"Is this really necessary?" G'Kar asked, regarding himself dubiously in the mirror.
"The invitation was extremely specific. Unless you wish to attend in a dress and veil, I'm afraid it is."
"I don't see why we have to attend at all," G'Kar said. His duties as bodyguard prevented him from leaving Londo's side, but that didn't mean he couldn't argue about where they were going to go together. He wouldn't have relished attending a Centauri social occasion at any time, and under these circumstances ...
"It would be a grave insult to Lord Valo - our families have been allied to one another for generations, and to miss his son's Ascension Day while I am here on Centauri Prime would be unthinkable."
G'Kar shook his head. "Centauri political games. If this Valo is such a great friend of yours, then why would he make a transparent attempt to separate you from your bodyguard?"
"I did not say he was my friend, I said he was a family ally - it is hardly the same thing. Besides, we do not know for certain that he was trying to get rid of you. All such occasions have a dress code, after all."
"A dress code that requires me to wear this?" G'Kar said, gesturing at his reflection. "I look ridiculous, Mollari."
"On the contrary - I think it rather suits you." He reached up to adjust the scarf tied around G'Kar's neck again, although it looked perfectly fine to the Narn. Insofar as it would ever look right, at least. "The colour is dull, perhaps, but it is a far more flattering outfit than those musty old leather things."
"Well, I'd expect you to think that - you're a Centauri." G'Kar said, turning to face him.
"As is everyone else, where we are going. I fail to see what you're afraid of."
"I am not afraid of anything - merely uncomfortable. Are the trousers really meant to be this tight?"
The truth of it was that G'Kar felt as exposed as a new pouchling that had not yet grown its second skin, and silly into the bargain. He'd insisted that everything - trousers, waistcoat, shirt, coat and boots - was to be black, but the lack of bright colours didn't disguise the fact that he was wearing the garments of the people he had always considered his natural enemies.
He had never understood why the Centauri didn't wear clothes that made some attempt to compensate for their ridiculously fragile skins, and he comprehended it even less now. It wasn't as though Centauri men had anything interesting to protect in the trouser region anyway; but the thin waistcoat he was wearing offered far less protection than his own leather coat, which was draped forlornly over the back of a chair.
"Everything fits perfectly. Those were the best tailors in the capital, you know. Nobody else could have done such fine work so quickly. Now come along - we are going to be late."
G'Kar automatically reached over to pick up his gloves, then stopped. Of course those were not allowed either, although like any Narn he felt naked without them. He would in fact have vastly preferred going naked to dressing up like this.
At least the Centauri's bizarre restrictions on shoes only applied to the anniversaries of these events, although his new black boots were pinching uncomfortably. Those alone had not been custom made, and given that they had been designed for a species with such a strange number of toes, G'Kar wasn't surprised that they didn't fit properly. Nor did they have sufficient space for a knife, something that he usually carried there out of habit.
"Very well," he said, turning away from the mirror. "If you ever tell anyone on the station about this, I will consider my agreement to act as your bodyguard void - I may even kill you myself."
Londo only laughed, which did not improve G'Kar's humour at all.
Valo's Ascension Day party turned out to be very much like every other Centauri function G'Kar had ever attended, not that he made a habit of going to them. There were a great many people milling about under the low lights, supplied with endless food and drink by a small army of silent functionaries. No doubt the smiles and laughter concealed a host of negotiations and maneuverings that would end in advantage for some and disgrace for others - the Centauri were utterly incapable of settling their conflicts directly like sensible beings.
G'Kar skimmed to room carefully, and stayed close to Londo's side as the Prime Minister did his social duty. Before long he was thoroughly bored, annoyed by his sore feet and the coolness of the room. The attention of those around him disconcerted him, too. His presence had been greeted with surprise ever since he arrived on the planet, but now he suspected that he was attracting amusement as well. Still, perhaps they were simply watching their Emperor-to-be.
Perhaps it was a sign that he had become entirely preoccupied with Centauri fashion, but G'Kar noticed the woman's dress before he noticed the person wearing it. The current fashion for Centauri women seemed to run to duller colours than usual - although that was an entirely relative thing - and her bright blue attire stood out sharply. G'Kar was just wondering if the object of his attention was lagging a season behind the rest of the party, or trying to set a trend, when she turned her head and he realized just who he was looking at.
Waiting a moment for Londo to finish speaking to the petitioner he was currently dealing with, G'Kar placed a hand on his arm. "Mollari," he said quietly, "do you see who I see?"
Londo followed his line of sight easily enough. "Mariel!" he said. "Her gall is unbelievable!" His voice was soft enough that even in the crowd it would not be carried to many ears, but G'Kar was certain that Londo's expression alone had given him away to the entire room.
