"Prince Bandor!" Sven shouted in an agitated voice as he burst into the room with Princess Romelle at his side. The former Voltron pilot and head of Castle Pollux's security had rushed to the battle station as soon as he had heard that there was a Doom ship near the castle.
Romelle then said before her brother even had a chance to answer Sven, "What happened? We came as fast as we could—"
"It was Lotor," Bandor replied and turned to face his sister and Sven, his freckled young face flushed nearly as red as his hair.
"Lotor attacked," Sven said as an uneasy feeling settled over him. He, Romelle, and Bandor had all heard the troubling accounts of how Princess Allura had married Lotor at Galaxy Garrison and entered into some seemingly insane alliance with Doom that had left the Voltron force dismantled, first through rumor, then through direct confirmation from Coran and finally from the remaining members of the Voltron Force that had turned up not long before on their doorstep seeking sanctuary. And although he did not agree with Allura's decisions and was upset with how they affected those he cared about, neither he nor Romelle—who had spent much time mulling the situation over together—wanted to think that Allura's consideration for Lotor could extend to her condoning attacks on her friends.
The news affected Romelle the same way, and the Polluxian princess closed her eyes. "So I guess things aren't…"
Bandor's hand balled into a tighter fist. "No. Nothing's changed." His voice took on a harder, more emotional edge. Bandor had felt similarly to his sister and Sven about the situation with Allura, although his young age and temperament led his temper to flare faster and burn hotter than Sven's, especially after what had just happened with Lotor coming to Pollux with her at his side, demanding the surrender of the red lion. "Except Allura. She was with him."
"Allura!" Romelle's mind reeled with the implications.
Sven's voice also rose in alarm. "And you fired on her?" Regardless of what foolish, in his opinion, decisions that Allura had made, the notion of firing on her was unthinkable to him.
"I fired on Lotor," the agitated Bandor retorted. "You think he was here to make friends? They demanded we give them the red lion or else. And I won't do that!"
Romelle's insides churned as the reality of her brother's words sank in. Allura really was allied with Lotor, she really did intend to keep all the lions, and while Romelle desperately wanted to believe that Allura would never give them to the wicked prince that she had married, she had no faith that Lotor would not find whatever way he could to get his hands on them anyway. Angry tears formed in Romelle's blue eyes. She was not as objective or sympathetic as Sven about the situation to begin with, and while she did not believe Allura was the type of person that would turn on those she loved so coldly and quickly, it was still impossible for her to understand why anyone, even someone as kind-hearted as her cousin, could think that a cruel and duplicitous man like Lotor was worth five seconds of civil conversation, let alone all that Allura had done for him. Romelle was not too proud to admit that she hated Lotor with every fiber of her being after all he had put her, Sven, her family, her friends, her world, and countless others through, and much like Bandor she was apt to think that anyone that would willingly aid someone like Lotor in his quest for power had to either be mad or just like him. That left her at a loss when it came to Allura, who she had come to love as family over the past few years. On one hand she felt utterly betrayed by Allura's actions, but on the other she could not bear to think that she could have been so wrong about Allura, that there had to be a misunderstanding somewhere. The conflict was consuming and nearly unbearable.
"What did she say?" Romelle grasped Sven's forearm, more for emotional support than anything else. "I hate what she did just as much as you, but to open fire…"
"Lotor was threatening us, demanding we give him Lance's lion, and I told him to stuff it. Allura was right there with him." Bandor's scowl grew deeper. "I don't care if the lions are Arus' or not, as far as I'm concerned the Voltron Lions belong to the Voltron Force, and there's no way in the galaxy I'll ever just hand a piece of Voltron over to Lotor so he can attack our people and whoever else he thinks is easy pickings."
"You didn't have to fire at her," Romelle said, and then looked at the screen uncertainly as a terrible thought occurred to her. "Or did she fire at us first?"
"Allura didn't fire," Bandor told them. "But you and I both know Lotor would've; why else would he have shown up in a heavily armed battleship? And you know, Allura chose to be there with him. It's not like I wanted to fire at her, but if Lotor threatens us, I'm not going to take it lying down, whether she's there or not."
Sven ran his hand through his dark hair and sighed. "I don't think Princess Allura would ever take Lotor's side in attacking us."
