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Chapter 14: An Invitation

 

“What do you mean, you can't fix it?” Coran said incredulously. “You've fixed everything else.”

Hunk fixed the Altean with a weary, bloodshot eye, and began ticking reasons off on his fingers. “One: I've never seen anything like this before. Two: At least six or seven really important bits of it disintegrated totally when that Robeast hit it. Three: It's not Altean tech, or standard tech, and in fact looks more like abstract sculpture. I'm good with engines, not Picasso. Four: I'm still pooped out from fighting two fleets and a monster, and last but not least, Five: If I don't get something to eat soon, I'm gonna start chewing on you, and I don't know where you've been.”

Coran gave him an offended look. “I've been right here on the Castle the whole time, thank you very much. We're going to have to do something fairly soon, you know. While we can do without it for now, we'll need it later if we intend to get into any more fights.”

Hunk groaned faintly, rubbing at his eyes. “Coran, we don't ever intend to get into fights. Fights just happen whenever we're around. It's like a natural progression or something. Giant space robot, giant space fight. Even when we leave the robot somewhere else, we get fights. We are fight magnets. And now, I am going to go fight my way to the kitchen, where I am going to have some of that pocket-bread I made earlier, which I had to fight twice. Coming?”

Coran smiled. “Will I have to fight you for it?”

“Probably,” Hunk said, dead serious. “Your weird booster system can wait until I'm not seeing double.”

They made their way to the kitchen without incident, only to find everyone already there. The entire contents of the cooler and a lot of the ready-to-eat snacks from the pantry had been hauled out, warmed up, and piled on the table in an exaltation of leftovers, and the team, Zaianne, and the mice were working their way through it with studious determination. Lance and Allura did look up at their arrival and set down a couple of clean plates, but that was all. In total understanding, Hunk and Coran simply took their places at table and wordlessly joined in the feeding frenzy.

Eventually, Lance let out an ungentlemanly belch and asked, “So, what's the damage?”

Seeing that Hunk was still working on a piece of pocket-bread that he'd loaded with kishwin and thurlo, Coran dabbed at his lips with a napkin and replied, “That parting kiss we got from the Robeast gave the drive section a bit of a knock. Not enough to disable the power core or the drive itself, but it broke one of the booster systems on the main power conduits. Shame, that. It was a genuine Cuashmore, custom-built for Alfor's father by the guin guanself--”

“Guin?” Pidge asked, scraping up the last bit of thamst porridge out of her bowl.

“Oh, yes. The Drinths have three genders—thar, dani, and guin. Don't ask about their courting rituals, or I'll tell you all about them, loudly and at length.” Coran tugged on his mustache, his eyes twinkling humorously. “Suffice it to say, it was a unique mechanism, a real work of art, and that uncultured beast broke it. Hunk here feels that it's beyond his capabilities to repair.”

Hunk shot him a dirty look. “I can't make something out of nothing, Coran. When I said that those parts were gone, I meant it. They're gone. I've done some fancy work before, yeah, like when we fixed up Clarence and Jasca, but all of that hardware was good solid material and tried-and-true science. And aetherics, all right, but it was reliable aetherics. Stuff that I know works. That Cuashmore guy was working with theoretical stuff and wire and bits of lace and glass and... I dunno. Cotton candy, maybe. I just can't get my head around what he was doing. Alfor's dad actually paid money for that thing? It looks like something a fifth-grader would have put together in art class.”

Coran humphed derisively. “I'll have you know that Angbard paid Cuashmore no less than one hundred and thirty-nine poqueps of pure platinum for that system, and considered it a very good price, indeed! Pop-Pop was furious, of course, it being something of an insult to his sensibilities as a designer of fine insystem spacedrives, but he couldn't argue with the increased speed it got out of this old ship.”

Shiro gave them a worried frown. “How much will it slow us down? We need all the speed we can muster to stay ahead of the Galra.”

“About thirty percent,” Allura said uneasily, tickling Platt's belly as she did so; the mouse had stuffed himself and was now flat on his back in a well-deserved food coma. “The Teludav is fully functional, but we'll be at a distinct disadvantage in realspace. If Lotor still has any of those Ghamparva ships left, or worse, the actual Ghamparva come looking for us, we risk losing the Castle.”

Keith grunted and tugged his blanket a little closer around his shoulders; the knock to the head that he'd taken had required an hour in the infirmary to straighten out, and he was feeling chilly as a result. “Can we get it fixed? Mom, you said that Queghomm was near Drinthic space.”

Zaianne nodded and refilled her glass from a steaming carafe of tea. “I did, and they're not too far from here. Whether or not they've got anyone capable of repairing or replacing ten-thousand-year-old gadgetry is beyond my knowledge.”

Coran frowned thoughtfully at the last slice of morlaberry pie for a moment before grabbing it. “Ever been to their homeworld, Madame?”

Zaianne shook her head. “Not personally, although I've studied charts of their home System. The Order has had business there in the past.”

“How about that third moon of theirs—sort of reddish, with lumpy little mountain ranges and that big temple dedicated to Saint Jolequah the Terminally Redundant?” Coran asked.

Zaianne cast him an amused look. “That's still there, although it's mostly a museum now. They had to build subsidiary temples on two other moons just for the data storage space, and the fourth moon is being used as a clearing-house for the stock market, at least until the temples run out of shelf space again.”

“Dare I ask?” Lance said, smearing jam on the last piece of pocket-bread.

