• Published 22nd Sep 2012
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The Nightingale Effect - N00813



A griffon psychologist, assigned to help Princess Luna recover from her time in exile, develops feelings for his patient. [LunaxOC]

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Chapter 1

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“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.

Lucky me.

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.

Ah, shit.

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.

Bingo.

“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.