|Volume 5: Among the Stars, like Giants||Part VI: A Great Hand Out of the Sky|
SOMEWHERE near the end of the universe, at the Rim of the galaxy, surrounded by dead worlds and ancient memories, a place of faceless ghosts and numberless shadows....
.... lies Golgotha.
A dead place for so long, one filled with dark foreboding for the few who recognise the name, and with bitter portents for the fewer still who remember what happened here.
A strange place to use as a haven for the lost or a refuge for the grieving. A strange place to use as the base for an army of freedom. A strange place to use to hold a memorial service for the slain.
But a fitting one.
Sinoval always had a sense of the appropriate.
* * * * * * *
The pyre was magnificent. Rumour said it had taken three days to build. Each piece of wood had been engraved or marked in some way. Poetry, or a memory, or some symbol or memento. It would be a funeral such as had never been seen before, and never would be seen again.
She was laid out on top of the pyre, her body dressed in a simple white gown, her only ornament a plain necklace. The simplicity of her body contrasted with the extravagance of the funeral itself, but that was only to be expected.
There had been a whole week of mourning. The Grey Council had not met, and each member had retired to meditate alone. The worker caste had begun crafting memorial tokens. Every town or city or village across the entire planet now contained a statue, or a plaque, or a cenotaph or some memorial to her. The warrior caste had put down their denn'boks and retired to meditate, or to prepare an honour guard for the funeral. The religious caste had spoken of her in their prayers, and many pilgrimages and oaths had been made in her name. Everyone across the planet, from the smallest to the eldest, had some purpose, some task.
All but one.
He arrived almost too late for the funeral, just before the rising of the moon, just before the pyre was to be lit. There had been days of meditation and prayer, and the ritual itself had taken almost a day. Many had spoken, reliving their personal memories of her beauty, her kindness, her courage. Old tales were retold, with an occasional air of distance from the sometimes unpleasant truth.
The main burden of the oratory fell of course to Nemain, and on more than one occasion the white-robed Satai had to restrain himself from breaking down in tears. His most talented apprentice, despite her youth, spoke simple, moving words that made everyone in the crowd realise that Cathrenn was truly her mother's daughter.
Then he arrived.
He was clearly visible to all of them. Taller than most people, he moved with the lithe grace of a trained warrior and displayed a confidence that even most warriors could not match. He wore the black and silver of his order, not the simple white robes of mourning. His clothes were tidy, but clearly not new, with scuffs and tears in the fabric and several hasty repairs. He even carried his denn'bok. Only the warriors who had performed in the re-enactment of her life story had borne weapons to the funeral, and they had laid them aside.
It was the first time in many years that he had returned to Minbar, and he had changed. Not in his appearance, but in his bearing. When he had left he had been untested - not naïve, but certainly inexperienced. Now he had come into his own. Now he was truly a man, and a warrior.
More than one old man and woman looked at him and blanched. The elderly, but still hale, Rashok of Dosh had to blink before he realised he was not looking at a ghost. Nemain actually halted in his oration for a minute as his eyes filled, not with tears of grief, but with anger and a hint of fear.
He could have been a ghost, given the number of people who had hoped he was dead. Only one actually smiled when she saw him.
Cathrenn was not surprised at all.
Parlain of the Wind Swords had arrived just in time for his mother's funeral.
* * * * * * *
There was time to think. This seemed a marvel to me at the time, but with hindsight I remember that I had time to think quite often. Mostly, I had little else to do but think.
Not surprisingly, I was somewhat marginalised. The Battle of Babylon 5 had been the end of the month known as the Death of Hope, the month that had begun with the loss of my home and ended with the loss of everyone's home.
Babylon 5 had struck me as a wondrous, magical place, all the more so because it contrasted so sharply with my father's tales of it. Leaving it hurt me badly, but not so much as it did the others, who had known it for longer and respected what it represented for far longer. I was still not entirely sure about that last part.
But we fled, the unexpected hour we had been given being put to good use. I had not known General Sheridan, although my father had spoken of him often, and in an even less complimentary tone than he used for most of the rest of the Alliance. Still, the image of his death continues to haunt me. It was pointless and it was magnificent and it was.... The words do not exist.
During our flight I thought about it a great deal, determined to come at last to some of my own conclusions rather than simply repeating the views of others. I had heard the anger in the white Vorlon's voice after it realised we had all seen what had happened, and it was shortly after this realisation that the message allowing us to leave had come.
The Vorlon ships were massive and powerful, not to mention the Dark Stars, which my father had told me were the most destructive warships ever created. I found it hard to believe a force like that could be beaten by such a ragtag army. The ships I later realised to be Tak'cha were.... impressive, but quite small. The Drazi ships weren't much better than our own. The Brotherhood were scattered, and looked run-down. Admittedly, Cathedral was awesomely impressive and absolutely terrifying, but when I looked out after the battle and realised how many of the Vorlon ships and Dark Stars remained, I knew our victory could not have been military.
The only other explanation I could imagine was that General Sheridan's words had been the cause. He had died for our victory. I could only think that he had said something the Vorlons had not wanted the rest of us to hear, and they had killed him either for saying it at all, or because they did not want him to say it to everyone.
That train of thought lasted most of the journey to wherever we were going. According to G'Kar, Primarch Sinoval - a man I had scarcely heard of, but whom I knew to be some kind of monster - knew a safe haven where we would not be attacked, and he would lead us there. I spent most of that journey deep in thought. G'Kar spent it either silent, or in quiet conversation with the very beautiful lady I had seen on Babylon 5. She looked a lot less beautiful then than she had before. I didn't know why.
I knew that people had died on Babylon 5, some of them people I had actually heard of, such as Ambassador G'Kael ("a slimy, greedy bastard who's out for all he can get, but at least he's on our side" according to my father) and the Centauri Durano ("every bit as bad as the rest of them, but that one's clever, and he's up to something, mark my words"). Others, like Satai Kats or Taan Churok, I had never heard of before leaving Narn. I knew that one or more of them had been friends of G'Kar and the beautiful lady.
It was a quiet journey for me, and a tiring one. When we arrived - G'Kar, myself, Delenn and a few others travelling on the Minbari ship that had brought Satai Kats to Babylon 5 - I was too tired even to look at our destination. I managed only one glimpse, and what I saw did not please me.
Golgotha was a dark and uninhabitable place, apparently only a lump of rock against red-tinged space. The colour reminded me of blood, and I did not like it. The name, when I eventually heard it, filled me with inexplicable fear, and at my first step on to the station I was consumed by a mysterious chill. I looked around and realised that almost everyone else seemed to feel the same way.
I didn't realise at the time what this sense of fear was, nor why Sinoval had chosen this place. He had a reason, of course. He always had a reason, although this time his mind was less clear than usual.
He had reached a stage of his life that many people never reach. He had to question everything he had done. He had been defeated, and he might have been killed. He had survived only by the will of another, and for such a proud man this was almost intolerable.
And he had watched someone die.
L'Neer of Narn, Learning at the Prophet's Feet.
* * * * * * *
The table was carved from stone, black and solid. The exact material was a mystery. Even the most knowledgeable xenogeologist would have been unable to identify its precise origin.
The table was large and circular, big enough to seat almost thirty humans, or human-sized creatures. Chairs were provided, but they seemed to be afterthoughts. Some were wooden, others stone. Some were large, others smaller. None of them looked as if they belonged there. It would be hard to conceive of a seat that would belong with a table such as this.
