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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 11

The Flesh Forge.

Sophia hadn’t known what to expect exactly, but the floors of space dedicated to Vrulan tattooing called the Flesh Forge matched their name perfectly—from what she could see over the burly shoulders of the man barring their entrance. Around the perimeter of the top floor were enormous, elaborately sculpted hearths. Each contained glowing vats of molten metal and large ceramic stills that dripped gleaming black liquid into glass containers.

“This is a human,” Alno argued once more, as if the man hadn’t heard him right the first time. “And a female. She needs to be seen by the most knowledgeable among you. Don’t you want the honor of being the first inkmaster to make your mark on a human?”

Khes, a barrel-chested man with every centimeter of skin covered in tattoos, was a master inksmith. Apparently he was always in high demand and picky about who he drew on, his most famous client being the king. Sophia had cringed with embarrassment when Alno had demanded Khes himself take the time to meet with her, but Alno would hear none of it.

“And what if her human body can’t take it?” the male growled back, his narrowed eyes traveling over her pale skin. “What if she reacts poorly to the ink? Then I will have been the first inksmith to disfigure a human, and how would that look? Besides, I can’t have a wailing alien disturbing clients when she can’t handle the pain.”

Those words sparked something inside her, and she stepped forward, chin lifted. “I can handle pain.” She hadn’t elaborated, choosing instead to hold his skeptical stare.

“I’ve already shown you the report from the doctor. Humans should have no adverse reactions to our ink.” Alno brandished the scroll he’d brought once again, but Khes was still maintaining eye contact with her. Both silently challenged the other to look away.

“Why should I listen to you anyway? You haven’t felt the pain. Who are you to tell her she can handle it?” Khes sneered at Alno.

“Why would I cover this up?” Alno shot him a dazzling grin, flexing one luminous golden bicep, which only made Khes’ tail whip around in agitation.

“Is there a reason for all this squabbling?”

Sophia froze, goose bumps breaking out over her body. She rotated slowly on one heel and found the king standing close behind, his helmet tucked under his arm. She peered down the empty cobbled alley he must have arrived from. Had they all been so immersed they hadn’t heard him approach?

“Sire,” Khes greeted, tapping his tail on the ground respectfully. “This human wants to be inked, but I don’t believe there has been enough study for me to feel comfortable.”

Alno silently shook the file again, eyes wide with irritation.

The king’s silver gaze slid to her, and her treacherous heart beat faster. Something about him had shifted in her mind after the umbercee celebration, and now she couldn’t help but replay the feeling of his tail pulling her in and the sensation of his warm breath against her ear. A dam keeping her interest in him innocent—objective, even—had burst. Now she couldn’t stop the butterflies flapping around her stomach every time someone mentioned his name. She had a fucking crush on her alien abductor. How absurd.

“Can this wait until you’ve visited the doctor again?” he asked, arms clasped at his back like they’d been when he’d walked with her through the tunnel.

“Well.” She clutched her sketchbook to her chest. “I don’t want to get my hopes up or anything, but if Vila ascends to the throne tomorrow and you’re able to get in contact with her…” A stupid nagging dread tugged at her. “It’s possible I might be going home very soon, right? If your…demands are met, I mean.” She studied his reaction but saw no emotion flash over his stony expression.

Sophia still didn’t know if he’d actually made or planned to make any demands of the new Queen. Supposedly his original reason for taking them hostage had been a demand for resignation. But now that the old Queen was dead, she didn’t know where that left Sikthand.

If the rumors Heleax pushed on her were true, he was set on bargaining for more humans, but the king had scoffed at that. Maybe it was just a side effect of her crush, but she believed him.

Thinking hard on the value of a trade like the one Heleax described also made her doubtful. What did a few extra humans in your city get you, anyway? Best-case scenario, a handful of citizens would recognize their mates.

That might be beneficial, but was it really worth blackmailing a new Queen? It wouldn’t save their species from extinction in the long run, and she couldn’t imagine any of the girls back at the Pearl Temple coming quietly. If they knew they’d been traded like livestock, the Vrulans should prepare to learn how explosive human women could be real quick.

