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Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Four

Nettie

“I think we need to go have our own council,” Matilde announced as the Rakian warriors stood around the table, still discussing strategy long after Tirus and Vokal had left the room.

She rose slowly, the swell of her belly obviously causing a shift to her center of gravity that she hadn’t quite gotten used to yet.

For a moment, Nettie let the familiar twinge of sorrow sweep through her, then carefully wrapped it and packed it away.

“I’ve prepared your sitting room, milady,” the gray-scaled Kuseonian woman said as she unobtrusively slid a hand under Matilde’s elbow.

“Of course you have,” Matilde answered. “You should be a part of this discussion, I think.”

Nettie looked around at the gathering of women, all talented in their own ways, all foraged by Crucible in ways that the founders had never expected.

Yes.

 A council of war would be most appropriate.

“I’m sorry to cause so much trouble,” she said softly as the group moved toward one of the tower’s elevators.

“Nonsense,” snapped Zuri. “I don’t think the Empire and Alliance even know what they’re fighting about anymore. They must’ve realized that fact to just start this sort of experiment, letting people from both sides try to live together.”

“Nyseth certainly knows what she’s doing,” Sasha said, rubbing at her neck. “She and whoever she’s planning with have every intention of making as much chaos as they can, and exploiting every crack they can find. I’ve got no doubt about that.”

She looked at Nettie, her face tight with worry. “Whatever you do, if you’re going, you need to not underestimate her. She looks human, and might be for all I know. But there’s a vicious mind running the show.”

The elevator opened and Edris herded the women, Coracle trailing, to a brightly decorated sitting room.

A group of plushly upholstered chairs was drawn into a circle, with small tables set between them.

Nettie sat, easing into the softness. Sasha and Esme took up the positions beside her, and some of the ice around her heart cracked just a little, her eyes prickling.

Matilde shot a look at Edris. “You, too,” she ordered.

With something that might have been mistaken for a smile, the Kuseonian woman tapped at a panel on the door, and within a moment, another chair had been brought in, the circle expanded, and all the women sat as an uneasy silence fell across the room.

“Are you sure you need to do this?” Rhela broke the silence, much to Nettie’s surprise.

She’d seldom interacted with the shy, soft-spoken gardener.

But the woman’s forehead was creased, her lips pressed together in sincere worry. “You don’t know anyone there and, if your Gift is gone, I don’t know what you think you can do?”

Matilde raised her eyebrows. “A Gift isn’t always necessary in order to kick the universe in the pants.”

Rhela’s hands fluttered in front of her. “Of course not, I didn’t mean that. Just, it sounds like it’s going to be dangerous. And you’re just now getting better.”

Nettie smothered a giggle that even to her own mind would have sounded slightly hysterical.

Adena’s healing Gift and repeated treatments in the garrison’s regeneration pods had healed the scars on her body and had given her some measure of sight back into her damaged left eye.

But better?

She was never going to be better.

“If a war does break out, we’re all going to be involved,” she said. “Especially all of us. Crucible has resources both sides are going to want, even need if the fighting picks up. And do you think the commanders on either side are going to let us all live here in peace?”

Sasha scowled. “I’d be willing to bet the assholes in Central Command are going to yank our guys back into the middle of wherever the heaviest action is.” She grabbed a small sandwich from the side table and bit into it savagely. “And I wouldn’t put it past them to try to order our mates to leave us behind.”

Adena’s eyebrows rose as she sipped her tea, then her nose wrinkled and she pushed it away.

“They can try.”

Edris rose swiftly, disappeared for a moment, and returned with a fresh cup that she pushed into the healer’s hands.

Adena didn’t seem to notice the substitution, but she took a second sip without complaint. “After the events of the last few months, none of our guys are feeling particularly eager to accept orders without questions.” She took another sip.

“Lots of questions.” Zuri tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I know Kennet has been working with Ship, tracing through every possible weakness in its,” she trailed off, then threw her hands in the air. “Something like its mind. Honestly, even now, sometimes he starts talking and I just smile and nod. It’s easier than him trying to explain.”

Coracle sprang into Nettie’s lap, then turned himself around three times and settled down.

“Ship and I share what could be termed an artificial brain,” the cat explained. “While we function as independent entities, it is true that our original programming was executed at the orders of Central Command.”

He licked a paw and smoothed back the fur behind his ears. “I dislike anyone tinkering with my higher functions, but I agree, Kennet’s inspection needs to be done.”

Silence descended again on the circle. Nettie wondered what each woman was thinking about the possible upcoming war, what it would mean to them.

Would they be separated from their mates?

Would Adena and Matilde be on opposite sides?

“If you’re going to go, we need to get started packing,” Esme finally announced. “First off, you’re going to need weapons. Lots of them.”

Edris shook her head. “From what I understand from my mother’s letters, weapons are expressly forbidden to the colonists. So we will have to be very cunning, won’t we?”

Sasha leaned forward. “Are you sure your mother will be alright with this?” she asked, her voice slightly strained. “It seems like we’ll be putting her into danger just by Vokal and Nettie being there. It doesn’t seem fair, not without her agreement.”

Edris’s eyebrows raised slightly. “I am fairly certain that if one of her charges were sent into danger and she was not allowed to help, my mother would take it as a grave offense.” She smiled suddenly. “And my mother is far less easy-going than I am.”

Matilde sputtered into her tea. “Well, that’s settled then.”

Warmth spread through Nettie’s chest as the seven women arrayed around her began to plan her invasion of the colony world, weighing and discarding options with all the seriousness of generals at a campaign.

