In the end, she simply told everyone she had resented him from the start.
Or, no – not told them, per se, and certainly not to everyone. After all, Timov of Algul did not mince words about something that could be communicated just as well with a single look.
Looks could kill, they said, but hers were capable of far more than that. There was one in particular she had grown quite attached to – her weapon of choice, as it were, to wield against anything that threatened her. Over the years she had taken pride in cultivating it to the point of perfection, sharpening it against every shred of anger and disappointment and bitterness she had gathered in her life. She was not a woman to hold on to such things out of principle, but if they could be made into a tool, it would be foolish not to put them to good use – and this look of hers was nothing if not useful.
For one thing, it had the effect of instantly silencing anyone bold enough to pry into her personal life. For another, she felt stronger when wearing it, and less prone to showing other kinds of emotion, which were far more difficult to tame than mere disdain or haughtiness. Above all, it made it very, very clear to anyone who wondered that she did not love her husband, had in fact never granted him so much as a sliver of her hearts, thus sparing her the nuisance of having to state such facts aloud.
It had always worked perfectly, in all respects except one: that the single person unaffected by her act would be the one she had created it for. Where he found the patience to keep deflecting her coldness with such ease, even amusement, she truly did not know. Patience of the fools, she tended to call it, with that same knife-edge irony that was her trademark: if she was the hurricane, then Londo Mollari was strolling dumbly in the eye of it without even knowing.
The other explanation, that he had seen through the charade and spotted its ground of self-preservation, was too unlikely to bear thinking about.
The décor needs work, she decided, peering intently at the ceiling from where she was sprawled on her back in the bed. For the past ten minutes or so, she had been trying to locate a single square foot in the room that wasn’t adorned with anything polished, or gilded, or pink. So far she had failed miserably. She made a mental note to complain to Londo about it; at the very least, those pastels had to go! Truth be told, she would rather have had her wedding night under the open sky -never mind that it had been pouring all day- than amid this cacophony of bad taste.
Of course, if it really had been her choice, she would have preferred to avoid the fuss of a wedding night altogether. She was nothing if not a practical woman, and if there was anything practical about catering to the needs of a man she didn’t desire, she had yet to discover it. Besides, she thought, with a touch of indignation, it wasn’t as if tonight would have any special meaning to him. It was tradition, of course, not to consummate an affair until after one had been lawfully wedded; but given that Londo had eloped at the tender age of nineteen, she wasn’t taking him for a traditionalist in those matters. She was hardly his first, that she knew for certain. Why she’d taken that to imply there had been countless others before her, she could not actually recall. In any case, the conviction was nested snugly in her thoughts now, infusing her with the comforting knowledge that tonight would turn out just the way she wanted it: mere routine for Londo, and with nothing expected from her in any–
The voice was pitched higher than usual, and she rolled her eyes in exaggerated disdain. Oh, heavens – if he’s too drunk to even speak properly, we’re in for a long night. She turned her head reluctantly, dragging the moment out for as long as possible, and was surprised to find him still lingering at the door.
He took the motion as encouragement to step inside. “My dove?” No endearments – she had set that condition the very first day, though Londo, being Londo and therefore prone to senseless debate, had protested at it with some vehemence. In the end, he had settled for a compromise that she’d agreed to tolerate: a human term, one that no one around here recognized, and which sounded perfectly neutral even to her. He was repeating it now, casting it into the air as if it were a charm.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in, hmm, my dove? Don’t tell me you were asleep – surely not at a time like this!”
Something in the tone: an echo underlying the well-groomed bravado that was not quite anxiety, but very much like it. A similar echo, too, in his step, after she drew aside the covers to signal her surrender. There was no hint of smugness as he slipped between them, none of the casual indifference she’d been counting on. Instead he gathered her to him so tightly that she could feel the nervous stutter of heartbeats in his throat. She wondered, incredulous, at the trembling of his hands as they crept across pale silk and skin, at the breaths blossoming onto her shoulder in bursts far too shallow to be deliberate. Not his first, no, but – oh, certainly no more than his third; perhaps even second. The thought made her feel strangely powerful, as if it was she who had the advantage here.
It didn’t take her long to realize that she had.
