“Out of the Blue
I come sailing
Through the years
Through the years
What do I do?
Now that I’ve seen
All our hopes
All our fears
And I’m riding a lonely highway
I’m the man from out of the blue
Yes I’m riding a lonely highway
I’m the man from out of the blue”
I awoke with a jerk, and found myself in a pitch-dark cave, uncomfortably stiff from sleeping on the cold ground. I had walked through a network of tunnels before finding a thin ribbon of stream and followed it until it widened and poured in a frothy blanket over an outcropping of rocks. Holding myself very still, I listened intently, trying to decide what had awakened me.
Sleep was a luxury. I had discovered that long ago. To fall asleep meant I might die at the hands of the enemy. Here on Planet Doom, nightmares of what happened in Arus and Ebb kept me awake, sometimes for days at a time. If I dozed off, terrible images filled my head, coming out of my memories, my hopes and my fears. So I force myself to stay awake to avoid the horror of my subconscious mind.
I was afraid I had imagined the noise, it was a plaintive, almost singsong voice. It didn’t feel threatening. It was, well…too feminine to be threatening.
Was I going crazy?
“Ja,” I muttered to myself, shoving the hair away from my face. “That’s my punishment, for being a failure to my family, my friends and the Alliance.”
I willed myself to breathe evenly, to calm my pounding heart and empty my mind of the images that bombarded me. It took me a long time to calm down. When I felt steady to move, I staggered toward the stream, ignoring my aching muscles and the throbbing in my arm. The only thing that mattered was reaching the water.
The stream was icy cold, and I lay down in it, full length, wanting the water to soothe the burning slashes in my face, so that I could think clearly again.
I sat up slowly and pulled myself to the stream bank. I removed the rag on my arm to examine the wound, and winced. It had stopped bleeding, but the pain still burned.
People don’t die over a slash like this, I thought warily, re-wrapping my arm.
The Drule soldier who caused this injury had been different from the others I had killed while on patrol. His life had not been much fun lately he had mused. He had been well battered and bruised in his last battle. Prince Lotor had shamed him in front of his friends. And if that was not enough, his wife had begun making demands on him. One of his fellow officers had made a casual comment of his winnings in the coliseum. His wife had quickly seized upon the fact that he had money. Then followed a verbal listing of things she wanted. A new slave, new gowns, new jewelry. Some of this and a little of that.
“What does that wench think I am made of, anyway, that I could support her in the lap of luxury like some…some…Prince Lotor!“
“His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Lotor, always sneaking around and disturbing the peace of Arus with his robeasts. And when the Voltron Force sends him back home with his tail between his legs, he accuses us of incompetence. Why, he’s the one who ruins everything because he only thinks about screwing that little tart, Princess Allura!”
When I heard him speak so viciously of the Princess, I felt every muscle in my body tighten. I knew one of us would have to die. There was no doubt in my mind that he deserved it more than me.
He chuckled to himself and sucked his teeth in sheer envy. “But he’s a prince, so he doesn’t have to pay for his stupid mistakes.”
Then I watched as he settled himself on the ground, and a few moments later began to snore. I moved toward him, rustling the grass nearby. The vegetation was so overgrown that a mini robeast- or a man- could easily surprise him.
He opened his eyes in time to see me launch myself into the air. He fell backwards in shock and raised his knife, but I rolled just in time to escape the knife coming toward my head. I leapt to my feet, using one arm to shield myself from another blow. A quick stab of pain made me grimace. I arched my way from the blade, whirling to face my opponent head on.
He grinned viciously at me. “I’m going to kill you, earthling!”
I watched the twisting knife glitter in the fading moonlight. “You’re wrong,” I spat.
He slashed forward with his knife. I grabbed the wrist with both hands and forced it upwards. Chest to chest we struggled for possession of the weapon. His free hand clawed my face, and I kneed him in the stomach. I took hold of the knife and raised it high above the soldier’s chest, and saw his momentary look of terror.
Yes! I thought wildly. Now he knew how his victims felt!
Before I could attack, he stiffened and let out a shriek. He fell forward, his body striking mine, knocking us both to the ground. I screamed and cursed, twisting beneath his weight.
Then I went still, my chest struggling for air, my nose filled with the stench of the soldier.
He was dead.
I lifted the corpse from me and rolled it over; the yellow eyes stared at me, convex irises now inert, lids twitching involuntary.
Lance was right. Drules would not be entering beauty pageants anytime soon-
There’s that sound again. It’s a woman’s low moan, I’m sure of it.
I lit a candle, and slowly walked toward the edge of the tunnel, allowing myself to peer once and then pull back. In that moment, I saw the scene quite clearly under the flickering candle. A woman lay facedown on the ground.
I hesitated in disbelief. The promise I had sworn to the Alliance warred within in me until my head ached. I should only care about my own survival, not a stranger’s. But I could see the woman, hurt and alone, forced here against her will. How would I live with myself if she died, adding another death to my conscience?
Suddenly, the woman lifted her head, and she gasped in what sounded like a sob.
I looked up, up, and I choked back the scream that threatened to escape from my throat. A man was towering over me, and he was ominously quiet. Smoke circled around his head from the lit candle between his fingers. He watched me inquisitively, and a chill chased up my spine. His ebony lashes framed blue eyes, not sky blue, or cornflower blue. Burning blue…blazing with a terrible intensity.
“Those eyes,” I gasped. “Oh…you’re wild!”
He reached out to me, and I scrambled up and away from him. I leaned against the uneven wall. The stone scraped my back, but I would do anything to escape this wild man. I ran as fast as I could, but he strode ahead of me and extended his arms, blocking my way.
My heart was pounding. What could he possibly want from me? He could easily take everything by force. Was I going to die after such a brief taste of freedom?
He covered my mouth with a clenched fist. “Don’t make a sound!” he whispered fiercely. “Or they’ll follow you.”
I nodded vigorously, and the fist came away. “W-who?”
His dark brows lowered in a frown, and he studied me for a few moments. But when we heard the sound of falling rock, he whirled around. “Here they are!”
I turned and spied the squad leader peering at us from the edge of the pit.
The stranger blew off the candle and threw it against the wall. “Let’s go!”
I took off on a fast run at the opposite end of the tunnel, hoping nothing lay in my path.
“BRING HER BACK, YOU IDIOTS!” I heard Lotor yell. “DON’T LET HER GET AWAY!”
The guards ran after us, firing their laser guns.
“THERE’S SOMEBODY WITH HER, IT LOOKS LIKE AN EARTHLING!”
“AN EARTHLING?” Lotor cried in disbelief. “CATCH THEM!”
“THEY’RE RUNNING TOO FAST, SIR!”
The man took me along a maze of tunnels. My skirts had a life of their own as they threatened to trip me or snag on the rocks. I wanted to warm him that I didn’t run well. I tended to twist ankles and bruise knees- not always my own.
Suddenly, I tripped over my skirts. I landed on my hands and knees on the dirt. I longed to cry in despair, but he growled, “Come on! There’s no time to waste!”
We pushed through the last meters on the far side of the cave, only to skitter to a sudden halt near a jagged opening in the wall. I looked on as he laid his hands on the hard surface. His shirt fit so tightly as a second skin. It outlined shoulders broad as those of a peasant who worked the fields. And indeed, in some aspects he resembled a peasant. His hands were so big, that they parted those walls easily.
When he motioned toward me frantically, I took a step away, wincing as my ankle turned on a stone. I felt almost as trapped as I had in the dungeon. I had no idea where I was, and what I should do.
“Hurry! Come on!” he said, giving me an effective push into the chamber, and drawing the walls shut behind him. I stood in the shadows. I couldn’t see his eyes or his face to read his intentions.
Then I heard him patting the wet, uneven stone and moved toward his right. He banged his shin on something and muttered an oath. There was a squeaking sound, like he was opening a wooden trunk.
“What are you looking for?”
He didn’t answer. But when I saw the first small flickering flame begin to glow in the deepening darkness, I realized that he had been looking for another candle.
He came to stand before me. There was nothing soft about his face; it was all hard angles and strong bones. I could not help but study him, fascinated despite my wariness. And when his unusual eyes pierced me, saw through me, I couldn’t look away.
I was sure I had seen this man before, but where?
His lips turned up in the faintest semblance of a smile, and I felt a strange chill.
“Now you’re safe. So, why don’t you get out of here?” His tone was sharp and derisive.
“What do you mean, get out of here?”
“Just what I said, go away!” he replied brusquely. “Get out of my sight!”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“What do you think? I’m crazy! Can’t you tell?”
“Yeah, you got it! I’m a wild man. I live in these tunnels on roots and mushrooms. I’m crazy, I could do anything!” he said in a voice made more menacing by its softness.
I gasped. “No, I knew I recognized your face. You look different, but-”
“But what? I was an unknown slave before I ran away to these caves. So if you think you know who I am, well…you must have mistaken me-“ he stopped to place the candle on a boulder “-for somebody else.”
“No, I didn’t. You used to be the best navigator in the Alliance, then you joined the Voltron Force.”
He laughed. “What are you saying? With a crazy brain like I have?” he asked, tapping his head. “Do you think they would let me join the Voltron Force?”
“Now, go away!” He snapped, pointing to the mouth of the cave.
