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Chapter 16: Preliminaries

 

Modhri stirred the embers of the fire and listened to the song of the Zampedran night, wishing absently that he had the gift for poetry. He simply did not have the words to describe that subtle chorus, from the wind whistling through the grasses to the bell-like chirps of the nocturnal insects, nor could he properly convey the imagery of the blue-leaf trees swaying in the wind or the stars glittering in the wake of the two crescent moons. How could he describe the wild beauty of the hunting-calls of the small predators that made their home here? It wasn't even a complete chorus, since the envirodeck wasn't hosting the larger beasts of the prairie just now, and Tilla and Soluk were keeping a respectful silence. No, he need not listen for the reverberating roars of a tambok or the long, mellow hoots of a herd of thratamnae on the move. He listened now for the sounds of an alien conflict, or better yet, alien cooperation. He smiled into the fire's warm golden glow. It depended on how wild a heart their guest possessed, and while he was not averse to heading back up to the Chimera's kitchen to prepare their supper, there was something deeply satisfying about roasting a fresh kill over an open fire.

Faintly and far away, he heard a beloved voice raised in a triumphant whoop that he knew very well, and a keening, predatory call that made him smile again to hear the joy in it. It was so rare for the common folk of any of the Galra worlds to be able to hunt as their ancient ancestors had, these days. The need was still there, down in the blood and the bone and the deep places of the soul, and it so often went unaddressed. A short, sharp bark echoed off of the darkened air, and shortly after that, an answering gronk from one of the dragons. Modhri built up the fire a bit and reached into the rock hollow for the little lockbox of herbs and spices that he kept there; he would be cooking under the stars tonight.

A little time later, the ladies returned, an atinbuk slung on a pole between them. They looked tired but triumphant, and the pair of dragons coming up behind them looked almost comically hopeful. In keeping with the archaic atmosphere, he bowed formally to the huntresses and murmured, “Matriarch; Lady of the Hunt. May I have the privilege of preparing the kill?”

“You may, for the good of the Pack,” Lizenne replied, giving him the equally archaic response, and she and Erantha handed off the carcass and sat down with sighs of satisfaction. He'd prepared a kettle of hantic tea and set it to cool a little, along with a pair of cups, and they drank deeply while he examined the fruits of their labors. Most of the work had already been done for him, thankfully, the meat carved from the bones and bundled up in the hide, along with both of the hearts. He glanced at Tilla, who was looking just a little pouty; Tilla loved atinbuk organ meats, and it must have taken a good bit of persuasion to make her give up the best morsels. Still, it was traditional. A Matriarch always welcomed a new female ally into her Pack's territory in the ancient days by hunting with her, and then sharing the best portions of whatever they caught. These days, that tradition was satisfied with a decorous lunch date. Modhri preferred the old way. So thinking, he retrieved the hearts and a generous cut of haunch meat and began seasoning them with an herbal mix that was one of his personal favorites.

After a time, as fragrances rose from the roasting meat, Lizenne stretched out long legs comfortably and asked, “Well?”

Erantha sipped at her tea. “You were right. I did need this. It brings a great deal into perspective. It isn't at all like carrying out a mission, is it?”

Lizenne chuckled. “An assassination doesn't usually involve eating the target. I feel a little guilty about leaving the others out of this hunt, but it was necessary. We will take what we don't eat tonight to Hunk with a sincere apology. He's been wanting to make what he calls 'hamburgers' for some time, and atinbuk is amenable to that sort of cookery.”

Modhri delicately lifted the skewers from the grill he'd set up over the fire and handed the ladies the hearts. “It is indeed,” he said quietly, “and I don't doubt that he'll make everybody too happy to object to missing this hunt. It was only a little one, after all.”

Erantha took a bite from the Zampedran delicacy and savored the rich flavor for a long moment before speaking again. “Small, but significant. You go to great lengths to make me welcome.”

Modhri nodded. “A decision that we made some time ago, and not just between the two of us. You are aware that Tilla and Soluk here represent the native people of Zampedri, and a very ancient and wise people at that?”

“So I have been told,” Erantha concurred. “It is... difficult for me to believe that they gave it all up to become animals again.”

Lizenne shook her head. “That isn't quite correct. Their regression is a matter of shape only; their minds are unchanged, aside from allowing their instincts a little more freedom. If these two seem a little beastly, it's because they're still young. The Elders are several orders of magnitude above them in power, wisdom, and skill.”

Gronk,” Soluk protested mildly.

Lizenne smiled, divided what was left of her roasted atinbuk heart in two, and tossed it to the dragons. “Well, you are, dear. You're hardly more than five hundred years old, and the youngest of the Elders is four times that age. You're well ahead of me, and that's enough for the three of us.”

Tilla swallowed the coveted morsel and licked Lizenne's ear affectionately.

The dragons became aware of our people a very long time ago, and of how much power our witches could throw around,” Modhri continued calmly, pulling the roast off of the grill and slicing it neatly onto a trio of plates. “They took an interest, and kept an eye on us, and eventually decided to teach a select few the secrets of Tahe Moq. Most notably, Queen Zaianne of Namtura. Our people can be taught, and taught well; unfortunately, we tend to involve ourselves in a very violent style of politics.”

“The Sisterhood War,” Erantha said with a grimace of distaste. “One of my early tutors was obsessed with that piece of history, and I learned more about it than I could have possibly wished.”

Lizenne nodded gravely. “That sort of thing might have gone out of fashion eventually; Modhri the Wise and his descendants certainly did their best to find alternatives to our racial habit of internecine warfare. Unfortunately, in the aftermath, the lingering chaos allowed an assassin to wipe out more or less all of the practitioners that the Queen had passed her knowledge to. I am not sure, but what little evidence has survived to this day suggests that Haggar had a hand in that slaughter. I know for a fact that Haggar herself knows a few of the techniques. Enough to have perverted them utterly, in any case. She has also been very carefully killing or converting into Druids every single strong witch that she can get her hands on, and has been at it for the past ten millennia. As a result, the overall aetheric strength of the race has diminished, while her own power has grown. She's made attempts on me and on the Paladins that have come far too close to succeeding.”