It was, she thought later, that first night which had been the most enlightening. For one, it had taught her that the legendary Centauri patience in matters physical was just what the description implied: a legend. Not that this had displeased her, oh no. On the contrary, she’d found it both convenient and strangely disarming. The irony of it was that over time, his patience in the bedroom had grown as steadily as his interest for her as a person had faded. Gradually, she began to understand why Centauri men didn’t mind the arranged marriages, the often cool relationships, nearly as much as the women did. It allowed them to perfect the art of lovemaking undistracted by anything as bothersome as obligation, or embarrassment, or – gods, forbid! – love.
Yet she couldn’t deny that between them there once was, if not love, then at least the potential for it. She gathered as much during that first night, which ended much sooner than boasts and gossip had led her to expect. One moment it seemed he was still mouthing her name, the next he lay sprawled in an inelegant tangle beneath her, and she had to gulp down laughter at the sight. She’d shrugged off his breathless apologies with something like affection.
“Oh, Londo, please, don’t make such a fuss. Frankly, I don’t see the problem about wrapping things up efficiently; it’s you men who seem to care about it such a great deal!”
He stared at her as if she had just sprouted wings, and it was all she could do not to giggle. His next question, though, wiped the grin off her face quite efficiently.
“What do you care about, then?”
Now it was her turn to stare, which she apparently did long enough for him to get some of his wind and his old recklessness back. By the time she had recovered, he’d propped himself up on one elbow, the hint of a challenge gleaming in his eyes. “Forgive me if I misjudge you, my dear, but you didn’t seem to – enjoy – any of this very much, hmm?” A hand moved to tickle the small of her back and she winced involuntarily, reflex winning out on indignation. “So tell me: how shall we up the, ah, experience for you?”
That was the first time he had asked her what she wanted, and she was utterly, shamefully, unable to reply. Still, she tried to explain it to him, in that stupidly honest way of her. That she didn’t even think she had such needs, let alone that she’d expected him to care about them. That Centauri husbands did not go around pleasuring their wives, as everyone very well knew. But Londo didn’t understand, of course; and he cajoled and teased and pled with her at intervals until she finally lost her calm and asked if she should fake it, then. That brought her point across – or at least, she thought as much.
Yet the following night he asked again, as did he the nights that came after it.
This was exactly his problem, she knew – it had always been his problem. That silly, stubborn eagerness to please, to be worthy, to be noticed, so much that he forgot what he valued for himself. It was what had made him bend to his family’s will and divorce his first wife; it was why he’d agreed to marry her. One day it would prove his undoing, that she did not doubt. Of course, she herself was not without faults. Hers was knowing too well what she did and didn’t need, and refusing to accept whatever fit into the latter category. That made them about as compatible as a round box and a square lid, which is why they seldom shared anything these days, up to and including intimacy.
Oh, not that they were are at war, or anything on that scale. It had just been better for both their sakes – though admittedly mostly for Londo’s, who bruised far more easily than he would have people think – to avoid the type of situations where she’d have to turn him down. She didn’t delude herself, of course; Londo needed the comforts of a woman as much as he needed air, and she knew perfectly well the places he frequented. She’d even passed him in the street one night, as she was going out for a breath of fresh air. It had been impossible not to notice him, weaving down the main thoroughfare with a fluttering, rosy-cheeked female on his arm, and far too tipsy with drink and desire to notice his wife staring after him. The girl had not even been very pretty, she thought; too blonde and far too willowy to be Londo’s type. But if it kept him happy, who was she to complain?
She supposed she should have noticed the signs; yet be it though naïveté or sheer denial, the fact was that she missed all of them. At least, that was, until that day Londo walked up to her in the garden as she was digging through the flower beds. That he would meet her there was not surprising in itself: Londo loved being outside, and that shady patch under the limari tree was one of the rare places where they still sought each other’s company. What did strike her as odd, though, was the way he carried himself: overly formal, even for him, almost as if she were another woman than the one he knew, and he had come to court her, or invite her to a ball, or…
Or to bring bad tidings. Yes…yes, of course. She attacked the weeds with renewed viciousness, alarm bells going off in her head as she peered at his approaching form. The signs were unmistakable, really; Londo, when nervous, had a way of averting his eyes just so, and at the moment those eyes were directed somewhere above her left breast, far enough off target that something must be seriously wrong. She righted herself with an effort, saw his gaze slide down toward her mud-caked hands as she wiped them absently on her skirt. He couldn’t stop himself, she noted, from frowning just a little in disapproval. Oh, the battles she’d had to wage before Londo allowed her a pastime as unladylike as gardening! Of course, Londo being Londo, in the end he had been incapable of denying her this. Still, she made a feeble attempt to clear her nails of dirt before deciding to hell with them.
