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Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 5

Sophia could think of few worse feelings than that of being excruciatingly tired yet too anxious to sleep. After Alno had said goodnight, hands free of any marks of recognition, and promised to be back early the next morning, she’d crawled into bed, dirty clothes and all.

She thought she’d drift directly to sleep, but no. The door that connected her room to Sikthand’s taunted her. Through the opening to her enclosed bed, the door was still visible. In order to keep it in sight, she had to lie on her back, but lying on her back was just painful enough to keep her from sleeping.

After testing the bolt twice, she tried lying on her side. It was comfortable, but the door’s out-of-sight existence made her skin crawl.

Finally, she decided that perhaps her grimy skin and knotted hair were getting in the way of her fully relaxing. She slipped into the bathroom, ran herself a bath, and came close to falling asleep in the tub. After much cursing, she dragged herself out of the warm water and nearly broke down in tears when she couldn’t find a towel.

Her lids drooped as she dragged a comb through her slippery hair. The scrape against her scalp felt so good she shivered and moaned. Worries about what she should do kept creeping into her consciousness, but she shoved them down, burying them before her throat grew too tight.

There was no use in thinking about that right now. All she could do was plan one day at a time, and she already had her goal for tomorrow. She’d visit Heleax in the dungeons. He deserved to know what was going on. Apart from that, she also longed to see a familiar face.

She picked through the clothes Alno had left for her until she found a silky sleeping gown. Before putting it on, though, she decided it would be best to rip off the Band-Aid and see the damage she’d done to her body. One eye trained on the door, she padded over to the large mirror, stark naked.

There were some bruises marring her hips and legs. A bad one bloomed across her shoulder from when she’d fallen over in the chair. Two bands of red ringed her wrists. But all in all, the injuries looked manageable.

If portable healers worked here, she could use one of those, but if not, it wouldn’t take too long for these to heal on their own. Before looking at her back, she took a long breath.

She turned, and her heart sank. Her back was black and blue. Battered and swollen, especially near her tailbone. “Shit,” she hissed.

This was bad. She wondered if she might have bruised or broken something but was too nervous to confront that possibility. The idea of asking to be taken to a doctor made her insides rebel. Even thinking of the unnaturally powerful healing tube induced a spike of anxiety.

Maybe it was just bad now. Perhaps the swelling would go down after she had a good night’s rest. No one’s body could heal under these conditions, after all.

Set on ignoring the problem unless it became worse, she forced herself to eat a bit more of the food Alno had left for her, then grabbed two glass bottles and carefully tilted them against each of the doors in her room. If anyone tried to open a door while she was asleep, the bottle would fall over.

She wouldn’t be able to do much to stop whoever came in from hurting her if they wanted, but at least she’d have a warning. Content with her booby traps, she crawled back into bed and fell asleep almost instantly.


Shattering glass had Sophia bolting awake. It took her several moments to remember where she was, but when she did, her eyes zoomed to the ornate door across the room. The fiery orange bottle remained propped against the wood. She ripped her blankets off, scrambling forward on her knees to check the other bottle, and shrieked when Alno popped into view in front of the entrance to her bed.

“What the hell!” She clutched at her thundering heart, willing it to slow.

“I could say the same.” Alno’s eyes were wide and worried. “There was glass in front of your door. Why didn’t you answer? I’ve been knocking for ages. I finally let myself in to make sure you hadn’t thrown yourself out a window.”

Sophia mumbled a reply as pain lanced through her back. She winced and gripped the bedding.

“What?” Alno questioned, clearly annoyed.

Sophia glared up at him. “They. Don’t. Open.” She whipped a hand toward the windows and shooed him away so she could climb out of bed. “I checked them last night. Not to throw myself out,” she added, rolling her eyes. “Just…to see.” Sophia didn’t mention that in her sleep-deprived mind she’d wondered if she could fashion a rope out of her sheets. A brainless thought, considering they were thousands of feet in the air.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, here. I brought you some food. Unless you’d like to go to a dining hall to—”

The smell of fresh bread hit her nose, and she made a grab for the tray.

