When the doors to his throne room were swept open, Alfor was greeted with cheers, the majority of the court turned out to welcome him back among their fold. The crowd was on their feet, hands clapping together in a rousing applause of a standing ovation. From overhead, confetti fell, gold and white bits of paper that touched down on everyone, sticking to their hair.
Alfor tried to ignore the nuisance of the confetti, raising a hand in greeting to his court. If possible, the applause grew louder, the people cheering now. They had a right to be excited, the whole court celebrating the latest in a string of victories against the fledging empire known as Doom. He had personally led Arus’ armada into the fight for Budapeg, his own ship not only being the first to open fire, but to land a devastating blow on one of the Doom vessels.
Alfor wasn’t the type of King to be content to hide behind others, if there was a battle to be had, he insisted on being there, fighting with his soldiers. Nor did he allow anyone to talk him into standing back from the battles, hiding behind other ships while men and women fought and died for him. He took great pleasure in being at the front of his army, flags unfurled and flying high as he led his military into battle. It had an effect on his men, the soldiers gaining strength and confidence to see their King fight besides them.
Of course, his aides did not approve, even now they could be seen frowning at him, hands giving a reluctant clap of acknowledgment. They thought he took too many risks, thought he should stay behind on Arus, lock himself safely away with paperwork. Alfor nearly scoffed at the very idea, knowing paperwork could not compare to the rush of adrenaline he got when he was commanding a ship, or raising his sword to fight one on one with an opponent.
He enjoyed dueling, perhaps more than was healthy, Alfor living for the battles. Not many on Arus would dare challenge him, leaving him lacking for sparring partners. But with Doom’s uprising, that hadn’t been a problem, Alfor constantly busy with one war or another. His advisor and aides disapproved, not liking their King to go gallivanting off to other worlds. Nor did they like this dividing of their forces, sending their defending robot Voltron off to fight for other kingdoms.
Alfor was tired of constantly pointing out the advantages of rescuing other worlds, how it cemented the bond between them and Arus, allowed new alliances and fortunateness occurrences. Trade was never better between Arus and it’s neighbors, their exports were thriving, and they were in the midst of developing a Galaxy Alliance to combat the threat of the Doom Empire. It might only be a handful of planets now, but one day it would grow, matching then surpassing Doom in it’s might.
And Alfor would be at the head of this alliance, leading planets to protect their weaker neighbors, until the Drule menace was gone from the Denubian Galaxy. Maybe then he would be able to rest, Alfor sighing. He hadn’t started this war with Doom, but by Gods, he intended to finish it!
And not just for his people, Alfor thought, smiling as he caught sight of the girl sitting on one of two thrones. They were side by side, gold embellished with dark purple cushioning, neither throne more lavish than the other. For on Arus, a Queen was equal to her King, both their opinions valued. The Queen’s throne would have been empty, a fact that made Alfor’s heart hurt. Empty if not for the girl who was rising from the throne, her face lit up with her delight to see him.
“Father!” She cried, her unruly curls bouncing as she rushed down the platform the thrones rested on. She was dressed in purple and pink, her golden hair completing the summery look of her.
“Allura.” Alfor said, greeting his daughter, the precious princess of Arus. He dropped to one knee, holding out his arms in anticipation of the hug she would give him. She closed the distance between them, and hug him fiercely, her tiny body trembling. If there was one thing Alfor hated about going to war, it was leaving his darling, only child behind. But battlefields were no place for a child as bright eyed and full of happiness as she was, Alfor making a promise to never allow the war to touch his daughter.
“Oh I missed you father!” Allura was saying, pressing a kiss into his cheek. He smiled, and let her kiss the opposite cheek, then pulled back to look at her. She seemed older somehow, as if the month’s separation had aged her by years though he knew that couldn’t be possible. She was still the same fifteen year old girl he had left on Arus, though perhaps she was a little wiser now that she had been enduring the tutelage of his advisor Coran.
“And I you, Allura.” Alfor told her, noting the entire crowd inside the throne room was bowing around them.
“Oh! Oh you must tell me all about Budapeg!” Allura urged, tugging on his hand. She was leading him towards his throne, and Coran was waiting to the side of the platform. His advisor looked far too serious for Alfor’s liking, the mustached man not smiling as he watched his charge and her father approach. Allura didn’t seem to notice, talking at a rapid fire pace as she asked him question after question.
