Dawn hadn't come today.
Oh, of course the sun had come out. He could see it through the lone unshuttered window in his chambers, the one through which he'd been staring all night and most of the day. But dawn was more than just the sun coming up. It meant another day, and the promise of more days and nights to come – which, for him, was a prospect as unwanted as it was unlikely. He could not begin to guess how many days he had left: a few, perhaps, or perhaps not even this one. The thought did not distress him nearly as much as it should have. Naturally, if Timov was here and able to read his mind, she would have told him to stop being dramatic. But Timov wasn't here, so he could indulge as much as he wanted. It might be the last chance he got.
He hadn't slept; not with the city outside in flames again. Admittedly, ever since the rebels had pulled back from the palace, that was a less common sight than it used to be. Londo had wondered if some of the change was Vir's doing. He knew Vir and Lysandra had been rallying the people, and if they'd managed to placate some of the rebel groups, that could only be a good thing. Last night, though, explosions had rung through the city, and today the smoke was so thick Londo could barely see the sky. It seemed he was not the only one with a flair for the dramatic. The universe had one as well.
The boy had arrived yesterday. It had been Shiv'kala who brought him the news, a hard glint of triumph in his eyes. "The boy has come," was all he'd said. "His Keeper led him here." There had been no need to ask who he meant. There was only one boy who mattered to the Drakh, and his name was David Sheridan. The boy I doomed. Londo might not have had much choice when the Drakh sent him to Minbar, bearing the urn with the Keeper inside, but that didn't make him any less guilty. Or any less likely to forget.
He tensed when his own Keeper hissed into his ear. As basic as its intelligence was, Londo had learned to understand every nuance of every noise it made, and this particular hiss could mean only one thing: its master was here. Sure enough, Shiv'kala stepped out of the shadows. Londo felt his chest tighten. He had been forbidden to see David until the boy had served his purpose – to lure his parents to Centauri Prime – so if Shiv'kala was here, it could only mean one thing.
"Delenn is here," Londo said. At least the Drakh had the decency to look startled. "Oh, it was not so hard to guess," he went on. "She is the boy's mother; she considers herself more expendable than the Alliance president; and she is Delenn, of course. I never doubted that she would come for him, and quickly." Londo swallowed down something that felt strangely like pride. Outside, the sun was dipping towards the horizon, but the light trickling through the smoke looked more eerie than beautiful. He couldn't have wished for a more fitting backdrop. "I assume my guards have apprehended her, as I ordered? Then I will see the boy now. You promised me you would not harm him, but you'll understand if I do not take your word for it."
To his surprise, Shiv'kala didn't even protest. "We are… keen to inspect the boy as well. You may see him, but you must take me with you."
The palace was a maze of hidden passages and doorways, so it was simple enough to reach David's cell unseen. Londo dismissed the guard posted at the door, unlocked it and called Shiv'kala in. For a moment, all he saw was darkness. Then his eyes adapted, and he blinked down at the unmoving shape on the floor.
"He is unconscious," Shiv'kala said. "We told his Keeper to sedate him, so he would not harm himself. The boy would have taken his own life rather than be imprisoned. He is a fierce one."
He takes after his mother, Londo thought, again with that odd surge of pride. He took a few steps, looking down at the boy in horrified fascination. The headbone left no doubt about his Minbari heritage: more slender than Delenn's, it sat like a thin grey crown atop his head. From this distance, Londo could not make out the boy's – David's, he reminded himself; he could not make out David's features, let alone tell if he resembled either one of his parents. But he was breathing, his ribcage rising and falling rhythmically. That was a start.
"Why him?" Londo said. He couldn't take his eyes off David if he wanted to. "You never did tell me. Why not give a Keeper to Sheridan or Delenn, instead of drawing them here through the boy?" He had his suspicions, of course, but so far they were just that.
"This was the only way," Shiv'kala said. For once, the Drakh seemed quite inclined to talk – distracted, Londo guessed, by the prospect of what they would do to Delenn now they had her. "A Keeper cannot be forced on an unwilling subject. It must be… accepted, for the merging to succeed. As you so eagerly accepted yours. There is one exception: the mind of a child is pliant enough to be coerced. Even a child as well-trained as this one. Did you know he flew a fighter here single-handedly?" A strange hunger had crept into Shiv'kala's tone. "The boy has spirit. No doubt he will fight well before he dies."
