Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 20


Sophia didn’t leave the Flesh Forge until late. The dining hall contained only scraps of stale food from dinner hours before. She brought a plate to her room and ate it in her study, the queen’s study, while staring at the cold hearth. One day, she’d need to learn how to build a fire.

She glanced around the area in front of the hearth, scanning again for wood or matches or anything. But there were only unfamiliar canisters. Fires here weren’t built like they were back on Earth, and she was too cautious to guess at it. She’d likely end up setting the whole wing ablaze. If she ever saw Alno again, she’d make sure to get him to teach her.

Her quarters felt different to her now. More imposing. Her rooms weren’t just a temporary residence anymore. This was her home, her space forever. The study, which she’d rarely set foot in before, wasn’t just a fun bonus library. It was where she’d anguish over decisions that had the power to change the world.

Again, what the fuck am I doing?

To soothe her panic, she smoothed her fingertips over the new design inching up her forearm. She traced over a small spot on her inner wrist where she’d hidden an umbercree within billowing clouds. Mind veering toward Sikthand again, she shook her head to clear it.

She had their whole marriage to agonize over that knee-weakening kiss, but she only had a month and a half until the Leaders’ Summit. That was where her mind had to be.

Pushing her food aside, she crossed to the mostly empty shelves she was slowly filling with collected scrolls and reference books. She pulled all the candidate files Yalmi had provided her with and felt a familiar sense of overwhelm set in when she opened the first one.

Dates with years she didn’t understand were paired with service to places she didn’t recognize.

Agers Kutaf. Toki 14 to Uranid 67, 400th Gui cycle. Title: Attaché to Grempling Studia Volux. Earned forty thesklines for his service.

“What the fuck does that mean?” she groaned.

For all Sophia knew, the person that this file belonged to could have served ten years in the military or two months in a candy factory. Studia made her think his role was somehow academic, but thesklines earned for service?

She shoved the file away and collapsed back into her chair with folded arms. This was useless. Her leg bounced as she glared at the papers on her desk.

You know what? Fuck it.

Shoving files into a haphazard pile, she scooped them into her arms, then threw a dozen or so scrolls and a heavy book into the mix for good measure.

She stormed into her bedroom and checked her reflection in the mirror. A few scrolls toppled out of her arms when she tried to use one hand to smooth her hair and wipe the dark makeup smudges away from under her eyes.

Ignoring the embarrassing reflection of her failed efforts to pick the scrolls up off the ground without allowing more to spill from her arms, she lifted her chin and breezed out of her room. In less than two minutes, she was standing in front of Sikthand’s door, breath unsteady. She ground her teeth, clenching and unclenching her jaw while staring at the dark wood.

Just knock. Be confident. Don’t take no for an answer.

She pooled her pile into the crook of her right arm, curling her shoulder to keep a few precarious scrolls in place while she lifted her fist to knock, but before her knuckles grazed the door, it flew open and Sikthand barreled out, almost running right into her before freezing.

Hand still raised in mid-knock, they stared at each other, both startled into silence. He didn’t look surprised to see her, though, more confused.

In slow motion, one of the scrolls wedged under a file began slipping free, making a deafening scrape in the utter silence of the corridor that would have been hilarious if it didn’t mean Sophia was about to have to make a fool of herself trying to pick it up.

The uncovered tip of Sikthand’s tail flashed out before the scroll fell, and without breaking eye contact, he slowly forced it back into place.

“Uh, hi.” She cleared her throat and finally lowered her hand. Her brain registered his armorless frame, and she forced her eyes to stay trained on his face, or the ground, or the wall. Anywhere except at his defined chest visible through the loosely laced front of his long-sleeved navy shirt. His hair was unbound but combed back from his forehead as though he’d run his hand through it in frustration a hundred times and the strands had given up trying to fall forward. “Can I come in?”

It was obvious he’d been going somewhere in a hurry, but she didn’t want to acknowledge that. Asking where he was headed would just give him an excuse to leave. She’d be the queen, and she needed to start acting high and mighty.