“The Drinths are a bit anal-retentive about proper documentation,” Coran explained. “Always have been, ever since one of their ancestral figures accepted a verbal contract for their version of the Promised Land and wound up with three hundred miles of quizzip-infested badlands instead. Very good at learning from other peoples' stupid mistakes, the Drinths, and they will always adhere to a properly-written contract, no matter the cost. They use those lunar temples to store their most significant pacts and treaties, and are culturally forbidden from dumping any of 'em.”

Allura sat back in her chair and gave him a hopeful look. “You did say that they owed Father a favor. Would that still be valid even now?”

Coran chuckled evilly. “Oh, very likely, Princess. After we finish our lunch, I daresay that we should attempt to call in that favor.”

“Sounds good,” Shiro said, nabbing just one more lelosha wrap. “Time—and speed—is of the essence.”

 

A little time later, they ventured back up to the command deck and checked in with the Chimera, which had problems of its own. “We'll need to stop for repairs soon,” Modhri told them solemnly. “Hunk, your fast thinking saved our ship and our lives, but that blade strike managed to blow out two shield generators, and the structural integrity of our hull's been compromised. I can manage repairs on the shields, but I'll need a real repair dock and some trained techs for the torn hullplates. The dragons tell us that they felt the impact even down in the envirodeck, and Lizenne's furious about the damage. Is the Castle all right? We saw that thing hit you.”

“We've a broken bit or two ourselves that Hunk says he can't parse,” Coran replied, “but I think that we can winkle some repair service out of the Drinths. Think you can make it to the next System over, perhaps?”

Modhri frowned at his controls. “The outer orbits, yes, but no further. We could simply ask to borrow Hunk for our own repairs, but after that battle, I don't want to impose upon him if I don't have to.”

Hunk yawned hugely. “Thanks, man. I'm pooped.”

“If the Drinths become balky, the Blade has a few operatives based there, and we can give them a nudge in the right direction if we need to.” Zaianne gave Coran an arch look. “Assuming that Coran can't do it on charm alone.”

Coran saw her arch look and raised her a haughty sniff. “Madame, my charm was legendary in certain circles once. Let us go, then; I may even be able to arrange for towing service.”

Allura opened a small and gentle wormhole for them, and this time the transition was smooth and easy; they came out in a section of wide-open space with an excellent view of a binary star system, its many planets gleaming like gems in the distance.

“Very nice,” Coran muttered, cracking his knuckles and arranging his long fingers over the controls. “Now, let's see if the Drinths are still the grand old chaps that they used to be.”

A few quick taps on those controls soon brought up a window on the screens, and a person scowling at them through it. That person was particularly suited for that surly expression, having been blessed with a broad, roughly triangular skull, and four large eyes set deeply under heavy, hairy, and beetling brows. It had a thick, prominent jaw that drooped at the corners, large teeth that jutted upward from a wide and thin-lipped mouth, and a large and highly-domed nose that seemed to be custom-designed for wrinkling up in disgust. A pair of short, stubby horns, a mossy-looking coat of fur studded here and there with large maroon-colored warts, and a pair of long drooping ears completed the picture of a fellow who had purposefully rejected the whole idea of being a grand old chap, and would never even consider becoming one. The crowning touch, Shiro felt, having had to deal with stuffy officials many times before, was the necktie. It was horrible, as befit a person of important rank, being a nausea-inducing pattern of cubist swirls in lime green and puce. Coran smiled broadly to see it.

“Aha! A thar of consequence, I see,” Coran said delightedly. “Good day, Portmaster.”

The Drinth gave him a magnificent double scowl, complete with scrunched-up nose and lips so deeply pursed that they satcheled instead. “It was a good day until you showed up. Unscheduled! Unannounced! In a restricted area, and without proper registration! We don't have business with the Hanifors, and I've never seen anything like that pile of bleached trash you're flying. Go find someone else to pester, two-eyes.”

Neither the gravelly voice or the acrimonious words seemed to bother Coran in the slightest. “Now, now, that last was a blatant lie, unless teaching standards have declined even more than in the official trend projections. As for the rest of it, well, you should know as well as I do that Royal craft and the conveyances of heroes travel as they please, and are liable to pop up in any old place. Oh, and of course there are emergency situations. Aren't you lucky, thir? You've got all three in one go this time.”

Huge bushy eyebrows rose like sod turves above angry, hot-pink eyes. “Emergency? Royal craft? Heroes? Pull one of the other ones, it's got bells on. Neither of your ships are on fire, I don't see any Crown registration, and nobody's wearing a cape. Take your freak show somewhere else.”

Coran waggled an admonitory finger at the grumpy Drinth. “Oh, come now, even a Portmaster should know better than that. Capes are out of fashion these days, and you don't have to be on fire for it to be an emergency—sometimes the parts just melt. As for Royal registrations, that's only necessary for star systems within the Drinthic sphere of influence. Even back when this old thing was new, Altea was well out of that, and Voltron was a valid passport no matter where we were going.”

The Drinth's jaw literally dropped, banging on his control console, and the four fuchsia-colored eyes bulged alarmingly. “A... Altea? Voltron?”

Coran's smile turned slightly malicious. “Ah, I see that your ignorance of history doesn't go all the way down. Yes, thir, you happen to be looking—and for free, mind you—at none other than the Castle of Lions, with a bonus appearance from the Chimera Rising. Quite good ships, the pair of 'em, and I do believe that your people owe the Castle a favor. Something about a despotic tyrant, I recall, and the removal of same. Don't tell me that your people have forgotten about that little incident, because I shan't believe it.”

