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The Price of a Favor

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When rumors began to spread about Cartagia's madness, Timov discounted them. Centauri rulers were rarely pinnacles of sanity, anyway; for that matter, nobody who spent much time in the hallowed halls of the powerful on Centauri Prime counted for "sane and sensible" in Timov's mind. If she had her way, voluntarily choosing to go to the palace would be grounds for locking one up with a very good therapist. A foreign one, since Timov had heard that other planets had doctors of the mind who focused on their patient's welfare, instead of on what their employer wanted to hear.

In any case, the Palace was a pit of vipers, telling the truth from lies in that place was beyond even the greatest intelligence service, and even were it true, how would that make him any different from eight of the last ten emperors? Timov's only concern was that Londo might require her to make an appearance at Court as his wife, as was his right, and that was a concern regardless of the Emperor's state of mind.

Then Alevna appeared on her doorstep early one morning, heavily veiled, with only a granddaughter in tow—no retinue, no bodyguards, nothing. Timov had her shown in to her parlor and looked her up and down. "This is a surprise," she said, for it was. The two of them had grown up together; their parents had been allies at Court. They'd been friends as children, but after Timov had told one of Alevna's suitors exactly what she thought of him—an unprincipled snake who should have been strangled at birth like in the old stories—that had come to an abrupt end. The two hadn't spoken since.

"Timov, my dear," Alevna said, "you know how I always adored you, and I have long regretted that my family—"

"Yes, yes, I understand." Timov gestured for her and the child to take a seat on the sturdy, elegant couch behind her. "Given the time of day and the getup you're wearing, I assume you need something and would rather no-one knew you were here. Get on with it! The quicker our business is concluded, the less likely you are to be missed."

Alevna swallowed. "Very well, my dear Timov. I know of your distaste for politics—have you been following what has been happening in the Centaurum? And at court?"

"As little as possible," Timov said. "I find it bad for the digestion."

"Yes, you are right," Alevna said. "It is …. Even for the strongest stomachs, it is difficult to handle in these times. Cartagia is mad; his temper is furious, and worse, it is uncertain. You may believe you have pleased him only to have your head on a pike an hour later. If you are lucky; some simply … disappear. No one knows what Cartagia does with those who are not heard from, but there are rumors. He has hired more torturers than the known prisoners account for." She looked down. "My son, Corvallo, has not been seen for three days. My husband has made enquiries, but … we fear the worst."

"I am so sorry, Alevna." For the first time in a long time, Timov regretted that she had ignored the vocal training all Centauri women of rank received. She could not put all her sympathy into honeyed tones as Alevna would if their positions were reversed; frankness would have to suffice. "I can call Londo—I believe he has some influence at court?—but we are not close, and I have no idea whether he could do anything."

"No!" Alevna said, with unbecoming haste.

Timov raised her eyebrows. That was not what she would have expected of a woman of Alevna's rank, come to beg favors. The girl she had known so long ago had been that impetuous, but Centauri society had trained it out of her.

"There is nothing Londo could do, and the effort would damage him in the eyes of the Emperor," Alevna said. "My husband and my other son are doing all that may be done in that area. I come not to draw someone else in to our troubles, but to bring someone out. If Cartagia becomes angry at my husband's persistence, or angrier at Corvallo, he may take it out on the entire House. He does not hesitate to destroy entire Houses, ancient and noble and powerful ones."

"Then surely his reign will be short," Timov said. "After all, alliances of great Houses have toppled Emperors before this." Her mind was racing. Of the last several mad emperors, none had been as vile as all that. Did Londo know what the young pup was doing? Did he care? And how secure was she, herself? Perhaps it would have been better had Londo chosen another wife to keep.

"I pray to all the gods that it comes soon," Alevna said. "But it will be too late for Corvallo, and perhaps for all of us. I look to salvage what I can."

"Sensible," Timov said. "What do you have in mind?"

"He'll make sure all the men are accounted for," Alevna said. "My sons and grandsons are beyond protection if our House falls. My married daughters and their children will be protected or not by their own Houses. My daughters-in-law will either die with their husbands or be handed out as rewards for Cartagia's followers. But my granddaughters may be overlooked."

"And I am known to run charitable schools for children of poor families," Timov said. "And sponsor apprenticeships for them. What's another few girls there?"

"No one would think to look." Alevna took a deep breath. "Will you do it?"

