2285/V: THE TEMPLE OF FROST

By John Hightower

 

 

 

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*****

   Earth Year 2285

   "I am called simply Catherine…Catherine Sakai."

   "That is a human name…yet you are as Minbari as I am!" Ardenn exclaimed.

   "Precisely," Katrenn replied, reaching out and meaningfully fingering Ardenn's hair, "I'm as Minbari as you are, yet I'm also a human…as you are. And, as for what I gave them…well, I gave them you, Daughter. You and others like you. Ardenn, I'm your mother…your mother one thousand years removed."

   ***

   "You…uh, don't seem particularly awestruck," Katrenn noted with a smile as she gazed at the forlorn hybrid sitting beside her. "Most Minbari would be wetting themselves when they realized they were talking to Valen's mate."

   Ardenn eyed Sister Katrenn…Catherine dubiously. A few short weeks ago, she had believed herself to be an orphan. Now it seemed to her as if people were suddenly falling all over themselves to claim her as a daughter, at least metaphorically. This latest claimant, Sister Katrenn…Catherine Sakai…seemed friendly enough, despite the present surroundings. As if to accent her observation, an explosion sounded in the distance and Ardenn heard the soft tones of emergency alarms sounding as the city outside began to react to the Shadow attack.

   The young Minbari did her best to ignore them. Turning to face the woman beside her, she said, "I apologize for seeming a little underwhelmed, Sister, but please understand, I awoke this morning in the place I most wanted to be…the bed of my beloved…after the most beautiful and intimate night of my life." Raising her hand she began ticking off her fingers as she testily continued, "Since then, I have unwillingly been taken from him, flown halfway around the planet and lied my way through the most sacred obligation a Minbari can take. To top that, one of the most intimidating women on Minbar has now informed me that I am essentially a tool in some secret plan. I do not know what the secret plan is, but I do know any plan that involves putting me in a stasis field and shooting electricity through my body cannot be entirely beneficial to my health."

   "I see your point."

   Ardenn held up her hand to forestall further comment. "Of that I am certain. But wait, there is more," Grabbing a fistful of white hair, she tugged it in irritation and complained, "As if those occurrences were not enough to overwhelm me, I now find that I have undergone the Chrysalis without noticing it. In the process, I managed to get myself sent eight hundred cycles back in time so ships of a race that no longer exists could stalk me. And now…to highlight my day…I find that I can speak to dead people." Sighing, the young Minbari shifted uncomfortably. Under her breath, she snorted, "Wetting myself…huh. My undergarments were soaked before I even appeared here. I have had a long day."

   "A long day," Katrenn echoed, glancing upwards as Minbari fighters screamed by outside the shattered building in pursuit of the retreating Shadows. "Well…we all have our crosses to bear, I suppose." Placing her chin in her hand, she cocked her head and eyed the young Minbari wryly. "So…was he any good?"

   "Was he any good?" Ardenn confusedly echoed, caught off balance after her rant. "Was who any good?"

   "Your lover. When he took you to bed, was he any good?" the elder Sister repeated. "I don't get to hear too many juicy sex stories in here. I'm usually too busy dodging flying debris. Since you mentioned it, I figured I'd take the opportunity to catch up."

   "Oh…" Ardenn stammered, a little abashed at having the mate of Valen…a woman who had shared a bed with the Father of modern Minbar…asking her about something so personal. Deciding that she should be proud of what she and David had together, she sat up a little straighter and continued, "Umm…you understand that my frame of reference regarding sexual encounters is somewhat limited. Ah…limited to one, actually." Furrowing her brow ridge, Ardenn asked, "Does feeling the planet move beneath you constitute a 'good' coupling?"

   "Most would consider it so," Katrenn observed with a knowing smile. "I know I always have."

   "Then I shall have to add experiencing a major seismic disturbance to my list," the young Minbari finished with a shy smile. Her face becoming serious again, Ardenn stared forlornly at her closed hands and noted, "There is certainly more that has happened to me, but I seem to have run out of fingers to count on."

   "Don't worry about it, I get the picture," Ardenn's hybrid companion chuckled. "You don't need to bother removing your shoes." Looking at the young Sister mirthfully, she continued, "I'll pass some wisdom to you, daughter. As long as you sleep with someone who loves you and knows how to make love to you, then you'll have more good days than bad…even if a few are also long occasionally." Sighing, she added, "So speaking to me won't rock your religious underpinnings?"

   "No more so than anything up until this point has," Ardenn observed. "I follow the teachings of Valen but I am not a particularly religious person."

   "Neither was Valen," Katrenn noted amusedly. "He was deeply philosophical, but somewhat ambivalent about supreme beings."

    "Well, as my beloved would say, I am trying to remain…flexible." Somewhat primly, she added, "I am endeavoring to keep an open mind."

   "An open mind…given how we're communicating, that's a good one." Sister Katrenn replied as she laughed. "You're funny. I like you, daughter." Motioning at the shattered remnants of the Shrine, she murmured, "It's good to laugh, and I miss laughter so much. I have very little to laugh at in here. This terrible scene from my life constantly plays right up to the point that Valen comes to find me…but I don't get to see him, no matter how hard I try. He is always just around the corner. I can almost hear his voice as he calls for me, but when I try to go to him the Shrine is remade and the Shadows come once again before I reach him." Shaking her head sadly, she inhaled deeply and turned back to her young companion, forcing a smile. "But that is neither here nor there, as my people say. You are here, and I seem to have some time on my hands. You have more questions?"

   'More questions' was an understatement. Ardenn felt as if she had nothing but questions. Somewhat more skeptically than she intended, she said, "You said that your name comes from close to my time. I do not understand…I know that Valen was a human, but there is no such thing as time travel."

   "Says who? I'm here, aren't I?" Katrenn chuckled indulgently, amused by the young Sister's skepticism. "Ardenn, you don't think that Valen and I came from the Earth of this time, do you? It's the thirteenth century there. Most humans at this point think they're at the center of the universe. Earth won't even have space travel for over seven hundred more years. Valen and I traveled back in time using the Great Machine, a device I believe was created by a race far more ancient than yours or mine."

   "I have read of this Great Machine in my mentor's journals, but I thought Valen arrived…"

   "Alone? Yes, I know," Katrenn finished for her. Scratching the top of her head, she added, "Well, not quite alone. A being named Zathras came with him. You see…he and I didn't arrive on Minbar at the same time. I arrived here ten human years before he did. Before Valen came…I had to survive somehow…"

   The young Sister nodded. "So you went through the Chrysalis transformation and joined the Sisterhood. I think I understand now," she interjected.

   "No, little one. You don't." Indicating herself, the elder Sister said, "This…transformation…didn't come until much later. Valen brought the Chrysalis device back with him. Obviously, I couldn't go through the process before that. I spent ten years on your world as a full human before he arrived, and two afterwards before he found me." Amusedly, she lifted a hand to her head and rapped her bonecrest experimentally with a knuckle. "You think that finding out you have hair is bad? Try having hair and then waking up one day with a bone…and having your ears almost on your neck …and bathing in watered-down hydrochloric acid. Well, it was an adjustment to say the least."

   "But there is no mention of humans in our histories prior to the war…our war with your people."

   "Just because something isn't recorded doesn't make it untrue," Katrenn explained. "The Minbari of this time are technologically advanced, but far more isolated than the civilization you're familiar with. Imagine their surprise when a ship hundreds of years more sophisticated than anything they have arrives, and they discover that the pilot is a being who not only bears a little resemblance to them, but speaks their language and knows some of their customs." Gazing steadily at her young companion, she continued, "They reacted just as you'd expect. The laborers who found me thought I was a demon and intended to hang me. The Warriors who uh…saved me… from the noose thought I was a scout for an invasion fleet. They panicked and I was covered up. No records of my arrival were kept, at least none accessible to the general population. Even in your time, Minbari are told only what they need to know and no more than that."

   "That is changing," Sister Ardenn noted. "Many of our people now have access to information provided by other races, particularly the humans. Most Minbari can watch ISN if they wish. I personally think commercial broadcast entertainment is a frivolous waste of time, but the documentaries are interesting."

   "I'm glad to hear that," the older woman replied. "Valen believed that to live in ignorance was to die in the mind. Remember, though, in your time there are many space-faring worlds, each passing information to the others as they interact. In this time, the Minbari are alone…at least among the younger races. They knew there were others out there, but until I arrived they hadn't found anybody. They were starting to explore the jumpgates but had no maps and the Vorlons had not yet revealed themselves. Before I came, the closest they had come to alien contact were a few ancient legends about beings of Light and some artifacts they had found…such as the one we're communicating through right now." Pointing at herself, the dark Sister continued, "Anyway, once they had me the Warriors had no idea about what to do with me, so in true Minbari fashion they locked me up and tried to pretend that I didn't exist. My ship sparked a small war, however. Each of the clans wanted the technology it contained for themselves."

   Ardenn shuddered as she considered the treatment an alien might receive upon arriving on Minbar unexpectedly. Even in her present, many Minbari in remote areas had never seen an offworlder and had no desire to. Ardenn herself had never seen one until she and the rest of the Sisterhood had been allowed to view the holopresentation of Entil'zha John's memorial ceremony. That had been the first time she had seen David. Involuntarily, she shuddered. Thinking about David now brought on nothing but a sad longing and she did not want to fall into despair. Trying her best to set the feeling aside for the moment, she crisply said, "And you came to the Sisters how?"

   "Periodically, the Sisters of Valeria would visit the clans to try to negotiate peace between them. A delegation of Sisters visited the clan that held me and the Clan Leader trotted his 'pet' freak out to amuse his guests. Frankly, I wasn't in very good shape…I was starving to death. The Warriors didn't want to kill me outright, so they were slowly cutting my rations." Katrenn's expression clouded over a moment with the memory. Shaking it off, she turned back to Ardenn and sighed. "Well," she continued, "To make a long story short, the Sisters told their Mistress about me when they returned to the Temple. She figured out that I was worth far more than the Warriors realized and sensed an opportunity. She approached me soon afterwards and told me that the Sisterhood would purchase my freedom in exchange for information…and I accepted, of course. I was alone, imprisoned and not in a position to be anything other than grateful. The Sisters immediately sent me north to the Temple of Frost. I didn't realize that I was simply trading one prison for another and even if I had, at that point I didn't care. Anyone who promised me food, some clean clothes and a place I could sleep without getting raped in the middle of the night was my new best friend."

   The young Sister simply stared in disbelief at the older woman for a moment, not sure she had heard correctly. "You were…forcibly violated? By Minbari? That is…unthinkable…"

   "Unthinkable?" Katrenn repeated, displaying a quick flash of irritation. "It was quite thinkable. I was considered property, not a person." Cocking her head to one side, Katrenn eyed her youthful companion's face and figure appraisingly. "You're young, beautiful and you have an air of innocence about you, daughter. The males of this period are far less in control of themselves than those you're used to and if you lived in this time they'd notice any time you ventured out. Your family wouldn't let you out often and you'd never, never go anywhere near the Warriors."

   "I…I am sorry, Sister," Ardenn stammered, drawing away a little. "I did not mean to imply…that you were being untruthful…it is simply hard for me to imagine…"

   Settling just as quickly as she flared up, Katrenn reached out and put a gentle hand on Ardenn's arm. "I…I apologize also. It…it isn't a matter I recall easily. To you it would be unthinkable but to a Minbari female of this era, particularly a laborer, it's a fact of life. These aren't the Minbari you know and this isn't the civilization you grew up in." Pausing a moment, Katrenn collected her thoughts and said, "This Minbar is governed under what's known to Humanity as the Feudal System. When I arrived, there was no Valen here yet to unite the clans, no one to establish the codes of conduct that you're familiar with…and there was no Worker caste to protect the common people. There were a few Warlords and their warriors making up the ruling caste, a small subservient Religious caste and then the vast majority of Minbari who lived in…well, not quite slavery, but 'indentured servitude' would be too charitable a name for it. Each clan was a government unto itself, some better than others and, unfortunately, I was held by one of the worst. I had no rights. I was a trinket…a convenient plaything." Taking a deep breath, she darkly added, "Sex among the Warriors is…well, they don't take pleasure in it the same way humans do, or the way other Minbari do for that matter. To them it's a blood sport and I wasn't prepared. As a full human, I was already weaker than almost any comparable Minbari female and they took advantage of that. The first few times they came for me, I fought…but I couldn't really hurt them and all I succeeded in doing was exciting them more. The outcome was always the same. After a while I stopped caring. All I cared about was seeing the next day."

   Briefly, Ardenn wondered what it would be like…being taken against her will…a fellow Minbari physically defiling her. It was an abhorrent crime. Minbari intercourse was not always as gentle as David had been with her, but it was always consensual. To have anyone other than David inside her, much less enter her by force…she could not easily picture it and trying to made her feel dirty and uncomfortable. Involuntarily squirming a little, she hastened to change the subject. "But the Sisters freed you from that life…"

   "Yes…for a price," Katrenn whispered cryptically. "Everything has a price, Ardenn, and the greater your desire to obtain your goal, the higher that price always seems to be. For me, no price would have been too high at that moment. I drove a horrible bargain with the Sisterhood. I traded a thousand years of forbidden knowledge for my life."

   "How much did you tell them?"

   "Oh, Hell," the dark Sister snorted, "Practically everything. For almost twelve years, the Sisters dredged my brain and wrote down every word I said. I told them about Earth, about our people, our customs, our beliefs, our sciences…and all I knew about other races. I told them everything I knew about the Shadows and Vorlons, and about the war that was already almost upon them. I told them about Valen…that he was coming and he would change their whole world soon. I told them about my time…the people I had known, what their world would be like in a thousand years. The only information I didn't pass them was the location of Earth and the fact that there would be a war between our races when we made first contact. I knew that if I told them, the Sisters would inform the Warriors and the Minbari fleet would descend without warning on a primitive people who had no chance at all of defending themselves."

   The Sisterhood of Valen's time had known everything an obviously highly-educated human woman from eight hundred cycles in the future knew…and had used that knowledge for their own purposes during the intervening period, the young Sister realized. "Knowledge of the future…" Ardenn murmured, shaking her head. "Katrenn, do you know how dangerous that was?"

   "Absolutely, daughter. I knew it was wrong the whole time but I didn't have any other option. I was totally alone…the only one of my kind." Leaning in, Katrenn murmured, "Foreknowledge, Ardenn, is something no mortal should have. It can corrupt even the best of us and in this time, it did. While I was with them, the Sisterhood became…well, corrupted away from their original purpose."

   "You corrupted the Sisterhood?" Ardenn exclaimed.

   "Not personally. The Sisterhood corrupted itself, but I gave them the tools to do it," the elder Sister ruefully whispered, "I gave them power, and the Order wasn't an organization designed to be powerful…not in the way it became." Sighing, she continued, "The Sisterhood of this time was barely hanging on. It was an organization of females held in barely concealed contempt by many of the male-dominated clans and they were trying to bring peace to a people who didn't want it. The information I gave them changed that. It gave them leverage."

   "How?"

   "Remember my ship?" Katrenn replied. "The Warriors were fighting over it still. The Mistress had figured out early on that the technology was useless without the one component that could explain it. By the time the Warriors realized this I had been hidden away. They were forced to negotiate with the Mistress to obtain my knowledge, and she was a shrewd negotiator. She traded my expertise for influence. Under this arrangement, the Warriors gained the rudiments of organic armor, advanced beam weaponry, gravitic power and complete hyperspace maps, among other things. In exchange, the Sisterhood was granted clandestine access to the clan leaders, information about secret negotiations and political muscle. The Sisterhood had been fairly open and aboveboard before, but I gave them secrets to keep and they became manipulative. The Order doled out my knowledge jealously…sharing only enough to ensure that the Warriors did as the Mistress wished. Through me, she knew the Shadow War was coming and that Minbar would be destroyed if the Warrior clans couldn't unite and hold out against the Shadows long enough for Valen to arrive."

   "That would explain why the Sisterhood knows so much about humans," Ardenn noted, "but why has this information never become more widely known? Access to information was controlled, but certainly enough knew that word would have spread."

   "No. The Warriors were already passing off my ship as another ancient artifact and those poor, ignorant laborers who had found me conveniently 'disappeared'. The wars afterward took care of most of those outside the Sisterhood who knew…not that I cried much over the deaths of my rapists. In a few years, the knowledge of the alien in their midst was lost outside the Order and I became simply 'Katrenn' when I was referred to by name. No uninitiated Minbari ever saw me again as a human. In your time, I remain a mystery…your Sisterhood operates under a restriction known as the Ban of Valen that keeps them from revealing my existence."

   "The Ban of Valen?" Ardenn repeated in fascination. "I have never heard of this?"

   "You're a new Sister, and unless you're in the Order's hierarchy you probably wouldn't be told about it anyway." Twining her fingers in her lap, Katrenn continued, "You see, the fact that the Sisterhood knew so much about Humanity and future events for a thousand years before your present just about paralyzed Valen once he learned of it. He was determined to preserve the timeline he was familiar with at all costs, but he arrived in this time to find it already corrupted…by me."

   "Corrupted?" Ardenn echoed. "How did he know it was corrupted? My beloved once told me he believes that time is like a river. You can change the course of the water but it tends to find its way back to its original course. He thinks time follows the path of least resistance. Perhaps Valen was supposed to find the situation as he did."

   "Ah, yes…the old time paradox rears its ugly head," Katrenn amusedly murmured with a shake of her head. "Your beloved sounds like an intelligent man. I'll spare you the discussions we had about choosing between the chicken and the egg or shooting our own grandfathers…it's enough to drive you crazy. Let's just say that in the end, we came to the same conclusion that your beloved did…it was our only hope, really. You see, Valen had written a letter to himself in the future outlining the things he would need to do before traveling back and a little of what he would find when he arrived. The Sisterhood wasn't mentioned, but many other things he found here weren't either. No one knows much about time paradoxes so he had been purposefully vague with himself. Similarly, when the time came for him to write his prophecies and letters, he couldn't mention the Sisters or me. He had to omit those items he had hopefully omitted before…"

   Ardenn held up her hand to forestall what she perceived would soon become a crest-imploding descent into circular logic. She considered herself a Minbari of moderate intelligence, but Katrenn's talk of Earth fowl and the shooting of one's relatives was starting to confuse her. "Why a ban, then?" she asked, knitting her brow ridge. "The damage appears to have been done before Valen arrived. Is there not a human myth that refers to releasing pandoras? I do not know what plant-eating bears have to do with time paradoxes, but I saw a documentary about them. They appeared more sleepy than ferocious but I understand that if they are freed from their restraints, they cause much chaos and are very difficult to gather in again."

   Katrenn's eyes crinkled in mirth, and Ardenn noted that when the older woman smiled, she was actually rather attractive in an odd, exotic sort of way. "You understand just enough about Earth to be dangerous, daughter. Those were Panda bears. Pandora is the name of a mythical person…but the comparison is an apt one. I had already opened Pandora's box, as we call it, but Valen wanted to limit the contamination nonetheless. He felt that release of any more knowledge of the future, even a little, had the potential to start a cascade effect…assuming we hadn't already started one. We just didn't know." Indicating the remnants of the massive structure around them, Katrenn sighed and continued, "The Sisterhood had become very influential and the Mistress recognized that reining in the Order would be first on Valen's list once the Shadows were dealt with. By the time he could afford to set the war aside and address internal issues, every major clan had 'advisor' Sisters within their hierarchies…advisors who were already stirring up dissent. They were whispering to the Clan Leaders that he intended to disband the Caste system, organize the laborers and strip them of their authority in favor of his new Grey Council. Valen had to move quickly, before the whispers took hold. Shortly before the attack you witnessed here, he came to this place and assembled all of the Sisters. When they were present, he placed several non-negotiable restrictions on them. He forbade them from revealing the existence of humans outside the Order, or revealing that he and I were human. He banned exploration of the region of space where Earth was located, banned the Sisterhood from polluting Minbari science with any more future technology than had already been introduced, and ordered the record of my revelations, the Nok'Isil, the Book of the Future, destroyed. Finally, he restricted the Sisterhood from interacting with the secular government, holding any offices outside the Order and functioning in any capacity that would allow the Sisters to have influence over daily Minbari life. He essentially ordered them into cloister. "

   "Valen stripped the Sisterhood of its influence," Ardenn observed. "I doubt that his directives were well received."

   "They went over like a fart in church," Katrenn chuckled in reply. Turning serious, she continued, "Power is a lot like sex…once you've had it, it's nearly impossible to give up. Mistress Delenn would have defied him openly but it's tough to say no to the leader of your people, especially when he has the Vorlon floating behind him. She chose instead to secretly circumvent those portions of the ban where Valen had inadvertently left her room to maneuver."

   "Mistress Delenn?" the young Sister echoed in surprise. Her interest piqued, she shifted position to face her older companion more directly. "Please, tell me more of this."

   "You know the name?" Katrenn asked, her brow ridge arching in surprise. "Is she still alive in your time?" At her companion's uncertain but affirmative nod, she laughed. "It amazes me that she survived. Anyway, it isn't the same Delenn, merely a shared name…a coincidence." Her smile fading, Katrenn pointed at the body nearest Valeria's sarcophagus and said, "That's my Delenn right there…Delenn of Valeria, the 'Great Manipulator' herself. She was killed in the Shadow's final attack, but not before she oversaw the enactment of Valen's will. She more or less honored all of Valen's restrictions but one. She destroyed the Nok'Isil as Valen directed…but only after she saw to it that everything I had told them was committed to a separate set of secret records kept in the north." Snorting and gazing at the body near the sarcophagus, she muttered, "Valen should have expected that she would try to find a way around his edict. She had already twisted one of his demands while seeming to fulfill it by 'honoring' me with elevation when he demanded my release. She released me, but she made sure that he knew the Sisterhood would always have a hold over me…and, through me, over him."

   Fingering the hem of her crimson robe, Ardenn began to get an uneasy feeling. She was fast coming to realize that her elevation, like Katrenn's, was less about 'honor' and more about 'control'. Control of what? Delenn valued her observations but had never made a decision solely based on them. The young Minbari had contacts; through her mentor she knew many heads of state and influential people but had no diplomatic influence in her own right. She was not a policymaker. As such, it was unlikely that the Order would gain much political advantage through her. No, she thought, it had to be something she could personally control or influence…but she would not reason it out while sitting in a shattered, burning temple. Setting the sense of foreboding that was niggling at the back of her thoughts aside, she looked back up at Katrenn. "So what did you do?"

   The older Sister eyed Ardenn sadly, sensing that there might be more that drew her to the young woman than her hybrid appearance. There might be other parallels. Sighing, she answered, "There was nothing to be done. When Valen came to get me, I was already wearing this crimson robe. He was furious, but what could he do? Delenn…the Mistress had outmaneuvered him. Her message to him clear, she graciously granted me a letter of Suppression from that cruel joke called the obligation of selflessness so I could live with him among the people. I underwent the Chrysalis and we married."

   "The Mistress…she can annul the obligation?" Ardenn asked hopefully.

   "I see what you're thinking, and I'm sorry. No, once you're a Sister, you're always a Sister…but the Mistress is the person who presented the obligation to you. It can't be undone but she can suppress certain aspects of it." Eyeing the young Minbari carefully, she added, "She, of course, can also reinstate the obligation any time she feels that a suppressed Sister is wandering off the path. Suppression is a mixed blessing, daughter. It is the illusion of freedom. It is a leash."

   "I do not desire illusions or leashes, Katrenn. I desire to be out…I want to go home." Shaking her head forlornly, the young Minbari gazed at her hands, folded loosely in her lap. On her finger, David's ring glimmered dully. "Please understand that I want to serve our people, Sister…but not under these conditions. I cannot function without my heart…and my heart is no longer my own. It belongs to another. I am not strong enough to be selfless in the manner the Sisterhood wishes…and they know this. They know, yet they elevated me against my will anyway. I do not understand why I am here, or what Mistress Irilenn wants from me."

