Word had spread quickly through the ship about the prince’s relapse. As did the order to keep the princess of Arus in the dark about just why he had gotten so ill. Not everyone agreed with this decision, but it was the prince’s to make. They would not go against him. No matter how much the princess pestered and annoyed them. And not just with her questions, Princess Allura hardly behaving in an exemplary fashion.
She was rude, and downright hostile at times. She was angry about the forced way she had been brought on board the ship. She harbored resentment against those who would not release her. Allura was even scared. Frightened of Prince Lotor, and frightened of what would happen to her should he die. She was unable to decide what was the better course for her. To remain as Lotor’s prisoner, or to have the prince die, leaving her future uncertain.
Her behavior didn’t always endear her to the other Drules. They tried to make allowances for her, understanding she was upset and under a lot of stress due to the situation she found herself in. But that understanding could only extend so far, Allura trying their patience. Thus it was no surprise when certain people began sniping back at her, no longer able to tolerate her rudeness. Especially when they were filled with such concern about their prince.
Ryder tried to get along with Allura. He truly did. But it was impeded by the fact that the attempts were nearly one sided on his part. Allura tried his patience under the best of circumstances, leaving the communication’s expert avoiding her as much as he could. It was easy to do that. With Lotor out of commission, the duties of a leader fell onto Ryder’s shoulders. It was up to Ryder to make snap decisions, and keep everyone calm aboard the ship.
With Lotor seeming to weaken by the day, the Drules were growing increasingly worried. They saw their plans falling apart, their futures clouded in uncertainty. They had risked much to go along with Prince Lotor’s scheme, daring to give up their careers and their world to follow him into a new life. As things stood now, if Lotor died, they would be lost. Unable to return to Doom for fear of Zarkon discovering what they had attempted to do.
Sighing, Ryder brought his fingers to his temples. He began rubbing in circles, as though that could ward off his headache. He hadn’t been sleeping very much these last few days, and it was starting to take a toll on him. But there was so much to do, so much to try and hold together. There was fears to calm, and new plans to be made. The one thing no one had taken into account before departing on this mad quest was what would happen if Lotor were to die. He was everything, the foundation in which all their hopes and dreams laid upon.
And now he lay in what could very well be his death bed. Ryder let out a silent snarl, hating that he had had that thought. He hated even more that the thought might have truth to it. And there was nothing he could do to change Lotor’s fate, he could only wait and hope for the best. Ryder wished he could be as ignorant as some of the other Drules onboard the ship. The ones who came to him, seeking reassurance that everything would be fine. He had given some pretty lies, all in order to keep the crew from panicking, and all the while Ryder wished he could believe what he said to them.
If there was ever a time to start praying, it was now. Ryder did not know if any God would deign to listen to his prayers, not after falling out of favor with religion for so long. But he was still willing to try, sitting in the ship’s small chapel. It wasn’t much to look at. It had been added as an after thought, the room small and insignificant compared to the size of the ship. Even with as bare bones a crew as this ship had, they all wouldn’t have all been able to fit inside the chapel at one time. It didn’t matter, since no regular sermons were being held.
They had no priest, just a few statues of the more popular Drule Gods. It was a quiet place, meant to offer comfort and the space for contemplation and prayers. Since Lotor’s relapse, it had been receiving a lot more visitors. The Drules left offerings by the feet of the statues. The offerings were small, but items that had meaning. People leaving medallions, small blades, even locks of hair.
Ryder himself had placed a medallion, one whose center was scarred from the direct impact of a laser. It had saved his life, the medallion deflecting a laser meant for his heart. That medallion had become Ryder’s good luck charm, one he had kept with him for years. He’d gladly give it up now if it meant the prince would survive the fever a second time.
Still massaging his temples, Ryder tried to clear his mind of everything but the prayers he wanted to say. “Don’t let him die.” His tone was fierce, almost lacking respect as he address the chapel’s deities. “He deserves a chance at happiness…at a real life free of the hardships that have been dealt him.”
He tried not to think of those hardships, wanting to focus instead on the happiness Lotor thought he could find with the princess of Arus. Ryder didn’t know if she was the key to Lotor’s healing, the Drule finding her personality to be prickly at best. But he knew they said love was blind to all faults, and if that was true, then maybe Lotor would be able to ignore much of Allura’s anger.
Regardless of how the princess acted, Ryder was counting on—hoping, that her presence, her very nearness, would be the balm Lotor’s soul needed. If the prince could recover from the abuse Zarkon had done to him, maybe then there was real hope for the Doom Empire’s future. Of course Lotor would always carry the physical scars of what Zarkon had done to him, but maybe in a spiritual sense he’d be all right. No longer tortured mentally and emotionally, and able to function in a capacity that didn’t involve running away from all his current responsibilities.
The Empire needed help. Of that there was no doubt. They needed a strong leader, one of sane mind and of a less quick to anger temper. Zarkon may have been strong, but his mind was twisted. He did things no Drule should ever do, and his anger was quick to trigger. He needed to be replaced, but no one would dare try. Not even Lotor, the prince seeming to have given up all hope in defeating his father.
