This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember. . . .
- Siren Song, Margaret Atwood
Mariel knew almost immediately that she had misjudged him.
"I'm pregnant," she had announced softly through the tangled sheets. "I thought you should know."
The man next to her said nothing as he propped himself up on an elbow, but she felt him unwind himself from around her torso and her limbs. His face was rigid.
"Is it mine?" he asked, his voice burning.
She didn't answer his question. Her naked arm snaked through the sheets to pluck a nearby gelled tsyta plum from the carved bowl on the bedside table. His tone, Mariel thought, was deliciously tense.
"Mariel," his chest moving faster as he repeated, "is it mine?"
She looked demurely downward, "Who else's would it be?" she asked.
He leaned forward, gritting his teeth. "Your husband's, I should imagine."
"Lord Balfour," Mariel traced his chest with a finger, "Londo has not been back from his diplomatic assignment to Earth in weeks. And when he comes back, he barely has time for me." It wasn't an entirely untrue statement. Since his diplomatic assignments in service of the Republic, Londo's home visits were limited by distance and necessity and, perhaps, a modicum of antipathy. Mariel's co-wife, Daggair, with her persistent ear for gossip and rumor-mongering, often fell upon news of their husband's whereabouts well in advance of his actual arrival, even if he fully intended upon a surprise visit. It was simply coincidence that at every opportunity Mariel's husband had more than five minutes free on Centauri Prime, she had dreadfully important appointments with men of rank that Londo could not afford to anger. And certainly, it was an absolute shame that her schedule was free only when Londo had important Court meetings. Mariel found the trivialities of her household uninspiring, but she did find this little game of eluding her husband amusing, and it irritated her co-wives to no end. It was a joy to step out the front door, catching irate words emanating from the Great House in her wake. Her penchant for the trinkets of other men made her time valuable, far too valuable to waste upon her banal husband.
Londo was loud, obnoxious, and even on his best days, he usually merited a medal for being impossibly difficult, if only there were such an award. But the only time Londo was ever really able to corner her was at bedtime, and by then, under the spell of brivari and desire, he had absolutely no interest in pursuing small talk about her little comings and goings. At those times, she always greeted him with a smile playing across her lips as she indulged his baser nature. Unlike her co-wives, Mariel treated Londo like the respectable lord he wished to be to his face, while living her own delectable life behind his back.
"But are you sure it is mine?" Lord Balfour's voice shook a little.
Mariel wondered if Balfour would turn cross. It was always a risk, but she'd played this little game before. It wasn't the trite thrill of receiving their jewels or their money but rather the delight of relieving them of such things. Men walked into her arms, intent upon using her like a common prostitute, but when she was successful at her tawdry little pastime, she did all the using.
Mariel had watched men try to dominate her all her life, but underneath her attractive façade, Mariel was smart and cunning, and few men suspected such a sweet, young woman could possibly outwit them to their face. For centuries, women had dripped off the arms of Centauri men, like nothing more than living accessories, easily swapped out for wives in the adjoining bedrooms when they became tiresome. So oh how sweet, Mariel thought, to see the sight of men dangling helplessly from her puppet strings. She didn't mind that they never knew the depth of her well-laid plans, including how she siphoned their money into her own accounts or destroyed their reputation inch by inch among their blood-sworn comrades. She wasn't going to sit down in an armchair and spell it out for them, after all. No, that would ruin her little game, the game where she waited, as mute as they thought respectable women should be, tugging her covert strings of manipulation. Her unsuspecting victims almost always fell blindly into her webs, and she seductively relieved them of their money or their honor without them becoming any wiser to her little pastime. She didn't need her prey to know, to understand, what she did or how she did it. After all, that would almost be gloating, and she had no need to gloat, not out loud anyhow.
"A woman knows, my lord. And it is most certainly yours." She shrugged her shoulders helplessly, biting her lips with feigned nervousness. Would he buy her silence with money or jewels this time? She preferred jewels, but really either would do.
