I'm such a fool, Merla, Queen of Darkness and seat of the Seventh Kingdom of the Drule Empire berated herself as she sat upon her throne, alone in the grand room of her castle on her home world. Eshai, where the queen's fortress stood strong and unchallenged, was not the world of her birth, but after rising to power and conquering many planets, it was the place she had chosen to settle upon within her empire. Eshai was not an exceptionally large world, and actually it was a small but beautifully lush and temperate moon of an uninhabitable gas planet. It was also home to a race of primitive yet still intelligent creatures called dwarflings that had regarded Merla and her forces as entities of divine power, and Merla herself as nearly a goddess. Between the moon's pleasant climate, abundant and unspoiled natural wealth, and the unwavering loyalty of the natives, the conquering queen had found it an ideal place to make her home and sanctuary. When she added the rule that no men—at least, none who were not dwarflings native to the world—were permitted on Eshai, it had become nearly perfect. Experience had taught Merla that while men were useful as toys, slaves, underlings, and even allies—they were never to be fully trusted. Never.
An angry and bitter scowl crossed the queen's lovely features as she continued to sit and feel sorry for herself. How could she have been foolish enough to disregard her own rule, a rule she believed in strongly enough to have made into a law, and blindly trust a man, and the crowned prince of Doom at that? One she had already known was an underhanded and manipulative liar? One who she had seen firsthand prove himself to be obsessive and foolhardy enough to compromise mission after mission to capture some barely adult princess that wanted nothing to do with him? All because he had shown her that there was a hint of redeeming grace in his soul after she had saved his life in a rare moment of compassion, and because he had later professed to care for her?
"Fool," Merla snarled audibly that time, although the insult was more aimed at herself in her funk than it truly was at Lotor. Not that she wouldn't have agreed that the name suited him, but she should have known better than to believe the leopard could change his spots. "He never loved me," she said aloud, even though the room was empty of anyone that could hear her save the pet vulture that perched upon the back of her throne. "People like Lotor don't change. They never change." The queen let out a bitter laugh. "I have enough experience to know that. I haven't even changed."
Merla stood and strode over to the west wall and pressed a button, and the thick stone blocks parted to reveal a wide picture window that overlooked the idyllic landscape of the moon cloaked in the misty twilight of the ending day. She leaned against the stone sill and sighed. "If I had truly changed, and become even half as 'good' as I convinced the Voltron Force and even myself that I was, I wouldn't be thinking about how badly I want to hurt him right now, about how satisfying it would be to make him experience how it feels to be used and duped like some naïve little twit like that princess he chases." Merla made a face of disgust as she thought about Lotor and his relentless pursuit of Princess Allura, and how she had learned telepathically that even when Lotor had professed that he had changed, and that he loved and wanted to marry her, he had still made an advance at the princess when he thought he had an opportune moment. "So sweet and kind and innocent. Gag me."
The discontent queen stared out over the woodlands below the mountaintop upon which her castle rested. "He would poison and destroy her compassion and innocence the second she let him into her life, if she were ever fool enough to do so." She heard a flutter in the air, and when she turned she saw that her vulture had come to keep her company at the side of the window. "But even Princess Allura is smart enough to know better than that. Unlike me," Merla finished with a self-loathing growl.
Merla's vulture let out a soft caw of sympathy, for while it could not speak or even truly understand her spoken words, the creature was highly attuned to his mistress telepathically, and he knew and felt for her heartache. Absently Merla reached over and stroked the feathers of the bird's back. "But if nothing else, unlike Lotor I do at least learn from my mistakes. It's not one I'll make again. After all, if I don't watch out for myself, who will? Not my allies on Doom… if I can even call them that any longer."
She shook her head disgustedly as her thoughts turned back to planet Doom and the time she had spent there in the past months. Back when she had first gotten involved with them, the potential for a merge of her empire with Zarkon's—the Seventh and Ninth Kingdoms—into one vast and unchallengeable entity had such appeal that she had pursued it aggressively. Merla would have done anything to ensure that it went through, including enduring a slew of frustrating defeats at the hands of Voltron and a political marriage to Prince Lotor. When she and Zarkon originally worked out that agreement, it had seemed ideal. Their combined forces would have put an immense empire at their feet, and Merla's marriage to Prince Lotor would have ideally ended the prince's asinine pursuit, as Zarkon had called it, of Princess Allura of Arus and instead refocused him to the warrior he should be. Merla meanwhile would have retained power over the worlds in her empire so long as they were respectful to Zarkon and Lotor, and vice versa, and she and Lotor would have eventually inherited the throne as one huge kingdom when Zarkon passed on. The heirs she and Lotor might have had would have had it all afterward.
True, when they had first been married, Merla had still thought Lotor to be arrogant, brutish, and dim-witted, not unlike when she first met him on Doom all those months ago. Still, Lotor was easy enough on the eyes, and if rumor were to be believed, a fun romp in the sack. Perhaps in time she might have come to grow fond of him and care for him. Maybe even love him.
The queen's eyes darkened again. Love. That was what started all the trouble, wasn't it? What a pest of a feeling it was, Merla thought darkly. She let out a growl of disgust as she recalled a historical text in which a man from some planet had been quoted as calling it a hiccup of an emotion when compared with envy, hatred, and lust. That love drained one of his or her strength, and that power came in the absence of it. Merla recalled thinking at the time that such a soul must have led a rather bleak and depressing life to philosophize such cheery thoughts if she was a ruthless conqueror and still found it melodramatic. At that moment, however, she identified, and that irritated her too.