Erantha gave Lizenne a narrow look as she accepted a laden plate from Modhri. “Your arrival upon Zampedri changed something. According to what the Blade knows of you, you have made some sort of pact with them.”

Lizenne nodded. “The Elders have decided to try again. Something that Haggar did a very long time ago wound up corrupting both her and Zarkon completely; according to my own research and the records kept in the Castle's data bank, they are very different now from what they were in the beginning. Some of that change might be attributed to the destruction of Golraz, but not all of it, and the results have spread a slow corruption throughout the rest of our civilization. It was no accident that I sought refuge from my family upon Zampedri, Erantha. They needed a young, strong, independently-minded witch to train in their own art, and who would, in time, train others.”

Erantha munched thoughtfully on her dinner and stared up at the simulated night sky. “It did not work out that way, I feel. You encountered the Paladins, and everything changed. Everything. They have come out of nowhere like a rogue planet through a solar system, pulling everything out of its proper order with the force of its presence alone. All who have come into contact with even the littlest of them have had their lives changed totally! Less than a year ago, there was no Ghost Fleet, and three years ago, my own Order was barely holding its own against the Ghamparva.”

Modhri took a sip of tea from his own cup and smiled fondly. “You are not wrong. Some days, I'm surprised that I can hear anything over their thundering destiny. As a result, the plans have changed. The Elder Dragons have decided to spread their focus a bit. Draconic society is pack-oriented, much like ours is, or was. They are now far more open to the idea that Lizenne might establish a Pack upon their world, and have come to share her opinion that the Blade of Marmora, already an elite group of warriors, might be a good addition to the family. They are cautious, of course, and while Kolivan sealed the alliance here with that yulpadi hunt, it will take some time to ease the Order properly into Zampedri itself. The envirodeck is an embassy, in its way; a safe zone where all parties may become used to the idea.”

Erantha frowned. “All of that is peripheral, isn't it? What matters now is Voltron, and the actions of the Paladins in the near future. Even that silly dance party tomorrow is significant somehow, I can feel it. Something is happening, something much larger than all of us, and it is aimed directly at the Emperor and his witch! I can feel it pulling me in as well, and all the rest of the Blade with me. It is... not something that I am comfortable with.”

Lizenne refilled her cup. “If it makes you feel any better, I've thrown a few temper tantrums about it myself. I would have been perfectly happy to stay upon Zampedri with Modhri for the rest of our lives, learning strange magic and raising a family in peace. It seemed such a trivial thing to have a pair of aliens pop up on my doorstep while I was cooking lunch that day, and while it enlivened the afternoon to invite them in and give them some necessary information, I truly felt that they were a passing thing. I thought that I could simply let them go, and continue in my studies while the rest of the universe enjoyed all of their chaos without me. Destiny's hooks had already been set, Erantha, the moment that we met, and I felt the pull of them very sharply indeed when Pidge asked me to find her father and brother! Modhri, have I ever told you how much I admire and envy your ability to accept such things? You've never complained about any of this.”

He gave her the loving smile that never failed to melt her heart. “I knew that it was coming.”

That surprised both his lady and the Blade. “How?” Erantha breathed.

“When I was a ship's captain, one of my subordinates took a dislike to me, and sent a report back to the Center accusing me of cowardice. It was a blatant lie—only the suicidal or the very stupid will believe that one elderly battleship could take on an entire ship-clan of Gantarash. Nonetheless, Zarkon felt the need to make an example of someone that day, and I was handy. He gave me to Haggar, who proceeded to destroy me almost completely in both mind and body. It was there that I first encountered Shiro, Erantha. He was a gladiator-slave even as I was. Even through my own pain and madness, I could see what was building up around him, and I forgave him even as he broke me. He had no choice, and my blood on his hands bound him further into what was coming. Haggar had broken the mental boundary in my mind, you see, that prevents most people from seeing the tides of probability that we all move through, and that move us in turn. I dreamed while Lizenne was putting me back together, and in those dreams I could see Voltron's return, and more importantly, the incredible young people who would pilot the Lions. I could see the blood-bond between myself and Shiro pulling us in, and that our alliance would be vital for all who would become involved. I was not wrong, and I am enjoying it all immensely.”

Erantha stared at him with wide eyes. “What else can you see?”

Modhri shook his head. “Nothing of that sort, now. Mortal minds were not intended to perceive that sort of thing, and Lizenne was forced to put a ward in me.”

“I had no choice,” Lizenne added. “I could rebuild Modhri's body, but Haggar had splintered his mind. It took some time to bring him back to full sanity, and that mental boundary that Haggar had so casually smashed was irreparably broken, leaving him completely vulnerable to anything and everything on the astral plane. He would have gone totally mad if I hadn't put the ward in, and while he can bear to be without it for short periods, it's very difficult for him.”

“It's not as bad as it was,” Modhri murmured gently. “I'm getting stronger, and we keep good company. You should have seen it, the last time you dropped the ward, Lizenne. The Castle and everyone in it was so beautiful from that perspective. You, all by yourself, are magnificent.”

Lizenne reached out and stroked his face lovingly. “Eternal flatterer. Even though such perspectives might be useful, Erantha, we will leave the duty of foresight to Shiro, who is far more resilient and has a support system that must be seen to be believed. I have no idea of what awaits you, now that you have joined us.”

