"What are you doing?" asked a disapproving voice.
"Killing time," Villamax responded. "What's it to you, Kegler? It's not like I have anything better to do."
"The queen is looking for you," answered Kegler in his usual harried way. "I've been sent to get you. You're late."
"Late?" repeated Villamax, momentarily confused. Then he slapped his forehead in chagrin. "Of course! Practice! It completely slipped my mind!"
"Trakeena's going to have your head for making her wait," said Kegler anxiously.
"Thank you for your support," was Villamax's sarcastic reply. He hung his sword at his waist and strode confidently off through the halls of the spaceship, doing nothing to betray his nervousness at failing his queen.
He found Trakeena waiting for him in a large, empty room that they occasionally used for training sessions. Though Villamax was a willing subordinate, he still had some influence with the young queen in matters of training. He had insisted, politely but firmly, that it wasn't enough just to learn to fight; she would have to practice as well. It was the only way she could keep and build upon her newfound skills, he told her, and she had enough respect for him to listen. Most of the time, she would practice alone, or battle against the expendable Stingwingers, but she would, on occasion, arrange to meet with her trainer for a more challenging practice session. One such arrangement had been made for today, and it should have begun fifteen minutes ago. Trakeena was pacing the floor, slashing impatiently at the air with her sword. Villamax paused in the doorway and cleared his throat.
"There you are," Trakeena snapped. "It's about time. What happened? Did you get lost or something?" she asked scornfully.
Villamax dropped to one knee and bowed his head in a gesture of subservience. "I humbly beg your pardon, my queen. The fault is entirely my own. Do forgive me; it will not happen again."
"You'd better hope so," said Trakeena, "or I'll have to find a new trainer who knows how to tell time."
"Don't do that, please," said Villamax, scrambling to his feet. "I'm ready. Let's see if you've learned anything this week."
"Fine. Let's go."
Teacher and student drew their blades and began circling each other with smooth, graceful movements, scanning for weaknesses. The first strikes were tentative - a jab here, a feint there, neither party scoring a hit on the other. Once they had warmed up, however, the battle became more intense. Steel rang as the two weapons clashed with each other, and fists and feet came into play. Villamax tried slashing at Trakeena, but she saw the movement and reacted instantly, ducking the blade while simultaneously aiming a kick at his ankles that would have tripped him if he hadn't jumped a pace back. She was standing again in a flash, ready to take advantage of the opening she had created, but Villamax parried her first strike and managed kick her backwards a few steps. He hadn't intended to hurt her, though, and his intentions were fulfilled. His student quickly recovered herself and charged back at him, putting him on defense again. An outsider watching the battle would have sworn they were trying to kill each other. The trainer made a jab for Trakeena's shoulder, but he wasn't quick enough, and she managed to rake her sword across his side. Villamax almost laughed in approval.
*Is this the same spoiled princess I met on Onyx?* he wondered, ducking a blow that could have severed his head from his shoulders. *I hardly recognize her now.*
Villamax's first impression of Trakeena had not been a particularly favorable one. He had met her in one of the shadier establishments on one of the sleaziest planets in the galaxy, and he had appraised her (not without accuracy) as one of so many other whining, self-centered brats that were raised by overprotective and indulgent families, a prissy little girl who had never grown up and still thought the universe revolved around her. He had watched her with a measure of disgust as she choked on one of the powerful concoctions served in the bar - she had probably never sampled anything stronger than lemonade in her entire sheltered life - and then had allowed herself to be thoroughly beaten and humiliated by a few of the saloon's drunken patrons before she had been pitched out into the street. She hadn't even had the strength to break a bottle! The show was almost embarrassingly ridiculous to a fighter of Villamax's caliber.
And yet... and yet she had interested him. Though he probably wouldn't have paid any attention to her at all if someone hadn't thrown her onto the table he'd been sitting at, once he'd seen her, he had been unable to tear his gaze away. In her beauty and her helplessness, he had reminded her so much of Zirna, which was why he had chosen her. Not because he felt anything for her - except, of course, the usual cold loathing - but because she had seemed like such a perfect target. Thoughts of his old mission had been drifting in his mind, surfacing at odd moments, since the day he had arrived here in his new home, but he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on them much. He didn't want to face the pain again, but he knew he had to. Even in the heat of battle, he couldn't stop his mind from going back in time, back to the day that had pushed him onto the path that had led him here...
