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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 23

The next morning Sophia awoke feeling better. Sometimes a night of sulking was all it took. Just a few hours of self-approved wallowing and her determination returned. Today will be better.

Luckily, she was heading to the farming floors, and she was convinced she could at least keep herself from being terrified—unless, of course, they chose to slaughter an animal in front of her or something. Her stomach turned. Oh shit. What if they slaughtered an animal in front of her? She quickly shook off her groan, deciding to remain optimistic.

Her body crumpled when she tried to crawl out of bed, and she ended up curled awkwardly on the floor as she waited for her legs to stop cramping. She stretched, loosening her muscles before attempting to stand again.

When Alno arrived with some food, she was still moaning and groaning, dragging herself to the bathroom and wincing at every little movement.

She almost cried when he started strapping the armor back on, but she sucked her tears down. This wouldn’t kill her, it would just suck.

She had one arm sheathed in metal when a knock sounded from the bottom of the door. Though she knew it was a tapping tail, the sound echoing from the unexpected area of the door continued to surprise her, and she constantly had to remind herself that the Vrulans weren’t going around kicking doors.

Alno went to open it, and Sophia let her arm plop down onto the table so she wouldn’t have to support it any longer.

Her pain was forgotten as she spotted the king towering in the doorway. “I’ll be joining you today,” he said without preamble. “You don’t need to wear that if you don’t wish to.” He nodded toward her armor, and she almost dove to kiss him. If her body wasn’t so sore, she might have.

She moaned when the last of the metal slipped off her arm and hustled to peel herself out of the cooling fabric suit before he changed his mind. A billowy purple top, the lightest fabric she could find, was paired with thick flexible pants made from a buttery-soft fabric similar to leather. Peering in the mirror, she frowned at her reflection. She could just hear Madam Kalos’ voice in her mind complaining about her simple human preferences.

She thought she looked fine, but she knew her attire wasn’t proper. She had no metal adornments at all. Her outfit was the equivalent of throwing on a pair of sweatpants for an important business meeting. Definitely not queenly.

Oh fuck. Am I never going to be able to wear sweatpants again? She zoned out for a second, mulling over the distracting thought. Her eyes slipped closed, and she clicked her tongue, grieving the drawer full of cozy lounge sets likely dropped at Goodwill after she’d gone missing from Earth.

She glowered at her piles of metal accessories. The idea of adding weight to her outfit had an ache pulsing through her shoulders already.

Suck it up. You’re gonna be a queen, she barked at herself before slipping a netted chain mail–esque garment over the top of her flowy shirt. It added a negligible amount of weight and looked cool in Sophia’s opinion. Like a fashionable way to bring chain mail into the future.

On her hands she wore sheer black gloves decorated with silver bars and tipped with metal claws. She then piled her hair into an elaborate headpiece, not quite a crown since they didn’t wear those here, but close enough to give her a royal boost. She threw on her favorite piece of face jewelry that traveled from her ears over her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. It was pretty, but it also comforted her since it reminded her of her glasses.

The only thing she didn’t like about the outfit was that her tattooed arm wasn’t exposed, but until she had time to shop with intention, rather than just wearing the clothes Alno had provided for her, she’d have to make do.

She thought she looked pretty damn cool, but when she walked out of her bathroom, both Alno and the king surveyed her with disapproving frowns.

“It’s a bit flimsy,” Alno remarked.

The king shot him a cold look as if he didn’t like Alno commenting on her outfit, even though he’d seemed to agree.

She’d argued with Alno about this before and wasn’t in the mood to defend her human style. “Look, even if I wore full armor, it’s not like I have a chance in hell if somebody is out to kill me,” she argued. “I can’t fight back, and if I have to carry around all that metal, it won’t be any Vrulan who kills me, it’ll be my own failing body.”

“But you can fight a little,” Sikthand said, rising and staring at her as though waiting for her to confirm his statement. “You said you ‘can’t fight back,’ but that’s not entirely true, right?”

Shit. She’d hoped this embarrassing day would never arrive.

When she didn’t say anything, Sikthand glanced from Alno to her. “There were reports of you fighting during the escape. You might not be a warrior, but you know the basics of defending yourself. Right?” He glared toward Alno. “Right?”

