Expectedly, Adora was early.
It was not that early in the morning, but after the long party that had ended only a few hours ago, the whole castle was still asleep. Adora would have to wait on her own, or try to wake Glimmer, which was not in her best interest. Bow was on a sleepover with Seahawk on his boat, but he'd promised to be back for the meeting. And Swift Wind had disappeared somewhere in the forest, probably to find some horses to set free.
Adora climbed the grand stairs leading to the war room, hoping it wasn't closed. She would gladly take a nap inside and avoid thinking about Catra until the other princesses arrived.
She discovered with surprise that she wasn't the only one who couldn't wait in peace.
Castaspella was sitting on the window ledge, looking outside with no expression. She didn't react to Adora's presence until the princess was standing right in her peripheral vision.
"Hello, Adora. It's a beautiful day to talk about war, don't you think?"
Adora laughed awkwardly. "It's gonna be a positive meeting for us this time."
"That's for sure. Our odds in this war have never been that high," she sighed. Adora sat next to her. The queen intrigued her. Her attitude had changed considerably since the trial. Angella explained Castaspella had been putting herself and her kingdom into question since the Rebels' accusations, but why did she look so down even now? It was like she was stuck somewhere in her thoughts.
It appealed to Adora somehow. She could understand the struggle.
"Are you okay with putting your people in danger?"
Castaspella shrugged. "I'm not thrilled about it, but we need to put an end to Hordak."
Adora nodded. She observed the sorceress queen. She remembered how bubbly she used to be. How confident in her morals and decisions she was before. The last real conversation they'd had was about Catra. She had shown how little she thought of the magicat queen. To be more accurate, Castaspella had just not expected Catra to be redeemable. It hadn't even crossed her mind that her judgment could be unfair, or that the Princesses would protest against it.
She reminded Adora of herself before the trial, when she was so sure the Rebellion was only good and irreproachable. Before Catra's trial made a mess of her conception of people.
"Can I ask you something, Castaspella?"
"Of course, dear."
"What do you think of Catra now?"
She looked at Adora with a little surprise. Adora hoped she would be honest, and not politically correct.
"I think she's a smart queen. She escaped the Forbidden Zone for one, that says something about her."
Adora focused hard on her fingers to prevent herself from fidgeting. No need to look suspicious about the Forbidden Zone subject.
"She found the Magicats," Castaspella pursued. "Or more like the Magicats allowed her to find them. She earned her place back amongst them, and she still wants to fight with us. We are lucky. Very lucky."
"What about the people who doubt her?"
"People are tired, Adora." Castaspella looked deep into her eyes. Adora could almost feel her exhaustion. "They're tired of the war. They want it to end. They trust the Magicats, and the Magicats trust Catra. If they say she is Katriska, and she will lead them to victory, we take it."
"You're not scared that…" Adora tried to find her words. "That things might not be as they seem?"
Her thoughts drifted for a moment, reliving the argument she just had with Catra. She had never meant to say Catra had to become her sidekick. Adora was just confused. Confused that Catra, who had hated on the political game of the Rebellion, was jumping head first into it now. Adora was scared to see how good Catra could be at that Katriska game.
Before Catra left to find the Magicats, she'd told Adora that she would make her own destiny. Her own choices. That she was tired of seeing the pretentious faces of the Rebellion and Mystacor. Adora had liked that. In a world she barely understood where people had decided her destiny for her a thousand years ago, Catra had been the only one to brush it off.
But Catra had obviously changed her mind. And yet she wouldn't stop holding a grudge against Adora for her past mistakes. And Catra wouldn't say sorry for her own mistakes and misdeeds.
Adora didn't mean Catra shouldn't become the queen she was supposed to be. She just couldn't deal with everybody's hypocrisy anymore.
"Nothing is really as it seems," Castaspella spat with the most expressive tone since the beginning of the discussion. "Nothing can really be trusted. But we have to unite at some point. We have to accept being pawns sometimes. Or we die."
