Striking against the pale green of the scenery, the bright blue and gold of the Altean carriages and blazons add some life to an otherwise monotonous road. After little less than three weeks, the small contingent has finished crossing the barren lands of the border with its unwelcoming inns and camping sites, and is doing one last stop before they reach their final destination: the Red Palace, home to the king of Thayserix.
Sweating under his riding uniform and thankful for the cool shade of the trees, Sir Lance dismounts with a groan, stretching his sore limbs and cursing these lands’ excessive humidity. He doesn’t stall for his duties any longer, though. Before the fatigue settles, he swiftly tends to his mare, asks his men about the state of theirs and the cargo, and tosses around water canteens — only water for now, as he has repeatedly warned the rest of the Royal Guard during the trip. For other pleasures, they can wait until they make it safely to the city. But while on the road and on the other side of the border, they must remain in peak condition at all times.
He wants to believe they really listen to him, even if he knows most of them roll their eyes and end up doing the bare minimum to obey. Asides from his old friend Hunk, who joined the Guard just recently and who winks at him while chugging on his water, the rest are all seasoned men who expect a lot from him.
As the newly appointed Royal Princess’ First Guard, knighted by King Alfor himself, Sir Lance may be too young and inexperienced for such a big promotion, but since most of the men — his men now — actually watched him grow up and become the finest swordsman among them all, it's not like they can say there is no merit to it, hence their surprising tolerance.
So, be it because they see he is truly a hard worker, or just because his jokes are funny and reminiscent of the late Sir Blaytz (may his licentious soul rest in peace), at least most of them seem to trust him enough to follow him outside their beloved Altea without major incidents, and Lance can say he trusts them back, which is crucial for such a big mission like the current one.
And that same trust may be the reason why Royal Warden Coran suddenly appears by his side, huffing with irritation and trying to loosen the collar of his frilly blouse.
“My boy, I require your assistance,” he says in a whisper, wiping his forehead with a white handkerchief. Lance smirks.
“I don’t see any boys around here, Sir Coran. Who could you possibly be talking to?” he asks.
“Not a time for jokes, I'm afraid,” grumbles Coran, though he primps his mustache as if hiding a smirk of his own. “I need help with, uh...” He lowers his voice even more. “ The princess . Urgently. Do you think you can lend a hand?”
When Lance drinks from his canteen for all answer, looking at him devilishly, the old man rolls his eyes and reluctantly grumbles: “ Sir Lance. Please.”
“But of course. It will be my pleasure, Sir Coran,” answers the knight, patting the warden’s back and trying not to laugh at his irritated face. But as they walk towards the main carriage, his expression becomes more serious.
“Still not a word?” he asks.
“None,” Coran shakes his head, defeated. “I’ve tried everything. And for two days already, she hasn’t even touched her food. Please, Lance, at least try to make her eat something. If this continues she may fall ill before we even arrive.”
“Can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do. Just make sure to stay around so no one starts any nasty rumors,” answers the young knight. He looks around to identify any potential peeps before climbing the steps to enter the elegant blue and gold carriage where the heart of their contingent, the royal princess herself, sits alone in stubborn silence.
Princess Allura of Altea is always a sight to behold. With her gauzy dresses showing just enough of her lustrous dark skin to admire its almost mystical glow, her silver curls cascading down her back and shoulders, and her gorgeous aquamarine eyes, any person with hot blood running through their veins would need to take a moment before daring to approach her.
Lance, however, just sits in front of her without ceremony. Before she became this breathtaking woman, she was a girl — a girl he has seen covered in mud, hanging upside down from trees and catching fish with her bare hands in the pond of her own elegant palace, with her maids running behind her and begging her to behave.
These images are the reason he can’t help smiling when he sees her there, now all grown up, with legs and arms crossed in a posture reminiscent of their old days, looking out the small window to her right. Her lips are pressed so tightly they look pale, and she obstinately ignores the abundant plate of food in front of her.
When he remembers the reason for this unusual behavior, though, the smile disappears. The knight sighs before he speaks softly.
“Your Highness. You haven’t touched your food.”
Silence. She doesn’t even acknowledge his presence there.
“You know what will happen if you don’t eat, don't you?” he says. Her eyebrows twitch, and Lance takes it as a good sign. In a bad imitation of Coran’s pompous voice, he adds: “Your belly will start grumbling right in front of the king of Thayserix, and they shall say even the Royal Princess starves in our kingdom. Disgraceful!”
