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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 25

Sophia. Sophia.

Something grabbed her leg, and Sophia bolted upright with a shriek, scrambling back into the dark confines of her bed.

The shadow of a man loomed in the narrow entry to her bed, but he was backlit and unrecognizable.


“Alno?” she panted, pulse roaring. “What the fuck? Why are you—”

“The king’s been hurt.”

The air emptied from her lungs. “Wha…what?”

She clambered out of bed and saw Alno’s golden skin had dulled. Nausea roiled her gut. “What happened? Is he okay?”

“I don’t know. The Guild asked me to wake you up because if he’s…”

No, no, no. Sophia couldn’t manage to blink or swallow. She dressed in a daze, throwing on whatever Alno handed to her.

He can’t be dead.

“He’s alive?” she asked for the tenth time, even though Alno had repeatedly told her didn’t know.

“He’s been hurt in the storm. That’s all I’m aware of.”

She couldn’t keep her body from trembling as she tried to breathe normally. They jogged toward the Guild chamber, only making it halfway before Commander Roldroth intercepted them. He spun her around with his tail on her arm and forced her back to the royal wing. “They’re bringing him,” he growled.

Her heart lurched into her throat. “What happened?” she demanded in a wheeze.

He shook his head, and she assumed he didn’t know, but then he answered. “He was struck by lightning.”

Sophia tried to process that. “No. That’s not possible because—”

“I know,” Roldroth cut her off, waiting for Alno to unlock the doors to the wing, then stomping inside so fast she had to run to keep up. “It shouldn’t have been possible. His armor should have insulated him even if he was hit.” He glanced behind him at Alno, then at her warily. “They believe someone may have tampered with it. And they’ve taken Ahea to the clinic. There’s something wrong with her too.”

“Somebody tried to kill him?” she bellowed, rage wiping away all fear. “This wasn’t a cloud-chasing accident?” Sophia pictured Sikthand’s guarded expression, which had been permanently affixed to his face after a lifetime of betrayal and heartache. Someone had tried to kill her future husband, and she was livid.

Roldroth paused, scrutinizing her boiling expression, his brows furrowed. “Too many coincidences,” he answered simply.

Clattering from above made their gazes shoot skyward. They sprinted to the stairs but were blocked as a gurney with an unconscious Sikthand lowered down the spiraling steps. The rest of the Guild waited on the landing below, drenched as if they’d flown through the storm.

Sophia tried to stay out of the way, but her eyes were glued to Sikthand’s unconscious face. The rest of him was covered. He looked unharmed, not at all like someone who’d just been struck by lightning.

“Is he okay? What’s going on? Shouldn’t we be flying him to the medical outbuilding?” she shouted up the stairs.

The medic, Vezel, poked his head out from above. “We just came from there. He’s alive. He’ll survive.”

Sophia inhaled deeply and followed as they carried Sikthand to his room and transferred him to his bed. The doctor, Alno, and the Guild piled in, all bickering.

Vezel kept close to Sikthand, clearing off a small table and carrying it over to the side of his bed. He began extracting vials and sprays from his bag, setting them on the small table while ignoring the squawking group behind him. He said something to her, but she only knew so from the direction of his gaze and his moving mouth.

“What?” she yelled, cupping her ears.

He leaned over a little and tried to speak again, but there were too many voices sounding at once. Madam Kalos stepped to the side, arguing with Yalmi about something, and bumped into a pedestal, causing Sikthand’s formal askait helmet to crash to the ground.

The clanging made something inside her snap.

“Out!” she bellowed, her voice booming across the stone walls.

Silence fell, and the Guild looked at her as if noticing an irritating barking dog. Sophia was undeterred.

She pointed to the door. “You can talk all you want, but you’ll do it out there.” Sikthand would hate having them all in here. He hated it when she was in his private space. Sophia couldn’t imagine how upset he’d be if he knew the whole Guild was in his sanctuary while he was unconscious. Her throat swelled. He didn’t even have a lick of armor on.

“Sophia,” Madam Kalos began gently.

