Catra, feigning sleep, peeked one mischievous, yellow eye open to find her unamused knight watching her. Adora, nonplussed, kept her seated posture perfect. The only giveaway to her annoyance was the almost imperceptible lean of her head, chin up with a single eyebrow twitched.
“Princess, it’s unbecoming to run from your responsibilities,” Adora scolded.
Catra scoffed and looked away.
“If you roll your eyes any harder, they might just get stuck,” her guard chastised with amusement.
Catra continued to stare at the dropping sun, seemingly too lost in her thoughts to respond to her company. There was a sadness to her eyes that Adora had noticed with increasing frequency since her lady’s debut. Having served her house since Adora was a youngling, the knight figured she had an understanding of what weighed on her master’s mind.
Adora cleared her throat and adjusted the rapier at her hip, a symbol of her status as the First Knight of the royal magicat line. Her touch lingered on the Sword of Protection.
“Catra...” Adora began.
“‘Want,’ it’s a funny thing don’t you think?” Adora was caught off-guard.
“How do you mean?” Catra remained thoughtful for another beat and Adora shifted her eyes to the way the Princess played with the pads of her thumbs. There was a heaviness in the air, but that one act grounded Adora. This was still her Catra. The Catra that hummed Adora to sleep every time she got nightmares as a kid. The Catra that inappropriately cackled in the middle of serious duties. The Catra that played with her hands when she was nervous or thoughtful.
“Folks go through life wanting from the day they’re born to the day they die. Whether it’s more power, more money, more time...” Catra leveled a look at Adora that the knight couldn’t place. Under the weight of her heterochromatic gaze, she adjusted her dinner dress, military coat stiffly.
Catra broke eye contact, not finding what she was looking for. She gazed back out to the hillside, the last remnants of the day slipping away with the setting sun. The stars didn’t have enough night to shine quite yet.
“I thought I always knew what I wanted, Adora, but, for the first time in my life, I’m thinking that maybe I’m wrong.”
“Definitely not the first time you were wrong about something,” Adora attempted to inject some humor to break the ice unsuccessfully. The sadness of Catra’s smile forced Adora’s own heart to clench.
“No, dummy. I meant that it was pointless to want anything for myself.”
“Because my story was already decided the moment I was born into this house.”
There it was again. The heaviness of her master’s stare. Like she was waiting for something. So much weighed on this one woman’s shoulders and Adora was in constant awe of her day after day. Her place as a servant knight was to help her shoulder those burdens and help her lady progress. So Adora nodded and beckoned Catra to return with her to the ball. Understanding the origin of her lady’s pain didn’t that she had a right to protect her from her destiny. It wasn’t her place.
“Princess, we’ve been gone far too long. Your Aunt awaits you.”
Catra adjusted her ruby gown and the handforged headpiece that signified her lineage and birthright to the throne. A single ruby at its center signified wisdom and forethought in battle, the interwoven lengths stood for a kingdom culture of family, and each post represented the resolve, honor, and sacrifice that her rule promised to her people.
Though Catra left her sword in the dining hall for tonight’s occasion, the woman still looked every bit the warrior royalty her position demanded. Pride swelled in Adora’s chest for the woman in front of her.
With one last wistful look at the night sky, Catra agreed, “Very well.”
14 years earlier
“Catra! Come here, little tyke. We’ve got a special surprise for you, love.”
Four year old Catra still had a bit of pudge around her face, but her scrappy frame picked up a lithe style of swordfighting that King Jaime and Queen C’yra were over the moon about. Catra put down her wooden training sword in the courtyard before bowing to bid master Mara goodbye. The king tousled her ear tufts, much to Catra’s enjoyment while the queen placed a soft hand on her daughter’s shoulder to face her. The king kissed his queen before he was called inside for a matter concerning mobilizing troops to reinforce the kingdom’s safety perimeter.
“Catra, my love, you know Aunt Mara, your sword teacher?” Catra nods an affirmative.
“Well, Mara has been with me my entire life. She has protected me since I was a child.”
“Is that why she looks so old?” Catra’s mother gave a hearty chuckle.