The table was set in a large room, so large that its dimensions were almost unfathomable. Above, darkness stretched into oblivion. No roof or ceiling could be seen, and the room might have extended to the summit of the universe itself. The walls were clearly present, but none could be seen. No entrances or exits were visible. The supplicants, and petitioners, and emissaries, and lords, and generals, and priests, and architects, and sorcerers, and clerics, and wise men, and fools, none of them could see the archway through which they entered once they had taken two steps into the room. From there, all that could be seen was the table. And each other, of course.
The table was cold to the touch. Ripples of silver swam through the inky blackness of its surface. Those blessed with sight beyond this existence - the blessed lunatics, or the seers, or the priests of higher powers - they could see patterns in the ripples, shapes forming and dissipating. But only the truly perceptive, the truly blessed, the truly insane, the truly insightful, or the truly virtuous, only they could see that the patterns were faces.
The table was silent, bearing mute witness to the events that had taken place in its presence. It remembered the beings who had been here, those who had stood, or sat, or floated, or flown. Its memory encompassed more than millennia. It was the perfect secret-bearer, knowing all, revealing nothing.
The table had been empty and alone for many years. No words had been spoken to it, no souls presented before it, no sacrifices of blood or emotion or memory or ink offered to it. Not for a long time.
The table was patient. It had the memory of kings, and it could wait.
One by one they came before it, and sat to await the one who had called them.
* * * * * * *
The necklace was such a small, little thing. Badly carved, with several chips and flaws. The edge was rough, the pattern uneven. The weight felt wrong, and the hole through which the chain was threaded was too far from the edge, making it hang off-balance.
Sinoval had studied it so intensely that he felt he could see and understand every atom within it.
The pattern was a flower, the Yama-ran, entwined around a chain, with a hammer over a star hanging from the middle of the chain. It was silver in colour, except for the petals of the flower itself, which were stained red with her blood.
Sinoval was no poet, but he knew his people's history and myths well enough.
The Yama-ran. A small purple flower that grew only in the mountains around the ruined city of Tuzanor. According to an ancient legend, a noble man had died in a field of these flowers, his blood staining their blue petals purple. His honour brought him renewed life with his true love. Ever since, the flower had become the symbol of lovers, particularly those forced apart by fate and adversity, but who would do anything to overcome those odds.
The flower was badly carved. The stem that wound around the silver chain was too long, the petals were the wrong shape, and there were too many of them. One of the leaves was ragged, and it was sharp. Sinoval had already cut his finger on it.
The hammer was a more recent symbol of unity between warriors and workers, from a tale of a shamed warrior whose denn'bok had been broken, and who had disguised himself and hidden in a village of workers to escape his enemies. He found happiness there, and fell in love with the daughter of the village headman. His enemies found him eventually, and he was forced to use the only weapon at his disposal - a simple hammer - to defend both her and himself. He had taken up the hammer as his weapon from then on, returning to his warrior life to take his revenge, but always remembering his worker past.
The hammer on the necklace was off balance, proportionate neither to utensil nor weapon. There was a chip in the haft, and the head was much too large.
The star came from a religious prayer spoken at marriages in some isolated communities. It was based on an old legend about a couple who were separated by years of adversity, and died apart. A wandering star guided their spirits together, to renew their love in their next lives. The prayer entreated the star to guide the lovers to greater happiness in the next life than they had known in this one.
Sinoval could find no fault in the star itself. It was flawless.
Gently, his hands shaking, he slid the necklace across Kats' breast. The chain was broken, but in any event he had no wish to clasp it around her neck. She looked so peaceful in death, so content, as if she had finally found what she had always sought.
The rage of Sinoval was a truly terrible thing. In the grip of anger he had defeated a Vorlon in the Temple of Varenni itself and slain an innocent in doing so, in the full knowledge of what he was doing. Racked by a furious revelation, he had destroyed his evidence of the Vorlon plot and threatened Sheridan before the entire Alliance Council, allowing Sheridan to remain there in a position of power. Filled with rage at the death of.... a friend, he had come very close to murdering two of the religious caste, without thought or reason.
The anger of Sinoval was a truly terrible thing to behold.
But he displayed no anger now. His eyes were filled, not with fury, but with tears. His bearing was racked, not with shuddering rage, but with grief-stricken sobs. His hands clutched, not his terrible weapon Stormbringer, but the necklace she had worn.
Indeed, he could not bear Stormbringer. His blade was broken, and a shard of it had killed her.
She is gone. Nothing can be done to return her now. You know this. She is forever lost to us. Why do you grieve?
"There should have been another way," he said bitterly. "There should have been another way."
There was not. There is no need to remain here. Her soul has passed on and that is just a shell. There is nothing for us here.
"It is the way things are done."
Among the Minbari this may be so, but you are not Minbari. You are one of us, you are of the First Ones.
"I am Sinoval of the Wind Swords. I will always be Minbari."
We listened when you spoke to the Emissary of the Eldest. We listened to your tale. Why did you need to tell it? You said much that was not true, and much that is true only to the ears of mortals.
"I am Sinoval of the Wind Swords. I will always be Minbari."
You said that the soul of Hantiban passed to Sonovar, who is now within us. You know that is incorrect. The soul of Hantiban was lost, and returned to the universe. It was no more a part of Sonovar who is now within us than it is a part of you, or the Emissary, or the Narn child, or any other. You know this.
"Sonovar made the same mistakes Hantiban made, and for much the same reasons. Warriors believe that souls are reincarnated throughout the generations, great souls rising again as great men."
You know that to be false.
"It is true to me."
You swore to obey us and serve us. You swore to grant us your soul.
This is a war greater than that between mortal and First One. The Greater Enemy has emerged. You know what they are, and of what they are capable. This dimension has forgotten. We are never permitted to forget.
They are gathering for your council. The place you have chosen is fitting. We have never doubted you or your purpose before. Do not give us reason to doubt you now. The first Primarch Nominus et Corpus failed us - and the universe - badly. That one had not climbed half as far as you before he fell, but all that means is that you have twice as far to fall.
"I will not fail you."
Then there is no need to be here. She is gone, and what remains is but a shell.
Sinoval picked up the necklace again. "No," he hissed. "Never that."
One comes. Talk to her, but do not be long. Time is passing, even for such as us.
He turned towards the entrance to the room. Who would dare to interrupt him here? The presence of the Well was bad enough, but that was almost a part of him. This was....
"I thought I would find you here," said Delenn.
* * * * * * *
A shiver ran through me the instant I saw that table. It was so imposing. I knew it was a place where great leaders would gather and decide great issues, and I could not for the life of me understand why I was there.
But G'Kar had insisted on bringing me, and as he was clearly a great leader, I acquiesced. It did not help that there was no one else he could have left me with. At least, no one he would have felt comfortable with. The news of Na'Toth's alliance with Sinoval had badly shaken his confidence, a blow he did not need after what had happened to him on Narn.
He had spent the first few hours on this strange black rock in a fury of motion, always dragging me with him. As a result I soon became acquainted with the players in what dear Emperor Londo would call the 'Great Game'.
