It had been a while since Seri had been inside Brand’s private room. In his absence, the door had shut and locked. Not that she’d had any desire to go inside. Her stomach clenched. She wanted as little to do with him as possible.
Brand had left the room in a messy state. The chess set was knocked over, and broken glass lay on the floor. The room reeked of stale alcohol. Brand apologized and went about tidying up.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked, throwing the glass shards away. “The brandy is gone, but there’s still wine, I think.”
“No, thank you,” Seri said, sitting down on a chair.
She couldn’t drink anything more than water. Wine made her sick, as did any food except for rare, bloody meat. Seri watched Brand pour a glass of wine for himself. His hands shook.
He looked awful. He was still wearing his cloak, which was now wet from melted snow. Brand was pale, which made the dark rings around his eyes stand out. It seemed he hadn’t been sleeping much. Good. Seri would take satisfaction in whatever misery had been doled out to him, for it was nothing compared to what she’d been through.
Brand had been gone for a month—right after abducting Alonsa and then grabbing her in the middle of dinner. He’d left and sent no word. For him to just pop back in like this—and then to say he broke the curse—and then to try to break it on her and be unable to do so—Seri felt like a kettle, starting to steam. Her insides, already hot, were boiling, the pressure building. She wanted to scream.
Seri put a hand across her stomach. “We’re here now, so tell me,” she said. “What is this curse you put in me? Why won’t it break?”
“The dragon curse is a magical enforcement,” Brand said, sitting down. “It was created by my great-grandfather, Alemannus of Castle Satyros. Him.”
He threw out an illusion. The man was older with white hair, but he had the same dark eyes as Brand.
“The curse was specifically tailored to… to unmarried women,” Brand said.
“To punish us?” Seri asked.
“No, to… to ensure the fulfillment of a magical vow.”
“Marriage.” Brand looked away.
Seri stood up. “You’ve broken the curse before! With Nel and Gretchen and—”
“Yes, but they didn’t choose it.”
“I didn’t choose it, either!”
“I know,” he said softly.
Seri was shaking. She felt sick and scared. The word marriage rattled around her head. It felt like… No. Like she couldn’t even consider it. Like a wall had risen and blocked off any kind of feeling. It was an exertion that rang through every fiber of her body.
But maybe she was jumping to conclusions. She hadn’t heard the whole story, yet. Taking several deep breaths, she forced herself back on the chair. Brand had been watching her, but as soon as she looked at him, he lowered his head.
“Alemannus’s curse,” Seri said, in what she hoped was a neutral voice. “Tell me.”
“Alemannus was a powerful sorcerer. He had ambitions to see his bloodline grow more powerful still. Alemannus fathered many sons. He hoped to find wives for them with strong magic, to increase the potency of the line. But when it came time to negotiate marriage, he found that many of the other castles were… reluctant.”
“Why?” Seri asked.
“Castle Satyros was considered… peculiar. It was a small castle, not as a rich as some, but it was strong with magic. Alemannus was powerful, but ruthless, too, and some said that his spells went against the laws of nature. There was also a tradition of… of not allowing the wives to leave the grounds of Castle Satyros. The women of my family were taught magic—brides included. They had to keep it a secret.”
“It sounds horrible,” Seri said bluntly.
“I’m sure it was,” Brand said.
“But how did the curse get him brides? Did Alemannus just go around cursing women, until—”
“No,” Brand said. “That wouldn’t have worked. The dragon curse requires the consent of both parties. Like the truth spell. Were Alemannus to curse women without their consent, their fathers could break it with a twist of their hand. Instead, Alemannus went from Castle to Castle, challenging the lords to duels. Those who lost the duel agreed to provide the winner with one of his daughters—whichever daughter the victor wished. One by one, the lords lost, and they pledged their daughters to Alemannus—and as an enforcement to their vow, they consented to the dragon curse.”
“An enforcement?” Seri said.
Brand nodded. “If the lord failed to produce the daughter on the day of the wedding, or if she refused to marry Alemannus’s son, the girl would turn into a dragon.”
“They were coerced into marriage,” Seri said. “The daughters were trapped, not by their agreement, but by their father’s.”
“But why am I… what does this have to do with me?”
“Because it’s a generational curse,” Brand explained. “The agreement was that any unmarried daughter or female descendant of the sorcerer’s bloodline could be claimed as a bride.”
“And you think I’m a descendant of one of these sorcerers?”
“Not just any sorcerer. Lord Valdemarr of Castle Elbe-Antona.”
Seri pulled in her arms. “That can’t be right.”
“All the other brides were claimed. But Valdemarr had no daughters. He had one son, a man named Willmarr. Willmarr fathered many daughters. By the time the girls came of age, Alemannus had died and my grandfather, Lord Arnaud, had taken over Castle Satyros. He decided to claim one of Willmarr’s daughters as a bride.”
