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Hideous Ears

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His ears were hideous.

It was a fact, not an opinion.

Keith had long accepted this when he was a child. There was nothing attractive about the dark purple scars where his upper pointed lobes were hacked off, and there was certainly nothing remotely pretty about his lower tips missing pieces of flesh on both sides, with his left being significantly shorter than his right’s.

They used to be nice ears, at least he told himself until he turned fifteen. After that, Keith was glad he had mutilated ears. It was easier to pretend he wasn’t Galra that way.

His Altean father used to play with his ears when he was a small child. Whenever he sat on his father’s lap, his father would mess with his lower pointed lobe, tugging it softly, grasping it between his thumb and fingers and simply rub against the tip in fascination. Keith didn’t mind the touches; his father was gentle and it felt nice to have his ears rubbed. His scent was soothing and put him to ease. Eventually the curiosity became a mindless ritual between the two. The boy would cozy up with his father after he returned from work, and his father would play with his son’s ears for several doboshes until the two relaxed.

One day, Keith decided to ask why his liked to touch his ears so much. “Daddy, why do you play with my ears all the time?”

“Because,” his father answered, tugging on his left lower lobe, “your ears are really interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because you have ears like your mommy.”

“Why?”

“Because your mommy is Galra.”

“Why…” Keith paused and furrowed his eyebrows in deep thought. “Why am I purple?”

“Because your mommy is purple. Most Galra are purple, though I can turn purple if I wanted to. Look watch.”

Keith shifted on his father’s lap, facing him. His father’s lightly tanned skin became the same shade of lavender as his son. The hair, eyes, and ears remained the same, as did the red Altean markings under his eyes. Keith’s nose unconsciously wiggled as he smelled his father’s hands then his own before proceeding to yank at the pointed edges of his father’s ears. Keith, too young to know how to measure his Galra strength, tugged them a little roughly earning a slight wince from his father. With a small squeak in apology, the boy lessened his grip. “Why are your ears different?”

“Because I am Altean; I am from a planet named Altea. We look very different from the people of Daibazaal.”

Keith squeaked again and cocked his head back and forth before nodding in recognition. “I see now…” He flailed his arms about. “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

He could still recall his father’s mirthful laughter.

 

 

“It just seems wrong that I’m not allowed to be there,” growled Keith.

“It’s an Altean tradition,” replied Empress Allura as she casually swiped right on her pad to read the next page of her book before rubbing her large belly. “Stop dancing on my bladder,” she soothed with a loving whisper.

Keith frowned. “It’s the stupidest tradition. You’re too damn superstitious.”

“I don’t care what you think,” lips curling in disdain, eyes still locked on her pad. “As Empress of Altea I must set an example to my people, even if I do not agree with it.”

“They don’t have to know!” Keith threw his arms up and slammed his fists against the mattress beside his legs.

“If you cannot be civil, then I suggest you sleep outside.”

A cold shiver ran down his spine. Keith was not sure what hurt more: Allura’s disregard for his feelings on the matter or the fact that she refused to look at him. Without saying anything else, Keith adjusted himself in the bed and laid on his side, his back facing his empress. When Allura finally turned off her light to retire for the night, Keith waited until her breaths slowed and her heartbeat quieted. He kissed his sleeping empress’s temple and carefully stroked her belly before nestling beside her.

 

 

On a chilly night, a seven-year-old Keith was awakened by an unfamiliar odor. The scent was pungent and nauseatingly thick. It was so strong, Keith almost did not hear his father’s groans, his mother’s cries, and a deep voice of a stranger.

“T-take him!” his father’s voiced choked.

Opening his bedroom door, Keith was greeted by a blade stabbing his father’s back, and the sound of broken bones caused by his mother’s fist. Blood splattered on the floor and walls. His mother’s body was thrown across the room, and bled against a wall, face full of rage and confusion. Blinking, Keith suddenly found himself face to face with a tall and burly Galra man with a broken jaw and a bloody saber.

The Galra clawed the trembling child’s head, grimacing in pain at his inability to smile due to the broken mandible. Pulling at the boy’s right ear, the Galra swiftly swung his blade and lopped off the upper pointed lobe.

Loud piercing screeches flooded the home. The intense pain sent the child into a state of shock, convulsing uncontrollably against the floor, mewling out blood curdling screams. His thrashing made it difficult for the man to get a hold of him, and when his large hand came close to his face, Keith bit his finger. He bit him and did not let go.

The Galra hollered in pain. “You fucking brat!”

Keith continued to thrash about, jaw locked on tightly against the digit. The boy clenched tighter and tighter until he heard a crunch and tasted a warm coppery fluid. The screaming became more intense before they were reduced to gurgling by the sound of a blade.

Keith did not realize when he was out of his home. All he could remember was being held tightly against his mother’s arms, soaked with so much blood he wasn’t sure if it was entirely hers, and the pulsing pain in his ear. Every time him heart would beat the pain came shooting back. Oh, and he remembered spitting out a finger when his mother finally found a place to rest.

Whoever the stranger was, his mother would never tell Keith. The two lived in a secluded desert area in Daibazaal, miles away from the closest city. For months his mother forbade him from leaving his home. It felt random to one day be allowed to wander outside the home, though with his mother’s supervision. Keith would not realize why until he was older that his mother waited after his hair grew long enough to hide his injury. Though she did not make it obvious. There were no kisses or massages to his ears like his father would give before he was murdered. Every time his mother saw his ear, her eyes watered and locked herself in her room for vargas on end. The self-isolation became so frequent that Keith had to teach himself how to cook in order to survive.

When the food became scarce, and his mother had locked herself in the room, Keith took a knife and hunted for wild game. Of course, he was forbidden to leave his home at the time, but his hunger instincts kicked in harder than his sense of filial piety. Being fast on his feet helped him catch up to his prey, but because he was new to the entire process, he found himself failing and tripping over his own feet as he chased the meals. Vargas had passed before he managed to catch a rat by its tail. The rat hissed and bit at Keith’s hand.

“Argh!”

Not letting go of his meal, Keith swung the rat with all his might against the ground. He repeated the same motion another two times before he noticed the rat was bleeding and dead. Humming in satisfaction, Keith left the carcass for a few minutes to find some dry wood for the grill.

Though the rat was his first successful kill, it would not be his first successful meal. That honor belonged to his second kill, a winged serpent he managed to catch by ripping off one of his wings. Obviously such a gangly creature wasn’t what he was hoping for, even the rat was plumper, but it had finished swallowing the dead rat just as Keith returned with a few pieces of wood.

All he saw was red.

“THAT WAS MINE! MINE! IT’S MINE!” He said over and over as he reached for the creature, latching onto its wing as it tried to fly away. He tore off the wing and stomped on its head until the skull was crushed. Wiping the blood off the sole, Keith dragged the kill back home. It would have tasted better had Keith gutted it first, yet he found himself not caring at all as he devoured the serpent. Three days without a proper meal will make the most wretched of flavors taste like the most exquisite food in the galaxy.

As he continued to hunt, his technique became more skilled, able to bring home larger and tastier game back to his home. His mother never questioned where Keith got the meat or why his clothes were covered in blood, and always ate in silence. When she finished, she murmured gratitude to her son and went about into finishing the chores, though that was if she did not see his injured ear. If she saw it, she would go right back to her room and not leave until Keith called her for food. To prevent her from having these fits, Keith learned to sit at his mother’s right side.

The seclusion improved when his hair covered his ears. Though it had lasted only lasted for a month, and after their trip to the city, his mother went back into her old ways.

Keith was eight years old when he visited the city with his mother. He remembered being annoyed how his mother insisted he could not leave her side, and held his hand, never taking a break to wipe her sweating palms.

“My hands are sweaty!”

“Suck it up,” she replied coolly.

Jubilant music played in a major street surrounded by an enormous crowd of gossiping Galra citizens. The street lead directly to the grand palace belonging to their ruler, Emperor Zarkon. The people watched as the Altean leader King Alfor rode in an open carriage towards the palace with Emperor Zarkon at his side. By his awkward smile and weak waving, Keith could tell the foreign king was uncomfortable with the showy parade. Zarkon, however, was enjoying the attention, smiling proudly and confidently at his people.

Feeling a quivering hand, Keith turned his attention to his mother, who was shaking at the sight of Alfor. Her eyes pooled; the grasp of her hand loosened yet Keith did not let go. His eyes watered as he sadly looked up at his mother. Alfor didn’t look like his father at all, but maybe it was the ears that made his mother so upset?

Keith was ready to pull his mother away from the scene. Just then the carriage passed the two unceremoniously.

An amazing smell.

What an amazing smell!

It was so incredible, Keith’s hand went limp, completely ignoring his mother. Almost possessed, his feet followed the carriage, pushing and shoving against people until he wound up into the street. He ran along the side finally catching up for a few ticks only to see a bright little girl in a pink frilly dress poke her head out between the two monarchs.

His heart skipped a beat, and so did his step.

Keith tumbled gracelessly onto the street, but did not stop staring at the carriage while sniffing desperately for that scent. In his efforts he was rewarded with another peek at the girl as she moved near the edge and looked back at him in concern, her long white hair billowing against the wind.

Inhaling deeply, a goofy, content smile was plastered all over his face. The scent reminded him of salt-fruits, spicy wood, and the black desert rose, and a little bit of his father’s smell. The little girl smiled back, but quickly covered her mouth with her hands before turning her attention back to her father. She hopped off the carriage much to the dismay of Alfor and ran towards Keith.

The scent grew stronger as she approached the fallen boy.

“Are you alright?” she asked, kneeling before the Galran. She didn’t seem to mind that her dress was getting dirty. Seeing that the boy was still gaping, she carefully smoothed out the boy’s hair in fascination. “Your hair is so dark!”

A gentle squeak escaped his lips when she touched his right ear. “C-can you be mine?”

The Altean child gasped.

A forceful jerk brought the boy back to reality as his mother frantically took him away from the crowd. Rather than letting him walk, she carried him until they arrived back to their desert home whispering, “Don’t let them see him. Don’t let them see him,” whenever she turned her head to look behind her.

The first thing Keith did when he arrived home was hop excitedly to his mother’s utter confusion. Heart racing, he skipped outside the home, circling it several times before dancing in front of the door. His mother pulled him inside.

“What are you doing Keith?” She was completely perplexed by her son’s actions. The only time she had ever witnessed such wild antics was with her very foreign and very Altean husband. It was the first time Keith had ever displayed any overtly Altean characteristics.

“I don’t know?” he panted, a little confused over his feelings. “But she’s mine! I’m going to marry her!”

 

“Garrett!” Keith boomed into the royal library. At the dismay of the librarians, the abrupt crash caused a few ancient tomes to fall from their shelves. The scribes were spooked by loudness and fumbled to gather the fallen books. Garrett looked up from his large book without any amusement in his face.

In a monotonous, flat voice, Garrett responded. “God fucking dammit, Keith. Why do you have the need to always act out like a Gal-” He paused, fully aware that his surroundings were not private. “Like an insipid dumbass?”

“Just, just how, just how are you even…” Keith shrugged and threw up his hands in confusion, “…related to Coran?” The consort could not figure out how such a whimsical and expressive man like Coran could have a foul-mouthed no-nonsense sort of son. The two shared the same color of Altean markings and skin tone, but Garrett’s hair was fluffier and a few shades darker than Coran’s. And instead of a moustache under his nose, Keith swore he saw that same moustache as his bangs. But if he had to make a guess, Keith would have thought Garrett was part Galra by his deadpan personality, but he was Altean through and through.

“If my dad was your dad, you’d understand,” he answered with a roll of his eyes. “You gonna calm your tits, or just stand there? What do you want?”

“Maybe it’s just me,” Keith sat across from Garrett, “but I get the feeling your dad is hiding something from me.”

“When you say get… and feeling… do you understand that it’s not really your instinct telling you something is off but your brain seeing through my father’s awful attempts at lying?”

“Ugh,” he groaned “Yes. But I can smell it on him too.”

“That’s because,” Garrett tapped his nose, “you’re half you-know-what.”

“You don’t have to tell me that, Garrett. So are you going to help me or what?”

The Altean looked at him incredulously. “You haven’t even told me anything pertinent.”

“I asked Coran about the Altean birthing rituals. Mainly about if it really is only the midwife and the mother present. I mean when I was in Daib- Planet Doom, it was expected for someone to give birth with a family member there.”

Garrett’s eyes scanned Keith for more information. “And?”

“Oh, yeah,” he coughed. “He, um, basically said my question was silly and misinformed and that the husband and he stopped. His eyes got all wide and I could smell his fear.”

“He ain’t wrong about the misinformation part.” Nodding his head, Garrett twirled a lock from his moustache-bangs. “In Altea, the mothers birth in a shallow pool. We believe that coming from water, newborns must be introduced in the same environment because water is a symbol of life. Altean birthing is a fucked-up process if the right person isn’t present.”

“What do you mean?”

“Alteans have mystical ties with nature, and it ties a lot when they enter into labor. For some reason, Altean women can’t give birth by themselves. Many of them die or their infants die if they are alone. It’s like the baby feeds off the quintessence of the person helping, like a welcoming or something. It’s really hard to explain.”

Keith was dumbfounded and Garrett shrugged. “And I don’t why the fuck my dad freaked out about the husband part, but anyway, the husband generally assists the midwife. Though there’s a huge misconception-”

“GARRETT DON’T TELL HIM ANYTHING!” Coran slid across the table and crashed into his son.

“What the hell dad!?”

 

 

Not long after the visit, Keith fell ill. His mother cared for him as he laid limply on his mother’s bed. He had no strength to move. It hurt to open his eyes. Profuse sweating soaked the sheets, making it almost impossible to be comfortable until they were changed. He slept for most of the time, often being forced to wake up by his mother to drink and eat. At night his mother slept next to him, waking up immediately whenever Keith coughed or moaned.

It was nice to be so close to his mother, he thought in his feverish haze. Ever since they ran away from their home his mother made nightly visits to his room. She would kiss him on the cheek and whisper “I love you” before brushing her fingers against his soft dark hair. Some nights Keith was awake, others he was asleep. During the nights when he was awake, turned his head to cover his right ear. He realized that she stayed in his room longer if she could not see his injury. Afterwards his mother returned to her room without saying another word.

On the night of the fourth quintant of his illness, his mother said she was going to a nearby town to get more supplies. Keith nodded weakly. It was not the first time she had left.

“I’ll be back.”

Keith looked up at her with tired eyes. “Can I come with you mommy?”

“No, little one,” she said sadly. “I don’t want the bad people to get you. You need to stay here where it’s safe.”

“Okay, mommy.”

The following morning, Keith had begun to recover some of his strength. He rolled out of his mother’s bed and found himself unable to stand, falling to his feet. The coolness of the floor felt good against his hot skin, and pressed his cheeks against it. Before he knew it, Keith had fallen asleep. When he awoke, he crawled to the small common area and was relieved it was still day time.

Wobbling, Keith managed to stand and reach the sink to drink water. He was very thirsty, drinking almost an entire liter before quenching his thirst. His stomach finally able to tolerate more fluids than he did in the past quintants. Eating a small fruit, Keith spent the rest of his day in the common area before napping.

Nightfall and his mother had not returned.

“Mommy?” he called out into the darkness.

No response.

He drank more water and ate a bland meat and went back to sleep.

The next morning his mother still had not returned.

Keith could walk without struggling that day. He explored around the house inside and out but no sign of his mother. The day passed without skipping a beat. Keith ate and drank before resting and ate some more. He went to bed in his mother’s room and slept with no problems.

Third quintant, she was still nowhere to be found.

“Mommy?” he called out in his mother’s room.

“Mommy?” he called out in his room.

“Mommy!” he yelled outside the front door.

“Mommy!” he yelled outside the home.

“MOMMY!” he screamed as he ran out into the desert. “MOMMY WHERE ARE YOU!?”

He searched vargas for his mother. He did not stop until the sun had begun to set and forced himself back home where it would be safe. He repeated the same process for the next three quintants until he ran out of food. Taking his knife, Keith went to hunt for food while still searching for his mother.

The hunting took longer than usual as Keith became too distracted and ventured out further to call to his mother.

“Just a little more,” he told himself, ignoring another potential meal. “Mommy!”

His hunger eventually caught up to him as he meandered around the desert, encountered large rocks stacked on top of one another at odd angles. A large canine beast with large tusks and a whip-like tail with spikes growled at him. A formidable prey, though it had not been the first time Keith had slaughtered one for his meal.

