Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 13


Heleax wore an expression of utter disbelief when Sophia finished relaying the Queen’s speech. They were both silent for many long minutes. Even Alno threw her pitying glances.

“Do you think they knew?” Sophia asked, her voice hushed.

Vacant gaze sharpening on her, Heleax lifted a brow. “Who?”

“Meg. Daunet. Our group. Do you think somehow they knew what this new Queen was planning and chose not to return?”

“Perhaps. It would make sense. But how could they know before she made her speech? And call her Vila.” Sharp anger cooled his voice. “She is not my Queen.”

“I’m suddenly not so sure I should want to leave Vrulatica,” she whispered. At least she’d settled in here. Met a few people she liked. And she was treated with a certain amount of respect. If Vila sent her away…

“You think it will be different here?” Heleax hissed. “She’s set a precedent. Humans in Tremanta have to follow Tremantian laws. I’m sure Vrulatica will follow suit. Do you know what their laws concerning marriage are?

“No. Do you?” she tossed back.

Heleax only scowled.

“What about those of us who have been on Clecania for a year? I think there are a few women closing in on that deadline. Isn’t a Class Four species citizen allowed to leave the planet after a year, according to Intergalactic law?” she questioned.

“They should be.” She bristled at Heleax’s doubtful tone.

“The thing is…” Sophia chewed on her lip as she thought through the Queen’s actions. “What does she have to gain by doing this? Does she think the whole world will be grateful? Herald her as a fair leader? I can’t accept she actually believes a word she said about bringing the world together. There was something underneath it. I just can’t figure out what it is.”

“It’s true. Many cities will be disgusted by this.”

I’m disgusted by this,” Alno muttered. He leaned against the wall casually, but the cords of his throat were tight.

Heleax shot him an irritated frown.

“Right. I’m sure there are plenty who are going to accept a handful of humans with open arms.” Sophia’s stomach turned as she thought about it. “But they must realize that humans aren’t going to be happy about this. And they have to know that there aren’t nearly enough humans in Tremanta to send more than one or two to each city, if that. What good is one human for a whole city of people? A human can be recognized by one Clecanian. The odds of that Clecanian happening to be in their city are astronomical.” Sophia mentally tallied the humans she’d seen wandering around the Pearl Temple. “And honestly, there aren’t enough humans to send to every city, so what about the cities that don’t get one? How is she going to pick?”

Heleax’s scrunched brows lifted, his eyes widening in realization. “The Leaders’ Summit.”

“What?”

“The person who will have the real power if Earth is ever opened is the planetary representative. It used to be the old Queen, but now someone new has to be elected. All newly established Class Three planets are required to have a Steward, a species who guides them in adjusting to their expanded existence and, knowing our particular ties to your species, I don’t doubt Clecania will be named Earth’s Steward. If that happens, our planetary representative will oversee all things relating to Earth. They’ll dictate which cities newly arrived humans may settle in and determine what rights they have.”

“Yeah. She talked about that vote a lot near the end,” Sophia agreed.

A dark laugh bubbled from Heleax. “I bet she did. Every Clecanian city’s leader votes at the Leaders’ Summit and decides who the planetary representative will be. The pool of candidates isn’t that large. Only current members of the Intergalactic Alliance can be considered for the role.”

Heleax stared at Sophia, and she felt she was missing something vital.

Vila is a member of the Intergalactic Alliance.”

Understanding crashed over her and jaw dropped. “She’s going to buy votes.”

***

It had been a long day and an even longer night. Sikthand was irritable from the hours of discussion and theory-bandying of his Guild. It didn’t help that he hadn’t seen Sophia.

He’d cut himself off from her and wouldn’t be visiting her mirror again. But she’d been like a drug to him, and he was suffering from withdrawal.

At least he had a few moments of peace alone in the quiet outbuilding before his scheduled call with the Tremantian Queen came through. Her request for a call had been delivered last night while his Guild argued over the possible ramifications of her speech.

