|The Road from Hell
Author: Avelera PM
Vir comes to Centauri Prime to confront Emperor Londo Mollari on his increasingly cruel and erratic policies. There he learns of the Drakh Keeper, thus changing the future of the Centauri and the galaxy. Post-series AU for prompt: Vir takes the Keeper.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Angst/Friendship - Londo & Vir - Chapters: 4 - Words: 19,612 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 07-18-12 - Published: 03-31-12 - id: 7975480
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author Note: Amatara is busy at the moment so she will not be beta-ing this chapter. I say this only so it is clear that all the mistakes are my own.
I had a great deal of fun writing Minister Durla in this chapter. If you have read the "Legion of Fire" Trilogy by Peter David, you will recognize that he is a completely different character when I write him. This is because I had major issues with his portrayal in the books. I hope you will enjoy reading my reinterpretation of his character as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Vir closed the door to Londo's chamber behind him, his friend's words echoing in his ears. Hold on. He closed his eyes against the sound of Londo's fist striking the wall, a sound he knew well. He could close his eyes and see the wall on Babylon 5 where Londo's fist had left a habitual mark after long or irritating council sessions. A strangled sound, a sob, followed and Vir turned to go back in, to offer Londo some comfort.
Or would have, if not for the Keeper at his shoulder dragging him on.
'Come. We have much to do,' it hissed inside his mind. There was little point in resisting and Vir walked where the Keeper led him at a sharp clip, leaving Londo and the sound of weeping behind.
He recognized his destination shortly, as he turned the corner to the throne room. The guards parted to let him through, not bowing but not sneering either. It was as if they did not quite know what to do with him, which was rather fitting, as he had no idea where he stood himself. The gold-wrought gates opened and he saw a man standing at the center of the room, facing the throne.
"Ah, Ambassador Cotto," the man said, turning. He was a middle aged, but had the hardened look of a fighting man. He seemed barely contained by the finery of his suit, as if he belonged in a uniform, or ancient armor. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you after hearing so much. I am Prime Minister Durla. Emperor Mollari spoke very highly of you." There was a coldness about the way he addressed Vir, his smile not quite touching his eyes, as if he were wearing the mask of a nobleman over his own face. There was nothing overtly offensive about him, nothing that Vir could point to as the reason for his instant distaste.
Prime Minister Durla. Vir knew the name. The former Captain of the Imperial Guard, his rise to power had been meteoric, as one after another Londo's ministers had refused to carry out the executions and been sacrificed along with those they had tried to protect. There was nothing to prove that Durla was complicit, but his ongoing presence implied that he had done nothing to stop the proscriptions.
Once the ministers had been executed, their wealth was confiscated and their names disgraced. Sometimes the man did not die alone, if a wife or beloved son had been too vocal in his defense. Vir's stomach turned at the memory and the realization that each of those families had died, not for disloyalty, but for how close they came to discovering the Drakh's secret.
"Minister Durla," Vir said stiffly. He offered his hands in greeting to Durla, unable to keep a flash of Londo's anguished face as they parted from obscuring his vision. Durla grasped Vir's forearms and when they broke apart he walked towards the window, gesturing for Vir to follow.
"Centauri Prime is not what it once was, Ambassador. I think you will find the city much changed since the last time you were here," said Durla. He parted the thick curtains that obscured the window, pointing down to the city. Cranes and other machinery dotted the city, but there were fewer than there should be under the circumstances. Huge tracts of the urban sprawl were little more than rubble. "The people grow discontent with the pace of the reconstruction, with the crippling reparations, with the Alliance. The natural response to this should be obvious."
"Yes, of course," Vir said, his hearts twisting in his chest. Perhaps the Drakh would allow him to alleviate some small part of their suffering. Even they must realize such a state could not continue forever. He might need to beg them, or trade with them in order to get anything, but he had to try.
