Spoilers: For all five seasons and the Centauri trilogy by Peter David.
Thanks to: Kathy, for beta-reading.
This story is for Hobsonphile, with thanks for a discussion that inspired it.
There had never been a time when they had been alone, and so there was an aptness about their fate that held the elegance of a poem. This helped them. They were Centauri, and they adored elegance.
Their names, which were hardly spoken by anyone, were Merit, Liriel, Alaris and Sidonia. But nobody referred to them in this manner, or even thought about them in a way that was connected to those names, not since Emperor Turhan had died. They were the Emperor's telepaths, clad in the same imperial white that was his right and duty, their faces veiled so it would be even less likely people saw them as anything but the Emperor's ears and mouth. It had been this way since they could remember.
As the four telepaths destined to serve the Emperor had to be linked across time and space, their entire childhood was driven by the need to create such a bond. Like all their predecessors, they had been selected from those rare children who were telepathic from birth. They never knew their parents; faithful to tradition, the records of their origin had been erased as soon as it had become apparent that the four of them were compatible with each other and had started to form what the Centauri referred to as "lidara", a flower with only four leaves. No family should be able to claim their loyalties, after all, and they should be loyal to none but the Emperor himself.
It had not been difficult for them. Turhan was a kind man, who had treated them as his children, not as tools, and his tender concern soothed them during the horrors of adolescence, when their bodies suddenly started to remind them they were not, in fact, the same person. When the first of their predecessors died, they had watched Turhan visit the other three on their sickbeds. The Emperor had tried to persuade the Lidara of his youth to remain alive, even without their fourth, but was not surprised when he failed. He had remained with them till their deaths. If the Lidara formed of Merit, Liriel, Alaris and Sidonia had not been loyal to Turhan out of tradition, training and childhood affection, they would have learned to love him then.
When Turhan found out how ill he was, they were the only ones who knew. Not even the Lady Morella had been privileged with this information, as she was a strong-willed woman, and would not have permitted the Emperor to follow his designs to risk what time remained by visiting Babylon 5 otherwise. The Lidara closed ranks around Turhan as the flower they were named for closed at the first sign of frost, and shielded him as much as they could.
His death, though expected, was a blow from which they did not know how to recover for a long while. They felt his despair when all his intentions were foiled, when the sacrifice he had made was turned into an inauguration pyre for a new era of war and bloodshed. He was the reason and purpose of their existence, he was their father and the one person they loved outside their small, perfect circle, and he died in darkness and grief. It was unbearable.
The fact that the Ambassador on Babylon 5 lied about his last words was just one more drop of acid on an already open wound. They could have exposed him, but they were too distressed to make even the attempt. When they were reunited on Centauri Prime, they spent weeks in isolation, mourning for Turhan and trying to reassemble themselves. After all, they were Centauri. They knew their duty. And their duty was to serve.
Once the mourning period was ended, they presented themselves to the new Emperor. Their first contact with his mind was enough to make them shudder in revulsion; a greedy, sucking swamp, full of bubbles of poisonous gas. To live with this mind day in and day out would have been a horrible fate, and yet they did not know whether they were shocked or relieved when Cartagia told them he did not need a Lidara, that "a telepathic bunch of nannies" was beneath him. There had never been an Emperor without a Lidara, and though they loathed the very sight of him, they did not know what purpose their life should have if they could not serve the Emperor. First, Cartagia ordered them to remain in the old East Wing of the Royal Palace, far from the court, and then they were told to move to the Summer Palace in the mountains. If the Emperor's widow, the Lady Morella, had not been providing for them, they might as well have starved there as far as Cartagia was concerned. It was only later that they understood this order coincided with the arrival of the creatures called Shadows on Centauri Prime, who did not care for telepaths at all. They returned the feeling; they could hear them screaming in their minds even miles away, for they were the most powerful telepaths of their generation, and they cursed those who had brought this horror over their world, feeling ill and guilty at their disloyalty at the same time.
