Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 7


A prison guard led Sophia and Alno down a cramped stairway that branched off through a maze of halls. She was back in the dungeon, wearing proper clothing this time. Alno had stocked her closet with traditional Vrulan garb, but he’d had to convince her to wear it. At first glance, the thick fabric and heavy metal ornamentation seemed like an unthinkable option for the sweltering dungeon. She was grateful she’d listened to him now.

The inner lining of Vrulan clothing reacted to body temperature, keeping its wearer cool or warm despite the temperature of the air outside. She could only imagine how helpful that would be when riders flew through frigid storms, then landed in the blazing desert just beyond the mountain range to the north.

Even her short flight the day before had been freezing, despite the cloak the king had given her.

She shook the memory away, something she’d had to do frequently over the last day. On their flight back from the medic, she’d wanted him to pull her in again. A curious part of her wanted to experience being clasped in his hold without the pain from her injury muddling the sensation of his body. After all, it wasn’t every day a girl had a perfectly reasonable excuse to rub up to a muscular alien king.

He was handsome in a way that had snuck up on her. And he was captivating, drawing eyes in every room he occupied. Whenever he was around, she couldn’t help but stare. Unfortunately, he’d been a ghost since they’d landed back in the royal wing, and she itched to see his face again.

Straightening her spine, she reminded herself why she was here. It was not to daydream about the man who was literally holding her hostage. She had bigger fish to fry.

The guard directed them to a glass section of wall, and as Sophia got her first look at Heleax, her dislike of the king roared back to life.

He wasn’t completely naked, but nearly. His skin was flushed, and sweat coated him, making his hair stringy and damp.

“Sophia.” He shot up from the cot he’d been sitting on.

“What are they doing to you?” she hissed, noting the way his breathing deepened as if he’d just done a round of push-ups rather than taken a few steps toward the glass.

His brows knit before he noticed her horrified stare running over his body, chapped lips, and pinkened skin. “Nothing. Nothing. I’m fine. They keep it warm to make sure we’re dehydrated. Makes prisoners less inclined to try to run away, knowing we might pass out before making it up the stairs.”

“It’s cruel!” Sophia spat. “What about heat stroke? You could die.” She craned her neck and glared at the guard, but he was lost in his own world, staring at the ground, gaze far away. Was this so common it bored him? She grimaced.

Heleax grinned, dragging a chair from the corner of the room over to the glass and slumping into it. “They monitor us,” he said, waving his hand, which had a blinking bracelet attached to it. “Keep us hydrated and healthy enough. It’s more of an annoyance than anything else.”

This was intolerable. “But you didn’t even do anything wrong! You shouldn’t be treated like any other prisoner. Just wait. When the Queen…” Her voice died out. There was no Queen anymore. At least not the one Sophia had known. She watched for his reaction to her slip.

Please don’t let me be the one to deliver the news.

His grin faded. “They told me.” His voice came out in a whisper, brows drawing downward.

“I’m so sorry.” Sophia shook her head, the swell of sympathy burying her outrage. However upset she might be about the Queen, was nothing compared to what Heleax must be feeling. “Are you okay?”

He expelled a humorless laugh. “No. Pretty fucking far from it. I need to get back to Tremanta. Have you heard anything from anyone? Daunet? Did our group make it home?”

Sophia shook her head. “I don’t know. Either they didn’t go back for some reason or they made it back and didn’t bother to tell us. Maybe they’re dealing with the fallout after the Queen’s death and haven’t had time.”

“Or maybe that king”—he snarled the word—“is blocking communication.”

Alno fidgeted behind her, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation’s direction. But Sophia felt frozen. Why hadn’t she wondered that earlier? She’d just assumed he and the Guild had been telling her the truth, but how could she be sure? What if they had gotten back to Tremanta and were trying to contact her even now?

“You think?” she asked.

“He’s a devious bastard. I wouldn’t put it past him.” As he said this, he glared at Alno, who scowled right back. She’d gotten the impression that although Alno didn’t exactly revere the king, he respected him. From her chaperone’s stiff expression, it was clear Heleax’s slander had raised his hackles.

“You know, he asked for humans to be sent over.” Heleax’s voice lowered. “I heard a few of the soldiers talking about it after they rounded us up. They bragged that Tremanta would be forced to send over their precious humans if they wanted another scrap of metal from Vrulatica.” Bitterness swept over her tongue, a stone settling in her gut as he ranted on. “Disgusting. Trading humans for goods as if they were goods themselves.”

Would the king really do that? She gnawed on her lip. She had no reason to think he wouldn’t.

