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Pride: On the Hunt

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The path to the Executor's Seat was long and stark. Black steel and dim lights lent what passed for the Galra throne room an eerie, oppressive quality, and a solemnity that could not be easily broken. Other races might have seen it as haughty or pretentious, but to a Galra its message was clear. The Executor had to walk this long, lonely path just as sure as those who sought an audience. A reminder of the grim duty of command.

She was there now, in simple battle armor rather than gaudy trappings: Executor Marmora, Arbiter of Justice, Grand Commander of the Galra, Overseer of the Search. Grand titles, but nobody to announce them as General Aurok approached. Her presence spoke for itself.

"Welcome, General." Her sharp gaze fell upon him. "I'm told you have troubling news."

Aurok didn't speak immediately, straightening before her and offering a salute. "Yes, Executor. It pertains to the Search."

That brought her up short. Pausing a moment herself, she leaned forward and removed her helmet; long blue-violet hair spilled over her shoulders, and her crimson eyes glowed faintly. The gesture was symbolic, granting him her full attention. "Proceed."

"The seeker ship Ruspathalos was lost in the middle of a search. We dispatched the hunter Vilakshi to complete its mission." All of this was routine. Ships were occasionally lost. Nothing worth bothering the Executor over. It was what had come after… "The Vilakshi has encountered oddities."

Steepling her fingers, the Executor studied him with glowing eyes. "I am listening."

"The Vilakshi followed a different route than the Ruspathalos, as is standard. On the first planet they reached, they made contact with a small Alliance vessel as they were departing. Per protocol, they ordered it to leave the system, and destroyed it when it refused." He made a face. "A relic was found on the planet, but was not secured properly and failed to reach the ship. When the Vilakshi returned to retrieve it, they could not find it, and there were footprints at the site that were not theirs. They found evidence of a landing site. Likely a similar vessel to the one they destroyed."

"It could not have been the locals?"

"No, Executor. The planet was uninhabited."

She nodded slowly. "Continue."

"There was nothing of interest on the next planet, but the site showed signs of recent disturbance. The third planet, the one where the Ruspathalos was lost, was heavily fortified. Orbital scans showed the site was overrun by the Alliance military. They chose to bypass it for the time being." Raiding small settlements in their path was one thing. Full scale military engagement was something else, and not to be conducted without higher authorization.

The Executor didn't seem concerned by that decision. "Good. Nothing to be gained by drawing further attention. Is there more?"

"Yes. There was a cache on the final planet." Over the centuries of the Search, they'd found many such facilities, used as waypoints or supply depots by the ancestors. "It too showed signs of being visited recently, and the data crystal was gone. It's unlikely to have held any information we lack, but…"

"…But it clearly means we are no longer alone in our Search." Marmora leaned back and closed her eyes. "What analysis can you offer?"

"It seems clear the Ruspathalos was taken intact. I have no doubt the crew will have done what was necessary, so the only information the Alliance might possess is what was stored in its computers. And now, presumably, whatever they manage to retrieve from the crystal—if anything. We have to assume a spacefaring race has the intelligence to at least partially decrypt it."

"Yes."

"The Alliance is young and warlike, despite its claims to work in the name of peace. They would be unworthy of the Defender. They can cause us inconvenience… but it also may benefit us to let them search, if they care to. At worst, and most likely, they'll do nothing useful. At best, they may blindly stumble over a stone we've left unturned."

Marmora considered this, closing her eyes for a few moments. "I agree," she said finally, quietly. "We will dispatch some Blades to listen more closely, and let the Alliance do as they will. Keep me informed."

"As you command, Executor. Vrepit sa."

She put her helmet back on. Symbolic, again. The audience was over, dismissing him to do what must be done. "Vrepit sa."

*****

Far across the stars, a very different scene was playing out before a very different throne. Vaulted golden ceilings framed an enormous room that seemed almost organic; the walls flowed and curved gently, not a single sharp corner to be seen. Where the walls met the floor, troughs of crystalline water fed by dozens of inset fountains smoothed the transition. A lush red carpet ran from the main doors to the throne, itself rising seamlessly from a high dais.

