All Ruan knew was bright, burning fury.
He was so angry at Varajas it was almost blinding. The anger seemed to create its own haze that he was looking through, moving through. He could barely think, and his body didn’t feel entirely his own.
That didn’t slow him down. He’d never fought so well in his life. Years of pent-up frustration and rage and fear all twisted together to drive him harder and faster than he’d ever moved before. He was a being of pure vengeance, punishment made manifest, an angel born of fire and wrath for the sole purpose of returning to Varajas all the pain he’d ever caused.
Varajas who kept pushing him, taunting him. Calling him Donatien’s dog, when they both knew what he was really saying. What he meant was that Ruan was weak, that Ruan’s convictions were fragile, malleable things.
That was why Ruan had to stay angry, why he had to move fast. If he let Varajas keep talking, if he gave himself a moment to think, he would falter and drown in the knowledge that Varajas was right.
Everything about this was too familiar, and Ruan had to keep that from his mind as well. All the years they’d spent training together, working together, fighting each other in play and in practice. All those years, Varajas had always been better. Today, Ruan was pushing him back, keeping him off balance, driving him over and over again to retreat, to step back and away, but it was still so achingly full of echoes. That, too, was a threat.
He had to stay angry, because if he stopped being angry, all the rest would come crashing in.
Varajas didn’t look angry. In years together, Ruan had learned how to read every line, every tiny twitch of that stoic face. Varajas’s words, his taunts had been icy jabs of cruelty—and Ruan knew that side of Varajas too—but there hadn’t been any real force behind them. That was Varajas backed in a corner, defending himself, but the truth was in Varajas’s eyes, in the set of his mouth, in the heaviness of his body. A haunted, soul-deep weariness that Ruan had to convince himself he didn’t see.
For eight years Ruan had been dreaming of this moment, planning this confrontation and how it would go. He’d imagined a thousand ways Varajas could have fought back, a thousand things Ruan would say, a thousand ways to punish Varajas for every hurt, every insult, every humiliation.
The trouble was, Varajas wasn’t fighting back. In all Ruan’s calculations, he hadn’t prepared for that.
“Did you run away from the knights the way you ran from the order? Is that how you survived? More cowardice?”
“Is that what you remember? Cowardice?” Varajas sidestepped, parried, but it was becoming more and more noticeable to Ruan that all he was doing was defending himself. “Or is that just what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night? Because if I was the coward, then you don’t have to be.”
Another burst of anger gave brutal strength to Ruan’s blows. “I kept my vows!”
“You hid behind them.”
That same relentless confidence. Varajas wasn’t yelling, wasn’t really even arguing. There was that familiar edge of detachment to his words, the conviction that he knew the truth, and didn’t need to expend the effort to convince anyone else of it.
It just pissed Ruan off more. “You’re always so fucking sure you’re right.”
Varajas responded with a hollow laugh. “Ruan, I gotta say, I’ve never been less sure of anything.”
This was not following the script. Ruan had been prepared to fight a villain. He hadn’t been ready for…this.
How was it that after all Ruan’s preparations, that despite the fact Ruan had every advantage in this fight, that he was winning, Varajas still managed to be the one in control?
Ruan caught Varajas’s sword between his blades, and with a reflexive twist, pulled it out of Varajas’s hand. It went flying to the side. Varajas tried to dive after it, but Ruan jabbed at the air, driving him back. And back. Until he’d backed into a tree and the point of Ruan’s sword was at his throat.
Now came the moment of truth. Ruan could have his revenge, could finish the fight that had been interrupted eight years ago. He could kill this man, this traitor, who had betrayed the order—who had betrayed Ruan. He could drag Varajas back to the High Father in chains. He could finally—finally—prove that he had been right and Varajas had been wrong.
He could demand answers. How had Varajas survived? Were there more knights who had escaped? What did Lysander know? Important questions that were his job to ask.
Except the only question pounding through his mind, the question Ruan had to clench his teeth against, was none of those things. It had nothing to do with the knights, nothing to do with the Brotherhood, and everything to do with the hurt Ruan had been trying to deny for eight years.
All he wanted to ask right this moment was, how could you leave me?