   "I think your Mistress wants nothing from you, daughter." Indicating her crimson robe, Katrenn regretfully explained, "She has you now. Once you put that on and accepted the obligation, you gave her everything she could ever want from you, at least personally." Reaching up, she softly brushed a finger affectionately against Ardenn's cheek. "She implied that you're a tool in some secret plan. Think of yourself as a tool…a hammer. When a construction worker picks up a hammer, does he want the hammer?"

   "He wants it until he picks it up," the young Minbari answered, confused by Sister Katrenn's logic game but playing along for the moment. "Once the hammer is in his hand, he no longer wants it."

   "Exactly. The nail through the board…that's what the worker really wants and the hammer is required. It's the only means of accomplishing that task. Like the hammer, your Mistress wanted you up until the point you placed yourself under her authority. Now that she has the means of accomplishing her task, she'll use you to drive a nail…to obtain or do something she cannot obtain or do without you. At this point, 'What does she want from me?' shouldn't be your question. You should instead ask yourself how she intends to use you."

   "If that is true, then why all this bother? Why does she not simply command me to do whatever she requires of me?"

   "Because Mistresses are more subtle than that. Sisters who become Mistresses do not rise to that position because they are good, pious or gentle. They rise because they are smart, resourceful and occasionally ruthless. They tend to be excellent leaders and they understand that influencing a subordinate to want the same outcome as they do is far better than simply ordering a task accomplished."

   "Do you believe this is relevant to my situation?"

   Katrenn shrugged. "Based on the little you've told me, I think that whatever your Mistress requires is something that she can't do herself but something you can. The fact that I'm talking to you is evidence that your Mistress is going to great lengths to have you on her side or at least agreeable, even if she could command you. Very, very few Sisters are allowed into the link, and new Sisters…never." With a chuckle, Katrenn added, "I think it's safe to say, however, that she didn't expect me to be the person you ended up talking to. Depending on what she believes about me, she's either beside herself with excitement right now or cursing her luck." Screwing her face up in puzzlement, Katrenn tapped her index finger against her lips and mumbled, "I wonder why you're important to her?" to herself. "Tell me, daughter…do you have any special skills or unique attributes? You're not some super-powered telepath or anything like that, are you?"

   "Not that I am aware of," Ardenn answered. "The Sisterhood trained me in linguistics and government administration. I speak several non-Minbari languages but I did not receive particularly high ratings in any other than English. I was meant to serve as a simultaneous translator, but there is nothing special in that. In truth, my translation capabilities have never been required. My mentor speaks most alien tongues at a higher fluency level than I do." Unconsciously fingering the nape of her neck, she hesitated a second and then continued, "As for telepathy, I have no gift at all. When I was a young child, the Sisters tested me and I registered below even the residual sensitivity expected of normal non-telepathic Minbari."

   "Anything else?"

   The young Minbari thought a moment. "About the only unusual characteristic I possess is that I am a Child of Valen, as you have already noted," she finally replied, "But I am not the only one, of course…in my time, your descendants probably number in the millions."

   "Yet here you are…with a Chrysalis-transformed image of yourself," Katrenn observed. Looking more closely at her young companion, she continued, "Ardenn, if I may ask…why the white hair and skin? If you picture yourself as a hybrid, why did you choose to be an albino rather than choosing normal skin and hair tones?"

   "I…I did not really choose this particular image. Mistress Irilenn showed me an image of myself as the person you see now. She told me that I lacked the proper genetic material to give my hair and skin human coloration…but she said I would be attractive to David even without it. She seems to want me to…to become this person, and she even seems willing to consider returning me…once I 'understand my place' as she puts it."

   "David. A human name." The older Sister noted neutrally. "You physically…uh, mated…with a human?"

   "Yes…we made love," Ardenn acknowledged. "I am not ashamed of it, and as everybody seems to know about it I am not hiding what happened between us. I know that it is forbidden, but our hearts spoke to one another louder than tradition. In the end, our bodies followed. I love him and I do not think any Minbari could love me as much as he does…or as well." Eyeing Katrenn's face critically, she asked, "Does it shock you to find that I love a human?"

   The older Sister almost laughed, but toned it down to a chuckle when she saw the serious look on her companion's face. "You think the human who became a Minbari for love would disapprove of a Minbari loving a human?" she rhetorically asked, shaking her head. "Of course not. That prohibition is just plain stupid anyway. It's another indication of how Valen's intent became twisted over the cycles. He told the Minbari to remain pure, but he was speaking of purity of the spirit. He never meant for the people to deny their hearts." Snorting in amusement, she added, "You know, Jeff…uh…Valen believed that the Delenn of your time had fallen in love with a human, an Earthforce Captain named John Sheridan. I don't know how that relationship turned out, but at least you have a precedent."

   "David…David Sheridan turned out. He is their son…and my intended." Smiling for the first time since her arrival, Ardenn held up her ring proudly. Her smile fading, she lowered her hand and began idly twisting the token. "I have only been away from him a short time and I already feel like…I feel like you and I could be friends, but I would feel a lot better if he were the one beside me right now," she murmured. "Please do not take that as an insult."

   "I understand," Katrenn replied as she mused over Ardenn's forlorn words. "It's incredible that Sheridan and Delenn reproduced even with the Chrysalis. Two hybrids, yes…but a hybrid and a pure human?" Shaking her head, she watched the young Minbari absently twisting her ring. An engagement ring, given to her by the son of two people she had known both a hundred years ago and a thousand years in the future. <The son of two races…> she thought. <Even with Delenn's transformation, he would have to be partially Minbari as well…> Suddenly it came to her. "Dammit!" the hybrid Sister exclaimed, "I have rattled on and on about myself, when I should have been questioning you. Daughter, how Minbari is your David?"

   "I…I do not know," Ardenn confusedly replied. "He has no visible Minbari characteristics, if that is what you mean."

   "Are you certain? None at all?"

   "He has very little body hair, and he mentioned in passing that he has a vestigial cartilage layer under his scalp…but he may have been jesting about that. In truth, I only know what I have seen. When he and I mated…well, as I said, he appeared completely human although my frame of reference regarding male human bodies is limited to his alone." Considering the question further, Ardenn added, "It would seem from his parentage that he would have at least a few Minbari traits, but they would have to be…what is the word? Oh, yes…recessive. I have watched him closely for several cycles and I would have noticed, otherwise. He is a trace Minbari, perhaps?"

   "And you, as a descendant of Valen and I, are at least a trace human. Just how human are you, Ardenn?"

   "Again, I do not know. The Triluminary activates when I touch it. I am human enough to appear as you see me were I to undergo the Chrysalis. I suppose I would have to be at least as human as Delenn for it to be so, but that is pure speculation on my part."

   "And Delenn was sufficiently human to bear the child of a human," Katrenn muttered, her face becoming grave.

   "Mistress Irilenn indicated that I would be capable of bearing David's children were I to undergo the Chrysalis." Resting a hand on her abdomen, Ardenn added in a whisper, "David loves me as I am…as a Minbari. Before I knew he loved me, I would look in the mirror when I was alone and fantasize an image of myself similar to the one you see, thinking that perhaps he would notice me then. He noticed me anyway and I no longer require this image, but I find that I still see myself this way…and to provide him children…if for no other reason, I would consider undergoing the process."

    "Children…it always comes back to children…" Katrenn muttered under her breath. "I wish I had known that you had a human hybrid for a fiancée at the beginning of this conversation." Standing slowly, the dark Sister began pacing…irritated not at Ardenn, but at herself. Chewing her lip in frustration, she stopped and looked hard at her now nervous companion. "Listen carefully, Ardenn. I'll quickly tell you why I was stricken from the Order…" As Katrenn spoke, her and Ardenn's surroundings faded to black and then reappeared.

   Looking up, Ardenn could already see their surroundings becoming more indistinct. "The…link is weakening," she observed.

   "We must hurry," Katrenn murmured, glancing up quickly and looking back at Ardenn. "We don't have much time. They're trying to extract you…I can feel it. I'm resisting them successfully for the moment. They can't penetrate the stasis field to get at you, but sooner or later your Mistress will think of cutting power to the whole Shrine. When that happens, it'll hurt. Be prepared for it." Closing her eyes, Katrenn took a deep cleansing breath and said, "When Valen and I married, one of the restrictions placed on me by the Order was that I was not to bear children. As I said, the Minbari are xenophobic by nature and the Sisters of this time were no different. The Mistress who followed after Delenn's death was concerned with the possibility that Valen and I would 'pollute' the Minbari gene pool with hairy little humans. She wasn't as powerful as Delenn had been and I defied her edict. I gave her my middle finger and decided if Valen wanted children and if it were possible, he would have them. As it turned out, he wanted them and it was possible..."

   "So you had them," Ardenn finished.

   "Oh, absolutely. Perhaps it was because we were actually human, but we proved to be far more fertile than normal Minbari. Valen and I had nine fine, strong children and each one looked as Minbari as any Minbari who ever walked the planet. Unless someone scanned their genes, the differences were invisible. When the Sisterhood saw that, they changed their tune and wanted my children. They wanted to study them…'study' in this case being a polite term for 'experiment'."

   "But why?"

   "Why? Because the population of pure Minbari was decreasing. It had been slowly but steadily falling for a thousand years prior to Valen's arrival and no one could figure out a reason. Despite Minbar's advanced technology, the Minbari both in my time and yours aren't particularly strong in the medical sciences. Your people have such hardy constitutions that they've never needed to be." Reaching out, Katrenn took Ardenn's hand. "In this time, Ardenn, no Minbari female has borne more than two or at most three children in recent memory. Miscarriages are common and many couples are completely barren. Those that aren't consider themselves blessed to have even one child. Humans breed like rabbits…um, goks by comparison."

    "It is still so. Delenn once told me that she cherished the moment she learned David would be healthy more than almost any other in her life," Ardenn murmured, "And it required the most advanced Minbari and human medical techniques to keep her from rejecting him in the womb. He was still born prematurely and the strain of carrying him for even a shortened period permanently damaged her."

   "I expect that it would…carrying a mostly human child in a body still very much Minbari," Katrenn agreed. Snorting, she concluded, "As for us, Valen and I had been through the same Chrysalis process and were very compatible. The Order was astounded…the humans who looked Minbari had nine Minbari-looking children? They wanted to find out how they ticked, but of course they couldn't just come get them because I was married to the leader of our people and we were out of the Order's reach…for as long as he watched over us."

   "But…in my limited experience there is always a 'but'."

   "Yes. Unfortunately, Valen couldn't remain. Something in the time distortion process aged him and he arrived older than he should have. He still lived among us for a hundred years, but at the end he was weakened, frail and the Vorlon Kosh said it was time for him to meet the Progenitor."

   "The Progenitor?"

   "I know little of him, not even a name…but he was revered by the First Ones. Valen had no choice but to leave. I demanded to accompany him but the Vorlons wouldn't allow it. They said my soul was too young. I had to be left behind. Shortly after he left, the Vorlons departed for good and the Order sensed that the children and I were vulnerable. The Mistress commanded that I influence them to submit to the 'care' of the Sisterhood. I was still a Sister, you see, and the Mistress' commands are absolute…"

   "And she commanded that you turn over your little ones?" Ardenn queried. "To take little children from their mother unwillingly is…unconscionable…"

   "Well…it wasn't quite like that," Katrenn corrected. "I keep saying children, but by this time they had all long since become adults. The youngest of the nine was about your age, I guess. My oldest was a grandfather in his own right. They all had lives of their own. All but my youngest had families. They had integrated completely into the society their father had built, and there was no way I was going to take that away from them. Instead of doing as the Mistress wished, I sent them away from Minbar. I hid them in the far corners of the Federation and then I returned to this Temple alone…returned to expulsion, banishment and finally everlasting torment in this place."

   "Surely your children tried to help you. I cannot imagine they would abandon you to this fate."

   "They…they did try, daughter…" The words seemed a little forced, and Ardenn noticed that the older woman was trembling. "I'm sorry…this is difficult to talk about…" Katrenn murmured as she clasped her hands between her knees, "But you need to hear it. I told you that all but my youngest…her name was Clarenn…had families to care for. They had others who depended on them. Clarenn didn't, and so she came out of hiding and journeyed here to demand my release. She came to this very chamber, stood before the Mistress and offered to trade herself for me. She didn't know that I had already been banished to the north and stricken from the Order…my very name stripped from me." Sorrowfully, Katrenn continued, "The Mistress…misled her. She told my daughter that I would be released if she would consent to a few simple tests and examinations. Clarenn agreed, and…well, the tests were fairly harmless at first. They became less so as the Sisters began tinkering with areas they didn't fully understand. I'm told some of the tests harmed her and she wanted to leave, but each time they told her that I'd be freed if she would just stay a little longer. She believed them…after all, weren't these the people who had taken care of her mother when no one else would? Finally, there came a day when…when…"

   "Are you all right?" Ardenn asked worriedly.

   "No…but my discomfort is not important…not any more," Katrenn shakily replied. "Daughter, the Sisterhood had the Chrysalis device. Zathras warned them before he passed that no person could withstand the process twice, but they became curious about what would happen if a Minbari one generation removed were to undergo the transformation." With a teary laugh, Katrenn added, "They assumed she would emerge as a human. They assumed! They told my precious child that I would be waiting for her when she came out to coax her into it! And I was…the Mistress brought me back from the North so I could admire their handiwork! When the time came and she emerged…she wasn't human, Ardenn. She wasn't Minbari. She was…mercifully, my baby Clarenn didn't live very long…"

   "In Valen's Name…" Ardenn breathed, her eyes wide. "The Sisterhood…killed a living being…a Minbari…"

   "Not…directly," Katrenn murmured, wiping at her eyes. "She emerged alive…after a fashion. By the Sisterhood's reasoning she died on her own, but they knew the truth in their hearts…they caused her death even if it wasn't their intention. Needless to say, I could never be released after that. The death had to be covered up." Reaching out, she took Ardenn's hand and held it. "In your time, no doubt they've figured out that it takes several generations of human gene integration to make the Chrysalis survivable. That's why Delenn was able to use the device…and why you'll be able to. I told you of this to warn you, Ardenn. You're a Child of Valen…Minbari, but part human. Your David is a Child of Valen in reverse…human, but part Minbari…and that part of him that's Minbari will make the two of you far more compatible than were he a true human like his father. I told you that you should ask yourself how your Mistress intends to use you and I think I know. She intends to use you as a carrier."

   "A carrier…of what?"

   "Children. Your function in life is to breed, I think. Once you 'understand your place' as she puts it, you'll be transformed and sent back to your David with a mandate to bear children, hybrid children the Sisterhood will have access to because you're a Sister and must obey the command of the Mistress. Through you, the Sisterhood will introduce David Sheridan's human genes into the Minbari race…augmenting the legacy Valen and I left. One day…after your children have reached sexual maturity…the Mistress will come to you and demand them, just as she did with me. If you defy her, my fate may await…"

   Everything went dark and a blinding pain lanced through the surprised young Minbari's head…a pain similar to the one she experienced when an assassin's bullet meant for Delenn had instead found her a few months previously. Ardenn screamed in agony and tried to raise her arms, but found she was paralyzed. Terrified, she stood like a helpless statue as the pain and darkness crept into her, overcoming her ability to breathe…her ability to think or to even feel. After what seemed an eternity of suffering, she felt a release…as if every muscle in her body had abruptly turned into rubber…and she sensed she was falling even as consciousness finally, mercifully fled.

   ***

   Dusk had given way to night. In the Temple, candles flickered…pushing back the gloom in the huge chamber as two robed figures huddled around a third. They spoke in hushed voices out of habit, although the situation did not demand it…the Shrine of the Mistress was after all a place for reverence, for calm. This night, there was little calm to be found.

   "The resonance of the containment sphere will come back into harmony with the song of the city in approximately ten minutes," Rakell whispered to her Mistress as the latter bent over the small figure huddled in a ball on the floor. Sparing a glance at the unconscious subject of her superior's attention, she asked, "Will Ardenn be all right?"

   "It is difficult to say," Irilenn replied as she checked the young Minbari for pulse and respiration. As her practiced hands skimmed over the prostrate figure, she continued, "The stress of extracting her from the link at the same time the power to the stasis field was terminated caused her to lose consciousness. Candlelight is a poor medium to work by, but it appears she is not injured…at least physically. She will need to awaken before I can assess her mental state." Sitting back on her heels, Irilenn sighed and gazed at the motionless female. "I need more light to examine her thoroughly. Ten minutes you say? Why so long?"

   "Most of the converter crystals on the roof shunted their stored energy skyward, but three discharged directly into the sphere when the gravitic feedback became disharmonic. The crystals shattered and the sphere itself came close to imploding. For a few seconds, it probably appeared as if a star were being born atop our temple…but now the remaining crystals need to recharge. It will be some time before full pitch and amplitude are restored." Shaking her head, Rakell reprovingly added, "We are fortunate the damage was not worse. You cannot simply 'shut the power down' in here as if you were turning off a glowlamp, Mistress. The power transmission system of this complex is partially of Vorlon design and has operated without interruption since the time of Valen…it was not designed to sing out of pitch with the city. When the containment sphere is moved out of alignment, the energy in the crystals has to go somewhere. In this instance it beamed into space, but it could have just as easily piped the other way…through the stasis generator and into Ardenn's body. Had that occurred, she would have been incinerated."

   "I knew I could rely on a starship designer to give me ten pages of explanation where one would have sufficed," the Mistress noted archly. Indicating the stasis circle embedded in the floor around the unconscious Sister, she concluded, "Fortunately it did not. As long as Ardenn awakes with her mind whole, no damage was done."

   "But it was reckless, Irilenn. We put her life in danger."

   "Your point is made," the Mistress replied with a hint of irritation in her voice, "But you discuss a might-have-been. I do not deal in unrealized turns of fate. She had to be released from the link…do you not understand? Three hours, Rakell!" she continued her voice a harsh whisper in the surrounding silence, "No one has ever remained in the link for three hours! The strain on her mind was dangerously high and Zha Ver'kaff was showing no signs of releasing her! Her vindictive shade was going to hold Ardenn's psyche in thrall until the child's sanity was stripped away! Would you have preferred it if I had stood aside and allowed the human to wreak vengeance on our unsuspecting little Sister for errors committed hundreds of cycles ago?"

   "No…of course not." Rakell soothingly answered. "All I am saying is that Zha Ver'kaff controls the link when it is open, and we have no knowledge of the ramifications of forcing a person out against a Circle member's will. I believe if Ardenn appeared to the Outsider as a hybrid as you surmised, she would recognize her as one of her children and would not harm her. After her initial shock wore off, Ardenn did not appear to be in any discomfort." As she spoke, the Enlightened One glanced over Irilenn's shoulder and saw that Ardenn appeared to be moving. Indicating the woman, she said, "Mistress, I think she is regaining consciousness."

   "Good. I have many questions for her. Remember, Rakell…we are sympathetic." Irilenn turned and knelt close to Ardenn's face. "Can you understand me, little one? You are back…there is no need to be afraid. You are with your own Sisters again. The Outsider has departed…she cannot hurt you any more."

   Ardenn groaned and blinked in the dim light. Turning her head to follow the sound of the older Minbari's voice, she simply stared for a moment, her thoughts jumbled. With a weak, flailing gesture, she motioned Irilenn in closer. "Outsider? Yes…but not her name. Not…hurt…me," she rasped in a whisper when Irilenn was close enough. "Kind woman…sad…trapped in…place of torment."

   "I do not understand, Sister," Irilenn replied, her brow ridge knitting in puzzlement. "A place of torment?"

   Ardenn swallowed and licked her lips. With a dry cough, she croaked, "Sal'sataia…buvah, su'rahan?"

   "Rakell, she needs water. There is a glass and pitcher behind the pedestal." As the Enlightened One hurriedly rose to get Ardenn a drink, the young Minbari tried to sit up. Irilenn gently pushed her back. "No, Ardenn…stay down. Your body is in shock from the stasis field. Wait a moment." Rakell placed a glass in Irilenn's hand and the Mistress propped Ardenn's head up. Holding the glass to her lips, Irilenn murmured, "Small sips…take small sips, Sister…otherwise you will…"

   She never got to finish her sentence. Gulping the water greedily, Ardenn had no sooner swallowed than her eyes widened and back up the liquid came. The Mistress barely had time to turn the young female's head away from her before the retching began. As the water gurgled out, Irilenn stroked Ardenn's crest and soothed, "Do not be embarrassed…you are not the first Sister to come out of the link like this. Just get it out."

   After a moment, Ardenn's nausea subsided and Irilenn held the glass up again. Lightly, she said, "Perhaps this time you will listen to me, little one. I was a Healer in my former life, you know…so heed me and take in just enough water to moisten your mouth and throat. When you feel able, you may speak. Do not rush."

   Ardenn sipped…slowly this time…and shortly, she motioned for the glass to be removed. After Irilenn set it aside, Ardenn looked at her and whispered, "What…what happened?"

   "We had to extract you from the link," the Mistress gently explained. "When you entered, you were contacted by an unexpected presence…one who could have been dangerous to you. The Circle member who came into you is a female known as Zha Ver'kaff and she bears the Order ill will. When Rakell and I realized what happened we allowed the contact to continue, hoping that she would realize you were an innocent, show mercy and release you. After a time I began to fear that she might try to drive you insane or even take over your body, so I was forced to shut the power to the Temple down so we could free you from the stasis field."

   The young Minbari gazed confusedly at Irilenn, still struggling to string her thoughts together. The Mistress' face looked so much like Delenn's that she was having trouble remembering that they were not the same person. Raising a hand to her head, she massaged her temple and mumbled, "If Sister Katrenn is such a malevolent presence, why is she in the Circle?"

   "You are newly elevated, so I will simply correct you this time," Irilenn responded with a touch of irritation in her voice. "Do not address her that way, Ardenn…ever. The Sister named Katrenn does not exist to us. The woman who once bore that name turned away from the path and besmirched her obligation. She forfeited her right to be addressed as Sister…and her right to hold a name among our people. Yet we do honor her, after a fashion. She is a symbol indicating that good can come from even the misguided. Were it not for her, our Sisterhood would not be the organization it is today."

   "And she is our mother," Rakell quietly added. "From her womb sprang all of the Children of Valen."

   "Yes…she told me as much," Ardenn murmured, resting her head back on the floor and staring despondently at the darkened ceiling as more of her conversation in the link returned to her. "Catherine told me enough to make me wonder what kind of people you really are…what kind of people we really are, since I am now of you."

   "We are good people of course…how can you look at the service we render and believe otherwise?" Irilenn admonished, frowning slightly at Ardenn's use of Zha Ver'kaff's human name. It implied that perhaps the young Sister had become close to Valen's dishonored mate…not a good turn of events for the Order. Deciding to overlook it for the moment, she continued, "What do you mean?"

   "How can we call ourselves good people while we put a living consciousness through that kind of torture?" the young Sister mused. "How can we say we honor someone to whom we show nothing but contempt? We damned her to relive a time of horror over and over again alone for eternity!"

   Irilenn glanced up at Rakell questioningly. In response, Rakell turned her palms up in a Minbari shrug and shook her head. "We do not know what you are speaking of, Ardenn," she stated in confusion. "We are Sisters of Valeria…we do not torture people."

   "Yes we do!" Ardenn hissed, trying again to rise. "Every day for the past eight hundred cycles, Catherine is forced to watch as the Shadows destroy this Temple and kill all within it! I was here…right here! I saw the whole event unfold! She said it was her punishment…a punishment meted upon her by the Mistress!"

   "Ardenn…calm down, please!" Irilenn interrupted, her voice rising as the younger woman became more agitated. "Zha Ver'kaff's Mistress is eight hundred cycles dead!" she noted, pointing at the sarcophagi. "Her tomb is the one at the beginning of the second row! We did not do these things...I did not do them…it is the time difference! You are mixing up your historical periods!"

