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Hodology

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Hodology

 

Chapter 1: Regrouping

 

Many lightyears away from the events near the Szaracan Cluster, Captain Vardok typed the last few sentences of the acceptance form with a feeling of grim relief. It was no small task to get a new ship's medic assigned to the Courier Elite. His ship and its sister ships in their small and very exclusive fleet were at the beck and call of the Empire's very highest officials, usually on the very most secret and important of missions. This meant that each and every crewman had to be highly trained, top of their class, exquisitely skilled, and above all, discreet. A single word spoken in the wrong place could get that careless speaker killed, and the rest of the ship's personnel interrogated mercilessly. Captaining such a ship was a great honor and a mighty responsibility, but it was also a vast pain in the ass at times; as master of the ship, he was the one required to request candidates for a vacant post and interview them when they showed up. Despite the cloak of secrecy, word did tend to get around if it was sufficiently grisly; the terrible fate of one of his medics certainly had, and while no penalty had come to the ship because of it, it was still making things difficult. Many people might be proud to serve on a ship that had carried the Emperor. Not so many wished to serve where his witch had killed someone so thoroughly, and might come back to do it again. Vardok was going to miss Medic Kirze. He had chattered all the time, but he had been fearless and eager in his research, and having to send his remains home in a jar had not been a pleasant experience. It had taken weeks, but he'd finally found someone both competent and brave enough to replace him, and it was with a feeling of accomplishment that he hit the “send” button on his terminal.

A glance at his chronometer told him that he had missed dinner. Not that it mattered. The cooks in the Courier's dining hall knew of old that the Courier Elite rarely kept regular hours, and there was always something keeping warm in the ovens. He rubbed at his neck, an unconscious gesture he made whenever he was feeling stressed. It was a holdover from his first, disastrous encounter with the Osric's Quandary; on bad days, he could still feel the weight of the collar they'd put on him, although the bruises had faded off long since. His fate had changed forever on that day, and he still wasn't sure if he'd benefited by it. His family approved of his elevation to this prestigious and well-paid posting, but he was starting to have his doubts about the work itself.

It wasn't having to ferry the Emperor and his witch around. That was only a small, occasional part of the job, and everybody knew how dangerous they were. It was having to host the rest of the high and mighty that was starting to make him nervous. Technically, he knew, he should be shuttling around information and packages that could not be entrusted to even the high-security bands or parcel services. Nice, quiet cargoes that didn't treat him as if he were furniture or stare at him as though they were curious to see what he looked like on the inside. No, his ship carried people for the most part, and very important people indeed. Governors, both planetary and regional. Some few of Lotor's half-brothers. The Matriarchs of various influential Lineages. The heads of certain vital industries. Scientists involved in top-secret research. One or two high-ranking Ghamparva. Sometimes Pendrash would show up with a few of his fellow Generals and order Vardok to take them out to some empty, remote little spot—scenic trips, in the parlance of the Couriers—so that they could discuss vital matters in absolute privacy.

Matters so private, he thought as he made his way toward the Courier's dining hall, that even the ship's Captain is forbidden to know of them.

Oh, recordings of everything that happened on the ship were kept, of course. It was just that Vardok wasn't allowed to see them; Pendrash usually sent someone by to collect them for study every so often. Ordinarily, that didn't upset him—having to sit around reviewing hours of nothing much happening had not been his favorite duty before he had lost his previous two ships, and affairs of state were best left to those authorized to handle them, but he was starting to get hints that something was wrong. Just a word or two overheard from his VIP passengers here and there, or the simple fact that some of those passengers were on his ship at all hinted at an uncertain future. Something was up in those turbulent circles that did the actual day-to-day running of the Empire, something that the Emperor himself might not care to notice for the time being, but might resent when it all came to a head.

His heart lifted when he saw a familiar face among the other late-night diners in the hall—Kerraz was sitting alone at the table in the back, working his way through a bowl of stew with a single-minded diligence that suggested that he'd had a difficult day as well. Seeing as how the cook made a very creditable bowl of ghrembak stew, Vardok got one for himself and slid into a chair across from his former crewman.

Kerraz nodded politely to him and murmured an equally polite greeting, outwardly calm, but there were signs of strain around the younger man's eyes that told Vardok that Kerraz had had to deal with difficult and distasteful events recently. “How fares the General?” Vardok asked delicately, spooning up a mouthful of savory stew.

“The same,” Kerraz replied quietly. “Could be better, could be worse. Things are holding stable, for the moment. No guarantees for the future.”

So, there was trouble looming on the horizon. “I've gotten the same feeling from my passengers of late.”

Kerraz lifted an eyebrow at him. “Rumors?”

Vardok shrugged. “I don't run a pleasure yacht. It's all business, and none of my business at that. They're not happy, though. For example, I took a pair of eminent personages... hmmm... a Matriarch and a Ghamparva commander on a scenic trip recently. Neither of them were happy coming or going, but they were unhappy about the same matter. Everything's been very... tense... since that trip out to Teravan.”

Kerraz humphed. “The General has been busy as well, but if you'll let me collect your ship's log, I'll bring it to his attention. The events that happened at Teravan have stirred up a number of things that need adressing, and the log might bring a few of them into better clarity.”

“Go right ahead,” Vardok said with outward calm, but inside he felt intense relief. He and Kerraz and Pendrash had agreed on “clarity” as a signal that meant that things would be explained to them shortly. Pendrash was embroiled in a number of very dangerous games right now, and caution was essential. “Will you need them immediately?”

“Finish your meal,” Kerraz replied, picking his teeth with a thumbnail. “I want seconds, anyway. It has been a long time since breakfast, and the stew is good tonight.”

“That it is,” Vardok said.

They ate in companionable silence, then made their way back to Vardok's ship. Even sitting docked with the maintenance drones poking at it, the Bevrok Hai was a lovely little thing. Much smaller than even a light cruiser but a very great deal faster, the only ships that could outrun or outmaneuver it were the Ghamparva's own, and Vardok was proud to be its captain. He welcomed Kerraz aboard and allowed the man to take copies of the ship's records, all legal, all aboveboard. As General Pendrash's personal aide, Kerraz had that privilege, and Vardok was required to respect that authority. As he watched, Kerraz tucked the precious data chips into an inside pocket and nodded in satisfaction.

Very good, Captain,” Kerraz said for the benefit of Vardok's lieutenant, a humorless and opaque man that Vardok privately suspected of being a spy for someone or someones well above his pay grade. “That will be all. You may expect a reply within the week. Vrepet Sa.”

Vardok offered a small bow and salute, and returned the traditional phrase with commendable calm.

Four days later, the General himself arrived, along with a few hover-pallets of well-wrapped and unmarked items that Vardok knew better than to wonder about. These were stowed carefully in the cargo bay and the General took up residence in one of the passenger cabins, apparently to make sure that the cargo got to where it was going. The route he specified was one of the tricky ones, too, leading past one of those sections of anomalous space that had to be traversed with the hyperdrive shut down, lest bad things happen to the ship. Certain high officials used that cautious interlude for private meetings, Vardok knew, which was the true reason that the little research outpost at the other end of the trip had been built in the first place. This time it was his turn to enter the secure conference room with Kerraz and Pendrash, and it was with some satisfaction that he locked the door and ran the usual scan for surveillance devices. To his surprise, Pendrash pulled out his own scanner and set it to run, and was even more surprised when something went pop between his shoulderblades.

Pendrash smiled at his confusion as Kerraz removed something small and ruined from the back of his uniform. “Thought so,” the old soldier murmured. “I'm sorry, Vardok. I've been rooting spies out of the Courier Elite for the past three weeks. You are by no means alone.”

Vardok scratched reflexively at his back and grimaced in distaste. “My lieutenant?”

Pendrash nodded. “And one of the maintenance technicians. The tech isn't a problem, he was coerced into this and is now working for me. Your lieutenant is another matter entirely. Do not be surprised if you find yourself giving one of your men a promotion soon. Take a seat, Vardok. Kerraz tells me that you smell a storm coming.”

Vardok did as he was told, pulling a chair out and settling in. “Did the ship's recordings help?”

Pendrash thumped down into the chair opposite, and nodded heavily. He was looking weary as well, and there was more gray in his fur than there had been the last time they had met. “In some areas, considerably. Lotor's little visit to Nelargo Shipyard has gained him a pair of enemies that he will come to regret in the future, I feel, and he will not last long if he falls into either Ghamparva or Lady Ghurap'Han's hands. That is a comparatively minor matter in the greater scheme of things, although losing the Crown Prince at this time would cause a great deal of trouble.”

Vardok stared at him. “What has been going on?”

Kerraz spoke up at that point, filling him in on the details of the arguable theft of no less than thirty of the deadliest fighting craft in the Empire. “Lady Inzera was not pleased, nor was the Order's Commander,” he concluded. “Even our informant was bitter about it, particularly since the Matriarch tends to take out her temper on her subordinates.”

“When she can't sharpen her nails on the people who offend her, at least. Bloodthirsty woman,” Pendrash said grimly. “I suspect that something will have to be done about her eventually, her and a great many others. Twice, Vardok. Twice has the Emperor sustained serious injury at the hands of the Paladins, and the High Houses have taken note. Zarkon is not invulnerable in their eyes anymore.”

Vardok hissed. “Treason?”

“Not yet.” Pendrash glared pensively at the scarred surface of the table for a long moment. “No, not quite yet. They are still very wary. He still lives, and he is still powerful, and Haggar stands ready to destroy anyone who threatens either him or herself, and the Houses do not dare make any move just yet... but they know about the bone spear, and that a Paladin can use it.”

Vardok barked a curse and banged his fist on the table. “None of my men talked! We were under comm silence, sir, you were there and ordered it yourself.”

“I know,” Pendrash said sourly, “but some cousin or other of House Muldok'Kraz was vacationing there, and was able to record both battles. The little fool promptly sent the recording to his Matriarch, of course, who brokered it to every other High House in the Empire. Zarkon did battle with a pair of living legends, Vardok, and lost: once against Voltron itself, and once against the black Paladin. He lived, but only because I summoned the fleets. Who is to say he will not lose again, and that time permanently? The High Houses know this, along with a number of those less High, but wealthy and influential, and very ambitious.”

“Oh, Gods,” Vardok whispered, realizing that the end of the Empire might only start with Zarkon's death. “The Princes--”

“Are a liability as well as an asset. Lotor is Crown Prince only so long as he can fight off his ambitious half-brothers and avoid his father's disapproval.” Pendrash shook his head gravely. “Vardok, as promising as that boy is, he's already failed too often. One more major setback and Zarkon will either disown or destroy him. None of the other Princes are his equal in courage, drive, or intelligence. I had hopes for some of the more recent ones, but they have fallen to the usual plots and peculations, or in duels with each other. I had high hopes for Kelezar, but after he was found to be working with the Blade of Marmora... well.”

Vardok remembered that scandal, soon eclipsed by others. “Figureheads,” he said. “That's what the other Princes will be. Gamepieces whose only value is their legitimacy. And the Royal Lineages, they're going to want a piece of that action... Pendrash, this is a civil war waiting to happen! Several civil wars! The Empire could fall apart almost immediately! Even if the Throne does pass to Lotor, he may not live long enough to sit in it!”

Kerraz nodded. “Historical precedent. Several of the descendants of Modhri the Wise had difficulty cementing their right to rule.”

“Would that he were with us now,” Pendrash said darkly. “He was a mighty negotiator, and an expert diplomat, and brought our people through the aftermath of the Sisterhood War without getting us overrun by greedy aliens. We will need someone of equal or better skill to keep the Empire's subject races from taking advantage of a fragmenting system. The way things are going, they will probably have to get in line.”

Vardok shuddered, blinked, and then realized something that astonished him. “Voltron's only a small part of this, isn't it? It's impressive and can put up a good fight, but it's a figurehead, too.”

Pendrash chuckled. “Not quite. It is, yes, a small part of a much greater force that continues to coalesce unstoppably even as we speak, but it is a key part, and one prone to strange and erratic behavior. The Paladins can do the impossible, Vardok, and as regularly as a housewife does her laundry. If they do decide to focus on taking the fight directly to Zarkon and Haggar—indeed, they have done exactly that once already!—then there is nothing that we can do to stop them.”

“Then what can we do?” Vardok asked plaintively.

“Support the Emperor,” Kerraz supplied quietly. “Maintain him as best we can, and keep an eye on the Princes in the meantime.”

“And keep the High Families from... hmm... helping matters along,” Pendrash added. “I've been able to keep them focused on each other so far, seeing as only one ruler may sit upon that Throne. You have been of immeasurable help already, Vardok. Your ship is one of very good reputation, and is much-preferred by the most active plotters for their private conversations, so much so that keeping it clean of unwelcome eyes and ears has become a full-time job. Continue being competent and discreet, Vardok. It's all that we can do right now.”

Vardok humphed, rubbing at his neck again. “Will these plots be brought to the Emperor's attention?”

Pendrash sighed. “No. Not until there is real cause for alarm. Zarkon has been irritable lately, and if he decides to make an example of someone, or worse, purge the whole lot of them, that would only make things worse.”

“The Empire is too big to allow the major industries and local governments to fail,” Kerraz said. “Such a weakness would be irresistible, not just to Voltron's rebels, but to factions within the Empire itself. Whole regions could be lost within days. A cascade would be almost inevitable. It's a holding action that we're working on, yes, but Zarkon may still prevail. He's faced down and defeated all comers for ten thousand years. If he can't do it this time--”

“Then we must do what we can to hold the Empire together,” Pendrash finished. “If the worst happens, then the survival of our people and our civilization is our primary concern. Even if we have to negotiate with the Paladins themselves for the protection of our people from the vengeful multitudes. Zarkon has not treated the many peoples of the Empire kindly.”

“And the Paladins have. Including our kind.” Vardok reflected on his own experiences with that team of remarkable people. “Including myself and my men.”

He could remember very well the horrifying shock he had felt when Lotor's flagship had fired that last, hellish ion blast that had broken his own ship in half, and how a team of pirates that had included the red Paladin had come to rescue those whom the Prince had abandoned, and it had been that young man who had pulled Vardok out of the wreckage of the command deck with his own hands. He remembered sitting in one of the rescue craft, hands bound, gritting his teeth against the pain of his injuries, and watching the forward screens as the dreadful dark shape of the Night Terror had come to inspect the wrecks for anyone left behind. Fear. He remembered his own fear and the fear of his men, and the shamefully deep sense of gratitude he had felt when the Quandary's chief medic, a real Ophlica, had dealt with the gash in his thigh that might have cost him that leg. Even when they had questioned him—and questioned him they had, having separated out the officers for interrogation—he had not suffered at their hands. He had asked the old Simadhi cook who had brought them their meals: why? Why were we rescued? Why do you treat us so well? We are your enemies! The old man had merely smiled and replied, because we know better, an answer that Vardok had spent much time thinking on.

Pendrash nodded as if he could see Vardok's thoughts. “Future Historians may yet thank the Rogue Witch for helping them to see us as something other than monsters. If that is what it takes, Vardok, if the only thing that keeps the Empire from being torn apart and devoured is an agreement with the Paladins, then so be it. We will try to keep that from happening, but if it comes to a choice between the will of the Emperor or the salvation of our people, then the people come first. Empires may be rebuilt, given enough time.”

Vardok shuddered, barely able to conceive of a Throne that did not have Zarkon in it, or a universe without his Empire, and knew that most of the Galran race would feel the same. Disloyalty, they would say, and treason. Certainly sedition. On the other hand, Pendrash was right. Oh, by all the Gods, the General was right, and while his words were hard to hear, the truth in them was very plain. Vardok had not lived this long by denying harsh realities, and if his hand trembled when he lifted his fist to his breast in salute, he did not care.

“You speak truth, General. I am with you, and will serve however I can.”

Pendrash sat back with a sigh and returned his salute. “I accept your service with gratitude, Captain. For now, we must wait, and watch, and take care. I can certainly do something about that lieutenant of yours.”

“Please do,” Vardok replied sourly. “He's competent, but he makes the crew nervous. Who is he working for?”

Pendrash humphed. “At least three of the High Houses and possibly the Ghamparva as well. Mercenary fellow. I'll ask him about that later.”

Vardok rolled his eyes. “May you have the joy of him. I'll promote Pilot Hurok to that post—a good man, and a very quick thinker, and his family could use the pay raise. Can you recommend me a replacement pilot?”

Pendrash gave him a satisfied smile. “Good choice, and I can. I will set things in motion when our current errand is done.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

 

Shiro winced at the prickle of baby fangs on his wrist and wondered if this was what raising a lion cub was like. The Galra cub was much the same size and had pretty much the same attitude, and was certainly as fluffy, if not more so. A moment later, Ranax let out a shrill squeak—Hunk had reached out and tweaked his furry bottom, and the tiny terror let go of Shiro's wrist to seek vengeance for that outrageous attack. Shiro cast a glance at Keith, who had made a beeline for the lounge when his mother had shooed them out of the bridge; apparently, Allura had jumped them into a very dangerous part of space quite by accident, and the wily Blade needed as few distractions as possible in order to get them out safely. Personally, Shiro hadn't seen anything to worry about up by that big blue star, but Zaianne wasn't convinced. As a result, most of them had followed after Keith out of curiosity. It was rare to see the taciturn young man being visibly eager about anything other than a good sparring match, and he and the others could admit that playing with the baby wasn't a bad way to spend an afternoon. Even if the baby had a full set of fangs and a burning desire to try them out on everything. Only Lance had declined to join in, trotting off in the direction of his sewing room.

Aaaaiieeeep!” Ranax squealed in his infant ferocity, setting his fangs firmly into Allura's boot and growling like a very small nightmare, a sound that gained in volume when she tickled his back. “grrrgrrrrgrrrROWLF!”

They had laid down in a circle on a blanket on the lounge floor, forming a living playpen while others looked on in amusement; Ranax's father was present, of course, along with a fair selection of the other rescuees, many of whom had never seen a Galra baby before. There were titters and whistles of laughter when the cub whirled, looking for the culprit of that sneak attack, and charged back across the circle at Pidge, who was recording the whole thing on her handcomp. She managed to jerk it out of the way before he could break it, but not before he had gotten a grip on her sleeve, snarling squeakily and kicking at the loose fabric. She raised her arm, lifting Ranax right off of the ground, startling him into confused squeaks before he lost his grip and flomped back onto the blanket. Ranax glared around as if daring anybody to laugh, and then charged at Shiro again, seemingly reasoning that the biggest enemy was the best because there was more of it to bite. Shiro raised a hand instinctively, trying to keep those evil little teeth from becoming embedded in his nose, and caught them in his hand instead. Shiro had to catch himself before he said some things that were not suitable for children of any species—that little monster had drawn blood! Worse, he refused to let go, and now hung growling determinedly from his hand a good six inches off of the floor.

It was at this point that Lance entered the room, a broad smile upon his face and holding something behind his back. “Hey, guys, having fun with Jaws there?”

Shiro gave him a wry look, trying to find a way of getting Ranax's teeth out of his hand without hurting him. “You could say that. Where have you been?”

“Lining up a pinch-hitter,” Lance replied. “Behold!”

They all stared at the thing that Lance had whipped out of hiding. It was slightly smaller than the cub and had been sewn out of what looked to be industrial-grade canvas. Other than that, they weren't too sure. It appeared to have at least five limbs, no two of which were alike, three of what might have been big floppy ears, an arguable head with an allegedly bulbous nose, and a paddle-like, squashy tail somewhat like a beaver's. It was also an unfortunate mix of colors, some of which did not occur in nature.

Keith's eyebrows lifted in mild horror. “Lance, what is that?”

“A distraction,” Lance said, lowering it down to where Ranax could see it, and gave it a squeeze.

Honk, went the horrible stuffed toy.

Ranax, mesmerized by the bizarre object, dropped off of Shiro's wrist and sat there, amber eyes wide in astonishment. Lance set it down firmly in the center of the circle, causing it to bloop suspiciously. “Make room, guys, I'm gonna want in on this,” Lance said, and the others shuffled themselves to let him in.

Ranax never noticed. He was far too busy stalking this ominous apparition. Hissing, he bounced forward and swatted at it, then bounced right back when it queep ed at him with malicious intent. Lance took hold of the tail and inched it forward: urp-yawk-flabt-gwirk!

Ranax skittered back, and then fluffed up his ruff and bared all of his teeth, charging with a scream of wrath. What happened next sounded like: “AAAAIIEEEEEP-bworf-blap-phwonk-sweeeeex-twiddle-thwap-ting-fwip-quack-wopwopwopwopwopwop-eeek!” and looked like a whirling ball of old sailcloth and angry fur.

“Lance, that is the coolest toy in the history of ever,” Hunk said as the wrestling match caromed off of his knee with a strident aaaoooga! “Where did you find the noisemaker?”

“The auto-tailor makes them,” Lance replied over the noise. “It's in the kid's clothes file.”

Allura giggled. “It's a sort of child security system. Mothers would pin those to their little one's shirts, so that they would always know where they were. It's motion-activated, for the most part; I know that Mother used to come running whenever I'd found a way to silence mine. It usually meant that I was up to something.”

Pidge smirked. “Mom put bells on my shoelaces for the same reason. Matt made jokes about belling the brat until I filled his underwear drawer with cockleburrs. Oh, hi, Lizenne.”

There was a ripple of soft commentary around the room as the Galra witch came in, and Trenosh gulped and bowed in response to her polite nod in his direction. “I am sent to tell you that we'll be meeting up with the Fleet in the next few days or so. Zaianne had to test your improvements to the Castle's drive fairly hard, but we're in known space now.”

“That's good,” Keith said, “did the fixes hold up okay?”

“Very well indeed,” Lizenne replied, and looked down in surprise when something near her ankles made a noise like a turkey in a power dive; Ranax now had the toy's tail in his teeth and was dragging it mercilessly around in circles, venting muffled squeaks of excitement all the while. “Oh, my goodness. Lance, dear, I would have sold my elder cousins to the Samborvan Tinkers for a toy like that when I was small. What a lovely gift!”

Shiro raised his eyebrows in surprise even as Lance beamed with pride at this praise. “You didn't have something like this? Weren't you High Family?”

She rolled her eyes and vented a disgusted snort. “And my Matriarch never let me forget it. No, I was given strictly educational toys from very early on. Mother was determined to produce a prodigy of some sort, and as the girl-cub of the clutch, I wound up being saddled with those expectations. If I wanted a good wrestling match, I had to steal toys from my brothers, or escape out into the gardens to chase whatever small creatures that came to nibble on the plantings. I learned a very great many useful things that way. They just weren't the ones that my mother wanted me to learn. Hmm. Lance, have a look at Shiro's hand, if you would? Bite wounds, even small ones, need to be addressed quickly.”

Lance sat up in a hurry, frowning at the red marks on Shiro's hand. “Ooh, yeah. Gimme paw, Shiro. Wow, he nearly hit a vein! I thought that the boys were supposed to be a lot calmer than the girls.”

Lizenne chuckled, watching fondly as Ranax did his best to kick the stuffing out of his patchwork opponent. “Ranax here is a bit older than Sarell's children were. At this stage, boys can become quite aggressive, and it's a good sign of health and vigor.”

“And the girls?” Allura asked.

“Oh, they're even worse.” Lizenne gave her a wicked smile. “At this stage, the girls have learned to plan. They have to, in order to keep their brothers in line. Does Ranax have a sister, Trenosh?”

Trenosh gave her a slightly nervous, but nonetheless proud smile. “He does, and she is very clever. I fully expect that she'll spend some time reminding him of that. He's been much-indulged for the last few days or so, and it might have gone to his head.”

Awwwrrrkk, s aid the toy as Ranax squashed it firmly to the floor, then stood over the fallen foe in a pose of triumph, squeaking proudly. He yawned at that point, blinked sleepily, and then flopped down on top of it for a nap. Urk, it protested, but the cub was already asleep.

“I'm sure that she will set him to rights,” Lizenne said mildly, “although she might try to steal his wonderful toy. Lance, do you think you could make up a few more?”

Lance passed a hand over Shiro's injury, his brow furrowed in concentration; there was a puff of cold air and the bruising and punctures vanished. “Sure, they're easy. I could have Marco run up a whole crate of them in no time flat.”

True riches,” Lizenne murmured, gazing fondly at the snoring cub. “We'll be picking up Nasty again once we've met up with the Quandary, by the way. I expect that he'll be a bit miffed at us for having adventures without him.”

“We don't try to have them, they happen to us!” Lance protested indignantly. “We can't go for five minutes sometimes without something trying to kill us.”

“Yeah,” Hunk grumped. “If outer space is supposed to be, like, a trillion lightyear's worth of boring, how come we aren't seeing any of it?”

Shiro smiled, rubbing at his remarkably undamaged hand. “Maybe we're looking in the wrong places. What are you up to today, Lizenne?”

I was about to head back over to the Chimera,” she replied, flicking a hand at the big blue-green ship visible through the lounge's main window. “I want a look at that yulpadi, and there are a number of berry thickets that need picking before all the fruit goes bad. Would any of you like to come along?”

Hunk brightened up immediately. “Ooh, me! Me!” he said, scrambling to his feet. “Maybe you can show me what goes into that stew, okay? And I need to know if any of those berries go toxic when cooked, or frozen, or mixed with stuff, and vice versa!”

Shiro reflected that a little sunlight and fresh air would do him good. “Sounds like fun to me, too. Guys?”

“Just for a little while,” Allura said, the thought of a quick dip in the marsh hanging tantalizingly in her mind, “we shouldn't be away from the Castle for too long until we're among friends, but it sounds lovely.”

“I'm in,” Keith said.

“Me, too,” Lance added.

Pidge frowned, considering her own projects, but nodded. “If those little square blue berries are ready, so am I.”

“Let's go and find out,” Lizenne said, and led them out of the lounge.

The room was quiet for a moment, and then Trenosh let out a long sigh and went to retrieve his child. He knew that the toy had been accepted by the death-grip that Ranax had on it, and tried to ignore the subdued nix-rattle-tood-p'tang it made while he got the sleeping cub settled in his arms. His nearest neighbor, a lanky, pink-scaled, and six-armed Geranthan, flittered her white-and-golden ear-fans in a gesture of mild amusement.

“Not what you expected them to be, good sir?” she asked.

“No,” Trenosh murmured, holding his cub close. “No, they are not, and I am glad of it. I did not expect them to be so young, or so kind. I did not expect them at all.”

The Geranthan glinted her five faceted blue eyes at him. “Not all surprises are bad ones. I myself did not know, and now I am most gratefully informed. Will you inform your own kin thus?”

“How can I not?” Trenosh whispered, eyes distant, considering the near future and what to do with it. “I owe them that much, and I do not ignore my debts. Arcobi is not a rich world, and we have seen the Empire's indifference to its backwater colonies before. Attacks by Gantarash are not uncommon, and the fleets in charge of seeing to our safety are often reluctant to do their duty by us. There are those who will hear me, and approve of what I say.”

He wasn't alone, the others reassured him. The universe would be told.

 

Herpaderp!” Nasty snapped, waving a pair of accusing fingers at them. “What have I told you about running off and having adventures without me? You lot need adult supervision, so you do, and I need a cut of whatever ancient treasures you might find lying around. Come on, you owe me! That trot through the Center was fun, but it didn't net me so much as a brass ring.”

Shiro didn't quite know what to make of this odd combination of responsibility and open greed, but the others were well used to it.

“It wasn't really all that ancient,” Keith retorted.

“It wasn't our idea,” Allura added.

“There wasn't much to see,” Hunk said.

“There wasn't any treasure,” Lance told him.

“Well, except for some of the plant samples that Lizenne picked up, and good luck getting them away from her,” Pidge shrugged, and then gave Nasty a wicked grin. “You don't have a real good record of managing that, anyway.”

Nasty steamed, but couldn't refute it, and sat down on his bag with a surly thump.

The Castle and the Chimera had caught up with the Osric's Quandary in an odd little solar system known locally as Grashnur's Cloud; the tiny sun was only one step up from being a brown dwarf and had never really gotten around to forming up some planets. Mostly, its orbits were taken up with one vast shroud of dust—a sort of miniature nebula, with a rock or two floating around in it to give it something like respectability. It might have failed to produce life of its own, but it wasn't unpopulated; the largest of its orbiting rocks was a popular dark port, and the dust clouds served as an admirable hiding place for ships of a surreptitious nature. Yantilee had answered their hail with a certain amount of relief, and had assured them that all was reasonably well. Bericonde was still free, as were the other liberated worlds, and there was talk of liberating another soon. Kolivan and his men were busy elsewhere at the moment, helping certain resistance groups with a bit of constructive sabotage, but would be back in a little time. In the meantime, Yantilee had told them, I've got a very noisy Unilu who has been threatening to sue you for breach of contract for the past week and is currently packing his bags as fast as he can. I think he missed you.

Missed them he might have, but he was doing his best not to show it, and was giving them all his very best narrow-eyed glare. “You still owe me an explanation,” he growled peevishly. “You were only supposed to have been gone for a day or two—visiting one of the biggest secrets in the universe, I might add—and then you come back late with a load of refugees from planets scattered all over the galaxy, and a few from beyond that! I know you guys, you can't just be late, it's always epically tardy or nothing. Spill! I want every detail, and right now!”

Lance and Pidge glanced at each other, grinned evilly, and asked in unison, “What's it worth to you?”

Nasty's smile was no less evil than their own. “Ahhh, now we're talking. I've got half a dead nokki beetle that might be worth the trouble of listening.”

Pidge sneered as only a Human could. “No bugs. Not even partial bugs. Your knife collection or nothing.”

Nasty wore his knives like supermodels wore their makeup. “Crazy talk! Those Mystics must have fried your brains. You get two-thirds of a stale cookie and some pocket lint.”

Pidge adopted a superior expression and flicked a hand in an elegant gesture of dismissal that she had to have picked up from Zaianne. “Twenty percent from your last three heists and drilling rights on your belly-button.”

“Two wind-up toys and the right to keep your left ear!” Nasty shot back.

“Seven Norvoskone Gems of Heaven and a signed copy of Puessag Dom'Knockneese's Galactic Encyclopedia of Unusual Footwear!” Pidge retorted, nose-to-nose with him.

“A seasonal assortment of toenail clippings and the epithet of your choice!”

“A feather from each of the Seventeen Seraphs of Srannol and a fruit smoothie!”

“Last year's invitation to the Hapboygan National All-Comers Anthem-Belching Competition!”

“A preserved soap bubble from the Eternal Bath of Yupyip Gamma!”

“A hardcopy script of a political campaign speech and six and a half bags of Gantar crap!”

Pidge's mind up and went on strike at the mere suggestion of two such equally horrible things, and she glanced around in sudden panic. To her intense relief, Lance was holding up a hand with a vindictive smile on his face. Gratefully, she slapped her palm into his and let him take over, which he did with barely a pause in the flow.

“A fresh-baked, extra-cheese, deep-dish pizza from Earth and a pitcher of hard apple cider!” Lance declared, making everyone but Allura whimper in sudden longing.

Nasty had no idea what those were, and took care not to show it. “A bogus copy of Saint Yossi's Scroll of Perfect Truth and a swift kick up the pants!”

“Two weeks of dishwashing duty and a promise to stay out of the cookie jar!” Lance demanded.

Nasty wasn't about to put up with either suggestion. “The continued functionality of your sewing array!”

Lance glared daggers at him. “Both of your knees, still attached and intact.”

Shiro watched them going back and forth, blinked in confusion when Lance tagged Pidge back in again, and tapped Keith on the shoulder. “Do they do this often?”

Keith smirked. “Tag-team haggling. All part of Nasty's curriculum, and Lance and Pidge are pretty good at it. He says that real-world sessions are usually one-on-one, but they've got tournaments back home with teams of up to ten people.”

“No kidding?” Shiro asked.

Allura smiled. “Well, he is an Unilu, so we can't be entirely sure. He says that extra points are awarded if both teams can remember what the original goal of the session was in the first place.”

Shiro stared at the trio, who were shouting and gesticulating wildly now, and mused that global trade debates on that planet must be Olympic-grade snarkfests. Even with only three people, this one was pretty good. As he watched, Pidge stumbled, tagged Lance in with a smooth sweep of one arm, stood there thinking hard while he traded absurd offers and thinly-veiled death threats with the four-armed pirate, and joined right back in when his hand slapped into hers. The wrangle might have continued for the rest of the afternoon, except that something behind him went “Aaaaiieeeep!”, and a furry purple blur zipped past at knee height. Nasty's counter-offer ended in a surprised yelp as a set of tiny fangs latched onto his left leg and held on tight, growling ferociously.

Lance laughed. “My final offer, Nasty—babysitting duty.”

Babysitting?” Nasty sputtered, staring down in horror and confusion at the angry ball of purple fur that was trying to savage him. “What the clorch is that? A baby Gantar?”

Ranax let go of his leg and gave him an offended look.

“Are you kidding? That's a baby Galra, and he's a lucky little monster, too.” Lance reached down and lifted Ranax into his arms. “If we'd gotten there ten seconds later, he would have been a snack.”

Nasty stared at Ranax as Lance buried his face in the baby's belly fur and blew through his lips with a frabbbt noise that made Ranax burst into loud squeals of mirth and grab at Lance's hair. “You know, I've never actually seen one of those. You mean that they don't pop out from under damp rocks, fully-grown, armed, and armored?”

Hunk snickered. “I thought that was you guys. Nope, they've got a cute and fuzzy stage. I keep trying to picture Sendak when he was a baby, and failing. Now, that guy was a perfect candidate for your damp-rock theory. Hey, Vennex! Lose something?”

Vennex had come trotting in, a notescreen in one hand and the toy in the other, and his worried expression lightened when he saw Ranax cuddled up in Lance's arms. “Sorry, we heard yelling, and he was off like a shot. I'm going to have to attach a tracking device to that little brat somehow. Or this thing. You forgot this, Ranax.”

He waggled the toy, which squawked like a startled duck. Ranax squawked in an uncanny echo and kicked off of Lance's chest, tackling the toy with such force that he nearly knocked Vennex over. The noteboard went flying and was fielded expertly by Allura, who frowned curiously at the rows of characters. “What's this?”

“Zaianne asked me to get names and addresses from the people you rescued,” Vennex said a little breathlessly over the honks and yodels of Ranax's toy. “To help get them home, kind of thing. Modhri told me to take the list to you when I'd gotten everybody, so you could pass it on to the Ghost Fleet... um. Did I miss one? I don't remember an Unilu.”

“He's supposed to be here,” Keith said calmly. “Nasty's our Villainy teacher, but he decided to take a break for a few days because visiting the Hoshinthra wasn't in his contract.”

Vennex gave him a perplexed look, juggling the active baby. “Villainy? You're all heroes.”

“That's right!” Nasty declared in an acid tone that made Pidge giggle. “And take it from me, pal, heroes are dumb. They've got this chronic case of honor and justice that gets them into all sorts of stupid, life-threatening situations, their own crippling honesty makes them take the words of others at face value—can you believe that they actually expect an enemy to stick to a deal half the time? They don't even ask to be paid for their work! It's disgraceful! And—get this, if you can do it without bursting into tears of despair—they'll even risk their own lives for the sake of others, even if it means certain doom! That big guy standing there looking noble, he's been dead once already if you can believe it, and what do the others do? They go ahead and pick the pockets of Death Herself to bring him back! Literally and figuratively, and they treat it like it was no big deal! All of these crazy people can do things that make theoretical physicists stagger off to get very drunk, and do they demand recognition? Do they at least hang around for the applause? They don't! They come right back to this antique pile of tin-plated metaphysics, eat a huge dinner, and fall asleep! I'm doing my best to corrupt them a little, but it's an uphill battle all the way, let me tell you. Varda here's the fastest learner. I can almost get her to taunt a captured enemy, and she's pretty good at dirty tricks. The rest of them can just about cheat at cards, but only if you play for cookies. Hopeless.”

Vennex cast a sidelong look at Shiro. “From the Ghost Fleet, right? I think that I've seen him on a wanted poster. He burned some really rude insults into the outer hull of a heavy cruiser, and the captain wants his head on a spike.”

Shiro snorted a laugh. “It's a long story.”

“That's me!” Nasty said proudly. “How much were they offering as a reward?”

Vennex frowned thoughtfully, juggling Ranax in his arms. “Um... seven hundred thousand gac, dead or alive. Preferably alive. I heard that Captain Corash had... um... plans, and wants to do the execution himself.”

Nasty's sly face split into an appreciative grin. “Classic. I'm going to have so much fun disappointing him. Maybe I'll send him a little surprise in the mail one day, just to keep him focused. Maybe one of those little explosives, Varda?”

“Glitter bomb,” Pidge said firmly. “Hot pink and orange. It can take months to get rid of it all, and he'll be twinkly the whole time.”

Nasty cackled. “I like the way you think, girl. So who's this guy, and where did you dig him up? You aren't collecting uncles again, are you?”

“More of a cousin, actually,” Allura replied, scrolling through the list of names. “Vennex here is one of Modhri's adopted nephews. We got him from Shussshorim.”

Nasty's eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets. “What? You got a Galra away from the Night Terror? Nobody gets a Galra away from the Night Terror! How in the name of the Ghluphrix of Narilum-Pashvi did you get a Galra away from that crazy lady?”

“The Mystics told her to hand him over,” Hunk said casually, “her guys were a little upset about missing dinner, but it was kind of important. We picked up the others from the Gantarash--”

What?” Nasty squawked, rather like Ranax's toy. “I was just kidding about Gantarash crap!”

“I'm not. We had to wade through a lot of it, and the Gantars that made it. Anyway, that was after Coran summoned Doodlebug the big red space monster--”

Space monster?”

“Well, yeah, we were being attacked by Lotor, and he had a bunch of Ghamparva fighters--”

“Ghamparva?”

“About thirty of them. Those are tough ships. And that was after we got stuck in a space anomaly full of other space anomalies--”

“Hunk...” Nasty moaned.

“There were some pretty weird things in there, but the magic black hole was really bad--”

Hunk...”

“Lizenne says that if we'd hit that, we might have never existed. Hey, if ordinary black holes come out the other side as white holes, then would a magic black hole do the same? That'd be awesome, like a huge, huge source of pure aetheric energy, and it would probably have some seriously weird effects on anything around it. Oooh! Hey, maybe that's how things like Weblums and Balmeras and Doodlebug got started! You'd need some pretty heavy-duty aetheric conditions to generate life-forms that don't need planets, or are planets, or eat planets, or--”

All right, all right, all right!” Nasty howled, waving his hands in the air. “I'll babysit the kid, already, but I've just gotta know.”

Pidge tweaked his ear. “So you can sell the story to the tabloids?”

He smacked her hand lightly away and gave her an offended look. “Of course. Pirate, right? I'm supposed to be unprincipled, and the Galra don't take the gossip rags seriously. It's a great way to get the word out and make a few gac on the side.”

“Freedom fighter, Nasty,” Keith said. “You're one of the good guys now.”

“Bah! Define 'good',” Nasty scoffed haughtily, and picked up his bag. “I'm still an Unilu, and we have standards. Let me get this stuff put away, and then I want every detail. And maybe a game of cards. Is Tilla around? Playing with her has ruined me, you know. Playing at Dix-Par against only normal cardsharps is too easy now.”

Shiro laughed. “And you're complaining about that?”

Nasty sniffed. “I like a challenge, and I haven't been getting any back on the Quandary. I'm also really craving Hunk's cookies, damn it. See you in the lounge in ten.”

Shiro smiled. “We'll bring the dragon.”

“And the cookies?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Tilla's got all the cookies.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: In The Cards

 

“I'm sorry,” Trenosh said, watching the scene before him with worried eyes. “Should I take him back to our room?”

Shiro leaned back against the couch cushions with an indulgent smile while the others tried to recover from the latest fit of hysterical laughter. “No, it's all right. I could watch that all day, actually. She won't bite him.”

Tilla made a sort of, “don't be too sure about that” noise, but didn't look up from what was going on around her forepaws. Right from the start, Ranax had been determined to conquer the Castle and everyone aboard it, and had gone about that task by ferociously attacking every leg that he could find. So far, the little monster thought that he was ahead of the game; he'd bitten all of his rescuers, each and every one of his fellow rescuees, and had gotten a wonderful noisy stuffed toy to kick around when he got bored of chewing on his father. His only failure so far had been the mice, who had not only been too fast for him, but the big yellow one had bitten him on the nose. He had only barely uncrossed his eyes from the unaccustomed pain when all four of them had attacked at once, sending him squealing away to hide under the couch, and he had been cautious around them ever since. The dragons, on the other hand, had spent most of the time since the Gantarash attack sleeping or exercising in the Chimera's envirodeck, which had spared the nerves of some of the more timid passengers, and the sight of Tilla's long, muscular, scaly legs had awed Ranax with their scope and size. Challenge accepted, the expression on his little face had said, and he had been attempting to subdue the mighty dragon for the past half-hour. Right now, he was alternating between chewing on her knuckles and bashing at her elbows with his toy, and it was very difficult to concentrate on one's cards when something at ankle level was going either grate-grate-grate or wharble-whoop-percolate-obba-honk-tood.

Trenosh shook his head in grave disapproval. “She might not, but his sister certainly will. Ranax is the bold one among his clutch and needs frequent disciplining. My Lady Tilla, do not hesitate to remind him of his manners if you feel the need to do so. Merely refrain from damaging him, if you would.”

Tilla bobbed her head graciously at this polite request and returned her gaze to the little monster that was doing his best to chew through her left foreclaw. She lowered her head and snorted, blowing his fluff every which way, and then bared her teeth. They were very big, very sharp teeth, and there were an awful lot of them. Ranax could, in fact, see his reflection in those enormous fangs. He squealed in terror and beat a hasty retreat to the safe spot behind his father's legs.

Trenosh smiled, feeling his son getting a good grip on his ankle. “Very well done, and thank you.”

Tilla made a polite noise in return and nudged over the stand that held her cards. Nasty peered at them and nodded in satisfaction before laying down his own hand. “Wandering Wizard. Maybe we ought to keep these two around, folks, she hasn't had a hand that low since I first met her. I've got a Universal Equalizer.”

“Now, now, we mustn't keep them from their family,” Allura said, waving her cards at him. “Coran tells me that you were able to contact them, Trenosh.”

Trenosh's face lit up with a relieved smile. “I was, and they do want us to come home as soon as possible. Grandfather in particular wants to meet all of you, and to thank you personally. He... he has no family, other than what he made for himself, and every one of us is precious to him.”

Lance raised an eyebrow. “Even if your rescuers are on the Empire's Most Wanted List?”

“He does not care. Grandfather does not approve of the Emperor, which is why we live on a remote colony world.” Trenosh frowned and tapped his cards on the table. “He has never actually come out and said it, but I suspect...” He transferred his gaze to Keith, “After seeing your mother in action, young man, I suspect that he may be a retired Blade.”

Pidge's eyebrows rose. “I didn't know that they could retire.”

Trenosh shrugged. “The loss of his right leg above the knee and most of his right arm might have had something to do with it. I am told that Grandmother spent much of her time keeping him from getting into situations that would have cost him even more of himself.”

Hunk winced. “Yeah, sounds like them. They keep going until they drop. Great bunch of guys, though. Also, I've been meaning to ask something.”

“Yes?” Trenosh said.

“Allura told us earlier that your folks run a supermarket. What sort of stuff do you guys carry?”

Trenosh smiled broadly, happy to be on familiar ground. “Oh, all sorts of things. Arcobi is very remote from the Core Worlds, but we try to keep a range of flavors from home in stock, as well as more local products. We're not too far from two different trade hubs, which allows us to stock goods from all over. Fresh, frozen, dried, preserved, and stasis-packed, and we offer household goods in the form of simple hardware, kitchenware, small appliances, and repair kits. My brothers are thinking about expanding into off-the-rack clothing and entertainment items, or perhaps specialist tools and hobbies and crafts, but we're holding off on that for now. Ranax and his sibs will be expected to help in the family business, and they need to be a little older first. Who knows? My uncles might even give you a discount for helping us.”

Nasty humphed. “Pass. If you guys don't carry temmin okk, I'm not interested.”

Trenosh laid his cards down, showing a well-played Quartermaster's Foresight. “We carry that, along with spurnz, loshalp, pickled gropp, preserved shank of wuskor, and a number of other things. Not ceremonial-grade temmin okk, that's too expensive, but certainly festival-grade. Kippa cracklings, too.”

Nasty stared at him owlishly, then got a grip on Hunk's sleeve. “Hunk? You. Me. Shopping trip.”

Hunk slapped Nasty's back with a broad hand. “You're on.”

Keith laid down his own cards, showing a respectable Cartographer's Accuracy. “We'll have to wait on that until we've sorted out the rest of the passengers. They need to go home, too, and Yantilee and his guys need to plan out safe routes to get them there. You'll probably need a ride too, Vennex.”

Vennex stared at his cards for a moment, and then laid down a stinging Breakdown In Communications. “Zaianne let me contact my folks a few days ago. Mom was... well, she'll cool down eventually. She wasn't all that happy when I signed up, and started yelling at me to muster out a few years ago when Voltron showed up. She'd already lost four sons, and didn't want to lose a fifth. She never remarried, you see, and she wants me back. My whole family wants me to come home and help to run our own business, which is a lot bigger than it used to be. Paladins... I hate to have to say this, but you've had a huge impact on certain industries. Every time you crunch up a warship, that's another warship that has to be replaced, and it takes a huge amount of supplies to do that. All of those supplies have to come from somewhere, and they have to be moved to the right places in a hurry! Even though the Military has its own support and supply corps, it's putting a real strain on the civilian shipping companies.”

Allura guiltily laid down a Precision Strike. “I'm aware, and I'm sorry for that, and it will likely get worse. In order to free the enslaved and conquered worlds from Zarkon's control, we will have to cripple or destroy the various shipyards and production facilities, as well as the forts and bases. This will hurt the civilian sector in some ways, I cannot deny that, but we are trying to keep the damage to an absolute minimum.”

Vennex sighed. “For which I thank you. My family... well, we aren't precisely loyalists, but we depend on things staying pretty much as they are. They'll thank you for saving my life, but they don't really approve of what you're doing. It's hard to imagine the Empire without Zarkon running it. He's sort of embodied everybody's way of life for pretty much forever, and a lot of people aren't going to like the change.”

Pidge laid down her cards, showing a worryingly apt Regicide. “We don't really have much of a choice. If Zarkon and Haggar are allowed to keep going like they have been, they'll wind up destroying everything. Since 'everything' includes my own homeworld, I'd rather stop him sooner than later. Actually, if shipping is going to get messed up anyway, it might as well get messed up in favor of the little guy. Redirect all of that stuff to the places that really need it, instead of the Military-owned ports. If shipping breaks down totally in spots, I'll bet that Yantilee can find someone to pick up the slack. The Quandary used to be a trade ship before he was a warship, or a pirate for that matter. Come to think of it, are the Sikkhorans still around? Maozuh says that they were some of the best long-loop traders in six Sectors.”

Trenosh brightened up a little. “Yes, actually, although Zarkon has kept them planetbound for the past... oh, roughly four hundred years or so. They're not too far from Arcobi, and I've visited their world. I have it on the best authority that they yearn to take up that trade again. The fact that the Quandary is still in service is a cause for great, if secret joy for them.”

Hunk laid down his cards with a determined expression, showing a welcome Economic Imperative. “Put that on the 'to do' list, Allura. If we can get the liberated planets off of the Imperial grid and onto their own as quick as we can—boom, stability. Nothing messes up a civilization like missing dinner, and if we can keep the infrastructure running, it'll make a lot of things easier in the long run.”

Lance grinned and laid down a triumphant Secret Agenda. “You'll want to talk to Jilphix-Farr, the Xelocian we rescued. His folks already have a trade network set up, and that can be expanded all over the place. If we can get them talking with the Sikkhorans and whoever else likes to get stuff to where it needs to be, it'll give us a head start. Doesn't Tepechwa run a gang of smugglers, Teach?”

Nasty thought about that for a long moment. “Yeah, although it's mostly ship parts and other big hardware, and his network's not all that far-reaching. It's secure, though, and he got some seriously good stuff from that ship's graveyard. I can't promise anything, but he might be able to help put together a couple-three trade ships, just to help get the enterprise off of the ground. He'll want a piece of that action, I warn you—the Empire's been milking Hepplan space for all it's worth for a long time now, and they're getting desperate.”

“Another potential target,” Shiro observed thoughtfully. “If there are things that the Empire wants from there, then it would probably be a good idea if we kept them from getting those things, and it would keep Tepechwa and his lot friendly. From what I've been able to put together, Tepechwa's working with, but not fully a member of the Ghost Fleet.”

Nasty gestured agreement. “Got it in one. He's Tchak's buddy, but he's in it for the salvage, really. Cracking his home space loose of Zarkon's grip would bring him in all the way, and the sooner that happens, the better. Hepplonir used to be a power in that Sector before the Imperials showed up.”

Shiro nodded, laying down a cautious Urban Warfare. “We'll get to them. First things first, though, we'll need to have a good plan of attack, and more than one by preference, so that we can switch tactics if something goes wrong. The Military is far too large to take on in a head-on fight. We'll need to weaken it at strategic points and take it out section by section in such a way that it can't regroup effectively. It's not just Zarkon and Haggar that we're fighting, it'll be the General Staff, princes and High Houses. They won't let go of their holdings easily.”

There was a high-pitched war cry from floor level as Ranax tried another assault upon Tilla's forelegs, and a loud oop-oop-yugga-yugga-grunt-grunt-tweet told them that he'd brought in backup. Tilla glanced down in mild disgust, shifted her weight slightly, and flicked the toes of her right front foot out just as Ranax hit them. The baby went tumbling head over heels back the way he'd come, his toy hooting mockingly the whole way. Trenosh picked up his son before the cub could gather himself up for another attack, settling the breathless brat comfortably in his lap.

“Shall we take that for an omen, I wonder?” he mused, stroking his son's fur with a gentle hand.

Keith shrugged. “No point. It's still too early to tell either way.”

“We'll still have to take thought for the future,” Shiro said quietly, “his and ours.”

Pidge gave him a narrow look. “Any hints?”

“Not yet.” Shiro's gaze strayed to his right hand, non-mechanical and getting stronger day by day, and he clenched and relaxed the hand just to feel the muscles and tendons working together, and the strong beat of the pulse. “I need more practice. In the meantime, Nasty, how do you read the cards?”

Nasty stood up and looked over everyone's hands. “Looks like a draw. There is a lot of potential here, but nothing really significant yet. The game'll start to get really interesting in the next shuffle or two, maybe the third. Anyone want to dispute that?”

Everybody gave the cards a hard look, but couldn't find anything wrong with the dealer's opinion. “Right. Draw five cookies from the jar, everybody, and hand in your cards so I can reshuffle. Tilla, don't you dare.”

Tilla snorted and nipped at Nasty's bandanna, but took her cookies and her cards without further comment, as did the others. Shiro, however, got more than he expected when the cards landed in his hand, and he froze as the vision crystallized in his mind, as bright and clear as the light of day. He could actually feel something in his mind turning, like a lens, to bring it into sharp detail.

The cool air, smelling of an alien autumn. A brisk breeze through an open window, and a view of a large room that had the slightly shabby look of a frequently-used official function space, the colony's crest high on one wall showing flaking and faded paint. A low murmur of worried conversation curled through the air like smoke, bringing with it the tang of fear, of desperation, and of hope. He could see faces, hundreds of them, in a thousand shades of purple; furry, leathery, yellow-eyed, and scaly. None of them friendly, all of them thin and strained, knowing that they had no other choice but to stand there and let this happen. There was a chestnut-and-cream shimmer beside him, and he turned to watch as Allura placed her signature on the document, then turned it over to the hollow-eyed Galra official standing next to her. He read the contract in silence, nodded, and signed it with a shaking hand. Allura gave him one of those winning smiles and held out her hand; the official looked startled for a moment, then gave her a shy smile of his own, and Altean hand clasped Galra hand in an embrace that caused a seismic tremor of sheer relief to ripple through the crowd...

Shiro blinked, and saw everyone around the table staring at him. Vennex swallowed hard. “What was that? His eyes...”

“He's an Oracle. That was a Vision, wasn't it, Shiro?” Allura asked, her brow creasing in worry. “Oh, dear, and not just a little hunch, either.”

Shiro was uncomfortably aware that he was as tired and sweaty as if he'd just taken a five-mile run, and his belly was telling him that if those cookies didn't enter his system soon, there would be trouble. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely, and reached for the glass of water he'd had sitting nearby and gulped it down. “You and I were... I think we were on one of those failing colony worlds that Nasty told us about. One that the Empire had abandoned. I don't know which one. There was a crowd of Galra watching, letting it happen because they had no other choice. We and their leader were signing some sort of agreement, possibly an alliance.”

“Called it,” Nasty said, shoving the cookie jar over to where he could reach it. “Any idea of when?”

Shiro dug his hand gratefully into the fragrant depths of the jar and pulled out a big pile of assorted pastry. “Not really. All I know for sure was that it smelled like autumn. They had the window open, and there was a breeze. You know, sort of crisp, and that smell of fallen leaves?”

Trenosh frowned in concentration, and tapped his fingers on the table. “Morzut, or possibly Valenth. Most likely Valenth. That world was set up solely to produce soldiers for the Military. There are several cities, but the planet is so mineral- and metal-poor that they never built up more than that. It's not much good for farming or ranching, either, and can barely support its own population. The people—what did they look like? Prosperous?”

“Shabby,” Shiro said, “and thin. There was some sort of seal on one wall; the usual Imperial crest, but with some other symbols around it... um, sort of like this--”

The others watched intently as he spelled them out in cookies. Trenosh frowned at them thoughtfully and tapped a fingernail sharply on the table when Shiro had finished. “Valenth. My brother's wife is from there, and she sends regular care packages home out of our overstock. She sent one off recently, as a matter of fact, and her brothers wrote back, saying that the whole neighborhood was in love with her; it had been a hard winter. It's spring there now. Vennex, your family and mine must talk; I will not allow my kin to starve because the Emperor can't be bothered with the welfare of his people.”

Vennex nodded fervently, casting wary glances at the black Paladin as Shiro began to wolf down his cookies. “I think we can expand our service out that far, especially if I do go home to help out with that. As busy as it's been, Mom says that we've got a lot more revenue coming in than usual, and there's always a bunch of unclaimed stuff sitting in our warehouses. Using it for charity will get us a break on our taxes, too.”

“Thank you,” Trenosh said, stroking his son's fur meditatively for a moment before turning his topaz eyes on Allura. “Will you protect Valenth well, my Lady? They are far too close to the Fringe for safety; Gantarash come to raid in that area at times, and Ortakan slavers are seen far too often for comfort. If the Garrison abandons them, they are doomed.”

Allura reached over and patted his hand. “Voltron will defend all those in need,” she promised. “If an agreement is reached as Shiro's Vision suggests, then you need not worry.”

“Thank you,” Trenosh whispered, clasping her hand and giving it a grateful squeeze.

Nasty stared back and forth between them, then dropped his deck onto the table with a disgusted sigh. “Fine. Game called on account of drama, folks. Hunk, get your pet mystic here into the kitchen and get some real food into him before he gets sick on those sweets. Heroes! You can't take a break for a second, can you?”

 

Kolivan returned early the following day, not with a smile, but with an air of grim satisfaction that told everyone louder than words that some previous mission had been a success. He was a little surprised to find that Yantilee had waited for him before asking the Paladins what the delay had been, but he could not fault the Admiral's reasoning.

“Most of 'em were busy with the passengers,” Yantilee said mildly when they convened for a private talk in one of the Castle's meeting rooms; Shiro and Kolivan exchanged respectful nods in greeting before sitting down as well. “Only person on the command deck regularly was Coran, and you know how he is about adventure tales.”

Coran's mustache bristled in outrage at this calumny. “Sir! I'll have you know that legions of young cadets have hung upon my every utterance, ears pricked and quivering in eagerness to gather up my pearls of wisdom!”

Yantilee raised a scaly eyebrow. “Cultured or true pearls?”

Coran humphed and waggled a hand at Yantilee. “Well, you know, the cultured ones are so much more interesting to look at. It's all the same nacre, you know.”

“But in an unexpected shape and color,” Yantilee said, sitting down and leaning a pair of elbows on the table, which creaked. “And the assayers get all snooty about them. Kolivan here won't have anything to do with such, I know that. His information has to be worth the effort his lads put into getting it. Varda, what the hell happened out there?”

“More than we bargained for,” Pidge replied, settling into a chair. “More than anybody bargained for, I think, but it'll pay off in the end. So, we followed Shussshorim like she told us to...”

The Admiral and the Blade listened with great attention, Shiro noticed, and approved of their silence. He'd had to deliver reports to superior officers who had let their tempers get the best of them, bellowing demands for information and not bothering to wait for it to be delivered before shouting again. Admittedly, there was a lot to take in; the fact that they now had the help of more than one Hoshinthra Warleader—an old, outdated, half-mad Warleader—was a game-changer all by itself. He and his team had already agreed to spare no details, and he saw Kolivan's eyes widen when Zaianne described the living space station that they'd docked at. Yantilee's feathers fluffed up when they described their interview with the Mystics; a sign of heightened emotion, or so Pidge had said, although he remained outwardly calm.

The Admiral hmph'ed quietly when they finished that part of the story. “That went well. I don't doubt that we'll be receiving a representative soon, the better to hammer out our tactics. What happened after that?”

“They got us lost,” Allura said with some asperity. “They are very much concerned with their privacy, and dropped us out in a sector of space that was not on either Altean or Imperial charts. Zaianne was able to find us a way back, but not a safe one.”

Zaianne leaned her chin upon her hands with a grimace of distaste. “The Szaracan Cluster, which is no easier to traverse from the rear than it is from the front. Kolivan, we will want to declare that place off-limits to all but the most desperate; we nearly ran right into a Shadow of Oblivion in there, and saw a Kharkumn'naknak not once, but twice.”

Kolivan hissed and shook his head ruefully. “There is no eye in that storm, is there? Bantax has suggested that we might establish a base within the Cluster.”

“I'm afraid that I must disappoint him,” Zaianne replied. “If there is any pattern at all to the movements of those anomalies, then it is too complex for me to figure out. Between the monsters and the chaos, we are better off setting up a recruitment booth in a Space Mall. It would be less dangerous.”

Kolivan allowed himself a grunt of amusement. “Describe it, if you would.”

She did, aided by Coran and Allura. Lizenne had a comment or two to share as well. “Stay out of there, my Lord Blade,” she warned him. “I've spoken with the dragons about it, and they agree with me that the Cluster was the site of a mage-war on a scale that beggars description. They don't know much themselves—either their people had nothing to do with what happened there, or the Elders haven't seen fit to tell them what it was all about. All I can say for sure is that it occurred roughly five to seven million standard years ago, and that even these last dregs of the fallout are too dangerous to meddle with even now.”

“Whoa,” Hunk breathed. “Talk about fireworks. Could you get any clues about what was going on?”

She shrugged. “No. In order to find out anything at all beyond that it happened, I would have to hunt down the hidden enclaves of what is left of the Elder Races, and that could take decades. Like the Hoshinthra, they prize their privacy. For the moment, we have other things to worry about. Lotor has managed to obtain thirty Ghamparva craft. You might know more about that than we do.”

Kolivan did, and told them the particulars, which made Modhri wince. “Ye gods, Lady Inzera must have been incandescent. My Lineage provides Nelargo Shipyard with most of its skilled labor, and she'll take the loss of those ships out on them.”

“Not if she can get her claws on Lotor, which she is trying to arrange,” Kolivan said darkly. “Regardless, we will have to neutralize that Shipyard, and as soon as we can manage it. It has been one of my Order's greatest ambitions to cripple or destroy the Ghamparva for centuries, and losing Nelargo would be a telling blow.”

Lizenne smirked. “A blow that might be multiplied considerably if we can follow that with our bringing Tzairona home. My Lineage is heavily invested in Modhri's, and stealing them away would render House Ghurap'Han, one of Zarkon's stalwart supporters, unable to act.”

“Which would also be a good thing,” Yantilee said. “How'd you deal with that lout this time?”

“Keith saved the day for us,” Shiro said, giving credit where it was due. “As it turns out, Pidge isn't the only one who can crack shields...”

Their two guests listened in growing amazement as he described that fight, and Yantilee jerked his head up at their solution to the problem. “You summoned it?”

“Oh, heck yeah,” Lance said, thumping a fist onto the table. “Shiro finally managed to squeeze a hint out of his magic talent, and Coran had the Castle make a noise like the ghost of all lentils, and then Doodlebug showed up and tried to eat Lotor's fleet.”

Kolivan rubbed wearily at his forehead. “Doodlebug.”

“Yup,” Keith said with a smile. “You sort of had to be there. We backed off at that point because we didn't want to interrupt them, and Lotor had punched a hole in the Castle, anyway. Zaianne and Coran figured that the best way not to get us eaten by giant space monsters was to set down on the nearest planet to make repairs. By the way, don't go there either. We had a talk with the forest, and now it eats Gantarash. And their ships. And probably everyone else.”

Yantilee's feather-ridge fluffed up so hard that threads of iridescent blue down fluttered onto the table. “Gantarash? Those don't have natural predators. What did you do to that forest?”

“We're not sure,” Allura admitted. “We needed energy, and asked the forest for what it could spare, and it... took repayment in information. It was a little like a Balmera, but... I can't explain it.”

Modhri sighed, rubbing at the newly-healed wound on his side. “The Castle, which is also a living thing, had a temper tantrum and would not let Hunk heal it, and the delay allowed a Ship-Clan of Gantarash to find us. It was one I'd encountered before, led by Gzrap-Zok-Kazza. We'd landed right by one of their ceremonial hunting grounds.”

Kolivan bared his teeth. “I know that clan.”

Pidge made a grotesque face. “We got to know them pretty well, too. They surprised us while we were looking at some old ruins in the forest, gave us a good zap with a stun cannon, and we woke up having to play the Most Dangerous Game with those guys. They cheat, and not in the good way.”

“You couldn't call the Lions?” Yantilee asked.

“No,” Coran said grimly. “All five Lions and the Castle were shut down hard. We weren't able to repel the boarders until the Paladins took care of whatever was doing that. Very tricky technology, if that was what was being used. It's not easy to disrupt Altean systems.”

“It was one of Haggar's early projects,” Pidge said, crossing her arms on the table and resting her chin on her wrists. “She built it so that Zarkon could hunt down all the Alteans who escaped the destruction of the planet, and somewhere along the line, the Gantars stole it and produced that copy, and probably a lot more. She betrayed her whole people to their deaths for power.”

Yantilee heaved a long sigh. “Sociopaths. I've had to deal with a few like that,” and a glint in his eye told them that those meetings had lasted no more than five very eventful minutes. “The whole story, if you would, Paladins.”

That tale took some time and a good deal of arm waving, particularly when it came to clearing the enemy's ships of prisoners. Coran also chimed in, telling of his own bold adventures with fearsome dragons, mighty mice, and one badly rattled Galra soldier. The little drama that had played out on the bridge afterward was not neglected either, and Modhri took the opportunity to slide a data chip each to both Kolivan and Yantilee.

“Those contain all that I have learned about Gantarash culture and habits,” he said solemnly. “Zaianne asked me to write it up for you. This would have been common knowledge years ago, if a lesser officer had not desired my command.”

Kolivan lifted his copy as though it were a jewel. “We will make good use of it. Our habit of basing ourselves in remote locations makes us vulnerable to those monsters, and they are damned difficult to deal with at times. It is good that you did not come away from your adventures empty-handed.”

Lizenne smiled. “Considerably enriched, rather. Quite aside from the rescuees—some of whom you really should speak with—I was able to pick up a great deal of the Jensilgen Sacred Pharmacopoeia while we were there. The King whose palace it was had planted a full God's Garden, and I managed to get samples of most of it. Pidge and Lance added the two that I had missed—Paradise Vine and Quandu's Earrings—to my haul, bless them, and I should be able to propagate the lot.”

Yantilee let out a long, impressed whistle. “Well, so much for our financial difficulties. I know people who would give you your weight in blue diamonds and six of the prettiest pleasure-slaves of any race you cared to name for even one Quandu nut. Best to keep that a secret, though, or you'll have professional thieves from all over lining up to steal them. Anything else interesting happen?”

“I had a vision,” Shiro said, feeling a little self-conscious about speaking up; his talent frightened him a little at times. “If it's a true one, we'll be adding a Galra colony world to the Coalition in a few months. Valenth. They're in bad shape, and it's only going to get worse for them.”

Yantilee nodded. “Doesn't surprise me. I've had my lads keeping an eye on the fringe colonies, and Valenth's the seediest of the lot. They're right on the edge of some bad space, and those that live beyond that edge have noticed that the local garrison is starting to lose interest in hanging around. We'll have to figure out how best to fit them in, get some supply lines set up, find some good work to keep them busy with, and set up a constant watch on that border. Gantarash are bad enough, but the Ortakans... well, even the Gantars don't mess with the Ortakans. What goes into Ortakan space doesn't come out again.”

Hunk tapped a finger on the table. “Yeah, Nasty told us about those guys. It's okay, we've got a couple of guys who can help set some of those supply lines up for you. Trenosh and Vennex know a lot about--”

Aaaaiiiieeeep!”

The high-pitched war cry cut across Hunk's words like a knife, and there was a fast patter of little feet. A moment later, Kolivan twitched in surprise and lifted a leg; there was something small, purple, fluffy, and furious attempting to chew it off at the knee. “Another one?” Kolivan sighed, detaching the cub from his calf muscles.

Lance snickered at the cub's indignant squeaking. “That's Ranax, Trenosh's son, and he's out to bite the universe. He's already off to a pretty good start.”

Kolivan put the cub down on the table, allowing Yantilee to get a good look, and he vented a thoughtful sound through his nose. “And here I'd thought that Galra were just cloned up in job lots.”

Kolivan's lips twisted in something that wasn't quite a smile. “Not quite yet, no.”

Ranax had caught sight of Yantilee, and was staring up at the enormous Elikonian with wide eyes and mouth agape. He had more or less given up on the dragons, but this great scaly creature looked to be a little more his size. Yantilee lowered his head, bringing his eyes down to the cub's level, and Ranax backed off a bit. Not because he was frightened of this three-eyed behemoth, but because he wanted a running start. With another shrill shriek, he charged; Yantilee was ready for that, jerking his head back up out of reach and capturing the fearsome fluff in the cage of his four huge hands. Undaunted, Ranax bit the nearest finger, growling as loudly as he could.

Pidge snickered. She knew from personal experience that Yantilee had calluses like boiled leather. “Nice catch.”

Yantilee snorted. “Maybe. He's certainly got the attitude that the rest of us have come to know and love. Who's on babysitting duty?”

As if in answer to that, an irritated cry of, “Where have you run off to this time, you little brat?” sounded loud and clear nearby, followed by a sound best described as “boioioioioinnngggg!”

Lance grinned evilly. “Nasty. That was the deal. He got the story first, but he has to look after the brat. He's in here, Teach!”

Nasty came into the room, bite marks all up one pair of arms, the noisy toy gripped in the other two, and a sour expression on his face. That changed to one of surprise and a certain amount of respect, and the Unilu made something that he had probably meant to be a salute in Yantilee's direction. It might have gone better if he hadn't been holding the toy in those hands at the time. Onk!

“Yantilee!” he said, dropping the toy on the table with a disgusted look and a sound like an overripe avocado hitting a garbage can lid. “Sorry, boss, he got away from me. If I could just teach him to pick pockets instead of bite them, he'd be the fastest sneak thief in the quadrant. Did I interrupt something?”

Yantilee smiled, while beneath his hands the cub redoubled his efforts to escape. “We'd pretty much finished up. We'll want to interview the passengers soon. Are they available?”

Nasty nodded. “They tend to gravitate to the main lounge. It's the cookie jar, I think. Looking for new crew, Admiral?”

“Always.” Yantilee stood up, releasing the cub, who tackled his toy in a flying leap and would have rolled right off of the table if Zaianne hadn't caught him. “There are usually one or two who want to be something more than an innocent bystander. Princess, if you would be good enough to introduce us?”

“Of course,” Allura said, pushing her chair back. “The more we achieve now, the better. Will the Fleet Captains reconvene any time soon, to plan our next move?”

Yantilee hummed and gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. “We're a little scattered at the moment. Some are keeping an eye on Bericonde and the other Coalition worlds, others are out having a look around. A little risky, maybe, but an armada that won't stay all together drives the Imperials wild. They can't hit us if we don't give them anything to hit.”

“Good tactics,” Shiro said, standing up and stretching his shoulders. “How long will it be before the next meeting?”

Yantilee shrugged. “Sometime in the next few days, a week at the outside. Sorry about the loose scheduling, but we're privateers, not military.”

“Good!” Lizenne said, surprising them all. “That will give us a little time to relax. Once we've gotten the passengers sorted out, I've a yulpadi in the envirodeck that needs hunting. Consider yourself invited, Kolivan, along with any of your people who feel the need for a stiff run through the grasses.”

Kolivan stood and bowed. “It will be an honor.”

 

The following afternoon, Shiro breathed deep of the oxygen-rich, grass-scented air and felt his spirits rising with the sun. It may have been past lunchtime back on the Castle, but it was dawn in the envirodeck, and it was hard to remember that this environment was an artificial one. He had been in the habit of taking an early morning jog back on Earth, although not dressed like this. Whenever he shifted, his brand-new leathers creaked slightly. The breeches had been made specifically for him to grow into, having laces that ran the full length of each leg and an adjustable waistline, and the feel of the supple atinbuk leather on his skin was unexpectedly pleasant. And revealing, in a number of ways; he kept wondering whether the Marvel superheroes had the same tailoring system that the Chimera had. It was very hard to keep his eyes on the faces of his teammates, rather than certain other physical features. They had grown up, and in more ways than one, to judge by the looks they were giving each other—and him. That stopped when one of Kolivan's men ambled by; those Marmoran battlesuits didn't leave all that much to the imagination, but this was something else entirely. The man was Palabekan, nearly eight feet of lean, powerful muscle from ears to toes to long furry tail, and they could see every single one of them. His eyes burned like coals in his faintly leonine face, his expression one of grave joy, his hand clutching at the hilt of his blade. Shiro had the impression that something deeply cultural had passed between Lizenne and Kolivan when she had invited the Blades along on this hunt, and wasn't sure of who to ask about it.

Keith nudged him lightly in the ribs. “I asked Mom,” he murmured quietly, seemingly able to read his thoughts. “Lizenne's sort of made them part of the family. In the old days, Galra packs would seal alliances by hunting together, and sharing the feast afterward. The Blades don't have any family except each other, Shiro.”

Shiro had been made aware of how deeply Galra felt about family ties. There was little room in their society for lone wolves, in much the same way that ghosts weren't often considered candidates for active citizenship. Keith had been one of those ghosts, once, but that was gone. He stood proudly, centered in himself and fully a part of this group, and the nervous anger that had hummed through him since his uncle had died was a thing of the past.

Something in his mind's eye flickered slightly, too quick to get a good look at, but he caught a faint rumble of cheerful conversation, and a whiff of something savory. That had been happening more and more often since Tzairona had granted him her strange gift—tiny, unbidden hunches and feelings, little hints of this future or that had been peppering his mind like confetti at odd intervals, or perhaps like the tiny rainbows that sunlight struck from a multifaceted prism. Her gift allowed him to tell, most of the time at least, when those fragments were most likely to happen in his reality, especially the ones that felt like they would happen soon. It was better than the dreams. Some of those made no sense at all, and many of them couldn't possibly happen in this reality, particularly the one where he had to watch the planet Jupiter being eaten by a giant sock puppet. A rainbow toe-sock puppet at that, with the huge ping-pong ball eyes with the wobbly pupils that reminded him of Cookie Monster. He couldn't even say that the god-voiced Om-Nom-Nom noises would haunt his dreams, because they already had. He was beginning to think that an audience with Lance's toad princess might be a very good idea.

Something went whumph at about ear level, and he raised a hand and patted a scaly nose; Soluk had appeared almost magically behind him, silent as a phantom despite his size. Nearly as quiet were the other six Blades that Kolivan had brought along, and they stood at ready along with their leader in respectful silence until their hosts arrived. Lizenne and Zaianne, as proud as queens in their hunting gear, and Modhri, radiating an authority that Shiro had never seen in him before. Matriarch's man, he remembered, and realized that he was seeing something that would have been more at home in the distant past. Kolivan and his men bowed to the ladies, who returned the gesture with regal nods.

“I am told,” Lizenne said with a gesture of respect in Soluk's direction, “that the yulpadi is grazing near the marsh; Tilla has claimed the right to lie in ambush, and will be waiting for us in that gully there--” she pointed upwards at a nearly featureless expanse of yellow prairie almost directly overhead. “We are to drive the yulpadi toward her, preferably tiring it out on the way so that it has less of a chance of hurting her. Yulpadi are extremely fast and agile, and are capable of remarkable leaps; they are strictly sprinters, however, and cannot maintain that speed for long. Be wary of its jaws, which are large and can crush bone, and avoid being kicked or stepped on. Its vision and sense of smell are very acute, but its hearing isn't as good as ours. Shiro, you will be riding on Soluk, and will act as our lookout; are you any good at using bola whips?”

“Some,” Shiro said, secretly relieved that he wouldn't be chasing after the beast on foot. “I'm out of practice.”

Modhri smiled and tossed him a coil of weighted cords. “So long as you don't brain yourself or tangle the dragon, you should be fine. Are we ready, everybody?”

There was a general rumble of assent, and Soluk offered Shiro a leg up. He clambered up and settled into place on the dragon's shoulders, finding a spot among the spikes that might have been made for a rider. Distantly, he hoped that the ship's AI was recording this, because he knew that his mother would have loved to witness this event. Such thoughts were abandoned as the pack moved out at an easy trot. Away from the door, the grasses grew very tall, so much so that Shiro was chest-deep even perched high up a-dragonback. It wasn't long before he caught sight of the yulpadi, and he ducked down so that the grass would hide him; the beast was busily munching on some sort of bush, but it didn't do to take chances.

“Straight ahead, a little more than... about a third of a mile,” he called to the others in a low voice, “bear right a little to stay downwind.”

The team complied instantly, leaning right to approach the yulpadi from the proper direction, Soluk grunting in approval. The sun was warm and the breeze was brisk, and Shiro found that he was enjoying himself more than he had expected to. There was something of Keith in that emotion, he realized, and reflexively checked the bond he shared with his team. In his mind's eye, the young man was blazing with eagerness and a deep sense of belonging, the gift of his mother's blood, and that was affecting the rest of the team. As if in response to this discovery, Shiro caught another quick flash of some future or other, one where he and the others were in battle, and no words were needed to direct each other at all. Six bodies. One mind. One will. All joined together as one, even as the Lions combined to form something greater than themselves. There was a wholeness to that state that Shiro found himself yearning for, and he had to shake off his own surprise at that yearning in favor of the matter at hand.

The grasses thinned at the top of a low ridge that rimmed the depression that the marsh lay in, and the team paused there to observe the prey.

It was big, and enormously tall, and it reminded Shiro a little of certain works of Surrealist art back home. Salvador Dali would doubtless have loved to have added yulpadis to his mental menagerie, along with the stilt-leg elephants and demon horses. Despite its awkward-looking build, it minced nimbly along the edge of the marsh, its eight, impossibly thin-seeming spidery legs moving with an alien grace, the tan stripes on its black hide allowing it to merge almost seamlessly with the surrounding grasses. Soluk hummed low in his chest and settled down on his belly, the rest of their team coming up to lurk close beside him. They watched in silence for a little time as the yulpadi crunched on a stand of reedlike growths, making Lizenne smile.

“Bittru reed,” she said quietly. “Sweet and filling, but it fuddles the reflexes a bit. Good. It won't be quite as nimble as it would, ordinarily.”

Zaianne eyed the creature's long legs. “Bolas, then. Tie a few of its legs together and make it run.”

“We can do that,” Hunk said, doubtless thinking of stew on the hoof. “I've been practicing.”

One of Kolivan's men pointed up past them a way, to where the open patch of prarie lay, bordered on one side by the darker yellow wrinkle of a shallow ravine. In that ravine was a small but significant shape; Tilla was looking back at them, letting them get a good view of her position before vanishing back into the grasses.

Shiro frowned at the marsh, with its inviting pools of shallow water. “Will the yulpadi try to hide in the marsh?”

Lizenne followed his gaze. “It might. The mud's not deep enough to inconvenience it, but we'll be in trouble.”

Kolivan rumbled. “Let us get into position first. You stay back, and drive it back toward us if it tries to break away toward the rocks.”

Shiro nodded. “We'll herd it, you hobble it. Gotcha. You think that we can manage that, Soluk?”

Soluk chirped agreeably. One of the Blades, a big, powerfully-built Kedrekan, held up a hand. “I'll spook it away from the water. My folks used to live on a river delta, and I spent a lot of time flushing tebark-birds up from the reeds when I was a cub.”

“Have a care,” Modhri warned him. “You're too small for that beast to take you seriously, and it may try to bite or stomp you instead. It's getting on for mating season, and that makes them aggressive.”

The Blade looked mildly offended by this, but Pidge indicated Lizenne's spearhead. “See that? That's a tooth from one of their natural predators. You're kind of outclassed there.”