Zirna was a nobleman's daughter, child of a minor but still reasonably wealthy and powerful lord of evil, and she had been raised in a manner fitted to her rank. She was a dazzling dark beauty, and Villamax had been devoted to her. Before meeting her, he had loved only war, but he had been more than happy to tear himself away from his battles if it meant he could spend more time admiring his fiancee's mysterious eyes and shining hair and perfect skin. At the time, he had thought himself the luckiest man in the world to be engaged to such a lovely creature. That had been before he had learned the hard way that beauty could be only skin deep.
*...He was in pain, pain like he'd never known before, stinging from a dozen sword slashes, some of them serious, and three times as many bruises. His head spun from the blows he had taken, and he leaned heavily on his battle-scarred sword as he limped down the dusty highway. He had been ambushed, taken completely and utterly unawares by his enemies, beaten senseless and left for dead. He was amazed that he had survived, but he had no time to consider that. His last conscious thought before he had passed out was a realization that his attackers had been traveling this same road in the same direction he was now traveling, and he knew very well that the road ran to no other place than the home of his betrothed. If they had done anything to her, he would not rest until his enemies paid for their actions in blood.
Nearing the manor house, he found things in a state of confusion. Many of the master's monster-servants seemed to be either injured or dead, and those that were left scurried around in confusion, shouting unintelligible laments. Villamax collared one and tried to get some sense out of it.
"What's going on here?" he rasped.
"The master!" wailed the monster piteously. "He's dead! There were heroes... they came and got him..."
"Where's Zirna?" Villamax demanded, alarmed. "If they've so much as harmed a hair on her head..."
"Villamax!" shouted a familiar voice. Zirna, her hair and clothing in disarray, ran out the front door and threw herself at him, nearly knocking him off his feet. She began sobbing on his shoulder. "I was so worried about you! I was so sure they had killed you..."
"I'm all right, Zirna," he said, his pain forgotten at seeing her again. "How could I not be all right now that I've... wait a minute," he said suddenly, as something odd occurred to him, "how did you know they were coming after me when they attacked me before they came here?"
"They were here first," Zirna replied, still sobbing. "They came here and found me. They threatened me... they were going to hurt me..."
"You told them I was coming," said Villamax in sudden realization. "You traitorous wench! How could you do this to me?"
"Please, Villamax, forgive me!" begged Zirna. "I was in real danger! They would have done something to me if I hadn't talked!"
"So you let them kill me instead," Villamax answered coldly. "I see, now. I was willing to fight to the death for you, Zirna, and this is the thanks I get? The minute someone puts a little pressure on you, you turn on me to save your own skin, is that it?"
"I was frightened..." Zirna pleaded. "Forgive me, I couldn't help it..."
"Have you no mind? They were heroes! They wouldn't have done anything to you. They're too honorable for that. Don't you know that? The least you could have done was lie to them. If you had been able to stall them a few minutes, I could have been here in time to stop all this. You would have done something like that, if you had been thinking."
"I couldn't! I was scared!"
"You're a coward," said Villamax, backing away from her. "You have no courage, no strength, no honor. I see you for what you are, now: a selfish little weakling. You have no heart to match that pretty face of yours."
"Villamax, please..." cried Zirna. Her eyes were red and puffy, her face blotchy and tear streaked, and her clothing marred with soot from the fires that still burned, marking the path of the destroyers. She didn't look beautiful at all, now, just wan and tired and pathetic. Villamax wondered what he'd ever seen in her.
"I want nothing more to do with a traitor like you," said Villamax. "Find someone else to look after you; I've had enough of this. Goodbye." And then he was gone, vanished into the smoke and haze.
That had been just the beginning. Villamax had gone out wandering, picking up work wherever he could, and occasionally he would come across another specimen like Zirna. In his bitterness, he saw them all the same way, as fawning leeches that drained the strength of those around them because they were too weak to support themselves. When he found them, he made it his business to weed them out - not killing him; he was not the kind to kill in cold blood - but he broke them. He would seek out their weaknesses and then send their imaginary worlds crashing down around them, shattering their dreams and reducing them to despair. He considered himself doing the universe a favor, and it was the only way he could cope with Zirna's betrayal. But then he had met Trakeena, and she had changed everything.