Adora frowned. She was about to ask her to elaborate when Angella opened the door of the war room. "Oh, hello! Don't stay outside, come on in!"
Castaspella and Adora followed the queen inside the room and took their seats. Nobody else was here, but Angella had already prepared the war table.
"Adora, dear," Angella asked, "is Catra coming soon? I wanted to talk to her alone for a moment."
Catra speaking with Angella. Why did it make Adora feel weird? Maybe Catra was right. Maybe Adora was so self-centered she couldn't stand to see Catra have projects that didn't include her.
"No idea," she said harshly, averting her gaze. The two queens looked at each other in confusion. Castaspella shrugged and zoned out. Angella wanted to ask more, but she could see by Adora's embarrassed face that it wasn't the time.
"Very well… I guess I'll see her afterwards."
The river was running its course peacefully. Steadily. No obstacle was blocking its way. The few rocks popping off the ground were no match against the flow of the water. They got polished over time, eroded by the unstoppable force.
What good did it do to oppose the river?
Catra kicked one of them. She cursed as her foot exploded with pain. The rock was too big and encrusted in the shore.
She fell on her knees. Her reflection in the water was odd. Like a stranger watching her with pity. A stranger with a crown too shiny for her. A stranger with a mask hiding her pain.
Catra stiffened. "I already told you not to call me that, Lucio. Not in private."
The old man looked sad. He leapt with grace over the river, and sat across from Catra.
"The Alliance of the South is waiting for your report."
"I'll be there in a minute."
Lucio was staring at her every move. Catra hated when he did that. She knew he could perceive every twitch of her ears. Every puff of her tail's fur.
She tried to close her face, but the mere fact that she was down there alone by the river betrayed her turmoil.
"I know you didn't expect that change of plans, but look at the bright side-"
"The bright side? You mean you get me to do exactly what you wanted me to do in the first place?"
"That's not what I meant…"
"Oh come on," Catra glared at him. "Everything's perfect for you now."
"It's not." The old man shook his head. "You infer too much."
"Right, that's on me. Once again. So please, enlighten me, Lucio. How does it feel to know I won't get to rule the new Horde like I wanted to?"
Lucio looked at her with pity. She hated that. "I'm just sad you feel like it's something you need to do."
"Yeah, you'd never understand," Catra said bitterly. "You've never been abandoned by your people for a fucking prophecy."
"Catra, we didn't know."
"You knew enough."
"We acted blindly. It is true, and I'm sorry."
Catra averted her gaze, focusing on the river and trying to prevent the tears from falling.
"We were despaired," Lucio pursued. "We had just lost so many people. We had lost you, Katriska." Catra flinched again at that name. "Madame Razz told us you would return someday. But she warned us that we shouldn't interact with the North anymore until you came back, for your safety and ours."
"And you believed her," Catra ended.
"We had to keep faith. We had hope when we saw no new kitten with the Eyes of the Queen. We knew you were out there, somewhere in the world."
"And not even once did you wonder if I wasn't being held hostage by Hordak?!" Catra stood up, fuming. Lucio looked away for the first time, embarrassment and sadness making his usually impassive ears droop.
"We've had this conversation a hundred times, but you always give me the same excuses. I can't believe I'm still going through with the plan."
"Why are you?"
Catra shrugged as she sat back down. "I already told you. I'm doing it for Adora and the Magicats."
"Even if we failed you?"
"Go figure," Catra grunted. Lucio smiled. He knew that Catra loved her people, even if she got hurt when she learned the truth. The first month among them had been hard, especially when she told them she used to work for Hordak. Mutual distrust and suspicion had been difficult to erase. But soon enough, she had bonded with the Magicats, more than Lucio had expected. The Magicats had fully accepted her as their former and new queen. Catra had agreed on carrying on Katriska's mission, even if it wasn't in her nature to play the hero, as she said. If it meant protecting her people, she would do it.
Lucio had thought for a while, that Catra had finally found her place and purpose in life.