Damn Lotor. Damn him to the Pit of Skulls and back again, the spurned queen thought angrily. She should have known that pursuing anything with Lotor would have ended like that. Was the demise of their marriage that barely ever was not a strong enough warning to keep her emotions far, far away from Lotor? Merla sighed as she remembered that brief mockery of a union. Zarkon had married them in his throne room, and they had exchanged bracelets. Lotor's kiss had been cold and forced, and although she had not expected him to dance for joy at the arrangement given their tense personal relationship, she had been willing to at least make it pleasurable for them both. In her opinion, he had at least owed her the courtesy of the same treatment in return, but courtesy was not Prince Lotor's strong suit to say the least.
The newlyweds had celebrated for the short time that etiquette demanded, but Merla had already had plans in motion for the Voltron Force, so she was not about to let a little thing like their wedding ceremony stand in the way, especially after Lotor's rudeness. Merla had gone forth with her scheme as though she had been through nothing but another business meeting. Their nuptials had not even been consummated before she was off to planet Arus to set the wheels in motion. Later, Merla had been furious when Lotor showed up, and a confrontation about the situation had ensued. Lotor insulted her again, saying he did not need her or their political alliance, and the queen had been so fed up that she'd told him they would call it off and dropped her marriage bracelet off the bridge to emphasize the point. The long ride home to think about it all had not left her wanting to reconsider, either, but instead all the more ready to be done with Lotor for good.
Once back on Doom, Merla had gone straight to Zarkon and told him to annul the joke of a marriage, and added that if Lotor was mature enough to handle things they could keep their political alliance standing, as it was still to their mutual advantage. Zarkon had not been thrilled, but he held the queen in high enough regard that he agreed. Their alliance held for some time, and strange as it was, over the last weeks Merla had become strangely fond of Lotor, at least in that when Zarkon later threatened his life—although knowing both Lotor and Zarkon as she did, she was fairly sure the prince had likely earned it—Merla had still intervened. The Queen of Darkness had thrown away the potentially most powerful alliance she had ever had, alienating Zarkon, because she had grown fond of Lotor.
That in and of itself had been bad enough, but then Lotor had come to her afterward, before she'd truly had a chance to think things through. Completely disregarding her law about not allowing men on Eshai, Lotor had shown up at her doorstep with Cossack and professed his love for her and how he wanted to marry her and go off together somewhere outside of his father's empire. Merla had been suspicious, but not suspicious enough, for in the end emotion won out over common sense and she believed him—only to have it turn out that it had all been part of a scheme to set up the Voltron Force and lure them to a faux planet Doom to be rid of them. Merla had been used as convincing material, as without her—whom the Voltron Force truly believed had changed—said group of pilots would never have bought Lotor's story otherwise, even if he had warned them about his father's ships. Lotor undermined Zarkon often enough that that alone was hardly convincing evidence as to his turning over a new leaf.
Merla let out a morose chuckle. She did not feel that she had even turned over a new leaf any longer, but somehow the possibility of her having a permanent change of heart to sweetness and light seemed easier to swallow than Lotor ever being able to do so. "They say hindsight is 20/20. Well it would seem I'm passing all my vision tests with flying colors now," she said to her vulture, a new resolve in her voice. "There's nothing to do now but move on."
The vulture peered over at her knowingly, and watched as she paced a few steps on the plush carpeting. She was halfway between the window and her throne when she heard a timid knock at the grand doors that led into the room. Casting a curious look in the door's direction, as she had left explicit instructions that she was not to be disturbed unless it was very important, she called for whomever it was to enter. A moment later one of her dwarfling servants peeked her head in. "Queen Merla, a message has been sent to you."
"From whom?" the queen demanded sternly.
The servant held out a media reader. "It is from Doom, my lady," the dwarfling told her. "It did not say from whom, only that it was to be seen by your eyes alone and bearing the royal crest."
Merla's features twisted into a ferocious scowl. "Lotor," she snarled in unbridled contempt. "If nothing else I would have thought he'd at least have enough pride not to come crawling back to me, even if I am the best he would ever have," she continued venomously as she took the device from the startled and wisely silent dwarfling. "You're dismissed," she snapped at her servant with a wave, and the dwarfling skittered out obediently leaving Merla alone with the reader. Her vulture let out a caw and flew over to her shoulder, while she turned it on.
The image of a robotic Doomite sentry came up on the screen. "The following message is encoded for Queen Merla of the Seventh Kingdom," it spoke in its metallic tone. "This transmission should be regarded as urgent and delivered as soon as possible to her highness on the kind request of her associates on planet Doom."
"Kind?" Merla laughed. "Well, Lotor can 'kindly' kiss my," she paused, realizing that the vulgarity that nearly slipped out was quite unladylike, and amended her words, "flank armor."
"The material following the test screen is securely encoded and is to be considered classified and to be viewed by Queen Merla only. The red outline of a security breach will show around the transmission if this has been viewed previously. If you are not authorized to view this message, please close the transmission now and deliver it to the proper party. Thank you."
Merla rolled her eyes at the robot, thinking it both sad and amusing that Doom's AI-driven forces seemingly had better manners than their prince, as its face faded and switched to a test screen, a generic image of Doom's royal skull insignia, that lasted on the screen a good fifteen seconds before it flashed a black screen with text, absent of any red lines that might have indicated a violation of its privacy. The queen was somewhat surprised to see the communiqué as text and not a video image, and then she had the thought that perhaps it was so full of it that even Lotor couldn't say whatever it was with a straight face, especially if it was some attempt at an apology. Still irritated but also intrigued, Merla read the message.