The beast encircled Keith before lounging out him. Keith evaded the attack and swung his knife at the animal, but missed as well before getting tackled from behind. He rolled and kicked the beast’s snout, buying him some time to get up. He ran for his knife, which landed several feet away. As he picked up his weapon, the animal jumped at the boy narrowly missing its target.

Or so Keith thought for a split second as he moved his head away. Sharp teeth sunk into his left lower earlobe and ripped out the flesh. Blood splattered onto the ground and slid down Keith’s neck. The boy screamed in agony yet continued to focus on the fight. The scent of blood was nauseating, but it did not stop him from punching the beast with his fist and stabbed its neck.

“You bastard!” he hollered, stabbing the creature over and over again. Blood sprayed all over Keith’s face and clothes. The smell became almost invisible as Keith continued to cut the animal.

A small yip echoed from the rocks brought Keith back to reality.

Looking down at his bloodied hands, he dropped the knife and stared at the maimed corpse. “W-why did I do that?”

Another yip got his attention and followed the sounds to its source. Looking at a small opening, five tiny cubs squirmed against one another. They were blind and nearly hairless. Hungry and helpless.

“I took your mommy away.” Keith squeaked softly as warm tears rolling down his cheeks.

 

 

“I’m afraid,” Allura whispered to Hys behind closed doors.

“My empress, you shall do fine,” she replied with a reassuring smile. “You are strong and this baby will be strong too. Roland will be by-”

The empress glared at her advisor. “I don’t want him to be there!” Her abdomen quivered slightly. Allura brought wrapped her arms around her large womb, rubbing the area where the baby had kicked. “There, there…”

Hys placed her hand over Allura’s, and moved a lock of hair away from Allura’s face with her other. “But you must. Your husband must be present. You could die, your highness.”

“It just…” Her eyes watered, and wiped the tears before they could fall. “Something feels wrong. My body cannot shake off that feeling. I married Roland, yes, but that was all for appearances. His job is to sit around and look like an official prince consort. I did not want- No, I did not think it would affect the way I’d give birth.”

“You expected your champion to be there.”

“So what if I did?” Allura frowned, pushing away from Hys’ hands. “I felt it would only make the most sense since he is the father of my unborn child.”

“And yet…” Hys looked over the empress and noticed the door was slightly ajar. She gently placed her hands over the empress’ shoulders. “He’s just their sire, correct?”

Unable to look towards her matronly yet battle-worn advisor, Allura held in a sigh. “That… that is correct.” A long silence followed the empress’ response. “Wait? No! Are you daft? I’ve already discussed this with you multiple times!” Shrugging off the hands, Allura glared at Hys. “Roland is for appearances and even though he is the one to witness my birth, he is to never lay a hand on my children! I do not care what I said a long time ago. I do as I please. The only reason he’s going to have the honor of seeing my precious child be born is because our wretched Altean mysticism ties into my lifeforce.”

“I only wanted to confirm,” she replied with a small bow, still eying the door. “And if it were up to you-”

“If it were up to me, Keith would deliver our child.”

Our?”

“Yes, OUR,” Allura scoffed. “Honestly Hys you are not that old. Your eldest child is, what, twenty? Do you need to visit the doctor regarding your hearing?”

“Perhaps I do,” she answered with a shrug. “Why just the other day I swore I was getting the slipperies!”

“Well,” Allura shifted uncomfortably, “be sure to take time off if you do get the slipperies.”

“That I will, your highness.”

With another bow, Hys exited the room, carefully closing the door so that it would not make a loud sound. She walked a few feet away from the empress’ room and began to hum an old Altean bar song. “These violent delights have violent ends… Honestly the two of you need to swallow your pride and talk to one another, and actually listen.” Hys turned up her nose dramatically. “But no! No one wants to listen to Hys! You had better be grateful for what I am doing for you. I didn’t lose an eye fighting Zarkon for this childish mess.”

Behind the shadows of a pillar, Keith nodded. “I am.”

 

 

Halfway to his home, Keith was snatched by several large Galra. The boy put up a fight, hissing and biting against them, but ultimately was overwhelmed by their numbers. They pinned his body to the ground and twisted his head to look at his right ear.

“I knew I wasn’t seeing things that day!” laughed a female Galra. “He has the mark!”

“How the hell did he get away?” asked a male with a long scar over his left cheek.

“Who cares! We have the half-breed now. He belongs to the Blade of Marmora now.”

The Blade of Marmora was a hidden underground group of Galra who supported Galra supremacy and renounced Daibazaal’s alliance with Altea. Often, they recruited young Galra with their rhetoric and promises of a better life. They trained them to be soldiers and spies, drilling the notion of complete and total allegiance to Zarkon and the Galra Empire. If the day for their emperor to finally call to arms against the Alteans or any other peoples, they would be right at his side with an army to be at his beck and call.

Their opinion of unions between a Galra and a non-Galra were negative. They targeted families of mixed species and killed their couples and kidnapped the children to become their slaves. The children were initially branded by removing the upper tips of their right ears. If they managed to run away, it was not hard to distinguish them among the others. The slaves were forced to fight one another in a secret arena frequented by various gangsters and shady businessmen where they would place bets on who would win. Incentives to fight included warm food and the promise of a blanket. Those who hesitated were killed by the other slaves.

Winners were honored by having their left upper ears cut, and becoming the practice dummies for the Galra recruits. At the age of ten, Keith did not scream when his ear had been sheared off. He did struggle when the other Galra pulled him away for stabbing the “barber” in the neck with the very knife that cut him, but it did not last long before bit off the flesh off another’s arm and broken the shin of two others.

The leader of the Blade, Kolivan, decided not to have the boy killed. It would be a waste to have a ridiculously strong half-breed to die unceremoniously, especially one who brought in funds during their arena battles.

For deca-phoebs, Keith fought in the arena, pushing slaves and killing the pure breeds. The bets became more and more intense as wild beasts and grown Galra men came into play, pushing Keith’s limits.

At the age of thirteen, Keith snuck into the Blade’s kennel and stole a poisonous fish. He hid near the klanmuirl pen. Staring down at the bright, multicolored fish, he was prepared to consume it. There was nothing in his life worth living. Receiving praise for his bloodthirsty tendencies and battle prowess were meaningless. Galra were cruel and merciless. They had no regard for life, especially to those whose only sin had been being conceived by a non-Galra. Their greed showed no end as they demanded more and more flashy fights and unique weaponry.

Keith wished they didn’t bother with healing him. Healing meant they had more plans to showcase him to those awful people. Healing also meant precious supplies were being wasted on him instead of the other slaves. Many died due to infection or their injuries, but Keith was forced to live. It even got to a point where he was sedated so he would not resist the medical attention.

“This fish will be delicious,” he said aloud.

Pinching at the backfin, Keith swallowed thickly before opening his mouth and taking a deep breath.

He dropped the fish, suddenly turning towards the klanmuirl pen. The beasts were happily eating salt-fruits, it’s rich fragrance permeating the smelly kennel as the klanmuirls bit into its silver flesh.

How could I have forgotten? he inhaled anxiously, wanting to smell more of the fruit the klanmuirl ate.

Without a moment of hesitation, Keith jumped into the pen and swiftly snatched a half-eaten fruit, evading a swipe from an angry klanmuirl and escaped the enclosure. Keith snuck back into the slave communal grounds and nestled in a corner, holding the fruit close against his chest.

“It’s almost like you,” he said while biting into the fruit, savoring its unique flavor. He licked the salty-tangy juices rolling down his forearms before breathing against it, relishing its gorgeous scent. Tears fell and mixed with the fruit as he continued to eat despite its growing saltiness.

He wept all night, thoughts filled with his father and the Altean princess he met so many years ago.

When he was fifteen, there was frequent talk about a war against the Alteans becoming inevitable. The Blade of Marmora had become restless, gathering as much information as they could get to confirm the rumors. If proven true, they would make themselves public to their emperor and assist him to slaughter the Alteans. This also meant the slaves would either be killed or used against the Alteans.

News of King Alfor’s arrival to Daibazaal stoked the flames even more.

It’s time to go.

Keith snatched a glass shard as he was taken back to his cell. As the Galra opened the door, Keith used the glass to stab behind his neck and push him into the cell. He grabbed the luxite blade from the fallen Galra and ran, injuring every Galra in his path.

 

“When did it happen?” Garrett asked Keith, who was leaning against a door.

“Six vargas ago,” he answered quietly. The champion had not left his spot, not even to relieve himself. “She was sitting in front of her vanity.”

“Don’t be fucking stingy,” the Altean groaned. He crossed his arms and rolled his eyes at how complicated Keith was being. “What else?”

“What does it matter?”

Face turning red, Garrett grabbed at Keith’s collar. “She’s my goddamn empress, and practically my sister, you blithering idiot. I have every right to know how it happened!”

Keith let out a growl and shoved the Altean away. “She was going to tell me something and then her water broke! What else do you want me to say? That I panicked when I saw the terror in her eyes? That she began to cry? How she kept saying “No not like this. Please, oh gods no” over and over again as I carried in my arms? Half the damn palace must have heard my yelling for help!”

“Yeah,” Garrett got into Keith’s face. “Fucking tell it to me just like that.”

“Do you even know what it’s like, Garrett?” His fists trembled on his sides, itching to punch anyone and anything. “To have her desperately reaching out to you as everyone else is pulling her away from you? To have guards hold you back?” His voice cracked. “To hear Allura wailing out “My baby doesn’t want this! Our baby can’t do this!” as they drag her into this room? Having to see Roland being escorted because he has to be there or Allura will die!?”

Painful moans echoed through the doors.
Garrett shook his head and pulled at his moustache-bangs. “I don’t even know why the hell you’re even out here and not in there. Bringing Roland isn’t going to do shit. If anything, it might end up killing her!”

Keith’s face fell. “W-what do you mean?”

“I told you before my dad interrupted us. There has to be a right person to help deliver the baby. The misconception is that it’s gotta be the spouse, which is not fucking true at all.” Garrett reached into his satchel and removed a thin, but ancient book. “I mean it just happens to be the right person for a majority of the cases, but it’s not the rule.” He flipped through its pages, until he found what he was looking for. “The only reason that fact’s not widespread is because of how ancient the knowledge has been and that a lot of the existing texts were either destroyed or lost. My dad didn’t exactly believe me when I told him this after you left. He’s a very intelligent man, but he’s not a scribe like me. Those minute details are my territory.”

“Why didn’t he want you to tell me anything?”

“Probably had something to do with Allura telling him something about who gets to be with her when she’s in labor. I don’t think sister wanted to hurt you.” Garrett shrugged. “Look. I don’t know what she told you, but she mostly didn’t want you to know that you were apparently not welcome.”

GET HIM OUT! GET HIM OUT! GET HIM OUT OR I WILL HAVE YOUR HEADS FOR THIS!

 

 

Looking at himself in the mirror, Keith couldn’t help but feel sick to his stomach. That lavender skin of his was unforgiveable. The lower right lobe was a reminder of his Galra heritage.

It had to go.

And so it did go.

With a quick slice of the luxite blade.

No hisses or cries.

No groans or screaming.

Only a wince and a bite to his lips as the sensitive flesh was cauterized by a hot knife.

For half a quintant, Keith chanted in front of the mirror, “I am my father’s son.” There was no way the Alteans would let him join their army if he showed up with his purple skin. If war were truly inevitable, he had to prove he was not from the enemy’s side. As long as he looked the part, they would let him in.

He had an arduous time remembering his father’s appearance. He was pale, wasn’t he? Sort of? Maybe? He recalled the red markings under his eyes and his steel-blue hair. Wait, wasn’t it gray? Sometimes he could make himself taller. Other times he made his skin whatever color he wanted. He played with his ears too. No that’s not valuable information. How did he look like again?

Nothing changed.

Keith punched his reflection in anger. “I want to get out of here.”

A small jolt ran across his body. Small spots appeared all over his arms, merging into an entirely into a uniform color throughout his body. Keith searched his back and his genitals. It had all changed colors. Was this the color of his father? Maybe it’s a little too light?

Who cares? I’m not fucking purple anymore.

 

Keith burst through the doors with Garrett at his heels. Allura flailing against the midwife and other attendants, including Hys, in the pool. The deep stench of fear and anxiety hit Keith’s nose.

No thoughts or plans came through his head as jumped into the pool, pushing and shoving everyone away from Allura. He held her tightly against his chest as she sobbed uncontrollably, wrapping her arms around him.

“Please don’t leave,” she choked. “I’m so scared.”

Kissing her head, Keith rubbed her back tenderly. “I’m not leaving,” he cooed. He sent death glares to the people in the room. “I’m not leaving my wife.”

“Everyone but the midwife get out,” ordered Allura.

“But your highness-!”

“I said OUT!” Sparks of magenta fizzled around the empress. She lifted her arm, creating a sphere of magic from her hand. Everyone ran from the room, Garrett being the first to exit the area. All but Keith and a spooked midwife were left alone.

Keith removed his armor and set it aside, leaving only his soft under garments before returning to Allura’s side. Her breathing had eased. She seemed calm and beautiful, only wearing a loose-fitting white dress that reached above her hips. “Are you in pain?”

Allura leaned her head against her lover’s shoulder. Keith held her hand. “Not anymore.”

“How do you feel?” He caressed her large belly, smiling when he felt a kick. No matter how many times he felt his child, the excitement never got old.

Tears rolled down the empress’ face. “Better.”

The two were silent for a long while, doing nothing but enjoying one another’s company. Was this how Altean births were supposed to feel like? The midwife smiled inwardly as she gave the two their privacy leaving the room to gather more towels and blankets.

Allura was the first to break their peaceful silence. “I want you to name our baby.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But-”

“You said I was your wife.” Allura groaned softly as she shifted into a more comfortable position. She continued to hold his hand, bringing it against her beating chest.

Keith couldn’t help but grin at her remark. “I have the perfect name.”

“Keith.”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

His voice broke, “I love you.”

There was some pain and a few instances where Allura wasn’t sure what she was doing, yet something inside her said that everything was going to be alright. The fear she felt for those grueling vargas when Roland and the other people present was gone. There was no fear, only anticipation and high hopes for the future royal issue. Keith did not leave her side as she pushed and grunted, words of encouragement from both her lover and midwife flooding her ears.

It did not take as long as the two would think it would last. The midwife had Keith assist with welcoming the infant. It was a gentle continuous flow of his quintessence passing through the baby’s body throughout the entire labor process, ending with a small buzz as it was drawn out into Keith’s hands finally born.

Keith wept when he held his daughter. Ten fingers, ten toes. Pink markings under her eyes. Completely bald. Pointy double lobed ears like her father once had.

She was beautiful.

Fala was beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He should have followed his nose on this one.

Then again, Keith wasn’t sure which ship was the right one to stow away into. Using his logic, Keith figured a bigger ship meant it would be easier to hide, and perhaps go to Altea since it would carry more supplies. Sound logic.

Too bad it was far from the truth.

Keith hid inside the cargo bay. He was exhausted from meditating in that lone room for so long and fell asleep. A rough shake alarmed him, reflexively sending his fist into the soft abdomen of an Altean, sending him flying across the room. That’s how he found himself pinned down and half-asleep, eyes rolling back from his fatigue.

“Where did you come from?” asked an Altean in armor.

“Daibazaal,” Keith slurred. A swift slap to the face didn’t do much to wake him up. He was used to this sort of treatment back as a slave to the Blade of Marmora.

“Why are you here?” The man grabbed Keith by his hair and took a hard look at the teen. “Are you even Galra?”

Keith slowly gazed at the Altean, eyes still glazed with slumber. He snapped his slacked jaw tight, feeling the drool dribble down his chin. “I’m Altean-”

“Don’t lie!” growled one of the men holding him down.

Keith struggled against the men and managed to free his right arm. “Let me finish!” He glared at the man holding onto his hair. “Let go of my fucking hair or I’ll break your arm.”

The man’s expression was blank, almost calculating. He released the boy’s hair and signaled for the others to let him go. Kneeling, he asked, “What’s the other half?”

Eyes full of fire, Keith continued to glare at the man. “Romulan.”

The Altean man laughed jovially, patting Keith’s head before running his hand over the hair. “That explains your arrogance!” He ruffled his hair. “And the dark hair!”

