A NEW RELIGION OF THE SOUL (II)
The smell of smoke surprised him. Lennier opened his eyes and found himself on a small hill overlooking the Plain of Chu'domo. He blinked hard, trying to get his bearings. A glance down showed him he still carried the crystal knife, but he was dressed in the deep crimson colors of his clan. Thick hide boots covered his feet, and a heavy cloak protected him from the chill of the evening air.
"Lennier." He turned to see an unfamiliar male hiking up the hill toward him. "It is time," he gasped as he reached the top of the rocky slope. "They are waiting."
"Waiting?" Lennier shook his head. Nothing was the same. He scanned the valley again. The Temple was gone. The river curved at a slightly different angle and was much faster than he remembered. Try as he might, he could not see the lights of Nevhesah in the distance. Everything was familiar, but different.
His companion laughed at Lennier's distracted look. "Have you forgotten already? Victory is ours. Lennier and Azhlan, famed sons of the House of Chu'domo! Now it is time for you to reap the benefits." He put his hand on Lennier's arm, turning him towards the flat upper plateau of the the hill.
Looking up, Lennier gasped involuntarily. A circle of fires blazed before him a scant five hundred meters away. He squinted, unable to see clearly what was in the center of the circle. As he walked upward towards the circle, he realized it was surrounded by a dozen or more pikes. Atop each pike was the disembodied head of a Minbari warrior. In the smoky dusk, they all resembled John Sheridan.
"They're waiting for you, Lennier," Azhlan whispered. "They'll never again oppose the House of Chu'domo."
Lennier was led through a small gathering of Minbari. Old men, women, dirty-faced children, all gazed up at him with a mixture of sadness and fear in their eyes. They parted before him, keeping a respectful distance. Around them, the vacant eyes of their dead heroes stared down on the scene in mute disconcern.
In the center of the crowd was a stone table, decorated with crimson ribbons, flowers, and fruit. Atop the table lay Delenn, naked, hands tied above her head with strips of crimson fabric.
"A gift," his clanmate grinned. "In the hopes that you will deal kindly in your occupation."
Lennier stared at Delenn, a mixture of arousal and revulsion warring in his blood. She had been painted from head to foot with an intricate, interlocking design--the symbol of her new status as concubine. Her skin glistened in the firelight. The healing women of her clan had probably spent hours preparing her. A breeze caught the spicy scent of her oiled skin, carrying it to him like an offering.
A hard knot of dread formed in his stomach. He knew what was being offered. He knew what it meant. His breath began coming quickly, the first onset of panic. No matter what he wanted, no matter what his body told him, he could not dishonor Delenn in this fashion. Not even an imaginary version created by his own sick fantasies.
"No. I will not participate in this." He turned a hard gaze to his stunned companion. "I will not."
The Minbari shrugged, then smiled viciously. "Then she will be an offering to our gods."
"Give me the knife, Lennier. I will offer her to Jha'tain, as a feast. Then we will feast on this pitiful--"
"No!" Lennier clutched the knife as Azhlan tried to take it.
"Make up your mind, Lennier. Will you take their offering, or do we continue with the slaughter? It's not a difficult choice."
Lennier looked around him, a sick feeling overtaking him as he moved from one terrified face to another. Their heroes were dead. Their people were old, sick, or too young to offer any defense from the raiders.
From his own clan. He turned to Delenn, who lay still on the cold, stone table. Her eyes were closed lightly, a look of serene resignation on her face. Once again, he was faced with a Delenn who was ready to offer everything, even her freedom, even her body, to serve her people.
Sickened and ashamed, he waved Azhlan away. "There will be no more killing today."
Azhlan looked almost disappointed. "As you wish. Our gods will simply have to fast this evening."
He stepped through the circle of bodies, bringing his knife down to cut the bonds. Delenn's eyes opened, looking up at him curiously.
"Come with me," he said quietly.
She shook her head. "No." There was a hint of fear in her voice.
"I promise, I will not harm you. I just want you to--"
"No," she repeated more fervently.
Lennier leaned over, touching her cheek to reassure her. She reached up, pressing her lips against his jaw. "It must be done here, before the witnesses. So that no one can deny the sacrifice has been made." At Lennier's horrified look, she added with a touch of humor, "I promise I will be gentle."
Despite himself, he smiled. Their eyes met for the briefest moment, then he turned away. Embarrassed by what he saw there. Embarrassed by what it stirred inside him. "Is there no other way to end this?" he asked softly.
She shook her head. "It will not be so bad. You will see."