"Your Royal Highness Queen Merla, seat of the Seventh Kingdom of the Drule Empire, you are cordially invited to a private affair on the vacation planet of Tyrus three standard days from the date of this invitation, at which we might discuss recent developments and their impact upon the relationship of our respective empires. All accommodations will be provided for you upon your arrival and any prior arrangements or special requests can be made to the Tyrusian Governor in advance. With highest regards, Doom." The signature did not actually say "Doom" but instead had the graphic of the royal insignia, which essentially meant the same thing.
The queen frowned at the screen as she read the words once more. So it seemed that Lotor did not even have the courtesy to sign his name to the invitation, and instead made his cheap attempt at getting his hands on her resources professional and impersonal now that he had finally realized what he had lost? Perhaps he knew that appealing to emotion would be a lost cause with her and that was why it was worded so carefully. Either way, it was clear that he was playing games. "If he weren't another high standing royal within the Drule Empire I'd be more inclined to send an explosive decoy of myself to detonate at his little soiree," she muttered.
A manipulative smile spread across her lips. "But since Lotor wishes to play this little game, perhaps I'll humor him and see just what he's up to. It might be amusing to see him grovel. Not that I'll forgive him, but it might be satisfying nonetheless, right my pet?" she said, glancing up at her vulture. The bird's dark eyes twinkled back at her and she smiled. "Besides, now that I've had some time to get away from things and clear my head, my telepathic powers are stronger than ever. Lotor might be in for a surprise if he tries any little head games with me this time."
Merla then snapped the media reader shut and stepped out of the throne room, addressing the dwarflings posted outside the door. "Have my ship prepped and course set for a trip to Tyrus leaving tomorrow midday," she ordered them, and although her tone was sharp and direct it was clear to those that served her that the queen's mood had improved. "Have several of my best ensembles of armor and formal wear cleaned and packed for the trip as well." She smiled at her minions. "I'm going on a little vacation."
"Right, well, I'll give your words the full consideration they deserve," an unimpressed King Zarkon replied to the smarmy words of Voltron Force Commander Keith as he waved for the robot at the console to end the transmission to Arus. He had just placed a call to the Castle of Lions to gloat and rub in the fact that they had been foolish enough to waste a great deal of time and resources blowing up a fake Doom that his son had led them to not long ago as a trap, as it was undoubtedly one of the most ridiculous things he had heard of, both in the intricacy and stupidity of Lotor's scheme and the fact that he and Cossack had managed to pull it off, and simply because the Voltron Force had been dumb enough to buy it. Now more than ever, Zarkon was convinced that they only were able to avoid being conquered by dumb luck and some kind of divine or supernatural intervention, Voltron or not.
While it was true that such immaturity should have been beneath a millennium-old monarch of such high station as himself, Zarkon felt that the Voltron Force needed a little humbling after what they had tried. His seemingly cavalier attitude about it all aside, he did not like how comfortable they had become with lodging attacks on Doom when he had once had their planet nearly conquered and almost fully destroyed. A planet that should be by all rights mine after defeating and killing Alfor, Zarkon thought angrily. Never in all his years and all the planets he had conquered had he encountered such fierce resistance from such technologically inferior people, and such seemingly unbreakable spirit within them. But one day they would break, and Arus would be in his empire. One way or another, he would see to that. It went beyond any practical need for the world; it was purely a matter of ego and pride. Alfor would not win, especially from beyond the grave Zarkon had put the former Arusian ruler in himself.
"Sire?" Haggar's voice cut in to Zarkon's thoughts.
Zarkon turned to the witch. "What?" She gestured to a robot by the console who had just addressed the king moments before. Zarkon looked over at the sentry. "What is it?"
"King Zarkon, when we cut off the transmission to Arus and ran a standard scan, this came up. It is one of our battleships, your highness, the Denmos-Toth—last checked out by Commander Cossack. Prince Lotor has asked for clearance to land."
The king's eyes narrowed. "So, the prodigal son returns." His tone was devoid of any discernable emotion. "And with my missing commander at that," he added, and then frowned. "I thought it was rather quiet around here."
Haggar fixed her gaze intently upon him, knowing the rocky terms that Lotor had been on with his father since they had last spoken. "What are you going to do?"
Zarkon stared silently at the screen for a moment, and then turned to the robot. "Let them land, and send them to the throne room to meet with me."
"As you wish, sire," was the sentry's automated reply.
Aboard the Denmos-Toth, Commander Cossack glanced anxiously over at Prince Lotor from his seat at the control console. Cossack had offered to the prince to call in to Doom himself, since as far as he knew he at least was still in good standing with King Zarkon unlike his son, but Lotor had insisted on placing the call himself. Cossack supposed that was as good a way as any for Lotor to test the waters to see if his father was still holding a grudge about the whole assassination-attempt/prison-escape/father-retaliates-by-trying-to-blow-up-son/son-gets-even-by-sabotaging-dad scenario that he had dragged him into, but all things considered, he would have preferred to see Lotor and Zarkon hash out their family issues directly, preferably in therapy and most definitely after he was back on Doom and far removed from all of it.
