Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 24

“I’m not going to hit you,” Sophia argued, her slim arms crossed over her chest.

“Correct. You won’t be capable of hitting me. Try anyway. It’s the quickest way for me to see how you move.” Sikthand scowled. He could not believe he hadn’t asked about this sooner. The human didn’t know how to fight. He wanted to roar in frustration.

All the times she’d been out on her own… He’d known she wouldn’t be likely to best one of his soldiers if they chose to attack, but he’d assumed she was proficient enough to hold her ground for the few minutes it would take for her guards to intervene.

She clicked her tongue, offended. “I could land a hit if I really tried,” she argued weakly. He lifted his brows, which made her lips purse. “Okay, fine. There’s no chance in hell I hit you, but it feels weird to try. I’ve never attempted to hurt anyone before.”

Her soft admission should’ve irritated him. There was not a Vrulan alive who hadn’t learned the basics of self-defense, and this human wanted to be their queen. Yet her unwillingness to show him even an ounce of aggression did funny things to his chest. He tamped down the urge to rub the heel of his hand over his sternum and continued to aim a frown at her until she let out a defeated groan.

Dread coiled in his gut as she began to throw sloppy punches and kicks in his direction. He dodged them all, guessing her move by where her determined gaze landed before she’d even tensed to attack.

It would be a miracle if he managed to keep them both alive.

Before long, she was out of breath, her cheeks flushed and her movements sluggish. She put a bit too much power behind one punch, and when he dodged, she went sailing past him. He caught her by the hips before she face-planted into the mat.

The flesh under his palms was soft, and his fingers sunk in as he pulled her upright. This grip would be heavenly if he needed purchase while fucking her from behind.

He had to mentally peel each digit back to get his hands to leave her hips. They felt so much softer than they looked, and he burned to know which other parts of her body were supple and giving.

By the Goddess, he might need to let her fall next time if he was to keep up his bargain to not touch her. That two-second hold had lit his body with sparks and sent blood rushing to his cock.

She wiped her hand across her sweaty forehead, unaware of the internal war raging behind her. “That’s enough for today,” he rasped, his voice gone gravelly.

Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice, her shoulders sagging in relief. “Getting scared, huh?” Her sarcasm shone through her grin, but yes, Sikthand was terrified.

“I’ll think on what weapon might be best for you, and I can show you how to use it next time.” A distant rumble of thunder had him peering outside.

“Shouldn’t I learn how to fight without a weapon first?” she asked through deep pants.

“In a perfect world where we had years to train, a team to practice sparring with, and no other responsibilities.” He gave her a tight smile. “You don’t have enough awareness of your body yet. For now, I just need you to know how to swing a blade hard enough to give you time to run away.”

Her lips pulled into a frown, but she nodded.

She slogged toward the study rather than the exit, and he stopped her. “Not today. This was all I had time for.”

“Oh, I was looking forward to it since we didn’t get to meet yesterday.” His luscious little walking nightmare had the gall to look deeply disappointed, and his damned stomach lurched. He shook off the sudden urge to cancel every one of his plans and ushered her toward the door.

“Too many malginash are injured, and this storm will be particularly bad. I need to help with the seeding.” As if to punctuate his point, a clap of thunder rattled the windows behind his bed.

He, too, had mourned their missed meeting the night before. News of her rocky visit to the mines had been relayed to him, and all he’d wanted to do was crash through her door and wipe away any trace of the foul fear Lindri had described pouring off her in waves. Protective instincts going haywire, he’d forced himself to keep away, instead standing sentry behind her mirror to soothe himself.

Sophia nodded and forced a smile, though disappointment was clear in her eyes.

“I may not see you tomorrow if the storm rages on,” he said, a bit of his regret leaking into his voice despite his best efforts. “I want you to wear the armor for your tour of the schools and of the malginash clinic the following day if I’m not back by then,” he added sternly. “You may not be able to fight in it, but it’ll protect you from a flying blade.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” She nodded again. “Have you memorized my schedule, Your Majesty?” she added, grinning.

Pulling open his door, Sikthand hid the shudder that quaked through him. She hadn’t used that odd human address since their time together at the umbercree festival. “Yes. I’ve memorized it.”

I’ve memorized it all so I know exactly where to find you when the pressure in my chest threatens to crush me.

She murmured some noncommittal noise and dragged her feet through his doorway. Was she… May the skies strike him down if she wasn’t lingering.

Don’t do this to me, little wife. His control was already threadbare without the added pressure of her behaving as if she didn’t want to part from him.

“Why did you go on the tour with me today?” she asked slowly. Her features tightened, and she kept her eyes moving as if she were steeling herself for the cold answer he knew he should give.

