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Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Five

Vokal

“I always suspected that my brother’s research wasn’t quite as theoretical as he made it out to be.”

“What do you mean by that?” Nettie asked, sliding into the seat at the side of the narrow cockpit.

Vokal’s chest tightened.

This was madness. She shouldn’t be here.

A promise without knowing the consequences shouldn’t be binding, should it?

His hands rested on the controls, for a moment still like someone else’s, then he shook himself and focused on the moment.

“My scholarly brother has been building the perfect spy ship, coated with a film that should deflect any sensors, and an engine designed to run silently and fast.” He began the power up routine, then checked and rechecked the stats. “We would still show up on a visual survey. But if I do this right, there won’t be any possibility.”

She nodded, her brow furrowed as she watched him. “How long will it take to get there?”

“Longer than it took for you to retrieve me,” he said dryly as they shot out of the hangar, blazing through the atmosphere into the cool darkness of space.

“But not by much.” He reached for the control that would send them into fold and she shot her hand out, her eyes fixed to the viewscreen.

“Then can we wait, just for a moment? I want to see the stars.”

As she stared, her face softened, her hand stretching toward the viewscreen as if she could touch the galaxies just beyond her grasp.

A tear ran down her cheek unnoticed, then she nodded.

“Alright, let’s go.”

Without another word, he hit the control that would sweep them into the golden haze of fold space.

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, to find her already laughing at him.

“If you’re going to ask me if that is what it looks like if I close my right eye, it’s close enough.”

His shoulders relaxed slightly.

“I hadn’t wanted to ask for details,” he said, then threw up his hand as her face shuttered closed again. “And I’m not going to ask now. Whatever your battle was, I assume you’ve won the right to tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. And nothing more.”

She looked at him appraisingly, then nodded slowly. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s in the past. It has to be.”

They sat in silence, staring at the gold that swept over the ship, until without warning, they popped back out into the Void, only the radically different configuration of the stars before them to show they’d moved at all.

“You weren’t kidding,” Nettie breathed. “Where are we?”

“In the Thoalian sector,” Vokal said as he checked the positions of the satellites, took a quick reading of the planet below, and slid the ship back to stay safely on the dark side of the second largest moon of the four that orbited Cigni III.

“The larger moon would’ve been better,” he absently explained. “But it’s not conveniently over the landmass we need to be examining. This will have to do.”

“But how did we get here so quickly?” Nettie exclaimed, craning her head to look at the new sky around them, the black mass of the moon at their backs.

“We should be thankful that Tirus isn’t intending to release this particular engine design to the public anytime soon.” He reconfirmed the calculations, then powered everything down except for the life support systems. “Now, we wait.”

It would take a bit over an hour for the planet to rotate below them, for the angle of their descent to match with the perfectly computed course.

He glanced at Nettie, curled up in the copilot’s chair, silently watching the stars.

And he wondered.

No one gained that sort of patience without a reason.

He’d learned it slowly, starting with the punishments of the Imperial Masters as a boy. A refresher course had been offered in the faulty regeneration chamber Tirus had locked him into when he’d lost his mind to the rages of Venom, then again when Druval had imprisoned him.

The long months of solitude in the forest had been by his own choice, had given him time to think, to consider.

What had shaped her?

With a long exhale, he pulled his thoughts back into order. Her past wasn’t his concern.

Couldn’t be.

The flash of a light on the console before him ripped him out of his thoughts, back to the present.

“You were right, the sensors have detected lifeforms clustered in the area you indicated,” he told Nettie.

She nodded, her eyes still fixed on the stars before them.

“Good guess.”

She didn’t answer that. Something else for him to add to the stack of things he wondered about.

“Here is where we have the tightest clustering of lifeforms. It must be the town.”

Nettie tapped the screen. “But she said she’s not in the town, right?”

He nodded. “There’s a scattering of inhabited buildings in a loose circle all around the population center.”

“Here are the mountains she talked about, so she must be over here,” Nettie said. “But what’s that?” she asked, pointing to the second largest cluster of lifeforms, 50 or 60 of them altogether, but confined to a small space between one of the outlying homesteads and the dark mass of a forest.

Vokal drummed his fingers. “Livestock. It’s got to be some sort of livestock.”

Nettie pointed to the building at the left side of the cluster. “Then she has to be in this one.”

Vokal shook his head. “Not necessarily. There are four buildings within reach of where the animals are kept. If the closest is the one who owns them, any of the other three could be Getta’s.”

Nettie shook her head. “No, it has to be this one. If it was the one on the other side of the chatha herder, then she would have two close neighbors. She told you it was her closest neighbor that brought her wool.”