“If there is even a slim chance I could be leaving tomorrow, I’d like to make sure I don’t miss out on getting a tattoo.” She reeled in a spike of sadness. “I used to have a lot of tattoos, and I don’t know of many places on Clecania that do them.”

The king’s jaw tensed. “You realize it will be quite painful, and you accept the possibility of a negative reaction?”

The chance she might need to be airlifted to the doctor frightened her, but her charts already stated the ink would have no effect. The only Clecanian materials she was allergic to—as were all humans—were byproducts of the Ripsli tree. “Yes.”

“I don’t want to be responsible for—”

“You will tattoo her,” Sikthand interrupted Khes. The rigid authority in his voice made a flush rise on her chest. His glowing gaze finally broke away from hers, and he focused on the master inksmith. “As a favor to me.”

“Yes, sire,” Khes grated through a scowl.

She tried to hold back her grin, but a hint of it broke through as she thanked the king. His brows furrowed. He said nothing, just strode away.

“Come on, then,” Khes grumbled.

Sophia stared at Sikthand’s retreating back for a beat too long. When she turned back, Alno was watching her, brows raised and a knowing smirk curling his lips.

“What?” She nudged past him, heat rising on her neck.

Voice lighter than air, he shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing.”

“Here’s where the ink is distilled.” Khes gestured unenthusiastically to the room at large.

Sophia took a few steps closer to a man suited in thick, nonflammable material. He tipped a vat of molten orange metal into an empty still, then forced it closed. The man caught sight of her watching and straightened.

Khes stepped in front of her, blocking her view. “This is dangerous work. I don’t need you distracting them.”

“Sorry.” She followed him to the center of the room, where a set of stairs spiraled downward.

“What are you looking to get anyway?” Khes grunted, lips fixed in a frown.

Sophia brightened. She cracked open her sketchbook, flipping through messy drawings until she found the design she’d settled on. She held out the book to Khes, and he snatched it.

With a sigh, he peered down at the drawing and his steps slowed, his glower softening. He glanced back at her with a raised brow. “This is…good, actually.”

“Thanks.” She grinned. “I designed all my own tattoos back on Earth.”

He rotated toward her on the steps, looking her over with renewed interest. “You removed them rather than making edits?”

Her lips parted as she thought of how to explain. “Where I’m from, tattoos are permanent for the most part. You can’t change them like you can here. But…” She looked away for a moment, a familiar grief tightening her chest. “When I was abducted, they were removed…healed. I didn’t know till I woke up.”

Khes’ expression hardened.

He swung away and stomped down the steps. “Fucking dregs. And those fucking machines!” Sophia exchanged a look with Alno. They hurried to keep up with him but skidded to a halt when he swung his arm around, pointing at them angrily with her sketchbook still clutched in his palm. “And it’s not just them,” he boomed. “It’s those damn cities that see our work as some kind of…” He blustered silently for a moment. “Defacement. Simple minded, the lot of them.”

He grumbled to himself the whole way down the stairs while Sophia and Alno held in their bemused grins.

When they reached the lowest level of the Flesh Forge, only a few eyes turned to watch Khes ranting away to himself. They peered up from their wincing clients with boredom in their expressions.

“Don’t worry, girl,” he pointed to her again, then his eyes caught on her notebook. He unclenched his fist from the slightly crushed spine and handed it back to her with an apologetic grin. Before she could slip it away, he patted the back of her hand. “We’ll get ’em back. I’ll draw as many as you want.”

“Sophia,” she reminded.

“Sophia,” he repeated, his cobalt-blue eyes crinkling within his iron hood. He eyed Alno, frown a little softer than it was before but still present. “You want him watching?”

“I’m staying. Unless you want to take it up with the king,” Alno jeered.

She elbowed him lightly. “Yes, I’d like him here, please.”

Khes grunted and waved them on. As they wound through stations, Sophia grew uneasy. Vrulatica was filled with hardy warriors, and yet their clenched teeth and rapidly flicking tails made it seem like even they had trouble handling the pain.