Well, he had been wrong.
"No offense, Catra," Lonnie's voice came back to Catra's mind. "You've been a good commander and all, but you weren't around for a year."
"... I didn't really have a choice, Lonnie. I'm back now, with more people to defeat Hordak and make something better with the Horde."
"Catra, the Horde is not your personal project." These words had hit her. "You can't just come back here to save us and take the lead again as if you were the one who put our insurgence together. We'll gladly take your help, and especially your support against the Princesses, but you're not our commander anymore."
"Who is then?"
"For now, I'm the Captain of the Dissidents. Once Hordak is gone, we are going to put an end to the military nonsense. It's gone too far. We're going to listen to how people actually want to live and change things."
"You think the rest of the soldiers know how to live?"
"If you're saying that out of spite, it's not serving you well."
"Horde soldiers only know one purpose. Fight the Princesses."
"That's not so true anymore. You would know if you came back earlier and joined the Dissidents."
Lonnie had pissed Catra off. She had ascribed intentions to Catra that she didn't have. Maybe that was what Lucio meant when he said Catra read into things too much.
Catra didn't think the Horde was her project. Maybe it was, deep down. But mostly, the Horde was her first home. She had suffered there, but she had also made something of herself for the first time. She had started to change things, too. Lonnie had just jumped on the moving skiff.
And now she was rejecting Catra for not being around enough.
How could she? Catra had had another whole Alliance to build to win a fucking war and fulfill a fucking prophecy.
All Catra wanted was a little part of herself… a little reminder that she was her own person, that she wasn't just a pawn for the bigger scheme of the universe.
"Catra," Lucio said softly. "The Magicats love you. You will always be our queen."
"But you don't feel like you fit in."
Catra answered with a tired tone. "I look like you, but I've lived my whole life not being a magicat. It would take me decades to even try to understand you guys. I'm from two worlds, but it feels like I don't belong to either of them."
Catra nodded. She touched the ink on her neck. She could picture the bird tattooed on her back. The symbol for the first queen. The only magicat Catra could relate to. She sighed. "And now the people I grew up with don't even want me around anymore."
"You felt out of place with them, too. You've lived a hard childhood in the Horde. Harder than any other child soldier. They all hated you except for Adora, according to what you told us."
Catra closed her eyes. She tightened her fists to control the pain hurling in her chest. A couple of tears escaped her eyelids and rolled slowly on her cheeks.
The old man silently joined her, wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. Catra let herself be held, weeping silently in this unexpected father figure's arms. Catra knew Lucio had lost a daughter during the war. Sometimes she wondered if he didn't act like she was his lost kid.
He shouldn't though.
Catra would only disappoint him.
Seven seats had been added around the war table. Seven very empty seats.
Angella was tapping her fingers against the armrest of her chair, staring at the chair reserved for Katriska across from hers. The Princesses of the North whispered loudly around her, as well as the Mystacor trio.
She sighed in a very inappropriate manner for a queen. She wondered if this was Catra's way of punishing her somehow.
"Okay, that's enough," Glimmer burst out. "I'm gonna drag this catgirl here by the tail if I have to."
The princess didn't have the time to stand up from her chair. The door opened, revealing the main trio of the Magicats followed by the Princesses of the South.
Anya's purple eyes were on Glimmer immediately. She wore a big smirk on her face. "Don't squeak, little mouse. We're here."
"Shut up!" Glimmer tightened her fists. Bow had to grab her arm to make sure she wouldn't try to land one on Anya's face.
"Ugh, do us a favor. Go get a room," Mermista groaned. She had finally agreed to join the Princesses, since it was an important meeting this time. Seahawk was still with her though, signaling his importance in the management of what was left of Salineas' kingdom.
Catra spared a glance to Adora as she sat down, but she quickly redirected her eyes to Angella. Adora's heart ached. She regretted that stupid fight. Catra had been back for only three days, and here they were, already arguing over the ghosts of the past. Adora shouldn't have mentioned Shadow Weaver. It was a sensitive topic for Catra. But so was it for Adora.