Details. Vokal knew he needed to get better at them.

“Then that’s where we’ll head for.”

They waited in silence again as the planet rotated unseen below them.

“Were you able to tell what the problem might be below? What the threat is?” she whispered.

Vokal’s throat tightened. “No, no indication at all.” He leaned over to make sure she was still securely strapped into her seat. “I guess we’ll have to go and have an adventure after all.”

Almost a smile. He liked that.

With a flick of his fingers, he sent off the coded last message to let Tirus and the others know that they had arrived at their target, and were beginning their descent.

Three minutes didn’t seem like a very long time.

Three minutes when you’re falling toward the planet, the air catching fire around the hull of the ship as you burn through the atmosphere seemed like it should take forever.

“Thirty seconds left before the gap in their satellite coverage closes,” he said between gritted teeth, not daring to look more than a brief glance over toward Nettie where she sat rigid in her chair, her fingers digging into the arms, her face pale.

“This next part might be a little rough,” he warned her.

She forced her head to the side to stare at him.

“The next part?”

The G-forces of their rapid descent pressed against his chest, but they couldn’t shove down the wild burst of joy that always flooded his body when he was flying.

Maybe it wasn’t the same as shifting his shape and stretching his wings against the sky, but it was as close as he was ever going to get.

He knew that now.

And it was pretty damn good.

At the last possible second, he brought the nose of the spy ship up out of its dauntingly sharp bank and skimmed over the treetops, then curved back, the leaves rustling behind them until they reached the edge of the forest.

He dropped lower, hovering barely off the ground, searching.

Still moving almost too fast to make out the shapes before him, finally he spotted it.

“What are you doing?” Nettie asked, for the first time her voice holding a tremble of fear.

He slid them between the gap in the trees.

“Getting under cover. We’ll fit. I think.”

Their speed now down to its minimum, he wriggled their craft between the trees, appreciative now for the narrow body that had seemed so cramped while they’d waited for their chance.

Finally, he slowed the craft’s progress even further, then extended the landing gear and let it fall softly to the forest floor.

“Ready to go see if you’re right?” he asked.

Nettie didn’t answer.

Instead, she stared ahead, her hands gripping her harness straps tightly.

“I feel like I should be offended,” Vokal mused aloud. “I’m generally considered to be a pretty good pilot. No, I’m an excellent pilot.”

Finally, the white spots at her knuckles eased, and her hands fell into her lap.

“Did you know that the trees would be spaced widely enough for you to get in?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.

“I hoped?” He shrugged. “I’m not exactly known for thinking ahead,” he explained as he unfastened her harness and moved to the back of the craft to retrieve their bags.

“How else do you think you talked me into this mission so easily?”

She was still glaring at him when he irised open the hatch.

Twilight had faded into full dark, but the forest was filled with life, the heady scent of loamy earth filling his lungs.

“I can carry my own bag,” she said from behind him.

He leaped down and reached up to help her make the jump.

She didn’t hesitate to slide her hand into his, but barely put any weight on it before she hopped to the forest floor.

“I’m sure you can, but wouldn’t it be easier if I carried it for you?” he offered.

She kept her hand outstretched and, reluctantly, he handed her backpack over.

“What’s in there, anyway?” he asked. “It didn’t feel like much.”

“Rations and weapons,” she answered as she slipped the straps over her shoulders, shimmying slightly to adjust them. “Other things Edris thought would be useful.”

Vokal ripped his eyes away from the movement of her body.

“Weapons. Good idea.”

Groping past the large bulky package in his bag, his fingers had barely brushed the cold smooth curve of his blaster when he saw her shake her head.

“Edris says the colonists are forbidden any. So we’re going to be discreet, right?”

Vokal laughed, slung his bag on his back, and touched the knife still sheathed at his side. “Discreet isn’t anything that I’m well known for either, I’m afraid.”

He turned around, regained his bearings, and struck out in the direction of the town, then stopped as he realized Nettie had stayed still.

“What are you waiting for?”

“I can’t see anything,” she muttered. “I hadn’t expected to be traipsing through a forest at midnight.”

He hurried back to her side. “I’m sorry, is it the–” he caught himself.

She sighed. “No, this has nothing to do with my injuries. It’s just that humans, at least most of us, have pretty terrible night vision.”

She reached her hand out, and he took it, wrapping it into the crook of his elbow, surprised again at how right it felt to have her at his side.

“Then please allow me to escort you tonight, my lady.”

“Do you practice being silly?” she asked as they headed into the trees.