“Have I?” Erantha asked, looking up at the dragons, who were watching her with enigmatic blue eyes. “Others of the Order have ridden along with you for a time, and have left your company without making much of a difference. Drosh still works as a minor functionary on Korbex when he isn't running errands for Kolivan. Kolanth continues in much the same way, as does Helenva. After tomorrow night, you will leave, and I have received no orders to accompany you.”

Lizenne's sensitive ears picked up the tiny thread of regret in her voice; the younger woman had enjoyed their hunt more than she was letting on. “You might not need them. Whatever happens in the near future will be followed by other events, and those will be followed by others. No particular event in the course of history is the be-all and end-all; there is always something beyond. Sooner or later the Paladins will enter the Core Worlds region; Drosh may be instrumental to smoothing their path when that happens. As for Kolanth, we couldn't have done without him after Haggar had hit us with that hex of hers, and without him we might not have found Pidge in time to help her and the Quandary. Helenva has laid claim to a man who might one day become Emperor—a man whom the Red Paladin rescued from certain doom, and she may yet achieve great things as his Consort. It doesn't end there—both Helenva and her uncle Ronok stand to aid in the resurrection of one of Simadht's most valued Lineages, and young Tamzet may have something more to contribute when he grows up. The Ghost Fleet has become mighty. Allura made a number of important contacts in that harem on Sowirra. Omorog stands to reclaim a primacy in their Sector that was denied them by the Empire. Trenosh and Vennex are working to establish a post-Imperial network of economic stability that might become the nucleus of a whole new empire. Even our more casual contacts may have had a purpose, Erantha. Were you ever told of that family that we rescued when we liberated Clarence, or that pair of children Hunk encountered on Rociaport?”

Erantha waggled a hand. “I am aware that a family was settled on Olkarion. They're still there, and doing research with their hosts that looks to be very promising. As do their children. I am not aware of the ones from Rociaport.”

Modhri nodded decisively. “Sarell and Kolost served to give the Paladins a better understanding of our people, Keith and Allura in particular, and their research and their offspring might just become vital later. How much later, I cannot say. As for Medrok and Lituya, Lizenne suggested that they might look to Zampedri for further instruction when they are old enough to fly on their own. Medrok has a stalwart heart, and Lituya has the potential to be a potent witch. Will they come, do you think?”

That last had been directed at the dragons, who thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. Soluk uttered a string of rumbles, clicks, and chirps that sounded reassuring, and then sniffed hopefully at the hide-wrapped bundle of raw atinbuk meat.

“He says that there are already two hatchling dragons waiting to form a pack-bond with them,” Lizenne translated, watching fondly as her man sectioned out a few more morsels for the dragons. “What we do today might not have meaning until months or even years down the line. Everyone and everything has purpose, you included, Erantha. All we can do is face what tomorrow brings. If nothing else, those who work with us generally wind up happier for it.”

Erantha smiled wryly and took another bite of the savory atinbuk meat. “You may be on to something. I have served with the Blade for many years, and cannot say that it has been fun for any of us. We tend to be a grim lot; our work is difficult and dangerous, and our opposition is ruthless. As of late, however, even Kolivan has begun to show us hints that he is not actually made of stone.”

Modhri caressed Soluk's nose and cast Erantha a solemn look. “He, like the rest of you, has lost much, and that loss was excruciating. He has sacrificed much of what he holds dear for the cause, and I do not doubt that the rest of you have as well. Such sacrifice all too often goes unrewarded.” Modhri's grave expression softened into a sly smile. “Whatever has hold of us now believes in paying its dues. Reward and obligation can be the same thing. Hard as it is from time to time, I can't even think of leaving this game now. Not now, when everything is coming to a head.”

Lizenne finished the last bite of her meal and gave Erantha a wry look. “And there it stands, Erantha. Will you dance with us tomorrow and accept whatever the future brings you, or will you walk away and leave Zaianne to take up your role?”

Erantha lifted a sardonic eyebrow. “I have a choice?”

“There is always a choice,” Lizenne said softly, reflecting back on a few of her own, “and each option has its consequences.”

The Blade lifted her chin proudly. “I will dance. If nothing else, it will let me delight my students by canceling a class that none of them are much interested in attending, anyway. It is most gratifying to contend with a skilled opponent, even on stage.”

Lizenne grinned fiercely. “I'll agree to that! We'll dazzle our audience utterly, my friend, and make a lot of complete strangers yearn for a point in history that they themselves never knew.”

“An era long past,” Erantha said thoughtfully, and turned a considering eye upon Modhri. “One that might return to us, in time. The Emperor and his witch have bent our society into a shape that is not natural for us. When they are gone, it might begin to recover.”

Modhri nodded. “It will take some time, and the outer colonies in particular will need protection while they do so, but it is not impossible. Galra will always be clannish and belligerent, that's just a part of our nature, but we need not be conquerors. I'm willing to work toward that. Are you?”

Erantha smiled at him. “Of course.”

 

Shiro dreamed. He knew that he dreamed, and yet he could not stop, for these were the dreams of days yet to come and they demanded his attention. He dreamed dancing and laughter, and battle and screaming, and it was difficult to tell the two apart. A sudden flash shook the two into snowflakes that scattered all around as the floor under his feet jerked like a live thing, and thunder that was not thunder roared in his ears as the lights came down around him. In the foxfire glow that followed, all was confusion and the smell of burning, and the sounds of fear and pain. Metal moved to its own music, and the lights flashed and flickered, purple lights that spoke death in sharp bursts. There was darkness, darkness in the deep places, darkness that smelled of blood that was not Human, a stench of madness, mad yellow eyes that saw only with hatred. A choked whisper of warning in a voice that he did not know hissed past his ears, and then there was fire. Fire pure and fire foul, foul as a burning corpse, and a searing-cold pain that pierced his breast, stealing breath and strength. A blade of ice flashed then, and skewered a source of void; all things stopped on a sudden note of horror, and the knowledge of that terrible simplicity was more horrifying still.