"I thought so. I had taken you for an intelligent man, despite what others might say," said Durla. He smiled, and once again it did not touch his eyes. "The natural response to such dissatisfaction is treason and rebellion, even in the highest circles of our society. It must be stopped at any cost, destroyed root and branch before it has the chance to flourish. Otherwise we will descend into anarchy. I'm sure you will agree."
"Yes, I… wait, what? Treason? Minister Durla, our people have lost everything. They are homeless, shell-shocked. Some of them are starving! And you're worried about treason?" Vir felt a warning tug from the Keeper. In a flash it showed him its thoughts. It was displeased that he questioned the allegations of treason, as it had proved a convenient front for protecting the secret of their presence on Centauri Prime. A shudder ran through his body from scalp to toes as the jellyfish-sting of warning trailed along his nervous system. Durla did not appear to notice.
"It is in such an environment that discontent flourishes, Ambassador," said Durla. Vir realized in a flash of horror that there was not a shred of irony or sarcasm in Durla's tone. The man was in deadly earnest. "It must be burned away along with the rest of the rubble if we are to properly rebuild. Even those who stand at the very top are not free of its influence."
"Like the ministers the Emperor had executed?" Vir said weakly.
"Precisely. I am glad you have such a swift grasp of the situation. Others have been too slow in this regard, and have fallen prey to the same dissenting voices that threaten our Republic," said Durla.
"I'll keep that in mind," muttered Vir.
"As well you should. I think we're going to get along, Ambassador," Durla said, clapping a hand on Vir shoulder just inches from where the Keeper squatted. A shock ran through Vir's body at the contact, but the Keeper did not stir. It seemed…amused at Vir's plight. "Which is rather a good thing, don't you think? An Emperor and his Prime Minister should get along, for the good of the people." He gave a broad smile that reminded Vir of Mr. Morden.
"You know about that already?" Vir blinked.
"Of course. I am the Prime Minister, after all. It is my job to be informed," said Durla. "A terrible shame regarding Emperor Mollari's health. But I understand he was under a great deal of stress and had already suffered one heart attack while on Babylon 5. Some people are simply not cut out for the stresses of power. It is quite fortunate that he had so recently appointed you as his successor, otherwise there is no telling what chaos might have erupted, or who would have emerged the victor." He gave Vir's shoulder a companionable squeeze. "There will be much work ahead of us once you are raised to Emperor, but I believe between the two of us we may carve a fresh future for Centauri Prime."
"The Centaurum will need to approve my elevation to Emperor before any work can begin," Vir pointed out. "And that should take days, weeks even."
"Ah yes, the Centaurum." Durla gave a small chuckle. "I do not believe they will prove an encumbrance. Most have fled to their country estates, and the loyalty of those who remain is without question."
"I see. And how many remain, exactly?" said Vir cautiously.
"Approximately one hundred," said Durla, but did not clarify which of those remained in the capital and how many remained amongst the living.
Vir gaped. "Only onehundred? You're saying less than a third of the Centaurum is still here? How is the government functioning? You can't even hold a vote with so few!"
"The numbers matter little. A few good men are more effective than an army of saboteurs and incompetents," Durla said smoothly. "You should not concern yourself over such things. Suffice to say, by tomorrow evening you will be Emperor."
Vir reeled, only his few years spent as Ambassador kept him from falling to the floor. How had he not known of the state of the Centaurum? Did anyone know? How was he to rule effectively when the government was a shadow of its former self?
'You will not. This is the will of the Drakh Entire,' the Keeper whispered in his mind. 'Your duty is to obey.'
A question flared in his mind, but Vir quashed it before he could see its shape. Something must be done, but he did not yet know enough to even grasp the full extent of the damage, much less form a strategy. He could feel the Keeper coming alert at the train of thought, and he forced his mind to blankness.
"Of course, Minister Durla," he said. "I look forward to it." Durla returned the smile, which held just the barest flash of teeth, as if contemplating a bit of foolish prey skirting the edge of a trap. Vir looked away, hoping that Durla had not caught him watching. He tried not to think of the abyss that gaped before him, and the razor-thin path that was his only hope of reaching the other side. If there even was another side.