“Yes, Catra. She’s human. Their lifespans are somewhat shorter. She has the benefit of being a descendant of the first ones. She looks old, but she’s still as feisty as they come.”
The queen continued, “Anyway, Catra, do you know which house Mara comes from?”
“Duh, mom, it’s House Greyskull. I’m not that dense. They’re one of the oldest and most loyal houses in Half Moon. They were there when our ancestors founded this kingdom,” Catra recited her most recent history lesson to her mother. Catra prided herself on working hard to earn her title. Even at four years of age, all magical royalty were expected to begin training in combat, history, and wit.
“Very good, little one. Our families have been intertwined for some time. For every successor in our royal line, a knight from House Greyskull serves as their protector. We call them the First Knight.”
Catra questioned, “If we have the power to transform as magicats though, why would we need protecting?”
“Magicats are extremely powerful when transformed, you’re right. However, the damage that we sustain and the more time that we spend in that form can have dire consequences to our mental state. The First Knight is someone that our family trusts without question. Their loyalty, political understanding, and combat prowess make them ideal lifelong partners to help navigate a royal’s life while protecting us from compartmentalizing our own humanity. Without them, we could lose ourselves completely to the animalistic side of us that lends us strength. You haven’t had your first transformation, but once you do, you’ll understand.”
Catra digested all of this information, making mental notes to speak to her history tutor about any magicats that have gone mad.
“Anyway, with that on the horizon, having a First Knight early in your life builds that trust and bond of protection before it’s truly tested by the world. House Greyskull has their own method of choosing who is worthy to claim this title, but now that you are learning the path of a warrior queen, it is time to assign you a knight.”
At that point, Mara walked up to the two with a young, blonde girl in tow. Catra sized her up curiously. The girl was about 3 or 4 years older if she had to guess. Her grey eyes had an intensity and extreme focus that intrigued her. The rigid set in her broad shoulders made her frame seem imposing for an otherwise small girl. Upon closer inspection, Catra could make out a few cuts and bruises that weren’t well hidden by the simple, brown tunic she wore. Comfortable and functional more than anything, the arm sleeves were torn off, showing the girl was no stranger to hard work.
The two newcomers stopped a few feet from the royals to bow in greeting. C’yra waved them off.
“Mara, please. You’ve been part of this family for too long. You’re far too formal. Adora, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
“Likewise, my Queen,” Adora nodded stiffly.
“See what you’ve done, Mara?”
Mara barked out a laugh. “Please, Queen C’yra, Adora is one of the most formal kids I have ever trained. She’d do this with or without my tutelage.”
“Adora, this is my daughter, Princess Catra. Catra, meet Adora Greyskull.”
“Princess Catra, Adora has been training under me for some time now. She has bested ten other eligible candidates from ages 8-12 and she herself is the youngest candidate I have ever recommended for First Knight selection. The only thing that stopped me from naming her a swordsmaster is that she is not yet battlehardened. Everything else about her technique and skillset gives me faith that she is the best suited to protect you until your ascension as queen.”
“It is my pleasure to meet you, Princess Catra.” Adora bowed deeply and extended her hand for a handshake. Catra’s scrutinizing gaze and lack of reciprocation caused her to falter.
“Have I offended my la-“
Catra swipes the sword out of Mara’s hands and roughly tosses it at the older girl.
“Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is and test what House Greyskull is made of!”
Queen C’yra hit her own forehead with her palm. Her daughter really needed another lesson in societal manners. Mara on the other hand, having trained both of these kids, laughed heartily. The two best friends shared a look. The match would be interesting.
After Adora’s initial confusion, she rebounded and her eyes set with determination. Being here was everything she had worked tirelessly for in the last five years after being adopted as an orphan to this noble house. Hunger training, war tactics, hand to hand combat, and swordsmanship. Adora took to the spartan training like a fish took to water. Having nothing in her life before Mara picked her up, training quickly became her everything. She would prove herself worthy of her title and house by besting Princess Catra.
“Very well, Princess.”
