Disclaimer: Babylon 5 characters and concepts owned by JMS and Babylonian productions.
Thanks to: Kathy, for beta-reading; Sabine and Kakodaimon, for a discussion which inspired this.
Dedicated to: Sabine and Hobsonphile.
Nobody liked to visit the General's widow, and the fact she kept a Narn servant had only a little to do with it.
For starters, she had been the third wife, not the first, and of so disagreeable a temper that even her own family avoided her. Once a year, the General's son, the present head of House Mollari, did his duty and visited her in the old summer residence on the island Selini. But he never stayed for longer than a few days, a week at most.
This year, he didn't even bother to come himself. Instead, he sent his oldest son. However, rumour had it that the boy had been ordered to stay all summer. The villagers wondered what he could have done to deserve this. He was a bit too young to have accumulated gambling debts or to have unsuitable affairs; his Day of Ascension was still at least two cycles away.
In any case, the boy did not arrive in a manner concordant with a contrite sinner. He and his servant could be heard arguing miles away, but the point of the argument, rather bemusingly, was whether or not the Mollari summer residence would be a suitable location for a ghost story. It seemed the boy loved those. Or maybe he just loved to talk. It did not take the villagers long to discover he was physically incapable of staying quiet for longer than five minutes.
When he wasn't begging the fishermen to be allowed to join them on their boats, he was trying to cajole their daughters into singing their songs for him, or letting him help with the torn nets they were repairing. He was terrible at it, but so good natured that nobody had the heart to tell him.
Nobody, that is, but the General's widow, his not-quite-grandmother, the Lady Rolani.
"You are not a fisherman," she said, her harsh voice even harsher with age, "you are the son of a nobleman, and your father sent you here because it is time you learn to act like one. Stop bothering with tasks you are incapable of fulfilling even if you tried with true dedication. You are inconveniencing everyone, and you are being a fool. At least one of these two afflictions can be cured."
The boy, who was of the age in which all boys believe themselves to be rebels, decided to fulfil her demand in a manner that was guaranteed to surprise and annoy her and his absent father. He knew he was destined for public service, and that at least a superficial command of certain languages would be inevitable. Soon, his father would hire suitable tutors, who would teach their eminently suitable and dull lessons.
Consequently, Londo Mollari of the House Mollari went to the sole Narn on the island Selini, whose name at this point he didn't even know, and said:
"I've decided. Teach me how to speak Narn."
The Narn woman F'Dan looked at him and simply said: "No."
F'Dan was generally regarded as one of her mistress's many unlikable eccentricities, but the villagers had learned to tolerate her. It wasn't that there were no other Narn slaves on Centauri Prime; far from it. But they were generally used as workers in the industrial areas, not as household servants. Attempts had been made, true, early in the occupation; after all, the Narn with their immense physical strength and fearsome looks would, in theory, make excellent bodyguards. Their colouring would also qualify them as decorative gardeners.
But as even those Narn supposedly broken and trained on their own wretched planet tended to murder their patrons and then themselves when given the slightest bit of liberty on Centauri Prime, as was inevitable with household servants, the experiment had been ended quite soon.
These days, with the tales of Narn terrorism ever growing, it was downright unthinkable. And thus it was that none of the inhabitants of Selini, a sparsely inhabited island famous only for its rich fishing grounds and the occasional summer residence of a noble House, had ever seen a Narn, save for F'Dan, who had lived among them for longer than the boy Londo had been alive without ever deigning to speak with them more than was absolutely necessary. They no longer expected her to cut their collective throats during the night, and their houses remained unbarred. But if they had woken up to find her and the General's widow dead, their hands at each others' throats, they would not have been surprised.
The most popular explanation for the Narn's presence was that nobody but a Narn with no place to go would have tolerated the Lady Rolani on a day-to- day basis anyway, and that the Lady Rolani, a harridan but no fool, knew this. There was another theory in the Mollari household which the boy's servant Publio mentioned when shopping in the village.
"Now I never met the General, mind," he told a handsome grocer, "he died before my time. But old Dunsany has been with the family for ages, and he says the old man used some, err, unusual methods when dealing with that Narn province he was in charge of. So we figure the old lady would have been sorry for someone's widow, if you catch my meaning. Do you?"
"Her?" said the grocer, who was not used to subtle passes from city boys, in disbelief.
"Her family is of the peace party at court. Dunsany says the old man married her only to keep the Emperor happy. Have you ever been at court?" asked Publio, and the conversation turned to other matters.
