Few things in the known universe were half so terrifying or bemusing as a Galra's passion.
Or so Alfor had once explained to him, only half-joking. The emperor had simply brushed it aside as an outsider's perspective. It was in the nature of his people to throw themselves wholly and completely into everything they did. Neither word was spoken nor act performed without the utmost conviction. Their clerics spoke of how Zaal, the fierce Mother-Goddess, had created the first tribes by ripping Her own body asunder, down to bare bone and marrow until Daibazaal itself turned rust-red with her blood. To survive and to battle and to conquer -- these were the war cries that had sung in their blood since the most ancient days of his race.
It was hardly his concern if other races were put-off by the natural disposition of his people. He would oversee the personal affairs of his own kind. Alfor and the others could do the same, dear friends though they were. For what Altean had ever been born that could understand the fire of a Galra, much less match it?
On the fateful day he met her, Zarkon could not shake the feeling that some god or another had taken that as a challenge.
Alfor had mentioned the Galra in general could be a bit stiff when it came to the mingling of castes. Honerva had always assumed that was an exaggeration on her king's part. Her own brief interactions with them, however, were beginning to prove otherwise.
Their emperor, for instance, would never deign to hold a casual conversation with her for more than a minute. In her regard, he was a veritable master at the art carrying a metal rod up his back-end. That certainly seemed to be the case when it come to discussing anything outside of her work in the lab. She could not figure whether he had a personal dislike for her or if it was the general disdain he had for all people he considered of a lower class. (The latter of which seemed to include, well, everyone.)
"-- and if I am to continue investigating further, I am going to need at least twice the energy input. With your permission, of course, your majesty." Only silence followed in the wake of her request. She glanced up from her readings to stare expectantly at the Galra emperor. "Sir?"
"... Hm? Erm, yes," he grunted articulately, shifting his posture so that he was leaning away from her. "Permission granted."
Looking at him, Honerva was reminded of their first meeting. He had the same distant, thoughtful expression that quickly snapped to one of surprise and alarm. (Or what she assumed was surprise and alarm. It was difficult at times to read any Galra's face, and Zarkon's doubly so.) And then as now, he seemed just as keen on quitting her presence.
"As I said," he continued woodenly and turning his gaze pointedly away from her, "I will provide any support you require. Now if you will excuse me..."
At least no one can ever accuse him of being chatty, she thought dryly as she stared after his quickly retreating form. Or having a single friendly bone in his whole quiznacking body...
The training yard echoed with the pounding of his fists on the training mannequins. Sweat beaded between the plates of his crest. Zarkon huffed as he lashed out with a left hook here, a disemboweling kick to the abdomen there. Still, even as he ran through the traditional forms and stances, his mind could not help but wander.
A Galra's instinct and temper were quick to pounce; their head was sometimes slower on the uptake. It was little wonder then he could not pinpoint the exact cause of his fixation when it came to the little Altean alchemist.
Walking into the same room as her made him feel like he was about to face down a charging, rabid klanmüirl. Except the beasts never set all three of his hearts pounding like the tattoo of a war-drum. They certainly never struck him speechless as she did, as if he were a kit again and his mentors were scolding him.
She was all he could seem to think of lately. The way her golden eyes would flash when she pushed past some block in her research; the way no movement of her body, however minute, was wasted as she flitted about her lab; the way she carried herself with all the self-assurance and nobility of a Galra warrior...
"Rah!" His last kick sent a mannequin flying to hit and shatter against the far wall of the armory building. By the five freezing hells, that was the sixth one today, and his skull was still buzzing with thoughts of her! Huffing and legs trembling slightly, he fairly bellowed to his attendant, "Bring me another!"
Her voice echoed through the apparently deserted halls of the facility. Honerva heaved a sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers. It figured that there were always forty-seven androids and servants within shouting distance, but the moment she actually needed their assistance they all disappeared into the ether.
"Kova!" she shouted again. "Kova, please? Mama's sorry she's been so caught up in her work lately!" Only further silence answered her. Altean felids were somewhat notorious for throwing tantrums if neglected for so much as a tick, but this was ridiculous!
"Mama's got a treat for you! Bovyn milk and spiced flarkl fillet: your favorite! Now come ba-- Huh?"
As she rounded the corner, a curious sight stopped the scientist in her tracks. Well, she had found Kova -- and he was not alone. The felid sat perched on the arm of a chair, and directly across from him crouched the Galra emperor. Kova's tail twitched back and forth as he gazed unblinkingly at Zarkon. The monarch stared back with an equal intensity as they engaged in what appeared to be a life-or-death staring contest. Neither so much as blinked or twitched.
Nor did they seem to noticed Honerva as she knelt beside them. She waited one, two, three dobashes for either of them to acknowledge her. When it appeared that man and beast intended to continue until the heat death of the universe, she coughed loudly in the back of her throat to rouse their attention.
"Ah!" Zarkon yelped and stumbled backwards in a distinctly undignified fashion for the ruler of the Galra Empire. Eyes darting back and forth, it was a moment or two before his gaze settled on Honerva. "Ah, it... it is only you."
