Na'Toth smelt the smoke and incense before the door to Ambassador G'Kar's quarters opened to reveal him dressed in the elaborate robes appropriate to the holy days of G'Quan. She had known that the festival began today, but it was still somewhat strange to realise that it had been a whole Narn year since the last time she had interrupted his prayers this way. Looking back, the difficulties that had troubled them at the time seemed unworthy of the anxiety they had caused.
"Ambassador," she said, "I am sorry to disturb you at such a time." The apology was politeness only. She knew by now that he seldom minded her unannounced visits, although on occasion she had found him engaged in something that made her sorry she'd interrupted.
"It is no matter," he said. "Technically speaking, the Way of G'Quan allows suspension of the usual rituals during a time of war."
Of course, this has not stopped him performing them, although now that she was in the room Na'Toth could tell that the incense was slightly stale. No doubt he had also realised that no G'Quan Eth is on the way from their homeworld, since the current situation there made an explosion in the cargo bay look trivial by comparison. All their available transports were moving weapons, food and refugees.
"As it happens, I was just about to send for you," G'Kar continued. "Our agents have acquired the latest information on Centauri weapons development. I cannot see anything here to explain their dominance of the war, but I need someone reliable to carry the data crystals back to our homeworld."
"You're sending me away." There was no need for her to be treated as a common courier. But he had done something like this before, when he heard that the Centauri Emperor was to visit the station.
He didn't bother to deny it. "Afterwards, I would like you to remain there."
Na'Toth's heart sank. Surely after all this time, he had learned to trust her? He had done his best to win over the other Narn on the station in recent months, but although she believed that Ambassador G'Kar lead them more than well, there were still too many who wished to see another installed in his place. How could he send away the only one who was truly loyal to him?
"Ambassador, have I done something to displease you?"
"Just the opposite," he said, sounding surprised, "but this is not the place for you now. Should the war end badly for us, it would be best if you were not here."
She felt herself bristle at the insult, and resisted the urge to snarl. "I am not a pouchling, Ambassador, to be tucked out of harm's way at the first sign of danger."
"If I wanted you to be safe, would I be sending you home?" He paused, and turned away to touch the book of G'Quan where it rested on the table. "If our planetary defences fail, they will need brave warriors there. Besides, I thought that you might perhaps wish to see your family again."
He thought that they would lose the war.
Na'Toth had known he felt that way from the beginning, but she couldn't be sure if it was the rational concern of an experienced warrior or the lingering fear of someone raised under the occupation. She was too young to remember when the Centauri had departed at last, and they had never been childhood terrors to her. Those she had encountered on the station had not impressed her, and often she found it hard to understand how her people had been conquered by such a degenerate foe in the first place. Still, she was inclined to trust G'Kar's judgement in most things. Except when it came to sending her away.
"I can still be of help to you here."
"You have been of great help to me already, Na'Toth. Do you think I would throw away such an ally carelessly?"
"Be careful you do not throw yourself away, Ambassador."
She was too angry to hold back the words any longer. If she was not here to protect him and provide much-needed common sense, she wasn't sure G'Kar would be here when she returned. The first time he sent her away on a pointless errand, Na'Toth had suspected that he planned a suicidal assassination attempt against the emperor, and wished to shield her from being implicated. Ever since then, he had been trying to die.
It was a fever that sometimes came upon Narn warriors, although not something Na'Toth had ever experienced herself. She, too, loved her people and would have died for them gladly, but she would sooner kill their enemies. She knew in her heart that nothing waited beyond death, and was determined to spend the only life she had wisely. But Ambassador G'Kar saw the world differently. If he had missed his first chance to throw himself onto a Centauri blade, he would be sure to find others.
"It is not a waste to offer your life for your people, Na'Toth," he said. The gentle understanding in his voice made her angrier than a reproof would have.
"Be sure it is your life that you are offering them, Ambassador, and not merely your death."
With that she turned to go before she said something even more insubordinate. It was only when she was half way back to her own quarters that she realised she had forgotten to say what she had gone to his quarters to tell him.
The G'Quan Eth was not beautiful. Its simple fronds were a dull green that would go unnoticed among other plants; but few other things would grow where the G'Quan Eth grew. The difficult thing about growing it outside of its natural environment was replicating the harshness of the conditions that produced it - coddle it, and it would die. It had to be planted in barren soil like that found on the mountains, never given too much water, and kept cold, or it would not flower and go to seed in time for the end of the holy days. If the flower was left too long and the seeds decayed, it would not bloom again for months.
Na'Toth had never been a gardener, but she had decided to try her luck after the near disaster of the year before. At the time she had first acquired the seedling, she had thought that it would only be needed in case of another emergency. Little had she imagined the scale of the emergency at the time.
From the beginning, she had decided that it was a matter of determining the correct conditions and replicating them as best she could. Getting the young plant in the first place had been the most difficult part of the exercise, for the holy men who tended the nurseries guarded them closely. She suspected them of being responsible for exaggerating the degree of difficultly involved in propagating the plant, too, for it had given her surprisingly little trouble in the end. Eventually, she had gone through less traditional channel, for the Centauri had ways and means of acquiring G'Quan Eth. It galled her now more than ever that she had needed to turn to them, but the credits her father provided were the same as anyone else's, and the merchants hadn't asked any questions.