Lennier began to laugh at the irony of it all. Here she was, naked, conquered, and facing her new master. But it was she who was comforting him. "No. It will not be so bad," he agreed.
Releasing her for a moment, he turned to one of his men, giving him a quick order. The man hesitated only a moment, then turned to carry out his duty. Lennier returned his attention to Delenn. "Is there some ritual that must be performed before...before we..."
"You do not know the ritual?" She smiled again. "What sort of conquerer are you?"
"I'm new." He looked around. The crowd was beginning to get restless. Lennier knew he would have to perform, and soon, if he were to keep things from escalating out of control. There was already enough blood on his hands. The young scout returned, carrying a bucket and several cloths.
Lennier took them with a nod of thanks, ignoring the confused looks around him. "Lie down," he said to Delenn. Even her gaze had grown curious. "What sort of concubine are you?" he echoed her earlier light tone. "Lie. Down."
Obediently, Delenn did as she was told. Lennier placed the bucket on the ground next to the table, and turned to address the crowd. "My friends," he said, coughing a bit to clear his throat. "My friends, we have seen a terrible tragedy today. Our lives are joined by the blood which has flown on this plain. I am pleased by your offer of this woman. But I cannot claim her as zha'treh."
There was a low gasp from the small group. Azhlan looked mildly disgusted.
Lennier swallowed hard. "I will claim her as mate. I will claim her as partner. But I will not claim her as zha'treh."
Delenn sat up, stunned.
"Lie down," he urged, dipping the first of the cloths into the water. To the crowd, he continued. "The time for warring has ended. The time for subjugation is over." He began to wash the paint from Delenn's body, slowly eradicating every sign of bondage from her skin. When he reached her face, there were tears streaming down her cheeks. He smiled as he wiped her clean, caressing for the first time the smooth skin he'd dreamed of for so long. "The time for fear is over," he whispered, only to Delenn, as he leaned down to kiss her.
She greeted him halfway, lips pressing against his in a mixture of confusion and gratitude. Lennier was vaguely aware of someone removing his cloak, his tunic, and trousers. But that was irrelevant. The only thing in the entire universe that existed was Delenn, her scent, her silken skin, her soft moans as she pulled him down atop her.
Lennier was relieved to finally be alone. He wanted to clear his head. He wanted to douse the fire. Lennier turned inward, trying to find that single point of clarity, that precision of faith he once held so dear to his heart.
They had brought him to a large tent, furnished with the best this place could provide--oil lamps, warmly colored cushions, plates of fruits and bread. Probably more luxury than these poor people had known in years.
It turned his stomach. He longed for Temple, for the austerity of white candles and shimmering glass. Tears stung his eyes as he tried in vain to meditate, surrounded by the vile offerings of a barbaric race.
It's your own race, he reminded himself. From this barbaric race, from these vile offerings, the Minbari people evolved.
"Master?" A servant girl opened the flap of the tent, her eyes wide with fear. "You asked for me?"
Lennier did not recognize her from the altar, did not know if she had witnessed what took place earlier. It did not matter. His own heart had witnessed, and that kept his focus clear. "I need a candle."
"Is there not enough light?"
"I need a candle," he repeated firmly. At the girl's horrified look, he regretted his sharp tone. "For my meditation. Please."
Without another word, she left. He could hear her quick footsteps in the dirt. Running to do his bidding.
His stomach churned. This was not right. This could not be happening. He had been sent here to face his fear. Not to live out some barbaric fantasy from Mr. Garibaldi's private collection of pleasure vids.
"Master." The girl had returned, breathless. Her hands wrapped, shivering, around a crudely-shaped pillar.
Red. How appropriate.
"I searched, Master. The candles have all been taken for the celebration. I hope this will do."
"It is adequate. Thank you." He took the candle from her.
She raised her eyes slightly. Lennier ventured she was now looking directly at his knees. "Is there anything more, Master?"
He sighed. "No. Thank you very much."
With a quick bow, she scurried away. Lennier shrugged, hoping to ease the tension in his muscles before attending to his meditations. This part of the Mora'Dum had lasted longer than any other section. He reached down to his side to finger the handle of the crystal knife. How long had he been here, in this time before civilization? Why didn't the flash come, as it had before, and carry him to a different lesson?
"Perhaps your lesson is here, Master."
He turned quickly. The Delenn of this time stood before him, draped in a length of sheer green fabric. Her crest had been decorated, and she smiled at him beneath a carefully-lowered gaze.
Of course, she would know his thoughts. Lennier averted his gaze, not wanting to linger on the way the fabric clung to her or to acknowledge the scent of the oils which softened her skin.
