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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 36

“Nothing?” Sophia questioned.

Alno shrugged from his relaxed spot on a couch in the archives. “No. Not nothing. The king has plenty of reasons to be acting weirdly, but none of them are things you don’t already know. Maybe the boy said something to him that freaked him out. Maybe he truly doesn’t think you’re going to pick a good candidate. Think of how difficult of a position that would put him in.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Sophia grumbled.

“He could be pushing you away for countless reasons.” Alno crossed and recrossed his legs which were extended on an ottoman. “And I don’t mean to offend, but didn’t you say he wanted a cold marriage? Maybe he’s trying to reinforce that relationship before the wedding.”

“That’s what he said early on, but after we…” Sophia crossed her arms over her chest. “I just thought things had changed. I mean, we haven’t exactly been cold to each other.” She gave Alno a meaningful look.

He thought for a moment. “Have you had sex?”

Sophia sighed, her head pulsing from all the overanalyzing she’d been doing. “Well…no. But…” She shook her head. “There was more to what we did do. It didn’t feel…I don’t know how to describe it, but it wasn’t casual. There was something there. I don’t want him to push me away.” Her voice was almost a whine, and her neck heated in embarrassment. Grow up, girl.

Alno chuckled humorously. “Look, you asked him whether he wants a cold marriage. He said yes.”

“No,” she rushed, pointing her finger. “He didn’t answer, so that’s…” Her grinning nod fell as she heard her own argument out loud. “That’s closer to yes than no, isn’t it?”

“You can’t force it either way. You think I don’t want to decide how Difila feels about me? I can shower her with gifts and orgasms and compliments as much as I want, but if she doesn’t want to marry me, I can’t control that.”

Sophia slumped back in her seat, the scroll she was meant to be reading sat untouched in her lap. She was confused and heartsick. A deep ache had taken up residence in her chest since two nights before when she’d left Sikthand’s study.

She’d only seen him once since then, when he’d come to tell her that the young apprentice had finally started speaking. The boy had revealed that a cloaked male had given him a vial of notak venom from the icy city of Aqoneron and made him inject it into Ahea’s thick hide the next time he went to see his friend who saddled malginash.

The poor thing hadn’t wanted to hurt the creature, but the male had threatened his father. When the boy had rushed back to Zommah’s shop, too ashamed of himself to go home, he’d walked in to find Zommah spitting up blood, and the cloaked man standing over him. The boy had run, but the male had caught him.

Sikthand had walked into Sophia’s room, dropped this news, then left, claiming he had meetings to go to concerning a Tagion sighting in the Choke. His twenty-minute visit had been so…formal. Civil. And yet so serious.

Sophia had wanted to reach out, grip his hand, and assure him they’d figure out who this assassin was, but she didn’t know if she was allowed to anymore. Would he pull away if she tried to touch him? She didn’t think her pride could handle that.

The day wore on, and Sophia remained lost in thought. Sikthand had sent another message to Alno to tell her that he wouldn’t be meeting with her again tonight, and she’d deflated even more.

“Time for dinner?” Alno asked, yawning and stretching.

“You go ahead. I’m not hungry. Just make sure my guards are still outside when you pass them.”

After a few minutes of urging Alno to leave while he pretended—poorly—that he’d rather hang out with her mopey ass, he finally sped away to the dining hall.

The archives were so quiet tonight. The silence should have been relaxing, but her mind was far too loud. She needed a distraction.

Sighing, she got up and gathered her things. She walked down the stairway leading to the second floor, then paused halfway to the door. She surveyed the large room for any signs of life. Confirming she was alone, she crept toward the back wall of the archives until she casually loitered near the corner where she knew a hidden panel lay.

She searched for it but, unsurprisingly, found nothing. Pulling scrolls and running her fingers over the woodwork revealed no secret buttons or latches. Leaning in, she placed her chin on the edge of a shelf and breathed deeply, shutting her eyes.