   "But you have done nothing to ease her pain! You have left her in an unbearable situation!"

   "How can we ease pain we have no knowledge of?" Rakell protested from her position behind the kneeling Irilenn. "Little Sister, no one has spoken to Kat…to Zha Ver'kaff in the link before you…not in eight hundred cycles. No records are kept of the environments the Circle members choose for themselves when their patterns are transferred. They are secrets revealed in the link alone. You are the first she has communicated with…"

   "…And we have many questions." Irilenn completed. With a trace of excitement, she said, "We need to hear about your conversation with her. We will need to interview you…find out everything you saw…"

   "You…you do not already know?" Ardenn exclaimed, her voice rising in disbelief. Gazing at the curious expressions of the two older Minbari, it was becoming evident to her that whatever their current manipulations and motives were, in this matter they seemed to be speaking the truth.

   "Ardenn, those in the Circle choose to speak with us, not the other way around," Rakell explained. Waving an arm toward the assembled sarcophagi, she continued, "Some of the Circle never wearied of the world and speak relatively often. Some wish to be left alone and only speak rarely. Only Drala'Fizha avoids contact with everyone, though…everyone but you, it would seem." Scratching her crest, Rakell muttered, "I wonder why?" to herself. She intended the question to be rhetorical and was surprised when Ardenn answered.

   "She does not want to frighten us…" the young Minbari whispered as she replayed the conversation in her memory. "She is afraid that her…her place will shock those she sees in the link, so she runs away and hides when living people enter. She is suffering, but I did not sense any real animosity towards the Order or individual Sisters from her…only sadness. She cares about us; otherwise she would not withdraw when the link is opened."

   "Fascinating…" the Mistress murmured. "Many of the most powerful and influential Minbari females of the past eight hundred cycles have stood in the Circle. More often than not, the Circle looks but remains silent. On rare occasions, Valeria herself appears to those meant to accomplish great tasks. Others speak when they see Sisters who arouse their curiosity. Of all those, you are the only one to speak to…to her. Until now, we have not known her mind or her place." Smiling gently, Irilenn realized that she had perhaps discovered another way to bring the young Minbari further under her control. Almost as an afterthought, she added, "But now you have seen and spoken to her. If her environment is as detrimental as you indicate, perhaps we can help her…once you reveal what she told you and we move forward with your new responsibilities. She may not be a Sister any longer, but we do not wish for her to suffer."

   Ardenn sighed tiredly. Closing her eyes, she swallowed to moisten her throat. "How would you help her?"

   Irilenn pursed her lips. "I do not yet know," she truthfully replied. "The…shades…are not truly alive as you and I understand life. They are imprints of consciousness and I am not conversant enough with their creation process to give you a good explanation. The technology used is ancient and, like the link itself, not completely understood by us. It may be that the shades and their environments are inseparable once the process is complete…but I promise you that I will research it and if we can aid her, we will." Leaning in close, she gave Ardenn's crest an affectionate caress and asked, "Do you believe me?"

   Ardenn nodded after a moment of hesitation. Pausing a moment to sip some water and collect her thoughts, she then said, "Please forgive me if I spare some detail for now…I am extremely tired. Catherine appears as a Minbari female of early middle age, although her words were those of a woman who had lived a full, long span. I believe she was far older than she appeared. When she spoke, she did not imbue me with any special wisdom or arcane knowledge if that is what you seek…I think she was simply lonely and wanted someone to talk to."

   "She was lonely?" Irilenn asked, arching her brow ridge. "I mean no offense, Ardenn, but she spends eight hundred cycles watching the greatest females of our race pass through the link in silence only to reveal herself to a sheltered woman-child who just today donned crimson…because she was lonely?"

   "As Sister Rakell said, she chose me…not the other way around," Ardenn observed, slightly annoyed at the elder Sister's skepticism. "She said she chose me because I projected myself in the link not as a full Minbari, but as the hybrid woman you revealed to me. I was not aware my appearance had changed until she told me…she said I reminded her of her human origins…"

   Glancing over at Rakell, Irilenn gave the other Sister an 'I told you so' look and turned back to Ardenn. "I see. And you arrived in her environment to find…?"

   "Her environment is this place…the Shrine. But it was chaos…broken and under attack by the Shadows. I was terrified and I hid myself over there," Ardenn waved a hand in the direction of Valeria's sarcophagus. "After the first wave departed, she came and found me. I was afraid of her at first, but she said that she was my mother and that no harm would come to me while I was with her. She said she was sorry that I had to see her in that environment and she told me she was both revered and reviled by the Sisterhood."

   "That would have been the final assault before the Great Hibernation…the last battle of the Shadow War," Irilenn gently explained. "Times were harder then, Ardenn. Our world and our Order were both under siege by forces that would have destroyed us. The Sisters of that time did not have the luxury of forgiveness…but that is far in the past."

   "Perhaps," Ardenn acknowledged nebulously, causing Irilenn to furrow her brow ridge in doubt. "She spoke to me of many things. She told me of her life…how she came to be here. She spoke of her introduction to the Sisterhood and how our Order bought her from the Warriors and used her knowledge to influence the clans…and she mentioned a book. Does it still exist?"

   "The Nok'Isil?" Irilenn clarified. "Indeed it does…but its existence is no longer an issue. Today it is merely of historical curiosity, nothing more. Much like Valen's Prophecies, the revelations it contains terminated around the time of your birth."

   Irilenn's casual dismissal of something Katrenn thought so important made Ardenn uneasy. Katrenn had said something about the book that bothered the young woman, but she was too fatigued to think her suspicion through. Sighing, she replied, "I suppose it is not important any more. She also spoke to me of a ban…the Ban of Valen…"

   "Also of little more than historical curiosity. Most of its prohibitions ceased to exist when our race made first contact with the Humans. We honored the Ban, Ardenn…even if Zha Ver'kaff misled her fellow Sisters by omitting that a war would come with that first contact. No Sister revealed any knowledge about the humans outside the Order, even as the war was being waged."

   "Yet some of the Ban's restrictions still remain," Ardenn observed. "We cannot serve in any capacity that might upset the balance of power on Minbar. We cannot do anything that might influence daily life on our planet. We are relegated to our temples and chapter houses."

   "Yes…but that is about to change." Irilenn murmured, almost to herself. Turning her gaze back to the young Sister, she said, "And you will have a large part to play…if you have truly become one of us."

   "You have not let me finish my story, Mistress," Ardenn softly replied. "Our mother also told me of her children…of the nine who became eight at the hands of those like us. Did you know of this?"

   "Yes, and do not let it trouble you," Irilenn smoothly replied. "I know it is distressing, but remember that those events that seemed close to the Outsider are far, far in the past. Today, there are at most perhaps a dozen Sisters alive in our Order that are even aware of the unfortunate mishap that befell young Clarenn…"

   "Unfortunate mishap?" Ardenn echoed in disbelief. "Is that how we who wear crimson rationalize killing? Is that the way we circumvent responsibility for taking a life? We call it an unfortunate mishap? Mistress, I am not speaking of a tragic flyer accident! Our forebears experimented on a living person…a fellow Minbari…and killed her out of sheer ignorance! And then they did not have the…the intestinal fortitude as the humans would say…to admit what they had done!"

   "Who are you to judge our predecessors, child!" Irilenn angrily retorted. "It seems the Outsider filled your head with half-truths after all!" Calming quickly, she snorted, "She bears the Order no animosity, you said…yet she does, little one. She twisted the circumstances…tried to manipulate you into being sympathetic for her. She holds all who wear crimson responsible for a sacrifice that her own daughter…one far braver and more honorable than she…agreed to. Dear Ardenn…I had hoped that Zha Ver'kaff spared you her venom, but I see now that she could not resist the opportunity to pollute your mind."

   "Which part was the half-truth, Mistress?" Ardenn shot back, drawing away from the senior Sister. "Which circumstance did she twist? The part where Clarenn was promised that her mother would be freed if she consented to the experiments? Or the part where she was put through the Chrysalis and emerged a dying monster? I would love to believe she lied…because then I would not have this fear in my soul that you intend something similar for me…or perhaps my children? Tell me she lied to me…"

   "They are not lies," Rakell murmured from where she stood quietly behind her Mistress. "I am sorry, Ardenn…we wish they were, but those events did occur. The Mistress and I are not defending the actions of those past Sisters, but as you can tell the subject is both sensitive and emotional among the few of us who know of it. It was not a proud moment for the Sisterhood…our predecessors made mistakes that shame us to this day, but we do not intend anything of the sort for you. Your human heritage is fully integrated within you, whereas Clarenn's was not. Were you to undergo the Chrysalis, you would emerge as beautiful as you are now…just as you saw yourself. The Triluminary projection does not lie and if our predecessors had known the artifact's full capabilities back then, Clarenn would never have been subjected to the process."

   Looking over at the now silent Irilenn, Rakell saw that she was studying the young Minbari huddled on the floor carefully. Motioning her superior aside, she led the senior Sister out of Ardenn's earshot and whispered, "Mistress, she is afraid of us now and that is not what we wanted. We need to reassure her…you need to tell her why she is here. You told her you would answer her questions once she faced the Circle."

   "No, I told her I would give her answers once she had faced the Circle and was truly one of us…and I am not yet convinced," the Mistress murmured in reply. "Given what she has learned from the thrice-damned Outsider, I no longer think appealing to her reason or sense of duty will serve. For her sake, I hope appealing to her self-interest will. I intend to put her to the question. That will decide our course of action."

   With that, Irilenn turned away from Rakell and walked the few short steps back to Ardenn. Kneeling down beside the tired young Minbari, she reached into the folds of her robe and withdrew a large parchment square. Holding it in front of Ardenn's face, she said, "Do you know what this is, little Sister?"

   "It is an envelope."

   "You have an extraordinary gift for stating the obvious," Irilenn observed dryly, rolling her eyes. "It is fortunate for us that intellect is not something the Plan requires of you. This envelope contains a document called a Suppression, Ardenn. While the Ban of Valen the Outsider told you of forbids me from allowing the Sisterhood as a whole to interact with society, I can make exceptions for individual members of the Order…when it serves the greater good of our people." Waving the envelope under the younger woman's nose, she continued, "This document is yours and yours alone, and there has not been one like it in over eight hundred cycles. It specifically allows you to live outside cloister…and to claim David Sheridan as your mate with the blessings of the Order. You do still want him as your mate, do you not?"

   "Oh, yes…" Ardenn sighed, reaching up and attempting to take the envelope. "I want that more than anything…"

   "Now, be not so hasty," Irilenn replied with a slow smile, moving the parchment out of the younger Sister's reach. "I imagine that your pleasure in his bed was…intense. So intense that it drove all other considerations from your mind. When one finds her soul mate as early in life as you have, both love and physical desire burn so brightly as to be almost painful. I have not forgotten the exquisite feel of the mating urge or the release that comes from having it slaked…and I know you are feeling it even now. I ask you, Ardenn…when next you share yourself with him, can you remember that you serve the Order and our people first…before you satisfy his needs or your own? Do you have that kind of discipline?"

   "I…I do not understand what you are asking…"

   "We desire that you be happy and content, but your suppression is not freely given. You serve us now, and we will always be with you. If I grant you suppression, I require that you make your relationship with David serve us as well."

   Ardenn stared at her in disbelief. "I…I appreciate that the Order respects my David's ability to…uh, slake my urges as you say, but I have been in his bed. I do not believe it is large enough for all four of us."

   "There, you see, Rakell?" Irilenn remarked, glancing up as her second attempted to hide a smirk. "A primitive fear response. I knew there was no need to look to other races for signs of genetic de-evolution. It is occurring among us already." Turning back to Ardenn, Irilenn continued, "You pretend not to understand, but I know you do. It is an emotionally difficult task I require of you…but a necessary one, which you have no need to be afraid of. You should be thanking us rather than making jests, because our need has become your opportunity. My grandson is human…more human than Minbari and had I not placed you in a position to become close to him he would have eventually found a human mate. He has a unique gift: One that our Order cannot allow to be wasted on the humans…one you will obtain for us instead. Through your womb, his line will remain Minbari and will strengthen our race."

   "Children," Ardenn closed her eyes and shook her head in disappointment. She wanted to be full of rage at her manipulation…wanted to lash out at the two women who were using her and intended to use her beloved, but she was too weary. Her weak attempt at humor in the face of adversity had been all she had left. "Catherine suspected it was so, but I was afraid to truly believe it…" Opening her eyes, she glared at the two senior Sisters and said, "She told me to ask myself how you intended to use me…and yes, Mistress, I do understand. You did not elevate me because I was worthy. You elevated me to bind me to you. You do not care about me…you want only David's children and I am merely a convenient receptacle to conceive them." Resignedly, she murmured, "Why me? Children of Valen are rare but not unique…within our Order, are there not many? You could have chosen anyone. Vadenn would gladly open herself to him for the Sisterhood without all this bother, I am sure. She has already informed me that she intends to, if she gets the chance."

   "We do want you to be fruitful with him, this is true…but we also care about you," Rakell answered. "David is a handsome, conscientious male and we gather that he is a skilled, caring lover. He would make any female a worthy mate but we do not want any female…we want you, and we want you to be comfortable with this. You love him, Ardenn. Does the fact that we have an interest in his children change that? Will knowing that you serve us even as you mate with him dampen your enjoyment? He adores you, we know…do you think he would accept any other female?" Sighing, Rakell continued, "Yes, another could have been chosen but if he mated with one such as Vadenn, the most we could hope for would be a single offspring. Delenn's example has shown us that bearing a mostly human child will damage our reproductive systems. Our races are genetically close, but even transformed Minbari are not close enough to human to avoid this."

   "I am a Child of Valen like Delenn. What makes you believe I will not be similarly damaged?"

   "You are a Child of Valen…but not like Delenn," the Mistress explained. "You are a very special Child of Valen…one who is twice as human as she. After Chrysalis, you would physically resemble her as the Triluminary indicated…you would have the crown of your crest and a brow ridge. Given that you are missing human pigmentation genes you would retain your current skin coloring, cerulean paths and probably your oth'las. Internally, however, you would be far more human than my former daughter is. That, coupled with David's Minbari heritage, would bring you and he much closer together genetically than David's parents…close enough to bear multiple children without the injury that Delenn suffered. Your children, conversely, would be far more Minbari than David himself is… when joined with yours his latent Minbari traits would be activated in them."

   With effort, Ardenn rose to her knees and sat back on her heels, folding her hands in her lap. In a small voice, she asked, "And what would the Order want from my children?" She thought she already knew, but she wanted to hear her Mistress admit it.

   "Their final disposition is nothing to concern yourself about right now," Irilenn demurred. "Know this, though. The Order would provide for their every need…both the females and males. Education, guidance, protection for both you and them…the children would be blessed…"

   "And when the proper time came, you would find a way to take them away from me…from us," the young Minbari finished with tears in her voice. Covetously, she eyed the envelope in Irilenn's hand. "I so want that little slip of paper you hold…" she shakily admitted, "…a part of my soul is screaming at me to reach out and take it even knowing what may come. It is telling me that I can fight you when that time arrives…that I will be older, stronger and more wise…"

   "So listen to your soul. Take it, little one," Irilenn replied, holding out the envelope. "Perhaps you will be stronger on that future day…but today you are a powerless, lonely young woman for whom there can be no hesitation and no doubts. It is time for you to indicate which life you desire…a life of toil and misery buried in a remote temple somewhere or a life of happiness with David and his family. In two days' time, Delenn and Anla'Shok Na are coming to this place to retrieve you. You can either be standing beside us when they arrive, your belongings and this envelope in your hand, or not. You must decide now. Will you perform the task I require of you? Sister Ardenn of Valeria, are you one of us?"

   Reaching up, Ardenn's trembling fingers caressed the delicate fibers that comprised the paper. Everything she could ever want was in that envelope…a life outside, marriage to the one she loved, a family, friends, and eventually children…no. With a sob, she jerked her hand away. "No…I am not!" she cried, burying her face in her hands. "I love David and I would gladly do anything you command…undergo Chrysalis, serve the Sisterhood in any manner you desire, even shamelessly beg…anything to be with him…but I will not be a thief of his essence! Children are conceived out of love, not duty, and any child of David's I bore would be an expression of my love for him! I could no more surrender them than I could David himself! If I were to do as you wish the day would come when he and his family would look at me not as his partner or wife, but as a betrayer…and I could never survive that! It tears me…oh, Valen! It tears me but I do not have cycles to become strong…I must be strong now! I cannot…I will not do it! I will not be a breeder for you!"

   Irilenn withdrew the envelope and glared daggers and the crying young woman for a second. "Sister," she intoned, her voice low and dangerous, "I choose to interpret your response as fatigue rather than defiance…which is fortunate for you." Pointing to a door at the far end of the chamber, she continued, "Go there and await Sister Rakell. She will show you to your sleeping chamber. We will speak of this again later, when you are more refreshed and have regained your obviously impaired sensibilities."

   Ardenn dragged herself to her feet and stumbled away, still sobbing…her cries and sniffles echoing across the darkened rows of mute sarcophagi. Irilenn and Rakell watched her for a moment. Turning to Rakell, Irilenn whispered with barely controlled anger, "That stupid child! Does she not understand that refusal is not an option? I do not have the luxury of waiting for sense to penetrate her thick bone nor do I have the patience for standing by hoping her myopic vision focuses! She is defying me and I will not be tested in this manner! She has become uncooperative, Enlightened One…therefore I command that you escort her to her chamber. See to it that she falls asleep and then notify the Sisters of Healing. You will also contact the Sisters of Knowledge and have them make the Chrysalis device ready. When she next awakens, she will be a far different person from the one she is today."

   "Do not do this, Mistress," Rakell pleaded. "Do not decide her fate while you are angry. No good ever comes from anger. We can reason with her, tell her everything…"

   "You would have me waste more precious time on her?" Irilenn incredulously exclaimed. "I will not. She has spurned the Order's generosity and I have expended all of the breath I intend to on that ignorant pseudo-Sister. I did not choose this path for her, Rakell…she chose it for me. It did not have to be this way…but now we know her position and hard decisions are necessary. She has within her something we need, and I have decided that it is time for us to take it."

   ***

   Morosely, Ardenn surveyed the sleeping chamber the Enlightened One had assigned her. It was the standard set of quarters any Sister visiting the main temple would receive. The room was not large…not even as large as her small bedchamber in the presidential compound…and it was sparingly furnished with a small slanted bed, a dresser, a chair and a writing desk. In the far corner stood a small meditation shrine along with several votive candles. There was no closet or clothes press. Pegs on the wall were supplied to hang those few robes the Sisters owned. The only other decoration was the archaic red Sister of Valeria glyph affixed to the wall.

   "I suppose this room is not what you are used to," Rakell murmured from behind her. "Your quarters in Delenn's home were no doubt more luxurious…more human."

   "Brighter and more cheerful, perhaps," the young Sister answered, glancing back at the older woman with a sad smile, "But not appreciably more luxurious."

   "Truly? I would think the home of any Religious caste leader, much less the President of the Alliance, would almost be a temple in and of itself."

   "Comfortable, yes…but a temple? Hardly," the young Sister murmured. "Except for the views, which are incredible, you would think the presidential quarters rather plain. Most believe the presidential compound consists entirely of the residence, but it is not so. The facility was designed to Delenn's specifications and looks more imposing than it is because some of the executive offices and conference centers are co-located there. The family residence within the compound is not particularly large or ostentatious, nor is it excessively furnished. Because both she and Entil'zha spent so much time in space, Delenn desired an open, airy home with many windows and a balcony. They both wanted gardens, trees and sunlight more than they wanted creature comforts and the end result is that those luxuries provided to all who breathe fresh air and enjoy the outdoors on our planet are the only ones present there." Chuckling ruefully, she added, "My bedchamber within the residence was not much different from this room, surprisingly. It was perhaps slightly larger…and I had my own washroom and a large window onto the gardens."

   "It must have been beautiful," the Enlightened One observed.

   "I could see the stars coming up over the mountains from my window at night as I lay in bed," Ardenn murmured. "They were indeed beautiful." Glancing down at her hands, she noticed that she was unconsciously twisting her ring again. "My little room and window are still out there waiting for my return…and they are mine, Sister. That place is my home and will remain so in my heart…until such time as David and I become a family and find a place that suits us." Resignedly, she hung her head and murmured, "David and I as a family…only in my dreams from now on. I will never see him again, will I?"

   Rakell hesitated. Knowing what was about to happen to the young Sister, she was at a loss for an answer. Finally she said, "During our lives we travel many paths, Ardenn. Some lead to the places we want to go and some do not. There is no guarantee that the paths we choose…or those that choose us…will be the correct ones."

   "That is an appropriately nebulous answer," Ardenn noted with a sigh. "It is, however, about what I have come to expect. Our people seem to have developed an adversity to uttering the words 'I do not know'."

   Rakell laughed. "I was told you possessed some skill at translation…and that is as good a rendering of my words as any." Her laughter subsiding, she said, "Perhaps this will help. Among the humans, it is said that you can often tell if something is meant to be yours by releasing it. If it returns to you, you were meant to have it. If it never returns, you should never have had it to begin with." Falling silent for a moment, Rakell eyed the tired young woman. Between her travels, elevation and experience in the link, she had been awake for over a day without any rest whatsoever. Glancing quickly out the door, she looked up and down the corridor before turning back to her weary companion. "Ardenn…listen to me," she softly exhorted. "I should not be saying this, but I do not want this life for you. Recant your words to the Mistress and take the suppression! Indicate acceptance of her task, whether or not you truly intend to comply! You do not belong here…you should be with your David making love under those stars and mountains you spoke of! Do not worry about what may come…much can change between now and then and you can face that when it is time to face it! You can still be waiting when Delenn arrives…and be on your way back to your beloved in two days!"

   "I cannot!" Ardenn moaned, "Do you not understand? I spoke brave words to the Mistress, defiant words about being strong and fighting, but I am a…a liar! Once I have that life the suppression promises, once I actually begin to live it…I would never become strong enough for defiance! I would never be resolute enough to face expulsion and banishment as Katrenn did! It is better if I deny myself now, before that life comes into my grasp, before I actually know what it…it feels like. I think if I knew that feeling I would do anything to hold onto it. Anything, Sister…perhaps even turn my own children over…"

   Moving into the room, Rakell closed the door behind her and faced the younger woman. "You would not!" she hissed. "I know more about you than you realize, little Sister…and I know why you speak so. You are young, afraid and it is always easier to lie back and be a victim! You have no conception of the incredible power of a mother's love for her child. It is the equal of love for a mate, yet it is different…it is more protective, more instinctual. Someday, Ardenn, you will look into the face of a little life created from your love…and you will know you are strong enough. Trust me, you will know."

   Ardenn slumped into the lone chair and stared despondently into empty air, her eyes a little glassy. "I will think about your words, but I am so tired and confused right now…I need to rest." Turning to look up at the older Sister, she continued, "I have noticed that you have been at least kind to me through all of this. I do not know why, but I thank you anyway." Shaking her head, she concluded, "Today has been so…long. So much has happened that I can think of no other word to describe it. Perhaps tomorrow things will be better."

   With resignation in her eyes, Rakell watched the young woman as she rose, removed her outer robe and hung it on one of the pegs. Without bothering to undress further, she moved to the bed. "Yes, perhaps tomorrow will be better…" she sadly echoed as the Order's newest Sister made herself comfortable on the narrow mattress. As Ardenn began drifting off, the Enlightened One walked over to the bed and gave her crest a soft caress. "You ask why I am kind to you. In every organization there must be balance to function effectively. There must be determination, the will to accomplish difficult tasks…and also conscience, the ability to tell right from wrong. Within the Sisterhood, I am the conscience and Irilenn, the determination…but we are not balanced." Swallowing, Rakell hesitated and then said, "When you arrived, I told you I was not your enemy…and I spoke the truth. I do care about you. When you awaken, young one, you will need someone to talk to. I want you to talk to me before you see Irilenn again. Will you call for me first?"

