Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 17

Sophia squinted through sore eyes at a twirly symbol with a dot in the center. She’d looked this one up about five hundred times, and she still could not remember the sound it made.

“Need help, Your Highness?” Alno crooned.

She glanced up at him with a frown. Oh, how she’d regretted revealing the different ways in which humans addressed royalty. “No,” she lied.

If she’d thought that Alno’s temporary shock at her revelation that she would become his queen would earn her a little more formal respect from him, she’d been wrong. It was a relief, really. She didn’t know how she’d managed to keep it together without his annoying yet welcome teasing.

He shrugged and continued to pick at his nails, his feet propped on the gleaming table of the quiet archives.

“You know you don’t have to follow me around anymore.” She focused on the symbol again. It was one of the characters that indicated a sound combo. Rp like in harpNo.

“Thanks to you I’ve been upgraded to queen’s attendant, but since no one is supposed to know about the engagement yet, Besith thought it would be best to carry on as normal. Besides, you do need my help, even if you’re being prickly about it.” He hid the sound she was racking her brain to find within a cough, then grinned widely at her.

Ks. As in smacks. As in what she wanted to do to that smug expression.

She sighed. “Thank you.”

Over the past week, Alno had been very helpful. She just hadn’t gotten over her shitty mood that Sikthand and the pressure of becoming a queen had instilled in her.

She read some of the Clecanian words out loud so her translator could recite them in her ear and confirm she’d understood the paragraph correctly. She hadn’t.

Sophia slumped back in her chair, rubbing her eyes.

“You know…” He held up a small clear rectangle and waved it through the air.

“I don’t want a reading glass. Stop asking,” she interrupted, holding up her hand. The small technology that translated written words was one of the few electronics that worked in this city. It was such a temptation, but she was going to be a Clecanian queen. It would be ridiculous for her not to understand their writing.

Her words echoed through the cavernous space, and she hunched back down over her text.

Alno grimaced. “Why do you keep wincing like that when you speak? I told you this isn’t like that quiet place on Earth.”

“A library,” Sophia corrected.

Though the public was allowed into the archives, they had to get written permission first, and visitors were kept sparse in order to ensure nothing was stolen or damaged. Yet it reminded Sophia so much of a library with its rows of scrolls and stacks of books, that she couldn’t help but flinch every time Alno raised his voice to a normal volume. Magistrate Yalmi had been overjoyed when Sophia had requested access, and she didn’t want the guildmember to think badly of her.

As if the world were trying to help her express her swirling emotions, the Season had arrived, bringing a vicious storm with it. Moody clouds lit from within by green dye, dimmed the light through the windows, making the tower a little sleepier than usual.

Sikthand had made himself scarce, only appearing for dinners or flying past her in the halls flanked by guards. She couldn’t figure out if that was a good thing or not.

In the Guild chamber, she’d delighted in defying his wishes to his face. It was less than he deserved after being such a royal dick to her. But now reality was setting in.

They may not have the kind of relationship a married couple normally did, but he was still going to be her husband. According to the scrolls Yalmi had pulled for her to read, Sikthand and Sophia would be required to make decisions together, neither outranking the other.

As distasteful as it might be to the stuck-up king, at some point they’d need to actually talk to each other. They couldn’t rule with guildmembers as their mediators forever. The Guild was very nice and all, but they were overwhelming.

Still, she’d avoided meeting Sikthand’s gaze for days now. When she accidentally did, she couldn’t decipher anything.

Anger? Regret? It was all a mystery. He was gone most of the time, volunteering for cloud seeding “more than a king should,” if Madam Kalos was to be believed.

She’d been visited by almost every member of the Guild many times over. Some, like Yalmi and Lindri, had seemed genuinely concerned, and took  time to answer all her questions while subtly listing off the many concerns they had within their departments.