“Not only was I not notified immediately,” Sophia hissed, staring the Guild down one by one. “But now you come into his space, a place that he has expressly said is off-limits to you, and scream and shout. This is my future husband, and I will not let his recovery be impeded by you lot disturbing his peace. Out.”

She crossed to the opposite side of the bed as the medic and had to crawl onto the mattress in order to get close enough to see the steady rise and fall of his chest under his blanket. As she watched him breathe and saw his brows twitch in sleep, her pulse finally began to slow.

“Respectfully,” Speaker Besith began with a sneer in his voice, “they discovered a malfunction in the lining of his armor.”

Sophia spared him only a quick glance. “And?” she spat.

And there are only a few people with access to this wing.”

That got her attention. She stared, and they stared back. Their gazes weighed her down.

“You think could have done this?” The notion was ridiculous, and yet…what else were they supposed to think? They were right. Not many people had access to the royal wing. Sikthand had explained he kept it that way so that there were fewer suspects in case of something like this. Knowing they would be jailed immediately if anything happened to the king ensured the handful of people with keys to the wing were cautious and less likely to betray him.

She was the stranger here. She understood why they suspected her.

But what had her breath lodging in her throat was not their suspicion. It was the knowledge that Sikthand would likely think the same. He’d suspect her.

A bit of her heart cracked.

She tried to scoot off the bed to give him some space, but something trapped her wrist in place. A choked sound escaped her throat when she found his tail wrapped securely around her wrist.

Her attention flashed to his face, but he was still unconscious, eyes closed, brows furrowed as though in pain. The Guild stared at her trapped hand uneasily, like she were the one holding his tail in place and not the other way around.

She tried to gently slip her wrist through the coiled tip of his tail, but it tightened painfully. A lump swelled in her throat.

Someone had done this to him, and she was determined to find out who before he woke up.

Slowly, her gaze rose, but not toward the Guild or the doctor. She let it settle on Alno, who was already staring back at her, eyes wide and terrified. “I didn’t,” he said quietly, shaking his head.

She gave him a sad smile. “I know. But…”

Alno gulped and stared down at the floor.

“We’ll get to the bottom of it, but for now…” she urged. He nodded, gaze still trained on the floor. Tensing her jaw, she raised her chin toward the Guild. “Take Alno to the dungeons. Don’t hurt him.” She glared. “Question him. Figure out who else could have gotten in here. Go find everyone else with access and do the same with them.” Her stomach turned. “Lindri can stay to keep an eye on me as it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere anytime soon.” She wiggled her trapped hand for good measure and winced when his tail tightened instantly. “The rest of you need to leave.” Her gaze locked with Vezel’s, and she thought she saw approval behind his eyes.

The Guild lingered, unsure whether they should take orders from her or not.

She took a deep breath and glowered in their direction. “If you don’t listen to me and he doesn’t recover, then you’re all in the clear. But if he recovers, learns that you ignored the future queen’s orders and snooped around in his room while he was unconscious, what do you think he’ll do?” A spike of concern passed over each of their expressions, and Sophia knew she’d won.

“I’m staying. Not Lindri,” Roldroth declared while eyeing her. He clearly didn’t trust her, and she didn’t care.

The rest of the Guild grumbled amongst each other and slowly filed out of the room. Besith wrapped a hand around Alno’s arm to escort him out. Alno lifted his key so she could see it, then placed it on a shelf near the exit before allowing Besith to lead him away.

Her heart clenched, her stomach hollow. She hated locking Alno up. He wouldn’t have done this. She couldn’t accept that. It wasn’t that Alno was incapable of doing something like this, it was that he was too smart. Anyone with a key knew they’d be a prime suspect.

Whoever had tampered with Sikthand’s armor didn’t care that the small number of staff that serviced the royal wing would be the ones blamed. Fury simmered inside her once more.

“Why is he asleep?” Sophia kept her voice low and studied Vezel. She ignored Roldroth, who shuffled around in the corner of the room. At least he had the decency to look uncomfortable about being in the king’s room.