When Cartagia died on Narn, they felt the return of hope and purpose. Surely, the next Emperor would be different, and worthy of the office. They waited for news in the old Summer Palace, waited to be summoned to the imperial presence once more. But nobody bothered to tell them that only a Regent had been appointed for a long time; they had to find out through an accidental stray thought of the milkmaid.
It got worse. Fire and death came over Centauri Prime, and when the ashes were cooling and they were coherent enough to separate themselves from all the cries everywhere on their world, they learned that there was finally a new Emperor again: none other than Londo Mollari, the former Ambassador on Babylon 5. The devastation of their world had been his inauguration.
"He betrayed Turhan," they said to each other.
"He brought the Shadows here; he was the first, long before they ensnared Cartagia."
They did not want to serve him. The very thought repulsed them, even more than the prospect of serving Cartagia had done. So they took the unprecedented step of trying to live as something other than a Lidara. They abandoned their white dresses, and even tried to walk through the streets without their veils.
But the wind on their unprotected cheeks, still full of ash and dust and the smell of dead bodies, was grazing, and the stares from everyone were worse. They could not hide what they were behind red and yellow colours, and they sensed the question on everyone's mind: why were they not at the Emperor's side in this worst of times, to help him as he attempted to rebuild Centauri Prime?
The shame grew until it finally outweighed their revulsion, and they decided to return to the capital and to offer their services once more. They heard wild and conflicting tales as they approached the city that had once been the crowning jewel of Centauri Prime. The Emperor was doing everything he could and lived only for the people; no, he was an arrogant, selfish man, who had refused the help of off-worlders when it was most direly needed. He was the damned soul who had brought this horror over Centauri Prime; no, it had been the Regent, and the Emperor had done everything in his power to stop him, had even been imprisoned for a while because of this.
They did not know what to make of this. At least the stories about Cartagia had been consistent, and had fitted with what they had sensed themselves.
Having finally arrived at the capital, they were, most bewilderingly, denied an audience. Even Cartagia had granted them at least one. Again and again they requested to see the Emperor, and again and again they were denied. This would have confirmed to them that he was, in fact, the damned soul of the darker tales that were told about him, were it not for the fact that upon learning of their return, he had given them a mansion of their own, one of the first where living conditions were restored, and had granted them a pension so they could live off independent means as few women on Centauri Prime had ever done. Since the Lady Morella had died during the attack, he sent them what remained of Emperor Turhan's personal possessions. In short, he gave them every courtesy without being asked for it; but the one thing they truly wanted, he denied.
Two years of his reign had passed, and still they had not managed to see him, when fate intervened. They went to the Royal Palace to request an audience once more, as they did each month, fully expecting to be rejected again. But the Royal Palace was in an uproar; the Empress Timov had suddenly been sent into exile when it had seemed that relations between her and the Emperor had never been better, and Ambassador Cotto, the Emperor's most trusted official, had left abruptly, too, after a very brief visit and, it was rumoured, even a night in a prison cell.
The upheaval this created meant that the four members of the Lidara were not received by the usual servants. Instead, they somehow ended up with Minister Durla himself. The Minister radiated irritation and confused ambition in every reaction, as well as the petty urge to do something that would hurt the Emperor, of whom he was insanely jealous; one did not have to be a telepath to sense this. Since Durla knew Emperor Mollari did not want to see them, he spitefully told the guards they were permitted an audience, and added that perhaps this would distract the Emperor from the Empress' betrayal.
The Lidara all knew Durla's motives, but found they did not care. This was in all likelihood their one and only chance to present their case to the Emperor and persuade him to give them a purpose again. They thanked Durla, and followed his servant to the Emperor's private apartments. Following a sudden inspiration, they asked be announced as the Ladies Merit, Liriel, Alaris and Sidonia, for if they were to be introduced as the Lidara, the Emperor might send them away unseen at the last moment. Having come so close, they did not intend to be foiled.
So the servant listed their names, and they could hear the Emperor say in a dull, listless voice, very unlike the one they remembered from Turhan's visit on Babylon 5, that they could enter.