That just show how thoroughly Zarkon had beaten Lotor, abused him to the point his spirit had cracked. The prince had given up hope on the Empire ever being free of King Zarkon’s tyranny. To the point he’d rather run away and start life anew elsewhere. Ryder and the other Drules held out hope that in time, Lotor would change his mind. That he would recover from everything that had been done to him, and emerge a force to be reckoned with. A force not even Zarkon could tear down.
But that would take some time. He knew it wouldn’t be an effortless recovery, it could take months or even years before Lotor was back to the man he had been when he first emerged from the Drule Academy. The man Zarkon had not yet torn apart, the man who had led a number of Drule invasions to success. It was the Arus mission that had drawn Zarkons’ displeasure to his son, the king unable to accept that no one, not even Lotor, could succeed against Voltron.
Ryder privately thought that if Lotor had never been called back to Doom, everything would have continued to be just fine. The prince could have continued his conquests in the far reaches of the Denubian Galaxy, content to remain there until King Zarkon finally died. Of course life didn’t work out that perfectly. He had left his post, and returned to the home world. Return to the abuses his father would heap on him.
Ryder wasn’t like Tesla. He didn’t see the blame of what had happened to Lotor as Allura’s. The abuse would have happened, regardless of the princess. And all it would take was some colossal failure on Lotor’s part. Arus was that failure, but it could have been any world, really. Sometimes Ryder felt Zarkon had just been waiting for his chance to return a punishing hand to Lotor’s flesh.
Ryder was not much of a religious type, but even he knew it was wrong to pray for someone’s death. Even if that someone was King Zarkon, with countless sins on his soul. And yet he didn’t understand why the Gods would allow him to live, why they would suffer a presence as evil and abusive as Zarkon’s. It made him angry, Ryder fighting not to turn hostile when he was praying to the Gods for the favor of allowing Lotor to live.
It was a battle he might yet lose, the anger still simmering in him when he heard the chapel’s door open. Almost embarrassed, he hurriedly got up off his knees. He forced his expression to be neutral, Ryder turning at the sound of the approaching footsteps. The sight of princess Allura was almost enough to have his expression twist in shock. A rapid blinking of his eyes was the only betrayal of his surprise, Ryder staring at her and the Drule that accompanied her.
The silver eyed Vorlac was looking sheepish, as though he realized it wasn’t that good an idea to have brought the princess into the Drules’ holy place. He didn’t mouth an apology though, shrugging his shoulders as he spoke. “She wanted to see.”
Allura was indeed seeing, the girl looking around her with interest. Her eyes studied the holy scrolls that hung on each wall, the words written in the ancient, third version of the language his people eventually modified into modern Drule. There was no way Allura could hope to understand the prayers written on those scrolls, not when so many Drules themselves had forgotten how to speak that arcane tongue.
She lost interest with the scrolls soon enough, eyes flitting about to notice the framed picture near the front of the chapel. It glowed, being composed of colorful bits of refined lazon. It was an expensive piece of art, but one typical of the wealth the Drule’s religion demanded. In actual temples, there were hundreds of such pictures, a fortune hanging on their very walls.
The lazon put together an image of a Goddess. THE Goddess who ruled over all the other deities of the Drules’ version of heaven. She was a fiercesome looking creature to the eyes of a human, Allura seeming to shrink back a little at the sight of her smiling face. That smile of hers revealed row upon row of sharply pointed teeth, the Goddess looking savage. To a human she would be ugly, but the Drules thought her beautiful.
There was only one other thing of interest aside from the picture and the scrolls. And that was the statues and the offerings laid out at their feet. Allura’s attention went to them, the girl walking closer to examine one of the statues up close. Ryder and Vorlac both kept a watchful eye on the princess, not wanting her to lay her hands on the statues. It was forbidden for someone who didn’t worship these Gods to touch even the representations of the deities.
It was equally as forbidden for that someone to touch the offerings spread out on the pedestals, Ryder moving with lightning fast speed to grab Allura by the wrist. She gasped as he jerked her back, then gasped even louder at the look in his eyes. “I just wanted to…”
“You can look without touching.” He told her sternly.
Vorlac chose to speak, as though trying to lessen the impact Ryder’s stern words had had. “Those are offerings the crew have left for the Gods. Only a priest or a priestess can remove them.”
Allura was jerking on her wrist, trying to get free of Ryder’s grip. “Offerings?”
“It is a way to curry favor with our Gods.” Vorlac explained. “They want their prayer to be answered.”
Still struggling, Allura cast a glance over her shoulder at the statues and the many offerings laid out on the pedestals. “From the amount laid out there, I’d say they want that very badly.”
“Yes, they do.” Agreed Vorlac. “We’ve all been praying for the prince’s recovery.”
Allura’s face showed her surprise. “You pray for him?”
“Did you think we would not?” Ryder asked her, watchful for her reaction. She glanced briefly at him, seeming to fidget in place. It made him all the more curious as to what was going through the princess’ mind.
“I am surprised.” She admitted at last.
