Less than six hours after she'd arrived, Na'Toth was working. She was supposed to have a week of guidance and orientation, but a sudden transport schedule change had forced G'Kar to depart on his strange 'vacation' early, leaving Na'Toth alone with (and largely unprepared for) Emperor Mollari. It was less than ideal, to say the least. She was satisfied, however, that Mollari seemed just as uneasy about the arrangement. Na'Toth would not harm him, no matter how much she thought it a wiser course of action than protecting him, but she could enjoy letting him wonder about it. Her performance as his bodyguard would be flawless, and she'd leave him properly unsettled as he waited for the trick, the twist, the other side of the coin. It would be satisfying.
She stood now watching a rather dull party over Mollari's left shoulder. It rendered her mouth dry, her head foggy. A near constant stream of frilled and feathered Centauri women approached Mollari's throne to pay some sort of respect, and Na'Toth had to restrain sneers each time. How G'Kar had endured these, even with his odd tastes in bedroom companions, she could not fathom.
“I don't imagine you've seen much of this sort of thing, hmm?” Mollari idly swirled some wine in a golden cup, watching it more than the party. He might as well have been talking to the wine, for he made no eye contact with Na'Toth.
Prison walls versus glittery parties. “No, I somehow missed these opportunities,” she hissed.
He nodded, but from this angle, his expression couldn't be read.
“The lady at the back there,” he said, nodding toward a woman in the far corner who was leaning against a pillar and keeping her distance from the dancing. Her dress was enormous and seemed to stick out in the front and back far more than even the Centauri could consider practical. “That's Lady Ellov.”
He took a breath. It was not so quick or so pained as to be called 'sharp', but it was audible, Na'Toth could sense it, even in the constant murmur of this foolish event.
“I only thought her worth pointing out.” He looked back into his wine. << Her dress looks like a boat.>>
<<Oh, absolutely! She looks –>> She stopped suddenly, realizing what she'd heard and who had said it. She lowered her voice quickly and leaned in enough to be heard over the party. “You speak Narn?”
He did not look at her, but rather raised his glass in polite acknowledgment of someone across the room who had done the same to him. “G'Kar has been trying to teach me. It is not much, but it is enough to get by.”
“Or enough to insult women's dresses.”
Mollari shrugged one shoulder and smiled into his golden cup. “G'Kar's curriculum may leave something to be desired, but you learn what you practice, and we find the greatest use for it right here.”
She almost wanted to smile, though it was more at the image of the now-absent G'Kar suggesting language lessons in order to covertly insult the citizens in the palace than at Mollari sitting beside her, largely useless and all draped in gold.
A couple approached the elaborate throne where Mollari sat and bowed at the steps in front of him. Na'Toth contained both growls and nausea while they pointedly avoiding speaking to or about her. They made much of the quality of the party, and attempted to establish how they were connected to Mollari through some long and tortured social family tree. She had only limited experience with this man, but time with G'Kar had taught Na'Toth to sense insincerity where ever it was to be found, and even Mollari seemed to tire of this couple's fawning. A good sign, perhaps. If he'd willingly learned even rudimentary Narn from G'Kar, there was a chance he would not be completely unbearable for the next three months.
“Lovely to see you both, yes!” Mollari called as the couple bowed and backed away from him. “Please enjoy yourselves!”
As they moved into the crowd, Na'Toth bent closer to Mollari, and spoke slowly, clearly, and with basic, unadorned speech, just to be sure. <<The man has forgotten something.>>
Mollari glanced up at her, confused. At first, it looked like he had not understood, and then he spoke.
She casually scratched at a spot near the back of her head in order to nod in the couple's direction. When Mollari looked back into the crowd and Na'Toth saw him restrain a laugh at the sight of the man's hair slowly flopping downward, she had a sudden urge to join the leagues of others now worshiping G'Kar. His irreverent foolishness may have saved her for once.
“I'm glad to see you capable of smiling. I hoped something like this might warm you up to me. Perhaps make all of this easier.” He looked at her properly for the first time since the party began and smirked as though quite pleased with himself. Unpleasant. How G'Kar saw that smile even once and remained on this planet of his own free will would be an enduring mystery for as long as Na'Toth lived.
“Perhaps,” she replied. Her smile had vanished, but she was polite. Diplomacy. G'Kar would be proud.
The golden cup clinked as Mollari set it on the tiny table to his right. He rose to his feet and Na'Toth tried not to lock her jaw in anticipation of orders.
“Shall I be expected to protect you while you dance among a sea of would-be killers?” She framed it as concern for him, but she suspected her sneering distaste for the event showed through.
“G'Kar usually dances with me,” he replied as he straightened one of his countless layers of silk. “The other guests generally find it unsettling, and so he naturally finds it very entertaining. But, no, I had something else in mind, actually. Come along.”