The Drinth glowered at him. “We haven't. Castle or no Castle, our agreement was with King Alfor, and he was murdered ten thousand years ago by our current despotic tyrant. Unless you've got his corpse around, or a close blood relative--”

Coran reached over and pulled Allura into view, startling another pop-eyed look of astonishment out of the official. “Right here, thir. Alfor's daughter, preserved along with my own self in cryo-suspension for ten millennia, the Princess Allura. Wave at the nice thar, Princess, he's being obtuse.”

Allura smiled and waved a graceful hand at the nonplussed Portmaster, who was gaping unattractively again. “She looks just like her mother,” the thar whimpered faintly, and then got a grip on thirself. “All right, fine. Blood relative. So, what's the emergency?”

Coran twirled his mustache aggressively. “Assuming that you didn't sleep through all of your classical history courses, you might recall that Alfor's father, that was old Angbard—grand chap, loved to argue with your people—contracted, received, and paid for the services of none other than the great Mechanic-Artist Guanduncus Philbett Cuashmore back in... oh, had to be the thirty-third day of Plaushmiss, back in the Year of the Reciprocal Throg during the Beige Era, I believe. He had that wonderfully talented old guin upgrade the Castle's main power distribution system with one of guirs custom-fabricated Haptum-Dilosator Olapton-Splitter Arrays, and it's functioned beautifully since then. Unfortunately, we've just had a bout of heroism recently, and a space monster broke the thing. It needs fixing, and therefore we have come to get it fixed.”

The Drinth sneered at him. It was a truly excellent sneer, showing the nose off to its best advantage, with a fine curled lip and a superlative selection of yellowed snaggle-teeth. “Not likely. You'll need trained specialists for that, and they'll only come if you've got the proper documentation and an up-to-date warranty. No warranty lasts ten thousand years.”

Coran sniffed and put on his haughtiest expression. “How about a Writ of Perpetual Relevance?”

The Drinth uttered a horrified squawk. “You can't have gotten one of those! Only seventeen Writs have ever been issued!”

“Yes, and we've got Number Eleven.” Coran cast him a stern gaze. “All part of the pact, of course. Getting rid of the Biniriparka of Zorept was a bit difficult, and the people were very appreciative of the team's efforts.”

The Portmaster moaned. “You wouldn't still happen to have the paperwork, would you?”

“Why, of course,” Coran said cheerfully. “We've got the digital copy for ease of perusal, the recordings of the presentation and signing ceremony, and even the original skull, written out by the finest Calligrapher they could find.”

Hunk blinked in confusion. “Coran, don't you mean 'scroll'?”

“Of course not,” Coran replied, touching the controls.

At that command, a large circular panel slid open in the floor, and a glass-sided case rose up from below. On a silken cushion within, a large, vaguely triangular skull lay in state, four eyesockets gaping and a truly impressive selection of polished yellow snaggle-teeth lining the jaws. Drinths were much larger than Humans or Alteans, and every inch of the gleaming bone had been covered in minute symbols.

Coran smiled proudly. “Lovely work, isn't it? You can still see the artist's signature, too, right there on the right hinge of the jaw.”

There was a strangled scream from the Drinth Portmaster, and a squawk of disgust from Lance. “Coran, that's someone's actual severed head! That's horrible!”

“But very, very authentic, and extremely traditional.” Coran cast a sharp look at the screen, where the Portmaster was staring in utter horror at the grisly display. “Ever since the beginning of their civilization, the Drinths have always rewarded heroes with such significant favors, graven into the skulls of their defeated foes. If nothing else, it was a way of making sure that the bastards stayed dead. Most of the team didn't like it much, but it was right up Zarkon's alley.”

There was a snort from a secondary screen, and Modhri was seen to smile. “Our people have a very long history of similar traditions. You should see the trophy shelves behind the desk in Lizenne's Matriarch's office back home; House Ghurap'Han has a rather frightening collection of shurgha cups, which require the braincases of dead enemies to make. They're not terribly common these days, but they're still made now and again. Lizenne intends to obtain Haggar's skull for that purpose, and Zarkon's, if she can get it.”

The Portmaster swallowed hard, both of thir's adam's apples bouncing with the force of it. “Great Zwang's Ghost, this is above my pay grade. Have you any idea of how much this will cost us? The interest accrued on the obligation alone... Ten thousand years! This could bankrupt the shipyard!”

“I am fully aware, thir, and have the calculations right here,” Coran replied, tapping at the controls. “Not to worry, we don't need any of the pomp and circumstance for obvious reasons, just a good quick fix on the damaged systems, plus whatever advancements and upgrades to the technology there might have been since the original installation, plus a checkover of the compatibility, the functionality, and the sparsicranity of the paired systems and the fine-tuning of same... hmmm, and a clean and polish as well. And keep it hush-hush. The Imperials won't be any happier than we will if this little visit is made public, you know.”

The Drinth's ears flapped wildly in sudden rage. “That still won't discharge the whole debt, and how in the name of the Six Hundred and Thirteen Towers of Annoyance are we going to keep that ugly ship of yours a secret? Throw a tarp over it?”

“If it's a big enough tarp, it should do the trick,” Coran said calmly. “Look, if you feel the need to fulfill the obligation in one go, our stepsister ship—that's this Hanifor craft here—lost a couple of shield generators during the recent excitement, and has some fairly significant hull damage. We'll need a couple of towing drones as well, due to drive damage to both ships, and if the work isn't done in good time and to our household engineers' satisfaction, there are two very large carnivorous reptiloids and four Altean space mice aboard our craft that will start biting people for performing sloppy work. Will that do?”

The Drinth sagged wretchedly, pink eyes tragic. “Oh, gods, the mice. All right, all right, that should do it, but I'll still need to contact my superiors about this. You're right about our Governor having one of his cut-rate hissy fits about us fixing you up if he finds out, and some members of the Council really don't want to excite him. We don't have a choice, but... well, give me a few flenths, will you? Don't call me, I'll call you.”

