She had made herself be strong for John, back at the spaceport. And somehow, at the time, she truly believed that he would have the worse time with their parting. Humans were ruled by their emotions much more than Minbari, and six months on Earth had only confirmed that verdict. But now she could scarcely eat, could not find the energy to rouse herself, even if just to walk from one end of the corridor to the other. Delenn retreated into her memories, and she went over each until they were as smooth as river pebbles.
The first day at school, when John ate lunch with her, and took her to the arcade. Pressed against his body in the Starfury, his arms around her.
He took her home after their shared meal. They kissed, and a world that she had not known to be wrong suddenly righted itself.
Waking up in his bed, his body warm and utterly safe. For the first time, she wondered what it would be like to take him as a mate.
Kisses in his car, his hands growing bolder and bolder. One day it had started raining as they kissed in the back, and the rest of the world seemed to melt away. They were the only two people in existence, safe and secure in this perfect little bubble. John traced the edges of her crest, his face so close to hers that she could feel the sweep of his eyelashes against her cheek when he blinked. Let's never leave. Let's stay here forever.
The shan'fal. His fingertips marking her skin in reverential paths, sweeps and arcs. The warmth of his mouth, the bliss of his hands, the home he made with the curve of his body over hers. I love you, she whispered. No greater truth had ever been spoken. I love you, I love you, I love you.
The last night. They joined their bodies wholly and completely. The feel of him moving inside her, his hands gripping her hips tightly, the tear that rolled down his cheek. There had been no pleasure in it - the act itself had actually been quite painful, save perhaps at the very end - but Delenn knew she would never experience anything more profound and magnificent in all her life.
And the days went by on the ship, one after another, meaningless ticks of the timepiece. Each day took her farther from Earth, farther from John. Each day was an excommunication. Each day her heart grew harder, enveloped in stone. She would become the crystal woman. Light would strike her flesh and fracture.
The ship finally docked at Yedor. Delenn walked down the gangway, her single bag as heavy as lead at the end of her arm. She had not stood for weeks; her head swam, and her vision blurred. She blinked, and was able to see that the spaceport was crowded, that there was perhaps no room left for anyone else to enter. She saw the faces she had ignored while on the ship. Hundreds of faces, thousands. Her people. They looked up at those walking off the ship, smiling and crying.
Delenn dropped her bag. There was no air to be found, and her legs seemed weak as flower stems. Arms wrapped around her, strong arms. For a moment she was sure that John was here, but then she heard a voice, saying her name, over and over.
"Father?" she said, and the arms squeezed her tight. Delenn pressed her face into her father's chest and wept.
Fully twenty-five members of her clan returned with them to the house. Her father's father, her mother's sister and her cousins, and then those more distant relations, some of whom she had not seen since she was a child. Even Telenn and Anyan had come, their journey taking them nearly halfway around the planet.
"We have been so worried about you, Delenn," her cousin Delenn'na told her, an arm around her waist. "Each day it seemed we heard of some new horrible injustice. It is good to have you home."
Delenn clenched her teeth together. She would not cry.
"Are you hungry?" clan patriarch Anyan grunted out at her. "You look a wraith, child. Earth food is no better than air, this everyone knows." Delenn did not think they would understand if she told them that simply hearing their voices, being surrounded in her own language, was better than any meal could ever be.
"I shall prepare porridge and tea," Telenn announced. Delenn was amazed she had made the trip to Yedor. Her skin was so thin it was nearly translucent. She could see the outline of the old woman's bones, and a distinct gap had formed between the bone crest and her head at the temples, a sure sign the end was nigh. Delenn's father and Anyan helped Telenn up from her chair, and the old woman batted their hands away.
"Something more substantial that porridge, surely," Anyan gruffed.
"And pop her stomach open?" Nervous eyes flitted Delenn's way, but she only smiled. Delenn'na pulled her close, drawing her head down to rest on her shoulder.
The porridge was warm and fragrant, and Delenn could not remember anything ever tasting as good, but she could only eat a few bites before she was uncomfortably full. As she sipped at her tea, her clan chatting amiably all around her about this and that - her third cousin Finnier had just changed castes against the wishes of his father, it was a terrible scandal - Delenn became aware that her own father had retreated into the shadows of the garden.
She found him sitting on a bench with his back to the house, looking out over the city below. "Father?" He did not turn or look at her, but he lifted his arm, inviting her to sit beside him. It was a cool night, and Delenn huddled against him, the weight of his arm on her shoulders a solid anchor, keeping her safe, firmly tethered to the ground.