I pushed his hand away, and crossing my arms over my chest, I closed my eyes. “No, you try to act mean, but you’re kind. You’re not crazy, or you wouldn’t have saved me.”
Yes, he was the man of the portrait I saw in the Castle of Lions, I was certain of it!
“I know you now…”
I opened my eyes and uncrossed my arms, and pointing a finger at him, I said, “You’re Sven, the Blue Lion!”
His eyes shot open wide and his face took on a crimson hue. “How dare you! Who do you think you are, coming here talking about Sven? There is no Sven!”
“Why are you saying that?”
He hesitated, and this time I could see anguish flicker across his face. “Because the Sven you speak of is gone. He was nothing but a failure…a failure!”
“Oh, that’s not true. Sven was no failure. He fought valiantly against one of Zarkon’s most terrible robeasts. No one could defeat a robeast single-handedly. He held him long enough so the rest of the Voltron Force could save the planet. If it hadn’t been for Sven, Planet Arus would have been lost.”
There was a long moment of silence before he spoke. “But *he* lost. He was beaten.” His voice was suddenly deeper, and rumbled over buried emotions I could only guess at.
When he said nothing, I whispered, “Tell me. Tell me everything, Sven.”
His eyes filled with tears and, arching his back, he let out an earth-shattering cry, and then slumped down on a boulder. The painful words began to tumble out. “Do you know what that’s like? I couldn’t move…I could hardly breath.”
Tears started in my eyes and I swallowed hard. “I know Sven, but it wasn’t your fault.” There was bewilderment in his voice, and such self-hatred that I longed to hold his hand, but I dare not.
“So, I still failed,” he continued softly. “When I was in the hospital, Zarkon’s fleet attacked. It was a small planet and they couldn’t defend themselves, and I couldn’t help them. I was taken with the others to be a slave on Planet Doom. But when they saw I couldn’t work, they left me without food or water. I lay there remembering, dreaming…sometimes I imagined myself as I used to be.”
“I would tell myself, ‘you must escape from Planet Doom. Remember, you’re a part of the Voltron Force’.”
“And I would ask, ‘How can I escape? Tell me, please!’”
He sighed. “But then I would realized, it was just…a dream. That’s when I decided to escape to the caves. I’ll never be the man I used to be.”
“Yes you will, Sven. You must lead me to the surface of the planet. Will you help me?”
“I could try, but I don’t think I can do it-”
His voice broke, and he buried his face in his hands.
You got to do it, I thought desperately. The fate of my people depends on it!
I came closer, telling myself to leave him alone, but unable to comply. Sven was hurt, he was aching inside, and I couldn’t leave him like this. I was on my knees on the ground, my arms as far about him as they would go. His shoulders shook, and I held him, soothed him.
“Sven, what happened in Ebb wasn’t your fault. You must understand that.”
He wrenched from my embrace and stood, whirling until he leaned over me. “But I can’t…I can’t let go of those memories.”
I clasped his hands. “If you want to forgive yourself, you must let go of the past. From now on, you must build a new life, without looking back.”
He looked at me in amazement, and then, very slowly, he lifted my hands to his lips and held them there. “I’ll try.”
I trembled at his touch, and finally broke away. “We must go,” I whispered.
Sven and I walked for hours. I felt my way from wall to wall, scratching my hands on rough rock, tripping over roots. My knees were growing weak with hunger and exhaustion. I was about to admit defeat when the cave began to widen, and I could see glimpses of the sun between the walls.
“You are tired,” his deep accented voice broke into my thoughts. “There’s a place where you can sleep, where no one can find us.”
He turned his back, and squatted on his haunches. “Climb on.”
“Climb on my back.”
“Why?” “You can’t run in that dress.”
What he said made sense…I looked down at my gown. The silk skirt gathered beneath my chest, with cotton petticoats beneath.
“But it’s not proper-”
“Lotor and his guards can’t be far behind. Get on, woman!”
I couldn’t prevail. I either had to walk and ruin my chances of ever escaping from this planet or I had to get on his back. But then I remembered something I had read in my classes, ‘When your enemy is backed into a corner that is the time to negotiate.’
“My name is Romelle. If you’ll call me that, then I’ll get on your back.”
“I don’t believe this.” His tone made it clear he had been driven to the limit.
“The guards can’t be far behind,” I reminded him.
He groaned loudly, twisting his big hands, and for one moment I wondered if he would attack. Then, in a tight voice, he said, “Get on my back- Romelle.”
I had won! Oh God, I had convinced him. But the mere fact he had surrendered reminded me of the danger nipping at our heels.
He turned his back again, and I leaned into him, wrapping my arms around his neck. And when he rose, I wrapped my legs around his waist, and he started down the slope.
Not since I was a child when I cajoled dad into piggybacking me up to my room had I experienced such familiarity- and this was not the same sensation at all. My arms rested on his shoulders, my head was at the same level of his. My chest pressed against his back. The base of my torso rested against his spine, and the movement of his body gave me an odd thrill, much like the electricity experiment I had done once with my tutor, which had knocked me off my feet.
And I supposed Sven had done the same.
I hugged my legs to his waist tightly, because if they slipped…
His head suddenly turned. “What’s that noise?”
I stiffened, listening behind us for the crunch of boots.
“You’re grumbling.” His lips barely moved, yet I heard his words, or felt them perhaps.
“I am not!” Then I realized what he meant. “It’s my stomach. I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
He dug into the pocket of his shirt. “Here.” He pressed something into my hand.
Cautiously, I freed my hand from his neck and looked. It was a small reddish root, similar to a sweet potato.
“It’s kah’moth. You don’t have to eat it.”
Bracing my elbows on his shoulders, I lifted the root to my nose. I inhaled the cinnamon-like smell, then said, “Mom taught never to reject food from any source.” I nibbled the end of the root, and sighed as the first bite slid down my throat and comforted my stomach.
“This trip must be difficult for you.”
He sounded confident, and in fact he moved along the path without pause. The long muscles of his back stretched and contracted and he walked, and I could feel his stomach muscles flexing against my calves. So close. We were so close. Hastily, I asked, “W-would you like a bite?”
“I’ve eaten those roots for months,” he said dryly.
I wanted to tell him that could have been easily avoided if he had called the Voltron Force. But instead I ate the root in a brooding silence. Not that he seemed affected by my actions.
He took me over to a stream trickled over stones, and at the sound, my already dry mouth parched. But I suspected he would take my request for a stop badly. Tentatively, I asked, “Aren’t you getting tired of carrying me?”
Rats! That didn’t work. Well, I didn’t want to say it, but I had to. “I’m thirsty.”
Heaving a heavy sigh, Sven changed directions and followed the sound to the creek bank. The ease of my victory surprised me, and I wondered at it. When he stopped, I hopped off his back, glad to get away from his moodiness, if only for a moment.
The chill of the cave struck me through my gown, and I shivered. The stream ran almost at my feet, catching bits of sunlight as it filtered through the boulders. The air smelled like damp earth, and I took a breath before kneeling at the edge of the water.
He towered over me. “How will you drink?”
“I’ll form a bowl with my hands.”
He gave me a dubious frown. “That sounds easier than it is.”
I smiled at him. “I’ve done it before,” I said matter-of-factly. Tapping the shallow depths, I found a spot lined with rocks where I hoped the water ran clear. Cupping my hands, I brought them to my mouth in one swoop. I slurped unladylike, but I didn’t care.
“Where did you learn that?”
I turned my head and looked up at him. “On a trip with my brothers through the countryside.”
He shook his head and moved down the bank, and I continued drinking until my thirst was quenched. As I dabbed the water I had splashed on myself, I heard similar slurping sounds from downstream. He had been thirsty too.
The man had been thirsty and didn’t want to admit it. If it hadn’t been for my request, he would have gone forever without stopping until he had dropped from dehydration.
“I’m going upstream a little further,” I whispered.
He stopped drinking. “Why?”
“I have *other* needs.” I enunciated my words carefully, the same way I talked to Bandor when he was a child.
“Very well, but don’t go too far.”
I made a face. “Yes, sir,” I replied, and went off.
When Romelle returned, she climbed on my back with less reluctance. She was tired, ready for this escapade to end. Soon her head bobbled against my shoulder, and she seemed to be growing heavier. At first I thought it was because I was getting tired, but then I realized that her muscles were limp. As the day passed by and the excitement wore off, it appeared she at last had been driven to the limit of her endurance. I was almost glad. At least I knew she wouldn’t insist on her idea of escaping from Doom.