“All right, Londo, what is it? Just get it off your chest and be done with it.”
He looked lost, which twisted her stomach just a little. Shifting to straighten a crick in her spine, she let her eyes sweep the beds with budding sintra, the fat Centauri orchids that Londo had insisted on despite her protests. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for what could only be one of two things: his rejection for the post he’d applied for on Earth, or something involving her own sister, who’d been sickly for months now, and whom she’d waited far too long to visit. What followed, however, was not even close to either of these.
“Timov, what would you think… if I took a second wife?”
The question hit her like a blow in the ribs, followed on its heels by revulsion. Great Maker, how naïve was she, that she hadn’t even seen this coming? She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing calm, while in fact all she wanted to do was storm toward the orchid patch and trample the bunch altogether. “What do I think?” A practised shrug, one that felt almost convincing. “Really, Londo, who you take for your wife is entirely your own business. I don’t see what I have to do with that at all, and frankly, I don't care!”
Frowning, he raised a hand to tug at his collar. “Ah, Timov…ever the obedient wife, I see.” But there was wariness in his face, and for a heart-stopping moment she was sure he’d call her bluff, which would be too unbearable. Then the moment passed, and he just looked angry. “Well, I don’t care that you don’t care; I want you to think about it anyway!” Another frown, before his voice softened again. “I thought – it might be a good solution, no? For both of us. You would have some more interesting company, and I would have, ah...” a sigh, as she raised practised eyebrows. “In any case, it is expected from me, as you know very well; I cannot avoid it forever. So better to do it now, when I’m still well-preserved enough to attract anyone who is not an old hag, no? Tell me, is that what you wish, perhaps?”
She shouted then, anger bubbling to the surface despite her attempts to keep it contained. “Oh, Londo, do you honestly expect my blessing for this? If you can’t even decide on your own domestic affairs, then what can you decide on? Just choose, and spare me the bother!” And at that she turned away, stomping straight across grass and weeds and beds of sintra, but none of it brought any relief.
The next morning she stalked across to his bedroom, half expecting to find the new wife-to be draped across the sheets; yet the bed was empty, and remained empty, for the better part of the following year.
She did not know whether to consider that a victory; it tasted rather more like her first defeat.
There was something about Earth men, she thought, watching the complex social dance from a sheltered corner of the banquet room, that made them far more alien than appearance let on. Take their relationships, for example. On her homeworld, it was unthinkable for women to be invited to social gatherings such as this, let alone that their husbands would spend any more time in their presence than was strictly called for – which, for Londo, meant five seconds, flat. Here, however, men not only brought their wives – or wife, more precisely – to public events; they actually spent half the evening introducing them to other men, who would reciprocate this by introducing their wives, and so on. If the women had just been part of the ritual, trophies to be shown around like any piece of jewellery, she would have understood; but these women seemed to be here mainly for their own enjoyment, mingling comfortably with each other and the men. It was quite a spectacle, really, and she absorbed as much of it as she could, cheeks flushed with the headiness of anticipation.
In fact, had Londo been as versed in Human social customs as his newly-appointed post of ambassador merited, she would not even be here. As it was, he’d still been flabbergasted enough by all of it to be completely without defence when his Earth contact insisted he bring his wife on his first visit. Of course, Londo wasn’t about to introduce her to anyone of importance, instead having dropped her off with the wife of one of his ‘business contacts’, as he called it. Still, her talking companion was interesting enough: red-haired, compact, and quintessentially human, if also a touch too nosy for her tastes.
“So, what is it you do, lady – Timo, wasn’t it?”
“Timov,” she corrected, tartly. “And ‘do’, in which sense, precisely?”