Since the spearhead was more than a foot long, the Blade had to concede the point. A few more suggestions were traded back and forth, and then the team vanished into the grasses, visible only as a faint disturbance that did not come from the wind. Shiro patted Soluk's shoulder. “Shall we?”

Soluk cast him an amused glance and rose into a half-crouch, slipping over the edge of the rise as smoothly and silently as a great cat. Soluk approached carefully, allowing Shiro time to uncoil his bundle of bola-whips and get them laid out and ready across his lap where they wouldn't fall away easily; glances above the grass told him that the dragon was keeping himself between the beast and the area that Kolivan had termed “the rocks”. The name was something of an understatement for that patch of raw ground, clearly visible at this angle as a great ragged stretch of jutting boulders interspersed with narrow, pebble-strewn gullies. Bad ground for the yulpadi, maybe, but worse for the hunters, particularly because each and every one of those boulders had hosepipe-thick vines growing all over them that had thorns like steel railroad spikes. Shiro shuddered a little at the thought of trying to flush the big animal out of that morass and readied a bola in his good hand.

Soluk paused and turned, standing up a little taller so that they could see over the grass. A few moments later, they saw the yulpadi jerk its head up in surprise at something around its front feet, and then watched it thrust its head down, jaws agape to show huge grinding teeth, only to rear up onto its four rear legs with a baying shriek of alarm; the big Blade was clinging to its neck just behind the head and attempting to rip open its windpipe with his toenails. Shiro and Soluk stared as the creature danced around in circles, flailing furiously in an attempt to dislodge its attacker.

“Well,” Shiro remarked, “that's one way to do it.”

Soluk snorted and moved off again.

The yulpadi roared like a jet engine and executed a full-body whipcrack that would have split the spine of any Earthly mammal, flinging the Blade away and leaping into a run straight toward the rocks. Soluk surged into a gallop, not bothering to hide himself now, and he rushed the huge animal with a bellow of his own. Shiro clamped his legs hard around Soluk's barrel and began to whirl his bola-whip; the yulpadi reared again, slashing at Soluk with three sharp hooves as it spun on the rear two, missing by a narrow margin. Shiro let his bolas go, and it was more through luck than anything else that the weighted cords wrapped firmly around one center-left leg. Not a hobbling cast like he'd hoped, but the trailing ends would drag behind it, catching on every possible object that the rough terrain could offer. Muttering a swearword under his breath, he pulled another bola from his bundle. Someone else, possibly Hunk, let go another bola-whip, and with better results—the yulpadi lurched as the rear two legs on the right side were suddenly bound together, and Soluk took the opportunity to lunge forward again, fangs bared and roaring. The yulpadi fled, kicking angrily with its encumbered legs, this time back toward a copse of the tall, blue-leaf trees on the other side of the field. Soluk followed at a dead run, allowing Shiro an excellent view of an ambush being sprung. There was another of those rock outcroppings halfway to the trees, bare of vines but not of hunters. He could recognize the familiar shapes of the ladies as they sprang from that handy height along with Keith, Kolivan, and Allura, landing squarely on the yulpadi's long back and jabbing quickly at the thigh and shoulder muscles before leaping away again. Simultaneously, more bola whips whickered out of the grasses at the foot of the stone, binding the legs further. The yulpadi staggered, recovered, snapped viciously at something that got too close, and then burst into a lurching run in the right direction. Out and down now, onto the wide-open, tempting flats of that particular bit of yellow prairie; even with its legs compromised and leaking bluish blood from the wounds on its shoulders and hips, it was still faster than any of them and it knew it. Shiro heard Soluk grunt in triumph and felt him ease into a long, loping gallop, flanking the beast on the left. Shiro took the opportunity to cast his second bola, and whooped in triumph when it caught the first and second legs on the left. The yulpadi bucked, yowling in fury, kicked out hard enough to break a few of the cords binding it, and then turned on Soluk with snapping jaws and flying hooves.

Shiro dropped flat to Soluk's back as the dragon threw himself into a low dive right under the long-legged creature's lunge, then whirled around and snapped at the yulpadi's left-rear leg. He missed, but the beast had had enough. It leaped again, this time springing high over the dragon's head and landing firmly on all eight feet, and then took off like a rocket toward the ravines on the far side of the field. Soluk didn't bother to follow. He came to a halt, lungs heaving, and puffed a breathless laugh. Sure enough, the moment that the yulpadi was close enough, Tilla launched herself out of the ravine, seized the animal's throat in her jaws, and used its own momentum to flip it through the air and slam the yulpadi's enormous body onto the ground hard enough to break its neck. Soluk boomed an accolade, as did the rest of the hunting party, and Shiro and the dragon went went forward at a decorous walk to see the fruits of their labors.

By the time they arrived at the ravine, Tilla had already pulled the huge carcass into the declivity and was growling like something out of a nightmare. Figuring that discretion was the better part of survival, Shiro climbed down from Soluk's shoulders and let the dragon go on ahead, settling for wobbling a little distance away on shaky legs and sitting down on a handy rock to wait for the others to arrive. He smelled them before he saw them: the sweet, earthy aroma of an Altean, the canine-and-spice-cabinet of the Galra, and the reassuringly primate-like odor of his fellow Humans. All of them would need a thorough wash after this, but he wouldn't have missed it for the world. Someone made a comment about roughing it, raising a ripple of laughter from the others. He raised his head to see them come out of the grasses around him, weary, sweaty, sore, and smiling. Even Kolivan looked as though he had enjoyed himself thoroughly, and Keith had a look of primal satisfaction on his face that was echoed in his mother's. The big Kedrekan seemed to be undamaged, thankfully, and was casting yearning glances in the direction of the ravine.

Lizenne noticed this and tapped his shoulder with an admonishing finger. “Let them have this moment, Sir Blade. We can't digest the organ meats anyway, and they'll clean all of that out of the carcass for us while we rest. That was excellent, everyone. Very, very well done. If any of you are traditional enough to keep a khe'guon string, you may have your pick of the teeth with my blessing.”

Shiro saw his fellow Paladins glow with pride at her words, and, surprisingly, the eight Blades as well. Modhri chuckled and thumped down next to Shiro with a weary grunt. “I will take the fact that I am now strong enough to take part in such a hunt as my reward. That and a hot soak, I think. I thank you for this day, my Lady.”

“As do we,” Kolivan said with deep respect.

Hunk flopped down as well, massaging one leg with his big hands. “Yeah, us too. Wow. That's my exercise for the day. How are we going to get the carcass back to the kitchen? We're a long way from the doors, and I'm pooped.”

“Simple,” Lizenne said calmly, sitting down beside Modhri. “Chimera?”

Yes?” the AI's slightly tinny voice asked, making them look around in surprise.

“Kindly send in... hmmm, I'd say four hover-crates and packing film, please, and tools and protective gear sufficient for the handling of that carcass. Did you get good recordings?”

I did indeed,” the Chimera replied. “They are ready for replay whenever you wish to review your activities. The crates and equipment are on their way.”

“Thank you,” Lizenne said, and smiled at her companions. “It's all too easy to forget that we're aboard a ship, isn't it?”

Lance puffed a laugh. “I'll say. It feels good, though.”

“I'd feel even better if I could splash around in the marsh a little,” Allura said, scratching at her scalp under the tightly-braided crown of her hair. “Perhaps later. I will certainly welcome a big bowl of stew.”

“Two big bowls,” Pidge declared firmly, flopping down and stretching out sore legs. “Big, big bowls. With ice cream for after.”

There was a rather nasty ripping sound from the ravine, followed by noises that suggested that two very large appetites were being slaked. “Later,” Shiro suggested.

Modhri smiled and pointed off to his right. “We keep a small camp by the river a little way over there, and there is tea and dry rations, if you don't mind a short walk.”

Lance groaned. “I'd kill for a drink right now.”

That sounded good enough to coax the weary hunters back to their feet, and a few minutes' amble through the tall grass brought them out onto the banks of a sparkling little river, complete with a level spot shaded by a large flowering bush, a circle of stones that had been used fairly frequently as a firepit, and a cache in a hollowed-out rock that produced a kettle, charcoal, a packet of tea leaves, and a sack of what looked like jerky and granola bars. Before long, they were lounging at their ease with cups of hot but refreshing tea and handfuls of snacks, which were surprisingly good. Shiro found the granola particularly to his taste, and had crunched through three bars before slowing down enough to ask what was in them.

“Toasted wild surbek grain,” Modhri replied, ticking the ingredients off on his fingers, “sarcen seed, crumbled latti, thurla, and padro nuts; dried quillop, urx, borna, and hallas berries, a dash of tinthic spice, a slosh of sintra nectar, all held together with chirax gum. All of which grows naturally here and on Zampedri, and sometimes nothing else will get Lizenne going in the morning. I've just made up a fresh batch. Would you like some to take back to the Castle with you?”

“And the recipe,” Hunk said firmly, “and maybe some ingredients. These would be really good additions to the lunchboxes, guys.”

“They're better than the energy bars we make, that's for sure,” one of the Blades, a lean fellow with a goodly share of Namturan blood in him, said cheerfully. “If the dragons allow us to establish a foothold on their world, we'll need the recipe as well.”

Kolivan gnawed thoughtfully at his jerky and rumbled, “Negotiations have begun. They're wary, of course, but not totally averse to the idea of having us around. We can be taught, it seems.”

The big Palabekan laughed. “If it allows us days like these, I am more than willing to learn!”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Lizenne said wryly. “It is not easy, and the dragons believe that carelessness has consequences. You will not be permitted to kill or drive off any species that threatens or inconveniences you; those have a place and a part in their world, and each one is vital; if something eats your friend, vengeance is not an option. You'll also have to learn to hunt and forage in bad weather or go hungry until it clears, to say nothing of figuring out what may be eaten safely, and what might kill you. The first lesson is the hardest—to listen to what the world and the dragons are telling you, and to take it all seriously. We Galra are just a tad arrogant, and that lesson comes hard at times.”

There was a snort from Allura. “There's an understatement. But what about Modhri? He seems to fit right in.”

Modhri smiled fondly at his wife. “I've been following her lead since I was old enough to walk. Any trail she breaks stays broken, and it's easy to follow along, particularly if you pay attention. I am very fortunate.”

The pair shared one of those deeply loving looks that tended to make others just a little envious, and then the mood was broken by a titanic belch from nearby. Soluk, his jaws smeared with blue-purple fluids and a big smile on his scaly face, poked his head through the grasses and uttered a string of rumbles and chirps.

“Thank you,” Lizenne replied, setting her cup down. “Is she feeling better?”

Soluk hummed happily. “Gronk,” he said, and licked his chops with a very blue tongue.

“Very good. We'll get right on it while you two take a nice nap,” she said, and beckoned to the others. “Come along, all of you, and I'll show you how to turn a dead animal into a delicious dinner.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Me Time

 

In Human terms, a feast generally involves a main dish, several side dishes, numerous sauces, gravies, and chutneys, and the really fancy ones involve as many as twelve courses. They are usually accompanied by numerous fine wines and followed by extravagant desserts, and the usual result is a mass food coma with bonus inebriation.

At this feast there was only stew, lots of it, and that was all that anybody needed. It made everything worth it, from the hazards and efforts of the hunt itself to the somewhat disgusting work of butchering the kill; the dragons had cleaned it out very effectively and had even removed the legs and neck, but there had still been a lot of work to do, and the carcass that they had left behind them once they were done was by no means picked clean. That was necessary, Lizenne had told them—there were creatures in the envirodeck that actively needed those leftovers for their own health, and by the next day, even the bones would be gone. Most of the meat had been packed away into cold storage for later, along with the hind shinbones and hide, but a large chunk of purple-blue haunch meat had been reserved for their meal. All of them had been required to step through a decontamination booth, and then help prepare the complicated recipe. It was worth it, all of it was worth it, and Shiro felt that he would do it all again for just one more bowl. He wasn't alone in that; all of his teammates and the Blades as well were nose-deep in their bowls, although he did look up at one time to see an odd little exchange. Zaianne had pushed her glass over to where the big Palabekan could refill it from the pitcher, and he had to lean over Pidge to do so. Pidge was bent over her stew like a hawk mantling over its prey, and the Blade's head wasn't far above her shoulders when he set the pitcher down again. He paused, sniffed the air with a faintly puzzled look on his face, and then bent his head to take a deeper sniff just above the back of Pidge's head. When he straightened up again, he did so with a look of mingled surprise and delight, and with an admixture of anticipation that irritated Shiro for some odd reason. Before he could object, Zaianne gestured a sharp negative at the man, which made him flinch slightly and give her an oh, all right, I'm sorry sort of look before turning back to his food. Pidge never noticed, her full attention fixed on the contents of her bowl.

Shiro thought back to what Modhri had said long ago, back when Lizenne was first teaching them how to deal with Druids, about how Galra men would catch the scent of their intended mates by sniffing at their hair. Pidge, despite her childlike appearance, wasn't a little girl anymore, for all that Zaianne had warned the man off. For some reason, the thought of any man faunching after Pidge stirred feelings in him that he'd felt once before and had never expected to feel again, and he had to sit there, nursing his glass of water for a minute or two before he could get those emotions firmly under control. He had been warned about this, numerous times, in fact; Coran had made it very clear that the bonding process naturally entailed a more... cohesive... arrangement than most fighting teams on Earth generally formed. On the other hand... well, it would be her choice in the end, and Keith was living proof that such unions were successful.

That's for the future, he thought, although his inner eye showed him no clues that day, nor in the days that followed.

 

Vennex settled into the couch in the main lounge with a long, tired sigh. Modhri had asked him if he'd like to participate in the yulpadi hunt, but he had politely declined. His adoptive uncle's wife still made him nervous, as did Zaianne and her fellow Blades of Marmora. So did the Paladins, for all that they had gone out of their way to be friendly. Somehow, that just made it worse. Adding the dragons and a very large, very strange, and very dangerous animal to the mix was entirely too much for his nerves. Instead, he had retreated to more familiar ground, meeting with people interested in support, supply, and shipping. That meant Trenosh, who knew more about transporting foodstuffs and household goods than he did, and the Captain and certain of the crew of the Osric's Quandary. His conscience had been nagging at him all day because of that, despite the fact that the dragonlike Elikonian had been far more polite and attentive than half of the Galra distribution and customs officials that he'd seen his own relatives wrangling with before he'd joined the Military, and that the Quandary's own chief Quartermaster was a thoroughgoing professional where it came to outfitting large ships. Jilphix-Farr the Xelocian was eager to expand operations into a Sector that might soon be removed from Imperial control, and even a few of the other rescuees had expressed an interest in the enterprise. The ship's best pilot and best astrogator, Kezz and Haswick, had pointed out shortcuts through odd bits of space that he was sure that even Trenosh's grandfather didn't know of, and there had been numerous others who'd had good ideas to share, so long as everyone got some of the benefit. There was a lot of potential there, and a lot of risk, and then he'd had to contact his family and run it by them.

It was tempting, very tempting, but it was dangerous, and a lifetime of Imperial propaganda was giving him some trouble. He'd been taught from an early age that Emperor Zarkon was the rightful ruler of the known universe, and that any who set themselves against him were bad and wrong and evil. It was right that Galra were supreme over all, it was right that all other races must either submit or die, it was right that revolution was punished with annihilation; it was all right and true because that was what Zarkon had decreed, and his word was law. The simple fact that he was still decreeing it after ten thousand years was proof of his power.

Vennex had outgrown most of that long ago, first through playing with non-Galra children when he and his brothers had been small, and then later when Modhri had rescued him from that Gantarash ship. He had not been returned to his family immediately, but had remained under his rescuer's wing for several weeks. He had seen how that brave man had treated peoples other than his own, and how he had protected them from the malice of his own men at times. Modhri had never spoken of how his views had differed from the norm, but he had lived them every day, and those around him had respected him deeply. Vennex had come to quietly idolize him during that time, admiring the calm, dignified demeanor and the stalwart heart of the man, and had almost refused to return to his family when it had come time to go home. He had burned to follow that example, and had joined up despite his mother's objections, intent on bringing glory to the Empire in ways that didn't involve breaking things. He had completed his mandatory five years as a common soldier with great anticipation of taking the training that would allow him to rise in the ranks, only to stop in horror when those upper ranks had betrayed and destroyed his hero for no better reason than greed. It was a breach of trust that had shattered his faith in the Military, and in the Emperor himself when the great one had condemned a good and honorable man to a hideous death in the arena on the strength of a lie. Vennex had been reluctant to go home after that, and just as reluctant to go on with a military career. Why bother rising, if it just got you cut down? His relatives would never let him forget his bad decision if he gave up and went home, and so he had continued in his present rank for three undecided years, drawing his pay and sending most of it home in a kind of vicarious apology.

And now this.

The irony of the fact that he was now doing more good for his own people by helping Zarkon's enemies than he had in the past eight years of military service was not lost on him. Or on his kin, for that matter. They had been relieved that he had survived, of course, but had been initially horrified at the company he was keeping. That had turned to fascination fairly quickly, and now they were intrigued by the possibility of new business contacts in an area of space where they wouldn't have to fight with the constant corruption, kickbacks, and graft that were endemic in the Imperial mercantile sector. He'd heard someone say once that there were no people more mercenary than merchants, but had not expected it to be proven by his own kin. Trenosh's folks, if anything, were even less inclined to give the Emperor the time of day, much less their loyalty. Not that he blamed them. Arcobi was not a rich planet and it had no voice in either the Center or in the Core Worlds, nor did it have much to offer their Governors and military protectors. There was a reason why most of the rebel forces were concentrated out here near the Fringes, particularly now that the Military was so torn between hunting around for Voltron, trailing after the Crown Prince, or struggling to quell the numerous uprisings. There simply was no profit in wasting time and resources on protecting those marginal colonies, not when there was favor and glory to be won elsewhere. Therefore, logic and tradition decreed that those abandoned worlds must find their own ways to survive. He'd helped with that today, setting up the framework for a line of business that would mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of innocent people in the near future, and he would have to be as grateful as they were that his loyalties, however artificially instilled, did not get in the way of their continuing to live.

At least he didn't have to wonder what it was all for—the prickling sensation of baby teeth gnawing on his shin provided a very clear answer to that. He leaned over and lifted Ranax into his lap, setting the toy aside; the cub was as tired as he was, having been brought along to the meeting because Nasty had run off to chase the mice, shouting something about silverware before disappearing into the ventilation shafts, and the cub had spent the entire afternoon playing with spare machine parts and biting pirates. It had done his own family good to see the brat trying to savage the enemies of the Empire, too.

“Long day, eh, lad?” Coran said, leaning his elbows on the back of the couch beside him. “Good work, though. You've made life easier for a lot of people today.”

Vennex nodded, absently stroking the sleepy cub's fur. “It's all I can do. I'm not the hero that I dreamed of being.”

“Oh, I don't know, you're doing fine so far,” Coran said, twiddling his mustache musingly. “You've survived a raging space battle, been captured by terrifying aliens, been miraculously rescued, fought another battle and actually won it, and now you've saved a lot of lives. You're also warm and dry and comfortable, and even have access to proper sanitary facilities. A lot of heroes have managed the first but not the second, believe you me. Alfor and his bunch included. A lot of their escapades didn't end very well, you see, and it was sometimes weeks before they saw a proper toilet, much less a decent medical facility. It's amazing that they'd lived so long, come to think of it. Our current batch has had better luck thus far.”

Vennex thought about that for a long moment, listening to the soft snoring of the cub in his lap. “Coran... did Zarkon and the others go out of their way to make alliances like Lance and the others do?”

The Altean gazed down at him in surprise, and then his brows pinched in regret. “No. It wasn't encouraged, and that suited Zarkon right down to the ground. According to those in charge at the time, Voltron was supposed to defend the people, not make itself available to them. Not directly. To the various governments, sure, but not the actual people. After all, one of those commoners might suggest to Alfor or Gyrgan—they had Views about this sort of thing—that maybe their government was filthily corrupt or repressive, and should be removed. No high official ever wants people like the Paladins talking to the general public. It gives them ideas. Zarkon was fine with that, since he felt that common folk were beneath him. Prince, you know.”

Vennex nodded. “And the Golrazi have always been proud. This team is very different.”

Coran chuckled. “You have no idea. All of the previous teams were the best of the best at what they did, even the fellow who'd been a janitor before becoming a Paladin. All of them were one-in-a-million sorts, all carefully screened by at least three boards of directors before even being allowed to set foot in the Paladin's Academy, and from that rare selection, the Lions would choose only one each, and keep them for however long they lasted. All but one of this current batch was gathered up almost by accident from a single world. Perfectly ordinary, most of them, and very young for this work. Allura was never intended for this job, either.”

“She wasn't?” Vennex asked, looking up in surprise.

“Ancients, no, she was destined for diplomatic work, like her mother, and an arranged marriage to one of the outworld nobles.” Coran shrugged. “Heroic, perhaps, but only in small, dull ways. Then everything changed, and all of us had to change with it. The universe still needs its small, dull heroes, though, the people who see to it that the plumbing runs properly and the files are in order. Welcome to the team, I suppose.”

Vennex puffed a faint laugh and allowed himself to relax. He could be proud of his efforts to stave off civilization's greatest enemies—famine, war, and chaos—for the time being. Itchy conscience aside, he felt good.

There was a rumble of conversation out in the hall a little time later, and the Paladins and their Galra companions strode in. They were clean and dressed in their usual attire, but he could see the successful hunt by the light in their eyes and in the way that they walked. It was like looking up from mulching one's garden one morning to see a troupe of mythical creatures going by: rare and beautiful and potentially very dangerous, magic and mystery wafting about them like perfume. Well, perhaps not perfume. There was a definite fragrance about them, but it smelled more like stew than like flowers. The legendary Ezoraimath that the group had reminded him of could be detected, it was said, by their customary aroma of winter wind touched with frost-blooms, but he doubted that those fantastical creatures ever sat down to a nice meaty bowl of stew. Well, perhaps. They were predators, after all, and Old Granny Kashtmehtz the Storm-Witch, a frequent figure in those same old tales, might have been persuaded to share her magical brews with them.

“There you are, team, ladies, gentlemen,” Coran said cheerfully, waving a hand in greeting. “Were you able to catch that bizarre, leggy beast?”

Lance grinned and patted his belly. “We sure did! We did really well, too! No injuries, lots of awesome visuals—get Chimera to play the vids for you sometime—Tilla put it down hard at the end, and the stew was great. We brought a bucket of it back for you guys.”

Hunk set a large tub on the table with a dreamy smile. “Still warm, too. How did your day go?”

Coran allowed Vennex to describe the day's small triumphs in favor of prying up the lid on the tub and sniffing in happy anticipation at the fragrant contents. The scent also brought Ranax awake, and the cub squeaked, hauled himself up onto the table, and toddled over to see what smelled so good. Coran, seeing that he had competition, crammed the lid back on and tried to pull the tub away, but Ranax wasn't having any of that. Galra cubs are surprisingly strong, and the little claws enhance their grip wonderfully; Ranax latched onto the tub with fearsome growls and attempted to claim it for himself. To his credit, Vennex managed to deliver his report in full despite the small war that was breaking out right next to him without so much as looking around.

“The Admiral's very pleased and has given us all the go-ahead to start on building those supply lines,” he finished up dutifully, “and has asked me to tell you that the other Fleet Captains will be back sometime tomorrow to plan out the next liberation effort. Kolivan, sir, you'll want to talk to Maozuh about the details—if nothing else, it'll be a good way to smuggle your people to and from odd spots along the way without being seen. Nobody looks at the people who haul freight.”

Kolivan nodded thoughtfully, and Allura gave Vennex a bright smile that went a long way toward making his efforts worth the strain. “You did very well today, Vennex, and thank you. We were about to head over to the kitchen for some ice cream. Would you like some? And you should really try the stew, it's... oh, dear.”

Coran and Ranax were nose-to-nose now, not least because the cub had gotten a good grip on Coran's mustache. They were both growling angrily at each other in a gravelly duet that was making it very hard for the onlookers to keep a straight face.

“My goodness,” Allura said. “I simply cannot imagine what having ten cubs at this stage is like.”

Vennex sighed and had to fight down a surge of homesickness. “It's noisy, you have to pack away anything breakable, and everyone winds up wearing shin-guards for months at a time. What's ice cream? I've heard it mentioned, but I don't think that I got any.”

There was a yowl from across the table as Coran extracted his facial hair from Ranax's fingers, and it was unclear just which of them had uttered it. Keith snorted in amusement. “It's a dessert, and it's good. You'll want to have some stew first if you haven't eaten yet. There's enough in there for Coran and Ranax, too. Ranax can have some, right?”

“Certainly,” Zaianne said, catching up the cub and picking tufts of orange hair out of his fists. “It will do him good. Where is Trenosh, Vennex?”

“In the kitchen, I think,” Vennex said, levering himself out of his seat; that stew really did smell very good, and breakfast had been a long time ago. “He said that he wanted some tea. We had to bring Ranax along to the meeting, and between setting up the business arrangements and keeping Ranax from eating Maozuh and Kezz, it kind of wore him out.”

“And you, too, from the look of it,” Modhri said quietly, beckoning with one hand. “Come along, then, and we'll give you a better description of where your dinner came from.”

Lance grinned and propped a hip on the table with a suggestive look in the girls' direction. “And of the people who caught it. Those hunting leathers sure show off a person's best qualities. Would you believe that Pidge here has some really nice curves under that sweater? You wouldn't think it to look at her now, but when she's—ack!”

Pidge had given him a push that toppled him over onto the floor with a crash. “Can it, Lance,” she snapped, and then cocked a dangerous eyebrow at Vennex. “Any comments?”

Vennex gave her a faint smile. “You remind me a lot of my sister, and I think that dinner is a good idea.”

Shiro bent down and hauled a crestfallen Lance to his feet. “Good choice of words. Coran, are you all right? Good. Now let's see about getting some bowls to put good things in.”

Hunk lifted the tub again, smiling at the dirty looks that Coran and Ranax were shooting each other. “Oh, I dunno, Pidge, Lance is right. You do look really good in those leathers. So did everybody else. I bet that those outfits could make even the mice look sexy. Speaking of that, I'm still waiting on those teddy-bear PJ's, Lance.”

Pidge glared at him, her ears flushing pink. “No fair, Hunk, I can't hit you.”

“I know,” Hunk said cheerfully, “you already got that out of your system during the last training session. We're good. Ice cream, now.”

 

Haggar looked up at the jutting shapes of the new transformation array as the main casing was sealed into place, and felt a certain grim satisfaction. In a way, the Paladins had done her a favor; she had spent the time after the events on Teravan redesigning and upgrading her machinery and equipment, with enhancements and abilities that simply would not have fit into the original science deck. The foundry and assembly apparatus had gotten their share of that as well, and it would not be long before she would be able to produce the first product. The Ghamparva had seen fit to bring her a captured rebel that would serve admirably as a subject as well, and she was eager to get started.

“How much longer, Meksant?” she asked, her voice echoing coldly in the vast chamber.

The elderly Master Engineer glanced up from the plans and gave her a tolerant look. While Haggar had not been capable of caring for much of anything or anyone for longer than even she could conveniently remember, she was still capable of giving respect where it was due, and was willing to admit that the old man had earned hers. Master Engineer Meksant was one of the very few people in all the starry universe who didn't hate or fear her, being old enough and having worked in the Center for long enough to have pretty much seen everything; he was also enough of a genius in his own right to be perennially unimpressed by any of it. She had only seen him angry twice—once when the Bagantush project had been canceled, and again when the Rogue Witch's man had erased the entire contents of the high-security data bank. Still, he continued undaunted, designing more and better weapons for the Emperor's use. As such, he was one of the very few people with whom she could speak frankly.

“It's going as well as can be expected, my Lady,” he replied firmly, casting a narrow glance up at one of the assembly drones as it fitted one of the conduit systems into the main structure. “You, at least, can be trusted to have all of the necessary parts and materials on hand and ready for installation. Everything is on schedule for the moment and the components test clean thus far. You should be able to start building the first Robeast within... hmm... oh, I'd say a couple of weeks.”

She cast him a suspicious glance of her own. “You seem unsure that this will be finished on time.”

“Insurance,” Meksant replied shortly. “There is always a chance that something will go wrong. If one does not leave a margin for error and mischance, then it is bound to happen. You taught me that yourself, Lady Haggar. Stop trying to make me nervous, it won't work.”

Haggar smiled faintly. “And if I should decide that you would make a good candidate for this apparatus?”

Meksant sniffed primly. “At my age? I should be glad to end my days as something so grand, fighting for Zarkon and the Empire in ways that won't give me a stress headache for once. Don't bother, my Lady. I am currently embroiled in the design work for a new line of Ghamparva-grade warcraft and six other programs, and quite a lot of dangerous people will be very cross with you if you turned me into a monster before I complete those drafts. If you absolutely must use me so, then wait until I'm done.”

Haggar's brow creased in a frown. “I had heard that the Ghamparva were upset about something. Why do they have you working on a new prototype for them? I had thought that they were well-enough pleased with Nelargo's shipwrights.”

Meksant pursed his lips in disapproval. “That pretty-boy Prince Lotor made off with an entire consignment of them. Thirty ships, which is more than enough to make himself a threat to just about anyone. He is not terribly fond of the Ghamparva themselves, and they feel themselves in need of something that can remove his advantages. A bright boy, but brash, and he lets his impulses do his thinking for him. Probably something he got from his sire; I know his mother's Lineage well, and they don't often run to that kind of foolishness.”

Haggar paused for a moment, remembering the bold young prince that she'd gotten attached to all those long centuries ago. “He is very much his father's son,” she mused. “It took Zarkon years to learn caution.”

The Master Engineer humphed and turned away. “If that boy of his keeps on making enemies such as he has been lately, he won't have those years. Well, he isn't the first young fool to make them, and he shan't be the last. He should have been at Bericonde, for instance, rather than playing the robber baron at Nelargo.”

Haggar grunted sourly. A message had been sent to the Prince, warning him of the likelihood that the trade hub would be attacked, but the boy had rather obviously disregarded it. Unable to produce a Robeast in time, she had been forced to send out three of her Druids instead, and the loss of them had come as an unwelcome shock to her aetheric senses. That they had torn a strip out of the Hoshinthra Warleader had been interesting news, but not nearly so interesting as a report of the Quandary's demise might have been. It was worrying, in fact; a mage-bolt that could have split a Sikkhoran Grand Freighter open like a culbar melon had only damaged the Warleader, and not enough to have taken it out of action. The sheer intransigence of the thing was irritating to say the least. Lotor and his fleet might well have won the day at Bericonde, if only by luring that maneating savage away from the battle.

“His father is aware of his activities,” she murmured darkly, “and, for now, permits Lotor to continue. He will have no further aid from the Military if he does not achieve the goals that his father has set him, and if he is captured or otherwise lost, Zarkon will leave him to his fate. The Emperor will not accept failure.”

Meksant frowned at the drone control board and made a few small adjustments. “Wouldn't be the first time. There was that one wild young prince... oh, it had to be back while I was still in initial training. Keprosh, I believe his name was. Brave boy, quite a fighter, and a dedicated explorer, but was a bit more ambitious than he should have been.”

“He was becoming a threat to his father, and when the Lelaspurths captured him, the Emperor let nature take its course,” Haggar concurred in a chilly voice; she had disliked that young man even more than she had disliked Lotor, and hadn't been inclined in the least to intervene when that alien race had taken it upon themselves to put him down. Neither had his father, nor had Zarkon lifted a finger to send aid when any number of similar princes had made themselves inconvenient in times past. “Small loss,” she continued, “the production of princes is a sop to the pride of the High Families, and no more.”

“Princes are expensive creatures,” Meksant agreed absently, nodding in satisfaction as a large and tricky component was settled properly into place. “Perhaps later on, the Emperor might consider doing away with the High Families entirely and simply install actual professionals to run their businesses in their place. They are close to becoming more trouble than they are worth. Then he wouldn't have to bother with that silly old custom, now would he?”

“They have their uses,” Haggar replied, thinking of possible candidates to replace her three defunct Druids; she had depended on those old High Lineages for the strong witches they produced. On the other hand, that number had fallen off in recent centuries. Perhaps it was time to reassess their utility. “In the meantime, we will continue in our present course. The Emperor requires the Lions, and we will use what we have on hand to capture them.”

“As we must, Lady Haggar,” Meksant said as another component slotted smoothly into its socket. “I'll do my part if you'll do yours, and we'll see whether or not we can settle this current muddle out without too much more collateral damage. I'd like a look at Voltron once the thing has been captured, if I may; as inefficient as gestalt engines are, it's a remarkable piece of work.”

Haggar had her own plans for the Lions, but Meksant's confidence was gratifying. “We shall see,” she allowed, and turned away to see to her own affairs. Perhaps a session in the scrying chamber would yield some useful information.

 

It was late, and the day had been very busy, and Lance was feeling the need for a little personal indulgence.

The dusty little solar system of Grashnur's Cloud had more or less filled up with returning Ghost Fleet ships, each of which, it seemed, had brought along prospective new members. Not the new Hoshinthra ships, thankfully, nor even the Talssenemai herself, although Zorjesca had promised to make sure that the results of the meeting were passed along. Even so, the Ghost Fleet's successes had tempted a large number of independent resistance groups out of obscurity, and the sheer variety of them had been remarkable. Lance had feasted his eyes on the rare and the strange, the horrible and the sublime, and had clasped manipulatory members in his own that had ranged from the creepy to the awesome. At times, the only thing that had allowed him to keep his cool had been Shiro's words of wisdom, whispered into his ear: just think of how weird you look to them, he'd said, you've only got one head, two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, and a single nose and mouth, after all, and you don't have a single feather, pseudopod, or scale!

Lance had had to admit that Shiro was right. His personal favorite had been the Cae'Ruuhns, who had been sort of velvety and slightly catlike, with eyes like best-quality jade and voices like pastoral flutes, and whose short, plush fur had glowed with its own amber light. Mind you, the Yuttops had been fun to watch, having been eight feet tall, covered in brilliant yellow downy feathers, and had looked, acted, and sounded as though they had been Muppets in a past life. Lance felt that he would have paid to see that show, although the chainmail bikinis that they had worn might have disqualified them for an appearance on Sesame Street. There had been the Guolppeks, sentient slime molds rooted in chunks of some sort of damp wood, that had produced glistening, neon-orange pseudo-heads and transparent air-manipulation chambers in order to speak in thin, whistling voices, and could carry on three conversations at the same time without getting confused. He had gotten along well with the Zrachi, who were only a little taller than Pidge and lizardlike, with brilliantly-patterned scales and a penchant for making bad puns whenever they could. The Huewhars, on the other hand, were as eerie as they were polite—taller even than Yantilee but impossibly thin and attenuated, wearing broad, dome-shaped hats and swathed in bone-colored robes and veils that showed only trios of blood-red eyes and pairs of spidery, intricately-jointed hands painted in dizzying patterns of black and white. Strangely, they smelled of apple blossoms and had voices like cellos, rich and resounding, and they moved with consummate grace. The Droheen had been sort of lumpy and ugly, with dorsal coats of long, barbed quills, but they had been cheerful and friendly and possessed a genius for mathematics that had impressed even Pidge. There had been more, from the balloon-like Fuooss that had hovered over the table during the meeting, changing color constantly and sending independent sense-organ clusters rotating in orbits around itself to keep track of who was speaking, to the Crolch that had preferred to lurk under the table, her hairy, dark-green eyestalk the only part visible, and her gravelly voice venturing cthonic suggestions from time to time.

Yantilee had observed them all with the famous Elikonian level-headed calm and had brought them to order in authoritative tones that no one could ignore, not even the Itrevolp, who didn't have ears. The subject of their discussion that day was the planet of Jeproba, which was next on the list for liberation, and was in desperate need of help. It was not a large world, but it and its solar system had huge lodes of metals and minerals that the Empire valued highly, and the native race had been enslaved some forty years ago to provide the labor for stripping them of everything of worth. The guest of honor at the meeting had been an escaped slave, a sort of pangolin-like person with chipped golden scales and angry dark eyes, who had pointed out the best places to strike. Despite the destruction of Jeproba's Garrison fleet at Bericonde, the system was heavily-guarded, with no less than three orbital forts; Clarence and Jasca, both attending via holoprojector, had provided information on those, and hammering out the details of the battle plan had taken up most of the day.

A very good day, Lance thought as he gathered up his bundle and headed back to the training deck; he and the others had had a quick sparring match to loosen themselves up after hours of sitting around and arguing tactics, and now he felt that he deserved a truly proper shower. Oh, his room had its own sanitary space complete with a shower cubicle, but it was not intended for the ablutionary luxury that he was set on indulging himself in. That cubicle had been designed for the single purpose of getting clean, and thus lacked scope. The shower room on the training deck had far greater possibilities, and even better, still had several bottles of Coran's hantic-extract-enhanced, all-in-one personal cleanser. Lance really liked that stuff. It made his skin feel good, made his hair glossy and manageable, and it smelled nice. More importantly at the moment, there was room to enjoy it. Most of the people that they'd rescued from the Gantars had transferred over to the Quandary to either sign up or to arrange for transport home, and he had the whole room to himself. With a happy smile, he patted the music player that Hunk had put together for him, and stepped into the echoing, white-tiled room.

This device he set on the bank of sinks on the far wall, placed his bathrobe, slippers, and towels where they wouldn't get wet, and positioned the various cloths, brushes, and scrubbers essential for a proper wash.

“'Me' time,” he said with immense satisfaction, turning the water to precisely the right temperature and turning on the player.

He lathered himself thoroughly to the songs from his favorite bands, all picked up out of that snapshot of Earth's internet that Lizenne had captured on that long-ago visit, and for a little time the rest of the universe didn't matter. It was just him and the music and the luxury of getting really clean. He rinsed himself off with a feeling of accomplishment, rubbed his wet hair thoroughly in the smaller towel and dried himself off with the larger one, and then knotted it around his waist and reached for his favorite lotion. Just as he picked up the bottle, the opening strains of his favorite song, the true gem of his collection, slid like best silk out of the speaker. He grinned, turned up the volume, and crooned along with the great Luis Fonsi as one of his best pieces proved once and for all that he was out of his world.

 

“Are you sure?” Hunk asked; it had been a long day and now he wanted a snack. “It's the sort of thing that Nasty would steal, just to keep you on your toes.”

“Positive,” Pidge replied, her amber eyes scanning the training deck's floor. “Nasty knows better than to steal my mail, especially message chips from Ronok. I had to have dropped it here, because I know for a fact that it was in my pocket when we came in. Come on, where is it? Where is it? Aha!”

She darted over to one of the benches pushed up against one wall and snatched something small and flat from underneath, brandishing the little blue card triumphantly. “Got it! Ronok's current class has been studying some of the more volatile recipes lately, and he promised to send me a play-by-play of the explosions. Did you reload the nutrifabber with sylth grain yet, Hunk? I'm going to need popcorn.”

Hunk smiled. “Did that first thing this morning, since Coran and Modhri did a general restock at that pirate's haven nearby. They managed to get the whole shopping list done this time, so we're good for all sorts of things. There's even a little bit of thelwisk seed in the haul, by the way, and yes, I did make sure to put it where the mice can't find it.”

“Thamst porridge,” Pidge said with happy anticipation. “That sounds really good right now for some reason. I'll want... huh. Do you hear something?”

Hunk looked around, and then pointed toward the shower room. “Sounds like Lance's music player. He must have forgotten it in there, or something. Come on, let's get it and give it back to him, or he'll tear the place apart looking for it.”

Pidge snorted. “Or accuse someone of stealing it. That's really annoying.”

“Hey, we'd miss it if he didn't wig out now and again,” Hunk said, moving off toward the shower room. “That's how we used to tell if he was coming down with something when we were kids. He'd go all quiet and mopey, and we'd feed him chicken soup and Grandma's special home-made cure-all until he perked up.”

“Huh,” Pidge said, following along. “What was in it?”

Hunk shrugged. “Dunno. It was a secret recipe. I'm pretty sure that it involved some of his Uncle Diego's best rotgut moonshine, though. Mom used the stuff to get stains out of the carpets.”

“I get it,” Pidge said, homing in on the source of the music. “It's the sort of remedy that you get well from, just so you don't have to take any more of it. I knew someone in high school whose aunt used to make her own home remedies, too, and she had a cousin who got busted twice for building meth labs... oh, wow.”

Both of them had to stop and stare. Lost in the music and capering about with surprising grace was Lance, lotion bottle held like a microphone and water droplets gemming his hair and body. “... Vi que tu mirada ya estaba llamándome. Muéstrame el camino que yo voy, oh...” he sang, completely unaware that he had an audience.

Pidge immediately whipped out her handcomp and began recording.

“That's a nice towel,” Hunk observed diplomatically in a low voice, unwilling to disturb a man in the throes of artistic expression, “I wonder if he embroidered all those little blue Lions himself?”

“Probably,” Pidge replied just as quietly. “Twenty cookies says that he loses it by the end of the song.”

“That's a pretty good knot,” Hunk said after a moment's study. “You're on.”

 

At that moment a few levels up, Shiro paused in the act of raiding a fridge. There had been refreshments at the meeting, enough to negate the need for an actual dinner, but he and Keith had eaten lightly and were feeling peckish. A new urgency had invaded his mind, and he was having a hard time quantifying it.

Keith looked up from putting the finishing touches on a sandwich to see Shiro's perplexed expression. “Are you okay?”

Shiro blinked and shook his head, putting the tub of leftover paslen back onto its shelf and straightening up. “I'm fine. I just got a hunch, is all. Something's going on back down on the training deck that we should see.”

Keith frowned. “That's all?”

“That's all. Nothing bad is happening, but we really should go down and have a look.” Shiro shrugged and gave his teammate a slightly embarrassed smile. “Want to come and find out what that is?”

Keith wrapped his sandwich in a napkin with a nod. “Sure.”

A short time later, they were following the sound of music toward the shower room, and found Hunk and Pidge lurking behind the doorframe. Keith frowned at Pidge's handcomp and said, “Hey, guys, what's--”

Shh!” Hunk hissed, not looking around. “Don't disturb him!”

Shiro and Keith shared a puzzled glance, and then had a look through the door. Prancing magnificently in time to the music and singing lustily along with the recording was the blue Paladin, fully engaged in his performance.

Shiro swallowed hard, his eyes following the young man's superb muscular definition without his conscious bidding. The hunting leathers had been one thing, but this was quite another. “Well, the strength training's certainly paid off.”

“Yeah,” Keith said weakly, struggling to control some unexpected emotions and blushing hotly under the force of them. He wasn't alone, he noticed; Shiro was looking a little pink across the cheekbones as well. “Wow.”

Despacito,” Lance sang hungrily, “Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito...”

A few moments later, Allura's voice spoke up behind them, sounding puzzled. “There you are! What's happening? I had the strangest feeling... oh, my!”

Allura stared. She couldn't help herself. Ever since they had met, she had seen Lance as gawky and awkward, and not particularly attractive by her own people's standards. She had never seen him in a truly uninhibited moment, she realized, other than when he'd gotten drunk, and no one looks their best when inebriated. Something inside her responded powerfully to the presence of the young, strong, and very healthy blue Paladin, and it wasn't just the side effects of the Lion-bond.

“Pretty, isn't he?” Hunk said, nudging her in the ribs.

She gulped, blinked, knew that she was blushing hard, and responded with an expression that she had heard from one of her aunts. “He... he has a very well-turned ankle.”

Pidge gave her a funny look. “Seriously? With everything else that's on display, that's what you take away from this?”

Allura gave her an embarrassed smile. “Not precisely. The implication of that statement is that everything above the ankle is superior... and... oh, my... there is quite a lot above the ankle, isn't there?”

“Yeah, he's all leg,” Hunk said happily. “Always has been.”

Sabes que tu corazón conmigo te hace bom, bom!” Lance sang, shaking his hips at the appropriate moments, giving them a fine view of those legs, plus a little extra. “Sabes que esa beba está buscando de mi bom, bom!”

“Callipygian,” Hunk said with relish. “Yeah, Lance, make those Lions fly.”

“What does 'callipygian' mean?” Allura asked.

Shiro blushed harder. “It's from the ancient Greek, and means having a... a nice rear end.”

Allura giggled. “He certainly does. I honestly hadn't noticed. I didn't know that he could dance. Or sing.”

Hunk smirked. “Yeah. He'll tell you any day that I dance better than he does, but he's got a good voice. He used to get pressured into singing at family events, birthdays especially, and he's got a big family. It wasn't until he started demanding a cut of the presents that he got some free time again. Carlos nearly had a personality failure when Lance told his mom that if she wanted him to sing, then he got that new game system that Carlos had been begging for for months. After that, he was home free.”

Shiro smiled. “Did Lance get the game system?”

“Nope. Carlos liked being sung at about as much as he liked finding garden slugs in his underwear, but he was red-hot where it came to video games,” Hunk replied. “Lance's Aunt Lucia opted for the route of less temper tantrums, and I don't blame her. Carlos could scream the house down.”

“Carlos sounds difficult to live with,” Allura observed.

“He's always been a problem kid,” Hunk sighed, remembering a few of his own scrapes with the designated black sheep of Lance's large and rambling family. “You're drooling, Pidge.”

“Shut up,” Pidge replied, wiping at her chin with one sleeve, not taking her eyes off of Lance for a second. “Recording, here.”

Unaware of this discussion, Lance continued, soaring on wings of melody and dancing on raw firmament, his imagination granting him the adulation of the cosmos. It came as something of a shock when he had crooned the final, aching word, and real applause and a few wolf whistles brought him back to stark reality. In later years, when describing the incident to crowds of giggling, red-cheeked youngsters, he would not be afraid to admit that he had screamed like a little girl. For now, he gargled, spluttered, and gabbled in horror. “Aaaaaaaaaagh! What the... where did... why are... what the heck, guys?!”

“That was very nice, Lance,” Allura said sweetly, “do keep it up, it's doing wonders for your coordination.”

Helplessly, he had to accept the accolade. “Thanks... I think? Um... Hunk's better than I am... Holy crow! Pidge, did you record all of that?”

“Yup!” Pidge said with an evil grin, waggling her handcomp at him. “The gem of my blackmail collection. I'm gonna call it 'Prancy Lance Without No Pants'.”

Lance did not take that well. “Aagh! No you're not! Gimme that!”

Pidge cackled and ducked under his grab, speeding away as fast as her legs could carry her. Squawking in protest, Lance charged after her, his feet slapping damply on the decking.

“Wait! Lance! You forgot your bathrobe!” Hunk called after them, heading over to retrieve the robe from the sinks, and then gave it an interested look. “Huh. He's embroidered his robe, too.”

Keith hummed thoughtfully, examining the rather elegant stitchery. “I wonder if I can get him to put Red on mine?”

Shiro snorted a laugh. “Maybe, after he's calmed down. Come on, we can't have him running around mostly naked, he'll scare the mice. Did you see where they went, Allura?”

“Toward the Invisible Maze room,” Allura replied. “Modhri needed to run a routine check on the force-screen generators earlier. Don't worry, it's disabled.”

“Not if Pidge wakes it up again,” Keith said, and headed for the door.

 

Scabolsa kaks-plogarthing knirx of a splething bolsucht,” Nasty swore as he removed the casing from one of the larger junction boxes. “You had to have stashed it in here, I saw you wiggling it through the vent. I will have that last napkin ring if I have to go through every one of these in the Castle! I swear, if we ever stumble across more of those mice, I'm going to smuggle a breeding group home as my revenge for banishing me. All Unilu on the Homeworld will know the horror of my wrath, so help me, Lawsy... aha! Got it—whoops!”

Nasty had to clutch at his stepladder as Pidge loped past, whooping with evil glee, closely followed by Lance, who was shouting threats and insults and clutching at his towel to keep it from flying away. Nasty smiled fondly and leaned against the wall to watch, flipping his screwdriver idly in one hand. “Star pupil,” he said proudly.

“Which one?” Keith panted behind him, and Nasty looked around to see the rest of the team as well.

“Oh, both,” the Unilu said happily, reattaching the casing, the silver napkin ring glinting from one slim wrist like a bracelet. “Back home, bathtime blackmail video-making is a spectator sport, especially after they made it legal for the record-ees to smack the record-ers with a folding chair if they could catch them.”

“Let me guess,” Shiro said, watching Lance chasing Pidge around in circles on the far side of the maze room, “folding chairs sell really well where you come from.”

“They're everywhere,” Nasty said cheerfully. “Anywhere you've got a fully-equipped bathroom, the folding chairs can't be too far away. Not so much here, but Kings don't go in much for cheap seating. All the same, it's almost like being home, watching that. I'm gonna miss you guys when I have to leave.”

Huh,” Keith said, tallying up the days since Nasty had joined them in his head. “Actually, shouldn't you have gone back to the Quandary by now?”

“Technically, yes,” Nasty grinned, twirling the napkin ring around his finger. “But that was before I found the loophole.”

Pidge's sneakers squealed on the decking, and she abandoned her fun to trot right back over to where the others were standing, Lance trailing after her in confusion. “What loophole?” she demanded. “I didn't leave you any loopholes in that contract!”

“Yes you did!” Nasty gloated, waving a finger under her nose. “I had to look real hard for it, I'll give you that, but there it was, standing there in plain sight with its pants down.”

She glared at him. “Explain.”

Nasty chortled. “That contract, and it was a pretty good one for a first try, said that I had to spend a total of one month on this floating madhouse, teaching you all of my hard-won secrets, right? You never said whose months.”

“What?” she squeaked in sudden chagrin.

Yes!” Nasty declared triumphantly. “By the Galran Standard Calendar, I've been here overtime, even with the vacations—unpaid vacations, mark you! But, by the Ulomnian Calendar, I've still got two weeks. So, there.”

Pidge buried her face in her hands. “Aagh! How could I have missed that?”

Keith gave Nasty a suspicious look. “Should I be throwing him out of an airlock, Pidge?”

Pidge sighed and shook her head. “No, no, we're playing by Unilu rules, and he's right. He's culturally required to twist any contract he signs to his own benefit.”

Allura cocked them both a puzzled look. “Shouldn't he be trying to shorten his term, then?”

Nasty made a rude noise. “Are you nuts? I haven't found all the silverware yet! She wasn't kidding about making it a challenge, which I can respect.”

“It's true,” Pidge informed them. “If he finds all of the silverware, he not only wins the bet, but he gets to keep the whole set--”

“And it's a really nice set,” Nasty interjected, “Altean-made, too, which makes it really valuable. I could retire rich off of this, if I can find the right buyer.”

“--So we're stuck with him until he finds all the pieces, his time by Ulomnian standards runs out, he gets bored, or Tilla eats him,” Pidge finished.

Tilla had indeed come ambling up the hall, complete with mousy passengers, and she paused with an amused rumble. Nasty waved a pair of hands at her. “Oh, come on, she wouldn't do that,” he protested. “I mean, look at her, standing there as sweet as she can be, with the mice on her back... and they've... they've got salt and plip-spice shakers... Oh, crud!”

“GRONK!” said Tilla, and charged, forcing everyone else to flatten themselves against the walls as she took a turn chasing Nasty around the maze room a few times, snapping playfully at his bandanna while the mice squeaked encouragement.

Shiro burst out into helpless laughter at these antics. Pidge grinned and said, “I wonder how long it'll take him to realize that those shakers are part of the set?”

Hey!” the Unilu yelled. “Give me those!”

“Not too long,” Allura said, putting her back to the wall as the dragon thundered by again, this time with Nasty in hot pursuit, screaming, “Come back here!” as he tried to catch her tail. “Observant, isn't he?”

“Usually,” Pidge said. “Situational awareness is—hey!”

Lance had plucked the handcomp out of her grasp and took off down the hall, using his long legs to his best advantage. Pidge sped after him, yelling her own stock of threats and insults at the top of her voice. Shiro slumped against the wall, howling with laughter and enjoying himself too much to stop.

 

“They're back, your Highness,” Lieutenant Tilwass said, “and they've got what they were sent to get.”

Lotor looked up from his screen, where he had been trying to find any references as to what that gigantic, red-scaled monster had been. So far, all he had found were a handful of rather vague old legends and folklore, a few images and vids taken from long distances away, and a good deal of wild speculation. In summary, the best way to deal with such a beast was to run away as fast as the ship's engines could be pushed, and to hope like hell that it wasn't hungry enough to chase you. Lotor had lost three destroyers and nearly his own flagship before the monster had given up on him, and he was fairly sure that the short, blurry video he'd found of one of those things taking a Weblum apart would haunt his dreams for a while. Even Imperial warships preferred to leave Weblums alone. It was a rather disturbing line of study, and led to dark speculations as to the true powers of the Paladins and their Rogue Witch; they had clearly summoned the creature, and he did not want that happening again anytime soon. Particularly not while a significant percentage of his most effective ships were out of action.

“Very good, Tilwass,” he said, putting aside his files and standing up. “Let us go and explain to our guests what their new employment entails. In retrospect, we should have done this before we left Nelargo.”

Tilwass puffed a black laugh. “Lady Inzera wouldn't have liked it, sir. She's awful possessive of her techs, and even the Ghamparva have to come to her for tune-ups and repairs. The monopoly on those ships runs both ways.”

Lotor's lips twisted in a wry smirk. “And the fact that she was able to wring that concession out of the Ghamparva is testament to her skill... and her ruthlessness. I will take care to see to it that she does not catch us. Has anything else of note happened while I was busy?”

Tilwass bared his teeth in a worried grimace as they entered the lift. “Yeah, and it's not good news. It's been put about to the Shipyards and Garrisons that you're not to be allowed to commandeer any more ships, and your Imperial dad is letting it stand. Doesn't surprise me, really, considering how many we've gone through already. If we need to fill out the ranks again, you'll have to get them the old-fashioned way.”

“Duels to the death with their commanders,” Lotor sighed, and then smiled. “That shouldn't be difficult out here. Father does not waste his best officers on the outer worlds, and it's been a long time since I've had a proper fight. We'll manage, Lieutenant.”

“No argument there, Sir,” Tilwass said as the lift doors opened again, letting them out into the fighter bays.

A few minutes' brisk walk brought them to one of the middling-sized landers, where a small group of frightened-looking men in engineer's coveralls were being herded down the ramp by a troop of Sentries. Hands bound, Lotor noticed.

“They wouldn't come willingly?” he asked.

“No, my Lord,” the lander's co-pilot said with a salute. “They're more afraid of Lady Ghurap'Han than they are of us, or of you, for that matter. Just be glad that we didn't have to stun them. She's forbidden them to help you in any way, and they take her orders seriously.”

Lotor turned to face his captives. Ten of them, mature and highly skilled in their craft to judge by the badges of rank sewn onto their sleeves, which showed good sense on the part of his two agents; looking after three ships each shouldn't be beyond their abilities. “Has she, now?” he asked them. “And how will she enforce that order, now that you are well away from the Shipyard?”

The oldest of them vented a soft sigh. “She's laid a hex into each of us. She does that to everyone who knows how to service Ghamparva craft. If we do not obey her, we die. You have made a bad enemy and have taken a great risk, and for nothing. That is all I can tell you.”

Lotor cocked him a calculating look. “And if I have the hexes removed?”

Wordlessly, the man shrugged, although his expression indicated that it might be worth a try.

Lotor hummed thoughtfully. “Tilwass, don't we have a woman of skill on one of the ships?”

“Yessir,” Tilwass replied, sparing a pitying look for the kidnapped engineers. “Sergeant Hokora, serving on the light cruiser Artash. Bad-tempered, but she can lift and lay hexes better than many. She's rumored to be Druid-grade, and she's threatened to have the hapleks off of the man who whispers a word of it outside of her ship. Her men don't argue with her.”

Lotor nodded. “Very good. Have her brought over to take a look at these gentlemen. I need them free of that termagant's will and added to the fighter-deck's roster as soon as possible. I will not let some spiteful old woman get between us and victory; I have had enough and more than enough of that from Haggar.”

As he turned to leave, he saw the first hints of hope blooming in the engineers' faces. Only in the youngest of them, though, and the older ones either looked suspicious or neutral. Once he and Tilwass were out of earshot, he murmured, “Tell Hokora to alter their hexes, rather than remove them. Have her bind them to my command; I don't want them trying to escape before they've taught my own engineers everything that they know.”

“Yessir,” Tilwass said.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Deus ex Machina

 

Shiro gripped the control beams in his hands, settling himself stubbornly into the seat and willing the cockpit to come to glimmering life around him, only to feel crushing disappointment when the screens remained blank. “Please?” he muttered, knowing that he was begging and not giving a damn.

Not yet, was the unspoken answer, although he felt a hint of apology in the Lion's silence. He was pushing it, he knew, and someone would probably scold him for it shortly. He was almost back at full strength now—almost, but not quite. Flying a Lion was no small job even for a person at the peak of health and strength, and despite being months ahead of where he would be if his team hadn't been speeding his recovery, he wasn't quite there yet. Shiro simply did not have the reserves of dense muscle mass and energy built up yet, and if he had a big vision while flying, it could incapacitate him. Oh, Black could sustain him by feeding him pure raw Quintessence from his own core, but that was very dangerous. Speaking with the Hoshinthra had cemented the risks associated with Quintessence addiction in his mind, which had probably been the whole point. The Mystics, he felt, made a habit of working to more than one purpose. With a long sigh, he heaved himself out of the chair and headed back down the ramp to where Keith was waiting for him.

“No, huh?” Keith asked sympathetically.

“Not yet,” Shiro replied with a wistful look up at the huge dark cephalon. “I hate this part.”

Keith smiled and patted his friend on the shoulder. “You should have seen us when we were recovering from that big hex. Modhri had to ride herd on us all the time, and Zaianne practically had to sit on Allura to keep her off of the pilot's platform.”

“And the dragons had their hands full with Lizenne, I'll bet,” Shiro said as they headed back toward the lifts.

Keith shook his head. “Not really. Stopping that hex nearly killed her, and she didn't start to get really pushy about it until almost the end. There's that 'almost' again.”

Shiro vented a faint, amused breath. “Yup. I feel bad about sitting on my butt, is all. I want to help. I need to help, and I can't.”

Keith cast him a sidelong look. “And here's the part where I tell you that you're helping by just being here, right? That's the way it works in the vids.”

Shiro chuckled. “Yes, and then I find an excuse to go and do something brave, vital, and stupid, with a fifty percent chance of dying nobly—or at least taking a lot of damage while I'm at it. No thanks. That sort of thing would not only put me out of action for another year, but Zaianne would rip a strip out of me. She takes her 'Mom' duties seriously.”

Keith snickered. “I know. She's been mothering you a little?”

Shiro sighed, thinking back on the last training session she'd put him through; her demeanor had been half drill sergeant, half soccer mom, and he had been near exhaustion when she had let him go. “In her own unique way. It's doing me good.”

Keith nodded, stepping into the lift and pushing the button that would take them up to the command deck. “Me, too. You're doing fine, she says, and Kolivan's thinking about taking you along for part of his share of the battle. You might not be up to much fighting yet, but you can help coordinate things, and any hunch you get will be appreciated. If he decides against it, Yantilee's happy to have you aboard anytime, and for the same reason. So would Coran.”

Shiro smiled. “That would be good. Every little bit helps, hmm?”

“Yeah,” Keith glanced at him. “Hunk says that no matter what, you need to stop by the kitchen and grab one of those packets of energy bars that he and Modhri made up. If you get a big hunch, you'll need them.”

“For my lunchbox, right,” Shiro said, recalling what he'd been told about the necessity of having snacks on hand at all times. “Have they started supplying the Blades with them as well? I don't want them stealing my stash.”

Keith snorted. Word of Modhri's superior snack bars had spread. “They're sort of limited-edition right now—the envirodeck can only produce so much of the ingredients, but you're allowed to smack their knuckles if you see them going for your food. It's cool, Shiro. Mom says that this is brotherly behavior, and a little roughhousing is okay.”

The lift chimed and the doors opened, and Shiro considered that last statement in thoughtful silence as they made their way to the bridge. “They've really become part of the family, haven't they? We've come a long way since the first time we met them.”

Keith rubbed at one shoulder, remembering how angry and suspicious the Blades had been when they'd first met, and the grueling challenge that they had set him. “Yeah. I'm not going to complain, though. It's good to have them around, fighting on our side.”

There was more to it than that, Shiro was aware. By all rights and if things had been different, Keith—Khaeth—would have had as many as eight brothers, and a sister to boss him and the others around. At least a dozen uncles, too, and a scattering of fearsome aunts, and potentially innumerable cousins. A Human might be a little overwhelmed by such a situation, but Galra found it right and proper; indeed, half of Keith's very substance demanded it. It gave Shiro a new depth of understanding of just how lonely the boy must have been after he had lost his father and uncle. Wordlessly, he draped an arm over Keith's shoulders, and felt his hand being clasped in return.

The bridge doors hissed open, revealing Coran seated at his console, Allura on the pilot's dais, and Zaianne lounging in one of the defense-drone stations. Tilla was also there, sitting by the door, and she sniffed at Shiro's shoulder and gave him what could only be called a Look. It was so similar to the Looks that his own mother had given him every time that she suspected that he'd been naughty that it startled a smile out of him, and he patted her nose in apology.

“Yeah, I know, sorry,” he said contritely, running his hand over the fine scales around her nostrils. “Black won't let me fly yet, but I had to try.”

Tilla grunted noncommittally and turned her head back toward the screens, where a familiar solar system hung in the star-washed darkness of space. He and Keith made their way forward to study the image. Jeproba was another binary system, those being fairly common in this end of space. Both stars seemed to be more or less the same size and fairly stable, if a little smaller and yellower than Earth's own star. And crowded. The inner orbits were full of a chunky tangle of dwarf planets and asteroids, with an enormous gas giant with storm bands in an improbable mix of blue, green, white, yellow, and hot pink drifted in splendid isolation out beyond them. Orbiting that polychrome monster was a small, irregular-looking world that was surprisingly Earthlike.

“Is that Jeproba?” Keith asked, pointing at that homelike little sphere.

“Yes, actually,” Coran said. “Good eye, there, although Lance wants to relabel the gas giant 'Tutti-Frutti' for some reason. Silly idea, that. Not only does it have a perfectly good name already, but nobody wants to orbit a planet named after a Spregorian fad for nose-hair styling. It's been out of fashion for years, anyway. I checked.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Where we come from, it's an ice-cream flavor. It's pink, and usually has a lot of fruit and candy mixed in.”

Coran waved a hand airily. “So are the Spregorians. Very fond of sweets, but not big on personal hygiene. Odd how things work out like that, eh? It'd be a funny old universe if everything made sense.”

Allura giggled at the suspicious look Keith shot him, and smiled at Shiro. “We received a message from Kolivan just before you came up,” she told him. “He would like to have you riding along aboard Jasca during the liberation attempt, if you would like. That way, if you should have a Vision, you will best be able to inform the rest of us from there. She'll be right at the heart of the Fleet's communications, and can direct any information to where it needs to be far faster than a flesh-and-blood comm operator. I'm a little envious of that offer myself—it seems that only a privileged few are allowed to serve aboard that station, to hear the Blades complaining about it!”

“She and Tzairona have my colleagues properly charmed,” Zaianne chuckled, stretching out her long legs comfortably. “Some of my people's most fondly-held legends involve wondrous ships with their own guardian spirits. Countless little girls and boys have played at being fearless heroes aboard such craft as the Ocuirion Vasshos, the Nambarka, or even the great Ekuliar Kvai Granch, whose mad Captain sailed down those two Great Rivers that neither god nor demon could traverse, and did so twice before she ran the boat aground in a tree upon a mountaintop in the center of a desert. It's said that she patched the hull with tree sap and her own felted hair, took a few desert tribesmen for fresh crew, and then took the ship out into the Sea of Stars. She's supposed to drop by the Core Worlds every fifty years or so to pick up a few more adventurous young people, but the Ekuliar hasn't been seen in centuries.”

Keith and Shiro stared at her for a long moment. “So...” Keith said slowly, “Jasca and Clarence are letting their guys live the dream. Wow. I'm going to want to hear those stories sometime.”

“Me, too,” Shiro said.

She winked at them. “Invite me to one of your pajama parties, and we'll make it a night of wild tales. Would you like to take Kolivan up on his offer, my son?”

Shiro's backbone tingled slightly at the prospect of coming into contact with Tzairona again, but nodded. “That may be the best use of my skills, assuming they cooperate this time. I... I don't actually have any real control over them yet.”

Allura shrugged. “According to my research, no true Oracle ever gains full control. It's much like watching for pictures in the clouds, it seems. Sometimes the sky will be full of perfect images, and sometimes it's all just water vapor at a great height. There might be no clouds at all, or you might get rained on. Or struck by lightning.”

Shiro smiled. “That's a pretty good way of putting it, actually. Just have him tell us when he's ready, and I'll be right over.”

“Say hi to everyone for me,” Keith said, and then turned to study the screen. “So, will there be any changes in the plans?”

“Inevitably, but nothing major just yet,” Coran said, tapping in a sequence that highlighted the various forts and stations on the screens. “So far, there's no sign that the local garrison has replaced the fleet that we dealt with back at Bericonde—warships don't grow on hipple-bushes, you know—but they're still fairly heavily fortified at key points. Here, look at this one; almost as big as Clarence, and possibly just as well-armed.”

“But nothing like as mobile,” Keith said thoughtfully. “Yeah, we discussed that one at the meeting. Pidge wants to take that station down and possibly over first, and then fly interference while the Quandary deals with that other fort over... over there. Tchak sure likes the idea of having a few of those on our side.”

Shiro nodded. “I can agree with that. If we can take down the big targets before...” he paused, aware of a flickering at the back of his mind that was gone before he could grasp it. Only a few sensations remained, and he blinked, shook his head, and clenched his fists reflexively.

Seeing the sudden tension in him, Keith frowned in concern. “Another hunch?”

“Just a little one,” Shiro said, pulling in a long, calming breath and letting it go. “I was flying the Lion in battle, and not anytime soon. That's all. That's all, but... but it felt like Robeast.”

Keith nodded understandingly. Fighting a Robeast was very different from fighting warships. “Haggar's rebuilding, then. Crud. We really need to do something about that witch.”

“We're working on it,” Allura said firmly. “This is just another step closer to us doing just that.”

 

“Lunch box, Shiro,” Hunk said, pushing the packet firmly into Shiro's gauntleted hands. “Never leave home without it.”

Shiro wasn't going to argue, and took the box gratefully; his armor was still a bit loose in spots and the packet smelled of Zampedran granola bars. Even Pidge was willing to admit that those were almost as good as Ronok's mettic-paste cookies. “Thanks. Has everyone else stocked up?”

“Oh, yeah, and doubled up.” Hunk adjusted the fit of his helmet and patted a similar packet that he'd affixed to his armor's belt. “We might be seeing Lotor again if Doodlebug didn't eat him, and if he's still got some of those Ghamparva ships, we're going to need the extras.”

Shiro hummed thoughtfully. “It occurs to me that you've all been focusing on using your own powers more than you've been exploring the capabilities of the Lions. Have there been any new secrets uncovered?”

Hunk paused a moment, thinking hard about that before waggling a hand uncertainly. “Sort of? I've gotten hints from mine that Voltron's got more to give, but it's mostly bigger guns and faster moves. All the fancy stuff comes from us. Remember what the Mystics said, chief, about us being Voltron, and the Lions are sort of... well, just sort of extensions of us now? It's starting to make more and more sense the longer that I think about it.”

Shiro frowned as he considered his teammate's words, and wasn't sure he liked where they were going. “You may be onto something, and we might want to talk about that as a group sometime later. I think that Coran may have mentioned something about that a while ago. Some of the previous teams—yes, Vennex?”

Modhri's nephew had trotted up with a notescreen in one hand. The ex-soldier had been put to work running errands lately, work that he performed so efficiently that he was starting to become indispensable. He raised a hand in a sort of salute, a habitual gesture that had been trained into him by a long series of drill sergeants. “The shuttle's here, sir,” he said respectfully, “and the pilot's told me to tell you to get down to the hangar deck as quick as you can. Things are starting to move already.”

“I'll be right there,” Shiro said, and patted Hunk on the shoulder. “Good luck out there.”

Hunk returned the gesture. “You, too. By the way, I made Allura promise to try to talk Black into letting you fly around a little with him after we're done with this raid, just as a warm-up kind of thing.”

Shiro grinned at him. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem, Shiro. Let's get going. We've got a world to save.”

That was good enough for both of them, and they took off at a trot for their respective lifts. Shiro tried not to envy Hunk, but it was hard going, and it was with some relief that he saw the masked and armored Blade waving at him from one of their sleek little fighters the moment that he stepped out onto the hangar deck.

“Everybody's in position?” he asked when he arrived at the fighter's hatch.

“Almost,” the Blade replied in a woman's voice, and one that he didn't recognize. “Strap in. Clarence says that a replacement Imperial fleet is on its way here, and the Talssenemai wants first crack at them.”

Shiro threw himself into the copilot's seat and let the crash harness bind him in securely. “Fine with me,” he replied, although not without a slight shudder. “Have any of the new Hoshinthra Warleaders shown up yet?”

“No sign of them yet,” the Blade replied, steering the fighter out of the Castle's bay doors and into open space. “The Talssenemai has hinted that her descendants are positioning themselves, but not in accordance with any plan of ours. We have no idea of what they're doing, or where.”

Shiro snorted in grim amusement. “That sounds about right. It's something to lose sleep over, I'm guessing.”

The Blade cocked him an enigmatic glance as she steered them around an asteroid and into the presence of Jasca's bicone-shaped hull. “You have no idea.”

They entered Jasca's small shuttle bay with ease and grace, and Shiro allowed himself to be escorted up to the bridge. It was smaller than he was used to seeing in Galra ships, although by no means claustrophobic, and his nerves eased when he felt the tell-tale signature of Hunk and Pidge humming through the very substance of the walls; if he closed his eyes and concentrated, he felt, the whole place would be glowing with their golden-green energies. The screens were glowing quite brightly enough here on the physical plane, as was the station's AI—Jasca's holographic avatar stood tall and proud on the deck beside her bridge crew, her long fluffy tail twitching like a cat's. She looked around at their arrival, and flashed both Paladin and Blade a fierce but welcoming smile.

Aha!” she said cheerfully. “There you are. All right, Clarence, we've got him on deck. I'm sending out the roll call.”

Heard and acknowledged, Jasca,” Clarence's tinny tenor replied promptly. “We're ready. All Blade units are in place.”

Yantilee's voice was heard next. “My lot's ready. Paladins?”

Positioned and ready,” Allura's voice came through strong and clear.

“Chimera ready,” Modhri chimed in.

Castle's ready as well,” Coran added.

Estimated time of arrival of that replacement fleet is approximately ten minutes by the Imperial standard clock,” Clarence reported.

We will use that time well,” Kolivan's deep voice declared. “Your mark or mine, Admiral?”

Yantilee made an odd chuffing sound. “We've both had a turn. Shiro, your mark.”

Shiro drew in a surprised breath, but had no time to question it. He could feel the moments of destiny approaching, each one bearing a different sort of victory. Somehow—he had no idea of exactly how he did it, but he focused in on the one that looked right. Seconds sleeted by like snowflakes until the one perfect moment was close enough to touch...

NOW!” he shouted, and all across the solar system, ships leaped into furious action.

The Ghost Fleet was simply and suddenly there as over a hundred mismatched corsairs dropped their invisibility fields, opening fire upon their targets with neither challenge nor warning; they all had learned the hard way that Galra never surrendered without a fight, even in the face of impossible odds. Shiro heard Jasca laugh as she blocked the distress beacons and shut down the relay stations, and his breath hitched as the Lions joined forces with Clarence to engage the main orbital fort. He listened to the comm chatter and heard his team shouting advice back and forth between them and their companion ships; the orbits were thick with blazing bolts from thousands of ion cannons and the fighting craft seemed to dance as they avoided or deflected the enemy fire. Once again, Shiro felt left behind, even though Jasca was right in the thick of it all, her shields thrumming like cello strings as cannon blasts glanced off of them, her own guns making the decking quiver every time they spoke. Voltron formed up with a smooth ease that hurt his heart with its blaze of aetheric glory, and he felt sweat start to trickle down his back in an echo of his team's exertions. His bond with them was strong, and he had no choice but to focus on it to the exclusion of all else. The people around him seemed to fade into shadows along with the room itself; nothing existed but the view before him and the sensations streaming through his consciousness. He could feel it each and every time a shot was fired, his very bones hummed in harmony with the powerful drives, and communication channels flashed and glittered through his blood in bright streams. He stared so deeply into the battle before him that his eyes lost focus, seeing double—no, triple... or was he?

Where was he?

He was standing on an infinite twilight plain, sounds liquid and distant, breath like the memory of ice, the air charged as though a major electrical storm was about to break. He could still see the battle from here, but every craft was limned in light in a hundred thousand colors. He could see every living thing and the life forces in the ships themselves, and the planets below blazing like arc lamps. Even their shadows glowed like after-images, and shifted like ripples in a pool. So many of them, all interacting in an infinite complexity, they dazzled his eyes and confused him.

Someone nudged him in the ribs with an elbow, and he smelled cold, stale storeroom air and the hard tang of alcohol. Shiro blinked, shook sweat out of his eyes, and stared at a fallen soldier who saluted him with his silver flask and pointed at something behind him. Shiro smelled burnt insulation and thunderstorm, and turned to behold Tzairona, who was watching the battle with the air of a seasoned troublemaker. She lifted her head proudly, flames flickering through the small hole in her breastplate, and she gave him a wild smile that he had seen many times before. Many times, and on the face of her many-times-great-grandniece when she had been teaching him to fight Druids.

Look here, she told him, one long finger following a darting fighter, describing the ripples that it made in space. Ignore the ones behind it, those aren't important right now. Focus a few steps ahead. See how they branch? Find the strong branches and follow them.

“How?” Shiro whispered.

Zerod grinned at him. Do what you told that little brother of yours to do. Calm down, and don't let it all scare you.

Shiro stared at the impossible tangle of light and darkness, unsure of where to begin. Still, the advice he had received was good. “Patience yields focus,” he whispered, and his eyes lifted to the polychrome blare of the Lions—the rose-purple heart of Voltron in particular. “Help me.”

 

Allura and the others gasped and yelped in surprise when they felt Shiro's talent bloom like a rose, and again when the Lions roared as one. After that, they had no time to think. Shiro was shouting instructions, a rapid-fire stream of information that was only intelligible to them because they could read him through the Lion-bond. Hunk reached out to steady him through that link, and Allura fed him strength. Lance kept his body stable, Keith burned away stress toxins, and Pidge improved the flow of his thoughts. All of them flew and fought on the physical plane as though on autopilot, at one with the Lions while they kept the wild power of their leader from consuming him utterly. He guided them through the link in return, and even the sudden appearance of a whole new battlefleet could not faze them. Nor did the corresponding appearance of the Night Terror, although her battle-scream caused chaos aplenty among the rest.

Her, they worked around, rather than with; she was too wild, too old, too predatory, and too insane for any but her own kind to command, and she had her own ways to predict the near future. To Shiro's inner eyes, she was more like the legendary Wild Hunt than anything else, or perhaps the Hyakki Yakou; unstoppable, uncontrollable, and instantly deadly. The Ghost Fleet, on the other hand, was far more amenable to good advice and acted where appropriate, listening in growing awe to the man's voice that was close to godlike in its absolute surety, growing reassuringly hoarse from continual speech. The only person who could not hear those words was Shiro himself. He was too deep in his vision to notice the words that streamed out of him like ticker tape. All he could do was try to understand what he saw, and what he saw was everything. He could feel the others helping him to filter the pure golden threads of the future from a vast tangle of loose probability, and kept on unraveling it until the goal was achieved. Mind blazing with light, Shiro sagged to his knees, lungs heaving. Walls and decking and other living beings sifted themselves out of the infinity around him. He hurt all over, his lungs and throat were on fire even as his skin seemed to be freezing, and he smelled his own sweat thick in his nostrils.

Get some fluids into him now!” someone was shouting, and there was a tug at his waist; a moment later, a straw was forced between his chattering teeth and a thin stream of liquid across his tongue triggered a desperate desire for more.

That was a big one,” the voice continued tensely as he drank, a voice he had heard somewhere before. “Tzai used to have those trances sometimes, and while our superiors just loved them, they could leave her flat on her back for days. That was one of the reasons why she preferred to stay away from the big battles. She and Commander Marmora used to fight about it all the time. Give him another drink packet, and then let him have the snacks. His biorhythms are all over the place!”

Shiro accepted the second packet with gratitude, drank it dry, and attacked with gusto the granola bar that someone handed him. His belly felt like a black hole had taken up residence in the pit of his stomach, and it was going to take a lot of matter and energy to shift it.

Groshan, you give that back,” the increasingly familiar voice snapped sharply. “I don't care how good they taste, he needs it more than you do. Kolivan, we may have to buy a few Hanifor science ships just so that we can plantation-farm the ingredients for those in the envirodecks. Groshan, I really mean it. Give that bar over or I'm demoting you back to piloting that troop carrier.”

Without looking around, Shiro reached out and plucked the granola bar out of the hands of a Blade who was twice his mass and bit into it. It was rich and nutty and sweet, both crunchy and chewy, and it took some the edge off of his monstrous appetite. By the time that he had come to the last of them, he could register a world outside of his own needs again, and he snapped the last bar in half and handed it to the man kneeling next to him. Shiro managed to struggle upright, but didn't object when someone caught him under the arms and helped him into the nearby pilot's chair. He nodded his thanks and leaned back to rest, eyes closed, listening to the comm chatter.