“We could try eating with everyone during the evening meal?” he offered as Sophia shoved a hunk of sweet bread in her mouth.

When she was able to swallow, she said, “I’d prefer to eat in here if it’s all the same.”

Alno settled into a chair nearby and sipped from a cup of his own. “I think it would be good for you to mingle.”

“Good for who?” She snorted. One look at his pursed lips gave her an answer. “Oh. I get it. It would be good for you. ’Cause you could see your girlfriend that way, right?”

Alno didn’t answer, but his shoulders tensed. She grinned over the top of her bread.

“Tell you what—if you help me out and answer my questions, I’ll go eat in the upper dining hall with you tonight. Deal?”

A smile broke over his face. “Deal.” He rose from his seat, tail swinging behind him merrily. “My job is to do just that anyway. What shall I help you with today?”

“I want to go see Heleax.”

Alno’s face fell. Before he could backtrack, Sophia scrambled into the bathroom and started getting ready. Annoyed mutters floated to her from the other side of the door. When she was dressed, she pulled it open and left it ajar while rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What can you tell me about the Guild? And where the hell are the towels?”

Alno casually depressed an area of the wall, and a cabinet opened, revealing piles of fluffy towels. Sophia frowned and griped mostly to herself, “Cabinetry so integrated you don’t even know it exists. Cool, cool, cool.”

She dug through the cosmetics he’d provided, surprised to find they were more similar to Earth makeup than the cosmetic stamping machines most Clecanians used. Perhaps, like a majority of electronics, those machines didn’t work here. The magnetic askait ore Vrulatica had been built on ensured very few electronic devices worked within the city.

Alno leaned against the doorway of the bathroom as she experimented with the makeup. “What do you want to know?”

She frowned at her reflection. The pink she’d put on her cheeks had disappeared into nothing. Not blush, then. “I don’t know.” She shrugged. Do any of the guildmembers have power, and can I get them to outvote the king and let me go? “How is the Guild organized? Were they voted in, or did they inherit their positions? I know the king’s role is inherited.”

“They are elected. Each guildmember is the head of the sacred six: the people, the law, money, defense, trade, and the mines. Speaker Besith is the head of the people. He sees to their needs and to Vrulan infrastructure.”

“He’s the one who appointed you, correct? Black beard? Looks like he just drank sour milk?”

“That’ll be him.” Alno smothered a laugh. “Magistrate Yalmi oversees our legal system. She also manages the archives and works closely with Commander Roldroth, who is the head of our armies and our riders.”

“Commander Copperhead,” Sophia muttered while trying and failing to open a long silver tube. She gave up, tossing the object back into a drawer. “What about the guy who wore plain clothing?” Sophia eyed the metalwork crossing back and forth over Alno’s chest and tail, along with the many pieces of jewelry he sported. “He…stood out.”

“Ah, that’s the head of finance, Master Bavo. It’s tradition for the head of money to live a life of meager means. Those with a penchant for expensive things aren’t usually elected to his position, though Master Bavo cares even less about his appearance than his predecessors.” Alno leaned in, a conspiratorial glint in his warm golden eyes. “I’ve heard he has a penchant for fine food, though. Spends a fortune importing delicacies from Gulaid.”

“Scandalous.” Sophia grinned. She caught her altogether unaltered appearance in the mirror and grumbled, “Why did I bother?”

“Who am I missing?” Alno wondered aloud, stepping in front of Sophia and tipping her chin up. He swiped a product from the drawer and went to work, applying color to her face.

She’d never had anyone else do her makeup before. Her grandmother hadn’t worn it, and once she’d learned on her own, she was too picky to let anyone else near her. She held in a grimace and kept still.

“Oh, lovely little Lady Lindri. That’s right. She runs the mines and oversees the metalworkers, though she’d much rather be tinkering with machines. Madame Kalos can be heard complaining all the way to the sky when she has to hunt Lindri down in the mines. They work closely, you see, as metal is our main export and Madam Kalos is our head of trade. Might as well be the head of buttons with the amount of time Lady Lindri gives her.”