Delenn, not about to accept his silence as an answer, crossed the short distance to where he knelt in the rushes. She lowered herself to sit on her heels, a teasing smile flickering across her lips as she blew out his candle. "If I sat alone on a feast night, staring at a candle, my father would beat me for foolishness."
"I am not your father," Lennier murmured, staring at the smoke as it curled upward in defiance of her.
Her laugh cut through him like a thousand crystal blades. She leaned over to lift his chin for a brief, but deep kiss. "No, Master. That is certain."
He pulled away abruptly, not wanting to fall under her spell once more. "You should not be here," he said as he pulled himself to his feet.
"Where should I be but at your side, Master?" She followed demurely as he began to pace.
"You should be at the celebration...."
"I am happy here."
"You should be with your family--"
She stopped him, turning him to face her. "*You* are my family, now."
Lennier could not bear the utter sincerity in her face as she spoke those words. What had he done? Why was this happening to him? His eyes looked down to the green tattoo, still curving itself around her left wrist.
Delenn followed his gaze. Her voice was barely above a whisper when she spoke again. "Does this offend you, Master?"
He could not speak.
Before he knew what was happening, Delenn had grabbed the crystal knife from its sheath. She thrust it into his hand and, closing her fingers around his, guided the knife to her wrist. "Cut it off. If it offends you, it offends me."
A terrible sadness threatened to overwhelm Lennier. He was too tired to be shocked by her actions, even though she was deadly serious. He loosened his grip on the knife, allowing it to slip into Delenn's waiting hand. Without a word, he turned away.
"Then it is me who offends you."
"No," he said softly. "It is so much more complicated than that."
She stepped closer to him, pressing her free hand against his back. Lennier felt the point of the knife between his shoulder blades.
"You are very trusting." The knife point moved slightly, tracing an intricate pattern across his upper back. "How easily I could kill you right now."
"You won't kill me."
He felt a stinging as the knife sliced through his skin. Shallow, but it burned. "You are too trusting. You know the hatred between our clans."
Lennier turned to face her, still blandly ignoring her implied threats. "You won't kill me," he repeated.
She thrust the knife against his throat. "Why? Why shouldn't I kill you? You destroy my village, conquer my people, and now you reject my offering."
"You won't kill me. If you killed me, you would cease to be."
With those few words, he deflated what little true anger she seemed to feel. Dropping the knife to her side, she smiled ruefully. "Perhaps that would not be a bad thing."
A long silence hung between them. Not knowing what to say, Lennier took the knife from her and wiped the blood from the blade, using his tunic as a cloth.
"You should not ruin your nice shirt," she chastised, instinctively reaching for something to clean it with.
"Forget that," he whispered, stilling her hands as they tried to wipe his tunic.
With that minimal contact, all hope of coldness died in him. Even like this, even in this foolish fantasy his mind had created, he could not be indifferent to her.
She saw it in his eyes, and pressed quickly against him, touching her lips to his. "Why can you not enjoy this?" she begged against his kiss.
"Because it isn't real. It is all an elaborate creation of my mind. You aren't real."
"I feel real," she corrected as she began to loosen the ties of his shirt. "I taste real. I smell real. Prove to me that I'm not real." Her lips traveled to the small cut she'd made in his shoulder. Her tongue licked the blood away from the skin as she continued to kiss and lick his flesh.
"The real Delenn would never behave this way," came the choked response. Lennier could not bear this. He kept his mind focused, trying to ignore the sensations which threatened to overwhelm him.
"She would with Sheridan." As he stiffened, she looked up at him pointedly. "And that upsets you."
"That's not the point. I respect her decision."
"So you created an elaborate fantasy where you killed the husband, then claimed his wife as a concubine."
"That's not--" He tried, and failed, to avoid the piercing clarity of her eyes. "I...I did what I did to end the bloodshed."
"But you created the blood shed," she countered.
"N-no. It was part of the Mora'Dum."
She pressed her advantage. "You created the blood shed so that you could end it. So that you could end it in the only way possible in this time frame."
"Because you wanted this. You wanted this.” She lifted her hand so that the tattoo was eye-level with him. Then, slowly, she lifted his hand so he could see it. Around his wrist was a tattoo identical to the one Delenn wore. "You wanted this,” she repeated.
The pattern burned through him. Lennier felt his heart tearing within him as the truth of her words struck him. "No," he choked. "This is not what I want."
"Then what do you want, Lennier?"
He looked down.
"Look up, Lennier."
A cold wind seemed to envelop him, cutting through inferno in his mind.