"You do not know how I worried about you, Delenn," he said, and his voice sounded older than his years. "Ever since that fool..." He trailed off, but Delenn knew he was referring to the Minbari who had assassinated President Harrison. "I waited every day to hear that you had been attacked. That you had been hurt. That you..."
"No, Father," she murmured. How could she explain to him how safe she had felt, up until the last, just being with John?
"You should not have gone," he finally said. Were they now going to replay this argument?
"No one could have known all that would happen," she tried to reason with him. "It was an opportunity I could not turn down. I learned so much!"
"About animals. About savages." The bile in his voice was thick, and Delenn drew away from him.
"They were not all like that, not at all. I made many friends-"
"Friends." Her father was never sarcastic, never so dismissive of her. A dull ache settled in around her ears. "They are dangerous," he went on. "They have taken every offer of peace we have extended them and thrown it back in our faces."
"You talk of a species while I speak of individuals. To paint all Humans as the same is the same mistake their government has made of us. Are you no better than that?"
Father turned and looked at her, sharpness glittering in his eyes, but it faded even as she watched. He sighed. "You are right, Daughter. You cannot understand the fear that has gripped me, not until you have a child of your own."
"You do not have to fear anymore. I am home."
"Yes. You are home."
Her room was just as she had left it. This bed was far narrower than the monstrosity Livia and Judith had purchased for her, properly proportioned for a single body. Delenn opened the window a crack and lay down, looking around at her possessions. The crystals from the Five Pilgrimages, arranged in a neat row; her ceremonial white robe, hanging in the closet, just the hem peeking out at the bottom; an etching hung on the wall depicting the birth of the Universe; a stack of rocks from her mother's temple, a slip of paper pinned between the third and fourth. The path of righteousness is narrow and difficult, but it will lead you true.
Delenn opened her bag and drew out the little blue bear John had given her. She set it on the shelf below the crystals, where she could see it from her bed, and where its shiny black eyes could see her. She reached inside her robe and unpinned his brooch and looked at it in the moonlight, though she knew each and every detail by heart. Now that she was safely home, she repinned the brooch to the outside of her robe, over her heart. She would wear it proudly, and no one would tell her otherwise.
Though she was exhausted, she could not sleep.
The world returned very quickly to the one she had lived in before she had left for Earth. Father took her to temple the next day, and they prayed together before the hearth flame, a small disc of scented wax slowly melting to cover the top of her head. There had been no hearth flame in the little Minbari temple she had visited only a few times while on Earth, and it had been far too long since she had rubbed wax into her scalp and crest, shining her head so that she was a beacon of faith.
She went to the markets, and prepared meals for Father, and cleaned house. She would not return to school. Perhaps at the next changing of the season she would decide where her path would now lead her, but for now she was content to do this and nothing else. The fire that had once burned inside her now seemed snuffed out. By the time she was of age to become a diplomat, she doubted there would be any diplomatic relations with Earth to speak of. The idea of treating with Centauri or Narn was repellent. No, she would remain here on Minbar.
Perhaps she would enter service in a temple, like Mother. Perhaps she would meet a male who would take her as a mate, even though she had been sullied by a Human. She would bear a child, two if she was lucky. She would raise them. It would be a happy enough life, she supposed. As happy as she could now expect.
One day, perhaps half a moon cycle since her return, Delenn journeyed outside Yedor to the outskirts, riding in the back of a wagon heading out to the plains, to the spice farms. She thanked the farmer for the ride and hopped off at Mayan's father's orchard. She hoped to see Mayan there. Her childhood friend had written her a few letters, but after a month or so on Earth the correspondence dried up. It was mostly Delenn's fault; she had become so enraptured of John Sheridan that it seemed little else had been in her head at the time. She had not replied to Mayan's last two letters, and had received no more.
But she was home now, and hopeful to renew their friendship. The orchard trees stood unadorned, it being too early for even buds to show their little faces. The next moon cycle would find them covered with delicate green flowers, and the one after that in small green berries. Half would be harvested, and dried, and either ground into powder or submerged in brine. Half would be allowed to ripen, growing into soft white fruit that would just fill her palm. Delenn walked over to the lee of one of the trees, sheltered from the brisk wind, and pressed her nose to the bark. It smelled of the tea the dried and ground berries would make, the tea that children drank when they were ill, and adults drank as a restorative. As always, the scent reminded Delenn of her mother. When last she had visited her, one of the Sisters had brewed a big pot of this tea, and Delenn and Mother had sipped it as they sat together in the vegetable garden.
"Who's there?" someone called. Mayan. Delenn released the tree and stepped out into view. She watched the emotions travel over Mayan's face in quick succession. Surprise, pleasure, and then, apprehension. It was as though shutters were drawn over her eyes, blocking out the light. "Delenn. I did not expect to see you."
