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Perihelion

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

The Castle was situated in the mountain regions of Altea, surrounded by rolling fields of grass and juniberries and far from any of the major cities or space ports, including the one that controlled the shield barrier and all the traffic passing in and out. It would take the Galran ships nearly a full hour to fly first through the shield barrier and the Altean atmosphere, and then to find where the Castle was hidden in one of the valleys. That left Lance and Allura plenty of time to prepare.

Lance changed into his paladin armor during the wait, preferring the security of having his bayard close by if things turned sour. He’d made sure to locate Coran and a few guards to accompany him and Allura for the meeting, and he knew with their presence no harm could actually be done to either of them. But there was just something about holding his own weapon in hand that made him feel safer. More in control of the situation. So he strapped on the blue and white armor over his black bodysuit, donned the long, blue cloak with the golden shoulder pin that he saved specifically for meetings like this, and held his bayard in one gloved hand, just in case.

Allura had changed as well. Upon Coran’s suggestion, she had decided on an outfit more suited to the meeting at hand— one designed to both impress and intimidate. She now stood draped in all white, from her floor-length gown to the cape that fell over her shoulders and bare arms to fan out on the floor around her feet. Her hair was twisted high atop her head and held in place by the golden circlet that marked her status as a princess of Altea, while jewels glittered from her ears and throat. She looked every inch the queen she would one day be. Lance only hoped it would be enough to earn the Galran ambassador’s acknowledgment, if not his respect.

Having that would make negotiations so much easier, in all honesty. If peaceful negotiations really were what the Galrans were coming for.

“They’re not far now, Princess,” Pidge said, gaze locked on the small, handheld tablet that was currently tracking the progress of the Galran ships through Altean land. “I’d say five, maybe ten minutes until they arrive.”

She descended the steps of the Castle’s great hall, which would serve as the greeting point for the Galran ambassador as the Castle, unlike the Royal Palace, lacked an official throne room, to join Allura and Lance on the main floor. Her dark green cloak fluttered a little with each step. Pidge, too, had donned her paladin armor during the wait, mostly at Lance’s insistence. He knew how intimidating the two of them together would be. Even the Galran ambassador would have to admit to the fearsome power of the two Voltron paladins on the battlefield, and having the both of them standing behind Allura, dressed in full armor and with bayards at the ready, would only add more power to Allura’s words.

“The sooner they come, the sooner they can leave,” Allura replied. “I still do not like this. Allowing those ships to come here goes against everything my father taught me. I feel like this was all just a giant mistake.”

“Maybe so,” Lance said, “but the damage has already been done. We can’t just send the ships back without good reason.”

“The war we’ve been fighting for the past couple of centuries seems like a pretty good reason to me,” Pidge said beside him. Lance huffed unhappily and crossed his arms.

“They have your brother still,” he said. “You should be the one wanting this meeting the most.”

Pidge glared up at him. “You don’t need to remind me, Lance. I know exactly who is in that Galran ship. But I also know that the chances of this all being a ruse with my brother used as bait is somewhere around seventy-five percent. Maybe higher. It’s not like they haven’t done this before.”

Lance snapped his mouth shut and looked away, feeling a wave of guilt rising in his stomach. He knew what Pidge was referring to, recalled how Matt’s life had constantly been threatened whenever Pidge was on the battlefield, how it had forced her not to fight back for fear of causing Matt’s death. There was a reason why Pidge had mostly stepped away from the battlefield to work as their strategist instead. And Lance had just ignored all of that, implying that she didn’t care enough.

Of course Pidge wanted to bring Matt home. But she wanted to make sure they brought him home alive, and that meant caution. Lance felt terrible for forgetting that in his desperation for peace.

“Be that as it may,” Allura said when Lance remained silent, “I’m afraid that Lance is right about this. We made our decision. We cannot back out of it now.” She put a hand on Pidge’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. “I will make sure your brother comes to no harm, Pidge. You have my word.”

Pidge nodded her head. “Thank you, Princess.”

Lance didn’t say anything, but he intended to make sure Matt came to no harm as well. He placed his hand on Pidge’s other shoulder and felt her relax a bit beneath the pressure, shoulders slumping forward and curving in toward herself. It was a surrender, he knew. An acceptance, placing her brother’s fate in their hands, trusting them to navigate this meeting well enough to keep him from any danger.

There was a knock at the door of the great hall. The three of them turned toward it, watching as the door creaked open just enough for Coran to peek his head in and announce, “The ambassador has arrived, Princess. He requests a meeting with you.”

“Of course,” Allura said. She let out a long breath, as if blowing all her worries and hesitations into the wind, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Her expression turned hard as stone and cold as ice, and she was no longer just Allura, but instead the Crown Princess Allura of Altea— the future Queen and commander of Altea’s army. Lance watched her draw her position and power around her like a shield and felt nothing but relief as her steady, imperious voice commanded, “Send them in.”

Coran disappeared behind the door once more, off to fetch the ambassador and his entourage from wherever Coran had left them, and Lance took the opportunity as they all shifted into place to lean toward Allura. “Remember,” he murmured in a low voice, so that only she could hear, “you hold the power. You make the demands.”

Allura nodded, but otherwise didn’t react. She couldn’t. Not with the doors of the great hall swinging open for Coran and the Galran visitors to walk through.

Coran came first, leading the group across the hall to the foot of the stairs, where Allura, Lance, and Pidge stood waiting. He stopped a few feet short of Allura and fell into a full court bow, completely bent over from the waist with both arms extended out beside him. “Your Royal Highness,” he greeted, using Allura’s full honorific for once, as he rarely did. “The Galran ambassador, as you requested.”

“Yes. Thank you,” she answered with a solemn nod. Coran straightened from his bow and walked over to stand beside Pidge, on Allura’s left side. And then they were left to greet their visitors.

The Galran ambassador looked every bit as fearsome as Lance thought he would. He was tall, as all true-born Galrans were, and had lean, sharp features that, with his purple skin and yellow eyes, made him look more like a feral animal than a peaceful envoy. His black armor with the bright, red insignia splashed across his chest didn’t help him seem less threatening either. Lance was fairly certain it wasn’t meant to.

“Princess Allura,” the ambassador said. He did not bow to her, as would have been proper, but dipped his head in a shallow nod that made Lance bristle with irritation and tighten his grip around his bayard. When he lifted his head, he glanced around the hall and sneered in contempt. “King Alfor is not here? I was expecting to be greeted by him.”

The expression on Allura’s face grew even colder at his blatant dismissal. “My father is currently unavailable. Unfortunate timing, I’m afraid. But I am his heir, and I speak in his place.”

“Very well,” the ambassador sighed. “I will negotiate with you then, Princess. For the honor of the Galran Empire.”

“You will first return your prisoner to us before begin negotiating. I will not speak of peace while you hold our diplomat in chains.”

The ambassador stared at Allura, as if weighing her resolve on this issue. She held the stare, refusing to back down or show weakness, even as the ambassador’s unnerving yellow eyes bored into her. Lance felt uneasy about the acute attention of the ambassador, and he shifted his cloak just enough to let his bayard, still clasped tightly in his hand, be visible to the rest of the room as a silent threat. He was ready and willing to fight if that’s what it came down to. He rather hoped the ambassador had enough sense to not refuse Allura’s request though.

It was difficult to tell with the Galran’s flat, yellow eyes, but it seemed for a second that the ambassador’s gaze shifted from Allura to Lance, and then to the bayard in Lance’s hand. It occurred to Lance in that moment that neither the ambassador, nor the Galran guard he had brought with him, were armed with any sort of weapon, as they would have surrendered their swords and blasters to Coran and the Royal Guard before being allowed into the great hall. All the better. Without weapons to defend themselves, Lance’s threat would be more potent. And more persuasive as well.

The ambassador clicked his tongue, then turned around and gestured at his guard. The soldier left his post by the door to approach them, and for the first time Lance noticed the other figure in the room— the one being dragged along behind the guard.

“Your diplomat,” the ambassador practically spat as the guard pushed Matt across the room with enough force to make Matt stumble and fall onto the metal floor at Allura’s feet.

Pidge and Lance both rushed forward to help Matt to his feet. He was so weak he could barely keep himself upright, leaning almost all of his weight against Pidge as they lifted him from the floor. And no wonder. When he stood upright, the unnatural thinness of his body became more pronounced. His joints stuck out like sharp points, and his limbs seemed so slender Lance was afraid they might break at any second. His skin was pallid as well, save for the dark bags beneath his eyes and the few, multicolored bruises splashed across his hands and collarbone.

Looking at him made Lance feel ill. Seeing him onscreen hadn’t prepared Lance for actually seeing him in person, without any details spared. It was such a stark change from the man he’d been before, who, despite possessing a soft heart and predisposition for peace, was just as strong as anyone else in their kingdom. Stronger even than some of the soldiers Lance was charged with. This Matt was a far cry from the one Lance had known. This Matt was fragile and malnourished, and in desperate need of a good night’s sleep.

Lance and Pidge both slung one of Matt’s arms around their shoulders and carried him step by step up the great hall’s stairs and through the double doors into the hallway beyond. They stopped just outside the doors, however, and Lance stepped away from Matt’s side so he could return to the great hall. He couldn’t leave Allura alone with the Galran ambassador, after all, and Pidge could handle carrying her brother by herself now that the stairs were out of the way.

“I’ll take him to the cryo-replenishers,” Pidge said, settling Matt’s weight against her side. “Think you can handle this until I return?”

Lance quirked a small grin. “Who said you needed to return? Just focus on your brother. Allura and I have got this covered.”

“Gods be good. We’re all going to die.”

Lance laughed and ruffled Pidge’s hair. She scowled at him, patting down the mussed strands with her free hand, then turned away and started leading Matt down the hallway toward the cryo room, where she’d probably stay for the rest of the night, no matter what she said. Lance wasn’t expecting her to reappear again until she was certain Matt was alright and recovering. And even then, she probably wouldn’t let Matt out of her sights for a while.

In truth, Lance wanted Pidge to return to the great hall with him. He felt better having her presence, and the respect her position as a paladin afforded her, alongside his own. But the Galran ambassador had at least seen that the both of them were present in the castle, and he’d already revealed his preference for avoiding violence, if his earlier reaction to Lance’s bayard was anything to go by, so it wasn’t like Pidge’s presence was a necessity at this point. And Lance wouldn’t begrudge her the opportunity to be with her brother after so long for something that wasn’t actually necessary.

Instead, he returned to the great hall alone and reclaimed his spot at Allura’s side. The ambassador and Allura had begun the intricate, verbal dance of negotiations while he and Pidge had been with Matt, but it appeared Lance had returned in good time. The Galran ambassador had only just returned to the topic of peace by the time Lance reached Coran and Allura.

“An end to this long war. A truce between our realms,” the ambassador said, not even sparing Lance a quick glance as he came up beside Allura. The ambassador looked only at Allura, only at the princess he was left to deal with, as if everything else was beneath his notice. Lance didn’t like it.

“Why now?” he asked. “We have offered Galra peace many times in the past, after all, and have always been refused. Why would Galra ask it of us now?” Why should we trust it?

The ambassador bristled. “Your terms were never a truce, but our surrender. Galra never surrenders.” He sneered at Lance, baring a row of long, sharp teeth, then turned back to Allura as if Lance wasn’t even there. “Our Emperor asks for a truce, with equal respect and power on both sides. We will lay down our weapons if you will do the same. That is all we ask.”

“Forgive me for not trusting that statement. This war has been very long, and very costly to my people. I cannot agree to lay down our arms without some sort of assurance Galra won’t attack as soon as we do,” Allura answered with a frown.

“My Emperor offers one,” the ambassador said. “An alliance. A joining of the royal families.”

A marriage alliance, Lance realized in surprise. They were offering to marry one of their two princes to an Altean, even though their culture valued bloodlines above all else.

Lance looked at Allura in a panic. He didn’t trust this offer. There was something else going on here. Some sort of reason or plan that would only work if the two royal families were tied together, otherwise the Galrans never would have suggested sullying their royal line with Altean blood. There were other ways to make peace. Lance knew that. Coran knew that. Allura knew that.

She couldn’t agree to this. She couldn’t. And yet she had her head tilted to the side and brows furrowed in thought, as if actually considering what the Galran ambassador proposed.

“The idea has some merit,” she finally answered, to both Lance’s and Coran’s shock.

Seeming just as unsettled by the idea as Lance, Coran stepped forward and placed his hand lightly on Allura’s upper arm. He’d been silent since the Galrans had entered the great hall, but now he spoke out with a soft, “Princess! You can’t!”

Allura silenced his protests with a wave of her hand, never even looking away from the Galran ambassador. “I cannot agree to it without first discussing terms, but I am not entirely opposed,” she said to him. “Would your Emperor be willing to discuss this further before coming to an agreement?”

“I believe he would. On a neutral planet, of course.”

She offered him a wry smile. “Of course. Olkarion, I believe, would be willing to host us. And if we are meeting on equal terms, I believe we should meet with equal numbers. Perhaps six, including those being betrothed?”

“Very well. I will relay your request to the Emperor. We will require time to organize our people and travel.”

“Then we shall meet on Olkarion in two weeks. That should be sufficient time.”

