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“Because of me!”
“Because they’re monsters,” said Hans. “Because they’ve been kidnapping people for hundreds … maybe thousands of years. Are you going to blame yourself for all those deaths, too?”
Serilda sighed. “You don’t understand.”
“No,youdon’t understand.” Hans’s voice grew louder. “We love you, Serilda. We don’t want you to be trapped here, and we hate seeing you as his … hiswife.” He grimaced. “If you ever have a chance to leave here, you have to take it, with or without us. If not just for yourself, then”—he gestured at her stomach—“for the baby.”
Serilda swallowed.
They all understood now that her unborn child was growing inside her physical body, but that Serilda’s belly would not swell until she was mortal again. She wanted to argue with them, to insist that she couldn’t possibly abandon—
Gerdrut launched herself at Serilda. She buried her face into Serilda’s stomach and wrapped her arms around her and said in her muffled voice, “Please, Serilda. It would be better for us if you were free. If we didn’t have to worry about you all the time.”
Her mouth ran dry as she squeezed Gerdrut against her. Never had it230occurred to Serilda that they might worry for her as much as she worried for them.
Finally, she dragged in a long breath.
“All right,” she whispered. “If I find my body, I will try to break the curse and get away.”
Serilda didn’t have much hope of ever seeing her physical form again. Not until it was time to give birth, she supposed, and by then it would be too late for her to break the curse, save her child, and disappear. Gravenstone was a labyrinth, full of dark halls and winding stairwells. Wherever her body had been hidden now, she was sure it was somewhere secure and protected. Somewhere she was not meant to go.
On the third day, the children were summoned to help with washing and hanging all of the castle’s drapes and table linens, leaving Serilda to explore the castle on her own.
The Erlking had mentioned a library over their evening bread. He said it was filled with ancient tomes collected long ago, and it was this that Serilda sought to find. Her lord husband had given vague directions—the south wing, past the lunar rotunda, turn before you reach the solarium—but Serilda was hopelessly lost. She had found neither rotunda nor solarium, just a never-ending chain of parlors, sitting rooms, and galleries filled with more disembodied heads than a chicken farm.
Serilda was making suspicious eyes at an astoundingly impressive stag with great silver antlers when she heard a distant giggling.
She spun around, straining to listen.
The sound came again.
“Gerdrut?” she called, stepping into a dim study. She saw no one, only paintings of gloomy, stormy oceans on the walls. “Anna? Is that you?”
Another giggle, farther away.231
Serilda hesitated. Itdidsound like a child, but was it one ofherchildren?
She passed through to the far side of the room and entered a long corridor. To the left, a rumor of sunlight filtered into the hall. She squinted into the unexpected brightness and drifted toward it, stepping out into an enormous circular room with a domed ceiling.
Her breath snagged. The walls were painted deep sapphire blue and scattered with constellations of shimmering stars. Though the ceiling was mostly glass, the panels between the panes had been illustrated with the moon phases, along with the annual moons around the edges, from the Snow Moon at the start of the year to the final Dark Moon at its end. What, this year, would be called the Endless Moon, as the Dark Moon crossed with the winter solstice.
Serilda stared, amazed. This must be the lunar rotunda the Erlking had mentioned.
It wasn’t just the moon phases, but an entire calendar depicted on these walls. As she craned her neck to peer up at the glass ceiling, she wondered how the moon passing overhead would fall across these shimmering walls. How the stars would swim in and out of view as the nights passed by.
But while the rotunda ceiling was glorious, the room itself was in disarray, the floor littered with detritus and signs of labor. Hand-drawn carts half-filled with rock and debris. Chisels and axes scattered about the tiles.
And once again, she heard a strange noise. Not giggling.
More like … whispering.
A distant sound.
Like a group of children hidden behind a curtain and unable to keep quiet.
Serilda swiveled around.
The door was set back into a shadowed alcove, easy to miss. Not a door at all, she saw, moving closer, but the opening of a cave. Blackness spilled forth from that hole. The walls around it were rough-hewn rock and dirt and thick, tangled roots.