She pictured the darkness of the little cubby. The recalled sensation of Sikthand’s breath on her neck and his hands dragging down her belly made her shiver in the warm air.

Though heat curled in her stomach, it was quickly overtaken by a hollow ache. She was falling for the king.

If she was honest with herself, she’d already fallen for him.

It was true that he’d never reciprocated her affection out loud, but she’d thought she’d been able to read between the lines. Had she been naïve to think she understood the damaged alien king?

She’d thought he’d sought her out far more often than she did him, but had she been imagining that, too? Though Vrulatica was vast, he always seemed to appear wherever she was. That couldn’t be a coincidence. She could chalk it up to him checking in on the troublesome human to make sure she stayed alive, but the way he looked at her made Sophia believe there was more to it.

She pulled away from the shelves and peered inside. “Do you follow me around in those tunnels, Sikthand?” Sophia whispered the words, but she kept squinting into the cracks of the wall. They appeared solid from this direction.

After a minute more of perfect stillness and silence, Sophia sighed and left the unassuming corner before someone caught her lingering and started poking around. She stepped out of the archives and waited for her guards to gather around her.

She didn’t know where she wanted to go exactly, only that returning to her lonely rooms made her chest tighten. Where else could she explore?

She glanced up and down the corridor and considered for a moment how interesting Vrulatica was. In any other circumstance, the width and openness of the space in front of her would be called a street, but it was an interior and had no transportation. Paved with gleaming stone and mosaic, it was simultaneously a busy pedestrian thoroughfare and an enormous castle hallway. Weird and wonderful.

She smiled gently. Not only had she grown to care for Sikthand, but she loved Vrulatica too. It was a bit more violent than many places, but she found that to be riveting. People were passionate here, and artistic and unconcerned with how the rest of the world felt about them. She started walking down the street, nodding to Vrulans as they passed by.

A few stopped to tell her how happy they were that she’d survived, and her chest warmed with fuzzy heat. A bittersweet thought curled in her heart, and she let it linger. She could pour her love into the city if Sikthand wouldn’t take it.

“How do you get to the Heroes Hall from here?” she asked one of her soldiers, who straightened as though surprised she’d spoken to him directly.

They guided her through midcity, then down almost all the way to lowcity. The memorial area called Heroes Hall occupied an entire floor and was only accessible through a grand stairway.

Above the stairway was the open core of the tower stretching ten stories high. A hanging sculpture of clouds, deadly thrashing malginash, and falling warriors were suspended in the jaw-dropping area.

A large light shone from the ceiling far above and broke through the hanging sculpture, shooting beams through the clouds as if she were staring up at a deadly but beautiful battle taking place in the sky. Sophia removed her helmet, needing to see the artwork unimpeded.

The Taming of the Malginash,” one of her guards provided when she remained frozen in place, her mouth open and her neck craned back painfully. “The name of the work.”

“Wow.” Sophia smiled. “It’s incredible.”

She continued down the steps, mentally laying out a large back piece depicting that sculpture. Maybe on her way out, she could find a nice spot with a good perspective and sketch out her design. She’d brought her book with her after all.

Sophia had always enjoyed going to museums on Earth, finding a quiet spot and drawing one piece of art or another. I’m going to see SAM, she’d tell her friends. Whenever she said that, they knew not to expect to hear from her all day because she’d be parked somewhere in the Seattle Art Museum until it closed.

Towering sculpted Vrulan historical figures lined the hall like massive sentries. Some were simple likenesses, while others were glorious works of forged art. Sophia paused her meandering at an enormous statue of a golden soldier astride his malginash.

The body of a four-armed Tagion was hanging limply from the malginash’s antlers. Gored, but left on display. It was like many renaissance paintings she’d seen, gruesome but somehow also created with enough movement and drama to make the gore beautiful. The musculature of the dead Tagion was spectacular.

Sophia breathed out a sigh. Had Ahea ever gored anyone? Probably.

