There were two basic things I was trying to accomplish with this fic. Number one, I wanted to explore the possibility that Cartagia, as a Centauri, might’ve had some pre-cognition. Secondly, I wanted to present an embryonic version of the Vir we see in the novels – the Vir who has learned to use his innate self-effacement as a conscious defense mechanism.
While on the palace grounds, Vir lived by a hard and fast rule: Always keep your head down. He considered this maxim wise even at the best of times.
Vir is already beginning to learn, though the lesson has not yet been refined.
It was not the best of times.
Hearing a familiar burst of laughter, Vir flinched, but did not alter his posture or his course. With his shoulders hunched up, his eyes focused on some point on the floor beyond his boots, and his hands folded before his chest, he continued to make a beeline for Londo’s quarters.
Vir froze, concentrating on making himself smaller.
“Do come join us, Cotto.” The call was punctuated by a delighted giggle. “There is a matter we need to discuss.”
At this point, Vir, in keeping with canon, automatically fears that the great conspiracy has been discovered. The giggle doesn’t register. *g*
“If it p-p-please Your Majesty,” Vir managed, his thoughts a dizzying, panicked whirl, “a-are you sure you wouldn’t rather speak to my master? Surely I-I-I’m not worthy to-”
Obviously, Vir doesn’t think of Londo as his master at this point, but he knows that other people do. He’s not using that knowledge deliberately at this point in the game, however – it is merely the first thing he can think of to do. Later in his life, that first thing will become a weapon.
“If I wanted to speak to Mollari, I would’ve sent for Mollari,” Emperor Cartagia interrupted, an icy edge creeping into his voice. “Do you dare question your emperor?”
Vir turned, his eyes wide. “No! No, no, of course not. I-I-I only meant to say that-”
Contrast this open-book terror with how Londo responds to a similar threat in Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi? *g*
With that, Cartagia seized Vir’s wrist with a bruising grip and pulled him into the throne room, giggling once again. A long moment passed before a sweating Vir dared to lift his eyes. The room was littered with the detritus of a mid-day party – trays filled with red-stained goblets, yellowing rinds, and a few abandoned modesty garments. Several courtiers had settled themselves on purple cushions strewn about the floor; one was idly picking leftover linfra berries off a half-empty vine.
Vir himself couldn’t help but stare at the spot where, hours earlier, G’Kar had fallen. Mixed in with the overpowering smell of perfume was the subtle hint of filth and blood.
The above, of course, reminds us where we are in the larger story – and also hints at Cartagia’s never-ending quest for stimulation. He is a Centauri in hyper-drive.
“I have been preparing a play,” Cartagia announced cheerfully. “A celebration of the gods to be performed in a few days time. I, of course, will play all of our most honored, most ancient gods. But I have decided that you, Cotto, are the perfect man to play Emperor Sejano.”
A nod to Cartagia’s megalomania – he’s practicing for godhood. And, yes, this is also where the I, Claudius influence really comes in. But as I said in the opening note, this cleaves to JMS’s canon.
Vir looked at the emperor fully for the first time - and the sight only enhanced the growing surrealism of the past few minutes. Dressed in the costume traditionally associated with the goddess Alur, Cartagia primped before his mirror, smoothing down the white lace of his bodice, his mouth deformed by a maniacal smile.
The cross-dressing is also canon!
Sejano II was credited with the final defeat of the Drazi at the height of the Imperial Age of the Centauri Republic. He also, famously, was part of a grand conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor and father, Sejano I, who at the time was rapidly fading into senility. Deeply unnerved, Vir swallowed audibly. “May I ask why I’ve been chosen for this…honor?”
And here’s where I introduce the pre-cognitive aspect of the story. Cartagia has drawn a frighteningly close parallel, and it’s not just a wild guess.
Cartagia pivoted and approached in a swish of skirts, his powdered face coming so close to Vir’s that Vir was forced to stifle a sneeze. He reflexively averted his eyes, but Cartagia firmly tilted his chin back up with his fingers.