By the end of his meeting with Durla, he could feel his mind dulling and his limbs drooping, despite the early hour. Having the Keeper attached was like a low-grade fever, sapping the edges of his energy, such that every step and breath became more difficult, until he was utterly drained. He would have liked to think the Keeper too was exhausted, but the creature's thoughts and physical state were as closed to him as his were open to it. He made his way down the long hallway, the setting sun casting blades of red light across the floor, to the small quarters that had been set aside for him when he made his last minute trip from Babylon 5. He felt a pang at the thought, of the friends and the unfinished business he had left behind. Would he even be allowed to tell them what had happened? Well, they would likely learn of it soon enough, on ISN if nowhere else.
He had closed the door to his quarters behind him and was leaning against the door when the realization struck. He was to be Emperor. He nearly staggered at the thought. Yesterday he had been just Vir Cotto. Plain, unassuming, a bit bumbling. Yes, he was an Ambassador, but most people didn't hold that against him. Within the last day he had learned he was to be the heir, then had been in fact raised to Emperor. That alone would have been enough to leave him flustered and panicking, if not for the other minor details. If not for learning the truth behind the atrocities that had destroyed his planet, his government, and very nearly his friend.
In all of it there was only one comfort: that Londo wouldn't suffer further, that he would get away. And, a small part of his mind whispered despite his best efforts, maybe Londo will find help. A tingle of pain spread across his shoulder but it was minor, like a pinched nerve. It held a note of disapproval, and perhaps exhaustion. The Keeper too may be tired and unable to spare the energy or the interest to punish him for the traitorous thought.
Vir removed his coat and began to undress, carefully placing each article in the wardrobe. He supposed it didn't matter. His wardrobe would likely be replaced, whether he wished it or not. Unlike Londo, and almost every other Centauri he knew, he had never desired the position. Though he had never met Emperor Turhan, he had always though he saw a trace of sadness in the man's ancient eyes every time his face appeared on the news vids. He had found himself pitying Turhan, even while those around him envied him.
Vir sat on the bed, and after a moment stretched full out, staring at the ceiling. Tomorrow he would be the Emperor of a people beaten and enslaved, though they could not see their chains. Tomorrow Londo would be safely on his way to Babylon 5, far away from the pain and darkness that had swallowed him these past years. Tomorrow Durla would be his Prime Minister, the Drakh would be his masters, and he would be forced to hurt his planet in order to keep his people alive. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow… the words had the ring of familiarity, like a half-remembered poem, perhaps something he had heard back on Babylon 5. Back home.
Tomorrow would come whether he planned for it or not, and he had done everything he could for now. For the first time in that exhausting, horrifying day, Vir let the walls of his courage down. The shield of numbness he had placed between himself and the full understanding of all that had happened, and how much it had hurt. He turned his face into the pillow and for a terrified moment he felt nothing except blank horror. No, not like this. This was his time. He had to let himself feel this now. There would be no time to mourn later. He had to allow himself this one night.
When the floodgates opened, he cried like he had not since he was a child, deep gulping sobs. He sobbed until he was sick, until he was too exhausted to move. And still it wasn't enough to fully grasp it all, the loss of it all. His fear for his people and for himself. How would he do it all? How could one man possibly do it all? He was surrounded by madmen and monster, strangled by a creature that squatted invisibly beneath his skin and burrowed into his brain. He could not call for help and he could not go home. He could only go onward and hope that somewhere on the other side of this abyss there was an end to it all besides the grave.
But, as he cried himself to sleep, he could not help but think that was too much to hope for, even for him.
Vir woke the next day to a dull roar outside his window. His quarters were at the distant end of the palace, not far from the walls that overlooked the city but nearly a mile of corridors away from where Londo waited for his shuttle off Centauri Prime.
