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Serilda’s insides squeezed.
The gold. All the golden threads that Gild had spun this past month, in preparation for freeing the ghosts from the castle and sending them to Verloren.
She gawked at Agathe, but Agathe remained focused on the Erlking, expressionless.
Had the weapons master been forced to betray them?
She was still a ghost. Still under the Erlking’s command.
How foolish had they been to believe their plan would not get back to him.
“But this is impossible,” drawled the Erlking, inspecting the threads. “My wife can no longer spin gold, so how has new gold been spun?” He cut a haughty look toward Serilda, which was when the first hard stone settled in her gut. This wasn’t a surprise to him.
How long had he known?
“Perhaps,” he went on, “these were spun by the elusiveVergoldetgeist.” He sauntered around Gild, twisting the golden threads so they shimmered in the light. “That is what the human child called you, is it not? The Gilded Ghost. When I heard the name, I was certain I had heard it before.” He tapped the threads against his lips, as if deep in thought. “A long, long time ago. Rumors of a ghost that dropped little trinkets into the lake and left221them there for the people of Adalheid to collect. Sounds like nonsense, does it not? A silly myth, nothing of importance. But when that child visited us on our wedding night carrying god-blessed gold, a gift from Vergoldetgeist, I began to wonder. For these rumors would have begun long before my fair wife graced us with her talents. I did not want to believe I had been misled by my beloved, yet there it was. Luckily”—he grinned—“it was an easy suspicion to confirm.”
He crooked a finger, and at first, Serilda thought he was summoning her. But then Hans stood and approached the Erlking, his movements stilted.
Serilda tightened her grip on Anna’s and Gerdrut’s hands, all of them watching as the Erlking took one of the loops of golden thread and wrapped it twice around Hans’s body, crossing it at his heart.
“Velos, master of death,” said the Erlking, his voice becoming lofted and bold, “I hereby free this soul. Come and claim it!”
Serilda gasped. What was he playing at? Would he really free Hans so easily?
The echo of the Erlking’s words faded away. They waited.
Nothing happened.
The Erlking chuckled. “What foolishness.” He clicked his tongue as he unwound the golden threads and tucked them back into the satchel. “Did you really think they could be freed so easily?” He focused on Serilda now, his gaze darkening. “Humans are such hopeful little simpletons. One suggestion was all that was needed to persuade you to spin a bit more gold. Or should I say”—he reached for Gild and gripped his chin fiercely with his fingertips—“it was all the persuasion Vergoldetgeist needed.” He shoved Gild’s face away and rounded on Serilda. “Poor miller’s daughter. It was never you, but the poltergeist. Hulda-blessed, all this time.”
He nodded at Hans, who returned to his seat on the sofa with a distant, hazy expression.
Serilda looked at Agathe, who was staring blankly at the fire. “You lied to me,” she murmured. “You told me the gold would free their souls. Was it just a cruel trick?”222
Agathe shut her eyes briefly, but when she opened them again, that sad, listless expression was gone, replaced with cool ferocity. “It was never about you or the poltergeist,” she said. “His Grim offered me something I had to accept.”
Serilda’s eyes widened. She didn’t want to believe it, and yet … “You did this by choice?”
“I couldn’t risk you knowing I had asked her to plant this idea into your minds,” said the Erlking. “I needed her to act … naturally.”
Serilda shook her head. “But you showed me where my body was being kept. You helped me. You—”
“I had to earn your trust,” Agathe said softly.
Serilda stared at her in dismay. “What could he have possibly offered you, that you would betray us like this?”
“Atonement,” said Agathe, as if it were the simplest answer in the world. “We both blame ourselves for things that have happened to people we sought to protect, so I think you will understand better than most.” She looked meaningfully at the five children gathered to either side of Serilda. “I would do anything to make reparations to the people of Adalheid. I failed them all, but I will not fail them again.” She adjusted the bloodied scarf at her throat. “His Grim has promised that if I help with this matter, he will free all their spirits to Verloren on the Mourning Moon.”
“He’s lying!” Serilda shouted, launching to her feet. “You know he’s lying!”
“Do not be so quick to cast accusations, my queen,” scolded the Erlking. “After all, how many lies haveyoutold?”
She snarled at him, the comment piercing the empty cavern of her chest, but she quickly turned her attention back to the weapons master. “You don’t understand what you’ve done. It isn’t just me you’ve betrayed, or these children.” She gestured at Gild. “Thisis your prince. The prince of Adalheid that you once swore to protect. You failed his family and you failed him, and now you’ve failed him again.”
Agathe’s eyes narrowed. Her gaze slid toward Gild, taking in his oversize223linen shirt, his messy hair, perhaps trying to picture him as anything other than a meddlesome ghost.
Serilda could admit it—princehad once seemed far-fetched for Gild, until she’d gotten to know him.