When he had first seen her in the tavern, he had almost not considered her worth his while. She might claim to be a princess, but she was a long way from where anyone might expect to find one. More likely, she was just deluded from being out in the sun too long, or lying to try to impress people into subservience. It was only because she looked and acted so much like Zirna that had made him think she might be another he could work his will upon. And when she had confessed her dreams of becoming a warrior, it had seemed like she was playing right into his hands. He had been ruthless with her, setting her impossible tasks and scolding her when she failed, trying to push her into discouragement and misery. In his wildest dreams, it had never crossed his mind that she might have real potential... but she did. She had learned at a speed that was astonishing - a born warrior if ever there was one. He had seen the fire in her, that driving force that made a person push themselves to their limits and beyond, the one that gave them strength and reflexes that would dazzle ordinary men. Vengeance fell by the wayside; not developing that kind of potential would be like a sculptor throwing a perfect piece of marble into the trash. By the time he had finished training her, he had already been enchanted by skill, her intelligence, her bravery... and her beauty. Like it or not, he belonged to her now. He had set out to break her, but instead, he had fallen under her power.
*She is what I really want,* he thought to himself as they battled. *She is perfect in every way. I never really loved Zirna; that was only skin-deep. Trakeena is something different, though - what I really wanted all along. She's better than I deserve, really. What could I ever do for her?*
Distracted, he didn't see the maneuver until it was too late. A deft movement by Trakeena disarmed him, and then the tip of her sword was resting against his chest.
"Gotcha now," she said, smiling evilly. "Do you surrender, or I run this through your heart and take your life?"
"I don't need to surrender," said Villamax. "My life already belongs to you, my queen... and I do believe you've already pierced my heart." With a slight bow, he turned to reclaim his weapon, and then walked pensively out the door.
*What did he mean by that?* Trakeena wondered. *It couldn't mean what it sounded like it meant, could it?*
Then again, maybe it could. He was always complimenting her, telling her how lovely she was, doing whatever she said with humility that was surprising coming from a monster. Perhaps he did feel for her in some way. She was used to being admired by men, but she didn't really care about that. It was just an infatuation. It would wear off after a while, just as always, and nothing would change. No one really cared about her, not now.
Watching Villamax leave, though, she couldn't help feeling a pang of regret. She had to admit, if only to herself, that she liked Villamax. He had given her the key to unlocking her potential, made all her dreams come true, made her fast and strong and powerful. If it hadn't been for him, she would still be little more than a sheltered child aching to get out into the real world. She had to feel something for him, if only a sense of gratitude. And... maybe admiration. He was a skilled fighter, the only monster she knew who was her equal. He must not have been paying attention today, or else she wouldn't have beaten him so easily. What had he been thinking about?
*...My life already belongs to you... you've already pierced my heart.*
"It doesn't mean anything," she told herself sternly. "You know what he's after. You've seen how he drools over you every time he sees you."
That was true enough, anyway. He always seemed to be watching her, trying not to be noticed at it, though the attitude of longing was hard to miss, and careful prompting would always yield flattering words. She would do that sometimes, just for fun. She liked to be flattered. She liked to hear Villamax tell her how beautiful she was. Actually, he wasn't too bad himself. As if waiting for that cue, her mind conjured up a few images for her, pure fantasy, but pleasant...
"Cut that out!" she scolded herself, putting the pictures out of her mind. "He's just a soldier. You're the queen. You can't have anything to do with him. So there."
She sighed. Being royalty wasn't easy. Even if she was the queen, with awesome magical power and impressive fighting skills, there was still a place in her mind that was still reeling from the death of the only person she'd ever trusted and cared for, and from the shock of suddenly having so much responsibility thrust on her. She might be a queen and a warrior, but there was still a part of her that wanted someone strong to take care of her.
*Being royalty isn't easy,* she thought again. *It's also a little lonely, sometimes...*
If Trakeena hadn't been so deeply wrapped up in her thoughts, she might have realized that she was not alone.
"Very interesting," Deviot murmured. "She really ought to learn not to talk to herself. It's a dangerous habit. You never know who might overhear you."