I stood awkwardly by as he spoke with another Narn, tall and muscular and missing an eye. Commander Ta'Lon found G'Kar's similar mutilation almost amusing, and joked about his new job as G'Kar's 'double'. There was a painful moment when I was called forward to speak of the death of the man whose name I now bear. For a minute Ta'Lon seemed shaken by this news, but then he nodded once, smiled with the maddening calm he always seemed to possess, and spoke fondly that his friend had died for so good a purpose.
I came to know Ta'Lon very well, and I appreciated all the good that G'Kar saw in him. He never meant any disrespect by his continued good humour, and I believe he saw it as a victory for G'Kar that he still lived, but at the time it was painful and bitter.
We checked in on Commander Kulomani, who was in what I presumed to be a hospital on board one of the large Brakiri vessels. He accepted that he would never walk unaided again, but his resolve had only been hardened by his injuries, and as he told G'Kar, his mind was unweakened.
There was a terrifying moment when we passed two Minbari in a corridor. They were talking heatedly in their own language, and they might have been arguing. The woman shot me a glance filled with fury, but it was the man who scared me more. I never told Marrain this, but I had nightmares about him for weeks afterwards. Such a strange thing to affect me....
G'Kar spoke briefly with Delenn, a conversation I had no part in, and one I do not like to remember. For my part I sat silent, content to admire the beauty and elegance of Delenn's dirty dress, and wish that some day I might look as regal as she did. The conversation itself I shall not repeat. The emotions were too raw for that.
We spoke to the human, David Corwin, and he spared some time to speak to me and try to reassure me. His grief was plain and his emotions confused as he looked at a strange, scarred human woman who passed by, but he took time to try to help me, and I will always remember that.
We spoke to the scarred human woman, although it was a brief conversation. She never looked at me, and G'Kar seemed only interested in learning where Primarch Sinoval was. It was Susan Ivanova who directed us to the Council Chamber, although she seemed more than a little concerned.
We were the first there, and we spent long minutes alone, in silence. I could not believe I was meant to be there, and was terrified that I would be exposed as an imposter and sent away. G'Kar was silent and grim and deep in thought, and I busied myself looking at the table. The surface was shiny and very cold, and I could almost see my reflection in it. Straining to see it more clearly, I noticed that the silver ripples were moving slightly. Concentrating very hard, I tried to see where they were moving to, and then I fell back in my chair with a cry.
G'Kar looked at me, and I bowed my head. Others had arrived by then, and I shrank down in my seat to avoid their glances, and to think about what I had just seen.
I was sure there was a face forming in the ripples of the table.
L'Neer of Narn, Learning at the Prophet's Feet.
* * * * * * *
The old man rose awkwardly and late, like the invalid he knew he had now become. His breath was easier and his sleep better than usual. His dreams, however, had not been pleasant. He did not like to think about them.
Timov was gone, of course. She had taken to rising early. Very early. He did not know exactly at what ungodly hour of the morning she had decided to wake, but he had stirred from an uncomfortable dream a few nights ago while it was still dark outside, and the bed was cold without her.
He wrapped the robe tightly around himself, but he was still cold. He thought about putting on another one, but the last time he had done that it had become difficult to breathe and he had almost choked. No, he would have to settle for being cold.
As he did every morning - or more often these days when he awoke, afternoon - he walked to the window and looked out over his city.
The sight heartened him, very slightly. The repair work actually seemed to be producing noticeable results. The flames to the north were still raging, but they seemed less now, and at least they were not spreading. The dry weather - aided by arsonists - had started numerous forest fires, but it looked as if they were under control now.
He paused, deep in thought. Durla had apprehended some of the culprits. Shadow Dancers, a pitiful few who had survived Kiro's death and the destruction of the Shadow creature three years ago. No doubt Durla would be questioning them even now, working with the Inquisitors to determine if there was anything deeper. The old man hoped not. He prayed that Centauri Prime had seen its last of fire and madness.
But if the fires were always burning, then why was it so cold? For a world that had known more than its fair share of flames, you would think it would be warmer.
He turned to his bedside cabinet, to find that Timov had left a cup of jhala there. He walked towards it, achingly slowly, and cupped it in his trembling hands. Still warm, and it soothed him a little. He sipped at it gingerly. It tasted good, refreshing. He even felt his mind clear a little. It was spiced, he knew that.
It was infuriating to be so weak. Not the weakness of his position. He had had even less power some years ago, and he had relished that. He had been a wanderer, little more than an errand boy for one of his people's greatest enemies. He had had nothing then, and yet he had thrived.
No, it was the weakness of his body that irked him. His hearts had failed him, and he had remained in a coma for months while around him his people and his Empire slid deeper into slavery. Even when he had awakened, it had been months before he had been able to leave his bed. The slightest movement had caused him to collapse, shaking. He could not hold a pen or a cup steady even for a moment, and one sip of brivare had caused him to vomit everywhere.
Truly, his body had become as powerless as his position.
He was all but forgotten, an irrelevance. He saw Timov very rarely, and the only hints of her presence were the food she ordered sent to him, the drinks she left by his bedside, and her occasional warm presence in his bed.
Durla appeared before him from time to time, checking the guards assigned to his protection. Durla was polite, formal, precise, respectful always of the office and the history behind it, but his eyes showed his contempt and disgust. Durla was a healthy, fit, athletic young man. It must sicken him to be so close to aged frailty.
His most frequent visitor however was Morden, and it was from him that most of the truth emerged. The human was as polite as Durla, but there was a genuine warmth to him. The old man could not forget all the things Morden had done, and ordered done - it had been Morden's retaliation for the food riots that had provoked his heart attack in the first place - but he craved the company and the news he brought.
Unfortunately, the news was nothing good. Obediently, Morden brought word of the punishment that had fallen upon Narn. An entire planet destroyed, reduced to rubble. The Great Maker knew how many millions killed. Twenty years ago, or even ten, his people would have greeted that news with rejoicing. Now he knew there was only muted fear and grief, real sympathy for a race which had suffered even worse than they themselves had suffered.
He had been instructed to deny refuge to Narns fleeing from their homeworld and to co-operate fully in the search for any Narn war criminals who might have escaped. He assented of course, not having any choice in the matter. The order would have been delivered to the recently reconvened Centarum, who would have obediently accepted it. Besides, his worlds could not even look after their own people, let alone anyone else's.
Still, it was a blessing in disguise. There were fewer Inquisitors than there had been. He believed only two remained, the others having left to pursue Narns elsewhere. The hunts had died down and there were fewer interrogations. Food was still scarce, but less so than before. There had not been a riot in over three months. There had apparently even been some aid coming in from the Alliance prior to the destruction of Narn.
The old man supposed that the Vorlons had now accepted that other races had bargained with the Shadows, and so there was less need to scapegoat the Centauri.
He finished his jhala and reluctantly set the cup down. Immediately his hands felt cold again.
Slowly, carefully, he began to dress, and it was only when he buttoned his coat around his body that he remembered his full name and title. That satisfied, Emperor Londo Mollari II of the Centauri Republic began to plan out his day.
* * * * * * *
The air felt oppressively thick, as if invisible smoke were choking him. Dexter Smith had trodden on alien worlds before and had long ago become used to differences of atmosphere and gravity, but this was different.
He was not alone. Talia could sense it as well.
She had tensed noticeably at her first step into this alien satellite. Their journey had been long and awkward and silent, travelling from Proxima nearly to the end of the galaxy. He had spent most of it sleeping, reliving those nightmare dreams of death and decay.