I could scarcely believe this girl had forced me to accede to her wishes and call her by her first name, and I was willing to call her that as long as she behaved herself. Which, from what I had seen of her, was unlikely. I had planned to humor her, and to have her agree that she was unreasonable in denying our fate. Instead I had been talked into helping her. We entered another chamber that had an underground waterfall. There was a cavern behind it, which I used as my hideout. “Romelle.” She pried her eyes open. “Where are we?” Her breath feathered my hair and slipped across my face, warm and spicy. “I came this way because-“ I felt her intake of breath. She pushed away from me, and I let her down. She stood leaning against me, her face lifted toward the fall, her lips slightly parted and moist as mist fogged the air. Above and beyond us stretched the cliff, polished and scoured, channeled with gullies that plunged down its face. Within each gully a waterfall slipped like a chain of silver. The water dropped without interruption from the highest point, until it crashed and splintered across the rocks. “That underground waterfall is beautiful,” she mused. I had seen the cliff and the falls before. I had prowled these caves, learned to use the noises and disguises of nature. But engrossed in the business of staying alive and taking the enemy one by one, I had failed to take the time to note its beauty. Only now, looking at the elation on Romelle’s upturned face, I became aware of the wonder my suffering had not allowed. And that made me weary and too well aware of the distance I had traveled, and the innocence I had lost. Now, I permitted myself to think what Prince Lotor might have done to her. Had he beaten her? Raped her? Had he used her in the basest way he knew? I would kill him if he had. I looked at her again, and this time I saw the smudges on her forehead, the dirt on her cheeks. With my thumb, I tried to wipe the darkest smudge off her cheek. She flinched away from me. A bruise. Something or *someone* had hit her. Sudden fury twisted along my veins like liquid fire. I would make Lotor sorry for this. I would make him pay. Taking care not to frighten Romelle with my outrage, I touched her cheek again, trying to sooth away the hurt, and with a slight wince, she let me. “We can’t stand out here anymore,” I said, and grasped her wrists to move her.
She gave a gasp of pain and fell against me. “Don’t!” When I let her go, she whispered, “He tied my wrists with chains…”
I felt the stickiness of blood beneath my fingers, and looked at the wounds. Blood circled each wrist, dried and blackened in the dim light.
Faen! I will kill Lotor. I will rip his heart out. The bastard! How could he treat her like that?
Cradling her hands in mine, I asked in a controlled voice, “What else did that- what else did Lotor do to you?”
She drew a shuddering breath. “He would kiss me and fondle me, and say cruel, lewd things to me.”
Ja, I would definitely kill him.
Her hand went to her throat. “I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t…he didn’t…nothing happened.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. A bit of the tension inside me eased. Thank goodness she had not been raped and forced to bear his evil seed.
Turning my back I squatted before her, and she slid her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist as if we had been traveling like this for years. Standing, I shifted her on my back, my hands sliding along her thighs to better support her. She adjusted herself, trying to help me, not conscious about touching me, and I realized that she didn’t fear me at all.
As the sounds of the waterfall became louder, my thoughts turned more and more to her predicament. How would she escape from Doom unnoticed?
Sven carried me up the faint trail leading to the top of the falls. There was a cavern behind them, and we passed through the mist and moisture of it. Icy sheets slashed down upon us, wetting our garments until they became dead weights that hindered movement. The cave was narrow, sloping downward into the mountain itself.
“Let me down, you need to rest.”
“I will. When we reached the spot.”
“You’re a stubborn man.”
“Please remember that.”
“You can’t carry me down that path. It’s too steep!”
“Of course I’ll carry you. You’re tired.”
“But your lungs are working overtime and your arms are trembling from my weight.”
Carefully he regulated his breath and adjusted my weight to a more comfortable position. “I’m fine.”
He wasn’t really, but I guess he didn’t want me to think he was a weakling that couldn’t complete the journey. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same about me. “Sven, I don’t feel well.” He stopped, and laid me out on the ground and the chill woke me completely. I tried to sit up, but nausea overwhelmed me once again, and I sank back.
He reached for me, touched me with remarkable gentleness, and skimmed over my throat, my shoulders, down my arms. I didn’t care how impersonally he was handling me; I wasn’t about to let him run his fingers over my torso and points in between.
“It’s my knee.”
The hands stopped. Standing, he stepped away. I lay back on my back and looked up at the ceiling, trying to imagine a gown of smooth blue velvet accented by a handful of pearls, but I couldn’t. I shivered weakly, my teeth clinking together.
“I’ll make a fire so we can get dried out a bit.”
The idea of a warming fire sounded heavenly. My cheeks and hands were numb and icy, my nose red and cold. Even my slippers were soaked.
When the flickering flames begin to glow, I found myself too cold and stiff to move to its warmth. I shivered in my wet clothes until Sven came to stand above me. Handing me an old tunic, he said, “I’ll spread a blanket for you while you change out of those wet clothes.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You can’t sleep in those wet clothes,” he said flatly, “you have to take them off so you can hang them dry. Now do as I tell you.”
“But there’s no privacy.”
“You can change behind that boulder.”
I heard compassion roughen his voice, and my resolve crumbled. I quickly stepped away and disappeared behind the boulder, hunching my shoulders forward until the bodice dropped down over my arms, then wiggled out of the garment. Soon the gown, the corset, the layers of petticoats, the stockings and the shift lay at my feet. Then I grabbed the tunic and I pulled it over my head and down my body.
When I came out, I noticed that Sven had placed a pot filled with water and herbs over the fire. He came to me and covered me with a blanket. I fingered it. It was made of rough wool, with the scent of smoke.
I picked up my clothes and spread them in a pile of rocks before the fire. I sat down, and wished desperately to be back in Pollux with its blue skies and gentle breeze. I wasn’t some delicate lady, but neither was I hardened space explorer like Sven. My fainting humiliated me, yet I was bruised from rough hands, my wrists burned from the chains, and my knee throbbed with such intensity that I feared an infection.
I had lived a sheltered life before meeting Lotor, and a sheltered life was all I could handle. I was a coward. But while I might comprehend I was a coward, I felt a remarkable aversion to letting Sven know.
I looked up, and my heart skipped a beat. He looked like a pirate, so incredibly appealing, standing there shirtless, the flat plane of his stomach in plain view above the waist of his skintight blue breeches. With broad shoulders and a narrow waist, he even had the torso of a pirate, or at least those of the romance novels I used to read, and with his wet hair curling about his face, he would have made a most handsome warlord.
Kneeling beside me, he said, “Open your mouth.”
He popped another piece of kah’moth between my lips. I should have been indignant to be fed so off-handedly, but the crunchy root settled my stomach. Sitting up on one elbow, I chewed slowly and swallowed.
“Feeling better?” His voice was a rumble above my head as he tucked the blanket tightly around me.
“Sven, I don’t think-“
I gasped in shock when his hands went to my feet and removed my slippers. He placed them on a stone beside the fire.
“I could have done that!” I said hotly.
“Now, let me see your knee.”
I wasn’t sure if I could trust him after that little stunt. “No, thank you. I can clean *my* wound.”
Turning my leg toward the fire, he frowned. “Don’t worry, I have battleground experience.”
“No! I can do it!”
Glancing around, he found the pot with boiling water, a small corked bottle, rags, scissors, thread and…oh my God…a needle.
“Fortunately, the wound is not deep. But first-“ he uncorked the small bottle and handed it to me- “drink this Drule brandy. It tastes terrible, but as sensitive as you are, I think you should have some.”
“I’m not sensitive. I’m as practical as you are.”
He arched an eyebrow at me. “Sure you are.”
I glared at him and then took a sip, and it burned all the way down. He was right- it tasted awful.
He took a rag and dipped it into the boiling water, then proceeded to clean the wound. I knew it was going to hurt, so I glanced around the chamber. As if I had asked him a question, he said, “This used to be a shelter.”
If Sven was trying to distract me, he had achieved his goal.
“I suppose the people who were hiding in here left in a hurry,” he went on, “because they left wooden trunks with supplies, like candles, pots, musty blankets, a medical kit, an old laser gun and that bottle of brandy.”
“Unfortunately, there weren’t any MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) so I have to rely on roots and mushrooms.”
I rubbed a painful scratch on my shoulder. “I see.”
“You told me your name, but you didn’t say where you come from.”
Catching my gaze with his, he repeated, “Where do you come from?”
“I’m Princess Romelle, of Planet Pollux.”
“Princess Romelle…” His voice faltered. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“You didn’t ask,” he mocked. “Next you’re going to say that you’re Princess Allura’s cousin.”
I stared at him as he dried my knee with care. “Well, now that you mention it…yes.”
I could see only the gleam of his eyes in the shadows of his face, but sounded kind as he said, “Now I understand the startling resemblance and your attitude.”
“What do mean, my attitude?”
“Everything’s out of this cut. I’ll check it again in the morning.” He applied a poultice of mashed leaves. A faint, minty scent filled the cave as he wrapped rag strips around my knee. He finished his task and said, “Now, go to sleep.”
I was too tired, too flustered to fight him. Obediently I lay against the scratchy wool of the blanket, feeling the weight of another blanket laid atop me. He dropped onto his back, and drew his own half of the covers up to his waist. I told myself I was too tired to care he lay close beside me. All that mattered was sleep.
Yet I couldn’t ignore the contours and slopes of his body being caressed by the dancing flames, until he seemed to rise like a shadowy mountain from the ground.
“What happened?” I asked, touching the dirty rag wrapped around his elbow.
He sighed. “Romelle, couldn’t this wait until morning?” “
No, I wish to know now. Unless you feel you must keep silent.”
He shook his head, then ran a hand through his hair. “A guard pulled a knife of me, and I couldn’t deflect the blow.”
“What happened to him?”
I gasped, shocked, yet fascinated. “Don’t tell me you’re the phantom killer everyone in Doom Castle has been talking about. They say you have killed at least a dozen soldiers during their patrols.”
Stretching out one arm, he rested his head upon it, and looked at me. “They’re lying. I’ve only killed seven, so far. And I’m sure they won’t miss the one I killed last night.”