"I should have come sooner." Delenn walked to her, knowing that her hopes of a reunion full of joy and laughter were not to be. It was perhaps understandable. She was changed now, in ways few Minbari could understand. Indeed, Mayan noticed the brooch pinned to Delenn's robe and narrowed her eyes.
"Come in from the cold," Mayan said, and she gestured in the polite, impersonal way. Delenn was a guest, and must be treated with kindness. But was she still a friend?
Mayan's house was so unlike Delenn's own - the walls were thinner, graceful arches of brick and crystal composite, a marked contrast to the thick stone structures that hugged the mountains. And since there was more space down here in the valley, the rooms were far larger, some so large that they were defined more by the spaces between things than the things themselves. Mayan led her into the receiving room, and left her there while she prepared tea. Delenn realized she was absolutely sick of tea; she had forgotten just how often her people drank it. She found herself obscurely craving a soda, even though she had often told John she did not like it.
"Do you have any milk?" she called out, and immediately regretted the question. Of course Mayan would not have milk; her youngest brother was fully grown, and would not have had need of milk in many cycles. Mayan poked her head out of the kitchen, face a study in confusion.
"No. I can send for some if you like?" Delenn had been unspeakably rude, requesting something that she knew would not be in the home, putting her host at risk of offending her.
"No, of course not. I apologize. I had grown accustomed to taking milk in my tea on Earth."
"How strange," Mayan said faintly, returning to the fire. It was strange. Delenn remembered the first time she had seen Livia pour milk into tea, and how she had been vaguely nauseated at the thought. But that had been in the early days.
She had changed so much.
Mayan brought them both tea and sat down opposite Delenn. A sun cycle ago they would have sat side by side, hips touching, sharing laughter between them as free as air. "You are well?" Mayan asked. Suddenly a smile came to Delenn's face, and she sipped at the too-hot tea to hide it. Mayan reminded her of a young child playing a game, pretending to be an adult. They had played games like that many a time, preparing tea for Mayan's parents and serving it to them with great solemnity, playing the hosts to the smiling, indulgent adults.
"I am well, thank you. I am still trying to find my place."
"It has not been the same here without you." Mayan put her cup down, and the put-on reserve fled on swift wings, leaving in its wake a young girl, upset, emotional. "I have missed you so much!"
"Mayan." Delenn put her cup down as well and joined her friend, and they put their arms around each other. Mayan breathed in a way that told Delenn she was struggling not to cry.
"It is as though you abandoned us," Mayan tried to explain.
Before Delenn could answer, a door opened not far away, and footsteps entered loudly. Mayan looked up at Delenn with real alarm on her face, then scrambled to her feet, backing several steps away. Mayan's father walked into the receiving room. He had been preparing to speak to his daughter, but when he saw Delenn, he grew very still. He studied her for a long time, even walking around her to look at her from various angles. Delenn bowed her head and withstood the scrutiny as patiently as she could. It was his right to examine her, and she could not protest.
"Mayan," he finally said, not taking his eyes from Delenn. "Go to your room."
"But Father, it is only Delenn! She-"
"I will speak with you later." His tone brooked no argument, and Mayan left, casting one penitent look over her shoulder as she went. Delenn was left alone with the older man, a man who had once hoisted her up on his shoulders and ran through the orchard with her, between the rows of trees, so fast that she was sure she was flying. Now he glowered down at her, his face a stern mask.
"Delenn of Mir." It sounded like an accusation. He had not asked her a direct question, so Delenn kept her eyes downcast and her mouth shut. "You are an Earther now."
"I am not," she whispered, her chest thrumming, her heart galloping along. He just made a sound, a cough in the back of his throat, the sound you made when you spoke to a trained animal.
"I say you are. You have eaten Earth food. Drank Earth water. Breathed Earth air. The molecules in your body are no longer those of Minbar. I say you are an Earther now, and I will not have you in my home."
Delenn knew what was expected of her. She was to rise, her eyes firmly on the floor; she was to cross her hands over her chest and bow lowly; she was to acknowledge his words, and to proclaim their rightness; she was to back out of the room and of the house, never turning her back to him, never raising her eyes.
Delenn stood and looked right at him. She could feel how her face was twisted up in an angry scowl but she made no effort to correct it.
"And I say you are a fool!" she exclaimed, practically in a shout. The look of utter astonishment on his face was worth whatever would come next.
"I will speak to your father. You will be punished for your insolence."