"She was there, Sven. I saw her. Do you think I'd lie about that?"
Sven opened his mouth to answer, but another voice from the doorway answered before he could. "I don't."
The trio turned and saw Lance in the doorway with a cross look on his normally friendly face. Keith and Hunk stood behind him, the former wearing a troubled expression and the latter appearing uncharacteristically depressed.
"No Bandor, nobody thinks you're lying," Hunk assured him. "But Allura…"
"I fired at Lotor," Bandor asserted a final time, his patience worn through. "She's the one who decided to be with him. If that makes her a casualty…"
Although Keith had been silent up to that point, something in the former Voltron Force commander snapped when he heard Bandor admit to firing on a ship Allura was on and brushing the notion of her being harmed off as a casualty. The unresolved emotion pent up inside him came roiling to a head at once, and Keith lurched forward, fist swinging, at Bandor. "Casualty? That's Allura you're talking about!"
The outburst and subsequent blow caught everyone by surprise, including Bandor who fell back against the console in shock when Keith belted him. Romelle hollered for Keith to stop, while Hunk grabbed him and pulled him back and Sven stood between them, reaching to help Bandor regain his footing.
"Whoa! Keith!" Hunk exclaimed, while Keith himself only then realized what he had just done. While his adrenaline began to cool and he stared down at the first stunned and now angry Bandor, Keith noticed that he was still shaking, brimming with disgust—just as much at his own actions and loss of control as those that had driven him to strike the prince.
"I—I'm sorry." Although they were sincerely spoken, Keith was unable to find words to convey anything close to what he actually felt. He closed his eyes with rising shame; while he was certainly angry at the notion of Allura being hurt, his losing control would certainly not solve anything, especially when Bandor was not who he was truly upset with. "I shouldn't have done that."
Bandor glared back at Keith, arms folded across his chest. "I know you don't like it, but someone has to defend us if Voltron and his pilots don't." The young prince gritted his teeth and stared sourly at Keith until the former black lion pilot met his gaze again. "I didn't like doing it, you know."
"I know." Keith's voice was tinged with a weariness that seemed to have infected his very soul.
"Please, no more fighting," Romelle implored, also stepping between them. "We've all lost enough friends already."
Sighing, Hunk added, "And we need all the ones we can get, that's for sure."
Keith gave an understanding nod. "You're right. You need to be able to count on us—all of us."
Lance joined Sven and Bandor's side. "You all can count on me, no matter what."
"Me too," Hunk said. "We won't let Lotor run Pollux over, with or without the lions."
"Speaking of which," Keith turned toward Lance, "You know that's why Lotor came here to begin with. For the red lion."
Lance put up a hand. "I don't want to hear it, Keith. I really don't."
"Pollux doesn't want to be attacked, either."
"No shit," the red lion pilot retorted with heavy sarcasm. "But I'm sorry, I can't do it. I can't just hand the keys to the red lion to Lotor. I can't!"
Keith's frown deepened. "Do you think Hunk and Pidge wanted to either?"
"We sure as hell didn't," Hunk asserted. The mention of Pidge sent a fresh stab of resentment through him. He hated that Pidge had to stay behind in the Castle of Lions, and while he understood the reasons why it did not make it any easier to like the idea. He prayed that neither Lotor nor any of his cronies would try anything treacherous against his young friend when Allura's back was turned.
"They did it because they had to, because the lions belong to Arus and Allura. Not us."
Staring back at Keith with challenge burning in his eyes, Lance refused to yield to his friend's disapproval. "Yeah, okay. Well that's easy for you to say, seeing as Allura made your decision for you by taking the black lion on the sly and leaving it at Galaxy Garrison. Can you stand there and tell me you'd have had no issues turning it over? Knowing Lotor? Knowing what he'd do? You, Mr. Do-The-Right-Thing? Really?"