Sophia had had sessions that lasted for hours, getting work done in some of the most painful spots on the body. But suddenly her confidence wobbled.

They approached a station larger than any of the others in the corner. Breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, she attempted to settle the nausea bubbling in her belly.

“You. Over there. Keep quiet and stay out of the way,” Khes barked, pointing at a seat in the corner. Alno settled into it with a flashy, over-the-top smile.

When Khes turned away, sifting through drawers, she slapped Alno’s arm with her sketchbook. “Cut it out.”

“You know what this process is?” Khes patted the bench in front of him, and she took a seat.

Sophia eyed the items in his hand with a relieved breath. Just the drawing stage.

“I know what the process is on Earth.” She handed over her sketchbook when he beckoned for it, flipping to the correct page first.

He studied it, scratching his black hair with a brush dipped in red ink. “Mmm, and what’s that?”

“Well, after you know what you’re getting and where you want it and all that, they prep the area, cleaning and shaving it, then they put the stencil on so they have a guide.” Khes nodded along as she spoke. “They inject the ink into your skin with a needle. Line work, um, like the outline or the heavier lines in the design, I guess? That comes first. Then they might change needles for color and shading after all the linework is done.”

“Color.” Khes’ eyes lit with interest. “Now that would be fun.” His brows furrowed. “When you say needle, you mean they inject the ink once, then inject the color later with another needle?”

“No…” Sophia thought about what she knew of Vrulan tattooing. “So here you inject the ink first and then you use a magnetic pen to move it around under the skin, right? But all the ink is already there?” He nodded. “Well, on Earth they draw with a needle. It is constantly going in and out of your skin as they draw.” When Khes still looked confused, she explained again. “The needle is in a machine, and it punctures the skin thousands of times per minute.”

Alno and Khes expelled identical sounds of disgust. “Horrible,” Khes spat. “Don’t you bleed?”

His lip curled more and more as she answered. “Well, the needle is pretty small, but yeah. Some bleed more than others.”

Resigned disbelief had him shaking his head. “I guess you have felt some pain, then.”

He began to freehand paint the image on her bicep the way she’d shown in her sketch, peppering her with questions concerning everything to do with Earth tattoos, from their permanency to their popularity, and enlightening her on the history of Vrulan tattooing in return.

At some point, Alno had drifted to sleep, a gentle snore rising from the corner. Khes sat back, and she grinned at the nearly perfect reproduction. “Now I understand why Alno was so adamant I see you.”

His pale gray cheeks flushed, almost deepening to the shade of his iron hood. He hiked a shoulder. “After a hundred years, I should be good at something, I suppose.”

He didn’t have time to see Sophia’s jaw drop before he turned to his workbench. “A hundred?” she breathed. “Is it impolite to ask Vrulans how old they are?”

“The older I get, the more I understand that polite is just a longer path to get where you want.” He chuckled. “You want to ask me something? Ask me.”

“How old are you?” She grinned.

He slammed a large black button on the wall, then tipped his head, eyeing the ceiling. “I’d say nearing two hundred if I’ve got the year right, which I sometimes don’t.”

“Wow.” Though Sophia was still wary of the healing tube, she had to admit it had its perks. She would have guessed Khes’ age to be closer to midforties. “Well, you don’t look a day over a hundred and sixty.”

His gaze widened at her until he caught her teasing grin, then he let out a barking laugh that had Alno bolting awake and crashing off his chair.

“Good morning, sunshine.” She smiled at a disgruntled Alno as he rubbed his head and picked himself off the floor.

A whoosh filled the air, and a tube of gleaming black liquid appeared in an alcove in the wall. It must have been sent down from the ink forge above.

“Alright.” Khes stepped close and held the vial up to her eyes. “I need to inject this into your skin all at once. It won’t feel pleasant. It won’t look pleasant. Good news is you won’t need to inject more in this area unless you get it surgically removed with a healer.”

She eyed the gloopy black ink.

“What will it feel like?” She forced the words through a clenched jaw.

