Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 18


Flushed and fuming, Sophia flew through the halls, not quite sure where she was going. He’d be coming after her. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did. She pivoted, heading in a direction she hadn’t gone before. He’d find her eventually, but maybe she could get a few minutes to herself to calm down before she had to look at his infuriating face again.

Fucking confusing asshole king.

She hit a shadowy dead end decorated with a sculpted armored woman appearing to be in freefall, and spun in place.

Sikthand stood silently at the other end of the corridor. Sophia just about hissed.

She charged forward, intent on barreling right past him, but of course he stopped her with an arm barring her path.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” she spat, shooting daggers from her eyes.

“The king,” he drawled.

She crossed her arms over her chest and took in a steadying breath.

Before she could get her string of insults wisely buried, he hauled her forward down the hall. “What the fuck? Why did you do that? I researched cold marriages, you know. They all have outside partners. It’s an established thing. I can flirt with whoever I want.”

His face was stony, and his mouth remained locked. She tried to wrench out of his hold. If he wasn’t going to even acknowledge her, then she refused to be dragged around any longer.

With a growl, he scooped her over his shoulder as if she weighed nothing and continued down the corridor. Her face flamed. What if someone saw her like this? It would not only be embarrassing, but when she was named queen, people would remember. They’d talk about how the king had tromped through the halls with his weak human queen bent over his shoulder.

“Put me down,” she growled. She wriggled, her hands slipping off his slick armor. His cold metal-clad hand came to squeeze the back of her upper thigh, sending a bolt of electricity sizzling down her leg. She froze. “Take your hand off my thigh.”

He adjusted her on his shoulder so he could open the doors to their wing but made no move to alter the position of his hand. She held back the fury threatening to leak from her eyes in the form of tears. “Why are you doing this?” she moaned miserably as he took the steps to the landing bay two at a time.

His jaw seemed to be wired shut as he plopped her onto Ahea’s waiting saddle and wrapped a cloak around her shoulders. She tried to slide off the other side, but he leapt into the saddle behind her and spurred Ahea on so violently that Sophia had to grip his knees to keep from tipping off.

“I’m giving you what you want,” he growled at her ear just before he guided Ahea to dive headlong into the blistering rain. The wind blew the storm in every direction, her cloak doing little to guard her dress. She was soaked through within a minute.

Lightning flashed across the sky to her right, and acid-green explosions illuminated the clouds. Thunder rattled through her bones not a second later, wiping away her anger in an instant. They flew just beneath the storm, and it was horrifying. She couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be flying through the clouds.

A gust of wind jostled Ahea and Sophia screamed as her ass lifted, hovering off the saddle for terrifying seconds before Sikthand’s arm came around her hips, wrenching her back down. The rain pelted her eyes so furiously she couldn’t guess which direction they were heading. She pulled her cloak tight over her face to keep out the sting of zooming horizontal drops and attempted not to jump every time a clap of thunder quaked through her stomach.

She peeked out as the rain gentled just in time for Ahea to crunch into the muddy ground.

It took her a moment to get her bearings. The city was behind them, and in front of her was a man and a…cruiser.

It was Heleax. Back in his uniform and looking a bit more deflated than he had when they’d first arrived in Vrulatica. Sikthand slid off Ahea, then dragged her down too. She blinked through the rain at him.

“You’re releasing him now?” Sophia asked. She hadn’t known why this was so surprising to her. So simple with no pomp and circumstance. She’d half imagined a public pardon in which Heleax would be proclaimed free, but this was so quiet. Like he was being kicked out the back door with a garbage bag of his stuff.

“I’m releasing you both.”

She froze, eyes narrowing.

“You never wanted to be queen, only freedom for you and your friend. I’m granting that. Go.”

Sophia glanced over to Heleax, heart thundering. Her guard glowered murderously at Sikthand but made no move to attack, his gaze warily sliding to Ahea every few seconds.

“What? But what about the Guild?”

“I’ll deal with them.”

I could leave.

The weight of the world seemed to lift from her shoulders. Sophia didn’t want to be queen, but if there was even the barest possibility that she could make a difference, didn’t she have to try?

But what was she conscripting herself to? A life of constant judgment and scrutiny? A cold marriage to a man who despised her? “Why did you just claim me if you were planning to let me go?”

