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Chained to the Fire

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Chapter 1

The Imperial Palace, Centauri Prime

"Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one."
-
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

G'Kar smiled wistfully at the Rubaiyat's verse, closing the book's leather cover slowly. He surveyed his modest accommodations. His room, slightly larger than a prison cell, was at least brighter and more comfortable than the prison cells below the palace. He had almost come to call the dungeon cells his home-away-from-home on Centauri Prime, since he had the ill-fortune to spend so many nights confined inside them. If Prime Minister Durla had his wish, G'Kar would be spending his waking moments imprisoned in the dungeon again - or buried in the garden. He sighed, glancing around the small room. This wasn't much better. The Centauri probably quaintly thought that he would enjoy sleeping on one of their ornate beds, but their beds were too soft for his taste. He tried the gilded bed one night, but his aching back protested for days; he had found that he slept more peacefully on the polished marble floor. The cold, hard stone also bothered his aging warrior body, but not as much as the feather bed. In fact, the benches in the dungeon actually offered him more peace, but he would not protest - the Centauri would be happy to oblige him by locking him in the underground dungeons again, of that, he was sure.

He touched the leather volumes lining the shelf in his room - at least he had a few companions, even if they were etched in paper and ink. He had no one else to talk to in the palace. He was cut off from any outside communications. Everyone on Centauri Prime seemed to fear him or hate him, and there was little he could say to gain their trust. When he had been imprisoned by Emperor Cartagia, there was hostility toward the Narn. They were the subjugated objects of Centauri anger, but now, if it was even possible, the anger had grown, fed by fear, cries for retribution, and desperation after the Alliance had bombed the Centauri home world, leaving much of it in ash and ruin. The populace outside the palace walls had turned into an angry horde, and although he had volunteered for this mission to uncover the secrets of Centauri Prime, he had known the risks were potentially fatal. Of any Narn alive, he was easily the most recognizable on Centauri Prime, and his face was the symbol of Narn resistance to many Centauri. That he hadn't been killed immediately, even when saving the lives of the Prime Minister and the Emperor, had been due purely to the intervention and the good graces of the Emperor himself.

G'Kar eased himself onto the edge of the bed, lost in thought. How Mollari had allowed his Republic to fall into this state was beyond merely troubling - it was also oddly perplexing. After traveling a most despicable path in the early years he had known Mollari, the former Centauri ambassador-turned-emperor had shown great promise in his capacity for change. And although G'Kar was once convinced that Mollari had the heart of a rock, in time he had seen that heart bleed tears of repentance. And yet he had allowed that pompous conniver, Durla, to become Prime Minster. And throughout the palace corridors the youthful, black-uniformed Prime Candidates were being brain-washed, forming a robust and deadly force under Minister Lione's guidance. Foreigners had been banned from Centauri Prime. The distrust between the Alliance and the Centauri Republic continued to grow. And Mollari had ruled over it all.

It was easy to believe that Mollari had reverted to the old ways, surrounded by royal court intrigue, smear campaigns, and betrayal plots. But then, here G'Kar was, alive, surrounded by enemies but protected by royal edict, enjoying accommodations in the heart of the palace with an invitation to dine with the Emperor. The size of G'Kar's room was hardly the Emperor's fault - Mollari had given his orders to Durla, and Durla had promptly had his henchmen scout the tiniest royal closet, devoid of sunlight, instructing that it be "refitted" for G'Kar's quarters. G'Kar suspected that the answer to Mollari's current moral state of affairs was far more complex than a pendulum swing. Anyone at the helm of the Centauri Republic would have to use all of his guile to maintain power, preserve peace among the ruling Houses, and fend off murderous attempts on his life. G'Kar had long observed that this treacherous intrigue was the natural state of affairs at the Royal Court, though it boded ill for any Centauri leader's attempts to steady his moral compass. And the center of the web was the Centauri Emperor, but it was anyone's guess whether the Emperor was spinning the web or merely hopelessly entangled in it.

Although G'Kar was a "guest" of the Emperor, he had been assigned a guard at all times. The guard sat stoically outside his quarters or accompanied G'Kar whenever he wanted to stroll the corridors. G'Kar habitually nodded a reserved greeting to his Centauri guard, but each guard merely stared back at him, ice filling their eyes.

