Seri sat in the library, trying to read her favorite botany book. The book was in Greek, which was difficult enough. But that wasn’t what distracted her today. Looking over her old notes, Seri noticed that Brand had offered his own translations, adding in words or sentences that she didn’t know. And when she turned the page, Seri saw that he had inked in the black-and-white illustration of the poppy, making the petals a vibrant red.
Seri stared at the page. What was she supposed to make of Brand? Of the whole situation? The curse… she wanted to believe that he had made it up, that this was a ruse to trick her into marrying him. But she knew he wasn’t lying. Brand had made it a point to tell her in the private room, where the truth spell was still in effect. Besides, he… he didn’t really lie. That was one thing she liked about him.
He had his good points.
But marriage was…
Marrying him was…
Seri closed the book.
She couldn’t even read without his presence looming over her, and she was in too much pain to garden. She sat where she was and stared at the cover. She stared for a long time.
Footsteps skittered over the floor. Suddenly, the door flew open.
“Seri!” Nel called, in an excited rush. “Brand’s back.”
Seri’s heart jolted. “He’s back?”
“And the gate is open,” Nel said.
“There’s a gate?” Seri said.
“And a carriage. And horses. You have to see them, Seri!”
Seri put on her veil and cloak. She stepped outside, to the spot near the rose garden, where Nel and Gretchen had gathered.
Ordinarily, the tower was surrounded by a thick rock wall. For the whole time Seri had lived here, she had never seen the slightest gap in the barrier. Brand flew over the wall; Seri assumed that was the only way in or out.
Apparently not. A massive section of the wall had simply fallen over, like a drawbridge, the stones sinking into the ground to create a short road. On the other side of that wall/road, stood Brand in front of a large, covered carriage, driven by a team of horses.
“Hello,” Brand said. “Are you ready to leave?”
“In a carriage?” Seri asked.
“It’s rather cold for flying.”
“Can we pet the horses?” Nel asked.
With a squeal of delight, Nel ran through the gate, right up to the horses. They snorted, and their breath came out foggy. Nel put her hand on the flank of the lead brown mare.
Gretchen walked out, too, tilting her head curiously. Seri followed. But as her boot hit the dirt road, she paused.
She was outside the tower. After so many months, she was outside. Her feet stood on new land. Large trees surrounded her. And though it didn’t make sense, the air smelled different out here. It seemed crisper, colder, wilder.
“Seri,” Brand said. “Would you like to see the horses?”
The wind blew, and Seri’s veil fluttered. She clamped it down.
“No,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to scare them.”
Brand’s smile faded.
“Why don’t you girls pack your things?” he said. “Then we’ll have a nice meal and be off.”
“Can I bring the lute?” Gretchen asked.
“Yes, Gretchen, it’s yours. Any gifts I bought for you are yours to keep. Any dresses, any jewelry,” he added, with a glance at Seri. “They belong to you.’
Seri thought about the necklace he gave her. She had put it away in the bottom of her drawer. She wondered if she should pack it—and then, wondered if packing was necessary. Was she really going home? Could she really go home?
Not like this… not in her dragon form. It was not just the tower that had trapped her. The curse had trapped her, too, and it ran deeper than a mere wall.
Still, she packed the necklace. She didn’t know why. It just seemed like she should. She put it in the bottom of her trunk, where she didn’t have to look at it, or think what it meant.
They took off in the late afternoon. Brand made arrangements for them to stay the night at an inn. He took Nel and Gretchen into the public dining room for supper, but Seri stayed in her room and kept to herself. They left early the next morning.
“Where will we be going?” Nel asked.
“Today, we will be going to Marian Abbey,” Brand said.
“Where my aunt lives?” Gretchen said.
“Yes,” Brand said. “I thought it would be better for you to stay with her for a little while. I did have a chance to speak to her, and she said she’d be happy to have you.”
“Marian Abbey is only a half day’s ride from my home,” Seri said. “Will we be going there next?”
A twitch ran through Brand’s expression. “One thing at a time.”
Seri’s chest tightened. “You are taking me home, aren’t you?”
“I’ll take you wherever you want to go,” he said. “But first I have a… surprise… waiting for you at the abbey.”
“A surprise?” she said.
