As one, they faced the other great mystery of this tucked-away room.
A sheer curtain hung from the rafters and chandeliers, draped across the large cage that had long ago caught Serilda’s eye, disguising whatever was inside.
She slid past Gild, rubbing her hands down the sides of her gown. The curtain pooled at her feet, undisturbed for ages, gathering clumps of dust in its folds. As she came nearer, the shape of the cage inside became more evident, and hope gathered in the pit of her stomach. It stood hip-high and was long enough to be a coffin. Large enough to hold what they were searching for.
This could be it. Their bodies, waiting to have their spirits returned. Their curses broken.
Inhaling, she searched the folds of the curtain for an opening. It took a moment, as plumes of dust were shaken into the air around them, but finally she found it.
She pulled the curtain aside.
Her eyes fell on a cage and she froze. Her lips parted in a startled gasp.
“What in Wyrdith’s name is that?”
Gild’s hand found her elbow. They both stared, speechless, into the cage. For it was indeed a cage—not a coffin, not a jeweled box meant to keep the mortal body of a cursed prince.
Just a cage, with bars crafted of shining gold and a floor that might have been a solid sheet of alabaster, though it was difficult to tell, given the thick ooze that had pooled in the bottom of the cage and dripped slowly over the sides, hardening over time like globs of candle wax.
And inside, nestled among that sludge, was a … chicken?
Serilda dared to take a step closer. It looked like a chicken, its fat body perched in one corner of the cage, wings folded back. Its feathers were a mix108of fiery orange and periwinkle blue, with a pure white comb atop its head, and for a chicken, it was rather lovely. But beneath the plump body there were no tail feathers, but rather the back end of a red-and-blue snake winding around the edges of the cage, longer than Serilda was tall.
More striking even than the serpentine tail was that the creature had no eyes. For a moment, Serilda thought it might have hollow sockets like the nachtkrapp, but as she stared, she realized that itshouldhave eyes, but someone, or something, had carved them out. The wounds had healed into uneven scars in its flesh.
“Another taxidermy?” Gild whispered.
Serilda considered. “Then why keep it in a cage?” She was whispering, too.
After another long moment, in which they both slowly relaxed from their surprise, Serilda began to feel silly. “Why are we whispering?”
“Not sure,” Gild whispered back. “I can’t tell if it’s dead or asleep. But look. What is that?” He pointed to the creature’s side, where something was sticking out from beneath its iridescent wing.
Serilda leaned closer. “An arrow?”
The sight reminded her of the rubinrot wyvern hung in the great hall, still struck through with the arrow that had supposedly killed it. A hint of pity tugged at Serilda’s gut. Biting her lower lip, she carefully reached between the bars of the cage. She could barely wriggle her hand through the gap.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” said Gild.
Serilda wasn’t sure at all. But the creature didn’t move—didn’t so much as flinch—when she grabbed hold of the arrow and tugged.
It was stuck.
“Maybe I should just leave it,” she said. And then she did the exact opposite. She pulled harder.
This time, the arrow tore out of the creature’s flesh.
She and Gild both gasped.109
“I’m sorry,” she breathed, as a rivulet of blood started to drip from the wound. “I’m so sorry!”
But the …thing…did not stir.
Slowly, Serilda relaxed. She held the arrow up to the light, seeing it tipped in shiny black. With a shrug, she tossed it to the floor.
“Why do you think it’s being kept in here?” asked Gild, “and not out with the menagerie?”