"So it would seem," the Altean replied wryly, diplomatically keeping her lips from twitching up in an amused smile. Kova took his customary perch on her shoulder as she stood, primly licking his paw and grooming at his mane. She extended a hand to the still-prone emperor. "Need help?"
He did not answer her directly so much as he chuffed and took a sudden interest in a speck on the adjacent wall. All the same his claws came up to almost-delicately clasp her forearm as Honerva helped to haul him to his feet.
"Would it be too forward of me to ask what Your Majesty was doing with Kova just now?" she asked lightly, trying to bring a bit of levity to the incident.
"Yes-- I mean, no, it is a reasonable question." He crossed his arms and brought himself up to his full height, still resolutely refusing to meet her gaze. "I had business with my soldiers in this sector, and I happened to find your--" He gestured vaguely at the felid as he appeared to search for the appropriate word in his mind.
"-- your companion-beast. I meant to have a servant return it to you immediately, but it seems that it will obey none but its mistress. I was attempting to... impress my will upon it when you arrived..."
The more he spoke, the more hard-pressed she was to repress a chuckle. She hid her smile behind her hand as her body shook a bit. Years of diplomatic training chose to forsake her in just that moment, however. A peal of laughter escaped the scientist, and it only became louder when he turned to her with an incredulous raising of his brows and tightening of his jaw.
"Forgive me, sir," she amended breathlessly, sides aching a bit now. "I mean no offense. It is only, erm, that I wished I could have saved you a bit of time and grief. I might have told you: felids are not the sort one can simply 'impress their will upon,' as it were. Kova simply does as he wishes; I am more his caretaker than his 'mistress.'
"Though I am... flattered that you would consider me the latter." She tried to better compose herself as it dawned on her that she had been laughing at the quiznacking leader of the entire Galra race. " And it is certainly a valiant effort on your part to make him obey for my sake."
"... Yes, of course." She was not sure whether to be worried or relieved as he pulled back into himself again. After a long silence, he turned his head to glance at her out of the corner of his eyes. "You have done a great deal for the Galra in your short time here. My only wish-- My people's only wish, is to honor our alliance with Altea and her most esteemed alchemist."
The tatyn beneath her eyes pulsed with a sudden warmth, and it was her turn to at a loss for words for a few moments. Before Zarkon could attempt to excuse himself again, she reached out. His ears, smaller than that of most of his kind, flicked with a metallic ping against his helm.
"Please," she said as she lightly placed a hand on his vambrace, a tentative smile on her lips, "call me Honerva."
In the vargas that followed, one could often find him walking the halls of the lab above the fissure more and more. Many of the more the observant aides noted the emperor always timed his visits when their lead scientist was on the premises.
"Just imagine it!" the alchemist piped, eyes alight and fingers dancing across the control panel. "Self-sustaining energy sources! Generators that can run tirelessly and endlessly! Starships that never have to stop and refuel! And that's to say nothing of the possibilities of the ore Alfor extracted from the comet! For instance, we have reason to believe that the metallic bonds on the molecular level here--"
"Hm." He nodded for her to continue.
Zarkon leaned over the console, one hand propped on paneling and the other against his side. He nodded every now again as she explained the readings scrolling in endless lines across the holoscreen. As the briefing drew on, though, his attention kept drifting in her direction. So distracted was he that it took him several moments to register a light tapping on his arm and to realize Honerva was addressing him again.
"-- Sir. Sir?"
"Yes?" His brows furrowed a bit at the gleam in her eye, at the small smile curling on her lips.
"Nothing," she replied, turning back to the screen with that same smile. "Just wanted to make sure I hadn't bored you into a doze. Shall I continue?"
"As you will," he rumbled, eyes shifting back to the task at hand.
To himself, he added, And I doubt you could ever bore me.
"And here I thought you Alteans were a diplomatic sort by nature," he mused conversationally, as if he had not just thrown half a dozen punches at her on the same breath.
"Well, diplomatic work can get dodgy sometimes," she countered, feinting a kick to his abdomen before catching him lightly on the shoulder. Sweat dripped in a fine sheen down the back of her neck, turning her found hair a darker gray."We are diplomats, Your Majesty, not pacifists. I'd have thought spending any amount with Alfor might have made that clear."
"An alarming tendency to land oneself in trouble should not be confused for the mark of a fighter." A smirk flashed across his fangs as he dodged a sharp blow to the chin. "I mean no offense to your king, of course."
"None taken, and I suppose you have a point." Her lighter body enabled her to step lightly out of the way of his next blow, but she was not quite fast enough to avoid the clawed hand that pinned her against the wall of the sparring room. "Oof! I thank you again for giving me a worthy sparring partner. I am liable to lose my edge if I stay cooped up in that lab too long."
"If it facilitates your ability to lead the project, then it is a service I gladly render," he replied, chuffing lightly and send loose tendrils of her hair flying. "That is three out of five rounds in my favor. Do you yield?"
Giving a quick shove against his chest, she chuckled, "Never."
"No, m'fine..." He watched with no small degree of amusement as she squinted her eyes at the screen in order to focus on some bit of data. The alchemist's fingers fumbled with the keys, and she jerked her head up as it began to droop. "Jus' a few more... minutes..."