“That, at least, comes naturally.”

They made their way through the dark forest.

The further they traveled from the landing site, the more rustling Vokal could hear in the trees around them.

Whatever disturbance their ship’s unwelcome intrusion into the forest had caused, the birds and small creatures had quickly forgiven.

“Did you at least think ahead as to how we were going to explain our presence here?” Nettie whispered.

He paused to help her over a fallen log, ignoring the sparks that ran through his veins when his hand skimmed her hip.

“Actually, I did.” He swept the ground for further obstacles and wondered what grazed in these woods to keep the undergrowth down to such a minimum. “To be fair, Tirus did have something to do with it, as well.”

“And by something to do with it, you mean you had the idea and let him figure out the details?”

Vokal snorted. She wasn’t going to let him get away with anything, was she?

Disturbingly, that didn’t bother him much.

“Something along those lines. We’ve been granted special permission to rejoin my mother as a reward for my valiant service in the name of the Empire at the battle of Puglisi.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Actually, I can, just not often. And yes, that’s what our story is.”

“Then how are we going to explain how we got here? Shouldn’t we have landed in Getta’s front yard for everyone to see?

The canopy of trees above them had begun to thin, the pale rays of starshine silvering the long, narrow leaves, dusting the curves of Nettie’s cheeks.

“I’m a lowly soldier, I wouldn’t know the details about that,” Vokal answered, returning his attention firmly to finding the smoothest path possible through the woods, and grateful that his sense of direction had always been good.

At least, he hoped it still was. He was going to be more than embarrassed if they showed up at the wrong house.

“We were dropped off by the higher-ups and, for all we know, they did every last bit of the paperwork they needed to.”

She stumbled slightly on a tree root.

“Thark,” he cursed, “are you alright?”

“Far better than I’d be if I’d been trying this by myself, I assure you,” she said dryly. “The dark doesn’t really bother you at all?”

Vokal looked around, tried to figure out how to explain what he saw.

“It’s not like seeing things during the light. Everything is muted, dimmed. Even with the fourth moon dark, the other three would give plenty of light for me to see.”

He shrugged, then realized she wouldn’t be able to see him. He really was an idiot.

“There’s so little light pollution here I suspect that I’d be able to guide us by starlight alone if necessary. But I’m rather glad we don’t have to try it out on our first day.”

They started off again and he found the edge of the forest, the open fields stretching beyond the tree line. “As to why all the subterfuge,” he continued to explain. “It seemed like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a ship stashed somewhere that hopefully no one else knew about.”

“So you are capable of thinking ahead,” she teased, her fingers tightening slightly on his arm.

“Don’t tell anyone. They’d sign me up for all sorts of responsibilities I’m simply not interested in.”

There was no reason her muffled laugh should make him feel proud.

His plan had been a good one, even if he had left it to Tirus and his official contacts to produce the necessary documentation.

There was no way the two accomplishments, a laugh and a clever plan, were equivalent.

Of course not.

They stepped out into the open field, and Nettie’s face turned to the stars above.

“Are they all different from the ones I can see from home?”

Vokal thought frantically, trying to remember exactly where the Thoalian sector was in relation to her home planet, calculated against how faint the stars her species, with its obviously limited vision, would be able to make out, then gave up.

“Probably not entirely,” he guessed. “Does it bother you? To be so far from your home?”

“Not at all,” she said softly. “I think as long as I can see the stars, I’d be happy enough anywhere.”

She shook herself slightly, then headed out into the field.

He caught her arm quickly.

“What is it?” she asked. “There’s not much out here for me to trip on, is there?”

“No,” he said while guiding her around the clump of tall grass directly in front of her. “I don’t think you’d trip, but your shoes wouldn’t be happy with you.”

“Ewww.” Her nose wrinkled. “Thank you.”

The second moon had set by the time they reached the tidily kept yard that stretched behind a small wooden building.

“Ready to bet that you’re right?” Vokal asked.

Nettie chewed her lower lip. “I think I’m right. But honestly, I’m just not sure.”

That was unsettling.

In the short time they’d spent together, he’d gotten used to her being sure.

“Only one way to find out.”

He’d taken two steps into the yard when a small backlit figure appeared from an opened door.

“I had a feeling there’d be visitors tonight,” a familiar voice cracked through the darkness. “I don’t know what mischief you’re up to, but you’d better get in here.”

With the tip of his finger, Vokal gently pressed Nettie’s jaw until her mouth closed.

“How did she know?” she breathed.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “But somehow, Getta always knew when we were up to something. Looks like nothing has changed.”

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