Whenever Brand bought gifts, he made a big show of laying them down on the table and presenting them like a merchant at his stall, proudly describing the magnificent treasures he’d procured.
“For you, Gretchen,” Brand said, “I have brought incenses from the far east, whose powerful scent can ward off the miasma of sickness. I also have some charming figurines to decorate your room.”
“Thank you,” Gretchen said, rather dully.
“For you, Nel, I have an array of new brushes, paint pigments, and canvases. These are all yours and you may take them home, once you are ready to leave.”
“Can I?” she said. “Oh, Brand, thank you.”
She kissed him innocently on the cheek.
“Seri,” he said, looking at her. “I know you requested dresses. I have ordered them.”
“Thank you,” she said. “May I speak to you in private, for a moment?”
He looked surprised. “Of course.”
They walked to Brand’s private room.
“Actually,” he said, “I did have another gift for you.”
“Oh?” Seri said. “I didn’t see it on the table.”
“No,” he replied, pulling a cloth from his pocket. “I didn’t want the other girls to see.”
“A handkerchief?” she asked, but she noticed the bulge of something hidden underneath. “More seeds?” she guessed.
Brand rolled his eyes. “I bought incense for Gretchen and paints for Nel.” He unfolded the cloth. “Did you really think I’d get you something as common as seeds?”
“You also promised me the dress—” Seri began but stopped.
Nestled in the cloth was a gold chain and ruby pendant. Seri blinked. Surprise flashed through her, swiftly followed by a confusion of other emotions: some that twisted and knotted in her stomach, some that caused her heart to flutter.
“What is this for?” she asked.
“I wanted to get it for you,” he said. “To thank you for, well, looking after everything. For taking care of the girls.”
“I know you didn’t do it for me. But I still appreciate it.”
That wasn’t what Seri was going to say. She was going to say she didn’t do anything but her rightful duty—and even then, she hadn’t done a great job. She shouldn’t be rewarded for that, and certainly not so lavishly.
And yet no matter how hard she tried to keep her thoughts in check, her heart twisted and even broke a bit. For him to see her actions and value them so highly…
“Try it on,” Brand said.
Seri stared at the necklace. It was a simple chain, but beautifully wrought. The pendant had a ruby in the center. Gold strands twisted around to hold it, like vines or perhaps like a bird’s nest. And the jewel was like a drop of blood. There was meaning in a gift such as this, far more meaning than simple appreciation. A part of her knew, but she couldn’t admit it. She felt warm, flushed, hot. She noticed Brand was staring at her intensely. She did not move.
After a while, Brand sighed and laid the necklace on the chess table.
“You don’t like it,” he said at last.
“I can’t accept it.”
“I must ask you a favor,” she blurted.
He tilted his head. “All right,” he said, in a low, concerned voice. “What is it?”
“It’s… it’s Gretchen.”
“Is she sick again?”
“No, not exactly. Not physically sick, but… sick in spirit, I think. She doesn’t talk much or seem to care about anything. If you ask her to do something, she’ll do it, but there is no emotion in the action.”
“I had noticed,” Brand said. “She was like that when I… I first brought her here.”
“Today she said she wanted to turn into a dragon.”
“She wanted to…?”
“She seems to think she’d be better off,” Seri said. “It’s like she has nothing to live for. We tried to cheer her up. Nel asked what she liked, and Gretchen said, she enjoyed music. And I thought…”
“You want me to hire a minstrel?” Brand asked.
Seri nodded. “You can sell my chain—”
“No,” he said. “I bought it for you.”
“Gretchen needs music.”
“And I will get it for her,” Brand said. “Does Gretchen have an instrument she prefers?”
“She seems to like your lute.”
Brand nodded. “I know where I can find someone. If I’m not back by 7:00, feel free to start dinner without me.”
“You’re going now?”
“Is there a better time?”
She felt touched. “Thank you for doing this.”
He smiled. “If you really want to thank me,” he said coyly, “you can try on the necklace I bought you.”
She didn’t mean to. It was an automatic gesture. But her first thought was of him putting it around her neck, like a collar on a dog, of him petting her and stroking her, as though he now owned her.
Brand’s face took on a dark hue.
“Or don’t,” he added bitterly. “Do whatever you like, Seri. It’s your necklace. But do me a favor and take it out of my room. If you won’t wear it, at least get it out of my sight.”