Others, like Kalos and Bavo, had only seemed interested in coaching her. They’d given her overviews of each planetary representative candidate, saying very little about some, and a great deal about others. The rest of the time, they listed the things she’d need to do once she was enthroned. Only later, when Sophia had examined their lists, had she realized the tasks were not things she had to do, but things they wanted her to do. They’d simply explained them as if she had no other option. It was manipulative. They were using her inexperience and lack of knowledge against her, and she didn’t appreciate it.

Sophia kept what she’d witnessed of Sikthand’s behavior in mind as she dealt with the Guild. He never cut them off or hinted that he was uninterested in their opinion, and so she behaved the same, though she now understood why Lady Lindri tended to hide in the mines.

Madam Kalos was relentless. She critiqued Sophia’s clothing, her makeup, her manner of speaking, and always always always, her weak human frame.

She couldn’t tell whether she preferred Madam Kalos’ overabundance of advice to Besith and Roldroth’s silence. They hadn’t said two words to her since she’d accepted the role, and she couldn’t decipher what that meant.

They’d pushed for her to be named queen, so why did they suddenly want to pretend like she didn’t exist? Or did they believe she should be left alone?

She’d have to seek them out and win them over. She shuddered at the thought, but she supposed she’d have to get used to political ass-kissing like that now.

She still couldn’t quite wrap her mind around it. Her. Queen.

What the fuck was she thinking?

She couldn’t be queen. And definitely not to a city of warrior aliens who measured worth in strength and who had a penchant for assassination attempts whenever they found their monarch lacking. Doubt lived inside her like a coiling snake, and all she could do was pretend like it didn’t exist.

Sophia sat up and focused on reading the next section.

Queen Yiphrie, first of her line, was…something…the throne after…something…and blood…something.

She let out an exaggerated groan, and Alno slapped a palm over the text. “Let’s go get some dinner.”

Sophia couldn’t find the strength to argue. Alno helped explain what she had read as they walked to the dining hall. Apparently Sikthand was the seventh ruler of his family to take the throne. One of the reasons there was still a vendetta against him was because his ancestor, Queen Yiphrie, had overthrown the queen of the time by killing her in her sleep, or so the story went.

Just as Alno had hinted previously, the blood-splattered history of Sikthand’s ancestors was gruesome. Stabbings, mysterious falls from landing bays, poisonings, and in one instance, mauling by the king’s own half-starved malginash.

She couldn’t imagine growing up learning about the many ways in which your predecessors were murdered, knowing you were very likely going to meet a similar fate. And what killed her about the whole thing was despite her dislike of Sikthand, he honestly seemed like a good king.

He wasn’t like his great-great-grandmother who abolished cloud seeding, unwittingly causing a drought and allowing an alien army to congregate in the Choke. And he wasn’t like his great great-great-uncle who became so obsessed with the idea that an undiscovered, more powerful metal lay in a layer underneath the askait ore that he dug the mine until it collapsed, taking a section of the tower with it.

Sikthand ruled fairly, for the most part. When she’d brought this up to Alno and asked what he’d done to make his enemies hate him so much, Alno had just shrugged and said, “There are always those who think they could do better. Hating him for his ancestors’ mistakes is just a convenient excuse.”

The only Vrulan rulers she’d read about who had enjoyed a relative amount of safety were the mated monarchs. It seemed that matehood was held in such high regard, even centuries ago when it was common, that mated rulers were nearly untouchable.

Her mind wandered to Japeshi again, and hatred simmered in her gut. Despite the hurt the king had caused with his callous words, there was an unguarded soft place in her heart for him, and the loathsomeness of that woman’s plan made her blood boil.

Nobody who’d grown up looking over their shoulder deserved to have safety and love dangled in front of their nose like that. It was beyond cruel.

The more Sophia read about the king and his family, the harder it was to hate him. If anybody had the right to be calculating and cold, she supposed it was him. Maybe in time, when he finally realized she had no intention of offing him or asking him for more trust than he was willing to give, he would warm to her.

