Throwing herself at the girl, Serilda scooped Leyna into her arms and lifted her off the ground.
Leyna squeaked and laughed. “I brought you something else, too,” she said, as soon as Serilda had set her down. “A book of fairy tales that’s been very popular at Madam Professor’s library lately. Written by some famous Verenese scholar, I guess. Frieda says she can’t hardly keep it on the shelves. She’ll probably be mad when she finds out I took her last copy, but … I thought you would enjoy the stories.”
With tears in her eyes, Serilda peered into the basket. The small cakes were wrapped in a linen towel, and a finely crafted book was nestled in beside them. “Thank you,” she breathed. “To you and Frieda both, even if she didn’t know you were bringing it. I can’t tell you what it means to me … to see your face again. Have you been well? How is your mother?”
“Fine, fine,” said Leyna, glancing uncomfortably at the Erlking, then around at the court of dark ones and ghosts. “She and Frieda started courting officially a few weeks ago, at long last. But it’s been dull without you at the inn. We miss your stories.” She gulped. “I thought for sure, if the Erlking kept you, he’d have made you the court’s bard or something. And now you’re telling me you’ve gone and married the villain? I thought you planned to kill him!”
At this, the Erlking barked a rare laugh, and the rest of the court followed suit.68
“It’s a very long story,” said Serilda, squeezing Leyna’s shoulders. “My goodness. Mortals really do feel lovely, don’t they?”
Leyna frowned. “What do you mean?”
Serilda grinned, a moment’s joy at seeing her old friend eclipsing her horror. The first night she’d met Gild, he had been speechless when he touched her. He’d never touched a mortal before; he’d known only the eerie wrongness of the ghosts. He hadn’t imagined that a person could feel so soft, so warm.
After only a couple of months inside this castle, she understood now what he meant. Embracing Leyna was a bit like being wrapped in a soft-worn quilt on a winter’s night.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You should not be here, you foolish girl.”
“I know.” Leyna beamed impishly. “Mama will kill me when she finds out.”
And though she was joking, the words opened up that same hollow dread in Serilda’s gut.
Oh—she desperately hoped that Lorraine would have the opportunity to scold and rail and mete out as many repercussions as she could dream up for this blatant disregard for Adalheid’s most important rule.
Never cross that bridge. Never go into the castle.
“In that case,” said the Erlking, laying a hand on Serilda’s elbow, “we will do everything we can to make your visit worthwhile.”
He drew Serilda against him and lifted her hand to his mouth, kissing the base of her wrist, right beside the pale scar from his arrow.
She shivered. “Don’t be silly. She has to go back, before she’s missed.” She took the basket from Leyna. “Thank you for this thoughtful gift. Please send my regards to—”
“Don’t be rash, my love,” interrupted the Erlking, plucking the basket out of Serilda’s hand. “The child is our guest. She must stay and enjoy our hospitality.” His grin grew sharp. “I will hear of nothing else. Boy!”
Serilda did not know who he was summoning until Fricz stepped forward69and the king set the basket into his hands. “Take this to the queen’s chambers.”
Fricz instantly turned and trotted away, though his sour expression told Serilda he much rather would have stayed and seen what was to become of the courageous girl from Adalheid.
As soon as he had gone, the Erlking again took Leyna’s arm and paraded both her and Serilda across the courtyard. “Let us celebrate.”
Dark ones and monsters and ghosts followed them back toward the gardens. “What a lovely night you chose to visit us,” the Erlking went on. “My wife has told me little of her acquaintances in Adalheid. I had not realized there was someone so special left behind.”
Serilda’s jaw clenched. She could easily imagine how the Erlking might use Leyna against her. He thought he had already taken away everyone she loved. Her mother, her father, her beloved schoolchildren, all killed on the hunt. There was a reason she had never mentioned Leyna to him, or Leyna’s mother, or Frieda, the librarian.
“Are you trulymarried?” Leyna said in dismay. “To each other?”
Serilda smiled thinly, wishing she could explain everything.
“Truly,” answered the king. “How would you describe our romance, my sweet? Something like a fairy tale?”
“Oh yes,” said Serilda. “It’s been precisely like one of those fairy stories in which the children get their hearts eaten by monsters and the heroine is trapped inside a dismal castle until the end of her years.” She fluttered her lashes. “A fairy tale come true.”
Leyna’s brows pinched in confusion, but the king merely chuckled. “Those are my favorite tales, to be sure. Musicians!”
Serilda jumped, even though he hadn’t shouted loudly. Her nerves were humming, her insides roiling. Would he let Leyna go?
Or would he keep her here—to punish Serilda, or as one more threat against her if she did not live up to their bargain? She wanted to grab Leyna and shove her back toward the barbican gates. Tell her to run. Run as fast as she could and never come back.70