Brand moved the six portraits of his mangled corpse onto the stairs. He placed one on each step, so he could view the gallery of his death. Maybe he should hang one up. But not right now. First, he wanted to get the living room back in order.
Brand pushed the furniture back in place—with his own hands, not with magic. Sometimes it felt good to do things on his own. The furniture was still thickly draped with sheets, to keep away the dust. Had it been the old furniture—the ones from his childhood—he wouldn’t have cared how dirty they got. But most of those old tables and chairs had been fed to the hearth long ago. This current furniture was new.
He'd bought it for his mother.
Brand began to take off the cloth to reveal the chairs and sofas in pinks and greens, round tables, delicate porcelain vases. He knew what his mother liked, because she had shown him, casting her illusions over the ugly dark chairs and pointed tables. Brand had recreated her vision exactly, except for the fresh flowers in the vases. He could never get them to grow here, not pretty ones, anyway. So he filled the vases with the illusions of flowers.
In a way, this entire room was an illusion.
Because by the time Brand got around to furnishing it, his mother had already passed away. And so the room was really just for him, to pretend that he fulfilled his promise to her.
“I’m going to take care of you, Mother,” he’d told her. “I promise, I’ll give you whatever you need: good food, pretty dresses, a room decorated just how you always wanted. You don’t need to work, anymore. So, stop it! Please.”
Brand remembered telling her this. He remembered it very clearly.
He was 17, then, and his lover, Lady Genoveve, had finally given him the commission he’d wanted: a grand, large painting to hang in her hall. Not only did this mean money, it also meant a chance to get his name out there, to build his reputation. More commissions would follow. This was just the beginning.
Brand told his mother all this—yet she continued painting flowers on trinkets, work she’d been doing for the last 4 years.
“I have to finish these by tomorrow,” she said.
“No, you don’t!” Brand said, with an exasperated sigh. “Haven’t you been listening? I have a commission—my own commission. I’m on my way to making my place in this world.”
At last, his mother stopped painting and looked up. “Brand, this is not your place. You are the son of a lord.”
“And you are the daughter of one,” he replied, angrily. “And yet, here you are, working like a peasant—”
“I accepted it when I was young, when I was a boy. I had no choice, then,” he said. “But I’m not going to watch you scrabble like this, anymore. You are going to stop working and enjoy yourself. All right?”
He knew his words had sounded angry, but he wasn’t. He was scared.
His whole life, he and his mother had never had enough, and what little they had, she gave to him. At the tower, she gave him the best food, the warmest clothes, the extra blankets. Outside of the tower, all she did was work to pay for his apprenticeship, his art supplies, clothes he needed to impress patrons. It was starting to take its toll on her.
Gray streaks had appeared in his mother’s brown hair, even though she was not old—only thirty-four. She’d always been thin, but lately, she had started to look unnaturally gaunt. He’d seen the color leave her cheeks, and the sparkle leave her eye. And last winter had been bad. For three weeks, she’d gotten so sick, she could hardly leave bed, burning with a fever, shivering, hardly eating.
Brand didn’t want to lose her. She was all he had.
His mother smiled. “You have a good heart, my son. You deserve better than this. I’m sorry I couldn’t give it to you.”
“Please, don’t say that,” Brand said. “You’ve given me everything. I’m happy. Now let me take care of you. Please, Mother.”
Instead, she went back to painting. “I’ve been thinking about how to fix this situation.”
“What situation?” he asked.
“You should be a lord, Brand.”
“I don’t want to be a lord!” he said, growing frustrated. “I want to paint and play with illusions and be happy and take care of the people I love.”
“And you will,” she said firmly. “But first you must learn the dragon curse.”
“What?” Brand said. “Why on earth would I do that? It’s cruel and it’s complicated and it’s completely useless. Anyone can break it—anyone who knows how to use magic—unless they explicitly agree to be cursed. And who would do that?”
“There is one who won’t be able to break it,” she said. “Valdemarr’s heir.”
“No.” Brand crossed his arms.
“You must find her.”
“I already told you, I will have no part in Grandfather’s schemes.”
“You’re not going to carry out his vengeance,” his mother said. “You’re going to find Valdemarr’s heir—so you can marry her.”
“What?” Brand said, and it came out as a laugh. “You want me to curse some strange girl and then marry her? And not just any girl, a girl whose family murdered mine?”
“You must put aside your hatred—”
“I don’t hate them, Mother. They hate me.”
“They hated your grandfather,” his mother said. “You are not him. You are kind and loving and good. They will see that.”
“The girl will see it. She will fall in love with you.”
“Just like that?” Brand asked darkly.
“Oh, how could she not?” his mother said. “The girl will love you, Brand, and once you win her over, the rest of the family will follow. Willmarr was fruitful. The girl will have a large family with strong magic. You will have allies. And then you can go back to Satyros and resurrect the Castle.”
“You will have everything you need, Brand. Everything you deserve.”
“Mother, listen to yourself,” Brand said, rubbing his forehead. “You want me to follow Grandfather’s plan and go around cursing random girls until the curse finally sticks to one of them? How would I even go about doing that? And what happens if the curse sticks to a girl that I hate? Then I’m stuck with her. And she won’t be happy with me. She’ll hate me. Her family already wants me dead. They’ll probably have me murdered not two days after the wedding.”
“You must be brave,” his mother said.
“It’s not about being brave,” he said. “I don’t want to get stuck with some… some stranger. And what would I even get out of it? If I wanted, I could resurrect Castle Satyros on my own. I don’t need Valdemarr’s heir to do that.”
“You need help, Brand.”
“I don’t need help,” he muttered.
“You need a family,” his mother said. “You need people who love you, who care for your well-being. I won’t be around forever. I don’t want you to be alone. Please, Brand, at least learn the curse. For my sake, if not for yours.”
Brand would have argued more, but the words ‘won’t be around forever’ stopped him cold. He remembered his mother shivering in bed last winter, her face so hollow and skeletal, and him kneeling beside the bed and praying—and he never prayed—that would get better. He couldn’t forget her brush with death, how close he had been to losing her.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll learn the curse. But in exchange, I want you stop all this work and let me take care of you.” He raked his hand through his hair. “Also, stop talking like you’re dying. You’re not going to die. You’re going to live a long and happy life, Mother. I promise.”