Her question registered, and his brows creased. He looked over his shoulder at his room as if inspecting it. She took his distraction as an opportunity, slipping under his elbow and striding inside.

Khes had mentioned it was messy, and boy, he hadn’t been lying. Scrap bits of metal lay all over the place. A corner of the room with an array of weapons, tools, an enormous blazing hearth, and a grinding stone contained the most scraps. The king must have a metalworking hobby. Interesting.

“Is there somewhere I can put these?”

His shock was finally wearing off, and a cold mask slipped into place. “What are you doing here, Sophia?” he asked sharply.

“An impromptu meeting. I have some stuff I need to go over with you,” she commented mildly, as if they both weren’t hyper-aware that the last time they’d spoken had ended in a scorching kiss.

He peered around his room, eyes falling on piles of clutter here and there. His shoulders lifted with tension, almost like he was embarrassed.

He stepped over to his door, opening it again. “I don’t have time for that. We can meet some other day.”

She huffed out a breath of frustration but kept herself rooted in place. “No.”

“No?” he parroted, brows lifting.

“I don’t have anyone else that I can talk to. I’m going to be queen, and you’re going to be my king. We need to discuss things together. I have an armful of information that I don’t know how to decipher. I can’t go to the Guild because I can’t trust they’ll tell me everything and not cherry-pick their information based on who they want me to vote for. I don’t know anyone else in the city who cares about politics. Like it or not, we have to talk.” She let a little bit of desperation leak into her voice. “I need your help.”

His hand gripped the door, his knuckles white, and he stared at her, a muscle twitching in his jaw. He looked out into the empty hallway for a few silent moments before finally letting out a growl of irritation and throwing the door closed. Sophia didn’t even flinch at the crack of it slamming shut. She’d won.

He faced her again, resigned but clearly unhappy about it. “In there,” he growled, pointing to an open door. She made her way through without complaint, though her insides begged her to stay in his bedroom and peek at every corner of his private space.

His rooms were a mirror of hers. Even before walking through the door he’d gestured toward, she knew she’d walk into a study.

The layout was identical. Bookshelves lining one curved wall, a twin desk in a glossy black finish, and metal branches tipped with glowing orbs spreading across the ceiling like hanging constellations.

Yet his study looked more…kingly.

Maps were stuck to the walls, the bookcases were overflowing with all manner of written work. The rug covering the stone floor was compressed in certain areas, as though giving her insight into where her soon-to-be husband liked to pace. She ignored the trickle of warmth that bloomed in her at knowing something personal like that about him. Cups were piled on the table, some still containing white liquid.

Her arms ached, so she dropped the load she was carrying onto the desk, lunging to keep a few things from slipping off the corner.

Her stomach dipped when she turned and saw him leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, hair brushing his strong shoulders. She knew his silence was a challenge. He was waiting for her to spit out whatever it was she needed to say, but she couldn’t bring herself to be annoyed. This was good. This was progress.

She picked up one stack of papers off the table at random and flipped through the candidate file. “Thania Seeker from Caelestis,” she announced. As good a place as any to start.

Sophia made her way to the chair behind the desk, now suddenly very self-conscious about reading aloud. She scanned the first line. “What is Dydall?”

With a sigh, he lifted off the door frame and sauntered into the room, stopping at a corner laden with glassware and a large jug of liquid she hadn’t noticed before. “It’s not a what. It’s a where. A religious temple of the Caeles. Thania was a high priestess for about fifty years before she turned her eye to politics.”

Sophia kept her focus on the file as if reading silently, but all her mind could concentrate on was how Sikthand had slipped behind her chair and now loomed at her back. A glass came into view in front of her, and he set it down with a light thump.

She peeked at his thick forearm, roped with muscle. Heavy black bands traveled down from under the folded cuff of his shirt and connected with the stripes running over his fingers like black angular bones.

Sophia swallowed and averted her eyes. It should be illegal for a man with forearms like that to push up his sleeves. She fidgeted when he didn’t move away, flicking her thumb over the decorative metal corner piece holding the papers together.