Something else? Something just not specified? Could that be what it sounded like? Did Mollari have a taste for Narn like G'Kar's for Centauri? Every cell in Na'Toth's body stiffened in revulsion and she wished for something other than the polished stone floor to dig her heels into. How did G'Kar do this, even with casual language instruction to distract him? Dancing and bowing to this man's whims, whatever they were? Perhaps he really was Mollari's pet like the gossip on the transport had supposed.
Well, whatever it was, she would end it. One does not just 'have something else in mind' for Na'Toth or any other Narn, and one certainly does not casually order a Narn to go anywhere, ridiculous Emperor or not. G'Kar would be informed as quickly as possible that it had not taken more than the space of a few hours for this 'trustworthy' Londo Mollari to return to his roots.
Appalling though he may have been, Mollari was not unobservant. “I'm not suggesting anything of an inappropriate sort, Miss Na'Toth.” He was not accusing, not joking, and not loud. Strange.
“G'Kar would not have even risked hinting.”
“Believe me when say I had no reason to hint. I am also not G'Kar. I only want to show you something that may be of help to you.”
“Surely I don't need help from you to do this job?” What would a man who couldn't stop being attacked know about being a bodyguard?
“I might argue with you, but you are not G'Kar either.” He took a step toward the curtain that hung behind his throne. His voice was soft, reassuring. Unsettling. “Trust me for a few minutes, and if what you see does not change anything, then you may return to hostile suspicion with my blessing.”
He nodded between Na'Toth and the curtain, and she returned the nod, confirming this temporary agreement. The way he smiled in response made her regret it, but she had just promised a few minutes of trust and imagined G'Kar would be displeased if Mollari died not only on her watch but by her hand, so she kept her disgust to herself and followed Mollari behind the curtain.
Londo Mollari had broken her out of this very palace only a few years ago, and while he may have saved her life, Na'Toth had not developed G'Kar's trust in or fondness for the Centauri Emperor. Thus, had anyone but G'Kar requested she return here, she'd have spit in their faces and stomped them into the dust as payment for the insult. Special as G'Kar was, he received only the spit.
“I trust you will find this educational,” Mollari said, his voice echoing into a large brightly lit corridor around the corner.
“And what am I to be educated on?”
“History,” he said, stopping in front a large portrait of a Centauri woman on he left wall. It was the first large painting in a seemingly endless line that stretched as far as Na'Toth could see down the hall and potentially beyond. She quickly imagined being taken on a tour of each one of these portraits of dull colonialists' wives and had to swallow a growl.
“I agreed to trust you for a few minutes, Mollari.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, and it's all you will need. One noblewoman's portrait is really much like another.”
Na'Toth blinked. She'd been prepared for patriotism in the faces of all these painted women, not flippant disregard. “Then why are we here?”
“When the Emperor Taren fell in love with a woman of an unsuitable class, rather than leave her because of her rank, he celebrated her. He had this portrait made and hung in a place of great significance in the main hall. Pride being what it is, when the next Emperor took the throne, he could not let his reign pass without commissioning a portrait of the woman he loved most. If Taren's lower-class woman warranted a portrait, surely the next Emperor's noble mistress was deserving of equal if not better treatment.”
“Fascinating,” she said, though it wasn't.
“This has continued for hundreds of years. The people in this hall are...” He paused and frowned, as though looking for the words. “They are those who have been beloved by every Centauri Emperor since this first portrait. Most of them are like these ladies,” and he spread his hands as though formally presenting the first two paintings to Na'Toth, “and they are socially unacceptable lovers, mistresses, and somewhat curiously loved wives.”
“I'm afraid I fail to see where this is going.” She was also afraid she might 'accidentally' vomit on one of these works of 'art' given much more time. She had eaten some Centauri food from the buffet earlier in the evening...
“It is just most of them.” He took a few steps away from her, following the progression of the paintings. “Walk along here until you reach the end, and tell me what you see.”
She snorted and strode ahead of him, eager to end this sorry excuse for bonding quickly. Her stomach soured with each passing image of trussed up Centauri women, all useless and decorative, with their dresses crowding them in their frames and likely filling up their skulls as well.
“Lace and silk and little else,” Na'Toth reported about halfway down the hall.
He followed behind her slowly, giving each portrait more time than he had given some of the living creatures in the Great Hall where the dance was still taking place. “Humor me, and wait until the end. Try not to run, or you'll miss the good parts, hmm?”
She whirled around and stomped purposefully away from him at emphatically-not-a-run. She would tear up every one of his historical women fantasies and tell him what she thought of a world that spent time painting pictures of spoiled, pathetic excuses for women drowning in ribbon while scorching her world beyond recognition.
Her boot squeaked against he polished floors when she stopped abruptly at an unexpected portrait of a Centauri man.