The metallic monster walked thoughtfully down the halls of the Stinger, contemplating his newly gained knowledge. So, Trakeena had fallen for that bootlicker general of hers, Villamax. What an interesting development! He wondered what he could do with knowledge like that. It might useful for blackmail under the proper circumstances. On the other hand, if Trakeena started showing favoritism for Villamax, where would that leave him? Stuck in a worse position than he was in now, most likely; he might end up having to take orders from Villamax, or even thrown off the ship altogether! That didn't leave him a lot of room for upward mobility around here. He was, after all, an ambitious monster, and he wanted to hang around a while, if only to be close by when an opportunity for self-advancement showed up. Perhaps it would be best to stop all this before it started. If nothing else, this was a grand opportunity to rid himself of a rival, and it would be easier to overthrow Trakeena while she was mourning her lost love...
Meanwhile, Villamax had returned to his quarters, and now he was busy working himself into a bad mood. He would have kicked himself if he could. How could he have let that slip? In a moment of weakness, he had let his feelings show, and now he was probably going to have to pay for it. Trakeena wasn't one of those empty-headed noblewomen to be won over by a few romantic words - if anything, they might make her think he was weak, and she would never have any interest in a weakling. He stormed around his room, berating himself for his amorous slip of the tongue.
"You don't have a chance, you know," said a voice.
Villamax turned on his heel, embarrassed at being caught and ready to give the eavesdropper an earful on the topic of manners.
"Deviot," he muttered. "What are you doing in my place? How much of that did you hear?"
"Enough," Deviot replied. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. I already got a good idea of what happened from Trakeena. She seems quite upset. I just came here to warn you, in case you hadn't realized the outcome of your actions." The robotic villain did his best to sound sincere and worried.
"How bad is it?" asked Villamax, worried.
"Bad. You seem to have upset her greatly. That was a very unwise move," said Deviot. "You should be a little more careful what you say, you know."
"I know, I know," Villamax replied unhappily. "I just got carried away."
"Are you really in love with her?" asked Deviot, radiating comradely concern.
"How could I not be?" answered Villamax tiredly. "She's everything I ever dreamed of and more... I don't know why I'm telling you this."
"You can tell me whatever you want. That's what friends are for," Deviot assured him. "And I am your friend, so I will tell you this for your own good: forget about her. You don't have a chance of winning her, and you're doomed to heartbreak if you try."
"What do you mean?" asked Villamax.
"Isn't it obvious?" Deviot responded. "Trakeena is a queen, a woman of rank and pride. You are just a soldier, and you wouldn't even be that if she didn't owe you a favor. It would never work out. If she ever marries, it will be to a man of power, not someone like you. And it is entirely possible she'd rather remain alone. She's independent, you know. She's perfectly capable of looking after herself. She doesn't need anyone, anymore."
Villamax sighed. "You're right, Deviot. She doesn't need me. That's one of the things I admire most about her..."
"You're only hurting yourself, acting like this," said Deviot. "Trust me, it would be better if you'd just give up now. You'll save yourself some pain."
"How can I forget her? She's right here in front of me all the time!" Villamax protested.
"Then perhaps you need to get away for a while," Deviot replied. "You would be missed, of course, and it pains me to have to say it, but it might be the best thing in the end."
"Maybe you're right," said Villamax. "I'll give it serious thought. Thank you."
"Don't mention it," Deviot replied, heading for the door. "It's nothing I wouldn't do for anyone I held in such high esteem."
Emotionally drained, Villamax allowed himself to collapse into a nearby chair. Things were going very badly for him today. Maybe - as much as he hated to think it - Deviot was right. He wasn't needed here, really. Trakeena didn't need him or anyone else. Having him around would probably just irritate her, and he would never do anything to make her unhappy. There was no real reason why he couldn't, after all. He knew how to survive on his own, there was nothing much he needed to take with him, and anyway, he had packed it all up and abandoned his old life, once. He could do it again, only... only that time, he hadn't been in love.
"It doesn't matter how much it hurts. I have to do this," he said. In a flash, he vanished from the ship and went teleporting out into the cold emptiness of space.
Standing by the door, covertly listening to Villamax's distress, Deviot chuckled to himself.
"One down," he said. "One to go."
Some time later, Trakeena was staring thoughtfully out the window.
*This is ridiculous,* she told herself firmly. *I am one of the most powerful evil forces in the universe! I can't be falling in love.*
Love? Who said anything about love? That had sounded uncomfortably like an admission. Well, she was Queen Trakeena, daughter and heir of King Scorpius, and there was no way she could be having feelings for her trainer and general, even if he was talented and intelligent and charming and...
"Blast," she muttered. "Why did this have to go and happen?"