“Of course, thir,” Coran replied magnanimously, and cut the connection.

Pidge humphed disapprovingly. “Well, that was nice.”

Coran waved a hand airily and leaned back in his console. “They don't seem to have changed much, yeah. Drinths are never happier than when they're filled with outrage. They genuinely enjoy these little inconveniences, just for the lovely cathartic temper tantrums that it lets them throw. I'll tell you right now, if you value your hearing, stay out of the hot-drinks bars! The roaring could deafen a Vorbethan mudmump, and the howling and flailing that will result from the predicament that we've just dropped across their backs will doubtless delight whole crowds of them.”

“So, they'll agree to the terms of your...” Shiro glanced at the ugly trophy in its case, “...contract, there?”

Coran chuckled. “Of course they will. Surly they may be, but they're absolutely obligated to fulfill any agreement they sign, so long as the documentation is in order... and you don't get more orderly than a genuine pact skull. They've probably woken up every Archivist in the first Lunar Temple already, and are having them hunt up their copy of the contract.”

Keith gave him a suspicious look. “Their copy?”

“Digital, video, and a casting of that thing,” Coran flicked a finger at the skull and then tapped the control that had it sinking back into the floor. “One should always keep copies of important documents. Saves a lot of trouble later.”

A little time later, the Portmaster hailed them again, looking extremely put out. “You win, you kaporla-hugging spargiminop. The Archivists have found our copy, and have confirmed the terms. We'll repair your ships. Don't celebrate yet—there's a price.”

Allura lifted an eyebrow. “A surcharge, thir? I don't believe that such a thing would be permitted under this sort of contract.”

The Drinth winced at her tone. “Not my idea, Princess. Things aren't the same now as they were then, and we run with a different bunch of allies these days. We're not even in a dominant position anymore, since it's all run by committee. The Othorim Collective at least tries to keep things equal, and it is, as far as that goes. Some are more equal than others, if you catch my meaning. A lot of them don't much care for Galra, but a bunch of them do, and they had to get the Official Granidlo to shut down the worst of the screaming arguments just now.”

“What's that?” Hunk asked curiously.

The Portmaster rolled thirs eyes. “Now who's ignorant of history? A few hundred years ago, the Council hired an Elikonian named Granidlo to keep the politicians from boring everyone to death with long arguments and speeches. He was so good at it that they made the post permanent, although since the Empire grounded them, we've had to get a big dani with a mallet in to do the job. It works. Nobody likes getting a sudden headache in the middle of an oratory. Anyway, they all agreed that since none of you people have ever gone through the Council-approved vetting process for Allied status, you can do that while we get your ships spaceworthy again. No, not even the Galra have been vetted. When the Delegates floated the concept to our surly purple overlords, they threatened to have the Council executed.”

“Sounds like fun,” Coran said. “What does this process entail?”

Dancing,” the Portmaster told them glumly. “A full, formal-dress dance party. A little more than half of our allies think that watching a person jigging around the floor is the best way to judge his character.”

Keith looked up sharply. “No.”

Yes, or you don't get your repairs done.” The Drinth held up a six-fingered hand, three fingers crooked. “They want three dances out of you, and every sentient on your ships has to perform in at least two of them. One children's dance, one historical dance, and one all-inclusive dance. Make that last one catchy, 'cause the idea is to make the Council members and staff want to join in, too. No exceptions; the security's going to have to be tight, and that runs expensive. As it is, I'm going to have a hard time finding a big enough tarp to drop over that antiquated relic of yours.”

Coran scowled at the Portmaster. “Are you saying that you won't be able to adhere to the terms of the agreement?”

The Drinth banged a fist on his desk. “No! I'm saying that I'll probably have to use a circus tent for the purpose, and keeping people from wandering in and asking where the gloupivant rides are is going to be a pain in the tail! The party will be held in the main Council Hall, that's the big thing with the three golden domes in the middle of town, and it'll happen in three days. Try to pick dances that don't make you look too idiotic, although that's kind of hard for upright bipeds, now isn't it? Honestly, watching you silly-looking creatures totter around on your stilts makes me want to fluglorp. Try not to cause any trouble between now and then, all right? Signing out.”

“I hope all of your warts fall off,” Coran responded politely. “Signing out.”

 

Lotor watched curiously as the senior engineer pressed one ear against the housing of the damaged engine and listened intently. Respectful silence reigned in the bay while he did this, and continued when he moved a few steps down and listened again. The engineer frowned slightly, took two steps further down, listened, and then backed up one step, the knowledgeable brow smoothing as he found the correct spot. He then took a piece of chalk from a pocket and marked that particular spot with a small “X” and stepped back, holding out a hand. One of his fellow engineers passed him a large hammer, with which he hit the X-mark very hard. There was a rising hum and a scattering of applause as the engine pod came back online.

The senior engineer handed the hammer back to his colleague with a nod of thanks and then turned to the Prince. “That's it, m'Lord. All pods are go. Try not to get into any more Robeast fights, all right? This big girl just isn't designed for it.”

“What was wrong with this pod?” Tilwass asked, squinting up at the massive drive segment. “The repair drones couldn't find anything.”