   "If you think it will help," Ardenn exhaustedly mumbled. "I doubt my decision will change overnight, however."

   "Many things can change while you sleep." Pulling away, the Enlightened One dimmed the glowlamp and whispered, "Good Night, Sister. I hope you dream of your David tonight…and that it is a beautiful one."

   "I dream of him every night…" the drowsy Minbari slurred as the door clicked shut.

   Sister Ardenn of Valeria was already fast asleep a few moments later when a soft hiss began issuing from the ventilation duct behind her bed.

   ***

   There was light above her…bright bluish light that seemed to penetrate her eyelids as if they were not even there. Light, and the sensation of movement. In her sleep, she struggled and the movement lessened…but the light remained. In fact, it was growing even brighter…moving towards her as if it would engulf her. She tried to scream…her eyes snapping open even as the light reached overwhelming intensity and surrounded her…overcoming her senses before even a hint of sound could issue from her throat. She felt as if her universe had ceased to exist around her…and then the light began to pull away…

   Ardenn found herself back at the presidential compound. Glancing quickly around her, she realized that she had returned to the Japanese stone garden…the place where she and her beloved had joined their hearts. In fact, she was sitting right in the middle of it, her shoes and crimson outer robe laying some distance away in the grass next to the bench. Looking down, she could see that her inner robe was hiked up around her knees and her feet were buried in a mound of sand up to her ankles. Experimentally, she wiggled her toes.

   "No wiggling!" a tiny voice piped up behind her. From over her shoulder, Ardenn saw a small plastic shovel full of sand appear, gripped in a smudged, dirty little hand. Clumsily, the shovel tipped over her legs, the stubby arm guiding it not being long enough to reach her feet from behind her. Sand spilled from the shovel across her knees and into her lap.

   "Whoops…sorry. You didn't want your robe dirty," the little high-pitched voice said. The young Minbari saw the source of the voice and the sand as a small human female…a child… darted around from behind her. The young girl was not more than four cycles old, barefoot, and clad in a grubby-looking blue play robe. Her overall appearance was one of dishevelment.

   The child's hair flapped behind her neck in a ponytail as she scrambled to a halt, surveying the mess she had made. Several brown strands had worked free of the band that held them and found their way into her face. Looking at the girl, Ardenn noticed that she was an attractive child…or would be were her cheeks not dirt-stained and her nose not a little runny. It was her eyes that drew the Minbari's attention, however. They were large and colored a vivid green. And to top everything else, she had little nubs at each temple…the beginnings of a bonecrest, although at this stage of her life the tiny fingers of cartilage barely reached back to her ears. Looking more closely, she also noticed that the girl was missing eyebrows…a barely noticeable brow ridge occupied their position on her face instead. She seemed familiar, and after gazing at the little human for a second, Ardenn realized why. She was a miniature Delenn.

    The child went down on her knees beside Ardenn and began brushing sand from her lap. The young woman could not stifle a chuckle…the little girl's hands were so sandy already that she was dropping more sand on her than she was brushing off. "Who are you, little one?" she asked amusedly as the child continued to futilely brush at the sand.

   The child paused. Sitting back petulantly on her haunches, she replied, "We're playing 'Mountains', not 'Vorlons'. You're supposed to be a mountain. Mountains don't talk." To add emphasis to her argument, the girl scooped up a small handful of sand and dribbled it over Ardenn's toes to replace that lost due to the adult Minbari's wiggling.

   "Oh, I see," Ardenn observed, nodding knowingly. "Well, little one, if I am to be a mountain then I should have a name, should I not? As my discoverer, it would seem logical that I should be named after you. Is that correct?"

   The little girl considered her words momentarily. "That makes sense. Okay…you are Mount Susenn!"

   "Susenn…that is a very pretty name," Ardenn acknowledged with a smile. "Very well, Mount Susenn it is." Falling silent, she watched and listened as the child…Susenn... patiently piled more sand on her feet and mumbled to herself about the intricacies of mountain building. After a moment, she felt it was safe to speak again. "Susenn, what are we doing here?"

   The little girl stopped mumbling. Looking up at her with mirthful eyes, she said, "We are playing in the sand, of course. You said you would and I wanted someone to play with before I went home. You were available."

   The young Minbari cocked her head quizzically at the human girl and asked, "Do you not have any other friends who can play with you?"

   "Oh…not yet," Susenn replied as she tamped down the sand around Ardenn's feet, "But I will soon."

   "Well, it is good to have friends," Ardenn continued conversationally. "I did not have anyone to play with…anyone to call a friend until I was far older than you. In fact," she added brightly, "Did you know that one of my friends…my most special friend…played in this very spot when he was your age?"

   "Oh, I know," the child nonchalantly acknowledged with a shrug. "Daddy played here. I wanted him to come and play with me also, but he is busy helping Grandfather protect us from the bad people. He is too far away to hear me calling him."

   Ardenn's eyes grew wide. She was sure her heart had just skipped a beat. "Daddy?" she managed to stammer.

   "Oh, yes! I have the best Daddy in the world!" Susenn exclaimed as she began to shovel again. "I also thought about asking Grandmother…the old man says that she would feel more at peace with herself if she would take her shoes off and play in the sand once in a while rather than just looking at it, but she is busy also. All of the big people are always busy…but you once asked Daddy if he thought I might like to play here. The old man wanted you to know the answer."

   "Susenn…are you my daughter?"

   The little girl ceased shoveling sand and plopped down in Ardenn's lap, resting her head against the disbelieving woman's chest. "You are so funny, Mommy. Grandmother thinks that's one of the reasons Daddy loves you so much." Susenn's little face grew more serious and she continued, "The old man says that I was a posse-ability. He called me a 'tick' in a universe that is 'tocking' right now and that we are not dusty-need to be together here. That makes me a little sad. You seem really nice…I think you would have made me a good Mommy, and I so wish the universe were 'ticking' so I could live with you and Daddy. The old man said no, but that I could play with you in the sand once before I had to go home."

   Ardenn almost did not hear the girl's words…she was too awash in conflicting emotions. With trembling fingers, she brushed the little girl's tiny crest nubs. <A child! My child…mine and David's…>. Susenn's last reference did register, however. "The old man? What old man?" she murmured as she breathed in the scent of her daughter's hair.

   Hopping out of Ardenn's lap, Susenn stood and pointed out towards the mountains. "The old man who watches you. He says he watches Daddy and Grandmother too, and that he and Grandfather are old friends. He is there, Mommy…don't you see him?"

   Following her finger, Ardenn saw a bright blue glow above them. At first, she thought it was Ardbar, Minbar's primary…but the primary was a gas giant and far redder than the light she was observing. Abruptly, the few seconds preceding her appearance in the gardens flashed through her mind. "What…what is that, Susenn?" the young woman uncertainly asked.

   "He says that is home for me, for now," Susenn continued. Brightening a little, she added, "But he also said we would see each other many times in later…uh…carnations. What's a carnation?"

   "Carnations, I believe, are…are flowers from Earth," Ardenn confusedly replied. "I think you refer to incarnations. Some…some believe that souls…people travel together through many lives, little one. As they are born and reborn, they are attracted to one another…they find one another to renew good relationships or correct bad ones."

   "Do you believe this, Mommy?"

   "Yes. Entil'zha…your grandfather…told me that some souls seek each other out. It is whispered that he has seen beyond the Veil and knows many wondrous things."

   Susenn clapped her hands in delight. "Oh…goodie! Then I do too." Cocking her head, she giggled and winked. In a stage whisper, she said, "The old man just laughed. He says Grandfather is like an unwound clock…he tells the correct time twice a day. Fortunately, that's two times more than anyone else does." Her voice returning to normal, she continued, "As for us, we would have had a good ration-ship, I think. And in some…" the little girl paused, trying to screw her mouth around the big word. "In some…incarnation, we will."

   "Are…are you leaving me, little one? But, but I…we have only just met…"

   Susenn turned to face the light again, listening to a voice only she could hear. "The old man says you shouldn't be sad about what must happen...there's a big playground where he is and other children are waiting there to play with me until my next carnation comes. He says Daddy loves you more than anyone else in the whole world and that you will have others…I was just here too soon. You will not member this in any great detail when you wake up. He says that all you will member of me is a fasting-nating dream."

   "This…this is a dream?"

   "He says…kind of. He says our souls…sing? They sing to each other all the time. When the songs blend and create harmony, people fall in love. When our conscious selves are quiet, we can sometimes hear their music around us. He is letting you hear his song…and mine, for the moment." She smiled as she listened to the silence and nodded, continuing, "I like songs, and he says you and Daddy create a beautiful melody when you're together…as do Grandfather and Grandmother."

   "This old man…does he have a name?"

   Susan listened. "He says he has many…but none that would define him for you. Names are artificial constructs that only provide an illusion of understanding." Her face screwing up in puzzlement, she added, "I don't understand a lot of his words, Mommy. He talks riddley but he seems very smart…maybe even smarter than Grandmother. He says that Grandfather will understand a lot of this if you member enough to ask him about it later." Susenn fell silent…apparently listening again. Casting her eyes down, she turned back to Ardenn, made the sign of the triangle and bowed. "I am out of time, Mommy. I have to go now. Thank you for playing in the sandbox with me."

   To Ardenn's amazement, the little girl began to fade out as she watched. Desperately, she scrambled to her feet and lunged for her. "Susenn, wait…I am not done! Can we not play together some more? Please wait!"

   As if from a great distance she heard Susenn's voice once more…this time more measured and mature. "The old man says Grandfather is right about you and Daddy. Your threads are interwoven. Good Night, Mommy. Sleep well."

   It was no use. By the time Ardenn reached her location, she was gone. Frantically, the young Minbari spun around, looking for any sign of the girl's passing. She saw none, and what was more, even her surroundings were graying out. She had no time to speculate on this, however. As she stood in the stone garden, she felt a mild twinge in her abdomen. Just as her hands involuntarily came up to touch the affected area, an unbearably sharp pain lanced through her…as if a steel spike was being driven up through her midsection. She fell screaming to her knees, doubling over in pain. Her surroundings faded completely to gray, but she did not notice it through her agony.

   "In Valen's Name! What is happening to me!" she managed to choke out as the grayness overwhelmed her.

   ***

   "What is happening to me?" the woman on the table murmured in slurred Adronato, her arms twitching up from her sides towards her abdomen.

   "She did not get enough of the sedative! She is waking too soon!"

   "Quickly…give her a heavier dose! We are not finished!"

   A sopoforic cloth was hastily placed over the woman's face, and eventually her movements ceased as she drifted back into unconsciousness. Breathing sighs of relief, the two Sisters bent back to their work. After a moment, one of the Sisters glanced at her instruments in surprise, and then looked in shock at her companion.

   "Sister, did you complete the retrieval?" The first asked, noting her companion's expression.

   "No…there is no…nothing to retrieve…" the second Sister whispered. "But…" she trailed off, examining her instrumentation again. "…There is something else…". Making a final adjustment, she then backed away as if she had been burned. "Sister, contact the Enlightened One!" she hissed hurriedly. "Do it quickly and quietly. Tell her that something has gone terribly wrong…"

   ***

   The formal office of the Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria was a large, ornate crystal chamber located adjacent to the Shrine in the main temple. Irilenn rarely worked there. She found the trappings of the office distracting, and its size made the chamber susceptible to drafts. Much as her daughter did, she preferred the less gilded personal office located in her quarters. The small office was far more comfortable, although relatively austere. It contained little more than a writing table, various small crystal meditation stones and statuary and a few chairs.

   At the moment, the meditation stones and crystals were what held Irilenn's attention. Gazing absently at her favorite stone, she ruminated on the previous day's events somberly. A meditative state would not come, no matter how hard she concentrated or how much she tried to relax. The newest member of the Order's recent obstinate attitude weighed too heavily on her thoughts…as well as the actions that had followed. <The Outsider…> she mused, <of all the shades who could have spoken to Ardenn, it had to be the Outsider who chose her…and then proceeded to fill her impressionable head with rubbish. Now, I have been forced to do that which I did not want to do…but that which had to be done…>

   Irilenn was shaken from her ruminations by the sound of footsteps approaching. Looking up from the meditation stone she was pretending to contemplate, she nodded without rising in acknowledgement of the short bow Sister Rakell executed as she entered the room. Turning back to the stone once again, she motioned to a cushion beside hers and allowed the other Sister to settle herself.

   "Is it done?" she asked neutrally once her subordinate was sitting beside her.

   "Yes, Mistress. We vented a sedative gas into Sister Ardenn's sleeping chamber once she was present. She did not notice and it did not take her long to succumb...she was already extremely weary. Once she was sedated beyond chance awakening, we took her to the medical wing."

   "And the extraction?" Irilenn murmured, looking more intently at the meditation crystal.

   Rakell hesitated, licking her lips nervously. "We performed the procedure. Ardenn began to regain consciousness while it was in progress, but was sedated more heavily before she could completely awaken. She was never aware of what was happening, and she will not remember anything. Physically she is undamaged, but she is still sleeping and will be unconscious for some time yet…perhaps for as long as a day." Reaching into the folds of her robe, she retrieved a data crystal and placed it on the mat in front of her superior. "You will need to review this, Mistress."

   Irilenn picked up the crystal and fingered it, noticing a faintly disapproving look on her second's face. "You know I regret that it came to this. I truly meant it when I told Ardenn we intended her no harm. Had she cooperated…"

   "You will regret it even more when you read the report," the Enlightened One indicated, cutting the senior Sister off. "I know that I do."

   "Very well, let us see what we shall see then," Irilenn sighed, rising and moving to the comm terminal on her desk. Rakell started to rise as well, and Irilenn waved her back down, saying, "I know this was hard for you. You are welcome to take a moment and meditate. Center yourself while I read through this."

   "Mistress…I think it will require more than meditation to make my soul rest peacefully again," the junior Sister retorted. "No," she reflected rhetorically, "I am sure of it."

   Irilenn furrowed her brow ridge and looked at Rakell quizzically, but the Enlightened One had already turned back to contemplating the stone. Inserting the crystal into the terminal, she sat down and started reading. Irilenn was a Master Healer by trade, and it did not take her long to skim through the data. When the report terminated, Irilenn sat for a moment in disbelief, saying nothing. Returning to the beginning of the file, she read it again more slowly. "So…there is no sample," she murmured as she read.

   "Her body absorbed the unused portion."

   "So it did, so it did…" Irilenn muttered to herself. Glancing at Rakell as she perused the data, she asked in a low tone, "How many know of this?"

   "Myself, the two Sisters of Healing who prepared the report, and you. Given what we have done, I think it goes without saying that they will stay silent. One of them, the Healer who performed the procedure…she is off praying for forgiveness now. I fear that she may never touch a medical instrument again."

   "Genetic bonding, cellular replication, uterine affixation…" Irilenn muttered softly as she read further. "Rakell, does this data say what I think it does?"

   "Yes," the Enlightened One replied in a monotone.

   "Our geneticists told me this was not possible without her undergoing the Chrysalis," the Mistress dourly observed. "Is there a possibility…any possibility at all…that Ardenn coupled with one of our race without us knowing about it?"

   "Please do not insult her…not under these circumstances," the junior Sister sighed. "Ardenn has been intimate with only one person, and you know this. You saw the report. Our specialists were in error. If she were so inclined, she could have bedded every Minbari male in Tuzanor and none would have produced an embryo resembling the one we found."

   "In error?" the Mistress hissed. "In error? I would say that is an understatement of colossal proportions, Enlightened One!" Looking hard at her subordinate as she sat staring at the stone, she added, "Cease eyeing that damned rock and tell me why they were wrong, Rakell…why we were wrong. Tell me now."

   "They were wrong, Mistress…" Rakell began somberly, "They were wrong because they had only half of the data necessary to give you an honest answer." Rising from her meditation cushion, Rakell padded over to the chair opposite Irilenn's and sat without invitation. Folding her hands in her lap, she said, "We have had eighteen cycles to map Sister Ardenn's DNA structure. We know her down to individual genetic blocks. Our database has almost every living Child of Valen down to their DNA. Everybody but one. No one has ever prepared a genetic map of David Sheridan. He looks fully human and we have always assumed that he has no more than a trace of our race, but in reality he could carry a substantial amount of Minbari genetic material without displaying any overt traits. We have no idea whether or not this occurrence was one chance in a hundred, one chance in a thousand, or one in a million. All we do know is that it happened. It happened, and we…Mistress, our Healers were not expecting this…could never have expected this. The instruments they used were correct for the task we assigned them, but…not designed for the situation that actually existed. They did not realize the damage they had done until it was too late."

   "The cells would have been rejected, Rakell," Irilenn replied testily. "Do not berate yourself over this, and do not make more out of it than it is. Our females reject fetal tissue all of the time…pure Minbari fetal tissue. Hybrid tissue? Ardenn's body would certainly have rejected the cells before they could have developed much further."

   "But she did not 'reject' them, Irilenn!" Rakell hissed, trying to keep her voice low and not entirely succeeding. "Do you not understand? Perhaps she would have, given time, but that is only a hypothetical! The reality is that we do not know and now we never will! What I do know is that…that we took a life today! We! The honored Order of the Sisters of Valeria! We who have sworn to protect life…we invaded an innocent woman's womb and inadvertently crushed a little life out of existence as we meddled around inside her! This is Clarenn all over again…"

   "Calm yourself, Sister!" Irilenn snapped, jumping to her feet. "There is no comparison! Clarenn was alive and aware. This…this was a zygote, nothing more! There was no sentience! No consciousness! And there never would have been!" Bearing down on the distraught Sister, the Mistress continued, "Sister Ardenn experienced a fluke of chance, a random occurrence that her body could never have sustained for long…and, if anything, we probably saved her from experiencing the anguish of a miscarriage in the future! No matter how human or Minbari David Sheridan is, their genes are too dissimilar as she is now! Ardenn cannot possibly carry to term without the Chrysalis!"

   "That is not how others will view it, Irilenn, and you know this," Rakell whispered. "That is not how our society will view this…they will not care that the embryo probably would not have lived. They will not care that the embryo was a hybrid. They will be horrified at what we have done. If anyone finds out…if Delenn finds out…Oh, Valen! She will come after us. She will come and she will not stop until the Sisterhood stands in judgment before the Council. Even at that, for killing one who would have been her grandchild? You know the rage she is capable of and its consequences…" the Enlightened One trailed off, hanging her head and almost in tears. After a moment, she entreated, "Send her back. Please just send her back, Mistress. When Delenn and Anla'Shok Na come, just…let her go home with them. She is a Sister now…we were going to return her eventually anyway. She has to obey you whether or not she agrees, and we have done enough damage already."

   "It is not enough, Sister. It is not enough that Ardenn merely has to obey. As you said, she is only half of what we need. I can force her to comply, but the children will be David's as well and Ardenn must ensure that he cooperates with us. How can she do that when she is herself uncooperative? You heard her. She would rather never conceive than become a 'breeder'. As for Delenn…she will never know, and you would have me surrender our only bargaining commodity to her without gaining any concessions. I cannot do that. We need the Ban lifted and only Delenn has the influence to make her husband act."

   "Unforeseen complications are occurring, Irilenn. First, it takes two cycles longer than you expected for David and Sister Ardenn to become one…"

   "But they did, and it was no real obstacle. By comparison, it took Delenn ten cycles longer to undergo the Chrysalis than we anticipated…and only the chance intercession of the Vorlons made it happen at all. But that situation was resolved with no damage to the Plan, just as the one you indicated has been."

   "Then the Outsider intervenes…and tells Ardenn of the experiences her child had with our forebears, poisoning her mind against us…"

   "And, again, it is of no matter. She still desires to return to David above all else and she will go to him. Despite her words, she will eventually want his children even knowing that she is fulfilling our purposes by conceiving them. She will delude herself into believing that she can resist us, of course…but, as you say, in the final analysis she has to obey…and her suppression will have secrecy about our motives as a condition. She will not be able to enlist the help of David or his parents without condemning herself to Zha Ver'kaff's fate, so she will be alone. But she, unlike the Outsider, is not a human. Ardenn is a Minbari and she will come to recognize the futility of fighting us. Katrenn the Damned refused to accept the inevitable, but Ardenn is not of that ancient mettle. She is a needy child and she will conform when I tell her to conform…particularly after she gets a taste of the cost of disobedience."

   "…And now there is this…we shamefully drug and violate her, only to find that she has already conceived. In the process, we kill her unborn child…"

   "And no one will know of this, Rakell!" Irilenn barked, finally losing patience with the nay saying of her subordinate. "Once you leave this room, this never happened. This conversation never happened, do you understand? You will take possession of any copies of this crystal. The Sisters who botched the extraction you will transfer to separate chapters far from here, and you will see to it that Sister Ardenn never…and I mean never…comes into contact with either of them. If either breathes a word of this occurrence to anyone, they will find themselves permanently assigned to the North, working at the most tedious and distasteful duties I can devise. And Sister Ardenn…it goes without saying that she is to know nothing of this. Ever." Glaring at her subordinate, she concluded, "Now, Most Revered Sister Rakell…will you comply with the instructions of your Mistress or will you not?"

   "You command, I obey, Mistress," Rakell answered listlessly, waving a hand in resignation. "What of the Chrysalis?"

   "Ardenn will sleep for another day, you say? She will likely be weakened from the procedure and sick from the sedative when she awakens…" Irilenn thought for a moment and then asked, "What is the disposition of the…cellular material…you extracted?"

   "I had the embryo destroyed once the other Sisters performed their analysis for the report you just read."

   "A pity. It seems that we no longer have a genetic sample from David, then. Given that, putting Ardenn through the Chrysalis in such a weakened condition serves no purpose at this point. We will suspend that step for now. Let the poor woman rest for the moment." Sitting back down, Irilenn paused before removing the data crystal from her terminal. Understanding that the conversation was over, Rakell bowed and turned for the door.

   As she turned away, Irilenn spoke again. "When Sister Ardenn has recovered, we will begin adjusting her attitude. As the Circle proved not to be the optimal solution, it will have to be done the 'old fashioned' way, as the humans say. Send her North. A little time spent shivering alone in the dark can sometimes work wonders on recalcitrance. I want her safely away at the Temple of Frost before Delenn comes to visit us." Tapping her chin, she mused, "On second thought, we can make her stay even more stressful than merely being alone. Send Vadenn with her, and see to it that they are billeted together."

   "You command, I obey," Rakell repeated automatically.

   "Take care of this quickly, Sister. I have wasted too much time on Ardenn already and we need to concentrate on our upcoming meeting now. The handling of our visitors will take much preparation."

   "Meeting with Delenn troubles you?"

   "Oh, absolutely not. Delenn is crafty and intelligent but still very much Minbari in her thinking. She will approach this meeting as a Minbari would. This makes her arguments predictable and I have many avenues available to unbalance her. If all else fails, she has never forgotten that she is my offspring and I can use that to distract her if she proves more intransigent than I expect." Pursing her lips, Irilenn paused for a second and then continued, "Rakell, reason and emotion cannot share the same bed. One always casts the other aside and usually emotion is the stronger. Delenn will be a challenge, do not doubt that, but her emotions regarding this matter are close to the surface. It should be fairly easy to draw them out. The presence of Anla'Shok Na, though…that makes me cautious. She is both Warrior and human, and that makes for a dangerous and unpredictable combination. She has dual interests…she is Ardenn's foster-mother and wishes her return, but her first duty is to protect Delenn and that will make her more objective. Delenn will listen to her even if she abandons reason for emotion and this complicates matters. If we are to be successful, one of our first orders of business will be separating the two of them as soon after their arrival as possible."

   "As you say then," Irilenn's deputy acknowledged. Hesitantly, she continued, "May I ask a personal question, Irilenn?"