Only minutes ago, she’d been complacent. A lock that had been keeping closed a compartment of cynicism and suspicion clicked open. She needed to be more careful. More guarded.

Sophia knew the answer to her question before it left her lips, but she was at a loss. “Is there anything I can do?”

He shrugged helplessly. “Stay alert. With any luck, the next king or queen will see fit to bargain for our release.”

“Not mine,” she muttered. If the rumor Heleax had overheard was true, there was no reason for the city to send Sophia back to Tremanta. He wanted humans here, and she was a human. Was that why he’d been so concerned with taking her to be healed? So he had a group of healthy human women to present to his people? Did he merely want his political trophy polished? A prickle of hurt tightened her chest.

She was quiet after leaving the dungeon. She and Heleax had talked about the Queen’s assassination. He’d explained that an interim ruler, named at a previous date by the old Queen, would step in and oversee things until a formal election of the council could be arranged. At that time the interim ruler would either be rejected or approved and, if approved, ascend to the throne officially. Normally this took months, but with the tensions across the planet being as high as they were, Heleax guessed everything would be expedited.

And Sophia was expected to wait. She had absolutely no control over her future and no inkling whether the king or the Guild thought of her as anything more than a chess piece.

Her head was pounding so badly once they emerged into the vastly cooler halls of Vrulatica that she only had the energy to nod absently when Alno suggested heading to the dining hall to get some food.

“Sophia,” Alno whispered after several minutes of silence, “I know you and the soldier are close, but remember not to get too entrenched in his version of the truth.”

She shot him a critical look. It was clear he was trying to be gentle with his words, which only made her more upset. “I’m not entrenched in anything. I have a brain of my own.”

“My king may not be perfect, but I doubt he would have tried to trade for humans. It doesn’t sound right.”

“Not right? He’s keeping me prisoner here, Alno. He’s assigned a chaperone to watch me at all times. He has Heleax locked up in a damn pressure cooker, and for what? Did Heleax do anything wrong? Did he break any laws? Does he deserve to be in there? Kept weak and miserable because he had the misfortune of escorting me to a city that promised we’d be safe and welcome? I think maybe you’re the one who needs to not be too entrenched in someone’s version of the truth because honestly, I have no trouble believing a king who would do everything he’s done up to now might also try to trade metal for humans.” She finished with a snap, the throbbing in her head doubling with the emotion rising in her chest.

“Yes, but he isn’t hurting either of you, is he? Our king is very…careful,” Alno said, eyes darting around nervously. “It’s better to neutralize a potential threat than be burdened by the possibility it could cause harm.” His words were eager, but she had no idea what he was attempting to say. “Remove the tail, and it cannot swipe your legs out from under you.

Sophia turned, her eyes narrowing. “That’s a fucked-up adage, considering you all have tails.”

Alno groaned impatiently. “It’s good advice that’s served our king well.”

There was a tone in his voice… Something wasn’t being said, and she was fucking tired of reading between the lines. “So he makes a habit of castrating folks before they become enemies? Is that it? How often does he do this sort of thing, Alno? I’m starting to think there might be a whole dungeon level full of people who did no more than look at him wrong one day.”

“Like I said, the king is cautious. He’s grown more careful over the years. If there’s a chance someone might be intending to hurt him, it’s not uncommon that he…secures them and takes time to learn their motives.”

“Stop saying careful and cautious!” she all but screeched, her voice bouncing off the walls. “There’s a difference between cautiousness and paranoia. Locking up innocent people before they’ve done anything wrong isn’t careful, it’s unhinged.”

“Well, if you knew…” Alno’s lips slammed shut, his tail whipping across the floor. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” He tugged her along gently. “All the good food will be gone if we don’t get to dinner.”

“Tell me what you’re not saying,” Sophia demanded, yanking her arm out of his hold. “If I knew what?”

Alno scanned the space around him, checking they were alone. “Under any other circumstance I would agree that he’s paranoid, but…” He stared down at her, lips tensed, brows creased, holding back whatever it was he wanted to say. Then, expelling a deep breath, he swooped forward and began whispering furiously. “His mother was assassinated. Ten years later, his father met the same fate. He had a brother he never got the chance to meet. Why? He, too, was murdered.” At Sophia’s horrified expression, he nodded smugly. “And those are just his direct relations. The further back you go, the bloodier it gets. They’re cursed. My father used to say the royal line must have picheti on their breath.”

Sophia shook her head. “Pi—what?”

“Picheti. It’s a metal carried in some of the plants in our desert. If too much is ingested, it taints the brain. It seems all anyone from the royal line has to do to inspire hatred is open their mouth.” Alno’s voice dropped. “I haven’t mentioned the worst of it yet.” He inched closer. “Fifteen years ago, he recognized a mate.”

Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh my god. They killed his mate?”

His lips thinned. “Yes and no. She died, but she wasn’t his mate.”

“I thought you just said—”

He interrupted her with a wave. “It was fake. Another attempt on his life. The female had drugged him one night during a tryst. While he slept, she’d slipped a special substance made from tattoo ink and dye into his eyes. As you may know, our tattoo ink is controlled magnetically. She fixed it so it remained invisible for days, then, when she was ready, she used a control to activate the ink. To all the onlookers, it appeared as if his eyes had changed with initial recognition. Our king had found a mate. The first Vrulan to do so in hundreds of years. I still remember the celebrations being so loud, the walls shook from ground to sky.

“He changed then. Wore less armor around the city. Even smiled on occasion. He thought the fact that he’d been mated would protect him in the eyes of his citizens. But others were suspicious. They went behind his back and investigated the female. To the tower’s horror, they discovered she’d planned to kill him after she’d been confirmed as queen. She would’ve ended his accursed line forever and been left to rule alone.”

Emotions swam in Sophia’s mind, making it difficult to hold on to any solid thought.

Alno nodded, likely seeing the pity she felt reflected in her eyes. “He was forced to send her away. She died not long after.” His voice turned solemn. “There were many dark years after that. The king protects himself and he protects our people, but he trusts no one. I think he believes that locking someone up before they can do something unforgivable means he won’t have to hurt them.”

The words resonated in her heart, making her throat thick. She understood Alno’s defense of the king. She could not in good conscience agree with Sikthand’s decisions, but she could at least understand where they came from.

A thought struck her. “What was her name?” Sophia asked breathlessly.

A large group of men emerged around a corner, laughing together as they walked toward the dining hall. “Who?” She allowed Alno to usher her along once more.

“The woman who faked her recognition.”

“Oh.” He made sure the group of men were still far enough away before whispering, “Japeshi.”

Her lungs collapsed, sadness swelling in her throat until it ached. She’d studied the Clecanian alphabet last night before falling asleep. Something about Sikthand’s out-of-place tattoo had pulled at her, and she’d itched to learn what it said. Now she knew.

It was her name. Japeshi. The woman he’d thought was his mate.

But why? She’d betrayed him in such a vile way. The Vrulan tattoos could be changed from one moment to the next using magnetic pens. It wasn’t a comfortable process, but it was common. If her name was still there, it had to be because he wanted it there. For what? A reminder? Because he loved her?

The question burned in her mind as they entered the dining hall and took seats at one of the long tables. A cacophony of sound filled the grand space, hundreds of bodies warming the cold metal and stone architecture of the room.

The dining hall located in this section of the tower was where most of the riders and warriors took their meals, as it was closest to their barracks. Enormous windows covered one side of the room, allowing shafts of fading sun to throw stripes of light across the space. Rather than chandeliers like one might expect, the vaults and arches of the room’s intricate ceiling were lined with light, making the ceiling of the room emit a glow that would brighten as the sun set.

Though the walls were built from dark metal and stone, there was enough richly colored décor and warm light to soften the gothic edge of the space and make it feel inviting. It helped that many were drunk and joyful.

Alno had explained that the cloud chasers often overindulged during this time of year. Conversely, throughout the time of year known as the Season, riders became serious and single-minded. It was paramount to the survival of Vrulatica that each cloud be emptied of every drop of moisture so that the city had a full reservoir of water for the year and also so the barren wasteland to the north remained bone-dry. The pressure placed on cloud chasers was immense, and they rewarded themselves for their dogged focus during the Season by carousing the rest of the year.

Apparently the Season was drawing close and was marked by a heightened amount of partying. Sophia couldn’t imagine the grinning, flushed-cheeked Vrulans turning severe, but if the new Tremantian ruler didn’t negotiate her release, she supposed she might be here long enough to see the shift.

A chorus of clanging tails on the floor told her the king had arrived. As if in a trance, her eyes sought him. He strode up the steps of his elevated table and took his seat, looming over the rest of the hall. A shaft of orange sunlight illuminated the table, but the angle was steep enough that it only lit half of his helmeted face. The other half was shadowed.

He hadn’t been here last night. She’d wondered which of the many halls located throughout the tower he’d deigned to dine in, almost craving the heady presence he carried into every room he entered.

Sophia couldn’t decide how she felt seeing him now. Her mind was in turmoil, wanting to choose either hatred or admiration but settling somewhere in the murky gray middle. She only realized she was staring when he suddenly stared back.

