How she wished she could free Gild, too. She missed him more with every passing day, a painful ache in her cavernous chest that never went away.
But she couldn’t waste time trying to sneak into the dungeons. She couldn’t reach Gild. Couldn’t help him. She would have to do this on her own, and hope the gods had enough wisdom in their beastly forms that they would not try to devour her once she set them free.
There was one good thing that had come from her single-minded focus296on freeing the two gods. In her scheming, she had forgotten to dread the onset of the Mourning Moon, when usually this entire moon cycle put her in a sour mood. She had come to expect the deep sensation of loss that always crept up on her during this saddest of days.
The Mourning Moon was meant to be a time of remembering ancestors who had gone on to Verloren. Paper lanterns were hung from trees and paraded through streets in honor of lost loved ones. Songs were sung and wine poured over graves. Families gathered together and told stories—not of loss, but of happy times when the people they missed had been with them. It was a somber celebration, but a celebration nonetheless.
For Serilda and her father, though, the Mourning Moon was not so much a time of remembering her mother, but a time of solidarity between the two of them. She and her father started off their moping as they broke their fast. They had practically made a game of it, to see who could wallow most despairingly, who could sigh the loudest, who could sulk with the most irrepressible glumness—to the point where they were both being so ridiculous, they had no choice but to laugh.
They even had a tradition, in which Serilda would borrow a book of poetry from Madam Sauer’s schoolhouse, and she and her father would take turns reading the most tragic poems in the collection, full of words likeforlornandwretchedandnightingale. Then they would dine on sweets from the local bakery for their evening bread. Anything with honey, anything with treacle, anything that would leave them both with upset stomachs, because that was better than upset hearts.
She was surprised to realize how much she cherished those memories. Days that should have been awful. Thatwereawful. But that were strangely comforting, too.
Here in Gravenstone, there was little comfort, little joy, only her sadness creeping toward her on stealthy toes. A sadness that had begun to manifest in bitterness.
Why weren’t they leaving?297
She sat in the great hall, glowering at her husband. The dark ones were celebrating. Why? She didn’t know. She didn’t care. Historically, the Mourning Moon was one of their most prolific nights, with more innocent souls taken than on any other full moon of the year. But it was nearing nightfall, and the evening had turned into an unexpected revelry, with someone playing on a great pipe organ, and many of the hunters imbibing blackberry wine and partaking in table games that usually required some ghastly payment from the loser, such as cutting off the tip of their own ear.
Serilda had been sitting stick-backed on a settee for what felt like hours, her muscles growing stiff. She kept her eye on the children. They had hung their lanterns on the alder tree earlier that day, but would wait for nightfall to light them—the symbolism reminiscent of Velos’s lantern, only it was said that their handiwork would bring the spirits of their loved ones back for one night, as opposed to Velos leading them away to the land of the lost.
But instead of lighting their lanterns and reminiscing about their loved ones, the children, like all the servants, were now bustling around with trays of food and carafes of amber liqueur.
She wished she could say her husband had been ignoring her—as he so often did during these soirées—but no. If anything, his attention had been relentlessly glued to her. Every time she glanced his way, he was watching, though she didn’t know what he was watching for.
There it was again, that piercing gaze finding her in the crowd.
With a false smile, Serilda raised her glass of sage water in a mock toast. His teeth flashed in the candlelight, and to her regret, he abandoned the courtly woman he’d been speaking with and made his way toward her.
Serilda glanced around and made a hasty signal toward Hans, hoping she could catch him in conversation to avoid the attention of the king, but Hans was busy pouring ale into a hunter’s goblet, and the next thing she knew, her husband was folding his long legs beneath the chaise and perching on the cushion beside her.
She couldn’t keep a grumble from slipping out.
“Enjoying the celebration?”298
“Who knew a castle full of demons could spend so much time drinking and eating and”—she gestured toward a table where a set of bone dice were clattering noisily across a game board—“playing games of chance.”
“You mortals do not?”
She crinkled her nose. “It just seems an odd thing for you to celebrate. The Mourning Moon might have special meaning to us, given thatweall have plenty of deceased loved ones to pay our respects to. How lucky for you that it is nothing more than a night of revelry.”
“It was not always called the Mourning Moon, you know.”
She frowned, hating—hating—that this comment sparked a bit of interest in her.
It sounded like the start of a story.
“Ah,” said the Erlking, all too knowingly. “You didn’t know.”
“I have a feeling you’re about to enlighten me.”
He chuckled. Hesitated. But then—yes, continued. “Before the gates to Verloren were closed off, this was the night in which the souls of loved ones were allowed to return to the mortal realm. Beneath the glow of the full moon, they would cross the bridge. Humans would gather at their burial sites to give offerings and ask for blessings. Back then, it was called Velos’s Moon.” He said the name with obvious scorn. “Not that Velos had much to do with it.”
“No? They weren’t the one who allowed the souls to return?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Was Velos not the one that took the souls in the first place?”