“Is it a beautiful world?” She wanted to know. “Full of sunshine and flowers? Or is it an advanced world, cities as far as the eye can see?”
“It’s both.” Alfor said, smiling at her delighted laugh. “The cities are quite large, but they are encircled by forests and fields, a sea of colorful flowers stretching between each one. The cities themselves are covered with a clear dome, it keeps the wildlife from wandering their streets.”
‘Are the animals dangerous?” She asked, and he nodded.
“Some are. But they are beautiful, wild and exotic…The people of Budapeg cannot bear to harm even a single claw of one, choosing instead to exist in a kind of harmony with them. Oh Allura, you should see the sights! The animals walk right up to the dome, uncaring of the people they see there. I was able to see many types of creatures, many indigenous to that world.”
“Oh, I hope I get a chance to go to Budapeg someday!” Allura sounded wistful then, the girl having his traveler’s blood in her veins. But the furthest she had been to was the next kingdom over, everyone agreeing they couldn’t risk the throne’s only heir. She had all but been grounded, Allura only able to see other worlds on holo recordings, and the stories the travelers told her. She took special delight in quizzing her father about everything he had seen, and Alfor felt much pleasure to detail his adventures.
She wasn’t that interested in his battles though, Alfor having to content himself with talking about his victories to the Lords and Ladies of the court. What Allura wanted to know was about the worlds, longing for new places to visit in daydreams. She was even curious about the Doom Empire, wondering what kind of people and culture they had. That was one group of questions Alfor couldn’t answer her, not much was known about Doom save for their invasion practices. And those were something he tried to spare her ears from hearing.
Alfor felt Allura didn’t need to know the details of just what Doom did when it invaded a new world, telling only the briefest of facts, such as how they enslaved the people. She knew they worked them without a fair wage, but he left off the kind of abuses they suffer at the Drule’s hands, the beatings, molestations, and other forms of abuse. Reluctantly he had admitted they worked the slaves to their deaths, and she had been suitable distressed at the reveal. Allura understood enough to know the Doom Empire was a bad thing, that his fighting the Drules and their King meant the galaxy continued to be safe from their tyranny.
His daughter approved of what he was doing, even as she mourned the time they spent separated. What’s more, he knew he would have to go away soon, Alfor wondering if his brother would be willing to send his daughter to stay with Allura during this time. Princess Romelle was only one year older than Allura, and the two had formed a close friendship. If anyone could cheer up Allura during her father’s continued absence, it would be Romelle.
Allura was still chattering away, all smiles as she speculated about Budapeg. She wanted to know everything, about the people and their culture, and Alfor tried to remember what little he had seen. Unfortunately for them both, most of his time had been spent hovering over the planet, engaged in a fierce ship battle with the Doom armada. He had only touched down on Budapeg briefly, all in order to meet and greet with the ruler of that planet. The Queen there had been suitable grateful, agreeing to support Alfor in his attempt to drive the Drule from the galaxy.
Money, soldiers, and ships had been promised to him, the numbers increasing his gathered might. They’d be well prepared for the next encounter with the Drule, ready to draw their armadas away wherever they might show next. Of course, Alfor had spies with their ears open, trying for an advance warning of where Doom would strike next. Alfor would like to one day be lying in wait for the Drule, rather than hurrying to rescue some world at the last minute.
“Father, you’re not even listening!” pouted Allura, and he smiled at her.
“Forgive me, my daughter. I was merely thinking about all the preparations I must make for the next battle.” Charmingly, her pout deepened, the girl looking put out by his words.
“You’ll be leaving for another battle? When?”
“I do not yet know…” Alfor admitted, and nodded a hello to Coran. “We may only have enough time to refuel and restock. Doom could strike at any time…” Allura sighed, but knew better than to beg him to stay, the girl sadly letting go of his hand so that he might take his seat upon his throne.
Coran thrust a data pad before Alor’s face, the king blinking in surprise. “What’s this?”
“My estimation on the amount of money and resources we have spent fighting Doom.” Gentle reprove was in the advisor’s voice, the man trying not to tsk. “We are running low on money to fund projects for the improvements needed for our cities….the people are growing restless..”
“The people will understand.” Alfor interrupted him. “We must keep the galaxy free of the Drule’s tyranny. If we allow even one planet to fall into Zarkon’s hands, then we open ourselves up to disaster. Besides…we can do without new buildings for one more year. In these troubling times, we must all buckle down financially.”