“The lightning penetrated his armor. He was burned. Horribly.” The doctor shook his head, his nose wrinkling as if he was remembering the smell of charred flesh. “We were able to get him into the healing chamber before it was too late. The functioning bits of his armor kept him from dying instantly, and we were able to repair the internal burns quickly enough. We gave him an elixir, and it’s working, but there are still a few bits of his mind repairing themselves that need more time. I’d like to keep him sedated for a few days. I know if I don’t, he won’t rest the way he needs to.”

It was almost laughable how true that statement was. If Sikthand woke up and learned there had been yet another attempt on his life, he’d tear through the tower. Rest would be his lowest priority.

“What about Ahea?” Sophia blurted, suddenly remembering someone saying the malginash had been taken to a clinic.

“Saved his life,” Roldroth rasped from the corner, his voice thick. “They think she’ll be okay, but she was poisoned. She’s recovering now.” Sophia could hear cold fury leaking into his voice at the idea that someone would harm a malginash. “We won’t know what happened until he wakes up and tells us, but Ahea collapsed at the infirmary with the king in her claws. She carried him straight there, brilliant girl.” His wide throat bobbed, but he kept his chin raised as if to honor the malginash.

“Remind me to bring her all the minata wood she wants.”

Sikthand’s tail twitched on her wrist, his chest rising and falling a little faster like he was having a bad dream.

“We should let him sleep,” the medic said.

Sophia nodded. “Will you stay?”

Vezel shook his head. “There’s no reason. He’s stable, and I need to get back to the infirmary. I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ve given him nutrient packs to keep him hydrated. Someone will just need to inject him with another in about six hours.” Vezel demonstrated injecting one of the vials into Sikthand’s arm, then held up a spray bottle. “This will keep him sleeping. One spritz to his face every ten hours should do it, but if he starts to get fidgety, up the frequency to every eight hours.”

Sophia forced herself to pay attention to the doctor’s instructions, but her focus kept drifting to Roldroth. If anyone had the power and sway to gain access to the king’s quarters, it was the Guild. What if one of them had planned this?

Roldroth was commander of the storm chasers as well. He had access to the malginash, and he’d have a detailed knowledge of the specialty armor used during storms. She inched closer to Sikthand. What if he’d done this, and she was about to be left alone in a room with him?

It would make her feel infinitely better if she could grab one of Sikthand’s many weapons. Sophia tried to pull out of Sikthand’s reach when the doctor got up to leave, but a deep groan rumbled from his chest. She tried to avoid Roldroth’s eyes as heat rose to her cheeks.

Sophia wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if the situation weren’t so serious, she was sure her belly would be flipping at the idea that the king unconsciously wanted her close. She scooted farther up on the bed, sitting against the stone wall just under the window near his head.

“I want to be clear that I can’t move away from the king, and I have no weapons, so if anything happens to him…” Sophia shot a meaningful glance toward Vezel before retraining her glare on Roldroth. “You can logic out who’s to blame.”

Vezel nodded, and Roldroth scowled. The medic left, leaving them alone in the tense silence.

“When was the last time he went out?” If she had to be locked in a room with the commander, at least she could do some interrogating of her own.


“Whoever planned this knew when to drug Ahea,” she explained. “They knew that he was going out today, which means—”

“His armor might not have been affected the last time he rode,” Roldroth finished for her. “He was out two nights ago.” His tail flicked behind him. “His armor could have been tampered with before. Perhaps they decided to take their plan a step further and poison Ahea when they realized damaging his armor hadn’t been enough.”

“Either way, it’s clear to me that whoever did this had access to the launch bay and knowledge of when he’d be flying,” Sophia said, keeping her face expressionless.

Roldroth caught her insinuation, but rather than appear offended, he nodded. “True. But they’d also have to have access to this room when he wasn’t here.”

His returned insinuation was reasonable in theory. “Do you really think I know enough to not only understand how to damage his armor in a way he wouldn’t immediately notice, but also how to poison a malginash so exactly that she would still be able to fly him into a storm? That’s ignoring the ridiculous assumption that Sikthand shares his schedule with me ahead of time. And apart from all that, what would I have to gain? How would his death benefit me?”

