Ulek castle was a sprawling monstrosity. Samir had only spent a small time inside it, but he and Sheluna had poured over maps as they tried to help with assaults. He knew the layout well enough.
It was the largest castle in the world by an order of magnitude. Part of that was because Ulek had spent no small percentage of its life under siege, or under fear of siege. Every expansion to the castle had meant an expansion of its walls and fortifications. Every increase in the number of people the castle could house came hand in hand with an increase of infrastructure and storage if the castle had to support those people trapped inside.
The main door to the castle proper led to an old, but not the oldest section of the castle. This was the public front of the castle that had included the throne room, a number of reception rooms, the great dining hall. The royal living areas were in another wing entirely. As was the space that had belonged to the knights.
The front hall was designed to impress. Three stories high, and large enough Lysander’s entire escort could have camped in here comfortably. A grand staircase led up to the second floor and the throne room beyond. A gold and crystal chandelier that was itself as big as a room hung down from the arching stone ceiling. Thick, gold-edged carpets and vibrant rugs covered the floors and a hundred sconces covered in stained glass gave the whole space a soft, almost magical light.
That was how the hall was supposed to look. That was how it had looked when Samir had stepped inside with Sheluna, when they’d come with Rhanis and Lysander and Donatien to accept King Kolyn’s surrender.
Here and now, the place had a feeling of shadow. A feeling, because when Samir actually looked up or out, he could see to the ceiling or the far wall, but somehow his eyes and his mind were telling him the hall was blindingly dark.
The chandelier and wizard-lights were all dark, blackened with what looked like years of decay. The lush carpets had rotted to frayed patchwork. All the color had drained away, somehow, leaving the view gray and lifeless.
From just behind Samir, Varajas let out a breath, something between a sigh and a choked-off groan. Samir looked back and saw the hopelessness writ plain on Varajas’s face. He reached out for Varajas’s hand. Needing the reminder as much as Varajas seemed to that he wasn’t alone in his desolate place.
Varajas accepted his hand, squeezing it tight as he looked all around. “Are you sure this isn’t the dream? A nightmare?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“I’m not certain of anything,” Samir admitted.
“Trusting your instinct?”
Krys skimmed over their heads in almost noiseless flight. She angled up, and the chandelier shook as she grabbed it for a perch. “That’s part of it,” Samir murmured. “Krys—she’s here, and seems to be seeing and touching the same world we are. If this were a dream, some magic where we were trapped in our minds, it wouldn’t affect her the same way.”
“Unless you were simply dreaming of her being here with you.”
On this, Samir was willing to claim certainty. “She’s my familiar. I know her inside and out. She’s real. She’s here. As much as I am.”
Varajas’s hand was warm against his. Varajas squeezed his fingers and moved his thumb to stroke lightly across Samir’s wrist. The gesture felt familiar, prompted a stir of memory. A teasing smile. The press of a kiss.
Samir shook his head, trying to clear it. Needing to focus. When he looked, Varajas was studying him, searching. What could be going through his mind?
“Varajas,” Samir murmured, keeping a firm grip as the man in question jerked and tried to pull away.
“How did you…” Varajas cut himself off, his lips tight in a perplexed frown.
“I don’t know. It’s as though I can feel the shape of things I’ve forgotten. The weight of them in my mind, even if I can’t quite see them.” He took a step closer. “I know this feels familiar.”
“It does,” Varajas said slowly, as though the words were being dragged out against his will.
Instinct drove Samir forward. Not a memory, but the unmistakable feeling that there should be a memory, that there was something familiar, and if he could chase that feeling—could find that echo—he might actually recapture what he’d lost.
Some piece of that phantom memory was on Varajas’s face. The way his eyebrow crooked as Samir closed the distance between them. The way he didn’t lean in, but tilted his head just slightly, daring Samir to finish the movement. In that moment, everything else fell away. Samir forgot the nightmare, the fortress, the cold, the fear. All he knew was the soft, gentle warmth of Varajas’s lips against his own.
There was no question he’d felt this before. He knew the shape of Varajas’s body, pressed to his. The way Varajas slid a hand up his back in slow exploration. Varajas released his other hand, brought it up to cup the back of Samir’s head, holding him steady as Varajas deepened the kiss, exploring and claiming and—
A hiss and a whisper of air from above were their only warning as a spider the size of a small dog dropped onto Varajas’s shoulder.