I looked into his eyes, so filled with hatred. I wanted to speak, but words failed me. His gaze dropped to my mouth, and I felt a sudden, startling tightening in the depths of my body, and a warmth in my cheeks. Never had I felt such sensations just from a man’s eyes.
But Sven wasn’t just any man. He was my savior.
I turned my back on him and fought to master my breathing. “Good night, Sven.”
I heard him sigh as he lay back in the blanket. “Good night, Romelle.”
And I shut my eyes, knowing that would be hard to achieve.
I came awake with a start, and then remained still, listening. For a brief moment, I wondered if it had all been a dream, but when I looked, she was there, stretched out on her back with her face turned towards me in sleep.
I inhaled sharply, smelling once again the scent of a woman. I closed my eyes and tried to suppress a groan of sheer pleasure that threatened to escape. I could not remember the last time I had seen a woman, let alone been close to smell one. Sensations I had struggled to hide now rose to distract me.
I propped myself up on one arm and looked at her. Romelle glowed with a quiet beauty; with her honey-blond hair curls draped over half of her face. I allowed my fingers to touch her hair, to lift it away from her mouth. My hand looked so large and brutish beside the delicate bones of her face that I snatched it back as if burned.
I had to help this woman because honor demanded it, because a good space explorer always helped those in need. Yet my eyes didn’t look at the Princess of Pollux. I saw a creamy oval face, with long, golden-brown lashes resting on rosy cheeks, a pert nose, and a pale pink mouth. When she looked directly at me the first time, I had held my breath, both of fear that I would betray myself and also in amazed wonder at her loveliness.
I broke into a sweat, but still I could not stop looking at her, could not move away even if Lotor had come upon us. She was soft and round and feminine, so small for my bulky body…
I suddenly saw the way my mind was moving, and I was horrified. Here I was contemplating sexual acts with this girl. My lust was unforgivable- only her safety mattered. I had to help any person who needed me, no matter the task. And yet…
And yet I was a man who appreciated spirit and courage, and Romelle had plenty. I would help her; through resisting her appeal might prove harder than any penance I had suffered.
I opened my eyes, and saw the dull embers of the dying fire. Cool air chilled my side and I realized that Sven no longer lay beside me. For a moment I thought he had abandoned me, but I couldn’t believe such things from him. I propped myself up on one elbow and saw him already dressed, kneeling beside the fire, head bowed, unmoving. I had to rise. We had to be on our way. I scrambled up and retrieved my garments. “G-good morning, Sven,” I said, hiding behind the boulder. “Good morning, Romelle. I picked berries and mushrooms for you.”
“Thank you, but we must leave,” I said from beneath the folds of the gown dropping over my head.
“The sun has yet to rise,” he protested.
I ripped a piece of my petticoat. “Sven, we can’t linger. My planet depends on us.”
“I will not take you to the surface until you eat something.” He said it very decisively.
“Oh, all right,” I replied irritably, stepping out of the boulder. I made my way to the table, where he had placed a bucket with water. I dipped the piece of fabric in the water, wrung it out, and washed my face with speed and efficiency. Then I sat down on a log, and looked down at my lap, at the beautiful, stained skirt, and stroked it lightly with my fingertip.
He laid out a handful of berries and mushrooms on a plank of bark, and handed it to me. He stared silently at me from under dark brows, with eyes whose color I still couldn’t define.
I balanced my plate on my knees and took my first bite. “I didn’t hear you leaving the cave. You have been up a long time, then. Thank you for letting me sleep, I was exhausted, but I’m feeling much better now. My knee has miraculously healed and I can leave the cave by myself.”
I glanced at him and found a slightly perplexed and thoughtful frown on his face, and my cheeks grew flush. He must think I’m a babbling idiot. But I couldn’t help it; his staring made me nervous. He was so broad and tall, all bone and hard muscle.
He gave a quick nod. “You’re welcome.” Standing, he made his way to the table, and began to splash water over his face furiously.
I noted the water glistening in his dark hair, and the droplets clinging to his throat. There was that feeling again. That strange tingling, and that yearning. I struggled to dismiss such feelings and continued eating my berries, while he picked up the blankets.
A couple of hours later, we reached the mouth of the main cave. Sven stepped outside, and the Doomian sun turned him into a blazing statue. I huddled into myself waiting for Lotor and his guards to find us, for laser to pierce his chest. Instead he arched his back and looked up at the sun, as if soaking it in.
“Come, I see no one.”
When he reached a hand to me, I avoided it and stepped into the sunshine. The air was already hotter than normal, though the cool earth had shielded us.
“Do you wish to lead, Romelle?”
I raised my chin and walked a few steps beyond him, then turned when he did not follow.
“Unless you wish to go back to the Pit of Skulls, I suggest you come this way.”
He began to walk in the opposite direction, leaving me no choice but to catch up with him. I forgot about the gown which had not been tailored shorter than normal as my own were. I tripped over the hem and sprawled into Sven, my hands landing flat on his backside. I gasped in mortification and dropped to my knees. He caught me up, and before I could pull from his embrace, I saw him grimace. I quickly lifted my hands from the warm, contoured skin of his arms.
“I’m sorry about your elbow,” I said, dusting off my dress.
“Perhaps it would heal sooner if you knew how to walk.”
I squinted up into his dark face, haloed by the sun. Was he angry with me? I saw a flash of white teeth and relaxed, then caught myself. The knave was making fun of me!
He offered his arm but I declined, holding up my skirt as I walked beside him. He shrugged and kept walking, forcing me to keep up with him. The air was hot and sultry, and my hair clung to my neck. Before us stretched rolling hills covered with sparse grass, with occasional clusters of thin trees in the distance.
I kept quiet, and decided to turn my thoughts to my family. My poor father must be terribly worried. Did he think I was dead, killed by Lotor? Was Bandor back in his post, protecting the Alliance’s main energy source? Had Avok contacted them?
As Romelle and I walked along the hills overlooking Castle Doom, I felt the springiness of the ground beneath my feet, and the sun beating down upon my head with ferocity. I did not mind. For the first time in many months, I was content to wait for what the day would bring.
And as on cue, I heard the alarm my teammates and I had activated it several months ago. Perhaps I had spoken too soon.
“This is the surface of Planet Doom,” I said hastily.
“What’s that alarm?” she asked anxiously.
Far in the distance, I saw a Doom Destroyer crashing out of the hangar. “Some of slaves have stolen one of Zarkon’s ships!”
“We could do the same thing,” she suggested.” Let’s call the Voltron Force.”
I groaned inwardly. “I told you I won’t call them, I can’t call them. Don’t you understand? I let them down!”
“I gave you that transmitter because you are the only one who knows the codes. You must put aside your personal problems, and call Castle Control.”
I glared at her. “PERSONAL PROBLEMS?” I retorted, as her slim nose tilted upward as she turned it in a profile to me. “This is *your* problem. I’m just a wild man living in the caves. I don’t have to do anything!”
She twisted her hands into her skirts. “I know you don’t mean that. If you have any honor, you’ll call them.”
Her exasperated sigh quivered through me. For a woman who displayed so little in the way of feminine wiles last night, she displayed a remarkable aptitude to manipulate me. And I realized that I had a remarkable susceptibility to her manipulation.
“I’ll regret this,” I said, turning the device on. “Calling Castle Control- are you there?”
“Castle Control- Coran speaking.” “
Please copy this code- N-14-11-0-8-K-0. Request clearance for Princess Romelle.”
“It’s him!” Coran shouted.
“It’s Sven!” Keith exclaimed.
“Somehow he has found my sister!”
Romelle gave an exultant laugh. “That’s Bandor!” she cried, tugging at my sleeve. The look on her face had my heart turning over.
“Don’t forget, she’s my cousin too,” Princess Allura quipped.
“Oh, Allura,” she whispered softly, “how I miss her.”
“ROGER. TELL THEM THAT WHEREVER THEY ARE, WE’LL FIND THEM!” I heard Lance say, the tone of his voice pure determination.
“Lance, I think they already heard you,” Hunk broke in.
Coran asked them to be quiet and then repeated the message. I concluded the transmission promising that I would call them the moment we left Doomian air space.
“Okay,” Romelle said excitedly. “Now we must go with the rest of the slaves, and tell them about our plan.”
“We?” I countered, looking askance at her with amused tolerance. “I only promised you to bring you to the surface.”
She straightened her shoulders and walked a little ahead of me, as if she could possibly keep up the pace.
“And then you convinced me to call my friends.”
Her chin lowered a notch. “I saw the way your face lit up when you heard their voices, so don’t waste your time denying it. You’re dying to see them as much as I do.”
I smiled at her, and then almost laughed aloud as she stumbled again over the hem of her gown. Weren’t all princesses taught how to walk without falling on their faces?
“Will you survive?”
She cast me a quick glare. “Yes, but this gown is beyond redemption,” she said caustically.
She had donned every bit of her clothing, clothing that had disintegrated even more that I had realized. The hem was shredded. Triangular tears showed the passage of each thorn and branch. A long rip split the front, and her bandaged knee poked out, covered only by a bare petticoat almost as ragged as the skirt. For a man on the edge of control, she presented an almost overpowering temptation. And she didn’t realize it, for her mind was set on going back home.
“Do you sew?”
“Of course!” she said, insulted.
I fought the urge to smile in her face. “Well then, if you want to leave this place, you *must* do something about that gown.”