Talia stayed close by him, always. It had taken him a long time to realise that she had been touched as well by what she had seen. It had affected her less, for she had been trained in resisting and adjusting to psi-encounters, but even so.... To touch the presence of such creatures would unnerve anybody.
It even seemed to cause Vindrizi some imbalance, although Dexter did not like to talk to him. The sight of that decaying bag of flesh supported by an intelligence hundreds of millennia old filled him with an anger he could not explain.
Talia felt warmer now. Her skin was not so cold, her breath steadier. With her it was possible, sometimes, to remember that he was alive and that life meant something. They had even managed to speak a little, stringing together awkward conversations. They had kissed, once, and she had gently touched his mind with hers.
"I am alive," he whispered as they walked. It was something he said to himself often. Sometimes he even believed it, although that was harder here.
Ben Zayn had accepted Talia's instructions to bring them here readily enough. It turned out that Bester had hidden one of his many safe havens several systems over. Not exactly close, but on a galactic scale practically next door. It was just as well. The supply of safe havens was dwindling rapidly. The others had been taken there, and Ben Zayn, again at Talia's instructions, had come here along with the two of them and Vindrizi. The parasite was the only one who had known the way.
"Ah," Vindrizi had said upon their arrival. "Just in time."
"For what?" Ben Zayn had asked.
"The gathering of threads," had come the reply.
The station itself had gone unnoticed at first against the mass of ships that waited outside. Minbari warships, Drazi Sunhawks, Brakiri capital class vessels, a ragtag band of pirate ships and a very large number of vessels he had never seen before and had no hope of identifying.
And in the middle of them of course, the floating black castle monstrosity that could only be Cathedral.
Evidently they were expected, for they had soon been allowed to dock at the hidden station. They had been met by a tall, elderly Minbari wearing warrior black. He carried the same parasite soul as Vindrizi.
"We are in time then?"
"Just. We were waiting for you."
"We apologise for the delay. How is he?"
"Grieving, and angry. He lost one he cared for deeply."
"He cared for someone? A mortal?"
"She was special."
"Will this affect the gathering?"
"No. It will be held as was agreed. There is too much to do and be done to let one loss among many distract him. I believe him to be better than that."
"Then we will hurry."
"You know the hall?"
The conversation had lasted bare seconds, passing in the blink of an eye. Dexter found he could follow it easily.
Then the Minbari had looked at them. Talia first, then Ben Zayn, who received a knowing nod, and then Dexter himself.
"Hmm," the Minbari said. "Yes, I think you will do very well. Trust me. I know about the making of weapons, and you will be a very fine weapon indeed."
Talia did not seem to like the sound of that, but Dexter hardly cared.
With that they walked on, deep into the heart of the station. The deeper they went, the thicker and heavier the air became, at least to Dexter. Ben Zayn seemed to handle it perfectly well. Perhaps it was just him.
But the funny thing was that much of this looked.... familiar. He would turn a corner and know what was beyond. He would look at a pillar and recognise a splash of blood on it. He would hear a distant noise and know it was screaming from a long way away.
And so, when they entered the hall, he knew precisely what to expect.
The Narns were not expected, but the vastness of the hall and the blackness of the table were. He looked up, and thought he could see the heavens opening and a heart beating there, although whether it was black or red he could not be sure.
He took his seat confidently and looked back at Talia as she joined him.
* * * * * * *
"I thought I would find you here," Delenn said calmly, walking slowly into view.
Sinoval turned from the bier, running the broken chain of the necklace through his hands. The room was barely lit, and the still shadows seemed to shroud the top half of his face, as if he were wearing a hood pulled low. His eyes, normally so dark and piercing, seemed the brightest stars in his face. His mouth was twisted into a sneer.
"Really?" he said. "And how did you find me? No doubt you walked down a long corridor, turned a corner, found an archway, stepped below it, and entered."
"More or less."
"And where did you leave from to find me? Cathedral, or Golgotha? Or anywhere else, for that matter?"
"I took a shuttle from the satellite to Cathedral. Golgotha? That is not a pleasant name."
"It is not a pleasant place, although it once was, I understand. Once it was even beautiful, when Valen walked there."
He shook his head, and she felt a surge of anger. "That story will come soon enough. They are gathering, all my little threads, all my little spiders." He looked back at the body. "The ones who still live, anyway."
"And this is an opportunity for you to share everything? To reveal all you know, all you have been working towards? You would be amazed at the things I have suspected your hand behind since you disappeared.... what? Two years ago?"
"Time is an illusion. To me it seems centuries, and perhaps it was. But to you.... yes, perhaps two years."
"It seemed longer to me."
"Time is like that."
"And only now have you chosen to do this. You have waited for all this death. You have waited for the death of worlds, for the death of hope.... all this had to come to pass before you acted, before you warned us?"
"I have been warning you for as long as I can remember! I would have warned you back at the very beginning, in the chamber of the Grey Council when you were Satai and I was Alyt, if I had thought for one instant you would have listened. I have told all I could, but some would not listen...."
He bowed his head and sighed, the first breath she had actually heard him take in this conversation.
"No. I could have tried harder," he admitted. "At Kazomi Seven, when you were.... lost. I could have tried harder to convince them, but I saw what they had done to Sheridan and anger filled me. Yes, I could have tried harder there."
"He was having strange dreams. For.... half a year or more. I thought it was nothing but nightmares. But that was you?"
"Yes. I led him here, pursuing one of my not-so-little endeavours. While he was here I took a sliver of his soul and used it to enter his dreams, to force him to admit what he had become. The Vorlons had.... twisted him, moulded him to their will. I could have broken it, but I thought it better if he did it himself. It worked, eventually."
"Why? Partly to atone for my earlier mistake, for not acting when I could have acted. But mainly for more practical reasons. I am no fool, Delenn."
"I never thought you one."
"I know I am not loved. I am not popular, and I am no hero. The Accursed, they call me, and they are more than half right. I am their monster, their dark shadow. Some will follow me through fear, or because they are attracted to the myth of my power and my evil. But very few will follow me through love. Sheridan could inspire them. If he were himself he would have gathered half the galaxy to his banner and have them all praising his name."
"But now he is dead."
"Ah, well. No plan is ever perfect."
"But he was himself before he died. Untainted." She swallowed. "Uninfluenced. Uncontrolled."
"I hate you. I wish you have never told me that."
"I hate myself as well. I was.... lost, you said. Lost on Z'ha'dum. I sent you a message explaining what I had done and why. I trusted you to put that information to good use. My trust was obviously misplaced."
"Obviously it was," he hissed bitterly. "So who is more foolish? Myself, for misusing it, or you, for trusting me to begin with?"
She continued as if he had not spoken. "I was pregnant when I went to Z'ha'dum, although I didn't know it. My son was murdered in my body. I can still hear his heart beating. I had to live with knowing I could never bear any more children and watch as the only man I ever wanted to bear children with grew cold and distant. And now he is dead, and before he died he told me that he hated me, that it was my fault his son had died, and that he had wanted to marry me.
"And you tell me that was him and him alone! No influence or control or manipulation! That was the way he truly felt!
"So, can you blame me for hating you?"
"I could not blame anyone for hating me. What do you want from me, Delenn? Do you want apologies? Well, you will receive none from me. I regret what happened to you and to your child, and I regret Sheridan's death, but all those things happened, and they cannot be made to unhappen, and you are not the only one to grieve."
