Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 8


Most of the day had been a success for Sikthand. The human had flitted through his mind as soon as his eyes had opened, but he’d forced all thoughts of her away. A meeting with his Guild, discussing the newly announced interim Queen, Vila, and what her intentions toward them might be, forced him to think of Sophia again, but this time it was for practical reasons.

He’d then spent a few hours sparring with Roldroth. After choosing to fight younger warriors in order to give them some controlled practice with a seasoned opponent, a well-matched tussle with his commander had been welcomed.

Feeling a bit calmer, they’d walked together to the spire and met with the skittish male who kept watch of the weather and the heavens, confirming the forecasted umbercree and the storm systems that would likely follow.

Now that the new cloud chasers had been promoted, they’d also had a lengthy conversation about finalizing squads. Commander Roldroth had argued heatedly that the young Mubet should fill the vacant spot in a front line squad. Sikthand disagreed, feeling the boy was still too soft when directing his mount, but he’d deferred to his commander’s judgment in the end.

Then he’d held hours with Speaker Besith, who’d relayed the complaints of the people to him along with Besith’s recommendations. Sikthand had approved or denied as he’d seen fit and earned a considerable amount of backlash from Besith, as always.

The day had dragged on. He’d spoken and listened and decreed until his eyes ached. And in all that busyness, he’d managed to only think of her a handful of times. And yet…

Here he was again, behind the beautiful human’s mirror, unable to tear his gaze away.

Bitter defeat had coated his throat as soon as he’d spotted her in the dining hall. Though he’d tried to fight it, attempting to force a reaction to the lovely Vrulan female vying for his attention, a part of him he’d kept subdued rose through his defenses like smoke. As soon as Sophia had left, Sikthand knew he’d follow. He could no more fight the urge than he could keep the Season at bay.

So here he sat, hidden, watching her. His eyes traced every spatter and smudge covering her forearms.

Curiosity burned through his tense muscles. No matter how hard he squinted, he couldn’t make out what she was drawing. Her fingers flew over the stone, bits of crumbling makeup and clouds of powder surrounding her as she worked. The tip of her long braid was covered in gold from dragging across the floor, and her brows were set in a permanent furrow.

She was fascinating. Constantly drawing, then erasing, then redrawing. Her determination to get it right permeated the room, and he found himself hoping she’d succeed. When she dug through the littered makeup, not finding what she wanted, he felt the disappointment in her expression rise in him too.

And when she crawled forward on her knees, her shapely ass raised in the air, hunger heated his blood. No tail. The unobstructed view he could have if he lifted her skirt while she bent forward like that…

His tail flicked behind him silently. Resigned to the knowledge he’d never be able to keep it still, he’d removed the metal armor from the tip before visiting her mirror.

Gradually, Sophia sat back on her heels. Her dark eyes ran over her work. At first, her inspection was critical, but her gaze grew approving the longer she stared until it was clear her work of art was complete and she was now taking the time to admire it.

Tipping her head to the side, she reached out and gently ran her fingers over some part of the image. He itched to know what she caressed with such care. Perhaps he could sneak in after she departed tomorrow morning and see.

The umbercree celebration, he grumbled to himself. The next two days would be long. The tower would be in a tizzy about the party, and he’d need to sit through the celebration with his people.

Sikthand would try to enjoy himself…within reason, but he’d need to keep his guard up. Those out there who wanted to do him harm always seemed to think celebrations such as this were the perfect moment to strike. As if he’d feel more at ease surrounded by jubilant partygoers. In reality, events like the umbercree festival only made him more vigilant.

Attempts on his life had settled over the past decade. He’d come to believe that Japeshi’s failed plan had struck a nerve with his people. He supposed he could at least thank her for that. Conniving as she was, the ferocity of her betrayal was so vile that it seemed even the Vrulans who wanted to see him off the throne pitied him enough to quell their attempts on his life.

But the air had changed as of late. It had all started with the discovery of humans. Whispers were first. They’d begun as judgments of the Tremantian Queen and curiosity toward humans. What were humans? Could they really be recognized? Was it true they shared Clecanian ancestors?

Then, when no progress toward reaching out to the Intergalactic Alliance had been made, the whispers turned louder and demanding. They’d wanted him to get answers when none were forthcoming. The fact that the Queen was not responding to anyone didn’t matter to them.

He’d known then that this would be a dangerous period for him. No matter what route he chose, there would be those who would critique his choice.

If he’d done nothing and continued to merely press the Queen for a response, they would’ve called him weak and tried to kill him so that a stronger leader could take charge. If he’d declared war unless the Queen responded, they would’ve called him capricious and prone to illogical choices based on emotion.

He’d thought they’d be happy, or at least distracted, by the news that a group of humans were coming to visit, but no. Rumors spreading across the planet had made them hungry for the Queen’s blood, so he’d made a decision. He’d allied with a few neighboring cities and agreed to cut off trade.

Madam Kalos had been livid, but the majority of the Guild had supported the play. Choosing to hold the traveling party hostage had been a late-stage decision, but he still felt it had been the right move at the time.

If the Queen had lived, he was sure she would’ve been spurred to a response. Unfortunately for him, she’d died and most of the humans had escaped. He’d been left looking like an erratic king ruled by his unstable male temperament.