 

Shiro snapped awake with a cry of fear, his mouth tasting of month-old icicles and his skin dewed with sweat that was nearly as cold. He shuddered. Something was going to happen, and by the wet streak down the back of his shirt and the churning of his gut, he knew that it wasn't going to be good.

He glanced at his timepiece. It was very early in the morning, but not early enough to attempt more sleep, and he was already wide awake and humming with residual anxiety. The actual dream had been all fragments and impressions to start with, and the memory was fading like the morning mist as such dreams often did. It was the taste of fear that lasted the longest. Loliqua had warned him about that; there was never just one future, she'd told him, and the more complex an event, the more futures were possible. His four-dimensional awareness had been trying to make sense of thousands, perhaps millions of probabilities, all of them very similar in some ways, and could do it only by expressing it in symbolism. Not necessarily his symbolism at that, and there was only a fifty-fifty chance of the event in question even coming to pass, which was why such dreams were so damned maddening.

Something bad was going to happen at the dance. He knew it, blood and bone.

Shiro sighed and went to take a shower. Maybe a workout on the training deck would help to dispel the lingering dread that haunted him.

When he arrived, he found that he wasn't alone. Erantha was already there, halfway through a series of stretches that he'd seen Zaianne perform on several occasions. Not for the first time, Shiro reflected that there was a very great deal of variation in the Galran race, as much or more so than in Humans. Zaianne carried herself with a great deal of control and grace, but her body was like that of a mountain lion; graceful, yes, but powerfully-built. Erantha, on the other hand, exuded an air of delicate precision, and moved as though she had a special arrangement with gravity. Her aristocratic features were grave, eyes distant as she concentrated, and despite her rail-thin build he was sure that she was perfectly capable of picking a man up and breaking him over her knee if she chose to.

“Couldn't sleep?” he asked when she had come to the end of the set.

“I don't sleep much,” Erantha replied, fixing him with an expressionless topaz gaze. “A Blade must be ever-alert; danger stalks us constantly. I might ask what you are doing up at this hour as well.”

“Prophetic dreams,” Shiro replied with a grimace of distaste. “Something is going to happen tonight, and it's not going to be good. I couldn't make out the details, but that's the feeling that I'm getting.”

Erantha nodded, showing no surprise at all. “I will be ready. The Drinths will hold to their agreement, but there are a number of other peoples among the Council members who will not approve. The Governor himself is lazy and willing to be bribed into inaction, but there are those among his command staff who are far more enthusiastic.”

“Fanatics?” Shiro asked.

Erantha's spare features took on a disapproving cast. “At least three, and another one who is unabashedly insane.”

“I'll warn the others,” Shiro said, frowning at the thought. He'd fought the mad before, both in the arena and out of it, and it had never been a good experience. “Can you tell me what the venue will be like? We've never been here before, and I don't like fighting on unknown ground.”

Erantha slid her blade back into its sheath with a glance of approval in Shiro's direction. “The Council Hall is a very large building,” she said crisply. “It is the largest in the city, and the tallest at five stories high, and was not built by the Drinths themselves. The Hall was originally the Residence of a Pholura Great Keelaun, and was annexed by the Drinths after their own government buildings were destroyed during the Empire's subjugation of this world. Pholurae are very like large birds and are flight-capable, requiring a great deal of space around themselves for their peace of mind. The building has three parts: the main central portion was once a private indoor soaring chamber, and has been repurposed as the venue for full Council sessions. The floor is large, round, and surrounded by tiers of seats, and that is where we will be performing tonight. The Hall's side wings are primarily office space, where the actual work gets done, and they connect via hallways that run along the rear of the central chamber. I have heard it described as looking from above like a melon in a sling.”

Shiro nodded. “Makes sense. Anything else about it that I should know?”

“The top two floors and the domes are not in use,” Erantha continued, “Drinths do not like heights. There are three basement levels that are used mainly for storage space, with a large kitchen taking up much of the first sublevel. There are four entrances on the ground level—front, rear, and one on each side. They are large, fortunately, for the first two floors have no windows.”

Shiro hummed, frowning. “Big birds like high vantage points. I get it. It sounds risky, though. If someone blocks those exits, it's going to be hard to get out.”

Erantha smiled thinly. “Or to get in. The Hall was designed to be defensible, and the walls are very strong. Being a den of bureaucrats, it is also very easy to get lost in there, particularly among the offices. The Council employs a special team of guest-finders; large public events are often held there, and people often get drunk, confused, and very lost during them, usually while looking for the restrooms. There was one case where the guest-finders missed one, and that person was discovered five years later, living in the service ducts. It had gone feral, and had been surviving by stealing other people's food from the lunchroom refrigerators.”

Shiro snorted a laugh. “I could almost swear that Galaxy Garrison had one of those. I lost a lot of bento boxes that way. One more question, Erantha.”

“Yes?”

He knew enough about Galra women now to smile fiercely at her. “Are you done here, or will you join me? I need some exercise, and the Castle's training drones are starting to seem a bit tame.”

Erantha's eyes glinted at this challenge, and this time her smile was real. “I will stay. You have something of a reputation, Paladin, and I prefer the deed to the word.”

 

Lance jerked awake with a yell, swinging a fist at a foe that was not there and nearly falling out of bed. He recovered his balance in a flailing of limbs and blankets, headphones and sleeping mask flying, and sat panting on the edge of his bed. His heart was pounding like a war drum, sending his blood singing through his veins, and there was a hot taste of excitement in his mouth. He blinked blearily at the floor for a moment, and then realized what was going on.

Quiznek,” he muttered grumpily, and then pulled on his bathrobe. He had a team leader that needed yelling at.