The evening G'Kar was taken into Centauri custody, after breaking his cover and his Centauri disguise by subduing a would-be assassin, the Emperor had promised to dine with him. In fact, the Emperor had sliced off the head of the would-be assassin and turned to G'Kar, asking him to dine at the point of his coutari. How could I refuse such an offer? he thought to himself, smiling slightly at the memory. But that evening had come and gone, and the next, and the next, without little more than the delivery of meals to his door by the guards. In the intervening time, he had thumbed through the dusty volumes on his shelf, probably placed there more for aesthetics rather than for their literary merit. And yet, many of the volumes were oddly compelling, and they had helped wile away the time. But the Rubaiyat reminded him of the passing moments, moments in which he was doing nothing to help the Alliance or to unravel the answers that lay only on Centauri Prime.

Abruptly, G'Kar's thoughts were interrupted by an authoritative knock. "Come in," he stood, straightening his attire.

The evening guard who had initially accompanied G'Kar to his room in silence and who had delivered his evening meals, entered. He was smartly attired; his golden hat and brass accoutrements were finely polished, and his trousers and coat were perfectly pressed. G'Kar imagined this bulldog of a Centauri must have drawn the short straw among his comrades to guard the Narn invader. Nevertheless, G'Kar reminded himself, he was a palace guard, and that appointment was an honor, in itself.

They stared at each other for a moment, eyes bristling. After a moment, the guard cleared his throat and said in a low, even tone, "The Emperor requests that you dine with him tonight."

Instead of answering the guard, G'Kar inclined his head slightly. "Your name?" he asked.

The guard blinked in surprise. "My name?"

G'Kar nodded, a note of sarcasm in his voice. "Yes, I presume it is a Centauri tradition to confer a name on each male so that he may be recognized."

The guard licked his lips. Speaking with the Narn concerning a personal matter clearly made him uncomfortable. "Does it matter? The Emperor..."

"...is waiting. Yes, I know. And yes, it matters..." G'Kar's words took on an edge "...to me."

The guard fidgeted momentarily before deciding answering would be the only way to get the Narn moving. "Provi," he squared his shoulders at the towering Narn, "My name is Provi."

The Narn slowly formed two fists, bringing them to his chest, "Provi, an honor," he bowed slightly. "After you," he motioned toward the door.

The guard did not return the greeting but spun on his heel, anxious at the thought of the minutes ticking away while the Emperor waited. He quickly walked G'Kar through several of the palace's long hallways, passing small groups of Centauri court mongers along the way. Each throng of Royal Court members gaped at the proud Narn who strode beside the compact Centauri guard. Provi motioned G'Kar toward a moderately-sized room with two additional guards standing watch outside the door. It was the Emperor's personal dining room. The room was far smaller than the banquet hall reserved for larger feasts and state dinners. Here, the Emperor invited his closest acquaintances, his family, and if such a thing could be found on Centauri Prime, his friends. Nevertheless, the room seemed expansive in comparison to the meek quarters G'Kar had been inhabiting, and the room's heavily curtained panels and luxurious furnishings were a stark contrast to G'Kar's claustrophobic closet.

G'Kar caught a fleeting glimpse of the Emperor before stepping into the room. The Emperor was staring at a half-empty brivari glass, slowly twisting it in his hand. He seemed lost in thought with a melancholy look on his face. But when he caught the flash of G'Kar's movement out of the corner of his eye, he rose immediately to greet the Narn. "Come in, G'Kar" boomed the familiar voice.

G'Kar stopped short at the doorway, planting his feet at the entrance for a moment. "Majesty," he greeted the Emperor with a Narn salute, before stepping inside.

"That is unnecessary, surely you know that," Mollari waved a dismissive hand in the air and motioned for G'Kar to join him. Mollari was dressed in the customary white of the Centauri Emperor with a golden sash around his chest and the seal of the Centauri Republic around his neck. In the five years since G'Kar had visited the palace with Garibaldi, Mollari had aged. There were more wrinkles lining Londo's face, and each new line seemed to denote the heavy burdens of his office rather than his age. But he had aged - Londo's hair had now lost almost all of its natural color, and G'Kar noted that Mollari's forehead had been lightly bandaged where it had been grazed in the assassination attempt.