The rigid line of her mouth crooks down, and she blinks quickly. Lance, though quite stiff in his riding uniform, somehow manages to kneel down in front of her, put the plate of food aside, and offer her a gloved hand.
“C’mon, Allura. Don’t do this to yourself. It won’t solve anything.”
“But I just can’t stand this, Lance. I feel… I feel like I’m dying inside,” she finally confides, her voice raspy after barely using it for two whole weeks. Big tears are forming in the corner of her eyes. “What does it matter if I eat, if I’m dying anyway?”
“But you are not dying! Isn't that the point of this trip?” asks Lance in an uplifting tone, and she sniffles as she clutches his hand, finally letting her tears fall over after holding them back for so long.
Lance tries to keep his encouraging smile in place, but it’s so heartbreaking watching his dearest friend cry with such raw pain. Allura was never one to cry in front of him, or anyone; in fact, it was usually the other way around. That's why he knows, if she is letting out her bottled feelings now, it’s only because she really can’t stand the situation. The closeness to their destination must feel like an imminent deadline to her own happiness.
He rubs her soft hand and feels useless. Even if he finally achieved his dream of being knighted and named the head of her Royal Guard, he is still powerless when it comes to commands from above, no matter how wicked or selfish they may be.
Still, with a soft voice, he tries his best to cheer her up.
“Lu. Look at me.” At that old nickname only his closest friends use with her, the Princess looks at his eyes. Tears still run down her rosy cheeks, and Lance tries his best to smile at her, though his own throat feels a bit tight. “You may be doing this for your father and your kingdom, yes. But don't forget. Most importantly, this is for your own sake. And, well… for his sake.”
Allura closes her puffy eyes and sobs. Lance gets even closer, throwing a quick glance at the window. It could cost him his head if anyone were to misinterpret the scene, but closeness is his best way to console, one he is talented at. He holds her hands tighter.
“Cry, Lu, it's alright, you are in your right to cry all you want now. But please, eat something too. We need you healthy and strong when we meet the king. You never know when something bad could happen.”
“I hope something bad happens,” she hiccups with resentment, grabbing a napkin from her plate to dry her eyes. Lance shakes his head and offers her one of Coran's handkerchiefs instead.
“Don't say that. Remember what your father said: if the king of Thyserix was an awful man, he would never have you marry him…”
“Oh, how kind of him! He cares the man he is selling her only daughter to, like some sort of trophy, is at least decent! How magnanimous!” she grunts, and Lance sits back in front of her.
“Allura, seriously stop this. You know why we're doing this. And, by the way, I know you're mad at your father, but you shouldn’t be so mean to poor old Coran. He only wants to keep you safe.”
“I know! I know. It's just…” the Princess’ pleading eyes are watery again when she looks at him in despair. “It’s so unfair ! Lancey, you know all my life I’ve done everything that has been requested of me. But the one thing I want, I can’t have it. And not only that… for wanting it, our lives are in danger!”
“Yes, I know, but that’s how things are. We can’t change our customs overnight,” mutters Lance, extending an arm to caress her head as she bends forward and hides her face between her arms.
He must admit, it's strange to hear himself say this. He used to be reckless and rebellious as a child, always willing to bend any rules, especially the unfair ones. That's how they became friends, in fact. That’s pretty much how he got where he is right now.
A bit uncomfortable, Lance tries to convince himself this is only because of the severity of the situation and not because his new status is mellowing him. After all, he cares a lot about keeping all their heads attached to their respective necks, even if Allura doesn't, and apparently, neither does that man. He still doesn't know if he admires his unexpected guts or despises his also unexpected foolishness.
Sighing, Lance repeats the same things he has already said a hundred times before.
“Lotor is a member of your Council, and your father's protegee. He owes him more than anyone. Even if you got spared, he would never be. You know that already…”
“But it is so unfair ! He loves me, and I love him!” exclaims Allura.
“Shh, not so loud! C’mon, Lu, we came all this way to protect you two. We already had this conversation: two people in love, far apart but alive, are better than two married corpses!” Lance reminds her.
“I know! I just... I just…”
Allura seems about to burst. She suddenly grabs one of her cushions, buries her face on it and screams. And Lance, who knows her benting habits after fifteen years by her side, takes it as another good sign and just lets her do her thing. He stretches to pick one of the Altean fruits on her untouched plate and starts peeling it with his golden dagger.
