Seri stormed out, and Brand sat alone in his private room, feeling stunned. Not that he was surprised that Seri had refused him. Really, how else was this conversation going to end? Did he really think Seri was going to marry him? Seri, who took six months to take his arm? Seri, who refused to kiss him?
Mostly, he just didn’t know what to do. Brand sank further into his chair. He wanted another drink, but the thought of standing up exhausted him. Honestly, right now, the best thing for him to do was probably to go to sleep. Sleep and hope that when he woke up, the whole thing would be a dream. Brand went to the sofa and plopped down on it.
He woke to the sound of knocking. It was light out, morning. Brand lifted his head. It throbbed with pain. Rubbing his eye, he noticed Nel standing in the doorway of his private room.
“The door was open,” she said.
“Oh,” Brand said, or tried to say. It came out more like a grunt.
“It’s almost ten,” Nel said. “Cook is about to take breakfast away.”
“Tell her to wait,” Brand said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
He went to his room, changed his clothes, and washed his face. When all of that was done, he managed to look… terrible. He still looked terrible. Which was fine. He went down to the dining room and found that the food was still there. Nel was waiting for him. She looked older in her winter clothes. Her hair was plaited in two braids, one down the side of each ear.
“Have you seen Seri, this morning?” Brand asked.
“I brought her breakfast,” Nel said.
“Is she all right? Did she tell you what happened?”
“She didn’t tell me anything. She wouldn’t speak. She was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling—like Gretchen used to do.”
Brand’s intestines twisted. Seri… like Gretchen? Had he broken her spirit that much? Brand rubbed his forehead. The throbbing had gotten worse.
“Brand, what is going on?” Nel said. “Last time you were here, you and Seri were arguing. You grabbed her—”
“Oh, God, I did.” Brand put a hand over his eyes.
“She said you didn’t do anything to her afterwards. But then you disappeared. We were confused… and frightened.”
“I’m sorry,” he said in a whisper.
“I just want to understand,” Nel said.
Brand took a deep breath.
Bit by bit, the story came out. Nel sat patiently and listened, without comment or judgement. Much as Brand loved Seri, sometimes it was nice to talk to Nel and not end up in an argument. His feelings calmed, and he felt better… even though nothing had really been solved.
“What am I going to do?” Brand said. “It was hard enough when all I wanted was a kiss or a trinket… but to get her to marry me? How do I convince her of that?”
Nel was quiet for a long time.
“Maybe you aren’t the right person to convince her,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Most suitors talk to a girl’s father when they are ready to propose.”
Brand blinked. “You want me to ask her father’s permission?”
“I think it might have more weight coming from him,” Nel said. “And she misses her family.”
This last part made Brand wince, for, having no family of his own, he forgot what it was like to miss them. He looked at Nel.
“Do you miss your family, Nel?”
“I’ll take you back,” Brand said. “I’ll take everyone back. I’d meant to, you know.”
“I know,” she said. “But maybe you could delay that, for a few days more. I would feel bad leaving Seri in the state she’s in now. Besides, maybe I can talk to her. Now that I understand what’s going on, I can help her to see that things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
Brand stared at her. “You are an amazing woman, Nel, you know that?”
“I’m just a simple girl.”
“No, I think you are wise beyond your years.” Brand took a deep breath. “I think I’ll drop Alonsa off first. On the way back, I can visit Seri’s castle and… and speak with her father. If that goes well, I’ll bring her back home. After she’s had a few days to rest and recover, we can get married… if she agrees.” His stomach squished at the thought.
“Will you be safe at her castle?” Nel said.
“I should,” Brand said. “I have my own amulets and protection spells. And they’d be foolish to attack me. If I die, Seri won’t change back.”
A seed of doubt grew in his mind. He wondered, for a second, if Seri’s family hated him badly enough to call it a fair trade. If they would, in fact, sacrifice their daughter to see him dead. He put the thought aside. He was going to have to risk it. As his mother once said, he needed to be brave.