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Chapter 10: Time Well Spent

 

Uzenna Sa'ar was everything that the pilot had promised, and more. Clutching the obligatory souvenir map of the Town (courtesy of the Port's tourism office), Pidge seemed to be determined to see all of it. They did pause briefly at the Thieves' Bank to let Nasty drop off his stuff, but he rejoined the group with the cheerful excuse that someone had to watch their backs while they were gaping around like yokels. Not that the locals didn't do a bit of gaping themselves; while Galra and Unilu weren't at all uncommon, Alteans, Humans, Dragons, and Space Mice were definite rarities in the wider universe. There was also the question of scale; even with the very broad sidewalks, Tilla and Soluk did not leave much space when they were marching abreast, and the passersby were forced to flow around them like a stream around a pair of huge boulders. The dragons were obviously enjoying themselves, at least; heads up, eyes bright, and rumbling cheerfully at the hustle and bustle all around them.

They weren't the only ones. Allura in particular found the Town charming. There was a freshness and a newness about it that pleased her very much, and the wild variety of architectural styles in the buildings themselves neither clashed nor jarred the senses. This gave the impression of a particularly harmonious abstract sculpture, and the air was kept sweet by the rows of tall, slender trees that lined the road. The fernlike leaves were a deep, translucent blue-green, almost like glass, and spread a very light, tangy fragrance into the breeze. These were invar hardwoods, Zaianne told her, highly prized for their beauty and utility, and it was a pity that they weren't fruiting at the moment, because the nuts were very tasty when roasted. Allura agreed that it was a shame, but she saw Hunk break off a leaflet and tuck it into a belt pouch; she remembered Lizenne's gene-lab, and knew that she'd have invar nuts sooner or later.

In the meantime, she was perfectly happy to engage in what the Humans referred to as “window shopping”, which was surprisingly pleasant. Every storefront had a lovely display of their best wares, and those ranged from delicate confections to clothing and housewares, to armor and weaponry, to games and drones, and more. They even found the large and gracious emporium owned by Ketzewan's rogue Bolumnere fashionista, and Allura made a mental note to spend a few hours later on trying on some of those outfits.

She wasn't alone in that, either. “Nice,” Lance said, studying a particularly fine formal jacket. “I have got to talk to this person. Look at the stitching on the lapels! Hey, Shiro, check out that suit over there—lose the extra sleeves and shorten the legs a little, and you'd look great in that. Oooh! And that gown in the back! If she's got one in white and a little snugger in the waist, you'd look dazzling in that, Allura. Oh, oh, oh, Hunk, check out the onesie on the right wall. I've gotta see you in that. Pidge, what about that green thing next to it?”

Pidge squinted through the glass. “It's three sizes too big, Lance.”

He shrugged, not looking away from the sartorial excellence beyond the glass. “It'll shrink in the wash. Nah, I'm kidding. I'll bet this lady has a bunch of sizes handy. What do you think, Keith?”

Keith humphed. “I hate clothes shopping. Dad and I used to have all kinds of trouble finding me pants that fit. Anything long enough in the leg was usually for someone four times my weight, and right when I hit high school, there was that fad for shiny rapper pants and platform-soled boots--”

Lance groaned, his expression one of chagrin. “I remember that. I've been trying to forget that fad for years. It was awful. Cousin Maria-Dolores threw a screaming blue fit when Carlos got a pair of both, and then showed them off at the neighborhood dance party. Mom said that it was worth it, just to see the cops remove her for making a public scene.”

Zaianne chuckled, eyeing a very nice deep-blue gown speculatively. “Your family reunions must be interesting.”

Lance grunted, turning his attention to a display of very stylish hats. “We usually have to warn the Fire Marshal first. Just to be polite, you know? I'm sort of looking forward to introducing you to them. Can we go in there? I really want to talk to the owner.”

“After the talks, Lance,” Shiro said, although there were a few items in the shop that he yearned to try on as well, in his secret heart of hearts. “Adam dragged me into a place like this, once, and we lost three hours before we ever noticed it.”

Coran twiddled his mustache and gazed with approval upon an outfit that would not have looked out of place in an assortment of nutcracker dolls. “Not at all uncommon in a quality establishment such as this. 'Tis only to be expected, actually, and I've visited some of the best. It was Allura's mother who set the palace dress code, d'you see, and it was her responsibility to make sure that old Alfor looked presentable. Poor Melenor was always after him to dress well, particularly after he and the others had been out saving the universe again. He'd have much preferred to slop about the place in his pajamas like some people that I could mention--”

Pidge stuck her tongue out at him.

“--But, no, she was generally able to stuff him into something presentable before the latest batch of diplomats came by.” Coran continued, ignoring her. “That didn't stop Gyrgan from showing up at an emergency conference in nothing but a loincloth once, and serve them right for interrupting his steam bath! Not that the Ambassadors minded, once the shock had worn off. He was rather magnificent to look at when he had his shirt off.”

Hunk and Allura glanced at each other, blushed slightly, and looked innocently away.