Is he all right?” he heard Lance ask, sounding weary. “Yeah, he feels okay. That was big. Holy crow, that was really big. Hey, Yantilee, did we win? I think we won. If we did, I missed it.”

I'd say so,” Yantilee replied calmly. “The enemy didn't run, but neither are they leaving. Varda, I've got people rounding up the survivors, but you'll want to get down to Jeproba to tell them what's going on fairly soon. I'll send an escort with you to back you up in case the locals decide to deal with the prisoners themselves.”

Pidge muttered something impolite, but agreed. “Yeah. No bloodthirsty mobs. I am allergic to bloodthirsty mobs. I hereby declare the Jeproba System to be a No Bloodthirsty Mobs Zone. Do you hear that, people of Jeproba? No mobs.”

Shiro smiled faintly, and felt a cold hand pat his shoulder, and his opposite cheek was kissed lightly by a woman who wasn't there. They'd won, and he had helped, and the satisfaction of that eased his way into a deep and all-enveloping sleep...

 

… and into dreams.

 

It took him a long moment before he opened his eyes, simply because he couldn't believe what his senses were telling him. He was still sitting in a chair, but the proportions had changed. The seat he'd been slumped in had been designed for Galra, who were taller and longer-limbed than Humans; it was a chair of Earthly make that he sat in now, and of a sort that could be found in the better restaurants of his home planet. He could hear the subdued roar of a happy crowd, and the play-by-play chatter from what seemed to be a pair of sports commentators, and under all of that was the background beat of the latest hit from a popular band. His nose detected the unmistakable aromas of spicy, deep-fried chicken wings—fried in genuine, old-fashioned peanut oil and not any of the modern, “healthy” synthetics. He smelled barbecue sauce, and french fries, red meat and coleslaw; the sharp tang of onion and the soft burn of mustard, and the underlying mellow odors of good draft beer. He knew this place, and opened disbelieving eyes to gaze upon the interior of Hank's, the best and fanciest sports bar in town. He had been here only once before, just a few days before Adam had--

He stopped that thought right there, unwilling to revisit that time in his life. Instead, he concentrated on his surroundings. Hank's was a vast open space with two levels, the lower level with its massive bar and the glimmering display of over two hundred craft and microbrewery beers behind it. The walls were nothing more or less than giant vid-screens, as always tuned to the latest big game. It was said that Hank, who still ran the place, had a superstitious phobia of showing anything else, lest the Almighty become angry with him. There seemed to be some grounds for that belief, since the last time some poor fool of a night manager had switched to a politics channel, a supercell storm had blown up out of nowhere and had knocked the power out for over a week. Hank had reportedly fired the man on the spot, dragged in a portable generator, and had played three decades' worth of Superbowl, World Series, Olympics, FIFA championships, Wimbledon, and even Sumo match recordings in the original Japanese nonstop until the power grid had been repaired. Tonight, however, the screens showed the battle for Jeproba, and the crowd below roared in approval as the Lions zoomed by.

He was sitting at a table on the upper level, he realized, which was generally reserved for high rollers, business lunches, and parties. It was largely empty now, save for a table some distance away, where a fallen soldier and a woman who had been greatly valued for her far-sightedness toasted each other and the battle with tall glasses of Guiness.

A very good game, someone said nearby. Congratulations, Champion.

The voice was strange, a resonating baritone that was peculiarly directionless. Shiro turned to stare at the person sharing his table. The tall, muscular Galra man sitting comfortably across from him was no one that he knew, but one who nevertheless looked incredibly familiar. He was wearing hunting leathers as casually as if they were everyday wear, and his fur was very dark; nearly black, with a frosting of silvery hairs over his shoulders and upper arms that made him look like a distant starfield. An aura of age and power hung around him like perfume, and a half-empty glass of some golden liquor stood near his hand. On the table before him was a long string of what looked to be gemstone beads: agates and amythests, amber and malachite, topaz and carnelian and a hundred other stones, all carved into shapes resembling claws, fangs, and small bones. A small bowl of loose beads sat by the glass, and he was stringing them on the cord with care and admiration for each one, sealing each gem into place with a neat little knot.

“Who are you?” Shiro asked warily.

The Galra looked up. For a second, he looked like Modhri, but that changed from moment to moment, his features constantly shifting their shape in a subtle ripple of form and expression. For a second he was Vennex, and then Zaianne, and then Sendak, and then Keith, and a dozen other people whom he had never seen before. The eyes were always the same, though, glowing like Earth's own Harvest Moon as it rose above September's horizon, orange-gold and full of mystery. He had seen them once before, briefly, as well as the smile that followed.

A colleague, for the time being, the stranger said. Insofar as that is possible, anyway. I had to bend some rules for this arrangement, but it was agreed that this was necessary. The other team has been cheating, you see, and ours needed a pinch-hitter.

A long, clawed finger flicked toward the screens, and Shiro turned to see Voltron deal a deathblow to a warship. There was a faint, glassy clatter that made Shiro look around again, and he saw two more gems coalesce out of thin air and drop into the bowl. His strange companion made a faint clucking sound of mild disappointment and lifted one of them up for inspection. Light from the screens glinted off of smooth obsidian, and the man vented a small sigh.

Courage will only take you so far, I'm afraid, he murmured, sliding the bead onto the cord. Fortune might favor the bold, but not forever. Rest well, and know that your life was not wasted.

Shiro blinked in confusion, and then realized that those words had been directed at the bead, not at him. “I don't understand. I think that I saw you before, back in that old star cluster. What do you want from me, and from the rest of us?”

The Galra smiled and cast him a lambent glance from fathomless eyes. Yes, you did. Good. Not many would have, even where the boundaries have been worn so thin. As for what I want... well, it would take far too long to explain. Boil it down to the very essence and it becomes a miracle of simplicity: I want you to win.

“To... to win?” Shiro asked. “That's all?”

All is a very big word, Champion. Another knot was set into place, and another bead was chosen and admired. Winning is by no means limited to the conclusion of a match. Far too many winning streaks end in failure because the contestants do not follow through. I don't think that you'll make that mistake. I chose very carefully this time.

Shiro heard a certain grimness in the stranger's tone, one that he recognized. “This time. Not last time?”

The Galra's hands paused in their work, and eyes the color of molten gold turned to gaze upon Voltron as the mighty battle robot claimed an orbital fort. No. Mistakes were made, and very serious ones. We've lost a lot of ground since then, and desperately need to reclaim it. Take heart, Champion. We've already made some spectacular plays, and the likelihood of making more is very good. Not least because of you. Hah. The other team wasn't expecting you.

“Me?” Shiro asked, very surprised. “I haven't done all that much.”

The Galra man cast him an amused glance and returned to his bowl of beads; three more gems snapped into being and dropped into the bowl with hard little sounds. That's what you think. Sometimes, a person doesn't have to do anything. Sometimes, they just have to be. Sometimes, they don't have to be a person so much as an idea, a memory, or a symbol. Here, you might recognize this.

The Galra lifted up a length of his string of gems, and Shiro stared in astonishment at one particular bead. Carved expertly from silver-gray banded agate was a mechanical arm that he knew very well. It had been his, and the sight of it shocked him into speechlessness.

I had you cupped in the palm of my hand, the man said with considerable amusement, and not without a certain wicked glee, I confess. It was very close to stealing, but arguably fair, since a halfblood of my own people thought of you as a brother. For my kind, a declaration of kinship goes a bit further than mere convenience. For the love of kin, he and his siblings stole you right out from between my fingers, leaving only this behind. A bitter gift it might have been to you, but it is treasure to me, and well worth the trouble of obtaining it.

Shiro shuddered and looked away. On the screens, the vast hull of the Quandary spat great storms of ion blasts while swarms of smaller craft swooped and dove under the cover of that incandescent fire. Closer to hand, a pair of ghosts sat with their arms around each other's shoulders, singing a bawdy drinking song. On the floor below, the crowd cheered; on the table behind him, another stone dropped into the bowl.

Shiro heaved a long sigh. “Why are you telling me any of this?”

You've earned it, for what little comfort that might bring you, the man said, golden eyes solemn in a face that, just for a second, looked like Zarkon's before easing into Kelezar's gentler angles. I've put you through a great deal of pain, and for that I apologize, and for the pain that may well come in the days ahead. Do not be afraid to ask for advice from your friends, even about this discussion. It's your right, and your duty to be in possession of all of the facts.

Shiro puffed a faint, amused breath. “Are you going to tell any of the others this?”

The Galra fished the last stone out of his bowl with a pensive expression, admired it and then strung it before replying. No. Not personally. It's an effort to speak to the living even in dreams these days. Zerod over there had the right of it when he said that you were easy to talk to, having already been a little bit dead. You'll just have to pass my words on for me, eh? They're not much, I know, but it's good to get a bit of applause from one's backers now and again.

Shiro watched as the stranger picked up his glass and drained it, and dropped a handful of coins on the table that shone like stars. “Thank you, I suppose. Do you think that we'll be able to pull this off?”

The Galra gave him a smile that he'd seen on Zaianne's lips, full of humor and mischief and a mother's fondness for her near-adult sons. I wouldn't have chosen you if I didn't think so. I should go; you need your rest and there are things that I need to do. Don't worry, I've paid the tab for our friends there, and they won't mind if you leave early.

Shiro had to agree with that. The two people at the far table had called for fresh drinks and a platter of snacks, and Tzairona was teasing the waiter into a fit of bashful blushes. The man in hunting leathers stood up and wound the rope of gems around his waist and crosswise over one shoulder in long, glittering loops, then turned to leave, stooping slightly to pick up something that had been laid across a couple of extra chairs. The pale length of it glowed like mother-of-pearl, and the tip of it was a long lick of cold flame. Shiro drew in a sharp breath. “That's Lizenne's!”

It's mine, actually, but I've lent it to her for the time being, the man said with a sharp smile, his features shifting to mimic those of Ulaz, who had given his life to save them all. It's always best to have the right tools for the project at hand. You have yours, just as your team has theirs. You all have been given these gifts; use them well. Farewell for now, Champion. I'll see you again later, when the time is right.

He turned and strode away, vanishing into a twist of shadow before Shiro's wondering eyes, while on the screen before him the enemy was forced to surrender before the might of the Coalition's forces.

 

Shiro woke with a gasp and found himself in his own bed, divested of his armor and a small hand-glow on the bedside table illuminating a tall glass of water, a pitcher dewed with condensation, and a big plate of sandwiches under a transparent dome. His mind might have been reeling, but his stomach was perfectly clear about its requirements, and he dug into the food with deep gratitude for his team's care. The meal gave him enough strength to take a shower, but that was all, and he returned to his bed with a soft, tired groan. Sleep came easily, and with no more dreams.

He woke briefly to find more sandwiches and the energy to devour them, slept again, and repeated the process upon waking two more times before he found himself staring at the empty platter and not needing to flop back down again. Instead, he was still feeling a little peckish, so he took a quick shower to wash the crumbs off, pulled on one of the comfortable outfits that Lance had run up for him, and ambled out into the hall. It was late, he could feel that much, or perhaps very early, and he had no idea of how long he'd been asleep. He hadn't lost too much weight this time, or at least he didn't think so. His footsteps were sure and he wasn't dizzy, so that was something. He had nearly reached the lift when something squeaked behind him, and there was a familiar prickle on his right shin that told him that he wasn't alone.

“Hey there,” he said quietly, smiling down at the indignant ball of purple fluff that had attached itself to his leg. “How'd you get out of your room, Ranax? Do you need a snack, too?”

Ranax squeaked again, and allowed himself to be picked up and carried into the lift. Shiro stroked the soft fur while the lift took them up a few levels, and then headed toward the kitchen when the doors hissed softly open. Halfway there, he had to stop; his nose was registering an impossibility, and one that made a pang run through his heart and his breath catch in his teeth. Ranax squeaked and wriggled out of his grip, dropping to the floor and scampering toward the source of that scent. A moment later, he heard Ranax demanding a portion in his loud, shrill voice; Galra, Shiro reflected, even when they were very little, rarely begged. It took some doing even to get them to ask politely.

When he stepped into the kitchen, he saw that his nose hadn't lied to him; on the table was a plate of steaming, reddish objects that were painfully familiar. Zaianne was having a midnight snack, or trying to; Ranax had crawled up into her lap and was grabbing determinedly at the plate.

“Should he be having any of that?” Shiro asked, his eyes riveted to the food. “And where did we get spicy chicken wings?”

Zaianne smiled and separated the bones out of a wing, dropping the juicy fragments of meat into Ranax's snapping maw. “This little monster likes the spices very much, alas, and you should have heard him yelling for a share when these came out of the fryer. It isn't chicken, actually, but there is a Jeproban poultry-bird that comes very close to chicken in flavor and texture. The spices come from a dozen different worlds, but yes, it's a very good approximation. Sit down and share this meal with me, my son. It's good to see you up and about.”

Shiro gratefully pulled over a chair and grabbed a wing. It was slightly larger than a chicken's and the wingtips had rather alarming claws on them, but the flavor was everything that he could have hoped for. His dream had given him a craving, he thought, or perhaps he'd picked it up through the Lion-bond while he'd been asleep. He had gone through three of them before pausing to drink from the glass that Zaianne passed him.

“Good?” she asked, and smiled at his enthusiastic affirmative. “Before you ask, yes, Lizenne took a sample of the uncooked meat back to the Chimera, where it will be added to the gene-files. The dragons like it too, and therefore we will never lack for an almost-chicken dinner. How are you feeling?”

Shiro burped and reached for another wing. “Better. I think that I overdid it again. How long was I out?”

“Two days,” she replied, taking a wing for herself. “Don't worry, that's fairly common for an aetheric effort such as the one you produced. My colleagues were able to get food and fluids into you right away, which helped. Everyone was very impressed.”

“We won, then,” Shiro said, watching Ranax grab at Zaianne's wing.

“We did,” Zaianne answered, pulling a chunk of meat from the drumette and feeding it to the greedy child. “And very handily, with your guidance. The whole battle was over and done with in a handful of hours, which is unheard-of for an operation that big. I'm afraid that the Jeprobans got to their Governor, several of his cronies and underlings, and a fair few of the more obstreperous soldiers before we could. The best that I can say about that was that it was... very quick. Yantilee's people had very little trouble in convincing the rest of the occupiers that they should come along quietly. Most of them, anyway. There are a few outposts that are holding out against us, but we're working on that.”

Shiro hissed, remembering the huge digging claws that the pangolin-like Jeproban at the meeting had, and how badly that people had been treated by their overlords. “No mobs?”

Zaianne chuckled and took another wing. “No. Jasca made sure that the folks on the ground heard Pidge forbidding that sort of thing, and they're in enough awe of the Voltron Force—that includes you, by the way—that they're willing to humor her. It wasn't a mob that got the Governor and the rest, but simple opportunistic assassinations. Jeprobans made good servants, up to a point. There won't be any more of that sort of thing, thankfully. We have all spent the last two days helping to ensure that the System will remain stable and well-defended after we've left. I'm not sure what made the bigger impression—the formal alliance that Allura hammered out between them and the Coalition, or the big cookout that Hunk organized afterward. In any case, the Olkari have already gotten to work on the planet's ravaged ecology with some help from Pidge, Keith is helping to clean up polluted areas, Hunk is repairing broken utility systems right and left, and Lance is helping with the wounded. Coran has a gift for administration, and has pressed poor Vennex into service as his gofer; Lizenne and Modhri have been doing everything they can to help, as have the mice and dragons. Even this one's father--” she said, indicating the greasy-fingered brat in her lap, “--has located a business contact and is setting up supply lines. If you decide to visit them as well, expect applause. Oracles are highly honored on Jeproba.”

Shiro licked spicy fingers and took a sip from his glass. “I had help. My team, the Lions, even Zerod and Tzairona. And... and maybe someone else. I had a dream.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Tell me, and in as much detail as you can remember.”

“I was in a sports bar. Hank's, which was...” he shuddered; mentioning the name of the place brought it all back in frightening detail.

By the time that he had finished the story, the plate was empty and Ranax was slurping the spice off of it while Zaianne disposed of the bones. She washed her hands at the sink, retrieved a canister of cleansing wipes and sat down with a thump, and then fixed him with a very direct look while she cleaned the red-orange residue off of Ranax's face and hands. “My son, that was a God you were speaking with.”

Shiro stared at her. “A God?”

She nodded, draping the sleepy cub over her shoulder and patting his back until he burped. “And not the least among His Kin. That was Kuphorosk Himself, from your description, and while it does not surprise me that He is on our side, it does raise some unsettling questions. You will want to tell Lizenne about this when she wakes up. I know a number of interesting legends, but she's done more research than I. Did Khaeth ever tell you the Tale of the Bone Spear?”

“No. I wasn't aware that he knew any Galra mythology.”

Zaianne humphed faintly. “Perhaps we should have a storytelling night sooner, rather than later. If we've been co-opted into a game of gods, then I want everybody to know what's going on.”

Shiro picked up the plate, which had been polished clean, and slid it into the cleanser. “He chose me, specifically.”

“That's even worse,” Zaianne said, and then smiled. “At least He had the grace to apologize. It's very rare for any Deity to do that. Don't worry too much about it, Shiro. Our Gods were... are a rough and cheerful bunch for the most part, and They tended not to waste Their chosen ones. What good is it to kill off your Champions, however nobly, particularly before they'd had a chance to breed? Heroism is rare, and often skips generations, and the Gods liked having plenty of talented people around to work with. Our God-touched greats almost always wound up having big families. The old Royal Houses all prided themselves on their connections to those legendary Lineages, and many others as well. Mine included.”

“I'm Human,” Shiro protested.

“Humans and Galra are genetically related,” Zaianne informed him, “Lizenne confirmed it when she rebuilt your body. A bad joke on the part of some Elder Race, she believes, but she doesn't know which one, or which of our races is an offshoot of the other. It's not too far-fetched an idea—I saw a documentary once while I was living with Khaeth's father, on the evolution of certain creatures. The ancestors of the whale roamed on dry land and looked more like dogs than anything else, sheep and goats have an ancestor that might as well have been a sort of hyena, and there used to be a species of ten-foot-long, carnivorous kangaroo. There was even a type of saber-toothed herring, and the closest living relative of the elephant is a creature that is about the size and shape of a rabbit. Why shouldn't we have embarrassing and funny-looking relatives as well?”

Shiro puffed a laugh. “Well, that would explain a few things. Some of our own historical figures acted a lot like Sendak, and others were a lot like Zarkon.”

“Are you sure that Zarkon and Sendak aren't acting like them?” Zaianne smirked and handed him a wipe for his own hands. “It doesn't matter. Evil is the same, no matter who carries it, and it will be faced down and defeated regardless of time and place. Speaking of that, I feel like playing around a bit with Pidge's video game system. Would you like to accompany me?”

“Sure,” he said, and followed her out of the room.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: An Old Friend

 

Shiro stared. So did everyone else. Lizenne had demanded every last detail of his strange dream, and had decided to test its veracity with a known sample, namely the bone spear. She'd let the other Paladins handle it as well, being fairly sure that it wouldn't try to kill them. All it had done was glimmer a bit, although they had all heard the happy hum when Allura had touched it, possibly an acknowledgment of her triumph over Zarkon back on Teravan. Its reaction to Shiro was a bit more dramatic. He was standing now, arm outstretched with palm held flat and facing upwards while the long pale streak of bone and ivory hovered about an inch above his hand, shimmering like white opal and making a sound like the singing wind. He could almost make out words in that song, and it sounded almost like a hymn.

“And there's the proof of it,” Lizenne said, retrieving the weapon carefully. “That wasn't precisely a dream, Shiro, and I'll have you know that the last documented Visitation of this nature took place some nine thousand, nine hundred, and seventy-six years ago, just before Zarkon and Haggar crushed most of the Temples.”

“So, what are we going to do about it?” Keith asked, eyeing the spear warily.

“Nothing at all.” Lizenne smiled at his offended expression. “There isn't anything that we can do, nor should we try. I knew what I was getting into when I made this thing, although I wasn't expecting its influence to spread like it has. That you can all use this spear is... interesting. No other bone spear has ever allowed so many to handle it.”

Allura rubbed at her palm, which was tingling, although not unpleasantly. “I think that I might have heard something about that, long ago. Yes! I was only about seven or eight decaphebes old, and a Galra Ambassador was visiting Father's Court. She was very old and enjoyed playing with small children, and we became quite fond of each other. She would do pretty little magic tricks for me, and told me stories. I had thought that they were mere legends and bedtime tales.”

“What did she say?” Hunk asked curiously, rubbing at his own hand.

Allura gazed thoughtfully up at the ceiling as she tried to remember. “There had been a military parade earlier that day, an effort made to impress Father by one of the other Ambassadors whose culture demanded that sort of thing. Quite a lot of big, shiny ceremonial weapons had been waved about, some of which were supposed to have been magical or holy. I asked Ambassador... what was her name... Ambassador Ashoren if Galra had anything like that.”

Lizenne nodded, a nostalgic gleam in her eyes. “Many. Some of them even still exist in museums and private collections. A few of them are part of the landscape here and there.”

“Yes, but she also told me that the rarest of all mortal-made weapons would only permit their creators to touch them, unless certain, very important conditions were met. If another person needed to use them, there had to have been a special oath made, and beyond that there had to have been ties of blood. She wouldn't say more.”

Lizenne's brow furrowed in thought for a minute or two, and then she breathed out a decisive Ah. “Ghren-khesh'vaaht.”

“That was the one that Zaianne swore when she joined up with us,” Pidge said. “What does that mean, anyway?”

“'Soul-sisters in adversity', to translate very loosely,” Lizenne told her. “A very ancient oath. Should two unrelated women have the same mortal enemy, one might beg or one might offer the other the privilege of sisterhood, taking each other to be as one with them in purpose, strength, and spirit, the better to increase their chances of defeating that enemy. In all the ways that really matter, Zaianne is my sister, as much so as if we had been born as twins. This gives her license to use my spear, so long as she does so in the furtherance of the oath of kheshveg that we have sworn against the Emperor and his witch. Keith, you are her first-born and only son, and you, by right of the blood you share with her, may use it as well. Through your Human blood and the soul-bond that the Lions have given you, the others may also wield it in times of need. I suppose that we shouldn't be surprised that the spear's Master has taken an interest. What we're doing here is just a bit unprecedented, and unique things always attract attention.”

“That's us, all right,” Shiro said quietly, and then raised an eyebrow at their companion. “Will he have much influence over what we're doing? I can live with having a guardian spirit, but not if he steps in and takes over without warning me.”

Lizenne leaned on her spear and considered that for a moment before gesturing a negative. “No, or not much. By his own nature, he is much concerned with things of the past. He is perfectly capable of planning ahead, of course, that much is well-known from his surviving Lore, but he has no direct control over events as they happen. That's up to the living, I'm afraid, and none of us here truly corresponds to his own particular element. Voltron was not designed by a Galra, or its aetheric framework would have been very different. Altean alchemy is completely dissimilar from Galra witchery in many ways.”

Lance snapped his fingers. “Which is why Haggar can do things that you can't, but I'd bet that you—heck, all of us—can do things that she can't even dream of. She wouldn't be able to make one of those bone spears, right?”

Lizenne chuckled wickedly. “I'd like to see her try. At best, she'd be left with a pile of splinters and a few second-degree burns when it blows up in her face. At worst, she'd accidentally decapitate herself with the spearhead. Don't look at me like that, it's happened before, and more than once.”

“Risky,” Hunk said, eyeing the spear with deep suspicion. “Okay, so... what do we do now? I mean, it's nice getting a thumbs-up from someone else's pantheon and all, but we've still gotta find ways of dealing with our real-world problems. Keith says that Shiro saw that we'll have more Robeasts to deal with later, and sooner or later Zarkon's gonna start taking the Ghost Fleet seriously enough to really come down hard on them, and he'll probably start hammering on that Coalition we're putting together, too. I kind of want to be ready for him, you know?”

Lizenne shrugged. “You may be asking the wrong person. Kolivan and Yantilee are better long-term tacticians than I am, and have many more resources to tap. All that I can really suggest is that you might hang up a 'Do Not Disturb' sign for a few hours, perhaps get in one of the dragons to watch your backs, and spend the afternoon in a circle-session. You haven't done a full one with Shiro yet, have you?”

Keith shook his head. “Nope. Something always comes up, and then we have to go and hit something with a Lion. We still need to get back to--”

Allura's wrist-comm went beep, startling them all. “Yes?” she asked.

There you are, Princess,” Coran's voice said, “we just got a call from Haswick; it seems that we've got a visitor, and she's been asking specifically to see you and the team. Seeing as how the ship's an Omorog long-range Royal Courier, I'd say that it's probably fairly important. Might possibly be a plea for liberation, eh? It'd be nice to head back out there again.”

Allura smiled. “It would, and liberating planets does seem to be what we are for. By all means, invite them in.”

Will do,” Coran said staunchly. “I'll direct them to the shuttle deck. There should be plenty of room in there, since the Fleet captains took out all but one of those Hatchcrackers.”

Pidge humphed at that; she'd liked having the Hatchcrackers around, and having them stolen out from under her hadn't gone over well with their pint-sized pirate princess. Allura cast her a quelling look—they needed to stay in the Fleet's good graces—and answered, “Thank you, Coran, we'll go down and meet the courier there.”

Very good, Princess, I'll warn them,” Coran replied and signed out.

Lance had perked up instantly at the word “Omorog”, and he smiled hopefully. “Maybe it's a message from Loliqua—maybe she's Seen something important, and couldn't trust the comm channels. Ooh, or they might be throwing a big party and want us to visit! Royalty does that sometimes, right, Allura?”

“Yes, although such events tend to be terribly public, and I'd rather not have to fly the Lion while wearing a ballgown, should someone alert the Galra fleets!” Allura paused, considering that. “Although I am told that my great-grandmother once did something very similar, when a Horlopt raiding party tried to take advantage of the Autumn Dances. I believe that one of the museums preserved what was left of her gown as a historical artifact.”

Shiro snorted a laugh and followed along as she led the way to the lifts. “Was it?”

“Well, she did use half of it to bind the Horlopt's War-Chief once she'd finished slamming his heads into a wall,” Allura said casually, as if everyone's great-grandma could kick ass like an Altean. “Other than that, it was five thela of pure Voilaren ultrasilk, with thaquen-point lace at the bodice and sleeves, and the hems beautifully embroidered in the latest style. Even damaged, it was very much a treasure.”

Lizenne smirked. “Battle dress,” she said, making the others groan.

“I dunno, James Bond used to save the world in a tux all the time,” Hunk said, giving Lance a sidelong look. “There were like, forty or fifty movies and a whole bunch of vid series, and he looked sharp in every one of them. Even the thirty-first one, where he had to fight a pack of nuclear, neo-Communist, mad-science, space-alien-created dinosaurs in the middle of a toxic swamp on Venus. He got turned into a woman in that one, too, but the tux still fit like a glove. Think you can run us up some super-formalwear, Lance?”

Lance puffed a laugh; he'd seen that movie, and had ogled 007's female form shamelessly along with half of the world's population. That tux she'd been wearing had been a true work of costumer's art, especially when the snake popped out of her very impressive cleavage and bit the villain on the nose. “Maybe. I've still got a few other projects in the works.”

The Omorog Royal Courier was just settling itself into place in one of the larger bays when they arrived, a sleek, silver-and-blue craft that touched down with the feather-light precision that spoke of a really first-class pilot. The drive powered down with a long descending whine and the gyros emitted long geysers of steam as they cooled. A minute or two later, the main hatch cycled open and extended a shallow ramp, upon which appeared a tall, neatly-uniformed Griona, who then politely handed down a large and immensely dignified figure. Lance smiled like the sun coming up; while she had traded her customary silks and gems for a modest traveling gown, there was only one person she could possibly be, and he would have recognized her at once out of a stadium full of look-alikes.

“Loliqua?” He breathed, and then called out, “Loliqua!”

Shiro stared in perplexity as Lance dashed over to hug what looked to be a six-foot-tall toad in a schoolteacher's outfit, and one that was perfectly willing to hug him right back. Keith nudged him lightly in the ribs. “The Toad Princess of Omorog, remember? She owned Lance for about a week and a half a while ago, and I think that he had a better time than any of the rest of us.”

“Oh, we all made some friends,” Hunk said with a nostalgic smile. “And did some neat things while we were at it. Allura got to have a real car chase with explosions and everything, I got to build my own ticket arcade, you rescued a prince, Keith, and he's a pretty cool prince, too. Even Pidge came out way ahead of the game, but we couldn't have got her back without Loliqua's help. C'mon, Shiro, let's introduce you to her.”

That was harder than it looked. Lance was in transports of excitement, babbling a blue streak and waving his arms around while the Princess watched him with amused eyes. “Lance, dear, do calm down!” she said, her sweet, motherly voice striking Shiro as odd but appropriate. “Everything is just fine at home and will continue to be so, and didn't it just take some effort for me to ensure that! Let it be a lesson for all of us, that while it is good for one to make one's self useful, one can very easily become too useful to those around us. Half of my Court and all of my ministers were in tears when I announced that I was taking this trip, poor things, although our Governor is doubtless trying and failing to corrupt my stand-in as I speak. There you are, all of you! How good it is to see you again! Lizenne, you look well... ah.” Loliqua's large, gold-threaded eyes sobered as she gazed into Shiro's iron-gray ones. “And this would be the young man that has been setting off fireworks all over the astral plane. That last one would have rattled my teeth if I'd had any.”

“Sorry,” Shiro said, a little uncertainly. “They just... happen, and I've had to go along with them.”

“They were kind of important,” Lance said defensively. “We would have had a lot more trouble at Bericonde and Jeproba if Shiro hadn't been telling us all what he'd Seen, and if he hadn't spotted Doodlebug for us, Lotor would have kicked our butts.”

Loliqua waved a hand in graceful reassurance. “There is no fault in him having the Visions, and indeed, he cannot help it; none of us can. He is quite loud, which is common in an untrained Oracle, and I believe that I may be able to help with that somewhat. Allura, I must impose upon your hospitality and request a place where we will not be bothered for a time; if the Visions that I have been having are in any way accurate, the entire team must attend these lessons.”

“Of course,” Allura said pleasantly, waving a hand toward the lifts. “We've taken to doing aetheric exercises on the training deck, but we can bring in proper seating and refreshments. Will you wish to come along too, sir?”

That last had been directed at the courier pilot, who answered her query with a bow and a smile. “No, but thank you for offering, your Highness,” he replied, “regulations, you know. I'm not allowed to leave my ship unless it's in home port. Royal Couriers are very good craft; good enough that they're often targets for theft. Someone's got to stay aboard to disappoint burglars. It's all right, I've got plenty to keep me occupied.”

Kirs Lathann is studying to move up a rank,” Loliqua explained. “He has ambitions of one day becoming the Director of the Royal Courier Fleet, and far be it from us to deny him some quiet time. Let us leave him to it. We have so much to tell each other.”

 

“...And that's pretty much how things stand right now,” Lance said, finishing up the long and peculiar story of their adventures. “Weird as it sounds, it all really happened, even the supernatural bits. So, how have you been, and what are you doing here?”

Loliqua sipped at her cup of hantic tea with the proper appreciation for the rare herb and shifted in her seat. Keith glared briefly at that particular piece of furniture, as if daring it to come after him again. Alteans were a tall and slender people even at their broadest, and their furniture reflected that; nothing in current use had been wide enough to seat their guest comfortably. Fortunately, the Castle had once received guests from all over the known universe, and had whole storerooms full of seating arrangements meant for persons of different physical configurations. Even though Loliqua was far more svelte now than she had been when last they had seen her, she was still wide enough to require something special. The team had found it in the form of a sort of fainting-couch, well-padded and lushly upholstered in glossy leaf-green satin, with a nice sturdy frame carved from some sort of dark, heavy wood. Emphasis on the heavy. Some brilliant person had attached a hover-plate to the underside of the seat, which was capable of lifting the couch about an inch and a half off of the floor, enabling it to be moved without damaging anyone's spine in the process. Unfortunately, the thing had a mind of its own, and it steered like an Earthly shopping cart that had been hit by cars a few times too many. It had refused point-blank to travel in a straight line, and it had a nasty tendency to whirl around on its axis without warning, dragging along whoever might be holding onto either end, and it seemed to have a burning desire to flatten Keith beneath its carved feet. As a result, the couch arrived on the training deck in a spinning, screaming, cursing rush, with Lance, Pidge, Keith, and Hunk clinging desperately to the sides and back, all of them bruised and dizzy. Loliqua had thanked them all very kindly for their efforts and had settled in once Hunk had killed the faulty antigravs.

“I had a Vision,” she said, setting the cup down neatly on its saucer, “To be truthful, I had several, some of which even made sense. Many of them concerned you and your recent exploits, and were each accompanied by intrusions upon the astral plane that sounded like thundercracks! I am used to picking up a certain amount of noise upon the Mindscape, but nothing like that. Thus, I decided that having Seen, I had to Act.”

“So, you came all the way out here,” Hunk said, offering her another cookie. “We were going to visit as soon as we got a break in the action, but you beat us to it.”

She took it with a nod of thanks. “That wouldn't have been a good idea. My world's peoples are far too well-behaved and placid to get into much trouble, and have been so for as long as the Empire has ruled us. Our new Governor has been quite frankly bored out of his mind, which is useful. He is far more interested in your antics, which has allowed us to sneak a number of things past him that we otherwise would not have been able to. Had you come by us again, he would have flown into a froth of maddened activity, which would have gotten you into a fight and us into a great deal of trouble.”

Shiro nodded, rubbing at his forehead. “Hunting for accomplices. Even if we'd taken him down, whoever got assigned there next would have ordered purges, and a lot of people would have been executed. I just Saw that.”

Loliqua reached over and patted his hand sympathetically. “As have I, and more than once, which is one of the reasons why I am here. Fortunately, we have been such very good little subjects that he was quite willing to let me go on this trip without bothering to ask any questions, even though I took one of our fastest and most maneuverable ships.”

“Hey, if you've gotta ride, then ride in style. Did you leave Fanlen in charge?” Lance asked.

Loliqua smiled proudly. “I did indeed. He's old enough for some hands-on training now, and the Ministerial Council and most of the offworld Delegates are fond of him. He shows enormous potential already, and so as to expedite his education, I decided to take a vacation. It isn't even unprecedented; I always take a week or three off whenever I have a governance-trained son or daughter at this stage, and usually off-planet. Everyone assumed that it was just another little pleasure-trip.”

Allura giggled. “Invisibility through being ordinary. We should try that sometime.”

The Paladins all looked at her as if she'd grown a set of Hoshinthra antennae, and she wilted under the obvious silliness of her suggestion. There was no possible way that a Paladin could ever be considered “ordinary”.

“Sorry,” she said a bit sheepishly.

Pidge shook her head. “I tried that in middle school, and it didn't work. Not after what Matt used to get up to between classes. All of the teachers, the Principal, the Superintendent, and the entire janitorial staff kept their eyes on me for the whole four years that I was there.”

Shiro smiled and gave her an ironic look. “Well, after that one prank he pulled in eighth grade, you know, the one with the bucket of mustard, the smoke bomb, the bag of marbles, and the science room's pet rabbit--”

Pidge rolled her eyes. “Do not speak of that rabbit. That rabbit had a better memory than half of my classmates, and he kept trying to get out of his cage and bite me all semester. God help you if you had eaten mustard any time in the past week, 'cause he'd smell it and get all mad, and stop laughing, Lance! You don't know the horror of being chased down the hall by a raging, mustard-crazed lagomorph!”

Lance slumped onto the table, whooping with mirth. Lizenne gave Pidge an amused look. “Are rabbits as bad as chinchillas, I wonder?”

Pidge glared disgustedly at her snickering teammates. “Rabbits are bigger and can get pretty nasty when threatened, and that bunny had been the class pet for four years. Of course it had a bad attitude. Drinmar may have been on to something when he said that all planets have some sort of bunny, and that all of them are secretly evil. I am done talking about rabbits now. There are no rabbits in outer space. Let's talk about more important things, like Shiro's head, which needs examining.”

“You didn't have to put it quite like that, Pidge,” Shiro protested mildly.

She transferred her glare to him. “Didn't I? Spice Girls, Shiro. I was serious about that, and you really do have a bad drama habit.”

Loliqua smiled, gold-threaded eyes twinkling with good humor. “She isn't wrong, young man. Now hold still and let me have a look, and we'll see if a deeper one is necessary.”

Shiro shifted uneasily as she reached out and grasped his chin. Her grip was firm but gentle, the skin dry and surprisingly soft. She blinked her large eyes and focused them on his in a level, hard gaze that seemed to penetrate right to his core. Her own eyes were incredibly deep, and he realized that he had seen the golden lines in them twice before—once in a dream where he had been required to make a choice, and again, not so long ago, just before discovering a trio of Druids planning an ambush. He could almost see the galaxies strung like beads along those shining roads...

Loliqua hummed faintly and murmured, “Oh, yes. Yes, there it is. My goodness. Such power. I wonder if your kind might have some latent talent, although Lance once told me that aetheric science is a mere fiction in many of your cultures. And that would be the ghost's gift... two gifts. Young man, if you had not died first, there simply wouldn't be room in there for all of this!”

Shiro saw Hunk give her a funny look out of the corner of his eye. “Dying makes people's heads stretch out?”

Loliqua made an amused sound and let go of Shiro's chin. “Not the heads so much as the... hmm, how shall I put this? There is a sort of... well, call it a webwork of physical systems, instincts, and conscious and unconscious will that holds the essential you in place within your physical form. During most of a person's life, that webwork maintains a very tight grip upon the soul; it is at its most tenuous at the start and near the end of one's natural lifespan for obvious reasons, although some people are born able to detach themselves at will.”

Lizenne nodded. “Astral travelers. They are very rare, and highly prized for their ability to traverse the aether with instinctive ease. The Iberix, for example, have evolved it into a dominant trait. It is possible, with a certain amount of training, for an aetheric practitioner to learn to do the same, but it's dangerous. Without a proper anchor, you can wander away and never come back. You got yours from the Lion-bond, and the Lions themselves will not let you go.”

“True, but there are limits,” Loliqua cautioned. “An ordinary, nonmagical person does not have the sort of psychic flexibility that will allow for more than the occasional intuitive leap, and will remain tightly bound within themselves until their life's end, when all bonds break at once to let the soul continue onward. Assuming that it doesn't decide to hang about for a while for one reason or another, of course; an untimely death can make the disengagement a little haphazard. Like a net under tension, once the soul is released, the webwork will spring back and expand enormously, allowing the physical brain to shut down all of the autonomic support systems properly. This prevents wandering denizens from the planes of the Mindscape from moving in and causing trouble.”

“Wait, wait, hold it right there!” Lance blurted suddenly. “You mean that zombies can actually happen? Like real space zombies wandering around saying 'spaaace braaaains'?”

“Briefly, and it is very rare,” Loliqua continued without missing a beat. “It's usually terribly embarrassing for everyone involved. The entities native to that plane simply don't have any idea of how to use a physical body, much less one whose neural tissue is already almost totally useless, I might add. While it is frightening for onlookers, it lasts no more than about ten minutes, past which the body becomes unusable. A bit of lurching, a bit of moaning, and then—thump!—it's over. It's been posited that such instances are little more than brief, interdimensional joyrides.”

Pidge thumped a fist on the table with a triumphant hah. “I knew it! Me and Matt used to argue about that whenever a new zombie apocalypse movie came out. He was all for the evil undead thing, and I was all 'no way, dude, dead neural tissue turns into a meat slushie within minutes, and muscles and tendons can't do anything without the nerves'. It's all just meat. There's no point in being scared of meat.”

“Try eating one of my Uncle Luis's super-secret-recipe tacos with special sauce sometime,” Lance suggested dryly, face crumpling up in remembered pain. “He always made them for block parties, and all of the neighborhood tough guys used to dare each other to eat a whole one without screaming. Nobody ever knew exactly what sort of meat he used, but Aunt Denise used to look at him funny whenever the specialty leather goods store down the road was selling sharkskin, alligator, or snakeskin purses. And the mess he left in the kitchen after making them, plus what the bathroom smelled like on the morning after? Oh, yeah, we feared that meat.”

Allura glanced quizzically at Lance. “I take it that sharks, alligators, or snakes aren't usually used in that dish?”

“Nope,” Pidge said with a narrow look at her teammate. “Let me guess, Carlos loved them?”

Lance sighed. “Yup. Aunt Lucia had to keep him away from open flames for two days if she smelled them on his breath. He liked to get Uncle Luis to slip him a few just before costume parties, so he could dress up as a sewer monster and smell totally authentic. He actually won a prize for that completely by accident when they were doing a lineup at a costume contest, when he got too close to one of the stage lights and the wiring was bad--”

Lizenne waved a stern finger at the blue Paladin. “That's quite enough of that, Lance. It's aetheric fire that we're interested in, not self-inflicted methane explosions. No one has ever brought the dead back to true life before.”

“So, what happened to me?” Shiro asked, confused but entirely alive.

“A number of things,” Loliqua replied. “First, you are soul-bound to the Lions of Voltron, who are uniquely able to provide you with an anchor. You are similarly bound to these young people here, who are also entirely unique, and a part of that same anchoring force. Your talent had not fully blossomed when you vanished into the Mindscape, which made you easier to hold onto. When Haggar killed you, she packaged up your vital parts before they had a chance to decompose, thus preserving life at the cellular level. Your teammates then did the impossible by retrieving your forcibly detached soul from the depths of the Robeast. You had a knowledgeable practitioner standing nearby with a containment unit to hold what they had retrieved--”

“There's a soul in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza...” someone sang softly.

There was a horrified pause at that ghastly pun, and everyone turned to stare at Keith, who had put on an almost waifishly innocent expression and was pointing at Lance.

Shiro glared at him. “Keith, I know what your singing voice sounds like.”

Lance thumped his fists down on the table with a thud that made their cups rattle in their saucers. “Quiznek! Keith, how could you?”

“Lance...” Allura sighed warningly.

“It's not that!” Lance snarled. “I'm just mad that I didn't think of it! I mean, it's a great joke, and it was standing around with its pants down for weeks, and I didn't think of it! I must need more sleep or something.”

Shiro puffed a brief laugh and rubbed at his face. “Don't we all. So, all of my heartstrings had stretched out, huh?”

Loliqua sipped her tea again, sending a stern look at the pouting blue Paladin. “My dear boy, by the time that they were able to funnel you back into your custom-rebuilt corpus, there was room enough for three other people in there, and I do not doubt that the Lions were vigilant to the point of insomnia in order to keep anything else from moving in with you!”

“Which would have given you a great deal of room to grow, so to speak,” Allura said thoughtfully. “How curious. That would certainly have allowed Tzairona to fit her Lens in there, and you did say that Zerod smoothed her path.”

Shiro grimaced and rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “He burned that path in with a shot of white lightning. It seemed to work.”

“In more ways than one,” Loliqua said firmly. “In some ways, his might have been the greater gift. How has your physical conditioning been coming along, Shiro?”

He opened his mouth to reply, and then closed it with a frown as he did the math. “Very well. Too well. The team and the Lions have been helping me recover, but the new techniques that Zaianne's been teaching me... They're a lot easier to learn than they should be.”

“I'll want a look at both of those gifts,” Loliqua said firmly, and turned to Lizenne. “Were you ever able to examine them?”

Lizenne shook her head and cast Shiro a faintly exasperated look. “No. Both have sunk down to the level of the Lion-bond, and I know better than to go digging around anywhere near that. I might as well dig up a power main with a silver shovel while wearing full copper armor in the middle of a violent electrical storm. The result would certainly be the same.”

Keith jerked a thumb in the general direction of the black Lion's hangar. “Black doesn't like her much, and he's a little possessive. Maybe if we did that circle-session like we've been meaning to, you'll be able to see more?”

Lizenne frowned thoughtfully. “Possibly, if you go deep enough.”

“Circle-session?” Loliqua asked curiously.

“A group aura-sharing exercise,” Lizenne replied, “usually for the purpose of getting to know one's companions better, but it's a good base for doing other things as well. I believe that one of the contemplative faiths on your world uses a version of it for mass meditations.”

Cui'cuong-Thie,” Loliqua said with a snap of her fingers. “Of course. The Trance of Togetherness. I used to envy those who had the talent for such deep connections, particularly when my own powers were just starting to develop. By all means, if you are willing to perform that exercise, it would help me gauge exactly what sort of training that I will need to impart.”

“Right, I'll get the floor cushions,” Pidge said, hopping up. “Time to try the new ones Lance made.”

Loliqua cast a questioning glance at Lizenne, who replied, “Sitting on the floor is safer. Even small exercises can have dramatic outcomes in this group, and falling out of chairs is no fun.”

Pidge came trotting back from the storage closet, nearly invisible behind a pile of big pillows, which her teammates were quick to grab. This wasn't surprising; Lance had made the most of his sewing array's ability to embroider things, and the results were fairly impressive. Blue Lions and wave patterns for Lance, of course, and Keith's was a deep red with flame decals. Hunk's had a mountain scene, Allura's was pink with embroidered mice, and Pidge's was green with a clever pattern that might have been either vines or circuit boards. Shiro's was black, and embroidered with stars.

“Lovely,” Loliqua observed quietly to Lizenne.

Lizenne nodded. “He has considerable talent.”

The Paladins arranged themselves on the cushions, all but oblivious to the observers. In truth, they'd been eager for a chance to try this exercise with the whole team for some time. Shiro settled down, folding his long legs comfortably, and looked around at his companions. “So, how does this work?” he asked.

“It's simple,” Allura said. “Lights off.”

The room darkened instantly, taking all distractions with it. “The black Lion gives us this gift,” Allura continued, and a small sphere of pale light appeared, shining like a star. In the distance, the Lions became visible as well, glowing softly in their signature colors, quiescent for the moment. “All we need to do is hold it, and then pass it on. Not with the hands, but with the will.”

So saying, she cupped the floating light in her hands, lending it a rosy tint, and then let it drift into Shiro's possession. To his surprise, it was warm, and it felt like he was holding a part of her in his hands. “That's... very strange,” he murmured.

“It came as a surprise to the rest of us too, the first time,” Keith said softly. “Pass it on, Shiro.”

It took him a moment to figure out how to do that, but the rose-violet orb sailed easily into Keith's hands. He sighed and rolled the ball of light from palm to palm with a pensive look on his face. “You're scared.”

Shiro couldn't deny it. “Yeah.”

“It'll get better,” Hunk said, his face crumpling into a frown as he received the orb. “We've got your back, Chief. Always.”

“Always,” Pidge echoed, receiving the orb next. “Nobody hurts my family.”

“Nobody,” Lance agreed, his face a rainbow in the light of the orb.

Allura caught the orb in silence; no more words needed to be said. The signatures that the team had left upon the shining sphere said everything that needed saying, and she passed it back to Shiro, who drew in a long, shaking breath at the feel of their conviction. They took it slow for the first few rounds, gently easing Shiro into the rhythm of it, coaxing him into relaxing the tight controls that he had placed upon himself. Controls, they soon realized, that had been in place since well before the ill-fated trip out to Kerberos. Shiro was reluctant to let go, but with every revolution of the orb, it got easier. Past the natural frustrations of convalescence, past the anxieties all leaders felt when their responsibilities closed in on them, down to where both old and recent pain lurked, but he was not alone this time. The others were with him now, and he breathed deeply of their presence. Keith was with him, burning like a bonfire and driving the shadows away. Pidge was with him, rooted deep, fantastically complex above and below. Lance was with him, solid as an iceberg, and like that iceberg, there was far more to him than was easily seen. Hunk was with him, steady as a mountain, warm and immovable. Allura was with him, shining brighter than the sun. He could feel them all around him, supportive and protective, welcoming him into their company. It's all right, they said to him, we've got you. Let it out.

Show us, Keith told him, we can take it.

They could, he realized. They were not children anymore. They had fought and killed, and had both won and lost; they had seen both the horrible and the sublime and had survived. They made their own decisions and followed through on them. There was nothing that they could not do, if they did it together. He did not need to protect them from the nightmares that stalked him where no one could see. They also loved, he discovered, somewhat to his surprise. They loved each other, and they loved him. Sibling love, mostly, but he saw that it was starting to go deeper. That Lance was powerfully attracted to Allura was no surprise, but that she was starting to return those feelings was. The feelings that the blue Paladin had expressed in his bout of drunkenness earlier on had been entirely genuine, as a matter of fact, and was having difficulty squaring them with himself. Hunk loved everyone, as naturally as breathing. Keith had deep feelings for both Shiro and for Pidge that he barely knew what do do with, and Pidge's feelings for her male teammates—including him—were very much the same. Allura was a little harder to read, but what she felt was a pure, deep affection for all of them. All of it was as pure as the first light of dawn, and it hit Shiro's heart hard enough to break open old wounds.

The torments he had suffered all too recently at Haggar's hands bloomed in his memory like venomous brambles. She had taken him to pieces, bit by bit from the inside out; the physical pain had been incidental compared to the illusions and terrors that she had visited upon his mind. She had tried to break him, to reduce him to a maddened animal, and had almost succeeded.

In response, the others flared in outrage, and then locked into place around him in a defensive ring, creating a safe space within for him to purge the poisons. It certainly felt like having an abscessed wound cleansed—a mingled feeling of pain and relief as the hot, diseased pressures were eased. More, they told him, get it all out.

He could not resist that command. Old self-doubts left over from their early days of training to be Paladins came out, homesickness and hidden fears of the sheer scale of the daunting task that had been forced upon them. The shock of his initial kidnapping, fears for Sam and Matt when they had been taken away, and the endless horrors of the arena. Day after day of it, being forced to disable and kill other people, and things that had once been people. He remembered the stark terror of fighting the Druid, and the guilt that plagued him when he had been forced to put down the half-mechanical monsters that came out of Haggar's lab. He remembered with deep shame what he had done to the creature that he had not then known was Modhri, despite that man's gentle reassurances that it had been worth it, and he recalled the shock of waking up wearing an arm that was not his. His half-botched escape at Ulaz's hands and the knock on his head that had further skewed his drug-addled brain, the bad landing that had driven the memories even further away. The fear of not knowing where he had been. The fear of not knowing where he was going.

Keep going, his team said, aching along with him but determined to get to the bottom of it.

Shiro was reluctant to go any deeper. He knew what awaited him beneath all the rest, and that loss had nearly killed him.

We're here for you, they whispered in his heart.

Adam, he thought, the very name a black shard of loss skewering his soul.

He could remember the last night that he'd seen Adam alive, on his birthday. Shiro and the rest of the squad had all chipped in to buy a table on the upper level of Hank's Sports Bar, where the view of the game was the best, the beer and food were the best, and the waitstaff were the prettiest... he could still taste the spicy wings and the burger he'd eaten, still hear Adam and the others trading shaggy-fighter-jet stories. There had even been a cake. He'd gotten the cake himself. Red velvet cake, because that was Adam's favorite, with actual cream-cheese frosting. He'd had to explain to the brain-dead bakery worker that no, he didn't want the buttercream frosting, it wasn't real buttercream, nothing that came out of industrial five-gallon buckets could possibly be natural, especially not when it was that shade of godawful hot pink. He'd literally had to explain to that vacant-eyed man how to take cream cheese and mix it up with sugar, cream, butter, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract to make a proper frosting, and no, not synthetic vanilla either, the real stuff. The candles had been easier. He'd gotten the color-changing sparklers, because a man like Adam deserved fireworks. Everything Adam was had deserved fireworks. He had been fearless in the air and bold on the ground, and his desire for adventure had burned visibly in his eyes whenever he had looked up at the stars. Shiro had found that to be irresistible, having had much the same feelings himself.

He remembered Adam laughing with the others, warm brown eyes sparkling behind his glasses in the chiseled face, soft brown hair falling into those eyes, soft brown skin of the hand that flipped that hair away... he'd been the color of well-creamed coffee from top to toe, something that Shiro had also found to be irresistible; Adam had joked on those long, comfortable nights together that Shiro always wanted to add too much cream...

What happened?

They would have been married only two weeks from then. Adam's family had been all for it, and Shiro had finally arm-wrestled his very traditional father into accepting the union. Four days after Adam's birthday party, it had all come to an end. Adam had been a fighter pilot and an adventurous soul, and had fought for and won the right to test-pilot a brand-new, experimental fighter jet. Very secret, very high tech... and unfortunately, very unstable.

There was a blare of red light from Keith's end of the wheel. Oh, shit, Shiro, is that what happened to him? The whole thing was stamped “classified” so fast that we barely knew he'd died!

Shiro had no words, only the memory. He'd seen it on screen as that sleek silver aircraft had not been able to perform in real life what its blueprints had promised on paper, and even the ejector seat had failed. Four point seven seven three minutes after takeoff, the engines and fuel lines had blown, and the plane had come down in three burning pieces with an impact that Shiro could still feel through his feet on bad nights. In his nightmares, the plane struck pavement again and again, leaving tortured metal and charred bone fragments spread over a half-mile of runway, and a cry for help that would go forever unanswered.

Shiro cried out in anguish and the memory shattered around him, the pieces flying up and away into nowhere. They were falling now, all falling through empty space, cold stars gleaming all around, cold stars that Adam would never see again, cold stars that beckoned him away from the hard earth that had taken the man that he'd loved. The Kerberos Mission had seemed like a miraculous escape for him, and he had accepted Sam Holt's offer with gratitude. Cold stars had accepted him, and had taken him far further from that loss than anyone could ever have guessed--

A sudden flash from above startled them all, and a vast electric crackle roared through the firmament around them. White fire scorched a burning road in a miles-wide descending spiral around them, heading down through the fabric of eternity itself to delineate something that glimmered like a lens carved from a first-quality diamond crystal. In that perfect circle, blurred images formed and faded in a constant rush of color and motion; it was turning, they realized, like a plate on a slow turntable, and as it spun, the images were starting to come into focus. They could not look away from that steadily-brightening disc. Color and shape and motion, light and darkness, hot and cold, sight and sound and scent, taste and pressure and sensation, all coming together into...

 

...into...

 

...into...

 

...Alarms screamed in Allura's ears, and her shocked eyes could not believe what the screens were telling them. Coran was shouting at her, telling her to go, to run while she still had the chance, to escape before that impossible maw found its mark. She turned and fled, knowing that she had no other choice, breath burning in her lungs as she threw herself into the lift. She had just stepped out into the shuttle bay when something struck the Castle a mortal blow; she could feel the craft screaming as its main structural members bent and shattered under the ghastly impact, knocking her to the floor. Eyes blurring, she saw the mice waving at her from one of the smaller pods, and she threw herself into the seat, sending the little craft speeding toward the bay doors just as the entire deck began to collapse behind her...

 

...Hunk yelled in horror at what was happening right before his eyes. The world was going gray, its life force drawn up into a vortex the color of nightmares, drawn inexorably up into the impossibly huge, dark shape of that insane freak. They were dying, all of them were dying, he could feel the whole world dying as that monstrous parasite fed upon it, and he knew that it was too late for them even as he boosted Voltron forward to stop it...

 

...Lance was hurled back into his seat from the force of his accelerations, hard enough to blur his vision, but he did not dare slow down. It was fast, it was too fast, and there was too much of it, all moving at once, all of it lethal. They'd die if it landed another hit, and if they died, it was all over for everyone. Everyone. Everywhere. Everything. His thoughts fuzzed out for a moment as the thing landed a glancing blow on the right arm, and he felt the Sword break...

 

...Pidge shrieked as the Shield shattered with a sound that deafened her for a moment, and she felt her Lion groan at the stunning impact. The calculations came in, belated and terrible on the blurring screens, and she could hear Shiro shouting, but couldn't make out the words. This was worse than anything that she'd ever faced before—she couldn't even crack its shielding because it didn't have any. It didn't need any, not with what it had seething through its very substance...

 

...Keith was blind with brightness. He couldn't see, but that didn't matter anymore. All he had to do was aim for where the light wasn't. Everything else had faded away. The only sense he had left was sight, and all he could see was a light like burning ice and a darkness like the nothingness between universes. And a sense unnamed, a sense of oneness, a sense of motion, a sense of a thing about to be completed. It had been a long, long time, and a burning joy that was not entirely his own began to well up in his heart...

 

...Shiro staggered to a halt, lungs heaving, his bayard heavy in his hand, and he felt more than saw Modhri coming up beside him. Together they gazed at the sorry, withered remnant that was all that was left of a man who had been the scourge of the cosmos for ten thousand years. As they watched, what had been a skull dropped uselessly from the twisted metal around it like a rotten fruit, shattering into brittle fragments on the warped decking. Modhri knelt and touched the blasted and crumbling bone, and let out a sigh. “Well, she was right about that,” he murmured, and turned worried yellow eyes up to meet Shiro's. “This isn't over yet.”

I know,” Shiro replied...

 

...and then everything went black.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Explanations

 

“Young man,” a sweet, motherly voice said sternly, “you owe both of those ghosts a very large bottle of sacred Cluoc'kipoma wine.”

Shiro blinked. He was flat on his back on the floor, and it took him a moment to remember who that voice belonged to. He swallowed hard on a dry throat and tried to shake off the strange, otherworldly sensation that floated between his ears. He had dreamed, somewhere in there, that he'd been hoisted up out of a bottomless well on a glowing blue-violet cable that was embedded in his heart. It hadn't hurt, and his only thought had been, “the Lion goes fishing in the night.”

He grunted, groaned, and muttered stickily, “I could use a cuppa, myself.”

“Couldn't we all,” a far more familiar voice said, and helped him sit up, holding a glass to his lips. “We'll make do with ordinary water for now,” she said as he gulped gratefully at the drink. “It's not a good idea to let Oracles overindulge.”

Shiro looked up and around at his team. They were awake, but looked as dazed and wrung-out as he felt. Keith was rubbing at streaming eyes and squinting as if he'd been staring into a bright light for too long, Pidge was clutching her head, and Allura had both hands pressed to the floorplates as though she were afraid that they might cease to exist at any second. Lance was sitting with his arms wrapped around himself and his knees drawn up, shivering uncontrollably, and Hunk simply collapsed backwards over his floor pillow with a low moan.

“Holy crud,” Hunk said in a faint voice. “Holy crud, Shiro, is that what it feels like every time?”

“No,” Shiro said, holding his glass out for a refill. “Most of the time they're a lot smaller than that. And a lot more... well... distant. We caught that one close to the source.”

“It felt so real,” Pidge said, shuddering. “We were losing. We were fighting something big, and losing.”

Keith knuckled his reddened eyes and tried to focus on her. “Not from where I was sitting. I was winning.”

“We lost the Castle,” Allura whispered, the pink centers of her eyes still distended. “And possibly Coran.”

Lance scratched at his nose and sent Shiro a sidelong look. “I didn't know that you were gay.”

Shiro puffed the ghost of a laugh at this non sequitur. “Bi, actually. After Adam died, I wasn't interested in anyone at all. It hurt too much to even think about it. Problem?”

Lance shook his head. “Nah, I'm used to it. Half of my family swings that way. The family feuds wouldn't be the same without it. I know that Cousin Maria-Dolores—she's a nun and the family fanatic—wouldn't have anything to get indignant about if they weren't. The sheer boredom would probably make her go off on missions to the Congo, just to have something to do.”

Hunk snorted. “What, Carlos isn't enough for her?”

Lance grunted sourly. “Last I knew, she was praying for the Devil to either get serious with him or give up on him. Either way, she'll need an exorcist. Or a gym coach. Same thing, in our neighborhood.”

Hunk considered that. “True.”

Pidge cast a suspicious look at Keith, who had given up on his dazzled eyes and was leaning on Shiro. “You knew his boyfriend, Keith? My whole family's known Shiro for years, but I didn't know that Adam existed.”

Keith nodded. “Sort of. He lived in a different part of the city and his job involved being out of town a lot. I never saw much of him, but I liked what I saw. After the wreck... well, Shiro needed some time, and I wasn't going to make it worse by talking about him. What's the verdict, Loliqua?”

Loliqua handed him the bowl of cookies, which was passed around and emptied very quickly. “I have seen stronger talents,” she began slowly, and held up a hand when they began to protest. “Stronger, but nowhere near as focused, or as gifted, or as accurate. Shiro, I would judge that your effective range might be as long as seven to ten years in the future, possibly with bursts of reasonably accurate Visions of up to... hmm... perhaps thirty or thirty-five years ahead. I have helped to train those who could see future events of up to six hundred years ahead, but with little or no clarity. For your purposes, ten years is ideal. Leave the long-term planning to those who are trained for it.”

Shiro smiled. “I can live with that. And the gifts?”

The Toad Princess shook her head. “I have never seen such a combination. While Omora Seers do occasionally develop an Oracle's Lens, it is rare. I've never encountered one so perfect. Lizenne, have you any explanations, particularly for that other gift?”

Lizenne sighed and waggled a conditional hand. “Some. I did some historical research in my House's Archives before I left home that last time, just in case I found Tzairona before Modhri did. Tzairona was considered a phenomenal power. At the time, she may have been the most potent Oracle in history, and I am very surprised that the Royal House wasn't able to hire her on as their own personal fortune-teller.” She paused, thought about that, then smirked. “Then again, considering her temperament, she would have turned that safe but dull job down flat, even if they'd offered her the Old Forest and most of the nearby Sarynorax Strand as her private Domain.”

“Good land?” Pidge asked.

“I'd say so,” Lizenne replied. “The Old Forest is sacred ground, and is still held to be inviolable. It's one of the last stretches of undisturbed old-growth forest left on the homeworld, and the wildlife there exists nowhere else. The Sarynorax Strand is equally revered, being a stretch of coastline with large gemstone deposits just under the seafloor. Precious stones wash up on the beach at every high tide.”

“Nice,” Lance observed.

“Very,” Lizenne said. “I've been to both, and they're stunning. Tzairona was never happier than when she was causing trouble for someone, and was glad to leave our homeworld behind. Her early diaries claim that her talent worked best in orbit anyway. The researchers who were studying her sort of gift confirmed that, even though she only rarely held still long enough for them to observe her. That drove them wild, by the way. Oracular talent is very rare among my people, and the Lens might develop in perhaps two percent of those. There used to be more, but Haggar took them to become Druids before they had the chance to bear cubs. As for Zerod's gift... well, I can think of only one similar example.”

“He did tell me that he'd given me someone else's wish,” Shiro said, frowning at the memory. “It was like drinking a thunderbolt.”

“Yes,” Lizenne replied. “A wish for wisdom, granted by someone who had already taken up residence in the Great Beyond. Have your people no equivalent legends, Loliqua?”

“No, nor do our companion people, the Griona.” Loliqua poured cups of tea and passed them on to the Paladins. “According to our legends, the Gods are very prompt when they come to pick up the deceased, and while we do have the usual menagerie of greater and lesser Beasts, Elementals, and Powers, our cultures have no ghost stories at all. Other peoples do, of course, including the Griona, so I've been required to study the topic as part of my diplomatic training.”

“We have plenty,” Lizenne said, leaning back in her seat, “but only one of this nature. It's extremely old, and nearly forgotten. I discovered it only because I had a friend among the staff of the local museum when I was small, and the only authentic copy was carved upon a slab of basalt some fifteen thousand years ago. Perhaps more. The tale tells the story of Jaiphane, a witch of small talent, who was struggling to keep what was left of her pack alive during a terrible famine. The rains had not come for six years in a row because a great Queen at the time had managed to seriously offend the Gods.”

Hunk humphed. “Y'know, that was what always honked me off about the old legends back at home. One person does something dumb, and it's everyone else who has to suffer for it.”

Lizenne snorted a laugh. “Gods aren't terribly good at precision smiting, I'm afraid. In any case, the rivers had dried up and the plants had died, and the herds had moved away. The famine had caused the local packs to begin fighting furiously over what little was left, and packs from neighboring lands were taking advantage of the chaos. Before you ask, the raiders were looking for unattached or widowed women and girls; few things were more precious in those ancient times. Our heroine had already lost most of her pack and her entire Domain to the fighting and raiding, and was desperate for any help that she could find.

“Finally, on a cold and windy morning, she sat on a stone on a hilltop overlooking the sea. It was a very clear day, and she could see islands offshore, very far away. The people knew about fishing at the time, but ocean-going ships were still beyond them, and she wished that she knew how to get to those islands without becoming food for the great tvonax fish, which could swallow three grown men in a single bite. She was quite lost in thought, trying to solve that puzzle, when she found that she had company. Sitting right next to her on that rock was an old woman, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.”

“Let me guess,” Keith said, “it wasn't an ordinary old lady.”

Lizenne nodded. “Very much so. I wouldn't be surprised if poor Jaiphane's heart had skipped a beat, for her companion was none other than Old Granny Kashtmehtz the Storm-Witch, the oldest and most dangerous witch in the world. Nothing like as evil as Haggar, but certainly as powerful, and she was lethal when annoyed.”

“We've got one of those,” Shiro said. “Baba Yaga. All of Russia and a lot of Europe used to be terrified of her.”

“Yeah!” Pidge said with a grin. “She had a house that walked around on huge chicken legs, too. I grew up wanting one of those. I still want one of those. Hey, Hunk, next time we get a free day, want to help me build one of those?”

“Oh, heck, yeah,” Hunk replied. “Did Old Granny Kashtmehtz have one of those?”

Old Granny had other ways of getting around,” Lizenne said, “she never traveled in the same way twice. There are stories of her riding tame whirlwinds, or moving beneath the ground through secret caves, or swinging through the trees, or any of a hundred other methods. This time, she was simply there, which might tell you how annoyed she was, if she hadn't felt like making a grand entrance. Fortunately, she wasn't annoyed at Jaiphane. Jaiphane knew exactly what she was up against, and greeted the old witch politely, and even offered to share the meager bit of jerky and the few stubborn berries that she'd been able to find. Granny accepted both with reasonable grace, and asked her what was troubling her. Jaiphane told her of her family's problems, and Granny nodded and replied that she had troubles of her own. As angry as the Gods were with the Queen, Old Granny was twice as angry at the Gods. Granny's natural affinity was with stormy weather, and that six-year drought had put a real crimp in her style.”

Allura giggled. “Had your Gods reason to fear her wrath, I wonder?”

Lizenne grinned wickedly. “Anyone with any sense did, the Gods included. Old Granny wasn't mortal and she wasn't Divine either; she was a Trickster, and those are always very dangerous to offend. Granny told Jaiphane of a good way to get back at those heavenly fools for their nasty little drought—on that misty island so far out to sea was a magical mirror that had been created by a prankish sea-monster. This mirror was unusual in that it only showed a person's worst features, and that sea-monster had so upset its neighbors with that mirror that they had thrown it up onto the island, where it couldn't be retrieved.”

Lance laughed. “You know, my sister Marcia would've sworn that she had one of those! She was really concerned about her looks during high school, and could never, ever get her makeup perfect, and she swore that her mirror hated her. She finally bullied Dad into taking her to a furniture store, and she spent three hours finding a vanity that she could work with. It cost a lot of money, but he said that he would have paid twice as much just to get out of there.”

Loliqua chortled richly. “And few creatures are as vain as Gods. Why couldn't the old witch get the mirror for herself?”

Lizenne waved an eloquent hand. “Powerful as she was, the sea was more powerful still, and the drought had taken away much of her strength. Granny had little influence upon the sea, and of course had no storms to ride. It was up to Jaiphane to find a way across the water to fetch that mirror, so that Granny could show the Gods what nasty little brats they were being. Jaiphane, of course, had no idea of how to get there, and she was far too busy keeping her kin fed to learn how. Well, Old Granny Kashtmehtz looked upon her with a considering eye, and then told the younger woman a secret. The God Kuphorosk, she said, was not among the perpetrators of the drought. Kuphorosk preferred it when life was abundant, for his favorite prey did best in times of plenty, and the drought had made a lot of extra work for him. Perhaps somewhere on his khe'guon string, he had someone who knew a thing or two about the sea.”

Pidge raised a hand. “Ronok told me about those, and he said that Kuphorosk kept the souls of heroes on his. Heck, Shiro saw him stringing up a few new ones in that Vision of his! What's that all about?”

Lizenne took a sip of tea, her eyes distant. “In our mythology, all living souls pass into and out of the world in a constant cycle of death and rebirth, arguably making Kuphorosk and his sister Huiverash, Goddess of Life, the most important members of the Pantheon. She sent those souls out into the world to become plants, animals, fish, insects, people, and all the things in between. Kuphorosk followed them in their shadows, and took them back into the Realm of Beginnings when they were too old, sick, or injured to outrun him any longer, and they underwent cleansing processes and periods of rest before being sent out again. Just as you might find gems among the pebbles in a river, a few souls would stand out now and again. Those were the heroes, the great ones, the fastest and cleverest, the wisest and most subtle, the people who had slipped out of Kuphorosk's reach time and time again. Kuphorosk treasured those, and kept them safe; every so often, when it became necessary, he would take one or more of those great souls from his string and give them over to his sister, that the heroes would be reborn. Sometimes, rarely, a living mortal could ask to learn secrets from those preserved great ones.”

“Hey, that's like Hades!” Keith said. “He kept visiting hours, too. Did she have to go on a quest?”

No,” Lizenne said. “Since Kuphorosk is always with us, all a person needs to do is wait until nightfall and perform the proper ritual to get his attention. In this case, the God was perfectly willing to answer, and to help. Among his collection, Shiro, he had someone who had been very like Zerod, and who was willing, for the price of a kiss, to make her up a brew like the one that has been allowing you to catch up so quickly. Jaiphane willingly kissed the old soul, and he produced for her a flask of what the story refers to as the Liquor of Insight, which she drank to the last drop. That frightened her kin, for she fell over unconscious and remained that way for seven days. She woke up hale and hearty, although her aetheric powers were no greater. That didn't matter, for the change had been to the way she looked at the world. From then on, she noticed things that no one else saw, and thought about them in ways that no one else had ever considered; in less than a month, she had taken her whole family out to that distant island in a boat whose hull had been treated with a potion of bhelurg tar and fermented coraph-wood shavings, which repelled the great sea-predators that would otherwise have devoured them. True to her word, Jaiphane retrieved the mirror for Old Granny Kashtmehtz, who was so happy that she granted the island to Jaiphane as her Domain, and promised never to trouble her or her descendants. The rains returned a few days later, and Jaiphane and her family settled down in peace and prosperity, and that is where the story ended.”

“That's... very interesting. There really haven't been any others like that?” Shiro asked.

She shook her head. “No. Most of our ancient heroic tales involve people hitting things instead of using their wits. Archaeological studies in that region where the basalt slab was found have turned up traces of ancient habitations on those islands, and artifacts of unusual sophistication; from their findings and certain old stories still told on the mainland, there was once an influential maritime civilization based there. Unfortunately, there were also signs of a very large tsunami, caused by the collapse and explosion of a volcanic island on the other side of the sea roughly twelve thousand years ago, which had wiped those islanders out. Powerful though Old Granny Kashtmehtz was, she had little authority over the ocean.”

“So much for Galra-Atlantis,” Keith said grimly. “It's a cool story, but we've gotten off-topic. What sort of training does Shiro need?”

Loliqua gave Shiro a thoughtful look. “The basics, I feel. Focusing techniques, pacing exercises, meditative mantras for enhancing clarity, and especially volume control. Every time you have a large Vision, young man, you light up the Mindscape like an explosion! I shouldn't be surprised if every practitioner within eighty lightyears of here felt that last one. Haggar might well be able to detect such upheavals, and it would be wise to muffle them a bit.”

Shiro nodded in full agreement. “And beyond that?”

“Beyond that, I cannot help you,” the Princess said sadly. “Between the Lens, the Liquor, and the Lions, you will have all of the resources that you need. You have made remarkable progress already; I can help you fine-tune it, but that's all.”

Shiro clenched his right hand into a fist, recalling uneasily where the mechanical one was right now. “I'll take whatever help that you can give me, and thank you.”

You are quite welcome,” Loliqua said, but she waved a warning finger at him. “After you have rested. That was not a small effort that you have all just made, for all that you shared it out beautifully between you. For now, you must relax and come to grips with what you have Seen. That Vision had the feel of a Stone, and those are never to be taken lightly.”

Hunk stared at her in confusion. “A Stone?”

The Princess nodded. “Time is something like an ocean, or perhaps a large river. It is a great current made up of untold billions of lesser currents, and there are countless eddies and counter-flows, whirlpools, rapids, backwashes, and doldrums caught up within it. Mostly, it is very fluid and will change as events act upon it. Sometimes, however, certain destinies will arise like boulders in the stream, events too large and important to shift or to change. No matter what measures the ones forewarned take, those events will happen, and there is nothing that will stop them from taking place. In all of my years, I have Seen two. The first occurred in my girlhood, and concerned an earthquake under the southern pole of my home planet. The second occurred only two years ago, when Voltron reemerged from hiding. You have Seen another just now.”

Allura banged a fist on the floor. “We are not the first to See it. Tzairona Saw it first—Jasca told us that! A space station that did not exist at that time, that turned into something completely impossible, and bit the Castle in half!”

Loliqua cocked her an interested look. “Were you able to See which space station that was?”

“No,” Allura said, deflating a bit, and then glanced around at the others. “The Vision wasn't clear enough. All I can say for sure is that it had a very large mouth. Were any of you able to see anything?”

The other Paladins looked at each other, and shrugged. “Nope,” Lance said unhappily. “It was big, and... and powerful, and really nasty, and that was it.”

“It was sucking the Quintessence out of a planet in mine,” Hunk offered. “It looked a little familiar, somehow, but I can't think why. There were all of these--” he wiggled his fingers helplessly, “--things sticking out of it, and waving around, and, and, and I can't really describe what I saw. It was bad, though. Really bad. Worse than anything we've ever faced before.”

“Super bad,” Pidge agreed. “It didn't need shielding, and I couldn't touch it.”

“I think that we killed it, somehow, or will, but that wasn't the end of it.” Shiro frowned at the floor. “There was something else, and I don't know what that was. Did you see anything, Keith?”

Keith shrugged. “Light and darkness. Just light and darkness, and I was winning. I felt good about it.” He scowled thoughtfully. “So did someone else. Not sure who, but it had been a long time coming.”

“How long?” Lizenne asked suddenly. “And can you say when we will encounter that Stone?”

Keith stared at her in perplexity for a moment, but shook his head. “A long, long time coming. Someone's been waiting for ages. As for when it's going to happen...”

“Soon,” Shiro said, suddenly absolutely sure of every word. “Not very soon, but not too long from now. I can't say for sure.”

“And that is one of the exercises that I will teach you,” Loliqua said firmly, “Estimated Time to Event, which will help you to judge the timeframe of your Visions. I will do that tomorrow, and not a moment sooner. You have already done enough today, sir. Come, let us find the rest of the family and tell them what we have discovered.”

 

The rest of the family was, at that moment, seeing to an important duty. They had been very patient, Tilla and Soluk had informed them, they were willing to concede that alien invasions and dramatic space battles had their place, but their patience was not infinite. It was time and past time for a good polishing, and the upright bipeds of the household were required to oblige. The dragons had calmly but firmly overridden all protests and had herded everybody down to the lounge, where they had fetched the brushes and had flopped down to collect their due. As a result, Nasty, Vennex, and Trenosh were getting a lesson in Zampedran maintenance.

“I admit, we are a bit behind in our duties to these big beasts,” Coran was saying as he scrubbed diligently at Soluk's shoulders. “But things just keep happening, one after another. Even so, Grandfather would have scolded us all terribly. He could get a dragon half again Tilla's size polished up in a trice all by himself, and was very proud of the fact that he could do this all day and still win an arm-wrestling championship in the evening, right up to the age of one hundred and ninety-two decaphebes. He would have cheerfully continued to do so until his dying day, but an industrial accident at a building site put a bit of a dent in him, and he had to give it up.”

Nasty, who was working on Soluk's tail with all four hands, gave Coran a suspicious look. “The dragon-polishing?”

“The arm-wrestling. Pop-Pop loved Zampedri, and wasn't going to let something as piddling as six or seven crushed bones separate him from his big prickly friends. Or the little ones, for that matter. He was very fond of the youngsters. Speaking of such, how are you coming along with the littlest dragon, lad?”

“As well as can be expected,” Vennex replied.

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor with his elbow braced on one knee and his chin in his hand, brushing Ranax out with the other. Ranax, having had no luck whatsoever with trying to conquer the mighty dragons, had figured that if he couldn't beat them, he might as well join them. He had taken to bumbling around on all fours at Tilla's heels lately, and listening to him trying to gronk was hilarious. He, too, had demanded a polishing, and once again, Vennex was required to provide. He sort of had to; Tilla had claimed Zaianne, Trenosh, and Modhri for the service and wasn't about to share. Ranax, for his part, was enjoying the brushing as much as the dragons were, sprawled out on his belly and purring happily, and had already half-filled the brush with shed fur. His toy was sitting nearby, and Vennex had a sinking feeling that Ranax would insist that he brush it, too.

“At least we're doing it in the dry,” Trenosh said, burnishing the small scales around Tilla's eyes. “My aunt ran a remolp-beast ranch, and she insisted upon keeping them clean and shiny. Remolps love a good mud wallow, and we had to hose them down and scrub them off in all weathers. Whenever my brothers and I complained, she would tell us that it would toughen us up. Since that woman could put a fist through a sheet of armor plate, we believed her.”

