Songbird 01

It’s been a full three weeks since my return to planet Doom, and I’m still not entirely used to how things are done here. Especially at the castle, where we all, noble and peasant alike, are under the watchful eye of King Zarkon. That man is sharp like a hawk, his eyes missing little. And what he doesn’t see, his witch Haggar does. The two make a very effective pair, having struck down countless assassins, stopping plots before they are fully formed.

It’s no surprise to me that people continue to try to kill King Zarkon. He’s ruthless even for a tyrant, and there is no love lost between him and the nobles. Or his son for that matter, the crown prince Lotor hardly being subtle in his plans to topple his father from the throne. Somehow Lotor still lives, it is in my opinion that he only just gets by, all on the skin of the back of his neck. Even now, with Zarkon’s attention distracted, Lotor wasn’t safe. Not with the losses he had given Doom these past few weeks.

I could sigh and bemoan the fact that my prince was failing, but unlike Zarkon I wasn’t blinded by rage fueled by a year’s long impatience. Doom’s enemy had been victorious long before Lotor had arrived to take on the Arus invasion, and a string of commanders had preceded the prince. Those commanders were dead now, killed for their failures, their heads rumored to be mounted in Zarkon’s private study.

If Lotor wasn’t careful, his own head would join them. It came as no surprise that the prince intended to keep that from happening, through murder of his father if need be. Of course he needed a tremendous amount of luck to accomplish that, something not even the backing of half the court could give my prince. So for now it would be a waiting game, to see which of our two royals killed the other first.

I was a betting man, favoring the lowest of the odds. And thus I threw my lot in with Prince Lotor. That might have been colored by my sentimentality. We had become friends during our days in the Drule military academy, and upon our graduation, he had made sure to install me as part of his crew. We’ve both come a long way, I am a commander in my own right, having fought alongside Lotor in over a dozen wars.

I wished we were back on the field, fighting any planet that wasn’t Arus. I’ve developed a taste for victory, and Arus promises to continue to deny us that. Three times my prince has already tried to conquer that planet, and each time he returned in failure. It’s damaged an already weak relationship between him and his father, there is none of the warmth I witnessed left between them.

Even now my prince stands by his father, the two Drules up on the high platform that allows Zarkon to overlook the entire court. He enjoys seating himself above us, enjoys looking down on everyone. It is here, seated upon his throne, that Zarkon makes life and death decisions everyday, and it is here that he berates and insults those who have failed him.

But he’s not yelling right now, leaning back in his throne, an almost amused smile on his face. He’s gazing down at the group kneeling before the steps that lead up to the platform. It is five men, all human in looks, their heads so lowered they almost touch the floor with their foreheads. It is not an unusual sight, to see humans cowering, begging the King. But what isn’t normal about this, is that they are not dressed in the typical rags of slaves, their necks missing the tell tale collars.

The humans are waiting, King Zarkon giving them a considering look. Four of the five are young men, all muscled and healthy looking. They’ve not known the harshness of a slave’s life yet. The fifth, the one who had appointed himself spokesperson for the group, is older, his hair silver. But he is not frail looking, there is an authority to him even as he grovels before our King.

“Cova…” Zarkon says at last, having decided to forgo the use of the man’s kingly title. “You’ve come a long way, risking your crown and your planet’s freedom. That impresses me enough to grant you this audience.” The faintest of smirks crossed his face, I can hear the murmur of unrest from the nobles gathered in the room. “You have five minutes to continue to impress me lest you end up in my dungeons.”

I can give credit where credit is due, this human King did not so much as tremble, slowly lifting his head to meet Zarkon’s gaze. “Then I will get straight to the point.” Cova said. “I can give you victory over Arus and Voltron.”

The crowd, a mix of nobles and soldiers, immediately reacted to the human’s words. Gasps and murmurs were heard, I could only pick out a word here and there through the loud rumble of conversation. But I could guess at what they were thinking, the group eager for Arus’ defeat, many more doubtful that the human could really deliver on such a promise.

Truthfully I had my own doubts. What could this human do that the great Doom Empire had failed in for over a year? Zarkon allowed the crowd to continue their loud speculation, before he finally held up a hand for silence.

“That’s a bold claim you make.” My King’s eyes glittered dangerously, his lips curling back to reveal his very sharp fangs. “But can you deliver?”

“I can.” Cova said. “I swear it. But my assistance does not come without a price…”

“Name it.” Ordered Zarkon, and the human King seemed to wilt with relief. He was a fool, not realizing that Zarkon would never truly give him what he wanted. Oh, my King might dangle the prize before a fool’s nose, all to better entice them with, but ultimately what Zarkon gave, he would eventually take back. Preferably by force.

“I propose an alliance between my planet and yours.” Zarkon didn’t so much as bat an eye at Cova’s words, giving him a lazy smile.

“And just what would be the benefits of such an alliance? Your planet Pollux after all, does not have anything I cannot get from elsewhere.”

“That may be, but without us you’ll never defeat Voltron.”

