Varajas jerked his sword out just barely ahead of Ruan’s twin blades descending. His movement was at an awkward angle and the shock stabbed painfully up his arm, but he blocked the attack. Reflexively, he kicked at Ruan’s knee, forcing Ruan to twist away and giving him that chance to recover and prepare.
It had been years since they’d seen each other, since they’d fought each other, but it felt like no time at all. Every movement, every angle of Ruan’s body was familiar, from the way Ruan sank into a guard position to the little twirl he made with his right-hand sword to draw the eye and distract from the blow coming with his left.
When they’d both still worn the cross, there had been no contest between them. Ruan might be preternaturally gifted with the spiritual disciplines of the Brotherhood, but Varajas had always been better with swords. Except it wasn’t the twin blades he was fighting with now, and while Varajas had spent his years with the knights drilling hard to master a single sword technique, Ruan had obviously been training in those years as well.
As Ruan drove forward with strike after relentless strike, Varajas parrying desperately, it occurred to him that Ruan might just be better than him now. Or at least, they were paired equally enough that Varajas couldn’t be certain of winning.
Not without cheating. Varajas knew Ruan, knew what buttons to push. “Last time we danced, it didn’t go so well for you.” Varajas managed to speak the words without gasping, maintaining an outward demeanor of calm.
“Last time I didn’t want to hurt you. I’ve gotten over that.”
No question, Ruan wasn’t playing around. His strikes were aggressive, unrelenting. He wasn’t giving Varajas any openings to turn the rhythm of the fight.
“Donatien’s dog,” Varajas spat. “He’ll be so proud of you.”
“Don’t you dare speak his name.” Ruan lunged forward and Varajas barely deflected the point away from driving right through his stomach.
Varajas fought defensively with his sword, aiming his real blows at the weak spots in Ruan’s head. “Donatien’s faithful hound. Panting and begging to fulfill his every command. I’m surprised you’re not wearing a leash.”
“Shut up, traitor.”
“Even when you know what kind of man he is. When you know what he’s willing to overlook—”
A flurry of attacks with renewed vigor proved that Varajas was getting at Ruan; the trouble with this strategy was Varajas might not survive long enough to see it through. At some point, Ruan would get angry enough to make a mistake, but in the meanwhile, his anger was making him faster, stronger.
If Varajas had been able to use magic, that would have helped, but there was no point wasting the attention to even try.
The worst thing—the most distracting thing—was how his body was responding. Apparently, it hadn’t gotten the memo that Varajas and Ruan were enemies now. This fight might be more serious than anything that had come before, but the moves were still familiar, a dance they had danced a hundred times. A dance that had more often than not ended the same way.
It was simply one thing too many and Varajas didn’t know how to explain to his dick that things were serious right now and the last thing he needed was to be turned on.
Still, Varajas had enough control to keep his voice even when he asked, “What exactly are you planning to do? Drag my dead body back to him? Throw it at his feet? You think he’ll pat you on the head and call you a good boy?”
Ruan froze—just for an instant—his face dark with anger. It was the opening Varajas had been waiting for—a single breath in which to strike.
Except he couldn’t. For all that Ruan was sincerely trying to kill him. For all that Varajas needed this to end, he couldn’t bring himself to kill Ruan, or even hurt him.
He couldn’t do anything but stand there and defend and let Ruan try his best to give back all the pain Varajas had ever caused him.