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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 2

The dramatic red light from the skylight above turned blue as Sophia lay on the ground, throwing the room into shades of steel and navy. She gazed up through the tinted glass. Maybe it was night now.

Albeit still on the floor, she’d managed to throw her weight around enough so that the chair tipped onto its back. It wasn’t ideal, but at least she was lying on her back with her knees in the air and not on her shoulder with her neck pulling to one side.

She’d spent her time counting the tiles in the round stained-glass window high above. Blues and silvers glowed through the abstract design, reminding her of clouds on a stormy day. Hours ago, the tiles had shone red, though. She studied the glass until her eyes hurt but couldn’t figure out how it was possible for the color to change.

Back on Earth, she’d painted the back window of her house with translucent glass paint to mimic the feeling of stained glass. In the city of Seattle, where she lived, the sun never seemed to shine on the window long enough for her to enjoy it, though.

Where she used to live, Sophia reminded herself. The house her grandparents had left her had likely been cleaned out and sold off by now. Unless they’d somehow tracked down her closest relative—her father. She hadn’t heard from him in over twenty years, though, so she doubted it.

She turned her head and caught her reflection in the enormous dressing mirror affixed to the wall near the mysterious carved door. The mirror stood even taller than the door, its wide arching frame nine feet high at least.

Sophia blinked at herself. She’d avoided looking at her reflection for hours now. It was just too pathetic a sight. She was tied to a fallen chair, her skin dirty and scraped up from the fight and from the dusty floor. The grandeur of the space and the size of the chair made her look pitifully small. Light from above bathed her in blue and deepened all the valleys of her face. She looked like a gaunt ghost trapped underwater.

Her bladder seemed to grow fuller at the thought, and she glanced away. Had they forgotten her here? Would she die tied to an unbreakable chair on an alien planet covered in pee because she hadn’t been worth remembering?

No. Even if these aliens didn’t find her particularly remarkable, she was still human, and she doubted very much they’d forget about that. Humans were too valuable to treat poorly.

Sophia frowned. Had the icy king ordered her to be abandoned here? She wouldn’t be surprised if he got off on throwing his power around. At dinner he’d sat higher than everyone else, glowering down at the human table.

Well, it had at least felt like he was glowering. She couldn’t be certain, since he’d never actually taken off his masked helmet. When he deigned to appear at all, he prowled around, covered head to toe in armor. The only bit of his face she’d been able to spot beneath the metal plating of his helmet was a pale slice of hard jaw and his eerie glowing silver eyes. They were cold too.

Sophia pictured him again. How could an eye color feel so…sharp?

He’d be interesting to draw, she grudgingly admitted. She placed him beneath a beam of red light in her mind. The metal antlers of his masked helmet would glint with a blood-red lining. It wouldn’t be a happy picture, but she might be able to capture his severity if she got the lighting right.

A noise louder than the pounding of her heart—the only sound she’d heard for hours now— roused her out of her thoughts. It grew louder.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Her breath caught in her throat. Footsteps.

She craned her head back, gazing above her forehead to the door she’d been brought through hours before. Being alone had insulated her from her current predicament, her anger fading once there was no enemy to direct it toward. At the clink of metal on stone, a shiver shuddered down her spine.

This wasn’t some LARP event where she was merely pretending to be a warrior maiden. This was real. She was locked in a tower in an alien city. Real soldiers with real blades took real orders from the very real, very terrifying king.

Fighting back had been the right move before, since it’d meant she’d been able to cause enough of a distraction to allow her group time to escape, but Sophia was no fighter. Not unless you considered live action role-play fighting real fighting, which would be ridiculous. A handful of weekends swinging around a foam sword had allowed her to be convincing enough to keep the soldiers confused as to whether or not she knew what she was doing. But her adrenaline was gone now—and with it, her bravado.

She was a hostage. If she was going to make it out of this situation, she had to be smart.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

She swallowed. She was a human and a female, which meant she had value on this planet. They wouldn’t hurt her. If she cooperated and didn’t try to swipe anyone’s head off with an axe, she’d be fine.

The metal inner workings of the door whirred as it unlocked.

Damn. How she wished she wasn’t on the floor right now.

The door swung open, and King Sikthand’s silver eyes fell on her.

Sophia stopped breathing. She’d seen him from afar at dinner or skulking in the background as his Guild peppered them with questions. But now he was here…alone, and the cold shadow that clung to him only felt heavier and more menacing.

