Ruling Sikthand: Chapter 9


Vrulatica had been abuzz for the last two days. Out of her window, Sophia watched as malginash hauling buckets full of supplies soared past her room.

No one was more excited than Alno. He went on and on about the food and the umbercree, but mostly, he talked about the outfits. Some people spent all year planning what they’d wear. Artisans from midcity took months building complex costumes for well-paying patrons.

On the horrified realization that Sophia had nothing acceptable to wear, Alno had dragged her to midcity, towing her from one shop to the next in the hopes of finding a last-minute treasure in the picked-through stores.

She didn’t mind that they hadn’t found anything spectacular, still apprehensive about showing enthusiasm toward the city holding her hostage. She’d kept it to herself, but she was actually pretty excited about the dress she’d found.

Alno had given the dress a bemused smile. “Really? That?” he’d pressed while plucking at the diaphanous fabric. “This is what you wear under the real outfit. On its own, it’s so…soft and boring.”

With the promise she’d embellish the dress using a discounted bin of metal bits and bobs leftover from more extravagant creations, Alno had grudgingly mellowed his search and allowed her to explore a few non-outfit-related shops in peace.

She’d found a lovely store selling art supplies. Though most were intended for various types of metalworking, she’d been able to scrounge together enough illustration materials to keep her happy.

Honestly, she hadn’t been doing too poorly using her makeup to draw, though. For the past two nights, she’d worked with the creams, powders, and gels to funnel her frustration and express her awe of the city privately.

Though she wouldn’t mind drawing Sikthand again, she’d refrained, choosing instead to decorate her floor with soaring malginash. She’d even found a few new colors in with the makeup that she hadn’t noticed before. When she’d thanked Alno for adding the new hues when he’d restocked her supply, he’d given her a blank look.

Every area of Vrulatica she’d visited was as compelling as the rest. Sculptures and interesting architecture could be found on every level, but she had a hard time fully enjoying it. A near constant feeling that she was being watched tickled her brain. The indefinable sensation made her turn her head and check around her every other minute while she explored.

It was a silly thing to focus on since she was always being watched. Every Vrulan who passed made a point of studying the odd, drearily dressed human. But she couldn’t shake the impression that this was something else, someone else.

Alno had chalked it up to her “permanently clenched ass.” His charming way of explaining that if she just relaxed and gave herself permission to enjoy Vrulatica, the paranoia would fade.

Her morning visits to Heleax ensured she would not be taking Alno’s advice anytime soon. How could she enjoy herself when Heleax was left to boil in his cell? Not only that, but he must’ve been dying of boredom. At least she could explore, take walks, talk to Alno, draw. Heleax was locked in a sauna all day, and the only company he had, besides her short visits, were occasional passing guards. When she’d admitted right to his sweaty face that she was headed to a party that night, each guilty word had boomed through her.

Of the basket of gifts she’d brought for Heleax, the guards had only let him keep two items. A book. And a metal ring puzzle. Though Heleax was grateful, he was more interested in hearing what she’d learned than he was with her presents.

She’d relayed everything Alno had divulged to her concerning the goings on in Tremanta, which wasn’t saying much. Vila, a female Sophia had never met, had been named interim Queen. The vote—to either approve or deny her ascension to Queen—was being held in two days, and if she was approved, she would give a speech the same day that would be broadcast across the world.

Because there was no way to watch the speech in Vrulatica, the king and Guild would fly to an outbuilding near the infirmary and watch the holograph footage from there. Sophia had already decided she’d demand to be taken along, but hadn’t had the time to say as much before Heleax had shot forward, attempting to convince her of what she already knew.

Sophia had silently let him argue his case. It seemed to help his mood to put his mind to work and give her wise counsel. She didn’t mind feigning guilelessness if that meant she could leave Heleax feeling like he’d been useful.

The next time the opportunity to speak with the king arose, she’d bring up her request. She gave herself fifty-fifty odds of him agreeing, and those odds were generous.