“If you would just ask for some compensation that extended beyond improving your military might, we might have the money needed to take care of ALL our people’s needs.” Grumbled the advisor.
“Coran no. I would not ask another planet to bear the burden of Arus’ financial crisis.”
“And yet you gladly bear the burden of protecting them!” pointed out Coran, earning a sharp look from the King.
“Someone has to.” Alfor said, tone reasonable. “What good is might if you don’t use it to protect yourself?”
“That’s all well and good…” Coran nodded. “But first and foremost we must take care of ourselves. Arus will be in no position to rush to the rescue of others, if we suffer a financial collapse!”
“I won’t let things get that bad.” Alfor assured him. “I promise.”
“Hmph.” Coran didn’t look like he believed him, taking the data pad back, and fiddling with it’s buttons. Allura had sat quietly on the Queen’s throne, paying strict attention to the exchange between her father and Coran.
“Are we really in such dire straits?” She asked now, and Alfor turned to her, patting her hand in a reassuring manner.
“Fear not Allura. Arus is still far from ending up in the poor house.”
She didn’t look convinced, chewing on her bottom lip uncertainly. “Would it help if I went without a new wardrobe this year? I mean…” She stammered in response to her father’s surprised look, the girl worrying at her lip incessantly. “Surely that money could go towards better things..”
Alfor was touched by her offer, the King patting her hand once more. “Thank you Allura. You are very generous. But a few dresses won’t bankrupt the kingdom any further…”
“But nothing.” He smiled at her then. “I want you to enjoy the summer, and not worry about things like money and the like.” She still looked ready to protest, Alfor tsking. “Smile for me daughter. Your sadness does not suit you.”
That earned him a weak smile, Allura still looking so unsure. He frowned at Coran, wishing his advisor hadn’t brought up the matter of money before her. But knowing Coran, he had been schooling Allura in all manner of financial matters, giving her a chance to see how this war with the Doom Empire was dwindling much of Arus’ resources.
Coran looked unapologetic, looking up from his data pad only long enough to shrug. Alfor fought the urge to sigh, turning to sit face forward. The exchange had not gone unnoticed by his court, though now the Lords and the Ladies busied themselves by forming small groups, chattering about what he did not know. No doubt they were eager for the chance to speak on what they had overheard, and it was only out of respect for their King that they kept quiet this long.
The doors to his throne room swept open once more, Alfor looking up in time to see soldiers laboring with a large wagon that was laden down with chests. A heavy cloth lay over the items on the wagon, not quite covering the ornate wooden chests from sight. Alfor glanced in Coran’s direction, and saw the puzzled look on the advisor’s face, the man not knowing what this was.
“Coran…” Alfor murmured, and the advisor nodded. He hurried towards the wagon, data pad in hand as he approached the man in the lead. A whispered conversation was held, the man turning to look at the wagon, and gesturing wildly. Coran shook his head several times, the castle guard looking insistent, until at last the advisor gave a weary sigh.
“Well, Coran?” Alfor prodded as the man returned to his side. “What is that?”
“It’s a gift sire.” Coran whispered, and Alfor raised his eyebrows.
“A gift?” He echoed, and Coran nodded, face expressionless.
“From one King Zarkon.”
“Zarkon!?” That was Allura, she had recognized the name and reacted with the suitable amount of horror. “Why would the Drule king be sending us gifts?”
“A very good question.” Coran answered, and shrugged. “One I do not have the answer for.”
“Hmph.” groused Alfor. “Did they check to make sure it’s not booby tapped?”
“Oh yes sire.” Said the guard in at the head of the wagon. “We triple scanned it for poisons, explosions. and projectiles. It reads clean.”
“How…strange…” Alfor murmured, then stood. “Well! Let us see just what Zarkon sees fit to gift us with!”
“Sire, are you sure that is wise?” Coran asked, pacing behind the King.
“You heard the man, they triple scanned it and it came back clean.” Alfor was already motioning for the blanket to be dragged free of the wagon, revealing several large chests. They were made of lacquered wood, and bore locks made of silver, the padlocks in shape of Doom’s insignia, that of a skull and crossbones. Nasty looking things those skull were, with malevolent leers and dead eyes.
Keys were found among the chests, a simple turning opening one up. The court gasped, then seemed to step closer, eager to look upon the contents. Alfor himself felt his jaw dropping, staring at what had to be at least seven hundred solid gold bars. And that was in one chest alone!