“You’d be queen,” he growled.

“I’m only queen if I marry a king. If he dies, I’m nothing. If you really think that’s my motivation, then my timing makes no sense. Wouldn’t I wait to attempt murder until I’m throned?”

“Somebody could have asked you to do it. Maybe you did it just because you hate him. People have tried killing him for more pointless reasons than that. Perhaps humans are a vengeful species. Besides, the point remains that you have access. All you needed for an attempt is an accomplice with a plan—and that door.” Roldroth hiked a thumb over his shoulder toward the ornate door behind him. The one that led directly to her room.

Her focus zoomed to the door. “That door is locked. Even if they went through the one in my room, they wouldn’t be able to get in here.”

“Unless he left the door unlocked.” Roldroth held her gaze, and when the suggestion of what that meant hit her, heat raced to her face.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but we don’t…” Her cheeks burned hotter. “That passage isn’t used.”

“Traditionally, the queen is the one to call on her husband. I’d guess based on the way he’s reacting to you now that it’s not unlikely he unlocked it in the hopes you’d come to call.”

“Then you don’t know him very well,” she argued. “He would never leave himself vulnerable like that. Not for me,” she said, shaking her head.

Something worked behind Roldroth’s expression, and his jaw tensed and relaxed as if he were deciding how to say what he wanted to say. “The king has been acting oddly lately. I think if there were ever a person he’d leave himself vulnerable for, it’d be you.”

Shock had Sophia’s mind going blank. She leaned forward, intending to argue, but as if to punctuate Roldroth’s claim, Sikthand’s tail slipped from her wrist. He groaned and rolled toward her.

Sophia lifted her palms up in front of her, not sure what he was doing. In sleep, the king wrapped his arms around her legs and nuzzled into the side of her upper thigh while his tail traveled outside of his blanket and curled around her ankle. The movement pulled his covers down since he was under them, while she sat atop.

Her face flamed from the intimate position in the not-so-intimate setting, but then she caught sight of his unclothed torso and her breath froze in her chest.

“No,” she whispered. Forgetting herself, she reached out and brushed her fingers over his pale skin. His clear pale skin. “They’re gone.” She said the words to herself, forgetting Roldroth was watching, as sadness set in.

“His skin was…” The commander shook his head, his mouth contorting. “They couldn’t heal it without also removing his tattoos. He can replace them.” He stopped on an awkward note as if he’d almost added don’t worry before remembering he was suspicious of her.

She fell into a mini spiral as she argued internally over whether it would be better to get Khes to redraw all of his tattoos while he slept, or if deciding something like that for him made her just as bad as the aliens who’d decided to remove all of her tattoos without her consent.

Brushing his white hair away from his forehead, she decided against sending a message to Khes. She continued to brush his hair back, even though she knew she shouldn’t touch him.

A purr rumbled out of his chest, vibrating over her skin, and she snatched her hand back.

Her chest filled with butterflies, but she knew Sikthand wouldn’t want anyone to hear him purr. Who would he be more uncomfortable with hearing that sound, though? Sophia or Roldroth?

Sophia’s teeth ground together, and she braced herself. “Can you check?”

Roldroth was still gawping at the gently purring king as though he’d just bolted upright and started spouting slam poetry. “Check?” he asked absently. He followed her gaze to the passage door and nodded solemnly.

What did she hope? Sophia had no idea whether she wanted Roldroth to find the door locked or unlocked.

If it was locked, it would help confirm she had nothing to do with this attempt and her assumptions about Sikthand’s wariness were accurate.

But if it was unlocked?

It would mean someone had likely used her room to gain access to his, which was a horrible thought. Yet it would also mean that he’d unlocked it. That he’d…

Roldroth reached toward the door. She held her breath.

“Locked,” he growled.

It was stupid, but a piece of her that, despite the awful circumstances, had hoped Sikthand might’ve left the door open for her deflated. Roldroth retrieved one of the chairs from the study, and she was relieved to see it was the plush one she normally sat in. She didn’t think she could abide him sitting in Sikthand’s chair.