“Alright, alright, Your Highness. We are less than half a day from Thayserix, we can’t have you arriving there looking like you just fought a yalmor in the stables. Eat this, and have Romelle do something about that face.”
“ ‘That face’ ? Do you have a deathwish, Sir Lance?” grumbles Allura, emerging from the cushion to wipe her tears and snot with zero of her usual grace and poise while taking with little delicacy the slice of fruit Lance offers her and munching it aggressively. “You know my great-grandmother had the Count of Olkarion beheaded because he innocently pointed out she had some grime in her left eye, right?”
“I know, but I also know she uh, set herself on fire to prove she wouldn’t burn because she didn’t have oily skin, so… excuse me if I don’t take it too seriously…” says Lance, slicing another bit and offering it to her.
“Silence,” she snaps as she takes it, but there’s less tension on her face now, and Lance breathes relieved.
The princess is not happy, but at least she will stay healthy, and that is enough for now. Lance stares at her while keeping an encouraging facade all the time. Deep down, he wishes he could free her from this heavy load unfairly put upon her shoulders. If he could, he would do it, no matter the cost. But, since there is really no way he can... deeper down, he just hopes the king of Thayserix is as good as rumors say, so he turns out to be the man who’ll dissuade his best friend from flirting with death over an infatuation that, in Lance’s humble opinion, may or may not prevail in time.
Not like he can say that out loud. Much like with his neck, he'd rather keep his eyes in their respective sockets too, so it’s better to not provoke the princess while she holds a fork as she does now, finally eating with good appetite what Coran prepared for her.
After he makes sure Allura eats a bit more, Lance wipes his dagger and announces he’s leaving to keep an eye on his men. Before he can step out, though, Allura stops him by grabbing his forearm.
“Lance. You know I will always do what’s best for my people and my family,” she murmurs, looking at the floor. Exhaling, she raises her eyes to meet his. They are bloodshot and tired, but they could melt the coldest heart together with that pained voice, as she adds: “So, please... don’t leave me alone through this.”
Lance feels his chest aching. Still, he smiles and ruffles her hair.
“I’ll never leave you alone, Your Highness. That’s our promise, isn’t it?”
With her little smile and her sad eyes fixed on his mind, Sir Lance leaves the carriage and winks at a worried Coran who waits impatiently outside together with Romelle, the princess’ assistant. At his reassuring smile, both hurry inside to tend to Her Highness, and Lance walks back to Blue, his loyal mare. He caresses her soft pelt.
“We’ve still got some way to go, girl. Are you tired?”
She stands there proud, her lustrous pelt shining under the strong morning sun. Lance nuzzles her, sighing, as he watches the tall trees around them, so pale and strange. There is trouble in the horizon of these foreign lands, he can tell. They are running away from one problem while falling head first into another, after all.
Queen Melenor of Altea died when her daughter Allura was small, and King Alfor never took another wife, no matter how much his counselors insisted. As a result, Princess Allura is the only heir to the throne and, as such, she is not allowed to marry anyone who doesn’t have a proper title; dukes and some gutsy marquesses have tried since her birth to convince Alfor to give his only child’s hand to their sons and, sometimes, even to themselves. In Altean traditional fashion, though, touching her without the king’s approval can mean immediate death to the offender, and that has kept her safe, though tied to his father’s decisions.
However, unlike most of the ladies from the strict Altean court, Allura has been trained to rule just like her father before her, which has already been frowned upon. She attends meetings, takes part in reunions, and has her own Royal Council to help her make important decisions. Her council is also training grounds for some promising young advisors, closely watched by the elders. Alfor, a man fully dedicated to progress, considered it was a good idea to prepare people he could trust when his moment and the elder’s comes, fervently believing he is securing a bright future for Altea.
And it may have been so, save for a small miscalculation. Regardless of how much of a careful planner and generous patron the king is, he never even imagined that Allura could fall in love with one of her own advisors, much less one he himself trusts so much. Lotor, a young scholar, is one of the many orphans Alfor took under his wing after the war against Daibazaal ended a couple of decades ago, and also one of his favorites.
They say the smartest men fall in love like fools, and Lance thinks it must be true, since Lotor — always composed, a bit cynical, coolheaded, overall irritating individual Lance avoids — had to be persuaded by force to not go beg King Alfor for Allura’s hand. No matter how much Alfor trusts him, he is still a son of no one, a man without titles or lands. Alfor could never approve of it, even if he wanted to; the Altean court dwellers who have crawled around the throne for years would absolutely revolt against their king. And, honestly, if he knew what happened in the corridors of his own castle behind his back, he would hardly be happy about it.
