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Desired by the Dark Prince: Chapter Four

The color was back in her face.

The cage of ice that had wrapped around his chest ever since he saw her on the monitor, crumpled in pain, slowly eased.

“But you’re going to have to pick just one name,” Matilde said, watching carefully. “Two, at the tops.”

Still defiant, pain and shock had done nothing to quell that spark.

The beast that now coiled in the back of his head preened, pleased.

He had chosen well.

“Then Tirus it shall be.” He bowed again, less dramatically this time. “To be honest, no one ever uses all of the names. Not unless I’m in trouble.”

She smiled, just a bit, just enough to make him determined to see that softening again.

“Glad that’s consistent, even in the Empire.”

“There may be other things the Empire has in common with your world,” he said. “But first, while I know I have promised you answers, I’ve also promised the return of your companion. If I may?”

She nodded quickly, the look of stress reappearing on her face. “Yes, please find him,” she said softly. “Even, even if he didn’t make it, I want to know.”

His jaw ached but he kept the pleasant smile fixed as he sent commands to Lorrik from the room’s comm unit. He had a disturbing suspicion that the remains of his old unit would be found with his shredded uniform at the base of the tower.

“I believe it was a very slight chance that injured you. A creature so small would have found a hiding space.”

Her brows still drew together, the thin line between them calling for him to smooth it out.

Tirus finished the message, and locked his hands safely behind his back.

“Now, I do not know how much you have been told of the tension between my people and those that your cousin has allied herself with.”

Matilde raised an eyebrow. “Enough to know that it’s more than just ‘tension’. Much more.”

He nodded in acknowledgment. “The war between us is long, complicated, almost rooted in tradition. I am not entirely certain it actually benefits either side.”

The dark eyebrow was still raised. “So, you’re here to do what? Negotiate a treaty?”

Tirus almost laughed, wishing he could see his father’s face at the very idea. “Not exactly. I came here on a project of my own. But since I arrived, I’ve decided I need someone to act as an interpreter for me,” he started.

Matilde shook her head slowly. “I’m not buying it. It sounds like you speak our language just fine.”

Of course he did.

Perfectly.

As he would whatever other language he needed to speak.

What he needed her for… surely there had to be a better way of explaining.

He just hadn’t thought of it yet.

There was no good way to explain.

He had to come up with something, anything to make her stay.

He’d thought there would be more time.

And that he wouldn’t be this close to naked, which wasn’t doing his concentration any good.

“Perhaps a liaison is a better word. Someone to go between my world, and the Alliance.”

She shook her head again.

“I’ve never done much traveling. It sounds like fun, but that can’t be what you want me for.”

“Aargh!” he threw his hands up. Why did this have to be so complicated?

He stalked through the room, wishing there was something he could kick.

Matilde didn’t seem disturbed in the slightest by his show of temper, simply watching him, waiting for it to blow out of his system.

“Let me try again,” he said as he circled back to the foot of her bed, hands gripping the delicately carved footboard.

“Your cousin became the first woman of Crucible to interact with the men of the garrison ship, correct?”

Matilde nodded slowly. “It wasn’t exactly her choice, but yes.”

“And in that time, has any harm come to her from her connection with the garrison ship? Or the men within it?”

“No.” Matilde’s voice trailed off doubtfully.

“Then I am requesting the same arrangement.”

Matilde shoved herself out of the bed so fast he hadn’t realized she was even moving, and grabbed the regenerator and held it between them as if she would find a way to turn it into a weapon.

He had no doubt that she would.

“I’m not going to be part of any sort of arrangement,” she snarled. “I wouldn’t let my father give me away to one of his Deacon friends and you don’t get me, either.”

Tirus scrambled his thoughts backwards, trying to find what had gone so terribly wrong.

This was made more difficult by the necessity of dodging the bits of the regenerator Matilde had torn off and was now throwing at him with considerable accuracy.

Especially without the built-in armor of his uniform….

Oh, thark.

“No!” He held his hands up. “Not like that. An arrangement where you act as a bridge between my tower and the garrison ship. That’s all.”

Liar, hissed the beast coiling in the back of his mind.

But if she stays, it will do.

“You will come to no harm here,” he said. “Not from me, not from anyone.”

“And I’ll get no help here, either,” she snapped. “Those people, they knew I was hurt. Why didn’t they even answer me?”

Tirus took a tentative step forward, then another when she didn’t throw any more parts of the regenerator at him.

“That was my fault entirely. I had said that you were not to be disturbed or touched.” He spread his arms out widely. “I am afraid that my commands are often taken rather literally.”

She sagged, remnants of the ravaged medical device falling to the floor. “You have got to be kidding me.”