"Of course," Timov said. "You had only to ask; I'd do it for any who came to me, even if we hadn't been old friends." The break between them was nothing; it had hurt, yes, but Timov had known it was inevitable from her actions and done it anyways. It was senseless to blame others for the consequences of one's own decisions. "But you do realize that if you're caught, I won't be able to protect any of them?"

"Of course," Alevna said, sagging a little in her chair. "I think … only four, at most. If any more are gone than that, someone may notice."

"I do not envy you that choice," Timov said.

Ten minutes later, Alevna and her granddaughter left as she had come. They were met on their way back to the Palace by one of Timov's most trusted servants, an old woman who'd been with the family for years. After walking together for a ways, in the manner of a servant following her mistress, the servant turned away with the girl in tow, just another nanny with her charge. Simpler clothes were procured, and an hour later the widow who ran the school was being presented with her newest pupil and lodger.

Two weeks later, Timov did not walk by the walls of the Palace to say good-bye to her old friend. What, after all, could one say to a head on a pike?

Instead, she made her usual rounds of the schools under her patronage, inspecting the books and meeting with the headmistresses and the housemothers who cared for the boarding students. Charity schools were the traditional employment for those Centauri noblewomen unfortunate enough to be childless; Timov had found she liked the work, and was far more interested in the day-to-day operations of such establishments than most of the women who sent regular purses in exchange for their name on the door.

There had been no trouble of any kind, not with the new girls, nor with any outsiders poking their nose where it didn't belong.

Timov went home … not satisfied, but relieved.

The rotund young man whom she'd met on Babylon 5 stood anxiously before her, fiddling with his jacket as she read Londo's letter.

"I'm sure Londo would have come himself, if he could have," Cotto said. "It's just there's so much to do, and not many people we can trust to do it. Cartagia killed so many of the best people at Court, he didn't like capable people around him—"

"I know," Timov said. "No need to apologize to me. I'd rather not see Londo, personally; I have no doubt that Court is an especially fragrant cesspool at the moment, and if Londo were to remember I was here the rest of Court might do likewise. Sending you instead is the second-nicest thing he's done for me since we were married. No, thank you. I'm sure you're very busy; you've delivered your message, you can leave now."

"Yes, Lady Timov," Cotto said with some relief.

After he left, Timov read the letter again.

My dearest Lady Timov, it began; Timov suspected Londo of irony. Well, it was good to see the recent unpleasantness hadn't changed Londo too much. As you can see, I am well, despite all the efforts of our dearly departed Emperor. You will have heard I freed Narn? I believe that the joy of being rid of that unpleasant place for good is second only to the joy of picturing what Cartagia's response to it would have been. You never met him, for which you should thank the Great Maker, but he was a thoroughly unpleasant man. My star at Court has risen even further; if you have some need, if Cartagia troubled you at all, do not hesitate to ask. If you wish you may join me here, though I very much doubt you do. Londo Mollari.

Timov summoned a servant for the traditional brazier Centauri households kept for disposing of incriminating correspondence. The relief of everyone at Court over the Emperor's death might be an open secret, but it could still be damaging if physical proof was found. That was, after all, the reason for putting such thoughts to paper. It was more easily forged (and hence disavowed) than a visual recording, and more easily disposed of without trace.

As she watched the letter burn, Timov pondered. Alevna's granddaughters could now be produced, and raised under the protection of House Mollari. She had no doubt it was what Alevna would have wanted. But having been raised in one High House and married into another, Timov doubted that was in the girls' best interests.

A poor (but free) girl with a good education and a noble patroness had the most freedom of any woman in Centauri society. She had no House to barter her off as a marriage prize, and an education that would open doors to a variety of respectable employments that would give her comfort and security.

Cartagia was dead, but what of the Emperors after him? Surely the next one would be carefully chosen for sanity and respectability. But given the recent track record of those to wear the white, Timov wouldn't hold her breath that he'd stay that way. And even if there was never another Cartagia, what of the rest of court? Trained to be nothing more than an ornament, to hide any intelligence save for social climbing cunning? A bargaining chip?

No. They were better where they were. Alevna had played the game just as she was supposed to, and look where it had got her. Her granddaughters would not end up on a pike as she did.

Timov would go against her friends wishes now as she had so long ago in driving off that vile suitor. With the gods' favor, this betrayal too would be for Alevna's own good.