Songbird 18

The dungeons of castle Doom were the kind of place hope came to die. Dirty, dank, and dark, a suffocating wave of depression filled all who had the unfortunate privilege of staying in the dungeons. It wasn’t just the inhabitants of the dungeon who felt it, those who guarded over these lost souls were also afflicted, to the point there was a constant rotation of soldiers for this floor. It was perhaps the only way for them to keep sane, the soldiers only spending a few weeks on duty here, before being sent else where.

I could feel that hopeless feeling settling in me as I walked along the pathway between cells. I felt dirty just looking at the conditions the prisoners lived in. The cells were packed with mud and dirt, a dark green fungus growing between cracks in the walls. The mud got on everyone, caking grime covered clothing. Rust covered the chains and the bars of the cells. A toilet was in the corner of each cell, but there was no privacy to use it.

Things better left unidentified covered the floor, puddles especially predominant near the leaking toilets. There was no beds to be found, forcing the prisoners to sleep on the dirty floor. The ones I looked at, had long since become accustomed to the filth, so had no qualms about laying down in the dirt. They avoided the puddles as best they could though.

There were stainless steel bowls on the floors, some kind of gray goop inside them. The gray mush was splattered over the edges of the bowl, the only kind of meal these people would get. It had to be as unappetizing in taste as it looked, my lip curling in disgust.

The prisoners were mostly human, though a few alien species also numbered their ranks. There was even a Drule or two, and it made me wonder what they had done to piss off Zarkon so badly. It wasn’t a reprieve to end up in the dungeons. It was here you were sent to generally be forgotten. These people would most likely spend out the remainder of their lives in these cells, living like animals, fighting for the slop they called food.

Many of the cells were crowded, more people inside than should be allowed. But Doom had never cared about health violations for it’s prisoners. I looked into each cell, trying to see if Romelle was among the crowds. Most people turned away from me, uninterested in yet another Drule tormentor. I wasn’t here to torture them though. My concern was the princess, and I walked just a little faster through the dungeons.

I would find her near the middle of it, her cell not quite as crowded. It was all women inside, many of them turning frightened when they realized I had stopped before their cell. I didn’t try to reassure them, peering among the faces. There was two other blondes present in addition to Romelle, but she outshone them even in this grim circumstance. Her blue dress had not yet had time to get torn or that dirty, though it still bore the splattered stains of her father’s blood.

“Romelle…” I wasn’t surprised that her cell mates were all women. The dungeons were carefully segregated. They didn’t want the prisoners taking any joy from each other, even sex would be denied to them. I was glad in this case, because I feared what the male prisoners would have done to a girl as beautiful as Romelle is.

“Sabbath….” Whimpers rose up at Romelle’s acknowledgment of me. The women prisoners feared I meant trouble to them. Some were so frightened, they tried to stop Romelle from walking over to the rust covered bars. But she shrugged them off, almost commanding in her harsh whisper. “Leave me be!”

Reluctantly, the women watched as Romelle came forward. I didn’t want to touch the filthy bars, and yet I found myself pressing closer to them, just to be within touching distance of the princess. She didn’t touch the bars, stopping just short of them. We stared at each other for a long moment, my eyes concerned and critical as I looked her over. There was shadows under her eyes, telling me she hadn’t been sleeping much if at all.

“Where have you been?” Romelle broke the silence with what I thought was anger. I couldn’t know she had been struggling with the fear that she would never see me again. It might seem strange to you, but I remained the only Drule who was kind to her. A kindness she appreciated, even if she didn’t always show it.

“I’m sorry.” I bowed my head, letting my bangs fall over my eyes. I was trying to hide from her, regret in my expression. That regret would turn into surprise as Romelle reached past the bars, and brushed back my hair. The imprisoned women were alarmed at Romelle’s boldness, nervous chatter erupting from them in Basic. “It couldn’t be helped. The King…he fell ill. There was a mission…” I was half babbling, and finding myself longing for her to touch me again.