And, to top it all: if the scandal was known, the Law Keepers would legally have the right to behead both youngsters, in the most gruesome outcome possible to this whole tragic affair.
So there are obviously many reasons why the secret must be treated as such. The only ones who know it are Romelle, Coran and Lance. Coran was informed by Romelle the night Lotor tried to tell Alfor, and he was the one who quickly threw a plan over the table to distract the attention and secure the princess’ life, even if it meant separating both lovebirds. He was the one who came up with the idea to write an offer for the young king of Thayserix, and therefore, he is actually the one who had them crossing through the unfriendly lands of the border.
But Lance can’t help feeling uneasy right now. Somehow, everything is happening too fast. Too smoothly. King Alfor, so overprotective of his daughter, suddenly sending her away to meet a King who just ascended, in a kingdom with a history of inner and outward betrayals behind it, is… quite suspicious, to say the least.
Snapping out of his thoughts, Sir Lance takes a deep breath, rearranges his riding leathers, and tries to push away his fears. After all, he is Allura’s Sir Protector, and her wellbeing is all that matters to him. If he is with her, his sword will cut through anyone who dares to hurt her, and this certainty lifts some pressure off his shoulders.
He shouldn’t overanalyze things, that is something he has never been good at. This is just their first diplomatic mission of many to come, hopefully, and what he must worry about right now is not blowing it. There is much more at stake than his own name and title here, after all.
Throwing one last look at Allura’s carriage, he gathers his usual confidence, mounts Blue and yells at the loud group of people around:
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen. We are only about half a day from the Red Palace. Make sure you prepare everything so we make a good impression when we arrive and cross the city. Time to get moving!”
And, he must admit, a good part of his fears go away just by the swift way in which maids and guards alike answer to his command with a sharp: “Yes, sir!”
The contingent stops and gasps when the bumpy road leads them to the top of a slope and, before them, the view opens in the form of a circle of mountains, their rocky sides covered by the same pale green flora from the road, framing an impressive city composed by thousands of dark buildings. It becomes clear the Red City owes its name to the multiple low roofs, angled in subtle curves, and to the big walls drawing a tight circle right in the middle of everything, both painted in different shades of red. The Red Palace itself lies right behind said walls and its strange towers are visible even from the distance. The Alteans look at it with some apprehension, but they continue pushing forward at once, longing for comfortable beds.
“So, care to make a summary on what we know about King Shiro?” Lance asks Coran as they resume the march, their horses trotting at a measured pace next to each other.
“Well. We know he is quite young and reliable, from what we have been told. He had to step in after his father’s sudden death and has made a fairly good job. He is well loved among his people,” answers the warden, frowning at the view of the city. “Still, I’d rather save any further opinions until we have met him. I will not deny it is a bit unsettling that his father died at such a young age and in alleged good health.”
“You suspect him or something?” Lance inquiries.
“As I said, I’d rather save my opinion for later,” repeats Coran, sighing. He throws a look back at Allura’s carriage. “We have to tread carefully. The worst that could happen is that our escape route becomes a deadly trap.”
“Considering how things were left in Altea, I highly doubt it can get any worse,” points Lance.
“It can always get worse,” replies Coran, pulling the tips of his ginger mustache nervously.
“You are such a pessimist, Sir Coran. Maybe they’ll just fall in love and we will all get our deserved happy ending,” says Lance, shrugging at the warden, who rolls his eyes. “Is he handsome, at least?”
“From what I’ve heard, he is. Thayserix’s royal family has always been praised for producing beautiful heirs, as you may know. That has brought them both profit and disgrace,” says Coran. He chews on his own cheek, before adding: “This one is raven-haired, has sharp eyes and high cheekbones. Good built, and a kind smile. That is what our ambassador said, at least.”
“Sounds like someone has the hots for the king already, huh,” he jokes.
“Beauty can be a lethal distraction, my dear lad. Keep your sword close to you every moment we spend there and don’t let them fool you. Thayserix may be in need of our help right now, but I’m sure not all of its citizens have forgotten our past quarrellings,” warns the older man.
“That goes without saying, Sir Coran. That’s what I’m here for,” states Lance, feeling the familiar and reassuring weight of his sword hanging on his right side.