The senior engineer, eldest and highest in rank of the men stolen from Nelargo Shipyard, puffed a breath of professional disdain. “Your drones are top-of-the-line, but no drone can catch the small, tricky stuff. See here--” the man tapped the smudged X-mark and ran a work-gnarled hand along the casing, “--the main coolant line has a bunch of junctures right here, where lesser lines split off and make sure that this thing doesn't overheat. Sometimes you'll get a substandard batch of coolant in, or a good batch that's been sitting around for too long. Works just fine until something gives the ass-end of the ship a hard knock, which can cause crystals to form in the coolant. Those crystals don't usually cause any trouble, but they can clump up in the junctures if the couplers are more than eight years old and have seen a bit of wear, and the automatic shutdown systems kick in if the coolant's not flowing right. If you know what to listen for, you can actually hear the sound of the coolant trying to squeeze past those clogs. Now, we could have spent the next eight days or so taking the casing off, disengaging the sections, and going through each and every juncture with a bottle-brush, but I've found that a whang on the casing with a big hammer creates just enough of a sonic burst to shake the clumps loose. The trick is to find the exact right spot, see?”

“I bow to your skill,” Lotor murmured absently, staring pensively up at the engine pod. “How do the other repairs progress?”

The senior engineer sobered. “Just about finished. Narvorak, Kevrachi, and Vishta ships are built tough and they're designed for fast fixes. That battle knocked their number down by more than half, though, m'Lord. That long rake down the flank we took should be patched up by the end of the day and we didn't strip too many thrusters getting this thing up to speed for the hyperspace jump, but I really meant it about avoiding Robeast fights. We're good for the time being, but we'll have to restock on parts and raw materials soon. That probably goes for the rest of the fleet as well, which is also down by more than half. Getting fresh ships, crew, and supplies... that's going to be risky now.”

It certainly was. He had gotten one of this man's colleagues to tweak his comm system so that it could access secure communications channels, and he was aware of the discussion that his father had had with Commander Arkkax. If he allowed himself to be captured, he was doomed; that had been very clear. If he stayed on the Empire's fringes and turned semi-pirate long enough to find a way to take the Lions, he might yet win his father's forgiveness. Failing even that, possession of the Lions might buy him other things. Perhaps one of those great cats might even consider him as a pilot. He'd have to dispose of the current ones, of course, but both his father and Haggar dearly wanted to get their hands on them. Far more, he knew, than they wanted him. After all, he couldn't claim so much as a drop of the aetheric power that even one Paladin could muster. All he had was his training, a much-reduced fleet of warships, and the rank of Crown Prince, which meant precisely nothing to his father at the moment. Whether or not it would still guarantee him aid in the future was debatable and increasingly unlikely.

“We will manage,” Lotor told the engineer. “I will take the Lions eventually. I suspect that it will be a matter of strategy rather than force; if this last battle has told me anything, it is that raw force, even overwhelming force, does not work well against the Paladins.”

“That's so, m'Lord,” the engineer replied. “Guile's easier on the ships, too. Good luck with that.”

Lotor nodded and left the bay, Tilwass trailing behind him.

“He's right, you know,” Tilwass said in a low voice. “An Imperial Decree's just been put about. The whole fleet's been marked for capture, sir. You're to be brought directly to your father, and me and the command staff are to be turned over to Haggar for questioning. Rumor says that the Emperor's got the Ghamparva on the job, too, and they don't like you much right now.”

Lotor sighed in disgust. “I'm aware. Is that all of the bad news?”

Tilwass waggled a hand. “It's the worst of it, but Sergeant Hokora's been talking with the Nelargo guys, and they say that Lady Ghurap'Han's got contacts with just about every other major shipyard in the Empire. If we take damage that our drones and techs can't fix, we'll have to steal new ships from some Garrison or other. Any repair job at any of the big shipyards will be mostly sabotage, and probably loaded with tracking devices.”

The Prince grunted sourly. “And we can expect the same treatment from any of the dark ports, I imagine, for our treatment of pirates in the past.”

“The Ghost Fleet's respected, sir,” Tilwass replied glumly. “Any pirate portmaster would leap at the chance to hand you off to Yantilee. I don't think that their Admiral was too pleased to lose that hideout of theirs. Do you mind if I act like a coward for a moment, sir?”

That surprised a smile out of Lotor, who cast Tilwass an amused glance. “Go ahead, but don't take it to extremes. We haven't the time to coax you down out of the ventilation ducts.”

Tilwass chuckled. “Thanks. All right, here goes.” He assumed a hunched posture, and his face took on an almost comical expression of existential dread. “Let's all run away, sir, six or seven hundred thousand lightyears out beyond the Fringe. We can find a nice planet somewhere and settle down, maybe send some men back for a quick raid to find us some ladies that are up for a bit of homesteading, and found our own little Empire while the Paladins and your dad kill each other. After all of the ruckus dies down—and we've made sure that Voltron's wiped out Haggar and the Ghamparva, and maybe Lady Ghurap'Han, too, maybe then you can come back and pick up the pieces.” He added a whine and a moan for good measure, and then straightened up again. “Okay, I'm done.”

Lotor vented an amused snort. “Very concise. Have you been practicing?”

Tilwass rolled his eyes. “I wouldn't have risen to the rank I've got if I didn't have good self-control. The troops don't like it if they see the brass panicking, and you can't do anything without the troops, sir. Since I figure that you're not going to take us out into the great beyond, what now?”

The Prince sobered, weighing their chances and not much liking the answer. “I will not run, Tilwass. We will finish making our repairs, and while that is going on, I will assess the situation and make plans. I will take the Lions, or I will die trying. We will wait, and we will watch. The Paladins have been extraordinarily lucky thus far, but luck has a nasty habit of running out at awkward moments. When it does, I will be waiting.”

