The woman bent over me went still, the damp cloth in her hand pressed against my cheek. I moved to lift a hand to her, and felt the responding pain echo through me at that action. The pain was sharp enough that it woke me the rest of the way, the sad realization coming to me. This was not my mother, I was not in paradise with her. Instead I was still in a hell of my own making, my eyes blinking rapidly to adjust to the dim light and focus on the pink walls of Allura’s room.
Immediately my arm dropped, leaving me to hiss in pain. I let my eyes close, even as I let out a disgruntled laugh. It hurt things deep inside, leaving me to wonder if Alfor had broken a couple of my ribs.
“Damn him.” I grumbled, my eyes still closed. Diana chose to ignore my words, using the cloth to brush gently over a spot on the side of my face. A sliver of pain left me to realize that the cloth had some kind of ointment on it, causing a sharp sting when applied to a cut over my left temple. Hissing, I grabbed onto her hand, drawing it away before she could rub in any more ointment.
“Why are you here?” I asked her, opening my eyes. I’m sure the look I gave her was hostile, but Diana didn’t take any insult from it. “Why are you even bothering with me?”
I didn’t try to fight her when Diana pulled her hand free of my grasp. Nor did the Queen try to apply any more ointment to any of the cuts on my face. “Because I still remember the boy you once were.”
“I haven’t been that boy in a long time now.” I point out, and she nods.
“Yes, I know. You’ve changed greatly, and not for the better.” There is reproach in her voice, Diana gazing down at me. She keeps the disapproval out of her eyes, though I know she can’t be happy with the man I’ve become. Not after I’ve tricked and used her daughter, attempted to take the planet from her family. No matter my motives, in their eyes, in Diana’s eyes, I was a fiend, a no good degenerate monster.
I can’t say I felt ashamed then, though I did feel a sense of loss. Diana and I had once been close, the woman a mother to me where my own could not be. As a young boy, I had idolized the Arusian Queen, reveling in the warmth and kindness she had shown me. While my own mother grew cold in the ground, Diana had been full of life and vitality, loving me as though I had been one of her own. Diana had given me a sense of family, had allowed me to be happy, to be a child those summers I had spent on Arus.
Those summers were part of the reason I had acted to save Arus in the only way I could. To preserve the land of my cherished memories, to save the people, this woman in particular, who had so affected me in my youth. The beautiful paradise that Arus was to me, to so many, would be destroyed under my father’s corrupting influence. Greedy, and hungry for more than just money, Zarkon would have ruined everything that was good about this world. If I could, I would have done just about anything to prevent that. Even as my own greed and ambition colored my actions, I had come with the best of intentions where Arus and it’s royal family was concerned.
My methods may have been unorthodox, and were downright cruel, but I still believed I had been doing Diana and her family a great favor. It was a pity they couldn’t understand that, that instead they rewarded my attempts with an embarrassment of humiliations and abuse. Often times I was tempted to leave Arus to it’s unenviable fate, to let my father do what he had always desired to this world and it’s people.
With my sides hurting, my body sore, it is an easy thing to want to leave Alfor and his family to their fate. But one look into Diana’s eyes, and I know I would do just about anything to keep her from the pain and humiliation that would follow Zarkon’s invasion. I’ve lost one mother already, I do not want another to die, even if Diana hates me now.
It is that feared hate that moves me to speak, leaving my clinging to the hope I could somehow get her to understand, maybe even forgive me. I don’t dare hope we could reclaim the closeness we once shared, but maybe she would look at me with something other than disappointment.
“It wasn’t all about ruling Arus.”
Diana does not immediately speak, taking the time needed to set aside the cloth, and clean her hands in the wash bin that sits besides the bed. I almost think she needs that time, that distraction to keep her calm, Diana’s eyes betraying nothing of where her thoughts truly lie.
“You’ve stated that in the past.” She finally acknowledges.
“I meant every word too.” I quickly assure her. “If my father is allowed his way, not only would your planet fall to ruin, but he would see every last one of your family dead. That’s how badly he wants what is yours, how much he is willing to do to not only get it, but keep it for himself.”
“Your father has always been greedy and ambitious.” Diana says. “We’ve always known that.”
“I don’t think you truly realize to what magnitude!” I exclaim. “You and this part of the galaxy have been spared his worst. But surely you don’t know half of what really goes on, what happens to the worlds Doom has invaded.”
“We are hardly ignorant of that.” Diana tells me. “Despite your father’s best efforts, word still trickles in….”
“Hearing it can’t compare to seeing it. To living it.” I interrupt her.
“Yes, I don’t doubt that.” Yet she keeps the disturbed look off her face, still so quick to hide her every thought from me.
“Then maybe you can understand why I did what I did. Why I had no other choice….”
“You had other choices. Never try to claim otherwise….” Diana reprimands me.
“And what could I have done?” I demand. “Betray my entire people to save you? To warn you of my father’s intentions?”
“You could have had faith in us. In our ability to protect what is ours.” Diana insists. “You could have examined closer why your father was so hesitant to make an open move against Arus.”