They fell into silence after that, both deep in thought.

Something fearful and protective had taken hold of Sophia. Sikthand had almost been killed, and though she should’ve been upset about that for a myriad of reasons, the only one she seemed to care about was that she didn’t want him to die.

Sikthand was complicated and beautiful and honorable. Even if he never allowed anything more to bloom between them, and even if his paranoia amped up to an all-time high after he woke up, she still wanted to be near him.

Sunrise streamed through the windows, but the spray kept Sikthand unconscious. After a few hours, Sophia slipped her legs under the blanket. Roldroth eyed her, but she ignored him. This was the only way to keep his body covered since she couldn’t get his tail to unwrap from her ankle.

As hours stretched by, his hold proved to be a problem. Her bladder screamed at her, and her muscles cramped from sitting in the same position for so long.

She finally broke down and asked Roldroth for help. They worked together to give him his medicine and also reapply the sleep spray. His body slumped deeper into sleep after that, and though it took some prying, Roldroth was able to unfurl his Sikthand’s tail from her ankle despite his growls.

After she was through in the bathroom, she found Roldroth waiting for her on the other side of the door. “One of us needs to retrieve food. I don’t trust the guards to do it at the moment.”

“Go ahead,” she said, hands on hips. If he thought she would leave Sikthand alone to go grab food, he had another thing coming. A loud rumble from her stomach echoed through the room, undercutting her words.

He let out a frustrated growl, peering between her and Sikthand, but finally pointed his tail at her. “Do not go near him until I’m back.”

“Fine,” she snapped.

Roldroth stomped out of the room, leaving her alone with Sikthand. Her shoulders slumped in relief. She stared at the king’s still form, and dread clawed at her over what would happen when the medic woke him up tomorrow.

She trailed around his room, eyeing his shelves but not really seeing anything. Would he lock her up in the dungeon with Alno? She recalled the hatred in his eyes that night he’d told her the Guild wanted them to be married. Heart clenching, she hoped he wouldn’t look at her like that again.

She ran her fingertips over the tools in his small workshop, memorizing every piece. She doubted she’d be allowed in here again anytime soon.

Papers were spread out around a bench by his hearth, and she scanned them. Sophia’s eyes narrowed. She squinted down at the papers, and her heart skipped a beat.

It was information from the human database. Sikthand had known about it. Why had he acted like he hadn’t yesterday?

She shuffled the papers around, trying to figure out what he’d been so interested in that he’d felt the need to bring hard copies of the information back to his room.

Her lips parted.

Mouth kissing is a human cultural practice that is often romantic or sexual in nature. The act produces oxytocin and is…

Her gaze flashed to Sikthand’s sleeping form, her chin dropped in an open-mouthed smile. She shuffled the papers a little more and found handwritten notations and circled bits of information like he’d been studying technique. Sophia exhaled a miserable, desperate sigh. How long would it be before he let her kiss him again?

They’d been so close.

He’d been researching kissing, for God’s sake. What if he’d planned to do it again? She moaned while rearranging the papers so they looked untouched and continued dragging her feet around the room.

Roldroth entered not long after, and she tried her hardest not to look guilty. He set a few plates of food down, then lifted a coded tube. “A messenger delivered this this morning.”

A private message? For her? She took it from him. Besith had given her a private code she could use for her mail, but she hadn’t had time to send or receive anything yet. “Why wasn’t I given this hours ago?”

“Everyone with access to these quarters is either locked in the dungeon or sitting in this room,” Roldroth said dryly.

She took the tube and a plate of food to a stiff bench, input her code, and unrolled it. What she saw had her brain short circuiting for a moment.

English. Written English was scrolled in clear feminine script across the paper. She hadn’t read a single word yet, but seeing the familiar writing brought happy tears to her eyes. It was silly how something as simple as a few words on paper could cause such intense emotion, but she welcomed any warm feelings right now.

It took her a moment to read the note, her mind so used to translating Clecanian these days.

