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Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Two

Nettie

“Tell me there’s a good reason you have weapons pointed anywhere in the direction of this woman,” Vokal snarled, hand swept back to keep Nettie behind him.

Dammit.

She’d figured there would be some fuss about her slipping off, but this was overkill.

Vokal hadn’t been too terrible about letting her have the controls while they swooped back to Tirus’s tower, and she’d carefully watched as he guided the airsled to the high-perched landing bay, noting the step she’d skipped before.

Good to know.

It had been a fantastic outing, but now a wall of muscle and weaponry stood before her.

Vokal sprang between her and the Enforcers, shoulders rolling back as if ready to launch himself at them with only the knife he held in his hand.

Only Matilde seemed to view Vokal’s arrival with anything less than hostility.

Interesting.

Especially since other than Tirus, Matilde was the only one who’d spent time with him.

She lightly touched the black scales that covered Vokal’s upper arm, muscles bulging from the opening of the vest.

“I’m not entirely certain it’s me they’re pointing at,” she said softly. “But it’s alright, all the same.”

It would have to be alright. After everything, she would have to make it be.

She swallowed hard, forcing her chin up as she stepped out from behind Vokal’s broad shoulders.

Silly man.

“I went to find him, because he needs to be a part of this discussion,” Nettie explained, ignoring the furious glares of the men arrayed against her.

Instead she focused on the people who understood her past, at least as well as anyone could.

The women that would be able to understand her future.

She hoped.

Nic took a deep breath. “Why do you think he needs to be involved?” he managed to only barely not growl.

Vokal ignored him, turned to Tirus. “What’s going on with Cygni III? Have you checked in on Getta?”

Tirus blinked. “How in all of the ancestors do you know about that?”

From the side where she stood, Nettie could feel Vokal’s shoulders brace as if for a blow.

“I’m not completely worthless,” he said softly. “I’ve always kept in touch with Getta. She wrote to let me know when she was moving, was excited about starting a new life, new possibilities.”

“So much for your confidential project,” Gavin said, arms crossed as he scowled. “Does your entire Empire know about it?”

Despite herself, Nettie stepped slightly closer to Vokal.

Gavin could be kind and funny.

But you didn’t need a Gift to sense the rage that simmered underneath his skin.

She cursed at herself. Flinching back from a friend, or the very least, an ally, wasn’t going to help anything, especially since Vokal now seemed even angrier.

But whatever the men were going to yell at each other was interrupted by the appearance of one angry cat.

Coracle came stalking out from between Adena and Rhela, tail poofed out and thrashing angrily as he made a beeline for her. “You left. You left and didn’t have a tracker on. You left and…”

The cat seemed to notice the slightly battered air sled for the first time.

“You stole one of the air sleds?”

Nettie shrugged slightly, spreading her hands. “Borrowed it for a little bit? The controls didn’t seem that complicated.”

Sasha bit back a snort of laughter, then released it, and the tension around the room eased, just a bit.

“While we’re deciding what’s going on,” Tirus announced, arm wrapping protectively around his mate’s shoulders. “Why don’t we all go inside where we are more comfortable? At least, that’s where my lady and I will be.”

And with that he turned his back to the assembled company and headed towards the lift.

And still, everyone’s eyes were on Nettie. The men, hard and questioning.

The woman, even those she trusted, uncertain, concerned about her new outburst of independence.

Vokal must have noticed her hesitation. He bent his arm out towards her, making a shallow bow and flourish with his other hand.

“Shall we join them?”

With something that was close to amusement burbling through her chest, she slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow.

“That does seem to be the best answer.”

As they walked past the men of the garrison and their mates, she could sense the worry rolling off of Adena. The woman was born to worry, especially for a patient.

Of much more immediate concern was the speculation in both Diahnne — no, Esme now — and Sasha’s eyes.

Adena might have healed her body, but those two knew her soul, as much as anyone did.

They weren’t going to like this.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when they flanked her, joining herself and Vokal in the lift.

As the doors slid closed Sasha grabbed her free hand, ignoring Vokal completely.

“Just between us, are you all right?” she demanded.

Nettie squeezed Sasha’s strong fingers and did her best to smile reassuringly. “I am. There’s just something I need to do.”

Esme and Sasha exchanged worried glances as the lift came to a stop and the doors opened.

None of them moved.

“Something you need to do, like your Gift coming back?”

Nettie shook her head. “Not exactly. Better.”

***

The room filled with soft chairs and low tables that had been arranged for Sasha’s return was disturbed, almost lonely.

Nettie regretted causing the change of atmosphere.

It had been warm, friendly as Sasha passed around the presents from her unexpected journey, telling them all about life out in the stars.

The mood now was grimmer, the brightly colored scarves tossed across chair backs.

