distant. “Even you will wither and die, some day in the future.”
I didn’t want to think of my own mortality, but I couldn’t deny the truth in her words. My jaw set, I looked out over the landscape. What would it be like, a thousand years in the future? Would there be many more cities, and the forest reduced to a tenth of its former size? Would the forest grow to encompass the town, suffocating it, destroying the train track that was its sole vein and artery? Would there even be a Canterlot at all, or would the city be a wreck, a ruin of its former self, left to sit as a cautionary tale of hubris?
I shook my head. “Yes. I know.”
“I love you, Sigurd,” Luna sighed, sinking her snout into the crook of my neck. Her warm breaths tickled the skin beneath the feathers, and tugged lightly at their stems. “I will lose you someday, and I will mourn and dread that day.”
“Then we must treasure every second of our time together,” I murmured, stroking her foreleg, feeling the tension flow from the muscle beneath her velvet skin. “That is the best we can do.”
A pause, and then another promise. “I don’t know if your pony heaven is the same as griffon heaven, but if I’m up there and you’re not, I’ll be looking down. You’ll never be alone.”
“Perhaps it would be easier in the long term if I closed my heart,” she murmured, eyes glistening.
I froze, almost comically. My heart felt as if someone had dunked it in cold water, and somehow, the air seemed to condense. Perhaps she was right, though. It would hurt – but if we weren’t comfortable with this, I’d be spitting on my duty if I acted to pursue something she didn’t want. I was a healer, not a destroyer, of the mind and soul.
She grinned, turning back to me with a saucy smile. The last of her tears trickled down her cheek, leaving trails of sparkling crystal. “That depends on how happy you makest me.”
I gave her a flat stare, before the corners of my mouth lifted upwards. “I accept your challenge.”
“Perfect.” And with that, the wing she had draped around my shoulders swung forwards, knocking me into the soft bed. I barely had time to react before she turned me over, pressed her front hooves down on my shoulders, and straddled my lower torso. Her teal eyes gleamed hungrily, and her mane of liquid night flowed around her head and down her long, sinuous neck like a living river.
She smiled, the expression oozing anticipation, excitement and desire.