“Brand’s gone again?” Seri said.
She didn’t know why the news plucked at her heart, but it did. She had not seen Brand in the last two days. She had not wanted to see him. But somehow, knowing he’d left her still hurt.
“He won’t be gone long this time,” Nel said. “He’s taking Alonsa back home.”
“Yes. You got through to him, Seri. He’s finally doing the right thing.”
Seri did not know what to make of the news. Part of her didn’t believe it. Not that she’d accuse Nel of lying, she just… didn’t believe it. Brand had yelled at her, humiliated her, tried to blackmail her into sleeping with him, grabbed her, very nearly raped her in front of everyone… and now, suddenly, he had morals.
“Brand never liked Alonsa,” she said. “He’s probably just returning her, like he said he would.”
“It’s not just her. He’s taking back me and Gretchen—”
“And you,” Nel said.
Seri looked at her.
“He’s going to take you home,” Nel said.
Seri’s heart twisted. Going home. It had been so long since she thought of it, it almost hurt. Hope made her heart stretch, but her heart was such a broken, cracked thing, she was not sure it had the strength to do so.
“Brand said that?” Seri asked.
“Yes,” Nel said. “He told me his side of the story, and I don’t think he was lying. I think he really meant to break the curse before he left. It’s just that, with you, it didn’t work…”
And this brought up everything else that had been fermenting in her belly, all the bile and rage. It squeezed her throat and pressed against her head.
“Nel, I can’t marry him,” Seri said.
“I know, this wasn’t what you had in mind…”
“I can’t do it!”
“Is Brand so terrible as that?” Nel asked.
“Yes!” Seri cried.
Nel was quiet.
Seri felt a twinge of guilt. Nel’s fiancé was even worse than Brand—to the point where Brand looked like a saint. To sit and rage over him must seem the height of self-pity.
“It’s not that I hate him,” Seri said. “But… to be trapped with him… to bind my life to his… to swear, before God, that I will love and obey him and be loyal to him, when he’s… he’s the one who… who took me… who turned me into this!”
She broke down.
The whole time she was here, all she had wanted to do was escape. To make it home with her soul intact. This ordeal had been a test, and if she could only pass it, then she could go back home and have her dreams and life and future—everything she had put on hold. And to not have that—to have it, instead, ripped away from her—
“I just wanted to marry a good man,” Seri said. “He didn’t have to be young or handsome or rich. I just wanted someone who was kind. Dutiful. Who would treat me well and be faithful to me. Was that so much to ask?”
“No, of course not.” Pause. “But Brand is—”
“Brand is not that,” Seri said. “He will never be that.”
“I know he is not what you imagined.”
“He is not what I want. I don’t want him!”
And there it was. That one little word.
All those times, Brand had mocked her morals, had called her unfeeling, had pushed and pushed her to admit to some forbidden desire—well, congratulations. He’d broken her, and right now, Seri no longer cared about duty or goodness or what was best for anyone else beside her.
But what she wanted was not him.