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“It’s all right,” said Serilda, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder, refusing to shudder when her palm threatened to slip right through him. “We’ll make the best of it that we can.”
The stable boy met her gaze. He straightened, and Serilda realized he was nearly as tall as she was. He often looked so frightened and unsure, it was easy to forget that he could not have been much younger than she was when he’d died.
“Course it will be all right,” he said, a touch of color blooming on his cheeks. “We’ll make it so. For you, Your Luminance.”
A startled laugh escaped her, until she realized that he was speaking in earnest, then she suddenly wanted to weep. “I am not sure I’ve done anything to earn such loyalty, but I shall certainly try to.”214
Bolstered by the boy’s words, Serilda climbed the steps to the yawning black door. Her gaze drifted up to the gargoyles perched on the upper ledges—alps and drudes and all manner of nightmares staring down at her, their eyes made from shining black stones.
She stepped into the darkness. Silence greeted her. Not just any silence, but the silence of a tomb that had spent centuries hidden from the outside world. The air smelled of loamy earth and unfurling ferns, as if the castle itself were rooted in the ground. She even detected a hint of wood smoke, though perhaps that was the smoke from Asyltal still clinging to her cloak.
Serilda waited for her eyes to adjust. Slowly, the dim light filtering through opaque windows showed her an entry hall. The walls were dark stone. Alder roots made up the beams and rafters. There were no furnishings here, as if the castle itself did not want its visitors to get too comfortable too soon.
Her attention fell to the floor, and where she expected to find the Erlking’s footsteps set into three centuries’ worth of dust, she instead found wood floors that gleamed as if freshly polished. In fact, though an ominous silence hung over the castle, it did not feel neglected. She spied no cobwebs hanging from the wall sconces, no bird nests in the rafters, no drips of water running down the walls. She even spied a floral arrangement inside an alcove—a large clay vase bursting with vivid azure cornflowers and vibrant red poppies.
They were not dead. They might have been picked that morning.
Serilda thought of the thrones in Adalheid, preserved by some spell, trapped forever in a moment of time while the rest of the world crumbled around them. She suspected some similar magic had held this castle, too, preserved and unchanged.
Waiting for the return of its master.
Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she made her way down the cavernous passage, where three tall doorways with pointed arches yawned open into what she thought might be the great hall. Scattered pieces of furniture were arranged over fur carpets. She could picture lords and ladies whiling away their evenings playing cards and bone dice by the fire. At least, she could215picture the royal family of Tulvask playing card games and dice. The dark ones probably spent their time here tossing the bones of small birds and predicting their own miserable fortunes based on which way they fell.
The fireplace stood empty, but she imagined she could still feel a hint of warmth from its ashes, as if it had only recently been extinguished.
Here, too, she found the Erlking.
He stood in the center of the room staring at a tapestry that took up an entire wall.
“Here you are,” said Serilda. “The stable boy was wondering where he should secure the animals. And I think all the ghosts are feeling at a loss as to what to do with themselves. A bit of direction from their king might not be amiss.”
He did not answer. Did not blink. His face was serene, but his focus intent.
Serilda scowled and paced over the lush carpets to his side. She squinted at the tapestry that so mesmerized him. She expected that his tastes in decor would mimic those in Adalheid, where there was no shortage of paintings and tapestries depicting a wildly idealized interpretation of the wild hunt brutally slaughtering some mythical beast or another.
But this tapestry did not show the wild hunt.
It took Serilda a moment to realize that she was staring at an image depicting the caves of Verloren. Stalactites dripped from molten rock. In the background, hints of a green-gray waterfall filled a steaming basin.
In the center of an underground chamber, wrapped in a passionate embrace, stood the Erlking himself—and Perchta, her skin blue-silver, as though she had the moonlight inside her. Her hair was as white as his was black, falling in lustrous waves to her hips. Dressed like a hunter, a warrior, she looked strong and invincible, every bit the match for the terrifying Alder King.
It might have been romantic if not for the drudes that surrounded the couple, the exact image of those nightmare creatures that had attacked Serilda and Gild in Adalheid, with their bulging stomachs and curved216talons and leathery wings. In the tapestry, they were torturing the two dark ones. Even while the Erlking and Perchta lost themselves in a kiss, the monsters were gnawing on the flesh of their legs and shoulders. One drude had ripped open a hole in Perchta’s back and was dismantling her spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, while another had reached a clawed hand into the Erlking’s stomach and was pulling out his intestines in one long blackened rope. Another was about to jab a talon into Perchta’s ear. Another held a burning candle beneath the Erlking’s elbow. All the drudes were leering, their enormous eyes full of a sickening delight.
Serilda’s insides churned. Why, she wondered, would anyone wish to keep something so grotesque in such a prominent place?
She turned to the Erlking, prepared to ask exactly this—but his expression gave her pause.
It was not an expression she had ever seen on him before, and it took her a moment to place it.
Serilda looked from him, to the tapestry, and back again, one truth becoming clear.
He had never seen this tapestry before.
She cleared her throat. “My lord? Shall I … ask the servants to have it removed?”
His gaze cleared. It took a moment for the sheen of ice to fall over his eyes. “I think not. The likenessisremarkable.” A muscle in his jaw twitched, and he offered Serilda his elbow. “Come, my queen. Let us find proper accommodations for you and your retinue. We shall be here at least until the Mourning Moon.”