Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 1

Bad luck.

For the most part, Sophia had never thought of herself as someone prone to bad luck. But as she sat tied to a chair somewhere in the upper floors of Vrulatica—the Vertical City—with nothing to do but think back on the last three months, she had to reconsider.

One night, she’d been lounging in a pile of blankets in her backyard while watching Let the Right One In. George and Sarah had both bailed on her as usual, so she’d been sulking and annoyed by everything from the low hum of her projector to the slight curling of the white sheet she’d hung over a tree limb. At some point, she must have fallen asleep, because when she’d woken, she’d been on an entirely new planet. And she was…different.

The toothache she’d been grappling with for a week was gone. Her vision, which she’d had to correct with glasses since middle school, was crystal clear. And to her horror, the tattoos that covered her body had vanished.

Sophia frowned at the clear skin of her right hand where a small snake had once twined around a wishbone. Before her abduction she’d also had a four-leaf clover, a koi, and a horseshoe decorating her body, but now those had all been wiped away. Maybe that was why her fortunes had turned sour. She no longer had her tattoo talismans to protect her.

She still grieved for Earth, for her tattoos, and for the little remaining family she’d left behind light-years away, but she’d tried to make the best of things and settle into life on Clecania. She’d made friends, found a small house, and started learning the complex written language. She’d even agreed to tour the planet in an effort to introduce the world to humans. But then her fortunes had turned sour again.

Just when she’d thought, Maybe I can be happy, maybe I can be useful, maybe I can make this planet my home, the stony Vrulan king had gone and imprisoned her in a darkened tower straight out of a Dracula retelling.

Back on Earth, Sophia had been a graphic designer. She loved her job for the most part, but there was no simple equivalent here on Clecania. It wasn’t like they had Photoshop on their mind-bogglingly advanced technology. Without a job or a purpose, she’d been left feeling a little rudderless, so when the Queen of Tremanta had asked for volunteers for a tour around the planet, Sophia had submitted her name.

Six months visiting otherworldly cities, working to spread knowledge and compassion for the abducted humans living on Clecania had felt like a worthy thing to do with her time. Especially considering she hadn’t had anything else to do. She could only wallow alone in her house while staring up at an unfamiliar sky for so long before boredom ate away at her. Well, she wasn’t bored anymore.

Explore the world, they said. It’ll be fun, they said, she griped to herself as she wriggled beneath her restraints.

The tour had started off well. Cities beyond her wildest dreams and the interesting people that resided in them had left Sophia inspired and hopeful. She’d even started drawing ideas for tattoos again. They were only rough scribbles, yet the rising motivation to draw anything at all felt glorious compared to the apathy she’d been grappling with back in Tremanta.

But as the tour had gone on, murmurs of unrest arose. Humans were descendants of ancient Clecanians, their earliest ancestors arriving on Earth eons ago. Somehow, knowledge of the humans had been lost in time, so when a plague barreled through, wiping out a devastating number of Clecanian women and setting the planet on a path to extinction, the Clecanians hadn’t known to look to Earth for a solution.

But they knew now.

Humans were a blessing wrapped in red tape. They were sexually compatible, fertile, and miraculously able to awaken long-dead mating instincts among the lonely Clecanian people. But Earth, a Class Four planet, was strictly off-limits. No visits or communication allowed. If a ship belonging to an Alliance species was found even near the Milky Way, the offenders could be thrown in jail indefinitely and their planet could face exile from the enforcing powers of the universe, the Galaxy Supervision Federation.

Currently, there were an estimated one hundred humans living on Clecania. Not enough to save the species from extinction. Not by a long shot. They needed access to Earth, which meant Clecania had to convince members of the Intergalactic Alliance—the lawmakers of the universe—to reclassify the human species.

The fate of an entire planet rested in what else but politics. And the Alliance representative from Clecania, the person who would need to bring this issue up for discussion, the Queen of Tremanta, had been utterly silent.

The Queen had sent Sophia and a group of other humans and Tremantian representatives out on this PR tour and then, for all intents and purposes, vanished. No communication with the Intergalactic Alliance. No explanation as to why she hadn’t broached a case for the reclassification of Earth. Nothing.

Sophia couldn’t blame the people of Clecania for being upset. How could they not be when a carrot of salvation was dangled before their eyes? Sophia and her traveling companions had been touring for less than a month when tension began infecting their visits.

During their scheduled panels in each city, wherein attending Clecanians had been welcome to ask the humans whatever they’d wanted, the questions had grown more and more pointed. Rather than ask about Earth or human customs, they’d asked about the Tremantian Queen.

Where was she? Why hadn’t she responded to meeting requests from Clecanian leaders around the world? Why wasn’t the reclassification of Earth being prioritized or expedited?

As the days passed, curiosity had turned into criticism and then anger.

Her group had muddled through, sidestepping questions they couldn’t answer and working hard to charm those they met out of their worry. But that had all changed when they’d arrived in Vrulatica.

A vicious rumor about the Queen had circulated in time with their arrival, and King Sikthand, who’d been vocal in his criticism of the Queen, had snapped. Suddenly, Sophia and her group were no longer valued guests, but hostages, pawns held under lock and key until the Queen broke her silence.

Other cities across the planet had taken steps to force the Queen into action as well. Merinta had cut off all trade to Tremanta, as had Tuva, but King Sikthand had taken things a step too far. This wasn’t merely a show of strength, this was a slap across the face. Sophia couldn’t fathom what the Queen planned to do about it.

Fortunately, most of her group had fought their way out and escaped Vrulatica. Unfortunately, Sophia’s streak of rotten luck had resurged when she was mere feet away from freedom, and her friends had been forced to leave her behind.