It was from Heleax. She scanned his letter and learned that he hadn’t returned to Tremanta. After getting in touch with a few of his soldier friends back home, he’d decided he’d be more useful outside the city. He’d traveled to Roborh, the city his brother had settled in, and met with the ruler there. Apparently Roborh was beautiful and even more advanced than Tremanta.

Sophia was happy for Heleax. It was clear from what he said that he had found a renewed sense of purpose. She peered at Sikthand as he twisted in the bed and began shoveling food into her mouth. Maybe it was a stretch to think he was squirming because she wasn’t there for him to hold, but she let herself think it anyway.

Heleax had met a human in Roborh and had gotten her to write this message for him. Sophia frowned when Heleax relayed how appalled the human had been to learn of what had happened to her. She could just imagine the overdramatic nonsense Heleax was feeding her, and a protective part of Sophia lit with anger at the thought that Heleax was insulting Sikthand.

I’ve found a way to get you out of Vrulatica.

The words made her chewing slow.

King Cueyar thinks your plan to become queen is a good one. Roborhians don’t want to submit to Vila either, but they didn’t see any other option until I explained what King Sikthand has planned. Cueyar thinks the idea is brilliant, and he asked me to offer you the position of Queen of Roborh.

You could accomplish everything you want here. King Cueyar is kind, and his people are gentle. He is loved, and I’m sure you would be too. Vrulatica is a volatile place. Vrulans are harsh and explosive. You aren’t safe there.

Sophia’s gaze drifted toward the unconscious king and the heavily armed commander watching her. Ice slipped down her spine. She hated that Heleax wasn’t that far off-base.

King Cueyar has agreed to all the terms you set forth with Sikthand and more. He wants a real marriage, if you’re amenable. He’s young and attractive to many females.

He says he’ll give you until the week before the Leaders’ Summit to decide and then he will attempt to find a human elsewhere. Margaret, the human translating my note into English for you, isn’t interested as she’s chosen to remain with her current husband and become a demskiv.

I know you have your principles, and you may feel that you should honor your deal with the Vrulan king, but I beg you, take the time to think this offer through.

Sikthand can be a cruel male. How long before you’re the target of his paranoia and he locks you in the dungeon? How long before a citizen disagrees with something you’ve decided and tries to kill you?

Your life will be hard there, and as a human, hasn’t your life been hard enough already? You can do more good for your people here. If Earth opens, I am very certain humans will prefer to live here rather than Vrulatica.

Take time to think this through and make the right decision. I’ll be waiting for your reply.

Sophia scanned and re-scanned the words, a pit widening in her stomach. She’d come to accept her fate here, and now this?

She stared at Sikthand, and her insides warmed.

At this exact moment, she didn’t want to leave. But how would he treat her when he woke up?

The turmoil in her heart didn’t lessen as the day wore on. She remained by Sikthand’s side, only moving to relieve herself or eat, and her breath always hitched whenever he reached out for her in sleep.

Late during the night, after Roldroth had finally fallen asleep in his chair, she’d stared at Sikthand. Though she missed his tattoos, she couldn’t help but sigh at how he looked without them. His skin was as pale as marble, his black hood cutting over his face like a shadow.

There was a moment when she’d left his side to renew his sleeping spray, when she’d been halted in place. He’d lain in the bed, blanket scrunched to his waist, arms and legs relaxed in a way that put his body in stunning repose.

Moonlight cut through the window and glowed against his skin, so pale that pastel shades of blue and peach were the only other colors to speak of. He was like some kind of tragic Greek sculpture. All chiseled muscle and perfectly formed features, but even in stillness there was a devastating drama to him.

She wouldn’t draw this. The memory would just be for her, and she would keep it close.

The next morning, when Vezel arrived, Sophia pulled out of Sikthand’s tight embrace, and, swallowing the hard knot in her throat, left his room.

Though she desperately wanted to be there when the medic woke him up, she thought it would be better if she wasn’t. She didn’t know if she could look into the angry, accusatory gaze of the man who had tucked her against his chest all night in sleep. It would be too painful.


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