He smelled so good without armor on.

“Okay,” she finally replied, scrunching her brows and forcing her eyes to move back to the file. “She… So what does it mean when it says ‘was in rotation for merps-oh-ree—’” Sophia stumbled over the word, heat rising on her neck.

“Menkscreen,” he corrected, his rumbling voice near her ear sent shivers down her spine.

Fuck. She’d forgotten that damn ks symbol again.

He plucked the file from her fingers and crossed to a well-worn chair in the corner of the room. “If you ask me about each of these terms one by one, we’ll be here for years,” he grumbled. “I’ll read this to you and explain as I go. You listen.”

She tamped down her annoyance with his imperious tone and nabbed her glass from the table before joining him. She plopped down into an almost identical chair across from him.

The fabric on the arms of his chair was worn and faded compared to the bright clear pattern on hers. Even alien kings had funny little habits. Each day, he must come in and choose to sit in that chair rather than this one.

It was another small insight into the king, trivial as it may be—yet she liked knowing. These bits of information felt forbidden. They didn’t matter at all, but she bet she was one of the only people in the world who knew which chair the king preferred to sit in. The only one who knew which side of the desk he paced on and what type of beverage he drank while working.

She smothered a stupid grin and took a sip of her drink. It was a watered-down version of renwaeder. Her throat burned to let out a cough, her eyes watering. She managed to keep it down and save some dignity. He eyed her, his long strong fingers brushing against the top corner of the paper held upright in his lap.

“Seeker from Caelestis is a title given to officials from Caelestis who travel to cities around the world, learning from other rulers and immersing themselves in different cultures. They use what they learn to better their city and, in Thania’s case, improve our relations with Alliance species.”

Sikthand continued to read and explain, and Sophia tried to concentrate rather than let her mind wander to how delicious his voice sounded. It was hard work.

As it turned out, Thania seemed like a pretty good candidate. Though she’d spent a near lifetime dedicated to her temple in her home city and another lifetime wandering the world as a Seeker, she’d taken her experience and approached her role as intergalactic council representative with wisdom and compassion.

One of her more memorable accomplishments, in Sophia’s opinion, was her hard-fought battle for leniency in dreg offenses. Dregs, meaning citizens of planets not belonging to the Alliance for one reason or another, who unlawfully traveled through the galaxy for things like supplies or trade, had been dealt with harshly to make a statement. Thania had fought for dreg crimes to be judged individually rather than continuing to dole out blanket sentences regardless of whether the crime was illegal purchase of building materials or space piracy.

However, Sophia didn’t like rumors of favoritism toward Thania’s home city. That could be a problem. Then again, she supposed it would be difficult to find a truly objective representative when they were all from one city or another.

Just like on Earth, the country you were from was a part of you, and unless you found somebody with no country to speak of, there would be some sense of allegiance that had to be looked over. Sophia herself wasn’t objective by any stretch.

Sikthand answered her endless questions clearly but seldom elaborated. He rarely even looked at her, so she made sure to stare at him extra hard. She couldn’t decide why. Perhaps this was her way of chastising him for not looking at someone when talking to them.

Or maybe the renwaeder had worked its way into her bloodstream, making her a little more relaxed than she should’ve been.

It’d been a couple hours, and they’d only made it through one file. Every other word was foreign to her and needed explanation. Every proper noun, many phrases, any mention of foods or plants or animals. It was vindicating to have someone else acknowledge that being able to read wasn’t the same thing as being able to understand.

Sophia wasn’t stupid. She was from a different planet, and watching him arrive at the same conclusion had relief spreading through her, especially when his cruel words about her underdeveloped human brain played through her head at regular intervals.

When she’d interrupted him starting to clarify the difference between the Brudelerion and Brudelure Alliance species, explaining the difference herself in simple terms since she’d already looked it up days ago, he’d appeared impressed. Her chest had bowed, and a smug smile stayed glued to her lips.

It felt nice for someone to finally realize how out of her depth she was and how hard she had to work to know even as much as a Clecanian child.

