Chapter 51
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Warning: this may contain triggering content around the issue of sexual harassment and rape. Nothing graphic occurs, but the scene might be a little intense.

Brand tried to get some sleep before dinner. The nap did not do much to refresh him, for he woke, a couple hours later, with a throbbing headache. He dragged himself out of bed and plunged his head into the water basin.

Water dripped down his face. Brand stared at himself in the mirror. He looked terrible. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes rumpled, and stubble grew around his jaw.

Brand wiped his face and put on an illusion. Something simple. He chose the guise of a handsome blond man.

Rilla had preferred that one.

Rilla had been beautiful and graceful. She’d let him sleep with him.

But that wasn’t a good memory.

Brand removed the illusion and sighed. How long had it been since he’d stopped wearing disguises? He’d taken it for granted, looking like himself. He liked being seen. He liked knowing that his was the face Seri preferred.

A sharp pain filled him again. Damn it, why did he have to think of her?

He went downstairs, messy and tired, but looking like himself. He flung open the dining room doors and saw all the girls were present and dressed for dinner. Alonsa had chosen the golden dress. She looked very pretty, not that it affected him much.

“Ladies, you look lovely this evening,” he said, more out of habit than any real feeling. “Please, join me for dinner.”

Normally, he’d ask for someone’s arm, but he didn’t bother tonight.

As he turned and stalked into the dining room, he heard Alonsa whisper to Seri.

“Is that—?”

“That’s Brand, yes,” Seri said.

“If he can make himself look handsome, why does he need to kidnap girls?”

Brand whirled around. “You think I need to kidnap girls?”

For a second, Alonsa froze. But then, emboldened, she stepped forward. “Well, then, what is this? A game of some sort?”

“I guess you’ll find out.”

Brand walked toward his chair, not in the mood to talk. The other girls—his girls—seemed to sense this. The new girl did not. She strode quite close to him, hovering near his arm.

“We play your game, you send us home? Is that how it works?”

“Something like that.” Brand sat down.

Alonsa sat beside him. “So what do I—”

“That’s Seri’s chair,” he snapped.

Alonsa stood up.

“Seri’s at my right hand, Nel’s at my left. Gretchen sits by Seri. You can sit by Nel. That is the seating arrangement,” Brand said coldly. “I suggest you learn your place.”

Alonsa moved.

Brand knew he was being harsh on Alonsa, but he didn’t care. He was in a bad mood. Tonight’s menu was duck. He pried off a drumstick and a wing. The girls ate, too, without talking, and for a time, there was silence.

After a while, Alonsa said, “Is the point of the game to get women to sleep with you?”

Brand dropped the wing. “Some do sleep with me, yes.”

“I’ll do it. I’ll do it right now, if—”

“I’m eating dinner,” he said.

“I—” Alonsa glanced at Seri. “I’m not like these other girls.”

“I can tell.”

“I can be very nice. You’ll find I’m—”

“I don’t want you,” Brand said bluntly.

Alonsa looked shocked.

“Then why did you bring her here?” Seri asked.

“I don’t really know. I have half a mind to return her.”

“You should,” Seri said softly. “You should let her go home.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Brand tilted his head. “Fine. I’ll bring her home—if you sleep with me.”

The whole dining room went silent.

“You know I won’t do that,” Seri said.

“Why not?” Alonsa said.

“Because she has morals. Her high and mighty morals,” Brand added sarcastically. “What’s the problem, Seri? Is one girl not enough for you? Fine. Sleep with me, and I’ll send home everyone, including you.”

Seri looked down. “Brand—”

“You won’t do it,” he said. “No. Why would you? You’ve already gotten me to let Gretchen go, and Nel has made her arrangements. It’s a poor bargain. What would be a good bargain?” He tapped a finger across the table. “I know. You want me to stop kidnapping girls altogether. Very well. Sleep with me, and I’ll stop.”

The other girls were staring, but Brand didn’t look at them. His eyes were on Seri. He leaned toward her.

“I’ll stop kidnapping girls. I’ll stop cursing them. I’ll swear oaths and enforce them by magic. That is what you want, isn’t it? You get to stop me from ruining lives, to claim credit for saving my soul, to be a hero. Fine. Then you give me what I want. I want you for the night—the whole night.”

Her shoulders heaved, and her breath came hard. Was she considering it? He thought of having her in his bed, being able to kiss her as much as he desired, wherever he desired, holding her and touching her and making her his. The thought filled him with excitement.

“I’ll be gentle,” he added softly.

She twisted her hands. “I can’t.”

Irritation flashed through him as his fantasy dissolved. “You won’t.”

“Brand—”

“This is what you claim to want. For me to stop what I am doing and settle down with some nice, honest girl who’ll cure me of my wicked ways. And I will do it, if you only grant one small concession. Yet you won’t even consider—”

“Brand, this is not—”

“I know you won’t consider it! You never consider it! You never think! I have the power to take anything from you I damn well please. I could have had you that first night and I can have you right now, right here across the table. But I am offering—”

Seri stood up. “I will not stay and listen—”

“You will stay!” he said, rising. “And you will listen! I am offering my life to you and all I ask is this one night, but you will not do it. You will not even grant me the courtesy of—”

“Good night, Brand!” She turned.