According to Alno, he’d barely given permission for her to attend the party tonight, and his eventual acquiescence had been with the stipulation that she and Alno would fly there with him and stay within his eyeline for the duration of the event. She couldn’t bring herself to explain to a beaming Alno that his chances of socializing with Difila under those restrictions weren’t great.

Her chaperone had dropped her in her room hours ago so he could get ready. Sophia hadn’t missed the pitying smile he’d aimed toward her dress and pile of mismatched metal bits as she’d poured them onto a table. “It’ll look good,” she’d promised. “You’ll only be mildly embarrassed to be seen with me, not mortified.”

He’d shrugged, unconvinced.

The dress would not be as extravagant as what most of Vrulatica would be wearing, but for her, it was a good compromise between her itch to stretch her creative muscles and her pride as a prisoner. Hours passed as she glued and sewed bright bits of metal to the cloudy white gossamer dress in straight lines. She suspected Alno would find the plain pattern boring, but she didn’t care.

The sun began to set as Sophia dressed. She applied some luminous makeup, pulled half her hair back, secured it with a silver filigree comb, and attached a piece of facial jewelry behind her ears. The interesting piece ran over her cheeks and nose and was delicate enough to complement her outfit.

Vrulans were known for their hardcore armored pieces, and she imagined the desert would be full of extravagant spikes and chains. Her outfit, on the other hand, was gentle and ludicrously pretty. Almost angelic.

Alno was unaware, but Sophia hadn’t picked the soft translucent fabric on a whim. Angelic wasn’t really her style. No, this choice had been deliberate. Walking into this event in an outfit like this would have the same effect as a death-metal enthusiast stepping foot in a pixie convention.

She’d stand out. And she hoped her purposeful choice of garb would send a message. She might be attending the party, and she might be a cooperative prisoner, but she was not assimilating.

It was a subtle statement. And many might chalk her choice up to an odd human style preference. But it made her feel better.

A knock sounded, and nervousness crept up her spine. Alno’s reaction would tell her all she’d need to know about how she’d be received. Scanning the room to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, she answered her door and gasped.

He’d morphed into some kind of golden monster covered in magma. A headpiece of gold molded against his skin and ran up the side of his face until it bubbled toward the sky. More globs of molten gold and bronze dripped over his torso and lifted off his arms. His skin under the metal was shaded and disguised expertly.

Though the metal appeared as if it was liquefying, it was completely solid, and Sophia stood frozen in awe of the artist. Whoever it was had made it so when she stood back, it looked as though Alno was melting in zero gravity, his body oozing apart in all directions.

She was still lost in her admiration of his outfit as he gave her a once-over. “Better than I thought,” he exclaimed. “Still unimaginative, but I think most will realize you didn’t have enough time for anything better. And,” he added with a wolfish tilt of his ghastly melting golden head, “it’s arousing enough to make it interesting.” His eyes fixed on the area of nearly sheer fabric that draped over her breasts. It wasn’t see-through, but it let enough color from her skin shine through to give the illusion it was.

She chuckled and nudged him out the door, tossing on the cloak Sikthand had given her as she did. “You won’t see anything. Save your ogling for Difila.”

He guided her down the hall toward the same landing bay Sikthand had brought her to when they’d flown to the medic. She focused back on Alno, ignoring the nervous fluttering in her belly. “But you. Wow, Alno. Just wow. You look like a tragic, hot, terrifying…” She couldn’t even express how ingenious his outfit was. “You look like a statue that’s just been dropped in a volcano.”

Alno preened at the compliment. His grin widened, his voice rising in volume as they took the last few steps to the landing bay. “Just wait. I saw glimpses of some spectacular costumes on my way here.”

A malginash with a rider already mounted waited for them. An unwanted stab of disappointment flitted through her before she could stop it. Commander Roldroth, not the king, sat atop the malginash. He gestured to a bucket near the malginash’s claws and waited for them to climb in.

