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Chresmology

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Part 4: Chresmology

 

Chapter 1: Foreshadowing

 

From the familiar vantage point of his throne, Zarkon observed his Court while one of his secretaries brought him up to speed on recent events. None of the various generals or dignitaries were missing despite his long absence, which was a good sign. Nobody had been foolish enough to entertain ambitions, and Haggar had not had to thin the ranks. There was even an addition; Pendrash had a new aide following him around, a rather self-effacing young man who watched and listened to everything and said nothing at all. All of them seemed genuinely relieved to have him back; Haggar must have kept them in a constant state of existential dread, which he rather approved of. The proper balance of loyalty and fear was delicate and difficult to maintain. One couldn't push them too hard or they would fight back, and too much loyalty was worse in some ways than too little. Haggar had done well to keep the status quo stable and the Empire's enemies at bay while he recovered.

Zarkon shifted, a spark of annoyance flicking alight in his mind. He should have been up and about again no more than a week or two after his wounding. That she had not isolated the cause of his half-year coma in better time was a touch disappointing, but understandable when one considered what she'd been up against. There was only so much that even she could do.

Of greater disappointment to him right now was his son and current Heir. An empty title, that, and one that Zarkon viewed with a certain dark amusement. He'd stopped taking it seriously after he'd outlived the tenth Crown Prince roughly nine and a half thousand years ago, although the boys themselves always had high hopes. At best, they were useful tools. At worst... well, they became examples of why it was better to be useful. Lotor had not proven his worth this time, having incurred considerable expense and failure without having anything to show for it. Haggar, on the other hand, had reaped better results for her efforts. Not the best results, but more than adequate all the same. He might want to check up on that, actually...

The secretary faltered in his report when the Emperor heaved himself out of his throne. “Majesty?”

“I will hear the rest of it later,” Zarkon rumbled mildly. “Has Lotor been located?”

“Yes, Majesty, he is at Cleorsh Gamma, recouping his forces.” That was Pendrash, efficient and capable as always. “Do you wish a message sent to him?”

Zarkon drew himself up to his full and impressive height, considering that. “Yes. Send a messenger—Ghamparva, I think, and tell him to come to the Center immediately. I want to speak with him. If he will not come willingly, the Ghamparva are to collect him and bring him back regardless. In chains if necessary. You are all dismissed for an hour; there is something that I wish to see to.”

He watched them go, and then turned and headed down a side passage that led somewhere that few went willingly. The Center had its own stockpile of Quintessence, the best and purest of their harvest, reserved exclusively for his use and Haggar's, and his nerves tingled at the proximity of it as he passed by those rooms. Haggar's scrying chamber was nearby as well, and his senses registered that private space as a field of shifting shadows, glowing with amethyst power. Her private labs were down this passage as well, and few other places in this space station caused more dread among its inhabitants. As well they should; the witch always needed good test subjects, and did not particularly care where they came from. Zarkon alone could pass down this hall in perfect safety, for he had long ago forgotten how to fear.

He was still capable of surprise, however. In one of the labs, a suit of armor lay on one of the exam tables, its very familiarity a shock to the Emperor's jaded senses, and he could not help but walk in to study it. It had been so long... He ran his fingers over the white breastplate with its black chevron, admiring the sleek design, and lifted the helmet in his hands. It wouldn't fit him now, he noticed; he'd grown since he'd last worn this suit, and he wondered: was I ever really that young?

Images faded by time and long neglect flickered in his memory, and ghost voices echoed in his ears. He remembered Alfor's audacity and reckless courage, his laughter in the face of certain doom. The other Paladins... what had their names been? He couldn't remember. They'd been as close as his own family, or closer, but he couldn't remember much of them now. No more than he could remember his own parents, or his blood siblings. He could remember the huge, broad shape of the yellow Paladin, and how gentle that giant could be. He remembered the brash humor of the blue one, and how he was forever making passes at the household servants regardless of gender or station. He remembered the tall, slender, and surprisingly strong green Paladin, with her needle-sharp wit and incisive mind, and her willingness to hit both him and Alfor with a table whenever they got into one of their arguments. Never too hard, though. Just enough of a good smack to make them forget their acrimony. Gone, now, gone and forgotten, and he'd killed Alfor himself in the end for his crimes.

Zarkon put the helmet down, the old anger at Alfor's betrayal and the theft of his Lion returning, cold and slow as a glacier, and just as heavy. He looked for his bayard but did not find it within the suit's holsters, and felt some annoyance. He remembered that the fool who had usurped this armor from him had taken it right from his hand in that single moment of confusion, when the Lion had interfered in their battle in the Mindscape, blending the twin dimensions of dream and reality for just one crucial second. How dare he? Zarkon thought angrily. The Lion, whatever else it might be, was a machine, and machines obeyed their masters' commands. How dare he suggest that the black Lion was anything other than a device to be mastered and driven? It was a tool, a thing, an extension of his own power, and by Kuphorosk's left haplek, it belonged to him. It belonged to him, and all of the others through it. By what right did some nameless alien steal it and turn it against him? By what right did the Lion itself--

He stopped that thought right there, for that road led to a hole in his heart that could drown him in pain even now. Fury moved in him like magma beneath a volcano, and his claws had left gouges in the metal table from where he had gripped it in his anger. He took a deep breath to calm himself and forced the unaccustomed emotions back into quiescence again. He could admit to himself that there were things in the past that should not have been allowed to happen, words that should never have been spoken, both on his part and that of others. Things that should not have happened had been happening long years before Zarkon himself had been born. He had been a product of his time, and had been forced into actions that still made him uneasy even thousands of years later. There was no going back, however, and no way to mend what had been broken. Not even Haggar could manipulate time. There was only the solid now, and the nebulous future that could be shaped and molded if one knew how. He knew how. It was so easy, sometimes. A word here, an action there, a life spared or taken away. Other times, the fates themselves seemed set in stone, and not even the destruction of whole worlds could divert them. The trick was to learn where those hard places might lie, and use them to one's own advantage...