The Galran ambassador’s flat nose scrunched up in displeasure at the rush, but he nodded in agreement all the same. The heart of the Galra Empire— where the imperial family kept their seat of power— was several days from Altea and Olkarion both. If the ambassador left now and made haste, they would have just enough time to gather their group, but not enough time to organize any surprise attacks or secret plans. Though they would be fools to try anything while hosted by Olkarion in the first place. Olkarion was neutral, and had been so throughout this entire war, but it would not remain so if either Altea or Galra spilled innocent blood in their halls. And any alliance with the Olkari would mean certain victory for those they supported.

Lance still didn’t like it, however. As eager as he was for peace, he didn’t trust Galra’s intentions with this, and he wasn’t willing to let Allura sacrifice herself for this, as he knew she was planning. Especially since he knew the Galrans wanted that.

The ambassador hadn’t named any names, of course, but he hadn’t really needed to. Lance’s siblings were all too young to be offered in marriage, leaving only Allura and Lance himself as options. And considering how quick the ambassador had been to dismiss his presence, it wasn’t hard to tell which of them the Galrans preferred. They wanted to make this alliance with Allura, the heir to the Altean throne. That spelled danger on so many different levels.

“You can’t really be considering this,” Lance protested as soon as the Galran ambassador and his guard had left the great hall. “You can’t really think that allowing one of their princes to marry the heir to the Altean throne is a good idea.”

“I have to agree with your cousin, Princess. It’s too dangerous,” Coran said. He came up beside Lance and placed a hand on his shoulder. Allura frowned at the both of them.

“This is our chance to end the war. I don’t trust them either, but we cannot pass this chance over.”

Lance shook his head. “There has to be another way. You’re too close to the throne. Your position would give them too much power. Marry one of them and they’ll have our court. Our military. Our throne. Everything they need for a swift and total takeover.”

“They would absorb Altea into their Empire using your marriage as an excuse,” Coran agreed.

“We need peace,” Allura said. She rubbed her forehead and began pacing in quick, little lines before the stairwell. “We’re losing more and more people to this war each year, and even the common folk here on Altea are feeling the effects of the war in our dwindling markets and resources. It needs to be fixed. And you said it yourself earlier, Lance— Alteans seek peace. This is what we need.”

Lance couldn’t argue with that. It was the whole reason he had pushed for this meeting with the Galran ambassador when Allura had been so hesitant. After all these years of war, their people needed a solution, either through victory or peace. And with victory so uncertain, peace was the only path to take, even if it had to be bought by marriage. But did Allura really have to be the one to pay the price?

Coran continued debating the decision with Allura as Lance thought it over. The Galran ambassador had never stated outright that the alliance needed to be with Allura, after all. Only with the royal family. And that could be interpreted to mean that any of the eligible members of their family could suffice. His siblings were all too young, of course, and Allura too important, but there was still one more option. The only option, really, even if the thought of it made Lance’s stomach twist into painful knots.

“I will do it,” he stated, interrupting the conversation between Allura and Coran. They both looked his way, confused, and he clarified, “If marriage is the price we must pay for peace, then I will be the one to pay it.”

Allura inhaled sharply. “Lance, no,” she said, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this. It isn’t your burden to bear.”

“It is, though,” Lance disagreed. “I’m a prince and a paladin, second in line to the throne after you. I have a duty to Altea and her people. If you were unavailable for marriage—”

“But I’m not.”

“If you were,” he repeated with enough force to convey his intent on making that possibility a reality, “then I would clearly be the next best choice.”

Coran sighed. “I hate to say this, Princess, but he is right. It’s a much safer option,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He clearly wasn’t pleased at the idea, but seemed to be resigned to it anyways. Or, at the very least, accepting of it as a better solution than letting Allura marry the Galran prince.

Allura was less agreeable. Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she sourly muttered, “So I must sacrifice my own cousin to our enemy.”

“I’m volunteering, Allura,” he told her. “And I’d much rather it was me than you.” Her took her hands and held them tightly. They were so much smaller than his own, softer and more slender, but still so strong. Strong enough to command an army and lead a kingdom, and not meant to be chained down by the shackles of a questionable, political marriage. He leaned toward her, sighing, and softly said, “It’s the only option that makes sense.”

Allura closed her eyes, then let out a long breath. Her shoulders slumped forward, all strength seeming to seep right out of them, and Lance knew she had resigned herself to the truth of what he’d said. That this was the only way they could have both peace and protection, and to keep the Galrans far from their throne.

Lance tried to resign himself to it as well. Maybe if he was lucky, the Galrans would change their minds during negotiations and agree to a truce that didn’t involve marriage. But he knew, deep in his heart, that such a hope was futile, and that this was now his fate.

 

 

Chapter Text

Of all the views in Altea, Lance thought he might miss the one from his bedroom’s balcony the most.

He sat at the edge, on leg tucked into himself while the other hung over the edge between the white, stone pillars, and leaned forward to rest against the top of the low balustrade that bordered the balcony. He folded his arms over the handrail, and then pressed his cheek to them, looking out over the arboretum and the small river that separated it from the Royal Palace.

This was Lance’s favorite spot. Where he came to relax and meditate, away from all the noise and bustle of the Altean court. It was so unlike the rest of the planet, where the trees were carefully cultivated alongside streets and regularly trimmed to keep their neat, streamlined appearances. Here the trees were left to grow wild. They towered over him and filled the sky with thick clusters of green leaves, so numerous they seemed to create a wall of green that stretched from the water below to the clouds above, leaving the Palace in shadows. In some places, however, the sun still managed to peek through and cast little flecks of golden light to dance along the marble walls. Lance stretched out a hand to catch one of those beams. The light and shadows covered his dark skin like lacework, which flickered slightly as a cool breeze swept through the trees and ruffled Lance’s hair.

He stared absently at the swaying shadows. Flexed his fingers, then curled them into a fist, watching as the movement affected the pattern on his skin just as much as the wind seemed to. Beneath him, the river crawled by and tumbled down its small waterfall in a soft hush. The leaves rustled in the breeze, and the sweet scent of juniberries and sun blossoms wafted from the flower pots at the back corners of his balcony to where he was sitting.

It was all so comforting. So familiar. And yet it also filled Lance with dread, because it reminded him of what he was about to lose. What he had chosen to give up to live in the heart of the Galran Empire.

Would there be trees like this there? Waterfalls? Sweet wildflowers that bloomed almost year-round?

Lance didn’t know. And, in a way, he didn’t care. Even if the Galran Empire did possess all those things, they would never compare to this. They would never match this arboretum, with its river and natural disarray. They would never compare to Lance’s home.

Sighing, he dropped his hand and closed his eyes. A door opened behind him, on the other side of his bedroom. He heard the soft tap of feet against the marble floor, growing louder as they approached him, and then felt the gentle, warm weight of a hand on top his head.

“I thought I might find you here,” his mother said fondly.

Lance forced a smile and looked up at her. “I just wanted one last look before we left,” he told her. “I want to remember it.”

“Oh, Lance.”

She sighed and sat down beside him, wrapping her arm around his shoulders. He fell into her embrace gratefully, relaxing into her side. This was another thing he would miss when he went to Galra, these moments when he could just lean against his mother and absorb her strength. He didn’t know when he would be able to see her again. Or if he would see her again at all. If things went south, and this alliance didn’t work out, there was a large chance that Lance would be killed. And if things went well, if the marriage worked and the alliance was stable, there was still a large chance he wouldn’t be able to visit Altea just due to whatever political duties he might have on Galra. They would still be able to communicate with one another through messages and video calls, of course, but it wasn’t the same as actually being here and getting to feel the security of his mother’s arms around him.

“It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” his mother murmured against the dark brown hair he’d inherited from her. “You could stay. Marry someone you love.”

Lance smiled, leaning his head against her shoulder. This wasn’t the first time his mother had tried talking him out of his decision. She was even more against the idea of his political marriage with one of the Galran princes than Allura was, and Allura was very against it. But as much as Allura hated it, she recognized its necessity, and had to agree to it for the good of their people. His mother, on the other hand, had more luxury to ignore how essential the marriage was and to look on the situation with a mother’s eye. And she didn’t like what she saw.

It warmed Lance, knowing his mother was still looking out for him after all this time. That she was on his side, that she wanted the best for him, that she’d rather see him happy even at the cost of peace. It gave him the strength he needed to do what he knew needed to be done.

“I have to go. You know I do,” he said.

His mother sighed again. “I know.” She ran her fingers through Lance’s hair, pushing it back to make the circlet he wore more visible— the one he’d inherited, along with the title of ‘Prince,’ from his father before he had died. Lance’s mother traced a finger along the gold line across his forehead and smiled. “You’ve been so brave, Lance. He’d be proud of you.” She cupped his cheek. “I’m proud of you too.”

Lance held her hand against his face and swallowed thickly. “Thank you.”

She kissed his forehead, hugging him close like she would when he was younger. Tears pricked at his eyes, and he shut them tightly, fighting back the aching emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him. He listened to the steady beat of his mother’s heart and to the rush of the river below, and tried not to think beyond that. Lance wanted to just stay here, in this moment, before he was called to the shuttle that would take them to Olkarion for negotiations. Before his future was sealed.

All too soon, however, he felt his mother squeeze his shoulder and start to pull back. Lance parted from her reluctantly. He turned his head away, not wanting to see the tired resignation that he knew her expression would show, but let her smooth back his hair and tuck a few wayward strands behind his ear.

“We should be going,” she said. “The rest of them will be waiting for us.”

Lance nodded, but was slow to stand. He knew what would be waiting for him— the shuttle out on the landing pad, the other four members of their delegation, the very last moments before his life changed forever. He wasn’t ready for that. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Altea and everything he loved about it, and so he tried to prolong the time as much as he could.

Once he was standing, however, there wasn’t much he could do to delay, and he soon found himself leaving his bedroom for the last time and walking down the hallway to the Royal Palace’s landing pad with his mother at his side.

As his mother predicted, the others were already waiting for them on the launch pad, standing just outside the space shuttle. Lance nodded at Allura, Matt, and Pidge, but didn’t say anything to them as he climbed the shuttle’s ramp and found a seat with a window looking out on the Palace. He knew any conversation he had right now would just want to focus on what was happening, on him leaving Altea and marrying a Galran and becoming a part of their court, and Lance wasn’t ready to talk about that. Not with them. Not yet.

The others followed him onto the shuttle and found their own seats, thankfully leaving him to sit by himself in the back corner. He curled up in his seat and leaned against the shuttle wall, staring out the window at the place he’d always called home. He barely noticed as the shuttle started up and cycled through the launch procedures. At least, he didn’t notice until the shuttle lifted from the ground and began its upward climb, the Royal Palace growing smaller and smaller in his window the higher they flew.

As the ground dropped away, Lance took in his last views of the planet he loved so much. He took in the ring of trees and rivers that surrounded the Palace, and the rolling plains of grass, and the distant mountains that covered the northern hemisphere of Altea. He took in the cities that dotted the plains, and the strictly structured arboretums and orchards that surrounded the cities, and the low-flying shuttles that carried civilians from city to city. He took in all that he could, engraving the images into his mind, until they passed out of the atmosphere and all Lance could see of his planet was its shape. Until they were far enough away for Altea to look like a blue and green marble hanging in the blackness of space.

And then, when he couldn’t see anymore, Lance closed his eyes and slept, dreaming of the planet he could no longer call home.

When he awoke next, several hours had already passed— more than what he’d been expecting. The trip from Altea to Olkarion was shorter than that from Galra, taking only about half a day when traveling at a fast pace compared to the Galran’s two-day voyage. On an average trip, they would have already been passing through Olkarion’s outer shield by this point. But Lance knew Coran would take his time in flying. None of them were eager to reach Olkarion and deal with the Galrans, after all. Least of all Lance, whose entire future was going to be decided by this meeting.

He glanced out the window for a moment to try to gauge where they were, but saw only black. He guessed they were just outside of Olkarion’s star system, just judging by how long they’d already spent traveling. It was hard to tell without some sort of planet or star to confirm his thoughts, though. And Lance wasn’t used to flying without both a radar and star map in front of him anymore.

He wished he’d been able to pilot Blue to Olkarion instead of taking this passenger shuttle. The journey would have been much more interesting. Or it would have at least occupied his mind enough to keep him from thinking about the upcoming negotiations. But Lance had left Blue back at the Castle with the other lions, along with both his armor and his bayard.

Truthfully, he felt a little vulnerable without the familiar weight of his bayard in hand, but it just wasn’t safe to bring Blue to Galra with him, and he’d have no need of the paladin armor and weapon if he was no longer going to be acting as one of Altea’s paladins. Allura had argued with him about that for a few days, uncomfortable with the idea of sending Lance into the heart of enemy territory without some way to defend himself, but Lance had won in the end. They just couldn’t allow the Galrans to have access to any of the lions in case this marriage alliance failed. And if it succeeded… well, then it wouldn’t matter anyways. Altea wouldn’t need him as a paladin if they were all at peace.

Still, he missed Blue already. He would have welcomed her soothing presence at the back of his mind. Instead, his head felt oddly empty and alone, despite all the thoughts he was trying to ignore. He didn’t know what to do without her there to distract him or filter his thoughts.

“Coran says we’re about an hour away,” Pidge said as she slid into the seat across from Lance. He glanced at her, meeting her observant gaze, then looked out the window again.

Pidge had worn her paladin armor and cape once more in anticipation of their first meeting with the Galran delegation. Lance had wanted her and Matt to stay on Altea, away from all this mess, but Matt had protested. “I know more about the Galrans than any of you now,” he’d argued, and neither Allura nor Lance could disagree. They needed his insight for this meeting, needed to know what they would be dealing with and how to respond to Galran demands, and so Matt had come along. And wherever Matt went now, Pidge was not far behind.