"Yes. As I said, I thought I would find you here. In a tomb, alone, so wrapped up in your own guilt and grief that you have no thought for others."
Sinoval snorted. "Perhaps you are right. But as I have said, you did not find me anywhere. You were allowed to find me here. You could have walked from Golgotha, or Yedor, or the next galaxy and you would have found me. Cathedral is a very nebulous place. The Well allowed you to find me. It obviously feels there is some merit to this conversation that I cannot see, and it refuses to tell me what."
"That, Delenn, is exactly what I am waiting for you to answer."
* * * * * * *
Tirivail had had a strange dream the night before. Its memory faded with waking, like blood into dark water, but a few elements remained. Blood. Rain. Pain in her hands. A warrior standing before her holding a strange weapon. She was kneeling.
It faded, and after a moment all she could remember was that she had been dreaming.
It was Golgotha that was to blame, she was certain of that. She had disliked the place from the moment she had seen it, and sleeping on board her warship did not change that. She liked even less setting foot on it now. Something felt wrong here, like an ancient battlefield where the slain had never been properly laid to rest.
She had heard of hauntings, but had been sceptical of their existence, until now. Once during her training she had even spent a night alone in the burned-out halls of Shirohida, and she had not been afraid. But Golgotha was different. If ever a place was haunted, this was.
Her ill-feeling was not helped by the first person she met on her arrival.
"My lady," he said, in his typically authoritative, seductive tone.
She simply nodded, not wanting to look at him too closely, afraid of what she might see.
Marrain did not look like a warlord of old. He certainly did not look like the terrible figure of the Betrayer who had been described to her. Her Sech had told her about Marrain as a lesson against the perils of arrogant pride. Marrain was still the example of anger and arrogance and the bad old days when warriors were ruthless and corrupt and lived by their own rules.
The days when Minbari killed Minbari.
The intended lesson of course had been to ensure that she and those like her did not follow in Marrain's footsteps, did not become like him. Tirivail saw it another way.
Marrain had been one of the mightiest warriors of his time, perhaps of any time. He had defeated Parlonn after all, his only true competitor. Many of the characteristics he had been credited with - skill in battle, single-minded purpose, absolute fearlessness, determination in his goal - all those were virtues she had been instructed to aspire to. Was Marrain truly the perfect warrior she had always striven to be, and if she ever achieved that goal, would she become like him?
She had never been able to answer that question, and nor had anyone else. When she had broached it to her father he had struck her, and told her never to mention Marrain's name again.
So she had not, and over time his name had become less significant to her. Her doubts and fears shifted from what would happen to her when she achieved perfection, to the realisation that she would never achieve perfection.
And even if she did, her father would still never be proud of her.
That was why she did not want to look at Marrain now. He did not look like the Betrayer, the monster that had been described, but she was afraid he was still a finer warrior than she was, and that one look into his eyes would be all it would take to confirm that.
"My lady," he said again. "You seem deep in thought."
"My thoughts are my own," she said coldly.
"You have been called to this gathering as well, then?"
"Ah. It is good to do something again. I understand Sinoval's need to grieve, but a leader can seldom be allowed time for personal concerns." He laughed once, bitterly and ironically. "Yes, I understand that all too well."
She said nothing, but continued walking. Annoyingly, he could easily match her long stride. Few could.
"She must have been quite a woman, this Satai Kats," he said after a long pause. "Any ordinary woman could never have touched the Primarch like this."
"She was," Tirivail said sharply. A better woman than I am, she thought silently.
"Of course, you knew her. I only saw her a few times. What was she to you?"
"She married the man I loved," Tirivail snapped. "And my life is my own concern. Whoever you think I am, it gives you no right to question me." She turned away from him and tried to walk on, but his arm blocked her path along the corridor.
"Listen, my lady," he said, with the utmost seriousness. "I have been dead for a thousand years. I have known fire, and pain, and madness. And yes, I too watched while someone I loved married another. But unlike you, I tried to intervene, and I damned myself forever in her eyes . I think everything else I did could have been forgiven, save that. Do not doubt yourself. You acted better than I did."
"Did all those years dead make you so perceptive?" she hissed. "Let me pass."
"Yes," he said simply, not budging. "We are a fine breed, we warriors. We face death every day. We speak of it, sing of it. We almost regard it as a friend, or a lover. And I am the only warrior today who has known it. That will change anyone, as my new life has changed me once again. Sinoval has made it very clear to me that what happened before will not happen again. I will not betray another lord. I will not spend another thousand years trapped in my own prison of fire. I have accepted what my life has become, and I have dedicated it to true service. I am not afraid to die. I never was. But now, I will be sure to give my life in a good cause.
"And you, my lady, should do the same. Be sure your cause is right. Do not surrender your life merely because of what you perceive yourself to be."
She turned her head slowly, and dared herself to look into his eyes. They were darker than she had expected, and strangely paradoxical, filled with the age and the wisdom and the regret of his experiences, but in a face showing the youth of the body his soul resided in. He stared back at her, and she did not feel any desire to back down.
"'We warriors?'" she said softly, after a long while.
He smiled. "If ever anyone I met was a true warrior, it is you, my lady."
She pulled away sharply and walked on. He removed his arm and walked with her, content to move beside her in silence. She prayed he could not hear the pounding of her heart.
Then they reached the hall, and saw the table, and the two Narns, the three humans and the older Minbari sitting there. With a deep breath Tirivail took her seat, content to be in the shadow of great events.
Marrain sat beside her.
* * * * * * *
"They did not expect to see you here."
The fires had died down, eventually. It had taken hours. The flames must have been visible for miles. Other, smaller pyres would have been lit all over the planet, and even further afield. It was the sort of memorial that would never be seen again.
Parlain felt uncomfortable about it all. Not about the glory. His mother had been glorious and powerful and in a very real sense lord to all of them. She deserved a funeral fit for an Emperor. Parlonn had burned an entire castle for her father, and she deserved no less.
It was the public nature of it all that bothered him. Grief should be a private thing. The funeral of a lord should be witnessed only by his most trusted. The funeral of a mother was above all for her children. To have all these people who had never known her shedding tears in her name....
It felt like a mockery.
Still, at least the rest of their family had taken centre stage. Vashok, he understood, had organised the ceremony at Tuzanor. Zathrenn had laid the shrine on the ashes of Ashinagachi. The others had been elsewhere, each of them prominent, each one's grief mirrored by their people.
All apart from him, the dark shadow of the family.
"I am sure they did not," he said, looking around at the still-gathered crowd. They had broken up into small groups, talking privately. He saw Rashok and Nemain speaking quietly, casting furtive glances in his direction. "No one saw fit to inform me."
"I am glad you came."
He looked at his sister. "As long as someone is."
Cathrenn was almost a replica of their mother. Tall, willowy and graceful, with soulful blue eyes and long, delicate fingers. She had spoken the eulogy in a clear, crisp voice, and while her words had trembled with her grief, she had never wavered. She had looked out across a world of people and spoken the words to describe the way they all felt.
"It was the kind of courage even a warrior can appreciate."
He was not sure he had actually spoken aloud until she thanked him. He looked at her, and she extended a slender arm. He reached out to her and their fingers touched. They remained like that for a while, in a gesture as close as any embrace, until he pulled back.