“No military is that great as to keep winning forever!” I retort. “And all it takes is one lose for you and your entire family to be up on pikes, just another feast for the vultures, serving as a potent reminder of what happens to those that go against Doom!”
“Your concern for us, while touching, does not justify your actions. You meant to do more than just spare my family….you meant to take Arus for yourself.” Diana reminds me.
“In order to preserve it!”
“Whatever the reason, you’ve learned first hand why your father dares not go against us in a fair fight.” Diana’s expression has gone tightlipped, though she’s not trying to smile. “If any good could have come from that debacle, it is that your military’s loss will serve as a reminder to King Zarkon as to why he does not mess with Arus.”
It was maddening, this inability I had to make Diana see things my way. I didn’t expect her to side with me against her own family, but I at least wanted her to acknowledge the danger had been real. Might still be so.
“And what about Arus?” I demanded gruffly. “Why are you so content to stay out of Doom’s affairs?”
“We have a tentative peace, it’s true…” Diana acknowledged.
“That peace is not enough. If you truly believe you are the superior military power, why have you not gone after Zarkon yourself?”
Diana’s expression turned troubled then. “Stronger we may be, but Doom is not without it’s own resources. A real war between us would be long, and with many casualties for both sides.”
“Would it not be worth it though, if you rid the galaxy of such a tyrant?”
“That tyrant IS your father!” Diana reminded me.
“Which means I am intimately aware of just what kind of monster he is.” I grumbled bitterly.
“You don’t know the half of it.” Diana sighs at my questioning look. “King Zarkon was a lot worse before you were born….before we achieved an understanding with him.”
“An understanding?” I frown at that.
“Arus has managed to curb a lot of Doom’s more…unsavory activity over the years. To avoid the war neither world wants, King Zarkon has made quite a few…concessions to avoid being investigated by Arus.”
“Yet you turn a blind eye to so much anyway!”
“Arus is far from perfect. And Doom is not the only troublemaker out there. We would spread ourselves thin, leaving Arus vulnerable and exposed, if we tried to interfere with every would be tyrant and despot in this galaxy.” Diana sighed again. “Arus’ first and most important loyalty is to itself, to the protection of it’s people and the land. It’s terrible, but we can extend only so much charity to the other worlds. They, like us, have to put their interests first.”
I knew and understood that. Yet I wasn’t heartened to hear Arus knew more than they had let on to me, about my father’s more horrific misdeeds. They knew, even of the things Zarkon would do to them, and yet they weren’t worried. It was arrogance at it’s best, and it frustrated me how blind they were to the threat my father could one day be. Did they really think him neutralized, and did they not realize how much more vicious my father would be if—when he found a way to get past their military?
“Queen Diana…I…respect you. But….you are all being fools.” I watched as she drew herself up from her sitting position, the Queen unable to hide how insulted she felt by my words. “You are all living in a dream world, thinking you will forever be safe from my father’s greed and ambitions.”
“And you, your highness…” I inwardly winced at the sharp tone of her voice, the way she avoided the intimacy of speaking my name. “Are an even greater fool if you truly believe you could have Arus and keep my family safe from King Zarkon.”
I tried to insist I could do just that, but she was cutting me off. “What do you think would have happened, once you claimed Arus for yourself? Once you stripped my family of our power?”
“I would have sent you away….far, to the next galaxy over if I had too.”
“You don’t think your father would have the resources to find us?” She spared me the indignity of laughing in my face. “Do you honestly believe he’d be content to allow us to remain a threat to Doom’s possession of Arus? That he wouldn’t move to eliminate us the first chance he got?”
“There would be no need to do that!” I protested. “I would have peacefully claimed Arus. There would be no need for bloodshed, no need for the ruthless slaughter of it’s former rulers…..”
“Perhaps an honorable man would understand that. But there has been little of that to be found in King Zarkon.” A shake of her head no. “He would not only have hunted us down, he would have taken Arus from you. You’d have accomplished nothing with your schemes, except to render Arus vulnerable to Zarkon’s invasion!”
“But..if Arus was mine….”
An empathetic gaze met mine. “Prince Lotor…” Her tone was soft, but no less sure of itself. “You truly are blind if you believe he would have respected your claim on this world. You would have stripped this land of it’s rulers, it’s power….and for what? A child’s dream to preserve the land of his memories?”
“I…I didn’t want you to die…” I whispered, some of Diana’s words getting through to me. They made me think there might be truth to what she was saying about Zarkon, about how he wouldn’t have been satisfied to let Diana and her family live. I even began to suspect my glorious rule over Arus would have soon been interrupted, Zarkon claiming the prize he had so long coveted.
“Lotor…” Diana’s expression softened even further, her look almost pitying as she came back to the bed. “The best thing you could have done, was to attempt to affect change from inside of Doom.” She lowered herself to perch besides me on the bed, retrieving the wash cloth from the bin.
“Doom is slow to change so long as Zarkon still lives.” I mutter, holding myself still for her to tend to the worst of my cuts.
“He cannot rule forever.” She tells me. “And while he does, you could begin circumventing some of his power….win allies to your side…..ready the people for the changes you would be able to implement once you take the throne.”