The way Lance had so bluntly phrased it made it hard for Keith to answer truthfully, just as Lance had known it would. Keith liked to think that he would have done as Hunk and Pidge had, and given the keys to Allura, accepting that they were Arus' property and hers as its ruler, trusting that she would never let Lotor use them to harm others. Keith knew that Hunk and Pidge both believed that Allura's heart was in the right place and that she had acted in what she thought was everyone's best interests, even though they themselves hated her choices. Keith wanted to believe the best about Allura as well, and he knew that under his anger Lance did too. He also understood that was why Lance was so angry, because he too had thought so highly of Allura, and her decisions had struck him as a betrayal. Lance was a more cynical man than Hunk or Pidge, and Keith fell somewhere in between. Therefore while he wanted to say without reservation that he would have done as Pidge and Hunk had and relinquished his key, just as he was insisting that Lance should do, it would have been a lie if he had tried to deny that on some level he was not relieved that his decision regarding the black lion had been made for him.
After a tellingly awkward silence, Keith finally answered, "It doesn't matter what I would've done. It's over."
"So I guess your conscience is clean then." Lance turned the red lion's key over in his hands. "Well if I give my lion to Lotor, mine won't be."
"I didn't give my lion to Lotor," Hunk interjected hotly, insulted at the insinuation that he and Pidge would have done so themselves. "I gave it to Allura. I know you're mad at her, and I don't blame you, but she's still Allura. She's still our friend, whether she was dumb enough to marry Lotor or not."
"And whether she means to be or not, as long as she's hitched to him, she's Lotor's puppet. You're dreaming if you think he'll actually respect her wishes about the lions," Lance shot back.
Hunk stepped forward, shaking his fist. "I trust my friends: Allura, Keith, Pidge, and you, even when you're talking out of your ass!"
Romelle choked back an audible sob at the harsh exchange, aching at the way she found herself agreeing with each of their points, even the conflicting ones. Sven put an arm around her shoulders, and Bandor stood at her side while Keith looked away into the distance, unable to refute what Lance had said. A terrible quiet fell over the room for a few moments, until Keith finally spoke again and ended it. "Do what you think is right, Lance," he said, and turned toward the door.
"What, you're not going to order me, Commander?" Lance replied, some of the edge gone from his voice, although a sarcastic lilt remained.
Keith looked over his shoulder. "Commander? What do I command?" he scoffed. "The Voltron Force doesn't exist anymore." Keith closed his eyes, mourning the demise of the team that had been so much a part of his life for so long. "Like I said, Lance, do what you can live with. Right now, I think that's all any of us can do." He took another step toward the door, but stopped and turned around before he went through. "I'm going to call Galaxy Garrison and ask for reinforcements to help out Pollux when Lotor attacks again—and he will attack. He'll be back for that lion. When I do," he paused, and met each of his friends' eyes briefly but meaningfully before he resumed speaking, "I'm also going to ask for reassignment. What happened before hits a little too close to home for me, and I'm no good to anyone if I'm out of control."
As soon as he realized what Keith was saying, Hunk's eyes widened in alarm and he stepped toward his friend. "Aw, Keith, don't—"
"No Hunk," he cut him off. "I have to. I'll keep in touch. With all of you. I promise."
"Like you said," Sven said in somber resignation, "do what you think is right."
Lance gave a heavy sigh. "Take care, man."
Romelle went over to Keith and took his hands. "Please do keep in touch." Her eyes brimmed with yet unshed tears that she had been trying desperately to contain.
Bandor nodded in assertion with his sister. "You'll always be welcome here, Keith."
"Thanks. All of you." Keith gave his friends a sad but genuine smile and then departed without another word.
After Keith left, Hunk pounded his fist against the wall. "Damn it! Allura… Pidge… now Keith. What next?"
Looking down at the red lion key in his hand, Lance realized with regret that he would be providing the unpleasant answer to Hunk's rhetorical question. In making the decision that he could live with, it was clear to him now that too came with a price, one he did not particularly want to pay but one that he had no choice but to live with. He took a deep breath and went to Hunk's side, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder. "This is gonna sound like the punch line of some really bad joke, and I wish it was, but…"
Realization settled in before Lance could even finish his sentence. "Not you too."
"'Fraid so Hunk."
"But why?" Bandor asked. "We'll defend you and the red lion from Lotor or any creep from Doom that stops by, you know that! You're safe here."