He looked completely different from her, so much so that no one who did not know would realise they were family. She was actually taller than he was, but he was squat and muscular, hard-boned and dark. He had never been graceful or beautiful. He had learned to master the first as best he could, but while his balance had improved, his looks had only worsened. There was a long scar across his forehead, his nose had been broken and reset badly, and the side of his neck bore an old burn mark.
But the smallest injuries, and yet the most distinctive and memorable and telling, were the two thin, almost imperceptible scars beneath his eyes.
Some of the elder warriors, the old guard, people like Nemain and Rashok in particular, seemed to recognise someone else in him. He had met a retired warrior once outside Tuzanor who had spoken to him for half an hour with reverence and near-worship, under the delusion that he was someone else. Parlain was under no illusion as to whom.
Bad enough to have been given a traitor's name, but he had a traitor's appearance as well, and as far as everyone could see, that gave him a traitor's soul. Small wonder he had not been informed of his mother's death.
There were rumours, always rumours. His appearance, his mannerisms.... No one wanted to believe she had been unfaithful. Not to him. But there were other ways of conceiving a child, and a monster like the Betrayer might be capable of anything.... even rape.
There were always rumours.
"How have you been?" Cathrenn asked finally.
"Busy," he replied. "We managed to destroy a nest of Zarqheba in the Haikyo asteroids a few weeks ago. The Markab paid well enough for us to be able to rest for a while. We had a great many repairs to do anyway, and Tamekan and Rekaiji were injured. It was there we heard."
As he talked, he watched her reaction deliberately. The revulsion he had expected was there, the flash of disgust in her eyes. The war was over of course. Officially there were no Shadow vassals still alive, and if there were, they were the province of the Rangers.
And no Ranger would dare stoop so low as to take payment from aliens.
"How is Rekaiji?" Cathrenn asked. "It was not serious?"
"One of the Zarqheba bit her arm. We thought we might have to amputate it, but she recovered. She is strong." He spoke with pride, and he knew Cathrenn echoed it. Rekaiji and she had been good friends before something had come between them.
Before he had come between them.
They spoke some more, although he kept the conversation away from his activities. He did not mention his anger over the way Rashok or Nemain were looking at him. He did not mention the way Rashok had prejudged him from the moment of his birth. He did not talk about the war, or his scars.
They mainly talked about her life, about their siblings, about her training in the Temple, about her hopes to be admitted to the Grey Council. They talked politics, and he enquired politely about some old acquaintances whom he knew would never speak to him again. They talked about their mother, and for the first time that night Parlain felt something beyond mere anger. Cathrenn even talked about her slow, deliberate courtship of Rashok's son Derulan, making Parlain the first person she had told.
And then they ran out of things to say.
"I am glad you came," she said finally. "It would not have been right without you."
"You are the only one," he replied. "How long, I wonder, until I am written out of the books of history? I saw one of the accounts of the war. They are already changing things. The version I saw claimed that Valen led the assault on Z'ha'dum to rescue mother."
Valen. Parlain never called him 'father'. Never. Not even before he had passed beyond.
"Mother never told us about that."
"She told me," he insisted. "She told me everything." He closed his eyes.
"You were always her favourite."
He opened his eyes. "What?"
"We all knew. She felt something for you she could never muster for the rest of us. I don't think any of us knew why, but we all knew. Even father knew. That's why some of the younger ones, Vashok especially, resented you so much."
"I didn't know that. I remember the stories she told me."
"About Marrain." He said the name deliberately and forcefully. "And Parlonn. She named me for them both. I used to think she had done that because she hated me, and wanted to curse me with those traitor's names. But then I realised better." He sighed. "It took me much too long."
"What did you realise?"
"She did it to honour them. She loved them both. She told me that. Both of them meant a lot to her. I finally realised - she named me to honour them. She named her firstborn son after the two men she loved most. Not after Valen, but after them. That was a blessing, not a curse."
"Not everyone would agree."
"I do not care." He touched his morr'dechai scars slowly and carefully. "I miss her, Cathrenn."
"So do I."
"You did well. I am proud of you."
"Take care," she whispered.
He smiled. "I will die when the time comes. I am not afraid. I will miss you, sister."
He left, with far more stealth than he had entered. She would never see him again.
* * * * * * *
"So use me as your echo," Delenn said. "You have never been accused of hiding your emotions. Do not seek to do so now. I hate you with a passion I never thought I was capable of. I hate everything you stand for, and everything you have done. There is nothing you can say to me to make me hate you more.
"Speak to me, and vent your rage upon me."
So he did.
"They call me the Accursed. They call me a monster and an abomination. My own people call me that. I led them through chaos and anarchy, and they still live. Could anyone else have done the same? Could you have done the same?
"And I did as you did, as we were always taught was our greatest duty: to sacrifice our own desires for the good of the whole. You left the Minbari to me, knowing that you would hate what I would be forced to do, but also knowing that only I could do it. This world does not need healers, I told you once. Remember? This world needs warriors.
"Now of course it needs both, but then it needed a warrior at the van.
"And when my people needed me no more, I left. When my presence would have brought them more harm than good, I stepped down, and I vanished. I allowed them to heal, to grow, to reintegrate themselves into the galaxy. I left the way clear for you to take them back if you wished. It is hardly my fault you chose to remain uninvolved.
"And still they hate me.
"That was a difficult decision to make. Not the hardest I have ever made, because I knew it was right, but it was hard. It meant abandoning a valuable resource. It meant leaving behind someone I.... cared for. But most of all, it meant leaving behind a part of myself. Not just the ruins of Shirohida, or the site of the battle at Sekigahara, or the heights of the Yamakodo Mountains.
"It meant leaving behind what those places meant to me. I left behind the place where Marrain and Derannimer parted forever, the place where Shingen died, the place where I meditated during my training.
"It meant leaving behind the part of myself that remained Minbari.
"Holding on to that part of myself has been harder than I thought. I have told stories, related the legends aloud. If I have had an audience, I have spoken to them. If not, the Well has been my only listener, but I have spoken aloud because the legends must be told.
"But the more I tell them, the more I realise how much I am changing. Some of the tales are deliberately wrong, others incorrect in theology or theory. I know what happened to Valen, and yet I continue to sing of how he 'passed beyond'. I know that the souls of our ancestors do not guide us from beyond, but I still relate tales of how they did just that.
"You of all people will understand this very well. How many of our customs do you still adhere to? The hair on your head has nothing to do with us. What other human biology have you adopted? Do you eat as they do? Sleep as they do? Make love as they do?
"Do you think as they do?
"Are you even Minbari any more?
"I do not need to sleep any more. Or eat. Or drink. I do not tire. I can move through hyperspace as if it were a road through a field. I can endure a vacuum and I can speak to the First Ones. I know the answer to every question ever asked, save one.
"I am immortal.
"Tell me, am I even Minbari any more? What need have I to remember what I once was? A day will come, I know, when I tell the stories, and I do not understand them at all. I will not know why the warriors acted as they did. Points of honour which I once understood instinctively will become as incomprehensible as Vree eating habits.
"And I will look round to find someone to explain them to me, and there will be no one there, because everyone I have ever known will have been dead for millennia.
"You can hate me all you want, and I am truly sorry for Sheridan's death and for the grief you feel, but you will forgive me for not pitying you.