"Look up, Lennier." Delenn raised his chin with two soft fingers. "I cannot have an aide who will not look up." She smiled warmly, her ambassadorial facade dropping for just a moment. "You will forever be running into things."
For a moment, all Lennier could do was stare. Of all the places the Mora'dum could have brought him, he had never imagined he would wind up here.
At the beginning.
He looked around him, unconsciously mimicking the naive boy he'd once been, gawking at the passengers disembarking, rushing to greet loved ones, slinking through customs. Had it been really such a short time ago that he'd been one of the awkward newcomers, dazed by the enormity of it all?
His gaze finally returned to Delenn. It always returned to Delenn, he thought without humor. She smiled knowingly, scorching Lennier's heart with the memory of her once-unquestioned authority.
"You must be tired from your journey," she said softly.
"My journey has been long," he agreed. "And I am indeed weary."
"How unusual to travel so far, only to return to where you began." Her smile grew gentle as she took Lennier's arm and led him away from the terminal.
"If only I could return to where I began," he said wistfully. "So much has happened; so much has changed. I sometimes feel I know too much."
"So it is your wish to return to a state of ignorance?"
Lennier stopped, shaking his head. "Not ignorance, Delenn. Innocence. I fear my heart..."
"You fear your heart," she repeated.
Her words echoed in the silence which followed.
Lennier chose his next words carefully. "I fear...the impurity which threatens my heart."
"Innocence is not purity, Lennier. Animals are innocent. Babies are innocent." She reached up to touch his cheek. "Innocence depends on lack of experience. To be pure, you must face the darkness in your own soul, yet still choose light."
His hand caught hers, holding it for a long moment against his skin. Her eyes seemed to shimmer with a deep understanding as he held onto her. When he let go, they both knew he understood.
With one last look at the Delenn he loved so well, he removed the knife from his belt and dropped it purposefully to the floor.
His eyelids felt heavy.
"Lennier, are you alright?" It was Alison Dupree.
Lennier somehow managed to open his eyes. His meditation had been deep, even deeper than the methods Turval had taught them to slow the beating of their hearts. He wondered how long he'd been in this state, the melted remains of the final candle his only clue to the passage of time.
"Are you okay?" Dupree moved to his side, an expression of concern crossing her features.
"I--" He paused, exhaustion and hunger winning out over his communications skills. "I must reflect on what I have seen."
She nodded, and blew out the candle.
His dreams were of the cryptic sort. Alison had wisely limited his food consumption, knowing that after his fast he would have to slowly bring his intake back to normal. Still, the simple meal with which he had broken his fast conspired with his imagination to fuel the oddest of dreams--grey figures danced with shadows, fires consumed delicate green vines, and all around him, laughing faces rested on towering wooden pikes.
He awoke too quickly.
Stretching out on the slanted single bed, he turned to check the clock. In a few hours, he would have to face Turval and Durhan. He would have to tell them of his experiences, and what he planned to do about them.
He would have to make a decision about his place in the Anla'shok as well. Purity is not innocence, her voice echoed in his mind.
Innocence was lost, finally, he supposed. There was no way, after what he'd experienced, that he could deny the true nature of his feelings for Delenn. His jealousy, his desire, all played together in a complex fugue of emotions.
Closing his eyes, he could see her before him--all the incarnations superimposed into one composite image. The concubine and the Satai beheld him with such knowing clarity he wanted to hide from the sight of her. If only....
No, it was much more complex than that. Try as he might, he could not hide from the sight of his own true face. All of this--the Anla'shok, the determination, the risks--all of this was merely a reflection of his desire for her.
A tear ran down his cheek. He should go home. He should find some humble place to be, where his inadequacies would not cause harm to others. Maybe if he stopped now, he could salvage his honor, salvage what little remained of Delenn's respect for him.
With a heart heavy and pained, he made his decision.
Turval and Durhan, having conferred with Dupree, sat in judgement of the Mora'dum. It was true that Lennier's final choice would be his own. But faced with the iron gaze of the two venerable Minbari teachers, any student would be hard-pressed to veer from the correct path.
Lennier stood before them, impassive, determined he would do the honorable thing. To do otherwise would be to deny the purity of the Anla'shok. His breath stopped as Turval began to speak.
"You have survived the test, Lennier. You have walked through the fire, and lived to speak of it." His voice lowered as his gaze bore straight through Lennier. "What tale will you tell of your experience?"
Lennier felt that gaze like a laser through his soul. His stomach hardened into a ball of ice. "I would like to continue my training," he heard himself say. Somewhere inside him, a light flickered. And died.
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