She continued on a few steps, then froze when she spotted another visitor. Madam Kalos. Sophia groaned. She really didn’t feel like company tonight, but Madam Kalos had already spotted her. She couldn’t slink away now without being rude.

Sophia crossed to the woman and her guard. “Good evening, Madam Kalos.”

“Good evening, Sophia. What brings you to the hall?” The madam’s eyes flicked over Sophia’s armor. Though the tradition of rulers wearing armor had been in place for decades now, Madam Kalos had been quite vocal about her dislike of the practice. A ruler should not shield themselves from their people. It sets a precedent of suspicion.

“The artwork. It’s incredible. It seems ridiculous that I didn’t make a point to come here sooner.” Sophia slipped off her helmet again and glanced up at the statue Madam Kalos was admiring.

Madam Kalos nodded absently. “Isn’t he magnificent?”

The man, molded in iron and steel, was tall and sturdy and wore a pompous expression. Sophia didn’t think he was particularly magnificent compared to the other sculptures, but she nodded anyway.

“He was my grandfather,” Madam Kalos whispered conspiratorially, as though telling a stranger she was related to a celebrity.

Sophia tried to feign excitement. “Really? Wow. Who was he?”

Madam Kalos gave a satisfied smile and turned back toward the statue. “He was the head of trade too. He did so much for our city. His clever trade deals funded the restoration of our schools, you know?”

“That’s…incredible.” It wasn’t. Sophia regretted coming down here. Now, instead of sketching the statues like she’d wanted, she was engaging in polite forced conversation with the dull woman. After an awkward moment of silence, she tried to escape. “Well, it was nice to run into you. I hope you have a pleasant night.”

Sophia began walking, squinting, and hoping she could get away without a fuss. She’d made it a few feet when Madam Kalos called out to her. “Sophia, since I have a moment with you, I wondered if you’ve narrowed down your selections any further.”

It took everything in her not to groan as Kalos and her guard sped up to join her on her walk. “I’ve narrowed it down to five, but I still have two more candidates I need to research.”

They rounded a corner, and the statues became simpler and less refined, as though they’d all been built from the period of time in Vrulan history known as the Warp. War, contaminated reservoirs, and a decade-long drought had ensured everything to come out of the Warp was solemn and lacking in extravagant detail.

Sikthand’s oldest ruling ancestor had taken power during that time. Sophia scanned the statues, wondering if that relative was among them. She was half tempted to ask Madam Kalos, but she didn’t want to encourage conversation more than she already was.

“And what of Maddar? Have you revisited her file as I requested?”

Sophia kept her groan inside and plastered on a fake smile. “Yes. I looked at her file again.” She hadn’t. “I just don’t think she’s a good fit. She’s very…spirited about the projects she fights for.” Translation: impulsive. “But her follow-through isn’t great. I’m worried she’d get big ideas in her head and work toward them without thinking. We can’t afford to be hasty.”

“She is passionate,” Madam Kalos argued. “She may have grand ideas, but she follows through. Aqoneron is in the process of building a space elevator because of her.”

Sophia sighed, growing more and more irritated. It was clear Madam Kalos was in no way objective. After Sophia had complained about the way Madam Kalos had been hounding her about the candidate, Sikthand had revealed that she and Maddar were longtime friends who shared unrealistic visions for their cities.

Both women had an act now, worry later state of mind. “She’s building a space elevator in Aqoneron? The city notorious for its near-constant blizzards? You see how that might seem to some to be…poorly…planned…”

Her blood rushed to her head, and Sophia nearly stumbled a step forward.


Based on the description of the liquid Zommah’s apprentice had given, combined with what the veterinarian knew of how it had affected Ahea, Sikthand had determined that the poison used was notak venom. The only city in the world to produce that was Aqoneron.

Madam Kalos’ voice came back to Sophia after a moment. “…the world will be in awe when the elevator is completed. The fact that the city isn’t ideal will make it all the more impressive, and the revenue it will generate will be city changing.”

