As soon as Seri left, Brand grabbed Seri’s water goblet and threw it into wall. The crystal smashed into the stones, leaving a wet stain. You could be better, she’d said. Better! He’d show her better! He picked up the whole game table and hurled it across the room. It didn’t quite make it as far as the wall, but when it hit the floor, the drawer smashed, and all the chess pieces scattered the floor. Heaving a breath, Brand went over to the mantel and poured himself a glass of brandy.
Why did he lose every damn fight against her? This should not have even been a fight. How hard should it have been to persuade someone to not be cursed? It was ridiculous.
Brand drained the cup in one swig, not caring that the liquor burned his throat.
The irony was, he had thought long and hard about breaking the curse, no strings attached, just do what she wanted and let her go home. It would be easy, so much easier than arguing with her, over and over again. And at this point, her stubbornness was starting to hurt him. That was her strategy, of course, and it was working. He hated seeing her in pain.
So, yes, he had considered giving in—but he couldn’t do it.
He just… he couldn’t. First of all, it would undermine his authority. Who would believe him, if he kept breaking his own rules? But more than that… more than that… If he did break the spell, it would be admitting that… that…
He shouldn’t have to. He had compromised. Hadn’t he taken care of Gretchen, agreed to let her go, left Nel alone? Hadn’t he bought her all sorts of gifts? Seri should be able to do this one thing for him—for herself. Why should he have to beg her to save her own skin? He had tried so hard to make it easy for her. Couldn’t she try, just once, to make it easy on him?
But no. Of course, she couldn’t. Brand poured more brandy in his glass.
Brand really wanted her to kiss him. He hadn’t thought she would, but he’d hoped. Barring that, he’d have taken just about anything she offered. A painting, a flower, a shake of her hand—he didn’t care. Even so, he’d steeled himself to argue and yell and ask her if she really believed that this… principle… was worth dying for. He’d braced for a long evening, prepared to wear her down. But then…
Why did she have to say she was doing it for him?
Why did she have to say she cared about him?
It hit too close to what he really wanted. During the argument, he had been somewhat inured to the pain, but as soon as she was gone, it hit him, and it hurt. It felt like she had torn him inside out and or flayed him raw. Like she had pulled out some vulnerable part of him and crushed it. He just felt this intense pain, and it was her fault. She did this to him!
You could be better…
Screw her! Be better! Be some well-behaved stuffed doll, she meant, some joyless fool who scraped and bowed and spent his whole life being pushed around. Is that what she wanted? She was never satisfied. She was stubborn and self-righteous, and she never loved him and never would—she had not the faintest idea of what love was. All she cared about was duty and obligation. She had no feeling whatsoever, no passion, just a bunch of rules and codes she rigidly stuck by, standards so high no earthly mortal could hope to meet them. And yet he had allowed himself to fall for her and practically let her control his life. He had given her everything and still it wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough.
Brand downed his second brandy and started on his third.
Seri thought he was bad. She had no fucking idea. Had he ever struck her? Beat her? Starved her? Ripped off her clothes and raped her? No. He had never so much as touched her, and he was the monster?
Why the fuck did he love her? What was wrong with him that he always fell for the wrong sort of woman?
He drained the remainder of the brandy and tossed the glass aside.
He’d get another girl. How hard was it to do? He could go out and buy any whore he desired and take his frustrations out on her. He could buy a whole brothel, bring them to his tower, and fuck them in front of her. Who cared? He was never going to have a wife and a family; he might as well do what he liked.
Brand rolled out his carpet and flew to town, with half a mind to actually do it—to find the brothel, buy out all the whores, and parade them in front of Seri. But he didn’t actually know where the brothel was or if the town even had one, and before he could think of finding one, he saw the houses down below, a few of their windows still lit with candles. He heard the dogs barking, babies crying—and that pain came back again, twice as bad. He kept thinking of the evening, with the minstrel teaching the girls a song, and Gretchen coming out of her shell, and Seri and Nel singing, and how happy he’d felt then, really, finally happy…
You could have better.
No, he couldn’t. He was never going to have more than this. And it wasn’t so bad, was it? He had a good life. He had magic. He had art. He had girls. He could do whatever he wanted, and no one could tell him otherwise. He was free. If he tried for anything better, if he let go of what he had….
Brand shook himself. Why was he looking for a brothel, anyway? It wasn’t as if he had any desire to fuck a common whore. Seri thought he could do better. Well, he could certainly do better than her. He’d find some beautiful, sophisticated lady—someone prettier than Seri—and he’d shower the new girl with favors and attention, and Seri could just sit in her room and pout until she came to her senses and begged him to end the curse. And if she felt pain, then so be it. He didn’t care. She could cry and scream and turn into a dragon. It was her own damn fault!
He tried to think of where to go. Where could he find a beautiful, sophisticated woman? He couldn’t go to a Castle—even half-drunk, he wasn’t stupid enough to breach a Castle impulsively. He’d have to find one from a House. Most of the Houses bragged about the beauty of their women—they had to, since their women had almost no magic and small dowries. Brand dimly recalled hearing the women from the lake region were particularly pretty. He flew in that direction.
The lake region was far, and by the time he got there, it was sunrise. He flew from house to house and peered over the garden walls. It took him three or four tries before he found her.
The girl he wanted.
She was perfect. She sat in a group of women, but she outshone them all. She had very long, black hair that she was brushing and weaving flowers into. She had red lips and a white bosom, and, moreover, she had a sensual way of moving her body, which hinted of flirtation and experience.
Brand didn’t even bother to be subtle. It wasn’t as if the House had magic. He dropped out of the sky, pushed everyone aside, and threw her into the carpet. Then he rode off.