Every instinct screamed to break the eye contact, but she couldn’t. Who was he? Was he vicious, or a man desperate to avoid vicious acts? Did he bury himself under armor to intimidate, or was it really to protect himself?

“Stop staring,” Alno hissed, setting a plate of food and drink in front of her. “Before he notices that pity in your eyes and figures out I helped put it there.”

Her gaze snapped away. Instead, she focused on sliding pieces of food around her plate, an oncoming migraine making her too nauseous to eat, even though it’d likely help. She sipped some water instead.

“That’s her,” Alno breathed, a dreamy grin crossing his face.

Sophia turned to follow his line of sight and saw a beautiful silver woman crossing to a long table packed with cackling men. The woman was about as tall as the men and wearing more metal than any. Hooking into her braided hair and running along her chin was a skeletal gold jawbone. The piece of jewelry moved with her chin as she spoke, and gold chains draped over her sculpted shoulders swayed as she took her seat at the table.

What a kick-ass outfit. The spark of longing took her by surprise. She’d been on autopilot, picking her outfits based on what was practical. She wished she could’ve enjoyed Vrulatica more before everything had gone tits up. She’d been so excited about exploring the shops in midcity, picking up some cool silver jewelry, and finally getting her first tattoo. Well, her second first tattoo.

Her real first tattoo had been a star on her left shoulder. It’d been blotchy and crooked and she should’ve left the dingy shop she’d gotten it in with an infection, but she’d fallen head over heels in love with it. The only reason she hadn’t made a beeline for the multi-level tattoo studio, affectionately known to locals as the Flesh Forge, was because she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to recreate her star as a tribute or begin anew.

But now a part of her felt that even though she was technically allowed to explore the city, doing so would be a betrayal. To whom? She didn’t know. The Queen? Her friends who’d barely escaped? Heleax?

If she walked around decked out in Vrulan garb, sporting Vrulan-designed tattoos, wouldn’t she come off like a poster child for Stockholm Syndrome? She didn’t want to give the king the satisfaction of seeing her enjoy something his city—her prison—had provided.

Alno’s dream woman shoved one of the men in her group, and he stumbled back. Sophia grinned. “That’s who you’re in love with?”

If she could have drawn Alno’s expression at that exact moment, she’d make sure to add little red hearts in place of pupils. “Isn’t she magnificent? The best rider in the bunch…other than the king,” he admitted.

 “Huh.” She nodded and turned back to sip her water.

“What?” Alno seemed annoyed by her mild surprise. “You don’t think she’s glorious? Are human eyes as weak as human bodies?”

“Whoa.” Sophia chuckled, holding up her hands in surrender. “Cool it with the species bashing. I think she’s just as incredible as you described. She’s just a little different than I thought.”

“How?”

“I don’t know.” Sophia shrugged, choosing her words carefully. “You’re more of a lover than a fighter. I thought she’d be the same. The way you talked about her, I just imagined some kind of delicate star-shine woman. I didn’t think she’d be so bad ass. That’s all.”

“You thought I’d be attracted to someone weak?” Alno grimaced.

“No…I didn’t know what to expect, I suppose. Everything in this city is surprising to me.” She snuck a glance over to the king as she said this and found he’d removed his helmet. He was deep in conversation with Commander Copperhead. As though he could feel her eyes on him, his silver gaze met hers. A muscle in his jaw pulsed.

The commander rose to his feet. He slammed the tip of his tail against a round metal plate on the spine of his chair. A loud clang rang through the room, and everyone grew silent, all eyes turning to the commander.

He let the tension of silence build in the room for many long seconds before lifting his cup and shouting, “The umbercree have been spotted!”

Sophia jumped an inch off her seat when the room erupted in raucous applause. Armored tails hitting stone and metal filled the room with enough clanging to make Sophia feel like her head was inside the well of a bell.

“We fly to the forest in two nights.” The commander grinned before retaking his seat. No hint of a smile cracked the king’s elegant lips. In lieu of whooping along with everyone else, he raised his cup resolutely, then downed the contents.

Alno was still grinning and slapping his tail against the table when Sophia leaned in. “What are the umbercree?”

“Birds.” He smiled, all traces of annoyance with her gone. “The umbercree fly through once a year to lay their nests in our trees. The storms always follow. When the umbercree arrive, we fly to the forest and have a big party to celebrate the start of the Season.”

“One last hurrah?”

“You’ll love it. There’s mounds of food and drink. When the umbercree finish—”

“Not to interrupt…” Sophia tipped her head and raised her brows. “Are you sure I’m invited to this party? The king said I couldn’t leave the city. Is he going to let me fly to the ground and hang out around a bunch of drunk people?”