“It seems impossible.” I complain.
The barest hint of a smile on her lips as Diana chides me. “Not impossible, just difficult. King Zarkon’s legacy of tyranny doesn’t have to continue. You could put an end to so much depravity if you were willing to become a better man than your father.”
“I AM a better man.” I hurriedly insisted. Now she quirks an eyebrow at me, the smile starting to fade.
“I can’t be expected to believe that. Not when you used my daughter in such a cruel way.”
I fight not to turn sullen, holding her gaze with my own. “It was necessary. Drastic measures were required, and Allura was deemed an acceptable loss.”
Her blue gaze seemed to turn to ice, Diana glaring daggers at me. “An acceptable loss?”
“Not just Allura…” I fought not to turn away. “You as well. I can live with you and your family hating me, but the one thing I cannot allow, is for your deaths. Queen Diana…” I wanted badly to touch her, to take her hand in a show of sincerity. But I could not bear the thought of her jerking away at that unwanted touch. “You have to know just how much I care for YOU. It is the strength of my feelings that will move me to do just about anything, including invite your hatred and animosity, if it meant keeping another mother from being buried.”
It was the closest I had ever come to actually admitting out loud that I thought of Diana as a mother to me. It left me feeling vulnerable, and I waited for the rejection, for the cruel daggers of her derision to cut into me.
They didn’t come, Diana tending quietly to my wounds. I stared at her all the while, practically holding my breath, and telling myself I wouldn’t so much as flinch if she turned away from me with her words.
“I remember that summer well.” She said at last. “It had been almost too hot then, many of the flowers in my garden wilting from the unseasonable heat.”
“Allura and I often helped you tend to those flowers.” I remembered, almost but not quite chuckling. “Though more often than not, our idea of help involved play that made more work for you….”
“I didn’t mind…” Diana assured me. “It was pleasant enough, hearing your laughter.”
“What little there was…” I frowned then, remembering how difficult it had been to get so much as a smile from me, let alone an actual laugh once word had come from Doom that my mother was dead. I hadn’t even been invited back for the funeral, Zarkon thinking me more valuable on Arus. I wonder now if it wasn’t so much to spare him from listening to a child’s squawking endlessly for his mother, then for any information I could glean for him with my crude attempts at being his spy.
“Why did you allow me to remain on Arus?” I asked out loud. “I mean….surely no good could have come of my being here….” Not that I had learned anything of use to my father, during the summers I had spent on Arus with Diana and her family.
“You’re wrong about that.” Another faint smile hinted at the corners of her mouth. “If we affected you, even just a little, then it can’t have been wasted. Of course….” She added after a pause, that familiar disappointment in her eyes. “Alfor and I had hoped your time with us would have groomed you into a man better than you have proven to be.”
I tried not to flinch, hating how huge a disappointment I was in Diana’s eyes. “You thought to make me the ruler Zarkon was not.”
“We should have tried harder.” Diana sighed, and set down the cloth.
“You had an effect on me.” I tried to reassure her. “I am not the monster Zarkon is.”
“But just what are you then?” Diana wondered. “You’re no longer that boy, and based on your actions, some would say you no longer brim with the potential you once had.”
“Alfor, you mean?” I couldn’t keep the growl out of my voice, the aches and pains from my beating at the King’s hands, still potent and intense.
“If he does feel that way, would he not be justified?” Diana asked. “You’ve not only continued to hurt Allura, you make it clear you intend in no way to uphold this marriage, to escape from it and us at the first available chance. You would abandon not only your wife, but the child you unwittingly conceived with her.”
“Let’s not forget some of the threats I’ve made in the heat of my anger.” I added sheepishly. “Queen Diana…I still don’t support this marriage. I think it a grave mistake….one that will do your daughter more harm than good. I am not the marrying kind, and even if I was, I am still too….too selfish and young to raise a family.”
“And yet the baby is a reality you must accept. To hold onto your dream of Arus, you made many mistakes. I am blinded by a mother’s love, to think what you did to Allura the worst of all. You hurt her greatly, and child or no, it might not be something she can recover from. You shattered her trust in others AND her belief in love…”
“She was a little too protected…” I grumble. “To remain so trusting and naive. Allura needed to grow up…”
“But not in the way of your choosing.” Diana reprimanded gently. “But the damage has been done, and now both of you have little choice but to accept it, and grow up together.”
I was probably just as childish as I considered Allura to be, for I could only turn away from Diana’s hopeful gaze. I simply couldn’t make a promise to her when I wasn’t ready to keep it, anymore than I was willing to continue on in this marriage to Allura. I wasn’t ready to give up, to play at being a husband and a father. I didn’t want that responsibility, and yet the irony wasn’t lost that I thought myself grown enough to rule over an entire planet.
I still wanted Arus, but after my talk with Diana, I was realizing Arus was beyond me at this point and time. I had to get rid of the real obstacle to my ambitions, to remove the threat to the preservation of the Arus of my memories. Zarkon needed to be removed, if not from his power, than from this mortal coil. Then and only then could I trust that Arus, that Diana and her family, would be safe.