"Has she not as much right to attend tiresome functions as you do?" he asked. G'Kar had parted on amicable terms with Londo's former wife, and had always enjoyed her company. It might even be pleasant to see her again. Of course, if she was here to try and kill Londo again, he would have to do his duty and prevent her.
"She is a divorced woman - do you have any idea what a disgrace that is in Centauri society? When a man puts a woman away from him, tradition dictates that she remove herself from his sight. She should know better than to come here, where she knew I would be."
"Surely you don't expect her to hide herself away?" G'Kar asked. "She had never been what you would call a retiring person."
"As you have cause to know," Londo said, speaking in English rather than Centauri. Not many nobles outside the diplomatic service bothered to learn the humans' dominant language, although G'Kar still didn't think this was the time or place to discuss that particular affair. "I know she is a shameless woman, but to parade herself here?"
"Do you want me to get rid of her?"
Londo looked at him incredulously. "You can hardly throw her out, G'Kar - even on the grounds that she has tried to kill me already."
"Still, perhaps it would be wise for me to speak with her. If somebody in the capital does wish you harm, she may know about it. Mariel has a way of finding these things out."
"You wouldn't have another reason for wishing to speak with my ex-wife, would you? Perhaps a desire to find somewhere quiet where you can - talk privately?"
"Jealous?" G'Kar asked with a smile.
"Bah. If you want to go and trade flirtations with that viper, be my guest. I'll shout for you if anybody attacks me."
G'Kar crossed the room as nonchalantly as possible, taking a glass from the tray of a passing waiter along the way. His hand gripped the stem a shade too tightly as he noted that his suspicions had been accurate: people were staring at him, and not at the Prime Minister he happened to have been standing next to all evening.
Oh, they covered it well enough. Centauri nobles didn't gawp openly at many things, not even at Narns aping their style of dress. Still, they looked at him sideways, they spoke to one another in hushed voices, and G'Kar did not enjoy it. The last time Centauri courtiers had been looking at him this way ...
"Hello, Ambassador," Mariel said, appearing at his elbow. "Or - forgive me, but is that still your correct title?"
"Indeed it is," G'Kar said, turning to face her. They would have to maintain the polite fiction that they were barely acquaintances while in front of this many pairs of curious eyes. "Although of course I am here performing a rather different function."
"So I have heard," Mariel said, and as she did so she glanced across the room, in the direction of a doorway. It was a signal he might have missed had she not employed similar gestures during previous public encounters. "I have hard that you have performed many new functions since we last met on Babylon 5."
"I am sure that I'm not the only one who has pursued new roles in life since then," G'Kar said lightly. He wondered idly which of the men here was Mariel's current conquest.
"It is still surprising that you should come here," she said with a smile, looking him up and down. "Are you enjoying the chance to explore our culture? I can't imagine you had much of an opportunity for that the last time you were here."
"Indeed," he said neutrally. The allusion to his captivity was bold of her; most of the Centauri avoided speaking of it altogether, when they deigned to speak to him at all. But then, whatever else she might be Mariel was not a coward.
"Well, it has been nice to see you again," she said. "I hope it won't be too long before we meet once more."
With that, moved off in a direction entirely different from the one she had indicated to him. G'Kar had no doubt that she would be waiting behind that doorway inside of five minutes, and that nobody here would see her go that way. She was a true professional about these things.
It took some time for G'Kar to make his way across the room, and he did so as surreptitiously as possible. There was little hope he'd escape the notice of those around him, but presumably Mariel had accounted for that. Londo seemed to be securely engaged in conversation, and provided he remained surrounded by people he would probably be safe for a while. In general, the Centauri preferred to keep their assassinations behind closed doors, although he must be sure to keep in mind that Mariel herself had already made one public attempt on Londo's life.
She had chosen her location well; a heavy velvet curtain shielded the doorway discretely. Behind it there was a long dark corridor that didn't look like anywhere a Centauri noble would willingly go without good reason.
As he was still glancing around, Mariel emerged from one of the side doors. "G'Kar," she said, "I am glad that you came. Will you not join me in here, where it is more private?"
"I cannot stay, Mariel."
She raised an eyebrow. "It is true then - you will not leave his side. I had heard that you had become devoted to my husband, but I hardly believed it until I saw it with my own eyes."
G'Kar shrugged. "I am his bodyguard - it is a duty that my people take seriously." He studied Mariel for any indication that she had been sent to lure him away from Londo's defence, but her manner seemed too relaxed to indicate an assassination in the offing.
"I see that nothing would prevent you from attending," she said, walking over to him and reaching out to touch one of the silver buttons on his waistcoat, "not even the need to dress according to our ways."
