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A basilisk.
Of course. How had she not realized it before?
In modern fairy tales, the beast was often likened to an enormous serpent, but in older folklore it was depicted as much less frightening—though no less deadly. Part snake, part chicken. A look from it could turn anyone to stone, which explained why its eyes had been cut out. And its venom was strong enough to …
To burn through castle walls, evidently.
“Oh,” she said. “So … thisisn’tthe mythical black arrow of Solvilde?”174
“No, though I suppose it could be called the mythical black arrow of Perchta. After she was taken from me, I have used what weapons of hers that were left behind in our hunts, when necessary. I doubt I could have captured the basilisk without it. What is strange, though, is that the basilisk was kept tranquilized for many decades. I cannot imagine who would ever dare to remove the arrow and risk the beast’s temper.”
“No,” said Serilda, shaking her head. “Who would be so careless?”
The Erlking held her gaze. She did not flinch as he took the arrow and slipped it back into his pocket. “No matter. The threat has been dealt with, and this arrow may yet come in handy again for a future hunt.”
Serilda swallowed. “The basilisk—did you have to kill it?”
“Would it bother you if we had?”
She hesitated, unsure how she felt. The creature was a menace, but it was also glorious. Odd though it was, its feathers were the prettiest she’d ever seen, and for such a small creature to be so feared was admirable, even aspirational.
“I don’t like unnecessary killing,” she finally said.
“No?” The Erlking grunted in surprise. “It is one of my favorite pastimes.” He raised his goblet to his mouth and took a sip. When he lowered the glass again, his expression was more scrutinizing. “Have I been unkind to you, miller’s daughter?”
She stilled. It took a long moment for her to believe he meant the question in truth. “You murdered five children from my village. Your ravens ate out their hearts. All because I wouldn’t give you what you wanted.”
His brows creased in confusion. “I murderedthem.Not you.”
“You cursed me!” she yelled, holding up her wrist to show the scar. “You plunged an arrow through my arm and trapped me here for all time.”
“Which is an improvement, is it not?”
She guffawed. “An improvement over what?”
“Yourlife. Here you are a queen. You live in a castle. With servants and attendants and … feasts.” He gestured to the food before them. “You cannot tell me you dined like this in Märchenfeld.”175
He said the name of her village as though it were overrun with rats and refuse. When in reality, despite some superstitions and mistrust from the townsfolk, Serilda always felt it to be quite a nice little village.
Which was entirely beside the point. Was he really so dense as to think any part of this life was preferable to the one he had stolen from her?
She leaned across the table. “My servants are tortured souls who would sooner follow Velos’s lantern than bring me a pair of slippers. My attendants are the very children you killed and continue to use as a threat against me. And no, I never did dine like this in Märchenfeld, because I was enjoying hearty turnip stew by a cozy fire beside my father, who youalso killed.”
He studied her a long moment, before leaning across the table and placing his cool palm over her hand. Serilda tensed. She had not realized during this tirade that she’d been gripping her dinner knife like a weapon.
“And yet,” said the king softly, “haveyoubeen treated poorly?”
Serilda did not know what to say. He seemed genuine, and she had the strange sensation that he was trying to please her. With this meal, the candlelight, this conversation. But to what ends? He never gave anything without wanting more in return. It felt like a trap, but one she could not see clearly, and therefore did not know how to avoid.
“Not at all,” she finally said, allowing her mood to brighten as she pulled her hand away. “I have been treated with utmost kindness and respect. Every day in these walls has been abundant with delights previously unknown to this simple mortal.”
It was a credit to her godparent that the Erlking nodded, as if pleased to hear this. She barely kept from rolling her eyes when he turned his attention to a strip of wild boar on his plate.
“I have sometimes wondered,” he said, dipping the meat into a dish of gravy, “if you have had cause to miss your paramour.”
Serilda stared at the dripping meat on the end of his knife. “Paramour?”