“Nonetheless, every so often the Queen would sneak away with a few of her best friends and patronize the finer establishments. It was considered not only a great honor to host her, but a great challenge as well; only the very best could possibly be offered up for her choosing, of course—gowns, shoes, jewelry, hosiery, cosmetics and perfumes, and you should have seen the crowds gather to watch the hairdressers fight each other for the honor of combing her lustrous locks! You haven't known excitement until you've seen a true master beautician go at a rival with brush and scissors! And the manicurists! Great Ancients, the manicurists! People ran for cover when they started flailing about with their cuticle knives—eek!”

“This is starting to become a habit,” Zaianne chided, twisting his ear a bit to get his full attention. “If you hadn't noticed while this silly ass was pontificating, Nasty's stolen three purses already, and we've lost the dragons.”

Nasty waved empty hands. “I gave 'em back. Don't look at me like that, it's the local rules, printed right there on the back of the map, and they had to pay me an edutainment fee for the lesson in watching their stuff. The dragons went thataway.”

“Thataway” was down a side boulevard leading toward one of the big parks, and even at that distance, they were able to make out Tilla charging across the grassy lawns with Soluk right behind her. Shiro shook his head with a sigh. “I keep forgetting how much space they need to run. Think that they'll be okay out there?”

Hunk flashed him a sidelong look. “Shiro, they're dragons. If that's not good enough for you, they've still got the mice with them. They could probably take on everybody in Town with their eyes closed. They'll be fine. Can we go and check out the Cooking Academy now?”

As they watched, the dragons stampeded back the other way. This time, Tilla had something small and round held carefully in her mouth, and what seemed to be two or three sports teams were chasing her, waving their arms and shouting. She tossed her head gaily, flinging the object across the field to Soluk, who caught it neatly and took off at a gallop.

“Might as well,” Coran observed. “They've even found some nice people to play with. Pop-Pop used to tell stories of when he and a few helpers visited Zampedri, and they started up a sort of informal Glupri-Ball league. The little dragons were forever filching the balls, he said, although the big ones would generally return them at the end of the day. Pop-Pop also said that there was nothing quite as good for clearing the head as a good run through the grasses in hot pursuit of a ball-thief while shouting every dirty word conceived of by intelligent life. Great days.”

“I'll keep an eye on them,” Zaianne volunteered, stepping away from the group. “I feel the need of a good run myself, and those people over there might appreciate having someone who knows how to dance with dragons.”

“I'll bet,” Pidge said, watching Tilla and Soluk starting a “monkey in the middle” game with the angry ball players as the monkeys. “Now, let's go and visit Ronok. He's told me a lot about his school, and I want to see it for myself.”

 

From the street, at least, the Cooking Academy wasn't all that unusual-looking; it had a modest facade of cream-colored stone and a generous-looking main doorway that radiated a sort of quiet welcome, which was echoed by the Halidexan lady at the desk in the lobby. Pidge trotted over instantly and asked, “Is Ronok available? I'm Varda.”

The receptionist had obviously been warned about her, and gestured an affirmative. “You're in luck, Miss, he's just finished a class. He and Tamzet will be on the third floor in Baking Lab #6, and he left a note with me to send you and any companions up immediately. Just follow the signs.”

Unusually for any academic building, there were not only clear, legible signs, but accurate floor maps at each landing, and it wasn't long before they came to the appropriate room. Hunk's eyes gleamed avariciously at the wide variety of ovens, mixers, pots, pans, and a myriad of other tools designed for turning raw materials into whole banquets. The others saw mostly the blackened oven and a series of huge, pinkish-black smears on the floor where something had objected violently to being baked. Ronok was treating these marks with something that smelled a little like cider vinegar while Tamzet chipped chunks of charred goo out of the oven itself. Unsurprisingly, there was a smoky haze in the air and a smell of something that might once have been savory, and all of the windows were wide open.

As they stepped through the doors, Tamzet backed out of the oven, tossed a double-handful of charcoal into a nearby trash bin and said, “That's the worst of it, Uncle. I don't think that it did any real damage, but I'll have Grassen check the stove over anyway. That was creepy. Does it always do that?”

Ronok humphed irritably and scrubbed at the wet, dirty floor with a push broom. “If you add too much painiri, not enough parched guellot, and then don't keep a proper eye on it, then yes. We're lucky—if he'd skimped any more on the dosha, it would have bitten his head off. The Werians don't call it 'Seven-Devils Bread' for nothing. Idiot. If the recipe says eleven sekphars of tolumn, then that's what you measure out, and to the Void with the cost of the spices. Perhaps I should make him eat a tureen of ghrembak stew with no yurosk powder in it to teach him.”

Tamzet grimaced in distaste. “That'd teach me.”

“And that's why you're the official Teaching Assistant, and he's not,” Ronok growled. “You actually do learn. Varda, I see you and the others over there. Come here and give your uncle a hug.”

Pidge giggled and scampered over to do just that. “Hi, Uncle Ronok; hi, Tamzet, we're back! What's Seven-Devils bread? I don't think that you ever made it on the Quandary.”

The old man snorted a laugh and eased her away from the besmirched areas of the floor so that she could give Tamzet a hug, too. “I did, once, out of curiosity. The Werians have a long history of mixing demonology and cookery, and while their cuisine is good, it can be a bit exciting if you get it wrong. That one time aboard the Quandary, I got everything right except for the oven I cooked it in. How did you think that toaster oven wound up being possessed? As it is, I'll have to call Somlesc in to check this thing, and see if there's anyone he knows lurking in it. How have all of you been, and what brings you by here?”