It took a few seconds for the words to seep through, but when they did, it was all Londo could do not to scream. "We had an agreement," he said, hoarse. "In exchange for my cooperation, you would order the Keeper to release the boy and wipe his memory. You said, once you had Delenn, there was no need for him to die."
"We lied. He will die – not because he needs to, but because we wish to see him dead. Preferably with his mother watching. It would give us… great satisfaction." Shiv'kala tilted his head, eyes narrowing in a way that made Londo's blood run cold. "Surely you appreciate the pleasure of… how would you call it? Entertainment? We have been without it for many years. So why would we indulge you? Why keep our word, when we can have the boy killed anyway and taste the sweetness of revenge?"
Londo took a strained breath. Part of him had been expecting this: there had been no guarantee of the Drakh honoring their promise, not when he had so little leverage against them. Which made him weak, but not helpless. There were other ways to win than by sheer strength. "Because… there is one thing you would enjoy more than revenge," he said, choosing his words carefully. A single wrong one could ruin it all. "A challenge. You do not believe I can save the boy, or that I could get him off-world without your help. You are convinced I would fail. But you would still enjoy watching me try."
"Perhaps." Shiv'kala's eyes glittered. "We do not think you have a chance, this is true. You have a ship, but no one to fly it. The boy will not be able to, I assure you; not after his Keeper is done erasing his memory. And you have no allies outside the palace. We, on the other hand, have both." A slow, predatory smile found its way to Shiv'kala's lips. "Very well. We accept the challenge." Almost absently, he flicked his hand.
Repulsed, Londo looked on as the boy's Keeper became visible, its one red eye opening wide. For a moment it remained motionless, but then it shuddered, tendrils squirming. David moaned hoarsely, as if a scream was stuck halfway down his throat, and when the convulsions began it was all Londo could do not to turn away, or vomit, or both. As it was, he forced himself to watch, just like he had watched the destruction of Narn and the whip cracking across G'Kar's skin, and later, his own world going up in flame. It couldn't have been more than minutes, but it felt like a lifetime until the Keeper withdrew.
"It is done." Shiv'kala bent and picked up the creature, stroking it with one long, scaled finger. Londo suppressed a shudder of disgust. "The boy will not remember anything, just as we told you. You have one hour to attempt whatever pitiful plan you have thought up. Then he dies regardless." With a last contemptuous look, the Drakh vanished before Londo could reply.
Londo took a few moments to check David's breathing: it was frantic, but evening out. He would have stayed longer, but that was no option. Instead he told the guard to keep a close watch on the boy, then hurried out of the prison compound, resisting the urge to stop at Delenn's cell. His guards had been questioning her all through the night: about the Minbari planetary defenses, key persons in the Alliance, a thousand other things the Drakh wanted to know. She had, of course, told them nothing. Based on what he had gathered, she was not aware her son had a Keeper; she simply believed David had been captured in order to lure her in. That was something of a complication. If his plan was to work, he would have to find a way to tell her the truth. But all of that could wait. The boy had to come first.
Back in his chambers, Londo retrieved the comm code Timov had given him. For emergencies, she had said. So far he had never used it, although, truth be told, he had been tempted on many a brivari-soaked night. This time he was sober, and would have to be for a while longer: when the time came, every minute free of his Keeper would be precious. Sobriety did nothing to settle his nerves. As he approached the terminal, punching in the code with shaky fingers, he could barely even think over the pounding of his hearts. If he is not there, or refuses to speak with me, I have lost.
For another few heartbeats, the screen showed nothing but static. Then the face he had hoped to see – the face part of him had been dreading to see – materialized, and it was all Londo could do not to sag in relief.
"Londo?" Vir's expression was a punch to the stomach: shock, pain and anger, all wrapped in one. "Gods, I – how did you –"
"Find out where you were? I didn't. Timov gave me a code to reach you, which I used, nothing more." Keeping his voice steady was proving to be a struggle, as was meeting Vir's eyes. "I need your help, Vir," he said softly. "I swear, that is the only reason for this call."