“The King is ill?” Romelle asked, but she wasn’t excited by that news. She knew even if Zarkon died, her situation wouldn’t change that much.

“He WAS ill.” I corrected. “There was a cure to be found on Arus. It’s why I was gone as long as I was. We left almost immediately…”

“You didn’t forget about me….”

I was alarmed by that. “Never, no! Romelle…you are always in my thoughts…” She didn’t smile at that though there was an odd look in her eyes. Did my burgeoning feelings for her keep me from noticing it was calculating? I could not say for sure, though I am sure Romelle carefully weighed her options. I was a valuable asset to her, even if I would not set her free. A friend, one who held a high position in the Empire, was something she desperately needed.

“What’s going to happen to me?” She asked. I realized as a prisoner, no one would have bothered to inform her of what was going on. I was a fount of information for her, having the answers she desperately needed. “Am I to marry Lotor after all?”

“No, not yet at least.” I told her, noticing she still wore the strips of my shirt around her hands. The slap she had been given had also darkened into an ugly yellowish purple bruise. I was relieved to see it was the only visible bruise on her for it meant she hadn’t been causing enough trouble for the guards to bother disciplining Romelle. “The King has made an official decree. Lotor cannot marry you unless he gains defeat over Voltron.”

“Thank the Gods!” Romelle closed her eyes briefly in relief. A tension seemed to leave her, one I hadn’t been aware of until just then. Even with that palpable relief she expressed, she still remained worried. “But then…what is to be my fate in the meantime? Am I to remain in this place?”

“For now at least.” I said morosely. “Zarkon gives not a care to your comfort. He only wants to know how he can use you.”

“Use me?!”

“Against Arus and Pollux. Your brother Bandor has already declared war on Doom. The King was quite irritated by your brother’s audacity.” I almost smiled then. But the mood was too serious for such a light, happy expression. “It almost rivaled his anger with Lotor.” I tried to cheer her up by telling her of Lotor’s near miss with the executioner’s ax. ‘The King was livid, to the point he was ready to pronounce judgment on his son. Lotor nearly died…”

“He SHOULD have died.” Romelle said fiercely. The women were gasping again, frightened that I would punish the princess for speaking so freely like that. I ignored them, studying Romelle. She wanted Lotor’s death, was hungry for it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the nightmare she found herself in wouldn’t have ended with the prince’s death. Not so long as Zarkon continued to live as well.

“Unfortunately, I doubt the prince will be dying any time soon. Since he aided in the King’s recovery, Zarkon has agreed to allow him to live. To continue to attempt to invade Arus, and take down their robot.”

“He’ll fail. He has to!” Romelle hissed. “There’s more on the line than just my well being…the entire free universe depends on Arus’ resistance, on Voltron to continue to foil Doom. Without Voltron, there will be no hope…no chance left for the remainder of the galaxy to avoid being conquered.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. It would be treasonous to side with Romelle’s point of view. As a loyal soldier of the Doom Empire, I should be longing for Voltron’s defeat. I should actively participate to bring down Arus, to be the downfall of the galaxy. And yet those same niggling doubts were with me, though some of them were motivated by the fact I found the thought of Romelle as Lotor’s bride absolutely abhorrent. As long as Voltron continued to defeat Doom, then Romelle would be safe from Lotor. Or at least, that is what I thought.

“Zarkon would have us leave for Arus come tomorrow.” I finally said, and her face showed her alarm. “He’s not even giving us enough time to prepare. The witch is hastily trying to augment a robeast’s powers while Lotor tries to make plans. But…it’s happening too soon. I doubt we will win this encounter.”

“You will come to visit me again, won’t you?” She didn’t want to appear desperate or needy, but I could see the thought of my absence bothered Romelle.

“I will visit you as often as I can between missions. I promise.” I told her. She reached through the bars to place her hand on top of mine. Her skin was pleasantly warm, her touch a comfort.