As they walked, Sophia furtively inched away from the woman. She couldn’t be responsible, could she?

Madam Kalos had always been a little intense, but she cared. She’d always tried to show Sophia a bit of kindness. Then again, her kindness had usually come with remarks about her species, as though she were gracing the dumb human with her benevolent compassion.

“I thought Maddar was from Huvuita,” Sophia said, trying like hell to keep her expression normal. How should she look again? Relaxed? Vaguely annoyed? “That’s what my file said.”

“Oh, she had to relocate recently. Huvuita is a backward place. They rage against change even more than we do, if you can believe it.”

Sophia caught sight of Madam Kalos’ guard walking on her far side and realized he was staring at her, studying her.

Was she being paranoid? She covertly took a deep breath and forced herself to relax.

“Are you feeling alright, dear?” Madam Kalos stopped her with a raised brow. “You smell like something has startled you.”

Shit. She gripped her helmet a little tighter, and wondered if there was any good excuse for her to put it back on.

She pointed to a grisly statue of a man tearing out another man’s innards. “That caught me off guard. It’s a bit brutal, no?” She gave a little chuckle and tried to make sure it didn’t sound flat. She had no idea whether she’d succeeded.

Everyone except for the madam’s guard peered over to the statue. The guard stayed focused on Sophia. Alarm bells flared in her mind. Fuck, how could she control her damn smell?

“Oh, yes. One of your future husband’s kin.” Madam Kalos turned back toward her, and Sophia saw a flash of repugnance she’d never caught before.

An idea suddenly lit in her mind. “Yes. I know. Back on Earth things like that don’t happen too often. Every time I think of Sikthand’s family and what might happen to me as his queen, I can’t control my reaction.” She shook her head and made a show of peering over to the statue and shivering. “Humans are much gentler. Probably since we’re so much weaker.”

Her insides rejoiced when Madam Kalos gave her a sympathetic smile. Sophia had to keep herself from flinching when she reached out to gently pat her arm.

Her answering smile fell when Madam Kalos didn’t remove her hand. “Aklin?” she said.

Sophia didn’t have time to figure out what Aklin was before the guard rasped, “She knows.”

Quicker than she could process, Madam Kalos and her guard drew weapons.

Sophia’s poor soldiers were just as surprised as her. The one closest to her flew backward as though someone had pulled his legs out from under him. The second guard reacted a second too late, and Madam Kalos snuck her long thin blade through the sliver between his helmet and chest plate, sinking the blade into his throat. Blood flowed out of his neck, painting his bright silver armor red. The other guard, who’d been tripped by Aklin’s tail, was now struggling to free his axe from its holster as Aklin raised a blunt hammer and smashed it down against the side of his helmeted head twice.

Sophia stumbled away but tripped in her clunky armor. Falling to her ass, she crab-walked backward as she watched the double homicide unfold—soon to be triple.

Madam Kalos turned her attention to Sophia and was prowling toward her, a disgusted look on her face. “Did you really think I wouldn’t be able to sniff out a lie? You puff up like an angry cethid every time I call humans weak, simple girl.” The woman sighed and peered down at the blood dripping from her weapon. “What a waste. I was really excited about you. The prestige of a human queen.” She raised a reverent palm into the air, then dropped it with a sneer. “A few more drops of notak venom, and that useless king would finally be dead.” She shook her head sadly. “I would’ve made sure a better male took the throne. One worthy of a human queen. One who would strive to make our city the most glorious place on Clecania. You and I could have worked together. But now…” She gestured disappointedly at her as Sophia freed a small blade from her hip and brandished it. “What a waste,” she repeated.

The soldier’s legs stopped moving, and Kalos’ guard, who must’ve been named Aklin, rose to his full height. Sophia let out a strangled whimper.

“Sikthand!” she yelled as Aklin drew closer.