"My help," Vir repeated. His tone had acquired a steely edge. "I just – I don't believe this. You poison me, have Timov take me away so you don't have to face me yourself, then barge into my life again asking for help, and you're not even going to apologize, are you? And you know what's even worse? Not just that you take it for granted that I'd help you, but that there's a part of me that still cares for you enough that I would. That's how stupid I am, so –" There was a noise from off-screen, and Vir spun towards it, raising a hand. "No. No, it's fine. I can handle this." He closed his eyes briefly, one hand splayed across his chest. When he opened them, he looked almost composed again. "All right. Tell me, before I change my mind."
Londo nodded, feeling as unsteady as Vir had looked a moment ago. "A life is at stake, Vir. I no longer have the resources to save it myself, but I was hoping you could." He trailed off, waiting for Vir to respond, afraid to reveal more than he should. For the first time, he registered Vir's surroundings: a dreary room, as cramped as it was Spartan, with uneven walls and chunks of plaster crumbling from the ceiling. At least it seemed clean enough. The only piece of furniture was a tattered cabinet, strewn with an assortment of objects: candles, crystals, a tapestry weaved in a triangular pattern. All of them struck him as strangely familiar, although he couldn't put his finger on why.
"Whose life?" Vir said, still looking torn. His face darkened. "Don't tell me Timov outlived her usefulness too."
That cut rather too close to the bone, but Vir was nothing if not entitled. "No," Londo said, "nothing like that. It is… no one you know personally, although you may have heard his name. He is important, Vir. I need someone to get him off-world, but it will not be easy. My… adversaries want him, badly, and they will not let him go without a fight."
Vir's look wavered between anger and pity. Somewhere in the background, another voice murmured something, but Londo could not make out the words. Vir did, though. He shook his head. "Londo, whatever trouble you're in, don't cover it by blaming it on some elusive enemy. You need to come clean with me, or I can't help you. At least tell me who it is you want to save."
Londo found his hands balling themselves into fists. He thinks every word I say is a lie; either that, or that I have started to believe in my own fabrications. It was no use stalling. "His name is David Sheridan."
"What?" Vir said, at the same time that someone outside Londo's field of vision gasped sharply. Vir turned away, distress plain on his face.
"Vir?" Londo raised his voice. "Is someone there with you?" He cursed himself for not being more careful. The Drakh had operatives among the population; a single word in the wrong ears, and he'd be finished before he had even begun.
"David Sheridan," Vir breathed, ignoring the question. "You mean… Delenn and Sheridan's son? I – I don't understand. Have you been in contact with them? How –"
"That does not matter now, Vir. He is here, his life is in danger, and every minute I stand here convincing you is another minute lost. Simply believe that I wish to save him, and that there are others who would stop me. Can you trust me as far as that?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Yes. I –" Vir's voice caught for a moment before he steeled himself. "To answer your other question: yes. There is someone else here. Someone who might be able to help, I think." He exchanged a look with someone off screen and nodded tersely. In the silence that followed, a figure stepped into view.
Londo registered Minbari before he noticed anything else, and suddenly he knew why the objects in the house had looked so familiar. Minbari artifacts; of course. And the man at Vir's side was no less familiar. His face was thin, the eyes haunted, but the features were quite unmistakable. "Lennier?" he muttered. No. This was impossible. "How can you… Did you –" Come here with Delenn, he almost asked, but stopped himself just in time. Vir had seemed truly shocked at the mention of Delenn's son, and so did Lennier, now that he looked more closely. Under the headbone he had gone so pale that, for a moment, Londo wondered how prone Minbari were to passing out.
"Lennier has been here for a long time," Vir said. "He was looking for a place to live, so I got him passage here, that's all there is to it. I've been staying with him these past few months. But all of that doesn't matter. Londo, I'm still having trouble accepting all this. You have to swear to me it's not a trick."
"No trick," Londo said. "Please, Vir. As painful as the irony is – apart from you, there is no one else I can trust."