"Yeah, I am, but what about you?" Lance said, looking at his friends with a mixture of concern and regret. "Keith was right. As long as the red lion and I are here, you're going to be targeted, and while the red lion's great in a fight, it's only a part of Voltron. Pollux will be safer without us on it. Lotor won't waste time attacking you when it's me and the red lion he's after." He forced a smile of halfhearted optimism. "And if Lotor and Zarkon's crew does show up, you can call on me if you need help."
That time Bandor was the one to bang his fist, and he did so sharply against the console. "This sucks! All our friends! It's just not fair."
"No, but we're all we've got," Sven agreed, and looked to Lance. "Be safe. Where will you go?"
"It's probably safer if I don't tell you." He tossed his key in the air in an effort of forced lightness and optimism that was as much to convince himself as it was for the benefit of his friends. "That and, well, I don't really know, but I'll figure something out."
"How can we contact you?" Romelle asked him. "If we radio the red lion it could be traced and we'd give you away. They'll be looking all over the galaxy for anything on a frequency matching the lions."
"Maybe I can help with that." Sven retrieved a radio from one of the shelves in the control room and handed it to Lance. "Back in our days as space explorers, before we came to Arus, we used to communicate on a specific frequency. You remember what one I mean, right?"
Lance nodded as he took the radio. "Sure do. I'll tune in as much as I can. I won't say much, though, because like Romelle said, we ought to not use it too much."
"Nah, definitely not," Hunk agreed.
"Pass it on to Keith too, and Pidge if you think it's safe to get a message to him." He glanced at Hunk as he spoke the last part.
Being reminded again that Pidge was somewhere unsafe was not pleasant, but Hunk did his best to brush it off while Sven answered for him.
Hunk clapped Lance on the back supportively, even though it tore his heart to see the Voltron Force further splintered apart. "Watch yourself out there, Lance. We don't want to lose you for good."
Lance mustered a reassuring smile and flashed it to his friends with far more confidence than he actually felt. "Hey, I've still got my rabbit's foot somewhere. I'll be fine." Keeping a determined grip on the red lion's key with one hand, he waved goodbye with the other. "Good luck guys." With that he was gone, leaving Hunk, Sven, Romelle, and Bandor behind with heavier hearts.
Romelle turned toward Hunk and asked with a measure of dread, "You aren't next, are you?"
Much to her relief, as well as Sven and Bandor's, Hunk shook his head and offered the princess what he could muster of a smile. "Nah. As long as you'll have me, you're stuck with me."
"Glad to have you," Bandor replied.
"Luckily we're well stocked on all our food," Sven said with a wry, but also clearly relieved, expression.
"In that case, get me a sandwich," Hunk teased back, "especially since you've got a long way to go before you're anywhere as funny as Lance."
Sven's smirk widened, if only for a moment, enjoying the bit of levity that had permeated the otherwise somber mood. "Give me time."
In the battleship that carried the angry Lotor and distraught Allura away from Pollux, the prince sat restlessly in the command chair alone. Allura had fallen asleep an hour or so prior in his arms while he offered her comfort, but his simmering rage would allow him no such rest. There was no way that he, the crown prince of Doom, was going to let that whelp of a prince on Pollux to get away with what he had just done. He had expected Bandor and Romelle to take in the stray ex-members of the Voltron Force, but willfully harboring the red lion and his pilot, balking him, insulting him, and having the gall to fire on him and Allura for going to take what she had rightful claim to? Oh no. Prince Bandor and Pollux would pay, and pay severely for that. Lotor would see to that, no matter what it took.
Shortly after Allura had drifted off, Lotor had changed his mind about taking Allura home to Arus first. The sooner he got back to Doom to set his retribution in motion, the better. There was no reason she could not be taken to Arus afterward if she insisted on it, and now that he had won at least a tenuous hold on her affections, Lotor did not like the idea of Allura being left alone on Arus without him any longer than necessary knowing that her friends there would likely try to poison her against him again given the chance.
Allura did not remain asleep long, however, and it seemed to Lotor that he had barely had the chance to properly indulge his fantasy of the various ways those on Pollux could meet a painful end when she interrupted his thoughts and joined his side.
"Allura," he said, smiling thinly at her. "I'd hoped you'd rest longer."