He slapped the file down on a low table between them and ran his hand through his hair in exactly the way she’d imagined he had. Her grin widened, and she tried to hide it when he peered at her. One more private habit she knew about the king that not many others did.

He frowned, not understanding what her smothered smile was about, yet suspicious of it all the same. “We can go over the others another time.”

She nodded. It was late, and she was tired. “One per day should do it.” She had the choice to phrase it as a question, but she didn’t. This was a demand.

He raised a brow at her and sipped his drink. “One per day seems excessive.”

She shrugged, her movements a little sluggish. “That schedule actually feels a little too relaxed considering the Leaders’ Summit is in six weeks and that was one of the thin files.” Her drink was empty, so she rose from her seat to refill it. Heat from his gaze warmed her back as she strolled by his bookshelves, examining the items with interest on her way to the jug of renwaeder. Would he tell her to stop? Make her leave?

“Who do you want to vote for?” she asked.

“Your demand doesn’t give me a say, remember?” he sneered.

She peered over her shoulder at him. “It doesn’t mean I don’t wanna know. I’d like to hear your opinion.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”

She stopped in front of a wide map and rolled her eyes. Something that was becoming a new habit in this city. “Well, who are your favorites, then? What are your thoughts on the candidates?”

“I don’t know whether Vila still isn’t the best option.”

Sophia was searching the map, trying to pinpoint Tremanta, when his words caught up with her. She spun around. “Are you kidding? Vila?”

He shrugged, the pad of his thumb tracing over the lip of his glass. “She’s clearly smart, resourceful, cunning, and as far as I can tell, her main objective is to get Earth opened. I want that too. Our planet needs that. Our people need that. It might be better for our world to have someone ruthless in charge.”

“But…” Sophia argued. “But the way she’s doing it. It’s deplorable. How can you support a ruler like that? She’s as bad as the Insurgents.”

He grinned, exposing a fang, but it wasn’t a grin of happiness, it was one of disdain. “What I personally support doesn’t matter. My morals hold no weight. My duty is to my people, as is yours. And as for the Insurgents”—he lifted a thoughtful brow—“they did find a species capable of preventing our extinction. Did they not?”

Sophia’s mouth slammed shut for a moment. “That doesn’t justify how they did it. It wasn’t right.”

Right doesn’t exist as a ruler. I can’t make decisions based on what’s right or wrong or good or evil. Whoever put it in your head that being a queen meant you could lead ethically lied. Being a ruler is being strong enough to make terrible horrible decisions so that your people can lead lives free from pain and fear.”

Sophia studied him, frowning. “I don’t agree. The how matters.”

He shook his head and let out a humorless laugh. “You don’t have to agree. If you last long enough, you’ll see it for yourself. As a queen, you’ll have to choose what our city stands for. What’s worth fighting for and what isn’t, not based on what’s right or wrong, but based on what allows your people to live unconcerned lives. And despite the fact that every intention you have is pure, they’ll hate you. They can’t help it. There is no decision you will make, ever, that everyone will support. You either don’t do enough, or you do it the wrong way, or you’re too soft, or you’re too vicious.”

Sikthand grew more animated as he spoke, pouring out decades of pent-up bitterness and anger into his growling voice. He ground to a sudden halt and blinked at her as if just realizing she was still there. He glanced away, taking in a deep, exhausted breath that gave her the impression he hadn’t truly rested in a very long time.

“People need something to be upset about for their happiness to be real,” he explained, voice emotionless. “We only notice the day because there is night. We’re only truly quenched by water after thirst sets in. They need the negative, even if they manufacture it. It’s the only way they understand the value of the positive. As their queen, you’re an easy target. They’ll look for any crack, any blemish and scream about it. But the fact that they’re screaming about you and not perishing in wars or starving in the mines will show you you’ve done your job well. And when you die, they’ll visit your statue in the Heroes Hall and wail over what a wonderful leader you were, though you won’t be around to hear it.”