"Have the doctors confirmed you are pregnant?" he asked.
Mariel thought she detected the slightest bit of suspicion in his question.
Rising from the bed, she let the sheets fall away, and she stepped over to her belongings. From them, she withdrew a data crystal and placed in the palm of his hand. "The doctors have confirmed it, my lord. I didn't want to tell you until I knew for sure."
Balfour rolled the data crystal between his thumb and forefinger, looking at it with widening eyes. Finally, he turned back to her breathlessly, "Do you know the gender?"
Mariel blinked. This was an unexpected development. "Not yet," she told him, the melodic notes of her accent softening the syllables of her words.
"This couldn't be better news," he said, a half-grin forming.
Mariel felt the notes of something akin to regret starting to form in the pit of her stomach.
"I need an heir," Lord Balour told her, the intensity returning to his face. "None of my wives have been fortunate enough to become pregnant, and I had thought my fortunes would be bequeathed to my cousin, Pretario. But now," his face brightened with excitement, "to know that I might still have an heir . . . ." He laughed with delight. "Even if it is a girl," he patted her hand, "better than nothing!"
Mariel did not change her expression nor move a muscle. "The problem," she said cautiously, "is that I do not know how my husband will react to the news of a bastard."
Balfour's smile faded, and he blinked several times. "But it is my child. I would be willing to pay a handsome sum to House Mollari for the honor of adopting the child into my House. Your husband would be compensated for any trouble and . . . " he shrugged, "any embarrassment. Surely he will be reasonable about the situation."
"I'm not sure that 'reasonable' has ever been used in the same sentence with my husband's name before, " Mariel thoughtfully tapped a manicured finger on her chin. She needed to salvage the situation quickly, and it was clear that Lord Balfour was not going to bequeath her some spending money for her considerable trouble. On the other hand, she thought, Lord Balfour was a minister, a far higher rank than her husband. Trading up husbands might not be the worst decision she had made this week. "You could always talk to the Emperor about granting me a divorce," she offered demurely, mentally moving her chess piece into position. "By the time the child is born, it needn't be a bastard after all."
"No," Balfour dismissed the suggestion swiftly, dashing her new hopes as quickly as she had made them. "Emperor Turhan is a bit of a historical relic with regard to such things. He will want to know the details. Once he knows the circumstances, he will never allow a divorce. He might even be inclined to dole out punishment."
Mariel glanced at the wall clock, and with a frown, she kissed her paramour, "I'm so sorry, my lord, I am due to an important engagement in an hour." That wasn't a lie either. She had commissioned a hex from an effective – but expensive – enchantress for another man falling into her orbit, and she could not risk missing the booking she had made weeks ago. Not that she couldn't handle men falling in love with her on her own, of course, but if something went wrong, it was always best to be prepared. She glanced back at Balfour, "In the meantime, we will have to consider what might be done."
"Yes," Balfour grumbled. "I'll give it some thought. It does present a bit of conundrum. Too bad I can't transfer Mollari to the far side of a jumpgate near the Rim until the child reaches the age of Ascension, hmm?" he chuckled. "Well, I suppose we have at least a year before you start to show and another before the child is born. Until then, we will ensure my heir is well cared for."
"Of course, my lord," Mariel sighed as she slipped into her dress. She turned to look at Balfour with a request in her eyes.
"Ah," he sprang to her side, "let me lace you up, dear."
As Balfour's fingers worked their way up the dress in a much more reserved manner than they had moved down it a few hours before, Mariel glanced at the newspaper near the bedside, the continuing saga of the search for the disappeared Babylon 4 station splashed over the front page. She picked up the newspaper, narrowing her eyes at the story. As he finished fastening her dress, she turned, waving the paper. "Do you think they will build another?"
Balfour shook his head with a sigh. "Oh yes, most definitely. The Babylon stations have all been cursed – but those Earthers are determined to build another one already. Most of our diplomatic staff, including the new ambassador, have abandoned any notion of stepping onto such a blighted place."