"It's hard to sleep on a ship. I'll feel better when I'm back on Arus." She looked over at the monitor, showing the open space that lay in front of them and approached the console. "How much longer until we get there?" When she looked down she noticed that their heading was not set for her home world, but instead for the heart of the Denubian, and she whirled around to face Lotor with an indignant expression. "What? Are we going back to Doom? You told me we were going to Arus—"
Lotor cut her off with a frown. "I don't think it's a good idea that we be separated very long just yet, Allura. We have a lot of enemies." And mine will try to get to you without me around, he thought darkly, and I won't have it.
"Arus is my home, Lotor," Allura insisted in a rising tone. "You and your father both agreed to that!" She glared at him with an accusing look in her blue eyes, causing his frown to wear deeper. "You lied to me."
"I didn't lie; I changed my mind. You have to understand, Allura, there's a lot at stake here." He stood and went to her side, countering her angry gaze with an intense look of his own. "This insult, what happened on Pollux, can not be allowed to pass, Allura. You know that. They're testing us, testing you. They think they can get away with keeping the red lion from you because you were their friend, but I won't let them push me or you around." He softened his tone. "Allura, please understand. I'll take you to Arus soon, but I have to get back to Doom and get the forces we need to take the red lion back."
"I'll see to it that Father doesn't order anything too… unreasonable," he assured her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "I don't understand why, but I know you don't want to see your unworthy friends or any uninvolved people on planet Pollux hurt."
Allura sighed and turned away. "I don't. And I want to go home. Not to Doom."
That time it was Lotor who wanted to sigh, but all he did audibly was grumble a slight bit. It was a gamble that if he left Allura alone too long in the Castle of Lions that her friends would fill the time he was not there speaking ill of him to her and swaying her feelings, but on the other hand, he supposed that if he made the gesture of showing faith and trust in her, it might inspire the same in her regarding him. It also occurred to him that if Allura was not around for his planning of the grisly retribution he intended to see visited on Pollux, that would go much more smoothly and to his liking. Perhaps then, a brief parting could be to their benefit…
Lotor took Allura's hand in his and caressed it tenderly. "All right," he said, speaking in such a manner that made it seem as though he had reconsidered and compromised solely out of love for and as a favor to her. "I'll see to it that an escort fleet is ready to take you back to Arus as soon as we get back to Doom. But I can't delay getting back there myself, and I don't want to send you from this one now, alone in nothing but a scout ship."
As he had hoped, Allura was satisfied with that resolution and she relaxed visibly, although her lip still trembled with a small measure of apprehension. "They wouldn't hurt me or the others at the Castle of Lions. Hurt Pidge, Coran, Nanny? No."
"After what just happened, can you really be sure they wouldn't?" Lotor asked with a raised brow.
"Yes!" Allura asserted fervently. "I really don't think they would! It's not the same thing."
"For your sake, I hope you're right."
Lotor was true to his word, and when he and Allura arrived back at Doom a party greeted them as soon as they stepped off the ship. An entourage of robots was already assembled waiting to escort Allura to a battleship that would take her back to Arus, and Haggar, Cossack, and Merla were present in the bay as well. Not bothering with pleasantries, Lotor's first words as he disembarked were, "Where is Father?"
"The throne room," Haggar answered, brushing off the prince's rudeness since she was quite used to it. She cast Allura a curious look, but said nothing else while Merla stepped forward, eyes also on Allura.
"I see you're both unharmed; that's good, given what happened." Merla then added as a telepathic afterthought to Allura, I'm sorry your friends attacked you that way. I know how that must have hurt you.
"I'm fine," Allura answered in a flat and tired voice. As she looked at Merla she felt herself drawn into the queen's gaze, and Merla offered a sympathetic smile in return.
"Which is better than those upstarts on Pollux will be when we're through with them," Lotor fumed angrily. Without even acknowledging Merla, he turned to Cossack and began barking orders. "Ready three ships suitable for a planetside invasion, at least one with class one armor and extensive cargo space." It was technical wording for "hardy slave ship resistant to enemy fire, large enough to hold a Voltron lion," but Lotor knew better than to word it as such in front of Allura.
Cossack had no problem reading between the lines. "Gotcha, sire."
"Be ready to depart in no less than two hours; preferably one."