Of course Coran will worry since that is his job, but Lance is pretty sure they are at an advantage, at least politically wise. The arrangement for the two heir’s meeting landed like a divine miracle for Thayserix, after all. After the previous king suddenly died, the kingdom lost a lot of trading deals and the support from their allies on the other side of the sea. Surrounded by Daibazaal and Altea, King Shiro probably has no other choice than secure an alliance with any of them, and being a known fact that King Zarkon from Daibazaal isn’t a man who excels at diplomacy, the only choice left is pretty clear. Altea can benefit from a territorial advantage, and Thayserix is in dire need of Altea’s gold, so what could possibly go wrong?
For now at least, nothing, thinks Sir Lance while proudly crossing the streets of the Red City, where people come out of their homes to watch them march towards the Palace, cheering and flying beautiful paper constructions that elevate in the sky and dot it full of colors and figures, like flocks of birds in vibrant hues. He has never seen those before, and he smiles widely while advancing through the main street, as the merchants and pedestrians make way for the Altean contingent with respect that borders on reverence.
After a while, though, Lance can’t help noticing these people don’t look as well-off as their own citizens back in Altea. The dark pebble streets and the buildings look ancient and solemn, but the people themselves exude that tense aura only poverty can trigger. He knows a bit about that, he thinks, holding the reins tighter. Still, he smiles at the kids that point at him and his white horse and distracts himself by admiring the differences in the architecture of this city compared to Altea, the only place he knew until now, while trying to hide his naive excitement and look serious and reliable.
It’s when they finally reach the red gates of the Palace that the jumpy nature of his nerves truly gets to him.
“I didn’t even have time to change my riding clothes, I don’t like this,” he mumbles to Coran, who chuckles.
“It’s not your appearance what matters, my boy. Just make sure you look respectable enough, and so do your men once we are inside,” answers the Warden.
Lance gulps. When the doors open, he inhales and exhales deeply, and then barks some orders at his men. They enter first, the carriages behind them, and Allura’s one right in the middle.
The Red Palace makes honor to its name with its impressive wall surrounding it, its hundreds of shiny pillars, and its roofs, all made of bright red wood or clay, and even though Lance knew about this from the books he has read, he is still momentarily breathless at the unexpected beauty of the place.
The front esplanade was built out of polished pale stone, which helps shed some light to an otherwise dark environment. Aside from the stunning red ornaments everywhere, the rest of the colors are quite washed out, giving the place the aspect of an old sacred place. The entrance to the Palace is framed by tens of red pillars that compose a wide corridor leading to what seems to be the main hall, very far in the distance. To each side, there are multiple other narrow corridors surrounded by gardens, connecting the main hall to four or five pointy buildings, many stories tall, made of dark wood and stone with round windows framed in red and slanted red roofs crowning them, like huge versions of the city houses.
Sir Lance remembers to shut his mouth on time, clearing his throat and commanding his men to descend from their horses and form in front of the first set of stairs that lead to the entrance, where a line of soldiers and courtiers dressed in solid black and red are already waiting for them.
He checks on his company and corroborates they are standing in clean formation just as instructed, to his utmost relief. Proud, he feels his chest swelling as Coran hurries back to the princess’ carriage to help her descend from it. Lance walks in front of his people instead, facing the Thayserians who look at them like hawks. They actually look like servants and guards, and Lance is glad they are not being received directly by the king himself, feeling uncomfortable under his sweaty clothes. The trip was long and the entire contingent needs to refresh before the anticipated meeting…
That’s when, suddenly, the local soldiers break their formation in two, leaving some space right in the middle. The servants hurry to the sides, keeping their heads low, and a figure appears from behind them and walks resolutely to Lance’s encounter.
He is dressed in black from head to toe, from his shiny boots to his elegant silk robe, a garment Lance hasn’t seen before, decorated in soft grey patterns that surround his wide torso like a painted canvas. Just like the Palace itself, the only ornament that adds some color to his outfit is a long red scarf, crossing his chest and dangling behind him, secured to his shoulders by two silver pins with the shape of flowers — flowers whose name escapes him right now but are Thayserix royal family’s crest. The ends of the silky scarf flutter like a weightless cape behind him as he walks.
This time it’s not that easy to keep his jaw from slacking. The closer the man gets, the more Lance can appreciate his gorgeous features while feeling absolutely struck by them.
So... what had Coran said about King Shiro?