A scream of agony split the air, only slightly muffled by the heavy doors at the far end of the room. Zarkon smiled. The would-be black Paladin had offended Haggar as much or more so than he had offended him, and she was chastising him for it. That was good. It was known the Empire over that to steal from their Galra overlords drew a life sentence. To steal from the Emperor himself merited much worse. It did not do to let anyone forget that. He turned away from the table and went to observe Haggar's technique.

She'd set wards and aetheric barriers all around the room; the air fairly sparkled with them and symbols of power glowed in long strings of amethyst over every wall and flat surface. There were even a few of the crystalloid forms that Haggar used in major aetheric installations, and in the center of all of that, shackled firmly to a table, was the thief himself. An interesting species, Zarkon mused; color him purple, lengthen and sharpen the teeth, alter the shape of the ears a little, add a skull ridge, change the eye color and perhaps add a layer or two of fur, and he'd be indistinguishable from Galra. Where did they find this creature?

Haggar raised a hand, a ball of crackling dark-amethyst light caged in her fingers. The man on the table bucked against his restraints and screamed again. In pain, yes, but not fear, and not in despair either. “He is proving difficult to break,” Zarkon observed.

Haggar didn't look around. Indeed, she'd probably felt him coming up the passage. “It is only to be expected. Many would call him a hero.”

Zarkon smiled. “I seem to remember a place much like this, many years ago, when someone was attempting to teach me the unwisdom of my ambitions.”

Haggar chuckled darkly. “I remember several. It took me some time to teach you not to walk into every trap that presented itself. A common affliction among heroic types.”

“I learned eventually,” Zarkon murmured. “Where is my bayard, Haggar?”

She sighed and glared at the prisoner. “He left it in the Lion, the fool. It's just as well. Had he taken it into the Mindscape along with the armor, he might have done worse than simply hold you captive.”

“Or strike you.” Zarkon murmured.

Haggar growled and gave the man another zap just for that. “No man has ever landed a blow like that on me before, nor will one do so ever again. This one will come to regret that he did not die in the arena soon enough.”

“Never... happen,” the man on the table rasped. “No... matter... what you... do to... me, it's too late. You've... already... lost.”

“What?” Zarkon said ominously.

Amazingly, the prisoner smiled. “You'll... never... regain... control of ... the Lions... now. Never again. You had... one chance... both of you. It's gone... forever. You're... you're dead. Your Empire... is doomed. You just don't know it yet.”

Zarkon glared at him with narrowed eyes for a long moment. “Haggar, what were you planning to do with this creature?”

“A number of things. Ultimately, he will become a Robeast,” she replied, tightly-controlled rage evident in her voice. “I will set him upon his friends, and he will destroy them.”

Zarkon nodded. “Very good. Leave his mind intact, although take care that he has no control over his actions. I want him to know precisely what he is doing as he tears his friends from the Lions and rips them to bloody shreds with his bare hands. We will then find out where he came from and use him to cleanse his planet of his kind. After that... I am sure that uses may be found for him.”

She struck the prisoner once more with her sizzling ball of energy, eliciting another scream. “It will be done, my Lord.”

 

Keith fidgeted restlessly, trying to keep a grip on his feelings and finding it hard going. All of his emotions were screaming at him to hop into his Lion and fly off in three directions at once, but both he and Red knew better than to run off on a blind search like that. It just rankled incredibly to know that he could not help in this matter. While he might not have any idea of where to look, there was someone aboard who did; his mother had grasped the problem of Shiro's reemergence into the physical plane immediately, and had contacted her colleagues not two minutes after she'd been informed. Kolivan and the rest had been perfectly willing to help, thankfully, but it was a big job. The problem wasn't in finding a single well-hidden lab, Keith thought later as he fiddled with the tools he'd been given, the problem was finding which one out of hundreds of well-hidden labs was the right one. The Blade of Marmora had made it their business over the last few hundred years to find out just where the Emperor's witch might hide a secret project, but the list was as long as Soluk's leg—and dragons had long legs—and that didn't count the thousands of other private labs scattered all over the cosmos. That number leaped into the hundreds of thousands when you counted in the space stations and science ships that the Empire employed. Kolivan and his people were doing their best, but there were limits, and none of their operatives had been able to infiltrate past the official levels of the Center itself since Thace had completed his mission; Keith's uncle had been the only one sneaky enough to get past the public levels after Modhri had wiped their high-security computer core. Keith felt a little amused at that. Modhri had mentioned to him just last night that he'd had several offers from the Order to join their ranks. He'd turned them down, of course; he'd healed well from his time as a lab animal, but he wasn't up to the kind of athletics that the Blade trained their people in. He also had obligations to his wife and adopted family that he was adamant about honoring. In the meantime, Nasty had decided to keep them all busy by teaching them a few of his people's skills, starting with picking locks.

A whoop of triumph distracted him from his maunderings; Lance had finally gotten the lock open. There was also a smack as Nasty gave him a swat across the back of the head. “Don't yell!” the Unilu scolded sharply, “don't ever yell. The whole point of this is to get to the objective without doing anything that's going to get you caught and killed, right? If you pop a lock, just smile—that doesn't make any noise. Well, not on most folks. You next, Hunk.”

Lance groaned and rubbed at the spot where the goblinish little alien had swatted him. “Oh, come on! How come we have to learn this anyway? Everybody's got electronic locks out here, and Keith's got the magic Galra touch with Imperial doors. Pidge, too.”