“It paid off,” Zaianne observed, scrubbing dirt out of Tilla's thigh scales. “You're alive.”

“I am,” Trenosh said, sobering a little and glancing down at his son, who had rolled over and was getting a good belly-scratch in. “More importantly, my son survived. Have you any idea, my Lady, when we will go to Arcobi? My family wants us back as soon as possible, for all that we've given them plenty of work to keep them occupied with.”

Zaianne sighed and glanced up at Coran, who shrugged. “I don't know. Making plans on this ship is a bit problematic. The Paladins are unbelievable trouble-magnets, and sometimes it takes only a word or a thought to attract it.”

Nasty humphed sourly as he very carefully cleaned the lethal arcs of Soluk's hind claws. “I'll say, and it doesn't diminish much if you split them up. Before Varda was taken aboard the Quandary, we sometimes went for weeks without any excitement. We actually had time to get bored, if you can believe it! Boredom! Real, honest-to-Lawsy, sit-around-and-bemoan-it boredom. I've forgotten what that's like, you know? The first thing she did was charm old Ronok, who had been surly and standoffish for years, and then she insults Plosser into keeping her, and then Yantilee euchres me into teaching her craft secrets, and then... well, then everything. And now the Quandary's the flagship of a huge battlefleet, I'm still teaching her craft secrets, and I'm giving a dragon a pedicure.”

Modhri chuckled and waved a brush at him. “And would you give it up for even a moment?”

Nasty glared at him. “Not until I get all of the silverware. I will have the whole set, I swear it by the Seventh Lockpick of Polura the Light-Fingered. I've only got one butterknife and a dessert fork to go.”

“Soon to be just the butterknife, I feel,” Coran said cheerfully and pointing off to the right, “assuming that you're flexible enough. What's that thing that Plachu's just dragged under the red couch?”

Nasty squawked and dove for the sofa, his four brushes clattering to the floor. Since the Paladins had found themselves in need of crash space if aetheric practice had left them too worn out to make it to their rooms, Coran and Modhri had thoughtfully hauled more accommodating furniture out of storage for them. The red couch was a real find, being a huge, ornate poem in some sort of highly-polished and skillfully-carved metallo-wood. Beneath its thickly-cushioned and plush, ruby-toned upholstery it was a marvel of engineering, being able to support even the weightiest of grande dames while still being light enough to move. In short, the thing was mostly open space inside, crisscrossed with innumerable struts, pistons, springs, and braces, and it was a natural jungle gym for the mice. Nasty was small enough—barely—to fossick around inside it without getting permanently stuck... so long as nobody sat down, anyway.

Vennex rolled his eyes and took up where Nasty had left off on Soluk's hindquarters while derisive squeaks and muffled swearing began to emanate from the furniture. Ranax squeaked indignantly at this dereliction of duty, and then went to investigate the ruckus that was breaking out under the couch.

Tilla grunted sympathetically and gave Vennex's ear a gentle lick, making him smile. Despite Nasty's agreeing to babysit, it was Vennex who usually had to look after the rambunctious cub when Trenosh was busy with other things, and Tilla knew very well how tiresome that could be. “I need to go home as well,” he murmured, digging dust and flakes of dead skin out from between Soluk's leg scales and making the huge reptiloid rumble happily. “If I don't, Mom might send someone out after me.”

“We'll get there,” Zaianne said soothingly. “Kheriphor is well within our range at the moment, and Yantilee is too wary a tactician to pursue her goals too boldly. We have time enough to make a side trip, if the conditions look right. Just how faithful to his duty is your Garrison Fleet commander?”

Vennex frowned thoughtfully at Soluk's gleaming, sandy-colored scales. “Reasonably, last I knew. They'll go after pirates like a shot, since they're allowed to keep whatever loot the pirates are carrying, but actually protecting their assigned planets bores them. I know that the fleet captains have been overcharging the big trade ships for escort services, and their record where it comes to fighting off Gantarash invasions...” he shuddered. “Well, it's not the best. Not since Modhri left.”

Modhri cast a worried look at his adoptive nephew. “Didn't anyone take up that duty after I was called away? A Gantarash ship-clan is no small threat.”

Vennex shook his head and scrubbed angrily at Soluk's shin. “There isn't any honor in fighting vermin. Especially big, stinky vermin who want to eat you. If the Gantarash take a ship within his jurisdiction, the Commander won't bother to pursue them unless someone onboard has relatives or business contacts that might be... you know, grateful for a rescue attempt. Mom says that our client list has been shifting toward the military for years now, because the big trading firms don't like the risk-to-profit rating that our System's got. A lot of people miss you, Uncle.”

Modhri muttered a curse. “Who commands that fleet now?”

“Ghwarask Kalchox'Roh,” Vennex replied bluntly. “Mom told me that he got the rank through Right of Challenge.”

“Oh,” Modhri grunted in disgust. “Him. One of Narax's little hangers-on, and one who held me in contempt. He did not like it that a mere ship's technician could rise to command, having himself been unable to, despite having come from a family that had been warriors since before our people discovered spaceflight. It doesn't surprise me that he could not achieve rank in any other way than to challenge his commander to a duel to the death. Who was his predecessor?”

Vennex growled under his breath. “Kambar Dhurak'Ram, and right before him it was Chrax Orakh'Har, and before him was Iraz Nattak'Nolp, and before him...” he broke off the litany with a sigh. “Let's just say that we really miss you, Uncle Modhri.”

Coran hummed disapprovingly and fingered his mustache. “Sounds like Zarkon was using your colony as a dumping ground for bad officers. Not an uncommon practice, I fear. Alfor and his team had all sorts of problems with talentless brass during their adventures. How'd you wind up out there, Modhri?”

“Politics,” Modhri said. “Many of the members of the Military High Command are from wealthy, titled, and influential Lineages, and they didn't like being shown up by a complete nobody, particularly one who wasn't interested in murdering his colleagues for the right to retain his rank. I volunteered for that post, remote though it was, because it got me out of that den of savages. Alas, there were more savages awaiting me.”

“Another problem that we often ran into.” Coran knocked flakes of dragon dandruff out of his brush and continued nostalgically. “We encountered so many noble fellows of humble origin serving in distant posts that Blaytz kept scorecards—a bit like that Human game, 'Bingo', I think they call it—and every time he filled out a card, he'd treat himself to a bottle of Rejolian brandy from the stash that he kept in his room. He usually shared it with the fellow who'd won him that bottle, too. T'was only fair. Half the time, it was their savages that were causing the trouble.”

Modhri chuckled. “Trust me, Coran, I would have given a great deal to have you and your friends drop by to rid me of mine. I certainly could have used a sip of the brandy. Speaking of that, I wonder how our own Paladins are doing.”

Soluk vented a deep rumble, following that up with a long string of clicks and rattles that sounded like nothing much to their guests' untrained ears, but made Zaianne, Modhri and Coran look at him sharply. Modhri in particular stared in disbelief at the big dragon, visibly shaken. “Is that possible?” he whispered.

Tilla uttered a cheerful whistle and nipped at his sleeve playfully before resting her head on her forepaws.

Trenosh stared at the dragons in confusion. “What did they say?”

Zaianne humphed. “As far as I can make out, they're doing remarkably well. Shiro already had considerable talent before Tzairona and Zerod gave him their little gifts, and those in addition to what he got from the black Lion are combining in ways never seen before by mortalkind, particularly when all six Paladins have linked up their powers. Tilla says that just because it's never happened before, it doesn't mean that it can't. To put it simply, the lot of them are now loaded for saber-toothed pecholga, and they may very well need to be. Coran, before it all came crashing down, did your people know of any person or persons quite like Zarkon and Haggar?”

Coran opened his mouth to expound, paused, closed it, and thought very hard for a minute or two before answering. “Not without going into the realm of myth and legend, no. Alfor and his team fought a few tyrants who certainly considered themselves to be in their class, but looking back on it, I can't say that they matched up. Certainly not in sheer scope and size. As far as I know, there has never been a single Empire that was so big, or had lasted so long under a single ruler. Now, it is possible that the Ancients might have known someone similar, and Lizenne did say that the Szaracan Cluster was once a war zone unlike any other. We did find one civilization that was sort of comparable, but only when you take scale into account.”

“How do you figure that?” Vennex asked.

“Well, the people involved were about this big--” Coran pinched his fingers together to suggest a race of beings that topped out at a quarter-inch, “--and their planet was not only inhabited fully on the surface, right up into the tallest trees on the highest mountains, but also riddled with densely-populated underground cave systems that went very nearly to the core. Even had floating nations on, in, and beneath the surface of every body of water, too. They'd evolved to thrive in every environment that their world had, and then some! That planet was their universe, lad, and they did have a reasonably evil empire that intended to own all of it. The Imperial Family's ambitions—and indeed, the Family itself—eventually came to an ignominious end with the Paladins' help. Trigel's end, to be precise, when she sat down on a certain rock without checking it for occupancy first, and, well... squish. She was terribly upset about that, and was never able to get the stains out of her favorite trousers, either. Nevertheless, we were hailed as heroes from pole to pole and top to bottom; the fireworks displays alone were wonderful, even if you did have to use a magnifier to watch them properly. Great days.”

A burst of odd noises distracted them all at that point; Ranax had retrieved his toy and was now bouncing up and down on the seat of the red couch and hooting with evil glee, his toy honking right along with him while paint-peeling profanity, indignant rodent squeals, and various sprongs and twangs from the couch's interior rigging emanated from beneath. There was a loud thump, a small thump, and a metallic clatter, and then Nasty and Plachu, both of them all over dustbunnies, slid out from beneath the couch.

“You,” Nasty declared irritably, waving the dessert fork at the giggling cub, “will one day be someone's evil overlord, and I will become the bane of your existence. I will hotwire your ground vehicles, fill the jets of your aircars with gravel, and steal all of the yurosk powder from the kitchen. You will apologize right now, you little brat, or I will also replace all of your trousers with Torlune kilts and bobble socks. The sparkly socks, pal, and the kilts with the little color-changing lights!”

Eeeek!” Plachu said, vowing vengeance as well. “Squeak eek eek ip phiff!”

Ranax laughed uproariously, propped himself up on all fours to assume a draconic stance, said “Gweeek!”, and then followed that up with one of Tilla's signature wet raspberries.

Trenosh shook his head dolefully. “His sister will have to spend a great deal of time civilizing him. Well, we do carry first-aid supplies and earplugs in our store, but the sooner we get home, the better.”

“Can't be soon enough for me,” Nasty said sourly, dusting himself and the mouse off and then checking the fork for damage. “He reminds me of the neighbor kids back home. Their parents ran an amusement park, and those little monsters grew up half-feral under the carousels. Once, a team of Galra enforcers tried to bust up an unregistered gambling ring that had been renting space in the back of a ring-toss booth. Dumb idea. Those kids took one look at those clumsy purple bullies and their ugly robots clomping into their turf, and what did they think of that? I'll tell you what they thought. They thought, 'fresh meat', 'cause--”

“Because you were right there with them,” Pidge said, walking into the room with the rest of the team behind her. “You even still have the squad leader's badge and master-access card. You showed them to me once, remember?”

Nasty grinned at her and tucked the fork safely away in a belt pouch. “Yup. Those guys had been stripped down to their underwear by the time they escaped, and last I knew, bits of the Sentries were still being used as decorations in the Haunted House. So, how did your conference go? Hey, dead guy, you look like you've been stealing loose change out of Time's back pocket.”

Shiro gave him a tolerant look. “Yes, actually. Some of that change includes a gigantic space monster and the destruction of the Castle. It's going to happen no matter what we do to stop it.”

What?!” Coran squawked, and had to catch himself on Soluk's spines to keep himself from tumbling to the floor. “Lose the Castle? We can't lose the Castle, it's an heirloom! It was specifically designed to meet the needs of the Royal Family both on- and off-planet, and was specially retrofitted to house the Lions. We can't replace it if we lose it! Even fixing the silly old thing requires a minor miracle, as we've recently seen. Lose the Castle? Preposterous! Besides, I keep all of my things here.”

Hunk plodded over and sat down heavily on the red couch, tickling Ranax behind one ear. “Shiro says that we'll probably survive it. If so, Pidge and I can use the parts to rebuild. I'm trying not to get excited about the possibilities of that, 'cause it's bad of me, you know? And Pidge wants to build a chicken house.”

Coran stared at him owlishly. “A what?”

“A Baba Yaga house,” Pidge said firmly, plopping down next to Hunk and tickling Ranax behind the other ear. “A small cottage that travels around on big bird legs. I've already got the piston-and-gyros system figured out, but I don't have the energy right now to do anything about it. The session went fine, guys, but it showed us some stuff that we weren't expecting...”

By the time that the Paladins were done telling that tale, Modhri wasn't the only one feeling a bit shaken up.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Preparations

 

It was several days later, and the Castle was finally on the move.

The Paladins had had to stay by Jeproba for a little time at the Fleet's request, just to make sure that the System stayed safe until the locals got the hang of the warships that Pidge had stolen for them. That didn't bother the Paladins much; Shiro and his team spent much of his time with Loliqua, learning those techniques that would give him some control over his wild talent; Pidge and Hunk immured themselves in the lab to play with power tools whenever Nasty wasn't tutoring them in villainous activities, and Zaianne made sure that everybody got their exercise.

Their guests were kept busy as well in the meantime, making sure that the nascent supply network wouldn't fail at the first signs of stress. Trenosh and Vennex had done their best, and so far, everything looked good. It was a great comfort to both of them that Coran allowed them to contact their families every so often, and Vennex in particular was glad to inform his mother that he would be home soon.

Finally,” she said, just a touch acidly, although her expression on the screen was one of relief. “The Military just got around to letting us know that you're officially dead, and have sent us your effects and pay packet, small as it was. We're disputing the death ruling, but we won't be able to hammer it through the Magistrate's Office until you're home. They might want us to bring you in for a debriefing, although they've largely given up on that sort of thing. Everyone returned home by the Ghost Fleet has had little to tell them, unless they were officers. For once, Harzat can't chide you for laziness, Vennex.”

Vennex puffed a faint laugh. His brother had been very disappointed in him when he had given up on achieving rank. “I'm perfectly willing to let the brass take the brunt for once, Mom. Let them go on thinking that I spent the past few weeks in a cell on the Quandary. Anything else will just get us all in trouble.”

She nodded. “We know. A few of my brothers are still unsure of the business ventures that you've lined up for us, but our Matriarch is all for it.”

“Is she?” Vennex asked, very surprised; his grandmother was a hard-eyed businesswoman to the core, and wary of sudden change. “I would have thought--”

His mother cut him off with a wave of her hand. “She's had a look at the regional statistics, and has run the profit-to-risk calculations through the main computer down at the Bureau of Commerce. If events progress as she thinks they will, your work out there and especially the alliance you've forged with Trenosh's Lineage has opened up a nice broad path to survival for us.”

That took him aback. “S... survival? What do you mean?”

You've told us a good deal of what the Paladins and their friends are actually up to,” his mother said, her eyes solemn. “Mother took that into account when she ran the figures. Our business depends absolutely upon the stability of the Empire. If that stability is disrupted, and it will be, then it is in our best interests to move the business elsewhere as soon as possible. Uncle Thrant is currently looking for a new place for us on Arcobi.”

“Arcobi?” Vennex said faintly, shocked by the sudden action that his family was taking.

Oh, yes. It's an advantageous location, the business and sales tax rates are lower there than on Kheriphor, and the area could really use a shipping company with our level of expertise. We won't abandon Kheriphor entirely; a few of our managerial staff are bucking for promotion, and this will be as good a test of their skills as anything. The Ghost Fleet does intend to take control of the Systems near the Arcobi System, doesn't it?”

Vennex nodded numbly. “It's right between two major trade hubs. Yantilee wants them both serving the Coalition instead of the Empire. If they can take both the Rakshane and the Poberantha Market Hubs, the Empire will lose economic control of the entire Sector, and probably a lot more than that. A lot more, since the locals won't have to rebuild much. Yantilee is very good at taking her targets intact.”

His mother smiled. “Something that our own Military never got the hang of. Mother is actually quite excited about the move. She's been considering relocating us for some time, and... hmmm... she rather likes the look of one of Trenosh's uncles.”

Vennex couldn't help but laugh at that. His grandfather had died in a bar fight when Vennex had been very small, and his grandmother had never remarried. It was comforting to think that they would have a warm welcome on a strange world, and a firm alliance was always a good thing. “That's all right, then. I should be home in a day or two, and then they'll drop off Trenosh and Ranax. Should I ask them to help with the house-hunting?”

Mother's potential boyfriend is already searching the listings,” his mother said with a naughty smile. “He likes the look of her as well, you see. We await you with all eagerness, Vennex. I warn you, your sister and brothers will want to hear every last little detail of your adventure. Atretha is bitterly envious that you got to share a ship with the Rogue Witch.”

Vennex looked up and over to where that particular woman was having a private discussion with the Toad Princess of Omorog. “On and off. Maybe she'll come down with Uncle Modhri to meet all of you. The Paladins can't, for obvious reasons, but those two have ways of disguising themselves that have to be seen to be believed. They won't be able to stay long, of course, but--”

Even a glimpse of the woman herself would delight your sister beyond all measure. She still hasn't forgiven Haggar for what happened to Telanir, and I personally can't blame her.”

Vennex shuddered. Telanir had been a powerful witch, and a great friend of his sister's despite being twice her age. Haggar had summoned the talented young woman to the Center to assess that power, which had excited them both very much, and Atretha had been ecstatic when her best friend had been judged to be worthy of joining the Druids. That had not lasted. Telanir had never returned, nor had she sent any messages. Atretha had traveled all the way to the Center the moment that her mother had deemed her old enough to take that long a trip on her own, and had been horrified at what she'd seen there. Telanir had been destroyed, she'd said when she'd come back. All that was left of her was a semi-physical shell and her power, and even those had been twisted all out of recognition. The thing that had been Telanir had not recognized Atretha, nor had it been interested in making friends, or in anything but serving its mistress. Atretha had cried for weeks over the loss, and was perfectly willing to cheer on anyone who sought to destroy the Emperor's witch.

“I'll see what I can do,” Vennex promised. “If nothing else, Modhri wants to meet up with you again, if only to say hello.”

She smiled a little wistfully. “If I had not been in mourning for your father and brothers, I might have courted him myself. He was among the finest men that I have ever seen. It will be good to see him again, if only for a little time. Tell Lizenne that she has excellent taste in men. Ah. I need to go, my son; I've a meeting in a few minutes that I can't afford to skip.”

Vennex heaved a sigh. “All right Mom. I love you.”

I love you too, Vennex. Come home safe.”

“I will, Mom,” he murmured, and cut the connection.

The screen went blank, and Vennex sat there quietly for a moment, absorbing the news that he'd been given. While he was happy that his grandmother had found love again, for all that she was probably too old to give her new man cubs, to have the whole Lineage up and move to a planet that he'd never seen before was a bit much. Above all, his family wasn't displeased with him, and intended to make the most of what he'd done for them. It was a little overwhelming, and he jumped in surprise when he felt a hand come to rest upon his shoulder. Looking up, he saw the amphibious but motherly features of one of the high officials of a planet that he'd always wanted to visit.

“Yes, Princess?” he asked.

“Loliqua,” she said gently. “My rank does not matter at the moment. Your family will do well by your actions.”

That wasn't a question, he realized, and remembered that certain rumors had been floating around this woman for a very long time. “I think so. They think so, too. Look... um... is it true that you can tell the future? Shiro can, and...” he paused, giving her an apologetic look. “Things tend not to happen by accident around here.”

Loliqua giggled and gave his shoulder a gentle little pat. “You are completely correct. The Fates themselves are tied around this ship in a neat bow knot, aren't they? Yes, dear, I am an Oracle, although I will ask you not to speak of that in any place where that might get back to our Governor. Haggar dislikes having such talents cropping up among the subject races, and we would rather not have her coming by and causing trouble.”

Vennex smiled shyly at her. “I wouldn't either. I'll stay quiet about it.”

“Good. You are a man of your word, I feel.” She paused, looking thoughtful for a long moment, her eyes staring into some unknown distance in a way that he had seen once before, when Shiro had had a Vision right in front of him. The look was unmistakable, although it didn't seem to bother Loliqua much; she came back from whatever future had caught her attention, blinked slowly, and then winked at him. “It will stand you in good stead. You will be very busy for a time, getting your household and family settled into their new home, but you will not be sorry for it. Everything that you have done in life has been done well, young man, and those things that you will do in the coming seasons will benefit many. Indeed, whole worlds will be deeply grateful for your hard work.”

Vennex stared at her, aware that he'd just had his fortune read by a seasoned professional. “Really?”

She nodded. “There is a very good likelihood, yes. Merely progress in the manner in which you began, and you will be rewarded. The reward will often be more work, of course, but that's always the way of it, eh? I've been doing the same sort of work for over three centuries, and so I should know. It can be a great bother, but it's worth it in the end.”

Vennex thought about the Fringe colonies, poor and unimportant and in real danger of losing their Imperial protectors. If those fleets left them, predators and slave raiders would depopulate those colonies totally within the year, if they didn't simply starve to death first.

“You're right,” he whispered, shivering at that dreadful possibility. “Hunk's right, too, about us keeping things stable. I'll do my best.”

“That is all that may be asked of you,” Loliqua said, and then paused again, as though an inspiration had struck. “Fourteen months,” she said firmly, “from this very day.”

“What?” he asked, confused.

She tapped a finger on the comm terminal. “Fourteen Arcobian months from today, you must contact me at the Spring Palace upon Omorog, and no later than the third hour after noon, your time. We will forge a business agreement that will be absolutely vital to the well-being of four other planets within the Bamnapos Sector, and will ensure prosperity for not only my world, but your family and Trenosh's into seeming perpetuity. I cannot perceive the details, but will be very important for both of us.”

Trenosh reached for a nearby scratch pad and wrote himself a note, to which Loliqua added her contact information; with trembling hands, he folded the precious paper and tucked it carefully into an inside pocket. “Thank you,” he murmured.

“You are quite welcome,” she replied easily.

A moment later, they felt the Castle surge slightly around them, and they turned to watch the lounge's windows as the view outside showed the fluid, luminous blue of a wormhole transition. After a little time, the view cleared, showing stars that were achingly familiar. They were well out from Kheriphor, of course, and even as he watched, their pilots were easing them into the thickest part of what was probably the outer asteroid ring. Lazy though the local Garrison might be, they would leap instantly at the chance to take the Castle.

“How long?” he asked.

“Perhaps a day or two,” Lizenne said, walking up to get a good look at the planet coming into view, shining like a gem in the deeps of space. “Your family has offered us the use of one of their courier-craft landing pads, but the timing is tight. Trenosh might want to come down with us and meet your folks as well. You'll have long enough to bid us all a fond farewell, at least.”

That was actually something of a joke. Despite everything his hosts had done to make him feel a part of the team, a sense of unreality had plagued him nonstop since he had come out of the healpod that first time. He saw in her eyes that she understood how he felt, and that she sympathized with him.

“It's all right,” she said quietly, “some days, I look back upon my own adventures and I cannot believe that they actually happened. I have broken every rule, defied numerous laws of magic, society, and physics, faced insurmountable odds and overcame them with relative ease. I have seen the impossible done and have done a bit of it myself, and some mornings I gaze into the mirror and see the legendary heroines of the old tales in my reflection. It can be a bit unnerving.”

“You've never lost heart, though,” Vennex said.

She shook her head ruefully. “I keep it in Modhri, and he keeps his in me. We are each other's shadows.”

Vennex blushed at that very personal admission, and she smiled at his sudden confusion. “I've come close to losing him a few times, and my courage along with him, and those near-misses have hardened my resolve. I will see this through, no matter what, and soon; I want cubs, and I can't do that until my oath of kheshveg is resolved. Selfish, I know, but no one's children will be safe until Zarkon's and Haggar's power is broken.”

He stared at her, the reason coming clear at last. Of course she saw the wild women of the old legends in her mirror—she was becoming a legend herself! So were Modhri, the Paladins, the Captains of the Ghost Fleet, and everyone around them. Everyone who had ever come in contact with the Lions shared the same fate. He had the sudden sensation of riding a Leviathan, a force so huge and powerful that one couldn't even feel that it was there until it changed direction. He hadn't seen it until now for the same reason that deep-sea fish never noticed tidal waves. For a little time, he had been a part of it, and was a part of it still. He would be a part of that legend for the rest of his life, and that knowledge straightened his spine and squared his shoulders. Ten thousand years from now, the children of future trading Houses would ask for the story of the man who had survived the wrath of both Hoshinthra and Gantarash, and who had saved whole worlds in his own quiet way.

Lizenne smiled. “That's better.”

Vennex vented a breathless laugh and smiled sheepishly at her. “I should have done this earlier, but I couldn't get up enough courage. Modhri's been my uncle for years, but I never got around to claiming you as my aunt.”

Her golden eyes twinkled humorously at him. “And would you want an aunt such as I, who is wild and lawless; who is liable to make a scene at parties and corrupt young minds with strange and fascinating ideas?”

Vennex thought about that for a moment. His own upbringing had been very prosaic, in its way. He'd had the standard schooling and the same basic training as thousands of other children just like him, and up until the disaster that had cost him his father and brothers, he had seemed destined for an unexciting life of managing cargo shipments. And then Modhri had pulled him out of a cage on a ship made by monsters...

Would he cringe from his fate, or embrace it?

He embraced her, letting that gesture say it all. She returned it, accepting him as he had accepted her, brushing the small scales on one cheekbone with fond fingertips and murmuring, “I really will give your children ideas, you know. The Empire prefers its citizens to be docile and law-abiding, even when the laws are unfair and repressive. Any little grandniece or grandnephew of mine will learn to challenge the comfortable norm, and to seek freedom for themselves and for others.”

Vennex smiled. “It's working already—my sister really wants to meet you. You think that I'll have children for you to corrupt?”

She let him go, giving him an enigmatic smile that was nonetheless kind. “That's up to you. Show that good heart of yours to a fine young lady, should you find one that is worthy of it, and if she has any sense at all she'll accept that gift in a trice. Any hints, Loliqua?”

Loliqua had been watching this exchange with open delight, but had to gesture a negative. “Not at this time, but patience will bring its own reward. Come now, Vennex, you will need to make your farewells, and Hunk will want to give you a box of cookies for your family. I am sure that everybody here will miss you.”

“I'll miss them too,” he said, and realized with some surprise that he meant it.

 

The dropoff went quickly and without incident, thankfully, despite the high concentration of traffic in the Kheriphor System, and its fairly heavy military presence. Everyone had shaken Vennex's hand and wished him well, and Lizenne and Modhri had taken him down to the planet in one of the Chimera's shuttles. They had stayed a few hours and had come back without raising any alarms, and both of them looked pleased with themselves upon their return.

“It all went very smoothly,” Modhri told them with a fond smile when they had reconvened on the bridge. “They welcomed us like long-lost family and we were on our best behavior the whole time. Vennex's little cousins stole all the cookies, Hunk, but their mothers thank you for sending along the recipes.”

Lizenne smirked. “His sister's a clever one, too, and has the makings of a potent witch. I gave her a few tricks and tips to play with and laid down a few guidelines. If necessary, we can count on aid from that quarter, so long as we don't ask for anything too extravagant.”

“Good to know,” Shiro said, and nodded at Trenosh. “We'll be heading to Arcobi next. Will you need anything before we go?”

Trenosh shook his head and shifted his grip on his son, who was gnawing ferociously on his sleeve. “I need to be reunited with my family. Nothing else could matter half so much. Perhaps the Princess might prefer to take her leave before we get too far from her own world...?”

“A sensible suggestion,” Loliqua commented. “I should get back home soon, and preferably before another unexpected adventure rolls along, or before I go wild with envy.” Loliqua leveled a disapproving look at Shiro, who returned it with an apologetic smile. “This young man owes his ghostly friends an entire barrel of sanctified liquor, Zerod in particular! He learns in minutes what it took me years to master, and I can hear that Lion of his laughing at me whenever I expect him to have difficulty with his lessons. I cannot fathom the means by which he is being rushed into proficiency so quickly! I simply have nothing more to teach him.”

Zaianne cocked her an arch look. “He has to learn fast in order to head up this team, and he paid for it with not only the last year of his first life, but with that life itself. The second life that he has been given will be very busy, I fear, and he must be ready for it.”

Loliqua waggled a finger at her. “That doesn't mean that I can't envy him a bit. I truly do wish that I had such advantages when my own talents were just starting to bloom. I cannot count how many sleepless nights I spent, meditating for all that I was worth, going for weeks without so much as a hunch, and then getting so many of them all at once that I barely knew which universe I was in, much less the time of day! Ah—and speaking of such, there is one other person who might be of further help. A scientist of rare brilliance, specializing in dimensional probability, Slav is--”

“No,” Shiro said bluntly, “absolutely not.”

“We've met,” Lance said, frowning at his own bad assumptions during that little adventure. “He's smart, but he drives everyone around him nuts. Even the Olkari have to look after him in shifts.”

Loliqua giggled. “Yes, he is a bit erratic, especially when excited or stressed, and I have heard that the poor treatment he received while incarcerated has added a fine dose of paranoia to the mix. I have also heard that there is a way to defuse him when he becomes overexcited.”

“Really?” Allura asked, very interested for Shiro's sake.

“There is a shop called 'Terra' in one of the larger space malls, and they sell these little handheld battery-powered fans with colored lights set into the blades,” Loliqua informed them. “They apparently hypnotize him quite handily, although one is advised to turn down the offer of a free kaltenecker, or at least push for a real one. The animatronic ones are amusing, but they take up space and are a pain to dust.”

“Been there,” Pidge said, “done that, got the robot cow.”

There was a glint in Hunk's eye. “You can get a real one? A really real one?”

“Hunk...” Keith protested. “Where would we keep it, and who's going to clean up after it?”

Hunk shot out a hand and caught his teammate by the collar, lifting him off of the floor. “Fresh cream, Keith. Real butter, real ice cream, real cheese. Custard. Steak, too, if Lizenne can clone bits of it. I will find a way. Lizenne, is there any room in your envirodeck where we can pasture a cow?”

Lizenne waved a negative hand. “In a Zampedran environment? Hunk, dear, the poor thing wouldn't last five minutes. Doesn't the Castle have a hydroponics section?”

“Three,” Coran said, “one for field crops and one for bushes, trees, and exotics, and there's a nice little meadow bed intended for gardening. The kitchen staff did insist upon having absolutely fresh produce for the grand feasts, and the fine Ladies of the Court would absolutely shrivel up and die if they didn't have fresh flowers about the place at all times, for all that the cleaning staff went on strike whenever the gardeners brought in a fresh load of fertilizer. Allura's mother was an excellent gardener herself and used to work out her frustrations by pruning the ghlarizee creepers. Lovely blooms those things had, and very pretty foliage, but the fruits would burst into flame if something tried to graze on them. Took real skill to cultivate those. The Queen had just about every cultivar there was and a few of her own breeding, but we lost those and most of the other garden plants during the time we spent in cryopods. The planting beds are not really meant for keeping livestock in, but we can make do, I suppose. Cows don't breathe fire or anything, do they?”

“They go 'moo' and eat grass,” Hunk said with unshakable determination and put Keith down. “And I will have one.”

Ranax squealed shrilly; he had managed to wiggle himself into an upside-down position, and was kicking his little legs in the air. Trenosh smiled. “And I will take this one home before he can bite it. Allow me to extend an invitation to all of you—my family wishes to speak with you, Grandfather especially. My uncles are willing to extend you a good discount if you wish to go shopping as well; it seems that they've overstocked a little on the Unilu delicacies and need the space in the storage rooms. They keep tripping over those cans of temmin okk.”

Nasty, who had been trading dirty looks with Ranax, perked up immediately. “That's important. Cans of temmin okk have to be ignored for months and tripped over regularly, or they just don't taste right. How long have they been there?”

“Best part of a year, and Uncle Kaerzan kicks them at least three times a week.” Trenosh told him. “Usually after wrangling with his Unilu customers over the coupons. He'll be happy to be rid of them.”

Nasty smiled, his expression beatific. “I like your folks already. They really understand.”

Trenosh chuckled and put Ranax down. “How can they not? We have a large Unilu community just a few blocks away from us. Just wait until you haggle over your purchases with Grandfather. He's an artist.”

“I'm looking forward to it,” Nasty said, and waved a finger at the Paladins. “And you lot had better pay attention and take notes. If a Galra shopkeeper can hold his own with a whole neighborhood of my kind, then you've got to be as good or better. Heroes, right? You've got to be the best at everything. Conventional wisdom says so.”

Keith smiled, well aware of his and his team's shortcomings where it came to that sort of thing. “Whatever you say, Teach.”

Loliqua smiled. “And I'll be sorry to miss it, but I really should—oh!”

Kak!” something said from floor level. “Yik! Pthhhbbbbtt! Bleah!”

Everyone looked down to see Ranax roll away from Loliqua's ankles, his face contorted in an expression of pure disgust. In truth, nobody was terribly surprised about this; she'd spent all of her time aboard the Castle closeted with Shiro and the others, and despite his efforts to investigate their guest, the fearsome little cub hadn't been able to get a taste of her until now.

“Sorry,” Trenosh said, frowning at the ghastly faces his son was making. “Should I be worried about that?”

Loliqua giggled, then lifted the cub up into her arms and cuddled him a little. “Not in the least. This isn't the first time this has happened to me; the seventh Governor to hold his office during my reign was fortunate enough to engage the affections of a very fine Lady, and he liked nothing better than to show off his cubs whenever I put on a diplomatic function. Those were good years. He couldn't quite bring himself to be suspicious of anyone who was kind to his children, and I was able to give his brats a firm grounding in civilized behavior. Their mother was very grateful for the help, and they grew up to be very skilled indeed. They did learn very early on not to bite an Omora, mind you. While we are not exactly toxic, the oils in our skin do not taste good at all. Not at all tasty, now am I?”

She waved a finger under Ranax's nose as she said this, and the cub leaned well away from that finger, his little hands clamped firmly over his mouth. “Eeeph,” he said.

“Good boy,” she murmured, handing him back to his father. “As much as I would like to stay and observe everyone's progress, I really should be getting home.”

“Having premonitions?” Pidge asked.

Loliqua waggled a hand. “More of a subliminal urge, although those should never be ignored. While I do not doubt Fanlen's skills, it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Lance opened his mouth to comment, but a sudden ping interrupted him, making the others look around sharply in surprise. Loliqua humphed and dug a small communicator out of her pocket, holding it up on the palm of her hand to allow a small screen to materialize. “Yes?”

My apologies, Princess,” her pilot said tensely, “but I've just received an urgent message from home. You're needed—the Keerampar Collective just had one of their little... ah... administrative reorganizations, and the agreements that you'd made with their previous Thap Pevalva are now null and void. Fanlen doesn't have the training or the status to deal with that mob of scavengers. They're still fighting among themselves over who gets which seat at the table, but it won't be long before they contact your office. I'm sorry, your Highness, but Kings Elorpo, Quanstan, Lonnid, and Percowell just don't have your touch, and none of the Queens or other Princes or Princesses are willing or able to handle it.”

“And none of the Chancellors are, either, I expect. Drat.” Loliqua muttered an exasperated oath under her breath. “I will just have to publish that manuscript after all, never mind that it might annoy them. Everything annoys them! Does the ship have sufficient range to take us home from here?”

Lathann frowned and looked away, and a few beeps suggested that he was looking at his starcharts. “Not quite. If our gracious hosts can move us a little further in... say, the outer edge of the Byrn Binary System, we'll be able to take advantage of the Wholon Time-Space Anomaly and cut our travel time in half.”

“We can do that,” Coran said, tapping at his controls briskly. “What manuscript was that, if I might ask?”

“A manual on how to handle some of the trickier peoples in the Bamnapos Sector,” she replied with an exasperated shake of her head. “Most of them are fairly straightforward and sensible types, but others are excitable, clannish, tribal, as touchy as a shaved furblit, or intent on causing as much chaos as they can get away with. The Keerampars are all of the above, and have driven legions of Governors into fits of frustrated rage.”

Keith cocked an interested look at her. “I'm surprised that nobody's made an example of them.”

Loliqua rolled her eyes heavenward. “They have been. Numerous times. It just makes them worse.”

“How do you handle them, then?” Allura asked.

“Being made to sit in a corner for about half an hour does the trick every time,” Loliqua said sourly, “usually while wearing an embarrassing hat. In extreme cases, I might swat them across the posterior segments with a measuring rod.”

Hunk stared. “You treat them like naughty schoolchildren?”

She scowled darkly. “They are children. Keerampars have several life-stages. They aren't even sentient during the first, being merely large grubs. The Second is spent bounding madly over the plains, continually reinventing simple tools and learning how to use them. After their Third Molt, they become able to understand the more complex scientific disciplines. After the Fourth, they are capable of learning quite complex ones, such as dimensional physics, power politics, and starflight. Unfortunately, they also achieve sexual maturity at that point, and become quite irrational at times because of it. Those that survive that go on to the Fifth Molt, beyond which they are sessile—permanently attached to the trunks of enormous trees, where they spend their remaining days contemplating the Infinite and expounding upon it in philosophical terms that make no sense to anyone but each other. Personally, I would rather deal with a Fifth-Molt Keerampar than a Third or Fourth, but it cannot be avoided.”

“Hard to move the trees,” Coran agreed as Zaianne opened another wormhole. “Knew a few multistage peoples like that myself, back in the day, although Alfor and the rest of the team found them to be absolutely insufferable. While they might get all of their silliness over with in one go, so to speak, they tended to be maddeningly conservative, even hidebound, in the more sober phases. The Vloks weren't too bad in the juvenile stage, but it took them days of deep discussion to come up with an answer to a simple, 'how are you?' after they became Elders. Gyrgan used to lock himself in his room whenever we had to visit the Guinkos, and refused to come out until we'd proven that there weren't any on the ship. And if you even mentioned the Apuleon-Mektas where Blaytz could hear you, he'd be in his Lion and seven lightyears away before you'd finished the sentence. Zarkon didn't like 'em much, either--”

“Which is why none of those three races still exist,” Zaianne finished for him, bringing the ship out into an area of space where the view of the stars twisted strangely in the distance. “They pulled their usual nonsense with him shortly after he'd cemented his hold on the Throne, and he was no longer required to be diplomatic about anything. If nothing else, it taught their neighbors discretion. We're here.”

Lance gave her a narrow look. “Knew a few of those multistage guys too, huh?”

“Not personally, but I had to learn about those three races and what happened to them in school.” Zaianne grimaced in distaste. “The Headmistress and the Senior Faculty believed in education through object lessons, which was one of the reasons why I concentrated my studies on the martial arts. People soon learned not to try making an example of me.”

Loliqua humphed. “As well they should! But come now, my dears, give me one last hug. I must go, and I have no idea whether or not I will see you again anytime soon.”

 

The Castle and the Chimera entered the Arcobi System in a subdued mood, with Allura working some of it off by taking a turn at the helm. The Castle was starting to feel overlarge and overly empty again; it always did when guests went home. She missed Loliqua already, and was missing Vennex's shy but helpful presence, and would doubtless soon be missing Trenosh's calm respectfulness and even the prickle of Ranax's teeth in her shins. Perhaps she should ask Kolivan for a detachment of his people as a sort of household guard again. Pidge was right—there was something very comforting about having them around the place.

She laughed at herself then, remembering how deeply she had distrusted the whole race in the beginning, and how that prejudice had nearly crippled her friendship with Keith. She had learned better since then, which was hopeful. Perhaps she could teach that understanding to others, in time.

So thinking, she eased the castle into a stable orbit behind an unused dwarf planet, leaving plenty of room for the Chimera to park itself nearby. Once again, they would be taking one of the Chimera's landers down, since none of the Castle's pods were large enough, and anything of Altean make was sure to raise alarms even out here. Trenosh had helpfully alerted his family to their imminent arrival, and reported that they were clearing the loading dock behind their supermarket especially for this very special delivery. It would certainly be an interesting trip; she'd never visited a Galra-run grocery store before, and the tales that the others had told her of Hunk's previous shopping trips had been very entertaining. Allura was also very curious about Trenosh's grandfather. Was he really a retired Blade of Marmora, and how would he react to Zaianne, or to Keith for that matter?

There was a squeep from ground level, a ferocious and high-pitched growl, and an “ow!” from Hunk. She smiled. She would also get to see how little Galra girls disciplined a wayward brother.

“All right, we've arrived,” Coran informed them. “Does everybody have everything they need?”

Trenosh gave him a wry smile and pried his cub off of Hunk's leg. “I have my son and the clothes on my back, which is all that I truly need.”

“I pulled a bunch of cash from the Castle's fund, and I'll put back whatever I don't use,” Hunk said, rubbing his leg. “We're a little low on supplies in the kitchen, so I'm going to be making the best of this trip. You all warmed up, Nasty?”

The Unilu smiled in happy anticipation of a really good haggling match. “I spent most of the morning practicing in front of the mirror. I'm primed and ready to go.”

“I made up a whole crate of noisy toys for Ranax's sibs,” Lance said, and cast an apologetic glance at Trenosh. “I don't think that your folks are going to get much sleep for the next few days. Sorry.”

Trenosh merely chuckled. “Believe me, knowing precisely where those little monsters are will offset any amount of noise, and having one of her own will keep this one's sister from gnawing his ears off. Not that she won't try to notch them anyway! She is possessive of her brothers, and will not have taken our absence very well.”

Shiro puffed a laugh, and then turned a thoughtful gaze on his team. “Will we need to worry about being identified?”

Trenosh waved a negative gesture. “It isn't likely, especially if you go unarmored. The loading dock has a covered access port, since much of our stock might spoil if it gets rained on. No one outside will see you enter. As for inside the store... I very much doubt it. We get all sorts of people through, and plenty of them look more or less like you do. Furthemore, the Emperor is not as popular as he might like out here. The Garrison and the Governor are tolerated, but only so long as they concentrate on defending the planet from things like Gantarash and Ortakan slavers. Even if you are recognized, the locals aren't likely to report you.”

Lance gave him a sly smirk. “But they like you guys fine, right?”

“Of course,” Trenosh said loftily. “Without us, where would our customers get their temmin okk, candied flass, grethic cereals, tuallop sodas, and fresh fruits and vegetables from any of a dozen worlds? We don't overcharge like most of our competetors do, either, and we pay our employees well, regardless of race. Grandfather insisted on that, and it's won us the loyalty of the community. This also isn't the first time that we've had to provide cover for refugees, which has further cemented our place in society.”

Zaianne smiled. “Perhaps some of our friends might add a few layers of security to that, if only because they might have a need for that sort of help.”

Trenosh drew himself up proudly. “We are a full-service establishment, my Lady, and respected members of our community. We welcome the participation of our neighbors in our charitable programs, and are therefore not easily moved or shaken by the local movers and shakers.”

Nasty gave him a suspicious look. “You guys have been using your 'evil-overlord' privileges for the public good, haven't you?”

Trenosh smiled slyly. “When Grandfather speaks, he is heard, even by city officials, and he is much-concerned with the family's survival and comfort.”

Coran chuckled. “Sounds a bit like my Grandfather. Pop-Pop could always get everyone's attention, if only because he could swear in Zampedran. Yes, sir, listening to the old man gronk the air blue on a fine spring morning was not something to miss! People used to bring snacks and scorecards if they spotted him yelling at a sloppy manager. Let's just see if our ride is ready, shall we? Sister Dearest, is all in readiness?”

A screen popped up, showing Lizenne's face. “It is. Modhri's just checked over our largest lander, and everything looks to be fine. Tilla and Soluk will be over shortly to mind the Castle's helm while we're out, so once they're on the bridge with the mice, you may board us at your discretion.”

Keith rubbed at his face, still mildly offended that the resident rodents were just as good at piloting a starship as he was. “Will they come to the rescue, too, if we get into trouble down there?”

Lizenne laughed. “Probably. I don't know, Trenosh, what would your much-vaunted community do if a pair of Zampedran Prairie Dragons were to come down and stage a jailbreak?”

Trenosh considered that, then smiled wryly. “Half of the Unilu would sell tickets while the rest would pick the crowd's pockets. The native Arcobians would paint dramatic pictures of the battle and sell those to everybody else as souvenirs. The Galra citizens would feel only slightly guilty as they cheered the dragons on. Granny Glaspwort would rouse her family—they're Rejolians—and set up a booth to sell the bootleg booze that the old woman brews up in her basement. The town's Mercantile Association would immediately declare a sidewalk sale. The travel agency down the street would demand to know where those magnificent beasts came from so they could negotiate for an exclusive tourism line there. The Psiliwar Playwrights at the theater would be working out the choreography for at least three or four productions of the event. The Pushcart Peddler's Union would demand the concession rights. The Public Events Council would try to book both your group and the police force for another showing the following year. The crowd would be throwing things and yelling, and after it was all over, Grandfather would go down to the Mayor's office and give the poor man a scalding lecture about how the police should be treating his customers with respect. We have a very respectful police force, but there's always one overeager rookie, isn't there? Oh, don't make that face at me, Keith, we're a free-market economy. Imperial Law is nice, but it should stay on its own side of the fence.”

“Makes sense to me,” Shiro said and waved a hand at the door. “Shall we?”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: A Little Work, A Little Play

 

The trip down to the planet was a little bit of a challenge for Modhri, who wasn't used to that level of traffic; Arcobi couldn't compare to the two great trade centers that lay on either side of it in the two nearest solar systems, but its orbits were bustling nonetheless. Still, he managed to work his way down through the shipping lanes, informing the control towers that he was delivering a special order to a respected local merchant; from the way that those busy officials waved him onward, this was too common an event for them to get curious about. The Paladins could easily believe that—there was an astounding variety of ships descending and lifting from the starports and docked at the various moons and space stations, and Coran, Pidge, Hunk, and Nasty amused themselves by playing a game of name-that-starcraft. Quite aside from the small, sleek Unilu ships and the blockier purple shapes of civilian Galra craft, there were rarer finds: a long, slender Palisoor ore scow with its distinctive pattern of pink lights; the bright red sphere of a Guanhop freighter; a Lipplipor merchanter that looked like a jumble of jeweled hoops; an angular, businesslike ship that Hunk said was a Throthinti heavy scout, and even a rather abstract-looking contrivance that, after some thought, Pidge was able to identify as a reconditioned Menoku exploratory ship. There was one smallish craft that made Nasty hiss through his teeth, though. It wasn't much to look at, being a sort of silvery-green, elongated-star shape, but the Unilu was looking at it as though he expected it to bite.

“Something wrong?” Coran asked.

“Ortakan ship,” Nasty said, pointing at the offending craft. “Just a scout, but Ortakan. I've never heard of them coming this far into Empire space. Arcobi doesn't have a slave market, does it?”

“No,” said Trenosh, “and we're rather proud of the fact. Our kind and the local peoples get along well enough without anyone being forced into submission.”

Zaianne humphed. “I'll warn Kolivan and the others to keep an eye on them.”

“Thank you,” Trenosh murmured, holding his son close.

They hit atmosphere soon after that, and conversation ceased as Modhri eased them down through a thunderstorm. Once through the cloud layer, he headed southeast, cities and open land rolling away beneath them in patches of mottled dimness and galaxy-like sprawls of light. Eventually, he zeroed in on a particular city, and then a particular suburb, merging expertly into the local air-traffic lanes for a little time before bringing the ship down as lightly as a feather in a large lot behind a broad, low building. Trenosh fidgeted impatiently while the jets cooled, and watched avidly as the covered loading dock extended to fasten itself to the lander's hatch. Modhri murmured something reassuring into his comm, and then opened the doors.

From the dimness of the loading dock, a woman's voice asked, “Trenosh?”

“Helitha!” Trenosh called back, and was out of his seat in a flash, Ranax squeaking in protest at the sudden jostling. Modhri watched him rush out of the lander with a smile, and then raised a hand when the others started to get up. “Give them a moment,” he said quietly. “It's very hard for a man to be separated from his mate for any time at all, and he's been away for weeks.”

Cubs didn't like being parted from their mothers either, and they could hear Ranax making shrill but muffled squee-yeep sounds that they'd heard before from Sarell's cubs, when they had wanted her but couldn't find her. Hunk sniffled emotionally at the tearful reunion that they could hear a little distance away, but they stayed put until Trenosh called to them in a voice that only shook a little.

“It's... it's all right, thank you. Come and meet the family.”

The loading dock led out into a large distributing area, but there was still barely room enough for everybody. There had to be at least four generations of them, most of them bearing a strong family resemblance to Trenosh, and at least two dozen cubs in various stages of development were peering curiously at the visitors from behind a forest of long legs. Trenosh was standing with his arm around a slender, very relieved-looking woman who was holding Ranax tightly, the cub clinging to her shirt with all four sets of claws.

“Helitha, everybody, these are our rescuers,” Trenosh said with a brilliant smile, waving his free hand at the team. “The Paladins of Voltron, who destroyed an entire Ship-Clan of Gantarash to save us and many others. Allura, Shiro, Keith, Hunk, Pidge, and Lance. The Rogue Witch and her man, Lizenne and Modhri. Zaianne of the Blade of Marmora, Coran, and Nasty, who has been teaching them all some very useful tricks.”

There was a polite rumble of greeting from the crowd, and a great deal of fascinated staring. Allura put on her most winsome smile and stepped forward to speak for her team. “I am very pleased to meet all of you,” she said sweetly, “Trenosh and Ranax have been excellent guests, and have done us and our allies a very great deal of good. I'm sorry that we could not bring him back to you sooner, but there were pressing matters that had to be addressed.”

Helitha nodded, shifting her son to a more comfortable position. “You've brought them back safe and unhurt, and that is enough. That we will profit from his work as well is secondary, although you should have heard Grandfather howling with laughter at the news of Jeproba's liberation. He'd met their Governor once, you see, and did not like him at all.”

Lance made a face. “Neither did the Jeprobans. Yantilee wanted to take the guy alive, but the Jeprobans had other ideas, and there wasn't much left of him by the time we got there.”

“There, now!” a gruff voice said suddenly, startling everyone, and the crowd parted to reveal a person who was obviously the family patriarch. He had been an imposing figure in his youth, very broad across the shoulders with long, powerful limbs; even in advanced old age, he was still impressive despite the fact that one arm was obviously mechanical, and the opposite leg creaked and whirred as he approached. Scars drew pale lines across his face from crown to jaw, narrowly missing the left eye, and the left ear had been notched during that same incident. The purple of his fur had faded to gray, with broad white streaks above the ears and over the back of his remaining arm. He might move slowly and leaned upon a cane as he did so, but there was an unmistakable grace to his carriage that told them louder than words that he had been trained in a very exclusive style of martial arts.

“Didn't I tell him that he would meet his end that way?” the old man continued, striding forward, his cane clacking sharply on the flooring with each stride. “Only a complete idiot mistreats his charges, I said, so I did, and only an idiot thinks that any people will submit meekly to such abuse forever. Did he never think that the bill might come due? He did not, and it has, and it has cost him his life, the lives of his cronies, and the Empire a goodly amount of valuable territory. Zaianne, girl, I see you've survived. Who's running the Order now?”

Zaianne had started in astonishment at the old man's appearance, and was now staring at him in disbelief. She wasn't the only one; many of Trenosh's kin were staring at the old man in shock as well. “Kolivan,” she whispered. “Kolivan leads us now. Drathann, we thought you were dead, killed in the attack on Tekura!”

“I almost was.” The old man came to a halt, gazing around at his surprised descendants with a wistful look in his eyes. “Fortunately for me, a very determined young woman had decided that I would not die that day, and she kept me alive in the following years despite my attempts to further the purpose of the Order. My daughters took up that duty after she died, with some success.” He rattled his claws on the handle of his cane, yellow eyes sizing up the Paladins. “Kolivan, eh? Always thought that the boy had potential. What of you, girl, and this peculiar group of yours, and what odd beast did you find to cross your good blood with to produce that cub, there? He's all pink and hasn't enough fur.”

Keith hissed in outrage, but any outburst he might have made was defused by Lance elbowing him in the ribs. “Told you so,” Lance whispered. “Grow some fuzz, man.”

Zaianne sneered at Drathann. “The man was Human, and among the best of them. My son Khaeth pilots the red Lion—the sword-arm of Voltron—and is accepted by the Order as well.”

Lizenne smirked. “Humans are genetically related to our kind, sir Blade, by a bit of ancient meddling, courtesy of some Elder Race or other. Very smooth work, too; I can't make out who did it, or which race was the original. They are all quite worthy of their status, regardless of origin.”

“Hah!” the old man barked a laugh, rapping his cane loudly on the floor and grinning fiercely at them, slightly gap-toothed where he'd lost a few fangs to his profession. “If you're going to custom-build a mutant, you might as well do a good job of it, eh? Purple or pink, it doesn't matter so long as the sword strikes truly, right? Right. Come and be welcome in our House, then, and we shall sit comfortably and have refreshments while you tell us all of how my grandson and great-grandson happened to fall into your hands. After that, Zaianne, you and I must talk, and I would be grateful for a chat with the Witch and her man as well. The rest of you will go shopping, and you will summon me when you are finished, for I have not had a good wrangle with a genuine Unilu pirate in years. Ah! Today, it is a good day, and I feel that it will soon be a better one.”

Drathann turned on his heel and led them toward a side door, chuckling richly. Hunk smiled as they turned to follow along. “What a cool old guy.”

“We certainly think so,” Trenosh murmured back, and then cocked an eyebrow at Zaianne. “You knew him, my Lady?”

She nodded. “He was one of my instructors during my first few years of training, and a warrior in very good standing with the Order. Losing him was a terrible blow to the rest of us. Kolivan... will be very pleased to hear that we did not lose him entirely. I wonder, Trenosh, if any of your kin might be interested in following in their grandfather's footsteps?”

Helitha gave her man an arch look. “Several of them have bred true, I'm afraid, and cause trouble if they aren't watched. If the Order is recruiting, Zaianne, I would be happy to recommend some of them!”

 

They were soon settled in a comfortable family room, although the storytelling was delayed a bit. A small furry purple blur shot into the room right under the feet of one of Trenosh's brothers, nearly sending the tray of snacks he was carrying flying across the room, and screaming a high-pitched paean of rage. Ranax gave a squeak of dismay and leaped out of his mother's arms in an attempt to run for the hills. The moment he touched the floor, however, the newcomer attacked, latching onto his shoulder with sharp little teeth and growling ferociously while he squealed in protest.

“His sister?” Keith asked.

Helitha nodded. “Askuri. We have great hopes for her. Morex, I did ask you to latch the door of the nursery, didn't I?”

One of the younger men, probably Trenosh's nephew, shrugged helplessly as tufts of baby fur flew. “I did, and I checked it three times, and even stuck the toothpick into the loop so that the latch couldn't pop open. She opened it anyway. That little girl of yours is going to be a terror in a few years, you know that? You've gone and spawned a safe-cracker.”

Ranax was fighting back now, and not all of the loose fur on the carpet was his. The family observed the whirling ball of angry fur with critical eyes. “Whatever he's been up to, it's given him courage,” one of the girls commented.

Allura giggled. “He spent most of his stay with us gnawing on pirates, heroes, and dragons. Perhaps a little of their boldness rubbed off on him?”

Pidge waved a hand. “If that didn't do it, nearly getting eaten by a Gantar brood-queen did. That little girl's mean, but nothing like as ugly as that death spider was.”

Drathann shot her a narrow look. “I will want to hear about that. Helitha, would you separate them, please?”

“Don't worry, sir, I've got it,” Lance said, opening up the small hovercrate he'd brought along and pulling out a strange object. “I made enough for everybody.”

The object hit the floor next to the brawling cubs with a loud “gloop!” that made Askuri halt mid-savage. Much as Ranax had before her, she approached the thing with care, swatted it experimentally, and then seized upon it when it made gross noises at her. Unlike her brother, she then picked it up and smacked Ranax with it hard enough to knock him over. Daunted by the fearsome ONK the toy made and defeated by his sister's ferocity, the boy-cub ran squealing for the safety of his mother's arms.

Drathann nodded in satisfaction and fixed Allura with a penetrating look. “Very good. Begin, if you would, young lady. How did you come to rescue my kin?”

Allura sat back in her seat, trying to remember exactly where that adventure had started and the previous one had left off. “One of our allies had managed to get us lost, and so we were forced to navigate back to familiar space through a very large region of anomalous space...”

 

“Wow,” Hunk said, looking with greedy eyes at the long aisles of culinary treasure.

It was just as well that they'd arrived early in the day, for Trenosh's family had not been satisfied with just one adventure tale. No, Grandfather Drathann had demanded the whole epic, and everyone in the crowd of fascinated Galra had had questions. Zaianne was now closeted with the heads of the family, along with Lizenne and Modhri for more in-depth discussions. Now, it was Hunk's turn to play. He intended to make the best of it, too; Trenosh hadn't been exaggerating when he'd described the family business. If anything, he'd understated it. The grocery was easily the size of the biggest Earthly supermarkets, but still retained that unique Mom-and-Pop atmosphere that was so rarely found there now.

“All right, guys,” Hunk said, suddenly all business. “Got the shopping list?”

Pidge held up her handcomp. “Yup!”

“Got the translator?”

Keith held up a small device specifically designed for reading alien labels and ingredient lists. “Right here, Hunk.”

“Got Ronok's do-not-eat list?”

Ronok's cookbooks had helpfully included a list of things that were toxic to Humans and Unilu, and Coran had added a long list of things that had evil effects upon Altean digestion. Lance waved it cheerfully. “On the job and ready to do it.”

“Tall consults and lift-and carry specialists?”

Shiro, Coran, and Allura raised their hands with simultaneous smiles, anticipating some very good meals in the future.

“Official spotter of hidden treasures on lower shelves?”

“I was born for this work,” Nasty said, cracking both sets of knuckles.

“Faithful native guides?”

A couple of Trenosh's nephews grinned and raised their hands.

Hunk's strong hands gripped the handle of a shopping cart, his aspect that of a roller-coaster afficionado at a new theme park. “Let's rock this place.”

 

Meanwhile, outside on the street, Officer Barzet, a veteran beat cop and expert trainer, was leading a rookie around in the finest tradition of suburban police forces everywhere. The boy was new, having transferred in from clear across the city; Barzet felt that the Koraston District Police Commissioner had reassigned the overeager young fool here in an attempt to get rid of him. It happened occasionally; they were only eleven miles from the busiest starport on the continent, and the residents were very diverse. As a result of that, the local cops had to be a little... flexible... and had to learn when to enforce the law and when to exercise a certain amount of discretionary blindness. The ones who didn't learn, well, they generally found work elsewhere, assuming that they survived the learning experience. Unilu only looked fragile, after all, and Arcobians were only placid up until they weren't.

They were passing a major hotspot for learning experiences at the moment, Old Man Pranvax'Lor's neighborhood market. Officer Barzet had been only a youngster himself when the broken warrior and his wife had opened the place, and had watched (and bought snacks there every day) as both the family and the business had grown and evolved into a major mainstay of the neighborhood, and then into an important member of the Mercantile Association. Their selection was reputed to be equal to or better than any other such establishment on the planet, and that drew in all sorts of odd characters. Old Man Pranvax'Lor was okay with Barzet and his colleagues giving the customers hard looks through the windows, but unless someone in there was either eating a cashier or setting the place on fire, the rule was “look, but don't touch”. The fierce old gentleman had had a word with the Mayor, the Mayor had had a word with the Chief of Police, the Chief had told the District Commissioner, and the District Commissioner had told all of the District's cops—leave the customers alone. Didn't matter who or what they were, it was hands off unless they started doing real damage. It was, in fact, unofficial Department policy to run all of this District's rookies past the store as a sort of intelligence test.

This rookie, the older cop thought, might or might not pass. He was Kedrekan with a fair amount of Golrazi blood in him to judge by the stiff, leathery hide, the fanglike extensions on the upper lip, and the hot, hasty temperament that such crossbreeding often produced. There was a fair amount of smarts in the lad, but it was buried under an awful lot of twerp. Barzet was contemplating just how many hard knocks it would take to remove some of it when the rookie stopped suddenly, turning to peer through the market's big armorglass windows. A bit excessive, Barzet had thought once, considering that common plate-glass was good enough for most shops, but past experiences had taught him that the extra expenditure had been worth it. A lot of the bolder thieves liked to make dramatic entrances and exits through such big, tempting windows. They never got anywhere with Old Man Pranvax'Lor's establishment, although the people here always thought it was really funny when they tried. The latest attempt, for example, had been a gang of Muellock desperadoes, a mucusoid, gastropod-like people that often got up to no good during the adolescent phase of their development. That had been an easy pickup, if mildly disgusting—the arresting officers had had to remove the would-be burglars from the armorglass panes with squeegees. Despite the stubborn sticky spots still adhering to the window, his trainee was pressing himself up hard against the surface.

“Leave be, boy,” he grunted to his young partner. “If no one's shooting the place up, it's not our problem.”

“Yes it is, sir!” the younger man said eagerly. “Look at those people, there!”

The lad was pointing at what looked to be a speed-shopping team darting up and down the aisles, dodging around the other customers like stunt pilots and stuffing items into one of the big shopping carts as if the world would end tomorrow. Or if it was the day before a major feast holiday. Same thing, really, with some of those holidays. The older man humphed. “Still not our problem, Kivrash. Those two kids there are members of the proprietor's family, and they're egging that group on, not trying to stop them. Look, even the other shoppers are cheering them on.”

The rookie groaned in frustration; he didn't much approve of his Department's selectively laid-back attitude toward law enforcement. “Sir, look at them! I've got a cousin who works in a space mall, and he sends me security footage of the troublemakers he has to deal with. Those four there—the little one with the eye jewelry, the big round one, the skinny tan one, and the dark-haired one with the weird jacket—those were pirates, he said, and they caused a ruckus and then escaped on a flying kaltenecker!”

Barzet refrained from rolling his eyes with an effort. He'd met Varkon once, and hadn't thought much of the man's ability to judge character. “Kivrash, if that lot causes a ruckus, the Pranvax'Lor kids will deal with it and hand off the leftovers to us. Just like last time, when that team of Gropindi burglars tried to stick the place up and got their asses handed to them. The Old Man was some sort of Special Forces agent, and he's taught his lot all the best tricks. Even Unilu won't try shoplifting here. Not more than once, anyway.”

“But sir, they might belong to the Ghost Fleet!” the rookie pleaded. “You know we've got a Be-On-The-Lookout order for Ghost Fleet pirates, they're a real hazard.”

Barzet shot him an exasperated look. “They're also not our jurisdiction. The Military's responsible for dealing with that lot, and they get nasty when civilian officers show them up for the slop-artists that they are. Yantilee himself could be in there buying pantyhose, and it still wouldn't be our problem.”

“But--” the younger man whined.

His senior wasn't impressed. “Oh no! Chain of command, see? We'd have to call the Commissioner, he'd have to call the Chief, and then he'd have to call the Mayor. The Mayor would then have to sit on hold for two hours until the Governor's Secretary would deign to answer the comm, and then the Secretary would have to sober up the Governor, who'd then have to sober up the patrol fleet Commander, who would then have to sober up his captains. Then they'd spend the rest of the day griping about having to come down into a gravity well, and by the time they came clomping around down here, the pirates—if that's what they really are—would be long gone. Then Old Man Pranvax'Lor would read the Mayor the riot act again for letting those soldier boys disturb his customers, and then the Mayor'd yell at the Chief, who'd yell at the Commissioner, who'd yell at you. That's assuming that the Pranvax'Lor kids don't head all of that off by hustling you right back out here for being a nuisance. Not worth it, boy.”

Sir!” the rookie protested, looking so crestfallen that the older man sighed.

“All right, fine,” Barzet said and waved him onward. “Try for an arrest if you like, but don't say that I didn't warn you.”

Kivrash wasn't listening. Full of righteous determination, he strode through the doors and toward the aisles, ignoring the dubious glances and anticipatory grins of the checkout crew, who had seen the officious young man stalking around the neighborhood before and knew that it was only a matter of time before he'd come here. Unaware of the wagers being made and settled around the registers, he headed off down the aisles, shouldering bystanders aside as he sought his natural prey. He found the group of alleged pirates clustered around an overloaded cart in Aisle Twenty, all but two of them holding armloads of goods while the big round one and the Unilu struggled with a particular box of imported items.

“It's not going to fit, guys,” the skinny tan one said as the big round one struggled to find a place to put that one last item. “We'll have to get another cart.”

“Nothing doing!” the villainous-looking Unilu shot back, frantically trying to reorganize their load, which had already been packed with the frightening precision of a true block-puzzle master. “They said that the first cart and anything we could carry was fifty percent off, and I am culturally forbidden to pay full price for anything!”

“We could just leave it,” the one with the weird jacket grunted under his own load of goods. “You've got three crates already.”

“I did not hear you say that just now,” the Unilu said dangerously. “Have you any idea of how hard it is to get pickled gropp outside of Unilu space? This is the first time since before I met Varda there that I've seen better than base-grade, which is only just barely better than pavement sealer. This is festival-grade, and if you put that crate back on the shelf, Hunk, so help me, I will--”

“Halt!” Kivrash barked, and they turned to look at him without any fear in their eyes at all. Curiosity, maybe, and annoyance, but no fear, which was not a good sign. “Stop right there, you--”

“Who's this guy?” Weird Jacket asked one of the two young Galra helpers.

The young man humphed disapprovingly and shifted his grip on his own armload of groceries. “That's Officer Kivrash. He's new, and a little dumb. Grandfather hasn't had a chance to yell at him yet.”

Angered by this insult, Kivrash drew in breath to lecture the boy, only to have it knocked back out when a heavy crate of large bottles was thumped down into his arms.

“Hold that, will you?” the big round one said. “We're almost done here, so this won't take long.”

“How dare you?” Kivrash blustered, “I order you to cease and desist, and to identify yourselves immediately! I have reason to believe that you are criminals, and--”

He stopped short. There was a dangerous look on the big one's face now that his group seemed to recognize and knew to avoid; all of them took a few steps backward, leaving them in a widening circle of empty space. That square jaw had come forward, the eyebrows cocked at spine-wilting angles of disapproval, and the dark, direct stare seemed to bore into Kivrash's eyes and right out through the back of his head. The alien straightened up and squared his shoulders in much the same way that mountains rose up over the landscape. He was big, Kivrash realized, not as tall as he was, maybe, but massively built, and he exuded an air of awesome authority; the young officer suddenly felt very small and alone.

“No,” the alien said in a voice that brooked no argument. “You're going to help us out here, 'cause that's what public defenders do. Just think of it as community service.”

There was something about the big one's tone that reached down into Kivrash's instincts and flipped a number of very specific switches, and he suddenly had to fight a terrible urge to obey. He hissed angrily and tried to toss the crate aside, but a broad, powerful hand had closed over his wrist in a grip that was immovable.

“Just do it, man,” the big one said firmly, every word a blow to Kivrash's resolve. “It's not hurting you, and you really don't want to drop those jars.”

“And why not?” Kivrash asked in one last show of defiance.

The big one let go of him and began ticking points off on his fingers. “Number one: those jars are full of pickled gropp. If you drop them, this Unilu will kill you. Number two: if you break the seals on those jars, the smell will kill you. Sorry, Nasty, but that stuff is rank. Number three: if you make a scene in here, we've been told that your boss will kill you. I get it, you're probably new at this, so let's make sure you live long enough to get good at it, okay? Now hold onto that and help us finish. What's left on the list, Pidge?”

The littlest one juggled an armload of sacks of dried mushrooms and peered at her handcomp. “Just the sylth grain, some mettic paste, and the cream of imsop. Hey, do you guys carry thelwisk seeds?”

“Yeah,” the second young Galra grunted from behind a stack of wangnarap pasta. “We may even still have some. Aisle Five, right next to the dakka nuts on the special-imports display.”

“Mine,” she declared, and trotted away, mushroom bags rustling furiously. The others turned to follow her, and Kivrash, defeated, trailed after them.

Kivrash soon found himself too heavily-laden to manage more than a knee-wobbling shuffle, and could barely see over the mountain of objects they'd piled into his arms. Great sacks of sylth kernels and flour had been piled atop the pickled gropp, along with big tubs of mettic paste, a large variety pack of pungent spices that had him fighting an urge to sneeze, and every last sack of thelwisk seeds that the littlest one could find. He was sweating profusely by the time that they headed for the registers, and was seriously considering some weight training. Even the slender, white-haired female was carrying a stack of stuff larger than his, and seemingly without effort. It was with great relief that Kivrash laid down his burden on the large-order register's conveyor belt, and leaned heavily on it, gasping for breath while the others laid down their own loads next to his.

“All right then,” the tall, orange-haired man said, twirling a truly fearsome mustache, “that was as fine a shopping trip as any I've been on, and I've been on some pretty good ones. Why, I was a member of the Commissary Corps during my first years at the Academy, and you would not believe how quickly a mob of cadets could go through even the biggest boil-ups of eploplia quorp, and we had to restock every five quintents. Even so, it took a good deal of creativity to make those supplies stretch that far, and they were glad to have me on the team for that alone. I was justly famed for my skill with the big condenser, too.”

The skinny tan one gave him a sly smile. “Oh, is that why your native cuisine smells like cafeteria food?”

The mustachioed man sniffed primly. “Well, it was a cafeteria. Quite a high-quality one at that.”

“Oh, yeah,” the skinny one said with a malicious grin. “They only dropped the most expensive sneakers into the gravy, right? To give it some kick.”

Orange Mustache took that poorly. “Are you suggesting that the Academy's Culinary Elite fed their fellows footwear?”

“That's what your cooking tastes like, man,” Skinny Tan replied.

“That's enough, you two,” sighed a tall, pale man with a white forelock, forestalling what looked to escalate into a noisy argument. “Pidge, Hunk, are you sure that you've got everything?”

“And then some,” the big one said, beaming over his mountain of food. “Ready, Nasty?”

The Unilu rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Bring it.”

The big one nodded to one of the young Galra, who tapped a pager and said, “Grandpa? They're ready for you.”

Kivrash frowned in confusion. What was going on here? In what kind of grocery store did the owner of the establishment make appointments with suspected pirates? Well, he had heard stories about the Old Man, but he'd thought they were just rumors...

There was a sudden clack that echoed around the store like a steel-shod thunderbolt, and then another, and another; he turned along with everyone else and felt the terrible, instinctive, and atavistic fear of... The Patriarch. Kivrash had never actually met Old Man Pranvax'Lor. His fellow officers had described the man as a juggernaut, a force of nature, and a dread figure right out of some of the more baroque old legends, and he'd laughed off their superstitious dread as an attempt to frighten him. Now, with each stunning impact of the cane against the flooring, it became more and more clear that his colleagues had not been exaggerating at all. As much as the big alien had loomed at him, the Old Man was ten times worse without even trying. Age and injury had not diminished his power, but had somehow enhanced it. Every movement he made was executed with perfect control and coordination, and he walked with an air of supreme confidence here on his own ground. Everything about him had an air of expertly-contained hazard; indeed, his expression was mild, a small smile playing about his lips, but the pale eyes gleamed with predatory anticipation. Following in his wake was a crowd of customers, all of them residents of the neighborhood and well aware that something interesting was going to happen any minute. Kivrash might have shouted at them to disperse out of sheer nerves, but the Old Man was taking up all of his attention.

He came to a halt at the register and propped both hands on his cane, looking at each face in turn with avuncular approval, and then rested his gaze upon the vast pile of goods at the checkout counter. “My word, what a heap,” he said gently. “Who shall run that order?”

One of the checkout crew and three baggers saluted, volunteering bravely for the duty. The Old Man nodded. “Proceed.”

Never before had Kivrash seen so monstrously large an order being run so quickly or professionally, nor had he personally seen a total quite so large. The person at the register took a deep and calming breath, and spake thusly: “Do you have any discount coupons?”

The Unilu struck a heroic pose and leveled a pair of index fingers at the Old Man. “Your boss said that we could have everything we could stuff into one cart or carry ourselves half off. That's everything here.”

He might as well have made a formal declaration of war. Old Man Pranvax'Lor's eyes flashed dangerously. “I dispute that,” he snapped in a tone that had reduced strong men to tears before this. “My grandsons and a passing policeman do not count as part of your group. You will pay full price for the items they carried.”

Kivrash noticed that the littlest pirate had pulled out a handcomp and was recording the budding argument, and he realized that one of the famous Unilu haggling sessions was about to take place right in front of him.

Right on cue, the Unilu slashed a pair of hands through the air in the classic Gesture of Absolute Negation. “We deputized the kids and the cop volunteered. Still within the rules, old man.”

Old Man Pranvax'Lor flicked Kivrash a glance like the lick of a flame. “Nothing of the sort. He did not volunteer. He was volunteered; this is no different from conscription, which is not legal upon this planet except when under orders from the Governor himself. He does not count. You also did not get written agreements from my grandsons, and by law, no contract is binding without such documentation.”

They're just warming up, Kivrash thought numbly. They're just warming up! I wonder if I can just sort of sneak away...

The white-haired woman laid a hand on his arm, gripping it gently... for the moment. He could feel astonishing strength in that slender hand, and knew that it was already too late for any chance of escape.

 

Outside, Kivrash's senior officer leaned comfortably against the wall, basking in the late-afternoon sunshine and picking meditatively at his teeth. A glance over his shoulder at the registers revealed a massive pile of bagged goods, a large and respectful audience, and the Old Man and an Unilu in a ferocious argument. He could hear them even through the armorglass, from the Unilu's vicious threats and sly insinuations to the Old Man's booming denounciations and statements of bald fact. That was a large part of what made him so frightening to the Mayor, Barzet mused. There was nothing that politicians feared more than smart, sober, forceful, honest, and incorruptible people who were in full possession of all of the facts.

The veteran cop sniffed reflectively. Maybe he could get one of the family to lend him the security recordings as a training vid for new recruits. This one sounded almost as intense as the haggling match that had erupted last year during the Unilu community's annual Festival of the Swindlers, when one of their best had faced down the Pranvax'Lor over possession of a whole frozen wuskor. Even he knew that wuskor was very difficult to find on any world other than the Unilu's own home planet, even as simple preserved cuts of meat. To find a whole, uncooked one, cryogenically frozen... yeah. That had been a real fight. This one was pretty good, though, especially once the other members of the Unilu's group had joined in, and the sun was sinking toward the horizon in a blaze of fiery color before the wrangle came to its natural conclusion. He glanced through the window again at the faint sound of cheers and applause, saw the crowd helping the Unilu's party to ferry the piles of groceries toward the rear exit, and viewed the Old Man shaking hands amicably with the rather worn-out Unilu. Once again, the Pranvax'Lor had given as good as he'd got. Seeing as the excitement was over, Barzet ambled inside to find out if they'd left his rookie intact.

He needn't have worried. Kivrash was sitting on one of the off-duty registers, looking vaguely poleaxed and sucking on a stick of hard candy. He nodded politely at the proud Patriarch. “Drathann. Had a good match?”

The Old Man's scarred face lit up with a satisfied smile. “Oh, yes,” he chuckled, “it has been a good day. Your new lad there came in handy, and one of them even bought him a treat. I have made it known to them that they are welcome here, Barzet, and that I would relish another wrangle with them.”

Kivrash broke down in tears.

Barzet nodded calmly. “I'll keep that in mind. By the way, were those people really pirates? Kivrash here was pretty sure of it.”

Drathann shook his head. “No. Aside from the Unilu—all Unilu being pirates of one sort or another—they are by no means nefarious. Quite the reverse. I might say that the Emperor would not approve of them, but he approves of very little.”

Barzet patted Kivrash on one shaking shoulder and cocked a suspicious look at the Old Man, whom he knew to have certain dangerous opinions. “They've done something, right? Something that'd get us in trouble?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Drathann replied, using that special tone that said that the subject was closed and would not be discussed again. “They have committed no crimes on this world, nor will they.”

Barzet nodded again and eased his junior to his feet. “Good enough, sir. Come on, Kivrash, walk it off. See what happens when you blunder into something cultural? Good evening, Drathann.”

“Yes,” Drathann murmured, looking up at the ceiling at the faint sound of a shuttle craft lifting off. “A very good evening, indeed.”

 

“So, what were you guys talking about?” Keith asked as he maneuvered the last sack of sylth flour onto a shelf in the kitchen's makeshift pantry, which had once been storage space for cleaning equipment and supplies.

The Castle had once been home to hundreds of people and thousands of mice, and actually had two kitchens. The one they were using now had been the domain of the chefs privileged to cook for the Royal Family alone, while the much larger one several levels below had furnished meals for the household staff, the palace guard, and the innumerable guests and diplomatic visitors that had inhabited the ship in its heyday. As a result, the smaller kitchen had been designed to be the very pinnacle of culinary science, with automatic systems that could produce most of the simpler dishes and items all by themselves. Dishes, alas, that were purely Altean. Hunk had had to make certain adjustments and reorganizations here and there, and refused to plod up and down miles of corridor whenever he needed a cup of sugar from the original main pantry. Coran had protested a bit the first time he'd seen Hunk's modified nutrifabber lurking next to the gel dispensers, but Hunk had plopped a bowl of freshly-made gnaleran with crumbled spikka in his hands, and that was that.

