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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 19

A week had gone by, and Sophia still couldn’t get ahold of her feelings. The king claimed to not want her, but…that kiss.

She’d impulsively kissed him to see how he’d react and prove to them both that his feelings about her weren’t as cold as he let on. Realizing her plan was already a failure when she’d remembered Clecanians didn’t kiss on the mouth like humans, she’d been about to pull away, but then he’d reacted.

The way he’d held her, the way he’d gripped her face, the pained furrow of his brow, and the rumbling purr that had vibrated from her lips all the way to her lower back where his tail crushed her against his armor. Intensity like that couldn’t be faked. She didn’t think he knew what a kiss was, and yet it had been the best of her life.

It hadn’t been smooth or suave or gentle. It’d been scorching and rough, like he’d been trying to lay claim, and damn if it wasn’t seared into her memory. She’d laid in bed staring at the door that led to his room and swiping her tongue across her cut lip long into the night.

Sophia winced as askait ink pooled underneath her skin, tearing her mind away from the memory of that night. A wave of nausea rose in her throat, but she swallowed it down.

“You’re back soon,” Khes commented. He hadn’t said much to her since she’d arrived at the Flesh Forge asking for him.

She needed something to keep her mind occupied, and luckily Alno had taken it upon himself to get her a new sketchbook, so she had a few pages of tattoo designs to keep her busy. She hadn’t had the opportunity to thank him yet for the thoughtful gesture because she hadn’t seen him much in the last week. He’d been with Difila.

Since the umbercree celebration, the two had spent more and more time together. Sophia now had Difila’s cloud-chasing schedule memorized since Alno all but disappeared when she came off shift.

Sophia couldn’t be too annoyed by his absence, though. She’d pushed for him to take time off, arguing that they were in a weirdly calm period right now and that he’d be stupid not to run when his dream girl called.

Once she was announced as the future queen, she’d need Alno to keep close and help her navigate her new life. It made sense for him to take all the time he could to enjoy himself before that happened.

Even though she’d practically kicked Alno toward Difila, Sophia tried not to let jealousy grip her too tightly. Alno was just a friend, and she knew how utterly obsessed he was with Difila. But the truth was, he was her only friend. Without him following her around and reminding her to eat, she had no one. Even Heleax was gone.

Her days had become increasingly isolated over the past week. She’d wake up, grab breakfast on her way to the archives in midcity. Stay there until the red glow from one of the windows turned blue, an effect she’d learned tracked the time of day. Then, when her stomach gnawed at her hard enough, she would go to dinner. Sometimes Sikthand would be there, sometimes not, and she couldn’t decide which she preferred. Both seeing him and not seeing him left a funny feeling in her stomach.

Nights were spent drawing or studying in her adjoining office. Her massive polished table was piled high with scrolls and papers she’d taken back to her room. She’d study until her head was swirling with historical facts, dates, and laws, then she’d crawl into bed.

It was lonely.

There was an ever-present sense of accomplishment bolstering her. Her reading was improving, she recognized more and more folks throughout this section of the tower, and she’d even come up with a few viable ideas on how they could make Vrulatica more human friendly, but she’d never felt quite this isolated before.

The only other people she could talk to were the Guild, and they weren’t exactly an open bunch. She had to watch her words around them, be guarded.

Maybe that was why she’d decided to change it up and get tattooed today. She had to find a way to inject herself with some happiness, and seeing more of her designs come to life felt like a perfect way to accomplish that.

“I’d like to get most of the sleeve done before…too long,” she said, quelling the urge to explain that she didn’t think she’d have time to come down and get tattooed after she was announced as the next queen.

Khes held her gaze for a few beats too long, and she narrowed her eyes.

He knew something.

She tipped her head toward him. “I think I’ll be busy in the coming months,” she added slowly. Khes’ expression was unchanged at hearing her seemingly innocent explanation. She was probably just seeing things that weren’t there in the hope she could find somebody else to talk to. Sophia turned away.

“If you end up being too busy to visit, I can always go up to your room and work on you there,” Khes grumbled.