Sven stood still a moment, straining to listen to the sounds of the cave, and then he took me up the faint trail leading to the dungeons. He seemed driven, moving quickly, paying close attention to our surroundings.
“Somebody will see us,” I whispered.
“Be quiet,” he said in obvious irritation.
I wanted to speak, to question him, but he sat me on a flat stone and stealthily crept back to the path. He stopped in the narrow tunnel and squatted there, watching.
I could see his silhouette against the faint light on the path, and I marveled at his immobility. The hooded cloak that I made with the train of my gown didn’t mitigate the unyielding quality of the rock. The eerie atmosphere made me restless, and I ached all over.
At last he came back to me. Wordlessly he knelt before me. I put my arms around his neck, and he helped me down. I almost groaned from the pain in my aching biceps and abused joints. But he didn’t complain, so neither would I. The tunnel led to the coliseum. We found a group of slaves hiding behind a wall with arrow loops. They told us the runaway slaves had been captured by Morgor and brought to the arena to receive their punishment. I stepped forward to take a better look. Zarkon, Lotor and Hagar were standing in the aisles, talking among themselves. She was showing them her latest toy; a faceless robeast called the Iron Maiden. She was as tall as Voltron, her whole body was covered with dull gray plaques, and she wore a crown. Sven stood beside me. “You better be careful. They want you,” he spoke in a whisper. Lotor stepped forward and looked down at the slaves in the arena. “ALRIGHT, YOU SLAVES. WE KNOW THAT PRINCESS ROMELLE IS HIDING AMONG YOU. IF YOU HAND HER OVER, WE’LL SPARE YOUR LIVES.”
“ROMELLE– THERE’S NO HOPE, UNLESS YOU WANT TO WATCH US CRUSH THESE SLAVES. YOU MUST COME OUT, AND SHOW YOURSELF. THE CHOICE IS YOURS. THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE.”
“What will you do?” Sven asked.
“I must surrender to them.”
An older couple standing next to us shook their heads in denial. “Romelle, don’t do it,” the man pleaded. “They won’t spare us.”
“Even if you give yourself up,” the woman murmured quietly.
Realizing that the slaves were not willing to cooperate, Lotor ordered the robot guards to strike them with laser whips, and I cried out in horror.
Then I saw Hagar raising her magic staff, and the robeast came to life. Her eyes lit up and she slowly began to move her arms. She bent down and grabbed a bunch of slaves.
Sven and I stood in shock as the robeast crushed those people to death. I turned away, to keep from seeing this injustice. “I can’t allow this!”
“Now you know why I went crazy,” Sven murmured huskily. “I watched their cruelty again and again, and could do nothing…nothing to stop them!”
I cried silently while the slaves pleaded with their comrades not to give in to Zarkon, to fight them to the last. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to escape, but couldn’t bear the thought of Lotor hurting these slaves because of me.
“I cannot allow this, I must show myself to them.”
“NO!” Sven whispered fiercely, grabbing my hand. “You’re needed on your planet.”
Then he turned me around, and placed his hands on my shoulders. “You’re the only one who knows the key…the key to the secret defense plan that can save millions of your people. You must get back to them.”
My sorrow spilled out in hot tears that fell from my eyes. He was right; I had to go back.
“ROMELLE!” Lotor bellowed. “TOMORROW YOU’LL GET MORE!”
Sven winced. “If we wait until tomorrow we’re finished. We have to act quickly…TONIGHT!”
While Romelle talked to the slaves, I contemplated the pros and cons of another strike. I knew that she was not a space explorer, not did she have any special training in tactical boarding operations. For all intents and purposes, she should not be here.
However, she knew the layout of Alliance-class ships similar to the ones used by the Drules. She knew how to fly those vessels better than any grunt in Lotor’s fleet. Sure, space cadets received intense training in enemy ships, but very few of us could memorize thousands of instructions. Without her, the rebels would have to pause to check their coordinates via computer. She could get them to safety far more swiftly.
But she shouldn’t be here. Period.
Was I behaving in a protective manner like Keith did with Princess Allura, when she had asked to be pilot of Blue Lion?
I pursed my lips. Nonsense! Romelle is *not* my princess, I’m just a man who came out of the blue, who’s helping her escape from this hell, that’s all.
“They’ll never expect us to steal another ship,” I broke in. “Princess Romelle will be with us.”
She gave a quick nod. “Yes, it’s a great risk. But at least this way we have a chance. Are you with me?”
The men nodded their approval. “For freedom and the Galaxy Alliance!”
I opened a sack and took out the laser gun that I had found in the cave. I popped its energy magazine and popped in another, while the rebels armed themselves with wooden sticks and rocks.
Turning to the group, I said, “Very well, let’s go.”
They followed me, running across the dark barrenness. I could hear the men panting as they ran. Near the looming cliff, weathered rock cracked as it threatened to rapture. I kept pace. Stones defined the shadowy path we trod. Dust swirled in the air. The faint starlight allowed me to see nothing but the slowly moving robot drones protecting the main entrance of the hangar. We hid behind the shattered pieces of an overturned boulder.
“That’s where they keep them,” I whispered. “The robot guards are especially programmed to hear the slightest sound.”
“I’m ready,” a slave declared.
“So am I,” another slave murmured.
“We go to move quickly and quietly, like cats,” I suggested.
At my right side, Romelle said softly, “I’ll go first. Wish me luck. You got to go at the exact moment. When they turn…”
“Now!” I whispered.
She ran into the hangar without incident, and I relaxed infinitesimally. Then I signaled the slaves to follow me.
Moments later, Romelle and I lead the group onto the corridor, looking for a suitable ship. Our pace was watchful, covert, almost inaudible, yet smooth and swift.
Suddenly, we were covered by laser fire. “LASER FIRE, RUN!” I ordered, pointing my laser gun at one of the drones and striking him right on the chest.
Soon the corridors were filled with a swarm of robots, and we couldn’t keep up. “Hurry, I think is this way!”
Dense fog unfurled toward me, and once I had reached the corner, visibility had been reduced to a meter. I saw a door and frowned at the control panel labeled in Drule. I hesitated for few moments, but then hit the big button.
“Romelle, look here!”
We stepped into the hangar and moved off to survey the immense rectangular flight deck. A half dozen columns on either side of the deck rose about thirty meters, joined overhead by latticework of steel. Behind the columns stood roods of Doom Fighters, many of them being serviced by robot flight crews, who hung from open cockpits, scorched wings and pockmarked fuselages.
But then I saw a Skull ship in the landing pad outlined in bright yellow at the center of the hangar, just waiting for us.
“They are attacking!” A slave moaned as a half-dozen robot drones broke into the hangar.
“And we’ll attack them first!” a rebel countered. “With sticks, bare hands, with everything we got!”
“Grenade!” someone cried.
I looked down as a grenade rolled across the floor, just two meters away. I seized Romelle by the shoulders, driving her back as the bomb exploded. A bluish-red fireball swelled overhead. We collapsed, and I fought to recover my breath.
I looked around, trying to locate the princess. I could recognize nothing in the darkness and confusion. It was a man shrieking in a high tone, his declaration of pain mixed with searing invective toward Zarkon. A few people moaned; more cursed and called.
Someone grabbed me by the arm and squeezed.
Her voice was hoarse, weary, and desperate-sounding. Her scent, spice and citrus and some indefinable fragrance undeniably hers. I would know it anywhere by the tug she induced on my senses.
I grabbed her, felt her body beneath my hands, and enveloped her in a hug. “Romelle.” Then, without reflection, I pushed her away and shook her. “Run for the ship!”
She struggled in my grasp. “I can’t leave them, I can’t!”
“They’re doing their part, do yours!” I ordered, catching her hand. Ducking the laser bolts, we raced to the ramp leading to the ship. I had no intention of stopping until we were far, far away.
And then I heard Romelle cried, “Someday we’ll come back, and we’ll free all the slaves on Planet Doom!”
Sven immediately informed Castle Control that we were on our way to Planet Pollux, and soon we met with Bandor and the Voltron Force.
“We have established radio contact,” Lance announced, “Prince Bandor, go ahead.”
“Romelle- it’s you!”
I laughed. “Yes, my dear brother. I’m coming home!”
“Keith, my friend,” Sven said. “It’s so nice hear your voice again.”
“Same here Sven,” he said relieved. “We’ve missed you.”
Allura gasped softly. “I’m picking up something on the scanner, it must be Lotor’s fleet.”
“Prince Bandor,” Keith said, “we’re counting on you to backup Voltron.”
“You got it, Keith!”
“I’m picking up a large object approaching at high speed from Lotor’s fleet,” Allura said.
“Stand by team, I don’t like the look of this. Get ready for some major motion.”
Sven and I looked at each other when we realized that it was a casket carrying the Iron Maiden.
“Everyone, let’s go,” Keith said, in an angry, formal voice.
Voltron fired his thermal rays at the robeast, causing her outer layer to crack.
“It looks like we got her,” Pidge murmured.
“Hah, some robeast,” Hunk chuckled.
“Yeah, more like a paper tiger,” Lance said sarcastically.
“Wait,” Allura interjected. “It’s cracking up. There’s something underneath.”
And the female robeast revealed a golden armor.
“Alright, team. Round two.”
The Iron Maiden removed her crown and threw it at Voltron.