Weary and overworked as she was, it took little effort to pull her away from the console. To her credit she attempted to stumble ahead on her own for a few steps as he pushed lightly at her back. When she walked face-first into a wall, however, he took it upon himself to intervene on her behalf.
"This is the third night in row you have gone without sleep, Honerva," he chided, though not unkindly. Zarkon hooked one arm under her knees and the other behind her shoulders. She was light in his hold as he brought her up against his chest. "I am no expert on Altean biology, but even I know you will become ill at this rate."
"Close... to another... break... through... Can't stop... now..."
Her words came muffled as she turned her face against his cuirass. The faint maroon light of her tatyn reflected off his armor. The Galra's hearts stuttered more than a little in his chest as she sleepily pushed her head under his chin. Clearing his throat, he pulled her body closer against him. The light draft in the hallway pulled his mantle more snugly around them both.
"You can, and you will," he rumbled as she nodded off. After a quick glance around them, he leaned down to lightly bump his temple against hers. "Emperor's orders..."
Though she would sooner go alone into the belly of a weblum than admit it aloud (no sense in further feeding the Nalquodian's ego), Blaytz arranged the best parties. The great hall of the palace was practically bursting with guests and and the buzzing of their chatter. The food was second-to-none, and the music was lively enough to even have the more-reserved Galra nobles swaying to the beat. Not to mention the rather strong drink Gyrgan had imported from his own home planet that was fast mellowing the whole crowd, their hosts included.
Which, she supposed, was how she and Zarkon had ended up out here on the dance floor.
"I see you are familiar with the Dance of Swords," the emperor remarked with a raising of his brows as they shifted together to the fast tempo. "Impressive, for one not raised in the courts of the Galra High Imperium."
"Well, when on Daibazaal, do as the Galra do," she quipped back with a small smile.
Raising her right arm, he did the same as they brought their wrists together. They spun in a tight formation with one another, the dark violet silks of her attire and the dusty red of his whispering beneath the beat of the drums and the hum of the strings. They were nearly a blur to the others in the hall, so swiftly did they move.
The Dance of Swords was fast-paced, chaotic, just a hair's breadth from choreographic anarchy by Altean standards. They moved less like refined dancers and more like a pair of seasoned warriors testing one another. It turned out their regular sparring sessions served them well in this regard.
"You seem to make it a point to learn much about my people," he mused as they went through another tight spin. "Moreso than I would expect from a foreigner, even for the sake of that Altean diplomacy of yours." The slight shifting of his fangs and the gentle narrowing of his eyes are telltale signs that he was teasing her, something he seemed to do more and more lately. "One might think you were trying to get a bit closer to my people than propriety would allow. Should I be worried?"
"For your people? No." She laughed as the next step brought them chest to chest. "For Your Majesty's own sake, though? I would keep a wary eye yet."
Companionable silence spread between them as they continued. By now most of the party-goers were staring at the Galra and Altaen as the dance floor cleared for them. Or at least what she thought was companionable until he spoke again.
"... Why do really do it, Honerva?"
"I'm sorry?" she murmured, tilting her head to one side when he glanced away. When he turned to meet her gaze again, his expression was drawn tight, thoughtful, almost in pain.
"I mean, why learn the ways of the Galra at all? Tomorrow, the varga after that, or even in a deca-phoebe, your research on the rift could be completed. That is the only true obligation that ties you here. And when that is gone..." Even as they moved into another spin, his digits held hers tightly. "What is there to keep you from returning home? Why become so familiar with the customs of my people if this is only temporary? Is it only out of politeness, or..."
Her two anterior hearts felt as if they would leap into her throat. She gulped as her mouth suddenly went dry.
"... Or what, Your Majesty?"
"... Can I dare to hope it might be for another reason?" The music faded around them, and the room fell quiet. His question hung between them in the silence, and she could not help feeling something like a desperate hope hung there as well.
"Perhaps..." Honerva's gaze dropped a moment. She pulled one hand away from his grip briefly, only to bring it up stroke lightly along his the exposed part of his jaw beneath his helm. When she found her nerve again, she tilted her head steadily up. "Perhaps it is because I simply wish to become closer to your people. Or rather -- one among them in particular.
"You have honored me, time and time again, since I arrived on your planet. What can I do but respond in kind?"
The widening of his eyes was his only response for a moment. In the yawning quiet she thought she could hear his hear his three hearts racing right along with her own five. Then, with an aching slowness, he brought his forehead down to press against hers. Several Galra in the room gasped audibly; understandable, as the gesture was the equivalent of a kiss among their kind.
"Honor is as honor does, and none moreso than you," he rumbled so that only she could hear. He covered her hand with his own, holding it to his face. With the other, he brushed her cheek, gently pushing her hair out of her eyes. "Honerva of Altea... Will you allow me to court you?"
A smile flashed on her lips, and she could only laugh as Zarkon answered with one of his own, rare but just as bright.
"I was beginning to wonder when you would ask, Your Majesty." She pressed herself against him, arms wrapping around the Galra. "Yes, you may."