The rest of the Alliance of the South took their seats in silence, except for Prince Clover, who waved excitedly at Perfuma. These two radiated the exact same positive energy. The Plumerian Princess tapped the chair next to hers for Clover to sit. They hurried over and started whispering to Perfuma without paying attention to the solemn atmosphere around them. At least some of the group were having fun.
"Since we are all here," Angella said, "let us start the first official meeting between the Alliance of the North, the Alliance of the South, and Mystacor. Thank you for attending. To begin with, Commander Glimmer will present the current state of our troops."
Glimmer stood to her height-was she trying to look taller?- and cleared her throat, doing her best to avoid the glinting eyes of Anya. Seriously, couldn't they try to be a little less obvious?
Adora smirked. She automatically tried to find Catra's gaze, but the queen was stubbornly ignoring her. How did Adora let their reunion turn that way? How did she manage to word her feelings so poorly that Catra completely misunderstood her point?
"Thank you, Mo- I mean Your Majesty." Glimmer activated the war table hologram. "The last victory over Plumeria allowed us to gain considerable ground over the Horde. Plumeria is exactly between Bright Moon and Salineas, which is our next goal. The tunnels dug by the Horde under Plumeria have already been clogged or collapsed unfortunately, so we won't be able to use them to ambush the coast leading to Salineas or the Fright Zone."
Glimmer kept on describing the position of each kingdom's army in details, not forgetting to point out which ones needed back-up and supplies. The princess was on fire. When she was done, she sat back in her seat, looking a little breathless. Adora raised a discreet thumbs-up, to which Glimmer smiled.
"Queen Katriska, if you would," Angella invited.
Catra nodded to Anya, who stood up, following Glimmer's example. "Although your plan of taking Salineas sounds promising, it's also pretty much expected from the Horde. We should think bigger. The five kingdoms of the Alliance of the South brought enough soldiers and mages to allow us to strike hard."
"Mages?!" Isidore interrupted. "You have magic?"
"Of course we do, Warlock Isidore," Princess Melody answered very politely. "We always have. We just haven't sent them to Mystacor for centuries."
"You're an embarrassment, Isidore," Mortella scolded. "Magical beings appear everywhere on Etheria."
"How was I supposed to know?! So we'll have to work with your mages?"
"Preferably," Huntara said, staring at the warlock until he felt uncomfortable.
"Let's go back to the battle strategy, please," Angella said. "What do you suggest we do, Commander Anya? Attack the Fright Zone first?"
"No. I say we attack both."
"Both?! At the same time?" The whole table exploded in protestations and concerns.
"This is insane…"
"Our troops have barely recovered from the last battle!"
"We need to stay together to have more magic! We can't split into two teams!"
"Are you trying to get us killed?!"
Catra rose from her seat, an irritated frown darkening her face. The Princesses fell silent. Catra took a few extra seconds before speaking. Adora was sure it was just because she enjoyed the impatient, thirsty look on their faces.
"I brought you five more princesses, including myself. That's more than enough to boost your all-together-power. You are able-" Catra stopped. Adora's eyes flicked to Lucio. She was sure she saw his tail lash against Catra's before she spoke again. "We are able to take them out in one shot. We have to hurry, now that Hordak knows the Magicats are back. He doesn't know about the rest of the Alliance of the South, but I bet he's going to learn of it pretty soon."
"Are you suggesting we would let that information slip?" Frosta asked coldly.
"Don't get on your high horses, princess. I just mean that Hordak loves to spy on his enemies."
Frosta pursed her lips but didn't reply. Perfuma raised her hand timidly. "How are you so sure we can take both places? The last time we infiltrated the Fright Zone, we barely made it out and we lost someone."
The loud laughter of a certain genius princess seemed to echo in the silence of the room.
Catra breathed in and pursued. "The Fright Zone is at its most vulnerable right now, Princess Perfuma. The Horde is currently facing… mutiny."