“You’ll need me there anyways,” she’d said to Lance. “There should be a paladin present, and with you getting married that just leaves me.”

Lance hated that he hadn’t been able to argue against that either. He knew he couldn’t. For as long as he’d been able to fight, it had just been him and Pidge acting as paladins. They had been the only ones of their generation to be chosen by lions, while the other three remained locked in their hangars, waiting to find the paladins they were meant for. It had been centuries since all five lions had chosen paladins at a single time. Usually only two or three would be found in each generation of paladins. And now, there would only be one— Pidge.

Sighing, Lance stared out at the black expanse of space and tried not think about that. He’d chosen this path, after all. He couldn’t allow himself to regret his choice when his path had only just begun. He had to believe this would be worth it in the end.

In the window’s reflection, he saw Pidge lean forward to rest her elbows on her knees, fingers laced together between them. She didn’t look away from Lance, but rather seemed to be observing him, her eyes narrowed behind her glasses and glued to his face. “Are you alright?” she asked, which made Lance huff out a sardonic laugh.

“’Alright’ isn’t exactly how I’d put it,” Lance told her. He touched a finger to the cold window, right where the debris cloud that surrounded Olkarion’s star system was coming into view. “I’m not sure anyone could be alright in my position.”

“You mean about to get married to your enemy and spend the rest of your life in the Empire that’s been fighting us for centuries?”

“Yes, Pidge,” Lance said dryly. “Thank you for clarifying.”

Pidge grinned. “Anytime.”

Lance rolled his eyes, but smiled all the same, feeling his mood lift just a bit with Pidge’s frank manner. He slouched back in his chair and fiddled with his fingers, anxiously twisting the thin, golden rings he wore round and round and round. He stared at his hands— at his fourth finger, where a new sort of ring would soon sit for all the days of his life. He wondered what it would look like. What metal, what stones. What sort of beauty would his prison shackle hold?

“Have you ever felt like you were standing at the edge of a precipice?” he asked, holding his hand out and trying to imagine a Galran ring there, and failing spectacularly. “Like you’re about to fall into an abyss and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

Pidge shrugged. “I don’t think there’s nothing you can do about it. You have a choice.”

“Not much of a choice. If I don’t marry him, Altea will remain at war. Or Allura will force herself to marry him. I’m not sure which option is worse.”

“I didn’t mean like that,” Pidge said. She took his wrist and pulled his hand down, away from his gaze. “You might need to marry him, but you have a choice in how it turns out. You aren’t completely helpless, Lance. You have your own weapons.”

“Do I?”

“Please.” Pidge rolled her eyes. “Let’s not pretend you didn’t somehow manipulate that Taujeeran delegation from last month into providing more scaultrite for our ships than they had originally agreed to. I know you better than that.”

Lance laughed. “I didn’t manipulate them. I simply convinced them to see my point of view.”

“By charming them halfway to being in love with you.”

“Well, not everyone can be as naturally enchanting as I am.”

“Or as self-assured,” Pidge teased, leaning forward to gently punch Lance’s thigh. Lance laughed again and swatted Pidge’s hand away, but privately he wondered if what Pidge was hinting at was right. If maybe he held more power in this situation than he’d thought. After all, the Galran court was still just a court, and Lance had been navigating those since before he could remember.

He pondered that awhile as the shuttle passed through the star system and Olkarion’s border shield. If he was going to survive the Galran court, he was going to need allies— influential members of the nobility who would be able to speak in his favor and make sure his voice was heard. Lance, for all his boasting and empty claims, didn’t consider himself to be the master manipulator Pidge said he was, but he did know a thing or two about people. Particularly those who were rich and spoiled and ambitious. There were ways he could make this work to his advantage. Things he could say or offer to win them over.

He wished he was more certain about winning over his future husband’s favor though. He had no delusions about this being anything other than a political match; he had no expectations for love or affection from whichever of the two princes he might end up marrying. But he hoped, at least, for them to be civil with each other. Maybe even to help each other in their goals, and to act as mutual sources of support. Lance didn’t want to keep fighting his husband day after day if he could help it. And if friendship was the most he could hope for, then Lance would happily settle for it.

A slight shudder as the shuttle passed into Olkarion’s atmosphere shook Lance from his thoughts. Pidge was already pressed up against the window, though all they could for a few minutes was Olkarion’s mountainous ring and a thick layer of clouds. Then they broke through the clouds, and Pidge was entranced.

“Look at that,” she whispered. Her gloved hand was pressed completely flat against the shuttle’s window, as if trying to reach right through the glass to touch the tops of the buildings coming into view. Lance grinned at the way her eyes were sparkling. He’d known she would like Olkarion, and he was pretty sure she’d like it even more before it was time for them to leave.

Lance also shifted to glance out the bit of window Pidge left clear. He’d only been to Olkarion once before, when he was very little and his parents had brought him along to some sort of diplomatic banquet, but the planet was just how he remembered it. The carpet of green and red made from the treetops of the sprawling forests, and the small mountains surrounding the cities, and the clean lines of their architecture: it was all as he recalled. Right down to the vast, flat airfield outside the King’s Spire, where their shuttle landed.

It slowly settled to a rest on the airfield, kicking up just a bit of dust with the force of its thrusters. Outside, Lance could see a small number of Olkari officials waiting to greet their arrival. He recognized a few of the faces from various intergalactic functions, though many of them were much older than he recalled them being. Still, the little bit of familiarity helped set him a bit at ease. Which was good because it seemed both his chest and his stomach were intent on constricting themselves to the point of failure. Breathing was already becoming difficult.

Suddenly, Lance wanted nothing more than to hijack the shuttle and fly them all back to Altea, away from all this madness.

“We should get going,” he said instead. “No point in delaying the inevitable.”

He stood before he could change his mind and walked to the front of the shuttle to wait for the door to open. Pidge followed after him. She placed her hand on his shoulder, but Lance didn’t turn around. He kept his eyes forward, fixed on the door, because he was afraid that if he turned away now he would never make it out of this shuttle. Not until he was back on Altean soil.

It’s for your people, he reminded himself. For Allura, and Mother, and Pidge. And for everyone else on Altea.

Reminding himself of that couldn’t keep his heart from nearly beating right out of his chest, though. It was painful against ribcage. Like he’d been hit by a training staff ten too many times. And he felt the ache of it all the way down to the tips of his fingers and toes. It was like all of the panic and fear he’d been refusing to feel since making his decision two weeks ago was now crashing over him in one, overwhelming wave as he stood waiting.

I have to do this. I must.

When the shuttle door opened, it was something of a relief. A cool burst of air brushed over his heated skin and helped clear his mind just enough to get him through the door and onto landing pad. He found it hard to walk any further, but thankfully his role at the moment was to remain in the background as formal greetings and introductions were made. Allura would handle that part, and she quickly strode past him to meet with the Olkari Prime Minister at the foot of the King’s Spire.

“Princess Allura,” the Prime Minister, Ryner, greeted, holding out a hand. “Welcome! We are so pleased to have you here!”

Allura smiled and took Ryner’s hand in both of her own. “Prime Minister. Thank you for agreeing to host this meeting. I know it was very sudden.”

“We were happy to receive your message. Peace is so important. Any help we can offer is our pleasure.”

“Thank you.” She released Ryner’s hand and gestured to her right, where Lance and his mother stood. “You remember the Duchess, I believe. And her son, Prince Lance of Altea.”

“Yes, of course,” Ryner said with a bright smile. She bowed her head towards them as she added, “I’m so happy to see you both again.”

“Thank you,” Lance answered. He was glad at least his voice was steady, that it didn’t crack or shake. He’d been afraid that it might with how anxious he felt inside, and he really didn’t want to give that away through his voice. His mother brushed her fingertips against his wrist. The brief touch gave him a bit of comfort. Reminded him he wasn’t alone, and gave him the courage to ask, “Has the Galra delegation arrived yet?”

Ryner nodded. “Yes. Just before you did. They’re waiting in the Spire, if you’re ready to meet them.”

Lance looked at Allura and his mother. They looked back at him, clearly leaving this decision in his hands. He didn’t know whether to be grateful for that or not, simply because he himself wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. He appreciated that they were taking him into consideration, but it would have been so much easier to have someone else telling him what to do. Not having to make this decision himself.

He was of two minds about it. On one hand, he really just wanted to delay this first meeting for as long as possible. To pretend this was a normal trip and not the end of life as he knew it. But would his determination last that long if they waited? It was already so fragile, so likely to shatter into a million pieces and send him running for the hills. Wouldn’t it be better then for him to meet this prince he was going to be tied to and learn what to expect from the whole arrangement?

He twisted the ring on his index finger for a moment as he thought, then finally nodded. “We’d be happy to see them now, Prime Minister. If you would kindly show us the way?”

“Of course.”

Ryner dismissed most of the Olkari officials and led their group from the airfield into the King’s Spire. Lance forced himself to follow behind Allura and his mother, but to stay ahead of Pidge, Matt, and Coran. Stuck in the middle as he was, he couldn’t turn around and bolt without the others realizing it, but he was also allowed some breathing room and some time to process how the short hallway opened up into a large, enclosed courtyard with a single tree in the center. Gave him some time to process the sight of the Galrans on the other side of the room.

There were six of them gathered, just as Allura had requested, all of them dressed in almost identical sets of armor, with only the red insignias on each of their chests showing any signs of difference. And even then, the differences were so small they hardly mattered. Not to Lance, who had no idea how to tell which symbol from the other. They all looked the same to him, including the prince’s, whichever of the six he was. Lance really couldn’t tell.

He could, however, confidently say which one of their number was not the prince, as one of their delegation was not actually Galran. Not species-wise, at least. In fact, he looked almost Altean, save for the lack of pointed ears and the facial tattoos every Altean received when they came of age. Perhaps he was human? Lance had heard rumors about Earth— the Galra Empire’s latest conquest— but he’d never had a chance to interact with one of its species.

The man was pale, with dark hair and an angry, red scar across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He wore the armor of a Galran soldier, but it looked out of place on him. Like he was meant for a different type of role, or even just a different type of armor, though he still held himself with all the confidence and pride of a seasoned warrior. If Lance had to hazard a guess, he was there as either an adviser or a personal guard. The latter option seemed a bit silly though. All the rest of the delegation, save for one, held at least a foot in height on the human, and could easily protect themselves when it came down to it.

Of course, he looked less out of place than the Galran he was standing next to, who was far shorter and skinnier than Lance had ever known any Galran to be. The top of his head just barely reached the height of the human’s chin, and Lance realized with a bit of surprise that the Galran might actually be shorter than Lance himself. How odd.

The short Galran turned as their group walked into the courtyard. He scanned them all with his yellow eyes, staring for just a beat too long first at Allura, and then at Lance. Probably trying to figure out why two marriage-eligible members of the Altean royal family had come when they were only expecting Allura. His furrowed brows— which Lance noticed were just as black as the slicked-back mop of hair atop his head— told Lance just how right his assumptions had been two weeks ago, when he’d guessed about Allura being the target for this marriage.

Well, they were going to be in for a shock.

“Your Imperial Highness,” Ryner called out, though to Lance’s disappointment, none of the Galrans reacted. There was no way of telling which was the prince from that alone. “May I present the Altean delegation, led by Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Allura of Altea.”

“And my cousin,” Allura added with a smile, “who has agreed to act as the Altean representative for this marriage.”

That statement earned some unhappy murmurs from the Galran delegation, though the small Galran, he noticed, didn’t say anything at all. He simply tilted his head to the side, confusion smoothing out into a blank mask across his fine, pointed features.

Lance frowned, but stepped forward and swept down into a full, court bow, using every bit of grace he had ever learned to give off a favorable impression. They needed the Galrans not to protest his appointment as the marriage candidate. They needed the Galrans to agree to him instead of Allura, or else this alliance was a lost cause.

“I am Prince Lance of Altea,” he introduced himself. “I hope our negotiations might find success and bring us both peace.”

When he straightened, he found the small Galran had walked closer and was now standing as the head of his delegation. He dipped into a bow to answer Lance— not a full one by Altean standards, but low enough to give Lance the acknowledgment and respect his position demanded. The movement seemed odd from the Galran, as if he wasn’t used to bowing or courtly manners. Which struck Lance as odd, as he knew the Galran court was far more strict in its adherence to rituals and respect than the Altean one. Any member of their court— prince, aristocrat, or guard— would be well-trained and practiced in these sort of things. But this Galran was not.

“Your Royal Highness,” the Galran quietly greeted. The timbre of his voice was just slightly lower than Lance’s own, and a little bit warmer. Lance was surprised to hear such a soft voice come from someone with such an intense gaze. “I am Kyran, second prince of Galra. And, if all is successful, your future husband as well.”

Chapter Text

“Prince Kyran,” the Altean prince repeated with a radiant smile that was obviously forced. “Of course. It is an honor. I’ve heard much about you.”

Keith highly doubted that, but had enough grace not to say so. “I’ve heard much about you as well,” he said instead.

It technically wasn’t a lie, though much of what he’d heard wasn’t exactly positive. Unlike Keith, Lance was a visible presence both on and off the battlefield, using his dual positions as a prince and a paladin to make the most of every situation. And as one of the key players in both the Altean army and its government, Lance was a key target for Galran frustrations. Keith had heard all the stories of Lance’s cruelty, of his vanity, his stupidity, his disregard for others’ lives. Had heard so many stories told in so many different ways, that Keith could no longer tell what was real or not regarding the prince now standing in front of him.

