The best lilies stood at the far eastern edge of the castle, near the abandoned church. The pond had flooded the church, warping the stones and causing the building to sink. In the morning sunlight, the water gleamed. Seri, with her garden shears and basket, sat along the edge of the pool, cutting flowers for her mother’s grave.
She was alone. She’d asked her father to come, but he was busy poring over lists of castle genealogies, trying to figure out where best to find himself a new bride. Seri’s grandmother, Gertrude, said her father ought to be looking for a husband for Seri—she was seventeen now, and it was high time she was married. But Seri was happy for her father to take his time. She hoped for a husband of quality. Not a man she loved—that was too much to ask for. But someone she respected and who would respect her. Someone she might grow to love.
Just not right now. Her little sister’s death had only just started to harden into a dull ache in her chest. Mina had died last summer, a tragic accident, and before that it was Seri’s mother, and before that, her younger brother, Ehren. Now it was only Seri left, and her father often looked at her with glazed, distant eyes, as if he expected her to die, too.
Still, life kept on. Seri did the rituals, hollow, though they were. She cut the lilies, arranged them in a bouquet. It was nearing the anniversary of her mother’s death, and Seri wanted the grave to look nice. She put the flowers in her basket, along with her garden shears. Seri had just stood up, when she felt a prickle at her neck like she was being watched.
She spun around.
A man stood behind her.
At first glance, he seemed like a harmless wandering minstrel. He carried a lute in one hand and had a rolled rug near his feet. He had the appearance of a man in his late forties or fifties, his black hair streaked with white, with wrinkles across his face. He was tall, but with a slightly slumped back and shabby clothes. When he smiled, Seri saw that he was missing a tooth. It was friendly sort of smile, but Seri’s guard was up, because this was not his true face. He was wearing an illusion.
“Good morning, Mistress.” The man doffed his hat. “Would the Lady of the Castle care for a song? I will gladly roll out this rug for you—” He pointed to the worn, if still beautiful Persian rug. “—and you may sit and hear my tune.”
“No, thank you,” Seri said stiffly. Her hand moved into the basket, clutching the garden shears.
Anyone with magic was not a mere minstrel, but a threat. Seri’s own uncle was a powerful sorcerer. Although Seri carried magic within her, she was not trained in the art. It was forbidden for women to learn magic.
This man, however, fairly pulsed with magic. Even disguised, his body moved too fluidly, too confidently. He was powerful. Who was he? How did he get over their wall? Small though it was, their castle was protected by spells. Most of all, why was this man in disguise? He meant mischief, that much Seri knew.
Her heart beating fast, Seri walked past him, quickly, trying to make it toward the castle keep. But the man set his rug down and followed her, holding out a lute.
“Please, Mistress, one song—”
“Go away!” she yelled.
And because he was matching her stride for stride and overtaking her, Seri broke into a run. She dropped her basket, lifted up her skirts, and sprinted.
There was a wretched twang of lute strings breaking. Seri turned to see them flying toward her. They caught at her ankles, wrapping them tight and twisting. Seri tripped and fell forward. Her basket fell beside her. Seri grabbed her shears.
The sorcerer dropped his broken lute and walked over to her.
“You saw through my disguise, didn’t you?” he said. “You must have magic.” He stroked his chin. “Strong magic.”
Seri wriggled around and cut the strings around her ankles. She stood up, holding out the shears like a dagger.
“My family comes from a line of powerful sorcerers,” she said.
“A line that is dying.”
“My father will tear you apart!”
“Your father has no magic. Besides he is not here. There is only you.”
Suddenly, more strings filled the air. They were clear colored, like glass, visible, but only barely. They coiled and writhed, so many and so alive. These magic, invisible strings shot at Seri, and wrapped her wrists, binding them. They wrapped her legs and waist, pulling her to the ground. She struggled and screamed, but she could not move.
The sorcerer regarded her. “Strong you may be, but unskilled, if you cannot break a simple binding. These great men never teach their daughters anything, do they?” He loomed over her. “Maybe for the best. You girls are not as innocent as you seem.”
Seri struggled. “Whatever you do to me here, I will be avenged. You may be sure of it.”
“What can I do here? There are so many protection spells in place. Even my binding breaks.”
It was true. Seri felt the strings fray and loosen. She wriggled free, but the sorcerer seemed unphased. With a quick tug of his fingers, he summoned the rug. It flew toward her and wriggled underneath her.
“We’re going to my tower,” he said.
The rug rolled Seri round and round until she was caught in its squeeze. She tried to scream, but her voice was muffled by the thick threads. Suddenly, the rug began to rise. They were soaring through the air, Seri realized, away from her home. She was being abducted.