"Mutiny?" Angella gaped. Confusion spread amongst the Northerners. How on Etheria did Hordak manage to hide this? It was true that the Rebellion lost all communications with Entrapta. The Horde in general seemed to have closed in on itself even more than before since Scorpia's escape.
Adora was as surprised as the rest of the group, but mostly annoyed that Catra hadn't told her about this. She wondered how many other things Catra was hiding from her.
"They call themselves the Dissidents," Catra said, unfazed by the gasps. "They've been recruiting Horde soldiers and attacking the Horde from the inside for several months."
"How do you know about all this?" Adora asked, hoping irritation didn't show in her voice. Catra didn't look at her when she answered.
"I used to be Second-in-Command. I have friends over there."
"Friends…" Mortella muttered. "And your friends never thought of reaching out to the Rebellion once?"
Catra raised an eyebrow, holding Mortella's stare. "No offense, but we learn to hate and mistrust the Princesses before we even start to walk in Hordak's ranks."
Grunts of disapproval made her ear twitch. Catra focused on Angella, who was watching her thoughtfully. The immortal queen spoke in a whisper. "They never planned to ask for our help. Are they strong enough to take him out on their own?"
"They are," Catra agreed. "But it would take them much more time. I think we would all benefit from an alliance with them. When we march on the Fright Zone, they'll join the fight and we can defeat Hordak in a day."
"And they won't turn against us?" Netossa asked worriedly.
"They won't if we leave after victory. They want to keep the Fright Zone."
"Of course they do," Isidore grumbled.
"So," Angella reasoned, "we should risk our lives to free the Horde from their tyrant, only to let another group from within who hate Princesses rule over the most powerful military force to oppose Etheria?"
"It's either this or you fight the Dissidents too. And let me tell you, they're not to be taken lightly."
"What do you mean you?"
Catra stood her ground. "I gave my word to the Dissidents that if they help us defeat Hordak, they will lead the remnants of the Horde as an independent society that won't follow the rules of the Princesses."
Oh, First Ones… Adora put a hand over her mouth to stifle a snicker. Maybe she had misjudged Catra after all. The magicat had no intentions to play the Rebellion's game by the rules. She was playing her own game. It both reassured and frightened Adora. She didn't know how to feel about all this. She didn't know how to feel about anything anymore anyway.
"You gave your word without consulting us?!" Glimmer exclaimed.
"I thought I made it clear that we are two independent Alliances, Sparkles."
"Don't talk to her like that," Bow frowned.
"Queen Katriska," Angella stood up, her eyes sending daggers to Catra. "How exactly can we trust you if you pull secret moves behind our back like that?"
"If it wasn't for me, Queen Angella," Catra snarled, "you wouldn't have the promise of a peace offering with the successors of Hordak. Sooner or later, with or without our help, the Dissidents will defeat him and take over the Fright Zone. It's theirs. They live there and want to change things. If you don't recognize them as a society, they will consider you invaders, and you will find yourself back at square one, fighting against the same soldiers as before."
"And since you already accepted their conditions, that only makes us Northerners the bad guys if we think differently. Isn't that right?" Glimmer said in a matching snarl. "You took the choice away from us. I don't understand what you gain from all this, since you are clearly working for yourself."
"That's what I was wondering too," Mortella nodded. "The Dissidents don't really need you to defeat Hordak. But they need you to defend them against us. So what did they promise you in exchange for your support, Queen Katriska?"
Catra's fists were so tight her knuckles turned white. She was boiling. Adora knew that face. Catra wanted to lie, but she couldn't.
Lucio stood and put a hand on his queen's shoulder. The good old smile cracking his wrinkled brown skin seemed to relieve the tension somehow. "There is something that we Magicats have been yearning for for a long time. Something that has been taken from us by Hordak, and that Queen Katriska promised she would get back."
"Oh…" Angella's frown fell. A comprehensive smile soothed her traits. "They promised you Halfmoon."