Khes attached a short plunger-like device to the top of the vial. “Cold. It will be so cold it burns. But the sensation of the ink in your skin is what sticks with folks.” He pulled a silver bucket out from under the bench and dropped it between her knees. “Many vomit their first time.”

“And you wonder why I never got tattooed,” Alno groused from the corner, now wide awake.

Sophia dragged the bucket closer, already questioning whether this was a good idea. He suctioned the plunger to her upper arm, almost at her shoulder, and caught her eye. “Ready?”

Fingers tensing on the lip of her bucket, she nodded.

Khes dragged a dial on a cord connected to the plunger vial, and acid leaked into her shoulder. She inhaled a surprised gasp, then bared her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut. In through the nose and out through the mouth. She focused on the sensation, trying to force her brain to get used to the pain, but Khes hadn’t been wrong. She could handle the pain. It hurt a little more than her worst tattoo, but the sensation…

It was as if someone had sliced open a pouch in her arm and was now stuffing her with thickened, frozen lemon juice, lifting her skin from her muscle as they forced the stinging juice deeper.

It was sickening. Her stomach bubbled, and she focused on her breathing.

“That’s done. I’m gonna guide the pool of ink into position with my pen now.” She gave a tight nod but didn’t dare to look or speak. If her shoulder looked anything like it felt, it would definitely force her stomach to empty.

Sophia clutched the bucket tighter, barely holding back a heave when Khes began. Her mind worked to convince itself this was okay. As he guided the design, it felt like a barbed string was being dragged around under her skin. She’d rather get a full-rib-cage-plus-armpit tattoo twice over than feel this revolting crawl beneath her flesh.

How had Sikthand done it? She pictured the sections of his chest that were almost solid black. Khes had only needed to inject a small vial for her design. How much ink did Sikthand have under his skin? Her stomach calmed as she thought about this, so she focused harder. She imagined each line on his chest, and when she’d outlined them all, she busied herself with picturing what marks might cover his shins, his powerful thighs, his…

“All done. Just need to lock it in place now.” Her brain snapped back to reality. Sophia had no idea how long she’d been sitting there grinding her jaw and daydreaming over Sikthand’s naked body, but when she opened her eyes, about ten Vrulans floated about the perimeter of Khes’ station, watching her with curious expressions.

A large pad was wrapped around her arm and molded to her shoulder. Khes flipped a switch, and Sophia released an embarrassing moan. Warmth slipped over her shoulder and arm, numbing the pain so completely her lids fluttered.

Her breaths were still evening out when Khes pounded her back with a solid thump that made her pitch forward over her bucket. “You weren’t lying. You handled that better than most warriors I know.” He beamed down at her, and she preened. In a city where so many considered her to be just a weak human, she’d succeeded in impressing someone. It was a small thing, but pride had her spine straightening.

When Khes removed the pad, she hopped off the bench and sped past the group of gawking Vrulans to a mirror. There on her bicep was a malginash. It climbed up her shoulder, wings pulled back against its spine. With her pale skin peeking through its black face, it looked as if its eyes were glowing. Surrounding the malginash were a few bold geometric shapes and lines. Two moons—one crescent, one full—completed the image.

Out of nowhere, tears started to burn in her eyes.

For months now, she’d felt as if someone had rung her like a gong and her soul had been left to perpetually reverberate. But this tattoo had stilled the vibration. Like a hand wrapping around a ringing bell, the tattoo stilled her, grounded her.

She looked at her reflection and could almost see herself again.

Khes joined her at the mirror. “What do you—”

He let out a grunt when she threw her arms around him, a few silent tears sliding onto the metal designs covering his shirt.

She could feel him turning his head this way and that, as if scanning for help to remove the human pest clinging to him. Finally he whispered, “Most cry while getting the tattoo. Don’t believe I’ve ever seen it happen after.”

Sophia pulled away with a sniff. “You should be happy that in your old age you can still be surprised.”

Khes let out another booming laugh, earning him bewildered looks from every Vrulan in the room.


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