Modhri smiled as he placed the fragrant sacks of thelwisk seeds into the specially-built, mouseproof safe that Pidge had bolted into one corner; the mice had been very eager to see what they'd brought back from Arcobi, and Pidge had wound up chasing them all over the pod deck when they had stolen a sack of those rare and precious seeds. The safe probably wouldn't hold the little rodents off for long, given their level of technical skill, but Pidge was working on the problem.

“Drathann's been out of the loop for a very long time, and wanted to know what had been going on,” Modhri told his adoptive nephew. “His wife was dead set against him running off and losing any more body parts, and kept him very thoroughly grounded in his business and in building his status in his neighborhood. This has turned out to be a very good thing; Zaianne was able to contact Kolivan and bring him into the discussion, you see. Arcobi is not a terribly wealthy colony, but it is very strategically placed. That grand old man may well have given the Coalition the keys to taking those two big trade hubs in the neighboring systems without damaging either of them.”

Keith stared at him. “How are they going to do that?”

Modhri smirked. “Economic ties. What Trenosh did not tell us was that Drathann and his wife had been making very carefully-placed investments in the markets for well over thirty standard years. All he has to do is make a few calls, and the Rakshane and Poberantha Garrisons will find themselves abruptly without services, support, or supplies. Those warships are very expensive to maintain and operate, Keith, and it's not the Empire who pays the bills. The Market Hubs will be glad to see the back of them.”

Keith grinned and started stacking spice packs on their own designated shelves. “Cool. That's one less space battle for us to fight. How did Kolivan take the news?”

“He was delighted, of course. Drathann had been one of his instructors as well, and the Order has always valued its training staff highly.” Modhri handed him a packet of dried swiggot berries and started stacking the Unilu delicacies on the other side of the pantry. “He was even happier to hear that certain of Drathann's descendants would do well as recruits. He was one of their best.”

“Like Zandrus,” Keith said.

“Yes,” Modhri murmured, sobering somewhat. “Very much like my great-uncle.”

Keith cast him a sympathetic glance for his loss, and then stretched out his shoulders with a grunt; his arms were a little sore from carrying groceries. “So, what's next on the agenda?”

“We have a little breathing space, or so Kolivan told us,” Modhri replied, examining a jar of marlep preserves with interest. “The Beronites are having some success with their end of the resistance effort, and the Military is focused on them right now. We may have to go and lend a hand, but for the time being, they're doing well enough on their own.”

Keith smiled. “Enough time to see if Black will let Shiro get a little flight time in?”

Modhri chuckled. “Yes, actually. Let's just finish up with this, and we'll see if Allura's found us a safe spot to let him play in.”

 

And so it was that, armored and full of hope, Shiro settled himself down into the pilot's seat in the black Lion a short time later. He leaned his head back against the padding, eyes closed, his hands seeking the control beams. It was different from the last time he'd done this; Black had subtly reshaped his cockpit around Allura's height and reach, and he'd had to stretch to reach the controls. Not this time. This time, the seat fit him precisely, and the beams were right there under his hands. He smiled as he felt the Lion come alive all around him.

“Finally,” he whispered, and his eyes snapped open, his heart full of savage joy. “Are you ready, team?”

Ready!” five voices rang true in his ears.

“Launch!” he barked, and whooped with glee as the Lion surged upward.

He had missed this. Oh, God, he had missed this! He felt the Lion's power core pulsing as though it were his own heart, and when the Lions came out of the towers and into the infinite, star-washed expanse of outer space, open and free, it was almost an epiphany. The joy of the Lion was in flight, and both of them had been cooped up for far too long. He was aware of the others now, flying in formation with him, letting him get the cabin fever out of his system before calling him to duty. He was thankful for that. It felt so good to fly again.

They'd found a good place to do so, that was for sure. Off in the distance, a fearsome little sun was drawing sheets of fire off of an old red dwarf, like a child eating a roll of cotton candy. Out here in the further orbits were a choice selection of planets and asteroid belts to test his reflexes on, and he indulged himself in doing something that he'd always wanted to try. Wide rings like those of Saturn's encircled a large burgundy-and-orange gas giant, and he sent Black skimming just above the fields of dust as though they were a racetrack. He circled the planet twice, dodging larger asteroids and numerous tiny moonlets, before allowing himself to pay any attention at all to the rest of his team.

“--flying just fine, Allura,” Pidge was saying, “no signs of stress, and both of them are really happy. We're going to have to work out an alternating flight schedule for you two.”

To tell you the truth, I'll be glad of it,” Allura admitted with only a little reluctance in her tone. “The Castle has missed having me at the helm, and you must admit that the command deck is pleasantly roomy. It frees Zaianne to do other things as well.”

“Yeah, Mom's getting bored,” Keith said. “You'll need to work out a schedule with her, too.”

Allura giggled. “I can relate. Back when we were just getting started, I used to be terribly envious of all of you whenever you went down to a planet for a quick adventure. You still owe me a trip to that Space Mall, I'll have you know! Lanteschi was very pleasant, but I haven't been to a true Mall in ages.”

“Millennia,” Hunk agreed. “Tell you what, you can come with me when I go there to get my cow. Yes, guys, I still want that cow. I will have that cow. You can go and scare all of your favorite stores, but I'm getting myself a cow.”

“Heard and acknowledged, Hunk,” Lance said cheerfully. “Maybe you can check in with that fast-food guy you got tangled up with last time, and see if he's still doing it right. Hey, Keith, you want to poke that knife salesman into a running-with-scissors competition?”

“Been there, done that, got busted and rode away on a flying robot cow,” Keith grumped. “He tried to steal Mom's knife.”

“Well, yeah,” Pidge pointed out. “He's an Unilu. Luxite blades are really rare.”

There was a hmph from the Castle. “I don't see what relative scarcity has to do with a proper sharp-objects footrace, particularly ones with a decent obstacle course. My great-aunt used to run those regularly, particularly in the months leading up to the Feast of the Five Huoloptomar Quoquoids.”

Really, Coran,” Allura chided impatiently.

Every bit of it!” Coran declared irrepressibly. “That was a major gift-giving holiday, for those of you who've never heard of it, a bit like that one that happens on Earth... Crazed-Mess or Crashed-Mass or whatever they call it--”

“Christmas,” Lance said, sounding mildly offended.

Whatever,” Coran continued without missing a beat. “It's a pretty good name for that sort of holiday, I'll admit, at least from a retail worker's point of view, but the Feast traditionally involved getting the youngsters their first set of adult cutlery. Auntie used to do her shopping down in Altanis City, where the really big mercantile centers were, and you had to be as fast as a speeding tweltha, strong as an industrial freight-mech, and as nimble as a pilitrip on a t'voffi mip ploquez, just to get to the checkout line in one piece. Very dangerous, those holiday crowds, and liable to stampede without warning. We used to tell her that at her age, she should just be sending someone out or even ordering her items for delivery, but no! That fierce old lady was determined to do it the old-fashioned way for as long as she could still turbocharge a shopping cart, and—eek!”

Thank you, Zaianne,” Allura said gratefully.

There was a ladylike snort. “Every time Coran tells silly stories, his ears grow longer. I'm just keeping him from eventually tripping himself up.”

Madame!” Coran protested.

Shiro smiled at the ripple of laughter from his team.

“You've got that wrong, Mom,” Keith said, “it's the nose that grows, not the ears.”

For Humans, perhaps,” Zaianne replied lightly. “Alteans are a bit different.”

There was a chuckle from the Chimera. “Else he'd be forever catching his nose in cabinets and doorways, and he'd squawk even louder. Count your blessings, Brother Mine. How are you feeling, Shiro?”

“I'm fine, Lizenne,” Shiro responded calmly. “Black's glad to have me back, and to tell you the truth, I needed this. Both of us did. We'll be able to fight and to form Voltron without any trouble.”

Lizenne hummed thoughtfully. “Perhaps, but we'll still want to make progress with caution. You are still not up to strength, and I don't want you overexerting yourself if you don't absolutely have to. Don't argue! One wrong move at this stage could land you in the infirmary for a week.”

“She's right, Chief,” Lance chimed in. “We all had to go through the same recovery procedure after Haggar death-rayed us. Well, maybe not Pidge. She was too busy learning to pirate.”

Pidge made a rather smug affirmative sound. “Uh-huh! Of course, it helped that Doc's magic at what he does. We need to find his people's homeworld and liberate it, guys. Ophlicas are amazing people, and space needs more of them.”

“No argument there,” Hunk added. “When I took Pidge to—whoa!”

Alarms blared; three Galra ships had warped into nearby space without warning. This was probably just a patrol squad, being one heavy cruiser and a couple of light destroyers, by no means a real challenge for the Paladins these days, but they still came as a surprise. There was a moment of startled silence on both sides, and then the patrol's commander hailed them.

Paladins of Voltron, I order you to--”

It was at that point that the Black Lion did something unexpected. Broadcasting loud and clear on all channels, he belted out a challenge of his own, the message unchanged since the early 1990's. “Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want--”

Pidge!” Shiro protested, trying desperately not to laugh. “I didn't do anything!”

“Just making sure, Shiro,” Pidge said sternly. “Nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement.”

Keith didn't much care for the old teen-girl band's music. “You call this 'positive'?”

“Well, I like it.”

So did Lance and Hunk, who began to sing along, complete with bad British accents. “I wanna really-really-really wanna zigazig ah!”

Allura groaned. “I cannot take you people anywhere, not even out to the depths of unexplored space! You simply cannot maintain the dignity proper to the Voltron Force.”

I can,” Keith complained, “but I'm surrounded by goofballs.”

Um... Paladins?” the Galra commander asked, sounding utterly mystified. “What is going on?”

Keith groaned. “Oh, god. Pidge, did you set the black Lion so that those guys could hear it, too?”

“Yup!” Pidge chirped.

“Crud. Just shoot me now.”

I won't be hasty, I'll give you a try, but if you really bug me then I'll say goodbye...” Hunk crooned tunefully.

Shiro burst out into hoots of helpless laughter. This was wrong on so many levels, but it was so funny. He could hear Allura trying to get the others to take their situation seriously, Keith's mortified protests, Pidge snarking at them both, the increasingly baffled enemy trying to get a word in edgewise, and Hunk singing backup while Lance proclaimed pompously, “So, here's the story from A to Z—you wanna get with me, you gotta listen carefully. We got Em in the place who likes it in your face, you got G like MC who likes it on a easy V—doesn't come for free--”

She's a real lady,” Hunk added.

And as for me, ha, you'll see,” Lance continued smoothly, and then they both sang together, “Slam your body down and wind it all around!”

This isn't some new kind of battle tactic, is it?” the Galra Commander asked suspiciously.

The thought of the Spice Girls riding into battle in the manner of the Ride of the Valkyries sent Shiro into fresh howls of hilarity. Some of them really would wear the brass brassieres and the flying helmets, and when one of that poor fellow's lieutenants asked, “Sir, what's a 'zigazig ah'?” it just got worse.

“Breathe, Shiro,” Pidge said.

“I'm... I'm trying,” Shiro gasped, unable to stop his mirth. “We... we should... really form Voltron... or something. Cut it out, guys.”

If you wanna be my lover,” chorused Lance and Hunk, ignoring him, “you have got to give. Taking is too easy, and that's the way it is...”

“Will somebody just start shooting already?” Keith yelled.

Keith!” Allura scolded, “We agreed that we weren't going to get Shiro into any battles, and he's laughing too hard to pilot the Lion effectively. Oh, dear, and we've set him off again. Shiro, please try to get that under control!”

Slam your body down and zigazig ah,” Lance drawled deliciously.

If you wanna be my lover,” Hunk sang, finishing the song with a grin. “Okay, we can fight now. Who wants to start?”

Shiro was still laughing.

Keith said something that he'd heard from his mother, which had the interesting ability to strip paint off of walls when pronounced exactly right.

Allura was muttering darkly about getting them all lessons in deportment.

Pidge blew her a raspberry.

Lance was snickering at the rest of them.

“Okay,” Hunk said, “maybe we should take a rain-check?”

There was a tired sigh from the enemy flagship. “Paladins,” the Commander said grimly, “where I come from, it is considered bad luck to fight crazy people.”

“Well, he's got us pegged,” Lance muttered.

“Shut up, Lance,” Keith growled back.

The Commander ignored that, and continued. “You will proceed on your current heading, and we will proceed upon ours; neither of us will ever speak of this encounter again.”

“S... sorry,” Shiro choked out.

Pidge giggled. “Yeah, and we'd have taken you apart, anyway. See you later, guys.”

“Cheers,” Lance said, waving them on.

The three Galra ships sailed past with what dignity they could muster, guns silent and running lights glimmering. Allura growled under her breath. “Well, that's the first time that I have ever seen someone actually being laughed off of a potential battlefield. Get back on board, all of you. I am very disappointed with your childish behavior.”

“Yes, Mom,” Hunk said meekly, which just set Shiro off into another storm of helpless chortles.

 

Meanwhile, on the deck of the heavy cruiser, the Commander of the patrol squad watched the Castle of Lions and the Chimera Rising diminish to tiny bright points in the rear-view screens. There was a flicker of watery blue—the teludav system creating a wormhole, he knew, and then they were gone.

“We aren't just going to let them go like that, are we?” one of his lieutenants asked uncertainly.

The Commander shrugged. “We already have. In any case, the green Paladin was right; the Lions would indeed have made short work of us. There are others who are better equipped to handle them; Perkaz, is the Prince still in the area?”

His comm officer touched a few controls, and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Very good. Tell him that we spotted the Castle here, but do not include any other details of our encounter. I would hate to ruin the surprise for either of them.”

Perkaz smirked. “I'll alert the Center, too. Between the Prince and his father, there should be surprises all around.”

The Commander snorted a brief laugh. “Yes, do that. It does not do to let the Emperor become bored.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Small Triumphs

 

“Impressive,” Zarkon murmured, gazing down at the monster under construction. “Have you chosen a subject for it?”

Haggar nodded, eyeing her work critically. It was a sleeker thing than its predecessors, all silvery angles and knife-sharp edges, and while it wasn't quite as large as the others had been, it would be both faster and stronger. The motivating element was entirely appropriate as well. “I have,” she replied. “A captured pirate. The Ghamparva have already wrung everything of use to them out of it, saving me some time. Once inserted into this frame, it will hunt down its former fellows and destroy them. Those pirates are the military might of the Paladins' little Coalition, and I grow tired of them.”

Zarkon smiled unpleasantly. “And the Paladins value their colleagues. I have been informed that the Castle has been spotted in the same sector that Lotor is currently haunting. It should be interesting if he should attempt to steal this creature's prey.”

Haggar humphed in distaste. “If he tries, he will regret it. This Robeast will perform its duty, and it will not allow anyone to stand in its way. The boy will learn discretion, or he will die.”

“A hard lesson for any young man,” Zarkon murmured, remembering a few of his own learning experiences. “I am out of patience with him myself. His excuses have been entertaining, but they have ceased to amuse me.”

Haggar smirked slightly; word had come back to them concerning the Prince's run-in with one of the rare creatures that fed on Weblums. She herself had once made a study of the peculiar ecosystem of space itself, long and long ago, and could still recall how fascinated she had been by the spacefaring giants, beasts that had evolved their own personal stardrives and needed neither planets nor atmosphere for anything other than the occasional snack. She and Zarkon had agreed that such creatures were best left undisturbed, and the Empire's forces had followed suit. Aside from the odd side-product of rare minerals to be obtained from following the beasts around, they were largely useless, and were always hazardous to provoke.

“And should he succeed, and take the Lions himself?” she asked lightly.

Zarkon shrugged indifferently. “If he tries to keep them for himself, I will destroy him. If he wishes to gain my favor by delivering them to me, then he will get the pat on the head that he so desires, and perhaps a reward as well. His first encounter with the Altean girl did not go as well as he had hoped. Perhaps one of those control implants that the Ghamparva are so fond of might make things a little easier for him.”

After I find a way to remove her power,” Haggar said sharply, and then growled. “And preferably from all of the others as well. I have never before seen such a grouping of talents, nor of such strength. You will not offer the boy a Lion, will you?”

“No,” Zarkon said bluntly, “although I have allowed him to hope. He has failed me too often, and lacks sense, particularly when angered. There are others who possess far better self-control. Perhaps the next batch of sons will produce something more satisfactory. I can wait.” He paused for a long moment, eyes growing distant and slightly unfocused, and then seemed to shake himself back into the here and now with a grimace of distaste. “He means nothing.”

She glanced at him, but did not reply; in any other time than this, she might have agreed with him, but not now, and she felt a twinge of unease whenever she contemplated it. Her attempts to scry out the future had been unusually lacking in success, and in a way that was making her increasingly nervous. When properly stimulated by a fresh dose of Quintessence, she could See upcoming events with reasonable clarity, but something had cast a shadow over the Lions, hiding them from her Sight. A shadow with a peculiar shape, and an aura that she did not quite dare to challenge at this time. Had it been a protective measure made by that Rogue Witch, she would have shattered it like glass, but it was not. She had no idea of what had cast it, and the mystery was troublesome to say the least. Something about it nagged at her nerves, right down at the bottom of her subconscious, telling her that it was a danger that she had faced before, once upon a very long time ago. A very terrible danger. It had come after her with knives--

Haggar shook her head impatiently. Adversaries had come at her with weapons ranging from academic policy changes to guns as big as cities for all of her long life, and she had defeated every last one. Voltron was just another insult in an extensive litany of the same. The only thing that made this batch of troublemakers more dangerous than any other was their sheer unpredictability, which could be dealt with by using the vast amount of experience that she'd gained over the years. Zarkon was no different, and yearned for another test of strength against them. That was fine, she decided. He could have the red, blue, and even the yellow Paladins with her blessing, and even whatever the Rogue Witch might have cobbled together out of what had been left of the Champion if he'd like; the pink and green ones, however, were hers. When she was done with them, there would be nothing left but two small piles of elemental carbon.

“Perhaps,” she murmured, “and perhaps it is time to establish a new hierarchy. The High Houses are not producing sufficient numbers of strong witches any longer, nor do your Consorts produce useful Princes, and they are growing troublesome with their plots and peculations. A little fresh blood may well be in order.”

Zarkon frowned slightly. “You have a private source for strong Druids.”

“They do not reproduce fast enough to replace the ones I have lost, my Lord,” Haggar said sharply. “The Paladins have cost me dearly, and the powerful Houses are reluctant to turn over the few decent examples that they have, and are insolent enough about it to tempt me into seeing to their destruction.”

Zarkon smiled at her and nodded at the elegant creature taking shape on the production floor below. “Oh, they have their uses yet. If that array down there can indeed produce a greater volume of Robeasts than the original one, you may pick and choose your subjects from the blue-blooded as you like. We will remind them that their high status does not protect them from my displeasure. You may freely select from among my sons as well. There are more than enough of them to spare, and they have not exactly proven themselves to be of worth to my House.”

Haggar chuckled darkly. Lotor might also become one such candidate, if he failed as badly as she thought he might. “Thank you, my Lord.”

 

Allura couldn't sleep.

She couldn't quite figure out why not. It had been a very busy day, after all. Hunk had produced a delicious breakfast, which had been followed by a stiff session in the training deck. Now that Shiro could fly again, he was determined to bring himself back to full strength as quickly as possible, and had agreed to let Lizenne and Zaianne push his limits a little. What a fight that had been! Lizenne might have left her spear on its stand, but she'd brought along two hexed gladiator-drones, and Zaianne had not neglected her own training in the slightest. If Modhri had not called a halt, they might have done some serious damage to the training deck, if not to each other. She still wasn't sure who had won that bout, but Shiro had taken no harm from it. He'd been reluctant to stop, as a matter of fact, until Modhri had pointed out the slight tremor in his sword arm. They'd had a short rest after that, and then Nasty had decided that his own sort of training session had been in order. That had been fun, if strenuous, and it had given her something of an insight into the Unilu's culture. Situational awareness, for example—walking down dark and dangerous places without getting hurt, captured, or killed when the ambush happened. Obstacle courses and simulated rooftop chases. Climbing and leaping, and learning to make a weapon out of anything that came to hand. Sabotage in all of its permutations. The ability to move smoothly through a crowd without attracting any notice, and interestingly, the ability to move through enemy territory without attracting notice in much the same way. How to gain access to secured places, and more importantly, how to get out of them again. The art of the decoy and distraction, how to trip up a seemingly overwhelming force, how to bring a knife to a gunfight and win anyway, and the best ways of fighting dirty in close-quarters combat.

“Honor is for idiots,” Nasty had said bluntly. “It's just another kind of showing off, and showing off gets the wrong people dead. The whole point of all of this is to get the job done as quickly as you can, as easy as you can make it, and with the least amount of risk to yourselves as possible. Save the honor for formal duels and ritual combat if you really have to, but rules only exist in people's heads. If they aren't your rules, they're only worth knowing because they tell you what your enemies won't do, and you can take advantage of that. Your survival is more important than a list of restrictions written up by some guy who was too squeamish to hit below the belt.”

Zaianne, Allura recalled, had approved heartily of this rationale, and had a few rather vicious tricks of her own to share. That had kept them all very busy until dinner, which had been—and may the Ancients bless them twice over, Allura thought—cooked by Coran and Modhri. They had all discussed strategies over that meal, and which planet they might liberate next; a difficult choice—there were so very many. By all rights, she should have been asleep before her head had hit her pillow, but her limbs twitched restlessly and her mind was a spinning-top of fragmenting thoughts. Well, there were ways around the problem. Coran would no doubt suggest a steaming cup of hot vopli and a really boring technical manual. Her own mother had prescribed soothing music, a pot of fragrant juniberry flowers, and a nice view of the stars or of the ocean. Her father, as she recalled, had never had any trouble getting to sleep; the trouble had been getting him out of bed in the morning if something wasn't actively attacking the planet. She sighed. Vopli was effective, but it tasted like week-old socks in her private opinion, and juniberries, as far as she knew, bloomed only upon two unreachable planets in this day and age. She had plenty of stars to look at, and even some soothing music, but while her ears and eyes would be happy, the rest of her would still be jumping.

She sighed and climbed out of bed, knowing what she really needed. Her life had changed drastically when Shiro had disappeared into the Mindscape, becoming far more active than she had ever dreamed possible, and languor no longer came easily to her. She was a warrior now, and warriors had other ways of relaxing. Modhri had taught her one way, during that long period of recovery after Haggar had cursed them—a set of exercises that would warm and soothe both body and mind. There really wasn't enough room for her to perform those exercises here, so, still in her pajamas, she padded down to the training deck to work the kinks out.

She hadn't been alone in her inability to sleep, she found when she arrived. Music was playing softly in one of the smaller rooms, and when she looked in, she saw something unexpectedly attractive. Hunk was standing barefoot in the center of the room, eyes closed and his face a mask of concentration, pajama pants rolled up above the knee and his shirt off, performing the same stretches and lunges that her own body yearned for. He was remarkably graceful for someone so broad, and magnificently muscular. He was beautiful, in his way, she realized. Not as an Altean would describe it, but powerfully so all the same, and she felt herself flushing when a small sly voice at the bottom of her mind, a voice that sounded suspiciously like her Lion's, suggested what it might be like to touch that smooth brown skin, to feel the strength of that body against her own.

As if he felt her sudden confusion—and considering the Lion-bond, he might have—Hunk's dark eyes opened, and he gave her a welcoming smile. “Hi,” he said, “you couldn't sleep, either?”

“No,” she admitted, stepping into the room. “I feel like I've overloaded on energy drinks, and I can't stay still.”

Hunk grimaced ruefully. “Yeah, me too. There's just so much stuff to do, and to think about, and it all should've gotten done, like, ten thousand years ago, but it didn't 'cause no one was there to do it. It gets to me after a while, you know?”

“I know it very well, and it weighs on me,” Allura sighed. “Most of the time I daren't think of it at all, or it becomes overwhelming. Our allies are helping to carry the load, but they all still look to us for... for...” she waved her hands in inarticulate frustration. “Everything.”

“Yeah,” Hunk said quietly. “It's hard, and we can't afford to do it wrong even once. Nobody ever told me that being a space hero would be an ulcer job.”

Allura giggled. “Father used to complain about that.”

“I'll bet. Care to join me?” Hunk asked. “I've still got a lot of knots to work out, and you need it as much as I do.”

She smiled warmly at him. “I should be delighted.”

She stepped up beside him and assumed the stance for the first set, and when she moved, he moved with her in perfect unison. For a time, she concentrated wholly on what she was doing, and felt her body respond; each slow, controlled movement loosened her up a little more, and after a time she felt muscle and bone working together as smooth as silk, and her mind cleared enough to pay some attention to the music. It was one of the pieces that Lizenne had picked up from Earth on that long-ago mail run, something slow and full of heartfelt yearning. Altean and Earthly musical traditions were in some ways very similar, although she found some of their songs too jarring for her sensibilities. This one was all right, she felt, the tempo suiting the pace of her exercises very well, and the singer possessed a mellifluous voice. It was easy, so very easy, for her exercises to slip into being dance moves in truth, and when Hunk's broad, warm hand gently caught hers, she did not pull away.

Allura had never danced like this before. In those long-ago days when she and her parents had hosted formal events, she had danced decorously with uncles, cousins, and her own father. She had taken turns around the floor with dozens of delegates and hopeful young Altean lords. She had indulged Coran once or twice as well, just for the fun of it, since he simply couldn't resist adding a great deal of fancy footwork to the measured steps of Courtly dance, but her heart had never been in it. She'd never felt anything deeper than simple friendship for those unrelated to her, and little more than dutiful toward the alien dignitaries. Hunk danced as though he were a part of her. She could feel his heartbeat as surely as she felt her own, the warmth and steadiness of him, the unfailing affection he had for her and for the others. It was the most natural thing in the world to wrap her arm around his waist, and to feel his holding her close as the song came to its conclusion, and when their lips met in the first kiss that had ever meant anything beyond familial love, it sent a shock from her scalp to her toes. Nerves fizzing, she heard the Lions roar, and felt the other Paladins shift in their dreams.

Hunk held her close against him with a soft sigh as the last few bars of the music trailed gently away, and then snorted in amusement. “Yellow's purring,” he murmured softly.

Allura rested her head on his shoulder and smiled wryly. “So is Black. Oh, dear.”

They stood there for a little time, reflecting on nothing much, basking in the tender moment they shared between them. Eventually, she rubbed a hand against his chest, finding his skin to be just as sleek as she had hoped, and looked up, just a little worried. “Lance is going to be bitterly envious.”

Hunk smiled down at her, radiating affection. “So, he gets the next kiss. Just give him his before Keith gets one and he'll be fine. I don't mind, Allura.”

She giggled. “Coran did warn us that this would happen. Oh, dear, he'll be upset, too. I don't think that he ever intended me to share in this sort of thing. He is my legal guardian, you know.”

Hunk humphed faintly. “Don't worry about it. In the end, it's not his choice. That's all for later, anyway. For now...”

“...For right now, just hold me,” she said, leaning into his embrace. “Just hold me.”

Hunk was perfectly willing to do just that. “Okay,” he said, and rested his cheek against the soft white silk of her hair.

 

Unseen and unnoticed out in the hall, Zaianne watched them with a fond smile.

 

Nasty was sulking. Even by the Ulomnian calendar, his month was almost up, and he still hadn't found that last butterknife. He'd been through every inch of the Castle, minus the off-limits areas, and had even checked every pod and lander. He'd dug around in the Hydroponics deck despite the risk of aggressive fertilizers—some of that stuff was pretty lively, even for compost—he'd checked all of the junction boxes and ventilation shafts, he'd even poked around in the Lion's hangar bays, and had found nothing. Even now, the Castle was making its way back toward Halidex for a conference with the King and the Ghost Fleet to hammer out the next phase of their operations, and once they arrived, there would be no more excuses. If he did not find that last butterknife, Nasty would...

...He shuddered even to think the word...

...Lose.

He didn't dare do that. It wasn't that the silverware set amounted to several pounds of pure silver. It didn't matter that the pattern was unique, or that the set was a very special limited edition, nor even that it had been made in a genuine Altean ship by a genuine Altean fabricator. What mattered was his pride in his skills at infiltration and treasure-hunting. Despite his banishment, his clan had been notable for its high levels of skill and specialized techniques, and his Granny was still a record-setter even in her advanced old age. He himself had been accounted to be a young man of great potential, right up to the dreadful day many years ago when his pride in his abilities had led him into a terrible mistake; a mistake that had cost him everything. He still had that pride, tempered though it was with hard-learned caution and a hefty dose of occupational paranoia, and the very thought of coming in second on even this most congenial of contracts soured his very soul. If he blew it this time, then he would have to concede that maybe, just maybe, the Clan Head had been right about him all along. Clever, the old man had said, sneering as only a Clan Head could sneer, but unable to follow through.

That might have been true once, he thought determinedly as he hunted through Pidge's lab for the fifteenth time, but years of running scams in seamy spaceports and crewing on corsairs had taught him better. Hadn't he survived where others had crashed and burned? Hadn't he picked the tightest pockets, burgled the hardest targets, and played the most skillfully at the Dix-Par tables? He could hold his own when Tilla had been fiddling the deck again, for Lawsy's sake, and that dragon could confound any cardsharp! He had stolen a one-of-a-kind suit of armor from Haggar's own private labs, and had picked the locks on the gates of Hell itself... oh, all right, so it was just the locks on the lab doors, but anyone would agree that the place was about as hellish as they came. He'd asked Shiro, and Shiro had been there twice and should know.

He was elbow-deep in Pidge's junk bin when someone behind him asked, “Missing something?”

Nasty whirled around, spraying bits and pieces of surplus machinery. It was only Keith, thankfully. Keith had a refreshingly relaxed attitude toward the occasional bit of pilferage most of the time. “A butterknife,” Nasty growled, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice. “One last butterknife, and I can't find it, and it's driving me mad! I've only got a little time left to find it, or I'll have to give all the pieces back.”

Keith nodded gravely. His Galra half might have made him just a little humorless, but that meant that he usually took the important things a little more seriously than the others did. “Yeah, that wouldn't be good for your street cred, now would it? And I'll bet that you aren't allowed to ask for help.”

Nasty wrapped his arms around Keith's waist in a hug and sniffled, “Finally, someone who really understands! How'd you know?”

Keith shrugged. “I grew up on a military base without much adult supervision. Not until I met Shiro, anyway. There weren't any other kids my own age there, and a lot of the people there had no problems with teaching a kid bad habits. Where I come from, Nasty, the military is a favorite place for the courts to dump problem teens. Now get your hands out of my pockets.”

Nasty pulled away with an appreciative grin, and a cookie that he hadn't had before. He eyed that, and then handed it back. “Orsyx jam. Bleah. Is it a rule that heroes can't carry around nice fat wallets?”

Keith snorted. “We're not getting paid for it, Nasty. We get our supplies from the Ghost fleet, or people give the stuff to us for chasing the Galra off, or we give the Blades some stuff to sell for us if we need actual money. There aren't all that many of us, and the Castle's self-maintaining. We're fairly cheap to operate, especially with the Chimera's envirodeck providing a few treats now and again.”

Keith's eyes gleamed at his mention of those treats, and just for a split second, his face was a predator's. It was hard to see most of the time, but his eyes had developed a thin ring of Galra gold around the dark irises, and they glinted whenever he thought about chasing some large, dangerous beast or other through the grasses. Nasty's people had evolved from middling-sized scavengers, and he couldn't help but feel just a twinge of instinctive unease whenever he saw it. Offhandedly, he wondered if the boy knew of this development, or the fact that he was starting to go just a little bit purple under his hair. Hard to spot, yes, but Unilu were very, very good at spotting small details.

Nasty humphed. “I still think you guys are selling yourselves short. I'd offer myself to you as a manager, but Coran would say that he's doing that job already, and then I'd have to ask where the profits are, and then he'd get stuffy about that, and then it would escalate, and then Zaianne would stick us both with sitting in the corner again. That's boring. Don't Alteans ever use colors other than white for home decorating?”

Keith leaned back against the nearby table and gazed up at the pale walls. “I don't know. The only place where we can check has half of Zarkon's navy and a really big force-field around it. Maybe it's a royal color or something. Our kings and emperors liked red, purple, and yellow, and sometimes dark blue. I'll ask Coran about it sometime.”

“Don't. He'll just wind up telling you stories again.” Nasty rolled his eyes and resumed his search of the junk bin. “That guy's either the best or the worst liar in the galaxy, and you can't even tell when he's doing it, because most of the peoples that he mentions in them are extinct. Did you want something from me, Keith?”

“Not personally, but Mom sent me here to tell you that we'll be arriving at Halidex in a few hours, so you'd probably better pack up your stuff.”

What?!” Nasty squawked in chagrin, horrified eyes bulging. “Already? I thought we had at least two more days!”

Keith shook his head. “Nope. Jasca sent the local Garrisons some fake Imperial orders and the fleets cleared right out of our way. Get her to show the vid to you sometime—they're letting Kelezar impersonate his grandpa on air now, and he's really good.”

Aaaaagh! No, he's not, he's just stolen all of my time!” Nasty tipped the bin out onto the floor, searched frantically through the piles of junk, found nothing, and then ran screaming out of the room.

Keith smirked and cleaned up his mess, listening to the Lions laugh in the back of his mind.

The next two hours were spent in a mad scramble as Nasty hunted desperately through all of the trickiest and most unlikely corners of the huge Altean ship, but was forced to concede defeat when Allura's voice over the PA system informed him that they had arrived at their destination. Knowing that it would take a little while to ease into a stable parking orbit, Nasty headed up to his room in a fog of dejection. He packed up his belongings with the skill and efficiency of a long-time traveler, but his fingers lingered over each gleaming place setting as he laid the silverware into a separate crate. It hurt him right down to the core to let those go without stealing so much as the jitlan tongs, but it was completely unthinkable even for an unclanned outcast to steal from a guesting set. With a soft, sad sigh, he closed the lid and keyed the antigravs, and then headed down to the shuttle bay to—he shuddered—give them back.

The Paladins were already there, along with the mice, dragons, Coran, and Zaianne. They'd been waiting for him, damn it. Was it too much to ask that he be left behind by mistake? He had the perfectly good excuse of not being able to fly an Altean craft all lined up, and here it was, going to waste. It was a shame, he thought, that his pride forbade him from pouting, because he would have really liked to do so right now. It was more out of sheer, ingrained habit that he looked them over for pickable pockets than anything else. Big, solid Hunk (belt pouches: likely to contain cookies, handcomp, and interesting widgets), tall, imposing Shiro (more belt pouches, side pockets on upper garment: lists, memos, cookies, handcomp, occasional hand tools), and Lance (multiple pockets in jacket, hip pockets in trousers: handcomp, tweezers, combs, cookies, hair and skin care products, lucky half-gac coin not worth the metal it was stamped out of).

Standing nearby and chatting with disgusting cheerfulness were Allura (no visible pockets or pouches, attempts to find some may result in broken wrist), Coran (also no visible pockets or pouches, attempts to find some may result in anecdotes), and Zaianne (hip pockets in trousers, Marmoran blade in concealed belt, and pouch hanging from sash: do not attempt if one wishes to keep all four hands, she really meant it last time).

Checking over the largest lander were the dragons, each one carrying two mice (no pockets or pouches, and no funny stuff around the scales because of big sharp teeth), Keith (belt pouches, pockets in jacket: cookies, Dix-Par deck, assorted small tools, special whetstone for Marmoran blade, leave the actual blade alone or be filleted, he wasn't kidding last time), and Varda, of course (hip pockets in shorts: often booby-trapped; approach with caution, except when... except when there was something long and thin in there and a bit is sticking out and it's silver and holy spratz THERE IT IS!!!)

Pidge turned, spotted him, and said with a smile, “Hey, Nasty, they're sending us up a bus to take us all down and—ACK!”

Nasty had tackled her to the floor in one fantastic flying leap, and in a twinkling, he had the last butterknife clutched in all four hands. Grinning triumphantly, he raised it on high, the elegantly-curved blade glinting brightly in the light. “Got it!” he exulted, “I've got it! I've got them all! Sweet last-minute finish and everything! I win! Woo-hooo!”

Nasty then proceeded to jig madly around in a victory dance, whooping happily.

“That was kind of you,” Coran observed, giving Pidge a hand up. “Where had you hidden it?”

Pidge grinned and straightened her glasses. “In the wall, just outside my door. I bribed Chuchule to pull it in through one of their own secret admits. He could have found it if he'd just dismantled half of the bulkhead first, but Hunk would have gotten mad.”

“All the same, it's poor form to shame a guest when he's been on his best behavior, which he has been,” Coran said primly. “Hardly any larceny at all, really, and he has been very good about teaching you all of his little tricks. I'd say that he deserved a triumph at the last minute. Did he ever manage to crack the locks on the Castle's treasury, Allura?”

Allura giggled. “Twice, but I'd moved the contents out and replaced them with boxes of cookies. He never did locate the actual treasure.”

“All the same, it's the thought that counts,” Coran continued blithely. “The fact that he did manage to break into a genuine royal vault twice is nothing to be sneezed at. Did he steal any of the cookies?”

“Three boxes of the ones with the quec nuts, and he left a note asking for more, the first time.” Allura cast a fond look at their mentor. “And yes, I did provide them for the second attempt.”

Pidge sighed. “It's been fun, but I'm going to miss him. We need to keep more people around the house, guys. It's no fun anymore when it's just us.”

Shiro smiled at her. “Maybe we can ask Kolivan for a few of his men, or something. They're handy to have around, and perhaps Zaianne would like some quality time with her colleagues.”

“That would be nice,” Zaianne said thoughtfully. “I'll ask him in a little time; here comes the bus.”

The bus was a repurposed tourist shuttle, and thankfully someone had warned the Halidexans about the dragons; it was basically one huge cabin with only enough seats for the group, plus the pilot, who was full of admiration for all of them. And full of news, as it turned out.

“The conference has been pushed back a few hours,” he told them as he brought his shuttle gracefully down into the near orbits. “The King allowed as how it was best held in the Great Hall and that's good 'cause it's big enough even for those two fine beasties you've got there, but the Palace staff is having a personality failure about it.”

“Really?” Allura asked.

“Pharka's Crest, yes, Princess,” the pilot replied, waggling his ears in consternation. “The Majordomo's haughty enough for three Grand Duchesses and a Viscount and the palace staff all take their cues from him. He just couldn't handle the fact that he had to play host to a gang of pirates—sorry, Princess, but that's what they are—and went and locked himself in the third-floor linen closet, and they haven't been able to persuade him to come out yet. The rest of the upstairs staff aren't much better, and just finding the right kind of furniture for half of your pirate captains has been driving them crazy all week. The maidstaff are objecting to having marauders all over their nice clean floors, but the kitchen staff is a little better. They, at least, could go to the Cooking Academy and get Ronok to help out. I think that the Palace chefs have set up a shrine to the old man. He's a little bit of a hero over there right now.”

Pidge smiled proudly. “He's my uncle and will always be my hero.”

“You're not the only one who thinks that, trust me,” the pilot said with a nod in her direction. “When he first arrived, he tested out the kitchen equipment by making a big batch of deppa tarts, which he shared out to the staff. Lady, there were spork fights over the last platter! People were getting runcibled right and left, they were that good! The Queen wanted to add him to the Palace roster, but he said she was better off letting him teach, so that there would be lots of cooks of his caliber later on. He's right, but that doesn't stop her from sending her page boys down to the school now and again to request a special treat.”

“Cool,” Hunk said happily. “So, what will we be doing while the staff gets the place ready?”

“You guys get to go and check out Pirate Town,” the pilot replied. “That Abyoran's a really good city planner, you know that?”

Lance lifted an eyebrow at him. “Pirate Town? That's what they're calling it?”

The pilot rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sorry. Look, we did all the usual things people do when they name a new neighborhood, okay? We held a vote, we put out a suggestion box, we put up a list of possible names and threw darts at it, we've been arguing about it for months. The town's proper name is Uzenna Sa'ar, but translate it out to the common language and it comes up as 'Pirate Town'. Look, it was better than the one that the Minister of Law suggested—Caleg'mar Halsha, which means 'Hive of Scum and Villainy'. Most folks thought that was really funny, but not terribly polite.”

The Paladins couldn't help but snicker at that, and Keith rubbed wearily at his forehead. “All the geek points, guys. Okay, fine. Have you been there?”

“Are you joking? I head over there every Zwirsday.” The pilot paused for a few minutes as he eased them down into the planet's atmosphere. “There's a small but very nice gaming-house, several pubs, a dance club, a small theater, three arcades, a bunch of ethnic restaurants, a whole strip of shops and markets, a bank for aboveboard earnings and another for ill-got gains, and even an Unilu swap-shop. That one's attached to the Fleet Academy, to teach the trainees how to handle slick operators. It's actually turning into a bit of a tourist trap, but nobody minds 'cause it's boosting our economy in ways that we need right now.”

Zaianne gave the pilot a wry smile. “They pay taxes?”

“Sort of. Pirates hate the very word, so Yantilee cut the King a deal with wording that they like better.” The pilot flashed them a quick smile. “The Palace doesn't collect taxes from Pirate Town. The King gets a percentage of the loot. It's the same thing, but the Fleet people feel better about it.”

“Good!” Nasty said, his hands lingering on his silverware chest. “How about residences? I was too busy with this lot to pick out a manor house.”

The pilot carefully negotiated around a thunderstorm and flicked Nasty a quick smile over one shoulder. “Zoallam really hit the mark, there, sir. He did such a good job with the multi-racial housing in the residential blocks that the Minister of Habitations is all mad that his real estate speculators can't buy it all up. No manor houses for Unilu, sir. Lots of those skinny, tangled-up tenements that you guys like so much, though, with narrow alleys, hidden fountain squares, fly-by-night merchant stalls, secret tunnels, shadowy cul-de-sacs, walls with plenty of handholds, and sharply-peaked roofs, though.”

Nasty's expression grew beatific. “Tile roofs with large attic windows?”

The pilot gave him a positive hand gesture. “Yup. Also, skylights, trapdoors, a few solariums... and gables.”

Gables,” whispered Nasty. “With gargoyles? What about weathervanes?”

“Those too, plus spires, ugly statuary, and the biggest tenement's got a rooftop shrine to your gods. The sacred crockery is stolen and returned at least twice a week, too. Residency office is on the southeast corner of the Town Hall, first floor, and the lady in charge of the Unilu section is the local haggling champion and senior housebreaker. Leave your luggage at the Thieves' Bank before you see her, or she'll strip you bare before you've had a chance to change the locks. If you need a job that doesn't involve crewing on the ships, the employment office is right next door.”

Nasty's hands clutched possessively at his treasure chest, but his smile was appreciative. “Nice. I'm going to enjoy it here.”

“That's the idea, sir,” the pilot said cheerfully. “The King wants to keep you guys around.”

Shiro smiled. “And you're doing a good job of being helpful. You work for the recruitment department, don't you?”

Their pilot whistled in amusement. “Card-carrying member. Truth to tell, our world needs the Fleet. You guys have done us more good than you know. Oh, hey, everybody look out the windows—we're approaching the port. Uzenna Sa'ar's that 'burb off to the east.”

Everybody turned to look, and there were quiet oohs and aahs from several of them. They had seen the royal palace before, and the large and gracious city that surrounded it. Several miles past the city limits and tucked into a shallow valley that had been empty the last time they'd been here was a sparkling-new habitation. Smaller than the royal city, of course, but very neatly laid out with its business and residential areas fitting in comfortably around a very large complex.

Keith blinked in confusion at the rather pretty suburb; he had a pretty good idea of what a pirate town should look like, and this clean, well-ordered resort town was not it. “It looks so normal.”

“Well, it is only a year or so old,” the pilot pointed out. “Give it another hundred or so years and it'll seedy up a treat. Unilu neighborhood already has, but Unilu are sort of gifted in that area. Comes naturally to 'em.”

“That's right!” Nasty declared proudly. “We've been lowering the tone of the universe ever since we discovered spaceflight. It is our right and duty.”

“That's so, and you guys make our own criminal element feel inadequate. We've been too well-behaved for ages. Big campus is the Academy,” their pilot said proudly. “Even the Minister of War's willing to admit that it's better than the ones the Galra busted up. They teach the important stuff there, not just the bits that make you look good on the parade ground. Survival courses, mostly. How and when to fight, styles of fighting, dirty tricks, engineering for new ships, engineering for old ships, how to bash together a working spacecraft out of junk if you really need to, things like that. It's really popular.”

Lance snorted. “Sounds like it's more fun than Galaxy Garrison.”

“Of course it's fun!” the pilot replied. “Best way to make a person learn fast is to make a game of it. Or a really good challenge. Or a duty, or whatever. Make it mean something, you know? It's all really hands-on training. Now, right next to it on the west side, you've got the storehouse district, only you can't see it 'cause it's all underground. Big, big bunkers that can double as refuges for the whole population if the Galra come back and start blowing holes in the cities. There are a bunch more smaller ones under the Town. Very handy for all sorts of things, and all interconnected. The Academy uses the network for training purposes, too, so it's common to see trainee teams scuttling around in the shadows. They get extra points if you don't see them, so that's turned into a game, too.”

Keith hummed interestedly, peering at the west end where the only sign of that massive subterranean construction was a road heading down into a tunnel. Other than that, the area seemed to be parkland and sporting fields. “Nice. No parade grounds, though.”

“No parades, period,” the pilot said with just a hint of scorn. “Parading is for ceremonial troops. Some sports, though. Some of the Fleet peoples have cultural or religious games and things, so Zoallam made sure that they had room for them. Good for picnics and outdoor parties, too. Now, between the Academy and the living space, we've got the business strip where all the action happens. Nice neat grid, isn't it, and a main road like no other. Nobody else in the Sector's got such a mix of architectural styles, you know, and we've already had a lot of tourists in to study it. They named the main drag Jalenet-Drath'Neva—Something For Everyone, and there is, too! Those two round buildings are the banks, by the way. Red one's the legit one, the yellow one's the Thieves' Bank. Next door down is the Town Hall, where the important stuff gets hashed out. North of those, see, that big, funny-shaped building with the garden space in back is the Cooking Academy, where your amazing uncle teaches people to feed the universe. See the wall around the garden? Twenty voro tall and an ult thick, to keep people from poaching the crops, and to give the big vines something to climb up.”

Hunk had a glint in his eyes. “I need to see that up close. Wait, wouldn't people just climb up the vines? Vines like to grow down the outside of walls, too.”

“Hah! Not more than once!” the pilot laughed. “Sometimes not even that. Those are Herutioan sticklevines. The berries are delicious, but you'll be pulling the stickles out of your hide all month if you try climbing on them. Ronok's got a passle of Nantileeri on the job as pest-control specialists, too. They'll steal your cookies every time, but the kids love 'em. Now, on the other side of that and spreading all the way down south to the lake, you've got living space. Another big draw for the architectural students, and set out in little cultural centers, 'cause it's a taste of home, right? You can see the Unilu bazaar from up here clear as day, but not when you're on the ground. You can only find it on the street by stumbling into it by accident, and by then somebody's already stolen your wallet.”

“Classic,” Coran said approvingly. “And might I ask if there are wild chases to reclaim the stolen goods?”

The pilot nodded, lining up for a landing at the modest starport at the northern end of the Town. “Regular. There's no Galra peacekeeping patrols on Halidex anymore, so a lot of cultures are reverting to their original shapes here. Not long after Yantilee and his lot started hanging around our System, the Governor and his lot sort of semi-retired. He's still there, he sits in on the royal councils and all that and represents the Empire for all that he's worth, but he doesn't make demands anymore, and his fleet doesn't make trouble. They all stay really quiet 'cause we can't be bullied anymore, and if the Governor calls in the big guns, he's going to have to explain just why he waited so long to call his boss, and that could land his fuzzy bottom in real trouble. Mostly, he handles the rescued troops that the Quandary brings home.”

Pidge narrowed her eyes at the pilot. “That has something to do with the Hoshinthra, doesn't it?”

The pilot cast her a worried glance over his shoulder and set the bus neatly down on a landing pad. “Yup. If the Quandary doesn't rescue those guys, the Hoshinthra grab them. The Quandary can't keep 'em, so they get brought back here. The Governor makes sure that they get back home safe, aside from the ones who prefer to stay. We've actually got a pretty sizable Galra population here now. Since we're so far out from the Center and the Fleet spends its time mostly elsewhere, plus the fact that we don't make noise that attracts Zarkon's attention, it all works out. When all of this is over and you guys have toppled the Empire, the Governor's all set to take up administering his own folks without hardly a bump of transition, and the King's willing to let him... so long as he behaves himself. Galra know a thing or three about survival, too.”

Zaianne brushed her fingers over the little green chevron that she'd prudently pinned to her tunic. “Very true.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Time Well Spent

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pidge stuck her tongue out at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lady...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizenne frowned. “Tzairona?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will they?” the young Prince asked.

Modhri smiled gently. “Allura will insist.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” Lance said, backing away.

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

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

“Not even Zarkon?” Nasty asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: That Way Lies Madness

 

Zarkon sat in his Imperial throne, trying to listen to the report that one of his Generals was giving him and not having much luck. There was nothing wrong with his eyes or his ears; it was his memory that was the problem. Not its absence—he'd known all of his life that men above a certain age might become forgetful, and indeed he'd welcomed that. He was far older than any of his people had ever been, and the sheer weight of memory could become backbreaking at times. Whole eras had slipped away from his conscious recollection if they had nothing of worth to remember them by, or if they were too painful to contemplate even centuries later. Or if they were simply too trivial to bother with, like the dour, middle-aged man trying to inform him of some problem or other that was happening in some odd corner of his Empire. Or perhaps it wasn't a middle-aged man giving the report. It might be a younger man, or an older man, or a woman of similarly varying ages; thousands of officers had delivered thousands such reports over thousands of years, and here and now, they were blending unsettlingly together right in front of him. Voices belonging to people long dead were echoing around the living man's, and he could almost hear Blaytz shouting at one or more of them to stop blathering and get to the point...

He caught his breath in a faint hiss and glanced to one side at the faint movement out of the corner of his eye. There was no one there, of course. Haggar was overseeing the last stages of construction on the new Robeast. He knew that. He knew that very well, but she was there beside him so many other times...

He had too many memories, and they were starting to clamor for attention at odd moments, waking and sleeping. Ever since that miserable wretch who had stolen his Lion had invaded his mind, his long-dormant past had bestirred itself. He had expected it to die down again, to slip back into quiescence like stirred-up sediment sifting back to its place on a riverbed, but it had not. If anything, it had gotten worse. Something about the man—something about the Lion... no. No. It was more than that. He shifted slightly upon his throne, and two thin, bright wires of pain twinged in his shoulder and thigh. They always did that when the voices of the dead or the shadow memories acted up. They had done something to him, the Champion and Alfor's daughter. They had done something that Haggar couldn't see. Zarkon considered having her look again, and then discarded the notion. He would deal with it himself. It did not do to reveal a weakness to anyone, not even one's closest companions. Perhaps another dose of Quintessence would do the trick.

That's not going to work, Zarkon, a voice heard by no one in ten thousand years scolded him. Sometimes strength isn't the answer. If you keep piling on more force, it's just going to break.

Trigel had never hesitated to speak her mind.

Great Zog, man, another voice out of the dim past said, haven't you ever learned to ask nicely? It's not hard. Come on, let's hear you say it. Repeat after me. “Please” , and “thank you” .

What had Gyrgan been talking about? Princes did not ask, they commanded, and those they commanded had better obey...

If only it were that simple, my friend, another once-familiar voice sighed sympathetically out of the dust of ages. We all entertain that little fantasy now and again, trust me. You'll only have one planet to run if your father ever gets around to confirming you as his Heir, but my own father dumped hundreds of them on me. The trouble with ruling a large interstellar kingdom is that all of their unsolvable problems are suddenly your unsolvable problems, only you have to solve them or the problems just get larger. I suppose that I could become a tyrant and rule with an iron fist—I would dearly love to have that Upsuskan Grand Prethet stripped naked and tied to a lamp-post outside of a sports bar, for example—but that just creates more problems. You should hear Melenor complain about the backlash whenever we do something precipitous.

Alfor. Zarkon ground his teeth, his temper rising. Alfor had always counseled patience. Always patience, understanding, compliance, and compromise, even when chopping the heads off of those sneering, arrogant politicians would have served the purpose ever so much better...

Zarkon, you can't have everything that you want, Blaytz had snapped at him once, after a particularly long and trying adventure. I know that they're a pain in the ass, but you can't just fire-polish the whole planet. They're needed, alive and whole, and we're some of the people who need them!

Blaytz was an idiot. A truly self-sufficient person did not need anyone, particularly when they would not learn and would not see sense, and the best service that such a damned stupid people could render unto their neighbors was to go and die in a fire. He had had his own way in the end, and so many obdurate peoples had come to an end at his will...

That really isn't a good idea, Zarkon, a woman whom he hadn't thought about since his homeworld had been lost told him sternly. I don't care what that Altean alchemist of yours says, it's forbidden, and by far greater authorities than you—or her, for that matter! Yes, it is possible to extend your life all but indefinitely that way, to say nothing of powering just about any mechanism, but it's extremely dangerous. There is a terrible price to pay for exploiting those forces. You must not steal! That way lies madness, and worse. Whole worlds could die, drained dry by her avarice! Send her away, Zarkon. She will bring you no joy. Power, yes, but no joy. I will not wed a man whose only ambition is power, and your world needs what our union will bring it.

How dared she? How dared she demand that Haggar be sent away? Zarkon's temper began to boil. Khiradi the proud, Khiradi the beautiful, Khiradi of Simadht, whose fingers wove potent magic through the strings of her vaiir-harp, music and magic of such beauty that even he had no choice but to stop and listen. Khiradi whose father had offered aid and alliance that his own grandsire had been desperately seeking, for Golraz was vulnerable to the Council's ambitions. Zarkon still felt scorn for his grandfather's cowardice. Had not Haggar shown him a better option? With the new power source she had harnessed both for personal and industrial use, they did not need to make alliances with those washed-out cave dwellers! What a gift Haggar had offered him, and he had foolishly turned it down!

He what? Haggar's voice came to him out of the past, as did the sharp flash of her amber eyes, the fury and frustration in them seeming to strike sparks from the scarlet markings on her pale cheekbones and her polished-steel hair. She had not yet donned the Galran colors that she would wear for ten millennia. How dare he? I am so close! Another phebe—a few quintents more, and I will unlock the doors to unlimited power! I could do it this very night, if I didn't bother with half of the containment measures that he insisted upon. I do not need them! Will he never admit that I might know more about this that he does?

Zarkon's grandfather had demanded that the lab be shut down. That branch of aetheric science had always made him nervous, and he hadn't liked the way that plants had stopped growing on the facility's grounds. Even insects didn't go there anymore, but Zarkon hadn't cared. All that had mattered was what Haggar wanted, and what she could give him in return.

Then do it, he'd said, and he heard his own voice as it had sounded so very many years ago. Young. Had he ever truly been that young?

Do it, he'd said, and we'll prove your superiority to him once and for all. We will be the firstborn of a new and greater era.

She had done it. He remembered helping her make the final adjustments, and how her wonderful device's parts had come together, and how the rings of the resonator had glowed a clear, pure, pale purple. There had been a rising hum, and an exaltation of light; a white-gold glory that had filled him with an ecstasy that he had never known before, that had laid a seed of greatness within his heart. His first taste of true power, and by no means the last. To think that he had come so close to losing that, even as he had lost everything that mattered only a little time later--

Blackness. Blackness all around, and ships, and swarms of tiny flickering lights that were not stars.

By all the Gods... we couldn't stop them. By all the Gods... the planet's gone. They destroyed Golraz.

He barely heard Gyrgan sobbing over the high singing sound of his own shock and horror, and he stared with disbelieving eyes at the burning fragments of his homeworld, the molten core spilling out into the vacuum of space like the yolk of a broken egg.

No survivors. Alfor, they never had a chance. The Council's fleet gave no warning! Blaytz sounded near tears. Zarkon's eyes remained dry.

Zarkon, that's not the whole armada over there! Trigel shouted, her voice anguished, but clear. Most of them, but not all. It's missing a squadron or two of heavy destroyers. They're not among the wrecks. Where are they?

Where were they? They had not been among those who had attacked the planet.

The colony ships! Alfor cried. Who's escorting the colony ships?

Zarkon's hands clamped violently on the control beams, and he turned Voltron around to seek out those precious ships that were now all that was left of a once-great world. He heard the others shouting back and forth—Trigel shouting into her comms, trying to raise the refugee craft; Gyrgan and Blaytz urging Voltron to go faster; Alfor exhorting them all to greater efforts. Zarkon's heart hurt him as though a shard of cold void had knifed through it. Haggar was on one of those ships, the slow but dependable Ghram Parzurak. She hadn't been welcome aboard the Royal flagship along with his own family, the noble Houses, and the Simadhi princess, a slight that Zarkon had taken deep offense at. The Parzurak had no guns, being a rebuilt cruise liner, and it was in deadly danger.

They had been very nearly too late. The escort ships had vanished at the first sight of the Council's warcraft, leaving the unarmed colony ships to their doom. Only three ships had survived out of nearly twenty, and not the largest of them at that. The flagship was gone, along with all of his family and all hope for the future. Only the Ghram Parzurak, the Thrand Hachim, and the Kros Galeth had survived, and the Galeth had been badly damaged. His mind like glass, his heart like ice, Zarkon had allowed the others to use Voltron to get the people on those three failing ships safely down into the sands of the world that would soon be known as Golraz Beta. Mind like glass, heart like ice, he had made sure that Haggar was alive and well, which she had been. Mind like glass, heart like ice, he learned how few of his people were left.

And then someone had turned on a portable entertainment set to a public news channel, and he had heard the Council's First Speaker gloating over the cold-blooded murders of more than eight billion people. If his mind was glass, that glass was molten now. If his heart was ice, then it was now scalding steam. The others had turned to him, feeling his rage; the seed of greatness that his first taste of Quintessence had given him sprouted and produced a dark flower. He siezed upon them with that inner greatness, and took them back to the Lions. These he seized upon as well, and took them back, back, riding the wave of his black fury. The Council had forfeited its right to live. For their arrogance and brutality, the punishment would be swift. His comms had come alive with petty complaints from trivial authorities, demanding to know what he was doing, but he disdained to answer them. Never again would he take anyone's orders, nor bow to anyone else's will. The time for diplomacy was done, and he would now do things his way. The very first thing he would do was to go to Tethrix, the Council's private little paradise planet, and--

“Destroy them!” he snarled aloud. “All of them.”

“Y... your Majesty?”

Zarkon blinked. He was sitting in his throne, ten thousand years away from where his mind had been, and a middle-aged General was staring at him as if he'd grown a second head. What had the man been telling him about? Oh, right. The Beronites. Despite the efforts of the Imperial fleets in that region, those wretched little insects had refused to submit. “The Beronites, you idiot,” Zarkon growled, making the man cringe in terror. “Their intransigence annoys me. Destroy them. All of their worlds. All of their people. I will not tolerate defiance.”

“Y-yes, Majesty!”

“See to it,” Zarkon said ominously. He didn't feel well; his shoulder and thigh ached fiercely, and there was a sick emptiness in his heart and a burning sensation in the back of his skull that usually meant that he was due for a dose of Quintessence. “Leave, all of you. I tire of this trivial nonsense.”

He glowered in silence as the various Generals, aides, guards, and functionaries scuttled like insects for the doors, and then took his own leave, limping slightly on his sore leg.

 

A few minutes later, unseen by all, a single young man in a subaltern's uniform crept back into the empty room, shivering slightly at the aura of ancient rage that hung in the air like smoke, and made his way up the steps to examine the throne itself. He had made a habit of staying silent and keeping his eyes open, and he had seen the Emperor do a curious thing just before he'd spoken that abrupt order. Sure enough, his eyes hadn't lied to him. General Chavric had been reporting on trade statistics in the Guantu Sector, a subject that Zarkon, as far as he knew, had less than no interest in, and yet...

And yet he had gripped the arms of his throne so hard that he'd left easily discernible handprints in the tough metal, and had ordered the destruction of a large number of very profitable planets, moons, and space stations. Chavric had only barely mentioned the Beronite rebellion! Something had been going on inside the Imperial skull that didn't quite match up with everyone else's reality. His comm chirped, making him jump, and a voice asked, “Well?”

The young aide shuddered. “I was right, sir. He left prints. I can even see the claw marks. He wasn't paying any attention to Chavric at all. Something's not right.”

There was a sigh from the comm. “I was afraid of that. Get out of there before he comes back, Kerraz.”

Kerraz groaned, but headed for the doors in triple-time. “Pendrash... sir... what are we going to do? He's just ordered us to smash up something like fifty-three worlds, and the Beronites are going to fight us claw and grasper the whole way! We'll have to muster the whole Sector's compliment of the Military, and probably more, and that will leave even more territory vulnerable to attack. A lot of the High Houses have business interests in that Sector, too. The whole region will be fouled up for decades!”

I'm aware,” Pendrash replied, his tone grim. “There are ways of deflecting such things, Kerraz, and fortunately I may have one. What is the one thing that Zarkon desires above all else?”

“Voltron,” Kerraz breathed. “You can summon Voltron?”

It's possible. I cannot guarantee that the Paladins will show up, but it's the best chance that we have to head this off. Come to my office as fast as you can, Kerraz. I have a message for you to take to Vardok, and he is to relay it via Remote Station #724.”

Remote Station #724! Only the most top secret of top secret missives were sent through that thing! “On my way, sir,” he said, and broke into a run.

 

The Fleet Captains were arriving now, each after their own fashion. Some, like Captain Ketzewan, had dressed to the nines for the event, reasoning that it was only proper to dress one's best when visiting a royal palace. Others were confident enough of their own authority to know that the King wouldn't mind if they showed up in their regular clothes, so long as they were clean. Others simply couldn't afford anything better, and some simply didn't care. Either way, there were enough casually-dressed people hanging around to make Allura consider that her own team's usual attire might just be acceptable for presentation to the local rulers, although her early training still made her painfully self-conscious of the fact that she'd left all of her gowns aboard the Castle. And of the fact that she had an extra streak of pink on one cheek from her lollipop, but that, at least, was easily taken care of.

Zaianne, the dragons, and the mice had been a whole other story. Zaianne had ridden into the Palace grounds astride Tilla's shoulders, the mice riding on Soluk's back, and all of them had been covered with dirt and torn-up grass. None of them had been in the least bit sorry, and Tilla had refused to give up the ball that she'd stolen from the sports field. The servants in charge of keeping the floors clean had broken down in tears when they had seen that filthy little group, which had turned into cries of astonishment when Zaianne had muttered a short spell and snapped her fingers, and the dirt had slid off of them like water off of a duck. She had smiled at their wild-eyed expressions, straightened her tunic, and had strode off down the hall as proudly as any queen, the mice and dragons marching just as proudly behind her.

They still hadn't been able to persuade Tilla to let go of the ball.

“Don't worry about it, dear,” Lizenne said as they watched one of the pirate captains trying to take it from her and having no luck with that at all. “Fortunately for us, the Halidexans have never put all that much importance in fancy dress, and our hosts are far too sensible to judge people by what they're wearing.”

Allura blushed slightly, but managed a smile. “Sorry. Mother used to receive overdressed ambassadors all the time, and some of them took it to extremes. Has everyone arrived?”

“Not quite,” Lizenne said. “We're still missing Captain Tchak, who was last seen in a gaming arcade in Town. Ketzewan's already sent someone out to fetch him. We're also expecting the Governor, if only in a symbolic capacity.”

Allura recalled what their pilot had told them about the man. “Oh, dear. Do you think he will be able to control himself around us?”

“According to King Trosimon and Queen Abritta, he's a sensible fellow at heart and knows full well what will happen to him if he doesn't,” Lizenne said, frowning at the doors. “Governor Kherig Tranth'Zaio stands to gain a great deal if he merely sits quietly and lets things happen; since his stillness and silence also allows Halidex to continue unmolested and unnoticed by the Emperor, they have come to an agreement.”

Allura nodded. “We were told that much. Have you warned the others?”

“Modhri's making the rounds now, and Yantilee's already informed the Captains.” Lizenne smiled thinly. “Most of them find the notion of a Galra official who can't officiate amusing.”

Allura rolled her eyes. “So long as no one starts shooting... oh. Or bites someone's head off. Has anyone thought to give him one of Pidge's pins?”

Lizenne turned to look at the Night Terror's glittering representative, who was currently standing nose-to-nose with Soluk; they appeared to be sniffing each other over with wary interest. “I can only hope.”

 

“Sir, we shouldn't be doing this,” the aide protested as they made their way through the seemingly endless halls of the palace, although they both knew that his complaint was mostly for form's sake. “They're the enemies of the Empire!”

“Of the Emperor,” Governor Kherig corrected grimly. “It's becoming increasingly apparent that it's not quite the same thing anymore. You've seen the reports, same as I have, and have spoken to the same rescuees. Look at it this way, Phrane; we'll be the first to get a look at them from close up without actually being captured or killed.”

Phrane heaved a long-suffering sigh. “I know, sir. It's my training, is all, and my family are all royalists. It's hard, sir.”

“Mine are too, and yes. Be glad that we're being kept in the loop at all.” Kherig's ears twitched at the distant rumble of conversation audible from down the hall. It sounded cordial, at least, and there was laughter in it. Real laughter, and neither malicious nor grim. Something went gronk in there, too, which was a little unusual, but the Fleet crews were very diverse. “All we have to do is play nice, and then we can go back to the fort.”

Phrane, who was a Kedrekan and rather taller than Kherig was, peered over his boss's shoulder as they rounded the last corner and groaned. “If we survive the meeting. Sir, they've brought the Hoshinthra.”

Kherig nodded glumly. “I know. Somebody broke into my office last night and left me a note, and these,” he said, pulling a pair of small objects out of a pocket and holding them up. They glinted greenly in the light of the sconces.

Phrane stared at them. “Those look like the Voltron insignia.”

“Yes, and apparently they magically protect you from the wrath of the Night Terror. Remind me to ask somebody how it works, will you?” Kherig handed his aide one of them and pinned his to his jacket so that it gleamed among his other badges of rank. “Just do it, man.”

“Sir...” Phrane said, holding the little pin as if it might bite. “Sir, I can't. I took an oath.”

“So did I, and look where it has gotten me.” Kherig's brow furrowed as he reviewed the odd turns that his career had taken. “It's your choice, Phrane. I'll be sad to lose you if you make the wrong one.”

Phrane's hand trembled, and he closed his fist over the tiny emblem. He did not pin it to his shirt, but neither did he drop it.

They stepped through the ballroom doors into a true rogue's gallery; just going by bounties and wanted posters alone, there were enough interstellar criminals assembled here to bankrupt several treasuries, Kherig noted, including... oh, ye Gods. All six Paladins. Several Blades of Marmora. The Rogue Witch and her man, the woman who had killed Commander Sendak, two enormous spiky reptiloids of the sort that had trashed a goodly portion of the Center, what appeared to be four mice, and even the rarely-seen but justifiably-feared mustachioed Altean. The littlest Paladin, who had once crippled most of the Center with the power of her mind alone, appeared to be arguing with a Hoshinthra. Arguing. There was no fear of that monster in her at all.

He paused in his approach, letting the pirates get a good look at him and Phrane; that was necessary, pirates being a high-strung lot. There was a stunning variety of them as well, and he could recognize most of them. Every single corsair of note was represented here tonight, including one that he'd spent several years trying to capture himself, before he'd been appointed Governor; Captain Tchak caught his eye, smiled wryly, and flipped him a mocking little salute.

One of the Paladins, the sort of middling-sized, dark-haired one with the high-collared jacket, said something brief and sharp to his companions. They looked up as one, and formed up together in a motion that had obviously become instinctive for them. They weren't alone; backing them up were the two Galra women and the one man, both reptiloids, all four mice, and the Altean male. All of them were staring at him and Phrane with the same wary expression that presaged either violence or tolerance. He and Phrane froze, hands in plain sight, but for Kherig, that was mere reflex.

He could not help but stare at them in something that he was not quite prepared to call awe. He realized that, mixed though they were, they were what his own great-grandmother had described as of the pack. All of them. Even the beasts both great and small. That simple, absolute unity that was so rare these days... and he could see the Lions through the Paladins. He could see Voltron in the way they stood, and in their eyes, and in the deep cohesion they shared. Legends, he thought, and felt a chill running up his spine. These were legends come to life, and there would be no separating them from the great battle machines that the Emperor coveted so. Only once before had he ever seen a group of people anything like these young warriors, and that had been many years ago, and in effigy. He wondered vaguely what they might see in him.

Also staring, but at Phrane only, was the Hoshinthra—if something without eyes could stare—and its fanged jaws parted in a horrible death's head grin...

The green Paladin reached up, grabbed the monster by the long nasal bone, and hauled its head down to her level. “No,” he heard her scold it. “No biting people's heads off at parties, it's rude and makes a big mess on the carpet. Put the pin on, you big dummy! Shussshorim's got no manners and no brakes!”

That last had been hissed at Phrane, who was staring at her in unabashed astonishment. No one had ever dared to do what she was doing now, and the Hoshinthra looked very confused, the great spreading antennae clamped flat back against its neck.

Phrane put the pin on, nearly dropping it in his haste to comply. A chuckle rippled through the watching crowd, and the tension eased. Kherig gave the Paladins a thin smile and a slight bow of respect. “Paladins,” he murmured politely. “While I cannot officially congratulate you upon your successes, I will offer my personal gratitude for keeping the damage to a minimum wherever possible. I hope that you will continue to do so, when and as you can.”

The tall one with the white forelock returned his smile, and the look of understanding in those iron-gray eyes surprised Kherig more than a little. “We'll try,” he said, and then glanced back over his shoulder. “Oops. Hold still and don't panic.”

Kherig would have asked why, but suddenly his view was full of a broad, scaly snout. He'd never seen the great reptiloid move, and a startled yelp from Phrane told him that the other one was checking him over as well. The enormous spiky beasts sniffed them over very carefully, sneezed in a delicate fashion that sounded absurd coming from such fearsome creatures, and then giggled exactly like very young girls. Hearing that, the Paladins relaxed, and grinned as one of the beasts dropped what looked to be a sports ball into Phrane's hands.

“That means that they like you,” the big, round-bellied Paladin said cheerfully, “and that means that you're cool, guys. Glad to have you with us. Um. Pidge, I think that you can let go of the doom moose now.”

The green Paladin still had a firm grip on the Hoshinthra's nose, and she shook it firmly from side to side. “Not until I'm sure that his mom will behave herself. And himself. You two are going to play nice, right?”

The Hoshinthra responded to this thinly veiled threat with an odd explosive noise that could could best be described as “Gnngthssss!”

“Good,” Pidge said, letting go of the dreadful skull, and then slapping the lethal jaws aside without even looking around when it tried to snap at her hair.

Kherig glanced over at Phrane, who was looking badly rattled and was gazing in perplexity at the ball in his hands. A dholep ball, Kherig noted absently, generally used in field sports, and remarkably intact when one considered the huge fangs that those beasts had. Phrane looked up at the one that had gifted him the ball, which was sitting on its haunches and gazing expectantly at him. It grunted faintly, and Phrane tossed the ball very gently back. The beast caught it with ease, winked coquettishly at him with three of its six blue eyes, and ambled away.

“Not what you expected?” he asked his sweating aide.

“N... no, sir.” Phrane panted.

“Me niether.” Kherig scanned the crowd again, which had seemingly lost interest in them. He knew better than to believe that, of course. Unobservant pirates were usually dead pirates. “What an unusual group.”

Phrane swallowed hard. “Sir... did you see... I mean... I know you've seen the Stone of Heroes. Every cub has to study it in school. They were just like that!”

Kherig nodded. The Stone of Heroes was a very large and very ancient piece of statuary that had been carved into an outcropping of solid granite well before Zarkon had taken the Throne. No one knew these days who those ancient warriors had been, but the long-ago artist had portrayed them beautifully; every detail had been graven into the diamond-hard rock with consummate skill, each face distinct, every scar and tattoo, every bead on their khe'guon strings, all reproduced with lifelike accuracy. They had been posed as if coming out of the stone itself, stone eyes fixed on the horizon, stone faces smiling eagerly, stone hands gripping stone weapons as they went eternally to the hunt, all as one in their purpose. The great mystery of the Stone was not its origin, but a trick of the carving itself; no one could count the number of warriors and get the same total twice. If one stood back far enough away, one soon realized that the whole Stone itself, carvings and all, had the shape of a single giant warrior, staring watchfully into the distance as if waiting for a worthy opponent to reveal itself. All as one, and as one, greater than any single part; the very essence of the Pack.

“I'm aware, Phrane.” Kherig sighed and ran his fingertips over the little green chevron that he'd been so mysteriously gifted with. “I'm aware, and I am glad that I have chosen not to fight them. We'll observe them instead, and try to look harmless while we're at it.”

Phrane gave him a pained look, but had to admit that there was nothing else that they could do. He might have complained a little more just to show willing, but an odd movement caught their eye—Yantilee had looked down sharply, and then had bowed nearly to the floor for no apparent reason. When the huge Elikonian straightened back up, she had a small figure in her arms, one that Kherig and Phrane recognized as the King's youngest child, a daughter. The child was dressed in what was unmistakably a nightgown, with her hair a mess and missing one slipper, and a look of triumph on her face. From the look of it, she had probably been put to bed early, and had escaped. The little girl clambered up onto the big alien's upper shoulder and waved a small stuffed toy at the crowd.

Alla you people, look at me!” she shouted, and when she was sure that she had their full attention, she grinned broadly and declared, “Cap'ns Outrageous, welcome to my Palace! You're all gonna sit around the big table and talk like nice people and plan how you're gonna free all the planets and give the bad guys a smacking! Then you're gonna have a really good dinner 'cause Mister Ronok's helping in the kitchen, and he made all the cookies! He gave me some, and you're really gonna like them 'cause I sure did! Then you're gonna go out and smack bad guys 'cause you're all really good at it! Thank you!”

Phrane blinked as a ripple of laughter and even a few cheers ran through the crowd. “How old is she?”

“Six,” Kherig sighed, and then chuckled. “I see a great future for her in public speech.”

King Trosimon retrieved his unrepentant daughter from the pirate Admiral. “Gentlebeings, I was about to make a speech of welcome, but Trinnie here beat me to it, and her version is the soul and center of mine... and a good deal shorter and less boring. I see no reason to repeat what she has already made very clear, save for a single correction. It's 'captains courageous', dear, not 'outrageous'.”

“Depends on who you ask,” Yantilee said mildly. “Shall we go and sit around the big table and talk like nice people?”

The King gave Yantilee an appreciative smile and handed his giggling little girl off to a mortified nursemaid who had come puffing into the room. “You know, I think that we should.”

 

“And that'll be enough of that,” Yantilee said some hours later, squashing another dispute and causing one Captain to go green with disappointment while the other fluffed up his feathers in irritation. “It won't make any difference who goes first on that vector; your ships have equal capabilities and you both know it. Neither of them have the armor for it in the first place. Captain Drusthin, yours has a tougher skin and better shields. Think you can handle that bit?”

Captain Drusthin, a spotted, leathery Ginpharam who looked more than a little like a miniature whale shark, squinted nearsightedly at the hologram of the Rakshane Market Hub that hung over the table. “Might,” he thrummed thoughtfully, “and might not. Tough, yes; good guns, yes; quick and agile, no. If those two flank me as outriggers, it'll do. I'll back 'em through the heavy, they can take me through the quick. All's good?”

The two former disputants mulled that over and allowed as how it was possible. Yantilee nodded and moved on to the next topic.

Keith leaned back in his chair, listening intently as the big Elikonian ran the sims and steered the conference toward a workable battle plan with a word here, a suggestion there, and the occasional squelched ego. Keith had never been very good at this sort of thing himself, and was determined to learn. His mixed blood might give him courage, but it also made him reckless; if Shiro's absence had taught him anything, it was that he needed to learn how to plan, and how to manage people. The key, it seemed, was getting the fractious ones to do things by making it seem like their idea. Yantilee also listened to everyone; no suggestion was discarded until it had been given a good looking-at, and even if it wasn't immediately useful, it was kept in mind. Battlefields were very fluid situations, and every idea was potentially useable; even though Modhri had told them of the subtle machinations of Trenosh's grandfather, Yantilee had decreed that a secondary and even a tertiary plan would be a good thing to have if negotiations fell through, and most of the Captains understood battles better than business.

Even so, the meeting was running long. Dinner had been served somewhere in the middle of it, and the discussion had continued unabated right over the food and drink. The little princess had been right about the cookies, though. Even interstellar warfare had wound up taking a backseat to the cookies for a little while there. Throughout the whole thing, the two Galra officials had been very quiet, observing without comment and occasionally taking notes. Keith had no doubt that Kolivan had those two under his eye, but he had to wonder exactly why they were being allowed to attend at all--

His thoughts stopped dead when he felt Shiro go rigid next to him. There was a fizzing in the back of his mind and a faint haziness at the corners of his eyes, and when he looked at his team leader, he saw that Shiro was firmly in the grip of his Lion-gifted talent. Shiro was staring wide-eyed at nothing that existed within the room, and from his expression, whatever it was, it wasn't good. Keith could feel the pressure building, and concentrated on the Lion-bond. The others were doing the same, holding Shiro steady until whatever was trying to come through achieved its purpose. The pupils of his iron-gray eyes had distended enormously, and were glittering with constellations that did not exist on this side of reality, and he was sweating with the effort of it. Slowly, Shiro rose out of his seat, leaning his hands on the table; moving with a terrible smooth precision that was more like a machine than a living man, he turned his otherworldly gaze upon the group of Beronite captains, who reeled back in shock.

