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Agathe laughed. “The king is very protective of those chains, so I’m not sure I could have managed to sneak even a single strand without his notice. But”—her expression grew serious—“I don’t think I would have, even if I’d had the chance. You mentioned before it’s your fault those children are here. Well. It’smyfault the rest of us are here. I am to blame for the massacre that happened within these walls. I failed in my duty to protect the people of this castle. I let the dark ones through. I let them kill us all.”
Serilda shook her head. “No, Agathe. They are immortal. They have magic. It is not your fault—”
“Thank you, my queen, but I am not asking for comfort or absolution. I have lived with my failings for long enough. My point, I suppose, is that—while I may not remember the dynasty I once served—I do remember an unbreakable loyalty. A pride in serving one family, one kingdom. The Erlking took that away from me, and has kept me and so many others prisoner all these years.” Despite her dark words, a small smile touched her lips. “You, poltergeist … and now,you, my queen, seem to be the only ones who are able to … How do I say it? Fight against him. It gives me hope to think that someday, perhaps, I will be able to fight back, too. Then I will finally be able to atone for my failures.”
Serilda felt emboldened by her words. She was tempted to tell Agathe the truth about Gild, the so-called poltergeist. What would Agathe think if she knew that this mischievous boy was none other than the prince she had once been so loyal to?
But Serilda knew she couldn’t say anything. It could too easily make its way back to the king, and then he would know that Serilda had figured out the prince’s identity. They were already risking so much letting her help them. Serilda didn’t know what the Erlking would do if he knew she’d been working with the poltergeist to find their bodies.
But maybe it wouldn’t matter. Agathe had given them an incredible gift,165a way to free the children, to freeallthe ghosts … and ultimately, to free themselves.
Not knowing what else to say in response to the woman’s story, Serilda managed, “Thank you, Lady Agathe. You don’t know how much you’ve helped us tonight. Between protecting Anna from the bärgeist, and now this … you are a true gift. I promise, this will not be forgotten.”
Chapter Nineteen
One more meal with the Erlking.
That was it.
That was all.
She had only to survive one more evening bread with that insufferable, arrogant, wicked man. And when the meal was over, the wild hunt would depart beneath the Straw Moon, and she and Gild would be able to set free not only her five beloved attendants, but every single ghost in this castle.
Though Serilda knew better than to praise the day before the evening, she couldn’t help but feel they wereso close.
Gild had been sequestered in his tower for weeks, ever since Agathe had told them how to overcome the Erlking’s hold on these spirits, spinning strands of gold from the fur of the dahut kept in the menagerie, and the hair of the goats kept for milk and cheese, and green summer grass from the castle lawns, and any other fibers they could get ahold of. Serilda didn’t know if the spirits, once released, would take the gold ropes with them into Verloren, so they didn’t want to rely on having to reuse the same ropes over and over again. They needed enough for everyone. And they needed to be most secretive about it all. Even the children couldn’t know what they were doing, for fear their false allegiance to the Erlking would force them to confess the plan.
No—they would wait until the hunt was gone, and then they would move forward. The Straw Moon was rising and they were ready.
She had only to get through one more meal. Now that the pregnancy170had been announced, there was no longer any purpose in feigning intimacy behind closed doors, and so the Erlking had frequently requested her presence in the dining hall instead. Usually it was just the two of them and a handful of servants, but when they were seated at opposite ends of a massive table, Serilda could pretend she was alone.
Except, when she swept into the dining hall that night, she knew immediately that things were different. And in this castle, Serilda had come to associate anything different with a quietly brewing threat. Her husband was a man of habit. When things changed, it usually meant he was plotting something. And when he was plotting something, it was usually againsther.
She took in the dining hall, already on edge. The great table had been pushed to one side, and the Erlking’s high-backed mahogany chair was instead placed at a small round table set for two. Silver dishes and cutlery with pearl handles stood out against a dark velvet tablecloth puddled on the stone floor. A tall candle in a silver candlestick sat in the table’s center, surrounded by a wreath of lavender and lobelia. An assortment of platters overflowed with late-summer delicacies. Blackberries and tangy cheese drizzled with honey and pistachios. Roasted quail served with sweetened mustard. Tarts filled with apples and walnuts. Pears soaked in mead.
“My wife,” said the Erlking, setting down a goblet of crimson wine and standing to greet her.
Serilda’s eyebrows shot upward. This, too, was new. The Erlking never stood for anyone, least of all her.
“What is this?” she asked as he pulled out a chair for her.
“I’ve been distracted of late,” he said, “and have not been giving you enough attention. It would not do to neglect my duties to you and bring into question my great affection, given our very young romance. And, of course, your special condition.”
Serilda’s frown deepened. “What is this really?”
He laughed. “Were you always this suspicious?”
“Indeed not. But being cursed and locked up in a haunted castle has a way of changing one’s perspectives on the world.”171
His fingers drummed against the back of the chair. “Take a seat, love. I mean only to enjoy a fine meal with the mother of my child.”
The words made her shudder, but Serilda forced herself to cross the dining hall and accept the proffered seat. The Erlking filled a goblet of water from a crystal carafe and added a few juniper berries with a flourish. Serilda watched them sink to the bottom of the glass with mounting trepidation. Then the king prepared her plate, scooping berries and pears alongside slices of quail breast.