"If I am an Earther now then I am not bound by your dictates, by your rules. Earthers do not allow themselves to be so insulted. They stand up for themselves! They stand proudly, and look everyone right in the eye. You think to diminish me by calling me Earther, but you only diminish yourself. I wear the epithet with pride. I would rather be an Earther than call myself a Minbari such as you."
Mayan's father said nothing. He walked to the wall and pulled aside a stiff tapestry to reveal a comm screen. She knew he would be calling someone, likely her father, but perhaps even the adjudicator from the temple. Delenn did not wait to listen.
The road back to Yedor was long, and climbed steadily uphill. Delenn walked at first with great speed, her anger a strong fuel. But soon she began to tire, and before too long she was moving scarcely faster than a baby gokk. She took a seat on a flat rock at the side of the road, and it was there that her father found her. He had rented an automobile, and he opened the door and gestured for her to join him.
He programmed the automobile to reverse course and return to the city, and then he simply looked at Delenn. He did not need to say anything. She did not care what a horrible man like Mayan's father thought of her, but she risked bringing disrespect onto her father's name, and that thought filled her with guilt.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. He said nothing. It was only when they entered the city that he covered her hand with his own.
"They will all forget, soon enough." She did not want them to forget. She wanted them to accept her as she was. The world she had returned to was proving to be no different from the one she had left. "In the meantime," her father continued, "do not trouble yourself with those who would think differently of you. They only reveal their own folly and weakness, and not yours."
Back they went into their house, and Delenn resolved to climb into bed right that minute, even though it was still some time before nightfall. Instead, her father handed her a data crystal. "This came for you, from Centauri Prime."
"I don't know anyone from Centauri Prime," Delenn said, puzzled. She went to her room and placed the crystal into an adapter, sending the signal to her lectern. She lay down on her stomach on her bed and loaded the message, whatever it was.
It was John! The sight of his face, of his smile, of even his messy bedroom behind him, was enough to make her start crying. "Delenn," he said, and he laughed even as she did. "I hope you get this. I'm sending it to a friend of my dad's who's supposed to send it on to you. I just wanted to tell you how much I missed you. God, I miss you! A hundred times a day something will happen and I'll think, 'I need to tell Delenn that.' And then I remember you're not here anymore."
He paused for a moment. There was an ache in her chest, so deep she was sure she had somehow received a mortal wound. She clutched the lectern so tightly she feared she would break it. John leaned out of frame to retrieve something, and came back with a sheet of paper.
"So. I wrote down everything that's happened, and now I'm going to tell them to you. One - this morning I ate eight slices of bacon for breakfast and made half a loaf of bread into French toast, and Mom threatened to kill me. Two - Lizzie didn't tie her shoes and tripped on the front steps and skinned her chin. She looks like a monster now. Three..."
John went on and on, reminding her of all the friends she had left behind. Some of the stories were so inconsequential as to not bear repeating, as when he told her of his decision to wear a pink shirt instead of a white shirt that morning. Other stories were funny, and she giggled into her pillow. A few brought tears to her eyes. "Twenty-eight - Yvonne's dad got a job in Detroit, and she's moving at the end of the school year. She's still got a year of high school left, but she says she might just get her equivalency and go straight to college this fall. She's gonna record you a message before she goes, though, she promises. Yesterday she told me that she's going to try to go off-world this summer, and maybe you two can meet up somewhere. I told her I'm stealing that idea. Let's meet on Scorpia!" One of the Centauri colony worlds. It was closer to Earth than Minbar, and a popular tourist destination for many races. Suddenly Delenn felt hope bloom in her heart. They would meet on Scorpia.
"I love you," John said, the message nearing its end. "I will never stop loving you. Believe that, and never doubt it. Bye, honey. See you soon."
Delenn restarted the message and watched it straight through again. Then she dug through the bottom of her closet and found an old data crystal, likely from school. She erased whatever was on it without looking at it, and set up her lectern to record. For some reason, she didn't want her father to hear her, even though she did not think he knew a single English word. Still, she took her lectern with her to the garden, and sat down facing the house, so that John could see the city behind her.
"John, my dear John. My world has been incomplete without you. I will take a job in the city. I will do whatever I must. We will meet at Scorpia when your school year is out. Oh, John, I miss you so much.
The messages they sent back and forth soon defined her existence. Everything else seemed inconsequential, or worse, a waste of time. Delenn was fully aware that what she was doing was unhealthy, that she needed to move on, that she needed to accept that she and John would never truly be able to build a life together, but she could not. Not yet. And it seemed that he could not, either, if the frequency of his messages was any indication.