“And what is he doing here?” The Centauri had not struck her as people civilized enough to accept what this might be implying.
Mollari smiled, and to Na'Toth's surprise, it was not smug, nor was it especially disgusting. “Being the apparent most beloved of Emperor Vadenza.”
She narrowed her eyes, waiting for him, watching him. Waiting for a glance, or a word, or a flicker of an eyelid; something to betray some kind of agenda. He gave up nothing, only continued strolling along the long line of painted dresses with faces pasted into them.
As she resumed her march toward the end of the hall, the fashions morphed, hair made a brief comeback on the women's heads (a poor choice), and a few Emperors made 'beloved' decisions beyond young, beautiful, and female. While this was of mild interest, it still did not change what she was going to tell Mollari about his world and his people's decisions when she reached the end. G'Kar had asked her to temper her anger, and encouraged her to channel it to 'places other than Mollari' during her time as G'Kar's replacement, and she would do so, but not before she was sure Mollari knew where they stood with each other.
Finally, she was close enough to the end to give her verdict, to tell Mollari what she'd seen. She turned to address him face to face when she caught a flash of the familiar in the corner of her eye. There at the end of the row, distinctly less frilly and excessively bejeweled than anything that had come before it, was what Mollari had wanted her to see.
“I had to fire three royal painters before one would agree to paint a Narn. Particularly a religiously important one.”
Again, she waited for the joke, but again, it did not come. Instead, Mollari stood beside her in front of the portrait and serenely waited for Na'Toth to process what she was seeing. G'Kar looked down at her with a hint of a smug smile hiding under his otherwise royally benevolent gaze. The artist had been quite competent at capturing the expression of a man who knew quite well that he was going to annoy the entire palace for centuries just by sitting for a portrait.
G'Kar wore more jewels here than she'd seen him in when she and Mollari hastily saw him off to his transport, but it was still far less than the women or even the men in the long row before him. Barring a few touches here and there, he was relatively uncorrupted of Centauri influence.
“And everyone agreed to all of this?”
“He would not be up here otherwise.”
“'Mistresses, lovers, and wives', you said.”
Mollari tilted his head to either side a few times and scrunched his nose a bit. “Yes, more or less.”
“I trust whatever conclusion you arrive at would be close to at least some part of the truth.” G'Kar's influence may have had a hand in part of that sentence, and the idea of it all hit Na'Toth somewhere under her ribs.
This seemed a large thing to leave out of a request to cover G'Kar's duties. Had there really not been enough moments to spare a few words for something like 'By the way, I may have undersold my relationship with Mollari'? Did G'Kar imagine this as some kind of footnote? Why not mention it even once in all the communication they'd exchanged in all the time since he'd been staying here? Was it possible Mollari was making it all up? She glanced between the portrait and Mollari several times, but neither the painting nor Mollari seemed to be faking anything.
“I – on the transport over, I heard rumors and gossip, but --”
“Of course you did!” Mollari laughed, and Na'Toth saw his sharp teeth for the first time since she'd arrived. “It is among their favorite things to discuss, I think.”
“They called him your pet.”
“He left before I could put a picture up in the pet room too.” He put on an exaggerated pout, which someone must once have found endearing or he wouldn't be trying it on her.
However, the joke sent a shock through her and she whirled to look him properly in the eyes and growl, but found Mollari blinking back at her and appearing not as a soft, overly primped, and decorated bit of mold, but as an actual sentient creature. When that had happened, she didn't know, but seeing it was enough for her to catch herself before a snarl escaped her throat.
It didn't matter. Mollari noticed, and he knew. He knew she objected to his tone and his disregard for the weight behind the word, and she was surprised, but not placated, when he showed instant regret.
“Apologies,” he said, and paired it with a nod that was nearly a bow. “G'Kar would have laughed.”
She took a step away from him. “I am not G'Kar.”
“I know. Nor am I, and it seems we are both used to him. We have some adjusting to do, yes?”
“Perhaps,” she conceded slowly. She gazed back into G'Kar's painted face, royally smug, wearing what must have been Mollari's jewels on his chest and shoulder, and all at once the task of guarding Mollari seemed as though it would be not only bearable, but entertaining.
“He must be delighted to make so many uncomfortable with this,” she said fondly, running her finger across the elaborate frame surrounding the painting.
Mollari sighed and turned back toward the way they had come in. “He delights in few things as much as making the palace squirm.”
She trotted up beside him and smiled. “That appears to be something the three of us have in common.”
He returned her smile, though it was restrained and far from the sorts of beaming grins she used to see on him during his time on Babylon 5. It looked, however, very much like G'Kar's expression from the portrait.
“I wonder, Miss Na'Toth, if you have any interest in learning to dance.”
“I believe that is an adjustment I'd be willing to make.”