   "Of course. There are no secrets between us, old friend."

   "Does it ever bother you that these people you are manipulating…these players in the Plan…are your own blood? Delenn is your child, Mistress…your obligation does not change that. David is the child of your child. Even Ardenn will become so if the Plan comes to fruition."

   "The Order does not recognize familial relationships as you well know, Enlightened One. Still, I acknowledge that they are of my blood. I take no pleasure in any of this…none at all, but the needs of our race have to come first. If you must know, I console myself with the knowledge that all three of the people you name will ultimately benefit from my actions. David and Ardenn will eventually have each other…assuming our little Sister finds the path and stays on it. As for Delenn, we should know fairly soon after our meeting if her part in the Plan is concluded…or if she has a little more to contribute."

   "You walk a dangerous path regarding that…but I will say no more. You already know my mind regarding your plans for her. As for the rest, it gladdens me that you at least acknowledge your blood…your descendants as such." With a short bow, Rakell turned to leave. Before walking out, she stopped and turned back to her superior. "One more item, Mistress…just a detail not contained in the report."

   "Can I not get you to your duties?" Irilenn muttered under her breath as she rolled her eyes in annoyance. "What is it now, Rakell?".

   "I will not speak of this to you again, as you have commanded," Rakell began, "but I believe you ought to know. The Sisters who analyzed the 'cellular material' extracted from Sister Ardenn's womb performed a quick scan of it under a gene splitter. They informed me that had the cellular material been left undisturbed and had the cellular material by some chance survived…she would have had green eyes, dark hair, and eventually a partial bonecrest much like Delenn's. The 'cellular material' would have borne a strong resemblance to her grandmother…and to you."

   "You…are…dismissed, Sister! Get out!" Irilenn hissed coldly, her face alight with anger. Rakell bowed again, turned and walked out. As the other woman's footsteps faded in the distance, Irilenn glanced down at her hand and realized she was clutching the data crystal tightly in her fist. She released her grip and watched as the gleaming little shard fell to the floor. Getting up, she started to retrieve it but instead simply looked at it for a long second. <Just a little clump of cells…that is all. Only two days old…nothing to be concerned about…>

   Bringing her foot up, Irilenn stepped on the crystal, grinding it into the floor with her heel until it had been reduced to powder. Bending to survey her handiwork, the Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria then brushed the powdered evidence that was all that remained of her first great-grandchild into her hand and cast it into her garbage bin.

   ***

   "I am so very sorry, little Sister," Rakell murmured to the small unconscious figure lying on the narrow bed.

   Ardenn was back in her bedchamber…having been returned from the Healing wing of the temple without incident. She slept…and yet it was not the natural sleep of a body needing rest. It was the drugged sleep of a body subjected to an unwarranted invasion. The Enlightened One knew that the young woman would wake soon…and when she did, she would eventually find out that she had somehow lost a day. If fate were kind, Ardenn would never find out why that day had vanished from her life.

   "If I had known…if I had even suspected…no one would have touched you, not even the Mistress herself."

   Sister Rakell was coming to realize that fate, at least in this matter, was rarely kind…but it did at least possess a sense of symmetry. Even as one door closed, another opened. The young female had lost a child…no, Rakell corrected, a child had been ripped callously from her and nothing could ever atone for that. Still, that very loss now virtually ensured that the young woman would eventually see her David again. Had Ardenn not already conceived, the older Sister reflected, she would have awoken missing not one day, but many. She would have found herself transformed into a hybrid without her consent…and likely carrying a child conceived from the shamefully stolen remnants of her one and only coupling. All words to the contrary aside, Rakell doubted Ardenn would have ever been released had that fate come to pass. There were no oaths binding enough in any culture to still her tongue about a secret that explosive…nor should there be.

   Managing a watery smile, Sister Rakell reached out and brushed a finger lightly along Ardenn's crest, being careful not to wake her. "You look so much like your mother that it almost breaks my heart, little one. She was the most beautiful and guileless female I had ever seen." Her expression becoming wistful, she added, "Katell was right to pronounce himself the most fortunate male on the planet…even if only for a few short cycles. I think you resemble him in spirit, even if Fara gave you her form." Sighing, she placed her hands on her knees and rose tiredly from her seat. "I am sure you are looking back at me from beyond the veil right now, little brother, wondering why I am not doing more to help my mal'iersa. Katell, I am doing all I can…but Irilenn no longer listens to me and I have no choice other than to work within the restrictions of the obligation! I pray that wherever you are, you understand that. I wish so much that I could do more…but I promise you that no more harm will come to your little girl. Not while I am here."

   Moving to the room's small desk, the Enlightened One withdrew two pieces of parchment from the folds of her robe and opened them. Retrieving a stylus, she looked at the first. "I apologize, Vadenn. You were not suited for the burden Irilenn thrust on you all those cycles ago…and perhaps if I had noticed sooner, I could have helped you." Hastily, she scrawled her glyph on the paper and replaced it in her robe. "Perhaps when this is all concluded, I still will…if I am able."

   Regretfully, Rakell turned her attention to the second paper. "The Mistress commands that you go North, mal'iersa. I have no choice but to obey, although I weep to send you. There is little I can do for now…but…" Taking up the stylus again, she penned her glyph a second time and then paused a second. Her hand moving to the top of the page, she hastily set the pen to paper and drew a small symbol resembling a triangle with a circle rising above it. "This will make your stay marginally more bearable. That is not Irilenn's intent, of course…but she did not forbid it and you did, after all, stand before the Circle."

   Folding the paper and returning it to its place alongside the first, the second in command of the Sisters of Valeria then withdrew another small object and turned back to the bed. Looking down at the sleeping woman, she murmured, "Your true Mistress will be arriving soon, along with the one you have chosen as your mother. I think Katell would have been amused at your selection…but Fara would have been shocked. She was always a little afraid of the humans." Holding the item in her hand, a data crystal, up to her face and gazing at it, she added, "The Temple of Frost is a harsh, thankless place but, Valen willing, you will not have to endure it for long. Stay true to yourself and if all goes well, you should be leaving around the time I arrive to take your place."

   ***

   "I implore you Madame President, do not leave now…you traveled long to come to us and we want you to stay. Sister Ardenn is not a closed issue, despite our reluctance to part with her again so soon. You have served your whole life as a leader and diplomat…surely you recognize that there is always room for negotiation?"

   "Negotiation, Sister Rakell? I think your Mistress made her position clear."

   "If I might make an observation, Delenn. In negotiation with the Sisterhood, nothing is ever clear."

   "Your point is taken. Still, if Susan and I return, I expect clarity. Will I be disappointed?"

   "I cannot promise Irilenn will speak the words you desire…but for my part, I will tell you as much as I am able. Is that acceptable?"

   ***

   Delenn and Susan followed Rakell back into the office of the Mistress to find Irilenn awaiting them, a pensive expression on her face. Bowing apologetically as the two women entered, the Mistress stammered, "I…Delenn, I do not wish for you or Susan to leave our Temple angry. If Sister Rakell or I offered some offense, please be assured that it was unintentional and is regretted. I would appreciate it if you would stay. We receive so few visitors and it is good to have new people to talk to."

   "There was no offense, Mistress," Delenn replied, bowing. "But Anla'Shok Na and I came here to see if some accommodation regarding Sister Ardenn could be reached that would allow her to return to us. As it appears that is not possible, it makes little sense for us to remain."

   "It is not impossible, but what you ask for is complicated. Surely you understand that?" Irilenn indicated. "To simply return Sister Ardenn without relaxing her obligation would be easy enough for me, but it would be exceedingly cruel for her…and your family. This is what you truly want?"

   "Of course not…not under those circumstances," Delenn clarified. "Perhaps I am being naïve, but I fail to see the complications, at least none that could not have been avoided had you not elevated her to begin with."

   "Ardenn's elevation was much debated prior to its announcement, Madame President," Rakell replied. "You are not of us and forgive me for saying so, but we do not owe you any explanation. I will tell you, however, that it was not done on a whim nor was malice toward her our intention."

   "Truly?" Delenn countered, arching her brow ridge inquisitively. "I am so gladdened to her this, because on the surface it appears as if you elevated her to keep her away from David, and malicious that would indeed be. It also occurred to me that since she is 'kas'Valen' you might view her more as valuable property than a living person. Perhaps you were worried your property might leave the Sisterhood if she knew she had another place to go where she would be loved and accepted. I even had the fleeting notion that you might be lashing out at me for some reason by punishing her…although I can think of no reason why you would wish to anger me by doing so."

   "It was nothing of the sort, I assure you," Irilenn interjected. Shaking her head slightly, she explained, "Think for a moment, Delenn. Picture the scenario had we not elevated her. Had we simply allowed her to proceed on the course she was following, your son would have eventually taken her as his mate. It violates the traditions of our people, this is true…but my mind in this matter is not unlike yours. The edict banning the joining of Minbari and offworlders, at least humans, is outdated and best left to history. Still, in the process Ardenn would have forsworn the Order."

   "So what?" Susan chimed in. "Let her forswear. I've heard a few things about the way that poor girl was treated while she was growing up. Your Sister Vadenn treated her like a slave…and others in your Order turned a blind eye. Now, you two stand there pretending that you actually care about her. Where were you when she really needed someone, huh?"

   Hastily, Delenn glared Susan to silence. "Mistress…you are likely correct in your supposition that she would have left," she interrupted before either Sister could reply to the human woman's outburst. "Anla'Shok Na's observation was blunt, but not entirely without merit as you no doubt realize. Ardenn was not well treated within the Tuzanor chapter and it is likely that she would have severed her relationship with the Order once it was safe for her to do so. This to my understanding is not particularly unusual. I know the oaths binding Apprentices and Attendants to the Sisterhood are far less restrictive than those binding a full Sister. Some who come to you are not suited for your lifestyle and do leave when they find their paths lie elsewhere. It would have been no different for Ardenn. She is a woman with many diverse skills and had she chosen to leave, I would have found her a meaningful position within my administration."

   "Yes…and it is likely that you would have taken her before the Mirs for adoption...or perhaps David would have taken her and announced her as his wife before the Clan Elders," the Mistress countered. Gently, she explained, "Delenn, please understand, I know the man who was once my brother. Your Va'malier…your uncle has not forgotten that you manipulated him into allowing you to take a human as your mate, and he does not take subterfuge lightly. Out of spite, Callenn would deny Ardenn the protection of the clan…not because she is unworthy but as retaliation against you. As for David, were he to recite the Ritual of Declaration before the Elders he would be publicly censured for his impudence. As he considers himself human and holds not closely to the ways of our people, probably a censure would not matter much to him. To Ardenn, however, it would. She would blame herself for the perceived shame on him."

   "The opinion of the Clan matters little. John and I…"

   Sighing, Irilenn indulgently reached out and took Delenn's hand, cutting the younger Minbari off. "You and Entil'zha… you are powerful and influential people and yes, I know you could offer them some protection in your own right. But David and Ardenn are not powerful and influential in and of themselves. They would be left to live with no clan and none of the protection the Order could provide. They would be completely dependent on you and David's father if they stayed on Minbar. They are young, and you and your husband will not live forever. And if they chose to relocate to Earth, Ardenn's presence would be despised in their society. The humans have not completely forgiven our people for the war and probably never will."

   "It is a moot point anyway," Delenn countered, gently withdrawing her hand. Her former mother had not physically touched her since she was a small child, and the tender gesture from one whom had renounced their relationship made her uneasy in a way she could not immediately define. "She has been elevated already, and as you say, it cannot be undone. You have told me that you have the capability to return her as a Sister, yet with portions of her obligation suppressed. Were I to leave here with Sister Ardenn and that suppression, your Order would have my gratitude. It is not much to offer you, I know…but as you noted earlier, having Ardenn in my service as an apprentice brought some small amount of prestige to the Sisterhood. I cannot imagine that having her in my service as a full Sister of Valeria would lessen that." Pausing a moment, Delenn decide it was time to make a small concession…to 'test the waters' as John might say. "Were Ardenn to be returned, I would not keep her as my aide in any event. It is likely that such close daily contact with me while also engaged in the joining rituals with my son would make her uncomfortable. I would assign her other duties more befitting her new station…and that would, by default, leave her old position available. I was quite pleased with Ardenn's work and I would not be adverse to perhaps…accepting another of your Order to fill it?"

   "We would be honored to provide another. Having one of our Order in such an influential position increases our visibility and this pleases me," Irilenn conceded. "But consider this. In addition to being in your service, Sister Ardenn would be a member of your family…in fact, by ancient law she already has a formal claim on your son. She skipped several rituals and seduced David before returning to us. She spent her last night in your service taking pleasure in his bed. Were you aware of that?"

   "Yes, although I believe the coupling was less 'seduction' and more 'mutual consent' on their parts. Perhaps it would have been traditionally correct for them to abstain and perhaps both allowed their instincts to sway their reason, but the situation you placed her in forced the issue. She had no time and chose to give David the one thing she thought would indicate the depth of her love. Ardenn is worthy of him…and if I thought for one moment that she was anything less, I would have stopped her from meeting him that last night. Now, what is done is done…she has committed herself to him and my son is an honorable man. He will honor her commitment. Given that, if she returns and the two of them desire to share sleeping arrangements then my only concern will be that one not steal the bedclothes from the other in the middle of the night."

   "As you say, then. It is not my place to criticize and I would not in any event," the Mistress noted with a hint of amusement in her voice. "I only point out that were I to grant Sister Ardenn a suppression, she is in a position to declare herself David's mate without your consent based on that coupling."

   "Why would she even consider such a thing? There is no need. She already knows John and I approve of her. I do not believe Ardenn would risk angering us when she knows that all she has to do is ask…particularly after the conversation we had about trust following her misstep with the original recall."

   "Perhaps taking your husband's family name as her own as the humans do would be lure enough for her to risk your displeasure…then again, perhaps not. Who can say with young ones?" Irilenn replied with a slight chuckle. "The mating urge is powerful enough even in more mature people…people with more experience and discipline. Her urges appear to be very strong indeed. They were strong enough to make her manipulate David into granting her his bed prematurely…an activity she knew to be inappropriate even as she welcomed him into her. It would not greatly astonish me if she were capable of other improprieties…other questionable decisions."

   "We are all capable of making questionable decisions, Irilenn," Delenn countered, amused that her former mother would question the character of a woman she had just elevated into an organization known for taking only those whose characters were deemed beyond reproach. It seemed a clumsy argument. "We are all Grey, and Ardenn is no different. She is far from perfect…but I have watched her. She is closer to the star than the candle, I believe…certainly closer than the four of us. Were you to grant her suppression, I highly doubt that she would take advantage of my efforts on her behalf or your generosity by trying to force her way into my family. Knowing Ardenn as I do, I think it more likely she would conduct the rituals she skipped after the fact to gain consensual and proper recognition of the relationship."

   "Yes," Irilenn agreed, placing a crooked finger to her lips and knitting her brow ridge in consternation, "And this is yet another concern. Once she obtains that recognition, the joining will become public and others of this Order will learn of it. This is my problem more so than yours, Delenn…but it is an important consideration. Many among us have given up families to serve our people…but our hearts are not made of ice. There are Sisters who still weep at night, longing for the husbands and children they forswore…who have not seen those they loved in many, many cycles. We accept the obligation, to be sure, but we never truly forget those we knew and loved before. How could we? They are still a part of what makes us who we are. And now, those Sisters will see one of their number who does not have to serve without the companionship of a family…one who wears crimson yet sleeps in the warm embrace of a handsome male and is the confidant of people in the highest circles. And they will ask, 'Why does Sister Ardenn get to live so and not I? Why can I not enjoy the benefits of both worlds as Sister Ardenn does?' How should I answer them? Do you not think I would have returned in the beat of a heart to you and your father if I could have arranged such for myself all those cycles ago?"

   On the surface, Irilenn's argument made sense and Delenn would have accepted it as a logical concern, but her former mother's insinuation that she would have returned home rankled her. "No, I do not think you would have returned to us," the younger Minbari tersely replied. "There is a significant difference between you, the rest of the Sisterhood and Ardenn. You all accepted the obligation and joined the Order of your own free will. Ardenn did not. You arranged her elevation so her choices were either to forswear or become outcast…thereby throwing her life with David away as well as her life here. You knew she would have stayed with me if she had a choice…and you knew that even I could not protect her had she not obeyed you and returned here." Her voice becoming clipped as her irritation began turning to anger, she continued, "I find that far more manipulative than Ardenn's innocent so-called 'seduction' of David and I find your treatment of my ier'saia unacceptable. Ardenn wants to serve…but she wants to serve with us more than she wants to serve here. She wants the love of a family more than she wants to live in cloister. She wants David's 'warm embrace' more than she wants to wear crimson. You, Mistress Irilenn…you could have turned away from this life. No one forced you into the Order and there would have been no repercussions had you chosen not to accept the obligation. You are here because you wanted this more than you wanted life with my father. You wanted arcane secrets more than you wanted your daughter's love. Do not compare the choice you and your fellow Sisters made to the forced elevation you presented to Ardenn. They are as night is to day."

   Irilenn stood silently for a moment, absorbing Delenn's accusing glare before murmuring, "Rakell, I believe Susan would enjoy a tour of those areas of the temple open to visitors. I am sure she is curious about us, and it would do our Sisters and Apprentices good to meet a human in person. I wish to speak to Delenn alone for a while. I will send for you when our conversation is concluded."

   "You command, I obey, Mistress," Rakell weakly acknowledged, turning to Susan and indicating a door opposite the one they had entered previously.

   "Are you going to be all right?" Susan worriedly murmured to Delenn as Rakell waited.

   "Go with her. I will be fine," Delenn whispered in reply, not taking her eyes off her former mother. To Susan, her friend looked anything but fine. Delenn had gone even paler than usual. A little shakily, she continued, "She baited me and I walked right into it as you would say. It was a mistake on my part…I should have remained silent rather than speak the truth, but I am committed now. Go ahead, and remember what I told you. Remain noncommittal until we can determine exactly what they want."

   "The same goes for you," Susan softly rejoined, hoping the Sisters couldn't hear. "Don't let her get under your skin…and don't trade away the homeworld. I love Ardenn, but there are prices that can be too high." Touching the Minbari woman lightly on the arm, she nodded in Irilenn's direction. "People who get upset and emotional make mistakes…if anyone is going to get upset, let it be her. Got it?" Delenn nodded slightly in acknowledgement and Susan added, "Call me if you need me," before moving to join Rakell.

   Rakell whispered something to Susan and the two moved off, exiting through the door the Sister had earlier pointed out. Irilenn watched them go, turning back to her remaining guest once the door closed. Sighing, she clasped her hands in front of her and murmured, "Ah' ier'sa…it appears you and I have more to discuss than I first thought…"

   ***

   "Much they have to talk about," Sister Rakell whispered to Susan as she motioned the human woman toward the door leading out of the chamber, "And it is best we are not present for it. I believe that their conversation will cover more than Sister Ardenn's disposition."

   Susan spared a last look back at her friend as Rakell softly closed the door behind her. "Dammit…I halfway expected something like this to happen," she murmured. "All we came here to do was help Ardenn get back the life she wants to have. I didn't want Delenn getting bogged down in personal issues."

   "Yes," Rakell sighed in agreement, "But perhaps it is better this way, although it would seem not to be so at first. With us gone, they will not have to maintain an illusion of polite civility should the conversation become confrontational. Neither will lose face and each will know the other's true position. While it may be emotionally unsettling, that is not necessarily a state to be avoided in every circumstance."

   Susan turned to her companion and replied, "I just hope it doesn't get too bitter in there. Delenn values harmony, but she's a fighter when the circumstances demand it. For the good of all concerned, I don't want her leaving here with a bad taste in her mouth. We're not your enemies and she's willing to iron out an agreement…a reasonable one."

   Motioning for Susan to walk with her, Rakell started down the corridor adjacent to the door they had just exited. "Anla'Shok Na…would it offend you if I addressed you as Susan? Titles can be so awkward in conversation between two people." Susan nodded, and the Minbari Sister continued, "Yes…a reasonable agreement. We want an agreement and hopefully somewhere in their discussion of personal issues, Irilenn and her ier'sa…her daughter…will remember that this is the purpose of their meeting." Glancing at the human woman beside her, she asked, "And what about you, Susan? What to you would constitute a reasonable agreement?"

   Susan stopped. "Look…before we go any further, I want you to understand that I'm not cutting any deals without Delenn's concurrence. I want Ardenn back, make no mistake about it…but one of my jobs is to cover Delenn's back and I take that very seriously. I won't agree to anything that obligates her without her knowledge."

   "That is most admirable," the Enlightened One noted with a small smile. "You are very loyal, Susan. Delenn does well to trust you as we hear she does. Tell me though, can you say the same for Delenn herself? Does it not worry you that she might make an agreement in haste without consulting you? One that obligates you to support an arrangement that you might not have otherwise accepted?"

   "I can't control what Delenn does or doesn't do. I work for her and as your people say, sometimes understanding isn't required, only obedience." Susan chuckled as the words left her mouth and observed, "Of course, my track record for obedience is considered relatively poor, even among my own kind. I cautioned Delenn not to make any quick decisions, but her track record for listening to Anla'Shok Na is also a little spotty."

   "You are honest as well…another admirable trait," Rakell observed. "Still, you have not answered my question. Had you the authority, what sort of agreement would you make?"

   "You really want to know? Okay. Honestly, were I alone responsible for securing Ardenn's return, I would have simply come here and asked you to release her…out of compassion if nothing else. I would have pleaded compassion for her, compassion for the man who loves her and compassion for the family that's come to love her as well. If you found that acceptable, you'd have the satisfaction of knowing that a person who doesn't forget favors owed you one." Smiling ruefully, Susan concluded, "It's my guess that you want something more than that."

   "That was well spoken, Susan," Rakell murmured in response. "Unfortunately, like you, I am not empowered to make any decisions regarding Ardenn's situation without the consent of the Mistress. Were it otherwise, the words you just uttered would be all I would require." Sighing, she continued, "But it is not so. You have no doubt been among us long enough to recognize that for a civilization devoid of that class known to humans as 'politicians', our society is quite political. I will not insult your intelligence by telling you that this parley is not without manipulation…both on our side and yours."

   "Yeah, maybe…but the difference is that this contest of manipulation will determine whether an innocent young woman gets to go home or stays here locked away from the people who love her. There's a time for politics, Sister…but this isn't it."

   "Susan, you think us cruel…and I am sorry that you have that impression. We are not, and to my mind we have done nothing to make anyone believe we are. The Order is focused…we have a purpose, but it is not a nefarious one. We do 'play politics' as your people would say, but is not your entire human governmental structure based on the concept of contention? Within the Earth Senate, is there not a party in power and a loyal opposition? Do not think us cruel. Think of us as…as your loyal opposition in this matter."

   Susan conceded the point. All things considered, she had no evidence that the Sisterhood was treating Ardenn cruelly, at least not presently. "Even so," she replied, "we're talking about a person's freedom here, not whether to fund a new space station or put the money into wildlife preservation. That makes a difference."

   "Freedom…" Rakell echoed, shaking her head sadly. "You may know more of Minbari ways than most, but you do not completely understand us, Susan…and I am not sure how to explain this to you. No Minbari is free as a human defines freedom, not even a ruler like Delenn. For a Sister, life is even more restrictive. No matter the result of our negotiations, Ardenn will never be as free as you likely want her to be. If you define 'freedom' as Ardenn's ability to leave one of our facilities and return to the man she has claimed as her mate…an illusion of her former life…that is possible. In fact, it is likely. Surely you suspect by now that we have no intention of cloistering her? If we intended such, you would not even be here. This meeting would not be taking place." Sighing, she continued, "If, however, you refer to 'freedom' as permitting Ardenn to live and love outside the influence of the Sisterhood…without a significant amount of control and oversight from the hierarchy of this organization…that can no longer be. No matter where she is, no matter how much time passes and no matter how 'free' she seems, Ardenn will remain a Sister for the rest of her life. She can be ordered to leave behind everything she holds dear and return if ever the Mistress wills it."