He froze halfway through the door, gaze fixed on her. That damn mask still covered his face. Black metal woven with chain and curled silver presented her with a beautifully intricate façade through which no humanity shone. A mix of antlers and horns sprung from the crown of the mask, and the pointed tips glinted in the dull blue light.

Sophia kept her face stony, not wanting to show how forcefully her fear had hit her. His outfit was made to cause this reaction. She had to keep reminding herself of that.

It was like Micah, the guy she’d pined over for years. When he wrapped himself in padding and costume armor, he transformed. Long brown hair, a scruffy beard, and an impressive control over prop swords had made her swoon. But when he took it all off, he was just Micah. A normal, nice guy who spent most of his time managing a landscaping company and chewed with his mouth open.

The razor-sharp horns, icy stare, and layers of pointed metal making the king’s frame far bulkier than it likely was, were all designed to intimidate. He’s just a Micah underneath. Just a man—er, an alien. He slowly stepped toward her, and she attempted to merge into the chair. And a king. Okay, so underneath all that, he’s an alien and a king, but also just a guy, right?

Her heart thundered in her chest the closer he got. She wanted to be brave. Cooperative yet stoic. But his eyes…they were so harsh. They shone out of his mask so brightly she couldn’t tell whether they were solid silver or contained whites and an iris like other Vrulans.

Her discomfort won out, and she averted her gaze, staring up at the ceiling while listening closely for every movement of his boots. He stopped at the top of her chair, looming over her head and blocking out the beam of light from above. She swallowed.

Silently, she contemplated how she was going to get her voice to work when he finally did speak, but he said nothing. Like a hunter examining an animal in a trap, he circled her until he came to her feet and stopped. Her fingers curled against her chair. She almost wished he’d ask how she ended up on the floor. Describing her clumsy fall might be embarrassing, but anything was better than this stifling silence.

He hunched over her and slid his hands under the arms of her chair. A shiver tore through her when the cool silver of his gloves brushed her skin. His grip tightened. At this distance she should feel his body heat, but he was just cold layers of metal. Like a dead thing. A zombie.

He straightened, still holding her chair, and lifted her as if doing no more than standing, then set her upright. Okay, under the armor, he’s just an alien and a king and laughably strong. But also just a guy?

“Uh, thank you,” she mumbled as he reached for the band at her wrist. His face was close now, yet all she could make out below the mask was the pale, chiseled line of his jaw.

Her breath caught when his gloved finger ran over the small indentations she’d left in the leather straps on her wrists. His eerie gaze lifted to hers in a silent question. She chewed on her lip, building the courage to explain. But he put it together himself before she could.

His focus drifted between her mouth and the marks on the leather. The line of his jaw tensed further.

She’d been gnawing on the straps like an animal, trying to bite her way free. Too bad she didn’t have fangs like the Vrulans, or she might’ve been successful.

A choked squeak of pain escaped when he loosened the band and pulled the leather off her blistered skin a little too roughly.

Any remaining wisps of softness that clung to him fled. She tried to pull her now free hand away, but he held it firm and turned it slowly, examining the damage. His eyes glowed a little brighter.

“Thank you,” she said pointedly, pulling her wrist from under his scrutiny.

A deep, noncommittal rumble sounded in his throat. His gaze lingered where her hand had been for a few moments before he slid his plated gloves off.

Her eyes caught on his hands as he tossed his gloves onto the ground. So severe. Pale skin, almost the shade of bone in the blue light, was decorated with thick black designs. They were geometric and harsh and somehow made his long fingers appear as if they could crush stone.

Though his movements were vastly gentler, Sophia still bit back a wince when he peeled the other leather strap away. On instinct, she almost thanked him again, but clamped down on the words before they got out. She’d literally said nothing to him except thank you, which was ridiculous considering he was the one who’d ordered her to be locked up in the first place.

“Where’s the rest of my group?” she asked, her voice containing the merest whisper of demand. Her nerves won out when he froze while peering at her reddened skin, and she added, “Your…Your Majesty.”

His gaze lifted to her, but he didn’t appear angry—more surprised. After a tense moment of silence, he answered, “Gone.”

Warm, deep, and smooth. Sophia’s brain didn’t have time to process how a voice like that could emerge from a man like this when he sank to one knee before her. Still reeling from the shiver his singular word had sent through her body, she was momentarily dumbfounded as to why he knelt between her feet. Then she recalled her legs were still tied.

Something brainless in her body roused at the sight of the enormous alien king kneeling in the filthy ground, but she silently smothered it.

Get a hold of yourself.

He finished undoing the knots at her ankles and stood. Sophia tried to stand too, but both her legs were asleep, and she immediately fell back into the chair.