"No, not even that," he said with a smile.
"It suits you, G'Kar," she said, fingering another button, lower down. "Did my husband give these to you?"
"Well, I certainly wasn't going to pay for them myself. Do you have any idea what Centauri tailors charge?"
"You do realize that Centauri men give new clothes as courtship gifts?"
Something about her tone of voice made him uneasy, although he should have expected her to tease him about his strange bond with Londo. "I am perfectly capable of spending time with someone without becoming engaged to them, Mariel - as you well know."
"There is no need for pretence around me, G'Kar - I know you both well enough to see the truth. Everybody else is surprised that the two of you have come to this, but I am not. I should have realized years ago that your real interest was in him."
Suddenly G'Kar did not like where this conversation was going at all. "I am here for the good of the Interstellar Alliance," he said, "to act as bodyguard to someone who will soon become the leader of one of its most important member worlds. Nothing more than that."
"Centauri do not give fine silk clothes to their bodyguards, G'Kar - they give them to their fiances, or to their whores."
Several years of diplomatic experience and a revelation that had brought him enlightenment served G'Kar well. He did not seriously consider snapping Mariel's neck for more than a second or two. "Which do you think that I am?" he asked, trying to hide the anger in his voice without much success.
"Oh, I am sure that you know," she continued. "I simply find it amusing that Cartagia had to put you in chains in order to make you wear something half so ridiculous as this, but Londo only needs to ask."
He should have known, from the beginning, that whoever had done this might have had something against him, rather than Londo. "Amusing enough, I take it, that you made sure your latest keeper included very specific instructions on his party invitations?"
"Well done - I see that your wits are intact, G'Kar, although I wonder why such an intelligent man would ally himself so closely to Londo Mollari. Unless he has learned something new since we parted, he was not that good in bed."
"May I ask why you wished to humiliate me?" G'Kar asked. He had never expected an attack from this direction, although he should have realized long ago that no Centauri could be trusted. He had thought they had parted as - not friends, but certainly not enemies. When would he learn that every Centauri was a potential enemy, if not an actual one?
"Think of it as payment for using me. Your only interest in me was in making my husband a cuckold. You never spoke to me again after my divorce - did you think that I wouldn't notice that?"
"And you couldn't stand the thought that somebody had survived an affair with you that didn't end in disgrace or death," G'Kar said, openly disgusted. "This isn't a very impressive form of revenge, Mariel."
"Oh, I think it will satisfy me. Half the guests are asking when you and their Prime Minister will go under the swords together, and the other half are speculating about how much he paid for you. This damages his reputation as much as yours, and that pleases me."
"Get out of my sight," G'Kar said softly, "before I do something both of us will regret."
"Of course," she said, curtseying to him with every appearance of politeness. "We must both be sure not to keep our lords waiting too long." With that, she turned and left in the direction she had come from.
G'Kar leaned back against the wall. He was tempted to start stripping off and walk out there naked, but that would show them that he knew what they thought of him, and ... any reaction he showed, they would find amusement in. He knew already that silence was the only answer to such people, but this time he could not choose to do nothing. He had a duty to perform.
He was still standing there, thoughts churning, when Londo opened the curtain.
"There you are!" he said, sounding angry and relieved at the same time.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to look for you - to make sure Mariel hadn't poisoned you, or slit your throat while you were distracted. Don't you think that if someone wanted to kill me, luring you away would be a vital part of their plans? What were you thinking of, coming back here?"
"Nobody is trying to kill you," G'Kar said wearily. "Mariel is Lord Valo's mistress, and she wanted to see me embarassed, by coming here dressed like -" he cut himself off. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what? That Centauri like to gossip? That they say unkind things about Narns? That they spread rumours about you and me? I thought that your skin was thicker than that, G'Kar."
"I don't like - being laughed at," he admitted, knowing that he was over-reacting and frustrated by his inability to stop himself from doing so.
He had, more or less, recovered from the tender ministrations of Emperor Cartagia. He would not willingly admit to anyone - least of all Londo Mollari - that the idea of being a spectacle in front of a room full of laughing Centauri nobles still filled him with a dread he couldn't quite explain. He would have had an easier time telling Londo that he occasionally still dreamed of being whipped; at least that was a sensible thing to have nightmares about.
What he was thinking it must have shown in his face, for Londo lost his expression of puzzled irritation.
"G'Kar," he said, "I have seen you look ridiculous many times, but on every occasion the damage was entirely self-inflicted. I do not believe it is an effect that could be achieved by anyone else."
G'Kar shook his head. "You are right. I will not allow this to irritate me. We should go back."