Standing at the throne's right arm, a pale blue-skinned Drule in ceremonial armor scowled out at the empty chamber. Prince Lotor, heir to the Ninth Kingdom of the Drule Supremacy, did not care much for wide open spaces. He preferred the sheltered privacy of his personal gym, or the confines of a cockpit. Places of power. Places where strength could be displayed and increased. Maybe the throne room would be better if it weren't so empty—it could hold a full legion of soldiers when necessary—but as it was? No, he didn't care for it at all.

"Stop fidgeting," came a gravelly voice from the throne. "One might think you find these proceedings beneath you."

Lotor winced, looking down to meet his father's glare. "I simply don't see what use it is to have me just standing here, when there are battles to be fought and wars to be won."

"Which is exactly why you're here." King Zarkon studied his son carefully. It wasn't the first time they'd discussed this. "Your position requires more than playing soldier, and you must rule as well as command. Now, be silent and learn."

Before Lotor could protest further, a page in royal silks stepped into the room. He walked to the very center of the carpet, bowed so low his forehead nearly touched the floor, and then spoke without making eye contact. "Announcing Admiral Yurak of the Anduslin's Fist armada, sire, as you ordered." Still bowing, he retreated, giving way to a grizzled old soldier whose eyepatch and battered armor looked very out of place here.

Immediately the prince was much more interested.

Admiral Yurak walked to the very foot of the dais before kneeling. "Lord Zarkon, we have reports from the front. The latest wave of conquest has gone almost wholly without incident."

Zarkon nodded approvingly. "Rise. Give me a full report."

Yurak saluted and stood. "Our intelligence operations were successful on Varfor, Kro, Arus, and Thusiorus. Each planet's defenders were routed easily. Preliminary actions against Olikk and Madre were unsuccessful, but fleet assaults were successful with only light casualties. We currently consider all but Arus and Madre pacified."

Zarkon's eyes narrowed slightly, and Lotor frowned more deeply. All in all it was a favorable report, but two planets in a single wave resisting was unusual. Aside from the upstart Alliance, very few powers in this galaxy could stand against a Drule fleet. "What exactly is the holdup?"

"Madre is only procedural, sire. It lacks a central power with the authority to surrender. Arus lies in ruins, but refuses to formally surrender; our ground forces will have to encourage them. You'll have the head of their King on a pike soon enough."

"Very well. Do you have anything else to report?"

"No, sire."

"Then go and see to the completion of the assaults. I expect to see plans for your next wave by the next moonfall." Zarkon paused a moment. "Remove the planet Pollux from the list of future targets. It will not require conquest."

"As you command, sire." Yurak bowed, then turned and departed.

Lotor felt his lip curling as he watched the admiral go. Turning one's back on the king in his own throne room? It would have been a mortal insult… unless one had the unflinching confidence in one's own service to know that the king would allow it. A champion of the Supremacy was accorded certain privileges, if they dared claim them. That? That was strength.

"Were you listening, Lotor?"

"Yes, Father. Our forces are victorious over the savages, as they should be."

"Not that." Zarkon gave an exasperated sigh. "Pollux. A planet on our new border. The armada will not be attacking it, because you'll be pacifying it alone."

What? Lotor turned to his father, eyes brightening. "Have they demanded a duel? A sol vandire challenge?" All this silly political posturing might be worth it after—

"—No." Zarkon bared his fangs in a mildly amused smirk. "They've offered up the hand of their princess in exchange for protection. She is far too young for my retinue, and it's high time you began to perform your diplomatic duties. You will court her."

Excitement turned to horror. Courtship? Had he really… "Father, you can't be serious?"

His father turned and speared him with a stern look, golden eyes glowing. "I am entirely serious, and I suggest you not test me. Pollux is a weak and insignificant planet. You will use this learning opportunity, because I won't have you embarrassing the Ninth Kingdom when more significant courtships are in play. Do I make myself understood?"

Staring longingly after Admiral Yurak, Lotor sighed. "Yes, Father."