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Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter One

A massive crash resounded through the forest.

Vokal cursed, the sharp edged blade he’d forced into service as an axe slipping from the end of the pole he was attempting to fashion into some sort of roof strut.

Or wall post.

Or something.

He glared around at the newly budding trees surrounding his clearing, the gentle splashing of the nearby stream, wishing to find the beast that had made the noise.

Just to kick it.

Kicking something sounded like a fine idea.

He’d declined to hunt the larger beasts of the forest, content enough with fishing, but they’d still avoided the site where he’d made his new home.

Or at least, where he was trying to.

“Probably too thin anyway,” he grumbled, stooping to pick up the pole and re-examining it.

This was attempt number twenty-seven to construct something better than the crude lean-to he’d used to wait out the last of the winter.

Some attempts had seemed like they were going to work, only to fall down on him in the middle of the night.

He much preferred the ones that collapsed before he tried to go inside.

“How can making a basic shelter be this complicated?” he muttered, casting his eye over the assortment of stripped poles laying next to each other.

They were pretty straight. He’d gotten better at it in the weeks since he’d left Tirus’s tower.

Maybe not much better, if he didn’t have to be honest with anyone else. But there was some improvement.

For a moment he remembered his own tower, the comforts and pleasures available at his fingertips.

But all of that had been lost when he was decreed to be a traitor, tossed into prison by dear brother Druval.

The loss of his tower, the stripping away of his battalion had hurt. But perhaps not as much as it should have.

For all the years he’d been addicted to Venom, it had never done him any good.

He had never shifted, never felt his wings spread, the air beneath him as he soared.

It only left him with rage and emptiness, made him unfit for anything.

Here in these woods by his stream, there was nothing but quiet.

No demands of court.

Nothing and no one but him.

He picked up the pole again, set his jaw, and resumed working.

No more than he deserved.

The lean-to was cramped, but would be fine for summer.

But he’d seen how heavily the snow still lay upon this mountain valley when he arrived.

He’d been lucky to get here at the end of winter.

He would need something considerably sturdier, and hopefully better insulated before the next winter fell.

And at the rate he was learning how to build a house, he’d need every hour he had.

Despite the slight chill still in the air he stripped down to his vest as he propped poles against each other, ramming their ends into the ground.

Then the sound of a broken branch cut through his concentration.

“Hello?”

He spun and there she was.

Nettie’s face was less thin than when he had seen her at Matilde’s strange party.

The golden haze of her healing eye had almost cleared, a bright blue to match the uninjured one shining through.

The short copper cap of her hair gleamed against her bronze skin, and she stared at him with the same even gaze that had caught him at the past winter, the gaze that still haunted his dreams.

“Are you lost?” he asked, slowly stepping towards her.

He knew something had happened to her.

Something to both her and the curly-haired woman that lived with the Enforcers.

Matilde and the other human women treated her as carefully as if they were afraid she would break with just a hard glance.

But the woman who stood before him seemed as if she was carved of stone, not crystal.

“No, but I think you are,” she said.

He froze. “No, I’m right where I woke up this morning. Where I expect to go to sleep tonight, and where I expect to spend the next day and the day after that,” he said lightly, his thoughts racing.

“But what about Cygni III?” she asked.

Hearing the name was like an unexpected slap. “What about it? How do you even know about that?”

“While you have been gone, things have changed. Things were already changing. And now,” she raised her hand to her head, stumbled.

He hurried to her side, wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her to the stump he’d taken to using as a chair, wishing for the first time since he’d taken up his exile for the luxurious furnishings of his tower.

“Here, sit,” he said as he guided her down, found the wooden cup he’d carved for himself and filled it with fresh water from the stream.

“I don’t have anything stronger here,” he apologized.

Nettie took a careful sip, then another. “I don’t think I’d want anything stronger.” She closed her eyes. “Did you ever have your life stretch out in front of you, so clearly that you could see every moment, every day as each faded into the next?”

She couldn’t see him but he nodded.

He had known that. At least, once he thought he had.

“And then you realize it’s all lies. And nothing you thought was true actually is.” She opened her eyes and he nearly flinched against the weight of her gaze. “When you go, take me with you. Promise.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said gravely.

Her eyes, blue and gold, bore into him, and he knew there was only one answer.

“I promise.” But he bowed, mocking himself, shaking off the seriousness of her words. “But I suspect the only place I’m going will be to take you back to Enforcer’s Ship.”

He frowned as the thought struck him.

He should have been several days of travel on foot away from the Rakians. Unless they had moved their garrison?

She shook her head. “Back to Tirus and Matilde’s tower would be fine, thank you.”

He blinked. That was certainly doable, although it would still be a long day’s walk. Longer, for a small human.

Who didn’t look at all like she’d been walking through the mountains for hours.

“How did you get here?”

“I flew,” she smiled again, and for just a moment he thought he could see laughter behind the mask.

“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked, a small sliver of worry working its way through his mind.

“All sorts of things, I assure you,” she answered, then rose to her feet. “But this isn’t much of a secret.”

Slipping his knife back into its sheath, he followed her as she retraced her steps, out of the clearing and through the trees.

Even as she moved before him, slipping between the branches like a vision, he wondered.

Maybe this was another effect of the Venom leaving his system?

There was no way this fragile human woman could be here, leading him to some mystery.

She’d caught his attention before, she’d been in his mind.

That was all there was to it.

None of this was real.

And still, he followed her.

“Here we are,” she stopped and he caught up, staring in disbelief over her shoulder. “The landing wasn’t exactly smooth.”

Landed wasn’t the right word.

An aircraft leaned into the ground, tilted nose-down into the soft turf of a hill, broken branches all around it.

Not just any aircraft.

An Enforcer airsled.

“You took one of their vehicles?” he managed to sputter, walking towards the craft, part of his mind checking for damage, the rest of him still reeling in shock.

“It was the most fun I’ve had in I don’t know how long,” she admitted. “Even if coming back down was a little bumpier than I’d planned.”

She stepped towards the lip of the side, began to tug. “I don’t know what I did wrong,” she muttered.

He moved to her side, and with a steady pull freed the airsled from its unfortunate resting place.

Glancing at the controls he nodded. Fairly straightforward. As long as nothing had been damaged.

That would be more than his knife would be able to handle.

Before he could stop her, Nettie had scrambled over the side, slim fingers deftly flicking through the power up routine.

She glanced at him over her shoulder, that startling particolored gaze striking him again. “Aren’t you coming?”

 With a grin he vaulted in behind her. Whatever was happening, whatever she wanted, it would surely be more interesting than a hut falling on his head again.

“Only if you let me pilot,” he cautioned.

“Maybe.”

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