Esme leaned across the small table separating their chairs to take her hand. “You’re certain about this?” she asked in a whisper.

“I always have been. The stars themselves are calling,” Nettie answered. “And this time, nothing will stop me.”

***

Dressed in a comfortable pair of pants, a knee-length shirt, and a form-fitting tank top beneath, Nettie hoisted the backpack to her shoulders, her head still aching from her session in what Sasha and Matilde had called the ‘learning pod of doom’.

“Remember,” Adena said. “When Nic starts arguing, let me handle him.”

“You sound pretty certain that he’s going to object,” Nettie said, shifting the weight on her back until it felt comfortable, trying not to think too much about her next steps.

This was right, she knew it was right.

But she’d thought that once before.

Her stomach clenched.

“That man has it in his head that it is his job to protect everyone and everything from everything else,” Adena laughed. “You’re part of the family now, so I suspect he’s going to be especially growly.”

The smile flickered on Nettie’s face before she pasted it back into place.

Part of the family.

That was… different.

Sasha and Esme moved to either side of her. “But if this is what you want,” Sasha began. “Then we’ll make sure it’s what happens,” Esme finished.

Edris took both of Nettie’s hands in her own. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Nettie protested.

“Still, I feel better knowing that someone is there to check on my mother.” The Kuseonian woman squeezed her fingers. “Much better when that someone isn’t me to be scolded.”

Together, the women took the elevator to the top of the tower.

No one was surprised to find the men assembled in the hangar bay.

“What are you doing?” Vokal said, moving away from the small teardrop-shaped craft he’d been inspecting.

It was him, his voice, his form. But still, it took her a moment to understand the change to his coloring. It was almost like a ghost had stepped out from his shadow.

She reached her hand to stroke down his cheek.

“You’re still you,” she said, and his eyes widened as he froze into stillness at her touch. “Do you think your friend will still recognize you?”

Tirus laughed. “We could be dressed up as Xandorians, and Getta would see right through our disguises.”

“What are you planning?” Vokal asked her in an undertone.

“You promised,” she answered him. “And I’m ready.”

“What exactly did you promise?” Nic began, his arms crossed stiffly across his chest.

Adena stepped to stand before her mate. “Sweetheart,” she said, resting her hands on his forearms. “You’re not going to like this, but it’s not actually any of your business, is it?”

To Nettie’s amusement, Nic’s nostrils flared as his head reared back. “How is it not my business? You are saying that sending a civilian off to a potential battlezone is a good idea? After everything that you’ve –”

He broke off quickly.

“After everything that I’ve done?” Adena finished for him sweetly. “My job is to heal people that need it. They are under no obligation to keep themselves locked away as some sort of payment.” She raised an eyebrow. “Unless you and your brothers are all planning to take up gardening as a hobby?”

Tirus coughed. “I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s much harder than it looks.”

He broke off as Matilde kicked him lightly in the shin. “It was a metaphor,” she hissed.

“How was I supposed to know?” he whispered back.

“Yes, but,” Nic tried to continue, frowning.

“It’s going to be dangerous,” Gavin rumbled.

“For all we know, it’s going to be very dangerous. And that’s just the problem, we don’t have enough information,” Jormoi added.

“More dangerous than what’s already been done to me?” Nettie responded.

She stepped toward the sleek curves of the small ship and imagined it racing through the sky. Then she let her mind fill with image of the stars waiting and hoped it would be enough to drown out the terror pooling in the pit of her stomach.

“I’ve spent far too many years in a cage. No one’s going to put me back in one.”

Vokal stood by her side, carefully not touching her, but close enough she could feel him, feel his warmth.

The terror subsided just a bit.

Tirus held his arm out and, after a surprised pause, Vokal reached toward him, clasping forearms. “Good hunting.”

Matilde sniffed, her eyes shining.

“You both better come back without a scratch. I mean it. I’ve got you down for babysitting duty and I’m not going to let you skip out on it. And–”

She turned to bury her head against Adena’s shoulder. “Sorry. Hormones.”

“We’ve tried to allow for twice the number of surveillance satellites than we’re aware of, out of a preponderance of caution,” Tirus told Vokal. “The optimal flight path has been programmed into the navigation system, but depending on what you find when you get there, you may have to make adjustments.”

Vokal snorted. “Believe it or not, making things up as I go along will finally serve me well.”

Nettie looked around the hangar at the mix of worry and nerves running from face to face.

Not anger.

And if it was fear, it was only for their safety.

Coracle twined between her ankles. “I don’t like this,” he growled. “I don’t like this one bit.”

He turned to sit directly in front of Vokal, glaring up with golden eyes. “If you do not bring her back, happy and healthy and safe, I will find a way to infiltrate every computer system you will ever use in your lifetime and make your life a living hell.”

“Coracle!” Nettie and Adena admonished simultaneously.

Vokal squatted down, resting on his heels to face the black and white furry pile of fury.

“If I don’t bring her back safely, you won’t have to worry about doing anything to me,” he promised.

“Humph.” Coracle simply thrashed his tail.

“Shall we?” Vokal asked her.

It was funny.

Once you got past the scales, or the strange coloration, or the wire-like hair, or the difference in the number of fingers on the hand…

Well, that was rather a lot to ignore, wasn’t it? But once you could see past all that, it was hard not to notice the kindness in those dark eyes.

“I’ve been ready longer than you’ll ever know,” she said.

With a tap on the side of the hull, a door irised open and he helped her inside.

She turned to wave at the silent group behind them.

“Stop worrying,” she said, “this was always meant to be.”

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