   "It sounds like slavery."

   "That is a harsh and inaccurate term. We are not slaves. We are not bought and sold. Elevation is a great honor…a recognition that a person is of such quality that they are worthy of only the highest calling…service to the race. We harness the capabilities of those individuals to collectively serve the greater good of the whole. In return, the individual draws support from the Order and has the satisfaction of knowing she has improved our society."

   "Oh…so you take from each according to her ability and give to each according to her needs, eh?" Susan snorted.

   "You are familiar with this concept then?" Rakell asked. "That is surprising given humanity's reputation for individualism. Perhaps your people are more socially advanced than I thought."

   "I'm a Russian. I'm intimately familiar with it," Ranger One retorted with a hint of sarcasm. "Forgive me for calling it slavery, Sister. The concept you're describing goes by many names on Earth…Utopianism, Marxism, Communism…but the main word we use to describe it now is 'defunct'. Those who followed the concept you describe neglected to take into account that people are motivated by more than merely a desire to serve the greater good. We're also motivated by self-interest. We have wants as well as needs. Quite frankly, we humans weren't selfless enough to make Utopia viable."

   "Well, as you can see, it works here. The Sisters of Valeria have made it work for two thousand of your years. Perhaps that says something about our two races."

   "Yeah, it does. It says that as long as you have a small, handpicked population that joins your Utopian society voluntarily and is truly selfless, you can sustain yourselves. The Minbari are an efficient and cooperative race, Sister. If such a concept worked on a large scale, your people wouldn't have the Caste system…a system that, by the way, is also defunct on Earth. Every Minbari would be equal and you'd have no need for Worker, Warrior or Religious distinctions. Your civilization, after all, is socially thousands of years more advanced than mine…or so I'm reminded on those rare occasions when less enlightened members of your race decide to get condescending with me."

   Sister Rakell laughed, the first honest laugh Susan had heard since entering the Temple. "I suppose I was beginning to sound a little condescending. Forgive me," she chuckled. "To be completely truthful, the concept I described sounds much better when I speak of it than it becomes in actual practice, even among our isolated population. We are people, after all…and even motivated, selfless Minbari females can become jealous when they believe a fellow Sister has a better view out her window or a larger sleeping chamber. Irilenn's concerns about the impact within the Sisterhood of suppressing Ardenn's obligation are real. Still, the fact remains that the authority of the Mistress over Ardenn…over all of us…is nearly absolute. Only two commands are forbidden her: Irilenn cannot order a Sister to kill, and she cannot order a Sister to place another's life in danger."

   Susan mulled that over in silence as they walked. As uneasy as it made her, Rakell's words made her consider an unsettling thought. As much as she wanted David and Ardenn to have each other, was it wise to allow someone as vulnerable to outside control as it seemed the young Minbari would be into John and Delenn's family? "Since we're being so honest with each other, can I ask you a question?"

   "Of course."

   "Do you think Irilenn would use her influence over Ardenn to hurt other members of Delenn's family? Perhaps even Delenn herself?"

   "No…absolutely not," the Enlightened One answered immediately. "When I say that Ardenn will not be free, I do not mean that Irilenn or any of us plan familial sabotage through her. Given what I know of her, I think Ardenn would risk becoming ver'kaff and subsequent banishment rather than obey any instruction that she truly believed would disrupt Delenn's household. I meant that she would remain ultimately answerable to the Mistress for her conduct and her suppression would last only as long as her presence in society served the greater good. Suppressions are very limited, you understand…they permit a Sister to undertake specific, defined activities not normally allowed members of the Order, and those activities have to be of direct and tangible benefit to Minbar and the Minbari people."

   "Sister Rakell, doesn't your Order consider service to the President of the Interstellar Alliance of direct and tangible benefit to this planet?"

   "Without a doubt it is…and were that all the President wanted, a suppression so Ardenn could continue to serve her, a case could easily be made. But Delenn herself is part of the problem. She is intelligent and wise, but she does not understand our Order and knows not exactly for what she asks. Delenn links service to her with Ardenn's personal life…in effect she is asking Irilenn to grant blanket suppression so Sister Ardenn will be answerable to her as President and also as her ier'saia…her heart-daughter, the mate of her son. This cannot be…they are two different suppressions, and only one can be granted. So far, Delenn has only asked specifically for Irilenn to release Ardenn back into her service, with joining being an afterthought. But, in reality, the joining is the key. Although she has not admitted it outright, all Delenn truly desires is suppression for Joining so Ardenn may formally become her son's mate…and those suppressions are very, very rare. Suppressions for Service are issued from time to time, but a suppression for Joining has not been granted in over one thousand of your years. The last Sister to whom one was issued defied its prohibitions in the end and placed her family first in her heart before the greater good of our people…not exactly setting a strong precedent for consideration of other similar requests."

   "But you said that if an agreement could be hammered out, Irilenn wanted to return Ardenn."

   "She does…but she also needs for everyone concerned to understand the very limited parameters such a suppression would cover. Ardenn could no longer serve or be answerable to Delenn as a superior authority. Service to our race through us would be her first responsibility and she would be closely…very closely…monitored to ensure her priorities remain clear. Yes, she would love David…and Delenn…but she would be answerable to and under the command of the Mistress alone."

   "I think Delenn could live with that."

   "Truly? Suppose the Mistress directed Sister Ardenn…now released from cloister and Delenn's Ier'saia…to undertake an activity that, while harming no one, ran fundamentally counter to something Delenn believed to be right. Knowing her as you do, do you think Delenn could stand by and allow Ardenn to fulfill the command of her Mistress? Do you believe Ardenn would easily follow an instruction she thought would displease her va'saia…her heart-mother? In such a manner are ethical dilemmas created." Sighing, Rakell added, "Still, as with everything else, if such occurred Ardenn alone would decide which instructions to follow…and which were worth the consequences of disobedience."

   Susan grunted in acknowledgement. Rakell was making sense, but she didn't know enough about the Sisterhood's purposes to determine if Ardenn's presence would be a liability or not. She had served the Sisterhood before even as she served Delenn and no conflicts had resulted…but she had been an Apprentice then. "Frankly, this would be easier if I knew your intentions for Ardenn," Susan observed. "Seeing as you're the Enlightened One, maybe you could enlighten me. Who knows? If your purpose behind all this is reasonable, I might even agree with it if I knew what to agree with. Otherwise, we're just two women out here blowing hot air at each other, seeing as neither of us is empowered to make a decision."

   "We are not out here to make a decision. We are out here to allow our superiors the social latitude to make a decision. With that said, Mistress Irilenn considers it very important that your impression of us is a favorable one, Susan…and I do as well. My intention is to make you familiar with those aspects of the Sisterhood that are permitted for outsiders to know."

   "So far, my impression of the Sisterhood is largely based on what Ardenn has told me. To be honest, her recollections are somewhat less than favorable. I tell it like it is Sister. That poor girl was mistreated…and she's so even-tempered and eager to please that I can't for the life of me get why anyone would want to treat her badly."

   "I understand your confusion, Susan…and I understand why Ardenn's feelings about the Sisterhood are ambivalent. We strive to be good guardians for those young ones in our care…but we are people, with all of the fallacies that people have. In a sense, the Order failed Sister Ardenn. I will not go into all of the mistakes we made, but you are correct…her elder sibling treated her poorly and I deserve a share of the blame for that. Vadenn was too young for the responsibility when Ardenn was placed in her care, but times were hard then…there was chaos everywhere and we had few options open for her. It was a problem I should have corrected when I became the Enlightened One, but did not." Shaking her head with what Susan realized was real regret, Rakell murmured, "I did not know who she was then," under her breath. Realizing she had spoken aloud, the Sister cleared her throat and continued, "Well…I cannot change the past…but now that Ardenn is a Sister, her degradation is finished. Sister Vadenn no longer has any authority over her."

   Mentally filing the senior Sister's seemingly unintentional slip away for the future, Susan clasped her hands behind her back and said, "I'm talking about more than Ardenn's upbringing, Rakell. I'm talking about now. Why couldn't you just leave her with us? She was happy and loved."

   Rakell sighed. She was on dangerous ground, and she knew it. "I am not allowed to go into too much detail, unfortunately," she slowly said. "Suffice it to say that we have no objections to a union between Sister Ardenn and Anla'Shok Sheridan, but we cannot allow Ardenn to forswear the Sisterhood in the process."

   "Because she's a doublet? One of these kas'Valen children?" Susan interjected.

   Choosing her words carefully, the middle-aged Sister replied, "Yes, that is part of it. She is unique…the only one of her kind. This makes her valuable to us. Even more importantly, it makes her valuable to Minbar."

   "So she is property, after all," Susan muttered with a trace of disgust. "For some reason, I thought your people were better than that."

   "That is an incorrect and demeaning statement, and it is the second time I have heard it uttered," Rakell harshly retorted. "I wish not to hear it again. Ardenn is a living woman. She is not property. She is valuable as a person and I…we see her as such, no matter what you or your President may think to the contrary"

   "Well, you sure have a funny way of showing it," Susan evenly replied, studiously reminding herself of the advice she gave Delenn earlier and striving to keep her temper in check.

   Rakell paused in her steps and looked out a window. Shaking her head as she gazed at the garden below, she fell silent for a moment, lost in thought. After a brief period of reflection, she murmured, "Forgive my outburst. I know how our treatment of Ardenn appears to you, and your observation has some merit. The fact that your opinion is a valid one is what angers me, not the observation itself. Now…" Turning back to Susan, she briskly rubbed her hands together and forced some cheerfulness back into her voice as she continued, "I have heard that you were to represent Sister Ardenn's mother before Delenn and her husband as part of her joining petition. You must have a high opinion of her to honor one of her station so."

   "We humans honor strength of character above station," Susan replied. Snorting, she amended, "Well, I do, anyway."

   "Did she not disappoint you by hiding her recall?" Rakell asked. "That is not what I would consider the act of one with strength of character."

   "That wasn't a character issue," Susan indicated. "It was a solitary act of desperation from a frightened young woman who was about to be separated from the man she loves. Having strength of character doesn't mean that you're fearless, and it doesn't mean that all of your decisions are the right ones. Had Ardenn's character been less strong she probably would've run away rather than return here…and we wouldn't be trying to help her right now. Hiding the recall disappointed all of us, but it didn't weaken our love for her. Even the best people make mistakes."

   "And how do you differentiate between a single mistake and a character flaw? What did she do to impress you so?"

   "It was no one thing, really." Stopping, Susan turned and faced the Sister. "I'm not an old woman yet, despite the gray hairs. By your reckoning, I'm not even middle-aged…but in my life, I've seen more horror and beauty than most of both our races. I've seen the strongest people come apart under stress. I've seen those others think weak become dynamic leaders under the most arduous circumstances, and I've seen people who could have gone either way stand by and do nothing. In all that, I've learned one thing: The loud ones are not the people who change the Universe. It's the quiet people, Sister…the humble people…those are the ones you need to watch. They're the people who step forward and achieve greatness. John Sheridan is a prime example. I love Delenn, but she's been driven all her life by Valen's prophecies. She's always known she has a destiny. John…he had none of that. He was an ordinary guy. The last thing he ever wanted was to fight…whether against your people, the Shadows, the Drakh or even fellow humans. But each time he fought, he fought because he knew it was the right thing to do. He achieved greatness…and may yet achieve more. I've become a good judge of character, Rakell, and I'll tell you this…Ardenn is very quiet and very humble. She may never be powerful in a way we'd recognize, but if given a chance I think she'll achieve her own brand of greatness. I intend to see that she gets her chance."

   "You have come to love her personally." Rakell smiled and inclined her head slightly, indicating that they should begin walking again.

   "If I hadn't, we wouldn't be talking right now. As you say, I represent Ardenn's mother and I'll continue to do so until Ardenn asks me not to. I'm a busy woman, but I'm never too busy for my children and right now my daughter needs her mother."

   "I think you are correct," the Sister murmured under her breath, almost too faintly for Susan to hear. More loudly, she said, "If I may ask, what do you gain from this arrangement?"

   "I have no real family left. My own mother died when I was a child, my father passed on twenty-seven years ago and my only sibling died in our war against your people. There have been other deaths along the way…people I cared about, even loved." Chuckling ruefully, Susan continued, "I guess the upshot of all that is that the few close friends and loved ones I have left…I watch over them. I protect them when I can. I don't just do this for Ardenn. I feel the same way about David…and Delenn, although she's a little old to be my child. Even she needs mothering from time to time, as much as the idea rankles her."

   "We have a lot in common, I think," Rakell observed with an understanding smile. "We do not normally discuss our lives prior to being called into Valeria's service, but I also have almost no surviving close relations. My parents waited long to attempt having children, and they passed before we even knew of your people. My own mal'ier, my brother, was killed when we briefly forgot ourselves and warred against each other eighteen cycles ago. By then, I was in the Sisterhood of course…but I still felt the loss. Were it not for my little mal'iersa, I would have no close relations at all."

   "Mal'iersa?"

   "Oh…I am sorry. 'Mal'iersa' is both Fik and Adronato for…ah, the daughter of one's brother? Nephew? No, 'mal'ierma' is nephew…"

   "Niece?" Susan supplied.

   "Yes, niece." Sighing, Rakell continued, "But that is in the past…now, like you I have many children, though none are my issue. As the Enlightened One, I am a 'mother' of sorts to all those in the Order. I am the conscience of the Sisterhood…the Mistress supplies the will and direction, and I supply the compassion."

   "And Irilenn?"

   "Irilenn…" Rakell breathed regretfully as she clasped her hands behind her back and closed her eyes, "Irilenn seems cold and distant, I know. She is burdened by the duties that have fallen to her and they have worn away at her warmth and compassion over the cycles. Her responsibilities are so much greater than you or Delenn realize…yet she is mortal. Her duty is to our people…but sometimes she has difficulty differentiating between 'people' as the Minbari race and 'people' as individual Minbari." Shaking her head sadly, she added, "She was not always so. I wish you and Delenn could have known her before…before she was introduced to the Plan. I was merely her Apprentice, then…but she was a wonderful and caring mentor."

   Susan's eyebrows shot up. She had felt for the past few minutes that Rakell was sending her subtle signals, although she had no idea of the meaning behind them, or the Enlightened One's motivation for doing so. This latest one was too blatant to pass up. "Plan? What is this…Plan?"

   "It is…nothing. Merely a slip of my tongue. Please, pay it no mind…" Rakell stammered.

   "Not good enough, Sister," Susan indicated sharply. "Minbari never just have a slip of the tongue. You said that on purpose. You want to talk to me…so talk."

   Rakell paused at a window and looked out. Gazing down at the garden below, she murmured, "I…I cannot speak of it…to an outworlder…no."

   "Fine," the human woman declared, pulling up beside her. If the Enlightened One wanted to pretend that information was being forced from her, Susan was more than willing to go along. "If you want to play it like that, I'll just go and get Delenn. She's not an outworlder and she enjoys it when people try to hide things from her. Prying out secrets is one of her guilty pleasures and she has a nose for conspiracies." Darkly, Ranger One doubted her friend would appreciate being made to sound like a medieval inquisitor, but one used the tools available. "When I tell her you guys have some sort of plan, particularly involving Ardenn, she'll just pounce all over that…and you. You think having your Mistress pissed is bad? Try facing Delenn when she's in 'full Satai' mode. It took her three days of digging to figure out that Ardenn was a doublet. How many more would it take her to figure out her clan…and notify them? Or for her to lodge a grievance with the Grey Council?"

   "What…what are you speaking of?"

   "Oh, please," Susan exclaimed with an exaggerated sigh. "How dense do you think we are? You think we don't know that Ardenn was born here in Yedor but hidden away in Tuzanor after her discovery by your Order? Why would Irilenn do that if not to hide her from her real family? You said that this 'parley' was not without manipulation…that we were playing politics. Well, here I am, and I brought my bat and ball with me. What do you suppose Ardenn's real clan would do if we found them and informed them that one of their daughters…one who was about to marry into the Alliance's most influential family…was hidden from them by the Sisterhood? I know something about the way Minbari clans jockey for influence, Sister. To gain a familial tie to Delenn…even if they didn't know Ardenn from a housecat they'd pursue it. Scandal, I think, would be a weak word to describe what would follow." Nonchalantly examining her fingernails, Susan conversationally continued, "Minbar doesn't like scandals, Sister…but we humans live off them. They're the desserts after a big dinner for us...and a scandal involving some of the most powerful people on Minbar? Humanity would be glued to ISN and laughing at your people as it unfolded. Now, you can talk to me…or you can talk to her. I think this is one of those rare occasions when you'll find my ear far more sympathetic."

   "Telling Delenn will not be necessary," Rakell muttered weakly. "I wondered if I would have the strength for disobedience when the time came," she chuckled sadly, not opening her eyes. "I suppose I do, to an extent." Pressing her forehead against the glass, she began, "No doubt you have heard it said among those of the Religious caste that Minbari souls have been reborn into humans? And those that have made the leap between races are among the most powerful and ancient of us…"

   ***

   As she seated herself, Delenn briefly considered apologizing for her remarks, but only briefly. Irilenn no doubt had made that comment to provoke a response, and her former daughter had provided one. As her feelings on the matter were true, even if rudely expressed, no retraction was merited. Crossing her legs, Delenn folded her hands in her lap and looked attentively at her former mother, trying to keep any emotion off her face as she waited to hear what the older Minbari would say.

   As Delenn watched her, Irilenn busied herself at the tea service, preparing cups for the both of them. As she mixed the ingredients, she murmured, "I had hoped to avoid bringing personal matters into these discussions…we of the Sisterhood tread on thin ice when discussing our lives before we entered Valeria's service. You did not come here for this, Delenn. We are both too old to be having what the humans call 'mother-daughter issues' now, but I see that addressing your unwarranted hostility toward me is unavoidable." Turning from the tea tray, she faced her former daughter, two steaming cups in her hands. "Do you truly think that I do not care about you? That I care not for David…or even your husband? Do you for one turn think that I did not love your father?"

   "I did not say that. My retort was ill timed, but I cannot deny the way I feel. On some level, I am sure you care about us…but listen to your own words. They give you away. You 'care' about us, yet you do not use the word 'love' in connection with us. Even with father, you address your love for him in the past tense. You will not even deign to use my husband's name. His name is John…and he is my strength as well as the love of my life. Even now, in this cold chamber, I can feel him surrounding and supporting me. Can you say the same? Can you recall what it feels like to love and be loved in return?" Indicating the trappings around them, Delenn continued, "Yes, you care about us. I do not doubt this…but I believe you love only the Order."

   "Perhaps you have a reason to feel as you do, I concede…but you are wrong. I perform my duty to our people as Valeria intended. It always comes first, but it is not the totality of my identity. Think you that I have not watched you over the cycles? Followed your progress? Taken pride in your accomplishments, and agonized over your failures? Excuse me, I will clarify…your many failures." Unceremoniously, she sat Delenn's filled teacup down in front of her and began pacing as she sipped her own tea. "The day your father passed beyond, I went nearly mad with grief…a physical and emotional state I am certain that you are familiar with."

   "Oh, yes…I know that feeling intimately," Delenn retorted, sipping her own tea more to maintain her calm than from thirst. She knew the madness of grief. For Dukhat, grief had been a white-hot fire inside her that had precipitated a war, followed by a persistent guilt she felt to this very day. For John, grief had come as a rift in her soul so severe that she might not have healed on her own. Even with the support of Susan and David, there had been nights when she had lain in a cold bed and prayed for her own death. John's recent return had eliminated her loneliness and, as for the prayers…merely thinking the words she had uttered now embarrassed her. But even John's presence had not yet completely erased the aftereffects of his earlier departure. She was still not fully recovered and might never be.

   For her father, however, she had not felt madness…she had not felt the blind rage she felt at Dukhat's death, or the utter helplessness she had felt at John's. She had felt a remote, cold emptiness.

   Mentally shaking herself, Delenn recalled the memory as dispassionately as she could. "I know that Father never stopped loving you. I know that at the end he called for you…but you did not hear. You were not there. You had forsworn the period of your life that he and I represented. Would you like to know what I did? I…I lied to him through my words and actions. As his vision faded, I held his hand and stroked his crest…not as a daughter, but as a mate. I said the words to him that I thought you would have, had you loved him as he did you. I made my father believe that his other half had, in fact, come home just in time to walk him to the portal. It was not hard to deceive him, Irilenn…his mind was confused and I was identical in appearance and voice to the woman he remembered…but it was hard for me to pretend I was you. It was hard to answer to your name when he addressed me. It was hard to speak to him as a lover would when I so desperately wanted to speak as his daughter." Shaking her head sadly, she tried to dispel the melancholy that threatened to overcome her and added, "At least you came to his entombment, although you could not spare the time to speak to your daughter at any great length before the weighty duties of the Order drew you back to this place."

   "What would I have said to the haughty Satai who fancied herself a warrior?" Irilenn countered angrily. "Please…spare me your feeble attempt to assign guilt. You presume much and know little! You shamed him, Delenn. You shamed us! Everything we provided you, and you frittered it away with one moment of rage! Your war against the humans…yes, your war! It was more than Moraval's heart could bear. In the end, he could not live with it…the knowledge that our child was a…a taker of life! My mate's heart broke under the strain his disappointment in you placed on it! And now you sit before me with your bloody hands and think to prattle about love?"

   "His heart was broken long before I was old enough to disappoint him, Irilenn! Do not step away from taking your share of the blame! You locked yourself away in here…only too happy to turn your back on the people who loved you! I was young then, but father…you were his reason for living. Not that you cared about it! Until the day he died, a cross word about you never passed his lips. Honored you above all others he did right until the end, but as I grew older I knew better. You deserted us…you shamed him, and you shamed me! And as for what you provided me…do not insult me by implying that you provided anything! Until I met John, Father and Dukhat were my sole sources of support, material or otherwise!"

   "You really no idea have, do you?" the Mistress murmured dangerously. "Of course you do not…forgive me for forgetting. You are the Chosen. You are above others. You are Special. You hold the galaxy in the palm of your hand and the Universe itself brings the dead back to life because the mighty Delenn sheds a tear! You are…so…deluded. Yes, deluded!" Breathing heavily, Irilenn set her teacup down hard on the table and sat, striving to regain some control of herself. After a moment, she said in a lower tone, "Perhaps it is time that some of your reality I revealed to you."

   "What are you blathering about?" an angry Delenn retorted, rising from the table to pace as she too tried to regain some semblance of calm.

   "I am 'blathering' about you! About the lie you have lived all of your life!" Irilenn indicated. "Think you that you rose so easily in Temple solely through your superior intellect and skill? Think yourself so penultimate in talent among our people that the wisest Dr'aal on Minbar chose to mentor you sight unseen? Think you that the Great Dukhat by chance selected you as his aide from among the hundreds of acolytes available to him? Think you that the title 'Satai' so easily fell into your grasp at such a young age because a great genius you were? No…no, Delenn, it was not so." Leaning in close to the younger Minbari's face, the Mistress murmured, "Throughout your whole life, we of the Sisterhood have discreetly guided you to the places we wanted you to be. You think you have some great destiny? I do not know whether to laugh at your arrogance or cry about it. In truth, your only outstanding qualifications were that you were fair to look upon and an ancient trinket would light when you touched it. I could approach any Sister in this Temple and make it do the same. I could carry a Triluminary into the streets and for every hundred who touched it, five would make it work. You are where you are now only because you had the backing of the Sisterhood. We wanted you assigned to the Valen'tha. We asked Dukhat to accept you as his aide, and his acceptance was no easy thing. He did not want an attractive young female in such close daily contact with him, I assure you! He knew there would be whispers among the Council!"