He took another step forward, reached his hand out toward her, and gestured toward the bed.

To his relief, she let him lead her back to it, and he saw her settled again.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, my lady. But if you can avoid putting pressure on your leg until it finishes healing,” and he took a quick glance at the regenerator unit, “and refrain from destroying the machinery, I will rest easier.”

“I’ll consider it.” She drummed her fingers on the top of the comforter. “So, I’ve heard what you want. What are you offering?”

“Anything you want,” he blurted.

She shook her head. “If we ever meet with my brother, you’d better let me do the talking.”

He leaned against the wall, wishing for his mask. It would be too easy to let his expression slip, to show his excitement.

Perhaps she was right, he should practice more at being bare faced. He’d been away from the Court for too long.

“It may sound extravagant, but I can, in fact, give you almost anything you’d imagine.”

“Really.” Her eyes narrowed. “What if I wanted to be Empress?”

Surely she couldn’t see his heart race, just from his uncovered face. Could she?

“I could introduce you to my father, but I understand the job is particularly taxing,” he managed.

She snorted. “I’ll bet it is. And I wouldn’t want that anyway. In all the books, the rulers have to sit around and be polite all day. I’d be terrible at it.”

“It’s not exactly my strong suit, either.”

“Your habit of kidnapping people is frowned on?

A snort escaped before he could stop it. “No, that’s part of a time-honored tradition back home. The line between our diplomats and assassins is fairly thin.”

“Never mind. I don’t think I want to be Empress.” Her stomach rumbled, and she flushed, her eyes closing.

“We will take a break in negotiations to get you something more substantial than tea,” he decided, tapping orders into his comm unit.

“That’s not really necess–” Her stomach disagreed. Loudly.

Before she could object again, hooded servants swept into the room, silently bearing trays of small silver dishes.

A narrow, high table was slipped over the foot of her bed, the trays laid quietly upon it.

Then they disappeared again, as quickly as they’d arrived.

“Who are those people?” Matilde asked as the last vanished through the doorway.

“Just zakari — servants,” he answered, watching the line reappear between her eyebrows. “I promise, they will not harm you.”  He found the bowl of layal nestled between more extravagant offerings. “Here, this was my favorite when I was small.”

She took it and sniffed appreciatively. “Vegetable soup? And that was your favorite, even in a palace?”

He nodded. “There’s one root that would not digest well for you, but otherwise the recipe is the same as when I was a child. More dacco for me.”

Matilde sipped slowly, her gaze ranging over the other dishes. “What are the rest of them?”

“Leaves from the recor tree, harvested from Ganno. Noodles spiced with teraccat, a specialty of Parn. Braised eera, from…” he paused. “I can’t remember, but it’s tasty. Try some.”

“That’s what I want,” she announced, sitting up straight from the pile of pillows.

“The eera?” It was very tasty, but that didn’t account for the sudden gleam in her eyes.

“No. Knowledge. Everything you’ve just casually said that implies an entire network of trade, spanning between different worlds. The technology required to create such a thing. All out there. All out of our reach because we don’t even know what questions to ask.”

He set down the bowl of eera. “Knowledge is a broad and general concept, but I can have tutors brought for you, for whatever subject you wish.”

She shook her head fiercely. “Not for me. At least, not just for me. For the town. I want a school. A proper school, like you must have had.”

Before he could correct her, she waved her hand.

“No, not that, not yet. You would have started your education with a fundamental grasp of things that we can’t even imagine.”

Her eyes focused on something he couldn’t see, and he took the forgotten, half-empty bowl of layal from her hands before she spilled it.

“I want something that will build the foundation. Show the children the next stage, and the next, until they can take their place out there in the stars, without any shame about their roots.”

“There is no shame in starting where you are,” he said softly. “And if a school is what you want, then that’s what you shall have.”

“Teachers, too,” she added quickly. “A building full of tools that we can’t operate will do us no good.”

“Agreed.”

She lay back again, and he handed her the layal. She sipped at it absently. “How long have I been here?”

“Three of your days,” he answered, holding his breath, waiting for her reaction to this new bit of information.

“Nobody knows where I am?”

“It seems unlikely. No one knows that I’m on Crucible at all. It would be a stretch for them to guess that you were with me.”

She grinned, shaking her head. “You better tell someone quickly, before Adena has Nic tear this world apart. She may seem all nice and sweet, but when she’s riled up–”

The tension that had coiled in his gut for those three days, ever since he’d found her close to death in her ruined house, spilled out in a long bellow of laughter. “I’m so sorry, but I would never mistake the chosen mate of the head of a Rakian Enforcer unit as nice and sweet.”

He lost himself laughing again, then pulled himself upright.

