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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 3

If sitting before the Guild and listening to them decide her future while she remained obedient wasn’t humiliating enough, the king had also decided to make her wait outside the chamber as they discussed the rest of the topics on their docket.

Her stoic guard had borne the brunt of her ire in the form of incessant questions, of which he’d answered very few. After an hour of interrogation, though, he was beginning to crack. His steel-blue eyes drifted toward the sealed door more and more often, and the sound of clinking metal echoed through the hall as he fidgeted.

The only piece of information he’d deigned to share was that they were to wait in the silent hall until the king was done. Like a damn dog leashed outside a store. But why? Did he want to speak with her more? Doubtful. Was this just some kind of perverse power move? A way to say, Fuck you for questioning me?

It didn’t matter why in the long run, only that he could do it. As long as she lived in this city, she was under his control. The sheer helplessness made her want to scream.

What could she do, though? Escape? Vrulatica was aptly named the Vertical City, and right now she was near the top. As far as she knew, all travel in and out of the city was done using malginash. Even if she could somehow get her hands on one of the winged creatures, she wouldn’t know how to fly one. And even if by some miracle she could fly one, she wouldn’t know which direction to go. Red desert surrounded the city as far as the eye could see.

The sad truth was that even if she somehow made it out of Vrulatica and found a cruiser to commandeer, she didn’t know what awaited her in Tremanta. If her friends hadn’t gone back, there must be a reason.

She didn’t expect anyone to save her. She wasn’t really in danger anyway. No, for now, she had to bide her time.

Maybe she could splash a coat of paint on this situation. Recalibrate it in her mind as a continuation of her trip. An extended stop in a city she’d already been intrigued by. The unsettling reality that she wasn’t allowed to leave could remain stowed in a nice, dark, unacknowledged corner of her brain.

Sophia let out a short squeak when the doors of the chamber flew open and flooded the hallway with noise. She didn’t miss the satisfied smirk her guard tossed her way. She pressed against the wall, making room for everyone to leave, but the king strode out first.

His helmet was back in place, and the only indication he’d acknowledged her presence at all was the bright flash of his silver eyes darting across her face. His tail flicked at her guard like a beckoning finger. A silent command. And just like that, she was dragged back along in the king’s wake. Irritation made her fists clench as she realized he was leading her back to her rooms.

This was why she’d had to wait? So he could walk her home like a disobedient toddler.

When they approached the doors to the palatial wing her rooms were in, the guard stopped and positioned himself against the wall like a decorative suit of armor. The king himself unlocked the doors. Was he the only one with a key?

With an air of impatience, he held the door open, bright gaze unmoving. Her throat was tight as she passed through the threshold, inching away from his towering frame until he locked the door behind them.

“Your attendant is waiting in your rooms,” he rumbled, extending an arm toward her door at the end of the corridor. “He’ll see to any needs you have.”

Sophia wanted to argue, pester him with questions, but the air felt different than it had a moment ago. There weren’t other people around. No witnesses. Something about being in front of others made her situation less real. She could slip on a mask of bravery more easily when it felt like a performance, but not here. She was in a dark, locked hall with a massive warrior king who very clearly didn’t care for her.

He turned on his heel and stalked away. “Wait,” Sophia blurted.

The king stilled. His boots scraped as he swiveled in place slowly. She didn’t know what to say, though. She had a million questions, but what overtook her in that moment was the uncertainty. She wasn’t in imminent danger, but she wasn’t clear of danger either. She had no home, no friends, no one else of her species within a hundred-mile radius, and the man in front of her held her life in his hands yet seemed altogether unconcerned with her existence.

“What do I do?”

His angled body turned toward her more, one horn of his helmet glinting with the tilt of his head.

“I mean,” she tried to recover, to make sure the question didn’t sound as vulnerable as it was. “Am I confined here? Do I get a key?” Her eyes darted up to the aggressive points and arches of the ceiling. “Should I just wait in my room until you and your Guild have decided whether I fetch a good enough price?”

Faint activity from her room buzzed through the silence between them. “Your chaperone has a key, and I care not what you do,” he finally said. “Stay out of trouble, don’t try to contact anyone outside the city without supervision, and mind the boundaries you’ve been given. Know that there will always be eyes on you. If I hear you’ve dashed out into the desert in the night, understand that will be the one to hunt you.”