It felt almost unnecessary to flip aside the curtains to catch a glimpse of the angry mob that had gathered outside the palace. Living on Babylon 5 for a few years gives one a certain familiarity with the sound of a riot. The only difference here was that the crowd was entirely Centauri, and when he squinted he could see they were making no attempt to breech the gates, only milling angrily beyond them. Impossible to tell at this distance what the commotion was about. Vir changed hurriedly into the same brown suit he had worn from Babylon 5. Though he could feel the presence of the Keeper on his shoulder it did not seem to be disturbed when he threw on his shirt and coat. The creature had some ability to phase out of existence, allowing the fabric to pass over it so it sat atop his clothing without losing contact with his flesh. That, coupled with its ability to be invisible to all but those it chose, was all Vir had been able to determine about the creature over the course of the day.
He was struggling with a cufflink as he made his way down the corridor to the throne room. Servants were everywhere, but again none seemed to pay him any mind unless they actually collided with him, something that happened several times in the crush of bodies. "Excuse me, sorry, pardon…has anyone seen the Prime Minister? You… no? Can someone tell me what's going on?"
He caught a noblewoman in a rich brocaded red gown by the arm as she hustled past him and she rounded on him, disdain twisting her lips. "What is the meaning of this? Unhand me!"
"I'm sorry…really, very sorry, but no one will tell me what's happening. Why is there a crowd outside?" stammered Vir. The lady tore her arm free, her face contorting with rage.
"Haven't you heard? Those murderers in the Alliance have assassinated the Emperor!"
Vir stared, and for a moment it was as if the woman was very far away, shouting and gesticulating, her face going as red as her dress, but he could not hear what she said. He shook his head, squinting as if it would somehow take that collection of random nonsense syllables and turn them into words. The woman only grew more incensed by his blank look and stormed away.
"But…you promised," Vir said stupidly to the thing on his shoulder. If it said anything, or sent another shockwave of pain through his system, he could not tell. His body was numb, and dread worked its way through his veins like ice across the surface of a river.
He broke into a run, faces blurring around him as he shoved his way through the crowd. The shouting was a distant buzzing in his ears, the thunder of his own hearts keeping pace with the steady stream of nonononononononono that drowned all other thought.
A ring of guards encircled the Imperial suite and Vir shoved his way passed the crowd of courtiers that surrounded them, dabbing at their faces with handkerchiefs and making a great show of their grief. A matronly noblewoman squawked with indignation as Vir pushed her to the side, staring up into the face of the guard at the front.
"Londo…?" Vir panted, craning his neck to look passed the guard into the open door of the suite.
"Ambassador Cotto," the guard said, lowering his gaze to regard Vir.
"Please, you have to let me through."
"We have orders to take you to the Prime Minister once you awake. We were not expecting you for some time. Come with me," the first guard nodded to the second. The man detached himself from the doorway, taking Vir by the arm to lead him through the crowd and to the elevator. They stopped at the highest floor. Down the wide, sweeping corridor, Vir saw Durla standing on the balcony of the central tower overlooking the city.
"Ah, Cotto, good to see you are awake," Durla greeted, sparing Vir only a glance over his shoulder before turning back to the city. Or at least he would have, had Vir not grabbed him by the lapels, dragging the Prime Minister around to face him.
"What happened to Londo?" Vir said, his voice raw and broken. He could barely breathe passed the lump in his throat and his eyes burned with the threat of tears. That he looked more than a little crazed he did not doubt. The unfamiliar feeling of rage welled in his stomach as Durla blinked lazily at him, and turned his cold gaze down to Vir's hands.
"Absolutely nothing," he wrapped one large, muscular hand around Vir's wrist and twisted, detaching his grip without any sign of effort. Not that much was required; Vir could have been easily knocked over with a feather at that point.
"Nothing? But the crowds, the people…" Vir shook his head dazedly. "They said…"
"I assure you, the former Emperor has taken no harm. I simply had him removed to different quarters, for his own safety you understand. He put up quite a fight too for a man his age, like a crazed leati."