"I will do it," Lennier said. His voice sounded ragged, as if from years of disuse. "I will take David Sheridan off-world, if I can. Or give my life trying."
Vir breathed out sharply. "Lennier, I… I understand why you're saying this, but –"
"I'm aware there are risks. And I do not trust him –" Lennier gestured at the screen, "– any more than you do, but in this case I believe he is telling the truth. It explains everything: why I am on this world, what fate has led me here to do. I once told Delenn there would come a day when I would redeem myself in her eyes, and this is that day, Vir. There is no doubt in my heart." He met Londo's eyes levelly. "I will come, as long as you do not reveal my presence here to anyone. That is my condition. I believe you'd find it acceptable."
"I do. You have my word." Relief washed over him, strong enough he had to stop for a moment just to breathe past it. "I take it you will need a ship?"
"No," Lennier said. "My own ship is still hidden nearby. I have not piloted it for some time, but it is operational, and it will serve better than any Centauri ship could."
"Good," Londo said, struggling to ignore the pain in Vir's face. I robbed him of our friendship, and now of Lennier's as well. "If you come to the palace gates, I will tell my guards to deliver the boy to you. You have thirty minutes, so come quickly. After that, you will be on your own."
Lennier's only reply was a curt nod, but when he turned to Vir he wavered briefly. "I must go. I'm sorry. I will contact you as soon as I am able. Thank you, for – for –" His voice cracked.
"It's all right. Go on; we'll talk again soon. Hurry." Vir's voice held that tone Londo knew all too well: the one that meant he was trying to be strong, even if he was holding it together by a thread. Londo averted his eyes, acutely aware he was intruding on a private moment. There was a pause, then hurried footsteps, replaced by Vir releasing a shuddery breath.
"So." A long silence. "You got what you wanted. I - I just hope you know what you're doing, Londo, because if this is another ploy to get to me, I swear I'll –"
"Vir." He had to say it. If he didn't, he might never have another chance. "I do regret what I had to do to you; I was trying to save your life, not throw it away. That said –" He raised a hand even as Vir opened his mouth. "That said, I know you have not been idle either. You and Lysandra, you have been preparing a coup, have you not? The term 'bloodless' has been coined, I am sure, but that does not mean –"
"Londo..." Vir had gone bone-white. That he wasn't already protesting was answer enough.
So it is true. Londo had not been sure until that moment. He didn't know whether to feel relieved or betrayed or both, only that it took all his strength to project even a veneer of control. "Vir, you must listen. I know you believe many things of me. You believe, for instance, I would not approve of your plotting to wrest the throne from your Emperor, but you are wrong. I do approve. As long as you wait for the proper time, which will be soon, much sooner than you think. Our people are counting on you. Be ready. Be strong." He cut off the connection before Vir could reply.
The full weight of it hit him only when the screen blanked out. His chest was burning, and his legs felt so weak he thought they might fail him, but he forced himself to take shallow breaths until it passed. Then he sat and poured himself a glass of brivari, trying to force the memory of Vir out of his head. He had no time for weakness. Not now.
He called in his guards first, ordering them to free David and take him to Lennier at the front gate. In an impulse, he told them to alert Delenn as well; omitting the details, of course, simply telling her David had escaped the palace. He owed her that much. Then he sent for Timov. And then he prepared, in the only way he could.
He was halfway through his first bottle when they brought him the news: John Sheridan had been captured as well. No one knew how he'd entered the palace, and in all truth Londo did not care. Oh, he played his part well enough to Sheridan's face, but his hearts weren't in it. He simply showed Sheridan the destruction outside, taking a small, ugly pleasure in the shock on the man's face, before ordering his guards to take him away. Let him have a few moments with Delenn before endgame started. The Maker knew they would need all their courage for what lay ahead.
Once Sheridan was gone, Londo thought about Shiv'kala. The Drakh hadn't shown himself at all since this started. Perhaps that was a good sign, a sign that they were going to give Londo a fighting chance – or perhaps Lennier and his precious cargo were being blown out of the sky right now, and it was only a matter of time before Shiv'kala came to gloat. Not that it did him any good to dwell on that. He had done what he could for David, as he would for Delenn and Sheridan. The only thing he needed was time.