She didn’t know what came over her, but before she could hold it back, she sneered. “Before you go making threats, remember that I’m a pretty delicate bargaining chip.”

The king straightened. “Watch your fangs, little human. Or they may be ripped out.” A slow nails-on-chalkboard scrape of his tail across the floor set her teeth on edge, but she kept her jaw lifted. “A rider gains nothing by taunting their mount.”

What the hell did that mean? Was she the rider or the mount in this scenario?

His blazing eyes lifted over her shoulder, breaking their seething glares. Her chaperone must be behind her, but she didn’t look. Whoever was at her back was far less of a threat than the man in front of her. His gaze bore into hers for a fleeting moment before he turned and stomped down the hall.

What was down that way, anyway?

A high-pitched tap tap tap rang through the space from behind Sophia, but she kept her eyes trained on the king until the silver spike of his tail disappeared around a corner.

When she turned, she found a man, though his luminous golden skin and even brighter golden hood made him look more like Apollo in the dark glow of the hall.

“Hello. My name is Alno.” He gave a quick bow. His warm honey eyes trailed over her. She couldn’t decipher whether there was heat in his gaze, though. “I’ve been assigned as your attendant,” he explained as she drew closer. He was tall too. Lean and beautifully built.

“You don’t have to pretend,” she sighed. “You’re my chaperone. My babysitter.”

He blinked, lip lifting to expose a white fang. “Baby sitter.” He repeated in a mildly horrified tone. “I’ll assume that term should not be translated literally. If you’re implying I’m here to do more than assist you, you’d be correct. I’d rather not disappoint the king in this, so I hope you won’t be too unwilling to allow me to keep close.”

Sophia took in a deep breath. “I appreciate the honesty, Alno.” A sense of dullness seeping into her bones, she trudged toward her room.

She stopped in her tracks. Had she walked into the wrong room?

What had been a dust and cobweb covered space only a few hours ago was now unrecognizable. No longer musty and thick, the air smelled fresh and lightly floral.

The floors gleamed. The domed metal sculpture surrounding the bed glimmered in the calming blue light flooding through the ceiling’s stained glass and the newly revealed windows. Sophia noticed jewels inlaid in the malginash eyes that she hadn’t seen before. Within the confines of the bed itself, the mattress was piled high with fluffy bedding.

“How…?” Had she been gone for hours?

“I oversaw a small army for the cleaning and stocking. Just let me know if you need anything else.” Alno glanced around the room, the side of his mouth lifting in a satisfied smile.

“You’re certainly good at your job. This is incredible.”

Alno’s shoulders pulled back proudly, but his brows raised in surprise. Not used to receiving compliments?

She trailed around the room as he stood near the door listing all the cleaning that had been done and describing what clothing they’d provided, in addition to what would be on its way as soon as he got her measurements. Alno had unearthed the space, and every inch screamed wealth. It was too nice. Truly a room meant for a queen. She wasn’t worthy enough to set foot in a place like this, yet the king had insisted on it.

“Do you know who the king calls ‘vermin’?” she asked. Unsurprisingly, Alno looked confused. She repeated what the king had said back in the chamber.

Her chaperone shrugged, but his gaze shifted nervously. He knew more than he let on. She’d have to chip away at that later. He showed her around, leading her through the three rooms that constituted the queen’s quarters.

“What’s behind that door?” Sophia pointed to the ornate door on the wall opposite her bed. Her rooms had two closets, a bathroom with an enormous bathing pool, and an adjoining study. What more could there be?

She was already across the room, fingers brushing the handle, when he rapped his tail against the floor twice in quick succession. “That leads to the king’s quarters.”

Sophia’s swiped her hand back as if it had been burned, then spun to Alno, eyes wide. “What? Our rooms are…connected?”

Alno shrugged. “A queen may want to call upon her king from time to time.” He joined her at the door, and she recoiled when he pulled it open, as if King Sikthand was waiting on the other side. But it was empty.

She was surprised to find not a room behind the door, but a long corridor. The ceiling wasn’t as tall here, and the walls were covered in silvery-white metal lacework. Dim lighting lit the space just enough for her to see that the large door on the far side of the hall was black. Compared to the architecture of the rest of Vrulatica, with its imposing ceilings and angular metalwork, this area was strikingly…intimate.