Shiro smiled wryly. “The conference over at the Palace got held up. Some of the staff don't like the idea of having a gang of space pirates over for dinner.”

Tamzet rolled his eyes. “It's the Majordomo again, isn't it? He gets all antsy when we deliver the Queen's tea-cakes, and acts like we'll get loose fur all over the furnishings.”

“Yeah,” Hunk said, rolling his own eyes in sympathy. “There's always that one guy, right? Also, we're here to make a delivery, too. Did you want this back, Ronok?”

Hunk had caught the Unilu by the back of the shirt just as he was reaching for a set of expensive-looking kitchen knives, and the Unilu yelped in protest as Hunk pulled him away. Ronok eyed Nasty with a pale, disapproving gaze, and sneered. “Not especially. Drop it in the compost bin on your way out. The assassin bushes in the garden are getting ready to bloom, and could use a little extra nefarious in their fertilizer.”

“Hey,” Nasty protested, and then looked very interested. “Assassin bushes? Seriously? Where did you find those? Those are really rare even back home!”

Ronok smirked. “Pirates, Nasty. They get everywhere and steal anything, and any unusual edibles come straight to me. Believe it or not, those bushes were cloned from the contents a two-hundred-year-old sack of mixed nuts, discovered in a derelict ore smuggler by one of Tepechwa's scavengers. The xenobotanists were happy to study that sack for me, since there were samples of seven other types of nuts and seeds, most of which were extinct.”

Tamzet grinned. “Ronok's really popular with the xenoscience community right now. He keeps bringing them presents. Want to see the Academy gardens? They're full of weird, rare things, and you can tell us adventure stories while we all look at the pretty flowers.”

“Actually, I'd like a tour of the whole place,” Hunk said before anyone else could speak. “You've got a candy-sculpting lab, right? I've always wanted to have a look at one, but the opportunity never came up.”

“I do, but it's not me who teaches that class,” Ronok said, smiling benevolently at his kindred spirit. “While I did manage to perfect a few of the recipes for the candies themselves, I was never more than passable at the actual sculpting. Thezza handles that end of the art for me. Let's see if she's willing to show off a little, eh? Come on, it's right next to the burn treatment office. Now, what nonsense have you been up to since we last met?”

 

“Shan't,” the Majordomo's voice came petulantly through the polished panels of the locked door.

The Prince sighed and turned to his guests. “I'm really sorry about this.”

Lizenne waved a generous hand. “It's quite all right. My great-aunt had one just like him, and we used to joke about how his nose might get caught in the chandelier if he lifted it any higher.”

Modhri smiled nostalgically. “That actually happened once. He used to bully and harass the servant staff—my family, mostly—whenever he could, and one day, my brother took a bit of extra-strong, nearly invisible fishing line and attached an industrial-strength adhesive strip to one end. The other was tied around the focal prism of that ridiculously extravagant light fixture in the main hall, and at precisely the right height just where the man always walked. There was a great deal of flailing and squawking that day, and several crystals were knocked loose before they could untangle him. They had to shave his nose to get the strip off, too, and the fur took a month to grow back.”

The Prince giggled, but shook his head. “That's not an option right now. The household staff can't really coordinate properly without him, and Dad wants to make a good impression on the Fleet Captains, especially the new ones.”

“Let me try,” Lizenne said thoughtfully. “My mother taught me a trick or two, and the practice will stand me in good stead if the future treats us well.”

The Prince stepped away from the doors. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” Lizenne said politely, and then gave the doors a look that dulled the polish. Taking a deep and measured breath, she lilted out the Majordomo's personal name in a tone that could not be ignored. “Bochar.”

There was a faint whimper from the other side. “Yes, Madame?”

“The correct term for addressing a Galra woman is 'my Lady',” she said in a voice that had hauteur dripping from every syllable. “'Madame' is the mode of address for a mature, married woman who also has adult or near-adult children, and furthermore is spoken only by close friends and relatives. You are neither. You have a duty to know such things, sirrah, and you are remiss in that and in many other duties.”

They could practically hear Bochar's spine wilting. “My Lady, I beg your pardon, but I protest! Never before has this Palace played host to a Galra woman, and if you are referring to that filthy ragtag of unhung savages that the King is so insistent about cluttering up the House with--”

“They are nothing of the sort!” Lizenne snarled in a voice that had the Prince huddling behind Modhri. “Sir, I repeat, you are remiss, and nigh-unforgivably so. A proper Majordomo should always be well-acquainted with not only the customs of his own people, but of those who are likely to visit. Had you swallowed your pride and done your homework, you would have realized your folly instantly. Have you any idea of the sheer number of notables soon to grace this house with their presence?”

“Well, I--” the Majordomo sputtered, but got no further.