He sat on the throne where Turhan had resided, where Cartagia had lounged, and yet, contrary to all their expectations, they did not even think of the former Emperors. They were tense and expectant, and not as young as they used to be, but one look was enough. The horror swept over them, the horror of his existence, and they knew what he had done. They could sense the choking parasite, the tool that was used to control him, the loathsome companion for every second of the rest of his life he had accepted so that his people might live. They could feel the net the Drakh had spun over the Royal Palace, just as they held their entire world hostage, and they knew that they, too, were now caught in this net. They understood why he had sent the Empress away, and Ambassador Cotto, and that he had meant to save the Lidara, too, when he had refused to see them.
"Dear Ladies," he whispered, "what have you done?"
They were unable to answer. Instead, they clung to each other and wept as they had not done since Turhan had died, wept for their world. They should have seen it long ago. It was one of the oldest sayings on Centauri Prime. The Emperor is the soul of the people. He is the heart of the Republic. And now that soul was captured in a prison more cruel than any tyrant could devise, and the heart was broken.
Something moved in the shadows. They could sense him before he spoke; a slice of darkness, tied to that creature that was eating the Emperor from inside out. In the midst of their grief, the cold hunger coming from him made their tears dry and forced words back into their throats. For this being lived on tears and despair; they saw he was nourishing himself from the Emperor and had been since the day Mollari ascended the throne, and through him that amalgam of monsters called the Drakh Entire.
"They must die," the Drakh said. "And they must die now. No more evasions. No more bargains. I gave you your pathetic aide, but these must die."
For a moment, they considered using all their power to cast the news of the Drakh's presence into every mind they could reach, for that was what the creature feared. But the Emperor's thoughts had told them what would happen next; the Drakh and his companions would use their devices, and billions of Centauri would die.
They had been four-in-one for so long that it felt unnatural when one of them finally spoke out loud and said what they all had decided, quickly, efficiently, and with the purpose they had lost and looked for for years.
"We will die," Merit said, and her unused voice scratched in their ears as a diamond cutting on glass. "But we will die as the Lidara should, in the service of our Emperor. We will die as Centauri, choosing the manner of our own death and looking it in the eye. Surely you do not care, as long as it happens, and happens quickly?"
The Drakh looked at them, as bemused as if the furniture had suddenly shown it could speak. They felt the greedy darkness of his mind grasping at them through their shared link with the Emperor, and stood firm, showing that they did not intend anything to the disadvantage of the Drakh Entire. What they did intend, they kept for themselves, through shields as bright and smooth as any armour ever hammered for the Emperors of old.
"Let them die in dignity," Mollari said, and rose from his throne, confronting the Drakh. "The gods know it is about time someone does around here."
The Drakh lifted a hand, only slightly, an almost lazy gesture, and the wave of pain the creature on the Emperor's shoulder sent through his body was enough to make all four of them fall to their knees.
"Do not attempt to kill him," the Drakh said to them, warningly. "He is ours. You may die as you choose, but if you imagine your last service to your Emperor will be his death, that privilege is revoked."
They could hear the Emperor's harsh, irregular breathing. But he had not cried out, and they knew this had not been the first time the Drakh had used the parasite in this way. They had actually considered offering the Emperor his death, but had already dismissed the idea with the quickness of a heartbeat, for it was clear that the Drakh were quite capable of killing the billions they held hostage in retaliation.
"That is not what we intend," said Sidonia, and her voice, too, had the rawness of unuse. The Drakh looked at them a moment longer. Then he became one with the shadows again, but they could sense he was still there. He would not leave until they were no longer among the living.
As one, they knelt before the Emperor, and showed him, in a thought they yielded with the directness of a knife, what they wanted for themselves. Slowly, he nodded. It was the sadness in his dark eyes that confirmed to them their decision had been the right one, for it was there for them, not for himself. He was still the same man who had turned Turhan's last words into a lie, true, but what had been selfish and ambitious in him had been burned away with a fire that left no survivors, and what remained was a paradox that took their breath away. He was weakness which had squandered all chances at governing his own fate; he was strength that endured a torture that would have broken most men day after day, hour after hour, second after second, because he had to, for his people. He was loneliness, for he had sent everyone he loved away; and yet he was love, burning with an unquenchable flame that, once ignited, never could be extinguished.