“A good one,” he added quickly.
Any other time, she’d have loved to visit a grand, old church. But churches brought to mind weddings, and Seri couldn’t help but feel suspicious. Was that the surprise Brand had in store for her? A wedding? She hadn’t agreed to marry him. Seri curled her hands into fists and noticed the tips of her blackened nails had pierced the fabric of her gloves.
The carriage passed a small village and a few farms, and then began to a climb up a large hill. The abbey sat on top of the hill, and Seri, looking out her carriage window, smiled to see it. They passed through the cathedral wall, which was filled with blessings—an interesting form of magical protection. Marian Abbey contained a church, a monastery, and a convent. Gretchen’s aunt lived there, as a nun.
Gretchen’s aunt stood outside, waiting for them. Seri didn’t recognize her, but Gretchen did and gave a cry of delight. As soon as the carriage stopped, Gretchen leapt out of the carriage and ran to her aunt—the first time, Seri had ever seen her run. Her aunt hugged her, and Gretchen laughed. Seri smiled.
Brand said, “The abbey has a few rooms set aside for guests and visitors. They’re modest, but they’re clean.”
“Are we staying the night?” Seri asked.
“Yes,” Brand said.
It was barely noon. If they wanted to, they could keep going and be home before nightfall. But Seri didn’t mind staying at the abbey a bit longer. She could say goodbye to Gretchen and explore the church. There was also the matter of Brand’s surprise, whatever that was.
Brand went to check on the rooms, while Seri walked around the stone walls. She noticed a little graveyard and read the headstones. One bore the name of Marlis—her mother’s name. It was not her mother’s grave, obviously—that was back at Seri’s Castle—but it reminded Seri that it had been over half a year since she’d last visited her mother.
“Seri,” Brand said.
“Yes?” she said, looking over her shoulder
“Your surprise is in the chapel. Why don’t you go in and see? I’ll be waiting outside.”
“You’re not coming inside?” Seri asked.
Brand shook his head.
That was odd. Brand was usually so theatrical about presenting gifts. Brand escorted Seri to the chapel door—and here, he abruptly stopped. Seri didn’t know what to think, so she peeked inside. She saw a woman in the pews. The woman stood.
Seri knew her voice.
“Grandma,” she said.
And suddenly the space between them seemed like no space at all. Seri ran up to her grandma and hugged her and sobbed.
“Oh, my Seri, my poor, sweet granddaughter, what has he done to you?”
Such words just made Seri cry harder, until the tears soaked her gauzy veil. She sniffed and tried to move her hand under her veil, to wipe her eyes. But her grandma lifted her veil and looked upon her face. Her grandma’s face crumpled.
“Oh, Seri,” she said, in a voice of pity.
Seri hid her face in her hands.
Her grandma sat down with her in the pew, and for several minutes, Seri just laid on her grandma’s lap and cried. Her grandma stroked her head, and Seri felt like a little kid again, safe and loved. Her grandma was here now. Everything was going to be all right.
“Seri, listen, we must talk,” her grandmother said, after a while. “Dry your eyes, child. There, there.”
She gave Seri a handkerchief. Seri sat up, wiped her eyes, and sniffed a couple times. When her breathing returned to normal, her grandmother patted her on the hand.
“Seri, my granddaughter, I know this is tough, but I must ask you. The young man who abducted you—do you know his name?”
“Do you know who he is?”
“Brandeis Louis Arnwolf of the Secret Tower of Abnoba,” she said. “A secret descendent of Castle Satyros, who’s line was slaughtered.” Seri’s stomach twisted at this.
“So he did tell you.” Her grandmother sighed. “He talks to you?”
Seri tilted her head. “Yes.”
“Do you know what he wants?”
After spending so many months asking herself that question, Seri found it unexpectedly funny. She burst into hysterical giggles.
“What he wants?” she wheezed. “Where to begin?”
Her grandmother was sober. “Seri, this is important. Why does he want to marry you?”
“Why?” she said, dumfounded.
“Has he asked you for anything in exchange? A life-binding, perhaps.”
“What’s a life-binding?”
“It means that if he dies, you die as well.”
This shocked her out of her giggles. “There are spells like that?”
