Chapter 43
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Seri sat in her room, staring at the necklace, trying to shift through the kaleidoscope of emotions it had brought out in her.

It was not her first piece of jewelry. When she was ten, her father had given her a pretty jeweled pin. That was the only piece he bought her. He had meant to buy her other jewels to add to her dowry, but he’d never gotten around to it. Then, after her mother died, her father had given Seri her mother’s rings and necklace, saying that would have to do. Seri had hidden them away in her dresser. She had never worn them.

Seri traced a finger along the pendant.

Why had Brand given her this necklace? And why give it to her and not Nel? Nel was his favorite. Nel was lovely and happy, and she would have accepted the gift whole-heartedly. In her head, Seri could see the scene play out: Brand presenting the jewel (a sapphire pendant, in this case), Nel’s eyes lighting up, Brand putting it around her neck and bringing her up to a mirror for her to see, Nel kissing his cheek, as she had done before. That was how it should have been. It would have been perfect and innocent and sweet.

There was a knock at the door. Seri quickly shoved the necklace under a handkerchief.

“Come in.”

It was Nel. She was wearing her blue silk gown, the one she wore for dinners. She carried in her hand a little basket of flowers, mostly white roses and sprigs of baby’s breath.

“I was thinking about… about my talk with Brand. About what I should say. Can I practice it in front of you and get your advice?”

A wave of despair and guilt washed over Seri. It wasn’t going to work. Seri already knew it wasn’t going to work. Maybe if Brand had given the necklace to Nel… but he hadn’t.

Seri didn’t realize how much hope she’d put into Nel changing Brand’s mind, until it was ripped from her. Her whole body felt heavy, her chest pinched. A dull headache throbbed behind her eyes.

“Nel, you don’t need to do this,” Seri said tiredly.

“Yes, I do,” Nel said. “Because he needs to know that this is wrong, and it’s not just you who thinks it.”

She seemed so earnest, that Seri almost believed it.

“What are you going to say?” she asked softly.

Nel took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell him that I really like him, and I want him to have the best life he can and get married one day and have a family. And I don’t think that kidnapping girls and turning them into dragons is the best way of doing it. It is wrong, and it will make him enemies and it will be hard for the girls to like him. It would be better for him, if he stopped.” Nel paused. “Does that sound stupid?”

“No,” Seri said.

“Do you think he’ll be mad?”

Seri sighed. “Honestly, I can’t see how anyone could ever be mad at someone as good and sweet as you.”

And maybe that would be enough. Through sheer goodness, Nel could convince Brand to change his ways. It was a very faint hope, but it was all she had.

“So it’s good?” Nel asked.

“Yes,” Seri said.

Nel sighed in nervous relief. “All right. I can do this. Seri, can you help me with my hair? I want to put these flowers in them, so I’ll look extra nice. He’ll like that.”

“Of course,” Seri said.

Nel sat down in front of the dresser. She looked at the handkerchief.

“What’s this?” she asked, peering under it.

Seri’s stomach tightened. “Brand’s gift to me.”

“Oh,” Nel gasped, pulling the necklace from beneath the cloth. “It’s beautiful.”

“He shouldn’t have gotten it for me,” Seri said.

“But you deserve it. And it will look lovely with your red—”

“I’m not going to wear it,” Seri said.

“Why not?” Nel asked.

Seri twisted her fingers.

“Would you wear it?” Seri asked.

“Oh, no. He gave it to you.”

“But if he hadn’t. If this were your gift.”

“Why, yes, of course I would.” Nel sounded confused.

“Why?” Seri asked.

“To make him happy,” Nel said.

It seemed so simple when Nel said it. Just wear the gift he bought her and make him happy. What was wrong with that? Seri didn’t hate Brand, didn’t want him to be miserable. And yet wearing the necklace seemed like putting a snake around her neck. She felt resistant to the whole idea on some deep, instinctive level.

Seri picked up Nel’s basket of white flowers.

“You want me to put these in your hair?” Seri asked.

“Yes, please,” Nel said.

Seri wove the roses and baby’s breath into Nel’s hair as best she could. She was better at growing the flowers than decorating with them, and her best efforts came out messy, but Nel said she loved it. She looked like a fairy, so airy and lovely and innocent. She skipped out of the room, singing lightly to herself.

Seri dressed for dinner. She put on the red velvet dress that was starting to burst at the seams. Carefully hiding the scales that broke out over her body. Carefully brushing her hair and trying to ignore the large chunks that fell out. She was glad the mirror was covered. She felt hideous.

The necklace sat on the dresser table.

Anger flared in her. Why did he give it to her? It was like he was mocking her. Giving her beautiful things, as he made her ugly. Asking her to put a chain around her neck, as though she could not already feel the noose tightening. She wanted to throw the pendant at the wall and break it. She hated it! She hated him!

She grabbed it and squeezed it in her fist, with half a mind to hurl it into the mirror.

She stopped.

The coils of gold reminded her of her squiggle paintings she’d done, all the hours of work she’d put in to decorate one plain board. She wondered what pain and skill it had taken to create this piece. Did she want to destroy the craftsman’s work, because she was mad at Brand?

No. She didn’t want to destroy anything.

Seri put it down and took a deep breath.

Brand had not bought this to taunt her. She knew that much. He had wanted her to like it and was upset when she did not. And maybe that was all there was to it. Maybe she was reading in this gift all these meanings that weren’t there. Maybe if she wore the necklace, he’d be happy, and if he were happy…

…he might listen to Nel.

Seri put on the necklace. It didn’t feel like a snake around her neck, but it didn’t feel like nothing, either. She went to the mirror and lifted the edge of the sheet covering it, so that she could see herself, briefly, in the reflection. She did not look as bad as she felt. She was heavier and there were dark circles under her eyes. But she still looked human.

Still human.

Seri dropped the sheet and went downstairs.