• 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 4

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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 –”

“Liar!”

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.

“Well, speak.”

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.

But what?

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.

Oh.

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.

Luna.

Moon. Dreamer. Lunatic.

In my mind, I sighed.