Except that maybe the rumors of Lance’s vanity held some truth after all. Keith had never seen a supposed soldier wear so much jewelry and silk, even for occasions like this. Lance stood proudly across from him, shoulders back and head held high, dressed in all his finery. His dark hair was immaculate beneath his golden circlet, much shorter than Keith’s own hair but still carefully combed back and out of his face. Twin, sapphire jewels dangled from his ears to match the deep blue of his shirt and the white of his cape, and when he crossed his arms, Keith noticed the thin, gold rings that sat on each of Lance’s fingers.

Clearly, he’d taken much care in regards to his own appearance. Just looking at him made Keith feel disheveled and plain in comparison, and Keith wondered if that was a deliberate choice on Lance’s part, or if he really was just that vain like all the Galran soldiers claimed. Keith privately hoped it was the former.

Lance tilted his head to the side, earrings swinging to follow the movement, and considered Keith with the impossibly blue eyes that were the trademark of the Altean royal family. His gaze slid down, then back up, as cold and distant as the vast ice fields of Galra, despite the warm smile still plastered across Lance’s face. Keith had the distinct feeling he’d just been examined, judged, and found sorely wanting.

He didn’t really know how to respond to that.

“I suppose we should begin discussing the terms of our marriage,” Lance said after a moment. His voice was mellow and upbeat. Keith had to commend him on for keeping whatever negative emotions he must have been feeling out of his voice. That, at least, would serve him well at the Galran court, if this marriage actually went through. Though he’d have to work on keeping those emotions off his face as well. He was far too expressive.

“If you’re ready to,” Keith replied. “Though perhaps you’d like to rest and refresh first. You look like you need it.”

This, also, technically wasn’t a lie. As immaculate as Lance appeared, there was also a sort of tiredness in the lines of his face that came from the stress of traveling. The Altean delegation had come to greet them straight after landing, after all. As had Keith’s own party, and they hadn’t gotten much rest over the past two days of flying either.

In truth, Keith would have liked to take a day to recuperate after being stuck in the small shuttle with the ambassador and the three guards Keith’s father had sent with him, but he knew admitting to such would show weakness in the eyes of his fellow Galrans, and he didn’t want word of such getting back to his father or half-brother and ruining all of this. He’d come too far, achieved too much, to let either of them unravel his plans. Even if it meant playing by their rules for now.

Though the journey from Altea to Olkarion was far shorter than the one he’d taken, Keith assumed Lance would feel just as tired and be grateful for the chance to close his eyes for a bit. To wash off the grime of traveling. To actually process this first meeting of theirs.

Lance, however, narrowed his eyes. “No. I’m fine. We Alteans are not so fragile as you seem to think, and these negotiations are too important to put off until tomorrow.” He looked over at where the Olkari officials were standing and offered a terse nod. “Prime Minister Ryner, if you would be so kind. I’m sure there is somewhere more suitable for these discussions than this beautiful courtyard.”

“Yes, of course,” Ryner answered. “We have a room prepared just a bit further inside. I can take you there.”

“Please,” Lance said. Ryner nodded and led the way to a hallway on the other side of the courtyard, Lance following after her with such brisk and purposeful steps that it left Keith wondering just where he’d given offense.

All he’d done was offer a chance for the Altean delegation to rest. Was that really so rude to them? Was there some sort of Altean tradition he was unaware of perhaps?

“Typical Alteans,” one of his guards spat, just quiet enough that the Altean delegation wouldn’t hear as they crossed the room. “Always so full of themselves. And we have to suffer an alliance with them. An alliance! As if they understand the word.”

The other two guards muttered their assent. “This alliance will not last,” one of them said. “I swear by all the gods, we’ll be killed in our beds by those foul creatures. We’d be better off wiping them out rather than making peace.”

If Galra could wipe Altea out, it would have already been done, Keith thought with a scowl. Centuries of fighting, back and forth without any true victory or given ground, made it clear that only a truce would end the fighting. Galra just didn’t have the resources or strength to force a surrender from Altea, and they only grew weaker with each year the war dragged on.

Of course, Keith couldn’t expect the guards his father had sent with him to think in such a way. They were mere pawns in this power play, sent only to intimidate the Alteans into agreeing on better terms for Galra in their eventual treaty. And to keep Keith in line. Keith, too, was a pawn in all of this, after all. He was simply a far more educated one than the guards that surrounded him.

“It was my father’s wish this alliance take place, whatever the cost,” he told them sternly. He turned and glared at them, trying to emulate the bone-chilling imperiousness of his father and half-brother. “If you plan to disobey the emperor in this,” he snapped, “I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. Otherwise, hold your tongues.” They quieted at once, though Keith could tell they weren’t happy about it. That they were downright furious.

They probably hate having to listen to a dirty half-breed, he thought bitterly. Prince or not, I’m still impure in their eyes.

This marriage alliance wasn’t likely to make that any better. There was a reason he was the one being given away to an Altean and not his half-brother, Lotor, even if his father never said it aloud. But Keith knew. He understood, just as he’d understood why Zarkon hadn’t seen fit to acknowledge Keith as his son until he’d found some sort of use for him, when Keith had just entered his fifteenth year of life. As he understood why the Galran court largely ignored him. Why they reviled and rejected him even eight years after he’d come to court.

Bloodlines were important to the Galrans. Strong lineage and pure Galran blood were things fiercely coveted and protected by the upper class, who used such things as a mark of social rank in the court. Lotor was of the purest line, born and bred the Emperor and his late, Galran Empress to be the paragon of Galran ideals. A marriage to an Altean, even one as royal as Prince Lance or Princess Allura, would only sully that perfect bloodline of his. But not Keith’s. Not the half-blooded bastard born of a human concubine.

Well, at least his impure bloodline taught him a few things these Galra soldiers would never learn. Independence, for one thing. The ability to think for himself. To recognize an opportunity and to use his lot in life to take hold of it.

Lance was already proving to be confusing and temperamental and prideful, and probably more than Keith was able to handle. But he was a prince of Altea. He was the key to this peace treaty, and that alone would give Keith a voice in his father’s court, where he currently had none. Even if his father wasn’t so adamant about this marriage succeeding, Keith would have found a way to make it work anyways.

Now he just needed to make sure Lance wouldn’t reject this alliance in the end— a task that would be a lot easier said than done, if the way this first meeting was going was any indication.

Sighing, he followed the Altean delegation from the courtyard to the room the Olkari had prepared for negotiations. The rest of his party was slower to do the same, save for Shiro, head of Keith’s personal guard, who silently followed Keith at a respectful distance.

It felt odd to have Shiro walking behind him instead of at his side. They’d dispensed with formalities years ago, back when Shiro had been sent to teach Keith how to fight, long before Keith was summoned to court and made into a prince of Galra. Keith had been more human then. More like his mother, more informal and brash, and completely in awe of Shiro’s skill with a sword.

Shiro, he’d later learned, had been part of the first wave of soldiers Earth had sent against the Galran army— a fighter so fierce that even the Galrans had to acknowledge his formidable skills. Of course, as a captive of war, he couldn’t be used in the Galran army, or even trusted to serve in the Imperial Guard. So instead Shiro had been wasted on the emperor’s bastard, in the hope that he’d either kill Keith or shape him into fighter that could be of some use in the future. Keith was just lucky Shiro had been more inclined to educate than to take revenge through bloodshed.

Keith wished he could speak more openly with Shiro right now. He’d always appreciated Shiro’s insight and advice into situations, and would have welcomed any thoughts he might have had about Keith’s future husband. But with his father’s men walking behind them, watching their every move like hawks, it just wasn’t possible. He and Shiro had to follow the formalities his father demanded. And Keith would have to navigate this on his own.

That didn’t really make him feel more confident as he entered the room Ryner had led them to. Nor did the glare Lance leveled against him as he sat across from Lance at the table.

“Now,” Allura said once all of them had settled around the table, “let us begin negotiations. We have much to discuss and decide.”

“Indeed,” their ambassador replied, and then he laid out all of Galra’s requests.

Keith let the ambassador take charge of the discussions with a small sense of relief. Though he’d been told all of his father’s terms and could repeat them to the Alteans upon request, he couldn’t honestly say he understood why all of them were necessary. The request for money made sense, for this marriage and all the necessities of helping Lance settle into the Imperial Palace would otherwise cost Galra a small fortune that could be spent on rebuilding their towns instead. And the mutual agreement to lay down arms and pull back their armies was obvious, given that their entire goal here was to negotiate peace. But why his father wanted several Altean hostages to ensure compliance when they would already have Lance at their court was beyond Keith. As well as why his father was so insistent on being granted access to information on Altean technology and weapons.

That request didn’t sit well with Keith. It seemed to him that if they were truly serious about ending this war, then there would be no need to know such information. Much less to demand it as part of a peace treaty.

“No,” Allura answered to that last request, just as Keith knew she would. “That information is for Alteans, and Alteans alone. Not even our staunchest allies are allowed access.”

“Why would you want it anyways?” one of the other Alteans asked. He leaned his elbows on top of the table and folded his hands in front of his face. “All of our weapons are coded to Altean quintessence. They would be useless to you. And in any case,” he added, quirking a smug and familiar grin at the Galran ambassador, “if we are to be at peace, then such information shouldn’t be necessary. For either of us.”

He had a point. His argument was strong. And, taking a second look at the Altean, Keith understood why.

The speaker was Matthias, the Altean diplomat they had released only two weeks before to secure these negotiations. Two weeks on Altea had done a world of good for him, adding back color to his once pale skin and rounding out his formerly emaciated form with a healthy amount of weight. Keith had barely recognized him at first glance, though he remembered Matt well from the time he spent as Galra’s hostage. Remembered too how shrewd and calculating Matt actually was beneath his gentle exterior.

He was not one to be taken lightly. Though it seemed their ambassador was not aware of that fact, as he impatiently argued, “This request is simply one of insurance, to make sure your weapons cannot be used against us if you prove false. Our emperor does not plan to use them.”

“I cannot say that I believe that,” Matt replied. “In fact, it seems to me that Galra’s terms are all about making sure Altea cannot attack Galra. But tell me, what assurances and concessions does your emperor offer to ensure Galra does not attack Altea?”

The ambassador scowled. “This is a meeting of peace,” he reminded Matt sharply. “I am simply relaying my emperor’s requests. If Altea did not think to make similar demands, then that is not Galra’s fault.”

“We did not mean to offend you,” Allura interjected before Matt could debate the matter further. “We are all here for the same reason, after all. I’m sure we can come to an agreement that will suit both of our nations,” she said, though the ambassador still looked unimpressed by it all.

“My emperor is simply seeking reassurance that the attacks on his subjects will stop,” he repeated haughtily. “If you will not allow access for that reason, then consider allowing it for the sake of your prince’s lion. Our mechanics will not know how to care for it otherwise.”

“That is no issue,” Lance said, speaking up for the first time since his and Keith’s conversation in the courtyard. All eyes turned to him in surprise. Or well, all Galran eyes turned to him in surprise. The Alteans seemed more resigned than anything else. “Blue will be staying on Altea with the other lions. I am not bringing her with me.”

The statement shocked Keith, just as it clearly shocked the rest of his party. The ambassador spluttered. “Surely, there’s no need for that. Galra is fully capable of maintaining and protecting your lion,” he assured, looking from Lance, to Allura, then back again as he tried to make sense of this revelation. But Lance didn’t budge.

“You misunderstand, ambassador,” the Altean prince said, giving a sardonic smile. His eyes were narrowed, sharp and piercing, and where there’d been nothing but coldness earlier, there was now sheer determination and fire. As if daring the Galrans to continue arguing against him. “I might be the pilot of the blue lion, but she does not belong to me. She is not mine to give away. And she is definitely not yours to demand.”

The ambassador drew back, hand pressed to his chest and a sour look on his face. Keith had to bite back a smile at his displeasure. He had little love or respect for the Galran ambassador— more than he had for the soldiers, but still very little. Seeing him be silenced by Lance so neatly was somehow strangely amusing. Though Lance’s outspokenness certainly wouldn’t endear him to the ambassador, whom he would have to deal with on a regular basis if this marriage went through. And that could become a problem.

Nevertheless, Keith was a bit relieved by Lance’s determination to leave the lion on Altea. He’d originally assumed, when he’d learned the Alteans were offering him Lance instead of Allura, that the renowned paladin would demand to bring his equally-renowned lion to Galra, and had started mentally shifting his plans to include its protection. After all, a ship as powerful as the blue lion in the hands of either his father or half-brother would mean nothing but trouble. It was a relief to know he wouldn’t need to worry about that now, as Lance had already taken care of it for him.

That realization made Keith reassess Lance, who was still staring down the ambassador with barely concealed irritation. Lance leaned back in his chair. His fingers tapped a steady rhythm against the table, gold rings flashing beneath the room’s lights as he continued to glare, until the Galran ambassador attempted once more to to argue their terms and Lance silenced him with a single, raised hand.

“I’ve heard enough for today, ambassador,” Lance said. “Your terms are unacceptable. What you ask is equal to our surrender, not an alliance. If you truly want this peace treaty, then I suggest you rethink your demands, because I will never agree with what they are now.”

“Lance,” Allura hissed in warning, but the Altean prince didn’t listen.