Slowly, those outside her clan grew accustomed to her presence back home. The people who had largely ignored her the first few weeks began to speak to her again, and if they were perhaps not as warm as they had been a year ago, at least they were not pretending she did not exist. Father was right - they forgot that she had somehow been tainted, and they remembered her as the girl she had once been. All but Mayan's father, who still refused to let Mayan see Delenn. Mayan was old enough that she should have been able to make that decision on her own, but she decided to abide by her father's wishes. There was nothing Delenn could say to her old friend. They saw each other at temple, but that was all.
It was at temple that Delenn learned of the small Human community north of the city, tucked high in a little valley between two peaks. One day, when her father was very busy with a translation and had assured her he would simply stay at the temple and work, and that she did not need to prepare his dinner, Delenn left the city and journeyed north. She took with her the supplies that her father's friend Walenn took up to the Humans every half-moon cycle. "They used to trade well enough to support themselves, but since the deportation, there are many in town who do not wish to deal with the Humans at all."
"That is unkind," Delenn said.
"It is, it is," Walenn agreed. "It is not our way. Or, at least, it should not be our way. But Minbar is changing, and I do not like it one bit. That a Minbari would refuse aid to another, no matter his race! Appalling. That is why I take them what they need."
"I am surprised they remained on Minbar."
"Oh, if you met them, you would not be."
So Delenn offered to make the journey in Walenn's stead. She carried with her a crate of fruit and a crate of grain, two large bags of dried fish, and five huge smoked sausages. It did not seem like enough food to feed eight people for three weeks, especially considering the prodigious appetites of Humans, but Walenn assured her that they did grow some of their own food, as well. Delenn did not see how. She knew that it was possible to coax many things to grow this high up the mountains, but this was a particularly forbidding landscape, even for Minbar. The road she took was scarcely more than an animal trail, and it switched back and forth so many times she nearly became ill; since she could not rely on the auto's programming to handle the terrain, she had to drive the machine herself. By the time she reached the Human outpost, the muscles in her neck and shoulders were hard as rocks from turning the controls this way and that.
At first she saw nothing but boulders, but as she entered the flat depression, she realized that they had carved out their homes from the boulders. Only one who knew to look for them would ever find them, she thought. "Hello?" she called out. "I am here on behalf of Walenn. I have brought you some supplies."
There was a long beat of silence, and Delenn feared they would not come out at all. They would simply wait until she left, not trusting her. But then one Human emerged from his boulder home, then another, and then finally all eight.
They were men and women who originally came from a part of Earth Delenn knew to be called Tibet. John had shown her pictures, one day when they had spoken of his interest in Buddhism. Both the men and the women had shaved their heads bald, and wore beautiful orange and green robes. They looked more like Minbari than any other Humans she had ever seen, and when they politely bowed to her - not in an imitation of her people's ways, but in their own fashion - she could not help but clap her hands together and laugh.
"You belong here!" she said in English, but they shook their heads at her, not understanding.
"Welcome to our home," the eldest said in nearly unaccented Adronato. With warm smiles, they led her inside one of the boulders.
The plain rock exteriors hid extraordinary beauty. The inside of the boulder had been carved out to form a work of art as much as a home. There were niches everywhere, filled with exquisite statues, a few of which she recognized from her Earth art textbook. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas. The boulder was crowded with everyone inside - each seemed to be a one-room accommodation for two of the Tibetans - but Delenn enjoyed the close proximity. One of the younger women brewed tea, and poured it out into tiny porcelain cups. It was strong black tea, from Earth, and the taste of it brought tears to Delenn's eyes.
"I was on Earth," she told them. "Until they sent us all home."
"We have been afraid the Grey Council will do the same to us."
"I hope they do not. This is your home now, isn't it?" They nodded at her, and the eldest let out a resigned sigh.
"If it were not for your friend Walenn, I do not know if we could continue here. How long will this arrangement last, though? There is no security in our position."
"We will change their minds," Delenn told them. She felt the fire inside her once again. Hadn't John fought for her, struggled so hard to influence those Humans who disliked her simply because of who she was? Hadn't he done all he could for her? She needed to do the same, here, for these Humans.
Delenn knew that the idea could not originate with her, or it would be discounted before it even began. Neither could it come from her father. By this time she had found others who were more sympathetic to Humans, even after everything that had happened, some who still believed a peaceful solution to the enmity between their races was possible. Delenn whispered in their ears. We could set an example for Earth. We can show them that cohabitation is possible, even here on Minbar.
And in the meantime, in the weeks before the new trade network to the Humans living in the boulders was established, Delenn recorded messages. She assisted a primary school near her father's temple and was paid a meager wage, which she assiduously saved. She researched Scorpia there was a hotel which was not one single building; instead, each room was a building of its own, a small rustic structure set by itself, in a forest so dense that the buildings could not be found without maps. She and John would rent one of those buildings, and they would make love every second of every day they were together.