"Not just yet," he said, taking G'Kar by the hand and pulling him toward the room Mariel had wanted to take him to.
"Where are we going?"
"To take a short intermission," Londo said. "I find I have lost all my enthusiasm for listening to the demands of those who will soon be my subjects, and it would not be right to spoil the entertainment of others with my bad mood."
The room was, not surprisingly, full of overcoats, and lit dimly by a single lamp. "A cloak room," G'Kar said. "I didn't think there were many places less entertaining than a Centauri party, but this would appear to be one of them."
"Oh, I'm sure we can find some way to amuse ourselves ..." Londo said, in a tone of voice G'Kar recognized all too well. The Centauri reached over and started removing the scarf from around his neck.
Much as he wanted to get out of these clothes, this wasn't quite what G'Kar had had in mind. "Mollari, this is hardly the time or the place -"
"Nonsense," Londo said, "it's practically a tradition - although I admit it has been some time since I sought this kind of entertainment during a social function." He started to unbutton G'Kar's waistcoat, running his hands over the fine fabric of the shirt beneath.
"What if somebody comes in?" G'Kar said in a whisper. "If a guest should wish to leave -"
"Nobody leaves a Centauri party at this hour," Londo said dismissively. "It would be a terrible insult to the host."
"And if somebody has the same idea as you?"
Londo smiled. "Ah, now that is a much greater risk. If you just lean back against the door -"
G'Kar allowed himself to be maneuvered into position, not entirely sure why he was going along with this. "You're trying to distract me," he said accusingly as Londo sunk to his knees in front of him.
"Is it working?" the Centauri asked cheerfully.
G'Kar sighed, and gave up. He certainly welcomed the opportunity to think about something other than Mariel. "For the moment."
They emerged sometime later, bearing no outward sign of their recent activities. G'Kar smoothed down his coat, which he fully intended to burn at the first opportunity, and looked around to see a minor Centauri official who had obviously been waiting for them.
"Prime Minister?" he said, looking squarely at G'Kar, "is there some kind of problem?"
"Problem?" said Londo, with every appearance of innocence, as G'Kar's heart sank.
"I heard a - disturbance, coming from that room," the man said, with a disapproving frown. "It was quite loud."
"Ah, yes," Londo said, nodding. "My bodyguard here was praying."
"Praying?" The man was too professional to allow his incredulity to show on his face, but it was certain there in his tone.
"Indeed - you must have heard how devout he is about his religion," Londo said, somehow managing to keep a perfectly straight face. "Why, I have known G'Kar to interrupt me with such things three or four times a day!"
G'Kar almost protested that this was hardly something Londo had discouraged, but had to content himself with a withering glance instead.
"Well, if he was only praying-" the official continued, uncertainly glancing from Londo to G'Kar and back again.
"Yes, yes. Noisy, not to mention a bit hard on the knees, but -"
"What the Prime Minister means to say," said G'Kar, cutting him off, "is that there is nothing for you to concern yourself with."
"Of course. I shall return to my duties." The man looked at both of them, shook his head, and left.
Londo turned to G'Kar and grinned. "You see? There is nothing to worry about."
"Hard on the knees!" G'Kar hissed. "And I didn't hear you complaining about the noise when -"
Londo laughed. "I would have liked to see you explain what we were doing in there."
"If you think that he's going to believe that transparent fiction, and not spread rumours all over the place -"
Londo reached over and put a hand on his arm. "G'Kar, I am not very interested in any opinion the Centauri court has on my personal life at present," Londo said, "and less interested in gossips like my ex-wife. Provided they do not know anything, there is nothing they can do to me - and nothing they can do to you at all."
It occurred to G'Kar, not for the first time, that this was a strictly temporary state. The Regent would die, and the Emperor could not be so cavalier about his activities, at least not when it would invite comparison with the late and unlamented Cartagia. Still, now was not then.
Besides, he did feel better for the interlude, not that he was going to admit that. "It is your reputation," he said lightly. "If you are unconcerned for it, why should I care?"
"Indeed," said Londo, nodding, "and if any of those people should laugh at you," he went on, very quietly and in English, "you may think to yourself that their most honourable Prime Minister was down on his knees before you in a cloak room not five minutes ago, and simply smile back."
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Fandom: Babylon 5
Author: Andraste [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | PG-13 | *slash* | 21k | 06/11/05
Characters: G'Kar, Londo Mollari, Mariel
Summary: Londo and G'Kar attend a Centauri party together. G'Kar does not approve of the dress code.
Notes: Many thanks are due to Selena for looking this over and convincing me that it doesn't suck. (At least not in the figurative sense .)
Disclaimer/Other: I do not own Londo and G'Kar. This breaking news brought to you by ISN.
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