He met her wide-eyed stare, a harsh severity to his gaze. “Our people are afraid. Though the world has fought for hundreds of years to keep it at bay, extinction is coming. If Vila is our best chance of getting Earth opened and giving our people a glimmer of hope, then her effectiveness outweighs her vile methods. It’s not right. But that never matters.”

Sophia stared at him silently for a long time, trying to process the magnitude of Sikthand’s worldview. Was he right? Or was he just jaded?

She grabbed the jug of alcohol and settled back into her seat across from him. “You’re the bleakest person I’ve ever met.” She took a long breath. “But I’m determined to prove you wrong.”

Sikthand was sprawled back, knees spread wide, the floral-patterned chair looking as much a throne as any other seat he occupied. There was a frown permanently etched on his face, but there was something about his relaxed posture, and the glint of interest in his eyes that made Sophia wonder whether he wasn’t enjoying this conversation, wasn’t enjoying dumping out all his deepest darkest woes onto another person.

Sophia had been feeling so alone for the last week, but that isolation must be just a drop in the ocean compared to what Sikthand must have felt his whole life.

“The old Queen wasn’t as cynical as you,” she commented, wondering if his inherited title is what had made him such a defeatist.

“I bet she was more cynical than you think. She was just better at hiding it.” He leaned forward, his elbows coming to rest on his knees. “That rumor about her stashing thousands of humans away—”

“Turned out to be just a rumor,” Sophia shot back.

“But she had hundreds,” he countered. He tipped his brows up, waiting for her response, already knowing he’d won the point.

Sophia chewed on her lip. She still couldn’t account for that. Where had they all come from? The Guild had explained that the queen had hundreds of humans still asleep in pods. Had the old Queen really hidden them away? It made her question everything.

“So, what should I prepare myself to deal with? What do our people blame you for?” She poured him a glass before pouring her own. He stared at it suspiciously for a few seconds. “What?” she asked. Had a bug fallen in his cup or something?

“I usually pour my own drinks,” he muttered. His eyes were still narrowed at the innocent white liquid.

“Worried I slipped you something?” she joked, but his silver gaze flashed to her.

“You wouldn’t be the first.” The absence of any emotion in his voice as he admitted he’d been poisoned before had dread racing down her spine.

Her heart hurt for him and for the effort it had to take to live so cautiously. It must be exhausting and awfully lonely. “I’m not going to do that, Sikthand. I’d never do that to you,” she urged softly.

His brows furrowed, his bright eyes scanning her face as if he desperately wanted to believe her but just couldn’t. He held her gaze for a moment longer, then took a sip. A muscle in his jaw ticked as he gulped down the liquid and sat back.

“My people,” he began, “feel we do too much. We seed the clouds, which takes months of time and effort. It’s dangerous, but it needs to be done. The blind spot in the Choke is our planet’s greatest weak point and is often exploited by neighboring dreg planets. So, we also make sure to send out scouts often and then warriors to smother any invaders we find. Vrulatica also supplies the world with the askait used in electronics, and we do it without being able to use any electronics ourselves.”

“That is a lot.” She nodded. “So, they think we should stop one thing or another?”

He chuckled again, a lopsided grin exposing one glorious fang. Sophia tried to imagine how a smile of actual happiness would look on him, and her heart picked up speed. Was it even possible to make him laugh?

“No. We’ve tried that. About one hundred and sixty years ago we demanded to share scouting duties with Emek, a city to the north of the Choke.”

“The Great Fouling.” Sophia nodded, recalling the unfortunate event from the history she’d been learning.

His black brows raised as if impressed, and he nodded. “Yes. Our forces squabbled, both armies used to being in charge. The Tagion watched and exploited that weakness. They set up a fake incursion close to Emek, knowing it was our time to defend but understanding that squads from Emek would be sent out as well since they were territorial and untrusting of our abilities. They took the distraction as an opportunity to sneak into Vrulan borders and poison the reserve.”

