He talks like a child. The thought snagged at him as he stumbled across rough stone, the door of the dungeon falling shut behind him. Londo sagged against it, struggling to push back the image of Cartagia beaming at a row of desiccated heads. He still couldn't shake the memory, or the thought of that unhinged, beatific smile.
A child? He pressed a hand to his chest, trying to still the pounding of his hearts. The thought was farcical; he could not even say where it had come from. Kill him, Vir had said, his soft features distorted with rage, and if even Vir said it, it had to be justified. But Cartagia was a child, wasn't he, in some perverted way? A spoiled brat pulling wings off insects, then pinning them up as trophies to talk to at night. Except these weren't insects but people; not that this madman even seemed to know the difference. No, blaming Cartagia for everything was too simple. Left to himself he would have been harmless, but Refa had offered him power and now he bartered with Shadows, throwing away lives for a delusion of grandeur. A story that – Londo shuddered – cut too close to the bone by far.
Great Maker, who was he fooling? Cartagia was a threat, yes, a bad enough one it might cost them all their lives, but it wasn't Cartagia who had led the Shadows here. It was him.
Londo pulled in a breath, but the smell of decay still clung to him and he found himself gulping down bile. He breathed through his nose with an effort. He shouldn't stay here. Cartagia's guards were giving him odd looks already, and Vir would be wondering where he was. At least he'd told Vir not to come with him tonight. The boy had had enough to stomach after the whole affair with G'Kar; it would not do to have him lose his dinner in public a second time. Before they knew, Cartagia might be feeling the need to raise Vir's tolerance for violence, and Londo could imagine too well what that would mean. The elder Turhan - the father, not the son - had been fond of torture. As a young man, Londo had witnessed such sessions often enough, but they had never involved people he knew. People like Dugarri, who'd been an old hand at court back when Londo was child, reduced to a rotting plaything for a mad fool. Or G'Kar, who had sacrificed his pride for a life that might be forfeit anyway. Because of me. Londo clenched his jaw.
The guards were staring at him openly now. He fixed them with an icy glare, relieved when they bowed and snapped to attention. He took advantage of that to make his way outside. The night air was hot and far too humid, but Londo sucked it down as if it was iced brivari, hands balling into fists at his sides. Gods, he was tired. He hadn't been sleeping, except to dream his death dream and wake up drenched in sweat. That the object of his dreams was in a cell being tortured half to death did not seem to placate his subconscious at all.
He must have missed the footsteps. Suddenly a hand was on his back, a mild voice calling "Londo?" even as he spun and overbalanced, nearly toppling into Vir's arms.
"Great Maker, Vir. Why are you... I told you to stay…" Somehow the words wouldn't form properly. They were drowned out by the pounding in his chest, the wild rush of adrenaline that crested and came crashing down. Vaguely, he registered the shock on Vir's face, realized he must look white as spoo and three times as ripe. The image of those dead, chiseled grins floated in front of him; he swallowed thickly, but fought it down. "Tell me, Vir," he snapped. "Which part of 'stay inside while I am gone' was unclear to you? What use are you to me when you do the exact opposite of what I say?"
Vir's eyes widened. "I don't know, Londo. I remember a few occasions where it was the right call." His expression hadn't changed, but there was an edge to his tone that was more pain than anger. Only for a moment, though. Then his shoulders dropped. "It's all right, I didn't go near the throne room. I just went to see G'Kar. When I came back and you weren't there, I became worried. Don't tell me that's silly, I know it isn't, not now."
"It isn’t," Londo conceded. Just like that, he felt sick again. "I just wanted you out of Cartagia's sight. Did you know…" He trailed off. Of course Vir wouldn't know; how could he? "I saw Morden just now. He said… the Vorlons are out there, attacking every world that has ties to the Shadows. But the Shadows do not plan to leave. They wish to stay, and Cartagia has agreed."
It was a marvel how rapidly Vir's face could change color. "What?"
"Believe me, Vir, I am as shocked as you are." Londo wrung clammy palms into his handkerchief. "Morden said the Vorlons won't attack civilians. He told Cartagia to send ships out, to form a blockade."
"And Cartagia agreed?" Vir's tone rose sharply. "He agreed, when all we have is the word of that – that –" He sputtered, crimson flooding his cheeks.
"Cartagia lied." Londo dabbed at his temple; Vir's distress was doing nothing to ease his own. "He does not intend to fight. In the face of his godhood, a blazing planet seems to him like a splendid sign." Let it burn, Cartagia had said… but then he wasn't the first one. Londo had said it long before. Let the galaxy burn, he'd told Morden, on the day Adira returned to him dead. Well, the galaxy was burning now, the Vorlons tearing down every world on their path. Londo had got what he'd asked for, and some dark part of him was asking it still; he just had to envisage Adira on that stretcher to have the thought threaten to take root again. Burn it, take it, take it all. Except he no longer believed it. It would not bring her back, would not change her corpse back into the woman he'd loved. She was just flesh now, pale, leathery flesh sloughing off bones. Like Dugarri and the others. Like those millions of Narns caught in the bombardment. Like all of his people, doomed to burn in Cartagia's pyre.
