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Now she wanted nothing more than to go picnicking with her father one last time.
She had spent the night before lamenting that when the children had packed her things in Adalheid, no one had thought to bring the book of fairy tales Leyna had given her. She was desperate for a story to take her away from this place. So she decided to search for the library again, though it would mean braving the trek through the lunar rotunda.
This time, as she passed through, a few dozen ghosts and dark ones were hard at work—chopping at the persistent vines and clearing away buckets full of rubble from the cave. She could see lantern lights strung up beyond279the entrance, and hear the sound of metal tools beating against the stone deep within the cavern. She was tempted to stop and ask what they were doing, but she didn’t want to be a bother. And, if she was being honest with herself, she was afraid that she would hear that voice again. Her father, calling to her from deep within those fathomless shadows, when she knew it wasn’t him. Couldn’t be him.
She hurried past, speaking to no one and keeping as much distance between herself and the cave’s opening as she could.
After that, she found the library without incident, and it was all she could have hoped for. Shelves upon shelves of leather-bound books, each one inked and colored painstakingly by hand, their spines stamped with gold, many so old their pages were brittle. There were scrolls, too, and loose sheaves of parchment and bundles of ancient maps drawn on stretched animal skins. Grimoires and bestiaries, books on alchemy and mathematics and astronomy.
After hours of climbing up and down the rickety ladders, Serilda had amassed a stack of intriguing titles—fairy tales and mythologies and a fascinating study on how artistic interpretations of the old gods had changed over the centuries. She claimed a tufted chaise beside the window, where outside she could see the alder tree, its leaves still a deep green, even while the forest beyond turned crimson and gold. The alder looked healthier every day, though the spring flowers had begun to shrivel and fade in its shadow.
Serilda had just finished reading a tale from far-off Isbren about a girl who fell in love with an ice bear when she heard footsteps in the hall. She shut the book as the Erlking’s lithe figure appeared in the doorway.
“And here is my missing bride,” he said. “Lost in a book. I should have guessed.”
“Were you looking for me?” she asked, returning the book to the shelf she had found it.
“I have just been to see the poltergeist,” he said, striding into the room and taking in the bookshelves as if they were long-forgotten friends. “I thought you might like to know that I finally have what I need.”280
Serilda shook her head. “You captured a gryphon. A unicorn. A tatzelwurm. What else could you possibly want?”
The Erlking laughed. “The whole world, my love.”
She fixed him with a glare. “No one should get to havethe whole world.Not even you.”
“Why limit your imagination?” he said, smirking.
Serilda hoped he would leave, now that he had delivered these annoying taunts, but instead he slipped into an armchair and threw his boots up onto the ottoman. Something about his mood made her tense. Since arriving in Gravenstone, the Erlking had often carried with him a melancholy air. Serilda did not know what to make of it. Was he reminiscing about Perchta, dreaming of the time when she would be with him again? Or was there simply something about this castle that weighed down a person’s soul, dampening all sense of brightness, of joy?
But today, there was an unusual joviality to the king’s movements, a flickering in his eye that made her uneasy.
“I was also speaking with your messenger this morning,” he went on, “and he told me the mostinterestingnews. It turns out that today is the birth date of our fair and beloved queen.” He lifted an eyebrow at her. “How cruel of you not to give me warning. I was preparing a special gift to bestow on the Mourning Moon, but I think I shall give it to you early. I’ve sent word to have it brought to us.”
“Should I be worried?” she muttered. “Historically, your gifts have not been well-received.”
The Erlking laughed. “It is only a gift, from a king to his queen. Nothing more.”
“There is nothing you can give me that I want.”
“How ungrateful you mortals can be. Besides, you and I both know that isn’t true.”
She fixed an irate look on him. “You’re right. Are you going to break my curse? Free the souls of my attendants? How about the rest of your court?281Or even the poltergeist? Would you do that if I asked? Itismy birthday, after all.”
Though Serilda was trying to needle him, the Erlking leaned back and rested his cheek against his knuckle, unperturbed. “If I were to makeallyour dreams come true, what would I have left to give you next year?”
“Next year? How optimistic of you.”
“Don’t discount my generosity so quickly, love.” He crossed his legs. “I wonder. Whatwouldyou sacrifice for your sweet little attendants to be granted freedom?”
She scowled. “That’s the thing about gifts. One does not usually have to makesacrificesfor them.”
“That is not an answer.”
She shook her head. “What do you want me to say? That I would give anything, my heart and my soul and all that I am, to see them go free?”
He shrugged. “Is that the truth?”
She scoffed. “You are despicable. To use them against me. They arechildren.They’ve done nothing to deserve being here.”