“Doesn’t like her or something?” Sophia closed her eyes as Alno brushed something on her temples, one tongue glued to a fang in concentration.

“She thinks the madam pushes the miners too hard, always wanting more. More goods. More prestige. More respect for our city. Neither is wrong, but their goals are not aligned, to say the least.” His mouth curled to the side. “I’ve done what I can, but I’ve never applied makeup to someone without a hood before. I realize now the colors I chose for you are not quite right.”

Her head tipped to the side when she peered at her reflection. The makeup was interesting. Not bad, just…interesting. Rather than accentuate her eyes and the apples of her cheeks like she normally did, deep color had been brushed over her features in such a way as to brighten the center of her face. The way one might for a hood, she realized.

“So does the king have final say over the Guild?” Sophia asked while slipping on some sturdy shoes. She ignored the throbbing pain in her back that was frustratingly not getting better.

“For the most part. If the Guild comes to a unanimous decision that opposes the king, they have the power to override him, but it’s rare that group agrees on anything.”

She slipped on another boot and found him openly ogling her ass. “Hey! Aren’t you supposed to be in love with what’s-her-name?”

Alno grinned, morphing into a damn ray of sunlight. “I’m in love but not blind.”

“Yeah, yeah. Just save that charm for her, alright?”

“If only,” he groaned as he followed her out of the bathroom and then her room, locking the door behind them as they made their way out of the royal wing. “I become a mute idiot whenever I think about talking to her. She’s always surrounded by her damn squad. I’d need to tail whip my way through just to get to her.”

“Squad?” A group of Vrulans eyed her curiously as they approached from the other direction. Their gazes turned critical as they took in the simple outfit she’d picked. Alno had given her buckets of metal accessories to deck herself out with the way everyone else did, but she hadn’t cared enough to rummage through them. Getting to Heleax was her only concern.

“The group of cloud chasers she rides with,” Alno explained.

As they meandered down through the city toward the dungeons, he clarified the differences between cloud chasers and warriors. As far as she could tell, all cloud chasers, also called riders, were warriors, but not all warriors were riders. Grueling years of specialized training separated the elite cloud chasers and earned them respect throughout the city.

At this time of year, there were no storms on the horizon and no incursions in the Choke. Clusters of cloud chasers mingled around Vrulatica, drinking and socializing. Sophia studied them as covertly as she could while Alno guided her down through the city. They were all decked out in armor and leather like the king.

Was it a fashion statement? Or were they always prepared to fly off into storms at a moment’s notice? Either way, Sophia marveled at the artistry and detail of their outfits. Chain draped through hair. Forged golden hand bones affixed to the tops of gloves.

As they moved farther groundward, she wondered if she could get away with wearing outfits like that here. She’d just be a weak human playing dress-up amid a city of warriors who actually protected Vrulatica. They’d probably laugh her into tears if her puny ass tried to copy their style. Too bad. Sophia loved dressing up.

To her surprise, the dungeons were not below ground like she’d imagined. They weren’t even low in the city. Rather, they spanned almost seven floors and hung, suspended in the core of highcity. Lifts that traveled from the very top of Vrulatica to the ground flew right by the dungeon levels. Only one stopped. And it was heavily guarded.

When Sophia and Alno stepped into the dungeon entrance, they were greeted by ten guards armed to the teeth with blades. Sophia swallowed. She’d always imagined a dungeon to be cold and damp. Maybe with some rats scurrying around. But the dungeons of Vrulatica were much worse.

It was sweltering and dry, like a sauna. Curved metal walls devoid of the extravagant designs that graced every other surface in Vrulatica made the entry chamber resemble the inside of a large cauldron.

“We’re here to visit the Tremantian prisoner,” Alno explained.

Weren’t they boiling in all that armor? Sophia eyed the covered guards and pulled at her thin fabric collar. If the air weren’t so dry, she’d be covered in sweat. As it was, any moisture that rose on her skin evaporated almost immediately. Why the fuck had Alno not warned her? She’d picked a long-sleeved top and pants to hide the bruises marring her skin, but if she’d known this awaited her, she’d have said to hell with covering up.