“And that strength,” groaned the man Keith had injured, clutching onto his belly.

“What brought you to Daibazaal?”

Carefully, Keith stood up from the floor, thinking how he would reply. Saying the wrong thing may have him taken back to Daibazaal, or worse being jutted out into space. While a quick death didn’t seem all too bad, Keith was not about to give up on finding his way to the Altean military as his payback against the Galra. There was also the small hope that he would one day meet his precious savior, but he would have to work hard and stand out in order to get close to a princess.

“I was a slave,” his voice barely above a whisper. His dark eyes told a story of cruelty and pain. Keith pulled back his hair, turning his head to show his damaged ears, and repeated the same motion for the other side. One of the Alteans flinched, while another tsked in pity. “I want to join the Altean military.”

“Why don’t you go back to Romulus?”

“I was raised by my Altean father. I know nothing about Romulus.”

“Your father-”

“He’s dead,” Keith interrupted. “My mother abandoned us when I was younger. I have no interest in her or her home planet. Please…” His voice cracked. Tears rolled down his cheeks in a final attempt to persuade the Alteans. Perhaps they would have mercy on him?

Please don’t be like the Galra.

“…I just want to go home.”

 

Though he was unable to go to Altea, Keith was sent to a military base on one of its moons. Keith figured it was a good start. A moon meant there would be shuttles going back to the home planet. He would be able to finally see his father’s home and maybe find his other family there. Perhaps he could even catch a glimpse at the princess? Maybe her gaze would lock onto his from a long distance, and maybe she would smile at him too.

That would be a dream come true!

Many of the recruits talked about Princess Allura while at the mess hall or at the barracks. According to some of them, the princess liked to travel with the king and meet various aliens from different worlds. One guy claimed she visited the military bases to meet the cadets to which the others scoffed and he was a quiznaking liar, punching his arm for the misinformation.

“A princess isn’t going to see a bunch of loser cadets,” snorted one.

“Yeah, if anything we’d be lucky if General Hys bothered to land on this moon.”

Gossip was common, and weeding out what was true or false proved to be difficult as Keith was unfamiliar with the Altean culture. But the general disposition of the princess seemed to be a constant. Everyone swore Allura was kind and her smile radiated like the sun. Males and some females swooned over her beauty and grace. Her intelligence was always rated as “above average” and with that knowledge she would become a great ruler just like her father, King Alfor.

Keith was happy to hear that Allura was beloved by her people, no, his people. Even though he was only eight years old, he knew right from the beginning the princess was a special person to him. There were many pretty Galra girls he had seen at school before his father’s murder, but none of them had made him feel like the princess had. When he smelled Allura, he felt like all his problems disappeared. A warm, welcoming sensation enveloped his senses. He felt happy and safe, almost as if he were flying among the heavens. And when he saw her face to face, it was fireworks. The happiest, fluffiest, gushiest fireworks. His heart beat so fast, Keith was afraid it would leap out of his mouth if he spoke. Not that he would have minded. From that very moment, Keith was willing to give his heart, body, and soul to this wonderful person.

He couldn’t help it.

This girl was meant to be his bride.

Her touch was so sweet and gentle. Bright blue eyes sparkling as she swept her fingers against his dark hair. She even complimented it! And it was the cutest voice to boot!

So when he bluntly asked her to be his, he really wanted to hear her answer. All he remembered was a cute gasp and her reddening cheeks before his mother snatched him away. He managed to look back at the girl he fell madly in love with, absolutely thrilled that her hand was reaching out towards him.

And she saved him from himself.

Falling into despair, Keith was prepared to end his life. A slave to an organization who loathed his existence and forced him to murder was not a life worth living. There was no ray of light. All of it had been extinguished by the Galra. Anyone he became close to died in the arena, or was sold off to another cruel person for their own sick enjoyment. Making friends was a fool’s errand. Despite how much he craved friendship and company, Keith had been hurt far too many times to allow himself to become attached. It was the only way he survived and held off the suicidal thoughts for so many years. If he had no one to love, their death would not weigh heavy on his soul.

He was wrong though. It did weigh heavily on soul, all the brutality, death, and loneliness. Just as he was ready to join his father in the afterlife, the smell of Allura stopped him dead on his tracks. It wasn’t exactly her smell, yet it was similar.

The memory of her innocent smile and affection gave him strength to live on. In the darkness, it became his light.

Allura was his hope, and Keith would always be grateful to her. They may never meet again, yet Keith was okay with that knowledge. As long as he could remember her, he would remember his life was precious. Living hurts; it’s a fact. But finding those precious moments and holding them close to one’s heart was worth living. He will protect Allura in his own way, and he will make more beautiful memories to cherish.

You made me realize that, my princess.

Thinking about Allura certainly made the ordeals at the military base tolerable. However…

He was bored?

Was that right?

Yes.

Keith was definitely bored with the Altean training. Not that he didn’t learn a thing from their combat training, but it was slow, sloppy, and inefficient. If any of the commanding officers were in the Marmora arenas, they would be slaughtered in a matter of ticks. His boredom manifested as petulant restlessness during practice. His instructors would berate him for using excessive force or his overall pessimistic attitude with the instructions.

If he was to be trained to be a solider, why should he have to hold back so much? The cadets won’t learn if they kept their handicaps on and didn’t push themselves to their full potential. How do they expect to protect their home if they were instructed to hold their punches?

“It’s stupid,” Keith spat. “How is Mirey going to learn if she’s afraid to hurt me?”

“You telling her to quit being a coward and to “kick me as hard as you can in the balls” isn’t helping either!”

“With the way you’re teaching,” Keith clenched his teeth and fists, “she wouldn’t last a varga out in the battlefield!”

“This isn’t a battlefield, cadet: this is sparring! Don’t you understand what that is?”

No, he did not. “You wouldn’t last a varga either.”

“You are on cleaning duty for the rest of the movement!”

Keith had found himself scrubbing toilets and missing out on valuable training time almost as much as him standing in front of a probationary panel.

“You know Keith,” said a small Altean teen watching him as he mopped the floors. “You really need to reel yourself back. I know you’re Romulan and everything, but it wouldn’t hurt if you channeled some of your Altean-ness. Maybe the instructors would go easy on you, ya know?

He shrugged. “I don’t care, Sidron. You and I both know that the way they teach is too watered down.”

“Yeah,” Sidron quietly agreed as he rubbed his forearms and tugged at his sleeves, overstretching them to cover the skin up to his hands. It was a nervous tic he developed since childhood. He didn’t have to say anything for Keith to immediately figure out he came from an abusive home. Keith could tell from his weary eyes that Sidron had seen just as much horror as he had.

And Keith appreciated him for his sincerity and company. Same with Mirey. She was an Altean mixed with a non-Alteanoid species. She was abnormally tall for an Altean, and her skin was almost white, with various stitch-like creases running across her body. Her hands were Altean-like but had four large digits instead of five. Mirey’s face had bright green Altean marks under her large pitch-black eyes, which she covered with her long silver hair.

Mirey often got in trouble for keeping her hair loose, with the threat of having her silky tresses cut always looming as the instructors reminded her to fix it whenever they saw her. Keith resolved that issue by braiding her hair every morning, tucking in her whip-like antenna in the braid. He left her long bangs alone as Mirey had begun to cry when he suggested they be put aside the first time he groomed her.

“Where did you learn to do this?” she asked one day.

“Back in Daibazaal,” he replied, “there was a slave with long black hair-”

“Your hair is black.”

Keith smiled, “It is, but that slave wasn’t me. She was a Galra-Romulan mix-”

“You’re a Romulan too.”

“And Altean like you,” he corrected, carefully incorporating her antenna into the braid. “She liked her hair to be long, which in Romulus is something they don’t do, but anyway, having long hair was dangerous as it made her an easy target, yet she continued to fight. It was… admirable actually. So one day I helped her with keeping her hair together. Eventually I got better and learned how to braid.”

“Can you teach me?”

“Of course.” Tying the last bit, Keith fluffed up the top to hide her flat ears per her usual preference. “All done.”

With a quick brush at her bangs, Mirey turned to look at Keith. “How do I look?”

“You look beautiful,” he smiled. “You always are.”

 

 

“It’s been two phoebs and she’s still so… bald!” Allura rubbed her infant daughter’s head in morbid fascination. “Why is she so bald?”

Keith shrugged and continued to rock his child as she sucked on his bare shoulder. He found that letting his daughter nibble and slobber all over his shoulder significantly calmed her down. The drool was annoying, but it beat having Fala fuss about. Keith had tried to use a soft cloth before, but it only made Fala cry and fidget until he removed it. He continued to try every so often until he gave up and let Fala have her way with his shoulder which she happily complied with.

As far as Fala’s hair went, well, there had been no hair. Not a single follicle of hair had grace her soft head. Keith didn’t mind at all. He found her baldness adorable, often rubbing his hand around it like a crystal ball. Allura, however, wasn’t too happy about it, though she’d recant her displeasure when she touched Fala’s bald head and smothered it with a flurry of kisses.

The truth of her anxiety had been about the Innocents Ceremony. Growing up, Allura had been to many of these blessings. She was excited to finally witness her child be blessed by the holy light. Sitting next to Keith, she grasped her daughter’s hand giving it a soft peck and sighed. “It’s just that I’m worried she won’t get to be blessed by the light.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“You need hair for the light to work.”

“Allura.” Keith’s face fell into confusion. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

She rolled her eyes, “It’s not stupid. It’s just how the chandelier works for the Innocents Ceremony. You present a baby with hair at an alter and the chandelier blesses the child with a light.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“I don’t make the rules, Keith.” Allura pulled Fala from Keith’s hold, nestled her against her chest. “The chandelier functions with hair on the baby’s head. It doesn’t let out a light if the baby is bald.”

Fala cooed as Allura stroked her ear, and yawned against her mother’s neck. “Hair is an important part of an Altean’s identity. Aside from keeping your head warm, it is a sign of health and beauty. Depending on how you style it, it tells a lot about the region you hail from. Same with the color.”

Allura closed her eyes as she cuddled her daughter and kissed her forehead. Using her cheek, she smoothed her baby’s head, sighing with love and a tinge of worry. “Color is also a sign of beauty, but also distinguishes our family background. It’s a sign of our heritage, our history… There are so many variables to color, yet it overall means something special to the individual and the people around them.”

Opening her eyes, Allura looked at Keith. She reached for his hair, and tenderly pulled a lock of hair away from his eyes. “Your dark hair is rare in Altea. Some would be repulsed or confused by it, but not me.” A smile. “It’s so stunning.”

Hot tears welled in his eyes. Allura wiped them with Fala’s soft cloth and kissed his temple. Those words had touched Keith's heart.

 

“You’re going to get reviewed again?” Sidron asked in concern, unconsciously stretching out his sleeves.

Keith shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”

“It is a big deal, Keith,” Mirey muttered, eyes looking down. “Commander Larmina is going to be a part of that panel.”

Sidron jumped. “W-wait, how do you know that!?”

“I heard the girls talking about it in the showers. One of them has an older sister in the higher ranks.”

“Not even going to pretend I know who she is,” Keith scratched his head and yawned. “She can’t be all that bad.”

“Commander Larmina is really scary,” Sidron chimed. “She’s from House Smythe in the Cryo region. It’s right in the middle of the Eastern Chemara Plains.”

“Is it?” Mirey rubbed her chin. “I didn’t know Cryo was that close to the ECP. I thought it was up north.”

“Nah I’m from up north. There’s no Cryo there.”

“Guys-”

“It’s not in the west where I’m from.”

“Guys-”

“I’m positive it’s in the ECP.” Sidron reached in his pocket for his pad. “It’s in the map.”

“I can’t believe I forgot,” Mirey leaned over Sidron to see.

“GUYS!”

“What?” they groaned in unison.

“I have no idea what you guys are talking about!”

“Oh,” Mirey giggled nervously, “you weren’t raised in Altea. Well it’s not a big deal. Cryo is just a small area in Altea, and that’s where Larmina is from.”

“That means nothing to me though,” Keith held up his hands. “You made it seem like I should be shitting my pants over this lady.”

“Well you should!” Sidron frowned, handing his pad to Mirey so she could see the map of Altea. It almost slipped from the slippery fabric covering his hands. “Commander Larmina should be general by now but she refuses to change her rank. She’s just as deadly as General Hys. And any time she comes to this base, people disappear.”

“Wait really?” gasped Mirey.

“Yes!”

“You haven’t even been here for that long,” rolling his eyes, Keith ruffled Sidron’s blue hair. “How do you even know all this?”

The Altean swatted Keith’s hands away. “I listen to people.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll take it as a challenge.”

“You’re so full of yourself.” He crossed his arms and glared at Keith. “Typical Romulan.”

“Let’s not fight,” Mirey returned the pad to Sidron, careful not to let it fall. She looked up at Keith with pensive eyes. “All I hope is for Keith to not get expelled.”

 

On the day of his review, Keith stood in front of a panel of six commanding officers, one of which he did not recognize. That had to be Commander Larmina. She was the typical height of an Altean woman, yet her posture and intimidating aura made her appear a foot taller. There was a notable amount of distance between her and the other officers sitting next to her.

Sidron was right: Commander Larmina was a scary woman.

“Cadet Keith.” Larmina was the first to speak. Her voice was not as deep as Keith had thought it would be. “This is your fourth review in under six months- pardon me- phoebs.”

Keith clenched his fists, then relaxed them. Sweat dripped down his neck. He swallowed hard under her, looking anywhere but her eyes. Her heavy gaze made him feel more nervous than he ever had with any of his superiors. There was a look to her that made him feel naked, vulnerable. It wasn’t until he took a good look at them when he had realized why. Her bright blue eyes, though stunning, had the same dead expression as Sidron’s.

And his.

It was like looking at a mirror.

“Tell me why you deserve to remain in this school.” She casually swiped at her pad. “If it were up to me you would have been expelled at the first review.”

Looking at his feet, Keith stuttered, “B-because…”

No, stop that sniveling behavior Keith! Man the fuck up and stand your ground. You’ve gone through too much to get your ass expelled.

With a renewed strength, Keith glared at Larmina. “Because I am not some spoiled brat who can’t fight his way out of a sack. I can fight. I can think. Your program here sucks, and you’re only sending these people to their death!”

The other instructors were fuming, scandalized by his disrespect towards the legendary officer. They were used to Keith giving lip to them, but they didn’t figure he would be this brash. What made matters even more awkward was the devilish smirk on Larmina’s face.

Fuck her trying to trip him out.

“I didn’t escape Daibazaal only to be locked up in a playground then told you can’t play here anymore!” Keith let out a Galran growl. “I want to defend Altea! This is my father’s home and I will not stop until I meet my goal!”

Lamina quirked up an eyebrow, the smug smile not leaving her face. “What is your goal?”

“To make more memories.” It was Keith’s turn to grin. “And to see my love again.”

“Pack your bags,” Larmina rested her chin over her tented fingers. “You are dismissed from this base.”

 

Another phoeb and Fala had still not grown any hair. Again, Keith did not mind, however, this time he was bit concerned for Allura. She was not behaving any differently but he could tell how important the ceremony was for her. Initially he figured she was trying to show off her leadership and Altean-ness by getting the blessing as soon as possible. Though his recent run in on her private playtime with Fala had quickly changed his mind.

He caught her one afternoon in the garden making a juniberry crown for herself and Fala. Allura placed the tiny crown on Fala’s head and squealed in delight.

“You are so beautiful, my darling!” Cupping her daughter’s cheeks, she planted kisses all over her face and nuzzled her nose against Fala’s.

Fala responded with a happy babble and honking her mother’s nose.

Allura laughed and kissed her hand. “That’s right, Fala. You are beautiful.” She reached for a flower and bopped the delicate petals on the infant’s nose. “This is the juniberry, darling. It is the most exquisite flower in Altea.” The empress inhaled its scent then held it near Fala. “Smell this flower. It’s unlike anything you have ever smelled.”

Noticing Fala was about to put the flower in her mouth, Allura pulled it away with a giggle. “That’s not for eating!” She adjusted the flower crown, letting it nestle between Fala’s Galra-like ears. “You know darling, I never thought I’d be where I am today.”

Fala responded by sucking her thumb.

“It’s been a rather interesting ordeal with your father, but I’m glad it happened. I can’t imagine not having the two of you in my life.” Her hand found itself caressing the top of Fala’s head. “As long as you get some hair before your first birthday, your father and I can still see your Innocents Ceremony.”

