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“I’ve heard you don’t have enough gold for that either,” she shot back, wishing he would stop dragging out this conversation. Wishing he would just leave.
“Perhaps not,” said the king, evidently unbothered. “We could always183just kill it. Mount its head … right there, perhaps.” He pointed to the stone mantel behind Serilda, but she did not turn to look. “But that would be a shame. There are beasts meant to be hung on walls, and there are beasts meant to be admired in full flesh and blood. I would not wish to kill the gryphon, and you’re right, I do not believe we have enough chains to subdue it.” He cocked his head to the side. “Perhaps I shall bring back a gift for you, my darling.”
“I pray you will not.”
“Come now. There must be some magical beast that would entice you. What mortal child hasn’t dreamed of riding a white unicorn through the southern meadows?”
“A unicorn! That sounds a rather tame goal compared with gryphons and bärgeists and tatzelwurms.”
He grinned. “So says one who has never tried to capture one. They are trickier beasts than you would expect.”
“Of course they are.” Serilda leaned forward conspiratorially. “They are drawn to innocent maidens and children, my lord, whereas you are constantly surrounded by murderous demons. Perhaps you keep the wrong company.”
“I shall take it under advisement. Though I wouldn’t want to make it too easy. There is no satisfaction in that.” He traced a fingernail along the edge of his goblet. “Innocent maidens and children, you say. What a novel idea.”
“You aren’t really going to hunt for a unicorn, are you?”
“Why not? It is a worthy prize.” His lips curled. “Those two attendants of yours. The little one and the”—he waved his hand languidly through the air—“the one that never holds still. You aren’t needing them tonight, are you?”
Serilda stilled. She wanted to believe he was teasing her, but she could never be sure.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said. “No one actually believes that unicorns are drawn to children. It’s a silly myth is all.”
“There is truth to be found in silly myths.”184
“Not this one. Unicorns are too clever for that. You’d be better off searching in the darkest parts of the forest, where the sun never falls. Unicorns do not like to compete with sunlight. They make their homes in glens with lots of …” She surveyed the offerings on the table. “Blackberry bushes. And stinging nettles. And an oak tree. They always have to be near an oak tree, because it is the only wood that can withstand them sharpening their horn. Everything else will wither and die, straight down to the roots.” She shrugged at him. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told. See? No children necessary.”
The Erlking stared at her a long moment, inscrutable.
Then he stood and—most disconcertingly—dropped to a knee beside Serilda and took her hand into his. “You are a prize,” he whispered, pressing his lips to her fingers.
Serilda pulled away, horrified.
All at once, her story of the tatzelwurm came back to her. It had been nothing but a ridiculous lie, and yet, that very night, the hunt found the beast precisely where she’d said it would be. Had she done it again?
“My lord—”
“Come,” he said, rising to his feet and downing the rest of his wine in a single gulp. “We mustn’t tarry. The moonlit hour has gold in the mouth.”
Serilda frowned. “You meanmorninghour. The saying goes … oh, never mind.”
He dragged her out of the keep and into the courtyard, which was bustling with activity, as it always was on the night of the hunt. But Serilda could tell as soon as she stepped outside that something was different.
It was not only hunters and hounds and horses being prepared. There were also dozens of carriages and wagons hitched to bahkauv, odd bull-like creatures. She saw the stable boy and nearly all the castle’s servants hurrying about, checking carriage wheels and greasing axles, others loading crates and cargo into the wagons.
“What’s going on?” said Serilda.
“I have made new accommodations for us,” said the Erlking. His grin185turned slippery as he took Serilda’s hand, tucked it into the crook of his elbow, and led her away from the keep. “No need to look so fretful.”
“I’m not fretful,” she said with a growl. “I just find it unspeakably annoying how everything you say comes with more layers than an onion.”
“Forgive me. I hate to ruin a surprise. In short, my love, we are leaving.”
“Leaving?” She gawked at the hunters checking their weapons, and also a number of dark ones who did not usually attend the hunt stepping into enclosed carriages. “Leaving Adalheid?”
“I sent word to your little attendants earlier this evening,” he said. “I suspect they’ll be arriving with your things … Ah yes. Here they come now.”
Serilda spotted Hans and Fricz carrying a trunk between them. Anna and Gerdrut followed after, their arms full of cases and woven bags. Though it had only been four weeks since Anna had fallen into the arena, her wounds had healed quickly, as promised, and she seemed to have no trouble carrying the heavy luggage.