He was joined by the others as he padded toward the lift, and was not surprised to see that they were just as grumpy and underslept as he was. Hunk and Pidge were wearing their new ultraplush PJ's, at least, which was gratifying. Lance liked it when his efforts were appreciated.

They heard the source of their discontent before they saw it; the sounds of a space ninja battle were coming from one of the secondary sparring rooms—the bell-like sounds of blade ringing upon blade, the grunts and shouts of effort, the rapid thumps and clattering of leaps, kicks, and fancy footwork. Allura heaved a long, disgusted sigh, and that was all that needed to be said. When they looked into the room, they were not at all surprised to see Shiro and Erantha wrestling each other for possession of the black bayard.

The two combatants were magnificent to watch as they grappled enthusiastically around the room, Shiro showing himself as a juggernaut of strength and precision and Erantha floating like a dark fantasy; the only accolades that the rest of the team felt themselves able to muster was a vast yawn from Pidge and Lance scratching his rump. When Zaianne joined them, they didn't even grunt.

Zaianne, of course, was fully awake and alert as she always was at that hour, and she smiled to see her adoptive son in such fine fettle. “Well, he's recovered fully, at least,” she murmured, admiring his form. “What are all of you doing up?”

“Lion-bond,” Keith said around a yawn. “He's too excited for the rest of us to sleep.”

Pidge growled. “For this, he will pay. I was up really late planning my chicken house.”

“He gets to wash the dishes after breakfast,” Hunk decreed solemnly, glowering at Shiro, who had just pulled his bayard out of Erantha's grip and was chasing her down the length of the room. “I will make something really messy.”

“Thamst porridge,” Pidge suggested.

“We're out of thelwisk seeds,” Hunk replied sadly. “Weren't you going to save some to try and grow your own bushes?”

Pidge growled again. “The mice stole them. Maybe we should go back to Arcobi. That was a really good supermarket.”

They paused as Shiro hurtled through the air in the opposite direction; Erantha had gotten tired of being chased, and had picked him up and thrown him across the room.

“Good arm,” Allura commented, having tossed the man before herself, and knew how much he weighed. “We're going to need a nap before the dance, aren't we? I had trouble getting to sleep. I haven't attended a dance in years, you know.”

Shiro executed an athletic roll in midair and landed easily, charging at Erantha with a roar that sent a corresponding thrill through his teammates' blood. Keith scratched at his belly button, too sleepy to be impressed. “Maybe we ought to talk to Lizenne. Is there a way to... I dunno, put a noise filter on the bond?”

Allura raised a hand warningly. “If there is, it would be risky. You don't want to wind up sleeping through a life-or-death situation, or have it interfere with the communication between us and the Lions.”

Hunk humphed sourly. “Oh, yeah, he's doing the dishes. And she gets to help. I'll make a big pot of boslap cereal. It takes, like, half an hour to scrub that stuff off of the cookware.”

Zaianne wrinkled her nose. “I'll graze off of last night's leftovers. Those hamburgers were very good, weren't they?”

The team hummed in happy reminiscence. Atinbuk meat made excellent hamburgers.

“Yeah,” Keith said, “and now Lizenne owes us a hunt. Does she have anything interesting in the gene-lab?”

“No, but she's thinking about cooking up another ornipal, or perhaps a couple of thratamnae.” Zaianne's eyes glinted in anticipation. “She says that thratamnae are tricky, but delicious.”

There was a thud from the sparring room; Erantha had knocked Shiro to the floor and was trying to get the bayard away from him again. Lance frowned at their energetic gyrations and cocked a sidelong glance at Allura. “Want to break this up? If they go on like that any longer, we'll have to tack a 'Mature' rating over the door.”

Allura giggled despite her own rising irritation, and shouted, “All right, you two, who started it?”

Shiro and Erantha stopped mid-grapple and looked guiltily up at the group in the doorway. “Oh, uh...” Shiro said breathlessly, “what are you guys doing up?”

Hunk waved an admonishing finger at him. “Lion-bond, Shiro. You're noisy. I am now a Sad Bear, and you have incurred the wrath of the Techno-Mousie.”

Pidge rubbed at her eyes and glared at him. Hunk picked her up and cradled her in his arms, making her squeak in a definitely mouselike way. Hunk leveled one of his own devastating pouts at his team leader and said, “You are a bad person for upsetting the Mousie.”

“Sorry,” Shiro said contritely, putting his bayard away. “I dreamed the future again, and it woke me up in a fright. I needed to sweat it out with some exercise, and, well, Erantha offered to help.”

They glared at Erantha, who met their displeasure with a lofty expression that said that not only was she not sorry, but probably had never been sorry for anything in her life.

Allura rolled her eyes. “Was it anything that we should know about?”

Shiro pulled himself to his feet. “Yeah. Something's going to happen at the dance later tonight. I'm not sure what it is, but it's not going to be good. I don't think that we're in danger of losing anybody, but I could be wrong; it was pretty badly fragmented. We'll need to discuss emergency tactics, just in case that I'm right.”

Lance humphed. “After breakfast. It'll be fine, Shiro. I've put a lot of thought into our dancewear, and we aren't going in unarmed. This is going to be— mrph!”

Hunk's large and plush-clad hand had clamped over his mouth. “Don't say it, man. I don't want it jinxed any worse than it already is.”

“Sorry,” Lance said, and yawned. “Still half-asleep here. You said something about boslap cereal?”

“Yeah, and who's doing the cleanup,” Hunk shot Shiro and Erantha a significant look. “Come on, I'll run up some tanrook buns, too.”

“Am I missing something?” Erantha asked as they headed back toward the lift.

Shiro sighed. “It's an Earthly superstition involving cake. I'll explain later.”