It’s my duty as king to make sure you don’t embarrass the throne.

It was what he should say. It would make her leave.

But it would also cause a flash of pain to pass over her face.

“I thought…” He sighed, his will crumbling. “I thought you might feel more comfortable with me there.”

A tremulous smile lifted the corner of her mouth and sent alarm bells ringing through his mind.

“The armor was too heavy for you. When I’m able, I’ll make sure to accompany you until you’re strong enough to wear it comfortably.”

Her face didn’t fall, but it contorted like she’d smelled something sour. “My armor. Yeah,” she murmured. Her chest lifted with a deep breath, and she aimed a soft smile at him. “For the record, I liked having you there with me. And not just because I didn’t have to wear the armor.”

The sensation of his insides melting into a gooey puddle blotted out all reason. Feeling a bit lightheaded, he had to focus so as not to sway on his feet.

Lightning right outside illuminated his room, and her brows furrowed as her eyes flicked to the window.

Liquefied willpower slipped through his fingers as he tried to scoop it up and regain control of himself. He was still frozen when she placed a palm on his chest. Only the cloth of his shirt separated their skin. Goose bumps exploded outward from her small hand, and he fought with all his energy to keep his purr at bay.

He’d always had the least amount of control over his tail, a well-known weakness of the emotionless king, and it slammed against the door behind him despite his best efforts to keep it still.

She peered up at him through her lashes. “Be safe out there. It looks pretty bad.”

His tail shot out, intent on wrapping around her wrist and hauling her against his chest, but he regained himself at the last second and instead managed to use it to nudge her out of his room. “I’ve flown through worse, human. Don’t concern yourself.”

He sent her a jerky goodbye nod and shut the door in her face. Listening past the deafening thrum of his heart, he waited until her footsteps had vanished down the hall, then piled on his armor and fled toward the rider’s launch bay.

He was in trouble. Sophia was under his skin more permanently than his askait ink.

Soon whispers of the king’s growing obsession would circulate, and he’d be too busy with said obsession to hear them before it was too late. He’d already hired a handful of spies to take over the surveilling he didn’t have time for. But how long before he stopped trusting them?

How long before he forgot he shouldn’t trust her? Politics and power and time would warp her as it did everyone. Would he be too afflicted with affection to take notice when it did?

Even the idea of riding through storms didn’t hold as much appeal as normal. He studied his hands, still free of mate marks, before pulling his gloves on. He didn’t know why he continued to check. It had been over a month, and they’d spent time alone together often. By all accounts, if he was going to recognize her, it would have happened already.

Sikthand adjusted his helmet, strapping it into his armor so it would stay in place as he entered the cavernous launch bay. Exhausted riders soared in on the right, practically falling off their mounts. To the left, new squads shot out into the clouds in formation.

Ahea was saddled and waiting for him already. He checked and rechecked her stays to make sure they were secure before calling for a cannon. Cloud chasers in training dashed about, arming waiting riders with cloud cannons containing the tightly packed chemical explosions that would wring the clouds of their moisture.

His mount swayed on her feet as though impatient to be off. At least one of them was looking forward to this, he supposed. As soon as a cannon was in his hand, they dove into the violent night sky.

Clouds thicker than sand obscured the sky in all directions. Rain pelted his armor as Ahea carried them higher and higher.

A bolt of lightning slashed to their right, and Ahea swooped out of the way. His grip on her reins tightened. That was too close. Were his tumultuous moods affecting her?

Her wings wobbled before she found a stable pocket of air and glided through. Cloud chasers and malginash spotted the sky, backlit against the glowing clouds and flashing lightning.

Sikthand took up a role as a cleaner and focused on shooting the patches of cloud that had slipped through unseeded.

Another flash of lightning sizzled right in front of Ahea’s antlers, and she reared back. Sikthand barely managed to keep hold of the saddle, his tail cramping with the effort to stabilize himself.

Something was wrong. The storm was worse than he’d anticipated, yet he and Ahea had flown through fiercer weather without concern. She wasn’t sensing the bolts like she normally did.

He craned his neck, calling her name until he could see her eyes and found them a muddier gray than normal.

Worry shot through him, and he yanked her reins, guiding her back toward the tower. They dove through glowing green dye, and Vrulatica emerged in the distance. “Hold on,” he bellowed, heart thundering in his ears.

A deafening crack split open his head as blinding light set every cell ablaze with agony. He tipped forward in his seat, consciousness blinking in and out.

A dark moment of nothingness passed, then he peered at his hands and found them empty.

No reins. No saddle under his thighs.

He was falling. A peek of the blood red ground zooming up to meet him was the last thing he saw before it all went black.

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