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Turning away, she slipped out into the stairwell.
Serilda had memorized the route to the Erlking’s chambers, but she was nevertheless grateful for Manfred’s company as they made their way through the corridors, lit with torches and hung with eerie tapestries that depicted the most grotesque scenes of hunting hounds and ravaged prey. She was growing accustomed to the ominous, haunting shadows that filled the castle halls, but she doubted she would ever feel comfortable here. Not when any corner could reveal a dark one sneering at her or some otherworldly monster watching her with hungry eyes.
Soon she would be queen of this place, but she doubted even that would bring her much security. The ghouls and creatures that had been here long before her made it clear in their haughty expressions and snide remarks that they would sooner devour the skin from her bones than bow before a mortal queen.
She tried not to take it personally.
“Is everyone eager for the festivities to be over?” Serilda asked as she and Manfred wound their way through the labyrinthine halls.
Manfred responded in his usual monotone. “Not at all, my queen,” he said. Opposite to the dark ones’ indifference—perhaps, in part,becauseof it—the ghostly servants had adapted quite graciously to Serilda’s rise in station. Many had already begun to use royal titles when they addressed her—MajestyandQueenand occasionally evenYour Radiance.“My understanding is that many have seen the wedding preparations as an enjoyable distraction.”
“Distraction from what?”
He glanced sideways at her with his good eye, a subtle smirk making his10gray-speckled beard twitch. “Our lives,” he said dryly. Then, with a shrug, he added, “Or lack thereof.”
Serilda frowned. Though Manfred and many of the ghosts had been dead for centuries, it was obvious how their deaths remained open wounds. Literally, in many cases.
“Manfred,” she said slowly, “do you remember serving the former royal family? The ones who lived here before the dark ones came?”
“I remember little of life in the castle before. But I do recall feeling”—he considered his words a long moment, and appeared oddly wistful when he finally said—“proud. Of my work. Though what I had to be proud of, I could not say.”
Serilda offered him a soft smile, which quickly shuttered his expression back to stoicism. She was tempted to say more, to push him on this, to urge him to remember something, anything—but it was useless. All memories of the former royal family had been eradicated when the Erlking cursed the prince and his name, erasing the royal family from history.
She found, in trying to get to know the resident ghosts, that the closer someone had been to the royal family, the fewer memories they had of their lives before the massacre. A maid who scrubbed pots and pans in the scullery might remember her former life almost in its entirety, but someone who had regularly been in the presence of the king and queen, or prince and princess, would remember almost nothing.
No one else knew it, but their prince was still here among them. A forgotten prince.
These days, the people of Adalheid knew him as Vergoldetgeist. The Gilded Ghost.
Others called him poltergeist. Gold-spinner.
Serilda knew him simply as Gild. The boy who had gone along with her lies, spun straw into gold in order to save her life, again and again. Who had unwittingly crafted the golden chains that the Erlking planned to use to capture a god.
Even Gild’s own memories had been stolen from him. He could11remember nothing. Not of his life. Not of his death. Nothing from the time before he was a cursed boy, a poltergeist trapped in this horrid place. The Erlking had even erased his name from all of history—from the books to the gravestones. Gild had not known he was a prince until Serilda told him the truth of what had happened to him and his family. Him, cursed. The others, dead. Murdered, all in an act of vengeance against the prince who had killed Erlkönig’s great love—the huntress Perchta. To this day Gild acted skeptical whenever Serilda mentioned it.
But Serilda didn’t care about any of that. Not his name. Not his legacy.
She cared that Gild was the father of her unborn child.
She cared that once, in a fit of desperation, she had promised this unborn child to him, in return for his help spinning straw into gold.
She cared that she was a little bit in love with him.
Maybe—more than a little bit.
“I imagine you were very important,” she said as she and Manfred passed a series of parlors. “Higher ranking than a coachman, for sure. The king’s valet, perhaps. Or a royal adviser. That’s why you can’t remember much. But I am sure that you have every reason to be proud.”
Manfred remained quiet. She had told him, during their nightly walks, a little bit of the story of what had happened here. To the royal family. Tohimand all the people who had been unfortunate enough to be in this castle when the Erlking exacted his revenge. There was a time when she had told the story to Gild, believing it all to be a made-up fairy tale, but now she knew it was true. A gift from Wyrdith, her storytelling godparent, no doubt.
None of this castle’s tragic past came as much of a surprise to those who had been forced into servitude to the dark ones for hundreds of years. They knewsomethinghorrible had happened to them. Many had the wounds to prove it. Some had fleeting memories of life before. They wore clothes befitting various roles in the castle, from chambermaids to pages to fancy courtiers, though former status meant nothing to the dark ones.
It was no far stretch to assume they had been serving royalty when the12Erlking took over and murdered them all, even if they could not recall their monarchs’ faces or names or whether they had been respected and loved.
No one knew that Gild, the meddlesome poltergeist, was their forgotten prince. She dared not tell anyone the truth. She could not risk the Erlking finding out that she knew, and she couldn’t trust anyone to stay silent. Much as she liked many of these spirits, their souls belonged to the Erlking. He might allow them some freedoms, but ultimately, they obeyed him.
They had no choice.
It was the same with the children left sleeping in her chambers. The Erlking pretended they were a gift for her. Attendants for his queen. But they were also his spies. Or they could be, if she gave the Erlking any reason to spy on her.