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Serilda peered at him, realizing—in all her imaginings, in all her tales—she had given little thought to what captivity really must have been like for the dark ones, before they had escaped from Verloren.
“You believe we take it all for granted,” he went on. “The feasts, the wine, the freedom of the hunt—to ride beneath each glorious moon.” He shook his head. “But you are wrong. When you know what it is to have nothing, you can never take anything for granted. I assure you. Every morsel on our table. Every note plucked on a harp’s string. Every star in the sky. To us, it is all precious.” His smile turned curious. “It is not a terrible way to endure eternity. Would you agree?”
Hating to agree with anything he said, Serilda stuffed some bread into her mouth. After swallowing, she said, “I would like to see my body again. To check how my—our child is growing.”
“You will, in time.”
He picked up a glass of deep purple wine and gave it a swirl. “When I believed you to be the gold-spinner, you convinced me that your child would inherit the same skill. Now I find myself wondering if he or she will be Wyrdith-blessed. As talented a storyteller as my wife.”
She swallowed, hoping with every aching bone in her body, that she would live long enough to find that out as well. “I don’t know.”
The Erlking took a sip from his glass. “There was a time when the gods bestowed their gifts vigorously upon mortals, though it has become rare.271How did you receive your blessing? I doubt it had anything to do with your mother being a seamstress, as you told me before.”
“I don’t wish to talk about it,” said Serilda. “Not Wyrdith nor my mother nor my father … It is none of your concern.”
He tapped his fingernail against the table. “If you insist, my dove.”
She scoffed.
“Shall I tell you of my parentage instead?”
Serilda went still. Slowly, she turned to him, brow furrowed. “You’re mocking me. Dark ones don’t have parents.”
He shrugged. “Of a sort, we do. Born from the vices and regrets shed by mortals as they pass over the bridge to Verloren, letting their sins drain down into the poisoned river …” He said it like he was reciting poetry. “Depending on how naughty you humans have been, it can take hundreds of souls crossing the bridge and leaving their sins behind for a new dark one to emerge. But we all know where we came from. The sad and hurtful pieces that swirled in those dead waters, before they bound together to form …us.”
He took his hunting knife off the table—no average cutlery for him—and twirled it in his fingers as he talked. “You know Giselle, the master of the hounds? One of her mortals liked to torture animals, especially stray dogs. He would blind them and force them to fight each other.” He paused before adding, “Many of those in my court have scraps from the humans who came to bet on those fights.”
Serilda dropped the last hunk of bread, disgust twisting inside her. “Great gods …”
He then pointed the knife down the line of hunters seated at one of the long tables, one by one: “A mortal who beat his wife, and one who beat his horse, a woman who beat her children. A military general who ordered an entire village burned to the ground, the people locked inside their homes. A woman who swindled a number of poor families out of their coin. A manor lord who refused to care for his serfs, leaving them to starve in the midst of a drought. And then there’s the usual. Cheats and murderers and—”272
“Enough,” said Serilda. She swallowed the bile in her throat. “I’ve heard enough.”
The Erlking, to her surprise, fell quiet.
They sat in a long silence while the feast continued around them. Serilda caught the eye of Agathe—sitting not with the hunters, but the ghosts. But the weapons master quickly looked away, her expression troubled.
When the Erlking spoke again, his voice was hushed. “The vices of only two mortals came together to make me what I am.”
She swallowed. Dreading what he might say, but curious all the same.
“A king,” he went on, “who ordered the mass killings of thousands of male children, for a fortune-teller had told him that a red-haired boy would one day be his undoing.”
She sat straighter. It was impossible not to think of Gild, though this nameless king must have lived thousands of years before.
“Did he?” she asked. “I mean, did a red-haired boy—”
“No,” said the Erlking, amused. “The king died of sweating sickness, at quite an old age. But it was too late by then. For the children.”
She pressed a hand to her hollow chest. “And the other one?”
“A duchess,” he said. “Quite talented at archery.” He paused, a long, long moment. “In her older years, she developed a taste for using women, mostly poor, but whom she deemed prettier than herself … as target practice.”
Serilda massaged her brow. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you, my fair queen, are not Wyrdith.”