Cartagia is such a flirt. But in all seriousness, this is where Cartagia’s true purpose is revealed – he senses that Vir is a threat, and he is trying to confirm or reject that suspicion.
“There is something about you, Cotto.” Vir shuddered at the suddenly serious intimacy of the moment, but the reaction was ignored. “When I first saw you with Mollari, I felt as if I already knew you.”
“This is not my first time at the court, Majesty.”
“No, no, no!” Cartagia burst in frustration. Out of the corner of his eye, Vir could see the other courtiers stiffen in nervous anticipation as the emperor swept back to his throne and sat. “It is possible I have seen your face before, but this goes beyond that. It was not a simple recollection, but a sense of destiny. A sense that you, Cotto, are more than you appear.”
Ok. Here is H’s Grand Theory of Centauri Pre-CognitionTM: There is a continuum of ability among the Centauri, ranging from Vir, whom I’ve always cast as almost totally pre-cog blind, to revered female seers like Lady Morella. Among men (the Grand Theory also includes a theory of gender difference that has some interesting implications where Londo is concerned, but I won’t get into that discussion here *g*), Londo’s pre-cognitive ability, which allows him to see not only his own future in quite a bit of detail, but also the future of others (yes, this is canon: while he is in extremis in The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, Londo sees Sheridan in a Ranger uniform, then sees him disappear in a ball of light), is actually extremely unusual. I surmise that most men, Cartagia included, have death visions that are far less detailed. They may come away from such a vision with only a general feeling of their own demise. They may find the stream of images completely indecipherable. Most do not wake up knowing exactly what (or who) is going to kill them and when.
Thus, I have answered one of those nagging questions: Why didn’t Cartagia know about Vir? Still, the possibility that Cartagia did know something, however amorphous, was fascinating to me. Hence, this story was born.
And by the way: notice here too the nod to the hidden terror of the other courtiers.
“I-I-I’m not really sure what you mean, Majesty,” Vir replied, twisting his shaking hands together behind his back. “Aren’t we all more than we appear? What I mean to say is… well… those who don’t believe don’t see your greatness. But, you know, all of us who do believe… we… we understand your power because you’ve chosen to so graciously enlighten us. Maybe… could it be that you have become so great that you can see not only your own destiny, but the eternal paradise that awaits all of your worshippers?”
Vir didn’t even know if that made sense – or if he was suitably convincing – but in the long, frightening silence that followed, Cartagia seemed to be considering it.
At this point, Vir is capable of shoveling the bull, but he has none of Londo’s guile and polish. He’s making it up as he goes along on pure survival instinct.
grey_bard has also pointed out something else: In a weird way, Cartagia has just complimented Vir. But the circumstances are so twisted that Vir is forced to argue against his own potential for greatness. That actually wasn’t on my mind when I was writing this moment – which just goes to show how much is accomplished completely by accident. *g*
“Interesting. Most interesting indeed,” the emperor said at last, and Vir released the breath he had been holding. In a languid movement, Cartagia picked up a goblet and leaned back against the cushions of his throne. “Drink?”
Cartagia has dismissed the threat for the time being, but he is still mildly fascinated by Vir and wants to keep him around for a little while for study. Here, I am trying to build a bridge between these two characters’ first meeting and the invitation to the torture exhibition later that night, which doesn’t really make logical sense to me without the fill-in.
“I-I thank you for your generous offer, Majesty, but I-I-I must return to my master. I-I’m sure he’s waiting for me.”
Cartagia’s laugh made Vir jump. “Indeed. Go now and bring Mollari here. Perhaps then I will find some entertainment.” Then he bellowed: “Minister Virini!”
Because we all know Cartagia has a huge, messed-up boy-crush on Londo. *g*
Vir did not stay long enough to see the perpetually anxious courtier react to Cartagia’s attire. Bowing quickly, he fled, and he didn’t stop until he had closed Londo’s door behind him and collapsed, his hearts beating in his throat.
And that’s the end. Thank you for tuning in, blah-de-blah. *g*