Nasty sighed and rolled his eyes ceilingward, silently entreating whatever might be listening for patience. “Because, you clorch, you're not always going to have Little Miss and Mister Magic Fingers with you. Secondly, not everybody uses electronic locks. You'd be surprised how many don't. Electronic locks are easy. All you need are a few widgets, and if necessary, the arm off of one of those Sentries, or even a hostage, in a pinch. This takes skill.”

“Got it,” Hunk said quietly.

“Already?” Lance yelped; it had taken him ten minutes.

“Sure,” Hunk said with a smile. “I used to build locks as a hobby, remember? There are only so many ways you can use a key. Your turn, Keith.”

Keith eyed the lock carefully and inserted the picks, feeling around carefully at the springs and tumblers. It didn't take him long to get a feel for it, and it popped open with ease a few minutes later. Lance was looking downright pouty now.

“That's good,” Nasty said, “nice technique. You've done this before, haven't you?”

Keith smirked. “Yeah. I grew up on an army base. You get all types there, and some of them are willing to teach little kids how to get extra treats... for a piece of the action. I spent a lot of time smuggling candy bars and little pocket-sized bottles of booze.”

Nasty grinned at him. “Ever get caught at it?”

Keith felt a little nostalgic pride. “Nope. Used to drive the drill sergeants nuts.”

Nasty laughed. “Good! There's hope for you lot yet. Give it a try, Varda, and don't get your fingers stuck in the keyhole this time.”

Pidge stuck her tongue out at him and took her turn at the lock. Unsurprisingly, she had it open in very short order. Allura was next, and Lance looked slightly less grouchy when she took even longer to get the hang of it than he did. Nasty wasn't terribly impressed with her performance.

“Slow as a tar-soaked clazzet,” he chided. “Points for persistence, but the palace guard would have tripped over you twice, then fallen asleep again waiting for you to react to the burglar alarms. Didn't Altean society have a crime rate?”

She flashed him a hard look and then put on her “prim-and-proper-princess” face, which she used whenever she wished to wither a peasant. The Paladins had developed an immunity to it and it bounced right off of Nasty's naturally felonious nature, but she kept trying. “Altean society,” she said in a haughty voice, “was as law-abiding as one could expect, but there were always social deviants and criminals. The Royal Family was expected to be the model upon which the commons should base their behavior--”

“I dunno,” Nasty said dubiously, “Coran's been telling me stories about some of your relatives.”

She sniffed, but unbent enough to smile. In truth, she found their guest to be rather charming, in a riff-raffish sort of way. “I never said that we were good at it. I am, and look where it has gotten me! How do you do this again? I'm usually able to get my mice to unlock things for me.”

Nasty rubbed at his face with one hand. “Oh, gods, the mice. You just keep those little tekras away from me while I'm working, all right? I swear, they'll be the death of me! Here, you hold the picks like this—pay attention, blue boy, you're no better at this than she is. Imagine that on the other side of this lock is a beautiful princess or something.”

Lance tried that, but gave up on it after a moment or two. “Sorry, nope. Every time I try, all I can think of is Allura here, or Loliqua.”

Nasty grinned. “I heard about that. Kind of a shame, right? One lady would laugh herself sick and the other would have you spaced if she found you fiddling with her doors. Royalty, eh? No gratitude.”

“I happen to be right here,” Allura said snippily.

“Yeah. And when's the last time you gave this guy a big hug and kiss for his trouble?” Nasty asked, very reasonably in Lance's opinion. “He did save your hash once or twice. Fair's fair, lady. Sometimes a little affection is worth more than gems. Some gems, anyway. Eyes front, now, and let's do this again.”

They managed to get the hang of that lock, and the combination lock after it, and they were struggling with a booby-trapped version when Coran ambled in. He surveyed their project with a smile and drawled, “Aahhh, yes, and another fine old cadet tradition is upheld. I used to belong to three different safecracker clubs during my own early training, and was quite a popular fellow, you know. Not as a safecracker myself, rather to my own disappointment—never had the knack beyond jimmying the odd door—but as something just as valuable.”

“What's that?” Hunk asked suspiciously.

Coran grinned. “As a live-fire training exercise for pickpockets. I had a special suit that was just about made of pockets, all of them booby-trapped, and I would fill them up with loose change—or candy, some of those young fellows did have a monstrous sweet tooth—and the cadet that could go through all of them without triggering the traps was the winner. I'm pleased to say that I did help to turn out some well-rounded students, although Alfor did make me tone down the voltage a bit. Spoilsport. I think that I may still have that suit somewhere, actually, although I never did get all of the scorchmarks out.”

The Paladins stared at him owlishly, as always unsure of whether or not he was telling the truth. Nasty gave him an evil Unilu grin. “I may have you fetch the thing out for us later. So, what's the occasion? You don't usually show up for class.”

Coran tugged at his mustache. “Just letting you know that we're going to make a quick stop in local space before heading off in search of glory. Planet Omorog, to have a word with that Princess of yours, Lance. It doesn't do to ignore an invitation from a professional Oracle.”

Lance's face lit up at the prospect of visiting Loliqua again. “Hey, yeah, that's right! Loliqua wanted to have a talk with Lizenne. Can we bring the dragons? The kids would get a kick out of the dragons. I sort of promised Fanlen that we'd bring them along.”

Coran shrugged. “We'll have to ask when we get there. Moving those two beasts about is no small matter.”

A few minutes later, they had their answer, and it was an enthusiastic one. Not only were the dragons welcome, but expressly invited along with everyone else.Coran was then directed to an area of private space where the two support ships could be parked without attracting attention—the Winter Palace apparently had a jurisdiction there that even the Galra Governors had learned to respect the sanctity of—and a transport shuttle would be up directly to conduct them all safely down to the Palace.