“That’s nice of you,” Sophia said through a wince as the pen began to move over her forearm, drawing a base of stylized clouds that would climb up from her wrist and flow into the malginash’s tail on her upper arm.

A moment of silence passed. “It’s what I do for the king. It only makes sense I do the same for you,” Khes nearly whispered.

Sophia whipped toward him, eyes wide.

“Ach!” He threw his hands up, brows slicing down angrily. “Hold still,” he barked, wrenching her arm back into position.

“Y-You know?” she whispered.

He glanced up from his work, holding her gaze as if confirming with just his annoyed stare. “The king’s been getting a lot of work done recently in that torn-up room of his. He revealed the reason behind his dark mood one day.” Khes’ mouth thinned. “A bit dramatic, if you ask me.”

Sophia grinned. Those few sentences made her feel better than she had in days. “A bit dramatic,” she whispered to herself, chuckling.

“Though I suppose the circumstances call for it,” Khes admitted. He dragged his pen over the bones in her elbow, and her mouth filled with saliva. Sophia slammed her eyes shut and breathed in and out through her nose to keep her nausea at bay.

In her hazy, pain-filled mind she couldn’t keep the question she wanted to ask from spewing out of her mouth. “Are you disappointed?”

She had to know. Alno had been ambivalent. The Guild had been excited, but not because they thought she would make a good queen. And Sikthand thought she would fail. But what would the people—soon to be her people—think? Being hated by a whole city would be a miserable existence.

He tipped his head to the side, squinting at his work. “I think it’s coming out nicely.”

“No.” She wiggled her arm until he peered up at her. “Are you disappointed?”

Understanding had him leaning back in his seat. “I can’t say I’m disappointed. I can’t say I’m approving. I don’t have opinions like that about things that haven’t happened yet. You show me what you can do, and then I’ll tell you if I’m disappointed.”

The knot in her throat loosened a fraction. “Fair enough.” He was right. There was no reason to fret over people’s initial reactions. She’d worry just the same, but she had to remember that what she really needed to focus on was working as hard as she could to prove herself. Earn their respect. Don’t expect it.

She sucked in a breath as he resumed work on her tattoo.

“Our king has been through a lot.” The words seemed to be pulled out of him against his will. “You planning to disappoint him?”

She peeked at Khes through squinted eyes, still trying to breathe through the pain. His voice had sounded tight, almost…protective.

“How long have you known the king?” she asked.

“You know how old I am. I’ve known him his whole life. Many people have.” She studied the frown cemented in place on his face.

“No. You know him. I can hear it in your voice.”

His eyes flashed to her, then back to his work. “I’m the inkmaster for the royal family. I gave him his first tattoo, tattooed his parents before him and his grandparents before them. This marriage…” Khes grunted, his voice raspy, as if he’d said more than he normally did in a week and was pissed about it. “I’d be unhappy to see this marriage…” He cleared his throat and lifted his pen. Khes met her stare, a stern set to his eyes. “It’d be a shame for him to find any more cause to hate the world.”

She smiled at him. “Just an ancient softie, aren’t you?”

He growled and slipped the pen around the tender skin near her wrist hard enough to make her squeak.

“Ay! Okay.” Her fingers curled into a fist from the pain, but she kept her expression sincere. “Khes, I don’t plan to give him cause to hate the world,” she assured quietly. “I don’t think I can do this without him,” she whispered, some insecurity leaking into her voice.

He studied her closely, searching her face for the truth. He must have been happy with what he saw because he nodded. “Then don’t try to do it without him.”

“Kinda hard when he won’t talk to me.” She sighed, resting her chin on the back of her chair.

“You’re his queen. Make him talk.”

She rolled her eyes so he couldn’t see. “And when he hops on Ahea and flies away? Should I scream after him?” she whined.

Khes grunted. “Can’t solve a simple problem like this, then I suppose you will disappoint me.”

Sophia laughed and winced. “Jesus, Khes, don’t hold back on account of my feelings or anything.” But she didn’t mind.

Khes wasn’t wrong. Sitting around moping, waiting for Sikthand to approach her wasn’t going to work.


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