“Watch out for that crown!” Pidge warned.
But the crown fell on Voltron’s head, and soon golden rings that drained the power from the crystals covered his entire body. My brother tried to help them, but Lotor’s fleet disabled his starship.
Meanwhile, the Iron Maiden had wrapped her arms around Voltron and was about to puncture his crest with drills that came out from her torso.
Sven gasped. “She’s beating Voltron!”
I could not let that happen. I reached for the controls, and veered the ship in Voltron’s direction. Sven glanced at me and frowned. “Romelle, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to save Voltron with your help. You’ll be my navigator.”
“You will direct me to the target. You must call out the space coordinates.”
He sighed heavily. “Very well, I’ll try it…it’s been so long. Here it goes.”
“Coming at X37…X14V and leveling…L91 and descending till 4.” Then he paused for a few seconds. “Turn to cruiser level on Onix7 and increase speed to code E211…run 103…102…101…and we’re on target!
We hit the right arm of the Iron Maiden, and a piece of the head of the Skull ship struck the crown, and it exploded into a million pieces. “Got it, Sven!” I cried happily. “I knew you could still do it!”
With our help, Voltron broke free from the Iron Maiden. She fired missiles at him, but missed. Then he drew out his blazing sword and swiped the robeast twice on the chest. There was a big explosion that caused a chain reaction that engulfed Lotor’s vessel.
“That’s the end of the Iron Maiden and Lotor’s robot ship!” Lance announced triumphantly.
“Well done, team! Sven, Romelle, everyone!” Keith said, and the comm links were filled with shouts of approval.
Sven redirected his attention to the screens. “Romelle, I’ll take over the controls, if you don’t mind.”
He looked at me, then at his navigational display. “ETA to Planet Pollux: fifteen minutes.”
I leaned back in my chair, and closed my eyes. In all, it proved to be a most exciting day, and I experienced a tinge of regret when it came to an end. I knew that Sven would be going back to Arus with Allura and his teammates, and it left me in a melancholy mood as I watched him thrive in his element. Our alliance had been brief, but I knew the memory of it would linger far too long for me.
I opened the hatch of the Skull ship and stepped out. Romelle laid a hand into the one I offered up and we descended to the wharf. Armed guards made way for us until we stopped short in our midst. Up ahead a confusion of horses and carts were distributed across the plaza.
“Hurray for Voltron! Hurray for Princess Romelle! Hurray for Prince Bandor! Hurray!”
She took a step backwards and landed heavily against me. I held her up and she allowed it for a few moments.
“Are you alright?” I asked her. Before she could answer, a young man with reddish hair dressed in a knee-length yellow tunic smiled and waved a greeting that was immediately returned by her, and I said, “Is he your brother?”
“Yes. I know you’re going to like him,” she murmured, looking over her shoulder with a timid smile. I lay on hand on her shoulder and squeezed once. Then she started forward through the crowd. I followed at a discreet distance, watching in satisfaction as the young Prince ran to his sister.
"Romelle! My dear sister!" His words were no sooner spoken than Romelle arrived and was enveloped in his arms.
“Bandor, we’re home at last, and our people is safe.” And she pressed her face into his chest and cried. I knew her heart ached for the brave men who had sacrificed their lives so she could come back to her planet, but I promise to do everything to help her free those left behind.
It was then that feminine laughter interrupted my thoughts, and I turned around.
“Sven!” Princess Allura held out her hands to me, smiling. She looked as lovely as ever.
I took her hands, and pressed them to my heart. “Princess.”
“I thought we had lost you,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “But here you are, all safe and sound. Thank you for saving my dear cousin.” Then she stood on her toes and kissed me lightly upon the lips.
I smiled. It was so typical of the princess’ sweet nature and kind heart. My knuckles lightly grazed her cheek, brushing away her tears. “No tears,” I admonished her, “you promised me the last time.”
She laughed softly. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help it.” Then she stood back to allow Lance, Hunk and Pidge to come forward, while she went to greet their cousins.
When I looked at Lance, he merely shook his head and released a weary sigh. “This wouldn’t have happened if I had not left you alone with Hagar,” he said somberly. “Please, forgive me.”
“Lance, there’s nothing to forgive. You did what I asked you to, our duty was- and still is- to protect Princess Allura and Planet Arus.”
His eyes grew visibly misty. “Thanks, mon ami,” he said, grateful I did not hold him responsible for my captivity. I smiled tremulously, opening my arms wide to my friend. He came to me, and we held each other in an embrace.
“Group hug!” Hunk and Pidge shouted, and Lance and I were enveloped in a bone-squeezing hug.
“For goodness sake, give the man room to breathe,” a voice said sharply.
We turned around and saw Keith standing there, his hands resting on his hips. They gave him contrite looks, and immediately released me, and I walked briskly toward him. He greeted me with a broad smile and a hearty handshake.
“Keith,” I began, “I’m going to stay here with Romelle.”
He looked puzzled for a moment, and then a corner of his mouth turned up. “I understand.”
“But I haven’t told her yet, because I must contact the Garrison to ask their permission, and then I have to talk to Princess Allura.”
Keith gave me quick nod. “I’ll help you with the Garrison and all the paperwork. As for Allura, she’s so happy that you rescued her cousin, that she won’t mind if you decide to stay here for a while.”
I sighed in relief. “Thanks, Keith. I knew I could count on you-“
“Cousin!” Romelle cried.
“Romelle!” Allura replied.
“Two princesses together!” Bandor announced.
Keith and I looked on as both women held each other and wept. “She gave me back my life,” I whispered to him.
He gave me a sidelong glance and smiled. “I’m glad, Sven,” he said, beckoning the guys around us so they could hear his words. “And remember, you’ll always be a member of the Voltron Force. So if you ever need us back here on Planet Pollux, just call us. We’ll be waiting for you!”
“The team’s all here.” Pidge smiled as he extended his hand. “All for one, and one for all.”
“All for one, and one for all,” Keith said, covering his hand, quickly followed by Lance and Hunk.
“All for one, and one for all,” I concluded.
“Hey, you guys!”
We turned and saw Prince Bandor waving at us. “Perhaps you would like to freshen up before the celebration. There will be food and drink for everyone!”
“That’s music to my ears!” Hunk sighed happily.
We glanced expectantly at Lance for a rejoinder, but he admitted with a shrug, “Sorry, I can’t think of a comeback line for that one.”
“Must be the excitement, I guess,” Pidge said, his green eyes sparkling with unbridled humor.
And we marched down the streets on our way to Polydeuces castle, accepting cheers, kisses and flowers from the shouting crowd.
About an hour later, I was sitting on my bed, my only garment a short terry robe, while my ladies in waiting hurried across the bedroom to the armoire and pulled open its doors to reveal the variety of clothing it contained. Helena brought several rich gowns for my inspection and displayed the sheer fragile lace of the delicately worked petticoats and shifts. Octavia eagerly showed delicate sandals and slippers with tall, curving heels and small, fancy embellishments, and Astrid gave me hair styling suggestions, all this while they informed me about what had transpired in the castle during my absence.
Allura came out of the bathroom after enjoying a scented bath, and her skin was gently patted dry, and a light, perfumed oil rubbed into it. Then she was enveloped in a terry robe like mine. “These are the loveliest gowns I have ever seen,” she said, her eyes twinkling as she looked at me. “But I don’t know which one to choose.” “I think a certain commander would enjoy seeing you in this one,” I said suggestively, pointing to a knee-length blue gown with silver satin cording. “Romelle!” she cried, feigning outrage, while the other women giggled. I grinned at her. “Please Allura, we have noticed the way Keith looks at you. Besides, Nanny isn’t here.” At my summons, Astrid came to Allura and dressed her hair in a elegant, upswept coiffure, weaving narrow blue and silver ribbons through the golden tresses and coiling them about a long, curling strand that was left to fall against her throat and the beginning swell of her breasts. Then she put on the gown, and I had second thoughts about my selection. The bodice of the gown fit closely to her waist. The sleeves were short, ending in a design of silver cording sewn to the fabric. The same application was added to the décolletage, and I knew that was where my cousin had most of her difficulty. The deep neckline bared her bosom in what seemed to her a most shocking display, barely rising above the blushing peaks of her breasts. Considering Nanny’s aversion to fashion trends, she would consider the gown a poor choice. “Oh Milady,” Octavia cooed. “You looked radiant.” Allura blushed. “The gown is beautiful,” she responded after winning a battle to steady her voice. “But it’s a bit chilly outside. Perhaps I will be more comfortable wearing something else.” “There’s no need to worry,” I offered. “Keith’s gaze will keep you warm.” She made a face at me. “If someone tells Nanny about this, I’m holding you responsible.” I laughed. “Sure, cousin. Now go downstairs, while I finish dressing.” “Okay, I’ll see you later.”
Astrid swept my hair back from my face and painstakingly curled it in a mass of ringlets that fell in soft tiers from the crown of my head and ended at the nape of my neck.
I chose a Roman-style gown in mauve and white that Helena said it accentuated the color of my cheeks. The knee-length dress was wrapped at the waist and across the bodice with a gathered swath of material, which ended in soft bows on my shoulders. I fastened a flat, white leather belt around my hips and stepped into white sandals with straps that rounded the leg to mid-calf.
