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But to do it would be to risk the Erlking’s wrath—against her. Against the children.
And so, feeling helpless, all she did was nod in appreciation as the ghost musicians struck up a waltz.
“Now we shall celebrate,” said the Erlking. Releasing Leyna’s arm, he flicked a wrist at the children who had followed. Hans immediately stepped forward. “Our guest requires a dancing partner.”
Hans gaped. “I don’t know how—”
Before he could finish, his body bent into a stiff bow, and then he was stepping forward and taking Leyna’s hands. Leyna, under no such spell, tried to back away, her wide-eyed gaze drawn to the gaping wound in Hans’s chest. But whether she was frightened or repulsed, she put up no resistance as Hans whisked her off around a large fountain, leading her as if he’d been taught by one of the great Verenese masters himself. It wasn’t long before Leyna’s surprised giggles floated above the trees.
With a snap of the king’s fingers, a gaggle of ghosts followed after them, waltzing in majestic unison. Puppets on strings. Smiling through their teeth, their open wounds leaving drops of blood scattered across the torchlit paths.
“Who is the child?” asked the Erlking. He maintained his air of tranquil curiosity, though Serilda could see the way he was scrutinizing Leyna. Trying to determine how attached she was to Serilda, and Serilda to her. Whether or not the girl could be useful to him.
“Just a girl I met in Adalheid. Her mother owns the local inn. I was ordered to stay there for a time. Byyou, if you recall.”
“I believe you mentioned that the innkeeper was accommodating.”
“She was.”
“The child must adore you, and I daresay, the feeling appears mutual.” His teeth glinted. “Would you like to keep her? She could be my wedding gift to you.”
She tried to hide her terror beneath a throaty scoff. “Gods alive, no. You have given me enough children. I’m beginning to feel more like a governess than a queen.”71
The king grinned, and she doubted very much that she had fooled him. “We should give her a tour of the grounds. Perhaps she would like to see the menagerie.”
Serilda suspected that Leyna would very much like to see the menagerie: the wild hunt’s collection of magical creatures. Leyna had been one of Serilda’s most attentive listeners during her stay in Adalheid, when she would spend hours spinning stories beside the fire at the Wild Swan. Over time, she had amassed a reputation, and the townsfolk began to gather nightly to hear her stories, but it was Leyna who was always seated right beside her. Chin cupped and eyes bright, eager to hear more. More about witches and trolls and punishments doled out to naughty little children. More about knights and fairy folk and castles among the stars. Justmore.
She had reminded Serilda a little of herself that way.
She started to shake her head—even considered pleading with the king to send Leyna back home. But she stopped herself. Her pleas would be in vain. He was toying with her, and to show distress would only please him more. She could not help feeling that this was a punishment for allowing herself to be kidnapped by the poltergeist and embarrassing the king on this most important occasion.
Besides. Leyna reallywouldenjoy seeing the creatures.
She did her best not to look alarmed. “What a thoughtful idea, my lord.”
Chapter Nine
Serilda had lost count of how many waltzes the children had endured. Fricz had returned some time ago, pouting to have missed the fun, even though his companions were clearly annoyed to be under the king’s control when usually they were allowed a fair bit of freedom as Serilda’s personal attendants. No one liked being ordered around, even if it was just being told to dance. Only Leyna seemed giddy and breathless as she was twirled around the gardens.
The musicians offered to play a song of her choosing, but they did not know any of the songs Leyna suggested—their knowledge of popular music being somewhat dated. Leyna finally assured them she was delighted with anything they cared to play.
A couple of hunters enchanted Leyna with a contest of knife throwing, which left Serilda practically gasping in terror for fear one of those daggers would plant itself into Leyna’s heart at any moment. But the demons behaved themselves, making merriment without maiming or killing anyone for once.
Platters of spiced buns and fruit-filled pastries were brought around. Glasses of wine were continuously filled. The dancing went on and on and on.
It seemed ages before Leyna was brought back before Serilda and the king, her elbows linked between Hans and Gerdrut.
“Goodness,” she said through a twinkling laugh. “We don’t throw parties73like this in Adalheid. Serilda—is the food safe to eat? I’ve been avoiding it, but I’m famished!”
Nearby, a silver-skinned man chuckled dryly. “The human child must think we live on poison and the blood of little girls.”
Beside him, a woman cackled. “She is not entirely wrong.”
Leyna shrank away. She must have forgotten that the dark ones were still the villains of too many warning tales to count. They were as ephemeral and pretty as they were vicious and frightening. They had mostly lingered in the background since her arrival, but now Serilda could see them creeping closer, their curiosity spurred on by the king’s interest. Or perhaps they merely scented new prey.
Serilda wished her mind would stop conjuring things like that. It was making it very difficult to maintain a semblance of calm.
“I meant no offense,” said Leyna, her mood deflating. “It’s only … Serilda once told a story of an enchanted castle that was all manners of wonderful, but if one were to eat even one morsel of food they would”—she hesitated, glancing at Serilda as if checking to see if she had the details correct. As if the place might actually have existed and not been merely a silly story made up to entertain—“turn into a bird,” she said. “And be forced to fetch seeds and nuts for the fairy queen until the day they died.”