"No problem," the commander agreed.
Lotor then turned to Haggar. "See to it that we have a robeast suited for the mission." When Allura gasped at the mention of that, he added, "For defending ourselves, of course. It's Allura's wish that nobody innocent be harmed."
The old witch nodded. "Certainly, Prince Lotor. I have just what you need in mind. A very intelligent creature."
Lotor's brow rose. "Intelligent enough to actually follow orders, I hope?"
Haggar narrowed her eyes at the dig, but she did not otherwise respond to the insult. "It'll be obedient and easy to control. I'll see to that."
"Be sure you do, since Cossack and I will need to be able to handle it without you there," Lotor said. Haggar blinked, surprised to hear that she would not be going along, but before she had a chance to question it, Lotor added, "Then ready a beast or two to defend Arus with, seeing as you'll be escorting Allura home."
When she heard that, the anxious look on Allura's face intensified. She was not exactly afraid of Haggar, but she did not relish the idea of being left alone with her either.
Merla meanwhile eyed Lotor curiously. "Don't you think it'd be more sensible for Haggar to be there to control her beasts where you know there'll be fighting instead of only a chance of it?"
"I think it's sensible for Allura to be protected!" Lotor snapped, furious at Merla's presumptuousness in undermining his orders in front of an audience.
Allura frowned, unimpressed. "I'm a big girl, Lotor. I can take care of myself."
Merla managing to successfully elicit a defensive reaction out of Allura—which Lotor knew was exactly she had intended—irritated Lotor to no end, and he found it increasingly difficult to keep his temper under wraps. "Allura," he said, reminding himself that it was not his dear bride that he was angry with as he spoke, "it's an unfamiliar ship with robots that need someone who knows what they're doing supervising them. You're not experienced enough with our systems."
"You don't trust High Admiral Threen?" Merla interjected with seeming helpfulness, looking directly at Lotor as she spoke. "He's the one who assembled the escort fleet."
"I trust Haggar to understand my wishes," Lotor informed the queen icily. "And I need Cossack in my fleet, so I can't send him."
Merla gave a gentle nod of assent. "I see. But why not take both Cossack and Haggar with you, to make sure it's done right, with all of you there?" she suggested. "I can escort Allura to Arus. She and I get along fabulously, don't we Allura?" She joined the princess' side and flashed her a beaming smile.
Allura did not have a chance to answer before Lotor, now scowling in Merla's direction, stepped in between them. "And take you from Father's side during the honeymoon period? What a poor stepson I'd be if I allowed that." His acidic tone carried over into the glare he then shot toward Cossack and Haggar when he noticed that they were still standing there watching the interplay rather than seeing to his orders. "What are you two waiting for? You have orders."
"Of course, my prince," Haggar echoed after Cossack, bowing in unison with him. The commander proceeded to the far end of the bay and began assembling the manpower and machinery needed for Lotor's mission, while Haggar boarded the nearby ship that had been designated to take Allura to Arus.
Merla straightened and stared back coldly at Lotor. "Have it your way, then," she said, and turned to Allura. "Sorry Allura dear, looks like it'll be you and Haggar after all. But don't worry, she's not all bad. A little unsociable, and her cat has dreadful shedding problems, but sometimes she's good for a laugh. And I'm sure she'll be happy to share some funny little tales about your husband's many and various quirks. Dishing about the dirt on the in-laws can be quite enlightening." She then gave a little wave and walked off, the spiky heels on her boots clicking against the floor as she exited.
"Arrogant woman," Lotor muttered at Merla's departing figure.
Allura studied Lotor's irritated countenance, which softened considerably when he turned and his eyes met hers. "You don't trust her," she said softly.
"No, and you shouldn't either." Lotor's response was quick, passionate, full of venom, and was it, Allura wondered, just a touch of fear?
"She's been kind to me," Allura assured him, and offered him a disarming and sympathetic look. "And you, in the past at least. She saved you from your father—"
Cutting her off, Lotor placed a firm hand on Allura's shoulder. "Merla's out for one person and one person only: Merla. Don't let her charms persuade you to think otherwise."
Allura's eyes widened ever so slightly as she looked up at him. "I've been told the same thing about you."