Madam Kalos looked behind her while laughing. “Did you hit your head when you fell, or are humans really that thick? He’s not here.” Her cruel smile warped into a scowl. “How did you know? It must have been something I said.”

“Aqoneron, Madam.” Aklin holstered his hammer and lifted the dead soldier’s axe. “That’s when her scent changed.”

Sophia tried to scramble away, but it was like something out of a nightmare. Her armor was so cumbersome she felt like she was moving through mud.

“Hmm, I’ll have to remember to play down my friendship with Maddar in the future.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Go ahead, Aklin. Before anyone sees.”

Sophia screamed as he advanced.

A whoosh sounded in the air a second before an axe sliced into the armor covering Aklin’s chest. The guard sailed across the room, only stopping when the axe had buried itself in a charcoal-gray statue, spearing Aklin through and through.

Sophia whirled around. Her heart nearly exploded at the sight of Sikthand. He was shrouded head to toe in armor, and his frame swelled with deadly rage. The light shining behind him sliced off his razor-sharp antlers.

Madam Kalos stumbled back but seemed to realize there was no way to outrun him. Disgusting metal-on-metal scraping came from Aklin’s jittering form as he died skewered to the statue of a glaring warrior.

Kalos gripped her weapon and, in a last-ditch effort, threw it hilt over blade at Sikthand’s chest. Sophia shrieked, throwing herself onto her knees and trying to bolt toward him.

He caught the blade in his metal-gloved hand and tossed it away like a bit of trash. Like a predator beginning to charge, his steps picked up speed.

Madam Kalos snarled at him. “You were always a foul excuse for a—”

Sikthand’s tail slashed out, and Madam Kalos blinked. For a moment Sophia couldn’t understand what had happened, but then a bright red line appeared across Madam Kalos’ neck. Blood seeped out of the slice and dribbled down her teal dress. She coughed, spraying blood across Sikthand’s armor.

He rotated away from her as she crumpled to the ground, gurgling and clutching her throat.

In two long strides he was in front of Sophia. He knelt and tore off his helmet. His nostrils flared as he inhaled uneven breaths. It looked like he was just managing to hold himself together, his face stonier than she’d ever seen it.

He reached out toward her cheek, but his hand shook. He pulled it back, curling his fingers into a fist to still his trembling. “Are you…” His voice was strangled, both words an effort to push out.

“I’m fine. Totally fine,” she assured in a whisper.

Her insides were rioting, and tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what to do in this moment. She didn’t know what to say or whether to say nothing at all. He was scared and full of aggression.

Her words remained trapped in her throat. Finally, she roused, pointing down the hall. “My guards. Can you check if they’re alive?”

Sikthand stared at her for a moment longer, his neck muscles bulging, then gave a short nod and walked away. He glanced between her and Madam Kalos’ body when he neared it. Seeming to worry that she’d suddenly wake and attack, Sikthand dug his fingers into her coiffed hair and dragged her limp form along behind him as he made his way to the downed soldiers.

Nausea rose in Sophia’s gut at the action, and she shot her gaze to the floor.

What do I do? What do I do?

Panic sparked in her chest, making the nausea worse, but it had nothing to do with the four dead people lying in bloody pools all around her. It was because she’d seen Sikthand’s eyes up close when he’d removed his helmet…and they’d been solidly black.

He’d recognized her—at least with initial recognition.

Sophia peered up and watched as Sikthand checked on the two men. A silver gaze met hers.

I can’t tell him.


Foreboding slid through her veins like askait ink. Sophia paced her room, trying to decide what to do.

It had been hours since a troop of soldiers and Alno had escorted her back to the royal wing at Sikthand’s command. There was a rather large mess to clean up, figuratively and literally. When Sophia had asked to help explain to the Guild what had happened, he’d taken her by the arm, and said, “I need you to be somewhere safe. I need to know that, or I won’t be able to function.”

At any other point in time, she might have argued, but she’d realized that even Sikthand wasn’t aware how true his words were. A mated Clecanian was protective to a maddening degree, especially right before they got their marks.