“Why, your profession, I meant, of course,” the woman replied with a brisk smile. “Of course, raising children is a profession as well – I should know, I got two of them! But you don’t have any, you did say? So, something else, then – a job, hobbies?” Timov frowned, and the freckled chin opposite her puckered, matching her own confusion. “Well,” the woman insisted, “there should be something to tell – you can hardly spend your days staring at ceilings, can you?” The high-pitched, artificial giggle rippled through the room once more.
Timov smiled wryly. “Oh,” she purred, suave, “I’m afraid the life of a Centauri official’s consort is exceedingly dull, to any standards. But tell me: what does the wife of a Human official – do – exactly?”
The woman sighed, as if disappointed at the change of subject, but then obliged readily enough. “Well, I teach, mostly. Primary school, kids of about eight years old.” She laughed then, her first genuine laugh of the evening, and Timov blinked at the sound of it. “It’s a marvellous job, if you can believe me,” she went on, eyes shining. “They’re so young, you know – think they can take on the world, and…”
But Timov was already in a world of her own, possibilities opening up like flowers before her.
“No, no, and triple no!” Londo slammed the knife down onto the tabletop with a force that would have splintered wood. “Great Maker, woman, do you even know what you’re asking?”
“Except for you to shut up and listen?” She stood and planted both hands on the table, raising her voice to match his. “Given the fact that I’ve never asked for anything before – yes, I suspect I would know! And is it so much to ask, really? Something to do, to be responsible for; something to keep me from ‘staring at the ceiling’ – which, in this house, is horrid enough to drive any sane person mad, as I’ve told you a million –”
He shushed her, putting one hand to his temple while the other waved up and down in what was probably intended as a placating gesture, but instead looked more like he was swatting a fly. “Timov, please. You’ve never engaged in such folly before – how else do you think I managed to put up with you, hmm? – so this isn’t a time to start.” A hesitant pause, in which she fumed while Londo fidgeted. “Besides… you have your garden, no? You asked me for that years ago; are you not happy with it?”
She tapped the table with growing impatience, still looking down on him, though from a lesser height than she would have preferred. “That wasn’t a question, it was self-evident! Now I’m asking –”
“Dear gods, Timov, what madness has gotten into you?” He retrieved the knife only to toss it back down again, the angry red on his cheeks creeping slowly towards his forehead. “Some Earth teacher chats with you for five minutes, and suddenly, you want a job, of all things! Do you want to teach, too, hmm?” A harsh, humourless laugh. “Do you know how many Centauri schools would accept a female teacher? Should I count them out for you? Even a deaf and mute amputee could count them out, in the Maker’s name, so –”
“I know that!” she retorted, struggling to keep a lid on her frustration and managing only barely. “But there are other ways! I could set up a shop here – I wouldn’t even have to leave the house to do it, so –”
“– and have everyone gossip behind our backs that Londo Mollari cannot even support his own wife?” Suddenly, he was on his feet and grabbing the edge of table, so they were facing off like two rivals perched for battle. “What would that do for my career, hmm, for our reputation!? Great Maker–” with a twist of satisfaction, she watched him interrupt his ranting to come up for air, “you might as well go standing on street corners, or traipsing down alleyways, asking money in exchange for your–”
“Londo, I’m choking in here!”
Of all reasons she might have given, the need for freedom, at least, was something Londo could sympathize with; and it stopped him dead in his tracks. Face slackening, he lowered himself back into the chair, looking at her with a mixture of surprise and sadness. “Well…” he sighed, going back to rubbing his temple while keeping one eye trained on her. “Well, if you – if you need something to be responsible for, then perhaps, ah…” His head bobbed weakly, and he looked down before saying it. “Perhaps… you could have a child, if you want?”
The budding surge of hopefulness turned around to stab her in the gut. “I can have a child, if I want!?” She sputtered, incredulous. “Goodness, Londo, do you think a child is just some object that a person can ‘have’ in order to feel accomplished? Do you think a child would solve anything? If I wanted to be a mother, I would have asked you far sooner! What I want is –”
“What you want, you can’t have!”