Zaianne frowned at that. Answering that invitation would leave both ships entirely uncrewed and vulnerable, and while the local Imperial Garrison had been stolen by Lotor's fleet and pirate activity all across the Sector had largely come to a standstill (Pidge put on her most innocent expression when the local Portmaster exclaimed over this), Zaianne was unwilling to leave the Castle. There was always some opportunist, she said, and while the big Hanifor craft could look after itself, the Castle could not. There was also the unspoken fact that if anything untoward happened while her son was on-planet, she would come down with guns blazing. In the end, Hunk gave her one of a pair of holocomms so that she'd be able to telecommute, and Nasty elected to keep her company during the visit. It wasn't that he'd been banned from the planet, he told them, but that there was something in the atmosphere that made Unilu ill; too much xenon, apparently, gave them horrible respiratory problems, and Nasty had no intention of spending a week in the infirmary. Everybody else, however, was eager to make or remake the Princess's acquaintance, and Lance was practically dancing with impatience to see Loliqua and her family again. This didn't take long. The transport shuttle that came up beside the Castle was roomy enough to hold all of them comfortably and fast enough that nobody became claustrophobic, and it landed with barely a bump in the Palace's own private landing zone. Maintained for courier ships, they were told, and no more than a few hundred yards from the Throne to expedite matters.

“Handy,” Modhri observed to the Griona who had come out to greet them. “What happens when a damaged ship blows its drive on the pad?”

“It makes a mess and we spend the rest of the week hosing the scorchmarks off of the walls,” their guide said. “This Palace was built when Saranto cluster-ships were still in widespread use, and the damage-containment systems are very good. We've kept up with the upgrades, and it also helps that the walls here are about thirty bolsha thick and made of kudorium-reinforced duracrete.”

Modhri nodded appreciatively. “Nice.”

To their credit, the household guard didn't panic at the sight of the two dragons, although there were more than a few wide-eyed stares and awed mutters as they went past. They were met at the doors to the throne room by none other than Tollins, who greeted them warmly.

“Lance, boy, how grand to see you again!” he said with an expansive smile. “And here are your fellow Paladins—ah, and you would be the missing member, young lady? Very good. And this would be the rest of the family. A little mixed, but I've seen stranger. My goodness, are those Altean space mice?”

Eeek!” Platt said from atop Soluk's shoulders.

“Pleased to meet you, I'm sure,” Tollins replied. “There are a lot of very old children's stories featuring such creatures, you know, but I wasn't aware that any of them had survived. Well done. And the dragons. Quite excellent dragons, withal. Tilla and Soluk, yes? Delighted to meet you. And you would be Coran, and you would be Lizenne and Modhri. You two have quite a reputation, you know. Before I announce you to the Princess, I will ask you to be a little patient with her; we are approaching spawning time, and she finds it rather difficult to move right now, and her attention is prone to wander.”

“Understood,” Allura said, remembering one or two of her own relatives who had been overfond of sweets and pleasurable company. “Shall we proceed?”

“Indeed yes, your Highness. The Princess is very eager to speak with all of you.” Tollins turned to the doors and opened them, waving the guests through with a grand gesture. “Princess, your guests have arrived.”

“Come in, come in, sit and be comfortable!” a motherly voice that made Lance brighten up visibly rang from within. “Pardon my unseemly seating arrangement, but this time of year is always a trial for me.”

As they entered the room, they found themselves looking at one of the more unusual royal seats that they'd ever seen. Loliqua herself was radiant despite that, for all that she was remarkably swollen-looking around the torso and dressed in a simple and rather tentlike smock. The throne itself had been removed entirely, and she was reclining comfortably in a large pool of water set into the center of the room. Low tables and large floor cushions had been set around this feature, and the tables were laden with fragrant refreshments. Loliqua patted her vast flanks and made an exasperated face. “You'd think after more than three hundred broodseasons that I'd be used to it, but it's a great bother every time. Biology, eh?”

Lizenne lowered herself gracefully onto a handy cushion with a wry smile. “You should see some of our breeding imperatives. Ridiculous! Lance, be a dear and introduce us.”

“Yeah, just a tick,” Hunk said, taking a small device out of his pocket and setting it on one table. “Everybody should be in on this. You there, Zaianne?”

The device beeped at his touch and emitted a holoscreen, upon which Zaianne's proud features formed a moment later. “I am, although Nasty's hunting silverware at the moment. Ah. Pardon my caution, your Highness, but paranoia is a survival trait in my line of work.”

Loliqua's gold-threaded eyes flicked back and forth from the screen to Keith in fascination; in some ways, he resembled his mother very clearly. “That is quite all right and very sensible of you. Indeed, I would have been very surprised to see you in person, Blade, for all that our Imperial Authorities are very distracted at the moment. We've a new Governor, and he is far more interested his own people's affairs than in a lot of boring, well-behaved amphibians and equally uninteresting tree-dwellers. Lance, dear, kindly introduce me to these remarkable people.”

Lance handled this task with remarkable grace, at which point the Princess demanded that they tell her of everything that they'd been up to during the time since she'd last seen them. Pidge was also required to tell her own tale, a story that took over an hour and several refills of the snack platters. At the end of it, Loliqua sat there staring at them in open astonishment, her mind once again visibly spinning with the future ramifications of their actions.

“Ye Gods,” she murmured, rubbing at her head. “Never let it be said that you are not true Heroes. No wonder the newsnets have been in such a froth of excitement! What a gift you have given Halidex! And to have coaxed the Night Terror into an alliance... if the rest of the Hoshinthra come out of hiding, things shall become very noisy indeed! I have heard that the Galran Crown Prince has been summoned back to the Center to explain his recent exploits to his father, which he may or may not come away intact from. If he does escape unflattened, he may well become a far more deadly enemy than before... which makes a recent Vision I have had rather clearer in my mind, come to think of it. Oh, dear. And a number of others.”

