"Gentlemen. We will discuss the matter... later."
The ministers looked disappointed, but they knew as well as Londo did that they could handle Durla's mismanagement later. There was nothing to do about the lost money for now. They all needed their sleep, and a break from rebuidling and economics.
As he rounded the corner and was out of sight, Londo let his shoulders slump. The day had been hard. The meetings felt as if they had lasted for weeks, the meals had been rushed and bland, and even the preparations for tomorrow’s event had taken a backseat to the headache that came with the inept group of grout-wits he had at his disposal.
Shiv’Kala had left him alone for the time being. The Keeper kept itself hidden, only reminding him of its prescence when he coughed, which had become far more often.
But he couldn’t get himself to care. The monsters of the palace had their own things to attend to, and he had his. He set a course for the bed chambers. The halls were dark, only illuminated by the odd candle. In a few hours, the servants would come by and put them out.
He passed his own room and stopped in front of the next door. As he opened it, and a ray of light hit a small face.
"You should be sleeping."
He entered the room,
"And why is that?"
She sat up,
"Because it's my birthday!"
"That it is!"
She pulled out her flashlight, turned it on and put it on her nightstand. That thin little whisp of hair she had was tied into a braid and was lying over her shoulder.
"You have to stop growing so fast!"
He picked her up and sat her on his lap, slowly rocking her back and forth. She tried to wriggle out, but he just held on tighter.
“Oh no, don't! It was like yesterday that you were just a little baby that fit perfectly in my arms. I miss it so. Do you remember it?"
"No, papa!" she laughed, "It's so long ago!"
"Why, not at all! I remember everything! I remember exactly what you looked like when you were born. You were so smooth and pretty. Parin said that you were the most beautiful little baby he had recieved."
He leaned his head on hers,
"And then he handed you to me, and I hardly knew what to do,” He took her hand, "And now I've had you for 6 years. I thank the Maker and Illarus daily for that."
She moved a little, so that she was facing him, and then she threw herself around his neck and hugged him. He kissed her forehead when she let go.
"It's too early for presents... but I think you have earned a little one, eh?"
She grinned at him as he pulled a small box out of his jacket and handed it to her. It creaked as it opened, and Celes' eyes grew large,
She had always had a fondness for shiny, pretty things. But even a princess couldn't expect much when she was growing up in rubble.
Londo had sold nearly everything his mothers had left behind, be it jewelry or paintings, to collectors and even raiders. His people needed a stable economy more than he did trinkets.
Some things he had held onto, as the value was low. The small, purple gemstone necklace with a golden chain couldn’t have cost his mother more than a smile.
"Papa, it's so pretty!!"
"I know. Perhaps you would like to wear it at your party tomorrow?”
"Yes! Can I try it on?"
He picked it up from her hand and fastened it around her neck. It fell onto the bow on her nightgown. She straightened her shoulders,
"Do I look pretty?"
"Perfect. You might as well wear that tomorrow."
She grinned again, her fangs on display, with the two front-teeth missing. She looked a bit comical, poor thing. But then it faded.
"Was this mama's?"
She said it softly, as if she were afraid. They so rarely discussed her.
That person who didn't really exist, but who's picture Londo had insisted they frame and put on Celes' wall, and on the desk of his office. The woman with G'Kar and Adira's likeness.
"Yes, dear," he said, "It did belong to her for a time."
She nodded, and Londo got up.
"Well, now. I think that is enough excitement for tonight. Go back to sleep, or you will be grumpy at your party."
"No, don't go," she leaned forward and grabbed his hand, "I won't ask about mama again!"
Londo felt himself tense up. Why couldn't he put this aside. If not for his own sake, then at least hers.
"Is she why you can't sleep?"
Celes shook her head,
"I don't know. But can't you stay and tell me a story?"
Soon, they would discuss this. Soon. But not tonight. He leaned down, and put on a look so overly strict that it wound up looking comical,
"I thought I already had?"
"I want another! Please? It's my birthday…"
There was something very odd about seeing one’s own eyes in another face staring at you and giving you the 'kitty-eyes’ or whatever Mr. Garibaldi had called it.
It didn't mean that it wasn't extremely effective,
Celes clapped her hands, then snuck under the covers and scooted over to the other side of the bed.
He got in as well, and she dragged a soft, much too small blanket over him while he kicked his shoes off.
"Well, then, my dear. What sort of story would you like to hear?”
Celes pursed her lips, then smiled,
"Can you tell me the one about the swan?"
"I'd love to."
She was lying on her side, looking very excited,
"Now... once upon a time, there was a mama-cat. She had many eggs that she was taking care of, and she was very impatient for them to hatch. Perhaps that was why she didn't notice it when a new egg, a very big one, rolled in With the others. The weeks came and went, but one day, she heard the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard. That of eggshells hatching, and of tiny little voices calling out for their mama. And yes, there were many tiny kittens there. They were yellow and had Orange feet! And they all went 'quack-quack-quack! Hello, mama!'
She greeted them all. But then she came to the final baby, and realized something was wrong. It was large, and grey and had almost blue feet. The mama-cat didn't know what to say, but the little one said: "Quack-quack! Hello, mama!" just like the others. And the mama gave it a little kiss and wished it welcome into the world.
The kittens grew very fast. The girls became grey and black and brown, while the boys had lovely dark-green heads and a white stripe on their neck. The big kitten was just grey, and had gotten a very Orange beak with a black top. The other cats were saying mean things, and though the mama-cat and her kittens fought fiercly to protect the big kitten, he felt in the way. He thought he was embarrassing his Family, and that it would be easier if he left. So he did.”
Celes was biting her lip. She had heard this story so many times, but it still got to her.
"Now, the kitten travelled far and wide and saw many things. It grew quickly, and got long wings and a long neck. One day, he saw a small pond, and he flew down and began swimming around. That was when he saw the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. White, long-necked, elegant birds swimming around so gracefully that he thought they were dancing. But he, who thought he was still ugly, hid as best as he could behind some grass. He had no idea what to do when one of them called to him, "Hello, there! Come eat with us!"
Slowly, he got out from his hiding Place and joined them.
‘You must be one of our cousins!’
One of the Creatures said.
‘Please do not mock me," the kitten said, ‘I know that I am hideous...’
The others laughed at him,
‘Hideous? You? The most elegant of birds?’
The kitten looked down and saw his reflection in the water. He was like them.
‘You are a swan!’
One of them said.
‘And you are beautiful.’
He soon became friends with them, and as he had no herd, he joined them.
One day, they travelled back to the pond where the kitten had grown up. He nearly burst with joy when he saw his mother and his siblings still swimming around there. But when they saw him and his herd, they backed away, scared of how beautiful and refined they seemed. They were mere farm-cats, after all.
But then his mama saw him, and she swam slowly towards him.
‘Could it be you?’
‘Quack-quack. Hello, mama.’
The big kitten told about all his travels and his new herd, and he promised his mama to return as often as he could.
For the first time in his life, he was truly happy.
Celes' eyes were slipping shut and he was feeling very tired himself.
"Thank you, papa," she said, "I love that story."
"I know, dear."
He kissed her cheek,
"Try to get some sleep now, eh?"
She yawned and put her arm over his shoulders. He pulled her blanket tighter around her and closed his eyes, ready to keep his problems at bay for at least another night.