As G'Kar approached, Londo put a hand on his shoulder, patting him gently. "You are looking green, even for a Narn, G'Kar! It has been a long week for you I am sure - would you like a drink?" Before confirming G'Kar's reply, he had already motioned to the two attendants who were standing along the edges of the room.

G'Kar nodded slightly, indicating his approval, although his glass was already in the process of being filled. "If I am looking ill, it must be the gravity on Centauri Prime - it seems to pool the blood in everyone's feet, depriving their heads of proper blood flow."

"It isn't that bad, G'Kar," Mollari growled, knowing that G'Kar was referring to the cold welcome he had received on Centauri Prime. "The Centauri don't know what to make of you. Can you blame them? You were the very Narn whose broken chains foreshadowed Cartagia's death…." G'Kar rolled his eyes but Mollari continued, "and out of the blue, you appear in the middle of the capitol city to save the Emperor and the Prime Minister. Now, please, sit," he motioned to the seat at his right hand. There were no other places set at the table. Except for the attendants who had retired wordlessly to the edges of the room, they were alone.

G'Kar arranged himself neatly in the seat, waiting expectantly.

"It was not my intent to allow this delay in seeing you. It was, unfortunately, unavoidable. There was a bit of an uproar among the ministers after the assassination attempt...and...other matters of state that I had to attend to. But," Mollari's face brightened, "you are here now. So, let me make up to you." He motioned to the attendants, who swiftly delivered a meal for suitable for kings.

The steaming plates set before them contained a small feast, and the elder attendant stepped forward, clearing his throat. "This evening, the imperial chef has prepared an entrée featuring strip steaks of leati in a plum and pearl blossom sauce topped with poached karjala eggs." The attendant stepped back, bowing deeply before fading into the room's background.

As the other attendant fussed over the proper silverware, Mollari tipped a glass toward G'Kar. "I am grateful for your intervention the other day," he touched the bandage on his head, "though it might have saved us both some trouble in the future." G'Kar glared at this. He, too, knew of Mollari's death dream - he had inhabited the Mollari's mind after taking the illicit drug, Dust. The drug had allowed G'Kar to brutally rip memories from Mollari's mind using temporary telepathic abilities. He cringed at the thought that he had once been that vicious, but then again Mollari had been equally vicious in his complicity with the actions of the Shadows. But that was a lifetime ago. They had been two different men. And it was only a dream, after all.

"I am reluctant to ask you how you appeared at such a convenient moment this past week," Londo continued, "but, let us talk of politics later. First, I would to know how everyone at that career-killing space station is doing – all of the things I have missed." Mollari nodded slightly, his eyes glittering as he thought of Babylon 5.

"Vir does not keep you informed of these matters?" G'Kar sipped his brivari with interest.

"Vir feeds me the morsels he thinks I should hear." A smile played at the edges of Londo's mouth. "Now that our positions have changed, I have a great deal of regret that I advised him how to be a 'good' Centauri diplomat," a laugh erupted, shaking his frame. "But that is my own fault. Now, tell me the news that isn't ISN won't print."

G'Kar noted the attendants subtly standing watch at the edges of the room. He would not reveal anything adverse about the Alliance or its leaders, or anything especially scandalous with Centauri ears a few feet away, but he could at least indulge Mollari's curiosity with respect to a few matters. He learned forward conspiratorially, "Well…."

The evening passed quickly as the two former adversaries fell into the familiar patterns they had before Mollari became Emperor, replete with light verbal sparring, humor, and mutual respect. The dinner was exotic and delightful, and the brivari flowed freely. As the evening wore on, G'Kar thought he could see the years fall away from Mollari with each passing minute, his body language becoming more animated, his tongue looser, his voice filling the room as it had on the station so many years before.

"And then," Mollari shoved his chair back, upturning it in the process, "the scoundrel who had dishonored my uncle, my whole family, he came at me with a…" he gestured widely, his brivari still in one hand and a fork in the other. "A larger-than-usual coutari known as a cutalo. It's very, very, heavy sabre, and one strike can slice a man in half."

G'Kar reached for another karjala egg, popping it in his mouth like a grape, "What did you do?" he asked, engaged in the story.