Sophia had ridden in one of the cauldron-shaped bowls the Vrulans called buckets only once before when she’d first arrived in Vrulatica. She’d thought she’d prefer this mode of travel. They were held securely from chains by the malginash while they relaxed in a cushioned container not dissimilar from the basket of a hot-air balloon. But a sneaking voice reminded her how wonderful it’d been to fly while astride the creature’s back, tucked against a warm, protective chest.

They took to the sky, and she had to admit the ride was smoother while seated in the bucket. The sun was still in the process of setting, and it lit the red desert in glorious shades of fiery orange. Soon the electric-blue sky would fade to black. Even if she’d briefly considered an escape attempt, she knew she’d never make it far in the dark.

Whoops and cheers echoed from behind her, and she spun. At least a dozen malginash, all carrying buckets of people, soared along behind them. The occupants of the buckets wore elaborate metallic costumes and gleamed in the sunset. Streamers of richly patterned fabrics and clear line strung with shards of shattered mirror trailed over the sides of their buckets and floated behind them on the breeze.

The riders dipped and turned, tossing the gleeful passengers around, their garlands of colorful fabric and glittering glass flowing through the wind. She couldn’t help but grin at the parade of malginash all the way to the forest.

Though she’d heard the area described as a forest before, the beauty of the oasis sprawling before her took her breath away. The Vrulan reservoirs were located here. When the cloud chasers seeded their clouds, they always did it so the majority of the rain would fall in this general vicinity and pool in the wide basins of water stepping down the slope of the desert canyon. Tall skinny trees with willowy, razor-thin leaves peppered the scenery, but the ground between their trunks was mostly bare.

A waterside block of land, more sparsely populated with trees than the rest, had been decorated for the party. Seating areas made of cushions, low tables, and blankets spotted the sand everywhere. Tall tents lined the perimeter of the blanketed area, and through their raised flaps, she could see people mingling inside.

Gauzy fabric covered tunnels that branched off from the main party area, winding into the forest in all directions. She could just make out a few couples walking side by side through some of the paths.

Alno saw the direction of her gaze and gently nudged her shoulder, flashing his white fangs in a grin. “I’m going to ask Difila to walk with me.” He lifted a bag, and she knew it would contain a gift.

Her smile faltered. Should she ruin his good mood and remind him he wasn’t allowed to leave her side?

Taking a walk was a Vrulan courting custom done during special events or gatherings. A path, usually partially covered, was set up, and people could present someone they were interested in with a gift, then ask them to take a walk. If accepted, the couple would then stroll through the length of the tunnel and talk, and when the path ended, they separated. It was a pressure-free way to get to know someone you might not have spoken to before. It allowed the meeting to be public, yet hidden enough to engage in a private conversation, and short enough to not let the conversation grow awkward.

As the men outnumbered the women so severely, a request for a walk was almost always issued by a man. It gave single men hoping to be married a chance to present themselves favorably enough that a woman might remember them when it came time for her to choose a husband during the marriage ceremony. It allowed women to quickly meet many suitors and not be expected to mingle with any single one of them for the rest of the night.

Speed dating aliens. She snorted.

Excitement must have been clouding Alno’s mind since, unless he planned to go on a walk with Difila and Sophia, he’d been ordered to remain at her side. “Alno, you know—”

“Hang on,” he said as their malginash set their bucket among a group of vacant ones.

Commander Roldroth dismounted, and his malginash sped away toward a group of malginash splashing in the water.

When the commander reached Sophia and Alno, he clapped his enormous hands together, eyes scanning the party hungrily. Metallic green leaves sprouted from small copper curls all over his head as if they were growing out of his skin, and a collection of glinting charcoal bugs nestled in his hair. A black animal that was a cross between a lizard and a snake coiled its thick body around his neck and disappeared into his ear. Four golden feet gripped his outer ear and hair as if trying to pull itself deeper inside his ear canal. Sophia shivered, reminding herself it was only a piece of metal and not a real creature.