The infant princess looked up at her mother with sparkling sky-blue eyes.

“I…” Allura’s voice cracked. “I just want to know what my father felt when he held me near the alter and I was bathed by the light. I bet…” She wiped her eyes before the tears could fall. “I bet he was so proud.”

Allura lifted Fala and sat her on her lap. “But it’s okay. If you stay bald beyond that time, I’ll be okay. I’m proud of you no matter what!”

He couldn’t stand listening anymore. “Allura?”

“Keith?!” Allura startled. She held up Fala, and hid her face behind the baby, who was happily sucking her entire hand. “How long were you there?! This is my personal playtime with Fala!”

Noticing her father, Fala began to cry and flail about. Allura pouted as she relinquished her child to Keith, muttering under her breath how he had to come an interrupt her special time.

Keith reached out to Allura, placing his palm against her face and kissed her lips. He was sorry for thinking she was doing this for her people’s approval. The truth was, despite everything the couple had gone through, they were still not being completely honest with one another. But he was afraid to tell her, and he had his suspicions that she already knew.

Maybe she’s just afraid as I am, he thought as Allura leaned on his shoulder, and reached for his hand. He squeezed it assuredly before escorting his favorite ladies back to the castle.

 

Mirey was devastated about the news, but nonetheless helped Keith gather his things. Her bangs were plastered against her forehead, soaked with her tears. She apologized to Keith for crying so much.

“Don’t be sorry.” He reached up to dry off her tears. “Um, you’re helping so that’s okay?”

The girl let out a chuckle, rubbing her large eyes with her forearm. Keith was so bad at this sort of thing! She could tell he was struggling with telling her something comforting, and tried anyway. For that she appreciated his efforts. It wasn’t the best, but it the sentiment was there in its awkward Keith way.

Mirey hugged him. “I’ll miss you, Keith.”

“I’ll miss you too,” and returned the warm hug. It had been years since he last held a person like this.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t kick you in the balls like you told me to.”

The two looked at each other and burst out laughing. They laughed until their stomachs hurt, then they laughed some more. Keith wiped the tears from his eyes and saw Sidron leering at him from the corner of the room.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Mirey huffed.

Sidron responded with a cold shoulder, rubbing his hands over his arms while pulling at his sleeves. The crew neckline had come a V-neck.

Keith threw the rucksack with his belongings over his shoulder. As he came closer towards Sidron, the smaller Altean ran off into the hallway. Loud steps echoing towards the stairs without a sign of looking back.

He was not going to stop him. There was no point in doing so. If Sidron wanted to never see him again, Keith could respect that. It was his fault for being such a stubborn ass and fighting with the instructors. If he could follow the rules or at least not be so rough with his sparring perhaps they would have given him another chance?

No way in hell would Keith have been able to hold that in. Even with the Blade of Marmora, Keith rebelled in his own way, usually in the form of maiming or killing. They had it coming, and so did these instructors. It was miracle Keith had not resorted to physical violence with any of his Altean instructors.

And he didn’t listen to Sidron either. He warned him about Commander Larmina, and Keith responded in a cocksure manner, believing his talent was enough to get him to fly by the review without any major repercussions. Now he was leaving the base, no longer allowed to ever reenlist because of his poor behavior.

“I guess this is what he meant by disappearing,” he sighed, shoulders sinking as he approached the shuttle to Altea. At least he could find Mirey again in the future. He hoped Sidron wasn’t completely out of the question. The silver lining in all of this was that he was finally going to see his father’s home and call it his own. Keith didn’t know what he could do to earn a living, but he shrugged the worry off, and knew he could figure something out. Living for a year in harsh deserts of Daibazaal was enough experience to last him a lifetime.

Stepping into the small ship, Keith tensed when he saw Commander Larmina sitting in one of the seats. Two soldiers came right behind and forced him to sit across from the orange-haired commander before settling between Keith. The ship took flight.

A cold sweat ran down his neck, sending uncontrollable shivers down his body. The consequences for his actions finally showing its true end. Keith tried his best to calm the trembling.

So this is it? This is now I’m going to die?

“You and I,” she started, “are not so different.” She crossed her legs, pulling a small box from her pocket. “We are both Altean, albeit your heritage is questionable.”

Keith gulped.

“You’re not Romulan,” she stated. “You have the arrogance, but there are plenty of other species who are known for that. Same with your hair.” Larmina looked over, tilting her head back and forth. “It’s fascinating. Truly a rare color in Altea. But I’m not here to talk about your hair. Well, perhaps…”

“I don’t understand.”

“The point is I don’t care about your DNA. I don’t even care if you weren’t part Altean. All I know is that your eyes tell me everything. I look for those who share the same eyes as me. And I know you know what I’m talking about.”

“…”

“You’ve seen horrors most will never experience.”

“Why me?”

“Why you and not the other boy with the same eyes?”

“I didn’t say-”

“I don’t give a quiznak!” the commander snapped. “Unlike him, you actually can fight. And not just fight, but you know how to kill things quickly. You know the consequences of drawing out a fight for too long.”

“How do you even know about me?”

Larmina smirked. “My organization has eyes and ears all around the military. When they see potential, they inform me. I’ve seen the footage of your work. You are a born killer.”

“I hate killing,” Keith growled through gritted teeth.

“Make no mistake,” she frowned, crossing her arms. “I don’t like the act myself, but it is the only thing I can do to protect the crown.”

The crown?

Opening the box, Commander Larmina revealed two pills: a black and white pill. “The black pill is a poison that will kill you in less than a dobosh.”

There was no way Keith was going to leave this place alive after hearing everything she had said. “And the white one?”

“It dyes your hair white.”

Keith’s face fell. “What?”

“Oh,” she tapped her forehead, “and you essentially join the Order of the White Lion.”

“Are you going to explain what that is?”

Larmina shrugged. “Should I? I thought your goal was to make more memories and find your lover?"

Biting his lip, Keith looked at the box. The answer seemed obvious. Keith was not ready to die. Whatever Larmina was involved with appeared to be a part of a large conspiracy or secret. Or both. Keith almost wanted to laugh at how he got roped into this situation. Die or join a crazy cult? Just his damned luck.

At least with the white option he could go back and find Allura.

Keith looked at the two soldiers and realized they wore masks. The soldier to his left was about the size of an average Altean man. The one to his right was enormous, easily twice the size of a Galra adult. He had three fingers, two-toed feet, and one long prehensile tail. If he tried to escape, the big guy would squat him like a fly. Those large hands could choke him without even trying.

He reached for the white pill to the approval of Larmina. Her annoying grin got even more irritating when she offered him water to swallow the pill. Keith accepted it, but not because she suggested it. He was thirsty after almost having a heart attack from the disappearance scare.

Looking out the window, Keith could no longer see Altea. “We’re not going to Altea, are we?”

“You will in due time,” she said patiently, folding her hands onto her lap. “For now you will train in our secret base in Arus.” She pointed at the large man to Keith’s right. “Antok here will be your mentor. I believe he will bring you closer to your maximum potential. You will make a fine knight, young squire.”

“I thought I was banned from the military.”

“This isn’t the military, Keith,” she laughed. “You belong to something far greater than the military.”

Tiny sparks tingled all throughout his head. It wasn’t painful, but the sensation alarmed Keith. Looking at the window, his hair was transforming as the black converted into white from root to the ends.

“You belong to King Alfor now.”

Chapter Text

Becoming an assassin was a lot harder than Keith had ever thought it could be. Unlike his previous life in the arena, aside from surviving, an assassin had to be stealthy and oddly enough have highbrow knowledge. Back during his years of enslavement, Keith only knew how to fight. The more savage he was, the better the outcome. If he were flashy while still maintaining brutality, an extra helping of gruel was most certain.

It had helped he was both quick on his feet and mind, yet it would not be enough for the standards the Order of the White Lion held for their knights. As a squire he had to rise above and prove he was a life worth saving. The benefit of knighthood was having special rank and privileges throughout planet Altea. Keith wouldn’t be able to wander into the Castle of Lions without permission, but anywhere else he could roam without any issue unless he was called for a mission. If he could become a knight, then perhaps Keith could finally meet Princess Allura again if at a glance.

All he had to do was pass the rigorous training. And though it was never said, Keith knew failure would mean exile or death.

On the first day, Keith was locked in a small bedroom with snacks. He spent most of the night staring at his white hair, pinching himself in hopes, and in fear, everything was a dream. He was almost certain he would wake up back in Daibazaal and be forced to fight against another creature, then later strapped down onto a gurney as the Blades healed his injuries against his will while a young mixed Galra bled to death in a pit. But it was real. Keith was far away from Daibazaal and the Blade of Marmora. And he was also far from Altea. Far away from Mirey and Sidron. Far, far away from Princess Allura.

He briefly wondered if becoming the property of King Alfor meant he would be able to see the king. Would he be able to meet Princess Allura? Did she know anything about the Order? Did he even have a chance to pass the Order’s trials?

The more he thought, the less tired he became. Keith scolded himself for staying awake throughout the night. Heart racing, mind going wild, exploring all scenarios and what he would do. If he had fallen asleep at some point, Keith was unsure as he felt perfectly awake.

In the following morning he was taken into a lounge where Commander Larmina and Antok were sitting. The two ceased their chatting as soon as Keith entered.

“You look wonderful with that white hair,” Larmina replied as she delicately sipped from her teacup. “It’s almost as if you’re already a knight.”

Keith sat across from the pair and shrugged.

“As a squire you have several requirements. I imagine you are illiterate?”

“I can read Galra just fine,” Keith scowled.

While the Blades did not teach him to read, Keith retained some literacy from his few years at school. However, the Blade did have a few reading materials primarily small propaganda books about Galra superiority and how other species were inferior. Not that they actively gave any intellectual stimulation to the slaves as they were beneath dirt. After a few attempts of stealing books, Keith simply stopped out of disappointment. As a child, he naively hoped the books contained adventure stories or a fairy tales like the books his mother loved to read right before his father’s murder. All it took was the first sentence of the fifth book he stole to give up on reading:

“The Alteans are masters at manipulation, parading their magical prowess, enforcing their way of life to others against their will, claiming it is in the name of peace while it is evident it is a thinly veiled lie to boast superiority and as such they cannot be trusted: Alteans are a foul, evil race that must be exterminated.”

Strong, complicated words didn’t do much for Keith’s understanding. Yet he knew evil and he knew foul, and he definitely knew what exterminate meant. Daddy had to die, and therefore the Galra killed him. And because he was part Altean, Keith had to die.

But he refused to die.

“And your Altean?”

“Bad. I can barely speak it let alone read it.”

Larmina hummed, taking another sip. “It’s rather disappointing to see that the Altean military continues to keep their candidates stupid.” She sighed into her cup. “I guess that’s how you get people to do what you want.” A brief shrug. “Whatever. That’s their problem to deal with.”

Antok nodded.

“Anyway,” she beamed. “I already have faith in your ability to kill. I’m fairly sure you’ll learn how to kill without making a slaughterhouse out of it. That’s the problem with squires who come from your sort of background.” Larmina waved her hand dismissively. “No matter! That can be easily fixed.”

“So I gotta learn how to read?”

“And write of course. An illiterate assassin is a useless assassin. I don’t expect you to speak fluent Altean, but you should be able to at least read and write. Same with the Common Language but it’s not so hard since it’s a derivative of Altean. You have no excuse to fail with that one.” Larmina winked. “You are also expected to have other skills such as basic computer skills as well troubleshooting equipment. Also weapons. You need to effectively use a variety of weapons, but that’s also easy and expected for the job. I’ll tell you what though: what’s not easy is our course in etiquette.”

“You’re also expected to learn how to dance,” said Antok.

Keith’s face fell. “What?”

“Oh yes thank you for reminding me of that one, Antok!” Larmina jumped excitedly while shaking Antok’s arm. “You can’t just go to places and not dance! It’s a very important skill especially with undercover assignments. You pass these requirements, you can become a knight.”

Unable to fully process the information, Keith remained silent. It was all daunting. Dancing? Reading? Fixing junk? Wasn’t killing all the same? Why did he have to learn all these things? Was he expected to wear a suit and eat with utensils?

Sensing his confusion, Larmina patted Antok’s hand with a soft smile. Antok turned to his superior and grasped her against his gigantic hand before letting go and giving his attention to Keith.

“I’ll be the one to train you.”

“I’m sure you and Antok will have a lot in common,” added Larmina. “It’s why I entrusted him to train you, Keith.”

“…Dancing,” he muttered with shoulders hunched, unable to look at anything but his feet.

“And I’m going to ask you to take off your pants.”

Normally, if any individual were asked this, they would freak out and protest. Yet this wasn’t a strange request or situation for Keith. In Daibazaal, yes, it would have alarmed Keith, especially in the barracks where he stayed a slave. In Altea it was like asking someone how their day went. Or at least that’s what Keith had gathered when he entered the military. Alteans have an eerie obsession with seeing genitalia, specifically foreign one. The moment the officers and his fellow cadets knew of his heritage they asked to see it. It brought up a lot of awkward encounters in the showers, but after a while Keith became desensitized to their gawking.

This never stops being weird though.

Giving a neutral hum, Larmina inspected Keith’s member without touching. “Definitely not Romulan,” with a nod. “Sort of an Altean glans…which I suppose is what I’d call normal. Everything else is… hrm… Well it’s settled: I can’t let you do honey pots.”

“Honey…pots?”

“You’ll learn soon enough,” Larmina returned to her seat. “Now go back to your room and put on the training clothes provided. Antok has much to teach you in the upcoming months, so we can’t waste any time! Off you go!”

“But where do I go afterwards?”

“Oh yeah,” Larmina playfully tapped her chin. “You go to the training grounds. One of the attendants will take you there. Now shoo, shoo!”

 

 

 

Halfway through the usual naptime, Fala cried in her bassinet. The caretaker checked her diaper and found it to be dry. It was not a problem as there were other things she could do to soothe the irritable princess. Nothing worked. Diaper was dry. Pacifier and bottle were thrown to the floor. Toys got chewed on, only to be ignored. Attempting to carry the princess only caused Fala to struggle and wail louder.

Unable to calm the baby, the caretaker paced around the room, biting her nails in hopes to get an idea. Princess Fala was rarely this inconsolable. She was jolly and playful. A normal baby like the others she had taken care of before. She checked for any bites or injuries but found none.

“What am I going to do?” She scrolled down her communicator to see her list of contacts. If the empress found her child in such a state she might fire her or send her to the dungeons! Yet thankfully Empress Allura was going to be gone for most of the day discussing who knows what, but that didn’t matter because what if something bad was happening to the princess and it would be all her fault!

The princess coughed, disrupting the nanny from her train of thought. “Is there someone you want, sweetie?” She rubbed Fala’s head. “I can’t get your mother, maybe?”

“Daa!” Fala sobbed, smothering her face against a small pillow in despair. “Daa daa!

Eyes widened. “That’s right!”

Less than five doboshes, the champion burst into Fala’s room, out of breath and tearing off his armor and undershirt. The caretaker squeaked as Keith flung his armor without a care, knocking down décor and figurines from their perches.

“I got you Fala,” he crooned at his child, rocking her slowly. Fala’s cries lessened as she sucked and teethed at her father’s bare shoulder.

“Champion! Look!” the nanny pointed at Fala’s head.

A small patch of light purple hair grew at the back of her head. Tiny, but it sufficed.

 

 

 

“Months?”

“We use a different measurement for time here in the Order,” replied Antok. “I’ll explain it later.”

Antok removed his mask, letting out a sigh of relief as the cool air entered his lungs. Keith wasn’t too sure what to think about this man. The man was obviously Galra by the purple skin and yellow eyes; however he was too large and had other unfamiliar features such as his looming stature, prehensile tail and protruding under-bite. Most Galra with overbites had purple spikes from their upper lips or their upper incisors exposed. It was uncommon to see a Galra with their lower teeth sticking out, but Antok had that.

Jaw aside, the other feature which Keith noticed were his long white sideburns which puffed at his bottom cheek.

“We’ve met before.”

Keith squinted before noticing the cropped ears, looking away then back again. “I…I don’t remember.”

“It was brief.” Antok scratched his sideburns. “Thanks to you I was able to run away from the Blade.”

Keith jolted.

“I imagine your punishment must have been severe,” he nodded. “Though I can’t comprehend my uncle caring about my escape.”

