The ships were definitely Galran. Of that, Lance could be sure.
Despite how patiently the two ships waited outside Altea’s shield barrier, external lights switched from their usual red to pure white in the universal sign for ceasefire, they still retained the same sharp silhouettes the rest of the Galran fleet carried. Those spiked tips atop and below the main body were unmistakable. As were the quadruple-layered wings that were thrown into even sharper relief than usual by their bright, white glow. The only thing missing was the intimidating support of an entire fleet behind them. And, in a way, the complete absence of a fleet behind these two ships was just as intimidating as if the entire Galran army was present, if not more so.
At least, with an army, the Galrans were predictable.
This, however, was not. And it set Lance on edge.
“It could be a trap,” Allura said from across the room. She crossed her arms and glared up at the image of the two fighter jets on the control tower’s large screen, clearly unhappy with the entire situation. “You know how the Galrans are. It’s win or die trying for them. They would never request a truce without an ulterior motive.”
She wasn’t entirely wrong. They had been at war with the Galra Empire for centuries— since before Lance, or Allura, or any of the current members of the royal family were born— but never had the Galran army retreated from battle or asked for a ceasefire. Not even when the battle had clearly turned against them. And yet now there were two Galran fighter jets, not even a month after Galra’s latest victory, bearing the color of peace. It was no wonder his cousin was so suspicious.
Lance shared her misgivings. “It is out of character,” he agreed, cocking his head to the side. Very out of character. Which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the intentions of this temporary truce. He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at the screen, fingers fiddling with one of his silver earrings as he considered their options.
There weren’t many, and all of them carried an element of danger Lance didn’t like dealing with. He knew accepting the ships into their realm without question was risky and would make them appear weak in Galra’s eyes. But turning the ships away without explanation would possibly be worse, and would only extend the conflict. If this was genuine, if this really was a request for peace, they couldn’t just turn it away.
“We should be cautious,” he said. “Maybe we should hail the ships and find out why they’re here before we send them away.”
“I can set up a communication channel for you, if you’d like, Princess,” Pidge, their resident technology expert, offered. “We can keep the barrier up and everything, so the risk factor would be low.”
Allura took a moment to think that over. She walked across the room to the control panel, where Pidge was sitting, and stared at the image on screen. Lance could tell she was wary. Beneath her long, blue cape, she kept her arms wrapped around her like some sort of shield, while her shoulders remained tense and her expression became pinched, brows furrowed together and mouth pressed into a thin line as she observed the Galran fighters.
Lance was glad at least to see she was weighing her options. He knew his cousin well, knew how much she hated the Galrans and how tempted she’d be to just tell the fighters to leave without giving them a chance to explain. Usually King Alfor would be able to curb that impulse and remind her how much depended on her decisions, how much power her words and choices held as heir to the Altean throne, but his uncle was off reviewing their troops on the other side of the planet today and so was unavailable for advice. This decision was entirely in Allura’s hands.
She drummed her fingers against her arms, considering it all. Lance watched her with more than a little nervousness. He’d follow Allura’s directions, no matter what she chose, but he hoped she’d settle on an option that gave them at least some hope for peace. Some chance to negotiate a ceasefire long enough for their planet to rest and recover, at the very least.
“Let’s hail them, as Lance suggested,” she finally said. “If nothing else, we’ll gain insight into their motives.”
Pidge nodded and turned back to the controls. Curious, Lance crossed the room to stand beside Allura, glancing over Pidge’s shoulder as she flipped a few switches and sent a signal to the two ships beyond their barrier. Their frequency appeared as a blue wave on the control panel, rising and falling in steady rhythm as it waited for the Galran ships to latch onto and synchronize with it. That is if the Galran ships accepted their signal at all.
Lance watched the screen in silent anticipation, stomach roiling and rolling just like the waves of their frequency. What if the Galrans didn’t answer their hail? What if they weren’t as open to the idea of peace as Lance and Allura? What if this really was just a trap?
There was a soft beep as the Galran ships picked up their signal, and Lance’s head snapped up to look at the control tower’s screen. A large, fuzzy square overlapped the image of the two Galran fighters, which slowly cleared to show the dark inside of one of the ships— the black seat, the low-level lighting, and then a familiar face smiling at all of them. One Lance hadn’t expected to see ever again.
“Matthias,” Allura quietly gasped at the same time that Lance and Pidge yelled, “Matt!”
Matt smiled at all of them— a small, tired smile that matched his wane and haggard appearance— and bowed his head a little in greeting. “Princess Allura,” he said in a scratchy voice, “Prince Lance, Pidge. It’s so good to see you all again.”
“Matt, what are you doing in a Galran ship? Did you steal it? Is that how you escaped? Is there another prisoner in the other ship?” Pidge asked in a rush, standing up from her seat and leaning closer to the screen with every question.
She was babbling. Her words ran together in a blur Lance barely understood, and her entire body seemed to be shaking from some sort of repressed energy. Probably excitement. After all, this was the first time she’d gotten to see her brother since the Galra captured him almost two years ago. Lance still remembered the wreck she had been when word came back that Matt had been taken prisoner during one of his diplomatic missions on the outskirts of their territory. How torn up and angry and alone she’d been. He couldn’t blame her now for being so worked up.
Matt smiled indulgently at her, as if thinking the same thing, but then he shook his head. “I didn’t escape,” he said. He looked back at Allura as he added, “I’m being released, under the condition that you allow their ambassador into Altea territory as well. He has a… proposal to present to you, Princess.”
“What sort of proposal?” Allura asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion once more. Matt shook his head again.
“It will be better to hear it from him, I’m afraid. I don’t know all of the details.”