The look of pure horror on Alno’s face was almost enough to make her chuckle. “You can’t miss the umbercree. They’re pivotal! That would be…” He shook his head, searching for strong enough words. His gaze grew far off. “And if you miss it, that means I’ll have to miss it too.” He bared his fangs in disgust. “You must be invited.”

She shrugged and hooked a thumb toward the royal table. “Yeah, tell Mr. High and Mi—”

A pretty woman with a gunmetal hood and silver eyes was leaning forward with both hands planted on the arm of the king’s chair. She grinned at him, subtly pushing her tits together.

Dread coursed through Sophia. Poor girl. The king was likely to shove her off the edge of the raised table for being so presumptuous. Sophia braced, barely holding back a wince as she waited for his reaction.

Her jaw dropped when Sikthand’s tail flicked out, curled under the woman’s chin, and tilted her head up further. In answer, she bit her lip with a fang and held eye contact.

They were flirting. Sophia had no idea why she was so outraged by this.

“I look forward to this party all year. Difila will be there. I was finally going to talk to her. Ask her for a walk,” Alno mumbled in a defeated voice.

“Are you seeing this?” Sophia couldn’t stop looking. The woman had perched herself on the arm of his chair now, and Sikthand wasn’t doing a thing about it.

Her chaperone grumbled. Pouting like someone had just stolen his teddy bear, Alno glanced toward the spectacle unfolding before them. “What?” His voice didn’t have the slightest hint of surprise.

“Is this normal, then?” She couldn’t think of what else to say. Sophia had only ever seen the king scowl, glare, and command. The image of him suggestively running his gaze up and down a flirty woman like any other man, was…well it was weird, wasn’t it?

Alno focused on the king again, and his lip half lifted in confusion. “Is what normal?”

“Him.” She tossed her hand toward the king. “Flirting. After what happened with that woman, I’m surprised.” She whispered her words since Alno had made it clear it wasn’t something folks talked about loudly.

Alno snorted. “I said he doesn’t trust anybody, not that he doesn’t fuck anybody. A king has needs, same as anyone.” His gaze slipped to a laughing Difila as if he was thinking about his own needs.

Irritation rose in her. Suddenly the bright faces of the tipsy warriors didn’t make her feel as warm and fuzzy as they had before. Everyone, apart from Alno, was having a grand time. Flirting, drinking, laughing. Even the grim king was seeking out a little bit of happy for himself.

She was alone in her misery, not even sure she’d be allowed to go to the biggest celebration of the year.

“Hey.” She aimed a gentle smile toward Alno. “If you take me to my room right now, you might be able to hurry back here before she leaves.”

It took only a moment for Alno to hop up from his seat, his bright grin warming his golden face once more. As she followed his near run out of the dining hall, she snuck a last peek at the king and flushed to find him watching her.

When Alno had locked the door behind her, leaving her alone, she remained stuck in place. Her mind was too overloaded to sleep, but there wasn’t much else to do in her room. She supposed she could use the scroll Alno had let her borrow to study the alphabet.

Reminded of why she’d asked to borrow an alphabet in the first place, her mind slipped back to the king. She exhaled a growl of frustration.

Sophia didn’t know how to process the emotions bubbling inside. Determined not to mope, she searched the room, tearing out drawers and digging through cabinets. No paper.

Stomping to the bathroom, she grabbed an armful of makeup and a cup of water, then returned to the main room. She collapsed onto the floor underneath the beam of light shining down through the stained glass, then tore open a pot of gray powder and started rubbing it over the stone with a finger.

The makeup would wash away, but she almost wished it wouldn’t. Not even this drawing would leave a lasting mark on this place.

Time passed—she didn’t know how long, but when she sat back, the bomb of anxiety building in her chest had been diffused and she breathed a little easier. As her nervous energy settled, exhaustion slowly crept back in.

Yawning, she retrieved a wet towel from the bathroom and sank to her knees. Water dripped onto the edge of her drawing, making a small section of black dribble into a crack in the stone. She studied the floor, suddenly possessive of the piece she’d been about to wash away.

Sophia lowered the towel into her lap. Maybe she could leave it till morning. The hair on her nape lifted, as if someone was sneaking a peek at the drawing even now.

She studied it again. She should erase it. What if Alno came into her room unannounced again in the morning and spotted it? But something in her rebelled. She hadn’t made anything this good in a while. It wasn’t as if she could take a picture of it to look at later. What was the harm in giving herself a chance to admire her masterpiece under morning light before destroying it forever?

She tipped her head to the side and smiled proudly, lids growing heavy.

I got the lighting right.

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