“Kolivan is your uncle!?”

“He is my mother’s brother, and as you can see he didn’t care much for her choice in partner.” The large man pulled up his shirt to reveal scars from the frequent whippings he endured. Rolling his left pant sleeve, Antok stroked a large burn scar on his calf, and on his right were multiple bite marks from a large beast. “You noticed the ears.”

He coughed uncomfortably, the resemblance to Kolivan sending shivers down his spine.  “Yeah.”

“No one here cares about your past,” he stated as he adjusted his clothing. “Just as long as you pledge your allegiance to Altea and the crown nothing else matters.” Noting the silence Antok continued. “Was Larmina’s request strange?”

Face turning red, Keith looked away, “Uh, well, I was asked that a lot,”

“I can’t used to it either,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ve been here for several years and it still feels like the first time for me.”

“Alteans are weird,” muttered Keith.

“I’d much rather be among Galra. The customs make sense at least.”

With a roll of his eyes, Keith scoffed at the remark. “Yeah sure.”

“It’s taken me time to accept many things, Keith. All the death, anguish, who I am, why all this happened to me. Some I haven’t accepted, some I refuse to accept, some I probably will never know it’s a thing to accept and maybe I’ll never know it ever.” Antok paused. “And I can’t tell you what to feel or to accept anything. I just hope at some point in your life you can finally to come to terms with your Galra heritage.”

“Tch, whatever.”

“Being angry all the time was a waste of time for me,” Antok growled. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if stayed the same. I wouldn’t be with h-” He paused again, taking a deep breath before continuing. “No matter.  I will teach you all you need to know how to become a knight. And you do what you have to do to achieve it. And perhaps one day you may even come to find your love.”

Unable to look him in the eye, Keith stared at Antok’s large feet. “You, you think I can find her?”

“It’s possible. But don’t be alarmed if you find another.”

“Another?” Keith sniffed his arm a few times. “Is that even possible?”

“Of course it is,” he chuckled. “Galra may be monogamous but we’re not tied to only one. We’re attracted by scent, but they may not be ‘The One,’ as other cultures call it. I personally don’t care. You have to be Galra to understand what it means since it’s instinctual and can’t be put into words. Honestly for me it’s about your luck with encountering someone with a great smell.”

“I…I don’t want that.”

“I’d be lying if I said I don’t sympathize with you,” Antok patted Keith’s shoulder, “but right now you’re being dramatic. Go mope in your room.” He lightly shoved Keith back. “I don’t want Larmina to think all I’ve been doing is make you cry.”

“Maybe I will,” he muttered.

“It’s not all that bad.” Antok shrugged. His face lit up with realization. “I forgot to mention something.”

“Yeah?”

“Ranks. We have them here. Just know you only answer to three people, each having more rank than others.”

Keith quirked his eyebrow incredulously. “Is someone gonna bully me or something?”

“No. It’s a matter of safety. Knights have missions only they and their leaders are privy to. In order to prevent any interference from other knights or enemy intel, a knight on a mission is given the names of those he or she can only obey. You’re a squire so it’s not that complicated, but you can only take orders from me, Larmina, and Stride. Larmina ranks higher than me, and Stride ranks highest.”

“I see…”

“King Alfor has the ultimate say on anything. If he tells you to stop, then you stop. It doesn’t matter what orders you were given, you do as Alfor says.”

“Makes sense since he’s the big boss, right?”

Antok nodded. “There are other people within the Order who are almost at the same level as Alfor, but you don’t have to worry about those people until you get a mission.”

“When do I start missions?”

“When you become a knight, which takes about over a year or so to become assuming you’re not an idiot.”

“Pft, I can get by with my fists alone just fine.”

“I don’t doubt your fighting, squire. I doubt your education. If you can’t read Altean or waltz properly by the end of your training, you will take the vanta toxin.”

“Wait wait what?! You’re going to kill me if I can’t dance!?”

Antok stood silent.

“What the hell is wrong with you people!?”

“Start hitting the books.”

Without excusing himself, Keith stomped past Antok and stewed along the halls until he found his room. His hands began to bleed as he repeatedly punched the walls and throw any item he could find. By the time Keith stopped, he had sore fists and an explosion of pillow feathers.

“They’re all the same.”

 

 

Keith drudged into the small classroom, head low and books in hand. It had been three months since becoming a squire. In that amount of time Keith began to learn more about the Order of the White Lion from Antok. There were no squires for him to interact with though. Antok had mentioned his internship as a squire meant he could not speak or see any of them. Their identities were to remain anonymous. Only when Keith becomes a knight does he have the clearance to observe and train squires as well as intermingle with other knights.

That was fine and all, but only talking to Antok got boring very fast. Even as a slave Keith had other people he spoke to. Not that Antok was a terrible instructor, but he was relatively quiet and reserved unless spoken to or when he became frustrated at Keith. And he rarely talked about his experiences in Daibazaal. There was an unspoken rule between the two to never mention their time under the Blade of Marmora unless it was a comment in passing.  Keith didn’t mind it and neither did Antok and that was all they needed. The less they spoke the better.

Though if it were up to Keith he’d love to see Larmina pop in more often. The commander had only come to visit Keith two more times since the first assessment: one involved Larmina tapping a pad over Keith’s head for not paying attention to Antok’s lecture about the Altean alphabet, the second was for a dance lesson.  

Antok had no grace.

Perhaps for someone his stature and musculature he would be considered to be a delicate flower. But that’s not what Keith witnessed. He wasn’t too sure which planet would ever consider him dainty, but he knew it was neither Daibazaal nor Altea. Antok constantly stepped on his feet or used too much force in his movements causing Keith to trip or get dragged along like a rag doll. It didn’t help that Antok would huff and complain about Keith’s constant missteps or lack of rhythm which frustrated Keith to no end. How could anyone become a competent dancer when your instructor was as graceful as a yupper?

Just as Keith was recovering from another kicked shin, a soft gentle hand squeezed his shoulder and whisked him away from Antok’s hold. Blinking once, twice, three times, Keith realized Antok was dancing with a giggling Larmina. And it wasn’t half bad! There were only two occasions when Antok stepped on Larmina, but the commander neither winced nor groaned and continued to lead the waltz.

“One two three, one two three.” Larmina peeked at Antok’s large feet, then back to his eyes. “I know you haven’t forgotten. One two three.”

She received an annoyed sigh.

“Now don’t mope and teach him correctly, Antok,” she said in between a spin. She reached for Keith’s hand and spun herself, leading her new dance partner around the training room. Antok watched on the side.

Under Larmina’s direction, Keith constantly stared at his feet. The air suddenly felt thick. He began to sweat, feeling a little intimidated by the woman’s presence. Was it her presence? He didn’t manage to step or kick her, which was a good thing yet did nothing to boost his confidence. Unconsciously Keith found himself moving his hand away from Larmina’s hip and placed it onto her shoulder.

“Stop that!” she scolded, grasping Keith’s hand and guiding it back on her waist. “You need to pay attention to your hands. And pay attention to me! Loosen up, squire. You’re too stiff!”

“I… uh…”

“You’re supposed to feel the rhythm. Feel the music. Feel your partner! Just, I don’t know, move like how your heart guides you.”

“I don’t… wait what does that even mean?”

She rolled her eyes. “Just move like you’re with your love, squire.”

A single loud snap  of a whip echoed on the side.

Larmina glared over Keith’s shoulder.

Taking a deep breath, Keith’s tension began to ease up, and the thick, tense atmosphere dissipated. It had become easier to move and felt a swell of relief as his steps gained rhythm. Closing his eyes, he thought of Princess Allura and how she would react if he asked her to dance. Larmina’s features changed. Orange hair became a lustrous white, light skin converted to a deep, gorgeous mocha which highlighted bright blue-lavender eyes and pink markings. A blush graced her cheeks as Keith praised her for her dancing ability. He promised to take her across the universe to explore everything. To meet new people and eat exotic foods, but most of all to give her his life for bringing hope into his life.

Before he knew it, Keith was the one leading the dance.

 

 

A tall, rigid man with blue Altean marks entered the room unceremoniously. He glanced at Keith, and then nodded before setting the books he carried on the desk.

“Who are you?”

“Moi name is Stride,” he answered with a thick accent Keith had never heard. Before Keith could ask another question, Stride lifted his hand to silence him. “Antok cannot be ‘ere today as there has been… a rather delicate incident he needs to attend to. But no matter, I am ‘ere to take over yer studies for the day.”

“Delicate? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine.”

Keith rolled his eyes for what seemed like the hundredth time since joining the Order. “I was just asking.”

“Moi apologies,” Stride responded with a short bow. “I can’t tell ye everything ‘bout it. But jus know ye’ll get him back later. Maybe. I can’t make guarantees, ye know?”

Keith nodded hesitantly.

“So what has Antok taught ye? Can ye read Altean?”

“Kinda,” he shrugged. “I mean yeah but it’s not perfect. I don’t care about reading really.”

“Dun be such an ignorant arse,” Stride returned the eye roll. “Lemme guess: Antok isn’t much for conversation, aye?”

“It’s like talking to a wall who says things when it’s convenient. First day was okay but then he threatened me.”

“What he say?”

“That if I don’t pass I’ll be given that black pill and die.” Putting a hand over his mouth, Stride chuckled loudly. Keith frowned. “That’s not funny. I don’t want to die.”

Stride hugged his sides before letting out a soft snort. “I can’t believe ye fell for it. Didn’t Larmina tell ye anything?”

“No.”

“Antok?”

Keith clenched his fists. “No.”

“Looks like I’ve got quite a lot of ‘splaining to do it seems,” he sighed. “Alright, ask me anything. I’ll do what I can to clear up some mess, aye?”

“Anything?”

“I mean ye sound like yer confused ‘bout yer fate, squire. And ye won’t be able to pass yer exam if ye can’t even read Altean. I’m personally not worried ‘bout the way ye fight. Ye wouldn’t even be ‘ere if ye couldn’t handle a kerfuffle or fifty.”

“Okay…” he treaded light. Keith didn’t want to ask something big yet in case that would turn off his substitute. A few easy questions here and there, and maybe go for a bang would give him some answers.

As Keith began to ask, he noted there was not a hint of hesitation in Stride’s voice or demeanor. If there was something Stride could not say, he’d mention it. Otherwise it had been a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Antok didn’t mention too much of the Order’s histories or practices, but Stride willingly told him almost anything he wanted to know.

Dancing was a requirement for the Alteanoid members because of spy missions that didn’t involve stealth in the shadows but rather be in the fray. Most civilized worlds partook in dance for entertainment and for social events, therefore it was necessary to know in order to fit in and intermingle with the targets and others who may provide more information.

Honey pots are missions involving seduction. If it must lead into sex, then there are certain precautions a knight must take.

“Larmina said something about I can’t do them?”

Stride quirked an eyebrow. “…Drop your trousers.”

“This again,” Keith groaned as he stood up from his seat and dropped his pants.

“Oh it’s because ye have a non-Alteanoid penis,” Stride said in the most matter-of-fact way. “The head’s fine, but the rest is too distinct. Looks bumpy. Really easy to get identified basically. Ye don’t want yer cover blown or to get outed as a spy because someone said, ‘I recognize that cock!’ or ‘Be on the lookout for a lad with a double penis!’”

“Is alien dick really that similar?” he mumbled while putting his pants back up.

“Actually yes.”

“You’re joking.”

“It’s some phenomenon still being researched. Don’t ask me, I’m not a science man. Go look it up yerself if that’s the sort of thing that catches yer fancy.”

The Order of the White Lion had three handlers. The supreme leader is the current ruler of Altea, while the other two were select members from two ancient houses in Altea: Smythe and Gradam. Larmina hails from House Smythe and oversees recruitment, training, and sometimes takes part in missions as a communications guide. Other members of Smythe and Gradam do the same or have other jobs to maintain the Order.

The white hair is symbolic of the white lion and cannot be removed by natural means. If Keith wanted to go back to his normal hair color, he would have to dye it or figure out a way to reverse the whitening process since it was now encoded into his genetics. During missions which required mingling, Keith would have to dye his hair; however, under covert spy missions his hair would remain white, which would seem counter intuitive but Stride had assured Keith the properties of the white hair had a strange blending ability that tricked the eyes of most alien species.

The use of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years were used in the days of the Ancient Alteans as a unit of time. The Order uses these terms due to the lack of usage in the common tongue and as means to speak in code. A second is faster than a tick. Sixty seconds makes a minute, which is the equivalent to a dobosh. Hours are vargas. Days are quintants, which are 24 hours long instead of the usual 20 vargas in a quintant. Week is a movement, but instead of five quintants it’s seven days. Phoeb is a month, and the year is a deca-phoeb. It was a lot of memorization and calculations every member had to memorize by heart.

Antok’s threat turned out to be some sort of sick joke, which Stride laughed about again. Squires who do not pass get another chance, however if they fail those trials then their memory of the Order is erased and they are taken back to they came from.

“We may kill and we may have questionable methods, but we certainly are not unreasonable. This isn’t the black ops.” Stride tapped his temple in thought. “Which was a thing by the way. At least back in moi day. Alfor put a stop to it since it was so redundant and had a lot of mismanagement compared to the Order.”

“Alfor…” He was the man Keith wanted to meet most of all. Not because he was in the Order or anything, but because Alfor closest to Princess Allura. If he could know just a tiny bit of the king’s personal information then perhaps it would get him towards his goal to see the princess again. “Hey Stride?”

“Aye?”

“How long have you been in the Order? Do you know Alfor?”

“I’ve been in the Order since Alfor was a prince, so he wasn’t technically moi boss at the time.” Stride cracked his knuckle. “And aye, I know him.” The crack of another knuckle. “I know him well.”

Swallowing thickly, Keith continued. “Now that I think about it, where are you from?”

“I’m from Altea. Tyrus to be more specific. A region in the south. If ye’re wondering why I sound this way it’s because that region was isolated for millennia from the “unified” Altea.” Stride tucked a lock of his white hair behind his ear before locking eyes with Keith. “We preferred it that way.”

“That sounds…”

Stride smirked. “Like I dun like Altea? Ye’re not entirely wrong. I love moi planet and moi people, but I dun like certain traditions or ways of thinking. Lots of ethnocentric rubbish.”

“That doesn’t make sense! Why are you in the Order if you hate whoever you hate so much? I’m here because I want to be close to my father’s home and because this is a way I can protect it and meet someone I love. What’s your problem?”

The man smiled. His eyes were not the same as Keith, Sidron, or Larmina’s. There was pain, but not the same as the traumatic pain Keith had endured. There was no doubt in his eyes of whether he wanted to survive or end all the pain and die.

Pride.

That’s what it was. Stride had pride painted all over his eyes, his posture, and the way he spoke. This was a battle-worn man who had his share of sorrow, yet he never drowned in it. He swam up and asked for more. Behind the pride was wisdom, and right behind the wisdom…

“I am in the Order through submission.”

…an unbridled fiery rage.

Keith was unable to move his body. It refused to listen as his mind screamed commands, only able to breathe rapidly and gaze at the man before him. His fingers tingled with cold, twitching from the chill. A warm hand cupped his face and stroked his cheek with the thumb. Keith’s body relaxed under the affectionate touch.

“At ease, squire,” Stride murmured. “All is well.”

“I…”

“I heard a bit of the trials ye’ve endured,” he soothed. “Ye want to talk ‘bout it?”

“No, I, I,” Keith stammered. “I don’t want to.”

“It’s fine. I can see why Antok was chosen for ye. I apologize.”

“It’s not you,” he sighed. “I just want peace.”

“As do I, lad. But we’re not the fortunate ones, yet we can give that gift to others. That is our job. And ye have to stay motivated. And if ye ask me, I think ye need a hobby,” he smiled and then ruffled the squire’s hair. “I like music. I compose. How ‘bout yerself?”

“I used to hunt? But I did that to live. I don’t really do anything for fun?”

“Ye’re struggling to read, aye? I suggest ye stop reading academic drivel and go to the basics.” Stride walked back to the desk, scattering the books he brought before gathering a few and placed them on Keith’s table. “I think these should be at yer level.”

Colorful covers with cute pictures of animals or sapient species adorned the books. The titles were large and easy to read, and the books were thin and light.

Cosmo’s Family? The Quintant of Rainbows? The Little Klanmiurl Who Could? Keith immediately knew what Stride had given them.

