Chapter 45
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“Was he mad?” Nel asked, at breakfast, the next morning.

Seri sighed. She’d had a long night of laying in bed and feeling her bones stretch. She tiredly stabbed at the sausages, moving them from the platter to her plate.

“He told me he wasn’t mad,” Nel said.

“He wasn’t,” Seri said. “Mostly.”

“Mostly?” Nel said miserably. “You were crying afterwards. I saw your face.”

“I wasn’t crying because of that.”

“Then why?”

Seri put her plate down. “Let’s have a walk in the garden.”

The sun had barely risen. The shadows were deep, and a mist had crept over the earth, giving the plants a haunted look. Nel shivered. Seri pulled her cape around her arms. Her skin was cold, but her insides burned, as usual.

“I said it wrong, didn’t I?” Nel said. “I’m so stupid. I can’t do anything right.”

“No, Nel,” Seri said. “It was my fault. I owe you an apology.”

“For what?” Nel said.

Seri struggled with how to phrase it.

“I’ve… I’ve had this notion that… well, Brand likes you. And I know that deep down, he wants a wife and family. I thought if he… if he fell in love with you… if he asked you to marry him, then maybe… maybe he’d do what was right. But it was very selfish of me. I shouldn’t have involved you.”

Nel blinked. “Me and Brand? But he doesn’t love me.”

“You knew?”

“It’s obvious. He sees me more as a sister. Or maybe as a fellow artist. We have that connection and are good friends, but he doesn’t want to marry me. He doesn’t have those kinds of feelings for me.”

“What feelings?” Seri said, in frustration. “I don’t understand what he wants.”

“Passion, I suppose,” Nel said.

“Passion?” Seri echoed. “You mean lust?”

“No. It’s different. Passion is like… well, with art. Some days it’s easy and fun and the most wonderful thing in the world, and some days it’s hard and frustrating and never goes how you want it to. But you can’t seem to stop, because having it makes everything more intense, more beautiful. It matters, somehow.”

“That sounds… terrifying,” Seri said.

“It is.”

“And exhausting. And unstable. And… who would want to live that way? Love shouldn’t be driven by passion, it should kind and gentle and honest and good. Love should want what’s best for the other person. Love is a choice you make every day, not a feeling that strikes you over the head and leaves just as quickly. Who can build a life on that?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Nel said.

Seri looked down. “I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be apologizing.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to apologize for. No harm’s been done.”

“It was still wrong. Do you forgive me?”

“Yes.” Nel hugged Seri. “You’re a good person. I’m glad we’re friends.”

Seri pulled away. “Nel. Can I ask you something? It might be inappropriate, but…”

“What is it?”

“Brand said you’d go back and marry the man you hated. Is that true?”

Nel looked down.

“Why?” Seri asked. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s simple,” Nel said. “I do loathe that man, but he will help my family. Brand will not. If I were to marry him, I could never go home. I do like Brand. But I don’t love him enough to give up everything I have. To give up my mother and father and sisters.”

Seri had not thought about it like that. She’d had some vague idea that Brand might be able to take care of Nel, and perhaps, he could. But he’d already kidnapped several girls and raided their family’s vaults. Were he to settle down with Nel at House Delmen, he’d bring all his enemies down upon their heads.

“Can I ask you something inappropriate?” Nel asked.

“Go ahead,” Seri said.

“Why won’t you make Brand an offer? I spoke to him, and it doesn’t seem like he’s asking for much. Why not give him what he wants and go home?”

Seri shook her head. “I wish I could do that, Nel, I really do. But I can’t bargain with him. He needs to free me on his own.”

“To show you that he cares about you?”

She laughed. “If only it were so easy.”

“I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand.”

“I don’t, either” Seri said. “I just have it in my head that this is the right thing to do, the only right thing to do. And if I fail at this, I will lose my soul… and probably his as well.”

“So… it’s for his sake?”

Seri sighed. “How do I explain this? When I first came here, I fought Brand on everything: dinner, dresses, where to sleep. I was convinced he was a monster, that everything he did was evil, and if I just did the opposite, I would be able to live rightly. But it wasn’t that simple. He’s not a monster; he has a soul. And if he has a soul, then isn’t it my duty to… to love him as my fellow man? To hope and pray for him to not continue on this evil path he’s laid out for himself.”

“That’s heavy burden.”

“Who else will hold him accountable?” Seri asked. “No one will even speak against him. And I don’t… I’m not saying that you’re wrong. In your eyes, he rescued you. I understand that. You bring out the best in him, Nel, in all of us. I admire you for that. I really wish I could be more like you. But I can’t. I’m not fitted that way. I have to judge what is right and try my best to do it, or else… or else, what is the purpose of living? I’ve compromised on so many things—but I can’t compromise on this. I will not bargain with him.”

“But it hurts you.”

“I know.”

“Aren’t you afraid he might—?”

“I’m constantly afraid, Nel. That’s why I tried to meddle. It was a shortcut. As if pushing him onto a better path could somehow force him to do the right thing. It was a foolish notion, to think that love could change him.”

“It’s not that foolish,” Nel said. “He just doesn’t love me.” Pause. “And even if he did, I’m not sure it would do any good. I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable asking someone to change for me. I either like who they are, or I don’t. I like Brand. I accept who he is, the good and the bad. He’s just Brand. He doesn’t have to be anything else.”

“Is that how I ought to be?” Seri asked.

“No. You ought to be Seri, who expects the world to be better than it is and works tirelessly to change it. I find the best in people, but you make them better. That’s probably why…”

She trailed off.

“Why what?” Seri asked.

Nel licked her lips. “Brand does care about you. You know that, right? I think he’ll let you go… eventually. But if he only ever does the right thing once, will it be worth it? All the pain and the fear and time spent away from home—to see him do one good deed?”

It was something to think about.

One good deed.

And Seri could not expect more, because she had not asked for more. She wanted to steer Brand away from kidnapping and vengeance and see him pursue things that were good. But, realistically, she could barely get him to do something easy. And she didn’t want to stay with him her whole life, always fighting and scared and frustrated by his stubbornness. She wanted to go home.

One good deed. Why bother?

Seri sighed. “It doesn’t matter if it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the only thing I’m sure of. And so I need to see it through. No matter the cost.”