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To her annoyance, her stomach growled. Which was a strange sensation, as she was convinced that, without her physical body, she actually had no use for food. But she craved it all the same.
“These are some of my favorite foods,” she said in surprise.
“Yes. I requested them from the cooks.”
She shot him a simpering smile. “Tell me. What delicacies would you prefer? Puddings crafted from the blood of your victims? Cakes sprinkled with the milk teeth and finger bones of lost children?”
His eyes glinted. “Don’t be grotesque, my sweet. I only eat the teeth of the elderly, once they’ve gone a little rotten. They’re softer, not so difficult to chew.” He pinched his fingers together in imitation of chewing, and Serilda gaped. That was a joke. Right?
While he prepared their plates, Serilda let her gaze drift around the room, where it landed on the massive taxidermy bird on the wall above a long buffet. It was the hercinia, a magic creature with wings like a fiery sunset, that even in death continued to glow faintly in the dim room. The first time she had been brought to this castle, the Erlking made a point of showing her this prize that the hunt had captured in the Aschen Wood. He had also made a point of telling her how both her head and her father’s would soon decorate the wall to either side of the fabulous creature if she failed in her task of spinning straw into gold.
Remembering it, Serilda started to laugh.
The Erlking paused from placing a strip of veal on her plate. “What has amused you?”172
“You,” she said, “and how you once threatened to cut off my head, standing in this very room. And now you are cutting my meat for me. If one cannot find amusement in that, then they are hopeless.”
The Erlking peered at the hercinia. “It was really the moss maidens’ heads that I wanted then.”
Serilda grimaced. “I remember.”
He placed the plate in front of Serilda and took his seat. “Perhaps I shall have them still.”
She didn’t respond. She suspected he said it mostly to make her uncomfortable.
“Shouldn’t you be preparing for tonight’s hunt?” she asked, breaking apart a dark-crusted roll, releasing a burst of sweet-smelling steam.
“The hunt can wait. I am enjoying the company of my beloved.” He grinned, and in that look she searched for his usual smirk, his taunting laughter.
She looked for it, but it wasn’t there, only a memory of it where it ought to be.
“Charming,” she mused. “I had not known you for a romantic.”
“No? Then I have not been treating you as I ought to.” Setting down the knife, he peered at Serilda a long moment, then reached across the table and, with the affection of a man enchanted, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
The shiver that overtook Serilda’s body swept all the way to her feet.
As he pulled back, she felt herself frozen to the chair.
What was happening?
“All right,” she said, her voice hardening to ice. “Out with it. What is this truly about?”
He chuckled again. “Ever quick to question my motives.”
“Can you blame me?”
“Not at all. In fact, there is a small mystery I hoped you might help me solve.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a black-tipped arrow.
Serilda stilled, recognizing the weapon she had pulled out of the venomous173chickenlike creature. The one that had then nearly killed her and Gild, even from inside its cage.
The king set the arrow between them on the table. “This was found in a room on the second floor, amid a great deal of destruction. Curtains, furniture … everything but a particularly resistant golden cage was completely annihilated. Even some of the inner walls suffered damage. I’ve had carpenters working all month to try to reinforce them.” He cocked his head to one side. “You wouldn’t happen to know what caused that destruction, would you?”
Serilda hummed to herself, as if considering the question. “Well,” she said slowly, reaching forward and picking up the arrow as if to inspect it, “I have heard of these before. If it is what I think.” She held the arrow toward the candlelight. “Ah yes. What you have here is the mythical black arrow once carried by Solvilde, god of sky and sea. When its powers are called upon, the very air around it will spark with the energy of a thousand bolts of lightning, unleashing fire and chaos upon whatever it touches.” She clicked her tongue and set the arrow down again. “You dark ones really should be more careful with your treasures.”
A slow smile curled over the king’s mouth. “Actually,” he said lowly, “it was not lightning that caused the destruction, but rather the venom of a basilisk.”
The word made Serilda sit straighter.