Seri could not stay in the chapel and cry forever. Nuns were coming in. They were setting up an altar, as if for a wedding—Seri’s wedding, perhaps. She had not said she would marry Brand, but no doubt her grandmother had already set it in motion. Gertrude did that sometimes—carry on as if a decision had been made, until the whole thing became so big, there was no escaping from it.
Seri fled from the chapel. She did not know where to go. Brand had said there were rooms for them, but she had not seen them yet, and they were not her room. Her room was now the turret in Brand’s tower. At least there, she could be herself. Now she didn’t know where to go.
She finally decided to head for the graveyard—but along the way, she saw Nel, crouching on the snow and sketching. Seri didn’t want to bother her, but Nel looked up and smiled and waved her over.
“What was your surprise?” Nel asked innocently, and Seri began to cry all over again.
They sat on the wall, and Seri told her about her grandmother and how she had killed Brand’s family and how her father hadn’t searched for her and how they were setting up an altar for her wedding—that even though she said no, they carried on like they expected her to marry Brand, they told her that she had to. Nel nodded sympathetically and rubbed her back.
“My wedding day was like that, too,” she said.
“Until Brand came and ‘rescued’ you,” Seri said, with some irony. “I don’t think anyone is going to show up on a carpet and take me away from this.”
“Even if they did, you’d only fight them.”
Seri laughed weakly, in agreement.
“Nel,” she asked, quietly, after a moment. “What’s going to happen to you? When you go home, will you still marry that man?”
“I don’t know,” Nel said, after a moment. “Maybe he left. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe I’ll go back and find he’s not as bad as I feared, or maybe he is that bad, but I’ll find a way to live with him. I can’t say, for sure, but it doesn’t seem as bleak now as it once was. There are possibilities now. There is hope.”
Seri thought about this.
In all honesty, she was never going to have much of a choice in who she would marry. Whatever man her father found for her, that would be her husband. Seri had hoped the man would gentle and loyal and steady and, if she were feeling particularly extravagant, close to her own age and fairly good-looking. Seri knew she had to temper her expectations, but at least she told herself that if the man she was presented with were particularly bad—if he were cruel and hateful and abusive—she could say no. She could say no, and no one could force her to marry him.
But now she didn’t have that option.
“Do you think Brand is a good man?” Seri asked Nel, after a moment.
“Very few men are completely good or bad,” Nel said. “Most have some mixture of good and bad inside them.”
“But which weighs stronger in him?”
“I’m not sure,” Nel said. “I think he’s still battling it out.”
“He did try to do the right thing,” Seri conceded. “And that does mean something. Because if you realize what you’re doing is wrong, and you start to do what is right, that’s repentance, isn’t it? And if he repents, I should forgive him, shouldn’t I?”
Seri crossed her arms. “But I can’t forgive him. I’m so angry at him, Nel. And the worst part is, I’m mad because he left. I was in pain, and he left me alone to suffer through it.”
“He came back.”
“He left, and he didn’t tell me. He didn’t even send a note.”
“No,” Nel said.
“And I’m supposed to forgive him? I’m supposed to love him? What if I can’t do it? What if I swear before God to love him and honor and obey him, and I just… can’t.”
“Seri, you already love him,” Nel said quietly. “You pray for him. You want him to have a better future, a better life. You’ve tried tirelessly to get him to do the right thing, and to some extent, you’ve succeeded. Right now, I think you’re the person who loves him the most in the world.”
Seri shut her eyes. “I didn’t want to have to be that person.”
“And this isn’t what he wants, either. Brand wants…. He wants a kind of love that I can’t give him.”
“You mean, passion?” Nel said.
“When loving someone can be the most frustrating, miserable thing… and you feel like you don’t get anywhere… but you do it anyway… because it’s the only thing that makes life worth living.” Nel looked at her. “You don’t think you can do that?”
“I can’t,” Seri said. “I’m not made that way, Nel. I’m not like him.”
Nel shook her head. “Then love him in whatever way you can, Seri,” she said. “No one could ask for more than that.”
Seri thought about it for a moment more.
She left Nel to her sketching and wandered near the edge of the wall. As Seri strode, she saw Brand coming up the other way. He seemed to be caught in his own thoughts, for he was stomping and sighing and staring at the ground. He did not notice her until he was almost upon her.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello, Seri.”
