Disclaimer: All owned by JMS and Babylonian Productions.
Timeline: Fourth season, post- The Summoning
Thanks to: Hobsonphile, for beta-reading; Bloodraven, for the challenge.
Obligatory Warning: Cartagia is being Cartagia, yes?
In the Pale Moonlight
Being summoned to attend the Emperor in the middle of the night had lost its novelty. The coppery flavour of excited horror, however, remained the same. There wasn't a moment when Londo wasn't aware of what was at stake. His plans could be discovered, or Cartagia could just decide to execute him on a whim. And then Centauri Prime would be lost. Only slightly less frightening was the idea of Cartagia venting his spleen on Vir, or going too far in his efforts to get entertainment out of G'Kar, resulting in the Narn's premature death. Londo told himself that G'Kar's life was safe, protected by the strange certainty of his death dream, but death visions had been known to be revealed as imprecise or metaphorical before. Seeing G'Kar and himself strangling each other with Londo in the imperial white could very well mean that they would both come to die through Cartagia, the Emperor Londo had helped create.
The guard who summoned him guided him to the gardens, and Londo allowed himself to feel a pang of relief. Another round of torture did not seem to be what Cartagia was after tonight. Perhaps the satisfaction of having heard G'Kar scream would last a while. The warm air of the summer night felt soothing once they had stepped out on the first terrace. As the guards' steps slowed, Londo heard laughter mingling with the murmur of the fountains. There, sitting on some artfully arranged cushions in the middle of the terrace, was Cartagia with one of the younger courtiers, two of his concubines and the inevitable bodyguards.
"Ah, Mollari," called the Emperor, as he gestured for him to join them, "there you are. We were getting bored, weren't we?"
"Never, your majesty," said the young courtier as Londo carefully knelt down. "Not in your glorious company."
Cartagia regarded him coldly.
"I was bored," he said pointedly, "and you did nothing to relieve the situation. Here I am, having the most wonderful idea of arranging a starlight dinner, and it is ruined by the utter and complete lack of imagination surrounding me. My courtiers are a sorry lot, are they not, Mollari?"
One of the cardinal rules of surviving in Cartagia's service was to reply in a manner that was more than blind flattery and less than complete agreement. "All of us are creatures of the gutter, majesty," Londo returned, affecting a dry, amused tone while noticing the young man at Cartagia's side had started to sweat, "but some of us look up to the stars."
"Well said," commented Cartagia, and the concubines giggled dutifully. "You know, Mollari, you aren't a bit like Refa described you. No, not at all."
"Lord Refa was... misguided about a great many things," Londo said, and he thought of Refa telling him the late Turhan's nephew was a young malleable man who would be a harmless puppet on the throne. "And descriptions were hardly his forte. His words on your majesty certainly fell short of the reality."
The Emperor leaned a bit more into the cushions, supporting himself on his elbows while observing Londo thoughtfully.
"And how would you describe me, Mollari?"
Divine or indescribable was too obvious. Utterly mad was true but would not serve, either. There were some stock phrases in Centauri poetry which one used traditionally to compliment the Emperor; given the kind of luck Londo was accustomed to, using one of these would undoubtedly result in Cartagia having heard the very poem from the last courtier he banished or executed. No, Londo would have to come up with something original.
Looking at the moonlight reflecting on the seal of the Centauri Republic that Cartagia wore around his neck, even at this hour, Londo said:
"As my destiny."
The women and the courtier waited for a signal from Cartagia on how to react, but the young Emperor remained still for a while, neither replying in word nor in gesture. Even his face remained unmoved by disapproval or delight. He simply continued to watch Londo. Finally, he sat up, the corners of his mouth folding in a slow curious smile.
"Well then, Mollari, if I am your destiny, you should be able to explain to me why I feel so vexed tonight. I really cannot explain it. The glorious day of my inevitable godhood comes ever closer, the wretched Narn has finally done his duty and screamed, and there isn't a desire I have not been able to taste. I should be happy, yet I am not."
For a moment, he looked very young, and for the first time, it struck Londo that Vir and Cartagia were probably of an age. It was a strangely disquieting thought.
"Nothing which makes us happy ever lasts."
"Now that is a dull observation, Mollari," Cartagia said, shaking his head, "and all the more so because it is true. What use do I have for dull truths? Besides," he ran his finger from the cheek of the lady sitting closest to him along her throat to her shapely bosom, "my loyal subjects are obliged to make it last along as they can, are they not?"
The young woman smiled, a well-trained, guileless smile, but Londo could see the sudden terror flickering in her eyes, and the way her skin contracted after Cartagia's hand had left it. He felt the pity that all trapped things evoked in him. In her way, she was like G'Kar in his cell, providing amusement at the whim of the monster on the throne. They all were; only their cells and chains were of a different type.
"Ah, but if a pleasure could last eternally, we would never be able to experience novelty, yes? Indeed too much effort at only one thing would keep your majesty from experiencing others, and no loyal subject can wish such a fate on you."
"True," Cartagia conceded, and he let go of the woman as suddenly as he had touched her. He leaned forward, arms crossed around his knees in an inappropriately boyish gesture. "You, I take it, wish to surprise me?"
If one could call an assassination a surprise, which Londo was not completely sure about. Even a madman like Cartagia had to be aware of certain long-standing traditions in times of crisis.