Great Maker. If they burn, it is on my head too.
The thought arrived one second before his nausea crested; Londo groaned and clamped a hand over his mouth. His hearts were pounding, a red haze passing before his eyes, and he suddenly felt too sick to breathe. But it couldn't be. He was sober. This never happened to him sober, although his body seemed prepared to contest that now. His stomach clenched hard; acid was flooding his throat and when he opened his mouth to gulp down air, he gagged on it.
"Londo?" Vir was saying, alarmed, but Londo shook his head, grappling for control as he turned away.
Breathe, Great Maker. Come on. But the night smelled of death, or perhaps that was him; he hiccuped, and then his body spurned all the discipline of years and he was dry-heaving into a flower bed, just like Vir had done a few nights ago. He would have been shocked, if he hadn't been so preoccupied by how much more unpleasant this was sober than drunk. Drunk, at least there was some poetic justice to it. I should have had more brivari, he thought blearily, before his insides spasmed and he retched again, tasting salt and panic and bile.
Somehow Vir had gotten an arm around him and was trying to pull him aside. "Londo, are you... We can't, we should go, if anyone sees you –"
"No one saw." Londo coughed and wiped his mouth. He couldn't say what instinct had led him to it, but he knew he'd been in an empty stretch of garden, out of sight and earshot of the guards. The one reason Vir had even found him was that they'd come here to talk before. "I'm quite sure, Vir," he said weakly. "But yes. We should leave."
Vir's arm was firm around his shoulder, and Londo didn't have the heart to shrug off the support. Nor was he quite sure he could have managed without it. Great Maker. This was no time to be falling apart. But he was shaking as Vir led them back inside the palace; a mad monarch he could handle, but this… this had caught him off guard. It was all catching up with him: the lack of sleep, the precarious steps he was dancing around Cartagia, the constant worry about G'Kar. But Vir was here, and he was grateful for it. Vir's shock mirrored his own as Londo told him what happened, each word making him feel more ready to drown.
"Vir," he muttered, as they entered his chambers. "We must kill him. And soon. We are running out of time."
"I know." Vir sounded almost mournful. There was no trace of hatred there, nothing of the fury that had made him look so defiant before. No hesitation either, and Londo stifled a surge of raw pride. "But... how?" Vir bit his lip. "He's surrounded by guards. We can't get close when they're around, and even if we could, we'd never get away with our lives. I mean, not that, compared to being destroyed by the Vorlons, being executed for treason is worse, but…"
The corner of Londo's mouth tugged up as he sagged onto the couch. Trust Vir to say it like it was. He rubbed his chest gingerly while Vir's back was turned; there was a dull, tight band around it, like a small fist pressing on his heart. Bah. He was getting old. Between the two of them, Vir's hearts were the only ones to be trusted anyway; a good thing Londo had learned not to rely on his own. No, one lapse like this was quite sufficient. Any more could doom them all.
Vir was right: their lives for their world would be almost a bargain. But Cartagia's death wouldn't rid them of the Shadows. They had to survive to see this through.
"It will be all right," Londo found himself saying. "The Lady Morella... She said both of us would be Emperor. That can hardly be true if we lose our heads."
The set of Vir's jaw betrayed his doubt. "Londo, I – I don't think it works that way. For one thing, I still think she mistook me for someone else, because really, do you see me…" He forced a smile. "And maybe you will be Emperor, but I don't think that's likely to happen if you're dead. Prophecy's all good and well, but if you're counting on it to protect us..." A beat. "Are you?"
Londo had no answer. He believed in Morella's prophecy, but not enough for it to ground him – quite unlike his death dream, which had become part of his life. To say it had made him fearless would have been too much, but it had changed a great many things. When he was younger, all he did had been tempting fate. Prophecies were fickle, but they seldom lied. They were open to interpretation, though. With a jolt, he remembered the words of the technomage: billions of victims calling your name. He had thought those victims had been Narn, but after tonight...
It dawned on him slowly, like a curtain that opened in fits and starts. "Narn," he muttered. "If we can use G'Kar to lure Cartagia to Narn... We can never stage a coup here with the whole court watching, but if it were only us and his personal guard..." He got up unsteadily. "I should talk to G'Kar."
Vir tugged him back down. "Londo, I... I think you shouldn't. Not now." He winced under Londo's glare, but plowed on. "You just slipped up, badly. If this goes wrong, we could all get killed, not just us but G'Kar too. Don't you think this should wait until you've had some rest? It's late, and G'Kar… well." Vir's sigh sounded breathless in the silence. "I think you're not the only one who could use some sleep."
Londo sat back heavily. "Is he all right?" Curse it, Vir knew too well what to say to persuade him. That, and his own hearts were still racing. Real sleep would be a joke, but a few hours of rest did sound tempting. "His injuries…"
"He's strong," Vir said firmly. "And tomorrow is another day." He worked up a faint smile.
"Yes," Londo said, "but for how long?"
He closed his eyes, and thought of Vorlon ships prowling the night.