There weren't any good answers; emotion was seldom logical. She sighed. There was no way this could ever work out. Even if he was in love with her - and she wasn't entirely sure he was - it still couldn't happen. It was an equality issue. Probably, if he knew how she felt, he would want her to marry him, and that could never happen. She was a queen, and if he married her, he would expect to be king, and she wasn't about to put up with that. All the same, it would be so nice if there were no titles to worry about, and she could just be... with him. She was still toying with that pleasant notion when Deviot came in.
"My queen, I have news for you... My queen?" There was no response. "Trakeena, are you listening?"
"Hmm?" said Trakeena, barely glancing in his direction. "Oh, it's you. Go away. I'm thinking."
Deviot resisted the urge to growl in frustration. Trakeena was irritating enough under ordinary circumstances; dealing with her while she was lovesick would be downright exasperating. He reined in his temper and tried again.
"Your majesty, I just wanted to report to you that I have found the Red Ranger practicing alone in the woods. I am under the impression that you still have a score to settle with him, and I thought..."
"Fine," said Trakeena, cutting him off. He was right - she did owe the Red Ranger a beating for what he had done to his father, and this was as good an opportunity as any. She needed someone to take her frustrations out on, anyway. She might as well accomplish something while she was at it. "Where's Villamax? Call him here at once."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, your majesty," said Deviot with feigned regret. "I regret to tell you that he is gone."
"Gone?" she repeated in shock. "He can't go. I need him here." Lest that remark be misconstrued, she added, "I'm not letting a perfectly good general go AWOL on me, not when there are still Rangers to battle."
Deviot shrugged. "If you will forgive my saying so, he never struck me as the trustworthy type. You know how some people are. On the surface, they're all servility, but all the while they're plotting behind your back. I'm surprised he stayed here as long as he has."
"Oh, shut up," said Trakeena. "I'll handle the Ranger by myself if I have to. Get out of my way." Trakeena shoved Deviot out of the way and went searching for her staff of power.
Deviot chuckled to himself. "That's right, get angry. You'll make more mistakes that way... and then the Red Ranger will finish you off just as he killed your father."
Leo was alone in the forest. It was quiet there, and he was free to do and think as he pleased. Sometimes he felt a bit like a wild animal, not even needing to think, just to move and breathe and be. These were some of his favorite times. Too bad it was going to be interrupted.
"Red Ranger," greeted a cold voice. "Are you ready to finish what you started?"
"Trakeena," he answered, just as coldly. "I'm always ready for a fight. Go Galactic!"
In a flash, the Red Ranger made his dramatic metamorphosis. He drew his Quasar Saber and struck a fighting stance, while Trakeena readied her sword. The two charged at each other, colliding in a furious battle.
Meanwhile, not far away, Villamax was pausing to rethink his strategy. Only moments after leaving the Scorpion Stinger, he had begun to regret his decision, so he had stopped at the most convenient place he could find to consider his options. No matter what the situation might be, he didn't want to leave. Despite what Deviot had told him, he knew he could never forget Trakeena - after all, he was still thinking about Zirna, and he had never really loved her. He had admired her beauty, yes, but that was all. Desire was only skin deep, but love was to the heart...
He was snapped out of his reverie by the sounds of a battle. Curious, he followed the sounds. If Trakeena had launched an attack, he might be of assistance there, and perhaps distinguishing himself on the field of battle would help erase some of the memory of his foolhardy pronunciation earlier. He crested a hill and looked down. On the dusty ground below, he could clearly see the brilliant crimson of the Red Ranger fighting wildly against the darker form of Trakeena. Snippets of shouted conversations reached his ears.
"Had enough, Ranger? Give up now, and I'll make your destruction easy!"
"No way!" Leo shouted back. "I can never give up as long as you're threatening Terra Venture."
"I don't care about Terra Venture," Trakeena replied. "This is personal!"
"Whatever it is, you're not going to win!" said Leo. "Red Ranger fire power!"
There was a sudden burst of flame around the Red Ranger as he called upon the elemental powers of fire to aid him. His sword burned red-hot with their intensity. When the power reached its peak, he released it in a fiery storm of energy, and Trakeena screamed in pain. Her weapon flew out of her grip, and she fell to the ground, half-unconscious. With his sword held high, Leo advanced on his prone enemy, ready to strike the killing blow.