“What is the meaning of this?!” Alfor demanded, not risking touching the chest of gold. “What could he hope to accomplish with a gift like this?!”
“I cannot fathom the mind of a tyrant.” Answered Coran, looking at the second chest which held rubies, diamonds, and sapphires, some as big as his fist. There was some fastened on gold chains, making pretty and expensive necklaces and bracelets. The chest was large, it must have weighed the weight of several healthy human men, the wealth of jewels such that even without the gold bars they could have rebuilt each and every city on Arus from the ground up, and still have money left over.
The third chest held pearls, the biggest ones Alfor had ever seen. And that did not compare to the fourth chest which held the precious mineral lazon, it solidified into bars that were almost as heavy as the gold ones. The fifth chest was small, it easily fit into Alfor’s hands. He jerked the lid open, and found himself staring at paperwork, his expression puzzled and mind refusing to understand the words.
The advisor heeded his call, stepping away from the pearl chest to take the topmost papers out of the fifth chest. He gave a long considering look to the words printed there, the court seeming to hold their breath as they waited for him to announce what the papers said. “It’s….deeds of ownership.” Coran at last said, and Alfor frowned.
“Ownership to what?!”
“To land and people…” Coran answered, and Alfor cut him off with a shout.
“People?!” Coran nodded at that, and Alfor all but snarled. “We do not own people. That is something only Drules, and uncivilized worlds would do.”
“You own them just the same.” Coran said, reading the papers once again. “It appears Zarkon is awarding you five hundred healthy slaves, to do with as you see fit.”
“I’ll do nothing more than free them!” snapped Alfor, the gathered court rumbling their approval. “Why is he doing this? Why has he sent me such a lavish gift?! Does he mean to buy my loyalty, to bribe me into not interfering with his plans for conquest?!” Coran had no answer for him, Alfor continuing, just short of shouting. “I won’t do it! I won’t be bribed, and I won’t give in to the Drule, not for all the wealth in their Empire! Send it back!”
“Sire!” An aide had appeared besides him, the woman’s eyes holding a crafty look to them. “It would be a grave insult if we sent this generous gift back…”
“Let him be insulted.” Alfor snapped, throwing the small chest onto the floor. It turned and tumbled, papers falling out, Alfor wanting to stomp on them.
“At least find out why he has done this.” Urged the woman, ignoring the furious look Alfor shot her. “The King of the Drules does nothing without a reason….it is up to you to discover what it is…”
“Coran?” Alfor looked at his advisor, seeking his opinion.
“It would not be wise to just spit upon this gift.” Coran began, and Alfor made a scoffing sound. “Not until we learn the Drules true motives. I say we call him, find out just what he hopes to gain in giving you such things.”
“It’s probably stolen.” Alfor grumbled, thinking it wealth from the words the Doom Empire had conquered.
“We could put this wealth to good use…” said the woman, voice trying to seduce him into using the gift. He glared at her, wondering if Miranda should be demoted from her position.
“If we use this money, we will be as tainted as the Drule.” Alfor said to her disappointment. “But I will call Zarkon, and gain answers. And heaven help him if I am not satisfied with what he tells me!” Kicking aside the chest on the floor, Alfor began marching past the wagon. He got only a few feet when he realized his daughter Allura was following him, Alfor turning to look at her.
“Stay here Allura.”
“But father!” She protested, and he shook his head. “I want to come see!”
“No. The King of the Drule is a fearsome sight. Sure to give an innocent girl such as yourself a host of nightmares.” She opened her mouth to protest, and it took all of Alfor’s strength not to snap at her in the moment. “Allura no. Do as I ask. You’ll be better off the less contact you have with these demons and their king.” Allura still looked like she wanted to argue, but then she was sighing, bowing her head in defeat.
“All right father. If you think it’s best..”
“I do.” He said, then marched out of the room. Coran issued a few words to the aides, ordering them to watch over the princess. He was also quick to make mention that not one pearl or jewel should go missing, Coran wanting to make sure the entirety of the gift was returned to Doom. It wasn’t just the aides protesting that idea now, some of the nobles were greedy for the gift of the Drules.
But Alfor didn’t trust the riches, any more than he trusted the Drule King. A bad feeling was working it’s way through the pit of his stomach, Alfor trying not to give in to fear of the unknown. He had no way of knowing what this gift meant, and yet he knew it couldn’t bode well for him or his planet.