Chapter 57
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Warning: This chapter contains some cursing, gory imagery, and rape. The rape is not graphic, but it may be triggering to some people.

Brand lifted the sheet off the final painting, the one that hung in the corner of the living room. It was a portrait of himself, from around the time he’d turned eighteen. His mother had painted it. It was the last painting she’d ever done—the only paintings of hers that he owned. He loved it, because it was his mother’s work. And he he hated it, because it reminded him of the year everything had gone to hell.

The year Brand turned eighteen, his mother had died. Shortly afterward, his lover, Lady Genoveve, decided he was boring and replaced him with another man. Brand had gone crazy after that, tearing up her room, stealing her palace’s magic, destroying his own artwork, the piece she’d commission, the piece he’d painted for her. That was the first time, he’d become aware of this… this pit… this darkness… this nothingness growing inside him.

Brand took the portrait off the living room wall. If anyone beside his mother had painted it, he would have thrown it away, long ago. Instead, Brand wrapped the canvas back up in the sheet and moved it upstairs to his mother’s room, with the other paintings he didn’t know what to do with.

This left a gap in the living room wall. Perhaps, he should fill it with one of his more recent works, one of the paintings of his mutilated corpse. All the better to remind himself what a piece of shit he was, who didn’t deserve any of his mother’s sacrifices. Everything she’d done for him, and he'd thrown it away.

Brand examined the six portraits. Which one to choose? He decided that the one of him dying from stab wounds was probably the best. Not only was it violent and painful, it somehow ended up looking the most realistic. He’d seen the image so clearly in his mind, how his body would look chopped and hacked.

Probably because he’d seen it before.

After his grandfather had died, the Tower of Abnoba’s defenses had dropped, and Brand and his mother were free to go. But free to go where? Brand was thirteen at the time, and all he knew of the outside world was the small town on the edge of the Abnoba Forest that his grandfather took him to once or twice, so that Brand wouldn’t come off like a complete moron in front of other people. His mother was not much better, having also spent most of her life locked in different towers.

Brand had wanted to visit his father’s castle, but that wasn’t an option. Brand knew very little about his father, other than his name was also Brandeis and that he had been some minor lord who had stolen his mother’s heart. The two had run off together. That didn’t sit well with his grandfather, Lord Arnaud, who had other plans for his daughter. Brand had no idea what his grandfather had done, since his mother never spoke of it. He just knew that his father was not around, that the castle had been reforged, and that no one there would be happy to see them.

But his mother remembered another castle which had always been an ally of their family: the Castle of Vogt-Tyrol. Her best friend lived there. So Brand flew them to Castle Vogt-Tyrol on an old rug, and the master of the castle, Lord Kuhlbert let them in. Lord Kuhlbert gave his mother a new dress and told Brand that he looked strong and healthy. Brand thought they were finally safe. But his mother seemed uneasy.

One day, Lord Kuhlbert invited them on a hunt. They were halfway, through the woods, when some errand called him back. But he insisted Brand and Elsie go on without him. At this, Brand’s mother had gone pale and quiet. She pulled Brand to the side and told him to be still. Then she cast the most perfect illusion Brand ever saw: an illusion of him and his mother. These illusions rejoined the hunting party. That’s when they were attacked.

Lord Kuhlbert’s men drew their swords and hacked the illusions to pieces. Brand watched. He watched the illusion of his mother scream as the chief guard sliced through the illusion of her son’s throat. How she’d done it, he still didn’t know, for she had produced sound as well as images. At least the blood was real—his mother had put the projection over one of their horses. The guard slayed that animal and later buried its remains in a shallow grave, thinking it was them.

Brand witnessed everything. But the guards did not see him or his mother standing by the tree, for she had cast an illusion of plants over them, to hide them. And she did not stop casting it until the guards had left.

After that, she had blacked out, drained from using her magic. Brand had taken his rug with him on the hunt; it was still attached to the dead horse. He dug it up, rolled the bloody carpet out, used magic to gently set his mother on the rug, and flown them away.

They never spoke of the incident. In fact, for a long time, Brand had put it away in his mind. He knew it had happened, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Brand hung the portrait of his dead body over the gap in the wall and stared at it. In the painting, his face was knocked to the side, with sprays of blood on his cheek and pooling under his chin. His throat was slashed, his insides gutted, a few of his mangled intestines were mashed on the ground.

Funny, how easily he’d forgotten the first time someone had tried to kill him.

Funny, how suddenly it had all rushed back.

After his mother’s death, the memory of Lord Kuhlbert’s betrayal resurfaced, and this time, it was no longer a thing that had happened long ago, but the incident that had ruined Brand’s life. Because if Lord Kuhlbert hadn’t betrayed them, if he had helped Brand and his mother like an ally should, then Brand’s mother would have never had to work so hard. She wouldn’t have ruined her health and gotten sick. She wouldn’t have died.

