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“You are aware of the poltergeist’s tricks,” said Giselle. “I suspect yourqueenmay be able to move among the castle halls as he does.”
“I would mind your words,” said the king, fingers dancing across the stock of his crossbow, “or it might seem as though you mean to blame this childish act on my bride, who is nothing more than a hapless pawn in one of the poltergeist’s pranks.”
Giselle bowed her head. “I meant no offense, I assure you.”
The king grunted and gestured toward Manfred. “I will not allow the poltergeist’s games to delay us any longer.” He gestured toward the far wall, where a waxing moon had just risen into view in the starless sky. “Soon the veil will fall. Let us commence with the feast, with or without my bride.”
“Now, now, such haste,” rang out a new voice from the gardens.
Serilda blinked and spun around—but Gild was gone. She pulled back the curtain just enough to see the statue of the Erlking that stood in the castle garden, which Gild was now leaning against, arms folded and one foot propped up against the statue’s crossbow.
“Those certainly do not strike me as the words of a man who has just vowed eternal devotion.” Gild glanced around at the dark ones’ annoyed expressions. His pranks had irked more of the demons than just the Erlking over the centuries. “And here I thought you were in love.”
Though the Erlking had not moved from his draped position across his chair, his whole body had tensed. He and Gild studied each other, divided by a few rows of boxwoods and tables overflowing with enough food to feed all of Märchenfeld for the rest of the summer.
“You are not welcome here tonight,” said the Erlking. He cut a glance toward Giselle, an unspoken command passing between them.
Serilda leaned forward. She did not know when the group of hunters had arrived on the edges of the garden, but she saw them now, stealthily moving through the trees, an occasional flash of gold among them.
She recalled Fricz’s message. They had been searching for Gild before the ceremony, intending to tie him up with golden chains. They were ready for him now that he had finally revealed himself.58
Gild laughed. “As if I’ve ever been welcome.” He gestured toward the hunters in the shadows. “I see you back there. I won’t be caught in one of those traps again.”
With that, he dis appeared.
Only to blink back into existence perched on the high back of the Erlking’s throne.
But not perched particularly well. Losing his balance, Gild cried out and fell forward.
The Erlking made a move to dodge out of the way, but in the next moment, Gild tumbled right into his lap.
“Well, this is awkward—” started Gild, at the same moment the king let out an enraged roar. He grabbed Gild around the throat and stood, dragging Gild up to the tips of his toes. In the next moment, he had a dagger pressed against Gild’s stomach.
“What do you want, poltergeist?” said the king.
Gild grabbed the king’s hand, struggling against his hold, trying to free himself—
Then he went still.
And vanished.
Serilda released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“The ransom, obviously,” said Gild, reappearing on the Erlking’s throne, in a mockery of the king’s indifferent posture. “And also, some of that ale might be nice. You have plenty of it.” He crooked a finger toward a servant.
The servant cast a wide-eyed look at the Erlking, who gritted his teeth.
Gild sighed. “Fine. Just the ransom, then. As promised, I will release the bride in exchange for … Let’s see. WhatdoI want? I honestly haven’t given that part any thought.” His attention landed on one of the iron gates that led to the back gardens. “Ah. I will exchange the bride’s freedom for the release of the animals in the menagerie!”59
A loudkachunkechoed off the castle walls, and a crossbow bolt struck the back of the throne—right where Gild’s chest was a moment before.
Serilda gasped. It happened so fast, she hadn’t even seen the Erlking reach for his weapon. She didn’t know how Gild managed to dis appear in time.
“Well,” said Gild, poking his head out from behind the throne and glaring at the crossbow bolt buried in the tufted brocade, “let’s not overreact.”