Nettie bent to pick hers up, stroking the soft fabric, tracing her fingers over the blue and green pattern.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to make such a fuss. But soon the discussion would turn to Cygni, and not everyone was here.”

Nic and the rest of the men from the garrison filed into the room from the lift, moving to stand by their mates.

Merren slid an arm around Sasha’s waist, bending slightly to kiss the curve of her neck where it met her shoulder.

Then he straightened, eyes slightly narrowed.

“What do you know about Cygni, and why did you think someone else should be involved?”

She didn’t need to look around to feel Vokal step behind her.

“You heard him just a moment ago,” she answered. “He’s in contact with one of the settlers there. As for how I knew,” she raised her hands, let them fall to her sides limply. “That’s not particularly easy to answer.”

“I’m at least glad to see Vokal here,” Matilde announced. A wicked grin lit her face. “I think he’ll make a fabulous babysitter when it’s time.”

A slight twitch passed over Tirus’s face, but he made no comment other than to waive his brother towards the chair.

Instead of sitting, Vokal moved to stand behind it, waiting.

With a roll of her eyes, Nettie sat down.

“What do you know about Cygni?” Merren said.

“Not much about the colony itself,” Vokal began, his low voice soothing to the frayed edges of Nettie’s nerves.

She glanced at Esme, wondered how the conflicting wash of emotions felt to her friend.

A Gift wasn’t needed to decipher the tension and anger running through this room.

“Getta’s been in touch with me for years, ever since she retired,” Vokal added, and Tirus grinned. “Haven’t you been writing to her too?”

Matilde leaned back in her chair, looked up at her mate with raised eyebrows. “Who is this Getta? Should I be worried?”

Tirus laughed. “Getta was one of our caretakers when our batch was young. If you have anything you’re wondering about, feel free to ask Edris. She’s Edris’s mother.”

“Oh!” Matilde’s eyes widened as her hands flew to her mouth.

“She’s been in Imperial service for decades,” Vokal said. “She retired, but didn’t seem to enjoy it. Apparently life was a little too quiet after dealing with all of us.”

“So she volunteered for the colony program?” Nic asked. “From my understanding, there weren’t many comforts to be found on the planet they chose for the experiment. The settlers would have been starting almost from scratch.”

“It didn’t seem to bother her,” Vokal said.

Nettie tried to imagine this woman, who’d been a sort of surrogate mother for a rowdy family of princelings.

She deserved her retirement, no matter what form she chose to take it in.

“And now, I need an explanation.” Vokal’s voice hardened. “What is going on with Cygni?”

Tirus ran his fingers through his short wiry hair. “We don’t know. Those two,” he pointed to Merren and Sasha, “just got back from some sort of mission, and along the way ran into a particularly nasty individual.”

“Someone from the Rakian Alliance?” Vokal asked.

“No.” Merren answered. “Someone who’s decided playing the Alliance and the Empire against each other provides too many opportunities to miss.”

“And it sounds as if she thinks the colony on Cygni is either a threat, or an opportunity,” Sasha said. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to get much in the way of details. We were kind of busy trying not to get killed. Tirus has all the data we were able to pull.”

“The encryption is disturbingly good,” Tirus scowled. “It may be days or weeks even before I can crack it.” He nodded to Kennet. “Even with your assistance.”

“What are you planning to do about it?” Vokal said. “I can send a comm to Getta, but her responses are often delayed. By the time she got back to us with any information, the threat could already be too close to defend against.”

“We’re going to have to go there,” Nettie announced. “It’s the only way.”

Silence filled the room.

“The colony is off-limits to any one other than the volunteers that have been vetted by the cooperative council,” Nic explained slowly. “There’s a network of satellites monitoring it for any interference. We can’t just pop in for a visit.”

“And until we know who Nyseth has brought over to her camp, neither of us can go up our respective chains of command,” Tirus finished.

Nettie shrugged. “Surely Getta would be permitted to have a visit from her son and his new wife?”

Vokal’s hand brushed her shoulder lightly. “She could, but other than Edris, she doesn’t have any children. Her sons were killed fighting.”

None of the Enforcers look the least bit guilty at the words, and Nettie didn’t expect them to.

This war that had dragged on for generations between the Rakian Alliance and the Empire had killed far more than just one woman’s children.

“I didn’t mean her actual son, silly.”

Nettie wondered if she should have tried talking more often in the last few months.

She hadn’t felt like it, her mind and body far too wrapped up in healing, and processing the horrors of the years that she had been held captive by Brayden.

But maybe if she had talked more often, the room wouldn’t fall silent and shocked every time she said what seemed perfectly obvious.

Or maybe it was something else.

Because the only person, or even cat, who responded to her reasonable, logical suggestion was Vokal.

And he was wheezing with laughter.

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