Ruan’s blade was at Varajas’s throat. He could feel the point of it pressing into his skin. His own sword was a dozen feet away. Varajas could have called it back to his hand, but Ruan would have seen the first twitch of magic and…

And what? Ruan wasn’t moving. Having gained advantage over Varajas, he wasn’t pressing it. No more than Varajas had been able to push his own advantage.

Was that to be the bitter, ironic truth, that in the end, neither of them could bring themselves to make a genuine strike? Had this all been pantomime? A pretense of conflict? And if so, who was the audience they were both performing for?

Was it simply each other?

“What are you going to do?” Varajas asked softly, after a full minute had passed and Ruan hadn’t moved.

“Shut up.” Despite the resolve in Ruan’s voice, the point of his sword trembled.

“Are you going to kill me, Ruan? I can’t stop you. Isn’t this what you’ve wanted? What you’ve been waiting for for eight years?”

Now the whole sword was shaking. “I hate you so much,” Ruan hissed.

“I know.” Slowly, deliberately, Varajas lifted his hand to push Ruan’s sword away. Ruan didn’t stop him. Didn’t raise the sword back up. Not when Varajas stepped closer, not when Varajas grabbed a fistful of Ruan’s shirt, and not when Varajas dragged him forward into a kiss.

The familiar feel of Ruan’s lips, soft and urgent beneath his own, woke up every nerve in Varajas’s body. The dark, cynical corner of his mind was congratulating him on finding a way to make everything worse, while the rest of him groaned and sank deeper into the feel of Ruan against him.

There came the soft thump of Ruan’s swords hitting the ground, then Ruan’s hands against his chest, shoving, sudden and unexpected and Varajas stumbled back against the tree. He had just enough time to worry that Ruan was going to continue the fight after all before Ruan’s body was pressed against his once more, this time with Ruan leading, guiding, devouring.

“I hate you,” Ruan repeated as he ravished Varajas’s mouth with his own. He held Varajas pinned against the tree. Varajas had forgotten—how could he have forgotten all the strength hidden in Ruan’s lithe body?

All the burning aggression from the fight was still there, and Varajas let it crash against him, surrendering to Ruan’s invasive kisses and pressing body. An apology that he’d owed for eight years, an apology he still couldn’t speak, he could offer through pliant limbs and gentle lips and soft, stroking hands.

When Ruan pushed him down to the ground, Varajas went willingly. They dragged at each other’s clothes, rushed by the twin goads of lust and fear that this moment—this accord—could shatter. Varajas did risk a bit of magic, since neither of them had been expecting this, slicking Ruan’s cock with a stroke of his hand. Ruan raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pause to ask questions. He thrust into Varajas, his savagery transforming into something else. Something dangerously like passion.

Ruan leaned over Varajas, elbows on his chest, and fucked with deep, demanding thrusts. Varajas closed his eyes, tilted his head back, felt Ruan’s teeth against his throat, along his collarbone, sinking into his shoulder. The familiarity of it was overwhelming, as sudden, remembered intimacy threatened to shatter him.

Ruan broke against him, his climax forcing out a sound that was close to a sob. Varajas couldn’t bear to see whatever emotions might be writ on Ruan’s face, so he pulled Ruan down, held him close, with Ruan’s face pressed into his shoulder. He held Ruan tight until Ruan’s shaking passed, until his breathing steadied, and when Ruan lifted his head, pulling free of Varajas’s grip, his expression was once more guarded and careful. Safe.

“Why are you even out here?” Ruan asked.

And wasn’t that a complicated question to answer with Ruan’s naked body still stretched over his? Varajas cut to the most relevant part. “Samir—the wizard who was traveling with us—he went up to the castle. I want to make sure he doesn’t get himself in trouble.”

“Yes, because you’re going to be able to keep someone out of trouble.” Ruan’s voice had lost its bitter edge. Now it was just Ruan with claws out, and that was so comfortable it ached. But then he tensed, sitting up. “No, he’s not safe. We have to—” He rolled off Varajas and started rooting around for his clothes.

“Have to what? What are you talking about?” Magic was useful for many things, like cleaning himself up when they didn’t have the luxury of a bath nearby. Varajas reached for his own clothes.

“Archwizard Girald—he sent someone up to the castle. That’s why I was out here. I was following this wizard—Peyter. They mentioned Samir. They’re laying some sort of trap.”

“Fuck.” No sense wasting time asking how Ruan had found that out. Especially when Varajas could guess. He knew exactly how Ruan worked—how they both had worked, years ago.

He tossed Ruan his pants, which were closer to Varajas. Their eyes met, Ruan’s wide and full of questions.

Questions Varajas couldn’t answer. Not yet. “Let’s go find Samir.” The rest…

Would wait.

A note from Barbara J Webb

I have a discord! Come hang out with me and other fans! In addition, when you join, you’ll get a free copy of the ebook for Twisted Magic, the first book in my Knights of the Twisted Tree series!

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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