*No!* thought Villamax wildly. *I will not let this happen!*
Without further thought, he charged out of his hiding place, moving faster than he'd known he could. The Red Ranger's blade came down in a bright, deadly arc, and Trakeena was momentarily frozen in panic as she watched it descend, and then... The sword spun out of his hand as something tackled him from the side. Leo and Villamax both fell to the ground, then scrambled to their feet to face each other.
"You again," said Leo. "Do I have to teach you a lesson, too?"
"Do what you want, Ranger," Villamax replied, "but I will not let you harm my queen."
"Have it your way," answered the Red Ranger. In a lightning-fast move, he made a lunge and tumble, grabbing for his sword, and spun just in time to avoid a slash from Leo's Quasar Saber. The two went into a fierce battle, and Leo was stunned a bit by the monster's intensity. He didn't know exactly what was going on here, but he had a feeling it was a little more significant than just the usual good-versus-evil routine. Still, there was no time to worry about it. After all, he was a Power Ranger, and he could handle monsters like Villamax no matter how angry they were.
"Fire power!" he shouted, making his sword gleam again with red-hot flames. There was a swift slash and flash, and then Villamax was falling and crying out in pain as he fell to the ground, dropping his weapon from the shock of the pain. He tried desperately to pick himself up from the ground and reclaim his sword as the Red Ranger prepared to deliver the finishing blow.
"This is it," said Leo. "Both of you are going down!"
"Don't!" Villamax cried. With a burst of strength, he threw himself between the Ranger and Trakeena, spreading his arms in a protective gesture. "Don't hurt her. Take me if you want, but let her go free."
"What?" said Leo and Trakeena simultaneously.
"If you have any shred of decency in you, then I beg you to grant me this favor," Villamax said. "My life for hers. Let her go."
Leo hesitated a moment, uncertain. Was this a trick, or what?
"You listen to me, Ranger," said Trakeena, her voice strong and cold even through her pain. "I swore to kill you when you killed my father. If you kill him too, I promise you now that I will make you suffer in ways you never imagined!"
For a moment, Leo just stood there, looking from one face to the other, and he saw identical expressions on both of them. They were both hurt, both at the ends of their strength. There was no way they could stand up to him if he decided to destroy them now. He could finish them off easily and rid the universe of them both forever... but something in the looks in their eyes warned him not to. There were some things you just didn't mess with. He sheathed his sword.
"Get out of here," he said, "and don't think I'm going to be this nice next time." He was gone in a burst of red light.
Within seconds, Villamax was at Trakeena's side, holding her in his arms and asking if she was all right.
"Get... the staff..." she said weakly.
Villamax laid her down gently and went to retrieve her weapon, which had reverted to the form of her magic staff. It seemed to almost vibrate with the power it held, and it made his hands feel tingly and frozen just to touch it, but Trakeena seemed to revive a little as soon as it was back in her possession.
"That's more like it," she said. "He's going to pay for doing this to me... but for now I'm ready to go home. And as for you," she added, "you go back to your quarters and wait. I need to have a word with you."
"Yes, my queen," said Villamax. He tried to ignore the cold knot that was settling in his stomach. "Whatever you wish."
With that, they both vanished in a shimmer of lights.
A few hours later, Villamax was pacing the floor again. At first, he had waited with grim determination for Trakeena's summons, ready to take whatever news she had with dignity. That had lasted for about five minutes. After that point, he had started tormenting himself with possibilities. Maybe she would dismiss him. Maybe she would reward him. Maybe she was angry at him for his forwardness... or perhaps she would be pleased by his loyalty. Was she impressed by his valor for risking his life to save hers, or was she disappointed in him for being beaten by the Red Ranger first? After a while, though, the swing from hope to despair flattened out to gloomy certainty. No matter what she was thinking at the moment, it couldn't be anywhere close to what he wanted, and was probably a lot worse. He hadn't been there when she had needed him, after all. If he had really been doing his job, she wouldn't have been hurt in the first place. He had deserted her when he should have been there, and the reason he hadn't been there was because he had run away out of sheer cowardice, because he wasn't man enough to face his feelings. She probably never wanted to see him again. It was lucky he didn't have much to pack...
"Villamax?" quavered a voice. "Villamax, are you in there?"
"For now," he answered glumly.
"Trakeena is waiting to speak to you," Kegler responded. "She says for you to report to her at once."