He sighed as if it were a regrettable event and not as horrific as the book she’d read made it out to be. “Many Vrulans were lost before we discovered our water had been tainted. My ancestor, Queen Slesain, mysteriously slipped and fell into a vat of molten metal, and we went back to guarding the Choke on our own after that. Every few decades our people seem to forget about that period of history, and we have to remind them.”

Sophia shuddered. Out of all the ways to die, boiling metal sounded like one of the worst. “How do you deal with it?”

He waved a hand dismissively. “We listen. Hold public forums, hear complaints and—”

“No,” Sophia interrupted. “How do you deal with it? You basically just outlined a miserable existence in which you are constantly judged and criticized. Nothing you do makes them happy. In fact, you’ve almost been assassinated a bunch of times. But you’re still here. You’re still trying to be a good king. What keeps you trying? There must be something worth fighting for.”

His face twitched, and his eyes flicked around the room. The king shifted in his chair as though he’d never been asked something like that before. He considered it, remaining silent, brows drawn in concentration.

“I watch my people. I see them cooking meals and hugging their children and creating beautiful works of art, and it brings my life meaning. I might suffer, but I’m a king. I was born to bear that particular kind of pain, and so I do. We all have roles to play. And mine—” He caught her rapt gaze. “Ours is important. Extraordinarily so.”

How could a man so jaded also be so full of purpose and…goodness? She saw it now, though she hadn’t fully before. Sikthand was a good king. He was quiet and strict, but he cared. She could see his desperation to be accepted by his people practically oozing from his pores, but he didn’t let their lack of warmth affect his bone-deep belief that they deserved happy lives.

“That’s a really beautiful answer,” she breathed, pouring all the sincerity she could muster into her voice. The compliment seemed to make him even more uncomfortable than the question had. “For the record, I think you deserve to find some joy in your life too. You’re a king, but you’re also a man. You weren’t only born to bear pain.”

“That’s quite an idealistic view. Too bad it’s a fantasy. You’ll see.” Sophia couldn’t decide if his firm tone was there to convince her of his words or himself. He downed the rest of his drink and rose from his chair. “It’s late. I’ve told you what I know, now we’re done.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” she recited, bolting out of her seat and bowing overenthusiastically. She could swear his lip nearly twitched into a smile.

“Take your mess with you,” he commanded, gesturing toward the pile of scrolls and files she’d dropped on his desk.

Sophia scratched her head, uneager to haul it all back to her room. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Does it matter?” She piled a few things together. “Can I use the shortcut door to my room?”

The swish of his tail against the floor and the barest hint of a growl sent electricity skittering over her scalp. She turned to look at him and found him stiff. The only bit of him moving was his tail. “That passage is not a shortcut. It’s used for a very different purpose, and unless you’d like me to find that joy you were referencing tonight, you’ll stay out of it.”

Sophia gulped. His gaze flashed to her mouth, and his silver eyes turned molten. Heat slipped down her insides and pooled in her low belly.

He tore his attention away. “Just leave the mess.”

She was leaning over slightly, the papers bundled in her hands, her knuckles resting on the desk. The edge of the table hit right at the crease in her hips. It would be the perfect height for…

She pulled her hands back, jerking her head in a nod before speeding out to the non-sex-passage exit of his bedroom.

When she was through the door and in the hall, she turned and extended her fingers for a handshake. “We got a lot accomplished tonight,” she croaked, feeling like she was wrapping up an awkward business meeting. “We can definitely make this a good partnership.” He stared at her hand, mystified, and she finally dropped it. “O-Okay, then,” she stammered, before speed walking away. Halfway down the hall, she buried her flaming face in her hands.

Unless you’d like me to find that joy you were referencing… Sophia shivered.

Later that night, when she was wrapped in the protective metal nest of her sheltered malginash bed, she smiled to herself. They hadn’t said any ugly words to each other all night. In fact, she’d just had a surprisingly deep conversation. Sophia had succeeded in wearing him down a little, and she’d had the added bonus of seeing his private space, which felt terribly inappropriate in the best way.

As her eyes drifted closed, she recalled how he’d almost knocked her over trying to leave his room. Where had he been going?

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