Movement caught her eye, and she spotted him clenching his hands into tight fists. They relaxed as soon as she glanced at them, but in an awkward way, like someone trying to make their hands appear relaxed. “I misspoke.”

Sophia’s mind worked, trying to come up with any reason for his actions, but none of them accounted for the intensity she’d seen in his eyes. He hadn’t claimed her in an aloof way. It’d been a possessive piss on what’s mine so no one else touches it kind of way. But that didn’t make sense.

“Take off your helmet.” She tipped up her chin, lashes fluttering in the falling rain. When he made no move to do as she asked, she explained, “I want to ask you something, and I want to see your face when I do.”

At length, he unclasped his helmet and lifted it off. His jaw was tight, his eyes narrowed against the rain. Wide shoulders clad in deadly armor were outlined against a flashing sky.

“Do you want me to leave?” She held her breath, watching for any hint of emotion.

The barest flash of a wince passed over his cheeks, his brows twitching. “Yes,” he said, but she couldn’t unsee the split-second reaction.

There was something within his expression when he spoke to her. Even when he looked at her. It was confusing since it clashed so heavily with his icy words, but if he were any other person, Sophia would think he was lying.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she whispered.

Sikthand’s chest rose in a deep inhale. He stepped away. Sophia kept peeking over her shoulder as she made her way to Heleax.

“Are you alright? What’s going on?” the guard hissed when she was within a few feet.

Heleax knew what had happened the past few days. She’d made sure to keep him in the loop. Suffice to say he had not been as keen on the idea of her as queen. If anything, he seemed to hate the idea more than the king himself.

“He said he’ll let me go with you.”

Heleax’s eyes widened. He grabbed her by the wrist and attempted to drag her toward the cruiser, but a clicking growl had them both freezing. Ahea’s white cloudy eyes seemed to glow. Sikthand was already astride, helmet in place. Was he so sure she’d take the easy way out?

“Wait, Heleax.” She tugged her wrist from his hold. “I think I have to stay.”

“Are you insane?” he barked. “You won’t survive here. That male is a monster. One wrong word and he’ll throw you in my empty cell and pretend like you ran away. Have you thought of that? What if that’s what happened to the others? What if they were shot down as they escaped and he’s just telling you they got away? Why else wouldn’t they have sent word?”

Sophia was getting more and more tired of Heleax. His conspiracy theories had seemed reasonable at the start, but the more she’d learned about Vrulatica, the Guild, and the current political climate surrounding Tremanta, the less his accusations made sense. The ugly truth was that on some pouty irritating level, she could see the intelligence behind her kidnapping, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it hadn’t been Vrulatica, how much longer would they have toured before a different city took it upon themselves to do the same?

“Perhaps they got word that the interim Queen was planning to disperse them like gifts to cities across the world and decided not to go back. Honestly, I’m surprised you want to go back. Do you really agree with what she’s doing? Does your loyalty to Tremanta mean you’re going to go back and serve her? Are you going to drag humans from the temple so they can be shipped off when the time comes?” Sophia accused, not bothering to hold back her annoyance.

A flash of hurt crossed over his face, and his head snapped back. “I…” He placed a palm on her shoulder. “Of course not. But we can’t stay here.”

Here is where I have the best shot of making a difference. The Vrulans might be picky about their leaders, but they don’t dislike humans. Like any other city, they want them to come here. What if I could make this a haven for all the humans worried about being displaced? A human-friendly city. I told you not one member of the Guild was pleased with the Queen’s decision.”

Heleax crossed his arms over his chest. “They didn’t object for moral reasons, Sophia. Don’t see kindness where there isn’t.”

Sophia mimicked his stance. “That’s true, but they didn’t all jump at the opportunity either. Just because they don’t allow their personal morals to guide their decision making doesn’t mean they don’t have any. I think they’re reasonable, and I don’t think they’re as heartless as you do.”

“You think you could make Vrulatica friendly?” he scoffed.

She almost wanted to laugh. “I honestly don’t know. But I do know there’s a possibility I could have some power here. If I leave, I have absolutely none.”

Heleax considered that. “Okay. You stay for now, but I promise you, I’ll figure something out.” His gaze flashed behind her. “How long until you have to get married?”