“Thank you Sabbath. I…I don’t know what I would do if something happened to you.” I blinked in surprise at Romelle’s words. It had been an unexpected confession, the princess so upset she might not have realized what she had just said. But it spoke to my heart, of the losses she had suffered. She was so young, too young to have lost almost all of her family. And now she was in a strange and horrible place, all but friendless save for me. I realized it would shatter something in her, if I cut off all association with her.

It was no exaggeration to say she had come to depend on me, even with the disappointments I offered her. Romelle might even have hoped that if she continued to deepen our bonds, I might change my mind about helping her to escape. But I had a lifetime of loyalty to Doom, and it wasn’t that easy to throw it all away. Especially for someone I had known for no more than a handful of days.

I couldn’t free her, but I could try to make her stay more comfortable. Hers and the other women she was imprisoned with. I knew Romelle was self sacrificing enough to insist they all enjoy the favors of my friendship. She wouldn’t allow for anything else.

“You must be hungry.” I said at last, wondering if she had deigned to try the glop they passed off as food. Romelle allowed a small nod of her head, her eyes widening at my next words. “I will send down a real meal for you. For all of you.” The women didn’t trust this, whispers of conversation reaching my ears even as they tried to be quiet. I looked past Romelle to study the dirty cell. It would be impossible to demand it be cleaned, but I could try and make it comfortable.

“I’ll send down blankets and pillows.” Romelle squeezed my hand in thanks, seeming overcome with emotion. It was such a small thing to do on my part, but to her it meant everything.

“Thank you..” She whispered, her voice almost breaking on a sob. I’m sure she thought I didn’t realize the kindness I was doing, how uplifting those things would be to those who had been demeaned and treated like less than a person.

I didn’t feel easy with being thanked. And all because I knew I wasn’t doing as much as I could have done for her. “Until we meet again.” I wouldn’t say good-bye to her, instead stressing my promise that I would return to her. She nodded, and released her hold on my hand. We stared into each other’s eyes a second longer, and then reluctantly I stepped back from the bars.

I didn’t run, but I didn’t exactly go slow as I walked my way through the dungeons. Some of the cells closest to Romelle’s, the people inside now stared at me with open yearning in their eyes. They had been close enough to hear my exchange with the princess, and they wanted in on the niceties I would provide for her. But they had no bartering power, no chance for any gifts. They were no innocent princess, and I wasn’t yet so far gone as to start improving things for every single person in the dungeon. Even if they hadn’t been declared criminals of the Doom Empire, the dungeons were hardly ready to usher in changes.

As it was, what I proposed to do for Romelle was startling to the guards on duty. Not that it was completely unheard of. Romelle was after all, slated to become Prince Lotor’s bride. As much as I hated that thought, I played on the status it gave her. I let the guards assume that I was working under the prince’s orders, gifting Romelle with small things to make her more amenable to her future husband.

The goods would be delivered to Romelle and her cell mates, I made sure of it. I couldn’t stay away, finding myself returning to witness with my own eyes the improvements to her situation. The women there still didn’t trust me, but I suppose I couldn’t blame them. They knew what usually happened when a Drule took interest in one of their kind. My actions though didn’t match up to their expectations, for what Drule would show such kindness? Most of the soldiers would have just picked a woman, raped her and been done with it.

Suspicious as they were, they still made use of my gifts. Blankets were everywhere on the floor, and I had even managed to get some soft padding to give them. It wasn’t as thick as a mattress, but it would give them some protection from the mud, and coldness of the dirt covered floor. Watching the women wrap the blankets around their shivering frames, led me to realize just how cold the temperature of the dungeons was. It was no wonder it offered a chance for sickness to fester inside the people imprisoned here.

As much as they liked the blankets, the real treat was the feast I had delivered to them. Some were eating so fast, I knew they would end up sick. Others were slower, savoring the taste, enjoying food they might not have had in years. Romelle seemed more concerned with handing out the food to the other women, then eating it herself. To the point I had to order her to sit down and eat as well.