She did not realize it, but for those few weeks, she was happy.
Delenn was on her hands and knees in the corridor at the primary school, scrubbing the floor. It was an unseasonably warm day, and her robes were chafing under her arms a bit. She steadfastly ignored the unpleasant sensation, along with the ache in her shoulders and lower back. Footsteps sounded on the tiles behind her, but she ignored that sound, as well no doubt it was one of the instructors, or perhaps a parent.
They did not tell me that you were Worker Caste. The voice was deep and gravely, yet filled with warmth. Delenn looked ahead of her at first, thinking that whoever was speaking must be addressing someone else. Seeing that she was alone in the corridor, she sat back on her heels and turned.
A man stood a few paces behind. Very tall, he was around Father's age, though he bore an iron-gray beard around his mouth and chin that gave him a far more austere appearance. There were only a few clans that produced Minbari able to grow facial hair; Delenn's own was among them, which meant it was a distinct possibility this man was a relation, no matter how distant. His robes were richly made and impeccably tailored. This was a rich man.
Delenn felt horribly poor and abased in comparison, and she scrambled up from the floor, dropping her brush in the bucket of water beside her. She bowed her head obsequiously and clasped her hands tightly in front of her. Since he had not asked her a question, she did not speak.
Does this building not have a mechanized floor washer? I should not have thought any building in Yedor was without.
It does, she answered in a near-whisper.
Then why do you scrub the tiles by hand?
For a moment, Delenn considered lying to him, for she did not think she could tell this man the truth. But despite the experience in deception she had picked up from her time on Earth, she somehow knew that he would see right through her. I strayed from the faith in the past cycle. My attendance at temple was lax. I disregarded many of our most sacred customs. So I have set myself penance." Delenn never lifted her eyes from the tile at which she stared, a tile with a chipped corner in front of her feet. She could feel the man's gaze burning into her. Now he would ask her which customs she had ignored, he would ask her about her many sins, he would force her to strip away every last bit of artifice until she was laid bare before him, a sad example of the disgraceful state of their people.
Instead, the man only chuckled. "Would that more Minbari were as pious as you, Delenn of Mir." In surprise, Delenn raised her eyes. The man's smile was nearly as broad as some of John's more enthusiastic grins, and he gestured toward one of the open classrooms. "Let us speak somewhere a little more comfortable."
Though she did not know who this man was or what he wanted, Delenn felt little trepidation as she followed him and took a seat in a nearby room. There was a dignity that surrounded him almost as a tangible aura, and she found it difficult to divert her eyes back to the floor. "Your clan's patriarch Anyan is my mother's third cousin once removed, so we are cousins ourselves, in a way. My name is Dukhat."
"The honor of our meeting is mine," she replied formally, bringing her hands together and bowing, which was awkward, since she was seated.
"You need not stare at the floor, Delenn. I cannot have an aide who does not look up."
And now she did look up, utterly astonished. "What?"
"We have known of you for some time. Your presence in the Earth media was seen by some as an embarrassment, but I found that you represented our people quite well. And your recent work here in Yedor, in securing a stable situation for the Earthers on the mountain, has been commendable."
"I did nothing, august one. The work was that of Walenn, and Talleth, and-"
"You are modest, Delenn, but you ought not lie." She dropped her eyes to her lap, feeling the hot shiver of shame work its way up her spine. "Will you become my aide?" he asked, but she could not answer. Her mouth seemed locked shut. "Ah, you are thinking. Considering. You make no decisions hastily. But is this your true nature, or are you displaying those traits you think I wish to see?"
"You have already offered me the position, so what need have I to play at deception?" she retorted before she thought it through. Again, though, Dukhat only chuckled, a low sound that reminded her of John. "You have not even told me what you do, august one," she went on. "What fool accepts a position in complete ignorance of its duties?"
"And what would you imagine I do, forthright one?"
"You are richly dressed, so you are no laborer. Yet your crest is smooth, so you are no warrior. Religious caste. I do not recognize you from any of Yedor's temples, so you do not reside or work here. You spoke of 'we,' a group of people to which you belong, who viewed Earth media to such an extent that you knew who I was. You are Grey Council, Dukhat, are you not?" Delenn found it difficult to draw a breath when she finished. Her fingers wished to tremble, so she wove them together in her lap.
"A problem solved logically needs no answer, for the answer is already apparent. I pose the question again: will you join me on the Valen'tha?"