“Your grandfather… is he the one whose face you sometimes wear when your angry?”
“Yes.” Brand sighed. “Aside from my mother, he’s the only family I knew. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.”
“So your grandfather wanted to marry my—?”
“No,” Brand said quickly. “No, my grandfather was already married. The bride was meant for my uncle Arnwolf. My grandfather and my uncle were supposed to visit Castle Elbe-Antonia together, so that they could select the most suitable girl. My grandfather, however, was detained, so my grandmother, Luise, rode with my uncle instead. But as soon as they arrived, Willmarr betrayed them. He murdered my uncle and my grandmother. At the same time, Willmarr’s allies attacked Castle Satyros and slaughtered those inside its walls.”
Seri swallowed. “But not you?”
“I wasn’t born yet,” Brand said. “My mother, Elsie, had just eloped with my father. My father was… I think he was the second son of a minor castle. Not the husband my grandfather intended for her. So Lord Arnaud went to find her and bring her back. That’s why he was detained. If she hadn’t run off, my grandfather would have been in Castle Elbe-Antonia and my mother would have been in Castle Satyros, and both would have perished in the slaughter. Willmarr would have succeeded in breaking my Castle. Unfortunately for him, we survived.”
Seri tried to wrap her head around all this. She failed. It was terrible, so terrible, it didn’t sound real. Of course, she’s heard of Castles waging war one another, of treachery and murder, but those things happened long ago, far away, to someone else.
“My family couldn’t have been involved in any this,” Seri said. “I don’t know anyone named Willmarr. I’ve never heard of Castle Elbe-Antonia.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Brand said. “Once Willmarr realized my grandfather was still alive, he and his family changed their names and went into hiding. My grandfather was livid. He tore apart their abandoned castle and vowed to destroy everyone of Elbe-Antonia bloodline. Some of my distant relatives survived, and they helped my grandfather wage his war of vengeance. I understand it was quite horrific. I didn’t see any of it. My grandfather hid my mother—who was pregnant with me at the time—in the Secret Tower of Abnoba. I was to be his secret weapon, if all else failed.”
Brand spoke these words flatly. Seri crossed her arms.
“You think my family isn’t who they say they are?” she said. “That they’ve been hiding all these years, lying to everyone—lying to me?”
Her stomach spasmed; she put a hand to it. Seri knew her family; she trusted her family. If she didn’t have them, what did she have?
“You’re wrong,” she said quietly. “This has to be a mistake.”
“Valdemarr’s heir was never claimed,” Brand said. “My uncle didn’t have the chance to awaken the dragon curse, so it remained, entangled in the bloodline of Elbe-Antona. Only Valdemarr’s heir could—”
“Even if I was Valdemarr’s heir, that doesn’t mean your grandfather was right!” Seri yelled. “Your grandfather wasn’t there, he didn’t see what happened! I know my family! They’re not murderers! They wouldn’t just murder a whole family and pretend it never happened. They—”
Seri pressed her hands into her face. Brand was wrong. He had to be wrong.
Her father didn’t even have magic. He played chess with her and grumbled whenever he lost. Her mother had been kind and patient. She’d taught Seri all the names of the flowers and showed her how to garden. They weren’t killers. Seri thought about her grandparents, her aunts, her uncles. They were just ordinary lords and ladies—they were farmers!—they hardly even involved themselves in politics. This wasn’t them!
Brand had not said a word. He had taken to fidgeting with one of the chess pieces, rolling it in his fingers. He looked very tired.
“You said you wanted revenge?” Seri said.
“Against the people who killed your family,” she said slowly. “And you think… it’s me. You want revenge against me?”
“No,” he said.
“Against my family then?”
“What are you going to do to me, Brand?” she asked.
“I’m not going to do anything. I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, in an anguished voice. “I was planning to… I was going to do what you wanted. To break the curse and send you home.”
“But you can’t?”
“In the case of Valdemarr’s heir,” Brand said, carefully, “the only way to break the curse is to… to fulfill the original agreement.”
“You mean,” Seri said quietly, “we have to get married.”
Something in her snapped.
“No,” she said.
Brand winced. “I know it’s not an ideal solution…”
“I am not marrying you!” Seri stood up. “After everything you’ve done to me, everything you put me through, do you think I would ever consent to marry you? To share your bed and bear your children and manage your household and stand by your side and smile as you brought ruin upon my head? I won’t do it!” She curled her scaly hands into fists. “Choose another bride.”
“I can’t,” he said. “The curse is already awakened in you.”
“Then find another way to break this curse!” Seri said. “Or kill me! Because I will not marry you! I swear, I will not do it!”