“Not gardening?” Brand asked.
“Not at the moment,” Seri said.
She sat on a bench, near the tower wall, staring at the plants. The lilies were all dying, but the chrysanthemums were coming up in rich hues of red and gold and orange.
“Nel’s on the other side,” Seri said absently.
“Yes, I know.” Brand sat next to her “Trying to get the chickens to stay still long enough to sketch them. I was in her way, so I thought I’d come over here and bother you.”
“Hm,” Seri said absently.
Brand frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said.
Seri stared at her hands. “What will happen to Nel, when she has to go home and marry the man she hates?”
“She doesn’t have to marry him.”
“But she will. Because she thinks it will save her family. And I can’t fault her motives. But at the same time, I can’t stand the thought of her… of her giving herself to a man who will use her and hurt her and break her spirit. Who would choose that?”
“I can’t imagine,” Brand said dryly.
“And it’s not just her. Gretchen spoke about being a dragon as though it was something to be desired. She’d rather turn into a monster than suffer the pain she’s in now.”
“What pain?” Brand asked.
“I don’t know. She won’t say, but you have only to look at her to see it. She’s like… like a lamb to the slaughter. Like she’s waiting for someone to come along and snap her neck. And maybe someone will.”
Brand was silent.
“Gretchen’s to be married,” he said at last. “Would her husband treat her better?”
“I don’t know,” Seri said. “She never met the man. And I’m not sure that marriage will happen. Not now that… I know you haven’t touched her, but they don’t know that. If the man refuses to wed her….”
Seri wrapped her arms in. How terrible would it be, if this was the happy time in Gretchen’s life—this moment, when the bad things just stopped.
“What do you want me to do, Seri?” Brand asked.
“I don’t expect you to do anything, Brand. These are my worries, not yours.”
She thought he might leave or change the subject, but he didn’t. He sat with her, not looking at her, but at the garden, where the plants were coming up.
“Gretchen can’t stay here,” he said.
“But I don’t have to return her to home. I can bring her somewhere else—anywhere she wishes to go.”
“Where would she go?”
“Maybe she has family somewhere. Or maybe she can stay at an abbey or a church. There must be some place she’d be safe. It won’t be here, though.”
“I’ll talk to her about it,” Seri said.
“As for Nel—that’s tricky. She wants to go back. Maybe the man won’t want her anymore, if he thinks I’ve defiled her.”
“But if he does still want her—”
“Then she needs to find a way to say no,” Brand said. “In a way, it’s lucky I kidnapped her, because now she can learn.”
“By refusing your advances?” Seri asked.
“By watching your example.”
“Nel should learn to be obstinate and stubborn?”
“She should, yes. And you are the best at that, Seri. I mean it as the highest compliment.”
He smiled back. “Of course, you could learn from her, too.”
She shook her head. “Here we go.”
“To be a little more accommodating.”
“I accommodate you plenty.”
“Not in the way I prefer,” he said in a low voice.
That heat was radiating off him again. Seri could feel it. She knew he was staring at her. Normally, she’d feel sort of repulsed by the attention, but she wanted to understand it, so she turned and met his stare. There was something almost yearning in his eyes. Not angry. Not lustful. A bit sad. Almost sweet.
Seri looked down. “Thank you for talking with me.”
“If Gretchen doesn’t… if she doesn’t make you an offer… would you… would you treat her like you do me?” Seri looked at him. “Would you let her turn into a dragon?”
She saw a flicker of pain wrack his face, but he turned his head and held a hand to his temple, as though to hide it. As though ashamed. She wondered at the look, if it were a brief flash of empathy or the source of a deeper wound. Brand lowered his hand, his expression once more composed. But sadness lingered in his eyes.
“No, Seri,” he said quietly. “I won’t treat her like you. Gretchen will not turn into a dragon, I promise.”