The boy Londo had not given much thought to either theory. He had been to the capital, after all, and so the sight of a Narn was not that unusual for him. But he had never lived with one in the same house. It was F'Dan's present he found interesting, her silent efficiency, her alien smell and the unusual way she spoke and emphasized Centauri words, when she could be coaxed into speaking at all. Her past and the reason for her place at Lady Rolani's side did not matter more to him than the reasons the sun had for rising each morning.
Asking her to teach him the Narn language had been a rebellious whim, for the most part. Her refusal transformed it into an obsession. He began to trail her during her household chores and started to aid her unasked. He was as clumsy at this as he was at repairing fishermen's nets, but as opposed to the girls and women of the village, F'Dan did not laugh, giggle or tease. The first time he broke something when trying to lift it, being fooled about the weight by her strength, it resulted in a resounding slap.
Londo stared at her in disbelief, too stunned to cry out. No adult had ever beaten him; save for the occasional tussle with other boys, nobody had lifted a finger against him at all. Certainly no woman, let alone a slave. Child or not, he could have had her whipped or killed for the offence, and they both knew it. Yet the Narn woman made no move to apologize. She glared at him a few seconds longer, then continued with her duties as if nothing had happened.
If F'Dan had believed, though, that this would discourage him, she had miscalculated. Ever after, she found him following her like a shadow. Only now he was ordering his own servant, who knew how to handle these things, to aid her. Moreover, she found little presents each day; wild flowers, a necklace of shells, a delicacy from the capital. It was then that F'Dan realised two things.
This was a boy to whom the idea of being disliked, let alone hated, did not occur. He would automatically treat as friends first whatever company of strangers he joined, because the concept of hatred was still alien to him. Secondly, this was a boy to whom, so far, nothing had been denied, and whose instinctive response to rejection was not force but the attempt to woo the rejecting person.
In another lifetime, F'Dan might have found these traits charming, as indeed she might have been rather taken by the boy himself. He was not handsome by either Centauri or Narn standards, but his liveliness, generosity and cheer were quite compelling.
In this lifetime, though, everything that was endearing about Londo Mollari served to strengthen F'Dan's hatred. She looked in his friendly, smiling face and knew that while there might have been children like him on Narn once upon a time, there were none now. Any child born on Narn now, if it was born at all, was raised in hatred and fear and learned how to kill at an age where coddled princelings like this creature thought getting your ears boxed was harsh punishment.
F'Dan looked at him, thought of his grandfather, and resolved to teach him a lesson he would never forget.
"You will learn how to talk in my language from me," she said, using the insidious syllables of his own tongue which she despised with all her heart, "if you will swear to do me a favour at the end."
"Ask for what you want, and it shall be yours," the boy promptly replied in that bombastic manner of his, and she could guess what he assumed: that she would ask him for her freedom. Undoubtedly he was already composing his speech to the Lady Rolani in his mind.
"I will," F'Dan confirmed grimly, and knew that when he finally understood her plan, she would be revenged on at least one Centauri.
As it turned out, the boy had a natural ability for languages. In her old life, F'Dan had been a warrior, not a writer or a poet. Explaining to him about the three gender prefixes the Narn language allowed, as opposed to the two the Centauri offered, would not have occurred to her, but after a while, Londo noticed it anyway and started to structure his sentences accordingly, imitating the stern, deliberate combinations that came out of her mouth.
The Narn had a dozen words for rocks and just one for water, which was again a reverse from the Centauri, but surprisingly, they had many terms for plants.
"I thought these," Londo said, gesticulating at a multi-leafed tree F'Dan was indicating, "did not grow on Narn."
"Not anymore," F'Dan said in her language, permitting herself the expression that could be wielded as sharply as a knife. He understood what she was saying and fell silent for a while, until his sunny nature got the better of him and he began to pester her about the names of the stars.
The summer passed quickly for Londo and slowly for F'Dan, as she was waiting and biding her time. When the General's widow came across her Narn servant and her husband's grandson carrying on a conversation in Narn, slow and stumbling on Londo's part, but already in mostly correct sentences, she frowned, yet said nothing. Later, however, she ordered the boy to attend to her as she walked through the gardens.
"I cannot fault your desire to learn the languages of the Empire," she said, "but if you want my advice, then take care never to be posted on Narn. They do not suffer fools gladly there."
He looked just the slightest bit hurt, and the old woman sighed impatiently.
"Great Maker," she said, "anyone with any brain at all would know that a Narn would never, ever, show kindness to a Centauri. F'Dan must be planning something to hurt you, otherwise she never would have agreed to waste her time with this nonsense. I hope you are at least not that much of an idiot to fancy yourself her friend. Otherwise the future of our House is very dark indeed."