Catra turned her back to her opponent to grab her own sword where she last left it. Adora scoffed. Turning your back on the enemy before the fight even began was a rookie move. She lunged with extreme precision, aiming for the neck. Catra’s wicked reflexes parried to Adora’s pleasant surprise and Catra continued with a relentless barrage of strikes.
Adora smirked. The younger girl’s bark sure matched her bite.
Catra was exhilarated. With each lunge, parry, and dodge, the two girls danced to the sound of heavy breaths. Adora’s strength behind every swing was heavy and sure. Catra’s speed and use of her environment was creative and unpredictable. The world seemed to slip away as the two felt something shift. It was as if at long last, they had found an equal.
With a flourish of her rapier and a well placed feint, Adora held Catra up to the grand willow tree in the center of the courtyard. Glancing at the sword point to her neck in surprise, Catra slowly brought her attention to the much taller blonde handling the weapon. With all of the pomp and circumstance brushed away, with all of the rigid formality gone, the carefree smile on the older girl’s face was a sight to behold.
Someone worthy of her trust.
Adora relinquished her grip, all the while Catra scowled and stuck her tongue out in jest.
“You caught me on an off day.”
“Real warriors don’t have off days, but name a time and place and we’ll go all day, shorty,” Adora grinned lopsidedly. None of the words they exchanged had any actual vitriol. As much as Catra tested her, Adora felt like their verbal exchange and fight gave her insight to the inner workings of the magicat’s mind. A loneliness inherent to their paths. A need for competition. A need to prove something to not just others, but themselves. Maybe they could share those things together.
At the name calling, Catra poked Adora’s forehead so hard that a red mark begins to form. Adora’s incredulousness was obvious on her face. Her retaliation cane in the form of holding Catra’s neck easily under her left arm in order to give the magicat a thorough noogie, quick witted exchanges and insults were thrown back and forth easily.
“Mom, Aunt Mara, I’ll take her!”
“Catra, Adora was going to be your First Knight regardless of whether you approved,” C’yra said bluntly.
“Well, glad it’s all working out regardless,” Mara laughs. “Adora, lets get you settled in your new room in the castle.”
“I’ve got it Aunt Mara! I’m going to kick out Berry who lives next door and you can move right in!”
“No, Catra, leave Berry alone! He’s grumpy and old!” C’yra attempted to call out to deaf ears. Catra was already halfway up the steps to the castle with Adora’s hand in her own.
“Goddammit. That girl is always head first and consequences later.”
“Sounds familiar,” Mara grinned.
“Oh shut up,” C’yra playfully swiped at her old friend.
“Aunt Mara, my apologies for keeping you waiting,” Catra said politely. She was present, but her eyes seemed to be elsewhere.
“Hey, there, little one,” Mara smiled softly, “Enjoying the festivities?” Adora flanked Catra’s right to take her seat at the U shaped ceremonial setting while Catra took her seat at its head beside Mara.”
“Something like that. All of this feels...wrong without them,” Catra glanced upwards, then away. It was a tell that Adora knew well. Catra didn’t cry often, but the motion helped her to keep the tears at bay.
Mara placed a hand on the young princess’ shoulder. “You’re right. It’s not the same.” The two reminisced of better times, of balls with the hearty chuckle of Queen C’yra and the playfulness of King Jaime, the often the life of the party. Half Moon had been known to throw the liveliest of festivities, but Catra understood the real reason why folks from near and far always managed to travel to these parts. It wasn’t the food and it wasn’t the music, though Half Moon’s taste and culture were rich. The real reason everyone came was for the king and queen. The two were legends on and off the battlefield. After victory, they did not flaunt. Catra would often help them rebuild relations with affected civilian populations. Houses and farmland were a priority for rebuilding. Orphans and the injured would be housed in their own castle until placement in either their original homes or further in the city. Soldiers would be offered a chance to enter into their own ranks. Their kindness defined their reign. The only reason that they never experienced retaliation or uprising was because their fights were always chosen for the right reasons. Self-defense or crimes against humanity. Magicats were not colonizers. Power and might disinterested them. The power they had was more than sufficient to protect their way of life which centered on family. Technology and education were other cornerstones of their culture. Technological advancement and science allowed them to maintain a small, yet powerful standing army, a quarter the size of armies in the rest of Etheria. Children were offered to begin apprenticeship or military training as early as the age of 8. The mentality behind that was if they showed interest and dedication early, they would be sorted with likeminded people that helped hone their skills over time. Switching career paths was not taboo, but because of how respectful magicat culture was to its children, their people were happy enough that it was a rare occurrence. This was the legacy King Jaime and Queen C’yra upheld. It was one that Catra was responsible to uphold...now that they were dead.