Sophia sighed, tipping her head back against her chair. King Sikthand only had one human and one Tremantian guard to negotiate with now. A good thing for her friends and the Queen. A bad thing for her.

Would the Queen put up a fight to get one guard and one measly human back? She doubted it.

Her gut churned at a sudden thought. Her friends had escaped, right? They’d gotten free of the room they’d been trapped in. She knew that much, at least.

Sophia had watched each human, guard, and Tremantian representative being lifted through a compartment in the ceiling as she’d clumsily fought the soldiers in the room, keeping them distracted so her group could sneak out.

When Heleax, the last Tremantian guard left standing, had all but shoved her toward the rope, she’d dropped her weapon and made a run for it. She’d been climbing upward, cursing her nights spent on her couch instead of at the gym, when the King’s axe flew through the air, cleaving the rope in two. The deep ache in her back pulsed sharply at the reminder of her plummet to the ground.

Guards had collected her from the floor and dragged her kicking and screaming through the Vertical City before dumping her in this cold museum of a room. All her thrashing must have made them certain she’d tear apart whatever she could get her hands on the moment she was left alone, because they’d strapped her to the chair—ensuring her feet were doubly secure after she’d gotten in a satisfying kick to one’s gut—then left.

Had her group made it out of the city? Or were they still fighting somewhere in Vrulatica? The Vertical City was so named because it was entirely contained within an enormous tower that stretched a mile into the sky. Only accessible from the outside by the beautiful flying creatures called malginash, Sophia wondered whether her friends had wrangled one and escaped.

Though Sophia couldn’t tell exactly how long she’d been here, a nagging rumble in her belly told her it’d been hours at least. Long enough for the stabbing pain in her low spine to settle into a pulsing ache.

Not knowing what had happened was maddening. Heleax had been captured as well, but he’d been taken somewhere else. Had that been done on purpose to keep her isolated and anxious?

The room she’d been locked in was quiet and empty, but it was far from any cell she’d ever seen. On the contrary, it was a beautiful, if not dusty, bedroom. She had no idea how to interpret the decision to stow her here, of all places.

Vaguely, she recalled the king halting the soldier who’d hoisted her off the floor as he’d dragged her away. She couldn’t tell what he’d said, but the soldier had changed direction after that. Almost like he’d been ordered to bring her here, to this opulent bedroom. Why?

With women being as scarce as they were, the Clecanians cherished females. Had the king wanted her to be brought here because it was more comfortable than a cell? Sophia wiggled her tingling fingers. Doubtful, if the leather bands digging into her wrists were any indication.

Besides, if he wanted her to be comfortable, why not lock her in one of the many guest rooms that had been set up for their arrival? They were less fancy, she thought as she studied the towering, vaulted ceiling, but at least they were clean. This room looked as if it hadn’t been occupied in decades.

Every surface was covered with pale dust. Crooked black cloth shrouded the windows, and the thickest cobwebs she’d ever seen spotted the ceiling. Sophia didn’t mind spiders, but she shuddered to imagine what could have spun thread so thick it could be used as a shoelace.

Dominating one side of the room was a bed. It had taken her a while to identify it as such since it was more of an ornate gazebo with a bed cocooned inside. The hint of a mattress peeked out from an opening maybe five feet wide. All other sides of the bed were made up of sculpted metal malginash. They were skillfully shown climbing over the top and sides of tree limbs, which bowed in to create a rounded sanctuary over the mattress. Sophia could only imagine how dark and cozy it must be to sleep in there when it was clean and piled high with soft pillows.

The only light in the room came from a round skylight overhead. The colored glass diluted the sunlight streaming through and lit the room in a moody red glow. Despite the dimness, she could make out four doors in the room. She cataloged them.

She’d been dragged through one. One was ajar and led into a bathroom, one was plain and closed next to the bathroom door, and the fourth was located on the wall directly across from the bed. It was the most ornamental of the bunch and stood larger than the rest. A curious lack of grime in front of the door hinted that it was used often, the dust on the floor brushed away as it might be when the door swept open. Another entrance maybe?

More time passed, and not a peep of sound floated through the walls. Her ears rang in the silence. She tested her restraints again and winced. The soldier hadn’t tied them exceptionally tight, but hours of struggling had made her skin raw.

She shifted in her seat, and as she did, the chair creaked ever so slightly. Wood? No, not exactly. But not metal. She wiggled in the chair, trying to get it to groan again.

A few years ago, her friend Claire had forced Sophia and the rest of their friends to sit through a PowerPoint presentation outlining tips and tricks on how to survive if you were ever kidnapped or attacked. Her slides ranged from breaking duct tape to gouging eyes. It had been a wonderful night filled with drinking and laughing. They’d listened, half making fun of cautious Claire and half taking notes.

Now Sophia racked her brain, trying to recall if there’d been was a slide about slamming a chair down so hard it broke or if she’d just seen that in the movies. After a few more minutes of tedious silence, she decided to go for it.

All she had to do was stand up and then fling herself down hard enough to break the chair. Easy.

Feet flat on the floor, but ankles tied to the legs of the chair, she tried to shift her weight so she could awkwardly stand, but barely made it a millimeter off the ground before gravity pulled her back down. I need momentum.

With a deep inhale, she used all her strength to explode forward. Her heels flattened against the smooth stone, and the chair lifted. For a brief moment, she was standing…but her body didn’t stop.

Instead of balancing on her feet, her burst of energy sent her flying forward onto her toes. Before she knew it, she was barreling face-first toward the floor. At the last second, she angled her foot so her body twisted, and she landed on her shoulder. Dust billowed around her, making her cough and sneeze.

Sophia blinked toward the door and let out a low grumble. She was now sideways on the ground, stuck to a fully intact chair.

Just my luck.

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