The brivari was working. Londo drank until his Keeper drifted off, and then he drank more, until his head was spinning. There was no way to know if it would be enough. The longest he had ever been free of the Keeper was a few hours, but that was years ago, before it had grown accustomed to alcohol. These days, he would be lucky to manage one hour. Perhaps not even that.
The fate of a world, decided by one man's capacity for holding his liquor. Phrased like that, it was almost too ironic to bear.
He had not left it all to fate, of course. Over the years, he'd made what preparations he could. One of them was a letter to Vir, compiled over many hours no less drunken than this one: pages upon pages of rambling words that he was not even sure were coherent. But the Drakh had never found it, which had been the point. Londo went to retrieve it now, every step an effort; it was in a hidden compartment that Cartagia, of all people, had told him about. Sick to his stomach, his vision blurring, he still forced himself to fill another page, explaining what had happened the past twenty-four hours. He couldn't think. He could barely even breathe with the weight of it all. When he re-read what he had written, it was all he could do not to tear the whole page and start over, but that was a luxury he did not have. This would have to do.
Timov arrived in a flutter of robes, as flustered as he had ever seen her. "Londo, what's going on? All day I've been seeing guards running back and forth, shouting at me to stay in my chambers, and then suddenly they burst in saying you called for me. What is it? What's wrong?"
"Everything." Londo straightened, pulling himself up by the throne's armrests. "Though, if the universe has any shred of decency, perhaps not for much longer." He held out a hand, beckoning Timov closer. "I wish I could explain, but there is no time. Instead I must ask you once more to trust me. Even if –" His chest spasmed and he coughed violently, nearly spitting up what he had drunk. He fumbled for a handkerchief, dabbing at his mouth with unsteady hands. "Even if," he finished, breathless, "I never deserved what trust you gave me."
For a moment, he could see Timov waver. Then she squared her shoulders. "Londo, don't be a fool. I thought we had both grown past that." She was putting up a good front, but he could hear the doubt in her voice, trying to mask itself as ridicule. That, and she hadn't scolded him for the inebriated state he was in, even though she could hardly have missed it.
Londo leaned forward, ignoring the way the room whirled around him. "I have – kept things from you, Timov. Many things, for many years. Some to protect you, others because I was afraid of what you would think of me if you knew the truth. It is all here, though." He pointed at the stack of papers at his feet. "I wrote it down for you to read. You and Vir. You must take these to him, and make sure he reads them as well. Whatever you do, do not let Vir do anything before he has read every word. Every word. Do you hear me? I know I have no right to ask, but I –"
"Don't." Timov raised her chin, her spine so straight it looked painful. "Don't ask me to trust you only to tell me I shouldn't. If you need me to do this, I will, so don't insult me by begging for it. As if you've ever had to." She bent and picked up the papers, clutching them against her chest. When she straightened, it was all Londo could do not to reach out, but he fought down the impulse like a drowning man struggling to break the surface. There used to be so much time, and now there was none.
"Timov, I –" Do not look at her, or you are lost. "I – I wish –"
"I know." She sounded ragged; enough that Londo wondered just how much she knew. He could not do this, but he had to. The only way he could let her go was by squeezing his eyes shut, so he did exactly that – then gasped when a hand brushed his cheek. "So do I."
When he opened his eyes, she was already gone.
The door creaked in its hinges as it was falling shut, but a guard caught it before it did. "Your Majesty?" He was one of the young ones, one of the few who still seemed to care. Londo didn't know his name; he never asked his guards' names, and they had sense enough never to try to tell him. "The Sheridan boy – we took him to the gate. A Minbari came for him, just as you said."
Londo nodded. The boy's fate was out of his hands now. It all was, except for one thing, and even the outcome of that was uncertain. He would speak with Delenn and Sheridan, tell them the truth, then do what he could to help them get home. Everything else would be up to them. And to Vir, of course. After reading those pages, Vir would show up soon enough. As for what happened afterwards… Well. About that, at least, he would not have to wonder.