"You will die, one day. Perhaps today, or tomorrow, or in a century's time. And you will die dreaming of your place where no shadows fall, where you and he will be together always. The stars will die, the galaxy will grow old, all life will cease to be, and there will be nothing. And all that time, you will have spent with him.
"And when that day comes, I will still be here!
"Whatever I have done, whatever all my little manipulations have cost everyone, all the horrendous sins I committed.... I killed an innocent once, did you know that? In the full knowledge of what I did, I killed an innocent, in our holiest of places. A place she loved.
"But surely, whatever I have done, I have been punished enough.
"But that is all for the future. For now there is a war to be fought, and I am fighting against the few who might understand me. The Vorlons are all but immortal, passed far beyond their mortal shells, driven by arrogance and conviction and power.
"They are what I could be. But I strive to remember what I once was, and that keeps me safe, for now.
"I do not fear death. I do not fear torture, or mutilation. I fear no one living or dead.
"But I do fear becoming them.
"They have their purpose to keep them sane, to keep them functioning during their long existences. As I have mine. This war. I was a warrior, trained from birth to fight and kill. That is all I know, and that is what I shall do.
"This is a just war. Do not lose sight of that. This war is just, and it is right that it be fought. But if there were no just war, then I would find an unjust one, and I would fight that instead.
"Do not let your feelings towards me blind you to the larger situation. As I said, this war is just, and there are many who fight for precisely that reason. Your Sheridan was one. Do not taint the whole army simply because their general is a monster.
"Now, before you go....
"It is your turn."
* * * * * * *
They came together, walking without comfort or shame. They did not speak, not to each other or to anyone else. They knew each other from their service to the same lord and the same goal, albeit for different reasons and by different means. There was.... respect there, if tempered by their differences.
Na'Toth walked proudly, shortening her long stride to match his awkward movements. Kulomani dragged himself along, bearing his weight with two crutches, one in each hand, supporting his limp and broken legs. He did not ask for support, and she offered him none, knowing his pride would not let him accept.
Kulomani was a Commander, a patriot, a loyal and true man. He had survived a massacre of other good men and patriots by chance and fortune, but not without cost. He had seen what all soldiers know they will see one day - the shadow of their own death pass over them - and then lift.
He was determined to make his enemies regret permitting him to live, however unintentionally. It was the classic rule of strategy. You do not aim to win: you aim not to lose. If your enemy makes a mistake, seize it. He lived, and that was their mistake.
Na'Toth was a warrior, but also a thinker. She had survived in the upper échelons of the Kha'Ri before her disgrace and exile, a banishing that had saved her life. She had guided assassinations and ruinations and plots aplenty in the name of Ha'Cormar'ah G'Kar. With the end of the Shadow War and the rise of the Vorlons she had simply changed masters, and served the new one every bit as faithfully as she had the old.
Different worlds, different races, different lives, but joined by a common purpose.
They entered the hall together. Na'Toth nodded once to G'Kar, who turned away from her. Kulomani recognised Marrain and Tirivail, who had helped evacuate them from Babylon 5.
Na'Toth waited until Kulomani had dragged himself to a chair and forced himself awkwardly into it, resting his crutches on the floor. Then she sat down beside him.
And they waited.
* * * * * * *
Delenn sat down. The floor was cold, stone and hard. She pulled her knees up to her chest and held them tightly. She looked up at Sinoval, and hatred filled her. She did not like feeling this way. She did not like the hate and the anger. She could only recall feeling like this once before, and that had been a long time ago, when she had made the mistake she had spent the rest of her life trying to atone for.
And that was one of the reasons she hated him. He felt like this all the time, and he felt no remorse for it.
"You want the truth from me?" she said. "You will not enjoy hearing it."
"You have never been anything less than honest with me before. Yes, tell me the truth. I will think no less of you whatever you say. However much I disagree with you, I have always respected you."
"I am glad he is dead," she said hollowly. "I wish he had died long ago, at Babylon Four and the Great Machine. He was dying then anyway. He was resigned to it, and he chose to die in battle rather than wither away from an illness, defeated by an enemy he could not fight."
"I understand that."
"You would. He loved me, and I loved him, and he was.... himself then. I would have grieved for a long time, but I would have remembered him as the kind man who loved me, not as the cold stranger who shared my bed and blamed me for the death of his son.
"But he survived, and it took me a long time to realise that he should have died. His spine was broken, his ship wrecked. He should not have been able to breathe. He was there for days. Something kept him alive.
"Only later did I work it out, when I had long hours in my cell with nothing to do but think. It was Kosh. His last life energy, that fuelled the temporal rift through which Babylon Four departed.... That kept John alive.
"I was never sure why. I wanted to believe in Kosh, to trust him. I thought he cared about us, but.... He sent a monster to interrogate us and torture us, but he seemed happy when we refused to co-operate. I wondered if that was some sort of warning, an oblique hint not to trust his people, but I was never sure."
"Not all the Vorlons are monsters. Most of them believe in the justness of the cause, but some actually care about you poor, younger races."
"This from you?"
"This from you. It was a hard lesson to accept, but as I was taught, any warrior who regards his enemies as a monolithic unit loses the ability to see the cracks. It was.... not easy to accept that."
"You've always hated them. Always. Why?"
"They seek to guide us and control us, without understanding what we are. The Shadows, I could accept. The Vorlons.... I do not know. I cannot explain it. I suppose I have always tended to prefer Chaos over Order."
"The champion and not the leader. Yes.
"But something changed when Kosh died. I think there was some sort of bargain. They wanted me dead, and so they sent me to Z'ha'dum. If Vejar and the technomages had not intervened, I would have died, a suicidal blast to destroy the homeworld of the Shadows. That would have pleased the Vorlons greatly.
"But I demanded one thing from them before I went. I wanted one night with John. I wanted to be sure he was well, but more than that.... I wanted the memory of that one night of pleasure to take with me to my death. It was selfish, my needs above the needs of others.
"We made our son that night. We made a life which was then destroyed. You see, John was right. It was my fault our son was killed. Not in the way he blamed me. Even if I had known, I would still have chosen to do what I did. If my death made a difference to humanity, then I am proud of that, and I would choose again.
"No, I killed our son by allowing him to be conceived at all. My life was my own, to do with as I pleased. His life was not. That is what I blame myself for, and that is why John's words hurt so much.
"He was right.
"I wanted one night with him for my own selfish pleasure. I did not even see the changes they had made to him. I took the memory of his touch on my face, his kisses in my hair.... I kept those memories through darkness and horror.
"But now they have all turned to ashes.
"I wish he had died at Babylon Four, and I wish I had died at Z'ha'dum, and I wish our son had never been conceived only to die unborn in a cold sterile room, and I wish this galaxy had something better to serve it than you.
"I wish G'Kar hadn't had to see his world die, and feel the same grief and guilt I do every day.
"I wish I had done something for Londo, had helped him when his body was still strong enough for him to help himself.
"I wish I had spoken to Lennier more, and tried to win his friendship before he died and left behind a confused young girl to bear his name without a clue about what it means.
"I wish I knew where Lyta was, and I wish I could talk to her, and I wish I'd actually questioned my conviction that she'd come to find you.
"I wish so many people were still here.
"I wish I was strong enough to help you, to tell you not to do these things, to tell you not to trust people like the Shadow creatures, like that Moreil, or the Tak'cha, or Marrain.
"I wish I was strong enough to oppose you.
"I wish there was someone else, anyone else but you.