Tilwass hummed thoughtfully. “Good enough, sir. Will you want to start thinking about rebuilding our numbers, too? I've highlighted a few garrison fleets in nearby systems where the Governors have been a tad sloppy about the patrols. Good ships, lax oversight, bad commanders. Easy prey.”

Lotor cast his lieutenant an arch look. “You take to piracy easily, Tilwass.”

Tilwass gave him a self-depreciating smile. “Family tradition, sir. My Lineage has been brigands and branth thieves ever since the Primal Pack first stumbled out of the Old Forest. I joined the Military because it was either that or a prison camp; I wasn't quite as good as the rest of my kin at getting away clean, sir, and the recruiters were hard-put to make quota that month. My Matriarch didn't much care which one I chose, having been of the opinion that if I was dumb enough to get caught, the House didn't need me. I chose this, and made her proud anyway.”

Lotor frowned. Tilwass's words had pricked a tiny pang of envy in him; he had fought for most of his life to win his father's approval, and without much success; Zarkon was largely indifferent to the children he sired. Lotor and Haggar had hated each other at first sight, and his own mother had abandoned him and his brothers the moment that they'd come of age. It occurred to him that he knew nearly nothing of half of his ancestry, and wondered what his mother would think of him now. He shook off his moment of unease; it wasn't important right now. His survival and his goals took precedence over such trivialities, and he would bend his full attention to achieving both.

“Come, then, and show me these targets,” he told Tilwass. “We are indeed understrength.”

Tilwass nodded in satisfaction at the iron in his voice. “Yessir.”

 

“No,” Keith declared, his expression thunderous and his entire posture proclaiming defiance. “No, no, no. I'm not gonna do it.”

“We don't have much of a choice, Keith,” Allura said sharply. “We need the Castle intact, and Hunk isn't able to help this time.”

That was regrettably true. Even after eight hours of sleep and a good breakfast, the bizarre booster system was still beyond Hunk's comprehension, and they just didn't have the parts on hand to approximate a version of his own. During that time, the Castle and the Chimera had been towed back to the Queghomm Shipyard, and they had all gathered in the Castle's main lounge to plan for the party. So far, Keith was the only one who had any objections to attending a dance. Even the mice and dragons were perfectly willing to participate, and figuring out the choreography for them was going to be interesting.

Hunk, who actively enjoyed dancing and was, in fact, quite good at it, poked Keith's shoulder. “Come on, man, it's not all that bad. You only have to do two out of three, too. Heck, you're a martial artist. Martial arts is just dancing with boot-to-the-head and pointy things thrown in. That's how the Koreans managed to hold onto their martial arts styles when they got invaded way back when, you know—they hid them by ditching the weapons and adding fancy outfits and a sound track. Can't you do that for just one night?”

Keith glared at him. “No.”

“Khaeth, you will do this,” Zaianne said sharply, bringing the unfair advantage of a mother's authority to bear. “If it makes you feel any better, I once had to pose as a temple dancer for over a year, a posting that required me to shave off all of my fur and dye my skin red.”

Lance stared at her incredulously. “Really? All of it?”

She grimaced in distaste. “All of it. The Dzubdicarveh people resemble Galra quite closely, but they are entirely hairless, crimson from top to toe, and their dancers perform naked. This is nothing, Khaeth, and at least you won't have to worry about sunburn in odd spots. Or frostbite, for that matter. The Winter Rites were a trial for everybody.”

Silence reigned in the room for a long moment, along with a number of reddened faces as they imagined Keith's mother, who was still a very attractive woman, in that particular role. Keith deflated, but held on to his truculent expression out of sheer stubbornness. “Fine,” he grumbled. “I can't believe that they're making us do this, though. I mean, dancing? How is that supposed to help with choosing an ally?”

“Now, now, young man,” Coran admonished with a twirl of his mustache. “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he moves. A nervous person is inclined to move nervously, after all, and a predator will naturally act like one. Don't think that I haven't seen you stalking around the halls of a night like a borbrun on the scent, and Madame here not only stalks along like a borbrun, but a borbrun that has already eaten one intruder and is looking for seconds. All the Blades move that way. Dance just adds a bit of poetry to the motion, and it's an excuse to have a party with refreshments; preferably with all of those tasty little nibbles on sticks, and a lot of fizzy drinks.”

Keith rolled his eyes and protested, “Coran...”

Alas, Coran wasn't done yet. “Quite a lot of peoples were like that, and some of it took it a lot further than others. Some, like the Dzubdicarveh, preferred an unclad exhibition, while others went the other way completely, and you could barely move for the costumes. Still others made endurance competitions out of such events, and the party could last for days. There was one bunch who took dancing right off of the ballroom floor and into the bedroom for a more one-on-one experience, and my, goodness, didn't Melenor give Alfor a piece of her mind when she found out exactly what that entailed! It was just as well that Gyrgan and Trigel were off on a mission at that time; Blaytz didn't mind, of course, he was very open-minded about close interspecies relationships, but Zarkon jumped out of a window and spent the rest of the night hiding in the rock garden. Blaytz never let either of them live it down, and Gyrgan and Trigel watched the recordings over and over for a week. It was a grand party and we made a very good alliance by it, but Melenor demoted the diplomat who'd arranged it without telling her the... hmm... particular preferences of the guests.”

“Coran...” Allura growled warningly, but Coran had hit his stride.

“My personal favorites were the--” Coran paused to wave his arms about and caper like a clown, “--don't look at me like that, that's how it's pronounced. They were completely deaf and had no vocal apparatus whatsoever, and they communicated entirely through dance and gesture. Watching their public speakers was a visual delight. Of course, you did have to be careful when watching some of their daytime vid shows, because—eek!”

