Chapter 54
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Warning: This chapter contains suicidal thoughts and gory imagery.

When Brand was a child, seven or eight, he had climbed to the top of the Tower of Abnoba, to try to fix a leak in the roof. He’d slipped and fallen. But he didn’t die. The protection spells around the tower had caught him. He fell slowly through the air and hit the ground softly. At the time, he had laughed and made a game of it. But the thought had occurred to him—even death was no escape, for death was not permitted. He was stuck here.

Brand sat on the roof of the tower, craning his head toward the sun. Of course, back in those days, his grandfather, Lord Arnaud, was master of the tower. The magic obeyed him, and him alone. Now that his grandfather was dead, Brand had control of the spells. He could always dismiss them, if he wanted. Then he’d be free to leap off the tower and die.

He wondered what it would look like: his body, twisted and broken, cloaked in black on the pure white snow. Should he aim for the top of the well and have the pointed roof snap his spine, his arms falling one way, his legs the other? Or should he leap head-first into the garden, so that his head cracked and split, like the gourd he’d stepped on last night?

Actually, that might look interesting.

Brand jumped from the tower and floated down, as he had when he was a child. Then he climbed the stairs to his mother’s old bedroom, which Brand had turned into his art studio. Paintings and drawings were stacked atop the bed, covered in sheets, to keep the dust away. Brand dug through the dresser, where he kept his supplies of brushes and pigments. He had prepared several canvases last winter. He grabbed one and set to work sketching out the scene of his death on the canvas.

He could always create an illusion, but his illusions would die with him. He wanted this picture to remain. He set up his easel and mixed paints on his palette. Make he could give the finished work to Seri. “You defeated the monster,” he’d say to her, and then he’d jump out the window.

Or better yet, he could give her the choice. “Shall I make this picture a reality?” he’d ask. Maybe her face would harden, and her eyes would go cold. “Yes,” she’d say. “Go die.” Then again, her eyes might become misty and her mouth twist in horror. “Please, don’t die. I want you to live.”

These thoughts danced in Brand’s head, spurring him on. He had to know. He had to see it for himself. Brand painted in a frenzy, day and night, until the picture was done.

He gazed upon his death.

It was beautiful. Even though his lifeless, broken body was the centerpiece, Brand was particularly fond of the garden. He’d taken great pains to study the vines and the grasses. He thought Seri might appreciate the detail.

Not that she was ever going to see it.

What the hell was he thinking? He couldn’t show this to her. What kind of sick, twisted person thrust a picture of his bloody corpse into the hands of the girl he loved and then asked her if he should commit suicide? Him, apparently. He was so stupid. Brand ripped the still-drying canvas off the easel and threw it on the ground.

What the hell was he even doing here? He needed to go back, apologize, and take the girls home. That was the right thing to do, the bare minimum of decency. Instead, he’d run off to the middle of nowhere, to hide like the coward he was.

Go back. Say sorry. Let them go.

Brand’s body went rigid. His feet were rooted the floor, his soul shriveling.

God, he was such a coward.

He’d always been a coward. A weak, useless, indulgent, over-emotional coward. He hated himself. He wanted to go down to the kitchen, grab a knife, and stab himself, over and over again. Until blood spurted from his heart and ran in rivers down his white shirt. Until pools of red seeped onto the dusty blue rug, near the chair where his mother once sat.

Brand went to dresser and took out another canvas.

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