"Bring G'Kar…" No. "Ask G'Kar if he would come." Phrased like that, he would not refuse it. "Then return for the other prisoners, and bring them here. Quickly."
His Keeper was restless, so he drank while he waited – first by the glass, then later by the mouthful, afraid to stop but afraid he'd retch it all back up if he drank too much. G'Kar entered so quietly Londo didn't even hear him coming.
"Mollari?" It was less a word than an exhalation, tinged with enough worry that Londo wondered exactly how haggard he looked. Not that G'Kar was looking much better. No matter how well one was treated, a year in a prison cell took its toll.
"It is time," Londo said, the words spilling clumsily from his tongue. He could barely frame his thoughts; thank the Maker he didn't have to. He had talked to G'Kar right after David was captured, telling him what he intended to do. "I sent for Delenn and Sheridan. They will be here within minutes. Delenn's ship was damaged, so they will need the ship in which you came here. Do you think they will be able to fly it?"
G'Kar nodded. "They should. It is a Ranger ship, so I wouldn't expect them to have any trouble."
"Good. Do you…" Londo took an unsteady breath. "Do you wish to go with them? It may be your only chance to leave this place. You could go –"
"I told you before, I'm not going anywhere." Somehow that was all it took: a question, an answer, a look exchanged between them. "What about David? I take it he will be leaving as well?"
"The boy is already gone. A – friend came for him, made a promise he would try to get him off-world. It was a chance, so I took it." Whether it had been a fair chance, the gods only knew. "That leaves only his parents. I will tell them the truth about the Drakh, and then…" Londo jerked up his glass, taking a thoughtless swallow that almost came right back up. He hissed and breathed through it. "I have one last favor to ask of you. When it is done, I will need you …"
"To be your executioner." It came out so neutrally that, for an instant, Londo thought he had misheard. In his worn and tattered coat, a strip of fabric tied over his empty socket, G'Kar looked more like a fearsome enemy than a trusted friend, but his expression was as raw as Londo had ever seen it.
He felt dizzy. This time, the brivari was not to blame. "How did you know…"
"Because you know," G'Kar said. "Because you are not the only one to have had that dream. Or had you forgotten?"
Londo shook his head mutely. On his shoulder, his Keeper was stirring; he did not know how much time he had left. "The Drakh will stop Delenn and Sheridan, unless I…" He couldn't say it. Of course there were other ways, ways that did not involve G'Kar, and of course he had considered them all: it would be a simple thing to drink poison, even simpler to order a guard to knife him down. He didn't know why it mattered so much that it would be G'Kar, but it did. No choices left, except for this one. Suddenly, he could not even keep his balance. His glass slipped from his grasp, and it would have fallen if G'Kar hadn't moved in and steadied it for him, one gloved hand closing around his own.
"Mollari," G'Kar breathed, and then "Londo," the name as intimate as any embrace. "Do you need…" He trailed off, wavering for the first time in longer than Londo could remember.
"I'm afraid," Londo said thickly. "Great Maker, G'Kar, I am terrified." Not of death, never of death – his travesty of a life had gone on long enough – but of what he would buy in exchange for it. If he failed, the past sixteen years would have been for nothing. He did not think he could bear that thought.
"I understand." G'Kar drew back, his fingers grazing Londo's ever so briefly. " If I were in your place, I would be frightened for my people as well. But I am not in your place, and what I see is what you, perhaps, no longer can: there is still justice in this universe, and compassion. Delenn and Sheridan will not let you down."
There was some comfort in that, but not nearly enough. "It will take more than their compassion. Someone will have to take my place, unite my people. Vir could, but I barely managed to warn him in time. If he isn't ready –"
"He will be," G'Kar cut him off. "Cotto is stronger than you think."
"No," Londo said, with sudden conviction; if anyone had proven his strength of late, it had been Vir. "He is precisely as strong as I think." For Vir's sake, if no one else's, he could not fail. When his guards' footsteps echoed down the hallway, he struggled to sit up straighter. "They are here," he whispered, even as G'Kar moved to hide in the shadows.
The nod he received in return was all the comfort he needed.