Sikthand had known it was only a matter of time before he’d be required to enter into this political dance with the new Queen, but he’d hoped he’d have longer to sort through his Guild’s many hearty opinions before he’d have to engage. They’d all had theories considering what she might say, ranging from a simple declaration of war to a kindly request for her human to be returned to her.

Sikthand had no idea what to expect. So he’d decided he would let her lead. Alone in the fortified outbuilding, he let his head fall back against his chair. The silence was like a cooling cloth on his throbbing head.

A light ping echoed around the room and reverberated through his skull. He grimaced.

“Queen,” he greeted, with a grudging tap-tap of his tail on the ground.

“King Sikthand.” The voice that floated from the communication pad was light and conversational. It was as though she were talking to a pleasant acquaintance and not a rival leader who’d kidnapped her citizens and cut off trade to her city. “If I remember right, you were never one for hollow pleasantries. Shall we get right to it?”

“It would be appreciated.” He kept his tone respectful but a bit bored. He didn’t want her to know she’d left the world stewing with her little speech.

“Wonderful. I believe you have a group of humans that belong to me.”

Sikthand’s jaw clenched. “As we told your advisors before, we have one human and one soldier. The rest escaped. I have no idea where they are.”

She released a little hum that sent his tail flicking across the floor. “I suppose I’ll have to believe you.”

“There’s no reason for me to lie. My qualms were with your predecessor.”

“Perhaps an exchange to renew our good relationship, then? Nabiora had her faults, as I’ve said, and I am not unsympathetic to your motives in taking my citizens hostage. I’ve been in contact with the other cities that banded together to take a stand, and my only goal as the new Queen of Tremanta is to start my rule with transparency and peace.”

“What do you want?” Dread pulsed in his throat as he waited for her answer. She’d want Sophia.

“I want trade reopened and…” There was a charged pause on her end of the line before she said, “I want your assurance that I have your city’s vote for planetary representative.”

Sikthand wanted to bark out a laugh, but he held back. “Vrulatica will vote for who it feels is best suited to the position.”

“Of course,” she cooed. “I’m new. You don’t know me very well. But you did kidnap my people, and who’s to say they aren’t dead? Five precious humans gone. Anyone else might see that as justifiable grounds for war.”

Sikthand released a seething breath through his nose. He kept his mouth closed. She was ramping up to some point, and he refused to play a part in her dramatic delivery.

“But I’m a reasonable leader. I don’t think it has to come to that. In fact, I’m in the process of deciding where the humans under my care will go. I could send you, say…five to replace the ones you lost, and you can keep the one you have now.”

Clarity hit, and Sikthand sneered. She was attempting to bribe him with humans, and she was likely to pull the same stunt with leaders around the world. “How many humans are in Tremanta?”

The rumor spreading through the world had guessed at thousands, yet if reports were to be believed, it was closer to dozens. She could only bribe so many with a small number like that, but if there were more that had been hidden away?

“Hundreds,” the Queen answered. He could almost hear the smile in her voice.

Fuck.

“That’s a very generous offer,” he lied.

“I’m a very generous Queen. And if you see fit to elect me, I’ll be a very generous planetary representative.”

Sikthand’s mind worked, filtering through all the options he had, all the plays he could make. She was crafty, but her plan to buy her way into office was not without its flaws. The question was, did it serve his city best to be on her side or to oppose her? His personal opinions about her methods and morals were irrelevant.

“I’ll need some time to bring this to my Guild,” he answered finally.

“Of course. But don’t take too long. The Leaders’ Summit is in two months, and I’ll be busy deciding which cities are most suitable for my humans before then.”

As Sikthand flew back to the tower, he thought through a plan. The problem was, all his plans involved Sophia being harmed or used in some way, and he had to ignore that unpleasant reality.

When he darted through the Guild chamber doors, the guildmembers looked as tired as he felt. Madam Kalos’ normally coiffed hair frizzed around her forehead, and she nibbled quietly on a bit of bread.

Master Bavo had fallen asleep in his chair and now bolted upright, releasing a surprised hiccup. Sikthand took his seat, waited for the guards to seal the doors, then removed his helmet. “I bestow my trust,” he recited in a rush.