"Well, I certainly have no idea. We simply needed to prepare the quarters for you. The man has clearly lost his mind, you know. We are fortunate that you were here to save the Centauri court from another mad Emperor."
"Not that, the people! Why have you told the people he's dead?" Vir cried, even as relief swept his system. Not dead, thank the gods, not dead.
Durla gave him a pitying look. "Politics, Cotto, nothing more. I understand you've had little need to worry about such things on Babylon 5, so take this as a lesson. Look around you," he said, making a sweeping gesture out to the streets and the crowd of angry Centauri. It had grown since Vir had seen it from his window, and pockets of churned amongst the throng as fights broke out. One spark was all that would be needed to start a riot, and there was no telling how many would be killed in the crush of bodies, trampled underfoot or squeezed together with nowhere to run.
"I have been thinking a great deal about what you said yesterday. You are quite correct, the people are shocked, starving, and angry. Like an injured animal, they lash out at whatever target presents itself. More drastic measures will be needed to curb their hostility towards the government, unless we can find a way to redirect it. I began the rumor of Mollari's death at the hands of the Alliance for just that purpose. After all, when the Great Maker presents us with an opportunity it is impious not to take it. Whatever his flaws, Mollari was our Emperor, and the people's rage is now safely and productively directed at the Alliance."
"Prime Minister, you must realize this can't possibly work. Londo isn't going into exile on a remote planet. He's retiring to Babylon 5. People will see him there, they'll know he isn't dead!" Vir said.
Durla shrugged, "If necessary we will simply release a corrective statement. Quietly, of course, and for official record only. By that time, the waters will be sufficiently muddied that it will be impossible to separate truth from rumor. The Alliance's denial will appear flimsy and transparent, and Mollari's presence a cleverly placed duplicate to cover the lie. Such a statement would even work in our favor, as a sign that we were forced against our will to cover the truth. No matter how it turns out, the people will rally around the government and against the Alliance."
"How is that in any way a good decision? Don't you see that the people are already furious over the reparations? If we blame Sheridan for an assassination… it'll start a war! One that we can't possible win! If we even try…" Vir's breath caught. There it was again, a flash of the idea. For a blinding second he saw the full extent of it and he marveled, his stomach churning even as his heart leapt. Yes. Great Maker, yes, it could work. But not now. He blanked his mind, as he felt a stirring of the Keeper's interest. But somehow, impossibly, it did not punish him or seem to fully grasp what his thoughts. Perhaps it was as curious as he. And that was the key to it all, wasn't it?
"Leave such worries to me, Ambassador," said Durla, placing stress on Vir's title. "You need only concern yourself with the coronation while I take care of the rest. Is that not my duty as your Prime Minister?"
Vir's gaze flickered between Durla, to the crowd below, to the palace behind. His mind was still dazed from that brief flash of inspiration, while his hearts still thundered and stomach roiled from the fear for Londo, the sudden relief, and the new fear of this man before him. Monsters on all sides, and the abyss beneath, with the Centauri people hanging in the balance. And all of it depending on that half-formed thought that he could not even dwell on, for fear of rousing the Keeper. That, and his ability to lie.
"Yes, of course,," he stuttered, pulling himself down and in to himself. He had always been beneath notice, forgotten, underestimated, and ignored. Kicked to the side because fussy, bumbling little Vir Cotto wasn't a threat to anyone. He saw the glint in Durla's eye as the man watched him. Soon, Vir would be the most powerful man on Centauri Prime, and he must be as unnoticed and ignorable as he had been on his first day as Londo's attaché. He had never been a good liar, but perhaps if he allowed others to lie to themselves…. He plastered on a nervous smile. "Whatever you think is best, Minister Durla."
Perhaps, if he allowed others to lie to themselves, there might be some hope for Centauri Prime.
Author Note: Thank you for reading! I would very much appreciate hearing what you thought in a review!