She stared, shocked into silence by the vehemence of his outburst, and was still recovering when he passed a hand over his face, breathing heavily. “We all have our duties, Timov, and this is the one you, as my wife, will carry out. Do you understand?”
Hearts hammering, she took a step backwards, and then another, until she was almost at the door. Her voice, when it came out, sounded so little like her own that it made a shiver run through her, distant and cold and very, very quiet. “Well…” she breathed out, “if this is what being your wife comes down to, I suggest you find someone else to do the job, Londo. Because I have had enough.”
At which she turned on her heel and left him sitting, mouth open, in front of his barely touched dinner.
It had all degenerated quickly after that. For once it seemed Londo had heeded her words, because he’d married Daggair less than a month later, after a whirlwind courtship which Timov had observed from as large a distance as possible. Although she’d expected to feel some trace of jealousy, or regret, or at least plain disgust, she had lived through all of it with a numbness that was almost comforting. She had refused to attend the wedding, of course, even though tradition requested it, and Londo, in an unexpected display of empathy – or cowardice, she’d huffed to herself – had not forced her.
The numbness didn’t last, of course, and the day it wore off was when she started the charade. To feel something as quaint as regret over Londo, with Daggair around to take advantage of it… no, that simply would not do. So she had sharpened her tongue while systematically blunting the rest of her, turning any shred of affection that remained into a barrage of cynicism and that one disdainful look. It had hardened her – had hardened them both – quite efficiently, and by the time Mariel joined the household, it felt as if things had never been different.
Pale; pale and small and somehow thinner than she’d imagined; those were her first thoughts as she glimpsed Londo laid out on the bed, with screens and tubes and monitors pressing in from all sides. She’d been given the details, of course: the heart attack that he’d miraculously pulled through, and that a transplant had been needed anyway, because his weakened left heart was too much of a liability.
She had appreciated Franklin’s detachment in delivering the news. It had formed a much-needed counterweight for the attentions of one Vir Cotto, who wouldn’t know the word ‘detached’ when forced to utter it at knifepoint. For some reason, Vir had been convinced she’d want to visit Londo immediately upon her arrival, and no amount of snappishness could persuade him otherwise. She’d insisted, of course, that it was useless to see Londo at all unless he was awake and somewhat coherent – at least, not less so than usual – but in the end, she had grown weary of arguing and had simply given in. She must be getting old, she thought, or perhaps Vir had that effect on everyone; it really was impossible to tell.
So, here she was, now. For a moment she’d hoped that Franklin would allow her just a brief moment before dragging her out again, but he had left muttering something about “privacy”, which had dashed that hope rather effectively. The Medlab chairs turned out to be dreadfully uncomfortable, but in truth that was fortunate, since it gave her an excuse for pacing.
She wasn't even certain why she had come, except that it had seemed proper somehow. It surely wasn't convenient: for one thing, she had never left the children – Urza's, naturally; not hers – alone so long. For another, it wasn’t as if she had seen or heard from Londo more than a handful of times since that silly decision to keep her as his wife. Once, a call, to tell her not to speak to any associate of Cartagia if she could help it, and never mention the children. She had been tempted to ask if this included Londo himself, given that he was supposedly Cartagia's confidante at the time – a fact which had disgusted her beyond belief – but had heeded the advice nonetheless. After that, nothing, except one brief and rather downcast message to say he was being considered for the throne.
Altogether not a terribly close relationship; which was why it had surprised her to no end when Vir had called to say that Londo was ill and had asked for her, and that he’d booked her a ticket on the next flight. She’d nearly told him what to do with the ticket before realizing she didn’t want Londo to die up here on his own; not anymore, not for a long time now.
She wheeled around, banging a hip against the table and stifling a curse at her own clumsiness. He was blinking up at her with puffy eyes, and in an impulse she went to sit by the bed. "Yes, of course, you dim-wit, who else would it be?" But there was no venom in the words, just a relief so unexpectedly gut-wrenching that she was glad to be sitting down.
“Oh." A stunned whisper, followed by a look that could only be called tender. "Great Maker… so much for peace and quiet.”
After which he groaned blearily, and proceeded to vomit straight into her lap.