“I wasn’t trying to intrude.”
“I know,” she said.
“I can leave, if you want.”
“No,” she said. “I’m glad I ran into you.”
She nodded. “I’ve decided… I will consent to be your wife.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, Seri felt lighter. She’d made her decision. She’d marry him and become human again.
Or would she? Her stomach tensed. Did Brand still want to marry her? During the course of the transformation, Seri had lost what looks she had. She never had any money or talent or… much of anything, really. And she was stained with the guilt of her family.
What if Brand no longer wanted her? What would she do then?
Brand shoved his hands in his pockets and took a long, shaky breath.
“Good,” he said, after a moment. “The wedding will take place tonight.”
“Tonight?” Seri asked, taken aback.
“As soon as we say the vows, you’ll start transforming back. Is there a reason to delay?”
“I suppose not,” she said.
She sat down on the wall. This all seemed to be happening so fast. A week ago, she hadn’t even known where Brand was, and now he’d returned… and she was preparing to pledge her life to him. Seri started to shake. She pulled her arms close to her body.
Brand looked at her, and after a moment’s hesitation, he took a step forward.
“We can wait, if you want.”
“There’s no point,” she said. “How…?” She looked at him. “How long will it take me to change back? To be fully human, again?”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “Transformations take time. It may be weeks, or even months. This is new for me, too.” He sat down near her. “When my mother taught me this curse, she didn’t think… she didn’t think it would go so far. The grace period was so that everything could be prepared for the wedding. The marriage was supposed to happen before the girl ever showed signs of transforming.”
“Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
“Obviously not,” he said, with a short, grim laugh. “I had been looking through the illusion I copied from my mother—the one that taught me the curse. From what I can tell, once the vows are said, the curse begins to reverse, turning you back into a human. And you will remain human, so long as you stay by my side.”
“Stay by your side?”
“Well, not literally. I don’t think you need to match my every step. But we should probably live in the same building. Maybe have dinners together… play chess at night…”
“Like at the tower?” Seri said. “Are we going back?”
“It would be easier. My protection spells are in place. But I can take you home, if you wish.”
“You mean to my old castle, where no one bothered to look for me?” Seri twisted her fingers. “I’d rather go back to the tower. At least, while I was there, I had no illusions of what that place was.”
“What it was?”
“A cage,” she said. “I was always living in a cage. I was always meant to live in a cage. And if I moved from one cage to the next, it would always be at the pleasure of my father or my husband… and I would never have a say in it.”
Brand looked gutted. “Seri, I don’t want to cage you. I never wanted you to feel like a prisoner, even when….” He stopped. “We can go wherever you like. We can travel the world, if—”
“It’s okay, Brand,” she said. “I just want to go somewhere safe and familiar and wait for the curse to end.”
Brand was quiet for a long time.
“Seri,” he said, “there is one more thing I should tell you. The curse… the curse doesn’t end with our marriage vows.”
She looked at him. “It doesn’t end?”
“It reverses,” he clarified. “You will change back into a human. And after that, so long as you remain beside me, the curse will stay dormant. But it won’t be gone entirely. A…a seed of it will remain.”
“So it will never end?” she asked.
“No, it will end,” he said firmly. “After…” He looked away. “After the marriage is consummated.”
She pulled her arms in closer.
“It’s not my curse,” he said. “I didn’t decide—”
“I know what happens in a marriage, Brand,” Seri said. “But I’m still part dragon, so maybe… maybe that part of marriage can… can wait….”
“Yes, obviously,” Brand said, in a rush, “I’m not going to… I wouldn’t….” He took a deep breath. “I have never forced you to sleep with me, Seri. Being married doesn’t change that. But,” he added, “you should be aware of it. Because if something happens to me….”
He didn’t finish. He didn’t need to. Seri understood that if he left her, the curse would start up again, and if he died, there would be no way of changing her back.
“So I shouldn’t wait too long,” Seri said.
“You can wait as long as you need to. I’m not an old man. I’m not going to keel over any time soon.”
He smiled at her. “I’m not trying to pressure you. I just want you to understand the situation.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“Do you still want to… Are you still willing to marry me tonight?”
She nodded. “I am.”