“These are kids books,” Keith snarled. “I’m not a kid.”

“Calm down lad. Ye can’t read well and ye dun have a hobby. Start learning to read for pleasure. Once ye can handle these then ye can upgrade to longer stories or novels. ‘sides there are plenty of children’s books that pull at the heartstrings. Many books do. When ye find one, ye’ll know.”

“Hrm…” Stride had a point. “But why physical books? Isn’t it easier to have them onto the pad?”

“Physical books are coming back in style, plus it feels nice. When ye want more, just ask.” Stride reached into his pocket and took out a communicator to hand to Keith. “This is for ye. Dun hesitate to use it. Ye make this training how ye want it to be.”

With a grin and another ruffle of Keith’s hair, Stride returned to his seat and pulled out a holophonor. He played the colorful instrument with incredible precision, letting the comforting melody put Keith at ease. The song was pleasing and had moments of melancholic and happier notes.  The music did not bother Keith and he did not question Stride’s sudden interest in dropping the lessons to play his instrument as he himself had become immersed in the children books he started to read.

“Ye got me as an ally, lad. Dun ye forget it.”

 

 

 

“The pup searched far and wide. Under the trees. Under the burrows. Under rocks and even in the high seas! ‘Where could she be? Where could she be?’ Cosmo howled into the night sky. He feared his journey was for nigh.”

“Naa…” Fala whined. She was rewarded with a kiss on the head but continued to hit at the pages repeatedly in desperation.

Keith gently grasped his daughter’s small hand, stroking it with his thumb. He used his other hand to turn to the next page.

“’Why are you crying?’ asked a yalmor.

Cosmo let out more tears. ‘I can’t find my mommy! It feels like it’s been years!’

‘You look so tired and weary. Come to my house with my friend the space mouse. We’ll help you find your mommy in the morning,’ said the yalmor. Cosmo agreed and hit the bed snoring.

Cosmo, the yalmor, and the mouse searched everywhere until they found a lonely yupper looking for ingredients for her supper.

‘We’re helping this pupper,’ piped the mouse. ‘Will you join us Lady Yupper?’

The yupper pondered as she threw a leak into her brew. ‘Very well. Come have some of my stew.’

Cosmos, the yalmor, the mouse, and the yupper looked up and down. Rights and lefts. No stone unturned, searched even in the clefts. On the sunny days they walked, during the nights they talked. Dancing, singing, even play. Suddenly Cosmo didn’t feel so gray.”

Snuggling closer to her Fala, Keith swallowed hard.

“’In a far away town, Cosmo, the yalmor, the mouse and the yupper found another cosmic wolf with a crown. Her fur was white and pretty, and her crown had a pink rock. Cosmo couldn’t but to gawk. But that wasn’t important as she was running against the clock! She had to meet the king by the dock of the great loch but she was lost and found herself at a deadlock.

‘We’ve come from afar,’ said Cosmo. ‘Can we help you, princess of the star?’

The princess dried her eyes and explained her woe. Her father was on a boat that would soon be in tow.

‘We can take you there!’ said the yupper.

Cosmo nodded ‘Yeah we just passed it! We swear!’

Cosmo, the yalmor, the mouse, the yupper, and the princess found the lake, and it wasn’t too late! The princess kissed her father farewell on his journey and promised to keep his garden tidy and not ferny.

The princess was so grateful she promised the friends a reward. A golden gourd? A sword? Maybe be a lord? The friends shook their heads as they were in accord, perhaps the princess would be onboard with the mission they’ve been toward?

‘I’d love to!’ the princess said with an exclaim. ‘Let’s go find your mommy, this I proclaim!’

After while the friends found a lovely grove, and in the middle was Cosmo’s trove. It was as Cosmo feared, but he still peered. The headstone was big and the words were smeared, yet the knife made it cleared.

Cosmo, the yalmor, the mouse, the yupper, and the princess prayed for the lost mommy where she laid.

As he wiped a tear from his cheekbone, Cosmo knew he was not alone. For he had found a family that would never part. They were always there right from the start! And he would treasure them deep into his heart.”

Allura entered the room only to find Keith sobbing over Fala.

 

 

 

Keith was nearing the end of his intership as a squire. Antok had returned the following day after Stride’s lecture. Despite this Keith continued to communicate with Stride and borrowed more books. The two also sparred from time to time when Antok needed to add more chaos into the practices. Drones were fine but they lacked the unpredictability of people.

Stride had told him what to expect for the ceremony. For one he would receive tattoos that would be revealed under a special light. The light’s frequency was precise and very difficult to replicate without special equipment. However that was not to say that the light’s frequency didn’t exist in nature.

“It’s so rare ye hardly have to worry about encountering it. And the rare places are specific. We’d tell ye.”

As he headed towards the training room, Keith heard Larmina’s voice behind the door along with Antok’s. Though he didn’t want to interrupt or eavesdrop, curiosity got the better of him when he heard a choked sob. Carefully he opened the door without making a sound or notice.

“I can’t. Antok I can’t!”

The commander was huddled close to Antok’s huge body, hiding her face onto his chest. Despite seeing them close before during the dance, this was different. Larmina was smaller, frail, vulnerable.

“Yes you can,” he reassured.

“If it were only fire…” she sniffed. “Fire isn’t a constant. But darkness… I can’t. No I can’t! Darkness is everywhere in nature. I can’t Antok! Why couldn’t it be fire!?”

Antok stroked Larmina’s head. “It would be better if I went instead of Stride.”

Larmina pulled herself away from Antok’s touch to look him in the eyes. “Absolutely not!”

“Why not? Stride is fine.”

“It’s not about me, Antok. It’s about Keith! It would be unfair for me to take you away from him. He needs you.”

“But you need me,” Antok whispered, cupping Larmina’s right side with his hand. “I won’t let you do this alone.”

“Keith is so close to becoming a knight.” Larmina closed her eyes, tearing rolling down her cheeks. “The Order needs a knight like him, and he needs a fellow Galra to help him. He’s going through turbulent times. Internally and externally. Do you understand?”

Antok frowned. “I do, but I don’t want to.”

“It’s only you in the Order.”

“What about-”

“Yes he’s an option, but I can’t. Not him. He’s on a mission. One I have absolutely no jurisdiction over. He can’t be here to help Keith. Though Stride mentioned he had an interest in Keith.”

“Already? The boy’s not even a knight.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She grabbed Antok’s hands and held them close to her chest. “What matters is his training. Please do this for me.”

Biting his lip, Antok lifted his hand as if to say something, looked away, tried again, and looked away again. “Then… you can do it?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “I can do it. I just need you to tell me.”

“Promise you’ll have a light at all times?”

“I promise.”

Keith made his presence known by opening the door loudly. Larmina and Antok pulled themselves away from one another.

“What brings you here, Larmina?” He hoped he wasn’t too obvious.

“I’m merely telling Antok what’s left to do for your training, young squire.” She had not bothered to wipe her eyes, but instead wore her arrogant smile. “I have a very important engagement to attend in Altea. Literally.”

“Engagement?”

“Yes,” Antok answered. “Many important figures in Altea are going to see the announcement for Princess Allura’s betrothal to Prince Lotor of Daibazaal.”

Weakening legs and spotted vision, Keith fell on his knees to the shock of his superiors.

 

 

A knight of seventeen with over a year of service, Keith was given his latest mission. With every assignment came an identity Keith had to take up and study the cultures and customs to maintain a believable persona. For this mission, Keith was a Daxamite from the planet Daxam. The hair color was to be changed to blond. He had four days for his research before beginning.

They even gave him a Daxamite name which he had to grow accustom to during those days of study.

Keith looked at himself in the mirror. The blond hair was jarring, but he'll get used to it soon enough. He had changed his hair to weirder colors in the past. “My name is Rai Mon.”

Chapter Text

How was he going to get himself out of this predicament? He fucked up. Keith fucked up hard.

He awoke gasping for air, hands and arms wrapped around his torso in a straitjacket. His legs and feet bound by a similar device connecting to a chain on his back and onto the ceiling, body hanging helplessly. Drool dribbled from the gag. A bounding headache made it harder for him to concentrate. In front of him was a smirking Larmina.

After hearing the news of Princess Allura’s engagement, Keith had lost his balance and fell onto his knees. Heart pounding, ears drowning at the sound of his blood roaring, Keith was unaware of Larmina rushing to his side. From the moment she touched him, the squire reacted violently. With a snarl, he grabbed Larmina’s arm and hurled her across the room, narrowly dodging Antok’s fist and kicked the larger man’s chest. He was met with a punch in the gut, which he returned with a knee to Antok’s stomach and bit his arm, the coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

Antok punched Keith’s face, staggering the enraged squire and used his tail to trip him. The moment Keith hit the ground, he bounced right up and uppercutted without any resistance- his trainer did not expect Keith to recover from the fall so quickly. After the blow, Keith shoved Antok to the floor, tiny blue sparks flickering from his fingers.

A crack echoed throughout the room. A powerful kick followed by searing pain. Larmina’s firm foot on the side of his head, restraining him to the cold floor. The quake of heavy footsteps charging their way as the stench of fury saturated his nostrils.

“Antok stop!” Larmina commanded, removing her foot from Keith’s head; he lost consciousness. She had recovered from Keith’s lashing not a moment too soon. “I said STOP!”

“And why should I!?” Antok bellowed, towering over the commander. His nails embedded painfully into his palms.

“Because I said so! Stay down or I’ll knock you down as well!”

Antok bit his left thumb. “You could have been hurt!”

“And you,” she growled, jamming her finger into his chest, “could have died!”

“I had it under control, Mina!” His tail snapped like a whip. “There was no way he’d kill me!”

“You didn’t see what I saw!” Larmina’s face turned red, jaw tightening as her eyes welled with fresh tears. “You calm down right now or I will subdue you.”

He repeated the bite to his left thumb.

“Good that you understand.” Larmina wiped her eye, Antok wiping the other eye and stroked her cheek. The two exhaled, the adrenaline finally dwindling. “Now help me take him to confinement.”

Keith had no idea what had gotten into him. It was just a little crush! He developed a crush on the Altean princess and it made him happy. That should have been enough right? All those deca-phoebs of torture and violence sent him to the brink of despair, ready to consume the poisonous fish and end it once and for all. Yet he didn’t, and it was thanks to her. She gave him the will to live by remembering how she made him feel as a little boy.

I wasn’t going to see her again anyway! I mean, yeah, I joined the military kinda hoping I would, but who am I kidding? I’d never get to see her. She wouldn’t want to meet some low-ranking cadet anyway. Plus I’m in the Order now. She has no idea this place even exists! You met her for, what, a dobosh? Come on Keith, you can’t even visit the palace even if you wanted to! Hell, I don’t know if I’d even survive after what I did. So why even get mad about her and Lotor? Good for them! She deserves a prince! You’re not a prince and you’ll never be her prince. So why act like a fucking idiot!?

It was useless to think about Allura. It was useless to cry. The tears rolling down his cheeks were useless. He was useless. Everything he did up until now was all for naught.

I’m such a fool…

“You know…” Larmina started. “It took Antok three days before he had his first tantrum back in his time as a squire.”

Keith’s eyes widened, tears continuing. 

“It was only a matter of time before you did the same,” she said, walking towards Keith’s suspended form. “Most squires have these outbursts, so it’s not unusual.” Reaching behind his head, Larmina loosened the ties and removed the gag. “I was afraid you were too broken to respond.” She clutched at his right shoulder. “Glad I was wrong.”

“That…” he gasped. His tongue lapped up the drool. “…is messed up.”

“Messed up?” she laughed, arching an eyebrow. “Young squire, your reaction to Princess Allura’s betrothal is messed up! Why, what would your love think if they heard you threw a fit over-” A soft gasp escaped her lips. Her hand swiftly covered her mouth. “I’m…” She looked away, took a deep breath, and returned her gaze to Keith. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Keith remained quiet, head hung down, eyes red from the silent weeping.

Larmina scratched her head. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts, young squire. And, um, don’t worry about Antok. He’s merely cooling himself to get a leveled head.” She winked. “You wouldn’t want him to train you when he’s moody.” She pat his shoulder and left.

Still tied up and unable to move except sway back and forth, Keith remained in the holding room for what seemed like an eternity. Judging by how hungry he felt, it must have been out for several vargas, no, hours. Was Commander Larmina honestly going to leave him hanging? When was his timeout over? Did this mean he wasn’t kicked out of the Order? Was Larmina going to tell on Antok about his love? Because it sure seemed like she figured that out rather quickly. It must have been really obvious.

Keith cheeks flushed. “This is so… embarrassing…”

The door opened.

“Now look what ye’ve done.” A familiar man shook his head, walking towards Keith.

Eyes misting, the squire gave his undivided attention to the floor. He swallowed hard; his throat stung. A tender hand cupped his cheek. Keith croaked as he leaned to the gentle touch.

“Ye alright, lad?” He raised Keith’s face only to find the boy avoiding his eyes. He used his other hand to cup the other side of the boy’s face. “Look at me.”

His eyes shifted for a few seconds before looking at Stride’s, then shifted again. “I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” Stride stroked Keith’s matted hair. “I was more concerned with ‘bout ye and Larmina’s kick. The gal can knock off a head with those legs of her’s.”

“I thought I could do this… but I can’t.” His eyes met Stride’s. “No matter what I do, I just keep messing up! I’ll always be a Galra!”

“None of that nonsense,” he murmured, lowering the chain to the floor but not removing any of the restraints. An odd –shaped parcel floated nearby. “Ye can’t judge people like that. If Cossack ever heard ye say that, he’d slap ye senselessly.” Hoisting a bounded Keith up over his shoulder, Stride carried the squire to his room.

“Who’s Cossack?” he asked weakly.

“Cossack’s an exalted knight.” Stride opened the door to Keith’s room, the floating parcel in tow, laid Keith on his bed, and closed the door. “He’s also part Galra.”

“I…I don’t understand.” He felt Stride unlock the restraints. His body shuddered as the tension from his limbs lessened, blood circulating. Stride rolled him on his back and placed a pillow behind his head. The headache ever present.

“Understand what? The Galra bit?”

It hurt to move; Keith laid there hopelessly as Stride massaged his limbs. If Stride stabbed him with a knife, Keith neither cared nor had the energy to move. “All of that. Exalted? Galra? Can you kill me now?”

“A page becomes a squire. A squire becomes a knight. A knight has four ranks: apprentice, crusader, lord, and exalted. Sometimes we call it levels 1-4, but that’s usually around the handlers since we have our code words. Cossack is at the fourth level. Aye, he is part Galra and almost older than dirt. Ye don’t have to be Altean to join the Order, and no I won’t kill ye.”

“...is he really that old?”

“May as well be. The guy’s been around since the time of Alfor’s grandmother. Funny enough, he’s actually not the oldest.”

“My head hurts,” whined Keith.

Stride scooted towards Keith’s head and massaged above between his eyebrows.  Keith closed his eyes. He let out a satisfied whimper as the knight continued his ministrations. “Ye’ll learn all about this soon enough. Dun worry ‘bout yer behavior; it was bound to happen at some point or another. Hell, I’ve done it before. It’s good ye did it as a squire and not during a mission as a knight. That would probably get ye killed.”

“What did you do?”

“I’ll tell ye when yer older.” He smirked. “Ask again in another five years.”

Keith groaned, “Ugh, what’s the point?”

“I never said I’d never tell ye. Alright, ask me something else. I’ll answer it.”

“You swear?”

“If it pertains anything to moi tantrum, no. But I swear on everything else.”

“Hmm…”

“Got one?”

“Gimme a tick.”

“Second.”

“What?”

“Ye need to use our units for time. It’s ‘second.’”

“Fine.” Keith rolled his eyes. “Give me a second.”

“Take yer time.”

Back in the Blade, questions let alone talking was forbidden. It was a death sentence if you dared ask anything, especially any of the officers. Antok knew this and Keith certainly knew this. Keith being inquisitive by nature asked anyway and got slapped around. The only reason he lived was due to his status as a prime warrior-slave in the arena otherwise he’d be dead. Who knows how long Antok was exposed to such an environment. Between the two, he was mainly silent despite his position as teacher. He did the best he could despite his upbringing, and Keith realized this though there were moments of frustration as Antok’s responses were either silent or curt.