“We weren’t told of any visitors,” a muffled voice croaked out from one of the guards, but she couldn’t tell which one had spoken since they all wore helmets.

“You don’t need prior notice to visit someone here,” Alno challenged.

A dark iron-plated guard stepped forward, a blade clinking at his back. “Rules are different for detainees. He hasn’t been tried. Not an official—”

The air in the room shifted. Cooled. As if the faintest breeze had rolled through. The hair on the back of her neck rose.

As one, the guards’ postures straightened. Though she couldn’t tell for sure, they seemed to be staring not at her, but behind her. She spun and stumbled back a step.

King Sikthand stood an arm’s length away, menacing and silent. How had he gotten so close before anyone noticed? Where had he come from?

His blazing stare bore into her from beneath his slitted mask. “Come with me.”

“What…I…” Sophia shook off the shock from his sudden appearance and lifted her chin. “I’m here to visit Heleax.”

Tense silence stretched between them. Faint clinking behind her told her the soldiers fidgeted as much as she wanted to. “Come with me today, and I’ll allow you to see him tomorrow.”

“Couldn’t I go now?” She glanced behind her helplessly. “I’m already here, and—”

“Tomorrow or not at all, human.”

Sophia’s jaw tensed at his dictatorial tone. From behind Sikthand, Alno gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Swallowing her rising arguments was like gulping down a knot of bees, but she managed to hold her tongue and silently nod her assent. Without a word, he entered the lift, waited for her to step in behind him, then slid the door shut before Alno could join them.

She hadn’t noticed on their way down, but the space in the lift was small. Too small. Perhaps it was the lingering effects of the dungeon, but breathing felt harder than normal. She flattened herself against the wall, trying to put some space between herself and the enormous man planted in the center of the lift like he owned the place.

He does own the place, she grumbled to herself. The reminder set her teeth on edge.

“Can I ask where we’re going, Your Majesty?”

The antlers of his helmet glinted as he turned his head. He eyed her over his shoulder. “To see a medic.”

A medic? Her back had been killing her all day, but she hadn’t told anyone. She cleared her throat. “Uh, thank you, but I don’t need to see a medic.” The image of the tube popped into her head, and suddenly she didn’t feel warm anymore.

“I’d like to ensure you’re checked out anyway,” he rumbled. “If reports of you fighting were true, you may have lingering injuries you’re not aware of.”

The lift stopped abruptly, and her back bumped against the wall, sending a bolt of pain through her. Oh, I’m aware.

Sophia followed the king, trying not to drag her feet. Would it be too obvious if she pretended to stop and tie her shoe? If she stalled long enough, maybe he’d be called away and she could avoid the awkward series of events that were sure to occur.

If he found out she’d hurt herself as badly as she had, he’d certainly question why she hadn’t mentioned it sooner, and there was no part of her that wanted to dive into her irrational fear of healing tubes today. She especially didn’t want to explore that particular trauma with the formidable king. He’d probably think she was pathetic. Hell, she thought she was pathetic.

Who in their right mind would be terrified of a tube that could heal almost anything in a matter of seconds? Not even the few humans she’d tried to explain her fears to had understood. They couldn’t fathom why she was so scared of something she’d never experienced.

It was a fair point. Sophia hadn’t been conscious during her healing. She hadn’t even known it was happening. She’d fallen asleep on Earth and awoken altered.

If anyone was to blame, it was the people who’d abducted her and the specific doctor who’d healed an unconscious, non-consenting woman. But they were faceless shadows, and for want of someone specific to blame, her anxiety had latched on to the only solid thing it could. The device that had changed her. Violated her.

The power this irrational fear had over her was embarrassing, but what was even worse was that she’d have no way of hiding it. No way of putting on a brave face and tricking the king into believing she was fine. Clecanians had a sense of smell far surpassing humans, and fear was an emotion they could scent. The closer they got to this doctor, the more she’d stink.

Her shoulders slumped. This would be mortifying.