Instead, he stood from his chair, glaring at each of them in turn with his impossibly blue eyes, and then swept out of the room with his cape billowing regally behind him. Allura made a hasty apology to the Galran delegation before she, too, stood and chased after her cousin. And, after several long minutes of sitting in silence, it then became clear to both parties that neither Lance nor Allura were returning to the room. Not any time that day, at least.

Keith huffed and slumped back in his chair. The rest of the Alteans wasted no time in following after their royal leaders once they all agreed to end negotiations for the rest of the day. They filed quietly out of the room, far more reserved than any of Keith’s guards, who complained loudly about Altean arrogance and selfishness as soon as the Altean delegation passed through the door.

Keith couldn’t agree with them. It wasn’t as if the Alteans were asking for anything unreasonable. In fact, if they hadn’t argued with his father’s terms then Keith would have been far more concerned. In any case, their demands for this alliance weren’t Keith’s current concern. He was far more interested in the Altean prince making the demands than in the demands themselves.

While the ambassador and his guards were distracted by their complaints, Keith leaned closer to his personal guard. “What do you think, Shiro?” he asked as softly as he could.

Shiro hummed for a moment and looked at the door. “He has no lack of courage, I’ll give him that.”

“Perhaps. He shows his emotions too freely, though. Seems a little reckless to me.”

“As if you have any room to talk about being reckless,” Shiro teased. He turned serious soon after, however, and absentmindedly tapped one of his metal fingers against his cheek as he thought. “He’s not a bad choice,” Shiro finally said. “He seems intelligent, and clearly knows how to influence a social situation to an outcome he wants. You could do far worse.”

And Keith supposed there was truth enough in that. He didn’t know much about Lance yet, but he did know the Altean prince was fiercely independent, stubborn, and at least a little bit more sensible the average Galran courtier. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Keith for the moment.

He really could do worse than Prince Lance of Altea. So now he needed to make sure this worked out somehow. No matter what that meant.

Chapter Text

If Lance had any hopes of their negotiations continuing more smoothly after that first, disastrous day, they were soon crushed equally-disastrous days that followed.

“It has to be some sort of joke,” Lance said, pacing up and down the length of his and Allura’s room with quick, angry strides. His boots clacked against the tile floors with each step, and the sound only drove him further into his aggravation, prodding at that feeling of restlessness that had been thrumming through his veins all week. “It has to be a test, or trial, or… something.”

That was the only thing that could explain why the Galrans kept making such impossible demands, day after day, session after session. Different demands each day, of course, keeping in line with Lance’s constant requests for them to revise their terms, but most of them were still just as impossible as the ones from the day before. Money, Altea could agree to provide, but there was just no way they could allow Galra to hold some of their people hostage, as first suggested. Or to permit young Galrans entry into Altea’s learning institutes, as the Galran delegation counter-suggested the next day. And any knowledge of Altean technology or weapons was completely off-limits, no matter how many different ways the Galrans worded their request.

For a peace treaty, the Galrans were demanding far too much, and also giving far too little in return. They knew it too. Lance could see it in the thin curl of the ambassador’s lips whenever he presented their new terms. That smug look that conveyed just how confident he was in getting his way in the end, despite Altea’s resistance. Yes, Lance was certain the Galrans knew they were asking for the impossible. That they were being stubborn and unreasonable, and pushing the Altean delegation’s patience to its limits. No doubt that was why they kept asking in the first place.

He huffed and sat down heavily on his bed, right beside Matt, who was already dressed in the diplomatic uniform he only wore for special occasions— white cape and golden, ambassadorial awards and all. Lance stubbornly ignored Matt’s uniform and the reason why he was wearing it to instead focus on his irritation with the Galrans. Crossing his arms, he asked, “Is this really how Galrans negotiate with others? How long do we have to put up with this?”

“As long as it takes,” Allura answered from where she sat at the room’s vanity. She looked back at Lance through the mirror’s reflection as she clipped an earring into place and added, “They cannot keep up these demands forever. Either they will come to a reasonable agreement soon, or they will call off the treaty altogether. And I would rather wait for that decision than have them call it off because we pushed them too hard.”

“The Galrans are just testing our boundaries, Lance. Seeing where they can push, and what we’re willing to be flexible on. They’ll tone down their demands in time,” Matt said. Allura nodded in agreement.

“Regardless, we have to remain reasonable.”

“Why?” Lance asked with a scowl. “If they’re just going to keep demanding the impossible to test us, why shouldn’t we do the same? Why can’t we play their game?”

“That’s not our way, Lance.”

“So what? Does it really matter at this point?”

He didn’t see the purpose in remaining so passive while the Galrans made demand after demand. It seemed to him that if the Galrans were going to push boundaries, then the Alteans could do the same. They could ask for the impossible and see how the Galrans liked it. Maybe they could even find a bit of leverage to use against the Galrans in the future, instead of sticking to the reasonable and unaggressive terms they’d given the Galrans and gaining barely anything.

At the very least, it would feel like they were actually doing something and actively participating in negotiations. Hearing the Galrans demand so much day after day while his own delegation just answered in the way they had at every other meeting was quickly wearing away at Lance’s nerves, making him feel restless. Useless, even. And Lance hated feeling like that more than anything esle.

Allura pinned back the last of her long, white hair, and then turned around to face Lance. She looked troubled, a frown across her lips and tiny folds of skin between her furrowed brows. “Calm yourself, Lance. We came here to create peace, not start another war,” she said, and Lance had to look away in shame, knowing she was right. Knowing that fighting back as he wanted to do could quite easily end the peace talks and send them back into war. And that was the last thing Lance wanted to do, even while knowing that succeeding in these peace talks meant he’d have to marry the Galran prince and leave Altea behind forever.

That was his duty, after all. This alliance was far too important for the good of their people to let negotiations fail, no matter what that meant for Lance in the end.

There was a rustle of silk and soft footsteps, and then Allura was standing before him and placing a gentle hand on Lance’s head. “I know it’s difficult,” she said, “but we must remain patient. Perhaps this delay is a good thing. It will give you time to learn more about the Galran court, after all. And about your future husband.”

“By talking to him at tonight’s banquet, you mean,” Lance muttered.

“Exactly.” Allura ruffled his hair a bit. When Lance glanced back up at her, she smiled gently back and lightly tapped his nose. “Don’t take too long to get ready. The Olkari arranged this banquet for us. It would be rude to make them wait.”

“Of course,” Lance sighed. He kissed her knuckles and added, “You may go ahead without me, cousin. I will be down shortly,” before standing and walking over to the vanity. Allura seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if wanting to say more, but then Lance heard the soft swish of her silk skirt as she walked away and the light thud of the door closing behind her, and he collapsed down onto the vanity’s stool with another, long sigh.

He’d nearly forgotten about the banquet in his frustration over the Galra delegation’s actions. Now that he remembered, he was dreading the very thought of it. A whole night where he would be forced to make nice with the Galrans— to share food, and conversation, and possibly even to dance with them. With Prince Kyran. Did Galrans even dance? Did humans? Lance might not mind dancing with the prince’s human companion too much. He had a kind face and a comforting smile, which he always flashed at Lance during negotiations whenever the other Galrans weren’t paying attention.

But the prince. Kyran. Well, Lance didn’t know what to make of him. Aside from their first meeting in the Spire courtyard, Kyran hadn’t said a single word to any of them, either in or out of the negotiation room. He just stared at all of them with those sharp, yellow eyes, judging them and their words in complete silence. Judging Lance most of all. The weight of Kyran’s gaze always left Lance feeling unsettled and annoyed, like he was being assessed and found lacking, though he couldn’t quite figure out why.

What was it that made him so displeasing to the Galran prince? Was it his opinions? His appearance? The simple fact that he was Altean? Because clearly there was something, and Lance wasn’t sure he could last through a whole night of that piercing gaze without demanding to know what that something was. He wasn’t even sure he could last a single hour without demanding to know, or saying something equally as rude.

He slumped forward against the vanity and looked at himself in the mirror. He ran a finger over the skin of his cheek, right between his eye and his blue tattoo. Kyran had snidely commented on his tired appearance on that first day. Lance hoped he didn’t look so haggard now. He really didn’t want to deal with anymore insinuations about how weak or easily worn out Alteans were in comparison to Galrans. He was a prince of Altea, and he had to look his absolute best.

His gaze flickered up to the reflection of Matt, who was still sitting on Lance’s bed, completely at ease. “You seem oddly calm for this whole situation,” Lance commented. “I was expecting you to be more upset about this marriage alliance, considering events of the past two years.”

“And if your intended had been Prince Lotor instead of Prince Kyran, you would have been right,” Matt answered with a shrug. His tone was casual, as if the entire thing was inconsequential, but his words caught Lance’s attention. A thousand questions popped into his mind, along with the recollection of an off-hand comment Matt had made two weeks before about interacting with the Galran court while in their possession. Lance sat up straight and spun around to face Matt, suddenly very focused.

“What do you know about Prince Kyran?” he asked. His fingers curled into fists in his lap, and he leaned towards Matt with interest. “There must be some reason you to favor him over his brother. And of everyone who knows him, I trust your opinion most.”

Or at least trusted that Matt wouldn’t try to sugarcoat his opinions of Lance’s future husband the way any of the Galrans probably would if Lance even dared to ask. He wanted the truth about Kyran. Wanted to know what he was getting into. Wanted to know if enduring and succeeding in these negotiations would even be worth it.

Matt considered that in silence for a moment. He had his legs crossed, one foot swinging idly over the edge of the bed and brushing against the dark, green bedsheets in a steady rhythm of swoosh, swoosh, swoosh as he thought. His head tilted to the side.

“Prince Kyran is… different,” he finally said, speaking slowly, as if weighing each word as he said them. “He never treated me with the contempt the other Galrans showed. I’m not saying he was kind, but he was respectful of my position, and he never mocked or hurt me like the others.”

“You make him sound so appealing,” Lance said dryly, which made Matt laugh.

“Well, I admit he’s not my first choice for you, but as far as Galrans go, you could do worse.”

“Like Lotor?”

Matt nodded. “Prince Lotor is cruel, and he’s ambitious. You would have been a problem to all his plans if you had married him. And you know how Galrans tend to deal with their problems.”

Lance looked down at the floor, biting his lip. He knew exactly what Matt was talking about. He knew just how easily— how likely, even— it would have been for Lotor to have him killed while making it look like an accident. How likely it still was, even if Kyran turned out to be as tolerant as Matt was making him out to be. Lance had no delusions about what his position at the Galra court would be. He knew just how hated he would be by everyone. How much he would need someone’s support in that world.

He just didn’t know if Kyran was someone he could trust for that.

“What makes Kyran so different from Lotor?” Lance asked. Feeling anxiety curling in his stomach, he quickly glanced up at Matt, and then back down at the floor, unable to look at Matt without thinking of what his own future could be. He twisted the one ring he’d decided to wear that night around his finger, rubbing the smooth, gold metal and the jagged bump of its inlaid sapphire with his thumb. “I mean, they’re brothers. How can they be so different from one another?”

How can I trust that Kyran won’t kill me in cold blood like Lotor would?

Matt hummed. “I think it might have to do with Kyran’s upbringing,” he said.

“His upbringing?”

“Yes.” Matt stood and walked toward Lance. “From what I gathered during my time there, Kyran is only Lotor’s half-brother, and was mostly raised away from the court. I think that’s why he’s not as cruel as the others. He certainly didn’t seem to be very popular among most of the nobility.”

Lance groaned. “So I’m marrying an outcast.”

“You would be an outcast at the court regardless,” Matt reminded him. He opened Lance’s jewelry case and riffled through its contents as he added, “The fact that Kyran’s so disregarded at court might actually be to your advantage. You won’t be required to make as many public appearances as his spouse, and that will give you time to actually settle in and find a footing in the court. If you can quietly make a few allies, you should be safe. And Kyran’s own position should protect you until then.”

“But how do you even know I can trust Kyran?”

That was his whole issue with this arrangement, after all. Lance wanted to believe what Matt was saying, wanted to hope that this marriage he was agreeing to would work out for the better and keep him safe, but he was conflicted. He couldn’t be certain. And it was one thing to trust Kyran’s good intentions for this whole arrangement, but quite another to trust Kyran with his life. Lance just didn’t know. He didn’t know.

He groaned again, and ran a hand through his hair in aggravation. He hated how uncertain all of this was. Hated having to question everything the Galrans said or did, unsure of their intentions or sincerity. At least during the war it was simple. The Galrans were their enemies, they wanted to destroy Altea’s way of life, and all Lance had to do was defend his planet against their attacks. There was none of this doubt, or this hesitation.

Matt looked down at him and smiled. He lifted a circlet from Lance’s jewelry case— a delicate thing of thin, golden wires woven into a web of loops and scrolls with a small, sapphire teardrop dangling from its center point— and held it up for inspection. Lance touched a finger to the sapphire and let out a slow breath.

He’d completely forgotten he’d even packed that circlet. It was special to him. Something he’d only ever worn once, when he’d been presented to Altea as the official paladin of the Blue Lion. It was still just as beautiful as it was back then, and still inspired within him that feeling of fierce pride and confidence that he’d felt all those years ago, when he stood beside his lion and took the paladin’s oath— a feeling he needed now more than ever, and Matt knew it.