The boy surprised her. Instead of angry protestations and idealistic vows of eternal friendship between the races, he replied: "And yet, Grandmother, I saw you accepting the cushion F'Dan gave you the other day, to relieve the pressure on your back. What was that, if not kindness? And I would never presume to call you foolish."
She was not, biologically speaking, his grandmother. His father had been born to the General's second wife, but such subtleties mattered little in a Centauri household, and besides, the response had been adroit enough for her to see he could yield a verbal blade after all, and that had always been her art, not the General's.
"Maybe House Mollari is not completely lost," Lady Rolani said, somewhat mollified. "Very well. F'Dan serves me beyond the call of duty. But you still missed your mark, my boy, because you do not know her reasons, nor mine. I shall tell you, and then perhaps you will think twice before asking her for more lessons."
The story the Lady Rolani told Londo Mollari was, by itself, not that remarkable. Though both Narn and Centauri would deny it for different reasons, such things happened more than once during what amounted eventually to a century of occupation. Yet this particular story was to have an impact on events that passed long after the Lady Rolani, her servant and indeed everyone on the island that summer, save Londo, had become dust.
It was this. The General, proudly proclaiming that his province was in every sense of the word pacified and full of grateful, hard-working Narn, had invited a delegation of court officials to see this and bear testimony to his efficiency themselves. The delegation included several representatives of a faction that argued the occupation of Narn was a waste of lives and resources at a time when the Republic could spare neither. Which was fine with the General. He would show these decadent cowards a model province, where rebellion did not exist anymore, wiped out through using the only language barbarians could understand.
The delegation had not been dining at his headquarters for more than twenty minutes when the inevitable happened. A bomb exploded, a primitive but very efficient bomb made of dung, and at the end of the day, counts showed that more than half of the delegation was dead, including the General's father-in-law.
The General was furious. And embarrassed. Which was even worse, given his sensitivity to his status. He ordered every male Narn who had been in the wider vicinity of the compound that day to be hung by his wrists until the guilty parties were identified. There were not enough trees left to hang all the Narn, so pegs had to be rammed into the ground.
Then, astonishingly, a female Narn approached the General. She would tell him the names of the terrorists, she said, if he promised to spare her husband, for her husband was carrying their pouchlings. Only for the lives of her children would she make this deal.
The General gave his word, and the guilty parties were properly identified. They were executed in front of the General, his remaining staff, and the General's third wife, the daughter of one of the dead Centauri.
Now examples had to be made, and since the Narn woman's husband happened to be the leader of the rebel group, he was executed with the rest of them. His pouchlings died enfolded in his dead body, still moving hours after he had begun to rot in the hot, unforgiving sun. Pictures were made for the edification of the populace, and posted everywhere, along with an account of the crime.
Almost unnoticed in all of this, the Narn woman, making a desperate attempt to cut her pouchlings out of the body of her dead husband, was nearly stoned to death by her own people for her betrayal. She was saved only by the arrival of the Lady Rolani and the Centauri guards who were ordered to follow the Lady wherever she went until the province was pacified once more.
Thus the Lady Rolani saved the life of the Narn F'Dan. She saved the woman's life again in the same night when F'Dan tried to kill herself. Then Rolani told her that since the General had broken his word she, as his wife, felt honour-bound to make certain amends, and that F'Dan had better resign herself to life, for Rolani would not permit her to die.
"For you owe me a blood debt as well," Rolani said. "Your husband killed my father. By the laws of your own people, your life is doubly mine, and this it shall remain until I say otherwise."
The Lady Rolani, when recounting these events to the General's grandson, remained calm throughout. The boy had gone very pale, but did not interrupt her until she had finished. Then he said:
"It was wrong of him to break his word."
His voice shook; still, the Lady Rolani was satisfied that he did not bother her with naïve exclamations about the wrongness of the occupation.
"So it was," she affirmed.
"I shall always keep my promises," the boy declared.
"Well," the General's widow said with the return of something of her usual exasperation, "unless you are faced with the unlikely situation of making promises to a Narn, this resolution could actually benefit our House. At least we'll go down as honourable fools in the history books, instead of as dishonourable but efficient butchers."
Londo never alluded to his newfound knowledge when he was with F'Dan. He grew even more fervent in his efforts to learn more of her language, though, and in secret composed a poem in her honour which he would recite when she asked for her freedom, which he then would grant her.