“There are all sorts of nasty spells, my granddaughter. Spells I’d hoped you’d remain innocent of. Bindings are the worst. They are the ones you must choose—and because you have bound your will to them, they cannot be broken. Has he asked you to do any of these?”
“Truth spells,” Seri said. “He’s sworn me to secrecy once. But nothing so sinister.”
“Has he asked you to give him anything?”
“Yes,” Seri said.
“What was it?”
“Nothing specific,” she said. “Except… once, he… he asked me to kiss him…”
“A kiss?” her grandmother said, baffled. “Is that all?”
Seri nodded. “I think you have the wrong idea of him. It’s not power Brand’s after. He has plenty of that. What he wants is to live the life he desires, according to his whims and fancies.”
“A hedonist?” her grandma asked. “Yet he did not seem after his own pleasure when he stormed your castle and demanded an audience with your father.”
“He did that?” Seri asked, her stomach sinking.
“Yes. It was quite alarming.”
“What did my father say?”
Her grandma looked away. “He was absent.”
“Was he out looking for me?” Seri asked softly.
Her grandmother looked down.
Seri began to cry again, this time softer, yet somehow a far deeper hurt. Her father hadn’t searched for her. No one had searched for her. All this time, she’d put her hope in someone… anyone… coming to find her. But no one looked. No one cared.
“Seri, I know this is hard. Your father was not the man I hoped him to be. But perhaps it is a blessing. It will be easier for you to accept Brandeis as a husband.”
“What?” Seri said, looking up. “No, I’m not going to marry him.”
“There is no other way to break the spell.”
“There must be.”
“There is not. It is a binding.”
“Not my binding. I didn’t agree—”
“It’s a generational binding, Seri. One of the nastiest forms, because it forces the debt onto the sorcerer’s heirs. I would not have this happen to you, to anyone. But the curse has been awoken. You are bound to him, whether you like it or not.”
“Seri, if you do not marry him, you will become a weapon, his weapon, and he will use it against us. My life means little, but you have aunts and uncles, cousins.”
“He wants revenge, does he not?”
Seri said nothing.
“You are the only one holding him back. If he loves you or even cares for you—”
“Grandma, I can’t.”
“You can. You are a woman, and this is what women do.” Her grandma stroked her hand. “If you find him so unbearable, take comfort that this marriage may be brief. Brandeis has many enemies, and while he is powerful, he is inexperienced. You may soon find yourself a widow.”
Seri yanked her hands away. “That’s comfort?”
“You can remarry—”
“I don’t want Brand dead,” Seri said.
She moved away from her grandmother, horrified. The way her grandma had said it, casually, almost conspiratorially, as if she herself would be the one to orchestrate Brand’s death. Seri had known her grandmother would protect her… but to this extent?
“Brand said that our family slaughtered his family.”
“We did,” her grandmother said bluntly.
Seri’s throat tightened, and all moisture fled from her mouth.
“Why?” Seri asked.
“Lord Arnaud wanted my daughter,” her grandmother said. “I wouldn’t let him have her.”
“You…?” Seri said.
“I saw the man for what he was. I saw how he ruled his tower. I knew what he would do. He would steal my daughter and twist her to his will.”
“So, to prevent it, you killed… everyone? Women? Servants? Children?”
Her grandma shut her eyes. “I did not enjoy that part. But do not doubt me when I say this: Arnaud would have done the same. Sooner or later, that family would have moved on ours. I did what I needed to. I saved my daughters.”
“But not me.”
“I am cursed, because of your war! I didn’t even know about it. You did this. You put this on me. If you hadn’t killed his family—”
“Then you would never have been born,” her grandmother said. “Your mother had the strongest magic. She would have been chosen. The curse would have fallen on her.”
“But what you did in response… it was wrong. Murdering innocent people was wrong.”
“I have tried so hard to do what is good and right… and for what? Now I have to sacrifice my life, my future, to make up for your guilt, your mistakes. It is not fair! I won’t do it! I refuse to do it!”
“I don’t want to!” Seri cried. “I don’t want to marry him!”
Her grandma sighed.
“You will marry him, Serihilde,” she said. “I am sorry. But there is no other way. You can cry and scream, like a child throwing a fit, but sooner or later, you will see the truth. This is your duty. You must fulfill it.”