“I had heard that the Drule Gods are as vicious as the people that worship them. That they only favor those that are strong…and merciless.” She was showing her ignorance, but then it was such a common thought many of those outside the Drule Empire shared.
“Did you think our Gods would not know mercy?” Ryder demanded. “That they don’t answer prayers for healing and comfort just as readily as they answer prayers for success in battle?”
“Our Gods do not limit themselves to just one area of worship.” Vorlac spoke, his tone gently chastising in response to Ryder’s angry tone. “They are quick to reward the faithful, to reap benefits on the home, the heart, the soul…Some would say the reason the Doom Empire was so successful at expanding so quickly had to do with the prayers of millions upon millions of Drules.”
“I don’t believe in any Gods who would allow one group of people to subjugate another.” Allura said in response to that.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe in them. We Drules have enough faith for a million of you humans.” Vorlac told her.
“It’s hard to think of you Drule as devout worshippers…” Allura admitted. “Not when you commit so many sins.”
Ryder abruptly let go of her wrist, the princess nearly falling over into the nearest pew. “And who decides they are sins?” He asked her. “Humans?” He snorted then. “Your kind has a violent history of wars….war fought on the issue of faith. Humans can be as blood thirsty as you say we Drule are. Neither people is entirely free of sin.”
Her cheeks turned red, she was embarrassed by that. “I didn’t expect a Drule to have studied human history….”
“We don’t choose to remain ignorant of our enemies.” Ryder retorted.
“We’re only your enemies because you attacked us first. That you keep on attacking us!” Allura snapped, still red-faced and now angry. Ryder gave a nod of his head, acknowledging what she had said.
“Yes, I’ll admit to that. Doom is Arus’ enemy….is the enemy of many human worlds. That hasn’t changed. It won’t ever change so long as we have a leader like King Zarkon on the throne.”
“And Lotor!” Allura quickly added. “He’s just as bad as his father.”
“How dare you!” Ryder’s temper which had already been roused, surged hotter. He heard the princess gasp at the expression on his face, and felt Vorlac grab him by the arm. “His highness, the prince is NOTHING like his father. You would see that if you opened your eyes and actually looked around you.”
“And just what am I supposed to see?” Allura demanded. “He kidnapped me. You HELPED him. You continue to help him! You’ve placed the safety of the galaxy in jeopardy…you won’t even tell me if the planned bloodshed at the embassy happened or not! And you expect me to what? See some different side of Lotor? To believe he’s not as cruel, not as vicious and ill tempered as his father? As greedy and grasping, as big a monster?!”
Ryder slowly counted to ten in his mind, fighting not to lose control of his temper completely. “Have you learned nothing in these last two days?!” He demanded. “You’ve spoken with many of the people onboard this ship. You’ve seen firsthand the admiration they hold for the prince! The friendship and loyalty they freely give him. Do you honestly think so many would be praying for him to recover if he was just like Zarkon?!”
“Well, yes!” Allura retorted hotly. “You Drule do not respect anything but ruthless bullies! You admire violence, thrive on blood shed. You’re all so twisted about inside, that a criminal—a sinner like Lotor is worshipped by you!”
“You try my patience princess.” Ryder growled.
“And you try mine!” Allura quickly retorted, with a haughty toss of her hair.
It was Vorlac who spoke next, the gray skinned Drule trying to calm both Allura and Ryder down. “Your highness, things are not as simple as the black and white view you hold of the world. There exists shades of gray, where neither good nor all bad remain. Yes, the prince has done some terrible things in the eyes of the humans, but he’s also done some good.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Or you won’t?” challenged Ryder. The princess glared in response, her eyes seeming as angry as Ryder’s.
“Ask anyone onboard this ship why they chose to follow Lotor, why they continue to throw their future in with his.” Vorlac urged her. “You’ll find tales quite different from what you expect…”
“Or are you too scared that your perception of Prince Lotor will be drastically altered?” Ryder asked, his tone snide.
She was slow in answering, expression more troubled than anything. “There’s only one thing that scares me….and that is the prince himself…”
“You might find the fear lessening then if you learned the crew’s stories.” Vorlac told her. She looked doubtful of that, and Vorlac sighed. “Please…what harm will it do…? If you’re so certain there is nothing of merit in the prince, nothing that will change your mind about him, than it costs you nothing to listen.”
She began to chew at her bottom lip, betraying her nerves. But at last Allura nodded. “Very well, I will listen.”
Ryder couldn’t feel relief to hear that. The conversation with Allura had left him drained once his anger had faded. “Take her around to those willing to share their stories.” He ordered.
“Willing?” She questioned sharply.
“Some may not be willing to broach such personal topics with a stranger.” Ryder explained. “But I believe you will find more than enough willing to share their experiences with you.”
Allura didn’t look like she believed this would make any difference. But she nodded all the same, stepping past Ryder to follow Vorlac out of the chapel. Ryder waited until they had left before resuming his kneeling position. But it wasn’t prayer that was on his mind, but the princess of Arus. He wondered if listening to the Drules’ stories would be enough to get her to change her view of prince Lotor. Even just a little. He had doubts on that, and all because the princess seemed determined to hold onto her hatred and fear.