Former Commander Mogor's inglorious end had set a shining example to Cossack of why one should not get involved in royal family squabbles, and the commander had no intention of replicating the mistake of the Garat'eth noble that held the position before him himself. Besides, in Cossack's humble opinion, a family squabble was settled far more easily by a good old-fashioned knock-em-down, drag-'em-out brawl. Such methods had served his family just fine for countless generations. A few black eyes or broken limbs and a cast and bandage or two later and everything was hunky-dory, especially after a few bottles of wine to numb the wounds. Nobody in house Aldar'ach would have bothered with the cumbersome game of "whoops, you weren't supposed to notice that attempt on your life was intentional!" approach at any rate. But that's royals for ya, Cossack thought with an unexpressed shrug.
"What did they say, Prince Lotor?" Cossack finally asked when enough time had passed that his curiosity could stand it no longer, and Lotor had still not yet volunteered any information.
The white-haired prince gave him a puzzled look. "He gave us clearance to land, but he wants to see us once we get in."
"That's not too bad a sign," Cossack agreed optimistically. He figured if Zarkon had not shot them down on sight, he probably wasn't too angry. Then again, he might just have not wanted to destroy his battleship. The Denmos-Toth was one of the better ones in his fleet, after all.
Lotor nodded. The prince, too, was somewhat hopeful that his father's temper had cooled. Although their relationship had its ups and downs—more like high mountains and deep chasms when compared to healthier father/son relations, but still—Lotor was fairly sure that his father did not truly want him dead, or else he would have been by now. Zarkon was not one for subtlety, and like Cossack, Lotor too figured that his father would have opened fire without a second thought if he truly had no further use for him.
The prince was also fairly sure that he must have heard the news of what had transpired on the asteroid he had set up to appear to be Doom. It might not have been a victory, but it had at least made the Voltron Force look foolish, and he was hopeful that at least would amuse his father. Although Lotor was still loath to grovel before the man whose position he felt was already rightfully his, he knew from humbling experience that he did not truly have the means to dethrone him, and in the meantime, he needed Zarkon's support lest he be cut off entirely and exiled, or worse, executed for treachery.
Bearing a false yet convincing aura of confidence, Lotor strode out of the now docked ship and made his way through the halls of Castle Doom toward the throne room. Even if inside he felt a measure of genuine fear of his father's wrath, he would be damned if he would show it. Lotor knew that odds were that he was damned anyway, but if nothing else at least then the old man would not have the satisfaction of knowing it when he passed sentence, and as he made that long walk down the grand hall before the imposing doors of Zarkon's throne room, Lotor vowed that if it came to it, Zarkon would not kill him without a fight.
Following close behind him, Cossack's thoughts were far less complicated. Well, guess it's time to polish up the old groveling skills again, the commander mused with a sigh as they strode through the doors.
Once the Denmos-Toth was given clearance to dock, Zarkon turned abruptly and started toward his throne room with Haggar in tow, close at his heels. "King Zarkon, what do you plan to do? I know that you and Prince Lotor—"
"I intend to have words with my son, old witch, and put an end to the nonsense that's been going on as of late once and for all. For the last few months things here have been turned upside down and shaken up like a satellite in an asteroid belt, and I'm putting a stop to it," the king replied sternly, and quickened his pace.
The shorter hooded figure had to double her steps almost into a jog to keep up with Zarkon's determined stride. "And Cossack?"
"I'm not surprised Lotor dragged him along for the ride, after all, stupid follows stupid, it's some law of physics I'm sure," Zarkon retorted. "Either way, I'm not concerned about it so long as he didn't screw anything up or damage my ship in giving Lotor a ride to take a shot at Voltron."
They stepped into the throne room, and the almost out of breath Haggar followed her king to the apex of the staircase at which his throne sat. Zarkon immediately sat down and Haggar followed suit at the guest bench upon the platform beside it, while her cat hopped into her lap. She was about to inquire further as to Zarkon's thoughts on the matter of the return of his son when Lotor and Cossack walked in.
Zarkon eyed the pair with a stern and unblinking gaze for several long moments as the two approached the foot of the throne. Cossack immediately fell into a respectful bow for Doom's king when he reached the foot of the throne, but Lotor remained standing, his pride unable to let him do any more than avert his gaze. "Hello, Father."
"Well, well, well, look who's finally come home after playing house on a fake Doom," Zarkon greeted sarcastically. "My beloved nitwit and my little commander, too."
Cossack glanced up from his prostrate position at the foot of the throne. "Sire, we nearly had Voltron—"
The king stared down severely at his fleet commander. "I know what happened, Cossack, and if I want your input I'll ask for it. In the meantime, be silent."
"Yes, sire," Cossack conceded with an obedient nod, while Zarkon turned back toward his son.
"So let me get this straight, Lotor. You steal my battleship, claim you're going to build a big empire on your own, and then co-opt my fleet commander into helping you hunt down your stupidly sentimental ex-wife, whom you try to kiss and make up with—how sweet," he intoned sarcastically, "only to dupe the Voltron Force into thinking you've had this life-affirming, warm and fuzzy change of heart, complete with blasting apart a few of my ships for effect, so you can lead them into a trap on a fake planet Doom complete with a fake me… and still manage to lose. Am I about right on target there?"
Lotor frowned and looked at the stairs, uncomfortable under the heavy gaze of his father and the silent and unreadable one of the old witch beside him. "Yes."
Zarkon laughed at Lotor's sullen admission. "Lotor, my dear fool, that has to be the most idiotic scheme I've seen you come up with yet." The king laughed again, and when it subsided he addressed his son again. "Just what did you hope to accomplish with that? Impressing your pet princess into marrying you if Merla shot you down, trying for the both of them, and the destruction of Voltron, or all three?"
"It wasn't as convoluted as all that, Father," Lotor argued. "Yes, I tried to reconcile with Merla, but that didn't work out."