Shiro's breath hissed through his teeth, and in a voice with a peculiar echo in it, he said: “She's burning.”

With those words, the spell broke with a nearly-audible crack, and Shiro collapsed heavily back into his chair. Keith heaped more cookies onto Shiro's plate while Hunk refilled his glass.

Lance winced and rubbed at his brow as Shiro gulped down half of his glass in one go. “Big one. Gonna tell the rest of us, Chief?”

“What was that?” one of the captains quavered nervously, and Keith noticed that the two Galra officials were staring at Shiro in open astonishment.

“That was a powerful Seer in action,” Lizenne said sharply. “A talent that I lack completely, thank whatever may be listening. Are you all right, Shiro?”

Shiro nodded, washing down a mouthful of cookie with a sip of water and giving the startled captains an apologetic look. “I'm fine. Zarkon's done something. There is... there are planets in danger. Many of them. I saw a world being destroyed. Don't know whose. A green world, mountains, huge forests. A... a temple, I think. Very large, lots of six-sided buildings, all made of some purplish-blue stone. It was beautiful, and then it was gone.”

One of the Beronites shrilled in horror and scrabbled a small hologram projector out of her pocket, activating it to show the table the Nemortine holy of holies. “This Temple?”

Shiro nodded. “That's the one. It took a direct hit.”

The Beronites shrieked in fury, and the captain banged her claws down on the table with more force than one would expect from the delicate-seeming insectoid. “He dares! When will this occur?”

Shiro frowned, his eyes looking inward. “I--”

There was suddenly shouting from the hallway, and the sound of running feet. A Galra soldier burst gasping into the room with a couple of palace guards close behind him, and he staggered to where the Governor sat, waving something small in one hand. “Sir!” he panted desperately, “Urgent message, from the private line. Code seven-twenty-four. I got it here as fast as I could.”

“Well done, man,” the Governor said, taking the message card from the soldier and excusing himself to go and read it in a corner.

The soldier sagged against the back of his empty chair in relief, and then seemed to notice the company he was in. Keith couldn't help but smile as the poor man stared in horror at the Ghost Fleet Captains, some of whom gave him little waves and gestures of greeting, then at Keith and the other Paladins, Lizenne and Modhri, and lastly at the Hoshinthra, who was starting to rise to its feet like a horror-movie monster. Pidge grabbed its nose again, and a sympathetic captain passed the soldier a little green pin.

When the Governor came back to the table, they saw that he had gone gray beneath his fur, and he moved as though he were in shock. Something about the look in his eyes stilled the buzz of quiet conversation, and when he broke that silence, pieces of it rattled to the floor.

“Your Majesty,” he said, nodding to their host, and then to the other people around the table. “Admiral, Captains, Paladins. I must inform you of something very important, and I ask for your silence in return. If word gets back to the Emperor that I have informed you of this, I will be lucky if he just has me killed. Your vision is accurate, Paladin--” he nodded at Shiro, “--less than half an hour ago, Zarkon ordered the destruction of all Beronite planets and the eradication of their race. The entire Sector's worth of military craft are being mustered as we speak to obey him, and I am told that at least one planet-buster is being readied for deployment. It is estimated that they should be ready to begin the extermination in approximately five days by the Galran standard. Possibly less.” Governor Kherig took a deep, steadying breath. “Such an undertaking will be an absolute disaster for everyone for Sectors around, the Empire included. Billions of lives, Galra as well as everyone else, will be lost. I am asked to contact the Fleet to pass this information to the Paladins; this was a decision made by the Emperor seemingly on impulse alone; he has begun to show signs of... instability... perhaps brought on by injuries sustained in his recent battles.”

Allura sat up sharply, eyes wide. “Is that possible, Lizenne?”

“It is,” Lizenne replied thoughtfully. “You caught him twice with a fully active bone spear, Allura, and it is very likely that it left a mark in the man that Haggar cannot heal. Shiro may have stirred things around in his mind as well; I cannot be certain without having the Emperor in for a good look, and that isn't going to happen. Even before his people suffered that genetic bottleneck ten thousand years ago, the Golrazi had a reputation for occasionally going mad as they aged; the Quintessence he takes to keep himself alive may have delayed that, but there are limits.”

The Governor swayed slightly, swallowed hard, and continued. “You may be right, my Lady. He has always been harsh and obsessive, particularly where it comes to the Lions, but his current behavior bodes ill for the Empire. My contact suggests that an appearance by Voltron where he can see it may well draw his attention away from the destruction of the Beronites, and further suggests that you reveal yourselves near Heranthi—Selphuro Sector, quadrant two, the fourth planet in the Opikipal Solar System. That is just on the edge of Beronite space and is a very rich and influential Galran colony world. Several of the High Houses have property and interests there, and they will raise a fuss at the Center if they feel that their possessions are in danger. If Zarkon focuses his wrath upon you...”

“Then he won't be interested in bashing up someone else's planets,” Lance said. “Gotcha. Unfortunately, that means that we've got everyone and their phoenix hound chasing us around, which might just be a tiny bit more than we can handle. We already know that Haggar's rebuilding her monster-maker lab, and if one of those joins the party, that's going to be bad. How do we know that this isn't some sort of trap, pal?”

The Governor winced at his tone and laid the message chip down on the table. “You do not. I have nothing to give you that can stand as proof.”

“You might,” Kolivan rumbled. “Who is your contact?”

Governor Kherig stood silently for a moment, struggling with his oaths and ideals before seeming to deflate. “General Pendrash. He puts the safety of the Empire above the word of the Emperor. I ask that you not speak of this to anyone either. I will give you a way to contact him if I must, but both he and I would far rather you didn't insist upon that.”

Kolivan gestured reassuringly. “No need. His office and ours has already had some small contact with each other, to our mutual satisfaction.”

The Governor shuddered in relief. “Thank you. What will you do now, people?”

Yantilee shrugged. “We can shelve the attack on Rakshane if we have to, and the Beronites have the right to call on us for help. Voltron isn't totally necessary for taking the trade hubs, not with the kind of advantages they've given us already, so they can do as they like. Your choice, Paladins.”

Keith turned to look at his team, and they all had the same worried look on their faces that he did. Hunk humphed and sat back, arms crossed over his chest. “You know, when I was a kid I used to get all mad at Mom and Dad, usually when they wanted me to do something that I really didn't want to do, and I used to think how great it would be when I was a grownup. I could make all my own decisions and live how I wanted, and nobody could boss me around or tell me to clean up my room. Well, you know what? Being an adult sucks. Can I go back to being a kid again?”

Shiro puffed a laugh. “Sorry, Hunk. I can only see time, not rewind it. The Governor is right, and I thank you for this information, Kherig. If something isn't done, the Beronite worlds will be under attack in three days. I think that we may be able to draw the Empire's forces away--”

“And you will have our aid in that!” the Beronite Captain chirred angrily. “For this outrage, the Empire will pay dearly!”

“No,” Shiro said flatly. “You and your people will be needed to protect your worlds, and if Zarkon sees you helping us, he'll have your people destroyed regardless of what we do. The Empire can still exert a massively overwhelming force; there are hundreds of thousands of warships, and only one Voltron. We won't be able to stop them all. As Kherig said, we may be able to draw them off if we...” he smirked. “What was that you suggested to Allura once, Lizenne? Just before you rescued Sam and Matt for us?”

Lizenne chuckled. “That Voltron might appear in an outer orbit, drop its pants and make a crude gesture, and then run away.” She smiled at the ripple of laughter that passed through the crowd. “An amusing idea, yes, and one that might have worked out a little better if I hadn't knifed that Druid. Lance, dear, do you think that you could sew up a pair of trousers that large?”

Lance rubbed at his chin and looked thoughtful, but Allura shook her head. “I doubt that large-scale tailoring will help. Proper positioning and timing will. Governor Kherig, how is an extermination generally carried out?”

All eyes turned to Kherig, and he dipped a small, respectful bow in her direction. “In most cases, a single planet is destroyed, usually because the people involved have only one, and perhaps a few thinly-settled colony worlds. In cases where the race in question has fully colonized three or more planets, the destruction fleets begin with the homeworld and work outward from there. The loss of the homeworld has been proven to maximize confusion and demoralization of the condemned race, making the project easier. The Beronites are unusual in that all of their ships are potential warships, and ones nearly as powerful as our own. Getting the planet-buster to their homeworld will not be a simple matter.”

“I'd heard that they were short-range craft,” Modhri said.

Kherig nodded. “Despite their firepower, their drives require frequent refueling, and moving a craft of that size is no small matter. That was one of the reasons why General Prorok was trying to get the Bagantush Destroyer built; it was to have had a far greater range than the Tarzeroth-class destroyers do. It will never be built now; I believe it was you, sir, who stole the plans, and Prorok met his end in Haggar's lab not long afterward.”

Modhri winced and rubbed at the scar across one bicep, where a new arm had been grafted on. “Poor fellow. I did not know the man, but there are few whom I would condemn to that fate.”

Kherig shuddered. “It was an unnecessary death. It was later found that he had been framed by an agent of the Blade of Marmora for the shutting down of the Center's force-shield during an attack by the Paladins. This allowed them to escape, and the Emperor was not pleased. Prorok was used in the creation of a Robeast, one that could absorb enormous quantities of matter and convert it to energy almost instantly, giving it a weapon far more powerful than conventional ion cannons.”

Keith banged a fist onto the table. “That was the one that almost had us! We didn't have enough experience with Voltron to take it down yet, and Ulaz sacrificed himself to destroy it for us. But Zarkon let Haggar use one of his own Generals?”

Kherig rubbed at his face wearily. “Yes. The Emperor will not keep those who disappoint him around. No matter how talented they might be, one mistake can mean their demise. Success can mean favor, fame, and fortune, but the risk is very high, and Zarkon's patience is limited. What have you done with the plans that you have stolen, Modhri?”

Modhri steepled his fingers and gazed consideringly at Kherig over the peak of them. “As yet, nothing. I have already offered them to the High Nomora, who turned them down.” He smiled faintly at the sounds of shock and dismay around the table. “Apparently, the temptation to do something inappropriate with such a weapon was more than she felt her people could resist; a decision that I respect. I have considered offering those plans to the Olkari, who are a kindly people of great talent. Partnered with the proven skills of the Beronites... who knows? The whole ship need not be built. Portions of it, to be repurposed into smaller, more efficient ships, may be a more worthy line of research. Our own people have concentrated upon overwhelming force for far too long.”

“You may be right,” Kherig said grimly, and shook his head. “That is not important at this time. Admiral, can you bring up a sim of Beronite space?”

Yantilee reached out with one hand and tapped the holo-projector's controls, bringing up the shining, complex region immediately. “I've been thinking ahead,” Yantilee said with a flick of a finger toward the gleaming nebula. “They're half-free of Imperial control already, and bringing them in the rest of the way would give the Coalition a major boost. Here's Beros, smack in the middle, and they've already dealt with their Governor some time ago. This is the area that's clear of garrison ships, but the rest are still Empire territory. Does Zarkon like to watch when a world burns, and where would be best for Voltron to moon him? More to the point, what will it do when it's got his attention? That's going to be a big armada, Paladins.”

Pidge glared at the hologram. “I need more information. Does anyone know anybody in the area who can give me troop movements in real-time?”

Kolivan raised a hand. “Jasca can find that information. Also, weren't you able to gain control of a planet-buster once?”

Pidge made a face. “Yeah, but it nearly killed me. Actually... hey, Keith? We still need to work on shield-cracking together. Lizenne said something a while ago about you tying a spark of your purifaction-power to my Spike of Hantis, like a fire-arrow. Want to practice on the hex-drone when we're done here? If we can take that planet-buster, we can thin out the competition a little and probably make Zarkon too angry to think about anything else.”

Keith frowned, concentrating on his own odd talent. Fire, he thought, fiddling with his napkin as he did so. Fire didn't travel all that well from its source, not really. Without fuel, it couldn't exist. Maybe he could sort of... put a dab of power out there or something, like a bit of kindling or a drop of oil--

Someone yelped, and there was a sudden scent of burning. He looked down and saw that the fine embroidered cloth in his hands was clean; he'd burned off the food stains without harming the fabric. Keith smiled and took a deep drink of cold water from his glass. “Yeah, that might be a good idea. And if we take over a few flagships, too, that'll really have him steaming.”

“In the end, it doesn't matter where we stand to deliver our challenge,”Allura said. “Someone will contact the Center regardless. Kherig's suggestion of Heranthi remains valid, although a more central location might be better, to attract the attention of the whole force. I would prefer to stay well away from Beros, to reduce the risk to that world. Is there an area of empty space that might be better?”

To everyone's surprise, Kherig's aide raised a hand. “The Nanthral Dwarf Cluster,” he said, “near the southwestern edge of that big nebula. It's a small cluster of white dwarf stars where a nova cascade took place billions of years ago. No habitable planets, just a lot of dust, gas, and junk. My sister went prospecting for exotic minerals there once and found enough loose gethexite floating around to interest the asteroid miners. It's not a large operation, but their comms are good. If Voltron shows up over there, they'll start howling on all channels in hopes of getting a reward, and then they'll cut and run when the warships show up.”

Yantilee touched the controls again, focusing in on that empty little cluster, showing a sketchy little space station and the tiny moving dots of mining craft. One of the captains flapped his/her cilia to get their attention. “I know those miners,” he/she said triumphantly, “they have engaged my services before, to run black-market cargo for them. Mainly refined gethexite, but also small amounts of octhrine, toroid litninite, and metallic victrine. Very valuable. Also valuable is a small spacial anomaly near that star, there—not easily found, but very convenient. A natural, stable wormhole, leading directly into the inner orbits of the Queghomm System three quadrants away. Small ships go with ease. One or two large ships also pass easily. Whole fleets? No.”

“Nice,” Hunk said, eyes sparkling. “A stable wormhole? How rare is that? I'm liking that spot, guys. A nice clear field with a built-in escape route sounds good. Where's Queghomm, anyway?”

“Used to be in the backyard of the old Drinthic Consortium, back in the day,” Coran informed them with a nostalgic smile. “A bit of a tyranny, actually, overseen by the Biniriparka of Zorept. Horrible fellow, he was one of those iron-fist rulers that never bothered with the velvet gloves. Secret police everywhere, had to get official permits to so much as scratch your bottom, huge restrictions on everything from socks to star-travel. You never saw a populace so downtrodden, so Alfor and his team put a stop to him, and he was such a poor sport about it that Alfor let the people reward us according to local tradition. A bit gruesome in spots, that, but ironclad, and Alfor was never one to turn down the promise of a favor in the future. He had a special case made for the official documentation, too. Not sure who runs the region now.”

“The Drinths are still around, and are a major partner in a Collective of minor powers in that area,” Zaianne said. “The Othorim Collective capitulated to the Empire immediately upon their first arrival a few hundred years ago, and have been Zarkon's subjects ever since. Some few of the members chafe under his rule, but they're very quiet about it. If we don't hang about, they may not mention us if we have to use that wormhole. Lizenne, we may want to position the Chimera and the Castle near that point, to keep that escape route open in case we need it.”

“I will warn the miners,” the knowledgeable pirate captain said firmly. “It is only right. They are good business partners.”

Shiro smiled. “Sounds good. It's not every day that you can pick your own battlefield. Tell Jasca to keep us posted, Kolivan, and we'll show up right on time.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: The Machinations of Fate

 

Lotor leaned on the balcony rail and smiled in satisfaction as the Kevrachi-Class ship on the repair bay floor below hummed and came back to life before him. Small though they were when compared to even a light cruiser, they packed the punch of a destroyer and were far faster and more agile. As he watched, one of the purloined technicians stuck his head out of the hatch and shouted at a trainee to run checks on the thrusters.

“Has there been any trouble?” he asked Tilwass, who'd been keeping an eye on the ten Nelargo ship techs for him.

“Not as far as any of us has seen, sir,” Tilwass said with a shrug. “They were a little miffed about your having Hokora shift their allegiance to you instead of Lady Inzera, but they sort of shrugged and carried on anyhow. You assigning the smartest of our techs to them as trainees helped.”

“Hmmm,” Lotor mused, casting a sidelong look at Tilwass. “And Sergeant Hokora?”

“Grumpy, sir. She likes those guys, and now she really doesn't like Ghurap'Han's Matriarch.” Tilwass gave him a thin smile. “She's got Views about hexes, and Views about how you treat good men, and if we ever run into Lady Inzera again, Hokora's going to punch her in the face.”

Lotor snorted a laugh. “I'd pay to see that, actually. Hokora is twice that old woman's mass, but Inzera's vicious. I take it that Hokora's been looking after them?”

Tilwass sighed. “Yup. Not sure how it works, but when you fiddle with someone's implanted hex, you get a good look at the one carrying it—from the inside out, I mean. Hokora liked what she saw, and I think she may be getting interested in one of them.”

Lotor rolled his eyes. “So long as she doesn't steal him before he's taught our techs how to repair and maintain those ships, I don't care.”

Tilwass waved a dismissive hand. “It won't happen. They're good men, sir. The techs like them, and so do the rest of the crew. They do their work and don't cause trouble, and Hokora respects that.”

Lotor humphed faintly. “Good enough. Has anything of note happened since that last transmission?”

Tilwass waggled a hand sourly; that brief sighting of the Castle and the Chimera near Arcobi had proven fruitless. “Yessir, but I'm not sure that we should check it out. The Emperor just ordered the destruction of a fair bit of the Selphuro Sector.”

Lotor looked at him sharply. “What happened?”

“Nobody's too sure. One moment he was listening to some General or other delivering a report, and the next, he was decreeing the destruction of the Beronites. Just like that. No reason, except that there's an uprising going on over there. Like that's news! There are uprisings everywhere right now.”

“But it may well draw Voltron out of hiding for us,” Lotor said thoughtfully, “and so many warships in one place might attract the Night Terror as well.”

Tilwass shifted uneasily. “Maybe, sir, she's been expanding her range. Patrols have been catching glimpses of her all over the Empire. Just glimpses, no fighting, and it's making them nervous. Voltron's not really our problem, sir, your Dad said as much. Maybe we should concentrate on one monster at a time?”

Lotor gave him a look of contempt. “No. I have a score of my own to settle with the Paladins, and I will take any opportunity to defeat them that comes my way. They will not be able to resist an attempt to stop the destructor fleet, and that fleet will not object to our aid. If the Terror surfaces, then all to the better; she will be vastly outnumbered in such a battle.”

“That's never stopped her before, sir,” Tilwass said uneasily. “Sir, I'm not sure she's alone.”

Lotor's head snapped around to face him fully. “What?”

“It's the reports of sightings, sir,” Tilwass explained. “I've checked the transmission dates, and some of them have come in seconds apart and whole Galaxies distant at the same time. Unless she's got a drive upgrade that can get her places before she ever left, there's more than one Warleader still out there. From the look of things, there may be a lot more.”

“Are any of those sightings confirmed?” Lotor demanded.

Tilwass shivered. “Maybe a quarter of them, sir, but there are a lot of them.”

Lotor slashed a hand through the air in a negative gesture that made Tilwass flinch. “Then I will not waste time on them. The Hoshinthra Warleaders have never made a habit of subtlety; even before their worlds were crushed, if they saw an Empire ship, they attacked. They did not bother with sneaking about, and the behavior of the one survivor of my Father's judgment has held true, even with the cloaking device that she acquired from the Ghost Fleet. Have any of our techs figured out how such a thing might work, by the way?”

“Not ours,” Tilwass admitted. “I asked one of the Nelargo guys and he thought about it for a while, scribbled a bunch of weird figures on a noteboard, and said that it was possible. They haven't had any time to get any further than that.”

Lotor scowled at the ship below. “Perhaps we should make time. Tell the pilots to take us to the Selphuro Sector. I want to be there to see what comes of my Father's decree. I very much doubt that it will go unchallenged.”

“Yessir,” Tilwass said, and headed for the bridge.

 

Keith drew in a deep breath and let it out, his exhalation steaming on the air. They'd had to make some concessions for this practice session because Lance had wanted a nap and Hunk was experimenting in the kitchen. Since it was Allura's turn to pilot the ship and Shiro wasn't any good at this sort of thing, Keith and Pidge had decided to use a simpler method to deal with the waste heat from Keith's efforts. The end result was that he was currently floating on his back in the upside-down pool, watching the hex-laden gladiator drone stalking around on the floor far below. It was working fairly well, actually, and he got to look at Pidge in a bathing suit while he did it, which in his secret heart of hearts was a major bonus. He just wished that eating while swimming wasn't such a bad idea.

Pidge was starting to look as though she was wondering what he tasted like too, but she was reluctant to give up on their project. They'd been trying to turn her Spike of Hantis into a fire-arrow all morning, but without success. There was just some sort of disconnect there, something that was getting in the way of a proper combination of powers; they could do it, sort of, when they were in the Lions, but they both agreed that it wasn't a good idea to rely totally on the great fighting machines.

“One more time?” he asked, and she nodded.

In his mind's eye, a shining silver-green needle took shape, like an arrow without an arrowhead. He could feel the subtle disruptive power of it like a discordant note, like the famous monkeywrench on its way to a handy engine, like the steel bar about to slide through the spokes of a turning wheel. He tried to tie a ribbon of cleansing fire around it, but once again, he could not get it to bind. He'd tried everything, from dousing the Spike in flammable power to wrapping the aetheric equivalent of a gasoline-soaked rag around it, but it all slipped right off as if the Spike were frictionless. Something, somewhere, was holding back...

He hissed out his breath in a curse as the whole thing fell apart again, and the water around him was several degrees warmer.

“Crud,” Pidge groaned wearily. “I'm taking a break. Want to go see if there's anything in the fridge?”

Keith was no less disappointed, and no less hungry. “Sure. Damn. We shouldn't be having this much trouble. Maybe we should ask Mom about it, or Lizenne.”

Pidge shook her head and then hauled herself out of the water, sitting down on the edge of the pool, picking up the remote control and deactivating the gladiator as she did so. “Zaianne's chasing Shiro around the training deck right now, and Lizenne said earlier that she was working in the envirodeck today. Something about fertilizing some sort of plant or other, and that she shouldn't be disturbed 'cause it's one of the tricky ones. We're just going to have to figure this one out on our own.”

He sighed and paddled toward the pool ladder, pulling himself out of the water with an irritated heave and sitting down next to her. “It's just frustrating, is all. I can mesh with Lance without any trouble, and you work with Hunk like it's the easiest thing in the world. I've never really tried to lock in with Hunk, and you know how much trouble we're having. Shiro and Allura hook into the rest of us like it's the next best thing to breathing.”

She nodded and handed him a towel. “Yeah. I think it has something to do with opposites attracting or the way some Elements react neutrally to each other. We're sort of making it up as we go along, aren't we? It's not Altean alchemy or Galra magic, and if Humans ever had real magical talent, we've left it in our other genes. Hah. I used to avoid fantasy books, Keith. I liked science better. Science happens in the real world, and it gets results. And now we're out here, where magic is a science, with results, and I've got nothing to base it on!”

Keith rubbed his hair vigorously with the towel to get the water out of it and glared up at the motionless drone. “I don't understand it any more than you do. Probably a lot less. All I do know is where to point it, and that we all work best when we're all hooked up together. I just wish I knew what was blocking me. I mean, I know that there are a lot of plants that need fire to spread their seeds, and that machines need power, but I just can't get through.”

Pidge draped her towel over her shoulder and gave him a measuring look. “Maybe it has something to do with your being half-Galra.”

Keith scowled at her. None of them had made any issue of that for months, aside from asking him when he'd go purple and fuzzy. “What?”

Pidge rolled her eyes at his dangerous tone. “Instincts, Keith. You've got a whole second set that you don't know all that much about. Haven't you been watching your Mom? How she acts around Modhri, or Kolivan, or Vennex or Trenosh or any of the Blades, and how they act around her? Or how Lizenne and Modhri act around each other, for that matter.”

Keith blinked, surprised by this observation. “What do you mean?”

“Distance,” Pidge said firmly, waving a finger at him. “If Lizenne and Modhri were any closer, they'd have had three clutches of cubs already, or would have joined a circus freak show as a pair of Siamese twins. Ever notice how Lizenne stays between him and Zaianne when they're all together? He's hers. Even though they're technically sisters, your mom has to keep her distance from Modhri. It's instinctive. They don't even realize that they're doing it.”

Keith sorted through his memories, and had to concede that Pidge might be onto something. “All right. So?”

Pidge smirked at him. “When it's just her around the other guys, there's that distance again. She's not interested in them, and they know on an instinctive level that they'll get smacked if they push into her personal space, so they don't. It has to be that way, 'cause a girl can set them on fire if they annoy her. They learn that as cubs. That's a law of nature, Keith—the dumb ones die first. When we had Helenva around, how did you react to her?”

“I... I kept my distance!” Keith said, very surprised. “It just made sense. She was too busy chasing Lance around and pulling his ears... which Modhri said was a sort of courting behavior. She wasn't interested in me.”

Pidge giggled. “Plus, his ears are bigger than anyone other than Allura's or Coran's. Allura's a girl, and Coran is... well...”

“He's Coran,” Keith finished with a smile. “Ears are kind of significant to Galra, anyway. That's because... hey! Because that's how a woman tells her boyfriend that he's hers. Modhri told us about that, all the way back in the beginning. The instinctual triggers—there's that instinct thing again—are really powerful, and he... crud.”

He cannot help but love her, Modhri's voice stated solemnly in his mind, and when he looked at Pidge, he knew that those words were running through her head as well. Both of them blushed hard and looked away.

She nibbled on a thumbnail. “Well,” she said after a moment. “I've done it to you twice now, and you're not exactly fawning all over me. Maybe you're too Human for that sort of reaction. Or you're not old enough. How long does it take a Galra to get to adulthood, anyway?”

“I don't know,” Keith said, trying to stop blushing through sheer willpower.

“Or maybe it's the Lion-bond messing things up a little,” she continued, “or maybe... I don't know. You've never really gotten interested in me or in Allura. Maybe you don't swing that way? Zaianne says that a lot of Galra men prefer other men. It's a way of coping with that gender disparity they've got.”

“What?” Keith yelped, dropping his towel into the pool. “No! No, it's not like that!”

Pidge gave him a Look. He could feel both sets of instincts responding to it. Keith deflated and retrieved his towel, then wrung it out and draped it over the ladder rail. “Oh, all right. I'm not alone, though. I've seen how you've been looking at Shiro. And at Lance. The Lion-bond again, right? And Hunk will cuddle any of us.”

“It's part of his charm,” Pidge agreed, turning to dangle her feet in the water. “Well, we were warned. I think you're cute, too, if it helps. Got any confessions of unrequited love for me? Or for Allura, maybe?”

Keith snorted and fought down an urge to hide under his still-dripping towel. “I wouldn't know where to start. I never really got a chance to learn. Dad kept us pretty isolated, and Uncle Jake was always off in some other country. As for school, well... I was always the weird angry kid, and people kept their distance when they weren't trying to bully me. I didn't know why until Lizenne told me what Mom's knife really was. What I really was.”

Pidge skootched over until she was sitting right next to him, and wrapped a sympathetic arm around his shoulders. Heartened by that, he leaned into the embrace. Her body was very warm, he noticed, and she smelled nice, and the arm around his shoulders was as strong as it was delicate-seeming.

“It's not something I've ever really considered,” he mused, half to himself. “No one was really quite right, except for Shiro, and that's because he went the extra mile for me. Just like in the drama vids, you know? Older guy takes bad boy under his wing and believes in him no matter what. It was such a damned cliche that I couldn't believe that it was happening at first. And then he vanished, and then we all got hijacked, and now I'm living with the first two girls who've ever treated me like a person instead of a nuisance or a half-wild animal. And one guy who's a teddy bear in a Human suit, and Space Dad, and a goofy jerk that I'm starting to find weirdly attractive.”

Pidge snickered. “And the two girls are Mean Space Big Sister and Crazy Magic Nerd Sister, right?”

Keith shrugged. “Allura's a Princess. Princesses boss people around. At least she's good at it. You're a crazy magic nerd all right, and proud of it--”

“You betcha!”

“--and one that I'd really like to get to know a lot better.” Keith turned his head to meet her honey-amber eyes. “I just don't know where to start. Human society says that the ideal woman is supermodel-grade pretty, wildly sexy, and hopefully has a rich father. Mom says Galra men like their women fast, strong, and smart. Since you're all three of those, I think that I'll go with the Galra option.”

Pidge had gone very red again, but she poked him in the ribs with one finger. “What about Allura? She's fast, strong, smart, and beautiful. And had a rich father.”

Keith heaved a sigh. “One at a time, Pidge. One at a time, and you're right here, and Mom likes you, and you've already tickled my ears twice. I like sparring with you, I like being around you, and if you think it'll help loosen me up, go ahead and tickle my ears again. If I fall madly in love with you... what the hell. I'm halfway there already.”

If anything, she went even redder. “After we've eaten,” she told him, waving a finger under his nose. “I'm starving, and we both need a moment to cool down.”

He couldn't dispute it. Neither could his stomach, which growled loudly, making them both laugh. “Fine,” he said, heaving himself to his feet and grabbing his towel. “I think that Hunk made some tanrook buns earlier. There may be some left. Let's go and see.”

Pidge hopped up eagerly. “Good idea.”

 

Hunk barely noticed it when they came into the kitchen, being far too busy with his current cooking experiment. Pidge recognized it as one of the “volatile” recipes from Ronok's cookbook—delicious, nutritious, and exciting to make. Ganduphan pocket-bread, she thought, which was rich, buttery, and as airy as Earthly popovers, but the dough had to be beaten into submission twice before it could be safely baked. This looked like the second rising, and it was fighting Hunk for possession of the rolling pin. Both she and Keith knew better than to distract him at such a crucial moment, so they settled for rifling through the fridge. They were in luck; four tanrook buns were there for the grabbing, as well as a plate of lelosha wraps, half a loaf of baked grathi, and a tub of tapphao noodles with tali sauce.

“Leftovers,” Pidge sighed happily as they shoved this bounty into the kitchen's equivalent of a microwave. “I used to practically live on leftovers. Mom couldn't even complain about it, since it kept me off of junk food and greaseburgers.”

Keith snorted a brief laugh. “Lucky. Dad was an okay cook, but Uncle Jake wasn't, and I usually wound up eating at the base's canteen or getting bags of cheezy-poofs and pretzo-minis from the gas station down the road. Greaseburgers were the stuff of life, plus cheese fries. I didn't even know that vegetables weren't naturally limp and yellowish until Shiro proved it to me, and if Dad hadn't taught me the basics of hunting and gathering before he died, I probably would have gotten the base in trouble by dying of malnutrition. As you might remember, Galaxy Garrison's cafeteria wasn't all that much better. Mom thinks that's part of why I'm short for a Galra.”

Pidge looked him up and down, noting that he'd grown another centimeter or two while she hadn't been looking. “You're starting to make up for it now.”

The microwave pinged, and he pulled out their lunch, nodding thoughtfully. “Yeah. Hunk's cooking is great, but that first batch of tanrook buns we got—remember that first time? We actually fought over the last one. That was the best food I'd ever had in my life up until then, and then Lizenne started teaching Hunk what she knew, and then she started feeding us things from the envirodeck. I've outgrown my clothes twice already, but Mom says that I'll probably always be a little undersized. It's okay, it just means that I can go where anyone bigger can't.”

Pidge handed him a fork. “Want to help me found a secret organization of small people? We could call it the Fellowship of the Short and use our pygmy powers to secretly rule the universe.”

Keith grinned at her, but shook his head. “Maybe after we've saved it from the big mean guys. It can be a hobby for when we aren't putting out fires.”

“Maybe,” she said agreeably, and carried her food out to the table.

Conversation was suspended for a time as they slaked their massive appetites, interrupted only once by a triumphant shout from the kitchen, and a series of loud thumping noises, like someone hitting a mattress very hard with a baseball bat. The slam of an oven door followed that, and Pidge, who had been listening with an experienced ear, murmured, “Good batch.”

Keith, his mouth full of cosmic pasta, merely grunted.

They finished their lunch with dispatch and put the dishes into the cleanser, waving to Hunk in passing; Hunk was busily flipping through his cookbook again, apparently on the hunt for the next worthy challenge, and he waved back but didn't pause in his search.

“Stress baking?” Keith asked as they headed back to the pool room.

“Possibly,” Pidge replied. “Ronok used to make pocket-bread when he was mad about something. It gave him something to hit that Doc wouldn't yell at him about later. I'm not going to complain. Pocket-bread's really good, and if it helps Hunk work out his jitters, then it's cool. We do have a big fight coming up soon, and if we weren't doing this, then I'd probably be in the lab, building a chicken house.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “You're going to build one anyway.”

“Yeah, but I don't see us winning a space battle in a Baba Yaga-mobile,” Pidge pointed out. “Making a proper fire-arrow will be more of a help. Will you want to get back into the pool?”

Keith stepped into the lift and pushed the button for the pool level with a frown. “Probably. I like my eyebrows where they are.”

Pidge felt that Keith had a very nice pair of eyebrows, thick and dark and elegant, and couldn't help but agree. They'd only just grown back in from the last time he'd accidentally scorched them off, too. “Can't argue with that. Want me to reactivate the drone?”

The lift surged, slowed, and the doors hissed open with the soft ding that seemed to be universal to that sort of device. “Not really,” Keith said, stepping out. “It won't be able to get at us, and it's the shields on it that are the problem, not the 'bot itself. I'm fine with letting it stand there.”

Which it did as they passed it on the way to the ladder, radiating invisible forces that strummed across their sixth senses like dry twigs over guitar strings. It didn't look or feel any less creepy from the ceiling. Keith slid back into the shallow end with a sigh, noting that the water was still just slightly warmer than it should be. He was going to oversleep tomorrow morning, he just knew it, and would wind up fighting a huge space battle in his pajamas.

His thoughts were interrupted when a damp towel suddenly flopped over his head. “What--?”

“Just remembering a different time I did this,” Pidge said, lowering herself into the water. “In case of infatuation, I thought... well... did you want a blindfold?”

Keith snorted and lifted a corner of the wet cloth, raising an eyebrow at her. “Kinky.”

“Keith,” she growled, blushing again.

He tossed the towel up onto the deck, where it landed with an unromantic splat. “Nah, I'm kidding. Just do it, and keep your mind on the project.”

Pidge glanced down at her hands. “Okay, here goes nothing. If it makes you feel any better about it, I feel really weird doing this.”

He did have nice ears, though, she thought to herself as she felt for the soft, raised areas behind them. His nerve-knots were smaller than the Ghamparva Captain's had been, but it seemed that they were no less sensitive. Keith's habitual scowl softened as she rubbed them gently, his eyes losing their focus and going dreamy. She'd never really been this close to his face while paying attention, and started noticing things that she'd missed entirely on those previous occasions. The faintly exotic cast of his features, for one—Galra tended to be more angular around the cheekbones and chin than most Humans were, and Keith's were starting to reflect that. The new growth of eyebrow fuzz looked more like fur than hair, and was purple-black instead of the deep black that some mongoloid ancestor had given him. His eyes, already large, dark, and striking, now had a thin ring of gold around the iris; entirely unhuman, but very, very right for Keith. And... oh, god, she had forgotten how soft his hair was, brushing over her hands. Well, Lizenne had said that he might start manifesting traits from his mother's side of the family...

That included the long limbs and powerful musculature in the torso, she was suddenly aware. Pidge yanked her emotions back under control with an effort, and visualized the Spike of Hantis. Keith's skin warmed perceptibly under her fingers as he responded, conjuring up a bright ribbon of purifying flame. It curled through their other sight like a ribbon-dancer's veils, but could not bind. The invisible barrier was still there, thinner, but still present. She could feel the edge of Keith's frustration, but Pidge was encouraged. The ear-rub was working, but not quite enough.

She increased the pressure of her fingers, and felt the barrier shiver beneath it even as his gold-ringed eyes glazed and his strong arms came around to hold her close against him. His features softened further, his eyes seeming to glow. Oh, god, he's so pretty, she thought, and, on impulse, leaned in to kiss that pretty mouth of his. It was soft, and sweet, and he responded to her kiss with a sudden instinctive intensity that made her mind dissolve into a cloud of happy glitter.

Keith detonated. That was the only word for it. The barrier came down with a crash and the ribbon of flame snapped tight around the Spike of Hantis, which took off like a rocket all by itself. Far below on the floor, something went boom, and the water around them was abruptly a good deal warmer. It took them both a moment to remember which way was up, but when they looked in that direction, the drone was lying in pieces in the center of a large round scorch mark on the floor. Suddenly tired and slightly peckish again, but—and this was the important part—not in possession of even a small headache, Pidge grinned. “Well, that worked.”

Keith vented a breathless laugh and nuzzled at her neck, which she found incredibly endearing. “If I were wearing socks, you would have knocked them off just now. Was that your first kiss?”

Pidge laid her head on his shoulder, noting that the fine, curling hairs along the nape of his neck were purple-black too. She could remember all of the school dances that she'd passed off with mild scorn, how she had preferred digging into textbooks rather than panting after the football jocks and pop singers as her peers had done, and wondered now if she'd been missing out on something. “Yup.”

“Mine, too,” Keith admitted. After a moment, he muttered, “Worth the wait. Think we can do that again?”

She giggled. “What, the kissing or the shield-cracking? We blew up the drone.”

“Both,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “We're gonna need the practice if we want to avoid blowing up someone's ship.”

Pidge giggled again. “Maybe later. We're both pooped out, and your mom is going to get suspicious if she has to hex too many of those. She's already starting to drop hints about wanting grandchildren, and if she finds out what we're doing right now...”

Keith muttered something that Pidge recognized as a slightly mispronounced Galra swearword. “Not quite ready for that yet,” he sighed, and rested his chin on the top of her head. “This is okay, though. For just a little longer.”

Pidge was in perfect agreement with that.

 

“No, Lance.”

“Aw, but Shiro...”

No, Lance,” Shiro said firmly. “I don't care if he has the articulation for it. I don't care if it will help with getting their attention. Giant battle robots do not twerk.”

“Look, I didn't have time to make him a pair of pants that would fit. We just don't have enough fabric to--”

No, Lance.”

Hunk chortled. “Go with the heroic posturing instead, pal. I figure that Voltron can flex like a pro, but Yellow's telling me that if there's so much as one little butt-waggle out of you, she's gonna go on strike.”

I can't take you people anywhere,” Allura put in from the Castle, making the others laugh.

Shiro grinned and settled himself a little deeper into the Lion's pilot seat. He'd won the toss for the battle by virtue of the fact that he'd actually gotten Zaianne to yield during the last training session, and Lizenne had checked him over and pronounced him to be healthy enough. The team was elated, and it was making a certain blue Paladin more than a little silly. He didn't mind. Word from Jasca had come through that the Imperial destructor fleet was on the move, complete with planet-buster. Ironically, that thing was what made their plan feasible in the first place. The monstrous destroyer could only move in relatively short hops before it needed refueling, and the fleet's progress was necessarily slow because of it. The Galra knew damned well that if they left the thing behind, it would be attacked immediately. Tough though it was, the great Tarzeroth-class ship was not invulnerable, and it had to have a large and watchful escort around it at all times.

Shiro patted the Lion's control beams, feeling Black's eagerness to face that challenge. Speaking of that... “Hey, Keith, Pidge? Did you two ever figure out how to combine your powers?”

Surprisingly, Pidge giggled, and Keith sounded just a little subdued when he answered, “Yeah, I think that we can bring the shields down from a distance now. We tried it out on three of the hex-'bots, and blew the shields off of two of those from halfway across the Castle.”

Something about his tone made Lance suspicious. “That's great, Keith, but just how did you two make the breakthrough?”

“Um...”

Pidge could hear Keith blushing. “Not important right now, Lance. Any updates from Jasca, Allura, and have you found that wormhole yet?”

Not yet,” Allura replied. “It really is well-hidden. Zaianne's scouting around for it now. Jasca says that the Empire fleet has stopped to refuel the planet-buster at the Oinipru Station in orbit around Phesphar. It'll be a little while before we make our move. If we time it right, we may be able to force them to bring it here in one long jump; this system's station won't be able to service it, which will essentially trap the thing here.”

“Yeah, but it'll still be able to fight,” Pidge said, remembering the battle that had crippled the Quandary. “Those big guns are a little sloppy where it comes to small targets, but they have a lot of range, and the blasts are so big that they're hard to dodge. Just one shot can turn a planet into Weblum kibble, guys. Keith and I will take it over as soon as we're in range.”

“Fine with me,” Hunk said, looking out over the dusty stretch of loose space junk that made up most of the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster. “Just how long is your range, anyway?”

Pidge frowned. “I'm not sure. We never got around to measuring it while I was on the Quandary. I'll know when we're close enough. Getting that close will be the hard part.”

And getting away,” Zaianne's voice cut in. “I've found the wormhole. Yantilee's gethexite smuggler is an expert pilot, team. Stand by for coordinates.”

The Paladins studied the image that Zaianne sent them, and Keith let out a long, admiring whistle. The wormhole itself looked like a ring of fire and was so close to one of the white dwarf stars that was hard to tell apart from the star's own prominences. Between the active surface and the gravitational forces, getting through that shimmering anomaly would require great care and precision. The Captain had been right, though; anyone trying to cram a fleet into it would lose most of his ships into the star.

Yes, we see it,” Coran said judiciously. “Nice little mousehole, isn't it? The only way that a fleet could get through that would be slowly, and one at a time. Too many all at once would collapse it, perhaps permanently, leaving anyone stuck inside completely lost, or even wiped from existence entirely!”

Shiro hissed. “We've already done that once, and I'd prefer not to do it again. Will it take the Castle, the Chimera, and Voltron in one go?”

Coran hummed thoughtfully. “Yes, I'd say that it should be able to bear that kind of traffic, especially if the Lions were to disengage before entering. Not many more than that, though, and nothing big.”

More to the point, can you close it behind us?” Zaianne asked. “I would prefer not to be followed.”

Madame!” Coran protested, sounding genuinely shocked. “Absolutely not! Well, yes, we could, but it isn't done to disrupt cosmic rarities like this! They're protected by law, as a matter of fact; Allura's great-great-great grandfather had a fondness for odd bits of anomalous space, and decreed them to be inviolable! It has been strictly illegal to so much as flick breadcrumbs into a singularity for over eight hundred decaphebes—prior to the last ten thousand, anyway—and nobody can tell me that it wasn't a good ruling. It certainly cut down on the number of interdimensional monsters coming by to complain about trespassing, I can tell you.”

Zaianne wasn't impressed. “And if collapsing the wormhole means the difference between life and death?”

Coran sniffed. “It didn't to the King, I can tell you that.”

He's dead. So is his law. You are here and now, and I am speaking of your own personal life or death,” Zaianne pointed out.

Coran made a sound of grudging concession. “Oh, all right, yes. But if his angry ghost comes back to scold you for the desecration of a natural wonder, don't come crying to me.”

They heard Zaianne humph haughtily, and were sure that she was about to tell him that she hadn't run crying to anyone since early childhood, but a new voice cut in before she could do so. “They're on the move again, people,” Jasca's slightly tinny voice cut in tensely, “and from the sound of Phesphar's local comm traffic, good riddance. That planet-buster is an unbelievable power-hog, and the commander of that armada sailed off without paying.”

Lizenne sighed. “And the native Thriani people will wind up footing the bill, as usual. Damn. They're already in decline, too. I'll have a word with the Olkari and the Beronites later. I've met a few Thrianis, and I don't want to lose them to someone else's greed.”

Noted and logged,” Jasca said helpfully, “and transmitted. Zarkon won't be able to exploit them for much longer, trust me on that! The destructor fleet's still on the same heading; they're taking the easy route and sticking close to that ugly behemoth of theirs. I'd say that they'll be within spitting distance of the Nanthral Cluster in about forty-five doboshes. It would have been less, but the planet-buster will have to make another pit stop at Clossine. I should let you listen to some of its escorting ships—they're being driven crazy by the slow progress.”

Shiro smiled. “Well, we could always liven things up for them a little. How far is Clossine from here? Are we within the planet-buster's range?”

Jasca chuckled. “I see what you're planning there. Yes, barely. If Voltron's willing to make gross faces at that little miner's rig of a station just as they're topping off at Clossine, I'll make sure that our foes get some really good visuals.”

That would be very kind of you, Jasca,” Allura replied. “Just say when.”

Will do.”

Shiro leaned his head back against his seat and pulled in a long, calming breath. It wouldn't be long now. Black rumbled soothingly in the back of his mind, lending him courage. Shiro smiled at this vote of confidence and relaxed, listening to his team chatter back and forth over their tactics. Even with Pidge's and Keith's aetheric breakthrough, it was going to be a stiff fight. Reflexively, he checked on the positions of their two support ships, both of which were parked at a safe distance from their escape route, and well-concealed in the white dwarf star's corona. The one problem with the Castle's Teludav system, he mused, was that it was slow, and it didn't like being crowded or getting shot at. Having an instantaneous, ready-made exit was a very good thing, in his opinion. He was wondering whether or not he should ask Hunk if he could streamline the Castle's drive a little when Jasca pinged them again.

Time, people. Go scare some miners.”

Shiro nodded and gripped the control beams. “Thanks, Jasca. Okay, team, let's get this party started.”

 

Several things happened in quick succession that in later years would be of great interest to historians, tacticians, military commanders, chaos theorists, and movie producers, all of whom would spend many hours discussing them; indeed, many had careers that were made or broken by their observations. Conspiracy theorists and theologians would spin wonderful stories and myths around a period of time that took less than thirty minutes to pass, and the Paladins themselves, along with their families and friends, would laugh at them all and write memoirs that many had trouble believing. It couldn't possibly have been so simple...

…But it was.

 

The first thing that happened was that old Dithrak Sork'Taln plodded back to his seat in the Nanthral Station's control tower with a fresh cup of hot miska. It was Third Shift and very late into it, when everyone of a nocturnal bent was up early to steal a march on the diurnal types, who were pulling long hours to get to all of the good ore before the nocturnes came out to play. Dithrak would have been tucked up asleep in his bunk by preference, but he'd drawn the short straw again. It wasn't that the late shift was boring, because it generally wasn't. Oh, no, boredom was a rare and precious commodity at any hour among this mixed gang of rough characters. Between the early risers and the creatures of the night, there was always someone about to make some idiot mistake. Always some emergency, always someone doping themselves stupid on the narcotic of choice, always some twit getting overeager in their search for that one rock that would make them rich. Not that any such rock had ever been turned up without being stolen from the guy who'd actually found it, and they were plenty rare to begin with. Dithrak himself had searched for that sovereign stone for sixty years before giving it up and opting for a more modest but much easier life as a station manager. Still... the dream had been nice, and he missed it now and again.

He glowered at the view on the tower's screens. Nothing but the same old scenery. Some of the miners had been chatting about a tidbit of news that Bons MikMak Phassi had scraped up from somewhere, that something really unusual was going to happen sometime soon. Dithrak was skeptical about that. Bons was a good miner, but he'd done a little too much gloshni in his tween years and believed just about any damned thing that his smuggler buddies told him, no matter how weird. On the other hand, Guik-Morx was a Cuebora, and they were all as sane and sober as saints, and she was taking him seriously for once. Dithrak didn't really know what to think, except that it was time to do the hourly scans. He thumped down into his chair, grunted habitually at the thin padding under his bony rump, and laid his hands on the controls.

“All right, you brick-chippers,” he growled into the comms, “heads up. Hazard scans commencing on my mark. Anyone ignoring me gets what they gets, and our insurance don't cover stupid.”

The usual buzz of acknowledgments and cheerful insults came back over the line as he calibrated his instruments. It was essential that the towermaster on duty ran hazard checks every hour, on the hour, for anything that might come whizzing in out of the night to put a hole in someone's rig. Oh, the mining craft all had hazard sensors as well, but not so long-range as the Station did, nor did they have someone on hand all the time with nothing better to do than keep an eye on them. Or were willing to waste time on maintaining their equipment, for that matter.

“Mark,” said Dithrak, and began the scans.

Anything?” one of the miners asked in a preoccupied tone, and Dithrak could hear the high hum of a cutting laser in the background.

“Nah,” he replied. “Sectors One through Seven are clear. Cloud of small stuff passing through Sector Eight through Twelve, upper east region, heading toward Third Sun. Sector Thirteen's got nothing but hydrogen and a little grit. That big lump of ice that Tlellan promised he'd haul over to the water-processing plant's still cluttering up Sector Fourteen. Gonna do something about that, Tlellan?”

Yeah, sorry, got a good chunk of gethexite here,” Tlellan replied. “I'll get to it in a bit.”

I'll get it,” one of the other miners said. “How about Sector Twenty?”

“Still full of high-velocity junk from when that patrol cruiser took a shortcut through the Pebble Belt,” Dithrax humphed sourly; he hated bad pilots. “Sectors Twenty-One through Thirty-Three are clear, though; same goes for Fifteen through Nineteen. Might be worth seeing what that fool might have knocked loose. Sector Thirty-Four... uh.”

Dithrax gaped in horrified amazement at what had just appeared in his screens, unable to speak or move. After a long pause, one of the miners asked, “Um, Dithrax? Anything out there?”

Dithrax swallowed hard. “Giant robot.”

What?!”

“Giant robot, coming in fast. That's Voltron. Kuphorosk's Blades, that's Voltron.”

The comm chatter erupted into shouts of surprise and panic that grew and swelled like an oncoming thunderstorm. Dithrax could only sit and stare at the approaching battle robot until a roar from one of his best miners jolted him out of his reverie. “Dithrax, sound the alarms and get the hell out of there! We've got a huge military fleet only half a quadrant away, and half the crew's shouting at them for help already. They'll be crowding in here any minute now, and how long do you expect us to last when they start shooting? Move, you old fool!”

Dithrax shuddered, triggered every disaster beacon the station had, and then took one more glance up at the screens. He almost froze up again, for it was right there, right outside the actual control room, staring directly at him with a blazing yellow eye that was larger than he was, set in a cold, hard face of the sort that he'd last seen on a man looking to do as much damage to everything around him as he could possibly manage. Dithrax let out a thin squeal of terror and ran for the shuttle bay as fast as he could go.

 

(“Booga-booga-booga!” Lance said, making the others laugh.

Lance, really,” Allura chided from the Castle.)

 

At that moment, in orbit around Clossine, Commander Arkkax glowered at the planet-buster and cursed the short-sighted fool who'd designed the things, and then cursed all of the other short-sighted fools who'd never bothered to upgrade them. He was used to getting where he needed to be in a matter of hours or minutes, not days, and the slow pace of their progress was maddening. He was very tempted to simply leave that wallowing, inefficient, ugly ship behind and forge on ahead, but his second-in-command had actually fought Beronites before this, and refused to let him. Stay with the thing, the older man had told him, tapping the electronic lens that had taken the place of his left eye. There is nothing delicate or fragile about a Beronite when it's got its blood up, and they'll soon be drinking yours if you underestimate them.

He had pointed out that this was going to be a space battle if there was to be a battle at all, and he had been told that it didn't make a damned bit of difference. Only prudence and a prophecy laid down by a major religious figure had kept the conquest of the Beronite end of the Selphuro Sector from becoming one of the bloodiest wars in Empire history. Yes, the Empire would have won in the end, but it would have been a lot nastier. Arkkax trusted the man, and therefore consoled himself with muttering curses under his breath every time they had to stop to refuel.

He had just finished comparing the planet-buster unfavorably to a small, marsh-dwelling animal native to Palabek that was notorious for its filthy habits and putrid body odor when one of his comm officers spoke up. “Sir! We've just received a distress call from the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster; there's a mining station there, and they're yelling for help.”

Arkkax grunted disdainfully. “And why are they calling us, rather than the nearest Garrison fleet?”

The officer brought up the image that had come along with the message. “Because of that, sir. Should we alert the Emperor?”

Arkkax hissed in shock at the sight of the very large and colorful robot. He had his orders already and intended to carry them out, but there were numerous Imperial Decrees that demanded that he drop everything and go after Voltron instead. He also knew how very dangerous it could be for a commander who did not know with absolute clarity the will of his sovereign. “We should. The Beronite worlds aren't going anywhere. Open a channel to the Center; the Emperor must know.”

 

Zarkon was glowering ominously at the petitioner standing before him, and the fool didn't even seem to be aware of how close he was to annihilation. A number of the High Houses had not liked the news that a very rich section of the Empire had been slated for demolition, a section that no few of them had been exploiting for their own gain, and had scrambled to put together an official complaint... and to assign an official complainer. This was one of the young scions of House Barchax'Sor, who had come armored in his own arrogance and self-righteousness to bleat in an annoyingly nasal voice about how the destruction of the Beronites would disrupt the Empire's economy for Sectors around, and how the effort was drawing the Empire's defenses away from its most vital territories, leaving them open to attack by impertinent extremist groups. Zarkon did not like having his decisions challenged even at the best of times. This was not the best of times, and would shortly become worse for this particular irritant.

His shoulder twinged at him again, and shadows flickered at the corners of his eyes. He'd had so many of this sort of audience play out before him over the years, so very many, and despite the dismal success rate, they still kept trying. They never learned!

Of course they don't, Gyrgan's voice rumbled sympathetically out of the past, and Zarkon's right hand felt the weight of a cup of horath that had been drained and discarded over ten millennia ago. There isn't anything that those arrogant klephas hate more than admitting that they might not be infallible, and they'll push it as hard as they can every time. Ever notice how courtiers and ministers like it best when a king can be easily persuaded? There's a lot of that sort of thing throughout history, where the noble Houses do their best to see to it that they get a king who'll agree with everything they say.

Zarkon glanced down at a cup of horath that was not there, and that just soured his temper further.

“--And in conclusion, your Majesty,” the High Houses' representative stated pompously, “your decision to disrupt large portions of Empire space for no better reason than to make an example is insupportable. The Matriarchs simply won't stand for it. It is not too late to call off the operation.”

There was a snort from his side. Haggar, at least, was here and now, solid and real, and if anything was even less likely to care what the Matriarchs thought. He knew, furthermore, that she was already in the planning stages for the next Robeast, and would need a suitable candidate to provide the motivating element. He drew in a breath to inform this little fool that he'd just earned himself that honor when a warning tone sounded nearby.

“What?” he growled.

“Top-Priority channel, your Majesty,” one of his aides replied promptly, “from Commander Arkkax.”

Zarkon's mood lifted slightly as a certain premonition bloomed in the back of his mind. “Put it through.”

A screen popped into existence before him, and Commander Arkkax's image immediately offered the proper bow and salute that a subordinate owed his Emperor—a courtesy that the representative of the High Houses had failed to give.

Emperor Zarkon,” Arkkax said without preamble, “Voltron has appeared in the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster and is menacing an Empire-owned mining operation. We are currently at Clossine, and are in a position, potentially, to capture it. Your orders, Majesty?”

“Do so,” Zarkon commanded, “divert the entire armada if you must to secure it. Capture the Paladins as well—I want them alive.”

It will be done, your Majesty,” Arkkax responded with commendable obedience. “Vrepet Sa.”

Vrepet Sa.” Zarkon sat back in his throne when the connection cut off, much pleased by this. “Haggar,” he said quietly, “is the Robeast ready for deployment?”

“It is, my Lord,” she said with an anticipatory smile. “All it requires is the motivating element.”

Zarkon made a satisfied sound in the back of his throat and eyed the petitioner thoughtfully. “I wonder... would a bit of blue-blooded spite do as well as a pirate's untrustworthiness?”

“Admirably, my Lord.”

Zarkon motioned with a hand, and the representative squealed in protest as a pair of Sentries laid hold of him. “Your Majesty, please, no! I have done nothing!”

Zarkon narrowed his eyes dangerously at the frightened man. “On the contrary. You have succeeded in annoying me, and your fate will be made very clear to your superiors. They hold their high status only because I permit it. My will and my authority are absolute, and my orders will not be disputed; all who would oppose me will be destroyed. I will thin the ranks of the High Houses as well, when and as I find it necessary. This would not be the first time that I have ordered such a thing, nor will it be the last. Ready the Robeast, Haggar. I will not lose Voltron this time.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: A Really Big Fight!

 

Elsewhere in the universe, Lotor ducked beneath the sparring drone's swing, danced nimbly away from the following slash, and then attacked, slicing the machine open from shoulder to hip rotator. It staggered away and collapsed in a sparking heap, leaving Lotor the victor; a paltry triumph, but every little bit helped. It only whetted his appetite for another bout with the Paladins, which he considered to be long overdue. Lotor hadn't had a real challenge since he'd faced them in person, and he was bored.

A footstep by the door made him look around to see Tilwass entering, and that improved his mood somewhat as well—he'd told the man not to disturb him unless something interesting happened. “Yes?” he asked.

Tilwass touched his fist to his breast in the usual salute. “All of the disabled Ghamparva ships are back online, sir, and just in time. You were right about Voltron. We just got a message from one of your informants, an asteroid miner in the Nanthral Cluster. Voltron's over there right now, looking over their support station as if measuring it out for dinner.”

Lotor bared his teeth in a predatory smile. “Very good. We are in range, aren't we?”

“Easily,” Tilwass said, but looked worried. “So is that big armada your dad sent to smash up Beros, though. Are you really sure that you want to crash that party? That part of space is going to be awfully crowded soon.”

Lotor humphed. “Father has already ordered them to attack?”

Tilwass nodded. “First thing. No Hoshinthra have been sighted anywhere near there, though.”

Lotor slid his sword into its sheath impatiently. “She will either be there or she will not. We will be there regardless of her movements. They cannot object to having our aid if we offer it, and our numbers will serve to trap Voltron there more effectively. Indeed, we will concentrate on taking the support ships. The Lions may have an impressive range, but they do not have stardrives of their own; without the Castle, they will have nowhere to go... and I will want to have a talk with the Rogue Witch as well. The Altean girl stabbed my father twice with that woman's personal weapon, and he has not been quite the same since. I wish to know more about such things.”

Tilwass's eyes widened. “That's magic, sir, big, serious magic. Smart men don't poke into that sort of thing.”

Lotor gave him a tolerant look and swept past him, forcing him to scramble to keep up. “It is a weapon that may be turned to better uses. Much knowledge has been lost to the past, knowledge that could aid us well in the future. I will have it, Tilwass. Tell the fleet that we are heading to battle at last, and a battle that we cannot help but win. There is, after all, only one Voltron, and the ships of the Empire are legion.”

Tilwass sighed. “Yessir.”

 

Hunk fidgeted. The mining station was empty, and all of the miners had beaten a hurried retreat out of the Cluster; there was nothing around at the moment but empty space with rocks in it. It didn't take much for him to get bored at the best of times, and now, when boredom threatened to become a fond and distant memory very shortly, it was even worse. He scratched his nose and succumbed to temptation.

“A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer...” he sang, and grinned as protests started coming in from the other Lions. “Take one down and pass it around, ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”

“Hunk, don't make me come over there,” Pidge growled.

“Everyone's a critic,” he sighed, remembering another classic learned on those bus trips to and from summer camp. “How about this one? I woke up Sunday morning, I looked upon the wall, the bedbugs and the beetles were having a game of ball!”

Lance let out a laugh, but Shiro groaned. “Hunk...”

Lance chortled. “Not that one, huh, Shiro? Well, how about this one?” He dug into his memory for a camp bus ditty that had been frowned upon since well before his grandmother had ridden in one, and had therefore been passed down by generations of irreverent children. “Ding-dong dong, dong-dong, a-ding-dong! Yo' mamma don't wear no socks! I saw when she took 'em off--”

“Lance, so help me, I will come down there and pop your head off,” Keith threatened.

“Could be... could be worse, Keith,” Hunk gasped around his own mirth. “He could be singing 'Little Bunny Foo-Foo'.”

“If he starts, I really will come down there and pop his head off,” Keith stated.

“And I'd like to see you try it!” Lance retorted. “Just because you didn't want to play 'I Spy' again--”

“Guys, stop it,” Shiro said, sounding very put upon. “Nobody is to leave their Lions until we know that we're done fighting for the day. I don't think that you can leave them right now, in any case.”

I'm sure that they'll find a way,” Allura said in fatalistic tones.

Save it for later, children,” Zaianne added, although she hummed curiously. “Lance, if we survive this, I will want a full description of what happens when I take my socks off.”

Lance flinched at her tone. “Well, uh... it's just an old day-camp bus song, it's not really about anyone's actual mother.”

Maybe not, but there are one hundred and thirty-seven different races in the Empire that consider insulting songs about other people's relatives to be very significant,” Jasca cut in cheerfully. “This one sounds good, and I'll want a copy, too. That means that you have to come out of this adventure intact, people—work really hard on that, all right? Your space battle should be here in roughly ten doboshes. Enjoy.”

Ten doboshes?” Coran asked. “That long?”

The man in command of the destructor fleet tried to leave five doboshes ago, but the stationmaster threatened to ban him from using them as a refueling point for life if he didn't pay his bill.” Jasca cackled appreciatively. “It's taking him some time to square it with his ship's financial officer, who is having an infarct over the cost. Running a planet-buster is expensive, people!”

Lance groaned. “Well, what are we going to do until then? Keith won't let us sing, Shiro won't let Voltron dance, nobody wants to play a game, and if I don't do something, I'm going to freak out.”

There was a chuckle from the Chimera. “Pre-battle jitters,” Lizenne said lightly, “I'd have thought that you would be past that by now, Lance. Dealing with them isn't difficult. Is Voltron nervous?”

Lance blinked. “No.”

Then you don't have to be. Focus on the Lion-bond, Paladins. Rest in it. See through your Lion's eyes and listen through their ears; feel the universe through their senses. You are a part of them, for you are of their pack, and as one you will be ready when the time comes.”

It was the tone of her voice that did it more than anything else: soft, soothing, and reassuring, the same as she had used for their many aetheric training sessions. For Lance, it was like leaning back into cool water on a hot day, and he felt more than saw the blue energies that flowed around him. Voltron's senses came to him slowly at first, and he soon lost himself in the sheer expanse of them. Voltron could perceive everything. He could see every star clearly, and judge to within a quarter of an inch how far away they were. He could hear them singing in a wide range of frequencies, and measure their temperatures; he could feel how their size and mass bent the very fabric of space around them, and the shape, spin, and velocity of every good-sized rock in orbit around them. He could taste their chemical composition, list every element in every stone, and smell the chemical makeup of the dust and gas that floated like perfume in the void. Oddly enough, it smelled a little like raspberries. He could feel the miner's station, too, inside and out, and was mildly amused by the hidden distillery that someone had built into one of the parts storage closets; even from this distance, he recognized the sharp smell of horath. It was comforting to know that some things were truly universal. He could feel the Castle as well, and the Chimera; they burned in his augmented vision with the white-gold light of living ships, and could even sense the tiny, self-contained world of the envirodeck, like a many-colored pearl within its shell. It was all so beautiful that the near future no longer mattered.

After a time, he started seeing something else. The fabric of space was starting to ripple in the same way that water did when something large and fast came up from below, and there were faint but growing shadows in the star-speckled murk. Lance felt the others nearby noticing them as well, and began to calculate the number and mass of those oncoming objects. Enemy ships, all large, some very large, and one really big one, all coming out over there in the standard array, arriving in... three... two... one...

Voltron was moving before the first ship had reentered normal space, almost without the conscious volition of his Paladins. Han shot first, Lance heard Keith say, and grinned as they opened fire on the nearest ship's command deck before it had time to get its shields up.

The ship staggered, its control center erupting in livid flames, and tumbled heavily away. The other ships were quick to open fire, however, and Hunk and Lance soon had their hands full with keeping Voltron from being blown to pieces. Drone fighters were flooding out of their parent craft in swarms, and space was soon thick with cannon fire.

“That's a lot of ships, guys,” Hunk observed, whirling them out of the way of a burst of ion beams and ducking under a heavy cruiser. “A lot of ships. I'm starting to really miss Yantilee and the Fleet, and even the Doom Moose.”

Keith took the opportunity to manifest Voltron's sword, and used it to open up a long gash from amidships to stern, disabling the warship. “Yeah. We've still got an advantage, though.”

“Keith's right, Shiro agreed. “Look at them! They're crowding in too tightly to maneuver properly, and most of them can't get a clear shot at us. They also don't want to destroy us—Zarkon won't like it if they haul in the Lions too broken up to use. Keep us moving fast and random so that they stay packed in tight, but let's get to that planet-buster as soon as we can. Keith, Pidge, think you can take that thing?”

Pidge hummed the short, jarring monotone that meant that she was testing the strength of the enemy's aetheric shields. “I think so. They haven't upgraded any since last time, and I can see where to hit them. How 'bout you, Keith?”

Keith stabbed a passing fighter and slashed through the drive section of a light cruiser. “Yeah. It's not exactly one of the Castle's hex-bots, but I can see what we need to do. Actually getting close enough to the planet-buster's going to be tricky, though.”

They couldn't help but agree. The huge Tarzeroth-Class ship had been moved to the rear of the fleet, simply to keep it out of the way. Despite its huge offensive power, such craft were not good at hitting small, agile targets; Lotor himself had proven that, and the destructor fleet's commander was not interested in repeating the Prince's mistakes. They would have to either go around that fleet or through it, and that was a tall order even for Voltron.

Hunk jammed his bayard into its slot and activated the scattergun, allowing Voltron to mow down a swarm of fighters. “Know what I think, guys? I think that we need an escort. Practice your mojo on a few of these big guys and make them give us some cover.”

To their surprise, Pidge let out an embarrassed giggle, and Keith said, no less bashfully, “Um...”

Lance had come from a very large family, with a great many teen-aged siblings and cousins, and he had witnessed a very great deal of fast talking whenever his mother or aunts had discovered signs of hanky-panky among them and their various significant others. Something about his teammates' tones of voice informed him that Keith and Pidge had been using some unconventional methods for learning how to combine their talents. Scowling at his communicator, Lance channeled his mother at her most suspicious as he asked, “Guys? What have you two been doing while the rest of us weren't looking?”

“Oh, God,” Shiro muttered over Keith's irritated growl. “Lance, cool it, if it gets us through this mess alive, the method doesn't matter. Hunk's right, though, we could definitely use an escort. Pick us a few nice big ones, Pidge.”

Pidge humphed. “All right, all right. Hunk, stop laughing and get us a little closer to... hmm. Those three heavy destroyers over there. Keith, if we do this right, we might be able to catch all three with one arrow.”

Keith swung the sword through a passing shoal of fighters, a timely boost from Lance whirling the great battle robot out of reach of their ion lances and leaving a trail of fire and debris behind him. Glancing up at the trio of gigantic ships with his other sight, he could see why she'd chosen those three. Their aetheric shielding was, as always, a thick coating of writhing, nigh-impenetrable lines of energy that resembled tangled dry brush in his inner eye, the one weak spot in constant motion through the morass. It was just that in those three, something odd was happening.

“Pidge?” he asked, moving Voltron's sword arm for a better view as Pidge used the shield to block an ion blast that they had no room to dodge. “Is it just my imagination, or are the shields on those ships trying to synch up?”

“It's all the same program,” Pidge answered, deflecting another ion blast off to the right, where it cut a light cruiser in half. “All of the shields work in the same way—they're basically clones from a single template. If we could get this armada to pack in any tighter than they are already, they'd all sync up, and it's a pretty good bet that we could blow all of their shields apart at once with a single strike. Hah. I really could steal the whole navy for the team.”

“I'll settle for three,” Shiro told them, and then paused as a worrying premonition wormed its way through to his consciousness. There was a feeling of pressure from two nearby areas of space, the same sort of pressure that an incoming wave exerted on a swimmer. Something very large and singular. Something very large and plural. Both very powerful. Both coming in very fast.

“Pidge?” he said, “Keith? Make us some friends. Now.”

Pidge, hearing the Oracle's certainty in those words, summoned the Spike of Hantis in her mind, even as a hissing streak of fire hissed past her to wind around the shaft. Here in the Lions, their bond hot and strong, she felt his consciousness brush against hers; just to be sure that they got the Arrow right, she slipped in a quick kiss in passing. He flared a bright gold-edged scarlet as the ribbon snapped tight around the Spike, and suddenly the Arrow was gone... and the three targeted ships bucked hard as their aetheric shields failed all at once. Pidge laughed and reached for the vulnerable warships, making them hers.

“Pidge, I felt that,” Lance said accusingly, although a big grin was spreading itself across his face. “Did you really just kiss him?”

“Not now, Lance,” Keith said, drawing another burning line through a long string of fighters.

“You did, too, kiss him!” Lance laughed. “Right through the Lion-bond! Does your mom know about this, Keith? And what is Pidge's mom going to say about this?”

“Not now, Lance,” Pidge said, although not without a qualm or two. Her mom still had her great-great grandfather's shotgun somewhere...

I know now,” Zaianne said ominously from the Castle. “Get to that planet-buster, and fast! You've surprised the armada, but that won't last, and they won't hesitate to fire on suborned ships. Get going!”

Lance boosted hard, but he wasn't quite done yet. “How come I haven't gotten a kiss yet? We're all supposed to be bonding together, right? I'm owed a kiss!”

“Not now, Lance,” Keith and Pidge said together.

Hunk blew Lance a great smacking “mwah!” that made his teammate laugh. “See? See? At least Hunk understands.”

Look out, team!” Coran shouted suddenly, “I'm getting some odd signals--”

The battlefield was suddenly a very great deal more crowded. Shiro recognized the newly-arrived fleet by its flagship, which he had seen not so long ago fleeing from the reaching graspers of a gigantic red-scaled space monster, and by the thirty Ghamparva craft that roared out of the flagship's bays to do battle.

Quiznek!” he heard Lance shout. “Him again!”

Hunk wasn't any happier about the interruption. “Somebody should oughtta tell that jerk to take a number already. We're busy!”

“And not a Doodlebug or a Doom Moose in sight,” Shiro agreed. “Well, guys, let's see if we can grab a few of those and make them help out this time, and make it quick—here they come.”

 

Lance wasn't the only one offended by the unexpected gate-crasher. “What are you doing here, Prince?” Commander Arkkax demanded angrily, trying to keep one eye on the giant battle robot and the other on the smirking face of the young royal on the screen. “You're supposed to be hunting the Night Terror, not Voltron. Get out of here and let me do my job!”

Lotor narrowed his eyes at the angry officer. He knew that his own status had taken a hit or two from his recent failures, but enough to be treated like an unwanted nuisance by a mere Commander? He couldn't let that stand. “I go where I please, Arkkax, and it is well-known that the Hoshinthra Warleader has allied herself with Voltron and the Ghost Fleet. Furthermore, seeking Voltron's capture is the duty of every Galra in the Empire, not least mine! I have come close to taking the Lions before this; all that stopped me the last time was an unexpected space monster. I do not anticipate that another will come to thwart me this time.”

Arkkax growled angrily, but he didn't really have a choice. Lotor was still Crown Prince, and his fleet would admittedly be of help in containing Voltron. “Very well. Perhaps if--”

“Sir!” one of the pilots yelped suddenly, and pointed at the screen. “Something just jumped in... is that a Robeast?”

Both Lotor and Arkkax jerked around to stare at the complex silvery shape as it barreled into the fray, heading straight for Voltron with no consideration whatsoever for the Empire ships between them; a light cruiser, unable to get out of its way in time, erupted in flames as the thing sliced right through it.

Lotor snarled a paint-peeling curse and shouted, “No! I will not let that witch cheat me of this. Voltron is mine!”

Arkkax hissed as the connection was cut, knowing full well what would happen to the young fool if his father had heard those words, and what else would happen to him if his blundering about should lose them the capture of the Lions. Arkkax had responsibilities and duties of his own, and he had to get his own fleet into a better position immediately, or Voltron, the Robeast, and Lotor would wind up wrecking half of his ships between them. Barking orders, he set about cutting off any avenue of escape for his foes, be they Galra, monster, or giant robot.

 

Not cool!” Hunk shouted angrily, activating the scattergun again. “We only signed up to fight one overwhelming force, not three! There oughtta be a law about this sort of party-crashing!”

“There is one, Hunk, I looked it up,” Pidge said grimly, bringing the three suborned ships up around Voltron and using their cannons to clear themselves a space. “It's one of Zarkon's, and it basically says 'dogpile on the Lions'. That's what they're doing.”

“Some dogs are meaner than others,” Shiro said, watching the Robeast slash its way through a light cruiser. “This one's going to be a handful, team.”

It certainly was. Haggar must have upgraded her equipment significantly to have produced this creature. It wasn't quite as large as the previous three had been, but it was a good deal more advanced, and far faster and more maneuverable than its predecessors. Even getting a good look at it was difficult; it was long and framy, and shifted its shape every time it changed its vector. It was mostly silver, but it had an intricate webwork of livid pale purple light veining its body, and purple force-blades flickered in and out of existence along its morphic length. Orbiting around the Robeast in a loose spiral were a series of long, slim, mirror-bright crescents that made Shiro think of boomerangs, although when a panicking Galra ship fired on the thing, that surmise changed. The crescents were more forceblade generators, summoning petal-shaped blades within their arcs that flicked out and reduced the ship to hash. The Robeast had rather obviously been designed to come down on its enemies like a ton of cleavers, and from every angle at once, and would destroy whatever came between it and its target. Shiro trusted Voltron's might, but Voltron was ultimately a swordsman, and had a number of weak points that this thing had been specifically engineered to exploit.

“Knife fighter,” Keith said darkly, echoing his thoughts, “and one with a lot more hands than Nasty has. We're in trouble, guys.”

“Yeah,” Shiro said, sizing up the oncoming foe. “Let's spread it around a little bit, and see if we can't get that thing to help us cut a path to the planet-buster.”

“We're still going to focus on that thing?” Lance asked incredulously, boosting them and their purloined escort away from the monster. “I don't know about you, but I'd rather worry about the Robeast.”

Shiro frowned at his rearview screens, watching how the Robeast moved. “We've still got a responsibility to the Beronites, Lance. Without that planet-buster, they'll have a better chance of fighting off the destructor fleet. Besides, if we can take it over and Hunk can improve its aim, I'd like to see how well the Robeast holds up under its fire.”

“Sharp thinking,” Hunk said. “Lance, you dodged a buzzsaw-squid once. Think you can dodge this one?”

Lance cackled and grabbed the control beams. “Watch me.”

Pidge was about to send her three battleships to slow the Robeast down for them, since the huge heavy things weren't capable of the kind of speed and maneuverability that Voltron was, but soon found a reason to keep them close. The Robeast had closed the distance between them with terrible speed, and she was only just barely able to get one of the destroyers between it and them in time. Explosions flowered and huge sheets of hullmetal flew as the monster literally shredded its way through the ship to get at them. Shiro gripped his control beams hard and shoved them forward, boosting Voltron away from the creature as fast as the robot could go; the Robeast pursued with a long, screeching cry of insane wrath that rang through their comms with shiver-inducing shrillness.

“Watching you now, Lance,” Pidge quipped, deflecting another ion burst.

“Not now, Pidge,” Lance snarled back, and hurled Voltron into the narrow gap between two very large warships.

The long spiral of semi-independent crescents flicked out, generating blades of crystallized energy, forcing Lance into a hard swerve to the left to avoid them. The nearby ship could not do so, and lost nearly half of its hull as the blades sliced through it as if it were made of soft butter. Even so, one of the blades slashed close enough to Voltron that Keith had to deflect it with the sword, and the impact knocked them for a loop.

“Not good!” Keith ground out. “This one's strong—really strong. Unless we can spot a weak point on this thing, we might have to cortex-bomb it.”

The others groaned. They'd done that twice before: once to destroy the bramble net, and again to pry Shiro's Quintessence out of the Shirobeast. It had nearly exhausted them both of those times, and in neither of those previous battles did they have such a large audience. “We can't risk it,” Shiro said, fighting for balance, “not with this armada here. We'll have to think of something—look out!”

Voltron whirled, and Pidge brought up the shield just in time; a sleek dark ship had arrowed in and fired a salvo at the Robeast, not all of which hit it. The two stray shots burst against Voltron's shield, and Lance used the force of the impact to give them an extra boost away as the Robeast shrilled its wrath and turned on the intruder.

“That was one of Lotor's Ghamparva ships!” Hunk said, startled. “He's helping us?”

“Don't bet on it,” Pidge said angrily. “He probably wants us for himself. We've kind of been making him look bad, and if he can bring us in instead of letting these other guys pick up the pieces...”

“Instant kudos from his dad. Right,” Hunk growled. “Fine.”

“Assuming that he doesn't decide to topple Zarkon from the throne himself,” Shiro said, looking up at the distant shape of the planet-buster. “Lizenne did say that we might have messed up his mind, and if Lotor knows that Zarkon's not thinking too clearly right now, he may be getting ambitious.”

I can almost guarantee that Zarkon will be thinking exactly that, if he's watching this right now,” Lizenne's voice said sharply. “Which he may well be. This wouldn't be the first time that he's faced challenges from his sons. Get to that planet-buster! Even if you do nothing other than to destroy that one ship, it will very likely be enough.”