"Then," Mariel tilted her head in thought. "You will need a new ambassador when it is commissioned?"
Balfour snorted, "I don't even know if we should waste a body. The appointment to Babylon 4 was extremely difficult to fill. It was understandable, of course, after everything that happened with the first three stations. Almost every House offered the position chose to pay their way out of the honor. On top of that, no less than 14 ambassadors voluntarily took a permanent leave of absence without retirement honors rather than accept an appointment to the station. We were lucky House Filizio had run out of money at a convenient time or we would still be looking for someone, and now this - Babylon 4 disappears within hours of coming online! Ambassador Filizio has taken up residence on one of the outer worlds in what I suspect is his permanent departure from diplomatic life. No one will want the assignment to the next station, not as an ambassador nor as a mechanic. The Emperor will not have an easy time filling the positions. I fear we will have to greatly reduce the staff we send. It will be an underwhelming show of Centauri power, sadly. I suppose it will save the treasury some ducats on renting quarters in the diplomatic wing though," Balfour mused.
"Oh," Mariel slipped on her heels. "That is a shame." She considered how Daggair was always begging her to use her influence to wrangle a better position for Londo at Court. His advancement upward had stagnated years before. Mariel had ignored her elder co-wife's desperate pleas for long enough. It was time to really do something for the family. She would supplicate herself to Daggair's wishes and help their husband's advancement, as a dutiful Centauri wife. It was also the right thing to do, of course. "Since you have the Emperor's ear," Mariel offered in a sultry voice, "maybe you could mention my husband's name at court?
"Mollari?" Balfour snorted, "for what reason?"
"I just thought," her eyes twinkled, "if the new Babylon station needs a new ambassador, perhaps he would fit the bill . . . ?" She let her words linger as she watched Lord Balfour glance at her, glance back to the story, and back to her again. Did she have to spell it out for him?
Balfour's eyes widened, "Oh! I suppose that Mollari is due for a promotion. He's been passed over several times now for men from more prestigious Houses. I suppose it would only be proper to inform the Emperor that House Mollari's heir deserves consideration for such a prestigious post in light of his past achievements."
There, he had it now. It had taken a touch longer than it should have for a man in his position, but intellect was not always a prerequisite for a minister.
"Yes," Mariel smiled thinly, "prestigious."
"Considering his service, of course."
"Oh yes," Mariel smiled, "his service. Of course."
Several months later, after Londo was invested in his new post, light years from Centauri Prime
Mariel found her co-wives, Daggair and Timov, lying in wait for her in the entryway of the Great House. Mariel tried to pass by them without more than a few words, but they cornered her like ravenous leati. She found both of them dull and boring.
Daggair, on the one hand, spent every cent she could gather wheedling her way into social circles above her rank. She was an incessant gossip. Though, thought Mariel, she could be counted on for a few gems of useful information every now and again. The women of status at Court toyed with Daggair incessantly. To them, she was nothing more than a plaything, desperately grasping for a status she could never hope to achieve, and lavishly outspending her inconsequential position, a habit that often got her into trouble.
Her most senior co-wife, Timov, was a prude icicle. She might as well wear a raincloud rather than the unfashionable scarf she insisted upon wearing. On the other hand, the scarf fit perfectly next to the dated dresses she always wore. In addition to her puritanical choice of attire, Timov seemed to take delight only in pointing out the faults of others while indigently waving her moral high-ground like a flag of self-righteous satisfaction. House Algul must have been desperate to marry off their prize heir, sadly a woman, to the moral black hole that was Londo Mollari.
