Chapter 44
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Brand was not late to dinner. Quite the contrary, he arrived early. Seri had gone down to the sitting room, where she saw him, sprawled over an armchair, not dressed for dinner, but waiting for her.

“Good, you’re here. I was hoping to talk to you. I…” He paused as his eyes caught her necklace. “You’re wearing the pendant?”

Seri nodded.

“I thought you hated it.”

“No. I like it. It’s lovely.”

“But you said—”

“The necklace is beautiful,” Seri said. “Thank you, Brand. I do like jewelry.”

He stared at her.

“Right… Um, okay…” He blinked and seemed to refocus. “The minstrel will play for us after dinner in my private room.”

“I see,” Seri said.

“I would like all of us to be there,” he said. “But I must take precautions. You must swear to me that you will not reveal to the minstrel that you are prisoners nor tell him any other information which could lead to my capture. I will use magic to enforce it. If you will not do not agree to my terms, you must remain in your room.”

“All right,” Seri said.

“So will you join us?” Brand asked.

“I would like to, yes.”

Brand blinked. “You’ll swear to keep silent?”

“Yes.”

He stared. “Are you feeling all right, Seri?”

She had not been feeling all right for a long time.

“I would like to listen to music,” Seri replied. “And I’ve learned to choose my battles with you, Brand.”

“Oh,” he replied, still staring. “Well… that’s good.”

She’d have thought he’d be more pleased. He was breaking her. That was what he wanted, wasn’t it? And yet he frowned and looked away, as if troubled.

After dinner, they all settled in the library/ art studio. Brand brought out pillows and blankets to make it more cozy and inviting. After swearing them all to silence, Brand let the minstrel into the room. He was an older fellow, with silver hair. He reminded Seri of her grandfather a bit, and she smiled.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said, in a deep, calm voice. “My name is Jakob. I am a simple minstrel from the town of Geesten. It is my pleasure to be playing for you this evening.”

Gretchen sat in a chair, wrapped in blankets, staring with dark eyes. Jakob tuned his lute and began to hum. Seri took a seat on the sofa, and Nel sat beside her. Brand leaned against the wall, near one of his easels.

“Have you any song requests?” Minstrel Jakob asked.

“Please play whatever you like,” Brand said.

The minstrel began to play. The song was one Seri had heard long before and forgotten. It was beautiful. It strummed deep into her soul, the part of her where she was still human, still Seri. The music continued. A tragic song followed, then a silly song, a song of spring. The songs reminded Seri of all the people in the world who suffered and laughed and continued to live, no matter what the circumstances.

Jakob paused and asked for a drink. Brand brought him wine.

Gretchen finally stirred. “How did you learn so many songs?” she asked.

“I learn them one at a time,” he said. “I’m a slow learner, but once I learn a song, I never forget it.”

“Would you like to learn to play?” Brand asked Gretchen. “You can use my lute.”

Gretchen nodded.

Brand fetched the lute from his room. Gretchen sat down beside the minstrel. He taught her how to tune the instrument, how to hold her fingers to the string. Seri watched Gretchen closely. She had not smiled once while the minstrel played, and she was not smiling now. But her eyes did not seem as glassy as before. There was a spark of… something. Of life.

Seri let out a breath of relief. She looked to Brand to tell him, to thank him for bringing the minstrel… but Brand was gone.

Nel was gone, too.

She must have asked to talk to him.

Seri’s mouth went dry, and her palms began to sweat. She tried to look back to Gretchen and the minstrel, but her thoughts could no longer settle on them. Where had Brand taken Nel? To his private room, most likely. Some place they wouldn’t be interrupted. Seri twisted her fingers. What would he say? He wouldn’t be mad, would he? Not at Nel, surely.

Footsteps sounded in the hall. Seri’s stomach clenched.

Brand and Nel re-entered the room. They had not been gone long—the minstrel had not even finished teaching Gretchen one short song. Brand’s walk was casual and his face quite calm, but he was radiating heat. Whatever hope Seri had for the conversation going well evaporated. Nel’s shoulders were slumped. She threw Seri a helpless, apologetic glance.

“Seri,” Brand said quietly, “can I speak to you for a moment?”

“Now?” she asked.

“Now,” he said. “I realize it’s unusual, but if you’d meet me in my private room, I’d most appreciate it.”

Seri stood up and followed Brand own the hall.

She sat down at her usual chair, putting her hands on the chess table, bracing herself for his fury. Brand made a show of getting water. He didn’t bother with the wine.

“Nel and I had a conversation just now,” Brand said, handing her a cup.

“Yes, I know,” Seri said.

“I assume you also know what about, since you put her up to it.”

Seri took a sip of water. “Gretchen was talking about becoming a dragon. Nel was upset by the prospect. I suggested she talk to you.”

“And then you told her what to say.”

“I did not.”

“Oh, so she just came up with the idea of me settling down with some nice girl on her own?”

Seri sighed. “I told her you wanted to get married.”

“Why?”

“Because you do.”

“I do—” Brand began and came to an abrupt halt. A look of horror crossed his face.

“You do,” Seri said firmly. “You want a wife. Children. A family. You told me as much.”

“Yes, fine,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “One day, I might want a family. But why bring Nel into it? It’s not like you, Seri, to make someone else fight your battles.”

“My battles?”