"And I told you I'll prove them wrong," Lotor assured her, squeezing the shoulder beneath his fingertips before he leaned closer. "But Merla doesn't have my motivation to gain your love. Please, promise me you won't trust her blindly, Allura." He looked intently into her eyes and went to kiss her, but she looked away before their lips could meet.
"I'd have a hard time doing that with anyone anymore," she replied honestly, sadness clouding her eyes.
Lotor pulled her into his arms. "I don't blame you. But as long as I have your trust, I'm happy... even if I do have to earn it."
She did not fight his embrace and instead only looked up at him, and in that moment Lotor saw the glimmer of faith that told him he had indeed earned the faintest beginnings of it. He vowed to himself that he would do whatever it took to keep it, even though that emotional oath ran counter to the very mission he was about to lead when he left Doom. Lotor did not trouble himself with that dilemma, though, for in his mind they were two completely separate issues, and as long as Allura did not get involved he saw no conflict.
"Be safe, Lotor," Allura told him, giving him a light squeeze of a hug before breaking their embrace. "And remember what you promised. Don't hurt—"
"I'll take all measures necessary to avoid harming anyone, especially innocent citizens. Our goal is to get the lion back."
Allura smiled at Lotor, relieved that he understood. "Thank you. Let me know how things go."
He leaned toward her and took the kiss he had been thwarted at earlier, savoring every moment of her soft lips upon his. "I will," he said once they broke apart. "I don't expect this to take all that long." He stroked Allura's soft blond hair once more before stepping back. "I'll see you back on Arus, my love."
It was then that Haggar poked her head out of the cargo hold. Two robots emerged from behind her and hurried toward the doors on the northern side of the bay while she beckoned to Allura. "She'll be in good hands, Prince Lotor. You know you can trust me to make sure that she's safe. And I won't even bemoan a scuff on my manicure if we get in a fight like someone else I could mention."
"I'd be most pleased if you didn't get into a fight at all; after all, Allura's so-called friends shouldn't be gunning for her even if she is in one of our ships." He took two more steps backward. "Let me know when you arrive on Arus."
"We will," Haggar agreed, and gestured again for Allura, who had not moved, to board the ship. "Come along, Princess. We can use the short time it takes for those robots to get the robeast in the coffin to show you the layout of the ship."
Allura nodded, and after saying goodbye to Lotor, came aboard. Not bothering with small talk, the old witch immediately took her on the promised tour of the ship and introduced her to the dour-faced high admiral commanding it. The meeting was brief and tense, and Allura was relieved when they parted company and Haggar led her to the chamber where she expected Allura to spend most of the trip; the private chamber reserved for royalty or guests of importance to rest. Her instincts were right, Allura was about to sit down and settle in for the voyage when one of Haggar's robots returned and informed her that the coffin was ready.
"Excellent. I'll be out to inspect it momentarily." Haggar turned to Allura and saw, to her surprise, that the princess watched them with what seemed to be an inquisitive look rather than a frightened or disgusted one. "Princess, perhaps you would like to see this before we take off?"
Unaware that her morbid curiosity had been so obvious, Allura started and fumbled for an appropriate response. "That's not really necessary… I mean…"
"Nonsense." The witch boldly took her by the arm and led her into the hallway. "It'll be good for you to learn how a robeast works now that you're married to our prince. They're one of our main forms of defense and you've only seen the business end of them."
The notion of seeing a sleeping robeast up close and not through a monitor made Allura uneasy, but she did not protest since it was clear that Haggar meant her no harm and she supposed she had to get used to the Doomites' ways even if they did make her squeamish. Besides, robeasts were probably among the less objectionable things she would be seeing in the near future, Allura realized grimly as she and Haggar returned to the cargo bay.
The old witch led her to the side of a red coffin outlined in stark white bone that bore a skull crest. It surprised Allura to see that it was only the size of a large humanoid figure and nothing near the size of most of the beasts she had encountered while fighting as Voltron. She knew that robeasts were magically enlarged, but it was still surprising to her to see the magnitude of just how much so they were. "There's a monster in there?"