“You’re needed in the Guild chamber.”

“Can I ask why, Your Majesty?” she asked as she shakily got to her feet. The scrape of metal on stone made her flinch. His long tail, also covered in armor, flicked across the ground. She’d learned this was an emotional response for the Vrulans—but what emotion, she didn’t know. Don’t make him mad.

His hand, which was gloved again, wrapped gently around her bicep as he guided her out of the room. “To discuss your stay in Vrulatica.”

A frown curled her lips at the word stayMy forcible confinement, you mean?

He was silent for the rest of the walk through the buttressed hallway and out a large pair of ornate doors. A guard waited outside, and the king handed Sophia off, locked the doors, then sped ahead without a backward glance. The guard, whose grip was much tighter, guided her in the king’s wake.

Why didn’t he just send this guy to get me from the room? Sophia hadn’t initially considered it, but why would the king of a whole ass city have seen fit to retrieve her all by himself? Especially when he’d brought a guard to walk her most of the way anyway. She shrugged it off as they neared what must be the Guild chamber.

Two arched doors were thrown wide. Six chairs sat embedded within the perimeter of the room in a semicircle. In the center, a throne sat higher than the others. It was built of carved towers of black rock. A crescent sliver of a window was set above the head of the throne. Light poured in from the thin segment of glass like the sun seconds from being overtaken during an eclipse.

As the king sauntered into the chamber, the occupants buzzed to life. There were about twenty people all huddled in smaller groups throughout the room as if they were having semi-private meetings. Sophia recognized the Guild, the six officials of the city who worked under the king to run Vrulatica. They’d briefly introduced themselves when her group had first arrived, but she couldn’t remember their names.

Non-Guild members, those she could only assume were underlings for the heads of the Guild, broke away as the king neared his throne. Cushioned benches lined the walls on the opposite side of the raised seats of power, and in the center of the room, right where Sophia was being dragged, was a single chair. The guard’s tight grip on her arm forced her to stay standing when she tried to sit in the chair. His voice was stern—but not cruel—when he whispered, “Wait.”

The king took his seat while the rest of the room remained standing. She stared up at the sharp decorative points dripping down from the ceiling’s architecture and swallowed.

The Guild’s seats were raised in such a way that the six guildmembers were all peering down at her. Placed against their ornate perches in this gothic room, Sophia couldn’t shake the feeling she was being judged by looming gargoyles.

Her shoulders curled forward.

They stood silently rather than sitting, clearly waiting for something to happen. The king was the only one moving, slipping off his gloves. His hands were even harsher without the blue light shining on them. Her nape tingled when he undid the clasps of his helmet.

“Down,” her guard hissed. Sophia’s head snapped around with a start, and she realized the faces of everyone in the room were dipped to the floor. She did the same.

The hollow knell of the king’s helmet hitting stone echoed through the room. It must weigh a ton. Curiosity to see what his face looked like burned in her. She forced her gaze to remain locked on a crack in the stone to keep herself from peeking on instinct.

“I bestow my trust.” Though Sophia had only heard him speak through the echoing metal of his mask, she knew exactly who the deep, smooth voice came from.

A chorused reply floated from the occupants of the room. “And we ours.” The guard spoke the words too and gave her a little nudge. She peered at her guard and saw he was facing forward again.

“And we—” She raised her head, rushing to repeat the greeting, but her gasp sucked up her words.

King Sikthand’s face was just as unnerving as the rest of him.

The race of people from this city, the Vrulans, had an interesting feature known as a hood. A triangular section of skin that began at their temples and came to a point somewhere between their top lip and chin. Men typically had longer hoods than women. A Vrulan’s hood was often a different color than their skin, and their beauty was attributed to how harmonious their coloring was. Bronze skin with a golden hood. Gray skin with a charcoal hood. Sophia had found them interesting to look at, but the king’s appearance was…unsettling.

Hair, white and thick, was pulled back from his face and braided in a haphazard way that didn’t align with his tidy armor or brutalist hand tattoos. His skin was ghostly pale, almost as light as his hair, and his hood was the darkest black she’d ever seen. The contrast made his glowing silver eyes and bright fangs so striking that he was difficult to look at.

The scrape of metal against stone rocked her out of her stupor. She sucked in a breath, realizing she hadn’t in quite some time. His lips thinned.

Oh shit, I’m staring. Sophia quickly looked away. The rest of the Vrulans shot her pitying glances, and whispers skittered to her ears from the lower representatives seated behind her.