Even in his brief stint with the Altean military, asking questions wasn’t openly encouraged yet no one was harmed for doing so. Keith did receive his share of reprimands for asking questions; however it was more to do with the quantity of questions and his overall attitude rather than the act of questioning itself.

“You need to sweeten your tone when you do that,” Mirey once told him. “Alteans don’t like confrontation. Unless you’re from the south.”

Was it a southern thing to be this frank or just Stride? For once in a long time, there was a person willing to give him information so freely, even going so far as to give him an IOU for another. Annoying, but Keith could respect that. Perhaps he will test Stride and ask him in five years. Or less.

And this Q&A felt… oddly nostalgic too. He couldn’t quite pinpoint where he felt this as the headache and sore muscles made it difficult for him to remember.

“Will you be going to see Princess Allura get engaged?”

“Is that all ye wanted to know?” Stride scrunched his face. “Feels like a waste. I’ll give ye a second one, and yes I am going.”

“Hmm…” Keith stroked his chin. “Is there a reason why Antok can’t go with Larmina? Wait, no that’s not my question, er…”

“Commander Larmina Amalthea Fipha Smythe’s orders. It’s preferable he goes with her, but she insisted on yer internship as a squire be done by Antok.” He shrugged. “I suppose I’m the next best thing to accompany her.”

“Is she okay?”

“Is this yer actual question?”

“No?”

“I’ll give ye five seconds before that boat sails.”

“Uh… er… um… was…” It couldn’t hurt to ask. The worst Stride would do is deflect or say no. “Was Larmina in a fire?”

A hand covering his mouth was the response.

“Where did ye get that information from?” he asked, mouth tight, a serious cold look in his eyes.

Even if his mouth weren’t covered by Stride’s hand, Keith wouldn’t be able to answer it without fumbling his words. Was this deflection or the no he was expecting? Regardless, he didn’t expect such a grievous answer out of the knight. He shrugged with a hard swallow.

“Best keep that to yerself.” He removed his hand. “If Antok ever catches wind ye got an idea ‘bout Larmina’s past he’d kill ye.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Aye,” Stride sighed. “When ye graduate ye’ll have access to classified information. The higher yer rank, the more ye can get. When ye’re the right level look up ‘The Smythe Massacre’ or if those keywords give ye nothing look up ‘Handler 842.’ It was a horrific event. Lots of lives lost, many were babes.” Closing his eyes, Stride paused, taking a deep breath. “I was told Larmina was a happy little girl, but… that’s all in the past now.”

“I… I’m sorry.”

“For what? Ye were probably a baby yerself when it happened.” Standing from the bed, Stride opened the floating parcel and revealed an instrument. It had a medium-sized bout and a waist around the middle, with a long neck containing four strings. Stride pulled out the instrument first and then the bow before sitting near Keith’s feet. “I just find it easier to have Antok around when escorting Larmina to and from space.” He plucked the strings, a pleasant sound vibrating from the instrument and fiddled with the pegs before testing again. “After a while restraining a person gets tiring.”

Keith gave him an odd look.

“How’s the headache?”

“It’s pretty much gone, but… I’m gonna ask.”

“’Bout this thing ‘ere?” Stride asked as he produced a single note with the bow. “It’s called a violin and it’s a present for ye. If ye broaden yer horizons, ye’ll learn there’s more to life than struggle. Ye’ve already gobbled up the books I’ve given ye. I figured music would be an excellent outlet.”

“Actually I was going to ask about you having to restrain Larmina but I guess that’s fine too.”

Stride chuckled. “I’m afraid the interrogation is over unless…”

“Unless?”

“Unless ye give me some information ‘bout yerself.” He was immediately met with a frown and a sharp ‘no’ from Keith. To be fair, Stride had expected that reply out of the squire. Asking Antok anything about his private life was like pulling teeth therefore Keith wouldn’t be any different. He mentally patted his back for trying and continued to tune the instrument until satisfied. “Worth a try.”

Resting his chin on the corner of the lower bout, Stride played the instrument while Keith stared at him incredulously. It was the same look he gave him when he played the holophonor when he substituted for Antok. As the soft melody surrounded the room, Keith’s body relaxed, soaking in the music. Eyes heavy, muscles aching, Keith slept as the knight continued his song.

Stride grinned.

  

The ship was ready to embark back to Altea. Antok inspected the vessel several times, testing the light systems and emergency backup equipment he provided for Larmina before deeming it fit for use. Stride yawned as he approached the ship, his eyes tired, still groggy from sleeping in an awkward position beside Keith. If Keith caught him sleeping, he wouldn’t know or care. It was too early in the morning to worry about appearances.

“Is it good?” he yawned, stretching languidly before putting his below-the-shoulder length hair in a sloppy bun.

“Yes,” replied Antok. His tail cracked. “You had better take good care of her.”

Stride lifted an eyebrow. “I literally woke up forty-five minutes ago. I’m not awake enough to deal with yer issues right now.”

Hands tightening, Antok growled. “I’m serious.”

Snapping wide wake, Stride leered back. Antok was easily over three heads taller than him, possibly weighed three or four times heavier, and contained teeth strong enough to break through bone. Yet it did not matter to him. Without changing his rigid scowl, perfect posture unyielding, Stride calmly walked until he was a half meter away from the man. He stretched out his arm and grasped Antok’s left shoulder. “Never in moi life have I ever pulled rank with a crusader. Dun ye be the first. Have I ever given ye reason to distrust me?”

Antok shivered under his superior’s grip. “No. But I-”

“Then we’re done ‘ere. Though…” The force in his hand increased. “If ye ever do, do it yerself or find someone else. But good luck with that. I dun believe I need to remind ye how most of the exalted and the handlers wanted her out of the Order.”

“I apologize…”

“It’s stupid to threaten yer allies.” Stride removed his hand from Antok’s left shoulder and placed it on his right, and smiled wryly. “I can only do so much when she gets her panic attacks, ye know? But as always, I will try my best. And ye too. Do yer best. The squire’s getting close to his knighthood exam after all. Ye can have a break with Larmina when this is done.”

Antok bit his left thumb and placed a hand over Stride’s. “Thank you. I can’t wait to go back home.”

“Are you boys fighting?” laughed Larmina as entered the hangar, walking towards the vessel.

“Of course not,” replied Stride. “We were just idling.”

“Involving Antok’s right shoulder?” She crossed her arms. They must have been talking about her if the sweat on Antok’s forehead were any indication. It wouldn’t surprise her if he had gotten to the point of threatening Stride. Possibly the most foolish thing Antok could have done bar do the same to Alfor. She opted to keep quiet and feign ignorance. Antok gets touchy when embarrassed, and by the look of Stride, Antok already learned the lesson.

“We’re comrades, aren’t we?” answered Antok.

Larmina let Antok escort her to the ship. Hand trembling against Antok’s as she sat in her seat. She smiled despite herself and kissed Antok’s hand goodbye. Stride watched her movements carefully throughout the ordeal, the potential for Larmina’s mood to become testy increasing the further they were from a source of light.

Stride cursed under his breath: they were not provided a ship with teludav warping capabilities. He could have helped create the wormholes if personnel were the issue, but instead he received a regular, slower vessel. The absolute nerve of it all! Alfor was going to get an earful from him for the slipshod treatment. Wasn’t Larmina also worthy of a faster vessel? She ranked high enough in the military and a Smythe handler! Whatever the reason, he’d be sure to let Alfor know he was not amused.

“So…” Stride began. The sooner he spoke to Larmina the better. It served as a way to distract Larmina until her anxieties cooled. He found it helped tremendously compared to simply avoiding darkness. “I need to tell ye ‘bout yer performance.”

“Performance?

"The lad heard ye talking 'bout yerself."

Larmina leaned forward with crossed legs, resting her hand on her face. “Lad? Do you mean the young squire Keith?”

“Aye.”

“You sound attached,” she replied, covering her grin with her hand. “You never say such words to people you’ve just met.”

Stride shrugged. Larmina did not have to know about the conversations he’s had with Keith with the communicator he’s given him. Even if she did, which he didn’t doubt since Antok has a penchant for telling her everything, it was not her business. His rank far exceeded hers anyway. “I’m doing this as a favor for Cossack.”

“Hmm.” Larmina tapped her chin. “He’s still on that mission, isn’t he?”

“Indeed. No telling when he’ll be back though, so I figured I’d watch over the squire for him.”

Larmina smirked. “And without him telling you to do so. You are too kind, my prince.”

“Wipe that look off yer face,” he said with a roll of an eye, but nonetheless smiled. “In all seriousness, I think the squire has a lot of potential. I can see why Cossack requested him. Though, at the same time…”

“You can say it, Stride. We all know he chose him because he’s Galra. It’s no secret.”

“Ah but ye forget dear Larmina!” He pointed his finger up dramatically. “That old crone is also very objective. He’s not going to let just any Galra join. But, clearly he’s biased. And that being said,” Stride said as he stood up, “I need ye to help me dye moi hair back to its original color.”

The two continued to chat as the knight sat on a chair, letting the handler gather the supplies to dye his hair. White hair was not usual in Altea, but a great number of people suddenly with that hair color would raise some eyebrows especially when it wasn’t their original hair color. Stride didn’t mind the white hair as it was part of his duty. He had a job, and despite his feelings, he would do his job right. Dying his hair back and forth was the least of his concerns, though it would be nice to have his old color again. Melenor always complimented his hair too.

“Going back to what I was saying earlier.” He relaxed under Larmina’s gentle touch. “Be careful what you say around Antok.”

“I will.” Larmina mixed the dye solutions together, a bright red flushing her cheeks. “Did he hear a lot?”

“I don’t know to what extent. But there will be no need for any further intervention.”

“As I hope and expect of you.”

“And I hope and expect ye to tell me anything pertinent about the lad.” He looked at her expectedly through the mirror. “What triggered the attack?”

“The news of Princess Allura’s engagement to Prince Lotor.”

“…That’s… really random? Does he have a link to either of them?”

“Not that I know,” she answered, continuing her task. “But I’m certain he’s in love with the princess.”

Was the boy delusional or did he actually meet the princess? It would be hard to obtain that sort of information from him considering his reluctance and the wall he built around himself. Having Antok around him was probably a mistake. Not that he wasn’t a good teacher but by the data he gathered, the two either had a shared past or have something dark in common. Stride knew of the horrors Antok went through in his teenage years back in Daibazaal. Did Keith have that in common with him? Stride shuddered at the thought, but Keith’s behavior spoke loud and clear. Regardless, Antok was in a biased situation, and he didn’t even know it. Rather than speaking and coaxing Keith, he unconsciously protected him by shielding him away from knowledge and his past as very likely doing in turn the same with himself. Stride couldn’t imagine the brutality they went through, yet it was no excuse for either of them. Keith had to rise up or fall into despair. Completely submitting into the darkness of one’s heart meant forfeiting his life. Antok managed to rise up thanks to his time in the Order and meeting the people around him, letting others gain his trust, and eventually becoming a family with the Order and a family with Larmina as well.

Stride had done the same as did the rest of his surviving family. He refused to submit to the hopelessness and desolation. It was not the way of the Tiger Warriors! He had to grow not just for his sake, but for Melenor, Tyrus, and his people. They needed him to be a pillar of strength during a time of forced unification, and in time he had to become a pillar to Altea as a whole when Alfor was absent when fulfilling his duties as the Red Paladin of Voltron.

Sometimes the absences were brief, spanning less than a quintant. Other times -which felt often to Stride- would be months at a time. During the days as the official regent, Stride would be relieved from his duties as a knight from the Order and manage the missions, having the ultimate say as Alfor was not in position to do while performing as a paladin. And the two were in accordance and understanding regarding the matter, but that didn’t stop Stride from disliking the added stress nor did it ever stop any arguments whenever Stride or Alfor made decisions the two did not agree with.

And in regards to Keith…

The tears were sincere. His words were sincere. The despair in his eyes and body were indeed sincere. If he were lying then he’d be a damn good actor. There was no doubt in Stride’s mind Keith would ever harm the princess. Whether he met Allura or not was not the concern. Yet for the sake of security and a peace of mind, for the time being Stride will not let Keith come close to the princess or the castle. In the future, yes, but not now. Not when Keith was in such a young and volatile stage in his life. Mature as he seemed, that didn’t change the fact Keith was still fifteen.

“Do you feel this is something Alfor needs to know?”

 “I’m still thinking.”

Whatever the boy needed, Stride will give to him. He will not allow the boy to do this by himself. All support: food, water, shelter, guidance, tools, clothes, a simple hug, whatever- it will be his. He said he was doing this as a favor to Cossack, which was true. Was being the keyword. This was no longer the case. Cossack still expressed interest in training Keith, yet time and his ongoing demands would not permit him to do so. He didn’t mention anything about Stride taking over; it was something Stride decided on his own.

“Anything else to report?”

“Merely a suggestion,” she said, wrapping a special cap around his hair then massaging it. “I’d like him to be with an alchemically competent Altean.”

“Is that right?”

Removing the cap, Stride’s wet, dyed tresses were instantly dried and permanently colored. Larmina brushed his hair until smooth. “He had lovely black hair just like you.”

Stride bit his left pinky. “Ye certain it’s not a coincidence?”

“If I weren’t I’d be a widow.”

 

Thankfully the return to Altea went favorably. At the request of Stride and Antok, the pilot arrived at the palace in the morning. Larmina said nothing when she exited the ship and headed for the Castle of Lions with Stride. Upon their arrival, the two were greeted by Coran.

“Good morning to the both of you!”

“Good morning, Uncle Coran,” she said, giving him a tight hug.

“Morning, Coran,” answered Stride. “I dun mean to be rude, but I’m going to find Melenor.”

“Uh…” Coran shifted his eyes around the room back and forth before covering a side of his mouth with his hand. “The queen’s in a bit of a mood right now.”

“I’ve been in worse.”

Sweat rolled down Coran’s forehead. It really was not a good time for Stride to disturb the queen. Not that Stride had to listen to him; the man practically sort of owned the castle. Queen Melenor was upset with Alfor and shut herself in her room. Anyone who tried to coax the queen would receive a verbal lashing and a slap in the face. Coran learned this the hard way. “Can it wait? Why don’t you sit down for some breakfast? Allura will be happy to see you. You can join in too Larmina.”

Waving her hands, Larmina declined. “Oh I don’t want to be a burden, uncle. I’ll go to the kitchen for a quick snack.”

“It’s not a burden at all!”

“No, I insist.”

“Suit yourself.” Coran beamed at his niece while poking at his pad. “I have a room ready for you. I’ve sent the location in your communicator. Don’t worry; his room is not in the same wing.”

Waiting for Larmina to exit to another area, Stride and Coran sauntered to the royal dining room.

“What’s got her panties up in a bunch this time?”

Coran groaned. “The betrothal.”

“I’m baffled it even went through.” Stride scratched his head. “Did Alfor bypass this?” 

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He didn’t even tell me about it until its announcement with Zarkon a movement ago.”

Stride grimaced.

“I made the same face too especially when he confirmed Blaytz will be attending.”

“He invited the fucking Nalquodian!? Does the fool have a death wish!?”

Coran held his hands to calm the knight. It was no secret Tyrusians loathed the people of planet Nalquod. Many regions of Altea had been at peace with the Nalquodians for as long as Tyrus had been at conflict. Centuries of animosity between the two was finally put to rest when the unified Altea forced an armistice. Blaytz being an ally and the Blue Paladin angered many of the Tyrusians. Alfor attempted to alleviate their worries of a long hated enemy possessing a powerful weapon, failing miserably. The people were quelled by Stride, promising peace and reassurance over his status as a paladin. It worked, though their doubt continued to linger.

The handler was certain Stride had no issue with Blaytz. Perhaps a little, yet not at the extent as the general Tyrusian population and few people from Odyeca of the west. They were amicable, professional, and sometimes drank together even without the presence of Alfor. No, more than anything the wrath came from the queen. Stride and Coran knew Melenor would be livid.

“He barely told her today too.”

“What an idiot.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to agree with you.” Coran sighed. “Let’s not dally and meet Allura. You hungry?”

“I’m famished.”

Opening the doors, the two found the dining table to be empty. There was a plate with slightly picked food in front of where Allura usually sat, yet no princess to be found.

“That’s odd. She was here just a few doboshes ago.”

“…Coran, where is yer boy?”

“In his room.”

“And ye trust a child to obey ye?”

Coran shook his head confidently, twirling his mustache. “My boy may be young, but he does what he’s told. I told him he couldn’t leave until I gave him the signal.”