That was all the encouragement that they needed, and Lance and Hunk hurled Voltron toward the distant hulk with everything they had. Voltron responded valiantly, his great core thundering mightily; the warships fired on him, but slow, too slowly to make a solid hit. Pidge and Keith handled sword and shield with unconscious skill, their attention fully focused upon their target, their paired minds reaching out to get a feel for its shields. In the meantime, Shiro picked up the slack; he had noticed that not all of the Ghamparva ships were keeping the Robeast busy, and there were at least twelve of them coming up from behind. A sharp word in Hunk's ear brought up the scattergun again, which persuaded their pursuers to keep their distance. He felt it the instant that his team came within range of the planet-buster, hearing the echo of the aetheric shield's grinding screech through Pidge as she took aim with the Spike of Hantis. A burst of heat and a bonfire's roaring accompanied it, and then it was gone; the planet-buster seemed to shudder a moment later, and its purple running lights turned blue. Pidge whooped in triumph, but her cry ended in a yelp when a hot ion beam glanced off of Voltron's shoulder plating—the Ghamparva ships were catching up, and the Robeast was right behind them.

“Start shooting!” she yelled angrily, “and don't stop until either you've run out of fuel or there aren't any more threats. After that, self-destruct. Do it now!”

As if in answer, panels slid back along the massive ship's entire length, and cannons that dwarfed even a flagship's ground into place, and a single massive cannon at the prow emerged, the dark mouth highlighted by a pale lavender glow deep within the barrel.

“Whoa,” Lance muttered as the other guns canted themselves at all angles, seeking targets. “Compensating much?”

The planet-buster fired.

All of local space went a searing white for three long, painful seconds. When that terrible glare faded, the miner's support station was gone, and so were a great many warships. Having been positioned at the rear of Arkkax's destructor fleet, the great Tarzeroth-class ship had been in an excellent position to shoot the entire fleet in the back. The Robeast was still there, however, having drawn up its spiral of forceblades into an overlapping shield, and it could see Voltron very clearly now that the obstructing armada was no longer in the way.

 

“Scatter!” Arkkax roared at his terrified and much-reduced forces. “Pull back! The Paladins have taken the planet-buster! If the Robeast and the Prince want Voltron that badly, then let them deal with it. Maintain a safe distance—when the fight is over, we will aid whichever one wins out.”

“Sir,” one of his comm officers asked anxiously. “What if Voltron wins?”

Arkkax glared at the robot, which was even now readying itself to do battle with the very angry Robeast. “Then we will send a complete report back to the Center, and the Prince as well, if we are given the opportunity to obtain him. I will not challenge a foe that can defeat both him and a Robeast of that caliber, and I will not answer for the failures of either.”

His remaining ships wasted no time in following his orders; it took time for a planet-buster to recharge its guns, and every second was precious now. Lotor's fleet was still mostly intact, but they had not learned from what had just happened; in fact, they were spreading out into a classic hemisphere formation, which would concentrate their fire on a single target. Arkkax felt a chill run up his spine when they did open fire, though. They weren't aiming at the planet-buster. They were still fixated on Voltron, and on the monster it was facing...

 

“...And in conclusion, Not Cool!” Hunk shouted, trying to keep Voltron out of the worst of the firestorm with only partial success. Voltron shook and jerked painfully around him with every searing impact, and his only consolation was that the Robeast was taking as many hits as they were. “Holy crap, did nobody ever teach that guy to take a number?”

“Use the planet-buster as cover,” Shiro commanded, “It's too big and heavily-armored to blow up all at once, and we're not keeping it, anyway. If we have to, we can lose the Robeast in the wormhole. We'll try to take it down here, if only to keep Haggar from using it to slice up someone's space station, but if we can't, there are options. How much longer before the 'buster fires again, Pidge?”

“A minute or two,” Pidge snarled, hands dancing over her controls as she tried to take readings and block ion beams at the same time. “The first fleet's taken the hint and backed off. Lotor's hasn't 'cause he's stupid. Did any of those Ghamparva ships survive?”

“Some,” Keith panted, smashing a whirling forceblade aside with the sword, a stunning impact that nearly knocked him out of his seat; something beneath him squeaked, and a distant part of him worried that the heavy hits were starting to knock things loose. “The ones that were chasing us. They're still hanging around, looking for an opening. Don't know about the rest.”

Lance groaned and sent Voltron into a complex dive, ducking under the planet-buster's engine section. “Guys, I don't know how much more of this we can take. Huge battlefleets, yes; giant monsters, yes; super-advanced fighting ships, okay, but all three at once? We're a little outnumbered here.”

The Robeast shrilled again behind them, too close; its blades lashed out to score deep trenches in the planet-buster's hull, and Voltron was forced to duck hard or lose his head. The thing paced them easily over and around the great ship's contours and cannon emplacements, reaching for them with long, lashing, blade-lined whips, slashing with its orbiting blades; while it had shown no indication that it had any long-range weaponry, it didn't seem to need it. It was more of a lattice of tangled lines than anything else, something like a fraying roll of chainlink fencing and something like a mass of bindweed; all of it lethal, and all of it seemingly indestructible. As if that wasn't bad enough, a squadron of sleek dark shapes were following along at a discreet distance, waiting for either of the combatants to make a mistake.

Voltron was just skimming the surface of the ship's hull now, boosting at top speed and doing his best to keep out of harm's way while the Paladins tried to come up with a tactic that would work. It came as something of a surprise when the giant robot seemed to miscalculate, and bounced off of the hull instead, sending them whizzing off at an odd angle, almost, but not quite out of control. The Robeast slashed at them, missed, and took off after them with a tearing howl of wrath.

“Hunk!” Keith protested, fighting for balance again as something squeaked worryingly under the pilot's seat.

“That wasn't me!” Hunk retorted. “The 'buster's moving. See? Look, it's getting ready to fire again.”

Shiro's heart lifted, and he sighted down the great ship toward the prow, which was visibly angling itself to face Lotor's fleet. He smiled grimly. “How long until it fires, Pidge?”

“Fifteen seconds,” Pidge said, and an evil grin spread over her face. “Want to lead the Robeast past the big gun?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Shiro replied agreeably. “Lance, Hunk, punch it!”

Down the length of the great ship they flew, as the secondary and tertiary cannons adjusted their aim, each gun the size of a skyscraper, lines of blue light glowing brighter and brighter as they powered up. Each muzzle lit up with a pale purple glow as the last stages of the priming process brought them to the ready state. Voltron cleared the prow of the ship, giving the Paladins an excellent view of the scintillating depths of the focusing element at least a half-mile below. Hot on their heels, raging-mad and unable to realize what it was flying headlong into, the Robeast followed them.

Voltron made it to the other side in time.

The Robeast didn't.

Space went white again, and the Paladins cried out at the searing brightness of it. When their vision cleared, they saw that nearly half of Lotor's fleet was now a scattering of burning wreckage. That was the good part; the bad part was that something silvery was coming back toward them in a hurry. It had been blown a considerable distance away by the force of the blast, but the Robeast wasn't dead yet.

“Holy crow, what is she making those things out of?” Lance demanded.

“It's gotta have a weak point somewhere,” Keith groaned. “Everything does! Hunk, can you spot it?”

“No,” Hunk said, summoning the scattergun again and showering the Robeast with energy bolts that did little or no damage at all. “I can't see anything behind that shield it's got. You're gonna have to crack that thing off, guys, if you want me to get a better look.”

The Robeast had closed the distance between them, and smashed at Voltron's shield, whirling blades jabbing dangerously at the great robot's shoulder joints. Desperately, Pidge reached out to get a feel of the Robeast's shields, and found herself thwarted—Haggar had upgraded that, too. Obviously, she wasn't going to allow them to disable this thing the way they had brought down Shiro's Robeast body.

“I can't! The breaking point is moving too fast. I could probably figure out the pattern, but it's not giving us any time!” Pidge slammed a frustrated fist on the controls. “I just don't have enough time!”

Time, Shiro thought, and his thought was the Lion's thought. The black Lion's elemental attribute was Time. Almost unbidden, his hand gripped his bayard. If Voltron could give them just a little more time...

The blue-purple socket to his right gleamed invitingly, and he rammed the bayard into it and gave it a hard turn. A shock ran through Voltron from crown to heels, and a strange silence followed it; the universe seemed to slow for just a heartbeat, the Robeast moving with the ponderous grace of a slow-motion video. The effect lasted just long enough for them to dodge a killing strike, and then everything snapped back to normal. The Robeast, surprised at finding its target gone, smashed heavily into the surface of the planet-buster, plowing a deep trench in the hull and knocking over a secondary cannon.

What was that?” Lance demanded. “Wait, I don't care what was that, do it again!”

Time manipulation!” Coran's voice trumpeted gaily through their comms. “Very short-range and only a tick or two's worth, but Voltron can slow time if the Paladin's good enough at it. Well done! Only two other black Paladins in history have ever taken it to that level!”

Pidge frowned at her readouts. “Impressive, but not sustainable. Shiro, that took up a lot of power. A lot of power. Voltron's got only enough for one or two more of those time-tweaks—after that, we'll have to disengage and recharge the Lions. Maybe if Allura was with us, we might have been able to get in a few more, but not this time.”

“I'll make them count,” Shiro assured her, and then hissed through his teeth. “Look out, team, here it comes again!”

It had taken the Robeast a minute or two to extricate itself from the wreckage of the cannon, but it kicked off the last multi-ton section of twisted metal and homed in on its target once more. This time, however, Voltron was ready for it. The Paladins dodged once, twice, and then Shiro slowed time again, allowing Keith and Pidge just enough of a chance to blow away its shielding. The Robeast shrieked as its unseen armor exploded, and again as Hunk and Lance locked up and iced over its moving parts. Keith uttered a roar as he brought the sword around in an awesome overarm slash, and the Robeast tumbled awkwardly away in pieces.

Lance whooped a breathless cheer, but they had no time to celebrate; a shower of ion bolts hissed past them, reminding them that the Ghamparva craft were still out there and intent on their capture. “Not cool, not cool, not cool!” Hunk growled angrily. “If it's not one thing, it's another!”

It's more than that,” Allura's voice said sharply, “you must head for the wormhole, and quickly! The Robeast isn't dead!”

They looked back with shouts of disbelief and horror. Sure enough, the silvery fibers were starting to weave themselves back together, and the orbital blades were working themselves loose of the planet-buster's hullplate. Voltron needed no more encouragement than that, and headed straight for the exit, the Ghamparva ships in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, what remained of Lotor's fleet was in the way. Shiro muttered a curse and then called out to the others, “Pidge, does the 'buster have anything left in it? Allura, Lizenne, can you clear us a path?”

“The 'buster's pretty much pooped out, Shiro,” Pidge answered breathlessly. “It's already begun its self-destruct sequence. See? There go the escape pods.”

Sure enough, dozens of tiny craft were jettisoning themselves from the planet-buster and speeding away as fast as their engines could carry them. “Maybe we'll get lucky and the Robeast'll go down with the ship,” Shiro said, although he doubted it. “There's our own escape route, team.”

Bright flashes were streaking across the rear of Lotor's fleet now as the Castle and the Chimera made their presence known. So did the Ghamparva ships, which buzzed spitefully around Voltron like a cloud of hornets, just out of weapons range. A thunderous detonation behind them signified the death of the planet-buster, and the shockwave served to scatter the Ghamparva ships momentarily; unfortunately, it also brought the Robeast back into pursuit. It looked a little the worse for wear, but it was still active, and still hell-bent on destroying its foe. Screaming, it lashed out at them, crushing a Ghamparva ship that couldn't get out of the way in time.

Disengage!” Shiro shouted, “disengage, and use the cloaking systems! It can't hit what it can't see!”

Voltron promptly split into his component Lions and vanished, forcing the Ghamparva craft to break off pursuit. The Robeast, unfortunately, was not wholly mechanical, and could home in on their aetheric signatures with terrifying precision. One forceblade lashed out and collided heavily with the red Lion, sending it tumbling violently. It crashed into another Ghamparva ship quite by accident, crumpling it up like a beer can and getting wedged in the wreckage. The merciless double impact threw Keith from his seat and headlong into the bulkhead, knocking him unconscious.

Keith?” Lance shouted, feeling his mind snuff out through the Lion-bond. “Keith! Where are you, buddy? Are you okay? Keith!”

As the Lions darted back to search for their lost comrade, something squeaked irritably beneath the red Lion's pilot seat, and a small compartment in the base popped open. Throughout all of the drama that had happened that day, no one had noticed the actions of the small creature that ventured forth from that hiding place, and indeed, few did at the best of times. The mice lived semi-independently from the Paladins, enjoying a normally idyllic lifestyle in the Castle's walls and only occasionally involving themselves in the affairs of the wider universe. As was their right, they went where they pleased, when they pleased, and for the occasional bit of repair, maintenance, and heroism, they were pleased to take their share of food from the Castle's stores. Platt, who had developed a taste for Modhri's Zampedran energy bars, had snuck into Keith's lunchbox when no one was looking, and had spent the entire battle munching his way through them. The food had been good, the fat little mouse felt, although the accommodations had been lacking, and the jouncing around had been no fun at all. It had nearly upset his stomach! Lance's anguished cries had convinced him that perhaps that last couple of jolts might have been more than his housemate could handle, and so he had stepped out to take a look.

Yes, Platt thought, things had definitely gone wrong. The screens and readouts were full of alerts, alarms, and flashing warnings, and the red Paladin was slumped in a heap on the floor. Platt scrambled over and knocked on the helmet, but the Human was well and truly out, possibly with a concussion. Well, he'd been trained for this. Platt clambered up onto the arm of the chair and squeaked authoritatively at the Lion, making a mental note to bring his armor along next time. The Lion rumbled in response, sounding a little groggy.

Platt shook his head disapprovingly at this poor treatment of a mechanical masterpiece, and uttered a very specific series of squeaks and chitters. The Lions had, after all, been designed by an Altean, and all Altean machines had been designed with mice in mind.

The Lion rumbled again, sounding somewhat embarrassed, and a panel opened in the arm of the chair; rising up out of the recess was a perfect, mouse-sized pilot's seat, complete with control beams and instrument boards. With the air of a seasoned professional, Platt settled himself into the chair and took hold of the controls with the approved battlesqueak. The red Lion heaved, kicked, and hauled itself out of the wreckage of the Ghamparva ship, and then went looking for trouble.

He didn't have to look far. Between a fair number of dark ships rocketing around and a huge, silvery something-or-other that seemed intent on fighting everything in sight, there was plenty to pick from. Platt decided to start small by sending a finely-tuned lance of fire right up a dark ship's thrusters; this had the desired effect, and he squeaked triumphantly as the ship tumbled away, its drive ruined.

“Keith, there you are!” Lance said, sounding hugely relieved as the others let out a cheer. “I was starting to worry there, buddy. What happened?”

Eeek!” Platt replied reassuringly.

There was dead silence from the other four Lions. “What?” Lance asked flatly.

Eeek!” Platt chirped cheerfully, jinking to one side and zapping another Ghamparva craft that got too close. “Squeak eek eek eeep!”

Platt?!” Lance demanded.

Eeek!”

Shiro let out a puff of laughter. “We already knew that they could fly a starship, Lance. Why not a Lion? Is Keith all right, Platt?”

Platt chirped something that sounded confident.

“Fine,” Hunk said wearily. “I told you that we should have built them a mousy mini-Voltron, guys. Now let's get out of here.”

Platt squeaked authoritatively and took the lead, guiding them through a series of evasive maneuvers that as upright bipeds, they would never have even considered. Like any small creature scrambling madly toward its den, Platt was an absolute expert at dodging predators. Even the Robeast seemed confused by the sudden, rapid changes in direction, the abrupt doubling-back on the trail, and the way they zipped underneath every large object that presented itself; Pidge declared loudly that they should all be taking notes, and the others couldn't help but agree.

Still, it was with great relief when they broke through the enemy lines to rejoin the Castle and the Chimera, who were harrying Lotor's flagship for all that they were worth. The two big support ships broke off their attacks at the sight of the returning Lions and turned about, heading for the nearby wormhole at their best speed. Lotor's ship had no chance to follow; the Robeast was right behind them, and it scored a deep slash down the near flank of the flagship, taking out half of the engine pods and most of the guns in passing.

Lock on to me!” Allura shouted, lining the Castle up on the seething circle of the wormhole, “Follow me in, and do not stray from the course!”

The Chimera followed her orders with a neatness and precision that told them that Modhri was driving, and the Lions fell in behind the two ships at their best speed. They could feel the pull of the star's gravity now, and felt the rumbling inferno of its outer layers; even so small a star had power beyond their ability to escape if they got it wrong. Allura was too much of a professional for that, and slipped through the burning ring with no trouble, followed by the Chimera; grouped tightly, the Lions entered as well, and the Paladins gasped in wonder at the view around them. This was no tame, spacious, artificially-generated wormhole, with its watery blue light and smooth, straight course. This was a wild wormhole, and fierce, hot colors and strange patterns rippled through its narrow, twisting length. Dimly, they heard Coran shouting instructions to Allura, who had never had to deal with something like this before. They were perhaps halfway through when the entire aether around them shook violently, and they saw a terrible figure forcing its way through behind them. Livid reds and angry purples spangled off of the Robeast's silvery surface, and colorless cracks of eye-watering glare were racing through the wormhole's walls toward the Castle.

It's too much!” Coran yelled in alarm. “That thing is destabilizing the wormhole! We have to exit now, or--”

The Robeast skewed sideways, unable to keep its balance in the disintegrating pocket of space-time, and it hurled one last attack after them. The leaf-shaped forceblade might have plunged right through the Chimera from engine to bow, but Hunk let out a frantic yell and opened fire. His blast knocked the huge blade away, just enough so that it barely grazed the Hanifor ship, but it struck the Castle hard in the rear. The particle barrier smashed under the force of it, and the blade tumbled, bashing its blunt generator-end hard on the engine deck before whirling away out through the side of the wormhole. That was too much for the wormhole as well, and the whole anomaly splintered just as the Castle, the Chimera, and the Lions spewed back out into realspace. The Robeast, still trapped inside, vanished from existence entirely.

“Holy crud, that was close,” Hunk moaned, gazing out at at a starscape blessedly uncluttered with warships. “Is everyone okay?”

There was a chorus of weary yesses, one triumphant squeak, and an answering groan from Keith. “Whoa,” he said muzzily. “Guys, what happened? And why is Platt flying my Lion? There is an actual mouse flying my Lion. He's got his own little pilot's seat and everything.”

Last desperate emergency measures, according to my father,” Coran stated proudly. “In the case of pilot incapacitation, a sufficiently well-trained mouse would be able to take control long enough to either seek refuge or until the pilot was able to fly again. Happened once or twice over the years, but understandably, no one wanted to make a habit of it. They can't form Voltron, of course, since the Lions can't bond with 'em, and yes, Platt, I know it's discrimination, but that's how the Lions were designed.”

Eeek,” scoffed Platt.

'S right,” Coran continued cheerfully. “You and your little team are special, Platt. Only the very best mice could be allowed to serve on the Castle, of course, and only the best of the best could keep company with the Royal Family. One of Altea's best-kept secrets, those mice. All Altean ships used to have hundreds, even thousands of mice living aboard, making sure that the wiring stayed wired and vermin stayed on their own side of the hulls. Why, it got so that we got nervous when something wasn't making odd noises in the walls at night. Even Alfor never told the others about it, and Zarkon never had a clue. It's a damned shame that only four of them are still with us. I wonder if there are any colonies of them still on Arus?”

Keith glared at the mouse, who gave him a thumbs-up. “Fine. Paladin mice. Can we come in now? My head hurts.”

By all means, do so,” Coran replied. “There's something here that needs your attention, anyway.”

 

Haggar vented a long, ugly hiss, and Zarkon's fist banged onto the arm of his throne, denting it. Everyone in the throne room went very quiet and backed away. Deadly silence emanated from the throne for several minutes, ending in a frustrated sigh from its occupant.

“The Robeast performed as desired,” Zarkon mused in a neutral tone that didn't fool anybody. “It was a distinct improvement upon its predecessors. Were you aware of the wormhole in that area, Haggar?”

“No,” she snapped. “Nor do I know where the other end led out. That was a natural wormhole, and they bloom and wither like flowers completely at random. If the miners knew of it, they had kept that knowledge to themselves. I was not at fault in this.”

“I did not say that you were,” Zarkon said in a deep and ominous rumble, and keyed the comms. “Arkkax.”

A small screen popped up with gratifying promptness, showing the Commander's tired and angry face. “Yes, Emperor Zarkon?”

“Report,” Zarkon replied shortly.

Arkkax sighed. “Nearly two-thirds of my forces have been destroyed, including the Tarzeroth-class destroyer; the green Paladin took control of it and used it against us. We had no way of stopping her from doing so. Even so, we might have captured Voltron if Lotor had not intruded upon our attempt. He has lost at least half of his own fleet as well. I will transmit the full record of the battle if you wish it. I apologize, your Majesty; I will not be able to carry out your orders to destroy the Beronites with what I have left.”

Zarkon nodded; Arkkax, at least, was an honest man. “Send the report, Arkkax. I will study it with great interest. Does my son still live?”

His flagship has been damaged, but was not destroyed,” Arkkax replied sourly. “I believe that he does.”

Zarkon's eyes narrowed; he did not like it when his sons became ambitious. “The Beronites are not important at this time. You and your forces will escort my son and what remains of his fleet back to me. He has much to answer for.”

Arkkax paled visibly, but his expression did not change. “Immediately, your Majesty. Stand by to receive the report—oh!”

Arkkax had turned, and was watching something off to one side with an expression of surprise and dismay. “That shouldn't have been possible!”

“What happened?” Haggar demanded.

Arkkax bared his teeth at that unknown view. “Once again, I must apologize, Lady Haggar. Lotor must have been listening in somehow; the flagship and fleet have gone. He shouldn't have been able to do that—your Robeast took out enough of his engine pods to cripple the drive, and this is—or should have been—a secure channel. He's either had his ship illegally modified or he's got at least one genius engineer aboard. Your orders, Emperor?”

Zarkon humphed softly. “Return to the nearest shipyard and make repairs where necessary; you will receive further orders when that errand is finished. I will decree an Empire-wide watch; Lotor is to be captured and brought to the Center immediately, and his senior officers detained for questioning as well. I very much wish to have words with him.”

Arkkax offered the bow and salute. “Understood. Transmitting the recordings now, Majesty. Vrepet Sa.”

Vrepet Sa,” Zarkon murmured, and then cast his gaze upon a tall, lean man standing unobtrusively by one wall. “Tashrak.”

Tashrak Kohaak'Naz, Lieutenant-Commander of the Ghamparva, looked up with a thin, anticipatory smile on his sharp-featured face. “Shall we find him for you, Majesty?”

Zarkon nodded. “Do that. Bring him back alive, if you can. I believe that your Order has a score to settle with the boy.”

Tashrak's smile widened. “We do. May we salvage whatever we can of what he has stolen from us, Majesty, and will you want him whole... or may we chastise him a bit?”

Zarkon snorted. “Recover what you can of your stolen ships. As for my son, alive and sane will do. Whole is optional.”

Tashrak bowed, his eyes glinting evilly. “It will be done, Majesty.”

 

Chapter Text

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.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Accessorize!

 

It was a big tarp. It was a very big tarp, and to the Drinth Portmaster's credit, it hadn't been striped in loud colors. What it did have was special embedded systems that blocked scans and most comm channels, and they had enveloped the Castle in this modesty sheet well before they came within the planet's orbit. A second one had been found for the Chimera as well, and a large force-dome served to keep the curious well away, once the drone tugs had lowered both damaged ships into the repair docks. Zaianne had used the time to contact the local chapter of her Order, and a certain amount of careful negotiation had found her a good candidate for the role. She still felt a twinge of shame every time she thought of how she had disqualified herself from participating; making a pass at any woman's man was rude, and to make one at her sister's husband—even though they weren't blood relatives—was intolerably poor behavior. It had been an impulse driven by her instincts; Modhri was an exceptionally fine man, and she wanted more children. Later, she promised her pouting biological clock, but not too much later. They would get this nonsense done and over with, and then they would press on with their plans. Sooner or later, events would allow for more freedom, and by damn, the Fates owed her something after forcing her away from her one son while he'd still been in infancy.

“Pining for something, Madame?” Coran asked, coming up behind her. “Only you're looking a bit peaky.”

She snorted a bitter laugh. “What I want most is what I cannot have. I want those seventeen years back, Coran. The seventeen years of Khaeth's life when I could not be there for him... or for his father. I want those lost opportunities back, every one of them.”

Coran shook his head and laid a sympathetic hand on hers. “Don't we all. If only I'd spoken up when Zarkon's behavior started to turn odd, if only I'd taken the time to say certain words to someone I'd cared deeply about, if only I'd convinced Alfor to let me stand with him when it all came to an end... well, things might have been a bit different. Or perhaps not. I had a little talk with Loliqua while she was here, and she said that perhaps nothing might have stopped Zarkon and Haggar from doing what they did. It all went wrong well before that, she said, when that prince of yours died.”

“Prince Rhonorath,” Zaianne mused. “Even after ten thousand years, there are those who wish that the assassin had missed, you know. Even now, his death is still considered a national tragedy.”

“Was he really so well-loved a fellow?” Coran asked curiously. “All of the excitement happened well before my time, d'you see, but Alfor and the rest of us spent a lot of time dealing with the consequences.”

Zaianne frowned, delving into her memories of schoolroom history lessons. “Oh, yes. If there was anything remarkable about the First Imperial Lineage, it was that it was a meritocracy within the monarchy. All of the descendants of Modhri the Wise were educated intensively in statecraft, and only the very best of those were in the running for the Throne. It was one of the reasons for their remarkable success. In Rhonorath's case, it was as if the First Emperor himself had been reborn, and the people rejoiced, and looked forward with eagerness to his reign. He was, according to the Histories, a paragon. And then the Carlumnians had him killed so that they could scavenge off of the ensuing chaos. There aren't any Carlumnians left, by the way. They tried their usual tactics on Zarkon as well, and he had them exterminated. It was that, more than anything else, that won him the loyalty of all Galra—fitting revenge for the murder of the very best of us.”

Coran hummed, fingering his mustache thoughtfully. “If Rhonorath was half as good as our own Modhri, then yes, it would have been. I'd met a few Carlumnians, and they were all of them deplorable. Historical and personal woes aside, Madame, have you found an understudy?”

She gave him a thin smile for his careful choice of words and nodded. “Yes, actually. Her name is Erantha, and she's the right age and has had the right training to help us out with this. She'll arrive sometime in the next hour or so, if only for the chance to cross knives with the Rogue Witch herself. Pidge isn't the only one of our group who is viewed with a certain amount of awe.”

Coran chuckled. “We're a naturally awesome group, I feel.”

“Indeed,” Zaianne replied. “I'm told that bringing in outside aid is not precisely within the rules of your carved-in-bone contract, but the local officials won't care so long as they get to see a Galra dance. Apparently, there are members of the Council that are both powerful and afire with curiosity, and they'll squelch any objections that might pop up.”

“Hmm,” Coran mused. “And the Governor?”

“Hasn't a clue.” Zaianne leaned back in her chair with a superior smile. “According to my colleagues, he landed his job more through Family connections than administrative skill, and he's far more interested in his own comforts than he is in the actual work involved in overseeing so large and complex a posting. So long as nobody actually tells him that there are Lions in his backyard, we should be all right, and one of ours is the person who handles most of his calls. There are more of our people embedded in the Council's staff, and that will give us a certain amount of protection as well. It's still a risk, but I'm fairly sure that it's one that we can handle.”

“Very likely, but we shouldn't court overconfidence,” Coran said, smiling at the irony—extreme caution was usually Zaianne's purview. “As a matter of fact, that's why I'm here. Lance sent me to ask you to come to his little workshop—he's making the team some dancewear and wants our input on enhancing it for... let us say... unforeseen happenstance. Shall we humor the lad?”

“I think we should,” Zaianne replied graciously. “Let me just warn everybody that we'll have company soon, and set myself an alert for when she arrives. I've been told of Erantha's prowess as a blade dancer, and I'm going to want to see what happens when she sees those tambok-fang knives.”

Coran snorted. “If she's anything like Nasty was, there may be duels over them. I do hope not, having had to stand as second during a few of those. They could get quite messy, particularly if there was some important item or territory at stake. Damned near wound up as wagered property myself once or twice, as a matter of fact, and if Alfor hadn't had such a quick hand with a poniard, archaeologists would have found my bones in one of the tombs in the Vassarbrilchen Royal Necropolis by now, along with the other body-servants of the then-current king. Probably right next to Alfor's, as a matter of fact, since kings were allowed to keep defeated rivals as special pets if they were kingly, too. Then again, probably not. The Vassarbrilchens were a brave but brittle lot, and Melenor would have broken the fellow over her knee to get her husband back, and damn the consequences. Wonderful woman.”

Zaianne gave him an amused glance and sent her message to everyone's handcomps. “What sort of consequences?”

“Hmm? Oh, she would have had to take over the rulership of their kingdom.” Coran sighed and shook his head disapprovingly. “It's one of those warrior-state things, you know, where the strongest fighters get to be supreme over all. Terribly inefficient, although they do become very skilled at hiding weapons in odd spots, as Lance is trying to do. Shall we go and help him with that?”

She rested a graceful hand on his offered arm and stood up. “Of course. It's an elder's duty to aid the young in their projects, after all.”

“Indeed, Madame.”

 

“I dunno,” Lance said, considering his options. “I think she'd look better in the cream instead of the ice white, don't you think? Or maybe the bone, or the eggshell. Her skin tone's tricky, especially with the hair, and I don't want to make her look like an ice queen. There aren't any real ice queens out there, are there?”

Coran gave his mustache a nostalgic twirl. “There certainly used to be. Don't know if they're still there. Yes, as I recall, in the Lannas System. Binary system, one blue giant star being orbited at a reasonably safe distance by a nice little yellow one. No living planets, but there was a remarkably dense belt of scattered cometary material, and that had quite a large population. Every bit of ice with enough mass to hold a foot to the surface had its own little kingdom, each with a sovereign queen, and the web of feuds and alliances between each little queendom were incredibly complex. That was one of those times where the team and I wound up in a harem, actually, and didn't Queen Besporil enjoy trotting us out to show off to the girls? Blaytz had a lovely time, of course, but Gyrgan and Zarkon were hot-world types and both of them had miserable colds by the end of things. Trigel struck lucky that time, having been turned over to the queen's gardeners. Those boys were very appreciative.”

“Really?” Lance asked suspiciously.

“Oh, yes,” Coran assured him. “She was tall enough to reach the high branches without having to use a ladder. The boys were artists at topiary, but were very short and terribly afraid of heights.”

“A warm white, definitely,” Zaianne said musingly, ignoring Coran's anecdote, “but very pale, and just touched with pink here and there. You might think about sharpening it up with a bit of that metallic dark bronze piping, just to delineate things and bring up the color of that lovely nut-brown complexion. And just a bit of blue, to bring attention to her eyes. Have you given any thought to that?”

Lance grinned and pulled out a small, flat box. “Oh, yeah, check these out! The auto-tailor has a costume-jewelry file, and I thought these would look really good. Plus, she'd be able to stab someone if they got a little too familiar.”

Coran observed the brooches in the box with delight. “Yes, very much the thing, aren't they? Her mother used to wear the same style when we had problematic types visiting. Pretty, versatile, effective, but not so valuable that she'd be sad if she had to leave a few embedded in someone's face.”

“That's what we're going for,” Lance said, setting the box aside. “Now, what do you think about--”

Zaianne's comm blipped faintly, and she gave it a thin smile when she checked the alert. “Ah. She's here.”

“Who?” Lance asked blankly, and then bumped the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Oh, right! That lady who's going to dance with Lizenne and Modhri. Do I need to make up anything for her?”

Zaianne gestured a negative. “No, she'll already have the costume ready. Just let me alert the team and we can go down to meet her. I'm told that she's a bit prickly, but very good in a fight.”

“Prickly,” as it turned out, wasn't quite the right description. “Aloof” might have been closer, for her expression was cold and her angular features and upright carriage gave her an imperious look, although her large golden eyes were full of curiosity when she stepped out of her aircar. “Refined” might have been the right word, since she gave the impression of having been lathed right down to the quick; there was nothing about her that was not absolutely necessary. Erantha was one of those rare Simadhi-Namturan hybrids whose fur was nearly blue, much like Lotor's, although her coloration was a bit darker—the color of good tanzanite. Her hair was shoulder-length and slightly darker than the rest of her fur, with broad silvery streaks above her ears. Her grassland-loving Namturan forbears had given her their slim, long-legged build, and her Simadhi ancestors had given her their narrow features and cheekbones that you could shave with, and a tight, compact musculature. A lifetime of intensive martial-arts training had pared every microgram of spare flesh from her frame, giving Hunk a secret urge to soften that knife-edged bone structure with many, many cookies. She was beautiful in the same way that a sword was beautiful; finely-crafted, single in purpose, and inherently deadly.

Keith and Lance gulped and stared, and Allura had to poke them both hard in the ribs to keep them from embarrassing her with their doltish expressions. “Greetings, and welcome aboard the Castle of Lions,” Allura said pleasantly over her teammates' yips of surprise and pain. “I hope that you will enjoy your stay with us. Lizenne and Modhri will be along shortly—apparently their ship has sprung a leak somewhere that had to be addressed immediately. May I present to you my friends and fellow Paladins?”

Erantha gave her a regal nod and said in a polite and potently musical voice, “Please do. They are--,” she cast her gaze around like a searchlight, “--not as I had expected.”

Allura giggled, although it sounded just slightly false, even to her ears; for some reason, Keith's and Lance's reaction to this woman made her furious on a deep and dangerous level. “No, we're all terribly irregular, I'm afraid. Some more than others. Keith, stop staring, it's rude, and Pidge looks ready to punch you. That goes double for you, Lance. Shiro, if you would do the honors?”

Shiro couldn't help but smile. It was hard to remember sometimes, but his teammates were all still college-age young adults, with all that that implied. Even Hunk was radiating purity of heart with neutron star-grade gravitic force, which was almost irresistibly attractive, and Pidge and Allura were starting to steam. It was ridiculous, but so very familiar; how many times had he seen it himself at school dances, when the nerdy or plain girls—and boys, too, come to think of it—had polished up and dressed to the nines for the first time ever, and all of the boyfriends and girlfriends had abandoned their popular-kid dates to pay court to the unanticipated beauties in their midst? He personally felt that envy was a bad color choice for his own two female teammates, and he moved quickly to defuse the situation.

Stepping forward, he dipped the small, respectful bow that he'd seen Modhri offer Zaianne on occasion. “I'm Shiro, Paladin of the black Lion. Princess Allura is also black Paladin; that's a long story and we'll tell you all about it later. Over there is Pidge, Paladin of the green Lion; careful, she's half-pirate, half mad scientist. The two leering morons are Keith and Lance, who are the red and blue Paladins, respectively, and the man trying to embody everything bright and good—with some success—is Hunk, the yellow Paladin. Stop that, Hunk, I'm getting a sunburn. You probably already know Zaianne here as a colleague, and this is Coran, seneschal and pilot. Those are the mice. Don't try to step on them.”

“How interesting.” Erantha smiled, a thin, knife-edged expression that served to deflate the boys further, and she gave Pidge and Allura one of those mysterious female looks that told them that she was on their side. “They are younger than I had thought. I expect that you've had your hands full with training them, Zaianne.”

Zaianne smirked at Lance, who was drooping visibly. “I've had a good deal of help. Ah—and here they are. Hold still, the dragons won't hurt you.”

Tilla and Soluk were just suddenly there in the finest tradition of Zampedri's people, and Erantha stayed calm and collected as they sniffed her over. She did smile faintly at the following sneezes and giggling, but her attention was all for the pair who followed them in. She responded to Modhri's polite bow with a graceful half-bow of her own, and the nod she shared with Lizenne was just as profound, if not more so. The two women locked gazes for a long moment, studying each other intently. Whatever Lizenne saw there, she approved of it, and she grinned fiercely at the Blade.

“You,” she said, “are absolutely perfect. Have you played the role of Telchamar before, by any chance?”

Erantha's expression went icy. “I have. I might have been the Empire's greatest performer of such roles, had certain events not taken place. I am related to the Chalep'Thoras on my mother's side, some four generations back.”

Lizenne nodded. “It bred true, which is something to be proud of. Is Simadht's Council aware that two fullbloods of that family still live?”

“Not yet,” Erantha said quietly. “We will wait for the right time to play that card. The Council lost much when that gene-file in the World Bank was destroyed, and they will give much for the opportunity to revive the Lineage. Samples have already been obtained, and are being held in a safe location.”

“Very wise,” Lizenne replied. “Will you wish to test our relative skills immediately, or would you prefer to relax first? I doubt very much that you've spent your time in idleness.”

“Immediately. I'm posing as a fencing master in an elite girl's school,” Erantha said dryly, pulling a Marmoran blade from a concealed scabbard. “As of two hours ago, I was teaching a class; I would enjoy crossing blades with someone who doesn't view the art as a game, or as a useless archaism that their mothers bullied them into. Or--” she sneered, “--as a way to attract boys.”

It was Keith's turn to sag dejectedly, but Hunk was undaunted.

“Just a tick,” Hunk said sharply, waggling a finger at the two Galra ladies. “We've gotta do this right. Give me a moment, I'll go and get some popcorn and scorecards. Coran, did you want a pair of pom-poms?”

“Why, yes, and bring some for everybody else, too, they're in that closet by the game room,” Coran said delightedly. “I haven't been head cheerleader at a knife fight in ages. What fun!”

“Be right back,” Hunk said, and hurried out.

Shiro turned to watch him go, and collected a sharp finger in the ribs from Lance. “That wasn't nice, Shiro,” the blue Paladin hissed. “'Leering morons'? Seriously?”

Unruffled, Shiro smiled in the face of Lance's hurt feelings and Keith's sullen scowl and nodded at their guest, who was examining Lizenne's tambok-fang knife with the same sort of avarice that they'd seen before in Nasty. “Yes. You two were starting to act like sophomores at a prom, and Allura and Pidge didn't like it. It was them or me, guys, and the ladies were starting to look like they wanted blood.”

Keith shot a guilty glance back at Pidge, who skewered him with a Look before turning haughtily away with her nose in the air. Keith winced, which raised one of Lance's eyebrows.

“You never did say how you two perfected that fire-arrow,” Lance said suspiciously.

“Not now, Lance,” Keith sighed.

A few moments later, Hunk came bustling back in, pulling a loaded hover-crate behind him. Three huge buckets of popcorn were pulled out and distributed, as were packets of scorecards and pom-poms, although only Coran was in any way interested in those. Erantha ignored them completely, backing off a fair distance and readying herself for the match. Modhri moved up to the fore of their group and stood watching his wife and the Blade with a pensive look upon his face, and, curious, Shiro and Keith stepped up beside him while the others clustered around the popcorn. Lizenne was watching Erantha intently, swaying slowly, knife in hand.

“She's taking this seriously,” Shiro murmured to Modhri as the two Galra women squared off.

Modhri nodded slightly, a frown lining his brow. “They both are. The dance routine that we're planning is basically two women fighting over a man, and they must know each other's capabilities now, or someone will get seriously hurt later. Besides, Lizenne has something of a reputation, and Erantha wishes to test it.”

Keith gave him a sidelong glance. “She's been holding back on us?”

Modhri smiled. “A bit. You haven't seen her sparring with Zaianne in the envirodeck. She'll enjoy this. For a warrior woman, a challenge from another of that kind is a rare pleasure, and Erantha looks to be a wild heart. We'll have to take her hunting.”

Shiro recalled the yulpadi hunt, and the feast that came after. “I'm not going to complain.”

“Nor I,” Modhri murmured, and then drew in his breath sharply as the two women began to move.

Shiro had seen something like this before, in numerous old movies and anime series. Both combatants took a slow step to one side, and another, eyes locked upon the foe in total concentration. A third step was taken by each, and then a pause; the air sang with tension for a long, humming moment, and then Erantha cannoned forward in an explosive rush that took his breath away. Lizenne, who was more heavily-built than the bone-and-whipcord Blade and was not as fast, vanished with a snap that rang across his senses like a bell. His eyes jerked of their own accord to a spot to the left about fifteen feet away—Lizenne reappeared, whirled, her toe-claws striking sparks from the decking, and leaped forward to engage Erantha in a savage exchange of blows. Shiro stared. He'd never seen anything like that outside of an animated feature before, and hadn't thought it possible in real life. Erantha grinned like a shark and vanished between one strike and the next, and Shiro realized that he could tell the difference between their powers; Lizenne was a hot, wild, golden force. Erantha was light reflecting off of polished steel, brief and blinding and sharp as razors. Not as powerful, perhaps, but she'd spent a lifetime learning to do a lot with a little. Erantha snapped back into being behind and to the right of Lizenne, hurling a handful of what looked to be stars at her. Lizenne shouted something, and the stars were englobed in filmy gold spheres, which then swirled outwards in a sudden spiraling rush at a wave of the witch's hand. They burst with ear-stinging detonations, but that hardly mattered; Erantha had closed with her again, and more sparks were flying as luxite alloy glanced off of tambok ivory.

Shiro swallowed hard on a dry throat and blinked; he glanced over at his team and saw them cheering and scrambling to hold up high enough scores while the dragons and mice dug into the popcorn. Coran was capering madly about, waving pom-poms with wild abandon, and Shiro wondered vaguely what the professional teams back home would have to say about his performance. Zaianne and Modhri were watching in respectful silence, their faces showing a sort of grave pride, eyes shining in admiration.

The fight came to a conclusion not long after that, and in a draw that Shiro recognized with a start. He had stood in the same position once with Ulaz, their blades only millimeters from letting out each other's lives. Images flickered in the back of his mind far too swiftly to grasp, but the overall impression was positive. This was reinforced by Lizenne's crack of breathless laughter as she lowered her knife and shook her head, sending beads of sweat scattering like gems.

“Very good!” she said in an exultant voice. “Very good, indeed. We will give them quite a showing, will we not?”

Erantha drew herself up proudly with a knife-edged smile. “I have killed two Druids before this battle, and we have not shamed our blades in this one. They will speak of our dancing a hundred years from now. Is your man worthy of our efforts?”

Lizenne looked offended at that question, but Modhri merely responded with that incredible smile that instantly made him into everyone's favorite uncle. “I've been told that I am,” he said, beaming. “Am I, my Lady?”

That was a silly question, of course, and even Erantha's aristocratic features had taken on a faintly yearning look. “You are,” she said, getting herself back under control with a visible effort, much to Lizenne's smug satisfaction.

Erantha turned an arch look upon their audience instead, perhaps to ask what their scores were, but other things had happened. Keith, of course, had watched the whole thing in amazement and admiration for their superior skills; unfortunately, the others were fighting the dragons for the last of the popcorn, and Coran was still waving his pom-poms about, humming happily and lost in a little world of his own. The mice had chewed a hole in the bottom of the bucket and were ferrying the fluffy kernels away in a steady stream.

Keith rolled his eyes heavenward. “Sorry.”

Erantha gave Zaianne a sidelong look. “Does this happen often?”

Zaianne chuckled. “We don't stand much on discipline outside of combat situations around here, so yes. Don't worry, Erantha, in battle, they're all business. In the meantime, let them teach you to relax.”

Erantha humphed disapprovingly, but allowed her hosts to lead her toward refreshments.

 

“You know, I've looked the whole Castle over, and it doesn't have one,” Lance said as he led his team up to his workroom, with Coran and Zaianne following along to watch the fun. “You'd think that any royal establishment would have a runway, but it doesn't. Can't think why.”

“Because it's not a fashion showhouse, Lance,” Allura said with a smile. “If people wanted to show off the latest styles here, they did it in Court, or whenever Mother or Father held a Grand Ball. We would watch them posture and flaunt themselves in front of their rivals, and then laugh about it afterwards. To tell you the truth, some of those lords and ladies lived solely for that sort of competition!”

“We saw that sort of thing back on Earth, too,” Pidge said, making a face. “Heck, in my high school, there were two or three rich girls who used to max out every credit card they could get their hands on, just to show each other up with the newest fashions. Me and the rest of the Math Club once tallied up their total estimated outlay over a semester once, and I could have built my own supersonic aircraft with that sort of money. I still can't believe that people pay that much for shoes. Shoes! Shoes exist to keep pointy things from jabbing you in the feet! Why do people obsess about them like that? And they're not even comfortable shoes half the time!”

Hunk smirked and poked her with a finger. “Nerd.”

She poked him back. “That's hyper nerd to you, pal. Besides, you're just as much of a nerd as I am.”

“Yup!” Hunk said cheerfully. “And I'm a nerd with happy feet. I'm really looking forward to this, guys.”

There was a discontented grumble from Keith, whose feet weren't any happier than the rest of him. They'd done some dance practice earlier that day, since half of their number hadn't done the Hokey-Pokey in years, and the rest hadn't done it, ever. Wild zontars couldn't have dragged it out of the red Paladin, but he'd actually enjoyed it a little—he'd been right next to Tilla, and avoiding her huge spiky head and tail while she turned herself around had been just enough of a challenge to make it worthwhile. The mice had opted to do their dancing atop the dragons' backs, up where they wouldn't get stepped on by mistake. As for the all-inclusive dance, Hunk had merely waved a hand and told them that it didn't really matter. It was really a freestyle sort of thing, and the official moves were dead simple. That was good enough for Lizenne, Modhri, and Erantha, who had gone off to practice their historical dance in the envirodeck, where they wouldn't stab anything too important. Keith would have preferred to join them, but Lance had insisted that they try on their new outfits. Keith was not into fancy dress at all, and was inclined to be surly about it.

“Oh, come now, young man,” Coran said sternly. “Lance did put a great deal of thought into this, and indeed he would have been welcome among the Castle's sartorial staff back in the day. Why, the Palace Guard would have loved to wear some of his little projects, being both stylish and possessing all sorts of possibilities for concealed weapons. Your own mother helped with that, sir, I'll have you know, and frankly, the Marmorans are truly inspirational on that subject. Some of her suggestions surprised even me, to tell you the truth. Were those little adjustments to the bodice and inseams really necessary, Madame?”

Zaianne smirked. “We're up against the Ghamparva, as well as Zarkon's conventional forces, and those monsters see nothing wrong with indulging in behavior that would get them killed in any other line of work. It is our duty to make sure that they get killed in this one, too.”

Shiro cast them an interested look. “You've already got your outfits made up?”

“First come, first served,” Coran replied reasonably. “It's just as well that Alfor sprung for the highest-quality textile fabricator he could find, y'know. Old Angbard wanted the household troops to be a bit better-appointed after the Carlumnians tried to assassinate him, his wife, and his infant son, and Alfor doubled down on that after Allura was born. I think that even then he knew that she'd be an only child. Things might have been different if Melenor had qualified for a Lion, but... well, it never happened.”

“Huh,” Lance said, stealing a glance at Allura. “Did the other teams raise families?”

“Sort of,” Coran said, tugging thoughtfully at his mustache. “Oh, there were children now and again, the Lion-bond being what it was, but the parents themselves didn't really have much time for them. Things were terribly muddled up back then, what with the early Galran Empire trembling on its foundations and scads of others fighting amongst themselves for supremacy. Those teams spent more time in their armor than out of it, to tell you the truth, and they often had to pass their spawn off to their folks back home to be raised. A few of 'em did grow up in the Castle, though, and one of them did wind up piloting the yellow Lion. A good woman, that, a very nice lady, best left leg that Voltron ever had, and made fruit preserves as a hobby. Gyrgan was addicted to her juniberry jelly, I know that. She was the only one who could make the stuff without it having that acid aftertaste.”

Allura sighed, remembering how often her own father had been called away. “At least we are facing a single foe this time, for all that it's a very large one. Well, they haven't been invited to the party, so we should make the most of it. What sort of apparel have you come up with, Lance?”

He grinned eagerly and flung open his workroom doors, beckoning them all inside. “Only the best for you, Allura. Hey, Marco!”

Lance turned aside to rub his evil sewing machine behind its needle array. “Such a good little sewing machine who's worked so hard to make all that awesome stuff for the team!” he cooed at the sinister device. “C'mon, guys, give him a proper thank-you, I couldn't have done this without him.”

None of them argued, and patted the sewing machine one after the other; Coran had showed them the recordings of the battle from their little escapade with the Gantarash ship-clan, and the machine had earned their respect. It whirred happily at their recognition and hummed in contentment when they went to inspect the fruits of its labors. Lance had those hung up on stands at the back of the room, right next to a changing booth, and they looked better than some of them had dared to hope. They looked simple enough, being sleek-looking bodysuits in gleaming black and the intended wearers' signature colors, touched up here and there with accents of what appeared to be flashlight fabric. Two of them had glimmering sweeps of fine, translucent fabric at the waists, enough like skirts to pass.

“Oh, sweet,” Hunk said eagerly, “thanks for not going the tux route, Lance.”

Lance shrugged. “After what happened at the Senior Dance in high school? I can learn from other people's mistakes, and we don't really need the local bigshots to know what color your underwear is. I've got your suspenders and bow tie over here.”

“Oh, great! Gimme.”

Allura cast curious eyes over those accessories, which glittered; the suspenders had been sewn with thousands of coin-sized golden sequins, and the black bow tie showed the subtle shimmer of Thrashar satin. “Coran did say that these outfits had more to them than mere elegance. Would you kindly explain, Lance?”

“Certainly,” Lance said, taking on the air of a professional couturier and indicating a particular garment. “I decided to go with a basic Altean style—minimalist, elegant--”

“Skin-tight,” Pidge added.

“Flexible,” Lance continued, ignoring the heckler, “and supportive. Coran showed me the special settings on the textile maker. It looks and feels like first-quality linen, guys, but it's actually armor. See that sheet of fabric I've got on that frame over there? Fire at will, Marco!”

The sewing machine rose up on its antigravs and fired one of its industrial-grade needles at an embroidery frame sitting on the big worktable; the piece of sky-blue fabric clamped into it barely thrummed as the needle bounced off.

Lance caught the needle easily. “It's something like those suits that the Blades wear. Anybody trying to use small-caliber ballistics and knives on you is gonna be disappointed. Try to stay away from energy weapons or anyone with a laser sword, though. Even then, they're gonna have a bad day—I've put in force-shield generators in the sleeves, and check out the secret pockets! Big enough to hide a bayard in, and they won't ruin the line of the fabric. Keith, I've put in a special sheath at the small of the back, here, so you can take along your pet knife if you want to.”

Keith turned his midnight-and-scarlet suit around to check that feature, and found it to be just about perfect. “How'd you know?”

Lance shrugged and gave the needle back to his sewing machine. “Your mom was swinging that thing around for years before you were born, and she knows every millimeter of it. Oh, and Pidge, if anyone tries to lay a hand on you without permission, just tense your muscles. It'll send a shock through the jerk that'll put him on the floor for hours. Allura, you've got one of those, too.”

Shiro smiled. “Do the rest of us?”

“Yeah, but if you want to turn it off, there's a toggle in the left hip pocket. Personally, I don't mind the odd ass-pat.” Lance grinned at their chuckles. “Ladies, the skirts detach and they're stronger than they look, with independent shock-webbing systems and weighted waistbands. If you need to, you can throttle a guy with them, knock him flat, or use the skirts as a whip. Oh, and speaking of accessories, Allura, you'll want to braid this into your hair.”

He passed her what looked to be a pearly hair comb with three long silken cords adorned with dainty tassels attached to it; it looked pretty enough, but her sensitive fingers caught the prickle of dozens of fine needles hiding beneath the shining surface of the cords. “Whatever for?”

Lance grimaced. “Booby trap. You've got really nice hair, and it's really long. Someone might try to grab it. There was a girl I knew in middle school who had long hair like that, and the other kids were always pulling on it. That stopped when she braided in a cord that she'd stuck full of pins. The school nurse wasn't happy and the Principal gave her a detention, and two kids had to get tetanus shots right away, but they quit bugging her. Mullet, you'll want one of these, too, same reason. Here's a red one.”

Keith's hand shot defensively to his hair. He'd let it grow long in the back, more out of indifference than anything else, and it now reached to just below his shoulderblades in a thick, black waterfall.

Zaianne took the red comb from Lance and examined it with interest. “Ah! Yes, I know these, and have used them before myself. I usually anointed the needles with poison, of course, but we haven't had the time to build up your immunities to the standard kit. Hold still, Khaeth, I want to see how this would look on you.”

“Mom,” Keith groaned in protest, but held still when she caught him by a hank of hair.

“Hush,” Zaianne said, setting in the comb firmly at the back of his head, dividing his hair into three thick plaits and weaving them expertly together. “While I was growing up, one of my elder cousins was a great authority in the fashion industry, and he was always impeccably attired. You have the same sort of hair that he does, long and thick and dark, and he always had ornaments braided up in it. It looked absolutely stunning on him, and he was never without admirers. Hmm. And like him, you're starting to develop those two stripes of lighter purple above the ears.”

“Wait, what?” Keith yelped, trying to turn and see the back of his own head.

“Really?” Hunk said delightedly, “I've gotta see that!”

“Me, too!” Coran said, crowding in for a closer look.

Lance grinned and snatched a folded-up object out of a nearby box. “Hold on, I've got a good light right here!”

Keith soon found himself at the center of a crowd, and wasn't sure what to do about it. “Guys...”

“Oh, that's nice,” he heard Shiro say. “The red cord really brings it up, doesn't it?”

Allura giggled. “It does. You can't see it unless it's under a bright light, but there it is. Very attractive, actually.”

“His eyebrows are going purple, too,” Pidge put in cheerfully, “and check out his eyes!”

Keith found his chin being gripped in Hunk's hand, and saw everyone crowding around for a peek. He had a sudden urge to go cross-eyed at them, or to explode with anger, but his outrage dissolved into something like confusion when Shiro brushed his hair away from his face with a strong, gentle hand, and gave him a smile that was full of affection.

Nice,” Hunk said admiringly. “If I'd had eyes like that, getting a girlfriend would have been a lot easier. You've got some really good genes there, Keith.”

Keith was blushing. He knew that he was blushing, and he couldn't stop, not even when Lance handed off his handlight to Pidge and crammed the red-and-black suit into Keith's arms.

“Okay, Keith, get in there and try that on,” Lance commanded, indicating the changing booth. “That hair ornament is nice, but it doesn't go with the jeans or the jacket. Here's your shoes, too—nice sturdy half-boots with good arch support, and a nice solid heel that's good for both dancing and curb-stomping. Guys, the boots have a built-in sheath on the outside ankle in case you want to stick a small knife or a stun-wand or something in there, just in case. Get moving, Keith, I want to see everybody in their party dresses, and you get to be first this time.”

Too flummoxed to refuse, Keith complied. Even he had to admit that Lance was very good at what he did after a few minutes; the suit fit like a glove and so did the boots, and when he emerged, he did so to enthusiastic applause, complete with wolf whistles.

“Stylin',” Hunk said, pulling his own suit from its stand. “Me next!”

When Hunk came out of the booth, he did so resplendently; there was no other word for it. Modest though the cut of the suit was, it showed off his powerful build beautifully; the suspenders, flashy though they were, were not overdone in the slightest, and the bow tie added just the right touch.

Lance smiled proudly. “The suspenders are mostly for decoration, but I made them good and strong. You'll be able to make a pretty good slingshot out of them if you have to, Hunk, or use them as a rope ladder.”

“Hey, traditional,” Hunk said, adjusting his tie. “Does this thing have any surprises?”

“A small but powerful EMP bomb hidden in the knot,” Lance grinned. “Coran's idea. Just take it off, give the bow's loops a good yank, and then throw it at the machine you want to kill. Don't use it until you have to, Hunk, 'cause it's the only one I had left—Zaianne stole the rest, and I think she gave most of them to Erantha.”

“I'd never seen them that compact,” Zaianne admitted, and without any shame whatsoever. “Erantha's very skilled at constructing and designing such devices, and I wanted to give her plenty of material to work with. If she's half as good as I think she is, Lance, she'll be back soon with a crate full of freshly-made ones for you to play with.”

“And I'll want a share of those,” Coran declared firmly. “Every little bit helps, you know, and every fallen Sentry is a Sentry that you lot won't have to waste energy on.”

“I like that idea,” Pidge said, pulling her own suit off of its stand. “My turn, right?”

“Yeah—oops, or maybe not. Shiro just beat you to it.”

Shiro's training sessions with Zaianne had made him very light on his feet, and he'd retrieved his suit and had slipped into the booth while everyone was busy admiring Hunk. He'd worn uniforms for much of his life, both school and military, and had dressed for utility rather than show during his time as a space hero. His romance with Adam had revealed a secret love for dressing up hidden in his psyche, and one that he'd kept private; it was still there, however, and the sight of two of his teammates looking so very fine was irresistible. When he stepped out of the booth, it was to a very gratifying moment of awed silence.

“Lance... holy cow, man,” Hunk said.

Zaianne's training sessions had also been building up layers of hard muscle on Shiro's frame. Lance had chosen a flashlight fabric for the color accents on his suit that glimmered a glorious blue-purple whenever he moved, and edged them with bright silver piping. The effect, to say the least, was stunning.

Keith heaved a long sigh. “Why did we have to agree on the 'Hokey-Pokey'? Nobody Hokey-Pokeys while looking that good.”

Zaianne chuckled. “When one looks that good, anything one does immediately becomes excellent, even the Hokey-Pokey. We might set a trend. Allura, your turn. We had a terrible time picking out the right colors for your suit, and I want to see whether or not we chose correctly.”

Lance pulled down Allura's suit and handed it to her, and she entered the booth eagerly. A few minutes later, she stepped out again as the very picture of elegance. The textiles that Lance had chosen rippled with a subtle, nacreous iridescence, highlighted by the bronze piping that edged it. Her skirt was a gleaming sweep of translucent, pearly silk that shimmered down to the right knee and swept up in a series of pleats like fairy wings to the left hip, where it was fastened with an ornate brooch of pearls and silk flowers, with long tassels to match the hairpiece. Lance presented her with the box of brooches that he'd made up for her earlier, and once those were properly applied, the effect was everything that they could have hoped for.

“Lovely,” Coran gushed, “utterly lovely! Your own mother couldn't have wished for better, Princess, and it's a damned shame that we've left that pack of young Dukes and Princes some ten thousand years in the past. You would have had them hypnotized, so you would, and gotten yourself an entourage of adoring young men to hang upon your every word and whim.”

Allura ran admiring fingers over the fine tailoring with a smile. “I'm perfectly happy with the ones I have now, Coran, and they're a great deal more self-sufficient. Have you given any thought to the others, Lance?”

Lance, who had been mildly hypnotized by the vision of loveliness standing before him, shook himself out of it and smiled. “Huh? Oh, yeah. I managed to fit the mice with these nice little tailcoat things out of the same armor-fabric, and they've got the zap function, too. If they have to run up someone's pant legs... well, if he's built anything like we are, pity him. Lizenne says that she'll take care of herself, Modhri, and the dragons. Erantha's got her own dancewear, so I don't have to worry about her. Zaianne's already got one of these suits in burgundy, and... wow. Your dad was a lucky man, Keith. Coran's got one in dark blue that really sets off his coloring.”

Coran smiled happily and twirled his mustache. “It does, at that, and it'll look even better when I add my honors. I've got quite a lot of medals and badges of rank that need dusting off and polishing up. More or less meaningless now, some of 'em, but I can't help it if the authorities that awarded them have vanished into the mists of time. Some are still valid enough, though.”

Allura gave him a sidelong look. “Like that dreadfully ornate thing you got when you won the Brenarillow All-Comers Pie-Eating Competition?”

Coran sniffed. “They had supplied whafflet-cream pies, you know. I'd always said that I had a bottomless appetite for whafflet cream, and I proved it. Was sick for three days afterward, but that doesn't signify. I'll prove it again, if I have to, and I'll defy any fashionista to diminish that achievement.”

Pidge glared at him and nudged the others out of the way. “Maybe later. My turn, guys.”

“Go for it,” Lance replied, bowing her into the changing booth.

Pidge got her own share of applause when she came out. The team tended to think of her as something of a gremlin most of the time, being small, prankish, scruffy-looking, and liable to get up to strange and mysterious things in her lab. Now, in an outfit that hugged her compact and unexpectedly curvaceous body, the correct word for her was elfin. The green accents were just the right hue to bring out the bright amber of her eyes and the rich honey-color in her hair. The skirt shimmered gold-green-gold whenever she moved, and had a braided waistband with an extra surprise hidden in it.

“I had help with that, too,” Lance admitted, lifting the trio of large, glinting green gems that hung from the hip-brooch. “It's a smart suit. If you have to, you can undo the braiding to reveal the power and data cords, and here--” He pressed a hidden stud and the gems popped in half, showing a trio of universal adapters. “Plug those into any computer system and toggle that little stud on the right elbow, and you'll be able to jack right in. Zaianne says that it's similar to Blade hacker-tech, and apparently there was something like that for Altean agents as well, because the fabricator ran these up with no trouble. Basically, your whole upper garment is a wearable computer.”

“Cool,” Pidge said with a fearsome grin, reminding them all that elves could be evil, too. “I've always wanted something like that. Do I get an independent power pack if I can't find an outlet?”

Lance lifted up the petals of the rather extravagant silk flower, revealing a small, glowing disc. “Six hours of continuous runtime, if you're taking over the whole building. Heh. All your base are belong to us?”

Pidge cackled. “Oh, yeah. Every last one, Lance. Their security systems and data archives will be mine!”

Hunk laughed and caught her up in a hug. “Oh, wow! Pidge, you are so cute when you're setting out to take over the world. We all look so awesome! Thanks, Lance, you're the best.”

“Any day, Hunk,” Lance said proudly, and then snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. Since I was making stuff for everybody anyway, I stole some time last night to finish up a previous project. Check this out, guys—it took me ages to dig this out of storage, but I think that it was worth it. Purillian ultraplush.”

Lance turned away and pulled open a cabinet, retrieving something golden-brown and very, very fluffy. When he shook it out, Hunk let out a delighted “Oooh!” at the universe's best possible teddy-bear pajamas. “My PJ's! Oh, nice! I've gotta try this on right now, guys, the dancewear is great, but oh, wow, this.”

So saying, Hunk zipped right back into the booth. Lance turned with a smile to bring out another extremely fluffy garment, this one in a soft gray. “And one for you, too, Pidge. I wasn't kidding about the mousie suit.”

She gave him an arch look, but extended a hand to get a feel of the fabric anyway. “Lance, you were really drunk, and—ooh, so fuzzy! It's fuzzy on the inside, too! Oh, wow, Hunk, are you done in there, yet? Never mind, move over!”

Despite the fact that there couldn't possibly have been room for both of them in there, she slid in behind the curtain in a twinkling; a moment later, her fancy party wear came back out without her in it to land in a heap on the floor. Lance gave an offended squawk and snatched it up before anyone could step on it and hung it back up on its stand.

“I worked really hard on that, Pidge,” he said in an injured voice. “Have some respect for the masterpiece, will you?”

Pidge laughed, sounding rather muffled. “You sound like my mom, Lance. She says that I displayed my status as a techno-nerd by thinking that the floor was my closet, and she gave up on making me wear frilly dresses when I was six. I am not a frilly person. Ooof—watch your leg, Hunk!”

Hunk came out of the booth backwards, rolling gently along like a happy panda and struggling with the hood of his pajamas. Pidge tumbled out a moment later, equally fluffy and looking ridiculously pleased about it. Hunk, once he'd gotten his teddy-bear ears straight, was absolutely delighted.

“I love these PJ's!” he declared. “They're all warm and soft and fluffy, and—oh, my god, Pidge, you are the cutest thing ever! Hold still, I've gotta hug you again.”

Pidge laughed as she was swallowed up in, yes, a huge bear hug. “Hunk, you're acting like Matt.”

“Oh, really?” Hunk asked, nuzzling her hood between the big round mousie ears. “How come?”

Pidge sighed and rolled her eyes at the memory. “It was something he used to do if he thought I was being too serious. He'd start yelling that he was the Cuddle-Monster from Planet Velcro, and hug everyone in sight.”

Hunk drew in an awed breath. “Genius. I will follow in his footsteps. Hear that guys? I am the Cuddle-Monster from Planet Velcro, and I will conquer the universe with hugs!”

He was on his feet again before he'd finished speaking, and had wrapped his arms around Lance and Allura, squeezing them happily before dropping them and pouncing on Shiro. Lance laughed breathlessly and shouted. “Run, Keith, run! Save yourself!”

Keith tried, he really did, but Hunk on a hug-rampage was unstoppable; Keith soon found himself to be caught up in an inescapable glomp, which, he had to admit, was wonderfully plush. Zaianne didn't even try to dodge, and Coran took his hug as his due.

“Yes, yes, very nice,” Coran declared, giving Hunk a pat on the head. “Quite a lot nicer than the last one, actually. Very cuddly. Do keep it up.”

“The... last one?” Shiro asked.

“Oh, goodness, yes. Hunk here isn't the only one out to cuddle the cosmos into submission, or wasn't, anyway.” Coran smiled nostalgically. “Had to be, oh, eight or nine decaphebes after Alfor and his lads qualified for the Lions. We got a distress call from the planet Zwinnet. More of a large moon, really, terraformed to suit the tastes of the Makwanthi Royals and converted into a private resort for them. They had a big, fuzzy, blue monster bashing around the gardens and squeezing the locals until they popped, sort of thing. Not a fatal injury, just embarrassing—the Makwans were a sort of blimp-like folk, looked like big clusters of bubbles when they were traveling, and could inflate and deflate at will. All the same, the beast was a terrible nuisance, and quite large, so they had us come by to deal with it. Turned out to be someone's escaped pet, to tell you the truth. A pedigreed Hupcan eblorip, which had managed to get into a barrowload of hlessit weeds, which had the usual result of making it grow to a giant size.”

“You are making that up,” Pidge accused.

Coran sniffed primly. “I am being no less honest then usual. In any case, eblorips make quite good pets. Had a couple of 'em myself when I was a lad. They're a pretty color and are very affectionate, and don't get much bigger than knee-high. It's just that a gutful of hlessit weeds makes them expand enormously, and it gives 'em ambitions. That poor thing didn't mean to burst everyone's bubbles, it was just trying to be friendly. Nearly throttled Zarkon though. He'd been eating baked paslen, and eblorips just love paslen.”

“It's true, actually,” Allura giggled. “One of my cousins had three, and they were forever getting into his neighbor's vegetable garden. It was a contest of wills that kept the entire neighborhood riveted for months—eblorips can use simple tools and climb very well, and they're a good deal smarter than most people give them credit for. Quite aside from all of that, Lance, where's your suit? I can't believe that you might have forgotten to make yours.”

Lance waved a reassuring hand. “It's not quite done yet, that's all. I just really wanted to see if yours fit right. We're going to rock the house tomorrow night... um. Assuming that we can get Pidge and Hunk out of their new pajamas.”

Both of them glared at him defiantly.

Shiro sighed, but turned his attention to Allura. “We're going to want to take our bayards along, of course. Will you be carrying the black bayard, Allura, or should I?”

There was an awkward pause. They had all known that it would come to this sooner or later. None of the Lions had ever had more than one pilot at a time, and no spare bayards had ever been made. They were very much a part of their corresponding Lions, and therefore a part of the Paladins themselves; giving them up for any reason was difficult. The fact that Shiro was doing his best to be polite about it did not really help all that much. Allura heaved a long breath and made the difficult decision.

“Why don't you take it tomorrow night?” she said with only a twinge of discomfort. “I am well-trained in several styles of weaponry, and can get something similar from the Royal Armory. I don't anticipate that we'll have much trouble at the dance, so I shouldn't be inconvenienced.”

Shiro was well-aware of the sacrifice she was making, and nodded. “I appreciate it. How many armories does the Castle have, anyway? I saw one when you showed us the Paladin armor for the first time, and Coran mentioned another after we dealt with the Gantarash.”

“Three,” Coran said promptly. “The one you saw was the old ready room, really, although it was mostly used to show the gear off to foreign delegates. Voltron was pretty much the flashiest bit of battle technology out there, and a lot of people wanted a closer look at those who operated it. The second one was mostly for the household guard until Alfor decided to convert most of the room into a memorial space for the armor of the previous teams. Didn't really have room for 'em anywhere else. The third one's the Royal Armory; quite a few of Allura's relatives and most of her ancestors were of a bold and courageous nature, and could thump a foe with the best of them.”

Keith gave Coran a narrow look. “I thought you guys were pacifists.”

Coran returned his suspicious glare with a sly smile. “Ah. Young man, we have reached one of those rare spots where Altean philosophy and Galran philosophy parallel each other perfectly: There is nothing quite as peaceful as a dead troublemaker.”

“Wisdom,” Zaianne agreed. “I should like to see the Armory for myself, actually. Do you mind if I tag along?”

Allura smiled, seeing interested looks from the rest of her team. “Not at all. Let's get back into our regular clothing first, please. Some of the items in the Armory react badly when something snags on them. Who knows? We may even find you a secondary weapon, Shiro.”

 

The Royal Armory was as large and well-appointed as befitted the rulers of a large interstellar Kingdom, complete with banners proclaiming a long and complex heraldry, richly ornamented display cases, and the odd bit of commemorative statuary. One piece in particular had been placed in the precise center of the room upon a massive plinth, where it was sure to attract the attention of anyone who entered. It certainly got a reaction out of Lance.

“Holy crow!” the blue Paladin squawked. “What is that?”

“Hmm?” Coran glanced up at the imposing figure indifferently; he'd seen the thing regularly over the course of his career, had studied the history of the statue during his Academy years, and the first time he'd seen it had been while he was still in elementary school. Indeed, his early nightmares would have been quite formless without it. “Oh, that? It's just a statue, Lance. That was one of Allura's ancestors, about twenty or thirty generations back, old Farolgrave the Belligerant. He's shown here dressed in his Gronsday best, in a properly heroic stance.”

Lance boggled at him. “Gronsday best what, Coran?”

“Best battle armor, of course. Altea was a little bit of a mess at the time, politically speaking.” Coran waved a proud hand at the marble depiction of a battlesuit that looked as though it could not only subdue a rival civilization all by itself, but eat it for lunch as well. “Farolgrave's family estate was based in a volcanic badland in the middle of a desert—I did tell you about the boiling-hot rocks falling from the sky, didn't I? Never rained anything so tame as water over there, I guarantee it. All the habitations in the area were subterranean. Good mining territory, though, and his people never lacked for sources of energy. Geothermal, of course, had to use up a fair amount of that or the whole region would've blown up. After a few ambitious neighbors tried to separate him from his throne, Farolgrave decided to put a stop to that sort of nonsense. He's also known as the Uniter, and he basically built himself up a nice big army and went and bashed the rest of the world into submission. Grand old chap, but didn't have much of a sense of humor.”

“No kidding,” Pidge said, squinting at the massive hulk of the battlesuit as if trying to figure out if she could build one of her own.

“Nope, he was a grouch to the last, I'm afraid. By the time that people got around to thinking about immortalizing him in stone like this, he was a bit past his prime—he'd put his foot down about bad sculptors, you see, and decreed that no statuary would be commissioned until an artist of sufficient skill and talent popped up to do the job.”

“I take it that this wasn't done from life,” said Shiro, who had heard enough of Coran's anecdotes by now to know how those little tales went.

“It would've been a bit hard to have done that, yeah,” Coran concurred. “He'd been dead for two hundred decaphebes by the time that the sculptor was chosen. Wartime tends to be a bit hard on the art community.”

Hunk stared at the statue, which sat there radiating silent menace. “This, from a race of diplomats?”

“We had to start somewhere,” Allura said. “His daughter Dremalla was better at diplomacy than he was—she only hit the delegates over the head with a big dirty stick half the time. Farolgrave just hit everyone until they did what he told them to do. The family kept on improving upon Dremalla's technique over the following centuries, and eventually got quite good at it. We hardly had to hit anyone at all by the time Grandfather was born.”

Coran smiled proudly at her. “And with only a small, quite clean stick at that. Used to be a ceremonial sort of thing, back in Father's day. There it is, in fact, in that case over there, the rod with the gilding peeling off on one end. Don't look at me like that, progress is progress, people, and besides, I can think of twenty-nine civilizations where hitting someone with a big dirty stick is still considered a valid part of good diplomatic procedure.”

“So can I,” Zaianne said with a smile of her own. “I even got to visit one once. That was one of my more enjoyable missions. I had the biggest, dirtiest stick in the room, and everyone stayed well out of my way. Where are the small arms kept?”

“Right over there,” Coran said, pointing off to the right. “Come on, everyone, ignore the statue. It's not going to come down off of the plinth and chase you around the room or anything.”

“Right,” Keith said in a tone of voice that stated that he didn't entirely believe the Altean. “What happened to the original battlesuit?”

“Hmm? Oh, that.” Coran shrugged and headed off down an aisle. “It was being kept at Tap'bi!Plequa Springs back on Altea. Well, I say 'kept', but it was more like 'immovably wedged into an old lava flow'. Farolgrave had to sacrifice the thing to stop up a breach in a lava tube before it toasted off a major urban center. He was a bit miffed about that. He'd just gotten it all polished up for a festival scheduled for the following weekend. Had to attend the event in one of the newer models, and he hadn't quite gotten the hang of the controls yet. Wound up knocking over a row of market stalls, crushed a fountain that was well-known for being the nation's ugliest, and couldn't find the switch that turned off the windshield wipers. He had to do the entire ceremony with the things waggling at him and was in a sour mood about it for days.”

“How do you know all of this?” Lance asked, glancing back nervously at the statue.

“Because it's all recorded in Coran's family archives,” Allura said with a smile. “One of his ancestors was Farolgrave's boon companion, and his family has been closely associated with mine ever since. Their memoirs make for very interesting reading. That's something that you all might consider doing as well—adding your own voices to the records, so that future historians can hear of your exploits in your own words. I've been keeping a journal ever since we came out of the cryopods.”

“It's something to consider,” Shiro said thoughtfully, and then a particular case caught his eye. “That looks promising.”

“Good eye,” Coran said, indicating not just one, but four long cases holding racks of small, efficient weapons and devices. “See anything you might like, Princess?”

Curious, both Allura and the rest of her team stared at the items on display, some of which were very strange. There was a sizable selection of handguns, of course, and numerous sets of small edged weapons. Compact little devices that had been designed for covert use stood in profusion along those shelves, ranging from tiny sonic grenades to a needle gun no larger than Pidge's thumb. Boxes of tiny explosives rubbed cheeks with pocket interrogation kits; force-shield generators that could be tucked into the cuff of one's sleeve or under a lapel sat next to things that looked for all the world like magic wands. There were also odd things that folded and unfolded into stranger things, and some of them were larger than others.

“Coran, what's this?” Keith asked, pointing at an object that took up most of one lower shelf. “It looks like a swiss-army battle hammer.”

“Aha! Nice find,” Coran said after bending down to look. “That's a historical piece, by the way, the Million-Use Mallet of Duke Mobrio the Vexed. It was said that he could do just about anything with it, from bashing his way through a wall to sewing up holes in his trousers. It was his own invention, of course, and one that he'd made on a bet.”

“Impressive,” Pidge said with proper admiration for a really versatile tool. “Did he do a lot of this sort of thing?”

“Yes, actually, or sort of,” Coran said, twiddling his mustache nostalgically. “The man was a bit of an engineer. More of a gadgeteer, really, and some called him a mad scientist. He wasn't mad, just mildly vexed, hence the title. Most of his inventions were a good deal more, shall we say, extravagant than that one. One of his friends had bet him three casks of best-quality numvill that he couldn't build something that wasn't a unitasker, and that couldn't be used to destroy whole space stations all in one go. Well, Mobrio won the bet, as you can see. Rather a remarkable gentleman. Had the best maniacal laugh in the region, too. They checked.”

Hunk smiled at a display of small stunners. “Yeah, we've had a few like that. The last really good one we had was Nikola Tesla, and he was into electricity. He just didn't feel right if something wasn't going zap nearby, and he almost managed to build a death ray, but the technology of the time wasn't advanced enough to make it work. He was a little weird though—he didn't get angry at all when other inventors stole his work, and he fell in love with a pigeon.”

Coran glared suspiciously at him. “You're making that up.”

“God's own truth, Coran,” Hunk replied, and then pointed at a small crystal chest stuffed into one corner of a bottom shelf. “Hey, what are these?”

Allura bent down for a closer look and drew in a sharp breath. “Coran! Are these what I think they are?”

Coran peered at the case and choked in shock. “They are! If their power cells are still good... my goodness, how did they wind up here? There was a terrible kerfuffle after they were stolen, and quite a lot of time was wasted in tearing the labs apart for any trace of the thief. Let me just get this thing open--”

Coran slapped his palm down on the keypad and hauled the chest out the moment that the panel opened. Inside lay five surprisingly familiar objects. Zaianne's eyebrows lifted in surprise as Coran lifted one out, and she wasn't alone in that. “Prototype bayards?” she asked.

“Spot on as always, Madame,” Coran said, fiddling with something inside the grip. “They're not as powerful or as versatile as the final product, and they won't do a whit of good with the Lions. There just wasn't enough hantalurium left over from building the Lions to waste on experimental models, d'you see, but the scientists of the time managed to come up with something nearly as good. They did tend to burn through their batteries rather quickly, though. I'm pretty sure that we've got some spare power cells somewhere... aha. Right here in the box.”