“What have you Seen?” Coran asked curiously.

“Will we get Shiro back?” Keith blurted.

“Is he going to be okay?” Pidge demanded.

“Are we going to lose anyone else?” Hunk asked grimly.

“How are we going to defeat Lotor?” Allura asked urgently.

“Will we ever get that ice-cream beach party?” Lance asked.

“Children,” Modhri chided gently, and the Paladins shut up with a contrite, “Sorry, Uncle Modhri,” that made Loliqua cast a look of amused appraisal at him.

“I am not sure that I have answers to those questions,” Loliqua said, sipping at her tea. “Even the most complete of prophecies must be treated as a hint book rather than a road map; the glimpses that I do see and understand tend to be fragmentary, unconnected, and often misleading. Causality, I am afraid, is prone to making puns and playing tricks upon the unwary. Moreover, I might receive a clue that looks impressive, but might be massively unimportant. Another Vision might be as simple as 'please-and-thank-you', and yet might change the entire course of history. Worse, I often cannot tell which is which, or at what time they will become relevant.”

Tell us what you have Seen, then,” Zaianne said, “and let us interpret what we can.”

Loliqua hummed thoughtfully, staring for a long moment into her teacup as though it were a repository of cosmic wisdom. “I have Seen battle between Voltron and the Imperial Forces, although I cannot tell whether it was one battle or many. Both sides seemed evenly matched, for you do not fight alone. Hundreds and hundreds of proud ships will follow your banner; if you do not have such allies now, then you had best begin to make them. The pirates are a good start, but you must not leave it at that.”

Allura nodded. “We have a standing invitation from the Ghost Fleet to come and help them free the enslaved worlds in this Sector. It's as good a place to start as any.”

Loliqua saluted her with her teacup. “Indeed. Elikonia alone, even oppressed as they have been, will be a mighty addition to your forces. That's not a Vision, by the way, but simple observation. I'm old enough to remember the sort of influence their Collective used to have in this region, and they will want to pick up where they left off. In several of my Visions, you will have the aid of the Hoshinthra, for good or for ill; you must handle that strange people with great care, or they will destroy what you, Lizenne, hope to preserve.”

Lizenne's face hardened. “I'm aware. I have considerable experience in dealing with vendettas, and I do not come alone to this fight.”

Loliqua held her empty plate out to Lance, who refilled it with dainties and passed it back. “That is a good habit to have. From the fragments I have Seen, I may confidently advise you to resist the temptation to run off on your own. In every single Vision I had where you went solo, young lady, you wound up dead along with your people.”

Lizenne puffed a grim laugh. “That's clear enough, even to me. Ah, well, Tahe Moq is a group discipline, and I should take my cue from that, shouldn't I?”

Modhri gave her a loving smile. “Save your bull-headed independence for when you are a proper Matriarch. Have you any messages for me, your Highness?”

Loliqua cast him another appreciative look. “Not as such. I have the impression that you have already made the greater of the contributions that were required of you, and may rest in a supportive role for the time being; indeed, by doing so, you will give your Lady there a better chance of becoming a Matriarch later on.”

Modhri sighed and sat back in his seat, gazing thoughtfully at the floral murals on the ceiling. “That would have been my little trip to the Center, I think, and possibly my near-death experience earlier on in the Center's arena. Painful as they were, I do not regret them.”

Hunk patted his shoulder. “You're doing a lot by just hanging around and helping us out, man. Thanks, by the way. Do I get a prophecy too, Princess?”

Loliqua's dark eyes scanned them all, from dragons to mice and back again. “All of you do, although I suspect that they will not make sense for some time. I have Seen you, Hunk, standing atop a mountain of broken atrocities with a variety of vengeances in your mind. You must choose one, and one only, and it must be the right one, for that will cause a critical weakness in the armor of your foe.”

“Wow,” Hunk said. “Um... which one's the right one?”

“Haven't the foggiest idea,” Loliqua shrugged. “My people aren't exactly of a warrior type, and I myself am entirely incapable of such things. You needn't worry too much; you have excellent judgment. Keith?”

“Yes?” Keith asked tensely.

“You I have Seen in battle,” Loliqua said gravely, “there will be many foes for you to face, but the greatest of them all will have power beyond your imagining. I have Seen it shatter the shield of Voltron, and I have Seen it break the sword as well. You must not despair, but turn your eyes to the stars, where, if all else goes properly, you will find help. Lance.”

“Yes?” Lance asked.

“You must study what you have already been taught, and study it well. The lives that you hold most dear depend upon that, for you will use that knowledge to do the impossible. The stuff of life itself will flow at your will, and you must take care not to spill so much as a drop, for each drop is precious. Pidge.”

Pidge looked up with a gulp, not trusting herself to speak; Loliqua should have looked comical, a great swollen toad in a sunken bath, but there was nothing amusing about her now. This was an Oracle at work, and she was all business.

“You have learned a very great deal from those around you, and from your own experimentation. You have seen the place where the division between mechanism and living tissue no longer matters. You have found the key to the lock. In the heat of the moment you will find the pivot point between survival and oblivion, and you must use what you are given to turn the course of events to the correct direction. It will not be easy, but you will have help. Allura.”

“Yes?” Allura squeaked nervously.

Loliqua turned a thoughtful look upon the Altean. “I have not Seen you in the great battle. Instead, I have Seen you dancing at the hub of the wheels of power, both figuratively and literally. Through your heart shall you channel the great forces that shape futures; you shall clarify and enhance them, and pass them on to those who will use them well. I See you at many diplomatic meetings, young lady. You did well with the Halidexans. You must endeavor to do well with the others whom you will meet soon. You must do your utmost a little time later, when the very blood of creation will spin around you, even as galaxies spin around their own hubs. To tell you the truth, that one is a little muddled. I am not quite sure which is metaphor and which is a simple glance at some possible future.”