"He'll be all right," Vir reassured her, for the umpteenth time, moving over to press a mug of jála into her hands. He’d been waiting outside as the doctor ushered her out, spotted the damage to both gown and pride, and had led her to Londo’s quarters without further dawdling. The boy’s confidence had improved immeasurably compared to the last time she’d seen him; he was far less irritating now, though there was still that layer of softness she suspected he’d never lose. It was particularly uncanny to see such a cascade of affection directed toward Londo; so much of it, in fact, that the boy had been prattling on about him from the second they’d left Med Lab. "Perfectly all right,” he kept repeating to himself, as if it were a mantra. “Dr. Franklin's a terrific doctor, you know. So if he says it was just a reaction to the anaesthetic wearing off, then I’m sure…”
She gritted her teeth, keeping herself from snapping at him only with an effort. The truth is that she would have done it much sooner, if not for the fact she felt rather out of her depth herself. All resentment aside, there was something inherently wrong about seeing Londo so helpless, rather than babbling and striding about pestering people. She rubbed sweaty hands, not sure if she had the scalding hot jála or something else to blame for them. “Yes, Vir,” she finally interjected, “I know what the doctor said. I was there, and I do not have a hearing problem, or advanced dementia. Two or three weeks’ recovery, and then he shouldn’t even feel the difference between the artificial heart and his own. "
"Oh, that is a given", a Narn voice chimed in from behind her back. “And I would think two weeks is optimistic; he is far too stubborn to pay anyone the courtesy of remaining quiet for that long."
Cautious, she took another sip of her drink, trying to make sense of that particular anomaly. That Vir would be here to fuss over her – well, that was hardly surprising. But the last thing she’d expected was finding him in the company of a Narn– a Narn who, as it was beginning to dawn on her, knew his way around Londo’s quarters with alarming precision.
“You are wondering, aren’t you?” he continued, still in that same mild tone. “Wondering why I, of all people, would join you here. You’re too polite to ask, perhaps, but it’s very obvious from your face.”
She blinked, taken aback at the directness. “Why, yes, actually, Citizen… G’Kar, isn’t it? I must say I’ve never been accused of an excess of politeness before, but – I am a little stunned at finding you here. And I would not mind to find out why.”
He smiled, holding up the small item he’d been fiddling with – which looked strangely like a plain, cheap shot glass – before putting it back onto its shelf. "Well… the obvious answer to that would be that he asked me to, plain and simple.”
“Asked you?” She resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. “I hope he didn’t tell you I could ‘use the company’? It is an argument he tried before, you know, and it is still as feeble now as it was then.”
“Oh, no,” he assured her, ambling toward her to occupy the only straight-backed chair in the room. “At least, if that was his reason, he didn’t mention it to me. No, I rather suspect he asked me here as a… a peace offering, if you catch my meaning.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Actually, I don’t. Truth be told, I understand even less why you would do as he asked. Last I heard, he was responsible for starting the war with your people, so –"
“Last I saw, he was also responsible for stopping it.”
“And – one cancels out the other, you mean?” She sniffed. “I must say I’ve always found that a lame excuse for failing to make the right decision the first time around! I’m sure I haven’t forgiven him for it, let alone that I would understand how you are able to.”
"Oh, I haven’t,” he stated flatly. "In fact, I share your opinion: one good deed, or even a series of them, is hardly enough to absolve a man from past crimes. But it does make it far easier to ignore them.”
She was still pondering that the following day, as she went to take her leave of Londo.
“You’re serious, then; you are going?” He squinted up at her in genuine surprise, the frown etching weariness deeper into his face. “And not a single visit – except,” he rushed on, seeing she was about to contest this, “that one time with Vir, during which you hardly said a word. It was fortunate you were wearing red, or I would have had trouble distinguishing you from that blank wall back there!”
He trailed off as if expecting her to retaliate, but she hardly even noticed, preoccupied as she was with looking him over. That he was well enough for his customary baiting should have stripped her of any and all concern. In truth, though, she kept being distracted by those little signs of weakness: the frequent pauses between words, the near-total absence of hand-waving or pomposity; the way his eyes had clouded over while he talked, as if the very act was making him dizzy. It was all very strange, really, strange and just unsettling enough that she didn’t quite know which hand to play.