Alno took her cloak for her, and Roldroth’s eyes caught on her outfit. “Not bad, human.”

“I could have done better.” She eyed him pointedly. “But as you know, I hadn’t planned on being in town for this little shindig.”

The commander chuckled at that. “Fair point.”

They walked through the party, light music pulsing from some of the tents, and Sophia could only imagine how wide her eyes must have grown. Costumes surpassing anything she could have imagined could be seen every few feet.

If Earth was ever opened to Clecania, this would be a mecca for special effects makeup artists, Halloween enthusiasts, and cosplayers alike. Hell, she couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t at least find this group jaw dropping. It was like a Venetian masquerade—but if the masquerade was also a rave for blacksmiths.

A woman walked by in an outfit made of geometrically placed reflective silver pieces. The shapes covered her entire body and face and created broken reflections all around her. Sophia imagined her as a creature born from the inside of a kaleidoscope.

They meandered through the party, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Vrulans long enough to pay attention to where they walked. When Alno guided her to lower into a cushioned seating area, she dutifully sank down without complaint.

Commander Copperhead crouched before her, drawing her focus. A handsome grin split his face. “I know you hadn’t planned to be here, but I’m happy to see you’re appreciating it, nevertheless. And”—he held a small bag out to her—“I’d wondered if you’d walk with me?”

Sophia blinked at the bag, her brain still too gob-smacked by the umbercree festival so far to comprehend what he was asking. “Oh,” she murmured when her mind finally caught on.

He was asking her to walk.

“Oh,” she said again, a little louder when she recognized what that meant. Commander Copperhe—Commander Roldroth was expressing interest in her. Did she want to take a walk with him? “I’m not sure I can agree one way or another.” She tried handing the bag back, but the commander didn’t take it. “I’m supposed to stay within eyesight of the king.”

She stiffened and peered around, now realizing if this was their assigned spot, the king must not be too far away. Her breath caught in her throat when she found him sitting on a slightly raised platform under a canopy. Intricate webs of blood red metal covered his bare chest. The pieces were affixed to him so perfectly they might have been surgically planted along his muscles.

The density of his black tattoos made every spot covered by the red metalwork look like it was exposed tendon and muscle, as if someone had skinned him and found hed been built from latticed red metal all along.

The ornamentation was so intricate as it traveled up his neck, snaked over his cheeks, and dipped down the bridge of his nose that his black hood was the only bit of his face visible.

In the dying sunlight, his silver eyes reflected the metal of his outfit and glowed red. And their fiery focus was entirely on her. She stifled a shiver.

“Oh, that’s right. I’ll go get his permission, then we can be off.” The commander was entirely unfazed by the king’s foreboding aura as he marched over to him.

Sikthand didn’t take his eyes off her until the commander had halted in front of his dais, stood in silence for a few moments, then tapped his tail twice on the raised wooden floor to get the king’s attention.

Was it just the red reflection in his eyes making his scowl more menacing than normal?

Alno poured her a glass of something, and she mindlessly sucked down a large gulp. Fire coated her throat. She coughed and wheezed, feeling her empty stomach rebel. “What—” Cough. “What—” She coughed more. She peered into the glass at the thick milky liquid. And pointed at it, wincing, and gripping her neck.

Silent laughter had dissolved Alno into a shaking ball. He clutched his stomach, and his laughter redoubled as he caught sight of her flaming face. She had half a mind to toss the rest of the fire milk at him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d drink it without seeing what I’d handed you.” He wiped at his eyes. “It’s renwaeder. It’s a spirit made from one of our desert plants. It’s quite strong. I was going to ask whether you wanted it mixed with water or juice before you decided to drink it down plain. Following it with a swallow of brine helps as well.”

“It’s poison,” Sophia hissed as she watched Alno easily swallow a glass full after pouring in some water.

