There was a moment when all three girls and the minstrel were standing near the fireplace in Brand’s private room—for it was getting cold and his private room was the only place with a decent fireplace—and the minstrel was giving lute-playing lessons to Gretchen, and Seri and Nel were endeavoring to sing along. But since Gretchen was going at a pace that would put a snail to shame, Seri and Nel were having to hold their notes, so that their voices squeaked and warbled. Finally they could hold their notes no longer and broke down, gasping for breath and laughing.
It was in this moment, that Brand realized he was happy.
Not that he’d ever thought of himself as unhappy, not really. But the warmth that bubbled in his chest in this moment felt stronger and richer than the pleasures he typically knew. Brand offered the giggling girls water, and when he handed the goblet to Seri, the tips of her fingers bumped carelessly against his hand.
“Perhaps now Minstrel Jakob should grace us with one final song?” Seri suggested.
“As you wish, my lady. Any requests?”
“How about the Ballad of Tristan and Isolde?” Nel said.
The minstrel tuned his lute and began the slow song of tragic lovers. Seri sat near Brand, and in the semi-dark of the room, her eyes shone. She swayed to the music and smiled. And when the minstrel sang of undying love, she shut her eyes briefly and gave a happy little sigh. She was so beautiful, it warmed Brand to his belly, and he loved her.
He loved her.
Brand picked up his wine glass, which he’d set on the chess table, and took a sip. He wished…
He wished it came as more of a surprise.
He had suspected he’d loved her since… well, at least since he’d kidnapped Nel. Probably before that, but Nel had confirmed it. Nel was everything Brand ought to desire… sweet and artistic and pretty… yet try as he might, he couldn’t stop thinking about Seri. He couldn’t stop wanting her.
He’d tried to tell himself that wanting was all it was. Desire. Obsession. Lust. He’d tried to rouse himself with lurid daydreams, which always ended with Seri smiling at him and laying her head on her shoulder and whispering that she wouldn’t leave him.
So he loved her.
Fine. Brand took another sip of wine and laid the glass back on the chessboard.
Why not admit it, at least to himself? If he wanted to be soft and romantic and sentimental, that was his business. When the minstrel sang the tragic ballad, he felt it all the more. Tristan and Isolde had nothing on him, for at least they had each other, at least they knew they were loved.
He wanted to tell her.
He wanted to tell Seri that he loved her.
Not for any practical reason. Certainly not because he thought she’d say it back. Most likely, it was some combination of the wine and the music that made the idea so compelling. Not rational, not at all, but if he were rational, he wouldn’t have fallen for Seri in the first place. Why love someone who couldn’t love him back?
But screw it, if he were doomed to a tragic romance, he might as well enjoy it and wring all the anguish from it he could get.
The minstrel’s song ended, and he prepared to depart. Gretchen and Nel walked him to the door. Seri started to get to her feet, but Brand cleared his throat.
“Seri,” he said. “Do you think you might stay here a moment more?”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing much,” he said. “I just have something I wanted to tell you.
“If you intend to compliment my singing, I suggest that you do so elsewhere,” Seri said in a playful tone. “You know you can’t lie in here.”
He laughed—probably more than he should have—for he felt very tipsy, despite not having imbued more than two glasses of wine all night. It was the happiness that was getting to him, that warmth swelling in his chest, trying to break free.
“Your singing is—I quite enjoyed it,” he said. “But that’s not what I was going to say.” He took her hand into his own. “Seri…”
Her hand felt surprisingly hard. Not rough, not like chapped skin—not like skin at all. Brand looked down….
Seri yanked her hand away and hid it behind her back.
“It’s late,” she said.
“Seri, your hand…”
“And I’m tired,” she said loudly. “I think I’ll retire, if you don’t mind.”
“Good night, Brand.”
Seri turned and all but ran out of the room.
Brand was too dumbfounded to stop her. He was still processing what he saw. They looked, at first, like bumps across her skin, but they were not, for they were in too much a pattern, and they had a golden tinge.
Brand took a deep breath.
He knew that the grace period was over. It had been over for… almost three months now. Brand shut his eyes. Was it that long? This was bad, this was very bad. And a part of him knew, a part of him was aware that this was happening, but he hadn’t wanted to think about it. He hadn’t wanted to think of… of her leaving.
It tore out his insides whenever he thought of it.
But he had put this off for too long now.
He had to let her go.