Brand deserved to be alone. He deserved to freeze in the tower. He deserved to throw up his meals. He deserved to toss and turn at night. He deserved the nightmares. He deserved every gruesome punishment he’d painted. He deserved death.
But he didn’t want to die.
He realized that as he woke. Brand lay in his old room, which was also the library, tucked into his bed from childhood which just barely big enough to fit him. His right foot dangled off the frame, and the winter air chilled his skin. Brand tucked his foot back into the blankets and took a deep breath. He felt the air expand his lungs, the scent of old books filling his nose. Beams of sunlight streamed in through the window and caught specks of dust floating in the air.
The world was still beautiful, and he wanted to be a part of it.
He wasn’t going to kill himself.
So he might as well pull himself together.
Brand dragged himself out of bed. He dressed, walked to the kitchen, started the fire, and made himself porridge for breakfast. He didn’t deserve breakfast, but he still had to eat. He needed his strength, if he was to go back.
Go back. Say sorry. Take them home.
His throat tightened.
If he went back, he’d have to explain why. And he didn’t know why.
It had been about vengeance—until it wasn’t. After Ailis, Brand made a list of every person who and ever wronged him. He sought out their daughters, he stole their treasures, he made them pay. But at some point, he’d run out of people. And once that anger left him, what remained was worse—that huge, gaping pit, that void, that thing that sucked all meaning from life. It was that nothingness he could not face. He still couldn’t.
Brand spooned some of his lumpy porridge into a bowl and sat down at the table. Vengeance had kept him going, so he’d picked up the only thing he had left: his grandfather’s cause. He swore to find the ones who had destroyed his family. Not because he really cared about his dead relatives—certainly not because he cared about justice—but because he had nothing else to live for.
But now it wasn’t enough. Brand swallowed a lump of porridge. He had glutted himself on anger and pain for so long, and now he had no taste for it. He was done. He had to move on.
He had to send the girls home. That was the last clear idea in his mind. But after that… honestly, he had no idea. He was driftless, aimless, with no purpose, no future. Maybe if Brand had done what his mother had wanted from the start… but then he had never found the girl, anyway. So many girls, he had cursed, but each time the spell had broken. He had felt it dissipate…
Brand stopped eating. He hadn’t felt it dissipate—not this last time.
Normally, when he broke the curse on a girl, he stood by her and checked to make sure it had lifted. But he hadn’t been anywhere near Seri or Nel or Gretchen. In theory, it shouldn’t matter. He had been close enough for it to work. It should have broken.
Unless one of the girls was Valdemarr’s heir.
But that was… that was so unlikely.
Brand took another scoop of porridge and tried to swallow it down.
It was unlikely. He’d been through a couple dozen girls, some promising ones, too, and none of them had turned out to be Valdemarr’s heir. Why should this group be different? Besides, Gretchen and Nel and Alonsa were just random girls he kidnapped. Two were from Houses—their families didn’t even have magic. Valdemarr’s heir would need to be from a Castle. They wouldn’t be able to hide in a House. The line was too powerful. You couldn’t disguise…
Brand dropped his spoon.
His disguise—the illusion he wore the first time he met Seri—she’d seen through it. Because she had magic—strong magic, too. And she was the last one—the last girl he had chosen specifically because she might be Valdemarr’s heir. He’d put the curse inside her, and she’d screamed. None of the other girls had screamed like that. At the time, he thought she was being overdramatic, but that wasn’t Seri.
And she’d been with him the longest. She’d been transforming before he left…
Brand pushed aside his breakfast.
It could not be Seri. It could not. It was just… it was impossible… ridiculous… But if she was Valdemarr’s heir… if the curse hadn’t lifted… and he’d left her alone for… how long?
Weeks? Almost a month?
Brand rolled out the rug. He had to get back. He had to make sure.