“Dinner is not over!”

“I’m leaving!”

“No, you’re not!”

He grabbed her using magic cords and spun her around to face him. She cried out as the force whipped her toward him.

“Brand,” she said, struggling. “What are you doing? Let me go!”

But he didn’t want to let her go. He’d never wanted to let her go. He knew he had to. He knew he’d have to unbind her let her leave him. But he just… he didn’t want to. He just wanted to touch her… and hold her… and kiss her… and keep her. He wanted her so badly. Brand clenched his hand into a fist, tightening the reigns of the magic.

Seri flinched. She wriggled. She squirmed. But the ropes held her fast.

“Brand, please,” Seri said. “Don’t.”

Her eyes were very wide, and her breathing was hitched. She stared at him, like she no longer knew him. It made him think he no longer knew himself. He’d never done this before, never bound her like this—not since the first time. He should stop. He wasn’t like this.

Or maybe he was. Maybe he was exactly like this.

He stepped toward her.

Seri’s eyes changed. The terror seemed to drain, replaced by a strange, glazed-over acceptance. She turned away.

“Nel, Gretchen, Alonsa,” she said. “Get out. Now.”

He heard them leave. He didn’t care. He was watching Seri. She still wasn’t facing him, but he looked at her neck, at her chest, rising and falling. He noticed she had scales on her throat, but he didn’t care. How many nights had he spent yearning to kiss her neck, up and down along her throat. How many times had he held himself back.

“Brand, please, don’t do this,” Seri said. “It will not be what you want. I cannot love you… not in the way you desire. I cannot give my body to you. I cannot.” Her head drooped. “Please, don’t force me.”

She was afraid of him, really afraid. Brand let his hand uncurl, and the magic faded. Seri grabbed the backing of the chair and clung to it, as if to keep from falling.

“After all this time,” Brand said softly, “do you still think I’m going to rape you?”

“You threatened to just now.”

“I didn’t—”

“You said you could have me here across the table.”

Brand swallowed. “I didn’t mean it.”

“You grabbed me.”

“I was angry.”

“You’re always angry, Brand. You’re always mad at me.”

Brand stepped back.

Seri took a shaky breath. “I keep waiting for the moment when you snap. It frightens me. I don’t know what you’re going to do when the rage finally consumes you. I don’t know the ways in which you’re going to hurt me.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Seri.”

“Then why do you keep doing it?”

“How have I hurt you?” he asked, in a low voice.

“You are turning me into a dragon. I’m a prisoner. I’m away from the people I love. I’m at the mercy of your whirling moods. How many times do I need to explain this to you? It hurts. Being afraid all the time, hurts. You think because you haven’t struck me, you’ve caused me no pain? Your cruelty hurts me, Brand. Can you really not see that?”

His insides burned. He felt sick. He realized he was no longer looking at her—that he couldn’t look at her—that he was staring grease spot on the table, an ugly smear of grime, as if this was the only thing keeping him tethered to the world.

“You can leave,” he said, glancing up at her.

Seri shook her head. That brief gesture of disappointment cut him, but that was nothing. Her words had slashed him open. He was bleeding and numb. Reeling, and yet unable to move.

Seri left the room. She slammed the door behind her.

Had he really hurt her?

You weren’t supposed to hurt the people you loved.

All this time, Brand had been moping about how Seri couldn’t love him… but had he ever really loved her? He felt love, sure, but when it came to the action… when it came to actually doing something for her… did he ever really try? All she had ever wanted was for him to be… not even good, but decent. For him to not kidnap girls, not curse them, not blackmail them. And he just… he kept doing it. He knew it was hurting her, and he kept doing it.

Why?

Because he wanted to?

Was he really so terrible that at the center of his being, wanted to hurt innocent girls? That he wanted to hurt Seri, the one he loved, or claimed to love, most of all?

No.

He didn’t want to hurt her.

Then why did he do it?

Because…

Because if he stopped… if he broke the curse on Seri… he’d have to admit that… that he was wrong. That he had spent years of his life doing the wrong thing, over and over and over again. That he… that he actually cared about right and wrong.

And if he did that…

Brand felt like he was straddling chasm, and this chasm was choice. His choice.  He could stop hurting Seri. He could break the spell and send her home. Not because she yielded to him or gave him something, but because he wanted to, because he was tired of hurting her.

Or he could continue this charade. Because… because… God, what was it that he even wanted? What drove him to keep doing this? Did he want to be this way? No. He was just afraid to stop. Afraid of what would happen if he tried to change. Afraid he wasn’t better than a thief, a kidnapper… a rapist. Afraid that if he let go of this, he’d have… nothing.

When he thought of it this way, it was no longer a battle of conflicting desires. It was a battle of love and of fear… and as much as he wanted to choose love, he was afraid. He was so afraid. When had that happened? When did the fear surround him? Was he always afraid, he just couldn’t see it through his anger? Was that why he always angry? To mask the fear.

A simple choice, one he’d made a hundred times. Let her go. Or keep her.

And tonight, he was frozen.

Because it wasn’t simple. Right now, it felt like the entire course of his life hinged on this choice: What sort of man was he going to be?

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