“Admiral Yantilee is an Admiral in truth,” Lizenne said coldly, “having inherited the rank in a battlefield promotion. Indeed, he currently ranks as the High Commander of the entire Elikonian space navy, having been the one surviving officer of the original armada. Captain Dablinnit is in actuality a Grand Duke, being the last scion of the old Royal Line. Captain Ketzewan held the noble rank of Grand Verdurean before he was forced to turn pirate, and Voan Lenna was also considered a gentleman of high standing. Rough though Captain Tchak's manners might be, he holds the exalted position of one of his people's last Wonderworkers, and Captain Zorjesca stands very high in her Swarm. A great many of the Ghost Fleet captains are indeed nobility in exile; you know as well as I do that an exiled lord is a lord still, and deserves the respect of those who serve him. I know this well, for I too may demand that same respect. I, yes, even I, the Rogue Witch, was once the valued daughter of the very rich and powerful High House Ghurap'Han, and one that was considered worthy of marrying into the Imperial Lineage.”

“Please, my Lady, I--” the Majordomo begged, but Lizenne wasn't done yet.

“Even those who possess no noble blood are noble of spirit, for they have chosen to fight where others cower and submit,” the scorn in her voice bid fair to strip the paint from a nearby portrait. “When the Emperor crushed the proud Halidexan forces, where were you, Bochar? Were you there with your King, working to save your people from the worst of the conqueror's greed? Did you support in any way the resistance groups, did you aid and comfort those that the invaders had displaced or impoverished? Where were you, when the grieving families of those who were killed in that conquest mourned their dead? Were you out there, helping those who desperately needed that help, or were you tucked up here in your safe little room full of napkins and tablecloths, shivering in terror and bemoaning your sad fate?”

“Lady, please...” whimpered the Majordomo, who sounded near tears.

“The least of those pirates is a better man than you, for they have stood up and taken action where you have not,” Lizenne hissed through bared teeth. “They have aided your entire world in a hundred ways, even going so far as to rescue your King and his family because it was right, not out of any hope of reward. Single-handedly and at the risk of her own life, one single pirate girl staved off a usurpation that would have ruined your civilization for all time by freeing them and sending them home. You have less than no excuse to refuse them hospitality.”

“Lady...”

Lizenne drew herself up to her full and terrible height, and spake thus in a tone of voice like the fall of an executioner's axe: “Coward. For shame.”

He broke down in tears at that point, and Lizenne let him weep in frigid silence for a few minutes before speaking again, her voice slightly gentler this time. “All is not lost, Bochar. The Admiral is patient and the King is an understanding sort. You may redeem yourself in their eyes if you act now. Get out of there and get to work. Treat these heroes as they deserve; make them comfortable and welcome, for that is your purpose as the First Servant of the House. In supporting them, you support their cause, and their cause is just. Come forth! Your responsibilities await!”

The doors slammed open and the Majordomo scrambled out, bowing jerkily and babbling garbled and tear-soaked reassurances as he hurried away to see to his duties. Modhri and the young Prince watched him go, and turned to stare at Lizenne with admiration in their eyes.

The Prince swallowed hard. “Have you ever thought about going into motivational speaking?”

Lizenne laughed, and suddenly her aura of ultimate authority was gone. “No, dear, that's just how a Matriarch should act when someone is shirking their duties. Shall we tell your royal father that the problem has been solved?”

The Prince smiled only a little nervously and dipped a little bow. “Yes, my Lady.”

She gave him a fond smile and gracefully rested her hand on Modhri's offered elbow, allowing the Prince to lead the way back up to the conference hall. The young Halidexan royal watched that artful motion with curious eyes, but took the position that his rank entitled him to, at the head of their little procession. “You're so different from the rest of them,” he commented quietly. “The Governor and his men used to treat us like underlings.”

Modhri nodded. “It's a status thing, your Highness. Lizenne and I are throwbacks to an earlier era, from before Zarkon took the Throne. Galra are predators and pack-hunters, and we do respect authority; unfortunately, our people have been taught for many thousands of years that the least of our kind has more authority than the greatest of anyone else. Thus far, no one race has had the might to teach us any different.”

“A few have come close, but they were alone,” Lizenne added solemnly. “It has taken far too long, but the many are now beginning to come together into a greater whole; one that, we hope, will not leave too much chaos in its wake.”

“You're not doing too badly so far,” the Prince said. “Voltron's gained us more ground than we could have hoped, and the Fleet's been taking every opening that the Paladins have given them, and that's a lot. You've even called the Hoshinthra out of hiding, and when they strike, the Empire's really going to feel it.”

Modhri gazed at him with interest. “Have they spoken with your parents? We have no idea of what they're doing.”

The young Prince ran his fingers through his silky, greenish crest uncertainly. “Sort of. Shussshorim's their spokeswoman right now, and she likes being cryptic at people. She's said that her descendants have been moving into position, but won't tell even Mother much beyond that. She did say that it would likely be enough to open a road for someone... uh, I forget the name. Sai-something.”

Lizenne frowned. “Tzairona?”

“That's it!” The Prince smiled gratefully at her. “Who is that? Shussshorim thinks that it's important for that person to go home.”

Lizenne and Modhri shared a long look. “The Warleader is not wrong,” Modhri said gravely, “and I thank you for telling us this. Tzairona was my ultimate grandmother and the Founder of my Lineage, and she died under very peculiar circumstances. We have found her body, and the Fleet hosts her spirit; taking her home will mean freedom for more than five hundred very skilled people, and the crippling of a major industrial House.”

“Well done, young man,” Lizenne murmured. “Has she said when her kin will strike?”