“More of a substition, really,” Zaianne added. “Nobody actually believes it, but it tends to be true nonetheless. Come along.”

Mystified, Erantha did as she was told.

 

It was a half-hour before the show, and like all performers the universe over, that last thirty minutes was a time of mild panic. Allura and Coran had opened up the room next to Lance's sewing room to serve as a place to get properly dressed up and polished, and Lance had moved in every kind of accent, cosmetic, and accessory that the Castle's fabricator could come up with. Everybody liked a little flash and glitter for special occasions, but how much to add had been a problem. Shiro's rather muddled Vision had not been lost on the others, and they didn't want any unnecessary fiddly bits getting in the way if they had to fight.

“All right, is everybody ready?” Shiro asked, touching the secret pocket where he'd secured his bayard for the third time; he'd been to numerous dance meets with Adam before, but public spectacles always made him a little nervous. “Lizenne, Modhri, the dragons, the mice, and Erantha have already gone on ahead of us.”

“I'm ready,” Hunk replied with all good cheer, tying on a fresh headband over his glossy dark hair. “This is going to be so cool. There isn't much about Galaxy Garrison that I miss, but the dorm dance-offs are one of them.”

Coran grinned at his reflection in one of the big mirrors and adjusted his monocle, his chest aglitter with numerous medals and awards, his half-cape draped just so over his right shoulder. “Ah, yes, we held those, too, back in my Academy days,” he said blithely. “Grand spectacles they were, each and every one, although the senior faculty insisted on the right to shut them down after a given amount of time. Things have a tendency to get a bit out of hand as the evening wears on, you know.”

“No kidding?” Pidge asked, tugging her skirt into a better position.

Allura hummed and capped off her lipstick. “None. I never saw it myself, of course, but I did hear rumors. The Paladin Academy's students were all very diverse, and used those dances to work off stress. I used to hear the Castle's staff gossiping in corners about duels and unapproved liaisons, as well as the occasional attempt by one cadet to eat another, and didn't one dance hall actually explode once, Coran?”

“Only half of it,” Coran said, waving a dismissive hand. “It wasn't our fault that some maintenance tech had stashed his numvill in that transformer junction, was it? And it certainly wasn't our fault that Duloquins are dedicated teetotalers, and their religion requires them to set any intoxicant on fire whenever they see one. Ekespin was a good lad, but very devout, and was very sorry for the damage afterward.”

Keith humphed and finished tying off his tassel-bedecked braid. “Better than drinking it, I guess. Numvill tastes nasty. Where's Lance?”

“Back in the sewing room,” Zaianne said with a jerk of her thumb in that direction, her burgundy suit gleaming with the gesture. “He said that he was making some last-minute adjustments.”

Shiro rolled his eyes. Lance, unfortunately, was a bit of a dandy. “This late? Come on, we'd better go and get him, or he'll be at it all night.”

To their surprise, Lance's sewing room was dark when they entered. This appeared to be deliberate, for the moment that they stepped in, a drumroll began to play, and a single spotlight in the center of the room came on. Descending gracefully from the high ceiling on banners of glimmering blue silk, their athletic teammate executed an expert and complex twirl in slow motion and landed neatly on booted feet before them. Glimmering in the spotlight, his suit flashed brilliant cobalt as he struck a pose, lines of gold embroidery in the shape of tiny Lions accentuating the magnificent musculature of his body and limbs. He had even added a corsage of gold lace flowers to one flaring lapel, and a shining cobalt silk cravat ruffled stylishly at his throat. It was elegant, debonair, and entirely delicious, and none of his teammates missed any of the details.

“Holy cow, man,” Hunk said with a huge smile. “You're lucky that James Bond isn't here, or he'd knock you down and steal your clothes. You look great. Your own grandma couldn't do better.”

“Practice,” Lance said proudly, turning around so they could see the expertly-fitted back. “I dunno, though... does it make me look fat?”

Hunk blew him a raspberry. “Dude, I wouldn't look fat in that. A beach ball wouldn't look fat in that. Remember Timmy Martinez's cousin Lester? He wouldn't look fat in that, and he weighed over half a ton when his folks finally staged that intervention.”

“Neat entrance, too,” Shiro said, having found his voice at last. “I didn't know that you knew how to do aerial silk dancing.”

Lance gave him a self-depreciating smile. “I've got a cousin who showed me a few tricks. Zaianne helped me set it up. I really like your mom, Keith.”

Zaianne chuckled. “And I like you right back. All right, children, stop dribbling lustfully at your teammate, we're out of time. Let's go and make a great many other people dribble lustfully at him, shall we?”

That brought a laugh out of the speechless team, and they headed for the shuttle bay in a good humor.

 

“Whoa,” Hunk muttered, staring at the huge open space.

The central chamber of the Council Hall was one of those buildings that seemed bigger on the inside than on the outside, just from the sheer expanse of open space. It was shaped more or less like a teacup, with a round “foot” of floor space, the rising tiers of seats for the audience surrounding it and giving the lower portion of the room a curved appearance, and rising up into a generous, truncated sphere-shape. The ceiling had to be three stories up at least, and probably more. Erantha had been right when she'd said that the Drinths didn't like heights, and the ceiling itself had rather obviously been a later addition, being only a huge sheet of something like heavy canvas, which had been stretched as tight as a drum over the enormous empty space. Just below it, a framework of rather sketchy-looking gantries and catwalks supported large light fixtures that managed to illuminate the room decently. Shiro's sharp eyes spotted vid-screen generators as well, and there were other devices scattered here and there on the floor's periphery that he couldn't quite guess the purpose of.

“Oh, great, now I'm getting antsy,” he heard Lance grumble, and sensed more than saw the young man fidgeting nervously. “Why does this always happen? I've done a ton of school plays, and I've had to watch tons more—holy crow, so many school plays, and I still get nervous whenever I see a stage! You'd think I'd be used to it by now.”