Eventually, the day came when he questioned her about the Narn word for love. For a while, she did not reply. He noticed that her hands trembled and that her voice was choked with emotion when she eventually did speak.
"I thought you would never ask," F'Dan said. "Now that you have done so, I am free to make my request in return. But first, you shall have your answer. There are several words. Tim is the love between husband and wife. Mal is the love between parent and child. Schol is the love of honour and the right way, and they who can no longer feel it are no longer Narn."
Here she paused, and Londo wanted to press her hand and say he understood. Guessing she would slap him again for taking such a liberty, he did not act on his impulse.
"But the most difficult word for love," F'Dan continued, "is yet another term. It also means you or my knowledge of you or I am filled with you. It is a scream in the wilderness and cannot be uttered by Centauri throats."
Predictably, Londo insisted that she should pronounce it nonetheless.
"If you fulfil my request," F'Dan said, "then maybe I will."
Straightening his shoulders and mentally preparing himself to recite his poem, Londo said:
"Then tell me what you want, F'Dan."
The Narn woman looked at him and for the first time smiled.
"Send your servant Publio into my quarters tonight," she replied, "then lock the door behind him and stand guard. Do not let anyone pass until the next morning."
"That is your request?"
"That is my request," F'Dan confirmed.
Londo was disappointed, crushingly so. It fell so short of his dramatic dream. Besides, not only had he not noticed F'Dan was carrying a torch for Publio, which she obviously did, he also doubted that Publio returned her feelings. Handsome young men were more likely to find favour with him than Narn women of an indeterminate age. Still, if that was what F'Dan wanted, this was what she would get.
His poem unrecited, Londo went to find Publio and instruct him to be a gentleman regarding a certain lady's tender emotions. After all, different as the Narn were anatomically, it would probably just mean some fooling around with a single brachiarte, and this, Londo concluded, feeling very wise in the ways of the world, should not be too great a sacrifice.
Publio made a face but promised to behave after Londo swore to beg his father for a higher salary in return.
"And with a Narn," Publio couldn't resist saying with a shudder. "You really owe me for this one, my young friend."
Still, he was young enough himself to consider it an adventure, and agreed, his future salary's ducats blinking their lazy silver fire at him. Besides, Publio liked his charge, and considered himself lucky he had been chosen when the time came for the heir of House Mollari to leave his nurse behind and to be given a male servant instead. If it was that important for the youngster, Publio was game.
Not spying on F'Dan and Publio demanded much discipline from Londo. After all, he had a lively curiosity about these matters. In fact, his present exile on Selini had been the result of some mischief he and his best friend Urza Jaddo had got into involving the girls' bathrooms at the Jaddo residence. However, Londo knew F'Dan would consider it disrespectful, and he very much wanted her to understand he did respect her. So Londo remained in front of the door and did not attempt to open it all through the night, though the groans and once or twice the outcries he could hear through the wall sounded very mysterious and tempting indeed.
Nobody else came, which was somewhat disappointing since Londo had brought a short sword along to defend F'Dan's and Publio's privacy, if necessary. Since there was nothing else to do, he began counting in Narn numbers, and after a while, he fell asleep.
He did not wake up until the next morning when someone's hand connected sharply and painfully with his face.
"Wake up," said the Lady Rolani's voice, and he opened his eyes. In front of him stood the old woman, dressed only in her night gown, and this severe breach of decorum was enough to bring Londo to his feet at once.
"What have you done?" she demanded. But she spoke with her eyes directed at something behind him, and confused, he turned around.
The door was open, that was the first thing he noticed. Then he saw a figure hanging from the ceiling, his arms strung above him. The arms were the only parts of the body that were perfectly intact, and so it took Londo a while to recognise Publio. It took him even longer to recognise F'Dan, who was dressed in an armour he had never seen before. In her hand, she held two shuddering pieces of meat, and only when she pressed them into his own hands did he understand that they were Publio's hearts.
"You realise," said the Lady Rolani to Londo when everything was over, "that this is entirely your fault, don't you? She had been thinking about a means to force me to let her be executed in a suitably gruesome manner for years, but she would not have acted on it. We were getting old, and even the strongest fire dims if it is not fanned again."
When the boy remained silent, she shook her head, disgusted. "I cannot believe how gullible you were. And after I warned you, too. As if one of them would ever want to touch one of us. And your folly cost that young fool of your servant his life as well."
When Londo still said nothing, the Lady Rolani ended:
"At least I hope you learned your lesson, good and proper."
That finally got a reaction out of the boy.
"How could I?" he asked tonelessly. "She never told me that last word."