Dark hair, sharp eyes, high cheekbones…
Check, check, and check. The man’s pale face is framed by rebellious black hair that falls to his shoulders and suits him disturbingly well, despite its unkempt state. The rigid line of his mouth is not amiable, but Lance can’t stop staring at it, his head momentarily empty with only Coran’s voice resonating inside.
Beauty can be a lethal distraction…
Indeed, thinks the Altean First Royal Guard sweating a bit, because in that regal attitude and the way the man’s eyes scan the whole contingent and then settle on him as if measuring him, he can testify that ‘lethal’ and ‘beauty’ can absolutely go together, and the king of Thayserix is the living proof of that.
But he isn’t one to be intimidated by looks, no sir. He will let nothing distract him from his duties, and this is the best moment to show that. Sweeping his hair back and then taking his fist to his chest — ignoring how his feet seem to need some convincing before moving again—, he walks until he meets the king in the middle of the courtyard, and before they can lock eyes, he bends the knee and lowers his head, wishing to appear humble and obliging.
“Your Majesty,” he says loudly so his people can hear him too. “It is truly an honor to make your acquaintance. I am Sir Lance of Altea, and I speak in behalf of Princess Allura of Altea, deeply grateful for your welcome, and in hopes of being of service to you, as you may see fit.”
Silence. Lance is satisfied with his words for around three seconds until he notices the unnatural silent around him. He frowns, not daring to raise his face yet, a bit taken aback by the fact he doesn’t even get an answer, until, finally, a manly voice answers him.
“Welcome. Our king is eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
A pause. Lance, stunned, raises his eyes slowly, and he finds the man’s eyes not looking at him, but at the people and the carriages. From this close, Lance notices a scar that crosses his right cheek, and also the long sword hanging at his left side, as well as his gloved hands.
If he wasn’t so dazzled by that first impression, he could have noticed before that the man has no crown and probably never will. He confirms it when he finally has the delicacy of introducing himself.
“I am Keith, King Shiro’s Shield Guardian. I am to lead you to your new chambers…” The man makes a pause, and his eyes settle on Lance again. With a smirk, he murmurs: “ Your Majesty.”
And that’s when Lance feels the weight of the entire world dropping right over his head. Unable to turn back to his people, with his cheeks burning, he watches how the Thayserians hurry to help the Alteans with their luggage and horses, while this Lord Keith turns around with the ghost of a smile lingering on his lips. Pinned to the floor and humiliated, Lance’s mind fills with gibberish until he reconnects his brain to his limbs and then, furious, adrenaline propels him forward, deaf to Coran’s call coming from behind.
“Wait a moment! Hey!”
Lord Keith stops and looks back, curious. Lance struggles a bit to find his words. He doesn’t remember ever being this mad in his entire life.
“You— How— You!!”
“Excuse me?” asks Keith, looking unimpressed. This irritating attitude is like oil to Lance’s already burning rage.
“You... How could you let me bend the knee in front of you instead of your king? Have you no shame?!” he fumes.
Keith makes a pause, staring at him with cold eyes. And Lance adds another unwanted discovery to his list: the knight’s irises are colored in a strange shade of violet, regarding him with an intensity that makes him feel they can see through him. His heart beats faster at this against his will, and he notices the heat creeping up from his neck up to his cheeks once more. Worse, when Keith smirks again, his gaze inevitably drops to his full lips instead.
“It was funny,” he says, shrugging. He smirks wider at Lance’s outraged expression, and turning around, he adds: “Your men are really loyal to you. Laudable, though I honestly feel for them.”
He starts walking again and Lance stays there letting his arms dangle foolishly by his sides, confused, until he hears Coran’s voice calling him and he turns around to find the group of Alteans and Thayserians catching up to them. The Alteans look at the tall ceiling and the splendidly illuminated corridor with curiosity, but the warden, followed closely by Allura, stomps his way like a pissed off yalmor.
“What was that, Sir Lance?! Do you intend to shame us in front of our hosts since day one?!” he nags in muffled but furious whispers.
“I-I’m sorry. I honestly thought— I mean, did you see him? You said— Uh...” stutters Lance, ashamed.
“Don’t be so hard on Sir Lance, Coran. Besides, you saw how the guards reacted, didn’t you?” says Allura, amused. It’s the first time Lance sees her smile sincerely in weeks. Coran sighs, shaking his head.