Modhri chuckled softly. “One of my brothers is an actor, as I believe that I've told you, and he goes onstage almost every day. He still gets jittery, especially when the script calls for some kind of drama.”

Shiro turned to look at the Galra man standing resplendent in his hunting leathers and looking perfectly cool and collected. His scars had been disguised with cosmetics, and he looked to be the very picture of health and strength. “Galra get stage fright?”

“Oh, yes,” Modhri said, waving a hand at the multitude of aliens taking their seats in the tiers. “Galra men tend to be very self-conscious. We instinctively know that we must project ourselves at our very best at all times. We must be strong, brave, bold, fierce, confident, alert, and in control of ourselves and our surroundings at every second—this is to show our fellows that we are worthy of our status, and more importantly, to show any unattached women who might be present that we are the best possible choice. Everyone is judging everyone else, and under the eyes of so many potential rivals, the stress can be crushing. My brother is moderately famous, and every time the recorders come on, he is seen by millions. The best that one can do is to concentrate on the task at hand, and to perform as well as possible.”

Lance gave him a sidelong look. “And you?”

Modhri beamed. “I'm married. I have already won the game, and may act as I please.”

They glanced over at Lizenne, also wearing her hunting leathers and was fussing over the fit of the jeweled harness that Tilla was wearing.

Lance clapped his adoptive uncle on the shoulder. “Modhri, you are a lucky man. So, when does the fun start?”

“It won't be long now,” Modhri replied. “I'm told that the Council needs to assemble fully and take their seats, and then the Speaker will make a little speech. Only a little one, thankfully; this event is still not wholly-approved by all of the Council members, I'm afraid, and they don't dare to let the thar drone on for too long. Ah, there—the big Drinth with the ceremonial mallet? That's the official Granidlo, and dan's fully authorized to give the Speaker a bop on the head if thir gets carried away.”

Curious, the team craned their necks to get a good look. Sure enough, a big, especially surly-looking Drinth in formal wear was pacing ceremoniously about with an enormous, long-handled mallet. Drinths were centaur-like aliens that rather resembled hippopotomi from the waist down, and were large and powerfully-built; Shiro made a mental note to give the Granidlo a lot of room if a fight broke out. He did not want to get hit with that mallet.

The tiers were almost full now, he saw, and an elaborately-dressed Drinth, presumably the Speaker, was setting up a temporary podium. High above, a trio of yellow-scaled, lightly-built aliens were checking over the light fixtures and screen projectors, and other technical staff were fiddling with the bits of odd machinery below. Not long now. Shiro straightened his collar and touched the hidden pocket that held his bayard, and then looked over at his team. Lance's suit was flickering blue as he jittered about, Pidge was adorable and Allura gorgeous, Keith was scowling handsomely, and Hunk practically glowed. Zaianne was stunning in a deep wine-red and the dragons were magnificent in their glittering harnesses; Erantha was wearing something very like an officer's uniform in dark slate-blue that had a severe military cut to it and looked frighteningly official, complete with a half-cape attached to her shoulders with golden bosses. Even the mice were dressed for the occasion, in dapper little tailcoats and tiny bow-ties. Lance had also added tiny antigrav strips to those garments as an afterthought, which just made sense in Shiro's mind. The best place for tiny things if things went wrong was well up and out of reach. Weirdly enough, Lance had said that the pattern for those formal flight suits had been among the auto-tailor's files, causing Shiro to wonder just how largely the mice had figured in Altean society.

Tilla lowered her head and whuffled pleasantly at him, and he smiled and patted her nose. “Soon,” he told her. “Just remember to only turn around once after every verse this time, all right? You nearly flattened us during practice.”

Tilla snorted and nipped at his forelock playfully before turning her attention to the mice on Soluk's shoulders. The dragons, to everyone's surprise, had taken to their dance lessons with remarkable eagerness, and rather more enthusiasm than was really necessary. Tilla in particular had enjoyed the “turn yourself around” part of the Hokey-Pokey, and it had been very difficult to persuade her not to whirl wildly out of control at every opportunity. Just his luck, he had a dragon that liked chasing her tail.

There was a gravelly ratcheting sound from the podium as the Speaker cleared thirs throat, and thir began to adress the Council in a very formal tone of voice. The Granidlo, Shiro noticed, had settled down on dans haunches nearby and was keeping an eye on dans large and ornate wristwatch. Having had to listen to a fair few “inspirational” speeches that his superiors had bored the young recruits half to death with back at Galaxy Garrison, Shiro wondered if the tradition of the Official Granidlo might be successfully transplanted to Earth. It would certainly cut down on the blather and name-calling between political parties.

Roughly five minutes later, the Granidlo began, with great and ostentatious ceremony, to roll up dans sleeves, revealing bulging biceps that spoke of years of dutiful blowhard-smacking. Heaving danself to dans feet and baring dans jutting teeth in a terrible grin, dan began to approach the Speaker, who was so caught up in thirs own eloquence that thir almost didn't notice the danger in time. The speech wrapped up in a hurried gabble as the mallet was raised to strike, and the Speaker picked up thirs podium and fled, leaving the Granidlo to bow to the audience and exit decorously, stage left.

Shiro nodded in approval. He would definitely have to see whether or not he could get the tradition started back home.

“Hunk?” he asked.

“Yeah?” Hunk replied.

“Were they able to get our music hooked up?”

Hunk smiled and nodded. “Not a problem. Lizenne had a spare unit, and I copied our stuff onto that. Galra tech is pretty universal in this end of the Empire.”

“Good,” Shiro said, waving a hand to attract his team's attention. “All right, everybody, I think we're on. Just in case, though... Coran, did the ship techs get the work on the Castle and the Chimera done?”

