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Gild shut his eyes and tipped forward, pressing his forehead to hers.
Tensing, Serilda hastily did up the buttons. “I’m sorry,” she breathed. “I know we can’t … I know.”
If anyone saw them … if there was even the slightest rumor that Serilda was unfaithful, bringing the parentage of her child into question, the Erlking would see her punished for it.
Which almost certainly meant that he would punish the children.
She pressed her fingers against Gild’s chest one last time, before pulling away.
“I shouldn’t keep him waiting,” she whispered. “Much as I might wish to.”
Gild swallowed. She traced the action with her gaze, the struggle within his throat, as if he were biting back words that wanted to choke him.19
“I’ll walk you the rest of the way.”
“You don’t have to.”
He smiled—a little wistful, a little cheeky. “There are monsters in this castle, in case you hadn’t heard. If something happened to you, I would never forgive myself.”
“My protector,” she said teasingly.
But his expression darkened. “I can’t protect you when it really matters.”
Her chest tightened. “Gild—”
“I’m sorry,” he said hastily. “It won’t matter. Once we find our bodies. Once we break this curse.”
Serilda slipped a hand into his and squeezed his fingers tight. It was the one thing that gave either of them hope. The chance that they might find their bodies and snap the arrows in their wrists, breaking the curse that kept them tethered to this castle. That they might someday be free. “We will,” she said. “We will break this curse, Gild.”
His grip tightened briefly, but he was the first to pull away. “You should go,” he said. “Before anyone sees us and tells the king that you’ve been cavorting with the poltergeist.”
Chapter Three
The first thing Serilda thought when she had seen the king’s chambers, some weeks before, was that he was a man who knew how to meet expectations.
There was no bed, which led Serilda to believe the dark ones never slept, though she’d never outright asked. There was, however, an array of exquisite furniture. High-backed chairs and elegant sofas, all upholstered in the finest of fabrics and trimmed in black rope and tassels. Tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ebony wood. Thick fur rugs that were so large she shuddered to think what creature they might have come from.
A cabinet of wonders against one wall held a curated collection of animal skulls, unusual weaponry, marble sculptures, hand-painted pottery, leather-bound books, grotesquely leering masks. There were the usual antlers and horns and taxidermy hung above tapestries, but here he also kept small, dainty creatures. Warblers so lifelike they seemed like they could start singing at any moment. Sprightly foxes that could have scampered right off the wall.
The opposite wall was hung with a lavish collection of maps. Some appeared ancient, drawn onto animal skins and parchment. Some featured places in the world that Serilda had never heard of, that she wasn’t entirely sure were real, with flourishing depictions of the strangest of mythical beasts, their names written in neat penmanship and faint red lettering.Inkanyamba, a long serpent with a horselike head. The giantButo Ijo, a fanged green troll.21Gumiho, a nine-tailed fox. Serilda loved to study the creatures, loved to trail her fingers over the words and sound out the unfamiliar names on her tongue. She couldn’t help but wonder if they were real. If they lived somewhere far away. She’d seen enough creatures on the dark side of the veil, creatures she’d once thought were only in fairy tales, that she would believe just about anything.
All in all, the rooms were dark and a little gloomy, yes, but cozy in their own bizarre way. If there was a piece of wood, it was ornately carved and polished to a rich, glossy sheen. If there was a scrap of fabric, from the drapes to the cushions, it was black or deep jewel tones and of the very finest quality. If there was a candle, it was lit.
And there werelotsof candles, so that the room gave the impression of a god’s altar at a busy temple.
The thing that most held Serilda’s attention in the Erlking’s chambers was the tall floor clock that stood within an alcove near the hearth. It had a brass pendulum that was longer than Serilda was tall, and a face that tracked not only the time, but also the cycles of the moon and the yearly seasons. Four hands ticked slow and steady around the circle, each one carved from delicate bone. Serilda couldn’t help watching it when she was in the room.
In part, perhaps, because she, too, was counting the minutes until she could leave.
When she arrived on the evening before the summer solstice, a table had been set by the balcony, containing a carafe of burgundy wine, a block of cheese next to a loaf of dark bread, and a bowl overflowing with crimson cherries and glossy apricots. She had once assumed that the dark ones, especially those who partook in the wild hunt, must hunger constantly for the meat of their prey. She imagined them dancing around great slabs roasted over fiery pits, flames hissing with the fat that dripped from the bones, crisp char edged along the haunches of wild boar and stag. And therewasplenty of meat eaten in the castle, but its occupants had more refined tastes as well, and fresh fruit was in constant demand. Not unlike at home, when there was such a rush of delight when the orchards and22fields grew colorful with plums, figs, and wild berries—such a luxury after a hard winter.
The Erlking stood at the window. In the distance, a waxing moon hung above the Rückgrat Mountains, its light shimmering across the black mirror surface of the lake.
Serilda claimed one of the upholstered seats at the table and helped herself to a cherry. The flesh burst in her mouth. Sweet and the tiniest bit sour. She didn’t know how a proper queen was supposed to dispose of the pit, so she spat it into her fingers and dropped it into an empty wineglass before helping herself to another.
And a third.