“I don’t know for sure that you can trust him,” Matt admitted, “but I trust in your ability to make the right decision, and to make the best of any situation. And I hope, in time, Kyran will prove to be as worthy husband for you as he’s been an ally to me. After all, Kyran’s the one that convinced Zarkon to let me go. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here. And these peace talks might never have occurred.”

Carefully, Matt settled the circlet on Lance’s head, adjusting it until it sat perfectly over his ears and across his forehead, sapphire teardrop resting against the skin right between Lance’s eyebrows. Matt hummed in satisfaction.

“There,” he said. “Now you look perfect.”

He smiled again and placed his hand on top of Lance’s head, much like Allura had earlier. The gentle pressure and warmth of his hand seeped into Lance, radiating comfort and assurance in the way that only Matt, whom Lance had always seen as an older brother of sorts, was able to do. Then Matt patted his head and withdrew, turning instead to walk out of the room.

And Lance was left to ponder his words in silence.

 

Chapter Text

Lance stood outside the double doors of the Spire’s banquet room trying to find the courage to go in. He heard the chatter of guests and soft laughter and the woody timbre of traditional Olkari flutes, and he knew he needed to head inside to join them, but he somehow couldn’t find the will to. He was frozen. Paralyzed by confusion and the anxiety of what he might find just through those doors. Or rather, whom he might find.

It had taken Lance longer than he had planned to come out of his room after Matt left. He’d spent the better part of an hour just sitting at his bedroom’s vanity, trying to process everything Matt had told him. None of it made sense. Just the fact that Kyran wasn’t like the other Galrans, that he might actually be genuine and trustworthy, that he had saved Matt… it didn’t make sense at all.

Surely there was some sort of evil plan at work here. There had to be. No Galran, no matter how pure their bloodline, would be so willing to help a captive enemy escape. Not without some other motive, at least. And if Lance was going to marry this guy, he needed to know what that motive was. He had to know what he was getting himself involved with.

However, Lance couldn’t convince himself to walk through those doors. He knew he needed confront Kyran and figure out his plans, but then Lance thought of Kyran’s sharp, yellow eyes and stony silence, and Lance felt afraid.

He closed his eyes and breathed in slowly. This was just silly of him. As silly as a child’s fear of the dark, or their fear of a summer storm. There was nothing to fear here. Nothing would harm him. Not so long as he was under Olkari protection, with Pidge and her bayard watching his back. And Lance might not have his own bayard with him, but he still knew how to fight and defend himself. This fear was unbecoming of an experienced soldier like him. Even more of a paladin of Voltron.

His hand lifted to touch his circlet. The thin, gold wires were warm beneath his fingers, heated by the skin it rested against. Allura had commissioned the circlet for the ceremony that had confirmed him as a paladin of Voltron— as Blue’s paladin. He’d felt so proud to wear it back then. So self-assured and eager to face the battles ahead of him. So confident in his own abilities to fight and win.

Where was all that confidence now?

Oh, how Blue would laugh at him if she could see him now. Her fearless paladin, paralyzed by the mere thought of facing a single Galran. Lance could just imagine the teasing she would poke at him. The amusement she’d feel at how unreasonably nervous he now felt. More scared of a little banquet than an actual battle, she’d tease. My silly, little paladin.

Lance smiled at that thought, though his chest still ached over he absence. He wished, now more than ever, to have Blue there with him, supporting him. But her place was on Altea, in the security of the Castle of Lions, far from Galra’s reach. And his place was here, keeping her and Altea safe.

He needed to be brave for Blue’s sake. For his people’s sake. For them, he needed to somehow follow through with this marriage. To trust in the promise of Olkarion’s protection and walk through those doors.

“There is nothing to fear,” he whispered to himself. “Enemy he may be, but there is nothing he can do to me here.” And Lance intended to keep that security in the future. The more he learned now, the more he could prevent, and the safer he would be. But first he needed to walk through those doors.

He took a deep breath. Drawing on every drop of courage he could call forth, he opened his eyes and pressed his hands against the smooth metal of the double doors. They slowly swung open beneath his force. The bright light of the banquet hall flooded the hallway where he stood inch by inch, and Lance lifted his gaze to look upon the banquet gathering as it was revealed to him.

It was not as ornate as Lance was used to. It did not glitter like the extravagant balls of Altea. But its simplicity was refreshing, a kind of beauty in itself. The banquet hall was bedecked only in the banners of the three nations that were gathered; the gold lion over a field of white of Altea, the double yellow waves on orange of Olkarion, and the purple, upside down trident on dark grey of the Galra Empire. Lance stared for a moment at the Galran banner hanging at the other end of the hall. That emblem had always been a symbol of the enemy. Soon, Lance would be taking that symbol as his own, trading his lion for its sharp points.

That was the one thing all of them could agree on, after all— that Lance would give up his home on Altea and join Kyran on Galra. It only made sense. Kyran, as the emperor’s second son, held a stronger claim to Galra’s throne than Lance held to Altea’s. And, in any case, keeping Kyran out was in Altea’s best interests. It would make sure Galra held no influence or or advantage over Altea and its armies. But Lance wondered why Galra was so willing to accept Lance into its imperial family. Were they just that confident in their own power that they felt Lance was no threat? Or was Matt right about Kyran’s position at court? Did Kyran’s lack of influence mean the Galrans were unconcerned by Lance’s possible power?

Lance looked down from the banner to the Galran delegation sitting beneath it. The six, all dressed in formal military uniform instead of their normal armor, sat in a row at the banquet table with Kyran in the middle, flanked by the ambassador on one side and his human guard on the other. Empty chairs filled the rest of the long table, with an ornate throne at one head where the Olkari king would sit, though it seemed he had not yet arrived.

At least Lance wasn’t the last to the banquet. That would have been terribly bad form. However, guests still lingered together in small groups on the expansive floor Lance assumed would at some point serve as a dance floor, all waiting for the Olkari king to arrive and start the festivities. Lance spotted Allura standing with Coran and Ryner near the edge of the room and made his way over.

“Cousin,” he greeted with a bow, and then bowed again to Ryner. “Prime Minister.”

Ryner bowed in return. “Your Highness, I am so pleased to see you again. I do hope you will enjoy the banquet.”

“I’m sure I will. It looks marvelous.

Allura nodded and smiled. “We are so grateful to you for arranging it,” she said. “We do hope it will encourage more goodwill between Altea and the Galra Empire.”

“Yes, that would be most desirable,” Ryner answered. She smiled serenely, glancing over at the Galrans, whom were keeping to themselves while everyone else mingled. Lance followed her gaze and found Kyran watching them closely. He snapped his gaze away, feeling discomfort twisting in his gut, and heard Ryner quietly laugh. “Well, at least he’s curious.”

Lance wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing.

Even turned away, Lance could feel Kyran’s eyes boring into his back— weighing, evaluating, judging him. The attention made him uneasy, especially because he knew he would have to confront Kyran at some point during the night. It was as if the universe was telling him to get on with the matter. To just go up to him and sort it all out. The pressure he felt was so great that Lance actually almost followed through, damn the consequences.

However, before Lance could do anything, the fanfare of Olkari flutes filled the banquet hall, announcing the arrival of the Olkari king. Lance turned with the rest of the guests to face the double doors, which swung open to reveal a squat, round figure dressed in deep reds and oranges. All of the Olkari gathered bowed to the figure, and Lance followed suit with the rest of his party not long after, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit… underwhelmed.

This was King Lubos? The ruler of the great Olkari kingdom?

King Lubos waved lazily at all those gathered and waddled into the banquet hall. It was strange to see him surrounded by the rest of his people, who were all tall and slender and graceful. The Olkari officials all carried themselves with a sort of poise their king seemed to lack, though Lance would admit that had less to do with his physique than it did his awareness. King Lubos seemed to care little for where he was or who he was surrounded by. His attention was focused solely on the banquet table, which he hurried to without even acknowledging the guests bowing to him as he passed.

It was a very different attitude than Lance was used to seeing from a monarch. He was suddenly very grateful that Ryner was overseeing the peace talks between Altea and Galra and not this king that kept himself so detached.

“The feast will be starting soon,” Ryner said as King Lubos sat in the throne at the head of the table. She smiled and gestured toward the empty chairs as she added, “Please feel free to help yourselves to anything at our table. Our home is your home.” Then she bowed her head and left to take her spot at Lubos’s side.

Lance sighed, warily eyeing the empty chairs across from the Galrans that he knew his delegation would be expected to fill. And he had a pretty good idea of where he would be placed among them.

Sure enough, when he and Allura made their way over to the table, he found his name card placed at the chair directly across from Kyran’s, just as he’d feared. But what could he do about it? Ryner and the other officials had specifically created this seating arrangement, and as this banquet was meant to celebrate the future peace and unity between Altea and Galra, it only made sense to have the two princes that would soon be married sitting across from one another. If Lance tried to change his seat, it would be seen as an insult, both to Olkari hospitality and to the dignity of the Galran prince, which Lance simply couldn’t afford.

He just had to endure. Getting through a meal shouldn’t be too bad, after all. As long as he continued to eat, he wouldn’t have to make conversation or meet Kyran’s unnerving gaze. It wasn’t as if they could talk about what Lance really wanted to discuss anyways. There were too many people around for that sort of conversation. He could put it off for just a bit longer.

With that silent reassurance, Lance took a deep breath and sank down into his seat, steadfastly ignoring the sharp gaze he already felt upon him. He was glad at least to have Allura and his mother on either side of him, flanking him with their support. It made him feel a bit more secure. A bit more sure of himself and what he needed to do. He reached over beneath the table to take his mother’s hand for a brief moment, drawing strength and comfort from the security of her touch, and then he waited silently with the rest of the guests for the feast to begin.

Platters of food were brought out at King Lubos’s command as everyone settled into their seats. The tantalizing smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread filled the hall. Lance sat up straighter at the scent and looked toward the soldiers, wondering what delicacies the officials had planned for them. He was surprised to see, when the servers reached his end of the table, platters filled both with traditional Altean food and dishes Lance had never seen before in his life. He assumed those dishes were Galran in nature, and probably what Lance had to look forward to in the very near future.

He bit back a grimace as he looked over the Galran food. Many of the dishes appeared meat-based in nature, which Lance could appreciate, though how they were cooked left the meat looking charred all over and practically drowned in deep red or green stew. It was heavy and thick. So different from Altea’s light and leafy cuisine. Lance wasn’t even sure he’d be able to stomach it. But would he find anything else once he was in Galra?

Perhaps he should try it. See what he needed to get accustomed to, though he was loathe to give up this last chance to enjoy Altean delicacies.

“Vremuriac,” a deep voice said. Lance looked up sharply, first at Kyran, who had a pinched expression across his face, and then to his side, where Lance found the human guard smiling back at him. “The dish is called vremuriac. Did you want some?”

“Oh!” Lance exclaimed, finally realizing how strange he must have looked just staring at the food. “No, thank you. I was just curious.”

“I see.” The guard’s gaze darted between the dish, Kyran, and Lance for a moment, and then a small, sly smile stretched across his lips. “It’s actually not that bad, you know. Prince Kyran is rather fond of it.”

“How nice,” Lance replied, not sure what else to say. He looked back at Kyran, as if looking for confirmation, but only saw his mouth pressed into a thin line, yellow eyes glaring down at the plate in front of him.

They weren’t as flat as Lance had first assumed, actually. Not like the rest of the Galran’s eyes. He’d never been close enough to notice it before, but now that they were sitting across from each other, knees almost touching beneath the table, Lance could see the subtle ring of dark gold in the center of his otherwise yellow eyes, right where a colored iris would be for an Altean. And for humans as well, if the guard was anything to go by.

As a matter of fact, now that Lance was paying attention, he saw several differences between Kyran and the rest of the Galrans aside from just his eyes and his height, which Lance had already noticed back when they’d first met. He still shared the same purple skin, the same large ears, and the same pointed teeth, but his facial features were sharper than the average Galran. More defined, more delicate. He was all angles and sharp points where the rest of the Galrans in his entourage showed flatness and square lines. Even his ears, which at first glanced seemed to be the same as all the rest, angled up to a small, thin point that barely came past the top of his head. The others all had larger, more curved ears that were also covered in far more fur. Kyran still had some, but it was sleeker, smoother, and less overwhelming. The most abundant amount of hair Kyran showed took form in the black strands he kept slicked back and tied up.

That wasn’t something normal for Galrans. Not as far as Lance knew, at least. And combined with all the rest of it, Lance had to wonder at his parentage. Matt had mentioned something about Kyran was only Lotor’s half-brother, and that he’d spent most of his life away from court. So perhaps Kyran wasn’t the pure-blooded Galran prince they all assumed he was after all. Perhaps he had some Altean blood running through his veins. Or maybe even human.

The thought was like a revelation to Lance. All the things he’d been questioning about Kyran and their marriage started making sense. Why Kyran was so despised at court, and why his personal guard was a human, and why the Galrans were so willing to offer him in marriage to an Altean despite the importance they placed on bloodlines.

Of course they’d be willing to sacrifice Kyran if he wasn’t actually pure Galran. He was already tainted in their eyes.

Lance glowered down at his plate and viciously skewered a piece of meat on his fork. He was irritated. Not at Kyran in particular, but at the fact that his heritage was the reason he was being offered as Lance’s intended in the first place. The Galrans were essentially insulting Altea by offering up their unwanted prince. It didn’t matter that Kyran was quite possibly the better, more trustworthy option, or that his bloodline didn’t even really matter to Lance; Galra was still disrespecting the honor of Altea, and of the treaty they were there to create. And they didn’t even have the decency to be truthful about it.