"Well I wonder why," Zarkon retorted sarcastically. "And a fine job you've done in alienating her, Lotor. You must have managed to lay the charm on as thick as the bullshit you're attempting to lay on me here to get her to turn on me for your benefit."
"Maybe she just got a good look at what you're really like," Lotor retorted darkly.
"Oh, I think Merla knew me pretty well, we spent quite a bit of time together after all," Zarkon replied with equal sarcasm. "Which is why I'm a little annoyed that you've bungled things. Lovestruck fool or not, her empire merged with ours could have given us all immeasurable gains in strength and power as a unified entity."
Lotor felt his posture stiffen as he forced himself to ignore the brief yet unpleasant feeling he experienced at his father's mention of Merla and how he had treated her. He refused to acknowledge it as guilt, for he had done nothing he was ashamed of and would not do again if circumstances were to present it—yet still, something about the look in her eyes when she had called him a fool and stalked away still haunted him. He forced himself to stare back at his father's unyielding glare of judgment. "Merla made her choices. Whatever she does now is up to her and out of my hands."
"Yes, now that you've sent her packing," Zarkon said with disgust, "which is what I ought to do to you."
"Are you saying you won't, even after you so lovingly tried to slam me into Voltron?" Lotor inquired with a raised eyebrow, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.
At that Zarkon let out another dark chuckle. "One good turn deserves another, my dear wanna-be assassin. Your attempts to undermine me are the only thing you botch worse than you do your assaults against Voltron." He shook his head. "But no, I'm feeling generous today, Lotor, and after some consideration I've decided that since you're my flesh and blood—incompetent and headstrong, but my flesh and blood nonetheless—I'll give you another chance provided you tow the line. See, Lotor, I don't understand why you're so hell-bent on usurping me anyway. You know you're going to inherit the throne one day anyhow, and where would you be without my experienced wisdom and guidance? You can't even run a fake Doom properly, much less a real one, yet."
"Your graciousness surprises me, Father," Lotor replied honestly, although not without a remaining trace of sullenness in his tone. "I thought for certain you hated me."
"No more than you hate me, my son," Zarkon replied with a knowing smile. "Now be a good boy and work with me in getting rid of Voltron and conquering Arus once and for all. If you play your cards right, I might even indulge your whim to allow you to have Princess Allura when all is said and done. I'm sure any marriage to Merla is a lost cause at this point anyway."
That unsettling stab of whatever resurfaced in Doom's prince again for a moment, and cast an unwelcome shadow upon an otherwise brightening situation. "Most likely, yes," Lotor replied quietly.
From beside Zarkon, Haggar looked from Lotor to her king, pleased to see that the royal family squabble had resolved to a reasonably peaceful state once again. Although Haggar had her issues with both Zarkon and Lotor, she preferred not to see them at one another's throats. Not only was it counterproductive to Doom's strength and image as a whole to have its primary rulers at odds, but in a purely selfish motivation it was safer for everyone around them when they were on good terms. She straightened where she sat and smiled, stroking Coba's back. "So does that mean we can put all of this ugliness behind us, then?"
Cossack opened his mouth to make a remark that such a thing would be difficult with her sitting there in front of them, but remembered that Zarkon had ordered him silent, so he thought better of it and closed it again while Lotor took a few steps up the staircase towards his father's throne. "I suppose I can forgive and forget for such a worthy goal," the prince agreed.
Zarkon smiled pleasantly. "Excellent. I knew you weren't quite as stupid as you act." He motioned for one of the slaves posted at the far end of the room to come over. "Have some wine brought over at once!"
"Thank you for the offer, but all things considered I would rather have a bath and change of clothes before anything else."
"Oh, you were wearing that when I had you arrested a few days ago, weren't you?" Zarkon noticed absently. "All right then, go, I'll speak with you later."
Lotor gave his father a nod of acknowledgement and headed out the door. Cossack quietly went to follow Lotor, assuming that the dismissal applied to him as well, but stopped dead in his tracks when he heard Zarkon call out his name. "Cossack! Where do you think you're going?"
The fleet commander turned and faced his king nervously. "Nowhere if that's what you wish, sire."
"I just have one question for you."
"I just did what Lotor said, your highness, following orders as I always have," the commander told his liege honestly. "And since Lotor's orders were nothing contrary to any of your own, and you always approve of something that might rid us of Voltron—"
Zarkon sighed impatiently. "I know you weren't plotting against me, Cossack. If I thought you were, you'd be dead already, or at least in considerable pain. You might be a brash fool, but you're a loyal one, and you're not a complete idiot."
Cossack blinked, unsure at first what to make of Zarkon's words, but ever the optimist, he quickly came to the conclusion that somewhere in that insult was some form of a complement. "Uh, thank you, sire."
"Think nothing of it. Now shut up and let me get my question out," Zarkon replied, and when Cossack conceded with a silent nod, the king continued. "You tried to pass yourself off as me on that faux planet Doom?" he inquired dubiously. "And managed to pull it off?"
The commander straightened and cleared his throat. "Well sire, I could never match your imposing regal grace well enough to fool anyone with a lick of sense, but we only had to dupe the Voltron Force, so it wasn't too much of a challenge," he said with a smirk. "I've been told before that I do a passably convincing imitation of your voice, so when Lotor put me up to the task it was an honor to mock the Voltron Fools in your place."
"I see," Zarkon said, the slightest hint of amusement leaking into his stern countenance. "And who told you this?"
Cossack grinned proudly. "My drinking buddies at the Doom 'n Gloom! Zenlorth always has me sentence someone to the Pit of Skulls after I've had a few if someone new's in the place."