Coran, who looked very colorful in his elegantly-tailored suit and glittering medals, adjusted his monocle and nodded. “Indeed they did, and we ran a full systems check on both ships. We're good to go at any time. Anticipating trouble, Number One?”

“It's my job.” Shiro sighed and looked out at that huge expanse of floor. “Come on, everybody, let's get this over with.”

 

“They what?” Governor Morix asked, coming erect in his chair and staring at his informant.

“They had a valid contract, sir,” the Drinth replied sulkily. “We didn't have much of a choice. You can't argue with a genuine Skull Pact, and they still had the original. The real thing, sir, we checked. You're lucky that I'm telling you this at all.”

Morix sighed and rubbed at his brow. He didn't much like Drinths, but by damn, they stuck to an agreement. Dhuareg here was the closest thing to a dishonest politician that he'd been able to find, and that was only because he'd gotten the weird-looking alien to sign a mutual-assistance contract. Dhuareg had ambitions toward the Chairmanship of the Council, and wasn't above the occasional side deal.

“I take it that all of the Council will be there, and watching?” he asked.

“Every last one, sir,” Dhuareg replied. “The Paladins promised them things that your lot refused to demonstrate, and they're eager to finally get a good look.”

Morix glared suspiciously at the Drinth, who returned his gaze impassively. “Dancing. Why is dancing so important to them?”

Dhuareg shrugged. “Got me, sir, but a lot of them insist on it. They'll be mightily miffed if you interrupt them before the Historical dance is done—apparently the Rogue Witch and her lot are doing a bit out of a classic. Something called 'karchozra mak'thuthros', and it's a romance.”

Unbeknownst to many, Morix had a fondness for the great classics. He still coveted his father's copy of the Chalep'Thora's version of that epic, as a matter of fact. “Will they be recording it?”

“Guaranteed,” Dhuareg replied, rolling all four eyes. “They'll probably be picking over the details for the next thirty years.”

Morix smiled slyly. “I can delay that long, at least. Get me a clean recording, and I'll make it worth your while. But their ships are repaired?”

Dhuareg gestured an affirmative. “They are, and the Lions are in their hangars. One of the techs got the goofy one with the mustache to let guan see the black Lion. It's the real thing. Before you ask, there's the traditional formal dinner after the dancing, which'll take at least a couple of hours to get through, even with the Granidlo on hand to cut the boring speeches short. You'll have plenty of time to secure the ships, or at least to lock down the docks. I wouldn't try to board the ships, if I were you—someone's been fiddling with the defensive systems on both craft, and that Hanifor ship's got a mean stare for something with no eyes. Think you've got enough of a force to take them?”

Morix frowned pensively. “I have to at least try, or the Emperor will have my head for it. If we can take them by surprise at the dance, say, just after the third segment or at the dinner, then maybe. As for the local garrison fleet, no. Most of them were requisitioned; Commander Arkkax needed them for a full destructor fleet. I do not want Voltron shooting up what little I have left.”

Dhuareg pawed thoughtfully at the floor with one forefoot. “What if you call for outside help?”

“I probably won't get any,” Morix said sourly. “There are no spare ships in the entire Sector; Zarkon decreed that the entire Beronite population was to be eradicated, Dhuareg, and they have a very large and surprisingly well-armed population.”

Dhuareg's ears flapped in surprise. “The Beronites? But they're one of our major trading partners! We've got a lot of contracts with them, and a number of agreements that haven't been fulfilled on both sides yet, and--”

Morix waved a hand, cutting him off. “I know. The Empire does, too. The last I knew, the High Houses were already preparing to send a petitioner to the Throne in order to persuade him to call it off, but...”

His desk communicator chirped suddenly, and to his surprise it was one of the fleet captains that had been called away from his garrison. He tapped the “accept” button. “Governor Morix, here. What do you need, Captain Sandash?”

Captain Sandash was a gangly and lugubrious-looking Kedrekan, and he was looking even more mournful and worried than usual. “Just checking in, Governor. We're at Cletinda Shipyard at the moment, getting the starboard guns nailed back on, and Captains Thrazzan, Banzak, Zorai, Makpat and I will be heading home about... oh, a week or so from now, assuming that Arkkax doesn't keep us around to do other things.”

Morix blinked. “What happened to the others?”

Bad things, sir. I'm not authorized to talk about them yet. Strictly speaking, I shouldn't be talking to you now. All I can tell you is that the Beronites aren't going to be wiped out for the time being, and we're going to have our hands full dealing with the fallout from the particulars. The whole damned Sector's going to be very shorthanded until the Shipyards can catch up with the demand. Oh, and did you get the broadcast about Lotor yet?”

“I did. What did that fool boy do?”

That was part of the particulars. His royal father really wants to have a talk with him about that, so if you've got anyone left at home who's competent enough to act fast and smart, keep them around. You're going to need them if he swings by your worlds.”

Morix hissed. “I will, and thank you. Good luck, Sandash.”

Vrepet sa, sir,” Sandash said, “signing out.”

The little screen went blank, leaving Morix staring at it in perplexity and wondering just what could have happened to disrupt an entire destructor fleet that badly.

“Oh, hoof-rot,” Dhuareg said faintly. “Well, it's an opportunity to get rid of Thanrak, Balzuk, Kranth, and Morzul. If you're lucky, the Paladins will get them out of your hair permanently, and if they can take out Akazia as well, it's a net gain. There will probably be some collateral damage no matter what, but we're coming up on election season anyway.”

“Truth,” Morix said darkly, reflecting on his least favorite underlings. “Thank you for the warning, Dhuareg, and I will make sure that you're rewarded for it, regardless of how things turn out.”

“You're welcome, sir.”