She adjusted the knife she kept hidden on her thigh. It hadn’t passed her notice that as soon as she was announced as the next queen her life would become much less safe, much more quickly. Her human status would probably help keep her alive, but it could only protect her for so long.

Lightning flashed outside the arched windows as Alno described each section of the tower in more detail, and she couldn’t help but wonder if the king was out there. Rain pounded against the glass, so thick the desert and mountains beyond were hidden from view. Bright green explosions lit the sky in the distance, but there weren’t as many as there had been a few hours ago. The riders must be reaching the end of the storm.

Though she’d known the feeling of the hall would be different after the Season officially began, she still marveled at the change. The riders weren’t somber or anything. Light laughter could still be heard around the room, but it was much quieter these days. Haggard, wet cloud chasers with waxen faces and drooping lids shuffled in off their long shifts and sipped imported mott. Others shoveled thick cuts of roasted meat into their mouths to fuel themselves for the storms ahead.

As she took her seat and Alno left her to go speak to a few of his friends, she stared at the high table. Sikthand’s chair was empty. She glanced at the space around the chair. Would they scoot his to the side and put a seat for her next to his? Her skin crawled, her neck already heating when she imagined sitting there raised above everyone else as though she thought highly of herself.

Sophia picked at the tender meat on her plate. She’d need to pretend like she belonged. But how the fuck was she going to accomplish that?

She thought of how Delia, the resident queen in some of her LARP events, acted to get ideas but discarded them all. Delia always used a funny British accent and spoke as if her stomach was filled with air. It was entertaining but would hardly work on this group. Sophia hadn’t participated in any events for over a year now, and even her hardened warrior-maiden character, Skaja, was hard to call back to the surface.

Sophia would have to create a new alter ego, one hard like Skaja but queenly. Her head throbbed, and she made a deal with herself to think about it later. She needed a damn break from thinking right now.

The hair on her neck prickled, and she froze with a slice of meat halfway to her lips. She swiveled and found the king’s eyes glued to her as he stomped into the dining hall, helmet tucked under his arm.

Have you mistaken my curiosity to fuck an alien as genuine interest?

She tried not to wince as his words replayed in her mind. Sophia had mistaken him. Stupidly, she’d thought his lingering stares had meant something more. She peered up at him and the other dripping cloud chasers trailing in behind him, leaving a sopping mess on the floor that a gangly male rushed to mop up.

She frowned to find him still watching her. It irritated the fuck out of her that his cruel words hadn’t completely smothered her crush. He was still beautiful and damaged, and the moments of fleeting tenderness had felt too real to be written off. Her heart ached to think how much easier this would all be if he liked her, even a little.

Some cloud chasers plopped down near her and gave her courteous nods. She had to remind her tensing shoulders that they couldn’t possibly know she was to be queen yet and, therefore, had no reason to want to kill her.

The guy across from her, sitting in Alnos vacant seat, lifted his helmet, which resembled some kind of pointy-faced animal skull, and clunked it down onto the bench next to him. He had a deep bronze hood with rose-gold skin and molten gold eyes. His wavy hair matched his hood and hung around his ears. Sophia glanced down at her plate when he caught her openly appreciating his features.

“Hello, human.” He aimed a brilliant lopsided grin at her, and her heart picked up speed. It was nice to be smiled at.

“Hi.” She grinned back. Maybe this was what she needed as a free woman, before she’d have to spend all her meals stuck to the grumpy king’s side. Some nice flirting with a man who gazed at her body hungrily rather than with derision. “It’s Sophia, not human,” she said with a raised brow, giving him a bit of the flirty sass that seemed to work on Earth men and Clecanian men alike.

He lifted his brows, and his grin widened. “My apologies, Sophia.”

She liked the way her name slid off his tongue. “How was cloud seeding?” she asked, eyeing his dripping armor.

“Oh, wonderful! My mount nearly bucked me off from excitement when the first bolts struck. She’s been cooped up too long since having a litter.” He cut his meat up into small chunks as he spoke, but waited to eat until he was done speaking. She found it charming.