“Why come to us?” Zarkon demanded. “If you have the means to defeat Arus’ defender, why not use it and be done with it?” It was a good question Zarkon asked, one that got the crowd talking once more. Cova was hesitating to answer, which had Zarkon smirking even harder. “You need us, don’t you?”

“Yes.” It was a hissed out retort, Cova seeming reluctant to admit it. “It’s a two way street. We both have one half of the key to Voltron and Arus’ defeat.”

“And if I agreed to this…what would you be getting out of this arrangement?” questioned Zarkon.

“Arus and Pollux have been sworn enemies for decades.” Cova answered. “Ever since a King of theirs exiled my ancestor’s people to Pollux. It hasn’t always been an easy life for us, Pollux’s lands hardly ideal to support a large quantity of people. We’ve suffered for it, suffered while Arus flourishes. My people’s wish is simple, they want to return to the land their ancestors were exiled from, a land that by all right should have been ours.”

“So you want Arus for yourself, do you?” Zarkon appeared thoughtful, as though he was considering giving Cova exactly what he wanted. The gathered Drules were all smirks and smiles, exchanging knowing looks. We knew Zarkon would never hand over Arus to another, not after all the trouble the planet and it’s ruler had caused him. “Oh why not.” Zarkon said at last, the entire court putting on an act of believing in the King’s sincerity. “There are other worlds out there, plenty to keep Doom from noticing the loss of Arus.”

“And without Voltron to run interference…” continued the King after a moment’s pause. “Those other worlds will soon be mine.”

“Is that a yes, King Zarkon?” Cova asked, and he got the only confirmation he would from the Drule, a nodding of his head. Cova looked relieved. I had the thought that for a king, Cova did not school his expressions well, but I suppose excuses could be made. He was after all human, and had surely been under a lot of strain. Especially when presented before Zarkon, with so much riding on his shoulders.

“So now Cova, you will reveal to me the secret to Voltron’s defeat.” It was not a request but a command Zarkon spoke, both he and his son intent on the human before them.

“It is very easy King Zarkon.” Cova smiled. “Your witch Haggar will turn the greatest warrior planet Pollux has ever known into the most powerful monster in the galaxy.”

Zarkon’s eyes flashed, but other than that, he did not betray how he felt about Cova’s plans. Certainly he did not show any disappointment. Instead he leaned back in his seat, resting his chin on the palm of one hand. He looked very much relaxed, a feral grin on his face. I could sense the mood of his had turned even more dangerous, the humans needing to tread carefully.

“You make it all sound so simple.” Zarkon said at last. “But have you forgotten the strength of Voltron, the mightiest robot in the universe?” A pause, and then a subtle jibe was offered to his son, Zarkon reminding all of Lotor’s difficulties with the robot. “Right Lotor?”

“Hmmm.” Lotor made an agreeing sound, but was otherwise silent, nodding his head. He had been frowning during much of this exchange between the two Kings. To me, he didn’t look convinced of what Cova was saying, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been worried by it all. If Cova’s plan was a viable option, and if it worked, then Zarkon would claim victory over Voltron. And along with it, Lotor would lose much of the court’s support. His designs on the throne would be in upheaval, delayed for an indefinite amount of time.

“I have not forgotten!” Cova snapped angrily.

“Cova, your planet was powerful but that was long ago. I want to test your warrior. He shall fight in the arena!” decided King Zarkon. The Drules liked the sound of that, eager excitement going through the crowd. They wanted to see this so called greatest warrior fight, almost as much as they would enjoy it if he proved less than adequate against Haggar’s creatures. I knew if the warrior couldn’t win, Cova and his planet would pay the price. All for bothering Zarkon with false hopes.

“Yes. He must prove himself against the robeast monsters!” added Lotor, hardly put off by Cova’s glower.

“We welcome that challenge!” Cova announced, and gestured to the man to his right. “Prince Avok is the greatest fighter in the galaxy!” I could see the resemblance between the two men, though Avok’s hair was a dark red. He couldn’t be more than twenty-five, and I wondered how such a young human could make the claim to be so great.

It was clear that Lotor wondered the same, my prince taking offense to Cova’s words. “And I challenge that!” Lotor took a mighty leap off the high platform, landing before the King and his son. Lotor was glaring, his mouth twisted in a smirk as he pointed at Avok. “This human has no chance against Voltron!”

“Relax Lotor.” Zarkon was calm where his son was not. “If the King says his warrior can do it, let him prove it in the arena.”

“It will be a short fight.” Lotor announced with vicious glee. “The robeast will chop him down like a tree!” He gestured with his hand across his neck, signaling the beheading that would follow Avok’s loss in the arena.

Avok, who had been silent through out all this, took offense at Lotor’s words. The red haired prince leapt to his feet, standing before Lotor. My prince towered over him in height, but Avok was wider in the chest, holding a barrel shaped body. He glared defiance into Lotor’s eyes, an act that should have gotten him killed. But Lotor was apparently in a good mood, relishing the thought of Avok’s impending defeat.

“I will not lose.” Avok announced, ignoring the laughter that rose up from the crowd.

“Avok, enough!” Cova cried out sharply to his son. Avok vibrated with visible tension, he was spoiling for a fight. Was it Lotor that angered the prince so, or was he just that eager to prove himself in battle?