Alno lifted his hands as Sikthand’s tail began to scrape over the ground.

Sophia cringed and sucked her lip in to chew on it. “So, about that…” How the hell was she supposed to explain this without dying of mortification? “Back on Earth, I was in a LARP group.” At his blank look, she explained, “Live action role playing. We dressed up sometimes for long weekends, and we…well, we created characters and pretended to be them. Fighters, witches…bards.” Sophia swallowed at Sikthand’s widening eyes. “I had a warrior character I liked, so I learned some moves, but the weapons we used were all…foam,” she added, wincing. “During the escape, I knew the soldiers weren’t allowed to harm any humans, so I picked up a weapon and swung it around like I do my prop sword, and I guess I was convincing enough to make them back off.”

Sikthand blinked at her. His mouth opened to speak, but then he closed it again. Anger filled his expression. “You don’t know how to fight?” he boomed.

She hiked her shoulders.

He whirled on Alno. “Strap her armor back on.”

“No!” she screeched, flying toward him and gripping his hand on instinct. “Please, I need a recovery day. It’s so heavy. And you won’t let anything happen to me, right?” She batted her lashes up at his scowling face. His gloved finger twitched under her hand as if he wanted to squeeze her back. Her belly swooped.

After a few tense moments, he growled, “You stay at my side.”

Before they left, Sikthand retrieved a small arsenal of light blades from his room and strapped them across her body. She didn’t know how to properly wield any of them, but at least she wouldn’t walk around looking completely unarmed.

Sophia tried not to be annoyed that Sikthand hadn’t asked after her last night. He seemed mighty concerned with her physical well-being, but had he cared about her mental spiral the night before? Apparently not.

Maybe he’d decided to accompany her today because he’d heard how hard yesterday had been for her. Her chest warmed at the thought.

Or maybe he decided to come to make sure I don’t royally fuck up again.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he said. His gaze was protective and riveted on her eyes before it dipped to her mouth. She shivered, and all her annoyance trickled away.

The farming floors were worlds in and of themselves. Each floor spanned the width of the whole tower. Livestock grazed throughout. Big beefy creatures with antlers that looked like a cross between a hippopotamus and a moose ambled among the grass between rocky outcroppings, mingling harmlessly with the hordes of other smaller animals that speckled the expansive indoor bio environment.

Their guide, Ezros, was the closest thing Sophia had seen to a Vrulan geek, and she liked him immensely. He grinned while explaining the ways in which they filtered in sunlight and imitated rain. Rapt, he took notes as she listed the most common types of livestock on Earth and tried to guess at their size.

How much did a cow weigh? Estimations like that had never been her strong suit. Someone could tell her they weighed five hundred pounds or five thousand pounds, and she’d believe either. Neither Ezros nor Sikthand seemed disappointed with her uncertainty, though, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Many stories high, the vertical gardens where the fruit and vegetables were hydroponically grown were astonishing. Enormous mechanical scaffoldings raised and lowered throughout the rows of produce, farmers gathering orders as they came in.

Sophia spent hours listing foods she thought should be grown here and describing Clecanian produce humans had already found they preferred.

The human database her friends back in Tremanta had been working hard to build had contained food substitutions. Data from scans that reacted to brain activity and identified favored smells and flavors among humans was combined with chemical compositions and flavor profiles of Clecanian foods. Back in Tremanta, Sophia had devoted a day or two to tasting a variety of foods and describing the closest Earth counterparts she could think of.

It was an odd process. Some Clecanian foods tasted like one thing, had the exact texture of another, but couldn’t be used like either. She’d given up trying to help classify foods in Tremanta after realizing a background in cooking was enormously valuable, and the only cooking she liked to do involved a microwave.

But descriptions of the time she had devoted seemed to help Ezros immensely, and she gave herself a mental pat on the back. “Maybe we could fly to the outbuildings when the storms clear and I can copy some information from the human database we were building in Tremanta. I think I still know how to log into it,” she whispered to Sikthand as Ezros went off to retrieve a rare spliced fruit he’d been experimenting with.