“No,” the Prince said, “and Dad did ask. All he got was 'when the time is right'.”

Modhri hummed under his breath as they stepped into the lift that would take them up to the palace's main function rooms. “She is a far greater predator than many of my own people, and great predators strike hardest when the prey is confused. That way, the prey cannot think clearly, and is prone to panic and rash action. They are waiting for the rest of us to draw the Imperial Navy's attention in a way that cannot be ignored. The loss of those two trade hubs might do it, although the Empire holds many such hubs. What would upset the Military enough to distract them from everything else?”

The Prince shrugged. “Well, when we were kidnapped by Plosser, it caused a huge mess back here. We're still cleaning up parts of it. Maybe Voltron will strike directly at the Emperor again, or at the Crown Prince, or the sorceress?”

Lizenne smiled grimly. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps the Warleaders will strike regardless of what we do. I cannot even guess at their plans.”

The Prince cocked his head at an interested angle. “Now I know that you're different from the rest. None of the other Galra we've known have ever admitted that they couldn't predict what someone would do.”

“Arrogance, dear,” Lizenne sighed. “We Galra are naturally prideful, but Zarkon takes it to extremes, and he encourages that attitude in his officers. Avoid it in yourself, if you can; a little pride in oneself is necessary, but overweening arrogance does nobody any good at all.”

By the time that they reached the conference hall, the entire level was already humming with frantic activity as the designated rooms were cleaned and made ready for the guests. King Trosimon, his wife, and the Crown Prince stood conversing quietly in one corner with Yantilee and Kolivan while the servants worked busily around them, and the smile that the King gave them when they approached was perhaps a little ironic.

“I see that the party's back on,” he said. “Who do I need to reward for this?”

The young Prince and Modhri pointed at Lizenne, who gestured a negative. “Don't bother, your Majesty, he just needed a talking-to. Nothing earth-shaking at all. I take it that this meeting is of grave importance?”

“Somewhat.” The King sighed and glanced over at Yantilee, who was deep in discussion with the Queen. “Taking Bericonde and Jeproba rattled a lot of very important people. The fact that you didn't disrupt the trade lines when you did so rattled them even more. My Nobles all think that they're the pinnacle of creation, you know, but it's the trade clans that do all of the real work and bring in all of the real revenue. That's a lot more important than most heroes think.”

“We're aware,” Modhri replied, “and we've taken care not to break things as we've gone along. I take it that the Fleet's next target is worrying those very important people?”

Trosimon grimaced. “Even the least little hint of trouble upsets those very important people. When they get upset, whole interplanetary governments get upset. When those get upset, they start complaining—loudly—to whomever they think may be in charge, or at least the person who has some sort of influence with the people causing the trouble. Right now, that's me. At least my Receptionist is enjoying this. Litta's been blocking and misdirecting calls ever since Bericonde. I'll have her page the Paladins when the preparations are a little further along. I feel that I must warn you, though... the Governor will be attending as well.”

Lizenne narrowed her eyes, and just for a second, the King saw the warrior woman lurking behind the civilized veneer. She nodded slowly. “I see. I take it that he's been acting sensibly since the last time we were here?”

“He has, actually,” Trosimon replied. “Having the Fleet show up on his doorstep that first time knocked the wind out of his sails, and after he'd talked to a few of the officers that the Fleet had rescued, he came around very quickly. A few of his underlings are still unhappy about it, but they have no choice but to go along with him.”

“We'll be polite,” Modhri reassured him, “as will the others.”

“Will they?” the young Prince asked.

Modhri smiled gently. “Allura will insist.”

 

Allura was currently nibbling on her candy and watching Hunk beam with happiness while brightly-colored pollinators fluttered prettily around him. He'd already sampled half of the garden herbs, sniffed every flower that he could reach, and had persuaded the gardeners to let him have seeds for growing his favorites. The Hydroponics deck of the Castle was going to become rather more active very soon. Not that Allura was going to complain; Pidge had just introduced her to morlaberries, and she definitely was in favor of having those on a regular basis.

For the moment, she was perfectly willing to concentrate on the treat already in hand. They had all spent a very enjoyable varga or two learning about edible art with Ronok's colleague, building improbable candies-on-a-stick that Lance had called “Hollywood lollipops”. She didn't see what the branches of a large Earthian shrub had to do with it, but that didn't really matter. Thezza had simply pulled out a vast selection of flavor essences and had let them all pick out their favorites before brewing up large pots of heavy syrups. They had learned how to add color and flavor, how to handle the hot confectionery without getting serious burns, and how to sculpt it into fanciful shapes that resembled art glass more than anything else. Even Nasty had participated, and she had found herself envying him for the extra pair of hands. As for artistic skill... well, it was just as well that none of their pieces were display-quality. It would have been a terrible shame if their creations had been too pretty to eat. Indeed, one of their number currently had competition for her treat; Pidge was holding her lollipop at arm's length and looking very nervous because a rather large insect had decided to take a taste.

It was quite pretty, actually, being banded in turquoise and black, with large, glittering compound eyes, glassy wings, and a long and heavy-looking abdomen. There must have been something like it back on Earth that was fairly fearsome, because the fearless young lady who had once kicked a pirate captain's head off was whimpering pitifully for help.