"I wish I could give you something different," he told them as he filled the cup they had demanded.
You give us purpose, they replied silently, and then, using all their training, all their power, they gave him what was theirs to give in return. They cut through the tendrils that bound his mind, that mind in which darkness and light were so inextricable interwoven, pushed back the alien presence, and shifted.
It is the start of the third year of the reign of Mollari II , but....
...because Sheridan warned him about the keeper...
...because the plans of the Drakh were discovered in time...
...because G'Kar killed Shiv'Kala when the later attempted to fulfill the Shadows' revenge on Londo nonetheless...
...Centauri Prime is free. There are no Drakh. Vir has just left, true, but it was a joyful farewell, and he is returning to Babylon 5 with Senna, who wants to fulfill her dream of travelling among the stars. It is a beautiful evening in an undestroyed, flourishing capital, and after they took their leave of Vir and Senna, Londo has invited Timov and G'Kar to a picnic at the lake Cami. Timov points out that evening picnics tend to end in damp clothes and grass everywhere, but then has to admit she never actually participated in one.
"It has been years for me, too," Londo says ruefully.
"I am not surprised," G'Kar comments. "You Centauri do avoid anything natural with a vengeance. In fact, I am amazed there is a lake left on this planet that hasn't been transformed into a fountain. And that grass has my respect, too. Millions of years with such obnoxious people, and it is still there."
"Avoiding anything natural with a vengeance, eh?" Londo replies. "Coming from someone who takes pride in wearing the most breathtakingly uncomfortable body armour imaginable even on a day where every self- respecting assassin prefers to cool his feet in the next fountain, that is something of a compliment."
Timov clicks her tongue. "He is really desperate for compliments, isn't he?" she says to G'Kar, and they can both hear the fondness mixed in her acerbic tone.
"He is," G'Kar confirms, but before he can elaborate on the subject of Londo's vanity, Londo cuts in with: "Aren't we all?"
"You more than anyone else," Timov says, as they sit on the shore of Lake Cami, and handing him the prepared miralla, she continues: "That is why you had to become Emperor."
G'Kar laughs, a loud, rumbling laugh. "Ha," he says. "The secret of Mollari's ambition, solved."
"Bah," Londo shoots back. "If I were that eager for compliments, I would not be with the two of you, yes?"
And then, because it is a glorious spring evening and the air is warm, and because he is free from any worry but the one about whether or not to raise the taxes next year, and because he wants to, he shows them why he is with the two of them now. Because all the bitterness and guilt has gone by now, because they had their share of brivari as well, and because they want to, they show him why they are with him as well. He is happy, happier than he has ever been in his entire life. The emptiness in him has finally been filled, and that fullness is flowing over, in wave after wave after wave like the waters of Lake Cami...
....like the dark wine in the golden cup...
They knew what death was. They had been with their predecessors and sensed their last dreams, soft, fragmentary dreams like old curtains, blowing in the wind. They had been wrapped in Turhan's despair when Turhan died. It was fitting that their own death would happen in a dream, in the dream they had woven from everything they had found in the Emperor's mind as they drank the poison they had requested. It was quick, as he had promised, but the mind was a miraculous thing, which could bend time and space to its will, even if it was just for a little while. As they felt their hearts beat slower, they kept the illusion up, and held the parasite at bay. Its tiny mind clawed at them, angry and frustrated, and the more powerful presence of the Drakh rumbled in anger behind it. But they stood firm, guarding their gift, shielding the Emperor and his dream for as long as they could.
They felt his freedom and happiness, and it was theirs. They knew the Keeper would reassert itself and bring him back to reality as soon as they were no longer there, and still, in this moment, it did not matter. They were the Lidara. They were Centauri. And they served.
When their last breath left them, there was a smile on their faces. But they were veiled, and so only the Emperor knew it, as he laid them to their rest.