Chapter 48
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“Seri, I would like to see you in my private room,” Brand said, after dinner, the next day.

“Is something wrong?” Seri asked.

Yes. She was leaving, and he felt sick at the thought. He’d spent the whole day trying to gather his courage, and even after three glasses of wine, he still felt jumpy and anxious. Looking at her hurt. Still, Brand managed to smile, in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.

“Not wrong,” he said. “But something has come to my attention. And I wish to talk about it.”

Seri nodded. “Very well, then.”

She took his arm, and they walked to his private room. Brand tried not to think that this was the last time she would walk with him. Seri took her seat, and he poured her a glass of water.

“You know how we always say we’ll talk about you turning into a dragon later?” Brand said.

“Yes.”

He put the cup down beside her. “It’s later.”

“Oh.” Seri took a sip of the water.

He sat down close beside her, gazing at her.

“I know you’re suffering,” he said quietly. “You need not.”

“Then end it,” she said.

“I will,” he said. “But you must give me something.”

“Why?” she said. “You don’t even know what you want from me—”

“I do,” he said.

She squirmed. “I won’t—”

“I know you won’t,” he said. “I’m aware you won’t. That’s not what I’m asking.” He paused and licked his lips. “I want you to kiss me, Seri.”

“Brand…”

“Just a single, brief kiss. Please.”

She looked down and shook her head.

“You find me that repulsive?”

“I find your actions repulsive.”

“You have a counteroffer?”

“I want you to break the curse because it’s the right thing to do.”

“No,” Brand said, irritated. “You want me to repent. You think to use my attraction to you to rid me of my evil ways.”

“Yes, I want you to repent,” Seri said. “Have I made a secret of it? Why is it so hard for you to do this one good deed? I know you are capable of it. I have seen you with Nel and Gretchen. You’re willing to help them, but when I ask—”

“Do you know what it is you ask of me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you?” He stared her in the eye.

She took a breath.

“Because I know,” he continued softly. “You have shown your hand, milady. It is not a single good deed you are after. You want to change me—from an immoral libertine to a steady and righteous husband. Is that not why you were so eager to match me with Nel?”

“I want you to change your habits, Brand,” Seri said, without quite looking him in the eye. “I want you to cease kidnapping girls and—”

“This is my life, Seri. I’ll not change it for you.”

“Do you even know why you kidnap girls?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I told you.”

“You aren’t doing it for vengeance,” she said. “Not anymore. The men who wronged you are dead, and even if you still sought their ancestors, you would not find them with Gretchen and Nel.”

He did not reply. His throat felt dry.

“You are kidnapping girls, because you want a family,” Seri said. “Because you want to be loved.”

The words hit him like a punch to the stomach. Brand stood up. He walked to the water jug and poured himself a glass.

“You believe I seek love?” he asked.

“Have you not told me as much?” she replied.

He sipped his water. “Kidnapping young women does not seem like a good way of securing their affection.”

“No, it is a terrible method,” Seri said, standing up. “But it is the only way you have. To coerce women into pretending that they—”

“Stop,” he said.

She stopped.

“You could have the real thing,” she said softly.

“By marrying a nice girl.”

“Yes.”

He set his glass down. “And who would I marry, Seri? Are you volunteering?”

She was silent.

“No, I thought not. Your righteousness does not extend so far as that.”

“I’m sure there are many young women who would have you.”

“Would they?”

“You have great magic—”

“You think I want to be married for that?” he shouted. “Oh, yes, I’m sure I could find a girl to marry me for my power or my bloodline or because her father forced her to. But that is not what I want. I want her to choose me. Not my magic. Me.”

“Someone will choose you, Brand.”

“No,” he said.

Seri tilted her head. “Why do you say—?”

“After what I’ve done?” he yelled. “Who would choose me? Nel’s fiancé was a cruel, vicious, ugly man whom she hated—and she would marry him. But she will not marry me. You won’t even deign to kiss me. None of the girls I’ve brought have ever chosen me.”

“Because you kidnapped them!” Seri said. “How could anyone choose you, when you don’t give them a choice? Not a true choice. To adore you or to turn into a dragon. Who would choose to be a dragon?”

“You, apparently,” he muttered.

“Would you have me pretend to—”

“I have never asked you to pretend!” he yelled. “When have I ever asked you to lie? I know you don’t love me. I know none of these girls love me. If they loved me, they would stay. A token, a kiss, what passes between us through the night—none of those things change the fact that as soon as I release them, they will set the dogs upon me. As soon as I let you go, you will hunt down that powerful uncle of yours and beg him to present my head on a pike.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said. “I want you to have a future.”

“But not with you.”

She looked down.

Brand felt despair hit him. She did not know how hard it would be for him to release her. To know that once he did, he would never again have her in his life. Never a touch, never a smile, never a word. An illusion was all he would have left of her. She was so dear to him, and he meant nothing to her.

After a moment, Seri said, “Why is it important I give you something?”

“Because I want it.”

“Why do you want it?”

“Seri, anything you ask for, I shall give you. Can you not give me something?”

“I’ve asked for my freedom. You’ve never given me that.”

“I’ve given you other things.”

“Not what I truly want.”

“Well, I want to sleep with you,” Brand said bluntly. “But I don’t demand that of you. I’m willing to compromise. I ask that you do the same.”

“You want me to compromise my morals.”

“Yes,” he snapped. “I want you to compromise them. For me. Get off your high horse for once in your life, before you destroy yourself over nothing.”

“It is not nothing.”

“It is nothing!” he insisted.

“Your soul is not nothing!” Seri yelled. “Your life is not nothing. You are better than this. You can be better than this.”

“Me?” Brand was taken aback. “You’re doing this for me?”

Seri looked down. “If you continue on this path—”

“—I’ll ruin the lives of other girls,” he said. “Is that what you meant to say?”

“I was not speaking of—”

“But you care about them.”

“Yes, but—”

“Their lives. Their souls. Their happiness. Not mine.”

“Brand, I care—”

“You don’t!” he yelled.

Silence.

“Brand,” she said softly. “You know that I can’t lie in this room. When I say I care for you—”

“You mean that you pity me,” he said. “You see me as some poor sinner whose soul you can redeem. My soul is not yours to save.”

“I wouldn’t presume—”

“Get out!” he said.

She stared. “I—”

“Get out, Seri! I am done with you tonight.”

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