“I will do my best regardless,” Allura promised.

Loliqua nodded. “And that is all that may be asked of you. Coran.”

“Oh, I get one, too?” Coran said with a sparkle in his eye and a tug on his mustache. “Will it be heroic?”

She smiled at him. “Everything you have done has been heroic. You must be more heroic still, for there will come a time that you will be forced to make a sacrifice. It will cause you pain, but it will be necessary, for it will turn events down certain, very necessary paths. Your future actions may well be a deciding factor in the fate of the Empire.”

“Goodness,” Coran murmured. “That might even be worth a statue in my honor. Not a posthumous one, I hope.”

“We shall see.” Loliqua shifted in her bath, causing waves that slapped at the sides of the pool. “You will be the only person in this group to act alone when things come to a head, but your own training and rather checkered past has prepared you well for it. Just recall that certain things hold true, regardless of the years. As for you two--”

Tilla and Soluk observed her with attentive azure eyes; Soluk rumbled faintly.

Loliqua observed them silently for a moment, then shook her head. “I have Seen things that I have difficulty understanding. I have Seen you running through tall yellow grasses with a great many of your own kind. I have Heard a song that is not a song. I have Seen a disc made of the very stuff of eternity, and all the worlds and the universe itself will align along that tiny object's radius for one crucial moment.”

Tilla's spiky brows pinched into an odd frown, and she rattled and chirped something at Soluk, who rumbled and churred back. Everyone looked at Lizenne for a translation, but all they got was a shrug. “I don't recognize those terms at all,” she said. “There may not be a translation for them. Continue, if you would, Princess.”

“Of course,” Loliqua said, and focused her dark eyes upon the mice. “All of this Destiny thundering around has a role for you as well, little ones. Be it known that your game with your guest is merely practice. You will have the opportunity later on to steal and hide something rather bigger than a fish knife; it will be large, heavy, and very awkward, but you must not let that discourage you. Indeed, it will be critical. Succeed, and you may well be posing for statues of your own.”

Eeek!” the mice chorused staunchly, striking heroic poses.

And me?” Zaianne asked quietly, gazing on the assembly with solemn citrine eyes.

Loliqua hummed thoughtfully. “I have Seen that long ago, you failed your son. You yourself are blameless in that, for circumstances forced you from him and your mate; another crime to lay at the feet of the Emperor, that. You still feel guilt, but in time you will absolve that guilt, for you will spend much of yourself to save his life. In doing so, you will save all life.”

At the cost of my own.”

That was not a question, and Keith glanced anxiously between his mother and the Oracle.

“Perhaps,” Loliqua said. “Not necessarily. I am not sure. Do not rush to throw yourself into the jaws of death, Zaianne, but similarly do not hesitate to do what must be done. Do not lose sight of the fact that you are not alone; keep this strange kindred of yours within sight, and you stand a good chance of greeting your grandchildren.”

Zaianne nodded her thanks. “That is good advice. Now, if I can just persuade them not to rush into foolish situations again...”

There was an embarrassed titter from those assembled that made Loliqua laugh. “Impossible, madame, quite impossible! They are all heroes, are they not? Getting into dire situations is what they are for. Lance, dear, I do believe that Fanlen is in that room over there, listening at the keyhole and fairly bursting with impatience to have his turn with you. Do spend a little time in the garden with my children, my friends! There are certain things that I must do now, and will rejoin you in a little time. The fresh air and sunlight will take the edge off of my gloomy pronouncements, anyway. Oh... Lizenne, do stay for a moment, there are some questions that I would like to ask.”

Lizenne gave her the bow of one professional to another. “Certainly, and I've a few queries to put to you in turn. Go on ahead, all of you; I'll be down in a minute.”

 

Allura sat in pensive silence next to Pidge on one of the garden benches, puzzling over the predictions that they had been given. Part of her was aware that her mood was a little out of place despite such portents; the Palace gardens were gorgeous, Loliqua's horde of children were charming, and everyone was having fun but her. The two dragons were currently charging madly along the broad stone paths that snaked among the elegantly-designed water gardens, both of them carrying several whooping riders each. As she watched, Tilla turned off of the path and leaped gaily into one of the ponds, sending up huge sprays of water as she plunged through the shallows. Soluk let out an exasperated gronk and flung himself after her, his passengers howling in excitement and terror as he kicked off of a high bank and landed in the water with a splash that sent spray through a whole bank of second-story windows. Tilla, it seemed, couldn't play any sort of game without being tempted to cheat. Still, they made a magnificent picture, the flying water glinting in the midday sun like curtains of diamonds around them. Hunk had told her of the legendary dragons of his own homeworld, and here and now, she could believe some of them.

Soluk made it across the finish line first through sheer determination and came to a snorting, soggy halt, dripping waterweed and overexcited Omora youngsters from his back and flanks. He turned and gave Tilla a fulminating look and what sounded like a low-voiced scolding for her bad behavior. Tilla merely tossed her head, slurped his face with her broad blue tongue, and splashed back into the pond. Grumbling peevishly, he followed, snorting at the large, gemlike insects that buzzed around the flowers.

A few minutes later, a pair of soggy figures, one tall, one short, but grinning the same unrepentant grin, came squelching out of the pond. Hunk laughed to see them and shouted, “Hey, Lance, auditioning for the newest remake of The Creature From The Black Lagoon? You're a natural for the part!”

Lance paused, standing proudly, his sodden clothing splashed with mud and his dripping hair adorned with small flowering water plants. “You bet your shorts,” he called back cheerfully, “I will be the greatest swamp monster that there has ever been! You guys should join me—come on in, the water's fine!”

Fanlen laughed, pulling a large and confused snail off of Lance's shirt and tossing it back into the water. “Yeah! You can even ride the dragons next, when they've got their breath back. That's really fun!”