What else were the Galrans hiding? What plan did they hold? What were they trying to achieve?

And why did Kyran, who surely knew all of this from the very beginning, even agree to be a pawn in this game when the only thing he’d get from it was more scorn?

There was something more going on here than a simple peace agreement, of that Lance was now sure. If not for Galra, then at least for Kyran. There was no way he would have agreed to this marriage unless he was getting something out of it. Moreover, he wouldn’t have tried so hard to get Matt released and sent back to Altea with the ambassador without some ulterior motive. The risk was too great for someone in his position to take unless there was an even greater reward.

But what was it? What did Kyran want?

Lance stewed over that question for the rest of the feast, barely paying attention to what was happening around him. Eventually the entrees were taken away and replaced with desserts, but it all seemed to taste the same to Lance, sitting like dirt on his tongue as he grew more and more frustrated over his own lack of answers.

He just didn’t know enough about the situation, or about Kyran himself, to guess what kind of angle the Galran prince was aiming for. It was entirely possible Kyran didn’t want peace at all, but rather a link into Altea, where he could gather all the information Galra would need to launch a final attack. Then again, it was also possible that Kyran was just as sincere and eager to end this war as Lance was. Perhaps he was doing it for his people. Or perhaps their marriage wasn’t as disadvantageous for Kyran as Lance believed. Perhaps it would afford Kyran a stronger voice within his father’s court.

Lance shook his head while the sound of flutes and strings and chairs scraping back from the table filled the banquet hall. Lost in thought, he followed Allura mechanically as she stood and glided across the hall to the dance floor. He took the spot by her side, but he didn’t see the banquet hall or the dance floor or the many Olkari couples that filled it. Instead, he saw the twisted knots of possibilities that were tying him to Kyran, trying to untangle them enough to see just what might have led them to this.

At least, he was until he felt a sharp jab in his side that brought him back to reality.

Exhaling, Lance clasped a hand over his side, right where the elbow had hit. He glared at Allura, but his cousin didn’t seem to care. She meet his glare without shame. There was an expectant gleam in her eyes that made Lance uneasy. Even more so when she subtly gestured at the dance floor with a tilt of her head.

“Do I have to?” Lance asked, knowing exactly what Allura wanted from him. What she was expecting. Allura didn’t answer him verbally, but sent a pointed glance back at the table where the Galrans were still sitting— one that allowed for no argument. Lance sighed.

He should have seen this coming, really. He knew all the customs and traditions Alteans placed on their banquets. Knew what it meant to be a guest of honor at any celebration. And if he was anything here on Olkarion, he was certainly a guest of honor— one half of a pair whose marriage agreement here would end a centuries-long war.

Lance strode back towards the table, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. He didn’t want any more attention for this than necessary, particularly not before he had Kyran’s agreement. It would be too humiliating to be turned down with everyone else’s eyes fixed on them.

At least if Kyran said no, Lance would have a legitimate excuse to go back to his corner and return to his thoughts.

On the other hand, if Kyran said yes, Lance would have the perfect opportunity to get Kyran away from his guards and demand some answers. They could finally talk, and Lance could try to scope out what Kyran’s motivations were, what his plans and desires and ambitions for this marriage would be. As awkward and tense as that conversation was sure to be, it was something Lance needed, if only to soothe some of the questions that had racing through his mind all night.

Lance wasn’t sure which outcome he hoped for more.

The Galrans didn’t look up or acknowledge him as he passed behind them, not until he stopped beside Kyran’s and dipped into a bow, one hand extended before him. “Prince Kyran,” he said in a low voice, “might I have the pleasure of a dance?”

“A dance,” Kyran repeated. Then, after a beat of silence, “Why?”

Lance grimaced. “I’m afraid it’s Altean custom. The guests of honor are always expected to lead at least one dance. I’m still bound to these customs, and I would be honored to share this dance with you.”

Kyran said nothing for a moment. Lance waited in the silence, still bent over in his bow, for some sort of comment or answer. He closed his eyes and tried to calm the anxious churning in his stomach. It was up to Kyran now whether this dance would occur or not. Lance had made the offer, and now he could do more. He could only wait.

Finally, he felt the feather-light touch of another hand against his own. When he looked up, he saw a resigned, but determined expression across Kyran’s face.

“One dance,” he agreed, then leaned closer to add, “Don’t blame me when you regret this,” whispering the words into Lance’s ear so the rest of the Galran’s wouldn’t hear. Lance smirked and closed his hand firmly over Kyran’s.

“I’ll take my chances.”

He straightened up and pulled Kyran to his feet. The Galran prince sighed, but followed Lance’s lead without complaint, which was about as much as Lance could realistically hope for. This wasn’t something they were doing for the pleasure of it, but rather for the social obligations Lance’s kingdom demanded.

The whispering started the moment they stepped onto the dance floor together, just as Lance knew it would. He tried not to hear it, and to ignore the way every head in the banquet hall turned their way, but felt their gazes burning into his back, all filled with hope and expectation. Kyran, now stiff beside him, appeared even more uncomfortable by all the attention. It was almost enough for Lance to take pity on him and let him return to his seat. Almost.

Still holding Kyran’s hand, Lance turned and placed his free hand lightly against the small of Kyran’s back, pulling him closer so Kyran was forced to place his hand on Lance’s shoulder in return. The musicians took the cue, to Lance’s relief. They struck up a new song— something light and upbeat and thankfully easy for Lance to get lost in. He stepped forward into the dance, sweeping Kyran along with him, and almost immediately forgot about everything else except for the movement of his feet and the partner in his arms.

If there was one thing Lance was confident about, it was his skill at dancing. He’d grown up under the strict tutelage of his mother, who had once been one of Altea’s most renowned beauties, in part because of her grace and skill on the dance floor. He’d had the importance of a straight back and a smooth gait drilled into him from a very young age. By now, it was all second nature to him. Where to step, when to step, how to step: all of it.

The same, it seemed, couldn’t be said for Kyran. Though he kept up with Lance’s steps well enough, he did so with a little bit of fumbling and more than a few frustrated huffs. He was tense beneath Lance’s hand, movements stiff and awkward.

Lance swept the two of them across the dance floor, following the sumptuous, three-metre beat with ease. Kyran let himself be whirled along without comment, except to softly hiss and curse when he tripped over his own two feet on a particularly quick turn. Lance grimaced in sympathy.

“Dancing doesn’t appear to be your strong suit, Your Highness,” he commented.

“It’s not.” They turned again, this time without any trouble for Kyran, but his mouth was still set in a scowl despite the success. “This isn’t something I do often,” he explained gruffly. “Galrans don’t dance.”

Lance blinked, the furrowed his brows together in confusion. “But then what do Galrans do at celebrations if not dance?”

“Eat, mainly. Talk. Hold debates.”

“That’s strange,” Lance said, feeling a little bit disappointed. He always loved Altean balls— all the nobles dressed in their best, glittering beneath the palace’s crystal chandeliers with every twirl and dip. And, present dance aside, he’d always enjoyed charming their guests on the dance floor, leaving them breathless with laughter and joy.

Of course he’d known the Galran court would be different, would have other traditions and expectations, but he’d hoped at least to find something similar in their banquets and balls. From how Kyran spoke however, it didn’t seem like that would be the case.

Unsurprisingly, Kyran didn’t seem as upset by the situation as Lance. He scoffed at Lance’s comment and answered, “What’s strange is having a custom dictate who is supposed to dance when.”

“Well you didn’t have to accept my request,” Lance huffed. “You could have said no.”

“With so many people watching?” Kyran asked. His gold eyes met Lance’s, one brow raised in silent challenge. Like he was just daring Lance to contradict him. “I’d rather suffer through this weird custom than accidentally offend everyone else in this room, wouldn’t you? Isn’t that why you bothered to ask in the first place?”

Lance couldn’t deny it. He knew full well that the only reason he’d agreed to this was in order to satisfy Allura and the Altean tradition. He didn’t want to face his cousin’s wrath later for not following through. And he certainly didn’t want any of the Olkari to think he didn’t appreciated their constant hospitality because he’d stubbornly refused to dance with his intended. Such callousness just wasn’t in his nature.

He was surprised that Kyran was of a similar mind, however. That he was perceptive enough to realize what his refusal might imply to the rest of the guests, and, even more surprising, that Kyran was also considerate enough to avoid giving offense despite his low opinion of and even worse skills at dancing.

His attitude didn’t match the Galran prince Lance had imagined at all. It didn’t fit Lance’s image of the cruel, manipulative prince that had only agreed to this marriage to learn more about Altea before destroying it without remorse. Nor did it match with the ambitious prince that was only using their marriage to get more influence at court. This was a kinder prince than Lance had imagined, and one he didn’t really know what to do with. One he wasn’t sure he could trust.

He narrowed his eyes at Kyran, as if by doing so he could see straight into Kyran’s head and discover his true motives. Such thoughtfulness was too good to be true. There had to be something more here. Something Lance wasn’t seeing.

“Tell me, Kyran,” he said, taking advantage of their relative privacy to probe further into that mystery, “why exactly did you agree to this marriage?”

“Perhaps for the same reason you did,” Kyran countered. He stared at Lance for a few moments, seeming to search for something as they glided across the dance floor, then looked off to the side as he added in a softer voice, “This war has taken a toll on us. Millions have died fighting this war, and those we don’t lose to the front lines we lose to famine or sickness that we can’t afford to fix. Peace is necessary, no matter the cost.” He paused. His hand tightened its grip on Lance’s. Then, “Aren’t you the same? I have it on good authority your kingdom is suffering as much as ours.”

“Matt,” Lance muttered. “You mean Matt, don’t you?” Kyran’s gaze snapped back to Lance, wide with surprise, and much more alert than before. Taking that as confirmation, Lance continued, “Why did you help him? You had nothing to gain. Allying yourself with such a high-priority prisoner as Matt would only harm your standing at the Galran court. And from what I hear, that’s not something you can afford.” They swept into a final turn, then came to an almost complete standstill, standing toe to toe, hands clasped and eyes burning into each other. “So why did you help him, Kyran? What is your agenda here?”
Kyran didn’t answer for a long moment. Long enough for the musicians to reach the end of their song, and for all those gathered to break into applause over the final, wavering notes. Lance turned reluctantly away from Kyran to clap politely with all the rest of the guests. When he finally turned back, he found Kyran watching him closely, observing him with some new glint in his eyes that sent a shiver down Lance’s spine.

“Perhaps you are not as stupid as you seem,” Kyran said, almost in thought, but still loud enough for Lance to hear. The comment struck a nerve.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded, practically puffing up with indignation.

But Kyran didn’t answer. Not verbally at least. He bowed to Lance, then took his leave, disappearing into the crowd before Lance had a chance to protest. And for the second time that night, Lance was left alone to stew in his own thoughts and irritation, feeling even more confused than ever.

Chapter Text

Lance didn’t stay at the banquet for much longer after Kyran left. Not after it became clear that Kyran had retired entirely for the night. For a while, Lance assumed Kyran had simply vanished into the crowd, choosing to hide among the various Olkari guests, probably waylaid by some official or another wanting to offer their best wishes for his impending marriage. Lance had his fair share of comments and congratulations as well, and was kept quite occupied for the first hour that followed his dance with Kyran.

Eventually, however, Lance managed to extract himself and retreat into a corner to catch his breath. It was exhausting keeping up a smile for guest after guest. But Lance couldn’t let them see how much this engagement— one that wasn’t even official yet— was getting to him. Especially after that confusing, infuriating comment Kyran had made at the end of their dance. Lance had half a mind to hunt Kyran down and demand an answer from him, which he nearly listened to until he realized that Kyran was no longer in the banquet hall. Nor was his human guard, who was the only other member of the Galran delegation Lance might have been willing to speak to.

Well, without either them there, and having lost any interest in either dancing or gossiping, Lance saw no point in remaining at the celebration. He’d satisfied his requirements, fulfilled every social expectation, and now all Lance wanted was to curl up in bed and enjoy his solitude in peace. What little peace he had left before he was forced to marry a Galran prince that seemed to think so poorly of him.

Not as stupid as you seem, Lance’s thoughts repeated in Kyran’s soft drawl as he stepped into his bedroom. Scoffing, Lance unpinned his cape and threw it onto his bed, then collapsed onto the stool before the vanity. What did Kyran’s comment even mean? Was that how the Galrans viewed Alteans? Did they think all Alteans were stupid? Or was it just how they viewed him in particular?

He yanked off his ring and threw it into his jewelry box, irritation bubbling in the pit of his stomach. He supposed it didn’t matter in the end, because either way it meant Lance was being seen as an idiot, and Lance hated that. He hated being seen as inadequate, as somehow… less than everyone around him. It reminded him too much of when he was younger, before he’d found his place with Blue and developed into the prince he now was.

Lance was proud of who he’d become. Proud of all his accomplishments and skills. He hated how a single sentence from Kyran was somehow able to cut right through all that to the little seed of insecurity he thought he’d discarded long ago.

No. Lance couldn’t think like this. Maybe the Galrans thought of Alteans as stupid, but that was only natural, considering they’d been enemies for so long. Surely there were things Lance assumed about Galrans that weren’t true either. And perhaps… perhaps Kyran actually commenting on it meant that he was seeing beyond the prejudice and coming to respect Lance. Or perhaps it was just Kyran being a jerk. Lance wouldn’t put it past him.