The source of the scraping noise revealed itself when she saw the metal tip of the king’s long tail swishing back and forth near the base of his throne. With a quick swallow to lubricate her throat, she steeled herself and stared up at him again. “And we ours,” she repeated in barely more than a squeak.

She tried to keep her focus trained on his eyes, but her gaze roved over his face despite her efforts. He was just too damn interesting to look at.

He flicked his wrist, and everybody in the room sat. After an unsure moment, Sophia sat as well.

“The room is open.” The king declared as he relaxed back into his chair. She tried to ignore the way his gaze remained glued to her, as if he were punishing Sophia for gawking at him by directing his considerable intensity toward her. She avoided his eyes and kept herself from fidgeting.

A harsh clang made her flinch. A beautiful woman clothed in teal tapped her metal-adorned tail against a silver panel on her chair, indicating she wanted to speak.

She looked at Sophia through glittering white lashes. Though the woman didn’t exactly smile, there was enough kindness in her expression to make Sophia’s shoulders relax a fraction.

“My name is Madam Kalos. I’m the head of trade and international relations. I have some unfortunate news I need to deliver.”

“Are my friends okay? Did they make it to the desert? What happened to them?” The words burst from her before she could contain them. The king’s tail scraped against the floor again. She glanced his way for a split second. Annoyance mixed with her fear at his stony stare. What? She wasn’t allowed to ask questions either?

Madam Kalos’ gaze lit with sympathy, and Sophia braced herself, biting her lip to keep silent. “We have no information on your traveling party. As far as we know, they left unharmed, but we haven’t had news of them since.”

She couldn’t help but notice the hesitation Madam Kalos put on the word left. Like it hadn’t been an escape. As if they’d simply walked out the door after a pleasant, if not short, stay.

Madam Kalos continued, “This is regarding the Tremantian Queen. A message came through yesterday. The Queen has died. There’s an unconfirmed assumption that she was assassinated.”

The words hung in the air, but Sophia couldn’t quite process them. Ears buzzing, her hands lifted to the arms of her chair, and she ran her palms along the smooth surface over and over, trying to make sense of what this woman was telling her. “Assassinated,” she whispered, more to herself.

“Our reports are preliminary, but it seems there was…evidence of harm.”

Sophia’s hand lifted to her chest. That poor woman. She hadn’t interacted with the Queen as much as some of the other humans had, but she’d gotten the impression that the Queen always tried her best to protect them while remaining fair to her people. And now someone had killed her for it? Why?

Anger ignited in her chest, and her focus snapped to Sikthand. Him.

Clecanians the world over had already been stewing in impatience, waiting for the Queen to make more bold moves where Earth was concerned. King Sikthand’s decision to make a flashy statement by holding their traveling party hostage might’ve been the spark of inspiration some asshole needed to take matters into their own hands.

The king raised a brow at her glare.

“Based on evidence found in her home, the belief is she was killed some time ago…before your arrival in our city.” A man on the king’s right chimed in. He was more unkempt than the rest of the Guild. Burly with coppery red hair and a deep bronze hood. It was obvious his words were an attempt to assure her that whatever happened to the Queen had not been a result of the king or Guild, but that did nothing to cool Sophia’s indignation.

The king might not have killed her, but people like him had. People who viewed humans as cattle and Earth as a planet ripe for harvest. The Queen had been the only leader Sophia had heard of that seemed concerned with the terrible impact they might have on humans. The only one to want to think through a strategy that would result in peace for everyone.

“We realize this must be difficult to hear.” Madam Kalos’ voice was softer, but it sounded artificial to Sophia’s ears. “Your friends remain missing, and we can only assume they chose not to return to Tremanta after hearing the news. The Guild has agreed that until a new leader is chosen and negotiations can be reopened, you will remain here.”

“I’ll be detained here, you mean,” Sophia hissed.

“Yes.” The king’s voice was level, but it rattled through her as if he’d bellowed the word. “You will stay because it is in the best interest of my city and, though you choose not to believe it, you as well.”

“And what about Heleax?” she challenged, earning a few whispers. “Why isn’t he here being told all of this?”

“He’ll remain in the dungeons,” Madam Kalos answered as if this were obvious. “He’s a soldier of Tremanta. You’re just a human caught in an international conflict. There’s no reason for your stay to be any more unpleasant than it already is. You may not be allowed to leave,” she continued, “but you’re free to explore the city.”

“Are you a soldier, female?” The copper-haired man eyed her suspiciously. Sophia almost snorted. “I’ve had conflicting reports from my males. Some say you fought during your party’s escape.”