Surely this was a dream. Delenn could not think, could not really imagine that any of this was real. But Dukhat was real, of that she was positive. He was watching her with quiet patience, and the lively good humor in his eyes made her want to accept, if only to see his pleasure at her response.
Instead she said, "I must speak to my father."
Dukhat nodded. "That is wise. Speak to any others of your clan whose council you welcome. I do not offer you a passing fancy, or a moment's distraction. If you come with me, you will be making a commitment that is true and binding." She swallowed hard.
"But you only just came home!" Father said, and his voice was shrill and sharp. Delenn could not help but wince.
"I have been home for two months, Father. This is an opportunity I cannot pass up lightly."
"And if we go to war with Earth? You will be right in the thick of it, Delenn! You see how they are trying to provoke us, accusing us of building a military installation on their continent on Orion 7."
"They will not give up. Not until they've finally had their way."
"Father, why would Earth want war? We are far more advanced. Our weapons more powerful. They will know they have no hope of victory."
"Alone, no. But if they recruit the Centauri to their cause? The Gaim? The Markab?"
Delenn sighed and left the room, walking out into the garden. She heard him follow, as she knew he would. Now that night had fallen, the air had cooled off dramatically, and it felt good on her face, perfectly crisp. She would have liked to have asked him how he, an archivist, a translator of ancient scrolls, knew so much about military strategy, but such a question would only wound his feelings.
She sat on the bench, turning to face him. He was examining the vines growing around the door, the corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. Delenn realized that he looked older than she remembered, the lines on his face deeper. "The Council would not take the Valen'tha into danger. They would not risk it. I should think there would be no safer place for me to be should war overtake us."
He said nothing. But his face when he looked at her was resigned, and she knew that he had no other protest to issue.
Father joined her on the bench, and they sat for a long time, long enough for the smaller moon to overtake the other in their eternal race through the night sky. Delenn could not rightly leave until he dismissed her, and he did not seem likely to do so anytime soon. She steeled her mind for a long night spent awake, in quiet meditation, sitting on the uncomfortable and cold stone bench.
And then he spoke. "Is this the path you mean to take, then?" She said nothing, unsure exactly what he was asking. "This is no single cycle diversion, Delenn. This is the rest of your life."
His words were so similar to Dukhat's that she might have thought the two of them to have conspired.
"I have not made up my mind yet, Father. Not entirely. But would it not seem that this is the path on which the Universe has placed me?"
He did not answer her. After a moment, he stood, and without saying another word, returned inside the house. It was a blow worse than any rebuke spat out in anger. Delenn continued to sit in stunned silence.
She spoke to all of her clan who lived in Yedor, and called Anyan as well. "What an honor," he said, and there was something in his eyes as he gazed at Delenn, even through the viewscreen, that made her duck her head, feeling exposed. "Do you know what it means to be asked to perform as an aide to Satai? Let alone to Dukhat?" She had not known who Dukhat was prior to their meeting, and she could not help but feel a bit surprised that Anyan was so knowledgeable. But he was clan patriarch, after all, so it stood to reason he would be aware of who served on the Council.
"Is Dukhat not Satai?" she asked, a bit confused.
"He is, yes. He is chief among them, the leader of the Grey Council. And he has chosen you as his aide."
After Delenn ended the call with Anyan, she wandered around her house, from room to room. Even though Father was away, she found the house too claustrophobic, so she headed out into the city. Up and down the streets she walked, her mind churning relentlessly. Why would Dukhat have chosen her? She was young, so young she had not even formally entered a caste, so young she had not performed her cycle of service at temple, so young that she could not even swear the oath as an acolyte. She had done nothing to distinguish herself. Surely there had been many young Minbari who had traveled to Earth the same as she had, who had found themselves the victims of persecution and had yet persevered, who had returned to Minbar and attempted to do something of consequence. Delenn could not believe she was anything that special.
What she truly wished to do was ask John his opinion. Of course, it would take a week for her message to reach him, then a week for his answer to return. She did not think Dukhat would wait two weeks. Besides that, though, she wasn't sure she could even ask John. The question itself spelled her intentions to end their relationship. She knew what Dukhat was truly asking her. One who functioned as aide to Satai was groomed to one day become Satai themselves. Service in the Grey Council was generally for life, but at the minimum one could expect to commit at least twenty cycles to that path.