Sikthand is my mate.

Initially, when her mind had really taken that fact in, her stomach had exploded with heart-shaped confetti. But then she’d recalled that his eyes had turned black once before, and he’d been left devastated and altered by it. The king was unmatched in the trust issues department.

No one else had seen his eyes change, and even if they had, Sophia didn’t think he’d believe them. The betrayal last time had been so vile, so utterly sickening, that telling him about his eyes felt oddly cruel.

But was it right to keep something like that from him?

She couldn’t decide.

Sikthand was her mate. Though she didn’t know how, she’d felt it from the moment she’d first laid eyes on him. He was hers, and she refused to do anything to hurt him. The only thing that would truly convince him the recognition was real this time would be when the true secondary recognition occurred and marks appeared on his hands.

She could wait for that. Sophia would be patient, and apart from that one detail about his eyes changing, she wouldn’t hold anything back from him. No more uncertainty, no more wondering whether he wanted her or not. This proved he did even if he fought against it.

She collapsed onto her couch and stared into the cold hearth. Though she wished there were a fire so her eyes had something to watch while she thought, she couldn’t ask Alno here to start one. She’d sent him away as soon as they’d arrived, needing time alone to think.

She rubbed at her chest and thought of Sikthand. The ache had deepened into something nearly untenable. Where was he?

She slipped her sketchbook out of her bag and flipped to an empty page. Though it was dim in her room since she hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on, she began sketching the memory of his body when he’d arrived in the Heroes Hall. A glorious, vengeful monster. Her monster. Her shadow. Always emerging from the darkness when she needed him.

He’d appeared again. She’d called him, and he’d appeared.

Had he been watching her already? Had it just been luck?

She huffed out a breath, scribbling over the sketch and slamming the book closed. Where is he?

It’d been hours. He’d told her he’d be back by now.

Sophia caught sight of herself in the mirror and smoothed her nearly dry hair. Her hands froze. She stared at the mirror.

Thoughts zoomed through her mind, and she forced her eyes to the floor.

He had passages everywhere. He always seemed to know where she was, and he’d known other things too.

She’d always just assumed they were coincidences or that he was incredibly intuitive, but…what if it was more than that?

The first night she’d been here she’d examined her battered back. The next day Sikthand had demanded she go to the medic. When she’d decided to go to the Flesh Forge, he’d appeared at the Flesh Forge.

Sophia stared around her room, recalling the items that had appeared right when she’d needed them.

She’d always attributed it to Alno, thanking him though he’d continued to claim he didn’t know what she was talking about. Sophia peered down at her sketchbook.

Had Sikthand been watching her this whole time? Had he seen her cry and throw her sketchbook into the fire?

Tears welled in her eyes. Her chin wobbled and her brows furrowed.

Did he get me a new book and leave it in my room?

Her heart skipped. She sniffed. She should be mad. Furious.

If she was right, it meant he’d been watching her all along, spying, invading one of the only places she’d thought she could be alone. But she couldn’t seem to feel anything less than heart-wrenching love.

Though he must fight against it with every fiber of his being, he was her mate. Of course he watched her.

She set her sketchbook aside and rose. Her bare feet were silent as she stepped toward her reflection. She didn’t look at herself, though—she tried to look through herself.

There was one other trick she remembered from Claire’s safety PowerPoint. How to check for two-way mirrors.

Breath stalled and heart thundering in her throat, she stepped right up to the mirror and lifted her finger. If it was a normal mirror, when she pressed the tip of her finger to the glass there would be a gap between her fingertip and her reflection’s fingertip.

She touched the mirror.

No gap.

Her palm flattened on the glass, and she stared at her reflection, wishing she could see him. She peered above her head toward where his eyes might be. Was he back there?

Her fingers slipped away from the glass. She might not be able to tell him he was hers yet, but she couldn’t go another minute without seeing him.


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