Even before the mutterings of dissatisfied citizens started floating to him from his spies throughout Vrulatica, he’d resolved to watch his back. Distraction would be his downfall. If he didn’t always keep one eye open until this wave of upheaval passed, he’d be dead.

And yet, his mind itched to think only of this human. He peered down at his hands again and found them mark free. She wasn’t his mate. Even if humans were capable of calling forth mating marks, Sikthand knew in his soul that he was not meant to find a mate in this life.

The intense urges he was having where Sophia was concerned were the same urges any male might have toward a female like her. She was interesting and mysterious and beautiful. And she was living in the queen’s quarters. Obviously he’d grow an unnatural attachment to any female living here of all places. It couldn’t be helped.

Once she was gone, his small obsession would fade.

Sophia’s limbs relaxed and her movements grew sluggish as she rose and trudged to the bathroom. He stared hard at the unrecognizable smears of grays, golds, and black.

His fists tensed as he watched her walk out of the bathroom with a damp cloth.

Is she…

Sophia lifted the dripping towel above the drawing, and he nearly growled. She was going to wipe it away. The mystery of what she’d worked on so passionately would plague him for days. He reached out, silently willing her to stop.

In that instant, she looked up, peering around the room as if sensing him. Elbows lowering to his knees, he leaned toward the mirror. Can you feel me, little human?

Sikthand let out a low breath when she dropped the towel to the ground at her hip, leaving her work untouched. A smirk threatened to curl his lips as he watched her recheck the glass bottles she’d tipped against both entries into her room.

Clever thing. If she only knew there were three entrances, not two.

The thought lodged itself in his brain while he watched her slink into bed, and it refused to leave his mind as the night dragged on and her body relaxed into a deep sleep.

There was no tripwire bottle in front of his mirror. If he was very quiet, he could slip into her room without her noticing. Just a quick look at her drawing to satisfy his curiosity. If he didn’t see it now, he might never get the chance. What if she changed her mind and wiped it away in the dead of night?

Sikthand needed no more convincing. As silent as vapor, he slid into her room. Her luscious scent hit him immediately. Sweet and dark, with the barest bite of spice.

He’d visited this room many times over the years. He’d stand in the doorway, always aware of the dust accumulating over every cold surface. It had remained vacant and desolate for so long that Sikthand had almost forgotten how beautiful the queen’s quarters were underneath the filth. The last time he’d seen the metal sculpture surrounding the bed gleam that brightly had been…

Fractals of ice spread through his chest, but the human’s sweet scent pulled him from his wretched memories. The smell of her changed the space, transforming the room that haunted him into someplace unfamiliar.

It was dangerous. A part of him wanted to despise the room. Keeping it cold and dirty served as an effective reminder. These quarters should—and always would—be empty.

The female currently occupying them was a guest. Nothing more. If there were any other rooms he felt completely sure were Maxu-proof, he would have stowed Sophia there instead. As it was, the male who’d helped the humans escape had at one time been a close friend and Sikthand’s personal spy. Like a pishot, he’d revealed a portion of the secret passages and tunnels Vrulatica was riddled with to the accursed male.

Luckily, he hadn’t shown Maxu all the tunnels. And especially not the one leading from Sikthand’s room into the queen’s quarters. This room was secure, and that was the only reason he’d pushed for Sophia to occupy it.

He kept his ears pricked as he approached the drawing, but she didn’t stir. His steps faltered as he caught sight of the piece, and his gaze flew to her sleeping form, then back. There, sketched in three different poses, was…him.

The image on the bottom was of his masked face from the shoulders up. He was something from a nightmare. Harsh light fell from above in such a way as to throw his face and body into sinister shadow and amplify the sharpness of his helmet’s horns. His eyes glowed from the dark mask like two flashing daggers.

Sikthand would’ve been satisfied with this depiction of him. At least she had the good sense to be afraid of him. But the other two sketches had his mind reeling.

In one, he was scratching Ahea’s muzzle, his expression stiff but not menacing. It was the last image that struck him the most. It was the one he’d seen her touch and the simplest of the three.

A portrait from the chest up showed Sikthand unclothed and unmasked. His profile glowed in gentle light warmed with dabs of gold powder. He seemed to lift his cheek ever so slightly toward the sun’s heat, but his eyes were downcast. A profound sense of loneliness clung to them, though he couldn’t understand how she’d put it there. Especially not when the rest of him looked so…beautiful.

The contrast between his pale skin and black hood was as intense as ever, but rather than appear severe and unnerving the way he’d always believed them to be, the combination evoked a pleasing duality. Like the bright moons against a black sky.

Was this how she saw him? Her stare had always lingered on his face for far longer than anyone else dared to look, but he’d thought that was a signal of her apprehension, not her…interest.

She must have studied his body quite hard back in the medic’s office because she’d recreated his tattoos perfectly. All except one.

She’d either forgotten or deliberately omitted Japeshi’s name.

Sikthand’s muscles went rigid, his fingers twitching in agitation. What did the omission mean?

Opposing feelings battled inside him as he tried to work out her intentions. Before she could hear the flick of his tail against the stone, he disappeared back through her mirror.

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