Mollari pantomimed the swing of the cutalo with his fork, "I parried the attack with my smaller coutari, and I took him to his knees. He begged me for mercy…"

"Did you kill him?" G'Kar interrupted.

"No," Mollari stood with his imaginary blade at the victim's throat. "Regardless of what he did to my family, I had a better option. My coutari was my grandfather's, given to him by his friend in the House of Jaddo, a House that has long been aligned with my own. This coutari was forged by one of the Republic's finest coutarismiths. Its blade was hand beaten one thousand times to create one of the sharpest edges in the universe. That edge could splay the wing of a fly while it was still in flight. I took my coutari, and in one stroke, I cleaved his crest from his head."

"Lucky for him," G'Kar's laugh rumbled as he thought of the ridiculous hairstyles the Centauri sported.

"No, you do not understand." Mollari dismissed G'Kar's statement with a wave, "In Centauri society, this is like cutting off….you know," he gestured at the sides of his torso "all of his manhood – all of them! Anyway, he could not return to the Royal Court until he had regrown his crest. He finally found work mining near the mountains of Turano where no one would ask him any questions and…."

At that moment, the story was cut short by guards throwing themselves through the door, their eyes darting around the room. The Captain of the guards scanned the room silently, including an accusatory glance toward G'Kar, before turning to the Emperor who was still standing at the head of the table. "Majesty," the Captain's hand was upon his coutari.

Mollari exchanged a glance with G'Kar before looking back at the guards. "Yes?" his tone was low and dangerous.

"Apologies, Majesty," the Captain bowed low, "we heard a commotion in the room – a crash." His eyes darted to the overturned chair. "And we thought the Emperor might be under attack."

G'Kar watched with interest as he popped another small karjala egg into his mouth.

"Do I look as if I'm bleeding," Mollari asked them, dryly, gesturing at his body. "Have the attendants cried out?" He looked to the attendants in the corner. "Or perhaps I have grown so deaf that I missed the sound of gunfire?" He looked annoyed and slightly unsettled by the sudden interruption of the guards. "Go," he said at last, turning from them, waving them away with a hand.

The Captain of the guards protested, "But Emperor, the Prime Minister warned us that…."

Mollari did not turn back to the guards, but G'Kar could see his eyes began to smolder with anger. The reply was cold and growled in two short staccato bursts. "Get. Out."

Rather than try the Emperor's patience further, the Captain and the Emperor's other guard exchanged glances before nodding and exiting quickly, but Provi, who had burst in with them, walked smartly to the overturned chair. He turned the chair upright and replaced it for the Emperor before departing. Mollari watched Provi in silence. The damage was done - the lighthearted mood of the evening had been utterly broken by the interruption. As Mollari settled himself back into his chair, G'Kar could see the years enveloping him again, the brightness that had been in his eyes a moment before dwindled into dullness.

Mollari motioned for the attendants to bring the brivari, which was generously poured into the Emperor's golden champagne flute. G'Kar placed a hand over his glass, declining the refill. "Leave the bottle," Mollari commanded the attendants, "and then leave us." Bowing, the attendants retreated, sliding the dining room's door shut after them.

Now, they were alone. It was the first time that they had been alone since Mollari had become Emperor. G'Kar noted the first words of the Emperor to him in private with great interest and great concern.

The Emperor pushed his plate away, taking another sip of his brivari. "G'Kar," he said, almost to himself, "I want you to know that this palace is filled with eyes and ears, around every corner – every hallway. Even here," he stressed, tapping the table with two fingers before putting a hand to his forehead, his eyes shutting in apparent pain.

Deep within his nervous system, the keeper was stirring at the warning he had begun to rely to G'Kar, and it began to pull the tethers of his nervous system tighter, sending out streamers of pain to every nook and cranny of his brain.

"Mollari?" G'Kar leaned forward. His concern was reflected in his tone, a deep growl of concern.

But as abruptly as it started, the pain ceased when the Emperor fell silent. The keeper's tolerance had clearly grown, for the Emperor had thought it had already succumbed to an alcoholic stupor. He would have to be more careful. The Emperor opened his eyes again, waving off G'Kar's concern. "It is nothing, the start of a headache," he rubbed his temples and reached for his brivari. He paused for a moment before he softly asked, "Why are you here?"

"Presumably because I saved your life," G'Kar replied dryly.