Catra and Mara were startled out of their reminiscing by the clanking of Adora’s cup, spilling wine all over the front of her trousers. Catra laughed for the first time all night and Adora snapped her head up to the sound, the blush of her cheeks forgotten as she focused on the princess in front of her. She returned a goofy grin.
“Leave it to Adora to lighten up any mood with her lack of dexterity,” Mara laughed. “I swear Adora, you’re a grown woman now. You’ve taken down ten fighters at once, jumped across buildings to save Catra that one time she got kidnapped by smugglers, and summited Bright Crest drunk, but you still can’t drink from a cup without spilling something?”
“Well don’t talk like it’s so easy, Aunt Mara,” Catra jibed as she took her own napkin to help Adora who was frantically wiping at her lap, suddenly embarrassed again at her own lack of grace. With gentle hands, Catra wiped up the rest of the offending liquid best she could. Catra looked up to see Adora’s eyes on her, calm and steady. Happiness shown bright as the day in her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that, doofus.”
“Princess Catra, may I steal Lady Adora from you for a dance?” Someone interrupted.
Catra pulled away suddenly. Catra’s eyebrows narrowed to see who the voice belonged to after better composing her cool mask.
“Princess Glimmer, good evening... If it so pleases Adora,” Catra’s mouth held a bitter aftertaste. She knew the pleasantries required of her position. She never much cared for them and she never much cared for the newly appointed Rebellion General.
“My lady?” Glimmer smiled and offered a hand to Adora. Her reaction to Adora was far more open and genuine.
“It would be my pleasure, Princess,” Adora smiled easily, taking her hand before walking to the dance floor. Adora’s posture was perfect, her shoulders square, a well-practiced frame for any partner. Glimmer’s movements were easy, every bit the princess she was born to be. Catra’s stare lingered as the two shared their waltz. Adora and Glimmer had been friends since Catra was a young girl. C’yra and Angella were best friends and close allies. Half Moon contributed weapons and a close supply point to the Horde, the very first land based defense. Brightmoon frequently provided extra soldiers and armament to reinforce Half Moon’s defenses. Growing up, the closer Brightmoon was to their kingdom, the closer Glimmer was to Adora. Catra wouldn’t name the feeling roiling in the pit of her stomach, instead taking a long sip of wine.
She took a moment to remind herself of her place in Adora’s life. Her heart clenched. A weak heart made for a weak mind. A weak mind made for a weak leader, and a weak leader was absolutely useless.
The two giggling women, twirling and zipping around the dance floor were difficult to look away from. Mara, misinterpreting the energy from Catra, apologetically brought up the real reason her debut ball was being held at all.
“Catra, you know that no one is rushing you to do this, right? Who could expect you to get married so soon after your parents’....passing.” Mara’s face turned stoney, as if to help her deliver the word of their death. Even with a full season between now and their death, the days did not make it any more palatable.
Mara’s face was sympathetic. Having watched the girl grow up into the person before her today, she understood that this was the absolute opposite of what she wanted. Marriage for politics sake. The Catra she knew was passionate and bright, wishing for time the to travel, to make mistakes, to find a partner that challenged her in more ways than one. She deserved it all. However, this was a last ditch effort for her kingdom’s survival.
“Aunt Mara, we’ve been over this,” Catra said, irritation evident in her voice. Mara understood the young woman and her concern did not waver.
“You think that this is the only path forward, but it’s not. There is always another way. A better way,” Mara said passionately.