“Less than two months. Sometime after I confirm he voted for my choice at the Leaders’ Summit.”

 “I’ll figure something out,” he urged again, gripping her hands. Sophia didn’t have the energy to argue.

She thought back to her years of LARPing before saying, “I can pretend to be a queen. Don’t worry.” A flash of concern speared through her. Would it be a life of pretending? Was it possible for her to ever think of herself as a queen? Or would she always be a girl playing dress-up?

They exchanged unsteady goodbyes before Heleax crawled into the cruiser and sped away.

She faced Sikthand and took a deep breath.

Lightning flashed across his armor and glinted off Ahea’s antlers. He looked so powerful sitting astride the enormous creature, backlit against the spectacular tower of Vrulatica as it disappeared ominously among a blanket of glowing green clouds. This terrifying warrior king would be her husband, and she was going to figure out a way to make it work.

She straightened her spine.

“I’m staying.”

***

Sikthand stared after the cruiser disappearing in the distance, his stomach a confusing tangle of relief and regret. So close. He’d been so close to getting rid of her for good. So close to losing her forever.

He could smell her heady scent lingering between the warm raindrops as she walked toward him and couldn’t keep his chest from tightening. It meant nothing.

Her demand to stay was in no part related to him. She was doing it to help her people. Not because she wanted to be his queen. How could he blame her after the vitriol he’d spewed at her? Yet he couldn’t keep his arm from slipping around her possessively as she climbed up and took her seat in front of him.

They lifted into the sky, and the incline had her sliding back to firmly plaster against his chest. Her cloak tangled around his forearm, and he lifted his hand from her waist to shake it out. When he replaced it, he slipped his palm beneath her cloak and across her ribcage so that his fingers wrapped around her ribs.

He wished he could feel more of her. His gloves masked it, but he could just imagine how hot and slippery her rain-soaked skin would be against his palm. A gust had his fingers curling into giving flesh to hold her steady. He ached to know how it would feel to dip the pads of his fingers into her skin, to stroke and knead. He squeezed a little tighter, and she stiffened in his grip.

May lightning strike me, he silently cursed. This female was dangerous. He couldn’t seem to control himself around her. First, he’d claimed her in front of the whole damn dining hall without any right. She wasn’t his, and he’d made damn sure she knew he didn’t want her to be his. Now he couldn’t keep his touch cold.

She even made him mindless enough to want to shed his armor. His only protection. It had saved him countless times, and yet he wanted to fly through this storm in the thinnest clothing possible so he could feel the curve of her spine melt against his chest and know the rhythm of her heartbeat as it pulsed against his palm.

He worked with Ahea to guide them through the storm, his malginash a mistress of sensing building electricity and steering her unprotected human passenger far from the gathering bolts. When they returned to the landing bay and he helped Sophia down, her cloak, heavy with rain, slapped to the ground, almost making her knees buckle.

She threw it off, coughing where the tie had dug into her neck.

He ignored the urge to pull her head back and examine her throat for damage by slipping his helmet and gloves off, and unstrapping Ahea’s saddle. He’d worked her hard the last few days, keeping his mind occupied with cloud seeding, and Ahea deserved some time off.

“Hey. We’re not done,” Sophia called from behind him.

“I don’t need you for anything else.” He kept his voice emotionless, not bothering to turn around.

A small gurgle of exasperation bubbled from her. “Why did you put a verbal brand on my ass back at dinner? Huh?”

He sighed. He hadn’t intended to. Something in him had just snapped. He had no answer for her. Not one that wouldn’t clue her in to his real feelings. He’d wanted to rip off that male’s tail right there in front of everyone.

“Don’t ignore me, you fucking tin man!” His shoulder dipped forward an inch as something bumped into it, and he froze. Had she…?

Now on high alert, he sensed when her hand shot out to shove him again. He spun, catching her wrist and forcing her back from Ahea a few steps as his mount clicked a warning growl.

Sophia’s pupils were dilated in anger. “Stay out of this, Ahea,” she barked.

His mount fluttered her wings indignantly but surprisingly did quiet her growling.

“Did you strike the king, human?”