“And if a certain missing princess were to knock on his door?”

“Ah yes well that’s a different story! My boy likes to play with his sis-Oh quiznak!”

 

“Do you really wanna marry that guy?”

Garrett helped himself to another heaping spoonful of creamed fruit mixed with grains and goo. He waited patiently for his breakfast to arrive but instead was greeted by Allura at his door. She said she had a big secret to tell him, but it required for him to leave his room and follow her to the kitchen. A blatant lie but he complied anyway. The two found a delicious spread. Hungry, Garrett grabbed his utensils and ate directly from the serving piece. Allura scolded him for his lack of manners. Garrett rolled his eyes at her as Allura had done the same even before he touched a fork.

Allura nibbled on a biscuit then dipped it into a spiced gravy. “It’s for peace, Gare.”

“They’ve been at peace for deca-phoebs.”

“But we can spread more peace to the universe through our marriage.”

“Gross.” He took a bite of a pickled vegetable. “You that is. Not the veggie.” Allura stuck out her tongue. “Did you say that or uncle?”

“Father is a wise man, Garrett.” Head hung low, the custard become more difficult to swallow, Allura’s eyes watered slightly. “I know he has the best interest not just for me but for everyone.”

“I guess,” he said wistfully, unable to look at his sister in the eyes. There he was, almost ten-years-old consoling a soon-to-be-betrothed. Most girls would be happy to be engaged, however most girls getting engaged were in their twenties, not a child of thirteen. He had no idea what to say to her. What could he say? That Lotor was scum? It wasn’t even true to begin with. Lotor seemed nice, a bit cocky and foppish but not a bad person. That didn’t mean she had to marry him either. Allura had dreams and aspirations. Why just a few movements ago, she confessed she still had a crush on the little Galra boy she met a long time ago. “Hey sister?”

“Yes?”

“I… um…I…Quiznak! What’s the ruggling word?” He snapped his fingers, words fumbling.

“Garrett, it’s okay.” Wiping the tears from her eyes, Allura smiled. “You don’t have to say anything. Besides we’re not going to wed until I’m twenty-three, so you have to deal with me for a long while!”

Garrett crawled under the table and hugged Allura. She hugged him back and kissed his forehead. “I love you Lulu.”

“I love you too, Gare.” Allura lifted Garrett from the floor with a tighter embrace and received a giggle from it. “Now let’s eat to our hearts’ content!”

“We’re gonna get so fat!” he laughed, still hugging Allura, planting a big kiss on her cheek.

“The fattest!” Allura’s eyes wandered towards the entrance. There was a tall woman she had never see before stand there with her hands over her heart, almost petrified. Tears escaped her wide eyes as she stared at the children, line of gaze directly at Garrett. Allura put down her brother, gently pushing him behind her with her arm. “Who are you?”

Garrett’s eyes lit up. “It’s my cousin Larmina, Lulu.” He took a few steps towards her. Larmina flinched, which didn’t deter the boy and continued towards her.

“Garrett,” Allura warned.

Larmina screamed, she held out her arms to put herself at a distance. “NO! NOO!”

Garrett recoiled, getting snatched by Allura and held tight against her chest. Larmina covered her ears, sobbing, squatting into a curled position with her breath becoming more and more ragged. The children stared in horror as they huddled together.

“Garrett!” a loud voice echoed from afar.

“Dad!” he cried out, Allura instantly pulling him closer to cover his eyes.

Hands squeezing harder into her ears, Larmina shook her head. “NO! NO!”

Stride was the first to enter the kitchen, leaping over tables to get to Larmina. “Coran get the children!” he barked and sat across from the commander. With a gentle shush and touch, Stride carefully rocked her with both hands on her shoulders. “There, there. All is well.”

Larmina’s body shivered uncontrollably, torrents of tears rolling down her cheeks. She gasped for air. Stride pulled his left hand away and swirled his fingers until a blue ball of magical light appeared and held it near Larmina’s face.

“Look at the light,” he soothed. “It’s pretty isn’t it? Look at me move it left and right, up and down.” He continued to repeat the words until Larmina followed his commands. “It’s a lovely light, and yer’re a lovely woman. Ye’ve got it, ye’ve got it.”

He looked at Coran who wasn’t sure how to get Garrett out without Larmina noticing. Coran carried his son, burying his head against his crook of neck, and held Allura’s hand who watched the magical orb in fascination. Stride removed his other hand, letting a light appear his fingers and pressed it against her neck, causing Larmina to sleep. He hated resorting to that tactic, but it had to be done.  

“Best have them go to their rooms.” He carried Larmina in his arms. “Lead the way to her room.”

 

The night before the exam, Keith used his communicator to contact Stride. Almost two phoebs- no, months and he hadn’t returned on Arus since attending the engagement ceremony with Larmina, yet the two spoke more often. Stride sent him digital books whenever Keith requested, though on a couple of occasions he would request Keith to play the violin to hear his progress before sending the reading materials.

“Come on Stride,” he whined.

“Are ye not practicing like I asked?”

“I am!”

“Then?”

“Then what?”

“Dun play coy, lad. Let me hear ye.”

Keith’s face went red. Good thing Stride was not here to see his face hiding in the pillow. He groaned in response. “Fine!” He pulled the violin from its container in a huff. “If your ears bleed, don’t blame me.”

“I’ll have the first aid kit ready.”

With an exasperated sigh, Keith stood up and played the instrument. Not wanting to admit to Stride, Keith practiced every night since the elder left to Altea. Stride left him an interactive instruction hologram which actively gave Keith feedback for his performances. Initially, Keith wanted to ignore the hologram, but he had read all the books Stride lent him and there was nothing else left to do in the evenings. He may as well give it a go and see what the fuss was all about.

In the past two weeks Antok began to make nightly visits to listen to him play. He would sit in the corner of the room and listen. The two never said a word while Keith performed. At the end of the session, Antok would nod and leave the room.

“Ye’ve improved,” replied Stride from the communicator. “If ye continue to practice like ye do, ye’ll be an expert in no time.”

Keith blushed, bow stroking the strings. “I guess.” He put the instrument down. “You gonna give me something to read?”

Stride chuckled while small beeps echoed in the background. “Just dun get mad.”

“Can’t be as bad as ‘The Quintant of Rainbows.’”

“I like ‘The Quintant of Rainbows’ thank ye very much.”

A soft beep confirmed the retrieval of the book. Keith glanced at his pad to see the title. He frowned but then rolled his eyes with a half-smile.

A Journey to Oriande: Faerie Tales of Altea.

“I’ll give it a go,” he answered, putting away the instrument and hopping into bed.

“I think ye’ll like it. It has a bit of history of Altean alchemy, which evolved directly from Heraclean alchemy. Overall it’s a fun read.”

Keith squirmed under the covers. “…Hey Stride?”

“Aye?”

“Do you think I’ll be okay? Like okay okay? Like, uh, I’ll pass the test okay?”

“Of course ye’ll be fine, lad. I have full confidence ye’ll pass the exam and become a knight.”

“What happens after that? Is there something I need to know? Am I going to get a finger chopped off as an initiation? Where am I going to live? Will it be Arus? This place is fine but the natives are a bit weird, but strangely soft and cuddly.”

“Keith,” Stride said. “I will arrive on Arus tomorrow. After ye pass the exam, we’ll talk.”

“But-”

“Go to bed.” He hung up.

Keith grumbled, tossing and turning for what seemed like hours. How could he go to bed when the test was tomorrow? Stride could have simply talked his ear out instead of telling him abruptly to go to bed. What a jerk! All those years of being a knight must have made him forget how it’s like to be a squire!

Wait… was he even a squire?

On the first quintant they met, Stride mentioned he was in the Order through submission. An odd choice of words, however it had to mean something. Keith knew what submission felt like. It felt like the searing pain of a blade lopping off his ears. Submission was being strapped onto a stretcher, watching a headless slave’s body twitch while being injected with chemicals to speed the healing process only to be forced into another fight right afterwards because the audience demanded an encore. And the process would repeat itself for vargas on end until the crowd grew bored or Kolivan collected enough GAC to satisfy his greed.

For his insolence, he would be slapped in front of the other slaves. For questions, he would be slapped in front of officers, who would then in turn slap and spit at him for good measure. Their cruel laughter echoed from the halls as Keith nursed his swollen, aching face.

Stride knew Alfor. That’s what he told him. Yet it didn’t sound like they were at friendliest of terms. Would it be suspicious if he asked Stride for a book on the history of Tyrus? Maybe there was some information about this “unified” Altea Stride mentioned? This was a lot to think about.

Keith cursed Stride under his breath. “Now I definitely can’t sleep. Thanks for nothing.”

After tossing for what seemed the thousandth time, his pad made a confirmation ping. Keith touched the screen, eyes squinting from the bright light.

 

I figured you’d be fidgeting like a yupper pup.

Open the attachment.

Sleep well and good luck.

-Stride

 

The attachment in question was named “lullaby.”

“Har har,” he answered to no one. He opened the attachment anyway.

The music was hard to describe. It sounded like a symphony of instruments yet at the same time not. They were in that something had produced different sounds, and not because they appeared to be synthesized, electronic? Were these even made from a real physical instrument? Keith couldn’t tell. The audio was nice though, foreign yet warm and curiously familiar. There were moments when the audio quieted into soothing beats mixed in with other sounds then elevated into intense before returning to the gentle beats once more. Overall it was pleasant, and Keith found himself unable to keep his eyes moment.

That night he dreamed of his father.

“Daddy I can’t solve this problem!” A young Keith tapped at his pad impatiently.

“Let’s have a look ‘ere,” he said, lowering the background music’s volume, pulling Keith into his lap and rested his chin on his son’s head. One hand played with Keith’s ear while the other held the homework-pad. “Hmm…”

“It’s tough!” Keith exclaimed. “I hate math!”

“It’s not all that bad, kin. Hold your hands up.” Keith obeyed. “You have five cakes- one two three four five.” He counted each finger on Keith’s left hand. “I give you seven cakes. How many cakes do you have?”

Keith counted his right hand. “I don’t have more fingers!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, dun worry, kin. You can recycle them like this.” His father counted using Keith’s left hand.

When Keith turned to look at his father to call him a cheater, he was gone. Instead it was three years later, and in front of him were his parents talking to one another in their room. They were looking at him directly but acted as if Keith were not there.

“It shouldn’t be a big deal, Krolia.”

“Well it is for me. He’s just a baby.”

“He’s seven.”

She frowned. “You Alteans are so weird.”

His father got up from the bed and patted a teenage Keith. “You’re going to do incredible things.”

Krolia nodded. “You can do it.”

“All shall be well,” answered an adult Keith.

When he awoke, there was a bright light glowing from his face. Keith rushed to the mirror and spotted the lights, one on each cheek below the eye. Before he could discern the shape, they disappeared.

“It’s time to get up,” said Antok on the other side.

 

Stride and Keith sat next to one another on a pier, each with a fishing rod on hand. The two were silent all this time. After he passed his examination, Keith was greeted by Antok and Stride. Antok clapped his hand over Keith’s right shoulder, while Stride took Keith by the arm and brought him outside. They walked to a nearby Arusian town, rented fishing gear, and relaxed by the lake.

“So…” Keith started.

“So…”

“I passed.”

“Of course ye did.”

Keith scratched his neck. “What’s next?”

“A tattooing ceremony. Not only do we get those white locks but we get tattoos to show ye’re a real knight. Dun worry though, they aren’t visible. They can only be revealed by a special light that exists in nature but it’s exceedingly rare. The Order would let ye know if we’ve ever come close to encountering one.”

“I see… and after that?”

“Code, technical, and missions. Ye’ll be in missions under the supervision of a crusader or a lord knight. Eventually an apprentice knight can go on their own missions if they are simple or within the knight’s scope of practice. Code and technical is never-ending though. Even the highest ranked knights have monthly sessions since practice makes perfect.”

“Use it or lose it?”

Stride nodded. “Aye. Ye may be in a situation where ye have to repair a ship, or use a weapon ye’re unfamiliar with, or the walls have eyes and ears. Key words and mannerisms are how we communicate. For example, ye and a fellow knight find each other and ye need to speak. One may know something the other doesn’t, raise your eyebrows twice to signify it’s safe to talk or rub your nose for not.”

“That seems… kind of easy? How do I know that’s a knight to begin with?”

“If ye suspect someone’s a knight, ye flick yer middle nail around them. If they dun bite their lip, they’re not an ally but if they do, they are.” Stride reeled in his line, then cast further into the lake. “As I said, it’s a lot that one can forget. There’s even a code for talking about oneself without making it look like it is, and code for behaving in front of yer elders, peers, and underlings, oh and code for interrogating and code for-”

Keith laughed. “Okay, okay I get it. You have code for everything.”

“Storm rides distant*.” He clicked at the last word.

“Huh?”

“Storm rides distant*.” Clicked again.

There was not a cloud in the sky. Stride continued to hum happily, looking at his line then back to Keith and trying his best not to laugh at the new knight. He snorted at Keith’s frown.

“If this is a code thing, then I’m going to fail hard.”

“It’s code alright, but not what ye think,” he sniggered. “We’ll get to that lesson later.”

His eyebrow quirked after hearing the remark. “We?”

“I may not have the same missions as ye, but, well, do you prefer living in an assigned apartment instead? It’s not that bad, but I thought maybe ye’d prefer living in moi home?”

Keith squinted at Stride. “Why?”

“Cossack wanted ye under his wing but unfortunately he’s preoccupied with a long mission.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Absolutely nothing.” He ruffled Keith’s hair. “Do ye want to live with me or not?”

 

At the tattooing ceremony, Keith was led into a room with a chair. The initiator pressed a few buttons, summoning two floating cubes of the same color. One turned on a light. There was nothing special about the light, though something about it felt different. It made the room brighter yes, yet his eyes felt it as surreal. Everything suddenly felt real and tangible. The initiator pressed a few buttons into the second button’s hologram command pad.

“Remove your shirt, squire.”

Keith obeyed. The second cube spun around Keith’s body until it honed into his right arm. A concentrated beam of light created a pattern then moved onto the left. The light didn’t hurt, but Keith was amazed how the tattoos glowed brightly. The initiator’s eyes widened as she saw his face, that was when Stride walked into the room.

“Duke Stride,” she said. “His marks-”

“I’ll take over. Ye are dismissed.”

Keith looked around the room, then his arms, then back at Stride. “What’s going on?”

“This is the light I was telling ye ‘bout.” He opened the hologram of the second cube and entered a command. “The ancient Heracleans called it the Frequency of Secrets because it reveals that of which is hidden. It’s rare in nature and difficult to build an instrument that can handle it.”

“Once I’m out of this light, then you won’t be able to see my tattoos?”

“Among other things,” he said lightly tapping his right Altean marking. Keith touched his cheeks and noticed the soft glow emitting. “Aye, ye’ve got them. But we’re not done yet.” He pressed the confirmation command, signaling the cube to move.

“The tattoos on your arms represent your knighthood. Ye are no longer a squire. Ye are a knight: a paragon of honor, a warrior for the crown, the shadow of peace. King Alfor is your grand master. Ye obey his every word. Ye are sworn to protect not only him, but his family, especially the beautiful Princess Allura Caphira Ferriol Greisgoz as she is the future, and the future must be protected at all costs.” 

The tattooing cube scanned Keith’s chest and began to draw.

 “That was the spiel the initiator would say once ye’re tattooed. This is an outlier. A personal ceremony, from me to ye.” He touched the glowing marks on Keith’s face while the cube continued. The Mark of the Chosen. Keith was worthy to venture Oriande. Such a concept was a faerie tale, a myth, a bed time story for rowdy children. The initiator wouldn’t know. No one except himself, Alfor, and a handful of individuals who studied Oriande would know the meaning of the marks. No one must know. He would not let Keith fall into that hole.

“As ye gain more experience yer rank shall increase. With a higher rank comes benefits. For now ye are an apprentice. You have no title until ye reach the crusader rank.”

Keith’s chest was adorned with a beautiful sigil full of swirls and what appeared to be a bursting star. The emitting light was golden, matching perfectly with the ethereal design while his Order tattoos glowed white. Stride turned off the light cube, the tattoos disappearing completely. He held out his hand, which Keith took and walked along side with the knight.

Once again it was time for Keith to go.

“Let’s go home, kin.”