"In stasis," Haggar confirmed with a nod. "A very loyal beast, one of my favorites, a six-eyed claw beast with poisonous fangs. The base creature is native to a frost planet on the other side of the galaxy. They're quite tenacious but don't strike unless provoked, and they don't fight until either they or their masters are attacked."
A smooth, mildly familiar, and to Haggar, distinctly unwelcome voice interrupted their conversation from the still-open cargo bay door. "Showing off your little pets to our new princess, eh Haggar?"
Both she and Allura turned and saw the tall and self-important silhouette of the Doomite cleric that Allura recognized as the high priest that had performed the marriage ceremony for her and Lotor at Zarkon's request.
"Hello Veltaor," Haggar greeted him flatly, her voice nearly a hiss as she addressed him. "What brings you to Castle Doom twice in one week? Isn't Darhin-Kal falling apart without you, important as you think you are?"
The priest grinned widely, showing gleaming fangs that to a keen observer would have been noticed to have just been cosmetically brightened. "Charming as ever, aren't you Haggar my dear?" He let out an insincere laugh and eyed the princess with curiosity. "A pleasure to see you again, Princess Allura. I trust you're finding our dear old witch's company as enlightening and entertaining as I do?"
With obvious impatience, Haggar tapped the end of her staff against the coffin, inwardly debating as to whether she should awaken her pet and sic it on their visitor and demonstrate to Allura that even in their un-enhanced form, furry fanged frost beasts were formidable foes. "So what brings you here?" she repeated.
"Incidentally, I was on my way back to Darhin-Kal when I passed our illustrious queen and she mentioned that Prince Lotor and Commander Cossack, and you and Princess Allura were off on two separate but important and potentially troublesome journeys. She asked that I give the robeasts a little extra special blessing from Lord Athgar on my way out," he said, eyes alit with mischievous amusement as he spoke.
Haggar's yellow eyes narrowed. "My magic needs no assistance from your gods."
Veltaor shook his head and sighed, making a tsk-tsk noise as he did so. "Manners, manners. Fortunately Athgar is quite used to your surliness and ranks the prince's generous sacrifices above your rudeness. But he may have to bloody an extra dagger or two if you keep that up." He walked past Haggar and Allura and stood at the head of the coffin. Closing his eyes, he drew a mystical symbol in the air above it and murmured a chant that Allura recognized as some sort of prayer or blessing. To her surprise the white bone of the coffin seemed to shine as brightly as the light did off of the priest's whitened fangs for the briefest moment, but it was fleeting enough that she supposed it could have been imagination getting the better of her. Once finished, he then opened his eyes and strode back over to the cargo bay door.
"It's been a pleasure as always, Haggar. Give your elder spirits the fondest regards from their friends in Darhin-Kal." Veltaor bowed in Allura's direction. "May the Lord of Battle protect you in your voyage, Princess Allura, and may he defend your home from chaos and enemies." He drew a blessing symbol in her direction, and then backed down the ramp exiting the ship in what Haggar found to be an exceptionally overdone melodramatic flourish.
Allura did not find Veltaor's brief visit nearly as objectionable as Haggar had. "That was nice of him," she said, although she felt somewhat conflicted about accepting the blessing of the Doomites' war god. After a moment of deliberation she supposed that there was no harm in taking it in the respectful spirit she assumed it had been meant, and tried not to ponder how such favor clashed with her own world's peaceful beliefs.
"Nice, yes, about as nice as a used spaceship salesman. About as charming, too," Haggar muttered under her breath. The old witch checked that the coffin was secure and then shut the cargo bay door. "You'll find out on your own soon enough, but I haven't met one of Doom's clerics yet that isn't insufferably arrogant, and the high priests have the most swelled heads of all."
"Why don't you like them?" Allura asked once Haggar finished calling in the instruction to take off to the bridge.
"I won't convert." Haggar let out an exasperated breath, and then looked at Allura with a devilish smirk on her dark features. "That and they're jealous that my magic is better. The Ancient Ones may not be gods, but they can whip up a better robeast than Athgar, Elichi, Nys'athar, or any of their pals any day of the week."
In spite of herself and the seeming insanity of the situation, Allura found herself smiling as well. Perhaps the ride back to Arus would not be so long after all. "Haggar," she said amiably, "Tell me a little more about life on Doom."