It was Lord Kuhlbert’s fault his mother died! He’d murdered Brand’s mother! Not with knives and treachery—though, he’d certainly tried—but slowly, through neglect. Brand had witnessed this betrayal, and for five years, he’d done nothing. He’d been a boy then, but now he was a man. Lord Kuhlbert would pay! His mother would be avenged!

But Lord Kuhlbert was not some petty sorcerer. Castle Vogt-Tyrol was one of the strongest in the land, fortified with ancient spells. Besides, he had five legitimate sons, eighteen grandsons, and eleven bastards—all sorcerers—as well as a small standing army. Brand was only one man, and he didn’t know a lot of spells.

Then he heard of Lord Kuhlbert’s granddaughter, Ailis.

Lord Kuhlbert was so very proud of Ailis, for she was beautiful, and magic ran strong in her veins, and he had just matched her to one of the Emperor’s sons. This alliance was destined to shoot Castle Vogt-Tyrol to highest echelons of power. And yet, despite all this, Lord Kuhlbert still allowed Ailis to ride past the walls of the castle from time to time, with nothing more than an escort of armed men and one single sorcerer brother.

Brand saw his chance. And he seized it.

Brand put a hand to his forehead. A nasty pulsing shot through his brain, as if brought on by the memory of the past. A wave of nausea hit him; his stomach sloshed, and he felt a feverish wave break out across his skin. He didn’t want to think about what he had done. And yet, he had to.

How did I become like this?

That was how. Ailis was how.

Brand had entered her outing, disguised as a minstrel. He had kidnapped her. He had taken her to the tower. And for a moment, when he had her bound to the bed, he had actually considered raping her. It would certainly ruin Lord Kuhlbert’s precious alliance. But then Ailis started to cry, and the thought fled his mind. Brand wasn’t going to lower himself like that. There were other ways.

Instead, he had cursed her. Ailis wasn’t Valdemarr’s heir, Brand knew that. Any one of her sorcerer brothers could undo the curse. But Ailis didn’t know that. She was scared, and that was good. Brand wanted her to be scared. He wanted her to be docile and obedient. Ailis was the only one who could get him through the Castle Vogt-Tyrol’s defenses. Brand couldn’t let her betray him, like her grandfather had betrayed him.

Brand pinched his forehead. The nausea was worse now, bile forcing its way up his throat. He remembered his original line of reasoning—that was very clear. What he could not for the life of him remember was how he had treated Ailis. The memories were darkened by emotions, like a painting smeared over with a layer of red.

It was bad, though. Oh, he knew it was bad. Brand had been angry and anxious, and he had taken out his frustrations on her. But he’d also felt sad and lonely and scared of this emptiness growing inside him. Ailis was pretty and young, and she was around, she was always around. He hated her and yelled at her and told her all the terrible things her family had done and all the ways in which he would take revenge. And he wanted her, he wanted to touch her and hold her and have her make the nothingness go away.

What had he done to her? Oh, God, what had he done?

The bile in Brand’s throat burned. His skin burned. Everything burned.

He couldn’t even remember. Not clearly. Fragments of memories flashed in his head and dissolved into a murky haze. He’d been testing her, seeing what he could get her to do, seeing how obedient she was. She was very obedient. She’d been with him for three months. Her grace period was up. She was scared.

So she let him do whatever he wanted to her.

She’d let him rape her.

Brand fell to the floor and threw up.

He threw up all over the rug, and he didn’t care. The guilt was like a snake, wriggling in his stomach, and he wanted it to get out. He heaved and spat and cursed. Memories flashed. Her eyes, dull and distant. The way he’d kissed her, and she didn’t respond. Slashed paintings, and the shrill scream of her voice. That last glimpse of her dress, waving in the wind, as he left her.

Brand kept heaving, even when there was nothing left for him to throw up, not even water. But that didn’t make the guilt go away. He knocked his fists against his head and screamed and banged his forehead against the vomit-stained rug, but nothing made the guilt go away.

Because he couldn’t make it go away.

Because he’d done it.

And not just once.

Over and over again.

Brand collapsed and lay on the ground and let the guilt wrack through him.

Eventually, the fire that lit his skin simmered down; the pain in his gut eased. But his head continued to drum.

What was he going to do?

Shaking, Brand picked himself off the floor. He went to the kitchen for a water and a basin. He washed his face. He scrubbed the vomit from the rug. He thought of Seri and the girls at the tower. He knew what he had to do.

Go back. Say sorry. Take them home.

Do the right thing, for once in his life. Not even a good thing. A correction to his current mistake. It wouldn’t make up for what he did to Ailis or the other girls, but it was something

Go back. Say sorry. Take them home.

Why couldn’t he do it?