“Oh, hush girl, you'll frighten it,” Ronok said, gently disengaging the finger-long insect from her candy and stroking its gleaming carapace lovingly. “This is a Thantusian sacred riza, and they're worth their weight in gems these days. The best honey in the known universe comes from their hives, and the wax they produce to contain it is considered essential for making offerings to seven different pantheons, two Lineages of holy monarchs, and a College of very highly-regarded Scholars. Every part and portion of this little darling is under the protection of a dozen different deities, and our very traditional beekeeper will invoke them all if you start flailing around like an idiot. Even getting stung by one of these is considered a blessing.”

They stared at the riza, which cleaned its antennae and fanned its gleaming wings at them with the haughty air of a tiny emperor. The stinger, visible at the tip of the abdomen, was over an inch long and as thick as a darning needle.

“Seriously?” Lance said, backing away.

“Oh, yes,” Ronok said, transferring the riza to a large golden flower hanging nearby. “To you or me, the sting would just hurt like hell. To the Thantusians, it's a powerful euphoric hallucinogen. A good part of the Academy's funding comes from this garden, and from that hive.”

“Yes, I seem to remember something of that,” Coran mused, watching the riza sip decorously at the flower's nectar. “Alfor and the team did visit Thantu a couple of times, once to get rid of a corrupt priest-king, and again for a festival. Very keen on those insects, they were, and said that they could smell the difference between virtue and vice, and would take action if they smelled something that they didn't like. They never bothered us more than the occasional sip from our drinks.”

“Not even Zarkon?” Nasty asked.

Coran shrugged. “It was only the fourth or fifth decaphebe after they'd qualified for the Lions, and he wasn't evil yet. What other sorts of rarities have you collected, Ronok?”

“This and that,” Ronok replied, waving a hand at a fenced-off area. “Umpuktu firethorn, the fruits of which produce an oil so hot that it cooks food all by itself. Thaswee spice, pherp root, and t'uek herbs, all very rare aromatics. That greenhouse there has a few young thelwisk bushes growing in it, and that one has a branchful of well-of-heaven epiphytes, and we've lately been able to sprout eight healthy young quinma trees.”

“Quinma trees?” Allura said with a sudden smile. “Real quinma trees? Those are an Altean spice-tree! How did you get those?”

Ronok gave her an interested look. “The Halidexans have had them for ages, mostly grown in the Palace's private gardens. Legend has it that they got them from an ancient race of spacefarers who visited them once to make repairs to a damaged ship, and those people had gotten them from the Niricora, who had gotten them from the Oulvarans, who had received them as a tribute-gift from the Ipts, who had stolen a few seed-pods from the storerooms of a ruined spacecraft they found drifting near the wreckage of an equally mysterious space station. Gone though it might be, young lady, your world has left a legacy that is known and treasured even today. I have many such prized remnants here, and hope to gain more. Just before you came here, I got a page from my contact at the main Xenobotany labs—your Aunt Lizenne has given them a few gifts of her own that will be of great use in the future.”

“Is that where she went?” Shiro asked. “I haven't seen her or Modhri today.”

Ronok nodded. “They have much business with the Fleet Captains, our Halidexan hosts, and the Blade of Marmora, or so Helenva tells me. They have been many places, and have much information to share, and a great variety of treasures that they distribute where it will do the most good. You are very lucky to have her as Matriarch, and I am proud to have become a part of your family. As you can see, it has brought me riches.”

Hunk looked longingly at the fence, which was large, sturdy, and had spikes along the top. “Can we see them?”

Ronok smiled and shook his head. “Not without incurring the wrath of the specialist gardeners. Some of those rare plants are very delicate and sensitive, and don't like strangers. There is one, however, that they've deemed obnoxious enough to allow to go slumming out here. Come along, I'll show you.”

He led them to a large planter near the back of the garden, which contained a large, squat, gnarly-looking vine with glossy yellow-green leaves the size and shape of dinner plates. Huge white trumpet-shaped flowers that glittered subtly bloomed in snowy profusion, and what looked to be big golden clusters of fruit that resembled some of the odder squash varieties that turned up around Halloween lay temptingly atop the substrate. They were each as large as a soccer ball, sort of oval-shaped, with a ring of protruding knobs around the middle. Ronok looked upon these with a mixture of pride and exasperation and said, “Yolindrian Saint's gourds. Very rare, very difficult to cultivate, and highly prized for their flavor. Used to be grown only in the Temples of the Western Mesa on Yolind, to test the faith of the novice monks.”

“Really?” Keith asked. “How'd they do that?”

Ronok gestured at a nearby gardener, who handed him a planting stake. Ronok smiled grimly and pointed it at one gourd. “Watch.”

So saying, he tapped the gourd lightly and snatched the stake away, but not quite quickly enough. The gourd abruptly rose up upon its ropy stem, split open into fanged thirds, and snapped four inches of wood off of the end of the stake, which it spat spitefully out at Nasty before settling back down again.

“Wow,” Hunk said. “Look but don't touch. How do you harvest those, anyway?”

“Tasers, usually. Not many people are enlightened enough to pick them without help.”