Na'Toth had watched it grow for months now, worrying each time she left the station to carry out her duties elsewhere that it would be dead when she returned. Yet each time it was abandoned temporarily, it seemed to thrive all the more. Lately she had watched it bloom, the bright red flower startling against the plain leaves. Within it was a seedpod, hopefully ripe for harvesting.
For herself, Na'Toth could not see much value in the plant, or the seeds that had sustained the prophet on the mountain when he had nothing else to eat. In her opinion, consuming something with psycotropic properties probably had a great deal to do with the visions G'Quan claimed to have seen. Nevertheless, for the sake of Ambassador G'Kar's status, the ceremony must be performed properly. He had needed to talk very fast indeed to convince the other followers of G'Quan of Sinclair's logic last time, and given their current mood Na'Toth wasn't sure they would accept any excuse now.
She had planned to tell him what she had done earlier, but he had more pressing concerns since the war had begun. As time drew on, she had been afraid of raising his hopes in case it died after all. Then she had hovered over it wondering whether to ask his expert opinion on the proper harvesting time, or simply do it herself. She had decided on the former, and then ...
Na'Toth was tempted, now, to throw the seeds away just to spite him. If he thought he did not need her assistance, then he should have no more of it. Another voice hoped that, when he saw what she had done, he would relent and allow her to remain.
She had kept the G'Quan Eth in a secluded corner of her quarters, where it couldn't be touched by the harsh white light that the other races on the station seemed to consider normal. Na'Toth knelt before it now, running her fingers idly over the withered remains of the petals and wondering what to do. Even as she touched them, they broke away one by one until at last she was left with only the seedpod.
Wanting to at least see the results of her efforts after so much time, she cracked it open cautiosly and tipped the contents out onto her palm. The seeds were the right shape, the right hardness in her hands - they had not rotted, thankfully - but there were only two of them. She could not help but grimace at the poor harvest. Perhaps two seeds would not be enough to fulfil the requirements of the ceremony, and her work would be for nothing.
Yet still she would go, and ask Ambassador G'Kar, and offer what help he would accept. Whatever her feelings and however foolish his order might be, it was her duty to help him as long as she was allowed to. Two seeds were better than nothing, which was what Ambassador G'Kar had now. They would have to make do.
When she made herself known at Ambassador G'Kar's door, he did not sound angry with her. Perhaps he believed that he understood her frustration.
"Na'Toth," he said, "I take it that you have decided to do as I ordered?"
The reminder of the chain of command was not subtle, but for now she chose to let it pass. She opened her hands wordlessly and showed him what she carried.
"But ... where did you find ...?"
The last of her fear that she had done poorly melted away, and she did not try to hide her smile. It was worth the trouble of growing a G'Quan Eth just to see Ambassador G'Kar struck speechless.
"I grew them. I know that they are meant to be planted on the mountain itself, but after last year I wished to make certain you would have what you needed in time. I am only sorry that the plant yielded so little."
"That is unimportant," he said, bringing his hands to his chest and bowing to her. "This is a great thing you have done, Na'Toth."
He reached for the Book of G'Quan and opened it to a page he obviously knew by heart. "G'Quan wrote of how, when he thought he would starve in the wilderness, the seeds of the G'Quan Eth provided him with sustenance." He smiled at her, and there was a light in his eyes that she was unsure whether to welcome or not. "The universe will not allow those who have been chosen to fail. 'Even in darkness,'" he said, obviously quoting the prophet, "'there is light for those who have the eyes to see it."
Na'Toth knew the difference between hard work and a miracle, and there was no proof of their destiny here. If their people were to triumph, they must do it under their own power - no great hand was going to reach down out of the sky and save them. Yet she had no interest in arguing philosophy with Ambassador G'Kar. If his belief made him stronger, she was happy to encourage it.
"Do you see now that I may still help you here?"
He smiled again, but shook his head. "I am not sending you away because I do not need you, but because others need you more than I. You cannot leave the seeds on the plant when they are grown, Na'Toth. Once they are ripe they must be harvested."
She sighed. This, then, was her duty, unwelcome as it might be. "If that is what you wish me to do, then I will make the sacrifice. Be careful you do not twist your neck trying to watch your own back."
"I promise you, I am more than capable of taking care of myself."
Na'Toth held out the G'Quan Eth seeds to him, but he took only one. "You must take the other back to Narn, along with the data crystals, and plant it there."
"But that will leave only one for the burning," she protested.
"It will be enough - one must always be kept back for next year, planted to symbolise the hope of new life. I know that you are not a believer; but you have succeeded where many believers have failed."
Na'Toth fingers the seed in her hand on the way back to her quarters - she had little time to pack if she was to make the transport tomorrow. She would plant the seed, for the sake of Ambassador G'Kar, and hope. She might not believe in miracles, or the way of G'Quan, but she did believe in something greater than herself.