Ruan couldn’t remember ever feeling so humiliated. This place, the magic, however it had all come together to throw his mind, his thoughts, his every feeling so wide open that Samir and Varajas had been able to just listen in…
Just as he’d been able to do with them. One tangled mess of memory and dream and…
He was angry. He had to be angry. If he stopped being angry, if he stopped focusing on the intrusion, on the horror of it…
This haunted castle had robbed him of the memory of him and Varajas in the woods. That was bad enough. Remembering was bad enough. But then getting to see it through Varajas’s eyes, to remember through Varajas’s own thoughts, to know without question what Varajas had felt—that was almost impossible to accept. It was too complicated, too hard, and Ruan just wanted to run away. Except that there was nowhere to run.
And Samir—how did he fit into the tangled mess of Ruan’s mind? His heart? What had he been thinking, letting Samir get so close? What had he been thinking?
He hadn’t. That was the answer. He’d been angry. He’d been hurt. He’d been lonely. He’d justified getting close to Samir with excuses, but the real reason was, Ruan had been unmoored in himself for eight long years, and only now was it becoming clear just how long he’d been running from himself.
Now Varajas had seen that. In truth, Varajas probably would have seen it even if he hadn’t just gotten dragged through a magical tour of Ruan’s inner self. He’d always known Ruan so well, had been able to see through every lie, even the ones Ruan was telling to himself.
This all would have been horrible enough on its face, but to be sharing this experience with Varajas meant there was no hiding and no pretending and if Ruan could have sunk into the floor and become part of the stone forever, he would have taken that option right now and gladly.
Sadly, God never answered prayers so directly. Ruan was still standing, awake and fully separate from the stonework, when Varajas came out to find him.
Ruan had gone a little ways down the hall, enough room to breathe, although he hadn’t let himself get out of sight of the door that held Samir and Varajas. That meant he was able to watch Varajas step out, look around, spot him. They both stood, staring at each other across the dark, decaying hallway. Then Varajas came towards him. Ruan had a few more seconds of hope for the sinking-into-the-stone plan before Varajas was there.
He leaned against the wall across from Ruan, which put him between two windows that had long ago lost their glass. “So.”
“So.” This was both overwhelmingly awkward and unreasonably familiar.
It was all so fresh in his mind—the rough ground, bare skin against his, Varajas arching and twisting beneath his hand. As though it had just happened moments ago.
It had felt so familiar. Even pissed as hell as he had been—as he still was—it had been comforting, that familiarity. Even now. Which made it easy, almost reflexive to ask, as he always had, “What do we do now?”
And as ever, Varajas had an answer at the ready. “We go back in there. We talk this through. We find a way out.”
Out. So many things they needed to find their way out of, and this haunted Ulek was maybe the least of them. But Ruan simply nodded and followed Varajas. As he always had.