“Tasers? Tasers, indeed!” Coran scoffed, moving closer to one particularly large gourd. “That'll ruin the texture every time. You don't even need to be enlightened, although a bit of inebriation does help now and then. Here, all you need to do is this--” he tugged on two of the knobs, “--and this--” two more knobs were pulled, “--and boop!” he tapped the tip of the gourd with one finger, “--Voila!”

The gourd split open into neat thirds, exposing plump pink sections of fruit, which he pulled out and munched with relish. “Lovely. Just as I remembered. Crisp, sweet, and refreshing. Very good in iced desserts and certain expensive drinks. Here, try some.”

Ronok smiled and tasted one. “Nice. I'll remember that technique.”

There was a gabble and a squawk from the gardener, who had watched Coran's trick with superstitious horror. “Nice? Nice? You leucistic old heretic, no one can do that! That's how you can tell if the monk is actually a living Saint, if he can get at the fruit without losing a hand! That's a Divine Mystery, is what this... this... alien just did, an actual holy secret passed down from the Ancient Ones--”

“It was a party trick,” Coran replied primly. “'Get It And Not Bit', we used to call it, and old Alfor could do it blind drunk. Besides, young man, I am an Ancient One, technically at least, having been born a good ten thousand and never-you-mind-how-many years ago, so I'm entitled. Want another demonstration?”

The gardener let out a scream of righteous indignation and collapsed backwards into a patch of gnobweed.

Ronok snorted in amusement. “He'll want to ordain you when he wakes up, you know. Can't have an unsainted person wandering around with that sort of knowledge.”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” Coran said indifferently, passing sections of fruit around to the others. “I happen to be an honorary Knight, Warleader, Huntsman-in-Chief, Lord of the Mezzanine, Lady of the Long Whiskers, Exalted Nurk, High Gubarr, Overseer of the Back Pantry, Greater Luftwig, Middling Cuxan, He-Who-Makes-Spooky-Noises-At-Dawn, and Semi-Hereditary Chaser of the Yeeps. I have accepted similar honors from the religious establishments of seventy-three planets, some of which may still exist. This'll be my third sainthood, to tell the truth, and at least it was for doing something useful. My last one was for sitting under a desert sun for thirty days and nights without food or water, contemplating the Infinite with my shirt off.”

“I dunno, that sounds like a saintly sort of thing to me,” Lance said dubiously. “A lot of ours used to do that.”

Coran tugged on his mustache. “That's true enough, and a lot of other religious types do that as well. It's just more of a trial when the desert's a hot one, which that one wasn't, and when the days lasted more than six or seven doboshes. Terribly close to its sun, that planet was, for all that the sun was barely more than a brown dwarf, and the planet spun far faster on its axis than you'd think sensible. Just trying to figure out the math behind what made the place possible, much less habitable, kept me busy the whole time.”

Pidge frowned and was about to offer an opinion, but Allura's wrist-comm beeped. Surprised, the Princess asked, “Yes?”

An eerily familiar voice, sharp and slightly nasal, answered with, “Paladins of Voltron, you are hereby commanded by King Trosimon to--”

Ronok reached over and gently grasped Allura's wrist, lifting it up high enough for him to speak into the comm. “Cool it, Litta. I take it that someone managed to light a fire under Bochar?”

There was a moment of offended silence. “Yes. The talks will begin in half a luwith, so they'd better get over here.”

“I'll send them along. Shall Tamzet and I come with them, say, carrying a basket of vyllet merangues for the long-suffering household staff?” Ronok said coaxingly.

There was another brief silence, followed by a faint gulp, as though someone's mouth was watering and they needed a moment. “That would be... very much appreciated.”

“It is the done thing for guests to bring a small gift for the hosts,” Ronok said solemnly. “I'll make sure to add a few pikpik tarts. We'll all be there shortly.”

“Ronok, you are an artist,” Hunk said admiringly.

Ronok gave them a sly smile and released Allura's hand. “It's very important to be on good terms with the household staff of any large establishment, planetside or aboard ship. It's not even bribery; it's a simple courtesy from one professional to another, and it opens more doors than an Imperial Decree. Tamzet, the basket's in the ready box, get a sealed hovercrate to carry it in or you'll never get it to the palace intact. The tarts are already in the basket, so you won't have to risk the wrath of the janitors.”

The young Galra grinned and trotted back toward the doors. Shiro gave the old man a puzzled look. “You had it all made up already?”

Ronok drew himself up proudly. “I've been catering for large gatherings for most of my life, and I know how much work goes into a formal conference. It's always a ton of extra work on top of an already full schedule, and those doing the work always feel that they deserve a treat. Therefore, having that treat ready to go saves time... and makes a great many friends. I want Tamzet to have many friends up at the Palace. He might end up working there one day, and I want him to fit in easily.”

“That's really important,” Hunk said knowledgeably. “Some kitchens really don't like it when a new cook is hired on out of the blue. They don't know him, they don't know how he works or what he wants from them, and both sides can get pretty nasty about it. A really good cooking team is more like a family than anything else.”

Keith snapped his fingers. “Speaking of family, Mom's still out with the mice and the dragons. Think we should give her a call?”

“Good idea,” Allura said, and contacted Zaianne. “Zaianne, are you there?”

There was a thud, a rustle, distant cheers, and a loud GRONK from her communicator. It sounded like Soluk. They heard Zaianne laugh, and her slightly breathless voice answered a moment later. “Yes, I am. Hold on a moment, I need to call a time out.” There was another rustle, and they heard her shout, “Take a breather, you lot, this may be important!”