"I wish I didn't hate you so much."
She bowed her head, and let her anger fade. He had been right, damn him. The words had helped.
"But there is no one else," he said simply. "Come, Delenn. It is almost time for the council to begin."
* * * * * * *
Then they came, attired in the accoutrements of war. The warlords, the generals, the captains.
Jorah Marrago, former Lord-General of the Centauri Republic, a man born to wealth and position, and yet bowed by grief and bloodied by loss. A man who had risked everything in the name of his people, and fallen, and been repaid by exile. A man who had lost his daughter for a second time. A man who walked proudly and tall, with noble bearing and grim determination.
Ramde Haxtur of the Tak'cha. Few of them knew him, yet everyone had seen his ships ride into battle, fighting with courage and recklessness born either of madness or of true purpose. Only two people knew that once the Tak'cha had killed a God, and been forever cursed for it. Now they warred against the Gods again, and this time they would not be cursed, but would be made strong.
Moreil the Z'shailyl of the Brotherhood Without Banners. An ill wind seemed to blow at his coming and many remarked that there seemed to be an odd haze in the air behind him, a shimmering of light and shadow. Moreil was proud, his dark eyes filled with determination and purpose. None liked him, and none trusted him. He sat alone, save for the shimmering behind him.
Vizhak of the Drazi, former Ambassador, then renegade and outlaw. His people had tried to rebel, to force their own way, and they had paid the price. They had been the first. The slaves, the angry, the furious. Vizhak had escaped Zhabar through Sinoval, and he and his people would fight to the death to save their homeworld. He looked dirty, burned and scarred and wounded, but fire blazed in his eyes.
G'Lorn of the Narn. A soldier in service to his Government who had watched his Government and his world die. Hatred was not a strong enough word to describe what he felt. He would plunge whole worlds into fire if he could.
David Corwin. A former soldier. A former captain. A former failure. He entered quietly, and sat quietly, and watched.
Susan Ivanova, scarred by battle and by loss and by blade. All knew of her, and all knew she stood highest in Sinoval's councils. Marrain bowed to her, as did Moreil. David simply stared, and turned away when she looked at him.
They were almost all there. Only two remained.
* * * * * * *
As he had done every morning since he was a child, Takier of the Storm Dancers clan, Satai and warrior, knelt to remind himself of his duties. Warleader, lord. Satai, inspiration. He was the one his followers looked to. He was the one who would set their path. He was the one in whose footsteps his people would walk.
He was their leader and their lord.
This done, he walked with renewed strength into the Chamber of the Grey Council.
They were all there, and his eyes were drawn to those he recognised as worthy of consideration. Gysiner and Chardhay, the two priestlings. Gysiner met his gaze openly, and Takier was almost pleased. The years had made them strong, stronger than he could have foreseen. He doubted they would be strong enough, but it was a start.
Lurna bowed her gaze before him. The worker had lost much of her fire in the absence of her friend and companion.
None of the others would look at him.
He stopped at the empty column of light and stared at it intently. Then he turned, and took his place in the centre of the circle.
"Word has come from Babylon Five," he said, without prologue or preamble. "The Alliance has been shattered. Many have fled, to raise arms in rebellion. The Vorlons made it plain that any who did so were to be considered traitors. There was much fighting. There are many rumours, but all agree that the Starkiller has been killed."
That had been rumoured for some time, but the confirmation was still powerful. Despite all that he had done and been, to Takier, Sheridan would always be the Starkiller. He remembered the anger and the loss at the destruction of the Dralaphi, and his vow to seek revenge. Events had conspired against him, but even so, the death of his enemy brought him no joy.
"It is also known that Satai Kats has been killed."
That got more of a reaction. Lurna made a sign of mourning in the air, weaving her hand in a complex pattern. Gysiner bowed his head.
Takier was not sure what to make of that. He had not liked Kats. In fact he had detested her passionately. He had admired the strength of her views, but wished she held better views, views worthy of such conviction.
Takier had always privately attributed his skill as a leader to his lack of emotion. He did not hate any of his enemies. He had not hated the humans, not even the Starkiller. He had not hated Sinoval. He had not hated the Shadows. He did not hate the Vorlons. He even felt mild respect for some of his foes.
No, he did not hate any of his opponents. They were fighting for their own reasons, and he could not condemn any soldier for their reasons for war.
But he did hate those among his own people who sought to make him weak. Kats was one such.
This was what the Grey Council had been reduced to. They were weak and feeble, and his people were weak and feeble. Where were the heroes? Sonovar had tried to bring greatness to the Minbari, but he had failed. Sinoval had always had the potential, but his flaws had taken him away from them, and he had abandoned them. Dukhat had died too young and the promise of his early years had never been fulfilled. Even Delenn, whom Takier had privately loathed, had been strong-willed if nothing else, but she had fled to join her human lover and her alien friends.
Who was there?
No one but the weak, and Takier himself.
They had spoken of peace all these years. Peace with the humans, with the Shadows, with the Alliance. Peace was just a word, a breath in the air. Stone and metal were solid, tangible, real. Peace was just a dream.
"And your daughter, Satai," Gysiner said. "What of the Lady Tirivail? She was present with Satai Kats...."
"I have no daughter," Takier said curtly.
He continued without pause. "It is time to decide our policy. The Vorlons have announced that all who fled from Babylon Five are to be considered traitors. They will try to hunt them down and destroy them, and they will almost certainly seek confirmation that the individual Governments of the Alliance remain loyal, especially after the incident with the Narns.
"We have not yet said anything that may not be unsaid. We have closed our jump gates and voted to refuse any refugees from Narn. We have voted to prevent Alliance ships from crossing our trade routes. I of course wanted more, but the vote was to wait, and watch.
"We have waited, and we have watched. The Alliance is in flames, and one of our own has been burned in the process. Now we vote. Do we remain with the Alliance, or do we turn aside and defend our own worlds?
"I have seen Minbar die once already in my lifetime because we did not stay to defend it. Our world is slowly beginning to live again. Are we to fight for it, or are we to cower and let it be taken from us?"
There was talking of course, a great deal of talking.
There were votes, many of them.
But there was only one decision, and that, as Takier had always known it would be, was inevitable.
* * * * * * *
And finally, they came.
Delenn first, the long folds of her dress swirling around her legs. She entered with pride and stood looking at the assemblage. Some, such as G'Kar and Corwin, she regarded with friendship. Others, such as Moreil and Haxtur, were met only with disgust.
Still she walked forward, Mother of the Alliance that had failed, Daughter of a world that had rejected her, Healer in a room of warriors and warmongers.
She took her seat next to G'Kar, and touched his outstretched hand with her own.
There was silence.
Still several chairs and spaces remained unoccupied.
But there was only one person missing.
With a burst of lightning, he arrived, walking through the darkness like a God of war. The jewel on his forehead blazed with an unholy light. Behind him paced two Soul Hunters, clad in black and silver. They took up position at the door.
Sinoval himself wore red and gold, robes both religious and martial. No weapon hung at his belt, but there was a strange ornament looped and bound around his wrist. He walked slowly, but firmly. Moreil knelt as he passed. There was silence.
He took his place at the head of the table and looked around at those who had gathered. His champions. His soldiers. His agents.
Would they be enough?
At last he spoke.
"Greetings," he said simply and formally.
"Welcome to the Council of Sinoval."