Allura looked longingly at the glittering water. When she'd been very small and the Castle still on Altea, she had been in and out of the pond in the palace gardens all the time, and had fond memories of swimming with the fish and throwing fistfuls of mud at whichever governess had drawn the short straw that day. It had taken some effort to civilize the willful little girl that she had been, and, alas, the lessons had stuck. It was beneath the dignity of a royal princess to splash about in the muck like a common marsh-farmer's daughter. Some days, she thought sourly, it does not pay to be nobly-born. Lance, on the other hand, was entirely common, and had no problem with getting dirty when it looked like fun. Indeed, he was never happier than when he was being rained on, or when he was up to his chin in pond water. The others did not share his predilections, thankfully.

“Pass, thanks,” Keith said in a glum tone; the lack of predictions concerning Shiro was obviously worrying him. “They're a little too spiky for me without my armor on, and we've already got all the bog monster that we need right here. You're not alone in the swamp, Lance.”

Lance glared at him, but the water was full of laughter; Tilla had found a sandbank near the center of the pond and was now rolling in it, giving her spiny hide a good scratching. Soluk had herded Fanlen's younger siblings back toward the group, and they had found Keith's summation funny. Lance sniffed and acquired a lofty expression. “They are my army of toadly wrath and we will conquer all before us.”

There were cheers from the little princes and princesses, and quite a bit of splashing. Soluk vented an agreeable-sounding gronk of his own that made Pidge grin. “With bonus Jabberwock, if you want one.”

“What's a Jabberwock?” Modhri asked.

Allura giggled. How was she going to answer that without embarrassing everybody, herself included?

Coran humphed and directed a disapproving glance both at her and at the green Paladin. “Well, where I come from, it was a slang term for a certain item of men's underwear, and not the sort for conventional use, either. Oddly enough, it was also an archaic term for a measuring cup in one of the northern baronies. Not the sort of word to bandy about in polite company, anyway. Who's been teaching you such things, young lady?”

Lance's face split open into a big grin, and he splashed ashore with his giggling army of toadly wrath right behind him, their eyes alight with curiosity. “Lewis Carroll, and it's the world's best poem about monster-hunting. Everybody knows it where I come from. Hey, kids, want to hear an awesome poem? It's short, but really good!”

“Yes, please!” Fanlen said, and was echoed by twenty or thirty of his sibs.

Lance struck a dramatic pose, clumps of mud and weed dripping off of him as he did so, and he spake thusly in a sepulchral voice: “'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”

His tone and stance changed, looking and sounding more like an old man admonishing an adventurous son: “'Beware the Jabberwock, my son, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!'”

Lance then drew himself up nobly, pulling his bayard out of his pocket with a squelch and raising it on high, much like that aforementioned adventurous young man: “He took his vorpal sword in hand... uh.”

His bayard activated, but became a most unswordly firearm instead. He deactivated it and stuffed it back into his pocket with another squelching noise, evicting an indignant amphibian as he did so. Lance looked around for anything better, but the exquisitely-maintained gardens didn't even offer a stray twig to use. His eyes came to rest on Keith, who was trying not to laugh and hissed urgently, “Keith! Keith, gimme your bayard, quick!”

“Wait, what?” Keith said, jerking away, but not quite quickly enough.

A moment later, Lance grabbed him and hauled his bayard forcibly out of his jacket pocket, giving it that little mental push that had it changing shape. Alas, it merely reformed into a red-plated version of his own weapon. “Huh,” he said, scowling at this result, “I guess they really do shape themselves to fit whoever's got them. Okay, I can work with that. Here, Keith, hold this!”

Before he could react, Lance had crammed the bayard into his hands and got a good grip on his wrists. The bayard obligingly reshaped itself into a sword, and Keith was nearly pulled off of his feet as Lance flourished it—and him—a bit. The blue Paladin was a good bit stronger than he looked.

“As I was saying,” Lance said with an irreverent grin, “He took his Vorpal sword in hand, long time the manxome foe he sought—so rested he by the Tumtum tree... hmm. No Tumtum trees. Hunk, be a tree.”

Hunk, smiling broadly, obligingly stepped up and lifted his arms up and out like branches. Protesting helplessly, Keith was hauled over and leaned up against him.

...and stood awhile in thought.” Lance continued dramatically, observing his audience. The kids were enjoying the play, of course; Coran, however, looked like he wanted to explode almost as badly as Keith did. Allura had gone very pink and was giggling. Modhri was watching with unalloyed delight, and Pidge was laughing her ass off. A good start, he thought. “Come on, Keith, look thoughtful instead of broody for a change. Even cows manage that.”

“Lance...” Keith growled dangerously, murder dripping off of that one word.

Yeah, that's good,” Lance said irrepressibly. “Okay, next verse. 'And while in uffish thought he stood, the Jabberwock with eyes of flame, came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came!'”

Soluk shouldered his way up out of the water, whiffling through his nose and making horrible gargling noises. Lance was quite impressed. “Hey, that's really good, Soluk, keep it up! 'One two! One two!'” Lance continued, waving Keith and his bayard in Soluk's direction, “And through and through, the vorpal blade went snicker-snack--!”

Hunk groaned. “Oh, man, did you have to mention Snickers? I really miss those, you know.”

Lance glared at him. “Hunk, you're a tree. Trees don't whine about snack foods.”

Hunk pouted and patted his belly. “Tumtum trees do.”

“Point,” Lance conceded, “just keep it down, okay? 'He left it dead--”

Soluk obligingly fell over, rolled onto his back with his legs in the air, and stuck out his tongue in an excellent imitation of very large roadkill.