A smile threatened to tug at his mouth as the little female actually rolled her eyes. “Calm down. I shoved your shoulder. You barely even noticed it. Explain yourself,” she grated. “Why did you do that? I am trying my best to not take anything you say or do too personally. I’m working my ass off to learn everything I can so I can be a good leader. I’m devoting myself to being queen, and you have told me that we won’t be together romantically and that’s fine, but are you expecting me to be celibate for the rest of my life? What’s with the mine bullshit?”

Sikthand’s lips tightened. He dropped her wrist, and she stumbled away. His heart thundered to life as he caught sight of the dress she was wearing, now wet and clinging to her curves. His jaw slackened, his fingers curling in as he itched to reach out and trace the delicate folds of fabric.

Sophia noticed.

She studied him, her gaze flicking over his face. Her brows softened. “You are interested in me, aren’t you?” she breathed.

He spun away, returning to kneel at Ahea’s side. “Incorrect.”

“You want me, and you hate it, don’t you?”

His neck burned, his skin sparking with awareness of her proximity to his back.

“You don’t want to get married, so you’ve been trying to scare me off with your huffing and puffing. But really, you like me.”

“No,” he all but shouted, rising to his full height. He whirled on her to get her to back away, but as soon as he turned, her fingers curled around his neck and her mouth lifted to his.

The howling wind settled into a distant whisper, and the rain sizzled off his heated skin as soon as it hit.

He didn’t understand this. Didn’t know what she was doing, but her soft lips kneading his was the loveliest paralytic.

Her mouth was warm and giving, her fingers gentle where they dug into the hair at his nape. His heart was stuck mid-beat, breath no longer necessary. He could nearly taste her, and then her lips parted, and her tongue swept across the seam of his mouth.

Sikthand, the king harder than askait, trembled.

The blade he’d retrieved at lightning speed when she’d lunged for him slipped from his fingers. The clang as it hit the stone ground was a distant tinkling in his ears.

He matched her mouth’s movements, clutching her upturned face with both hands and tasting her. Each slide of her hot tongue against his sent fire coursing through his belly and electricity exploding over his skin. Her mouth was sweet, her tongue scalding, and he angled his head to drink her in deeper.

He’d eat her pretty cunt this way, delving his tongue in as deep as it would go, licking every curve until she quivered and broke. She let out a desperate moan, her nails digging into his neck, and he growled in response.

But then she yelped in pain, and he jerked away.

A bead of blood dripped from her flushed lower lip. “I’m okay,” she breathed, her lids heavy and the heady scent of arousal rising in the air between them. “It was just your fangs.”

His fangs? His thumb moved from her cheek, where he was holding her upturned face, down to swipe over her bloodied lip. The tang of metal hit his nose.

Sikthand’s mind returned to him slowly. He took stock of where they were.

She was smashed against his chest, his tail wrapped around her back to hold her securely in place. How hard had he been crushing her against him? With his armor shielding the feel of her body, he worried it had been too hard.

He’d hurt her. He’d been mindless. This wasn’t right.

Slowly her brows furrowed in worry, and she lowered a few inches. Down from her tiptoes, he now realized.

It took exceptionally more willpower to get his tail to remove itself from her back, but when he did, it was as if his thundering heart finally registered in his ears.

He turned away, needing distance from her scent, her body, her divine mouth before he lost himself completely.

“Leave,” he growled, his lungs heaving in all the air he’d deprived himself of at once. Under his armor he was shaking, panicked.

“I…I don’t understand. We could have a real marriage. It wouldn’t be easy, but—”

“I shouldn’t have claimed you.” He faced her, his heart constricting at the mere sight of her heartbreakingly beautiful face. “It was a moment of jealousy, I admit. Nothing more.”

“I don’t believe you.” A change in the wind brought rain slashing in at a harsh angle. Lightning flashed over her face and highlighted the smeared blood on her chin, a gruesome display.

The sight helped ground him. Sikthand stepped close, hardening his heart and blinding his senses. He gripped her chin in a cruel hold.

“This is a temporary fascination, human,” he hissed. “You are but a Season. Calamitous, powerful, consuming. But like the rains, you too will pass.” He dropped her chin and straightened to his full height, towering over her, not revealing the crippling ache constricting his stomach. “I need only weather you.”

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