Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 16

A hammering knock sounded at Sikthand’s bedroom door, and he swung it open.

“Can you explain to me why I had to cancel my appointments and rush up here when…” Khes caught sight of Sikthand’s upturned room and hummed out a disgruntled sound.

“I appreciate the rush,” Sikthand commented blankly. It had been days since he’d slept. And the thing that dominated every spare cell of his brain lay a handful of strides away. He needed a distraction, and pain seemed like the perfect way to blind himself for a few blissful moments.

Khes set his travel case down at the bench they always used for his tattoos. Sikthand had stopped visiting the Flesh Forge over a decade ago when a bottle of ink containing poison had been sent down to Khes after his arrival. He’d locked up the old man for a month while he’d rooted out who the real attempted murderer had been, and to his surprise, Khes had never held it against him.

The inkmaster might be the only person in the tower he trusted.

With one hand, Sikthand ripped his rumpled shirt off his back and gestured to two lightly striped areas encompassing his shoulders and scapula. “I want them filled.”

Khes’ hands stilled at the clasp of his bag. “Filled? That’ll take two whole vials at least.”

“If not more,” Sikthand grated.

Pulling his chair up to the bench and prepping his vials on a thin expandable table he’d retrieved from his bag, he openly studied Sikthand. “You tell me why you’re looking to put yourself through this, and I’ll fill you full of acid.”

Though he should guard his words, he couldn’t hold them back. Besides, the city would know soon enough. “Soon you’ll hear the joyous news,” he started, feeling one vial suction onto his shoulder blade. “The king is engaged.”

Khes’ hands stilled while suctioning on the second vial. His chair scraped as he scooted sideways until he could look into Sikthand’s eyes. When he saw the truth in them, he swore. His gaze zoomed around the broken glass and warped metal littering his room with new understanding.

He moved back to his work without a sound. It was a quality Sikthand loved about the male. He didn’t speak unless he had something to say. No blathering apologies or asking him how he felt or making empty promises about things getting better.

“Ready?” he asked when both vials were placed on Sikthand’s back.

Sikthand’s mind raced back to Sophia in the Guild chamber. So confident, and brave, and beautiful, staring him down with fire in her eyes just like every queen he’d ever met. “Yes.”

Burning, ripping pain coursed down his back, and all vision was wiped away. He breathed through it, nearly sighing from the black oblivion. But he’d done this so often that he grew numb to it far too quickly.

“Who’s the female, and what death have they threatened you with?” Khes asked as he dragged his pen along Sikthand’s back.

Sikthand thought her name before he said it aloud, and a rush of warmth raced over his skin, dulling the pain even more. “The human.” The drag of metal paused. “It was the Guild’s decision, and the little cricksan agreed. She even made demands.”

The pen moved again, but Khes made no sound. Suddenly, though he’d never craved it before, Sikthand wanted to hear what the inkmaster had to say.

He ground his teeth, waiting for Khes to say something, anything.

“What do you think of that?” Sikthand prompted when the man said nothing.

“You’ve had worse wives.” Sikthand wanted to bark out a laugh at that understatement. He’d had no wives. He’d had plenty of almost-wives, though.

Two had been openly covetous of his throne and had been turned down by his father. One had been clumsily bragging about his interest in her at a bar while cozying up to a handsome copper male, and the last had been Japeshi, who’d broken down his defenses only to be caught nights before her assassination attempt.

Sikthand wasn’t a male that could be loved. His position always got in the way. And aside from his royal blood, his looks didn’t win him many points. Females chose him for other reasons, not because he lit up a room like Sophia’s errand boy Alno.

His mind wandered back to Sophia’s drawings, and his chest expanded. She didn’t draw him like she thought he was ugly.

“You know how to watch yourself now, boy. You won’t be caught unawares. So, what has your mind so fucked that you destroyed all this good metal?” Khes said, rousing him from his musings.

Pain hit him again, and he held in a gasp. How had thinking about her made it all disappear? How was the human more powerful than the lines of liquid metal boring paths under his skin?

“Is it these demands?” Khes dragged his pen over Sikthand’s back muscles hard enough to make him wince. “Because let me tell you something, you are Sikthand, son of Queen Sesei and King Thedvar. You are stronger than forged askait, and you bend to no one.”

“No. I don’t bend.” Sikthand’s eyes drifted to the mirror. Truth rose like acid in his throat. “But I could break for her.”

Khes stilled. “Look at me.”

Sikthand didn’t. He knew weakness shone from behind his eyes at the moment, and he couldn’t show that to anyone.

The inksmith dragged his chair in front of where Sikthand sat and forced their gazes to meet. “Would it be so terrible? Not everyone is untrustworthy.”

“No, not everyone.” Sikthand let out a tired exhale. “But people don’t have to be bad to do bad things. All they need is a good enough incentive. I may trust that her soul isn’t rotten like Japeshi’s, but I don’t believe she could ever care for me more than she does for humans, and I wouldn’t expect her to. If she knew she could help her people by betraying me, she would. A noble incentive, but still one that poses a threat to me and to our people.” His eyes flitted to the mirror.

Khes grumbled in thought at that, but got back to work.

I can’t let my guard down.

His mother’s oft-repeated words rang through his ears, icing over his thawing heart. It’s when you take your hands from the reins that a gust can rip you off your mount.


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