   "Dukhat and I never had that kind of relationship!" Delenn sputtered, thrown off-balance by Irilenn's unexpected revelations. "I hold to our traditions! I have slept with my husband and no other, and to even suggest any different is slanderous! I loved Dukhat almost as much as Father, but I never even entered his sanctum until after his death…much less his bedchamber!"

   "We know, Delenn! Everything you did or did not do, we know! I am not trying to slander you! I am telling the truth! The Sisterhood did not position you there to be the sexual plaything of one far above your station in any event. My point is that it never occurred to one so wise and special as you that perhaps some assistance you had along your life's journey?"

   "This is all preposterous…" the younger Minbari huffed. Delenn desperately wanted none of it to be true, but in her heart, a seed of doubt was sprouting.

   "Only because your pride does not allow you to acknowledge that perhaps you are not as 'special' as you have always believed yourself to be. Intelligent and talented you are indeed, Delenn…but our world is not short of people equally as intelligent and talented as you. You are the person you are today because the Sisterhood desired it. Were it not for us, you would probably be a high priestess in a Temple…not a lowly position, to be sure, but nothing like what you have attained with our backing. You may wear no crimson robe, Delenn…but you are as much a product of the Sisterhood as I. Nothing has happened in your life that the Order did not influence. You are who you are because you serve the Order."

   "Why…me?" Delenn stammered. "Why did…you maneuver me…manipulate me…"

   Irilenn, aware that she had upset her former daughter and temporarily damaged her ability to view her situation dispassionately, chose to ignore the question for the moment. Rising, she walked to the Earth globe and spun it idly. As the continents slid by beneath her fingertips, she murmured, "Humans are fascinating to study, so much like us and yet so different. They are far more interesting than any of the other races we have encountered…past history notwithstanding. You once said that they were our other halves, did you not?"

   After a moment, Irilenn heard her former daughter's voice. When it came, it was far less confident than it had been before. "I repeated the words that were written in Valen's prophecies. He considered them to be our other halves…but you have not answered my question."

   "Patience, Delenn," the Mistress admonished. "Humor me for a moment. Valen, you now realize, had an ulterior motive for writing as he did…being a human himself. But you are a Minbari who has lived among the humans for half your life. It occurs to me that you might be a more objective judge of our relationship to them than Valen was. Given what you know of them…what do you think? Are they our brothers?"

   Delenn was awash in conflicting thoughts and emotions. Irilenn's revelations about her had shaken her out of her comfort zone, and this turn in the conversation was not helping her regain her balance. She found herself desperately wishing that she had kept on walking when she and Susan had faked leaving earlier. Feeling much like a child in Temple who had been called on to recite an unstudied ritual, she woodenly answered, "Socially, I would consider them our…our younger brothers, for lack of a better comparison. While their species is as old as ours is from an evolutionary perspective, their civilization has not advanced in the same manner. On Minbar, our social advancement has remained relatively unbroken for eight thousand cycles. On Earth, great civilizations have arisen again and again, only to collapse through war or inertia over a corresponding period. They have advanced, to be sure…each civilization that arises is stronger than the one before, but they have not yet achieved their potential as a race. I am not a sociologist, Irilenn…but I believe that the humans have one more collapse coming before they truly become the giants that I think they will be. Were we to live to see the humans five hundred cycles from now, I think we would find them 'between civilizations', even primitive again but…five hundred cycles after that…they will have recovered."

   "And where do you see our people in a thousand cycles?" Irilenn asked. "Have we achieved our potential as a race?"

    "Is it not one of the missions of your Sisterhood to be the keepers of history, Mistress?" Delenn observed. "Surely you could answer better than I."

   "You avoid the question," Irilenn noted neutrally. "And you do so because you know the answer." Waving her arm about the chamber, Irilenn continued, "Everything you see…our whole world…were you to go back five hundred cycles, it would appear the same. Had I the technology, I could take you from here, leave you at any period of our history after Valen and you would be completely comfortable there." Lowering her arm, she looked hard at her younger companion. "But I asked about the future," she murmured. "Delenn, our race has indeed achieved its potential. It achieved that potential eight hundred cycles ago, under Valen, and has slowly been declining ever since. What you see now is all we will ever be. If left unchanged…in a thousand cycles we will be nothing but a pale shade of what we are now, assuming we exist at all."

   "That cannot be true!" Delenn exclaimed, surprised by Irilenn's bold statement. "Our society has ebbed and surged…and the humans are exerting influence as well, but we are still the most advanced of the races and will remain so at least through both our lifetimes. What is the basis for your statement?"

   "You say it cannot be true because as intelligent as you believe yourself to be, your thinking is still rooted in Religious caste dogma," Delenn's former mother retorted. "Being advanced has nothing to do with it. You have already stated the answer when discussing the humans…although you are partially wrong about them. Human civilization is still evolving, but it will not collapse as you envision. The civilization on Earth itself is vulnerable and may indeed collapse…but Humanity's civilization among the stars will not. It will continue to grow, eventually becoming stronger and more dynamic than we can even conceive. Our society, by comparison, will never collapse. Valen constructed such a strong foundation for us that it cannot…and this is both strength and a weakness. Instead of collapsing, we will gradually fade away. Our population is decreasing. It has been decreasing for sixteen hundred cycles and is showing no signs of stopping. Eventually, the Minbari will be a memory…if even that."

   "But you say if left unchanged…" Delenn indicated. "I assume, then, that you do not consider the death of our people as inevitable?"

   "As Valen said, Delenn, the Humans are our other halves," Irilenn replied. "Among those of the Religious caste, this statement is generally thought to reference the spirits…the souls of our races. Many years ago, you thought this way. Do you still?"

   "I do not understand."

   "Do you still think that it is merely the sharing of souls that links our two races?" Irilenn clarified.

   Delenn considered her response for a moment. "We are linked through Valen, obviously…"

   "You are failing to see what the Humans would call the 'Big Picture', Delenn," Irilenn observed. "Or you are purposely being obtuse." Reaching out, she brought the still spinning globe to a halt and released a hidden catch located along the line marking the equator. To a rattled Delenn's surprise, the Northern Hemisphere opened. Reaching in, the Mistress withdrew a thick, worn book. Cradling the heavy volume in her arms, she made her way back over to the table and dropped the book in front of her former daughter, where it landed with a solid thump. "This is why you were selected."

   "The…Nok'Isil? The Book of the Future?" Delenn murmured disbelievingly. "What is this?"

   "The Religious caste has Valen's prophecies. We have the Nok'Isil. Your Jeffrey Sinclair was so, so careful not to pollute what he considered an unalterable timeline between the Shadow War he fought and the one you did. He gave our people mere hints, allusions…paltry scribbling to ensure events happened as he thought they should happen, but there was another one who came to us before him. One who needed our Order's protection to survive…and the Sisters of that era did not provide that protection for free. This book was her payment."

   "Catherine Sakai."

   "Yes, and were you a Sister, I could have you disciplined for even uttering her name within these walls. As it is the two of us, I will let the indiscretion pass. Here we call her Zha Ver'kaff and I believe she was a person once known to you." Reaching around Delenn, Irilenn opened the book at a well-worn marker towards the end. Indicating the page, she continued, "And since she is a person known to you, you were also a person known to her…and thus, to my predecessors."

   Delenn looked down at the pages Irilenn indicated and gasped. The writing on the first was incomprehensible…obviously Adrihi'e, but there was no mistaking the beautifully inked rendering on the facing page. It was a picture of her.

   "There is a whole chapter in the Nok'Isil devoted to you, Ier'sa…everything the Outsider knew about you," Irilenn murmured softly behind the silent woman. After a moment, she added, "When the proper time came, you were not hard for the Sisterhood to find…nor were you difficult to influence."

   "Towards…towards what end?" Delenn whispered, the beginnings of tears in her voice.

   "You already know the answer," Irilenn chided condescendingly. "You uttered the words the first time you stood before the man who became your husband. You are a bridge…a bridge between the Minbari and Humanity. I told you our people are fading. If we are to survive, we will have to fundamentally change. You, Ier'sa…you were the first step. There will come a day when our people…our entire race…will carry an image similar to yours."

   "You intend to transform the Minbari into…beings like me?"

   "Oh, Delenn," the Mistress chuckled, "You are already casting around, trying to reassure yourself that you have some sort of destiny. Is so much of your self-image wrapped up in being special that you feel adrift when you find that you are ordinary? I said you were a bridge…but I did not say you were a good one. In the end you were a bridge only sturdy enough for one to pass. Our people…to save our people, we need more than one flimsy footbridge. We need many strong spans…"

   "I do not understand. I spoke of a bridge of understanding between us and the humans…not a physical bridge…"

   "And yet you underwent the Chrysalis and fulfilled our purpose for you even as you thought you were fulfilling Valen's prophecies. In truth, you were an abysmal failure as a bridge of understanding, Ier'sa. We of the Order watched as both our people and the humans derided you. It is good that you were at least able to entice a sympathetic human into your bed, otherwise you would have failed in body as well as intent."

   "You wish me to…to believe that this ancient text led you to…to maneuver me into undergoing the Chrysalis and taking a human mate?"

   "Look at yourself…listen to yourself." Irilenn murmured. "You already believe it, otherwise you would not be upset." Quietly, she kneeled behind her companion and placed a hand on her shoulder, drawing the younger woman's back against her chest. Delenn did not resist the gesture this time, allowing her former mother to softly knead her shoulder. "You wish to have answers," she murmured in Delenn's ear. "You have always sought answers…you have always been a curious one. I can provide answers…about you, about Ardenn and even some about David that you will be surprised to learn. But there is always a price for what we want. You understand this, Ier'sa…your entire life has been about paying prices, I know. I cannot give any more answers to you for free, nor can I return Sister Ardenn without compensation, as much as my heart cries in sympathy for the anguish we have caused her and the anguish I am causing you. I do care about you. I even love you as much as is permitted, but Ardenn…our need, Minbar's need is simply too great to release her in the manner you and Anla'Shok Na wish. I will suppress her obligation…and she can return to David, but the Joining of their hearts and blood will serve our people first."

   "What…what do you require?"

   "To save our people, Ier'sa…to save Minbar, we must be allowed to do our work. The Sisterhood cannot do this in cloister. We must have the Ban of Valen lifted so we can interact directly with the humans."

   "You ask…you ask for that which I cannot give you," Delenn whispered. "Whether by your doing or my own, I have become influential among our people, even with the Grey Council…but even I do not have that kind of authority. Only Valen can lift a ban he imposed. When I was Entil'zha, perhaps…"

   "You could not have done it," Irilenn finished for her. "When you were Entil'zha, you spoke with Valen's voice…and we considered requesting your assistance then. Even had you been inclined to help us, you would have failed. You are of the Three who are One, but of those three you are the only one who is still mortal in the eyes of our people. You had the voice, yes…but not the mythos. The resistance from the Council would have been too great. They do not want an organization as influential as ours operating freely in our society."

   "And now?" the younger Minbari asked, her heart already heavy with foreknowledge.

   "And now your husband is Entil'zha. Although I doubt you have told him, he can speak to Minbar with the voice of Valen if he is so inclined. A man who has died and arisen twice, Delenn…think of it. If he pronounces the Ban lifted our people and the Council will hear Valen himself speaking." Giving her former daughter's shoulder another gentle squeeze, she continued, "We know you cannot lift the Ban, Ier'sa, and we do not desire that you even try. But we also know that the current Entil'zha can and will do it…if you request it of him. If you succeed in persuading him to do as I ask, your children will find happiness with each other."

   "He is human. He will ask why…"

   The Mistress smiled. "You are a crafty woman…you are after all of my blood although it probably pains you to acknowledge it just now. I am certain you can find a way of gaining his cooperation without divulging too many details. I have watched the two of you over the cycles. He loves and trusts you without reservation, and I know you have always lived up to his love. As for his trust, let us just say that you and I both know you have kept your own counsel before…as a leader of Minbari rightly should."

   "I will be lying to my other half," Delenn sorrowfully murmured. "I will be lying to myself and dishonoring his faith in me."

   "You will not be lying, Delenn," Irilenn countered. "You will merely be providing him with…an aspect of the truth. And in return, David and Ardenn will have each other…and they can begin creating those strong spans I spoke of."

   "David and Ardenn can conceive?"

   "Absolutely. Every study we have undertaken indicates that your son and Ardenn will be extremely fertile together once she undergoes the Chrysalis. They will be far more compatible than you and your husband."

   Sadly, Delenn snorted and shook her head in disbelief. "And all of this will occur under the watchful eye of the Sisterhood, I imagine. Unless you plan to station an observer in their home, I think it will prove rather difficult for you to insure that their union meets your expectations."

   "An observer in their home…what a clever idea. Why did I not think of that?" Irilenn countered with amused sarcasm. "Your enthusiasm pleases me, even if your suggestion is a little intrusive. We do not wish for Ardenn or David to feel oppressed by our presence, so we thought it would be better if Ardenn had a counselor with whom she is comfortable to gently remind her of her obligation to the race from time to time," the Mistress whispered. Reaching into the folds of her robe, she withdrew a large parchment envelope and placed it in front of Delenn, on top of her picture in the book. "You have served the Order all your life…and there will be no difference now, except that you know of it. All I ask is that you acknowledge us by accepting your invitation. It is a great honor you are offered, as you no doubt know."

   Delenn started to panic. Squirming in Irilenn's grasp she wailed, "John…David…no…"

   "Shh…" Irilenn whispered soothingly. "I do not want you to serve here, Ier'sa. I do not want you to wear crimson or leave your family or change your life in any way. I require no oaths of you…no oath would be as binding as your submission to me here in this room will be. Your husband will never know. David and Ardenn will never know. Susan and even my own Rakell will…never…know. No one will know but you and I. Simply take up the envelope and I will answer whatever questions you desire to ask…and this will be our secret…"

   ***

   "Soul transference? That's what Delenn believes," Susan answered, puzzled by Rakell's seeming change in subject. "A long time ago, I heard her tell John that her transformation was meant to at least partially close that door."

   "Yes…given her upbringing among the Religious caste, she would think it so." Licking her lips hesitantly, Rakell continued, "I imagine that, as a human, you probably do not lend much credence to this?"

   "I respect Delenn's beliefs, even if I don't really buy into them. Both her husband and I tend to be pretty eclectic when it comes to religion, so her explanation is as good as any as far as we're concerned." Shaking her head amusedly, Susan added, "John Sheridan's really the human to talk to about all this soul business…that is, if you can catch him in the right mood. He's had more experience with 'higher beings' than just about anyone."

   "We of the Sisterhood are aware of the myths beginning to form around Entil'zha…in fact it is critical to us that our people be cognizant of them, but that is a story for another time. You mentioned that Delenn's transformation was at least partially meant to close the door between the souls of my people and yours. Suppose for a moment that Delenn's belief in soul transference is correct…that souls were passing between our people. Given what you know, would you say Delenn's transformation had the desired effect? Was the transference halted?"

   "First of all, I believe that souls are souls. When separated from the body, they're undefined," the human Ranger leader explained. "But," she continued, "If I accept Delenn's belief completely, then I'd have to say…no. That goal of her transformation was unrealized."

   "How so?"

   "If she were meant to stop the transference, Delenn herself proves her own failure. She's married a human and had a child by him. Which race claims David's soul, Sister…Humanity or Minbari? And there's more…look around you. Our two peoples are closer than they've ever been. Humans, at least among the Rangers, live freely on your world now. We work together every day. Earth and Minbar are almost interdependent, at least as far as the functioning of the Alliance is concerned and…"

   "…And our peoples are starting to find that they have much in common. They can build personal as well as professional lives together. They can fall in love with each other," the Minbari Sister finished. "Sociologists call this the Absorption process, and it has happened many times between different cultures on your world. Now it has begun between your people and mine. Entil'zha and Delenn opened that door even as she believed she was closing the other. David and Ardenn are another example. If you were to be totally honest with me, I surmise that you cold tell me that there might even be other couples among your organization…others that are not spoken of because our society is too inflexible to accept them." Waving a hand dismissively, the Minbari continued, "It is no matter…I will not ask, although it might surprise you to know that the Sisterhood is not against such relationships."

   "Why not? They violate one of Minbar's oldest restrictions…that is, assuming these couples exist."

   "How should I answer you?" Rakell murmured, knitting her brow ridge and placing a knuckle to her chin. Seeming to light on something, she asked, "Given your personal history, you know much of the First Ones. Where do you suppose they originated?"

   "Huh? The First Ones? I assume that they originated just as we did. They just became far more technologically advanced."

   "Not exactly. We believe that the First Ones originated out of races like ours…but it was not mere technological advancement that carried them forward. They physically evolved into the almost omnipotent beings we are familiar with…evolved to a point where their bodies were no longer completely physical. And for every thousand races that started out as humans and Minbari did, perhaps one or two reached that point. Tell me…do you think Humanity will survive to make that transition?"

   "How should I know? I'd like to think so, but God knows we've fallen on our faces enough…"

   "We of the Sisterhood believe the answer is yes." Smiling slightly, Rakell explained, "Is there not a saying among your people, 'If you give enough primates computer terminals, eventually one will write an encyclopedia?' Your race has many primates…and those primates tend to write encyclopedias with unnatural regularity. Your people are survivors. It will not be easy or rapid, but you humans will eventually drag yourselves kicking and screaming into the ranks of the First Ones. Both the Vorlons and Shadows knew this…it is why they expressed such interest in your world before they departed." Her smile fading, the Enlightened One gestured around her at the temple surroundings. "As for my race…what do you suppose?"

   "I'd like to think you'd be there to greet us when we finally arrived."

   "We will not be," Rakell intoned sadly, her voice lowering. "When Humanity ascends, the race known as Minbari will be a distant memory…a footnote in your race's history, if we are even remembered at all. This is why I asked you about Delenn and her transformation, Susan. We of the Sisterhood believe that even if she had been successful it was too little too late. The greatest souls that were once Minbari have already transitioned to Humanity. Your Entil'zha Sheridan is an example of this, as is David. Delenn did not close the door…in fact she opened it wider. Her line…and Irilenn's by default…is now a human one. It is a line of powerful souls now perhaps lost to Minbar forever. Our race has fallen so far that we can no longer sustain ourselves long enough to reach that point in evolution where ascension is a possibility. Our options now are to either die out or…"

   "Take a piggyback ride," Susan finished. At Rakell's questioning look, Susan explained, "Uh, by your own reasoning, do like Delenn did only on a larger scale. She linked her Minbari heritage to us…made it a part of Humanity's heritage. Similarly, your race links itself with another and is carried along with them. A race you think will go the distance."

   "Yes…link ourselves with a race that will go the distance…" The Enlightened One murmured, nodding in confirmation. "And so it begins. Now you know the Plan, at least in general, and the true purpose of the Sisters of Valeria, Susan. We safeguard Minbar not from accident or war, although that was our original function and is still part of the service we render, but from extinction. Our most fundamental obligation is to ensure the Minbari race is present when the day comes to step into the Light…and, as matters stand, we will not be." With a heavy sigh, Rakell concluded, "Not if we remain alone. If we stay as we are…what you see now is the most we will achieve."

   "It's that bad? The Minbari are becoming extinct?" Susan gasped.

   "No," Rakell sadly corrected. "It is worse. We became genetically extinct approximately two thousand of your years ago. We as a race are no longer evolving." Turning away from Susan, she bowed her head and clasped her hands in front of her. "And now that you know," she murmured, "I suppose there is only one question remaining to be asked."

   "What question is that?"

   "Do you and your people have enough forgiveness in your hearts to extend a hand and allow us to stand with you when the day of Ascension comes?"

   Susan was dumbfounded, and somewhere in the part of herself that cared about such things, she knew that the expression on her face was rapidly lowering her companion's estimate of her intelligence quotient. "Uh…so that's what this is about, huh? Your race is going the way of the dodo and you want David and Ardenn…" Her eyes widening, she put two and two together. In the corridors of power on Earth, the medical planners had already considered this eventuality…had considered it ever since Delenn's transformation had shown beyond a shadow of a doubt how close humans and Minbari actually were. Stephen Franklin had even coined a name for the so-called 'True Hybrid'. "Holy Shit! You're trying to create a natural Hubari, aren't you?" Rakell glanced around furtively, confirming her guess in the process and Susan lowered her voice to a hiss. "Do you have any idea…any idea at all of what you're messing around with? Do you know what would happen if the folks back on Earth found out about this? When David was born there were riots and he looked completely human! There are organizations like Bureau 13 out there that would gladly kill to keep this from happening!"

   "It has already happened, Susan!" Rakell whispered, closing the distance between the two. "Who do you think the Children of Valen are? What do you think your friend Delenn is? Everyone who carries Valen's or Drala'Fizha's essence within them is already a Hubari, and…and…" curiously, Rakell paused mid-sentence and stared down at Susan's groin for a second before continuing, "And…uh, your trousers appear to be buzzing at you."

   "Huh?" Ranger One followed the Minbari woman's gaze. Now that it had her attention, she could feel it as well as hear it…an intermittent vibration coming from her pocket. "Oh…uh, that's my link. I took it off when we came in." Looking bemusedly at her companion, Susan managed a lopsided smile. "I'd better answer…I uh, told them not to call unless it was an emergency." Jamming her hand in her pocket to retrieve the buzzing device, she felt it catch on the cloth lining. Jerking the small device free, she was rewarded as a handful of data crystals…various reports and other correspondence she had been reviewing prior to the meeting…rained down on the corridor floor as well. "Shit! Ahem…sorry, excuse my French. I'll need a moment."

   "You appear to be well organized," Rakell remarked, her pensive expression replaced by amusement as she watched the crystals rolling and bouncing across the floor. "You may take your call. I will pick these up for you."

   "Thanks." Turning her back as the Enlightened One stooped to retrieve the crystals, Susan began murmuring into the link.

   As she collected the crystals, Rakell watched Susan's back out of the corner of her eye. She could hear the human woman speaking, but Ranger One had been around long enough to know how keen Minbari ears were and had walked just far enough away to make her words unintelligible. Susan's body language was easily translatable, though. Her shoulders and neck tensed and her speech became more rapid after a moment, indicating troubling news. Straightening, she clasped the retrieved crystals in her cupped hands and awaited her companion.

   After a moment, Susan terminated the conversation and stood for a moment, lost in thought.

   "Is everything in order?" Rakell queried, startling the human woman out of her musings.

   "Ah…I'm not sure, actually." Susan responded. Sighing, she combed her fingers through her hair…a gesture that Rakell, unused to the company of humans, found a little disconcerting. "We're getting reports of unidentified ships nosing around several major hyperspace transit points. Normally, Alliance worlds would use their local resources to investigate, but from all accounts these are big ships…Warcruiser-sized…and we've received too many separate reports for all of them to be vortex mirages. Enough of the ambassadors are concerned about them that they're going to convene an emergency session of the Advisory Council. I've got just enough time to get Delenn back and get her briefed before the representatives start arriving."

   "You are leaving now?" the Enlightened One asked as she handed the crystals over and Susan replaced them in her pocket. "Without us establishing an agreement regarding Sister Ardenn?"

   "We don't really have a choice, I'm afraid." Susan replied. "The session can't convene without the President there, and most of these ambassadors aren't known for their patience. Unless I miss my guess, Ardenn isn't here so she couldn't have come with us today anyway, correct?"

   "Yes."

   Susan began walking back the way they had come, but then stopped and turned back to her companion. "She's all right, isn't she? She'll be okay until we can get back to this?"

   Rakell pursed her lips. "She…she is well, but not happy to be back with us. She knew you and Delenn were coming here today and I think many of her hopes were riding on this meeting. She will be disappointed."

   "I don't really agree with what you've got going on here…but that's between the four of us for now. It doesn't affect us wanting Ardenn back." Sighing, Susan looked away from her companion and shook her head. "Look," she continued, "I get the impression that you at least give a damn…will you let her know that we haven't forgotten her?"