This time, Lizenne and Zaianne had caught him by both ears.

Shiro smiled at his startled and rather cross-eyed expression. “Thanks for the history lesson, Coran, but it's beside the point. We need to figure out what we're going to do for the event, and hopefully without embarrassing ourselves to death. So—the children's dance. Anyone have any ideas?”

Lance waved a hand. “I nominate Pidge for the Hokey-Pokey! She's just the right size.”

Pidge nudged him sharply in the ribs. “Anyone can do the Hokey-Pokey. That's what it's all about, Lance. Literally. Unfortunately, it's kind of up there on the terminal embarrassment scale. Anyone have any other ideas?”

Modhri smiled wistfully. “Not really. Galra cubs are more like small wild animals than civilized beings, and while we might sing a bit, the games are mostly chasing our siblings around and biting them. In my family, at least, when we've outgrown that sort of behavior, our time is taken up in early training. The demands of House Ghurap'Han upon our lives leaves us with very little time or energy left over for play, alas. Allura, what activities do young Alteans amuse themselves with?”

Allura brightened up a little. “We have many. Altean society was very cooperative, and a good deal of our early education focused on ways to foster a love of working together. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that such dances are feasable for our group. None of you can change shape or color easily, and it would take you more time than we have to learn the ins and outs of the obstacle course. Did Father ever get the flamethrower repaired, Coran?”

“No, there wasn't time,” Coran said sadly, “and we're fresh out of norzat fish for the water hazards. It's just not the same without them, you know.” He frowned at the Paladins, who were staring at the two Alteans as though they had grown antlers. “What?”

Hunk heaved a sigh. “Alteans are hardcore. Hokey-Pokey it is, then. It's fast, easy, simple, and won't get anyone hurt unless Tilla steps on us. We'll show you guys how to do it after lunch. All right, how about historical dances? Any ideas there?”

“We could do Ring Around the Rosie,” Lance suggested, “that's a kid's dance and a history dance at the same time.”

Pidge shook her head. “It's a folk memory of the Black Plague, Lance. Wrong message, and don't suggest folk dancing, either. A lot of those commemorate public executions. A waltz might count, but it's pretty trivial.”

“What's a waltz?” Lizenne asked.

Zaianne sniffed disapprovingly. “The dancers pair up and whirl interminably together to music with a one-two-three rhythm. How is that historical?”

Pidge smirked. “It used to be considered to be really naughty when it first came out. The man and the woman were actually touching each other, on the shoulders and waist, even! European society had real problems with that sort of thing a few hundred years ago. The waltz was as big of a game-changer back then as Rock 'n' Roll was later on, in its way.”

“I suppose that we could do the Hula,” Hunk suggested, and then thought better of it. “Nah. Takes too long to learn it properly, and we'd need leis and grass skirts. And a luau, but we don't have the pineapples, poi, or roast pig. Or, if you want to be really traditional, the active volcano. Shiro, any suggestions?”

“Not really,” Shiro admitted. “I came to it late. Adam enjoyed Tango, but...” he eyed the dragons and shook his head. “I don't think that would work for us. Allura?”

“Several, but we lack the necessary time and components,” Allura admitted. “Lizenne, Zaianne, do Galra dance? Only I've never heard of your people doing so.”

“Oh, we dance,” Zaianne murmured thoughtfully. “There are numerous forms, some more difficult than others. Unfortunately, all of my training has been in martial arts. You'd have a better idea of what might be appropriate, Lizenne.”

Lizenne made a face. “Had the classic forms forced down my throat, you mean. Mother had hoped to produce a diva, and thought that I might be that one.”

Modhri smiled. “Oh, come now, you got to be quite good at it, at least when you had me helping you practice. I particularly enjoyed the Hikkechmi-Rauntha.”

“The what?” Shiro asked curiously.

“Hikkechmi-Rauntha,” Zaianne said with a sly smile in Modhri's direction. “It's a style of dance that is a little like ballet, a little like opera, and a bit like those theatrical plays by... what was that Human's name... Quiverpike?”

“Shakespeare,” Shiro corrected her. “We have a version of that kind of acting called 'musicals'. Sounds interesting.”

“It is, and is usually used to tell tales of the ancient days, before Zarkon took the Throne.” Modhri's eyes grew distant. “It goes in and out of fashion fairly frequently, since the Emperor doesn't really want people yearning for a time when he was not in power, but most Galra children get at least the basics of it during early schooling.” He turned a loving look upon his wife. “My personal favorite has always been a small section of one of the great epics, Act 2, scene 4 of Kharchozra mak Thuthros, the Courtship of Salchor and Kerolla.”

Lizenne poked him in the ribs with an arch smile. “Yes it was, you naughty man, and we practiced that one so often that it's still engraved on my mind. Your elder sister, as I recall, grew very tired of having to play my adversary. I still happen to have that special-edition recording of the epic and the soundtrack that you gave me.”

“Do you?” Modhri said delightedly. “Keep it well, then. After Zarkon set the Ghamparva on the Chalep'Thoras, it became nigh-impossible to find anything by either Hantis or Tandrok.”

Pidge looked up sharply. “Hantis? Chalep'Thora? That's Ronok's family! He used to let me listen to his recordings of her when I couldn't sleep. She was a genius!”

Zaianne sighed sadly. “Yes. That Lineage was famous for producing prodigies of all sorts, and Simadht was not at all pleased to lose them. That we have the last two survivors of that disaster will serve us well when we speak to their Governing Council. Hantis and Tandrok were asked to help with a production of that epic many years ago—Tandrok with the language and Hantis with the music. It was widely acclaimed as the best production of Kharchozra mak Thuthros ever written, and they got in all the best actors and singers for it, as well. Hantis herself performed in a few of the minor roles, and it was absolutely magical, both to watch and to listen to.”