“Yes, once you have refreshed yourself, I will send a message. But I would like to know what to tell them. Will you stay with me?”

Her eyes narrowed. “For how long?”

She watched him, those clear hazel eyes staring at him until it felt as if his skin had been flayed, as if she could see every thought in his mind, every beat of his heart.

You had better hope not, his beast whispered.

“Half the year,” he offered.

She shook her head decisively. “Three months, and I can leave any time.”

“Four months, and the moment you are uncomfortable, you will be sent home, with protection. And the school will be built to your specifications, no matter what.”

“Adena is not going to like this,” Matilde said softly.

“I don’t think any of them will,” Tirus answered. “But I do have something that may sweeten their tempers.”

***

“You seem remarkably calm about this.”

Tirus slid open the hatch for the light cruiser, keeping his hand steady in case Matilde needed it as she entered the cockpit.

The long gown the replicator had created at her direction seemed designed to trip a person as they walked, but she whisked the deep green skirts to the side, tucking them under her with the ease of long practice as she sat.

“As you said, my cousin is Nic’s mate. I don’t like their airsleds, but I will admit they’re useful. I assume this is some sort of variant.”

Despite himself, Tirus’s lips pursed.

“Their battle sleds are nothing more than crude vehicles, simply designed to get the pilot from one point to another as quickly as possible, with no consideration for elegance or comfort.”

He checked the back of the craft, ensured that his cargo was well secured, then seated himself at the controls, happily reclothed in a fresh, non-shredded uniform.

“This is an Imperial shuttle I’ve modified for my own use. It is comfortable, graceful, and safe.” He shot her a grin. “And still very, very fast.”

His hand hovered over the control that would rocket them out of the hangar.

“Milady, there is a harness attached to your seat. If you would slide your arms through the straps, then buckle the middle of each in front of your chest, you will be more secure.”

Within seconds she had the harness fastened, and Tirus felt a brief glimmer of disappointment.

It wouldn’t have been terrible to help her out. Not at all.

She peered at the darkened viewscreen. “I’ll admit the seats are more comfortable, but I’m not sure how that’s going to make things any safer,” she commented. “How do you see where you’re going?”

“Only because we’re not flying yet.”

At his touch, the ship shot forward, angling up into the sky and racing away from his tower. The instant it moved, viewscreens cleared all around them. In moments they were far over the eastern plains, snow covering the ground as far as he could see.

Matilde’s hands were over her mouth, her eyes wide.

“I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”

She turned to him, and slowly her hands fell, revealing the grin that stretched from ear to ear. “Don’t be sorry. Do that again.”

“I would be more than happy to do so, but first, let us send a message.” But he didn’t move.

“Is there something wrong?”

“Before we speak to the others, I have a favor to ask of you.”

“You want another deal?” she asked.

“I have already offered you anything you want,” he answered. “That does not leave me much else to exchange. This is only a request.”

She nodded and, slightly encouraged, he continued. “As you know, the Alliance and the Empire have been at odds for a number of years. It is our tradition that our faces are not seen by our enemies.”

Her head tilted. What was she thinking?

Someday he’d be able to tell. Maybe.

But not now. Not yet.

“I would request that you say nothing to the others about either seeing my face or,” he paused, “my other form.”

“Do they not know about that either?” she asked.

“I do not know. It is possible, but such things are private, not to be shared with outsiders.”

She plucked at the fabric of her skirts, considering. “It seems odd that you were watching, waiting, just in case I needed you.” She looked up again, gaze level and cold. “Do you swear that you had nothing to do with what happened?”

His gloved fist struck his chest. “Gladly. I had nothing to do with that. Your friends have more information as to what occurred in the explosion than I do. I am entirely innocent.”

Of this, he added silently. But her half-smile told him she was perfectly aware of the limits of his oath.

“Fine. I won’t say anything.” She scowled. “But I don’t like that mask thing. You have to promise not to wear it when it’s just us.”

Just the two of them.

That had a promising sound.

“I promise.”

High above the plains, they circled as he drew up a communications panel, tapped in the code that should insert his message into the garrison ship’s communications.

That bit of information had cost him.

And now it was going to be terribly worthwhile.

“I do not know who you are or how you have achieved the passcode for this frequency, however–” the pale striped analyst of the group broke off. “Lady Matilde, are you well?”

Tirus gave the Enforcer credit for that, at least.

“I’m fine,” Matilde said. “But is it possible to talk to Adena?” She glanced over at Tirus. From behind his mask, he could only hope she saw his smile.

“And probably Nic. And probably… well, probably everybody.”

Kennet’s eyes studied them, his face giving nothing away.

“Of course. Please wait a moment while I gather the others.”

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