“There will be no shortage of food.” I told her, watching as she began to peel a round, purple colored fruit. She actually closed her eyes in enjoyment at the first taste of it’s juicy pulp. “None of you need fear that.” I spoke to the group inside the cell, and they listened, as attentive as ever even while distracted by the meal. “I’ve made arrangements to have food continually delivered to your cell.”

“How can you be sure that the guards will honor this arrangement once you are gone from Doom?” Romelle asked, in between bites of the fruit.

I gave her a humorless smile, flashing my fangs at her. It sent a shiver through her, the dark look in my eyes. She almost looked away, as though she had just realized I was dangerous. “Believe me. They will honor it. Or face the consequences of my wrath.”

“Oh.” A soft reply, Romelle staring down at her lap.

“There’s many benefits to holding a high rank in the Empire.” I added, blanking out my expression so as to settle her uneasiness. “I may not have been born a noble, but as commander in the military, there are many privileges I get to enjoy now.”

Romelle nodded, glancing around the cell at those very privileges I mentioned. “This won’t get you into trouble, will it?” She asked anxiously. “I can’t imagine the King being pleased by the pampering of his prisoners…”

I shrugged her off her concerns. “The prince, if he was thinking with even half a brain, would have insisted on such treatment for you.”

“Because he wants to marry me.” She sighed then, but didn’t let her upset stop her from reaching for another fruit.

“Well, yes.” I was silent, thinking how if Lotor had any sense, the very least he could have done was begin to court her. Especially if he wanted Romelle to act favorably towards him as his wife! I couldn’t have known at the time, but Lotor was making preparations for just that sort of thing. Although his methods included letting Romelle sit in the disgusting dungeons for a while longer. Lotor thought if she had time to wallow in the dirt, and the misery of her present situation, she would become all the more appreciative of what he had to offer her.

It was a surprisingly smart tactic. There were women out there that would have fallen into line with Lotor’s manipulations, would have been grateful for the chance to break free of the dirty dungeons. Not Romelle though. The princess refused to let him buy her affections, refused to be reduced to a paid whore. She didn’t care about the prestige and privileges she would earn as Lotor’s prized pet. She just wanted him dead.

But it wasn’t yet time for Lotor to go to stage two of his plans for wooing Romelle. He’d leave her in the dungeons for almost another week, acting as if his only care in the universe was to defeat Voltron. I would reluctantly accompany him to Arus, but my thoughts remained on Doom. There wasn’t an hour that went by, where I didn’t think about Romelle, worrying about her down in the castle’s dungeons.

My performance on the mission didn’t suffer. But then, there wasn’t much for me to actually do. With Lotor taking charge, the only thing I had to do was react to his commands. My only role was to make sure the other soldiers on board were doing what was expected of them. But with Haggar’s robeast taking up center point of the plan, we didn’t even spend much time fighting.

No instead, we stood around, watching as our robeast, a creature born in a world of arctic ice, battled Voltron. It attempted to freeze Voltron in it’s tracks, a solid layer of ice surrounding yellow and blue lion which made up the robot’s feet. Thick as that ice was, it did not stand up to red lion’s flames, melting until Voltron was able to shatter it apart with it’s sword.

That same sword would be used to kill the robeast. We didn’t even stick around to watch it’s defeat. The instant Voltron had broken the ice, Lotor had ordered the ships to retreat to higher ground. He wanted no repeat of the incident on Pollux, where Voltron had gone after, and torn apart the flag ship. Fortunately for us, Voltron was content to let us escape, and save for a few soldiers that had piloted our star cutters earlier in the day, we didn’t suffer many losses.

We’d return to Doom in disgrace, but even Zarkon was made to see reason about how little our chance for success had been, given the time constraints he had forced on Haggar and Lotor. A series of strategic meetings would be held, tactics being formed as we began openly trying to decide how next we would go after Arus and Voltron. And all this time, Lotor kept from me his plans for Romelle, leaving me to believe he had completely forgotten about her.

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