"Halfmoon? It's in the Fright Zone?" Frosta murmured loudly to Glimmer.
"The Horde took a lot of territory, including Princess Scorpia's kingdom as well as ours," Lucio explained to the young princess.
"What about Scorpia, by the way?" Mermista asked. "Doesn't she want to get her kingdom back, too? If it's in the middle of the Fright Zone, I doubt the Dissidents will agree to that."
"Scorpia isn't a typical princess," Catra said with something in her tone. Something like pride. Adora pursed her lips, putting the feeling of jealousy in a corner of her mind. "She hasn't been connected to her runestone for a while, and she's not interested in ruling over people. The Dissidents will accept her as an honorary princess, but she won't have more power than any of them."
"When will we get to talk with Princess Scorpia and the leader of the Dissidents?" Angella asked. The tension and the lack of trust was as cutting as Frosta's ice.
"Soon," Catra answered shortly.
"How are the Dissidents hiding?" Glimmer wondered. "Where are they staying exactly? It mustn't be very easy to keep a stable hideout from Hordak for months."
"I have no idea."
"You have no idea, or you aren't allowed to reveal this information?" Mortella narrowed her eyes.
The Queen of the Magicats smirked. "Take it as you wish."
"Hey, Wildcat. How did the meeting go?"
"Could have been worse." Catra slouched on the cushions. She smiled at the sight of her friend who was trying out a new black lipstick Queen Orla had given her. "You're calm for someone who just got back from a trip to the Fright Zone."
"Oh you know, it wasn't all bad. Lonnie's people are constantly on their guard, but they're nice. They made me comfortable."
"So comfortable Rogelio and Kyle decided to stay."
"Well, it's more like Lonnie took them back in. They were her friends, after all."
"Right," Catra cackled. She sighed as she thought of the task ahead. "I hope those dumbasses from the North accept Lonnie's terms. If they don't, it's gonna be impossible to keep going. I shouldn't have agreed that fast to this change of plans."
"But you need their support," Scorpia said with a raised eyebrow. "You need the Dissidents to fight with you against Mystacor if needed."
"Sure, but if I don't have the Princesses on my side, it'll all be for nothing. This would have been simpler without the Dissidents."
Scorpia hesitated before her next sentence. "Are you okay with Lonnie turning you down?"
Catra's ears dropped. She hugged her knees. "I don't wanna talk about it."
"I did everything I could back there. You know, to make her see how great you'd be as-"
"I said I don't want to talk about it," Catra said with a glare. Scorpia apologized and fell silent. Catra stared at her and felt guilty. "Thank you, Scorpia. For everything."
Scorpia beamed. "You're welcome. Seriously though, don't get me wrong, but I think it's a good thing that the Dissidents are here. You have their military support, and you're not gonna be the new Hordak in the Rebellion's eyes."
Catra hugged her knees harder. She felt angry, but she reminded herself that Scorpia was only trying to cheer her up. Most of the time she knew what to say, but the scorpion lady had trouble understanding Catra's attachment to the Horde.
"Whatever," Catra rolled her eyes. "Ugh. This is way more complicated than I thought it'd be."
"Why not tell the Princesses the truth? I'm sure they'll understand."
"I don't know…" Catra answered. Uncertainty weighed heavy on her heart. "I've been gone for a while. I don't know how deep Mystacor's influence runs right now. I can't make any mistakes by rushing in. We need to put Hordak down first. One less obstacle."
"What about Adora? Can't you just tell her? She could convince the rest of the Princesses."
Catra sighed loudly, dropping her head back against the cushion. "Adora is weird. I don't know what happened to her. I want to tell her, but I'm not sure she can take another bomb."
"It's not that much of a bomb. I mean… she might take it well!"
"Ugh, Scorpia, you're too soft."
"You think? People always tell me I'm as tough as nails, but that's because of my exoskeleton. I think."
Catra burst out in laughter. It was good to have Scorpia back.