“What did they do?” Lance asks eyeing his men, uneasy. The least he needs right now is sabotaging his own leadership among them in alien territory, yet there he goes, blowing everything for hurrying too much, like he promised he would never do again.
However, at that moment he catches sight of Hunk, just when Coran grumbles:
“They also kneeled down. So you looked less foolish, and we looked way more well behaved than we really are. Truly, nothing short of a miracle.”
But the miracle has a name for sure, and when Hunk gives Lance two thumbs up, the knight seriously considers running his way and asking for his hand in marriage right there. He has done enough damage to their first impression as it is, though, so he has to be content with putting his hands together and murmuring a teary ‘thank you’ while making a mental note to get his friend the finest ale or similar treat these lands can offer. The rest of the men don’t look too worried about it, luckily. Maybe they think that was the right protocol. Maybe they just want to save face.
Or maybe the Thayserians maids are also very pretty and very distracting, which explains their dumbfounded looks, though Lance, very uncharacteristically, has trouble paying attention to that with Lord Keith’s hateful smirk imprinted in his memory, filling his stomach with nothing but pure liquid rage and an uneasy, unwelcome tension.
If he felt any less foolish after knowing what his men did for him, Lance goes back to the pits of self-hatred when he actually meets the king and cannot even fathom how he could mix him with such an unpleasant creature as his shield guardian.
King Shiro welcomes his guests at his salon that night, including the surprised soldiers, who look dazzled around the huge black room decorated with paintings and heavy drapes embroidered in silver, while drinking and eating like shy children from the silver trays held by servants, dressed in elegant silks. The princess, her warden, and her first guard are invited to sit with the king and his closest counselors at a table next to a huge fireplace.
Lance confirms the accuracy of the rumors immediately: King Shiro is one of the most handsome men he has ever seen, and every part of the description they were previously given fits him, but also falls short. Dressed in elegant black and white silks and wearing for all ornaments a thin tiara and a long cape held by a silver pin, similar to Keith’s, he exhibits a surprisingly strong constitution, a chiselled face, black hair disturbed only by a single strip of white, and a gorgeous smile that has the magic effect of relaxing everyone around him.
Even Allura, who Lance is sure must be set on hating him forever, can’t help mirroring his smile when he respectfully thanks her for traveling so far to visit him, apologizing for inconveniencing her and her people. She even stutters a bit when she answers it was not an inconvenient at all and, after that, she makes sure to display the best of her social abilities, to Coran’s relief and Lance’s surprise.
The knight, however, can barely keep his attention on the conversation or the delicious local food they are trying for the first time. Every two minutes or so, his gaze drifts to King Shiro’s right, where his shield guardian sits in apathetic silence, avoiding everyone’s looks and eating in silence.
His blue eyes may as well be burning a hole in Lord Keith’s garments, but Lance doesn’t care, sipping the soup from his spoon and frowning. It’s only when the king speaks to him that he shifts his expression, quickly going back to his charming self.
“By no means I intend to be rude, but you look very young, sir, which is quite intriguing,” says King Shiro, smiling again. “May I ask for your name and title?”
“I am Sir Lance, Your Majesty. First guard to our princess,” answers the knight, a bit embarrassed.
“Oh, I see! Isn’t that similar to your title, Keith?” King Shiro turns his head to him and the aforementioned nods in silence. The king flashes the faintest smirk before speaking again. “Lord Keith here is also very young, but also truly skilled. As such, he is my shield guardian. I guess you could say he is my right-hand man... Or, rather, the eyes I need in my back.”
Lance notices the way Keith's eyebrows twitch at these words, and the way he presses his lips.
“Ah, yes, much similar! Our king also has a first guard, knighted by himself. We call them "sir". I understand you don’t use that honorific around these lands, am I correct?” Coran inquiries.
“You are correct, Sir Coran,” answers King Shiro amiably, but Lance feels his stomach aflame at this exchange.
So... not only was he treated like a peasant by someone with his same rank, but also by someone who is around the same age and still manages to look all… regal? Irritatingly majestic?
Regal… It’s then when Lance realizes. It’s not that he’s still trying to find an excuse for his dumb mistake, yet he cannot help but notice: Lord Keith and King Shiro, sitting side by side, look eerily alike. If not because of Lord Keith’s scowl and the overall sharpness of his pale face, they could perfectly be mistaken as family.
He opens his mouth without thinking, but luckily for him, Coran is faster to speak. This time he addresses the man sitting at King Shiro’s left, who has been silent until now.