The king led her back to the wing they both inhabited, and then to the left instead of the right. Tingles raced down her scalp as she followed. This was his side of the wing. Though no one had told her so, the area felt forbidden.

This side looked the same as hers except for a set of stairs winding into the ceiling. She hesitated at the foot of the steps, watching the king climb upward and disappear from view. Whatever was up there was loud.

Be brave, be brave, be brave. She forced her feet to move.

When she reached the landing, she froze. A malginash, enormous and intimidating, sat in a cavernous space in front of a wide arched opening that led into the sky. The source of the roaring became clear, and her stomach dropped.

It was the wind.

Miles and miles in the air, the wind was brutal. If she stood too close to that opening, one powerful gust would be all it took to send her free-falling thousands of feet from the top of the Vertical City. Her focus zoomed to the malginash as it stretched its spotted wings.

She was afraid—terrified, really—yet she couldn’t help but let out a breath of wonder. “You’re so beautiful,” she crooned, grinning at the malginash who blinked its wide, cloudy eyes at her. “Look at those wings and those horns.” The malginash started making a low clicking sound. Did that mean it liked her, or was it a warning?

Sophia kept herself glued to the wall while venturing farther from the stairs. She scanned the space for Sikthand, and her mind blanked for a different reason.

He’d divested himself of his armor. All of it.

“What are you doing?” She tried to keep her voice even, but it was difficult. She was less shocked by his face this time, but no less enthralled. Seeing him without his mask was one thing, but seeing him without any protective gear made her brain short-circuit. How was it possible he looked larger without armor on?

Before, she could pretend he was a frail, flabby sack of flesh under piles of metal. She eyed the bulging muscles of his arms and chest, the truth of how perfectly he was built all but smacking her in the face.

“The infirmary is located across the desert. Far enough that the askait ore won’t interfere with their machines. We’ll need to fly.”

When Sophia gave him a blank look, he motioned to her back. “I saw you fall during your escape attempt, and you’ve been walking stiffly. I’d be surprised if there was no damage to your back. You’ll need to ride with me, and I’d rather not injure you further by forcing you to lean against my armor.”

“Thank you. That…” Her voice died out. Was it thoughtful? Yes. Right? She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but there was something tugging at her brain, keeping her from believing he was only thinking of her safety and comfort. Was she so intent on disliking him that she couldn’t even accept a kind gesture?

“You are a delicate bargaining chip after all.” He repeated her words from the night before, and she frowned.

With a wave of his hand, the malginash followed the king as he strode toward her. The click-clack of its nails on the stone made goose bumps rise on her skin.

“It’ll be cold.” He handed her a blood red cloak, and she slipped it on. The malginash knelt, and before Sophia could stop him, Sikthand had swept her up and deposited her onto the wide, cushioned saddle. She braced for a belated slice of pain, but none came. He’d somehow managed to get her up here without touching her bruised lower back.

Her breath caught as he slid in behind her. She’d been wrong—he didn’t smell like nothing. He smelled delicious. Bright yet complex. Like leather and mist. It was so distracting, she almost forgot what they were about to do.

The malginash rose, lifting them at least seven feet off the ground. “Wait, I…” Her gaze zoomed around frantically. What could she hold?

Sikthand’s arms circled in front of her and gripped the malginash’s reins. The animal clicked. “Does that mean it’s excited or angry?” she shrieked over the mounting bellow of the wind. Her nails scraped over the smooth leather saddle, but she couldn’t find a secure spot. I’m about to plummet into the sky, and I have nothing to hold on to.

“She,” the king corrected in a bellow. The open sky bloomed before her as the malginash stalked forward.

Sophia and Sikthand weren’t touching. There was enough room in the saddle for both to sit with a few inches separating them. But as the sight of the earth far below came into view, all notions of personal space evaporated. She plastered herself against the king’s front, wrapping both arms up and around his biceps, and turned her face toward his chest.

Her breathing was panicked, her heart galloping. As the malginash took its first step out of the king’s landing bay, her stomach bottomed out.


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