“That sounds encouraging,” Allura said. “Will you be able to perform it?”

Lizenne chuckled. “Not all of it. That particular epic required over two hundred skilled performers of all kinds, and took several days to get through. It concerns the events of the years just after the Sisterhood War, you see, beginning with the ascent of Emperor Modhri the Wise to the Throne, and continuing down through several of his descendants. The three of us can certainly handle that one little scene that Modhri is so fond of. We might even coax one of Zaianne's colleagues into playing the narrator, so that the audience has some idea of what is actually going on.”

“I'm sure that we can find someone willing to officiate,” Zaianne replied, and then cast an almost comically avaricious look at Modhri. “Might I play the part of Kerolla, I wonder?”

Lizenne swatted at her with a crack of laughter, although her eyes flashed dangerously for just a fraction of a second. “Only if you want the knife fight to be a real one, you flagrant tease! He's mine, Zaianne, you know that.”

They stood very still, gazes locked for a long moment, and then Zaianne backed away, bowing in concession and averting her eyes from a startled-looking Modhri. “Of course,” she said lightly, but there was an undercurrent in her voice that the others realized with some perplexity as embarrassment, and apology. “I'm sorry, Lizenne. I'll be the narrator, just to be safe, and I'll ask around for other candidates for Telchamar's part. I'll be up on the bridge, if you need me.”

They watched her go in a bemused silence that was broken by Modhri's sigh. “We're going to have to take Tzairona home soon.”

“What do you mean?” Keith asked, worried for his mother.

Modhri shook his head sadly. “Zaianne's period of mourning for your father is almost at an end, and she wants very much to give you some brothers to boss around before she becomes too old to do so. I am, although it's immodest to say it, a very desirable male, and Lizenne and I have not had cubs yet. That makes us vulnerable, you see, to any sufficiently determined harpy that feels herself capable of fighting Lizenne for me. Our bond is strong, but not set in stone yet. The sooner that we can present your mother with a whole crowd of fine men of my Lineage, the better. I am not sure, but I have the feeling that my great-uncle left quite an impression upon her, back when she was a trainee.”

“He did,” Lizenne said shortly, her eyes angry, although she relaxed when Modhri laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “and she has just made her preference for those of your Line known. We will just have to wait for the right time. Shussshorim's grandchildren will tear through the fleets like tissue paper sooner or later, and the Navy will perhaps be forced to pull away from the Core worlds just enough for it to be possible for us to make that journey.”

Shiro sighed and paused, his mind flickering momentarily with impressions too brief to make sense of, although there was a faint sound of angry voices and a whiff of something burning. “That's for later. All right, we've got two dances covered. Have any of us got an all-inclusive one that doesn't involve special equipment, specific abilities, special training, or potential mayhem?”

Hunk hummed and picked up his handcomp. He'd downloaded the snapshot of Earth's internet that Lizenne had taken so long ago onto it, and typed “Popular Dances” into the search function while the others discussed this possibility or that. The screen came alight with everything ranging from the Quadrille to the new fad for African Neo-Tribe Industrial that had been offending the conservatives worldwide just before the blue Lion had carried them all away. He wondered absently if that style had hung on, or if it had vanished from the limelight the way that Astro-Fusion Dutty-Wine had six or seven years ago. The music had been okay, but he just wasn't built for that kind of shimmying. Nah, he thought, and turned his attention to the classics. Let's see... the Funky Pickle Retrolution... nope, we'd wind up collapsing the tables. The Spismodic... nope, too big of a chance of whiplash. The Electric Stomp... nope, sound file's corrupted and you can't get the boots anymore, anyway. The Chicken Dance... not after what happened at the Senior Prom in High School, thank you very much. Well, there's always Walk Like An Egyptian...

He was momentarily distracted by an angry shout from Keith and a burst of heat; Keith's temper had gotten the better of him, and he'd set the red couch on fire by accident. He was currently stomping out of the room with most of the others chasing after him, with only Lance left behind to douse the couch. Lance was well up to that task, since Lizenne had shown him how to condense the moisture out of the air, and so Hunk turned back to his search to the tune of Lance's griping. He had nearly given up when he stumbled across a winner. A broad smile spread itself over his face, and he leaned over and nudged Lance.

Lance had just smothered the flames under an inch of snow and was not feeling in charity with the world. “Crud. Will you look at that? I'm going to have to reupholster the whole thing, and I'm not sure of how to do that. This was the comfiest piece of furniture in the Castle, too. Quit poking me, Hunk.”

“Sorry. The Castle probably has instructions for fixing it somewhere. That's not really important.” Hunk indicated his handcomp with a smug smile. “I found our all-inclusive. I'm gonna need extra glitter on my suspenders.”

Lance paused, and an answering smile bloomed on his face. “Really?” he asked hopefully. “Will you need... a bow tie?”

“Oh, yeah,” Hunk passed him the comp. “She got the original vid, too. I can put together a screen projector in no time flat, and if you can get a set of super-dancewear made up for each of us...”

“Perfect,” Lance stated. “Not a problem, I've got everyone's sizes already, and I'll talk to Coran and Zaianne about ways to hide weapons and shields and things. For you, my friend, the big gold sequins.”

“Awesome,” Hunk said, taking his handcomp back and slipping it into a pocket. “Think you'll be able to get everything in?”

Lance drew himself up proudly. “Just call me 'Q'. You go tell Shiro we've got a good one, and I'll get right on it.”