“What will you have me do? Leave Half Moon to starve? Leave them to die in the war as the Horde picks them off with each passing day? Leave its children orphaned and alone,” Catra’s voice goes hoarse. “And for what? Love? If you haven’t noticed, Brightmoon’s withdrawn 80% of its previous support in soldiers, food, and resources. We are on our own, Mara. If you think I haven’t truly considered any of this, then I’m sorry I ever made you my advisor.”
Mara’s understanding did not lessen the pain of Catra’s words.
“Very well then, Princess. I’ll begin bringing the suitors by you at once.” Mara stood up with a short bow, coolly leaving to conduct her task. Catra finished her drink and touched her first two fingers to her temple, attempting to rid herself of a migraine before sliding her hand down and over chin and neck, teeth bared.
On the dance floor, Adora noticed Catra’s body language, as if the girl was yelling in silence. Her body tensed and moved toward Catra. Glimmer asked, “Adora, is everything alright?” The two had been close friends and confidants since childhood, along with their friend, Bow. With Glimmer and Bow as Brightmoon representatives in the last few years, the three increasingly grew closer.
“Yeah...well, no. I don’t know. I feel like Catra’s been off and I don’t think it’s just because of her parents. She’s been growing distant. It’s like I can’t even reach her anymore and it’s scaring me, Glimmer.”
Glimmer sympathized with her friend, rubbing her back in a comforting embrace. “I’m not going to pretend I understand the inner workings of Catra’s mind, but I know one thing’s for sure.”
“That girl cares about you more than anyone else in the entire world.”
Adora’s face burned. She took another glance at Catra. The woman seemed to be readying herself for an announcement.
Catra picked up her family’s sword beside her chair. The sword was worn, but evidently well taken care of. With a wildcat head on its pommel and a blood red handle, the bright gold guard shined bright in the room. With two taps to the floor, the room quieted to hear the princess speak. After peering out into the crowd, the princess seemed satisfied with the level of attention.
“Good evening, everyone,” Catra began quietly. “Today marks the first ball since my parents’ passing, King Jaime and Queen C’yra of Half Moon. Their reign was one that defined loyalty, bravery, and purpose.” Catra locked eyes with the crowd, daring anyone to challenge that claim.
“Unfortunately, our kingdom is at a crossroads. Years of war and strife has taken many of our brothers and sisters, stripped our lands bare of food, and held us at the mercy of outsiders. Today, we are only a few hundred strong. As your Princess, it is my duty to protect our people first. With that said, tonight I announce my intentions to wed within the fortnight and to withdraw our kingdom from ties with the rebellion. For our safety and the survival of our people, we must focus on the reconstruction of our kingdom first and foremost. That is all. Please, enjoy the rest of the festivities on behalf of Half Moon.”
Murmurs immediately broke out around the room as music resumed abruptly, almost as if to cover up the awkwardness after the sudden announcement of the kingdom’s separation from the rebellion it has been part of for the better part of two decades.
Adora’s eyes snapped to Glimmer in shock, before Bow materialized at their side.
“Guys, what in holy hell is happening?!” Bow said in a poorly hushed tone.
“Adora, did you know about this?” Glimmer asked, hurt obvious on her face.
“No! Not at all! There...there has to be a reason for all of this. I mean, I knew our kingdom was struggling, but Catra never said it was at this grand a scale. I can talk to her.”
“You have to. Half Moon makes up a fifth of the rebellion’s forces, not to mention the fact that they are the only kingdom that can hold the rebellion’s position over the Whispering Woods! Shit, my mom is is going to kill me.”
“Right...” Adora said, her mind far away. She was too confused by the secrecy behind Catra’s actions tonight. They were best friends...they always advised each other when it came to these things. “I’ll catch up with you guys in the morning. I need to go.” The trio hugged and bade their goodbyes with promises to meet soon before Bow and Glimmer would leave to inform the rest of the princess alliance.
After they left, Adora’s eyes landed on the young ruler. Adora had never felt so far from understanding Catra than in that exact moment, with a room full of people between them and the princess sitting high on her throne. Hand perched on the arm of her chair, legs crossed, with a practiced indifference, everything about her screamed that she was unbothered. The only giveaway was the intensity of her eyes and the depth of their pain.