“And we ours,” they all echoed in varying groans as they settled in for another long debate.

As was customary, Sikthand relayed the phone call, then sat back and let them discuss, hearing their opinions bounce back and forth while he surveyed and judged.

“I don’t see a downside to accepting her offer,” Speaker Besith argued. “We’ll have more humans, which will lend us some hint of prestige, and if the goddess of fate smiles on us, each will be recognized by a citizen.”

“Is Vrulatica a city that can be bought?” Roldroth all but bellowed, his stance on the topic clear from the beginning. “Our vote is our business. We’d be trading our honor for a handful of humans. As for prestige, you think anyone will look upon us with esteem when they realize we are just a tool for the Tremantian Queen?”

“But it isn’t just a handful of humans, is it? If she becomes the planetary representative, she’ll have the power to guide the flow of humans into Clecania. Do you really think she’ll speak kindly of the cities that took a stand against her?” Besith countered.

Bavo yawned. “Only if she wins.”

Magistrate Yalmi pored over the piles of books and scrolls in front of her, a few toppling off her small table. She caught them easily with her tail and plopped them on her lap. “In all likelihood, she will win. Every city she brings her offer to will be having the same argument we are. Some will want to agree just for the offer of humans in the interim. Others will not want to risk the chance she is voted in and their city suffers. There are not enough who will deny her out of honor.” Yalmi peered at the king. “She will win.”

Kalos nodded with red-veined eyes. “We have no choice. Trade needs to be reopened. It’s already been closed for too long. The space elevator is in Tremanta. They make up a quarter of our exports planet wide.”

“What of the humans?” Lindri asked, having remained quiet and solemn for most of the day. “Is it not fair to wonder what they will think of the Queen?”

The room fell silent.

“What do you mean, Lady Lindri?” Roldroth asked.

“Well, let us assume for argument’s sake that Earth is reclassified and human representatives come to visit our planet. Surely, they’ll speak to the other humans she’s shepherded around the planet, presumably against their will. Will the Earthlings not be outraged? If they know our planet’s representative has bought her way into the role by playing with human lives, I’d imagine newly arrived humans would avoid settling in those cities that supported her.”

Sikthand considered this. It was a fair point.

“Up till now, we’ve been thinking of humans as pieces in a game—which, as unfortunate as it is, they are. But Lady Lindri is right. Once the whole planet is made aware of her plotting, they will certainly oppose her. And the humans she has used will not remain silent. If more choose to settle on our planet, does it not stand to reason they will do so in cities that spoke out against her cruel treatment? It is a long game we must play now.” Commander Roldroth nodded along to his own words.

“But what is our play?” Madam Kalos rasped. “Cut off trade for good? We have no idea what the Queen will tell the humans when Earth opens. She was clever enough to lock in a victory for herself. What if she finds a way to convince them her actions were justified? I’m not sure we can risk it.”

“She’s right.” Speaker Besith shook his head. Rarely, if ever, did he agree with the Kalos. “Unless we can be certain humans will come here of their own accord, we can’t risk cutting our people off from Earth.”

“What if they wanted to come here?” Yalmi had frozen, her hands splayed on a large tome laying open in front of her.

“How?”

She peered up at the room, eyes glittering but shuttered, as if she was about to say something silly. “What if there was a human here who made them feel as if this was a safe city to settle in?”

Sikthand sat up.

Commander Roldroth raised his chin thoughtfully. “Who? Sophia? Even if she stayed, why would her word count for any more than the other humans strewn across the world?”

“Because the human living in Vrulatica…would be queen.” Yalmi grinned, growing more excited about her idea with each passing second.

Silence reigned in the chamber. Sikthand felt his heart hammering so loudly he was surprised hollow drumming didn’t resound from his armor.

“A quee—our queen?” Bavo laughed. “You want the human female to become our queen?”

Lindri laughed along, but dread turned Sikthand’s hands cold. The Guild might not have realized it yet, but it was a perfect solution. One he would never agree to. Luckily he wouldn’t have to. His Guild would never come to a consensus on this. It was too wild of a proposition.