“Father told me once that there had been several attempts to steal the scientific data involved in the making of the armor and bayards,” Allura explained, showing them another of the prototypes; it was a simple grip with none of the elegant sculpting or bright colors of the bayards themselves, but it was nonetheless a competent-looking device. “There were all sorts of warlike peoples and extremist groups out there, all desperate for any edge over their enemies that they could beg, borrow, or steal. These prototypes performed very well in the testing phases, and there was some talk about equipping our own armed forces with them.”

There was a click and a sharp hum as Coran's prototype came to life, producing a long, slender blade of white energy. He swung it experimentally a few times, and struck a pose. “Quite right. The Captain of the Guard was all for it, of course, even though it would have put a bit of a dent in the budget. Swordsmanship was very fashionable in those days, so you're out of luck if you want a handgun or a grappling-hook. Nonetheless, they were better than anything else on the market at the time, and then some miserable oaf made off with these. No idea who, or why they might have hidden them here and then never returned for them. That was well before Alfor was out of early training. Before he'd even met the others, to tell the truth. Here, take a swing or two, Shiro. It's not the same, but it's close enough.”

Shiro took the sword, and smiled at the familiar feel of the grip in his hand. The blade was longer than he was used to, and the grip was slightly heavier than the black bayard, but it would do him very well. He practiced a short string of katas with it until he had the feel of it, and then thumbed a small switch on the guard that shut the sword down with a quiet whirr. “Nice. Can the power cells be recharged?”

“Presumably,” Coran said, peering into the chest. “The thief didn't take the charger, but I would suspect that Pidge and Hunk can whip something up for you. Still need to find something for Allura, though.”

“Already done, Coran,” Allura said with satisfaction, pulling a smaller and somewhat more streamlined grip from a different shelf. “I've finally found where Mother hid the laser-whips. She said that they weren't a suitable weapon for a Lady of rank. That didn't stop me from bribing the Master of Arms into teaching me how to use them anyway. Again, not quite as good as a bayard, but good enough, and easily concealed in our party wear.”

Pidge grinned. “Gotta have the right accessories to really make an impression. Tomorrow night is going to be fun.”

“We can certainly hope so,” Zaianne said.

Keith rolled his eyes, but didn't dignify the situation with words.

 

Chapter Text

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.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Party Time

 

You put your left leg in, you take your left leg out, you put your left leg in and you shake it all about! You do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself around...”

Keith ducked as Tilla's huge spiky tail swung through the air at about head height, executed an athletic crouch-and-spin, and then sprang upright again, keeping an eye on the dragon the whole time to make sure that she wasn't going to keep whirling around in circles. If he focused on not getting torn apart by her various spikes and pointy parts or flattened under her huge clawed feet, he could safely ignore everything else. His life depended on that, as a matter of fact; if he let his mind dwell on the fact that he was doing the Hokey-Pokey while in formal wear, right in front of roughly two thousand alien high officials, he would probably die of sheer embarassment. The fact that everybody else seemed to be having fun did not help. He ground his teeth and continued with this travesty, even when he heard Lance's voice ring out with “You put your tail right in...”

Keith very nearly gave into the temptation to throttle his teammate, right there in front of everybody. Lance had been told very firmly that there was to be no twerking, and no, it didn't matter that his family had made a tradition of constructive bottom-waggling in their dance-offs. Unfortunately, it was too late to stop him, and Tilla was already performing the graceful about-face to show off her own particularly impressive tail. Perforce, Keith did as well, resolving to plant his foot very firmly in Lance's tail as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Very, very firmly, he thought, ducking again as Tilla took her tail out. He would kick Lance's ass so hard that he would carry the bruise for life. No, no, he would kick Lance's whole genetic code so hard that Lance's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would all carry the mark of his wrath on their behinds. He would kick Lance's ass so hard that the impact would bend space and time. Not only would it be visible from orbit, but one day, Keith vowed, archaeologists would unearth the brittle bones of a two-million-year-old hominid that would have a boot-print clearly delineated on the right rear pelvis.

Tilla, grunting in amusement, waggled her hindquarters with no shame at all and executed another graceful pirouette.

Finally, finally, they ran out of body parts to shake all about, sang the final “Hokey-Pokey!” and were allowed to leave the floor while Lizenne and Modhri stayed back to make sure that the preparations for their own performance had been set up properly.

A big hand patted his shoulder, and he looked up into Hunk's smiling face. Hunk loved dancing and simply didn't care whether or not it was childish; his dark eyes glowed with confidence, and he was radiating happiness as only he could. “That wasn't so bad, now was it?” he said cheerfully. “How are you holding up, Keith?”

Keith scowled at Tilla, who had drifted aside and was rotating again with balletic grace. “I'm okay. What's with Tilla?”

“She really likes doing pirouettes,” Hunk said with a shrug. “Dragons don't get dizzy like we do—their inner-ear structure and visual systems are way different from ours, and they can take a lot of shaking around before their eyes start to cross, and their tummies don't get upset by it, either. Maybe we could rent her out as a carnival ride, or something.”

Keith couldn't help but smile at the thought of Tilla whirling gracefully, her back covered with excited kids while Hunk sold tickets. “I'd rather go charging after another yulpadi. This time, I want to ride the dragon.”

“Maybe later,” Hunk said, although his own gaze sharpened a bit at the thought of another bowl of the universe's most perfect stew. “Right now, we get a breather while Lizenne and the others take a turn. This is gonna be so cool. I asked Modhri about it, and he showed me a recording of a professional performance, and... wow.”

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but a low drumroll was sounding from the floor, and they turned to watch. The floor had acquired some scenery while they hadn't been looking, in the form of a holographic grassland bordered by forest, with a large rock formation on one side. That was probably a force-screen construct, for Zaianne had appeared atop it, resplendent in her burgundy-colored finery and her posture as proud as any queen's. Lights at the base of the faux rock formation lit her from below, making her golden eyes glow and her body seem half-made of shadow, like a spirit out of the night.

“Hearken!” she said in a commanding tone that immediately had everyone's attention, the sound system hurling her voice around the room and giving it an echoing effect that was very impressive. “Hearken, and behold this tale of the ancient days, when the First Emperor Modhri the Wise was growing old upon his Throne. Many were his daughters, and legion were his sons. Such was his skill and prowess that each and every one of his offspring were hotly pursued by the scions of the High Houses, that they might wed into the Royal Line and thereby gain a little of his greatness... and his favor. His daughters chose their men well, and great women chose his sons, save one only. One only—Prince Salchor, the last-born of Threonar, wife of Modhri the Wise. Indeed, he feared the women who came to court him, seeing that they sought him only to claim a portion of his father's power through his body, and escaped their eyes by guile. All unseen, he had taken an unmarked craft to the Great Mesa of Kochalpur on Namtura, homeworld of his grandmother, Queen Zaianne the Great. There, he thought to hide for a time in the wild, and to hunt, and to live as his distant ancestors once had, for such activity brings peace to the heart and soul of a troubled man.”

Zaianne gave the audience a naughty smile. “He soon found that he was not alone in his aims, and the Lady Kerolla, a woman of a minor House who had claimed that range for her own time of peace as well, soon took note. Like him, her House wished her to wed, and like him, she had not liked her choices. This man, all unlooked-for, presented a better option.”

The lights at the base of the rock went out, and Zaianne vanished; the music swelled, carrying a single, beautifully-trained male voice, singing in a language that had not been widely spoken for well over ten thousand years. Keith went very still at the sound of it, listening intently. He had never heard a Galra sing before, other than the song that Lizenne, Modhri, and Zaianne had sung during Shiro's resurrection, or when his mother was distracted enough to hum some random ditty under her breath. This was a professional in his prime, and something in the stately cadences and the way the words rang on the air spoke directly to his bones and blood. In answer to that music, Modhri appeared like a phantom out of the grasses.

Keith had seen his adoptive uncle move like that before, both on the training deck and in the envirodeck, and his heart ached to see the pensive and lonely expression on Modhri's face. He moved with a predator's grace, his every motion smooth and controlled as he swept the simulated grasses aside, looking for game trails.

As he bent down to examine what might have been a fresh track, a woman's voice joined the theme, light and ethereal, and Keith heard someone hiss beside him. He glanced down at Pidge, who was staring owlishly at the sound system. “That's Hantis!” she said very softly as the delicate voice wove into the music like threads of silver.

Allura suddenly pointed off to the left. “Look!”

In the shadow of a grove of simulated trees was Lizenne, nearly invisible among the slender boles and watching Modhri with considerable interest. She smiled, and Hantis laughed lightly, a soft and delicious sound that made the entire team blush hotly. Lizenne was no less graceful than her man, ghosting out of the trees to become one with the grasses, moving with the voice of the great Hantis Chalep'Thora to examine the very attractive intruder in her territory. She spent some time examining the oblivious fellow from all angles, and a ripple of amusement went through the crowd when she crept up behind him and tugged playfully on the tips of his ears.

Keith saw Lance raise a hand to his own ear out of the corner of his eye, and remembered how Helenva had done the same thing to his teammate before meeting Kelezar. Much like Lance had, Modhri jumped in surprise, yellow eyes wide and startled, and he whirled around to face his assailant. Too slowly, for Lizenne had vanished; Keith's nerves quivered as he felt Lizenne re-materialize behind Modhri, and he couldn't help but grin when she tickled his ribs. This time when Modhri spun around, she remained standing there, and he backed away in utter astonishment from this wild apparition.

The voice of Hantis took on a challenging tone, and Lizenne gave her chin that proud lift, her eyes flashing; the smile on her lips held both invitation and warning, and she drifted to one side in a movement as graceful as mist on the breeze. Her fingers brushed Modhri's cheek in passing, and he could not help but turn to follow.

The dance they performed then was not a pursuit. Modhri challenged her in turn with subtle gestures of his hands, and the bows they made to each other held nothing of submission. This was a mutual test of strength and coordination, of skill and grace, move and countermove that was as exacting as a battle. Still, they both slipped in affectionate touches here and there, from Modhri's expression of awe and delight, to Lizenne's tender caress to the underside of his jaw. When they came finally to embrace at the end of the music, the passionate kiss they shared was echoed around the room; no few of the people in the audience were similarly moved, and a squeak from Keith's left revealed Lance stealing a kiss from Pidge. Pidge was blushing hotly, but didn't seem repulsed, and Keith had just enough time to wonder why he hadn't gone up in flames at the sight of another guy kissing his girl before Lance wrapped his other arm around Keith's waist and rested his chin upon his shoulder. Keith turned his head to meet Lance's deep-blue eyes and surprisingly sweet smile, and thought, Oh, that's why, as the overhead lights dimmed to signal the end of the scene. He couldn't help but notice that Hunk had wrapped his own arms around Shiro and Allura, and neither of them looked unhappy about that.

Once again, the lights at the base of the stone came on, illuminating the elevated Zaianne, and once again her voice rang out over the enthralled audience.

“Kerolla and Salchor had chosen each other in the old way, and once such a promise had been made, there could be no breaking it. That he was a Prince did not matter. That her House was not among the High did not matter. They were together as one for all time. Alas, the High Houses did not share that view; that Salchor was a Prince mattered very much to the ambitious, and they hunted for him relentlessly. For fifty-one days and nights the agents of the High Houses sought him, until one such agent, a servant of the House of Hap'Banak'Tak detected his ship, and carried word of it back to his masters. The House then sent a daughter of great skill to fetch him, thinking that his capture might gain them the wealth and preference they sought. Telchamar it was who was sent, Telchamar the proud, Telchamar the fierce, Telchamar, whose powers were subtle and varied. Telchamar, who came to the Mesa to claim what she thought was her due.”

The lights below the stone faded, and the overheads came up again, showing Lizenne and Modhri cuddling by a campfire, looking entirely contented with each other. It was a pose that Keith and the others had seen a number of times before, usually late in the evening in the Castle's main lounge. Her arm was around Modhri's shoulders, the hand caressing the fur behind his ear, and her expression faintly smug. Modhri was totally relaxed, his arm wrapped around her waist, and that sweet, loving smile that seemed to make the very air around them glow upon his face. Keith was fairly sure that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Galra man looking like that. Modhri had told him some time ago that the Military was made up almost entirely of unattached men and a scattering of women who were too fearsome to settle down. Those few female soldiers who did find a boyfriend among the ranks almost always resigned once their choice had been made, and they took their men with them when they left. Since the Military was what most uncolonized subject worlds saw, Galra family life was a complete mystery to large portions of the Empire. Indeed, there was a soft murmur of surprise rising from the tiers at this tender scene.

The simulated fire was burning low, and Lizenne leaned forward to toss an illusory stick into the flames. That seemed to have been the last of the firewood, however, and she scowled, rose gracefully, and set out to gather more. Modhri gazed longingly after her, but fell to some small task instead, completely missing the ripple in the grasses to his right. At the foot of the stone, Erantha appeared, the severe cut of her attire making her look like the most unwelcome aspect of civilization and badly out of place in that setting. Her expression was also something to fear; Keith had seen the sort of look she was giving Modhri before, in a nature documentary. He'd seen it on the face of a cougar, just before it had pounced on a young deer, and he had to stop himself from shouting a warning. No few of the watching Councilmembers did it for him.

A third voice had joined in the music, a powerful soprano who sang with the same terrible focus as a lioness on the hunt. Modhri started up in surprise and dismay when she came out of the grasses before him, leaping to his feet and backing away. She danced toward him, every movement sheer poetry, but her expression was cold; she called him to duty, rather than to love, and she was not in the habit of taking “no” for an answer.

Modhri backed further away, gesturing a strong negative as the male voice in the music became forceful and wary; he would not go with her, he had made his choice already, her family's ambitions could go hang for all he cared, and his own family's right beside them!

Erantha pursued, her eyes intent; he had no choice, his duty to both family and Empire demanded his submission. She moved suddenly, as smooth and fast as a striking snake, and struck—a quick blow to the temple and another precise blow to the back of one knee dropped him like a stone, and she pulled out a cord and tied his hands behind him as he lay gasping on the ground. She had just gotten him secured when the voice of Hantis rose in a terrifying shriek of pure rage, and suddenly Lizenne was there. Fangs bared, hackles raised, and tambok-fang knife in hand, she leaped from the top of the stone and would have landed right on Erantha's back if the woman hadn't sprung away.

Erantha pulled herself up to her full and impressive height, viewing the wildwoman with cold and disdainful eyes, and her sneer was a work of art. Slowly, she drew her own knife, dark luxite blade glinting, and bared her own fangs in challenge. Lizenne exploded forward in a rush that Keith and his team knew all too well from the training deck, and Keith had just enough time to be relieved that she hadn't brought her spear along before he was too busy watching the battle to pay much attention to anything else.

Galra women did not have catfights. Even as a mere stage performance, it was a full-on magic ninja clan war or nothing. Blades rang and sparks flew, and blows were traded with devastating force; they snapped in and out of sight as they teleported back and forth, trying to outmaneuver each other, and hurled and deflected mage-bolts in terrible profusion. Lizenne even lifted the flames out of the campfire and flung them at Erantha, who brushed them aside with a silvery shield. How much was real and how much was illusion, Keith could not tell. Even the music was a duel, the white-hot wrath of Hantis's voice contending with the potent soprano, underscored with the male voice's anxious chanting. Dazed, Modhri struggled to his knees, watching the battle with unalloyed horror and fighting to get his hands free. He managed to loosen his bonds with his toe-claws in a painful-looking movement that made Keith reflect distantly that Galra were more limber than most Humans, and he scrambled up and back, looking for any way to break up the fight. Lizenne wanted blood, that was very clear, and Erantha would not permit some commoner to defy her and live.

Finally, Lizenne put a foot wrong, or overextended, or something—Keith wasn't sure which, but she wobbled for just a split second, and it was just enough of an opening for Erantha to whirl and deliver a kick that knocked Lizenne flying. She landed hard against the stone and slumped there, stunned, unable to move as Erantha closed in for the kill. Before her knife could reach Lizenne's throat, Modhri was there, standing between them with arms spread to ward her away, the knifepoint quivering perhaps a half-inch from his breast. Modhri's features took on a hard cast that Keith had never seen before in the man, eyes hot and dangerous, and he bared his fangs at Erantha in defiance. No, said his whole posture. No, said the music itself, carry this further, woman, and you must kill me as well. I have made the promise that cannot be broken.

Lizenne pulled herself painfully to her feet and took her place beside him, ready to continue the match if Erantha should decide to press the issue. Erantha hesitated, looking back and forth between them, her face showing dismay and no small amount of chagrin at Modhri's rejection of her. She backed away and sheathed her knife, pulling her self-control around herself like a cloak. So be it, everything about that movement said, and she bowed slightly and left, radiating dignity.

Modhri and Lizenne watched her go, and then sagged in relief; Modhri wrapped his arms around his wife and buried his face in her hair, his shoulders trembling. Lizenne sheathed her knife as well and embraced him, but her eyes remained wary. She would watch and wait, but the next time someone issued a challenge, she would not hesitate to kill.

The lights dimmed, and once again Zaianne appeared atop the rock, dramatically underlit. “Telchamar did not return to make a second attempt, and such were her words concerning the battle that no other woman challenged Kerolla. Salchor did not succeed his father upon the throne, nor did any of his sons, but his daughters carried their parents' greatness into a new generation, and his grandson and great-grandson both took and held the Throne in their time. Thus ends the Courtship of Salchor and Kerolla. Hail to the ancient days, and learn from them! Never forget that this very moment in time might well be seen as legendary in the following eons, so make no choices that your descendants will regret.”

The lights went out. Keith heaved a long, shuddering breath, and realized that he was sweating, his heart pounding in his chest as if he had been involved in that battle.

“Holy crow,” Keith heard Lance say, sounding just as shaky as he felt, “was that real? I mean, did that actually happen in real life once?”

“Roughly ten thousand, two hundred years ago, give or take a decade or two,” Zaianne said with a smile, ambling in off of the stage. “That sort of thing still happens occasionally even today, although it's very rare that two strong witches will face off both magically and with weapons at the same time. That was absolutely magnificent, you three.”

Keith turned to see the three Galra approaching, looking breathless and tired, but triumphant. Modhri still had his arm around Lizenne's waist, and Keith was unsurprised to note that she had positioned herself between Erantha and Modhri. Erantha, whether it was instinctive or not, was walking a full arm's-length away from the pair. Distance, he recalled, and he'd just seen the reason why maintaining that distance was so important.

Modhri waggled a hand modestly. “Passable. My brother would doubtless have had an entire list of demerits to read off to us, and a list of possible improvements that would be three times as long. All the same, we did not dishonor either the epic or the music, I feel. I take it that you'll want a copy of the soundtrack as well, Pidge?”

Pidge fixed him with a steely glare. “Gimme. That wasn't the original you brought with you, was it?”

“Don't be silly,” Lizenne said with a smile. “The original—and it's a signed original, I'll have you know, is safely aboard the Chimera. Guarded by dragons most of the time, I might add.”

Gronk,” Soluk said helpfully, looking very much the proper treasure-guardian.

“We will have perhaps ten or fifteen doboshes before the third dance,” Erantha said, and there was just a hint of smugness in her tone as she looked out at the milling throng in the tiers. “We have shaken no few of them to the very core, and they feel the need to recoup their strength, just in case the third dance is as potent as the second. You never showed us the correct steps for the all-inclusive dance, Hunk.”

Hunk waved a dismissive hand. “Keith and I were too busy trying to get Tilla to stop spinning, Lance was putting the finishing touches on the outfits, you and Modhri and Lizenne were too busy rehearsing, Shiro, Coran, and Allura had to ride herd on the repair guys, and keeping Pidge away from the repair guys would've been impossible anyway. It doesn't matter much, since the dance is really easy. Lance knows it by heart and I could do it in my sleep, and we'll have the original music video playing up on the screens, too. You guys wouldn't be standing here now if you weren't all fast learners. I'll lead off, and all you've gotta do is follow me. Simple.”

Erantha gave him a quizzical look. “We're to just... run onto the floor and join in?”

“Yup, just come on in however you want,” Hunk grinned at her. “It's totally in character, and you can do backflips or cartwheels or twirl along with Tilla... oh, crud, there she goes again. Soluk, would you stop her before she wears a hole in the floor? Or whatever else you want, and it would fit right in. It's all about having fun all together, and anyone can join in. It was super popular for a while back in the early Twenty-first Century, and it's come back on the retro circuit a bunch of times. It's a real classic.”

It sounds like fun,” Coran said. “Knew a few dance styles of that nature, back in the day. There was a fad for free-form figures back when Alfor was a lad, and some of his aunties and uncles got quite enthusiastic about it. Got so there was a sort of informal competition going on between the Royal Family and the higher Nobles. Well, I say informal, but things got pretty heated in some quarters. Got to be rather hard on the furniture, and the walls and ceiling, come to think of it. Alfor's mother eventually had to call a halt to the fun after the Grand Duchess of Thoquora and the Viscount of Pikrish-on-the-Heights wound up propelling each other right over the balcony rail and into the garden pond below. It was a lovely party, and I made off with an entire basket of brenthit tarts in the confusion.”

“How old were you at the time?” Shiro asked, smiling.

“Twelve, if you must know,” Coran replied with a nostalgic look in his eyes. “Alfor was more or less the same age, and we'd crept out of our rooms to hide under the liquid-refreshments table, the better to watch the fun, you see. And steal treats from the sideboards. We might have seen more, but we weren't the only two underage adventurers out and about that night. T'was a little girl who'd joined us, just as I was fetching the tarts, one of the many granddaughters of the Grand Duke of Southern Diramark. She and Alfor got into a fight over those tarts that tipped the table over, as I recall, and got us all grounded for a week, and she and Alfor swore never to forgive each other for the incident.”

Lizenne snorted. “A cub's sworn word is like flowers of frost; shining, pure, and lasting no longer than the sunrise. I take it that they reconciled in time?”

“Yes, I'd say so,” Coran said, tugging consideringly at his mustache. “Enough to eventually get married, in any case, although it still wasn't a good idea to get between Melenor and a fresh-baked brenthit tart.”

Allura giggled. “She did love them. Father and I had to make up batches in secret when she was out of the Castle if we wanted to get any of them at all.”

Hunk nudged her gently. “If you can dig up the recipe, I can run us up a few batches. We can sort of ceremonially offer your parents some and scarf the rest. Humans have a lot of rituals like that. It keeps them close.”

She smiled at him. “That would be very nice, thank you.”

They were interrupted at that point by an indignant squawk from Tilla; Soluk had caught her tail in his teeth, since trying to stop her rotations any other way had not worked. That backfired on him, alas, for she simply lunged forward and caught his tail in her own fangs and kept going, forcing them both into a double-dragon roundelay that threatened to knock over everything backstage. Trying to get them separated took up the rest of the intermission, and there was a great deal of muffled gronking that forced the official Granidlo to shout to get their attention.

“Hey!” the huge Drinth boomed, startling them all. “You're on in five. What's the holdup?”

Lizenne knocked a knuckle against Tilla's jaw, which was still clamped firmly on Soluk's tail. “Artistic temperament. Dragons can be a bit fractious at times.”

The Granidlo gave Tilla a dire look. “Reminds me of last week's diplomatic session. It was the Hwarks and the Nuppams fussing at each other over asteroid-mining rights again, and they looked exactly like that. Well, there's a way around this sort of thing.”

Before Tilla could duck away, the Granidlo's mallet smacked smartly against her nose, forcing her to open her mouth in order to vent a pained yelp. Soluk jerked his tail free and whirled around, intending to give her a nip on the ear, but he, too, was forestalled by a well-aimed bop on the snoot. Both dragons thumped down onto their haunches and gave the Granidlo injured looks.

“Very professionally done,” Modhri said.

“Practice,” the Granidlo replied, glowering unsympathetically at the sulking dragons. “Years and years of practice. It's not an easy job and you have to make a lot of snap decisions, but I love it. It pays well and I can smack people who really need smacking, and believe me, competition for the job is fierce. Now get out there and make the Council happy, you all. I overextended my shoulder a few weeks ago, and I'd prefer to keep the smacking to a minimum.”

Hunk drew himself up proudly, suspenders glittering. “I am so on this,” he said, and headed out onto the floor.

Keith watched him go with a certain unease. By and large, dancing had not interested him since before his father had died, and he had shunned the various school dances for good and sufficient reason. Even so, he knew of a number of freestyle dances that had been very popular on and off before they'd left, including one that had haunted him for much of his life. A nameless dread began to rise in the back of his mind as a single spotlight came on, illuminating Hunk in the dead center of the floor, and that dread gained a name when the opening bars of a very familiar song began pulsing out of the sound system. A ring of huge screens popped into existence high overhead, showing an equally familiar music video, and Keith watched in horror as a man with certain physical similarities to both Hunk and himself began to perform an act that had once made international news.

No!” Keith yelped, backing away as Hunk began to dance along, grinning hugely and moving his bulk with remarkable skill. “Not this! Anything but this! Guys, make it stop!”

His plea fell on deaf ears, alas; everybody, even the mice and the dragons, were beginning to move with the driving beat. Lance gave his wild-eyed teammate a confused look. “Keith, what's your problem? This is perfect.”

Keith shook his head in denial. “It is not. Dad was obsessed with this stupid dance, and he made me dance with him every damned time. Even in school, whenever someone found out that I was part Korean, they hauled this thing out of storage. Every time! I thought that I was safe after Blue kidnapped us, that it couldn't have possibly followed me all the way out into the cosmos, but no! Here it is again!”

Lance grinned at him. “That still doesn't mean that it isn't perfect. 'Scuse me, I've gotta go get me some of that perfection. C'mon, guys.”

Lance sailed out to join Hunk, the dragons, the mice, Allura, and Erantha following behind.

Keith watched them go in helpless horror. “Mom, Shiro, not you too!”

“It was part of the agreement,” Shiro said with a shrug. “Besides, it looks like fun.”

Zaianne smiled at her son. “Khaeth, this is how your father brought me back to strength and surefootedness after I'd healed up from the crash. Ridiculous as it looks, it is a good way of honoring your sire. Stop whining and come along.”

“Pidge?” Keith pleaded, but all he got was a hard look and a finger wagged under his nose.

“You guys made me dance the Hokey-Pokey. Suck it up, Keith. Look, the Delegates are already joining in. That guy there doesn't even have feet, and if that thousand-year-old Grandpa Turtle over there can do it, so can you.”

“She does have a point,” Lizenne said, observing the rapidly-filling floor.

Modhri chuckled. “Come along, Keith, it's only for a handful of minutes, and then it's over. We'll have a nice dinner where we'll watch the Granidlo cut the traditional nine boring speeches short, and then we'll go back to the Castle where you can pretend that today never happened.”

Keith groaned, but accepted his fate. Defeated, he fell in behind them, following them out onto the dance floor and under the screens where a round little man of great talent declared to the universe at large: Oppa Gangnam Style!

Face set in a forbidding scowl, he nonetheless danced perfectly, the motions as deeply ingrained as his sword training. If nothing else, it gave him an opportunity to observe what was becoming a first-class revel. Just about every one of the government officials and all of their underlings had come down from their tiers, and some of them were bizarre. As Pidge had pointed out, there were people with no feet, both snail-like and serpentine, and the turtle-like aliens were surprisingly swift-footed and agile dancers. On the other hand, there were people with far too many feet, or with wings, fins, cilia, pseudopods, or tentacles, and there was one group of people who looked like jeweled beach balls bouncing enthusiastically in time to the beat. Even the Granidlo, still standing on one side of the floor, was tapping a forefoot and looking interested, which was about as much as one could hope for from a Drinth.

All of them, thankfully, were giving Tilla and Soluk a lot of room. Not being able to stand upright, they had compromised with a sort of bowlegged prance that looked very impressive, but the odd position made their feet just a little clumsy; whoever it was who looked after the floors here was going to be upset later. Keith could see the mice dancing on the dragons' backs, apparently having a great time, and he looked around reflexively for the rest of his group. Hunk and Lance had noticed that Shiro wasn't very good at this and had come up on either side of him, correcting his hands and stance and dancing alongside him in a show of perfect unity. Coran was hamming it up, of course, his long legs particularly suited to this activity. Allura seemed to glimmer in the lights like a pearl, and she danced along gracefully next to Erantha, a light-and-dark pairing that was very striking in more ways than one. Pidge had found partners among the local delegates and was leading her own troupe of brightly-colored small furry people. Zaianne was engaging in some fancy footwork that was raising a collective blush on a group of elderly gentlemen, and Lizenne and Modhri were attracting envious stares from a number of unattached young persons who had obviously never danced with someone that they loved. Everyone was having a good time but him, Keith thought, and yearned heartily for the music to finish.

At last, the final stance was achieved, and the screens went dark. A storm of cheering went up from the crowd, and Keith fought his way through the press of overexcited aliens to Hunk, who was beaming like a searchlight. He caught his teammate's arm and hissed into his ear, “Gangnam style? Really, Hunk? I hate that thing.”

Hunk cast him an amused look. “You left it up to me, Keith. Besides, I'm good at it, and it doesn't take long for anyone else to get good at it, too.”

Lance caught Keith's shoulder and grinned as he gave Keith a little shake. “Hunk won the Galaxy Garrison's bi-monthly dance contest three times in a row with this one, Keith. Cool it, will you? You're as grumpy as Kolivan is. We're going to have to get you some remedial courses in having fun if this keeps up.”

Keith was about to deliver a stinging reply, but somebody nearby had started shouting, “Encore! Encore!”

NO!” Keith howled desperately, a part of him praying to whatever might be listening for something, anything to spare him from dancing again.

As if in answer, a shattering explosion ripped through the air, and the floor under their feet lurched and shook, sending many people tumbling to the floor. The cheers turned to screams of panic as one side of the room shuddered and collapsed, tearing open to show that the western wing of the Council Hall had been hit as well, and was now a pile of burning wreckage. With a tearing groan, the floor on that side buckled and collapsed, dropping many of the delegates into the basements below. The strain was too much for the false ceiling as well; with a great screech of tortured steel and sharp cracks as cables gave way, the light fixtures fell in showers of sparks, the canvas ripping into huge strips and falling in heavy folds atop the revelers as the room went abruptly dark. Sirens began to blare as tall figures rushed through the enormous hole in the wall, and through the Council Chamber's doorways as well.

“Yes!” Keith said, glad for the prospect of a real fight. “Thank you, God!”

“Keith!” Allura chided, but she already had her laser whip out and glowing hotly. “This is terrible! There are soldiers and Sentries everywhere!”

He flashed her a quick grin. “Yeah, but this is now my kind of party. Come on!”

“Savage,” she grumbled, but rushed to help him all the same.

This was not as easy as it looked; two-thirds of the crowd were in a frenzy of terror and the rest were bellowing demands for explanations at the tops of their voices, which is how high officials panic. The invaders ignored them entirely, moving to surround the entire floor as the emergency lights started to flicker to life. Those were no help at all; it was rather obvious that that particular system was original to the building; many of the lights sputtered out or failed to activate, and the ones that did come on did so with a sort of insipid green glow that did more to highlight the shadows than dispel them. As a result, it was nearly impossible to make out individuals in the murk. Nonetheless, a group of five burly figures pushed through the press of soldiers and Sentries, yellow eyes gleaming in the dim light.

“Aliens!” the biggest of them boomed in a harsh voice that made the crowd go quiet. “You are harboring the Paladins of Voltron, the foremost enemies of the Empire, and have gone so far as to aid and abet them. This is treachery against the Emperor himself, and the punishment is immediate execution. You will submit quietly, or--”

He choked off, staring down in disbelief at the small glowing hole that had appeared in his breastplate before sagging bonelessly to the floor.

“No,” Erantha said, her voice cutting clearly through the sudden shocked silence, and took aim at another officer.

The remaining officers scattered, barking orders to attack, and the soldiers started shooting, driving the crowd into a frenzy of sheer panic. Half-deafened by the screaming rising up all around him, Shiro shook his left wrist, and the shield generator concealed in the cuff came alive, deflecting several blasts.

“We've got to get the Councilmembers to safety!” he shouted over the noise, “Pidge, Keith, can you shut down the Sentries?”

Reflexively, the red and green Paladins reached out toward the mechanical soldiers, getting a feel for the harsh purple glare of the aetheric shielding they carried. This was an older batch, they discovered, and those shields were nothing like as strong as what they had faced only a few days ago. Pidge grinned, summoning not one single Spike of Hantis in her mind, but rather a swarm of smaller ones, like darning needles; Keith threaded them with cleansing fire, and then sent them on their way with such force that the Sentries nearest to them exploded. The rest dropped in their tracks, leaving only the living soldiers to contend with, and Lance knew how to deal with that.

“Tilla! Soluk!” he yelled, “Hokey-Pokey!”

The two dragons roared and began to spin wildly, their huge feet crushing the fallen Sentries and sending the soldiers and delegates alike scrambling for safety.

“Yes!” Lance yelled triumphantly. “Now, that's what it's all about!”

Shiro nodded in approval at the confusion that this was causing, and then spotted movement by the huge hole in the wall. There were things out there, very large things, and they were coming to join the fun. “Any idea of what those are, Hunk?”

Hunk glanced over at the oncoming monsters and groaned. “Cyborgs. Big ones. Just a few of them, but there don't have to be all that many around to do a lot of damage. Guys, I'm gonna need help with those!”

“Get to it, then,” Shiro said, looking around for Zaianne and the others and seeing them already in the thick of the fighting; the Council Hall's own security detachment had arrived, and was disputing the invaders' authority right alongside his friends. The Granidlo in particular was in rare form, felling soldiers right and left with powerful swings of dans mallet. Some of the Council members and their staff were fighting as well, which helped. “I'll help Lizenne and the rest. Close up that breach, too, if you can.”

“On it!” Hunk said, pulling out his bayard and heading toward the hulking figures at the far end of the room.

Shiro watched his team go, and then pulled out his own bayard and leaped into the fray.

Modhri had managed to get a blaster away from one of the soldiers and was firing with grim precision at their foes from behind the crumpled wreckage of one of the big arc lights, and was even managing to hold down a squad of troops. He wouldn't be able to keep that up for much longer, Shiro knew, and another group of soldiers was already hurrying over in his direction. Without even thinking, Shiro put himself between his friend and his foes, and they recoiled in surprise at the sight of him.

One of them gasped in recognition, fangs bared. “White forelock... the Champion. That's the black Paladin, I saw him fight once in the arena. Get him!”

They tried, Shiro thought in passing, they really did, but his technique had improved since those lost and desperate days of his first captivity, and he was no longer alone in his battles. Even as he smashed the leader to the floor, another was picked off by a burgundy ghost, and a wildwoman with eyes of golden flame dropped another. A little distance away, he saw Coran cutting a swath of his own through the enemy's forces by swinging on what was left of the light fixtures, laying his targets low with one of the prototype bayards and whooping in excitement. A darker shadow flickered briefly by to flatten two more soldiers, and Modhri dealt with the last with a solid punch across the face that the man would be feeling all week. Shiro nodded his thanks and continued on at their side, his bayard drawing blue-purple sheets of radiance in the air as he disarmed and disabled those who came to face them. Dimly, he felt the Lion-bond pulse with a quick sequence of colors: a hot red burst that burned something foul away, a tangle of green that halted something in its tracks, a surge of rose that fed those powers. A glaze of ice followed that, and a landslide of gold; when Shiro had time to glance over at the breach in the wall, he found that it had been barred off. Hunk had used the structural beams and broken plumbing in the walls themselves to seal that entrance, and Lance had added a wall of ice for good measure. With a smile, Shiro turned his attention back to the soldiers, who were starting to lose cohesion. One of their commanders was dead, another had been knocked flat by the Granidlo, and a third had fallen afoul of Soluk and was screaming for help from between the dragon's jaws. The fourth was trying to keep up with Zaianne and failing, and the fifth...

Shiro dropped, knocked another soldier to the floor with a leg sweep and bashed him unconscious with an armored fist before taking a look around. He hadn't gotten too good a look at the commanders when they'd first come forward, but one of them was missing. We'll find him eventually, Shiro thought, and then tossed Modhri the soldier's gun. They had work to do right now.

 

“Keep it busy, keep it busy!” Pidge shouted to the others and dove to one side as a metal fist that was almost as large as her torso slammed into the spot where she had stood a second before. “Look out for the other one!”

The mechanical monstrosity screamed at her and struck again, missing by inches, its massive fist hitting the floor so hard that the plates buckled, and something beneath them went crack. Its partner was trying to circle around to come at them from the other side in a pincer attack, slashing at them with long blades of glowing purple. The Paladins had gotten lucky with the first one, which had been large and bulky and not terribly well-coordinated, and Hunk's EMP-bomb bow tie had slowed it down considerably. These were newer, more advanced models, and were fast and agile enough to make Pidge and the others really miss their armor. At least they didn't have to worry about interference; the panicking politicians had fled in terror from the cyborgs, and the soldiers knew better than to get too close while the giants were enraged.

Hunk ducked under a swing that would have taken his head off and gave the cyborg an almost point-blank burst of fire from his bayard that left smoking craters in the thing's armor and made it howl in rage. “Not good,” he shouted to the others. “Feel that? Haggar's got a new lab set up somewhere, and she's upgraded.”

“We knew that already, Hunk,” Allura said, snapping her laser-whip out to entangle the other cyborg's legs. “She couldn't have just conjured up that last Robeast out of nothing, you know.”

“I know,” Hunk replied, jumping aside so that Lance could shoot out his cyborg's knees; the monster screeched and staggered, crippled but still dangerous. “But she's gotta have more than one lab. She's got Zarkon's favor, right? That means she gets all the labs. A big lab for big stuff, a medium-sized lab for things like these, a bio-lab for messing with people parts...”

“Don't remind me, Hunk,” Lance groaned in a sick voice. “I've had it up to here with people-parts labs, okay? That last one was really bad.”

“No argument there,” Keith said grimly; he still had the occasional nightmare about their retrieval of what had been left of Shiro. “Pidge? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”

“Yeah,” she panted, dodging a massive overarm slash. “Their shields are in sync, just like those battleships we saw earlier. Hold on...”

It was almost reflexive now. Pidge generated the Spike and Keith set it alight. The shielding on the cyborgs exploded in a shower of purple fragments even as the impact of the fire-arrow staggered the cyborgs. Instantly, Allura pulled a big dose of Quintessence from their cores, purified it, and sent it along in a bright stream to Hunk and Lance, who froze their moving parts and fried their circuitry. The two cyborgs died instantly, collapsing in steaming heaps while Allura shared what was left of their Quintessence with the rest of the team. Performing aetheric methods of this nature was efficient, but wearying, and it was essential that they keep their strength up. They didn't have to like it, though.

“I hate having to do that,” Hunk grumbled, looking around for other threats. “It always makes me feel so guilty, but there's nothing else that we can do. How about after this we go find Haggar's new lab and crunch that one up too, okay?”

“Sign me up,” Lance said, giving one defunct cyborg a kick. “We'll make a rock tour of it or something. Yeah, we'll be Fantastic Lance and the Paladins, and we'll do Crash Industrial Death-Metal gigs on all of her best venues. The Lions can do that all day. They are that. Are we done here?”

“Not quite,” Allura said, scanning around the room and pointing at a knot of fighting. “Shiro and the others could use some help.”

“Then let's give it to them,” Keith said, and took off at a run, the others right behind him.

 

Shiro grinned and lifted a hand in salute when his team rejoined him, and breathed a sigh of relief when a touch from Allura's hand sent a pulse of fresh energy into his body, renewing his strength. The enemy was starting to realize that they had made a serious mistake, and the soldiers were beginning to lose heart. That didn't surprise Shiro at all—their leaders had fallen, their erstwhile victims had either made it to safety or were fighting back with unexpected gusto, and Tilla and Soluk were cutting wide swaths through their forces with their jaws, tails, and forepaws. Add in a pack of angry Paladins to that mix, and you had a real problem. The local garrison soldiers simply had not ever encountered this kind of resistance before and weren't ready for it, and Shiro was intent on pressing his side's advantage. Having two Blades, a witch, and an expert marksman helping only made it easier. He heard Lance's bayard bark out several quick shots, followed by the heavy chatter of Hunk's scattergun, and the subtler hiss and crack of Allura's laser whip. He smiled to see Pidge dance past him, using the knife lessons that Nasty had taught her to confound a hulking Galra—once inside his reach, all she had to do was stay right up close to have it all her own way. There was a crackle of green light, and the soldier collapsed with an agonized screech.

Shiro took down a few more himself before he heard Soluk let out an offended bellow. Glancing to one side, he saw that the dragon had been blindsided by a lean dark figure that was trying to hamstring him with a laser sword. No chance of that—dragonhide could shrug off blaster fire, and a kick from Soluk sent the offensive person flying. Surprisingly, his attacker rolled with the landing, sprang back up, and attacked again. Soluk roared, heaved himself up onto his hind feet, and brought his foreclaws down onto the floorplates hard enough to split the already damaged surface. The swordsman and at least a dozen more soldiers vanished as the floor gave way beneath them, and Shiro made a mental note that all three basements would have to be checked and cleared after the fight was over. That was for later; right now, a very large, fanged, and angry Galra was doing his best to knock him down. Shiro ducked under the man's swing, rammed his shielded shoulder into the broad chest, and followed up with a double punch to the gut, just where the upper and lower armor met and didn't quite overlap. The soldier's breath whuffed out explosively, and he wasn't able to stop the finishing blow that knocked him to the floor. Grim and full of purpose, Shiro soldiered on.

 

“Are we done yet?” Hunk panted, sagging down onto a heap of smashed Sentries. “We've sort of run out of enemies in here.”

Allura rubbed at her eyes and looked around. She'd lost her skirt somewhere during the fighting, and most of her brooches were gone as well. “I think so. The police and medical corps seem to have things well enough in hand. Oh, dear, what a terrible mess.”

Hunk patted her on the back in agreement. The sun was coming up over the horizon now, and the clear dawn light was shining through Lance's now-melting ice wall to illuminate a scene of destruction. Fully half of the tiers had collapsed in a jagged mass of wreckage on either side of the broken wall, and the smashed western wing of the building was still smoldering a bit. The floor looked like the bedrock in an earthquake zone, the light fixtures were a total loss, and there were long, ugly cracks in the walls.

“Structural damage,” Hunk muttered, his eyes following one particularly bad crack all the way up to the shadowy dome above. “Bad damage. They might have to tear down the whole building, and that's a shame. I could fix it, I think, but the Drinths will probably want to get us off of the planet as fast as possible before we attract any more trouble.”

Allura rolled her eyes and rested a hand on his shoulder sympathetically. “We do seem to attract calamity, don't we? You're probably right. They weren't exactly happy to see us in the first place, and will no doubt curse our names forever.”

“That's perfectly natural for Drinths,” Coran said, popping up at her elbow and handing her and Hunk a large slice of cake each. “They just don't feel right if a contract is completed without any reason to grumble about it. This will give them enough peeve fuel to last a decade. Eat up, eat up, you've all expended a great deal of energy, and this cake was all that was left of the after-party feast. Here, I've got some beverage packets, too.”

Hunk gratefully accepted a couple of packets and took a big bite out of his cake. “Thanks. What happened to the rest of it?”

Coran pointed a finger at the ruined floor. “The kitchens are right under this chamber, I'm sorry to say, and when the ceiling collapsed that first time, it dropped a whole passel of politicians right into the ready room—splat! I'm told that the cooks had a terrible time getting the Yipmo Ambassador out of the soup-pot. Bimic-root chowder's apparently one of his favorites. Apparently, it was raining high officials and startled soldiers for a while there, and they've all run off into the sublevels. Might be weeks before they find 'em all.”

Allura made a sour noise under her breath. “Lovely. And our ships? I cannot believe that the Galra would attack us without going after the Castle and the Chimera as well.”

Coran chuckled and handed her a napkin. “An attempt was made, right enough. According to the police chief over there, the fellow who's busy booking that Galra sergeant? They tried to shut down the entire repair docks in violation of at least thirty different contracts and treaties, and there was a bit of a fight between them and the dock's security corps. Might have gone badly for the defenders, but the Castle and the Chimera raised their shields, just like that, and the Chimera started taking potshots at the invaders! Just warning shots, perhaps, nothing big enough to do more than blast a few small craters, but it was enough to convince the blighters to keep their distance. They had a few of those big robot things there too, and... well, I did say 'had'. Are Hanifor AI's usually so belligerent?”

That last was directed at Modhri, who had come up beside them looking tired and slightly singed around the edges. “No. Hanifors are strict pacifists and prefer a well-behaved ship. They can learn from what they observe, though, and it's been learning things from us that its creators never anticipated. I'm not going to complain, although everyone else might. The Governor is going to get a truckload of official complaints and censures for this disaster. Are you two all right?”

“We're fine, just tired,” Hunk mumbled around the last bite of cake. “Is everybody else all right?”

Modhri nodded. “They're as well as can be expected. A few bruises, scrapes, and the odd singe is all, and I think that Shiro may have overdone it a little—I know that I have. Lizenne, Zaianne, and Erantha are livid at the invasion, of course, and the dragons will need a dip in the marsh and a good polishing. The mice took refuge up there--” he pointed up at the second-floor balcony, where a quartet of tiny figures were watching them, “--and are all quite unharmed. Those little antigrav strips that Lance sewed into their coats got them out of harm's way very handily.”

“Good,” Allura said, although her brows pinched in concern for the wounded delegates. “And our hosts?”

Modhri heaved a long sigh and sank down next to Hunk. “They were not so fortunate. Most of them had personal protection devices, but not all of them were up to deflecting blaster fire and structural collapses. A great many are injured, some seriously, and there have been a number of deaths. More importantly, a fairly large number of people are missing on both sides. Some of them went for height, up to the upper floors and the dome, and others ran and hid in the eastern wing. Thankfully, the western wing was empty. Everybody there had shut up shop early to come to the dance.”

“Small mercies,” Coran said. “I expect that the basements are full of soldiers and staff, eh?”

Modhri cast a worried look at the gaping holes in the floor. “Very likely, and they're not happy about that. One of the leaders of the invasion is still unaccounted-for, and it's possible that that one's still down there somewhere. Apparently, that particular officer has great skill with a sword, a filthy temper, and a serious mental imbalance that flares up in times of stress. At the very least, there will be a fair number of confused and frightened troops.”

“Great,” Hunk said sourly. “Let me guess, it's up to us to flush them out?”

Modhri pointed at a group of people a distance away that appeared to be embroiled in an argument. “That's what they're discussing now. Some are saying that this whole mess was our fault, some are saying that it wasn't, others are threatening to sue for damages, while others are demanding to know just why the building hasn't been maintained properly. It shouldn't have been so easy to collapse, you know.”

Hunk frowned and opened his perceptions a little, getting a feel for the bones of the building. “It's old, is all. Yeah, and whoever built it cut a few corners here and there, and they've been ignoring the upper floors and parts of the roof. Foundations... east and middle's okay, but the west end's hopeless. Shame, really. It was a nice building.”

Allura sighed and finished off her beverage packet. “I do feel somewhat responsible. We could certainly help with the rescue effort, if we were quick about it. I don't want to linger too long here; word of this event will travel, and I would very much prefer that we were well away before a fleet arrives and starts firing on the city.”

Hunk groaned, but stood up. “Yeah, like if Lotor shows up again. That Robeast didn't bust up his flagship, guys, it just dinged it a little, and he's good at stealing other ships for his fleet. I'm starting to get really tired of that guy, so let's go and sort this out before anything else happens.”

That was good enough reasoning for all of them, and they helped Modhri to his feet and ambled over to see who was winning the shouting match. So far, it seemed to be a draw between a spotty, pigeon-chested person in torn formal robes, the equally-disheveled Drinth First Speaker, a dignitary who resembled a huge twist of pink-and-blue spaghetti, and Shiro, who had a truculent expression on his face and cake crumbs on his chin. Standing nearby was the Granidlo, who had lost most of dans formal jacket but still had both dans mallet and wristwatch, and was prepared to use both.

“Sorry about this,” Allura said, sidling up to that worthy, “we didn't expect things to get so out of hand.”

The Granidlo shrugged, dans eyes never leaving dans watch. “No one ever does. It's okay, lady, I've racked up a load of overtime and hazard pay, and they've been wrangling over whether or not to renovate this old pile for years. They generally bring up the subject whenever there's something big and sensitive on the table that nobody wants to deal with. Well, no more excuses. I'll cut that wrangle short in another flenth or two, and then they can get down to cases.”

She gave the Drinth a perplexed look. “How can you be so casual about it? Quite a lot of people just died here!”

The Granidlo gave her an amused glance out of one eye, the other three still on the time. “Politics is a rough game around here, lady. The Councilmembers get elected for the job by their parties, not 'cause they're particularly skilled, but because they're expendable. It's the parties themselves that do all the dealmaking—the Members are just mouthpieces, and we've got an election coming up soon that would've replaced most of them anyway. It ain't all that uncommon for fights to break out while in session, and a lot of those guys come armed. For some of them, the only way to get a seat on the Council is to defeat the guy who's already got it in single combat. Election season is always noisy. Hold that thought.”

The Granidlo stepped up smartly and gave the Speaker, the pigeon-chested dignitary, and the spaghetti-person a smart rap on the head each, although Shiro was adroit enough to duck away before the mallet could connect. “That's enough, you lot,” the Granidlo said sharply, “now cool it and make a workable plan.”

Surprisingly, none of the three seemed to take offense at this rough treatment. Indeed, the Speaker waved a polite gesture dans way and continued in a normal tone of voice. “Yes, yes, thank you, you're quite right. Well done, dani. We'll discuss the legal and political ramifications later, gentlebeings. Right now, the focus must be on the search-and-rescue effort. Some of those politicians are quite expensive.”

“What?” Allura blurted, horrified.

Hunk nudged her in the ribs with one elbow. “This is bureaucracy in action, Allura, and at least these guys are honest about it. It's a lot like what we've got on Earth, only more efficient. We seriously need to get a Granidlo working in Congress.”

“She's right, you know,” Shiro said with a smile. “I've always felt that a big man with a mallet would do our governments a lot of good.”

She gave them a suspicious look. “Have you ever tried a monarchy?”

“Only for most of our recorded history,” Lance admitted. “It's just that Humans aren't really all that good at it. The royal families wind up marrying their cousins for fourteen generations at a stretch—when they weren't fighting them to the death, anyway—and start forgetting that the common people are actually people and not toys or robots or something. We invented democracy because it's cheaper and easier to get rid of an elected official when he starts making dumb mistakes, and nobody needs to chop anybody's head off or anything. Not usually, anyway.”

“You mean, that's actually happened?” Allura demanded.

“Sure,” Pidge said, wrinkling up her nose in distaste. “It used to happen all the time, right up into the modern era. One of the worst events was in France, when the citizenry decided to get rid of their inbred, parasitical aristocrats. They even built a special machine for it, called a guillotine, with a big weighted blade that dropped down when you pulled the lever. They got kind of carried away with that thing, though, and it didn't end real well. It sort of became the universal symbol of what happens when an oppressed population fights back later on. Around about the end of World War III, there were four or five of them in action. I think that the first one was built in the South American Republic, and the idea sort of spread. The Sovereign Nation of Texas built one, and it got so much use that the USA had to reabsorb them as a state again before they could dissolve into total anarchy. The other two happened in Europe and India, and there are rumors that China and the Pan-Baltic Hegenomy had some, but that was never confirmed. All we know for sure is that a lot of bad government officials went missing. People just get fed up after a while.”

“Fine,” Allura said with a disgusted sigh, and brushed the crumbs from Shiro's chin with quick fingers. “Let's find the others and get this over with so that we can leave. I'd rather not face any more upsets tonight.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: The Monster in the Basement

 

The rest of the team were all in favor of that idea, but there was one small problem; even though one whole third of the building had been destroyed, the remaining two thirds were a maze of odd corners and corridors where people could and had gotten lost for years at a time. The corps of guest-finders were just as lost as everyone else was right now, and it seemed that nobody had ever bothered to devise a system for keeping track of them by electronic means. Pidge in particular was heartily offended by this.

“What do you mean they voted against it?” she demanded. “It would have saved everybody a lot of time and trouble!”

“Job security,” the Speaker explained. “The guest-finders have a good thing going, and they don't want anyone building a device that would essentially put them out of business. I take it that you have such a thing, young lady?”

Pidge cast a sidelong look at the Granidlo. “You're not bopping enough people.”

“There's only one of me, Miss,” the Granidlo protested, “and I'm not contracted to sit in on the secret councils.”

Pidge rolled her eyes heavenward. “Yes, I've got that technology. I've got one built into my armor, and can make more if I have to. I've even got it loaded into my party dress. You wouldn't happen to have any of those portable notescreens, would you? The little ones for personal use?”

“Oh, yes, a whole closet full,” the Speaker replied helpfully, “people are always forgetting theirs, so we keep a good supply in stock. I believe that the cleaning staff does a good business in selling the information they get from the ones that the delegates drop under the seats. It's all part of the system, of course.”

“Good,” Pidge said, not willing to argue at this time, and she removed and began to unbraid the waistband of her skirt. “Hunk, gonna need you for this. Let's make these people a whole bunch of lifesign-detectors.”

“Cool,” Hunk replied, following her lead.

It took only a few minutes to turn a closetful of notescreens into lifesign sensors, thanks to Pidge's amazing computer-suit and Hunk's own native talents, which were then passed out to the various search parties. After that, it was simply a case of who got to search what part of the huge building. Pidge, Allura, Coran, and Erantha agreed to help with the abandoned upper floors and domes, while Lizenne, Modhri, Zaianne, Shiro, Hunk, and the mice were happy to help with the back halls of the central chamber and the complicated warren of the eastern wing. That left only one section, which the Speaker seemed peculiarly willing to ignore.

“What about the basements?” Keith asked.

The Speaker shrugged. “A professional team of guest-finders and policemen have already gone to handle that end of things, and they should be well-able to handle anyone they find. The basements themselves are mostly large open spaces where we keep the bulk supplies, and there really aren't all that many places to hide down there. Even with the power out, it shouldn't be too difficult for them, and anyone in those sublevels will be perfectly happy to be guided out in any case.”

Lance gave the Speaker a puzzled look. “Is the kitchen equipment dangerous or something?”

The Speaker waved a dismissive hand. “Of course not. It's just that darkened basements are by nature dank and spooky, and those emergency lights aren't really all that good, are they?”

Lance and Keith glanced up at the greenish lights still glowing fitfully on the walls, glanced back at each other, and shrugged. “We'll check up on them anyway,” Keith said. “Modhri told us that there might be a crazy man with a sword down there, and those are always bad news.”

Lance frowned and looked over at Soluk, who was sniffing suspiciously at a cringing soldier. “Think we should bring the dragons?”

The Speaker gestured a negative. “The stairways are too steep and narrow for those creatures. We had lifts put in, but those are out of order at the moment. The dragons will be of better use up here, making sure that the captured suspects mind their manners. Unless one of your fellows wishes to go along with you...?”

Lance waved a hand airily. “Nah. Sounds like you've already got things pretty much covered. We'll go and see if the basement crews need help, and if they don't, we'll come back up and help out a different group. That okay with you, Keith?”

“Sure,” Keith said. “So, how do we get down there?”

The Speaker pointed at a nearby door. “Through there. Turn left at the first intersection, and left again at the next. You'll see a stairwell going down, which will lead you to the central area of the first sublevel, just to the left of the kitchens. The stairwells leading down from there are toward the back on both that level and the next. They're largely unused, since the lifts are so much handier, and there may be some damage from the collapse of the west wing.”

“Right,” Lance said, “that's easier than a lot of the dungeon maps for Pidge's adventure game. Come on, Keith, let's go hunt some Orcs.”

 

They stared at the stairwell. It was not an inviting sight, and it seemed to breathe menace at them. Unlike the rest of the building, this particular feature had been neglected for long enough to show its age, and the years had not improved it. Like many industrial installments, it had been built as cheaply and quickly as possible, out of materials that had been estimated to last until roughly about the time when the owner decided to do a total gut and refit; a time, alas, that had come and gone roughly a century ago. The stairs had been constructed of some sort of steel grating, sturdy, but showing diseased-looking patches of rust, and were narrow and very steep. They also went down a very long way into a stygian, faintly green-lit darkness that conjured up mental images of dreadful things lurking in the shadows. A number of Lance's early nightmares had concerned such deep places and the things they harbored, and he backed away uneasily from the steps.

“I take that back,” he muttered unhappily. “Maybe we should give the Orc-hunt a rain check.”

Keith cast him an exasperated look and turned on his lifesign detector. “You know better than that. Let's see... huh. There aren't all that many people down there.”

Lance frowned at the screen. The little device wasn't quite powerful enough to show more than one sublevel at a time, but Keith was right. There were only three indicators on the screen where there should have been at least a dozen. “Maybe the rescue team already got most of them out?”

“I don't know,” Keith replied, scowling down into the darkness. There was a faint odor wafting up from below that didn't smell quite like damp or fungus, and it was making his instincts twitch. “I don't think that they've been down there for long enough—those are big basements, and it takes time to search even an empty one.”

“Maybe they're on the lower floors, then?” Lance asked. “People get kind of dumb when they panic, and they'll wedge themselves into the weirdest places. We had a hurricane hit Cuba when I was little, not one of the really big ones, but pretty bad, and we had Aunt Lucia and her family with us at the time.”

Keith gave his teammate a tolerant look. “Carlos freaked out?”

Lance shook his head. “Him? Nah. He was plastered to the living-room window the whole time, watching the storm and cheering it on. It was his little brother Bobby who freaked out. The neighbors had this big tree in their front yard, and this huge bolt of lightning blew it to pieces, and Bobby ran screaming into the back of the house. Aunt Lucia nearly had a heart attack 'cause we couldn't find him for three hours, and it wasn't until Mom made up a pot of his favorite chili that we heard him yelling for some. He'd somehow gotten into the space between the walls, and Uncle Diego had to cut a hole in the pantry wall to get him out.”

Keith, as always, felt a mix of envy of his teammate for his large and rambunctious family, and relief that he'd never had to deal with problem cousins. “Big house.”

“It sort of had to be,” Lance said nostalgically. “There were a lot of us, after all, and... what was that?”

A faint sound had echoed up from below, high and sharp, sounding almost like a scream. Glancing nervously at the detector, they noticed that one of the indicators on the screen had vanished, and the other two were suddenly moving very fast. One was darting about in a random, almost frantic pattern, and the second was following, but without the hysterical jinking about. The first one made it to a point in the back of the central area and faded out, but the second wasn't far behind it.

Keith hissed one of his mother's best swearwords under his breath. “That crazy guy's still down there, and he's hunting. Come on!”

Jamming the detector into a pocket and pulling out his bayard, Keith grabbed the handrail and half-flung himself down the stairs. Lance dithered for a brief moment, but followed him down the rickety steps and into the green-tinted darkness. It was cool down there, and somewhat humid in that cold, clammy way that underground spaces often were, but the natural odors of damp and cheap paint were occluded by other smells. Mostly cooking smells, due to the stairwell's proximity to the kitchens, and an interrupted kitchen at that. There was the distinctive odor of decades-old dust and crumbling insulation that one got when walls or ceilings were opened up, mixing with the smells of congealing gravy, cold soup, overcooked vegetables, burnt bread, souring drinks, and pastries just starting to go stale. Lance knew those smells very well from innumerable neighborhood cookouts held back home, where everyone had been eager to participate in the feasting but not so much in the cleanup afterward. He might even have felt nostalgic about it, except for one more smell that overlaid everything else. It wasn't all-pervasive, or not yet, but it was an old, dark, thick, foul stink that raised the hairs not only on the back of his neck, but all down his spine. Lance shuddered. He'd smelled something like it once, years ago, and it raised a cold feeling of dread in his mind and made his stomach churn in a greasy spiral.

Keith was feeling it, too, but differently; his predator instincts knew exactly what that smell meant, and had thrown his mind into a preternatural alertness at that tell-tale odor of fresh death. There was a hunter down here in this darkness, a large and very dangerous one, and most of his packmates were elsewhere. His eyes widened, adjusting to the dim light as best they could; perhaps two out of every five of the emergency lights were working, and even his sensitive vision was having trouble penetrating the murk. Even so, it didn't take long before they found the first piece of hard evidence as to just what kind of monster was lurking in the sublevels. It lay halfway to the next stairwell in a bulky heap, as it turned out, and their footsteps splatted rather than echoed on the bare duracrete floor. Lance choked in horror at the sight of the cooling corpse, but something in Keith's mind had gone hard and cold.

“Drinth,” he said tonelessly, laying a hand on the dead alien's shoulder. “Not even cold yet. Probably one of the cooks. He got trapped down here when the power went out.”

“Holy crow,” Lance moaned, “whoever did it knew just where to hit him, too. Big blade, right across the throat. His head's nearly been cut off. Oh, god, Keith, we're standing in blood. That's a lot of blood, Keith.”

Keith swallowed hard. “Yeah. And there's going to be more. A lot more. This is only the first floor, and this guy wasn't alone.”

Lance looked up and stared around in horror. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light now, and he saw that the corpse was only one of many. A large group of kitchen staff and aliens had been making their way toward the stairwell when something terrible had hit them from behind in a dance of death. Far away, they heard another echoing shriek of agony and terror. Keith yanked the detector out of his pocket, and they saw an indicator fade out on the floor below, and three others moving at speed. Without another word, both of them leaped into a run, heading for the stairwell as fast as they could go. Even so, it took them some time to find it; someone had placed several rows of large pallets full of wrapped office supplies all along the back of the first sublevel, and they had to thread their way through the bulky things in near-total darkness. Lance found the stairwell completely by accident and would have plunged to his death if Keith hadn't grabbed his arm just in time—the handrails had been snapped off of their footings years ago by some clumsy drone operator, and never replaced. Drinths, after all, did not normally use stairs. That was made abundantly clear, unfortunately. Slumped against the bottom steps was another recent corpse, and gravity had not been any kinder to it than the maddened swordsman had.

“Holy crow,” Lance muttered again as they eased their way as respectfully as possible over the dead Drinth. “How crazy do you think this guy is, Keith? Sendak-crazy or sack-of-Golrazi-clams crazy?”

“Not now, Lance,” Keith replied tensely, scanning around for the killer. There were more crumpled forms scattered around nearby, some of them in pieces. Distantly, he heard the rapid patter of running feet. “Over there!”

They took off in the appropriate direction, but were forced to stop when Keith's foot landed on something that skidded out from under it, and he landed hard on the floor with a surprised yelp. The loose object skipped off to one side, bounced off of some other obstruction, and hit Lance smartly on the knee. He stumbled to a halt, rubbing at the bruised joint, and helped Keith up.

“You okay?” Lance asked.

“Yeah,” Keith said breathlessly, rubbing at a sore hip. “Stepped on something. What was that?”

Lance groped around on the floor and came up with an strangely-shaped bit of debris that felt oddly familiar in his hands. “Not sure. I can't see much of anything down here, Keith.”

“Hold on, let me try something,” Keith said, holding out a hand and concentrating. A small flame bloomed on his palm like a flower and spread over the hand, burning away the dirt he'd picked up during the fighting and shedding a modest amount of light in the process. Enough to see that Lance was holding roughly half of a standard Galra blaster, and enough to see its former owner lying on the floor. Most of him, anyway. His head seemed to have had a prior engagement somewhere else. Another lay nearby, the neat slot in the backplate telling of a stab to the heart. Both Paladins yelled in horror and Keith's fire went out.

“Sendak-crazy,” Keith stated after a shocked moment. “He's killing his own men now.”

“We've gotta stop this guy,” Lance said, staring around nervously. “Oh, god, Keith, careful where you step. There are more of them.”

A cluster of dim, fizzing green emergency lights revealed that to be true, the sickly glow of them reflecting dully off of armor. “Crud,” Keith muttered and reached for his detector, finding it gone. “Damn. Dropped the detector. I can't tell if there's anyone still alive down below. Lance, can you feel anything? This is more your thing than mine.”

“Uh...” Lance said, fighting down his nerves in an attempt to concentrate. Keith was right, of course. Alien though they might be, most organic life-forms had a fair amount of water in their physical makeup, and he could find water wherever it hid. In his mind's eye, the basement level sprang into three-dimensional being as gauzy blue screens of moisture as fine as sheer silk, with great splashes and blobs of wetness that he really didn't want to contemplate too closely scattered here and there around the floor. That was dead water, still and stagnant and fast going foul, but some distance below them he could feel live water, running water, and running hot. He could taste the chemical composition of those self-contained boilers, and knew the flavors of terror, pain, and... oh, god... and one that was pure poison. Lance had never felt anything like that before, not even when he'd frozen the big Gantarash brood-queen, and it chilled him to the core. “Seven,” he said in a tense whisper. “They're all scared out of their wits, and... and I can feel the crazy one. He's really, really sick, Keith. That's Sendak-riding-a-bag-of-Golrazi-clams-into-battle crazy.”

“I kind of figured. Can you see where they are?” Keith asked.

“Yeah.”

“Lead on.”

Lance took off toward the back of the level with a renewed sense of urgency, picking their way carefully around floor obstructions that neither of them wanted to examine too closely. They had only just reached the last stairwell when they heard a frantic burst of blaster fire, followed by a horrible gurgling scream. Lance felt the sword strike as keenly as if it had struck him personally and dashed down the shaking stairs with reckless abandon. Both he and Keith smelled the metallic aroma of fresh blood that wafted thickly upon the air here, and nearly tripped over three more armored corpses that lay huddled at the bottom of the stairs. Very few of the emergency lights were working down here, and even Keith was nearly blind.

“Where are they, Lance?” Keith asked in a low voice, trying to make out anything at all and not daring to light any more fires.

“They're over there, to the right,” Lance gasped, his own heart hurting for the failing pulse that he sensed nearby. “We've got to hurry, Keith. There's someone dying down here, I can feel it! We've got to find him!”

“Concentrate on that, then,” Keith said, sniffing at the air; he smelled blood, but it was everywhere. “Home in on him like you would for one of us.”

It took Lance a moment to focus on the Lion-bond, but he was soon hurrying along with Keith close beside him. Even so, they might have missed their target if something by the wall hadn't uttered a low, gurgling moan. A soldier was slumped there beneath one of the emergency dims, clutching at a gash in his breastplate and struggling to breathe. Lance hurried to his side, pushing the man's hand away and laying his own hand over the seeping wound.

“Help me with this, Keith,” he said, feeling for the damage and finding plenty. “I can get him stabilized, I think... yeah. That creep got him right through the lung, and nicked the heart, too.”

“Make it quick,” Keith said, reaching for Lance's shoulder with one hand and tightening his grip on his bayard with the other. “That creep is still down here. If he comes back, I'm going to need you.”

The soldier shuddered, looked up blearily at them, coughed wetly, and managed a weak, “Wh...?”

“Shh,” Lance said, reaching for the pillar of flame that was Keith. “Don't try to talk. Don't move, either. You're going to be okay, just sit still.”

P... pal... adin...?” the soldier forced out.

That's right,” Lance said absently, feeling his aura lock into Keith's and begin the steady revolution of balance. He'd been yearning for this for some time, he realized, but didn't let it distract him from the matter at hand. Keith's fire skimmed over his own power, cleaning the deep wound in the soldier's chest of contaminants. The sword that had done this had been big and dirty, and laden with the deaths of hundreds. Lance followed Keith's fire with a wave of his own cool blue influence, sealing severed blood vessels and starting on the much trickier task of mending the damaged organs.

The soldier pulled in a shaking breath at the peculiar sensations in his chest, and at the sudden chill in the air. “B... be...”

“Shhh,” Lance hissed again, focusing on the torn lung, which had taken worse damage than the heart had. “Don't talk. This isn't easy.”

The soldier subsided, allowing Lance to concentrate on patching together the delicate tissues. It was tricky work—the lunatic had not only stabbed the man, but had twisted the blade when pulling it out, shredding and collapsing the lung and tearing several important arteries and veins. The heart was just as bad, for all that the hole in it was smaller, simply because each pulse put extra strain upon the wound and there was no way to hold it still without killing the patient. He'd healed a serious torso wound before, back on Omorog, but this was nothing like the wound that Fanlen had taken. That had been a blaster wound, which had at least cauterized what it had hit. A forceblade did no such thing, and the ruined veins were oozing blood at a dangerous rate. Still, Lance persisted, closing the hole in the chest wall and reinflating the lung with a grunt of effort. The man's breath whooshed in with a startled whistle, which turned into hacking coughs as he cleared the blood clots that threatened to collapse the lung again. Lance gritted his teeth, refusing to let the seal split open under the force of those painful-sounding convulsions, and took a moment to numb the nerves somewhat so that the soldier wasn't in too much pain.

“Starting to get on top of it, now,” Lance reassured his patient. “You were saying, pal?”

The Galra man coughed, gasped for breath, and grated an urgent, “Behind you!”

Keith reacted instantly, hurling himself sideways into an agile somersault. Lance threw himself flat, bringing up his shield as he did so, just in time to deflect a blow that would have taken his head off. As it was, it knocked him sprawling, his senses jangling painfully at losing contact with the injured man. Looming above them in the darkness was a huge and threatening shape, yellow eyes glowing with the madness seen only in rabid dogs and serial killers. Lance could feel the poison in that person's blood, exuding itself from its skin and breath, and shimmering in the air around it like an evil mist. A long purple gleam in the air slashed down again to end Lance's life, stopped short by a streak of red. Keith was there, forcing the killer back just long enough for Lance to scramble back over to the injured man, who was moaning in terror and trying to crawl away. Lance laid his hand on the nape of the man's neck and made his muscles go slack, forcing him to stay still, then yanked his own bayard out and fired off a shot in the general direction of their attacker. The killer vanished into the shadows before Lance could fire another shot, so quickly that it might simply have dematerialized.

An ugly chuckle insinuated itself through the still air. “I was wondering when you would show up, Paladins.”

For a second, they both froze in shock; that had been a woman's voice.

“Sorry we're late,” Keith answered boldly, “we were kind of busy.”

There was a faint snort from the darkness around them, and a voice that dripped with contempt. “Helping the natives. So noble.”

“Yeah? Like what you were up to was any better,” Lance snapped. “Murdering unarmed civilians and killing everyone in sight. You were even killing your own men!”

Their unseen foe made a spitting noise. “They wanted to surrender. Weaklings. They betray their Emperor by showing such cowardice, and treason is punished by summary execution.”

“And what does that make you?” Keith asked, although he already knew the answer to that.

A lilting laugh came out of the darkness. “I am a true soldier of the Empire, of course, stopped by nothing short of victory or death. I am not dead, and therefore I will win. I will kill you, little Paladins, but you will tell me one thing before you die.”

Lance's eyes darted around, trying to catch even the smallest hint of that tall, dark shape. “What's that?”

“Where is my cousin, Paladin? Haggar wants her, and I intend to provide.”

Keith stared around in confusion. “Your cousin? Who's that?”

There was a flash of purple light from halfway across the room as a witchlight popped into existance, illuminating a tall, muscular figure. It wore no helmet, allowing them to see the face plainly. The Paladins hissed in surprise; the Galra woman was taller, more powerfully-built, and younger, but the family resemblance was very plain. “Lizenne, fool. Where is the Rogue Witch? Speak now, or I will make you suffer.”

Keith stepped back and readied himself for a real fight. “Forget it, lady. Unlike you, I don't turn on those who trust me.”

“Trust?” she murmured, casting him a look that was an eerie echo of the one Lizenne gave them whenever someone had said something particularly stupid. “Why bother with trust, when fear gets better results?”

“Well, for one thing, the cringing and cowering is hard on the rugs,” Lance quipped. “Are we done here? We've got better things to do than listen to you talk.”

The woman's eyes narrowed dangerously and all humor left her proud features, leaving only a hatred as all-consuming as a forest fire. “Very well. Show me what little tricks my traitorous cousin has taught you.”

The witchlight went out along with the remaining lights, drowning them in sudden blackness.

 

“Won't,” said a sepulchral voice from deep within the air duct.

Shiro gritted his teeth in frustration and frowned up at the quintet of glowing purple eyes that were all that was visible at the moment of the Bivorpial Exalted Prelate, who had wedged himself firmly up the ventilation shaft in the ceiling and was refusing to come out. Most of the Councilmembers had come out of hiding with only minimal coaxing, but a small and significant portion of them were being downright childish about it.

“It's all right, really,” Shiro called up with a mildness of tone that he wasn't really feeling. “The attack's over, and the police have taken care of most of the invaders. You really can come out now.”

The Prelate whuffled suspiciously. “Most of the invaders, you say? Where are the uncaught ones?”

“In the basement,” Shiro replied promptly, “we've already got people down there dealing with the problem. They can't hurt you all the way up here.”

There was a faint hmph from the shaft. “Prove it.”

Shiro sighed and beckoned to his current search partner. “Fine. Just bring him over here, please, Granidlo.”

The Granidlo, who was fully intent on bankrupting dans bosses with a whopping overtime claim, led their pet object lesson over to where the lurking Councilmember could see him. This consisted of a captured, handcuffed, and sullen-looking Galra soldier whom they'd been forced to borrow from the police and lead around as proof of their sincerity. He was being surprisingly good about the whole thing so far, but Shiro could tell that the man was just about as fed up with whining politicians as he was. Not that Shiro blamed him all that much. Some of those people really had been chosen for their turn of phrase and ease of replacement, rather than any native intelligence.

“Here's your proof, Excellency,” the Granidlo shouted upwards. “He wouldn't be the one wearing cuffs if they'd won, now would he?”

The soldier looked up, glared at the glowing eyes, and sighed. “Yes, we lost. Yes, attacking the building was a dumb thing to do. Yes, I'm sorry, it sure as hell wasn't my idea. Now come on out of there, I've had to do three floors already.”

“This could be a trick,” the Prelate grumbled stubbornly.

The Granidlo growled. “Maybe, but it ain't ours. Over to you, guys.”

At that signal, four tiny figures zipped up into the shaft and ran chirping merrily down the dark and dusty tunnel. Shiro motioned his companions to step aside when they heard a burst of squeaking, and smiled when the Prelate realized just what was going on.

“Wait, what?” they heard the Prelate squawk. “What is... hey! Stop that! Stop that right now, that tickles! Uh... aaah! Aaaaaagh!”

The Prelate came scrambling out of hiding in a mad flailing of long, thin limbs and voluminous robes to fall flat on the floor in a heap. Lance had been right; it was very hard to do anything of substance when there were live mice gnawing on your inseams, and this fellow had at least six inseams. And the most complicated pair of polka-dotted boxer shorts that Shiro had ever seen. Shiro helped the Bivorpial dignitary untangle his legs to a chorus of evil mousy giggling, heroically keeping a straight face all the while.

“How undignified,” the Prelate said, trying to brush dust from his robes.

The Granidlo grunted and jerked a thumb over dans shoulder. “Should've come when we called then, eh? Get down to the courtyard, Tichit, they've set up a buffet and a press conference down there, and you'll miss the best bits if you hang around here much longer.”

“Oh!” the Prelate said eagerly, “Those little mettic-paste sandwiches, perhaps, and that pretty reporter from the Sepolga News Network?”

“Yup,” the Granidlo replied with a grotesque leer. “She's dyed her ventral chitin purple for the occasion, too. Go on, she'll want to do an exclusive.”

The Prelate thanked them and pattered happily away, leaving the group to their duty. The Galra soldier watched glumly as the mice flew down to settle on Shiro's shoulders, and asked, “That all of them?”

Shiro pulled out his detector and poked at the screen. “I think so. Is there any way up to the fourth floor from here, Granidlo?”

“Yeah, but it's been bricked up for ages,” the Granidlo said dismissively, “and what used to be the landing was filled up with old hardcopy record storage thirty years ago. Unless those soft-bottomed politicians can kick their way through a six-drath-thick, floor-to-ceiling layer of dead paper and good masonry, I think we're done.”

Shiro glanced upward at the air duct, which was still hanging open. “How about those?”

The Granidlo gestured a negative. “Drop ceiling. None of those tubes go up any further, the airhandler itself is on this same floor, and your teammates have that end of things. The domes are connected, but only through the central chamber.”

Shiro nodded. “Good. Let's go and find Hunk and the others, and then check in with Pidge and the rest. We might even get to see her swinging through the rafters.”

The Granidlo shuddered. “Swinging. Great Zwang's Ghost, you people are weird. What else do you do for fun, jump out of aircraft at high altitudes? Drive high-powered vehicles off of cliffs?”

Shiro grinned and headed for the stairs. “Funny you should mention that...”

They found Hunk standing by the top of the broad staircase, staring meditatively at an impressionist painting of something or other that hung on the far wall and patting the large, caterpillar-like alien wound around his torso on one of its many shoulders. Shiro caught his breath at the sight, remembering Slav, but while this individual was of the same people, it was not the same person. Possibly a female, too, if the greenish streaks in the dusty-blue, downy coat were anything to go by. Of course, he could be completely wrong, but he didn't think so; the alien's voice was somewhat higher-pitched than Slav's had been, and it was wearing a frilly waistcoat and sniffling into a lacy handkerchief.

“Everything okay here?” Shiro asked.

“They're just scared,” Hunk said quietly. “The Galra have been bullying their people for ages, and having those guys blow through the wall like that r