But then again, desperation had landed them all in this marriage, hadn't it? Mariel's own House had arranged her marriage only after she had landed herself in a spot, perhaps more of a chasm, of trouble, and Daggair – well, on Centauri Prime, there was a saying – the older the groom and the younger the bride, the more prestigious the marriage. Daggair had been betrothed to Londo's elder brother, an even match with a modicum of status, when tragedy had struck. After his brother's untimely demise, the reluctant second borne had stepped in to salvage the marital arrangement between the Houses only at the insistent direction of his father, and the result, to Daggair's horror, was the tragically humorous marriage of a much older woman with a younger man, a topic that caused its own gossip among the Court elite Daggair so desperately wanted to join.
"Is it true?" Timov's shrill voice broke Mariel's thoughts. Timov had her arms folded, his lips tightly drawn with contempt.
"Is what true?" Mariel asked innocently.
Daggair drew a deep breath in, her eyes darting from one woman to the other. She pressed her hands together in anticipation of the topic that was brewing.
"Daggair tells me," Timov said tersely, "you are pregnant with some lord's child."
Mariel's eyes darted to Daggair who shook her head, her shoulders rising in an unconvincing denial.
"Oh Timov, why are you always jealous?" Mariel said as sweetly as she could conjure.
"It isn't jealousy you detect," Timov said coldly. "It is nausea. Whatever game you are playing at Mariel, don't expect me to be a part of it," she added tersely.
"Just a bit of fun, Timov," Mariel shrugged. "Even if fun isn't a word in your vocabulary."
"A bit of treachery, I'd wager," Timov said under her breath.
Mariel shrugged indifferently, "You know what they say."
"No," Timov said curtly. "What do they say?"
"You can't seduce a faithful man," Mariel replied. "Besides," she added with a shrug, "Daggair's gossip isn't true."
"Not anymore," Timov's eyes had fire in them as she pointed toward the ledger books she maintained on behalf the House. "I've seen the bill for your little medical procedure."
Daggair gasped and glanced at Mariel, "You didn't!"
Ignoring Daggair's interruption, Timov continued, "Did you have the decency to tell your new beau that this is nothing but a game to you?"
"Timov, my dear, these men use us however they want," Mariel replied, "Fair is fair. I can't help it if I am better at playing their game than they are. They get what they deserve. But yes, he has been apprised of the tragic loss of the child, as often happens in young pregnancies."
"From a tear-stained letter, I'm sure," Timov said archly. "Did you ever consider that this House does not have an heir? It might be something to consider for next time. And we all know there will be a next time, just as there have been times before this. Don't you have any new tricks to try?"
"Just because you are a barren nightmare who wouldn't give a man the time of day and Daggair stopped ovulating before I was born doesn't mean I don't have anything better to do than become the lactating nursemaid of this House," Mariel thought, but instead of voicing her thoughts, she held her tongue and smiled, though the smile did not reach her eyes. "I don't see why the weight of bearing heirs for this House should lie solely on me," she said.
"I thought you rather liked all sorts of things lying on you," Timov said coldly.
Mariel's smile faded at last. "Timov, my dear, someone has to bear our lord's affections since you can't bear any affection at all." And with that, she briskly stepped past her co-wives and disappeared into the hallways of the Great House.
Less than two years later
After Emperor Turhan's death, his young and vicious nephew Cartagia was crowned ruler of the Centauri Republic. In the days after his coronation, Mariel found herself glancing through the day's papers when her eyes fell upon on a story. Scanning a list of names, she found that poor Lord Balfour was one of the unfortunate ministers executed by the new Emperor.
Delightful, Mariel smiled. Absolutely delightful.
She pondered how comical his head looked on a pike for a moment before her thoughts turned to Babylon 5, and she wondered how much longer it would be until she was reading about Babylon 6. Soon, she hoped. It was just her luck that this station had lasted longer than all four of the previous ones combined. But surely, its luck would catch up with it sooner or later.
Fortunately, Mariel was patient, patient enough for now anyway, and soon enough she'd have inherited her portion of Londo Mollari's money, and even better, she'd be free of her insufferable co-wives.
Surely, any day now . . . . She would hate to have to take things into her own hands . . . .