“I’ll never be able to sleep now,” she whispered as she backed away.

Alno closed the door. “I wouldn’t worry. You aren’t his queen. And it’s not as if you called for him.” He gestured to a lever on the side of the door decorated to look like a flowering branch.

“What is that? Like a sex doorbell or something?” She eyed it warily.

Alno erupted into laughter, his hearty chuckle matching that of a man considerably rounder in the belly and redder in the face. “I heard humans were funny things.” He grinned and slid a large bolt hidden beneath the detail work of the door into place. “I can’t imagine he’s ever used this passage, but if you’re worried, just keep this bolted and don’t ring any sex bells.”

She grumbled her thanks as Alno continued to chuckle. When she turned back to him, she caught him eyeing her. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it either, but his looks were more confusing than anything else. There was interest in his lingering gaze, but his stares were also dispassionate. It was like he was admiring a statue…No, not admiring. Studying. Simply looking at something pretty. There was appreciation but no real draw beyond general approval.

Sophia didn’t entirely mind. He seemed harmless enough, and she’d gotten used to odd stares from Clecanians during the tour. Her humanness was interesting to people, especially men, who outnumbered women to such a staggering degree. She took a pointed, yet polite step away, and pretended to be interested in the delicate blue leaves decorating the enormous dressing mirror’s frame.

“Sophia of Earth,” he began slowly from behind her. She groaned inwardly. Any other time she might’ve been interested in an innocent flirtation with the handsome golden alien, but in light of her current predicament, getting involved with Alno felt like it would not be worth the fun. He was gorgeous, but nothing in her stirred at his presence. Not even when she spotted his fangs, which usually made her insides tingle.

She raised her palm to stop him. “Sophia is fine.”

“Sophia,” he corrected. “May I smell you?”

She tried not to let her shoulders slump. This wasn’t the first time someone had asked to smell her, and if she lived much more of her life on Clecania, she knew it wouldn’t be the last.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” Sophia caught her reflection in the mirror, and quite a reflection it was. She hadn’t bathed since fighting her way through a battle and rolling around on the dusty floor. Her hair was a knotted mess. She could feel the deep ache of bruises all over her body, and she was positive her brain must be shielding her from what she must smell like. Suddenly, the dark confines of the covered bed were the only place she wanted to be. “Maybe tomorrow after I’ve cleaned up?”

Something in him snapped at that. His body went loose, his hands swinging from behind his back, and his tail swiping across the floor. “It’s just… If we’re going to be together day in and day out as I am assigned to be…” He let out an enormous sigh. “The truth is that if I’m going to recognize you, I’d rather it be over and done with.”

She raised a brow at that. “More romantic words have never been spoken,” she teased gently.

Sophia couldn’t blame him for being impatient. For hundreds of years, Clecanians had lost the ability to recognize their mate, the other half of their soul. But with the arrival of humans came a resurgence of recognition. If her potential soulmate were standing in front of her and all she had to do to know for sure that they were the one was smell them? Well, she’d probably go around sniffing after folks too.

He shot her a grin, and although it was a nervous one, it was remarkably charming. “I don’t mean to insult you. You’re very appealing,” he said, giving her another once-over.

It helped her ego that his gaze held more of a wolfish hunger when he looked her over this time.

“It’s just”—his smile became something a bit gooier than she was expecting—“there’s a female I’m taken with. I have hope that she’ll return my interest one day.” His brows furrowed in renewed determination as he refocused on Sophia. “So, if you are to be my mate by some miracle, I’d rather know now so as not to prolong my pain.”

“What is she like?” Sophia asked. As expected, the golden glow of his skin seemed to burn brighter. It was contagious. Her chest warmed in time with his growing smile.

“She’s…” His gaze went a little hazy as he searched for words to describe the woman he was so clearly enamored with. “Blinding,” he finished with a sigh.

The last few days had been grueling. Nonstop adrenaline pulsing through her body had left her jittery, exhausted, and defeated. She didn’t know what was coming or where she’d be in the next month, and yet she couldn’t help the wide grin that split across her face.

Sophia swept her hair over her shoulder and tipped her chin up. “Come on, then. Have a sniff.”


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