Lance took off his circlet and unclipped the various earrings he wore on both ears. He packed them all away carefully, not anticipating needing them anymore tonight, and then turned to go to his closet and prepare for bed. But before he had taken more than two steps, he was stopped by a loud, unexpected knock on his door, and he looked towards the noise in confusion.

Who was seeking him out so late at night, with the banquet still carrying on a few floors below? It wasn’t Allura, obviously, or else she would have just walked right through the door. And none of the others had such a sharp rap.

The knock came again— faster this time, more impatient— and Lance made his way across the room. Whoever it was, they apparently had something important to say. Perhaps his cousin had sent an Olkari to deliver a message or something. Lance couldn’t just ignore that. He turned the handle and opened the door, but what he found on the other side wasn’t an Olkari. It was the Galran prince.

Kyran stood alone in the hallway. He was still dressed in his formal uniform, though his black jacket was now unbuttoned and casually hanging open, revealing the plain, grey shirt he wore underneath. His hair was hanging loose too. Instead of being pinned back like it usually was, the black locks now tumbled down about his face in long waves, tips just brushing his shoulders. He looked completely different from how he always appeared. Not as stiff or polished. And he was completely alone, without even his human guard in sight.

Not a formal meeting then, and certainly not one approved by either Allura or Ryner. So what did Kyran want? And how had he gotten past all the Olkari guards between this wing of the Spire and the wing housing the Galra delegation?

“Why are you here?” Lance hissed, shifting to stand just behind the door, as if using it as a shield. He glanced down both ends of the hallway, but saw no one else. No guard, or official, or even a shadow to call out to if Kyran was here for some sinister reason.

Not that he looked like a threat, unkempt as he was and lacking any sort of visible weaponry. But Lance knew firsthand how dangerous an angry Galran could be, even without weapons, and Kyran did have a rather intense air about him that set Lance on edge. That made his heartbeat jump and pound painfully within his chest. Kyran’s yellow eyes were sharp and bright and focused on Lance in the doorway, and his voice was soft, but very serious and direct as he answered, “We need to talk.”

Lance narrowed his eyes. “Oh, really? See, I thought you’d made your opinions on talking very clear earlier, when you left in the middle of our conversation.”

“There were too many people there.”

“None of whom would have heard us over the music. Let alone while we were constantly moving,” Lance argued. “Even your apparently superb Galran hearing would have had difficulty. So I really don’t know what you have to say to me that couldn’t have been said there.”

“This matter is too important to risk being overheard,” Keith hissed, stepping towards Lance, who stepped back in response. But that just seemed to frustrate Kyran further. He crossed his arms, scowling at Lance, and said, “Really? If I wanted to hurt you, you’d be dead already, not hiding behind that door like a coward.”

Lance glowered back at him. “Well excuse me for not trusting the prince of an empire that killed so many of my people.”

“Your kingdom has killed just as many as mine. And you, the infamous blue paladin, have had a hand in that. You are no less a threat to me than I am to you.”

Well, Lance couldn’t argue against that. He’d been on the front lines of almost every major battle, cutting down ships full of Galrans with the startling efficiency that being Blue’s pilot, with all the strength of their connected minds and advanced weaponry, afforded him. And when he wasn’t in battle, he was usually helping to command it from the palace’s war room, with Pidge and Allura at his side. He was still ordering the deaths of Kyran’s kinsmen even if he wasn’t the one doing the actual killing. Still as responsible.

Lance bit his lip and looked away. The silence stretched on between them, growing heavier with each second that passed. Lance couldn’t bring himself to break it. Not when he couldn’t even make sense of his own thoughts and judgments any longer. Not when he was suddenly so conflicted by both his distrust of Kyran and his hope that Kyran was actually being sincere with his requests.

Lance was accustomed to speaking freely, but he knew when to keep his silence.

Sighing, Kyran looked up at the ceiling and ran a hand through his hair. “I just want to talk,” he said again. Softer, this time. With less of an edge. “There are things you must know if this marriage is to take place.”

Lance hesitated. He was still torn between his fear and his hope. Torn even more because it would mean speaking to Kyran alone, without any guards or weapons nearby. But if Kyran actually meant what he said, then maybe… maybe…

“Fine,” he finally answered, “but not here.” He couldn’t have Kyran in his room. He couldn’t speak reasonably with Kyran there, where anyone might find them and escalate the situation beyond his control. He glanced over his shoulder at the vanity, and at the small escritoire connected to it, then back at Kyran. “Just… wait here a tick.”

At Kyran’s nod, Lance stepped back and closed the door. It shut with a soft thud that echoed around the empty room. Lance looked back at the escritoire, then hurried across the room to riffle through its small drawers.

He didn’t know if it would hold what he was looking for. Olkarion relied heavily on its technology and advanced simplicity for everything, even for writing. But Lance hoped, knowing the close ties between Olkarion and Altea, they would think to include some of the luxuries Alteans regularly used. And, yes! They had!

Lance pulled out a sheet of paper and a simple pen and quickly drafted a short note for Allura, one that would keep her from seeking him out with a squadron of guards. She’d never allow for him to speak with Kyran alone before a settlement had been reached. For good reason, he had to admit, in an effort to keep both him and their peace treaty safe. However, Lance had confidence in his own ability to keep himself safe, even if this turned out to be a trap of some sort, and he was willing to risk it for the slim chance that he and Kyran could reach some accord, some sort of agreement that would keep both their kingdoms safe from further war. He was not willing to risk his cousin ruining that chance, no matter how good the reasons.

A few moments to scrawl a note about needing to meditate in one of the Spire gardens, and then one more, after an internal debate, to grab a dagger to hide beneath his floor-length over robe, and then he returned to the door. He took a deep breath. Then he pushed open the door.

Kyran still waited outside, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. He looked up at the sound of the door opening and, seeing Lance ready to go, jerked his head to the side in a silent order to follow before walking down the hall. Lance walked after him just as silently. It would do no good to draw attention to themselves. And if Kyran was so determined to speak in private, then Lance knew he wouldn’t answer any questions as they walked.

No. Lance kept to himself as they walked through the hallways and up a flight of steps, up to the next floor, where Kyran led him to a large room that opened onto a balcony. His human guard stood by the doorway. Kyran nodded and murmured, “Shiro,” as they passed. The guard— presumably named Shiro, from Kyran’s greeting— nodded back, and then slipped past them into the hall they just came from. Lance watched him leave with bemusement, but assumed he was leaving to keep watch over the wing Lance and Kyran had commandeered. Kyran wanted this conversation to be private, after all. If he was telling the truth about that, he would hardly want anyone, even his own delegation, to interrupt.

Kyran didn’t even react to Shiro’s departure. He walked forward confidently, striding past the couches and potted plants that lined the walls to the balcony. Lance followed at a more sedate pace. He glanced warily around the room, suddenly aware of how very alone they were. How, for the first time, it was just the two of them, without any expectant or judgmental eyes upon them. Not even that of Kyran’s guard. They could say anything here and it would go no further than this room, no further than their own ears. It made Lance wonder what exactly the Galran prince wanted to speak about that demanded such privacy. And that, in turn, made him nervous.

He turned his head and found Kyran watching him from the balcony, waiting with his arms crossed over his chest like before. Lance’s heartbeat accelerated, until the sound of it was a near buzz in his ears, while his hands suddenly felt very weak and shaky. He laced them together and took a step forward. He couldn’t let his anxiety show.

“So,” he started, stepping out onto the balcony. A breeze ruffled his hair and robe. It was gentle, but noisy, easily carrying his voice away, and Lance instantly saw why Kyran preferred to speak out here rather than in the room itself. He raised his voice slightly, “So tell me, Kyran—”

“Keith,” the Galran prince interrupted. He met Lance’s eyes for a moment, then looked away as he added, “Away from my father’s court, I am Keith.”

“Keith then,” Lance said, testing the weight and feel of it on his tongue. It suited him, Lance decided. Suited his not-quite-galran appearance. “Tell me, Keith, what is it you wanted to speak about? You brought me all the way out here; I can only assume it’s something important.” Kyr— Keith didn’t answer. Impatient, Lance tried again. “Does this have to do with Matt? About why you let him go? What your agenda here is?”

This time, Keith looked back at him. His yellow eyes seemed to assess Lance, as if trying to decide something, and then he asked, “How much do you know about my position at court?”

“Not much,” he admitted. “Matt said you were mostly raised away from court. And that you’re not very popular there, which I’m assuming has to do with your parentage. You don’t look like the other Galrans in your party. Not completely. And I know bloodlines are important for your court, so it only makes sense that the reason you’re so disliked is because your heritage isn’t pure. But I’m only guessing on that. It’s not as if that’s common knowledge in Altea. We barely knew anything about you before Matt— what?” he asked, suddenly noticing Keith’s glower.

“Do you always talk this much?”

“I’m used to speaking my mind,” Lance answered, which only made Keith frown more.

“You’ll need to learn not to.”

Lance scowled. “Excuse me?” he demanded, feeling his mental hackles rise. He didn’t like the tone Keith was taking. Liked even less that Keith somehow seemed to think Lance would just agree because Keith said so. “You have no right to dictate me, future husband or not.”

“I wasn’t—” Keith growled, then pushed away from the balcony’s railing to pace back and forth over the gray tile floor. “Look,” he said, “the Galran court isn’t a kind place, especially for you. Your Altean heritage isn’t going to win you any friends there. They’ll tolerate you, if only because they have to, but if you start sticking your nose into things and ‘speaking your mind,’ that tolerance will completely disappear. And I won’t be able to protect you.”

“I don’t need your protecting,” Lance protested. “I’m not walking into this blind, Keith. I know what the risks are. I know I won’t be welcomed in your court.”

“Do you? Because I really don’t think you understand the severity of this whole situation.”

Lance furrowed his brows. “What do you mean?” he asked, confused and slightly worried by the agitation in Keith’s tone. The hint of desperation. What did it say about Galra that Keith, its prince, was so worked up about this? That, when he turned towards Lance again, his eyes were narrowed in worry, not anger.

“What I mean is that these peace talks should never have happened in the first place,” Keith said. “The common people are the ones that want peace, not the nobles. They hate this entire idea. As does my father. The only reason this is happening is because I somehow convinced my brother it was a good idea.”

“Well that’s good, isn’t it? That he supports this?” Didn’t that mean Lance would have an ally in the Galran court other than Keith himself? That they might find some support for this peace treaty?

Keith shook his head. “You don’t know Lotor. You don’t know what he’s like. My father might listen to me if he was in a good mood, but my brother never would. Not unless there was something in it for him.” He turned to the side and leaned forward with his hands braced atop the railing. He bowed his head. Lance could barely hear his low voice as he admitted, “The problem is, I don’t know what he’s getting out of this. It doesn’t benefit him at all.”

Lance closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. “So he has an agenda,” he said. Just great. Lance knew he’d have to fight for his place at the court, but now it was going to be so much more difficult with Prince Lotor’s hypothetical plans thrown into the mix. Plans didn’t worry Lance, so long as he knew what the plans were and could manipulate them to his liking. But it didn’t bode well that not even Keith could figure out what his half-brother was thinking.

Lance didn’t understand any of this anymore. What did Galra want from them? Why was this marriage even going forward? Especially if, as Keith said, so many of the court didn’t support it. What was Lotor aiming for? And why was Keith even telling him any of this, when he could have just as well kept quiet and let Lotor’s plans go forward?

There was discord among the Galran court, he realized. Discord much larger than Lance had ever assumed. That was why Keith insisted on speaking in private, away from even his own guards, whom Lance now recognized had been sent to not only protect Keith, but to also spy on him and keep him in line. It was no wonder Keith hadn’t spoken until tonight. He was being treated as a pawn by the Galrans. He couldn’t even use his own name, let alone do any negotiating.

Until now, of course.

“And what of you?” Lance quietly asked, glancing up at Keith. “What is your agenda?” For surely he had one. If he was in such conflict with his brother and father, then Keith had to have some sort of plan or desire that went against theirs. But whether it would match Altea’s desires and best interests, Lance couldn’t say for sure. And he needed to know before he could agree to anything. He needed that assurance.

This game they were speaking of playing was becoming too dangerous for anything less.

Keith was silent for a moment. Then, “Peace,” he answered. “A stop to this war we can’t even remember the reason for, no matter the cost.” His words echoed Lance’s thoughts and sent a shiver down his spine. And when Keith looked back at Lance, it was with something akin to hope burning in his bright eyes. “This marriage might be purely political, but for the sake of peace I want it to last. I need your help for that.”

Lance hesitated. He too wanted this alliance to work, to bring peace to Altea, which so desperately needed it. But how could he say yes when he knew what dangers awaited him at the Galran court? When he wasn’t even sure he could trust Keith to watch his back?

How could he say no when doing so meant the alliance would fall apart and war would resume?

“I’ll help you,” he finally said. “If only to keep Altea safe.”

Keith flashed him a quick grin, almost too boyish for his normally serious face, and then took Lance’s hand. He pressed something cool into Lance’s palm. When Lance looked down, he saw a simple, black signet ring set with a deep red stone.

“The Imperial ring,” Keith explained. “As my future spouse, it now belongs to you. If you will accept it.”

Lance nodded silently. He slipped the ring onto his first finger. It fit him perfectly, as if it was always meant to be there. But for some reason, as he looked at the ring and felt it weighing down his finger, he couldn’t help but think he just walked himself into a trap. And now there was no escape.