My final adornment was my most prized possession, my beloved choker with a cameo carved in shell that had belonged to my mother. Small diamonds adorned the clasp, and more of the gems embellished the pair of earrings that completed the set. The necklace and earrings were donned, and I inspected my appearance in the full-length mirror. It seemed impossible that a few days ago I had been paled and haggard with bereavement.
Prince Bandor led me into an imposing entrance hall, rectangular in shape, whose floor was made of black and white marble set in a triangular design. At the rear of the entrance hall a monumental staircase of intricately carved oak rose gracefully, bending sharply at the landing on the second floor. The heavy sweet fragrance of flowers hung in the cool air from ornate vases, set at intervals upon delicate tables along the walls.
“Your Highness, I want to thank you for letting me talk to my parents.”
He glanced at me. “It was the least I could do for the man who rescued my sister. But please, call me Bandor.”
“These are the tapestries of the history of Arus and Pollux that my cousin Allura gave us,” he said, pointing to the colorful thick hangings that stretched from floor to ceiling along an entire side of the entrance hall.
“And these are your ancestors?” I asked, nodding at the dozens of paintings, some life-size, that covered the other wall.
“Yes. The Rommedahls trace their history back many hundreds of years. You will find their likeness all over the castle. That’s my brother, Avok.”
I studied the man whose dark brown eyes seemed to mirror some secret amusement. He appeared a confident man, with great physical strength. There were many similarities between the two princes.
“My friends told me what happened to him. Have you learned anything about his whereabouts?”
He shook his head and said only, “He’s a great soldier, and knows how to flee without leaving a trace. But I hope he comes back soon, for my dad and Melle’s sake.”
I smiled inwardly. Melle- that’s a beautiful endearment.
Bandor cocked his head at me questioningly. “Are you okay, Sven?”
“Yes, I was just thinking that I would like to help you in finding your brother.”
He grinned at me. “Pidge was right, you’re a great fellow.”
Before I could tell him that wasn’t true, he asked me to go upstairs and visit his father. I walked stiffly beside him up the wide staircase, while he continued telling me about the colorful frescoes upon the walls and pointed out more ancestors, who were displayed in what seemed an endless procession from the twenty-second century.
I looked up and saw Romelle at the top of the stairs. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“I was taking Sven to see dad, but if you’re ready, then I’m going back downstairs with Pidge and the rest.”
She smiled and blew him a quick kiss. “Alright, tell them that we won’t be long.”
“Okay!” he replied, and hurried off.
I let my gaze glide leisurely over her, taking in every detail of her appearance. My heart refused to stop its wild thudding, and the last few ascending steps became a test of nerve. I stood aside, not making any attempt to touch her or compliment her on her beauty.
“Where did you get those fancy clothes?”
I looked down at my blue tunic and matching pants, and then back at her. “Nanny sent me a trunk with my belongings,” I explained.
“It seems that you hold a special place in her heart.”
“Yes, because I’m the one who gave Nanny the least trouble.”
Romelle didn’t raise her gaze as she said in a low, murmuring tone. “Perhaps she didn’t realize how stubborn you can be.”
I gave her a smug smile. “Perhaps you’re right.”
Her eyes met briefly mine, then fled again as her cheeks blazed with color. “Tell me, did you find your rooms suitable?
“They are…very nice. Thank you.”
We passed many closed doors, until she paused before a wide double door, turned the golden knobs, and said quietly, “My father has suffered much from the hands of Zarkon and Lotor. Ever since Avok disappeared, he has remained secluded in his chambers working diligently to protect our people and find my brother.”
We stepped into an awesomely large room, more nearly the size of a ballroom than a bedchamber. Family portraits, giving the room an even greater feeling of airiness and space only rarely broke the walls. Romelle’s sandals made no sound as she walked over the thick carpet. The king was sitting in a mahogany desk. His eyes were closed as he dictated instructions for his assistant into the computer.
Then, the recording concluded, he opened his eyes, reached out to save the file- and spotted Romelle, directly in front of his desk. “Romelle!”
He rose to his feet and held his arms out to his daughter. She burst into tears and rushed to them, hugging him fiercely. “Daddy!”
He cupped her face in his hands. “Dearest heart, I was so worried!” he hugged her close again, then held her at arm’s length. “You look well, child. I’m so thankful that Allura and her champions rescued you.”
“No, dad. Sven gave me aid until we met with Bandor and the Force.”
He suddenly looked over Romelle’s blond head and saw me. I nodded respectfully, trying to appear serene, when what I felt like was a clumsy mountain. I was worried that he would see what was in my heart when I looked at his daughter. But he only let out his breath in relief.
“Sven,” Romelle said huskily, “allow me to present my father, Cova Rommedahl, King of Pollux.”
“Lieutenant Sven Asbjörnsen at your service, Your Highness.”
The gray-headed man nodded. “Lieutenant,” he said, extending his hand as he responded to my greeting. “It’s a blessing that you came along when you did. You have saved my loving daughter, and for that I’ll be forever in your debt.”
“With all due respect, Your Highness, we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for your daughter. She was very brave, and did well in the face of adversity.”
I saw King Cova’s worried eyes, then the slow, proud smile he bestowed on Romelle, and she sighed with happiness.
Then he turned to me. His smile was as smooth as his voice. “Lieutenant, you are the guest of honor in my home. Please, join us in the celebration. We have much to discuss.”
My father, Sven and I passed through the gatehouse, and then entered the inner bailey, where the frantic activity of early evening had been replaced by jubilant celebration and preparations for a hearty feast.
“Welcome to Polydeuces Castle, my friends!” father said to our guests as he gestured toward the great hall. “Come inside and enjoy yourselves.”
The servants had laid out tables along the length of the great hall covered in white linen cloths with fresh flowers overflowing from vases and candles. Before each place setting were silver cups, and scattered across each table were trays with slices of white and black bread. The buffet table included braised pheasant, smoked salmon, lemon chicken, green salad, and fresh fruit. Orchestrating the arrangements was Okir. When he saw me, he glided over to my side. “Welcome back, Milady, welcome,” he said, the light in his gray eyes showing affection.
“Okir,” I said, grasping his hands, “this man has saved Pollux, and for that we are indebted to him. Please welcome Lieutenant Sven Asbjörnsen, pilot of Blue Lion. Sven, this is our steward, Okir Reidar.”
He bowed low in front of him. “We are at your service, sir,” he said, his arm sweeping wide to indicate that the entire staff was included in his statement. When he rose, he walked toward the high table and pulled out a chair. “Milady,” he said, and then indicated to Sven that he could sit beside my father.
After we settled into the chairs and I talked to Okir about arranging drinks for our guests of honor, I had unobstructed opportunity to look upon the man who had rescued me, and about whom I had heard so much over the past year. My earlier assessment of him had been only partially correct. His Scandinavian heritage was evident within his sculpted features, but I had seen a mere shadow of his beauty, which was now apparent in the light. Sven was like a Norse warlord, come to life.
But as my father spoke to him in hushed tones, self-doubt and despair gnawed at my heart. I could not hear what was being said, but he seemed to be pleading with Sven. After a time, father paused and faced him, laying a hand on his arm as he spoke intently for some time. Sven bowed his head, as if reluctant to listen, and waited in silence until he finished. He explained briefly, and again father made as if to stop him but apparently thought better of it, and simply shook his head.
I dutifully smiled at Okir as he served me a glass of sangria, but my thoughts were anything but happy. Resigned, would be a better word. Perhaps I could try to convince Sven to stay in Pollux, but what good would that do? He had already decided what to do. He was going back to Arus with Allura and his teammates, and I would have to put behind all the danger, all the excitement I had experienced with him.
Lance appeared beside me almost magically and extended his hand to me. “Princess, will you pleasure me with this dance?” His tone was equally soft as his hazel eyes caressed me warmly.
An excuse was ready on my lips, but the swiftly flowing strains of the music made me want to move to its rhythm. A thrill went through me, and I felt myself blushing, and I could not deny the moment or the arm the pilot of Red Lion offered.
I rose to my feet and laid a hand lightly upon his sleeve. Lance smiled into my eyes and made their excuses to the others, giving a brief nod of farewell to Allura. Slipping a hand beneath my arm, he escorted me to the dance floor where the guests were gathering. The musicians began a waltz, and he placed a hand on my waist and took my fingers into a firm grasp. It had been a very long time since my last ball, so I was stiff and mechanical for the first sweeping circles until the graceful rhythm eased some of my tension.
“Its seems that you have a new admirer,” Lance commented. His eyes briefly marked Sven, who sat with his arms folded across his chest. “I have the impression that he doesn’t want to let you out of his sight, not even for a moment.”
“You must be imagining things,” I answered uneasily as his hand crept up to my side.
“No I’m not,” he replied. “When he saw me moving my hand, he rose to his feet.”
I pointedly replaced his hand on my waist as I said, “He’s probably uncomfortable being surrounded by some many people.”
He chuckled. “Sorry, princess. But look at him,” he said. “He’s like a caged lion.” Intentionally he waltzed me around in front of Sven before sweeping me away again.
I realized his statement was not far from the truth. Sven’s brows were gathered in a harsh frown as he closely observed our flight about the dance floor, as if he had some right to be angry because I was enjoying Lance’s company. Before the last note of the music quivered and died, he was beside us.
“Princess, we need to talk.” His voice was flat, his statement blunt.