If she accepted, she would likely not see John again until he was forty or fifty Earth years old, middle-aged for his people. He would almost without a doubt have taken a wife by that time. Had children. Built a life that did not include her in any way. Just the thought of it was enough to drive a keen-edged knife between her ribs. She had to take a seat outside of the public works building, but was still unable to catch her breath. No matter what she did, she could not get the image out of her head - John, handsome in a bright, shining EarthForce uniform, walking into the door of his own home. Greeted by two or three young children, running up to hug his knees. His wife, embracing him, kissing him. His wife. Delenn tried to think of something else, anything else, but the images flooded into her mind without respite. Another woman, a tall, Human woman, putting her arms around John. Kissing him. Sliding her hands over his body.
And then Delenn saw clearly, as though it were happening right before her eyes, her John wrapped in an embrace with Lindsay, flashing-eyed, red-haired Lindsay. Delenn remembered each time she had seen John and Lindsay together eating in the cafeteria, walking side by side through the halls, talking in class. Lindsay greatly esteemed him, that much was perfectly obvious to anyone who chanced to see her face as she gazed at John. She desired him, too. John liked her, at the very least; they had been friends before Delenn came to Earth, and continued their friendship as far as she knew. How long could he truly remain alone and celibate, with only his memory of Delenn as a companion? Not long. And she could not truly wish for him to be alone, not if she loved him.
But still, the very thought of it threatened to rip her in two. Delenn leaned over, hands gripping the edge of the bench tightly, doing her best to catch her breath. Somehow through the extremity of her angst, Delenn heard footsteps approach. She opened her eyes in time to see a shadow stop in front of her.
In the second before the shadow spoke, Delenn remembered the day she had waited in the temple, when she had been a child. It was the first time she had seen her mother since she had become a Sister, and the weekend they spent together was one of Delenn's most cherished memories. Back then, she and her father still lived far from the nearest city, farther even than Mayan lived now. To be among so many people! Delenn remembered staring at the different faces, wondering how there could possibly be so many. Her mother should have been a stranger to her she only had one clear memory of her from before, singing a song together before bed but it was as though she had never left.
Halfway through the day, Delenn concocted a scheme. She would be the most brilliant, most loving, most perfect daughter imaginable. Mother would fall in love with her and be unable to return to her temple. The other Sisters would understand, and they would release her from her vows. And then Mother would return to the little house by the river, and the three of them would be together and happy forever and ever. To that end, she made a point of asking interesting, pertinent questions, of being unfailingly polite to all who crossed their path, of pointing out new and exciting things for the three of them to explore. As they passed an old temple, Delenn spotted an aged inscription still visible in the crumbling rock. She hurried over to try and read it herself, but the runes were of the old tongue, the single Minbari language spoken before the castes separated. Delenn could not work out the meaning. She squinted and tried to guess, but finally resigned herself to failure. She would simply have to ask Father.
But when she turned around, he was gone. He and Mother both. Delenn ran up and down the street, and into the shops and businesses there, and all through the park atop the hill, but she could not find them anywhere. Fear hammered at her ribs from the inside, and she could scarcely keep the tears at bay. Panicked, she returned to the temple, deciding to wait. Surely they would realize that she was missing, and they would retrace their steps. They would find her. Everything would be fine.
Inside, the temple seemed centuries old. Fine lace cobwebs hung everywhere, and the dust upon the flagstones seemed a carpet. Delenn's fear evaporated, and she stared all around, thinking she had stumbled into something not altogether real. Did no one use this temple anymore? How could it stand here in the middle of the city utterly forsaken? Delenn took a seat, though she was loathe to do so, afraid that touching anything would make it all crumble away to dust. There was a quiet inside the space so deep and profound it seemed to sink straight through to her heart, as though by entering she had captured a piece of that peace for her very own.
Time passed. Minutes, hours, she had no idea. Time didn't seem to matter here. When the priest emerged from the back, his hands clasped in front of him, a warm smile on his face, Delenn wasn't surprised at all. In fact, she was almost sure she knew him, through from where she wasn't sure. He told her that all would be well, but she knew that already. By the time her parents had rejoined her, Delenn had known that Mother would not be returning home. It was a degree of certainty she had experienced only once since: the first time she had told John that she loved him.
Delenn stared at the shadow cast in front of her, and she was sure that when she raised her eyes, the priest from the ancient temple would be standing before her, that same warm smile on his face. But it was only a wrinkled woman, hunched over a cane. Are you all right, child? the elderly woman asked, and she extended a trembling hand, patting Delenn gently on the cheek.
Suddenly Delenn understood everything. She nodded, unable to speak. The elderly woman did not seem convinced, but she toddled off nonetheless. Delenn sat a moment longer, then stood and began to walk home. She had wandered to a part of the city to which she had never before been, but she made her way back without hesitation. Once there, she went to the viewscreen and placed a call.
Satai Dukhat. I accept your offer.