Somehow Zarkon felt his royal dignity somewhat dirtied by the fact that his fleet commander amused the drunks with imitations of him, but he was still in a pleasant mood so he merely did his best to ignore it. "You're dismissed, Cossack," the king said with a mildly disturbed shake of his head, and rose to his feet as the fleet commander obediently gave him a parting bow and exited.
Haggar also stood. "Where are you going, sire?"
"I have some business to take care of."
"Can I be of assistance to you?" the witch inquired.
Zarkon smiled mysteriously. "Just keep an eye on my son, old witch, and leave the rest to me. I've got it all well in hand."
A few days later and still not sure of exactly what to expect as she disembarked from her star-cutter in the docking station on planet Tyrus, Queen Merla looked around cautiously for any familiar faces or signs of treachery as she waited for the greeting party to approach. The queen of the Seventh Kingdom was dressed in a stunning formal gown of royal purple that enhanced her enviable figure nicely, but while she looked the perfect picture of elegant grace she also wore a bustier of lightweight but impermeable armor beneath it in case of an attack, and concealed along with it was a sleek and compact laser hand weapon. Merla, Queen of Darkness, went nowhere unprepared, especially when it came to dealing with individuals from Doom.
"Welcome to planet Tyrus, your highness! You look absolutely lovely," a well-dressed man Merla assumed was the Tyrusian governor greeted her as he approached. "We're pleased to have you here as our guest. May our staff board your vessel and bring your things to your suite for your stay?"
Merla narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "I never said how long I was staying, governor. Were arrangements made in my place indicating otherwise?"
The shorter alien shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her gaze. "We were told you may stay a few days, but if you would rather decide later, we will of course honor your wishes and wait for your command to have your things brought up."
"Do that," Merla responded in a stern tone. She looked around the landing bay, relatively empty aside from Tyrusian vessels and one of Doom's royal ships. "So tell me, who went to all the trouble of arranging this little affair?"
"If you're ready to meet with him, your host is ready to see you in the banquet hall. He looks forward to seeing you again."
Merla frowned slightly as they began to walk through the complex. "Does he?"
"Oh indeed, my lady. He went on at length as to your beauty and grace—and may I say, my queen, that his flattering words still do not do you justice," the governor amended with a charming smile, "and insisted that we were to treat you with all the class and respect you deserve."
"My, Lotor is laying it on thick," Merla muttered under her breath. She figured he must have fallen quite far out of favor with his father after all if he was willing to go through all of that to try and win her over. She was not sure, however, if that was because he wanted to regain the alliance to win that favor with Zarkon back now that he had struck out on his own, or if it was because he wanted amnesty from Zarkon somewhere in her empire, and she was deemed the easier of the two enemies to mend fences with. Either way, the prince was in for a big surprise. Lotor would learn the hard way that Merla, Queen of Darkness, was not someone to toy with.
The Tyrusian governor blinked in surprise at the queen. "I beg your pardon, your highness?"
"Never mind," Merla stated firmly. "Just take me to him."
"As you wish," the governor replied with a bow, and led Merla through a courtyard and toward an impressive stone tower. The path they took led through an expertly landscaped courtyard surrounded by gardens lush with exotic and fragrant blooms and vines, and crystalline water flowed gently from shining golden fountains crafted by the finest artisans in the galaxy. Tyrus certainly lived up to its reputation of being the planet of luxury, Merla mused thoughtfully as they entered the tower through a set of columned doors.
Once inside she found the décor within no less showy and extravagant, and the visiting queen remained silent and pensive as the governor brought her to a room and held open the door. "Your host awaits you, your highness," the governor finished with a cordial smile, and bowed before her, gesturing for her to step inside.
Straightening in anticipation and readying herself to reach for her weapon at the slightest sign of treachery, Merla walked into the darkened room. The governor politely closed the door behind her, leaving her alone with the host that had invited her there.
"Hello, Merla," a familiar voice greeted her warmly, except that it was not the voice she had expected. Speechless for a moment, the stunned queen met the clearly pleased—if not slightly amused—gaze of the man who had invited her there.
"Zarkon!" she exclaimed softly, breaking the silence. "You invited me here?"
The king of Doom smiled pleasantly and extended his hand toward a plush chair on the opposite end of the table at which he sat, a round and intimate dinner setting decorated with fine linens and tableware, and a gleaming silver candelabra in an expertly crafted horned skull design that held softly glowing ivory wax candles that cast a dim light and playful shadows over the table and the ruler's face. "Please, have a seat, my dear. We have quite a bit to discuss." Zarkon took a sip of wine and set the goblet he held in his other hand down. "They will serve us dinner shortly, but when they told me you had arrived, I took the liberty of having them pour you some. It's a local honey-blend that I think you might like."
Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, Merla approached the table. "I don't know what sort of game you're playing, Zarkon, but—"
"I'm not playing a game, Merla, I'm having dinner, and I want you to join me," Zarkon cut her off with a slight wave of his blue scaled hand. "Nothing more than that, than an intimate meal shared between friends and fellow rulers to discuss the state of our affairs."
Merla settled stiffly into the chair, not taking her wary gaze off of Doom's high ruler for even a moment. "Last I recall, the state of our affairs involved you shooting my ship out of the sky."
Zarkon shrugged slightly, unfazed. "You shot first."
"You tried to kill me!" she hissed contemptuously.