Allura didn’t say anything in response for a moment. She looked over at Lance and tilted her head to the side, silently asking for his opinion on the issue. Lance was hesitant to give it. He knew which he hoped for and would stand behind, but he couldn’t confidently say it was the best choice. Not with how much they still didn’t know. On one hand, they still didn’t know enough about the situation to trust the Galrans, and there was no evidence that Matt wasn’t being forced or tricked into this in order to gain their trust. But on the other hand, and this was the option Lance really hoped to be true, Matt’s presence could be a show of good faith by the Galrans, and the proposal their ambassador carried could be a chance— their only chance— for some sort of peace between their nations.
He didn’t entirely trust the Galrans or their intentions, but Lance was too eager to put a stop to all the fighting to not take the risk. He nodded in answer to Allura’s question, and then looked back at the screen.
“We will allow it,” he said to Matt. “We’ll send soldiers to escort you and the ambassador to the Castle.”
Silently, he thanked the stars above that the Galran ships had arrived while they were still at the Castle and could receive them here, rather than at the Royal Palace. At least here they could protect Altea’s secrets and defend themselves against any surprise attacks, should the whole thing turn out to be a trap. The Royal Palace was not built for war.
Matt understood the caution in that choice, and so didn’t question it. He simply nodded and ended the transmission, returning the control tower’s screen to the image of the two Galran fighter jets, as it had been before. Pidge slumped back in her seat. She took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes, but remained silent— probably overwhelmed by the events. Lance placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a brief, bracing squeeze.
“Lance,” Allura murmured, brushing light fingers over his upper arm to get his attention. He glanced at her, and then, seeing her nod toward the doorway behind them, followed her from the control tower into the Castle hallway, leaving Pidge to gather her thoughts in solitude.
They walked down the hallway in silence, with only the tapping of their own footsteps against the metal floors to fill the air around them. Lance didn’t normally like the silence, and on any other day he wouldn’t have hesitated to fill it with his own voice, but today the atmosphere was too thick. Too serious. He could practically hear the buzz of all the thoughts and worries that were no doubt racing through Allura’s mind. And he understood. He was worried about this too.
‘Peace’ was a word Lance had learned long ago, and had dreamt of ever since. It was a word their planet, and all of their allies, had not known for centuries, too caught up in the cycle of bloodshed and vengeance that the war with Galra created to make any room for peace. Lance and Allura had grown up surrounded by that violence. Had grown up knowing death and loss and pain, and seeing the affect it had on their people. And when Lance had grown old enough, he saw that violence first hand, watching his friends and comrades get shot down on the battlefield by Galran blasters. Knowing he couldn’t do anything to stop it.
He had lived through twenty-three years of endless war. And there would be many more years to come unless a solution was found. Lance would give all he had in order to stop all the violence, even so far as sacrificing his own life if it meant the war would cease, and so he sincerely hoped this offer would be their answer. But he couldn’t help but feel this meeting with the Galran ambassador was going to end in some sort of disaster. Like they were about to jump into something they couldn’t control.
They stepped into the lift at the end of the hall, and Lance pressed himself against back wall, leaning against the cool surface with his arms crossed over his chest. Allura pressed the button for the ground floor of the Castle, where they would prepare to receive their Galran guest under the protection of several royal guards. Then she stepped back to stand beside Lance, and waited for the door to close.
“Do you think they’re being genuine?” she asked once the lift began its descent. When it was just the two of them without any chance of being overheard.
Lance shrugged. “They might be,” he said. “Matt seemed to think they were.”
“They might also have been forcing Matthias to speak well of them.” Allura glared at the floor. Her hands were clasped in front of her, squeezed in a white-knuckled grip. “I do not trust them, Lance. I am wary to let them in here. Especially without my father present.”
“Coran is still here,” Lance pointed out. “And Uncle Alfor trusts his advice on matters like this.”
More than that, King Alfor actively sought out Coran’s advice and opinions on important issues of state. Coran had been well-educated at the Royal Academy as a young man, and had proven himself time and time again as an invaluable source of insight and perspective. Lance trusted him implicitly in this situation. Which was good, because Allura would definitely need advice on this, and Lance couldn’t trust himself to speak wisely in this. He didn’t have enough experience. He knew how to charm a ballroom, and how to command an army, but negotiating with an enemy’s ambassador… that was a whole different matter. One Coran was far better suited for.
Allura sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Even if I still don’t like it,” she said as the lift slowed and gradually came to a stop. The doors slid open, and Lance grinned at her, all bravado and charm.
“Come now,” he said, facing her as he walked backwards out of the lift, “where is the gracious princess I know and love so well? Is it not the Altean way to seek peace first?”
He leaned towards her, poking at her shoulder until Allura finally pushed him away. But there was a tiny lift at the corners of her lips as she said, “I do believe it’s a little too late for that, Lance.”
“Well, that shouldn’t keep us from trying anyways,” he retorted with a shrug. He spun on his heel to walk normally down the entry hall’s main staircase, though still bouncing a little from step to step while adding, “Just remember, this is our territory. You hold the power here. You need not agree to anything the ambassador proposes without first thinking it over.”
And that was the real crux of the situation here. The Galrans may have come to them first, may have their own reasons for negotiating a truce, may hold all the cards when it came to situational insight, but they were in Altean territory now. Whatever they offered or demanded, the Galran ambassador had to play by Altean rules now, which were, essentially, whatever Allura decided they were. She could do whatever it took to get the outcome they desired. They had the upper hand here.
“Try not to worry so much, Allura,” Lance said to her, placing a supportive hand on her back. “You know Matt would rather die than cooperate with a Galran plot. All will be well. And if it is not—” Lance’s grin turned feral, eyes narrowing and hand dropping to touch his belt, where his bayard typically sat when he wore his armor, “—then I will shoot them all down myself.”