“Is that even legal?” Lindri craned forward to peer at Magistrate Yalmi.

“Yes.” Yalmi tapped her tail on the book before her. “Nowhere in our laws does it state that an alien cannot be queen. Just think of it. A human queen. When Earth opens and they are told of Clecania and all its rulers, where do you think timid humans looking to live on our planet would go? One where their kind exist under a fragile concept of freedom, or one where an actual human is in charge?”

Fury was rising hot and white, licking at his neck. He would not be forced into a marriage. Not again.

“What do you estimate the response of our people will be?” Lindri asked Besith.

Besith glanced at the king warily. “The feeling for a long while now has been unease that a male rules alone. They’ve wanted a queen for quite some time. I think, like us, they’ll be surprised, but I also imagine they’d see the potential of putting her in power.”

The memory of Japeshi kneeling in the center of this very room, spitting blood and cursing his name, flew back into his mind. He’d managed to keep the memory at bay for so long, and the unexpected reminder was a knife to his gut.

“No,” Sikthand growled.

It was a break in tradition. The king had the power, but when in the Guild chamber, he was meant to listen. To keep silent and be counseled. But he had to stop this insanity.

Lindri stared, her wide eyes filled with sympathy. “Sire—”

“I will not marry the human.” He barked, tail thrashing so hard the metal tip embedded into the stone of his throne.

The chamber fell silent once again.

“I believe your Guild is in agreement, sire,” Madam Kalos whispered. “But you may call for a formal vote if you’d like to be sure.”

Sikthand gazed around the room, each face set, no one opposing Kalos’ statement. He reeled in his emotion. An image of Sophia danced in his mind, and his chest seized.

All the danger he’d been shielding himself from would be multiplied infinitely if he did this. Unlike typical marriages that only lasted three months, a royal marriage like this would be permanent. She wouldn’t just be a tempting female, she’d be his wife. To him, a more dangerous person did not exist.

The world would whisper in Sophia’s ear, injecting venom. What if one of the Guild decided he was no longer needed when a precious human queen took the throne? What if she decided he was no longer needed?

This marriage would make him worse. His paranoia was flourishing even now. He’d see danger around every corner. He’d be faced with the female who haunted his every waking thought for the rest of his life. How was he supposed to live?

But if his Guild was single minded, he couldn’t refuse. He could call for a formal vote to ensure they were in agreement, but the lack of objection in their hopeful expressions made it clear they were.

Sikthand had all the power in the world. He could wage wars and control the storms themselves, but in this moment, he was powerless. Rationally, he knew this was the smartest choice. The knowledge made the sting harsher.

The Queen would not go to war if they refused to return one human. She couldn’t afford it, and she didn’t have the time to spin her decision as something honorable. Vrulatica would be an easy choice for any human looking to settle on their planet. They’d flock here. Vrulatica would remain the powerful, independent city it had always been, and his people might, for once in his life, accept him.

Marrying Sophia was the best choice for his people. All he had to do was consign himself to a life of longing and suffering.

His eyes stung, a ghostly sensation that often haunted him. It was how they’d felt when Japeshi had activated the ink she’d injected. At the time, Sikthand had reveled in the pain, thinking it was normal when recognizing a true mate. He was a male covered in tattoos, one well versed with what askait ink felt like under the skin. And yet he’d been utterly blind.

He couldn’t be blind again. Even if he managed to live through another betrayal, he wouldn’t survive it. Not if it was her. Not if it was Sophia.

But he had no choice.

“She must agree,” Sikthand growled.

Some relieved breaths circulated through the room. “And she will, sire. Who would not want to be queen?”

He scoffed at that. How oblivious the world was to the life of a ruler.

“Speaker Besith, send one of your males outside to fetch her,” Madam Kalos chirped, smoothing her hair away from her hood.

“No,” Sikthand boomed again. He glared around the room, rising from his chair. Before they could argue, he made his way toward the door. “If I am to wed a stranger, I will at least be the one to ask her.”

And he would ask in such a way that she would be stupid to agree.

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