"You know what I mean. Why are you here, now?" Mollari repeated, "It's not safe. Not for any outworlder, let alone a Narn," he wagged a finger at G'Kar "let alone you."

G'Kar searched Mollari's eyes for a moment, trying to read the Emperor's intentions. Finally, he responded, "Centauri Prime is burning, and I am a moth, attracted to the fire, I suppose."

Mollari smiled, staring at the brivari he was swirling. "You too are bewitched by her guiles, hmm?"

G'Kar snorted, "Hardly. There is much I could say about Centauri Prime that would not please you."

"And much of it would not surprise me either. But at the least, I have seen her daughters bewitching you."

G'Kar's brow furrowed. He had once taken one of Mollari's wives, Mariel, as a lover, just before she had attempted to kill Londo. And there had been other Centauri women through the years. They were, it was true, bewitching. It was almost the most appropriate word. But no, as distracting as the women were, he was here to ensure the Republic did not shatter the Alliance. Mollari himself had been pivotal to the creation of the Alliance, throwing his support behind it at a critical moment in its formation along with G'Kar and the Narn homeworld, so it was anomalous to think that Mollari would single-handedly destroy it, but there was a very real chance that Centauri Prime's actions would determine the fate of the Alliance in the coming days. And, perhaps, in some small way he was here for Londo Mollari, as well. The man's ambition had run its course, and now he had everything he had ever wanted, but it seemed the one thing he desperately loved, Centauri Prime, had mercilessly scorned his advances and was slowly grinding her suitor to dust. "The Centauri have their appeals," G'Kar agreed, at last, "but it is what is under the pomp and formality of the Centaurian façade that matters in the end."

Mollari nodded slightly. "Yes. Well," he glanced at the time, "you must be very careful while you are here. I can secure your safety only to the palace gates and no farther." And perhaps not even that, he thought to himself.

"You know," G'Kar leaned in, "there is one thing. A Centauri guard for a Narn – it will look very bad for me at home."

"The matter is out of my hands," Mollari shook his head, dismissively.

"Just to clarify," G'Kar's curiosity and instinct to bait his former adversary goaded him on, "you are the Emperor and they are the Imperial Guard? Am I missing something?"

"As I said," Mollari's tone became firmer and impatient, "the matter is out of my hands."

G'Kar did not feel the time was right to push the issue, but he was not happy with his confinement, either. "So I am to be a Centauri, then?" G'Kar put a hand to his stomach, feigning illness. "Or will you execute me to win your people's hearts?"

Londo threw back the rest of his brivari before responding. "I will do everything in my power to extract you from this situation when the time is right, but for now, they will kill you if you leave the palace. You must give me time. And," he paused looking away, "you will let me know if you need anything else. I will not be able to see you as often as I would like, but my schedule is not my own." G’Kar saw Mollari's hand tighten into a fist, his jaw clenched tight. "G'Kar," Londo turned back to the Narn, "I know you are here under less than ideal circumstances, but I want to tell you that…." he stopped abruptly, a coughing fit interrupting his attempt to speak. He coughed into a linen napkin for more than a minute, the coughs wracking his entire body, wearying him. Clearly, there was more he wished to say, but instead of attempting anything further, he rose, placing a hand on G'Kar's shoulder. "Next week," he choked out between coughs rattling his body. "Until next week," he tossed the napkin he had held to his mouth onto the table and departed.

G'Kar stared after him for several minutes, lost deep in thought. Londo had promised to "extract" him from the situation, but the cynical part of his mind noted that this could be anything from sending him home on a freighter to ordering his execution. More troubling, though, were the phrases he kept hearing, over and over, echoing in his mind:

"This palace is filled with eyes and ears, around every corner – every hallway. Even here."

"They will kill you."

"My schedule is not my own."

"The matter is out of my hands."

In addition to these disturbing statements, Mollari clearly had some antipathy toward his guards, and they had not only questioned his orders but they had allowed a length of time to pass before entering, more than enough time for an attacker to cast a fatal blow, had the chair's noise been a real attack. Perhaps Mollari needed a bodyguard now, more than ever. G'Kar let these thoughts settle in his mind before he finally pushed himself out of his chair, noticing, for the first time, that crimson red stained the napkin Mollari had thrown on his plate as he departed.