It was snowing. A soft, gentle snow, but a clumping one. It forced Brand to stop, several times, to remove clumps of snow off the carpet. That added hours to his already long trip. And then, after that, he very nearly missed the village closest to the tower where he kept the girls, for he had never seen it in the winter, never seen the rooftops covered with snow.
The Tower of Lehe’s turrets were snow-covered, too, and the garden was fallow and white. Brand did not know what to make of the lack of plants. Yes, it was winter, but surely Seri would be able to coax something from the ground—if she were well. If she were not well—
The fear strummed up again, playing havoc with his feelings. Brand had almost convinced himself that Seri being Valdemarr’s heir—the one girl, out of everyone—was impossible. But a glance at the garden sent him into a panic.
He jumped off the carpet and burst through the door.
“Seri!” he called. “Nel! Gretchen!”
The girls emerged from the other rooms: Nel and Gretchen from the library, Alonsa from the kitchen. They all seemed well and healthy, and when he waved his hand in front of them, he felt no traces of the curse inside them.
“Brand, you’re back,” Nel said. “Where did you go? Why did you leave?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I… I had some thinking to do…. Where’s Seri?”
“I think she’s in her room.”
“I’ve got to see her,” Brand said, racing up the stairs.
“Brand, wait,” Nel said.
He stopped, that one simple word freezing him to his core.
“You’ve been gone a long time,” Nel said. “Seri’s changed.”
“Changed?” His heart thudded. “How?”
“No,” Brand whispered. “No, I broke the curse before I left.”
“Not on her.”
“On everyone! It… I’ve got to see her!”
He dashed up the stairs. He yanked the door open with a bang.
Seri was sitting on a chair, with a blanket over her shoulders, watching the snow fall out the window. She turned to look at him, and Brand stopped dead in his tracks.
Golden scales crept up and down the side of her head, covering everything but her face. Her hair had fallen out, and her ears were starting to stretch. She had grown wider—not fat, but as though her bones had thickened—and her body’s shape was starting to distort. But what he noticed most of all—what he couldn’t stop staring at—were her eyes. Once so dark and lovely, they had dimmed to a reptile yellow, with the pupil narrowing to a slit, like the eyes of a cat.
“I see you’ve returned,” Seri said quietly.
Brand stood there. All month long, he’d tried to figure out what to say, from grand speeches to melodramatic promises of death. They all seemed so stupid now, so inadequate. He found he couldn’t speak at all.
Seri pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulder. “What brings you back, Brand?”
“I…” The word cracked in his throat. “I had to be sure the curse was broken.”
“Broken?” she said.
“I broke it before I left. At least I thought I did… Here, let me try.”
He raised his hand and now he could feel the curse rooted in her, steely and strong. He tried to break it… but it didn’t break. He tried again. And again. Yanking on the tendrils of magic, trying to rip it out like a weed.
Seri cried out in pain.
“Sorry,” Brand said, letting the magic go. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I was just…”
“I know,” she said. “It’s not breaking?”
“No,” he said.
“Then it’s too late?” Seri said. “I’m—”
“No!” Brand said. “You’re not stuck. You’re not fully a dragon yet. We can fix this. There’s a way to fix this. All we have to do is—”
“What?” she said.
Brand swallowed. “Seri, there’s something I need to explain.”