He bit his lip, shaking his head as if to clear it. “Great Maker – two days under Franklin’s ‘best care', and I still cannot even catch my breath.” A sigh, followed by a weak half-grin. “I should ask for my money back, no?”
“Perhaps I shall ask him, if you continue pouting,” she shot back, and turned to hide a smile of her own. “And yes, I have to leave. I could only make arrangements for the children for a few days, so I need to catch the next transport back.”
She grew serious then, steeling herself before abandoning the act altogether. “Londo – I came. I did what you wanted. So now let me tell you what I want.” Uncertain, she looked back over her shoulder to see him blink at the demand. “I want you to come home, just once, when you are well, and to see the children; and afterwards, you will sit with me in the garden, and you will tell me everything. Everything, Londo. I have lived too long on rumours and assumption, and I suppose – if your Narn friend can take it, so can I.”
He started, eyes wild, and for a moment she was sure he was going to yell and rage at her, say she was spouting nonsense. But then his face slackened, and he just gave a brief nod.
“All right… all right, Timov,” he muttered, “though I doubt it will cause you to think better of me. I am warning you now, since I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that I am angling for your approval, or anything else, for that matter.”
“Good heavens – I would hope not!” she managed, and was out of the room before he could call her back.
There was, she thought, something obscenely self-congratulatory about dressing one’s emperors all in white. Oh, she knew it was supposed to look radiant, project an image of godly benevolence, but that trick only worked from a distance. Up close, all she could see was the stifling tightness of that bleached collar; the hands clenching and unclenching within those gloves. At least he was not wearing the seal, which she suspected would weigh down younger men than he. It was the gloves most of all that turned her stomach. She had heard Earth telepaths were required to wear them, and had always found it sickening: that a person so sensitive to the intricacies of touch should be cut off from it so crudely. Londo was as physical a person as any telepath, so to deny him even those small comforts of the flesh was not only thoughtless, it was downright sadistic.
The hand moved to pluck at the cuff of his sleeve, and she averted her eyes, only to be confronted with a rising column of smoke. It was madness, really, for them to be outside while half of the capital was still a smouldering ruin, new fires breaking out daily in factories and hospitals all over the place. But Londo had insisted they meet in the garden, and it had seemed important enough to him that she hadn’t thought of arguing.
He had been waiting when she called at the gate, and then he’d led her to a tiny bench behind a limari hedge, and – talked. She had listened with a growing sense of numbness, wanting to hate him for all of it – the war, the bombardment; Cartagia, for heaven’s sake! – but finding herself oddly incapable. He had done terrible things, yes, terrible enough to make her shudder with loathing, but for some reason all of that seemed irrelevant now that he was emperor. She had no idea why she should pity him so; apart from the gloves, she couldn’t point out a single thing about the station which was in any way unbearable. Yet something told her that, before his life was done, he would pay for his crimes a hundred times over; that he was paying for them even now.
“You surprise me, Timov,” he muttered, eyes downcast. “I had expected you to storm off before I had even finished; but you are still here, and have yet to make an attempt to strangle me. I find that quite extraordinary.”
She choked halfway between anguish and laughter. “Of course I’m still here, you dim-wit; where else would I be?”
And then she surprised both herself and him by catching his hand and stripping it bare.
She didn’t remember afterwards who had made the next move. Only that, suddenly, she was pressed in an awkward angle against his chest, his hands straining to meet at the small of her back. His arms are too short, she thought vaguely, too short just by an inch; just like his reach had always been an inch too short to embrace his hearts’ desire, and he’d ended up claiming another’s desires for his own. For some reason the thought was unbearable enough that tears started to gather at the corners of her eyes, and she blinked furiously to keep them back.
“Timov…” He swallowed, chin all but touching the top of her head, and his hearts were beating fast, so very fast under her cheek. “I – I wish –”
“I know,” she breathed; and then, to her utter horror, she was crying, something she hadn’t done since she was ten years of age, and she squeezed her face into his chest so that he wouldn’t see. It would have been the height of embarrassment, really, if not for that heartbeat rushing against her skin, and his hand, which trembled ever so slightly as it stroked the back of her scalp.
Only as she raised her head did she notice the moist, perfectly round stain she’d left on his tunic, right where his heart had been.