"It seems to be the proper way to show my gratitude", Londo said, "for your most surprising gift, majesty."
Bringing G'Kar up was not without risk, but there was a vague chance Cartagia would be in the mood of finally transferring his "gift" to the original recipient, now that he had had his scream. Of course, if G'Kar were to be handed over to Londo for complete custody, the plans for the assassination would have to undergo certain revisions, but the memory of last night, - of G'Kar staring at him the entire time while the electrowhip danced on the Narn's body - , of that one, terrible scream was still burned in his mind.
Cartagia's eyes never left his face. "Then show me your gratitude now, Mollari. Surprise me now," he whispered. The concubines and the courtier drew back a bit. Belatedly, Londo realized the implication.
Given that Cartagia had taken pride in openly displaying the fact he had "tasted every desire" to the Royal Court, it should not have come as a complete surprise. But for all the intense attention Cartagia had directed at him, Londo had been reasonably sure his age and less than handsome appearance would keep him from being regarded in such a light. He should have known better; he should have been prepared for all eventualities. This one might very well cost him his head.
It wasn't that he was unable to dally with people he had no sympathies for, or even hated. One aspect his marriages had never lacked was sex, after all. It wasn't even the fact that his desires usually ran towards the female form. He had not shared intimacy with another man for ages, but there had been enough adolescent indulgence in his youth to at least give him an idea of what to do.
But even here, at the Royal Court where scruples were a thing to be abandoned and ruthlessness was the only way to survival, there had to be some things he would not do. There had to be a line he would not cross. Playing the whore for Cartagia was beyond that line.
For a second, he imagined his wife Timov, who would undoubtedly tell him that he had done far worse things already, and that it would serve him right to get a taste of what was expected of many, if not most, Centauri women in their marriages. He could almost hear her sharp voice. Well, Timov was far from Centauri Prime now. He had ordered her to leave soon after his arrival, together with Urza's family. There would be no hostages given to fortune this time - no one who would pay the price for him.
But Vir was still here. And that confounded Narn who had chosen the most breathtakingly inconvenient time for a sojourn to Centauri Prime. If Londo took a wrong step now, both of them would burn in the fire the Vorlons had unleashed, together with the rest of the population and the entire planet.
"Age is a terrible thing, your majesty," he said conversationally, remembering a time as a boy when he had persuaded the fishermen to let him join them for a day, and they had been surprised by a glitch in the global weather network that had allowed for an unpredicted storm to occur. Sitting on a little boat between waves that could have crushed him had felt quite similar. "Which is one reason why I would never wish it on you. It does nothing but make one's limbs go flaccid till one can hardly move them at all. It withers us, and blunts all the skills we could so joyously exert in our youth. No, there is no pleasure to be gained from age. There is only one surprise it can offer."
Cartagia frowned, and Londo felt his two hearts beat faster while willing himself not to show any sign of panic.
"Is there," the Emperor repeated in a dangerously quiet tone. "And what might that be, Mollari?"
Leaning forward himself in as languid a manner as he could feign, Londo returned: "The knowledge that there is only one sensation as rich as consummation. The deliciousness of anticipation."
For the first time in a while, Cartagia did look surprised.
"I...see," he said. The tip of his tongue appeared between his lips, moistened them and disappeared again. "Would you care to elaborate on this... insight?"
"Now young people, or dull people - people with no imagination - might think that there is no greater joy than the privilege of providing pleasure to the Emperor of the Centauri Republic, yes?" Londo said, allowing a note of ribald teasing to creep up in his voice. He heard a slight gasp from one of the women. Cartagia stared at him. Sounding angry and curious at the same time, he replied,
"Do you dare to doubt it?"
"I do indeed, majesty. A dalliance with an Emperor is all very well, but what is it next to anticipating the passion of a god?"
For a moment, there was no sound around them save for the ever running water of the fountains and the chirping of the insects in the night. It seemed even the guards, trained to show no reaction at all save to a threat to the Emperor's life, held their breath. Then Cartagia threw his head back and laughed, unabashedly amused.
"I like you, Mollari," he said, slightly out of breath. "I truly do. Very well. We shall savour the wonders of anticipation until the Shadows have made me a god."
He rose, almost quick enough for it to count as a jump. Hastily, the courtiers and Londo scrambled on their feet as well. "And I am vexed and bored no longer," Cartagia declared cheerfully. Relieved, Londo silently bowed. Cartagia caught his hand.
"We're very much alike, Mollari, do you know that?" he said. "So your imagination will undoubtedly tell you how a god will respond if anticipation is met with disappointment. Go to sleep, Mollari. Get your strength back. I will not hear anything about old age once the fires of my inauguration have started, do you understand me?"
"Yes," Londo said quietly, and would have added a polite phrase or two. But Cartagia suddenly leaned forward once more, and there was the sudden old taste of copper and horror on his lips as the Emperor kissed him. It was over as soon as it had started, nothing but a quick sensation on his mouth. Still, he felt bruised.
"I hope you do," Cartagia said. Turning, he strolled away, a white shadow quickly vanishing in the night, followed by his three companions. The woman who earlier had been the object of Cartagia's attentions lingered for a moment and gave Londo a sympathetic look. Then she, too, was swallowed up by the darkness.