“What are you doing over there?” Allura asked.

Inventing a new sport.” Zaianne chuckled wickedly. “They're already calling it 'dragonball'.”

The Humans groaned, confusing Allura a little. Before she could ask what that was all about, Keith asked, “How many balls are you using?”

Lance followed that up instantly with, “Is there a lot of yelling involved, and martial arts?”

“I haven't seen any explosions yet,” Shiro added hopefully. “There won't be any explosions, will there?”

“If we run into any big cranky guys with glowing hair, I quit,” Hunk grumped.

Pidge growled. “We're already up to our ears in cranky purple people. No big noisy space monkeys!”

Zaianne laughed again. “No, nothing like that. Just one ball, two goals, two dragons, four mice, and a lot of overexcited amateur athletes. We've made a mess of the lawns, I'm afraid. None of the official ball courts were big enough for the dragons, so we had to improvise. I think that the groundskeepers are going to be upset with us.”

Allura giggled. “Not all grasses are as resilient as Zampedri's. We've just been summoned back to the Palace, Zaianne. The meeting will begin very soon.”

Ah. Thank you for the warning, we'll head over there directly.” Her voice grew distant again, and they heard her shouting at the crowd: “Tilla, give the nice lady her ball back. Platt, there is no way that you can eat that many snacks, get out of that pushcart. The game is over, people, we have real-life matters to address at the moment. Yes, I know, we'll try to come back for another game later. Don't pout, it makes you look like a wet rug. Well, I can't ignore a royal invitation, now can I? Spend the time writing up the rules of the game and working on some team tactics. Add another goal and make it a triple-team sport, the dragons don't care which one they run through anyway. Your current strategy looks like a pre-riot mob action at the moment, and while that might be fun, someone could get hurt. Got all that? Good. I'll expect a proper game plan by tomorrow morning.”

Hunk smiled broadly and nudged Keith with one elbow. “I really, really like your mom, Keith.”

“So do I, Hunk,” Keith said, smiling fondly in the general direction of the sports fields, and then turned his attention back to Nasty, who had watched Coran's technique and had opened up another Saint's gourd. “Are you coming with us, Nasty?”

The Unilu wiped juice off of his chin and gestured a negative. “Nope. Those planning sessions are way above my pay grade, and I'll need to check out the Unilu Quarter, and hit the Town Hall for some info. I'll still be crewing on the Quandary for now—you weirdos have gotten me addicted to adventures—but sooner or later, I'll want to settle down here.”

“So, this is goodbye, then,” Lance said.

“Yup,” Nasty sighed. “My contract's up, I've found all the silverware, and you've all learned enough to not get immediately captured or killed. Even the guy who came in late. It's been a lot more fun than I thought it would be.”

Shiro smiled. “You've been a big help, Nasty, and we're all going to miss you.”

Hunk sniffled. “It was great, man. We learned, like, a ton of really useful stuff. Will you want me to send the Unilu foods in the pantry over to the Quandary for you?”

Nasty shook his head. “Keep it. I might just get drunk and let Varda sucker me into another contract, or you'll get another of my kind in, or I'll infiltrate the Castle now and again and steal some of it, just to keep in practice. Just remember to kick the temmin okk now and again.”

“We'll do that,” Coran assured him. “Very kickable stuff, temmin okk.”

“You'll always have a place aboard the Castle,” Allura said, “whenever you need us, we'll welcome you.”

Pidge lunged forward and wrapped her arms around her friend's neck. “Thanks for everything, Nasty. Everything. Right back to when we first met. Write me letters, okay? I'll want to know what's really going on with Osric. He's still my ship.”

Nasty wrapped his arms around her shoulders for a quick hug, his eyes suspiciously damp. “I can do that. Now get your hand out of my belt pouch.”

She backed away with a grin, holding up the Justice card from his Dix-Par deck, without which the greatest hand of the game could not be constructed. “Just keeping in practice.”

Nasty humphed and reached for the card, but something made him look up. Shiro was also staring at the card, but with that thousand-mile look of distant concentration that he got whenever he was having a Vision. His dark eyes were even darker than usual, and flecked very subtly with gold. There was a faint tension on the air that made Nasty's sensitive nerves prickle, a sense that things could go either of two ways—one into disaster and the other into triumph. Nasty could almost see the potentiality glittering in the air, waiting to crystallize into a future reality. Right there at the very cusp of destiny, Nasty took a deep breath and made a choice.

“Keep it,” he said. “I'll hold onto the rest of the deck, and the next time we meet up, you can put it back the same way you got it.”

“Like a luck charm,” she said, and tucked the card into a pocket. “I can do that. Thanks, Nasty. Here comes Tamzet—we'll see you later.”

He nodded, and glanced up at Shiro again. The tall Human was still watching events that wouldn't happen for a while, but now he was smiling. Shiro blinked, shook himself slightly, and bit a chunk of candy off of his lollipop. He did spare a moment to meet Nasty's eyes, and to give him a nod and a wink before devouring the rest of his candy. Much relieved, Nasty nodded back; whatever that card had meant to the forces of Fate, he'd played it well.