Sophia had bluffed her way through the fight earlier today, but the element of surprise and the knowledge the soldiers were forbidden from harming the humans had been the reason for that. If a soldier came at her intending to injure, she’d be laid out before she had time to lift a weapon.

“No. I’m not a soldier.” Her lack of further explanation seemed to frustrate Copperhead. The thought that he suspected she might be secretly deadly gave her a petty sense of enjoyment.

“She’s human.” Sophia glanced at the man to her right who’d spoken. “She should submit herself to our marriage ceremony,” he drawled, his curling black beard quivering as he spoke. There was no hint of suggestion in his voice but plenty of annoyance. He’d clearly argued this many times over.

A tennis ball lodged itself in her throat. She met the king’s hard stare and prepared to beg. They couldn’t make her marry someone, could they?

“There are quite a few laws that forbid forcing a female into marriage, even if she is an alien female—as I’ve told you repeatedly.” The woman glaring at the black bearded man was too beautiful for words. Her skin was bronze, her hood golden, and her long silvery hair looked like it’d been infused with moonlight. Gorgeous and the voice of reason. Thank God.

Not ready to let the issue of her friend go, Sophia inhaled a determined breath. “Heleax should be allowed out of the dungeons.” She lifted her chin. “Or you should lock me up with him.” Maybe she could bluster her way into getting him freed. Then they could figure out an escape plan.

Another member of the Guild, who was clad in a shockingly drab outfit compared to the rest, chuckled. “Prideful little being, isn’t she?”

The king’s scowl never wavered.

“Nonsense,” Madam Kalos scoffed. She addressed the group, ignoring Sophia. “Are we settled on where she’ll be staying?”

“The market district sees the most traffic. More opportunities for her to be recognized.”

“Yes, but if we hope for a valuable exchange between the new Tremantian ruler, do we want to take the chance of her being recognized? The soldier would be our only bargaining chip, since she’d need to stay with her mate.”

“I don’t—” Sophia tried to interject, but the Guild’s heated discussion continued on.

“If there’s even a remote possibility one of our citizens could recognize a mate, we should support that possibility.”

“There are some agreeable rooms available in lowcity. Our miners and metalsmiths rarely travel skyward. They deserve a chance at recognition as well. She could have—”

Sophia shot to her feet, anger boiling inside her and showing itself in her watering eyes. They said she wasn’t a prisoner but immediately followed up that assurance by verbally passing her around. Not one of them was asking what she wanted or even glancing her way as they argued about her.

Well, no one except him. The king hadn’t looked away.

She didn’t like his stare, knew it was meant to intimidate, but in this moment, she couldn’t help but draw comfort from it. He, at least, saw her.

“Quiet.” King Sikthand’s voice boomed around the room, and silence fell. His tail curled over his thigh as he worked through some thought. Finally, he spoke. “She will remain where I put her.”

“But sire, those are the queen’s quarters. Wouldn’t it be…” The voice of the guildmember in drab clothing died out as the king shot him a lethal look.

“It’s the only place that vermin doesn’t have access,” he growled, bearing his fangs.

Vermin? Who is he talking about?

A few guildmembers looked concerned, but remained silent.

“I’ve heard your suggestions. This is what I’ve decided.” The finality in his statement was palpable. Without pause, the Guild nodded their assent. They might have some input in the ruling of Vrulatica, but Sikthand had final say, and it was clear they either feared him or respected him enough not to argue.

“Speaker Besith has assigned a chaperone.” The king nodded toward the man with the curling beard. Great, a babysitter. I bet he picked someone super friendly, Sophia groused as she took in his mild sneer. “He will show you the city, and more importantly, he will make sure you understand which areas of Vrulatica are off-limits. If you try to leave or pressure any citizen into aiding you in some misguided attempt to flee, I will punish you.” The king took in the stubborn tension of her shoulders and added, “If that doesn’t deter the defiance I see in you, know that I have no qualms with punishing Heleax for your mistakes. Am I understood?”

Sophia’s jaw was tensed so hard it popped. She couldn’t bring herself to answer.

The king leaned forward, and the room cooled a degree. He rested his elbows on the arms of his throne, every inch the icy-hearted ruler. “I will not place you in the dungeon, but I don’t see any problem locking you in your rooms for weeks on end. Freedom. Confinement. I don’t care either way.” The sharp tip of his tail flicked behind his calf. “So, I ask again. Am. I. Understood?”

It would do her no good to get herself locked in her room just to spite him in this moment, though she wanted to. Badly.

“I understand,” she gritted out through clenched teeth.


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