"You got in the way of me trying to take out Voltron," Zarkon countered, and casually popped one of the appetizers set out on the table into his mouth. "Mmm, sharp cheddar. You should try one. They're quite good."
Ignoring his nonchalant dismissal of her complaint, Merla pressed on with a deepened scowl on her lovely features. "Lotor was in that ship you were going to slam into Voltron. You would have killed him."
"He might have lived. Besides, he tries to kill me all the time," the king remarked. "He just isn't very good at it, like so much else. Look at how he handled you, for instance." Zarkon shook his head sadly. "With all the governesses that boy went through and my shining example of suave sophistication, you'd think he would have learned his manners better. For that, I do apologize."
"But not for trying to kill me?" Merla challenged, leaning forward toward him.
Zarkon smiled at her. "You were the one who turned on me. But I realize that you only did it out of misguided affection for my beloved idiot, so I forgive you. I always liked you, Merla," he added, and leaned toward her aggressive pose with an unthreatened and self-assured of his own to match. "And it's because of my fondness for you that I invited you here to work all of this out, so that we can put it behind us. What do you say, Merla? Are you willing to let bygones be bygones?"
Dubious of his motivations, Merla raised an eyebrow. "Forgive and forget, Zarkon? That doesn't sound like you."
The king's smile broadened. "Surely you know by now, my dear, that I'm full of surprises?"
"To say the least," Merla agreed quietly, silently trying to use her mental powers to get a feel for Zarkon's real motivations. Although her instincts gave her no warning that Zarkon posed her any immediate threat, she was having more trouble than usual getting a sense of what he was truly up to. In the past, aside from when she had last seen him and she had been unable to work her telepathic abilities on him, which she blamed on a combination of his extreme emotional investment in the situation and her own distracted mental state at the time, she had never had difficulty gauging Zarkon or reading his thoughts.
Zarkon straightened in his seat and ran one of his large fingers across a golden ring interlaced with an aquamarine-colored crystal as Merla lapsed into silence, but kept her gaze fixed upon him. "Not that you would be presumptuous enough to try using your powers of persuasion on me, my dear, but after we last parted Haggar made some things clear to me. That's one thing I can always count on from my loyal old witch, she will watch out for my best interests. She forged this little ring for me, and a few others. The crystal is from a distant moon on a planet out of our territory reputed to have an unparalleled psychic resonance. Mirindetian zalurite, I believe it's called. Properly tempered, it can channel or block telepathic abilities. Amazing, hmm?" His face relaxed into an innocently pleasant smile as he met her eyes once more.
Merla on the other hand was not nearly as pleased with his statement, even if it did give assurance that it was not that her powers were failing, it was merely that they were blocked from working on Zarkon. She was still confident she could handle him without them, but the queen hated to lose her edge. "Quite," she said sternly, and settled back into her chair. "So tell me, Zarkon, what is it that you want?"
"I told you," Zarkon answered congenially. "Dinner and conversation. I think in light of our," he paused as he searched for the right word, "miscommunications of late, that it would be wise to decide exactly where we stand with each other. Don't you agree, Merla?"
"Perhaps," Merla conceded. Although she was still furious with Lotor and none too pleased with Zarkon after all that had happened, she still regretted the loss of their alliance. Doom had been useful to her, and she to them. Together they would have been unstoppably strong, and she intended to look after the best interests of her empire. It had been made all too painfully clear to her that if she did not keep her best interests first and foremost in her priorities, no one else would. She reached for her wine and took a sip. "Are you speaking personally, or professionally?"
Pleased that she was settling down, Zarkon relaxed in his chair and picked up his own goblet. "Both," he said, and paused as a servant came in to lay a fresh course of food in front of them. He resumed his conversation as soon as the waiter left. "The merge of the Ninth and Seventh Kingdoms we had in the works was a promising venture, one I personally find too advantageous to all involved to simply abandon over a bit of bad blood. You've always been an ambitious woman, Merla, and I know you must still see the advantages to be had in it."
The queen took a delicate bite of her dinner before answering. "I do," she agreed. "An interplanetary kingdom as large as our combined one would be would give us both far more weight and influence in all of the politics within the Drule Empire. Assuming we were always in agreement, of course, as combined we would still only have one given vote, hefty as it might be."
"Ah, but as a unified force we would technically always agree, wouldn't we?"
Merla let out a knowing laugh of her own. "You and Lotor only agree that you should be in charge, and that you hate Voltron," she pointed out before lapsing to a more serious tone again. "But this is all theoretical anyway, because one thing I haven't changed my mind on, and one I will not, is that a marriage to Lotor is out of the question. Forever."
Zarkon raised an eyebrow and eyed the pink-haired queen across the table from him intently. "Who said anything about Lotor? I don't like trusting him with the keys to my battleship these days, much less anything regarding politics, especially after his latest stunts."
It was Merla's turn to be puzzled. "How else would our kingdoms merge? You don't think I would trust a merger of my kingdom to a mere treaty? We both know how easily those sort of arrangements get disregarded in troubled times with no physical ties between the rulers to hold them in place."
"Indeed," Zarkon agreed smoothly, "which is why I would never suggest such a thing."
"Then what do you have in mind?" Merla questioned curiously.
The king of Doom flashed his dining companion a charming smile. "Lotor isn't the only member of the royal house unmarried at this time."
Inquisitive curiosity changed to outright shock as Merla realized what Zarkon was hinting at. "You want to marry me?"