"Probably wants to chew me out in person," said Villamax. "Not that I blame her; it's the least I deserve."
"What happened, anyway? I still have no idea what's going on," said Kegler crossly.
"None of your business," Villamax replied. Taking a deep breath to steady himself and squaring his shoulders determinedly, he marched away to answer his summons, prepared for the worst.
He found the young queen relaxing on her throne, eyes closed, looking almost asleep. Villamax sighed; even through his despair, he couldn't help but think of how beautiful she looked. Who would guess she was the ruler of an evil empire and a deadly fighting force in her own right?
Though she gave no outward sign of it, Trakeena knew he was there, and she heard that slight sound. She had been turning things over in her mind for a long time, and she had decided what she wanted to do. It probably wasn't exactly what Villamax wanted, and it might surprise a few other people, but... who cared? She was the queen, after all; she could do as she pleased. First, though, she wanted to make absolutely sure she knew what she was doing.
"Don't just stand there," she said. "Come here. I can't talk to you if you're way over there."
"Yes, my queen," he said, trying not to betray his tension. He didn't really want to have to come any closer - or rather, he did, but he didn't think it would be a good idea. His patience was already wearing thin; his nerves didn't feel steady enough to deal with such temptation. "What would you have of me?"
Trakeena tried to suppress a smile. "Tell me honestly... do you think I'm beautiful?"
Villamax was momentarily stunned. That was not what he had been expecting at all. Probably, he decided, she was trying to trick or trap him in some way. Well, he was doomed anyway. Why not go ahead and say it?
"I think you are beautiful," he answered. "I think you are the most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on. There is no one in this universe that can compare to you. You are flawless in my sight, and I would do anything you asked of me for no other reason than to make you happy."
"That's nice," she said. "Don't stop now. What else have you got to say?"
*This is torture,* Villamax thought to himself. *She's just doing this to humiliate me.* But he'd already started now, and he might never get another chance to tell her how he felt. He continued.
"You are more than just beautiful. You are... unlike anyone I have ever known - brave and strong and intelligent and... perfect. Just... perfect. You are my ideal. I worship the ground you walk on. My life is yours."
"So," she said, "I guessed right. You really are in love with me."
"I see," said Trakeena. She sat up and opened her eyes, staring at him with a carefully unreadable expression. "I had suspected as much. That being the case, I have decided that you can no longer be my general."
There. That was it, just what he'd been afraid of. Though he'd been expecting it, he was still crushed, though he tried to hide his disappointment.
"Yes, my queen. I understand. I will take up no more of your time." He turned toward the exit and prepared to leave.
"Freeze," Trakeena commanded. Villamax froze.
"You haven't been dismissed," said Trakeena. "As a matter of fact, I don't plan on dismissing you for quite some time, so you might as well stay put."
"But... but you just said..."
"I said you could no longer be a general. I never said anything about leaving. You're not leaving. You're staying here... with me."
Villamax tried to stop his heart from pounding at those last two words. It didn't mean what he thought it meant. It couldn't. "What do you mean?"
Trakeena got up and began walking slowly towards him. She was smiling.
"It's very simple. You saved my life today... I think you deserve some kind of reward. A promotion, for example." She was standing close to him now, her hand gently touching his face, her eyes looking deeply into his. It was suddenly difficult for him to breathe. "And since we seem to feel the same way about each other, how does Royal Consort of the Queen sound for a title?"
Villamax just barely managed not to collapse in shock.
"Did... did you just say what I think you just said?"
"I did. What you say? Are you interested?"
"Well, if that's what you really want..."
"Then I wholeheartedly accept!" Villamax replied. "When do I begin?
"Now's a good time," answered Trakeena.
"Now?" Villamax repeated. "You mean, right now? I don't know. This is all happening so fast, and I still have this injury from the battle-"
He was momentarily but very effectively interrupted as Trakeena pressed closer and kissed him.
"-which is already much recovered and won't bother me at all," he finished finally.
"Wonderful," Trakeena replied. "Would you be so kind as to escort me to my room?"
"I would be delighted." He bowed, smiling, and gallantly offered his arm. Trakeena returned the smile and allowed herself to be led away.
And far away, the Powers of Goodness smiled at each other as
well as they watched two
hearts of stone crack just a little, showing the faintest glinting
potential of gold, and they chalked
up yet another score for their side.