I gave Lance a sidelong glance. “It will only take a few minutes,” I offered. His mouth tilted upward in a roguish grin, and he gave a brief, mocking bow. “Certainly, princess,” he said. “I’ll dance a turn with Allura, if I can find her.”
“Would you care to join me in the next dance?” Sven asked as soon as Lance was out of earshot.
His brow lifted, as I became aware that all eyes were on the two of us.
“No, thank you,” I said, and flashed him a smile.
Then someone called, “A toast to Princess Romelle and Lieutenant Sven! A toast to the saviors of Pollux!”
The music swelled and the gathering launched into applause. Sven and I turned to acknowledge our accolades. We were surrounded by well-wishers and drawn into the crowd.
Father rose from his chair and gestured to the musicians, and another waltz began. Laying his hand on my waist, Sven faced me, and his eyes shone with a purposeful light as he swirled me about in wide, graceful circles. I was very much aware of his arm about my waist and of the strength and power of the shoulder that flexed beneath my hand. As we glided across the floor with seemingly effortless ease, others paused to watch. They were obviously exchanging questions and conjectures about us. I resisted being held too close, much too conscious of the magnetism of his powerful frame and the uneven beat of my heart.
“Is Her Highness displeased over something?” he finally queried with a slight twist of a grin. Then, he added solemnly, “Is it all right if I call you *Your Highness* from now on?”
For a turn or two I debated my answer. For the sake of pride, I could not tell him how well he disrupted my thoughts and that the serenity I displayed hid emotions that were well roiled by the sight of him. Shielding myself against his mockery, I chose to attack rather than reveal my weakness. “You were rude with Lance.”
“Rude?” Sven laughed in sharp derision. “I saw the way he was ‘handling’ you. And I assure you, Romelle, he had nothing honorable in mind.”
I glared at him. “He apologized and for the most part was a gentleman in the dance.”
“It’s obvious you need serious counseling on the definition of a gentleman. Did you know that one of Lance’s nicknames at the Space Academy was *The Roué*?”
I turned my face aside and answered loftily, “He’s probably no worse *rake* than other space explorers I know.”
Sven leaned close and whispered into my ear, “You don’t know me, Romelle. You don’t know me at all.”
The nearness of him and the boldness of his statement caused me to inhale sharply. He smelled like pine and spices. Abruptly I turned and started to leave the floor, but he seized my wrist and half guided, half dragged me to the table. Once we had passed from sight of the other dancers, I snatched my wrist free, and facing him, I said, “And I have no desire to do so.”
“Romelle,” he breathed.
I could only gaze at him, as a tumult of emotions coursed through my heart. The memory of the night in the cave, when his ministrations had seared through my resistance, and left me shaking with the realization of my own passion. The feelings came back, and I was seized by a biting fear that if I remain a moment longer, I would place my arms around his neck and kiss him. I whirled and fled, afraid that he would press for an explanation and was just frightened of the one I would give.
I escaped to the gardens, then strolled down the broad steps of the solarium. The night air was heavy with perfume from the surrounding bushes in full summer bloom; overhead, the moon was rising in golden splendor above the far hills. At the far end of the manicured grounds, the Castellanus River glimmered in the moonlight as it flowed toward the sea. Drifting from the castle, the music added its own romantic charm to the wonders of nature.
But then I heard the unmistakable sound of voices some thirty paces ahead of me and around a narrow bend. I proceeded slowly, edging myself along the wall until I could make out what the people were saying.
“What if someone sees us?” a female voice asked.
“I don’t think so, they’re enjoying themselves too much,” a deep voice replied.
“Is this why you wanted me to join you?”
She giggled softly. “And here I thought it was so we could admire the view together.”
“I’m admiring the view,” he growled, “and it’s stunning.”
“My cousin suggested that I wear this dress,” she replied.
“Hmm…that’s another thing I’m must thank her for.”
“Oh…that feels wonderful,” she gasped, incensed with desire. “Don’t stop.”
He chuckled softly. “Enjoy the power you have over me, Princess. But before I make you mine, I must know that you trust me, body and soul.”
“I do, Keith…completely.”
They were so engrossed in one another that did not notice me as I came around the corner in plain view. I cleared my throat to alert them of my presence. Their heads whipped around toward me, and they sprang apart the second they spotted me.
“Romelle!” they replied in unison.
I grinned at them. “Cousin, Commander. How lucky of you that I was the one who caught you.” Keith flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, we got carried away by the romance of the setting and-“
“The setting? Are you sure that’s all?”
They exchanged nervous looks. “Well…”
I smiled at them. “There’s no need to explain. Come on, get out of here now.”
I watched them go, and then I took a seat on a marble bench, relieved to be alone with my thoughts. Meeting Sven had completely unnerved me. Would I ever be free of his power over me, free from the response to his haunting eyes, free of the ache of knowing that he didn’t belong here?
Sitting here, surrounded by serenity and loveliness, I steeled my heart and took a solemn vow. I would accept any decision Sven made. If he wanted to be pilot of Blue Lion again, so be it. I refuse to fall back to being the little princess who needed constant protection. Should the worst befall on me, I would survive. Hadn’t I proved I was capable of that?
The celebrations lasted far into the evening, and still there was no sign of Romelle. I scoured the faces of company, looking for that mouth that tempted me so sorely, the straight, fine nose, the strong chin-
Stop acting like a lovesick puppy! I snorted, drawing a few stares from Hunk and Pidge as I placed a bite of salmon into my mouth. I might have been eating bark for all I took note of the meal.
Romelle was angry. Those blue eyes of hers so heavily shadowed by thick-fringed lashes and as limpid as pools of water, offered a glance right down to her soul. The moment those spiteful words escaped from my mouth, I wanted to take them back.
Where was she, anyway?
“Mr. Okir,” I said to the passing steward. “Have you seen Princess Romelle?”
“Sorry, sir. I have not seen Milady,” the older man answered. He had a tray of bread balanced on one hand, a flagon of wine in the other, but he waited respectfully for me to be done with him. I waved him on.
Then I asked her ladies in waiting. They had not seen her, either.
Finally, I could stand it no longer and went to search for her myself. I looked in the halls and the gardens. I strode through the cavernous undercroft before I found her, in the small orchard off the solarium. The sight of her made me stop in breathless admiration.
She stood drenched in silver moonlight, with her head tilted up to the sky, as proud and ethereal as a goddess. My eyes feasted on the beauty of the long, shining ringlets and the soft, delicate creaminess of her shoulders. The fragrance of her perfume drifted through my senses, and the throbbing hunger began anew.
This time, I barely thought of her similarity to Allura. I had, fleetingly, imagined a resemblance, but it was only that the shade of her hair was fair and similarly unruly. It was, upon second glance, quite unique. And a feature I found disturbingly enticing.
I had kissed Allura once to make Keith jealous, and it had sliced my heart in half. Would this princess, too, tear me asunder? The musing might have sent me back inside if she hadn’t turned just then. She lost her goddess majesty as her eyes rounded and she began to stammer her excuses.
“Are you alright, Romelle?”
I looked up at Sven. His face was shadowed, but his wide shoulders and broad chest were covered with ribbons of moonlight. I felt a shiver of excitement race along my spine. “I’m fine,” I answered, trying to sound casual.
Moving, I kept the bench between us. “I felt the need for some air.”
He put a foot on the bench and rested his forearm on his knee. Now the light played across his features.
“You should return to your friends,” I said. “I’m sure they’re looking for you.”
He looked down at me for quite some time. “Romelle, please forgive me for my earlier behavior. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that.”
“I haven’t been a great hostess either,” I offered. “Everything happened so quickly, that we haven’t had time to rest.”
“I wanted to tell you that I had come to decision regarding my future.”
It came to me with a warm glow I could not suppress. Sven…my partner in a hopeless mission, my support when things seemed bleak. After what we had shared on Planet Doom, I felt safe enough to seek my own strength.
“I may not like your decision, and I may not agree with it, but I understand why you feel it is the correct one. I only hope in time you will come to see another-”
He cut me off with a lifted hand. “I’m staying.”
I smiled brightly. “You will? But I don’t understand, I saw you talking to my father and you were shaking your head in denial.”
He laughed, almost roughly. “It’s not overwhelming virtue that guides me, Romelle, but simply the fact that I have, it seems, little choice in the matter. I was planning on offering my services to your father, but he beat me up to it. He insisted that I should stay in Pollux and take over covert operations. But when he asked me to remain in the castle, I explained to him that I would be more comfortable living on my own.”
I raised my eyes to meet his. A lock of his raven hair fell lazily over his forehead. I reached out and pushed it back, and his hand covered mine. The warmth of it startled me.
Slowly, he turned his hand and curled his fingers around mine. “You have given me a new reason to live, Romelle,” he whispered. His eyes, so deep a blue that they were almost black, looked into mine passionately.
His hand on mine, the fact that he had uttered my name so tenderly- this being the first time he had done so- made my head swim. Thankfully he turned away, taking his hand from mine, and returned to the festivities with a rather studied determination that led me to think he was as affected as I was.
If only I knew for certain that it were true and not a delusion of my heart. How much simpler it would be.
My mind fought with tangled thoughts, but I could not say I was displeased with the way events were evolving.
Quite the contrary.
THE END OF PART XV OF THE SERIES.
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