“Nel is not the one in danger of turning into a dragon. At the end of three months, she’ll give me one of her paintings, and I’ll send her home. You are the one who stubbornly refuses to negotiate,” he added, with a tinge of frustration in his voice. “If your new strategy is to manipulate me—”

“Manipulate you?” Seri said, standing up. “You make me go through all the trouble of figuring out what you most want, and when I finally do—”

“You send Nel to tell me,” Brand finished. “Nel, with her wide blue eyes and flowers in her hair. Nel, innocently pleading with me to repent my evil ways and marry some nice girl. Tell me, Seri, did you expect me to propose to her on the spot or were you hoping I’d wait until after I sent you home?”

“I didn’t expect—” Seri began.

“Yes, you did. I remember that little conversation we had. How interested you were in my hypothetical proposal.” Brand clenched his jaw. “I’m not surprised you would try to use that against me. I am surprised that someone as self-righteous as you would use Nel to save your own skin.”

“I didn’t—” Seri began angrily but found her tongue glued to her mouth.

She was lying? Heat spread over her. Seri swallowed and sank into the chair.

“I was using her?”

Brand tilted his head. “You didn’t know?”

“No.” Seri shook her head. “I mean, yes, I did think that, if you and Nel were together, you might change me back. But…” Seri’s voice cracked. “…I didn’t mean to use anyone.”

And suddenly the tears were sliding down her cheeks, suddenly her chest was hitching into sobs. Seri covered her face with her hands and cried. How could she use Nel? Nel was her friend. Nel trusted her. And Seri had thrown her to Brand like a virgin sacrifice. She was a horrible person.

Brand’s footsteps thudded softly on the floor, approaching her. Even if she had not heard them, she would have known he were close. Always that heat, pressing into her. Seri huddled into herself, anticipating his hand on her back. It didn’t come. Brand hovered near her, but he did not touch her.

“Seri,” Brand said, “I don’t understand you. Why do you make this so hard on yourself? I’m not forcing you to steal. I’m not asking you to sleep with me. Just offer me something, and I’ll let you go.”

“I can’t,” she whispered.

“But you can ask Nel to ruin her life?”

“I thought she’d be happy with you.”

“You did?”

Seri put down her hands. “You’re nice to her. She brings out the best in you. If she married you, she wouldn’t be forced to wed that horrible man. You’d both be free to paint. I really did think it would work out.”

She angrily rubbed the tears from her eyes. It was so stupid to believe anything so simple could ever work out for her. That Brand would just marry Nel, and all her problems would be solved. But she did believe it. Even now, a part of her refused to give up. It hurt to hope, yet she couldn’t stop.

Brand sat down the chair beside her. She saw him move out of the corner of her eye. She heard him breathe and felt the warmth of his body nearby. But Seri couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t face him. She was too humiliated.

“You thought we’d be happy?” Brand said.

Seri nodded.

“You know, I’m actually flattered you would match me with Nel. She is a pure soul, and better than I deserve. But, Seri, I don’t love her.”

“You like her, though.”

“Oh, I adore her. Nel is sweet and kind and talented. But I don’t feel…” He sighed. “I don’t feel… that way. I wish I did.”

“Maybe with time—” Seri began.

“No,” Brand cut her off.

Though soft, there was a finality to his voice. Seri didn’t try to contradict him. She didn’t want to think about why he was so sure. But she felt the pendant hang around her neck like a lead weight. She felt the intensity of his gaze upon her face.

Seri swallowed. “Why is this feeling so important to you?”

Brand looked to the side. “Have you ever been in love, Seri?”

“No,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“Love is an action.”

“It’s also an emotion.”

“But the action is more important.”

“I beg to differ,” he said.

“If you practice the action, the feeling will follow.”

“Are you saying I’m out of practice?” Brand asked, in a sarcastic tone. “Perhaps, you are right. If I were to practice on Nel, if I were to bring her to my room and kiss her and hold her tight—”

“That is not what I meant,” Seri said.

“—then maybe I would fall so desperately in love with her that I would give up on my revenge, propose to her, and become a proper husband, just like you want.”

“You always twist my words,” Seri said angrily. “What I had meant was—”

“I know what you meant,” Brand said. “You were speaking of charity. Of giving food to those who are hungry, of comforting those who are afraid and blessing those who curse you. That sort of thing. It is very noble sentiment, Seri, but it is not the kind of love I desire. Certainly not from my wife.”

“Well, then what do you desire? What exactly are you looking for?”

“So many things,” he said. “But first and foremost, she’d have to love me back.”

“I see,” Seri said softly.

“And not,” he added, “out of some misguided sense of charity.”

“Nel could love you, given time,” Seri said.

“Maybe,” Brand said, looking away. “But even if she did fall in love with me, she wouldn’t marry me. She told me. She intends to go home. Once there, she’ll wed the man she was promised to.”

“What?” Seri started. “No, that can’t be right. Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know,” Brand said. “But it’s her decision.”

“It’s the wrong decision!” Seri said. “Marry someone she hates, some who calls her stupid, who might— No! No, I can’t believe she’d do that!”

Brand peered at her. “You really care about her, don’t you?”

“Of course, I do,” Seri said. “I care about Nel and Gretchen… and you. I just want everyone to be… to be…” She pulled her arms in. “Is it naïve of me to hope that this can end well? That no one need suffer or die or find themselves trapped in a miserable, abusive marriage?”

Brand was quiet.

“I think the minstrel is still here,” he said, after a minute. “We can listen to him sing a few more songs. I know it won’t solve anything, but it might make you feel better.”

“I suppose,” Seri said with a sigh.

She stood up. Brand offered her his arm.

She took it.

It wasn’t until saw the look of surprise on his face that she realized how radical a gesture it had been. Seri never touched him. She deliberately avoided him, as though he were diseased. As though she were punishing him. But the mere touch of his arm had not stung her, nor felt like giving into an impure impulse.

It felt normal.

Nice, even.

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