She was still clutching at her throat when the commander appeared again, looking disgruntled. He gave her a warm smile. “Our king is in a mood today. Perhaps next time.”

“Sounds good,” she croaked, voice raspy.

She tried to hand back his gift again, but he held his palms up and backed away. “Keep it.”

Sophia swatted at Alno when he pushed another cup of something at her, but he laughed. “Water. I promise.” She sniffed it before gulping it down.

It took many reassurances from Alno before she tried renwaeder again. She had to agree—it wasn’t that bad once mixed properly.

They reclined together, gawking at the magnificent works of art adorning everyone’s body. Drink and warm, dry night air left her muscles relaxed, and for the first time in days, she allowed herself to find some enjoyment in Vrulatica.

Every so often, a man would approach, handing her a gift. She’d force herself not to accept the trinkets, directing the men to the king instead, and watching as he dashed their hopes.

Some suitors would simply walk away without a backward glance, while others would shoot her a disappointed smile or tail wave before slinking away. As the alcohol worked its magic, she found herself sulking more and more.

This was the coolest party she’d ever been to, and all she could do was sit on a cushion and watch. Sophia wasn’t the best dressed here by any means, but she looked nice. Her defenses were lowered, and although she enjoyed hanging out with Alno, a pretty present and a short walk with a handsome man didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Yet the glowering dragon behind her had done nothing but turn down anyone who asked. It irked.

She opened the small bag the commander had given her and grinned at the ring. It was made of twining copper wire that fit over two fingers and was topped with a vibrant green leaf. It didn’t go with her outfit at all, but she slipped it on anyway.

“Look at this. Isn’t it…” Sophia glanced up to find Alno crestfallen. His golden glow ebbed to a mere flicker. She followed his morose gaze toward the king and sucked in an appalled breath. He was standing, the ghost of a smile on his face as he ran his fingers over the lapis bone detailing on Difila’s thigh.

To an innocent onlooker, it might appear as if he were just admiring the craftsmanship of her costume, but the flare of heat in Difila’s eyes said it was more. “Oh. I’m so sorry, Alno.”

Her friend shook his head, drinking down the rest of his glass. He put on a smile, but it was strained. “It’s no matter. I’ll have my chance one day.”

Guilt had Sophia’s shoulders curling. She was why he couldn’t have his chance now. Because he had to babysit her all night.

No.

The renwaeder suddenly heated her veins. She glared in the king’s direction. It was his fault.

Neither she nor Alno were allowed to go anywhere or talk to anyone who didn’t approach them first because he’d commanded they stay under his watch. All either of them wanted to do was take a walk for five minutes like every other Vrulan here. But now poor Alno, who’d been so willing to take the punches as they came, was going to have to sit here and watch the king flirt with the girl of his dreams.

What if he made a display of it like he had the other day at dinner? Sophia didn’t know if she could bear to watch Alno witness that.

An idea struck her.

“You’d better appreciate this, Alno,” she growled as she ripped a line of chain off her dress and dropped it into the small bag the commander had given her.

“Wha—” Alno hadn’t noticed she’d risen until she was a foot ahead of him. He cursed, stumbling after her. “Sophia,” he hissed. “What are you doing? Stop.”

“Shh. If this goes the way I want, I swear to God you’d better make your move.”

Alno started to argue more, but the king had noticed her marching over. One of his brows arched loftily.

A quiver of doubt hollowed her stomach as she stared up at the looming king on his raised platform. “Hello, Your Majesty.” She gave an awkward nod to Difila, who glanced between them, hands on hips. “I’m sorry for interrupting, but…” She swallowed, stomach a battleground and heart thundering.

I can’t do it.

She watched Difila’s eyes flit to Alno and linger for a moment. Sophia may have imagined the spark in her gaze, but it was all she needed to muster the last dregs of her courage.

She held out the bag to the king. “Would you walk with me?”

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