   "I will." Rakell paused as Susan turned and started walking again. Bending over quickly, she came up with a gleaming object in her hand. "Susan, wait." The human woman stopped and the Minbari handed her the object. "I must have missed this one."

   "Oh, thanks," Without a further glance, Ranger one stuck the data crystal in her pocket and continued on. When the reached the door leading back into Irilenn's chamber, Susan grasped the handle but hesitated as her companion placed a hand over hers to still the movement.

   "If you care about our little Sister as much as I believe you do, Susan…please do not leave her for too long. She wears our robes but she does not belong among us. Her heart does not reside here and I fear she will wither if she starts to think she has been abandoned. I do not want that for her."

   "We'll come get her as soon as we get a chance. You tell her that." Rakell removed her hand and bowed respectfully and Susan pulled the door open. The sight that met her eyes was hardly the one she expected. Delenn was sitting and staring forlornly at what appeared to be a book, looking as if she were about a second from bursting into tears. Her former mother was behind her, kneading her shoulders with one hand while sticking a large envelope in front of her with the other. Even from this distance, Susan could read Delenn's name boldly embossed across the front. Furrowing her brows in consternation, she noticed that the envelope bore a strong resemblance to the one Ardenn had earlier received…her 'invitation'. <Oh, Fuck…>

   ***

    "Don't you dare accept that envelope, Delenn!" Susan's shout echoed across the chamber from where she stood in the doorway, a surprised Rakell behind her. Her face alight with anger, Susan marched across the room and snatched the envelope out from under her friend's hands. Crumpling the parchment in her fist, she growled, "Not on my watch you don't, Sister," at Irilenn. "We no longer have time for your games."

   "You are acting against that which you do not understand, Anla'Shok Na." Irilenn murmured dangerously in reply. "You have no authority here and this is not a game. Much more is at stake than you can even comprehend."

   "Don't be so sure. I've been told I have a bad temper, I drink too much and I screw like a man. No one's ever told me that I'm stupid or slow to catch on. So what was the plan here…two for the price of one? Force Delenn into your little sorority as payment for returning Ardenn?" Delenn's shoulders started to shake, drawing Susan's attention away from the offended Mistress. "Don't cry in front of them, Delenn," she murmured, "They aren't worth it." Delenn looked up and to Susan's surprise, she saw that her friend wasn't crying. She appeared to be laughing…but it was not mirthful laughter. Susan cocked her head quizzically and said, "Uh…are you okay? You aren't, um, coming unhinged on me or anything like that are you?"

   "No, Susan…I am not okay, but I will manage." Wiping at her eyes, she waved a hand loosely at the crumpled envelope in her friend's hand and continued, "You know me so much better than my own mother, yet you thought I was actually going to accept that? Old friend, I was mindful of what you said…I was not going to trade away the homeworld, but I needed to know Ardenn's price, as painful as it was to learn it."

   "Well, we can talk about it as we head back. We can't stay. An emergency Council meeting's been called and we may have bigger problems. Ardenn will have to wait for another day." Susan fingered the ball of paper for a second longer before dropping it back on the table. "Are you ready?"

   "You go on ahead and prepare the flyer," Delenn replied, standing unsteadily and smoothing the front of her robe. "I wish to speak to the Mistress alone for a moment." Susan eyed her uncertainly, but finally nodded her acquiescence and turned for the door to the passageway leading out. Irilenn gestured imperceptibly to Rakell, and the Enlightened One exited as well.

   When both were out of earshot, Delenn clasped her hands and turned to face her former mother. Shaking her head sadly, she said, "I had to know your price, Irilenn. In almost any other circumstance, I would not have allowed myself to be put through the…the abuse you put me through just now, but I had to know what you wanted." Drawing in a shaky breath, she continued, "Your revelations about the Sisterhood's influence in my life…I believe you spoke the truth. If your goal was to upset me by revealing these things…you succeeded. If, however, your goal was to damage my confidence or weaken my judgment, you failed. As I have never depended on you to affirm either, nothing you say can take them away." Her voice lowering, Delenn continued, "Perhaps your Order manipulated me into becoming the person your ancient book said I should be, but you never made my decisions for me. I have made many missteps, failed in many things…my hands are bloody, as you say…but they were MY failures and no one is more cognizant of them than I. Your condemnation of them can never cut me as badly as my own. You may even have maneuvered me into a position to meet my husband…but you did not cause me to fall in love nor did you cause him to. Our hearts and blood joined independent of you."

   "I did not tell you these things to make an enemy of you, Delenn. I merely wanted you to know that I have never forgotten you, and that I assisted you where I could…"

   "You did not assist me out of love! You assisted me for your own purposes!" Delenn cried out, her temper snapping. "Do not insult me any further by pretending otherwise! Your pathetic attempt to tear me down has only proven to me that I need to get Ardenn away from this place before you do the same to her!"

   "You know our price," the Mistress retorted, her own voice rising.

   "Your price is too high, and I will not pay it."

   "I know you, Delenn," Irilenn countered. "I know you far better than you realize. You are strong, but your strength has its source in those around you. As long as you are not alone, you are very strong indeed. But your very strength makes you weak…because the strong people you have surrounded yourself with are all humans. You are still a Minbari, and you will still have many decades before you when they have faded." Indicating the crumpled envelope on the table, she continued, "That invitation you spurned was our offer of companionship to you after those you love have left you once again. Now you will arrive on our doorstep one day only to find the gate closed."

   "I would rather be alone than debase myself to earn the companionship you speak of." As she spoke Delenn began to pace, trying to rein in her temper as she continued, "Were I to do as you ask, I would be rendering myself unworthy of the ideals your Order purports to represent. You would require that I compromise my integrity and lie to my husband. I have remained silent…to my own detriment more often than not…and I have allowed him to make incorrect assumptions without comment, but I have never, never uttered a false word to him. I will not start now, not even for Ardenn…and certainly not for you." Pausing, she faced Irilenn and looked her straight in the eye, "And I will not place myself under your authority. One day I may indeed approach your Order but if I ever do it will not be until after you are gone. Forgive me…I do not think you evil, but you have lost sight of the trees and now see only the forest. You say you serve the Minbari people, Va'sala, but you no longer recognize them in any way other than the abstract."

   "Do you have any other pithy comments?" the older Minbari derisively snorted. "I am sure your friend is growing impatient…as am I."

   "I am almost finished," Delenn replied, a hint of condescension in her voice. "You need not worry that I will bore you further." In a more businesslike tone, she continued, "Now…you have also asked for the nullification of the Ban of Valen. This, I see some merit in…if only because I am now beginning to realize how insular and flawed your organization has become without outside contact. With that in mind, I will relay your request to John but I will not try to influence him. Instead, I will explain what I know of the Ban and the possible ramifications of its removal. He is a shrewd and intelligent man, Mistress…and he will decide for himself whether or not to act based on the circumstances rather than my wishes, or yours."

   "You will turn him against us. Starkiller will not want to help. The demise of our people will not trouble him in the least."

   Even with Delenn's vaunted patience, it took every ounce of discipline to keep herself from raising her voice in anger at the woman in front of her. She had very few of what the humans referred to as 'hot buttons', but referring to her husband by that derisive term was one of them. Over the cycles, more than a few insensitive fellow Minbari had found themselves on the receiving end of her temper for uttering it in her presence. "You are so wise, yet so nearsighted," she murmured, a soft hiss in her voice the only evidence of the anger she was suppressing. "He stretched out his hand to me, an outcast Minbari, when no one…not even my own mother…would even acknowledge me as a person. John cares enough that when David revealed Ardenn to him, he saw a beautiful, devoted woman rather than a member of a race that was once his enemy." Smiling faintly at her former mother, she added, "With all your historical knowledge, you no doubt realize that Valen himself was once the enemy of the Minbari? He forgave. Would you expect less of the man you would have speak with Valen's tongue on your behalf?"

   "As you say, then…but we are still at an impasse," Irilenn observed. Mocking Delenn's words from their earlier conversation, she continued, "Ier'sa, it would seem that the weighty duties of the presidency are drawing you back to Tuzanor empty-handed. That is a pity. I imagine that even your command of language will be put to the test as you try to explain to your son exactly why you abandoned his Sa'fela here."

   Her eyes hard and cold, Delenn's words became clipped as she said, "Respectfully, Mistress…do not make the mistake of thinking this is over. It is not. I have a duty to the many that I must exercise first, but I have not forgotten my promise to the one. I named Ardenn my Ier'saia before she left me and I fully intend to have her standing at my side when my son returns."

   "Intention is not reality, Madame President," the older Minbari retorted, using Delenn's human title as a veiled insult, "But…as your people say…be careful what you ask for. You may receive it." Waving her hand dismissively, she concluded, "I think we are done here."

   "Yes, we are done…for now," Delenn acknowledged, executing a minimal parting bow. "But the next time you see me, I will be coming through the front door…and that day will arrive sooner rather than later."

   ***

   Delenn's seeming confidence and indifference to Irilenn's treatment lasted just about as long as it took for the corridor door to close behind her. Her former mother's revelations regarding the Sisterhood's manipulation of her early life troubled her more than she was willing to admit. She had always thought she rose through merit…and the idea that Dukhat had not initially wanted her as an aide upset her. He had always seemed to care so much about her…almost as if she were his own daughter. The idea that he had taken her merely to satisfy the Sisterhood made her feel…small. Small and used.

   Turning, she started down the narrow hallway towards the exit and her flyer, continuing to ruminate on her meeting as she walked. Delenn had no doubt that much of what her former mother said was exaggerated, but what had she accomplished by coming here? True…she had learned Ardenn's price and a great deal about herself, assuming Irilenn had been reasonably honest, but otherwise she had changed nothing. She had allowed herself to be misdirected into an emotional confrontation that had little to do with her former aide. She had not even found out where the young Minbari was. For all she knew, Ardenn could be locked away somewhere with only the knowledge that Delenn was coming to get her keeping her from falling into despair.

   Well, she had come, Delenn reflected as she exited the temple and approached her flyer. She had come and been unsuccessful. Despite her parting words to Irilenn, she was at a loss on how to proceed…and she would have to tell David she had failed when he returned. He would say he understood. He would tell her she had done her best to make her feel better, but he would not be able to totally hide his disappointment at her failure. He might even try to contact Irilenn himself. Delenn shuddered to think about what price her former mother might ask of him…and what he might be willing to pay.

   Irilenn had said that she was a bridge…but a bridge only strong enough for one to cross. That 'one' had been David, obviously. Irilenn wanted a bridge that many could cross, and she believed Ardenn had that capability. As a doublet, it might be possible. Her former aide was young…far younger than Delenn herself had been when David was conceived…and had just recently attained the minimum accepted childbearing age for a Minbari. Delenn herself had passed her fertile midpoint even before she underwent the Chrysalis, but were Ardenn to undergo the process, she could theoretically conceive for another thirty years, perhaps even more. Time enough for her to bear many children…and now that she was a Sister, the Order would have an avenue to influence those children…If they intended to stop merely at influencing.

   "I fear that I have wasted one of your days," Delenn murmured tiredly as she stepped into the flyer where Susan awaited her. "I accomplished nothing other than taking a…a what do you call it? A donkey thrashing?"

   "An ass-whuppin?"

   "I believe that is the appropriate term. It is not a sensation I have experienced often," the Minbari replied dejectedly. Sighing, she continued, "I did not learn much about Ardenn's whereabouts or current situation, I am afraid. Irilenn's misdirection skills were more formidable than I expected. She successfully drew my attention away from our original purpose and onto myself, as I am sure she intended."

   Susan managed a wry smile and made a show of looking at Delenn's butt. "Well, as we say in Earthforce, you still look like you have a little ass left…it didn't get totally chewed off. I'll bet that when we review what we learned, you'll find out that you gathered more information than you think you did. I know I got an earful." Her smile fading, she continued, "It looked like the Mistress was pulling the big guns out on you when I walked back in. Was she really trying to recruit you?"

   "I do not think so. I think she was merely attempting to ascertain how far off-balance she had pushed me. I am not sure what she thought inducting me would acc-urp!" Delenn's hand shot to her mouth and her eyes widened in surprise.

   Susan snorted amusedly and shot a glance at her friend. "Delenn…did I just hear you…uh, belch?"

   Delenn kept her hand to her mouth and looked over at the still-grinning Ranger One, her eyes still wide. "Minbari do not…belch, Susan."

   "Well, you just did," Susan noted with a grin.

   "No, Su-urp! I mean Minbari do not belch!" Delenn repeated with an embarrassed flush mounting in her cheeks. "Our digestive systems are weaker and less acidic than yours…we process consumables more slowly."

   Susan's smile faded as she realized Delenn was serious. "How do you feel? Are you sick?"

   Delenn put her hands to her abdomen and fell heavily into her seat. "I am a…a little cramped all of a sudden. But it is nothing to worry about. I can manage." Resting her head against the cabin bulkhead, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Give me a moment…ah, better…" Opening her eyes again, she straightened and buckled herself into her seat. Giving her friend a reassuring smile, she said, "It has passed. You were no doubt correct earlier. I have not been eating nearly as well as I should since John left and the effects are catching up with me. It is probably the lack of food that is causing this. I will be sure to eat a full meal this evening."

   "Uh, okay," Susan replied uncertainly as she went through the takeoff procedures and lifted the small flyer off the pad. Once they were airborne, she set the autopilot and turned back to her friend. Despite her assurances, the Minbari woman appeared to be slightly discomfited. She was pressed back into her seat with her eyes closed again. "You uh…you aren't getting your cycle, are you?"

   Without opening her eyes, Delenn managed an amused snort. "Those annoying cramps? I have not had one since David was born. Stephen told me at the time…how did he put it? Oh, yes…that my well was dry…ohh!" As she spoke, another sharp pain jabbed at her and her hands found their way back to her abdomen. Were it not for her restraining straps, she would have doubled over in her seat. As the cramp passed, she grunted, "I have to admit, however, that the feeling is similar."

   "That's it," Susan stated flatly. "We're not out of Yedor yet. I'm turning us around and going back to the Temple. The Sisters have doctors who can take a look at you…"

   "Absolutely not! I will not permit a Sister to examine me," Delenn strongly retorted. Softening her tone, she continued, "The cramps are not unbearable, just unexpected. I will be fine. Continue on…I will tell you if they get worse." Opening her eyes, she saw her companion's skeptical expression and added, "The Advisory Council is going into emergency session, Susan. I must be there to convene it. We do not have time to worry about a few hunger pangs right now. When we get to Tuzanor, I will eat something and we will convene the council. If the pains continue, I will see a healer afterwards. Is that acceptable?"

   "Not in my book, but you're the boss," Ranger One sighed. "You know, you're almost as bad as your husband. Between this and your little Medlab escape attempt on the Far Traveler, I'm starting to get the impression that you're afraid of doctors. I thought only humans were bad patients."

   "Healers do not frighten me. I simply do not like being unclothed in front of strangers, poked at or prodded," Delenn observed primly. "Conversely, I have no reluctance around physicians when I truly require their services." Hastening to change the subject, she briskly said, "Now…why exactly is an emergency session being called?"

   "Unusual ship sightings near several key hyperspace intersections." Sticking her hand into the folds of her cloak, Susan continued, "While I was waiting, I downloaded a map of the affected corridors. I've got it on a crystal…" As she spoke, Susan withdrew her hand and clumsily dumped several data crystals into her lap. "Crap! I did it again," she exclaimed as she tried to round the small glimmering objects up.

   "Perhaps a small container for your crystals is in order," Delenn observed wryly as her friend flailed around. "I believe they are easily obtainable from almost any retailer."

   "Yeah…I know. I'm a real piece of work today," Susan muttered darkly in reply. Gathering the crystals in her hand, she began sorting through them. "This is the one…wait." Pausing, she held a crystal up to the light and examined it more closely. "This isn't one of mine. It doesn't have a Ranger glyph on it. I don't recognize the marking."

   Delenn held out her hand. "Let me see." Eyeing the crystal, Delenn saw that Susan was correct. Where the brown Ranger symbol should have been, there were red stylized markings instead. "This is a crystal belonging to the Sisters of Valeria, Susan. How did you obtain it?"

   "If I knew that, I wouldn't have been surprised to see…" Susan trailed off. "Rakell…" the human woman stated flatly. "She must have slipped it to me." Looking hard at her companion, she continued, "When I got the call about the emergency session, I dropped my crystals trying to get my link out of my pocket. Rakell picked them up for me. She gave me an extra crystal…but why?"

   "There is one way to find out," Delenn replied as she inserted the crystal into a small terminal on her armrest. Keying the unit's power, she watched as a stream of text and graphs flashed across the screen, her brow ridge furrowing in puzzlement.

   "What does it say?" Susan asked from beside her.

   "Hmm…the text and displays are in Adrihi'e." her Minbari companion noted. "I cannot read them…the terms and references are too specialized for me to translate. It is a scientific paper of some sort. A medical report or a research project, perhaps?" Delenn was about to say more when another cramp hit her. Grunting softly, she switched off the viewer in an effort to redirect Susan's attention. "I…I will run this through a translator program when we reach Tuzanor. We have more pressing concerns now. Have you found the proper crystal?"

   "Yeah…uh, here," Susan replied, thinking more strongly than before that a doctor should be the first order of business. Delenn was adamant, however, and Susan didn't feel like fighting with her for the whole flight back. Eyeing her friend dubiously, she passed her the correct crystal and keyed up a schematic of the Alliance's main hyperspace conduits. "Most of the sightings have been along the paths between Brakiri space and the Drazi Freehold…"

   ***

   "Banished!" Vadenn wailed, "We have been banished!" With a sob, she angrily turned to her companion aboard the small flyer. "And it is all your fault! I do not know what you said or did to displease the Mistress, but I am certain that it gave you some small measure of satisfaction to drag me down with you!"

   "This had nothing to do with you," Ardenn murmured, choking back another of the waves of nausea that had been affecting her for the past few hours. She had awoken that morning in the Main Temple feeling dizzy and sick to her stomach. Abdominal cramps had rendered her almost incapable of walking straight, and she had the nagging sensation that her internal clock was skewed, as if she had slept far too long. Despite feeling extremely ill and weak, she had been unceremoniously rushed from her room and onto a waiting flyer as soon as she was dressed. Since that time, she had alternated between massaging her inexplicably tender midriff, trying not to void her stomach and studiously ignoring her companion's tirades. "Frankly, elder sibling, you are the last traveling companion I would have selected."

   "That is cold comfort to me now, maker of trouble!" Vadenn retorted. "I was pulled off the flyer back to Tuzanor and stuffed on this ship…with you of all people! You are like dried Gok excrement stuck to my shoe! No matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to shake you off!"

   "I did not ask for your company, Vadenn!" Ardenn cried, her patience at an end. "If you find me so repulsive, go outside and take a walk! The hatch is right in front of you!"

   Vadenn quieted and turned to look out her window. Kilometers below her, the fertile temperate regions of Minbar had long since given way to the hard white of the northern ice sheet. Frost-encrusted crystal mountains jutted into the air, sliding by beneath them with illusory slowness as their flyer continued its northward journey. "When I think about where we are going," she sadly murmured after a moment, "I am tempted to take your suggestion. At this altitude, I am sure I would be dead before striking the ground."

   Ardenn snorted and gazed out her viewport on the opposite side. She could see Ardbar behind them, low on the horizon…its light reflecting ruddily off the ice. In those places where promontories thrust up or the surface was gouged, long shadows were cast…always pointing out their direction of travel like dead black fingers. "This place we are going…it is cold, I am sure, but why does it frighten you so? Is it that terrifying?"

   "It is cold…" Vadenn began, her ire at her companion temporarily replaced by resignation, "So cold that the chill penetrates your bones and no amount of heat can dispel it, but that is not the worst. You do not know…" she trailed off. Beginning again, she indicated, "I have only heard stories…vague references…but when you were in the Shrine, you saw the sarcophagi? The tombs of the Mistresses?"

   "Yes, what of it?"

   "When a Mistress passes she is allowed to rest in the world of the living, after a fashion. Where do you suppose the rest of us are entombed?" Gesturing listlessly at the frozen plain below them, Vadenn continued, "The North. The Temple of Frost is a place of preparation for those Sisters who are about to pass beyond the Veil, and where their mortal shells are housed afterwards." Shaking her head sadly, she concluded, "It is whispered that Sisters who enter the Dark Temple do not leave…and I have never met any that have returned."

   "The Dark Temple?" Ardenn echoed. <Ten years I spent in the north,> Katrenn had said to her when she was in the link. She had returned. Glumly, Ardenn also recalled that Katrenn told her that the north was a place she did not want to go.

   "Yes," Vadenn whispered. "Look to our front. Look ahead of us."

   The young Minbari pressed her forehead against the viewport and craned her neck to look as far ahead as she could see. On the ground below, the shadows had lengthened to a point where she could no longer see their ends. The primary was dipping below the horizon behind them. Ahead, the sheen of Ardbar's light off the ice was no longer visible. She could see nothing but gray…the sky and ground had taken on the same shade and could no longer be easily differentiated from one another. Farther in the distance, the gray turned to what appeared to be a wall of black.

   "Do you see the darkness ahead?" Vadenn murmured, her voice quivering. "That is the Wall of Twilight, the line that demarcates the northernmost reach of our primary's light. Our planet does not tilt enough on its axis and the northern pole is forever in darkness, just as the southern is always in light. Our…our destination is at the dark zone's heart."

   Ardenn looked out again. They had flown into the gray border zone. Glancing back, she could just see the upper edge of Ardbar disappearing behind them. The interior of the flyer's small cabin darkened visibly. "The sun is gone," she whispered. "I pray Delenn thinks to look for me here."

   "You are still holding on to that forlorn hope?" Vadenn clucked derisively, shaking her head. "Do you truly still think that the Blessed Delenn wants one such as you in her family?"

   "I am already in her family, elder sibling. She called me daughter before I left, and nothing you say will change that."

   Ardenn's companion chuckled sadly once more. "You are so simple-minded. Has it not occurred to you that she might merely have been trying to gently ease you away? Would you be on this flyer if she meant for you to return?" Turning, Vadenn glared intently at the younger woman. "Whatever pathetic opportunity you think you had was squandered when you parted your legs for her son!" she hissed. "You fornicated your way into becoming a political liability to her…and I am guilty by association because I know of your transgression!" Burying her face in her hands, she started to cry. "I see it all so clearly now…the Mistress and Delenn have conspired to sweep away her son's prostitute and any others who know of the illicit affair! I have seen the light for the last time, thanks to you! Oh, Valen…please, I am a young woman. I am not ready for this…"

   Ardenn shook her head disgustedly. "Vadenn…to quote my beloved…you are so full of your own defecation that your crest is turning brown. You know absolutely nothing of David, Delenn or anyone else in our family. If you did, you would be appalled at your own ridiculousness." The younger Sister snorted and stared at the melancholy gray surroundings outside her window. After a time, the gray darkened to black and the interior of the cabin quickly plunged into darkness. She knew the flyer's cabin was adequately heated, but in her imagination she was already growing colder. She could feel tears starting to slide down her cheeks despite her best efforts to forestall them. Clasping her hands in her lap, she began twisting her ring on her finger and looked up at the sky. "I…I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday," she whispered to reassure herself. "My family will come for me."

   The stars were out. David had asked her to see the stars with him and she had accepted. Now she was seeing them. Here within the Wall of Twilight, thousands of stars shined down on her with silvery light and they were far brighter than back in Tuzanor. Were David present with her to gaze at them, the view would have been breathtakingly beautiful. But he was not…and the starlight seemed cold and impersonal without him. She promised both her beloved and his father than she would not lose hope, but as her gaze traveled from the stars to the darkened landscape below, she could feel her resolve wavering. "Come for me soon, beloved," she whispered, "Because I do not know how long even hope can survive without the Light to nourish it…"

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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