“What about you, Milord? May we have your name?”
It’s the first time Lance pays him any mind, which is quite surprising, considering he is a lot different to the other two men, and actually much more like their own group, from his light hazelnut eyes and hair to his olive skin. He has a soft voice and keeps a serious visage as he answers:
“My apologies, sir. My name is Adam. I am Thayserix’s Lord Captain and Head of the Royal Guard. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
From his name to his appearance, any Altean in the room could tell that is a man who wasn’t born among the pale, humid mountains of Thayserix. If not for his title and garments, he could perfectly pass for one of their own.
Correctly interpreting their stares, King Shiro casually confirms it.
“Yes. He was born in Altea, but he was raised here. And I may sound biased, but there’s no one more loyal to the Lotus family than this man.”
‘Lotus’ , thinks Lance, looking at the flower pins. The family crest, a flower that doesn’t grow in Altean territory.
The Lord Captain blushes faintly.
“I don’t deserve such high praise, Your Highness,” he says, sharply.
“You do,” retorts King Shiro, and Lance is almost sure Lord Adam bit his tongue before forcing a smile and nodding politely. Before anyone can add anything else, the king calls for his servants again, and the banquet continues for at least a couple of hours.
During all this time, Lord Keith doesn’t say a word unless he is prompted to by his king, and the only moment the shadow of a smile appears on his lips is when King Shiro mispronounces a word in old Altean after a couple of glasses of some local liquor, apologizing to the princess, who —again against her will, probably— can’t help chuckling, as Sir Coran praises the king nonstop for knowing so much about their culture.
And it’s something in that little smile that sparks some initiative and makes Sir Lance follow Lord Keith when he walks towards the fireplace, clearly trying to get away from the group. When the shield guardian notices, he raises an eyebrow forming an unwelcoming grimace.
By the gods, Lance has never wanted to punch someone right after meeting them until now.
“So, Lord Keith. I'm surprised we have so much in common."
Silence. Lance inhales furiously, but then forces a smile, nonchalantly supporting his hand on the stone around the fireplace.
"I have an idea. Why don't we arrange a sparring session? Since we are both knights and share the same status, wouldn’t it be a nice way to show the goodwill between our kingdoms?” he proposes, sounding a bit more pompous than he would have liked, but for some reason, he can’t seem to control his stupid mouth, nor his sudden desire to show off his skills.
Lord Keith, however, tilts his head, raises the glass he holds in his right hand, and sips from it slowly, looking right into Lance’s eyes in silence, barely blinking. Sir Lance gulps.
Then he chides himself for gulping.
The dancing flames from the fireplace reflect on those purple eyes, creating the illusion of burning coals, hypnotic. But just when Sir Lance notices he may be staring too much, Lord Keith opens his mouth and says:
“I’m sorry. What was your name again...?”
“The name’s Lance, you dipshit,” mumbles Lance two hours later, bow in hand and pointing at the targets he found behind the barracks where his men were accommodated. He always resorts to the first combat art he learned during his youth, the one he is best at and fills him with the confidence he needs whenever he is stressed.
And, by the gods, if he is not beyond stressed right now...
He lifts the bow and pulls the string, feeling its tension with his whole body, while his shaken heart beats madly fast at the memory of burning eyes, full of contempt.
He locks on the target, sharp eye focusing on it, but he has to fight the images that cross his mind, that cold profile he stared at from the ground like an idiot that afternoon, that mocking smirk that was nothing like that small glimpse of a true smile he showed at the salon. He grits his teeth and through them, he groans:
The arrow whistles in its fast flight and lands with a loud thud in the border of the target. Lance curses, kicking the ground bitterly and throwing the bow away. Everything fails him this hateful day.
“I’ll show you!” he mumbles, biting his thumb out of pure frustration. It’s like he can almost see that face laughing at him after his failure. It makes his blood boil in an unprecedented way, it makes him want to face him and just… change it. Change it completely.
This is so not like him. Taking deep breaths, he tries to regain some control over his own head.
“I’ll show you,” he repeats, less furious now, looking up at the sky.
He’ll do so, indeed. He’ll do so, even if he vaguely questions himself why is he feeling such a violent need to prove himself before someone other than his own king. He quickly discards these questions, though, taking deep breaths of the humid air of Thayserix.
‘ It’s alright’ , he tells himself. He lost a battle — fine, maybe two battles. But not the war.
No, sir .
The war is just starting.