Reaching across the table, Zarkon took Merla's hand and smiled warmly at her. "Not the most romantic of proposals, I know, and for that I apologize, but I do hope the ambiance at least made it memorable." When Merla was too stunned to reply immediately, Zarkon took immediate pride in the fact that he had been able to surprise the worldly Seventh Kingdom queen twice in one night, and then continued. "Before you shoot me down for, well, shooting you down the other day," he said with a slight smirk, "think of the advantages. As my wife you would still have the same advantages as you would have had marrying Lotor, except that you'll be Queen of Doom and my empire now instead of some date far off in the future when I'm gone. You'll only have to deal with my ingrate of a son as his stepmother—an amusing notion to me at any rate—and unlike Lotor, I've been down this path before. You can rest assured that I at least recognize what I have in a woman like you, and won't run off to chase after some blond child of a princess five minutes after the ceremony, either."
Caught completely off guard by Zarkon's proposal, Merla's thoughts raced as she tried to sort them to some sort of reasonable conclusion that would at least give her something appropriate to say. Although she found many of Zarkon's actions distasteful, she realized that a good portion of the disgust she'd held for him in recent time came in direct proportion with how close she had allowed her feelings to grow toward Lotor. Now that those had soured from the prince's manipulative treatment of her, she found to her surprise that the respect she had for Zarkon back from when she had first come to Doom still in reasonably good standing, especially given his cordial treatment of her in light of everything that had transpired. Not that she had any illusions as to his motivations—she knew that Zarkon wanted to get his claws into her kingdom, just as much as she wanted to get hers into his—but she knew what kind of man Zarkon was, and she could handle that. Unlike the recent disaster with Lotor, she would not enter into any relationship with Zarkon on blind faith that love had anything to do with it.
"Marry you," Merla said finally, looking up to meet his saffron-colored eyes, watching her expectantly in the candlelight. "I admit I hadn't expected that."
"I told you I was full of surprises."
"Indeed," Merla murmured, continuing to silently weigh the pros and cons of Zarkon's proposal. The power the arrangement would grant her was incredible, and there had been a time not too long ago where she would have taken it in an instant. It would also undoubtedly humiliate Lotor, and perhaps even hurt him, and a part of her took cruel satisfaction in such an idea. Did he not deserve that after what he had put her through?
But alternately, Lotor could prove troublesome. If the prince saw her as a threat, which she would undoubtedly be as his father's wife instead of his, odds were that she would have to start watching for knives in her own back to the extent that his father did. Not that the emotional one he had lodged there had not hurt her already, but there was a big difference between an emotional betrayal and being on his direct hit list. Merla would not go so far as to say she was afraid of Lotor, but she did not relish the idea of having to be on her highest guard around him, either.
After several silent moments of thought, Merla looked to Zarkon again. "If I agree to this, what does that mean for Lotor?"
Zarkon regarded her curiously. "Don't tell me you still have feelings for him?"
"Absolutely not," Merla replied icily. "But I do want to know what your intentions for him are. He is still your only heir. That leaves me in a very precarious position, especially if I should outlive you or we were to have children of our own."
"Certainly while I'm around—which I'm sure you know will be for quite some time, thanks to Haggar's magic—your position will be unchallenged as my wife," Zarkon assured her. "But under Doom law, which the Drule Empire will uphold as we are in good standing within it, you would retain all rights that we share in the event that something unfortunate happens to me, as I would if it was you. Lotor would have to be a good little boy and wait for you to be gone as well, and if you were to remarry, that would really throw a monkey wrench into the works for him," the king said with an evil grin. "Actually, I would expect him to lay on the charm and try to woo you, at least, since that would be the easiest means to get what he wants in the event that I'm gone and you're single and in charge. That's what a prince with any sense would do in that position at any rate, but this is Lotor, so who knows? He might just try to kill you," he finished honestly.
"As for children," Zarkon went on, "as you know I already have two, and one is off on planet Taitas with a husband and children of her own as the wife of Drokthar of the Fourth Kingdom, and the other is Lotor. I'm old enough to be satisfied with what I have and I don't feel a need to go through the whole thing again, unless you have some burning maternal instinct of your own you want to satisfy, in which case I would oblige you, as I don't have any real aversion to it, either."
"You have thought this out. I'm impressed," Merla told the other ruler with a slight smile.
Zarkon accepted the complement with a pleasant smile of his own and leaned in closer to the pink-haired queen that sat across from him. "I always think things through, that's why I don't have Lotor's track record of screw-ups." His smile faded as he fixed his eyes intently upon her again. "Do you have any other questions, Merla, or are you going to keep me guessing for a little while longer as to whether or not you'll accept?"
It was Merla's turn to smile mischievously. "Why Zarkon, I think I see where Lotor gets his impatience from." She snaked her delicate blue fingers, still being held by Zarkon, around his larger blue ones. "You had this all planned out, didn't you, when you sent the invitation? Is that why the governor offered to unpack my things from the ship? He assumed I would be staying here on a honeymoon with you?"
"He was told you might be inclined to stay a few days with me if things went well, yes," Zarkon admitted confidently, and then eyed her with a mixture of anticipation and a touch of lust. "Tyrus is the planet in my empire for pleasure, after all. So will you be staying on?" he pressed.
Merla leaned forward flirtatiously, meeting his awaiting face halfway across the table. "You may tell him to have my things sent up," she purred in response before she pressed her lips to his, her decision made.
Revenge was a dish best served as a surprise, and if there was one thing Lotor was not going to expect, it was his ex-wife as his very own personal wicked stepmother. You've still got your evil touch after all, Merla, the Queen of Darkness told herself satisfactorily as she and Zarkon sealed their deal with a passionate kiss.