Chapter 65
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Brand did not enter the chapel, as per his agreement with Gertrude. Since the chapel was a sanctuary—one enforced by magic—he had no way to listen in on their conversation. Which, he had to admit, wasn’t a good habit, anyway. He probably shouldn’t spy on his future wife.

If she actually agreed to marry him. Brand’s stomach knotted, and he paced the outside the chapel. This was taking forever. He thought about distracting himself with art, like Nel was doing. Nel was wandering around the grounds with her sketch pad in hand, drawing whatever took her fancy. Brand didn’t have the mindset for that. He wiped his sweaty palms on his cloak.

Finally, the door opened. Gertrude came out.

“Well,” Brand said, walking up to her. “Did she—?”

Gertrude sighed. “Seri is stubborn.”

“She refused?” Brand’s heart dropped.

“Right now she is still upset—”

“Upset?” Brand yelled. “You were supposed to comfort her!”

“What comfort is there in the truth?” Gertrude snapped, facing him. “The truth can only reveal our path, and that path is not always pleasant. Seri knows her duty, and she will do it. But give her some time to mourn what she has lost.”

Brand crossed his arms. He felt sullen and angry, a hardness forming in his chest. He didn’t want Seri to marry him out of duty. It was what he had dreaded. To be chained to a woman who did not want him, who did not love him—it had always seemed the worst kind of trap.

But it was his own damn fault. He’d used the dragon curse, knowing full well what it could do. This was his punishment.

Gertrude squinted at him.

“How are you connected to Lord Arnaud? Are you his bastard son?”

“His grandson,” Brand said icily. “I am legitimate.”

“You look like him, when he was younger.”

Brand bristled.

“Don’t worry,” Gertrude said. “The resemblance only goes skin-deep. He was a cold, selfish man who cared only for his own power. You, I perceive, are of a different temperament.”

“I am.”

“You are still dangerous, though,” she said. “And you have made enemies.”

Brand had nothing to say to this. He began to walk away.

“Do you love my granddaughter?” Gertrude asked.

Brand froze.

Gertrude stepped beside him. “You must have a reason for wanting to marry her.”

“I… I don’t want her to be a dragon,” Brand replied.

“Is that all?” Gertrude said.

It was—and it wasn’t. It wasn’t just that Seri was turning into a dragon, it was that he had done this to her. He had hurt her, he had made her suffer—and he had to fix it.

But he had no intention of baring his inner heart to a woman who, by her own account, had set in motion the death of his family. Brand tried to walk away, but once again Gertrude followed, taking quick steps and matching him stride for stride.

“Once the curse is lifted, what do you intend to do?” Gertrude asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Will you resurrect your castle? Will you use my granddaughter to extend your bloodline?”

“That is not why I’m marrying her,” Brand said sharply. “I… I want Seri to be happy. I would have brought her home, if her father hadn’t declared her dead and went halfway around the world to find a new wife.”

“Magic is a rare commodity.”

“Is it?” Brand said carelessly. “I seem to find it, quite easily.”

“That’s what makes you so dangerous. You think your castle was the only one wiped out? There have been dozens of blood feuds. How many lives have been snuffed out, secrets lost, artifacts drained? Everyone wants magic and everyone fears those who have it.”

Brand looked away. “I have no desire to be a part of those games.”

“You think you are not? Kidnapping lord’s daughters from their very castles, stealing their treasures, flaunting your magic. And now you’re marrying my granddaughter—a descendant from Castle Elbe-Antona. Once they know who she is—”

“And why should they know?” Brand asked, heatedly. “Do you think I’m going to yell it from the rooftops? My grandfather may have dreamed of restoring his castle, but I am not him. I am not a vessel for fulfilling his desires. If my line dies with me, it dies with me.”

“But what if it does not die?” Gertrude said.

Brand flushed.

“Can you protect Seri? Can you protect her children?”

“She hasn’t agreed to marry me yet,” Brand said. “And even if she does… I don’t… I don’t know that she would choose to stay. I hurt her. And I am sorry for that, I am so, so sorry.” He sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “I just want to fix this mistake. I want her to be human, again.”

Gertrude nodded. “I think you are sincere. I think you care for my granddaughter and mean to provide for her. But you are in over your head.”

“I have been in over my head, since the moment I was born,” Brand muttered.

“That’s why you will need allies,” Gertrude said.

“Allies?” Brand echoed.

“If your enemies come for you, they will come for her. I am willing to help—”

“You?” Brand said. “You slaughtered my family.”

“And your grandfather killed my husband and sons,” Gertrude replied. “Blood has been spilled on both sides. Would you keep on spilling it? Or would you put an end to it?”

“If I wanted vengeance, I would have killed you,” Brand said.

“So you will accept my offer?”

“I don’t trust you,” Brand said.

“Nor I you,” Gertrude replied. “But I still mean to protect my granddaughter.”

Brand looked away. He wanted to say he could protect Seri himself—but he didn’t know if that was true. Besides, it probably wasn’t wise to reject help.

“I will think about your offer,” he said. “After the curse is lifted.”

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