“We shall see.” Lotor smiled at him, an unfriendly look that spoke of how much he doubted that. “Get him ready for the arena.”

Soldiers approached the group, the Drules taking hold of Avok’s arms. He didn’t try to fight, which was a rarity among arena fighters. But then, Avok had chosen to fight, being so different from the slaves that were forced to do battle for the Drules’ amusement. He even went so far as to walk with his head held high, nodding to King Zarkon. “I will do my people proud.” He said, before he was dragged away from the throne’s platform.

The Drules in the throne room were all talking. Already bets were being placed on the likely hood of Avok surviving in the arena. Even I decided to get in on the action, placing a few hundred credits in favor of the prince. Call me crazy, but there was something about the human’s determination that made me believe he might have a chance.

As I was finishing up with that business, Prince Lotor approached me. “Sabbath.” I was grateful then for a Drule’s inability to color with embarrassment, for surely I would have flushed at nearly being caught betting in favor of the man who had stirred Lotors’ contempt.

“Yes sire?” We were friends, but formalities had to remain in place. At least while we were in public. Especially so near to his father.

“Come with me.” Lotor requested, and I fell into place, walking besides him. The rest of the court remained behind, unable to leave until they got permission from their king or their prince. Zarkon was in no hurry to get to the arena, knowing it would take some time to get both Avok and his opponent ready.

“What do you know of Pollux?” Lotor asked once we were clear of the throne room. To my regret, there wasn’t much I could say. Pollux wasn’t exactly known by the Drules, even if it was Arus’ neighbor. It was after all, an impoverished planet, without the lush and fertile paradise that Arus enjoyed. That had saved it from Drule invasion, Zarkon not wanting to bother with a planet that couldn’t increase his wealth.

“Not much more than you.” I admitted to Lotor. “It’s a pretty bleak world. Not as bad as Doom of course, but still not worth much. They haven’t been very active in the goings on of the Galaxy either…keeping neutral in the Doom Denubian wars.”

“Yes. They’re not known for involving themselves in the affairs of others.” Lotor seemed distracted. “They must hate Arus an awful lot to risk coming here and dealing with my father.” I just nodded, letting the prince continue his musings. “I wonder what their ancestors did to earn exile…”

“I suspect that’s something you should be asking a Polluxian about.”

“If they even know.” Lotor said in reply. “You know how these grudges are. Especially the long ones that go on for years. Eventually the people fighting forget the reason behind it, and only remember that it’s always been this way, hating each other.”

“True prince. But if it’s a hate we can use to defeat Voltron, what is the harm in working with them?” I asked.

“You’re supposing a lot.” Lotor grumbled. “Don’t tell me you believe that human has a chance at winning.” I had to fight not to shift, not wanting to betray that I did believe in that chance, slim though it was. “Even if Haggar enhances him with her magic, there’s no way he’ll defeat Voltron. They are wasting our time and resources with this scheme!”

“Well…one way or another, we’ll get a new planet…” I said, thinking of how Pollux would end up under Zarkon’s thumb, no matter the outcome of Cova’s plan.

“What use do we have for that miserable rock?” Lotor wanted to know.

“It would be a new source of slaves.” I was trying to be optimistic, where Lotor was looking for all the negatives in the situation.

“More mouths to feed and clothe. Hardly worth the expense.”

“Slaves are always dying on us.” I pointed out. “Sometimes faster than we can adequately replace. If most of the Polluxians are as strong looking as the ones that were in your father’s throne room, we would be fortunate to have them.” Lotor looked ready to scowl, and I didn’t know how to appease him. “And Haggar could always use more bodies for her experiments…”

“Haggar and her damn experiments. What good are those failures of hers?!” Lotor growled. “We had more success before we started relying on her witch craft.”

“Yes but…the Arus invasion is different from all the others we took part in.” I reminded him. “So long as they have that robots of theirs, I doubt we can win.” It was perhaps a dangerous thing to voice, this doubt of mine. But I knew Lotor wouldn’t begrudge me for speaking truthfully.

“We just haven’t found the right plan.” Lotor retorted. “But soon….” He nodded to himself, his voice softening. “Soon.”

For his case and Doom’s, I hope it was true. Lotor had only survived this long because of his ties to the throne, but even being related to Zarkon by blood, wouldn’t keep him alive indefinitely. Zarkon wasn’t known for tolerating failures, and his disappointments with Lotor grew by the day. I fervently wished that Avok would really prove to be all that Cova claimed, if only to put an end to the whole Arus debacle.

We’d all be able to rest easy once Arus was put behind us. But first we had to get to the arena, Lotor surprising me by choosing to not go to his father’s private balcony that overlooked the fighting pit. He wanted to be closer to the fighting, and the smirk he kept flashing led me to believe he was plotting something. I’d find out soon enough, but meanwhile I couldn’t shake the bad feeling that was developing within me. Something didn’t feel right, the air charged with some kind of weird energy. I couldn’t read it, and had no way of knowing I was about to meet a woman who would change everything for me.

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