--and with its head... um...” Lance grabbed one of Soluk's horns, tugged a few times, and gave up. Soluk's head was longer than his torso and probably massed three or four times what he did. “Tell you what,” Lance said thoughtfully, “I'll come back later with a forklift. '…he came galumphing back.' Come on, Keith, galumph with me.”

Keith had had enough. Lance managed to haul him into taking a couple of groin-straining bounds, but the third ended in an explosive whuff of breath as his elbow dug Lance's navel another inch or so deeper, and the taller boy collapsed wheezing into the mud.

Lance groaned, but would not be deterred. “Dead here, Hunk...” he gasped, “...take over, okay?”

Sure,” Hunk said, and before Keith could dodge away, Hunk had grabbed him up into a bear hug. “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” Keith found himself half-flung from one side to the other as Hunk danced a couple of lurching steps. “He chortled in his joy.”

Keith squawked in protest as he was ferociously cuddled, but was unable to get loose. Hunk patted him on the head. “Come on, man, say the last verse.”

“Hunk, dammit...” Keith growled.

Hunk's eyes grew huge and doelike. “C'mon, Keith, please?”

Keith rolled his eyes and gave in. Hunk at his most waifish was impossible to disappoint. It would be like kicking all the puppies in the world. “All right, all right, fine. “'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.' You can let go of me now.”

Hunk gave him an extra squeeze. “Aw. You sure?”

Keith looked around at the others. Modhri was bent double with mirth. Coran was puffed up with outrage, Pidge had collapsed across Allura's lap and was hooting with laughter, and if Allura blushed any harder, they would have to throw her into the pond to cool her down before she spontaneously combusted. Lance was flat on his back in the mud, chortling along to a chorus of giggles from the Omora kids, and the mice, who had been lurking beneath the garden benches, were dying of squeaky hilarity. Even the dragons were laughing, and Soluk, who was still flat on his back, winked three eyes at him and burbled again. Keith groaned in mortification and buried his face in Hunk's arm. “Maybe not,” he said in a muffled voice.

Bah!” Coran snarled, his mustache bristling fearsomely. “I should put you all on garbage duty for using language filthier than even my old drill sergeant could muster, and you call that poetry? The first and last verses alone... I should be washing your mouths out with industrial cleanser, you know. Have you any idea of what they actually mean?”

Sure,” Pidge gasped, wiping at her eyes and grinning broadly at the furious Altean. “I read the second book, too, and the annotated version. 'Brillig' means four 'o' clock in the afternoon. 'Slithy' means lithe and slimy. A 'tove' is a sort of weasel with a corkscrew-shaped nose, and they were spinning and digging holes in the 'wabe', which is the area of grass around a garden sundial. 'Mimsy' means miserable and flimsy, and a borogrove is a sort of flightless parrot that's thin and shabby-looking, with messy feathers. 'Mome raths' are homegrown, long-eared green pigs, and 'outgrabe' is shouting or screaming. Basically, it translates out to: 'It was four in the afternoon, and the corkscrew weasels were messing up the garden, which upset the ugly birds and made the resident weird pigs complain loudly.' It's not our fault that the universe has a dirtier sense of humor than one of our classic authors did.”

Coran deflated. “Oh.”

She sniffed primly. “And besides, where do you get off scolding us for bad language? That song that you sang with Doc at that party on Halidex--”

Coran cringed in embarrassment. “I was drunk.”

“You sure were!” Pidge pulled out her imager and waved it at him. “And you'd better not try to wash our mouths out with soap, pal, or that video goes public.”

Coran let out a horrified squawk that had every bird in the gardens heading for the other side of the palace. “You recorded that? Give that here, you little--”

Pirate-trained reflexes cut in, and she was up and halfway down the path before Coran could grab her. Coran took off after her, shouting threats and entreaties all the way, leaving everyone else laughing behind him.

 

“I shall have to visit you again, sometime,” Lizenne said as they headed down to the gardens to rejoin their respective kin. “You have been enormously informative, and a magnificent hostess.”

Loliqua, who had settled herself into a sort of water-filled hover-tank in order to comfortably escort her guest down to the gardens, gestured graciously. “As have you, and are a most interesting guest besides. Consider your invitation to be a standing one; I will be glad to see you whenever you should happen to drop by... save for a period of six weeks every year, of course.”

“I will be circumspect,” Lizenne promised. “Perhaps later, if things fall out for the best, I will invite you to my chosen home. I intend to revive the discipline, and perhaps this time we won't attract assassins.”

Loliqua hummed thoughtfully. “I don't travel much, I'm afraid. Affairs of state, you know, and Zampedri is a very long way away from here. Still, I have always wanted to see what a Galra looks like in a proper state of nature, where his heart is the happiest.”

Lizenne chuckled. “Oh, we're a rough and tribal bunch at heart, never fear. Humans, from what little I've gleaned of their culture, are much the same, and Alteans are descended from swamp haunts. If you want a glimpse of it, I suppose that I could invite you into my ship's envirodeck... oh.”

They had just come out into the garden courtyard, and a rather complicated scene met their eyes. Loliqua trilled a delighted laugh, and Lizenne's own rich laughter echoed it. Both dragons were surging like steamships around the deep end of the pond, captained by the mice and crewed by happy crowds of Omora youngsters. Pidge was up a tree, throwing nuts at Coran and casting aspersions upon his ancestry and personal habits; for his part, Coran was trying to shinny up the smooth-barked trunk and kept sliding back down, yelling imprecations all the while. Everyone else was in the shallows, embroiled in a first-class mud fight.

“Or we could simply get a bowl of snacks and watch the fun,” Lizenne said.

Loliqua giggled. “That sounds like a grand idea, and I will offer them the use of the baths and the laundry... in a little while.”

Lizenne nodded and watched fondly as Modhri held Lance down while Allura rubbed a double handful of mud into his hair. “In a little time.”