As they talked, Sophia relaxed deeper and deeper into the conversation. The male, Drabik, was easy to like. He was large, with a chiseled jaw and the kind of eyes that made women sigh. And he was smart and funny, regaling her with stories from his cloud-hunting adventures. He knew how to work a conversation, slipping effortlessly from polite chatting to flirty banter to thinly veiled innuendo. It was all so easy.

Her head didn’t throb. She didn’t feel like she had to act any particular way. He didn’t scare her or confuse her. He also didn’t send her stomach swooping like a certain tactless king, but that was okay.

Pricks of awareness alerting her that said king was watching kept invading her happiness, but she ignored them, refusing to give him the time of day. Like he’d said, they would have a cold marriage.

She’d looked up the term, and apparently, it wasn’t uncommon. Many ruling couples throughout Clecania had what was called a cold marriage. It just meant they ruled together but didn’t mingle in a romantic way. They were business partners.

Sophia could live with that. Especially if she was able to find someone else to fall in love with. It was far too soon to say if that person would be Drabik, but he was pleasant enough to talk to. It was nice to think that though she felt utterly alone right now, she might not always feel that way.

The diners in the hall came and went as they chatted, empty plates pushed aside. “When is your next shift?” she asked.

“Not until the next front moves in.” He tipped his head back and forth. “A few days, maybe.”

The side of her face felt like it was burning, and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She masked her actions by aiming her head to the side to take a drink, while peering at the high table as if bored. Cold fury seemed to puff from Sikthand’s nostrils, his gaze seeping into her bones and chilling her to the core.

It only spurred her on. He had no right to look at her like that. What the fuck was she supposed to do with that stare? What did it mean?

She turned back to Drabik. “And what do you normally do in the meantime?” Sophia smiled, flicking the hair off her shoulder to expose her neck. She’d found that most fanged species liked the move, and as Drabik’s gaze zoomed to the column of her throat, she knew she’d guessed right.

He sipped his water and hiked a brow. “Rest. Exercise. Find some distraction.”

The words were innocent enough, but she gasped when his tail wrapped around her calf under the table. This would be fun. This would be easy. She wouldn’t have to agonize over every word. He was sweet and sexy and direct.

A part of her she didn’t want to focus on, whispered that he might also be the way she smothered her little infatuation with the king for good. But was that a good reason to start seeing someone? To get herself to stop thinking about someone else?

He grinned at her, his tail slipping along her calf under her dress. She waited for fluttering to erupt in her belly, but nothing happened.

A loud clanging reverberated through the room, jarring her bones. All heads zoomed toward the high table where Sikthand was now standing, feet planted wide. Darkness oozed off him. The dining hall remained silent, waiting for whatever his announcement was, but Sophia’s throat felt like it was closing.

He was staring straight at her, and she had a sinking feeling she was about to be embarrassed.

“The human”—his venomous glare landed on Drabik—“is mine.”

Sophia’s jaw dropped. Drabik’s beautiful warm eyes met hers, and a moment of sadness passed between them. His tail slipped from her leg. “I just made my way back into the king’s good graces.” It felt like a hollow apology, but Sophia understood. Drabik inclined his head toward her before solemnly trudging away.

Murmurs around the room floated to her ears as Sikthand retook his seat. The Vrulans shot her curious glances and exchanged gossiping whispers. Sophia’s veins lit with fire. She glared toward the king, who was sitting back in his chair smugly. Roldroth leaned in at his side and whispered something in his ear.

Sikthand’s silver gaze met hers, and he lifted a hand, beckoning her. He’d just publicly declared her off-limits, and now he was calling her over like a pet.

Fuck. Him.

Eyes already burning with unshed tears of frustration, she slapped her napkin down on the table, shot out of her seat, and, ignoring the stares of everyone in the room, charged in the opposite direction of the king.


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