Sikthand hovered close, remaining glued to her side all day. “Do you mean the species information listed in the Intergalactic Alliance database?”

Sophia had to work very hard not to acknowledge the way his gaze strayed to her mouth whenever she spoke.

“Yeah,” she breathed, then shook her head. “Wait, I mean no. This is different. The humans staying at the Pearl Temple had gotten together and were starting to build a database of our own. We were filling it with everything we knew so that Clecanians could learn about us from us. We have historians and cooks and scientists all contributing to it. It’s taking forever since there’s so much to say, but I think it’ll be really helpful for it to be included in the Vrulan schools once it’s completed.” Her brows furrowed. “I thought all the cities on our tour were given access to it. Weren’t you?”

Ezros reemerged, holding a giant purple leaf and capturing her attention. It was thick, like an aloe plant, but had curly edges. “Here—I wonder if this fruit tastes like any of your Earth foods.”

Instinctually, Sophia reached for the leaf fruit, thinking a snack sounded like a great idea, but Sikthand grabbed her wrist. Ezros’ gaze flicked back and forth between them, his smile dimming, gray eyes widening. He rushed to break off a piece of the leaf. “Oh, it’s not dangerous. I checked the chemical composition myself, and there is nothing harmful to humans.” He popped the bit of leaf into his mouth and chewed.

Sophia glanced up at Sikthand, realization dawning. Either intentionally or unintentionally, he was worried the new food might harm her. She supposed it was fair that she be slightly more cautious when trying random foods people offered her, but she couldn’t live her life in a panic.

When Ezros didn’t start foaming at the mouth, she reached out for a piece to taste herself. Sikthand beat her to it, breaking off the tip of the leaf and chewing angrily.

Sophia had no idea what she should feel in this moment. The king was literally testing her food for poison. She had to contain her swoon.

He gave her a short nod when a few minutes passed without anyone dying, and she popped some of the leaf in her mouth. Her head snapped back as the luscious taste hit her tongue. It was tropical and sweet and reminded her of a creamy vanilla pineapple.

Ezros beamed when she asked to have the rest so she could munch on it while finishing their tour. Her awareness kept flitting back to Sikthand, who remained close to her side. She offered him another piece of fruit and made sure he saw her casually lick her fingers after he’d accepted it.

His eyes darkened, and his great armored chest expanded and emptied with what looked like a pained sigh. Though she wanted to do it again, she held herself back.

The day had bolstered her confidence. She felt she’d made a good impression. She’d asked pertinent questions that seemed to surprise and delight Ezros. He’d even taken them on a small unplanned excursion to the fungi habitat after she’d asked where they grew the salty mushrooms she always piled on her plate at dinner.

Though the artificially forested area was dark and humid and smelled horribly of rotting plant matter, she loved it. Plugging her nose and grinning, she’d let him lead her around and point out all the species they were cultivating, a majority of which were used for medicines that Vrulans took when their ailments were too mild for a medic visit.

Electric-blue fungi spread over the mossy ground in a pulsing network, while mushroom caps the size of umbrellas stretched high above her head.

Maybe she should design a fungus sleeve. The impermanence of her tattoos opened a ton of creative doors that were starting to excite her. She could cover her body in mushrooms one day, then have a horror theme the next as long as she could stand the pain of getting them changed.

One pale mushroom that crawled up the side of a decaying tree and seemed to drip black tar off the lip of its head caught her eye. When she commented on how she might want to incorporate it into a new tattoo design, Ezros had been overjoyed. He practically squealed as he explained that it was also one of his inventions. “My queen will mark herself with something I created? It would truly be an honor.”

She beamed at Sikthand, seeing if he’d also heard the male say my queen. She’d won someone over. A flicker of warmth softened the king’s mouth as he took in her smile, and she felt like she’d had two victories today.

She’d practically skipped to Sikthand’s room later that night, but when he let her in, her face fell at the sight awaiting her.

The center of his room was clean—not because he’d tidied up the clutter, but because he’d cleared it in order to set up a mini training area.

“I’m gonna learn to fight, aren’t I?” she groaned, rolling her still-stiff shoulders.


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